Friday, October 8, 2021

"The Realest Sin"

 From David Hayward, "The Naked Pastor":

More Teaching From Home


My classroom these days. 

It looks like it will be a while before I go back on campus to teach.  Our department buildings need new HVAC systems with virus filters, and the college has no other suitable spaces for studio classes in painting and drawing, or for basic design classes and illustration.  I'm told to expect to be teaching from home again in the coming Spring semester.
Columbia U and NYU already have such HVAC systems in place and are wide open to students, staff, and faculty; but then, they each have multi-billion dollar endowments.  They can afford it.

Here are some samples of this semester's demo paintings so far.  I paint these for my students live online.
They are all acrylic on canvas panels, 11 inches by 14 inches.

Friday, October 1, 2021

The Triumph of Death

Bruegel's Triumph of Death in the Prado Museum in Madrid

Today the death toll in the USA from the covid pandemic officially exceeded the death toll from the 1918 - 1920 Spanish flu epidemic.  The catastrophe we are living though now is the deadliest in American history.  The Spanish flu epidemic claimed 675,000 lives in the USA from 1918 to 1920.  My great grandmother Bertha Klitzing died of the Spanish flu in 1920, among the last casualties.  And now, my mother died of covid in the current epidemic in January.  We are not yet through the second year of our epidemic and the death toll stands at 700,000 close to the death toll at the end of the Civil War that lasted four years.  The USA leads the world in total deaths from the pandemic, and this despite superior medicine to that of a century ago, not one but several very effective vaccines, and bottomless pockets to finance the response to so massive a public health catastrophe.  

Why is this outcome so bad despite advantages that are the envy of the world?  I can only conclude that the response to the epidemic got caught up in the tribal politics and perverse incentives of the 21st century USA.  We genuinely do not care if our neighbors live or die, and we proved it in our confused and conflicted response to a major catastrophe. Even with the world crashing down around our heads, we are too selfish and self-absorbed to be bothered.

Around 1562, Pieter Bruegel the Elder painted this powerful, angry, and deeply frightening painting of the Triumph of Death.  He combined the tradition of the Dance of Death that appeared in northern Europe with the Triumph of Death created in Italy, both in the wake of the Black Death in the mid 14th century, the deadliest catastrophe in the history of the world perhaps claiming almost half the world's population.
Bruegel's painting is no Last Judgment.  There is no final settling of accounts.  There is no restoration of a primeval goodness to the world.  God and His agents are conspicuously absent in this painting.  The painting is not a view of hell, but is set on earth.  All life on earth is simply nullified.  The mighty and the humble, the innocent and the guilty, the good and the bad all are cruelly destroyed together by the irresistible agents of death.  The dead rise up not for resurrection and salvation, but to make war on the living and destroy all life on earth.  

Bruegel almost certainly found his inspiration witnessing atrocities in the decades of sectarian warfare that ravaged a once prosperous Flanders.  Pious people turned on each other with savage fury convinced that their souls were at stake.  Famine and plague followed in the wake of warfare killing thousands more.  It must have seemed that all life was simply exterminated right before the artist's eyes.  Cities lay in ruins.  The countryside was laid waste.  Forests burned to ashes.  Corpses from war, plague, and famine lay everywhere.  We may be on the cusp of another such savage age of annihilation as a third of our population appears determined to wage war on the remaining two thirds.  Plague continues to ravage our cities and countryside.  The climate catastrophe dries out and burns one end of the world while flooding another.

The complete painting

The car of Death in the center of the painting with a figure of Death on a skeletal horse charging through with a scythe, perhaps as one of the Apocalyptic Horsemen.  An army of skeletons charges and slaughters the living.

The armies of the dead chase the living into a huge trap that is part coffin and part grave.

The tradition of the Dance of Death began in northern Europe both as a memento mori, and a kind of protest literature.  People who lived on the receiving end of the arrogance of high and mighty could console themselves with the prospect of sharing the grave with them as equals.  Bruegel shows the agents of death claiming the high and mighty together with the humble in this part of the painting.  Skeletal corpses claim a king and a cardinal and loot the treasure they both piled up in life.  Skeletons drive a cart full of bones over the bodies of peasants.  One woman is about to be crushed under the cart as she cuts a thread, another lies dead holding a distaff while a starving dog eats her baby.  Another skeleton on the right cuts the throat of a religious pilgrim as though robbing him.

Soldiers for all their courage and bravado are no match for the legions of death.  Skeletons intrude on a party, upset a game of backgammon, and spill chilled wine on the ground.  Others disguised as jesters and servants serve up death to their horrified customers.  A pair of lovers lost in their mutual affection ignore the havoc all around them while a skeleton joins their concert and adds his discordant tune.

A corpse beats out the doom of the world on a pair of kettle drums while others work the trap.  Another grabs a young man who tried to escape.

Corpses murder and execute the living around a brackish pond with floating corpses and dead fish, parodies of human institutions.

The glow of distant fires lights the horizon while ships sink in the sea and the legions of death denude the earth of all life.  On the left, skeletons ring the death knell.

A barren landscape forested with the remnants of executions in gallows and breaking wheels.  Shipwrecks burn in the distance on a becalmed and lifeless sea.