Friday, December 25, 2009


Of all the gifts I could have gotten for Christmas this year, I never dreamed that the BSOD would be one of them. The past few days have been seriously chaotic, so I was looking forward to quiet time today working on a few writing projects with my laptop. Imagine my shock, horror, and dismay when my computer went through its WindowsXP startup and then flashed before me the accursed Blue Screen of Death. It suggested I do things like restart if I had never seen this message before, so I tried this more than once, but each time I was greeted by the BSOD. I think my favorite part of the computer lingo gibberish was the message that appeared at the bottom:
Beginning dump of physical memory
Physical memory dump complete.
Now, I don't know about you, but telling me my physical memory had been dumped was like watching a portion of my life disintegrate before me. I've been racking my brain, hoping that I backed up many files, but my flash drives are home so I can't check. I know I've lost quite a bit of music downloaded from iTunes and numerous digital images. The laptop was just over 5 years old, so I guess this was inevitable. But still, seriously aggravating. Fortunately for now, my father has Internet access here in Florida, enabling me to share this catastrophe with you, but who knows when bklynbiblio will be operating again from the comforts of a second-floor brownstone apartment in Cobble Hill. 2010 better start off better than 2009 seems to be ending!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Christmas 2009

Even though the temperature today was about 30 degrees Fahrenheit, the sun was strong. I'm surprised (and perhaps a little disappointed) to say that a few inches of the snow have melted already. From comments on my post last night, it appears my friend CC and her family in Yorkshire, England have been contending with heavy snow, while Shermania in upstate New York barely got any snow at all. We wound up with just under a foot in my neighborhood and, yes, I was out there shoveling at 8:45am! Hopefully this means airport travel tomorrow should be smooth. I'm heading to the Sunshine State (where it's actually not very warm at the moment) to visit family for the holidays, so any bklynbiblio posts I do for a while will be from down there. I leave you with the above picture I took with my mobile phone of a wooden rocking horse that was a gift from my mother in 1991. The hand-painted horse is about a foot high and long. To me, it exudes a sense of Victorian sentimentality, which Momma knew I would appreciate. It seemed like an appropriate image to share since tomorrow also would have been her 67th birthday. Needless to say, this rocking horse is one of my most cherished holiday decorations. Buon Natale, tutti! Merry Christmas to you all!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

First Snowfall & Snowstorm: 2009-2010 Winter

A few minutes before 1pm today, I was walking to the laundromat when I noticed the first snowflakes of the season falling from the sky. In the suburbs they've had snow already, but this is our first snowfall for the season. The weathermen had been predicting that NYC was going to get a full snowstorm this weekend, which I think is always exciting because, for just a brief time, the City looks like it's covered in a beautiful, soft white blanket and becomes tranquil and still. Most of the afternoon, the snow was very light, so I didn't think much of it. I spent the evening drinking tea and watching the exciting new episode of Doctor Who (The Waters of Mars) on BBC America. When it was over, I figured I would shovel off our front stoop and sidewalk. Imagine my surprise when I saw that we had accumulated over 5 inches already and the snow was coming down quite heavily! (Yes, when you live in a brownstone without a superintendent, you have to do things like shovel your own walkway.) The picture you see above is a shot from the top of the stoop that I took with my digital camera about 10:30pm. The amber color is quite accurate; the streetlamps reflect off the snow and illuminate the sky with this lovely golden hue. But if you really want to get a sense of how hard the snow is coming down, check out the picture below, which is the same view but with the flash on. I'll have quite a bit of shoveling to do in the morning, I have no doubt! I only hope the airports will be back on track for when I fly on Monday morning (which, oddly enough, I was worried about last year too because it snowed right before I was leaving town).

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

DSR Grant

Today was my last final exam ever, and I turned in my research papers too. I still have to complete my independent study project, which I will turn in after the holidays, but as of today I am officially finished with classes for credit! Even more exciting, the other day I received good news from my school. I've been awarded a Doctoral Student Research Grant. The award will help pay my expenses for a research trip I will be making to Liverpool, England next year. My proposal was to conduct research at the Walker Art Gallery and surrounding areas of Liverpool on the sculpture of John Gibson (1790-1866), about whom you may recall I gave a conference paper at Yale in November 2008. Gibson was born in Wales but his family moved to Liverpool when he was 9 years old. He received his early training in sculpting there, and his first patrons were all Liverpudlians. Despite his move to Rome he maintained a connection with this city, continuing to produce poetic subjects of gods and tomb monuments for many of its citizens. The image you see here is a photograph I took of Gibson's sculpture The Sleeping Shepherd Boy during my first visit to the Walker Art Gallery in April 2006 with my cousin HA in England. Gibson created the plaster cast of the statue in 1818 while he was studying with the great Antonio Canova (1757-1822), and he subsequently carved up to 3 versions in marble for different patrons. The Walker acquired this statue about 20 years ago, adding it to their already substantial holdings of sculpture by Gibson and others. It will be exciting to spend more time in Liverpool to do this research (in part also because a branch of my mother's family comes from this general area...I wonder if we're related?). I am very glad to have received this grant to help make the project happen, but since I probably won't be going until next fall, I will have to wait patiently until then.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Review: Neverwas

Sometimes it's worth watching a movie you know absolutely nothing about. I had been looking for something different to get from Netflix when I came across Neverwas (2005), a movie they had listed as a thriller. I saw that it starred Ian McKellen, which suggested to me that even if the movie was bad, his acting would make it worth my time. The plot summary from Netflix reads: "After taking a job at the mental institution that once housed his father, a famous children's author, erudite psychiatrist Zach Riley befriends a schizophrenic who unlocks a string of family secrets." Needless to say, despite a forced beginning, the movie turned out to be amazing. It's certainly not a thriller in any action-packed sense. Rather, it's an adult fairytale, one which I'm realizing now as I write this probably appealed to me much in the same way A.S. Byatt's writing does. The movie invites you to question the blurred boundaries of reality, insanity, and fantasy, and unfolds in a way that makes you want to know more, and to feel more. The movie was written and directed by Joshua Michael Stern, and for his freshman outing in moviemaking, he accomplished something of which others would be jealous. The true accomplishment in the film, however, rests with the acting of some surprising stars. In addition to McKellen, who is superb, there is Jessica Lange, Nick Nolte, Alan Cumming, William Hurt, and others who round out an amazing cast. Aaron Eckhart plays the protagonist, and while his acting often seems stiff to me, I found myself warming up to him in this movie. Even Brittany Murphy, who plays the main female role (I shan't give away details), was surprisingly good. The soundtrack by Philip Glass was as haunting and disturbing as Glass's music can be, but it worked well, especially in the forest scene (see the picture above). Watch this movie. It's a great story with an emotional tug that borders on melodrama but fortunately never tips over, and when you finally feel it, you will feel it good. Here is the trailer for the movie, but be forewarned: it makes you think it's a kids' fantasy, but in fact it's very much a story for adults.

UPDATE (12/20/09): Brittany Murphy died today at the age of 32, apparently of cardiac arrest. As I mentioned above, she never was one of my favorite actresses, but she was surprisingly good in this film and certainly showed that she had talent. Very sad. Here is a link to her obituary in The New York Times.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Books of 2009

The New York Times has posted its annual list of books: "100 Notable Books of 2009." The first 50 are fiction/poetry, the second 50 are non-fiction. As I noted last year when I wrote about this, the list comes from all the books that were reviewed by the newspaper. They've posted on the website the following disclaimer: "It was not easy picking the winners, and we doubtless made mistakes. To the authors who made the list: congratulations. To the equally deserving ones who did not: our apologies." Interestingly, there are 12 collections of short stories on the list this year, which they call a "heartening development" in this form of storytelling. I must agree.

