The world is alive with revelations in art, economics (!) and music

Life is full of surprises and even revelations, and I’ve received several of those lately. Instead of writing a long blog about any one of them, I’m going to tell you who, what and where and fill it all in with a few quotations.

Lucian Freud. Self Portrait, Reflection, 2002.

In Art

The first is an article about Lucian Freud, someone I’ve never known much about. I was aware he died recently, and as is the case with far too many of this world’s wonders, it took the man’s death to bring him to my notice. There’s a terrific article in the February Vanity Fair about Freud. Written by David Kamp, it’s worth reading from top to bottom, but I’d like to quote just a little from the beginning because it has to do with an artist in old age, which is what this blog is supposed to be about—at least occasionally!

Lucian Freud’s final portrait is of a naked man and a dog. It is unfinished but otherwise betrays no sign of the agedness of its creator, who died last July 20, halfway through his 89th year. The scale is big, a square canvas of about five feet by five feet, and the brushwork is as sure and layered as in any painting he had ever done—smooth and free around the man’s shoulders, crusty and impastoed along the arms. The palette is Caucasian-fleshy from afar but remarkably varied and intricate up close: purples and greens in the man’s legs, vivid streaks of yellow in his right hand, rust and blue at the naughty bits.

For the last 57 years of his life, Freud painted standing up rather than sitting down; the physical restrictions of seated painting, he said, had begun getting him “more and more agitated” in the 1950s, so he kicked the chair away. Painting on his feet required extraordinary stamina, given Freud’s self-imposed work schedule: a morning session with one model, an afternoon break, and an evening session with another model, seven days a week, all year round. What’s more, these sessions had a tendency to stretch on: a deliberate worker, Freud took 6, 12, 18 months or longer to complete a painting, marathoning into the night if the mood struck. But he had stamina in spades. Painting was his workout; he took no other exercise, and yet photographs of him working shirtless in 2005, when he was 82, show him to be lean and all sinew, a jockey-size Iggy Pop.

But by June 2011, Freud recognized that his body was finally failing him, and that he had only so many brushstrokes left. The naked man in the portrait was completed, but the dog, a tan-and-white whippet, would never get its hind legs. Freud prioritized its head and face, adding a little dart of terre verte (“green earth”) mixed with umber to depict the tip of the animal’s pricked-up right ear. In early July, Freud was addressing the painting’s foreground: the folds and ripples in the sheet that covered the low platform upon which his two models sprawled. Here and there, as his energy permitted, he applied quick strokes of flake white, a thick, lead-heavy paint, to the lower part of the canvas.

That was as far as he got. Able to stand no longer, he at last retired to his bedroom, one floor up from the studio he kept in his Georgian town house in West London. As he lay in bed, friends and family gathered to pay their respects. There were many visitors from both categories. Freud had an otherworldly magnetism that his intimates struggle to put into words. Deborah Cavendish, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, once ascribed to him “a sort of starry quality … an extraordinary sort of mercurial thing. He’s like something not quite like a human being, more like a will-o’-the-wisp.” Over the course of his life he fathered 14 acknowledged children with six women. Among his nine daughters are the fashion designer Bella Freud and the novelist Esther Freud. Two weeks into their bedside vigil, he was gone.
….
Freud simply did great work as an old man, some of his greatest. “In a sense, I think he knew this was his last big push at making some remarkable works. I could just see that he was really ambitious, pushing as hard as he could,” says the naked man in that final painting, David Dawson, the artist’s longtime assistant and the owner of Eli, the whippet star of several late paintings. ….
This overdrive work ethic was at once an acknowledgment of pending mortality and a hedge against it. Dawson marvels at what his boss managed to achieve. “The sheer volume, the scale,” he says. “He never rushed the work. But, my God, one great painting after another came out. He felt he could do it and he was able to. And this was his last chance.”

In Economics

My next discovery, comes from the January 27 issue of  the Wall Street Journal. where Dalibor Rohac writes about Deidre McCloskey, an economist. Why have I never heard of her? McCloskey is out to bring moral values back to the history and practice of economics. Apparently, she’s funny and charismatic, as well as brilliant. She’s also someone who changed her gender mid-career, which may not be relevant to her economic philosophy, but somehow makes her very, very human.

