Monday, December 27, 2010

"It's how you tell their stories that matters"

Works of biography and history, that are more than biography, for me began with John Rewald's History of Impressionism and History of Post-Impressionism, respectively 1946 and 1957, though I read the second one first.  He brought me nearly daily life of the artists themselves, their life as artists.  Several years later, when the book was no longer new but a friend sent it to me, I thought that Nancy Mitford's Voltaire in Love, 1957, might have been written for me.  Both of these, while focused on their subjects and carefully researched, brought the authors themselves, their minds, to the reader.  And there have occasionally been other works, though I often have been disappointed in highly regarded books on Virginia Woolf as increasingly concerned with the authors' agenda, since, as for Proust, except for Tadié's Life, I really like to simply re-read the author himself (though never playing a roman à clef game, which would spoil them; they are like Genji in that respect).
This year another friend sent me, in Kindle format, another book that might have been written just for me, considering the above.  Besides, I have spent my life largely concentrating on pottery, primarily Greek vases, but my second area of concentration in studying art history was China and Japan, so as I traveled I never omitted the pleasure of other ceramics as well as Greek, not excluding, either, Meissen, et al.  I am an impenitent dilettante.  I also love bronze, above all other metals.  Luckily, museums that have rich collections of any of these usually have the others, too.  Besides, for me, any history includes all the arts, everything that the artists and the amateurs had inextricably as coherent parts of their cultural lives—intellectual and aesthetic.  One of my oldest and dearest friends, Claude, inducted me (so far as possible) into his experience in MacArthur's post-war Japan, which shaped much of his life.  And as for Paris, it is essential to my own, almost as much as Athens.

My new Christmas book, uniting and enriching all my travel experience and art historical and archaeological and imaginative life, much of it shared with my oldest and dearest friends, is, as you may have guessed, Edmund de Waal's The Hare with Amber Eyes.  Part I opens on the Rue de Monceau, Paris, VIIIme.  Now, Paris is not just the Louvre, and besides the Musée Guimet I just had to see the Musée Cernuschi.  Taking the Metro to Monceau, I found myself in a quite different Paris, and the museum was wonderful:  all I knew was that it had Shang bronzes I wanted to see.*  So de Waal's book opens in the part of Paris that I recall from one of my pleasantest days there.  And soon all these familiar names were knit together by his history, in a way that Tadié, exhaustive as he is, does not even attempt, and I was back wandering around these streets that I had discovered by accident, without knowing why three formerly private museum collections, inter alia, were concentrated there.  De Waal's book is a perfect complement to Rewald, too, since it is with Charles Ephrussi, the editor, then owner of the Gazette des Beaux Arts,  that Part I is mostly concerned.  And so it goes, too, for Vienna, where, though I was professionally interested in some of the Greek pottery in the Kunsthistorisches Musum I twice spent most of my time in the Vienna of Olbricht and Loos and simply walking.  One year there was a very large Sezession exhibit.  I tried to go to all the museums, but above all I was happy just to study the city.  A couple of years ago, simply because I can read modern Greek, I tried to be helpful to a former colleague who was interested in Greek expatriates in Bulgaria who had connections with Paris, and I remembered the insight into the Ottoman world where, before Greek Independence, scholarly Greeks lived in Orthodox Bulgaria, Greek expatriates all over the place, I learned, and when I read the final section of de Waal's book, that familiarity helped me to understand Odessa.  I have never been to Odessa, and I was very glad for an author who realized it for me, putting the Potemkin steps, which were all I knew of Odessa, in perspective in the city of which they are a part.
You see, practically all my rich but partial imaginative life based on recollections of everything I've visited and become attracted to or read about (and that lovely portrait by Renoir of the little girls, just to name one specific thing) is brought together and made sense of and made coherent by this wonderful biography-memoir of Edmund de Waal.  I like his ceramics, too, and I also added his volume on 20th Century ceramics to my long shelfful of World of Art paperbacks.  He is at the Victoria and Albert Museum, one of the great museums for everything delightful and interesting, in London.  How many authors can be artists and fine writers and cultivated Jews and Anglicans all at once?  And own 264 of the finest netsuke imaginable.  My friends who have some netsuke have later and commoner ones.

