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cosimogrey
Piero di Cosimo, The Hunt (Scena di caccia)

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Piero di Cosimo, The Return from the Hunt

Gentle readers and friends,

Stop a minute and look at the pictures displayed before you just above. Notice in the picture traditionally called “The Hunt” and (rightly) attributed to a man we know as Piero di Cosimo depicts not only the savage cruelty the half-animal human beings enact towards the full animals but how the animals themselves, driven wild by pain, turn on one another. Notice the animal struggling to get loose of the human being in the center. If we can’t kill it, it’s immortal was a sign supposedly seen in a gunshop in the southern US in the 1960s. Then look at the picture traditionally called “The Return from the Hunt,” and notice the tender loving nurturing care of some of the figures towards animals and small babies. Two women dressed in fur in the center of the painting care for what looks like a small puppy.

These are but two of the paintings on display in an exhibit of Piero di Cosimo’s works that (alas) just closed at the National Gallery (last day, May 3rd, Sunday). There’s also “The Theft of Fire and Prometheus Punished:”

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The separate incidents set in one large frame like a medieval tale (or modern cartoon in a newspaper) tell a story of egregious injustice, which just gets worse. These are to be found in 7 rooms worth of Piero di Cosimo’s art.

Not all is desperate consolation and clinging or bleak outcomes, there’s a story of Vulcan and Aeolus, which like a number of the conventional Madonnas, and Childs, Christ, John the Baptist and the rest of it, has details which don’t fit into any secure (bogus) narrative, but offer vignettes on life’s experiences, some playful, some vicious, some senseless.

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One of my favorites looks like a building site. We see a palace newly built and all around it small figures hard at work, putting things away, carting things, planning, with ordinary life just going on around them. This one has had dense allegoresis.

Cosimo seems to be very fond of animals. We have sweet lion faces in the altar pieces. Dogs here and there, unrecognizable animals (as in medieval paintings, showing the man had not seen the creature he was depicting).

What are we to make of this? that Cosimo was an astonishingly original mind as heretic when it came to his visual art? Vasari suggests, denigratingly, Piero was illiterate. I wonder if he was hiding himself in plain sight. The exhibit shows the high intelligence (in straight portraiture),

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wit, sense of life’s crazy tragedies and finally concentration of mind and knowledge of out-of-the-way aspects of the classical and Biblical stories this painter knows about. The dullest of Madonnas has playful doings in images. Anthony Grafton in his “The Ravishing Painting of Piero …. ,” in the New York Review of Books for May 7, 2012, does justice to subtle brilliance and high intelligence seen in the stories told, Madonnas and children and old men undercut by the stories that go with them.

I took my black-and-white or gray image from Panofsky’s famed Studies in Iconography, the third chapter of which includes a romantic nostalgic interpretation and Renaissance small rebellions which petered out, against a mirroring of what we see upper middle English society is. Panofsky’s reading does not proceed from painterly analysis (what is there, the colors, even the tone), is not practical but rather an allegoresis of visions.  I suggest as with Tiepolo you need to look at  the faces of the smaller people, see what they are doing or not to the sides of the big scenes and there you find Piero.

I regret to say I cannot find if this exhibit is traveling somewhere else where there is a cultural life and orchestras. So this blog is here to alert you, to keep out a guarded eye. Walter Benjamin’s essay on the necessity of seeing the unique work of art if it’s a painting, or sculpture. a tapestry, piece of furniture is vindicated. It’s that there are 7 rooms so we can see “down’ to the smaller achievements, get a sense of a career. The true limpid intense colors.  Piero di Cosimo’s imagined stories are deeply sceptical, pessimistic, ironic, humorous, tragic, it’s all there. I’d say Ingmar Bergmann’s Seventh Seal is an equivalent.

I also spent some time in a smaller exhibit of paintings by Americans at the turn of the 19th century, mostly impressionistic, from the Corcoran; if you live in DC and missed it, you could walk or take the train to the Corcoran.

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John Singer Sargent, Setting out to Fish, 1878.

My spirit was lifted up; I felt I communed across time. It was so cheering to feel oneself in contact with once there individuals who rejected in their times the equivalent of the materialism, nonsense, sheer stupid noise engulfs us if we don’t make a private space of retreat to share with others.

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The question, using Poussin’s paintings, in his The Sight of Death, T.J. Clark sets out to answer, explain, develop, is why and how do paintings communicate deep feelings and thoughts. Clark is a left-liberal person and knows Poussin was reactionary, the stories are esoteric classical legends and myths, the paintings still, and yet he is deeply moved. Jim and I loved and responded deeply to Poussin together. The paintings chosen include Landscape with a Calm and Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake. There are lots of close ups of the figures’ terror and panic and grief in the latter; of everyday sudden doings by characters in the former.

Reading the book last night I realized one needs to answer why say Piero di Cosimo’s pictures made me feel better about being alive because his spirit was in them and it was a good one. he is altogether more playful than Poussin. Sargent is so varied I can’t begin to make a nugget summary: he is endlessly interesting and presents strange beauties in life.  So we enjoy. How did I know or feel that. Clark attempts to meditate over and over colors, shapes, schemes of representation, bits of content. I was too tired to take the specifics in but the endeavour is worthy and will return to this.

Jim would have so enjoyed the Piero paintings.

Ellen

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Only in semblance are the outward and inward seasons of a life identical; in verity, wealth of experience is the sole measure of living, and the spirit is timed by another clock than that of the calendar. Under the intoxication of destiny, the mind may traverse lengthy periods in a few days; whereas long years may count for nothing when life is void of momentous spiritual happenings …

for the biographer, who is concerned with the inmost story of a life, only the pulses of passion count. A human being is not fully alive except when his best energies are at work; and when feeling is active, time moves swiftly though the clock-hands circle at the customary pace …

as in dreams, one under stress of powerful affects lives through measureless epochs between two ticks of the pendulum; and with each of us it is as with the enchanted man in the folk-tale who fancied that he had spent a thousand years in the interval between two heart-beats. — Stefan Zweig, as translated by Eden and Cedar Paul, in Mary Queen of Scots (1935)

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This image is in the movie

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Welcoming the guests

Dear friends and readers,

I’m at a loss as to why or how Wes Anderson claims the connection of this and his group of film-makers’ The Grand Budapest Hotel, with Zweig the movie is so unlike what I’ve read by Zweig (and not only in his Mary Queen of Scots). Anderson has been responsible for the publication of a group of selected works by Zweig titled The Society of the Crossed Keys, and a fair reading shows the same unironic, deeply immersed reverie-voice of Mary Queen of Scots, this time lightened so as to tell the tale of his parents, childhood, and two stories, from one of which, the art-house film, woman-centered, epistolary, all over-voice, Max Ophuls’s The Letter from an Unknown Woman was made (see my Significant Women’s Films).

The Grand Budapest Hotel, featuring Ralph Fiennes as M. Gustave, concierge of said hotel, is a surreal tongue-in-cheek controlled caricature of other films of the upstairs/downstairs type from Downton Abbey (clearly in mind by its focus on a butler and ostentatious Edwardian feel inside the hotel) to the Grand Hotel (by Vicki Baum, adapted in 1929), to horror films, with an assassin who is a Frankenstein (Boris Karloff has not been forgotten) as brutal murderer. We rush through (as part of a long comic chase) scenes an archetypal museum — shown as basically a boring mausoleum that crowds are found in, why hard to say. We see armed groups at checkpoints at borders of countries with machine guns waiting for others in trains.

