EJN Remembrance #8: O ben finiti, o già spiriti eletti

Edward G. Nilges, “State of a Portrait of Edward Joseph Nilges, ‘Anima Cortese’, as of 8:00 PM 11 Sep 2010”, charcoal on oval canvas 16 x 20 cm

Edward G. Nilges, “State of a Portrait of Edward Joseph Nilges, ‘Anima Cortese’, as of 8:30 PM 11 Sep 2010”, charcoal on oval canvas 16 x 20 cm

Edward G. Nilges, “State of a Portrait of Edward Joseph Nilges, ‘Anima Cortese’, as of 9:00 PM 11 Sep 2010”, charcoal on oval canvas 16 x 20 cm

“O ben finiti, o già spiriti eletti,”
Virgilio incominciò, “per quella pace
ch’i’ credo che per voi tutti s’aspetti,
ditene dove la montagna giace,
sì che possibil sia l’andare in suso;
ché perder tempo a chi più sa più spiace.”

‘O you who have come to a happy end,
spirits already chosen,’ Virgil began,
‘by that peace which, I think, awaits you all,
‘tell us where the mountain rises gently
so that we may begin the long ascent.
The more we know, the more we hate time’s waste.’

The “ink” (Mars Black wash) is just begun and shall demand invention given the limited precision of the 1942 photograph.

Barber’s Adagio appropriate for 11 Sep. I can’t seem to shake a new habit of writing dates with day first. The American way is to say September 11th.

Now there’s my father and a bit of me in the portrait. There was a well hidden gaiety or twerpiness in Edward J, which surfaces only in one photograph I saw, which my father and I don’t share. The “courteous Mantuan” eludes me, slipping in the sands or shadows of time, and I never knew him.

The youngest living person to have known him is pushing eighty. Only Walter Benjamin’s “angel of history” knows what he looks like, looked like after the last studio portrait was taken and he took ship for Europe.

To quote Dante makes the portrait automatically not one that would be used for further commemorations of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Although I wish those veterans well, there are many military artists far better able to do this than I. This is meant to be a “work” of “art”, but not I hope done out of vanity and self assertion.

No, it’s just that working on this while listening to Samuel Barber gives me peace, and will enhance my art wall. Don’t know if I would sell it, it’s kind of a personal or family heirloom, for one who has little from his family home. Other family members may not like it: my relationships with them are tenuous at best.

I’ve been acurst/blessed, marked/wounded all my life. I do stuff I think is great but seem to be a highly acquired taste, like absinthe or Campari.

But that is not the point. The point is that WWII was a mass of undifferentiated men and women who, in my Mom’s words, didn’t “go”, they were, she said with mysterious anger and intensity, “sent”.

At the link where he writes his recollections of Edward, my Dad makes a comment about Grandmother’s regrets that she took Edward J to wave the flag in patriotic celebrations of World War I. He remembers these regrets because he too hated the football coach patriots and even said to me that he wished he had forbid my GI kid brother to enter Scouting, when my kid brother was sent to Iraq.

But, Dad always voted Republican (he actually apologized to me for voting for Dick Nixon) and his essay on Uncle Ed ends with a conventional Latin tag that one would think Wilfred Owen would make him ashamed to use: “Dulce et decorum”:

To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

My Dad was active as a physician in anti-nuclear activism but his default role was to support society and the conservative norm. For this reason, he is as elusive as Edward J.

But: I was probably the last person in the West to learn the Latin tag not from the Wilfred Owen poem, which I read at 18, but straight from a Latin textbook in high school in 1963.

A painting in this, my pastiche as it were of the Old Master style, with preliminary drawings, lines, grisaille and “svelatura”, is appropriate to a “man” such as is almost extinct, like Richard Nixon’s eldest brother. The rest of us are works in progress, sketches, cartoons, and caricatures.

Taking Richard Yates very, very seriously: for the wife means it in Revolutionary Road when she says you’re not a man. Taking Hong Kong writer Martin Booth very, very seriously when in Gweilo, the author’s mother hisses at his father that he is a jackanapes in a fake Royal Navy uniform.

But: if 90% of the casualties in contemporary war are civilians, you don’t become a man in military service. The last men were, as Mom says, sent.

My former wife

“that wretched Anne, thy wife” – Richard III

just wanted a man. She got someone who’d shitcanned his goals and wanted to be a good corporate slave. She hardly ever saw me paint, and my kids, never.

Hmm the mouth is pretty, prissy, conventional. Edward J’s was humorous, straight and alive. This will be fixable at this stage, for a mouth is not a line, it is light and shadow.


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