Thursday, December 31, 2015

Happy New Year to All!  
Peace, Health, and Prosperity for the New Year and for many more to come!

Drinking too much and partying hard with Rubens

Peter Paul Rubens,Village Fete, circa 1635 - 1638

Monday, December 28, 2015

Cab Calloway

Cab Calloway and the Nicholas Brothers in 1943:

All the political triumphalism in the world ain't worth one Cab Calloway or a single Nicholas brother.

Among my proudest boasts is that I share a birthday with Mr. Calloway.

This Blog Ain't Dead Yet ...

Just very very quiet lately.  I've been very busy, and when I haven't been busy, I've been exhausted.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmas 2015

Refugee children from Syria

...from Cote d'Ivoire, Africa

... from Southeast Asia

... from Central America

The world is going through the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War. This may be but a foretaste of things to come with climate change, growing economic inequality, and as the Middle East continues to implode. The world is now swamped with refugees, and there will likely be even more down the road – perhaps many more.

Those of us who identify as Christian believe that God came into the world to live and die as one of us among people told to keep moving. We believe that God revealed Himself to humanity not in some blinding glorious theophany, but in a bastard child born to a teenage mother on the run with a price on His head. By appearing in the world not as great irresistible power, but in great weakness and vulnerability, at our mercy, God renders the whole grim arithmetic by which the world has always worked -- who may versus who must, success versus failure, power versus powerlessness, strength versus weakness -- irrelevant.

Our Nativity creches and Christmas pageants are sweetened Victorian versions of what is really a very dark story. A couple forced by some remote imperial decree to go to another town to register for a census finds no rooms available. The pregnant teenager gives birth to a child of uncertain paternity in a back alley stable among the animals. The jealous and suspicious local client ruler for the colonial power sends his soldiers in to massacre all the children of the town who meet the description of the object of his anxiety. The little family goes back on the road to flee for their lives to far away Egypt uncertain of the welcome they would receive.

Mother Teresa once said that if you want to see a perfect image of Christ, then just look at the persons on your right and left. If we want to see as close an image as possible of the Christ Child, then we should look at every child, but especially at those thousands upon thousands of children on the run now.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Monday, November 16, 2015

"Greater Love Has No One Than This ..."

The youngest son of Adel Termos with a picture of his father.  Adel Termos died while tackling a suicide bomber in Beirut, and saving the lives of countless people.

While terrorists sacrifice themselves to kill as many people indiscriminately as possible, let us remember those who like Termos give their lives to indiscriminately save as many people as possible, frustrating the designs of evil men.


A poem by Paul Eluard


On my notebooks from school

On my desk and the trees
On the sand on the snow
I write your name

On every page read
On all the white sheets
Stone blood paper or ash
I write your name

On the golden images
On the soldier’s weapons
On the crowns of kings
I write your name

On the jungle the desert
The nests and the bushes
On the echo of childhood
I write your name

On the wonder of nights
On the white bread of days
On the seasons engaged
I write your name

On all my blue rags
On the pond mildewed sun
On the lake living moon
I write your name

On the fields the horizon
The wings of the birds
On the windmill of shadows
I write your name

On each breath of the dawn
On the ships on the sea
On the mountain demented
I write your name

On the foam of the clouds
On the sweat of the storm
On dark insipid rain
I write your name

On the glittering forms
On the bells of colour
On physical truth
I write your name

On the wakened paths
On the opened ways
On the scattered places
I write your name

On the lamp that gives light
On the lamp that is drowned
On my house reunited
I write your name

On the bisected fruit
Of my mirror and room
On my bed’s empty shell
I write your name

On my dog greedy tender
On his listening ears
On his awkward paws
I write your name

On the sill of my door
On familiar things
On the fire’s sacred stream
I write your name

On all flesh that’s in tune
On the brows of my friends
On each hand that extends
I write your name

On the glass of surprises
On lips that attend
High over the silence
I write your name

On my ravaged refuges
On my fallen lighthouses
On the walls of my boredom
I write your name

On passionless absence
On naked solitude
On the marches of death
I write your name

On health that’s regained
On danger that’s past
On hope without memories
I write your name

By the power of the word
I regain my life
I was born to know you
And to name you


Friday, November 13, 2015

Lafayette Wept

Poster by Paul Colin, 1944

Friday, October 23, 2015

Lennart Anderson

The painter Lennart Anderson died Thursday October 8 at the age of 87.  In my opinion, he was the greatest artist of the figurative revival in contemporary American art.  "Revival" is not quite an accurate word in Anderson's case.  He was always a figurative painter in a career that spanned about 60 years.  In that sense he differs from other pioneers of the figurative revival like Alfred Leslie, Phillip Guston, and Phillip Pearlstein who had backgrounds in abstract painting.  Anderson belongs to a small tradition of figurative painting that began with Robert Henri and continued through artists like Edward Hopper and Edwin Dickinson that never really ended.  Like the Magical Realists, this tradition existed right next to the Abstract Expressionism that dominated the 1950s.  In the case of Anderson, he was literally right next door to them.  He kept a studio in the same neighborhood with Willem DeKooning and Franz Kline.  Anderson had his first solo show in the now legendary Tanager Gallery that launched the careers of so many first and second generation Abstract Expressionist painters.  The relationship between abstract and figurative painting in the mid 20th century was a lot more complicated than the textbooks say.

