Monday, August 29, 2011

Happy 3rd Birthday!

Yes, readers, our little blog turns 3 years old today! bklynbiblio just keeps growing with each passing year. With this blog entry, we've now reached 320 posts. Browsing the subject tags for all the posts, you’ll discover the top 3 tags since last year are as follows: "New York" is holding on to the #1 spot, now with 75 posts; "gay" is up a notch from last year and is now #2 with 51 posts; and at #3 we welcome "19th-century art" with 46. A close call right behind is "England" with 45 posts, which is not too surprising considering since our last birthday we've spent quite a bit of time in Merry Ole England and discussing British art. Stay tuned in the months to come for more posts on travel, exhibitions, my YCBA fellowship, and so on. In the meantime, "Happy Birthday, dear bklynbiblio, Happy Birthday to you!" (Speaking of birthdays, we'll also be celebrating the Padre's 80th birthday this coming weekend! Another milestone indeed...)

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Exit Irene

The name Irene comes from the ancient Greek word Eirene (pronounced in 3 syllables), which means peace. In ancient Greece, Eirene was the goddess of peace. She was represented in art holding in her arms the infant Plutos, the god of wealth, as you see here in this sculpture from the Glyptothek in Munich (image: Wikipedia). The allegory beyond this implies that peace nurtures wealth. It's an admirable ideal, but I'm not sure everyone in today's world would agree with that. Then again, I don't think the statue was meant to suggest that wealth only meant money. In any case, it seemed rather appropriate to end the Hurricane Irene saga with some peace. As I'm writing this post, the trees are blowing about in the residual gusts of wind and the rain is sprinkling down, but the sun is also gleaning through the clouds and birds just flew in the sky, sure signs that beauty can follow disaster. When all is said and done, this hurricane was really quite mild as compared to others I've been through. I never lost power (lighting the Santeria candle apparently helped!). My neighborhood seems fine with just some tree damage, and overall NYC itself seems to be rallying rather well. Suburban and beach areas in Long Island and NJ suffered more damage and will be dealing with flooding issues and loss of power for a while. Hopefully they'll be back to normal soon. This was a slow-moving storm, but it looks like we can file it under history for now. I wish I could end this post saying that the rest of this day will be peaceful, but this is NYC and the noise of traffic on the BQE and other areas has already begun.

Irene Arrives

From 5 until 10am, the worst of Hurricane Irene is supposed to be hitting us. I was awakened about 4:50am with some heavy rain, so I ate a little breakfast (hard-boiled egg, whole wheat toast with tahini butter & black cherry preserves, and of course a cuppa tea) and watched more of the news. So far, I haven't lost power (but I couldn't resist lighting one of my Santeria candles last night just for some ambiance). The expected landfall for the eye is supposed to be around the border between Brooklyn/Queens and Nassau County in Long Island, but of course anything could happen still, and the storm is so wide-spread we're all feeling the affects of it. The storm surge and potential flooding is what the newscasters are most worried about, and we'll know more in a few hours as to how bad it is. The subway system probably won't be completely running again by tomorrow morning, although the one consolation is that it is supposed to be beautiful weather. (Image: The Weather Channel)

Friday, August 26, 2011

Irene on Her Way

According to the National Hurricane Center's 2pm update today, Irene currently has sustained 100mph winds that are starting to affect the Carolina coastline (image: NASA). I think NYers are now starting to take this thing seriously. I went out last night to get some food and no one seemed even remotely concerned. But I went out again a little while ago to get some last-minute supplies and discovered all the flash lights and D batteries are gone, and people are buying lots of bottled water and non-perishable items. To quote one man I overheard: "There's's so eerie!" Governor Cuomo and Mayor Bloomberg have ordered mandatory evacuations from all the coastal areas, and as of noon tomorrow they're shutting down the entire MTA subway and bus system until Monday morning, a first in its long history. Having been through a couple of hurricanes in FL (and at least 1 in NJ back in the '70s), I'm trying to be cautiously optimistic that this one won't be as bad as they're anticipating, only because I'm hopeful that it will weaken as it passes over NC and then move further northeast. Of course, we're still going to get hit with something no matter what, so it's always better to be safe than sorry. There may be flooding. And the electricity may be out for a while (suddenly I'm so happy I have my Why-Pad with 3G wireless Internet access!). Aside from that, I think I'm prepared with my emergency rations and my Goya-made Latino prayer candles. Whattya think?

