Monday, September 18, 2017

Collaborating With the Dead




Early this month, The New Yorker published an article entitled, “The Complicated Backstory To a New Children’s Book by Mark Twain.” The book in question has the rather unwieldy—but very 19th century—title, The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine (c.1879). Now before you get too excited, expecting something along the lines of Tom Sawyer or The Prince and the Pauper, here are the facts: sixteen pages of notes were unearthed by a scholar at the Bancroft Library in Berkeley, notes which were not a finished story but a mere outline of a tale Twain used to entertain his daughters. Worse yet, the outline was unfinished. The scholar who uncovered it, John Bird, stood face-to-face with the find of a career. But what should he do with it? Publish it as is, perhaps in a journal article with contextual notes about the circumstances of its composition, its relation to other stories in his canon, etc.? Or actually complete and flesh out the sketch, so that everyone could enjoy a forgotten piece of the Twain puzzle—incomplete and insubstantial though it is? 

Friday, September 15, 2017

Download Two Kindle Books for the Price of None!


My two novels, The Dark Backward and The Winged Turban are free to download today (Friday) for all Kindles or with a free Kindle app. The links and blurbs for each book follow...

The Dark Backward: "A cynical thief has to apprentice herself to a sly magician, but the thief doesn't believe in magic...and the magician is already dead." https://www.amazon.com/Dark-Backward-Joshua-Grasso-ebook/dp/B0756526L5/ref=pd_sim_351_1?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1&refRID=VH9EY825B43YZE51B0R3

The Winged Turban: "The young Countess of Cinquefoil is haunted by a painting of a strange woman in a turban: the former mistress of the house? Or her own self-portrait lost for two hundred years?"  https://www.amazon.com/Winged-Turban-Joshua-Grasso-ebook/dp/B015DQEHMW/ref=pd_sim_351_4?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1&refRID=EJ3J5FZC2N8GHXF52S8C

Sunday, September 3, 2017

The Myth of Posterity




In 1945, the great Finnish composer Jean Sibelius prepared a major bonfire of several of his unpublished works, including his still-incomplete Eighth Symphony (which he had promised to a variety of American orchestras for well over a decade). It was a major loss for music, since Sibelius remains one of the most innovative 20th century composers and symphonists. However, some sketches and possibly even a complete score of the Eighth remained—glimpsed by some—on his bookshelf. But he consigned this to secrecy and made his family promise never to release it to the public. He died in 1957, and no mention of the symphony or any subsequent material appeared, despite repeated requests to his estate. Some rumored that at the turn of the 21st century new works would materialize, but other than some found sketches among his published papers and notes, no discovery was forthcoming. Today we only have 3 minutes of music that may have been intended for the Eighth Symphony. 

Monday, August 28, 2017

Download My New Fantasy Novel from Amazon: The Dark Backward


I just released my fourth fantasy novel, The Dark Backward, as a Kindle e-book on Amazon (sorry, no print yet) for 99 cents. I like to call my novels the fantasy novels that Jane Austen would have written if she had lived long enough to read Tolkein and Rowling (and maybe Lovecraft, as well). I try to combine period detail (the 17th/18th centuries) with classic fantasy often verging on the pulp--I love stories of enchanted books, bottomless chests, and wizards from other worlds and dimensions. Silly stuff, but if you treat it properly--and aren't afraid to laugh at yourself--it sort of works. Maybe? 

Though this is my fourth novel, it's not the fourth in a series, but is set in the same world as my other three books, and shares one of the main characters--the wise, yet duplicious sorcerer, Hildigrim Blackbeard, whose ambitions always get the best of him (and those who trust him). It's a loose sequel to my first book, The Count of the Living Death, as it showcases the two main characters, Leopold and Mary, much later in life, though you certainly don't need to read the earlier book to read or appreciate this one.

You can find the novel here, along with a brief synopsis and 7 sample chapters: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0756526L5/ref=la_B00FQLZER2_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1503975241&sr=1-4

Remember that even if you don't have a Kindle, you can download a free Kindle reading app for your phone or computer. If you read it, please leave a review, even the most cursory one, since the more reviews, the more traction my novel gets. Thanks for checking it out! 

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Authors and Writers: One and the Same?


When I first started teaching in 2000, I didn’t have the foggiest idea how to do the very thing I was being paid to do: teach college-level writing. It was my first year of graduate school, and as part of my assistantship, I had to teach two classes a semester, for which I would be paid a small stipend—enough to keep me alive until next semester. Being ambitious and curious, I opted to teach two sections of non-native composition, meaning the students had all come from other countries (in this university, mostly South America and the Middle East) and had a fair command of the language. I vividly recall the first day of teaching...once I mustered up the strength to ascend the stairs to the third floor and actually enter the classroom, I met a sea of faces who stared back at me with equal trepidation. Somehow, I muddled through, reading the syllabus, taking roll, offering some insights for how to do well in the course. By the time it ended, I felt elated, relieved, confused, excited; after all, now I was a teacher! Or was I? 

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Original Grimdark: King Harald’s Saga


Fantasy literature uses the word “saga” quite liberally, as if any story with wizards and battles qualifies. Yet sagas refer properly to the old Icelandic sagas, a vast collection of histories, tales, and legends dutifully recorded by Medieval scholars and poets. Though most of these writers saw themselves as writing factual accounts of the heroic past, they were quite willing to stretch the truth when necessary; thus the legendary King Harald of Norway becomes almost eight feet tall, and can rush into a battle without shield or armor and hack down a horde of foes unscathed. It certainly sounds better than what must have been the still remarkable, but far more mundane reality. Not surprisingly, given the fuzzy distinction between truth and reality, Icelandic sagas touch on a number of modern genres: history, fantasy, romance, folklore, even horror—it’s all here, written in succinct yet extremely colorful language. 

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Learning to Re-Read the Novel


In Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), often considered the first English novel (as we now define the term), the book opens with the words “I was born in the Year 1632, in the City of York, of a good Family...” and ends some two-hundred pages later without a single chapter break or exchange of dialogue. Though one of the most influential books written in English, everything about it now seems hopelessly old-fashioned and a tedious chore for the modern reader (weaned on YA lit, especially) to wade through. For this reason it appears less and less frequently on college syllabi, and not at all in the high school classroom, where it was once enjoyed a popularity similar to—and perhaps even rivaling—Harry Potter. 

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Framing Life in Art: Posy Simmonds’ Gemma Bovery (1999)


Gemma Bovery is one of my favorite graphic novels--and indeed, novels period--and I've read it a good 4-5 times now. It gets better every time. It's also a work that truly benefits from the comic book form, even though it is a highly 'literary' work, where you have to do a fair amount of reading. Yet words and pictures are closely allied, and make for a rich, complex reading experience. 

