Catching Up

I have fallen so behind these last weeks! (I have myriad personal excuses, but will spare you the details.) This has been all the more frustrating, since there’s been SO MUCH I’ve wanted to write about. So, here are a few things, in no particular order, and in truncated form:

Chalkboard Drawings

Did you hear about the very cool discovery of chalkboard drawings from an Oklahoma school dating to 1917? I’m a sucker for anything that captures a moment in time, especially if that capturing was inadvertent (read: not contrived). There is something so honest and touching in the way we can sort of travel back in time to this American classroom of nearly 100 years ago. See the above link for some great photos.

Rachel Dolezal and J. M. W. Turner
It’s been hard to miss the bizarre news about (former) Spokane NAACP president, Rachel Dolezal. It seems a new odd thread of her personal history emerges every day. And—who knew?—there is a strange art story in her past too.

J. M. W. Turner, The Slave Ship, 1840 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
J. M. W. Turner, The Slave Ship, 1840 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

She has an MFA from Howard University and, according to the bio on her ArtPal site, has been exhibiting her work for fourteen years. It has been pointed out that one of the pieces displayed on her site, The Shape of our Kind, is a near exact copy of a famous painting by British Romantic painter J. M. W. Turner. Turner’s The Slave Ship (1840) is an extremely important work of British Romanticism. The painting is a good example of Turner’s interest in color and light, but it also tells a horrifying story: Hidden in the beautiful seascape, we see the horrors of dying slaves who have been tossed overboard from a slave ship. This is based on real historical events, and the story goes that the ship’s captain would lose money for slaves who died on board, but would get insurance money if those same slaves were lost at sea. So, these people were killed in this most horrible way.

I love Turner’s work. The Slave Ship is a great painting to teach to undergraduates, since most students are moved by both the aesthetics of the work and the drama of its story. It is widely taught and widely known. Which makes Dolezal’s appropriation (if I’m being kind) especially puzzling. Imagine if an artist were to make a copy of the Mona Lisa without ever addressing the Italian Renaissance original! Hmmm. This woman’s story keeps getting odder and odder.

I love the illustrations in my son’s books!
Last week was Maurice Sendak’s birthday. Ask anyone about his/her favorite children’s books and Maurice Sendak will most certainly come up. His drawings and stories are utterly delightful. As Sendak was in the press last week, I found myself thinking about how I feel especially lucky that—since I have a toddler—I get to see great art, in the way of illustrations, that I would not otherwise be exposed to. Some of our current favorites include: Peter Brown’s Mr. Tiger Goes Wild, Munro Leaf’s Ferdinand, Jon Klassen’s I Want My Hat Back, Taro Yashima’s Umbrella, Amy Martin’s Symphony City, anything by Robert McCloskey, Philip C. and Erin E. Stead’s A Sick Day for Amos McGee, Frank Asch and Vladimir Vagin’s Here Comes the Cat! /Сюда Идет Кот!, and of course Margaret Wise Brown’s beloved Goodnight Moon. What are your favorites?

Peter Brown, from Mr. Tiger Goes Wild
Peter Brown, from Mr. Tiger Goes Wild
Robert McCloskey, from Blueberries for Sal
Robert McCloskey, from Blueberries for Sal

I have distinct memories of being read to in my pre-literate years, and of being completely transported by the drawings on the pages. I love reading to my son and I love the wealth of beautiful work out there. I can see his little imagination take off when I read to him and he looks at the wonderful accompanying illustrations.

Erin E. Stead, from A Sick Day for Amos McGee
Erin E. Stead, from A Sick Day for Amos McGee
Munro Leaf, from Ferdinand
Munro Leaf, from Ferdinand

Nonconformist Soviet Art
Have you heard of The Ransom of Russian Art by John McPhee? Well, I recently read it, and though I’m not sure I’d give the book the accolades due so many of John McPhee’s other books, the subject matter is fascinating. He provides an intimate look at the nonconformist art world in the Soviet Union, and the role of one American economist in smuggling this art out of the country.

Even though I grew up in Soviet Russia, my knowledge of what life was like for Soviet citizens is embarrassingly limited. What’s more, I spent so much of my academic energy on fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Russian architecture that I had little room left in my head for what was going on in the twentieth century. Well, enter The Ransom of Russian Art, which has really ignited my interest in the subject. Socialist Realism was the only accepted style of painting approved by the state. If a Soviet artist wanted to create abstract art or political art or anything beyond the confines of Socialist Realism, (s)he had to work underground. And many, many artists did, often at great cost to themselves. Evgeny Rukhin, for example, is rumored to have been murdered by the KGB for his “criminal” activity.

McPhee’s book explores the art of many “unofficial” Soviet artists by way of an investigation of the work of one man, Norton Dodge, who smuggled thousands of these unofficial works out of the country to his home in Maryland. Doge’s collection, which includes more than 20,000 works of Nonconformist Russian art, was donated to the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University in 1991.

Some of my favorite artists mentioned in the book are: Dmitri Plavinsky, Vladimir Nemukhin, Semyon Faibisovich, and Lydia Masterkova. You should check them out if you’re interested in the subject.


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