Thursday, February 26, 2009

Interview: Gerald Mocarsky

I first met photographer Gerald Mocarsky in Fall 2005 at a Chelsea gallery. It was at an opening for a group show related to the publication of Self-Exposure: The Male Nude Self-Portrait (Universe, 2005). His images were among my favorites in the show. Since then Mocarsky (aka Jerry) and I have become good friends, but we also have a helpful working relationship where we discuss our work (my writing, his photography), both of us seeking feedback and sharing ideas with one another. Mocarsky is currently part of a group show at Ch'i Contemporary Fine Art gallery in Williamsburg, a Brooklyn neighborhood known for its trendy restaurants and artists' lofts. The works on display are from his series War Paint, representations of women over 40 applying makeup. "Susan #2" (right) is from that series, a body of work Mocarsky refers to as a "Pandora's box" of cultural references about how society perceives women. The interview below comes from a series of questions and answers exchanged through email.

bklynbiblio: Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background.
Gerald Mocarsky: I grew up in a small town outside of Hartford, Connecticut called Rocky Hill. My parents were extremely young when they had my sister and I, eighteen and nineteen, so I basically grew up with them. By most accounts I was considered a very odd child. My interests and passions were not a typical male behavior. I enjoyed gardening and conversations over sports and fighting. I come form a working class family so becoming an artist wasn't really an option.

bb: What made you decide to pursue photography?
GM: I always wanted to be an artist but wasn't sure if I had any talent. The very first photograph I remember taking was of a Heinz Ketchup bottle. I used my sister's Kodak camera. I remember getting a rush with the feeling that I had given this common item importance and that my sister would wonder why. I attended a junior college studying business with no passion and little direction. I became extremely depressed with my decision. It wasn't until I reached a real crisis that I was able to move beyond the doubt and fear and begin to study art. I studied all the traditional disciplines: painting, sculpture, photography, and film. I will have to say my decision to be a photographer was almost spiritual. My dad bought me my first real camera for a class trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. I learned to load the camera on the bus. When I was walking through the Museum there were two missionaries or nuns painting a reproduction of a Bouguereau painting. I quietly asked if I could take their picture, they nodded yes. I looked through the lens, snapped only one image, and I knew I had captured something special. It was like a voice telling me, "This is what you are meant to do."

bb: Do you have a favorite photographic image?
GM: Oh, this is a hard one. There are so many I love. I will have to say Helen Levitt, Untitled, New York (soap bubbles and girls), from about 1946. [Click here for image.]

bb: Your series War Paint represents images of women over the age of 40 applying makeup. Why title it War Paint?
GM: The title comes from a conversation I overheard between my aunt and mother as a teenager. In short my Aunt Tilly told my mother that when she was young they called makeup war paint. That reference was so visually rich and symbolic it always stuck with me.

bb: What do the images signify for you as an artist?
GM: The images signify so many different things to me that I can only reduce it to a feeling. It is the sensation you get when things are about to change, the moment before you realize change has happened. Makeup tends to make women look younger, almost unreal. So when I see a woman transform before my eyes, the tension of change is visual. It is the push from maturity to youth and back to maturity that I'm trying to capture. This tension is filled with cultural concepts and personal beliefs. I want these images to be a bit of a Pandora's box into how we as a culture feel about women as they age.

bb: For a woman to bare herself in front of a camera like this is unusual, in particular for a woman who normally wears a lot of makeup. Our Hollywood-like sense of beauty makes revealing one's true self shocking and ugly. Did you find it easy or difficult to find women to participate in this project? How did some of them react to the idea of revealing themselves in this way?
GM: Many women who I thought would be great for this project have told me in a very nice way that they were not interested. In the beginning I found much older women were more willing to participate. I think it might be that they have had more time to deal with the aging process. Asking a woman to show herself in a vulnerable situation like that is understandably difficult. This hesitation was exactly what I want to explore. I feel their mental image of themselves is far more grim than the reality.

bb: Would you consider this project to be portraiture or documentary?
GM: I think of this project more as a documentary. When I do portraiture I'm interested in capturing something about a subject's personality. In this project I'm looking for images that support or raise questions about a larger idea. Although these images are portrait-like, they are edited to tell a specific story.

bb: From an art historical perspective, I'm fascinated by your use of mirrors in many of these works, because it fractures the presentation of the subject (e.g., "Momma," left). In some of the images, you see the mirror reflection of the person, while in others the mirror cuts into the representation of the subject. Mirrors symbolize vanity, but they also represent alternate realities, like in Alice in Wonderland, and make statements about the viewer looking at the work. Were you consciously using this device, or was the mirror more of an aesthetic choice for you?
GM: First, I love the idea of seeing one's reflection in the mirror. The image is not of our mind's eye, it is far more accurate than that. I think when people have a healthy perception of themselves they can feel a love for the reflection without judgement, but for many women there is self-hatred toward that reflection. I also wanted to recreate the dynamic of watching my mother do her makeup on Saturday mornings, while I laid on her bed talking to her.

bb: Let's talk about another one of your series, Men Who Dance with Men. Tell the readers about this project.
GM: The series Men Who Dance with Men is a photographic documentary on male dance partners. Most of the shoots were done during actual dance situations, rehearsals, performances, etc. A very sensitive black-and-white film allowed me to work with existing lighting.

bb: The PBS/Logo Channel documentary show In the Life aired a segment about you in January 2008 working on this project. What was that experience like? [Click here to download and watch the segment.]
GM: Working with In The Life was a great experience. While we were actually putting the shoot together and filming I had no idea how it was going to look. When all the editing was finished and the sound was laid over the piece I was very relieved. It was very nerve-wracking because there were so many variables that were outside my control. The group at In The Life are great people and really dedicated to the gay and lesbian cause.