In 2006, Ms. McCloskey published a 600-page book, “Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce.” In a meticulously documented volume, drawing from a range of philosophical traditions, she asks whether one can participate fully in the modern capitalist economy and still be a moral person. Ms. McCloskey is a free marketeer and used to be a close personal friend of Milton Friedman, as she eagerly points out. Her answer is therefore an emphatic yes. It would be ill-advised, she thinks, to claim that profit-seeking makes one inherently corrupt, especially if it is balanced by other virtues.

Four years later, she completed a 600-page sequel, “Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World.” “I’ve forgotten how to write short books,” she says apologetically, adding that she would like both to be part of a four-volume series on the bourgeois era.

….

The danger of our era is that the bourgeois deal is slowly crumbling away. It is under attack from the political left and also from economists whose work revolves around one sole virtue—prudence—thus eroding the public understanding of markets and economic life. Looking at the West’s current economic woes, it is easy to share Ms. McCloskey’s concern that unless we revive a sense of dignity and approbation for entrepreneurship and innovation, we might easily kill the goose that lays the golden eggs of our prosperity.

Oddly, I had just finished reading about McCloskey when a friend on Facebook alerted me to another article, this one in US News Today. It’s an interview with the founder of the Davos World Economic Forum, Klaus Schwab.

Capitalism is out of whack, the founder of the World Economic Forum says, welcoming critics’ ideas of how to fix it — even those camped out in protest igloos near his invitation-only gathering of global VIPs.

    ….

“I’m a deep believer in free markets, but free markets have to serve society,” he said in Davos, the ski resort tucked away deep in the Swiss Alps. He lamented excesses and “lack of inclusiveness in the capitalist system.”

“We have sinned,” he said, adding that this year’s forum would put particular emphasis on ethics and resetting the moral compass of the world’s business and political community.

He even invited protesters from Occupy to share their thoughts with the Davos participants.

Maybe, just maybe there’s something stirring that will make real change possible.

Patricia Racette and Beth Clayton

In Music

The last of my revelations comes from another arena altogether. On Saturday, I was listening to the broadcast of Tosca from the Metropolitan Opera. The soprano was Patricia Racette. I had read something about her before, probably even heard her sing. She was wonderful. My curiosity was piqued and I googled her—what else?—only to discover that she was not only very lovely, she was a lesbian in a thirteen plus year relationship with another fine opera singer who was equally beautiful, Beth Clayton.  An interview with the two of them in the April 2008 issue of Afterellen was refreshing and enchanting. And also well worth reading.

I know the world is a scary place and getting scarier but my God, it’s still full of magic!

Following Madame Tussaud into the uncanny valley

The wax statue of the creator of Madame Tussaud's waxworks, Madame Tussaud herself in the museum. Photo by Rudolph Afurtdo. Creative Commons.

A decade ago, a New York Assemblyman tried to have Arafat removed from Madame Tussaud’s in New York City. He threatened to cancel a Republican fundraiser at the wax museum if the Palestinian leader wasn’t removed.
It’s not just amazing that wax museums are at least as popular as ever, but that they’re taken as seriously. Long lines formed in Washington, D.C. when Michelle Obama’s figure was unveiled. At Madame Tussaud’s in Berlin, a visitor beheaded Hitler. The costliest figure to maintain at New York City’s Tussaud’s was Brad Pitt because of the lipstick marks on his lovely waxen features.

Brad Pitt at Tussaud's

In its beginnings and still today, Madame Tussaud’s keeps up with the latest celebrities, inducting them at a rapid pace (and, I presume, although I haven’t seen evidence of it,disposing of a large number at the same rapid clip). The gestation period for each celebrity is six months and the process is lengthy and complex. As many as 250 measurements are made. Molds are taken from clay busts produced by sculptors who depend on the measurements and photographs of the subject, not real heads as in the distant past. Hot wax is poured into the molds and left to cool. When the heads are ready, hair, eyelashes, whiskers and eyebrows are plugged in, one strand at a time, a process that can take as long as five weeks. In Madame Tussaud’s earliest pieces, real teeth from the streets of Paris, were used, but today they’re made of porcelain or dental acrylic. Tussaud’s asks celebrities to donate the clothes they want their figure to be wearing. The cost to produce a figure can be as high as $300,000.
Presumably, Madame Tussaud’s is still the last word on who is and who is not a celebrity. In  2002, the wax works in London refused to include the Conservative Party leader because he was too dull. “We want figure who will inspire strong emotions and provoke strong reactions. In our view, Mr. Duncan Smith, whom most people have never heard of, is unlikely to achieve either of these feats. Ever.” There was no report of Mr. Smith’s reaction. I wonder if  he was mortified.
In Los Angeles, Tussaud’s competition with the rival Hollywood Wax Museum recently took on new life when Tussaud’s set up an exhibit in its lobby, juxtaposing its celebrity effigies with photos of the Hollywood Museum’s, beginning with Angela Jolie. It’s figures were much more lifelike, argued Tussaud’s. Fascinating that a photo of the Hollywood Museum’s Jolie stood in for the effigy. Photographs are like effigies in that they presume to be copies of what is real. In the last century, photographers would sometimes use Tussaud’s tableaus, pretending they were copies of the real event. (In fact, a photograph of the pope’s effigy was acclaimed as more true to life than the actual pope in the real setting.) The waxworks then had a policy that forbade visitors from taking photographs inside the Museum in order to keep nefarious reporters from representing them as snapshots of the real people.