Whereas last year I had not read a single book on the list, at least this year I can say that I read one, The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (2009). Here is their summary: "In Waters’s novel of postwar [i.e. World War II] anxiety, members of a decaying upper-crust English family start to come to sticky ends in their creepy mansion." Waters is one of my favorite authors, and this book was quite good. It wasn't as much of a scary thriller as the book jacket implied, but it did have its supernatural moments. The author's amazing ability to create believable characters is definitely among her strong points. I can still vividly see Caroline Ayres reclining on a couch reading, her legs tucked underneath her with the slightest trace of unshaven leg hair just barely peeking out from the long wool skirt she wears. Waters writes with an amazing eye for detail.

If we include my last read of 2008 [Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian, about which I posted a review], I read 35 books this year as of today. Following up on Waters's book, I then read her absolutely amazing novel Fingersmith (2002). It draws on all of Waters's trademarks: Victorian culture, lesbianism, and mysteries. It is unlike anything you will have ever read before, and you will not be able to put it down. One of my other favorite fiction reads this year was Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth (1905) [about which I posted a review], which still occasionally haunts me some mornings, financially speaking, if I stop to buy a $4 cappuccino at Dean & Deluca. Other notable fiction reads this year included Roderick Hudson by Henry James (1875), A Mercy by Toni Morrison (2008) [which was on the NYT's 2008 list], the mystery One Across, Two Down by Ruth Rendell (1971), and The Bonesetter's Daughter by Amy Tan (2001). The following were among the more interesting of the art historical books I read this year: 19th-Century Sculpture by H.W. Janson (1985), The Aesthetic Movement by Lionel Lambourne (1996), and Antoine's Alphabet by Jed Perl (2008), about which I may be writing a review soon. If you're wondering about the book cover you see here, it's for Mansfield Park by Jane Austen (1814), which I'm reading right now, along with the exhibition catalogue for Watteau, Music, and Theater (2009) and The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning by Ernest Kurtz & Katherine Ketcham (1992), but those will have to go on next year's list.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Library Bytes: The NYPL

My friend and fellow librarian SVH sent me a link on YouTube that is a video released by The New York Public Library celebrating their Library Lions, people who were honored for their outstanding contributions and support of libraries. The honorees this past November included author Annie Proulx and illustrator Hilary Knight. I'm embedding the video below because it's great in terms of helping promote library services, not just here in NYC, but anywhere in the country. I've used the services of the main research branch more than once. Not only is it a beautiful building, but it's an incredible "democratic" experience to think that anyone can go in and use any book in their collection. You can complain about how long the book retrieval service can take, but it's still a pretty amazing system. My friend DC works there, and I know they've been hit with financial cutbacks like everyone else. But they're striving to still provide the best services they can to the public. The line drawing of a lion that you see here is their new logo. It relates to the famous sculpted lions named Patience and Fortitude that rest on plinths outside the main entrance on 5th Avenue. You can read more about them by clicking here. In the meantime, watch this video. It's really well done.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving and Swinburne?

The following was today's Daily Literary Quote:
"From too much love of living,
From hope and fear set free,
We thank with brief thanksgiving
Whatever gods may be
That no life lives for ever;
That dead men rise up never;
That even the weariest river
Winds somewhere safe to sea."

I was surprised to see this quote in relation to Thanksgiving, because it has absolutely nothing to do with our American holiday except for the word itself. (I guess it's hard to find poems that have to do with turkeys, Pilgrims, and being grateful.) The quote comes from a poem entitled "The Garden of Proserpine" and is about Hades, the ancient Greek land of the dead, and its reigning queen Proserpine, who's described elsewhere in the poem as having "cold immortal hands" that she uses to welcome newly dead men. Fun stuff, huh? (You can read the full text of the poem by clicking here.) The author of the poem is the Victorian writer Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909), whom you see here at the age of 22 or 23 when he was painted by William Bell Scott (image courtesy of the Victorian Web). As you can see, he had a small frame and outrageous, flaming red hair. A talented poet, he socialized with the Pre-Raphaelites. He loved to drink and had a reputation for indulging in a sexual life that included going to a whorehouse that specialized in flagellation (i.e., he liked to get whipped). He even reputedly chased Simeon Solomon, both of them naked, down the staircase at Dante Gabriel Rossetti's house in London. And people think the Victorians were prudes! I wrote about Rossetti and Swinburne for my master's thesis a while back, concentrating on paired examples of the fatal woman motif (she's such a stunner that her beauty overpowers and ultimately destroys men). Examples include Lucrezia Borgia, Venus, Lilith, and Proserpine. This year happens to be the 100th anniversary of Swinburne's death, and there were a few academic events to commemorate it, but Swinburne still isn't well known outside the world of Victorianists, which is shame, because his poetry is rather titillating, and was considered quite scandalous when his first edition of Poems and Ballads was published in 1866

Happy Thanksgiving to my readers! I am grateful for your encouragement, support, and comments about bklynbiblio, so keep them coming.

Monday, November 23, 2009

DW: The End of Time, Part 1

I'm glad there are blogs like Anglophenia that keep me up-to-date on my favorite BBC America shows like Doctor Who. BBC has released a teaser for the first part of the final two-part episode in which David Tennant will appear as The Doctor. The episode is called "The End of Time" and from the clip below you'll see that the Ood play an important part of the story. In the picture above, that little globe thing in the Ood's hand is a communication device. And, if I may be so bold as to note that I guessed correctly, it looks like The Master (John Simm) will be returning for The Doctor's end! The next episode in the cycle, "The Waters of Mars," premieres on BBC America on December 19th, which I will be able to see. Part 1 of "The End of Time" premieres on December 26th. I just hope my father's cable system in Florida has BBC America by now, or I'm going to be seriously upset!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Unfriending Since 1659

Have you ever unfriended someone? In today's world, with online social networking sites like Facebook, unfriending means you drop them from your network. I once dated this guy who insisted we become Facebook friends. We stopped seeing each other after 3 dates, and just when I was getting ready to unfriend him, I discovered that he had already unfriended me. I was devastated! I mean, to unfriend someone can be empowering, even if you feel guilty about doing it. But getting unfriended is like showing up for a party and having the door slammed in your face. It's not fun.

Why all the hoopla about unfriending? NPR had a news byte today that the New Oxford American Dictionary has selected "unfriend" as their 2009 Word of the Year. The funny thing is that the word isn't new. It's been around since 1659. According to the Oxford English Dictionary the first recorded use was by Thomas Fuller in The Appeal of Injured Innocence: "I hope, Sir, that we are not mutually Unfriended by this Difference which hath happened betwixt us." I checked my Webster's Dictionary and it's strange that they don't have a listing for unfriend, but they do have one for unfriended, an adjective that dates back to 1513 meaning having no friends. Of course, the word is directly linked to unfriendly and unfriendliness, which date to the 15th century, so basically we've been hostile and rejecting friends for hundreds of years now, way before Facebook!

