Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Phantom in Coney Island?

Back in 2001, my friend CF and I saw The Phantom of the Opera at Her Majesty's Theatre in London. Certainly this show reigns as one of the best musicals ever produced. It is considered to be the longest-running show on Broadway and the second-longest-running show in London's West End theater district. When it opened in 1986, Andrew Lloyd-Webber was known already, but this show made Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman stars. Lloyd-Webber and Brightman were married for some time (no surprise that he's a major collector of Pre-Raphaelite and Victorian art; Brightman looks like she stepped out of a painting by Rossetti or Waterhouse). Some songs, such as "The Music of the Night" and "All I Ask of You," have become standards. If you haven't seen it, you should, because it is a masterpiece of musical theater. That said, I was a bit surprised to read in The New York Times that Lloyd-Webber is crafting Phantom: Love Never Dies, a sequel to the first. Do we really need a sequel? Why can't it stand alone on its own? Even more startling, he revealed in an interview in the London Times (which you can read here) that he's setting it in Coney Island. Yes, the amusement park area of Brooklyn. Apparently after escaping from the French mob, the Phantom escapes to New York and meets up with Christine ten years later. To quote Lloyd-Webber: "He started in one of the freak shows there but, by the time we meet him, being the Phantom he has become the most powerful operator in Coney. He's pulling the strings and running the island.” Why Coney Island? "It was the place. Even Freud went because it was so extraordinary. ... People who were freaks and oddities were drawn towards it because it was a place where they could be themselves." Of course, the irony of this is that Coney Island is now being transformed into high-rise condos and everything for which it has been historically known is disappearing. I don't know about you, but why do I feel like this has the makings of a disaster? It's unfortunate, but Lloyd-Webber's most recent musicals have all pretty much flopped. Still, he is a powerhouse in the musical theater industry, so if he wants to do this, he will. Undoubtedly, there will be many people who adore Phantom that they will wait in line for tickets for the sequel. I can only hope that he'll take advantage of Cirque du Soleil-like performances for the so-called "freaks and oddities" like the Tattooed Man, the Bearded Woman, and the Sword Swallower, because that will at least help craft an amazingly entertaining spectacle on stage. The show is scheduled to open late in 2009 in New York, London, and possibly China. I'll close by adding that I think the funniest part of this entire story is that at one point apparently Lloyd-Webber's cat Otto destroyed segments of the musical score for this when he pounced on his digital piano and deleted the files. I wonder if Otto knew something Lloyd-Webber didn't?

Monday, December 29, 2008

Artists' Models

Today on NPR.org, there was an interesting article and audio clip by Susan Stamberg about Dina Vierny, an 89-year-old French woman who was a model for the sculptor Aristide Maillol (1861-1944) and the painter Henri Matisse (1869-1954). The image here is a photograph of Vierny with Maillol taken shortly before the sculptor's death. Vierny has opened the Musée Maillol in Paris. Her home above the museum is filled with sculptures and drawings that the sculptor did of her. The article and audio clip provide an interesting assessment of a mid-20th-century model and the role she played in the lives of these two important artists.

The study of artists' models is a burgeoning area for the past 15 years or so, in part as an extension of women's studies. The vast majority of work done on models relates to the female model because of her figurative predominance in Western art. The study of models, especially in primi pensieri (literally, "first thoughts," early sketches), often help scholars understand the artist's intent in capturing the model a specific way for a picture or sculpture. The goal, of course, was always to find a beautiful model so as to create a beautiful work of art. One of the great legends of art history is the story of the ancient Greek painter Zeuxis, who sought to create a painting of the most beautiful woman of the day. When he could not find one perfect woman, he drew the best features of five different women, thus creating a single ideal woman.

In art, the model also can be an enigma. People still ponder who the Mona Lisa actually was. Contrary to popular belief, she is not Leonardo da Vinci in drag; recent evidence suggests she was Lisa Gherardini and probably lived in Milano. Seeking out the identity of models also has served its own purpose in modern times, specifically to give life to these women beyond an artist's idealized impression of their features. To be an artist's model was considered scandalous. It was known that they may pose in the nude, and of course a model would be seduced by the artist and be forever an impure woman. On the other hand, a model could become an artist's muse, as was the case with the Pre-Raphaelites. Lizzie Siddal famously posed for John Everett Millais's exquisite painting of Ophelia by lying in a bathtub to help him capture the realistic image of a woman floating in water. But Siddal is better known as Dante Gabriel Rossetti's muse, painting and drawing her over and over, teaching her how to paint, eventually marrying her, and then apotheosizing her in Beata Beatrix after she died from an overdose of laudanum that may or may not have been accidental (Rossetti was with another model, his mistress Fanny Cornforth, when his wife died). Both Gustave Courbet and James McNeill Whistler shared a lover and model, the Irish-born Jo Hiffernan, who posed for works such as the former's La Belle Irlandaise and the latter's Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl. And then there are the famous models of artists like Pablo Picasso, women like Dora Maar and Marie-Thérèse Walter, who were as famous for his Cubist-like representations of them as they were for being his mistresses.

The study of the artists' models involves biography, social history, connoisseurship, and aesthetics. From it, we can learn much about artists and their work, assuming of course information about these often unknown people is known. For more on Dina Vierny's life with Maillol and Matisse, click here for the NPR article and audio file.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Review: Benjamin Button

The other night I went to the movies with family (JP, DG, & JB) to see The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The movie has been nominated for five Golden Globe Awards, and I'm sure there will be a few Academy Award nominations as well. The movie was fascinating. It tells the story of Benjamin Button, who was born just after World War I in New Orleans. Although he's born as a baby, his physique is that of an old man, and as he ages, he grows younger. The movie is based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Brad Pitt really does an amazing job in this film. His acting is superb as he captures the nuances of learning about life from a child's perspective, despite his own uncertainty about how old he actually is. The fact that he is raised in an "old folks' home" works beautifully, because although he fits in with the other residents physically and emotionally, as he grows younger and stronger, he is exposed to the reality of death as an omnipresent element in our lives. The childlike spark of romance between him as an old man and Daisy, the visiting young granddaughter of one of the residents, is charming, but becomes the impetus for a love story that penetrates the entire film. As adults, Benjamin and Daisy's love story is everything a romance should be, although the harbinger of storms and dark times always overshadow their romance and are seen in the film as a reminder of this.

Cate Blanchett is magnificent as Daisy, and I feel like she has been robbed by not being nominated for a Golden Globe for best actress. Tilda Swinton puts in another superb turn in her brief role as well (although after throwing away her Oscar for Michael Clayton, I suspect no one in Hollywood will ever nominate her again for an award). Many of the other actors who star in supporting roles are excellent as well, such as Taraji P. Henson who plays his adopted mother Queenie, and Jared Harris who plays Captain Mike.

The movie conveys important lessons about living and dying, about time, experience, and kismet. These are lessons we all need to be reminded about from time to time. Death is what makes us appreciate the ones we love and our own life. Without death, we would never understand the purpose of living. This film is a drama, a fantasy, and a romance, and it works uniquely in all three ways. It unfolds over the course of some 80 years, but unfortunately it feels like it. In other words, it's a long, drawn-out movie. During our showing, one group of people got up and walked out, and we still think my aunt nodded off once or twice (although she denies it). Still, though everyone may have thought it was long and required much attention on the viewers' part, what surprised me was that not another person in the theater moved or got up to go to the bathroom or get a snack. The movie mesmerizes you with its dialogue, its acting, and the aging make-up. It truly is a brilliant film, but one that requires a lot of patience and a very comfortable sofa on which to relax and ponder the messages it seeks to share.