Self Portrait with an Apple Pie, 1967

Lennart Anderson was born and raised in Detroit.  His father worked for Ford Motor Company as a pattern maker.  He studied first at the Detroit Art Institute and then at the Cranbrook Academy of Art (where I studied from 1981 to 1982 under George Ortman).  He earned an associates degree from Cass Technical School in Detroit apparently intending to follow his father into the auto industry.  Instead, he got a scholarship to go to the Chicago Art Institute where he graduated in 1950.  Lennart Anderson was a creature of art schools spending time at the American Academy in Rome, and studying with Edwin Dickinson at the Art Students' League in New York.
Anderson had a long career as a painting teacher at places like Pratt, Princeton, Columbia, Yale, and most notably at Brooklyn College where he taught painting for 30 years.

Lennart Anderson's portraits are not the most dramatic or psychologically revealing.  There is none of that dramatic tenebrism that we see in the portraits of Rembrandt or Eakins.  Alternatively, there is none of that clinical coldness of Lucien Freud's portraits.  They are sympathetic portraits of friends and associates.  His portraits are very beautifully painted taking Piero della Francesca and Degas as his inspirations.

Portrait of Barbara S.  1976 - 1977

While this portrait from the 1970s is very ambitious and recalls the very harmonious and integrated paintings of Piero della Francesca, most of Anderson's other portraits are much closer in form and spirit to the portraits of Degas.

Portrait of Michael Lapp, 1987

This one I think is particularly beautifully colored with those small areas of bright red on the collar brightening up the whole painting.  The painting throughout is rich and superb with a judicious sense of editing detail, concentrating on on that which is most essential to somehow bringing this man to life when we look at his portrait.

Study for a portrait of Morris Dorsky, 1990 - 1991

Portrait of Morris Dorsky, 1991

Portrait of Edwin Vasquez, 1991

Lennart Anderson rarely ventured into narrative and allegorical painting, and I think his efforts in those areas are a mixed success.

Street Scene, early 1960s

This painting recalls the street scenes of Balthus from the 1920s and 30s, only without the perversity and not quite so deliberately wooden.  Anderson went back to Balthus' original sources of inspiration, Piero della Francesco's frescos of the Story of the Cross in Arezzo, especially the battle scenes.   While I can understand the appeal of Piero's battle paintings to modern audiences -- the sequences of form and color for example -- to my eye they are Piero's weakest works; the aesthetic decisions confuse rather than clarify the action in the painting, and its meaning.  Some critics describe Piero's battles as having a solemn sacramental quality.  To me, they just look wooden.
Anderson's painting of a small childhood accident on a New York sidewalk is an admirable painting in so many respects; the beautifully composed figure groups, the splendid harmonization of opposing colors, and the sharp clear forms.  However, it seems to me that the incident that we see is only a pretext for taking on Balthus and Piero.  Nothing is at stake in the action in this painting, and no meaning is revealed or implied.  The action becomes a pretext for the painting instead of its source.  Instead of the narrative generating form, it is only something to hang form on.

Anderson's most ambitious paintings are a series of three that he titled Idyll that he worked on throughout the 1970s and 1980s.  They were inspired by a sketch that he made of a picnic that he observed in Central Park in the 1950s, and then turned into something like a bacchanal.  What he really wanted to do was to do his own version of some paintings that he loved all his life; Raphael's Galataea, Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne in London, and Titian's Bacchanal of the Andrians in the Prado in Madrid.  He decided to paint these in acrylic paint, not oil.  He believed that plastic acrylic paint might be more amenable to constant and drastic revision, and that it might have the lightness of fresco painting.
While these are paintings of human action, he wanted to avoid specific narrative or allegorical content.  He wrote in 1983:

I started the first picture by reversing the sketch, hoping that new material would naturally occur. The second painting was taken directly from the sketch, and the third (still being worked on) was based on a combination of the first two paintings with some new ideas. I finally settled on Idylls as a title for these pictures.
 This freed them from any iconographic responsibilities that attach to Bacchanal or Arcadia. I had included a little toy steamboat in the original sketch to deliberately frustrate any attempt to place this scene in ancient times. Titian did a similar thing when he included women in contemporary dress in The Andrians.
Matisse comes to mind when thinking of more recent attempts at such a subject. His Lux, Calme et Volupté has no overt contemporary clues. Style alone makes it clear it is a modern picture. I conceived of these pictures as passive decorations—pictures that stay on the wall and seduce only if one is of a mind to be seduced. I like to think of them shaded by some loggia near a swimming pool with wet pavement, plants, and sunlight.

