Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Story of Art – Gombrich

Gombrich - The Story of Art
You have to love an art book that starts with these two sentences: “There really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists.” And so starts the book The Story of Art by E.H. Gombrich (1909-2001), first published in 1950. It is considered to be one of the most accessible introductions to the (Western) visual arts. The first aspect of the book that stood out for me is that on almost every page Gombrich ties in the current discussion to past and future works. You almost certainly will be flipping pages to look at an illustration somewhere else in the book – which is a good thing. The story that Gombrich tells has a strong feeling of continuity through history. The second aspect of the book that I like is that Gombrich is opinionated yet not to the point of turning you off. He leaves room for other interpretations.

I will confess that I’ve read about 100+ pages of the more than 500+. I generally skip around and read a few pages here and there. One idea that I came across in The Story of Art was the explanation for the very specific look of Egyptian art, and specifically the contorted body poses. The Egyptian artists produced their work less for viewing and more for helping the deceased in the afterlife. Therefore, they represented objects like the human body and its parts from the most recognizable angles. This gives rise to the head in profile with, full-frontal eye planted on it, shoulders turned awkwardly to face the viewer, and two left feet.
Egyptian Pose
The final aspect of the book that I’ll point out is the chronological charts at the end of the book. At first glance they didn’t mean much, but on repeated inspections they start to make sense and in particular the first (which is reproduced below). It’s called The Millennial Perspective 3000BC-AD2000 and it shows at a glance the major periods/movements in time.

On the cover of the edition shown here is the Johannes Vermeer (1632 – 1675) painting Girl with the Pearl Earring.
Millennial Time Line

Monday, February 23, 2009

Tiramisù a la Oscar


A dessert request for an Oscar night party resulted in Tiramisù a la Oscar. Okay, it was just a standard tiramisù with an Oscar statuette motif on top. But, it was marvelous along with a banana pudding another guest brought. Speaking of sweet Italian dishes, some of the partygoers asked: “Who is that Italian drag queen presenting the Oscar for best leading actress”? Uh, that’s Sophia Loren thank you very much. The dismal ballot/score sheet below documents the fact that I scored just a bit higher than randomly guessing. Not so bad considering I haven’t seen any of the movies.

Oscar Ballot

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Frye Museum – The Munich Secession

The show The Munich Secession and America is at the Frye Art Museum from January 24, 2009 to April 12, 2009. It’s an interesting show and definitely a worthwhile a trip to the museum – even if the words Munich and Secession in the same sentence seems a little intimidating.

The first question in our minds was: “Who seceded from what?” The answer is that a group of German artists in the late 19th century seceded from the Künstlergenossenschaft – which was sort of the sanctioned art exhibiting venue in Germany founded in 1868. The secessionists found the Künstlergenossenschaft a bit lame, too democratic, catering to popular tastes, and really not that diverse. So, eleven artists kicked off (in an orderly way) the Munich Secession in 1892.The movement emphasized experimentation, individualism, and diversity in art as well as a departure in how artwork was shown. Rather than using the salon-style (many paintings crowded together) presentation, the secessionists opted for sparse presentations, close to what we are accustomed to today. The Munich movement followed and preceded other secessions. All of the secessions, collectively, in the late 19th century are considered important in helping to form the basis of the 20th century modern art movement.

Many of the key works of the Frye Founding Collection are works that fall into the Munich Secession category. One of the best known works in their collection is Franz von Stuck’s Sin (one of the many versions of this theme). Other works you’ll see at the exhibit include Max Slevogt’s Wrestling School – 1893, Eugen Spiro’s Baladine Klossowska – 1901, Oskar Zwitnscher’s The Dead Man by the Sea – 1913, Leo Putz’s Summer Dreams – 1907 and our favorite of the show: Hans Thoma’s Calm Before the Storm.

Pictured on the brochure is Spanish Dancer by Otto Hierl-Deronco.
Zwintscher - Dead Man By the Sea

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Dante Marioni and Parmigianino

At the Museum of Glass in Tacoma there are a couple of ongoing exhibits this month: White Light - Glass Compositions by Daniel Clayman and The Laguna Marano Chandelier - Dale Chihuly, and one new exhibit Form Color Pattern – Dante Marioni. The latter is the one that wowed us or maybe more honestly, made us feel lustful. The compositions by Clayman and Chihuly are fantastic, but not practical for actually owning. That’s where the Marioni creations tempt you. If we just had an extra 15k lying around we could buy that!

It struck me looking at Marioni’s work what his work reminded me of: Mannerism. The elongated and elegant glass forms echo some of the ideals of early Mannerism: elongated forms and precariously balanced poses among other traits. Specifically when I saw Marioni’s vases I was reminded of the Parmigianino (1503-1540) painting Madonna with the Long Neck (in Italian: La Madonna dal Collo Longo). I remember walking through the Uffizi and entering the Parmigianino Room and being struck by how odd the painting seemed but not being able to a first describe why. (I didn’t know what Mannerism even was at the time.)

