I Know Where I'm Going

Category: Art

Edith Wharton and art, pt. 2

Following up on the first part on Edith Wharton and her relationship to art (as it peeks through her literature), this second part is dedicated to the short story The Quicksand (1902), published in the 1904 collection of short stories The Descent of Man, and Other Stories. It is the heartbreaking tale of a mother who, in trying to convince her son’s beloved to accept his marriage proposal, finds herself in agreement with the girl in her rejection, on the same moral scruples that she herself harbored for her husband and his professional occupation, that the girl now gives for not marrying Alan. Mr. Quentin, Alan’s father, was the owner of a scandalous sheet, The Radiator, that made obscene amounts of money by exposing the secrets of society families.

After first meeting with Hope Fenno, Alan’s intended, and trying to convince her of her folly of denying the love of a man on abstract moral reasons, Mrs. Quentin accidentally runs into her at the Metropolitan Museum six months later and finds herself rather surprised in revealing her own story to Hope, when the latter admits that Mrs. Quentin’s initial arguments (about the necessity of being practical and sort of flexible) had eventually convinced her. She relates how she first discovered what The Radiator really was, how she tried to convince her husband of selling it, and how she gradually grew accustomed to the comforts and luxuries the money bought, attempting to disassociate it from the source it came. She raised her son in it, and by the time Alan grew up, it was too late to revert to her old scruples: he was accustomed to, ‘tainted’ by the money, with no hope of ever giving it or the newspaper up.

This key scene takes place in one of the Met’s galleries, where Mrs. Quentin goes to see a painting by Giovanni Antonio Beltraffio (1466/67–1516), that has recently been added to the collection. No matter how hard I looked, in articles of the period, I could not find any reference to a Beltraffio (or Boltraffio) added to the museum’s collection that period, nor for that matter any work attributed to the painter in the collection today, apart from a drawing of a woman’s head in profile, with an attribution to Leonardo’s pupils, among which Beltraffio was documented (in the painter’s studio, in 1490). Certainly nothing that sounded similar to a painting like that in the passage, which I quote below. I am posting instead a work attributed jointly to Beltraffio and Marco d’Oggiono, another of Leonardo’s pupils, which is today in the Gemäldegalerie, in Berlin and which includes a landscape, that might give an idea of the “mystic blue reaches of the landscape” Wharton refers to (with no specific mention of the subject).

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Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio and Marco d’Oggiono, The Resurrection of Christ with the Saint Leonard of Noblac and Lucia, around 1491, oil on poplar wood, 234.5 x 185.5 cm, Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

“Mrs. Quentin, in the late spring afternoon, had turned in at the doors of the Metropolitan Museum. She had been walking in the Park, in a solitude oppressed by the ever-present sense of her son’s trouble, and had suddenly remembered that some one had added a Beltraffio to the collection. It was an old habit of Mrs. Quentin’s to seek in the enjoyment of the beautiful the distraction that most of her acquaintances appeared to find in each other’s company. She had few friends, and their society was welcome to her only in her more superficial moods; but she could drug anxiety with a picture as some women can soothe it with a bonnet.

The long line of mellow canvases seemed to receive her into the rich calm of an autumn twilight. She might have been walking in an enchanted wood where the footfall of care never sounded. So deep was the sense of seclusion that, as she turned from her prolonged communion with the new Beltraffio, it was a surprise to find she was not alone.

Mrs. Quentin, in the embarrassment of surprising a secret that its possessor was doubtless unconscious of betraying, reverted hurriedly to the Beltraffio.

“I came to see this,” she said. “It’s very beautiful.”

Miss Fenno’s eye travelled incuriously over the mystic blue reaches of the landscape. “I suppose so,” she assented; adding, after another tentative pause, “You come here often, don’t you?”

“Very often,” Mrs. Quentin answered. “I find pictures a great help.”

“A help?”

“A rest, I mean…if one is tired or out of sorts.”

