Friday, December 31, 2010

Art Exhibitions of 2010

Reflecting on the past year, I thought I would review some of my favorite art exhibitions which I went to see. Some of these have made an appearance on bklynbiblio, but not all of them. For instance, I think I can easily say that my favorite exhibition this year was Victoria & Albert: Art & Love at the Queen's Gallery in Buckingham Palace, which I saw with RL. The exhibition was extensive with nearly 300 works on display, and showed the royal couple not only as subjects in art but as active collectors, patrons, and makers of art as well. The catalogue (the cover of which you see here) is exquisitely illustrated, but also textually makes for an excellent reference source, including for instance a complete inventory of works of art that V & A gave one another as presents for birthdays and anniversaries during their 20 years of marriage.

Praising a Victorian-themed show shouldn't be a big surprise to my readers, but you may be startled when I say that my 2nd favorite exhibition this year was Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present at the Museum of Modern Art. This retrospective of the performance artist's career so thrilled me I went back to see it (and wrote about it) not just once but twice. (Note: I think my all-time record for returning to see a special exhibition again was to see Kara Walker's incredibly provocative 2007-2008 retrospective at the Whitney--I visited that show at least 3 times; this was before my blogging days.) I was stunned that Jerry Saltz didn't even include Abramovic's exhibition on his top 10 in New York magazine. The fact that he declared Chaos & Classicism at the Guggenheim to be the best show of the year reinforces my belief that by-and-large his approach to art is about novelty and the "hm...isn't that interesting!" factor. I went to see that show a few weeks ago with PR and RL, and we all agreed that it was anti-climactic. While there were a few interesting ideas and pieces on display, in general it was actually boring, and a number of works in the show were just not high-quality pieces. The 3 of us that same day also went to see Franz Xaver Messerschmidt show at the Neue Galerie. This we all loved, not only because the expressionistic sculptural heads were so fascinating (this is an 18th-century sculptor we're talking about) but because the minimalist Rococo/Neoclassical installation worked so beautifully with the busts.

RL and I took an overnight trip to Washington, DC a few weeks ago. We went to see The Pre-Raphaelite Lens: British Photography and Painting, 1848–1875 at the National Gallery (image: Julia Margaret Cameron, The Sunflower, 1866-70, Coll. National Gallery), which we both liked because it included exquisite works, but we found ourselves questioning the inclusion of some objects without explanations (e.g. why include 3 American photographs grouped together without an explanation as to their connection with British Pre-Raphaelitism?). We popped by the Phillips Collection as well (my first time there) to see the photographic pictorialism exhibition. And of course we headed to the National Portrait Gallery to see the now controversial Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture. There has been an incredible amount of verbal and virtual ink spilled over this exhibition because some conservative Congressmen protested for religious reasons (note that in the current socio-political climate they can't protest the very idea of a 'gay'-themed exhibition) a video art piece by artist David Wojnarowicz because it showed blood and insects crawling over a statue of a crucifix. The NPG subsequently removed the work, leading to a number of activists angry at this governmental censorship of art. The artist, who died of AIDS, was protesting the government's and Church's very-real dismissal of the AIDS epidemic at that time (more than 20 years ago), so it seems rather ironic--in a sad way--that this still is going on decades later. Shermania has bookmarked a list of some of the better articles about the controversy, so I won't go into all of that here. The exhibition had some interesting points, and it led to some very engaging discussions between RL and me about art and sexuality, not to mention displays of exhibitions themselves.

This post is becoming longer than I anticipated, so let me wrap up by just mentioning a few other great shows from the past year that appeared on bklynbiblio: the American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity was beautifully installed at the Met and had its usual related Costume Institute Gala; abstract paintings by Meera Thompson and drawings by Jeff Miller at the Atlantic Gallery back in May; and the delightful Propagating Eden show on nature printing I saw with DC at Wave Hill park in July.

There were, sadly, the missed shows of 2010 also, art exhibitions around that world that I would have loved to have seen but didn't. Alas, one cannot be everywhere in the world each year (although we do try). The one exhibition held this year that I seriously regret not seeing was The Spectacular Art of Jean-Léon Gérôme which was at the Getty Center in California and subsequently went to Paris and Madrid. It's understandable how I was unable to see that show, I imagine, but there's no excuse for my having missed The Drawings of Bronzino at the Met. I'm still angry at myself for that one, even though I was quite busy then studying for exams.

As for 2011, my list has already begun. In England The Poetry of Drawing: Pre-Raphaelite Designs, Studies and Watercolours at the Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery, Modern British Sculpture at the Royal Academy, and The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900 at the Victoria & Albert Museum are all on my list. More locally there is Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power and Brilliance at the Yale Center for British Art and The Changing Face of William Shakespeare at The Morgan Library & Museum (a show that has to do with the newly discovered portrait of Shakespeare about which I blogged back in March 2009).

And there you have it, a sampling from my personal world of art. Bring on the beauty, baby!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

First Snowstorm: 2010-2011 Winter

We're having a belated white Christmas today. It started snowing around 11am this morning, and it's supposed to go on all night. The weather reporters are claiming NYC could get up to a foot of snow. This morning I took a trip to the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City to meet the nephew, the nieces, and their mother for a post-Christmas get-together. We spent a fantastic few hours together. The exhibition Skyscrapers! was interesting--would you believe the kids got me to walk on a steel I-beam 18 feet in the air!? After we said our farewells, I took the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail and then the PATH train back into the City. At about 1pm I stopped by St. Paul's Chapel just across from the World Trade Center and took the digital photo you see here. I have to say I love the way the it turned out, especially with the bare trees and snow falling on the gravestones and church. Once I got back to Brooklyn Heights, I walked down by the promenade to take more pictures, but the snow and wind was creating white out conditions, so I had no choice but to go to Starbucks for a delectable peppermint hot chocolate to warm up. Watching snow fall is so peaceful to me. You know what I'll be doing for the next few hours.

UPDATE 12/27/10: It's just after 11am as I'm writing this update, and we're still under a blizzard watch until noon. It stopped snowing a few hours ago, but we've got heavy wind gusts that are creating new piles of snow. I went outside about 7:45am to shovel the stoop and sidewalk and stepped into snow up to my knee. Traffic has been bumper-to-bumper on the BQE since yesterday afternoon--I really hated to be anyone stuck on the highway during the storm last night! All that said, the sun is now shining, the airports will be reopening soon, and for this coming New Year's weekend the weather is supposed to be an unseasonably high 50 degrees.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas 2010

The picture you see here is The Adoration of the Shepherds by the northern Italian artist Andrea Mantegna, showing the scene from Luke 2:16, "So [the shepherds] hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger." This Renaissance picture dates from just after 1450 and is part of the exquisite paintings collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Christmas this year is a bit different for me. For the first time, I decided to stay in NYC and not visit family. With all the traveling I've been doing, and just getting back into my NYC groove, I decided to spend this holiday season doing...well...nothing. Since last night I've been reading, watching movies, and gorging on Entenmann's marshmallow iced devil's food cake (it's taking all my will power not to inhale the whole thing in one sitting). In short, I'm relaxing. And enjoying every minute of it. While it would have been wonderful to see everyone and participate in all the food and presents and blissful dysfunctional chaos that has defined every Christmas in my life, I have to admit there's something spectacular about having no pressure to do anything more challenging than deciding whether I should change from my pajamas into a pair of sweat pants. A blessed holiday indeed. Merry Christmas, dear readers!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Refudiating (and Measuring Words) Since 2010

Following up on last year's "unfriend" as Word of the Year, it's time we spoke about the word "refudiate." I was a bit dismayed when I heard last month that the New Oxford American Dictionary had selected Sarah Palin's malapropism as the 2010 Word of the Year. (Note that I was just as disgruntled when I had heard "bootylicious" had been added to the Oxford English Dictionary a few years ago.) Palin's use of the word combined "refute" and "repudiate" and probably was an innocent typographical error when she Tweeted it this past July (not that the p and f are anywhere near one another on a keyboard). People attacked her almost immediately for her ignorance and for ridiculously inventing new words, especially when she discovered she had something good going on and she began using it on a regular basis. Eventually she defended herself by Tweeting that, like Shakespeare, she could invent words too because English was constantly evolving.

