a word about abstract art

Tonight I wish to digress a bit from my usual scheme and talk about an art concept that is frequently misunderstood. Yesterday I did a Google search for “abstract art” and found a surprising number of non-abstract works listed under that rubric. It seems that many people use the words “abstract” and “modern” interchangeably when discussing works of art. So I decided to get up on my high horse, or my pulpit, or whatever… and discuss what is meant by this term.

The glossary provided by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York is brief but helpful when describing abstract art, or abstraction: “A term that is generally used to describe art that is not representational or based on external reality or nature.” That means that abstract art is not a picture of anything–it can’t be tied to a representation of any recognizable object, animal, or person.

Until the early 1900’s, all art was representational. Paintings were created to represent something–a scene, a person, a bowl of fruit or flowers, or whatever. Painters were judged by their ability to realistically present things like skin tones, different types of fabrics, skies and seas, animal fur and human hair, and all manner of other things that were recognizable. However, with the advent and eventual proliferation of photography, a painting was not longer necessary to preserve history, to show how people looked or dressed, to remind the viewers of certain events from the Bible or mythology, or to demonstrate the natural beauty of mountains, seashores, plants or animals. Once that requirement was removed, artists could experiment with color, line, form, and texture, as well as various elements of classical composition and technique. The Impressionist movement gained momentum once people began to realize that the imperative for accurate representation was no longer in force, thanks to the invention of the camera.

By the early 1900’s, the fragmentation of modern society began to be felt in artistic circles, and greater levels of experimentation resulted. True abstraction was achieved when artists no longer felt compelled to show something recognizable in their work. This was off-putting to many people, and artists struggled to justify their non-representational works. The idea was to stretch the boundaries of what was considered art, but also to focus the viewer’s eye on the qualities of colors, shapes, and textures. By freeing the mind from finding any association with the outside world, abstract artists allowed the viewers to have the privilege of enjoying colors as colors, shapes as shapes, etc.

But that does not mean that art ceased to be representational, or that modern art is always abstract art. Many 20th-century artists continued to represent objects or people through their work, even if their work was extremely modern and different from what had happened before. Let’s look at a few examples to see what I mean.

The Guitar Player, Johannes Vermeer (1672)

lute player

This painting by the Dutch master Vermeer is notable for its almost slavish attention to detail. The quality of the light in the painting is remarkable, especially the way the light seems to reflect from the girl’s satin skirt and yellow coat, from her string of pearls, and from the gilded frame around the painting above her head. The detail of the grill work over the instrument’s sound hole is extraordinary, and the texture of the ermine lining of the coat and the girl’s hair is almost tactile in its realism, even with the crackling of the aged canvas. This high level of technique was actually common for this time period, late Renaissance to early Baroque and beyond.

Woman Playing a Guitar, Pierre-August Renoir (1897)

renoir guitar

Here we see an almost identical subject. But in this portrait, the woman is much more casually portrayed. Renoir also captures the light–especially on her hair, her cheeks, the fretboard of the guitar, and the satin ribbons of her dress, but the effort is achieved in a more sketch-like manner. The colors are not so well blended; from a distance we see solid colors, but up close we notice a wide array of different colors, tints, and hues, even in areas meant to be solid color, such as the green wall behind the subject. Freed by the camera from giving us exactitude, Renoir gives us suggestions of color, line, and texture, but in a more modern approach.

Three Musicians, Pablo Picasso (1921)

three musicians

Only twenty-two years later, Picasso produced this painting of musicians performing, but the leap seems to be more like a couple of centuries, rather than a couple of decades. Picasso was here experimenting with the minimum amount of colors and shapes needed to represent an actually complex grouping of people and instruments. We see, from left to right, a harlequin, a Pierrot, and a monk, playing a violin, a clarinet, and some sort of small keyboard instrument, perhaps a celeste, clavier, or harpsichord. The musicians wear masks and represent three common characters from the classical Italian Commedia dell’arte style of theatrical production. If you look closely, you will also see two other faces in profile, which I believe are meant to represent the audience. The three players read from one piece of sheet music. Whether you like this style or not; whether you “get” this type of art or not, you must admit that you can see at least three people suggested, or represented, in the painting. There are faces, shoulders, hands, legs, and feet. There are instruments, or at least parts of instruments. While many people would call this an abstract painting, it is not. It is modern, surely, but not abstract. Things that are recognizable from the real world are being represented here, even if they’re not being represented realistically.

