Giorgio Vasari and Michelangelo Buonarroti

February 18, 2018 at 1:45 pm (Art, Italy, Music)

  I feel as though The Collector of Lives were written just for me. Admittedly, it is a rather specialized narrative, concentrating as it does on the work of the great Giorgio Vasari and the Italian painters of the Renaissance whom he celebrates in his magnum opus, Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. (‘Excellent’ is sometimes rendered as ‘Eminent.’)

Amazingly, there were those who practiced more than one of these arts – in some cases, with a varying degree of proficiency, all three. Vasari himself was proficient both as a painter and an architect; it was he who designed the Uffizi, now Florence’s preeminent art museum. Add to which, of course, he was an extremely skilled writer. By means of this one book,  he legitimized art history as a field of study. He was helped in this endeavor by  he fact that he knew personally a good number of the artists whose lives and works he describes in such a lively and engaging manner.

(Vasari’s book is sometimes referred to simply as The Lives. You will see it occasionally called in Italian  Vite – pronounced ‘veetay.’)

The cover of The Collector of Lives features a detail from St. Luke Painting the Virgin by Vasari; it dates from about 1565. My copy of Vasari’s book has the same work on its cover:   Here is the actual painting:

I often see comments to the effect that while Vasari achieved greatness through his writing, he was not quite great as a painter. I find this airy dismissal rather unwarranted. True, in his era he was up against some incredibly gifted artists; nevertheless, I find his own work singularly compelling.

Vasari’s own hero in the arts was unquestionably Michelangelo. Many of us are familiar with Michelangelo’s most famous creations, but I think, especially in this age of anguish in which we now seem to dwell, it might do us good to look at them again:

The Sistine Chapel

 

1508-1512

 

1537-1541

 

1508-1512

 

1498-1499

It would be impossible for any craftsman or sculptor no matter how brilliant ever to surpass the grace or design of this work or try to cut and polish the marble with the skill that Michelangelo displayed. For the Pietà was a revelation of all the potentialities and force of the art of sculpture. Among the many beautiful features (including the inspired draperies) this is notably demonstrated by the body of Christ itself. It would be impossible to find a body showing greater mastery of art and possessing more beautiful members, or a nude with more detail in the muscles, veins, and nerves stretched over their framework of bones, or a more deathly corpse. The lovely expression of the head, the harmony in the joints and attachments of the arms, legs, and trunk, and the fine tracery of pulses and veins are all so wonderful that it staggers belief that the hand of an artist could have executed this inspired and admirable work so perfectly and in so short a time. It is certainly a miracle that a formless block of stone could ever have been reduced to a perfection that nature is scarcely able to create in the flesh.

Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Artists

 

1501-1504

The legs are skilfully outlined, the slender flanks are beautifully shaped and the limbs are joined faultlessly to the trunk. The grace of this figure and the serenity of its pose have never been surpassed, nor have the feet, the hands, and the head, whose harmonious proportions and loveliness are in keeping with the rest. To be sure, anyone who has seen Michelangelo’s David has no need to see anything else by any other sculptor, living or dead.

Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Artists

I only found out recently that Michelangelo was also a poet:

“When the Author Was Painting the Vault of the Sistine Chapel” (1509)

I’ve already grown a goiter from this torture,
hunched up here like a cat in Lombardy
(or anywhere else where the stagnant water’s poison).
My stomach’s squashed under my chin, my beard’s
pointing at heaven, my brain’s crushed in a casket,
my breast twists like a harpy’s. My brush,
above me all the time, dribbles paint
so my face makes a fine floor for droppings!

My haunches are grinding into my guts,
my poor ass strains to work as a counterweight,
every gesture I make is blind and aimless.
My skin hangs loose below me, my spine’s
all knotted from folding over itself.
I’m bent taut as a Syrian bow.

Because I’m stuck like this, my thoughts
are crazy, perfidious tripe:
anyone shoots badly through a crooked blowpipe.

My painting is dead.
Defend it for me, Giovanni, protect my honor.
I am not in the right place—I am not a painter.

Just in case you thought painting that ceiling was in any way an easy undertaking….

Michelangelo also wrote poems of a more lyrical nature, such as this one in praise of the author of The Divine Comedy:

DANTE

What should be said of him cannot be said;
By too great splendor is his name attended;
To blame is easier than those who him offended,
Than reach the faintest glory round him shed.
This man descended to the doomed and dead
For our instruction; then to God ascended;
Heaven opened wide to him its portals splendid,
Who from his country’s, closed against him, fled.
Ungrateful land! To its own prejudice
Nurse of his fortunes; and this showeth well
That the most perfect most of grief shall see.
Among a thousand proofs let one suffice,
That as his exile hath no parallel,
Ne’er walked the earth a greater man than he.
Translated into English by H.W. Longfellow (1807-1882).

More poetry by Michelangelo can be found at the Michelangelo Gallery.

In The Collector of Lives, Ingrid Rowland and Noah Charney offer this assessment:

There are many bones one can pick with Vasari, but he makes a persuasive argument for his candidate as the “greatest” artist in history. To this day, Michelangelo Buonarroti seems a reasonable choice as Giorgio’s ultimate hero.

There are many other genius artists of the Italian Renaissance whom Vasari admired and wrote about. I’ll return to these in a later post.

