Friday, April 23, 2010

After Orals

Good news: I passed my Oral Exam! Hopefully that is the last exam I will ever take. I studied for about 6 months, I felt relatively confident about certain areas and hesitant about other areas, and I had practice sessions with co-students/friends. Yet, taking the exam still turned out to be an incredibly unpredictable experience that was both agonizing and rewarding. My thanks to KZ for being such an awesome study partner, and to RL, PR, and MS for giving me great practice sessions! For the record, my examining committee members were Profs. Patricia Mainardi, Judy Sund, and Sally Webster. Here’s the low-down on the images and issues.

Focus Area: Classicism in British Painting & Sculpture, 1785-1900 (note: I was only shown sculpture)
1) John Gibson, Tinted Venus (1851-56) and Frederic Leighton, Athlete Wrestling with a Python (1874-77) [images above]
2) John Flaxman, Fury of Athamas (1790-94) and Francis Chantrey, Monument to David Pike Watts (1817-26)
Issues: modes of classicism, polychromy, marble/bronze, idealism/naturalism, ancient/Renaissance models, nationalism, classicism and modernity

Minor: American Art, 1750-1945
3) Albert Moore, Pomegranates (1865-66) and James McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White, No. III (1865-67) [note: Moore is British, but what is Whistler?]; issues: classicism/Japonisme, Aesthetic Movement, artistic training
4) Benjamin West, Death of General Wolfe (1770) and Charles Willson Peale, Exhumation of the Mastodon (1805-08); issues: history/genre painting, academic training, American identities
5) John La Farge, Kwannon Meditating on Human Life (late 1880s-1908) and Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Adams Memorial (1890-91); issues: Japonisme, Symbolism, decorative art

Major: European Art, 1750-1900
6) Caspar David Friedrich, Abbey in the Oak Forest (1809-10), John Constable, study for Hadleigh Castle (1828-29), and Ernest Meissonier, Ruins of the Tuileries (1871); issues: Romantic/documentary ruins, nationalism, death/rebirth [note: always know the book cover images of your professors’ books!]
7) Joseph W.M. Turner, Rain, Steam, Speed: The Great Western Railway (1844), William Powell Frith, Railway Station (1862), and Claude Monet, Pont de l’Europe, Gare Saint-Lazare (1877); issues: railway/industry, genre/landscape painting, light/color
8) Paul Serusier, Talisman (1888) and Paul Cézanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire Seen from Bellevue (1882-85); issues: Post-Impressionist modes of landscape painting, proto-abstraction in color/form
9) Bertel Thorvaldsen, Jason with the Golden Fleece (1808-28) and Auguste Rodin, Monument to Balzac (1898); issues: monumental sculpture, classical/realistic body
10) Jacques-Louis David, Death of Socrates (1787) and Eugène Delacroix, Barque of Dante (1822); issues: Neoclassicism/Romanticism, classical/Renaissance body types

Looking back on all this, I think some of these image groups included unusual works one rarely sees. In some ways that bothered me, but then again obviously that’s part of the experience of this exam. Because of my interest in British art, there were more British works than most probably see. On the other hand, no one showed me Pre-Raphaelite paintings because presumably they expected I would know those. Of the groups above, I did well with my focus area (British sculpture) and my minor (I was told I’m a “closeted Americanist”), but I had a more challenging time with #s 6-8 for different reasons (e.g. why 2 Post-Impressionist landscapes? ugh!). Keep in mind that by the second hour I was seriously losing steam (railway pun unintended).

So if you ever have to take an exam like this, expect the unexpected. As much as you may prepare for anything, you will not be prepared for everything. Part of this exam is to test how you can improvise and respond to works you may not have seen before or ever thought of paired together. Fortunately, the other half of the exam is addressing canonical works/issues you will know. That said, everyone’s experience will be different because everyone brings different skill levels to this kind of exam. The choice of examining committee makes a big difference too. But there is one piece of advice I received from a few people that definitely worked for me. When you see the images, breathe. Those few seconds will give you a chance to collect your thoughts and allow you to articulate how you want to respond to the images.

