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, 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,, 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'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.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Review: Gypsy

This weekend, my friends NV, MT, CB, & CM from Miami came to the Big Apple to celebrate NV's birthday. We had lots of fun, with dinners, shopping, and dancing, but the highlight for all of us was going to see Gypsy on Broadway at the St. James Theatre. The show was spectacular. Gypsy is taken from the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee (1911-1970), the burlesque stripper and actress. But the main protagonist of the show is Rose, her mother, who manages (and dominates) her two daughters' careers across the country during the waning days of Vaudeville. It has some easily recognizable tunes, like "Let Me Entertain You," "Everything's Coming Up Roses," and "Together Wherever We Go." This Broadway revival won the 2008 Tony Awards for Best Actress (Patti LuPone as Rose), Best Featured Actor (Boyd Gaines as Herbie), and Best Featured Actress (Laura Benanti as Louise/Gypsy Rose Lee). During our performance, Benanti apparently was replaced by her understudy Jessica Rush, so I can't assess what we missed there. However, I can say for certain that I would have been grossly disappointed if I had missed LuPone. If ever a role was written for a singer-actress, Rose was written for Patti LuPone. This woman is a musical knock-out. LuPone has such an incredible stage presence that she dominates every scene she is in, simply by sauntering on stage. Her voice brings down the house. The minute she showed up on stage, the audience gave her a round of applause, and she got a standing ovation at the end of the night. It's not easy to sing a Stephen Sondheim song. His lyrics can become tongue-twisters, and paired with Jule Styne's music, the person who plays Rose needs to make leaps of faith in harmony and tone. Rose has such a pushy stage presence that you expect her to be an exaggeration, but LuPone makes the hyperbolic believable and human. Even more impressive was her control of syncopation and the complexity of the lyrics, all while the orchestra masterfully played catch-up. What can I say but that it was simply astounding. Everything was definitely coming up roses last night.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Our 44th President

It's official: our 44th President will be Barack Obama! I have purposely avoided politics on this blog, but I have to say I am very pleased with this news. I can only hope that having our first African-American President will set the stage for a future where race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation will no longer be dividing setbacks in defining what an American is, for we are all human beings first and deserve equal treatment, regardless of our differences. Only then can we truly call ourselves Americans. Change is the one constant in life that cannot be stopped. Welcome to Change.

Sunday, November 2, 2008


I've received some exciting news. I'm the recipient of the Fall 2008 Graduate Student Travel Award from the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies (CLAGS). The award is in recognition of the paper I will be giving later next week at a conference, and is to be used to assist with my travel expenses. My paper is entitled "Channeling (Ant)Eros: John Gibson's Queer Sculpture," but I'll talk more about the paper later. For now I thought I would blog about CLAGS, because they really are doing some fantastic work for 17 years now. As they say on their own website: "The Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies (CLAGS) was founded in 1991 as the first university-based research center in the United States dedicated to the study of historical, cultural, and political issues of vital concern to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals and communities." The founder and first director was Martin Duberman, a renown scholar of gay history. Back in the mid-'90s when I was first pursuing research in the field, I contacted Prof. Duberman to ask for his advice (by letter no less; this was before email was the norm). Imagine my excitement when I got home and there was a voicemail from him and a verbal invitation to phone him to talk more. We did speak, and I still to this day appreciate his encouragement of pursuing my interest in gay issues in the fields of art history and cultural studies. Sometimes people think we're in a "post-gay" world, but with the organized threat of new laws going into effect after Tuesday's election--laws that would outright take away the equal rights of gays and lesbians in places like California--groups like CLAGS are needed more now than ever. For more about CLAGS, check out their website at

Review: Cranford

When most people think of Victorian novels, inevitably they think first of Charles Dickens, second the Bronte sisters and Oscar Wilde, third maybe Thomas Hardy and Anthony Trollope. But usually only Victorianists read novels by people such as Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865), but people need to know more about her. About a decade ago I read Cranford, a collection of novella-like stories Gaskell published in the early 1850s. It's the story of a fictional town in Cheshire, England, around the early 1840s, just at the time when the Industrial Revolution was stretching the railroad throughout the English countryside and frightening people in small towns such as Cranford. It has a great opening line: "In the first place, Cranford is in possession of the Amazons." These Amazons are the women of Cranford, mostly spinsters or widows, but all seemingly in charge of this town where men seem to play no role at all, certainly not in the lives of the Amazons. Cranford is actually one of the funniest, most sentimental, and most endearing Victorian books I've ever read, and I always remembered it fondly as a favorite.

Needless to say, I was pleased to hear last year about the new BBC production of Cranford. It aired in the US earlier this year on PBS, and I finally managed to catch it on DVD and watch the five episodes over the course of a fortnight (sorry, couldn't resist). It was superb! Some of you may remember the production of Bleak House that was done a few years ago, and if you loved that, then you'll love Cranford. Judi Dench plays Miss Matty Jenkyns, a warm-hearted but occasionally befuddled spinster. Dench heads an all-star cast that also includes Eileen Atkins, Francesca Annis, Imelda Staunton, Julia Sawalha, and on and on. Among the men, Michael Gambon has a brief role, but it's well done, and Simon Woods (who I've had a crush on since he was in HBO's Rome) plays Cranford's young, new, doe-eyed Dr. Frank Harrison. It's important to keep in mind that the producers were all women as well, which I think adds a certain flair to the production (one of the sole males on set was the director). They did take some serious creative license with Gaskell's book, so don't expect a true-to-the-novel adaptation, but as has been noted, Cranford is such a melange of individual tales that it reads more like a series of interwoven short stories and not a solid novel in and of itself. But the miniseries succeeds in its representations of issues of the day, like the approaching railroad, the importance for a women to marry (or not, as the case may be), new treatments for medical ailments, and education for the impoverished and women. There are some hysterically funny moments, like when the cow falls in the limepit and the women sew him grey flannel pajamas to heal his wounds. But this is emotional drama too, and death is a recurring motif throughout the miniseries, as it was during the Victorian period, so be prepared to watch it with a handkerchief.