That is actually the source of the confusion, I think. It seems to me that many people confuse representation with realism. The two terms are not synonymous. Something can be represented in a very unrealistic way, but still be recognizable. Finally, here’s our fourth example.

Broadway Boogie Woogie, Piet Mondrian (1943)

broadway

Mondrian is one of my favorite 20th-century artists. I love his grid=patterned, primary-colored works. Perhaps they satisfy my OCD-ness in some way. This painting is actually quite a bit more colorful than most of his paintings from the 1930s and ’40s. The title refers to a style of music common in New York in the 1940s, but there is nothing specifically recognizable in the painting itself. Many people have speculated that the grid pattern was inspired by the streets of Manhattan, and that the colored squares and rectangles might represent cars on the streets or buildings, but there is nothing specific in this painting to suggest that either of those suppositions might be based in reality. Still, the paintings seems to me to be musical. The primary colors vibrate against each other and establish a sort of visual rhythm that is hard to explain, but really easy to see, I think. Did Mondrian intend for me to think of music when I see this painting. Probably, because of his choice of title. But does that mean that this painting represents an instrument or a musician? No. It is purely form, color, and composition.

Here are a few last examples of abstract art for you to consider.

Red, Orange, Orange on Red, Mark Rothko (1962)

rothkoMark Rothko’s intention was to cause his viewers to stop and appreciate the qualities of colors. His paintings are very delicately colored, with one shade feathering into the next. The works are quite large so that you can sort of lose yourself in the contemplation of the reds or blues or greens–whatever color he has chosen to explore. In some cases, he actually used powdered pigments sprinkled into the edges of the colors to further soften the transition from one hue into another. He called these his “color field” paintings, and the only thing meant to be represented is the sensation of color.

Composition 8, Vasily Kandinsky (1923)

kandinskyKandinsky’s paintings are also about color, but there’s a lot more than simple colors to see. His best works, like this one, combine color with shapes and lines in complicated relationships to each other. Like many abstract artists, Kandinsky didn’t want to prejudice the viewer toward any particular interpretation of his works, so he gave them simple titles, like “Composition xx” to allow each person to come to the work free from any prior concept of what the painting was supposed to mean. It is not the various elements in the painting, but the interaction among the elements, that we are meant to contemplate and understand.

White Light, Jackson Pollock (1954)

pollockAs I discussed recently when reviewing the movie Pollock, Jackson Pollock’s most iconic paintings were created by dripping, splashing, and slinging paint onto a canvas lying on the floor of his workshop. His works were designed to cause his viewers to consider the texture of the paint itself, as well as the interactions of the various colors used on each canvas. The paintings were not accidental, but they were experimental, and if you look at a collection of his works, you can see the various techniques and color combinations that he tried out. His paintings are full of action and rhythm, perhaps because he often listened to jazz records while working on his compositions. His works, like those of the previous abstractionists presented here, were very controversial when they first appeared. What were they supposed to be? What were they supposed to mean? Often, however, they were just created to be appreciated for the ways that the paints, colors, shapes, and lines worked on the eyes of the viewers. They were meant to stimulate our visual senses, without reference to any external objects or meanings. That is the central purpose of abstract art: to move us away from comparing the work of art to something we know or have seen before, so that our eyes are released to enjoy the sensations created by the artists and the materials they used. When a journalist asked Pollock what his paintings were supposed to be about, he explained: “When you see a field of wildflowers you don’t wrack your brains trying to figure out what it means, you just enjoy what you see.”

Do you have favorite abstract artists or abstract paintings? Do you appreciate abstract art, or dismiss it? Let me know!

11/22/63

I started this week with the theme of “Art from Dallas,” and I end this week on a book about Dallas, Stephen King’s 11/22/63.  I had never read any Stephen King novels before I read this one, believing that they were all pure horror stories, which I don’t enjoy. But this book received such rave reviews that I decided to give it a try, and it turned out to be one of the most enjoyable reading experiences I ever had.

11-22-63Published in 2011, the book earned many prizes as well as critical and popular acclaim. King himself postulated that the book would have the effect that it had on me, saying that it would attract fans of other genres besides horror. In 2016, it was made into a limited-length series on Hulu, with the title 11.22.63. The TV series starred James Franco and was produced by J. J. Abrams, among others. I enjoyed the series immensely, but it was very different in many ways from the book, which I suppose was to be expected, since the book is long and extremely complex.

