The tree that holds what held it (für Daniel Melim)

The tree that holds what held it
[Dieser Text existiert nur auf Englisch.]

I’m haunted a little this evening by feelings that have no vocabulary and events that should be explained in dimensions of lint rather than words.
— Richard Brautigan, The Revenge of the Lawn

Lisbon, 2011

In order to get to you, I have to climb a few streets whose names recall Portugal’s colonial past. Up, and up, and then some, because you live on the 4th floor. Climbing the stairs in the dim light emanating from the distant glass dome, I think of a phrase I read in an essay by John Berger in which he likens an artist’s studio to a digestive organ, a stomach or a bowel. If I were to look for a stomach in Lisbon, I might look around the small streets at the foot of Alfama, or on the steep streets between Cais do Sodré and Chiado, on Rua do Poço dos Negros and its side streets, or else in the souterrain streets that guide pedestrians around Marques de Pombal. Or I would sniff around parts of the city I haven’t been to yet. In any case, to find a stomach it wouldn’t occur to me to climb a hill and take four stairs. So I don’t expect a stomach; this must be something else.

Entering your flat, straight ahead is the studio. The door has a glass panel, but the blinds are shut and it’s dark in there. To the left a hallway leads around a corner to the kitchen on the south side of the house. There is plenty of light here, it’s much warmer and through the windows I glimpse the city and the river. From the kitchen a backdoor opens to stairs again, outside stairs that lead down past everybody else’s backdoors to a patch of garden. The garden looks cramped-in between the house and the neighbouring ruin. The ruin is a long two-storey apartment block and from our elevated position we can see that all its flats are facing a courtyard. You found out that the building has once served to house workers, and that it has been abandoned for quite some time. Where a window is missing we can look into a tiled washing-room with a large sink. You say that looking at the building you sometimes imagine seeing a face in a window or an arm that pulls a curtain. But there are no curtains no more and no arms either. The house isn’t boarded up however, and one wonders.

From where we stand we can see much of Lisbon and most of what makes it easily recognizable: the river, both bridges, and the Cristo Rei statue of which a friend recently said he wished it would one day drop its arms, turn its back on the city and walk away. In closer distance there is another hilltop on which no houses have been built. A rugged green area with bushes and some shacks and certainly chickens, although we cannot see them from here. Looking at this little top-location-wilderness I notice how rarely one sees soil elsewhere in Lisbon, how the whole city is cobble-stoned, paved, or tiled, and again an observation springs to my mind by John Berger, who wrote that Lisbon’s surfaces have a way of blurring the distinction between interior and exterior and that especially the tiles sometimes make you feel like you’re inside a room, not out on the streets. That’s how I remembered what he wrote. I looked up the quote again. It’s from the opening chapter of Here is where we meet.

The talk of these days in Lisbon is the prime minister’s announcement that there were far more educated people in Portugal than the country could afford, and that especially teachers should consider emigration to Brazil and Angola. I didn’t read the news myself, but the man was quoted as saying that living abroad for a while was a refreshing experience for one’s own perspective.

It is time to go down to the garden. Seen from above, the garden appears almost entirely hidden by a thick cluster of green. A dozen fruit trees have invaded each other’s space so much that they cannot be told apart anymore. It looks like lemons and oranges are growing on the same sprawling tree and as we approach you point out a few annona fruits on some branches. I have seen them for sale at home, but under a different name. I tell you that we call them “Cassiopeias”. It sounds nice, but while I say it, I sense that I’m wrong. I can’t think of the right name; it will come to me later. The annona tree only bears fruit at the edges where some sun reaches it. The interior is darkness.

It is not that dark in fact. The sun gets a chance to spill some light through the branches, but nothing much grows on the ground and it is obvious that nobody has been interested in this garden for years. Only a slim row of yucca plants with a little wet earth around them suggests that someone has come down here recently. Oranges and lemons are everywhere, in the trees and on the ground. They are small and have little sweetness. A cat drops down from a tree and disappears before we know it’s really a cat.

