Beauty
The Place
Road Trips
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Béla Pazár

The Innocent Picture

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As we listen to fairy tales in our childhood, our imagination constructs fantastical landscapes, spaces, and perspectives that we could never have actually seen. We imagine trees reaching to the sky, and the land beyond the magic mountains, the other side of the world, where we can paddle our feet in nothingness. We imagine that we can move freely from one world into another, then yet another one and back again. It is hard to say how we construct our imaginary worlds during this “innocent” phase of our seeing, or what materials we draw on. Then the world of childhood imagination closes up forever to the adult, yet somehow, through secret channels, we are still able to draw from its treasures. The imagination creates its own places later on as well, though we usually construct them, unconsciously, from our own experiences. I have a vivid memory of buying some volumes of Goethe printed in gothic letters in an antiquarian bookstore for a few coronas, in Kassa, when I was in high school. I started reading Dichtung und Wahrheit, imagining myself in the Frankfurt of the 1750’s, with its narrow streets, gates, city wall, and places in the back of gardens by that wall where children would hide, the bridge over the Main, and that rare, unparalleled great event in the life of the city: the coronation of Maria Teresia’s husband, Franz of Lotharingia, as Holy Roman Emperor. In those days I was completely unfamiliar with contemporary representations of the city and the coronation itself. What I imagined at the time is something I no longer remember completely, though there are certain details that remain clearly in my head and have not changed over the intervening time. I can see the enormous arched gateway, pleasantly cool and dark even on the most dazzling summer days. The security of my parents’ house inhabits every crevice. A wooden stairway begins inside the gate, with glassed doors like the old service cabinets like the one on whose richly-veined marble surfaces my grandmother and I would wrap the Christmas sweets we had made at home. There were dark brown, aged wooden doors that did willing and helpful service for generations. There is a narrow street in front of the gateway, and a storefront on the street – but the store can also be entered from inside the house. The stairway to the floor above creaks when walked; up there is my grandmother’s room, a world of secrets. But as it is, Given my age, there must have already been some actual basis for this, though I can no longer put my finger on it. The Frankfurt of Goethe’s youth was destroyed in the Second World War, and I have not been to Frankfurt since then. I do not know the origin of the image in my head, but it is always there when I seek it, and never fails to reassure me. If I knew the source of these images precisely, then I would regard them as the memory of something – simply as the past.

