I Know Where I'm Going

The enchanted, impressionist April

 

enchanted april

There is a passing reference to painting in Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Enchanted April (1922), more specifically to impressionism. When the subject of Lotty’s and Mellersh’s social life comes up, von Arnim writes: “whereas she and Mellersh, when they did go out, went to the parties of impressionist painters, of whom in Hampstead there were many. Mellersh had a sister who had married one of them and lived up on the Heath, and because of this alliance Mrs. Wilkins was drawn into a circle which was highly unnatural to her, and she had learned to dread pictures. She had to say things about them, and she didn’t know what to say. She used to murmur, ‘Marvelous,’ and feel that it was not enough. But nobody minded. Nobody listened. Nobody took any notice of Mrs. Wilkins.”

Although no explicit like or dislike is stated in the passage, painting does not seem to detain the author’s interest, unlike nature herself which merits some of the book’s most memorable descriptions. Pictures are also presented in opposition to nature: Lotty has no problem expressing herself enthusiastically once in San Salvatore, her ideal vacation spot in Italy, but painting apparently belongs to a specialized type of discourse, where one “has to say things” about it, things that do not come naturally.

It would be interesting then to compare some of von Arnim’s descriptions with the type of impressionist painting that devoted so much attention not only to the representation of nature as such, but to capturing the effusiveness and luscious materiality of blooming and blossoming, the same that, literally, enchanted the author.

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“All down the stone steps on either side were periwinkles in full flower, and she could now see what it was that had caught at her the night before and brushed, wet and scented, across her face. It was wistaria. Wistaria and sunshine…she remembered the advertisement. Here indeed were both in profusion. The wistaria was tumbling over itself in its excess of life, its prodigality of flowering; and where the pergola ended the sun blazed on scarlet geraniums, bushes of them, and nasturtiums in great heaps, and marigolds so brilliant that they seemed to be burning, and red and pink snapdragons, all outdoing each other in bright, fierce color. The ground behind these flaming things dropped away in terraces to the sea, each terrace a little orchard, where among the olives grew vines on trellises, and fig-trees, and peach-trees, and cherry-trees. The cherry-trees and peach-trees were in blossom—lovely showers of white and deep rose-color among the trembling delicacy of the olives; the fig-leaves were just big enough to smell of figs, the vine-buds were only beginning to show. And beneath these trees were groups of blue and purple irises, and bushes of lavender, and grey, sharp cactuses, and the grass was thick with dandelions and daisies, and right down at the bottom was the sea. Color seemed flung down anyhow, anywhere; every sort of color, piled up in heaps, pouring along in rivers—the periwinkles looked exactly as if they were being poured down each side of the steps—and flowers that grow only in borders in England, proud flowers keeping themselves to themselves over there, such as the great blue irises and the lavender, were being jostled by small, shining common things like dandelions and daisies and the white bells of the wild onion, and only seemed the better and the more exuberant for it.”

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[All works are by Childe Hassam (1859–1935), the American impressionist painter]

 

 

Buffy Art Historian: Emily Dickinson

 

Because I could not stop for Death (479)
Emily Dickinson, 1830 – 1886

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.

We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –

Or rather – He passed us –
The Dews drew quivering and chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground –

Since then – ‘tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity –

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John Singer Sargent, Madonna, Mosaic, Saints Maria and Donato, Murano, ca. 1898, watercolor and gouache on white wove paper, 32.4 x 24.1 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.

 

GILES: Oh, Emily Dickinson.

BUFFY: We’re both fans. [referring to the boy she likes]

GILES: Yes, uh, she’s quite a good poet, I mean for a…

BUFFY: A girl?

GILES: For an American.

season 1, episode 5, Never Kill a Boy on the First Date (written by
Rob DesHotel and Dean Batali, created by Joss Whedon)

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Color stories

I.