Now, as much as it kills me to admit this, she was right about that. In fact, it's strangely coincidental that soon after the news broke about the Word of the Year, I went to the British Library in London and visited the special exhibition Evolving English: One Language, Many Voices. Conceptually, this exhibition was fascinating, and it had on display texts from scrolls and codices to modern-day advertisements and letters. The show is about the history of the English language both in written and spoken form, covering its Anglo-Saxon and Celtic origins, the heavy influence of Norman French with William the Conqueror, Shakespeare and the evolution of modern English, all the way through the way imperialism brought new words into English. But the exhibition also had to do with issues of grammar, syntax, and spelling. In fact, one of the more interesting parts was when they pointed out that people have been worrying since the 1600s about the standardization of the language and its corruption through the introduction of new unapproved words. And just when you thought things like text message abbreviations were a new thing, with phrases like "Thx for ur msg - c u 2nite!", the exhibition showed at least examples such as a handwritten letter from the 1890s where a woman used the same type of abbreviation to write to her friend. In other words, phonetic abbreviations are nothing new.

The British of course still think their version of English is the correct form, and who are we to judge, but what is interesting is that we all accept variants of the same tongue. We spell some words differently, like "color/colour," we use different words to say the same thing, like "elevator/lift," and we even pronounce some words differently (Americans say "premiere" with the accent on the second syllable; Brits put the accent on the first syllable). But it's still English, and no one questions these variations in use. If I learned anything from the exhibition, it's that the English language has been and continues to evolve, so perhaps we shouldn't worry too much about where it's heading and how new words are introduced.

So, yes, Shakespeare did invent new words, and so did Chaucer, and literary/cultural theorists like Roland Barthes and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick did it with regularity too, but we're more willing to accept new words from them because they were great writers and thinkers. Hey, even I've made up new words at times! One of my favorites is "Britty," which I use to describe a certain type of British comedy that is dry and witty. But who is Palin to make up new words? Palin is...well...these days she's an Alaskan housewife who shoots caribou on her TLC reality television program (and who also apparently still claims she doesn't want to be President, even though Glenn Beck thinks that makes her just like George Washington, so she probably will run for President...but I digress). Does that qualify her to invent new words? But wait--actually it turns out that she didn't invent the word at all. According to this NPR report "it had appeared in literature several times more than 30 years ago." So Palin just made it popular, and it's that popularity which has earned its place in the dictionary.

In case you were wondering, though, if "refudiate" also was the top word in English in 2010, it may surprise you to discover that the Global Language Monitor claims it was only #4. The top word was "spillcam" followed by "vuvuzela" and "narrative." The Global Language Monitor records word usage on millions of websites, news articles, blogs, etc. Now, when you first think about this, it seems to suggest that the words then were the most popular words of the year, but actually they were simply the most frequently reported words. The only reason why "spillcam" became such a popular term was because of the oil spill crisis and every news agency in the world reported on it. In contrast, I have no memory of a single person I know ever actually saying the word "spillcam." So this record of top word usage is useful in telling us the most important words in a given year, but they also become dated very quickly and can disappear by the next year.

Measuring words usage is all the rage now, thanks to the digitization of books, and there are some new interesting studies that never could have been done before in the same way. True, there were concordances to the Bible and Shakespeare. A concordance counts the number of times a word has been used, so you find out how popular a word was in a given text or by a particular author. But to measure word usage in publishing over a few centuries never could have been done by a single individual in one lifetime. Digitization has made this possible. For instance, NPR had a report about Google Labs conducting studies on the words appearing in the nearly 15 million books they have digitized so far. They've generated a test system that allows you to create fascinating graphs so you can see how frequently words were used or cited at different periods in time. For instance, I searched for the names Canova and Thorvaldsen, two of the most important sculptors during the 19th century. The high spike on Canova's name in the mid-1820s must be because he had died in 1822, but the overall comparison shows us that Canova was apparently discussed more frequently than Thorvaldsen. But this isn't a perfect system either. One assumes that the popularity of particular words matched the ongoing increase in the publishing of books themselves, but we shouldn't assume that is true. Regardless, this doesn't negate the very useful and quite fascinating sense that we can now see how popular (or not) certain words or ideas were in published texts over time.

Measuring word usage also has a silly fun side too. A Facebook application now ranks for you the most popular words you used in your regular status updates, suggesting perhaps that those words have some meaning to your personality. When I did mine this week, my top word was "now," followed by "out," "tea," and "think." Are they accurate? I'll let the people who know me well make that determination for themselves. In the meantime, I think I'll make a cuppa tea and think about this topic some more.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Why We Love New York 2010

For the 6th year in a row, New York magazine has published its special "Reasons to Love New York" issue. This is one of my favorite thematic issues they publish, because while it acts as a pseudo-"best of" list, frequently citing recent socio-political-cultural happenings, it frequently also makes you realize that NYC's greatness transcends the daily lives we live here each day, tapping into aspects of globalism we may not realize at the time. And sometimes we need that reminder. After all, NYC is far from being the cleanest or cheapest city. But it is one of the most chic cities in the world, and pretty darn important socio-economically. Mind you, I don't always agree with everything on the list, and even that is what makes NYC so great, because we thrive on our differences of opinions (and boy do we all have opinions). This year's list has 59 reasons. Here are some of my favorites Why We Love New York...because...
#1. Pluralism Is Our Fundamentalism: With all the national crying over whether a mosque should be built near Ground Zero, it was the voice of many of NYC's religious leaders--many of them Jewish--who all expressed the need for tolerance and acceptance, and supported the right of Muslims to build their mosque, even if it was in a sensitive part of town.
#11, #12, #13. The 3 women on the US Supreme Court (Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan) are all from NYC.
#16. We're Home to Not Only the Publishing Industry But Also to a Woman Who Spends Her Days Smelling Books: Weird, yes, but she's an artist who's focusing our attentions back onto the experience of books and reading in an ever-increasing electronic book world...and she works at the MOMA Library!
#19. Brooklyn and Queens Are Competing to Be the Most Diverse Counties in America (and Maybe the World): Cultural diversity rocks!
#23. Our Most Famous Softhearted Morning-News Anchor Has a Secret Ninja Side: Matt Lauer is sexy AND he rocks!
#27. Last Summer 60 Pianos Magically Appeared: A public performance art spectacle that helped reintroduce music. Absolutely brilliant! Word is they're coming back next summer too.
#58. This Is a City Where, At Least Some of the Time, We Can All Go Off-Leash: Check out these awesome pictures of Moose the dog wearing his doggie cam in a dog park in Prospect Park.

All this helps make me feel glad to be back in NYC again after my sojourn abroad. Of course it helps that I feel like NYC and London have a lot in common these days, but that's another story. Here are a few of my own reasons Why We Love New York...because...
** Despite all the concrete, reinforced steel, and glass, we also happen to have some of the most beautiful parks in the world.
** Through the windows of everyone's apartments and brownstones, you will find bookcases overflowing with books.
** If I'm craving breakfast at 4am after a night of dancing, I can always stop in any one of a bunch of 24-hour diners and gorge to my heart's content on pancakes.
** Between the Met, Frick, MOMA, Morgan Library, Brooklyn Museum, Guggenheim, Asia Society, and at least a dozen more cultural institutions, you have to work really hard not to be culturally literate.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Gerald Mocarsky: Shooting in Series

I've been slowly getting settled back into my NYC life, which is why I haven't posted in 10 days, but more will be coming soon. Upon my return, I was pleased to see in the mail my copy of the November/December issue of The Gay and Lesbian Review, which includes my interview with gay NYC-based photographer Gerald Mocarsky. The image you see above is from his Men Who Dance with Men series. Some of you may recall that bklynbiblio published an interview with Mocarsky nearly 2 years ago, but this article is a new interview with him. Mocarsky is scheduled to have an exhibition of his work at Causey Contemporary gallery in Brooklyn in 2011. To see more of his work, go to his website at