The garden is divided by a path and each half is again divided into four parcels by makeshift fences of wire and wood. The soil looks grey. The central section on the left hand side is different however. The ground is tiled here and there is a wooden shack on it with a door and a window, probably once a chicken coop. In the four corners of this garden section cast-concrete pillars suggest that there has once been a fence or even a roof, because the pillars are bent inward at the top. The fortification of the structure is provided by an enormous creeper plant, probably a vine, whose stems and branches are woody and thick like small trees. It’s impossible to tell where the root of this sprawling creature is and which way it grows. It embraces the concrete pillars and has already caused two of them to buckle. A closer look reveals that the pillars, which were once built to hold the branches, are now being held by the plant; so firmly in fact that one of the pillars has already lost contact with the ground. If one were to cut the wires and wrest the remains of the pillars from the embrace of the plant, the branches would stand as a solid tent. When a little later you said that you want to start using the garden, I think you were imagining this wooden igloo to paint under, rather than squeezing orange juice and growing cabbage as I had suggested earlier.


In one of the frequent articles on the economic crisis in Portugal I recently read the number 777. It represented the average monthly income in the country before the government accepted the demands of the “troika”. That was already the lowest average income in the so-called European Union. It was predicted in that article that this number would soon go down dramatically and that the losses were mainly to be taken by those already at the lower end of the range. I don’t remember the new number predicted; it had a 5 in the beginning. Five-hundred-something.

777 is also the name of a particular type of slot machine poker. I found images of some 1930’s and 1940’s models of it on the website of a man named Bill Darwin in Michigan, USA, who makes a living from restoring and reselling them. An actual 777 is of course a rare occurrence on these machines; if you hit it, you win the jackpot. When that happens, you can relax for a while – assuming that the jackpot wasn’t empty. I wonder if from time to time Bill Darwin in his workshop sets all three wheels on 7 and takes a week off or two.

Since three 7’s next to each other is such a rare thing to see on a slot machine display, taking a photograph of this combination under real life circumstances is an almost impossible thing to do. Apart from the obvious Photoshop creations, I found on the internet some shots that looked real to me; however in most of them the numbers are blurred, as if the wheels were in move. But wouldn’t that be even harder to photograph, a 777 in fly-by?

777 is also the name of an airplane model built by the Chicago-based Boeing Company. Not an everyday sight either, but easier to photograph than the number 777 on a slot machine display is a fly-by of a Boeing 777. Many a fan of this airplane (or of somebody sitting in it) has posted images on the internet showing a 777 in the act of either landing or take-off. Watching an airplane does strange things both to the mind and the body, and a Boeing 777 is no different in that. Why does it fly? How can it be so big, and how small must one become to fit in? Why do you never see a face in any of the tiny windows? Why do we like to watch airplanes? Why do I wish very much to see a whale one day?

I learn that the 777 was the first completely computer designed commercial airplane. Images of its cockpit resemble those of slot machines in casinos with their imposing handles and blinking displays and their symmetrical layout and the pilot seats in one piece with the switchboard, just like the players’ seats are with the slot machines in a casino. The business class of a 777 offers excellent comfort. However this experience seems to be of the out-of-this-world type, as all images I can find are computer generated fakes showing the kind of ever-smiling crash test dummies we have gotten used to from airplane instruction videos. Seeing those androids enjoying the amenities of a business class travel, pretending to be real people, also does strange things to both body and mind. Where are we? Have we long been replaced?

In the early 1530’s Antonio Allegri da Correggio, usually known as Il Correggio, painted “Leda and the Swan”. The girl and the swan making love was a popular motif for Italian Renaissance artists. The painting was originally commissioned by Federigo II. Gonzaga, the duke of Mantua for whom Correggio, during the last years of his life, painted six mythological scenes with explicitly erotic content. Probably around the time of Correggio’s death in 1534, Federigo gave two of these paintings as a present to Carlos V., the king of Spain: “Leda and the Swan” and “Danae”. In 1603, “Leda and the Swan” was sold to Rudolf II., who was “Holy Roman Emperor” and king of almost everything which is today Eastern Europe and who had his court in Prague. In 1648, during the Thirty Years’ War, the painting was shipped to Stockholm to the court of the Swedish Queen Christina as a victor’s booty after the battle of Prague. It went with 760 other paintings, 170 marble and 100 bronze statues, 33.000 coins and medallions, 600 pieces of crystal, and 300 scientific instruments, manuscripts and books. Queen Christina – like the bereft Emperor Rudolf – was a great art lover and supporter of the sciences. When she later lost power, she moved to Rome as a queen without kingdom and got seriously involved in theatre and music. An unconventional character known in her lifetime for her masculine behaviour and dress code, Christina is today famed as a precursor of cross-dressing and transgender. She is said to have had a correspondence with René Descartes over hate and love. (I love Wikipedia.)