bb: What does the idea of men dancing with men signify for you on a personal level?
GM: Today when I see men dancing together it signifies acceptance. As a young gay person it was very difficult to see men dancing together. I was not used to seeing men being affectionate at all with each other. Men dancing together was very odd and shameful. I was taught that men should relate in a very macho way.

bb: What do you hope to accomplish by sharing and publishing these images to others?
GM: My hope in showing this work is to give the average person the opportunity to see what male-male affection looks like. It's my hope that with continued exposure that these concepts will become less disturbing to the general culture.

bb: How important is New York City to you and your work?
GM: I really love living in New York City. It's the best and worst of everything. It's the human condition magnified. With one ride on the subway the displays of humanity are endless. I personally as an artist find it very important to stay in touch with this. It's a place that the affluent and homeless are forced to coexist right next to one another. This is an extremely ambitious place and I feed off of that energy. With all that said, there are days when all I want to do is to go someplace quiet and be left the hell alone.

bb: Do you have a favorite photography story, such as an encounter with a photographer that you cherish?
GM: I was in a thrift shop with [conceptual artist/photographer] Sandy Skoglund and we were having a very lengthy discussion about a coffee table for her piece Atomic Love [click here for image]. I remember saying to her, "Yes, the table is nice, but does it say cheese doodle?" After I heard this come out of my mouth I looked at the guy behind the counter. He didn't even look up. I knew I was in the right city.

bb: The straight community often doesn't realize that for gays and lesbians their sexuality plays varying degrees of importance in their lives and what they do. Which do you see yourself more as: a gay photographer, or a photographer who happens to be gay? Or is there even a difference for you?
GM: How about I put it this way: I'm a human being who does photography who is also gay. My gayness comes into my work all the time. It is part of me just like my experiences as a Caucasian or a male. I feel some of both statements are true. I'm proud of being a gay man so I don't give much though to this kind of thing.

bb: What type of camera and film do you use typically?
GM: I use a traditional Nikon 35mm Camera. I have both a manual version and an auto-focus. I tend to like films that kick up the drama, very fast speed black and white, so I can use available lighting. I feel this give more of a theatrical effect. For color I tend to use Fuji film because of the rich saturation of greens and blues. I will use a very slow shutter speed to get some blurring and camera shake. I love the painterly quality it creates.

bb: How do you feel about digital photography?
GM: I have nothing against digital photography but for my temperament it doesn't work well. Having to wait to see my images allows me to stay focused on the shoot at hand. I also like the archival properties of film. It is still a great way to store images. I don't find digital photography romantic like film.

bb: Do you think digital photography is transforming the photography world in a positive or negative way?
GM: I still remember when I couldn't afford much film and it taught me to be very critical of the image I was about to take. I think people shoot far too many images with digital. You really have an almost unlimited capacity to hold images and I don't think this allows photographers the same level of focus.

bb: Now for some fun but very important questions. What is your favorite color?
GM: Cobalt blue.

bb: What is your favorite movie?

bb: What is your favorite book?

bb: Who's your sexiest man?
GM: The dorky guy with glasses reading on the subway this morning.

bb: Your favorite New York City moment?
GM: In the days before cell phones I was waiting in line to use a pay phone. The guy in front of was using a jimmy to rob it. After a minute I asked him if he could rob the phone after I made my call. He said sure and stepped aside while I made my call and then went back to robbing the phone.

bb: Anything else you'd like to say?
GM: Thanks for the interview!

To see more of Mocarsky's work, visit his website at

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Review: Religulous

I watched Religulous on DVD tonight. Bill Maher is insane. I've always found his television programs and specials funny and thought-provoking, and (because I lean left) I often agreed with many of his views. That said, I also think Maher is an egomaniac who takes pride in expressing his own ideas over those of others because he's convinced he's right. In other words, he's not much different from the people he criticizes. The thing about Maher, however, that I always have appreciated was that he is willing to challenge and he invites a response. He doesn't want you just to agree with him (then you're a sycophant). He wants you to have your own position on things and stand up for what you believe in. Religion is THE most touchy subject for everyone, including atheists or agnostics (remember: not believing in God is still a belief!). Thus, I applaud him and director Larry Craig for taking the bold step of confronting this important issue. Let's face it: regardless of what our personal religious beliefs are, the religions of the world are in battle with one another and have been for millennia. It has to stop. Now.

On a light-hearted note, there are parts of this documentary that are hysterical. The pop-up quotes, the interjected clips from films, Maher's own sarcastic remarks on things, all of these things make for a very funny take on what is a serious topic. Of course, everyone who has a serious religious affiliation becomes the object of ridicule, whether it's the ex-Jew for Jesus or the Born-Again woman waiting to ride the rapture on a white horse (I'm not making this up). After all, isn't that Maher's point, to make fun of religion and its hold on people? He repeatedly brings up myths from all of the faiths and questions people about them. I admit, it's shocking to see that so many people believe Biblical stories are real. They actually believe in Adam and Eve and the talking snake! I'm comforted at least that the two Roman Catholic priests he interviewed at least had a sense of humor and emphasized the importance of science and interpreting religious teachings symbolically, not literally. Perhaps there's hope for Catholics after all!

