Friday, April 27, 2007

Favorite Women of Art #12: Girl Reading Palm--Norman Rockwell (1921)The 1920s, I sometimes think, have become something of a forgotten decade with regard to the many high points in our history that occurred in this period. Our cities and towns had attained what we now think of as their iconic states, alike in architectural and arboreal beauty, as well as cleanliness and liveliness. Have you ever seen photographs of New York City in the 1920s? It is actually gorgeous, and I am talking about at the street level, things like gas stations and drugstores and dance halls and fences and lampposts. The national efforts in literature and music had arguably their greatest and most important decade in the 1920s, both domestically and internationally, even if this fact was not appreciated at the time, and the country was of course at the forefront of the exciting new spectacles of the modern age, cinema, sports, radio and cars. Male dress reached, in my opinion, its all-time peak in the decade, in Britain as well as the U.S. (I know the Prince of Wales at the time, later Edward VIII, is widely regarded as a simpering twit and chum of the Nazis in his country`s hour of need [though even his enemies acknowledge that he had a Bertie Woosterish kind of droll wit], but the wardrobe the man possessed circa 1924 was incredible. If it is preserved in a museum somewhere, it would be well worth seeing). Even lively and imaginative conversation, never a strong American characteristic, seems to have enjoyed a vogue in certain urbane circles during this period. Prohibition would have been hard on me personally, because I would probably not have been either cool or enterprising enough to procure booze for myself very often (and I like booze) and I also would probably have lived in one of the five places in the country where the local authorities were actually zealous about enforcement if I ever did manage to concoct or come into possession of a bottle of gin and gone to the clink for it. But for the people who made the age it was apparently the best, and certainly the most fun time for partying in our national history as well.

Where then does Norman Rockwell fit into all this? He was just there, man, and if he wasnt the right man for the job on the Michelangelo/Shakespeare standard, he is nonetheless a force in history, in many ways a positive if not an irresistible one. I take him quite seriously. Having grown up in a time when Americans understood what pretty girls looked like, he drew lots of them, and ensured that the taste for a certain kind of American female persona would not be entirely extinguished. The reproduction of this picture came out poorly, which is too bad, because the girl in it is a perfect specimen of this all-American type. You see her and your thoughts immediately turn to scoring touchdowns and walking her home after the next dance. This picture by the way encapsulates a lot of Norman Rockwell`s strengths and faults as an artist. The girl seems to me to be done perfectly; the details of stockings, shoes, dishes (I love the dishes) are exquisite. However he has to make the boy a silly figure, an unworthy subject in comparison with the dirty dishes, let alone the girl. He follows the same pattern throughout his career, creating a background or frame for his pictures that are truly ingenius and subtle, then spoiling it with a frivolous or just too-overwrought subject.

Fitzgerald is traditionally the author most particularly identified with this time in the U.S., at least for the Northeast/prep schools and Ivy League set, and while he is often dismissed as a lightweight by powerful intellects or overwhelmed by the same when they attempt to interpret him, or else is blown up beyond his proper proportion by his philistine American fans (I do not know that he is widely read or admired outside the homeland) he sees in his miniature way what is going on in this often very beautiful though ultimately monstrous country, to my mind, better than any other writer, with the exception of maybe Melville, Faulkner being good on the monstrosities but his beauties being usually as of a foreign country to me. Here is a note I made on Gatsby on July 24, 2005:

*I agree that dreams properly belong to youth, and cannot be exactly lived even then, (but are only the province of mind and memory). The poignancy of Gatsby--and America--is its openness in craving to achieve in maturity or years after the time some state it craved in youth, which seems to be unique to our society. In this viewpoint the future is invariably an illusion and not the theater of great moment, though it deceives us by thinking it will change us. The whole appeal of the Gatsby character lies in his past and his rather adolescent behaviors. His actual adult self is by comparison a rather empty and insignificant figure. This relates broadly to most of the main characters in the story. I love FSF`s images as always. He is one of the few Amer. authors with the ability to see and describe what is really beautiful and poignant in America in a beautiful and poignant manner*

Poignancy is a very important idea to me.

