Les Messieurs d’Avignon

The bad boys of Modernity, who are assembled here as Les messieurs d’Avignon (The Gentlemen of Avignon), find themselves in the position of prominent outsiders in various ways: on the one hand, they cannot be imagined absent from each of their chronological and spatial contexts, yet they stand in a difficult and contradictory relation to any seemingly stringently functioning model of progress, which following officially glossed-over usage is designated as the era of Modernity. Here »bad« means running against the scheme in a certain way. Contradiction is the shared theme of the gathering presented here, while its historical occasion is the soon notorious non-maintainablity of all the doctored terms and omissions, which characterize and consume that era up into the present time. The messieurs’ gathering place in turn refers to a striking point in the story, which from the beginning does not allow the ideological instances to be recognized, but rather contains as well the fundamental misunderstandability of each historical situation’s what are later supposed to be called prerequisites.

      The prototype of any designation for a Modernity that has become problematic is Picasso’s Les demoiselles d’Avignon from 1907. This well-known lead-off of the avant-garde, whose consequential aftermath is supposed to have reached up into the 70s of the twentieth century, has its very promising point of departure here. Yet with this representation it has to do with a construction, which for its self-understanding blocks out another, more melancholy and less graspable side of events, on the basis of which throughout the whole century an underground and hermetically tending parallel existence unfolds, that henceforth from its deeply branching roots has an impact on the present, often without being noticed. This separation into an apparent and a suppressed part of the history would be, for example, already realized within the visual arts at threshold of the era by the differing reception of the contemporaries Cezanne and Boecklin: while Cezanne can be derived from the official development, with all the trusted steps from abstraction up into pure concept, the threads that are to be spun off from Boecklin lead to altogether uncharted regions – where it has to do with individual positions rather than a stylistic direction. Modernity in general’s two pillars, the Enlightenment and Romanticism, have evolved into an unclear disproportion via the process of suppression.

       In light of the cubistically analyzed female bodies in sunshine, a non-presence becomes noticeable, which at first appears to be simply the non-presence of men, but with further analysis draws attention to a shadowy demarcation of Modernity, whose protagonists now begin to speak: from not-to-be-overlooked absence to delayed reportage. They continue a labyrinthic, nearmythical, eurocontinentally shaped image- and thought-terminology, within which there is no linear development and all logical or pragmatic understandings contain an inaccessible core, which can dissipate common sense at any time and turn it into its opposite. Of course there is no political correctness, no societal resolution, and no dependable morality. The roots of this lie in European antiquity, in which instead of worldly-rejecting monotheism’s promise of a beyond, a celebrated mysterious here-and-nowness, and the fantastic worldliness of all that is overly sensual leads to the development of a godly mankind, whose pictorial richness and worlddominating power is not entirely forgotten. Despite the »slave uprising« of Christianity, despite all ideologically motivated iconoclasm, despite Protestantism, despite the French Revolution and the social movement of Modernity to which it gave rise – only the chaos, anarchy, and terrible fate that it saw in the pomp of yesteryear were always feared. A fear that, in light of the dialectic of the Enlightenment become savage in the twentieth century, elevated the Freudian slip virtually to the level of an historically originary phenomenon. Post-metaphysical melancholy, fatherly harshness, the danger of slippage, and repeatedly unbelievable outlooks, all of these are elements which produce the relation between these gentlemen – be it in the sworn culturally critical prognoses of Nietzsche, in the magical flights of de Chirico, in the mirrored turns of Stefan George’s lyrical poetry, in Camus’ provocation of the absurd, in Heidegger’s static ecstasies, in the fate- and historyimbricated films of a Pasolini, an Antonioni, or a Bergman; continuing up into the undermining of late Modernism’s social-utopian theses in the lampooning novels of Houellebecq. These authors’ treasure-trove of images and thoughts – which is, according to Anglo-American standards, not entertaining, not informative, and instrumentalizable only with difficulty—describes a horizon which can be determinant for a Modernism beyond Karl Marx and Coca- Cola today.