Christina had taken “Leda and the Swan” to Rome and after she died in 1689, it seems that the painting changed hands several times before it was bought by the Duke of Orléans in 1721. Two years later, almost 200 years after its creation, the Duke’s son and heir Louis laid eyes on the painting and had an emotional fit.

“Even today, looking from a certain angle one can see how the painting was cut. Louis d’Orléans placed the knife on the tree stem above the figure of Leda and applied a vertical cut, then proceeded to split the painting horizontally at the level of Leda’s shoulders, severed the swan’s head through a zigzag manoeuvre, went along the lines of the maid’s arms and cropped her entire figure. Above the maid the cut takes an upward direction and concludes at the tree stem in such a way that Leda’s head was entirely removed from the painting. The centre of the painting had thus been completely destroyed.”
— Jana Schmalisch, Il Correggio – Leda mit dem Schwan

When a painting is defaced or mutilated, the attack unavoidably becomes part of the painting’s aura, even if the damage can be entirely mended and made invisible. Cutting a painting can even be an artist’s gesture. It can be a performance, and the cut can become an element of the physicality of the painting. Jana Schmalisch’s description of the cut could be transformed into a choreographed movement: stand upright, lift your left or right hand and work your way counter-clockwise through the air. Even without a famous painting in front of you, it could be a meaningful gesture.

Today Correggio’s painting is exhibited in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin in gallery number XV. I went there on a wet winter day with a wind that was always blowing in your face, no matter which way you turned. The clerk at the wardrobe silently wiped her desk after she had checked-in my stuff. It is true that from a certain angle one can see the trace of the cut. But there were too many guards and visitors. I would have caused a scene, had I attempted to mimic Louis’ moves. A group of Italians were talking loudly to drown out the audio guides in their ears. Standing close to the canvas and following the scar I realized that erasing the maid required an intentional detour towards the right, and therefore must have been of some importance to Louis-the-cutter. But I don’t understand the man. He is said to have been “a pious and generous person with not much interest in politics”. Why make such a mess?

From Schmalisch’s essay I learned that the painting had once been copied by one of its former proprietors. Before shipping “Leda and the swan” to Prague, Carlos V. commissioned a replica of the painting from Eugenio Caxes. A comparison of the two canvasses shows that Caxes did quite a good job. The only striking difference between the restored “original” in Berlin and the faithful copy in the Prado is Leda’s head which had to be restored from scratch after Louis’ attack. Schmalisch is right in stating that “her facial expression was altered so much, that we have to call it a correction. Correggio’s happy and enjoying Leda has turned into a shamefaced girl with cast down eyes and a shy smile.”

The becoming of this new Leda is difficult to trace, as her head was adjusted and corrected over and over again after the cutting. While Schmalisch writes that French painter Charles Coypel provided a careful first restoration, an Italian Wikipedia entry claims that Coypel, who seems to have bought the mutilated canvas, didn’t dare the adventure and that the painting was still “in pieces” when it was re-sold in 1753. Be that as it may, it is certain that today’s restored head had several predecessors (which might be hidden under the coat of paint we are looking at) and that whoever created the current version feared Leda’s pleasure with the swan as much as Louis d’Orléans had. According to the Italian entry, the last attempt at Leda’s head was executed by Jakob Schlesinger around 1830, which would have been exactly 300 years after Correggio and around the same time when Schlesinger portrayed the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.

Those Italians looking at Italian paintings in Berlin, they make me think that the world was different once, and that it has changed many times since.