Imagine you could go back in time. What would you do? This question is asked frequently on one of my favorite TV series, Doctor Who. But I remember thinking about it and talking about it even when I was in high school. Would I go back and kill Hitler while he was just a kid? Would that have prevented the Holocaust and WWII? It’s this kind of thinking that propels the novel. The main character, Jake Epping, is made aware of a time portal by a friend of his, Al, who owns a diner. Al explains that the portal takes anyone who enters back in time to 1958. No matter how long the person stays–whether minutes or years–when he returns, only two minutes have passed in current time. Al also explains that if the same person returns to the present and then goes back again, all changes made on a previous visit are undone. Al has spent four years in the 1950s and ’60s, in an attempt to prevent the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. While there, he contracted cancer and realized he would not live to be able to make the change he hoped for. So he recruits Jake to take his place, giving him the facts and helpful tips that he accumulated along the way.

It’s a good plan, but can Jake actually accomplish this task and make the world a better place? He quickly learns that the past is stubborn and will not be easily manipulated. He also discovers that he must be careful not to draw attention to himself, which is hard to do when you know ahead of time what is going to happen. He makes his way to Texas and begins to follow Lee Harvey Oswald around, trying to find out if he acted alone or was part of a conspiracy.

One of the things that makes this story so enjoyable is the difficulty with which Jake must adapt to living in the 1950s. The book was very well researched and contains lots of interesting facts about Dallas, the Oswalds and other people associated with them, and the general feeling of the times. There’s a romance, and loads of adventures as Jake dodges discovery and works to meet the challenges of times that don’t want to be changed.

I won’t say anything more, because I don’t want to spoil the book for anyone who hasn’t read it. My hope is that my recommendation will bring more readers to this fascinating book. Don’t watch the Hulu series until you’ve read the novel, but if you don’t enjoy reading, then I do recommend the series. It’s very well made and enjoyable, too.

 

snarky puppy

Tonight’s entry will be short, but I hope it will be interesting to music lovers. My son Ryan introduced me to the group Snarky Puppy a few years ago, and I’ve enjoyed their unique music ever since. They are perfect for this week’s music entry, because they fit my Dallas theme somewhat. The founding members were music students at UNT in Denton, where they studied jazz. They later combined their talents with some musicians from Dallas, and formed the basis of the group that exists today. This is a really large group for a jazz band, with as many as twenty-five members.

Snarky Puppy

snarky puppy

As I said above, their sound is really unique, and doesn’t really fit into any one category. It’s jazz plus rock plus R&B plus gospel plus world music plus… You just have to listen to it to see what I mean.

To that end, here are links to some of my favorite cuts from their album We Like It Here:

They also have a new album out, called Immigrance. I intend to put this on my playlist in “heavy rotation” (as DJs would say) because I think it’s outstanding. Here’s a link to their home page, where you can listen to the album and learn more about the band: https://snarkypuppy.com/home

Snarky Puppy have won three Grammy awards, and I expect that count will only go higher in the future. Although they’re based out of New York now, I’m proud that they originated in Dallas and from my alma mater, UNT. I hope my readers will enjoy listening to them!

constructed head #2

A few weeks ago, I explained my appreciation for Raymond Nasher, who collected sculptures and exhibited them in his property, NorthPark Center, until the completion of his museum, the Nasher Sculpture Center. Since I’m working from a theme this week–art from Dallas–I thought it would be appropriate to include a sculpture from the Nasher Center. I chose one of my many favorites, Constructed Head #2.

Constructed Head #2, Naum Gabo (1916, 1975)

constructed head

The sculptor, Naum Gabo, was a Russian who had studied engineering and architecture, as well as art. The original version of this sculpture was much smaller and made of cardboard. Later, he enlarged it slightly and made a copy out of galvanized iron. This much enlarged version was completed in 1975, and is the only copy made of stainless steel.

In creating this sculpture, Gabo was responding to the work of the cubists, such as Picasso and Braque. He used his skill as an engineer to construct 3D versions of the “deconstructed” forms painted by these masters. Here and in Gabo’s later works, he aspired to achieve something contrary to traditional sculpture; his works make their mass transparent or translucent, instead of solid. In Constructed Head #2, we see the inner planes that would form a framework for the further development of a fully formed sculpture, but that is the beauty of this work. The inner planes reflect light, and the face and upper body that we perceive changes and reforms itself depending on the angle of viewing, as well as the time of day and source of light.

