I think that classical radio hosts should give trigger warnings before playing things like Schubert’s Ave Maria during the morning commute. No sooner had a buckled my seat belt after dropping my son off at school this morning, than out came the first bars of said song. The music hit me like a sock to the gut. But a lovely sock to the gut, if that makes sense. In a bit of serendipity, the final bar played as I pulled into my parking spot at my destination. I collected myself so that I could go about my business without seeming like an emotional train wreck. But an emotional vibrancy lingered in the air for several minutes after I turned off my car. The world felt simultaneously stripped bare and softer. For just a little while, before the spell of that song wore off, there was something magical in the air. Imagine a whole city of people simultaneously going about their business listening to that song on ear buds! I have to imagine that people would be kinder and more attuned to one another. But then again, I suppose not everyone is moved by art in the same way.
Anyway, this unexpectedly emotional morning drive had me thinking about the twentieth-century art I’ve been teaching this semester. About how so many artists sought to capture that je ne sais quoi of music in new, modernist art that was moving toward greater abstraction. I’m supposed to be a defender of the visual arts, but I have to say that I don’t think the modernists succeeded in imitating music. I just don’t think the visual arts can do the same thing. Not in the same, way at least. Take Barnett Newman’s Cantos, for example. I think they’re intellectually interesting. But they do not hit me in the visceral way that music can—and does. It’s more intellectual than music. Which has its place, but is such a very different experience.
Maybe—probably—this is subjective. No doubt there are people out there who strongly disagree with me. But I can’t help but think that the power of visual art comes from an altogether different quality. Seeking to define that quality is the subject for another day.
Back to the Ave Maria. Religion isn’t my strong suit, and I was not raised Catholic. But I find some beauty in the words of the famous prayer:
Hail Mary, full of grace,
the Lord is with thee;
blessed art thou amongst women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
I find beauty in the simplicity of the words, in their sincerity, in the fact that they are words spoken by millions of people across the world. Words spoken with a sense of hope and belief. That combination of sincerity and hope is a thing of stunning beauty on par with Schubert’s composition.
Those of us living in Seattle just endured one of the worst winters on record for the area. We had day after dreary day of gray mist and low clouds. I think there were a couple of sunny days scattered in there, but I can’t remember them. All I remember is endless damp and cold.
So, with the return of sunshine and warm weather over the past week, I’ve felt like weeping with relief. The summers in the Pacific Northwest are as spectacular as the winters are dreary. High blue skies without a drop of humidity. Balmy, warm temperatures. A bounty of flowers and blackberries and cherries. I have been gladly soaking in the sunshine, absorbing much-needed Vitamin D, and watching the breeze dance through the trees in my backyard.
I have always loved the look of brilliant sunshine filtered through leafed-out trees. The mottled, cheerful light that dances across a forest floor or over a shady street. In fact, some of my happiest memories include this powerful visual memory. I remember traveling to the village of Elsah, Illinois with my mother and sister some time in the early 1990s. The town had just suffered terrible flooding, but most of the old clapboard inns and houses had recovered. I vividly remember walking past storefronts selling homey jams and pottery and antiques. I think we were there in early June. Everything seemed to sparkle under the dappled sunlight of that day.
I remember trips to the Canadian Rockies lit by that same magical light. Afternoons driving through the Vermont countryside. And on. My mother and I would often remark to each other, almost in unison, how much we loved the sight of dappled sunlight. And then she would almost always quote Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Pied Beauty”:
Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
I am not striking today, though I support those women who are. Instead, I thought I’d contribute to the spirit of the day by discussing a few women who have been left out of the canon. I looked through the book I taught with most recently and found that the following women artists were left out. There are, of course, many more. But here are ten, in chronological order:
Lavinia Fontana, 1552–1614
This woman was the real deal. She was a successful painter, earning commissions traditionally reserved for male artists, including mythological and religious subjects. She also painted female nudes. She was born in Bologna, but later moved to Rome, where she became court painter to Pope Paul V. She earned many awards for her work.