“Ah,” Miss Fenno murmured, looking down.

“This Beltraffio is new, you know,” Mrs. Quentin continued. “What a wonderful background, isn’t it? Is he a painter who interests you?”

The girl glanced again at the dusky canvas, as though in a final endeavor to extract from it a clue to the consolations of art. “I don’t know,” she said at length; “I’m afraid I don’t understand
pictures.”

Edith Wharton and art, pt. 1

 

Recently, due to poor eyesight, I discovered the pleasure (and relief) of audiobooks. As someone who reads (and reads and reads), it was so distressing not to be able to. But, through LibriVox, and its amazing volunteers, I have discovered a whole new way to get to literature. It is imperative, of course, to find one voice that suits one’s taste, but I’ve been incredibly lucky in discovering David Clarke’s impeccable reading of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock canon, and Nicholas Clifford’s readings of Henry James and Edith Wharton.

The latter, especially, gave me the opportunity to discover the short stories of Edith Wharton, one of my favorite authors, in two volumes, The Descent of Man, and Other Stories (1904) and Tales of Men and Ghosts (1910). I never fancied myself as one who appreciates the short story as a literary form, but I was surprised to find out that I did, and that I enjoyed Wharton’s short stories as much as her novels (Summer, Ethan Frome, The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence rank among the novels I most cherish). The Tales of Men and Ghosts even includes two masterful ghost stories, The Eyes and Afterward (which I strongly recommend to fans of the genre). Her stories are always evocative and ambiguous, leaving ample space for interpretation, many times with enigmatic endings. But another aspect of them that I enjoyed (as I do with James’s writing as well), were the frequent allusions to art and art objects. This is why I am devoting two posts to The Reckoning and The Quicksand, both from The Descent of Man, and Other Stories.

In The Reckoning (1902), a bitter tale of marriage and divorce, there is only a fleeting mention to painting, a deprecating reference to contemporary art – and to the profession of painters as little more than an excuse for sociable interactions. I always find the impressions of writers precious, as they denote a particular form of reception, expressed through their literary sensibility, and they frequently allow a vivid image, not only of their personal tastes and distastes, but also of those of their contemporaries.

So, without further delay, the passage from The Reckoning goes as follows: “The Herbert Van Siderens were a couple who subsisted, socially, on the fact that they had a studio. Van Sideren’s pictures were chiefly valuable as accessories to the mise en scene which differentiated his wife’s ‘afternoons’ from the blighting functions held in long New York drawing-rooms, and permitted her to offer their friends whiskey-and-soda instead of tea. Mrs. Van Sideren, for her part, was skilled in making the most of the kind of atmosphere which a lay-figure and an easel create; and if at times she found the illusion hard to maintain, and lost courage to the extent of almost wishing that Herbert could paint, she promptly overcame such moments of weakness by calling in some fresh talent, some extraneous re-enforcement of the ‘artistic’ impression. It was in quest of such aid that she had seized on Westall, coaxing him, somewhat to his wife’s surprise, into a flattered participation in her fraud. It was vaguely felt, in the Van Sideren circle, that all the audacities were artistic, and that a teacher who pronounced marriage immoral was somehow as distinguished as a painter who depicted purple grass and a green sky. The Van Sideren set were tired of the conventional color-scheme in art and conduct.”

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Henri-Edmond Cross, Pines Along the Shore, 1896, oil on canvas, 54 x 65.4 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The ‘purple grass’ and ‘green sky’ reminded me of neo-impressionist (yes, these interminable sub-categories of modernist art…) painters, such as Henri-Edmond Cross and, although a bit later, Henri Matisse’s fauvist canvases, which may provide an apt illustration of the kind of painting that Edith Wharton had in mind.