Today, the Museum depends on the camera. That’s what people come to do. Not just to mingle with the famous (or rather, their facsimiles), but to record themselves in their company.

But something else is happening and that’s what makes this subject interesting. There is something oddly uncomfortable about a wax museum that can be summed up in the following remarks by a young employee at the London museum. He reported that he was often asked by visitors,

“What is it like at night?” Or my favourite. “How do you DARE to be there all alone?”I sometimes wonder if people enjoy them (the wax figures) because of the possibility of rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous, or because of the tiny little thrill of coming into a room and not knowing who is alive and who is not.

As William Poundstone writes in“The Battle of the Wax Museums,”

….the truly interesting thing about wax museums is how creepy they are. This is better described by a third-millenium coinage: the “uncanny valley.” That’s the notion that not-quite-perfect simulacra of the human form create a sense of weirdness or revulsion. .. Somewhere between the humanoid and the human, things get weird. These imperfect likenesses fall into a dip in the curve, and are much less accepted than less-perfect ones. ….

The uncanny valley explains why there are so many horror movies about evil dolls, clowns, ventriloquist’s dummies, wax museums, zombies, and cyborgs. …”
The phenomenon of the uncanny valley was observed in connection with the creation of robots. At a certain point, when the robot is very much like a human but not like one really, witnesses were seized with revulsion.

What is even more curious is how much of the thinking that’s evolved to explain the uncanny valley has to do with death.

I can’t get quite beyond this point yet, and perhaps I won’t. Any one with experience of the uncanny valley out there? I intend to give it at least one more try in these posts. Maybe more.

Because it is curious, isn’t it, that Madame Tussaud’s wax museum began in death and continues, in this later age, to be “mired” in it. I think, because automatons,wax effigies and celebrities are all related to human identity in a way that is profoundly disturbing. Our world begins to wobble when we think too hard about them.

Exhibiting death at Madame Tussaud’s

Madame Tussaud’s biographers differ about many of the details of her life. Her “uncle” may have been her father; her connections to Versailles may have been exagerrated; and, of course, she may have labored under less onerous conditions to make the wax heads of the guilllotined than her later reports suggest. It is clear, however, that she hated the perpetrators of the Revolution—those she blamed for the beheadings.

Jean Paul Marat, stabbed to death in his bathtub by Charlotte Corday, July 13, 1793. A wax model made immediately after his death.

According to her grandson, John Theodore Tussaud, in The Romance of Madame Tussaud’s, when the Revolutionary leader, Marat, was killed in his bathtub, Marie Tussaud was taken immediately to the scene of the crime and made to model his head (take a cast of his face).

 

He was still warm, and his bleedy body and the cadaverous aspect of his almost diabolical features presented a picture replete with horror, and Madame Tussaud performed her task under the influence of the most painful emotions.

 
The tableau that was presented in Paris of Marat in his bathtub is similar to the one that’s the subject of the famous painting by Jacque Louis David. The artist had been a close friend of the dead man. Where Tussaud saw “diabolical features,” David saw the features of a man he loved and admired. The representation of the murder of each is in large part the result of their relationship to the man and the French Revolution. David’s painting was lauded as the great historical painting it is. Tussaud’s depiction, on the other hand, was all about the death of a body—its abruptness, its gruesomeness.

