Aung Sang Suu Kyi #1: reflections on Marina, princess of Tyre

Edward G. Nilges, “State of ‘Aung San Suu Kyi as of 22 August 2010”, acrylic on canvas, 15 x 15 cm

This is another series of “working papers” in which I document the development of a painting using the indirect method of the European masters in acrylics, a line drawing, ink and wash, grisaille and then color, keeping the layers thin at all times to let the light bounce off the pure white of the canvas and come to your eyes.

The eyes are driving me crazy. They are not almond shaped and she is doing something pert and Western with them. They don’t pass Leonardo da Vinci’s reverse test, since in the mirror or flipped on the computer, she looks funny.

Nonetheless I owe this start something, an effort. I need to use layers to smooth the contrast while preserving its meaning. Sucks.

We owe to art more than it owes us: art is not therapy for the artist nor is it entertainment for the sort of international slobs that troop through the Louvre.

This is because, as my fat pal Adorno points out, there was a time when there was no distinction between “art” and “religion”, and “making a religion of art” is not just some stupid gesture. I know that I got more out of hanging around the Louvre than going to Mass in Paris (in part because the Mass in French deliberately destroys the mystery and internationalism, which I miss, of the Latin, Tridentine mass, which was said on the beach after D-Day, and then thrown into the garbage).

There’s something about the effect of layers of translucency on Ms. Kyi’s face that needs to be pursued, in a way that is of course difficult to put into words. The fact that adding white brings out new planes, new aspects, new suffering in her gracile face is, I think, something that drives the generals wild in Burma.

Is that racist? Westerners “see” Asian faces as less molded and as featureless because they don’t … see. But it’s true that if you’re a fat and vicious thug and slob, eating like a pig and drinking yourself stupid covers you with layers of lard, and this hides you, no matter whether you are Asian or Western. I speak from experience.

In the (very funny) scenes in Pericles, Prince of Tyre, where Marina is marooned in the whorehouse and persuades every suitor but one to keep his paws off her using language alone, buying that pig Boult off with gold, Shakespeare shows the power of truth-based language (which, to Shakespeare, was the only real language, all others being calculi and tautology).

Marina deftly shows that if the homeboys rape her, they might as well not walk the earth because something so simple as getting out of bed in the morning or not ending up face down in a puddle of vomit in the evening requires an organizing ethical ontology.

Why, your herb-woman; she that sets seeds and roots
of shame and iniquity. O, you have heard something
of my power, and so stand aloof for more serious
wooing. But I protest to thee, pretty one, my
authority shall not see thee, or else look friendly
upon thee. Come, bring me to some private place:
come, come.
If you were born to honour, show it now;
If put upon you, make the judgment good
That thought you worthy of it.
How’s this? how’s this? Some more; be sage.
For me,
That am a maid, though most ungentle fortune
Have placed me in this sty, where, since I came,
Diseases have been sold dearer than physic,
O, that the gods
Would set me free from this unhallow’d place,
Though they did change me to the meanest bird
That flies i’ the purer air!
I did not think
Thou couldst have spoke so well; ne’er dream’d thou couldst.
Had I brought hither a corrupted mind,
Thy speech had alter’d it. Hold, here’s gold for thee:
Persever in that clear way thou goest,
And the gods strengthen thee!

Somehow, without innocence (for by 1608 Shakespeare had lost any innocence for certain), Shakespeare has Marina, who knows exactly what sort of place she’s working in, keep her innocence using words.

Boult’s and Bawd’s knocking shop is a place of disease (they mention a Transylvanian, perhaps Dracula, who gets the pox at their place), since syphilis was rampant, and some authors say there are indications in Shakespeare that he thought, around the turn of the century, he might have it. He probably was plunged into suspicion and depression, like Othello, from which his greatest works emerged.

I saw a guy standing on the corner in San Francisco once whose face was spotted with Karposi’s Sarcoma and he had an astonished expression. The 1590s had been Shakespeare’s decade to mess around: the first decade of the 17th century was quite different, with the beginnings of the “little Ice Age” and rampant pox.

But does Marina’s Pure Language work in Burma? I don’t know. All I know is that life is short and art is long, and the only way I have to celebrate Ms. Kyi is with a lot of translucent layers of form and color.

“The radio blares military music in the half empty bar
I gamble with the general who’s got only one star.”

– Nilges


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