Saturday, September 27, 2008

Review: The Duchess

Last month I posted a review of Amanda Foreman's book Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and noted at the end about the film version with Keira Knightley that was to be released soon. On this rainy New York day, I decided to go see the film. My concern from the trailers was that the movie was going to be a pared down version of Foreman's stellar biography, ultimately turning it into a tragic love story. The trailers cite connections with Princess Diana ("there were three people in her marriage"), which is infuriating. The Duchess was her ancestor, but it's a cheap marketing tactic to force a connection that isn't needed. The woman and the film stand on their own rather nicely. But as I suspected, the film did what I feared: excised an ounce of the full story of Georgiana's life, focusing on her sartorial flair, her relationship with her husband and Bess, and her doomed love affair with Charles Grey. They do bring in aspects of her politics and gambling, and they address the few rights women had at the time, but these aspects are minimized. Foreman's book is obviously a superior biographical account. But if you remove Foreman from the equation, you'll be surprised to discover a spectacular film.

Anyone who loves English period films will easily rank this one near the top. The panoramic settings (including Somerset House and Chatsworth) are absolutely gorgeous. The costumes and wigs are sumptuous (more on the costumes below). The acting is in top shape. Ralph Fiennes as the Duke is the perfect antagonist, his desire for a male heir the driving force of his own existence, to the point that he almost cracks under his own determination. His love for his dogs seems to be the only sign of sentience at times (other than his ability to shag any woman he wants), but there is a subtle sense of humanity that does peak out when needed, giving him perhaps a realistic take on what the Duke actually may have been like. Charlotte Rampling as Lady Spencer (Georgiana's mother) is in fine form, forcing her daughter to maintain the respectability and stiff upper lip required of her position. Hayley Atwell is acceptable as Bess Foster, although I would have preferred more drive to her character, although she probably would have stolen the show from Georgiana (and Knightley). Dominic Cooper as Grey is gorgeous, although perhaps a little too hunky for an 18th-century politician.

Knightley steals the show as Georgiana, however. The movie showcases the actress's beauty and presence, and she carries herself, her exquisite gowns, and her wigs and picture hats, with true grace and aplomb. But perhaps Knightley's best parts in this movie are when she doesn't speak, when the camera simply focuses on her facial reactions, and we see a true actress at work. There are scenes in this movie when the camera simply caresses Knightley's face, and you feel her innocence, her love, her anguish, and her pain, in each of these scenes. I wouldn't be surprised if she's given an Oscar nomination for her performance.

The musical score by Rachel Portman is brilliant (I've already downloaded the soundtrack). The atmospheric music reinforces the emotions throughout the movie, and ties the storyline together very well. Portman maintained the period feel by drawing on traditional string instruments, pairing her songs well with selections by Beethoven and Haydn. Finally, the costumes by Michael O'Connor are superb. He also designed the costumes for Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, which I also thought were exquisite. It's one thing to design beautiful historic costumes; it's another to make your audience want to burst through the screen and play dress-up, and so far that's what he's accomplished for me with these two films. I recommend checking out the official website for the movie (, where among other things you can view some of O'Connor's costumes and do 360 rotations of them--it's rather cool.

Friday, September 26, 2008

2008 ASPCA Dog of the Year

The ASPCA has announced its 2008 Dog of the Year: Ilia, a black Lab/golden retriever mix, pictured here with his owner Cole Massie of Los Angeles. The ten-year-old has cerebral palsy and Ilia is his inspiration to walk again. Cole calls him "my furry brother and best friend—and a serious bed hog!" To read more about this heartwarming story, click here. And, yes, I'm choked up even writing about this. A pet truly can make all the difference in your world.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Victorian Painting (Part 1)

This afternoon I stopped by Sotheby's for a preview exhibition of British paintings. The works are owned by Sir David and Lady Scott, and the auction will take place on November 19 in London, the proceeds of which will benefit The Finnis Scott Foundation. Many of the 240 works to go up for auction are Victorian paintings, and it was a pleasure to see that among the works is the picture above, Emily Mary Osborn's Nameless and Friendless (1857).

This particular picture is often cited in studies of British art for its social message on the plight of women in Victorian England. It represents a young woman with her son attempting to sell works of art that she has painted. The facial reaction of art dealer gazing at the work shows his highly critical manner and apparent disregard for the work, while the gentlemen sitting on the left seem to be staring at the woman in shock as to her very presence in the gallery.