Yes, I'm a logophile: I love words. I especially love etymologies (where words come from), so this is all fun stuff to me. What were some of the past few Words of the Years? Two interesting ones were 2007's locavore (one who tries to eat locally grown food) and podcast in 2005. I wish I could pick my favorite word. There are so many to choose from, but two of them are meretrix and perspicacity.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Figurative Art

On Friday evening, I met up with PR and AM for a lecture at the National Academy Museum & School of Fine Arts. The NA is the American equivalent of the Royal Academy (founded in London in 1768) or the Ecole nationale supérieure des Beaux-arts (founded in Paris in 1648), art schools that also held annual exhibitions, all in the guise of establishing national schools of art. According to their website, the NA was founded in 1825 as the National Academy of Design by American artists such as Asher B. Durand, Thomas Cole, and Samuel F.B. Morse (he was an artist before he invented the telegraph) with the goal to "promote the fine arts in America through instruction and exhibition." I've seen a few exhibitions there in the past, and they're usually interesting (the George Tooker show was fantastic), so I was glad to go see this particular exhibition: Reconfiguring the Body in American Art, 1820-2009. Unfortunately, I was a little disappointed. While I am very interested in representation of the human form in art (more so than I'm interested in, say, landscape painting), I felt like the exhibition was just a parade of one picture after another showing portraits or self-portraits. It was more a visual unfolding of people. It would have been more intriguing to pair works together by some thematic component than follow the usual historical trajectory. However, I did go more to hear the lecture, which was by Sally Webster, professor emerita at the CUNY Graduate Center and Lehman College (and, as recently noted on this blog, a former professor of mine). Webster's presentation was entitled "Engaging the Figure/Structuring Space: The Body's Prerogative in 19th-Century American Art." She began with John Trumbull and John Vanderlyn, discussing their European training in the early part of the 19th century. She went on to show how figurative subjects all but disappeared in American art once the Hudson River School came to be seen internationally as the first true "American" form of art, but noted how a return in figurative art was seen as radical starting in the 1870s in works by artists such as Thomas Eakins. I appreciated her final analysis of the painting you see reproduced here, Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic), 1875 (it was not in the exhibition). This picture, now co-owned by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, shows Eakins at his visceral best, as the subject is Dr. Gross instructing a class while performing surgery on a patient. This picture is a portrait, but it's also a genre scene. It's huge in size (8' x 6'), so it elevates it to the level of grand manner portraiture and history painting, but there is nothing glorious about the picture. Rather, it's a stark representation of realism. Webster defined the picture as "Figurative Art," a work that combines all of these different styles, but shifts the subject's focus back on the importance of the human form, both in the doctor, the students, the patient, and the woman who turns away in horror. This new way of painting borrowed on contemporary trends in European art, which in part was why it was disliked by die-hard Americanists at the time. But figurative art would become a new trend which would help redefine American art from after the Civil War to World War I.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Review: Wishful Drinking

All you have to do is look at the image of the book cover on the right and see the ridiculous twisty-bun hairdo to recognize Princess Leia from Star Wars...but wait, are those pills and an empty martini glass in her hand? The actress and writer Carrie Fisher has released this book and is now starring in a one-woman show at Studio 54 (yes, the former historic dance club, now owned by the Roundabout Theatre Company) just off Broadway. My friend NV from Miami Beach was back in town with friends for his birthday, so last night we had a lovely dinner at Maison and then went to see the show. It is hilarious. Fisher breaks down all the drama of her life into a two-hour monologue (well, really, a dialogue because there are audience-participation moments) that covers issues from being the daughter of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher to her own failed marriages and bouts with alcoholism and drug addiction. When her daughter started dating Elizabeth Taylor's grandson (or something like that), Fisher realized that they might be related, hence her genealogy-history lesson "Hollywood Inbreeding 101" in which she goes through all the marriages and divorces of her parents and their ex-spouses. As she so aptly put it, when Taylor's husband died, Fisher's father offered first his shoulder for her to cry on and then he comforted her with his penis. Fisher is best identified with Princess Leia, and she spends a fair amount of time recounting how this impacted her life. Not only has she been marketed as a sex doll, but she's a Pez dispenser too (which she claims is her favorite self-image of all). This segment proves that Hollywood is less about art and more about merchandising, especially when you see these all the ways her image has been appropriated.

The crux of the show, however, is about Fisher's bouts with addiction and bipolar disease, and her electro-shock therapy treatments. You could sense at times that the audience gets uncomfortable when she talks about these things because much of what she's describing seems like something you shouldn't laugh at, or just sounds so emotionally painful on her part. But her humor about it all makes you realize that it has been her way of coping with life. She makes no apologies for anything she says, and she certainly isn't looking for sympathy. At one point, she gives the audience a "mental health" quiz, and it's not surprising to discover that just about everyone in the theater has had bouts of depression and to some extent is mentally ill. The main difference for her, however, is her chemical imbalance and how she abused alcohol and drugs to cope with her illness and with her emotional insecurities. For anyone who has had exposure to any of these things, this show does give some insight, but more importantly it offers a much-needed cathartic release from the tension society still holds around mental illness and addiction.

In doing a Google search before I wrote this, I came across an interesting blog post called "Star Wars, Stigma, and Carrie Fisher" by Simone Hoermann, a psychologist and professor at Columbia University, who saw the show a few weeks ago. She also enjoyed it and, from a professional perspective, found herself appreciating Fisher's candid take on mental illness. She ends by writing: "My hope is that there can be a growing dialogue about these questions [on mental illness]. My hope is also that, in talking about mental illness, celebrities like Carrie Fisher can help fight the stigma. And it wouldn't have to be in a galaxy far, far away. This one would do just fine."

Here is a link to the official website for Wishful Drinking, where Fisher has a short video about the show. If you're in the City and have a chance to see it, definitely go.

Friday, November 6, 2009

CAA 2010: To go, or not to go...

Every February, the College Art Association (CAA) holds its annual conference. It used to be in various cities across the country, but now they rotate between Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. In February, it will be in Chicago, and I'm trying to decide whether or not I should go. CAA is the largest of the professional organizations dedicated to the study of art history and the making of art, offering everything from grants to professional support and publishing opportunities. To deliver a paper at one is seen as an important part of art historical discourse. I've been fortunate to have done so twice already: the first in 2002 in Philadelphia (“The Male Pre-Raphaelite ‘Stunner’: Nudity and Homosexual Identity in the Work of Simeon Solomon"), and another in 2007 in New York (“The Homoerotics of Bacchus: John Gibson and Simeon Solomon in Victorian Rome"). I've never been to Chicago before, and it's an American city I've been wanting to visit, but do I want to go to the "Windy City" in February? How much will I get out of the experience if I'm stuck indoors the whole time? I was hoping a couple of friends were planning to go, but so far no one seems interested. CAA released this week the list of sessions and paper titles that will be presented, so I thought I would highlight just a few that jump out at me for different reasons. Alas, my dilemma remains: To go, or not to go, that is the question.

** The session "Old Women, Witches, and Old Wives" has papers from one on a Baroque portrait by Frans Hals of the painter Judith Leyster, to another on the contemporary artist Louise Nevelson. You have to love the idea of work that focuses on the image of the crone!
** Elizabeth Siegel, Art Institute of Chicago, is doing a paper on Victorian photocollage, the often hilarious, Monty Python-like version of scrapbooks that Victorian women did, merging cut photographs with watercolors and drawings. Her paper probably relates to her exhibition coming to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in February called Playing with Pictures: The Art of Victorian Photocollage, which I am looking forward to seeing.
** My friend Mark Pompelia, Rice University, is co-moderating a panel session sponsored by the Visual Resources Association entitled "Academic Image Collections in Transition: Saving the Baby while Repurposing the Bath Water" that relates to how universities are morphing their slide collections into digital image collections.
** The Queer Caucus for Art is sponsoring two panel sessions. The first one, "How is 'Queer' Art Relational?", is about...well, to be honest with you, I have no idea what it's about. This is a good example of when queer theory goes to a place that is beyond anything I can understand. The other session, "Desire Is Queer!", interests me more. There are five papers on that session, including one on censorship and Paul Cadmus's provocative 1933 painting The Fleet's In! presented by Anthony J. Morris, Case Western Reserve University.
** Sally Webster, one of my professors who recently retired, is moderating a great panel session entitled "Moguls, Mansions, and Museums: Art and Culture in America’s First 'Gilded Age'." Among the presenters is Petra ten-Doesschate Chu, Seton Hall University, whose paper is entitled "Boom (and Bust) of Artistic Reputations: Collecting Contemporary European Art in Gilded Age America."
** I'm fascinated by the area of Otherness, in particular when work juxtaposes race, religion, and sexuality. The sessions "Texting and Imaging the Oriental Body" and "Aesthetic Culture in British India: The Amateur Arts of Brush, Pencil, and Camera in the Colonial Periphery" both have some promising papers.
** Finally, Patricia Mainardi, my advisor, is co-moderating two panel sessions on "Comics in Art History," part of her interest in exploring the history of comics as a new aspect of popular culture in the 19th century.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

