Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Memorial Day 2011

I did no work today. Amazing. Rick got me out of the apartment early to attend the ceremonies at the Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument, which is just around the corner from us. I have been living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan for a long time now, and the Memorial Day events have grown from year to year. I can't help feeling that the country is on a course correction, which (to my mind anyway) is a good thing. Mayor Bloomberg gave a very good (and short) speech. The main speaker was Lincoln historian Harold Holzer. From him we learned that the first New Yorker to die in the Union cause was Elmer E. Ellsworth. Serving in the White House with Lincoln, he espied a Confederate flag across the Potomac, flying above the Marshall House Inn. He went there directly and toward the flag down, only to be shot by the inn's proprietor.

From there we biked down to the Battery and caught the ferry to Governors Island. I hate to be one of those people who talk about "how things used to be," but the truth is that, the first time we went to Governors with our bikes, hardly anyone was there. (Actually the first time I went there was in a kayak, with a group of paddlers from the Downtown Boathouse.) We had to wait an hour to get on the ferry. Nevertheless, it was fun to be there. So, we did Memorial Day in true American fashion.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Keeping up with new fiction

This is somewhat off-topic, but it is prompted by spending a couple of hours this morning going through about six months of the New York Times Book Review. As a scholar of 18th-century literature, and especially of Goethe, there is a drawback: one often doesn't know what is going on, literature-wise, in one's own time. Goethe certainly kept abreast of new developments, whether literary, artistic, even political. A friend of mine regularly channels her finished copies of the NYTBR to me. I am reminded anew of why I stopped reading the so-called paper of record years ago: boring. Make that BORING. It's hard to image why anyone would be interested in most of the new novels it reviews. Here are some outtakes from reviews read this morning:

"Solitude at Twilight: A widow's quiet life is altered when she buys a car and find herself open to the world anew"

"Only Bitterness Remains: In David Vann's first novel, isolation and an Alaskan winter take their toll on a marriage"

"Growing up Fast: As this novel's 14-year-old narrator looks on, her affluent suburban family disintegrates"

"Power of Recall: A writer recollects her long-estranged mother, and her own long-estranged childhood"

"Child Catcher: In this memoir, Margaux Fragoso rememers her relationship with the man who molested her"

I do not intend to make light of the emotional pain experienced or portrayed by these writers, but why are revelations of self-laceration and dysfunction so "popular" with publishers? Pleasures are always small, but epiphanic (the widow buys a car). There is nothing to get enthused about anymore, so we are told. People are invited to reflect on sadness.

The news pages of The New York Times are also infested with downbeat "narratives." News stories on the front page, for instance, no longer consist of facts, but, instead, of stories. Thus, an article on poverty always begins with, say, a single mom living in a trailer in some rural outback. These articles are unashamedly manipulative. Though I haven't read the Times for about three decades, I bet they haven't run an article in that time in which hard work triumphs. The paper has a relentlessly negative tic. Some people call the newspaper's slant "liberal"; I call it postmodernist. Bodmer would disapprove. So would Goethe.

Just for the record, here are some novels I have read in the past couple of years, with "grades": The Lost Books of the Odyssey, by Zachary Mason (C); The Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson (A-); Foreign Bodies, by Cynthia Ozick (C); The Imperfectionists, by Tim Rachman (B+); Serious Men, by Manu Joseph (A-); Generosity, by Richard Powers (A-); The Short Day Dying, by Peter Hobbs (A-); Cooking with Fernet-Branca, by James Hamilton-Patterson (A); Me and Kaminski, by Daniel Kehlmann (A); Loving Sabotage, by Amelie Nothomb (B+); My Revolutions, by Hari Kunzru (A); A Person of Interest, by Susan Choi (A); The Anthologist, by Nicholson Baker (A).

By criterion for an "A" is based more on finding the book entertaining or enjoyable than in literary merit. Now it is time to go back to the 18th century.

Picture credit: Harold's Planet

Thursday, May 26, 2011

It is art

We went to see Werner Herzog's newest film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams. As the title indicates, the movie is steeped in the hocus pocus that pervades Herzog's excursions. Entering the cave at Chauvet with him, we are supposed to feel awe, perhaps even religious tremors. That said, the movie was tremendously interesting, though the relentless focus on the "mystery" of the cave -- and the supposed "dreams" of its paleolithic artists -- meant that the movie totally neglected how the paintings were executed.

