31 July 2006

Worth a 6 year -- or 26 year -- wait? L'Orangerie

The last time I was in Paris was in May 2000. I had previously tried to see the Monet Nympheas murals installed on the curved wall of the L'Orangerie 20 years earlier, but didn't make it to the museum before it closed on my last day. So I had wanted to see them on that trip 20 years later. One morning, I set out for L'Orangerie, but was disappointed to find on arrival that the museum had closed a few days earlier for remodeling. Little did I know that the next time I would be in Paris would be only a few months after the building reopened after numerous complications and delays in the remodeling.

Fast forward 6 years. This time I had only a few hours layover in Paris and was with my son who had never been to Paris. On a day so hot you didn't want to do anything, especially if it involved taking a subway, we went several places at his request: l'arc de triomph, Eiffel tower, wandered near the fountains at Trocedarro, rested our weary feet at a sidewalk cafe, saw Napolean's tomb -- and with only a few minutes left, rushed to L'Orangerie at my insistence just before they closed the doors.

The building is washed in light: bright white walls, a roof of skylights letting in the sun, reflecting off the curved walls at the entrance. You cross an open walkway giving view to the floor below and enter the first room. You are greeted by more curved white walls, an antechamber that may -- or may not -- exist for future exhibitions. You wonder what waits beyond the next doorway as you process through the figure-eight hallway of rooms, considering whether the smooth curves leading to the paintings isn't some sort of architectural hyperbole, an attempt to build up expectation for the murals installed on the curved walls beyond. But, entering the first room with the paintings, I dare anyone not to gasp!

Ahhh! The giant Nympheas murals are overwhelming! Simply framed, one on each stark white wall, your eyes dart from one explosion of color to another. Each is of waterlillies, but so different from the others that it is difficult to believe at first that they are of the same subjects. Looking at the paintings I could understand what Monet was attempting to do with light. Waterlillies in the morning, at dusk, under the hot summer sun, late in the season just before the final blooms fade.

Each painting is too big to have only one focal point, yet the various parts of the lengthy murals do not seem to compete for viewing, but to gently guide your eyes from one part to another. While it's true that the air-conditioned building would have been a respite from a blistering hot day even if there was nothing on the walls, sitting in the rooms looking at the Monets seemed to naturally cool you.

I don't know that I have the vocabulary to describe the murals adequately in artistic terms. I will post pictures later after I return home and hope that those can at least give a hint of the magnificence of these paintings. I can say that I am sure that if I had made it to L'Orangerie in May, 1980, or if it had not been closed yet in May, 2000, I would have seen an entirely different set of artwork. It is hard to believe that these paintings were cloistered for years in a building with a second floor without any natural light. Harder still to believe that the building was reconstructed around the works without bringing any harm to them.

Was it worth the wait? I think so. I'd suggest to anyone visiting Paris that you make the effort to see these --even if you only have a brief 6 hour layover.

27 July 2006

Hay-on-Wye, Poetry, and Poetry Thursday

Just a quick post on my trip yesterday to Hay-on-Wye, Wales, the "Town of Books". Hay is very small (maybe 2 American city blocks wide by about 4 blocks long), with 35 - 40 second-hand bookstores. It is definitely a place to get lost in. Paul Collins, in his book about living in Hay (Sixpence House), wrote that you don't find books in Hay, but rather, they find you. This is not an exact quote as I don't have the book handy, but I think I've captured the essence. And is it true! I could have spent hours -- maybe days -- in Hay.

I only had a few hours to spend due to some soon-to-be-laughable mechanical problems with the rental car that necessitated changing my itinerary (a clutch pedal that kept sticking when depressed wasn't too laughable at the time when driving through the mountains!). So with limited time, I had to be selective about where I went browsing. The signs for the Poetry Bookshop immediately caught my eye as I walked into town. I knew that books that were looking for me were waiting there. I think every volume in the small shop with a huge inventory of poetry and poetry criticism was a likely candidate to find it's way into my backpack.

My haul: a first edition of William Carlos Williams' The Broken Span, a Poet of the Month Series published in 1941. A copy of Williams' I Wanted to Write a Poem: The Autobiography of the Works of a Poet, first published in 1958, and a book of poetry by Margaret Atwood (regrettably, I can't think of the title, and it isn't with me at the moment). And, since I also pick up cookbooks when I travel (typically the only souvenirs I lug home), I picked up a small book titled A Book of Welsh Bakestone Cookery. I don't think it includes anything with leeks in it, which is too bad. Leeks are the national vegetable of Wales (or so I was told) and I do like them!.

For readers who are hikers and bikers too -- it's a wonderful area to play in. It reminded me a lot of the Eastern Tennessee/Western North Carolina area, although the elevation is probably lower. I'm guessing the Dorothy and BikeProf would like this area! I would love to come back here sometime when I can stay a few days, browse the bookshops and do a dayhike on Offa's Dyke Trail. Think Welsh equivalent of the Appalachian Trial, though not as long. It traverses Wales from North to South coasts.

Since I seem to be on a William Carlos Williams thing here, I will post this link to "This is Just to Say". This week's writing prompt for Poetry Thursday was to post about food. And this is, on one level, about food, although like his other poems, about so much more. I haven't had time to check out I Wanted to Write a Poem, so I don't know if he writes about the origin of this one or not.

