Weekly musings on the arts and current events.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Sands of Time

Paintings of the beach get no respect. After all, many are just two negative spaces joined by a line of foam. Some have bathers and strollers in them, but the summer sun precludes any close examination of faces. Besides, how much profundity can we expect in scenes of recreation during felicitous weather?

At this time of year, when I was a boy, I spent all my afternoons at the beach in Holland, Michigan. During any of those seasons I'm sure I logged more hours on the sand and in the water than in all my summers since college put together. What stops me from going to the beach? Fear of skin cancer? Modesty vis a vis attire? Time constraints?

No, it's lack of imagination. As a boy, I saw infinite possibilities for traversing the expanse of pale gold into the expanse of blue and then back again. Now I can only think of the diversion I may get from what I can comfortably carry: a book, a towel, a frisbee, lotion, and something to drink. Not even watching water nymphs can occupy me from lunch to supper the way bodysurfing, racing, breathholding contests, water judo, splash fights, and marking the shifting sandbars did when I was a kid.

I thought about all this while looking at Mary Cassatt's 1884 Children on the Beach. The little girl's patient industry for the task of filling up her pail reminds me that exploration and imagination are my favorite states of mind. I had them at the beach when I was a boy; I don't anymore.

Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

From Whence We Came

This week, the President signed into law a major financial markets reform bill and an extension of unemployment benefits. The news, however, was all about Shirley Sherrod, a woman whose reputation was attacked by a provocateur named Andrew Breitbart.

The story might never have broken in an earlier age, before the rumor mill was digitalized and newspapers still checked their facts. It also might not have happened when civility abode in Washington and partisan bounty hunters weren't desperate for peccadillos.

Overlooked in the dustup was the theme of Sherrod's speech, which was to encourage young black people to return to careers in agriculture. Racial attitudes can not only inhibit compassion but opportunity as well.

The crossfire isn't over. Some of Breitbart's allies claim that it is she who owes him an apology. It's all very sad, but perhaps we can gain some perspective from former poet laureate Billy Collins:

While Eating a Pear

After we have finished here,
the world will continue its quiet turning,
and the years will still transpire,
but now without their numbers,
and the days and months will pass
without the names of Norse and Roman gods.

Time will go by the way it did
before history, pure and unnoticed,
a mystery that arose between the sun and moon
before there was a word
for dawn or noon or midnight,

before there were names for the earth's
uncountable things,
when fruit hung anonymously
from scattered groves of trees,
light on one smooth green side,
shadow on the other.

Sugar Bowl Pears and Tablecloth, 1893-1894, by Paul Cezanne. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, July 17, 2010


In Russia this week, a fourteen month trial ended with the conviction of the curators of the "Forbidden Art" exhibit at the Andrei Sakahrov Museum. The charge against them, for which they were fined but not imprisoned, was "inciting religious hatred." In 2007, Yuri Samodurov and Andrei Yerofeyev gathered some twenty iconoclastic works that had been banned from other exhibitions over the previous year. The show was cleverly conceived, with a curtain hiding the works from viewers save for strategically placed peepholes.

The trial was chaotic, with demonstrations and counter-demonstrations. Admitted as evidence was an account of a woman's suicide, allegedly brought on by the distress she felt after seeing sacred images profaned. Various human rights organizations monitored the proceedings, and there were many worried blogs and editorials lamenting the new era of state censorship brought on since 1998, when former Soviet intelligence officers took control of the government.

More cynical commentators have observed that the works themselves are no more than a rehash of the Pop Art era, notable only for their notoriety. "Avant garde art needs the oxygen of scandal.” The religious right reliably, and unwittingly, played its part.

Two thoughts come to mind. First is the famous Nazi exhibit of "Degenerate Art" which was intended to ridicule the works of abstract and Jewish artists, but in fact augmented their fame.

The second is the curious criminal charge: "inciting religious hatred." Perhaps a translator could clarify for us whether this means hatred of, or hatred by, religious insitutions. Considering America's own experience with the vitriol of the over-faithful, and their dim view of freedom, I suspect it is the latter.

Jesus images by Alexander Kosolapov. These were actually part of a 2005 exhibit by the same curators. Orthodox goons, who invaded the gallery and defaced the paintings, were acquitted. Click on the pictures for a closer look.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

It Is For Us the Living...

The Three Soldiers statue was in the news this week. Its patina, which had turned bluish-green after years of weather and handling by visitors, has been restored. There are people who love this statue, but I am not one of them.

The Wall is the most visited memorial in Washington, DC., and perhaps the most revered. Its power lies in its understatement. I'm sure I don't have to describe it for you, but I can relate the experience of visiting.

I walked very slowly past its black marble face, discomfited by the sight of myself on the surface of the stone that bears the names of the fallen. I welcomed that discomfort. I wanted to be humbled for standing there, on a crisp Autumn day, while these fifty thousands could not. Presently, I began also to look at the reflections of the other visitors, not as a voyeur, but as a man joined to them by history, by pain, by love, and by that moment.

The Three Soldiers, as I recall, was sculpted at the behest of Ross Perot, some older Congressmen, and the notorious Secretary of the Interior, James Watt. These men could not conceive of a memorial that didn't make a positive statement about what had been America's most castigated war. They never imagined that a work of pure mourning, without the taint of politics, would have greater power to heal than a disingenuous depiction of valor and egalitarianism.

The Three Soldiers by Frederick Hart. The photo shows its position relative to The Wall. I recall its location as a kind of staging area for visitors before they lowered their voices and joined in the procession.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Beget a Temperance that may Give it Smoothness

Since retiring last spring, I've spent part of my unaccustomed leisure renting films. A few have been especially moving. They've probably never played in any American multiplexes, or been promoted in the papers, so I thought I'd share their titles and why I liked them.

Paris 36 (Belgium, 2008). Backstage fables are a staple--the show must go on!--and they still work. 36 refers to the year 1936; fascism is a a part of the landscape. The film is blessed with the very French sounding music of Reinhardt Wagner (What's in a name?), and with its leading lady, Nora Arnezeder, still a teenager and making her acting debut. We'll be seeing more of her, I'm sure.

Winter Solstice (US, 2004). An elegiac family and love story with Anthony LaPaglia and Allison Janey. He’s a widower with two boys, a landscape contractor, and she’s an out-of-work paralegal house-sitting down the street. I loved it and them.

The Italian (Russia, 2005). The title takes some explaining: a six year old orphan is due to be sent to adoptive parents in Italy. Such children have been a lucrative export for the Russian Republic. Instead he runs away to search for his birth mother. We know where the film is going, but how we get there is better than a surprise, it’s a life affirming parable.

Departures (Japan, 2008). Academy Award winner for foreign films last year. This movie is truly revelatory. Within a tale of a personal journey, it reorients our thoughts about death, and shows us how civility and compassion abide within Japanese rituals. If you see it, (and you must), let me know what you think.

Volver (Spain, 2006). To conclude on a high note, Penelope Cruz in a Pedro Almodovar film. Relating the plot would be misleading, for it is good natured and light hearted throughout, despite the gruesome events upon which the story is built. The word irresistible comes to mind, which happens to be exactly the same in English and in Spanish.

Looking back on this list, I find that all of these films deal gently with their characters, treat both their joys and their sorrows with dignity, and leave us with hope.

Production still of Masahiro Motoki from Departures,directed by Yojiro Takita, written by Kundo Koyama, based on the novel Coffinman by Shinmon Aoki.