Weekly musings on the arts and current events.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Snow Man

I've waited for a day like this, four thousand feet above the snow line, to feel the cold that I came to the mountains for. Fog wrapped my house from high on the slope to the valley beneath, swirled by a noisy wind. Then the flakes began to fall as though the fog had grown too cold to hover any longer. Color drained from the world leaving only shape to distinguish between pine needle and branch or sky and snowbank. Almost as a rite, I turned to Wallace Stevens' haunting poem The Snowman:

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

This poem has inspired long, (but not heated), debate about its meaning. Does it bemoan, (a most wintry word), the misery of winter, or does it say that there can be no suffering in emptiness? Or both? Or more?

My answer is this painting by Alexey Savrasov. The spare beauty of its winter scene, using hardly any color and no presence of life at all, is like the eloquence of tragedy, comforting us somehow with its dignity and timelessness.

Winter by Alexey Kondratyevich Savrasov, 1870. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Just Kids

This week I read Patti Smith's Just Kids. It's a memoir of when she and her lover, Robert Mapplethorpe, were starving and directionless artists in New York City. It's a remarkable book and I recommend it.

I don't wish to review it and I'm not prepared to write a consideration of either her music or his photographs. I just want to share a few impressions and some quotes.

When they met, they had not yet found their respective media. Both were filling up the walls of their various apartments and lofts with drawings while Robert made jewelry and dabbled in collages. At one point he stripped off a canvas and wrapped its stretcher with erotic pictures from gay men's magazines. It was only later that he took up photography with a borrowed Polaroid camera capable of little more than snapshots. He had a superb eye, but no interest in darkroom work.

Patti was a poet and an actress before she sang rock. As a child of the seventies, she was imbued with vague rebellion which she expresses in this passage about her developing band: "We imagined ourselves as the Sons of Liberty with a mission to preserve, protect, and project the revolutionary spirit of rock and roll. We feared that the music which had given us sustenance was in danger of spiritual starvation. We feared it losing its sense of purpose, we feared it falling into fattened hands..."

A fitting sentiment from the same person who praised Picasso because he: "…didn't crawl in a shell when his beloved Basque country was bombed. He reacted by creating a masterpiece in Guernica to remind us of the injustices committed against his people." Similarly, she rejected Andy Warhol: "His work reflected a culture I wanted to avoid. I hated the soup and felt little for the can. I preferred an artist who transformed his time, not mirrored it."

Quite naturally, the book presents far more of her interior than his, but in one late passage she migrates all the way into his soul: "He would be a smothering cloak, a velvet petal. It was not the thought but the shape of the thought that tormented him. It suspended above him, then mutely dropped, causing his heart to pound so hard, so irregularly, that his skin vibrated and he felt as if he were beneath a lurid mask, sensual yet suffocating."

Her elegy continues with words I wish I had written: "Finally, by the sea, where God is everywhere, I gradually calmed. I stood looking at the sky. The clouds were the colors of a Raphael. A wounded rose. I had the sensation he had painted it himself. You will see him. You will know him. You will know his hand. These words came to me and I knew I would one day see a sky drawn by Robert's hand."

"Two Tulips" (1984), and "Patti Smith" (1986) by Robert Mapplethorpe. Click on the pictures for closer looks.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Breaking Away

On the day Hosni Mubarak stepped down, I got to wondering about the Rosetta Stone: what does it actually say? Here's an excerpt:

Since King Ptolemy...being benevolently disposed towards the gods, has dedicated to the temples revenues in money and corn, and has undertaken much outlay to bring Egypt into prosperity, and to establish the temples, and has been generous with all his own means, and of the revenues and taxes which he receives from Egypt some (he) has wholly remitted and others has lightened, in order that the people and all the rest might be in prosperity during his reign ...It seemed good to the priests of all the temples in the land to increase greatly the existing honors of king Ptolemy, the everliving ...

It is, in short, a decree to deify the Pharoah, Ptolemy V. In an earlier time, the Pharoah would have issued such a decree himself and not needed the endorsement of the priesthood. But since the age of the pyramids, Egypt and its Pharoahs had been conquered and reconquered by, among others, Persia (Iran), and Hellenized Macedon under Alexander the Great. Hence Ptolemy V was a Greek and that's why the Rosetta Stone bears a Greek translation of its ancient and demotic Egyptian texts. And hence, the decree extols Ptolemy for cutting taxes, a nod to the good opinions of those he governed.

Actually, Ptolemy V was just a child when he became Pharoah, and probably knew little of what was done in his name. Real power in Egypt was seized by the general Tlepolemus and his army.

Egypt may soon have an opportunity to install a freely elected leader for the first time in its five and a half thousand year history. Selection of that leader will determine with whom modern Egypt will ally itself: Iran and the Islamists in the East; or the democracies of the North and West. But all this depends on whether Egypt truly breaks from its past and establishes civilian control of its army.

Ptolemy V Epiphanes offering the spiritual inward eyes to the first Pharoah/God, Horus. These eyes represent the sun and moon. The Eye of Horus can also be seen on the back of our dollar bills, floating above a pyramid. This relief, along with the Rosetta Stone and many other Egyptian antiquities, is now in the British Museum. Egypt has sought to repatriate the stone and other artifacts of its glorious past. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Contemporary Realism

A man in an ill fitting Superman suit sits deep in thought amid the trappings of a Valentine's Day party, or perhaps a Las Vegas style review. He is lit from two directions: hot artificial light strikes him from within the room, and gray-dawn from the window. He lacks the musculature, the virility, the confidence, or the hair of a surrogate superhero. His shadow of a beard, his wrinkled costume, his folded hands, and his fatigue suggest that this masquerade has gone on too long.

Superheros were born in the 1930's as a reaction to the frustration and impotence of the Great Depression. They were wholesome figures then, but their incarnations today seem to have a darkside and to be familiar with despair.

This week marks the one hundredth birthday of Ronald Reagan. It also marks the destabilization of Egypt, an American ally. The Obama administration lagged about a day behind events before calling for Hosni Mubarak's removal. The truth is, we are helpless to chart a course there because we are unsure of our welcome. Unlike Reagan standing at the Berlin Wall, there are no easy adversaries for us to denounce, no crowds cheering us on, and no mission for a Superman.

Reagan's legend has grown since his passing. Not only are his mental lapses forgotten, but his willingness to compromise and to raise taxes have been wiped clean from his popular perception. It's not important; there is no harm in remembering him fondly. But we should not so mythologize him, (or Teddy Roosevelt, for that matter), that we blind ourselves to the nuances and paradoxes of our own time.

Untitled (Superman); Steven Assael, 2006. Click on the picture for a closer look.