When I saw the Van Gogh retrospective at London’s South Bank Gallery in 1969, with the works arranged chronologically – that last fearsome image of the path dividing three ways through a cornfield bothered by crows and stormy winds at the end – I walked out to sit on a bench overlooking the dreary grey Thames, and I cried for an hour. I had shared ten years’ of Vincent’s life, with its very tiny pleasures, its ineffable moments of divine awe, and, of course, its plunging periods of ever-deepening depression and despair, culminating with the suicide committed within hours of completing that last doom-laden painting. The retrospective had been an emotional roller-coaster ride through Vincent’s final ten years, and I felt I knew him better than anyone I knew. Thus, that final painting – like all great art – hit me in the heart like a bullet, and I experienced the same plummeting hopelessness as its painter must have been feeling. It took days to restore my centre of gravity; but I was only eighteen, and fully expected that a world of such powerful exhibitions lay ahead, much as I expected the next Beatles’ album would be yet another advance upon the previous one.
In the late sixties art – in every form – was exploding. In England, where we cared little for ‘New York faddism’ – Pollack, Rothko, Warhol, ‘flatness’: rubbish – but then we had the early David Hockney, Alan Davie, Francis Bacon, Henry Moore, Ben Nicolson, and so many others. With my meagre Saturday job wages, I subscribed to Studio International, so I knew – or thought I did – what was going on. I was even a member of the Tate Gallery, invited to openings etc. There was a big one too: Francis Bacon New Works, I think it was called. I’d only seen individual paintings before, besides magazine spreads, but it struck me even then that Bacon was a one-trick pony, essentially making the same painting over and over again. A few years later, when I was at Oxford, I met him on several occasions, and, besides finding him a drunken arsehole, realized his main interest was money – needed to pay off gargantuan gambling debts. It also struck me that his gallery had more of a say in what he painted than he did. Fame, 20th century-style, appeared to have a very negative influence upon art and artists. It made me wonder how Vincent’s life and work might have changed had he become a star. Would that last painting have been postponed indefinitely? I think not.
Possibly due to reading classical literature at university, my interests in art drifted back in time. Possibly due to an interest in psychotropic drugs, I became increasingly drawn to artists attempting to portray dream-worlds, or hyper-realities, the preternatural. Oddly enough, this ended up in a fascination with ancient Egyptian art, where no individual artist is known by name, and the purpose is entirely symbolic – except during the reign of the so-called monotheistic pharaoh Akenaton. This latter work is often hard to see in the original. You have to bribe your way into the Theban tombs where some of the finest bas-reliefs exist. But bribing a warden in the Valley of the Kings is not the pecuniary apocalypse that bribing a suit on Capitol Hill might prove to be. You will, however, need to bring your own good, big flashlight. In its beam you will see the only depictions of everyday ancient Egyptian life in existence. Virtually everything I have seen of ancient Egypt has been a bullet to the heart – especially after reading Schwaller de Lubic’ monumental Temple of Man, the most indispensable book on Egypt – but the Akenaton works fire a special bullet of their own. Human love is shown with irreducible subtlety: a wife’s arm placed oh-so-delicately on her husband’s shoulders. The deep appreciation of life’s manifold pleasures is displayed in countless ways. A meal is displayed, revealing, in the graceful drooping of a dead goose’s neck, gratitude for the life that has given itself to sustain life. The joy in living, aware of its own brevity, is portrayed in a manner so moving that one is forced to paraphrase Wordsworth’s still, sad music of humanity.
The sheer potency of ancient Egyptian art and architecture enthralled, obsessed, and puzzled me, until I read Schwaller’s aforementioned book. It is much like wondering why walking down the aisle of Chartres Cathedral has such an uplifting effect on the heart or soul, and then discovering the precise Pythagorean mathematics involved in its design (the space between pillars makes them effectually a musical chord). Art and music are two things which elude scientific explanation. There is no reason why vibrations in the air reaching the tympanum, and thence ferried into the brain ought to create such vastly different effects: one, say, making you think of beer and pretzels; another creating thoughts too deep for words. Similarly, there is no explanation for why one painting or sculpture – regardless of technical skill – makes the heart glow, while others simply hang or stand there inert. Pythagoras actually has some of these answers – at least those relating to music and sculpture – but he deserves an essay to himself. However, what he knew and taught he learned in Egypt, as Schwaller – renowned mathematician and philosopher – noticed for himself during his 16-year study of one single Egyptian temple.