The book loosely follows the general plot of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1856), though acquaintance with the novel is not necessary to appreciate Simmonds’s story.  The novel opens in the French town of Bailleville (in Normandy), where the local baker, Raymond Joubert, consoles Charles Bovery, still mourning the death of his wife.  Raymond admits to the reader that “the blood of Gemma Bovery is on my hands” (2), and jumps at the chance to snatch her recently discovered diaries, which Charles has been too distraught to examine.  Spiriting them away one by one, Raymond fills in the gaps of the tragic story he both witnessed and played a significant role in creating. 

Sunday, July 23, 2017

A Subjective List: Top 25 Favorite Novels (or Short Story Collections)


At some point, you need to take stock of the works that have shaped not only your writing but your reading career: the books that, through sheer identification of re-reading have entered your literary DNA, and shape all your aesthetic choices about a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ book. I’ve spent a good chunk of my life reading, probably more than doing any other activity—eating included, since I often eat with a book in hand (doesn’t reading intensify the thrill of eating? Just me?). So I thought I would subjectively make a list of the books that have stayed with me the most over the years, all of which I’ve read more than once, and a few cases, up to 6 or 7 times. Naturally, this is a subjective list and doesn’t pretend to be universal or persuasive. In fact, it’s severely limited in many respects, being largely Western (and very English), and showcasing more men than women. You might not agree with a single book on my list, but this list reflects my reading journey from ages 16 to 43, and as a teacher, the works I most often return to in my own classes.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Dream of our Past: Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (2014)




Toward the end of Emily St. John Mandel’s post-apocalyptic, literary science fiction novel, Station Eleven, several characters contemplate whether or not to teach their children about the world before...the one that had electricity, planes, phones, computers, and convenience. They now live in a world of tiny, isolated towns hiding from feral children and insane prophets. Yet the old world remains all around them, silently watching as if the right word could spirit them back to life. But there is no word, and apparently, no way to conjure up the world that only twenty-odd years ago shaped their lives and dreams. Yet the children of ‘today’ are haunted by the shapes of yesteryear, which even their parents still inhabit in a haunted, hollowed fashion. As one of the characters remarks, “Does it still make sense to teach kids about the way things were?” (269).

Monday, July 17, 2017

Why College Matters--a Note to the Naysayers

There have been a lot of arguments lately about how college is bad for the US, how education is "dangerous," and how young people (and older people) feel betrayed by it. Many ask, why go to college if you're learning useless, old, irrelevant information that doesn't even guarantee you a job and drowns you in debt? Some even accuse colleges of 'brain washing' young minds with liberal dogma and trying to play Petruchio to their Kate (a Shakespeare reference--courtesy of your local English dept). Basically, in The Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio 'tames' his prospective bride, Kate, by making her claim that the sun is the moon, that black is white, etc. So many detractors of higher education would say that we're doing much the same--teaching students that black lives matter, or that we live in a heliocentric system, or that Shakespeare had homoerotic tendencies and/or relationships (you know, things that everyone knows aren't true!) :)  But the bottom line for many critics is this: college simply doesn't pay off in the "real world" or break down into a tangible return investment for the time and money spent. 
To me, college is a lot like traveling to foreign countries: it doesn't magically make you cultured to visit France. You don't learn the language simply by eating a baguette--even from an authentic boulangerie. Going to Africa won't make you 'multicultural', and circumnavigating the world won't make you Magellan. It's what you do in your travels--what you see, experience, learn, and interact with that makes something happen. Blaming college for not 'working' is like blaming Spain for not making you a flamenco dancer after a two-night stay. In short, college is a lifelong investment, not something that 'pays off' in the weeks and months following graduation. 
Indeed, college is a beginning, not an end. It won't necessarily get you a job, but it will prepare you to get a job (and possibly, give you the skills to adapt to it--and thus, keep it). Yes, college is too expensive and yes, the curriculum has problems, but that's more an issue with how colleges are regulated by outside forces (which seem hellbent on making it toothless). All I can say is that college saved my life: I was a shiftless, unmotivated high school student with no plans to do anything but work at a local bookstore. College gave me ideas, purpose, resolution, and direction. It didn't magically give me a job or a paycheck, but it began to teach me why things mattered, and unveiled so many mysteries which I had simply taken for granted.
If you look at college and just see classes, fees, and requirements, then okay, maybe college is a roadblock. But if you look deeper and see that each class represents hundreds if not thousands of years of thought, discipline, and collaboration, you can never dismiss it so lightly or assume that it has nothing to teach you--or that it can do without you, either. College grows stronger by everyone contributing to it, so it gives more back to every single student. But if you sleepwalk through classes and expect to learn by osmosis, then you learn nothing, and the engine of higher education fails. It really is collaborative and requires active participation. It's not a 'pay to play' proposition (though yes, it should cost a lot less money--or ideally, be free). Giving up on higher education (and on education in general) is cultural suicide. No culture in history has abandoned its cultural wealth and knowledge and prospered. I doubt we'll be the first. 

Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Mysterious, Intimate World of Vermeer


The Dutch master, Johannes Vermeer, bequeathed only 35 paintings to posterity, though some are undoubtedly lost, and others have been judged spurious. Still, in an age where painters needed to flatter the nobility to obtain a constant stream of commissions, Vermeer seems to have painted slowly and somewhat grudgingly. He remained in debt his entire life and left his family—including eleven children—harried with misfortune, his wife forced to peddle off his remaining canvases for paltry sums. We know almost nothing about his personal life or ideas except what trickles down to us from his paintings. What they seem to tell us is that Vermeer cared little for politics or history, much less current events; he painted a world untouched by turmoil or intrigue, where only love letters intruded on the shadows and solitude of domestic life. 

Friday, July 7, 2017

Reading in the Moment: Terry Carr’s Cirque (1977)


Some books, even great books, are destined to elude your grasp. You will go your entire life without reading them or even hearing their name. A book that could conceivably change your life, or simply allow you to disappear into a haze of literary delight, will remain on the shelves. But every now and then, by luck or fate, one of these books swims into your life, and you realize how easily you might have missed it. Clicking too quickly through a web page or not stopping to linger on a dusty bookshelf, and the moment would disappear—as would the book in question. For me, that’s exactly what happened when I found Terry Carr’s little masterpiece, Cirque (1977): I was browsing a used bookstore’s out-of-the-way science fiction section with my son, and had actually already found what I was looking for. So while he continued to sort through the Star Trek novels, I killed time by scanning the spines, now and then pulling a volume I just as quickly pushed back. Until I found Cirque. 

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

The Astrologer's Portrait and The Count of the Living Death are FREE to download July 5-6th!