I am going to include a passage of some of those images I profess to *love* because I am in that kind of a mood:

"One of my most vivid memories is of coming back west from prep school and later from college at Christmas time. Those who went farther than Chicago would gather in the old dim Union Station at six oclock of a December evening with a few Chicago friends already caught up into their own holiday gaieties to bid them a hasty good-bye. I remember the fur coats of the girls returning from Miss This or That`s and the chatter of frozen breath and the hands waving overhead as we caught sight of old acquaintances and the matchings of invitations: `Are you going to the Ordways`? the Herseys` the Schultzes`` and the long green tickets clasped tight in our gloved hands. And last the murky yellow cars of the Chicago, Milwaukee & St Paul Railroad looking cheerful as Christmas itself on the tracks beside the gate.
"When we pulled out into the winter night and the real snow, our snow, began to stretch out beside us and twinkle against the windows, and the dim lights of small Wisconsin stations moved by, a sharp wild brace came suddenly into the air. We drew in deep breaths of it as we walked back from dinner through the cold vestibules, unutterably aware of our identity with this country for one strange hour before we melted indistinguishably into it again.
"That's my middle-west--not the wheat or the prairies or the lost Swede towns but the thrilling, returning trains of my youth and the street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow..."

This is my lost America too, or at least what I have always imagined to be my lost America, and that, that imagined part, is what Fitzgerald understands, what he gets right more than anything else. The 1920s was America`s post adolescent early youth, and now from the vantage point of encroaching middle age we see that she was beautiful and exciting and full of promise then, promises and beauty that have been long lost, and perhaps never were in any reality...

I am quitting for the night.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Favorite Women of Art #11--Ozma of Oz--John R Neill (1907)

I was looking for a picture of the Princess Langwidere actually, she of the cabinet of thirty heads, but I could not find one, and no longer having my childhood collection of vintage Oz books in my possession (not that I have figured out how to post my own pictures anyway), I have decided to substitute it with this drawing of what Fred Meyer, the portly, septuagenarian secretary of the International Wizard of Oz Club during my youth called "the sexy Ozma"; and indeed, in the orthodoxy of the series, Ozma is more beautiful than Langwidere anyway, more beautiful than Polychrome the rainbow's daughter, more beautiful than any woman who could ever be conceived, though in the illustrations she always appears to be a sixteen-year old gymnast, albeit one who is too assiduous in her work and duties to ever think about anything so insipid as having a boyfriend. It happens however that the very first time I saw the future Mrs Bourgeois Surrender, the immediate thought that came to me was, "Goodness, it's the Princess Langwidere's angry head!" (for the princess had one head of auburn curls similar to Mrs S's that contained a very bad temper) As you can imagine, having been nurtured from a very early age on these books and their Edwardian notions of pubescent feminine beauty, this inclined me strongly in her favor rather than otherwise.

As with many of the early Oz women (the series continued with the same illustrator until the 1940s), the illustrations of Langwidere were heavily influenced by the Gibson Girl pictures that were fashionable at the time, and have of course remained iconic, representative of the jaunty confidence and, to me, charming character, underappreciated I think in our time, that permeated the productions of American culture, both popular and "serious", in that period:

Like L Frank Baum, the author of the original Oz books, I have only sons, three in my case to his four. It was apparently a matter of great regret to him that he never had a daughter. This has been cited as the reason (along with the influence of an irrepressible suffragist mother-in-law) why girls are always the hero(in)es of the stories, which was considered noteworthy in those lamented days when children`s literature and the habit of reading in general were less girly than they are supposed to have become in our day. For my part if I had ever had a little girl, and later a bigger one, who given the current trends in society would probably have had a great work ethic and been a big success in school (do any girls of reasonable to good intelligence backed by admonishing parents flounder anymore?), and flattered the vanity of her father with relative ease, my preferred choice of a name would have been Dorothy, in part due to its being that of the main character of the Oz series, in part after Dorothy Parker, in part because the name evokes for me the more attractive parts of the general spirit of the whole 1890s-1940s era in this country, which obviously appeal to me. It is an almost uniquely all-American name, and as well its popularity seems to have extended across the population; there are famous Dorothys who were black, Catholic, communists, New Yorkers and small town girls. Dorothy Parker herself I am pretty certain was Jewish (I believe she was registered after birth as Dorothy Rosenberg). Dorothy Parker to me is one of the more interesting specimens of an extremely intelligent American mind that achieved--in places--something approaching a pure realization of the type that we have ever had. Someday I will try to elaborate on this more. It is something along the lines of: She had a very beautiful and poignant, a very self-contained kind of intelligence that is remarkably powerful and incisive when deployed on the subjects it understands. This is the source of good wit, I suppose, but I find it is an extremely rare quality even among otherwise accomplished or brilliant writers; and she really had it.