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A checkpoint

Have you got your papers? No! off the train with you — and death awaits. It reminded me of the film adaptation of Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale (scripted by Pinter) in its simulation of scenes from everyday life characterized by impersonality, absurd demands from people at desks, convenience stores, uniforms.

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On the elevator

It is filled with bizarre images of our own society, from over militarized terrifyingly armed, masked police, to miserable prisons and prisoners, to half-crazed people starving, to rich people over-catered to at dinners, in lobbies, trains, suddenly on a carousel,

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and especially spectacularly a funeral for a grotesquely dried-up old super-rich lady, Madame D. (Tilda Swindon) that M Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) catered to, and was a lover of, as he is of everyone who wants him he says (generous man cannot keep anything to himself); a funeral, I say, where greedy relatives are led by a half-crazed would-be heir (Adrian Brody) who wants to murder M Gustave because the old woman left everything, and especially a picture, to M. Gustave. The picture is a caricature of admired art today (cartoon-like figures, mindless, with an apple — think Francis Bacon).

Images, stylized shots, sudden frozen or slow-moving stills whatever you want to call them are what the film has to offer at its best.

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An inside shot

The way these are offered is this: We begin in a graveyard — young girl comes to Zweig’s gravestone (is it? — not sure) and finds many keys attached to the stone, and attaches one herself. She sits to read and we hear talking an over-voice of the bell boy, Zero (Tony Revolori), now grown old and owner of Grand Budapest. He takes us back to time to him as a middle-aged man by a young boy in a train station (I’m not sure which he is) and then back we go in time further to the height of the Grand Budapest Hotel’s life as a place for rich people to come on holiday to. But if you were expecting a sort of Gosford Park with an Agatha Christie flavor (I was), that’s not it at all: instead we get a browned kind of coloring film narrative so we feel we are in a past, and narrative over-voice (still Zero is talking) that presents to us all the types in the hotel, very tongue-in-cheek and slowly, stylized gestures, everyone moving in time with parallel gestures. Finally we meet, M Gustave, concierge, and watch him take up Zero. Then switch to Zero grown older as our narrator and he is sitting down with another guest — most guests sit alone – and proceeds to tell the story — and all drops away to reveal …

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People at work, scurrying about

The movie has problems — like most reviewers have said. First it has little story — once it’s established the Zero inherited the hotel and its in desuetude there’s nothing much to present. It does make fun of how people are often socially dysfunctional when they kid themselves they are socializing. Everyone eats alone. Zero does fall in love with a girl on the staff (there is a staff who we glimpse every so often eating downstairs in a corridor at a long table): such as it is, it’s a chase, with the old lady’s heir seeking to murder Gustave and his sidekick, Zero, and snatch back the picture. Agatha is Zero’s beloved’s name (honoring Christie), played by Saorise Ronan who trots about with the priceless (awful) picture; she is a stereotype of good cautious girl (good girl messages everywhere), bringing with her the baggage of awfulness (difficult, she’s difficult) from Hampton, Wright and McEwan’s Atonement where she played an adolescent girl who falsely claimed rape and of course ruined the lives of a beloved hero and heroine (Keira Knightley and James McAvoy).

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Cooking downstairs to serve the people who count

Yes there is much anti-feminism if you call it anti-feminism to present mocking depictions of lecherous old women straight — not much tongue-in-cheek at all. The jealousy among the males for both the old woman and the young is not one of the areas the movie sends up. So male novels deriving from sexual anxiety are sympathized with.

The film is enlivened by appearances of famous stars — the friends of Fiennes? or Anderson? Bill Murray, Jude Law, William Dafoe, Harvey Keitel, Tom Wilkinson (as “the author”). Each delivers a virtuoso moment. As will be seen it’s your usual movie: mostly males with the token two women.

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Personnages

What keeps it going is a long chase. Essentially it’s a stunt-movie. Fiennes and Revolori (and their stunt-men) performs feats of comic derring-do and miraculous escapes from prisons, down manholes, across snow-covered Alpine landscapes. Intertitles giving us chapter headings help things along.

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Flight

It’s funny — I laughed at witty jokes now and again. We learn the world is a vast place made safe for the rich because they can make the right phone call to the right person who can send a luxury cab to pick you up anywhere you want — in the nick of time. Bob Balakan as M. Martin (head of everything) is hilarious at this. But it’s a game without meaning, put there for the Poloniuses of the audience, who need a jig or they sleep (the uttered jokes are not of the self-reflexive type I remember Ronald Colman uttering in Prisoner of Zenda) .

Prison

You could leave the movie not aware it is through the images a silent satire of our political world where 1% own everything worth while and bully and brutalize and terrorize everyone else — though surely you’d have to be dull to miss it. The alienation is conveyed mostly through Fiennes’s inimitable sudden moments of inquiring gentle candor or (conversely) wild savage cursing where suddenly he is human. I am not sure it does not reinforce favorite myths as the story-line may be said to be about how M. Gustave teaches Zero to take control by self-control amid mad antics (reminding me of Breaking Bad) and then we watch him hand this world over to Zero who however did not live happily ever after since Gustave died young as did Agatha.

It was playing in a huge theater near me which has 22 auditoriums, most of them playing utter trash films, junk, popular action-adventure, Disney whatevers the sort of thing I cannot get my mind to listen to to process. Grand Budapest Hotel was in theater 22 — way up on top, a small auditorium. I’ve no doubt it was there because Fiennes is a box office draw. There were quite a number of people in the auditorium given the size of the space — and we were subjected to 15 previews and loud obnoxious endless feeds of commercials. I did walk out to sit in the corridor until the movie started as the pre-movie stuff had the effect of making me so jarred and nervous I would not have time to calm down before the movie started. Somehow this real framing of the movie was fitting.

That I had to walk to get there (I’m policed by invisible computers which could flash light through my suspended license tags) through sidewalks not meant for pedestrians, fell twice, was fitting too. I wish the mood had been bitterer — Zweig’s stories are sometimes desperately suicidal.

Ellen

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Renee Fleming

Dear friends and readers,

As part of a friend’s long weekend visit, I planned for us to go to 3 places, and see one concert, one play, one movie. We’d have plenty of time inbetween (I hoped) to walk, talk, watch TV (even, shoverdosing on say Downton Abbey), eat. Maybe we didn’t have quite enough time to do all that. What also got in the way was the cold weather and occasional struggles to find my car.

Renee Fleming put together a remarkable three days of American voices at the Kennedy Center; we experienced a powerful expressionistic Romeo & Juliet at the Folger, and happened on beautiful and interesting objects in the National Gallery.

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The first place was Kennedy Center, and when we got there, we realized what I thought might be a concert was master-training session and three chosen students after which there was a panel discussion with Fleming herself, and people high in the particular music world the training sessions were in.

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It turned out that what was happening was for 3 days and nights an exploration of “American voices” (as it was billed) was going on in different parts of the building. Opera, musicals, country, rock, gospel, pop. It was made to happen by Renee Fleming whose position, respect, prestige, knowledge of people (they are her friends) could create something like this. We had stumbled onto something remarkable, and I really think we might have seen the most interesting musically.