One of the reasons I appreciate Victorian paintings such as this one is because of the narrative structure. With a title such as Nameless and Friendless we are meant to pity this woman. She has no title or name, and she apparently has no friends or family to support her. For the Victorian audience, this type of picture not only told a story, but it also suggested a moral lesson. Why is she nameless and friendless? Because she had an illegitimate son? Because her husband abandoned her? Because she is a poor widow? Whatever the reason, one truth stand out: she is attempting to support her son and herself by selling pictures she paints.

The reality of Victorian life was that a woman such as the one depicted here would have suffered much if she remained unmarried. The same year this painting was made, laws began to change that assisted married women in the holding of property and investments, but it was a long time before women could not only support themselves but even hold property in their own name. (This inequality takes on greater irony when you consider it was happening under the reign of Queen Victoria, one of the most powerful women in the world.) The fact that a talented woman artist who exhibited at the Royal Academy for many years painted this work only drives home the empathy it is meant to conjure: a woman knowing the true feeling of being nameless and friendless in a male-dominated art world. For a brief biography on Emily Mary Osborne, visit ArtMagick.

Victorian painting is often criticized for being kitsch, but you have to admire its narrativity and social realism. What also fascinates me is that there is no such thing as one type of Victorian painting. It's impossible to put works by Frith, Rossetti, and Beardsley beside one another and say they are all "Victorian"--all three of these artists worked so differently from one another that it's erroneous to reduce Victorian painting to one mode of being. This is an area of art history that I study regularly, so you'll see future postings from me about Victorian art. I'm organizing (with the help of two colleagues) a symposium entitled Why Victorian Art? that will consider why Victorian art historically has been disregarded in the US in favor of French painting and Victorian literature. Stay tuned for more on the symposium in the months to come.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Review: Kirchner and the Berlin Street

My friend KB and I went to see the exhibition Kirchner and the Berlin Street at the Museum of Modern Art. This is a show I've been anxiously waiting to see, because I find myself thrilled by Kirchner's expressionist works, his take on line, color, and perspective, not to mention the fabulous fashion sense he captured in the clothes of these women. We were not disappointed.

The German artist Ernst Kirchner (1880-1938) was part of Die Brücke (The Bridge), a German Expressionist group of artists based in Dresden. Their mission was to "bridge" the traditional and the modern in art. They were influenced by the vibrant colors of the Fauves (Matisse and Derain) and the geometric forms of Cubism (Picasso and Braque), but they also borrowed on Germanic traditions such as woodblock printmaking to create a new, vivid form of art that revealed their emotional truths through art. In 1913, Kirchner left Dresden for Berlin, then the third largest city in Europe. The works in this exhibition showcase seven of the paintings in what became a series of works reflecting his take on the Berlin Street scene. But the primary subject of all of them are the prostitutes who worked the streets of Berlin.

As you enter the gallery, each painting is given its own freestanding wall, boldly highlighting the pictures as individual masterworks, but grouping them as part of the series. To the left and right hang drawings, prints, and sketchbooks by Kirchner with work done in conjunction with these paintings. The woodblock prints are especially engaging, demonstrating the ongoing talents of the Germans in this medium dating back to at least the 1400s. But the oil paintings are the primary focus on this exhibition, and they are stunning.

Take for instance the work above, Street, Berlin (1913), which is part of MOMA's permanent collection. In all of the pictures, two or more prostitutes stand as the focal point, so your eye is drawn to them. In some, you even engage with them visually, as if you were a potential client. The sharp angularity of his line, the harsh coloring, and the attenuated forms of their bodies would lead you to think he hated these women, but instead they are beautiful. Look at their faces. Look at their clothes. These are fashionable working women. The energy of Berlin--a new urbanism filled with electric lighting and trains and streetcars--pulsates around them. They are the logo of this new urbanism, the product and marketing of the City of Berlin in 1913. This same energy and beauty characterizes many expressionist movements prior to World War I, when the new industrial, modern age was seen as a form of utopia.

KB and I spoke about the treatment of women in Kirchner's works. At the time, we were standing in front of a drawing of a dancer on stage whose raised leg revealed everything under her skirts. She argued that this type of work is misogynistic. It reflects the emasculated sensibility that most men felt at the turn of the century when the New Woman rose to power, demanding and securing equal rights. I agree with her. Pictures as diverse as Munch's Vampire and Burne-Jones's Mermaid demonstrate that there was something misogynistic going on in art all over Europe at the time. But I pointed out to her that with heterosexual artists like Kirchner, Schiele, Klimt, and so on, they drew or painted like this because it was sexually alluring. It was their artistic form of pornography. To which KB responded that was exactly the point, that in order to combat the newfound power of these women, they had to be stripped down and objectified as sexual objects. It was the only way men could combat women's burgeoning sense of self. According to the wall text in the gallery, however, there's a third option: that Kirchner's constant depression and isolation in a new city allowed him to identify with the isolation these same prostitutes would have felt as omnipresent, yet rejected, parts of Berlin society. So I guess we're all right.