In the end, though, Maher does make a critical point. The more governments and political leaders ally themselves to religious texts written thousands of years ago, the more they continue to battle one another in the name of God. They all talk about Armageddon, the end of the world. Ironically, though, if the world does end, it's not because God made it happen, but because humans made it happen. That said, Maher's own determination to encourage people to give up faith completely worries me as well. It's equally idealistic to assume that an atheistic utopia is the answer to the world's problems. In fact, that will create a whole new set of problems, including challenges to things which we now assume to be basic principles of right and wrong (i.e. murder is wrong and deserves serious punishment). Ultimately, faith does play an important part in determining issues of ethics and morality. Faith doesn't have to be worshipping in a temple or mosque or church, praying to a godhead one never sees, speaking in tongues or reenacting the Crucifixion. Faith can simply be a way of comforting oneself, resting in the idea that there is an order to this universe, and that somewhere in that infinite unknowable cosmos there is some energy that links all of us living creatures to one another. And if saying a prayer to that energy--call him/her/it God!--in order to find solace during difficult times makes you feel better, then so be it. There's nothing wrong with a little bit of faith. It's the extremism of anything--including faith and the lack of it--that will destroy us all.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Leonardo Portrait?

The London Times reported yesterday in an article entitled "Portrait of Leonardo da Vinci Discovered in Basilicata" about the small panel painting you see here. It was discovered by Nicola Barbatelli, a medieval historian, in the archive of a family in a small town in southern Italy. Journalist Richard Owen describes the portrait of Leonardo as representing him with "piercing blue eyes, a long nose and long greying hair with a droopy moustache." Now, leaving aside the fact that not all portraits are meant to be exact representations of subjects (particularly in the High Italian Renaissance when idealized representations were essential), why the rush to assume it's a portrait of Leonardo? Because it's all about his name. I'm surprised it hasn't been called "The Da Vinci Portrait" to coincide with the soon-to-be-released film version of Angels & Demons from Dan Brown's novel (i.e., Brown also wrote The Da Vinci Code). If I sound cynical, it's not that I mistrust the possibility that it could be a portrait of Leonardo. What bothers me is the rush to declare it so. At least they're not claiming it's a self-portrait. Or are they? Apparently on the back of the panel, the words "Pinxit Mea" ("my painting" or "painting of me" or "painted by me" depending on your Latin) are written in reverse, which was Leonardo's mirror writing. But is that enough to claim it's a self-portrait? I hope not, because one look at it beside other works like the Mona Lisa (1503-6, Louvre, Paris) or Ginevra de' Benci (c.1471/1478, National Gallery, Washington, D.C.; see also below) immediately makes you realize that the quality of the portrait doesn't compare to these masterworks by him. One scholar attributes the portrait to a little-known artist named Cristofano dell’Altissimo, presumably was a Leonardo follower, which makes more sense to me. Keep in mind then that it's doubtful that Leonardo ever posed for the picture in question, which means the "portrait" is an imaginary representation that the artist probably took from some other representation of him, like Raphael's School of Athens in the Vatican. No one can question Leonardo's importance in the history of Western art, but the rush to claim this portrait is of him, or even by him, to the point that it's being included in an exhibition in southern Italy about Leonardo, lends itself toward capitalist interest rather than true art historical value. That said, if it is a portrait of Leonardo, I must say I love the feather in his flouncy hat. It's very chic. But apparently even that was added at a later date. Too bad! I love the thought of Leonardo as a swisher.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Coming Soon: Interviews!

I'm pleased to announce that in the next couple of days I will be posting my first interview with someone. I intend to make interviews a recurring, albeit irregular, feature of bklynbiblio. Like this blog itself, my subjects will come from the worlds of the arts, libraries, pets, queer culture, whatever. I hope to bring you insight into the workings of photographers, art historians, writers, and so on, to help in educating others about the arts and culture, and to help in the promotion of the work of these individuals. While in the beginning most of the interviews will be of people I know in one way or another, I hope eventually to publish interviews with people I don't know, which will make for an even more exciting learning experience for me as well. And if you're wondering about the picture above, am I thinking of myself as another James Lipton-like Inside the Actors Studio interviewer? Maybe! Why not? Although I think it may take a while before I can get someone like Al Pacino to respond to my questions.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Review: Jerome Robbins

Of all the performing arts, ballet is one of the few that I don't seem to engage with as much as, say, symphonic performances, operas, and musical theater. It isn't that I'm not interested in it, because I am. The more I've observed dance, though, I've wondered if my hesitation has been from a lack of understanding about dance as an art form. Its abstraction and temporality on stage make it seem so fleeting and thus difficult to understand. I also believe that when it comes to dance, I prefer to be one of the dancers rather than an observer. Dance for me is more of a participatory act, and not one of interest simply to watch. I'm not suddenly planning to take ballet lessons, but I think this in part explains my ongoing desire to go dancing in clubs, as well as my earlier dance experiences doing Italian folk dancing (yes, in costume!) and being a Shark in my high school production of West Side Story (which, alas, I had to give up halfway through rehearsals). My aunt in Italy also was a successful ballerina after World War II, so there is no doubt that dance courses through my family's blood. Of course, the reality of dance is that it is not mere abstraction. Choreography is an intricate art form that involves harmonics, balance, scoring, and lots of practice. Its association with music ties it intricately to another art form, and that in some ways both complicates it and enhances its beauty.