So long for now -- I'm off to the Modigliani exhibit at the Royal Academy and then to the Tate Modern. Inside musuems seems a fine way to spend a very hot day in London!

21 July 2006

Vacation Notice

This quiz was posted recently and I couldn't resist taking it. And since the answer to "What City Do You Belong In" happens to be where I'm headed later today, well, it seemed appropriate as my Vacation Notice. Don't expect much (if anything!) here for the next 2 weeks. But after 8/6, I'll probably have lots to write about.

So I'm headed here:

You Belong in London
You belong in London, but you belong in many cities... Hong Kong, San Francisco, Sidney. You fit in almost anywhere.And London is diverse and international enough to satisfy many of your tastes. From curry to Shakespeare, London (almost) has it all!

With a quick trip here (had to play with the quiz a bit to get this answer):
You Belong in Paris

You enjoy all that life has to offer, and you can appreciate the fine tastes and sites of Paris.
You're the perfect person to wander the streets of Paris aimlessly, enjoying architecture and a crepe.

And then to Italy (no amount of revising the quiz answers would give me anything Italian).
You Belong in Venice, Florence or Rome

Maybe the answer would say something like: "You like things that are really old. You knew who DaVinci was before you heard of his code. You like Art. Your traveling companion loves Italian food...."

See ya' in a few weeks.

Readers and Writers as Translators

I started to post the following excerpt about translations almost a month ago, but never finished it. Originally, I thought it relevant to the discussion at the Reading War and Peace blog on which translation of Tolstoy's novel was the "best". But, reading BikeProf's post yesterday at The Hobgoblin of Little Minds, brought to mind again the following excerpts from Michael Cunningham's introduction to a new translation of Mann's Death In Venice (Ecco, 2004). I think it's relevant to BikeProf's comments about literature evoking an emotional response: the writer creates--or translates as Cunningham suggests--and the reader re-creates. The writer/writing is evocative, the reader/reading emotive; both use the process of interpretation, the translation Cunningham writes about. The following excerpts are a bit long. I highly recommend not only reading Cunningham's intro, but also Michael Henry Heim's translation as well.

All novels are translations, even in their original languages. This has been revealed to me over time, as I've worked with the various dedicated (and inevitably underpaid) people who have agreed to translate my own books. When I started working with translators, I couldn't help noticing that many of the problems that vexed them -- questions of nuance, resonance, and tone, as well as the rhythms of the sentences themselves -- were familiar to me. I'd worried over the same things when I wrote the book in the first place. It dawned on me, gradually, that I was a translator, too. I had taken the raw material of the book in question and translated it into language.

Every writer of course works differently, but I suspect that most novels begin in their writers' minds as confusions of images, impulses, scattered meanings, devotitions, grudges, fixations, and some vague sort of plot, to name just a few. A novel in its earliest form, before it begins to be rendered into language, is a cloud of sorts that hovers over the writer's head, a mystery born with clues to its own meanings but also, at its heart, insoluble. One hopes -- a novel is inevitably an expression of unreasonable hopes -- that the finished book will contain not only characters and scenes but a certain larger truth, though that truth, whatever it may be, is impossible to express fully in words. It has to do with the fact that writer and reader both know, beneath the level of active consciousness, something about being alive and being mortal, and that that something, when we try to express it, inevitably eludes us. We are creatures whose innate knowledge exceed that which can be articulated. Although language is enormously powerful, it is concrete, and so it can't help but miniaturize, to a certain extent, that which we simply know. All the writers I respect want to write a book so penetrating and thorough, so compassionate and unrelenting, that it can stand unembarrassed beside the spectacle of life itself. And all writers I respect seem to know (though no one likes to talk about it) that our efforts are doomed from the outset. Life is bigger than literature. We do the best we can.


Fiction is , then, at least to me, an ongoing process of translation (and mistranslation), beginning with the writer's earliest impulses and continuing through its rendering into Icelandic, or Korean or Catalan. Writers and translators are engaged in the same effort, at different stages along the line.


Still, a handful of blunders does not seem likely to alter the fundamental tone of a book, or seriously subvert its meaning. Any assertion that a translation can be rendered "accurate" if its blatant errors are corrected underestimates the art and magic of translation. A translation, any translation, is filtered through a particular sensibility, and so the discrepancies, as they accrue, must be, at least to some extent, an expression of whatever the translator brought to the job. However multilingual we may be as readers, we find ourselves faced with a fundamental, inescapable responsibility. We must understand that any book, and especially a great one, is a complex and highly personal exchange between its writer and its readers. None of us reads precisely the same book, even if the words are identical. Readers, too, are part of the ongoing process of translation, the one that originates in the author's mind.

Introduction to Death in Venice, Thomas Mann, Michael Cunningham, 2004 (p, v-vi, viii, xiii-xiv)

As for War and Peace, I'm so far behind I'm not sure that I'll catch up with the rest of the group to participate in the discussion. In using terms that BikeProf might appreciate: I crashed on a Cat 1 climb. I tried reading some of W&P using an on-line edition I could access away from home, and another version when I was at home. That proved very difficult; the translations were different enough in feel that it was odd switching from one to another, even if the transition was at a chapter.