What, the reader rightly asks, does any of this have to do with David Altmejd? A lot, as it turns out – but patience is a virtue (not one of mine, I confess). After 50-odd years of seeing much great art, few great exhibitions, and being married to a painter so uncompromisingly attached to her vision that she’d rather sell nothing than change it, I had come to expect nothing from exhibitions by contemporary artists, less still that bullet-to-the-heart experience.
Bearing in mind that I am legally blind (about 7% vision in one eye), I do have to be dragged to most exhibitions these days, although I will happily stand before a single work for an hour, since the ‘good’ eye’s 7% seems to triple its abilities when confronted by a masterpiece. Thus it was with weary trepidation that I shuffled my way into Montreal’s Museum of Contemporary Art last week on my wife’s arm. She had already seen the David Altmejd exhibit once, insisting that I must see it myself. I usually trust her judgement, but I must admit that her description of it convinced me I would loathe it. My sole consolation was that the Museum closed in less than two hours – and time-limited torment, as Dante may have observed in Hell, is a blessing.
90 minutes later, my heart aglow, I was thinking they’d have to drag me out in chains if they expected me to leave this most exquisite of living dreams.
I have no intention of describing this exhibition, for any attempt to do so would fall miserably short by being forced to break up a whole into the parts it is greater than. No photograph can do it justice either. It is, quite simply, by far the greatest exhibition by a contemporary artist that I have ever seen in 50 years. It is overwhelming, a work of the highest genius, able to stand beside the ten supreme masterpieces of all time. I would urge anyone who cares about art, wherever you are, to drop whatever it is you’re doing and fly to Montreal before September 10th, since it seems unlikely that the exhibition in its current magisterial form will ever be seen anywhere else again.
What I will say about some of the individual sculptures is that, whether through instinct or intent, they embody Egypto-Pythagorean dimensions, and not a few resonate with the same timeless potency of temple art. Indeed, the whole exhibit deserves a permanent temple of its own, for an aura of sanctity pervades the work, from its guarded angels to its muted rainbow threads. In a piece made entirely from thin gold chains, we even find the Pythagorean Egg. The pineal gland, identified by both ancient Egyptians and Vedic Indians as the physical seat of metaphysical enlightenment, appears in a number of isolated heads. But nothing in the initial rooms prepares you for the magnum opus which is to come. My poor eye was dazzled, and I shake even now, a week later, recalling a splendour of such beauty and complexity that the reactions of other people – not your usual art crowd of aesthetes by the sound of them – lent their own unique beauty to the awesome spectacle surrounding us. I thought of Proust, who could spend ten pages on Elstrir’s seemingly boring paintings, and wondered what he would make of this: it would either have killed him, or added another ten volumes to the memoir. I thought of Salvador Dali, who I once interviewed – childish, pompous, vain – whose reaction would have been envy expressed as scorn. I thought of Picasso, who I also met a few times, during the retrospective of his playful 3-dimensional works at the Tate Gallery: he would have loved this, and kissed Altmejd’s feet in respect. James Joyce – eyes as bad as mine — would have loved it too: “Finnegans’ Wake in three dimensions,” one can almost hear him cry. By standing on the shoulders of giants, you see further than they can. David Altmejd has chosen his giants with care and discernment. He sees further than anyone else has yet managed to do. All one is left to wonder is who will be able to stand upon his mighty shoulders. Beyond all doubt, this is the greatest artist of the 21st century. I wish I could pay for you all to see this indescribably moving, ineffably beautiful, supreme masterwork.