Idyll I, 1970s

Idyll II, 1970s

I've spent a lot of time in my studio trying to paint some of my favorite paintings again for myself, especially works by Poussin.  I put so much work into them, and in the end, I've never exhibited any of them and probably never will.  I'm never happy with them.  What seems like such a compelling idea always turns out coming up way too short.  Unlike Anderson, I'm not that worried about narrative or allegorical content in my paintings.  I'm fortunate to be living and working at a time when those things are no longer taboo.  Anderson is trying in these paintings to bring a challenging classical concept into a modern context; the human figure in landscape, with all of those very durable associations of human desire in harmony with the natural order, the myth of Arcadia whose visual expression extends from ancient Hellenistic sculptures to Roman frescoes to Renaissance Venice to the paintings of Matisse in the 20th century.  Anderson was trying to do something similar to Matisse, only without the very modern reductivism.

While I admire the ambition of these paintings, and see a lot of fine work in them, I think they fall short because they don't go quite as far as either Titian or Matisse in taking their imagery out of the realm of the literal.  Like an even more literal-minded artist, Thomas Eakins in his Arcadia painting, you can just see the life studies that went into the painting, only adding to the sense of make-believe in the picture instead of making us believe in the Arcadia that is the subject of this picture.
This is why I so admire both Baroque art and the movies.  As one movie critic once said, if you are too busy admiring the camera angles, lighting, and editing then it's probably not a good movie.  The art in a really good movie should be invisible until after the fact, that you should be so swept up in the imaginative world a movie creates that you forget all about the art that went into the making it.  That's the aesthetic of 17th century art at its best, but it is not a modern painting aesthetic.  Since at least Cezanne, we are conditioned to admire the art of a painting first and only later (if at all) enter the imagined world that it creates.

Anderson's best work was probably in his still lives where the great 18th century master of still life Chardin remained his abiding inspiration.  I love and admire these without reservation.   They are incredibly beautiful examples of Anderson's best painting.

Still life with Popcorn, 1982

Chardin's still lives were about the 18th century Parisian middle class and about middle class virtues.  Anderson seems to have understood that, and very wryly brings that idea into the 20th century.  What could be more late 20th century middle class American than Jiffy Pop popcorn?  Artifacts very specific to the American middle class in the last half of the 20th century find their way into his still lives; paper plates, plastic containers, plastic Fiesta ware, etc.  The disposable consumer culture finds its way into Anderson's work just as surely as it does in Pop Art.  Pop Art proclaimed the replacement of High Culture with commercial culture.  Jasper Johns made that explicit with his famous bronze beer cans.  Anderson simply incorporated it into his formally very traditional still lives as basic facts of the life he painted (and that he lived).  The fact that Jiffy Pop is so superbly painted in this picture is just as witty and light hearted a folding of popular culture into "high art" as anything the Pop Artists did.

Paper Plate and a Bun, 1982

Still Life with Salami on a Red Plastic Plate, 2001

Anderson's later still lives had that luminosity, that grainy sense of hard-won form forged out of light from the shadows that is what is best in Chardin's work.  Anderson gives his still lives his own sense of humor and sensuality; the luscious scarlet reds, that incredible pickled olive resting on the heel of the salami.

Green Cupboard and Kettle, 1977

As splendid as Anderson's paintings are, his most widespread and durable legacy will be in education.  That strand of figurative painting in American art that began with Robert Henri at the beginning of the 20th century and continued through Edwin Dickinson in the middle of that century had a minimal impact on modern painting.  It continues to have a huge impact on the teaching of painting (including my teaching).  That tradition of educators emphasized alla prima technique -- painting directly from the subject with only the most minimal reliance on drawing.  Form is shaped directly out of the relationships between color and light, not through contour. Hawthorne on Painting, a book composed from student notes of the lectures of the early 20th century painter Charles Webster Hawthorne (a teacher of both Dickinson and Norman Rockwell) was a kind of bible for Anderson and for some of my own painting professors, a literary touchstone for that very painterly approach that was central to my education as a painter, and plays a big role in my own work.  Anderson took the basic principles of that tradition and brought them into modernity.