To test out my new covers for both novels, you can download them free this July 5th and 6th from Amazon (you can download a free Kindle app even if you don't own a Kindle). These novels have been out for a few years now, and I've tried to brush them up a bit, fixing minor details and of course, revamping the covers (though I might eventually go back to the old ones). Please leave a review--even a one sentence review--if you've read either one, since Amazon only 'sees' a book after it's garnered 20 or more reviews. 

Thanks for checking them out! The links for each book are below, and you can sample a few chapters by clicking on each cover:

The Count of the Living Death (2013): https://www.amazon.com/Count-Living-Chronicles-Hildigrim-Blackbeard-ebook/dp/B00FQ6711Y/ref=pd_rhf_gw_s_t_1

The Astrologer's Portrait (2014): https://www.amazon.com/Astrologers-Portrait-Joshua-Grasso-ebook/dp/B00LKQ0DXC/ref=pd_sbs_351_8?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1&refRID=KXK3737TNNCBVX849A2M

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Disappearing Dwarves




In his 1987 book, Role-Playing Mastery, Gary Gygax (famed founder of Dungeons and Dragons) discusses what makes a good role-playing adventure—which, surprisingly, is the same thing that makes a good novel or story. Foremost for Gygax is a plot that contains a central mystery that gives a group of characters (each with his or her own motivations) something to solve, search, and discover. Every story in virtually every genre can be boiled down to a few basic plots, since the point of a story is to delight and amaze the reader, and to frustrate and challenge the characters. To illustrate this, Gygax took a single plot, called “The Disappearing Dwarf” and adapted it to numerous genre-specific scenarios, as seen below:

Friday, June 16, 2017

A Painting a Day: Barnet's Winter Afternoon (1981) & Others


Painting(s) of the day: I decided to offer a series of paintings today, since I just discovered a new painter, though sadly he was a very old and renowned one: Will Barnett, who died recently in 2012 at the age of 101. Read his obituary here: http://www.nytimes.com/…/will-barnet-painter-dies-at-101.ht….
I ran into his painting, Winter Afternoon (1981) at the OKC Art Museum this Tuesday, and was instantly blown away. I took a picture of it so I could study it later, but foolishly forgot to make note of who painted it! Luckily, a quick e-mail to the museum clarified this omission. The museum also told me that the painting had just been installed this May, so I came at just the right time...I encourage others to check it out if you can, since it might not be there forever.
The painting is striking in its simplicity and silence: a young woman sits sewing with a cat watching over her--but also looking out the window at a winter landscape: a bare tree leafed by numerous crows. This painting exhibits many of his artistic trademarks: a two-dimensional perspective that evokes Japanese printmaking or art nouveau posters. His people and animals owe something to the cartoon abstraction of Rousseau, but also the iconic isolation of Edward Hopper's men and women. Like the latter, Barnett's men and women (but mostly women) are seen in isolation, caught in the act of waiting. They seem lost, puzzled, worried--but in many cases, content. This young woman seems comfortable in her self-exile, knowing that the lines of the window (and the couch) keep her hemmed in from the disasters of life. She might be alone, but at least it's a solitude of her own making.

Despite their quietness, all of Barnett's paintings have an epic quality. By capturing the small moments of life, those hours spent waiting, watching, thinking, he makes us realize that to know ourselves, we have to find ourselves here. We all wear many masks, but the self at work, or in company, might be our greatest illusion. Only when we're alone with no one to watch are we truly 'naked' to the world--and truly, starkly ourselves. All of these women are confronting themselves in these quiet hours, and while the revelation might not be consoling, it's still comforting to see yourself who who and what you are. Maybe no one else can truly see this side of you...unless a sneaky artist is painting you through the window.

And aside from all of this, they're simply beautiful paintings with sharp lines celebrating the relationships of men and women with themselves--and their favorite animals. Some of my favorite moments are those spent with my family and my dog and cats, alone, without the watchful eyes of the world. I think Barnett was comfortable there, too.

Friday, June 9, 2017

A Painting a Day: Burne-Jones' The Mirror of Venus (1875)


The painting of the day: Edward Burne-Jones' The Mirror of Venus (1875). Burne-Jones is one of my favorite painters, as he shamelessly celebrates the voluptuous, late Romantic values of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Such paintings fell out of critical favor throughout the 20th century, though art lovers have always responded to sheer beauty and drama of these images--and notably this one, which has no specific theme other than a hypothetical gathering of Venus and her hand-maidens before a pool of water. Let the allegorical associations commence...
Many people wonder what "Pre-Raphaelite" means, and basically, it was a movement that wanted to uncover the artistic and thematic traditions prior to the Renaissance. They adored Greek, Gothic and Medieval subjects, though ironically they approached these from a Renaissance perspective, evoking the luminous colors and shapes of Botticelli and Raphael himself. Following their spiritual mentor, Ruskin, and composed of many artists-poets such as Rossetti and Morris, the movement sought to combat the excesses of Industrialism with visions of a purer, more human time where beauty and magic existed hand-in-hand. The best literary equivalent of their work would be the poems of Robert Browning (who often evoked painters in his work), and a fitting soundtrack would be the music of French impressionism--Debussy (esp. La Mer, Nocturnes) or especially Ravel (La Valse, Tombeau de Couperin, etc.), or even the British Impressionist Arnold Bax (Tintagel especially).
But back to this painting: the difficulty of examining a work of Burne-Jones is the seduction factor. It's so amazingly caloric in terms of beauty that you are apt to simply drown in the images and call it a day. The layout of bodies is almost balletic in how they rise and fall, assuming stylized and theatrical movements. The flowing garments seem plucked out of a Greek statue, though they hug the body in a distinct late 19th century manner, setting off the models to best effect (and the Pre-Raphaelites all had their favorite models, many of whom they married or had affairs with). Venus is the only one standing, clad in the blue of a morning sky, but looking curiously forlorn or defeated. She takes no glory in her court and almost seems to lament their fate as she looks down on them looking down on themselves. The girls, too, stare somewhat curiously into the pond, seeking an answer which seems to elude them. Only one girl looks up to Venus as if to say, "what is the meaning of this, mighty goddess?" And Venus, having done and see it all, doesn't even try to respond. "You'll find out soon enough," she seems to suggest.
Naturally, the legend of Narcissus is evoked by this image, with the young, beautiful women staring back at their own reflections. Also of note are the lotus pads in the pond, alluding to the Lotus-Eaters of The Odyssey, where the inhabitants of a far-flung island eat the lotus flowers and fall into an apathetic existence, never seeking to flee or to question their existence (this was also the title of a poem by Tennyson, another poet allied to the Pre-Raphaelites). Is Burne-Jones suggesting that to be young IS to be a lotus-eater, intoxicated by the narcotic of youth, and assuming that all things will come to you in time--which you have an endless supply of? Or is the painting a more general allegory on the nature of beauty itself--that it's little more than a pool of water which, when disturbed by the slightest breeze, all but washes away? The fact that the painting is itself so beautiful is part of the message: we are so dazzled by the surface of things that we forget to look beyond, or ahead, where our true destiny lies.

