Weekly musings on the arts and current events.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Morbid Fascination

At this time of year, we blow the dust off memento mori, rewatch gruesome horror movies, and encourage children to disguise themselves as creatures of the dark. Halloween and El Dia de los Muertos make light of death, the former with candy to avert diabolical mischief, the latter with picnics and pi┼łatas amid gravestones.

Are we fortifying ourselves against fear, or simply whistling past the graveyard? Have we liberated our imaginations, or merely suppressed our darkest dreams with foolery?

William Blake engraved his elaborate and haunting visions which later inspired surrealist artists and mystical poets as well as psychologists, like Freud and Jung, when they probed the unconscious and mapped the symbols of dreams. His works were fervid, but today they remind us of nothing so much as the lurid art of graphic novels and tattoo parlors.

Pestilence:Death of the Firstborn, 1805. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Lifting the Fog

The widely anticipated retaking of Congress by Republicans has given me hope that finally there will be some clarity on the American political landscape. Divisions among Democrats and Republicans, and among Republicans and Republicans, have left us all in a fog.

We have seen President Obama's popularity diminish precipitously, but there's no consensus as to why. He's roundly criticized by voices from both left and right.

Conservatives call for repeal of his two signal accomplishments, Health Care and Financial Reform, before most Americans have comprehended their provisions or felt their effects.

Liberals feel betrayed by his not ending the wars or unemployment, by his inaction on such issues as immigration reform and gay rights, and now by his Attorney General's stated opposition to California's marijuana initiative.

Come January, there may be upwards of a hundred freshmen representatives, passionately committed to shrinking government expenditures and eliminating the deficit without raising anybody's taxes. A teachable moment awaits us all when they finally have to pass a budget.

In 1994, the Republicans took control of both the House and the Senate thereby ceding the middle ground to President Bill Clinton. His administration, and the American economy, thrived, while the GOP redefined itself for the next fourteen years by its social agenda rather than by its governing principles.

It's my hope that President Obama will similarly seize the middle, standing up against far right excesses while holding the far left at bay. Perhaps then we'll see a grudging truce in our pitched battle of partisans, and the fog will lift.

The Boston Tea Party, a hand-colored lithograph from the shop of Currier and Ives, 1847(?) This depiction is inaccurate as the raid happened in the evening. The Mohawk disguises were probably less elaborate and only worn by a few. The popular understandings of why the Tea Party occurred, Sam Adams' exact role in leading it, and the way it was received by incipient revolutionary leaders, are all subjects of historical revisionism. We also don't know who drew this picture, but click on it for a closer look.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Mystery and Passion

So much about romance is paradoxical. We probe the mystery of the other, and yet we want that other, along with parts of ourselves, to remain mysterious. It's as if knowing imperils passion.

Consider this poem and this painting together: do they agree, do they contradict, or do they do both?

Womanisers by John Press (1920-2007)

Adulterers and customers of whores

And cunning takers of virginities

Caper from bed to bed, but not because

The flesh is pricked to infidielities.

The body is content with homely fare;

It is the avid, curious mind that craves

New pungent sauce and strips the larder bare,

The palate and not hunger that enslaves.

Don Juan never was a sensualist:

Scheming fresh triumphs, artful, wary, tense,

He took no pleaure in the breasts he kissed

But gorged his ravenous mind and starved each sense.

An itching, tainted intellectual pride

Goads the salt lecher till he has to know

Whether all women's eyes grow bright and wide,

All wives and whores and virgins shudder so.

Hunters of women burn to show their skill,

Yet when the panting quarry has been caught

Mere force of habit drives them to the kill:

The soft flesh is less savoury than their sport.

The Lovers by Rene Magritte, 1928. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Three Bathtubs

The story goes that Cecil B. DeMille and W.C. Fields were neighbors. DeMille lived at the summit of DeMille Drive in the Los Feliz area of Los Angeles. Fields' home was just below, connected by a path that was seldom used since they hated each other.

During World War II, DeMille was a Volunteer Air Raid Warden. He had an official white helmet, flashlight, and first aid kit, and he'd scurry about his mansion turning off lights and draping windows during blackout drills. Please recall that Angelenos lived in fear of a Pearl Harbor type attack in those days.

One night, his home all secure, he looked down the hill to see Fields' house lit up like a Chinese lantern. Furiously he stomped down the path and rapped on the door with his nightstick. Fields, who lived alone, came to the door.

"I'm Cecil DeMille and this is a blackout!"

"A what?"

"A blackout. Turn off all your lights, close your windows, and fill your tub with emergency water."

"DeMille, can't we have a blackout without one of your bathtub scenes?"

I thought of this story first when I tried out my Jacuzzi tub, and again when I came across this painting by Albert Stevens. He was a remarkable artist who painted elegant, bored Parisian women. Many find a social criticism in his art of a male dominated society that relegated such ladies to trivial, unchallenging lives. Perhaps, but I can't muster much sympathy for a class that has too little to do. Rather, I see in their faces deep mystery and sexual longing, that beckons me to join them in their woolgathering.
Le Bain, Albert Stevens, 1892. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Sunrise, Sunset

My new home in the mountains has an eastern view, and because I am a morning person, I've lately been musing about sunrises. I wondered why they seem to happen more quickly than sunsets. This led me to collect and to form some thoughts about sunrises and sunsets.

• Look, love, what envious streaks
Do lace the severing clouds in yonder east:
Night's candles are burnt out, and the jocund day
Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops. (Romeo and Juliet, III:v)

• At sunrise or sunset, sunlight takes a much longer path through the atmosphere than during the middle part of the day. Because an increased amount of violet and blue light is scattered out of the beam along the way, the light which reaches an observer early or late in the day is reddened. Thus, it could be said that sunsets are red because the daytime sky is blue.
(Stephen F.Corfidi, NOAA/NWS Storm Prediction Center)

• "...before the sun rises, the night sky above us is cold, since the sun hasn't heated it yet, whereas at the end of the day, the atmosphere has been heated by the sun. A hot atmosphere will cause the sun's rays to bend further, and thus we can still see the sun long after it has actually passed below the horizon. When the sun is rising, we don't see it until it actually rises above the eastern horizon." (anonymous web posting)

• Perhaps sunsets last longer because the dust in the atmosphere, which refracts the light, is being pulled after us into the night side of the planet. (TallTchr)

• Filmmakers call the hour before the sun starts to set "magic hour". The light has a warm, golden hue with no glare at all, and shadows are at their longest, giving the landscape a soft, dappled texture. This time is much prized for filming romantic scenes whose languor is in contrast to the off screen frenzy to wrap the scene before the window closes. (ibid)

J.M.W. Turner: Sunrise With Sea Monsters, 1845 (unfinished). Gertrude Stein, no fan of nature, once wrote that she'd rather look at a painting of a sunset by Turner than at an actual sunset. Possibly she meant that the artist can include the play of his imaginings, as he appears to be doing here. But I don't agree with Stein, and I'm not sure Turner would have, either, for I have imaginings, too, when I look at the sky and the sea, and I'd never want to be cut off from their source. By the way, Turner's last words were: "The sun is God."

Click on the picture for a closer look.