A hundred years after Michelangelo, Gregorio Allegri composed the Miserere Mei, Deus expressly to be sung in the Sistine Chapel during Holy Week. Here, it is performed by the King’s College Choir in their magnificent Chapel.

British art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon has made a two part film about Giorgio Vasari:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Conspiracy of Faith by Jussi Adler-Olsen, read by Graeme Malcolm

February 13, 2018 at 6:18 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  Many things interrupted my getting through this recorded book. (I do my listening only in the car.) But I finally finished a couple of days ago. The experience has not quite left me.

A Conspiracy of Faith by Danish author Jussi Adler-Olsen is basically a story of revenge. A man who was brought up by a despotic father according to the tenets of a rigid creed decides to take out out his anger and resentment on other religious families. Most of these people are blameless and quite unlike his own family of origin. That doesn’t matter to him. He works out a system where he gets close to them and then betrays them in the cruelest way imaginable.  Equally frightening is the fact that he has a wife and a young child. He seems devoted to them, at least on the surface.

A Conspiracy of Faith is the third novel in the Department Q series. The name comes from the place to which Detective Carl Mørck and his team have been exiled: the police station’s basement. It’s about as inhospitable as it sounds. Mørck’s second-in-command is Assad, Syrian born but now a resident of Denmark, which, in his exasperation with the climate, he calls “this refrigerator country!” Assad was not even a trained officer when he was first assigned to Department Q. But in the event, he turns out to be a gifted detective. (He has to provide proofs of this gift, in order to counter Carl’s initial skepticism.) In this novel, Assad’s resourcefulness proves nothing less than crucial in solving this terrible mystery. At one point, after he has unearthed several vital but hidden clues, Carl at last gives way to feelings of amazement:

And then he looked up at Assad in disbelief. What the hell would he do without him?

Assad may be brilliant in his way, but he does not have the native knowledge of Danish ways and the Danish people that Carl possesses by right. He is at the same time both astute and naive, sometimes touchingly so. He’s a wonderful character, in my view, an inspired creation.

And this is probably the right moment to praise Graeme Malcolm’s outstanding narration. Malcolm, a Scottish actor, gets it exactly right in his reading of this novel. He’s especially good at rendering Assad’s lines in an utterly convincing manner.

I read the first entry in Department Q series, The Keeper of Lost Causes, shortly after it came out here in 2011. I was seriously impressed by Adler-Olsen’s storytelling gifts, yet I have to say also that the novel approached the extremity of the violence that I’m able to tolerate in crime fiction. Still, I found myself wanting to revisit the characters and the milieu they inhabit. Hence, my decision to listen to A Conspiracy of Faith. (I had previously encountered Graeme Malcolm as a reader of M.C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth novels, so I already knew how good a narrator he was.)

Incidentally, there exists some confusion regarding the titles of the Department Q novels. There are currently seven in the series; the first four were released with different titles here and in the UK.  (The latest one, The Scarred Woman, also has a variant title.) Your best bet is to view the listing on StopYoureKillingMe.com.

The first three novels have been made into films. Trailers can be viewed on YouTube. I confess I’m wary of them, but of course you can decide for yourself.

A few more words on A Conspiracy of Faith. You will note that I’ve not identified the perpetrator by name. In the course of the novel, he goes by several of them: Mads Christian Fog, Lars Sorensen, Mikkel Laust. He’s extremely slippery, I almost want to say slithery. One of the most thoroughly cunning and evil humans I have ever encountered in fiction.

Finally I’d like to make this observation. I’ve read many mysteries in which the ending was, for one reason or another, a disappointment. (That actually goes for ‘literary fiction’ as well.) A Conspiracy of Faith concluded beautifully – a very moving ending that to me, seemed exactly apt.

Jussi Adler-Olsen

 

Graeme Malcolm

 

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Haunted by the genius of Hugo van der Goes

February 7, 2018 at 6:51 pm (Art)

It’s hard not to be, once you know his story. But first, several of his works:

Portinari Altarpiece, open c. 1475

 

Portinari Altarpiece, closed (This style painting, which imitates the qualities of sculpture, is termed grisaille.)

 

Death of the Virgin c. 1472-80

 

The Fall, 1480. (I find that conniving reptile with the human head profoundly unnerving.)

Hugo van der Goes (pronounced ‘hooss,’ with the ‘h’ being guttural) was born in or around Ghent, in present-day Belgium, in or around the year 1440. As with many of the artists of this early period of the Northern Renaissance, little is known of his childhood. It’s known that he became a master in the painters’ guild of Ghent in 1467. (Bless these good people for keeping such meticulous records.)

By 1477, van der Goes had achieved considerable success. Nevertheless, in that year he closed down his workshop with a view to entering the Roode Klooster, or Red Cloister. He had been living there for five years when the brothers of this monastery sent him, along with his half-brother and another monk of the order, to Cologne. On the return trip, he suffered a breakdown, declaring himself to be damned and attempting suicide. He was conveyed back to the Roode Klooster, where he experienced a brief recovery before dying in that same year, 1482.

Knowledge of this turn taken in van der Goes’s life became lost in obscurity until it was rediscovered by Belgian historian Alphonse Wauters in 1863. Wauters’s nephew Emile made a painting on the subject in 1872. That work of art in turn made a profound impression on Vincent van Gogh.