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Christ Stopped at Eboli

Christ Stopped at Eboli (or in Italian Cristo si è fermato a Eboli) was written by Carlo Levi in 1943-1944. It is a story about the time Levi spends in exile as a political prisoner in a small town in southern Italy. Levi, a painter, doctor and writer was also an anti-Fascist. As punishment by the then ruling Fascist government, Levi was exiled at the start of the Abyssinian War (1935) to the Basilicata region (previously known as Lucania) of Italy. In the book Levi first spends time at Grassano but is then transferred to Gagliano where he spends most of his exile. The town of Gagliano in the book is the real life town named Aliano.

The key to understanding the title is in Chapter 1: “’We’re not Christians,’ they say. ‘Christ stopped short of here, at Eboli.’ ‘Christian,’ in their way of speaking means ‘human being,’ and this almost proverbial phrase that I have so often heard them repeat may be no more than the expression of a hopeless feeling of inferiority.” The town of Eboli is close to Salerno and Aliano is over 70 km southeast. At that time, the way of life in the small hilltop towns of Basilicata was a world apart from the northern towns.

In 1979, the book was adapted as a movie. Here’s a clip on YouTube where Levi is eating his first supper in Gagliano. The widow that Levi first stays with is telling him how a “peasant witch-woman” ensnared her husband and eventually poisoned him. You can hear a “strega” and maybe a “puttana” in her description of what happened. A clarinet-playing tax collector shows up to share dinner at the widow’s house. This corresponds roughly to Chapter 5 in the book.

Why you might be interested in this book? It will open a small window on understanding peasant life in southern Italy. This book helped propel the “Problem of the South” into national discourse after World War II. In a chapter towards the end of the book Levi lays out what he sees as the three aspects of the problem: very different cultures (city versus country, post-Christian versus pre-Christian that can never mix), impoverished lands (often made worse by the faraway government in Rome), and the small, but bitter middle class in these isolated towns that end up suppressing the peasants more than helping.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Happy Birthday Mr Darwin

It’s the 200th year of the birth of Charles Darwin (Feb 12, 1809 – 1882) and the 150th year of the publication of On the Origin of Species (1859). There’s been lots published on Darwin and his work but we’ll point you to one that doesn’t get that much attention but is really interesting. It’s a 1978 BBC series called The Voyage of Charles Darwin. This series is hard to find but thankfully there’s YouTube to the rescue. You can watch the series here and there are 7 episodes broken roughly into several 10 minute segments.

Episode 1: I was considered a very ordinary boy.
Episode 2: My mind was a chaos of delight.
Episode 3: How wide was the distance between savage and civilized man.
Episode 4: Can any mountains, any continent, withstand such waste?
Episode 5: I felt myself brought within reach of that great fact, that mystery of mysteries.
Episode 6: Suppose that all animals and all plants are represented by the branches of a tree – the tree of life.
Episode 7: In the distant future, light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.

Episode 1 sets up Darwin's life before going on the voyage. It's a bit like a Jane Austen story with a dash of science thrown in. After Episode 1, the series starts to pick up science-wise.

Watching the series you can’t help marvel at many things including the ship, the HMS Beagle, that Darwin travelled on as naturalist. The ship used in the series was this one. Also interesting is the cast of characters on the voyage especially the captain of the Beagle, Vice-Admiral Robert FitzRoy (1805 – 1865). He seemed to enable and encourage so much of what Darwin did and yet was like the foil to Darwin’s theories. Every time Darwin brought some interesting specimen or fact (like seashells high in the Andes) back to the ship, FitzRoy was sure to deny or ignore it saying that all the answers were in Genesis. Needless to say, he was greatly pained over the publication of The Origin of Species.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Dictionary of Plant Names

Gardener’s Latin by Bill Neal (Front and Back Covers)
Gardener's Latin - Front CoverGardener's Latin - Back Cover

Lately, I’ve been trying to use scientific names when talking about plants. It’s hard unless the words I’m repeating mean something or tell a story about the plant. Of course, many of the scientific names are very descriptive, and do just that. I’m just not familiar with the words. Often the full botanical name can tell you where the plant originated, the discoverer, the color, and other interesting attributes of the plant. To that end, there are many sources to help you decipher names. Two that I’ve used are Gardener’s Latin by Bill Neal and Dictionary of Plant Names by Allen J. Coombes. The latter focuses on both genus and species names while the former just on species names, so it’s a bit more useful.

Dictionary of Plant Names (Front and Back Cover)
Dictionary of Plant Name - Front CoverDictionary of Plant Name - Back Cover

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Winter Scent in Seattle – Sarcococca confusa

Sarcococca confusa flower. 

It’s that time again in Seattle where you can start catching a whiff of Sarcococca confusa. For such inconspicuous flowers (they are fairly small) they sure can project a scent. Maybe the cold air and the lack of other flower-competition enhance its olfactory punch. The common name for Sarcococca confusa is Sweet Box or Christmas Box. “Box” for the fact that it is part of the Buxaceae (or Box) family. Sarcococca originate from China. The genus name Sarcococca comes from the Latin "sarcos" for fleshy and the Greek kokkos for berry which describe the berries. (Seems to be confirmed here.)