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Henri Matisse, Olive Trees at Collioure, summer 1906 (?), oil on canvas, 44.5 x 55.2 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

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Henri Matisse, The Riverbank, 1907, oil on canvas, 73.2 x 60.3 cm, Kunstmuseum Basel

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Henri Matisse, Moroccan Landscape, 1912, oil on canvas, 115 x 80 cm, Moderna Museet, Stockholm

Nabokov, landscapist

 

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Claude Lorrain, Sunrise (detail), possibly 1646–47, oil on canvas, 102.9 x 134 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

 

“By a paradox of pictorial thought, the average lowland North-American countryside had at first seemed to me something I accepted with a shock of amused recognition because of those painted oilcloths which were imported from America in the old days to be hung above washstands in Central-European nurseries, and which fascinated a drowsy child at bed time with the rustic green views they depicted – opaque curly trees, a barn, cattle, a brook, the dull white of vague orchards in bloom, and perhaps a stone fence or hills of greenish gouache. But gradually the models of those elementary rusticities became stranger and stranger to the eye, the nearer I came to know them. Beyond the tilled plain, beyond the toy roofs, there would be a slow suffusion of inutile loveliness, a low sun in a platinum haze with a warm, peeled-peach tinge pervading the upper edge of a two-dimensional, dove-gray cloud fusing with the distant amorous mist. There might be a line of spaced trees silhouetted against the horizon, and hot still noons above a wilderness of clover, and Claude Lorrain clouds inscribed remotely into misty azure with only their cumulus part conspicuous against the neutral swoon of the background. Or again, it might be a stern El Greco horizon, pregnant with inky rain, and a passing glimpse of some mummy-necked farmer, and all around alternating strips of quick-silverish water and harsh green corn, the whole arrangement opening like a fan, somewhere in Kansas.”

View of Toledo

El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos), View of Toledo (detail), ca. 1598–99, oil on canvas, 121.3 x 108.6 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

 

* From the 2006 Penguin Red Classic edition of Lolita (pp. 171-172).

 

PS. And the “mummy-necked farmer”.

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Grant Wood, American Gothic, 1930, oil on beaver board, 78 x 65.3 cm, The Art Institute of Chicago.

 

 

Nabokov on film genre

 

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Nabokov’s powers of description and his eloquence were, indeed, formidable, and if Lolita somewhat loses its narrative thrust after its two main characters take flight through a vast America whose imaginary geography is constituted by the writer, the reader is rewarded by the abundance of evocative passages and descriptions. Such is the one where Nabokov discusses Lolita’s ‘veritable passion’ for cinema. An irony verging on disdain seeps through the lines that detail the various genres, and although it is more than likely that Nabokov jumbled together scenes from different films, the way he writes suggests he might refer to actual genre b-movies from the late 1940s, the period when he started his novel.

Musicals: “In the first, real singers and dancers had unreal stage careers in an essentially grief-proof sphere of existence wherefrom death and truth were banned, and where, at the end, white-haired, dewy-eyed, technically deathless, the initially reluctant father of a show-crazy girl always finished by applauding her apotheosis on fabulous Broadway.”

This seems too generic on the one hand, and too specific on the other, but despite much google searching I have come up empty-handed.

Gangster films/noir (Nabokov calls this category ‘the underworlders’): “The underworld was a world apart: there, heroic newspapermen were tortured, telephone bills ran to billions, and, in a robust atmosphere of incompetent marksmanship, villains were chased through sewers and storehouses by pathologically fearless cops.”

It might very well be the b-genre documentary-style noir He Walked by Night (1948), directed by Alfred Werker and the uncredited Anthony Mann, that prominently features a chase through sewers (the sewer scene from The Third Man also comes to mind, but I consider it a less likely candidate – it would hardly qualify as ‘genre’).

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Westerns: “Finally there was the mahogany landscape, the florid-faced, blue-eyed roughriders, the prim pretty schoolteacher arriving in Roaring Gulch, the rearing horse, the spectacular stampede, the pistol thrust through the shivered windowpane, the stupendous fist fight, the crashing mountain of dusty old-fashioned furniture, the table used as a weapon, the timely somersault, the pinned hand still groping for the dropped bowie knife, the grunt, the sweet crash of fist again chin, the kick in the belly, the flying tackle; and immediately after a plethora of pain that would have hospitalized a Hercules…, nothing to show but the rather becoming bruise on the bronzed cheek of the warmed-up hero embracing his gorgeous frontier bride.”