Friday, December 3, 2010

50 UK Days: Week 7

Although this blog post will get published after I’m home, I’m actually writing it somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean squashed in my coach seat on a Delta flight. Despite my initial fears that the weather would cause problems, we departed only about 1 hour later than scheduled, which is surprising considering the number of delayed flights out of London. Gatwick Airport, which you can see from the BBC image above, was actually closed for 2 days. Fortunately, I was flying out of Heathrow, which had cancelled flights, but never shut down. The snow in London itself did start sticking and on Thursday morning there was a whole single inch of snow on the ground. Now, if you sense sarcasm in my tone, you’re reading this well. I have been rather stymied by the total lack of preparation the British government has displayed regarding the weather. Admittedly, this has been an early surprise, and I have been told by friends that in general UK weather is relatively temperate, that rarely do they get extreme weather conditions. In fact, the amount of snow they have been getting these past few years is actually a phenomena. More than one Londoner told me there was a period when it never snowed in almost 20 years. Is it global warming? Shifts in water currents? Ozone depletion? Who knows. But wouldn’t it seem that for a country basically an island situated in the north with a portion of it practically in the Arctic circle, that they would be better prepared for snow and cold weather? How is it that train lines are shut down for a week? How can cars be stuck on motorways for multiple days? In some areas I can understand this. For instance, in the wolds of East Yorkshire, where it’s just hills and moors and rural land, it seems completely reasonable that it’s much more difficult to plow these areas or de-ice the roads. But London? An enormous international city that’s been in existence for 2000 years? They can’t plow the streets of south London so people can get to work? It just seems bizarre to me. And before any of my British friends gets defensive, I think it’s important to note that the BBC this morning was reading the complaints and concerns of numerous British people’s emails, and they were actively grilling politicians about the failure to respond to what has amounted to a national crisis.

Related to this, however, is one amusing thing. BBC newscasters are some of the most staid individuals ever. They rarely crack a smile and when they joke it’s so subtle one doesn’t realize it was a joke until a few seconds later. In short, emotions rarely makes an appearance. Until you get to the weather. The winter blast that hit England has led to some of the most melodramatic weather reporting. The newscasters are actually animated! Consider these repeated choices words and phrases: frigid, horrendous, whipping, gale-like winds, biting cold, freezing temperatures, etc. Now say it with a young woman’s articulate English accent, emphasizing the ‘r’ and other consonant sounds, and I think you can tell what I mean. When you hear them report the temperatures you immediately agree. 0 degrees, -1 degrees, -10 degrees, even -20 in a northern Scottish town yesterday. But this is Celsius, not Fahrenheit. So while certainly -5 degrees is below freezing, in Fahrenheit that’s only about 25 degrees. Now, that still is cold, but it sounds WAY colder and WAY more horrific when they exclaim: “The blustery, frigid winds will make the already unbearable cold temperatures of nearly minus 5 below 0 seem even more horrendous than the night before!” Bloody hell, it’s flippin’ cold!

So aside from all the weather reports, and the news of student protests, I have in fact been busy. As far as my work was concerned, during the nearly 2 weeks I was in London, I spent much of my time at the Royal Academy and the National Art Library at the Victoria & Albert Museum doing research. I also spent time at the British Library and the Conway Picture Library. (The British Library had an interesting exhibition called Evolving English, that I may write about later.) I also made my usual pilgrimage to Tate Britain to see the permanent collection, which is being reinstalled due to renovations on the Edwardian building and the new mission embracing more modernism since Penelope Curtis, formerly Curator of the Henry Moore Institute, has taken over as the new head of Tate Britain. (The Art Newspaper published an interview with her just this past week about her plans for this historic museum of British art.) I also visited the Wallace Collection for the first time. The former private collection of the first 4 Marquesses of Hertford and Sir Richard Wallace (illegitimate son of the 4th Marquess), it was turned over to the state by the baronet's widow Lady Wallace upon her death in 1897. The museum is quite amazing with its focus on French art. They have some spectacular pictures by Watteau and his Rococo followers, and a decent collection of 19th-century French paintings by Delaroche, Scheffer, and others. Best of all was the opportunity finally to see what I consider to be one of the most erotic pictures ever painted, The Swing by Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1767), which was a true delight. bklynbiblio readers may recall me writing about this work in connection with Yinka Shonibare.

My Thanksgiving dinner this year was Malaysian cuisine (specifically lamb with vegetables, not that lamb is a Malaysian but a nod to British taste). It was certainly an interesting twist on the traditional turkey dinner. I also ate a fantastic Lebanese dinner one night at Yalla Yalla, seriously one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten (thank you so much, AS!). My international tour also included joining friends for French food, Greek food, and Chinese food. London cuisine certainly has come of age, and you will definitely get a good meal there, so have no fear of that. I wish I could talk about fabulous desserts and cakes I had, but I’m at a loss there. I think I needed CC to encourage me to eat more sweets.

If you’ve been keeping track of my 50 UK Days, then you know that I was gone 7 weeks, so that’s 49 days. Montreal started the trip, but since Canada has long been part of the arm of British imperialism (after all Queen Liz is still on their money), it seemed fine to include it in the group. Adding in travel time, it did magically work out to be 50 days. And after all is said and done, I have to admit that these 50 UK Days have been an exciting and thoroughly fantastic adventure. I have done so much, seen so many people professionally and personally, making new friends along the way, that I really can’t complain too much, especially these last two weeks in London. Well, I could complain about the labor strike screwing up the underground Tube. I could complain about getting woken up at 6am one morning because of a fire alarm, that we all had to stand outside in the freezing cold. And I could complain about the early cold snap itself. But really, why complain? Brooklyn, here I come! It’s going to be so nice to wear different clothes.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

First Snowfall: 2010-2011 Winter

When I posted last year and the year before about the first snowfall of the season, I never wondered whether I was considering it to be the first snowfall in NYC or my first snowfall. It was as if I and NYC were one. This year, however, I'm experiencing my first snowfall today, November 30th, and I'm in London, so I guess the posts hereafter will have to do with where I am when I first experience it. Here it is, at about 1:15pm local time (squint to see the white specs of snow). I took this digital photograph from the steps of the Royal Academy of Arts at Burlington House. You're looking at the rear of a bronze statue of Sir Joshua Reynolds (first President of the RA), who normally seems to be looking to the heavens for divine inspiration, but in this case seems to be looking up at the falling snow with as much incredulity as Londoners were today. People I spoke to have all expressed a bit of shock that it's snowing here. Apparently until a few years ago, London never got snow, no matter how badly it snowed elsewhere in the country. The past few days, however, have been rough for people all over the UK, especially in the north such as Yorkshire, Northumberland, and Scotland, where it has been snowing since last Wednesday night and causing early seasonal problems for everyone. The snow isn't sticking in London, but it's supposed to keep falling for the next day or two. Once again I find myself wondering if weather will prevent me from flying on Friday. I'll close this post by also showing the next thing I photographed: students holding their 3rd protest against government-mandated tuition increases by marching down Piccadilly Road and disrupting the traffic in the process. This was happening as I left the RA for the day, just after I had taken the snowy picture above.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Books of 2010

The New York Times has published online its annual list of the 100 Notable Books of 2010, with the print version coming out next Sunday. I find this to be one of the more interesting “best of” lists each year, although like in past years I never seem to have read any of the books on the list. I rarely read new books right away though, and I’ve determined I prefer it this way because it allows for me to better assess a book beyond the hoopla of its initial release and to see how it stands over time. There have been exceptions of course, like when I read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows the weekend it was released. The NYT list has been divided into fiction/poetry and non-fiction. Their criteria for selection is always interesting. This year they deny it’s done arithmetically, but instead have relied on “judgment, instinct and feel. The final result, for all its variety, implies a kind of logic, if not in our method, then in ‘the culture.’” I have no idea what that means, but at least they’re willing to be castigated for their choices, and people are already leaving comments of distress because they left out their top book. I was surprised to discover that only the 3rd book in Stieg Larsson’s trilogy ever made it onto the NYT past lists. Having read his Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Girl Who Played with Fire this past year (both of which are good, but deal with some intense psychological misogyny and are graphically violent), I know I will be reading The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. From their list, I’ve now added a few novels to my Amazon Wish List, such as the art historical mystery Angelology by Danielle Trussoni and The Long Song by Andrea Levy about the end of slavery in Jamaica in the 1830s. I thought it would be interesting to crosscheck this list with Amazon’s Top 10 Books or 2010: Literature & Fiction. Their Editors’ Picks section has 6 titles also on the NYT list, but only 5 books from their Customers Favorites list made it onto the NYT list. It makes you wonder who becomes the true arbiter of literary taste: the reviewer, the distributor, or the buyer?