Click here for the official website for the movie, and below is one of the official trailers for the film.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Review: The Historian

Earlier this month in a post on the Books of 2008, I had mentioned that I was reading The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova (2005). I finished it last night. The book is another contribution to vampire lore, although in many ways it fits more in line with Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897) and less with Anne Rice's The Vampire Lestat (1985). Indeed, at times I felt like there were elements of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code (2003) at play here as well (fortunately, Kostova's writing is much stronger than Brown's). The primary narrator is a scholar who recounts her own experience as a teenaged girl in the 1970s. She recounts how after finding in her father's library mysterious papers related to Vlad the Impaler, the historical Dracula from the late 15th century, her father had told her about his own research and that of his mentor/advisor at university who disappeared after researching the real Dracula as well. This interest becomes in truth an obsession, as each person who has received a mysterious book with a woodblock print of Dracula as a dragon becomes enthralled to discover another piece in the great story about where exactly Dracula is buried and if he is still alive. And, yes, each encounters vampiric activity along the way. The story becomes layered, with narrative voices relaying other narrative voices, and moves backwards through time from the 1970s to the 1950s to the 1930s, ultimately to the late 1400s. Despite what the book jacket on my paperback copy of the novel says, if you're looking for a thriller about vampires, this really isn't it. Rice more successfully wove stories that incorporated philosophy, religion, sexuality, morality, history, and violence in the guise of vampires that kept you on edge and turning page after page. Kostova's book follows more the pattern of Stoker's work, although if memory serves me correctly, even Stoker's version had more thrills at times.

This isn't to say that The Historian is a bad book. On the contrary, Kostova's writing is wonderful. Her descriptions are detailed, which I appreciate, and the book reads like historical fiction. I thoroughly enjoyed the descriptions of Paul and Helen's visit in the 1950s to places like Turkey, Hungary, and Bulgaria, in particular because this is during the days when Eastern Europe was Communist and Americans were not welcome. The unfolding of history as each character uncovers some other piece of the mysterious puzzle about Dracula's burial location makes for an interesting read. I found myself especially interested in the descriptions of the historical Vlad the Impaler and the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II. The book involves libraries and archives so much that I almost thought the book should have been called The Librarian, but that might have caused confusion with the trilogy of action movies starring Noah Wyle. Kostova's panoply of characters is not unlike a Charles Dickens novel, where even less important characters are given their fair share of descriptions and contributions to the main storyline. The Bulgarian peasant woman Baba Yanka who sings folk songs and the Turkish professor Turgut Bora are beautifully written characters, but one of my favorites (I'm smirking as I write this) has to be the "evil librarian."

The Historian moves slowly, but that is part of Kostova's intent. Here's a sample from page 100-101 that I think conveys the tone of the book without revealing anything; the narrator is the unnamed daughter who is listening to her father's story:

I uncurled my cold hand from the edge of the bench and made the effort to be lighthearted now, too. When had it become effort? I wondered, but it was too late. I was doing his work for him, distracting him as he had once tried to distract me. I took refuge in a slight petulance--not too much or he would suspect it. "I have to say I'm hungry again, for real food."

This dedication to a slow-paced tale allows the reader to get into the characters and the storyline. Indeed, this ultimately serves a purpose: by slowly telling the tale, Kostova allows the story to unfold in such a way as to make the vampire part of it more believable. This, added to the successful historical component, make for a fascinating read. Still, as far as the plot was concerned, sometimes there were just too many coincidences and there never seemed to be a wrong turn as the story unfolds. Although I looked forward to sitting down to read the book each day, it didn't have me on the edge of my seat like I initially had hoped. So if you're interested in an alternative version of the Dracula story and you enjoy historical fiction, then this book is for you. But if you're looking for suspense and thrills, you may want to hold off on this for now.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Christmas 2008

bklynbiblio will be on the road for a while and may not be posting regularly, so here's a shot of my Brooklyn mini Christmas tree, and consider this my official holiday wishes to everyone for a Buon Natale, Merry Christmas, Feliz Navidad, Joyeaux Noel, and all that jazz...

Friday, December 19, 2008

First Snowstorm: 2008-2009 Winter

The other day I posted about our first snowfall, but it barely held its own and was gone by later that night. About an hour ago, it started snowing for real and it's sticking to the ground. It's heavenly! To quote my co-worker JAM, "It's like living in a snow globe!" Here's a picture I took with my mobile at 11:15 am. It's definitely starting to pile up. I just hope this doesn't interfere with my travel plans for tomorrow...

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Hawk in the Yard

For the past few mornings, I've been struck by the beauty of this creature that has been sitting in the bare tree in my backyard. I took this picture using my digital camera and the zoom feature. The juxtaposition of natural wildlife and New York may seem anomalous, but here's proof that it does exist even in the big city. It's fascinating to watch him look at everything around him. Curiously not another bird is in sight whenever he's in the tree. After he leaves, all the doves and pigeons come back. Watching him brings back memories of when I used to work at Sunken Gardens in St. Petersburg, FL. I used to perform parrot shows with macaws (oh, the stories I could tell...), but we also did occasional shows with birds of prey. Other times, I would wear the thick leather glove and bring the hawk out onto the grass and let him get sun. I think birds of prey are gorgeous creatures. This bird is a hawk, but I don't think it's a Red-tailed Hawk. I did some poking around on the Internet and found this site to help, so I believe this is a Broad-winged Hawk. If anyone thinks otherwise, let me know.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

First Snowfall: 2008-2009 Winter

We had our first official snow flurries in the City today! They were actually huge flakes too, but they dissolved pretty quickly. I took these two pictures with my mobile phone while I was walking from the gym to school early in the afternoon. (Yup, that's the Empire State Building.) Unfortunately, it's hard to see the snowflakes, but I thought I'd share the pictures anyway. I love it when it snows, but I'll love it even more when we get the first snow that sticks and stays on the ground.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Review: Gilbert & George

On Sunday, I finally had a chance to go to the Brooklyn Museum to see the Gilbert & George 40-year retrospective. This exhibition has been traveling to other museums for the past three years, and this is the last stop. The artist duo helped install the exhibition itself, suggesting that the arrangement of the pieces in the show was as important to G&G as the works themselves. As they've claimed in writing about their work, it is about life experience, not the art historical process. They prefer the viewer to look at the art from an experiential point of view; what the viewer thinks is more important than what they are or a critic is expressing. The duo appears in almost everything they've ever done, and as time has passed, their own faces and bodies age as well. Their presence becomes like an omnipotent force through their oeuvre and through the exhibition. G&G first met in 1967 when they were students at St. Martin's School of Art in London. They paired up and, so they say, the rest is history (and by "pairing" the implication is that they are partners in work and love). Both of them were sculptors, and they quickly took to stretching the definition of sculpture beyond static form, creating living sculpture. They would perform "actions" or "happenings" (i.e., performance art), one of their more famous being The Singing Sculpture (1969) in which they performed as bronze-like mannequins. (Street performers who dress up as statues for photo opportunities and for money are derived from this G&G trope.) They expanded out of performance pieces, however, and moved into photography. Today they work in just about every medium, but they usually refer to all of their pieces as sculpture.

The work you see here is one section from the polyptych called Death Hope Life Fear (1984) at the Tate in London. Don't let this digital image fool you in its size. The work is massive. The grid you see is actually a series of thin black frames for each individual part, and each of those is about A4 or approximately 12"x10" in size. Calculate that, and you realize that this piece is close to 8 feet high! And this is only one of four parts, two of them stretching horizontally so that all four pieces took up an entire wall of a large gallery at the Brooklyn Museum. But what of the piece itself? The combination of the words tells you much. G&G have explored aspects of living throughout their career. They've never moved away from their East London home, and so they often incorporate aspects of urban grit, youth, and fear into their works. In this piece, you see G&G replicated in the center with a rose behind them and a daisy in front of them. They become a totem, and the replication of them and the flowers conjures images of Buddhist tantric mandalas. The incorporation of the boys adds the triangulated foundation that one finds in Renaissance paintings of saints, and so this work in many ways takes on a highly spiritual message. It is Death as one aspect of Spirituality. The tantric connection suggests sexuality as well. When you consider this work is from the early 1980s when AIDS had begun to ravage the gay community, it takes on a serious political message, one which can only be seen in conjunction with its companion messages of Hope, Life, and Fear. (Here's a link to an image of Life.)