My one criticism of that tradition is that it minimizes narrative.  That is probably less a legacy of Henri or Dickinson or Hawthorne than of Anderson himself.  As formally conservative as he was, Anderson was fully within that modern project to collapse the distinction between content and form; the content is the form and the form is the content.  To me, it is no accident that his best paintings are still lives, and that his best portraits are basically still lives about people.  These are paintings that do not need any narrative or content to work as paintings, and they work beautifully.
And yet, figurative art began in ancient times and began again with Giotto for the express purpose of narration, to tell stories and to make them as vividly real as possible. Telling a story in a single image, or even a host of images, is not as straightforward a business as the art critics and professors of the mid 20th century assumed when they dismissed the enterprise all together.  Now that modernist aesthetic has lost a lot of its dominance in this new century, there is a host of inspirations available to painters who want to tell stories again from Renaissance fresco cycles to movies to comic books to video games to whatever technology will create.  Anderson himself, almost against his will, played a large role in making narrative art viable again.  He restored to figurative painting both formal discipline and the magical sheer pleasure of conjuring an image on a flat surface out of lights and colors.

Photograph of Lennart Anderson from 2012.

As far as I'm concerned, Lennart Anderson is up there with the American greats who strode the line between real and abstract; artists like DeKooning, Diebenkorn, and Edward Hopper.  He made the case that figurative art is just as viable now at the other side of modernism as it ever was.  Generations to come will continue to find much to admire, enjoy, and learn from his work.

May he rest in peace.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

George Inness

The Metropolitan Museum contains 3 of the most famous and important paintings to come out of the Civil War.  Winslow Homer's Prisoners from the Front and Veteran in a New Field are housed in the Met.  Another Civil War painting whose fame has diminished over time, George Inness' Peace and Plenty also resides in the Met in the American Wing of the museum.  A large painting, it hangs in the same gallery as big spectacular paintings by Bierstadt and Church, and with Emanuel Leutze's Washington Crossing the Delaware.  Most visitors now walk past this painting on the way to look at George Washington standing up in his boat, but at one time (and not that long ago) this was a celebrated and much discussed painting.  Unlike the paintings by Church and Bierstadt in that gallery, Inness' large painting is deliberately unspectacular, but still very beautiful.  Inness rejected the exotic locations of Church and the dramatic special effects in the western landscapes of Bierstadt.  Like John Frederick Kensett, Inness preferred the much more familiar and settled landscapes of New York state, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.  When he traveled to paint landscapes abroad, it was to the Apennines, not the Andes.  And yet, Inness was among the most religiously and philosophically thoughtful of American landscape painters.

Unless otherwise noted, all of these photographs are mine and are freely available especially to educators.

I've always thought it remarkable that the bloodiest conflict in the history of the USA produced so little violent or even tragic art.  The only exceptions would be the photographs by Alexander Gardner and Matthew Brady of corpse strewn battlefields at places like Gettysburg and Antietam.  Most of the art from that time shows anecdotes from the soldier's life such as Winslow Homer's paintings, triumphalist allegories such as the monuments made by Augustus Saint Gaudens or Daniel Chester French, or very distantly allusive landscapes such as this painting, Peace and Plenty completed by Inness in 1865, the year the war ended.  This painting helped establish him as a major American landscape artist and was a deliberate rejection of the literalism and spectacle of artists such as Church and Bierstadt.

While some artists like Bierstadt bought their way out of the Civil War, Inness went straight to the recruitment office when the War began.  He was an ardent abolitionist and supported the Union cause whole-heartedly.  He failed the physical exam for the military, so he organized rallies and gave speeches to rally volunteers and funds to the Union cause. Inness finished Peace and Plenty in 1865 and first exhibited it in 1866.  Ever since that first exhibit, critics and scholars offered numerous detailed interpretations of the picture.  It clearly reflects the relief and optimism of many on the Union side at the end of the Civil War and the end of slavery.  But, many suggest that it may mean more.  According to the historian Leo Mazow, the original owners of Peace and Plenty, Marcus and Rebecca Spring, were utopian social reformers who founded the Eagleswood Military Academy in Perth Amboy, NJ as a place for the reconciliation of social classes.  There may be some of that in this painting in the many figures seen working together to bring in the harvest.  Early in his life, in 1851 during his first trip to Europe, Inness met the portraitist William Page who introduced him to both the painterly style of Titian and the writings of the Christian mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, two enduring influences on his life and work.  Some writers suggest that the radiant glowing light of early evening or late morning in this painting may allude to Swedenborgian concepts of the New Jerusalem already immanent in the world.  Perhaps.  Though I think such ideas may inform the conception of the painting, I don't see this as a particularly mystical picture.

