Saturday, March 31, 2007

Carl and Karin Larsson: An Artistic Partnership that Celebrates Family

I was referred by the comments to another blog (neither of which I can remember now, for which I apologize) to the work of the 19th-century Swedish artist Carl Larsson. You can see Carl Larsson's work here. His paintings are a celebration of family life. From the top, is a self-portrait by Carl Larsson with his wife and children; a portrait of his wife nursing one of their eight children; one of his daughters weaving a red ribbon; one of his sons studying in his room; and one of his daughters sewing. Carl Larson's wife and muse was Karin Larsson, who devoted all her energy to taking care of home, husband, and their eight children, eight: Suzanne (1884), Ulf (1887, but died 18 years old), Pontus (1888), Lisbeth (1891), Brita (1893), Mats (1894,but died 2 months old), Kersti (1896) and Esbjörn (1900).
When the Larsson's inherited a cottage from Karin's father, this became their home, which they turned into a model of Swedish Style, for which it is known to this day. Karin was an artist in her own right and made and designed all the exclusive textiles in the house, together with some furniture. The following was written about Karin Larsson for the exhibition of his work at the
Victoria & Albert Museum in London 1997: "Karin was Carl Larsson's muse. So thoughtful and quiet, he portrayed her as his idol, forever young. She was in fact hard-working, hard headed and highly creative. Carl relied upon her as a critic of his work. She trained as a painter at the Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm and Paris. After the birth of Suzanne in 1884 she turned her artistry to decorating the home, especially to weaving and embroidery. She also designed furniture and her own and her children's clothes. Her most creative period was between 1900 and 1910. Karin's textiles were absolutely original. Pre-modern in character they introduced a new abstract style in tapestry. Her bold compositions were executed in vibrant colours; her embroidery frequently used stylised plants. In black and white linen she reinterpreted Japanese motifs. Technically adventurous, she explored folk techniques and experimented with others.
At Sundborn the Larssons developed an aesthetic partnership. He was effusive, covering the walls with foliage and flowers, she arranged the living flowers, but in her designs austere and often abstract. The colours of the interior seem to have been jointly decided. Their combined contributions created a perfect whole." You an see pictures of the Larsson home at the site for their family's foundation. Carl Larsson's paintings are a delight to anyone who values family life, as can be seen from just a few of these samples.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Size 0?

It turns out that the new model size for haute couture is now Size 0. The April Vogue notes that when top model Natalia Vodianova was 19, she was 5'10" and weighed 117 and had a BMI of 16.8. But several designer houses complained about her weight! When she weighed 106 pounds and her hair was beginning to fall out, she had a BMI of 15.2, which is off the charts. Designers have to seek increasingly young women--16 or younger--and then their careers are over by the time they are 18, unless they force themselves to essentially stop eating. The end of the article quotes designer Derek Lam as saying that he is rethinking things in the light of the spotlight on anorexia among models, "Already I am giving my clothes more structure this year and making it less about something limp on a rail." A look at Lam's spring collection reveals that he is almost celebrating 1920s retro, the birth decade for the "rail," which had a resurgence in the 1960s and now again in this decade. One wonders who designers are designing for--certainly not for women. This is but an introduction to reflections on the era of the 1920s, coming soon.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Four Daughters and Young at Heart: Thoughts on a Comparison

Four Daughters, 1938, with Priscilla Lane and John Garfield

The 1954 remake, Young at Heart, with Doris Day and Frank Sinatra

Four Daughters was made in 1938 from a story by Fannie Hurst and was a hit of its day. Young at Heart was a remake of the story in 1954 and was also a big hit. I recently had occasion to see these movies back to back and was startled by the differences between the two. Since both of the movies were equally popular with their respective audiences, it is possible to assume that they both offered to Americans a mirror of themselves that they accepted and liked. If so, things had changed drastically in the American home in the intervening 12 years.
While today many women my look to the 1950s as an idyllic time, when women ruled in their households and life focused on the stable nuclear family, Young at Heart, in comparison with Four Daughters, reveals some of the underlying psychological discomforts that would emerge to wreak havoc with us all a decade later in the 1960s.
The story revolves around four daughters who are all musical and are led by their musician father. They play in ensembles together and also sing. They live with their father and their Aunt Jessie, who tends house. First a young composer is introduced into the house and stays there, and all the sisters fall in love with him, all as they are trying to sort out who they love and who they will marry. Then the composer's friend comes (played by John Garfield and in 1954 by Frank Sinatra), a down-and-out bitter fellow composer with more talent. Both fall in love with the family's youngest daughter (played by Priscilla Lane and in 1954 by Doris Day). In Four Daughters, Lane is in love with the composer, and at the brink of her marriage is snatched away by Garfield. In Young at Heart, Day agrees to marry the composer but is snatched away at the last minute by Sinatra, whom she actually loves. In Four Daughters, Garfield dies in a suicidal car crash, and Lane and the composer eventually pick up where they left off. In Young at Heart, Sinatra survives the car crash, and and he and Day pick up where they left off in their difficult marriage with a baby on the way.