Some years ago, when my son was about four years old, his pre-school organized its annual raffle, with objects that each one of us brought from their houses, objects we no longer had any use for. A minor incident occurred that I still vividly recall. His best friend, among other things, got two ribbons (to hang keys from, or something similar). One was blue, the other was pink. His mother encouraged her son to offer one, since my son had gotten nothing up to that point. The child generously offered him the pink ribbon, which my son eagerly took. Upon which, his friend pointed at him and called him a ‘girl’. It was not mean, rather a friendly jest, and my son did not react to it; he had yet to associate the color pink with girls, and most of his other friends at the time were girls anyway.

The incident made me thought (then, and in years to come) about the gender color ‘coding’ that takes place from a very young age, and how a parent, even when actively trying to avoid similar stereotypes, is still bringing up a child in a society that is flooded by them. As my son came more into contact with products and commercials addressed specifically to boys or girls (I can hardly recall toys in large stores that are gender-neutral), he came to intensely dislike the color pink and eventually chose blue as his favorite color (although green was his pick in the past). When I tried to explain to him that there was nothing inherently wrong with the color pink, that liking the color pink does not make you a girl, and that there is nothing wrong with being a girl anyway, I had to make a small concession: I do find most of the products addressed to girls of exceedingly poor taste (and gender propaganda more blatant), and when confronted with the choice of what to buy a little girl for her birthday, I always end up with books, playmobil or lego. I remember though an instance when I expressed distaste for a toy that my son was trying to convince me to buy, and him retorting that perhaps I did not like it because I was a girl.

My arguing that he didn’t like the products addressed to girls not because they had anything girl-specific about them, but because they were of bad taste in general ultimately backfired, as my son inferred that things of poor taste are mostly addressed to girls. But he also started noticing things that had escaped my attention, such as the fact that there is apparently a far greater number of commercials addressed to girls than they are to boys – which had me thinking of the role of women as consumers in society. I guess what I am trying to say is that colors represent larger realities and contribute to the construction of identities in crucial ways. The seemingly ‘innocent’ packaging of products (ranging from shampoos to clothes and toys) has effects that are not only long-lasting, but far more erosive than we realize. Since this gender stereotyping goes so far back in someone’s childhood, one tends to naturalize its effects, and accept it as inevitable. It is not.

II.

In 2011, Nurit Peled-Elhanan, a professor of language and education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, published a book entitled Palestine in Israeli School Books: Ideology and Propaganda in Education. In an enlightening interview, the university professor and activist discussed the ways Palestinians were represented in Israeli textbooks (all published after the Oslo agreement) and the effects of these representations in the formation of young Israelis, who move from school to the army, and are prepared to make the transition from children and students to soldiers. Peled-Elhanan argues that the dominant representation of Palestinians is as either the ‘problem’ (terrorists, refugees), or ‘primitive’ (as farmers, working the land with antiquated methods) – or simply absent. ‘You never see a Palestinian doctor, or teacher, or child’, she says. This practice aims at dehumanizing the opponent, reducing them to a menacing collective of non-individuals. One of the various ways this is achieved is through the use of color. Peled-Elhanan analyzes maps in geography textbooks, for example, and the way that Palestinian land is shown as a blank spot in population maps, reenforcing the myth of the uninhabited land. Another way this is achieved is through the colors more generally associated with Palestinian villages as opposed to Jewish settlements. When showing the former, this is always done in a color palette of ‘natural’ colors (olive green, ‘dirt’ brown, yellow), while Jewish settlements are shown like ‘Swiss villages [with] saturated green and flowers’, even when they are in the middle of the desert. Thus, the natural colors of the land are associated with backwardness and primitivism, while the color palette used to represent Israel is associated with progress and with civilization brought to the land that was empty before the return of the chosen people. The symbolic meaning of color is placed in the service of a racist narrative, aiming to uphold the occupation of Palestinian land and actively prepare students for the fulfillment of their military duties. Color divisions as politicized tools.

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Portrait of Sir Francis Ford's Children Giving a Coin to a Beggar Boy exhibited 1793 by Sir William Beechey 1753-1839

III.