I don't want to tell too much about this book, lest I spoil it.  I bring a lot of baggage of my own and all my 76 years to reading it, but others who have enjoyed it equally are young and not so burdened.  I even, myself, refrained from reading the account from the Guardian of his lecture shortly after the book was published, less than a year ago.  I also refrained from learning how he happened to have Anglican parents, until at the end of the book he made it plain himself.  Besides, using Wikipedia you have to look out for the all-Dutch (so to speak), Dutch Reformed and/or anthropological de Waals.  So far as I have been able to ascertain they aren't even related (Waal is a toponym) or so remotely as to make no difference.

I took the title of this Post from de Waal's response to a person in England who told him, Shouldn't the netsuke go back to Japan?  (Questions like that are really accusations).  As a person who collects bronze coins with a view to gathering ones that go together, whose study can contribute to their understanding (since they came to me already devoid of context and are not of truly "collectable" quality as regards condition), I fully appreciate what he said:
"No, I answer.  Objects have always been carried, sold, bartered, stolen, retrieved and lost.  People have always given gifts.  It is how you tell their stories that matters."

* There has always been a question about the caption in Sherman Lee's History of Far Eastern Art, that the Yu in the shape of a bear (or feline) is in the Sumitomo collection (which is in Kyoto).  The Cernuschi acquired it in 1920, and, clever as Japanese craftsmen are, I am quite sure that there aren't two of these, of which one would be a replica.  I bought a poster, but I can't find it.  When I do, I'll scan and post that image.  Meanwhile, the photo above, which is probably older than I am and perhaps out of copyright, should be regarded as for 'fair use' only.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Greetings, just in case the new post is delayed

Here are the Cat and that chair of mine to wish all the unknown persons who show up on my stats Greetings on this holiday.  I may or may not get the substantial new post up immediately.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Only what I remember: the 20c Zeitwende