Here’s more detailed recounting:

In 1863, the Belgian historian Alphonse Wauters published a startling revelation: that the great Ghent painter Hugo van der Goes had experienced a disastrous episode of insanity around 1480. This information was discovered by Wauters in “The Chronicle of the Red Cloister,” written by Gaspar Ofhuys, prior of the monastery in the early sixteenth century. Ofhuys had known van der Goes personally, having taken vows at the same time as the painter.

According to the chronicler, Hugo van der Goes became demented while returning from a trip to Cologne with a party of fellow monks. Shortly before reaching Brussels, Hugo, without any prior signs of distress, suddenly erupted. He insisted that he was a lost soul, that he was doomed to perdition, and tried to commit suicide. His brothers had to forcibly restrain him from violently taking his life. When the travellers finally attained Brussels, treatment for Hugo was ready. The prior of the Red Cloister had arranged for the appropriate remedies– music therapy and performances. Unfortunately, these proved ineffective and van der Goes returned to the Red Cloister incapacitated. Remission occurred some time after his return but we do not know whether it was complete. About a year after this incident the artist was dead.

Wauters’ remarkable discovery did not have any immediate impact upon historians but it did impress painters. Emile Wauters, Alphonse’s nephew, caused a sensation in 1872 with his painting of Hugo van der Goes Undergoing Treatment at the Red Cloister. And as early as 1873  Vincent van Gogh referred to this painting in a letter to his brother Theo. On at least two further occasions the Dutch artist likened his own appearance to that of Hugo’s as recreated by Wauters, and identified emotionally with the fifteenth–century painter.

From a 1978 paper presented  By Susan Koslow

Here is the painting by Emile Wauters:

It’s my understanding that this is a depiction of an effort to ameliorate van der Goes’s suffering with music.

The Portinari Altarpiece is widely considered to be Hugo van der Goes’s masterpiece. It can be studied in its particulars while still inspiring wonder as a whole. At some point I was alerted to the presence of a dragon-like creature in the right hand panel. I had trouble focusing on it at first. It’s directly below Saint Margaret, who wears the red robe. The dragon is, in fact, her attribute. Attributes are objects that are depicted along with a particular saint, in order to specify his or identity. (Think of Saint Catherine and the wheel.)

Apparently several versions of Saint Margaret’s story exist. In one, she is swallowed by a dragon, but once inside the beast, she makes the sign of the cross; this causes the dragon to burst asunder. In another, somewhat less drastic retelling by Voragine in The Golden Legend, the dragon rushes toward Saint Margaret, but when she makes the sign of the cross, it vanishes.

I cannot thank Professor Catherine B. Scallen enough for her enormously enriching work on two Great Courses DVD sets: Museum Masterpieces: The National Gallery, London; and Art of the Northern Renaissance.   Ron and I have now watched both of them twice. We fervently wish that Professor Scallen would make more of these.

 

 

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Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, by Jessica Bruder

February 5, 2018 at 9:02 pm (Book review, books)

  This is not the kind of book I would ordinarily choose to read. My preference in nonfiction is for history, biography, and the arts: fact-rich tomes written in an accessible style. But the reviews of  Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland piqued my interest. And I found that once I started it, I didn’t want to put it down.

The eponymous nomads are, for the most part, retirees in their sixties and seventies who are having trouble making ends meet. So, in the time honored American tradition, they’ve hit the road.

Bruder spends a lot of time describing the ways and means by which this is done. Van dwellers predominate, but there are  some lucky enough to have procured regulation RV’s of various sizes. And there are some who are living in much smaller cramped quarters. The ways in which people are able to procure electricity and arrange plumbing – sometimes barely adequately – testify to their entirely admirable ingenuity. Their lives are testimony to the ability to make do  with less.

It turns out that there are work opportunities for these folks, most of whom still have the requisite strength and determination. They can be camp hosts at RV campgrounds. These are multifaceted jobs involving registering parties of campers, seeing to their safety and comfort, keeping the peace when necessary, and cleaning the facilities – yes, that includes toilets.

They can be part of Amazon’s CamperForce. These jobs ramp up seriously as Christmas approaches:

The Amazon CamperForce program brings together a community of enthusiastic RV’ers who help make the holidays bright for customers of Amazon.com. As a CamperForce Associate, you’ll begin this seasonal assignment in early Fall and work until December 23rd.

The program lasts 3-4 months in the winter, and your responsibilities will be in the areas of picking, packing, stowing, and receiving.

Some who are enthusiasts or creative types try selling their wares at gatherings like the fabled Rubber Tramp Rendezvous held – up until this year, at least – in Quartzsite, Arizona.  There are any number of ways to make money.   “Workampers” are endlessly resourceful; they have to be.

Rubber Tramp Rendezvous was founded by Bob Wells, whose site, CheapRVLiving, offers tips, encouragement, and helpful information to fellow van dwellers.   It also features an illuminating section on the philosophy that underpins the way of life that he and others have chosen to follow. Wells has in fact written a book on the subject:

Vandwellers – seemingly an umbrella term for all those inhabiting some kind of mobile living space – are sensitive about how they’re perceived by others.

In his book, Bob Wells draws a bright line between vandwellers and the homeless. He suggests vandwellers are conscientious objectors from a broken, corrupting social order. Whether or not they chose their lifestyle, they have embraced it.