Whenever I go to a big museum and look at paintings I notice that my natural attraction is for portraits, for people. If there’s more than one figure in a painting, they usually form a scene to which we become invisible observers. There is a relation between those in the picture, and the painting seems to be firstly about that relation. But if it’s only one person, their relation is with us and it is likely that our gaze is returned. I like those gazes, I look for them and they find me. Sometimes I can already see them from the distance looking at me from the next gallery through a doorway, past the guard who is also looking at me but doesn’t see me like they do. I stroll, I wander, but I know where I am heading. Face to face with them I then sometimes feel the vertigo of time, and that, I think, is what I come for. We know what spatial distance does to looking; we know about perspective, we know that the sun can blind us and that haze can gather over the land and blur our vision. But we don’t really know what time does to looking, whether it blurs or sharpens the vision, or whether it can really take things out of view forever.

Do they see us, and what do they see? Do they find that we look like them, do they see familiarities? Looking into their 600 year-old eyes I cannot help but wonder how they sounded and how they smelled, what words they mumbled in their mornings when buttoning their jerkins and blouses and bodices and all the other strange things whose names we have almost forgotten. I wonder.

In such portraits there are both: utter proximity and utter distance; they are almost alive and at the same time they are almost forgotten. The strange result of this can be that they remind us of something we have never known. And that is how I felt when I first saw a painting from your 2010 series. The encounter is demanding, because one is immediately aware that whatever one sees in these paintings is something about oneself. It would be nonsense to call these paintings mirrors, because we know what to expect from mirrors. I find them more like open doors; and just like in the portrait galleries a gaze has already seen me through that door, before I know what I’m looking at.

This picture (1) was taken by Jean Mohr in Geneva, probably in the early 1970’s. He was about forty-five then. Geneva was his home town and those men were leaving the “reception center”. They were not “guests” in the traditional sense, but men who had come to work. Switzerland, Germany, France, Holland and Sweden needed helping hands for their booming economies and they hired foreign workers for the manual labor. These men were looking for the first time at the town Mohr had spent most of his life in. For the first time they saw what for him was familiar and their gaze would change what they saw forever. That’s what most people in those booming countries did not want to see, and they are still struggling hard not to admit it; that to be seen by somebody else changes everything.

In 1975 John Berger and Jean Mohr published The Seventh Man, a half fiction, half documentary account of the journeys and passages that men and women from Southern European and Mediterranean countries undertook to work in the richer North. (They only tell about the men, admitting that telling the women’s stories would require a separate book by itself.) Berger writing, Mohr photographing, The Seventh Man is an empathetic and convincing portrayal of the exploitation of migrant labour in Europe after World War II. It tells about the everyday humiliation of being a guest who does the work and who is made to feel like a freeloader in return. Those were the formative years of the economic division within Europe which is again as imbalanced today as it was then. It might not be that painful, if we weren’t made to believe that economy is our saviour.

The case of Germany is peculiar, since in the long run the country profited the most from the war it had first started and then lost. Although Berger’s and Mohr’s focus is not particularly on Germany, I cannot help but recognize that the commodities I grew up with were the fruits of the labour of millions of migrants who were rarely granted citizenship, who received little recognition in the history books and whose third generation offspring living in Germany are still being asked: ‘And where are you from?’

I read that “we” have recently passed the threshold marker when those currently living on the planet outnumber those who have ever lived. The living are exceeding the dead. I am not quite sure if I understand what this means. For an optimist, this information might suggest that “we have entered the present”, or some such thing. As far as I am concerned, my feeling is the opposite: there will never be enough of us alive to decently mourn the dead.

Your studio is a rather small room facing north; it had probably been designed as a sleeping or dining room and has never seen such a scene as you have created. The blinds are still down, but a strong studio light now illuminates the centre stage: a cage-like construction made of metal sticks, nylon thread, hemp string, pieces of wooden laths, a pile of cushions and painted cloth all assembled on an elevated platform. The cluster of cushions and cloth emanates gravity and it looks soft; I know what I would do, if I were a child. The pieces of wood are suspended by the strings in different positions above the pile and the strong light projects a criss-cross of shadows on the walls. Stretched strings and suspended wood create a tension with the drowsy lump of textile. The tops of the metal sticks are adorned with empty plastic bottles, but I forgot what these are for. On one side, the entire ensemble is shielded by a transparent acrylic foil. Applied on the foil is a regular grid of thin scratches. Seen through this foil everything looks slightly hazy and again I remember childhood and playing with fatigue by messing with the focus; but the grid is alert and it forces us to focus.

