Thursday, March 30, 2017

A Painting A Day In Support of the NEA:Cassandra Austen's Portrait of Jane Austen (1810)

My protest of Trump's proposal to cut funding to the NEA and other arts organizations continues. Every day I will post a great work of art as a reminder of what could easily be lost in the shuffle of more "useful" government spending.

Today's work of art isn't exactly a "great" work of art, but an unfinished sketch that hints at greatness--the beginning of a portrait of Jane Austen by her sister Cassandra (c.1810). What makes this portrait so priceless is (a) it was never finished, and (b) Jane doesn't look like she's posing at all--she looks pretty annoyed, actually. Both qualities make this a far more documentary portrait than usual, one composed "from the life" and "on the spot," which is probably why it was unfinished--Jane said "enough of this nonsense!" Yet for all of this, it reminds us how art can capture the mood, character, and essence of a person which is so quickly lost behind a veil of myth and rumor. Jane Austen is always gussied up as a delicate, romantic flower, when the opposite is actually true: she liked long walks in the country, biting social satire, and abhorred romantic cliches and conventions. If anything brings us closer to the woman she actually was, this portrait does it. Not surprisingly, the family suppressed this painting for decades, and it's rarely ever been used to adorn the cover of a Jane Austen novel. Far too real, I'm afraid, and not nearly romantic enough! And thank God for it.

More than anything, I see her heroines Anne Eliot, Fanny Price, and maybe even a little Elizabeth Bennett in this portrait. It's a woman of uncompromising views, not afraid to be alone, and willing to sacrifice herself for the right cause. This portrait brings me closer to the voice of her stories, particularly the later ones, when Austen seemed to be reaching at a new style of writing. Pithier, less satirical, but also richer and more nuanced. Austen never completed her own maturation nor even her last novel, Sandition, which makes this portrait seem all the more emblematic: unfinished, hinting at the incredible genius which had too little time to record her ideas. Yet what remains is more than a good effort--it's enough to savor and ponder over for the next thousand years. 

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

A Painting a Day in Support of the NEA: Repin's Portrait of Mussorgsky

My protest of Trump's proposal to cut funding to the NEA and other arts organizations continues. Every day I will post a great work of art as a reminder of what could easily be lost in the shuffle of more "useful" government spending.

Here is the great Russian painter Ilya Repin's famous portrait of the equally famous Russian composer, Modest Mussorgsky (1881). Painted only a few days before Mussorgsky's death, it is an amazing psychological portrait of a tortured, tragically flawed, yet oddly dignified artist. Mussorgsky was a member of "The Mighty Five," a group of Russian nationalist composers who more or less put Russian music on the map (also included Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, Balakirev, and Cui). Sadly, Mussorgsky was riddled with self-doubt and drank himself into oblivion, almost stifling his outsized talent and revolutionary sensibilities. Repin recognized a uniquely Russian character in Mussorgsky, as we see from the hollow stare and his bedraggled appearance. Yet even so, he strikes a defiant pose, as if aware that he has a powerful message that he will never be able to share with the world. He is a portrait of neglect and ridicule, yet he seems conscious of his worth, even when he most denies it. A bottle might be in one of his hands, just out of view, but eternity is in his grasp--though sadly, it might take his death to reach it. Today, Mussorgsky's opera Boris Godunov is in the standard repertoire, as is his haunting evocation of Halloween, A Night on Bald Mountain, and Ravel's orchestration of his beautiful piano suite, Pictures at an Exhibition. This painting, too, is a kind of orchestration of the man himself, who only existed in an unfinished piano sketch--showing us the face he presented to society, and the one that slumbered beneath--visible only in his music. 

Monday, March 27, 2017

A Work of Art a Day in Support of the NEA: Dore's Illustrations of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

Recently, Trump proposed cutting funds to the NEA, PBS, and tons of arts organizations, as if they're just so much fluff that's crowding the budget. The loss of support for the arts will impoverish our culture drastically, not just by encouraging new artists, but by removing agencies, such as PBS, who provide many children and students with their first contact to the rich heritage of the arts in our civilization. Millions of works can be silenced by such an act, and people can grow up with no idea that Beethoven wrote symphonies, or Monet painted cathedrals, or Shakespeare wrote plays. Education isn't a push-button process--you need great material to work with, and that in turn inspires great teachers. By cavalierly cutting these programs, our country might as well say "to hell with culture," and "to hell with our souls." 

In light of this, I've been posting a great painting every day on Facebook (and now here) as a protest to what we stand to lose in the face of such indifference. Please share these works yourself or share others you like, because the only thing that destroys art is not knowing of its existence. 

In 1876, the great artist Gustave Dore made a series of engravings to illustrate Coleridge's masterpiece, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798). While on some level a work of literature needs no illustrations other than the ones we provide in our mind, illustrations are a great way to collaborate with a work and redefine it for a new generation. Dore added a human element somewhat missing in the original, and looked back on it from the perspective of later horror and supernatural literature like Frankenstein and Poe's short stories. His stark, black and white engravings make the poem seem much more frightening than the original, but also anchor us right into the poem itself, since each image is beautifully tied to a specific moment in the text. These engravings remind us that all forms of art echo one another and can enrich the readers' experience, which is why art never dies, but grows stronger over the years and centuries. When I read Dore, I appreciate Coleridge even more, and Dore encourages me to find my own interpretations and extrapolations of Coleridge's vision.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

The Art of Reading Indie

Can anyone be beautiful if someone doesn’t say to them, “I think you’re beautiful”? Can anyone be intelligent if the results of a test don’t confirm “you’re a genius”? And more pertinent to our discussion, can any book be good if not validated by a 4 or 5 star review? Can a book without reviews at all be good in any sense of the word? Doesn’t someone need to tell us it is? Otherwise, isn’t beauty, intelligence, and artistic worth a relative term, utterly meaningless without a verifiable source?

To me, the question of indie writers and books comes down to this simple question. When you browse the shelves of a bookstore or library, you implicitly know that these books have been curated for you by the experts. Not only publishers, but booksellers, sales charts, award committees, and librarians have each had their say, and personally picked through the debris of literature to offer these chosen gems: these are good and worth your time, they seem to say. So even if you take a book and decide it’s not for you, the reason isn’t that the book itself is bad, or comes from an inferior pen; it simply wasn’t your cup of tea, or what you were in the mood for. You don’t take it personally (or most of us don’t).