Monday, June 5, 2017

To Kill or Not to Kill Your Heroes




In our recent Academia discussion (https://www.facebook.com/groups/1232336103498178/), we asked whether the trend of killing of main characters in fiction was innovative or a voyeuristic fad. After all, many writers boast of killing off their heroes, notably George R.R. Martin, who has made an entire career of it, inspiring thousands of copycat authors to follow suit. On first blush, it seems like a refreshing, “think outside the box” literary idea: instead of knowing that your hero will somehow survive countless perils and death-defying scenarios, how much more exciting would it be to know that he or she might not?

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

A Painting a Day: Holbein's "The Duchess" from The Dance of Death (c.1525)


The painting (or in this case, engraving) of the day: "The Duchess" from Holbein's series of prints called The Dance of Death (c.1525). The Dance of Death was a genre in European art from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, mocking the pretensions and vanity of various professions who think themselves free from the touch of death. Yet Death ultimately chooses us each for a partner and dances us straight into the grave. These generic images also contain a healthy share of satire and social commentary, usually showing how Death sees through the sham and hypocrisy of religion/society to reveal the truth that riches can blind. Holbein took this genre and made it much richer, adding increased realism and making his pictures seem to move by the placing of bodies and action--nothing is static. These pictures were meant to delight and frighten, and hopefully, to make people see the corruption of the world around them. Yet it also offers a note of consolation, since Death is not a mindless, malevolent force, but also akin to the Greek Furies, delivering revenge on a host of disreputable popes, monks, kings, and lawyers.
Though any picture in this series is worthy of scrutiny, one of my favorites is "The Duchess." Of all the images, it's one of the most cinematic: the perspective is dynamic, as we see the duchess from behind, allowing us to share her perspective as she beholds the two skeletons tugging her into consciousness--and death. Clearly she lives a sumptuous life, as she has been awakened in bed (during the day, perhaps?) and has popped up with a start. Yet far from screaming or running out of the room, she seems more shocked and bewildered, as if to say, "am I dreaming? Is this real?" Her hands clutch the bed (her worldly wealth) for protection as the skeleton tugs on her skirt. Her mouth is open, perhaps calling to her servants to come to her aid (yet no aid is forthcoming). Her dog, too, doesn't seem to be barking at the skeletons, perhaps too frightened--or too docile--to do so. In short, all of her protectors--her servants, dog, and wealth--have abandoned her in her moment of need.
The other skeleton is sawing away on a violin, playing the danse macabre to usher her into the dance. Both skeletons sport the remains of hair--tattered, unruly locks that suggest that they were once young and beautiful, too. Yet they have now come to tear away her youth and beauty, as if to remind us that beauty is not a virtue, anymore than wealth. Both pass, and neither of them are granted through virtuous acts. The tremendous detail that Holbein lavishes on this image reminds us that though we long for earthly goods, they don't weigh in the balance of good or evil. In fact, they might weigh us down--as we imagine the woman's voluminous dress will, as she tries to escape.
This image is even more striking if you realize how small it is: the size of about 4 postage stamps put together. On a very small canvas, Holbein inscribed an entire world, as well as the fate of that world, for all to see

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Book Reviews as Blind Dates (Not Diary Entries)


The great (but largely forgotten) composer Max Reger (1873-1916) received more than his share of bad reviews. After reading a nasty review of his Sinfonietta, he wrote the following response to the critic in question: “I am sitting in the smallest room of my house. I have your review before me. In a moment it will be behind me!” This little witticism reflects the pose that many artists adopt—a pose that is only skin deep. For even if you toss the review behind you, or into a convenient trash can, the words don’t go away. A bad review is a bad review forever, haunting the writer, or composer, or artist with the thought that he/she simply isn’t good enough; that he/she really doesn’t have any talent, and that the critic has seen through his/her facade to the ‘real’ man or woman beneath the mask. We’ve all heard the saying, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Clearly these words were not written by an author—or anyone remotely involved with the creative arts. Reger, or someone much closer to their art, might have revised this to read, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will cut my throat!” 

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

A Painting a Day: Boldovinetti's Portrait of a Lady in Yellow (c.1465)


Today's painting: Alesso Boldovinetti's Portrait of a Lady in Yellow (c.1465), one of the great Renaissance portraits. The Renaissance represented a rebirth of Western art, particularly in the idea that a person could represent an artistic ideal, rather than a religious dogma. While most portraits depicted in the Renaissance were of the nobility, and thus reflected a kind of secular hagiography, it's still a great leap from centuries of painting Madonnas and saints to suddenly see a woman--and in this case, an anonymous one. We don't know who this woman is, though scholars have made conjectures for some time. But ultimately that's not important. What IS important is how Boldovinetti (great name!) wanted to capture the art in a human face. For our faces are masks, particularly when immortalized for the ages in oil. They represent less who we are than what we would appear to be. But an artist knows better!

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

A Painting a Day: Uccello's St. George and the Dragon (c.1456)


After a brief hiatus, the painting of the day returns with Uccello's St. George and the Dragon (c.1456), a dramatic rendition of an episode from the life of St. George, as well as the prototypical hero narrative in miniature (monster kidnaps girl, boy kills monster, saves girl). This painting has had an interesting history, as it was stolen by the Nazis and wound up in a Swiss bank vault for several years, before being deposited in the National Gallery in London. It was then thought to be a fraud, as it seemed stylistically inconsistent with Uccello's other work, and great scholarly debates raged over its authenticity. Fortunately, it is now considered a bona fide Uccello, as well as a priceless contribution to Renaissance Italian art.
And what a strange painting it is! Though the story seems simple enough, observe some of the smaller details: a swirling cloud hovers over the hero, as if demonstrating divine intervention--or an even worse danger to come! A waning crescent moon hangs overhead, despite the glorious light of the painting, which suggests that a second moon is shining somewhere overhead (or perhaps the glory of his conquest brings its own illumination). Also, note how statuesque and lifeless the two people are compared to the detail and beauty of the two beasts. St. George seems positively bored by his conquest, while the princess seems to be locked in a formal dance, gesturing politely to the dragon as if to say, "perhaps you should kindly withdraw from the fray." Nor does St. George seem to spring into action, his body frozen into a conqueror's pose almost against his will (on second thought, it looks like he's fallen asleep!).
The horse, however, is captured rearing up and ready to spring to the defense of the girl--much more so than his rider! Uccello lavished loving detail on the horse, as indeed he did in many of his other paintings, notably The Battle of San Romano, where the horses dance and prance across the battlefield, the people mere footnotes to their ballet. However, the true star of the painting is the dragon itself, whose grotesque face captures defiance and pain, and evokes the viewer's compassion. He's been speared in the nose, and blood is dripping out of his mouth. This seems all the more cruel since the princess is in no immediate danger--indeed, she is leading the dragon forward with a leash! Some critics (and initially myself) have suggested that she is actually chained up to the dragon protectively, but her gesture seems to indicate leading/guiding, rather than servitude. I think this could help explain her slightly annoyed appearance, which could also be saying, "thanks, but I had this all under control, no thanks to you!" So perhaps the Princess has rescued herself (or never needing rescuing in the first place!).
The dragon is also a wonderful creation of fantasy, with its butterfly-like wings and beautifully rendered claws (the poor guy only has two appendages--he's basically defenseless on the ground; good going, Georgie!). While this painting is the basic hero archetype, Uccello makes us question what story is being told. Who is the hero? George? The Princess? The Dragon? What is the relationship between the Princess and the Dragon? And is this a good deed--or an act of evil? The dark, spinning cloud might suggest that he's actually committed a sin of sorts, and God (or the gods) will punish him for his hubris. Not surprisingly, this painting has inspired many other works of art and literature, including U.A. Fanthorpe's poem, "Not My Best Side," which is linked here for your reading pleasure:http://english.emory.edu/class…/paintings&poems/uccello.html)

