Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Nature and Protest in America

Sunday, November 13th, 2016

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Washington DC, Glover-Archbold Park, Friday, November 11, 2016 at 2:42 and 2:46 pm.

Washington, DC, Glover-Archbold Park, Friday, Nov. 11, 2016 at 2:42 p,.

Washington, DC, Glover-Archbold Park, 11/11/2016, 4:26 pm.

New York City, Fifth Ave. at 30th St., Saturday, November 12, 2016 at 2:16 pm.

NYC, Fifth Ave. at 30th St., 11/12/2016 at 2:16 pm,.

NYC, Fifth Ave. at 30th St., 11/12/2016 at 2:16 pm,.

NYC, Fifth Ave. at 30th St., 11/12/2016 at 2:16 pm,.

 

Paintings from the defunct Corcoran Gallery of Art integrated into National Gallery of Art Collection

Sunday, December 20th, 2015

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Earlier this evening while visiting the National Gallery of Art I saw how smartly the museum has integrated a few of the thousands of American works of art it acquired last year from the defunct Corcoran Gallery of Art (founded 1869, dissolved 2014).

For example, the pinnacle of the Corcoran’s collection of Hudson River School paintings, Niagara (1857) by Frederick Edwin Church (1826-1900), has been given pride of place in this room at the National Gallery of Art — where it has become the painting people invariably stop to admire:

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"Niagara" (1857) by Frederic Church, now at National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

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"Niagara" by Frederick Church, now at National Gallery of Art

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(For a memento of how the painting looked when it used to hang at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, click here.)

A strength of the Corcoran museum, and an element that in my personal experience over the years turned that institution into an enlightening museum of American history as well as a fine museum of American art, was its collection of genre paintings — depictions of everyday life in our nation. Here are four gems belonging to that category, newly huddled in a corner where they are adding vitality to visitors’ experience of the National Gallery of Art.

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Four American genre paintings, Corcoran/NGA Collection: RIchard Norris Brooke, William Sidney Mount, Richard Caton Woodville, Frank Blackwell Mayer

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The large canvas on the left is a picture I made certain to pay my respects to on dozens of visits (starting in the 1970s) to its former home. Titled A Pastoral Visit, it was painted in 1881 by Richard Norris Brooke (1847-1920). A powerful narrative executed with controlled sentimentality, the painting succeeds in a way that Norman Rockwell — our most beloved genre artist — all too often does not.

On the right side of the photo, the three other paintings that came to the NGA from the Corcoran share Brooke’s ambition and achievement. But these are scenes of more modest scale, with a tone unique to each artist. From left to right: The Tough Story–Scene in a Country Tavern (1837) by William Sidney Mount (1807-1868); Waiting for the Stage (1851) by Richard Caton Woodville (1825-1855); and Leisure and Labor (1858) by Frank Blackwell Mayer (1827-1899), an early political commentary conveyed via posture and dress (while beautifully composed and painted, too).

Now I look forward to the NGA hanging on its walls additional, equally bold works from the Corcoran trove. Two suggestions, if I may: The Longshoreman’s Noon (1879) by John George Brown, and Nearing the Issue at the Cockpit (1879) by Horace Bonham.

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Feminist Graffiti: “We Are In Charge”

Thursday, April 30th, 2015

Stencil graffiti spotted at 17th & R Sts., NW, Washington DC, April 30, 2015, 5:51 PM.

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Note: In a search of Google Images I could find only one other example of this particular stencil graffiti, here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/alexiares/2449433511/. The uploader of that photo didn’t indicate its location.

Cartoon (hand-made)

Wednesday, January 21st, 2015

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(Tip of the hat to JWE)

Art and Commerce

Sunday, January 19th, 2014

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Well worth a read is a piece by Holland Cotter in the New York Times entitled “Lost in the Gallery-Industrial Complex.”

The “art industry” is the term Cotter uses to describe “the nexus of high-price galleries, auction houses and collectors who control an art market renowned for its funny-money practices.” The art world, in his view, “basically functions as a labor source, supplying the industry with product, services and exotic color.” The article is illustrated with a number of photos. Among them is a photo of the scene at Christie’s during the November auction of Francis Bacon’s “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” which sold for $142.8 million (Christie’s Images, via Associated Press):

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That the art industry provides support to a global ruling class is a reality Hollywood is happy to buy into. To illustrate this phenomenon, consider next month’s theatrical release of a re-make of Paul Verhoeven’s memorable “RoboCop” (1987). The website for the new version describes its plot:

“In RoboCop, the year is 2028 and multinational conglomerate OmniCorp is at the center of robot technology. Overseas, their drones have been used by the military for years—and it’s meant billions for OmniCorp’s bottom line. Now OmniCorp wants to bring their controversial technology to the home front. […] OmniCorp sees their chance for a part-man, part-robot police officer. OmniCorp envisions a RoboCop in every city and even more billions for their shareholders.”