I remember reading somewhere, I don't remember where, a critic who interpreted the scattered bails of harvested wheat as recalling the bodies of the dead scattered on the battlefield; an interesting idea, but I think unlikely.  The tranquil glowing light and deep lush colors of the painting more surely express the idea of peace and plenty than any symbolism or allusions that may or may not be in this painting.  Peace and Plenty meant far more to Inness in this picture than simply an upswing in the economic cycle following a military victory.  This is a triumphalist painting celebrating the Union victory as a chance for a new start; but, it is not General Sherman's horse trampling the pine branch of defeated Georgia in Saint Gauden's statue in Central Park.  I think Inness wanted somehow console with this picture.   Its harvest, golden light dispelling dark shadows, lush greenery, and especially the quiet tone of the picture may be mindful of the appalling death and destruction of the war, that somehow the painting echoes Lincoln's plea "that these dead shall not have died in vain."  There is a memorial quality, an underlying solemnity in this painting similar to the quiet glow of Everlasting Rest in another painting in the Metropolitan Museum by Asher B. Durand, Landscape -- Scene From "Thanatopsis" based on a meditation on death by the poet William Cullen Bryant.  Perhaps Inness intended this painting to hint at some form of resurrection in the renewing seasons, or rest of the blessed in Elysian Fields.

Yet not to thine eternal resting-place
Shalt thou retire alone, nor couldst thou wish
Couch more magnificent.
Thou shalt lie down
With patriarchs of the infant world—with kings,
 The powerful of the earth—the wise, the good,
 Fair forms, and hoary seers of ages past,
 All in one mighty sepulchre.
 The hills Rock-ribbed and ancient as the sun,—the vales
 Stretching in pensive quietness between;
 The venerable woods—rivers that move In majesty, and the complaining brooks
 That make the meadows green; and, poured round all,
 Old Ocean’s gray and melancholy waste,—
 Are but the solemn decorations all
 Of the great tomb of man.
The golden sun,
 The planets, all the infinite host of heaven,
 Are shining on the sad abodes of death,

I think it does Inness an injustice to read too literal a set of meanings into this picture.  Inness worked hard all his life to avoid the anecdotal literalism that we can see in paintings by Church or Bierstadt (or even my work).  This is certainly a far less literal minded painting than Asher B Durand's Landscape -- Scene From "Thanatopsis."
Inness succeeded beautifully in Peace and Plenty, suggesting so many levels of meaning without spelling everything out for us.


Something else in Inness' work that rejects the literalism of so many other American artists of the day, his form.  Inness rejected that very literal minded attention to minute detail that is the legacy of the essays of John Ruskin to American landscape painters.  Every leaf and particle somehow partakes of the Divine and must be scrutinized in all its singularity as an act of reverence, so Ruskin and his followers declared.
Inness during his stay in Paris became deeply influenced by the very open and painterly style of the Barbizon landscape painters (so called because they settled and worked together in the village of Barbizon in France), especially Theodore Rousseau, who in turn learned this new way of suggesting rather than describing from the great English painter John Constable.  Incidentally, as I learned during my trip to Amsterdam in 2014, another great painter who looked continuously to the Barbizon painters for guidance and inspiration was Vincent Van Gogh.
Like the Barbizon painters and Constable, Inness was less interested in taking inventory of the natural world than in conjuring it out of paint on canvas, out of the big dramas of light and dark and color and letting the paint and brushes work their magic instead of hiding them behind heavy varnishes and smooth surfaces.

I've always loved this painting by Inness of the Delaware Water Gap on the border between New Jersey and Pennsylvania, one of several that he made of the Gap, and probably the best of them.  This painting is as full as the later landscapes of John Frederick Kensett are empty.

This painting, like so many of Inness' paintings, shows long settled and inhabited country.  As in much of his work, there is productive activity going on, in this case transportation up and down and beside the Delaware river.  What appear to be rafts, perhaps of newly cut timber, float down the river in the center.  A train heads toward the left side of the painting parallel to the river.  Cattle graze in the foreground with a young man resting on the grass.

Sunlight shines on a beautifully painted summer shower and casts a rainbow.

The land in Inness' work is seldom if ever primordial wilderness.  The relation between the land and the people who live on it is almost always peaceful and harmonious.  Through all the seasons, the times of day, though all conditions of weather, the relation between nature and its human inhabitants always seems familiar and friendly.  This is very different from Brueghel's peasants dependent for their existence on the whims of a vast, mysterious, and indifferent nature with its cycles.
Perhaps these landscapes express Inness' Swedenborgian beliefs in immanent spirituality.  More likely those beliefs, together with his knowledge of American Transcendentalism, inform these paintings.

Also informing Inness' landscapes may be his political views.  By the standards of Inness' day and ours, he was a fighting liberal, an enthusiastic follower of several progressive causes including the rights of labor.  Late in life, he became friends with the social reformer Henry George and a follower of his single tax theories.  There is frequently a happy harmony in his paintings between people and nature, and among individuals as well.  His paintings envision a happiness that is there latent in the world and among ourselves if we only open our eyes and look for it.

