Monday, December 26, 2016

Books of 2016

I'm a little late writing this annual post. Although the 100 Notable Books of 2016 came out from in New York Times a few weeks ago, I've been incredibly busy (including a London trip), so I've only now had a chance to catch up on my blogging about this and other things. Running through their annual list, there are a few novels that definitely caught my eye. I've heard a number of positive things about The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead and it has also made it onto the NYT top 5 books of the year list, so that is going onto my Amazon Wish List. From the 100 list I've also added the 2016 novels The Life-Writer by David Constantine, Nutshell by Ian McEwan, and Elizabeth Strout's My Name Is Lucy Barton. I have never read anything by these authors before, so I'm not sure if these will be good "firsts" for me to read or not, but these all seem like things I would want to read. In non-fiction I've added Simon Schama's The Face of Britain: A History of the Nation Through Its Portraits (which was associated with a 2015-16 exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, London, which unfortunately I missed), and Richard Tomb's The English and Their History. As if my Anglophilia weren't obvious enough, I should mention at this point that after the 100 list came out, there was a review for Julia Baird's new biography of Queen Victoria, which I immediately put on my list. Imagine my pleasant surprise with I received it as a Christmas gift from my godchildren, the AEOBs (THANK YOU!!!).

Every year around Thanksgiving I read a major work of literature. Last year, as I was writing about the Books of 2015, I was reading Anna Karenina, which was an incredible book. I think what surprised me most about that novel was that the story of Levin and Kitty actually felt more engaging than that of Anna and Vronsky, not just because of their love story but also because of the social reforms and anxieties Levin goes through to understand his purpose in life. This year I'm reading the book you see above: Henry James's Portrait of a Lady [1881]. So far it's interesting, but it's no Anna Karenina or Middlemarch.

This past year I read 37 books. My longer commute to & from work each day since I moved to Jersey City has definitely given me more time to read on the subway (assuming I actually can get the book out of my bag and read, as sometimes the trains are just too crowded). Among the noteworthy art history books that I read this year, the following stand out: Landscape and Western Art by Malcolm Andrews [1999], a good introductory survey to the history and stylistic developments of landscape painting; Susan Sontag's On Photography [1977], which admittedly now seems a bit dated but still has some interesting ideas; and a few of the short, focused-topic art books published by the National Gallery in London, such as A Closer Look: Techniques of Painting by Jo Kirby [2011], which are excellent overviews with great detail images. In the art-biography realm, I read a few noteworthy things this year, including the book you see here on Romaine Brooks by Cassandra Langer [2015], an excellent story of the lesbian modernist painter, and a journalistic-style biography of Anthony Blunt by Miranda Carter [2001], a man who was Head of the Courtauld Institute and Keeper of the Royal Collection, had tea with the Queen Mother one day, then was exchanging government secrets as a Soviet spy another day, and later in the evening having sex with a tradesman lover, all while writing his latest book on Poussin--quite a life story!

Wrapping up highlights of fiction reads this year, in addition to Anna Karenina my favorite novels included: Kate Atkinson's A God in Ruins [2015], her sequel to Life After Life which I loved, although this time the story is about Teddy and not his sister Ursula, and it takes some interesting turns as the story(ies) unfold; The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins [2015], which was a great page-turner (note: I have not yet seen the movie); and the autistic-mystery story The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon [2003], that was admittedly tedious after a while but captured so well the mindset of the boy's state of mind--I even made AA read it, and he agreed with me. I also did read this year All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr [2014], which was on the 2014 list; while the story and writing were quite good, I really could not stand the two-page chapters, which I felt broke up the overarching storyline too much and felt choppy then overall.

Finally, I cannot close this post without mentioning that I read (for the third time) Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own [1929]. This is a great, classic essay not just about being a woman in history and literature, but about how a writer, any writer, needs a room of one's own to read, to write.  I am fortunate that I do have a room of my own to do this very thing, but ironically this evening I am writing this post at the dining room table, where a candle is lit beside my laptop, illuminating my peripheral vision with its tall flame and infiltrating my nostrils with its sweet scent of winter spice. On the other side of me is the dishwasher running, the sound of the rushing water soothing me as I write this post. Perhaps the Room of One's Own sometimes can just be the space which you make for yourself, in which to find the peace of mind you need in order to write.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

New Moore

One of the long-term projects on which I have been involved since I started as Curator at Columbia was to help with the closure of a major gift of the public sculpture you see above. This is by Henry Moore and entitled Reclining Figure, 1969-70. It is recorded as being one of the largest single-cast bronze works that Moore ever did. This work on Columbia's campus now makes the institution only the second in the U.S. to have two Moores on campus (the other was donated by the Wallach family in 1967). This sculpture was donated by David and Laura Finn (he the author and photographer of a number of sculpture books). They did this in percentages for the past 30 years, with the final .5% coming to Columbia in the last two years. The sculpture now has been installed on campus, as can be seen above. There was quite a bit of drama and protesting about the piece (all you have to do is Google "Columbia" and "Henry Moore" and you'll read all the international press from earlier this year). But when all is said and done, the piece is actually quite nice in its design and new location. Personally, I really like its organic quality. I think it represents well the biomorphic forms for which Moore is well-known, incorporating figuration with abstraction. The patina's hues are variegated, from caramel to gold, and the texture ranges from deep incisions to smooth sections. When the sun hits the sculpture, it really does shine. So we are all very satisfied with the end result. You can read more about the sculpture and the history of its installation by going to the Columbia news site or now at the ArtDaily Newsletter site. The video below (and on the Columbia site) is from the dedication ceremony where we thanked the Finns. I come in at about 7 minutes in and give a talk for about 4 minutes, commenting on Moore's association with educational institutions and his love of nature for his sculptures. This addition to the public outdoor sculpture collection at Columbia's Morningside campus does, then, honor Moore's intentions. I also mention that I am co-teaching with Prof. Harrist next semester on an undergraduate seminar entitled "Public Outdoor Sculpture at Columbia and Barnard." There is still room in the seminar, so spread the word and sign up!

MWA XLV: Copley's Nativity

Merry Christmas! Yes, another year has passed, probably shocking all of our senses about how the days seem to be moving faster and faster... I decided on the image above as December's Monthly Work of Art, a rather unusual scene depicting the Nativity painted around 1776 by the Boston-born artist John Singleton Copley (1738-1815). This painting is in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, which holds the largest collection of Copley's works in the U.S. The picture measures approximately 24 x 30 in. and is oil on canvas. Copley likely painted this while he was in London, having traveled there in 1774 and spending 1775 in Paris, Rome, and Naples, where he would have been exposed to more Catholic-themed art than he would have seen in his homeland or in London at that time. The depiction reflects some influence of Italian and French Baroque art, with its use of shadows and lighting, but perhaps more so the influence of Benjamin West, another American who was on the rise to become one of London's leading History (i.e. narrative-scenes, not necessarily historical) painters of his day (West has appeared as an MWA too). The challenge Copley faced as an artist was that he, like all painters at this time, strove to become a History painter, which was considered at the time to be the top of the artistic hierarchy. Portraits, a format in which Copley had excelled in colonial America, was a way to make money. To be an Artist, one had to become a History painter. Although Copley had a few successes, by and large these pictures fail as compared to his portraits.

