Wednesday, February 15, 2017

5 (Long) Reasons Why You Should Come to the USA

moody shot of sunrise over pine forest
Sunrise in northern Michigan, November 2016
I try not to write politically charged posts on this blog, preferring instead to keep the focus on art and creativity. But it's been pretty hard to ignore the news lately, and as every day passes I feel more impelled to say something that speaks to the moment.

If you love Donald Trump, you might believe that there is a media conspiracy dedicated to preventing him doing what he was elected to do. If you loathe Donald Trump, you might already think he's done enough to be impeached. Instead of stepping into that minefield, I've just been trying to think of what I would say to a foreigner if they asked me the question: Why should I come to the United States?

It's been almost exactly fifteen years since I moved here from England, so this is partly for my own benefit, too, to enumerate some of the good things I continue to see in my adopted country:

  • The landscape: the variety of the landscape in the US is incomparable. Things that stand out in my mind after travelling to 36 states: taking long walks through the hills, mountains, woods, and swamps of Vermont; watching the sun set in the Nordic pine forests of northern Michigan; driving through the rolling prairie grasslands of South Dakota, seeing the wind take visible form as it swept across a vast swathe of grass, bending the tops of the stalks and creating a shadow that rolled towards our car from five miles away like a single wave on the ocean; the astonishing beauty of the western deserts, from the high desert of New Mexico to the Mars-like red rock landscape of the Mojave desert to the spiky Joshua Tree-filled lands of the western Mojave. One can find similar examples of outstanding natural beauty in different parts of the globe, but I can't think of another country that has some of the best examples of every kind within its borders.
  • The cities: yes, it's true that consumer culture seems like it can turn every town into an identikit collection of roads, ranch houses, and strip malls, with a Starbucks on every corner and a Walmart out by every highway. But the further you go in the States, the more you see the individual cultures of different cities: the Yankee-Irish vibrancy of Boston, the colossal energy of New York City, the Caribbean-French-Black culture of New Orleans, the Mexican-Indian heritage of the southwest, the subtle laid-back feel of San Francisco. 
  • Friendliness: if I only watched cable news, I would probably end up hating everyone and everything, no exceptions. But if I step back and think about everyone I know, and most of the people I have met during my time here, I would say that everyone, almost without exception, has behaved politely towards me on first meeting. And some of the finest human beings I've ever met -- the most intelligent, the most civic-minded, the most outward-looking, the kindest, the funniest, the most beautiful -- are Americans.
  • Positive attitude: it's a cliche about Americans that they are positive, "have a nice day" spouting go-getters. But the cliche happens to be true. If, like me, you're a European with an awareness of the tragedies of human history and a generally pessimistic view of human nature, the American disposition to believe that the best is yet to come and that everything will turn out ok in the end can be wearing. But I only have to spend a little time in Europe, where a general "can't-do" attitude can turn asking for a coffee into a power struggle, to make me miss being among people who generally want to make something happen rather than complain about the impossibility of changing things.
  • Openness: this is related to the last point. In England, and even when I encounter British people in the States, I can guarantee that within a few minutes of meeting for the first time, the "accent game" will be underway. That is, the British person will say to me "where are you from?" As soon as you name your home town, you can almost see the wheels turning in their brains as they try to answer the question they really want to ask, which is "what is that accent?" Which to a British person, means "what does your accent say about your social origins, and where do I place you on the social scale in relation to my accent?" In the USA, a variation of this can happen, but usually because even the mildest foreign accent can sometimes completely flummox them (particularly, I have to say, rural Americans). It's never about social class. Mostly, when I tell an American where I'm from, they just say they've always wanted to visit there, they did visit and they loved it, or they have relatives who came from there.