All in all, this fantastic, small exhibition is worth seeing a second time, and I'm going to head back before it closes on November 10. If you're interested in reading another take on the exhibition, and learning a bit about Kirchner's recent popularity as it relates to auction sales, see CultureGrrl's posting.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Vatican Art Scene

There is a rather strange article in this week's issue of Newsweek by Barbie Nadeau--"The Vatican Breaks Its Da Vinci Code"--on how the Vatican is getting back into the commissioning of art from contemporary artists for churches and for the Vatican Museum. While I realize the article is geared toward the lay person and not the art specialist, I have some serious issues with a few things taken out of context. For starters, the main image they use is Michelangelo's Pietà (c. 1496-1499) and compare it to Jeff Koons's Michael Jackson and Bubbles (1988). Other than the curious curve that these two works share (Christ dead in Mary's lap, Bubbles sitting in a reclining Michael's lap), these works are so far removed from one another that to even use them for this article borders on the obscene. In addition, the Koons work is magnified and the Michelangelo work is miniaturized, as if to somehow equate the two in scale and monumentality. In fact the shrunken Michelangelo deemphasizes the incredible grandeur of this work in favor of its apparent competition. And let's not even get started on the conspiracy-theory ideology that still permeates anything related to Catholic art. It's like we've moved from a pre-Dan Brown to a post-Dan Brown understanding of Leonardo da Vinci and Christ, when in fact all we've really done is generate millions of dollars in sales for a so-so novel about conspiracy theories in art. (In deference to Brown's talent as a fiction writer, I will at least encourage people to read his other conspiracy book, Angels & Demons, which easily surpasses The Da Vinci Code as a fun novel worth reading.)

Getting back to the art, however, I do realize that the editors chose the Pietà because, as they note, it was once considered contemporary art, and indeed the prodigy, a young sculptor from Florence, was commissioned by a French cardinal to create it. But the spiritual essence of this sculpture has no comparison--religiously speaking--to the Koons sculpture. And are we to assume from this juxtaposition of images that Koons, because he is a successful contemporary artist, epitomizes the type of art one is going to see from now on in the Vatican and other Catholic churches? If so, then why this image? Why not the photographs and sculptures of Koons having sex with his ex-wife Ilona Staller (former porn star and member of the Italian parliament)? Why are those works less spiritual than Michael Jackson with a monkey?

I know I'm ranting more about these images for this article, but my point is to write about the Vatican and art. The digital photograph of St. Peter's (note: Michelangelo's original design, enhanced by other architects over time) I took on one of my trips to Rome. St. Peter's Cathedral is an absolutely amazing place, where grandeur and awe inspire a sense of spirituality incomparable to many other places. The Vatican Museum has one of the best collections of art in the world. I've had the privilege of going there twice. Having the opportunity to stand in the Sistine Chapel and gaze upon Michelangelo's ceiling and The Last Judgment behind the altar, or to witness firsthand Raphael's School of Athens in the papal apartments, is an amazing wonder to behold. And the collections throughout the Museum are unparalleled. They have some of the most important pieces of classical sculpture, such as the Laocoön and the Apollo Belvedere. But this is also the Vatican Church, the seat of the Roman Catholic Church, and as I've strolled through the halls of the Museum, I've pondered if there was some sort of travesty behind the Vatican holding onto these works and displaying them. Doesn't the Church have a responsibility to let go of material possessions and help those in need? Couldn't they sell of some of their work, such as their version of Canova's Perseus (after all, there's another version of it at The Metropolitan Museum of Art), and use the money from the sale to outfit an entirely new social structure in an impoverished country, provide assistance for AIDS victims, or feed starving children in Africa?

