Friday, November 29, 2013

Books of 2013

I've become rather fond of this time of the year...the crispness of late autumn weather is in the air...turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie are about to be served...and the first "best of" lists of the year come out, most notably the "100 Notable Books of 2013" by The New York Times, as selected by the editors of the NYT Book Review. bklynbiblio readers may recall that I've been using this annual list to recap some of my own particular reads over the course of the year (e.g. 2012 back to 2008). As in the past, their list is divided into 50 fiction/poetry and 50 non-fiction books. And as I've also written in the past, I rarely if ever find myself reading anything on the list the same year that it's published. Surprisingly, though, this year I can make a "notable" exception! I was excited to pick up Amy Tan's latest novel, The Valley of Amazement, on the day it was released a few weeks ago, and even more delighted that it made the NYT list for this year. It's the book I'm reading right now too, so it's a convergence of my interests coming together rather nicely, I must say. The novel recounts the passing decades of an American courtesan and her mixed-race daughter living in Shanghai in the early 1900s. My taste for Tan's books have varied. I liked The Joy Luck Club and I rave to this day about The Hundred Secret Senses, but her others haven't been as engaging, in my opinion. However, this one so far is capturing my attention very quickly.

There isn't much on the NYT list in non-fiction that is of interest to me this year, although I do like the idea of a biography by Jill Lepore (Book of Ages) about Benjamin Franklin's sister Jane, a mother of 12 who kept on a lifetime correspondence with her famous colonial brother. On the fiction side of things, I already had on my wish list a few of the novels that have made it onto the NYT list (I guess I have good taste?!): The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (art-related coming-of-age book), The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (19th-century New Zealand; this also won the prestigious Booker Prize), and David Leavitt's The Two Hotel Francforts (gay love affair between two married men in 1940s Lisbon).

Compared to the last couple of years, my number of books read since last year's post on this topic is down from 29 to 20. I will claim it's because I've had a leaner year due to my dissertation, move, and new job. In the world of art history, I read Elizabeth Prettejohn's The Modernity of Ancient Sculpture (2012), an interesting theoretical take on how classicism has been misappropriated as anti-modern and why that needs to change (I have a review on the book coming out soon). I've also read a few exhibition catalogs on the life and art of Florine Stettheimer (1871-1944), the New York-based modernist painter whose work is still little known outside America. This is more related to my work life at Columbia now; I'll be posting about Stettheimer in the months to come.

My fiction reads over the past year began during last year's post when I was reading Richard Mason's History of a Pleasure Seeker (2011), which was interesting and a fast read, but not as enthralling as I had hoped. I also read Toni Morrison's Home (2012) while I was in San Francisco this summer; that book had been on the NYT 2012 list. I can't say it was among my favorites she's written, but Morrison is more about the way she writes then the storyline at times. Among my other fiction reads were A. S. Byatt's A Biographer's Tale (2001), F. Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise (1920), John Knowles' A Separate Peace (1959), and a few mysteries by Ruth Rendell and Agatha Christie. However, the two great fiction reads for me this year was a collection of short stories by Anton Chekhov (1890s)--truly a brilliant short-story writer--and George Eliot's masterpiece Middlemarch (serialized 1871-72; book 1874). I cannot believe I had not read Eliot's novel beforehand, and my friend MT insisted on changing that when she gave me the book as a thank-you gift. I can't say Eliot's book was as entertaining of a Victorian novel as, say, Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now (1875), but Eliot's novel is one of the most through-oriented I've ever read. It secretly masks as a feminist novel but concentrates on the roles men and women expect one another to play in society. Even more challenging, it questions the measurement of success, through monetary means, corruption, or intellectual prowess, and makes you sympathize with even the characters you're not particularly fond of. And then, just when you think it might never happen because of its crucial emphasis on the mind, a romantic twist that you hoped for is finally achieved, and you suddenly realize that the greatest moments in life sometimes are the ones that are the least important to the world at large. Middlemarch has one of the most beautifully written, poignant endings; the last two paragraphs simply made me cry. The book is a masterpiece because it explores the mind, the heart, and the soul, and forces you to confront for yourself which of these are most important to you, the reader, after all.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