Anna Maria van Schurman, 1607–78
German-born Dutch artist, poet, and scholar. She was the first woman university student in Europe. As an artist, she worked in a variety of media, including painting, engraving, and paperwork. She was a prolific writer.
Elisabeth Haselwood, 1644–1715 & Elizabeth Godfrey, 1720–58
Think metalwork was reserved for men only? Think again. Elisabeth Haselwood of Norwich, England, and Elizabeth Godfrey of London both had prominent careers as gold- and silversmiths. Haselwood learned silversmithing with her husband in the seventeenth century. After his death, she continued to work with silver leading her own shop, and registering her own silversmithing mark. Godfrey worked in both gold and silver, learning the craft from her father. Like Haselwood, she ran a metalsmithing business independently after the death of her husband.
Marguerite Gérard, 1761–1837
Marguerite Gérard was a successful French painter, and sister-in-law to the much more famous (and oft-reviled) painter, Jean-Honoré Fragonard. Her style shares some of the softness of Fragonard’s paintings, but is really more indebted to Dutch genre painting. Like many celebrated Dutch artists, she is known for her small scenes of domestic interiors. She was wildly successful with private patrons, who purchased her paintings for their homes. I see a lot of similarities between her work and that of Jean Siméon Chardin, who is all over the survey textbooks.
Sarah Goodridge, 1788–1853
I wrote about this interesting artist in a while back. She was an American miniaturist/portraitist, whom I found especially fascinating because of her bold gesture of sending her lover a watercolor of her breasts. That detail aside, Goodridge had a surprisingly successful career, given the world she was born into. She painted several prominent American political figures and opened her own portrait studio in Boston in 1820.
Dora Carrington, 1893–1932
If you’ve never heard of English artist Dora Carrington, you’re in for a treat, because this woman is utterly fascinating and I cannot do her justice in a brief introductory paragraph. Going simply by “Carrington,” she was a prolific artist, though didn’t really try to gain critical success. She made several paintings, but is especially known for her works of decorative art. She was closely associated with the Bloomsbury Group. Madly in love with writer Lytton Strachey for most of her life, with whom she had a lifelong friendship and who happened to be gay, she committed suicide upon his death. Her work is not easily categorized and rewards careful observation.
Gee’s Bend Quilters
The women of Gee’s Bend Alabama have passed down the skill of quilt-making from generation to generation. The Gee’s Bend Quilters, are all descendants of slaves who worked at the Pettway Plantation at a bend in the Alabama River. Examples of their quilts survive from the first quarter of the twentieth century, and quilters from the collective are still active today. Their quilts are phenomenal and tell the unspoken histories of generations of women.
Maria Martinez, 1881–1980
One of the most important American artists of the twentieth century, Maria Martinez brought an awareness of the ceramic traditions she learned at her San Ildefonso Pueblo to the attention of a broader, non-Native public. Growing up, the ceramic vessels she learned to make were utilitarian objects, but as mass-produced vessels became more readily available, ceramics vessels became less intrinsic in pueblo life. Martinez was an especially adept ceramicist and was famous for her black-on-black ceramic vessels, which she sold to tourists who appreciated them for their aesthetic–rather than utilitarian value.
Louise Bourgeois, 1911–2010
This woman was extremely famous and I’m surprised she’s not in the survey. She is most celebrated for her sculpture, but was also an installation artist, a painter, and printmaker. She is also remembered for her writing, some of which has been published in The Return of the Repressed. Her work cannot be easily summed up, but much of it deals with memory and I find it particularly alluring and beautiful.
Ock Pop Tok
Ock Pop Tok (meaning “East Meets West”) is a Laos-based weaving collective founded by two women (a Brit and a Laotian) in 1999. The collective has allowed the handmade weaving traditions of Laos to continue in the face of mass-production, and employs local women who might not otherwise earn a living wage for their craft. Their work is diverse and beautiful. You can learn about some of the artists who contribute to the collective on their website, where you can buy their products, which range from clothing and jewelry to wall hangings. Work from the collective has been featured in museums around the world.