Until seeing the movie, I had never paid much attention to prehistoric art. The examples I had noticed almost in passing, especially engraved or incised representations of animals, certainly show expertise in rock carving. They cannot have been "thrown off" in an afternoon. They were obviously consciously intended, for what purpose the archaeologists have not yet discerned, yet they do seem communal and perhaps representative of social values -- as at left, from Sweden, showing three men perhaps performing a ritual. An interesting point in Herzog's movie is that Neanderthal man, though he made tools, did not produce "symbolic representations." That distinction belongs to homo sapiens. Humans seem to have wanted to preserve memories.

According to the movie, the paintings at Chauvet date to at least 30,000 years ago. There is some controversy concerning that dating, despite the "scientific methods" (e.g., carbon dating) used, because the analysis has been carried out in a single French lab, one that also has sole jurisdiction over the cave. I would suspect also that the paintings were made in various stages. Perhaps some were begun on June 7 30,000 years ago, and others in 29,000. If so, we are talking about the difference between, say, the Book of Lindisfarne and Jacques-Louis David. Judith Thurman, in The New Yorker, calls the Chauvet painting of of horses and rhinos at the top of this post a "frieze." It strikes me, however, that the individual elements -- the horses, the rhinos -- might have been done at different times and by different hands.

The row of horses certainly seems "advanced" in comparison with other paintings in the same cave. Note the use of perspective with several of the horses on the same plane. According to the British sculptor John Robinson, the "panel" (as he called it), smudging had been used to produce shadow. The painter had also highlighted the outer edge of the drawing by chiseling into the white rock surface. I have also learned that, after sketching outlines in charcoal, in some cases red ochre (as in the painting of a horse from Lascaux) or charcoal would be spit, sometimes using a narrow tube, to create the infill. (For more information about Chauvet go to Don's maps.)

Nevertheless, whether they were painted 10,000 or 30,000 years ago, one has to say that the Chauvet horses are "art." They seem to have no utilitarian purpose, but are there for themselves. Their value, as Roger Scruton, has written in his small book on beauty, resides in them and not in their purpose. The technique for creating these works suggests they were not done in the laborious and time-consuming manner of rock carvings. Thus, there was more play involved.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

But is it art?

In the last post I addressed the shortcomings of Bodmer's literary efforts, which were widely considered by his contemporaries to be little more than moral tracts. These works were written in the 1740s, after his large critical treatises, and indicate the transitional position Bodmer occupies. From Plato onward, there were many critics who were uncomfortable with the power of art to affect the imagination, and thus poets themselves were often quick to point out that instruction went down better when it was dressed up with pleasing language, imagery, characters, and so on: docere yes, but don't forget movere. Bodmer's contemporary Salomon Gessner also presented exemplary portraits of humanity in his idylls, but they were widely popular, even up into the 19th century, as indicated by translations.

But I continue to think about this question of what constitutes art, and I continue to incline toward the importance of playfulness (of which there is plenty in Gessner's idylls, by the way). Thus, I was struck by something I read in a recent (April 15, 2011) Times Literary Supplement "Commentary" on the 100th anniversary of the birth of the novelist Sibylle Bedford. I had heard Bedford's name, but have not read any of her novels. In the "Commentary" by Caroline Moorhead, Bedford is quoted as saying the following: "There does exist ... an absolute standard of artistic merit. And it is a standard which is in the last resort a moral one. Whether a work of art is good or bad depends entirely on the quality of the character which expresses itself in the work. ... That virtues is the virtue of integrity, of honesty towards oneself."

With this in mind, how is one supposed to react to new works on view at the Metropolitan Museum? The Met has gone out to produce a truly glamorous exhibition (Savage Beauty is the title) of some of the exotic creations of fashion designer Alexander McQueen. The lines are as long as might be imaged for such a blockbuster. One of the first works you encounter on entering is the dress at the top of this post, made of thousands of razor clam shells. It is really gorgeous and, yet, I can't see any moral purpose that it serves. Well, McQueen didn't call himself an artist, but the exhibition is supported by the Museum's textiles department.

The English sculptor Anthony Caro produces "public art." I like public art, especially when it is playful. I don't know what to make of the works on the roof garden at the Met. There is certainly a lot of craft here, which is, for me, an important criterion, but the works leave me cold. They leave little to the imagination. McQueen, in contrast, works better because of the employment of the flourishes. I can't say that his creations "move" me, but there is an element of delectation (delectare).

Neither McQueen nor Caro has made works that are useful or even instructional, and I suspect that is an aspect that underlies the work of many successful contemporary artists.

Picture credit: Walking Off the Big Apple

Monday, May 16, 2011

But is it art?

