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Monthly Archives: November 2008

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They’re back! After being closed for nearly five months, gallery 201 at the Art Institute reopened on November 20. The Impressionist collection as a whole is slated to reopen in December, so when I found out that this particular gallery had opened that day I felt as if I were an insider who had been invited to an exclusive opening. Indeed, there was hardly anyone in the room (usually it is packed); it was almost too quiet, like the hush before a terrible storm, so that my delight at having these paintings all to myself was mixed with a tinge of apprehension, of anxiety. Ah, dangerous, tingly pleasures! (That this was dangerous and tingly to me should tell you something about my age, number of years being married, and lack of living on the edge lately.)

There is no doubt that Impressionism has star status in museums: what the Beatles are to rock, Impressionism is to painting, which makes me wonder if all museums shouldn’t think about tucking away their Impressionist paintings for a few months so that people are forced to discover something else – a little Wilco (Hopper) or Nine Inch Nails (Giovanni de Paola – just check out the the decapitation of John the Baptist if you don’t believe me and make sure you click on enlargement so you can see the blood spurting out). The Art Institute displayed Seurat’s La Grande Jatte during renovation to keep visitors who wanted to see Impressionism from rioting, but on the whole I think that the rest of the European painting collection was flush with all the attention; it seemed as if all the Madonnas had a rosier blush, a kind of come hither look.

Anyway, back to gallery 201 where Gustave Caillebotte’s monumental painting Paris Street: Rainy Day greets visitors upon entering. For those who think that Impressionism is all about blobs of unmixed color and dizzying spontaneity to the exclusion of form, this painting reminds us that some of the most celebrated Impressionists, among them Manet (though he didn’t claim himself to be one), Degas, and Caillebotte, found both form and content paramount to painting and situated themselves in the Academic tradition, albeit in an attempt to modernize it and change dusty attitudes.

The composition of this painting has a rigorous, geometric quality to it. The gaslight anchors the painting vertically and serves as an axis: the rest of the painting radiates from its position, much like the famous circular hubs (like the one by the Arc de Triomphe) that were put into place during the Haussmanization of Paris.

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The colors, too, are restrained: the yellowish haze of the sky, the gray of the pavement, the black of the clothing, punctuated by the green gaslight and the red storefronts have more in common with Academic painting than with Impressionism, where black and half-tones were normally eschewed.

Perhaps the most amazing feat of this painting is that it is serene and classic in its composition and at the same time it explodes with visual markers that anchor it solidly in a new, modern time. A list of these markers, surely not exhaustive, includes: the new, wide boulevards, the gaslights (giving way to shopping and going out at night), the discreet bourgeois couples (sign of the sudden rise of the middle class), the profusion of umbrellas (mass-production of umbrellas begin in France in the 1840s, the English beat them by ten years, but it rains more there), and the new Parisian pastime, la flânerie, taking a stroll (to see and to be seen). The clean, orderly streets and well-to-do couples also point to what isn’t in the painting, namely the poor who had been displaced to the outer limits of the city during the rebuilding of Paris and the narrow Medieval streets (Haussman, acting in concert with Napolean III, built wide boulevards that could be easily managed by the French Army in case of insurrections such as the bloody Commune that had taken place only six years before Caillebotte painted Paris Street. People, desperate and poor after France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian war, had used cobblestones such as the ones in the painting to build barricades).

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One final little detail, perhaps my favorite, is the small figure of a painter in work clothes with a ladder, who I believe is Caillebotte modestly referring to himself, for among many of the criticisms leveled against the Impresionists was the one that compared them to mere workers, to house painters. This modest reference would be in keeping with Caillebotte who saw himself as an amateur painter and worked tirelessly behind the scenes supporting the Impressionists, both financially and through promoting their art.

Paris Street: Rainy Day. This giant moment in time, still as it is, has embedded within it the speed of progress (cars, trains, and tramways) the likes of which were unknown to previous generations and which left the past smoldering (literally) behind. Adolf Stahr wrote in 1857 about Paris that you had to make haste to see the city for “the new ruler, it seems, has a mind to leave but little of it standing.” I imagine that many Parisians looked at this painting, admired the new, and also shuddered that the old was irrevocably gone. In some ways, our modern sense of nostalgia was born in the 19th century. This is one of the reasons that Impressionism has such star quality for us, for we are still part of the modern high speed train of progress that began in the 19th century and with it we have inherited this notion that we are constantly cut off from the past. We look at Impressionist painting and feel like we are, in some respects, looking at photos of deceased family, friends, and landscapes. Proust (as usual) says it best: “The memory of a certain image is nothing more than the nostalgia of a certain moment.”