If you don't see it, don't worry about it. If you think I'm looking too hard at it, maybe you're right. To be honest, it's difficult to really assess what their work is about, especially because the imagery is so complex at times. And if you follow their guidelines, then keep in mind this is just my experience of their work. Perhaps you are just supposed to admire its monumentality and aesthetic appeal. The intensity of color and the optical illusion quality of the figures is hypnotic. Their enormous charcoal drawings affixed with prose, like The Nature of Our Looking (1970) make you almost wish you were walking in their animated, impressionistic life. Later work, like Fates (2005) uses digital manipulation to enhance the surrealistic quality of their art. Other subjects are controversial, such as Sperm Eaters (1982) from a London private collection (hence the warning to parents and teachers at the museum, and that so few really provocative works were on display, as this one wasn't, so here's a photo of it from Flickr). Work such as this last one remind me of Keith Haring. All in all, the exhibition was fascinating, and I'm very glad I went. I can't say I "like" G&G's work, but I respect their production and can appreciate the messages they share and suggest. Know that if their work seems like it shocks you, they claim that isn't meant to be the case. They prefer that it makes you think about art, about life, and about yourself. So sit back, look, and just think.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Review: Alphabet Killer

I went with RK to see the new movie The Alphabet Killer. During this time of year when all the major contenders for Golden Globes and Oscars are released, it's unusual to have a movie such as this one with few major actors and a low-key presence come out at the same time. Inevitably, a movie such as this gets lost in the shuffle of blockbusters. Case in point: we saw the movie at a small theater near NYU that usually shows foreign films and art-house films. This thriller is supposedly based on a true story about a series of murders that took place around Rochester, NY in the early 1970s. You can read a bit about the history of the case on Wikipedia. In fact, it's more inspired by the murders and not based on them at all. The premise is that a detective, Megan Paige, is working on the rape and murder of a girl, and becomes so obsessed with the case that she suffers a nervous breakdown that leads to a diagnosis of mental disease. Two years later, in recovery, another attack takes place and she manages to get herself reassigned to the team working to solve the murders. As RK pointed out, every good police thriller has the lead detective suffering from some problem, usually alcoholism or another addiction. Here, it's mental disease. The film is formulaic murder-mystery-thriller, but this film tries to take it to the next level by adding supernatural elements and social commentary on the idea of mental illness. At some moments, it works; other times, it's a bit overwrought. Eliza Dushku plays the detective Megan, and she's quite good. (Among past roles, she played the vampire slayer Faith on Angel.) She has an exotic look to her that makes her stand out in the all-male police squadron. She is in just about every scene, so you follow her through her ups and downs to the point of almost living it with her. In fact, I think that is one of the strengths of this film. As I watched it, I felt very uncomfortable, emotionally and physically. Because of the subject matter, you cannot help but feel disturbed by how it's played out on the screen, but what I discovered was that the way it was filmed was adding to my physical stress. Almost every shot was filmed at some skewed angle, so that it alters your perception of reality. We're used to well-framed scenes in films, but when you have handheld cameras that shake, voyeuristic views of the characters, off-balance perspectives, 360-degree panoramas that make you dizzy, and filters that create a hazy effect, it actually throws you off. I think that's the point. Part of this movie's intent is for you to feel Megan's mental illness along with her, to experience her hallucinations and her shakes. As a result, your own perception of reality gets thrown off. It works, to some extent. After a while, though, it just started to get annoying. In any case, all of the acting is strong (Timothy Hutton, Cary Elwes, and so on), and the writing by Tom Malloy (who also plays one of the officers) is well-structured. As far as mysteries go, it keeps you going, which is always a good thing. Should you rush out to seem this film in the theater? Only if you've seen the blockbusters and potential award winners, you have a crush on the main actress, you're a thriller-buff, or you once lived in Rochester. Otherwise, wait for the DVD. In the meantime, here's the official website, and here's the trailer.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Best-Dressed Dogs of 2008

So what do you think of Petey, the MetroCard Yorkie? For non-New Yorkers, the MetroCard is what we use for the subways and buses here in the City. Petey is one of the top 10 winners of the ASPCA's Best-Dressed Dogs of 2008 contest. See all the winners and honorable mentions by clicking here. When I had my dogs Duchess and Pepper, I used to dress them in fashionable bandannas they wore around their necks. They would have hated it if I had dressed them in sweaters, dresses, t-shirts, or costumes. Still, I have to say, when you see the dogs in this photo contest, be prepared to be laughing out loud because they look absolutely adorable.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Breathing Places

I must credit Andy at Towleroad blog for bringing this post to my attention. The BBC has a program called "Breathing Places" that encourages citizens to help wildlife find places for them to survive and thrive. As more of the world gets swallowed up by concrete and construction, it is nature that is suffering. I have vivid memories of living in Florida and thinking it seemed ridiculous how companies kept building new housing developments in the Everglades, and then people living there would complain about the alligators in their backyards and the mosquitoes in the air. Animals need a place to live too!! So check out the BBC's website for "Breathing Places" to find out more, including helpful hints for providing space for wildlife. And in celebration of the upcoming holidays, check out this video from the animals themselves, who tell us that they need our help, because all they want for Christmas is some place to breathe. (Note: this video is hypnotically bizarre the first time you see it, but put it in the context of the BBC's program, and watch it again, and hopefully you'll be grinning like I was at the end.)

Streisand & Kennedy Center Honors

In the center of the photo above is Barbra Streisand, who was among the six people honored this past weekend with awards from the Kennedy Center Honors. The awards recognize lifetime achievement in the performing arts and are named in honor of President John F. Kennedy. The award winners were Streisand, Morgan Freeman, Twyla Tharp, George Jones, and Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend of The Who (which is a strange mix of people, if you ask me). Apparently performers like Beyonce and Queen Latifah performed Streisand numbers in her honor. The event was taped and will be shown on CBS on December 30th. Here's a news byte about the awards from The New York Times. However, I think another news byte is even funnier, because it focuses on the fact that Streisand and President Bush kissed one another in greeting and congratulations. It's well known how much she dislikes him, and he's no fan of hers either. Afterwards she said she wished she had been given the award next year by President Obama, but that she was at least pleased that he was going to be the next President. For more on that funny news byte from the AP, click here.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Review: New York

Over the past year and a half, I have been watching on DVD one of the best documentary series ever: New York: A Documentary Film. Directed by Ric Burns, this documentary premiered on PBS in 1999, encompassing 14 hours of the history of this city, from its early days as a Dutch colony up to contemporary history. Filled with art work, archival photographs, and early film footage, the visuals of this documentary are supplemented by interviews with so many New York "experts," from former mayors and reporters at The New York Times, to historians and urban planners. The only reason why it has taken me so long to watch the series is because there is a lot to process in each episode as far as factual, social, economic, and political histories, that it really does make you want to think about how New York has evolved into one of the greatest cities in the world. Some of the highlights of the documentary for me included: the initial growth of the city above Wall Street (it was, quite literally, a wall at one time to keep the Indians away from the Dutch settlers); the city's early history as the nation's first capital; the construction of the Erie Canal and how it made the city the economic center of the United States; the story of Central Park and the Brooklyn Bridge; the building of the first skyscrapers, including the Empire State Building; Robert Moses and the effect of urban planning with automobiles in mind (the result of which I can hear right now outside my window, as my apartment overlooks a section of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway!); the Great Depression; immigration and racial tensions; the Harlem Renaissance.... As you can see, I could go on and on. But if I had to sum up the one lesson I've learned about this amazing documentary, it is that New York has always been a commercial city first, and in that mindset, it is a city that has always made a habit of tearing down and rebuilding. It is, in that sense, one of the most forward-thinking cities in the world. As a result, it has lost historic neighborhoods and beautiful buildings, but somehow it still manages to move forward and redefine itself over and over. The main documentary premiered in 1999 with seven episodes. One of the interesting things about it is that there is a sense of naivete in many of the interviews and in the perception of New York's centrality in the world. I don't think this innocence was obvious at the time, but seeing the documentary after 9/11, it is striking how New York (and the United States) lived such a very carefree existence. The events of 9/11 changed this city probably more so than any other. As a result, Ric Burns and his team got together and did a followup sequel of another two hours that discusses the World Trade Center from its inception in the 1960s all the way through the events of 9/11. This sequel acts as Part 8 of the documentary. I didn't think I would be as interested in the building's history, but as it turned out, it was an amazing coda to an already incredible story.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Books of 2008

The New York Times has posted its annual list of the "100 Notable Books of 2008." This list comes out at the beginning of each December and thus encompasses things from the previous December. Divided into 1/2 fiction & poetry and 1/2 non-fiction, it is based on the reviews of books that appeared in the newspaper over the course of the year. Sadly, I haven't read a single thing on the list this year. Usually I can claim to have read at least a couple of titles, but no such luck this year. As has been noted on this blog before by me, I usually come late to things like books and films, just because that's the way my life usually goes. But to demonstrate that I have been a busy reader, over the past 12 months I have read 31 books, and in the spirit of "best of the year" traditions, I thought I would share some of the books that I read (with their year of original publication in parentheses).