The first session with Eric Owens correcting, urging teaching three superb young opera singers. He was witty and wise. The panel then came out on stage and discussed education, starting a career, what kind of training do opera singers get today, what kind of voices do audiences prefer today as opposed to the early 20th century, how HD was problematic for older women singers, and for a trade where what had counted was the voice, and now what was counting was an image. What about non-traditional casting in these works, African-American casting. I loved some of Owens’s replies. How does he cope with rejection — implied on the basis that he’s African-American: traditional casting is the rigorous norm it seems in Europe. He said if a place or organization didn’t want him, he didn’t want to be there. I could see that Fleming was going to ask questions that were appropriate for each kind of music and that the training session by the “master” was going to bring out different aspects of the different arts. Susan, a woman we met later wrote a fine account of the Jazz session.

The whole thing reminded me of one summer Jim and I attended 5 Sondheim musicals; over the course of that summer Sondheim was explored in all sorts of ways, music made all over the building. I asked my friend if she’d like to go the musical session. I love musicals and it was on at 11 on Sunday, a free time for us still, and I could bring us by car. Alas, it was sold out. According to one review, the concert was a disappointment as the singers did not seem to have taken their learning into their art, but as most know, someone’s art develops slowly.

But we were not done: there was the 6 o’clock free Millennium stage. So first we ate out in the upstairs cafeteria. It was too cold to go out on the terrace, and we got involved in a conversation with Susan, an on-line theater critic of music. A lot of the people at these sessions were singers, teachers, people involved in music. I learned there is a long line to get a seat for the 6:00 o’clock show by 5:30 but we got seats. Two sets of singers: one more operatic set of songs (I began to cry at one it was so movingly sung), and the other Jazz singers from Howard University (Afro-Blue songs).

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The second place was the Folger Shakespeare theater. My friend had not been in it before and her fresh eyes enabled me to realize what a small theater it is, never mind the columns and woodwork everywhere getting in the way. It is quaint, but this season the company inhabiting it is “all Shakespeare, all the time,” and the exhibit showed us actors from Shakespeare’s era to our doing parts of the plays the company is doing this year. The Folger Shakespeare library has just about everything one wants from the 16th through later 17th century as part of Shakespeare’s life, and then it has a remarkably rich theater collection moving on to our own time as part of the world of the theater. Naturally they could form such an exhibit.

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Romeo (Michael Goldsmith) and Juliet (Erin Weaver)

I thought the play itself wonderfully well done, the best Romeo and Juliet I’ve ever seen. Someone had had the idea of really making our star-crossed lovers into young teenagers so the play was no longer about love, but fierce idealism, childish or irresponsible crazed and innocent behavior, and murderous impulses in the human spirit. Dumb shows were able to bring out male abusiveness, macho-ness, especially as inflicted on cowed women. It was expressive, symbolic, a play meant to speak to us today. They kept the comedy, the poetry, Mercutio was more of a careless amoral bully, which made his death more endurable to all. The acting was superb.

I was moved to near tears remembering what a dead body is like, soared in the light of Shakespeare’s lines done so aspirationally, so sardonically …. Sophie Gilbert found the production uneven; he intense Juliet and pitch prefectly naive Romeo is done justice to by Peter Marks.

I had forgotten how much I love Shakespeare and began to remember the first time I ever saw a Shakespeare play: I was 17 and had gone to the Delacorte theater, run by Joe Papp at the time in Central park. (The plays are still being done today — though half the audience has pre-paid. When I went many of the people waited on line and got seats on a first come first serve basis.) My favorite research spot — the Folger library rich in everything that could possibly connect to Shakespeare — not far off, nor the bookshop, I felt for a moment that I had broken the spell of the vise of misery seemingly clutching to my throat like some halter around my neck since this past August when Jim’s cancer metatasized into his liver.

On Eric Posner:

We ate nearby — in one of the restaurants in the row facing the Jefferson building of the Library of Congress. A Chinese place, it was pretty, but my dinner was awful and I couldn’t eat it. We should have followed the advice of a woman who told us she runs tours and gone to Union Station on the Metro, then my friend and I could have seen that place and maybe gotten a better restaurant. Can’t win ’em all. I had wanted to show my friend the Capital Hill area, with its Botanical Garden, and we saw just a bit of it, especially the Library of Congress’s three buildings (John Adams with its Canterbury pilgrims frieze on the top floor) and the elegant older houses in rows all around it.

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The third place was the National Gallery. We did choose to go where there would be fine art and paintings — maybe next time we’ll try the Newseum or Smithsonians for cultural artefacts and lectures. To go there was to include the Quad, 14th street, but the wind defeated us and we rushed into the Gallery. Kathy was dismayed by the exhibit she had especially wanted to see: volumes of Ovid’s Metamorphoses . She thought we’d see Latin texts, hear of who read them, how influential they were (on the arts). Instead we were into post-modernism: how was the average person responding to this text, and it was clear the curators thought the average person could not read Latin and was into these translatoins. It is true that in England there were a number and some of great poetic power. This is the first time I saw the French ones (mostly in prose) and the Italian. There were some modern translations and there we saw how the book illustrations changed: Pablo Picasso was among those who illustrated books with Latin texts in translation in the 1930s.

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I love happening on exhibits or favorite objects in the collection. We happened on a 5 room journey through Paris as photographed by Charles Marville who caught the old Paris being destroyed, people displaced, and filmed demolition and despair. We saw the price the new Paris (so familiar to us) with its great boulevards, and beautiful buildings. Marville created picturesque scenes too:

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On the way from there to the Ovid exhibit, we happened on a set of sculptures on the theme of Diana, of women who retreated with a special animal — in bronze beautiful strong women’s bodies austere looks on their faces.

Upstairs I visited old friends in the collection. Corots, impressionists, Pissarro, a Turner. The rotunda filled with flowers.

Down by elevator, we bought snacks in the cafeteria and sat near the waterfall. The huge bookstore tempted us and we were sorely tempted by a book called Dressed as in a Painting; it looked so perceptive and its angle so pleasing but the price was $40.

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We went through the glittering diamond-starred moving walk to the other part of the museum, East Building and modern art. There we were to have seen Piero Paolo Pasolini’s Comizi d’amore but it was late, we were tired and wanted to get home before dark.

So we retraced our way back in the museum to where we had come in — rather like Hansel without his breadcrumbs — but eventually we were in the right vestibule with our coats and hastening across the squares and streets into the Metro to get out of the bitingly cold wind.

A piled-in time — my legs were aching by the end, my back, my friend was exhausted she said. Jim and I would do this kind of thing regularly, but not so much all at once, over say a few weeks or over a period of months we’d have subscriptions to a theater or opera company. My friend and I did not have the luxury of much time. Still amazing she made it from Iowa, stayed in a comfortable near-by not expensive hotel, met and talked with Izzy, saw my house, all my books, and the pussycats too.

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Ian on my desk, near my Vittoria Colonna book

I’ve vowed to myself I shall return to going to the Folger regularly, keep an eye on what films are on, and try to discern the presence of a music festival.

Ellen

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TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE
Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northrup re-named Plat when a slave (Twelve Years a Slave, directed Steven McQueen, screenplay John Ridley)

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Jay Morris Hunter as Ahab (Moby Dick, San Francisco opera production, Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer)

Dear friends and readers,

Yesterday and in the wee hours of the night I watched two movies I’d like to recommend not missing if you can help it. Both much worth immersing yourself in — thinking about in the case of Twelve Years a Slave and allowing the alluring beauty of the mood and music to bring you in with Moby Dick.