Saturday, May 13, 2017

A Woman By Any Other Name...


This week on our Academia FB page: (https://www.facebook.com/ groups/1232336103498178/), we asked the question, “what does it mean to write a “feminist” heroine in the 21st century, particularly in genre fiction? Does it mean simply casting the woman in a man’s role (the princess = the warrior)? Or does a truly feminist approach require us to abandon the script of heroes altogether?” Like so many literary questions, this one appears to have as simple answer: no, it means you have to write a woman with as much complexity as you would a man. But even this begs a larger question: what does it mean to write a ‘complex’ woman in fiction? In fact, if we draw attention to the word ‘woman,’ aren’t we already having a different discussion? Think about it: if you had to describe Gandalf to someone who had never read The Hobbit, you would call him a “wizard,” or perhaps “an old wizard.” You wouldn’t bother to explain, “well, he’s actually a male wizard.” No, a wizard implies that he’s a man—we take it for granted. 

Thursday, May 11, 2017

A Painting a Day: Hokusai's "Clear Day With a Southern Breeze" from Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji (c.1831)


Today's painting, an all-time favorite: Hokusai's "Clear Day with a Southern Breeze" from his series, Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji (c.1831). Hokusai, and Japanese painting (and prints) in general, profoundly influenced one of the biggest movements of European art, Impressionism. Painting in the 18th century and much of the 19th century was based in a stylized realism, with very definitive rules and formulas. But as painters started to look East they questioned how these very rules came into being, and an artist like Hokusai must have seemed inscrutable at first, since he broke every possible rule except for one: his works are so beautiful you can't look away.
In Buddhism, there is a famous saying that says, basically, "look at the moon, not the finger." This means that if someone points out the moon to you, realize that their finger is just a pointer, a guide to the moon, but not the moon itself. It's a great way to think about metaphors and art itself (which represents reality, but is not reality). Hokusai is always trying to capture the 'moon' in his work, while realizing that this is an impossible task. It's also a bit like the Dao (the way), as recorded by the Dao de jing: if you know the way, you don't know it; if you know you don't know it, you know it. Hence Hokusai's 36 views of Mt. Fuji, captured in (almost) every conceivable light, season, and context. He knows he can never capture the totality of Mt. Fuji, but is instead capturing his impression of it at a certain time of day, while in a specific mood or sentiment.
This one shows us a clear day (despite many cirrus clouds) with a "southern breeze," which is suggested by the thin, stretched-out clouds. Many people also note the "cartoonish" nature of the painting. This is NOT realism as the Impressionists would have known it. It's not a mountain, but the impression or abstraction of a mountain, just as the trees are mere impressions of trees. It's all highly stylized and graphic, rather than realistic; it makes an impression as a sheer work of art apart from the subject matter. The harmony of the white clouds and the orange-brown mountain is balanced nicely by the deep green of the trees. Yet beyond the breathtaking colors, you get a sense of immensity, of the ancient mountain rising above the earth to exult in the heavens. More than anything else, this painting seems like an act of homage: Hokusai is paying tribute to a never-ending portrait of beauty that can never be truly seen or known. Only by painting it again and again can he slowly, tentatively, come to know some small aspect of it. And as viewers, we come to know the mountain, and his work, in the same way.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

A Painting a Day: La Tour, The Fraudulent Player (1635)


Today's painting: a study of fraud and deceit by Georges de La Tour, The Fraudulent Player (c.1635). La Tour has an instantly recognizable style and subject matter, as Christine Stukenbrock explains: "[his paintings] consist of a few large figures placed in the immediate foreground and defined by strongly contrasted light and shadow." Usually his paintings (such as The Magdalen of the Candle, c.1644) have a single source of light in the painting that splashes light across the characters' faces, leaving the rest of the painting shrouded in darkness. The Fraudulent Player is a bit of a departure for him, since it offers a more humorous subject, one more familiar from Dutch genre painting of the vices and follies of mankind. Yet even here, the dark/light contrast is noticeable, the characters set against a pitch black background, with an unseen light (coming from the viewer) illuminating their actions. It makes the painting appear as if it occurs on-stage, and indeed, the entire work has the air of a comedy.
At the far right, a naive fellow plays cards with a group of hustlers. We know he's supposed to be a provincial bumpkin because he's dressed to the nines (complete with frilly feather in his cap), looking very proper--yet very stiff--as he holds his cards. Notice how carefully he's inspecting his cards, as if he's only just memorized the rules and is terrified of making a mistake. On the other side of the table is a rakish fellow, his arm perched in a "devil may care" pose as he reveals his cards to the viewer. He also reveals some sleight-of-hand action behind his back: two Aces buried in his belt, one of which he handily removes to bolster his hand. He seems to be glancing at us, as if to entreat our silence--or approval.
The two women in the center are engaged in some chicanery of their own. The imposing-looking woman gives an arch look to the servant, who clearly has more on her mind than serving refreshments. Decked out in a fashionable dress and necklace, this woman is out to dazzle the young man, all the better to distract him from the real wager of the evening. She crooks her finger as if to summon a glass of wine, but she seems to stop the servant at the last minute, as if to say, "serve him first." The servant cuts her eyes over the young man, perhaps hoping to catch his eye with her decollete. This might also be why the young man is looking nervously down at his cards: he's probably never seen so close to such beautiful women before and is getting flustered!
Though the young man seems to have the most money at the table, we imagine that this will soon change...and he will soon be in their debt. All the vices have assembled against him this evening, and if one doesn't catch him, another will. Many scholars have seen parallels with the Prodigal Son, since here's a young man ready to sow his wild oats, not realizing that he's actually the dish being served! Now doubt he will return repentant back home the next morning, having been robbed and humiliated by these polished cardsharps. Humorously, the painting makes us an accomplice, since we see all the trickery--and do nothing. As with so many things in life, it's easier to see the injustice done to others than the trickery behind our backs.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