Although Bruder encounters her fair share of hard luck stories, the vandwellers do seem to be by and large a cheerful lot, and not necessarily as ideologically motivated as the above passage might  suggest. Several people did state that they prefer to see themselves as “houseless” rather than “homeless.”

Bruder eventually comes to believe that she needs to get inside this subculture to fully understand it. So she buys a van and gets a gig at CamperForce. One of the first priorities Bruder needed to satisfy was the naming her newly acquired vehicle. Vandwellers all do  this, and they try to be creative about it:

In my encounters with vandwellers I’d already met Vansion, Van Go, DonoVan, Vantucket, and Vann White–this was a pun-happy subculture.

Her own final choice was ‘Halen.’ I had to ponder this for a couple of minutes before the nickel dropped.

Van Halen the rock group

 

Van Halen the van, with the author atop

Naturally, I was interested to know what reading matter was favored by the vandwellers. Here are some of the titles mentioned in the book:

 

I’ve read Woodswoman by Anne LaBastille and loved it. This is a book that more people need to know about. And I was really pleased to know that people were reading Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey’s paean to the glorious Southwest. Last month, in an article in the New York Times Book Review, historian Douglas Brinkley sang its praises and urged President Donald Trump to read it.

Bruder’s narrative is framed by the presence one particular vandweller whom she comes to know well. This is Linda May, 63. Linda’s story is very engrossing; through her eyes, we get to know other members of this set, and to participate in what is a surprisingly lively social scene. (There are some individuals who self-identify as introverts and tend to camp a bit distantly from the group. No matter – if they need help, it will be there quickly.)

Linda’s ultimate aspiration is to build herself an Earthship House and retire from workamping.. I really want this dream to come true for her.

Linda May and Coco

Jessica Bruder’s writing is lively and engaging. I fairly zipped through Nomadland. At 251 pages, it’s a fast read, but I was sorry when it was over.

Highly recommended.

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London: Canaletto and Sir John Soane’s Museum

January 30, 2018 at 10:48 pm (Art, London, London 2017)

Canaletto: View in Venice, on the Grand Canal (Riva degli Schiavoni). Date: c. 1734-1735.

Click twice to enlarge; then sit back and take in this marvel.

Many are the views of Venice painted by Giovanni Antonio Canal, called ‘Canaletto’ to distinguish him from his father Bernardo Canal, also a painter. Along with other works by this master, Riva degli Schiavoni is housed in London in Sir John Soane’s Museum. This is without doubt one of the strangest  places I have ever visited.

Sir John Soane (1753-1837) was a brilliant architect and a compulsive collector. Crowded into his house – which is actually  three town houses knocked together to form one domicile – are numerous objects from antiquity, beautiful furnishings, and priceless works of art.

Sir John Soane’s Museum – exterior

 

The Picture Room – a very unique arrangement

 

Dining room

 

On the bottom floor of the Soane Museum is the three thousand year old sarcophagus of Pharoah Seti I. It is carved from a single block of translucent alabaster. To celebrate  the two hundredth anniversary of this object’s discovery, a special viewing was arranged. (This description is from an article in The Guardian last November):

Over three days and nights [when it was first displayed], almost 900 people trooped through his [Soane’s] rooms and into the basement renamed “the Sepulchral Chamber”, where the sarcophagus glowed eerily, lit by candles placed inside. The museum recently recreated the experiment, and deputy director Helen Dorey recalled the extraordinary effect when the whole block lit up like a lantern, and the thousands of tiny human figure hieroglyphics carved into every inch of stone seemed to flicker and move. “It was a truly shiver down the spine moment,” she said.

Below is an illustration of the ‘sepulchral chamber:’

Remember – this was at one time a family home!

Sir John Soane, by Thomas Lawrence

It’s hard not to become incoherent on the subject of Sir John Soane and his fabulous if eccentric house of treasures. Last month, my sister-in-law Donna and I had a wonderful time there. But the Canaletto works are what stayed with me, and most especially the painting at the top of this post:

By his precision of touch, the subtleties of his use of light and shade, by his skillful blending of the qualities of sky and water with every variety of timber, stone and other building materials, Canaletto has surely created a work of art of total harmony and order.

J.G. Links, in The Soane Canalettos

 

 

 

 

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When to the sessions of sweet silent thought…

January 27, 2018 at 3:08 am (Book clubs, Book review, books, Family, Historical fiction, Mystery fiction)

  So there I am reading this mystery set in New Jersey in the year 1914, when I come across the following:

Deputy Morris went first and cut to the left, which would take him down a narrow street occupied mostly by cobblers and tailors and other such shops whose doors had closed hours ago.

Constance Kopp, the main character, is headed for a potentially dangerous rendezvous. She’s being discreetly shadowed by members of the Bergen County Sheriff’s Department, including Sheriff Heath himself. (This novel is, in fact, based on a true story.)

The above quoted sentence, however, plucked me out of that scenario and hit me in the face with another – one that, for this particular reader, was very close to home.

But first – a bit of background:

My father was  born in Westfield, in Union County, New Jersey in 1914. Shortly thereafter, the family moved one county north to Maplewood, in Essex County. (My grandparents had immigrated from what was then called Russia, now the Ukraine. They came through Ellis Island, where immigration officials struggled with foreign names written in unknown alphabets. What they came up with for my father’s family was ‘Tedlow.’ ‘Tevelov’ might have been closer. As best I’m able to reproduce it, it might have looked like this in Cyrillic: ‘Тевелов.’)