(Image credits: Walker Art Gallery, Tate Britain, Butler Institute of American Art, RJ Swanson on Flickr)

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Before Orals

After months of studying, my Oral Exam in my PhD program will take place in 2 days from now. I posted earlier this year a description of what the exam format will be like. Needless to say, I am a bit anxious about the experience of the exam, considering how important this is in my program of study, but I want to take on this challenge. In that spirit, over the past few weeks I've been changing my profile picture on Facebook with details from various paintings looking for one that symbolizes my intent with regard to this exam. I've settled on the work you see here, Thor Battering by Midgard Serpent (1790) by Henry Fuseli, but I've temporarily retitled it bklynbiblio battering the oral examination. I finally had an opportunity to see this painting last summer at the Royal Academy and I still admire it greatly. It's a tour de force of 18th-century history painting in that it demonstrates Fuseli's talents through his use of foreshortening, perspective, and dramatic lighting to draw the viewer's attention to the powerful subject.

Fuseli was an ingenious artist (and not just because he painted dark, sexually-charged works like The Nightmare). Swiss-born, he went to Italy for his artistic training and was influenced by ancient sculpture, but seemed to find his greatest affinity with the spirit of terribilità associated with Michelangelo, as you can see in the exaggerated musculature of the nude Thor in this painting. The art historian William Vaughan has argued convincingly in German Romantic Painting that Fuseli was associated with Sturm-und-Drang, a literary movement affiliated with German writers such as Goethe that focused on emotions over rational thought. It is seen by many as one of the roots of Romanticism. Vaughan calls Fuseli's work expressive classicism, which I find an excellent way of demonstrating how he produced art that evokes both Classicism and Romanticism. Fuseli made his way to London and with his successful history/mythological paintings was elected a full member of the Royal Academy; this painting was his diploma work. He later became the Professor of Painting at the school. Here is more about the painting from the Royal Academy's website: "This mythological subject comes from the Icelandic sagas of the Edda, which were known in England from P. H. Mallet’s book Northern Antiquities (1770). Fuseli depicts the fable in which Thor rows out in a boat with the giant Hymir, shown cowering somewhat cowardly in the stern. Using an ox’s head as bait, Thor manages to fish up the Serpent of Midgard. In the top left is shown the elderly figure of the god Odin. Fuseli’s heroic figure wrestling with the evil serpent is given great grandeur and drama as it emerges from the inky background. Parallels have been drawn between this epic struggle and contemporary events in France. Fuseli was an enthusiastic supporter of the French Revolution and Thor’s battle with the serpent could be seen to mirror the French people’s struggle against the ancien régime."

Saturday, April 17, 2010

DW: The Eleventh Hour

If I hadn't been so focused on studying for Orals this weekend, I probably would have succumbed to the temptation of watching the Doctor Who marathon today on BBC America. It was all part of the hype for the much-anticipated 9pm premiere of the new season with Matt Smith as the regenerated Doctor and Karen Gillan as his new companion Amy Pond. As bklynbiblio readers know, I'm a bit of a Doctor Who fanatic, and I was among those crushed by David Tennant's departure as the 10th Doctor (and by crushed I also mean my crush on Tennant himself). When I first heard about Matt Smith, I was uncertain what to expect. Gillan and he seem so young to me, I was convinced the producers were aiming for a new target audience that, alas, I was now passed in age. All that said, of course I sat down and watched the premiere episode tonight, and I was not disappointed. It had all the fast-paced action and quick wit that we've come to expect from the show. The producers have done a great job reinventing things a bit. Not only does the 11th Doctor have a nerdier academic wardrobe (bowties and suspenders!), but the TARDIS regenerated too and has a whole new look. Like Smith's Doctor, the TARDIS now has retro-flair, a 1950s futuristic gloss that I think will work well as a contrast to the previous, more biomorphic TARDIS. I admit it's going to be a challenge to get used to Smith as The Doctor, but I like feisty Amy Pond, so it should be an adventurous season. Sneak-peaks are showing the Daleks and the Weeping Angels will be making comebacks, so we're in for some exciting sci-fi TV!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