From what I hear other people say to one another, Twelve Years a Slave is misrepresented in ordinary talk somewhat. Since “word-of-mouth” retains its importance in making for a popular movie hit, I’m hurrying a little to write about Twelve Years. If seen by enough people, it could function (mildly) as Uncle Tom’s Cabin once did — this time to help against racial discrimination and racist thinking so prevalent in the US still. People have told me in some areas the film has not opened so maybe I’m precipitantly worrying the film will not be a commercial success. In my area it did open in our local art cinema; the owner rejoiced at getting two prints but it’s already in Theater 4 (smaller and not for continuing hits) and not many people were in the audience yesterday after only a week; and among these were a number of black people, so not many whites in the audience. This theater is not one black people go to much; it’s in an area that’s mostly white, upper middle and attracts art-film audiences. For The Butler I did have to go to Theater 4 but it had been playing for weeks and weeks, all summer in fact, and still the theater (4) was filled and it had a preponderance of white people. The Butler crossed the racial divide. In a nearby theater to me which has large black audiences The Butler was sold out on and off for weeks, long lines of black people waiting to go, early on and then the whites joined them.

Scuttlebutt (or what I’m told or read by friends) is how violent and hard to watch it is. It’s not non-violent and not easy to watch but not because you are shown excruciating torture or close-up shocking violence, nor is this perpetual or at all gratuitous. The violence wreaked on slaves that we see is precisely what will subdue and cow them (not nothing because it’s harsh and includes implicit threats of death), the beatings shown at a distance as (horrifyingly to decent emotions) par for the course, the ordinary routine of treatment for slaves. The coerced sex scenes (on the slaves Patsy played so effectively by Lupita Nyong’o) by the master Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbinder who does steal the movie) are not all that much different from what I’ve seen of half-rape type scenes in (soft-corn implicitly hard sex) movies which don’t name it that. The woman just lies there and lets him.

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Patsy asking Plat to help her kill herself

What’s memorable about the scene so many reviewers have mentioned of our hero, Solomon Northrup renamed Plat (Chiwetel Ejiofor) where he’s hung and will die if he does not manage to keep his toes on the ground is how everyday it is, how slaves walk by him unable to help him, how the whites watch and do nothing, and how the supposed “good” master (Bernard Cumberbatch as Master Ford) only comes to cut him down late at night lest he irritate his central over-seer. Ford gives him a violin but will not behave towards him as if he were a human being whose life matters.

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Plat rented out to a man who allows him to keep the money he’s paid for his violin playing

Twelve Years a Slave (based remember on a 19th slave narrative, a type or sub-genre) increased my respect for Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (essentially several slave narratives interwoven into a middle class type white novel) and watching it helped increase my respect for that nowadays somewhat under-rated book. It has the same attributed flaws — in the sense that there is a reductive quality, a melodramatic exaggeration going on continually so really the charge hurled at Simon Legree that he’s a monster and no one could be that bad and if he were he’d be an exception can be hurled at Epps.

James Baldwin would not like the way Plat is presented as sheerly noble and insofar as he can be good (see “Everybody’s Protest Novel”); he is not an Uncle Tom; he does not justify a(the character who does this who is popular now is Mr Carson in Downton Abbey) or suck up in his case in the face of horrible mistreatment, but he is an innocent as the film opens. When Solomon is lured to the south, it’s obvious that the two men luring him are crooks; they are over-praising him; he is a simpleton in the scenes. Master Ford as a character is better with his well-meaningness, and his inability to keep Plat, whose opinion Ford consults, thus whose abilities arouse the resentment-hatred of his over-seers slave-servant safe is believable, but numbers of the scenes are too obvious, he won’t help Plat for real, regards Plat as property he must sell to keep his debts down so our moral lesson is clear.

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Cumberbatch as the religious ethical man Ford nonetheless showing intense cowardice and lack of real understanding as he briefly explains to Plat why he sells him to Epps

But would such a man sell this man to Epps whom he knows is cruel, sadistic. Epps played as nearly psychotic and seemingly driven by guilt to be even crueller. The central parallel of the two works (Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the film Twelve Years) is this half-crazed white master. Epps is a Simon Legree and his wife a female version. But you do (Stowe and now McQueen) want to make sure the audience gets it.

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Sarah Paulson as Mrs Epps riping off Patsy’s ear and taking a chunk out of her cheek with a knife (in Dickens’s Travels in America he easily exposes slavery quoting the ads for finding escaped or “lost” slaves by the scars they are said to have)

Gets what? the key to the film’s power and importance is we see what happens to people who lose all status all caste worth – and in the case of chattel slavery this is reinforced by law which defines them as property. If they should be owned by a mad-man he is allowed to do as he wishes. The point is what law and custom allows. Sure in the Islamic world most men are not ogres, but the Koran and custom allow horrific treatment and power corrupts. People will use power if they are given it even when not as obvious as Legree or Epps.

The film is relevant to us today because today people lose a great deal of status and caste worth depending on how much money they make, the schools they go to, where they live, if they are broke — and worse, if they are immigrants or of a different racial color than the powerful. I was reminded of a book I recently reviewed on global emigration in the 18th century, enforced diasporas, and mass murder, Hodson’s Acadian Diaspora, where the point was made that safety for the average non-powerful non-connected person depends on staying where you are, among relatives or friends and people whose truth or falsehood you can gauge so not be cheated utterly to your destruction with no recourse in courts not made for you. See also David Denby on Twelve Years (from the New Yorker) as best movie on slavery made in the US thus far.

It seems to reflect a book too: there are intriguing sequences which are not part of the plot-driven movement: a group of Native Americans come to dance before the black slaves as if their culture is what slaves will understood. Other curious moments.

The one real flaw in the film is the ending as has been suggested in reviews and conversations I’ve heard. Not so much that Brad Pitt as Bass (a major contributor of money as a first-named producer) gives himself the role of our one abolitionist talker, and the only man to keep his faith with Plat.

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Brad Pitt as Bass actually listening to Plat (with exaggerated courtesy)

Plat before this trusts a white overseer who seems to be his friend with money in return for taking a letter to the post office to send to the north to reach friends to help him in court; the man tells Epps so immediately that the man does not have the letter as evidence and Plat manages to persuade Epps (not too bright) that he man is lying:

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Half-mad man

The story is improbable Plat persuades Epps, and then we watch Plat burn the hard won paper and writing he did so laboriously with home-made ink and quill.

Bass is a hired architect, an outsider and he does get in touch with authorities up north and friends of Northup — at considerable risk to himself if he’s found out he says.

The flaw begins with how easy it is for the friends to show up & take Northup away. Why did they never look for Northup before? Well, it is true that people were terrified and a reign of terror worked down south (Harriet Martineau’s travels in America books record this) but then it should not have been as easy as we see it for the men to take Northup away Epps should have shot him, would have. We are then not shown the court scenes that would have been another 2 hours but that would have been original and interesting — so let’s hope for a sequel? I doubt it.

The least real moment is the return of Northup to his family. He looks just as innocent and sweet as when he set out. Not haggard, not worn, not much changed at all. His black family is improbably prosperous throughout yet seem to have no connections to anyone black or white outside themselves. All subside into joy in a circle. Plat-Northup keeps apologizing and that makes psychological sense.