Take, for instance, the picture you see here, which is arguably one of the finest portraits of a child in all of Western painting. It is Copley's portrait of his younger half-brother Henry Pelham, entitled A Boy with a Flying Squirrel (1765). Copley able to capture his brother's likeness beautifully, but he also excelled in depicting drapery and clothing with different textures, and he had an uncanny ability to represent reflections (as in the veneer of the table) remarkably well. This picture was exhibited in London in 1766 and was a great success, largely because of his virtuoso skill in representing so many different types of surfaces. This success inevitably convinced Copley of the importance of making his way to London (then the art capital of the Western world) to develop his skills, but this would not happen for another decade.

The Nativity, unfortunately, fails, then, when seen compared to Copley's portraits. There is nothing "wrong" with it in terms of execution, and the same things that Copley excelled in back in Boston--drapery, physical likeness, veneer--are somewhat evident here. But it lacks the gravitas of a religious painting and thus lacks in spiritual feeling. It is possible he was trying to make the figures more naturalistic and of his day, something 17th-century painters had done (e.g. putting Biblical figures in modern-day dress). But somehow it just doesn't work here. There is theatricality in the presentiment that borders on the melodramatic. The hand gestures and surprised looks seem like something out of a stage performance. The representation of Mary and the baby is perhaps the one area where one can feel a sense of sentimentality, but with her hand on her head and her overall look seeming more like a portrait of an 18th-century Londoner, it just seems all wrong. I posted this painting as the background of my page on Facebook for December, and although a few people "liked" it (some even "loved" it), the best part were some of the comments some of my "FB friends" made about it:
JT: "That is a weird painting."
MP: "Mary needs a nerve pill! Joseph invited all his friends over without telling her and she's already made the unfortunate decision to wear white in a manger.
CoCr: "Clearly she shops in Manger, Stable and Beyond."
DPG: "She looks like I did after giving birth, thinking OMG what have I done, I'm not ready to be a mother!"
CaCo: "Yeah she's looking like 'three hours sleep and Joseph brings all his mates round...'"

Art is supposed to create dialogue, so when it does it works. That doesn't always mean that the dialogue is positive. Sometimes even great painters make mediocre paintings. And on that note...Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 10, 2016

First Snowfall: 2016-2017 Fall/Winter

Last night I was supposed to be flying to London. My flight wound up being delayed for three hours, and then when we were on the plane itself, we got word that the flight itself had been canceled. Needless to say, everyone was furious and exasperated. Living not far from the airport, AA picked me up, so I was able to spend the night home again, but many other people had to stay at hotels and take another flight home. All that said, had things gone according to plan, I would have missed our very brief first snowfall of the 2016-2017 fall/winter season. This happened today just after noon. I happened to notice out our windows the white powdery stuff coming down. By the time we tried to take photos out our windows, it was already dissipating. It was over in about 10 minutes, and it's now blue skies and puffy clouds.

Since I could not record my actual photo or video of the snowfall as I have in the past (note that last winter's first snowfall didn't even happen until January!), I thought I would share the lovely photograph of a snowflake above. Hyperallergic's Allison Meier wrote an article, published on Dec. 1st, about the first snowflake photographs taken by Wilson Bentley, a farmer from Jericho, VT. He began this in 1885 and recorded over his lifetime more than 5000 different snowflake photographs. The implication behind this is that he managed to "prove" the hypothesis that no two snowflakes are the same. Aside from the science, the images really quite lovely. You can read the article here, which includes a number of these images, with links to other sites where his archive has been digitized.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

MWA XLIV: Roelofs's Windmill

Better late than never, as they say! I realize I've been offline with the blog the past few months, but it's largely because I have been so busy and working on a few writing projects in my non-job time. As I mentioned in a previous post, AA & I took a week-long vacation over Thanksgiving to go to Amsterdam and Copenhagen: two cities I had never visited before. It was quite a nice trip. The weather was cool and it rained a lot in Amsterdam, but I truly enjoyed the canals and the charming architecture in Amsterdam, and the majesty of the Nordic palazzo and upscale fishing village feel one finds in Copenhagen. We hit just about every major museum, not surprisingly. It was at the Rijksmuseum where I discovered this gem of a painting from the 19th century: Willem Roelofs, Meadow Landscape with Cattle, ca. 1880. We did not venture to the picturesque regions of The Netherlands where one can see old, working windmills such as the one in this painting, so this will have to suffice for me for the time being...until I get back and see them live.

Roelofs was a member of The Hague School, a group of artists who were inspired by the French Barbizon school of painters, such as Rousseau, Millet, and Corot. These artists began painting the naturalistic landscape of the French countryside as early as the 1830s but came into their own by mid-century, thereafter helping to alter the respectability of landscape painting from something dismissed as a lesser art in prior generations. This idea of depicting the naturalistic landscape as it actually appears, rather than as an idealized scene for a narrative event, arguably goes back to British artists such as Constable and Turner, but in The Netherlands the most obvious source of inspiration goes back even further to the 17th century with the naturalistic Dutch landscapes by artists such as Ruisdael. You can read more about The Hague School here.

While there is an incredible charm to this painting because of the windmill and the beautiful, soft lighting and fluffy clouds, what is striking is how the windmill dominates the space in this vertical painting. Normally one expects to see landscapes as horizontal compositions, panoramic views that show sweeping swathes of nature. Here, however, by reverting to a vertical format, Roelofs transforms the windmill into a portrait, or at least a narrative composition. The pyramidal structure of the windmill and its arms dominate the center point and then moving out diagonally toward the lower left and right lines, creating a pseudo-head-and-shoulders figure. Although the title references the cattle, both they and the man are diminished by the monumentality of the windmill itself, a man-made machine that for the 19th-century viewer demonstrated the development of technology, i.e. man's dominance over nature. Even the arms of the windmill seem to be moving the air and clouds themselves with a superior strength--which is exactly what they are meant to. This interpretation may seem rather droll because the painting is quite beautiful. But this is where Roelofs succeeds. He portrays the power of the windmill as an object of beauty, conveying both its picturesque qualities and the harmonizing of man with nature.

Poem #1

Then back to New York
And skytowers had begun to grow
And front stoop houses started to go
And life became quite different
And it was as tho' someone had planted seeds
And people sprouted like common weeds
And seemed unaware of accepted things
And did all sorts of unheard of things
And out of it grew an amusing thing
Which I think is America having its fling
And what I should like is to paint this thing.

-- Florine Stettheimer, from Crystal Flowers: Poems and a Libretto, eds. I. Gammel & S. Zelazo (Toronto: BookThug, 2010)

For quite a while now, I have been wanting to start a series of posts about poems I encounter, and the meanings they have for me. This past week AA and I were in Amsterdam and Copenhagen, and one of the books I read was this collection of poetry by the painter Florine Stettheimer (1871-1944), about whom I have blogged before. Returning to New York from our vacation, and seeing the incredible skyline with the new World Trade Center dominating lower Manhattan, I was reminded that no matter how much I enjoy travel and seeing other cities, it is so rewarding to come back home to my "City." Stettheimer's own words convey this same idea. In the mid-1890s, she and her mother and sisters went to Europe, and they only returned in 1914 when the Great War broke out. Almost 20 years had passed since she had been in New York and in that time "skytowers" grew up, taking over the brownstones, and people of all races and creeds and ethnicities seemed to be accepted for doing their own thing. This was for Stettheimer part of the American spirit: "America having its fling." It is a view of New York City that makes me smile. It is as relevant now as it was a century ago.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

MWA XLIII: Carpeaux's Ugolino

Previous Monthly Work of Art posts around Halloween have included dark works by Goya and Caravaggio. In 19th-century sculpture it is often difficult to find what one can call a "Romantic" work, i.e. a figure who conveys more emotion in its representation, rather than an example of austere beauty or naturalism. One exception is the disturbing and arguably frightening group statue crafted by the French sculptor Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827-1875) entitled Ugolino. Designed to be his 4th-year work while a student at the French Academy in Rome, the large-scale figural group took longer than anticipated. He began in 1857 and completed the large-scale plaster cast in 1861. He himself was uncertain whether the subject would be better appreciated in bronze or marble, and both were eventually made. A bronze cast is in the Musée d'Orsay, but personally I prefer the marble version made in 1865-67 and now at The Met.