My grandfather Jacob Tedlow had a small tailoring business in Maplewood. He named the establishment The New York Tailoring Company, or something like it. I know that the name contained “New York” because I recall my father commenting that the choice of moniker revealed “delusions of grandeur” on his father’s part. (This was said in jest, but it was a sort of poignant jest.)

Below is a map of the counties that make up the state of New Jersey:

It can be readily seen that Essex County is just below Bergen County, with a section of Passaic County inserting itself in between the two. (Some of the action in Girl Waits with Gun takes place in Passaic County.) So you see, the mention of shops occupied by tailors and cobblers in the city of Paterson, in Bergen County in 1914, caused the personal association  to spring immediately to mind.

In the early 1990s, when my parents were  still active and healthy, Ron and I went with them to a restaurant in Maplewood. If recollection serves (which it often doesn’t), this small eatery was across the street from the building in which my grandfather’s tailoring business was located. The family, consisting of my grandparents, my father, and his two sisters, also lived in that building. (This was not an unusual arrangement in those days. My mother’s parents had a candy store – or confectioners, as it was officially designated – in Montclair, also in Essex County. They, my mother, and my uncle resided in an apartment on the premises.)

After we’d finished our meal and gone outside, my father pointed to the building’s top floor and told us that as a boy, he used to carry coal up to an elderly lady who lived there.

My father was a handsome and reserved man, not given to revealing his feelings or indulging in recollections of the past. The only other childhood memory that I remember him sharing was  of standing outside with a crowd of people who were cheering the soldiers who’d come back from the First World War. That would have been in 1919; at the time, he would have been five years old.

(I’m digging deep into the past here, and I hope I haven’t made any egregious misstatements. If I have, I apologize.)

Girl Waits With Gun is our next selection for the Usual Suspects Mystery Book Group discussion.At present, I’m about two thirds of the way in, for the most part, I’m enjoying it, especially as regards the novel’s historical aspect.  For me, it has certainly summoned up “remembrance of things past,” and I’m grateful to Carol for choosing it for us.

I admit, though, that I was made somewhat uneasy at first, as there were several disparaging references to those of the Jewish faith made at the outset. For instance, here is Constance Kopp relating some of her family’s history:

My grandfather—an educated man, a chemist—liked to say that he brought his family here to give them a more stable and certain future, and to keep his boys out of the endless wars with France and Italy, but my grandmother once whispered that they moved to get away from the Jews. “After they got to leave the ghettos they could live anywhere,” she hissed, and glanced out the window as if she suspected they were moving to Brooklyn, too, which of course they were.

However, thus far there’s been no recurrence of this kind of casually tossed-off antisemitism, and I can only conclude that it’s been made a part of this narrative for the sake, alas, of verisimilitude. (Although my parents and grandparents rarely spoke of it, they had from time to time encountered the expression of this prejudiced attitude firsthand.)

Some years ago, my son Ben made me a gift of a beautifully framed photograph of my father. It enjoys pride of place on our living room wall. When I’m reading on the couch – a favorite place for that activity – I can look up and see it. In this way, he keeps me company during this solitary pursuit.

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Two women artists of the Northern Renaissance

January 25, 2018 at 3:58 am (Art)

I’ve recently come across the names of two women who lived and worked in the period known as the Northern Renaissance.

First, Agnes van den Bosshe (c. 1435–40 – c. 1504) of Bruges. From Wikipedia:

She is one of the few known women admitted to the painter’s guild of Bruges, and worked mainly on designing flags and banners. Although these are records of numerous commissions, she is known today for her one extant work, the triangular silk banner The Maid of Ghent with a Lion, the only recorded painting by a Flemish woman of the 15th century.

1481-1482

Then there is Caterina van Hemessen (1528 – after 1565). Slightly less obscure, van Hemessen was a reasonably successful painter in her day. From the Wikipedia entry:

A number of obstacles stood in the way of contemporary women who wished to become painters. Their training would involve both the dissection of cadavers and the study of the nude male form, while the system of apprenticeship meant that the aspiring artist would need to live with an older artist for 4–5 years, often beginning from the age of 9-15. For these reasons, female artists were extremely rare, and those that did make it through were typically trained by a close relative, in van Hemessen’s case, by her father, Jan Sanders van Hemessen.

Here are some of her works:

Portrait of a Woman, c. 1540s-early 1550s

 

Girl at the Virginal 1548

 

Christ meets Veronica, 1541-1554

In the above painting, Saint Veronica is shown kneeling with a cloth that bears a faint image of Jesus. This cloth is known as the Sudarium. Legend has it that as Christ, laboring his way toward Calvary, was struggling with the weight of the cross, Veronica offered him a cloth – possibly her veil – with which to wipe the sweat from his face. This he did and then handed it back to her. By some miracle, a depiction of his face was transferred to the cloth.

This phenomenon is more  clearly shown in a painting made around 1420, by an artist known only as the Master of St. Veronica:

Of Caterina van Hemessen, the Wikipedia entry also says this:

There are no extant works later than 1554, which has led some historians to believe her artistic career might have ended after her marriage, which was a common occurrence in the case of female artists.

She did in fact marry a musician in 1554.