Death of Marat by Jacques Louis David

Of course, David was an artist and Madame Tussaud was a waxworker. Apparently, Curtius’s museum wasn’t the only wax museum that featured the murder of Marat by Charlotte Corday. Some thinkers of the time worried that the attraction to violent and tragic scenes was unhealthy, that it would not lead to a society of people who could empathize with one another, but one that was brutalized and disconnected.

Although Tussaud claims to have provided the model for David’s painting, (very likely the reverse was true), the two images represent entirely different viewing experiences. In David’s painting the powerful immediacy of the scene was used to transcend the limits of death, to bring Marat back ‘tout entier….’  The waxworks tableau to be found at Curtius’s Salon, by contrast, sought to make Marat’s assassination palpable for the viewer, not to transcend but rather to capture death.

Palpable wounds were, by contrast, what Tussaud specialized in. The attraction of her waxworks depended on a kind of forensic gaze. David deploys a familiar aesthetics of martyrdom where the violated body is intended to move the viewer to the contemplation of immaterial values. Madame Tussaud’s Adjoining Room [later the Chamber of Horrors] instead concentrated on bringing death itself close, in all its abject details. Marie-Helene Huet notes, “the perversion inherent in Madame Tussaud’s peculiar art is that this art imitates death and that the product of this imitation of death is an imitation of life…In the Chamber of the Dead, the illusion of life never brings the dead back to life. On the contrary, one could say of Madame Tussaud that she brings the dead back to death.

A Proximate Violence: Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors by Lela Graybill

The wax worker tried to copy his or her subject as nearly as possible, (whether that subject was alive or dead). The artist does more than that—art never intends to just imitate. Madame Tussaud’s has always been dedicated to getting as close to what is immediately and physically real as possible. In the beginning many of  Tussaud’s and Curtius’s figures were actually constructed from wax molds made by taking a cast the subject’s face. “From life” is very close to the real person!

Curtius and his protegé had two impulses in the creation of their wax museums: to entertain and to witness to history.

A few years after her arrival in Great Britain, Marie Tussaud searched for, found and bought parts of the guillotine. Later, she heard about and bought the carriage Napoleon rode in when he went to conquer Russia, and when he turned around and was defeated at Waterloo. John Theodore Tussaud, describes the vehicle in great detail, taking two chapters to marvel at the carriage and its contents and the great man’s past closeness to them. For many years, the carriage was displayed (along with its waxen driver) and visitors were allowed to sit inside and touch the things that had once been Napoleon’s. When some of them began taking bits of the vehicle away for mementos, a red ribbon was strung around it and visitors were no longer allowed to touch it.

Napoleon's carriage at Tussaud's

It’s amusing to read that in Curtius’s museum in Paris, rich visitors were allowed to wander around an exhibit of the royal family at supper, touching the models, while the less well-off stood in a roped-off area in the rear where they could pass the time trying to guess which of the figures below was real.
Today, if I read the situation right, visitors of every income level are allowed to fraternize with waxen celebrities. (I doubt that many of them are interested in Napoleon’s carriage, which I’m certain is  still roped off!) They come to stand next to them, to pretend that the silent figures who look so very alive but who never move, are not only the real thing, but friends, intimates even. They have their pictures taken with celebrity actors and dictators. It’s not exactly fifteen minutes of fame, but it feels close.

More next time.

Eggleston’s tricycle and the obvious in art

I recently went to a poetry reading at one of our local bookstores. I didn’t know the writer’s poetry, I only knew his reputation, which was considerable. As it turned out, I was deeply disappointed. As my friend Sally would have said as she left after only a few verses—if she’d been there in the first place: “There was no word magic.”

I didn’t leave, and I was glad I didn’t because towards the end of the session he explained himself. He strives to be ordinary, he said, to write the way ordinary people talk, to be natural. I wanted to cry out, “But how easily the ordinary can become the trite, the trivial!” I didn’t. The applause for him was too loud. No one would have heard me. Besides, I have no courage.
It’s not that I don’t appreciate the ordinary. I even cherish it. The ordinary keeps us safe from the disorienting experiences of the extraordinary. Breakfast, lunch, dinner. Life by the clock . Life shaped by household objects in tract houses—or, at the very least, by the activities and things of our every day.

The ordinary enables us to get through life in the face of death. If every day was Wagnerian, life would be impossible.
Still, I always thought poetry was supposed to free us from the humdrum, to enable us to experience what is amazing. None of his verses did that for me.