Extra reading if you felt dangerous, tingly pleasures while reading this post:

The Parisian Peasant by Louis Aragon. There is an outstanding translation of this book where Aragon meanders through Paris as the city he knows literally disappears before his eyes. He even includes a reprint of a menu for cocktails from a bar that was torn down during the Haussmanization. Alas, we will never have a Porto Flip at the Café Certa, favorite hang-out of the Surrealists. The translation is by Simon Watson Taylor and published by Exact Change, Boston.

Paris Spleen by Charles Baudelaire. Doesn’t the title say it all? Make sure you get the translation by Louise Varèse. Baudelaire is a modern urban animal, preying on all the scenes he sees in the streets (1869) of his city and ruthlessly describing them in these prose poems (the first of their kind).

Finally, this site (despite the dorky pictures) has loads and loads of information about pre- and post- Haussmann Paris.  “Loads and loads” takes on a whole new meaning while looking at this site:  underground sewers where put into place for the first time.  Hmm…

France in the Age of Les Misérables

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In the spring, my 6th graders and I study surrealism.  Nothing could be more logical for eleven-year-olds to study surrealism, whose credo is bringing objects together that normally don’t go together, a concept derived from the famous line The Chants de Maldadorthe chance encounter on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella, for theirs is a surreal world too, a world where a the girl is five foot seven, the boy is four foot ten, and they are on a dance floor in an awkward embrace, a world where moms empty lunch pails and find half-eaten sandwiches, incomplete, crumpled homework assignments, and

Every year we begin our unit by watching the beginning scene of Luis Buñuel’s surrealist classic An Andulusian Dog. The chain of associative events starts with a man sharpening a razor (the same kind of blade they later learn Van Gogh used to slice off part of his ear; decidedly the study of French art is not for sissies).  The camera then cuts (no pun intended) to a woman’s head, her eye being held open by the man’s hand, then to a perfectly gobular moon past which a thin, linear cloud passes, and finally back to the eye which is sliced open transversally by the razor (Buñuel used a cow’s eye).   You would think that given all the violent movies and videogames parents and educators constantly rail about that it would be hard to gross them out.  Wrong.  They are sickened to their core and a minute later experience a collective adrenaline at which point they decide that surrealism is the coolest art movement ever.  I must admit,  I’ve seen the scene at least thirty times and, despite the obvious fakery, despite being filmed in 1926,  it still makes me feel queasy too.

What provokes this unbearable uneasiness?  I think that it has to do with the eye.  If the wrist had been slit, if the finger had been chopped off, our reaction would not not have been the same.  Our innate urge to protect our eyes, what I call the protective eye syndrome, is as ancient as Greek mythology when our Western ancestors squirmed in the amphitheater watching Oedipus gouging his eyes out after learning that he killed his father and slept with his mother (way worse than not finishing your sandwich or your homework).

Fast forward to the 19th century, the beginning for all practical purposes of the modern era. In the Arcades Project Walter Benjamin reports the observation of a sociologist who writes the following in 1911:

“Interpersonal relationships in big cities are distinguished by a marked preponderance of visual activity over aural activity. The main reason for this is the public means of transportation. Before the development of buses, railroads, and trams in the nineteenth century, people had never been in situations where they had to look at one another for long minutes or even hours without speaking to one another.”

This comment led Benjamin to posit that the eye of the city dweller had developed “protective functions.” In other words:  we have learned how not to see, all the while keeping our eyes open.  Of course, this is an indispensable skill: it keeps us from appearing impolite, perverted, or even psychopathic.  Last year an Italian man was fined forty euros for staring too long at a women across from him in a train. However, does “protective eye syndrome” sometimes leak its fluid into purposeful viewing?   Does it increase the likelihood that we spend some (even a lot) of our time looking but not really seeing?