166272481_b58c0739dc_b

This is a very large work, measuring almost six feet in height (70 inches). As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, large works tend to control us as we view them, and this is especially true with sculpture, because our human bodies are implicated in our interaction with the art as we move around it from side to side. When I last visited the Nasher Center, Gabo’s Head was displayed outside of the main building, on the porch leading down to the garden.

This photo shows the way it was displayed when I last saw it. The glass panels behind the sculpture contain sliding doors that allow visitors the ability to move from the indoor exhibits to the outdoor sculpture garden. This was one of the many fun opportunities for selfies or group shots as people stood by the giant head for their “photo ops.” I believe it has since been moved inside, but one of the nice things about the Nasher is that their collection is always growing, changing, and moving around–so who knows where it will turn up next?

 

linear construction
Linear Construction in Space #1 (Variation), 1968, Nasher Sculpture Center

Many of Gabo’s later works involved the use of lucite or plexiglas along with nylon monofilaments, like fishing lines, that provided a structure that was translucent, and sometimes almost invisible. He played with concepts of mass and depth–concepts that other sculptors tended to take for granted. His work inspired many later sculptors, including Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth (the subject of my last sculpture post), who added negative spaces to their works because of Gabo’s influence.

Gabo led a fascinating life. As a Jew, he left Bolshevik Russia to avoid persecution and settled in Denmark and then Norway during WWI. After that conflict ended, he lived in Paris and London, but after the end of WWII moved to the United States. He briefly taught architecture at Harvard’s Graduate School, and lived out his remaining days in Connecticut, dying in 1977. During his long and tumultuous life, he befriended and influenced many artists and sculptors, and wrote about his philosophies regarding the spiritual nature of art. So I close tonight’s blog post with a quote from Gabo regarding his philosophy of art:

I consider morals and aesthetics one and the same, for they cover only one impulse, one drive inherent in our consciousness – to bring our life and all our actions into a satisfactory relationship with the events of the world as our consciousness wants it to be, in harmony with our life and according to the laws of consciousness itself.

 

 

the icebergs

Hello readers! I took last week off for two reasons: 1) Independence Day week; and 2) I had something called Labyrinthitis. It made it really difficult to type or to even look at my laptop, so I just took the week off.

I thought I woulds try something a little different this week: a theme. This week’s theme is “Art from Dallas.” I have lived in Dallas almost all my life (just subtracting time in Waco and Denton for college years). I have taught in Dallas for most of my life, too: 15 years in the Richardson ISD (but in the Dallas city limits) and 18 years at Dallas Baptist University. I’m proud of my city and its culture, so I thought I would highlight a little bit of that this week.

Since I set out to feature paintings on Mondays, I decided to choose a painting from the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA). For the past 16 years, I have assigned a project every semester in which my students must visit a museum, choose a painting or other work of art, and then write about it using critical thinking and analytical processes. Since the university is in between Dallas and Fort Worth, most of my students visit museums in those two cities, and most of them choose the DMA. By far, the most chosen painting has been The Icebergs.

The Icebergs, Frederic Edwin Church (1861)

icebergs2

 

What makes this painting so attractive to so many students, of all ages and levels of experience with art? I think one of the most prominent features is its size: the painting measures 64 1/2″ X 112 1/2″, without its frame. Framed, it is over 85 inches in height, which is a little over six feet tall. According to the DMA’s website, the painting weighs 425 pounds! The sheer size is so arresting; as art expert and critic Sister Wendy pointed out, “Small painting, big you–you control the experience. Large painting, small you–the painting controls you.” When you visit the museum and you round the corner and are confronted by this massive work, it makes an indelible impression.

Also, the painting depicts something that I think most people find fascinating–the world of the far North. The original title of the painting was The North, and it was first exhibited in New York. At that time, the Civil War had just begun, and proceeds from the exhibition of this painting in New York, Boston, and other cities were donated to the Union’s Patriotic Fund, which is now the Red Cross. However, the escalation of the war made exhibiting and trying to sell the painting much more difficult, so Church took his work to England, where the name was changed to The Icebergs so as not to offend Confederate sympathizers. Viewers of the painting were intrigued, then as now, by the beauty and the inherent danger of this foreign landscape.

Church actually made a month-long expedition to Newfoundland and Labrador in order to see the frozen wastelands of the far North for himself. Not only did he view the scenery from his ship; he also took a rowboat out on several occasions so that he could better study the features and colors of these remarkable lands. He made over a hundred sketches and color studies to aid him when he returned to his studio to paint. The painting itself took only about six months, which is astonishing when you consider the size and the intricate composition of this work.