A Painting a Day: Arcimboldo's Spring (1573)


Today's painting not only celebrates spring but embodies the very nature of an artistic rebirth: Giuseppe Arcimboldo's Spring (1573), from his series of The Four Seasons. Arcimboldo was a MIlanese painter who also designed costumes and other decorations, skills which served him well in his portrait painting. Rather than simply painting people as they were, he conceived the idea of allegorical portraits--that is, of using unrelated objects to create an impression of the subject. In this way, he anticipated both the Impressionists and the Surrealists by a good 300-odd years. His hilarious and delightful paintings use flowers, trees, fruits, vegetables, and even household objects to embody portraits of Renaissance men and women. Amazingly, the people still emerge boldly from the artifice, yet the closer you examine it, the more you see the theme inside the portrait.
In Spring, we have a vernal portrait of a beautiful young woman, with literal roses in her cheeks. Her hair is festooned with flowers and weeds of all varieties, varied by color and size for artistic effect (including the white lily at the very back of her head, like a feather sticking out of her cap). Amazingly, every single detail of her face, from her eyes, teeth, lips, and even eyebrows are composed of flora large and small. Note how detailed each one is, as if they have nothing to do with the larger portrait, but exist only for themselves (or for inclusion in a textbook). Arcimboldo lived during the height of the Renaissance, and his art undoubtedly reflects the urge to explore and classify the natural world. A botanist could have a field day naming every variety on display, of which I can only identify a handful.
However, this painting is ultimately an allegory, which was the literary form most beloved of the ancients. Naturally, it makes sense to depict a young woman as blossoming spring flowers, as she is just coming into bud herself. The entire picture is full of life and vitality, so overgrown that even the edges are framed by flowers--perhaps on the verge of forming a companion for this woman. Yet there is a hint of the famous "memento mori" (remember your mortality) in this portrait, since flowers can only bloom a short time before they fade to their doom. At the height of her youth and beauty, she can only look forward to a quick decline into autumnal old age. As Robert Herrick wrote in his famous 17th century poem, "To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time",
"Gather ye rosbeuds while ye may
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.
Only painting can grant the spring immortality--the rest of us have to spend it while we have it. As an artist, having painted woman after woman at the height of her beauty, Arcimboldo knew this lesson well. But the young ones never listen...

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Developing a Taste for Taste


There are few definitions longer in the Oxford English Dictionary than that of “taste,” which has numerous meanings both as a noun and verb, all related to the idea of tasting or sampling something, but few meaning quite the same thing. When we ask the question, “what does it mean to have artistic taste?”, we’re using the definition supplied by the OED relatively far down the page, which says, “8a. The sense of what is appropriate, harmonious, or beautiful; esp. discernment and appreciation of the beautiful in nature or art; spec. the faculty of perceiving and enjoying what is excellent in art, literature, and the like.” One of the earliest recorded uses of this definition in English comes from Milton’s Paradise Lost (1671), where he writes, “Zion’s songs, to all true tastes excelling,/Where God is praised aright.” However, this is itself a dated construction, since it has become unpopular to suggest that taste has a “true” meaning or designation. In our multicultural world, taste is subjective, different from one person to another, and not quantifiable in terms of artistic excellence or stylistic perfection. As it is used today, it is more akin to the sense of taste, which renders a dishing pleasing to some and displeasing to others; either too bitter or too sweet, not everyone’s cup of tea. In this case, it is something that can be acquired with practice or experience, like learning to enjoy Thai or Ethiopian cuisine (or American cuisine, if you’re Thai or Ethiopian).  

Thursday, April 27, 2017

A Painting a Day: Ellen Terry at 16, by Julia Margaret Cameron


Today's painting isn't a painting at all, but a photograph...so guess the year. When I first saw this image, I assumed it was a modern black and white photograph. The clarity of the image, coupled with the seemingly modern pose and the model's unblemished youth, points to a faux-vintage image. Clearly she's trying to capture another age and time, as evident in her dreamy expression and antique dress, but this couldn't be a stuffy Victorian portrait, could it? Ah, but it could...the date of this portrait is 1875, though the negative is earlier still--1864.
This is a portrait of Ellen Terry, a famous child actress who grew into a tempestuous young woman who captured the public's imagination (here she is at 16, just coming into her adult fame). The photographer is Julia Margaret Cameron, a famous portrait taker who captured images of Darwin and Tennyson, among others. Her artistic mentor, the painter George Frederic Watts, married Ellen despite an enormous age difference, and not surprisingly the marriage barely lasted the year.
This photo is from the collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and I first encountered it recently in an exhibition catalog from the museum. I found it startling because it reminded me of a Pre-Raphaelite painting come to life. Indeed, Ellen posed for her husband and other painters, so she literally IS just such a painting, which gives you a hint of why these men were so inspired. Though an idealized portrait, Cameron captures her as the very epitome of Victorian womanhood: beautiful, dreamy, melancholic, isolated, and even a bit dangerous. She reminds me of what Helen of Troy might have looked like, a woman who was probably well aware of her power over men, and not above showcasing it theatrically (Ellen became a Dame by 16--no mean feat for a girl born in the theater circuit!). The pose seems affected and definitely staged, not just by the photographer but by the model herself. She seems to be longing for release or fulfillment, yet for all its allurements, she seems to resist being sexually enticing. Instead, she emerges as a vision of classical innocence, unattainable to any man save the artists who can merely capture her image for the ages. But if he tries to get closer he will find himself clasping a shadow--or a medusa.
The rounded portrait shown here is called a tondo, and was a style preferred by the Pre-Raphaelites in their paintings. The connection between photography and painting has been lost in recent ages, but this reminds us that a photo doesn't record life as it is, but is carefully staged and edited by the eye of the photographer. Ellen was reportedly quite a hellion even at 16, and hardly the ethereal innocent we see before us. But if social media teaches us nothing else, it's that we manipulate images to suit our identity of the moment: how Ellen Terry would have loved Facebook and Instagram!