Below is a magnificent small painting from later in Inness' life, Autumn Oaks from 1878

It is beautifully colored with a splendid composition focusing on a stand of oak trees on the right, spot lit by the sun through passing clouds.  The bull in the foreground directs us to the wide open and spreading countryside on the left.

 George Innes in 1890, photo from Wikimedia

I've loved Inness' work for many years, since even before I went to art school.

I gather that Inness has something of a cult following.  His paintings, though respected, are not the crowd pleasers that Church's paintings are (or Winslow Homer's paintings are for that matter).  His work went in and out of the critical doghouse during the 20th century.  Museums deaccessioned a lot of his work to private collections at one point.  Many of his paintings show signs of neglect in yellowed and dirty varnish that still covers a lot of his work, even in the Met.  Even Peace and Plenty could use a good cleaning and a little refreshing.  Those paintings that are cleaned and restored like The Delaware Water Gap reveal what a rich and poetic colorist Inness was at his best.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Lunar Eclipse

From the beautiful Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in romantic Williamsburg, Brooklyn, I joined my neighbors to watch the lunar eclipse on Sunday night.  Alas, my trusty little digital camera is not built for astronomy.  Here are some of my pictures anyway.

This was the first lunar eclipse that I had watched since I was a child.  There were a lot of people out watching it, and a lot of people ignoring it.  I thought it was pretty wonderful.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Dear Pope Francis ...

Welcome to the States.  Too bad your stay will be so short and that you can't do a little more sightseeing.  New York is worth it, but so is the rest of the country.  May I recommend the deserts and mountains of the Southwest.

I am not Catholic, never was, and never will be.  We part company on a host of important issues, not just the headline hot button issues like women and gays, but on really fundamental concepts of what it means to be Christian and to be the Church.  On matters of salvation, doctrine, and individual conscience, I am much closer to Luther than to any Roman Church Council since the 16th century.  I have little patience with things like hierarchy, magisterium, and natural law theology.  I can be as anti-doctrinal and even as antinomian as William Blake in many of my views.  I could never join any church (especially yours) that claims to be the One True Church, because I don't believe any such thing exists or ever existed.  Nonetheless, I pay close attention to what you are doing and saying these days.

I don't think what you are doing or saying is the radical  departure that the media describes and some people imagine.  Your pronouncements on the poor and on the environment are consistent with Roman Church teaching for decades.  While your aside on the plane about not presuming to judge gays and lesbians got a lot of attention, the distinction was more one of tone than substance.  What is a dramatic departure from your predecessors is your conception of the Church in relation to the larger world.  Both of your immediate predecessors wanted a smaller church of the doctrinally pure and correct with high thick walls between itself and the modern world.  While they thought of the church as a kind of ghetto of the Elect, you conceive of the church as a vast mobile emergency hospital actively engaged with the world as it is.  To stop the daily bleeding, you are more willing tolerate a little mess and fraying around the doctrinal edges up to a point.  I think it is that more actively compassionate conception of the church that has so caught imaginations around the world including mine.

In the spirit of that famous aside to the press corps about gays and lesbians on the plane awhile back, and in the spirit of that more actively compassionate church you wish to create, I would like to make a request that I don't think is impossible or unreasonable.  Please stop opposing laws that grant civil rights protections to sexual minorities in housing, employment, and public services.  Clearly and publicly oppose violence against gays and lesbians around the world, and especially in Central Africa and Eastern Europe.  Demand that civil laws protect gay and lesbian citizens.   Such stands would cost you and your church little.  The Roman Catholic Church would not have to change its doctrines on sexuality and marriage at all.

The Roman Catholic Church here in New York City led the opposition to local civil rights protections for gays and lesbians from 1970 until the inclusion of gays and lesbians in the city's Human Rights laws in 1986.  Here is a chance to redeem that history and countless others at little cost.  At the least don't finance and encourage violence and discrimination as do so many American evangelical churches.  Likewise, please don't shamefully give tacit support to anti-gay laws and violence through silence as does the hierarchy of the Church of England and other churches.

That aside on the plane may only have been an aside.  Yes, it was only a change of tone and not of substance on the Church's policy toward gays and lesbians.  But it electrified people around the world with the possibility that at the very least, the Roman Catholic Church might no longer play a leading role in the oppression of gays and lesbians.  With all due respect, I please ask that the Roman Catholic Church stand down from that role.  It would cost little and the reward would be great, especially at a time when the Church's moral authority is so badly compromised by crime and scandal.

Finally Pope Francis, there are pictures of you all over the media this week, but I will close with a picture of a young Chilean man, Daniel Zamudio who was murdered in 2012 because of his sexual orientation.  Public revulsion over his death finally overcame opposition in parliament from your church and from evangelical churches to a bill guaranteeing civil rights protections to people like him.  Please consider what I have proposed for his sake and for so many others like him living and dead.


