Monday, September 14, 2009

Beijing's National Stadium, The Bird's Nest

The National Stadium, the Bird’s Nest, in Beijing is one of the most photogenic of modern buildings. It appears its best at night, like many dazzling women. It is the product of a Swiss architectural firm that employed a Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei, to help them keep the project in line in terms of its indebtedness to Chinese designs. Weiwei introduced the concept of great Chinese ceramics in part because any great stadium, is in part a bowl. But the use of such dramatic steel trusses crossing everywhere throughout the building gives the impression of a bird’s nest more than that of a bowl.

The Chinese had taken to the building right away, and the dramatic photographs that circulated in the Western media made it a darling of magazines and newspapers. The reviews of the building were almost uniformly positive, and the anticipation of being within it sparked all the tourists who went to see the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics. It was a great success in providing the space for the track and field and gymnastic events as well as for the general ceremonious uses to which it was put. It pleased almost everyone.

Today, a year after the Olympics, the fate of the building is in some doubt. The plans were designed so that the building would house shopping malls and also become an 80,000 seat entertainment center. As of now, relatively few large entertainments have taken advantage of the space, and in some places, according to commentators, the building is flaking and not being well maintained.

We hope to see the Bird's Nest for ourselves in November. Perhaps we can see it at night, with its “makeup” on.

Thursday, August 6, 2009


Written in 1889, Carnegie’s essay was immediately influential and still remains among the most quoted of his writings. The very imprimatur of the word "Gospel," which literally translates to "Good News," but which lingers in the imagination as akin to the words of God, was a bold and effective stroke lending considerable weight to his thoughts.

His essential message is that with the evolution of civilization comes the inevitable condition of some possessing great wealth and others possessing very little. Instead of condemning this situation (as did the Communists whom Carnegie reviled), he tells us that we should be delighted because it indicates the forward thrust of civilization. As he says, the Sioux had no wealthy magnates and thus their civilization is primitive. Now that civilization has progressed, we have barons of industry.

His recommendation to the wealthy is that they dispose of their wealth before they die. That wealth, he says, they hold in trust for the community. It’s nice to leave that money to others when the wealthy die, but it’s vastly better to administer it while living. That way the money gets spent doing the most good for the most people. Besides, the wealthy magnate knows best how to spend the money; the public would waste it.

One thorny point he makes is that great industrialists held down the wages of their workers on the grounds that the extra money they might have made would have been spent on gewgaws that would not have benefitted society. Whereas, Carnegie, who was passionate about keeping wages low, used all that extra money to build 2500 libraries across the country. A much better way to benefit the community. Carnegie tried to convince his readers that he knew how to satisfy the needs of the public much better than did the public.

As unpleasant as this may sound to some people, an argument could be made in his favor by examining the circumstances of the last three decades. American wealth was spent mostly not by people like Bill Gates, but by the average middle and upper-middle class citizen. That money was spent on big TVs, CDs, GameBoys, iPods, and thousands of other cheap products aimed at entertaining individuals. Nothing wrong with that, but it would have made Carnegie seem prophetic. What have the spending habits of average citizens accomplished for the community that compares with Carnegie’s libraries? And where, today, are the people who Carnegie expected to be reading in those libraries? Where are the readers at all? And where is the wealth of the nation?

Monday, July 20, 2009


What strikes us about this figure from Chartres Cathedral, carved sometime around 1145, is its extraordinary expression of regality, its queenliness, its sense of peacefulness, its quiet power of dignity and belief. She holds the canon of hope in her hands and offers us the most human face on the central portal.

In essence, she points the way in, through the door, to the maze, to the mysteries of a belief that demands understanding, not only of stone, but also of the human implication expressed in this stone. She has withstood not only the weather, but the vagaries of history. She was spared the worst carnage of the French Revolution and all the other iconoclastic terrors of the centuries after it. That may be a result of accident, or possibly a result of respect and of hope.