My Neighborhood Is #4

To quote Nate Silver of Brooklyn Heights in the current issue of New York magazine: "I've been happy here, but like most New Yorkers, I suffer from a bit of grass-is-greener syndrome. Would I be better off living in Astoria? Prospect Heights? Chelsea?" Nate & Co. of the magazine conducted a recent quantitative assessment of neighborhoods throughout the five boroughs. Among their criteria were things like housing costs, transit, shopping, diversity, green space, etc. Each of these areas were assigned point values and prioritized in some mathematical manner which I don't understand and...voilà!...they've determined that the best NYC neighborhood is Park Slope (Brooklyn), followed by the Lower East Side, and Sunnyside (Queens). My neighborhood, Cobble Hill/Boerum Hill, comes in at #4.

Now my initial response to this was to be somewhat excited, because it would seem that I would agree with the results. I actually love my neighborhood. I've lived here since 2005. I rent a floor of a brownstone built in 1895 (alas, the building has lost all its Victorian charm over time), giving me a lot more space than most other New Yorkers. I have everything I need within a few blocks: laundromat, grocery store, at least 3 cafes (one of which is also a decent bagel place, which is an absolute necessity in NYC), and some great restaurants just a few blocks away. On the downside, the closest subway is an 8-minute walk, which in the rain or in blustery winter conditions pretty much sucks. Oh, yes, and we have way too many hipster couples with children (please tell me why I have to compete with strollers and crying babies in a small cafe when I just want to read a book with a cup of coffee and a bagel???).

As for the other neighborhoods on the list, the LES has never really impressed me, but admittedly I haven't spent enough time there, and I've never been to Sunnyside so I can't say anything about that place. Park Slope is pretty great, but truthfully it seems very gentrified and expensive as a result. That, of course, is rather ironic, because according to this article, Park Slope is supposed to be one of the best deals for apartments (2 bedroom for $2275/month), but who are they kidding? All of the rents they're citing in this article are actually lower than what people typically pay. Nate & Co. are forgetting about things like rent stabilization and control; when it exists, it drastically changes the scope of rents.

There is a Livability Calculator which accompanies the article. It allows you to rank your own priorities and thus generate the perfect neighborhood for you. The problem is that apparently some decent places don't make it on the list at all. If you browse the pages of comments left by readers, you'll discover, for instance, many who lament that Forest Hills (Queens) is missing, and apparently this area has some of the great deals in terms of rent, etc. (I've been to Forest Hills a few times, and it seems all right; I'm just not a big fan of Queens in general). There are other concerns with this general article and the study's results. Nate & Co. recognize this, but they don't seem to clarify all the issues. In fact, to me, it seems most strange that a quantitative survey is being used to assess quality of life? How do you measure desire and taste? Isn't what you like about your neighborhood related to what you get out of it? You could live in a neighborhood with the best school system and fabulous restaurants, but if you don't have children and you never eat out, then what good is it for you to be living in that neighborhood?

The best part of the article is the comment section online. Leave it to New Yorkers to express qualitative thoughts to the article and study. LMR925, for instance, writes: "Something that was not mentioned regarding Tribeca is that everyone who lives there is a nouveau riche turd and hanging out in the playground with them (or their nannies) and their bratty kids is the PITS! I live in the West Village. It is better there though we have plenty of jackasses too." I think another commenter, FHOEBE, aptly points out a problem with how they're defining diversity and how that relates to the magazine's readership: "Diversity really need to be defined more realistically because it's absurd to call many of these neighborhoods 'diverse.' Be aware that on this spectrum, diversity means white with either a light dusting of everyone else to slight sprinkle. It's ridiculous to write an article of this sort that went to certain lengths to be comprehensive, without interrogating the fact that readership dictates its truth. ... It may not be so pretty for your readers to confront, but it's a white-centric, rich-centric article (and dare I say publication)."