Douglas Blanchard
New York


Pope Francis, you frequently quote the Golden Rule in your speeches about our responsibilities to the poor and unfortunate, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."
Please remember that crucial passage from the Gospel as you consider how to deal with sexual minorities that your church historically has anathematized and victimized, minorities that know mostly persecution and violence, but whose expectations are rising around the world.
Treat us as you would wish to be treated yourself.


If these accounts of the Pope meeting in secret with Kim Davis turn out to be true, then I'm feeling hoodwinked and betrayed.


The "secret" meeting turned out not to be true.  His only private audience during his visit to the USA was with a gay couple; a former student from 50 years ago and his partner.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

A Reading From George Orwell...

From 1984:

  She began to enlarge upon the subject.  With Julia, everything came back to her own sexuality.  As soon as this was touched upon in any way she was capable of great acuteness.  Unlike Winston, she grasped the inner meaning of the Party's sexual puritanism.  It was not merely that the sex created a world of its own which was outside the Party's control and therefore had to be destroyed if possible.  What was more important was that sexual privation induced hysteria, which was desirable because it could be transformed into war fever and leader worship.  The way she put it was:
  "When you make love you're using up energy; and afterwards you feel happy and don't give a damn for anything.  They can't bear you to feel like that.  They want you to be bursting with energy all the time.  All this marching up and down and cheering and waving flags is simply sex gone sour.  If you're happy inside yourself, why should you get excited about Big Brother and Three-Year Plans and Two Minutes Hate and all the rest of their bloody rot?"
  That was very true, he thought.  There was a direct intimate connection between chastity and political orthodoxy.  For how could the fear, the hatred, and lunatic credulity which the Party needed in its members be kept at the right pitch except by bottling down some powerful instinct and using it as a driving force?  The sex impulse was dangerous to the Party, and the Party had turned it to account.

This passage, and few others like it in Orwell's novel, speak to something that's been on my mind for a long time; sexuality as the last bastion against total rationalization, plain horniness as a spring of unending creativity, and efforts to try to control and channel sexual passion into things more "useful."
Of course, commercial culture continues to find new ways to exploit these desires and to turn them into profit.  We always end in grief and infamy when we let our nads do all of our thinking for us.  We are not farm animals, but then, we aren't angels either, and we are at our most beastly when we try to become angels. However, Orwell's writing articulates ideas very much at the heart of the current series of David Wojnarowicz paintings that I am working on.

It seems to me that the kind of controlling puritanicalism Orwell describes in this passage better describes certain autocratic fundamentalist religious sects than most political movements these days (with the possible exception of 20th century totalitarian hold-outs like North Korea).  That transformation of sexual passion into "fear, hatred, and lunatic credulity" describes any number of fundamentalist movements.

Sexuality, and especially long illegal same sexuality, played a very political role in Wojnarowicz's art and writings.  For him gay sexuality was a force for resistance and liberation in an over-rationalized culture full of constraints that rewarded predation and mendacity at the cost of authenticity and justice.  That is how I saw homosexuality for many years.  That anarchistic edge was part of its fun and a big part of the struggle against those everlasting bourgeois vices of conformism and hypocrisy.  The dramatic recent embrace of that formerly criminalized sexuality by larger society is causing something of an identity crisis for me and for others.  How much do we want to be part of a conventional society that values profit over justice, marketing over truth, and confuses survival skills for "values."   There are times when I wonder if gays and lesbians are finally fully enfranchised as citizens, or whether we are simply valuable as a profitable niche market.  There are times when I wonder if the much discussed acceptance of homosexuality by the younger generations is because they really believe in fairness and equality, or because they just don't give a shit anymore.  I don't know.

I'm reading 1984 for the first time.  I've read some of Orwell's work before; Animal Farm, Down and Out in Paris and London, and some short stories, but until now, I've never read 1984.  I wonder if all the many political pundits who invoke this novel have ever really read it.  It certainly is based on Communism, especially the Stalinist kind, but it seems to me that what the book is really about is the capacity of language as a weapon to dominate and control people.

"Do you see that the whole point of Newspeak is to narrow that range of thought?  In the end we shall make thought-crime literally impossible, because there will be no words to express it.  Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten... Every year fewer and fewer words and the range of consciousness always a little smaller."  

And further:

"The whole literature of the past will have been destroyed.  Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron -- they'll exist only in Newspeak versions, not merely changed into something different, but changed into something actually contradictory of what they used to be...  The whole climate of thought will be different.  In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now.  Orthodoxy means not thinking -- not needing to think.  Orthodoxy is unconsciousness."