I compared the final scene to some photos I’ve seen of Primo Levi when he first returned from concentration camp,haggard, exhausted, not the same ever again. I wondered if a man dragged from freedom to slavery wouldn’t have the same hostage symptoms, the same urges to self-murder and sense of deep humiliation not to be gotten over. We get intertitles to tell us how Northup wrote and published his book in 1853 (Twelve Years in Slavery, and how he worked hard for the underground railway. So he stayed in the US I thought.

But then this quietly ominous final intertitle: no one knows how or when he died or where he is buried. Maybe murdered?

The central performances of male roles as everyone has said are stunningly good. I’ve already named the principles.

As a woman watching I had though to endure the annoyance of women being presented one-dimensionally throughout — except for Patsy the girl who becomes Epps’ concubine; who he beats, who picks heroic amounts of cotton each day — so she is never whipped for under-picking as others are. The two white mistresses are basically either phlegmatic and do nothing (that’s their role) or spiteful: Sarah Paulson Mrs Epps loathes Epps and tries not to have him in her bed, to leave him but he threatens her too – she is a form of his property too (this reminded me of Valerie Martin’s book that won the Orange Prize, Property); Mrs Epps is as sadistic, as sick as her husband, hates Patsy and hurls hard objects at her, knocking her down, cuts her face and ear cruelly, will not let her wash herself so she flees for soap and is gone for a few hours which leads to a horrific scene of Epps beating her and then forcing Plat to do it.

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The scene’s reality for the era (keeping clean was difficult) makes one feel it comes from the book — as one of Indians humiliating themselves by dancing as white people expect

We see one black woman who has become a white man’s open mistress: she is fatuous, self-centered, looks down at other blacks. I don’t say these are not human impulses but that’s all we get of these women. A black woman weeps incessantly because parted from her children; another forces herself sexually one night on Plat.

So it’s masculinist movie — Fanny Kemble’s Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation, 1838-39 depicts the terrifying work load and sexual exploitation and cruelty wreaked on women — and their complicated humanity too. And Kemble as mistress identifies with them and within 4 years leaves her husband — she must leave behind her children to do it, only regaining the friendship of one of them in much later years. Such a thinking upright brave type woman is not in the film.

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Which brings me to the opera of Moby Dick where (like Master and Commander out of the Patrick O’Brien books) where no women are in the film — just remembered as embodying civilization itself.

The one women in the cast was playing the boy, Pip, who is almost drowned. Suffice to say it outlined the major hinge-points of the novel (as seen in a play originally with Orson Welles from the 1940s I once saw), and it brought out the meaningful themes: does life have any meaning? who is this haunted creature-fish and Ahab or Ishmael? they are lonely? Is there a God; if so, is he evil incarnate? The music was alluring, the lines resonant to larger meanings we can identify with through generalizations. Like all films it was made for today, with today in mind. The artwork beautifully picturesque:

The production did not emphasize the primal animal-fish (as did Winston Graham in his last Poldark novel, Bella) but human displacement, alienation. The production did seem to suggest that all would have been well but that the captain was mad. (That’s not the note of the Graham novels.) As I recall the book the thrust is all is not going to be well, never has. We see a dream life or men cut off from where they could know happiness as they are driven to make money in this dangerous occupation.

So I loved the deep melancholy of the men, their desperation to bring home some whale oil for money I see as part of human life. I bonded with the man who survives and calls himself Ishmael. He had wanted to go to an island with Queegqueg and live out our lives as best we can; I felt for Mr Starbuck who is nearly shot point-blank by Ahab, and almost shoots Epps on the way. There are the comic undercutting characters too.

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And he wouldn’t know, he was tempted

This novel centrally attacks tenets of Christian belief, from justice as always or often done, to stories of an afterlife. These are deliberately not love or dynastic stories. He wanted to be spared.

I bring them together because I watched them within 12 hours of one another, and was struck by the shared masculinity identification. For myself the plangent nature of the music, Ishmael as a person alone in this world resonated enough. I think Jim would have enjoyed the great range of the masculine voices they hired. The lines on the screen and wild waters as the ships turning out from lines, the wild waters — all pulled me paradoxically soothed me. The ending of the tale is tragic as is a good deal of life.

Friday nights on TV contain a revival of the old Great Performances which I remember from my childhood, watching with my father on the old Channel 13: Judith Anderson in Medea, a Chekhov play with a male character who lived in an attic with birds, a sad poet, a bitter absolutely perfect Twelth Night (so that’s what is meant), Peggy Ashcroft, Duchess of Malfi. Now a few weeks ago the four Henry plays, from Richard II to Henry V (and the actors and actresses were great from the extraordinary Ben Wishlaw as Richard (this was Shakespeare I thought — ever autobiographical in my reading), Lindsay Duncan as Duchess of York, David Morrisey as Northumberland, Tom Hiddleston as Henry, Roy Kinnear as Bolingbroke become Jeremy Irons as king, Michelle Dockery (Yay!) as Kate, Hotspur’s wife, Simon Beale as Falstaff, (I saw David Bradley too), magnificently done.

I did not realize the new version allows you to watch a re-run (as it were) as a podcast.

Learning to watch TV, a little
Ellen

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Geographies of the Book

Dear friends and readers,

During the all too short time (about a day’s length) I was able to be at the Sharp conference this year, held at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, I enjoyed myself and heard some engaging informative papers — and gave one myself. Although I was able to attend the conference only briefly (as my husband was still recovering from an operation), I would still like to remember and share the gist of what I heard and experienced (as I did two years ago) and what I wish I could have been there for.

I arrived on Saturday, July 20th, around 2:00 pm, in time to attend two panels and in the evening go to a scrumptious banquet (at which there were Philadelphia mummers) and walk around the campus.

No surprise when I decided on “studies in the long 18th century” (e-7, 3-4:30 pm) and “the circulation of 19th and early 20th century genres of medical knowledge” (f-1, 5-6:00 pm). I’m originally an 18th century literary scholar, and for more than 20 years I regularly taught Advanced Composition in Natural Science and Technologies where I devoted a third of the course’s reading to texts on medical science as it’s really practiced in the US today.

Studies in the long 18th century covered shaping French and Polish georgraphical contexts. Elizabeth della Zazzera suggested how the different locations in which literary periodical production occurred Restoration Paris can teach us what were the social worlds and different political agendas of these locations — and how the periodicals in question reflected this. There were many geographic centers in Restoration Paris, some had students, others the rich, clubs here, and booksellers in commercial areas. Ms Zazzera studied and explicated imaginative geographies too. Lorraine Piroux argued Diderot’s Natural Son should be reprinted as it was in the first edition with its preface, 3 conversations, and 2 dramatic narratives as part of a contextualized text. Diderot was trying to establish a new kind of bourgeois authentic drama. A play should be played as if it were life, not art. He was writing experimentally and offering a novelistic contextualization for his play. These texts are today printed separately, divided into different genres.

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Partitioned Poland — 1795-1918

Teresa Swieckowska described the difficult position of Polish authors in the 18th and 19th century — and compared the situations in Germany and England. Poland had been cut up into different terrorities dominated by other national courts and companies; and copyright (a system of privilege with a contradictory evolution) was not an effective except as it aroused interest in a work’s author(s). Most Polish writers of this era were aristocrats, for there was no money to be made. Literary books were not profitable and not respected. Commodification in Poland starts in the later 19th century.