But I am going off the rail again. One more picture. Then I am going to Montreal for the weekend.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Favorite Women of Art #10: Amour--Maurice Denis (1899)

This is almost "modern", but it speaks to me. I think it is the combination of the hair (I love it), and the slender, delicate, childlike figure, which do remind me of (grown) women I have actually seen, though the type is rare, as well the slumbery blueness and stars. It also reminds me--is really of a piece with--the famous and, to me, haunting musical compositions of Debussy and Satie that date from the same period and of which, though I make no profession to being a musical man, I am extremely fond. The direction in which certain aspects of the arts appeared to be moving at this time, needless to say, from my present vantage point, appeals to me greatly, and it is not clear to me why, among several competing paths, this particular one seems to have been so thoroughly snuffed out. Its worldview is still something that informs, and I think necessarily and fortuitously so, my dealings and engagements with the various great matter outside my own skull, though doubtless hampered by the twin curses of sensitivity and a sentimental rather than intellectual nature.
As my knowledge of this picture is courtesy of a little book of poems and artworks called "Art & Love" published by the Metropolitan Museum that I picked up somewhere in the course of my wanderings (I think I may gotten it in Brattleboro. I find I am often inexplicably inspired to buy things in Brattleboro that I would not think of buying anywhere else), I have always associated it with New York and the romantic notions I used to carry of that city, but really the associations could be of any ideally exciting cultural place full of beautiful and intelligent and, yes, sensitive young people like one's self, or rather one's ideal would-be, or would-have-been self. This is all very melancholy and self-pitying, and perhaps is an argument against the artwork by the more hardheaded and warlike among us, but the fact is that the picture does induce a sensation in me of great loneliness and sadness, albeit a very pleasing and beautiful and whimsical loneliness and sadness, to which I am admittedly too susceptible. Nonetheless I cannot leave it off the list.
I recently watched a film with my wife called "The Music Teacher" ("Le Maitre de Musique" for those who require original titles whenever possible). It is a Belgian movie about opera singers set around 1900. The "pitch" as given on the box of the film itself is "Amadeus meets Rocky". To give a quick review, the plot, writing and characters are pretty weak, and the governing POV of what it means/takes to be a great artist or to associate with the same, is Gallic to the core, or at least that which seems to have held sway in the official intellectual and high-middlebrow circles which have dominated the French cultural atmosphere for most of the last century, which I generally think is crap. On the pro side however, there are many beautifully filmed scenes and wonderful, even rather merry-sounding songs from the opera repertoire with which I was not previously familiar (if I can figure out what they were, I might list them here in a later post). The point of this digression, however, is that at one point in the film, late the night before the big singing competition that provides the `Rocky` element of the story, the 18-year old ingenue enters unnoticed and unchaperoned the room of her fellow pupil and budding star (who was discovered while picking pockets at a train station) to complete the last necessities of her artistic training, as the French mind would have it, in a horizontal position. (Some back story is necessary here: she had previously fallen in love with the old master, which everyone, including the master himself, had deemed beforehand to be necessary to her singing education. The master however being practically on his deathbed, was not up to the requirements this entailed on him, which occasioned the necessity for his finding the pickpocketing protege.) While I was enraptured by the glories of the classical artistic life, the inimintably sensible Mrs. S said `Pause the tape right there!` (Yes I still watch tapes. My children have broken both of the DVD players I have owned within a month.) She pointed out that modern movies cannot seem to help themselves in making well-bred and upper class young women from remote time periods as devoted to the practice of free love as modern shopgirls on package vacations to Ibiza, citing `Titanic` and a recent adaptation of `Mansfield Park` (in which some incest that is probably only even suggested in the book by the luridness of the modern imagination is presented in fully consummated glory by the edgy modern director) as other examples of the type, though she expected better from the French-speaking world (Why?). Her point was that if women, especially wealthy women, even intelligent and strong ones, had had such freedoms, even in matters of speech, let alone sensual ones, and such human regard as are depicted in these modern movies, the feminist movement would have been considerably less fervent, and perhaps would not have occurred at all. All the while I was thinking naturally of my current infantile romanticizing of the conceptions of feminine beauty which persisted in this time that was in fact highly unenlightened and chauvinistic, and wondering, as I often do in the face of my wife`s mature observations on all matters, first, `why am I so infantilized?` and second, `It is really because I did not spend enough time in my childhood handling and using firearms and engaging in brutal physical contest with other boys (for noble and educational purposes), as so many conservative thinkers seem to attribute the current crisis in American manhood to?`
Just last week it was snowing, but today it was 85 and the girls, as the song goes, were out dressed in their summer clothes. 2 pictures left.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Favorite Women of Art #9--Panel from the Times of Day--Alphonse Mucha (1897) You cannot go too far wrong with Mucha, since all he painted were attractive young women in elegant and flattering poses. I chose the one above for my series because Mrs Bourgeois Surrender bought a print of it when we lived in the Czech Republic (Mucha was Czech and is still much celebrated in that country) and it hung in our bathroom and later my office for many years. Then one day it was gone, shunted off to the attic, for Mrs S had decided that it was the sort of picture a young person would have on her wall, not a 30-year old mother, in which judgement, as she is in all matters of taste, she was exactly right.