In terms of fiction, my favorite novels were the literary classic Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (1925) and the psychological mystery A Dark-Adapted Eye by Barbara Vine (1986). Other notable fiction reads for the year were Where Angels Fear to Tread by E.M. Forster (1905), Lust, Caution by Eileen Chang (1979, translated into English 2007), The Book of Salt by Monique Truong (2003), and Grief by Andrew Holleran (2006). As for non-fiction, the subjects vary and although much from this group was research for conference presentations and coursework, others were for my own pleasure. Two of my favorites were biographies: Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman (1998) [see my review on this blog], and Michelangelo by Howard Hibbard (1974). Other notable non-fiction reads include the history books Longitude by Dava Sobel (1995) and The Ottoman Empire, 1700-1922 by Donald Quataert (2000), the art historical text Classical Art: From Greece to Rome by Mary Beard and John Henderson (2001), and of course the memoirs of David Sedaris, When You Are Engulfed in Flames (2008) [see my review on this blog]. And if you're wondering about the image reproduced here, that is the cover of the latest novel I am reading, the vampire-themed novel The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova (2005), but that will have to go on next year's list.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Library Bytes: LIFE & Google Images

About two weeks ago, Google announced the release of a new feature: digitized images from the archives of LIFE magazine, many of which have never been published before. (Here's an article with more details about the project from Computerworld magazine.) Apparently some of the images date back to 1750, although since they claim they were shot by photographers at LIFE I'm still not sure how they preserved photographs taken before 1840 (someone got their explanation screwed up). Google estimates the digital image package to come to nearly 10 million images, which is an incredible number when you consider that even the largest museums in the world may have only about half that number of objects in their collections. The first group are up already on Google Images, and they look great. There are images from World War II, Academy Award winners, NASA-related events, and so on. My favorites are, of course, the ones from the 19th century. I was quite excited to see so many pictures of Queen Victoria like this one. I wonder if she would declare, "We are amused!"

Saslow on 70's Fever

One of my professors, James M. Saslow (whom I mentioned below in connection with Donatello's David), will be interviewed during a documentary entitled 70's Fever, premiering on the History Channel on Sunday night. Saslow will be talking about the gay rights movement in the 1970s. Issues such as this are important to learn about, considering the recent success of the new movie Milk about Harvey Milk from San Francisco, the first openly gay politician who was later assassinated, and the passing of Proposition 8 in California which has now made gay marriages illegal there. Saslow is a noted expert on gay and lesbian history, as well as an important art historian of Renaissance and Baroque art, theater history, and gay and lesbian art history. The image here is the cover of his 1999 book Pictures and Passions: A History of Homosexuality in the Visual Arts, which is an excellent introduction to the topic, although certainly not the only book he's written.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Brooklyn Industries

If you look at this image and wonder if what you think you see is what you see, rest assured you are seeing correctly. That's a pigeon and a rat embracing, with the moonlit New York skyline behind them. It's called "Love Vectors" and it's emblazoned on one of my new t-shirts that I bought at Brooklyn Industries. I love this shirt! Brooklyn Industries is a local clothing company started by two artists, Lexy Funk and Vahap Avsar (I swear I'm not making up their names). They started the company in the late 1990s after they began designing messenger bags out of recycled billboard signs. (You should be impressed by now.) Today they design everything in clothing, but their t-shirts are probably some of their best work and are famous throughout the City. I admit not everything they sell is to my taste; their designs run along the "hipster-organic-grunge" crowd. Still, they have great t-shirts and messenger bags. They're also a local company producing local goods, and it's good for the environment to support local companies, and now that we're officially in a recession, it's even better to support local companies like Brooklyn Industries. They have 9 stores in New York City and 1 in Chicago, plus an active online store, so check 'em out! Here's another one of their t-shirt designs modeled by bklynbiblio.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Donatello's David

Continuing my trend of Italian-themed posts, a few days ago the Bargello Museum in Firenze showed off their freshly cleaned bronze statue of David by Donatello. About 60 years before there was Michelangelo's David, there was Donatello's David. You can read about how they cleaned the statue using laser technology and see images of the restored sculpture in this news byte from the Associated Press. The image I'm showing you here (courtesy of the Web Gallery of Art) is pre-cleaning and doesn't do the sculpture justice. It really is an amazing piece of craftsmanship in conveying the human condition. It consciously invites you to move around it and look at it from all perspectives. The work is one of the great early Renaissance masterpieces that celebrated the classical ideal of mankind. Scholars still aren't sure when it was made, although best estimates are between 1430 and 1450. It may have been a wedding present among the famous de' Medici family members, but no one knows for sure. Certainly by the time the de' Medicis were exiled from Firenze in the 1490s, the bronze statue was confiscated by the Florentine government. The sculpture was displayed outside the Palazzo Vecchio with another work by Donatello, Judith and Holofernes. If there seems like a theme, there was. Both subjects recounted how so-called weaker Biblical figures overcame adversity with God's help and vanquished their enemies. Judith was a Hebrew maiden who seduced General Holofernes, got him drunk, then cut his head off. David was a shepherd boy who used a slingshot to knock out the giant Goliath, then cut his head off (David later became King of Israel). Both statues became symbols for the city-state of Firenze, for despite its small size the city had defeated larger enemies, including the country of France. Donatello's David is a shepherd boy wearing a pastoral hat on a head with long locks of hair. His nudity emphasizes his youthful, weaker body, but he stands triumphantly with one foot on the decapitated head of Goliath. Scholars such as James M. Saslow (Pictures and Passions: A History of Homosexuality in the Visual Arts) have discussed the homoerotic quality of this figure. Renaissance Firenze was a haven for homosexuals. That's probably a slight exaggeration, but historians like Michael Rocke (Forbidden Friendships: Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence) have shown that there is plenty of evidence that male-male relations were common in 15th-century Italy. Saslow has pointed out that in this sexually liberated environment, an effeminate, youthful David would have appealed to the male homosexual audience as an object of desire. He points to how the feather from Goliath's helmet stands erect against David's leg, but then caresses his thigh with its sculpted feathers. If you were to see it in person, you'd see right away how true it is. Donatello's David was a hero: politically and sexually, he represented the spirit of Renaissance Firenze.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Firenze, Forever

Following up on yesterday's discussion of Rome, there was an article in today's online edition of The New York Times by Adam Begley called "Florence, Then and Now." He opens with a discussion of what everyone complains about when the visit Firenze today: tourists. But then he takes us back to the early part of the 20th century with a wonderful little book called A Room with a View by E.M. Forster, and recounts how all the sites of Firenze, and tourists, are much the same as it was a century ago when Forster wrote the book. Forster is one of my favorite authors. I've read this book a couple of times, and I once taught it to a class. There were two movie adaptations which people may know. The first was the 1985 Merchant-Ivory film with Helena Bonham-Carter, Maggie Smith, Julian Sands, Daniel Day-Lewis, Judi Dench, and Rupert Graves. The second was a new version with an alternate ending that was shown on PBS earlier this year. Both films show the sites and views of Firenze, and Forster's novel conveys a sense of how Italy can alter a person. But neither truly captures the essence of the city, for Firenze is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and can only best be understood by doing all of the museums and churches first, and then taking the time to simply sit back and watch it unfold all around you. Before I was a blogger, I used to send travelogues to family and friends. I wanted to reproduce my entry for Firenze here, but it went on for pages. Instead, I give you one of my photos from June 2005 of the Arno River in the afternoon sun, and try to imagine my sense of bliss on that beautiful day.