I am almost certain that this refers to The Virginian (1946), based on Owen Wister’s popular novel and directed by Stuart Gilmore, probably more well known as Preston Sturges’s editor. Gilmore even got his protagonist, blue-eyed Joel McCrea, from Sullivan’s Travels. The film features a rearing horse, a stampede, and Barbara Britton as the prim pretty schoolteacher.

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An exercise in futility? Perhaps – but an entertaining one, at the very least.

 

* All references are from the 2006 Penguin Red Classic edition.

The enchanted, impressionist April

 

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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]

 

 

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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Books: the physical object

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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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“Para narrar a História de Portugal”: A museum, a history and a nation

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A week ago, an article by Nuno Vassallo e Silva appeared in Público, the Portuguese newspaper, criticizing the “greater administrative and financial autonomy” that will be granted to the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga (MNAA), freeing it largely from the bureaucratic constraints of the general direction of patrimony and culture, the DGPC. The author, a former director of the DGPC among other things, divides the arguments around this new juridical status under the category of patrimony and finances. I confess my ignorance of the administrative and financial realities of the museum, the viability of managing it independently (more or less so), or how DGCP allots funds internally between the various institutions under its stewardship.

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It is rather to the author’s notion of patrimony that I should like to turn now and his view of what national museums are (or should be) about. He provides the following example to illuminate his point: “To narrate the History of Portugal, this should be obligatorily accompanied by the collections of the National Archaeological Museum, without excluding a passage from the Machado de Castro National Museum, and not only, concluding with the National Museum of Contemporary Art-Museum of Chiado. With the collection of the museum alone this identity journey would be significantly incomplete”. The first problematic point is the tacit (and inexplicable) assumption that a possible autonomy of the museum would render somehow impossible the borrowing from other national museums or the organization of joint exhibitions. The second problematic point, and the most crucial here, is the author’s concept of what the mission of a national museum is.

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When national museums started being established all over Europe, the inclusiveness of a museum addressed to the nation was almost a revolutionary statement. The museums were invariably seen not only as repositories (of art, natural history specimens etc.), but also as educational instruments for the greater public. Nevertheless, the term ‘national’ has never exclusively referred to the contents of museums’ collections. Thus, the National Gallery in London is not a gallery of British Art (that would be the Tate Britain), any more than the Museo Nacional del Prado is a museum of Spanish art. There are even museums that are national but do not bear the word in their name, such as the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, or museums that qualify as state museums (such as the Hermitage or the Tretyakov Gallery). Similarly, the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga is not a museum of Portuguese art. Much to the contrary, it is the museum with the most important non-Portuguese art collection in the country (including European painting, tapestries, furniture and decorative arts), apart from the Calouste Gulbenkian museum which is not discussed in the same breadth, as it is a museum run by a Foundation and has a different status.

From where does it follow, then, that the mission of the MNAA should be, primarily, the “narrating of the history of Portugal”? The only positive example provided in the article of the museum’s international presence has precisely to do with the “understanding of the national collections as a whole” and the museum’s role in their international projection (referring to the presentation of the A Arquitectura Imaginária: Pintura, Escultura, Artes Decorativas exhibition in Torino).

Even more troubling is the notion of a history of Portugal that stretches unbroken from antiquity till today. How else to account for the reference to the Museu de Arqueologia in the example? It is not a vision that much different than the one reflected in the questionable title Arte Portuguesa. Da Pré-História ao Século XX, of the 20-volume art history that appeared as recently as 2009, as if Portuguese art (and, by extension, Portuguese identity) could be traced back to prehistory through the centuries. The identity discourse put forward in this article is nothing short of reactionary.