The marble sculpture measures almost 2 meters (78 inches) in height and weighs almost 5,000 pounds. The subject comes from Dante's Inferno, Book XXXIII, recounting the story of Ugolino (ca. 1200-1289), the tyrant of Pisa whom Dante and Virgil meet in the Underworld:

... When I beheld
My sons, and in four faces saw my own
Despair reflected, either hand I gnawed
For anguish, which they construed hunger. Straight
Arising all they cried, "Far less shall be
Our sufferings, sir, if you resume your gift;
These miserable limbs with flesh you clothed;
Take back what once was yours."

Ugolino had been imprisoned by his enemies, along with his 2 sons and 2 grandsons, all of whom died while in prison. Ugolino reportedly ate the flesh of his sons and grandsons in order to survive. Here, though, Dante has Ugolino claim that these men pleaded with him to eat them out of filial piety. Dante is not read by most people today, so at first seeing this sculpture in person one may not understand its context. However, once the viewer discovers the subject, there is an immediate sense of horror, but also sympathy. Carpeaux convinces the viewer of Ugolino's anguish as he contemplates survival in a desperate situation, while these men and boys around him die. This work is one of the most haunting sculptures of the 19th century.

The work was inspired by the ancient sculpture of the Laocoön and owes a great deal to the influence of Michelangelo. In the recent exhibition catalogue on Carpeaux, Edouard Papet writes: "Carpeaux's Ugolino remains a work of profoundly Romantic and pictorial inspiration. ... Like all of Carpeaux's monumental works, Ugolino was the product of a complex integration of disparate sources, both literary and visual, the latter absorbed on-site or in reproductions. This synthesis was combined with a nervous curiosity and irrepressible desire for formal renewal, which, in the days of eclecticism, in no way meant starting from a tabula rasa. ... Ugolino presented all the necessary features: structural complexity, narrative, terribilità, and a variety of expressions. ... Carpeaux's composition closes in upon themselves the open forms of the antique drama of Laocoön and turns it in on itself, while retaining its fundamental elements: nudity, a central paternal figure, conspicuous muscularity, the dying adolescent on the right, and the contrast between a body in its prime and youthful anatomies."

(Translation from Dante and quote: Edouard Papet, "Ugolino," in The Passions of Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux [New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2014], 66-69.)

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Gibson Exhibition and Essays

bklynbiblio readers may recall that my doctoral dissertation was on the British sculptor John Gibson (1790-1866), about whom I have blogged a few times over the years. (The image you see here is a ca. 1850 portrait of Gibson by Edwin Landseer, from the collection of the Royal Academy of Arts in London.) My dissertation was the first in the United States--and, I believe, in the United Kingdom--on the artist. Since I finished and defended, I've been working on spin-off essays. One of these was published last December, focusing on Gibson's interest in reproductive media such as prints, statuettes, and cameos as a way to disseminate the classicism for modern audiences.

Last week another essay of mine, entitled "The Sculptor, the Duke, and Queer Art Patronage: John Gibson's Mars Restrained by Cupid and Winckelmannian Aesthetics," was released in the new book Rome, Travel and the Sculpture Capital, c.1770-1825. The book was edited by my colleague Tomas Macsotay, whom I met years ago when we were both in Leeds on different fellowships. This latest essay may seem familiar to some as I have presented different versions of the subject at conferences in Montreal and Storrs, Connecticut. This is standard practice, as it allows for opportunities to "test the waters," so to speak, and see how arguments are received by peers before publishing them. I reread my essay on the subway today and, while I think it still holds up, I confess my chronic (obsessive?) need to re-edit my own work makes me wish I had changed a few things. For instance, I think that in a revised version I would likely not be so "all"-encompassing in certain parts, and qualify matters by saying things like "selective" and "most" instead. Nevertheless, I am hopeful that the essay is a valuable contribution to the literature on the homoerotics of neoclassical sculpture, and that it will add to an increased appreciation on Gibson himself.

Later this year I have another Gibson essay coming out in the book The British School of Sculpture, c.1760-1832. This forthcoming essay relies more on biography and art-historical interpretation to consider the origins of Gibson's training and career before he moved to Rome in 1817 and set up a studio where he lived the rest of his life. That essay should be released around the time I go to a planned study day on Gibson in mid-December. This meeting (details are still under wraps) will be held in association with the new exhibition John Gibson RA: A British Sculptor in Rome, which opened a few weeks ago at the Royal Academy in London. Among the works on display is this one: The Meeting of Hero and Leander, ca. 1842, plaster (Collection: Royal Academy). This exhibition commemorates the 150th anniversary of Gibson's death, but surprisingly it is also the first monographic exhibition of Gibson's work since he died in 1866. Because he had bequeathed a substantial sum of money and numerous plaster casts and drawings to the RA, perhaps there never was a need to hold an exhibition in his memory as his bequest led to the opening of the Gibson Gallery to allow visitors and students to learn directly from his classical figures from the nineteenth century. But of course no one from his day foresaw the decline of classicism and the rise of abstraction, so that by the 1960s it is not surprising to know that the Gibson Gallery was taken down and the works scattered about and kept in storage.

This new exhibition has been curated by my colleagues Annette Wickham and Anna Frasca-Rath. There is a small publication, but to date I have not seen it, or the show, so I cannot comment on them. Anna (who completed her dissertation on Gibson in Vienna about a year or so after me) also has spear-headed the beautifully-designed online digital project The Gibson Trail, which provides images of his works with short essays, as well as a map outlining a 6-mile circle in London where one can view examples of his sculptures at places such as Westminster Abbey, the Tate, Buckingham Palace, and of course the RA. It's all quite impressive. In fact, I admit I'm a little envious of what they've accomplished. When one works so hard on a project, particularly a monographic project, one often becomes possessive over their individual. As a result it is difficult to acknowledge that one doesn't "own" that artist and that others are allowed to do work on him/her as well. In fact, they likely are doing equal (or even better!) work than oneself. So, inevitably, there can be a feeling of competition among us. (Some academics relish in this competition; these same academics also need serious therapy.) That said, one hopes that we still celebrate our collective achievements, because we are all working on the belief and spirit that this artist's masterpieces deserve reexamination and his career reevaluated and triumphed for what he accomplished at a particular moment in time. I am looking forward to seeing this exhibition and participating in the upcoming programs later this year. It will be a great opportunity for all the "Gibsonites" to come together and have a collegial meeting of the classical minds.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

15 Years Later

It will go down as one of those moments everyone talks about until almost a century has passed. It falls in line with some of those other pivotal moments in our history: the attack on Pearl Harbor; the assassination of Pres. Kennedy; and now, 9/11. I was at work in my temporary office because my department was undergoing renovations. My co-worker and friend AK called me in tears from home; she had not come in because of a migraine. We all started looking up news sites on the Web, and we turned on TVs in our various departments. We watched in horror as the rest of America did, at the footage of the airplanes crashing into the Twin Towers, as well as the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania, and then watched in disbelief and in tears as we watched as the Towers fell. It was incomprehensible how any of this could have happened, and in some ways we probably all still wonder how it was even possible. 15 years later...we have moved on and we know that nothing has been the same ever since. I still feel as if there was a wave or rupture in the time-space continuum on that day. People say we lost our innocence. This is true. But we also realized our own mortality on a global scale, but both for bad and good reasons. Despite the tragedy we came together and we supported one another across the world. We got through it. Because, despite all the pain and anguish we may go through in our lives, we prevail and we move on. It is the human spirit to move on. But we do not forget and we ache again and again as we remember those who perished on that day, unwilling victims of a terrorist massacre and willing heroes who rushed to their aid knowing they themselves may not survive.