All that said, it's still somewhat fun to discover my neighborhood is #4 on the list, and none of the commenters seem to be squabbling that. Going back to the Livability Calculator, I adjusted it to my own personal interests to discover my "perfect" neighborhood. #1 is the East Village and #2 is Tribeca. Now, while it would be great to live in those neighborhoods, I don't know how they're figuring those results because there is no way I could ever afford to live in either place, as they have some of the most expensive real estate in the City. What is funny, however, is what ranks as #s 3, 4, and 5 for me: Park Slope, Brooklyn Heights, guessed it!...Cobble Hill/Boerum Hill. Imagine that: bklynbiblio favors Brooklyn neighborhoods! Apparently I'm exactly where I'm meant to be right now.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

GLBTQ Birthdays

Writing this post on a Sunday night, it occurs to me that I have been 40 years old for over 27 hours now. Yes, readers, April 10th was a milestone birthday, and I had a wonderful celebration with 20 good friends all packed into my Brooklyn brownstone apartment. It was definitely a successful party: it took until 2:30 this afternoon for me to get rid of my hangover. As I mentally prepared myself the past two weeks or so for this occasion, I began to think about other people whose birthdays are taking place these first few weeks of April. This actually all started because I was pleasantly surprised to discover recently that my fantasy boyfriend Ewan McGregor (image: Best of Ewan website) celebrates his birthday on March 31. The Scot just celebrated his 39th birthday! Okay, so admittedly he's not gay, but with more than one "gay/bisexual" role on his resume (from The Pillow Book and Velvet Goldmine to the recent I Love You Phillip Morris, which for ridiculously homophobic reasons still has not been able to get a distributor in the US), Ewan is arguably the most open-minded queer actor out there, with varied major roles from Trainspotting to Moulin Rouge. He was fantastic also in the current film The Ghost Writer which I saw last week with RK.

But moving on from my Ewan obsession, this post actually is about birthdays. We all like to know that we were born on the same day as someone famous. It somehow makes us feel special. My cousin DG, for instance, shares her birthday with Queen Victoria (about which we ARE quite amused!). Comparatively speaking, when I was growing up I was always depressed to know that the two people who shared my birthday were the actor Harry Morgan and the football player Don Meredith. But now, thanks to the GLBTQ Encyclopedia, a free resource that tells you everything you ever wanted to know about the gay world, I'm pleased to discover I also share my birthday with famous queers like the English playwright and poet John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester (b. 1647), and the landscape architect and philanthropist James Ogilvy, Earl of Findlater (b. 1750). Now, admittedly, Rochester was a bit of a rake, a free-spirited sex addict who didn't discriminate in his partners too much, but Findlater was probably more of a self-identifying homosexual, living in Europe with his partner Johann Georg Fischer.

Some other gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender/queer birthdays for this month include:
April 2: Danish fairy tale author Hans Christian Andersen (b. 1805), who was probably bisexual, and lesbian social commentator and literary critic Camille Paglia (b. 1947);
April 3: gay actor David Hyde Pierce (b. 1959);
April 5: Victorian English poet Algernon Charles Swinburne (b. 1837, dying on April 10, 1909), who was probably more auto-erotic than gay or bisexual;
April 9: lesbian actress Cynthia Nixon (b. 1966);
April 14: gay actor Sir John Gielgud (b. 1904);
April 15: gay Renaissance artist and scientist Leonardo da Vinci (b. 1452), gay-but-never-out Anglo-American writer Henry James (b. 1843), and lesbian blues singer Bessie Smith (b. 1894).
And of course let's not forget bisexual playwright and poet William Shakespeare, who will celebrate his 446th birthday on April 23rd. Happy Birthday, fellow queers!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Glen's Men

My friend Glen Mitchell in Miami Beach has been showcased by the gay news journal The Advocate for their Artist Spotlight segment. Glen is a very talented photographer who probably is best known for his nude male photography, but also does fashion photography and portraits. His colorful career past includes dancing and modeling. The image you see here is one of his most popular works. Glen is also the man responsible for the author photo for my novel, a digital image of which also appears here on bklynbiblio in my profile. In the interview with Glen, they note that "he's inspired by classic films and pinup girls, which is why in the digital age he still shoots his handsome models with film, in black and white." You can read the short interview and see some of his work by clicking here, or visit his website at

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Random Musings 1

Rather than post individually about a series of recent things and events I have found of interest, I thought I would start the first in a series called Random Musings.