A.S. Byatt

Last night, my friends PR, AM, and I had the great pleasure of going to a reading and book signing by one of my favorite authors, A.S. Byatt, at the Strand Bookstore near Union Square. Byatt's new novel, The Children's Book, was released in the U.S. a few weeks ago, but it's been on sale in Europe since the summer and has gotten excellent reviews (I almost bought a copy in Rome this summer when I saw it there). Byatt is one of the leading voices in the neo-Victorian movement, recreating Victorian-like tales with a high-quality literary voice. She won the Booker prize for Possession (1990), my all-time favorite novel, and in 1999 was made a Dame of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth. Here is the Strand's summary of her new book: "This spellbinding novel, at once sweeping and intimate, spans the Victorian era through the WWI years, and centers around a famous children's book author and the passions, betrayals, and secrets that tear apart the people she loves." I have to admit, I'm half-tempted to stop doing homework and research in order to start reading it! After all, any book that puts Art Nouveau jewelry in the shape of a dragonfly on the cover must be decadently fantastic. Byatt read for about 10 minutes and then answered questions from the audience. In answer to one person, she spoke about her ability to modulate her literary voice, what is one of the reasons I have always loved her writing. In other words, her novels frequently have her characters write texts-within-texts (poems, stories), and she writes them truly as if they were lifted from 19th-century writers themselves. That takes great skill and shows her own academic training as a literary critic specializing in British and American authors from Wordsworth to Eliot. Byatt's great claim to fame, I believe, will be her resurgence of interest in fairy tales geared toward adults. That doesn't necessarily mean "naughty" tales, as they are often dark but always fantasy-oriented. For instance, The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye (1994) is about a professor who discovers a lamp with a genie in it who grants her three wishes. The Children's Book seems to converge many of the things she's become famous for, so it should be a great read for over the holidays. During the book signing, I told her how Possession changed my life, that not only was it my favorite novel but that as a PhD student it validated my own interest in Victorian art and my ongoing pursuit of the letters of Simeon Solomon. She must have been pleased to hear that because, in addition to personalizing and signing the book, she added an inscription: "Work well!"

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The F Line

So far, every weekend this month, I (and many others, I'm sure) have been rather annoyed that the F subway line, which I normally take to get into Manhattan, has been out of service due to construction. From 11:30pm on Friday night to Monday morning at 5:00am, the F line is out of commission in Brooklyn. The MTA has put shuttle buses along the route to replace the train service, but as everyone knows in the City, the buses aren't worth squat due to traffic and related issues. (I once waited 20 minutes for a bus to show up, and then it drove right past me because it was overcrowded.) Now, I realize that a 105-year-old subway system has to undergo regular maintenance, but this is exasperating because I have to always find another way into the City. Sometimes even that is problematic: Columbus Day weekend, I walked to the F line, not realizing it was shut down, and then walked all the way to the R line in Brooklyn Heights, only to discover that one was shut down too. You'd think Brooklyn was Alcatraz. The lesson here is that if you live outside of Manhattan, you need to check the MTA's website for scheduled maintenance before you leave your house. I just did that now and, lo-and-behold, there's a press release on their site called "MTA New York City Transit Completes Comprehensive Study Of F Line: New Initiatives Underway to Improve Service" with a link to the full report. I knew the line was one of the biggies in the system and always wondered why it was so awful and unreliable. It goes from Jamaica to Coney Island, and I was told by someone once that the F line has both the lowest underground point (at 63rd/Lexington) and the highest above-ground point (at Smith/9th). I didn't know that the line was 27 miles long though. According to the press release, "The study acknowledges the line's below average performance, due in part to its length, the age of its infrastructure, and the complexity of its operation. Recognizing the need for improvement along the line ... NYC Transit has made the line a priority and numerous initiatives are already underway...." Some of these new initiatives include a new manager for maintenance and new cars being put into service (these I've seen, and they are rather sweet with digital signage and lots more room). All I can say is that I hope all this work happens quickly. I want the convenience of my F-ing train back!

Friday, October 16, 2009

Library Bytes: My Librarian Hero

People design some of the silliest personality surveys on Facebook, like "What '90s song best describes you?" (I didn't take that one), or "What character from Dynasty are you?" (Alexis Carrington Colby, thank you very much). But I took a fun one last night: "Which movie librarian are you?" The result: Evelyn Carnahan (actress Rachel Weisz) from The Mummy (1999). The image above is from the scene when she knocks over all the bookcases in the British Library. According to the results of the survey: "You are a true scholar-librarian. You read Hieratic and catalog in ancient Greek, but you're game for a little adventure if there is a rare book to be found. You find the lost city of the dead, translate an ancient book to destroy the monster, save the world, and win the heart of the hunky treasure hunter." Now, doesn't that sound just like me?

The funniest thing about this is that ever since I saw the movie 10 years ago, I've always said that Evelyn was my librarian hero. She's a smart Egyptologist, she's got a sassy attitude, she kicks ass when she fights, and she gets to sleep with Rick O'Connell (actor Brendan Fraser)! What more could you ask for in life? For your entertainment pleasure, here's the trailer for the movie.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Post-Queer Art History

These days, when I work on art historical topics from a gay/queer angle, I strive for a "post-queer" approach, meaning that I combine methodologies such as biography, iconography, social history, patronage, etc. Post-queer in this sense is part of a new pluralism in academia which draws on methodologies that, in the past, were often polarized. Call it eclectic academics, if you will. I wrote the essay below in October 2007 for a course I took with James Saslow on gay/lesbian/queer art history. The assignment was to discuss the essentialist and social constructionist theories of gay studies, and so the essay should be read as an introduction to these divisive methodologies. I've since modified it, and I am self-publishing it here. The idea of "post-queer" is of course a precarious term, because we are most definitely not living in such a world (not when homosexuals are martyred, thrown out of the military, and cannot marry), so this term should be seen as a theoretical construct. Also, in a larger composition, I would have included lesbian art history, but because this would entail discussion of women's rights in general, I decided not to explore that topic at this time. For any researchers who wish to quote from this essay, please feel free to do so, but cite me and my work properly, and consult the original sources I cite for a more well-rounded approach to this topic.

Essentialism and Social Constructionism in Gay Art History

by Roberto C. Ferrari

A.L. Rowse has been credited with writing one of the first unapologetic, academic histories of homosexuality. Rowse asserted that his work was “decidedly not pornography” but rather “a serious study” of famous men who were homosexuals: “kings like James I and Frederick the Great, artists of the stature of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, intellectual giants such as Erasmus and Francis Bacon,” and so on (xi). Rowse presumed that each of these men shared the same thing, i.e. a homosexual passion for other men. His approach was truly “essentialist” in that he assumed a homosexual by any other name was still a homosexual. However, because he did not consider the cultures in which each of these men lived, other scholarly studies appeared to clarify his work. Authors such as Kenneth Dover and John Boswell redressed the idea of homosexuality as it applied to specific cultures (respectively classical Athens and medieval Europe), often examining not just historical facts but material culture and literature as well. They put homosexuality in a specific historical context, but they maintained the essentialist idea that men who had a sexual interest in other men were homosexuals like those of today.

With regard to gay studies, “essentialism” refers to the idea of homosexuality as largely a biological construct and thus innate to the individual’s sexual identity. Whether the person lived three thousand or twenty years ago, a person sexually attracted to someone of the same sex is by nature a homosexual. Therefore, regardless of what society called them over time—catamites, sodomites, mollies, etc.—or how society treated them, homosexuals have always existed and are not unlike homosexuals of today.