Caterina van Hemessen’s self-portrait is dated 1548. In addition to a paintbrush, she is holding a mahlstick. Sometimes also spelled “maulstick,” this device was used by artists to help steady the brush hand:

There is poignancy in her expression here, I think. In The Art of the Northern Renaissance, Craig Harbison states the following concerning this artist:

Notably she developed a straightforward realism of style, demonstrating her independence of her father’s influence – his work was mannered and highly contrived. Her self-portrait is thus a tantalizing but conflicted image of a woman’s ambition and its thwarting by both family and society.

I think her life would make a fine subject for a historical novel.

 

 

 

 

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‘The clear waters of the channels ran over golden sands….’ – “St Clair Flats,” by Constance Fenimore Woolson

January 21, 2018 at 3:29 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books, Short stories)

  Miss Grief and Other Stories by Constance Fenimore Woolson was my choice for our discussion, but I was having a very difficult time getting the presentation to come together in a satisfactory manner.

This volume consists of a foreward by Colm Toibin, an introduction by the editor Anne Boyd Rioux, and a selection of seven  stories. The stories were carefully chosen to represent the different aspects and settings of Woolson’s oeuvre: “St. Clair Flats”(1873)  is set in the Great Lakes Region; “Solomon”(1873), in eastern Ohio; “Rodman the Keeper'(1877), in North Carolina; “Sister St. Luke”(1877), in Florida; “‘Miss Grief'”(1880) in Rome; “A Florentine Experiment”(1880) in Florence, Italy; and “In Sloane Street”(1892) in London.

I asked the group – AAUW Readers by name – to read the foreward, the introduction, and four of the stories: “St. Clair Flats,” “‘Miss Grief’,” “A Florentine Experiment,” and “In Sloane Street.”

In her introduction, Anne Boyd Rioux reveals enough of Woolson’s biography for us to know that she lived a somewhat peripatetic, restless life, always trying to stay true to her writer’s art while fighting off the wolves of encroaching penury. Rioux’s final paragraph made my heart ache:

Woolson’s works deserve wider attention today, not only for the way they broaden our understanding of late-nineteenth-century American literature, but also for the way they capture both the social texture of her time and the inner emotional lives of her characters. Her works contradict our assumptions about women’s writing from that era, for Woolson did not seek recognition as a woman writer but as a writer. Thus she often tread on masculine territory in her work, while never trying to simply mimic the successes of her male peers. She sought instead to show them what was missing from their views of humanity, broadening the scope of literature to include the heartaches and triumphs of those most often overlooked, such as impoverished spinsters, neglected nuns, self-sacrificing wives and widows, uneducated coal miners, and destitute Southerners. Most of all her writings reflect what is deeply human in all of us, particularly our need to be loved, to be understood, and to belong, none of which are easily accomplished in her stories, or in life.

The most famous of the ‘male peers’ Woolson was trying not to imitate was Henry James. They met when both were living in Florence. James was generous and companionable with his fellow writer, even though Woolson’s encroaching deafness made it difficult for her to socialize. (Included in their close Florentine circle were composer Francis Boott, his daughter Lizzie, a painter, and her husband Frank Duveneck, also an artist. I began our discussion by recounting the way in which I most unexpectedly encountered a scion of the Duvenecks this past November in Northern California. For more on this curious confluence, read “The Nature of California.”)

“St.Clair Flats” was the first story I ever read by Constance Fenimore Woolson. (And yes she came by that middle name honestly: James Fenimore Cooper was her great-uncle.) I fell under its enchantment at once.

The year is 1855. In the course of their search for a congenial place to hunt and fish, two men find find themselves boating through a region of the Great Lakes known as the St. Clair Flats. The place is both bleak and beautiful, depending on whom you ask, and when:

The word “marsh” does not bring up a beautiful picture to the mind, and yet the reality was as beautiful as anything I have ever seen,— an enchanted land, whose memory haunts me as an idea unwritten, a melody unsung, a picture unpainted, haunts the artist, and will not away. On each side and in front, as far as the eye could reach, stretched the low green land which was yet no land, intersected by hundreds of channels, narrow and broad, whose waters were green as their shores. In and out, now running into each other for a moment, now setting off each for himself again, these many channels flowed along with a rippling current; zigzag as they were, they never seemed to loiter, but, as if knowing just where they were going and what they had to do, they found time to take their own pleasant roundabout way, visiting the secluded households of their friends the flags, who, poor souls, must always stay at home. These currents were as clear as crystal, and green as the water-grasses that fringed their miniature shores.

Thus does the narrator reflect on his surroundings. Later, he has an exchange with a boatman that portrays things in a different light:

“It is beautiful,— beautiful,” I said, looking off over the vivid green expanse.

“Beautiful?” echoed the captain, who had himself taken charge of the steering when the steamer entered the labyrinth,—“ I don’t see anything beautiful in it!— Port your helm up there; port!”

“Port it is, sir,” came back from the pilot-house above.

“These Flats give us more trouble than any other spot on the lakes; vessels are all the time getting aground and blocking up the way, which is narrow enough at best. There’s some talk of Uncle Sam’s cutting a canal right through,— a straight canal; but he’s so slow, Uncle Sam is, and I’m afraid I’ll be off the waters before the job is done.”