Monday, April 24, 2017

A Painting a Day: Denis' The Muses (1893)


A painting of the day to start off the week: Maurice Denis' The Muses (1893). Denis was a member of the late 19th century artistic movement The Nabis (Prophets), a group of Symbolist painters who wanted to go beyond mere images of nature to show the inner "nature" of man. After all, art doesn't have to merely record impressions of the world around us, it can be whatever we want it to be, taking those impressions and mixing them with our inner sensations and even random thoughts from other worlds. While Denis' work isn't necessarily expressionist or bizarre, it does have a cooly detached, enigmatic view of the world which makes it highly decorative and somewhat mysterious.

This is definitely the case with The Muses, which ostensibly depicts the Nine Muses of antiquity. Yet this is not immediately recognizable, since the women seated in the foreground do not look like Muses at all but typical late 19th century society ladies. The most prominent of the trio is filing her nails (do Muses file their nails?!), with a look of bored concentration. Beside her is a more Muse-like woman in an ethereal pose, baring her back and shoulder for the viewer. Her face is a mere abstraction, just enough to stylistically suggest a kind of aristocratic ennui or immortal indifference. A third woman is caught in the act of reading--or more accurately, of losing interest in reading--and looks off into the distance, with the same deathless stare. Her hair and her dress have coalesced into a single color, a mere blob of shape. All three women look curiously like decorations more than women, each one an art nouveau print.

The forest the Muses find themselves in is also less Impressionistic as artistic and stylized: it's like a funky wallpaper print, lacking depth and reality, but all the more seductive for that. The other Muses amble about in the grove, strutting and posturing, but all of them in a daze. The one on the far left looks over at her companion blankly, as if to say "anything new going on this century?" Other women examine a book, and one seems to be completely naked toward the horizon. Yet each one is detached, a world unto themselves, utterly alone in their immortality.

Of course, maybe the title is ironic: maybe class and wealth have made these women "immortal"? They have become isolated by their status and forced into a cage of privilege, where they can only read about the world--not experience it. They have become, like the figures on Keats' Grecian Urn, trapped as lifeless art, more to inspire others than to enjoy life themselves. To quote Keats' poem, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty'--that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." I get the sense that these women would like to know more, but have forgotten how to ask...

Friday, April 21, 2017

A Painting a Day: Bocklin's In the Sea (1883)



The painting of the day: a work by a largely forgotten painter who was once very important to the late 19th century, Arnold Bocklin (1827-1901), and his painting In The Sea (1883). When I briefly lived and worked in Chicago, I would walk across the street once a week to the Art Institute (free on Tuesdays back then) to see my favorite paintings. This was one of them, a painting I had never heard of before by a painter who existed as a mere footnote (another painting, The Isle of the Dead, inspired Rachmaninov's famous symphonic poem). Something about this painting captured my interest and made me rush back to it each time like a treasured acquaintance. The postcard I found of it in the gift shop still stares down at me when I write.

So what makes this picture--a very odd one, even an ugly one to some--so unique? For one, it treats a mythological subject in the least dignified manner I can think of. The Pre-Raphaelites, famous at this period, were known for sumptuous, sensual images of antiquity, celebrating their favorite models in poses of longing and rapture. Not so Bocklin. In this scene, which depicts various mermaids and tritons, no one looks ethereal or even sexual. They look exhausted, annoyed, mischievous, and argumentative. Even the ocean itself looks more like a pond than the vast, immortal sea of legend. The entire picture looks cramped and claustrophobic, as if the creatures are saying "morals tell all these grand stories about us--but this is REALLY what it's like!"

Note the mermaids hanging onto the triton like a piece of driftwood, while he tries to sing--or protest--in vain. He might be plucking a tone of ancient wonder, yet it's comically foiled by the mermaid pulling him down, not in a sexually enticing way, but more in a "please carry me, I'm tired!" manner. Another mermaid does a backstroke beside him, looking halfway interested in his song--but perhaps more interested in using him as a dock. In the distance, two other creatures are swimming toward him with a conch shell, perhaps to add to the festivities. But again, we imagine a loud, boisterous tune to be the result--a triton's drinking song, perhaps. Yet despite the comedic setting, the painting is quite beautiful, with the reflection capturing the shimmering, unearthly quality of the scene in a different light. Almost as if Bocklin is saying "however sordid the characters and their deeds are, they can be transformed by the poets."

Monday, April 17, 2017

A Painting a Day: van Gogh's Room in Arles (1889)


A painting for the day to remind us what happens when we lose arts funding, education, and programs that inspire a new generation of artists and thinkers. Are the arts necessary, or just window dressing? You be the judge...
Today we have one of van Gogh's many portraits of his room--the Room in Arles (1889), painted at the very end of his life as he was trying to recover at the hospital in Saint-Remy. Naturally, his entire world, once almost boundless, shrank to encompass a single room (and sometimes, the hospital grounds). Like Monet's paintings of a single cathedral at various times of day, this painting reflects one of van Gogh's many attempts to capture the mood and personality of his room. And quite clearly, he did something more, too--he captured his own mental state and perspective each time he contemplated the objects in his room.
He told his brother that the subject of the painting was "color alone," and that's the first thing you see here--the vibrant colors, intense and jarring, like a fruit which is so tart that it's almost overwhelming. The sickly looking green of the window (which reminds me of the color of absinthe advertisements from the 19th century) seems out of sync with the rich, sky-blue of the walls--yet of course they complement one another at the same time. These greens, also seen in the cloth hanging from the wall, and in the paintings, seem to reflect his sickness, or uneasiness at this sedentary existence. The blue seems to be the hospital's attempt to ease his mind and assure him that everything will be all right, that convalescence is right around the corner. And yet, the room is full of motion and unease: the chairs seem to be moving, or even floating, above the floor (the perspective is slightly off, the one near the bed appearing to be tipping over). The bed, however, is the most alarming object: it towers over the viewer like a castle, less a bed than an edifice--even a battering ram. Even the paintings on the wall seem to be swaying in the breeze, including van Gogh's own self-portrait (the one with the red hair), a subtle reminder that the occupant was taking the cure, but it wasn't "taking" to him.
In Peter Gartner's book on the Musee d'Orsay (where this painting hangs), he notes that "The painter has no fixed viewpoint in relation to the room; it varies from object to object as the viewer surveys the picture. A subjective experience of space is a feature of van Gogh's composition, and, together with a use of color aiming to achieve heightened symbolism, is typical of his style, which van Gogh wanted to be seen as "grand style" (281). I love the idea that a single room, however modest, can be grand--an entire world, an entire universe of feeling and personality. Every object here seems buzzing with life, from the brush to the floor itself. It reminds us, as William Wordsworth once wrote, that the "To me the meanest flower that blows can give/Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears."