In the discipline of art history, it seems always to have been accepted that Michelangelo was a homosexual. Victorian scholars such as Walter Pater and John Addington Symonds made the first conscious, if veiled, attempts to address homosexuality in Michelangelo’s works, but these were glossed over in favor of connoisseurial art-historical work by scholars such as John Pope-Hennessey (who reputedly was a homosexual) that consciously diverted attention away from Michelangelo’s homosexuality. Despite this (self-)censoring, other more current scholars such as James M. Saslow have shown that Michelangelo actively used the imagery of Ganymede in drawings and letters to young men for whom he had obvious affection. In this light, a work such as Michelangelo’s masterpiece the David, 1501-04 (Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence, image above courtesy of the Web Gallery of Art), could easily be seen as a gay work of art. From an essentialist perspective, the knowledge and evidence of Michelangelo’s homosexuality makes this sculpture of an idealized male nude more than just a Neo-platonic or political statement: it makes it a homoerotic icon. Borrowing from Donatello’s nude David from fifty years earlier (a bronze statue Adrian Randolph has argued was entrenched in homosexual politics in quattrocento Florence), Michelangelo modified the ephebe into a stunning exemplar of young adult male beauty akin to Greco-Roman works of art. The sculptural artistry of the penis and pubic hair alone could convince most people that Michelangelo consciously made this sculpture an exploration of his own homosexual desire. As a result of this essentialist approach, audiences perceive just about everything Michelangelo did as being “gay” in some way.

This essentialist approach in gay studies was based largely on the political desire of early gay rights activists to find their own history. As Whitney Davis has pointed out, “the gay liberation movement did provide a new sense of intellectual authority and flexibility for the individual gay and lesbian scholars who participated in it, despite their relative professional ostracism” (122). Indeed, the premise of essentialism was the homosexuality of the scholar himself. If gay rights activists could demonstrate that homosexuals had always been a part of history and included significant people in history, then heterosexuals would be forced to acknowledge and accept homosexuals for who they were.

The onset of postmodernism in academia brought new theories about sexuality that challenged the innateness of essentialism. This new approach was “social constructionist” in thought and led by critics such as Michel Foucault. His theories of the repressive hypothesis and power/resistance led to a reorienting of homosexuality and heterosexuality. Rather than perceive people of alternative sexualities as repressed and seeking acknowledgment, Foucault argued that power between peoples allowed for a discourse that flowed in many directions. For Foucault, power is not a single idea, but rather a nexus in the ongoing interactions of peoples where one is in charge and another is subservient.

Social constructionism found its allegiance in gay studies with what became known as queer theory, with scholars like Davis, David Halperin, and others arguing against the essentialist idea that homosexuality is a constant, preexisting identity. These scholars argue that there are varying factors at work and that no person from the past reflects a person of today because of the vast sociological, political, and cultural differences that take place over time. Therefore, homosexuality as it is perceived today can only be used to apply to the modern experience; it cannot be applied prior to its coinage in 1869 by Karl-Maria Kertbeny. As a result, social constructionists/queer theorists seek out new ways to interpret same-sex passion using methodologies such as Marxism and psychoanalysis, and thus as Davis claims, dehomosexualize homosexuality or homosexualize heterosexuality.

As a queer theorist and art historian, Davis has examined art by Eakins, Girodet, and others in an effort to explain how the nexus of sexual identity is so convoluted that neither heterosexuality nor homosexuality can be assumed in any work. From this perspective, it is worth considering a painting such as Jacques-Louis David’s Leonidas at Thermopylae, 1800-14 (Musée du Louvre, Paris, image courtesy of Web Gallery of Art), which shows the ancient Spartan king and his troops preparing for battle against the Persians. The subject alludes both to the legendary slaughter of the Spartans, but also their perpetual heroism (think of the recent movie 300, for instance). Little evidence suggests that David had sexual inclinations toward other men. If anything, David was an artist who knew how to use political propoganda and to appeal to popular taste, having moved from winning the Prix de Rome to a Revolutionary to a court painter for Napoleon. But a bellicose painting such as Leonidas is potentially problematic because of the homoerotically charged nude male bodies: some embrace one another, others stand in flamboyant poses, youths assist their senior officers (a reference to the same-sex passion associated with Spartan militarism), and all are guided by the central figure, the über-masculine general Leonidas whose penis is covered, yet accentuated, by an erect scabbard symbolizing his phallic masculinity. Considering the homosocial environment of David’s studio, with its mass-produced life studies of male nudes, and the general taste in Neoclassical art for nude ephebes in post-Revolutionary France (e.g., works by Fabre, Broc, and Ingres), it becomes apparent that if one were to consider this painting a homosexual work, it can only be seen as such because subjects from ancient Greek history and titillating views of Neoclassical flesh were popular, and David cashed in on these trends. Regardless of whether the subject or its audience is based on same-sex passion, Leonidas is an icon of homosexual desire because of its social construction, not because of the homosexuality of its painter or patron. This social constructionist approach thus has the viewer question what actually is homosexuality or heterosexuality—is it about individuals, images, or entire societies?

Taken to its extreme, social constructionism argues that homosexuality itself did not even exist prior to modern times. This is perhaps the greatest disagreement in the essentialist/social constructionist debate. Essentialists have a vested interest in the preservation of gay history in order to sustain their own self-identity. According to Louis Crompton, men labeled sodomites or pederasts in the past are people “with whom the modern gay man may claim brotherhood and the modern lesbian recognize as sisters.” Crompton laments how social constructionism weakens the modern gay identity: “To adopt Michel Foucault’s view that the homosexual did not exist ‘as a person’ until [1869] is to reject a rich and terrible past” (xiv). In contrast, Davis has claimed that gay and lesbian studies has its origin in homosexualism, “the Euro-American tradition of self-consciously—if obliquely—highlighting the homoerotic personal and aesthetic significance and historical meanings of works of art or other cultural forms.” Davis argues that homosexualism is a true belief, “the personal testimony of homosexuals that they exist” (115-17). By implication then, gay and lesbian studies only exists because it derives from ideas about sexual identities from the past. In other words, there really may not have ever been, or currently is, an identity called homosexuality or, by extension, heterosexuality.

These two camps oppose one another because of the very nature of the disciplines in which they are wrought. Social constructionism is based on theory, while essentialism comes from personal experience. Social constructionists argue for an alternative approach to understanding the past by drawing on external forces to construct sexual identities, while essentialists assume the foundation of same-sex passion as a given and build their ideas on an aspect of homosexual discourse. What is interesting, however, is that it often appears that this debate exists primarily in the minds of the social constructionists. As Boswell noted, there really isn’t a debate because “no [essentialist] deliberately involved in it identifies himself as an ‘essentialist’” (36). Essentialists do draw on cultures and how they develop sexual identities, and they do acknowledge differences in same-sex passion between, say, classical Athens and Victorian England. However, they still see the inherent nature of sexual desire as unchanged.

Scholars such as Boswell and Rictor Norton have accepted the essentialist sobriquet primarily because they do not base their research on abstract theories. Norton has written: “The history of ideas (and ideologies) can be interesting and valuable, but it is tragic that homosexuals have been subsumed totally within the idea of the ‘homosexual construct’. The result is little better than intellectual ethnic cleansing.” Boswell also critiqued the social constructionists’ mindset by pointing out flaws in their discourse, calling it a kind of “guerrilla warfare,” whereby its proponents spend more time pointing out weaknesses in essentialism than creating solid foundations on which to base their own theories. (37)

In the long run, both the essentialists and the social constructionists are seeking to explain, identify, and analyze how same-sex passion may have manifested itself in people and cultures throughout time. It is not so much the end result that is at issue in these debates, as is the methodology of how to get there. Curiously, both sides of the argument can be used in the case of some figures such as the Victorian artist Simeon Solomon. He was actively painting during the 1860s in London, when the social constructionist’s idea of the modern homosexual first began to coalesce. Thus, from their perspective, Solomon’s works could be perceived as truly homosexual in the modern sense. The fact that his extant letters and his arrest for attempted sodomy demonstrate an active homosexual lifestyle are largely irrelevant in social constructionism, although these aspects of his life are critical for the essentialist interpreting Solomon’s art. His paintings of the gods Bacchus and Eros, or his figures of priests and altar boys, such as A Deacon, 1863 (Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery, England), are all representations of beautiful young men, and the essentialist will see these works as concrete evidence of a homosexual exploring his sexual identity through his art.