I sometimes wonder about this when I watch people walking past paintings as if they were walking down a grocery aisle.    Would it not be marvelous (a favorite surrealist word*) to have a procedure done at the entrance of museums to unprotect the eyes?  A gloved employee peels away an outer layer of the cornea, drops it into a petri dish with some formaldehyde, and gives the visitor a claim ticket (to be stored in a very safe place).  Then, Eureka!  The visitor has a freshness of vision hitherto inexperienced, just like Monet claims to have undergone after cataract surgery when he was able to see certain colors for the first time in years.  Painting after painting stuns the unprotected eye, the visitor apprenhends truths, harmonies, discord, and beauty at an almost delirious level.  After two hours of intense viewing, the soul being elated, the visitor turns in the claim check, gets the protective film reapplied onto his eyeball, and walks out of the museum, stepping onto a big dog turd.  Whoops.  I guess he wasn’t looking!

Well, it’s a great fantasy, but it does not help us with protective eye syndrome.  Aside from peyote and other vision-transfiguring drugs, what can we do (that is legal) to help us unprotect our eyes?  In his book The Open Image, Georges Didi-Humberman speaks of the desire to see and I think that this is a good place to start.  One of the examples he gives is of pilgrams looking at the Shroud of Turin, where the following process of vision is time and again reported:  at first one sees nothing, then almost nothing, then little by little the eyes fall on the outline of something.  The catalyst for this movement from nothing to almost nothing to something is, in Didi-Humberman’s opinion, about the desire to see.  He goes on:  “for, the desire to see is an incredibly refined modality.  The “little by little” of this “discovery” (refering to the Shroud of Turin) is a vertiginous and spiraling movement:  precise, like a dialectic; blinding like a baptismal of the eyes.”  …but appreciating a painting by Mark Rothko, for example, does demand the same desire, effort, and ultimately, belief.

*Let us not mince words: the marvelous is always beautiful. anything marvelous is beautiful, in fact only the marvelous is beautiful.  – André Breton, 1924, The Surrealist Manifesto

A less invasive method: stop in front of a painting that speaks to you and stay there for at least five minutes staring, really staring. Let your unprotected eyes scrutinize the surface and the depth of the painting, follow the brush strokes (the physical traces of the artist present in the painting – think about it!), and allow yourself to be taken in by it, disarmed by it.

Museums offer us memorable, deep encounters with painting. Don’t try to see everything! But do try and really see something.

“On Some Motifs in Baudelaire”, Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Vol. 4.

“One observes in order to see what one would not see if one did not observe.” – Wittenstein, Remarks on Coulour, •326.

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First, Erin of Los Angeles talked to me about her. The very next day, Isabel from Colombia. Then, Gerhard Richter, one of my favorite artists, said in an interview yesterday about the corrected (depressed) art market that, in his opinion, only paintings by Da Vinci and Raphael should ever sell for more than a million dollars (including his?). I took these as signs that it was about time to mention her on my blog. Who else? La Gioconda, La Joconde, Mona Lisa, Ms. L.H.O.O.Q.! Whose painted face is more ubiquitous? No one’s! She is the Marilyn Monroe of Renaissance painting, iconic and everywhere you look: on tee-shirts, Christmas cards, street art, and wall-clocks (a word before you click to see this creepy wall-clock: it may start inhabiting your dreams, and not in a good way!).

Personally, I’ve never been a big fan of the Mona Lisa. I like the other Da Vinci dame in the Salle de la Joconde (the Mona Lisa room), la Belle Ferronière, which, in any case, one has a better chance at really seeing: the Mona Lisa is almost impossible to study since one, there are always throngs of people in front of her and two, she is encased in a bulletproof, temperature and humidity-controlled, air-tight glass case (making the painting look, sadly, even more like merchandise). Given that works of art are occasionally attacked by vandals and that the medium of oil on wood is highly volatile, the Louvre has every interest in protecting and preserving this treasure, but imagine how our experience with art would change if all paintings in museums were suddenly put into glass bubbles or see-through boxes?