All good leaders appreciate the grave importance of protecting their citizens from the threats of invading barbarians, be they Eurasian nomads, Visigoths, Huns, or . . . Mexicans.
Donald Trump knows his history and looks to that history with concern and anticipation. He will protect his people from the Great Mexican Horde, just as the Byzantine, Roman, and Qin emperors protected themselves from outside threats, and just as various medieval fortress towns from Italy to Britain to Russia, protected their people from barbarian raids. For too long, modern society has lived under the false impression that it is safe, but raping and pillaging is alive and well, citizens!
Let’s look to history. The first parts of The Great Wall, the Great Wall of China, were begun in the eighth century BCE. By the third century BCE, during the Qin Dynasty, the distinct parts of the wall that had been built were finally connected into one massive wall to keep out invaders. Bonus: the walls were built using forced labor. The Trumpian Wall will borrow both the tenor of The Great Wall and its method of construction, thereby borrowing its “great”ness all the while making it free to the American people. Win-win. (To be determined: Who will be the forced laborers?)
The wonderful—really fantastic!—Romans built walls of their own. The Servian Walls were built in the fourth century BCE and the Aurelian Walls were built in the third century CE. These are classic walls, people. The best. Not only were their walls a class act, but their gates were too. Look at the Porta Esquilina for example. Trump the Great will see you, Porta Esquilina, and raise you. Nothing less than a triumphal arch will do. At several points along the wall there will be triumphal arches, much like the Arch of Titus, but of course with imagery of Trump the Great. These arches will serve as controlled points of entry.
Let’s not forget the contributions of medieval and early modern fortress architecture. Most walls had crenellation, behind which archers could hide so as not to be murdered by evil invaders. US border agents also need protection, so The Trumpian Wall will have crenellation as well. Also murder holes. Perhaps there is no need to drop burning oil, tar, or quicklime onto the Mexican invaders, but the murder holes will be useful nonetheless. Border agents will be able to communicate with the approaching invaders through these holes, without having to make physical contact. The best defense!
You might also notice that there are often towers embedded within medieval and early modern fortifications. This is the perfect opportunity to bring real estate opportunities to the American people along the southern border. At even intervals along the wall there will be Trump Towers, which can be rented for office or residential use.
Finally, in homage to our Russian overlords allies, we will construct the wall out of red brick, as at the Kremlin in Mother Russia.
There has been some criticism from “environmentalists” who say that such a wall will harm wildlife, obstructing their natural migration patterns. This is just silly. Any animal is free to come and go through any of the many triumphal arches along the wall. No border agent will stop any wildlife from coming or going. These are baseless attacks!
Last but not least, the wall will pay homage to the great American artists Christo (some say he was born in Bulgaria, but everyone knows this is false!) and some woman with whom he worked (Who cares what her name was? Everyone knows there have been no great women artists!), who wrapped part of the Roman walls in the 1970s as part of some bizarre “modern art” project. Clearly this was silly, but it got a lot of attention. And by bringing the public’s attention to a famous artist, Trump the Great might deflect some of the criticism he’s gotten for threatening to do away with the NEA/NEH. Those sections of the wall that cross through the most dangerous border towns will be wrapped, so as to ensure extra safety for the US border agents. The fabric used will incorporate gold thread, which will shimmer in the sunlight as a sign of America’s great wealth and power in the face of those evil forces seeking to infiltrate our great land.
This is how we make America great again.
(Note: Trump the Great was inspired by the TV show Game of Thrones when planning his wall. Unfortunately, due to its southerly location, it will not be possible to build a wall of ice, as desired.)
Today would have been my mother’s seventieth birthday. Were she alive today, I would have sent her a bouquet of pale pink roses. She once told me that she thought the two most perfect things in the world were cats and roses. Since she already had a beloved feline in her life, I tried to fill her life with roses as much as possible.
Now, of course, roses always make me think of her, and they have come to serve as something of a metaphor for my mother. They are beautiful and sweet-smelling. They are delicate, but somehow powerful. Strong. Mostly, they don’t last nearly as long as they should.