Accompanying Church on his journey was his friend, the Reverend Louis Legrand Noble. Noble provided companionship on the long journey, but he also kept notes on all the adventures the two gentlemen experienced during their trip. Noble used his notes to write a three-hundred-page book, titled After Icebergs With a Painter. The book’s publication occurred simultaneously with the painting’s first exhibitions, and the two events caused what today would be called synergy–both the writer and the painter received more acclaim than might have happened otherwise.

In the foreground you can see the broken mast of a shipwreck. This did not appear in the work when it was first shown in New York. Experts speculate that Church added the mast to give some perspective to the piece so that viewers would be able to comprehend the enormity of the icebergs. The mast also adds a clear sense of danger to the work; we understand that this is not a calm or pastoral scene, but a view of life-threatening peril.

That sense of peril in the left foreground is in exquisite contrast to the emerald waters of the right fore- and middle ground, where we see an ice tunnel and clear shallows of blue and green. In turn, these colors contrast sharply with the yellows, oranges, browns, and whites of the more distant icebergs and the eerie sky beyond. Rather than implying warmth, as these tones usually do, the colors signify a warning of the hazards this land contains. In addition, there is a bold contrast between the jagged, craggy texture of the ice and the smooth, glossy surface of the water. Church’s impressive technique allows the viewer to imagine the feel of these and other items depicted in the painting.

Because this painting is so popular, the DMA has accumulated a good selection of resources related to the work and its creator. I invite you to peruse their site if you find the painting as interesting as so many of my students have. The DMA is quite fortunate to have acquired this work, and they are understandably very proud of it. Of course, seeing a reproduction on a screen is not as satisfying or exciting as coming face to face with it can be, so if you’re ever in Dallas or if you have lived here forever, like me, I hope you will visit the DMA and experience The Icebergs for yourself. By the way, admission to the general collection (where you can view this work) is free!

 

 

educated: a memoir

Tonight I am going to discuss a book that I finished just last night. This book has kept me up very late for the past several nights, because it was so interesting that I just couldn’t put it down and close my eyes. The book is

Educated: a Memoir, Tara Westover (2018)

educatedAs suggested by the title, this is a true story of a young woman’s extraordinary life, told in first person. Tara Westover was born and raised in the mountains of Idaho, where her father owned and operated a scrapyard and her mother was a midwife and made herbal remedies, which she sold to her neighbors. The family was Mormon, but as Westover is careful to explain, this is not a story about Mormonism or religion in general. Westover’s father was a paranoid survivalist who did not believe in public education or standard medical treatment. He spent a lot of time, money, and energy preparing for the “End Times,” which he believed were going to come along at any minute. Westover recalls the glee with which her dad approached the new millennium, believing (as many people did) that the national infrastructures would grind to a halt because of faults in computer software that could not comprehend a date of <00>.  She records the resulting disappointment and struggle to adjust the whole family experienced when the dreaded Y2K did not materialize.

Due to her father’s suspicion that public education was a tool of the government and the socialist “Illuminati,” Westover and three of her older siblings never attended a day of school. Taught to read by her mother, she was mostly left to learn what she wanted to on her own. The home contained very little in the way of educational resources, and no one supervised or tested what learning might have taken place.

Instead, Westover and her other siblings were expected to work in the scrapyard, hauling junk and operating machinery that was way too complicated and dangerous for such young workers. Westover was only ten years old when she started working int the junkyard, which was done after her other chores, which included cooking and cleaning in the house and feeding and caring for livestock in the barn. Although there were moments of freedom and joy when she was able to ride on her horse or explore the wilds of the mountain, the majority of her time as a girl and a teenager was spent doing hard labor for her father.

In spite of this hardship, Westover was inspired by her friendship with a boy in town to aspire to higher education. She applied and was ultimately accepted as a student at Brigham Young University, the Mormon institution in Provo, Utah. Her experiences as a student who had never before taken an exam or participated in a classroom provide very interesting reading. Eventually, she performed so well that she earned a summer scholarship to Cambridge, which led to her acceptance in that university’s graduate program. The girl whose childhood universe had been limited to her family’s land and the nearby town was now trying to adjust to life and relationships in a much wider world. Eventually, she earned a PhD and is currently involved in post-doctoral research.