Firenze is the heart of Western art, with all of the major Renaissance artists from Botticelli to Michelangelo coming from this small city. The Uffizi Gallery has some of the most magnificent European paintings, and the Galleria dell'Accademia showcases Michelangelo's David tall and proud. The church of Santa Croce has the tombs of major Florentines, and the church of San Lorenzo has the most exquisite series of paintings by Ghirlandaio. The art alone would be more than enough for anyone, but in fact my most memorable moments of Firenze are when I would sit back with a glass of Chianti outside the Palazzo Vecchio and just look at everything around me, or when I would wander through the streets in the hills and gaze back down at the city nestled in the valley with the sun setting over the terracotta dome of the cathedral. Firenze holds a special place in my heart. I signed my book contract in Firenze and spent a couple of months there in Summer 2005 working on the final draft of Pierce. The first time I was there, though, I stared down at the city from the Piazzale Michelangelo in awe, then meandered through the stone streets and 15th-century palazzi, and I simply began to cry. My father was with me and asked me what was wrong. I told him how happy I was. I felt like I was home. I always make a point to return to Firenze, even if it's just for a few days, and if all goes well, I'll be back there again next year.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Review: Roman Holiday

One of the best parts about having a subscription to Netflix is watching old movies whenever I'm in the mood for one. I received Roman Holiday about a month ago, but it's only tonight that I finally was able to watch it (the film still is courtesy of Wikipedia). The movie is now 55 years old, having been released in 1953, and it is #4 on the American Film Institute's Top 10 Romantic Comedies. I love Audrey Hepburn, but then again who doesn't? She was beautiful in this film, a lithe creature, capturing the essence of a young woman trapped by her duties as a princess, desperate to live a life of her own. The cinematography of Rome was magnificent. The movie was one of the very few at that time to actually be filmed live in another city and not on a Hollywood set. As a result, the city of Rome became another character in the way sites from the Piazza di Spagna to the Castello Sant'Angelo weave themselves between Hepburn, Gregory Peck, and Eddie Albert throughout the film. The sweet innocence of Hepburn's character and a Rome with few tourists and traffic really make this film tug at your heart strings. But, I have to admit, looking at it now, half a century later, that same naivete seems frightening in some scenes: the brusque way Peck treats her in the very beginning; the conniving on his and Albert's part over getting the scoop about who she really is; the way Peck tries to take the camera away from the little girl by sweet-talking her and touching her. The uber-machismo that runs through this movie disturbed me at times, although I'm sure in the early 1950s it was considered attractive. But even in scenes where Hepburn's character flits in and out trusting people she doesn't know, it's like you're waiting for someone to rob her or assault her, and it never happens. It makes it almost unbelievable. This perception though is the product of the urban civilization we live in now, a post-9/11 world where such aspects of innocence couldn't possibly exist anymore. That same innocence is something to wish for and be afraid of at the same time. The ending of the movie, however, did satisfy me. For a while there, I didn't like where it was heading, but it took the right turn in terms of the plot and character development, and I was pleased by the last twenty minutes. Edith Head's costume designs were spectacular, especially the last dress Hepburn wears in the film. The one other thing that struck me with the movie was how Hepburn resembled Queen Elizabeth II and her sister Princess Margaret at that time. When this movie was released, Elizabeth was new to the throne and her sister was in love with a divorced working class commoner. Margaret was forced to give him up. I wondered if there was a connection, and in the special featured documentary on the DVD, they addressed this, claiming it was all just a coincidence, but it made for great press for the film. All in all, Roman Holiday was an excellent film, and I can see how this movie not only jumpstarted Hepburn's Hollywood career but earned her an Academy Award for Best Actress. If you haven't seen the movie, here's the official trailer.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Review: Engulfed in Flames

In the Gay Men's Contract that one has to sign upon coming out of the closet, Section V ("writing") lists the names of gay authors one must like. In Sub-Section E ("memoirs"), we find names like Quentin Crisp, Augusten Burroughs, and David Sedaris. Fortunately, the Contract can be negotiated, because with all the other Sections on topics like fashion, interior decorating, and musical theater, it's impossible for any man to master the entirety of gay culture! And so it appears in my Contract that David Sedaris's name had been crossed off.

Years ago, I had read Holidays on Ice, a collection of Christmas-themed memoirs. I guess I had high expectations to be laughing aloud, because I was disappointed. Admittedly, "The Santaland Diaries" about when he worked as an elf is hysterical, but the rest of the stories just seemed to sad. Sedaris has made a successful career for himself writing about his dysfunctional life and his dysfunctional family. It's like airing dirty laundry on Jerry Springer, but doing it with sarcasm and a lesson at the end. But that isn't always what happens, and sometimes his meandering tales never resolve themselves. There are aspects to Sedaris's life that, quite frankly, are tragic, and while laughing about these things can heal wounds, I wonder sometimes if the exploitation of his family is pointing a finger without generating healing.

Admittedly, I have not read anything else by Sedaris until now. Back in August when my friend JM and I were heading to Provincetown, I said to him I was going to read Michael Cunningham's The Hours, to which JM said, "You're reading a book about suicide? This is a vacation! Read something light!" He offered to lend me Sedaris's new book, When You Are Engulfed in Flames, and I agreed. I hardly had time to read while we were away, so I moved very slowly through it over the next couple of months, usually reading on subway rides, finally finishing it during lunch in the staff cafeteria.

Now JM did tell me that this book was a little less funny as compared to his other ones, so I can only hope that if I go back and read them I will be laughing more than I did with this one. That said, Sedaris has great wit and describes some very funny people and events. The crotchety old windbag Sicilian neighbor Helen in "That's Amore" was insane. And from "Solution to Saturday's Puzzle" the following is probably one of the best opening sentences I've ever read: "On the flight to Raleigh, I sneezed, and the cough drop I'd been sucking on shot from my mouth, ricocheted off my folded tray table, and landed, as I remember it, on the lap of the woman beside me, who was asleep and had her arms folded across her chest." I mean, that is one funny episode, almost right out of a sitcom.

Perhaps that's what I find odd about this book, that many of his tales read like they're pilots for comedies. I've been told by people that you have to hear him actually read his own work, that it changes your entire experience of the tale, and that you're bursting in pain from how funny he is. Sedaris is famous for his public readings, which also makes me wonder which comes first for him: the story or the reading? Some of the tales seem like they are meant to be read aloud, not consumed in private. Is he selling out? What about the integrity of the text itself?

The darkness that permeates this book is self-evident in the cover illustration of a skull smoking a cigarette (which, oddly enough, is also a tattoo on my brother's arm, although his skull is smoking a joint). Skulls are memento mori, reminders of mortality, of impending death. Sedaris is now just over 50 years old, and this book reads like someone examining aspects of his life at mid-century. Death is a recurring feature of this book, whether it's about the aforementioned Italian woman, his mother dying from lung cancer, or his own perceptions of the body after working in a medical examiner's office watching autopsies. But the cover illustration also is significant for one of the best parts of this book, the final essay "The Smoking Section." At nearly 100 pages, this essay alone could be appreciated as a short book. The premise is Sedaris's battle to quit smoking, but he divides its tone into discussions of how smoking impacted his entire life socially and culturally, and then how his boyfriend and he relocated to Tokyo to actually quit and jumpstart his life with new distractions, like learning Japanese. The essay has high points and low points, sad moments and funny moments, but at the heart of it are his observations about society and his personal battles over all of his addictions. There are lessons in there for smokers, former smokers, and non-smokers.

