|"Reflections and Repercussions" -- the memoirs of Si Lewen||
With the death of my songbird, Hans (a good German name), I had lost all further interest in "movies". Not even my father, usually so encouraging, seemed to care for the latest of my "Color Orchestrations". Tired of explaining their "meaning", I discarded my "movie making" and with it any further desire of going "Hollywood". I took all the rolls of my "movies" to the park where I had buried the canary and made a bonfire of them.
However, the idea of "movies" would affect most of my future work. About twenty years later, within a few years after returning from the War, living in New York, I began work on a project whose outlines and imagery started while still a soldier: The Parade, a book of drawings, was completed in 1950 and published in 1957. Its subject is war: a parade, leading - drawing by drawing - into and through the horrors of war in a step by step procession. The Parade was followed by another picture book, A Journey, published in 1980, depicting an itinerary through the nightmare of a Concentration Camp, no doubt, reflecting when, in 1945 as an American soldier, I came upon Buchenwald. And what I saw eventually - beyond the Concentration Camp - was the ultimate authoritarian nation state and a seemingly endless procession, stretching back to a dark past and forward to what I saw as an equally dim future. Nightmare and horror may have been the theme of the two picture books, but "progression" was their main media.
What may, also, have inspired the idea of a "picture book" were those of the Belgian artist, Frans Masereel - his "Novels without Words", in which I saw a link between movies and my own imagery. While Masereel's picture books had a continuous story line, they lacked, however, I felt, "graphic drama". Composed of woodcuts, all of equal intensity, Masereel's books appeared to deprive the total work of the "ebb and flow", of change and progression which, I felt, should constitute its graphic drama. My "color orchestrations" had convinced me that what I considered "pictorial drama" should not depend on subject matter alone. Parade and Journey led soon after (and quite naturally) into Procession - a series of mostly figurative panels (all of equal dimension) but of many media. "Change and transfiguration" formed however its main media and motivation - many paintings being "deconstructed" (cut up) and "reconstructed" - again and again.
What I considered "this endless procession" led in 1963 to the Centipede: one hundred feet of continuous, panel by panel, progression of change and transfiguration: A serpentine creature evolving into figures, into landscape, breaking up into floating rocks, suns, moons and galaxies, joining again into perhaps a snake turning into a mountain range, and on and on. Originally meant to be one hundred feet long, it soon became obvious that the Centipede could never end. In 1965, however, the Centipede began being "swallowed" by the still larger, one thousand feet long, Millipede. But, it too eventually grew far beyond its original intention, with no end in sight and never to be finished.
Moving from New York out to the open country of New Paltz in 1968, I had visions of the Millipede meandering across meadows, through forest, over hills and around lakes - for miles and miles. In one exhibition, however, one panel was vandalized and another stolen. Out in the open, meandering across the countryside, the Millipede could not have lasted long; it was just another fantasy. The Millipede was to be the ultimate fulfillment of what began long before with my "movies" in Karlshorst in the late 1920's, which no doubt was triggered, not only by the first movie I saw in Fichtengrund, but by the "cavalcade" of pictures with which I had bedecked our farmstead walls. Beginning with a decision in Switzerland, at the age of five, to become a painter, (the very first picture depicting a wanderer), I had to proceed, step by step, picture by picture, to projects like a "never ending" Procession or Millipede, and still more such projects yet to come. Not only could the Millipede (and similar projects) never be finished, but they seemed impossible to exhibit in their entirety except for a few excerpts.
When, in 1985, I decided to give away my work, I visualized the “serial” projects scattered to the four corners of the earth, part of a worldwide network, connected only in spirit (and perhaps a movie). The notion of a "worldwide network" of parts of a still growing, endless “progression”, never to be finished, proved unacceptable and unexplainable. How do you explain the meaning of a never to be finished metamorphosis, formed by visions of transfiguration and mutation? Nevertheless, they continued to grow, eventually outgrowing the capacity of its workshop ¬- canvasses piling higher and higher. But the more they multiplied, consuming other works (cut-up and cannibalized), the bolder my imagination grew. Eventually, I would dream of a museum - of circular walls - to house works without a beginning or end, never to be finished and with no absolute order. "Proper order" seemed the antithesis of “play”, and I became increasingly aware of the possibilities of "play" - inherent in everything and part of all evolution.
