Monday, April 10, 2006

A picture is worth thousand words: a morality tale.

If you wander down one of the corridors in the Metropolitan Museum of Art devoted to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British art, you will come across a full length portrait of one George Harley Drummond, by Sir Henry Raeburn.

George Harley Drummond was the eldest son of a wealthy member of the British aristocracy, aged 25 at the time the portrait was painted. He had been married several years, and had a seven-year old son and two other children, who were the subject of another portrait by the same painter done around the same time. Sir Henry Raeburn was Scotland's premier portrait painter.

At first glance, the portrait appears to be just another "aristocrat with horse" painting. Except something seems off-kilter.

In most equestrian paintings, at least of the ones I've seen, if the man is not astride the horse then he is leaning on or standing next to the horse's neck. In this painting, George Harley Drummond is standing next to the horse's saddle, with the horse facing away from the viewer. The curators at the Met put it most delicately: "The foreshortened view of the grazing bay horse is the most complex part of the composition, though not the most important. It is curious, therefore, that the animal's hindquarters should be so prominently displayed."

No, it's not curious, not at all. Not when you look at the painting, and look from the the vapid young man to the horse and back again.

It is a truism in law that the one person you don't stiff is your defense attorney -- because they know where the bodies are buried. Similarly, the one person you should strive to be nice to is your portraitist.

Otherwise, he may let all of posterity know just what a horse's ass you really are.

Friday, April 07, 2006

The Prado Moment.

I still say it was the fault of that damn painting.

I had flown to Madrid from the West Coast -- six hours across country, with the obligatory four hour layover at JFK, then seven hours over the Atlantic -- and gotten in about 10 in the morning. I and the friend I flew with were retrieved by my husband and a friend and coworker, with the plan being an afternoon in Madrid, followed possibly by tapas, and an early night at Torrejón de Ardoz, where we were staying. The theory was that staying up without napping would help our bodies acclimate to Spanish time (nine hours later than home). This would mean that we would have stayed up for close to 24 hours straight by the time we went to bed.

I was in Spain as consolation prize for having a husband who is on the road roughly four months a year. Every couple of years, I go abroad with the saved frequent flyer miles -- that year (2004), to Spain. After a short stay in the vicinity of Madrid, his project was heading south to the the Spanish hill country north of Seville, to a small mining town called Rio Tinto. I was along for the ride.

After my husband and the fabulous Sarah Huffman (see sidebar) met me and my friend at the airport, we went into town. After the first of what would seem like innumerable dinners of jamón (Spanish ham -- similar to proscuitto) at the Muséo de Jamón (a chain restaurant with walls covered completely with dried hams -- a little like dining in Norman Bates's parlor), we headed for the Prado. Since I don't care much for jamón, I didn't eat very much.

The Prado is one of the world's most magnificent musems. In addition to an unparalleled collection of Spanish art, it contains masterpieces of Italian, German, Dutch, and Flemish art. While I was eager to see the Goyas and Velazquezes (although not the Picassos -- they are at the Reine Sofia, and at that point in time I was not interested in Picasso anyway), I was dying to see one of the most bizarre works of art ever created: Heironymous Bosch's "Garden of Earthly Delights".

There is an unfortunate tendency today to attribute anything unusual or extremely imaginative to the impact of either drugs or mental illness. This is rubbish -- there is very little that the healthy human mind cannot come up with independent of outside influences. However, having seen Bosch's work, I think ergotism is about as good an explanation for it as anything else.

"The Garden of Earthly Delights" is not a very large painting, as these things go, especially considering the triptych was designed as an altarpiece: the central panel is roughly 7' x 6', the side panels half that width. The three panels are "The Garden of Eden", on the left, "The Garden of Earthly Delights", in the middle, and "Hell", on the right.

No matter which panel you start with, it is a strange work of art. "The Garden of Eden" is the calmest, most reassuring, but even there you see trees with strange, fleshy limbs, and an odd fountain that looks almost alive. Bizarre creatures inhabit the pond near the front, including what looks to be a half duck-half fish with arms. Still, compared to what is to follow, this panel is sanity itself.

The central panel is where things get seriously trippy. The panel is crammed full of people and creatures engaged in various sexual and other activities. Giant fruit litter the landscape. People are trapped inside clams. There is a big circle of people on animals towards the back. Presumably, at least some of this made symbolic sense to its intended audience in the 16th century. As I don't live in the 16th century, however, it was all lost on me.

It was sometime while looking at the middle panel that I started to feel strange. A sense of dizziness and disorientation began to set in. I felt creeping nausea. An intelligent person would have stopped and gone elsewhere, but, well, I was there to see this painting, by God, and I was going to see this painting thoroughly if it killed me.

I then started looking at the end panel.