Not long after, sitting in the waiting room of my optometrist, I discovered an article in the August Smithsonian. (The magazine was so full of things I wanted to know about, and the glasses so expensive, I actually,and with barely a qualm, stole it.) The story was about photographer William Eggleston’s 1970 picture of a tricycle in the suburbs. “Perfectly banal,” said critic Hilton Kramer. “Perfectly boring.”

William Eggelston, Untitled, Tricycle and Memphis, 1970.

The photograph, and the MOMA show where it first saw the light of day represented a turn to color. An odd choice of subjects, perhaps, to employ color. Kramer complained that the show was made up of “dismal figures inhabiting a commonplace world of little visual interest.”

It wasn’t that homely objects hadn’t been photographed before—but they were generally beautifully wrought: hand tools, pottery, food…. Many people, like the writer, Eudora Welty, found Eggleston’s choice of objects more challenging. “The extraordinary, compelling, honest, beautiful and unsparing photographs all have to do with the quality of our lives in the ongoing world: they succeed in showing us the grain of the present, like the cross-section of a tree…. They focus on the mundane world. But no subject is fuller of implications than the mundane world.”

Says Mark Feeney, the author of the Smithsonian article: “for Eggleston, the profane is what’s sacred. Has anyone ever evoked the enchantment of the banal quite so well?  “I am at war with the obvious,” he has said.

I’ve looked at the tricycle again. Perhaps it is more than obvious. But the poet….? I’m still missing something, I guess.

David Hockney, and seeing much, much more

David Hockney and Lucien Freud - two remarkable English painters. Creative Commons

I’ve written about David Hockney before. Seventy-four years old now, he’s passionately trying to capture a world he’s obsessively curious about—the world around him—because there’s always “a lot more to be seen.”
In my last post about Hockney, I marveled at his use of computer drawing. He’s apparently still at it. Writes Martin Gayford, the chief art critic for Bloomberg News, in the September/October 2011 technology review:

He uses it as an electronic sketchbook; it’s always by his side. A steady flow of iPhone and iPod drawings —loose, free, experimental, and intimate, pop, sometimes every day, into the mailboxes of his friends and acquaintances. More than 200 are currently in mine.

 

However, Gayford’s article (soon to be part of a book), is about another Hockney endeavor. In order to better see the world, the artist has created a behemoth of nine cameras mounted on a rig which, in turn, is mounted on a vehicle. The cameras are set at different angles and exposures. Traveling a country road through grass, wildflowers and other plants, the result is what Gayford calls a “moving collage, a sight that has never quite been seen before.” It’s been described by Norman Rosenthal of the Royal Academy of London, as a 21st-century version of Durer’s Das gross Rosenfuck (Piece of Turf):

 

Durer used the media of the time—water color, pen, ink—to do something unprecedented: depict with great precision a little slice of wild, chaotic nature. He revealed what was always there but had never before been seen with such clarity. Hockney, in 2011, is doing the same job, using the tools of the moment: high-definition cameras and screens, computer software.

Albrecht Durer, 1471-1528. Das gross Rosenfuck.

Hockney believes that the camera can never see what the eye does, and that it in turn has unduly influenced much of art (through the camera obscura in works that preceded the invention of the camera). The camera, of course, has one eye and the human being has two. But,  Hockney has multiplied the two by many more and wants us to see much, much more.

 

I’m looking forward to Gayford’s book because I have some unanswered questions. Apparently, science has just about concluded that the world we see is a complex creation of eyes, mind and external reality. It’s nothing like what is objectively there. (There is something! I guess.) And that makes me wonder what Hockney’s new invention is seeing. Can it tell us anything more about reality? Or about ourselves?

Eudora Welty’s photographs

Making pictures of people in all sorts of situations, I learned that every feeling waits upon its gesture, and I had to be prepared to recognize this moment when I saw it…. These were things a story writer needed to know.

One Writer’s Beginnings

Eudora Welty has been widely acclaimed as one of the 20th century’s best writers. She was also, I think, one of our best photographers of the period of the Great Depression. I learned years ago that she had taken pictures, but I only saw them recently on the Internet. They were remarkable but I wasn’t quite sure why.

I’d looked for them because of an interview in a 1995 book called Literature and Photography where the interviewers tried, not always successfully, to get Welty to talk about the influence of her photography on her writing. They did get her to speak at some length about the way the photographs or, as she called them,”the snapshots,” came about.