Having finished my article on the "pre-Kantian" sublime, I have now turned to a long overdue book review. The book in question, by Jesko Reiling, is entitled Die Genese der idealen Gesellschaft: Studien zum literarischen Werk von Johann Jakob Bodmer (1698-1783). Yes, I seem not to be able to get away from Bodmer. There is not much in Reiling's treatment on the sublime in Bodmer (though he did give me a few ideas). The subject, per the subtitle, is Bodmer's "literary work," in particular the epics Bodmer began to write in the 1740s and his "political dramas." Nevertheless, there has been so little scholarship on Bodmer's literary work that Reiling spends the first half of his book filling in Bodmer's intellectual and cultural background.

As I already noticed when I began working on Bodmer's early criticism, in the 1720s, it was clear that Bodmer was interested in the improvement of "manners." He had been much affected by Joseph Addison's Spectator essays and hoped that The Discourses of the Painters, the "moral" journal he founded with Breitinger, would play a similar role in shaping the manners of the newly emerging bourgeoisie in Switzerland. And, like Addison in England, he was rather lighthearted in imparting "lessons" to his readers and in his treatment of socially backward customs and practices. As I learned when I began reading Reiling, however, Bodmer became decidedly heavy-handed in his literary works, especially in the Noah epic and in the political dramas. Critics have judged them harshly, speaking of "Tugendterror" (virtue terror) and "Totalitarismus der Sitte" (totalitarianism of manners).

In the Old Testament the story of Noah begins with his birth (Gen. 5, 28). At the age of 500 (so Gen. 5, 32) he becomes father of Shem, Ham, and Japheth. The next chapter opens with the increasing wickedness of humankind, while supplying very little detail. The Lord, regretting that he had created men, simply decided to wipe out all life on earth, sparing only Noah and his family, who had found favor with Him. Though there is very little "back story," Bodmer nevertheless provides one, as Noah, in a dream, travels over the earth with the angel Raphael and views all the evil ways of men. As contemporary readers noted, the vices on display were those of European men and women over the past several centuries. The desire to turn a profit or to make oneself better than one's neighbor existed in the antediluvian world as well. Noah and his breed, on the other hand, were perfect in every way, untouched by jealousy, envy, greed, lasciviousness.

I must admit that I have not slogged through any of these works by Bodmer. It was enough to slog through Reiling's descriptions. In Bodmer's defense, however, he was simply adhering to an earlier tradition concerning the purpose of art, namely, that it was supposed to be edifying. I wonder what Bodmer would make of the exhibition now on display at the Metropolitan Museum: "Reconfiguring an African Icon." On display are what are called "highly creative reimaginings of the iconic form of the African mask."

Two of the artists are Africans from Benin (which has a rich sculptural tradition in any case), Romuald Hazoumé (mask at top of post) and Calixte Dakpogan (at the right). Among the materials they use are discarded plastic containers, shells, computer wiring, hair brushes, and lots of metal scraps. All very inventive and delightful. They remind me of something I have posted on before, namely, Schiller's notion of "Spieltrieb." There is nothing useful, nothing to be gained even morally from these objects; they are simply playful, and play is fun. A child's game is fun, but it is not art, not made, whereas these contemporary masks are made and, as Roger Scruton writes, are "consciously intended."

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Writers' rooms

I posted a couple of years ago (how time flies!) on writers at work, focusing on their environment. In connection with my recent posts on the exhibition "Rooms with a View" at the Met, a reader has asked if Emily Dickinson may have been influenced by such paintings.

Well, above is a photo of Emily's own "work space," a room with a view. I love the lack of clutter, something I wish I could emulate.

I have also come across this interesting painting by Georg Friedrich Kersting (well represented in the Met show) of Faust in his study. I had not seen it when I did my last post on the painting of the Werther-like figure by Kersting.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Werther at his desk

Whenever I pick up a book I always look in the index to see if Goethe is mentioned. Eighteenth-century studies invariably include him, if only incidentally. The exhibition catalogue for "Rooms with a View" has Goethe in the index and also refers to his influence on certain of the painters included in the exhibition. One of the painters, Carl Ludwig Kaaz, is said to have had a close friendship with Goethe. As Sabine Rewald writes, Kaaz gave Goethe instruction in gouache and watercolors when he was in Karlsbad. More important perhaps was Carl Gustav Carus, who was also a professor medicine and whom Goethe invited to collaborate with him on his morphological publications. Unfortunately, Carus did not think highly of Goethe's color theory; Goethe thus broke off their correspondence.