If scholars were to draw on both essentialist and social constructionist perspectives, they might be able to better demonstrate how the work of artists such as Michelangelo, J.-L. David, and Solomon could be seen as iconographically homoerotic. Admittedly, this pluralistic approach works more smoothly for modern (post-ca.1850) art. However, it may help the scholar examining works of the past by encouraging him to do theoretical and archival research in order to acknowledge that a particular figure and his art are homosexually based in some way. Rather than find opposition between these two poles, the “post-queer” scholar should consider ways of melding the two into one so that the ultimate goal of restoring homosexually-oriented artists and works of art to their rightful place of interpretation in the history of art can be done harmoniously, not antagonistically.

Selected Works Cited

Boswell, John. “Categories, Experience, and Sexuality.” In The Columbia Reader on Lesbians and Gay Men in Media, Society, and Politics, eds. L. Gross and J. Woods, 36-47. New York: Columbia UP, 1999.

Crompton, Louis. Homosexuality & Civilization. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2003.

Davis, Whitney. “’Homosexualism,’ Gay and Lesbian Studies, and Queer Theory in Art History.” In The Subjects of Art History: Historical Objects in Contemporary Perspectives, eds. Mark Cheetham, et al., 115-142. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: An Introduction. New York: Random House, 1990.

Norton, Rictor. “Essentialism.” In A Critique of Social Constructionism and Postmodern Queer Theory. Available online: (visited October 13, 2009).

Randolph, Adrian W.B. Engaging Symbols: Gender, Politics, and Public Art in Fifteenth-Century Florence. New Haven: Yale UP, 2002.

Rowse, A.L. Homosexuals in History. Reprint. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1995.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Review: Love is the answer

Barbra Streisand has been in the entertainment news a lot this past week, all in anticipation of the release of her 63rd album Love is the answer. Anthony Tommasini interviewed her in The New York Times (noting she had never before been asked about her diaphragm); they discuss the nuances of how she sings from the perspective of opera. The Today show aired Meredith Vieira's interview with her this morning. If you want to own some Streisand memorabilia, she’s auctioning off clothing, art, furniture, and other items in October to benefit her foundation (browse the catalog online). Mattel also just announced that they’re releasing a Barbra Streisand doll (Hello, Gorgeous!). But of course the big news here in NYC was that she gave a free private concert this past Saturday at the Village Vanguard club in the West Village for about 100 people. Among the VIPs were the Clintons, but most audience members were contest winners who were lucky enough to get one of the special seats. Of course I entered the contest, but, alas, I wasn’t among the lucky few. There are brief videos popping up online now, but I suspect they may release a DVD of the concert.

Her new CD, officially released today, and this concert, take Brooklyn-born Streisand back to her performance roots in NYC jazz clubs in the 1960s. In fact, when you play the album, turn down the lights and grab a glass a wine, because you'll feel like you’re in a jazz club, the sound is so intimate and her voice so crisp. The album is a masterful collection of warm melodies. The album may even surprise some people who have gotten used to her material from the past 25 years. Back in the late 1970s when she began experimenting with disco and pop, and then returned to Broadway show tunes, things took on a bigger sound that was definitely of the time and were magnificent in their own ways. Sometimes, though, I think the pure sound of the first 15 years of her career got lost in that later shuffle of music. As I grow older, I find myself tuning in more and more to that early work, listening to an effortless Streisand, enjoying her voice with its own sense of romantic innocence.

I'm pleased to say then that Love is the answer brings all of that back, but with a voice that has matured into a warm, velvety sound that still makes you tingle. The album’s title takes its name from the lyrics of one of the songs, “Make Someone Happy.” The album is available with orchestral music, or as a deluxe version with a second CD of the same recordings accompanied by a quartet. If you're not sure which one to buy, go for the deluxe set, because the second CD is even better than the first. Sinatra standards like “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” get new interpretations that are exquisite. “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” has an endearing quality that makes you realize her power as a contralto. The bossa nova beat behind “Gentle Rain” and “Love Song” adds extra kick to the album. “Where Do You Start?” and “Some Other Time” will bring tears to your eyes. My one disappointment was “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” which starts off beautifully but then modulates too erratically for my taste.

Jazz artist Diana Krall is on board with this album as producer and performer for some of the piano solos. Their collaboration is fantastic. It will capture the hearts of people who aren’t even Streisand fans. I cannot say there is one song that will stand out forever as a new Streisand classic, like “People” or “Evergreen,” but the entire album works beautifully as a way to sit back, relax, and enjoy a romantic evening. Admittedly, the cynical single side of me wants to respond sarcastically to the title of the album, Love is the answer, by quoting back an old Ziggy cartoon: "I wonder what the question was?" But the other half of me, the part that pines for romance and love, recognizes true beauty in a collection like this. That is a true testament of my feelings about this CD.

I can’t end this review without pointing out a major selling point: the inclusion of pictures of Sammie, her Bichon Frise. How could you turn away from a CD that included such an adorable fluffy dog on the back cover? Also, here’s a video interview Streisand did for, where she talks about how the album came about. (Or you can see it and order the CD by clicking here.)

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Architecture in the Gilded Age

My friend Paul Ranogajec is organizing a great symposium entitled New Perspectives on Architecture in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. It will be held at the CUNY Graduate Center on Friday, October 16th, from 9am-1pm. The symposium is free and open to the public. Speakers include David Van Zanten, Michael J. Lewis, Gail Fenske, and others. Here's the official write-up on the event: "This half-day symposium will explore some of the new ideas that have emerged about late 19th- and early 20th-century American architecture. Established and emerging scholars in the field will present their work and suggest new directions for future scholarship on this important but often maligned period of building. The demise of the canonical modernist paradigm has given scholars new opportunities to appreciate and critically examine this architecture; this symposium will explore some of the implications of this recent historiography and the new paradigms of thinking. Panelists will also suggest the interdisciplinary aspects of the field of architectural history by situating this work within its broader cultural, political, and social contexts in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era." For more information on the symposium, send an email to

Paul's dissertation is on the development of classicism in NYC architecture and urban planning at this time. This was an era of many important civic buildings like The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New York Public Library. All of these buildings were constructed with classical elements that still carry in our minds semiotic associations with democracy and civilization. One such example was the second version of Madison Square Garden, which you see above in a historic picture (image courtesy of A Digital Archive of American Architecture, Boston College). This building was located on Madison Square (Madison/4th Ave. and 26th/27th Streets). It was designed in 1889-90 by the architect Stanford White in a Renaissance palazzo style. Crowning the 304-foot tower was the very modern-looking 14-foot bronze statue of Diana (left) by the American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, now owned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Sadly, White's building was demolished in 1925, which is in fact part of the devastating legacy of these amazing buildings, that so many were torn down for the sake of "modern" construction. Note that the present MSG sits on top of Penn Station, another eyesore that was built after the original exquisite train station designed by McKim, Mead, and White was demolished in 1963. As an aside, one scandalous bit still holds on in the history of all this: White lived in one of the towers of his version of MSG, and in 1906 he was killed during a musical performance by his mistress's husband.