On that day all those years ago, a state of emergency was called across the nation. I was still living in Florida, and it was my job to oversee building security and related issues at the FAU Library. I announced over the PA system, calmly, that the library and campus was closing, that the governor had declared a state of emergency. People were confused, some not even aware what had happened, but we emptied the library and vacated the campus, and then with frustration sat in traffic for over two hours trying to get home. But once we were there, we sat and stared at our TVs non-stop, tears in our eyes for days to come. For us in that area the next few days and weeks held other surprises for us. The terrorists had been living in Coral Springs, less than 15 minutes away from where I lived. Even more shocking, they had used our library and our computers in Boca Raton and they may have plotted some of this attack right in front of our very eyes, and we had had no idea. Innocence indeed.

Reflecting back on those days, it seems surreal, not just because of all the events that unfolded that day and afterward, but because since then, 15 years have passed, and I am stunned into silence to think about everything that has happened in my own life since then. I have experienced great sadness and painful death more raw and more personal than I did when I grieved on September 11, 2001. But I have also experienced incredible love and true companionship, and I have accomplished many personal triumphs along the way. It is true: we do prevail, we do move on. As it should be. With death comes life; with tragedy comes hope; with destruction, rebirth.

It was five years ago that I visited the 9/11 memorial fountains that had just opened. This morning AA and I went down to the waterfront along the Hudson River in Jersey City for a walk. We knew it was 9/11 and that anniversary events would be taking place. But somehow it didn't occur to us that events would be happening here in JC as well, so we stumbled on the beginning of these events and spent time with many others commemorating this day. I took the photos you see here. The image above shows the Freedom Tower in the center distance while the memorial ceremony took place before us. We are literally right across from where the Twin Towers once stood, their presence replaced by this single tower of rebirth and renewal, their invisible presence still felt by all those who remember the old skyline. The second picture you see here was at the other end of the avenue, where two firetrucks raised their ladders to unfurl this enormous American flag, which blew in the wind and reminded us of our strength and how we have survived, rebuilt, and moved on. But still we do not forget, and as we are home now and on TV downstairs they read the names of the victims once again, we know that all of these poor souls will not be forgotten. Similarly, all the victims of other terrorist attacks around the world will not be forgotten, from the attacks in Paris to the massacre in Orlando. It is our human spirit to commemorate and remember, but it is also in their memory that we must go on.

In the end, today for me is about life and living. This is a day to honor and remember all those we have lost throughout history and time, due to warfare, hatred, anger, sickness, poverty, famine, illness, accident, and natural causes. I struggle when I hear others perpetuate anger and hatred and fear and judgment, because at my core I am a pacifist. So today I try to focus instead on remembrance and honor, a day to commemorate all those we have lost in the spirit of humanity, love, and peace.

Monday, September 5, 2016

MWA XLII: Tremblay's Raven

AA and I are back from Provincetown; as always, it was a lovely, relaxing week. The two great summer getaway spots for most NYC gays and lesbians are either Fire Island (Cherry Grove/Pines) or Provincetown. I've been to both, and I definitely prefer the latter. Even though Fire Island has the beach literally at your door, its own unique charms, and it takes less travel time (in theory) to get there, I find it too remote and too much of a pretentious scene. I prefer the quietude of the New England coast, but also the option of doing various things if desired, from shopping to tea dance. More importantly, I've always enjoyed Provincetown's local art scene. Admittedly, there are a number of galleries along Commercial Street targeted to the tourist market, with idyllic paintings and photographs of boats, the harbor, and the local streets, all of which of course attracts any visitor's attention, and they do make for lovely souvenirs. But Provincetown has a rich history for more than a century as an artist's colony, and as local artist Thomas Antonelli (who has been there for over 40 years) mentioned to JM and me a few days ago, there used to be a ferry that ran from NYC to Provincetown, which helped to create a logical and strong connection between these two art centers. Whenever I am there, I find myself regularly visiting places like the Rice Polak Gallery, where one can still find neo-realist paintings by Nick Patten, an artist about whom I wrote eight years ago and whose work I still admire for their fascinating viewpoints. Simie Maryles Gallery had an excellent group of realist artists on display, intermingling, for instance, academic studies by Brendan Johnston with luminist landscapes by John Brandon Sills. Blue Gallery showcases pottery by Paul Wisotzky; last year I purchased a bottle-neck vase by him. And the Portland Art Association and Museum organizes interesting exhibitions that focus on artists from the Cape. You can read more about this thriving art scene in Provincetown and its centenary in Brett Sokol's article from August in the New York Times.

This year a work that captured my attention every time I walked down Commercial Street was the image you see above, what I've chosen for the latest Monthly Work of Art: Raven, 2015, by Julie Tremblay. (Coincidentally my friend Shermania blogged last week about this black duck painting by Marsden Hartley that he saw at the MFA Boston and thereafter dubbed "Madam X".) I purchased a photographic print of Raven and will be hanging it in our den not far from the computer where I am writing this post right now. Tremblay runs her own gallery (and full production center, from what it seemed) right at the center of town (I can't even begin to imagine what she must be paying in rent for that space). Much of her work on display is geared toward the tourist market, with lovely scenes of solitary boats in Provincetown Harbor at sunrise and whales emerging from the Atlantic Ocean. I don't meant to suggest anything negative by this remark. The images are charming and perfectly suited for those who want this type of imagery for their homes as souvenirs. Clearly she understands her market, as she makes available reduced-cost prints of some of her works to draw customers in and will even mat and frame them (hence the production center). That said, I'm sure die-hard artists might consider her to be selling out.

Raven, however, goes beyond tourist imagery, and that is what captured my eye. bklynbiblio readers know I love animals and nature, and so of course I am a fan of animal art (e.g. my post on Landseer). Tremblay's website showcases a number of examples of animal pictures that she has captured digitally and on film, and many of these are wonderful depictions of animals in their habitats. But this particular composition profiles this particular black bird as a psychological portrait. This is different from photos of dogs or wildlife animals, presented anthropomorphically posed or in-their-habitat. This image of a bird with its head bowed down, its eyes invisible to the viewer, suggests a form of blindness, not just for the bird unaware of us, but for us as well, our inability to meet its gaze and understand what this creature is. The less one can see, the more one desires to see. Tremblay has a comparably powerful photograph called Sun Screen, 1988, of an elderly woman blocking her eyes from the sun with intertwined fingers, masking her vision and thus our own, making it impossible for us to truly see her, making us realize how much we rely on vision and our need to look into someone's eyes in order to understand who they are. Vision is a form of control and it makes us, as viewers, feel more comfortable with the lives around us. The same holds true for this bird. The less I can see into the eyes of this bird, the more I appreciate everything else I can see, and the more I lament for those who cannot see at all, physically because of blindness, or perhaps worse, psychologically because they wear blinders in support of their own prejudices and agendas.

