Thursday, July 4, 2013

Random Musings 14

Last Saturday I finally had a chance to get back to Brooklyn Museum for 2 exhibitions I've been wanting to see. John Singer Sargent Watercolors celebrates 2 major collections of watercolors by Sargent (1856-1925), owned by Brooklyn and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Joined together for this exhibition, there is a clear distinction between the more finished set of pictures purchased in 1912 by Boston and the 1909 purchase by Brooklyn, which are more sketch-like. Depending on your taste and interest in how an artist thinks, each of the works will appeal to viewers differently. The show is arranged thematically, with segments on Italy and sailing, for instance. Sargent was born in Italy to American parents and lived throughout Europe (I still have a difficult time thinking of him as an "American" artist), so he was well-traveled for his day and time. One of my favorite watercolors from the show was the work you see above, Corfu: Lights & Shadows, 1909, from the MFA, in which he represents a small building on the Greek island, but captures all the sensation of sunshine using different hues to show how the branches of the trees cast shadows onto the white building. It is truly a tour de force of a work, revealing how Sargent's handling of color and lighting can convey atmospheric conditions and the emotional satisfaction of the place he's showing the viewer.
In sharp contrast to Sargent's work, I also enjoyed the exhibition showcasing the work of contemporary Nigerian artist El Anatsui. Although he has had a long career, his more recent works using found objects from garbage dumps (tin can lids, bottle caps, twist-ties, etc.) have made him internationally famous. He recreates large-scale sculptural installations that are fascinating. They appear like tapestries of gold. They are the detritus of society reimagined as beauty, and thus say much about the interactions of different classes and ethnic groups in the cultural exchange of the objects as they were imported from Europe and rebranded as "African" products. This is an installation shot I took of some of his works hanging in the main rotunda of the building.

In my last Random Musing, I posted an update about the New York Public Library's Central Library Plan. bklynbiblio followers will recall that I've been among the many criticizing them for their plans to renovate the main historic building and research center, and turn it into the modern-day equivalent of a library-like Internet Starbucks cafe. Under pressure from critics, NYPL President Tony Marx has agreed to have an independent committee evaluate the plans, according to this article in The New York Times (thanks, PR, for the lead). We will see what this next chapter will bring.

Two years ago, I blogged about my new fiction discovery, British novelist Barbara Pym (1913-1980; thanks again to TC for the introduction!). Her short novel Excellent Women (1952) has become one of my favorite books. I can see her influence on other British women writers I enjoy reading, such as A.S. Byatt and Ruth Rendell. The charm of Excellent Women is that nothing really happens. The book focuses on Mildred Lathbury, who makes tea, helps decorate the local church, unexpectedly gets involved in the drama of her neighbors, and makes observations about everyone in her life in an ever-so-judgmental Christian way that will have you laughing aloud. Her later novels are reportedly darker, but I haven't gotten to those yet. Pym is also an inspiration to writers. Her first few novels sold modestly well, and then publishers refused to publish her because she was seen as old fashioned. It took years before she was published again, and that book wound up winning her the Booker Prize. The lesson learned is never to give up. June was the centenary of her birth, so you can read up more about her life and novels in these laudatory articles in The Telegraph and The New York Times. There's even The Barbara Pym Society website to peruse as well.

Archaeology published a tidbit of fascinating news: this 400-lb. stone sculpture of a nude female torso was excavated in Brooklyn in the DUMBO area (that's "Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass" for non-Brooklynites). There are traces of paint on it, and she's been dubbed Ginger because this area had spice warehouses in the 19th century, but no one knows much about who she is or why she was there.

And, finally, I had to wrap up this musing with something rather fun. Ever hear the joke about how to make an Italian stop talking? You tie his hands behind his back! Italians talk with their hands. I even do it, and half the time I don't even realize it. There is an article in the NYT exploring how these gestures may have a more important role in communicating and reach back to ancient Roman days. There's also a short, fun video that explores the topic some more, and this interactive feature of animated images that shows you just a small handful of the more than 250 gestures that are considered part of Italian communicating. Enjoy! (Insert hand gesture here.)

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