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Medical College of Virginia also a library

The papers on how medical knowledge reached physicians and patients too showed how entangled were social, gender, and racial politics in deciding who could get information, what was available, and how presented. Brenton Stewart’s paper was on 19th century southern medical an surgical journals. He described and discussed specific medical colleges and hospitals (some meant just for “negroes”) & how the dynamics of local power politics shaped knowledge. To disseminate and share medical information across the south physicians and surgeons turned to highly politicized medical journals whose findings included examinations of medicine and surgery forced on slaves. (Afterwards I asked and was told that The slaves were named as well as their “owners”).

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Early health magazine published by the AMA

Catherine Arnott Smith told of the early invention, spread and codification of the Layman’s Medical Journal (a kind of consumer health magazine) by women. She began by saying libraries were places where people could find information, but medical journals were written for other physicians; the earlier policy of associations like the AMA was to withhold information from patients (in order to control and make profits from them). She described the lives & roles of Addie and Julia Riddle who became physicians; of Jessie Leonard who censored movies; hygiene was their goddess; of later titles (Journal of Preventive Medicine, 1910), of political complications, like a Race Betterment League (contraception seems to lead back to eugenics, and women (Martha [?] Stearns Fitts Jones; Lady Cook; Virginia Woodhull) whose class and political positions (especially on the question of prohibition) made it difficult for them to work together. Both scholars studied ads and diaries.

Sunday I went to the session I was giving a paper at, “imaginary geographies iii” (g-3, 8:30-10:00 am), and Ian Gregory’s plenary lecture on using GIS to map and analyze geographical information within texts (10:30-noon).

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Winnie-the-Pooh world mapped

Elizabeth Frengel gave a charming paper on the ideas about, illustrations and lives of Walter Crane and Ernest Shepard. She began with the history of end-papers (where from the later 19th century maps are often found), told of Crane’s writing on the importance of harmonizing text and illustration, and how described Shephard’s maps and illustrations realized the imaginary worlds of Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh and Graham’s Wind in the Willows.

I gave my own paper, Mapping Trollope: Geographies of Power where I argued Trollope’s visualized maps are central means by which he organizes and expresses the social, political and psychological relationships of his characters and themes, that they names places important to him personally; & that through his Irish maps he aimed to put Ireland into his English readers’ imagined consciousness. I show also how his use of maps changed in the later stages of his career to become minutely studied and sceptical geographies of power and take the reader well outside the corridors of power to show that what happens in ordinary places matters too.

The session concluded with Iain Stevenson on the life and “achievements” of a remarkably nervy entrepreneurial crook (soldier, husband of rich wives, Ponzi-scheme initiator), Gregor MacGregor who (among other things) was able to set up and enact crazed schemes of emigration (see my review of The Acadian Diaspora by Christopher Hodson) by exploiting the delusional dreams of independence and wealth among the ignorant abysmally poor and lower middle class. Gregor invented and produced imaginary money as well as countries and Prof Stevenson brought along some original specimens of his Poyais notes.

It was a well-attended session, and there was much stimulating talk for the half hour of time we had. As I wrote, people thanked me for the packet of maps — I gave out old-fashioned good xeroxes of maps from Trollope’s novels instead of doing a power-point presentation. During the discussion on my own paper I raised a note of doubt: Trollope’s maps are not accurate portrayals of the real worlds of Victorian England: for a start, they omit the prevalence of the abysmally poor, the huge industrial complexes (which here and there in his novels he does describe, like St Diddulph’s in He Knew He Was Right, an imagined version of London East End docklands), and thus erase and mislead modern readers and can function as propaganda. I quoted Orwell: “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” People defended the escapist aspect of these imagined worlds. Many more were interested in the history and development of end-papers (which Ms Frenkel had gone over in some detail), and maps for children’s books and mysteries in general. One woman had given a paper earlier in the conference about the practice by one company of putting maps (automatically it seems) on the back covers of published mysteries.

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Posy Simmons map of Cranford for the book that accompanied the TV mini-series adaptation of Gaskell’s short stories — just the sort of end-paper map people were discussing

Ian Gregory showed the conference how analytical and pictorial mapping of the frequency of specific words in paired (Wordsworth and Grey’s written tours of the lake district) or comparative texts (19th century official reports of the incidence of diseases like cholera and small pox in cities in England) can enable a researcher respectively to grasp unexpected emphases and large trends, and suggested the understanding gained this way can be added to close and/or deconstructive readings of texts. He made a lively wry talk out of philosophical, somber and abstract material.

It was then noon and as I had a 1:30 pm train to catch to return home to Washington, it was time for this Cinderella to leave imagined maps and return to her hotel and modern pumpkin coach (a cab) and head back for the 30th Street train station. What I wish I could have heard: more discussion on how maps are exercises in imposing power. I would have gone to session a-2 about maps and reading habits of soldiers and poets of WW1 (especially the paper on Edward Thomas reading Shakespeare); a-8 about why imaginary geography matters to book history; b-6, “books down under”, Australian convict memoirs, radical publishing and schoolgirl books (the Australian session probably included a paper on Ethel Handel Richardson); c-5 which had a paper on Chaucer’s portrait; d-4, the survival of WW2 concentration camp publications and letter culture; d-5, erotics of family books like Jane Eyre’s German daughters in the US (“emigrating books”). But fancy had had to be reined in.

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Wind in the Willows illustration by Shepard

Ellen

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Dear friends and readers,

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Theodore Rousseau (1812-67), Sunset from the Forest of Fontainbeau (the Dyke Collection).

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Walter Howell Deverell (1827-54), Twelfth Night (with Elizabeth Siddal) (Pre-Raphaelites first room)

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Susan Herbert, “King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid after Edward Burne-Jones”

Dear friends and readers,

Though we hadn’t a good leg or knee between us, and it had rained as in a monsoon in the morning, yesterday afternoon Jim and I set forth to the National Gallery around a quarter to two because we had promised ourselves we would see the much advertised new “blockbuster” show of Pre-Raphaelite paintings. It was sunny by then and warm, and by the time we left although I was limping super-slowly, letting myself down the stairs one at a time, and Jim not much better, the experience had been well worth it, though as sometimes happened as much for the “lesser” show, Color, Light and Line, that had not been heralded, trumpeted, advertised, several rooms of quietly brilliant beautiful, unusual 19th & early 20th century French drawings and watercolors (mostly) from the Dyke Collection:

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Gustave Dore (1832-83), A River Gorge in a mountain landscape,

tucked away on the first floor, just before the side entrance of the museum (well after and apart from the ever-expanding Museum shop), as for the Pre-Raphaelites, which despite the large size, unexpected Shakespeare and narrative delights, the delicacy of these, and stunning use of color of other of the paintings, where the colors still sparkled on the canvas

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John Everett Millais (1829-96), Marianna

and originality of still others,

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William Dyce (1806-64), Pegwell Bay

did not teach us anything new about the Pre-Raphaelites as a group.

We learned more about them or their art as a whole a couple of Christmases ago in one of these small unadvertised shows where it was contended the paintings came far more from an interaction of natural landscape, photography, science studies than literary and medieval longings. That it’s easy to make fun of this exhibit, precisely this kind of picture in a group by substituting cats for the people suggests the solemn absurdity of some of the pictures, and the lack of an adequate perspective.