More interesting than her adventures is her struggle with accommodating her old life into her new self. Having spent so many years under the absolute authority of her tyrannical and unreasonable father, she wrestled with issues of personal worth and self-acceptance. She suffered through various injuries and medical traumas caused by her dad’s careless insistence on speed versus safety, and she experienced physical abuse from an older brother. The hardest thing for her to deal with was the ways her mother and siblings covered up for their patriarch and each other, not wanting to accept the reality of their own lives. This is powerful stuff.

Another theme that runs through the book is Westover’s coming to grips with feminism. As most Mormon women are expected to be stay-at-home moms, she wondered what was wrong with her for not wanting that ideal. She wanted to study history and social philosophy, which were not appropriate subjects for females. My heart was broken for her as she recorded her mental and emotional struggles with issues like these. Yet her observations led to empowering conclusions, like this:

…there was a single line written by John Stuart Mill that, when I read it, moved the world: “It is a subject on which nothing final can be known.” The subject Mill had in mind was the nature of women. Mill claimed that women have been coaxed, cajoled, shoved, and squashed into a series of feminine contortions for so many centuries, that it is now quite impossible to define their natural abilities or aspirations.

Blood rushed to my brain; I felt an animating surge of adrenaline, of possibility, of a frontier being pushed outward. Of the nature of women, nothing final can be known. Never had I found such comfort in a void, in the black absence of knowledge. It seemed to say: whatever you are, you are woman.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It was a pleasure to read because it’s very well-written, and the story and themes resonated deeply with me. The author’s intelligence and honesty spill from every page. Have you read this yet? Let me know what YOU think!

pollock

I thought I would continue this week with films about art. I have selected the film Pollock, a bio-pic about Jackson Pollock and his wife, Lee Krasner. The movie was directed by Ed Harris, and he stars as Pollock; Marcia Gay Harden stars as Krasner, and the film boasts a great roster of supporting actors in smaller roles. Harden won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for this film, and Harris was nominated for Best Actor. The story of Pollock’s life is compelling and ultimately quite sad.

Pollock, Ed Harris (2000)

pollock

As most people know, Jackson Pollock made a name for himself by laying large canvases on the floor and then dripping, splashing, and sprinkling paint upon the surface which he had pre-painted with one or more semi-neutral colors. Experimentation was what led to this practice, but the film deftly portrays the moment when he was first inspired to try his hand at such a technique. The film also shows clearly the important role that Krasner played in Pollock’s life–sometimes it seems as if he can’t do anything without her. She started out managing his career, but eventually their relationship grew into something much more personal. However, the film makes us understand that the feelings on her part were much stronger than his. In many ways, Pollock was one of those men who have never really grown up. He pouted when he didn’t get his way, and he spent much of his adult life either drunk or making excuses for his bad behavior. But he was unquestionably a genius as well, plowing new fields in the land of abstract expressionism.

According to this film, which was based on a biography about the artist that Harris had read, Pollock was careless of people’s feelings, especially his wife’s. Possessed of a strong self-destructive streak, he flirted with other women in front of Krasner and didn’t try to hide his affairs. She was unwilling to divorce him, however. Not only that, he flirted with his mistress’s friends, and it was one of her friends who was riding with him when he drunkenly crashed his car, killing them both.

Pollock was one of Harris’s pet projects for many years, and it certainly shows in the careful attention to time, place, and atmosphere. I had seen the movie several times when a friend gave me a copy of the Life magazine that featured the artist on the cover. As I looked through the photos and read the accompanying narrative, I was amazed at how close the movie was to the reality of that time in the artist’s life. It’s really uncanny. A documentarist of the time, Hans Namuth, made a film about Pollock and showed him in the process of painting. The filmmaker even worked out a way for Pollock to stand and paint over a clear glass surface so that the viewer could see the expression on the artist’s face as well as the splashes and dabs of paint applied to the glass. Harris studied this film carefully so that he could be as true to Pollock’s technique as possible.

Another factor that impacts the film is the wonderful jazz soundtrack by Jeff Beal. At times urgent, at other times laid-back, the music is always as cool as a beatnik, or as Pollock himself, and reflects that great post-war period of artistic invention that characterized the late 40s and early 50s.

