(Numerology in the Expanded Field)
Pablo’s Birthday Gallery in Manhattan
While for some April is the cruelest month — as well as National Poetry Month— in my case it is also the month of my birthday, a day which is not entirely devoid either of poetry (I like the idea that one can be celebrated for the basic accomplishment of being alive) or slight cruelty ( the realization that one is one year older, slowly decaying, and unable to stop the inexorable passage of time).
I tend to get reflective during these days, and often think about artist’s birthdays. A birthday is indeed only a number, but as we all know we inevitably give meaning to those dates, whether they are joyful or tragic.
The lure of the poetics of coincidence is irresistible. This week, for example, the literary world often notes that Miguel de Cervantes and William Shakespeare, the two greatest writers of the Spanish and English language respectively, died on the exact same day— April 23, 1616. The only technicality around this otherwise poetically symbolic fact is that England and Spain used different calendar systems at the time (the Gregorian calendar for Spain, the Julian calendar for England) which means that in a strict mathematical sense Shakespeare died 10 days after Cervantes.
As we apply birthday numerology to the visual arts, we can discover things such as these: two artists with tragic end-of-life stories, Goya and Van Gogh (one who feared falling into madness and became deaf, and the other who actually went mad and willfully cut off his ear) were both born on March 30th; Henri Rousseau and Albrecht Dürer, known for their memorable depictions of animals, were born on May 21st. July 8th, which marks the birthday of both Artemisia Gentileschi and Kate Kollwitz, makes it a particularly significant date for feminist art ( and Judy Chicago’s birthday is only 12 days after that). Joseph Cornell was born on Christmas Eve, which feels fitting to his aesthetic given that Yuletide is a time full of nostalgia and sweet longing. And speaking of particularly poignant and symbolic meaning, Marcel Broodthaers died on his birthday, January 28th.
April 25th, my birthday, has its share of both historic celebration and tragedy. In Portugal it is a national holiday that marks the 1974 Carnation Revolution that overthrew the authoritarian-conservative Estado Novo regime to establish a democratic government. April 25th also marks the day where the Marselleise was first performed. In the history of science, we mark the birth of Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of radio communication.
Marc Chagall, Birthday, 1915. Oil on cardboard. MoMA collection
On the tragic side of the coin this date marks the day when, on the 25th of April 1644, the last emperor of the Ming dynasty in China committed suicide to escape capture from the Qing dynasty forces. And while on this somber subject, I should note that on April 25, 1792, in Paris, Nicolas Jacques Pelletier became the first person to be executed by guillotine. In Mexican history, April 25 was the day of the Thornton affair, a skirmish between the US and the Mexican armies over the territory comprised between the Nueces River and the Río Grande. The Mexican army prevailed, but the battle triggered the Mexican American War which resulted in Mexico losing half of its territory.
Ella Fitzgerald celebrating her birthday (April 25th) in 1971 (the year of the author’s birth)
On the performing arts side, I share birthdays with Ella Fitzgerald, Al Pacino, and Renée Zellweger, and in the visual arts with Cy Twombly and Karel Appel. My Mexican and European friends will additionally appreciate that the creator of Asterix, the cartoonist Albert Uderzo, was also born on April 25th (and speaking of numbers, I was surprised to learn that Uderzo was born with six fingers on each hand, and furthermore, after his extra digits were surgically amputated, he could only grip a pencil with his third and fourth fingers in a weird contortion— perhaps a foreshadowing of his later extraordinary draftsmanship).
As to other poignant poetic events around April 25th, this was the date of the premiere of Giacomo Puccini’s last opera, Turandot, in 1926 at La Scala in Milan (and incidentally, my father was born in June of that year). Puccini died before finishing the third and final act of the opera, and even while the composer Franco Alfano was hired to complete the score (and did so), on the day of the premiere the famous conductor Arturo Toscanini stopped conducting at the point where Puccini’s score ended, laying down his baton, turning around toward the audience and declaring: “Here the opera ends, because at this point the maestro died." The opera was played in full the following day, with Alfano’s ending.