“A straight canal!” I repeated, thinking with dismay of an ugly utilitarian ditch invading this beautiful winding waste of green.

“Yes, you can see for yourself what a saving it would be,” replied the captain.

The narrator and his friend have a somewhat surreal time of it, enveloped by the strange beauty of this region and moreover, finding a place to stay with two unusual individuals: a man called Waiting Samuel and his wife Roxana. What Samuel appears to be waiting for is what we now term the End Times. He is a thoroughly otherworldly visionary. Roxana mainly acts the part of his submissive helpmate; at the same time, she’s the one that takes care of practical matters and keeps their dwelling afloat and viable.

After a particular glorious day spent enjoying the unique and seductive beauty of the Flats, the two men receive news of a sad and urgent nature. They are forced to return home with all due haste. The parting with Roxana is especially poignant:

At the turn I looked back; Roxana was sitting motionless in her boat; the dark clouds were rolling up behind her; and the Flats looked wild and desolate. “God help her!” I said.

Years passed quickly. In 1870, the narrator has occasion to revisit the Flats. He finds them, not unexpectedly, much changed:

“It is beautiful, beautiful,” I thought, “but it is passing away.”

This vision of a paradise lost in our own country is one of the most affecting passages of fiction that I have ever encountered. Affecting – and strangely unique in our literature.

As our discussion of this story was reaching its conclusion, Doris asked, “Is this a metaphor?” A metaphor, perhaps, for the waywardness of our journey through this life? And also, perhaps, for the sudden and unexpected turnings of that journey. (And by the way, the perceptive observations made by this excellent group of book lovers made this discussion a real pleasure – at least, I thought so!)

When I returned home from this discussion -more specifically, from our subsequent lunch out as a group, always a pleasant follow-up activity – I did something I hadn’t done before: I did a Google Image search for Lake St. Clair:

Canal leading to Lake St. Clair

Constance Fenimore Woolson was living alone in Venice, Italy in 1894 when she passed away. Although it is not known for certain, the manner of her death would seem to indicate that she died by her own hand. She was 53 years old.

When Henry James heard this news, he was devastated. Asked to help dispose of Woolson’s effects, he had himself rowed out to the depths of a lagoon in order to push her voluminous garments under the water. In The Private Life of Henry James, author Lyndall Gordon describes the scene:

In April 1894, a middle-aged gentleman, bearing a load of dresses, was rowed to the deepest part of the Venetian lagoon. A strange scene followed: he began to drown the dresses, one by one. There were a good many, well-made, tasteful, and all dark, suggesting a lady of quiet habits and some reserve. The gondolier’s pole would have been useful for pushing them under the still water. But the dresses refused to drown. One by one they rose to the surface, their busts and sleeves swelling like black balloons. Purposefully, the gentleman pushed them under, but silent, reproachful, they rose before his eyes.

“….they rose before his eyes.” As a remonstrance, even a rebuke? In an article in The New Republic entitled “Betrayed by Henry James,” author Max Nelson might agree with that assessment.

I was so taken by the life and works of Constance Fenimore Woolson that I went on to read this biography: Concerning her work as a scholar of literature,  the following appears on Anne Boyd Rioux’s  website:

In her teaching and writing, Rioux is passionate about the recovery of 19th-century American women writers who wrote fascinating, sometimes provocative, and often daring works that have been unavailable and unread for generations.

I am deeply grateful to Boyd Rioux for rescuing this worthy artist from obscurity and placing her front and center in the ranks of great American writers. She has every right to be there. And next, I’d like to see more re-issues of her works along the lines of Miss Grief and Other Stories. Meanwhile, Amazon has on offer quite a few of Woolson’s works in e-book format.

Constance Fenimore Woolson 1840-1894

(And one more thing: I’d like to suggest that Professor Boyd Rioux have a look at the life and work of Metta Fuller Victor.)

 

 

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A Sultry Month: Scenes of London Literary Life in 1846, by Alethea Hayter

January 14, 2018 at 1:51 pm (Anglophilia, Book review, books, France, London 2017)

While in London, I had the good fortune to find myself in the vicinity of the London Review Bookshop. (Sister-in-law Donna figured this out courtesy of the mapping function she employed with admirable dexterity on her iPhone.) Naturally that meant that I soon found myself inside the shop.   The cash register was at the back; there, I found issues of the venerable London Review of Books. I informed one of the young people staffing the desk that I subscribe to the review ‘back home in Maryland, USA.’ He immediately exclaimed, with booming gusto: “Cracking good mag, innit?!” Yet another wonderful British moment….

As it happened, I had a new issue waiting for me when I got back home. In it was a review of One Hot Summer: Dickens, Darwin, Disraeli ad the Great Stink of 1858, by Rosemary Ashton.

Reviewer Rosemary Hill observes that aside from the choking stench emanating from the Thames River, nothing else of great moment happened in London in the year 1858. It is therefore, she concludes, “the perfect subject for a microhistory.”

Hill continues:

Great events cast shadows over details which in an undramatic year, or season, can be more clearly seen. Alethea Hayter’s A Sultry Month, published in 1965, was one of the earliest and best examples  of what has become a popular  genre. Set in another heat wave, in 1846, Hayter’s account weaves together the famous, the obscure and the forgotten.

