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.