In the past, I might have said yes. Now, I would say no. I do still believe the Church has a responsibility in these areas, and they are doing their part to help. However, the Vatican is not just the Church. It's also a country, an independent state, as it has been for nearly 2,000 years. As a country, it also has a responsibility to support cultural heritage as does every nation, not just for its own people but for all people. So should the Vatican be commissioning contemporary work from artists? Absolutely. Should they be collecting contemporary art? Of course they should. And even though I don't agree with Monsignor Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture, who insists that "We need to return to the spirit of the 1500s" (the Church needs to evolve, not stand still in time or, worse, look backwards), I applaud the fact that the Vatican may be seeing the need to support cultural heritage and encourage the continuous flow of art, no matter the spiritual nature of its design.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Facebook Fenomenon (Part 2)

It certainly hasn't taken me long to become addicted to Facebook. Almost immediately after I joined, a few friends (people I would actually consider to be friends, not just "Friends") welcomed me, cheered me on, said it was about time, and so on. Two pointed out about getting addicted. They weren't kidding. What I'm discovering is that there are so many aspects to Facebook, from games and gadgets to the entire social networking component, that it becomes desirous to keep seeing who else is out there and what else they're doing.....right at that moment! So it's not just a large network of friends (and "Friends"), but it's also instantaneous gratification, knowing what others are doing at that moment. It's like a giant spy network in a way. And yet, isn't it all artificially crafted? Here are more of my observations (and I must give credit to my friend CC in England for her discussions with me on #s 1 and 2).

1. Facebook should be called Facade-book, because that's what it really is. The American Heritage Dictionary defines facade as (of course) the face of the building, but they also define it as "an artificial or deceptive front." People get to choose the face that they wish to reveal to people. Hence, when I can change my "is" statement (e.g., Roberto is... "drinking a cuppa tea" or "wondering what the hell people did before Facebook existed"), I'm revealing what I elect to say about myself. It stands to reason that everyone (probably) is telling the truth about themselves, but then again, why should they? If the environment invites you to reveal all or whatever you choose, then why bare your soul for the universe to see it? Why not jazz it up, or tone it down? Why not become an avatar with a new name like Anastasia Beaverhausen (oops, I think that one's taken)? And if a facade is an artificial or deceptive face, then is Facebook actually encouraging such a deception? Is online social networking really about false truths?

2. Facebook was made for voyeurs. Really. Think about it. What are you doing when you're on it? You check your own Wall for messages and update your own site. But admit it -- you're reading everyone else's personal information, the writings on other people's Walls, you're checking out what cities in the world they've visited and what books they've read and what fan clubs they belong to. But doing all this isn't what makes it voyeuristic; rather, it's the fact that people know you're reading this, and so they're whetting your appetite with a glimpse of their world. When you add something to your profile or write on someone's Wall, you've basically raised the window shade anywhere from a few inches to a foot and you're inviting people to peek at you...but not to see you completely au naturel.

3. Facebook invites your past to return, and to stick around. I started writing about this in my last posting about Facebook, but here I'll elaborate even more. Its origins were in alumni connecting, so the fact that I went to a particular high school and graduated in a particular year ties me to others who advertise this same fact. The thing is, since I haven't spoken to any of these people in so long, I really don't consider them to be part of my life anymore, let alone my friends. Then--slam!--along comes someone from the past who I hardly knew even way-back-when and now they're my "Friend." Don't misunderstand me. I think the whole thing is ingenious. But why do I find it so eerie at the same time? I suspect I can only answer this based on my personal experience. I'm not the same person I was twenty years ago. I've evolved. I continue to evolve. These parts of my past are just that, my past, not my present. And so for me this sudden unexpected reunion of sorts with these individuals both intrigues and startles me. All that said, I do wish at least one person I knew in high school (HC) would get in touch with me, because I think I found her in Facebook, and she's someone I've always wondered about...

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Agatha Christie Speaks

Julie Bosman has an article about Dame Agatha Christie (1890-1976) in the September 15th edition of The New York Times: "Tapes Offer New Clues to a Master of Mystery." The article was published to coincide with what would have been Christie's 118th birthday. The big news is that 27 reels of audio tape were recently discovered by her grandson. Dating from the 1960s, the reels record Christie's dictations for what eventually became her posthumously published autobiography. She recorded comments on her famous detectives Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, thoughts about what went into the writing of some of her books, and other things.