Just as the hearing of the blind is more sensitive than that of the seeing, so we have most need of our imagination if there is something we cannot see, if we must create an image for ourselves.
The music of Richard Wagner, and particularly the mystical world of the Ring, rooted in nature, has a particular hold on the imagination. Ever-newer images are created for this music using the stylized means of the stage, consistent with Wagner’s original conception. But these images are not mere illustrations – and not only because we never ultimately associate the drama with the stage visualizations of a drama in one particular setting. In this world there are no defined places, only regions and areas whose significance is not specific. There is no here or there, only a somewhere in the forests, valleys, or on the cliffs of the Rhine or the Danube. We must create the places for ourselves. No matter how long we see it, we still get the feeling that the onstage image gives no more than a brief view of events that happen over a much wider space. This visual world is innocent – as long as it remains in the fog of legend and the imagination. It seems to us today that Leo Klenze’s Valhalla near Regensburg, marking a specific place and region, is only an inflexible and artificial image of the picturesque valleys of the Danube, lacking the expansiveness of the natural world and the promise of distance that requires us to do something with it, perhaps just to look, or even to visit it, to come to know it. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, and perhaps even during Wagner’s lifetime, the relationship between seeing and imagining was clearly very different than it is today, and hence the act of marking out a specific place also had a different significance then. The image of the nineteenth-century landscape was still a genuine perspective, as landscape painting was still capable of depicting unreachable distances. It may be the very conquering of distance in our own lives that has destroyed our feeling for great expanses. What we can reach, and touch, and possess – this no longer lies in the distance and cannot be a background any more; the unseeable and unreachable are not vistas for us. Our instruments tell us about unreachable natural distances – which exist only for them. We do not examine the colorful images in National Geographic the way we would a seventeenth-century Dutch landscape or a Caspar David Friedrich. We leaf through them, like the daily papers. They transmit almost nothing of the experience of a researcher in an observatory on a distant hilltop, or of the uplifting thrill of an astronomer looking at the sky through a telescope. Our pictures are really no longer really pictures, but signs, signifiers, reports, instructions, appeals, and code words. It is ordinary for us to make “pictures” with our digital cameras that never even get printed; there is no point. Perhaps we might send a few “pictures” to someone and destroy the rest. After “conquering” distance, it seems we have also conquered the picture.
But we architects need pictures, sometimes the way Hercule Poirot does, or Sherlock Holmes. Lines, spots, and tones become light, shadow form, and surface only very gradually. Only exhausting work turns pieces of paper into pictures. Sometimes a detail that did not attract our attention the first time – or the second, or the third – sometimes fall into place by the tenth viewing. Pictures must be worked for. They must be sought, uncovered, assembled, and protected. Not just in the ordinary sense, but in the much wider, original one as well, a picture “keeps its distance,” preserving, then offering a perspective. Once in a blue moon, as reward for our toils, a picture even presents itself to us, seeks us out, surprises us. Long-distance high-voltage power lines draw monumental but hair-thin parabolas through the landscape. The cables are held aloft by enormous grilled towers of warm-rolled tempered steel screwed together. This “innocent” sight, unremarkable in itself, has seized my imagination since childhood, being my traveling partner whenever I look out the window of a train or automobile. It always turns into a picture for me. A real picture, be it a piece of canvas, paper, wood, or a view whose impenetrable reality stuns us, can always become a fairy tale that opens its gates wide to our imagination, allowing us entry into another world. We need pictures precisely to give distance and depth to our imaginations, making a background for ourselves, and thereby preserving ourselves forever. Lajos Németh identified three types of historical works as he examined their changes over time. Magical, ritualistic works, closed to the physical world and restricted in its signification, were originally typical of tribal art. Strictly-delineated rites can only be carried out and understood with certain objects. It was religions that created collective, religious works open to the physical world (though still restricted in signification). Any number of things may evoke the divine, which is unseen by us on earth. The classical, individual type of work is closed to the physical world but unrestricted in signification: this is the autonomous work of art, created by the genius of the artist, but susceptible to an infinite multiplicity of interpretations. Janáky, pursuing this line of progression even further, has defined a fourth type of work, open to the physical world as well as unrestricted in its signification. But this, being undefined either by objects or meanings, cannot be a real genre. We might call it the genre of imagination – like unreal numbers in mathematics that also have no real content but are used nonetheless. These various types of work did not replace one another sequentially, but may exist simultaneously, in parallel. In the information society, which has suspended the use of the picture, shows the reappearance of the ritualistic, magical type of work. The branding so widespread in today’s architecture can produce only immense symbols, from Moscow to Kuala Lumpur. We need symbols if there is something we cannot see, if we must determine how to act in a given situation. We cannot get a full view of an intersection to determine what will happen if we enter it. So we use symbols to inform us in an instant what we may and may not do. If we have a symbol, there is no need for pictures. Those who have learned the same meaning from a sign will act similarly when they perceive it. A pilot flying at night notices only signals and indications arising from their combination. The sign informs and directs. When the sign is overweighted in communication, its creator has no further expectation of the viewer than the unconditional acceptance and execution of the sign’s order. There is no need for soldiers to identify with the command they are given, or with the tactical or strategic considerations that underlie it; unconditional, willing acceptance of the sign happens in the interest of survival. Automatic identification is typical of tribal psychology, and this is what links the web-surfer of the electronic age to people of tribal cultures: they both live with simultaneity, with time-lessness. In contrast to tribal existence, the basis of religion is no longer just the bare need for survival; religions seek out meditation, understanding, and peace, which can only exist in time, in events, through example, and in pictures. They only use symbols in times of crisis, a symptom of their distortion. In contrast to the sign, a picture does not compel one to anything. Indeed it creates uncertainty, sometimes confusion. It isolates. We are ourselves, and feel that a mere glance (as when catching a sign) is not enough. We need to observe something that is not immediately transparent or comprehensible. We say “get the picture” to indicate understanding of the situation we are in. We see the interrelation of things, and have a notion of how to proceed. Pictures are always associated with events, and with time. Constellations are beautiful and vivid demonstrations of how pictures originate. The souls and imaginations of our ancestors, over time, turned the magical vista of starry skies into images. These were certainly not just the result of physiological processes known to modern psychology, but of something more, some kind of common wisdom, that not even modern science has seen fit to reevaluate. We still use the constellations today to find our way about the sky. Janáky’s fourth type of work cannot really be a work at all, though it relates to them. It captures the temporality of a work, what grants it its place in the world and preserves it – all of which is required for the work to exist at all. This is the state of transition, a kind of alertness, where any number of objects and meanings may be in play, giving rise to innocent and inconsequential elemental images. Some will remain, hurrying to our side and accompanying us with faithful resolve; others are transitory, here one moment and gone the next, to return again perhaps. It is my feeling that our imagination consists of the constant movement of these elemental pictures. Imagination is always a road of wandering and return, just as the fairy tale is. Just as elemental particles can arrange themselves into atoms, molecules, chemicals, and substances, so can these elemental images form themselves into pictures during the involuntary state of fascination, an unanticipated and innocent moment, or in an encounter with works of art like the music of Wagner or the canvases of Caspar David Friedrich. In an age of symbols, there is no profit in wandering; the age of symbols belongs to the traveler, who has neither need nor time for pictures that would just be a nuisance on his next trip. The traveler knows where he is going, and all is planned and arranged. He uses a map, on which he marks the stations of his trip, and is careful to leave his business card at every stop. He writes an account of the trip, and publishes it. The picture, no longer of interest to him, neglected by him (though it could become his) , is ground up, defenseless, under the tyranny of symbols, and disintegrates into unattached symbols itself. But the wanderer, in contrast to the traveler, needs no fixed destination – the wandering itself might be the goal. He covers a smaller space of ground, and sometimes does not move forward at all, but just pokes around. He stops now and again, tarries a while, stops in somewhere, is received as a guest, converses with his hosts, and reveals himself to them. He leaves no signs at all, just stories that he tells. Stories get remembered everywhere. They do not expect him back, but many would gladly see him again. Wherever he goes will be his home, wandering being perhaps the very creation of a home. What he has seen and experienced does not require special effort to become part of him, a picture created within himself. These days, wanderers are so rare they seem to belong to the world of fairy tales – indeed the image of the vanishing wanderer has become a picture in itself: Schubert’s Winterreise, the wanderer of Wagner’s Siegfried, Mahler’s wayfaring singer, or Joyce’s hero Mr. Bloom come to mind. Janáky, a picture-man, is still a wanderer – a spontaneous and unintentional one. He has no use for signs; he needs pictures. The innocent picture watches over his wanderings.

Szántód, August 2004.