Sunday, March 31, 2013


Caspar David Friedrich, Village Landscape in Morning Light, 1822

Caspar David Friedrich, Morning in the Riesengebirge, circa 1830

Caspar David Friedrich, Meadows Before Greifswald, circa 1827

Caspar David Friedrich, Easter Morning, circa 1828

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Holy Saturday

Jesus goes to hell today.

engraving by Albrecht Dürer

Friday, March 29, 2013

Good Friday

Rembrandt, The Three Crosses, etching, 1653

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Well What Do You Know ...

I've been reviewed.

My painting series The End of the World gets a little rave in Newcity Art's recommendation of the "Peace, War, and More War" show at Out of Line Gallery in Chicago.  This blog gets a shout out too.

Here's the whole review.  It's not long.

Artists have been responding to modern life with horror and disgust for so long it’s hard to tell when they are addressing themselves specifically to personal struggles with violence and war. Some artists grew up in hell, others made one for themselves, and the artists in this exhibition seem to have done a bit of both, beginning with the show’s organizer, Israeli born artist/activist Dr. Ayala Leyser. A semi-retired psychologist and veteran of the Israeli Defense Forces, she opened a gallery/studio in Humboldt Park where she makes outlandish sculpture and conducts a weekly salon to discuss life, art and our sad planet. The highlight of this show is the “End of the World” series by New York painter Doug Blanchard, whose exceptional blog, Counterlight’s Peculiars, brought him to her attention. A serious student and teacher of art history, Blanchard witnessed the Twin Towers burning from the rooftop of his building in Brooklyn and has borrowed the calm intensity of fourteenth-century Italian painting to comment on religious fanaticism in six panels that look like they belong on an altarpiece. Several of the other artists have also been effective in creating dark, chaotic worlds, especially in the turbulent abstract-expressionist paintings of another Israeli, Ruth Eckstein. Leyser herself contributes a wonderfully manic pink-tongued demon. Constructed from a swirl of wire, tubing and a variety of salvaged objects, it looks like a dybbuk that escaped the pages of Isaac Bashevis Singer. Pious killers, crazy folks and demons do seem to be running rampant in our world, and the focus of this exhibition specifically excludes any happy, visionary alternatives to their destructive fanaticism. But is there any other way to overcome it?
(Chris Miller)
Through April 30 at Out of Line Art Gallery, 2812 West Chicago.

Today's the Day

The Supreme Court hears arguments over California's Proposition 8 today, and about the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) tomorrow.

We won't hear a decision about either until sometime this summer.  No matter how the Court rules, this will be a historic decision concerning marriage equality and about the status of sexual minorities in the United States.

As to how the Court will rule, my crystal ball is no more clear than anyone else's.  The views of Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito are a foregone conclusion, but the remaining 6, including Chief Justice Roberts, are less clear.  I will hazard to predict that they will not make a sweeping decision one way or another, but stick to technicalities or maybe punt this back to the states.

I've stated my views on marriage many times before on this blog ( here and here), that marriage is historically a very mutable institution, and that the whole reason we have this movement for marriage equality is because the rank and file LGBTs wanted it, not because of any initiative on the part of movement political leadership and despite the indifference or contempt for the institution of marriage on the part of the intellectual leadership of the gay rights movement.
I heard someone on the radio yesterday say that one major reason we've come to this point is because of changes in heterosexual marriage, and I think he has a point.  The old Victorian patriarchal autocracy is done, not only because people don't want it anymore, but because few people can afford it anymore.  The old model of the Pater Familias extending the protection of his benevolent despotism over other family members kept dependent doesn't work anymore.  Few people earn the wages and income support such a model anymore.  Few spouses would put up with it now, nor does that model have the legal sanctions it once did (wives and children are no longer legally considered "property" anymore).  A new more egalitarian model is now emerging in which spouses are equal partners in the marriage and make decisions together.  Gender roles are changing with now some husbands and sometimes both spouses changing names upon marriage.  More commonly, duties such as cooking, household maintenance, employment, and child-rearing are now shared between spouses.  It is now more common than not for couples to co-habit before marriage, even older couples.  In light of this new emerging egalitarian model of family life, the genders of the spouses hardly matter at all.  This may be one more reason why attitudes toward marriage equality, as well as legal and social equality for sexual minorities, are changing so rapidly and so dramatically.