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But, I’m digressing. Revenons à nos moutons as they say in French (back to our sheep – a strange expression if there ever was one for let’s get back to the subject). Erin and Isabel had similar experiences in front of the Mona Lisa, experiences anchored in the notion of authenticity. Both had seen reproductions of the Mona Lisa but when they stood in front of it they were moved by the realness, the uniqueness of the painting. Isabel described it this way: “the interaction between us, between me and the painting, was pure; there were no intermediaries, no third party.” Erin felt euphoria at “finally seeing it” and said that the experience deeply affected who she became; that before seeing the Mona Lisa she had been a typical teenager, concerned about her hair and clothes, and that seeing this painting made her “reach across time” and “experience someone else’s life.” She felt as if she had “left her own space and gone into someone else’s”, and hence developed a sense of empathy and curiosity of who and what was around her. The encounter was so profound that Erin wrote her college entrance essay on it. (Erin’s experience points to effects portraits have on people which I think differ from other genres of painting; a subject I hope to explore later.)

Indeed, one of the foremost roles that museums play is to provide their public with the read deal. Stephen Greenblatt speaks of “the power of the displayed object to stop the viewer in his or her tracks, to convey an arresting sense of uniqueness, to evoke an exalted attention.” In the same vein, Philippe de Montebello says this about a painting by Velasquez: “The thrill comes from his (the viewer’s) complete trust in the fact that this object […] is the object before which Philip IV himself stood in admiration some 350 years ago. That magic, the magic of the original, the authentic, is what the museum can never lose, for the public will always demand it.”

Ironically, what Walter Benjamin feared after the advent of photography, that reproductions might come to replace our appetite for the real, has proved the opposite: seeing paintings that move us in books, hanging a reproduction on the wall in our college dorm, ultimately makes us crave the real object even more. In the two months that I’ve spent interviewing and observing people in the Art Institute, I have overheard twice a young person ask a guard with hushed awe, “Are these paintings real?” and the guard, with a tone of complicity, devoid of any ridicule, whisper back “Yes.” In a world glutted with reproduced images, most trying to sell us something, the silence, authenticity, and beauty of a painting is a gift and a solace.

Stephen Greenblatt, “Resonance and Wonder,” in Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display

Philippe de Montebello, “Art Museums, Inspiring Public Trust,” in Whose Muse? Art Museums and the Public Trust

Walter Benjamin, “Work of Art in the Age of Reproducibility,” in Selected Writings, Volume 4

I taught English in France some twenty years ago and remember the disappointment when the English teachers at Collège Jean Lurçat in Angers saw that their living, breathing native English speaker was from the Midwest instead of Oxford. Disappointment led to outright opprobrium when I counted by tens for a class of bored middle schoolers: “ten, twendy, therdy, fordy”. At “fordy” the teacher, a former French officer during the Algerian war who later stunned me by singing Thriller in front of his class as if it were a military march, forcing students to sing along, stopped me and corrected my pronunciation: it wasn’t “fordy” but “forty”. By the time I got home, after a year and a half of speaking French most of the time and English in class with a fake British accent, I sounded like a failed Henry Higgins project: imagine Eliza Doolittle on crack. For years people would ask me where are you from?

My accent has long since lost the after effects of my time in France (and attitudes toward the American accent have changed), but the point is I gave it my best! Stiff upper lip and all that! As Americans, we can say “thirty” if we really try, can’t we? Which brings me to my point. I listen to the BBC News Hour and have recently started hearing “president-elect Obamer”. Okay, the Beatles said “sawr” and “idear” and it was cute, but “Obamer”? It sounds like an industrial glue or something to keep your dentures in place. I think that, if they make an effort, British news reporters will find that they can say Obama for the next four years. In exchange, I’ll try and develop a taste for Marmite

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This morning I heard a re-broadcast of an interview with Studs Terkel, Chicago icon, deceased Friday, October 31. In an interview recorded only two days after September 11, Studs voiced an opinion that was not well received by everyone: that it had “finally happened”; that we as Americans had finally experienced aggression and violence on our own soil; that we underwent that day what countless other civilians, often by our own country’s hand, experience on a daily basis. He continued: it is easy for us to read about the wars we have fought on other soil, only to then turn to the sports section and read about the Chicago Cubs.

We tend to experience the terror of others as nothing more than a newsworthy event: at best it moves us to donate money to an international organization, but we empathize (often with good faith) and then go on. Susan Sontag, in her incisive book Regarding the Pain of Others, has this to say about our distant involvement with war: “…battles and massacres filmed as they unfold have been a routine ingredient of the ceaseless flow of domestic, small-screen entertainment”. Indeed, televised images of the Gulf War even had the surreal quality of a video game.