MWA XIX: Millet's Turkeys

Jean-François Millet (1814-1875) was one of the great landscape and Realist painters of nineteenth-century France. Like his contemporaries Courbet and Rousseau, he was considered a radical in his day. Looking at his landscapes like the work you see here, Autumn Landscape with a Flock of Turkeys, 1872-73 (image: Metropolitan Museum of Art), one is challenged to understand why these works at one time were radical. The scene is Barbizon, where Millet lived with his second wife and numerous children from 1849 until his death. Barbizon was originally a village near the forest at Fontainebleu 60 km (37 miles) southeast of Paris, but from the 1830s on, when many artists started to visit to paint landscapes en plein air (outdoors), the village grew in size and by the end of the century had become a major tourist town. Millet trained as a history and portrait painter, but eventually found his artistic calling with scenes of peasant farmers working the fields around Barbizon. His break from the tradition of painting idealized subjects, to instead paint the lowest members of society--glorifying them with Biblical allusions--led to a backlash among critics and academics that his work was a threat to the fine art traditions of the day. Millet's most famous paintings with these subjects include, for instance, The Angelus, 1857-59 (depicting a farming couple in the field taking a break to pray; see an image of the work here). In the painting here, Millet presents the starkness of the end of the Fall season. The trees are bare, a gust of wind is blowing, and the only person in the scene has her back to the viewer, huddled in her full-length cloak against the elements. A storm is brewing. Only the turkeys seem unaffected, going about their business, eating and wandering about, unaware the woman holds a stick to steer them back to their pen. Millet and his contemporaries started something new with the sketch-like quality of their finished paintings. They were able to use the short brushstrokes to convey a vitality to the scenes presented. It was a technique the Impressionists picked up on and perfected from this period on. Despite its gloom and doom, this painting charms me because of the turkeys and how carefree they are, not only in their movement but in how he painted them. The turkeys also seemed rather appropriate as this month's Monthly Work of ArtHappy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Random Musings 15

Big news in the art world last night! More major auction records were broken at the Christie's New York post-war and contemporary art sale. The sale itself brought in a record-high amount of $691.58 million, and there were record high sales for major artists, including one that put Jeff Koons at the top for most-paid-at-auction-for-a-living-artist. The really big news of the night, however, was when Francis Bacon's triptych Three Studies of Lucian Freud, 1969, stole the show, selling for the hammer price of $142.4 million, becoming the most money ever paid for a work of art at auction. (The actual sale price was $127m; the rest was the buyer's premium that goes to the auction house.) The previous record happened last year with a version of Munch's Scream selling for $119. (Here is more on my past musings about these records and art sales.) You can see the trio of framed works by Bacon in the image above (source: Chang W. Lee/The New York Times), hovering over the crowd as the frenzy of the auction took place. I'm wondering if some wise ass will claim that as a triptych each piece should only count for 1/3 of the hammer price and thus be much lower. For the record, Bacon worked in triptychs over and over, and even though the three pieces are framed separately, that doesn't mean they're separate works. Unlike the Scream, which was quite a big deal but not life-altering to me, I must confess that this sale excites me because I'm a fan of Bacon's work. Long-time readers may recall my post about Bacon's rise in fame back in 2008, just prior to the big retrospective exhibition that was being planned for London, New York, and Madrid. I find Bacon's work visceral; it hurts to look at it. If you think you can hear the scream in Munch's painting, you will feel in your gut the heart-wrenching agony bellowing from Bacon's paintings. Despite the pain and angst, though, there's something also energizing about his pictures. They are both figurative and abstract in a way that makes you question what you think figurative and abstract actually mean. And in my chats with painters, I've discovered they love him as a painter. His brushstroke and use of colors dazzle them and demonstrate amazing skill and handling that make him a rival to Picasso and Matisse as the leading painters of the 20th century. And now that he carries the highest record ever paid at auction for a single work of art, few can doubt hereafter his awesome presence in modern art. For more about the auction, see the news report by Carol Vogel in the NYT. Some of CultureGrrl's observations about the sale and Christie's bizarre disclaimer on buyer and seller buy-ins shows that the old days of equality in auction sales are long gone.