We should remind ourselves that no matter how the Court rules on marriage that there will still be no protection against discrimination in employment and housing in most states, that basic civil rights laws for LGBTs remain a vulnerable hodge-podge of state and local laws.  It will still be necessary to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) which would be the first federal guarantee of civil rights for LGBTs.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Kittredge Cherry on the Passion

Kittredge Cherry wrote a whole new and expanded commentary on the Passion series that I completed about 9 years ago for Holy Week on her blog.  It is absolutely the most thoughtful and insightful commentary on this series (which seems to have inspired a lot of commentary) that I've read.  She is featuring the Passion and her meditations on it all week.  Please go over to her blog and have a look.  Your comments would be most welcome.

I have Kitt to thank for getting this series of paintings out of my studio and into public view.  I am very grateful for her love for this series and her enthusiasm for my work.

Kittredge Cherry with the panel Jesus Rises that I presented to her in 2008

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Peter Tatchell Calls Fudge

Peter Tatchell calls out the Anglican fudge in an open letter to Justin Welby, the new Archbishop of Canterbury.
 One of your first public statements, when you were confirmed as Archbishop of Canterbury last month, was to declare your support for discrimination against gay people: namely your support for the legal ban on same-sex civil marriage.
Moreover, although you have expressed your support for civil partnerships, it is reported that you have not approved civil partnerships taking place in churches or church blessings for same-sex couples. You claim that you are not homophobic but a person who opposes legal equality for LGBT people is homophobic - in the same way that a person who opposes equal rights for black people is racist.

 Good for Peter Tatchell.  I'm glad someone, especially from the outside, is calling out the Anglican waffle on this issue.  To his credit, Archbishop Welby is offering to meet with Tatchell.

Justin Welby enthroned as the new Archbishop of Canterbury last week

I'm afraid the old Anglican response of splitting the difference or meeting half way won't work this time.  It would be tough to defend a "traditional teaching of marriage" as between a man and a woman while trying to insist that the church opposes homophobia and denying civil rights to lgbts.  The nature of sexual and marital relations is precisely the issue that sets gays and lesbians apart from the majority.  The Roman Catholic position may be wrong, but it has the virtue of being internally consistent.

The new Pope Francis supposedly made similar statements endorsing gay civil unions in Argentina while he was still Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio.  But how much of that was really a change of mind, and how much of that was a calculation to make a strategic retreat in what turned out to be losing political struggle with President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner?  I tend to take the more skeptical view.  The Roman Catholic Church actively fought civil rights legislation for gays and lesbians just as much as marriage equality, both here in New York City and around the world.  I don't think anything has changed -- not even slightly -- in Rome.

Archbishop Welby, according to Tatchell's letter, seems to have evolved some over this issue.  Perhaps Tatchell wrote the letter out of hope as much as protest.  Contrary to the official statements coming out of Lambeth Palace, the Church of England is very badly split over the gay issue.  There is no consensus.  There are large parts of the C of E that can be just as LGBT affirming as anything in the Episcopal Church in the States, and there are large Evangelical and Anglo-Catholic factions which remain implacably hostile.  That public opinion is rapidly turning against those factions only convinces them of their rightness, and makes them dig in their heels even more.

There are times when I think that homophobia is dying as a political and cultural force in the developed world.  Even major public homophobes like Maggie Gallagher are admitting as much.  The rapid shift in public opinion on gay rights and marriage equality in the USA is dramatic and amazing.  I think it is the result of generational change, and the critical mass finally built up from so many years of people coming out and publicly declaring themselves to be gay or lesbian.  I also think that we've been so very fortunate in our enemies.  They do so much of our work for us by being their own repulsive selves.  Now that they are becoming marginalized, they are feeling singled out and victimized which makes them take even more extreme and revolting positions (see Scott Lively).  The dam has burst.  The chain reaction has started.  The toothpaste is out of the tube, and they know it.

