Secrets: Richard III

The Smithsonian’s documentary Richard III Revealed probes the excavation and identification of the bones of Richard III, king of England. Largely driven by Philippa Langley and the Richard III Society, the group hoped to prove historical descriptions of Richard Plantagenet as a ruthless “hunchback” were vicious slanders propagated by the Tudors in their own quest for power. Forensic analysis of the skeleton (confirmed by matrilineal DNA) revealed that he did indeed have scoliosis, causing one shoulder to be higher than the other and a reduction in height, though his orthopedic disability was not so severe as to preclude an active lifestyle. (No evidence of a withered arm was found.)

Philippa took the news hard, weeping at the shattered image of her hero and using the pejorative term “hunchback” freely. In her mind, the fact that Richard had scoliosis was enough to turn him into the Shakespearean villain of old. It may very well be that Richard had to be ruthless to seize power in a hostile political climate, but it is surprising that a supposedly modern and enlightened person like Philippa should fall prey to the stereotype that physical disfigurement indicates an evil nature.

Speaking Even More of Maria Blanchard

from wordgathering.com
Diane Kendig
SPEAKING EVEN MORE OF MARIA BLANCHARD:
A review of 26, Rue Du Départ, Érase Una Vez en París (1)

This new hour-long Spanish documentary by Gloria Crespo on the Spanish painter, Maria Blanchard, is a typical talking-heads treatment of the artist’s life and times, but such heads as are talking here! Spain’s top art critics, curators, feminists, and writers, as well as Blanchard’s relatives, friends, and relatives of friends converse alongside footage of Paris in the early 1900s and images of Blanchard’s work. All of them are hoping to rescue this artist’s reputation from near-oblivion and place her in the pantheon of her contemporaries such as Picasso (who came and walked in her funeral) and Diego Rivera (with whom she once shared a studio.)

The film argues that both her gender and her disability worked against her reputation, or even, we might say, were used against her in her own time and the decades following. Her curator at the Queen Sofia Museum in Madrid, María José Salazar, gives one shocking example of the unfairness Blanchard’s work experienced: her name was erased from one of her canvases and replaced with that of Juan Gris, her friend but not the author of the work. Diego Rivera’s daughter goes on at length (and not with all that much sensitivity) about how Rivera would not become lovers with Blanchard because of her physical deformity, while Salazar discusses with great sensitivity how painful that relationship was for Blanchard. As the poet Lorca noted for himself, the fact that “She’s a hunchback, you know” was usually one of the first things anyone said about Blanchard.

But few have traced how her disability figures in her life and work until now. The movie does a great job of setting the record straight on both accounts. One of the myths about Blanchard is that her disability was caused by her mother’s fall from a horse during pregnancy. Among the cast of talking heads is the head of Dr. José Ramón Rodriguez Altonaga who appears seated among x-rays of many spines and begins, “No es la verdad…” ( “It’s not the truth…”) these stories about the cause of her disability. These things may be caused by a variety of factors, he says: “It may be congenital, it may be genetic, but no one is to blame.”

I felt both edified and chagrined to hear this—chagrined because I myself had passed along that myth in one of my own poems and in an essay (2). I excuse myself on the basis that when I began to write about Blanchard in 1986, there were no images of her or her work available to me, and only two essays in English. One was by the poet Federico Garcia Lorca (3), who was friends with Maria’s best friend Concha Espina, and I never thought to question it. And yet a friend of mine, Maria Bonnett, a nurse by profession and art lover by avocation, sniffed the lie out early, writing to me, “I am curious about her disabilities…[concerning the fall during pregnancy] I suspect that wasn’t her true diagnosis. Fetal injuries are rare in cases of falls…Her deformity appears to be more suggestive of osteogenesis imperfect, or brittle bone disease. Not much was known about this disorder in the early 1900s. At that time, most congenital malformations were blamed on…the mother. I hope more research will lead to the discovery of her illness.”

The cultured might say, “Well what difference does it make? The art is what is important,” but Bonnett answers that for me too, “Maria’s illness must have caused her great pain…struggl[ing] daily to do the most routine tasks that able-bodied people take for granted. Her painting, Boy with Ice Cream says it all. I look at the boy—happy, carefree, munching on his treat. I see the little girl behind the cart, reaching with great effort to get some of the sweetness of life. A crutch is on the floor in the foreground. How telling!”

This painting and many others certainly are “telling,” or, as we like to say in the field of creative writing, “showing.” Especially her later paintings—women and children, the girl with the toothache, this boy with his ice cream cone, have a lot to tell us. In addition, Maria’s earlier, cubist paintings have a lot to teach us about that movement, about Maria’s talent, about that time and place and women’s time and place. Among those works, her painting Woman with a Fan is among my favorites.

Currently, the film is only available in Spain, but I think Americans in general and certainly Wordgathering readers would find it moving and instructive. I have noticed that a person posting on the Discussion Board of the Temple University Disability Studies program board has noted that the effect of Blanchard’s kyphosis on her work might be a rich area for disability studies. When I asked Crespo about the possibility of bringing the documentary here, she said that the investment of time and money for subtitling, copyright and other issues and tasks seem daunting to her right now as she is trying to finish the book.