As she had said before, also in One Writer’s Beginnings. “The camera was a hand-held auxiliary of wanting-to-know.” She was interested in people. She asked them if she might take the picture as it began to take form in front of her and they nearly always said yes. “There was no sense of violation of anything on either side. I don’t think it existed; I know it didn’t in my attitude, or in theirs. All of that unself-consciousness is gone now. There is no such relationship between a photographer and a subject possible any longer.”

The interviewers tried to get her to compare herself to people like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange since their pictures were of Southern poverty in the same period. She explained more than once in the course of the conversation that she had no agenda. Unlike those and other WPA photographers, she wasn’t making a case against poverty which, in any case, had always been there (in Mississippi). As in her writing, she had “an inquiring nature, and a wish to respond to what I saw, and to what I felt about things, by something I produced or did.”

I’m not well-versed enough in Eudora Welty’s work to speculate about it and her photographs at any length. Even if I were, she’d probably question the exercise. “But as in everything, I want the work to exist as the thing that answers every question about its doing. Not me saying what’s in the work.”

After I’d read the interview and looked at the photographs, I went to my bookshelves and found her Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Optimist’s Daughter. Rereading from it, I was curious to discover that it reminded me of her photographs in some important way. I may be stating the obvious, but I think it’s because she’s profoundly interested in the people she’s writing about. They live and act in front of us the way the people in her photos do and, in both cases, what matters most is who they are and what they’re doing. She doesn’t ask us to take sides, to interpret or judge—just to to look at them with interest and concern.

Looking at the indescribable

One of the most interesting thinkers to explore seeing is John Berger who’s been doing it for decades now in books like About Looking and Ways of Seeing. In the April issue of Harpers (not available on-line yet) he describes the paintings of Jean-Michel Basquiat, an artist who tried to see “through the lies (visual, verbal and acoustic) that are imposed on us every minute.” He used the condition of blindness to explain what he meant. The blind, he writes,

negotiate their way by asking questions and receiving answers with all the senses except that of sight. They receive information and perspectives offered by sounds, by the air and its drafts and temperatures, by the touch of their probing sticks, their feet and hands. Each sense has for them its own language with which it recognizes and defines the world. What distinguishes the blind, however, from those who have sight is that the blind accept that a larger part of what exists is indescribable. Familiar, sustaining, hateful or lovable, essential, but nevertheless indescribable because, to them, invisible.

The painter Basquiat understood that a large part of the world was indescribable and that was what he wanted to tune into because the invisible, being invisible, cannot be described and therefore cannot be lied about. Which, of course, implies that a great deal of what is visible is also a lie—in commercials and advertisements, in photographs both off-and-on-line—even, or perhaps especially, in art.

I don’t usually look at the world around me that way, as if it were true or false. I guess I usually judge truth or falsity of an image from its context—the commercial and its claims, the photograph with its message, the art work that claims profundity but has none. If I think of images themselves as true or false, I find I’m overwhelmed by the numbers of lies in our day-to-day looking. What must that do to us?

 And then, I think, this may make the looking at art even more important. Slow looking. To cleanse our eyes, to tune into the invisible and indescribable which is all around us.

The slow art of Frank Auerbach

Once, not so very long ago, people only occasionally looked at their own image or those of their friends and family. Even mirrors were uncommon. With the invention of photography that changed. I suspect, although I don’t know it for a fact, that mirrors multiplied so that we could arrange ourselves for all that picture-taking.

It hasn’t been much longer than a century ago that many of our ancestors sat in parlors passing a stereopticon from person to person, marveling at 3-D images of foreign wonders. Not long after that postcards became all the rage. At last, we could all see what the world beyond our own town looked like.

So it was that portraits and landscapes, especially exotic landscapes, were the camera’s first subjects, and the two were frequently combined.

Today, I know people, I guess we all do, who take pictures at a furious rate—watching the children grow, marking every rite of passage with dozens of snapshots, and especially recording every holiday and the family’s presence in front of distinguished buildings and magnificent mountains. One of my favorite memories of an early trip to China was the woman who on every occasion handed me her camera so that her picture could be taken in front of something or some place important.

We consume more images today than any culture before us and, in a digital age, we throw them away almost as fast as we make them.