View the trailer to get a better idea. According to IMDb, you can rent the movie for $2.99 on Amazon Prime. It’s $3.99 on YouTube. It’s not a light film, but it is definitely worth the time, especially if you like top-notch acting and a true story of dynamic personalities in turbulent times.

court and spark

Joni Mitchell is one of my all-time favorite singer-songwriters. Her brilliant and complex lyrics are married to interesting  melodies and complicated chord progressions blending folk music and jazz. The melodies are so idiomatic that they seem to be improvised, and they fit her voice so perfectly that no one else could really do them justice. I have almost all of her albums, but my favorite has to be Court and Spark.

Court and Spark, Joni Mitchell (1974)

court

This album contained two hits for Mitchell: “Free Man in Paris” and “Help Me.” I was immediately in love with both of those songs, but I listened to the album so frequently that at one time I was able to sing every word of the album from memory. In fact, to prove to myself that I really knew the words, I once typed out the lyrics to every song in order, without looking at the album or listening to the music. (That’s a word nerd’s way of expressing devotion, I guess.) One thing that made this album unique (but was a killer back when we listened to 8-track tapes) was that most of the songs led one right into the next, seamlessly, without interruption. The CD version allows that to happen in the way Mitchell intended it. (I remember driving around listening to it on the 8-track tape, and it would stop and click in the weirdest places…)

I couldn’t decide which song I would choose to provide lyrics for, so I finally settled on the title track. Here are Mitchell’s thoughtful and quirky words:

Love came to my door
With a sleeping roll
And a madman’s soul
He thought for sure I’d seen him
Dancing up a river in the dark
Looking for a woman
To court and spark
He was playing on the sidewalk
For passing change
When something strange happened
Glory train passed through him
So he buried the coins he made
In People’s Park
And went looking for a woman
To court and spark
It seemed like he read my mind
He saw me mistrusting him
And still acting kind
He saw how I worried, sometimes
I worry sometimes
“All the guilty people, ” he said
They’ve all seen the stain
On their daily bread
On their christian names
I cleared myself
I sacrificed my blues
And you could complete me
I’d complete you
His eyes were the color of the sand
And the sea
And the more he talked to me, you know
The more he reached me
But I couldn’t let go of L.A.
City of the fallen angels

 

I love the way Mitchell tells stories, leaving details open to interpretation, letting us fill in the missing pieces. Her story in this song is melancholy, and at the end, a little bit bitter, especially when you hear her voice singing the last line. The next song on the album, “Help Me,” is a song about falling in love in spite of yourself–not wanting to go down that painful path again, but knowing that you can’t stop. It seems so fitting after this introduction to painful romance, especially in the repeated lines “We love our loving, but not like we love our freedom.” You can listen to “Court and Spark” on YouTube. Here is a link to the song, but there are also links available for the entire album. Although, if I were you, I would listen to it on Spotify–better sound and a more legal, copyright-approved way of listening.

the starry night

Last Monday I featured one of my favorite paintings, and tonight I plan to feature another all-time favorite. I know the choice of Van Gogh’s The Starry Night is predictable and trite, but it’s the painting that made me fall in love with paintings. When I was in college, I had a poster of the painting that I took with me from dorm to dorm, apartment to apartment, until it had so many pinholes and tears that I finally had to throw it out. At one time, the painting was the image on my phone cover; I had a laptop cover with that image as well. It is a painting that I can never get tired of looking at–it has the quality known as inexhaustibility.

The Starry Night, Vincent van Gogh, 1889

909px-Van_Gogh_-_Starry_Night_-_Google_Art_Project

Van Gogh’s life has been the subject of books and movies because he was the quintessential suffering artist, toiling away in his attic–or in his case, his mental asylum–in order to satisfy his muse. In the case of The Starry Night, this is pretty close to being right. The view that we see in this work is what the artist saw from the window of his room at the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum near the town of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. The facts of the painting and its provenance are interesting and worth more study, but they are not what attracts millions of people to this glorious work. Its the brushstrokes, the colors, and the subject matter that are so appealing, in my opinion.