Every college dorm in America has at least one copy of "Hell" posted up on a wall somewhere. It's just the sort of thing you need to contemplate during acid trips. But as often as I had seen prints of the damned thing, it was worse in person.

It is bizarre and fascinating and dark. It is filled with fantastic creatures -- the most notable being the "tree-man" at the center -- who either are torturing or being tortured. A woman being sucked by leeches. A bird-like creature consuming people and shitting them out. People strung up on harps like crufixes. The knight pinned down and eaten by dogs. The ears -- nothing but ears -- with the knife-blade between them.

I couldn't look away.

I started feeling seriously disoriented. I felt like I was losing my sanity. I was going to fall into the painting. My nausea went from "creeping" to "jumping".

I walked away and looked at some of Bosch's other, less strange (but still rather odd) work. When that didn't make me feel better, I went and sat down in the room next door with the Breughels. The nausea subsided, but the dizziness and disorientation did not. What happened next is still quite hazy. At some point, I made my way down to the ladies room on the ground floor, which has nice cool marble tile floors and walls. I leaned against them...

Only to be shaken awake by a guard. Other museum patrons had called the guard because I appeared to have passed out. I was unable to communicate with the guard because my extremely limited Spanish fled, leaving me with only "no habla Español" which I mumbled over and over.

The guard took me to the museum infirmary, where I had better luck communicating with the doctor, who spoke English. The doctor at first thought she must be having trouble understanding me -- after all, I had said I had just arrived that day? Surely, that was not right. No, I said, that was right -- I had just gotten off the plane. She looked at me for a moment, shook her head, and gave me some apple juice.

After lying down, and having more apple juice and some glucose gel, I felt somewhat better. The doctor diagnosed severe jet-lag and low blood sugar, and ordered me to go back to my hotel and sleep. Which I did, after my friends (who had gone to security when I disappeared) retrieved me from the infirmary.

Two days later, when I came back to the Prado, I had no desire whatsoever to see anymore of Bosch's handiwork. I avoided the Bosch room completely, and instead concentrated on the Spanish painting on the upper floors, including the heartrending "Third of May" by Goya. (Goya himself had a few strange episodes: there is a room devoted to the "Black Goyas", which are bizarre and grotesque paintings Goya did toward the end of his life. The most well-known of these is probably "Saturn Devouring One of His Children".)

I would have thought no more of it, except "Prado moment" became a byword on that trip. A couple of weekends later, when I finally returned to the group after getting lost looking for restrooms at the Alhambra, my husband remarked, "Thank goodness. I thought you were having another Prado moment."

Of course not, silly. There are no Bosches at the Alhambra.
Time out from our current discussion on art -- Terry Karney has written perhaps not a manifesto but a mission statement on being a liberal. Go Terry!

Thursday, April 06, 2006

The girl I love.

She's not a Hollywood Beauty.

She would be classified as being on the large side -- she's normal by most standards, but not for show business. Her face shows a gentle intelligence, but would never launch a thousand ships. Her arms are strong, her hands roughened. Although her clothes are modest and becoming, she is never going to top any "Best Dressed" lists.

I would drop everything on a moment's notice and fly around the world to sit at her feet.

At least, until the guards kicked me out.

I don't know her name -- people who know art history possibly do -- but I know her, the curve of her hand as it cradles the milk jug, the intent half smile as she focuses on pouring out the milk into the dish; and I know the room in which she stands, the window and the table and the loaves of crusty bread so clear you can almost smell their warm yeasty goodness.

She is Vermeer's Kitchen Maid.

She's not as flashy, say, as "The Girl with the Pearl Earring." She has about her a peace and contentment that heals the soul. I want to stay in that room, maybe find out who she is, ask her for one of the loaves, some of the milk. I want to watch the light pouring in through the window, catching her cap, her gown, the milk, her arms.

The light is the most remarkable thing about her -- and try as I might, I cannot think of the painting as anything but "her", as totally identified with the unknown woman at its center. No print can do this painting justice. Light pours out of the canvas in a manner that defies description. You can sit in the Vermeer Room of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam on a gray and dank day and watch the light pour out of the window next to the woman's head, as if you were in the same room with her, hearing the gentle burble of the milk flowing into the bowl.

I love art, deeply. But even within that, there are a small handful of pieces that matter to me at an almost primal level. Among those, most dear to my heart is the Kitchen Maid.

The girl I love.

On Seeing Art.

You may well wonder at the vehemence in my last post; I did a bit myself. It boils down to this:

Art matters to me.

Art matters not in an abstract, "Gee, isn't that pretty" way, but in a visceral, longing so strong I can taste it way.

Great art is a glimpse of God. Or, as a wise priest I know once put it, there is no secular art.

And limiting art seems very much to me like limiting God. There is no chance for surprise, no chance for the unexpected, no chance to push the boundaries of what we know as "acceptable."