There is a painting by William Beechey at Tate Britain, currently not on display, although it was part of the latest installation of the permanent exhibition when I saw it back in 2013. The painting, called “Sir Francis Ford’s Children Giving a Coin to a Beggar Boy” was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1793. It portrays two wealthy children, finely dressed and bathed in bright light, as the girl tends her arm to offer a coin to a beggar boy. There is a long tradition in Western painting of representing beggar children and poor people, in various states of occupation, or simply of carefree being (Murillo’s beggar boys eating fruit is a case in point).

There is, however, something striking in this particular portrait and the way the painter has constructed his composition. All bright and warm colors (red, pink, yellow, the luscious black of the almost comically inappropriate black hat of the boy, the exaggerated rosiness of the children’s cheeks) are concentrated on the right side of the painting. This is further stressed by the use of light, which singles the two wealthy children out as if they were angelic apparitions, sent to alleviate the misery of the beggar boy. Upon closer observation, it becomes clear that the beggar boy and his attire are barely distinguishable from the landscape. The dark brown rags that he is wearing integrate him with his surroundings, subtly suggesting that his poverty is as natural a phenomenon as the very existence of earth and trees all around him.

The choice of color serves a purpose. The representation of an act of mercy is not construed as social criticism, but, on the contrary, as token for the unchangeability of the current class status (the distancing of the participants in the scene also contributes to the effect). The entry on the museum’s site (written by Martin Myrone) sheds some additional light on the scene. Although very careful in making direct associations between what is known of their father’s history and the possible meaning of the painting, Myrone informs the reader that Sir Francis Ford (1758–1801) was a wealthy plantation owner in the West Indies (Barbados), who ‘upheld a strong pro-slavery stance in his activities as a Member of Parliament’. An explanation hinging on Ford’s opinions on slavery is not paramount here (Myrone hypothesizes that the painting may be linked to the pro-slavery defenders’ position that slaves were better off than the British working class). But the source of wealth depicted in the painting does lend it another layer of meaning: empire is once more the silent absentee (as in so many works of art), in a scene that could not appear more removed from it. Yet in the heart of rural England, a beggar boy and the emissaries of imperial wealth will forever keep their places, immortalized in color that distracts the viewer from the fact that the coin being transferred is the actual reason of their difference.

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What I see when I see the world: Córdoba

 

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Córdoba   © Foteini Vlachou

 

Buffy Art Historian: Ducks and Dikes

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Frank W. Benson, Ducks Alighting, 1921, etching, 25 x 20 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

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Kano Tan’yū (Japanese, 1602–1674), Ducks and Reeds, ca. 1650, album leaf; ink on paper, 21.3 x 27.3 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

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Kawabata Gyokushō (Japanese, 1842–1913), Pair of ducks, 1887–92, album leaf; silk, 34.3 x 27.9 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

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Watanabe Seitei (Japanese, 1851–1918), Ducks in the Rushes, ca. 1887, album leaf; ink and color on silk, 35.6 x 27.3 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

 

BUFFY: Is Sunnydale any better than when I first came here? Okay, so I battle evil. But I don’t really win. The bad keeps coming back and getting stronger. Like that kid in the story, the boy that stuck his finger in the duck.

ANGEL: Dike. It’s another word for dam.

BUFFY: Oh. Okay, that story makes a lot more sense now.

season 3, episode 11, Gingerbread (written by Jane Espenson, created by Joss Whedon)

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DP140872

Pieter Nolpe, The Bursting of St. Anthony’s Dike, 5 March 1651. Vertoninge…Amsterdam, 17th century, intaglio, 33.7 x 50.8 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

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Antonio Tempesta after Otto van Veen, Plate 29: Civilis Floods the Land by Defensively Breaking the Dikes, from The War of the Romans Against the Batavians (Romanorvm et Batavorvm societas), 1611, etching, first state of two, issue 1, 16 x 20.5 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

DP105279_CRD

Xu Yang and assistants, The Qianlong Emperor’s Southern Inspection Tour, Scroll Four: The Confluence of the Huai and Yellow Rivers, 1770, handscroll; ink and color on silk, lacquer box, 68.8 x 1096.17 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

 

 

Books: the physical object

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Edinburgh_NGS_Singer_Sargent_Lady_Agnew