This photograph also works as an abstract composition, a solid black entity that could just as easily be a human in a black shroud and hood as much as a bird in black feathers. In the center of all that black is a sharp linear V, the bird's beak, accentuated by white hatch-marks that are the scars of its own existence. This is an image of a life well-worn, experienced, exhausted, but not yet a figure of death, despite the association with mourning in the black-so-black you can almost feel the soft downy feathers on your fingertips. Tremblay told me that she doesn't know if the bird was a crow or a raven (I think it's likely a crow), but her titling of it as Raven inevitably conjures up images of Edgar Allan Poe, the Tower of London, and the Gothic imagination. But, contained as it is, with a blurred red-white nature background and a white rectangular photographic edge, the bird's identity and association with darkness is called into question, and one realizes this is more a depiction of solitude, a single moment in this bird's raucous life. It is a black beauty all its own.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Happy 8th Birthday!

I'm writing my annual bklynbiblio birthday post from Provincetown, MA, which is rather appropriate considering that I started this blog 8 years ago today after returning from Provincetown. Among the posts in that first month were a recap of that trip (including a review of a play JM and I saw), a review of the book & then-forthcoming movie about Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, and highlights of upcoming Fall exhibitions in NYC (reviews of which subsequently appeared in the months afterward: Ernst Kirchner; Catherine Opie; and Gilbert & George). What amazes me when I look back on those early days and posts is how much more time I apparently had free to write! At least there is an archive, because I admit I sometimes forget that I ever wrote about certain exhibitions, books, films, plays, etc.

And so here we are again, 8 years later, in Provincetown. The photo above was taken by me this very afternoon from the pool area at Wave Bar at the Crown & Anchor, looking out toward Cape Cod Bay. It has been gorgeous since we fact, a little too hot--I had high hopes it would be a bit cooler! But it is beautiful and relaxing, and that's why we are here.

Commemorating 8 years of bklynbiblio, we discover that this post is #544, and in tracking my most popular tags it comes as no surprise that things have not changed at all for the past few years, reinforcing the focus of this blog. "New York" still comes in at #1 (146 posts), followed by "19th-century art" (100), "England" (90), "photography" (88), and "art exhibitions" (77). So thank you to all my friends and colleagues who have continued to follow me for 8 productive years now. Your ongoing emails of support do encourage me to keep on blogging...

Sunday, August 14, 2016

MWA XLI: Solomon's Song

If it were not for Dinah Roe's post on Twitter, I might have missed today as the 111th anniversary of Simeon Solomon's death in London. Tragically, he died after living in and out of workhouses and on the street, impoverished and in a destitute state, on August 14, 1905, despite having at one time tremendous success as an artist. As discussed and noted on this blog and on the Simeon Solomon Research Archive that I co-manage with Carolyn Conroy, it was after Solomon's arrest in 1873 for homosexual crimes that his public career largely ended, although he did have ups and downs over subsequent decades depending on his health and the support he was receiving from family and friends. A report of the inquest into his death appeared in the Times on August 18, 1905, and reads as follows:
Mr. Walter Schroder held an inquest at St. Giles's Coroner's Court yesterday regarding the death of Simeon Solomon, aged 63, bachelor, an oil-painter, who was described as of the pre-Raphaelite school and at one time an associate of Rossetti and Burne-Jones. Solomon, according to his cousin, Mr. G. J. Nathan, of late years had led an intemperate and irregular life. The witness last saw him alive in May, when he gave him an outfit of clothes and money. He also gave him a commission for a drawing which was never executed. People highly placed in society would have liked him to paint pictures for them, but he could not be relied on to execute any commission. Other evidence showed that Solomon had been "off and on" an inmate of St. Giles's Workhouse during the past five years. On Wednesday, May 24 last, after the visit to his cousin, he was found lying on the footpath in Great Turnstile, High Holborn. He complained of illness and was conveyed to King's College Hospital, whence he was transferred to St. Giles's Workhouse. He was then suffering from bronchitis and alcoholism. He remained in the house, and on Monday morning last suddenly expired in the dining hall from, as Dr. A. C. Allen, the medical officer testified, heart failure consequent on aortic disease of that organ and other ailments. The jury returned a verdict accordingly. It was stated that a picture by the deceased recently sold at Christie's realised 250 guineas and that in former days several of his paintings were exhibited at the Royal Academy.
It's interesting that the author laments that a picture by him had sold recently for 250 guineas at Christie's, considering just last month at the same Christie's, a record was broken when the picture above by Solomon sold for £182,500 ($242,500), the highest price ever paid for one of his pictures. Compared to his contemporaries, the aforementioned Rossetti and Burne-Jones whose works now sell in the millions of pounds, this amount is still a small sum. Nevertheless, considering Solomon was still barely acknowledged as a significant figure in the Pre-Raphaelite circle just fifteen years ago, this shift in the sale of his work is an incredible change in the market and appreciation for his work.

Painted in 1868, measuring 17 x 25 in., entitled A Prelude by Bach, Solomon's watercolor was first exhibited at the Dudley Gallery in London in February 1869 under the more generic title of A Song. It was largely disregarded by critics, the Times dismissing it as "a bevy of young men and maidens in the Watteauish costumes ... grouped round a lady at the piano," suggesting a subject that was either in the spirit of an 18th-century a fete galante or had randy Regency tendencies. Whatever the costumes, the picture seemed to be overtly sensual in its presentiment and lacking in the moral meaning preferred by those critics interested in mid-century Victorian narrative paintings. (To be clear, she is playing a harpsichord, not a piano, a perhaps important historical point if she is playing a Prelude by J.S. Bach.) 

A Song was exhibited with Solomon's (now-lost) Sacramentum Amoris and A Saint of the Eastern Church (Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, image right), single-figure works that respectively celebrated pagan and Christian rituals, all done in watercolors, a medium with which most always agree Solomon excelled. Both the Saint and the Amoris carry myrtle branches, as does the boy in A Song. Clearly this suggests there was intent to unite them as a trinity with meaning, but that understanding now seems to be lost. Indeed, the problem with A Song at the time of its exhibition was its lack of meaning, either grouped with the other two pictures or on its own. The 1860s were a time of transition in British art, as the radical medievalism and social consciousness of the Pre-Raphaelites evolved into the luscious Venetian colors and subjects of the Aesthetic Movement, subjects and meaning typically dissipated in favor of sheer expressions of beauty. Another key shift in this transition was the merging of the arts so that one form could express that of another, i.e. art with music, poetry with art, music with poetry. This stylistic development appeared not just in Solomon's pictures but also those of his colleagues and friends Rossetti, Albert Moore, and J.A.M. Whistler (think Symphony in White, No. 1). These pictures blended the arts, poetry/music/painting united in subject-less works. Whistler arguably succeeded in this goal more than his colleagues and friends, to the point that he took the critic John Ruskin to court for libel and defended what this aesthetic sensibility actually meant. And yet, after all this time, viewers today still seek out meaning in pictures such as these.