Carved in stone, the queen is a simulacrum of flesh. She represents a spiritual presence and a spiritual future. Yet, because She is stone and formed in lifelike three dimensions, she points to a future that includes the three dimensions of flesh. Resurrection, a key belief of the Christian faith, has depended on the rising of the body from the grave, and thus a persistence of the flesh in the afterlife.

The stoniness of the queen tells us there is hope after death. But it also tells us that such hope is essentially meaningless if it means only that the spirit endures. It is essential that the flesh endures, or else our consciousness would perish with the flesh. The most powerful statement the sculptor could make is to render this figure to seem lifelike enough to convince us she is not only a symbol, but a fact. Fact and belief cohere to produce hope.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009


"A bourgeois tragedy without poison, dagger, or bloodshed"
Balzac, in "Family Sorrows"

After finishing Balzac’s Eugenie Grandet, I went to see a new French film, Summer Hours. The amazing thing is that the 1833 novel is paced almost exactly like the 2009 film. The French seem to have time in novels or film to let things play out without rushing them and, given our penchant for action, the French films seem slow. Very slow.

What I liked about Eugenie Grandet was the portrait of bourgeois French life in a provincial town in which Eugenie's father becomes rich by doing the capitalist thing and double-crossing others in his village and then, with piles of gold in his house, pleads poverty. In this sense the book reveals a great deal about the opportunity for wealth created in the 1820s at the end of the Empire and the beginning of a new France, one not dominated by aristocrats, but open to the wiles of clever businessmen like Grandet, who understands, like Jeremy Bentham, that money is a commodity.

Like a good farmer, Grandet sees that money begets money. However, Grandet is not a farmer, but a cooper, and he puts his skills to work by secreting his gold in small barrels. Ironically, his clever business deals sound very much like modern deals with bonds and derivatives and I constantly expected the bubble would burst. But it did not.

Eugenie Grandet is a love story too, but of no kind that makes sense to us today. Eugenie remains faithful to her first love, her cousin Charles, a cad who eventually marries a woman for her title and her money. The irony, however, is that Eugenie inherits her father's unsuspected 17 millions and if Charles knew, he would have married her.

Eugenie herself marries on condition that Des Grassins, her husband, demand no sex. That way she can be faithful to her true love. And since her husband primarily wants her money, everyone is happy.

The French Film is about successful French upper middle class people. A sister (living in New York), a brother (in Peking) and an older brother (in Paris) inherit their mother's country house with magnificent art and antiques. One wants to keep the house for the next generation, the others need the money and realize they will never come back to the house. The next generation is interested in hip-hop music, drugs, vodka, and mild orgies, and they do not recognize the name Corot even though there have always been two splendid Corot's in the house.

There are some marvelous ironies in both works, and some lovely writing in Balzac. He was one of Proust's favorites, as well as a favorite of Henry James. Both those writers have important essays on Balzac. Flaubert also much admired Balzac and this particular novel and I suspect, as well, that Dickens found him instructive.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

N. C. Wyeth: Illustration versus Art

After a recent visit to Brandywine Valley and the Philadelphia Museum of Art (for the Cezanne Show), I gave some thought to the issues of illustration and how people evaluate illustration differently from fine art. Above are two examples of N. C. Wyeth's work that offer an interesting comparison.
The painting on top is of N. C. Wyeth's wife and seems to have been painted with no intention of making it an illustration for a book. The second painting is of a pirate dueling. It is somewhat reminiscent of Goya, but it is clearly intended for a children's book on pirates. It is typical of most of N. C. Wyeth's work, while the portrait of his wife is not.
What I'm interested in knowing more about is the relationship of these two paintings. In my mind, and probably for most of those interested in fine art, the portrait is a much more revealing, sensitive, and moving painting than the duel. And the ultimate question is: Why? So much art, including oil paintings like Wyeth's, is illustration that it is not a simple thing to dismiss it as a lesser form of art. Yet, these two paintings push us to that conclusion.
This is problematic in many ways, not least of which is that some of the world's most important paintings are illustrations. I point to Leonardo's Last Supper, Michelangelo's Creation, Goya's Third of May, Paul Delaroche's Execution of Lady Jane Grey, Edgar Degas' The Dancing Class, and hundreds more--especially hundreds of crucifixions and pietas, all of which seem to command our attention not as illustrations, but as fine art.
Is it just that the kind of illustration we tend to demean is devoid of profound emotional content and simply substitutes sentiment for feeling or drama for understanding? Or is it that there are gradations in illustrations just as in fine art? Is Edward Hopper just good illustration and N. C. Wyeth not so good?
Standing in front of an N. C. Wyeth, as I did only last week in Brandywine Museum, demonstrated that Wyeth's technique is the equal of many great artists, and certainly much better than most artists. So it is not technique. What is it that distinguishes illustration from fine art?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