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Pharaoh Arrives

Here in NYC, the other day we felt the tremors of the earthquake that hit Virginia (the floor shifted under me for about 6 seconds while I was at my desk at work), and now we're getting ready for the possibility that Hurricane Irene will strike over the weekend. Not your typical NYC week for sure! But, interestingly, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, something else rather unusual took place recently: they installed a 10-foot pharaoh in the Great Hall! The Aegyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin - Preussischer Kulturbesitz has loaned the Met for the next decade a colossal statue of Pharaoh Amenemhat II. You can read all about the loan and pharaoh on the Met's website. For your entertainment, here's an official Met video showing the installation of the statue. You see some great shots of the museum and it's fascinating to see them upwrap and erect the pharaoh using a crane. Enjoy!

Monday, August 15, 2011

Top 10 Read Novels: 2005-2009

Whenever I write about my annual "books read" during a calendar year (e.g. the 2010 list), I take this from a Word document in which I record every book I’ve read. They go on this list in the order in which I finish them, not begin them, as I’ve been known to read multiple books at once (currently actively reading 2 books: The Elegance of the Hedgehog and, on my Why-Pad, Rogues’ Gallery). I also rate each book with up to 5 stars, in part because it helps me remember years later how I felt about a particular book, although the 5-star books remain in my mind for the obvious reason (and, oddly enough, so do the 1-star books). I started keeping this list back in 2005, when I was moving from South Florida to NYC and thus needed to weed my library. I realize all this may make me seem a bit anal and crazy, but I learned a long time ago I’m a listmaker, and without my lists (shopping lists, "to do" lists, deadlines lists, etc.), I’d go...well, even more crazy!

In recently looking through my past annual lists, I was pleased to discover that I had conveniently come up with 10 novels from 2005 to 2009 to each of which I had assigned 5 stars. I've now sorted them into a "top 10" list of my favorite novels read during that 5-year period. Keep in mind that the books were not necessarily published between these years, but when I read them. Also, missing below are a number of my other favorite novels, like The Picture of Dorian Gray, which I read long before I kept a list. So here’s my top 10 list, counting down from 10 to 1 (original date of publication is in parentheses; book cover images link to Amazon).

10. Affinity by Sarah Waters (2000). I am a big fan of Waters, and her name appears twice on this list. With its plot involving a Victorian women’s prison, psychic powers, and a burgeoning lesbian love interest, it’s definitely worth reading, although admittedly not as riveting as Fingersmith (see below). Her novel The Little Stranger appeared on my Books of 2009 post.
9. Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden (1997). SVH gave me her copy of this book. She loved it, others recommended it too, and I agreed entirely. The visual descriptions are exquisitely written, and the plot details beautifully the difficult life of a young geisha during a changing period of Japanese history.
8. Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray (1848). This is a classic British novel, with a number of witty (and tragic) scenes. The protagonist Becky Sharp is one of the most memorable little vixens in literature you will ever encounter. It’s worth reading all 800+ pages (took me 6 months).
7. The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant (2003). If you want to experience Renaissance Florence, as it moved from a flourishing artistic center under the de’ Medici family to a strict religious state under the grip of the radical Fra Savonarola, read this novel about Alessandra Cecchi, who wants nothing more than to be a painter, but is forced to adapt to becoming a woman before her time. Dunant’s descriptions are so lush, you can literally taste 1490s Florence.
6. A Dark-Adapted Eye by Barbara Vine (1986). Ruth Rendell is one of my favorite mystery writers, and her books under her Vine pseudonym are even better. They pull you into complex family dramas that make you realize yours isn’t nearly so bad. Here, a woman is hanged for murdering her sister, and their niece now tries to understand what exactly happened and uncovers more family secrets than she ever wanted to know.
5. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling (2007). Yes, I’m a Potter fan. When I first started reading the books, I wasn’t into them too much, but they just got better and better. I read this days the weekend it was released and could not put it down. The last novel in the series deserves a place on this list for sure. Rowling successfully brought it all together in one fantastic climax of a novel.
4. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (1925). Another classic in British literature, Woolf beautifully created a stream-of-consciousness plot that takes you for a ride through the mind of Clarissa Dalloway as she plans a party, but she jumps into the minds of numerous characters she meets along the way, making for a fascinating journey through post-WWI bourgeois London. The opening chapter has two of my favorite lines in literature: "What a lark! What a plunge!" and "I prefer men to cauliflowers."
3. The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (1905). This American novel will forever haunt a piece of my mind, especially living in NYC, and occasionally finding myself desiring yet another $4.50 cappuccino from Dean & DeLuca. Here’s my review.
2. Fingersmith by Sarah Waters (2002). I have to say this book, my second Waters novel on this list, is truly one of the most enjoyable novels I’ve ever read. It takes place in 1861 and involves the growing loving relationship between two very different Victorian women: a servant girl raised among thieves in London, and a delicate flower of a lady with white gloves raised in a dark mansion with a mysterious uncle. Just when you think you know what’s going on, everything changes...and not just once. A must-read for mystery and neo-Victorian buffs, this book is an absolute page-turner. (See book cover above.)
1. Possession by A.S. Byatt (1990). This was the second time I had read this book, and I was pleased to discover that my ranking of it as my all-time favorite novel had not changed. This is the story of two scholars, Roland Mitchell and Maud Bailey, who discover the love letters of the Victorian writers Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte, and try to piece together their unknown love story. Byatt’s talent lies not only in the plot itself, but in her believable characters (past and present) and how she is able to write so convincingly as a Victorian and modern author. Byatt won the Man Booker Prize for this novel. Here is my post about meeting Byatt.