Furthermore, the idea of the museum’s role on an international stage is retrograde, provincial and close-minded. When the author claims that the MNAA “cannot be compared to great foreign museums”, he establishes a very questionable criterion of the quality of the collections, and the lack of their “reach in global patrimony”, unlike what happens with the Prado (example provided by the author). Comparisons most frequently serve as judgments, “establishing hierarchies” (Mieke Bal 2005), and diminishing one of the parts of the equation, the inevitable “not as good as” outcome [1]. Art historians should be weary of such comparisons and the conclusions derived from them. If the MNAA does not have the global reach of the Prado, this is not an indictment of the museum’s collections nor is it a fate to be mournfully accepted. It has a lot more to do with the fine arts canon, where painting and sculpture are privileged in detriment to the decorative (still pejoratively called ‘minor’) arts. The MNAA is uniquely positioned to challenge this dominant paradigm (operating equally in academia, the art market and the museum world at large), drawing from its considerable collections to help construct a discourse that includes the decorative arts and addresses a wide range of issues, such as the value of manual work, the cult of authorship and the individual etc.

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Instead of focusing on its holdings of Portuguese art (which it undoubtedly has the obligation to study, preserve and promote), the MNAA owns objects from all over the world, objects that grew out of the long history of Portuguese expansion. In a world where empire is far from a thing of the past, the museum has the responsibility to use this cultural legacy to criticize the country’s imperial past, dialogue with other countries that attempt to do the same and work towards breaking down the traditional conceptual divisions between East and West. In a recent interview, Penelope Curtis, the director of the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, proposed to do just that, rethink the way “we tell the history of art history”, divide collections and separate East from West, along categories that is urgent to redefine. In the end, it is the difference between a place from where to see the world, and a place from where to see only Portugal.

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[1] “‘[Comparison] quickly becomes a ground for (relative) judgement and establishing hierarchies, and it distracts from looking” and “There are, however, other forms of comparison, not built on a logic of oppositional judgement. Comparison can be a tool for analysis as long as one of its terms is not established as normative”. From Mieke Bal, “Grounds of Comparison,” in The Artemisia Files: Artemisia Gentilleschi for Feminists and Other Thinking People, ed. Mieke Bal (Chicago and London, 2005), 129–67; cited in Craig Clunas, “The Art of Global Comparisons,” in Writing the History of the Global: Challenges for the 21st Century, ed. Maxine Berg (Oxford: Oxford University Press for the British Academy, 2013), 165–176.

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Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd (1874)

…as if the blue component of the grey had faded, like the indigo from the same kind of colour in Turner’s pictures (p. 82).

A Pink Sky above a Grey Sea circa 1822 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

J. M. W. Turner, A Pink Sky above a Grey Sea, circa 1822, gouache and watercolor on paper, 18.8 x 22.7 cm, Tate Gallery, London (http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/D25412)

The beauty her features might have lacked in form was amply made up for by the perfection of hue, which at this winter-time was the softened ruddiness on a surface of high rotundity that we meet with in a Terburg or a Gerard Douw; and, like the presentations of those great colourists, it was a face which kept well back from the boundary between comeliness and the ideal (p. 122).

In an instant Bathsheba’s face coloured with the angry crimson of a Danby sunset (p. 185).

cropped to image, recto, unframed

Francis Danby, Sunset at Sea after a Storm, ca. 1824, oil on pressed card, 11.4 x 17.8 cm, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection (http://collections.britishart.yale.edu/vufind/Record/1668090)

Faint sounds came from the barn, and he looked that way. Figures stepped singly and in pairs through the doors – all walking awkwardly, and abashed, save the foremost, who wore a red jacket, and advanced with his hands in his pockets, whistling. The others shambled after with a conscience-stricken air: the whole procession was not unlike Flaxman’s group of suitors tottering on towards the infernal regions under the conduct of Mercury (p. 314).