The above painting, though not in the exhibition, is included in the catalogue. It is by Georg Friedrich Kersting, whom I mentioned in my first post on this exhibition in connection with the portrait of Louise Seidler. As Rewald writes in the catalogue: the figure's "artfully disheveled blond hair is in tune with his 'Werther'-inspired costume": blue jacket, yellow vest, and grey pants.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

"Im Herbst"

There are so many charming paintings in "Rooms with a View: The Open Window in the 19th Century," an exhibition now on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The work at the left, however, painted by Anton Dieffenbach (1831-1914) in 1856, reminded me immediately of a poem by Goethe. The poem is "Im Herbst" (In Autumn) and, as in Dieffenbach's painting of Window in Sunlight, describes grape leaves climbing up a trellis outside the window.

Fetter grüne, du Laub,
Das Rebengeländer,

Hier mein Fenster herauf.
Gedrängter quillet,
Zwillingsbeeren, und reifet
Schneller und glänzend voller.

Euch brütet der Mutter Sonne
Scheideblick, euch umsäuselt
Des holden Himmels
Fruchtende Fülle.
Euch kühlet des Monds
Freundlicher Zauberhauch,
Und euch betauen, ach,
Aus diesen Augen
Der ewig belebenden Liebe
Voll schwellende Tränen

("Autumn Feelings": Flourish greener, as ye clamber,/ Oh ye leaves, to seek my chamber,/ Up the trellis'd vine on high!/ May ye swell, twin berries tender,/ Juicier far, -- and with more splendour/ Ripen, and more speedily! O'er ye broods the sun at even/ As he sinks to rest, and heaven/ Softly breathes into your ear/ All its fertilizing fullness, While the moon's refreshing coolness/ Magic laden, hovers near; And, alas! ye're watered ever/ By a stream of tears that rill/ From mine eyes -- tears ceasing never,/ Tears of love that nought can still.)

Goethe wrote the poem in 1775, shortly before he left for Weimar. "Autumn Feelings" of the English refers to the title Goethe gave the poem in 1789, when he first published his collected writings, at which time he also did some revisions to the earlier texts. According to Metzler's Goethe-Lexikon (one of my favorite reference books), the poem is typical of Goethe's early lyric work, especially the "intimate relationship" it suggests between "I" and nature. The "cosmic powers" of the sun and the moon cause the grapes to grow, but also the tears of the poet, watering them with "the creative natural power [Naturkraft] of love." The last word of the poem -- Tränen (tears) -- adds an elegiac note. Though the title of Dieffenbach's painting is Window in Sunlight, a rather dark mood is suggested, which makes we wonder if Dieffenbach knew Goethe's poem.

Monday, May 2, 2011

"Real life is not a theater"

I was familiar with the name Ronald Blythe from reviews in the London Times Literary Supplement, but I recently picked up a small book of his, The Bookman's Tale, as part of my Lenten readings. Blythe, from Suffolk in England, is known as "Britain's greatest living rural writer," and The Bookman's Tale consists of short chapters in which Blythe relates the progress of his work (often having to do with the poet and Anglican priest George Herbert), his friendships, including with the writer Vikram Seth (who bought and is renovating George Herbert's house), Marina Warner, Imogen Holst (daughter of the composer), and lots of local folks. Blythe reports of evensong, of house calls by plumbers and other workmen, of books he is reading. His thoughts on the letters of W.H. Auden (like Blythe, an Anglican) made me want to order them from Amazon. I learned where T.S. Eliot got the inspiration for Little Gidding. He writes of Chaucer's pilgrims as if they were Suffolk neighbors. Well, no doubt Chaucer portrayed real people.

A couple of days ago I read his chapter on "The Great Essex Earthquake" and was thinking of a way to post something about it. A month ago I had posted on earthquakes, drawing on Bodmer's problematic category of "the turbulent" (das Ungestüme) as it relates to the sublime. Earthquakes and other catastrophes, as I wrote, are unlike "the great in nature." The latter refers to natural phenomena the extent of which is too large for us to grasp at first sight. These would include the heavens above, the oceans, natural grandeur (e.g., the Grand Canyon, the Swiss Alps). Despite our inability to get hold of their extent, they don't literally knock us over. Moreover, these phenomena are accessible to study by us, as modern science shows. The turbulent, however, literally disarms us and indeed is occasionally annihilating. Thus, earthquakes, such as recently occurred in Japan and New Zealand. The turbulent allows us no freedom, unlike the great and the beautiful, to which we are free to react or even to ignore.

The events of the morning of September 11, 2001, represent the turbulent. The very issue of freedom arose after the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen called the attacks "the biggest work of art that there has ever been." In comparison with the attacks, he said, his own compositions were as nothing. Of course, as he also said, the people affected (the ones, for instance, jumping from the Towers) had not "come to the concert." Thus, the difference between art -- a realm of freedom -- and real life. Such catastrophes are not theater. In real life we are often affected by things over which we have no control.