In the 2005 Solomon exhibition catalogueColin Cruise argued that A Prelude by Bach echoed the representation of figures in Botticelli's Primavera, with the lady at the harpsichord substituting Venus, and the boy on the left representing Mercury, holding instead of the caduceus a myrtle branch. I'm not convinced this interpretation is completely accurate, because Solomon made a number of pictures throughout his career depicting groups of people arranged as if they were part of a bas-relief, and I'm not sure this one is any different from the others that it is less or more like the Primavera. That said, I do agree with Cruise that the depiction of the two women embracing in Solomon's picture conveys another instance of his exploration of lesbian desire, something he began exploring at least five years earlier with his pictures of Sappho. I would go even further and say that almost all of the couplings depicted in this work exhibit a sense of decadent sensuality. Their lassitude suggests post-coital intercourse, as if listening to the Prelude has somehow satiated their sexual drives. The power of music indeed.

This picture is a simple work upon first seeing it, but gazing at it in more depth, and attempting to read the imagery, symbols, and pairings more closely, it leads to that deeper enigma that one finds in so many of Solomon's pictures. His was a coded language all his own, and one wonders if we will ever be able to fully comprehend all the meaning in his works. Sadly, he died 111 years ago today taking most, if not all, of those secrets with him to his grave.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

MWA XL: Turner's Burning

Few would disagree that one of the greatest painters of the nineteenth century was Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851). An artist who specialized in landscapes that ranged from the classical to the sublime, he so impressed his contemporaries with his work as a young man that he was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1799 and a full member in 1802. He excelled both in oil paintings and watercolors, and could paint in the spirit of the Old Masters while also introducing something new for his own modern world. Later in life Turner was criticized for his eccentricities in subjects and painting techniques, and the recent biopic Mr. Turner reportedly makes him a bit of a bumbling idiot rather than an eccentric painter (I have not seen the movie yet). During the last twenty years of his life he failed to impress most viewers, and he was often derided for his paintings because of their seemingly slipshod compositions and abstractions of color. His one defender late in life was the conservative art critic John Ruskin, who saw in Turner (perhaps surprisingly) the epitome of the principle of "truth to nature." Today, Turner is recognized as a master, and retroactively appreciated as a key figure who influenced many of the modernist tendencies in painting from the Impressionists through Abstract Expressionism.

I've selected as this Monthly Work of Art Turner's painting The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, October 16, 1834, which he painted from 1834-35 and now is in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. AA and I saw the painting once again on a visit there a few weeks ago, and it still continues to impress me every time. On the night of October 16, 1834, a tremendous conflagration burned down the Houses of Parliament in London. (The neo-Gothic building and Big Ben were the replacement buildings that stand today.) Hundreds, if not thousands, of spectators flocked to the shores of the Thames to watch the massive fire. Turner was among them, and he recorded on the spot a series of watercolor sketches that he later used to create two different oil paintings in his studio. This is one of them; the other is in the Cleveland Museum of Art. All of these works were cleverly brought together in 2007 when the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC hosted the exhibition J.M.W. Turner. I remember to this day how much I loved this one particular room that demonstrated Turner's understanding of energy and light and color in his watercolors and the oil paintings recording this cataclysmic event.

Christopher Riopelle writes in the PMA's handbook about this painting that Turner watched the blaze from the south bank of the Thames: "Here he exaggerates the scale of Westminster Bridge, which rises like a massive iceberg at right and then on the opposite bank seems to plunge down and dissolve in the blaze. At the dazzling heart of the flames is Saint Stephen's Hall, the House of Commons, while beyond the towers of Westminster Abbey, which would be spared, are eerily illuminated. Turner was drawn to depictions of nature in cataclysmic eruption, and here in the middle of London he confronted a scene of terrifying force and drama that he recorded in several watercolor sketches and two paintings."

Turner's vibrant palette of color and the swirls of energy emanating from the fire make this a magnificent painting. Even the smoke takes on a life of its own as it rushes like a wave into the night sky. One can understand why people today often see Turner as a proto-abstract painter. I am reading at present Jonathan Crary's Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century, and a passage recently caught my eye (no pun intended) that made me think of this painting again from my visit to Philadelphia a few weeks ago. Crary's interest in this book is demonstrating how advances in physiology and socio-philosophical theory during the first half of the nineteenth century impacted the world of painting and the development of photography thereafter. Rather than reinforce the paradigmatic argument that modernist painters, from the Impressionists on, were so radical in how they saw the world as artists, he contends that their sense of the world was a natural development because of changes in the understanding of how people actually saw and perceived the world around them through scientific discoveries and hypotheses made earlier in the century. This led some to want to understand the essence of the "innocent" eye, what one sees before the brain interprets the imagery. Crary writes: "Ruskin was equally able to employ [this theory] in suggesting the possibility of a purified subjective vision, of an immediate and unfiltered access to the evidence of this privileged sense. But if the vision of Ruskin, Cezanne, Monet, and others has anything in common, it would be misleading to call it 'innocence.' Rather it is a question of a vision achieved at great cost that claimed for the eye a vantage point uncluttered by the weight of historical codes and conventions of seeing, a position from which vision can function without the imperative of composing its contents into a reified 'real' world." (pp.95-96)

What strikes me is that if we believe Crary's argument (and I confess I am doing a hack job summarizing it; read the book), then why do we have to leave it to the Impressionists in the 1870s to receive the credit for a new interpretation of this understanding of vision? Surely other artists experimented with these discoveries earlier? Indeed, Turner paints what his eye sees, not necessarily a photorealistic representation of what the viewer expects to see. He painted swirls of color as the eye sees them, but before the brain's interpretation of what they are. While this seems most apparent in the color and brushstroke of the background and upper left quadrant, other components of visual acuity are evident here too: the bridge, with its warped foreshortening and perspective. As the eye focuses on the rising flames of orange, yellow, and red, peripheral vision skews the natural alignment of the bridge. Similarly, the people in the foreground along the banks lack any physical features; they are shrouded in smoke and the night sky, and are only visible again in Turner's periphery. This painterly demonstration of what Turner "saw" relates well, then, to Ruskin, who praised Turner for his "truth to nature" approach in his art. It is not so much that his paintings capture a verisimilitude of the landscape; rather, his paintings convey an unadulterated understanding of what his eye saw. Such is the genius of Turner.

POSTSCRIPT 8/6/16: When I wrote this blog post, I was only just more than half-way through Crary's Techniques of the Observer. I should have glanced ahead. In his last chapter, Crary discusses Turner as exactly the prime example of artist who utilized new principles of vision in his art. He discusses briefly two of Turner's paintings from the 1840s that emphasize the vortex of light as their subjects. These paintings and Turner's late color/light-filled experiments are among those works most find inspiring today, largely because of their foreshadowing of abstraction yet to come. But for Crary it was the natural development of the understanding of a subjective sense of vision that made this possible. He writes: "Seemingly out of nowhere, [Turner's] painting of the late 1830s and 1840s signals the irrevocable loss of a fixed source of light, the dissolution of a cone of light rays, and the collapse of the distance separating an observer from the site of optical experience. ... Turner's direct confrontation with the sun ... dissolves the very possibility of representation that the camera obscura was meant to ensure. His solar preoccupations were 'visionary' in that he made central in his work the retinal processes of vision." (138-39) Crary thus utilizes Turner as the grande finale to his thesis. Fortunately, this coincides with my observation above: that one need not wait for the 1870s and the Impressionists to assume that scientific understandings in the subjectivity of vision manifested themselves in art. They were happening simultaneously.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Portal 11

Portal 11: Carinthia, Austria/Philadelphia (16 July 2016)
(For other works in my Portals series, click here.)