19 July 2006

Travel guides and travelogues

Yesterday, Danielle at A Work In Progress and Dorothy at Of books and bicycles wrote about the nature of the essay as compared to other genres of writing. While I had been not been thinking about essays, I had been contemplating various forms of non-fiction writing as most of my reading has been non-fiction for the last few weeks.

On the work front, I've been reading an informative but dry book related to project management. In my real reading life, I've been immersed in travel books, which led me to thinking about the various types available for both the "armchair traveler" and one planning a journey, as well as books that are not guides, but capture in words an unforgettable feeling of place.

There are travel books that provide useful, practical information that a traveler needs to know: transportation, museum hours, eating and sleeping options. There are several imprints available, and each tries to distinguish itself from others by appealing to a certain sensibility. For example, the Rick Steves' guides, popularized by the PBS series, appeals to the "backdoor" traveler, someone looking for an authentic, less Disneyfied experience while traveling frugally. The Cadogan and Michelin guides tend to be very heavy on background information. These are the types of guide books that I want to read before I go, and refer to later if I want more information, but they tend to be too heavy to tote with you. Rough Guides fall somewhere between the two -- placing in context various sites, but giving tips on best values for the independent traveler.

Then there are travel guides that are glossy, picture books featuring highlights of various areas of a country. While beautiful to look at, most I've read tend to not give you things in context. Featured sites may be miles apart, or inaccessible to the casual traveler. These are the kind of books I like to peruse when I'm considering a trip to a certain destination: what might I see if I go there? where in a country should I travel? I find that these are great for fueling my wanderlust but I'd never plan the logistics of a trip with one.

I have a variety of each of these kinds of books in my library and use all types when I plan a journey. Last December, a holiday gift for a family member was an assortment of books on Ireland for planning her next trip: an "ahh! Look at the pretty pictures; I want to go there!" type, a practical guide listing B&B's, restaurants and golf courses throughout the Emerald Isle, and a book that I skimmed while in the bookstore that made me laugh aloud -- Round Ireland with a Fridge about a man who hitched around Ireland with -- you guess it -- a refrigerator! That's the kind of book that I think can be most valuable for learning about a place, whether you ever travel there or not. Being careful to not break the bindings, I couldn't help but skim through each book before I wrapped it in gift paper, even though I have no plans to travel to Ireland in the foreseeable future.

Which brings me to my current reading: The City of Falling Angels, by John Berendt. The first few pages captured me, painting a picture of Venice that no travel guide could. In the first few pages of the prologue, Berendt retells a conversation with a Venetian:

Everyone in Venice is acting...Everyone plays a role, and the role changes. The key to understanding Venetians is rhythm--the rhythm of the lagoon, the rhythm of the water, the tides, the waves....

The rhythm in Venice is like breathing...high water, high pressure: tense. Low water, low pressure: relaxed. Venetians are not at all atuned to the rhythm of the wheel, that is for other places, places with motor vehicles. Ours is the rhythm of the Adriatic. The rhythm of the sea. In Venice the rhythm flows along with the tide....

Do you see a bridge as an obstacle--as just another set of steps to climb to get from one side of a canal to the other? We Venetians do not see bridges as obstacles. To us bridges are transitions. We go over them very slowly. They are part of the rhythm. They are the links between two parts of a theatre...We cross from one reality to another reality. From one another street....

Sunlight on a canal is reflected up through a window onto the ceiling, then from the ceiling onto a vase, and from the vase onto a glass, or a silver bowl. Which is the real sunlight? Which is the real reflection?

What is true? What is not true? The answer is not so simple, because the truth can change. I can change. You can change. That is the Venice effect.

Then, with an air of finality, he said, "Venetians never tell the truth. We mean precisely the opposite of what we say.

In the next 20 pages Berendt not only describes the physical aspects of Venice, but also writes about it's history, the burning of its famed opera house in 1996, politics, the canals, Murano glass-making, rats (both human and animal varieties), and its fall to Napoleon, while reminding the reader that Venice is just barely twice the size of Central Park. While I could gather this information in a guide, Berendt is attempting something other than just information. He writes that his interest is "...not Venice per se but people who live in Venice, which is not the same thing. Nor apparently, had it been a comon approach in books about Venice". Yet, he can't separate the people from the place and writes that he chose Venice because it "is uniquely beautiful, isolated, inward-looking, and a powerful stimulant to the senses, the intellect, and the imagination....And, because, if the worst-case scenario for the rising sea level were to be believed, Venice might not be there very long".

I've only read about 40 pages of Berendt's book, so I can't say whether he lives up to his stated purpose, but it certainly has captured me and perhaps I'll find time to finish it before I board a plane for vacation in a few days. In flight, I'll have time to think about the differences between the kind of book that provides you with useful, factual information and the informative writing that goes beyond journalism, beyond description, to provide you with much more.

