The Neurotically Happy

Sunday, 29 April 2018 09:00

In 1956, the photographer Bruce Davidson befriended and photographed Margaret Fauché in Paris and compiled the series The Widow of Montmartre. Margaret Fauché was 92 years old at the time (Davidson was 23) and she was living in a garret with huge windows overlooking the Moulin de la Galette, as one can see in The Widow of Montmartre #11, where the widow sits in darkness in her living room with her back turned to the view and the light outside.


It makes perfect sense: Loneliness, old age, moving like a ghost in a world that doesn’t include you anymore. But the perceived reality is also suspiciously familiar, in the way it confirms the generalized fears and presuppositions of a particular, vague as well as popular worldview that paints old age and death in grim colors.


Armed with Susan Sontag’s On Photography, I prepared to write an essay attacking stereotyping and media-induced conservatism, defending at the same time a woman defined in the viewer’s mind by the markers of age (old) and appointed role (widow).


She was 92, after all – an admirable age for anyone to reach – and quite independent. Her husband, the painter Léon Fauché, had died just five years before, in 1950, at the equally admirable age of 82. And she did own an attic in Montmartre – an enviable possession and a dream to many, although by no means a measure of satisfaction. The Bookkeeper (the imaginary being adding and subtracting our happy and sad moments in order to draw a conclusion regarding the quality of our lives) should be happy.


Margaret’s past was more private than her husband’s, so I researched Léon Fauché in order to piece together a happy life for them both. It shouldn’t have been bad at all: Impressionism was a revolution back in 1890, and they were quite progressive. Léon – who was twenty-two at the time, about the same age as Davidson when he shot the pictures of Mme Fauché –  had his circle and his style, his haunt and a substantial involvement in the movement, and Margaret, who was four years older, was herself quite extraordinary. I couldn’t find out much about their later life, although I wondered how they managed during the Wars, but it didn’t matter, as their brief moment of glory should have covered for any misfortune. The Bookkeeper would approve. Besides, I had another argument to follow through, namely the images themselves: The crude contrast and staged sentimentalism of couples kissing and children playing while the old, stooped figure walks away were enough evidence to overturn any platitude of late-life misery. After all, Mme Fauché was always spruce, and this was not due to a tragic sense of dignity.


The fury and decisiveness to prove it suggested a conflicting personal interest. It reminded me of someone I knew, who hit her work desk and shouted “it will be,” referring to the successful outcome of the upcoming holidays of another colleague, in an otherwise completely casual office conversation. She, just like me, wanted happiness first of all to exist and then to last forever, and would not take no for an answer. By the way, at the time of the incident, she had been recently divorced.


Happiness in middle-class, first-world settings, is usually a matter of choice. You decide you’ll be happy and channel your thoughts accordingly, with routine and discipline. You take an empty shell (the word ‘happiness’), fill it with substance (by repetition, until it gains in volume) and wear it like an intrinsic value. It is an act of rebellion, after all, to manage to be happy and conscious at the same time. So, in this manner, it is a choice. But when happiness is actually slipping away – perhaps because we’re horrible at both routine and discipline – it stops being a choice. In fact, it is the opposite, as you realize that you have no choice, but to be happy. It is a prerequisite to a life well-lived, and a hedonist would dare say that that’s the only life worth living. That’s when you desperately defend the Mme Fauché’s (it takes one to know one) and agreeable holiday goers of the world. You’d even hit the desk or analyze the whole human condition if you had to.

Published in thoughts

the collective mind

Monday, 04 September 2017 11:23

It all started with this article about an exhibition of four outsider Finnish women artists who chose the difficult path of remaining faithful to their art, and was followed by this interview, where Jeanette Winterson talks about her working class background and the feeling of not belonging. And then I was talking to an acquaintance, and sure enough it didn’t take long for us – after some initial reluctance and waters testing – to reveal our artistic sides, hidden behind household stories, jobs to get by and crammed schedules.

    Finally it struck me, this thing that I know but tend to forget, especially under stress: Our experiences, the things and thought-forming processes we’re going through every single moment, are not unique. In fact, they are quite common. For the creatives, it should be seen as a duty to fight the restraints of what passes as normality, this order that keeps us and, perhaps more importantly, other creative people repressed and captive to their approved roles, usually money-earning and/or domestic, and suffocates their creativity due to lack of time, means and network.

We need to gather, open up, discuss and support, develop new platforms and movements together. Contemporary life is crippling not only creativity but also self-esteem. It’s the most difficult thing, it seems, to say “I’m an artist” without wanting to laugh at yourself for your ridiculous, childish claim. We are taught that others are better and we are somehow committing fraud. We should abolish the fear and guilt of being mediocre or bad, if there even is such a thing, and devote ourselves wholeheartedly to getting the most pleasure out of anything that offers it to us – in this case, being creative.

Published in thoughts


Thursday, 28 August 2014 22:19

I’ve always found boats, especially lonely, empty, archetypal boats, to be fascinating. Something in their curves, solitary nature and transporting purpose touches me. I have even created a theme out of them. I usually avoid writing about my artwork but seeing this theme complete had a flooding impact on me.

Boats are like good poetry: Full of hidden meaning, connotation and denotation, juxtapositions and paradoxes, a metaphorical existence altogether, a passage, an economy of words and unparalleled melody and rhythm. My boats fill me with melancholy and hope, and a tendency to ponder upon the great mysteries of life.

Published in thoughts
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