Hill enumerates just a few of the writers and artists who are featured in Hayter’s slender volume – Samuel Rogers, Jane Carlyle, Thomas Carlyle, Benjamin Robert Haydon, Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett,  and Gräfin Hahn-Hahn (that’s her name alright – no mistake!). Hayter documents their lives and interactions so closely that “…from day to day and street to street, the sublime and the ridiculous appear in the proximity they occupy in life.”

Hill then goes on to make further observations on the microhistory subgenre:

This is surely one reason for the rise of microhistory, that it brings the texture of the past closer. It illustrates the ‘human position’, the way the momentous occurs ‘while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.’…When it is done well, microhistory opens out from its immediate subject matter and  the result is like looking through a keyhole and seeing a whole landscape.

Meanwhile, I had developed a strong need to get my hands on A Sultry Month. There is no e-book available; the physical book is out of print. I bought a used copy from Amazon.

I’m now about two thirds of the way through it. I am deliberately reading as slowly as possible, as I do not want it to end. I love it.

While Haydon was walking out of the northern fringe of London, Browning was sitting on the grass in the garden at New Cross, and was conscious of the immensity of the whole round earth under him, and saw it as an image of  the love that now supported all his life. At the same time Elizabeth Barrett was sitting on the drawing-room window seat in Wimpole Street, writing to him while he was thinking of her.

(Those of my generation may recall watching the play The Barretts of Wimpole Street on television in 1956. I was twelve years old at the time, and that production made an indelible impression on my  nascent romantic imagination.

Katharine Cornell as Elizabeth Barrett)

I had never heard of Alethea Hayter before this. Her obituary in The Guardian – she died in 2006 at the age of 94 –  says this of her works:

In all these books, she manages to unite the narrative sweep and urgency of a novel with impeccable historical and social research and a uniquely elegant style.

I will certainly be reading more books by Alethea Hayter. I’ve  already downloaded this one: 

*************
I can recommend yet another microhistory: The Return of Martin Guerre by Natalie Zemon Davis. This book came out shortly after the release of a terrific film Le Retour de Martin Guerre starring Gerard Depardieu. (And while you’re  at it, seek out Janet Lewis’s novelized version of this true story, The Wife of Martin Guerre.)

 

 

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Escape with me to the Twelfth Century….

January 9, 2018 at 2:14 am (Anglophilia, archaeology, Film and television, London 2017)

So this small fellow came to us a few days ago, courtesy of the British Museum Gift Shop:

He is a replica, fashioned in clay, of one of the Lewis Chessmen; specifically, the King piece. Below is a three quarter view of the King:

And here is the back, courtesy of the British Museum’s image gallery:

He is about four inches tall.

In her 2015 book Ivory Vikings, Nancy Marie Brown advances the theory that the famous chess pieces were in fact the work of a woman, specifically an Icelandic carver named Margret the Adroit.   Well, adroit she must have been, to have created these little marvels made from walrus ivory. (For more on this intriguing story, see The Economist article, “Bones of Contention.”)

Here’s the picture I took of the Chessmen at the British Museum:

Why did I feel the need to own a replica? Author Nancy Marie Brown, who got to handle the eleven Chessmen currently housed in Edinburgh’s National Museum of Scotland, expressed their allure nicely:

Out of their glass display case, they are impossible to resist, warm and bright, seeming not old at all, but strangely alive. They nestle in the palm, smooth and weighty, ready to play. Set on a desktop, in lieu of the thirty-two-inch-square chessboard they’d require, they make a satisfying click.

The British Museum puts out a myriad of publications. Among them is a series of booklets entitled Objects in Focus. I bought and read this one:

It’s beautifully illustrated and tells not only the story of the discovery of the Chessmen but also the history of the game of chess (a game, I should add, that I’ve never learned to play).

It turns out that there exist several versions of the story of the finding of the Chessmen. I particularly like one that originated in  book entitled The Archaeology and Prehistoric Annals of Scotland, written by Daniel Wilson and published in 1851. Wilson describes the way in which the action of the sea demolished a portion of a sandbank, thereby “exposing a small stone chamber.”

A local peasant investigated the structure and was alarmed to discover ‘an assemblage of elves or gnomes upon whose mysteries he had unconsciously intruded.’ Shaken and fearing for his safety, the peasant described what he had discovered to his fierce wife, who made him return to the spot and gather up the ‘singular little ivory figures which ad not unnaturally appeared to him the pygmy sprites of Celtic folklore.’

(Naturally I addressed our new acquisition thus: “What about it? Are you a pygmy sprite of Celtic folklore?’ He remained judiciously mute.)

Nancy Marie Brown notes that the Chessmen are clearly identifiable in the first Harry Potter film. Now I’m one of the few humans on the planet who have not seen this movie, but I was able to verify her statement with this YouTube clip:

All of the above has put me in mind of Ingmar Bergman’s film The Seventh Seal. In this film, made in 1957 and set in the Middle Ages, a disillusioned Crusader Knight challenges Death to a game of chess. The stakes could not be  higher.

Ingmar Bergman’s father was a Lutheran minister, and Bergman recalled visits they had made when he was a boy to various historic churches. Many of these contained distinctive wall and ceiling paintings; this was particularly true of Taby Church  in Taby, Sweden:

Brown says that the chess pieces used in the film were modeled on the Lewis Chessmen.

Here is the opening sequence of The Seventh Seal.

 

 

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