This door [made of walnut with various wood inlays, with iron lock and hinges] is from the central, ceremonial entranceway to the Stiegerhof room ..., a reception chamber from the second floor of a Renaissance manor house. The top panel of the door bears the name and coat of arms of Wolfgang Paul, the owner who had the house renovated, and the date 1589 (presumably the year the decoration of the room was completed). The bottom panel bears the name and coat of arms of Urban Holzwurm, the master woodworker and builder who was probably responsible for the renovation of the house as well as the creation of this door. The side of the door seen here was the most elaborately decorated one in the room and would have been visible only to people who were inside the room when the door was closed.

-- from wall label text (1929-56-1), Philadelphia Museum of Art

Sunday, June 26, 2016

MWA XXXIX: Steichen's Swanson

"Nobody ever discovered ugliness through photographs. But many, through photographs, have discovered beauty. ... So successful has been the camera's role in beautifying the world that photographs, rather than the world, have become the standard of the beautiful." -- Susan Sontag, "The Heroism of Vision," from On Photography (1977), p.85

I have been reading Sontag's book as one of my commute reads, and although some of her ideas seem dated now, I can tell how they were significant for a younger generation of connoisseurs, curators, and art historians in the 1970s when visual art was struggling to maintain its momentum with the rise of conceptual art and happenings in the contemporary scene. This particular essay, however, I have found very interesting because she proposed that the power of photography, as a democratized form of visual imagery and reproductive media, created for viewers a definition of what beauty is supposed to be. Although she focused on avant-garde practices and left out much discussion on commercial and fashion photography, the implication is clearly there as well. From the very beginning, advertising and mass media, through photographic imagery, have instructed us on how we are supposed to look and thus feel, and if we don't measure up somehow we fail as humans in our society. The role of photography to celebrity culture is tied to this and arguably today is even worse now than it ever was because of the onslaught of mass media and advertising impacting people 24/7.

I begin with this preface about beauty and photography to introduce what I've selected as the latest Monthly Work of Art. I first encountered the image you see above many years ago, and  I believe it was one of the great images that motivated me along to my eventual career in art history. The photograph is a portrait of Gloria Swanson photographed by Edward Steichen. I first saw this work in person at an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg more than 25 years ago. When many years later I told my friend and photohistorian extraordinaire RL the story of how much I loved this photograph and how it had inspired me, his response was "Of course it did!" I took that to mean two things: first, that it was indeed an evocative and beautifully composed photograph; and second, that naturally it would also appeal to me because it was so queer.

Photographed in 1924 and published in Vanity Fair in February 1928, a vintage print went up for auction at Sotheby's in 2014 and sold for $629,000. But if you could put a price on the beautiful, this photograph would likely be among those whose worth was priceless. The subject is Gloria Swanson (1899-1983), who at the time of the shoot was the highest paid actress in the world. She was a star of the silent film era and made the transition to talkies, but fell out of favor in Hollywood until she starred as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (1950), playing (ironically?) a fading film star from the silent film era who lives as a hermit in her Hollywood mansion but falls in love with a young screenwriter. In some ways, the photograph practically foreshadows Desmond's famous line "All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up," spoken by Swanson in a husky voice that seeps through the translucent black veil in Steichen's image. The theatrical effects of the photograph and its references to old Hollywood and 1920s glamour are of course all of the stock traits that make it queer.

The photographer, Edward Steichen (1879-1973), established his career as a painter and Pictorialist photographer, but by the 1920s he had become a fashion and celebrity photographer, and later went on to become Director of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art. In his autobiography, Steichen wrote about photographing Swanson: "[We] had had a long session, with many changes of costume and different lighting effects. At the end of the session, I took a piece of black lace veil and hung it in front of her face. She recognized the idea at once. Her eyes dilated, and her look was that of a leopardess lurking behind leafy shrubbery, watching her prey" (Steichen, A Life in Photography, chapter 8). This description of the photo shoot suggests a few interesting notions. First, that the perfect image only came to them after an already-long, strenuous, exhausting day, implying then that it was not hard work but instantaneity and magical genius that had created this image. This notion of artistic strokes of genius is a trope one finds with every artist in history, and clearly was intended to make their work actually seem effortless and thus sophisticated. Second, the quotation also demonstrates that Swanson as the subject was equally involved in the creation of the image, specifically through performance and pose. Hence, it was a mutually-created stroke of genius, Adam-and-God touching fingers to spark Michelangelesque creation.

What Steichen does not seem to give credit to, however, is the power of the black veil. These netted fabrics have served to mask women's face for millennia, to allow them to feel a sense of protection against the staring eyes of others. In the case of mourning, a black veil permits the women to be private in her grief when she is in public, and informs people they should step away out of respect. In contrast, a white veil on a Western wedding dress masks the beauty of the woman's face, only to be revealed at the end when the new husband is permitted to kiss his bride. He lifts her veil, sees her face, and is now the sole owner of the commodity of beauty that has been hidden before that moment. Women in the Islamic community who wear full burqa often include veils, and regardless of the socio-political or gender-biased implications behind this practice, ultimately the veil here serves the same purpose: to disguise the woman and, by implication, make her invisible (even if, in Western society, it has the opposite effect).

The black veil in this photograph, seemingly thrown up haphazardly by Steichen, instantly creates a barrier that thereafter prevents the viewer from ever penetrating into the subject's space. It transforms a color of mourning into a commodity for showcasing beauty. But the veil also distances the subject from the gaze of the viewer, and thus creates an erotic tension between them. In many ways this was symptomatic of the role Swanson herself played in society as a film actress: visible and larger-than-life on the big screen for everyone to see, she was unavailable to the public as a real, live person. Unlike a full-length film, this single-frame image exacerbates this tension. She stares, eyes locked, leopardess-like, on her prey, the viewer, and thus shifts the power of the gaze back onto its source. Her gaze, specifically through that veil, empowers her and ultimately castrates (figuratively speaking) the (presumed male) viewer who has sought to penetrate her. The image is, indeed, one that showcases beauty, but at the same time it emphasizes the subject's power. Rather than subjugate her, the veil becomes the woman's armor.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

And we're back...

It was comforting and reassuring to have had a few people reach out to me over the past couple of months asking, rather exuberantly, "Why aren't you blogging?!" I guess I did leave people hanging with London, implying more was coming. Admittedly, when I was in London that week, I had every intention of sharing more about that trip. But then the proverbial you-know-what hit the fan at work and it knocked some of my plans out of whack. Some of you will understand right away what I'm talking about, but for others who don't, you can read about it here ... or here ... or ... you get the picture. (No update on the whole thing, I'm afraid. I imagine I'm still unofficially-officially unable to comment.)

But since then, life has continued rather well. I turned 46 (egads!). We had a very fun house re-warming party (because since my arrival in AA's abode, I have re-warmed it!). We went to Florida to visit family, then we had an amazing vacation to Mexico City, and I recently went to Portland (Maine) for work. The job itself, of course, has continued with numerous things taking place, aside from the above-mentioned drama. And I've been writing.