The other day when I was waiting at the hospital I saw a middle-aged couple. They must have been in their late 50s. The lady was carrying a paper bag – her husband was apparently the patient. At a certain point, I noticed that the paper bag was dripping. I let her know. She started removing the objects one by one, mundane objects accompanying patients in the long waiting hours before or while treatment. Among those, there was an old and battered copy of a book by Eça de Queirós. I couldn’t catch the title, but Pedro who had noticed on his own the book resting on the man’s arm a little earlier, let me know that it was an old edition, by Livro do Brazil, one of those that you needed to cut open the pages with a paper knife when you first bought it. I was very moved by the aspect of the book. This was not a book to simply pass your time by. This was a book that someone had read, and re-read, perhaps a favorite novel, that was now called upon as a source of comfort and consolation, against the dreaded disease.

It started me thinking about books as physical objects and my own relationship with them. I have been a defender of electronic books from the very start, mostly because I hate carrying weight. The moments that I associate with reading, however, and my own memories of it are all attached to a specific book, that had a determinate aspect, look, feel, weight; that was read (or bought) in a specific place; or that was given to me as a present by a beloved friend or lover. I can only recall one exception, of a book recently read on an iPad, Jean Rhys’s masterpiece Wide Sargasso Sea. I was in a caffe just off Notre Dame, and I doubt I’ll ever forget the brilliant telling of the story of Bertha Mason, the ‘madwoman in the attic’, the guilty secret that haunts the love of Rochester and Jane Eyre (one of my least favorite Brontë novels). The descriptions of colonial landscape can only be compared to the feeling of the jungle in what is probably my favorite novel of all times, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

But Heart of Darkness is precisely one of those novels that I strongly associate with a time and place: Paris again (strangely, it seems I have read most of Conrad’s novels in Paris: Chance, Victory), and the metro. At least, I started reading it in the metro – but it soon proved impossible. The volume was slender enough to be carried around without aggravating my back, but the richness of Conrad’s prose and my desire to roll around the words in my mouth (like candy), to pronounce them loudly and slowly, and come back to each individual sentence, made it impossible. I read the rest in the seclusion of my student room.

I am now again reading Conrad (The Secret Agent), and the uproarious, utterly unique and ultra-modern 1749 Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, which is too heavy to carry around. These made me think about other encounters with books: my friend Vassilis offering me what is possibly the best translation of a book in another language that I have encountered so far, Mary Webb’s Precious Bane, translated by Anna Sikelianou in Greek; my first boyfriend, also named Vassilis, offering me Karagatsis’s The Great Chimera, dedicated to my wandering spirit; the poetry book by Álvaro de Campos offered to me by Pedro, my future husband (his own, old copy), as well as the slim bilingual edition of W. H. Auden’s poems I bought from the Feira do Livro in our first outing together; the kitsch-y editions of The Collector’s Library (my Secret Agent is from the same publisher), with the shiny, fake golden leaves, and hard covers, like War and Peace that Noti gave me as a present – I could not get through the novel, as I kept losing track of the names of the characters, could not be bothered with any of them, and was unexpectedly put off by Tolstoy’s subtle but unmistakable misogynism.

And many others: the original white-cover-with-red-title edition of Stratis Tsirkas’s Drifting Cities trilogy (I can hardly think of re-reading it now, that the edition has changed); the tiny volume, from a never before heard small editing press (bibliothèque allia), of Casanova’s Histoire de ma fuite des prisons de la République de Venise, which would become my second favorite novel after Conrad and always sits atop my nightstand; Camus’s Caligula that I was reading in parallel with Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (giving rise to a funny misunderstanding when, upon my friend Elik asking how ‘it’ ends, I replied “well, they kill him, of course”, which led to a grave surprise since his childhood memories of Ivanhoe were much happier); the used copy of Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd, which awaited some twenty years till I picked it up again: apparently, the English was quite challenging when I first started it, and the book still carried tiny letters of vocabulary explanations on top of the words in the first pages; Ethan Frome, whose emotional impact was proportionally inverse to its size; the Age of Innocence which I had to buy twice, because the Wordsworth Classics edition had a serious printing error (jumping from Chapter 6 to 15), but that I still kept because it had John Singer Sargent’s Lady Agnew on the cover.