But to get back to the subject of the younger and more immature art audience, women of a certain type--a certain type that I like--love Mucha in the same way that they love Klimt and that they love Jules and Jim. He sees them just as, apparently, they want to see themselves, and do see themselves when they are doing something exhilirating or hanging out and holding their own with exhilirating people (i.e., cool men). They like that. His taste admittedly was excellent, though as the remaining pictures I have chosen will demonstrate, this was an age generally that understood what constituted feminine beauty, as well as what adorned most becomingly and upliftingly.

Since Mucha painted so many lovely women, there is no reason not to put another one of his pictures on here. This one is entitled Fruit. I like her lots.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Favorite Women of Art #8: The Toilet of Esther--Theodore Chasseriau (1842)

I feel that I have begun to go off the rails a little in my series, which after all was supposed to be fun, not a demonstration of my psychological estrangement from normal human society. I thought about taking a break from the series and writing a few nontaxing posts about watching music videos from the 80s on Youtube. For example, I had forgotten that Swing out Sister had a second song ("Twilight World") released in the US. Seeing it again made me rather melancholy. Here were people who clearly thought themselves, circa 1988, to be very clever, fashionable, creative, progessive, international--in a word nearly at the extremity of the cutting edge of world civilization itself. Moreover, they had broken through and made some figure in the great world; the possibility, even the probability, that they were in some way important could not but have flitted across their consciousnesses a few times. And then of course, as quickly as they came, they dropped off the face of the earth again, immediately becoming a relic of those very last dregs of the 80s, of the Cold War era, a time that in media and technology and politics and economics at least often feels no less remote than that of the big bands. I had utterly forgotten about them. I remember their song coming on my car radio back when it was new and feeling that it was a harbinger of some excitement coming to happen in my life, I suspect because I was alone, temporarily freed from the dreariness of family life. I was on I-84 somewhere in eastern Connecticut, probably on my way to have lunch at McDonald's and then right through New York City without stopping and on to my mother's in Philadelphia to watch television and evoke pity or scorn from all the regular hard-working people and wander fruitlessly around the neighborhood in search of...? This is what else I have looking at to carry me back to that time:

"Domino Dancing"--The Pet Shop Boys
"Joe le Taxi"-- Vanessa Paradis--terrible video and she is about 13, but it was a big hit when I was first in Paris, and everybody like me always thinks Paris is perfect the way it was when they were first there, and is never quite so wonderful ever after.

"Basketball"-Kurtis Blow

Morrissey--`Suedehead` and `Everyday is Like Sunday`--the essence of Morrissey on video

"Here`s Where the Story Ends"--The Sundays. Harriet Wheeler of course was my dream north-of-England dark rainy evening at the pub date circa 1990.

"Just a Friend"--Biz Markie. Don`t ask. Some things, like my fascination with this song and this performer, defy explanation.

"Wonderwall"--Oasis. I know this is years later, but it was the raging hit the 1st time I was in London, and I didnt make it to London until I was in my mid-20s.