Monday, September 21, 2009

World Alzheimer's Day

World Alzheimer's Day is almost over, but it's not too late to make a donation to the Alzheimer's Association to help the 5.3 million Americans who suffer from Alzheimer's disease. As you may recall from last fall, team "Ferrari & Friends" participated in the NYC Alzheimer's Walk in honor of my mother, for which we raised nearly $1200. Since I can't participate in the walk this year, the least I can do is help promote today's fundraising efforts. Early this morning, Vice President Angela Geiger sent out a mass email to everyone on their mailing list asking for donations to reach $3500. Celebrity spokespeople like David Hyde Pierce (pictured left in one of the organization's purple-themed outfits) were on programs like Today promoting the need for ongoing research in combatting this horrific disease. The response was so great that by midday Geiger was able to up the call for donations to $5300. As of tonight, the thank you email coming from her notes that they managed to raise a whopping $22,000 in donations today alone! It's an incredible accomplishment, but they could always use more. I just donated online $10 in honor of the 10 million caregivers who help victims of the disease. They have some other reasonable amounts that match some statistics, like $5.30 for the 5.3 million Americans with Alzheimer's, $35.00 for the 35 million people around the world with Alzheimer's, $148.00 for the $148 billion annual cost to our nation, and so on. But a donation in any amount will help, so click here to donate now, and let's help combat this dreadful disease.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Library Bytes:

I confess that I have not renewed my membership in ALA (American Library Association) for a few years now. It's not that I don't support the organization, but that I already belong to other library and academic organizations, and all those memberships take money which I don't have right now. The best I can do on occasion is help promote libraries, and I thought a post today on ALA and libraries might be an interesting way to do so. Did you know, for instance, that the ALA Store sells posters with celebrities holding books as part of their READ campaign? The image you see here is one of them, showing off my fantasy boyfriend Ewan McGregor with a book of tales by Beatrix Potter, which presumably was released about the time he co-starred in Miss Potter with Renée Zellweger (which, by the way, is a surprisingly fantastic movie that I highly recommend). While reading a news story on The New York Times online, I followed an ad for another of ALA's campaigns, The site advertises itself as a way to keep people informed about the state of libraries and to promote what libraries can do for Americans of every race, ethnicity, religion, class, and gender/sexual orientation. According to the site's Get Informed page, "If you’re looking for the heart of any community, look no further than the local library. It’s the one place in America where the doors are open to everyone ... providing everyone the same access to information and opportunities for success." (Note that for some of the webpages, there's a weird design flaw where you have to scroll down past the white emptiness to read the text.) The website even has a special feature right now called "Nominate Your Librarian," with monetary prizes for some of the best librarians in the country.

So there's no doubt about it. Libraries rock, as I've commented about before on this blog. Not all types of libraries are the same. They are usually divided into four broad categories: public, school, academic, and special. Public is self-explanatory, but can range from small-town establishments like the adorable Provincetown Public Library to large city systems like the Brooklyn Public Library. School refers to elementary through high school, while academic is colleges and universities. Special Libraries encompass everything from corporate to museum environments. From this breakdown then, you can see that the types of environments are very different, and you can imagine that the types of services and clientele are worlds apart in many ways.

I admit that I've always enjoyed what I've seen as the luxury of working in academic and museum libraries. I would never work in an elementary school (my migraines couldn't handle the screaming children). I would probably also quit working in a public library within the first week. When I answer a reference question, I need them to be intellectually stimulating questions, not smelly homeless people demanding the newspaper or crazy people masturbating in public (these are actual incidents I've heard about). I know I'm being judgmental, but I'm being completely honest as it applies to my idea of work satisfaction. That said, I have an incredible amount of respect for my friends and colleagues who do work in public libraries and can handle this type of clientele with such aplomb. They have to take on the role of social workers and psychologists without any professional training, and as my friend SVH has pointed out, the instances in which one genuinely helps an individual desperate for real information, like health news on a medical condition, legal information to fight a corrupt landlord, or simply useful books on Martin Luther King, Jr. for a high school research project, makes being a librarian in this environment one of the most rewarding careers ever.

So get online and nominate your librarian for the I Love My Librarian Award to thank him or her for everything they've done for you, and remember to support your libraries!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Milkmaid

The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has loaned to The Metropolitan Museum of Art one of its most popular paintings, Johannes Vermeer's The Milkmaid. Painted from about 1657-8, it is truly one of the best examples of Dutch painting. I'm not an expert on the Dutch masters, but I can say that Vermeer is one of my favorite painters. Then again, who wouldn't like Vermeer? His handling of light and color with such simple subject matter reveals the hand of a master at work. The painting itself it actually much brighter than the digital image you see here (this is a detail of the painting and the cover of the small exhibition catalogue). In the painting, the colors pop from the canvas and you get the sense that you've approached the milkmaid at a particular moment when the sunlight coming through a window has illuminated her. It creates a sensual, luminous effect that is difficult to find elsewhere in the history of painting. The small exhibition has been curated by Walter Liedtke, a noted expert on Dutch painters from Vermeer to Rembrandt, and includes paintings, drawings, prints, and decorative art from the Met's collection to complement and contextualize Vermeer's picture. Perhaps most interesting is the theme on which Vermeer borrowed: that of the milkmaid's "reputation for amorous predispositions," according to the exhibition's website, which means that there is a tradition in Dutch painting of busty milkmaids being seen as sexual objects. (Hm...that Christmas song where 'maids-a-milking' are followed by 'lords-a-leaping' now suddenly makes sense...) What Liedtke is arguing then is that this picture has subtle hints that suggest a conscious romantic theme beyond a genre scene. In later art, certainly the sexuality-labor theme runs true to form. In her groundbreaking essay on Morisot's painting of her daughter and wet nurse, Linda Nochlin has written about the visual associations of mothers and breastfeeding with animals and labor. In the essay, she cites Segantini's painting The Two Mothers, 1889, which shows the pairing of a human mother and a cow both with their newborns, as an example of this conjunction of women's role as animalistic laborer. It is a picture that can be seen as sentimental, but it also demonstrates the perception of women as beasts of burden and, by implication, their social status beneath men, as it was understood at that time. Indeed, if you think about it, the theme of the milkmaid has direct connections with cows and the production of milk, both as a form of labor and in women's biological construct as a mother or wet nurse, so Nochlin's 19th-century example certainly has historical precedents in Dutch genre scenes such as this Vermeer painting. If you're in NYC this fall season, make a point to see the exhibition, as you'll be rewarded by the painting's beauty. If you're interested in learning more about Vermeer, check out the website Essential Vermeer that my friend PR just happened to pass along to me the other day. Also, if you haven't seen the film The Girl with a Pearl Earring, starring Scarlett Johannson and Colin Firth, I recommend it as an art film that captures the essence of light and simplistic beauty that makes Vermeer's paintings so exquisite.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

DW: The Waters of Mars

Imagine my pleasant surprise this morning when I discovered that BBC America was showing a marathon of episodes from the last few seasons of Doctor Who! I was seriously tempted to watch, even though I've seen them all already (some more than once), but since I had other things to do today I just switched on the TV every once and a while to see what episode was playing. It still strikes me how fantastic the show is. David Tennant really brings The Doctor to life (it helps that he's adorable to look at...great hair!). His co-stars are all superb as well. Tennant, sadly, is leaving as the 10th Doctor and they've been filming his last few episodes as specials that are being released over the course of this year and into next. After the recent Planet of the Dead episode (about which I wrote back in April), there are 3 left, and the next one coming soon is entitled The Waters of Mars. The new 11th Doctor, Matt Smith, will be premiering next year, probably in the very last Tennant episode when he regenerates. I've been a bit disturbed at how young he and his female co-star Karen Gillan look, as if the producers are targeting a younger generation of audience members, but I don't want to pass judgment yet. I think some of the best episodes are the ones when past companions return, and I have my suspicions that The Master, his longtime nemesis, will be part of the final episode, and that they will be bringing back the characters Donna Noble, Martha Jones, and Captain Jack Harkness. I'm also convinced that there's something about rings involved...the one on The Master's pyre, and then the one flashing on Donna's finger at the, we'll see... Speaking of Captain Jack and Torchwood, I was pretty shaken from the Children of Earth miniseries. Oddly, I was in the UK when it premiered in the US, so I watched it upon my return on DVD. It made for incredible sci-fi television, and I highly recommend it. There were moments when I was jumping in my seat it was so frightening, but I must confess that by the end of the fourth day, I was a bit of an emotional basket case after one of my favorite characters was killed. But one must move one, right? So we await the release of Doctor Who: The Waters of Mars. Rumor has that it will air in November. Here's a preview.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Reattributing Velázquez