Against a manmade world of prescribed order - everything defined with a set beginning and end - I preferred to create my world (of art) of neither absolutes nor absolute order, a world and work, undefined, unfinished, uncertain, ambiguous, even contradictory, but unlimited in possibilities. As such, I had no qualms fragmenting one painting to recreate and reassemble it into another. The universe as, perhaps even a playful, constantly recycled and reordered assemblage, appeared as good, or better, a metaphor for reality as any other. When God created Her universe, She may well have been in a most playful mood, beginning with The Big Bang.
But back in Karlshorst: after I destroyed my "moving pictures" (long before I would embrace "recycling" and "transformation") I would not paint at all. "What's the use?", I answered my parents and their friends. "You wouldn't understand", savoring my new role of "misunderstood artist". As a further act of defiance, I started "sneaking a smoke". I was about 11, that crucial age when a boy resents being a child and dreams of living like an adult - dangerously and debauched. One day, alone at home, I retrieved my cache of ill-begotten cigarettes and faced the bathroom mirror: "Now, how do I look with a cigarette?" Usually, I avoided any mirror - my reflection was not one to please me: a head which seemed too big and misshapen, one ear sticking out prominently at right angle ever since an operation on my neck after returning from the Swiss sanitarium. I did not care to look at myself. Self-portraits were not to be my genre. However, on this occasion, with cigarette in mouth, I went into the various poses, derived from my infatuation with all that was "Hollywood". I was "debonair and chic", or "blasé", or dangling a cigarette from my lip, became a "tough guy", posturing one striking pose after another. Suddenly however, the entire charade struck me as "silly". Perhaps, also realizing that I was probably too scared to live a "dangerous and debauched" life. I flushed the cigarettes down the toilet and that was the end of this particular initiation into "manhood". A similar aversion to "silly" charades probably saved me from alcohol and worse. Life itself appeared intoxicating enough; my escapades would go in other directions and assume different roles.
And yet there came a time - some time later, during 1991 - when I tried to grow Marijuana. I knew that it was against the law, but I had once seen a plant and thought its leaves exotic - I might include it in some collage. But more than esthetics, I thought of growing Marijuana as an act of defiance: "How dare any authority decree that I must not possess a plant for esthetic and artistic purposes! “How dare they!" and was prepared to make a test case of my defiance. I attempted to sprout a few seeds, acquired from sympathetic friends, but again and again they failed. To the great relief of Rennie ("you have better things to do than go to jail"), I finally gave up all attempt to grow "pot". Rebellious from the start, questioning all authority, no matter what its pretentions, I had no qualms to defy a law I considered "stupid". I did go to prison - but only to teach.
More than sixty years earlier (in 1930), abandoning my role as "misunderstood and debauched artist", I moved on to try my hand as "discoverer" or "inventor"; it didn't matter of what. I must have been reading stories about alchemists: "what if I discovered gold?" Every artist, however, is already an alchemist - transforming zinc, chrome, cobalt, titanium and other base pigments into works of, sometimes, living, pulsating and glowing art. Dreaming of being an alchemist, I began mixing all sorts of concoctions: vinegar, cleaning fluids, turpentine, asphalt, urine - everything and anything. I would mix and stir and heat, but nothing came of it. Once, however, stirring and heating my latest brew, it suddenly burst into flames. The fire spread quickly, blazing up the kitchen curtains. As foreigners, wary of all authorities, my parents were too scared to call the local fire department. It took some panicky moments, frantic effort and buckets of water to extinguish the fire.
"Why don't you get back to painting", my parents urged. Much chastened, I tried to please them but my heart was not in it; I felt "hurt" by their rejection of my "color orchestrations". Needing, however, some outlet for my continuing pique and overwrought fantasies, I decided to become a "publisher": a monthly magazine into which I would pour everything I thought of this world. It was called WAS (What). Isaac became co-editor, and we set to work, I, laboriously, writing out in longhand and with illustrations one dozen eight-page copies monthly, and selling yearly subscriptions. After five editions I quit; I had little left to say, and the process of copying all the editions by hand had become too boring. However, I discovered that I enjoyed writing. Every edition contained a column "Traumerei", which was about dreams and fantasies - many, of some distant mythical land and utopia. Increasingly, I lived in a world of dreams - daydreams but also real nighttime dreams and nightmares, many of which were of fires.