I spent part of the last day reading about Frank Auerbach. Like the rest of us, he’s mostly interested in pictures of people and landscapes. I looked at pictures of his paintings, of course, but while most copies of most paintings are of little worth, those of Auerbach’s work are especially so. His paintings are many-layered, thick with brush strokes, scraped, gouged, cross-hatched. His early paintings especially were so thick they were almost sculptural. No one-dimensional copy could reproduce that, or even come close, and so this post will be my first not to include a picture. From a 2001 gallery guide description of a painting of Primrose Hill, and quoted by Wikipedia: “Reading an Auerbach painting is an energetic experience… Furiously worked pink vibrates in a different way to swift interlinked zigzags of red and green, while a marbled sky offers an area of tranquility.”

That gives you some idea of the problem.

Auerbach, who is 78 years old, still paints long solitary hours. For his landscapes, he sketches hundreds of preparatory drawings. Like the digital picture-taker, he frequently throws away canvases he doesn’t like, but in his case he may have committed weeks and even months to the painting’s construction. He’s been known to buy back paintings that don’t meet his expectations in order to destroy them. What’s important to Auerbach is finding the truth of the art he’s making.

Auerbach is the very epitome of slow art. He has only a few subjects, subjects he’s painted for over fifty years—primarily the three women he’s loved in his life and the neighborhood of his art studio London’s Camden Town. He’s never had much interest in travel or seeing the world. There’s still too much to see in his several subjects. The exploration never ends. His paintings are more than images. They’re a response to the very fact of physical existence.

We can only see Auerbach’s paintings if we look slowly. Every stroke of the brush, every blunt attack with the palette knife is a fresh approach to something that is familiar and ordinary. If we let the paintings work on us, our tired ways of seeing can be shaken loose. We can learn to see and to celebrate what is no longer ordinary.

Surely this is what art is all about: “What I’m not hoping to do is paint another picture — there are enough in the world,” Auerbach says. “I’m hoping to make a new thing for the world that remains in the mind like a new species of living thing.”

A painter of battlefields – Mary Riter Hamilton

My subject for this post is entirely unexpected, at least to me. I was researching World War I, looking at sad, sad photographs of soldiers in black and white—exhausted, cold and damp, sloughing through mud, wearing gas masks some times, critically wounded at others, sometimes already dead. It was a terrible war. I’m no expert on that war, but I have a general notion of how it went and if anyone were to ask me about World War I and art, I would probably mention the photography of Lewis Hine or the poetry of Rupert Brooke.

Mary Riter Hamilton

Until now, I had never heard of Mary Riter Hamilton, a Canadian artist, who, in 1919, was commissioned to paint the battlefields of France for the publication, The Gold Stripe. For three years she lived in France alone in a tin hut in the midst of some 500 Chinese workers hired to clear the Western Front of the debris of war. (Chinese workers!? Try to take that in.) Since she was at least somewhat obscure, I searched for the paintings without expecting too much. They turned out to be oddly melancholy, possibly the emptiest pictures I’d ever seen. And at the same time paintings about memory. They were deeply moving.

Shelter Trench on the Somme
Kummel Road, Flanders

 

 Mary Riter Hamilton grew up in Manitoba, and that explains one reason she’s not well-known. She’s Canadian. Secondly, she was a woman and women artists have always had difficulty attracting attention. A Canadian woman, in the early 20th century, even one who achieved some success, was not likely to be recognized or remembered.

Married at 18, she was widowed by the age of 23. To support herself she operated a china painting school (apparently a fad at the time), but soon she went to Europe—Italy, Germany and eventually Paris—to study. Her work began to be accepted and in 1909 a painting, Les Pauvres, was displayed at the French Salon. In 1911 she returned to Canada to care for her ailing mother, and stayed there through the war, continuing both to paint and to sell paintings. The assignment to paint battlefields, to make a tribute to Canadian soldiers who were wounded and killed in the War, was a dangerous one because of “criminals” roaming the region. It was also a distressing one, but one that came to mean the world to her:

I came out because I felt I must come, and if I did not come at once it would be too late, because the battlefields would be obliterated and places watered with the best blood of Canada might be only names and memories. Of course, the great facts of the war would remain, and I could add nothing but my pictures to the essential tragedy and meaning of it all, but it seemed to me that something was in danger of being lost.