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

A Painting a Day: Hans Holbein's The Ambassadors (1533)


A painting for the day to remind us what happens when we lose arts funding, education, and programs that inspire a new generation of artists and thinkers. Are the arts necessary, or just window dressing? You be the judge...
This is Hans Holbein's The Ambassadors (1533), a double portrait of Jean de Dinteville (left) and George de Selve (right). Dinteville was the ambassador between the French king, Francis I, and the infamous Henry VIII. Negotiations did not go well, and Dinteville found himself in an impossible position trying to placate both monarchs. Though he asked to be recalled, the French instead offered him a companion, his friend de Selve, to assist him. Both were great men of learning (though Dinteville didn't mind burning a few heretics if the need arose--this was the age of the Inquisition, after all), and upon completing their mission, Dinteville wanted to commemorate his 'triumph' with a grand portrait by the great master himself, Hans Holbein. Holbein set to work immediately and created not only a masterpiece, but a work that is pregnant with meaning--and requires days and months and years of careful snooping to figure it all out.
The most obvious details are the men themselves: both are young (Dinteville was 29), handsome, and prosperous. Dinteville looks a bit like Henry VIII himself--perhaps he stayed in England a bit too long!--as his sumptuous jacket attests, with its ermine embroidery, framing a flouncy pink shirt and an enormous gold medallion. de Selve, by contrast, is more the scholar, wearing a simple robe and looking much less ostentatious. Indeed, he seems to be saying "are we done yet?" though he, too, portrays an air of confidence--as well as concern. The table each man is leaning on is burdened with the weight of their Renaissance scholarship: a globe, various devices to measure distance--an astrolabe, etc. Also visible is a lute and a book of music, and beneath it all, stretched cryptically across the floor...a skull?
The skull is part of the famous memento mori genre of paintings and poems famous in English literature. It translates to "remember your mortality," and here the painting transforms from a celebration of youthful achievement to an older man's warning: perhaps the mission itself was fraught with danger, or perhaps that the youthful confidence of Dinteville should have been tempered with a bit of modesty and forethought? Either way, it lends a chilling note to a painting that seems to say "we have the world!" while Holbein whispers "not for long."
The scholar Derek Wilson in his book on Holbein notes this about the painting: "It is a testament by Holbein and his patron to their shared concerns in the uncertain England of 1533...The lute has a broken string. The crucifix in the top left-hand corner is almost obscured by the curtain. On the celestial globe a hen attacks a bird of prey...In Holbein's composition the younger man (de Selve) literally upstages his friend. Set slightly further back, he appears introverted, nervously clutching the folds of his gown and tightly grasping his gloves. Yet Holbein makes us fix our attention on him."
There's so much going on here, and entire world in turmoil, leading to an uncertain future--for them and for us.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

A Painting a Day: Goya's "The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters" (c.1799)


A painting of the day to remind us how vitally important art is under a president (and a larger culture) that doesn't value the humanities and sees it as "useless" to the business of society.
Today we have Goya's famous etching "The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters" (1797-99) from his series of grotesque and gothic imagery, Los Caprichos. This is one of my favorite Gothic images and one I used often in my classes in any number of contexts--to introduce Frankenstein, to discuss Romanticism, to critique the Enlightenment, etc. Goya was a true visionary, very like Beethoven in his ability to transform old genres and ideas and then turn them into something powerful and unrecognizable. This piece, in its stark black and white imagery, is designed to be nightmarish--yet with a purpose. Far from simply giving us lurid imagery, Goya uses horror as a metaphor the same way Mary Shelley would a decade or so later. Because ultimately, the most terrifying things in the world are all born from our imagination--and then let loose upon the world.
In this image, an Enlightenment gentleman has fallen asleep in the midst of his labors, perhaps writing a treatise on reason, or the fundamental "rightness" of all things. I always imagine this figure as somewhat like Dr. Pangloss in Voltaire's Candide (1759). who assured his pupil that "we are in the best of all possible worlds," and that the nose was created so that we had somewhere to place our spectacles. Yet as soon as he slumbers, the dreams awake--all manner of nocturnal terrors such as bats, owls, and disturbingly sphinx-like cats. The swarm of terrors surround him, with the intention of either eating him or carting him away to a midnight mass of spirits. The idea being that no man or woman is so in control of their faculties--the darkness is always there, waiting to be unleashed or even whispering at your ear. Reason denies the existence of imagination and nightmares at its peril, for when reason sleeps, the terrors go unchecked and give birth to even greater chaos.
Goya completed this painting with the sentence "the sleep of reason produces monsters...united with her, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of their marvels." The Romantic poets and artists knew that you had to channel the darkness of the psyche and of society itself to create great art. Art is never born of rejection or of denial; only by looking deep into the well of the sublime can you hear the echo of your own thoughts. Goya knew this, and no one peered deeper into that well than he did. Society, unfortunately, continued to deny until they had several bloody revolutions on their hands..

Friday, April 7, 2017

A Painting a Day: Liotard's Marie Adelaide of France in a Turkish Dress (1753)


A painting of the day to remind us how vitally important art is under a president (and a larger culture) that doesn't value the humanities and sees it as "useless" to the business of society.
Today we have Jean-Etienne Liotard's Marie Adelaide of France in a Turkish Dress (1753). another one of my favorite paintings for its sense of whimsy, unpretentiousness, and sumptuous colors. Actually, we don't know whether or not this is really Marie Adelaide (daughter of Louis XV, who escaped Versailles on the eve of the Revolution) and not an anonymous noblewoman enjoying her favorite pasttime--reading. Whoever she is, she's certainly in style, as she's indulging in the mid-18th century rage for all things "Turkish," which mean quasi-Turkish clothes, hats, and wigs (Mozart would celebrate this mania in his Rondo alla Turca, the last movement of his Piano Sonata No.11). The young woman is no doubt reading a romantic novel which takes place in Turkey or Persia as well, another genre that flourished and was inspired by works such as Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's Turkish Embassy Letters (1716-1718), which suggested that women in Turkey had more freedom as anonymous subjects of a seraglio than they did in England, where any man could view them and restrict their movements.
But back to the painting...if this is Marie Adelaide, I love how he's caught her in such a casual, unguarded moment--as if she's totally in private, not acting, not playing a role. This could be a modern woman in a fancy dress, just chilling out and reading a book. She seems comfortable, relaxed, and completely engrossed in the book. So much so, that she's forgotten that women in 18th century portraits are supposed to be seductive! What, no looking longingly at the viewer? No show of skin at all? No looking like a thoughtless and desirable match (and Marie Adelaide never married--probably because she read too many books!). In short, Liotard is simply painting the woman as she was, not when exposed in public, but simply as herself. It was a tremendous compliment to pay a woman at this time, to suggest that she had her own space and time and freedom, and didn't need to display herself to the male gaze or the marriage market. Sometimes, damn it, you just want to read a good book!