There seemed nothing set before us to make sense of the pictures in the way of an exhibit a couple of years ago. The individual paintings were therefore what one could enjoy, with each of the rooms having a theme. One of the most interesting for me was the one with wallpaper, furniture, tapestries, screens, but nothing was said about Morris or the Pre-Raphaelites politics. Ford Madox Brown’s Work. I put the lack of discourse down to the way just about any decent political talk is simply erased in popular American media. But nothing on religion much either: the Middle Eastern landscapes of Hunt are not presented as landscape natural art but religious iconography (The Scapegoat). Rossetti’s Found (1854, unfinished) was presented as about modern life (!?): how so? were these 19th century Italian outfits? to me, most of all what was the attitude towards sex here.

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(The colors are all blended so that it’s unfinished is part of its charm)

While the paintings often seem to worship female sexuality and reject simple macho-male images, they can equally be seen to proscribe sex altogether. But there was no feminist discourse either. There were some Julia Cameron photos scattered here and there. But no sense of women’s development of an idiom of Pre-Raphaelitism of which there was one (see Deborah Cherry’s book). No Evelyn de Morgan. Nothing to comment on how these girlfriends were used, no comment on a room filled with huge pictures of so-called “beauties” — to me these are grotesque because of the masculine nature of the faces and huge size of the women’s bodies which seem to encompass one.

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This Proserpine by Dante Gabriel Rossetti is less grotesque than the others, but the face is the same and the allusion to women as dangerous (the apple).

Could the room be about fear? In life certainly these men seemed to be in charge — they had the high status, the money, lived much much longer.

And what is the relationship of this Proserpine to this woman, Jane Morris said to be its model? The photo itself by Wm Morris is a perspective on her so she is endlessly constructed for us:

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The exhibit says nothing

This Elizabeth Siddal, A Lady AFixing a Pennant was there, but no explanation. Gentle reader it’s very small with a modest (very inexpensive) frame:

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So, how easy for Susan Herbert to poke fun:

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Susan Herbert’s “The Awakening after Wm Holman Hunt”

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Susan Herbert’s “Pysche after John William Waterhouse”

One consequence was Susan Herbert’s books — two of them in the shop — seemed appropriate without however as I said ruining any enjoyment of the pictures, and the exhibit downstairs feeling superior. Perhaps perversely, but also because I own reproductions of so many of the famous pictures included in the exhibit instead of buying the catalogue, I bought ($40 cheaper), Susan Herbert’s parody, Pre-Raphaelite Cats.

I recommend seeing the exhibit nevertheless. where and when else will you see these astonishing paintings brought together in one place again? Or ever see any of them? The Pre-Raphaelite paintings project, many of them, complex real psychological states, original, beautiful, make statements worth thinking about on sex, religion, social life, and in one room are made from unusual materials too (tapestries, painted chairs, stain glass windows). Although some painters were unaccountably missing (no John Waterhouse), see it also for the lesser known painters, pictures, sculptors, and the striking famous landscapes. e.g., Dyce’s Pegwell Bay. A favorite for me was Ford Madox Brown’s picture from his window: An English Autumn Afternoon — Hampstead — Scenery (1853).

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There was this exquisite small marble scultpure by Alexander Munro, Paolo and Francesca (remember “that day they read no longer” from Dante?):

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There are many photographs of the company and the women who served them and painted themselves (Siddal, Jane Morris, Jane Burden, Fanny Cornforth, about whom we were told nothing, suddenly she was just there and painted as as “Mouth to be Kissed”). The exhibit ends with some series paintings, one on Perseus: The Rock of Doom, The Doom Fulfilled, and the strangely compelling The Baleful Head, the latter (frozen dead images in a fountain looked down at by Perseus and the maiden) influenced George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda.

What seemed to unite the whole show — one sought for something — was finally it literary content, Shakespeare, Scott, a medievalism which became a rationale or cover.

John Anderson’s review of the Pre-Raphaelites (much of it came from the Tate) is not enthusiastic, but Kayleigh Bryant does the movement justice and gives you a slideshow. The exhibition book catalogue expensive but it might come down in price soon.

The shop for the Pre-Raphaelites had the most exquisitely beautiful scarves, sewn exquisitely delicately with strips of velvet. It was all I could do to stop myself from buying one: $60 each so I didn’t. Perhaps they were intended to be there as examples of Pre-Raphaelite kind of craftsmanship or an artistic ideal? If so, no explanation. One was wrapped around a dummy knight.

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I write this blog, then, also to tell of the other exhibit. Color, light, and line.which does not lend itself to cat parodies.

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This George Lemmen was not there, but it represents the quality of the sort of thing by him that was —

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Lemmen was featured as a pointillist and someone who like Vuillard did paintings of the people he lived with doing ordinary domestic tasks — women sewing

Strange these museums and their curators. Not only was the show not advertised (showing a lack of faith in museum-goers), but the catalogue has been printed only as hard-cover and there were few of them in the museum and at high price (over $60). I did buy the catalogue when I came home, on the Net for less than half that price so can’t share many of the pictures and lack the names of the painters and illustrators, several of them relatively unknown.

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Paul Huet, A Meadow at Sunset, pastel

There was a wall of Paul Signacs, Vuillards, Dores, Monets, George Lemmen, Pissaro, Morisot; watercolor, gouache, pen and ink, charcoal, pastel and mixed medium. The periods of art represented include romanticism, realism, impressionism, postimpressionism, pointillism (neo-impressionism), symbolism, the Dykes looked for quality, not coverage, and were delighted to find great work among unknown artists (so were not looking necessarily to make money). Some of my favorites where I can remember the artists’ names were Eugene Isabey, Alexandre Calame, Maxime Lalanne: here’s a selection of small reproductions.

I’ve found a large version of one where you can gather the quality of the paint: Henri-Joseph Harpingies, Autumn Landscape, Washerwoman.

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blog size version

It’s the unexpected that delights us, the unassuming. Many of these were unashamedly romantic: cliffs at twilight, tiny people in forests, near streams. Old people who were nobody. I liked the highly romantic drawings of landscape where there were no people. So often landscapes will have one or two tiny people. Not here.

The Examiner goes over why these colors, light washes, lines should so absorb us, and the nature of the Dyke Collection. The exhibition book catalogue, looks chock-a-block with pictures and has contributions by six people.

There was an informative plaque in tribute to the Dykes who apparently intend to leave most of their collection to the musuem.

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Both shows eshewed painting the rich, famous, the military and the powerful.

Three more pictures:

Arthur Hughes’s April (click for large size which does justice to the purple coloration) is there:

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(blog size version);

this Maxime Lalanne:

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As to the cats, I recommend at least looking at Herbert’s irreverent fond mockery. Apparently she’s done several such books of art with pussycats, often of Victorian pictures. Herbert’s pictures are here on line if you are so unlucky as not to have a live pussycat with you in your home. Looking at them did lead me to some good books on the history of the cat and the pictures we have of them over the centuries, Caroline Bugler’s The Cat: 3500 Years of Cats in Art.

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Susan Herbert, “Ecce Ancilla Domini after Dante Gabriel Rossetti” (making the expression and stance of the women’s scared eyes in the original — rightly terrified of pregnancy?)