In the spirit of dance then, I had a pleasant surprise at 3am this morning (see, insomnia isn't always a bad thing) when I caught a new PBS special from the American Masters series entitled Jerome Robbins: Something to Dance About. This was a 90-minute biographical tribute to Robbins, the supreme choreographer and director who has given us some of the greatest Broadway musicals of the 20th century. If that wasn't enough, he also choreographed and produced many exquisite ballets. I knew little about Robbins himself before watching this segment. Of course, I was more familiar with his work on Broadway, which I suspect is how most people know him. The special involves interviews with numerous people who knew and worked with Robbins, from the composer Stephen Sondheim to the ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov. Still photographs, video sequences, and movie excerpts are interwoven with the interviews to highlight aspects of his long career.

Robbins was born into a Jewish family on the Lower East Side of New York in 1918. He died in 1998 after nearly 60 years in the world of the performing arts. He never married and was bisexual. The greatest blight on his career came during the era of McCarthyism, when he succumbed to pressure out of fear of being outed and thus named names of friends and colleagues. The PBS special highlights at the end that this was one of the great guilts he carried with him until his death. According to critic Clive Barnes, Jerome Robbins "was an extremely demanding man, not always popular with his dancers, although always respected. He was a perfectionist who sometimes, very quietly, reached perfection." Looking at the segments for West Side Story, you realize in retrospect how shockingly modern and innovative Robbins' choreography was for the time, something I had not realized until watching this.

The picture you see here is by Jesse Gerstein and comes from the website for The Jerome Robbins Foundation and Robbins Rights Trust. The Foundation provides grants related to dance and the performing arts, and the Trust licenses Robbins' works. That website also has two essays on Robbins' life worth reading. For a gay/bisexual perspective, see this biographical account on, an online gay/lesbian encyclopedia of the arts (for which I have written a few articles). But without a doubt, check out the website for the PBS American Masters series on Robbins. There are links to videos from the special itself. I heartily recommend it for anyone interested in dance. Below, though, I found on YouTube an early video of "Cool" from a performance of West Side Story that I think really gives you a sense of the modernity of the choreography. It's fun to see it as part of a live performance too, even though the image quality isn't the greatest. As you watch it, notice the high level of athletic ballet steps integrated into what is essentially a pop tune musical. Fascinating stuff. (If you can't see the video, click here.)

Friday, February 20, 2009

Preventing Pet Abandonment

This week's news alert from the NYC-area ASPCA has some helpful advice on preventing the abandonment of pets during our economic recession. The concern is serious, because as more people face foreclosure on their homes and a forced reevaluation of their lives, pets easily could get lost in the crossfire and abandoned to shelters or, worse, the sides of the road to fend for themselves. (It absolutely horrifies me to think people actually still abandon pets this way. My friend MN in Florida told me recently that her family rescued their pet a few months ago. They found her abandoned and starving to death in a park.) According to Dr. Stephen Zawistowski, Executive Vice President of ASPCA Programs, “approximately one in 171 homes in the U.S. is in danger of foreclosure due to the subprime mortgage crisis. Considering that approximately 63 percent of U.S. households have at least one pet, hundreds of thousands are in danger of being abandoned or relinquished to animal shelters.” I think the ASPCA's best recommendation is to check with close family or friends who are more stable financially about having them foster your pet for you until you're able to get back on your feet again. There are others, however, so see the news alert for more. The last thing any animal lover wants is to abandon a pet, and no animal lover wants to see a pet abandoned. Click here to read the article, and be sure to spread the word to others! And speaking of abandoned pets, the beautiful Persian cat whose picture you see here is Atosa, the ASPCA's Pet of the Week, and she needs a good home. You can read more about her and see a short video clip about her on the same news alert.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Hello, Dolly!

Barbra Streisand has made a "guest appearance" on this blog before, when I wrote about her receiving a Kennedy Center Honors award and was forced to kiss Bush (click here). Well, Babs is back, because I watched Hello, Dolly! last night. I don't want to call this an official review, because I've seen the movie a few times in the past, although it has been about 15 years since the last time. If any of you have seen last year's animated film WALL-E (which I finally did see about 10 days ago on DVD), then you'll recall a song that recurs throughout the film: "Put on Your Sunday Clothes." The version they play comes right from the 1969 film with Barbra Streisand. Needless to say, after seeing WALL-E, the song kept playing over and over in my head and I had to see Hello, Dolly! again. Would you believe it was released 40 years ago?

It should come as no surprise to my readers that I love this movie. OK, I confess it's not perfect. Sometimes the dance routines seem forced, and the sets are too clean to represent 1890's New York. But it is meant to be a fantasy, and a grand one at that. The music is fabulous and the costumes glitter. This was Streisand's second film, coming out right after her Oscar win for Funny Girl. I'm convinced, however, that the reason why I love this movie is because it plays into my childhood fixation on Streisand. Yes, I'm hereby admitting that Barbra Streisand is my diva. Every gay man is supposed to have one, and she is mine. I know it's a cliche, but I don't care. I think she's the top. Hello, Dolly! came out just before I was born, so I believe I saw it repeated on television in the '70s. But I distinctly recall falling in love with it for the music, Babs, the costumes, the time period, all of it.

The film was one of the last great Hollywood musicals of the time, following award-winning classics like The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins. It was nominated for a few Academy awards, including best picture, and it won three, most notably for best musical adaptation. It was directed by Gene Kelly of all people. Streisand always believed she was too young at 27 to play Dolly Levi, a role Carol Channing had immortalized in the Broadway version as the slightly more mature matchmaker. Streisand and her co-star Walter Matthau also apparently did not get along (his curmudgeony character Horace Vandergeld makes you believe that Matthau was the problem on the set). However, she has noted poignantly that the best part of making the film was working with jazz extraordinaire Louis Armstrong. You'll also be startled to discover Michael Crawford (of Phantom of the Opera fame) as Cornelius Hackl.