I’ve been chewing on this theme ever since I interviewed Robert, a Vietnam veteran from Florida. When interviewing I always ask the following question: have you ever had an intense experience in front of a work of art? Robert answered that yes, he had, and that it had been that very day after seeing Martha Rosler’s photomontage series Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful. A recent acquisition by the Art Institute, Martha Rosler’s series consists of ten photomontages produced during the height of tension of the Vietnam War (1967-1972). These pieces were originally circulated in underground newspapers and amongst anti-war activists; they are seen for the first time as a collection at the Art Institute. Assembled from the pages of Life magazine, Rosler’s images send us teeter-tottering from the world of soldiers, civilians missing limbs, and decimated landscapes to a kitchen with all the latest amenities, a brand-new sprawling mattress, and a living room with shag carpeting, mod furniture, and contemporary art. In one montage, two patio chairs look out past immaculately trimmed shrubs onto a desolate scene with destroyed buildings and military tanks; one can almost imagine “conflict tourism” replacing “eco-tourism” as the latest rage if we could somehow remain comfortable and safe, watching as the real spectacle unfolds before us. By taking all these images from a magazine where pages of war photos were indeed followed by advertisements for lawn sprinklers and the newest La-Z-Boy chairs, Rosler collapses the space between the lives of the Vietnamese and ours: Vietnam ceases to be “over there” and becomes part of our own living room.

This collision of two worlds was precisely what had moved Robert. In addition to “seeing Vietnam again”, he was “seeing it within the context of what Americans were experiencing versus what I was doing over there”.

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Like in Honors (Striped Burial), where Rosler graphically brings together two different worlds by alternating different strips of photo (the title making a clever visual allusion to the mechanics of the piece), Robert’s own experience with disconnection was reconnected by this powerful series of photomontage.

Lunch set the theme of the day. While waiting to order, someone from the restaurant staff came over to my table and complimented me on my hair, which is a disorderly mop of color: gray, red, and brown, totally artificial and, I guess, reflective of my housekeeping skills (disorder) and my family (multiracial). The compliments kept coming, I was feeling flush with beauty, when all of a sudden Mr. Staff took a tress in his hand and twisted it wistfully. Hmm…that was a bit too much. Just bring me my smoked trout salad, please. The lines of public and private had been crossed (or twisted as it were). You can look, but please don’t touch! This is also the credo of museums.

Fast forward to two-thirty, after my interview with Erin from Los Angeles, when I was walking down the ever-changing Alsdorf Galleries, the long corridor (see above) that used to house the collection of armor and will soon house the Alsdorf collection of Indian, South Asian, and Himalayan art. The Alsdorf galleries remain open during the enormous transformations currently taking place in the Art Institute. This is no doubt due to logistics: they connect one part of the museum to the other. For a museum freak like me, seeing the transformation of this corridor is the chance of a lifetime. Each day a different Buddha shows up, gracing the corridor with his elongated ears and serene countanence and the museum shows a wholly different face, the face of an institution that paints, uses power tools, drill bits, rubber gloves and the likes to enable us to see amazing works of art in the most optimum of conditions.

Today, I paused to watch the installation of two South Asian sculptures. Two other visitors stopped and joined me. The head of the installation team asked one of the guards to reconfigure the roping so that traffic would flow a few feet further from the installation. The three of us moved back and continued to watch. That is when the public/private theme reared its head (to use a popular campaign turn-of-phrase!): a guard actually asked the three of us to leave. This was most unusual, considering that people continued to flow past the site in question. I found the novelty of the situation rife with interesting problematics about the politics of space (if one agrees that a museum exists for looking, in the same way an orchestra hall exists for listening, how can one be expected not to look at something uncovered and in view? It would be like having to put in earplugs during a movement of a symphony, something John Cage might have done had he thought of it!). However, the two people next to me (were they visiting for the first time? had they taken off work to come? were they from out of state?) simply felt harassed and confused. They were, after all, in a public space, watching something of great interest and standing behind the ropes that demarcated the proper distance. Not touching works of art in a museum is an almost universally understood notion, but not looking at a work of art in a public space is a whole other issue and one that I think public art museums are better off not exploring. Let’s hide it if it is not meant to be seen!