Last year at this time I was reading Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, which wasn’t nearly as good as Pride and Prejudice. Including that title, I’ve read 44 books, making 2010 a surprisingly literate year. A number of those books were part of the intensive studying I was doing for my Oral Exams this past spring though. One of the best art historical texts I read was Emulation: David, Drouais, and Girodet in the Art of Revolutionary France (rev. ed. 2006) by Thomas Crow, a book I tell people is a page-turner you’re hard-pressed to put down. Although not officially published yet, Carolyn Conroy’s well-researched and fascinating doctoral dissertation “He Hath Mingled with the Ungodly”: The Life of Simeon Solomon After 1873, with a Survey of the Extant Works (2010) made for fantastic reading. Other noteworthy art history reads this year included T.J. Clark’s The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers (1984), Elizabeth Prettejohn’s Beauty and Art (2005), and Judy Sund’s Van Gogh (2002).

Ever a lover of a good novel though, I read 18 works of fiction this year. bklynbiblio readers will recall my review of The Children’s Book (2009) by A. S. Byatt, and my in medias res discussion of the magnificent The Way We Live Now (1875) by Anthony Trollope. Two other notable novels I read this year were the gay-themed obsessive love story Call Me by Your Name (2007) by André Aciman (which I so wanted to hate for personal reasons, but have to admit was superb), and The Alchemist (1988) by Paulo Coelho (a lovely allegory that inspired people before the millennium, but now post-9/11 is perhaps a little less inspiring, although I do want to read more of his work). At present though I’m currently devouring Howards End (1910) by E. M. Forster, one of my favorite novelists. Forster knew how to use fiction to draw attention to the divides in social class, race, and gender/sexual relations during a post-Victorian age when Britain’s imperialism and power was on the decline. He probably would be a forgotten writer today if it weren’t for the brilliant Merchant-Ivory films adapted from his novels. I’m not sure yet what books will come afterwards, but all recommendations are welcome!

Saturday, November 27, 2010

50 UK Days: Week 6.5

One week ago today, I took a drive through the Yorkshire moors up the northern English coast with CC, RP, and GS to visit the seaport village of Whitby. I had been here before, a few years ago, but when I visited with CC and her children, it was May and I had made the mistake of assuming it would be warm, and so had a miserable time when the wind blew like a banshee and it started raining horizontally. They never let me forget it. So I felt the need to redeem myself, and was duly prepared to brave the elements this time, bundled up in multiple layers of clothing. It was still mighty cold, but better able to withstand the weather, it was worth it. The village itself is known best for the ruins of Whitby Abbey on the top of the hill, which you see framed by the whale bones in this picture I took there. It is a beautiful seaside village. The smell of the salt air, the rush of the waves from the North Sea, and the intense winds that blow against your face simply exhilarate you as you walk out along the pier down and down to with the lighthouse. As you walk along cobblestone streets that run up and down the hillside, you’re surrounded by crooked cottages, fishing boats, quaint tea shops, and fish-and-chip pubs, truly giving you an English experience. There also are plenty of tourist trap shops, but it’s such a pleasure not to see a single Starbucks or McDonald’s taint the environment. The Romantic in me easily sees me renting one of these cottages overlooking the North Sea one day soon, giving me solitude in a picturesque world in which to write my next novel.

Literati may recall Whitby as an important part of the beginning part of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, or perhaps recall scenes that take place there in A.S. Byatt’s Possession. The ruins of the burnt-out abbey are picturesque and worth visiting. But Whitby truly made its mark on the world during the 19th century from the jet industry. Jet is a black polished gem carved from rocks excavated from the sides of the cliffs along the northern coastline. Because jet is so plentiful here, Whitby became the biggest international center for the art and manufacture of jet jewelry in Victorian times. It was made popular by Queen Victoria once she went into extended mourning after Albert’s death in 1861, and society thereafter dictated that women could only wear jet jewelry during periods of mourning. The ornately carved surfaces in the form of heavy black beads and large brooches appealed to the Victorians. But by the end of the century, jet had lost its popularity with changes in taste, and rapidly Whitby collapsed economically as a result. Today tourism is the village’s chief commodity, and it is a popular spot with the British. While jet isn’t as popular as it used to be, there are still a number of shops that sell contemporary and historic jet jewelry. You can see more pictures from Whitby and Liverpool in my updated photostream.

The next day I made my way back to London, and it didn’t take but 2 minutes after stepping out of the train at King’s Cross Station to realize what I had completely forgotten: London is not England. The incredible chaos of the urban experience hit me like a proverbial brick. Living in NYC, I’m used to this level of insanity, but I realized suddenly how having stayed in the north for the previous 5 weeks, even in cities like Leeds and Liverpool, nothing prepares you for London. It is an incredibly cosmopolitan city. You hear a multitude of languages spoken all around you, and there are more skin tones here than anywhere else I have ever been. NYC largely can be divided into 3 broad groups: Whites, Blacks, and Latinos. The implication of skin color is intended, as the US arguably is still divisive based on skin color over cultural background. Of course NYC is more complicated than that (Orthodox Jewish, Russian, and Korean neighborhoods comes to mind), but it’s still nothing like the quilt of ethnic differences you see throughout the streets of London. There are communities of Indians, Pakistani, and Arabs here, plus East Asian, African, Caribbean, and continental Europeans from Poland to Italy as well. All of them come to London because it is the economic capital of Europe. Paris and Rome are historic cities that rely on tourism, but London, like NYC, relies on its financial center to stabilize not only it’s own national economy but that of the entire European Union. London is also changing fast, becoming more forward-thinking in a way I don’t see that NYC is. There are number of high-speed railways under construction, that will take people from the outer suburbs to the city center in shorter time spans. The new architecture going up, partly for the Olympics in 2012, but also to sustain a rapidly-growing international population outside the city, is quite impressive and transforming the long-standing tradition of East London as a cultural wasteland of impoverished Cockneys.

And yet, as I’ve also written about, this is a city that is fighting its own economic hardships, facing student riots and terrorism, and handling the criticism of politics as each of the two major parties blame the other for poor management. The upcoming royal nuptials might serve as a good case-in-point. The perception outside of England is that people here largely are in favor of the monarchy and its historic presence, and that there is a small minority of zealots who want to get rid of it. In fact, from the conversations I have had with people here, the opposite is true. More people are grumbling about the potential millions of dollars of tax-payer money that will be spent just for security for the wedding, for instance, and this type of criticism has been downplayed as the ravings of a minority. It’s worth noting that the recent speculation in The New York Times about who will design Kate’s wedding dress is a topic that hasn’t even entered mainstream media here. If it did, I suspect the critical feedback would only escalate out of control. I wonder, though, what the NYT article says about the interests of Americans? For a people who revolted against the monarchy in order to establish a democracy, it seems rather odd how Americans have romanticized the same institution it worked so hard once to overthrow. Then again, I shouldn’t talk. If I were to get an invitation to the wedding, you know I would be there in a heartbeat. And then there would be the problem of what to wear...