Ellen

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Hubert Robert (1733-1808), The Old Bridge (1775) — or The Stranded Pussycat

Dear friends and readers,

On Boxing Day we again went to the National Galley as we have for a couple of years now (see Wiseman and Warhol. (We’ve gone to the Philips Gallery also.) Boxing Day is the second day of Christmas, Victorian and modern style, and the explanation for the custom and name is this was the day people who owned and governed great houses, gave their servants presents in boxes the next day. (They showed this in last year’s Downton Abbey Christmas special.) Our way of doing this is to have fun at museums which some years ago now we learned are ready for us: the National Gallery regularly has a blockbuster show, and side-shows too, are ready for the crowd, which, even in the pouring ice of this past Dec 16th, obliged by coming in great numbers.

I admit we waited until after 1 pm when the sky was merely pouring out rain. So it was an abbreviated Boxing Day, without lunch out in the the museum’s cafe. But when we got there we managed a whirlwind tour by 4 or so, when we decided it looked awfully dark and windy out there, and feared that our Jaguar (with its front-wheel drive) would not be happy if we returned to it in the cold dark.

I cannot say we felt inspired or that anyone’s spirits soared as we went through the rooms of Lichtenstein’s pictures. OTOH, the paintings were compelling in their unexpected mimicry of every day forms. Like the marbled composition book: Laura and Izzy wrote in such books for years; Izzy still does.

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Composition Notebook, a painting by Roy Lichtenstein

There were recognizable washing machines, trash cans (the hinge not open and then open with a woman’s leg in high heels next to it); balls of twine. He seemed to us to be making fun of other artists especially: there was cubism outdone, Picasso exposed (as Lichtenstein first gave us a cartoon-yet-real version of a girl, then half-way to cubism, and then an over-the-top imitation). He redid Monet in his cartoon-y style, and even did seasons (hairy-cupcakes or haystacks in all the seasons).

He’s know especially for his imitation cartoons:

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Drowning girl

Most of them have lugubriously sentimental cries to “Brad”. This one caught my eye because of the scary hands: limp well-manicured large hands are ubiquitous in these cartoons paintings, making them after a while creepy. This one has thick swirling lines while others have dots: hundreds & hundreds in the three colors used by printers all in straight lines. He was once dubbed “the dot man.” In many of these painted cartoons the women — or girls — are supposed sexy. Really they are bland is probably what Lichtenstein shows us. There were a great many of violence action-adventure.

But here and there one glimpsed a love of art and art objects.

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I enjoyed the rooms towards the end of his career where he did his studio in this heavy-line bright single color way, projecting a given decade by a familiar object. Very inventive and very autobiographical too.

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Artist’s studio, foot medication (1974).

There were a couple of beautiful frames of intense color in waves, all shiny (one turquoise blue, the other a pink) that Izzy noticed. One Laocoon with his sons devoured by serpents which emerged from brush strokes of paint.

The show takes you step-by-step through Lichtenstein’s life and works, and milieu. It’s difficult to say what was the original impetus. Lichtenstein had come from a Manhattan family, but transferred to Ohio art school for college, and after WW2 returned to the mid-west to teach. When he came to NYC, he is described as undermining the abstract expressionists, but this seems to me not enough explanation. Lichtenstein did have a financial success using pop –like Warhol — and possibly he found to keep up this kind of ridicule of supposedly pop and cultured art paid well, and his art dealer kept him at making what would sell. The provenance of many of the items was neither the artist’s estate or a museum, but “private collection” (undisclosed). Perhaps later on he felt he could not break out of being “the dot man.” I can’t say. But the exhibition left me cold. Think of how Seurat used dots and one can measure the distance from most of Lichtenstein’s art to visionary painting.

We spent much less time in front of the Michelangelo statue now called Apollo-David — because no one knows which figure the artist had in mind). The statue, though, projected a depth of feeling even in or maybe because of the deliberately unfinished state. There was no hype; it was just in the center of a room. Tellingly, there was hardly any one there. Yet the museums must have gone to intense trouble to move it from Florence to hear. Jim thought maybe they had someone personally carrying it in some super-wrapped package. Handle with care.

Apollo-Davidblog

You can walk very close up and behind and make up your mind whether the figure has a stash of arrows at his back or not.

Two exhibits (one near Lichtenstein) were intellectually stimulating and we had the fun of feeling we came upon them by chance. We hadn’t: “The Shock of the News” was next to the Lichtenstein. The stuff wasn’t shocking but it was an exhibit of newsprint, starting before WW1 when there was a fad for putting newsprint inside a frame or making it part of a painting and bringing the exhibit up to the 1980s or so. Again I was startled to see famous and familiar headlines and pictures (as Lichtenstein startles me). The point of the exhibit was to show the viewer how central newspapers were in our experience at the time — today they’ve been partly replaced by the Internet. You had to take time to read the fine print and look at the images and also read what the curators had to say.

It was a trip through recent history from the angle of what would sell to the general public, what could attract attention.

There was an exhibit of camera work where artists took photos of people or places at intervals over the years was where last year we saw a marvelous exhibit of Pre-Raphaelite landscapes which taught me I had very narrow and distorted views of Pre-Raphaelitism. I watched individuals grow old, sometimes sad; places change or remain the same; one series of four sisters covered a wall – them when teenagers to them in their sixties. They looked like they loved one another, at least stayed together through many an ordeal and some happy moments (at beaches) too.

The National Gallery museum (like the Met in NYC) also practices replacing or changing around permanent exhibits so as to bring up from storage art objects they used to keep hidden in the basement. One large one (it seemed to us) was of American art: furniture, paintings, objects of all sorts (from chess sets to book holders to various instruments). Much of it from the later 18th century into the middle 19th. It was fun for me to recognize Martha Jefferson Randolph’s son (I just read Kierner and Gordon-Reed’s books). Some of the paintings were unexpected good psychological studies. I got an especial kick out of things like an early 19th century chess set.

We didn’t neglect some of our favorites of the permanent collection. Wm Turner, a turn of the 19th century landscape, some Corot, other landscape artists of the later 17th century. For example, this one with its sweet dog:

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Wm Turner, Mortlake Terrace (1827)

For me the best art experience of the day was to come upon the original of Hubert Robert’s The Old Bridge, a favorite of mine, a copy of which is scotch-taped to one of the walls in my workroom — and to discover for the first time the top rung has an old woman reaching out for her tiny cat. Look again, dear reader. You see see a cat crouched on a narrow gate-looking iron. The old woman is trying to reach the poor creature, fearful it will fall.

Nowadays I see cats everywhere — and keep confirming they are in a lot of paintings.

At Christmas the National Gallery becomes a building filled with genuinely stimulating art objects, with good cafes to eat at. It’s not wildly over-crowded (like the Met). Many (but not too many) people enjoying either the exhibits and art or the flowers and furniture arrangements and music in various garden-courts. If you’re seeking some tradition, some habit to enable you to get through this winter holiday season with good memories to cling to, I advise Boxing Day at the National.

I’ll be away for 4 days, at the MLA Conference in Boston. When I come home I hope to have a lot to write about again — as Jim likes to go the modern sessions, all about the movies, is not Eurocentric, looks to understand history. He says we will go to one “unfogged” dinner of bloggers on the Net. I hope we won’t be too cold. We stay at the St Botoph’s Club, a place with a good restaurant, nice rooms, with a long tradition of having music concerts and art lectures and the like.

Ellen

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