Watching the film again, the one thing about the story that struck me was the strange parallelism between women's rights and women's need to marry. Dolly has determined that she's going to marry Horace, partly for his money, but partly because she's tired of being a widow and wants to return to life. You can't criticize her for this. She even notes at one point in a monologue to her deceased husband Ephraim that she has taken pride in being an independent woman, but she no longer feels sadness or joy anymore, and wants to live again. All of the other women are desperate to be married as well (the boys are just interested in kissing girls, but that's another topic). In its historical context, there was very little women could expect from life except to hope for a decent and secure marriage, because inequality almost enforced the idea that a woman was subservient to men. One would like to hope that we've evolved out of that state, and that women can now marry because they want to, not because they have to. Still, as I wandered through my neighborhood yesterday and saw all the Valentine's Day couples succumbing to the pressures of commercialism, or when I watch a snippet of a ridiculous reality show like Say Yes to the Dress, I realize that things haven't changed all that much. Women are still pressured into thinking they will never be complete until they marry well and have a superb wedding. I can only hope my nieces and goddaughter will be able to resist this pressure as they grow older.

But I've digressed onto a somber note and Hello, Dolly! is not supposed to be about sadness but happiness, joy, and good times. Here's a link to IMDB's information about the film. And in the spirit of how this post started, here's the clip of "Put on Your Sunday Clothes" from YouTube (if you can't see it, click here). Keep in mind that the original film is a much brighter, crisper version than this presumably bootlegged rip. Get ready to sing and dance!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

"Why Victorian Art?" - Part 2

The work you see here is Ophelia (1851-2) by John Everett Millais (Tate, London), an icon of Victorian painting. The subject is the doomed heroine of Shakespeare's play Hamlet, who has gone insane, killed herself, and floats down a river clutching the flowers with which she is identified. This picture relates not only to England's rich literary heritage, but has come to speak to the psychology of adolescent girls who suffer from societal pressures about their looks and feelings. (For more on Ophelia in art and literature, see Kimberly Rhodes' new book Ophelia and Victorian Visual Culture; for a psychological discussion, see Mary Pipher's Reviving Ophelia). This picture's haunting beauty epitomizes Pre-Raphaelite painting at its height, with incredible, hyperrealized details in the flora, not to mentioned Millais' desire for accuracy by having his model Lizzie Siddal lie in a bathtub of water to capture the true essence of her appearance as a floating corpse. This work is just one of Millais' most powerful and successful works from the 1850s.

I use this picture to continue my ongoing discussion about Victorian art. Last Friday, February 6th, we hosted the symposium "Why Victorian Art?" at the CUNY Graduate Center. You will recall my previous post ("Why Victorian Art?" - Part 1) in which I gave a description of the symposium and a listing of the speakers and the titles of their talks. The symposium was a success. We had a full house throughout the morning (it was standing-room-only at one point) and the afternoon was nearly full. After Kevin Murphy, Executive Officer of the Art History Program, welcomed the guests, I gave a brief introduction. In my talk I nuanced (in very post-modern fashion) the idea of the symposium: why ask why?; what is Victorian?; and what is art? Our final speaker of the day was Elizabeth Mansfield (New York University) who asked another question: "What is Victorian Art?" Weaving in ideas and quotes from many of the talks given earlier in the day, Mansfield queried whether the word Victorian itself was partly to blame for its disregard from American academic discourse. Since World War I, we have lived in what she called an "age of irony" in which sentimentality has come to be seen as kitsch. Thus, the idea of "Victorian" has resulted in misconceptions and altered perceptions. She argued that Victorian painters believed sentiment was tied to art, works whose subject and meaning have been lost in our modern age. She suggested some of the reasons why this happened, among them the rise of a new taste in rationalist abstraction over emotional narrativity, the criticism of the Bloomsbury group, the rise of psychoanalysis, and so on. She pointed out that rather than assume that the declined appreciation of Victorian art comes from outside Britain, in fact this conscious attack against it came from within the United Kingdom itself. Despite this modernist tendency, however, a strain of romantic sensibility always permeated British culture, but as a result Victorian art remained popular among the masses while modernist strains flourished among the academic elite. Her talk generated many illuminating responses from the audience, including parsing the differences between sentiment, sentimental, and sentimentality (which mean different things), and discussing examples of visual irony that were popular during the Victorian period, such as in the caricatures of Max Beerbohm. I concluded the symposium by pointing out that perhaps the greatest success of the day was that we had not answered the question "Why Victorian Art?" but in fact discovered how many more questions there were, a welcoming sign of ongoing academic discourse in the making.

The talks throughout the day were engaging and informative. More importantly, they covered so many different areas that it demonstrated how large the idea of Victorian art is and how much more work is needed in the field. I have asked one of my co-organizers, Paul Ranogajec, to write for this post a synopsis of the day's events. His report appears below.

"Why Victorian Art?": A Report
by Paul Ranogajec, CUNY Graduate Center, PhD Student

The symposium “Why Victorian Art?”, organized by Roberto C. Ferrari with the assistance of Margaret R. Laster and myself, proved to be an exciting and thoughtful day of discussions and idea-sharing. For earlier generations of critics and art historians, the complexity and Janus-faced nature of the Victorian period were incomprehensible. Modernists sought to exclude the sentimentality, narrativity, naturalism, classicism, and forthright backward-glancing that was central to Victorian art. As a result, British art in the nineteenth century has been overlooked and undervalued as compared to the trajectory that French art took from David to Delacroix, Courbet to Cézanne—i.e., the progressive march toward modernism. Although an event that asked “Why Victorian Art?” cannot completely or unproblematically do what its title implies it can do—that is, answer the question of why studying Victorian art today is important—the formal talks and numerous informal discussions helped to raise new and important questions and provided much fodder for further studies. The presentations spanned a range of topics, from well-known artists like Edward Burne-Jones and John Everett Millais to underappreciated forms of handicraft.