Thursday, November 25, 2010

50 UK Days: Week 6

This post could be subtitled “Revolution and Peace.” I’m in London at the moment, where yesterday the city center and other parts of the country were paralyzed by thousands of students protesting with sit-ins and walk-outs of classes because of the planned tuition increases in the UK (photograph: Matt Dunham/AP). When they protested a few weeks ago, it led to some serious violence, so the police were on alert. The latest report from the BBC this morning says that 32 people were in taken into custody yesterday, and while there has been more destruction, in general the protest seems to have been rather stable compared to last time. Whether it will be successful is another story. The fact that the headlines focus on the disorderly conduct of the students certainly diverts attention away from what they are trying to accomplish. I still haven’t figured out exactly how all this works here economically, except to have been told that the plan is to raise tuition fees up to 200% higher than they are now. Apparently the same tuition fees exist regardless of which funded institution one attends. In the US, of course, all of this is more arbitrary, depending on the state you are in, and in many cases the actual institution. That doesn’t take into account private schools like NYU or Columbia, where an undergraduate could pay upward of $40,000 a year now. I think Americans have grown apathetic about all of this, in particular because we see increases every year and have come to expect this, even though no one likes it. The proposed tuition increase is being seen here as a reinforcement of the social class structure, as it will prevent students from getting a university education. In the current economic crisis and job market, that is extremely discouraging. Considering that Scotland has eliminated tuition fees, and that the Liberal party had proposed to do the same thing but reneged after the last election, it is certainly understandable why the students are frustrated and protesting.

Last week, when I wasn’t working in Liverpool, I spent the rest of my week exploring a bit. The Albert Dock area is rather impressive in how the city was able to convert the abandoned former shipyard warehouses into residential, commercial, and retail spaces. In the case of Tate Liverpool, the designers were able to provide viewers with wonderful views of the Mersey River while strolling through the museum. Also on the dock is the Maritime Museum and the Museum of Slavery. On the one day I attempted to visit those museums, thinking I might have a cathartic experience regarding slavery in particular, there were about 3000 school children in the building screaming and running around like hyperactive monkeys in a cage. OK, so maybe there was actually about 300 children, but the way they were carrying on it seemed like there hundreds more. The staff couldn’t keep them under control. Needless to say, 5 minutes of that and I was out of there, having gone through a catharsis of a different kind.

After having enjoyed then tired of the shopping mall experience that is Leeds, I was uncertain if I was glad or sad to see that Liverpool One was yet another new outdoor shopping mall that ran from Albert Dock toward the city center. Capitalism is definitely hard at work in the UK. Its one consolation was the stunning mix of contemporary architectural styles, some of which literally dazzled the eye with enormous display windows, intense multi-colored lighting, diagonal roof projections, and multi-level entrances that quite easily confuse you but somehow still encourage you to keep shopping (capitalism indeed).

Located in the midst of all this, in Chavasse Park, is the John Lennon monument, unveiled on what would have been his 70th birthday on October 9 by his first wife Cynthia and son Julian Lennon. The work is a fun-filled 18-foot polychrome sculpture showing the globe, musical symbols, and stylized white doves, relates to Lennon’s message of world peace. Liverpool has been celebrating Lennon’s birthday all fall with concerts. The Bluecoat was even hosting a reenactment of the bed-in that Lennon did with Yoko Ono on their honeymoon in 1969, which I regret now not having seen (although the video stream is interesting). As for the sculpture, I can appreciate the message behind it, but the work is dwarfed by the props used to announce and explain it. Even worse, the park is presently the site for a holiday village and almost impossible to find the sculpture. One can only hope all of this will go away soon, so that the sculpture will stand on its own in a natural environment with trees and park benches, so as to celebrate the essence of peace that it is meant to commemorate.

And in the spirit of change, revolution/peace, and gratitude, Happy Thanksgiving to my bklynbiblio readers!

Monday, November 22, 2010

50 UK Days: Week 5.5

This is the sculpture I was talking about: Teucer, the young archer from Homer’s Iliad. The sculptor of this lifesized bronze exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1881 is Hamo Thornycroft, whose early work was classical in subject but whose experimental techniques gave rise to the New Sculpture movement. I had seen reproductions and miniature bronzes of this work, but I had never before seen the original. The work is exquisite. The archer’s physique draws on the classical tradition of idealized form, but the tension in the muscles, the determined look on the youth’s face, the details in body parts from toenails to nipples to veins, all lead the viewer to realize this is more than just a statue. It is a man in bronze. If there is a critique to be made, it is the ridiculous fig leaf that emasculates the figure and threatens to turn him into a candelabrum. In the 1870s Lord Leighton had already successfully challenged the paradigm of marble in sculpture through his dynamic bronzes the Athlete Wrestling with a Python and the Sluggard, both of which echoed classical precedence respectively in the ancient Laocoon and Michelangelo’s Slaves. In France Auguste Rodin had exhibited in 1877 his Age of Bronze, which was rejected by critics because they believed the nude male’s form was too naturalistic and cast from life. But in Teucer Thornycroft accomplished something new. He not only reinterpreted naturalistic classicism, but explored the fourth dimension of temporality as well. As you walk around the figure, you can see that every muscle is tense, from the slightly raised foot and the tight buttocks to the elongated torso and raised arms. This is body in motion. But the key to understanding the work is in the right hand, elevated and contorted to show the youth holding the (imaginary) string of his bow. Notice, though, how the index and middle fingers are delicately slack. He has just fired his arrow. You realize then as you watch all this, focusing on how the light shines off the bronze, highlighting muscle after muscle, that what you actually are seeing is a moment in time. He is watching the arrow he has fired soar through the air toward its target. His body has yet to relax, as if to do so would veer the arrow off course, but with the simple release of two fingers, the viewer knows you have captured him in a very specific second in a time, a moment that transcends narration or genre or idealization. That is what makes this sculpture an intense visual experience incomprehensible unless seen in the flesh.

Thornycroft’s sculpture was one of many works displayed in the 3-part exhibition This is Sculpture at Tate Liverpool. The other parts of the exhibition were interesting, but they focused heavily on modern and contemporary art with work by artists as diverse as Pablo Picasso and Jacob Epstein to Bruce Nauman and Carl Andre. Tracey Emin’s pink neon companion art pieces “Is Anal Sex Legal?” and “Is Legal Sex Anal?” made me chuckle, but then again I find much of her work sardonic and cheeky. The section where the Thornycroft was exhibited focused on the sculpted body in various media, and rather than show the work as a strictly quiet aesthetic experience the curators encouraged visitors to wear provided wireless headphones playing funk music and to sculpt oneself on the illuminated dance floor. The idea was to explore how the human body could interact with the sculpted body beyond figuration, transcending in a way the gap between sculpture and performance art. But this is Britain: no one here is going to start dancing unless they’re drunk or everyone else is already doing it. Personally, I found the disco effect too distracting and had to ditch the headphones. As tempted as I was to dance the music was way too 1970s funk for me.

On Monday evening, I took a short train ride to Southport to visit the 5th cousins from the Ambrose side of the family. I had a lovely home-cooked dinner with them and enjoyed the time we spent catching up. But the majority of my week in Liverpool was spent doing research at the Walker Art Gallery, a wonderful city museum that has a fantastic collection of Victorian paintings, as well as Renaissance and Baroque pictures and Neoclassical sculpture by John Gibson and others. I was given the opportunity to see everything they have by Gibson in their collection, which was quite extensive. I also took an afternoon trip to the Lady Lever Art Gallery, which was once the private collection of Lord Leverhulme, the owner of the famous Lever soap company. The Levers also became famous for adhering to the principles of the Arts & Crafts Movement and developed a utopian community of sorts for their workers in Port Sunlight Village, where employees were provided with everything they could want for healthy and entertaining living without having to travel for work. The Levers were active collectors of 18th-century paintings, ancient and modern sculpture, and Asian ceramics, but their taste was largely in contemporary Victorian painting, and they have one of the best collections in the UK of Pre-Raphaelite/Aesthetic works of art, including two of my favorites: the work reproduced here, Burne-Jones’s Beguiling of Merlin (1872-7), and Millais’s Black Brunswicker (1860). This wasn't the first time I had ever visited these museums, but it was the first time I had a chance to get to know the collections better.

