Thursday, December 21, 2017

the last book I ever read (The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between, excerpt seven)

from 2017 Pulitzer Prize winner in Biography The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between by Hisham Matar:

The seventeenth-century Spanish painter Diego Velázquez, who had a hold on me during those years, is counted amongst the influences on the French painter Manet. It was probably this chronology of influences that had organized my decision. Nonetheless, it is unsettlingly appropriate. Manet was responding to one of the most controversial political events of his time. The French intervention in Mexico had come to a disastrous end with the execution of their installed ruler, Emperor Maximilian, in 1867. There were no photographs of the incident. Manet had to rely on the stories he read in the papers. In the same year, he began work on several imaginings of the event. Over the next couple of years he was able to complete three large paintings, an oil sketch and a lithograph depicting the fall of Maximilian. They are scattered around the world. The one at the National Gallery happens to be the most poignant, not least of all because, after the artist’s death, the painting was cut up and sold in fragments. The impressionist artist Edgar Degas purchased the surviving pieces, and it was not until 1992, two years after my father’s disappearance, that the National Gallery assembled them on a single canvas. Large chunks of the picture remain missing. You cannot see Maximilian—only his hand, gripped tightly by one of his generals. The firing squad is as ruthlessly focused and indifferent as the men surrounding Saint Lawrence. It would be hard to think of a painting that better evokes the inconclusive fate of my father and the men who died in Abu Salim. Learning of the fact that my unknowing 25-year-old self was guided, whether by reason or instinct, to this picture on the same day as the massacre unnerved me and has since changed my relationship to all the works of this French artist who, somewhere in Proust’s novels, is described as the painter of countless portraits of vanished models, “models who already belonged to oblivion or to history.” Today, whenever I see a Manet, the white, his white, which is unlike any other white, cannot be a cloud, a tablecloth or a woman’s dress but will always remain the white leather belts of the firing squad in The Execution of Maximilian.

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