These are also the books I would probably take with me, if I needed to, well, take books anywhere with me. These, and perhaps the cheap paperback edition of Wuthering Heights, with the tiny, tiresome letters – and Wilkie Collins’s Moonstone (how could anyone prefer Dickens?). Perhaps I would still take the portable reading devices, and the cables needed for periodically charging them. Would I remember though where I read what? Or where (and how) it was that I first encountered a book?

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* Originally written in August 2015, finished today. Then and now, in treatment.

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What I see when I see the world: Strandarkirkja, Selvogur

 

outside Strandarkirkja_selvogur_may15

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outside Strandarkirkja2_selvogur_may15

Strandarkirkja, Selvogur   © Foteini Vlachou

 

 

Elective Affinities XXX: To the light

 

blue grotto

Carl Friedrich Seiffert, The Blue Grotto on Capri, 1860, oil on canvas, Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin (photo © Jean Louis Mazieres)

 

bosch

Hieronymous Bosch, detail from the so-called Cardinal Grimani’s altarpiece (Ascent of the Blessed), 1505-15, oil on wood (polyptych), 86.5 × 39.5 cm (each panel), Palazzo Ducale, Venice

 

[Thanks to Gerasimos Mamonas for bringing Carl Friedrich Seiffert’s painting to my attention: the association was almost automatic. Seiffert’s painting also recalled to memory a trip, a little less than two decades ago, to Diros, the stunning caves in the Peloponnese, rich with white stalactites and stalagmites, which one visits by a rowboat on dark, impenetrable waters]

 

Made by

 

Some weeks ago, I came up with the idea of making a film with my soon-to-be eight year old son. He plays a lot with Playmobil, making up stories (usually battles, wars, adventures), enacting all the dialogues he comes up with – and sometimes calling me to watch a particularly exciting scene, or saying “this is in slow motion”.

So, we sat down and wrote a script, of a short film to be shot with a digital camera, starring the various Playmobil characters. We created the sets together, and I shot, edited and scored the first scenes, which is the video you’ll see here. From there on, I encouraged him to shoot his own, which then I proceeded to edit (the app is still too technical for him) – but still haven’t scored.

The idea was to entertain him and spend time with him doing something different, but also encourage him to think of a story in visual terms. If there is no dialogue, how are going to understand what happens here? Music does help a lot, but it mostly has to do with continuity, shooting angles, transition shots, or simpler tricks: like choosing a kid playmobil wearing green with black hair and then a grown-up version of the same, and substituting the blonde hair of his protector early in the film with grey hair and a beard, to denote the passage of time (this you will not see in the short video below). It made me think of the medium afresh, all the difficulties that a filmmaker has to envisage, and how easy it is to go down the slippery slope of using script as a crutch. Although film is essentially a composite medium, I always saw it as predominantly visual.

It was not easy shooting with the Playmobil (they are better for tableaux vivants), since most of the plans are static (relieved by the occasional traveling shots, or zoom ins), but it’s not like we master the stop-motion technique or anything. The result is pretty crude, but I found it wonderfully creative, my son loved it and all he wanted to do was work on our film. I harbor a secret hope that the habit will stick, as he is also passionate with photography.

So here it is, our little labor of love:

 

 

Buffy Art Historian: Pep talk

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XANDER: Buffy, this is all about fear.  It’s understandable, but you can’t let it control you.  ‘Fear leads to anger.  Anger leads to hate.  Hate leads to anger.’ No wait, hold on. ‘Fear leads to hate. Hate leads to the dark side.’ Hold on, no, umm, ‘First you get the women, then you get the money, then you…’ okay, can we forget that?

BUFFY: Thanks for the Dadaist pep talk, I feel much more abstract now.

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season 4, episode 1, The Freshman (written by Joss Whedon, created by Joss Whedon)

(artwork: Berenice Abbott, The El at Columbus and Broadway, 1929, gelatin silver print, 15 x 20.3 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

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