And I could not miss mentioning that I happen to share a birthday with the most prolific published writer in the history of the Spanish language. This person, sadly, is not Cervantes but none other than Corín Tellado (precisely born on the very day of that Turandot premiere in 1926 and dying in 2009), a Spanish novelist in the mold of Danielle Steele whose trashy romantic books allowed her to break the Guinness world record of most widely read author in Spanish, having published more than 4,000 titles and selling 400 million copies. Whatever the quality of her works (which could also set another world record in kitsch), Corín Tellado’s output was absolutely breathtaking: she claimed that she could write a short novel in two days— and she seemingly did write at that pace for several decades (according to my calculations, she could have written those 4,000 works in a span of 21 years).
Last but not least, and making numerological calculations with artists who share my first name, I will note that Pablo Neruda won the Nobel prize on the year of my birth (1971) and that Pablo Picasso was born exactly 89.5 years before me (on October 25, 1881) although it is not a piece of information that I am likely to put on my CV.
Which brings me to yet another, less usual birthday coincidence for any artist: in New York City there is a gallery named Pablo’s Birthday. I had never approached the staff, nor did I know anyone associated with the gallery until a few days ago, when I decided to contact its founder, Arne Zimmermann, about it. I asked him about the genesis of his gallery and, in particular, the name. His response: “I started Pablo's Birthday as a non-for-profit downtown art experience. It was a culture clash of visual art, performance art, and music. All proceeds did go directly to the artists. At that time there was barely any platform for emerging art in downtown Manhattan. I did the very first show ever on the 25th of October 2002. The 25th of October was Pablo Picassos birthday. I kept the name from the very first show when I transformed the project to a Contemporary Art Gallery because a.) it is a positive inviting name; b.) in 90% of the cases we do solo shows and show the works the first time to the public, so it is their "birthday"; c.) I personally like the name.”
Dealers Clara Andrade and Arne Zimmermann in their gallery, Pablo’s Birthday (in its previous LES location)
I asked Arne whether people sometime believe that he represents or shows works by Picasso, but he says it is not the case. However, “they often ask to speak to Pablo since they think that would be the owner. I normally say it was a Spanish sculptor and "sadly he died already" ”. With maybe only one exception (artist Pablo Tomek) they have not exhibited artists named Pablo, although Arne says that sometimes “people named Pablo photograph themselves in front of our gallery sign.” He added that “the only other interesting thing is that Pablo Picasso died on April 8th which is my birthday - so somehow there must be a connection :) .”
At this point I need to confess that, while it has been fun to write about this, I have actually never believed in the magic of numbers or dates. As Henri Bergson once wrote, time is invention and nothing else— and so is the metaphysical significance we give to anniversaries or historical coincidences. Numerology, in the end, while entertaining, is an entirely subjective and largely meaningless exercise— if anything a parlor game for poetry, or for a divertimento like the one written here. But most importantly, as I am about to enter the second half century of my life, I feel certain that to live in function of comparisons and the search for the secret significance of certain numbers is a mistake. We draw meaning from all kinds of information, but we should not let that process imprison us, or pretend to read into it messages that are not there.
I conclude by going back to my namesake Neruda, who said it best in one of his most memorable poems, Pido Silencio (I Ask for Silence). In it, he proclaims independence from art and politics to just live and be simply human, and thus experience a sort of rebirth:
Se trata de que tanto he vivido que
quiero vivir otro tanto.
Nunca me sentí tan sonoro,
nunca he tenido tantos besos.
Ahora, como siempre, es temprano.
Vuela la luz con sus abejas.
Déjenme solo con el día.
Pido permiso para nacer.
This is about my having lived so much
that I want to live another much.
Never have I felt such resonance,
never have I had so many kisses.
Now, as always, it is early.
The light takes flight with her bees.
Leave me alone with this day.
I ask permission to be born.
(Translation by Heidi Fischbach)