John Milton, Sonnet 14

When Faith and Love which parted from thee never,
Had ripen’d thy just soul to dwell with God,
Meekly thou didst resign this earthy load
Of Death, call’d Life; which us from Life doth sever.
Thy Works and Alms and all thy good Endeavor
Stay’d not behind, nor in the grave were trod;
But, as Faith pointed with her golden rod,
Follow’d thee up to joy and bliss for ever.
Love led them on, and Faith who knew them best
Thy handmaid, clad them o’er with purple beams
And azure wings, that up they flew so drest,
And spake the truth of thee in glorious Themes
Before the Judge, who thenceforth bid thee rest
And drink thy fill of pure immortal streams.

John Milton’s Sonnet 14 was designed as a consolation to those left behind after the death of a pious woman. His emphasis on Faith, Love, Works, and Alms is essentially a conventional Protestant position.

And so much of the sonnet is conventional that it may be applied to any death, even that of my own daughter, Sharon, who died on March 16, aged 50. She too never lost faith and never lost her sense of love. Our conversations in Hospice, where she lingered for a month, confronted the fact of death and its impact on those she was leaving behind. Her constant focus was on the love she felt for us, her family, and for those who cared for her, nurses and doctors.

Her works are visible in the devotion of her students, who came from great distances to spend time with her in Hospice. They told her how much she had changed their lives, how much they had relied on her, how much beauty she had introduced them to. Her photographs, intense Mandalas built from floral fragments, are on display at the Fort Worth Community Art Center and stand as testament to her talent, cut short while she was in her prime.

Alms are gifts of the spirit, which she gave freely to students who responded with love in their turn. She was a pure soul in many ways, a gift to those who knew her–as they attested variously in her memorial. What we learned was how large a soul she was. And what we hope is that faith will somehow make her immortal.

Friday, March 6, 2009

George Herbert, PRAYER


Prayer, the Church’s banquet, Angels’ age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet, sounding heaven and earth;
Engine against the Almighty, sinner’s tower,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days’ world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;

Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood.

George Herbert 1593-1633

Herbert died when he was forty, filled with faith for a future life. As I write, my own daughter is dying at the age of fifty and I am filled with grief.

Herbert’s faith is always a source of inspiration, but I find myself unable to pray with his kind of faith.

People have placed prayers for Sharon in Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall several times over the years, and prayers have been said in synagogues and churches for her as well as in homes and fields.

As a child I prayed, too, and I know that Sharon prays regularly, but in the face of her disease prayer seems inadequate. As an adult, I rarely prayed, but today I will say a prayer and pray for her peace and say a prayer in admiration of her grace as she faces death.