It should come as no surprise that I am a big fan of Agatha Christie's mysteries. She apparently published 66 mysteries. About 15 years ago, I started reading each of them in the order they were published (I'm currently somewhere in the 1960s). Critics often consider her earlier works to be better than her later works, and in general I have to agree. After about 1950 the books start pandering to newer trends and styles in mystery writing (i.e., her competition). In her defense, Christie was trying to keep up with the times and write more contemporary work, but traditional writing and storylines were her greatest strengths. If ever there was a master (mistress?) of the tea-cozy, grand-English-estate murder mystery, it was Christie. Though her writing is easy to read, she manages to weave tales that always leave you guessing. You rarely can guess the ending, so you're always surprised by the climax, the revelation that he (or she) committed the crime. If the English countryside wasn't enough, her knowledge of archaeology allowed her to bring her readers to exotic locations--Egypt, Mesopotamia, Morocco--where a reader learns that human nature does not change just because the locale has changed. Reading her books now with a more openly gay sensibility, I find that one of the brilliant things she was able to accomplish was the not infrequent inclusion of queerness, from flamboyant gay men and butch lesbians, to cross-dressing and the occasional fetish. She was able to write about these things using innuendo, conveying her intent without full blatant acknowledgment. Admittedly, some of the stories also reek with prejudices, but when you consider she began writing immediately after World War I and through World War II, xenophobia was not uncommon, especially when so many Europeans and Asians were flooding into England looking for a new life at the time. As a result, her stories reveal a social truth, but then often stealthily point out how such prejudices are misguided.

Which Christie books are among my favorites? The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) are classic Poirot mysteries not to be missed. 4:50 from Paddington (1957) is a Miss Marple mystery and has one of the greatest visual devices--a passenger riding on a train who witnesses a murder on a bypassing train (a plot I now recall with a grin every time I'm on the subway and I can see people in another subway running alongside). If you haven't already been spoiled by the plots of some of her classics, then definitely check out Murder on the Orient Express (1934) and Death on the Nile (1937). Recent film adaptations of Christie's mysteries have been quite good; I think David Suchet is superb as Poirot. For more, check out The Official Agathe Christie Website, run by her grandson.

One of the greatest mysteries about Christie was an incident in her own life, when she disappeared for about two weeks, and no one ever discovered what happened to her. Of course, those of you who are Doctor Who fans know what really happened. Check out this plot summary of the episode "The Unicorn and the Wasp" from the most recent season, when the Doctor and Donna Noble visited her and others at a country estate, where of course murder (and a little sci-fi) ensued.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Facebook Fenomenon (Part 1)

It appears these days that I'm giving in to the dominant paradigm of Internet-based communicating. Mind you, I've been an email junkie for years (I was one of the first who had a Prodigy email account!), and I do surf the Web on a regular basis. But I resist online networking and chatting. All that is apparently changing, however, as I joined Facebook yesterday. Needless to say, when I discovered how many people I knew were on Facebook, I felt like I had entered a party about two years late, and I'm still struggling just to get my bearings upon entering ("Uhm, where can I get a cocktail?"). Here are a few of my initial thoughts about Facebook:

1. I apparently know quite a few people. Seeing all of them listed as "friends," though, made me realize that I compartmentalize my family, friends, acquaintances, and colleagues into different pockets of my life. Seeing everyone suddenly clustered in one group is very strange. I guess one could say Facebook democratizes all of my relationships, but I find that alien to my sense of organization.

2. Searching for people from the past is frightening me. Well, actually, finding people from the past is what's frightening me. To see the names and pictures of people from my high school years flash before me if bizarre. It's my past coming back to haunt me. I don't mean this necessarily in a bad way, but I should explain that since I left NJ within a year after high school, I lost contact with almost everyone I had ever known. In my mind, they're the same people in my high school yearbook, not people twenty years older. (Ugh! Twenty years ago??)

3. Of course, #2 said, the other side is that there actually were a couple of people that I had always wondered what had happened to them, so I'll be curious to see if we connect again. But this brings me to another point. Does Facebook serve as a virtual social network and replace an "analog" (i.e., face-to-face) social network? I like email to establish contact with someone, but I prefer socializing in person, not online.

Ultimately, I imagine I have a lot to explore with this. I'm not discounting Facebook. On the contrary, I'm intrigued by it. I'm curious to see how it goes for me and whether I get into it or not. I certainly never expected to find blogging so satisfying, so who knows...I'm sure there will be a Part 2, Part 3, and so on, in my assessment of the Facebook Fenomenon.

Friday, September 12, 2008

NYC's Philosophy of Creative Destruction

Justin Davidson, architecture writer for New York magazine, has an interesting article this week called "The Glass Stampede," although admittedly it's the before & after shots of 54 buildings that really makes this article worth perusing. Davidson writes about the incredible rate of new construction and renovation work that has taken place in the City for the past 15 years. Over 76,000 new buildings have risen into the sky over that time. The sad part of it, of course, is that 44,000 other buildings were razed, and some were gems from a bygone era of New York's history. The picture here is of Avalon Bowery Place (11 and 22 E. 1st St.), where the building on the left was razed for the one on the right, which he describes as "pretty blah, but not without traces of urbanistic merit." Davidson is on the mark when he writes that "New York lives by a philosophy of creative destruction. The only thing permanent about real estate is a measured patch of earth and the column of air above it. The rest is disposable."

