Kandinsky's Nephew and Gallic Creations

So another French philosopher has been duped by a hoax. The merde last hit the fan as one reviewer put it, when Sokal and Bricmont first wrote a spoof philosophical piece which was lauded in all the appropriate journals, and followed it up by a book, Intellectual Impostures, which exposed the POFTS (pointlessly obscure French thinkers), Lacan, Kristeva, Baudrillard et al., as trying to make their thoughts more impressive by larding them with science that they clearly did not understand themselves. This time the joke is of Gallic origin and the philosopher with egg on his face is the médiatique intello, Bernard-Henri Lévy, as much known for his silk shirts open to the navel and his starlet wife as his thought. In his most recent book he has been naive or slapdash enough, to quote the philosopher, Botul and his creed of Botulism, which are pure inventions. Lévy is not a POFT. He made his name by coming out against the engagé philosophers who in various convoluted Marxist forms were supporting Stalinist barbarism, but having read an article or two by him and reviews of his books, I feel that, on this side of the Channel, he would be considered more of a journalist than a philosopher.

Last weekend I came across what, for me, was a new name from the French philosophical world. Writing in The Spectator, Francis Fukuyama, he of The End of History notoriety, claimed that his thesis was, that ‘the true embodiment of the post-historical world would be the European Union’ and that he derived his ideas mainly from the ‘great French philosopher Alexander Kojève.’ Not wishing to be completely ignorant of any great philosopher, I did some research – not actually reading his work, God forbid – but finding out who on earth he was. All the following comes from a note by Jeffrey Mehlman in The Columbia History of Twentieth Century French Thought.

Kojève, originally Kojevinkov, came from a wealthy Russian family who fled the Revolution. He was the nephew of the painter Wassily Kandinsky. Losing his fortune in the financial collapse of the dairy firm, La Vache Qui Rit, he had to earn his living interpreting the philosophy of Hegel. From his study of the German philosopher he evolved his own philosophy. Here are some of his conclusions. Napoleon is the secular Christ who brings history to an end by his victory at the Battle of Jena. Subsequently, there is some historical tidying up. Nazism was the ‘Democratization of Imperial Germany.’ The Chinese revolution was ‘the introduction of the Napoleonic Code in China.’ Beau Brummel and the marquis de Sade also play a part in the ending of history, Brummel because he concluded that man in uniform could no longer be taken seriously and de Sade because he understood that violence could only thrive in the boudoir. The surrealist touch to the story is that Kojève earned his living post-war as an important European bureaucrat and was the principal French architect of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). He died in harness in 1968.

One ends up having some sympathy for poor Lévy. Separating out the actual from the spoof in French twentieth century thought, is by no means straightforward. Raymond Aron who with Camus, is one of the few French intellectuals from the era respected in Anglo-Saxon circles, but who was criticised at home for lack of creativity, apparently described Kojève ‘as smarter than Sartre.’ I have read somewhere, of the view of a French intellectual that difficult things should be written about in a difficult way. Perhaps that is where the creativity comes in and where Kojève was very smart. Now that the PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain) are on the verge of bringing down the Euro, in some cases by creative accounting, leading to who knows what other chaos, I’m very glad that the Continental input to British thought came, thanks to Adolf Hitler, via Austria in the persons of Hayek, Popper and Gombrich, all exemplary figures in writing about difficult things in a very clear way.

Frankfurt and an unusual Rembrandt Drawing

A week or so ago we were in Frankfurt on Main for a couple of days. We had been there once before when we had an eight-hour wait on our way to China to visit our son but it was a Monday so we could not see the galleries. We had come to put that right, particularly to visit the Städel Museum, one of the great European collections.

Frankfurt is full of museums and galleries. A useful pamphlet lists thirty-one major museums plus fifty-four other exhibition sites. Near the reconstructed centre – reconstructed after British fire bombing – we took in the Museum of Modern Art (a great white interior where bored attendants and the odd visitor make dark specks and little perspex containers provide patronising explanations of the sparse exhibits) and The Caricature Museum (plenty of obscenity and scatology but more Otto Dix brutality than George Grosz quality and not a patch on the teams that have worked for fifty years on France’s Canard Enchainé). Across the river most of the other important museums are conveniently strung along the bank. We added applied art, world cultures, sculpture to our tally of subjects covered, leaving film, architecture, communications and more to another visit.

The Städel, the main focus of our trip, had the bonus of a major Botticelli exhibition centred round the gallery’s own wonderful portrait of Simonetta Vespucci. The exhibition was arranged with the portraits and allegorical works separated from the religious paintings and I came away with the impression that Botticelli was a far greater painter when dealing with secular subjects. In the amassed Christian works the expressions of the divinely sent did cloy a bit.

