I’ve been thinking about the power of art recently. As in, the real power and energy it contains.
This piece, for example, I made with my father-in-law in mind while I was working through some ideas on marriage. The stylized diagram of an engine part or process (it was Greek to me, but he would know) came through my hands as if I knew it inside and out. The road reflector and red plastic – both broken – that I found on the side of the road. Even the last bit of blue lace from the roll, too small to really do anything with. All these things, destined for the garbage, but I saw something else for them. Frank, the self-proclaimed “junkyard dog”, would understand that.
After I sent Frank a photo of the painting, he asked me about each component, how I made it, how big it was, and so on. He kept repeating variations on his astonishment and pleasure: “No one ever did anything like that for me before”.
I’m fairly certain he never had any use for abstract (or any) art, and never had the desire to think about communicating visually. But he was genuinely moved by this painting, and the act of my making it.
Frank and I both worked with our hands. Sometimes what I do doesn’t appear to be very important; I’ve never fixed anyone’s car to get them to work, for example, built a house for my family, or even converted an old cooler into a shelter for rescue cats – that’s all Frank. But when I get a reaction like his, I realize the power I do have in my own hands.
I can make people slow down, and I can make them feel. In this day and age, that’s plenty.
Isolier is what is known as a “trouser role”, meaning that the conventions of opera dictate that the audience is supposed to assume that the character is a young man, when it is in fact played by a woman. [Back in the day, the roles were played by castrati – yes, young men who were castrated before puberty to retain their higher vocal range. That practice thankfully became illegal, and the roles then went to women, usually mezzo-sopranos (not too high in the vocal range)].
In 1828, when Rossini wrote this opera, Isolier would have been understood, absolutely, as a young male. But, to our 21st century understanding, the role can perhaps best be described as “gender fluid”.
Recent productions have used costumes to suggest a rabble-rousing – and dare we say *butch* – side to the character, dressing Isolier in clothing inspired by 1970s rock androgyny (think Freddie Mercury, David Bowie, the Rolling Stones), as well as punk, and female rockers like Joan Jett and Chrissy Hynde. The costumes use tight-hugging leather and popped collars, mixed with tall boots and well-placed spikes. Isolier sports an enormous codpiece, yet the tight costumes show off female curves. Isolier’s hair is long, tending toward the layered and shaggy. In short, there is something bad-ass and butch about Isolier that is worn right there on the sleeve.
Isolier is in love with a woman, Countess Adele, and in fact ends up in bed with her. Shortly after, Isolier ends up in the same bed with both Adele and Isolier’s own boss, Count Ory. (This scene is played for comedy, and in the opera, no one cares one way or another).
This painting made its debut at the last Georgetown Art Attack. Inspired by a story on the tiled floor of the cathedral in Siena which shows Fortuna trying to balance between a shipwreck and a round globe. Yikes.
Visiting Arles, France made a huge impression on me. This is where Vincent Van Gogh had the most productive painting period of his life – one of the most productive of any artist’s life, in fact. Almost everything he painted at Arles is recognized as a masterpiece, and is recognizable by even casual observers: his bedroom, sunflowers, the cafes. It’s where his palette took on the bright yellows that we recognize as classic Van Gogh. It’s where he realized a dream of creating an artist residency, so to speak; Paul Gauguin came to join him to paint in the bright sunlight, and was his roommate. It’s also where Van Gogh really began to descend into madness.
Standing in this room in the Met, there were at least five van Goghs around me that were painted in Arles. It was easy to picture these, and dozens more, hanging on the walls of Vincent’s cottage, and stacking up along the wall. I was in New York, and I was in Arles at the same time.
Seeing La Berceuse was difficult. This was the painting he was working on right before his major breakdown. You’ve heard of it – he cut off a piece of his ear, possibly threatened Gauguin, who moved out, was committed to an asylum for the first time, and spent the rest of his life actively battling mental illness – while continuing to paint, of course, even if it was the hallways and grounds of his asylum.