The first panel session had three speakers: Jason Rosenfeld (Marymount Manhattan College), Kathryn Moore Heleniak (Fordham University), and Richard Kaye (Hunter College/CUNY Graduate Center). Rosenfeld discussed the changing reception of Victorian art as seen through exhibitions in Britain and the U.S. His own co-curated exhibition on Millais, a critical and popular success in Britain and Japan, failed to find a home in the U.S., suggesting that American museums still haven’t understood that Victorian artists are popular with the public. Rosenfeld made the bold but compelling claim that Millais, rather than the well-known French Realist Gustave Courbet, was the greatest artist of the mid-century. Heleniak discussed the career of William Mulready, his promotion of his pupil Harriot Gouldsmith, his interest in new subject matter, and his connections to liberal patrons and the burgeoning commercial art market of the nineteenth century. Her paper suggested the value of individual studies of artists through the lens of the changes in British society, economy, and culture in the period. Kaye, a literature professor who also works in visual culture, closed the panel with the most provocative comments of the day. Though he appreciates and admires much about current Victorian art criticism, he criticized what he sees as conservatism. Elizabeth Prettejohn, for instance, was singled out because of her prolific and influential work. Concerned that she and other historians have avoided the tough questions of gender, queer theory, and other socially-responsive theories, Kaye castigated historians of Victorian art for falling back on hagiography and canonization rather than following the lead of historians of French art like Thomas Crow and Linda Nochlin who have pioneered new directions in the social history of art.

The second panel had three speakers: Geoffrey Batchen (CUNY Graduate Center), Talia Schaffer (Queens College/CUNY Graduate Center), and Peter Trippi (Editor, Fine Art Connoisseur). Batchen argued for a new approach to the history of photography that recognizes and analyzes the commercial and market pressures on the photographic industry, as these were businesses above all. He ended by providing a detailed analysis of one particular photograph, The Reading Establishment (ca.1846), showing the production studio of Nicolaas Henneman, who ran the first commercial photographic firm under the sponsorship of William Henry Fox Talbot. Batchen called the photograph the equivalent of the Parthenon frieze, and looked one-by-one at each of the figures in the image and the tasks each was charged with in producing photographs, reminding us that labor was part of the photographic business. Schaffer, a literature professor who also works in visual culture, presented an overlooked aspect of Victorian studies, what she terms Victorian domestic handicraft. Arguing that today the distinction between fine arts and craft is no longer tenable, she looked back to before the well-known Arts and Crafts movement to find the origins of the handicraft movement that has been since pitted against high art. She argued persuasively that Arts and Crafts reformers not only rebelled against industrialization in design and production, but also were opposed to domestic handicrafts. She claimed that modern-day crocheted toilet paper cozies express values first formed in the Victorian period and that we cannot understand them without looking to their origins in the Victorian period. Trippi ended the second panel by discussing the internationally-renowned career of French-born artist Gustave Doré, who was extremely popular in Victorian England, and the challenges in mounting an exhibition of work by him. His talk brought up the question of illustration and its close connection to literature and narrative subject matter, aspects of Victorian art that especially have been maligned by modernist critics. Trippi’s laundry list of objections that museums and critics make to showing Victorian art in the U.S. challenged the audience to directly confront the many biases still existing against Victorian art, both in Britain and America.

The afternoon session was comprised of four doctoral students at different stages of their dissertation: Margaret R. Laster (CUNY Graduate Center), Catherine Roach (Columbia University), Jordan Bear (Columbia University), and Andrea Wolk Rager (Yale University). This session provided a forum for work being conducted by up-and-coming scholars in the field of Victorian art and suggested new avenues of inquiry that might benefit the study of Victorian art hereafter. Laster shared her research on the American Gilded Age collectors Henry Marquand and Catharine Lorillard Wolfe, both of whom were interested in contemporary British art and design. Previous studies of collectors have focused primarily on old Masters and contemporary French art, so Laster’s work is useful in shedding light on the transatlantic interest in British Victorian art and design of the period. Roach discussed her work on paintings within paintings. She primarily addressed the question of why, if the theme of her dissertation could be explored in any context, she would choose Victorian art and not, say, French Realism or Impressionism. She identified a number of reasons for her choice, including her subjective response to the work and the historiographic challenges and opportunities it has given her. Bear argued for a new approach to photographic history that situates photographs within the larger visual cultures of their time. For Bear, this means closely understanding the various means by which photographers attempted not to depict a “truthful” appearance of the world, but to question the meaning of those terms and the meanings of representation itself. His work analyzes composite photographs, series, and collaborations, three previously marginalized aspects of mid-Victorian photography. Finally, Wolk Rager discussed her work reinterpreting the career and legacy of Burne-Jones, one of the towering giants of Victorian art. She dismisses the traditional view of Burne-Jones as an escapist dreamer and asserts his active confrontation with the concerns and themes of modernity. The artist’s vast production in many media was a result of his desire to pursue his artistic vision in as many directions as possible, a method that confirms his modernity and provides a new way of assessing the work of many other prolific Victorians.