And so it is no surprise that, in two trailers for the film, we see Omnicorp’s headquarters to be the natural owner of trophy art work:

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“One sun rose on us today”

Monday, January 21st, 2013

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Richard Blanco’s Inauguration Poem, “One Today,” is a fine poem, and it was well read by the author earlier today. The text of the poem is here; video of the author’s reading, here.

As he recited the work, Blanco made a few minor emendations to the text, some of which I suspect arose spontaneously as he gave voice to freshly written, newly memorized words.

For example, “pencil-yellow school buses” on the page became “the pencil-yellow school buses” when spoken, not so much out of intention as from the involuntary sway of vocalization. The natural urge to add emphasis most likely accounts for the written words “but always — home” becoming the spoken “but always, always — home.”

Certainly a more conscious amendment was made to the first of the personal references that appear throughout the poem. Early on Blanco mentions the legacy of his mother who worked in a grocery store “so I could write this poem.” Standing at the podium this afternoon, Blanco added, “so I could write this poem for all of us today.”

At another point he cleanly made a one word substitution, which I believe represented a thoughtful change. In the poem’s initial stanza the image of “a story told by our silent gestures moving behind windows” was improved, subtly, by replacing “behind” with the word “across.” The logic of this edit may have been the pull of consistency. Since the noun “gestures” implies movement, and “moving” is, well, moving, inserting a more dynamic preposition (across) feels right.

Others who have thought about the poem are praising it as simple and direct, not knotty, not abstruse, conventional; a little bit Whitmanesque. See comments here, herehere, and here.

In reading the poem I was struck by how smoothly Blanco introduces a major theme of the work — out of many people we are one. Note, for example, his selection of geographical features. Those introduced in the first stanza — the Smokies, Great Lakes, Great Plains, Rockies — are all of English (Anglo) origin. Blanco soon turns from grand spaces to a domestic and human scale, examining the actual lives and activities of real Americans. These anecdotal sections culminate in his listing of salutations, in a variety of voices: “hello, shalom, buon giorno, howdy, namaste, or buenos días in the language my mother taught me.” What Blanco is doing is tuning our ear to a wider spectrum. When, in the seventh stanza, he returns to American geography, he is now free to select examples that sit differently on the tongue and in the ear — the Appalachians and Sierras, the Mississippi and Colorado. It will dawn of the aware reader or listener that these are are American Indian and Spanish names. As for the Spanish ones, listen to the author pronouncing these titles with proud, lilting rolled-R’s.

The poet, who likes to say he was “made in Cuba, assembled in Spain, and imported to America,” today helped us rediscover, however modestly, the character of America.

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“The Colors of Infamy” by Albert Cossery

Sunday, November 20th, 2011

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Work produced in the final stretch of an artist’s career often displays the creator’s sense of freedom at the close. Simplicity, accessibility, brevity, lightness, and an avoidance of the over-determined often characterize these autumnal works. In the field of painting, think of the airy ribbons of primary colors on pure white fields in Willem DeKooning’s late period works, or the floating colored paper cut-outs of Matisse’s final years. Among writers, consider the lighthearted last novel of William Faulkner, “The Reivers” (reiver is an old-fashioned term for a raider, plunderer, or thief), and the joy Thomas Mann clearly had in sketching the progress of the morally flexible young hero of “Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man: The Early Years,” the novel left unfinished at the time of his death at age 80.

Put Albert Cossery’s “The Colors of Infamy” (Les Couleurs de l’Infamie) in that category. Written at age 85 after a decade and a half of silence since his previous publication, this final work, the shortest of his novels, fills a mere 92 pages. It offers a sketch of his constant themes and a handy summation of his lessons. Except for the very serious questions it touches upon, I would call it a light entertainment. All in all it provides a good entry point for new readers interested in sampling “the Voltaire of the Nile.”

On the streets of Cairo we follow three characters, each in his own way an outcast from society. Ossama is an educated but unemployed 23-year-old who has chosen to become a high-class pickpocket. He “instinctively grasped the flaw of a society based on appearance,” and so he dresses richly to more easily prey on wealthy marks, not unlike the con-man Felix Krull who learns that society operates under the premise that illusion is reality. Nimr is Ossama’s street-smart teacher in the thieving trade, and is somewhat affronted that Ossama has gone upscale. Karamallah is a middle-age writer and intellectual whose rebellion against the corrupt system has led to imprisonment followed by exile to his family’s mausoleum. The book’s slender plot gains motion when these three come together to decide how best to confront an injustice. A shoddily constructed apartment building recently collapsed, leaving 50 dead, and Ossama acquires an incriminating letter that firmly assigns culpability for the horror to a powerful real estate developer. What’s to be done with such knowledge?