2010 and 2011 already has proven to have a number of 5-star novels too, including Howard’s End, The Children’s Book, and The Lovely Bones, but we’ll save those for a future post.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Is It Baroque, and Do We Fix It?

A couple of days ago I had an email conversation with SFR, who lives in northern Florida. Her local museum is hosting a loan of 16th- and 17th-century Italian paintings from the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milano (a lovely gem of a museum itself). This loan exhibition is being marketed as "Baroque" art, about which SFR wanted to know more. This is a good question, because when you think about it, what does Baroque actually mean? When I emailed her back, this was my quick, off-the-cuff response: "Baroque typically means it's more dramatic than Renaissance art, which is more balanced and harmonic. In Italy this was a period of intense religious fervor, so you get lots of contrasts of lighting and shadows for dramatic effect, sometimes some violent scenes. ... But then you also get these delightful still lifes ... which symbolize bounty and the wealth of the patrons." From the picture you see here of Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Decapitating Holofernes (1612-21, Uffizi), you can get a sense of what I meant by the first part of my definition. This painting to me captures the spirit of the Italian Baroque because it is a Biblical (i.e. Apocryphal) subject presented in a way that’s highly melodramatic and incredibly violent, driving home the intensity of Judith’s determination to save the Jewish people from the Babylonian general. The fact that it was painted by a woman (a rare feat itself at this time) makes the picture even more fascinating because of our ongoing societal belief that women in general are less violent then men, driving home even more the determination of Judith and her maidservant in this picture. The painting also has a spotlight effect, making the figures stand out from the darkness around them. This results in thrusting the subject into the viewer’s plane more sharply, so that you cannot escape the work's visceral intent.

I could go on about this painting (which I love, in case it wasn't obvious), including talking about the influence of Caravaggio on Baroque art, but now take a look at the picture you see here, Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas, or The Family of Philip IV (1656-57, Prado), which also is Baroque (and another favorite of mine). What makes this picture Baroque? It’s certainly not violent. You could say it’s dramatic, but more like a theatrical tableau. The intricacies of what’s going on in this picture have been debated by numerous art and cultural historians, including Leo Steinberg and Michel Foucault. Although people differ on the specifics, everyone seems to agree that there’s a determined level of psychology and interpersonal communication taking place, with the artist looking out at the viewer, who stands in the place of the king and queen whose portrait he is painting. The king and queen in turn are reflected in the mirror in the background, while their children and servants are positioned staring back at them, i.e. you the viewer. Are we to understand then that Baroque art also implies psychology? Not necessarily, because one could argue that the paintings of Leonardo da Vinci also have a psychological subtext to them (Freud certainly believed so!). The intricacies of light and darkness are at work in Velázquez's painting, so perhaps that is why the picture is Baroque. Does this fit in then with pictures by other so-called Baroque artists from the North, like Rembrandt and Vermeer, both of whom painted in very different styles but were known for manipulating the power light for dramatic purposes? But if it's all about light, then how does this fit in with Nicolas Poussin's Et in Arcadia Ego (1637-39, Louvre), whose classical referencing clearly seems to call into question what French Baroque might mean.

