Weekly musings on the arts and current events.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Another Start

Before the Beatles, I had the typical American notion that the British were hidebound traditionalists. Sir Alfred James Munnings (1878-1959) might well have been a case in point. As president of the Royal Academy of Art, he famously, and perhaps drunkenly, took to the airwaves to denounce Cezanne, Matisse, and Picasso for corrupting art. He went on to claim this expurgated exchange with Sir Winston Churchill: "Alfred, if you met Picasso coming down the street would you join with me in kicking his... something something?" to which Munnings said he replied "Yes Sir, I would".

Munnings painted horses, dogs and Gypsies, and his works bring serious money at auctions. Some of his scenes border on kitsch: Mare and Foal in a Field of Buttercups. But others remind us that no subject, however many times it's been painted, can't be seen anew.

This painting depicts the start of a race on turf at Newmarket. As someone newly retired, I am drawn to it because of the hazy, empty space that awaits the horses and riders. The future is neither foreboding nor especially promising, but it is inviting. And the grace with which the horses and riders prepare themselves is inspiring.

The Start, Newmarket. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, March 20, 2010


The cartoon cel shown here is of Mammy Two Shoes, a recurring character from the Tom and Jerry series. Her appearances have been mostly edited out of current versions, replaced by a skinny white maid. She was based on Academy Award winning actress Hattie McDaniel who played Mammy in Gone With the Wind (1939). At the time of her Oscar, the NAACP was critical of Hattie, saying she perpetuated the stereotype of the happy black menial. Some even called her a "handkerchief head". However, when Mo'Nique won her Oscar last week, she paid tribute to Hattie McDaniel, the first black actress ever to attend the Oscars, much less win one. Mo'Nique has a film in development of McDaniel's life.

Another story in the news last week was renewed criticism of the Charlie Chan movies occasioned by the reissue of a forty two year old documentary on this controversy. Asian groups have rightly objected to the fact that the detective was always played by white actors. Less persuasively, they have denounced Charlie as a racial stereotype: "an inscrutable Oriental." I think he is a richer character than that, holding his own among Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, or Columbo.

Instances of historic racial insensitivity are often easier to condemn than to understand. For example, The Jazz Singer (1927) has an odious minstrel sequence with Jolson in blackface. However, we should also note that Jolson's father, Cantor Rabinowitz, was played by Swedish actor Warner Oland.

There are two racial issues here. First is discrimination in hiring or crediting of minority talent. Second is the image of minorities as depicted in films of their day. Ironically, Hollywood was often guilty of lauding a given group while denying members of that group a chance to work. Oland went on to play Charlie Chan (1931-1937). Did the producers count themselves liberal by casting a Swede as both a pious Jew and a brilliant Chinese? Or did it never cross their minds? As for Hattie McDaniel, when film work stopped coming her way, she took over the radio role of "Beulah" from a white man and memorably said, "I'd rather play a maid than be one."

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Jihad Jane

A sad little woman from Pennsylvania, who plucked out her eyebrows and penciled in new ones, took a trip to Holland that changed her life. She met a Muslim gentleman who offered her unaccustomed respect. She converted to Islam.
After all her disappointments and bereavements, her failed suicide attempt, and the burden of caring for her elderly mother, she found meaning for her life in violent jihad.
Often the internet frightens me. It reveals too many secrets and fantasies. I'd prefer not to know how much hatred resides in the hearts of strangers. Jihad Jane, aka Fatima LaRose, existed on the web, but Colleen R. LaRose went to Europe to commit murder.
As a teenager, Colleen had been briefly married to an older man. When asked what he remembered about her, he replied: "Nothing. There wasn't nothing to remember."
Picasso's Seated Bather. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Taming the Serpent

This portrait of Elizabeth I by an unknown artist has changed over time. Deterioration of the strange looking bouquet in her hand has revealed that the portraitist originally intended that she be seen holding a snake. The symbolism of such a curious prop has been lost to us. Some think the snake was an emblem of wisdom and judgment. Others remind us that in Christian tradition the serpent is associated with Satan, which may have been sufficiently alarming to Her Majesty that she, or one of her minions, commanded that it be painted over.

It's a mystery. What did the artist intend, and why was his vision countermanded?

I suggest a Freudian interpretation. The snake may have been intended as a phallic symbol, and her holding it proved that she was not lacking in the potency we generally ascribe to men. It was like the way ancient Egyptian queens were depicted with beards. Of course, one Egyptian queen died while holding a snake. Furthermore, to those with debased minds, Bess fondling such an exotic pet might be construed as an improper interest in things masculine. And so a retreat was made to something more feminine: a bouquet of ugly flowers.

Here's a contemporary artist's rendering of what the orginal detail might have looked like.

I'm still working on the significance of the queen's five o'clock shadow.

Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I; 1580-1590's. Click on the pictures for closer looks.