My tastes do not run toward the modern in architecture. While I can appreciate the minimalism of Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building, especially for its time, I really don't like it. Give me the Gothic traceries of Cass Gilbert's Woolworth Building any day. And like many New Yorkers I lament the 1960s destruction of the old McKim, Mead and White Pennsylvania Station. But as I've learned from a class I've taken on Gilded Age New York, and from watching episodes of the fantastic PBS documentary by Ric Burns on New York, this "philosophy of creative destruction" is innate to New York's history. Ever since the island of Manhattan was bought in 1626 by the Dutch for $24 from the local Natives Americans (a legend since corrected, but still worth citing), New York has had an ongoing history of tearing down and rebuilding, spreading throughout the island and into the boroughs, and moving upward into the skies to create some of the tallest skyscrapers in the world. Even Gilded Age families like the Astors and the Vanderbilts thought nothing of spending millions of dollars on chateau-like mansions, and then twenty years later tearing them down and rebuilding new homes twenty blocks further north (of course, they could afford to do that). Two branches of the Astors lived in brownstones on Fifth Avenue on the corners of 33rd and 34th Sts. Despite their rivalry, both branches had their houses torn down and built the monumental Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in the 1890s. By 1929, that hotel was long-gone (rebuilt further uptown) and construction had begun on the Empire State Building. This ongoing razing and rebuilding is all about progress and improvement, and no other city in the world does it better than New York.

So despite what it may seem regarding my personal architectural tastes, I will say that some of the newer construction in the City does impress me (even if I may not necessarily like it). I find the American Folk Art Museum an amazing, brutalist-like space. The Time-Warner Center at Columbus Circle is dazzling inside. And though Davidson critiques the Westin Hotel at 270 W. 43rd St., calling it an example of "jolie-laide, an ugly beauty," I think its bizarre colorful nature and warped visual towers work perfectly in the new Broadway/Times Square family-oriented environment dominated by oversized basketballs and M&M's, and a Madame Tussauds. That said, did I mention I absolutely hate going to Times Square?

Pets Return Home

Here's an update from the ASPCA in their latest NY-area newsletter: "Gustav Update: Pets and Their People Return Home." According to the email alert I received from them, "Last Sunday, the ASPCA Disaster Response Team helped to send the last of more than 1,000 evacuated animals home with their human families—all grateful to have remained together throughout the hurricane." Word has it that pets and owners are gleefully happy, like this cheerful little girl, Daisy, a Jack Russell terrier mix who lives in Lafayette, LA.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

7 Years Later...

It seems only appropriate that I say something about 9/11 on the seventh anniversary of that tragic day. The above image has become an iconic memorial for all of us who remember that day. (This particular photo was taken by Derek Jensen and was kindly issued in the public domain by him through Wikimedia Commons.)

This morning while eating breakfast, every news station was reporting on the memorial services being held near Ground Zero. I was living near Boca Raton, FL when the tragedy took place. The events happened in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania, but the tragedy was global and we were affected by the implications of it as well. Governor Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency and reflection, and everything was shut down for the day. Surprisingly, it came out afterwards that some of the highjackers had been living in a neighborhood about a 10-minute drive away from my own home.

It's amazing to think how many years ago all that was. Yet, somehow it still seems so real and new. That's the funny thing about time--it is immeasurable. Chronos can fool you into forgetting how long or how short the amount of time has passed. I visited NYC shortly after the incident, and I can attest to the eerie spiritual presence that could be felt in the area. The energy of the living and deceased penetrated the air all around. Sadly, that didn't stop hawkers from trying to sell picture books and postcards of the falling towers amidst the streams of makeshift memorials along the way.

Watching the grief on the faces of so many of the people on television this morning, I was struck by how many of them still need to visit the WTC site, to actually be in the place where their loved ones were killed. It's as if they still need to connect to that place, that moment in time, where and when their loved one died. For some people, visiting a cemetery might provide that solace. I go to the cemetery to visit my mother's grave everytime I'm back in Florida, but I do it for meditative purposes, not to "connect" with her. She resides in my mind, my memories and dreams being how I want to connect with her, not through a cemetery plot. Yet, for these people participating in the 9/11 memorial today, a cemetery can never be enough. The moment of death is more important to them, not the placement of the remains. For some, the remains of their loved ones were never recovered, and so this is their final resting place. No memorial site in suburban New Jersey or Connecticut can ever provide them with the solace they seek.