Summer, 1963 at 2237 Haste apartment.  It was necessary to pose and hold still doing portraits hand-held and without flash with a pre-digital camera.  And this was the Contaflex Alpha, too
Keep in mind, anyone who reads this, that I have no point to make, and, above all, have no opinion of what is better or worse.  The reason that Damasio's book pleased me so much was his making so clear exactly why, given the physiology of memory, and the way that one's mind makes a memory available, the sole bias of this blog is to explore and try to isolate just what one does actually remember: no "as told to Oprah" about it, no explaining what it might or might not mean.
Now, while also I've been reading Robert Dallek's "The Lost Peace", whose sole purpose is to put together what did actually happen in the decade after World War II, and, so, here we are, without any pleading or point making or ideologizing, I look back and I see that, yes, I do remember what I saw in newspapers and in the news between features at movies.  I was reasonably well informed, for an adolescent, about facts, and quite worried about Berlin and about the Korean war.  But I also remember hurriedly glancing away from newspapers (it was the Oakland Tribune, usually) when they had headlines and pictures about investigations of atomic scientists or about spying (the Rosenbergs) and the HUAC.  No one told me to avoid those subjects.  It feels as if 1945 was still too recent for my handling them.  Certainly, I didn't know enough to form opinions of my own.  As I tried to put between the lines of my enthusiastic review of the revival of "South Pacific", this was my adolescence, and I had everything else, everything else, to put in order.  I am most grateful for Dallek's book.  So it wasn't as though one leader or another could, in medias res, make things right again; the world had made its bed and had to lie in it.  It always had done so.  So I wasn't "apathetic" (the Time-Life epithet for my generation); perhaps I even sensed truly that the news we were given wouldn't hang together.
But the cultural turn, the Zeitwende, of the 20th century, as I remember, began to be noticeable a bit later.  In the year just before I got my degree and went to Oregon to teach, I remember a spate of social evenings when we took all sorts of old magazines and cut them up and in an almost feverish free association reassembled parts of pictures of all kinds and pasted them into collages.  Not collages like political posters.  Collages, rather, of free association.  Then they were pinned to the wall (we knew the building we were in was scheduled for demolition, anyway) and we leaned back and laughed and talked about them, in some cases seeing that they were shocking—considered psychiatrically.  A decade later, in textbooks (on art appreciation, of all things), we saw the birth of Pop Art in England traced back to this sort of thing, though not, perhaps, done as a party game, a game of lingering adolescence.
Anyway, in the visual arts (what I knew) it began with acceptance of the stuff we may have liked but had never given an elevated status: color-lithograph labels, End of the Trail kind of statues, billboards, toothpaste ads, you name it.  I can report feeling that it came of rejecting and yet exalting the kind of imagery that had been used for propaganda, but I cannot say that that feeling was true or adequate.  Yet it was sweeping through highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow society alike.  And Russell Lynes' article, then book, had come out in the 'fifties, too.  To mock Clement Greenberg was significant.  Gradually, even essentially culturally conservative persons (meaning those who liked what they'd been taught) realized that the time was as critical, as crucial, as that preceding World War I.  All Modern criteria were being reexamined; not that the Modern art wasn't great, but the premises on which it judged other art might not be sound.
Jazz was no longer automatically exalted, either, any more than the atonal.  Above all, and gradually the confusion hit us (or hit me, at any rate) that came from respecting pictures that told stories or presented points of view (as in Latino NYC; the African-American artists, for the time being, were still shielded by the modernism that prevailed in the Harlem Renaissance), or pleaded causes, instead of saying something purely visual, however powerful (Arshile Gorky, for instance), without limiting the idea with icons of the verbal world, meant that works of art were no longer sullied by preaching or seducing or tempting.  One had been taught to the contrary.  So we were free to size up things for ourselves.  It seemed plain that representing something nice, like an angel, did not make a great angel, but it did mean that some Hellenistic masterpieces (for instance, if one was in Greek art), such as the "Barberini Faun" could be regarded as awesome (and not only for its Parts!).  Yes, it became plain that it was not only familiarity that endeared the Campbell Soup can to us.  It was a very heady era, with the boundary between commercial and pure breached, with the requirement for a rigorous defense of the work eliminated.  Quickly, though, it began to dawn that new criteria, such as sincerity (which began to look like Hollywood hero sincerity, if the writer or speaker didn't know any better) might not be any better, per se, than the old criteria.
At the same time, there began to be more money—or should I say liquidity?  It looked as if post-war children, as they grew up, could go out on their own and test themselves in their own way, and not die of it.  They had been brought up tenderly, and they were very likable.  They looked out for one another.  They were lovely to look at on our Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley.  They sold pins from a cardtable at Sather Gate saying Frodo Died for You.  Of course, they didn't think that pipeweed was tobacco, but for months those of us who were nearly thirty did not know what-all besides was available.  We had never heard of LSD, and we thought that heroin was for NYC, for James Baldwin's Antother Country.  I mean, I knew that my mother had ruined herself with barbiturates and synthetic morphines by prescription, but I didn't know the half of it.  It was months before the loveliness was darkened by "flying", Peter Pan fashion, out of upper-storey windows.  The hippie children were mostly very heterosexual and they actually liked religions.  We, their elders, were sexually careful (there was no AIDS, of course, at that time, but every ancient STD was still prevalent and dreaded, and pregnancy was feared as well, just as Mary MacCarthy remembered in The Group, 1962—Enovid was new, hard to get, and already had some bad press).  But the lovely children got the grubby STDs, all over again.
Communes, again, were a lovely idea and, again, out of my mother's generation, there was Mary McCarthy's chilling send-up.  And Randall Jarrell.  Only, the children, now growing a little older, didn't read them, but they did read Evergreen Review, and they (or their spokespersons) did see to D. H. Lawrence's Women in Love (not to mention Ulysses) being published without expurgation—and why not, when children were reading William Burroughs, whom I found appalling.  I say 'children'...why?  Well, they were very young, but also they were more heedless than any children of my own past had been: there ought not to be consequences, ergo there were no consequences; it wouldn't be fair, and "no fair" sounded like Grade 7 in school to me.  As for Evergreen Review, I haven't seen them since, but there was a rather beautiful set of photos of a black model and a white model (both female) making out, in such beautiful compositions that I couldn't fault them, but what would my friends think if I bought it and took it home?  Why, today I expect to see it on Antiques Roadshow.  Well, maybe not quite.
You can see that I envied the hippie children, in some ways.  Of course, in a commune you had no privacy or solitude.  Of course, I still do subscribe to the formal basis of visual arts, even though critics who put on airs were becoming tiresome.  Of course, the discipline of studying Greek and Latin, and the privilege of being a member of and studying in the American School in Athens, and everything else that I cherished were their own reward, and they were what gave me the intellectual freedom to admire the Sixties in Berkeley.  At 30 or so I didn't want to be one of them, but I did wonder whether I had not missed something of Youth.  On the other hand, some of them later had a complete turnabout, a revulsion, from  their youth, whereas I have had only some slightly jealous regrets.  And my generation did not go scot-free; I say that in memoriam to the gay men of my own 1930s cohort who were among the first to die of AIDS.  Some were among my dearest friends.
Anyhow (and I haven't finished reading his book), I know that Robert Dallek would agree that the 20th century after its Zeitwende and into the 21st century was, as what we did and what we thought piled up was, a foregone conclusion, and I daresay that it is, and so is all human history.
In other words, as I wrote privately to someone else, the joyous wit of the Beatles had to be, but Lennon didn't need to be killed.  John Lennon, one feels, would understand this post's ambivalence, despite my being merely a wishy-washy liberal.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Style is the Man Himself

