‘You think attitudes are all to do with whim. You understand nothing. Attitudes are all to do with character.’
Nrovka, ‘The Bay at Nice.’
I recently saw a compelling revival of David Hare’s 1986 play ‘The Bay at Nice.’ (The Menier Chocolate Factory, London, until 4 May.)
We are in Leningrad in 1956, and Valentina Nrovka, a Russian artist, has been invited to the Hermitage to offer her opinion on the authenticity of a Matisse painting.
Nrovka has had a fascinating life. She spent her youth living freely among the expatriate artists in Paris. She was taught painting by Matisse and had a daughter by a soldier who was just passing through. Then in 1921 she returned home to post-revolutionary Russia out of a sense of duty, of responsibility to the greater good. She now cuts a somewhat melancholy figure, disappointed by the flawed realities of the Soviet state.
‘Everyone here lives in the future. Or in the past. No one wants the present.’
Nrovka’s daughter Sophia meets her at the museum to seek help in arranging a divorce - a complex and expensive business within the Russian system. Nrovka, however, is sceptical of the durability of her daughter’s love for her new man, Linitsky.
‘We all have a dream of something else. For you it’s Linitsky. Linitsky’s your escape. How will it be when he becomes your reality? When he’s not your escape? When he’s your life?’
Nrovka is also more broadly critical of Sophia’s romantic talk of free will, rights and liberty.
‘’I must be myself, I must do what I want…’ I have heard these words before. On boulevards. In cafes. I used to hear them in Paris. I associate them with zinc tables and the gushing of beer. Everyone talking about their entitlements. ‘I must be allowed to realize myself.’ For me it had a different name. I never called it principle. I called it selfishness.’
Whilst Nrovka is negatively predisposed to her daughter’s divorce proposals, she is happy to discuss the principles of painting that she learned from Matisse.
‘Each colour depends on what is placed next to it. One tone is just a colour. Two tones are a chord, which is life….No line exists on its own. Only with its relation to another do you create volume.’
We realise that Nrovka has applied Matisse’s artistic beliefs to her own life: she relinquished her individual freedom in pursuit of collective good; she chose belonging over independence; she found comfort in the context of shared homeland, culture and community.
Hare’s play resonated with me because Nrovka’s core arguments seem so unfashionable today. In the modern era we concentrate so much on self-help, self-improvement and self-actualisation; on individuality, autonomy and free will. We want to achieve our own particular goals, to realise our personal potential, to be the best that we can be. We all aspire to be a star performer, a hero or a headline act. We’d all like to play a leading role in our own movies.
We talk less often nowadays about the rewards of shared success and collective accomplishment; about the benefits of belonging and participating; about team, comradeship, unity and kinship.
And yet there are compensations to be found in mutuality and togetherness at work. There are consolations in subordinating the self to the collective. Indeed you could argue that in this age of interdependence it is only in the context of the group that we can ever attain individual contentment.
When investors seek to determine an asset’s worth, they don’t just look at its intrinsic value. They also take into account the value of similar assets, thereby establishing ‘relative value’. Maybe we should apply both intrinsic and relative perspectives to our own careers.
Reflecting further on Matisse’s creative practice, Nrovka observes that the great artist worked incredibly hard, finding inspiration in everything around him. When he was tired and needed to relax, he would put his palette down and go to the mountains.
‘You can’t paint a mountain. The scale is all wrong.’
'Here's my chance to dance my way
Out of my constrictions.
Givin' you more of what you're funkin’ for,
Feet don't fail me now.
Do you promise to funk, the whole funk,
Nothin' but the funk?
One nation under a groove,
Gettin' down just for the funk of it.
One nation and we're on the move,
Nothin' can stop us now.’
Funkadelic, 'One Nation Under a Groove' (G Clinton / G Shider / W Morrison / E Krause / F Harrison / T Kendrick / C Branch / O Johnson)