Weekly musings on the arts and current events.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Winter Light

On paper, it's spring, but we've had snow off and on for a week. No complaint. The transformation of the landscape that I see upon awakening after a night of snowfall is magic, pure and simple. I can no longer ski, so shoveling has become my winter sport of choice. Again, no complaint.

George Wesley Bellows is associated with The Ashcan School of early twentieth century American art. He painted street urchins, derelicts, and teeming slums. I suppose his signature works are his dark paintings of long-limbed prize fighters, battling before louche crowds in smokey air. But there was another side to him--perhaps several other sides. He left the grit of New York City to live in Woodstock where he got back to nature and painted landscapes.

In Love of Winter, the realist turns impressionist. Bellows again depicts a large crowd of people, but out in the open, skating a frozen river beneath blue mountains, and not jammed into a tenement. Their faces are blanks; indeed only two seem to have eyes. But there's energy in their body language, and I don't think it's a stretch to say that some recall to us the sinewy strength of Bellows' boxers.

I don't know the back story. Why are they all skating in the same direction? Are they heading to a winter gathering, where a bonfire and hot chocolate await? Is there a set route for them, like that of a marathon? Or is the artist, a socialist, telling us that in this healthy and natural setting, the progress of humanity is united as opposed to the conflict and chaos of the cities?

Perhaps it's best not to speculate too much. I've done my shoveling for the day.

Love of Winter by George Wesley Bellows, 1914. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Let Us Now Praise Famous Women

This weekend is Purim, the raucous celebration of the deliverance of the Jews from Persian slaughter in Biblical times. The story begins with King Ahasuerus reasserting male dominion over women throughout his vast kingdom, and in his own palace, by issuing a decree and by banishing his recalcitrant queen, Vashti.

The heroine of the tale is Esther, his new queen who hides her Jewish identity. When her people are threatened with genocide, she bravely intervenes. This entails approaching the king unbidden, an act that could cost her life.

The rest you should read for yourself because it's a well constructed short story until the last two chapters where there are textual problems: contradictions, repetitions, and a shift from a celebratory tone ("The Jews had light, and gladness, and joy, and honor") to a vindictive one ("...the other Jews...slew of their foes seventy and five thousand...").

The painting is by another heroine, Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1656?). She was one of the first woman painters to achieve fame and acceptance in her own time. However, she suffered rape and torture along the way, and was generally deprived of the more lucrative commissions despite her acknowledged skill. Artemisia is a great favorite of feminist art critics, not least because of her many depictions of strong women in conflict with men.

I like this painting because Artemisia has internalized the story. While it is true that Esther makes herself beautiful before approaching the king, it's also true that she fasts for three days beforehand. In Artemisia's interpretation, Esther does not just prostrate herself before the king, but swoons, no doubt from hunger and fear. Her attendants support her tenderly, bound to their queen in sisterhood.

The king is shown as young and handsome. His sympathy is aroused, not his lust. He rises from his throne. Artemisia omits the golden sceptre that he extended for Esther to touch. He is not a frightening figure; she might even love this man. Esther's fear is for her people, rather than for her own life.

Feminist, but still romantic.

Ester e Assuero by Artemisia Gentileschi; ca. 1621-1630. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Vehicle of Suffering

I have a vague memory of sitting at the feet of a very old black man at the YMCA long ago to listen to his memories of the previous century when he was born into slavery somewhere in the deep south. He was bald, wrinkled, and tiny, but his eyes were alert and his sense of humor had not been diminished by the years. That's all I can remember; none of his stories have abided in me. The fault is mine.

We don't know anyone who remembers anyone at the giving of the tablets at Sinai or at the Crucifixion on Golgotha. We've never looked into the eyes of a single Concord Bridge or Gettysburg veteran. And a week ago, the last of World War I's doughboys passed away. The memory of that terrible war has receded toward the horizon.

As a teacher I observed a sea change among students. Whereas I grew up longing to embrace history, feeling warmed by every sign that the past was still alive--the occasional horse drawn wagon on the streets of Chicago, the intact village of Salem, Illinois where Abraham Lincoln was a store clerk, the German Luger that my uncle took from a Nazi officer after the surrender--my students condescend to previous ages because of their primitive technology and quaint values.

We know why we need to study the past. History provides context without which nothing makes sense. And today, with revolution sweeping the Middle East, with Japan reeling from both natural and man-made disasters, with the long, proud history of American organized labor heading for the ash can, and with little but clamor to chart the course of our economy, context is very precious indeed.

WW I Ambulance, illustration by Elisa Chavarri for Michigan History Magazine, 2008. The late Corporal Buckles drove one of these. It's hard to paint war effectively. Here the artist uses restrained color and uncluttered composition to contextualize rather than dramatize this vehicle of suffering. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

No posting this week.

Please come back next week.