I was also angered by the intellectual dishonesty in the little "test" Libertas set out. If the blogger does in fact know anything about art, they have to know you cannot assess a work of art based on pictures taken of it.

Pictures of things can lie. What was true for Henry VIII, when Hans Holbein's portrait of Anne of Cleves was perhaps a shade too flattering, and is true today, to the dismay of many a client of OK Cupid, is also true of photographs of paintings. And just as there are people who are more attractive in real life than one would guess based on their photographs, so too with paintings.

I have seen the Mona Lisa. Even subtracting the fact that it is behind a thick wall of glass (for security purposes), it is small, it is dark, it is not terribly appealing. Photographs are much more attractive, although to tell you the truth, I've never been all that smitten with her anyway.

I have also seen, not "Convergence," the Pollock used by Libertas in his little "test," but an equally unphotogenic Pollock, "Lavender Mist." From a distance, it is an unremarkable mass of brown and pale lavender. Close up, the eye detects the swirls and patterns in the paint, and , almost involuntarily, tries to make sense of them. One is -- or can be, if one lets oneself -- be drawn into the play of light and texture on the canvas, light and texture which get obliterated by the camera's lens. It is not my favorite painting -- not even my favorite abstract painting -- but I would not hesitate to call it art.

Note, this does not arise from a preference for Pollock over da Vinci, or new over old. Around the corner from the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, is my favorite da Vinci, "The Virgin and Child with St. Anne", which is breathtaking. And my favorite paintings of all are by the Dutch master Vermeer. (By the way, it should be noted that you cannot asssess an Old Master by its photograph any more than you can an Abstract Expressionist: Vermeer's paintings often go from being merely pretty in print to being transcendent in real life.)

And what is true in painting can also be true in poetry, in prose, in music.

God is limitless. Art should be limitless, too, bound only by the restrictions placed upon it by our frail human forms.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Ars Gratia Artis

While rummaging around the blogosphere -- or at least the small corner of it I forage in -- I ran across a link (via Julia over at Sisyphus Shrugged) to Libertas, a conservative art blog. At the beginning of a review for, of all things, the latest Spike Lee film, Libertas asserts his own exalted position as an arbiter of what is proper in the art world:

There are many Philistines in the world, but only one Goliath: that’s me. I think abstract art is a con game. I think free verse stinks. I think atonal music should be outlawed and experimental novels burned. Whenever an artist declares he’s going to break through the restrictions of his form, I feel he should be treated the same as a chess player who declares he’s going to ignore the rules of his game—like an idiot, a harmless eccentric at best. The rules are the game, the restrictions are the form. Indeed, much of the excitement of art comes from watching the spatial confines of the sonnet, say, or the canvas or the movie screen, give way into emotional infinity.

Ah, yes. One of the "my three-year-old can paint better than Jackson Pollock" people. He then confirms this by setting the reader a test, in which the Mona Lisa and the Jackson Pollock painting "Convergence" (not that Libertas has the academic honesty to actually identify the painting), are placed side by side. If the reader identifies the first -- but not the second -- as art, then they are deemed to have sufficient aethestic sensibilities to be allowed to proceed to read his movie review.

There's a certain amount of irony at this level of hauteur being exercised over a movie review. For much of the cinema's history, movies -- especially popular movies -- have not been taken seriously as works of art. That nothwithstanding, let's look at his presumptions, shall we? Just what sort of world would we live in, if Libertas were minister of art?

No James Joyce, of course. Or Franz Kafka. No e.e. cummings, or William Carlos Williams. No Arnold Schoenberg or Philip Glass. Little visual art -- save photography -- past 1920. No Picasso, Bracque, Warhol, Johns. No Brancusi.

No Stravinksy. Both "Rites of Spring" and "The Firebird" caused riots when they debuted -- they were too revolutionary. Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" would in no way be acceptable for concert halls.

Auden would be okay; some, but not all, Eliot. Eugene O'Neill would probably be okay, but Samuel Beckett would be right out.

If you accept that movies are art -- which Libertas seems to -- then without people breaking the constraints of form there would be no Snow White, or any of her progeny from Disney. No Intolerance, no Rashomon, no La Dolce Vita. More recently, no Memento. The brilliant Charlie Kauffman would be out of a job: Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind would all be beyond the pale.

And what of theater? I have spoken of Beckett, and O'Neill. What of musical theater? If movies can be considered art, then surely musicals can be as well. Without Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II breaking through what were then the conventions of the form, we would have shows where the stories were merely excuses for trotting out the latest tunes from Tin Pan Alley. And if we accept that the new paradigm is set by the story show as created by Rodgers and Hammerstein, and as practiced by Lerner and Lowe, and Kander and Ebb, and Jerry Herman, and so on .... then the constraints of that form, in both song structure and in subject matter, have been broken through -- and brilliantly -- by Stephen Sondheim.