The plot change is the least of the differences. The entire feeling invoked by these movies is entirely different--although many of the lines are identical.

The dialogue in Four Daughters heaps jokes one on top of the other at a rapid clip. The daughters all tease each other, mercilessly tease the father, mercilessly tease both the composer and his friend, and the aunt plays games with them all. No matter how stinging the remark, the jokester also shares in being the butt of the joke, because joking is the activity, not scoring points. This family loves each other.
In Young at Heart, the pace of the dialogue is much slower with a lot fewer jokes. What comes off as a joke in Four Daughters often seems lifeless in Young at Heart. The jokester tends to take an air of superiority rather than joining in the fun.
In Four Daughters the men all seem feisty, each in their own way. In Young at Heart, the composer, played by Gig Young, seems unimpassioned and conceited. While Garfield is a compressed time bomb of energy, Sinatra is low key to the point of boredom. The father in 1954 seems embittered. The aunt in Young at Heart is played by Ethel Barrymore, who restricts her role to presiding over the roost with a know-it-all attitude. She is not funny.
In Four Daughters the girls go through their struggles over men within an ambiance of happiness with each other and a sense of psychological security. In Young at Heart, the three daughters (the singing Rosemary Lane character has been excised to make room for Doris Day), seem to have an air of restlessness or anxiety, even to the point of desperation. They love their father, but they tolerate him; they do not adore him, as the girls in the Four Daughters do. They seem either out for themselves or at the point of giving up. They are not happy; their love for each other is drastically toned down
As is the decor in the living room. The Four Daughters' living room is comfortable with big overstuffed chairs and voile curtains, giving a sense of coziness even in a large room. By the 1950s, there is a TV in the living room; the decor has been streamlined and is now in neutral colors. The room is cool, not warm.
In Four Daughters, sans TV, we get real classical music and beautiful singing from Rosemary Lane. In Young at Heart, we rarely get classical music and have to listen to Doris Day crooning popular songs (Sinatra is fine though).
Most important, the women's attitude toward men is markedly different in these two films. In Four Daughters the girls all like the composer, but they also have their own boyfriends and fiances around. The composer is a lively personality, and it is easy to see why they would fall for him. The oldest daughter is kind and respectful to her boyfriend, who woos her with flowers every day, even though she is enamored with the composer. But in Young at Heart, this same sister treats her boyfriend as if he were a clumsy eight-year-old. Dialogue is interpolated into the 1954 movie, in which this daughter chides the boyfriend because his hands are dirty, telling him not to wash them in the kitchen, but upstairs, and "take your coat off before you wash them!" she calls after him, and then smiles and folds her arms basking in her superiority. Her tone is not wifely but motherly to the point of condescension. There is no such condescension in Four Daughters. In short, in the 1954 story, the men are devalued within the orbit of the family.
In the Four Daughters, when one sister brings home for dinner the man she hopes to marry , it turns out that she forgot to turn the oven on, so the roast duck is inedible. In Young at Heart, the women are 100 percent competent and efficient housekeepers--a virtue they seem to lord over the men.

If one were to ask an American living at those times which was the better--1938 or 1954--one would expect them to say 1954, with the war and the depression behind them. In 1938, the country was beginning to regain hope as it was coming of the depression, but the war was on the horizon. Nevertheless, Four Daughters seems rooted in real family life in which people have a sense of what is important and also a sense of humor. Young at Heart gives the feeling of a family life that is now on shaky ground, and where men have been reduced to appendages of the ladies.

In Four Daughters, grace is said at the dinner table before the meal begins. In Young at Heart, there is no grace.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Industry in the Cottage

These little chicks are made by a homeschooling mother and she sells them in her online shop.