Today, in honor of my mother and the roses I would have bought her, I’m revisiting the work of Jean Robie, nineteenth-century Belgian still life painter. His Bouquet of Roses captures something of what I think my mother loved about roses as well as something of what was so remarkable about her. You can almost feel the softness of the petals and smell the freshness of their alluring scent. I especially love the mystery of this arrangement. You cannot see what contains these roses, though they’ve certainly been gathered by someone. They almost seem to be growing–in a perfect bouquet–out of the log resting on top of the bright green grass. I think my mother had a touch of that divine mystery in her as well. Something special emanated from her, its source never entirely apparent to us mere mortals.
Like the roses in this painting, my mother’s memory is preserved for me, impossibly perfect, divinely lit, lovely. My mom was a lovely rose blossom, making the world around her smell sweeter. And, I know that (to quote the Dana Gioia poem she requested we read at her funeral) there is “behind the wall a garden still in blossom.”
Caspar David Friedrich might be my art history soul mate. On a surface level, I think his paintings are perfection to look at. Their austere, northern landscapes speak to me. The gnarled, bare trees suggest weathering and time and realistically imperfect stories. Friedrich captures the fleeting, eerie quality of transitional light. The sky can only cast that specific glow for maybe five minutes before it either starts to darken into a deep blue or brighten into a clearer light.
At the same time, the ponderousness of time and its inexorable power over each of us seems to shout from the canvas. This dance between transience and permanence keeps me coming back to Friedrich again and again.
But I find the above image, Abbey in the Oakwood (1810), to be especially poignant in January of 2017. Set within Friedrich’s striking natural elements are the remains of an abbey, which I find is a fitting metaphor for my world circa 2017. All that remains of the abbey is one vertical section of wall, with an arched doorway at ground level and the remains of a lancet window above. You can imagine the grandeur of the building that once stood here. Stained glass! Tall ribbed groin vaults! Surely there were colorful marble tiles on the floors and shiny gold reliquaries housed in delicately carved protective niches. Now all that remains is crumbling, the glass from the window is gone, and the ruin is being overtaken by the tall oak trees that surround it. Ashes to ashes . . .
If you look closely, you can see signs of humanity. A procession of monks moves through the doorway with a coffin. There are headstones scattered around in the bare snow. Friedrich really underscores his message of decay and ruin with these details. And like the ruin that rises above them, these elements are incidental to the image. They are overshadowed by their environment, which is timeless and unconquerable.
I wonder about these plucky monks. Why are they still here? Why have they not moved on to another abbey? Somewhere warm and safe. Did they stick around to see the final collapse of this last fragment of their abbey? Are they giving in to the powerful forces around them? Or are they holding on in the hopes of rebuilding what was lost?
Even if the forces of decay are winning, their effects are mitigated by the inherently regenerative qualities of nature. Winter will end and the snow will melt. The sun will rise and warm the world below. When the first flowers push up through the earth, and buds of green appear on the oak trees under a warm spring sun, I imagine that someone will be working to repair the damage and fix what was destroyed. If not the monks, then someone else.
I was reminded of Edvard Munch today, and something seemed to click into place. Munch’s most famous painting, The Scream, is one of those art history icons that has become so familiar that its original intensity has faded.
I don’t think I fully appreciated The Scream until last Friday’s Inauguration. I am feeling a serious angst, like so many people. I feel anxiety and dread on a visceral level that I have never known before. I find myself stewing. Shaking. My whole being is screaming.
Munch famously said of this painting that he “sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.” And what he painted is a personification of that scream. I feel like our world is screaming right now, just like Munch’s screamer. The expressive swirls of black and blood red seem simultaneously to descend upon and emanate from Munch’s screamer. They are a foreboding threat, but also a powerful expression of emotion.
I think the trick is to own those foreboding/expressive swirls in the sky. To choose to think that they are an expression of the screamer–rather than a threat upon the screamer. To decide that the truth of our pain is more potent than any threats from the chaotic world around us. Extreme emotions can be harnessed for good.