This week's ASPCA e-newsletter for the NYC area has a reminder to go orange in April for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Month. According to the article, "Starting four years ago as a small adoption event in New York City, the ASPCA’s April celebrations have mushroomed into a nationwide observance of the human-animal bond and our victories on behalf of animals." The Empire State Building, the Woolworth Building, and other NYC landmarks will be lit up in orange on April 17th in honor of this event. You may recall from my post last year that April 10th is the official anniversary of the founding of the ASPCA. This year they will be 144 years strong!

Speaking of animals, The New York Times has an article out titled "Can Animals Be Gay?" by Jon Mooallem that, unfortunately, I haven't had a chance to read yet. It's accompanied by cheeky pictures of Easter-like animal pairs photographed by American neo-pop artist Jeff Koons. I'm not sure why Koons was hired to do this. Presumably it was meant to help make the storyline stronger or appeal to a wider audience ("Aw, look at the cute gay bunnies! They remind me of Uncles Joe and Mike. I guess homosexuals aren't that bad."), but knowing that Koons's work both celebrates and parodies popular culture, I'm concerned it may actually have the opposite effect.

Also in the NYT on March 13th, Carol Vogel had an article on the new generation of museum curators under the age of 40 ("The New Guard of Curators Steps Up") whom she predicts are among those to keep an eye on for the future. While I can appreciate the idea behind this article, I have to confess I was horrified to discover that of the 9 curators profiled, only 2 of them actually held PhD degrees in art history or a related field. Another 2 are working toward that degree. That means the remaining 5 have not done advanced graduate work in their related area beyond an MA (some don't even have that!). As a PhD student studying art history, I am very discouraged by this. It suggests the possibility that either museums are less concerned about higher education than we were led to believe, or that curatorial positions are being seen more as managerial positions than art object-related professions. Vogel should consider writing an article about that topic.

New York Magazine regularly publishes short pieces about new items available in their "Best Bet" section. Last week, it was about these clay rice bowls on sale for $15 each from Restoration Hardware (photo: Hannah Whitaker). Each is unique in its patina and design, and only 1000 were for sale in NYC. While they may not seem like much to look at, it's their history that captured my attention. They were crafted in China in the mid-1800s and sunk with a ship to the bottom of the South China Sea. They were excavated in 2008. Needless to say, I had to buy one. Some people may think it's a bit ridiculous, but I bought it because of the history of the piece. I feel like I now own a piece of archaeological booty! Besides, it goes with my eclectic Asian decor. I just can't eat out of it: the store issues with each bowl a label that warns you it has lead in it.

And finally, I only just heard about this a week ago, but last year Cornell University released the results of an interesting study where they had analyzed Flickr's content and came up with a list of the most photographed cities in the world. The top 5 cities are: (1) New York City, (2) London, (3) San Francisco, (4) Paris, and (5) Los Angeles. I'm surprised Paris wasn't more popular, but I imagine a lot of Americans are still anti-French. That said, they also analyzed the most photographed landmarks and things switch around. The Eiffel Tower is #1 and Notre Dame in Paris is #5 (that's my photo of the apse of the cathedral when I was there in November 2006). The Empire State Building comes in at #7. It's a fascinating assessment of travel photography, but of course it really is just a sample based on who uses digital photography, who uploads images to Flickr, and who tags their images appropriately for searching (note, for instance, that I never contributed this photo to Flickr). Oddly enough one of the other most photographed NYC landmarks was the Apple store on 5th Avenue. I wonder if people are photographing it today with the ridiculously long lines of people waiting to buy the newly released iPad.