       The up-until-now current political orientations – in the first half of the twentieth century more inspired by an intellectually aristocratic, identity-emphasizing ideal, in its second half rather tending toward a relativizing, identity-rejecting structure – are put out of commission. Neither the cult of genius, nor mass gratification of the smallest common denominator, can still be convincing. Sublimity as empty gesture versus contextualization going as far as self-abnegation, thematic kitsch versus interactivity-kitsch, ivory tower versus pop bliss – it always has to do with who has the last word. What Nietzsche expressed with his advocation of a pathos of distanciation from democratic leveling, and in favor of historyempowering Darwinian distinctions against a weak culture of resentment, had achieved a new explosive power – it was according to the examples of antique heroic and elite culture, the Renaissance prince of Machiavelli, the leviathan of Hobbes, and the modern dilemma of the definition of an elite were able to enflame spirits at all. But it is not only in thus coming to a head that the question surfaced, with the gentlemen of Avignon, as to what role an apparently timeless, archaic-roots-generating poetic and visually creative power can play, if that is transplanted into the area of permanent technological innovation. At the jumping-off point of this question, within which nihilistic and fundamentalistic tendencies cross each other without agreed-upon rights of way, the future of an ideal will be decided, one which survives via the possibilities of its aesthetic encoding. An ideal that should get on without these possibilities cannot exist, as that was shown by the 68er’s-paradigm cultural revolution that ended in Big Brother format. Just as the beginnings of a first binding word pale, so must their end be faded.

      The shadow which accompanies the twilight of this formulation of a query represents the hope by means of which the dubious genealogy of a presumed anti-modern Modernity secures its survival, altogether in the sense of a contradiction which (due to the grounds essential for life) is not to be undone. The contradiction as it is currently defined, within which this paradigm-shift is announced, is the overt concern of the gentlemen of Avignon, who qualify as those who must be inherited by us, despite or because their testament (due to misleading pocketings) is not under discussion.

      In Picasso’s studies for the Demoiselles d’Avignon, a sailor and a medical student are found in the middle of the image, among the five undressed women: potential visitors of a brothel. Perhaps they had to leave the picture for reasons of propriety, perhaps on aesthetic grounds. Perhaps as well a gender problematic slumbered latent in the separation of demoiselles and messieurs, which has become part of the historical process of suppression. Just as much as the exclusive, purely female grouping becomes a chimera in the end, all the more clearly the empty spaces that are newly to be occupied enter into consciousness. But should only historians fight about the elimination’s significance? The deconstructivist dissolution of author and text would be a convenient illusion, which demands new answers from new authors. Whoever is involved knows that the sexes find their roles themselves, with or without a brothel.

      The new encounter between men and women, not only from Avignon, will take place in a ruinous southern landscape, voluntarily or involuntarily. A cold wind will blow through the pines. A few pieces of the clothing of confused treasure-hunters will lie in the withered grass, on a slope which will shimmer under the changing light of the moving clouds. Far below on the ocean, where pirates once upon a time came ashore, a cloth weighted down with stones will be found, that a victorious couple left behind as a symbol of all lost feuds, that will be fought out between the stranded carriers of hope for a new life. On the cloth an excellent hiker will find a ground plan, out of which sirens will have torn precisely the places which should be there: now! Exactly at that moment a current of air will tear from the skeptic something faded and unreadable, a scrap, which he just now touches with his fingers, as he thought that something was not any more or not yet complete. He will try to track the dancing empty spaces held over his head, and is thereby blinded by the sunlight, so that he has to hold his hand over his eyes, of which he would wish that it was another’s hand. Which hand? That would be found on another sheet, which he would not let go of in any storm, as long as he did not know that it had been in his possession for a long time. All the riches, which will be hidden in the cracks of the boulders all around him, he would not trade for this possession, which is simultaneously the closest and the furthest away from him: the closest, when he wants to roll the cloth up, because he had lost it here; and the furthest away, if he leaves it here, because the couple that had lain here will come back soon. A rushing will go over the land and water if his gaze directs itself to the black-and-white horizon, in order to stay on the lookout for the agreed-upon sign. And a breathing-space will shortly fill the air, when he again turns to the barren slope, whose shadows awaken memories of snow in the face. He will await the thistle blooms, and he will know that there is no vacuum and no deserted masonry. What happens will happen as suspected. Who had expressed a suspicion at all? the wanderer will ask himself, when he finds his way with the shoreline at his back.

Les Messieurs d’Avignon, Cologne 2007, S. 10