The cause of LGBT equality is raising expectations in the Developing World.  There is a burgeoning LGBT movement in India.  There are the courageous small groups in central Africa.  There are even small LGBT groups meeting deep underground in the Islamic world.  The dam has burst in the West, and it's leaking everywhere else.  I think it is no accident that the Vatican and the mullahs frequently join forces to fight progress on gay rights and women's rights in the Developing World.

I cherish a hope, with a lot of anecdotal evidence to back it up, that some of the churches, including the C of E, will eventually come around on the gay issue.  Some in the USA like the Quakers and the UCC already have.  The Episcopal Church is almost there, but not quite.  The Lutherans ELCA are moving in that direction.  The Methodists are in the midst of civil war over the issue.  I even think Rome will eventually come around, though I will be long dead and buried before that ever happens.

The deeply sad part is that once again on a major humanitarian issue the Church is being led instead of leading.  The world is finally opening up for a long despised segment of humanity after a lot of blood sweat and tears.  Once again the Church insists on retreating into the role assigned to it by the Roman Empire, as spiritual enforcer of established power and social convention.


Giles Fraser on creepy chummy Evangelical Christians.

After a while, if you say a word enough, over and over again, it loses its meaning. It even begins to sound a little different. Jesus morphs into Cheesus – the es getting steadily elongated. Those who talk about Cheesus do so with a creepy sort of chummyiness. This is what evangelicals call "a personal relationship", by which they mean that Cheesus has become their boyfriend or best mate. And when such people speak of Cheesus they have to wear that sickly smile too. It's that I-know-something-you-don't smile. Patronising, superior and faux caring all at the same time. And if you disagree with them they will pray for you. It makes you want to bang your head against a brick wall.

I grew up with Cheesus.  Maybe that's why I always picture aggressively smiling Children of the Corn whenever I hear the word "Christian."

Maybe that's why I infinitely prefer genuine impersonality to creepy phony intimacy.

Watching Hitler

A scene from Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will.

The Nazi spectacles had a dramatic flair and originality that their Communist imitators never matched.  And the man at the center of this spectacle (like the men at the center of the Communist spectacles) seems so very small and odd, even with Leni Rieffenstahl's masterful framing and editing to make him look as messianic and commanding as possible.

Hitler long ago replaced Lucifer as our emblem of manifest evil, and perhaps rightly so.  I certainly recognize that evil exists, but I've always had a hard time accepting that it had any kind of transcendent or spiritual dimension.  Who needs the devil and Beelzebub and Pandemonium and demons and hell when the last century saw Auschwitz, Treblinka, the Gulags, Tuol Sleng, the Great Famine in China, Rwanda, My Lai, and any number of massacres and crimes of astonishing cruelty and sadism, where just about every last boundary of decency imaginable was breached and then some?  Why should evil need any kind of transcendence when, as Hannah Arendt pointed out, the 20th century saw crime on a metaphysical scale?

I never had any desire to see movies about demonic possession.  Sorry, but I think it's all crap.  Evil is plenty real, and it's all right here in the Here and Now, and prayers, crosses, and holy water will not stop it or even slow it down.  Those movies to me are more about the kinky thrill of torturing teenaged girls than about any kind valuable lesson about evil.

I never really bought into Milton's heroic Satan declaring that he would rather rule in hell than serve in heaven.  The face of evil in my experience is more like the strange little man at the center of the Nazi spectacles, a teetotaling vegetarian paranoid obsessive who, despite decades of rumors, was probably mostly celibate (It seems that those hell-bent on Total Destruction can be just as unworldly and ascetic as those committed to Total Salvation).

For reasons that are not clear to me, historians these days like to do comparative body counts among the last century's bloodthirsty ideological god kings.  In the systematic mass murder competition, Hitler comes in at a paltry 17 million while Mao is the runaway winner with estimates of anywhere from 40 to 80 million perishing in the famine that followed the Great Leap Forward.  Stalin comes in at around 20 to 30 million dead in his famines, massacres, and gulags.  Pol Pot could win the prize if the numbers are calculated proportionately.  He murdered a quarter of the population of Cambodia in 4 years.  And yet, none of those gentlemen started a world war and Hitler did.  I don't know why the casualties of the Second World War (including German casualties) are not counted into Hitler's total body count.