I do not think I could re-live that time; and I know that anything of worth or anything of beauty which may be found in the pictures themselves reflects only dimly the visions which came then; the visions which came from the spirit of the men themselves.

Trench with duckboard and poppies

That quote came from a letter to the Dominion Archivist, Dr. Arthur Doughty. I don’t know if there are any other letters or diary entries, no one seems to have written anything about her. No books. No magazine articles or documentary films. As far as I know there are only the paintings.

When she returned to Winnipeg in 1925, she was blind in one eye due to an illness. (Again, I don’t know that it had anything to do with her battlefield work.) Once more, she taught painting, and in 1925 donated 227 of her battlefield works to the Canadian Public Archives. The paintings themselves were to win many awards, but changing fashions in art ended most of the interest in them. The last years of her life, from 1929 to 1954 were spent in Vancouver. She died there at the age of 81.

Mt. St. Eloi, Felixcullen, Belgium

Photography changes the world. Part 2. The children of Lewis Hines

A number of years ago I worked freelance for church organizations—not the kind that seem to always catch the headlines today—but the liberal descendants of the mainstream churches of the early 20th century who advocated a “social gospel.” Their mission, as they read the gospels, was to bring justice to the poor and dispossessed of the world. On the thirteenth floor of John D. Rockefeller’s Interchurch Center on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, known locally as “the God box,” where the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries gathered pictures, stories and evidence for the Christian crusade, a small room had been given over to shelves and shelves of old picture albums. They’d been collected in labeled barrels and kept at a nearby warehouse until then.

The albums were a wonder to me. The bulk of the best pictures were from the first few decades of the 1900s. They were brought together to advance what seemed to Protestant Christianity then like the coming of a new age of “justice rolling down like waters,” of “the new Jerusalem.” Not surprisingly, the theme of much of the material was an evangelistic one, but the call for social justice was also central. What also pleased me was that many of the pictures seemed to have been collected for the sheer joy of viewing.

Among those pictures were dozens of photos by Lewis Hine, a passionate social reformer, who was educated as a sociologist but discovered that he could do more good with a camera than in a classroom. His pictures changed the child labor laws in the United States.

“Glassworks. Midnight. Location: Indiana.” From a series of photographs of child labor at glass and bottle factories in the United States by Lewis W. Hine, for the National Child Labor Committee, New York. 1908.

“I’m sure I’m right in my choice of work,” he wrote in 1910. “My child-labor photos have already set the authorities to work to see ‘if such things can be possible.’ They try to get around them by crying ‘Fake’ but therein lies the value of the data and a witness. My ‘sociological horizon’ broadens hourly.”

Or again: “The great social peril is darkness and ignorance. Light is required. Light! Light in floods!”

Addie Card, 12 years, spinner. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, National Child Labor Committee Collection.

Hine’s pictures were perhaps the most effective of any in those old picture albums: they convinced Protestant churchmen and women to work for change. But many of the pictures in the books were there for the same reason. They were used in magazines and newspapers, in lantern shows and posters. Hines’ photographs, more than the others, have the distinction of having been taken by an artist. They were not just witnesses to truth. They were, and are, works of art. Their subjects served Hines’ stated purpose, but the photos themselves lived on afterwards, isolated, cut off from their original context of family, and often even of workplace. We admire them because they are beautiful, not because they brought about legislative change.

Which brings us to Susan Sontag’s rather more cynical approach to the photography of do-gooding crusaders in her influential essay, On Photography (1977). “Photography conceived as social documentation was an instrument of that essentially middle-class attitude, both zealous and merely tolerant, both curious and indifferent, called humanism—which found slums the most enthralling of decors.”

I’m prepared to be cynical like the Sontag of the ’70s, until I find an extraordinary websight, http://www.morningsonmaplestreet.com. Its proprietor, Joe Manning, has been tracking down Lewis Hine’s children, one at a time, searching out their descendants, discovering their stories. “The stories, however long or brief, are what they are, and they help us to get to know a few people whose only public persona, for as long as a hundred years, has been a simple snapshot.”

I’m inclined to add: most people don’t even get that—a very public snapshot of themselves. And to praise photography: “Light! Light in floods!”

The old photo albums were full of condescension towards the poor; they objectified people; they isolated them from both their own worlds and the viewer’s. Many of them were as colonialistic in intent as their photographers. And yet, they were also a remarkable celebration of life. And I loved them for it.