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The Madness Painting

In Uncategorized on October 13, 2012 at 2:46 pm

Ivan The Terrible and his Son Ivan on November 16, 1581 by Ilya Efimovich Repin, painted 1885. (The State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow)

I had the opportunity to see this painting on tour at the Royal Ontario Museum a few years ago, which was the first time I heard the story of how it drove Abram Balashev mad.

The painting depicts the real-life murder of Ivan Ivanovich by his father, the Tsar Ivan IV Vasilyevich, in 1581. Supposedly, Tsar Ivan (known as Ivan the Terrible) had beaten his son’s wife for wearing immodest clothing, and had caused her to miscarry. His son apparently confronted him about this and, in a fit of rage, Tsar Ivan struck him on the head, killing him.

When it was first exhibited in 1885, it was considered obscene, ostensibly due to the graphic portrayal of the bloody wound, though I suspect the madness in Tsar Ivan’s eyes was part of it nobody wanted to even mention. Rumour says that it made women faint. There are whispers that it drove people who viewed it to suicide, but nothing recorded.

On January 13th, 1913, a young man named Abram Balashev, suffering from severe mental illness and supposedly obsessed with the painting, took a dagger to the Tretyakov Gallery and stabbed the painting multiple times, ranting about the blood.

You can see in the detail that he pretty much went for Tsar Ivan. Though, as has been pointed out to me, he missed the crazy, crazy eyes.

The painting has since been restored, but the legend hasn’t faded. On the one hand, it’s a cautionary tale: don’t look too closely at art, don’t listen too closely to the story, because if might show you something that you can never recover from.

On the other hand, it fascinates me. It’s not the only artwork to ever be attacked — the Mona Lisa has had more than a few — but it’s one of the few that people believe actually drove someone mad, like the legends that when the Furies appeared onstage in the Oresteia, women in the audience spontaneously miscarried out of fear.

That’s a strange sort of holy grail for any artist, visual or literary or otherwise. Certainly most artists don’t want to cause harm, but to make something out of yourself which has that much power is a temptation, and perhaps sometimes a desire.

Did the painting drive Abram Balashev to insanity? Probably not. We know now that most mental illness is caused by biological factors. It’s likely that Balashev was already on the verge when he became obsessed with the painting, and it simply became a focal point for his suffering. It’s not terribly likely that the painting itself ever actually drove anyone to suicide, either, even if it was more graphic and “obscene” than the culture of the day was accustomed to.

But as a story, it’s compelling. It’s mysterious. A magical object that has the power to alter reality simply by existing.

And it’s a dare: do you take the risk, look at the painting, and face the power it presents?

Somebody Ban My Fucking Book

In Uncategorized on October 1, 2012 at 12:37 pm

It’s Banned Books Week!

So here’s a story with a moral about banned books.

One summer in undergrad, I basically had nothing to do. I was staying at school and working in the university library, but we didn’t have a huge number of patrons and I was frequently on desk duty, which meant I spent a lot of time sitting at a counter, not doing much. It was a great job, really. If it paid more than peanuts I’d probably still be doing it.

We were allowed to read books while on desk duty, so I decided for the summer to read as many banned books as I could get my hands on. It’d be educational, and if they were banned that must mean they were either violent or dirty or both. I found a reasonably accurate list of the top 100 most frequently banned books and went through it, crossing off the ones I’d already read, which brought me down to something like seventy books.

So I started finding these books in the stacks or ordering them from other libraries, and I discovered something vital about frequently banned books:

Most banned books are very, very boring.

My theory is that the kind of pearl-clutching idiot who holds a mindset that one should ban a book at all is the kind of person who does not pay much attention to real content. Worse, they wouldn’t know disturbing content if it bit them in the ass. Books are banned for a single sex scene, or a mention of marijuana, or a certain level of profane language. I was reading racier stuff when I was a freshman in high school. I was understandably disappointed.

But these books do get a lot of attention, and banned book lists trick suckers like me into reading them in the hopes of being shocked or titillated. I know the major purpose of Banned Books Week is to draw attention to ongoing attempts at censorship in America and to make sure that threatened books get so widely read they can’t possibly be eradicated, and that’s great…but it’s a pretty sweet marketing tool, too.

I figure between the allusions to rape, the consensual threesome, the blasphemous treatment of angels, and the magic in Trace, I should at least get a mention. There’s magic in Nameless, too, and a big gay kiss. And The Dead Isle pretty visibly says magic is an awesome religion.