When You Are Engulfed in Flames is classic Sedaris, a little more mature and serious, but still full of the wit people love and appreciate. Who else can get away with creating a word like "snobitude"? Will I read more of Sedaris now? Well, let's just say I'm erasing the crossing-out on my Gay Men's Contract. The truth of the matter is that I'm actually a little jealous of Sedaris. Not of his experiences, but of his success. And that is me airing just a little bit of my own laundry.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Review: Forbidden Kingdom

Not everyone knows this, but I'm a huge fan of Chinese cinema. Ever since I first saw Farewell My Concubine at the Tampa Theater in 1993, names like Gong Li, Chen Kaige, and Zhang Yimou have been part of my film vocabulary. It's part of my overall fascination with Chinese art and culture. I have high regard for dramas like Raise the Red Lantern and Ju Dou, but I am fascinated by martial arts films. The fact that I like them so much startles me because I have vivid memories of my father watching Bruce Lee films on Saturday afternoons and of me thinking they were stupid, especially with their dubbed English. My interest in Chinese culture is amplified by the intense level of choreographed violence in these films. Yes, believe it or not, I'm a fan of "art of violence" movies (Quentin Tarantino should come to mind). Mind you, I cannot stand movies where violence serves no purpose but to be violent (which was my biggest problem with Fight Club), nor can I comprehend how anyone watches or participates in boxing or cage fighting. Kung fu cinema is different. There is something magical and thrilling about watching a martial arts film. The fighting is about the rhythmic motion of the body. It's akin to dancing. There is always a hero and a villain, but their battle takes on higher levels of meaning, like fighting for the greater good of humankind. Kung fu cinema is violence with a spiritual purpose. Plant the scene in a foggy, mystical forest in ancient China, and I am hooked.

With that preamble, you won't be surprised to know that I loved The Forbidden Kingdom (check out the trailer below). This movie is the first where Jackie Chan and Jet Li appear together, and the fight scenes between them and other characters are strong, in particular because the style of their kung fu is different from one another both as actors and characters. The story is about a youth from Boston named Jason who is a martial arts fan in theory but not in practice, as evidenced by how easily he is beaten up by bullies. When he finds a Chinese staff, he's magically transported to ancient China, where he is told about a prophecy that a Seeker will come from afar to return the staff to its rightful owner, the Monkey King, and to end the reign of the evil Jade Emperor. Needless to say, the film is filled with magic and beautiful women who hold their own and kick ass (you gotta love kung fu between women, especially when they have names like Golden Sparrow and the White-Haired Demoness). The panoramic scenery and cinematography of the Chinese landscape are gorgeous. The martial arts choreographer was Yuen Woo-Ping, who has orchestrated fight scenes in the Kill Bill and Matrix movies. He also did the kung fu scenes in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and directed Iron Monkey (one of the best martial arts films ever). Michael Angarano plays Jason, the Seeker. He is young and he comes off as fresh and naive in this film, but he's adorable, he's Italian-American from Brooklyn, and it's apparent he was thrilled to be doing this, so we'll give him higher marks for his role. The one strange thing about this movie is that it is for an American audience so everyone speaks English, which I find a little disconcerting for this genre. Still, I think the movie holds its own against more recent Chinese kung fu films such as Hero and House of Flying Daggers. If you enjoyed those movies, you'll like this one too.

In one of the DVD extras, screenwriter John Fusco mentions that the character Jason lives vicariously through his martial arts films because they represent a life he's always wanted for himself. I wonder what that says about me. I've done Tai Chi in the past, but maybe it's time I learned Drunken Master Kung Fu...

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Josie and the Pussycats

There's nothing like sitting down to relax on a chilly afternoon with a cup of tea and some Milano cookies, turning on the television, flipping through channels, and discovering more of your childhood dance across the screen. I was giggling aloud for an hour watching episodes of another one of my favorite childhood shows, Josie and the Pussycats. I admit it's ridiculously hokey and the animation was not the best. They would duplicate scenes and inadvertently put the wrong character to a voice every once and a while. Their adventures make no sense, and they always encounter some of the stupidest villains you'll ever see in animation. The second incarnation of the show, The Pussycats in Outerspace, was even worse. But how could you not love a group of guys and gals who are rock stars in pussycat outfits? And every episode has a musical number to coincide with a chase scene! It was loads of fun back in the early 1970s and in the years afterwards when they showed the episodes in repeats. The show was based on a comic book series, and the characters do look like a conscious combination of people from Scooby Doo and Archie. But I remember loving that they always went to foreign locations, like Paris and Amsterdam, places I dreamed I would visit one day. They were always there to perform, but of course along the way they would always get caught up in some crazy scheme involving a villain's secret plot to do something to the world, whether it was control the weather or make everyone old. There was the leader of the band, red-haired Josie, and her strapping blond boyfriend Alan. There was Melody the ditsy blond drummer, Alexander the scaredy-cat manager and his ever-jealous-of-Josie sister Alexandra with her skunk-striped hair and black cat Sebastian. And then there was one of my favorites, Valerie the tambourine player, who was undoubtedly the smartest one of them all, startling when you consider the times and that she was black. Valerie was a mechanical genius who could create the world's most powerful vacuum out of computer parts or rewire a telephone control system. I remember one episode where she managed to get them out of a locked room by using a compact, mirror, pencil, and paper clips. She was MacGuyver before there was a MacGuyver. There was a 2001 film version with real people that I haven't seen yet, and I'm not sure I ever will, as it may ruin the experience for me. Here's more on the history of the cartoon and show from Wikipedia, and for your entertainment pleasure, here are two YouTube clips. The first is the opening theme song, and the second is one of their musical numbers called "Stop, Look and Listen." They just don't make cartoons like this anymore. Enjoy!

Saturday, November 22, 2008

King Tut

While I was eating dinner this evening, I watched the documentary Tut's Treasures on the National Geographic Channel. I've always had a passion for ancient Egyptian culture, so this made for interesting dining entertainment. The documentaries on ancient cultures that you often see on this channel, Discovery, TLC, etc. are often hyped to make you feel as if the episode has information that shocks you and that you cannot live without, like "Tonight! The Truth Behind How King Tut, The Boy King, Died. Was It Murder? Was It An Accident? What Can Today's Forensic Experts Tell Us? Come Excavate The Truth As We Solve This Mystery Three Thousand Five Hundred Years In The Making!" It's unfortunate that they always have to exaggerate the effect of these documentaries, but I imagine they feel like average Joe Plumber would never watch it otherwise. (Then again, why do they care if Joe Plumber watches? When the heck is he ever going to run off to Egypt or see an Egyptian exhibition at a museum?) All the hype aside, the episode was actually quite interesting. Just about everyone has heard of King Tut. The discovery of his tomb rich in treasures by Howard Carter in 1922 was one of the most spectacular moments in Egyptology and archaeology. The image you see here is Tut's gold death mask in the collection of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. They have many examples of Tut's treasures online, so it's worth taking a look. The 1970s grand tour of artifacts from his tomb was a tremendous popular success, and for the past couple of years there has been a new (and controversial) version of the same tour traveling around the globe. Tutankhamen was the son of Akhenaten, the radical pharaoh who altered the traditional polytheistic culture into what some call a monotheistic culture, with the worship of a single chief deity, Aten the sun. Akhenaten was married to the world-famous Nefertiti, and their daughter Ankhsenamen was married to Tutankhamen. The boy came to the throne at the age of nine, but he was dead by eighteen. This documentary used CT scanning on his skeletal remains in combination with other new investigations to determine that, contrary to what people have believed for the past few decades, Tut was a healthy adolescent and he was not assassinated. It appears he probably died from an infection after breaking his leg from a chariot accident while hunting (or so they claim). The premise behind the entire episode was that the current Earl of Carnarvon, the great-grandson of the fourth earl who discovered the tomb with Carter, was returning to Egypt to seek out new answers on the life and death of Tut. Of course the ubiquitous Zahi Hawass, Egypt's Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, was in the documentary and he was able to express the final opinion as to how Tut died. In case you weren't aware of this, there isn't a single documentary or book about ancient Egypt these days that does not include Zahi Hawass. You have to check out his website to see what I mean. He is the celebrity face of Egyptology.

Library Bytes: Europeana Down!