The symposium was a complete success. Attendance was better than expected (probably about 70 visitors throughout the day), and audience members came from as far away as Geneva and in the U.S. from places as diverse as Massachusetts and Georgia. The informal chats I overheard or participated in throughout the day suggested that the participants and audience all came away with a renewed dedication to rehabilitating the fortunes of this extraordinary period and its art.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

100 Posts!

This post marks the 100th post on bklynbiblio! Fireworks are definitely in order (image courtesy of Wikipedia). My blog has been up and running since August 29, 2008. Thanks to all my readers for their interest, comments, and support. Here's to another 100 posts!

Review: Brideshead Revisited

I took the picture you see here in May 2007 when my friend CC and I went to Castle Howard in North Yorkshire, England. This place is one of the most spectacular English country estates, and has been home to the Howard family for over 300 years. CC and I have an affinity for this place because the 9th Earl and Countess were George and Rosalind Howard, patrons and friends of the greater Pre-Raphaelite circle, including Simeon Solomon. On the day we visited Castle Howard, a crew was still in production working on segments for the film version of Brideshead Revisited, the movie released in 2008. We didn't get to see any of the actors though, and to make matters more challenging, some of rooms were closed to the public. That means, of course, we have to return for another visit one day.

I finally saw on DVD this film version of Brideshead Revisited. It's all right. Because it's based on an intricately written book from 1945 by the British writer Evelyn Waugh, and because of the huge success of the miniseries version released in the US in 1982 starring Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews (also filmed at Castle Howard), this new movie version was almost doomed to be a failure. The problem with adaptations such as this is that the viewer has to learn to appreciate it on its own merit, removing it contextually from other referents. So from this perspective, if you have never read the book or seen the miniseries (I've done both), you might actually love it. That's fine. But among the die-hard fans of the book or miniseries, you will find many to challenge your liking of the present film.

While retaining the 1920s and 1930s feel, they have modernized the language to appeal to a contemporary audience. The shift is on the triangulated relationship between the artist Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode), the gay Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw), and his sister Julia Flyte (Hayley Atwell). The Flytes are the aristocrats of the film. Sebastian and Charles meet at Oxford University and Charles is quickly sucked into the Flyte family, much to the chagrin of Sebastian who was determined to keep him all to himself. Waugh's novel and the miniseries intimate at homosexuality between Charles and Sebastian, but this movie version makes no qualms about it, but as a result they also definitively show that Charles isn't gay and rejects Sebastian. I find this bothersome because the ambiguity was one of the strengths of the original story. Of course the affair he has with Julia becomes the real meat of this story. The book poignantly brings into the discussion how much Julia resembles her brother, and so it's easy to interpret the text as a nexus of indefinable sexuality. The book and miniseries make you realize that the love story is only one part of this layered tale that has to do with difference, religion being the most important one. Although this is addressed in the present film, it's so intent on focusing on the love story, the viewer misses out on understanding Waugh's true intent of describing this interwar period of British society where a man tried to find himself amidst old world society and new modern identity.

The cinematography is of course spectacular. Aside from Castle Howard, there are scenes in Oxford and Venice that are exquisite. Emma Thompson as Lady Marchmain, Sebastian and Julia's mother, is brilliant and chilling. The scene where Charles sits at dinner with Lady Marchmain and her family is disturbingly uncomfortable to watch, because of Thompson's skill in conveying the subtly indomitable power she has over her children. So if you enjoy a good English manor-type classic, you should watch the movie. But if you want the true experience of Brideshead Revisited, read the book, then watch the original miniseries. You won't be disappointed. Here is the trailer for the film (or click here to see it on YouTube).

Torchwood Season 3...Coming Soon!

Give me a show with time travel, fast-paced action, strong writing, buff and sexy stars (preferably with British accents), throw in some humor, an alien or two, heavy petting, and I'm sold! I love Torchwood, the BBC show that is a spin-off from Doctor Who (another favorite of mine, as readers of this blog know). The show often does tap into serious philosophical, ethical, and psychological issues, tackling everything from death to human rights (well, alien rights?), but it's also fun sci-fi escapism. The premise is that in the late 19th-century, Queen Victoria established the Torchwood Institute to protect the British Empire from alien invasions. There's a long history that you can read about on Wikipedia's Torchwood entry. The show stars John Barrowman as the gay/bisexual Captain Jack Harkness (pictured in the center), who is buff, charismatic, snarky, and, if I remember correctly, from the 51st century (only on British television could you have a gay superhero from the future). Oh, yes, and he's also immortal, although not by his choice (we can blame Rose from Doctor Who for that...but I digress). Capt. Jack now leads the Cardiff branch of Torchwood with a few colleagues. Season 3 will be a mini-season of 5 episodes entitled "Children of Earth." It is supposed to premiere sometime this year on BBC and BBC-America. I can't wait! Here's the just-released trailer for the new season. Note the hot smooch between Capt. Jack and Ianto Jones...yum!