Mercury Conducting the Souls of the Suitors to the Infernal Regions 1805 by John Flaxman 1755-1826

John Flaxman, Mercury Conducting the Souls of the Suitors to the Infernal Regions, 1805, engraving and etching on paper, 17.5 x 29.8 cm, Tate Gallery, London (http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/flaxman-mercury-conducting-the-souls-of-the-suitors-to-the-infernal-regions-t11219)

[All references are to the 1978 Penguin edition, reprinted in Penguin Classics in 1985]

Whose Orient is it anyway?

These paintings were executed by two non-French artists, who both studied in Paris, under the French painter Jean-Léon Gérôme, known for his history paintings and frequently Orientalist subject matter. Would it be possible to distinguish between them, based on the information that one of these painters was in fact Ottoman?

Osman Hamdi Bey Reciting the Quran c. 1900

ferraris

Osman_Hamdi_Bey_-_Arzuhalci_,_Public_Scribe_-_Google_Art_Project

Image captions:

  1. Osman Hamdi Bey (1842-1910), Reciting the Quran, undated, oil on canvas, 72.5 x 53 cm, Sakıp Sabancı Museum, Istanbul
  2. Arthur von Ferraris, The Coffee House, Cairo, 1888, oil on panel, 46.3 x 32.4 cm, Sotheby’s sale (2008)
  3. Osman Hamdi Bey, Public Scribe, undated, oil on canvas, 110 x 77 cm, Sakıp Sabancı Museum, Istanbul

Osman Hamdi Bey’s works (first and third painting) seem to avoid, to a certain degree, the excessive attention to surface detail and the preciosity characteristic of much Orientalist painting. While this could be an opinion unfairly based on a limited amount of works, there is another, perhaps more significant difference. Hamdi Bey painted a number of works representing people engaged in the acts of writing, reading or studying. Apart from the scribe and Quran scholar depicted above, one can cite such paintings as the splendid 1878 Scholar (Sotheby’s sale, 2012) or the 1905 Young Emir Studying from the Walker Art Gallery. Even in Ferraris’s painting, which includes a man engaged in the reading of what seems like a single-sheet newspaper, the action is taking place in a setting associated primarily with leisure, and the viewer’s attention is drawn to the pouring of the coffee and the prominently featured hookah (narghile).

OSMAN_HAMDY_BEY_TURKISH_1842-1910_THE_SCHOLAR

Osman Hamdi Bey, Scholar, 1878, oil on canvas, 45.5 x 90 cm, Sotheby’s sale, 2012

Hamdi, Osman, 1842-1910; A Young Emir Studying

Osman Hamdi Bey, A Young Emir Studying, 1905, oil on canvas, 120.7 x 222.2 cm, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

Even when Orientalist painters have avoided the more blatantly Orientalist subject matter (such as harems, elaborately dressed warriors, people simply posing or standing, or similar lack of activity that confirms the myth of the lazy Oriental), having instead opted for more positive representations, many seem to have focused on manual aspects of labor, or the splendid material culture of the Islamic world (such as the examples by Deutsch and Discart below). The implication is that the achievements of Islamic culture were more or less unrelated to intellectual pursuits. On the contrary, Osman Hamdi Bey’s work, although far from unambiguous, offers a fascinating glimpse into the complexities of choosing to look at one’s own world through the lens of a different culture.

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Ludwig Deutsch, The Lamp Lighter, 1900, oil on panel, 56.5 x 43.8 cm, Sotheby’s sale, 2009

jean discart

Jean Discart, L’Atelier de poterie, Tanger, oil on panel, 35 x 45.5 cm, Sotheby’s sale, 2012

* On Osman Hamdi Bey, one can further listen to the Ottoman History Podcast by Emily Neumeier “Lost and Found: Art, Diplomacy, and the Journey of a Nineteenth-Century Ottoman Painting“. Images accompanying the podcast can be found here.

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