14 July 2006

A late Poetry Thursday post

Leaving the restaurant

I was late, as usual,
and called and had you order for me
Too fatigued to think, anything would be fine.
But I forgot to say except the soup.
Their soup is winter soup
-- cheesy January snow, fireplace comforting soup --
too out of place in July.
So, I ate the soup
and felt like I should be wearing
skiboots and a cableknit sweater
as I walked into the humid evening air,
still smelling of day and the city,
nighttime hours away,
a trick of the clock to hold back the fleeting day.
Behind me, the sun sets despite us
--like clockwork, you might say--
the eastern sky looks like snow.
Summer displaced by low grey clouds,
heavy soup and cold dashboard air.
Confusion continues for a few miles
as I try to reconcile
the shining sun to the dark sky,
the horizon falling like a grey curtain
just beyond the next interchange.
I smell the storm before I see it,
as the vents fill with the mix
of dirt and oil and rain,
making my nostrils flare like a horse
and my pores open with the change in temperature,
wind cooling across my skin.
Now on the other side of the median,
pavement is wet, but not a drop is falling.
Now it is here, slowly at first beading the windshield,
now covering in sheets, now pounding,
obliterating painted lines and taillights.
And then the sound, growing louder,
an approaching cavalry, volleying pellets of ice
from watercannons.
Ground and pavement and sky merge
into an uncharted sea,
in a blizzard of spring rain.
There must be a rainbow,
obscured by the Peterbilt
that is defining the next lane
behind the cover of water.
The furious wet frenzy continues
until I exit into the foggy pea soup
marsh near home, and I am back
to hot, humid cook-on-the-grill summer.

11 July 2006

2 Kinds of Art, 2 kinds of People

When I started reading blogs a few short dog years ago (I think the leaves were just starting to turn....) one of the first blogs I started reading was Terry Teachout's About Last Night. Originally, I was looking for theatre suggestions for an upcoming trip to NYC, but I've become a regular reader. How could I not be intrigued by a site that had this quote in the 'About...' section:

Clement Greenberg, the great art critic, believed that "in the long run there are only two kinds of art: the good and the bad. This difference cuts across all other differences in art. At the same time, it makes all art one…The experience of art is the same in kind or order despite all differences in works of art themselves."
and that endeavors to be

...a meeting place in cyberspace for arts lovers who are curious, adventurous, and unafraid of the unfamiliar.
A few days ago, Teachout posted a rerun of his Teachout Cultural Concurrence Index. A not too serious 'test' -- not of one's arts knowledge but of one's art likings, as compared to Teachout. Check out this link or this one for the original explanation. Well, I'm always behind the curve -- apparently a year on this one, but I took the 'test' anyway. Below are my answers, with a few explanations.

Bear in mind my favorite "2 types of people" joke is this one:

There are 10 types of people in this world: those that get binary, and those that don't.

Yeah, I'm a geek. I have no defense. But I strive to balance all of the technical stuff that consumes my worklife with the arts in whatever form I find them. And the arts are everywhere!

So, just for fun and to give you a little idea of what I'm like, here are my responses, with a few explanations, to the Teachout Cultural Concurrence Index. I didn't really expect a strong concurrence with TT, so I was surprised by my score of 60. What does this mean? Not much, but it was fun!

1. Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly? Gene Kelley. I always thought he looked like he was having more fun!
2. The Great Gatsby or The Sun Also Rises? Gatsby. Frances made this comment about Gatsby recently on LitLove's blog: "imagine that empty, hungover feeling you have at 7am the morning after a May Ball, that exquisite blend of a longing having been fulfilled and sadness now that your goal‚’s been taken away, and made into a book, that’s it." I couldn't have captured the essence of that book half as well.
3. Count Basie or Duke Ellington? Count Basie.
4. Cats or dogs? DOGS!
5. Matisse or Picasso? Matisse. A tough call, but Matisse surprises me more and seems to engage all of my senses. Sometimes I imagine I can actually smell a Matisse, but maybe that's because I've harbored a little green-eyed envy for 30 years that a high school chum actually got to touch a Matisse once while working stage crew. I think it was this backdrop.
6. Yeats or Eliot? Yeats. "In a Station of the Metro" is probably the poem that most frequently flutters through my brain, usually when I walk through a crowd but sometimes without any prompting, so if it were Eliot or Pound, I might have answered Pound. Still, Yeats is the best.
7. Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin? Buster Keaton, because he doesn't have the cynicism of Chaplin.
8. Flannery O’Connor or John Updike? O'Connor
9. To Have and Have Not or Casablanca? To Have and Have Not, although I've probably watched Casablanca more.
10. Jackson Pollock or Willem de Kooning? Pollock, by a splash.
11. The Who or the Stones? The Who. As I was growing up, the Stones were frequently stopped by my mother's demands to turn off the radio, but The Who somehow creeped in undetected. Still, I was never allowed to see Tommy when it was in the theatres.
12. Philip Larkin or Sylvia Plath? Plath. Plath was one of the first poets who affected me; if I encountered both for the first time with an adult sensibility, Larkin might win. Maybe I should revisit him.
13. Trollope or Dickens Can't answer, never read Trollope.
14. Billie Holiday or Ella Fitzgerald? Ella Fitzgerald.
15. Dostoevsky or Tolstoy? Tolstoy.
16. The Moviegoer or The End of the Affair? The End of the affair (never finished reading The Moviegoer).
17. George Balanchine or Martha Graham? Balanchine.
18. Hot dogs or hamburgers? Hamburgers, except in Chicago!
19. Letterman or Leno? Letterman -- he eeks out a victory on this one only by about 10 million laughs. He was making me laugh when he was doing the weather on the local Indianapolis station back in the 70's.
20. Wilco or Cat Power? ???
21. Verdi or Wagner? Verdi more than any other operatic composer; almost all of them more than Wagner.
22. Grace Kelly or Marilyn Monroe? Grace Kelly.
23. Bill Monroe or Johnny Cash? Cash. The man had a mystique. Loved Monroe's Bean Blossom festivals though.
24. Kingsley or Martin Amis? Can't answer.
25. Robert Mitchum or Marlon Brando? Mitchum.
26. Mark Morris or Twyla Tharp? Can't answer. Unfamiliar with Morris.
27. Vermeer or Rembrandt? Vermeer. If I lived in NY, I'd want to stop in the Frick weekly to see or this picture or this one.
28. Tchaikovsky or Chopin? Tchaikovsky.
29. Red wine or white? Red. Keep whites in the wine rack for people I don't like as much (just joking....maybe).
30. Noel Coward or Oscar Wilde? Wilde.
31. Grosse Pointe Blank or High Fidelity? High Fidelity.
32. Shostakovich or Prokofiev? Shostakovich.
33. Mikhail Baryshnikov or Rudolf Nureyev? Baryshnikov.
34. Constable or Turner? Constable, by a brushstroke.
35. The Searchers or Rio Bravo? Can't answer.
36. Comedy or tragedy? Comedy.
37. Fall or spring? Spring.
38. Manet or Monet? Monet.
39. The Sopranos or The Simpsons? Oh, come I have to answer this? The Simpsons, but only because I'll watch it with my teenage son and it makes him laugh, which makes me realize that he understands the difference between sarcasm and satire and that reminds me just how smart he is.
40. Rodgers and Hart or Gershwin and Gershwin? Gershwin.
41. Joseph Conrad or Henry James? Conrad, no James, no Conrad.
42. Sunset or sunrise? Sunset. Don't see sunrises often unless I'm going to work early and then they aren't enjoyable.
43. Johnny Mercer or Cole Porter? Porter, maybe?
44. Mac or PC? Mac if choosing for cool and useful, aesthetically pleasing, great marketing (once again), proving both FORM and FUNCTION are possible in technology. But what makes sense in my work life, the kid's school life, etc: sadly, the PC.
45. New York or Los Angeles? New York. Is this even a question?
46. Partisan Review or Horizon? can't answer.
47. Stax or Motown? can't answer. Don't know Stax.
48. Van Gogh or Gauguin? Van Gogh. THe VanGogh/Gauguin exhibit gave me a new appreciation of Gauguin, and made me realize how good Van Gogh was.
49. Steely Dan or Elvis Costello? Steely Dan. Maybe just because "Hey, Nineteen" reminds me of a boy, except he was too old to be a boy, and I was, well, just 19.
50. Reading a blog or reading a magazine? Blogs. I like the diversity of editorial content, rather than one editorial perspective that would be found in a magazine.
51. John Gielgud or Laurence Olivier? Gielgud
52. Only the Lonely or Songs for Swingin’ Lovers? can't answer.
53. Chinatown or Bonnie and Clyde? Chinatown.
54. Ghost World or Election? can't answer.
55. Minimalism or conceptual art? Minimalism (I think).
56. Daffy Duck or Bugs Bunny? "Eh, What's up doc?"
57. Modernism or postmodernism? Modernism.
58. Batman or Spider-Man? Jeepers creepers. Batman.
59. Emmylou Harris or Lucinda Williams? Emmylou.
60. Johnson or Boswell? Johnson.
61. Jane Austen or Virginia Woolf? Austen, although I don't really like either of them.
62. The Honeymooners or The Dick Van Dyke Show? Dick Van Dyke.
63. An Eames chair or a Noguchi table? Eames.
64. Out of the Past or Double Indemnity? Can't answer (don't know Out of the Past.)
65. The Marriage of Figaro or Don Giovanni? Figaro. The three duets in the final act is the most beautiful piece of operatic music ever written.
66. Blue or green? Sky Blue, Navy Blue, Ocean Blue, Blue eyes. Just blue!
67. A Midsummer Night’s Dream or As You Like It? Midsummer Night's Dream. Even a poor performance of Midsummer Night's Dream can be magical.
68. Ballet or opera? Opera.
69. Film or live theater? Film.
70. Acoustic or electric? Acoustic.
71. North by Northwest or Vertigo? Vertigo.
72. Sargent or Whistler? Whistler.
73. V.S. Naipaul or Milan Kundera? can't answer.
74. The Music Man or Oklahoma? The Music Man.
75. Sushi, yes or no? YES!
76. The New Yorker under Ross or Shawn? can't answer.
77. Tennessee Williams or Edward Albee? Williams.
78. The Portrait of a Lady or The Wings of the Dove? can't answer. Haven't read Portrait of a Lady.
79. Paul Taylor or Merce Cunningham? can't answer.
80. Frank Lloyd Wright or Mies van der Rohe? Wright.
81. Diana Krall or Norah Jones? Krall.
82. Watercolor or pastel? Watercolor.
83. Bus or subway? Subway. I'm a midwesterner -- subways have the aura of the unusual. If I had to depend on one for daily transportation, I would probably eventually come to prefer buses where I could see the world at street level.
84. Stravinsky or Schoenberg? Stravinsky.
85. Crunchy or smooth peanut butter? NEITHER. Peanut butter is gross! In a "eat it or starve to death" situation, would want to have crunchy over smooth. But I wouldn't eat it unless the situation was desparate.
86. Willa Cather or Theodore Dreiser? Cather.
87. Schubert or Mozart? Mozart.
88. The Fifties or the Twenties? Fifties.
89. Huckleberry Finn or Moby-Dick? Huck.
90. Thomas Mann or James Joyce? Mann.
91. Lester Young or Coleman Hawkins? can't answer.
92. Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman? Dickinson.
93. Abraham Lincoln or Winston Churchill? Lincoln.
94. Liz Phair or Aimee Mann? can't answer.
95. Italian or French cooking? Italian.
96. Bach on piano or harpsichord? piano.
97. Anchovies, yes or no? NO! (allergic)
98. Short novels or long ones? short.
99. Swing or bebop? swing.
100. The Last Judgment or The Last Supper? The Last Judgment. Maybe The Last Supper would make me gasp like The Last Judgment did when I first saw it, but I'm doubtful.