The men at the centers of all of those vast criminal enterprises were hardly heroic or even glamorous.  Each and every one of them comes off as strange, small, and vulgar.  We have a hard time believing that such small men could bring off such historic criminality, and so we speculate uselessly over whether or not a character like Hitler was mad or somehow deranged and degenerate.  One historian (whose name I can't remember) said that a much more useful line of speculation about Hitler would be to ask why generals and field marshals took orders from a man who never rose higher in the military than corporal; or why scholars, scientists, and artists deferred to the views of a man who was almost entirely self-taught and an art school reject; or how such a man could come to hold so powerful a spell over the population of a major modern industrialized country.  That would cross into the uncomfortable territory of speculation about ourselves.  If the inhabitants of so advanced and educated a country could fall for Hitler and end up willingly collaborating in a huge criminal enterprise, what about us?  Are we really so different?  We always insist on the otherness of evil, that it is somehow completely alien to us, while secretly wondering to ourselves if it might, on the contrary, be familiar and near to us always, within our reach.  That thought truly frightens and offends us.  Godwin's Law will always be there to protect us by distancing ourselves from our own self doubts.

I think those who have the best insights into these characters are the parodists.  They see clearly just how trashy evil really is; Hitler's middle-brow tastes, Stalin's boring personal routines, or the elderly Mao as a vulgar sybarite bedding worshipful young girls.  There's nothing like a cult of Mao kitsch to knock down the cult of Mao.  Perhaps an all drag performance of the opening fan dance in the great propaganda movie The East Is Red in a gay cabaret in Chengdu is a fitting tribute to the revolutionary who, as John King Fairbank noted, was not interested in making life better for his people so much as in dominating them.

And Hitler gets the salute he deserves from the ultimate anti-Leni Rieffenstahl, Mel Brooks in "Springtime for Hitler" (sorry no clip, just a link ).  The Incarnation of History, of the Destiny of the Aryan People, gets remade as a star-struck show queen.  The only thing I find hard to believe in this clip is that at the end, Hitler kissed the blonde on his right and not the blond John Barrowman on his left.

"It ain't no mystery, if it's politics or history, the only thing ya gotta know is, everything is showbiz!"

Indeed.  And how do we know that Hitler didn't mouth "I love you all!" to the regimented masses at Nuremberg when Leni Rieffenstahl turned off her cameras?

Against the assaults of laughter and ridicule, no tyrant can stand.  Let's save our tears and our seriousness for the tyrant's victims.


In this extraordinary video from December 21, 1989, we see an amazing spectacle as the heroic monumental figure of Nicolae Ceaucescu, the Genius of the Carpathians, cracks and we see the gray drab little man inside.
This is Ceaucescu's last speech in Bucharest.  At one of those dreary "spontaneous" shows of popular support so familiar from the last century, the crowd spontaneously booed and heckled a very rattled Ceaucescu and his wife Elena.  Everything we hear in this clip is from Ceaucescu's own microphone.  Four days later, Nicolae and Elena Ceaucescu were dead, shot by a firing squad.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Margaret and Joel

The Alkmaar Master, The Seven Acts of Mercy, 15th century

A friend and hero of this blog, Margaret Watson and her husband Joel in Eagle Butte, South Dakota seem to have no end of health problems.  He is suffering from pertussis, and she is down with pneumonia.

I send my prayers and best wishes for a speedy recovery and good health for them both.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Personal and the Political

Senator Rob Portman with his family.  His son Will is on the right.

I must admit to feeling very puzzled about the controversy surrounding Senator Portman's change of mind on gay marriage because his son came out to him as gay.  There is a lot of skepticism about the senator's motivations.

Jonathan Chait says that Portman's motivations are entirely selfish and cynical:

It’s pretty simple. Portman went along with his party’s opposition to gay marriage because it didn’t affect him. He thought about gay rights the way Paul Ryan thinks about health care. And he still obviously thinks about most issues the way Paul Ryan thinks about health care.
That Portman turns out to have a gay son is convenient for the gay-rights cause. But why should any of us come away from his conversion trusting that Portman is thinking on any issue about what’s good for all of us, rather than what’s good for himself and the people he knows?