There is no point in my saying much about the permanent collection. It is just a must see. How did I put off for going there for so long? These are some of the things that enthralled me: a wonderful Poussin landscape with a counterpoint figure composition, including Pyramus and Thisbe, zig-zagging across, a Van Eyck and a Memling giving the northern equivalent of the sort of serene perfection you get in the south with Piero della Francesca, a Vermeer, two Rembrandt Old Testament scenes, Frans Hals portraits, no less than four Brouwers, a medieval lynch mob graphically depicted in Bosch’s Ecco Homo, works by Hugo van der Goes, Rogier van der Weyden and Gerard David. I was surprised at the amount of Italian works, Perugino, Tintoretto, Tiepolo (Giovanni Domenico as well as Giovanni Battista) and Bronzino, though the Bellini and the Mantegna weren’t first class examples. I don’t go to such collections to be educated: it’s sheer hedonism.

Another surprise was a postcard of a Rembrandt drawing from the collection, which I picked up in the gallery shop. I am addicted to Rembrandt’s graphic work, which I prefer to the paintings save the self-portraits (but having said that, the etched self-portraits are not far behind the paintings). The drawing I discovered was unlike anything in my two volumes of Rembrandt drawings and my book of the complete etchings. It is obviously a brothel scene. Rembrandt is not averse to frank depictions. There are etchings of a monk rogering a girl in a cornfield, another couple at it on a bed, a man peeing and almost unique, a very explicit one of a woman urinating. Rembrandt you might say does earthy but not erotic.

The brothel scene is common enough in Dutch art and is usually composed of three figures, a man, a girl and the bawd. The man, it is invariably a soldier, may have discarded his sword but he is behatted with great leather boots and buttoned into heavy breeches and tunic. The females are equally laced up and bodiced with hardly an ankle showing under long skirts. They look as respectable as De Hoogh housewives. You wonder how they are ever going to get enough off to get down to action. The Rembrandt drawing is in much the same vein except that there is a fourth figure, a girl who is obviously standing on something for her pubis is level with the first girl’s shoulder. She is strumming a musical instrument and is totally nude. It is not one of Rembrandt’s really great drawings but it is certainly unusual.

Quiz Answers and Result

1. Caravaggio 2. Benvenuto Cellini 3. Richard Dadd 4. Apollinaire 5. Eubie Blake 6. Irving Berlin. 7. Irving Caesar 8. George Abbott 9. Joseph Napoleon 10. Nabokov 11. Saul Bellow 12. John Updike 13. Schoenberg’s Erwartung 14. Philip Glass 15. Claude Monet 16. Jean-Baptiste Lully 17. Alkan 18. Adriaen Brouwer 19. Granados 20. Jacques Louis David.

It is a slight embarrassment to me that the winner of my quiz, Ken Duffy, should be someone I know well. No underhand dealings were involved and the small print, which I am giving as a prize is not something that as a person so long involved with the printmaking world he would particularly covet in any case. I asked Ken to try my quiz and added that I had tried to make it google proof. He replied that no such thing was possible. Proving this point obviously became a challenge and he has been successful. I congratulate him.

I see google-quiz-solving in action every Christmas if my daughter spends it with us. She enjoys The Independent on Sunday's quiz that consists of a block of sixteen details from paintings, which must be identified. We usually get six or so straight off. Then books are consulted and finally the laptops are brought out. With collections all over the world available to consult, everything can be tracked down.

Ken had three answers to my questions different from the list above. For no.13 he gave Schoenberg’s Three Pieces for Piano. Like Erwartung the work is from 1909 and is therefore a possible answer. Of the group of questions about writers who compared a woman’s bottom to an upside down valentine heart, he got Nabokov and Updike but gave James Joyce as the third writer. I take this to be wrong unless he can convince me otherwise. I am intrigued to how he got Nabokov and Updike without also getting Bellow. In Craig Raine’s essay Nabokov: The Russian Years, collected in In Defence of T.S. Eliot, he suggests other writers picked up the Nabokov’s trope like a virus. Nabokov’s phrase in Bend Sinister is: ‘her rump, which in those days of tight skirts, looked like an inverted heart.’ Saul Bellow wrote in Humboldt’s Gift: ‘You have a bottom like a white valentine greeting’ and in Rabbit Redux John Updike’s phrase, salutary or unconsciously smitten was: ‘the upside-down valentine of a woman’s satin rear.’ This question was I hoped very google proof and if I got anybody to look at Raine’s essay collections, I am very pleased, as they should be also, as he is a splendid critic as well as a superb poet. These were the questions that most were at sea with.

Ken’s third differing answer was to give Titian or Caravaggio as painters who might have been collected by both Rembrandt and Rubens. I suspect he thought this worth a guess because the northern painters were influenced by these Italian masters. The painter who they in fact collected, was the Flemish genre painter Adriaen Brouwer.

In truth, I didn’t get a very large entry for my quiz. Nobody came anywhere near Ken’s 18/20. But unlike The Independent on Sunday I was not offering a case of champagne