Tag Archive | art

What matters, comes after

Angel of Ohlsdorf

I took a trip to Germany years ago. One of the places we stopped was a cemetery.  The person I was with commented on all the swastikas on the graves of the WWII soldiers. As Americans, standing there looking on these graves, that symbol felt wrong to see anywhere. But in a place of mourning, a place that had always been a place of mourning, these scattered graves of local people, who had died in that horrific time, serving that horrific regime, bearing that hated mark, it made sense.

I doubt anyone will ever want to go back through every graveyard in Germany and elsewhere that nazi soliders and sympathizers died, and chip off every swastika. I suppose it could be done, maybe it should be done, but it would take funding, and family approval, and town approval and . . . really all you feel in that place is sadness already. Sadness that someone, anyone, ever fought and died in such a worthless cause as hate, racism, and national socialist whackjob-ism.

When I think about Confederate symbols in graveyards, I feel the same way about them. Lives lost over such an immoral, obscenely worthless cause. But I don’t feel that way about Confederate symbols in public places. I think those symbols should be removed and replaced with symbols of hope. Emancipation Park shouldn’t have a statue of General Robert E Lee. It should have a symbol of the Great Emancipator, Lincoln. Or of Harriet Tubman, whose emancipated so many.

I speak as someone who loves history and has a degree  in it. I also speak as an artist. Now is the time to remove bronze statues, to give them to artists of today to melt down and create something new to go on those empty plinths. Now is the time to give those cenotaphs to sculptors to chip away at and remake into something new. Now is the time, for today’s artists, and today’s historians, to join up and transform these places and with outdated, prejudiced, oppressive symbols in to symbols of our time, symbols of truth, of hope, of aspirations not yet met.

Why can’t Rosa Parks replace Robert E Lee on that plinth? Why can’t Rebecca Lee Crumpler stand tall on a campus quad? Why can’t we celebrate the achievements and progress of our country, of people of color, where once there was a symbol of intimation and oppression? Why can’t a statue of Former Justice Thurgood Marshall (of Brown v Board of Education) stand where Former Justice Roger Tany (of Dred Scott) did?

Why can’t we start to do this now?

Nature abhors a vacuum. I call on you, artists and historians. Let’s create the future now, by celebrating a past that also actually happened, and was good and inspiring and uplifting, not just for people of color but all people. Let’s not leave an empty plinth, a hole in the ground, or a space for a plaque on a monument to be ceded to a new version of racism and intolerance.

I call on cities and counties, states and communities. I call on people to form committees, to get this important work, in this critical time, accomplished. Let the dead, who buried their Confederate soldier and sympathizer dead, and are now themselves dead, lie. Their time is over. They are dust, as we all must someday be.

But in our public spheres, alive and vibrant, let we the living create new art, alive and vibrant, so that 100 or 150 years from now, those monuments will still stand tall and remind living people of the future, of people who lived  in times past and whose lives deserve to be remembered and celebrated still, not just by Americans of color, but by all Americans who pass by.

To destroy what is bad of the past is good, but what really matters is what you create in it’s place. What really matters, is what comes after.



Because people are more than their work


Portrait of Madame X — which John Singer Sargent considered his best painting of his career even though it was one of his earliest works.

Recently someone asked me why I don’t blog about writing. Yawn. Is there anything more dull than writing about writing? Ok, maybe reading someone’s writings about writing. That could be worse.

People are so much more than what they do, even if they do something interesting and do it very well. Most of the time, people who do something well don’t even like what they do. Rare is the person at the peak of their profession who is also happy in that profession. But profession is the great American obsession. Almost every conversation starts with “And what do you do?”

Fortunately, I’m not very American or very obsessive. I suppose that’s why I’m so fascinated by humans’ beingness. You never know what’s behind the facade of a profession.

John Singer Sargent was a master of his profession. But, he was also fluent in French, Italian, and German, and played a mean piano. He became famous for a painting that also got him run out of town. He tried to “fix” the painting (you can see the original version here) but the damage was done. The girl’s mother thought her daughter had been made to look a whore (read the letter from Ralph Curtis to a friend on the same page). Commissions dried up, he had to leave.

Paris felt the Portrait of Madame X (fixed version above) was shockingly sexual. I suppose Paris might have thought some other things as well. JSS had pursued an introduction to Madame for months. It then took a year to do the painting. People probably thought there was something going on. However, JSS was actually gay.