Among some other musings I've been storing up... About two weekends ago, AA and I took a short getaway trip to New Orleans for some R&R. We got to see the RL-DGs and their new baby NGL, plus play with the ever-adorable dog Penny. But RL--officially and professionally Russell Lord, photography curator--also had some incredible exhibitions on that we went to see. Edward Burtynsky: Water at the Contemporary Arts Center New Orleans was just beautiful. His photographs shot around the world highlight the importance of water in our lives and the ways in which we control it. The images are dazzling and breath-taking. He creates such complex compositions in colors so vibrant you would swear you were looking at abstract paintings. The image below is one of a number of these beautiful pictures (image: Dryland Farming #2: Monegros County Aragon Spain, 2010; copyright Edward Burtynsky). To top that show off, Russell also curated the thought-provoking exhibition Gordon Parks: The Making of an Argument at the New Orleans Museum of Art. Here, Russell explored how Parks's 1948 photographic essay, published in Life magazine about a Harlem gangster named Leonard "Red" Jackson, actually revealed a cropped, edited form of sensationalist journalism that belied the truth behind what Parks really saw in this so-called gang leader struggling to live an everyday life as a black youth in Harlem. Both of these shows are just fascinating, so everyone should go see them if you're in New Orleans. And while you're there, you can check out his third exhibition, a "best of" in the photography collection at NOMA.

For photography and architecture buffs who love New York City, there is a new fun website that appeals to all those people who love seeing pictures of cities and landmarks "then and now." Called NYC Grid, it allows you to use a yellow dividing-line bar over photographs to see how landmarks like the Brooklyn Bridge and surrounding areas changed from the past to now. It's quite an amazing tool and demonstrates how fun Internet technology can be at times. There are currently only 32 works you can do this too, but the site has fun photography of different neighborhoods worth perusing as well.

Have you ever wondered how music sounded in ancient Greece and Rome? Mathematically and chromatically, scholars had determined in the past how it was constructed. Now with some clever tinkering of musical instruments, a scholar at Oxford University has demonstrated how Greek music sounded. You can read more about this interesting study here from the BBC, and click here to listen to a few of the recordings of vocal and instrumental music (in association with Archaeology magazine).

Finally...(drum roll, please!)...imagine my devilish delight when I discovered that my all-time favorite Disney villain, Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty, was being given her own biopic in non-animated form! I haven't seen a Disney movie like this in eons, so I'm looking forward to this. Maleficent really was wicked...and could turn into a dragon too. How cool is that? Angelina Jolie plays her in the film...creepy! OK, it's also a bit bizarre, I know, but's Maleficent! Here's the trailer for the film...

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

First Snowfall: 2013-2014 Fall/Winter

About a year ago today we had our first seasonal snowfall, but it turned into a major snowstorm...and then never snowed again for the rest of the season! And now this morning we have snow flurries! It's not really sticking, so no expectations (wishes?) for an actual snowstorm, but it's a start to the season. It's not easy taking pictures of snow falling, but this is the best one I could come up with using my iPhone outside my apartment building about 8am this morning. Notice the little slanted white streaks...that's the snow.

Monday, November 11, 2013

DW: Day of the Doctor

It's been almost a year since I last posted about that time traveling (television) genius, Doctor Who! And although the last segment of episodes earlier this year were...well, acceptable, but not the greatest...I have very high hopes for the special 50th anniversary episode premiering on November 23rd! After all, it brings back Dr. David Tennant and reportedly many of the other earlier Doctors in a segment that celebrates 50 years of this British sci-fi show. John Hurt returns too as...well, I guess he's another future incarnation of the Doctor? I'm confused. But, I must say, I'm also rather excited, even if I have little idea what's actually happening in the episode, although Queen Elizabeth I makes another appearance in mid-1500s England, and the Daleks get to scream "Exterminate!" as they take great pride in doing. We do know that Dr. Matt Smith is leaving the show and Peter Cabaldi is stepping in as more-mature Doctor #12, so I wonder if this upcoming episode will actually be Smith's last one, that he will regenerate into the newest Doctor at the end, as has happened in previous incarnations. In any case, the good news is that we won't have to wait too long to find out. And to whet your appetite, here's a teaser of what's coming. And can I say again...Dr. David is back!!! I really do think he was awesome.