The open-ended discussions these three engage in include age-old questions. Is it possible to be virtuous and become rich? Is the world complicated and absurd — an idea “dreamed up by illustrious thinkers from cold climes” — or does the world still possess an “Edenic simplicity” of a kind that all men can enjoy, as Cossery’s stand-in, Karamallah, believes? Is happiness within our reach? And to speak of an issue of critical importance to societies aspiring to fairness and equal opportunity: Is business “unimaginable without corrupt networks”?

This is a novel of ideas that will impress you with its contemporary resonance. I was immediately startled by the opening pages of this 1999 novel, when Ossama surveys a bustling Tahrir Square and wonders about the future of its denizens (the author unaware the site was to be transformed during the 2011 Arab Spring into a locus of revolution). Does Cossery have something to say to an America that today is exhibiting Egypt-like traits: a growing cohort of educated but unemployed youth; a growing inequality of wealth; a growing sense that 1% have inordinate power over the fate of the other 99%? Here is a book to talk about.

The translation from the French, by Alyson Waters, is excellent, smoothly capturing Cossery’s rich and elegant prose. For those interested in reading an insightful online interview with the translator, Google the phrase, Alyson Waters on the Colors of Infamy. Some may find Cossery’s prose old-fashioned or overwrought (too adverb- and adjective-heavy), but I suspect for most it will be a respite from the inelegant prose we encounter regularly in our daily reading, especially online. Critics have noted Cossery’s prose has a Balzacian touch. This stylistic similarity is matched by the two French authors’ common view of society. Cossery adopts as a truism Balzac’s notion that behind every fortune is a crime.

As for the meaning of the book’s title, fear not: this is revealed two pages from the end.

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A shorter version of this review is posted on Amazon.

“Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life” by Ann Beattie

Tuesday, November 15th, 2011

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Ann Beattie set for herself a daunting challenge when crafting Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life.

Three players occupy the book’s 300 pages — Ann Beattie, Richard Nixon, and Pat Nixon. Each of these persons is known for practicing a strain of obscurantism, deliberately preventing the facts or full details of something from becoming known. For Beattie this has been an aesthetic choice (Jay McInerney once described this choice as a “refusal to overdetermine her characters, her reluctance to explain their behavior”). For President Nixon the practice was a political strategy that ultimately led him to the brink of impeachment. For his wife Pat Nixon this behavior was an emotional defense, the means she chose to preserve personal dignity in the face of prying inquisitors.

Ann Beattie and Pat Nixon: for this Novelist to imagine that Life, and then to deliver a relatively satisfying reading experience, is something of an achievement. Beattie jettisons the staid narrative conventions she long since mastered in favor of boldly litting out for new territory. She wills Mrs. Nixon likewise to escape her comfort zone. What emerges is an imaginative literary concoction that initial critics have labelled, accurately, as unclassifiable, genre-bending, playful and polymorphous, and unlike anything Beattie’s written before.

What’s to like? If you’re a die-hard Beattie fan, my advice is dive right in. Part of your enjoyment will be finding just how suitably matched are the author and her subject (consider, for example, how many of Beattie’s stories contain the incomprehensible mystery of an oddly paired woman and man). Mrs. Nixon is made up of a well-paced series of chapters, over 40 in all, each representing another attempt by Beattie to conjure up something, anything, of the elusive, real Pat Nixon. There are autobiographical glimpses as well: of Beattie’s relationship with her mother, and husband; scenes set in the couple’s house in Maine.

What may be of interest to readers beyond the circle of Beattie acolytes are the chapters that interrupt the experimental fictions and turn instead to a general examination of the art of writing. In these pages Beattie engages in literary analyses of her favorite authors (Chekhov and Carver especially) and her favorite short short stories. Reading these terrific asides is like auditing one of Professor Beattie’s creative writing seminars at UVA. In a similar vein she offers haunting ruminations on the limitations of language and the limits, finally, of knowing anyone. All is not dour, however. The book is animated by Vaudeville-like antics, once its dark opening pages give way to story after story that reminded me of an experimental variety show. It’s a stylistically diverse exhibition whose theme is, Who was Pat Nixon?

