Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Happy 6th Birthday!

Happy Birthday to you!
Happy Birthday to you!
Happy Birthday, dear bklynbiblio!
Happy Birthday to you!
Can you believe our little blog is 6 years old this coming Friday, August 29th? Wow, we really have grown. This current post is #482, and our most popular tags have surprisingly changed very little. Topping the chart is "New York" (124) and "19th-century art" (84), which retain the top spots. "England" (75) has surpassed "photography" (74), but only by a hair, and jumping up the list is "art exhibitions" (69) followed by "gay" (64). It's interesting to assess these numbers in that it shows the blog has had a consistent focus over the years. My thanks to all my readers for staying in touch with this blog for 6 spectacular years!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

MWA XXVII: Landseer's Dog

This morning, I discovered on Twitter that it was #WorldDogDay (aka #NationalDogDay). I always wonder who comes up with these official declarations, especially considering I don't recall ever having celebrated this day before (and who wouldn't want to celebrate Dog Day!?). So this morning I celebrated by tweeting a few dog-themed paintings from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Chatsworth in Derbyshire, England (home of the Duke of Devonshire--and they tweeted back), and the work you see here from the Victoria and Albert Museum: The Old Shepherd's Chief Mourner, 1837, by Sir Edwin Landseer. A herding dog rests his head on the coffin of the shepherd who was his master, his empty chair in the background echoing the loss. You can almost hear the dog whimper in sadness from his expression and bodily position. The Romanticized rustic setting of the farmhouse or stable where the casket is set adds to the overall sadness of the painting. By today's standards, however, the sentimentality exuded by this painting is scoffed at by most who find the scene ridiculously saccharine, particularly because this was once accepted as a form of high art. When one thinks of dogs in art, what is the one picture everyone thinks of and laughs about as the height of bad taste? The infamous picture of dogs playing poker, of course. Admittedly, scenes such as that take anthropomorphism to a new extreme, but one shouldn't be so quick to dismiss all animal paintings because of that kitsch scene (which, perhaps important to note, was part of an advertisement scheme to sell cigars to men).

In the 19th century, the painter Landseeer was tremendously popular. His animal scenes were made into prints and distributed worldwide. He was the only British artist to win the Grand Medal of Honor at the 1855 Exposition Universelle in Paris, and this was in recognition of his contributions to animal painting. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were great patrons of Landseer, in part because Albert loved greyhounds and other dogs, and Landseer was able to paint them so realistically, giving them personalities that Albert-the-dog-lover saw in the dogs himself. This idea that animals had emotions and should be treated with respect as living creatures also began in the 19th century under the influence of William Wilberforce, who eventually founded the RSPCA (Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, of which the American version, the ASPCA, was an unofficial off-shoot). But in the art world itself, the role of animal painting was nothing new. It was recognized by the Academy as a form of genre painting, and animals for centuries had been used as subjects in paintings to convey iconographical representations of pride, sin, sexual prowess, and so on. Grand Manner portraits by Veronese, Van Dyck, Reynolds, and so on, often include dogs or other animals, the visual image telling the viewer that the subject has a sense of refinement and/or is a powerful landowner. And although I am focusing exclusively on dogs for this post, horses were another popular animal that appeared in these same portraits, signifying to viewers the wealth and power of the men depicted by these artists.

Landseer may have painted a few pictures of animals that can be read today as silly or sentimental, but the power of an image such as The Old Shepherd's Chief Mourner resonated so greatly his contemporaries that when Landseer himself died in 1873 his bronze tombstone at St. Paul's Cathedral was engraved with the same work of art. It was an appropriate acknowledgment of Landseer's popularity and his significant contribution to British art and animal painting.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Restoration of Simeon Solomon's Grave

Just over a month ago, a number of friends and colleagues associated with the artist Simeon Solomon attended the rededication ceremony of his grave at Willesden Jewish Cemetery in London. I was unable to attend, in part because of the exorbitant prices to fly to London, but also because I was in Chicago at the time. As I had noted previously on this blog, Solomon's grave site long had fallen to ruin, a testament to his own reputation declining after his arrest for homosexual crimes and his subsequent death as an impoverished artist. Mr. Frank Vigon receives all the credit for taking the lead in the restoration of Solomon's grave site. My friend and colleague (and fellow Solomaniac!) Carolyn Conroy has written a short report about the ceremony and provided a number of photos, which you can read and see here on her Simeon Solomon Research Archive (which she has just this weekend updated with a new look). The photo you see here shows sculptor Joss Nankoo working on the new stone, which includes a replica of Solomon's painting The Sleepers and the One who Watcheth. It is our hope that this rededication will be another step forward in reclaiming Solomon's reputation as an important painter among the Pre-Raphaelites and in Jewish and gay/lesbian art history. I look forward to seeing his grave site on my next visit to London.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Off the Grid: Nick Arcidy

It seems incredible to me, following my father's passing, that just 5 weeks ago I was excited about the opening of my guest-curated exhibition "Off the Grid: Beyond the Noise" at the Atlantic Gallery, about which I last posted here. I never did have a chance to announce on this blog best in show. It was a difficult choice, as there were a number of excellent works in the exhibition. I had narrowed the pool down to 5 finalists, and in the end I selected as the winner Nick Arcidy for the work you see here, Ethernet Exhaltation, 2014, gouache on wood, 11 x 11 in.