Esther, as she is presented either in the Bible or in this painting, is not a woman of the type with whom I historically have had any success, even so far as getting her to say hello (if she were forced to do so) without a clenched jaw and hostility in her eyes, but this is nothing if not an aspirational web site, and neither artists nor writers seem to able to take her up as a subject without convincing the audience that she is hot-t-t-t-t-t-t-t. Esther was the sexiest female character in the Bible by far. I wish there was a better way I could say it without sullying one of the greatest productions of the human race, but having once read the whole thing straight through there is really no getting around it when you hit that story; it is what is most memorable when you read it. (I always considered Leah to be the second sexiest, by the way; the text insisting that she was inferior to Rachel in every way and was unloved, her story has always interested me, as she was still frequently entered into and impregnated, probably with a certain amount of relish despite not being the dreamgirl or the mother of a race of heroes. There is a lesson in that somewhere.) I dont have a very vivid idea of what Esther might have looked or been like (and her beauty is important, or at least might have been, if the literature is to be believed, to the course of human history.) The intellect suggests that to become the favorite of the King of Persia, a line of men renowned for their sensual appetites even among other Asiatic despots, she must have been a tall, poised, raven haired girl with the body of a college swimmer, though I tend to imagine her as one of the rather small but energetic, motormouthed (and pretty) Jewish girls I knew and loved, deservedly unrequited as it turned out, in my youth. But of course for us gentiles and non-Greeks all these characters and events of antiquity are just symbols that we use, that we only can really use, for our own purposes however petty or great, are they not. The modernists probably set Western art down that same path. We have been knocked loose from the moorings of the past as far as their being to us what they say or suggest they are or are supposed to be. What, after all, are Esther or Theodore Chasseriau to me? I am not of their race nor kind.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Favorite Women of Art #7: Portrait of a Woman Holding a Fan--Goya (1807) I really love her.

If I had lived in this age and been of a rank anywhere comparable to this woman (and the skills of manhood commensurate with that rank) and she had come into my acquaintance, I can't imagine anything that could have prevented me from making some attempt on her virtue. If she were already married? Inconvenient, but then what were all those hours with the fencing master in boyhood spent for, after all? This is not mere ego-gratification or animal lust(though naturally it partakes heavily of both those qualities, as it must), this is Western European post-classical romantic idealized heterosexual love that pierces me through the breast. But why? Because she is half my own self, you fool, and while she may not need me as a lover (it does not follow that I am so fully half her own self--the math is complicated, but necessary to understand), she does need me in some capacity to achieve her own completion.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Favorite Women of Art #6: Marriage-a-la-Mode II-Hogarth (1743)

Between the mid-Elizabethan period, starting with Spenser, and about 1750, when the custom of the Grand Tour had become solidly entrenched and Brittania's rule of the waves and relentless plying of the same helped make the wonders of foreign lands more widely known in that nation, England's poets and prose authors celebrated the whey-faced ladies of that country as the most beautiful in all creation with an enthusiasm that their descendents would, even if they felt the urge to do so, be embarrassed to aver. The Spectator plays up this angle for all it's worth, especially contrasting the artless and natural virtues and delights of the English roses with the vainglorious, conniving decadence of their counterparts in France. Likewise the Cavalier poets and others of that period such as Waller felt no compulsion to seek for ladies to honor in verse among ancient Greeks or medieval princesses, highborn Persians run away to the west in search of the true faith or Venetian chambermaids, when the daughters of Albion themselves were so near to hand. Shakespeare himself, though one of the most universal men ever to walk the face of the earth, was also a English patriot, and not above extolling the merits of the local womanhood in his all-conquering art. Now the economists will easily demonstrate that life in general at this period in England, compared to today, was cruel, painful, smelly and miserable, and no doubt most of us would have to confess them right, though the gaiety of the literature of those woeful bygone ages hints that at least pockets of consolation existed in the human mind and spirit that even we seem to be numb to in our own, whether willfully or not. In this nations are akin to schools, religions, occupations, arts, and sciences, in that a great deal of their strength, especially during the period of their ascension to that strength, is drawn from the general level of esteem with which the various members of the group, particularly the most prominent ones, regard their fellows, which promotes among other things, an atmosphere of high spirit and a sense of community. Thinking highly, or being able to think highly, of the attractiveness and general desirability (as well as ability, personality, intelligence, etc) of the women (or men) of the group of which one is a member or leader is a very high indicator of the health and future prospects of an institution or society. Obviously societies and institutions, being human constructs, mature or outgrow their youthful and perhaps ideal forms, a certain cosmopolitanism is forced upon them as a matter of circumstance, and for a time, sometimes a long one, they appear stronger, wiser, more dynamic than that which the small(er) original in-group inhabited. Eventually however the collective vital spirit is drained any beyond denial and the last remnants of the idea collapse, and no one plausibly identifies himself as a Roman anymore, though this was at one day the most consciously alive and active group of humans on the planet. But I go on too long.