Having written on Frida Kahlo for years, too, I find both her and Blanchard fascinating and admirable in the excellence they were able to achieve in their chosen endeavor despite debilitating pain and disability. However, the more I come to know about Blanchard, the more I admire how she went it alone and insisted on being the equal “not the helper of but on the same plane as” the male artists around her, as one of the critics notes of her relationship with Gris. Her stubbornness may have cost her some fame in her own time. (For example, in the depths of her penury, she once bought back her painting, Two Sisters, from a collector because she felt the collector could not appreciate what it meant to her, sister of two sisters that she was.) I am hoping that her stubborn insistence on color, quality, meaning, and effort in art are what we can use today to promote her legacy in our time and someday soon, in our country as well as her homeland.

NOTES:

(1)The film is subtitled [translation mine}, A documentary about the life and work of Maria Blanchard. It is written, directed, and produced by Gloria Crespo MacLellan.
(2)Most embarrassingly, in this journal, Wordgathering, issue 15.
(3)”Elegy to Maria Blanchard,” in Deep Song and Other Prose by Federico Garcia Lorca. Edited and Translated by Christopher Maurer (NY: New Directions, 1980.)

Diane Kendig’s fourth and most recent chapbook is titled, The Places We Find Ourselves. Her work may also be found in J Journal, Minnesota Review, qarrtsiluni, and others. A recipient of two Ohio Arts Council Fellowships in Poetry and a Fulbright lectureship in translation, Kendig has left the Boston area to return in her hometown of Canton, Ohio, which she blogs about at “Coming Home”.

Igor

The movie Igor opens upon a cartoon dystopia, the Kingdom of Malaria, which had formerly been a peaceable farming nation until storm clouds darkened the sky above and stayed for years, making it impossible to grow crops. King Malbert, a sovereign reminiscent of Kim Jong Il, made it his country’s mission to develop evil inventions and blackmail the other countries of the world with the threat of their release (again, much like North Korea).

In order to produce the aforementioned evil inventions, the ruler cultivates a cadre of “mad scientists” who compete yearly to present new evil inventions at the “Evil Science Fair”.

Naturally, these mad scientists must each have a subservient assistant. That is where the “Igors” come in. In this fictional world, instead of being the name of a single individual with a lisp, a hunchback, and a toadying manner, factotum to Dr, Frankenstein or Count Dracula, “Igor” is the name of an entire caste of people bearing the same distinctive hunchback physical characteristics, and restricted to the same sort of career. While the “Mad Scientist” may produce new inventions and claim society’s glory for doing so, the “Igor” is limited to flipping the switch on the inventions, running errands, and keeping the lab in order.

This particular Igor upon whom this story centers makes technical suggestions to his scientist boss that aren’t heeded, and forbidden from inventing openly, works on his own inventions in secret. He creates Scamper, the re-animated rabbit who is immortal but suicidal, and Brain, a brain in a tank with a mechanical arm who isn’t the brightest of bulbs. Igor is clearly frustrated with his role in the scheme of things, but has no opportunity for socio-economic mobility. “I tried to be someone different, but the world wouldn’t let me”, he says.

This movie contains gratuitous physical abuse of the physically different: Igor gets slapped around during the course of an argument between Dr. Schadenfraude (a rival to Igor’s mad scientist boss) and his girlfriend Jacquelyn. Having walked between the disputing parties, Igor unwillingly ends up serving as a surrogate for an episode of physical abuse between them.
In a later scene, Igor is literally walked upon.

In fulfillment of the stereotype about people with physical disabilities being rejected by members of the opposite sex, Igor must artificially create the woman who is to become his significant other/love interest in the movie. Igor is also insulted and tricked by a seemingly non-disabled woman who uses her physical attractiveness to manipulate others, including Igor. She also tries to hurt Igor’s manufactured woman by inspiring insecurity about her looks. Later in the movie, she turns out to be both a villainess and a hunchback, the latter being revealed when she runs out of pills which change her appearance.

In fulfillment of the stereotype concerning artificially-created life, Eva, Igor’s stitched-together female Frankenstein-esque creation, is loyal to a fault, and lovingly attached to her creator. However, Eva’s inherent gentleness inhibits her from committing acts of deliberate aggression and overt evil, which qualifies her as a failure in Igor’s world. (She does, however, get tricked into battling other evil robots and inventions by being told it’s part of her role in a play.)

It is interesting to note, however, that despite the professed preference for evil in the kingdom of Malaria, when the characters accidentally venture into the vicinity of an orphanage for blind children, they consider it beyond the pale to meddle with them. There must be some sort of social safety net, as the children appear clothed, fed, and educated. A truly evil society would have relegated them to panhandling and homelessness. The film ends with all the blind children on stage, holding flowers while dancing to “I Can See Clearly Now (The Rain Is Gone)” and bumping into each other. Clearly Malaria’s no longer evil… just a little smarmy.

(Warning: this movie is rife with “chick” stereotypes including but not limited to the idea that the female has less capacity for evil/violence than the male, as well as fat stereotypes, and Eva is the embodiment of most of them.)