Weekly musings on the arts and current events.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

"Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know"

Until the word "serenely", Lord Byron's poem seems to prophesy Amy Winehouse. Perhaps the last eight lines are also apt, if we read them as what lies beneath her shadows. Certainly Amy and her art present a nocturnal beauty.

She was a flawed creature who thought herself ugly and who wrote "You Know I'm No Good." She was wrong.

She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies,
And all that's best of dark and bright
Meets in her aspect and her eyes;
Thus mellow'd to that tender light
Which Heaven to gaudy day denies.

One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impair'd the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress
Or softly lightens o'er her face,
Where thoughts serenely sweet express
How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.

And on that cheek and o'er that brow
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,—
A mind at peace with all below,
A heart whose love is innocent.


Amy Winehouse (1983-2011) left us two distinct and impeccably produced albums, with a dozen or more songs yet to be released.

Girl Smoking by Wilhelm Sasnal, 2001. Sasnal is a realist not in the way he paints, but because he only paints what he has seen. When I came across this, I spent a long time studying her shocks of hair and the defiant turn of her neck. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Weakness of Solidarity

Among the more memorable things that President Ronald Reagan said is his Eleventh Commandment: "Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican." The irony is that he didn't need to say it because the GOP has long been loathe to air its laundry in public.

Their solidarity has not always served them well. George W. Bush received near unanimous party support as he cut taxes while waging a war of choice. Since then, many have regretted that more Republican voices weren't raised in challenge.

In the current debt-limit crisis, which most of us are thoroughly sick of, Republicans are again presenting a solid front. However, it's only a front. Behind the scenes, we are told, Speaker Boehner is warding off a challenge to his leadership by Congressman Cantor. His walking out of negotiations with the president makes us wonder if he isn't afraid that he can't deliver his caucus once a deal is reached.

Senior Republicans, especially in the Senate, are prepared to reach an accommodation with the Democrats over tax increases but are being shouted down by Tea Party members, mostly freshmen Congressmen, who are implacably opposed. And all the while, declared GOP presidential candidates are contributing no visible leadership on this issue. I suggest that the Republican party is not so much solidified as stalemated from within.

Is it a stretch to say that the Republicans are paying a price for cozying with the Religious Right? The party that should be the wellspring of economic wisdom and legislative prudence is now in the thrall of people whose economic convictions are as dogmatic as their ideas about abortion, creation, climate change, and the rights of gays.

I've often said that if America had a truly conservative party, I'd join it. But right now, I remain a social liberal/fiscal conservative without a home.

Perhaps the last generally admired Republican to occupy the oval office was Theodore Roosevelt. But as a trust-buster and an ardent conservationist, he might not have been a Republican today. Here is a campaign poster from 1900 that is marvellously detailed except that it neglects to identify the candidates. TR ran as the progressive William McKinley's new pick to be vice-president. McKinley was assassinated in 1901 by an anarchist. Click on the picture for a closer look and note the "bug" at the bottom of the page indicating that the poster was printed in a union shop.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Beaux Arts

In Lyon, across from the Musée des Beaux Arts, stands this fountain by Frederic Bartholdi. If his name rings a bell, it's because he sculpted the Statue of Liberty. It depicts France as a woman riding a chariot and driving four hard charging horses. They represent the four great rivers that flow through the nation, which are, I think, the Seine, Rhone, Garonne, and Loire, but I'm just a tourist and a wine drinker.

The picture doesn’t do the whole setting justice, for next to it are some outdoor cafes that sprawl out onto the square. The fountain is passionate and alive with its horses galloping amid powerful water sprays, while the people sit leisurely drinking their boissons and reading or chatting, either with each other or on their cell phones.

Since my return to America, I've heard nothing but debate about government budgets. Not only is Washington stalemated, but nearly every state is in crisis. Minnesota just reopened its government after shutting down altogether. Here in California, seventy state parks are going to be closed, leaving them vulnerable to irreversible damages and losses. For it is a sad fact of American life that public art and open spaces are invitations to vandalism: the revenge of the weak upon the society they despise and that despises them.

No one builds fountains like this anymore. Indeed, resources for all civic amenities are drying up, and opportunities to wile away time in a public place, with ease, beauty, and grace, are fast disappearing.

La Fontaine Bartholdi, 1889. Click on the picture for a closer look, and see if you can find where he engraved his name.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Notre Dame

Watching the Tour De France these day brings back my own just concluded bicycle trip in France, past similar beige colored stone buildings in immaculate little wine villages in Burgundy. It was a wonderful vacation, although I almost wish I hadn't extended it for three days in Paris. This is the high season which means a large share of the twenty six million tourists who visit Paris each year were ahead of me in line at every museum and historic site I wanted to see. Next time I go to the Louvre or the Musee d'Orsay, it better be raining.

I did manage to brave the crowds at Notre Dame Cathedral. After the wait, I'd hoped at least one chapel would be set aside for meditation, but the church actually isn't big enough to afford that.

Notre Dame is not only a great example of Gothic architecture, but the site of many historic events, including the crowning of Napoleon. One of my favorite stories, however, is the elimination of vicious wolves that plagued Parisians in 1450. The pack was lured to the square in front of the church and then attacked with rocks and spears.

Inside, the rich color saturation of the stained glass windows is the highlight and I have some pictures of them. But I can't resist posting this snap of Saint Denis from the Western facade. I first thought it was John the Baptist, but the shepherd's staff prompted me to dig a little deeper: Saint Denis' mission, when he was martyred in the third century, was to expand the Church's flock. Legend has it that he walked about after being decapitated, preaching a sermon. Saint Denis is one of Paris' patron saints, a fact that is sadly ironic considering its notoriety for beheading people during the French Revolution in, another irony, the Place de la Concorde.

In art, the word for depicting headless saints and the like is cephalaphore. Notice that the sculptor put Saint Denis' halo where his head used to be, not where it is now. One final note, Saint Denis is invoked to cure headaches.

Click on the picture for a closer look.