Matthew Yglesias goes even further, accusing both Portman and American right wing politicians in general of a selfish lack of empathy:

It's a great strength of the movement for gay political equality that lots of important and influential people happen to have gay children. That obviously does change people's thinking. And good for them. 
But if Portman can turn around on one issue once he realizes how it touches his family personally, shouldn't he take some time to think about how he might feel about other issues that don't happen to touch him personally? Obviously the answers to complicated public policy questions don't just directly fall out of the emotion of compassion. But what Portman is telling us here is that on this one issue, his previous position was driven by a lack of compassion and empathy. Once he looked at the issue through his son's eyes, he realized he was wrong. Shouldn't that lead to some broader soul-searching? Is it just a coincidence that his son is gay, and also gay rights is the one issue on which a lack of empathy was leading him astray? That, it seems to me, would be a pretty remarkable coincidence. The great challenge for a senator isn't to go to Washington and represent the problems of his own family. It's to try to obtain the intellectual and moral perspective necessary to represent the problems of the people who don'thave direct access to the corridors of power. 
Senators basically never have poor kids. That's something members of Congress should think about. Especially members of Congress who know personally that realizing an issue affects their own children changes their thinking.

Noah Berlatsky, while not entirely dismissing the concerns of Chait and Yglesias, comes to a different conclusion:

Portman's op-ed makes him sound like someone who, faced with a moral dilemma, has muddled through as best he can with the least thought and effort possible. The fact is, though, that most of us, most of the time, are more like Rob Portman than we are like, say, Mildred Loving, the woman whose Supreme Court case overturned the laws against interracial marriage. The marriage equality movement, like any moral movement, has been built by activists with great struggle and courage. But it's success is measured by the fact that it has framed the issues in question such that even the selfish and small-minded can, given a little push by their families, make the right choices. Portman is not an inspiring figure. But there is something inspiring in realizing that the movement has reached a point where even someone like him finds it easier to make the right choice than the wrong one.

I wonder about the Senator's son Will.  No one has said much about him.  I think that coming out to a right wing father who is a US Senator with a lot to lose from such a revelation was no small act of courage.  I notice that the right wing religious crazies are already sharpening their Long Knives to fillet both Senator Portman and his son Will.

I don't think Chait and Yglesias are entirely wrong, but the whole recent success of the cause of same sex equality rests on millions of accumulated personal revelations like what Portman and his family experienced, revelations that put a very human and personal face on what was previously an abstract issue.  The whole history of the struggle for LGBT liberation is about fighting against generalizations and broad abstractions that falsely represented our own experiences as individuals and as a group.  Regular readers of this blog know my great distaste for big sweeping ideological and doctrinal abstractions.

Empathy matters, though I agree with Chait and Yglesias that it shouldn't be central to making sound and right policy decisions.

Politics, I've always argued, is not about ideology.  It is about doing real and concrete things for real and concrete people.  It is about trying as much as circumstance and possibility will allow to create a decent place to live that insures the freedom and dignity of everyone who dwells there.  Left politics today is about the long hard effort, both personal and social, to stop seeing people as types and to start seeing them as individuals with histories, and to build a social, economic, and political order that enfranchises everyone, including our opponents.

Jacques Louis David painted a famous painting about the personal and the political right on the eve of the French Revolution in 1789, a painting about a political leader and his sons.

In this painting by David, lictors bring back to Brutus (not the assassin, but the founder of the Roman Republic) the bodies of his sons who he had arrested and condemned to death for treason.  David presents this harsh story from the pages of Livy as a secularized version of the story of Abraham's sacrifice of his son Isaac.  Only this time, God is replaced by Rome as indicated by the darkly silhouetted statue of the goddess Roma beside the shadowed figure of Brutus on the left.  This time, the sons were not spared and there was no ram to complete the sacrifice.

