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.