I was impressed how Arcidy managed in such a small work to capture so much imagery that aptly responded to the theme of the show. He considers the technological grid that we seem unable to escape from in our world these days, and inverts it into a monastic experience, leaving the viewer uncertain if the figure seen here is praising the grid or praying to be released from it. The cathedral-like space behind the figure reverberates with icons of technology, creating a strange noise/silence that is charming and yet full of despair. Arcidy's painting made me think of The Jetsons and pseudo-science, as well as Japanese anime and advertising art. I see echoes of Kenny Scharf's work here too.

Arcidy's prize is a one-person show at the Atlantic Gallery in the spring. I look forward to seeing it in person and more from this young artist in the future. If you would like to see/hear me say a bit more about this work, here's a link to a short video clip someone at the gallery took of me having just announced Arcidy's work as best in show.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Lessons from Papà

Today was my father's memorial service in St. Petersburg, Florida. It was a beautiful service. Numerous people from the Italian-American Society of St. Petersburg were there, as were members of my family, all in celebration of my father's life. The minister, Tom Lentz, knew my father from the Society, so it was a joy to have someone lead the service who actually knew my father. My "right-hand person," Rose Marcelin, gave a lovely talk remembering the positive and fun parts of my father's life that touched so many people. We played the "Ave Maria" (Bach/Gounod, sung by Andrea Bocelli), as we had at my mother's service eight years ago, and we also played "Miserere" sung by Russell Watson and Zucchero, a song that my father used to sing and loved not only because of its beautiful harmony but because my mother loved the song so much. The message in that song is clear and appropriate for today: although sometimes we go through terrible things, we salute life for all the beauty it holds. We ended with a small group of dancers from the Society performing "La Molisana," a lovely slow dance that was one of my father's favorites when he performed with the group.

The DVD of images from my father's life included many touching moments, but also a few funny ones. I acknowledged the important role that the Society played in my father's life, and the Fountains of Boca Ciega Bay where they helped make his last few years so rewarding and respectful. I also tribute to his dear friend Karin Cline, who was his constant companion the past few years, and to Rose and my cousin Denise for their support and help through the years and at the very end. I've given my memorial talk the title "Lessons from Papà," and I have transcribed the text below. I wasn't sure I would be able to make it through the entire talk, but I'm glad that I did, as I wanted to convey to those present these memories and celebrate my special moments of his life.

Before the memorial service started, I’m sure many of you were watching the DVD of my father’s life. The images tell us a clear story—he truly lived a full life and he took pride in his family, his friends, and things that gave him great joy, like playing the drums and dancing. He also enjoyed himself on stage and performed in drag. I'm proud to say my father did drag! And he was good! For a number of years, my father taught Italian language classes for the Italian-American Society, and although we have no images of him teaching in that DVD, many of us know first-hand how much he enjoyed doing this. He did not have a degree to teach.  In fact, my father’s official education ended during World War II when the Americans bombed his high school in Milan. But even without an official education, his exuberance made him a natural in leading a classroom. Thinking about his role as a teacher, I realized that as my life has unfolded it is my father who was one of my great teachers. So I thought I would share with you some lessons in life I learned from Papà.

When I was 8 years old, I remember struggling to understand why the seasons changed. My father picked up a red apple, removed the stem, and reinserted it at a slight angle. He then began to rotate the apple along the stem’s angle, and moved his hand in a circle in the air. That was how I came to understand how the earth rotates on its axis and how the planet moves around the sun. It was also the first time it ever occurred to me that this man, my father, was rather clever.

When I used to practice the piano, he would teach me about rhythm and tempo, acting as my own personal metronome by clapping his hands to a consistent beat. It used to drive me crazy! But over time I realized how playing his drums wasn't just about making sounds. By playing the drums, he was the foundation of rhythm that made every song sound great.

My father taught me that history was not just facts about the past. He did this by telling stories. He would recount strange tales of growing up under Mussolini, of avoiding bombings, of eating marble dust in bread or marmalade again and again, and of watching Mussolini hung upside-down with his girlfriend after the War. He taught me that history is about an experienced life.

My father taught me about determination and working toward one’s goals. He emigrated to a new country without speaking the language and forged a better life for himself and for his family, in pursuit of the American dream. And he always encouraged me to find my own path and to live my own life, but to always know that he was there for me when I needed him.

One day my father told me about his life before my mother, Chris, and me, that he had been married before and had two daughters. I learned that day about honesty and integrity, but also about fallibility, watching in my father’s eyes a hidden awareness that even though he had tried to do the best he could for his daughters in Italy, he knew he had let them down by not being in their lives the same way he was in ours.

But he also showed me the power of true, unconditional parental love when, during my own personal identity crisis 21 years ago, a time when I even contemplated suicide rather than disappoint him, my father came to me and said, quite simply, “We love you, no matter what, and we are here for you. We will always love you.”

My father showed me through his relationship with my mother the power of passionate love, how it can be romantic, combustible, thrilling, violent, exciting, and extremely painful. But then he showed me the true essence of love when my mother’s sickness got worse and worse. He fed her, he carried her, he cleaned her, he held her. And toward the end, when he could do no more physically, he visited her every single day just to say hello and to hold her hand. After she died, he told me that he had loved her in those last few years more then all the intensely passionate years beforehand.

Everyone here will likely agree that my father was a happy man, someone who always wanted to throw another party, to play music, and to dance. He was not perfect, but he was a decent, hard-working man who wanted only the best in life for everyone. 

My father understood that life is a journey, an opportunity to contribute to the universe with all the gifts, talents, and love that we possess. It is that personal sense of enjoyment and experience, that thing that is not just life but living, that is the greatest lesson from my father that I will keep in my heart above all others. I salute you, Papà, and I say "Mille grazie!"