Many times in history, families have been asked to sacrifice private happiness and even sons and daughters to the public good.  Families must face this decision every time a country goes to war.  Senator Portman faced such a decision when confronted with his son's confession of homosexuality.  In order to please the far-right religious crazies that still wield considerable influence on the Republican party, he would have had to sacrifice his son Will.  Portman decided that the cause of homophobia simply wasn't worth the sacrifice of his son, a decision reached by thousands of other families from all kinds of backgrounds and classes.  People are deciding that placating a backwards and bigoted priestly caste is not worth the sacrifice of their children.

Shock and Awe Ten Years Ago Today

The American invasion of Iraq began 10 years ago today.  The biggest boondoggle since the Vietnam War began with the spectacular missile assault on Baghdad seen in the footage above.  The news media reported this with breathless excitement to a public in 2003 still eager for revenge after the September 11th attacks 2 years earlier.
The public and the news media were amply primed by an aggressive propaganda campaign by the Bush Administration that used massaged (and even forged) evidence and intimidation to create a case for the war.

There was a substantial number of people who were skeptical of the whole thing.

I was one of those people, but a tiny part of the huge protests like the one above in New York City that were almost completely ignored by the press, including the local media; never mind that these were the biggest protests the city had seen since the Vietnam War and snarled traffic for hours.  There were other similar protests of comparable size around the USA and around the world.

The Bush Administration succeeded in neutralizing the impact of these protests by marginalizing dissenters, claiming that they were not "mainstream" and impugning their patriotism.  The Administration used intimidation on an already cowed and eagerly compliant corporate media, eager to swallow without question whatever the government fed them.

And so the war was off, while those of us who thought the whole thing was the biggest mistake since our invasion of Peru after Pearl Harbor (*irony alert!*) could only sit by and watch helplessly.

This was the first American war that made extensive use of mercenaries ("government contractors") to make up for the manpower shortage created by the government's refusal to use conscription.  The discrepancies in pay between these mercenaries and regular soldiers were substantial.  Also, the mercenaries were exempt from military codes of conduct, and were granted legal immunity from prosecution under terms imposed on the new Iraqi government by the American occupation.
This was the first time in American history that the government cut taxes in time of war, compounding the fiscal crisis created by the mounting war debt that was kept off the official government budgets and out of the public eye.
Corruption was pervasive in the war effort among the many contractors hired to do what military quartermasters did in previous wars.  Billions were lost to corruption by the contractors and by the new Iraqi government.

Saddam Hussein's government fell quickly like a wet house of cards.  We soon found ourselves managing what everyone said would happen, a ferocious sectarian and ethnic war among Iraq's Shiites, Sunnis, Arabs, and Kurds that broke out soon after the fall of the regime.  The original pretext for going to war, that Saddam was building "weapons of mass destruction," that he was somehow involved in the September 11th attacks, turned out to be completely mistaken if not fraudulent.  American soldiers on the ground found themselves involved in difficult and tangled diplomatic negotiations with local leaders to try to end the sectarian warfare, or to minimize its damage. In these efforts, they were frequently successful, sometimes without support from Central Command or Washington.

In 2011, President Obama reluctantly withdrew the last remaining forces in Iraq after the new Iraqi government refused to agree to immunity for American troops and contractors from prosecution.

A lot of us of a certain age had a very bad case of deja vu during the years of the Iraq War.  The military contractors, the effort to win "hearts and minds" of the locals, the discrepancies in body counts (casualties among the locals were largely ignored), we had seen and heard all of these things before.

While the the numbers of American military casualties were much lower than in Vietnam (thanks to changes in tactics, technology, and advances in medicine), the damage from this conflict to American power and prestige, and to the rule of law at home, was much greater.  We are now largely impotent spectators to the stalemate in the Israeli Palestinian conflict.  Our credibility as any kind of champion of peace and democracy was destroyed by the scandalous treatment of prisoners of war, by the shocking use of torture as official policy, by the open embrace of methods that we hanged people for in the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials.  The military power of the Presidency is now virtually unchecked by any rule of law.  All of those new unchecked Presidential powers for the struggle against terrorists wait for a future unscrupulous ruler to use them to silence his opposition.  The Fourth Estate lost all credibility as any kind of "Watchdog of Democracy."  Today, the  established corporate media are the recording secretaries of the powerful and lap dogs of the privileged. I remain amazed that there was no accountability at all for those who started the war and who made the case for it.  The only prosecution coming out of the war is Bradley Manning for blowing the whistle on so much of it.  All of the pundits who cheer-led the war still have their jobs and are still revered as "authorities."