La berceuse meant “lullaby”, literally, the woman was rocking a cradle, by means of the small rope that you see in her hands, which was tied to the cradle that lies outside of the picture frame (if you didn’t know the backstory, you might not even wonder what the string in her hands was). Van Gogh painted a series of these (he said this particular version was the best) and struggled mightily…he explained his inspiration for the painting, which was much larger than any person would divine on their own by just looking at it. He wanted something to comfort sailors who were at sea in horrible storms; he envisioned creating an entire altarpiece of multiple berceuse paintings, with sunflower paintings as candelabras scattered amongst the soothing images of lullabies and rocking cradles (albeit, invisible cradles). Vincent often used the metaphor of stormy seas to describe his own feelings of being overwhelmed and adrift, so it’s fairly obvious that he wasn’t just talking about local sailors, but also himself. So, there was much riding on this project for him personally and artistically. His various stresses converged – the stress he felt over this very high-stakes (for him) project, the stress on his body because he wasn’t taking care of himself and drinking too much, and the stress of learning that his own behavior was driving Gauguin to depart from their shared artistic experiment in Arles.
And so, he snapped. On Sunday, December 23, 1888, he cut off his ear (or at least a part of it). Gauguin, although he was at a hotel that night due to the tension in the house, has described the blood spatter evidence, so we know that Van Gogh either cut himself in front of La Berceuse, or cut himself in another room, then went to stand in front of it.
What a loaded painting. I don’t care for it, visually; I don’t think it stacks up to his best Arles work – which I was surrounded by, at least five or more in a ten-foot radius. But this is art history right in front of me.
The standouts for me, the ones I just stood in front of, and stood, and stood. Where crowds come, and you wait it out, and then you can be alone, just you and the painting. Then the crowd again, because everyone feels something special in front of these works; they’re famous for a reason.
Is Gertrude Stein my favorite portrait of a woman, done by a man? Maybe. Picasso really understands her. She looks cultured, and wise, and capable of taking on anything (managing artist salons, the War, living as a lesbian). Those hands are simple yet beautiful. The slight Cubism of the eyes also feels just right.
I stood in front of this painting for a very long time. I felt like this was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. (And of course, the photo doesn’t do it justice). I was in a room with four other Vermeers…in a world where only 34 are known to exist, this felt like heaven. What a privilege.
OK, now it’s time to get to the meat of it…you know I gravitate toward the paintings.
My goal: maximize my time at the Met, my old stomping grounds, just down the street from my apartment, see as much as I could, revisit some old favorites, but also discover something new.
As an abstract painter, it was surprising to me how affected I was by figurative work. My favorites were all figure paintings. My advisor in grad school always said that figurative painters should be looking at abstract work, and abstract painters should be looking at figurative work!
Max Beckmann’s Old Actress…
That nose. And the light coming from above, highlighting her eyelids. Was acting her profession, or did she act her way through her life? For such a caricature, Beckmann has captured something deeply sad.
This made me think of masks that queer folks often wear…by choice, or by necessity.
Loving her twisted-up, yet ultimately straight, posture. And her face, pursed lips. Very wry. This portrait feels juicy, colorful, and fully-formed, more so than many Soutines. I love it.
High visual drama here, just as caricatured as Beckmann’s actress, yet in its very quiet way. Also, I’ve always loved the nomenclature of the “pink”.
New Bedford hosts a Moby Dick Marathon every January, where the novel is read out loud in 25 hours, on-site at the Whaling Museum and Seaman’s Bethel. I attended three of them, stayed for the duration, and read a couple of chapters out loud. If you stay (a small crew, to be sure), you get your name in the paper, and a free book related to Moby Dick (one year the prize was actually an academic work about the marathon itself).
The holding power of this book astonishes me. The interest from people all over the country who travel for the marathon, the locals who stay up all night once a year to hear it read out loud, the artists who still make fresh artwork based on this story…
There’s another book I love, called On Beauty and Being Just that talks about this phenomenon of loving something beautiful, like a work of art, and replicating it with another work of art to put more beauty into the world.
I think this one is my favorite of all from my latest trip to the Met.
What is it about sheets in the wind? I remember playing underneath the clothesline, or among the rows, as a kid – nothing better. And laying on the bed while my mom made it up on top of me…I asked her to lift up the top sheet again and again because I loved the sensation of the air billowing around me, and the breathtaking beauty of the sheet turning into a dome above me…suddenly I was in a huge space, which got increasingly cozy as the sheet settled delicately around me.
I have (used to have, until my computer was stolen) a gorgeous photo of sheets on a line, very similar to this painting, that I took in Erice, Sicily years ago. And I think I remember a Caillebotte painting of sheets on a line as well.
Why do we love sheets in the wind? Is it because they make the air visible? I enjoy watching the wind playing with flags, leaves, falling rain, people’s hair…but nothing comes close to sheets.