There are other things I could say, but if you've never visited the USA before, the cities, landscape, and the general attitude of the people are still more than enough reason for you to consider a visit.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Masterpieces Restored

When you enter the church of St. Sulpice in Paris, there is a small side chapel immediately on the right decorated with murals painted by Eugene Delacroix. Regular readers might know that Delacroix is a particular favourite of mine, and I've always wanted to look at these works, but they've been covered for renovations during my last few visits to Paris. To my delight, they were finally back on display when I went to the church n the middle of January.

Place St Sulpice, Paris
Corner of the Place St Sulpice with the church in background
On the left of the chapel as you face it, you see Jacob Wrestling with the Angel. Looking up, you see St Michael and the Dragon. On the right, you see Heliodorus Driven From the Temple.

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel

Heliodorus Driven from the Temple

St Michael and the Dragon
It's always a good question to ask why a public painter chose certain subjects, and these seem at first curious choices. In the story of Jacob, it's possible that Delacroix saw a metaphor for his own struggle with painting. This interpretation is reinforced by clues Delacroix painted into the pile of clothing lying in the foreground: the arrows sticking out of the quiver are actually paintbrushes, and the straw hat is painted from Delacroix's own hat. Delacroix worked on the commission for twelve years, and in fact he moved to a studio-house on the Rue de Furstenburg (now the marvellous Musee Delacroix) to be closer to the church.

After years of anticipation, I confess I was slightly disappointed in the murals. They don't have the power of the great paintings that now hang in the Louvre, such as The Death of Sardanapalus. But they are nevertheless filled with that instantly recognisable use of writhing human figures, and his mastery of complementary colours (particularly the red-green contrast in the Jacob painting).

Six restorers worked for more than a year on the restoration, and even in my less-than-great photos you can see how the colours.


Thursday, February 2, 2017

From the Journal of the Society of Arts, February 1864

While researching a new blog post about seeing Eugene Delacroix's murals in the church of St. Sulpice, Paris, I came across this announcement from the Journal of the Society of Arts, 1864:


It's a report of the sale of the entire contents of his studio, which is on the Rue Furstenberg in the St Germain des Pres district -- and which I wrote about visiting two years ago. Certain details indicate the excitement of the writer, even in what is otherwise a report of objects and prices: "contains no less than 858 lots," "numerous and remarkable decorative works of art." It goes on to describe the sketchbooks and watercolours:


The final part of the notice talks about the success of the sale, and the large sums of money being paid for the works:


The final total is between 7,000 and 8,000 pounds, which would be roughly 600,000 pounds at the current exchange (I used a chart from the Bank of England's website to do the conversion). A later notice, at the completion of the sale, states a total of 15,000 pounds, or about 1.5 million. Even that seems on the low side, considering how much an estate sale of a comparably important artist of our times would fetch.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Imagine a Room Like This

Following on from my last post, which talked about seeing the contents of Andre Breton's studio: the Orangerie, at the edge of the Jardins des Tuileries, houses Monet's giant Nympheas paintings on the upper level, and on the lower level the collection of Paul Guillame. Guillaume was an art dealer who owned many works by Modigliani, Soutine, Matisse, Braque, and Picasso. But what I found really interesting during my last visit was a tiny, dolls' house-sized mock-up of some of the rooms in his apartment:

Paul Guillaume's dining room

This was on the Avenue Foch, one of the poshest streets in Paris (it's a wide boulevard that runs west from the Arc de Triomphe). As you can see, if you sat down to eat in the dining room, you could look up and see paintings by Degas, Cezanne, Matisse, and Picasso.

And in the living room:

Paul Guillaume's living room

Lots of Picasso and Modigliani, plus some gorgeous furniture.

If you could select 10 paintings to hang on the walls of your living room or dining room, what would they be?

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Paris and 'African' Art

One of the signal facts of artistic movements in Paris in the first half of the twentieth century is the influence of African art on the painters and writers who created what we now refer to as Modernism. I put the word African in inverted commas in the title to this post to indicate that what Picasso, Matisse, Breton, and others were borrowing from was as much their own, sometimes erroneous, ideas about Africa, as much as the physical objects that fascinated them so. That said, you can't visit museums in Paris without finding evidence for the importance of this south-to-north current of influence.