Dreams of fire (as well as of being lost) would continue to pursue me - on to France and on to America. "Could dreams have a way of reflecting real events"? I kept wondering, especially after the following dream, shortly before I enlisted in the US .Army. In the dream I found myself lost in some foreign city, roaming streets of row upon row of housing which all looked alike but unfamiliar. Lost, I finally found enough courage to knock on a door, which a woman opened. But before I could ask for directions, I noticed behind her, past a foyer filled with children, an open door leading to another room. What I first thought to be a fire in a fireplace, I realized was actually a roaring blaze engulfing the entire room, but no one appeared to notice. I tried to shout "fire", but no one seemed to hear or understand. "Could dreams reflect not only the past, but possibly also the future"? was a question which would often trouble me.
Dreams continued to play a major role in my mental landscape (especially dreams of fires) such as the following, one summer night in 1985, recalled to Rennie the following morning: "Walking through the nearby mountains, we stop to watch a strange butterfly sitting on top of a flower. It flies off and I want to follow it. 'We better not get lost', you caution as we leave the trail to follow the butterfly across mountain meadows. Again and again, the butterfly alights on various flowers and flies off again and we follow, entranced by its iridescent colors. Alighting on yet another flower and stopping to watch the butterfly, I look up and see a woman I had not noticed before. She has her back to me, but then she turns around; it is Mother. 'Don't you remember', she says, and then recites, once again, the time her parental home was set on fire. As she speaks, repeating some things over and over, as in a trance, I look around, and in the midst of the meadow is a house on fire, and Mother is gone. The dream continued, with the house in the meadow burning with an intense white flame, so intense that, even though the house was of stone, it burned or rather melted into the ground. The very earth it stood on seemed to burn and then open up into a widening, almost volcanic crevasse. It spread and opened wider and wider, flames and sparks shot out , setting other parts of the meadow on fire. More curious than scared, we slowly back away, watching the spreading fire and widening crevasse, but finally, turn around. 'Where is the butterfly?' I ask, and we run off".
When I woke that morning to recall the dream, Rennie reminded me of a conversation we had just before we fell asleep: On several occasions she had heard a bird singing in the middle of the night. "A nightingale?" "It could not be a nightingale", we agreed - "not in New Paltz". "What if it is some ordinary local bird dreaming that it is a nightingale?" I recalled Chuang Tsu, the ancient Chinese philosopher, who dreamt one night that he was a butterfly, and when he woke he was not sure that he was not, indeed, a butterfly dreaming that he was a man. We kept talking of Chuang Tsu, butterflies, nightingales and dreams which sometimes appear real, and then I fell asleep and into the just recited dream. In the rather convoluted dream that summer night, the thoughts and conversation just before I fell asleep, may have become mixed with all sorts of mental debris, accumulating long before. But to begin paying attention to dreams, to wonder about the boundaries separating dreams from reality, or about the nature of reality, to question the "realness of reality", may all be indications of a reality appearing less and less stable.
I no longer remember who first introduced me to the writings of Carl Jung; probably in Berlin by one of father's psychologist friends. I was more troubled than relieved by suggestions that there was more to dreams than mere nighttime fantasy. Also, that they had some rational explanations, even if these explanations often seemed more fanciful than the dreams they were meant to explain. But I began to suspect that reality was neither obvious nor readily apparent or describable. Reality, I felt, was probably indescribable, whether in image or by word - a metaphor, perhaps even one’s very name.
Si Lewen was not my name, certainly not the name my father bestowed on me: Yeshaia, Jesaja, Isai, Isaiah - I would not live with any of them. “Si” appeared inconspicuous and more comfortable, even as draft after draft of this memoir proceeded in the third person as though a biography of someone I thought I knew well and became increasingly more intimately acquainted. “Why don’t you call it a novel then?” I was advised. A novel, fiction? It could readily be dismissed. Fiction? No, Si (or I) exists, and what happened did indeed happen as best as I remember. Unless reality is mere fiction.
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