A brief overview of some basic art concepts might be useful here. Vertical lines in a painting imply strength; horizontal lines provide stability; diagonal lines impart movement and tension; curving lines also add movement, as well as softness. In this painting, it is instructive to note that we see almost no horizontal lines. The horizon itself is on a diagonal, moving upwards from left to right. I believe this tells us that van Gogh did not feel stable or at peace; after all, he had checked himself into the asylum because he could not trust himself. There are two very prominent vertical elements in the painting–the cypress tree in the foreground and the church steeple in the middle ground. If vertical items impart strength, then I think we can assume that the church and the tree represented possible sources of strength to the struggling artist. The church’s steeple is elongated, as if it is stretching toward heaven. In a letter to his brother, van Gogh wrote,

“I have a terrible need of–dare I say the word?–religion. Then I go out at night to paint the stars…”

Van Gogh’s father was a minister, and as a young man, Vincent studied theology and tried to enroll in a seminary. He spent a bit of time as a missionary, too, but ultimately felt his calling as an artist. In his time at the asylum, I think perhaps he saw the church and religion as a possible refuge or means of regaining the strength and stability of his earlier days.

But in the foreground, we see the cypress tree, much larger and more prominent than the church. For ages, cypress trees have been associated with mourning and death. Some have called this variety of Italian cypress the “graveyard cypress.” The predominance of the tree in the right foreground of The Starry Night makes me wonder if van Gogh might have been viewing death as the solution to his problems and stresses, perhaps thinking that death would be easier for him than a return to religion. A year later, the artist shot himself in the chest and died of infection from his wound. According to his brother Theo, Vincent’s last words were,

“The sadness will last forever.”

So is it all doom and gloom in this painting? Not at all. It’s the sky that arrests our attention, that draws us back again and again. The moon and stars in the heavens are what have attracted the artist’s eye, as they take up almost half of the canvas. Those swirls and whorls of yellow and white against the background of blues are what give the painting its excitement, energy, and vibrance. Looking into Vincent’s sky allows us to believe in the transcendence of beauty in the natural world. It gives us hope. We can see magic in the stars, feel the marvel of the universe, hear the music of the spheres.

Earlier I mentioned my poster and phone and laptop covers. I also have a credit card with a partial image of The Starry Night, and when I use it I always get some kind of compliment or remark–usually something like, “Oh I love that painting.” It has inspired songs and poetry and even an episode of Doctor Who.  Type <starry night> into Amazon’s search box and you’ll find the image on everything, from socks to coffee mugs. I once saw a car with the image applied as a wrap around the entire vehicle–I was in slow traffic so I took a picture of it while I was driving (not recommended!). The image is ubiquitous because it is universally loved. If you’re interested in learning more trivia about this great painting, try this article from Mental Floss. I hope you enjoyed visiting The Starry Night.

a history of reading

This week I decided to mix things up and recommend a non-fiction book. I’d like to share a quick story about how I came to know about this book and then read it. In 2001 I was working as a cataloging librarian for Dallas Baptist University. Our institution was one of many that were privileged to participate in a program sponsored by the Library of Congress. As most people probably know, the LOC receives copies of books published in the US for copyright purposes. Extra copies are offered to other countries in exchange for published items not held in the US, and those remaining are offered to other federal agencies. The ones left over after all of that are donated to non-profit organizations and institutions, like DBU. But you have to have someone available to choose the items from a vast warehouse outside of Washington, D.C. Back when I was cataloging, we had someone who volunteered to go to the warehouse once a month and choose books for us. When we received the boxes each month it was like Christmas! I would go through the boxes, organize the books and then add them to our library’s catalog. One of the books that caught my attention was Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading, originally published in 1996. After adding it to our collection, I checked it out and read it. I liked it so much, I ended up buying a hard copy of the book to keep for myself.

readingTo many of you, this title may sound like a very boring sort of book. But essayist Manguel has an almost mesmerizing style of writing, and his knowledge ranges wide and deep. He covers the magical essence of the act of reading, and the history of book creation and publication. The various chapters cover topics like the creation of ancient manuscripts, the development of the printing press, the use of fonts and their subtle meanings, the ways in which books are constructed, and much more.

My favorite chapter is titled “Ordainers of the Universe” — a chapter about libraries and librarians, of course! Manguel delves, at least briefly, into the history of libraries and why they are so important to the history of reading, as well as to its future.

Because reading is one of the most important and pleasurable things I do, I loved reading about reading in this terrific book. Manguel is a well-known bibliophile, and has written several other books about books and reading. I have read his The Library at Night, and found it very enjoyable. But it was not as all-encompassing or entertaining (at least to me) as A History of Reading.

Have you read this book? What did you think? Let me know!

PS: I didn’t post anything about TV last night because I was watching TV. My daughter and I binge-watched The Kettering Incident on Amazon Prime, and we had to finish. I’m going to talk about it next week, because this series fits one of my pet peeves — series that need a second season but haven’t been picked up for production by a network. UGH!