I also spent time in Liverpool visiting Gibson’s work throughout the city. There is, for instance, a bronze public monument to William Huskisson, a member of Parliament, who was the first man to be killed in a railway accident in 1830. Curiously, Gibson also sculpted a monument to George Stephenson, the railway magnate whose train it was that killed Huskisson. This work was in St. George’s Hall, a beautiful building that was used in the mid-1800s as both a criminal courthouse (with prison cells underground) and a theater and dance hall. Yes, it was possible for Charles Dickens to be giving a public reading in one room while in the next a pickpocket was being sentenced to exile in Australia. I’m not making this up. Come on, you’ve got to love the Victorians just for that alone.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Random Musings 4 (UK Edition)

Thank God the English love tea. And cakes, of course. I have been needing the regular caffeine infusion just to keep me going every day with all the research I've been doing. Okay, so it's not physical labor, but it is mentally exhausting to be examining art objects, reading through pages of files, typing up notes, interpreting and reading 19th-century handwriting, and just smiling and being friendly the whole time. Hm...suddenly reading this I'm realizing that few people will want to sympathize. All I can say is that the mental activity is exhausting, and lots of tea (and cakes) helps tremendously. It is interesting though that tea shops seem to have disappeared from most English cities. At one time they were ubiquitous, a public place for ladies especially to congregate where their moral integrity would be preserved and they could socialize. Villages and small cities still have them, of course, or CC and I never would have made it through our day trip to Lincoln. But in Leeds and Liverpool, there was nary a tea shop in sight. Pubs, on the other hand, are everywhere, but even there you can see that the old-style pubs, the rusticated tables-and-chairs, laid-back blokes, the old world charm, what one might consider to be more traditional, is slowly fading as well. Chain restaurants and bars like Nando's and Pizza Express are taking over, the same way chain coffee shops like Starbucks have taken over tea shops. It's sad really, but I have to confess that when I've wanted that cup of tea (or cappuccino or hot chocolate) I haven't hesitated to walk into a Caffe Nero, Pret a Manger, or Starbucks, all of which are chains here.

You've all heard the English say "Cheers!" It's become in many ways the most frequently heard English word by Americans. It's used as a general "Hello" and "Good-bye" but it's also used to say "Thank you" as well. The thing is, I've realized that "Cheers" is a gender-biased word. Men say "Cheers" to one another all the time, as in "Cheers, mate!" to imply gratitude and farewell at the same time. But while a few women said "Cheers" to me to say thanks, they are all young women, which suggests a new generation is appropriating this masculine form of chat. The fact is, you never hear a woman say "Cheers!" to another woman. It's usually always "Thank you!" and "Bye!" It's funny how such a simple word could be so gender-biased even in the 21st century.

But the big news this week in the UK is of course self-evident from the picture above: Prince William and Kate Middleton are getting married. He proposed to her using the ring his father gave his mother. Personally, that would seem like a bad omen to me, considering how that marriage turned out, but he claims he feels like his mother is now part of their union (which seems both sweet and creepy at the same time). The first 24 hours of the story hitting the airways was of course all wonderful. The BBC was interviewing people in the street and naturally everyone was very happy for them. The bitter aftermath has begun though. Americans think the Brits love the monarchy, but after having one for more than a millennium, even though their political power has been practically stripped away, a significant number of Brits want the monarchy to disappear completely, and to take the entire aristocracy with it. That's right, no more lords, ladies, earls, countesses, princes or queens. The fact is, having a family of figureheads living in a number of palaces wears on the nation's economy. To quote JE's recent Facebook post about the nuptials: "So, we can't afford higher education or drugs to keep bowel cancer patients alive, but we can afford a royal family and a royal wedding." He's citing another even that has been in the news late. Students have rioted here recently to protest the proposed increase, up to 3 times what it is now, for university tuition fees. William and Kate may want to take note of this. Maybe they should elope to Gretna Green like generations of young lovers did in the past. I've been wondering, however, since he's the future King William V, will she become Queen Kate? Will they allow a commoner (God, that is very class-ist) to be named queen? Or will they name her Princess Consort or something comparable, as Albert was Prince Consort to Queen Victoria? Or make her a Duchess like Camilla is? Whatever the case, as this journalist has pointed out, she would be the country's 6th Queen Catherine, but hopefully not follow the fate of most of her predecessors with that name (think Henry VIII). Then again, with rising anti-monarchical sentiment brewing here, especially in a tight economic crises, will they make it to the throne at all?

Sunday, November 14, 2010

50 UK Days: Week 5

During my last week in Leeds, I had the opportunity to go to the Yorkshire countryside to visit 2 estates where I was given personal tours, an incredible privilege that I will not forget. I first was at Lotherton Hall. Curator Adam White guided me around and told me about the history of the house, which has changed much in appearance since it was first built in the 1700s and now has a more Edwardian feel to it. The last owners were the Gascoigne family, and one can tell from what remains of their personal art collection that they were traditionalists whose taste did not reflect contemporary trends in art. Col. Gascoigne was an imperialist and named each of his guest rooms after far-flung regions of the British Empire, like the Rhodesia and Cape of Good Hope bedrooms. Later that same afternoon, curator James Lomax guided me around Temple Newsam, a huge manor home with so many rooms that at one point I was unable to even figure out what floor we were on. A house has stood at this location for over a millennium, but the current building dates from the Tudor period, with changes made to the exterior and interior over time. In the medieval period, it was a meeting place for the Knights Templar. The picture you see here is of the Oak Staircase, with paintings dating back to the 1500s and Richard James Wyatt’s Nymph Removing a Thorn from a Greyhound’s Foot (1850) at the base of the stairs. Although the staircase is Jacobean in design, it actually is a historic recreation from the 1890s when the Hon. Mrs. Meynell Ingram decided the house needed to live up to its rich historic past. She even altered the bedroom where Lord Darnley was born to give visitors a better sense of what his childhood room might have looked like in 1545. Darnley was the second husband of Mary, Queen of Scots, and the reputed father of King James VI (who subsequently became James I of England and Scotland in 1603), so for a brief period Temple Newsam was a royal palace. Darnley himself was assassinated at the age of 21 because he sought to increase his power on the Scottish throne, after having already killed his wife’s private secretary because he was jealous of the time she spent with him.

I was a bit sad to leave Leeds, more than anything because the research fellowship at the Henry Moore Institute was so productive for me. I couldn’t have accomplished as much as I did if it weren’t for the superb staff there. I won’t name them all because I may forget someone (and some of them are now reading bklynbiblio!), but all of them truly made my time there a great one.

As the train rolled into Liverpool today, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had been here once before with my cousin HA for a day visit, but not along the waterfront. Within an hour of my arrival, I was amazed to discover how much I like it. It probably helped that music by the Beatles was being piped through speakers as I stepped out of the taxi in front of my hotel at Albert Dock on the Mersey River. The dock area was established in the 1840s by Prince Albert as an important center for the shipping industry, and in the late 1980s underwent a complete overhaul and commercial gentrification that is quite stunning to behold as I walked around this afternoon. The hotel is actually one section of an enormous U-shaped Victorian warehouse that includes other hotels, restaurants, shops, and residences. It even has 3 museums in it, including a branch of the Tate, which I visited today, first to have a spot of afternoon tea and a scone with cream and preserves, then to go look at some art. I was thrilled by the sculpture exhibition I saw, and was dazzled by one particular bronze statue that reaffirmed for me, as I circled it over and over, the importance of seeing art in person. Sometimes a reproduction will just never do.

But I will save all that for my next post. I had a delicious dinner at ha ha bar & grill (sure, laugh at the name, but it was yummy: a glass of Sauvignon Blanc, chicken with Serrano ham and mozzarella cheese with a cherry tomato glaze baked in a brick oven until crisp, accompanied by new potatoes and green beans, followed by “eton mess” for dessert, berries with meringue and cream). While I ate, I read an interesting article by Anne Helmreich entitled “The Death of the Victorian Art Periodical,” and I attempted every once and a while to flirt with the cute waiter. For now though, I think I’ll settle down for the night with a nice cuppa tea.

More Teenage Dreaming

Was it already 2 months ago that I was writing about Katy Perry's "Teenage Dream"? Believe it or not, the song is still one of my iPod favorites. I'm glad I haven't tired of it yet, because now there's a version from Glee. This one goes all-male a capella, has some really adorable guys in it, and hints at a possible love interest for Kurt, so what's not to love? Check it out here.

UPDATE 11/15/10: Just when you thought an all-male "Teenage Dream" couldn't get any better, DJ DigiMark has done a fantastic remix of it, turning it into a dance track.

