What’s The Plural Of Metamorphosis?

I had to look it up, but having experienced two of them in as many days, I knew a dictionary moment was inevitable.

In case you do pub quizzes, metamorphoses, is the answer.

The first metamorphosis I witnessed was when the novel by Alice Walker – The Color Purple – came to my attention. £3.50 later a second hand copy was mine. It is the story of Celie, a young black woman living in Tennessee between the wars. She is the most exploited and abused woman in literature. It takes a strong stomach to get into the book. Throughout the following 260 pages, she retains her self-respect and develops to a liberated woman.

Well, not really. A black woman in Tennessee – of course she wasn’t liberated in the physical sense, but instead of fighting a battle she would lose, she settled for liberation within her mind. That made her stronger than her oppressors and abusers.

Marx said, ‘You can only be really free when you no longer subjugate others.’

Alice Walker uses four disparate women, Celie and Sofia and Shug and Nettie, as the vectors for change. They each bring a different way of fighting the oppression. Thereby, Walker illustrates this Marxian truth in a compelling way. During Celie’s metamorphosis from drudge and sex-slave to independent businesswoman, she takes the men around her with her and liberates them from the curse of being the slave masters and abusers. There is a beautiful reckoning between Celie and the husband forced upon her, towards the end of the novel. In the last pages, she describes, as a middle-aged woman, her attitude to men. When she sees a naked man, she says, she sees a frog and it doesn’t matter how much she kisses it, it stays a frog. This is a metaphor for a sex-life ruined by rape and incest. She finds consolation with the singer Shug, who tells her, she can take charge of her destiny.

While engaged with the story of Celie, I did a pilgrimage that has been a long time on my list – a visit to Worpswede, near Bremen. It is now a museum village, but was once an artists’ colony. The most famous names associated with it were Otto Modersohn and his wife Paula Modersohn-Becker.

Heinrich Vogeler was a playboy artist and late entrant to the scene in Worpswede. He had socialist leanings, but was unsure how to express them. His early works I found to be a mixture of art nouveau and Pre-Raphaelite. Beautifully executed but….. Why did he bother?

He turned his amazing house into a more amazing Jugend Stil mansion and lived the good life with his stunning wife and muse, Martha.

His experiences in the First World War started his metamorphosis. I assume Martha dumping him for a younger student, and telling him she needed to leave the chrysalis, helped him along the way.  He realised the need to develop his art from plaything to socialist realism. This would be his contribution and warning to the world – his way to protect the working person from the abuse of war. Thus, Vogeler travelled extensively in Russia and turned his mansion in Worpswede into an orphanage for children whose parents had been the victims of political imprisonment or murder. The house grew into what we now know as the International Red Cross. His paintings grew into powerful expressionistic portraits and montages. Many were on the wall of his Worpswede House – Barkenhof. I looked for them. No sign. They didn’t survive the rise of fascism.

New owners later turned the house and garden into a research centre for bio-dynamical gardening.

Heinrich Vogeler died, despite his wealth, of hunger, in the Soviet Union at the beginning of World War 2. He was moved, along with other German émigrés, from Moscow to a far-flung Soviet Republic. He didn’t survive the harsh journey and circumstances in his new home, in a land embroiled in total war with his home country.

Vogeler could have played his whole life. He had talent, money, beautiful admirers by the score, but he had the strength of character to say that he wanted to leave more than some pretty pictures for posterity.

I wish the real Heinrich Vogeler could have met and read the fictional Celie. He would have used more purple in his paintings for sure. More importantly, he would have died knowing his dream lived on through amazing books such as The Color Purple.

Who knows? Vogeler’s dream may come true. After all, it would take just a day’s defence spending to feed the world.

Put Alice Walker and Worpsweder on your bucket list. They are cheap and safe – unless they kick off your metamorphosis, that is.

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