Though I have no doubt the English ladies were as gorgeous at this time as the poets say they were, the nations painters did not really do their part in preserving the glory that was Sacharissa and her sisters. I have not found any pictures that really excite me drawn from this group of women. I chose this one because I have always liked the idea of the bawdy, lolling. gin-guzzling Englishwoman, who kind of went underground during the Victorian and Edwardian periods, but slowly began coming back in the 20s and has apparently overrun the womanhood of that great nation again, and Hogarth`s sleepy sensualist is a relatively cute example of the type (the type unfortunately is often not really very cute). Though they are strangely deficient in drawing people in general (though I would not include Hogarth in that censure) compared to certain other nations, I have always been a fan of the British landscape and sea painters, who do present a very distinct idea of how to look at and think of these things which I think we may take for granted because it so culturally near to us. Unlike bad things which we take for granted, and which may be called prejudices, I think these ideas tend to be quite beautiful and positively influence our thought, make us fuller men and women, especially if we are conscious of what we are doing.

I apologize for the sloppiness of the thought and writing here, but I wanted to post today as I probably won`t be back to a computer for 2 days. Why the rush? Nobodys reading the posts anyway, you say? Well, I have six more paintings to do and I want to move on.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Favorite Women of Art #5: Girl Eating Oysters--Jan Steen (c.1659)

After the maelstrom of emotion that the last painting aroused in me, I am going to try to return to a state of greater equanimity with the technical virtuoso and craftsman of minute detail Jan Steen and his devilish young bourgeoise. It might be objected that this girl is not close to stunning enough a beauty for such a list as this purports to be, but she serves a distinct purpose, representing a type that is a little more mildly haunting than that evoked by Velasquez's Venus, but haunting nontheless. The oyster girl recalls to me all the Michelles and Kims and Melissas and Jennys that crowded the high schools in the days when I was attending them, and manned the kitchens and counters of pizzerias and sub shops, the supermarket cash registers and movie theater ticket booths in their off-hours. This work bit is important, because while actually getting any action at school or school-sponsored functions was so unusual as to be almost bad form, things happened at work, or just after it, with such girls, or least such was the constant report, not merely in the school cafeteria, far from the scenes of the alleged licentiousness, but in the bowels of the restaurants or stockrooms themselves. Every time one went into the broom closet where the assistant manager and the loudmouthed waitress and the wiseacre busboy and the mopey but big-breasted busgirl had casually taken down each other's pants for the sport of it, it was impossible not to wonder, will this be the time I get lucky with perky, apple-cheeked Kristin from the Catholic girls school, whom I seem to encounter there on a more frequent basis than random probability would suggest? And then one day of course you show up in a completely dreamy sort of mood, at relative peace with the ridiculous fate that seems to have been meted out to you, and find out she has either gotten it on with the wiseacre busboy right under your nose, or has quit, to be heard from nevermore. Call it a cliche if you will, but when a certain story is the dominant narrative of life for close to half of a given population, as it is in the modern United States, especially where an extreme deprivation of sensual experience in the lustiest years of ones youth is concerned, and the right of performance/publication is practically unhindered, nothing will be able to stop the tale from being repeated many, many times.

Jan Steen is, as I have hinted at before, known for his technical virtuosity. In the original of this picture the details of the oysters, the bread, the dishes, etc, are widely remarked upon, along with the myriad symbols advertising our girl`s *availability* (the dark object behind her against the wall is apparently a bed, in addition to the other clues). I do not have anything else of pertinence to say about him.

That the oyster girl is well within my range of acceptable attractiveness for an assignation, without so much as a second`s hesitation, I think there can be little doubt. I used to affect to myself that I followed a *Helen Keller rule*, on the rationale that as it can be presumed Helen Keller had little idea how attractive or hideous she was compared to other women, if you were actually uglier than she was, that could not be good, and I should be aiming higher, and every real man has to draw the line somewhere anyway, right? Of course:

Helen managed to look kind of cute in a unconsciously dour, quietly frustrated sort of way. In my most desperate hours to have found the likes of her in my arms would have been practically a cause for ecstasy. I come from a very low and a very foul country of the spirit, which paintings and literature and history and all things high merely reinforce in some manner.