JSS’s father was a doctor. Dr Sargent had moved the family to Europe after JSS’s older sister died and JSS’s mother had a nervous breakdown. Some years later, when JSS’s father fell very ill, he basically became his father’s nurse — while continuing to paint. JSS nursed his father till the day dad died. He did it with a patience, compassion, and tenderness that astonished his friends. It was the year after his father died that JSS became a big success. His father never lived to see it.

JSS had a great relationship with his mother. He took care of his mother, who lived with him remainder of her life.  His work gave his mother financial security and social status. It was a good life for her. But JSS really didn’t like being a portrait painter.  He called his work, “the second oldest profession.” JSS did about 900 paintings, but he did 2000 watercolors (and countless sketches and drawings). Although he’s known for portraits, he actually preferred being outdoors painting landscapes.

JSS never married. I suppose he liked his freedom and was too honest about his orientation to go through with a sham marriage. His friends knew he was gay, as did most of his sitters I’m sure. How could they not?  Before starting a portrait, he went a lady’s house and had her maid lay out all her gowns and baubles. Then he picked exactly what his female sitter would wear for her portrait!

When JSS’s mother died, he stopped taking portrait commissions. He finished out his remaining scheduled portraits, which took a year, then closed his studio — for good. For the remaining 18 years of his life, he travelled, socialized, and painted what he liked. Although we think of him as an American painter, he really was European. He was born to American parents, in Florence, and spent the vast majority of his life abroad in Europe.

All of this plays in my head when I look at a JSS’s work.


President Theodore Roosevelt by JSS, in 1903

I feel there were other artists working in portraiture, around the same time as JSS, who were better at it. To me, the work of JSS has an insipid formal distance, a staged quality, and a whiff of “I don’t really like doing this (or you)”  most of the time. The exceptions occur only when JSS sketched or painted actual friends. Don’t misunderstand, JSS’s art still great art, But the even greater artists of his era, and their works, to this day still lie hidden in his cast shadow. And when I look at JSS’s work, I think about those artists’ lives too.


Same subject, by Philip De Laszlo, 1908 — of which this is a 1968 copy!! by adrian lamb — and it’s still a way better portrait. It pulses with life and the subject’s actual personality. (And Teddy’s wife liked this one better too, for just those reasons!)

It’s good to do something well. It’s good to understand the ins and outs of a profession. It’s good to be able to cast a critical eye on others of that ilk. It’s good to be able to stand back and objectively consider one’s work and that of others. But in the end, it’s only the person that’s interesting. It’s all the emotional, subjective, goofy, quirky bits of life that are of interest, that make a person a person. Profession? That’s mostly incidental.

If a person’s profession is all you see when you meet them, you don’t see anything. If a person’s profession is all you know about someone when you encounter her/his work, you really don’t understand that work. You can’t truly appreciate Lizst or Rachmaninoff or Tolstoy or Van Gogh without knowing their lives. And every life is like that.

Take for instance my grandmother’s friend’s granddaughter. I’ve never met her. All I know is she’s young, paid a lot of money, and works in military intelligence as an interrogator — at various places around the globe. I suppose I could wing off about extraordinary rendition. But really, she’s someone granddaughter. Just like I am. Her gran is proud of her. Just like my gran is proud of me. She travels a lot. Just like I do. She’s a young woman. Like I am. Maybe she’s the kind of person I could be friends with the way my gran is friends with her gran. What she does is just work she came to do. I’m sure it’s interesting, but not nearly as interesting as the woman herself and how can you understand the work apart from the person?

And now, if you were paying close attention, you’ll understand that I actually just wrote about writing while writing about why I don’t write about writing.

The rational mind is overrated


Today WP unleashed the not so secret MP6 Plugin on all WP users. It changes the appearances of one’s dashboard rather dramatically.  WP calls it a beautiful makeover. I wouldn’t.

Even though I like WP, I’ve come to understand that it is rationally designed for a certain group of people — the much older computer user / blogger.

There was a time when blogging was new and innovative. At that time, hip young designers thought everything should be grey or black. This “new” dashboard is actually a throwback to that era. What’s actually new about the dashboard’s design though is just what you’d expect to be new if you were designing for older people, the LARGE FONT.

Once you understand WPs’ target user group, you understand the new dashboard design.

Still, I think the new dashboard could have been designed with an option to change the background and text colors as well as the font size. Intelligent, beautiful design would have automatically matched the dashboard colors and font to the selected blog theme, with an option of using the standard dashboard.