Friday, September 18, 2015

Martin Johnson Heade's "Ominous Hush" Before the Storm

Martin Johnson Heade, who lived from 1819 to 1904, had one of the longest careers of any American painter.  Yet, he enjoyed only modest success in his lifetime, and was completely forgotten soon after his death.  Scholars and the public rediscovered his work about 40 years after his death.  He is usually included in the second generation of the Hudson River School, but in fact he was something of a loner.
He was born on the Delaware River in Lumberville, PA. His father owned the only general store in the town.  He got his first lessons in painting from the great Quaker painter Edward Hicks.  Heade spent many years traveling and studying in Europe, returning to the States to make a career as a portrait painter. He became interested in landscape painting when he met John Frederick Kensett and Benjamin Champney in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.  Heade acquired a studio in the famous Tenth Street Studio Building in New York and became neighbors with Kensett, Frederick Church, and Albert Bierstadt.  Heade's art and life would take a very different path from all of those artists.

Below are my photographs from the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum in New York.  They are freely available, especially to educators.

Approaching Thunder Storm, 1859

This is one of Martin Johnson Heade's largest works and one of his earliest seascapes.  It is based on a storm he witnessed on Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island in 1858.  A critic in 1860 praised the painting for its "ominous hush... the dread feeling in the coming storm."  The hush is indeed ominous, but no one in the painting seems to register the dread.  The man in the foreground calmly smokes his pipe with his dog watching the approaching storm.  The sail boat and the man in the rowboat presumably head for shore, but neither seem to be in a hurry.  The black water is still with hardly a ripple.
This is one of the strangest and most hypnotic storm scenes I know.  It's like nothing else I know of, not Kensett's storms and certainly nothing like the storms of Bierstadt or Turner.  The disconnect between the sunlit calm foreground and the oncoming atmospheric violence is really striking and strangely unsettling.

Of all the paintings of storms I've seen over the course of my life, this is the closest I know of to my own experiences of watching oncoming thunderstorms.  I've experienced that wonderfully charged moment just before the sunlight disappears and the storm breaks many times, and I've always loved the experience whether it was watching lighting in an oncoming storm in the backyard with my dad in Dallas, or watching the same alone from a tenement balcony in Saint Louis.

Lately, I think writers about this picture over-interpret it as some kind of premonition of the Civil War.  Heade, unlike other Hudson River School artists, seems to have avoided politics.  I seriously doubt that he had anything remotely allegorical in mind in this painting.  Bleeding Kansas and Southern secessionist passions reached him only through the newspapers.

Newbury Meadows, circa 1876 - 1881

Heade painted over 120 scenes of the salt marshes along the Atlantic coast in all kinds of lighting and weather conditions.  He always showed the marshes with mowers cutting the reeds for hay leaving conspicuous haystacks.  
Monet painted a series of haystacks partly out of a conservative French nationalism, but more so to meditate on the changing aspect of vision in different qualities of light.  Heade's work at first look straightforwardly topographical and matter-of-fact, especially compared to the romantic nature reveries of most of the Hudson River School artists.  But, he uses the haystacks as a kind of marker or a foil to give scale for his real interests; the vast expansive flat landscape of the marshes and the large sky with its dramatically changing light and weather.   
In this painting, in many of his marsh paintings, there is again that very strange quiet on the brink of an oncoming storm, the last burst of sunlight before it disappears in the storm clouds.

I've always enjoyed these paintings and seek them out in public collections of American painting from the 19th century.  I love the wide open spaces captured so beautifully on such small panels.  I love the silvery tonality of this painting and others like it.  I love the drama and variety in a deliberately restrictive format.  These paintings rarely fall flat.

Hummingbirds and Passion Flowers, circa 1875 - 1885

In 1863 Heade traveled to Brazil to work on a series of paintings of hummingbirds and tropical flowers intending to send them to England to be copied by printmakers for a proposed book on tropical hummingbirds that never materialized.  Some of these paintings were first exhibited in Rio de Janeiro where they were admired by Emperor Dom Pedro II.  These paintings also enjoyed some success when they arrived in England.  By his own admission, Heade obsessed over hummingbirds and fell in love with the tropics traveling in the Caribbean and eventually settling in Florida in 1883. He spent the rest of his life painting mostly still lives of Southern flowers, especially magnolias.
After his death in 1904, he was buried in Brooklyn according to his wife's wishes.

I enjoy the eccentric weirdness of Heade's bird and flower paintings; very imaginative dream-like reconstructions of the tropics.  They are so different from Audubon's bird pictures with their very 19th century life-or-death-struggle-for-survival aesthetic.  It is the beautiful strangeness of the tropics that seems to have captivated the imagination of this Pennsylvania storekeeper's son.

Martin Johnson Heade, from Wikipedia


The gallery in the Metropolitan Museum where I've been spending a lot of time lately.  I have no idea why, but I'm really enjoying the experience.