I am up off my sickbed finishing this commentary, having had a nasty stomach virus whose effects have made my body, especially my throat, feel as vile to me as my intellect and character ever do upon critical examination. I may return there for a day or two before proceeding with this assignment.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Favorite Women of Art #4: The Rokeby Venus--Velasquez (1648)

This one is perhaps obvious, but is there a finer picture of a woman ever painted? Even Henry James found it impressive (although he and I have in common that we have both gazed upon the original of this painting, when he saw it it was still hanging in the Rokeby castle, where he was a personal guest of the owner). Velasquez is another of those creative masters people like me whose intellectual faculties are easily wearied are attracted to like cats to boiled lobster, who produced superficially easy and perfect works that one cannot imagine having ever possessed any possibility of completion other than as they are. In the modern world the main drawbacks of this kind of perfectly executed presentation in art, music, writing, filmmaking, etc. where it occasionally manifests itself on general subjects is that it threatens to allow people who are not particularly clever or interesting to feel happy or otherwise good about themselves as participants in a more exalted life such as is offered by the artwork, which does not quite do. As it is impossible to keep such art as is naturally pleasing to masses of ordinary people a secret in today`s world, the connoisseur classes have had to invent and to keep inventing new notions of beauty and achievement in every artistic field to keep them esoteric; in which, as they have always been able to do whenever pressed by the mob below, they have evidently succeeded to the satisfaction of most of the sprightliest minds of the age who care about such things.

During the long period from the time I was 16 or17 until I finally matriculated at a college I could somewhat handle when I was 20, I had a lot of wild ideas about what was going to await me when I got there. One of them was that I was going to have sex with a lot of bohemian girls who looked like the Venus in the picture above (I had absolutely no concept of morality or self-control as something that might be desirable where this area was regarded at the time, but that is a subject for another post). For any readers I might have who have had hundreds or even thousands of sex partners, when I say a lot I mean a lot for me. I thought it not unreasonable that over the course of four years I might get to have 20-25 different girls, seeing as other people had so many more, and when in the privacy of my own thoughts or my room I seemed to myself to be just as good as most of them were. Indeed, if at one of these times before I went when I was making these calculations somebody had told me that I was never going to be particularly cool and that I was not going to have anywhere near even 10 girls once I got there I probably would not have bothered going. I`m not kidding either. Now this doesn`t mean I`m not glad I went anyway now, all in all, but I`m trying to demonstrate that it is only such crazy delusions--and I really do have them still--that enable me to get out of bed and carry on and progress at all in life. Even in the midst of realizing some colossal overestimation of my abilities and consequent social disaster, whatever possibility looms next--a new school year, going to Europe or moving to some new city, going to the writing conference--before I go I am absolutely convinced that this time I will finally be ready, my preparations of reading and thinking and writing will finally enable me to combat successfully with other capable men and women. I will be at long last be among the smartest, the coolest, the most accomplished in my chosen field, the most engaging conversationalist, the wittiest with the ladies, etc, etc, in the whole place; and inevitably within the first half-hour of the new setting it is clear that none of this is the case at all, that I am completely overmatched and out of my proper element (God knows what that might be though) compared to just about everyone else, and that if I do talk to anybody who is not also a complete freak they are going to think I am a disturbed misfit and run away from me. And then, when the ordeal of the failure is over, some new possibility for the future arises immediately in my mind. In the first half of my life I was sustained by the idea that someday I really would find myself in a place and position where I would be cool, and where it would be worth being cool; I have finally within the last year I think come to terms with the fact that I am never going to have the social life I want to have, that I am never going to have really high level conversations replete with palpable intellectual or sexual tension with other human beings. Now, and really for the last ten years the main sustaining delusion is that I really am and someday really will be for real a real author of real bound books. The jaded experts assure all failures and wannabes that the accomplishment of their wishes will neither make them happy nor change their perception in the eyes of the world, for unless you do something legitimately magnificent, the world does not care. I am not such a trivial being as to seek happiness, or imagine it is the object of life. My work is important, however, including this blog, even if there is no one capable of liking it that is currently alive, otherwise I could hardly bother doing it, as I hardly bother doing anything else. It seems to me somehow that it has to be made...what else is there?

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Favorite Ladies of Art #3: The Procuress--Gerrit von Honthorst (1625)

This reproduction doesn't do justice to what a cutie pie this naughty creature is (I am speaking of the one on the right of course). In my rapid descent into becoming a middle-aged fogey and killjoy I had some misgivings about honoring the depiction of an apparently eager and fun-loving prostititute in my catalogue, but as in the complete innocence of my youth I had a terrific crush on her and everything that she promised, and as any painting this old that induces a crush in a modern person has to be included in a list like this, my scruples are thus pretty easily overcome.
I know nothing about this artist except that he is obviously influenced by Caravaggio and the rage for chiaroscuro (I am not going to look up the spelling; let it serve as a test of how much of a poser I am) and scenes of the dangerous and sordid life that were made popular by that master.