Oh well, maybe next time WP will design a dashboard option for young people with good eyesight who aren’t clinically depressed. We blog too, after all. In the meanwhile? I suppose the rational decision would probably be to stop using WP. Of course, I’ve never been a fan of the rational mind.

Fling at the Fairmont?


Fling texted me the other night to say he was giving up Paleo dieting. I though it was weird but since I was sitting there eating a cake I’d just baked, I didn’t ask questions. I should have.

The next day, I got an Instagram — of him lying in a hospital bed. He didn’t look as though he’d been in a bar fight, so I was worried. I called but I couldn’t get a hold of him. Eventually a Colleague of his called me, on Fling’s behalf. Fling had spent the weekend in hospital.

Too many long-haul flights had led Fling to deep vein thrombosis a while back, which he’d never told me before. He thought he was ok. But he woke up on Friday unable to breathe. He thought he had contracted pneumonia so Colleague drove him to the local ER.

Turned out Fling’s clot hadn’t vanished, it had just moved to his lung. And, if he’d waited a couple more days to go to the ER, he’d probably have died.

Fling’s out now, at Colleague’s house, recooperating for a couple days.

He sent me an email this morning saying he’s not sure if he’ll be flying back at the end of the month. He may  have to spend the next 6 weeks where he is, taking blood thinners, before he gets a doctor’s ok to fly.

Of course, me being me I immediately thought of our upcoming trip to the Emerald City (that would be Seattle not Oz). We are  supposed to be going to see the Treasures of Kenwood House exhibition at the SAM, along with many other Seattle favs.

If I wait for Fling,  the exhibition might be gone to its next stop — in Little Rock. I’m sure Arkansas is very nice, but . . . .

I certainly hope I can have Fling at the Fairmont, but if not, I’ll just take someone else who doesn’t mind a good lie in on sateen weave, 500 count, 100% Egyptian cotton sheets!


The Art of Failure


Presumably Her Grace will live long time and over that span have her portrait painted many times. This means she can afford to give the odd bad portrait a gracious overlook. But I do find it very sad she didn’t put a little more effort and thought into her first royal portrait for  . . . oh, so many, many reasons.

As an Art History major, she must know the above is a bad portrait. This is not to say it’s bad art. There’s a difference. Freedom is something artists should have — when they do with their own individual art. It is not something they should have when doing portrait. Otherwise, the resulting work is “an art work by . . . .” rather than “a portrait of . . . .”  It becomes about the artist not the sitter.

Her Grace’s portrait is all about the artist, not the sitter. That’s partially Her Grace’s fault. She was only able to give Emsley 2 sittings, so he had to work primarily from photos — always a bad thing. But it’s mostly the fault of The National Gallery, which commissioned Paul Emsley, winner of its BP Portrait Award in 2007, to carry out the first official painted portrait of the Duchess of Cambridge.

Now, I understand that  a wealthy and well-known art dealer agreed to paid for the portrait. And Her Grace could hardly have objected to adding a portrait by a famous artist to The National Gallery (of which she is patroness), especially as it could be obtained for nothing more than 2 sittings. But Paul Emsley isn’t known for beautiful color (most his works are grey) or his composition (always the huge head in the dead center of the canvas).

Barring some strong guidance by the sitter (Her Grace) any expectation of something other than a “Paul Emsley” was foolish. Left to his own devices, he did what he always does as an artist. And he’s a very good artist (born in Glasgow, but raised and from South Africa), but he’s really not a portrait painter. Great portrait painters capture the essence of a person in a way that will resonate through the corridors of time and will make the subject known to all who look upon him or her.

I understand Her Grace’s only instruction was that he wished to be portrayed “naturally,” but naturally simply means as who she is. Who the Duchess of Cambridge is — and has always been, even as Miss Catherine Middleton — is a young, beautiful, stylish, intelligent, fashionable, charming, warm, caring, funny, smiling human being. Yet none of this comes through.

This portrait could have been a statement about herself and about modern British democratic, equality, the elevation of “commoner as royal.” She should have been portrayed in totality, as the beautiful, stylish, intelligent, fashionable, charming, smiling young woman she is. But the artist actually decided she was “too beautiful” and apparently purposely painted her ugly. He also decided she shouldn’t be smiling because “most portraits don’t s show teeth.” I’m sorry but Her Grace is beautiful and she naturally smiles. This should have spurred the man on to do a portrait of a royal that was “ground breaking” — in that it showed her smiling!