I admit I contemplated whether I should blog anymore. With over 500 posts covering almost 7 years, what more could bklynbiblio possibly say? ( KNOW I always have something to say!) It is true that the "old" days of blogging in general have dissipated. The first "weblog" dates from 1997, so it's now 19 years in. But do people actively read blogs anymore? I actually do still read a few, and you can see the links on this blog, but in general I have a tendency to binge-read them, not read their posts regularly. I don't think, however, that most people active read blogs as they used to. What seems to have happened is that as a plethora of information on the Internet has exploded over the past few years, no one can process anything more than a simple paragraph of "facts" (quotation marks intentional) in one quick read. Reading, let alone writing, an essay online is simply beyond what most people can process or even want to process anymore.

All this made me question if writing new blog posts merited anything. As I said in the beginning, it was absolutely delightful to know that some people missed the posts. (Thank you, AA, PR, JAM, PC, and others.) But does blogging on its own provide the same important outlet for news and general information as it once did? Social media has exploded in creating a multiple-platform means in which to convey "facts" (quotation marks still intentional). In other words, if we have YouTube, apps, notifications, and so on, do we actually need full-text information at all? Curiously, this isn't a situation faced only by bloggers. Newspapers are facing it too, as demonstrated by the fact that they continue to lay off full-time reporters because no one wants to read, or has the time to read, actual reporting anymore.

But this blog isn't really about news like our conflicts with the Islamic State, Zika, terrorists, or the Presidential campaign. This blog has been about the arts in its broadest context, filled with personal reviews and original works of art, interviews and travelogues, and "best of" annual recaps. So it does still serve a purpose. What has changed, however, is me in that I now utilize social media more than this blog to disseminate information. My Instagram and Twitter accounts are both bklynbiblio, for instance. Therefore, if one really wants to keep up with bklynbiblio, apparently one has to follow not just this blog but all my social media outlets!! And if the very idea of doing that infuriates, upsets, or even disheartens you, then you're not alone. I feel the same way! It is, quite frankly, exhausting. Seriously.

Perhaps part of the problem is that we are inundated by the insane drama of Trump-Clinton-Sanders-Rubio-Cruz-whothehellcaresanymore...non-stop, 24/7. Perhaps it is because innocent people are being slaughtered by unbalanced individuals who, instead of being encouraged to get mental health therapy, are allowed to buy assault rifles and take our their anger by shooting whomever they like, and we also hear about it 24/7. Perhaps it is something simpler, that I'm now post-45 and my eyes tire more easily from staring at computer screens, but I can't help checking Facebook one more time. My new, longer commute from NJ means I read many more print books each day, which is great, as I'm reminded how much more enjoyable that active form of reading is for me than ever reading online (even if I have to prop a book on someone's head in the subway to read it!). Worth mentioning at this precise juncture, then, is one of those books I have read on the subway: Jonathan Crary's 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep. This erudite, short text outright warns us that we need to stop letting corporations control our lives through these online gadgets and media. Their ever-growing capitalist intent fools us into thinking we need the latest technology in order to stay in touch, and that if we aren't online all the time we will miss something important. Hence, the end of sleep, and the utter exhaustion that we are all feeling more and more every single day. (Read the book. It's worth it.)

What I have discovered about myself (and I'm sure others feel this way) is that I struggle between my constant use of various media platforms (as both a browser and a poster), and my desire to pull away from all of them because I can tell how much these various media outlets are exhausting me. And I hope that the latter part of that struggle is winning out. I consciously now try to live "in the moment." I realize that is incredibly cliche, and the quotation marks here are also intentional, but this time not for a negative reason. I really do mean "in the moment." I find myself more and more actually looking at people, admiring who they are and wondering about the lives they live. I look around at buildings and bushes and bodies of water and try to notice what makes each element in life unique or the same. I touch textiles and woods and metals to try to understand what they feel like. I listen for birds singing in trees. I gaze at paintings and walk around sculptures, simply to take in the beauty of what artistic creation. And I actually have grinned when I realize that I have stopped to smell lilacs, jasmine, and, yes, roses. And they smell divine.

Of course writing this blog post right now may seem contradictory to everything I've just written. But not really, because ultimately I've always perceived myself as a writer, and for me this is how I communicate my thoughts and feelings about all these things. So, yes, we are back on the blog! I can't promise how often I will be posting, or whether I will be posting things like I have in the past. But you can be sure: "writing" in some format or another is taking place, simply because living is happening off-line.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

London 2016: Day 1

I'm back in the UK for a few days of research and exhibitions, so I'll see if I can maintain a daily blog highlighting what will have transpired. Not surprisingly, we departed late from Newark on Sunday evening, and arrived late into Heathrow. Not impressed by United's entertainment options, nor their food, on this trip. The trend toward using your own hand-held devices seems like a cop-out to me for the airlines to provide services, as prices keep increasing. And dinner was not appetizing at all. In any case, what did startle me was how quiet Heathrow was when we arrived, and how quickly we got through immigration. At first I couldn't imagine what was going on, but then I realized it was a bank holiday, Easter Monday, so oddly fewer people were actually working. In any case, the long day was ahead of me--making sure I stay awake!--and so I took the Heathrow Express and then a taxi to my hotel where, fortunately, my room was ready so I could rest and freshen up.

After doping up on more coffee and a sandwich at Costa (why, of why, has neither Caffe Nero or Costa made it across the pond to the U.S.? Starbucks needs more competition!), I could see that the streets were quieter than usual for the holiday. I made my way via the Northern line on the tube to Charing Cross, then walked to the National Portrait Gallery to see the exhibition "Russia and the Arts: The Age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky." It was a small exhibition of portraits of Russian writers, musicians/composers, and thespians, all from the collection of the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, what was once the private collection of an individual art collector. I was inspired to see this because of having recently finished reading Anna Karenina, so it was useful to see a few paintings I am less familiar with contemporaneous to Tolstoy's novel (1877) and late nineteenth-century art. Not surprisingly one could see the influences of Realism and Impressionism, and a few Cubist-style works from the 1890s that predate Cubism itself by a decade. The painter Ilia Repin stood out as clearly the most talented painter of the group, which may explain why he is the one name that appears in surveys of 19th-century European art. His life-size, whole-length portrait of Baroness Varvara Iksul von Hildenbrandt, which can be seen by clicking on the link above, was the highlight work in the show. Overall the show was interesting, but I was done in 20 minutes.

After stopping for a lovely blackberry-apple tart and English breakfast tea (yes, more caffeine needed) at the National Cafe, I went to see the exhibition "Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art." At an entry price of 15 pounds, I have to confess I was not impressed. Why oh why could they not just have an exhibition about Eugene Delacroix and his contemporaries? Why justify all the accomplishments in Delacroix's use of color and Rubenesque brush stroke by simply showing how more famous names like Renoir (yuck!) and Gauguin (more yuck!) were influenced by him?! Delacroix was an amazing artist and clearly changed the entire realm of 19th-century French art. The image above shows one example of a painting by him in the exhibition: Lion Hunt, 1860-61, from the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago. This was, in fact, the iconic image used as the headliner for the exhibition and it is arguably the best picture in the exhibition by Delacroix. It is just disappointing that half of the works in the show were by this masterful painter. I certainly would have preferred to see an actual Delacroix exhibition. I spent the rest of the afternoon (after another snack) walking through the National Gallery to see their incredible painting collection, one masterpiece after another.