Glee Cast - Teenage Dream (DJ MichaelAngelo's Sing Mix)(DJ DigiMark Remix Video) from DJ DigiMark on Vimeo.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Random Musings 3 (UK Edition)

The picture you see here is what I emptied out of my wallet and pocket tonight. Lots of coins! Does anyone really like them? Some women have change purses, but others just throw them in their bags. Men have to lug them around in their front pocket, putting them off-balance and making them sound a walking sleigh bell music box. I’ve seen some men with wallets that have little change purses, but of course that just creates a giant lump in their back pocket. I know who likes coins: coffee and sandwich shops, where you can leave your spare change at the register as a tip. And people do because they don’t want to carry the change around with them. Here in the UK, if you do that, you must be careful or you may accidentally give them more than you wanted to. In the US we use paper currency for $1 and the ever-rare-but-still-valid $2. We don’t mind carrying that around and rarely would we ever dump that in a tip jar. But in the UK, they use £1 and £2 coins. The US government tries to get us to use $1 coins, but no one likes them, even when they’re pretty and distinctive like the heavier gold-colored £1 coins you see in the picture above. In case you’re wondering, there was £9.97 in my pocket: a £5 note (with the lovely Liz smiling at you) and four £1, three 20p(ence), one 10p, two 2p, and three 1p coins. Based on today’s exchange rate, that’s $16.10 on the table. The point to all this is that while one has to get adjusted to foreign currency units, one of things I discovered being here is that rounding things with coins so as to leave with fewer coins than when you came in, which I do in the US, just doesn't work the same way here. For instance, if my grocery bill comes to $12.67, I might give the cashier $15 in bills and $.67 in spare change, so that I get three crisp $1 bills back, and thus leave feeling less weighed down. Here, though, if my grocery bill were the same in pounds and I gave the cashier £15 in notes and 67p in change, I would still leave with coins—three £1 coins, or a £2 and a £1 coin—which sometimes weighs more than the spare change I might have carried normally. It's funny, the things you learn in other countries.

For instance, another thing I’ve learned is that it is absolutely critical to learn your right from your left, especially when crossing the street. Now, we all know that the Brits drive on the “wrong” side of the road (and I can say that because almost everyone else in the world drives the same way Americans do...something to do with Napoleon, I think, but I’ll let my friend CF, a Napoleon devotee, chime in on that one). What we don’t realize is that they also love one way streets, and they don’t necessarily like to tell you in plain language when it is a one way street. Needless to say, the lesson here is that once you think you’ve got it down, that you should look RIGHT before looking LEFT when crossing, don’t get cocky, because you may suddenly turn out to have stumbled upon a one way street, and you may almost get run over by a bus, which is exactly what happened to me this morning. Fortunately, Brits are too polite to laugh aloud at my stupidity.

Remember my commentary about public drunkenness not too long ago? Well, I’ve had some feedback from my British friends about that. Of course one of them was taken aback that I had made it seem so pandemic, but then the more we spoke about it the truth came out: it is a nationwide problem. The truth is that the drinking age here is 18, not 21, most pubs close earlier than bars do in the US, and few young adults have cars that they drive everywhere like in the US. As a result, there is a greater visibility of drunk young adults stumbling through the streets at night. The good news is that I haven’t been accosted by said partiers since that blog post, so maybe the word got out to avoid me. By sheer coincidence, too, this morning on the BBC there was a report about pub owners and clients having huge issues with families who bring their children into pubs and allow them to treat the place as if it were a family-oriented zone, when in fact it is, truly, a bar. I was actually stunned to hear that children were even allowed in pubs. Who knew? I admit though that a part of me was grinning about it too, having commented once about strollers and screaming babies disturbing my peace in a once-quiet coffee shop in NYC (for which I got seriously reprimanded by my cousins who are young mothers!).

Finally, I thought it was worth mentioning that the TV in my flat has a number of channels to choose from. The problem is that only 4 of them work. Of course the UK has cable and satellite TV, but the flat only has basic programming. It took me the first 2 weeks to figure out what channels they actually were: BBC1, BBC2, ITV1, and Channel 4. Gratefully, there are guides online for the channels, so I’ve been able to avoid all the American shows like Friends and Frasier and stick with British soap operas like Hollyoaks and raunchy comedy like The Graham Norton Show (unedited! hurrah!). But for anyone who loves historic reality programs, wait until The High Street arrives in the US. It’s brilliant! The premise is that different families are put in charge of shops reliving periods from the past. Situated in an English village whose historic center has died out, their job is to bring people back to the city center, while living as if they were in the past. The first episode, for instance, had them living in the 1870s. The butcher had to deal with no refrigeration for his meat, and the baker had to prepare loaves of bread using lard and a brick oven. The second episode took place in the 1910s, and dealt with social issues like women’s rights and the impact of World War I on shopkeepers when men had to leave women in charge of businesses. I have to confess: that is one kind of reality show I would love to be on.

And, of course, the big news out of London is that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows premiered there last night with all the stars on the red carpet. Am I the only one surprised by how chic Emma Watson looks these days? You go, girl! I can't wait to see the movie, probably when I'm in London, which will be soon. Yes, believe it or not, my time in Leeds is almost done, but then I’m on to Liverpool and London, so there is more to come. Before I depart from Leeds though, I’ll have to stop by the German Christmas Village which just opened. Maybe tomorrow...

Thursday, November 11, 2010

50 UK Days: Week 4.5

Last Friday, on Guy Fawkes Day, CC and I took a trip to Lincoln, which is about 2 hours southeast of Leeds in the area of England known as the Midlands. My main interest in going related to my research. Here I am posing beside one of John Gibson’s best sculptures, The Hunter and His Dog. He modelled this work in 1839, but the marble version you see here, from ca. 1846, was commissioned by Lord Yarborough. The Art-Union in March 1847 wrote that it “commands admiration by the symmetry of the bending figure of the hunter, and the characteristic expression of the animal.” In short, the work merges the idealization of ancient Greek classicism with a close observation of nature. The subject was in fact inspired by Gibson watching a Roman holding his dog back from chasing another dog. Considering how much the Victorians loved their dogs, it’s no surprise that this work was tremendously popular and touted after Gibson's death as one of the best pieces he had ever made. This and 2 other statues by him were donated in 1930 to the city of Lincoln by the 4th Earl, and they are now in the Usher Gallery.

The Gallery also showed an exhibition of finalists from the BP National Portrait Award 2010, an annual competition organized by the National Portrait Gallery. The number of expressionistic portraits of children were less cute and more creepy to both CC and me. Of the works, I found Daphne Todd’s Last Portrait of Mother to be the most visceral of those on display. With her mother’s permission, Todd painted her for 3 days following her death while her body decomposed on her bed. The painting is a no-holds-barred presentation of rigor mortis, her mother’s face frozen with the cackling grin of death. The work follows the historic tradition of death masks and 19th-century deathbed photography, and thus becomes a metaphor for the spectre of Death. But the lush colors of the work create original tonalities that show the fluids and fluidity of life and death layered one over the other. Painted on two conjoined wood panels, the work becomes a diptych, a devotional piece, that honors the memory of her mother who had just celebrated her 100th birthday. In Googling for an image of the painting, I discovered that Todd actually one first prize for this painting, which on reflection does not surprise me. It is truly a moving subject. This photograph of her holding the award as she stands before the painting presents an even more uncanny take on how her emblem of death has become a high point of her life.

Whilst we were in Lincoln, we made a point of stopping at 2 tea shops for our required tea and cakes. The city center looks a lot like a stereotypically lovely English village. The earliest city walls date from the Norman period, but one shop owner allowed us to see parts of the ancient Roman road that date back almost 2000 years visible behind the walls of his shop. Parts of the city are built on the side of a hill, so pedestrians are forced to hold on to the railings as they climb up or down the brick-paved roads. Of course we visited Lincoln Cathedral. I took the picture above showing the nave from the entrance. The present church was first constructed in the 11th century and dedicated to the Virgin Mary (this is pre-Protestant days), but the building as it appears now with all of its Gothic tracery was largely in place by the mid-1400s. Pop culture fans will be surprised to discover that this was the church where they filmed scenes from The Da Vinci Code. The church is beautiful. The Gothic elements of pointed arches, stained glass windows, and lit candles were enhanced by the gloomy afternoon and minimal number of tourists. Our feet echoed on the stone floor as we walked around as if on a pilgrimage.