But let's go back further.... the ultimate experimental modern novel is Don Quixote, which was so experimental many consider it to have created the genre. And let's not forget Tristram Shandy, shall we? A masterpiece of English literature, Laurence Sterne's eighteenth century novel is so unique Hollywood couldn't touch it -- at least until Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story, which isn't a film of the novel but a film about how hard it would be to make a film of the novel.

If one tossed out painters who broke with the conventions on the form, that would eliminate, oh... Manet, Goya (have you ever seen the "Black Goyas"? reeaaally creepy), Monet, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Toulouse-Latrec, Klimt, and countless others. Oh, and there's Whistler, of whose "Nocture in Black and Gold" Ruskin wrote "I have seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face." In fact, let's just go back to iconography, shall we?

Art is like life: Sturgeon's Law applies here as much as anywhere else. Whenever you have anyone break the conventions of the form and time in which they are working, most often, you'll get self-indulgent garbage. Whenever you have anyone stay within the conventions of the form in which they are working, a fair amount of the time you will get pretentious, self-important twaddle.

Goliath can keep his safe, well-ordered, rule-bound world.

For myself, a world without the fragile delicacy of "somewhere i have never traveled" by cummings, or the devastating anguish of Picasso's "Guernica," or, on a less exalted level, perhaps, without the demonic glee of Sweeney Todd, would be much poorer indeed.

Just call me "Iron Chef Comfort Food"

One of my current popcorn shows is "Be The Next Food Network Star." Like all reality shows, it has the attraction of watching people drive themselves crazy doing things I would never do, in this case for something (my own tv cooking show!) that I would never want. Unlike "Survivor," it has the additional advantage of having what seem to be generally nice people as contestants.

The last episode was on, among other things, how well the contestants multitasked. They seemed daunted by the task. Wimps.

I am not a stellar cook, merely an adequate one. My cheesy whipped potatoes are beloved by my family, and I can do a decent job on chicken, and I am renowned among my friends for my frosted mint brownies. (Oh, and I have made croissants. From scratch.) I love making new potatoes with garlic, and broccoli, but also use a lot of convenience foods. I do make a very nice Thanksgiving dinner, however.

And I can multitask like nobody's business. Take tonight.

It was not a usual dinner: I was not eating, the teenager was not home. Unlike, my usual practice in such cases, which is to say, "Guess you guys are on your own, aren't you?," I agreed to act as short order cook. My husband had spent the day tromping through mud and rain shooting imaginary bears*, my nine-year-old was recovering from being sick, and since I was making food for them I agreed to make the other pre-teen something. I told everyone I would make what they wanted for dinner.

Things went down something like this:

Place chicken patty in microwave, turn on. Put water and salt in pan for grits. Put skillet on burner, preheat for potstickers, add oil. Get eggs and two kinds of cheese out of fridge. Remove chicken patty from microwave, place on bread, place in toaster oven with slice of Tillamook sharp cheddar cheese -- set on "toast". Put frozen potstickers in skillet, cook for two minutes. Place omelette pan on burner, preheat. Add grits to boiling water. Add one cup water to potstickers, cover, set timer for eight minutes. Stir grits again. Add butter to omelette pan, beat eggs, season, pour into omelette pan. Plate chicken patty sandwich with yogurt. Stir grits. Add cheese -- shredded cheddar/jack blend (yes, I buy the big bags from Costco) and grated parmesan/asiago (no, I grate my own) -- to omelette. Stir grits. Flip & plate omelette. Plate grits next to omelette, with butter and cheese. Remove potstickers from heat. Plate, and explain to child that he really does need to eat something other than just potstickers for dinner -- maybe some yogurt?

All the while having a conversation with the nine-year-old about the fact that C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were contemporaries and friends.

Total elapsed time: 15 minutes. Okay, so it's convenience and comfort foods, but that's still not shabby. If I hadn't been making the potstickers, I could have done it in ten. And I can do similar feats with real food -- i.e., things with actual vitamin and mineral content.

And you know what? I could have done that with a camera rolling. I've never had to cook under the glare of the spotlights, but I have had to deal with "is it done yet?,""why can't we have tortellini?"(from one child), "but I don't like tortellini"(from another), "do we have to have meat sauce?," "you made what he liked last night, why can't you make what I like tonight?," "Ewwwww garlic," "it's not my night to do the dishes," "Hon, I have to leave in ten minutes," "it's not my night to clear the table," and the ever popular "can I make my own dinner?"

I am Mom. See me multitask.

*Seriously, he was running through the woods shooting imaginary bears; okay, pictures of imaginary bears. All as part of a USGS defense against wild animals course he is required to complete in order to do field work.