09 July 2006

Memorable Museum Moments

Perhaps this should be titled Memorable Art Moments, but all of these are in museums and I like the alliteration, so there.

In thinking about my upcoming vacation and the opportunities to go to some great museums I don't have ready access to (oh, too many choices...) I found myself reminiscing about art experiences I've had. Those kicked-in-the-gut, will-never-forget moments where I can remember not just the work of art, but the surroundings -- the sounds, the lighting, the physical presence of the gallery, the smells; in short, the "complete" experience, experiences so powerful that I hope they are imprinted forever on my brain so that I don't forget them.

Impression Sunrise at Musee Marmottan Monet. Whenever anyone asks me for recommendations in Paris, I can't help but say 'if you only go to one museum, go to the Marmottan'. I'm sure many would disagree with me -- and I don't know that you can go wrong with any of the museums in Paris -- but Musee Marmottan Monet, a small museum tucked away in a Parisian neighborhood that houses several of Monet's larger scaled waterlillies as well as a large collection of works by Manet and Berth Morisot, is my favorite. I was wandering through the galleries when I came across Impression Sunrise. I knew of the work, but didn't know it was in this museum. It was a surprising find. It is small and unassuming. And yet, you only need to glance at it for a short time to know why the title of this work gave name to an entire movement in art. One can only imagine how people looked at this and knew that something very different was happening with Monet and the other painters at the first Impressionist Exhibition. I can picture not only the painting but exactly where it was hanging when I last saw it. I'm sure I could walk right to it if I were there today.

The Brancusi sculptures at MOMA: Positioned between two galleries, a grouping of Brancusi sculptures rest on their pedestals on a raised platform. You can walk around to view the grouping on 3 sides. (I think these are the works: Bird in Space, Blond Negresse II, The Cock, Young Bird, Endless Column) Individually, each sculpture is beautiful, majestic, and demands your eye. As a whole they are like flowers wild in a field: simple, elegant, a landscape. What I wanted to do was to have the gallery to myself so I could walk up to each and touch it, to feel the difference in temperatures between the brass, the wood, the marble. Or lie down on the floor in front of them and gaze at them uninterrupted.

The Seagram Murals at The Tate Modern: I had only a passing knowledge of Rothko and knew nothing about these paintings when I first encountered them in 2001. They hang in a room by themselves between two larger, brightly lit galleries. The walls are grey, the lights dim. Maybe it is because the lights are dim and the walls darkened, but this room just feels cooler than the rest of the museum. If you sit on the bench and study the murals they seem to both fade into the wall and to jump out apart from it, background and painting moving in and out of focus, complimenting each other, blending together, and separating each other. I have sat in front of these paintings on each return visit since I first saw them. The murals are jarringly emotional. It was only as I was leaving the room on that first visit that I read the story of these paintings: After returning his commission and refusing to have the paintings displayed at The Four Seasons in the Seagram building, Rothko gave them to the Tate on the condition that they be displayed according to his design and with instructions that they be displayed apart from other works. With ironic timing, they arrived at the Tate the day that the news of Rothko's suicide was announced. This quote has been attributed to Rothko: "I am not an abstract painter. I am not interested in the relationship between form and colour. The only thing I care about is the expression of man's basic emotions: tragedy, ecstasy, destiny." These paintings are more than just black and red painted canvas on grey walls, they are bold emotion hanging on a wall. It's a safe bet that I'll spend at least a few minutes in front of these on my next trip to London.

Calder, Indianapolis Children's Museum. There wasn't just one piece of art in this exhibit that was memorable -- it was the entire exhibit. This exhibit was about 10 years ago. It was interesting that it wasn't in an 'art' museum, but a Children's Museum (local bias aside, this is a great children's museum, for both kids and adults). I remember my son, who was about seven years old, and me standing under one of Calder's mobiles. Following the instructions posted we jumped up & down and flapped our arms like whooping cranes doing a mating dance. Why? To create just enough air turbulence to make the mobile start to move. Kinetic! What a great experience. What a great way to introduce kids to art by getting them to interact with it and to have fun.