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Oscar Wilde Bookshop

It is a sad day in history for gay & lesbian New York. The Oscar Wilde Bookshop on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village is closing after being in business for 41 years. It is the oldest gay & lesbian bookstore in the United States. For those of you who are not gay, the tragedy of this may not seem like such a big deal, but bookstores such as Oscar Wilde, Giovanni's Room in Philadelphia (here's my post about their 35th birthday), and Gay's the Word in London, for decades have helped gay men and lesbians find an outlet in which they could share their intellectual and leisure reading pursuits. Before libraries actively collected gay & lesbian literature, these bookstores were the only places where one could find solace in knowing there were other people who were not only like you, but shared similar interests as you, and would not judge you, alienate you, or even kill you, just because you were attracted to people of the same gender. The Oscar Wilde Bookshop has been an icon of gay New York culture as well, with active participation in the gay scene, frequently hosting book signing events for authors. The picture above is the store entrance decorated for Pride Fest 2008, which just demonstrates their involvement with the community at large for more than 4 decades. The closing of this store is a tragedy not only in terms of the gay & lesbian world, but also because another small bookshop in America is closing. Part of the reason for their closing is the struggling economy, but part of it also is because they've been overrun by big business and the Internet: the Barnes & Noble and Amazon industry. The worst part is that I cannot help but feel like "we" are in part to blame. I've been to Oscar Wilde a few times. Should I have shopped there more? I signed copies of my book and they stocked and sold it. Should I have done more to help them out? I feel guilty that I never did enough to help them. But in reality it isn't all "my" or "our" fault. Is it time we realize that gay & lesbian culture is forever changing? As more and more out gay men and lesbians enter the public sphere in politics, education, entertainment, and other industries, do we still need environments like gay bookstores to serve what was once a minority population? Have we outgrown these settings? Or is this more about the publishing industry? The more we succumb to the temptations of discounts at Amazon, have we lost any sense of needing to browse books in a bookstore? I'm troubled by all these questions, because my innate sense is that we DO still need these gay & lesbian environments, and we do need local bookstores. And yet, is there anything we can do about it? Perhaps this is one of those things in life that we have to learn to let go of, accept reality for what it is, and move on. If that's the case, I'm troubled by it. But what choice do we have? If there are answers out there, I'd really love to know what they are. And so it is with sadness that I post here an excerpt from The Oscar Wilde Bookshop in an email they sent out to their customers and posted on their website: "It is with a sorrowful heart that after 41 years in business the Oscar Wilde Bookshop will close its doors for the final time on March 29, 2009. We want to thank all of our customers for their love and loyalty to the store over the years. You have helped make this store a world wide destination and all of us at the store have enjoyed welcoming our neighbors whether they are next door or half way around the world."

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Review: Islamic Calligraphy

I am fascinated by the calligraphy of non-Roman alphabets. I'm a fan of Gothic scripts and other Roman-style fonts too, but I find them much more interesting when you can no longer make out what the words say (like in a medieval manuscript). That's why I've always been drawn to "foreign" calligraphy, such as the Kanji script used in China, Japan, and Korea. When I gaze at the bamboo scroll of Chinese characters hanging on the living room wall right near my desk, I am captivated by the free-flowing sensibility of line and brushstroke. Each character becomes an aesthetic object unto itself. They're not humanoid figures, but abstract ideas. I have no idea what each character means. I don't need to know, and I don't want to know. The scroll hangs on my wall as a grouping of ideas that collectively could meaning anything or nothing. They are words. And yet, whatever their meaning, they stand first and foremost for me as aesthetic ideas.

Because of this interest of mine, I had been looking forward to going to the Asia Society to see an exhibition on Islamic calligraphy (visit their website for a virtual exhibition, I went on Saturday. It was actually two small shows grouped together: Traces of the Calligrapher: Islamic Calligraphy in Practice, ca. 1600-1900 and Writing the Word of God: Calligraphy and the Qur'an. The majority of objects on display were from the Ottoman Empire (Turkey), the Safavid and Qajar Empires (Iran), and the Mughal Empire (India). The first part focused on the world of the Islamic calligrapher. There were examples of writing implements and related accessories (e.g. reed pens, paper-cutting scissors, etc.), as well as writing guides that students would have used as part of their training. To be a calligrapher in the Arabic world was of great importance. Because traditional Muslim culture does not permit the public display of the human form in art, calligraphy became the ubiquitous type of art in the Islamic world. I hadn't realized that there are so many different types of Arabic calligraphic styles though, and that the skill in both writing and reading these calligraphies required much training and learning. As a result, calligraphers often advertised their abilities with certificates that demonstrated their expertise. The image you see here, for instance, actually has three different types of Arabic scripts on it, all of them written by one Muhammad Sadiq Kamali Efendi, who was active in the 1820s in the Ottoman Empire (the image is from the Asia Society website).

The second part of the show focused on how different scripts were used to write the Qur'an over time. On display were rare leaves of parchment dating back to the 8th century. One of the reasons why calligraphy became so important in the Arabic world was because it was believed that with the writing of the Qur'an the person was evoking the word of Allah. Thus, the calligrapher performed a spiritual act by setting down on parchment or paper the word of God. It seems not coincidental then that so many of these early Arabic scripts were difficult to read, and that only those who knew the verses by heart could read the texts themselves. This reinforced the spiritual connection to the calligraphy itself.

All in all, the exhibition was fascinating. It was a little silly to see so many carved reed pens in display cases dramatically lit, as if they were priceless objects of gold, but that is the traditional way of museum exhibitions, and it did emphasize their importance for the calligrapher. The Iranian pen cases made of papier-mâché were exquisite. Of course the examples of Arabic scripts throughout the exhibition were the highlight of the show. It was fascinating to see the skill, craftsmanship, and beauty of these works. In the end, however, what interested me most was how a calligrapher's skill and talent superseded the ability to read the texts themselves. The art of writing was based on aesthetics, and it was beauty that came to represent an idea. What a concept...using beautiful handwriting to convey ideas about spirituality and life itself. It makes me want to stop typing and write with a fountain pen in my journal.