My point is this: isn't it time we stopped using useless labels like Baroque? Or even the ever more popular Renaissance, for that matter? PR told me he’s teaching a course this fall on the Renaissance, and while I have no doubt Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Raphael will appear in his course, will he go further back to include the "early" Renaissance art of Fra Angelico? And will he go forward to include the "late" manneristic Renaissance art of Parmagianino? Will he stay in Florence and Rome, or cover Venice too? And what about Netherlandish and German "Renaissance" art of the same period? In this context, I ask, what does "Renaissance" actually mean, and what does it tell you about the art itself? In truth, nothing.

I'm certainly not criticizing PR at all, just using his upcoming course as an example of the problematics of these stylistic terms. There was a point in art history when these labels made sense because in general people understood the unfolding of Western art in terms of historic appellations. You went from ancient to Greek & Roman classical, then Early Christian, Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Neoclassical, Romantic, Realist, etc., until you got to the modernist 'isms' from Impressionism to Cubism and so on. Most large museums still arrange their galleries in this fashion. What made these labels work was the assumption that students/viewers were all White and Judaeo-Christian. But as every professor can tell you today, it’s not like that anymore in our ever-expanding global communities. There are students who have no idea who that guy Jesus really was, heaven forbid be able to identify the gods Mars and Venus. Complicating this is that the idea of history unfolding on a timeline also has lost its meaning, so that the Apollo Belvedere and Michelangelo's David are seen as parallel creations by some students, without any sense as to which came first and how one may have inspired the other. And yet, for some reason, academic programs are still teaching classes using these terms. Columbia University’s Fall 2011 undergraduate program has a course on "Early Italian Renaissance Art," and Princeton is offering "Neoclassicism through Impressionism." In truth, the reason why these terms are still used is because they are easy catch-all phrases that help (supposedly) get across similar ideas and concepts about art produced by a European cultural group during a particular period in time. After all, the alternative of offering classes on "Italian Art, 1400-1490" and "French Art, 1750-1886" are actually less helpful in giving students or the general public any sense of what they are actually going to see and study. And switching to using the names of artists ("Fra Angelico to Botticelli" and "Jacques-Louis David to Camille Pissarro") may make matters even worse because that assumes the student/viewer already knows who these people are and can date/contextualize them.

My art history survey textbook Gardner’s Art Through the Ages (12th ed., 2005) more-or-less says the same thing I said to SFR about what Baroque actually means. The authors also mention that the word comes from the Portuguese barroco, meaning an irregularly shaped pearl, and that it contrasts "with the rational order of classicism" (689). More noteworthy is that they acknowledge "the problematic associations of the term and because no commonalities can be ascribed to all of the art and cultures of this period," they have restricted its use to very specific cultures as it seems most appropriate. But then as you go through the chapter, you see that they use the term in each section on Italy, Spain, Flanders, The Netherlands, etc., showing that even they fall into the trap. Clearly relying on art historical terms like Baroque are now "baroquen" and need to be fixed, but it seems the only way to do this is to ensure the terms are explained as having some, but not all, defining characteristics that are appropriate to a particular time period because of current social and political events in a particular geographical area. And even with all that, it's important to note that not every artist shared the same styles and thus there are exceptions to every rule. Admittedly, it may confuse some, but need in the past to pigeon-hole everything into single broad-sweeping categories just doesn't work anymore for contemporary audiences. The new world order of art history needs a more nuanced explanation. (Images: Web Gallery of Art)

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Joy of Travel

Those of you who follow the adventures of bklynbiblio know travel comes into play a lot for me, and you know how much I enjoy writing about it. In that spirit, I just caught this inspiring travel-related video on another blog and thought I'd share it too. It's called Move and it's by Rick Mereki, an independent filmmaker in Australia (hence the Sydney Opera House; image: Paul Banwart). Mereki's 1-minute film captures his (adorable!) friend Andrew Lees simply "moving" around the world. Once I went to Mereki's Vimeo site, I discovered he has made 2 other short films that are fantastic as well: Eat and Learn. Mereki writes about the films: "3 guys, 44 days, 11 countries, 18 flights, 38 thousand miles, an exploding volcano, 2 cameras and almost a terabyte of footage...all to turn 3 ambitious linear concepts based on movement, learning and food....into 3 beautiful and hopefully compelling short films." Beautiful and compelling they definitely are. If you love to travel, they'll remind you why. If you're afraid to travel, then hopefully this will convince you to Move.