Asceticism, purification, a certain repudiation of the organic tasks of man, may be as old as humanity itself, when it values its transcendent character. From the Buddha to Christ, and their subsequent historical emulation, it is easy for the reader to remember a portion of ascetics who entered the desert and chose the aridity of the world to give an idea of themselves, not tainted by the impertinences of the body. Not surprisingly, the seventeenth century, “the cursed century” of Geoffrey Parker, was once again filled with hermits and wandering souls who yearned, between the elements and the conventual silence, for refuge from an inclement hour. Even the sweet melancholy of Lorraine, The embarkation of Santa Paula Romana (1639), alludes to an episode of anchorism: the march of the saint and her daughter to the desert of Antioch, in search of Saint Jerome. But it is in the fold that goes from the 19th to the 20th when an asceticism for the civil, “the artist of hunger”, acquires a relief that, seen from today, perhaps appears to us as incomprehensible. This last and surprising hermitism, “contaminated” by the avant-garde, is the one analyzed here, in writing and in comics, by the Cordoban writer and cartoonist Fernando González Viñas.
Let us remember, then, the famous story by Kafka, “An Artist of Hunger”, whose outcome and whose plot, as Viñas demonstrates, do not correspond to the social and historical reality of that phenomenon. Contrary to what was fabled by Kafka, whose character dies in oblivion, the male and female hunger artists, ranging from the 1880s to the 1930s, enjoyed international celebrity, which stirred and moved the crowds. Of course, it was the dramatic and exceptional character, vaguely circus, of such a spectacle, which attracted the masses (it was the hour, alas, of Joseph Merrick, “the elephant man”); but also a tenuous scientism, superficial and omnipresent, that showed man before his own limits, with the efficiency and neatness of the entomologist. As Viñas opportunely remembers, the Great War would suspend the interest of such dramas; being so that he would return, arms already laid down, with a refined late-romantic echo that concerns Baudelaire, Barbey D’Aurevilly, an unfortunate Oscar Wilde, before his misfortune: as of 1918, the hunger artist will no longer appear as the champion of a gastric athletics, but as the odd and disdainful symbol of a new dandyism, which nevertheless links it to the old oriental hermitism.
That aspiration of the dandy to a martial priesthood, to a spirituality that deliberately flees from what is useful, acquires its most immediate relief in the artist of hunger. It is an encapsulated form of purity (those hunger artists were exhibited throughout Europe and America in glass rooms that invited indiscreet prying eyes); but it is, in the same way, a triumph of the will, which perhaps was no longer aimed at dominating the demands of biology, but rather to stand out, decidedly, over the sociological mediocrity. The anaerobic flower of dandyism could not be explained, in any way, without the massive culmination of the great European metropolises. And it is in that roaring crowd (“the man of the crowd” of Baudelaire and Poe is the one who sees all the spectacles that the sleepless city offers), where these artists of themselves will achieve their glory and fortune, whose art consists in thinning their me, until decanting it in a spirituality, bounded and defended by screens.
For all that said, this amazing adventure, starring people like Mollie Fancher, Dr. Tanner, Giovanni Succi, Papus, Stefano Merlatti, Claire de Serval or the elegant Daisy, is also an adventure of mass journalism. This is evidenced both in the illuminating essay with which these pages open, and in the comic that follows. A comic that explores different graphic modes, and where González Viñas deepens and recreates that world, perhaps not so distant, in which the artist of hunger was something like a small craft deity, contrary to the factory abundance of the century.
The artist as residue
González Viñas expressly links the birth of the performancein 1916, at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, with this other performance, between artistic and food, of the “artist of hunger”. Not in vain, in both phenomena the body of the artist will be used as a tool, as the main tool, not entirely chrematistic. After World War II, however, the hunger artist disappears. Or at least, its social acceptance has changed in two aspects: the hostile reception by the public, which rebukes or reproves the new fasting artist, such as David Blaine; and secondly, a certain expiatory, punitive quality of the new hunger artist, which he lacked before. The harrowing experiments o happenings de Burden and Azcona, remembered here by Viñas, already have a relationship, let’s say one of opposition, with the 19th-20th century artist. From that vindication of the self, between spiritual and ascetic before and between the wars, we arrive at a punitive art where the public and the artist coincide in deploring and mistreating man, already converted into residue.