Confronting the scene through the grid is your seat, again a construction of several materials, custom-built to make you sit upright and fix your head in one position. Looking at all the objects now it isn’t obvious if the scene is the focus or the seat. It seems that whoever is looking through the foil from that seat will be looked at in return by that which curls on the other side. The painter and the painted are fixing each other. Next to the seat is a small stool with a cut-off water bottle holding a dozen brushes. The brushes are on extended sticks; they allow you to reach all corners of the transparent foil without having to move your torso. The position hurts, you say, and it requires therapeutic advice from time to time.

Com, commotion,
Git, git, git, gone.
Com, commotion,
Git, git, git, gone.

(Creedence Clearwater Revival)

At the very end of his book „The Renaissance Rediscovery of Linear Perspective“, which I read in order to understand a bit better what this set-up in your studio meant, Samuel Y. Edgerton has a vision of future artists travelling through space. There, he predicts, they would find new pictorial challenges which the linear perspective will not help them master. The book was written in 1975, but the predicted future hasn’t arrived yet. I have heard of dogs, teachers and car dealers travelling to space, but not of artists. After all, it wouldn’t be so far-fetched to take an artist to space, since it is commonly granted that new discoveries in the arts often heralded new discoveries in the sciences. Why not let an artist have a look at the earth from above? He might find it’s a plate.

When Renaissance artists discovered (or “invented”, depending on how close or distant one feels to positivism) the principles of the linear perspective, they also introduced new possibilities of perspectival illusionism. Linear perspective and trompe l’oeuil techniques, accuracy and deception, are fruits from the same tree. Isn’t it curious how with every improvement in visual realism came a new and more sturdy form of make-believe? But maybe that’s hardly surprising, since the only measure to go by when judging what’s real is our own standards of illusion. The important question seems to be, whether in the long run we are bound for more happiness when we get better and better in deceiving ourselves.

I know I am circling around the subject. The subject is you in your working position. The process has two distinct stages: the creation of the model and its accurate reproduction onto a transparent surface. Transparent means that you paint the painting from behind; that what you paint is the reverse of the surface that will later be seen. This means that during the process you don’t see the painting as it will be. In the vocabulary of renaissance perspective experiments it means that you are on the other side of the mirror, which in the vocabulary of Alice in Wonderland would mean that you would never return. But you did return; we had tea afterwards and talked about Porto Santo, where parts of your family have originated from and to which you keep having a special relationship. The friend I am travelling with spent a few years of her childhood on Porto Santo. A coincidence we cannot stop smiling about. I am sure that one day we will all go there together, although there seem to be even better places for watching whales.

You frequently say that you “don’t want to know what it means”: the model, the painting. As soon as you find words for what you see in them, you know that you have crossed a limit and that you have to start again. Building the model is an intensely intuitive process, but you never use the word “intuitive”. You tell me about Michel Giacometti who collected traditional songs and music from the Portuguese countryside and filmed short documentaries on farm work and singing. You show us an excerpt of an elderly woman treading a water pump, singing a song in the rhythm of her feet. She knows about the camera filming her, but it doesn’t make a difference to her or the work. We watch her in silence. The next scene shows a number of women drumming a beat on a rectangular tambourine that looks more Arabic than European. You leave the room and return with the same instrument in your hand. You strum it casually and we laugh. I look at the model again, at the cushions, the wood, and at the earlier paintings; they are all ripe with meaning to me. I am used to the use of words; they come to me easily and with them often comes doubt. Who is speaking? Guarding the silence, I hear the fog horns on the river and I realize how small the service of words is to art like yours.

Tobias Hering

Many thanks to Daniel Melim, Barbara Janisch and Nuno da Luz.

1 – The original reference is to a photograph from John Berger, Jean Mohr: A Seventh Man, 1975 (p. 76/77 of the Penguin edition). I thought it wise to not post it here, so as to not arouse interest from scum lawyers.

The text was published as a booklet, designed by Nuno da Luz and with photographs by Barbara Janisch, on the occasion of the solo exhibition Daniel Melim at Nuno Centeno gallery in Porto, January 2012.