Whenever I return to a museum I'm conflicted whether I want it to be just the same as the last time I was there, with my favorites in the places I expect, or if I want them to have changed. There's always a little apprehension that I may look at a work and think "Why did I like that?" Of course, I've changed so I should expect my reaction to a work of art to have changed too. Still, one's initial reactions are those that tend to stay with you, as if they too were changed by the experience. I came across this quote recently that sums this up well: "When art is made, we are made new with it." (John Russell).

The Guardian on The Seagram Murals

Brancusi at MOMA

Musee Marmottan Monet

03 July 2006

Film Review: Sketches of Frank Gehry

Within the first minutes of the documentary Sketches of Frank Gehry, the viewer knows two things: Frank Gehry isn't your father's Oldsmobile kind of a architect, and this documentary doesn't pretend to be objective.

This is the first documentary that Academy Award winning director Sidney Pollack (1985 Out of Africa) has made. In the opening scenes he states that he doesn't know how to make a documentary but Frank Gehry, his long-time friend, asked him to make it anyway because he wasn't a critic. The only thing he understands, Pollack says, is that like Gehry, he has had to make compromises in his work, balancing the creative with the commercial.

This film gives the viewer insight into a small part of Gehry's life and a large part of his creative process. Much of the biographical aspect involves Gehry answering questions posed by Pollack. What you learn about him is selective, what Gehry & the filmmaker find relevant to unveiling who Frank Gehry the architect is: the art lessons as a child, the immigration from Canada as a teen, the anti-semitism experienced, a name change (from Goldberg, at the demands of an ex-wife), the success with 'conventional' architecture that left him unhappy and creatively stifled. This material is appropriate, not so much as to overload or bore, and keeps this film more about the art, and less about the artist's biography.

Several people are interviewed in the film, discussing Gehry, his buildings, and his creative process: Gehry's psychologist Milton Wexler talks about how he has worked with Gehry for 35 years on creativity; rock star Bob Geldof talks about the Wow! Factor of seeing his first Gehry building (the Vitra Design Museum in Basel, Switzerland); a journalist emphasizes how Bilbao residents now proudly claim Gehry's Guggenheim Museum Bilbao as their own; former Disney CEO Michael Eisner discusses the commissioning of two Gehry buildings: The Anaheim Ice Rink and the home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Disney Concert Hall; the renown architect, the late Philip Johnson, describes Gehry as artist/sculptor/architect, calling him as the 'world's greatest living architect' (a label that many may have applied to Johnson before his death last year).

The only person interviewed who is not a fan of Gehry's is Princeton professor and post-modern art critic Hal Foster. However, Pollack doesn't give Foster much screen time and his comments seem edited to the point of caricature. It is here that the critical viewer needs to remember Gehry & Pollack's words at the opening: they are friends, and Pollack knows nothing about architecture or documentary film. If Gehry's work is so 'edgy'(which it is), and controversial (which it cannot help but be if it is so edgy), there must be criticism.

Granted, a reputed 1.4 million visitors came to Bilbao in the first year to see what may be Gehry's crowning masterpiece, but did they all like it? I agree that it elicits gasps. Just show a photograph -- something that can only pretend to capture the sweeping curves of that unusual space flowing into the river -- to someone unfamiliar with the Guggenheim Bilbao and prepare to be surprised if you do not get a reaction. But, those gasps may not all be 'fall-on-your-knees-and-catch-your-breath' admiring. Expect a few "WTF's". Want a reaction from someone in person? As you ride down Michigan Ave or Columbus Drive, point to the Jay Pritzker Pavilion and BP Bridge and innocently ask a Chicago cabbie "What is that?" (as I did a few years ago as it was being built). Your reactions will vary. (Repeatable in LA, Prague, Bilbao, etc.)

I definitely fall into the "Gasp in Amazement" category and would go to Bilbao to see the Guggenheim building and might stop in to see the artwork too if I had the time (just joking), but I wouldn't believe that everybody would like it. You just can't look at a Gehry building and not have an opinion. I think Pollack's film would have been so much better if it had included some honest criticism, especially since Gehry says that he tries on the negative reviews 'like clothes, to see if they fit'.

Still, despite it's bias, this is an interesting film and I would recommend it not only to art and architecture buffs, but anyone willing to look at a building or the creative process in a different way. Gehry's buildings can soar against the skyline in a mesmerizing way and Pollack's filming tries to capture that. The scenes with Gehry's partners and clients also give a welcomed look into a collaborative creative process.

(82 minutes, rated PG-13 for some occasional use of the 'f' word and probably the Eisner's comparison of the Anaheim rink to lopsided breasts).

A few other links:
Scroll down to the 23-05-04 entry for a photo of the Anaheim Ice rink that makes interesting use of light and shadow.

Here is a discussion at of Disney Concert Hall. Includes interior and exterior photos.

See why Rotten Tomatoes gives this film a 79% "Freshness" rating.

01 July 2006

Muriel Spark: The Only Problem

To take on the book of Job is a monumental task. To refute the book of Job -- or at least to challenge some of the conventional thinking regarding the work, even suggesting that it shouldn't be part of the Bible -- is an equally daunting task. Yet, Muriel Spark, in The Only Problem does just that.