Every once and a while, great news comes from the museum world that works of art have been found, discovered, purchased, attributed, or even occasionally reattributed. Today was such a day. During a meeting at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Thomas P. Campbell (Director), Keith Christiansen (newly appointed Chair of European Paintings), and Michael Gallagher (conservator in Paintings Conservation) gave a presentation announcing that the collection's Portrait of a Man, c.1630, formerly attributed to the 17th-century painter Diego Velázquez, then attributed to his workshop, has now been reattributed back to being by the Spanish master himself. All of this has come about after conservation work was done on the picture. The removal of a heavy varnish showed new details that revealed it to be undoubtedly by the artist himself. Further analysis is showing that the work could in fact be an early self-portrait. The picture you see here is a detail of the face from the newly cleaned painting. (This image comes from The Metropolitan Museum of Art and was published online in The New York Times.) The work itself is a tour de force. For instance, look closely at the finesse and detail in the brushstroke of the mustache. It's brilliant! For those who are uncertain why this is a big deal, reattributing works to the master and not just to a workshop elevates the work's importance in the art world. It establishes a benchmark and thus adds to the level of appreciation of the artist and his (or her) works in general. Of course, it would be foolish to deny the other obvious factor: it also means the museum has a piece now valued even greater in the art world and adds to the already enormous respect the museum has garnered for its collections. Now, admittedly, I have written on this blog a bit disparagingly about the hoopla over things like whether a particular painting was actually of Shakespeare or not, and one could argue that this situation is just like that. But I would disagree, because the Shakespeare portrait was not by a well-known artist and creates more of a debate over what the playwright actually looked like. In this case, Velázquez is an extremely well-known and important artist (e.g., you know his Las Meninas at the Prado, and he painted the portrait of Pope Innocent X about which I wrote following my trip to Rome). Furthermore, this reattribution can only assist in continuing dialogues about the artist's style, technique, themes, self-perception, and so on. All that said, I have to admit that probably I was most intrigued by the whole announcement because I was sitting in the audience when they made it. They showed the image you see here and before and after shots, as well as related works. The excitement in all of their voices quickly spread throughout the audience, and I couldn't help but be as excited about the whole thing. It was like discovering a hidden treasure. That, my friends, is just one of the many reasons why I love art history. For more information, click here for the museum's press release, or click here to read Carol Vogel's article about the painting appearing in Thursday's New York Times.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Review: Yinka Shonibare MBE

The first time I ever read the name Yinka Shonibare was on a wall label in a museum around the year 2000. I still cannot remember which museum I was in when I read his name and the title of the piece. However, I do remember clearly the work of art itself, and how much I laughed at its sardonic, artistic referentialism. The piece was Mr. and Mrs. Andrews Without Their Heads. The figures and their dog are taken from a picture by Thomas Gainsborough in which he was both honoring, and ridiculing, his parvenu patrons. To this day, whenever I encounter Shonibare’s posed mannequins in museums, I cannot help but grin because of their playfulness, originality, and consciousness about art and history. The Brooklyn Museum is one of 3 cities showing his mid-career exhibition of sculptures, photography, and films. I returned today for a second look. To quote curator Rachel Kent from the exhibition catalog, Shonibare’s work “engage[s] with themes of time: of history and its legacy for future generations, of how we live in the present and of cycles or patterns that repeat across time, despite their often destructive consequences” (12). I was pleasantly surprised when a security guard told me I could take pictures without a flash, so the image you see here is by me (sadly, my digital camera takes terrible pictures in museums). The 2001 work is called The Swing (after Fragonard); placed at the entrance to the exhibition, it beautifully encapsulates Shonibare’s oeuvre.

Yet, despite its frivolity and humor, Shonibare’s work also conveys serious commentary about cultural relations. He is a British-born Nigerian artist who in 2005 was knighted as a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE), a title he proudly wears because of the ironic associations it has with the subtext of his art. The textiles he uses on his mannequins are Dutch wax fabrics, originally manufactured in Europe for the West African market in the 19th century. Yes, believe it or not, most of the textiles we associate with traditional African clothing originated in northern Europe, meaning that this trademark of “Africanness” was in fact branded by European imperialism to give them an identity that Westerners could recognize as “African.” This intercultural ambiguity is part of Shonibare’s intent, for he consciously obfuscates national identities in his sculptures. Shonibare’s work also references masterpieces of 18th- and 19th-century European art. The Rococo and Victorianism are of particular interest to him. The Rococo is associated with Western aristocratic frivolity and nouveau riche leisure, but it is worth recalling that much of that wealth came from their involvement in the African slave trade. Victorianism in turn alludes to the British Empire’s worldwide domination over third-world lands like India and Africa. Shonibare’s sculptures thus reference Western scenes of success while implying their unseen opposite, the dominated people and lands of Africa, India, and so on.

The Swing (after Fragonard) comes from a 1767 painting by Jean-Honore Fragonard located in the Wallace Collection, London (image courtesy of the Web Gallery of Art). I think this painting shows one of the most erotic scenes in Western art. Notice how the woman kicks off her shoe, flirting by exposing her silk stockinged leg to her lover hiding in the bushes before her. But who is pushing the swing? A priest, who presumably is another of her lovers. The cotton ball-like shrubbery and statue of Cupid are classic Fragonard and add to the sensuality of the subject itself. Shonibare borrows on the eroticism of the woman, excising her from the picture and aestheticizing her in sculptural form. What is missing of course is her head, and this introduces another fascinating layer in Shonibare’s work. Despite that his mannequins have a startling sense of naturalism, they are all in fact headless. One need only think of the guillotine to realize what is being referenced here: Revolution. Every Western empire eventually loses its proverbial head, and so the decapitated body in Shonibare’s work becomes a pseudo-memento mori of Western dominance. At the same time, however, Shonibare’s headless figures are still eroticized bodies. He is fetishizing the fragment. In her groundbreaking essay “Manet’s Masked Ball at the Opera,” Linda Nochlin argued that in Western art the fragmented female body becomes a form of sexual commodity for men to possesses. In some ways, I think Shonibare’s decapitated bodies fall in line with this mode of thought, in particular because the mannequins wear fabrics that are directly tied to imperialist trade between Europe and Africa. As a result, figures like the woman in The Swing become fetishized, imperialized bodies, but the line between dominatrix and slave are blurred. These figures create erotic commodity, but they are simultaneously complicit in their own exploitation.

For the Brooklyn exhibition, specially commissioned figures of children have been posed in some of the period rooms, which adds an interesting layer to things, seeing them in actual historic settings. His large installation piece, Gallantry and Criminal Conversation, 2002, is shocking and hilarious. Conjuring aspects of the Grand Tour with sexual awakenings, 11 mannequins are dressed in their finest but posed in a variety of sexual couplings (my favorite is the threesome with a woman bent over a traveling case while a man penetrates her from behind and is simultaneously penetrated by another man behind him). Shonibare’s photographic series Dorian Gray is based on Oscar Wilde’s 1891 novel and the 1945 film adaptation. Here the artist poses as Gray and his aging portrait. His films are interesting, perhaps hypnotic, as the characters move as if in real time and take the sculptural tableaux beyond space to the next dimension of time. If you’re in NYC, you need to experience all of it for yourself. The exhibition (which began in Sydney, Australia) closes at the Brooklyn Museum on September 20, but it moves to the National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C. from November 10 through March 7, 2010. On the Brooklyn Museum’s website for the exhibition, you can also see an excerpt of a video in which Shonibare talks about The Swing. For more information, see the exhibition catalog, which has essays about Shonibare’s work, an interview with him, and incredible full-color images of his work.