Well, thanks for my friends CC and PR, I've now discovered why Europeana wasn't allowing active searching. Apparently the system crashed from the number of people who attempted to get into the site when it was released! It's going to be a few weeks before they are up and running again. We await the new release... To read more, go to http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/22/technology/internet/22digital.html?partner=permalink&exprod=permalink, where The New York Times has reported on the outage.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Library Bytes: Europeana

Today in an article entitled "France Dominates Europe's Digital Library" in The New York Times, I read about Europeana, Europe's brand new digital library, museum and archive. The image you see here is their logo in English for the site. According to their information webpage, Europeana is "a prototype website giving users direct access to some 2 million digital objects, including film material, photos, paintings, sounds, maps, manuscripts, books, newspapers and archival papers." In short, it is going to be an incredible boon for people interested in European history and culture. Apparently even the Musée du Louvre has contributed digital images of works from their collection, so it will certainly be a fascinating resource for art historians as well. Europeana plans to increase its number of objects to some 6 million by 2010. It officially releases to the public today, but so far I've been unable to actually search or browse any of the collections, so I'm not sure if there's a delay with the release or what is happening. I guess I'll have to report back in the near future after seeing what goodies are revealed. In the meantime, you should definitely go to their website, http://dev.europeana.eu/, just to click on "The Boots" video. Pairing Nancy Sinatra with Vincent van Gogh's shoes has certainly altered my experience of both forever.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

NAVSA 2008 - Part 3

The work you see here is a watercolor by Edward Burne-Jones called Cupid and Psyche (ca. 1865) from the Yale Center for British Art collection. This image was used by the planning committee as the conference's logo, probably because it draws on the romanticism we perceive about Victorian art and it is an example of a work by one of the more important artists of the Victorian period.

I'm back in Brooklyn these past two days, but I can report that the rest of the conference went quite well. I received positive feedback on my own presentation, and so I'm pleased with that. Our panel session had two other excellent papers. Dennis Denisoff from Ryerson University in Toronto spoke on "The Pagan Desire of Simeon Solomon's Aesthetic Eye." I was pleased that someone was speaking about Solomon, considering how near and dear he is to my heart. Denisoff discussed aspects of paganism and animalism in Solomon's work, and how they came to symbolize sexual identity and aesthetic value in his art. Rather than agree with other scholars who emphasize Solomon's commonality within the larger Pre-Raphaelite circle, Denisoff argued for an examination of Solomon's individuality, wanting us to consider his contribution to Victorian art as unique. Keren Hammerschlag from the Courtauld Institute of Art in London spoke on "Frederic Leighton's Motionless Men and the Charge of Effeminacy." Leighton comes under much scrutiny in queer criticism because his male figures are homoerotic and his own personal life was consciously shrouded in mystery. Hammerschlag took up the idea of how Leighton played with issues of gender, much the way my friend JJK did in his paper the previous day, although while JJK had focused on issues of ethnicity, Hammerschlag took up contemporary criticism in Leighton's day and examined the charges of masculinity and effeminacy based on his depictions of male figures in some of his paintings. Richard Kaye (Hunter College/CUNY Graduate Center), who moderated the panel session, also added his own remarks about the timeliness of the panel session's topic, as the idea of "queer visualities" allows for a mix of areas and topics that question assumptions about the representation of gender and sexuality. When you combine these papers with my own regarding Gibson's queer sculpture settling in a nexus between Neoclassicism and Victorian Classicism, it's apparent that our panel session was certainly fascinating and addressed some thought-provoking issues.

I didn't go to too many other sessions, although there were plenty from which to pick. One session that I truly enjoyed was called "Victorian Fantasy." There was one paper on noise and meaning in a Gilbert and Sullivan song called "The Nightmare," the second paper was on the implications of drug use in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, and the last paper was on Burne-Jones' Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty) series of paintings and how they represent both fantasy and aspects of social realism. What was fascinating was how the three papers represented different disciplines (music, literature, painting) yet were able to correlate to one another in terms of how the Victorians perceived fantasy, the dreamworld, and sleep. I also attended a Material Study Session on Victorian Paintings at the Yale Center for British Art. This was enjoyable because of the discussion led by Cassandra Albinson and Jason Rosenfeld (for our half of the group), joined later on by Elizabeth Prettejohn and Tim Barringer.

If I had a concern about the conference at all, it was that it completely exhausted me. However, it was for a good reason. It's one thing to attend panel sessions and talks, but conferences are opportunities for networking, and there was plenty of allotted times for that. I did take advantage of it, and I was pleased to reconnect with people I know in the field, and meet new people as well. The good news is that NAVSA 2008 left me feeling positive about my decision to specialize in this area, which is reinforcement I need every once and a while, because sometimes all this academic work can be a real drag.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

NAVSA 2008 - Part 2

On Friday evening, Elizabeth Prettejohn gave the Plenary Session talk entitled "John William Waterhouse: Between Celebrity and Oblivion." The picture by Waterhouse you see here, The Lady of Shalott (1888) is at the Tate Britain, and was a highlight of her talk. Prettejohn introduced the discussion by pointing out that in Waterhouse's day, he was an extremely popular artist. However, like almost all Victorian art, he fell out of favor with the rise of abstraction and other 20th-century art forms. Yet, his popularity never truly faded, for the Tate Britain reports that the postcard of this painting has ranked for decades as its most popular postcard ever. In other words, despite the 120-year passage of time, Waterhouse's work still has the uncanny ability to draw people in with its haunting symbolism and combined classical/medieval imagery and subject matter. Why this work has attracted people for so long is still up for discussion, but the short of it is that Waterhouse deserves a more extensive study, and thus is the subject of a new exhibition opening next month in The Netherlands, then traveling to the Royal Academy in London (where I hope to see it next summer), and Montreal. Yet, what Prettejohn pointed out as being significant was that despite Waterhouse's ongoing popularity, his work is still perceived as kitsch by some museums, and finding support for a full academic exhibition on him was met with great hesitancy and outright rejection. Prettejohn gave an extensive survey of his career, moving from his early classical subjects, his brief experimentation with French plein-air (i.e. Impressionist) painting, and his ultimate focus on mysticism and the Symbolist movement as his career truly succeeded in the 1880s and on into the new century. She also pointed out the different methodological ways one could approach this work, discussing formal elements, romantic biography, or cultural studies as examples. Ultimately, however, she attempted to explore Symbolism, or perhaps explore the idea of mysticism and paganism as it was popular in the 1890s in England, although pointing out how a unique feature of his work is that it is difficult to trace things for sure, because we now so little about Waterhouse himself. It is as if his own life was as mysterious as the occult world in which he himself was interested.

All in all, I thought her talk was fantastic. It served a needed purpose: to point out that even though museums have resisted showing Waterhouse's work, he deserves the extensive treatment he will get with this new exhibition. She then went on to provide both a chronological survey of his career, his own recurring motifs and echoes of other artists' motifs, and spent most of the time exploring mystical symbols in his work. Prettejohn is an amazing art historian whose publications in 19th-century art, in particular Victorian art, has quickly skyrocketed her to a leading position in the field. I have at least five of her books at home, including The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites (2000) and Art for Art's Sake (2008).

Surprisingly, though, the backlash among some of the literary scholars at the conference startled me. At dinner on Friday night, a few surprised me by what I felt was unfair criticism of her talk. I defended her talk, however, and I realize in retrospect that there were two major issues at stake. The first was that they expected a more in-depth analysis of some of Waterhouse's pictures. They were looking for criticism, not an art historical overview. I can see what they're suggesting, but this wasn't meant to be like a conference presentation on a panel session. This was meant to be an example of work for which she has become well known, a cursory example of her art historical talents. In addition, it was meant to correlate to the exhibition that she is co-curating (with Peter Trippi) on Waterhouse. In other words, this talk was meant to present the challenges of still doing a Victorian art exhibition, and despite their critique, did include aspects of interpretation, both from the time period and from now. This leads to my second observation. Literary scholars really don't have to justify their work. They work with texts and they largely write about what they want. For the art historian, this is not always so easy. There are issues like the art market, museum politics, and corporate funding to consider. Art historian not only need to read everything like literary scholars, but they are also expected to know the visual objects which are the focus of their work. They work with image first, interpretation second, and this is something that I think literary scholars don't always grasp. The good news is that despite some of the fall-out I heard from a few people about Prettejohn's talk, I also heard from a few other literary scholars who found her talk to be excellent. All of which just goes to prove that you can't please everyone all the time. But I was thrilled to be there and will always look forward to hearing Prettejohn speak again.