The Only Problem is a short novel (about 130 pages) about Harvey, a wealthy, self-proclaimed student (as opposed to 'scholar') who is writing a treatise on Job. He has abandoned his wife, Effie, about a year before the narrative begins, and can't be persuaded by either his brother-in-law Edward or sister-in-law Ruth to provide a cash settlement in a divorce that both he & his wife want. Ruth travels to France with Effie's illegitimate child Clara to convince Harvey to do the moral thing, but, instead, separates from Edward and becomes Harvey's lover. Soon, all are caught up in events beyond their control when Effie joins a terrorist group that incites violence throughout the region where Harvey & Ruth are living. Harvey can't reconcile the idea of the wife he used to love with the terrorist she has become; nor can he admit that while he doesn't want to live with Effie, he loves her and while he doesn't love Ruth, he wants to live with her.

Ruth flees the police surveillance and media-frenzy and returns to live with Clara's father. Retreating from the scholarly, intellectual discussions common in her life with Harvey, Ruth adapts to the environment of her new lover, Ernie, even taking on his distinctive lower-class accent. Without Ruth or Effie, Harvey's thoughts about Job become more obsessive, his perception of being tortured more pronounced. In the end, Ruth, about to give birth to Harvey's child, moves back to France to raise Clara and the new child with Harvey. A year after the narrative begins, Edward comes to visit them, Harvey has finished his work on Job, a sense of harmony in the lives of all seemingly has been restored. With his writing on Job completed and his acceptance of Effie's political actions having resulted in her death, he states he will live a 140 years with his 3 daughters -- just like Job.

In the opening pages, Edward has a theory that "people have an effect on the natural greenery around them regardless of whether they lay hands on it or not; some people, he would remark, induce fertility in their environment, and some the desert, simply by psychic force" (p 323-24). Like the comforters in Job, Edward believes that one's actions affect one's fate. Harvey, on the other hand, struggles with the 'only' problem -- how can a loving omnipotent God also be the author of suffering? Why would such a Creator allow his faithful followers to suffer through no fault of their own? It is only Job's faith that redeems him, despite the beliefs of the comforters and Job's wife, that he should turn his back on the god who has abandoned him. This is the antithesis of Edward's view: individuals don't make their environment. As much as we seek to control it, it is out of our control.

Harvey does not 'suffer' in the same way that Job suffers, but he is a 'tortured soul'. Harvey is very wealthy, yet chooses to live with only basic comforts. While he sees injustice in the world, he doesn't take action to prevent it. He regrets losing his wife, yet he is the one who walked away -- literally, on the autobahn -- from his marriage. He doesn't want people to be around him, yet cannot live completely as a hermit. He seeks to control others -- telling Edward to cut his hair; telling a maid that it is her fault that he will not bring his guest to the lunch she has prepared; wanting to be alone, but unable to tell Nathan, an unexpected guest and unknown conspirator of Effie's, to leave. Yet, the more Harvey seeks to control, the more the situation with Effie -- a situation he has no power to control at all - gets out of hand. The fallout from Effie's terrorist activities take over his life with everything from property searches, suspicions of wiretapping, constant police surveillance, lengthy interrogations, and a treatment by the media that makes him look more villainous than his terrorist-wife.

And, yet, Harvey could have controlled some of it, or at least influenced it's effect, if he had taken different actions. If he had simply granted his wife a divorce, the media and police attention would have been different. If he wasn't as self-centered as he is, he might have seen the harm he caused Effie and Ruth. He would have cared less about trivial things like the length of Edward's hair, and would have cared more about inadvertently hurting Anne-Marie's feelings by destroying a bouquet that was meant to cheer him up. If he had talked about Effie and distanced himself from her in a press conference, he wouldn't have been portrayed as he was because he chose to talk about his scholarly work on the book of Job instead of terrorism. As a result, he not only harms himself, but Ruth and Clara as well.

It is difficult for the reader to see Harvey as suffering like Job. He does suffer, but not nearly as much as he thinks he does. But, maybe that is the point -- one's sufferings are one's own. They may not be mythic like Job's, but one's miseries are one's own to endure. And that is where faith comes in.

Spark, a convert to Catholicism, does not hit the reader over the head with her thoughts on Job and religion. Harvey struggles to engage most people he meets in discussion about Job. Mostly, this fails. As Spark often does in her work, she includes in the narrative a clever bit, so brief it almost could be missed, that the French do not understand who Job is. "It was difficult to get across to them what the Book of Job was. Harvey's French wasn't at fault, it was their knowledge of the bible of which, like most good Catholics, they had scant knowledge" (p 359). Elsewhere, there is a discussion regarding the correct translation of the Bible to understand whether Job's wife admonished him to 'bless' or to 'curse' God. What Spark subtly does by including this, is to set up the difference between faith and reason. Harvey tries to figure out the 'only' problem by reason. Others don't understand because of their faith, a belief in things not seen. One can choose to believe that one's actions predetermine or influence one's fate. Or, one can choose to believe that, despite a loving God and one's faith in him, bad things can happen. The solution to the 'only' problem may be to not use Job as a moral yardstick. Rather, be ignorant of Job (or, at least ignore him), of the 'only' problem. Instead,choose to do what is right and moral, and choose to be content with it. As Harvey states at the end, he will live 140 years, like Job. He stated earlier that Job probably continued to suffer. Harvey will too, despite the sense of harmony in the final chapter.