This is one of I believe only two pictures featuring superabundant cleavage on the list in case you were worried I was descending down a one-note path.

This girl facially resembles some girls I went to high school with and whom I cannot really imagine being older than 20, so supergirly were they in appearance and disposition. They constitute in some sense the backbone of the nation, though, albeit a little more shakily than their type was formerly wont. They are the most officious mothers and loyal (if given to frequent complaining) wives remaining among the populous. They willingly take on prodigious amounts of debt to maintain the appearances of middle-class prosperity that are probably beyond their means, as they and their husbands tend to be drawn from the tactile rather than the cerebral segments of the population, and however hard-working or skilled they may be, and however good a living they earn, their potential streams of income tend to be limited; and of course if the modern world and the future are about anything it is about having continually multiplying streams and sources of income flowing into one's coffers. But I have gotten way off the subject now.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Favorite Women of Art #2: La Donna Velata-Raphael (1516)

This painting I have actually seen in person and I was struck by it at the time as, unlike most of the other paintings in the gallery, depicting a human figure that might, however remotely, be knowable to the likes of me. This is no doubt an incorrect and wholly inadvertent conjecture; Raphael's figures having the air, especially to those of us in latter ages, of being flesh and blood human beings in the same way as ourselves, more than those of his contemporaries, and indeed more than perhaps any other painter in history. This is the most immediately distinctive characteristic of his pictures, and is quite wonderful for people who desperately want to feel some connection with the European tradition and the higher points of its history but are usually too completely intellectually overmastered by such specimens as they encounter to consider they have achieved this. I have always thought him one of those figures whose talent/genius is such that his work, once executed, appears to be so obviously what was called for, so obviously true, as to puzzle one that it is so rare, and so unique even among the rarities. He shows men things that they know and have always known, how they would see and think about them if their minds were not so encumbered by crudity and stupidity and conceit. Is it not wonderful how little art manages to attain this clarity, or even strives to?

I suppose one cannot quite imagine taking this particular Donna Velata to McDonalds (on the first date anyway) but certainly I can see her in a kind of scoop-necked black blouse at some cafe connected to an art museum (say the one at the Isabella Stuart Gardner) surrounded by a lot of potted palm plants and Germans declaiming in irritatingly flawless English about the inferiority of the coffee and the comparative weaknesses of the economics faculties at the Universities of Michigan and Cal-Berkeley. So she is not really knowable to me, though I come within a table or two of her on this singular occasion before I have to descend once again from the empyrean of the beautiful, educated, globalized set to my more humble regular life.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Favorite Women of Art #1 Melun Diptych (1454)--Jean Fouquet
I have taken some grief in the past over my fascination with this painting. When I showed a plate of it to Mrs Bourgeois Surrender once she immediately got to the heart of the matter. "You like that girl, eh?" she asked, a little doubtfully, not particularly impressed with the subject. "She has a very, er, natural-looking body." But it is really a very remarkable picture, I pointed out, I have never seen anything remotely like it in its time period, and as to the lady, well...I've never seen anyone remotely like her either, yet...she is rather attractive...she seems as if she really could have existed...This greeted with a half-bemused, half-exasperated look and a pat on the head as if sense and insight were not to be expected in conversation with me.

Most critics comment on the improbable spacing of the lady's breasts and excessively melanin-challenged skin. I have not come across any who have anything to say about her hair.

As this is ostensibly supposed to be a representation of the Virgin, it could be argued that there was a failure of execution in the artist's purpose; for this lady makes one think of Mary mother of Jesus about as much as Kenny G does of Ivan the Terrible. One story has it that the lady is really Agnes Sorel, whom we recently encountered in the Joan of Arc stories, the reputed most beautiful woman in France and mistress of Charles VII. I would be satisfied with that.

Jean Fouquet seems to be the largely consensus choice for the greatest French artist of the 15th century. I don't know how much of an intellectual he was, but he certainly had a brilliant talent for painting, as well as a sensibility for the way painted objects might look that was well in advance of his contemporaries. The allure of his Marie/Agnes to me I think is the combination of the truly gorgeous and ostentatious clothing, including the crown, setting off the pleasing form, or importantly the idea of a pleasing female form that is insisted upon strongly here. The vivid colors of the cherubs that dominate the background contribute to this effect too; but none of it works if the temper and poise and suggested nature of the quaverings of the various parts of the lady's person are not right, and these are all right in this picture.