And in the end, who really came out a winner?  Not the USA.  Not the Iraqis.  The real winners in this long war were the military contractors and their shareholders who made out like bandits, and the Iranians.  The USA very helpfully removed a major check on Iranian ambitions in the region and installed a Shiite regime with very strong ties to Iran.

And now, it all is starting to disappear down the American Memory Hole along with perhaps hundreds of thousands of Iraqi dead.  The collective amnesia is setting in even as the sectarian conflicts unleashed by the American invasion continue in Iraq.  I was amazed to see how thoroughly the Iraq War and its perpetrators, including President George W, Bush, were air-brushed out of the last Presidential election campaign.  To watch all the speeches and spectacles from last year from both sides, we would hardly know that the war happened at all.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Visiting the Art Institute of Chicago

I took my trusty little digital camera to the Art Institute.  Here are some highlights of what I saw.  These are all my photos.

I entered through Renzo Piano's new modern wing.  I must admit that I'm a sucker for allusions to classical form in modern design, and this building is full of them.

A classical peristyle on the outside of Piano's new modern wing.

The most famous painting in Chicago, La Grande Jatte by that prophet of the pixel, Seurat.

Just like pixels on the screen you are looking at now, Seurat divides the colors into their constituent parts and lets you do the blending in.

I wonder if anyone has ever noticed the small butterfly just behind the woman seated on the right and above the dog.  There is a wry back and forth between stiff (almost robotic) 19th century bourgeois conventional formality and the more spontaneous enjoyment of a pleasant Sunday afternoon by animals, children, and folks from the lower classes on a lawn as perfect as a golf green.

This painting is full of odd details that we hardly notice in reproduction, but really stand out in the original.  One of those is on the right side; what are those 2 reddish wedges peeking out from behind the right edge?

Seurat added his own pixelated frames to many of his pictures including this one to set off the colors with their complements.  Note the red dots bordering the green area and the warm patch bordered with blue dots.  Seurat was fascinated with new developments in color theory from that time, especially Etienne Chevreul's ideas about simultaneous contrast, how colors in proximity affect each other.

Tourists look at Chicago's second most famous painting, Grant Wood's American Gothic.

And here it is.  Supposedly, this is a portrait of Wood's dentist with his  sister, Nan Wood.  The painting shows not a man and his wife, but a farmer determined to defend the virtue of his not very alluring daughter.  I wonder if that's an actual Flemmish frame, or a  replica.  Fifteenth century Flemmish painters, especially Memling, deeply influenced Wood.
I must admit that I've never been very fond of this picture.  It was flanked by 2 very fine pictures by Charles Sheeler that I wish now I had photographed.

Here is DeKooning's great Excavation at home in Chicago where I can photograph it.  I've written about it extensively before.

Chicago is famous for its Impressionist collection.  Here is a generous selection of Monet's haystacks from the 1890s.

Here is a beautiful one.  By the time these were painted, Impressionism as a movement was over.  These used to be interpreted as pure formalism, that the haystacks were nothing more than formal structures upon which to hang nuances of light and color.  Now there is a revisionist interpretation that points to Monet's political conservatism and his loyalty to the Third Republic.  This new interpretation sees French nationalism behind Monet's choice of rural motifs.

A beautiful detail from the haystack painting above showing the color division into primaries and secondaries that would influence so many artists from Seurat to Matisse.

Chicago is home to this magnificent painting by Mary Cassatt. 

To my surprise, Chicago is now home to this work by the 1960s artist Eva Hesse, Hangup.  It is one of my favorites by her.

There is a small gallery in the new modern wing devoted to the work of Gerhard Richter.  I'm not sure what I think of him.  Interesting work though.

Chicago native Ivan Albright from the 1930s is well represented in all his dark morbid fascination.