I've learned that grieving never ends, but it does get easier to live with as each day passes. It is my hope for the families and friends of the 9/11 victims that they are able to move beyond the shock of their own grief and eventually find solace in the lives of their loved ones, not in their deaths. For in the end, it is how we lived, not how we died, that matters most.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The New Met Director

At almost exactly 5:00 PM, The Metropolitan Museum of Art announced the name of their new director: Thomas P. Campbell, a British-born and Oxford- and Courtauld-educated curator at the museum who specializes in tapestries (his recent show on Baroque tapestries was quite spectacular). The current director, Philippe de Montebello, retires at the end of the year after one of the longest tenures (30 years!) in the museum's 138-year history.

For those unfamiliar with the visual art world, this is a big deal. To become director of a museum like the Met is about the equivalent of becoming the monarch of a small kingdom. A museum director's role takes on many guises, from ensuring the scholarly quality of exhibitions to generating donations for the institution. It combines the roles of art historian, business executive, and fundraising coordinator in one. In other words, being a museum director is a prestigious position, but is challenging work. To have that position at one of the--if not THE--most important museum in the country is truly an accomplishment. The Met often sets the standard for how American and international museums showcase their universal art collections, and the museum stands proudly beside the Louvre, the Vatican, and both National Galleries, among other illustrious institutions, for its collections and exhibitions.

Campbell was rumored to be the underdog for the position. The other candidates were two other curators and Max Hollein, a director of not one but three art museums in Frankfurt, Germany. CultureGrrl was convinced it was going to be Hollein, but I guess her "Deep Throat" mole turned out to be wrong. CultureGrrl has her thoughts on the appointment of Campbell and the Met's ongoing "work in progress." The New York Times has something to say as well. If you want to go to the official source, here's the Met's official press release.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Schama on Turner

Friends from my Ph.D. program joined me this afternoon at The Metropolitan Museum of Art to hear Simon Schama give a lecture about the incredible work of British artist J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), in conjunction with the special exhibition of his work currently on display (it closes in two weeks). Turner is one of those artists whose work almost everyone loves. Some people find his traditional seascapes, landscapes, and ship pictures to be his best work. Others appreciate his modernist use of color and brushstroke to convey emotion, almost as if he were a proto-Impressionist (Monet and Pissarro were huge fans). I love Turner because of his manipulation of lighting and the energy that pulsates from his works. A picture such as this one, Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps (1812), captures the viewer's attention with an ominous storm approaching. Looking closely, you realize that the storm is swallowing the army of minuscule people in the mountains. The contrast of light and dark, and the vortex of energy, all play into the British Romantic love of the Sublime, the awesomeness of nature. This scene depicts an event in ancient history, when Hannibal crossed the Alps on an elephant, but failed in his attempt to invade the Italian peninsula. Despite the historic reference, the British public at the time identified this picture with Napoleon, with whom they were at war, and saw it as prophesying his inevitable downfall, which in fact came true soon afterwards.

To look at a Turner is exciting enough, but to hear Schama talk about him was like bringing Turner's paintings to life. It was nothing less than sheer brilliance. Schama teaches at Columbia University, but his reputation as an art historian is internationally renown. He knows so much about so many aspects of modern art and history that it rolls off his tongue like an encyclopedia. But he's never boring (he was supposed to speak for 45 minutes, went on for another 30 minutes, and I could have listened easily for an additional 30 minutes). He engaged the audience with his usual "Britty" attitude (my neologism, meaning British wit), simultaneously entertaining and educating that I wanted to keep hearing more. Even more importantly, he spoke to us as intelligent human beings, pointing out elements using language that made me want to know more. For instance, in one Turner picture of the ruins of a church, he described the lighting as "a poetic conduit between past and present." The focus of his talk was on the British element in Turner's work, demonstrating how even though his work transcends national sensibility, there is an innate quality to Turner's work that is essentially British. His work reveals what Schama called "visionary patriotism."

If you want to hear what Schama has to say about other artists, then you must check out his Power of Art series, now available on DVD (the episodes on Rembrandt, Turner, and van Gogh are my favorites). If you want to see more works by Turner and can't get to London, go to the Tate Britain's online Turner Collection to see images of the collection of his works that he bequeathed to the British people in his will.

Friday, September 5, 2008

ASPCA Disaster Response Team...

Following up on the plight of pets during emergency evacuations the ASPCA has an update on their work with those who were forced to evacuate during Hurricane Gustav last week: "ASPCA Disaster Response Team Helps Keep Pets Safe During Hurricane Gustav." Let's hope things go equally well with those dealing with Hurricane Hanna, and possibly Hurricane Ike next week!