Friday, November 14, 2008

NAVSA 2008 - Part 1

Well, I had this great update all written out about my adventures over the course of the day, but something happened to the software, and the whole damn thing got deleted and I couldn't retrieve it! Very annoying!!! So, at this point, I'm writing an abbreviated version, and I'll write more in the next couple of days.

When I arrived here in New Haven yesterday, I made a quick visit to the Yale Center for British Art, and then got a guided tour of the newly revamped Library in the Paul Rudolph-designed Art and Architecture Building. My friends AT & SR, a newlywed gay couple who married in Canada last year, hosted me for a wonderful home-cooked dinner, not to mention some fun playtime with their adorable dachshund Dash. I'm staying at The Historic Mansion Inn here in New Haven. It's a clean, comfortable, old home run by an Italian family, which makes sense since this is apparently the Little Italy neighborhood, although I've yet to get over to the restaurants.

This morning, I had every intention of getting to the conference bright and early, but sleep won out, so I missed the beginning portion of the first session, "Aestheticism and Sexualities," and as a result felt like I had walked into the middle of a conversation and never fully grasped the scope of the panel session. There were papers given on Raffalovich, Wilde, and Darwin. After a coffee break, I headed over to the panel session "Exotic Contrasts in Victorian Painting," where my friend JJK gave an interesting talk entitled "Hercules and Icarus: Leighton's Oriental Fantasy," about how Frederic Leighton created contrasts of dark- and light-skinned men in two paintings, and how this related to his experiences in Egypt and his thoughts on masculinity. There were also papers on Rossetti's juvenilia, and a ambitious juxtaposition of portraits by Sargent, criminal photographs by Bertillon, and the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. I had lunch at a Mexican place with some colleagues from the UK & US. Afterwards, I headed for my Material Study Session, which was something they had organized for this conference to give attendees opportunities to see some of the highlights of Yale's Victorian collections. Although I didn't register for it, I was sent to the David Cox exhibition at the YCBA. I confess I ducked out after a few minutes. I was exhausted, and I really wasn't that interested in his watercolor landscapes from the early 1800s, having already seen them yesterday afternoon. I was saved by a phone call from RK, so I had coffee with him and another colleague. The Plenary Session came next. This was a talk by Elizabeth Prettejohn from the University of Bristol. I'll write more about that later. I give my presentation tomorrow (Saturday) morning as well, so until then...it's bedtime. I'm exhausted.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Magic Garden

I just had a blast from the past! The New York Times has an article and video clip about one of my all-time favorite childhood television shows, The Magic Garden. When I was young, I absolutely loved this show. The show was on in the 1970s on a local channel here in the New York area. Looking back, I realize now how low-budget and campy it was, but I loved it. There's a sense of innocence and simplicity in it that I think children's shows have lost. There was always folk singing with Paula playing the guitar and Carole leading the (unseen) children in song. There was the Storybox, a magical trunk that would open and close on its own (you could see the wires!), and when they would open it, there were costumes inside and they would act out a story based on whatever they found. There was the Chuckle Patch, planted daisies that had jokes written on their leaves, and when the girls read the jokes aloud, the daisies would giggle. And there was the ever ridiculous, peanut-snorfing Sherlock the pink squirrel. (This is all starting to sound like a drug-induced trip.) The funniest part was that no sooner did I see the news article that I was suddenly able to sing the entire opening theme song, which begins like this: "Here in the garden of make believe / the magical garden of make believe / where flowers chuckle and birds play tricks / and the magic tree grows lollipop sticks..." Paula and Carol are now in their late 60s and still performing together. They've released DVDs with whatever has survived on tape from the original episodes from the show. I definitely will need to check them out to relive an aspect of my childhood.

Gibson's Queer Sculpture

As I mentioned a few posts ago, I received a travel award from CLAGS in support of a conference presentation I will be giving in a few days. The conference is the annual meeting of the North American Victorian Studies Association (NAVSA), and will be held at Yale University. There are going to be many great sessions, chances to hear some wonderful speakers, and opportunities for people to network. I thought I would share a bit about my paper. I'm speaking about John Gibson (1790-1866), a Welsh-born sculptor who spent nearly fifty years living in Rome producing works that Victorian Britain came to know and love. He was elected a full member of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1836 and submitted this work you see here, Narcissus, as his diploma piece (the image comes from the Royal Academy Collections). Gibson was inspired to create this work after seeing an Italian boy gazing at his reflection in a fountain in Rome. Much of Gibson's work is classical in theme, and this is no exception. The subject comes from the ancient Greek myth of Narcissus, a beautiful youth who, alas, had the ego to match, so he was cursed by the gods to fall in love with no one but himself. Gazing into a lake, he discovered his reflection and was so riveted by his beauty that he could not leave. And so he pined away gazing at his own reflection and suffering from unrequited love. The gods eventually had mercy on him and changed him into a flower, the narcissus, which bears his name. The myth was always seen as homosexually inclined (youth falls in love with another youth). Hence, it is but one example of the type of queer sculpture that I will be bringing up during my paper. Here is the abstract of my paper. Before reading, though, I think it's important to explain briefly about pederasty. The most important thing for you to know is that it has nothing to do with pedophilia. Pederasty was an all-male tradition in the ancient Athenian world, and it was directly associated with the raising of men to become strong, educated civic leaders. To associate it with the crime of pedophilia is to greatly misconstrue the foundation of democracy itself. And on that note, read away...

Channeling (Ant)Eros: John Gibson's Queer Sculpture

John Gibson (1790-1866) was born in Wales and raised in Liverpool, but he established a long career in Rome as one of that city’s—and Great Britain’s—most important sculptors. Gibson counted among his patrons Queen Victoria and the Duke of Devonshire, but he is best remembered today for reintroducing polychromy into sculpture in works such as his infamous Tinted Venus (c.1852). A follower of Antonio Canova and Bertel Thorvaldsen, and a teacher of Harriet Hosmer, Gibson flourished into the mid-Victorian period espousing the wisdom of J.J. Winckelmann and ancient Greek art, and producing his own interpretations of the gods in marble. At the encouragement of friends, he began writing his memoirs in the 1840s. These autobiographical notes stand today as a source for understanding both the classical references, and their queer implications, in his oeuvre.

In his memoirs, Gibson discussed his vision of idealized love by drawing on the figures of Anteros and Eros as aspects of spiritual passion. Overshadowed by his mythological brother, Anteros was created to be Eros’s playmate; literally and etymologically, he was “returned love” for the passion of Eros. Their duality was linked to the ancient Greek pederastic tradition, cited by Plato and others, with Eros as the passion offered by an elder erastes and Anteros the returned affection (sometimes sublimated) of the youthful eromenos. Though Gibson never explicitly discussed homosexual love or pederasty in his memoirs, he channeled Eros (and Anteros) into many of his sculptures, revealing to classically educated audiences intimations of same-sex passion.

In this paper, I will examine some of these classical subjects, such as the group Mars Restrained by Cupid (c.1820) and single figures such as Love Tormenting the Soul (1839). I will consider these works using Gibson’s own writings on ancient Greek love and art, but I also will draw on the present-day scholarship of Abigail Solomon-Godeau, Whitney Davis, and others, contextualizing how Gibson used his Neoclassical origins to adumbrate the burgeoning homosexual identity seen in later Victorian art. By using coded visual language and imagery to channel (Ant)Eros in British art, Gibson helped pave the way for a conscious homosexual identity in the work of Simeon Solomon, Frederic Leighton, Hamo Thornycroft, Alfred Gilbert, and others.