I will say a prayer now while she holds onto life and wishes all around her well. She is in the company of devoted friends, students, and family, and if George Herbert was right and there is an after-life she will be with them again.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Mary Cassatt, In the Loge

One of Mary Cassatt’s most famous paintings, In the Loge, 1880, a portrait of a woman at the opera, is also one of her most complex and interesting. She seems to anticipate the literature of the gaze as developed by Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, and others. Feminists have seen clear patterns of power expressed in the gaze, especially when men gaze at women who may be sexual objects. When we look at the painting we are ourselves gazing at a woman who is wholly unaware of us–yet the painting itself presents her to us in a way that belies what we actually see. Of course, we are meant to gaze at this woman, but Cassatt has dressed her completely in black. And she has dressed her completely from top to toe so that we see more an emblem of a woman than a woman for whom we may have some desire. Does Cassatt somehow give us a sense of power in relation to this woman?

Then, the woman is engaged in gazing at a distant figure. We can safely assume she is gazing at another person, but a woman or a man? What clues might help us know? One might have assumed that she was gazing at another woman to compare fashions, but given her own scant interest in fashion, is that really likely? Is it possible she is looking at another woman with a sense of desire? Or is it more likely she is looking at a man with a sense of desire? We see a man, rendered very small, with his opera glasses gazing at the woman herself. What is his motive in studying her so closely? His rakish posture implies a sexual interest. We have here an example of triangulation of desire a la Rene Girard and Eve Sedgwick, and we are involved.

All of this may be very innocent, just Cassatt’s comment on the opera as a social experience rather than as a dramatic musical experience. The lighting in the painting suggests that the opera has not yet started, and the angle of the woman’s opera glasses suggest she is, like the man, studying a member of the audience. But the point of the painting seems to be that there is as much drama in the audience as on stage. Cassatt gives us a range of possibilities in terms of the relationship of figures in the painting to one another as well as our own relationship to all the figures in the painting. The power of the gaze is expressed everywhere in the painting, and Cassatt certainly understands that the act of viewing–whether of a painting or living beings–gives the viewer power over what is seen, if only temporarily and if only partially.

One obvious benefit from our gazing at this painting is our own pleasure. Color, form, the expression of figures in the composition–all these conduce to a pleasurable experience. Such pleasure may be a form of power as a natural consequence of a careful aesthetic engagement.

Thursday, January 15, 2009


Atget was famous for photographing Paris early in the morning. In some senses one can say he photographed the emptiness of Paris because there are rarely any people in front of his lens. He sold many of his photographs of scenes and places, so it was advantageous to keep the vision clear of obstructions. Whether he was photographing storefronts filled with mannequins or women’s underware, or photographing the streets leading to the Pantheon, he usually kept the scene empty.

The fact is that he had to be rediscovered in mid century by Beatrice Abbott because the casual viewer thought of the work as typical of the photographers that sold tourist photos to wanderers beginning in the 1840s. Their work was bland, clear, and ordinarily a simple record of a piece of architecture or a park. Because their work was quick and cheaply printed it was rarely a deeply saturated image, nor was there any effort to make the image more intense by burning and dodging. But Atget had a sense of drama that eluded the common photographers. He found even the most empty spaces of Paris filled with anticipation and uncertainty.

But the photograph above is unique for its inclusion of a person, a Parisian prostitute who seems to be very patient with Atget, whose tripod and large camera stood before her waiting for the right moment. He may have simply removed the lens cap for an instant, or he may have had a shutter release–which seems likely–and the bored woman before his eyes and his lens expresses nothing other than tolerance. She could hardly imagine that the world would later see her here and contemplate both her uneasy and patient expression and wonder just what might have been going through her mind.

The image itself is stark and impressive. Its date is uncertain, but early in the 1920s, after the first World War, when French society experienced a total upheaval, as Proust reports in his subtle analysis of the Faubourg St. Germain. This image is far removed from the upper class, and the crudeness of the surroundings, old cobblestones and shabby stone walls and cheap shutters all tell us a great deal about the lower depths. Yet the centrality of the figure, the simplicity of the pose and the snapshot-like quality of the photograph almost implies an artistic innocence on the part of Atget. However, the image reveals anything but innocence, especially when one considers the angularity of the leg with its shiny boot dug in, ready for a sudden move. The image has almost no middle tones. It is dominated by deep blacks, stark whites.