And in case you're wondering, the picture of the gorgeous greyhound is my buddy George (my newly adopted "nephew"). He lives in Jacksonville, FL. His mom, SVH, is one of my very best friends. She's done a wonderful thing by adopting a retired greyhound. It's absolutely horrible to think that there was a time not too long ago, that when greyhounds were retired at the age of two or three, they were shot and left for dead. Now with adoptions, these greyhounds get to live the full lives they deserve to live. There are many websites out there on greyhound adoptions, but consider starting at Adopt a Greyhound, which has lots of helpful information and a list of authorized participating agencies across the country.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Francis Bacon on top

People think I don't like 20th-century art. I admit I'm partly responsible for giving off that impression, but what I've come to discover is that I have very specific artists and/or works that thrill me. The British artist Francis Bacon (1909-1992) is one of them. Someone not familiar with his work might look at this work, Painting (1946), at MOMA and wonder how I could like it. At over 6 feet in height, the canvas shows a giant splayed animal carcass, blood and guts dripping all over, not to mention a decapitated businessman with an umbrella for a hat. It would be safe to say that it is a gruesome, if not revolting, painting. But like all art, you have to see it in person, and you'll be shocked and horrified by everything it has to offer. It's not a pretty picture, but then again, visceral art rarely is. And there's the rub. I could tell you it has to do with post-World War II existential angst (which it probably does). I could tell you that it harkens back to the traditions of Spanish painting from Velázquez to Picasso with its blackness and animal flesh (which it also does). Or I could tell you it conveys the shock and horror of a gay man's torment over his unaccepted state of being (which it very well could, as Bacon was gay). Whatever its meaning though, the subject matter plays second-fiddle to its self-referential title -- it's just a painting. And yet, my God, what a painting! While much of Bacon's work has this kind of quality, he is also known for haunting triptychs of his lover George Dyer, who committed suicide in 1971. In fact, these triptychs are among Bacon's most prized works. Sarah Thornton has written a recent article in The Art Newspaper about Bacon's current meteoric rise to the top of the art market for post-War art. As she notes, while his work was once seen as morbid, they're now seen as "exhilaratingly raw." The Tate Modern is organizing a Bacon retrospective that opens this month in London and then moves to the Prado. It will be the blockbuster show next summer at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. I can't wait!

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Review: Nick Patten

Provincetown is one of those vacation spots noted for its art galleries. Many of the artists showcased are often locals, so one sees plenty of Cape Cod scenes that seem targeted to tourists. I was startled then to discover the work of New York-born artist Nick Patten, whose work was on show at the Rice/Polak Gallery while I was there. Patten works in oil and is largely a self-taught artist. The Rice/Polak Gallery writes: "His careful compositions in light and shade capture the essence of Cape light illuminating a corner of a room or stairwell, imbuing both subject and viewer with a sense of serenity." While certainly this is true--lighting is one of the highlights of his work--what struck me most about his paintings were their uncanny, haunting realism. Works such as this one, View to the Foyer, are more complicated than at first they seem. His paintings have the open-frame, slice-of-life quality that Edgar Degas explored in many of his paintings. This painting reveals not what you see in front of you, but what you see in your peripheral vision. But the emptiness the space conveys makes you stop, turn your head, and pause. The stillness reminds me of paintings by Edward Hopper, where silence echoes beyond the canvas and into the viewer's mind, making him/her part of the scene. By gazing upon his paintings, the viewer enters Patten's rooms and quietly walks through the space, moving almost magically from painting to painting. His work truly demonstrates how classical rendering and style can appeal to both traditionalists and the avant-garde. For more of his work, visit his website at

Monday, September 1, 2008

Emergency Pet Preparedness

If you Google "pets gustav" you'll quickly discover many news articles that talk about how local evacuation teams helped prepare pets so that they could travel with their owners who were forced to evacuate because of Hurricane Gustav. I cannot express how happy I was to hear this. During Hurricane Katrina, when I saw the news about the lack of preparation and consideration for pets and animals at that time, it absolutely broke my heart. Pets are family members too, and they must be taken care of as well. The thought that I would ever be forced to separate from my pet for an evacuation is something I never want to endure, so I cheer all the politicians who made this new mandate happen.

In the spirit of protecting those animal companions who make our lives complete, I thought I would share the ASPCA's Emergency Pet Preparedness website. They offer great tips and helpful advice not just for dogs and cats, but birds and other small animals as well. There's even a link for ordering the Free Pet Rescue Sticker below.