The Musee du Quai Branly houses objects from Africa, the Americas, and Oceania, and early in January I made my first ever visit to the collection:

African carvings at Musee du Quai Branly

Masks at Musee du Quai Branly

This is the source material, or very similar to it, for the statues that Picasso saw in the Louvre in the early 1900s, and which inspired his 'primitive' painting of the female figure in Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, the foundational painting of Cubism. At the Louis Vuitton Foundation, I saw an exhibition of masterpieces from the Schukhin collection (grand patron of Matisse and Picasso, a Russian who lined his palace with paintings which were confiscated by the Bolsheviks and which form part of the Hermitage collection). Among the works by Picasso were studies for the Demoiselles, in gouache:

Studies by Picasso, 1907

The similarity between Picasso's work and the African wood carvings is especially noticeable in the simplified forms of heads and torsos.

Then at the Centre Georges Pompidou, the studio room of Andre Breton is displayed in its entirety behind a room-length wall of glass:

Andre Breton's studio, 1

Andre Breton's studio, 2

This takes us up to the middle part of the twentieth century. Breton was a member of the Surrealist movement, and the paintings and objects in this room are in a variety of styles. But once again, there are African masks and figures everywhere. I suspect that to a Surrealist, the attraction would have been that the anonymous men and women who created these objects were accessing their unconscious, unfiltered by the intellectual theorising of Western art. No doubt this is a crude and patronising way of thinking about African art, but the point is that this is close to what twentieth century Modernists thought, and that these beliefs, whether mistaken or not, were a driving force in the renewal and regeneration of art and literature after 1907.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

How to Make A Fish Print the Picasso Way

I saw these photos at the Musee Picasso yesterday, of Picasso making a fish print in the 1950s.

First, eat the fish:


Next, arrange fish on surface with satisfied look on face (your face, not the fish's):


Finally, roll the fish with ink and press paper against it:


Thus did Picasso secure his plaice in printmaking history.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Accidents, by Susan Shaw

Just before Christmas 2016, I taught a short Journal and Sketchbook class at Lillstreet Art Center on Chicago. One of the participants kindly agreed to let me post a piece that she wrote in the class, along with an accompanying sketch.


I felt like an animal. An angry, sweaty animal-anger in my veins. I could hardly sit there.

"Do you feel depressed?" asked Dr. Cook, the shrink.

"Yes", I said. I was only 14 and already I was depressed.

"Well you can’t imagine what real pain is. I got hit by a car. The impact of that car - I will never forget it. Terrible pain. Crash! Right into my legs. You were probably wondering why I have braces and crutches."

"Actually, no", I said. "Can you give me some kind of medicine?"

"We're going to talk first, then maybe medicine. The pain was horrible. Thank god you didn't have to go through it."

Dr. Cook was freaking me out and I felt like smacking her with my hand. Probably my manic depressive hand.

My mother was out and called her chatty friend Peggy to pick me up in her SUV. She went on and on; the dry cleaners did a bad job, the oil crisis was ruining her life, restaurants had bad service - there was something wrong with everything including air and trees.

As she pulled away, I realized I had no key to get in. I rang the doorbell over and over. I was so hungry. I rapped on the little square windows that framed the door to see if she had maybe gotten back. Then I decided to just punch one of the windows. I punched right through the glass and I lost a chunk of my thumb. My mother finally came home and she ushered me in, wrapping my bleeding thumb in a dishtowel. She said I was an animal and asked if I liked the shrink.

We went to the emergency room. "I'm fucked", I said aloud. It was a week before my 8th grade graduation. Suddenly my dad showed up with a cocktail napkin wrapped around the bloody chunk of thumb that was left on the windowpane. He was so proud of himself. Always the hero.
The doctor sewed the chunk back in place.