So, what did Ronald Blythe say about the Great Essex Earthquake of April 22, 1884? He mentions that a local photographer happened to be around on the "lovely spring day" and was thus able to record the after effects. No deaths, but the property damage was extensive. "A thousand roofs slid to the ground; 20 churches were in ruins. Three entire villages went to wreckage. Boats were thrown from the harbours on to the shore. There was a noise that nobody would ever forget. There was a blinding dust, and there was the pathos of what would later be the exposed interior, the wallpapered rooms hanging in the air, the fires blazing in the suspended grates, the unmade bed."

Mr. Damant, the photographer, "hurried around with his fine plate camera." Ronald Blythe writes that one of his favorite photos shows an "elegantly grouped picture of the Rector of Langenhoe and his friends standing in the ruins of his church clasping umbrellas and gently smiling." There then follows a paragraph that seems apropos to today, a reminder of the fragility and also the resilience of our civilization. Perhaps it is this fragility to which Bodmer was presciently alluding with his category of the turbulent:

"They had curiously prophetic expressions, which would appear again and again during the next century, shaken looks that hid the shock, the automatic grin. And the strange stench of fallen architecture. All this would repeat itself -- all over the world. And human beings would stand and stare at the swift demolition of their achievements as the dust settled, and would look so differently from how they felt."

Picture credit: Hornbeam

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Rooms with a View

There is a lovely, small exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum, "Rooms with a View: The Open Window in the 19th Century," curated by Sabine Rewald. According to Rewald's essay in the catalogue, it was two sepia drawings from about 1805 by Caspar David Friedrich that inaugurated the motif of paintings and drawings of open windows, a "potent symbol" for Romantic-period artists. (The other "potent" motif was that of the moon, which fascinated many writers and philosophers as well.)

One of the paintings in the exhibit (above), by Georg Friedrich Kersting, portrays a woman embroidering. Since the appearance of her memoir in 1873, we know that the sitter here was the painter Louise Seidler (1786-1866), daughter of an equerry at the university in Jena. Her memoir, according to Rewald, "offers a fascinating account of the artistic life in Jena, Dresden, Weimar, Munich, and Rome between 1786 and 1823." I have not read this memoir, but would certainly like to do so. Rewald calls this painting "a study of contemplation and morning light."

Louise Seidler seems not to have been a particularly great artist, excelling in portraits of young women and girls, e.g., Minna Herzlieb (at the left; see my post on Minna), endowing them with "ein liebliches Dasein" (a charming presence or existence), according to Goethes Weimar. Though Goethe himself liked her pastel of him (below), from 1811, Goethes Weimar is not impressed with it, calling it "weichlich-verblassen" (effeminate-pale).

Rewald makes a strange claim, asserting that Kersting portrayed Louise Seidler pursuing a feminine activity, embroidering, instead of painting, "most likely because the image of a woman pursuing a man's profession would have raised more than one eyebrow in Germany at the time." That claim, however, goes against the facts on the ground. Goethe was a friend of Seidler's -- he had known her since she was a child and a playmate of his own son August -- and, since she was otherwise without means, later promoted her career, which included having Duke Carl August award her funds to train in Munich and then in Rome, Naples, and Florence between 1817 and 1823.

She seems to have had a charming personality -- Goethes Weimar speaks of her "Liebenswürdigkeit" -- which opened many doors to her, especially in the Romantic circles of Jena. She was a frequent, welcome visitor at Goethe's house am Frauenplan. When she returned from her studies, Goethe arranged free lodging for her, with atelier, and then obtained a position for her, with a yearly salary of 100 talers, teaching drawing to the duke's daughters and managing the collections of the "free drawing academy" (founded by the duke in 1776). It doesn't seem to me that anyone would have been affronted (or "raised an eyebrow") by a portrait of a woman painting.

By the way, Rewald mentions in her catalogue essay "a curious and riveting precedent" to Friedrich's painting of Woman at the Window: the water color of 1787 by Tischbein of Goethe at his window on the via del Corso in Rome. (See also my post on this water color.) According to Rewald, Friedrich did not know of Tischbein's drawing, despite the similarities in the two works: "the emptiness of their settings and the near symmetry of their compositions." Both, according to Rewald, may have as their precedent a work of 1654 by Jacobus Vrel, a painting of a servant woman (above left) at a window, though this "plump model" is unlike the "large, erect, centered figures" in Tischbein's and Friedrich's works.

Dutch painters seem to have made a specialty of women at windows. Think, for instance, of Vermeer's Girl Reading a Letter at the Open Window, which, according to Rewald, was on view in the painting galleries of the Dresden museum when Kersting painted his images of "hushed rooms."