One highlight of the cathedral was the Russell Chantry, a chapel for a Renaissance bishop that has painted murals from the 1950s by the Bloomsbury artist Duncan Grant. I was frustrated at first because I couldn’t figure out how to turn the lights on, but CC in all her brilliance found the light switch outside the chapel and around the corner on a large column. I took a few pictures of the chapel, and show you one detail here. I leave the reader to determine whether it seems overtly homoerotic or not. Grant was a homosexual after all. I’ve added more pictures of Lincoln, as well as additional shots from Leeds (Royal Armouries Museum and waterfront), to my photostream, which you can access by clicking here.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

50 UK Days: Week 4

In November 1605 a man named Guy Fawkes and his followers planned to blow up and assassinate King James I and members of Parliament using explosives they had stored under the House of Lords. As Catholics, they wanted to restore England to the Church of Rome and overthrow the Protestant Church of England reinstated since Elizabeth I’s rise to the throne in 1558. Their so-called Gunpowder Plot was discovered, and Fawkes was arrested on November 5 protecting the ammunition. Although he was only 1 of 13 men involved in the plot, he became the face of the assassination attempt. Ever since then, the British celebrate Guy Fawkes Day and Bonfire Night on November 5, with fireworks, candy treats, and the burning of an effigy of Fawkes on a bonfire, like the one you see here (image: Daily Mail). Curiously, at various points in British history, the effigy wasn’t always Fawkes. For a long time it was the Pope because he had been a sympathizer to the Gunpowder Plot. My friend CC filled me in on much of the celebratory information regarding these festivals, and I saw at least one large bonfire from the train back to Leeds this past Friday night. The burning of an effigy of a man on a bonfire does disturb me though. It suggests a violent means to an end and reminds of us less civilized practices from the past. Indeed, Fawkes was hanged for his crime in January 1606, and although he jumped off the platform so that he broke his own neck in the noose, his body still was drawn and quartered, a common practice at the time. Teresa Kundsen here points out that it may not be coincidental that James I ordered celebratory bonfires. They may have related to the already prevalent practice among harvesters of burning effigies of the spirit of vegetation for the Celtic festival of Samhain, the holiday we now associate with Halloween and All Saints Day. Nevertheless, in our day and age, do we still need to burn a straw man to remember the event? Wouldn’t the bonfire alone be enough?

I ask in part because my own personal pacifism and innate sensitivity to death has risen to the surface the past few days. A family friend, someone close to the Padre, died this past week, and his death has been bothering Padre, and me. After all, the death of an individual one knows makes mortality ever more present by the hour. Perhaps then this was a bad emotional state to be in when visiting the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds today. I am glad I went though, for many reasons, even though the dark tone of this post may convince you otherwise. The museum itself is a new building, a rather gulag-looking construct in tones of grey concrete that, surprisingly, is not unattractive. The glass tower with an inside spiral staircase and ornate displays of historic weaponry help make the building appealing. It also sits on the River Aire in the historic waterfront district that has been rejuvenated with post-modern residential buildings and restaurants. The installations in the museum itself are impressive, to the point where I was less interested in the objects than in the displays. The Asian section, for instance, was dazzling in its focus on the decorative elements and beauty of much of their arms and armor. In the tournament area, there was a live demonstration of 15th-century two-handed sword fighting by two very charming and attractive young British men. The sporting section educated viewers about everything from dueling to one of my favorites, fencing. These parts of the museum fascinated me and I found them quite enjoyable. Other parts were more disturbing.

The section on crime weaponry was disturbing. In one section that focused on gun control, which you can see here, I was shocked to discover that 1 out of every 5 firearms is owned by someone in the US, the highest ratio in the world. Each of the guns in the display case had a price tag in US dollars as well, demonstrating how much easier it is to purchase firearms in the US, whereas in the UK they are illegal. The hunting and war displays in the museum also filled me with dread. I found it challenging to walk through galleries where the triumph of man over beast was celebrated, with classical music piped through the spaces as if to conjure the image of the hunter as a civilized sportsman. The mannequins of hunters shooting stuffed boars and rhinos were just silly too. The section on war certainly was interesting for those interested in the development of weaponry, uniforms, or military strategies. But the sections on the the Crimean War, the Zulu Wars, etc., were more of interest to me because they tried not to sanitize or show bias when examining the historical past. For instance, my interest was piqued when I entered the section for the India Revolts of the 1850s and saw wall texts from different scholars that demonstrate different ways the events could be interpreted. But as I read more about the outright villainous slaughtering that took place both on the part of the Indians and the British, using weapons like those displayed in the glass cases, and I learned that more than 800,000 people were executed in the most heinous ways out of anger and revenge, it started to become too much for me. Tears welled in my eyes and I had to control myself not to cry in front of the other people in the room. To imagine people could be that closed-minded, that filled with hatred, that deterministic in a system of blind beliefs, that they would be willing to desecrate the lives of other human beings, innocent civilians and soldiers, wipe them away so that they are lost to us as nothing more than grains of sand blowing on a beach, that level of inhumane sentiment is incomprehensible and unjustified, no matter what the reasons for why warfare must exist at all.

As if this cathartic experience wasn’t enough, tonight on Channel 4 was the last episode of a multi-part special called The Genius of British Art. Of course I would be drawn to watch this, but as much of an Anglophile that I am, even I can readily admit that the word “genius” in this context is purposely self-inflating. Why not “importance” or “relevance” or even “beauty”? Simply put, “genius” appeals to the intellect and thus tells the viewer this series is about the mental process of making art. More importantly, it implies that the “genius” behind British art is nationalism. Only a series such as this could be shown and successfully received in the UK, for only a handful of people in the US, for instance, actually study British art and know maybe half of the artists discussed in this series.
But what made this last episode so particularly relevant today was that it focused on how British artists in the past century responded to war. Former war correspondent Jon Snow explored the work of post-World War I artists like Richard Nevinson (e.g. left: A Star Shell, 1916, image: Tate) who revealed the harshness of war through scenes of death and destruction that challenged assumptions about patriotism and the war effort. In contrast Stanley Spencer could only reconcile the horror of his own experiences by memorializing fallen soldiers as a resurrection scene with the men carrying crosses floating upward to heaven in the Sandham Memorial Chapel. The episode ended with Steve McQueen, a conceptual artist who went to Iraq in the early 2000s to make art in response to the war effort. His highly controversial work, Queen and Country, commemorates soldier after soldier who died in battle, placing their faces on sheet of stamps. Dead men and women from 18 years and up stare back at the viewer from these stamps. McQueen tells us their names, but he wants to remind us visually who they were as well, so we remember all of them, the fallen dead. These stamps, however, have no value, and despite McQueen’s hope that they will become postage stamps, this has not happened. And so they remain unknown soldiers, victims of a war that, in truth, neither you nor I can explain anymore, to a future generation, to ourselves even, right now.

But commemorating these veterans isn’t completely a lost cause, I imagine. In the US we have holidays like Veteran’s Day coming up on November 11, which is called Remembrance Day in the UK. Here, for the first few weeks of the month, people wear red poppy flowers on their lapels and dresses, in memory of fallen soldiers throughout the centuries. The use of the poppy may seem unusual, as it is the flower that produces opium, a drug that makes you forget. But of course that is exactly the point. The poppy reminds us not to forget. We may not know all of their names or why they died, but we know they died for a cause that seemed right at the time, whether it was defending the honor of nations, or for freedom and liberty, or for their own home. Regardless of why they died, they must be remembered, and each new generation should know that someone, somewhere, had lived before them and made a difference. This doesn’t just go for veterans, but for everyone, because we all make a difference whether we realize it or not. Lest we forget. And in a strange, personal twist of fate, it is only right that I also mention here that a new baby was born into my family this weekend as well, a blessing for which we are all very happy. And so, it is true, for every death there is new life, and for every end there is a beginning. It’s more than just a cycle; it’s the very essence of being human.