Now I was really, really hungry and I could feel the depression descending on me. I was the one that got injured, so I thought I should pick the restaurant, but they decided on their bar that only served burgers with - get this: potato chips. No fries! Now I was really, really angry. I did what I always did since getting this way; I ran out of the restaurant but no one followed me. They were used to it because usually I would come back. Not this time. I walked home along the highway. I was so sweaty I could feel drops running down my neck. It was taking me forever to get home. My parents drove by and I gave them the finger before I started crying for food. Please give me some KFC or MacDonald’s or 8.00 worth of frozen yogurt-I mean c'mon here! I was injured!

"I'll make you some scrambled eggs", said my mother when I got home.

Oh God, how she annoyed me, always offering something she knew I didn’t like. I needed options.

"I want a deep fryer for graduation", I countered. We argued until bedtime and by then I was so hungry that I wasn't hungry anymore. So I put my 77 lb body. in bed and punched the wall with my good hand. And it felt really good.

The next morning my hands didn't feel so good but I went to school. It was a private school and we were all extra advanced. We took black beauties so we could so we could do our homework faster. We smoked pot morning, noon and night. Our lighter activities included slingshots and chipmunks, lacing milk with vodka and competing to see who could lose our virginity. It was a fine school indeed. When I told my friends what happened they said I was a badass.

Wednesday came again and I was supposed to see Dr. Cook. Again she brought up the accident.

"You never know what can happen", she warned me.

Somehow I kind of snapped out of it, as much as a 14 year old could.

"No you don't", I said.

"So why are you depressed?" she asked, but I was daydreaming, seeing the big black car on a sunny day driving right into her fat legs. She screamed and fell, blood everywhere. If that much blood could come out of my thumb, I could see gallons of it while she lay on the street, screaming. She was mangled.

She had to be rushed to the hospital and sewn up. It was terrible but I think her sad tale was just a way to distract her patients. I was determined to throw her off her game.

"What about the lithium?" she asked.

"Yeah, it's not working for me."

"Nothing worked for me after the accident either. What happened to your thumb?"

"Oh, I cut myself picking up a broken glass."

"Well just imagine the pain when the car---"

I couldn't take it anymore. Her whole story was just a way to distract me.

It was supposed to be about me.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

At the Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris

I'm in Paris, France, for three weeks, teaching on Columbia College Chicago's study abroad program. The students don't arrive until the weekend, so I'm just relaxing in the city and our rented apartment in Montparnasse, on an easy schedule of one museum per day followed by a nap and a light dinner (with wine, of course).

On Wednesday, we went to the Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, near the Place de l'Alma. Half of the permanent collection was closed, but I still saw some seminal twentieth century works. From the first third of the century, there was the giant canvas-mural La Danse, the second version, painted for an American patron in the early 1930s. Inside the vast room that housed the works, there were two small cabinet with some fascinating photos, such as this one of Matisse sketching the mural:


When you enter the hall where the paintings are displayed, you first see the sketched version:


On the right, you can just about see one of the museum docents, which gives you a sense of the scale of the piece. The sketch is particularly interesting in that you see the curtain pulled back on Matisse's process of creation, with its sure steady lines and its washes of thinned oil colours. On the other side of the wall, the finished version itself, cut in the shape of the wall spaces in which it was originally installed:


The colours are not as vibrant as the original version of La Danse --also a mural, designed for a Russian collector -- and the figures are more angular, the outlines sharper, It still ahs that Matissean flowing rhythm, though.

In another part of the museum, the Christian Boltanski room, an underground chamber with three of his installations from the lasts decades of the twentieth century. This photograph shows two pieces: a room of photographs of children lit by interrogation chamber-style lamps, and a room of shelves piled high with children's clothing, horribly reminiscent of the storage facilities in the Nazi death camps, where the Nazis forced the sonder commandos (press-ganged camp inmates) to sort through the belongings of the murdered to root out anything valuable.


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