Just a short post while I try to organize in my mind how to put my actual memories of the 1960s into perspective.
Today on BookTV there was an interview from a decade ago by Brian Lamb with a Harvard sociologist named Putnam; the book was called Bowling Alone.  It was the one that spent some time deploring kids with their own TVs in their own bedrooms; we were spared his deploring video games or Facebook.
A quarter century ago I bought a house just big enough to hold a lot of books and records (CDs were just beginning) and me, one of hundreds built when Humble, which became Exxon, opened its Baton Rouge refinery, which came on a railway flat car pre-cut and complete with windows and doors, in two lengths, 40' and 60'.  Now found from here to Missouri, at least, these are called modified double shotguns, and they are now about 80 years old.  They account for about half of what was here the town's first subdivision, which now is practically downtown: it is near the Capitol, the central high school, then new, the LSU campus, then nearly new, and downtown itself, full of lawyers' offices and the like.  Today it is full of LSU employees, young lawyers, paralegals, dental assistants (dentists live in subdivisions), school teachers, social workers, and such.  It has trees, sidewalks (with grass parkways separating them from the curbs and gutters and pavement), alleys; the lots are small, except on the corners where the large houses were built (see attached above).  It is well loved.  I came here because I like such houses, I could afford one of them and pay off the mortgage promptly, and because I trust my neighbors more than I trust Nature.  Though a couple of hurricanes blew down most of the pecan and red oak trees and even some of the crêpe myrtles, the oldest ones, we know that this neighborhood has never flooded, not even in 1927, and we like having our neighbors within hailing distance for easy sharing of flashlights, candles, matches, and more sometimes, in case of a storm; we don't mind hearing that half the block is having a party after (for example) a winning football game.  When the house next door has children we actually like hearing their play indoors when it's raining and regard the sound of screen doors closed by a spring as urban music.  Yet we are well enough separated that we have privacy as well.  Some of my academic colleagues regarded my choice of housing as unworthy of a professor, but I was a professor without a partner, paying my own way, and, as I said, while admitting the convenience of what This Old House on PBS does to an old house, I like a house that I can do as I please with.  So do most of my neighbors, evidently; this is a far from depressed neighborhood, but I wouldn't call it slick.
So how can I object to Mr. Putnam who wrote Bowling Alone?  Because he preached at Brian Lamb for a whole hour in his Social Studies dialect and all unleavened by humor of even the gentlest kind (it was OK for Fred Rogers to preach).  Here we are on the outskirts of downtown Baton Rouge, taking for granted and unself-consciously practicing all sorts of nice things, like watching out for one another without being nosy.  And here's Mr. Putnam wanting to make a program out of simple decency.  I mean, if one of my neighbors had to send one of her boys to Boys' Town, I don't think, and if I did think it I wouldn't have said so or hinted at saying so, that it's her own fault for letting him have a TV in his own bedroom, or anything like that.  Nor would she to me.
I mean, we're awfully middle-class here, in fact we're salt of the earth (but it's not nice to brag about it).
Anything we join, we join just because we want to.
And as for solitude: let us remember that in the 1950s articles were written bemoaning our children's having too little time by themselves, to learn to furnish their own minds, as we saw English children, for example, doing and as Victorian versifiers celebrated, sitting with a fishing line on a stick without expecting actually to catch anything, Robert Louis Stevenson fashion.  Already in 2010, Mr. Putnam begins to sound dated, but he was a boring thinker to begin with (IMHO).