Beattie tells us her guiding spirit for these proceedings is Donald Barthelme, a writer whose stories she admires for their mix fact and fiction, high and low, art criticism and gossip and comic strips. A few chapters adopt Barthelme’s brand of flash fiction, inserting Pat Nixon into exceptionally compact stories that focus only on incident rather than rolling out an arced narrative. You are in for a heady blend of serious dirge swirled with playful yelps (as in the chapter about Elvis’s visit to the White House). One delight: you’ll find Beattie’s mimicry of President Nixon’s speechifying (even in his private moments with Pat) to be as clever as that of Philip Roth in his Nixon-era satire, Our Gang. Her humor is more subtle, though, as apparent when she sums up Mr. Nixon: “This is not a little boy to whom you would have wanted to give an ant farm.”

I wondered if Beattie wasn’t also riffing on the Pirandello quandary of characters in search of an author. In a recent interview Beattie confessed: “I came to understand as I was writing that I too was a character in the book.”

What’s not to like? Well, Mrs. Nixon is not a book for history buffs nor is it a good choice for readers seeking a conventional biography. Beattie does not hold herself out as an historian, not even one of amateur status. She made little or no effort to uncover new facts or details about Pat Nixon and instead relied on existing published sources. In the Notes section she lists the material she read; the one book that looms largest is daughter Julie Nixon Eisenhower’s loving biography, Pat Nixon: The Untold Story (1986). I recommend that as your better bet, especially if you want a biography as a gift to please a traditional reader. Certainly be wary of “Mrs. Nixon” if you were resistant to Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan (1999), Edmund Morris’ unconventional and largely fictionalized biography of President Reagan. Mrs. Nixon is a book for the adventurous, literary minded reader.

A couple omissions should be mentioned. In an early chapter entitled “Major and Minor Events of Mrs. Nixon’s Life,” Beattie includes dozens of items but forgets to list the weddings of her two daughters. An odd oversight, I’d say.  Also, while the author says she was interested to find other writers who treated Pat Nixon imaginatively (for example, she includes a poem by David Kirby entitled, “Skinny-Dipping with Pat Nixon”) , she does not mention the John Adams opera, “Nixon in China,” whose libretto by Alice Goodman features Pat Nixon as perhaps its most fully formed character.

After the hit-or-miss quality of the middle sections of the book, I was struck by the simple power of its concluding two chapters. These serve as twinned goodbyes. In the first farewell Beattie presents some final personal thoughts on writing (“All writing is about altering time.” “You erase yourself every time you write.”). In the final goodbye Mrs. Nixon, “quietly loyal and enigmatic” to the end, is set free.

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A shorter version of this review is posted on Amazon, here.

Normalizing Reading by Women

Sunday, August 14th, 2011

In modern societies today women read, yet we should not forget that in earlier periods of those same societies this was not the case. There was a time when women were not expected to read, were not taught to read, and were in effect forbidden to read. Even today there are 30 nations where the female literacy rate is less than 50%. Cultural factors are responsible for some of this shortfall.

As with all human liberation movements, the history of the rise of female literacy is a story with many heroes and heroines. It occurs to me that among those assisting the movement have been artists who created images of women engaged in the quiet and sometimes defiant act of reading. Art has the means to do good, even if those means are hidden.

While surfing online this morning I came across a painting by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875), Jeune fille assise lisant, les cheveux sur les épaules (oil on canvas, 12 3/4 x 9 3/4 in.; 32.3 x 24.7 cm):

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As depicted by Corot, the girl has settled into a pose commonly found in portraits of readers. The pose establishes a stable, triangular composition. The sitter’s torso turns slightly and her head tilts downward. An engaged viewer of this work searches first for the person’s eyes. That search leads to the sitter’s eyelids whose expressiveness communicate a fixed regard. Our gaze follows her gaze, alighting upon her gentle hands hovering over (and ultimately touching) the object of her regard.

There is something familiar about the composition. It somehow feels natural, comforting. The activity depicted — a person caught in the act of quietly contemplating something that powerfully demands attention — seems worthwhile and worthy.

Now suppose a male of pre-modern views, one who believed a woman should not be caught reading, came face to face with Corot’s composition. I believe something subtle but quietly powerful would have happened, because the painting’s formal qualities contain an antidote with the power to subvert his views.

What hidden thing in the composition exerts this counter-pressure? What, subconsciously, softens the viewer’s opposition? What might engender feelings of acceptance? The answer, I propose, is found in the body of images cherished in the viewer’s memory, such as this:

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(Giovanni Bellini, Madonna in Admiration of the Sleeping Child )

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Thus can artists leverage the power of composition to normalize new thinking.

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A Bumper-Sticker That Nevers Goes Out of Style

Sunday, April 10th, 2011

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