There were so many things that could have done and said with this portrait, the portrait of a commoner who will one day be queen, and will soon be mother of a future king or queen. So many missed opportunities to speak to people (for generations) via this portrait. It’s tragic. I could have made a better natural portrait of the young duchess!

See, even I could make a better modern, unsmiling potrait!

See, even I could make a better modern, toothless potrait!

He might have portrayed her outdoors, beside a large oak (representing England). He could have shown her in the city of London, or at the cottage she and Prince William live in Wales. She might have been near an object that represents Africa (a place she and Prince William love and where they became engaged). He might even have gone for a little humor and painted her beside a spray of wisteria (the British press referred to Kate and Pippa as “the wisteria sisters” — ie, social climbers).

That this portrait above was the end result of 6 months work is just sad. This work makes Her Grace look 20 years older that she is, dowdy, and not a little drunk. A friend of mine that saw it wondered aloud if the artist “hated all royals or just Kate?” It would seem as though Emsley felt Her Grace’s personality equivalent to wallpaper. What other explanation for the way her dark dress and dark hair blend into the dark background? It’s as if he is wishing she would just disappear.

This is just an epic fail by a great artist.

One never places the subject of a picture, let alone a portrait, in the dead middle. It’s poor composition. Or worse, no composition. The eye has nothing to draw it, no reason to linger. The use of color is awful. She’s a brunette, in a dark blue dress. She should be on a light background so one can see her hair and clothing. And for heaven’s sake, a person’s posture, gestures/manner, their personal dress sense, the things/places they love . . . all of that belongs in a personal portrait. That’s what tells you about the person.

Just compare the above “natural” portrait of Her Grace to the natural style portrait by Gainsborough (c. 1760) of his 2 daughters below. You barely see their clothing or their cat, but their posture, expression, attitude all comes through. You know who these girls are, despite their youth. You relate to them, despite the fact they lived 275 years ago! This is a glorious natural portrait. Too bad the Duchess of Cambridge couldn’t hire Gainsborough!


In Loo; Of Art


Most people believe other people think they’re weird (or would think that if they truly knew them). It’s not true. Most people aren’t weird. But they think it. As for me? I’ve never thought I was weird. But other people will stop and tell me I’m weird. Although, generally they use the word unique, but weird is what they mean.

A very good friend, pondering her own rather complicated life, once said to me, “I think I need to climb out of the box.” To which I replied, “There’s a box?” She laughed.  “Well, you . . . ,” she trailed off with a smile. But I knew what she meant. And I smiled too. We both understood it was a compliment.

However, my complete reversal of most people’s reality can be a bit confusing for strangers. My art collection is a perfect example of this. Most people hide their bad art in their bathroom. I keep my finest piece in my bathroom, where I (and my guests) can see it. And my very best piece is right across from the toilet, so one can s[-]it and admire.

The art of the 2nd degree, I keep in my bedroom. It’s more personal art. Something only close friends and lovers can have a peek at.

Art of the 3rd degree resides in the formal dining room. It’s there to give people something to look at and remark upon when conversation goes flat, stalls, or explodes. It’s still good art, it has meaning for me. It’s pleasing to me, but I think of it as 3rd degree art from the perspective of a viewer.

Art of the 4th degree, which I believe almost anyone would consider lesser art, is actually to me the finest art I own. It’s all the work done my family members over the generations. It’s filled with rich warm happy memories. And so, of course, all of that goes in the front room where everyone can see it all the time. Because that’s what I want people to know when they walk in, they are home. They are not guests I am trying to impress. They are welcome to be themselves from the moment they cross my threshold.

Art of the 5th degree is kept in the studio. It’s my personal art. I rarely show it. I’m the opposite of many professional artists I know. They hang their art everywhere, in every room of their house (often to the dismay of spouses, partners, and children). I’m more like an actor. I typically look at an old work with a frown and think, hmm, I’ve definitely grown since then; I could do it better now.

Although, once I walked into a friend’s house after some years between visits and commented on the quality and beauty of a work of art on hanging on his wall. To which, embarrassingly, he informed me it was a gift from many Christmastimes ago, and . . . I was the artist! We both laughed.

There’s probably a box I’m in somewhere, but it’s probably the size of the universe so I’m not going to worry about trying to get out. Today.