I've always been fond of this portrait by Degas of his uncle Henri Degas with his daughter Lucie

I've always been intrigued by this version of Degas' Young Spartans.  It looks like an attempt at a finished picture that was abandoned at some point.  It's interesting to compare this with the more famous version in the National Gallery in London.  This enigmatic painting supposedly shows Spartan girls taunting the boys and enticing them to wrestle.  In the painting in London, which Degas revised repeatedly throughout his life and never really finished, the girls and boys are a lot less classical looking and look much more modern, like 19th century street kids.

The big Turner show a few years ago in New York was a big hit with the public and was thoroughly drubbed by all the critics.  I've always loved Turner, and this is one of my favorites.  He pulls out all the stops, even in the title, Val d'Aosta, Snowstorm, Avalanche, and Inundation.

Chicago has this set of 4 marvelous paintings by Goya showing a once famous encounter between a Franciscan monk named Pedro and a notorious bandit called El Maragato.  Alas, my close up photos didn't come out very well.

This is the only one of my photos of each of the 4 Goyas that came out, and it is still a little out of focus.

This is a beautiful and curious unfinished painting by the brilliant and infuriating painter Jacques Louis David.  It is a portrait of one of his former students Adelaide Piscatory who married the first president of the new legislative assembly after the Revolution, Claude Pastoret.  David shows her clad in Revolutionary simplicity sewing baby clothes for her newborn son in a cradle on the lower right.

Here she is in fashionably simple and disheveled dress, a sharp departure from the rigidly elaborate Rococo dress of less than a decade earlier.

Whatever strong opinions we may have about David, he really was a very fine painter, something that we can appreciate even more in an unfinished painting such as this.

The hands in this painting are exceptionally beautiful.

The odd part is the portrait of her child.  He plays only a bit part here, and this is all we see of him.  The lack of emotional connection between mother and child in this painting is striking.

Chicago has some very fine 18th century portraits like this one by Maurice Quentin de la Tour.  I think the depth and subtlety of expression in these portraits, as well as the quality of their execution remains under appreciated.

Here is another remarkable 18th century portrait of an elderly sitter by Etienne Liotard.

Chicago has a magnificent still life by Chardin in a very strange shaped frame that I wonder if it is original to the picture.

And here is Chardin's wonderful self portrait in pastel.

I'm one of the few people I know who genuinely loves Poussin.  Chicago has a fine one, St. John on Patmos, with a fine landscape rich with beautiful details.

Chicago owns a major work by El Greco, the centerpiece of what was once a huge 8 panel altarpiece for the church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo in Toledo.  It shows the Assumption of the Virgin, and is a dramatic variation on Titian's great painting of the same subject which El Greco would have known while he lived in Venice.

A detail of El Greco's painting showing one of many odd details, the angel looking straight at us from under the Virgin's arm on the right.

Another odd detail that shows why the young Picasso was so fond of El Greco.  Not only do we see the strange elongated proportions and vivid emotionalism, but also a lot of weird double takes like the Apostle above who appears at first glance to have 2 heads with one looking out and the other from the back looking in.  There is also the strange inversions of foreground and background and the spatial ambiguities in the sarcophagus and the groups of apostles which Picasso so loved and admired.

Finally a guilty pleasure, Bartolomeo Manfredi's Love Punished, some rough 17th century homoeroticism barely concealed by a fig leaf of allegory.

This painting is rough fun, but it is also beautifully painted as revealed in this detail of the doves flying off at the top right.

This is only a small sample of what is there in the second largest encyclopedic museum in the United States.

I first visited the Art Institute when I was still in Art school sometime around 1979 to 1980.  I traveled to Chicago twice with my painting class from Kansas City.  We set out early in the morning and drove in 3 cars straight through Iowa and northern Illinois to Chicago arriving at night.  My painting prof at the time was a Chicago native Ron Slowinski who took us through the Art Institute and around the town to see the architecture.  I remember one year we visited Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House and then went across the street to the Oriental Institute on the campus of the University of Chicago.  We also visited Wright's home and studio out in Oak Park as well as the Field Museum.
The Art Institute has changed a lot since that time, but it brought back very fond memories of Ron Slowinski and those trips.  I saw a lot of paintings this time that I haven't seen in many years.