In the last month, I have read a lot of blogs of homeschooling mothers and also other stay-at- home women. I have been wonderfully impressed with the constant striving for beauty and creativity shown in many of the blogs I have read. It is a great source of inpsiration. From the blogs posted as favorites on one blog, you can find people with similar interests and creative skills or find homeschoolers and see what they are doing and comment on it and exchange ideas and information. You can also find a lot of links to inexpensive aids for creativity in sewing, quilting, and other handicrafts. There is also an online store that features handmade items, Etsy, which is a lot of fun.
I applaud those who try to work on their own and also make extra money for their family by selling items online and in craft markets and so forth. In our farmers' market, I found one elderly lady selling adorable girls' dresses that she had made. She said that she loved doing it and it gave her an income she could live on. It used to be that the home was not only a place of consumption but also a place for production, especially the kitchen. If you go to colonial museums or go see the Pennsylvania Dutch farmhouse kitchen at the Philadelphia Art Museum or other types of places, you will see that the kitchen area and the home in general were the habitat of busy bees, who were sewing, spinning, weaving, mending, making quilts, preserving, making candles, and many other activities. These goods were often not only for the home but also for sale in the area or the farmers' market (like Henner's Lydia needlepoint rug in the illustration below which she is going to sell at the market). It is literally cottage industry. These businesses were run by women for the most part, and both kept the women in the home and also brought in money. With the industrial age, of course, and even more so with globalization when you can pick up clothes for a dime, this is not necessary in the same way that it was in the colonial days. But it remains an option and it is a lot more fun than going to Target or K-Mart for cheap clothes and the result is a lot more rewarding.
Even so, today, it has been told to me, there has been a tremendous rise in home-based businesses, often Ma and Pa partnerships, in the years of the Bush Administration. In part this is a spin-off of the computer age, since with telecommuting, it is possible to advertise and transact business online or to work for a corporation from your home. All of this is to the good, since it makes the home a locus of activity, as opposed to a place where we "hang out when we nothing better to do" and enables parents to keep closer tabs on their children. Given the assaults on the family--from the feminist movement and the business world and from the invasion of privacy from the media, advertising, and the Internet--it is all to the good to my mind if parents, and certainly, the mother can conduct their activities--whatever they may be--at home all of the time or partially. It also cuts down on traffic.

Friday, March 2, 2007

Little Miss Sunshine: A Dark Cloud Over America

Blind Man's Bluff by Jean Honore Fragonard, 1765

The state of families has gotten so bad in the United States that Little Miss Sunshine is heralded as a movie that celebrates the existence of the family and won for an Oscar for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. It is true in the movie, for instance, that everyone is drafted or otherwise persuaded to go to the little girl's beauty pageant for the crown of Little Miss Sunshine. It is true that on the way the suicidal brother does notice that they have left the little girl at the gas station and also true that, thankfully, they do go back and get her. It is true that they show in their own peculiar ways their love for the brother who finds out that his dream of being a Navy pilot is shattered because he is color-blind. It is true that they even have the suicidal brother with him at home instead of turning him out in the street. It is true that people in the family, to varying degrees and not always, accept each other and each other's foibles.

That said, Little Miss Sunshine conjures up the image of a Fragonard painting (French painter 1732-1806). It is true that in the Fragonard painting exquisitely dressed aristocrats are idyllically swinging in lavish gardens, but the clouds gathering above overpower the happy scene.

In the case of Little Miss Sunshine, the overpowering shadow is that the movie is an inducement to accept the idea of the family as an amalgamation of people all out for themselves. No one is really taking care of the other--until they all come to the support of the little girl, who then proceeds to put on a pornographic display directed by her grandfather who committed suicide by means of a self-administered heroin overdose! Is this culmination something to celebrate? Is this to be the model for American family life?

We are supposed to believe that the coming together of the family in pornography is a major step forward. We are supposed to believe that the discussion between the suicidal brother and the estranged son on the nihilisit Nietzche is a step forward. We are supposed to believe that under today's philosophy of unbridled selfishness--starting with the grandfather who imbibes heroin and celebrates the pleasures of lust rather than love--we can still find true love in a family.

This is not the case.

Families today may be organized around the principle that the purpose of the family is to give us (read "Me First") the freedom to do whatever we want. That is the leave-alone principle of the family in Little Miss Sunshine. No one really knows what the other person is doing. The wife works and slaps food on the table so her husband can indugle his fantasies of being a winner. The father has no sense of responsibility to his family. No one evidently cares that the son is completely hateful. No adult bothers to reach him, to guide him. Most importantly, no one bothers to preview the display that the little girl will make for lthe Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant, despite the fact that they know it is being directed by the sex-obsessed, heroin-intaking grandfather. Is there a problem with leaving our daughter in the hands of a complete degenerate?

So there might be loose ties of love here, but the end shows the debacle this is all heading toward: the defiant family gyrating in front of an equally pornographic audience.

This may not have been the intention of the authors. To give them the benefit of the doubt, they may be desperately seeking to rescue some notion of love from the oblivion that family life has become for many in America. That is the alluring part of the movie. But the assumption of the authors is that family life in America is dead and gone, that the self-sacrifice that is its foundation has been forever eclipsed by notions of "self-realization, " and that morality represents a contraint from which we long ago have freed ourselves. And that is the terrible dark cloud over Little Miss Sunshine.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

In Memoriam--Elizabeth Fox Genovese 1941 - 2007

I have just learned with sadness that Elizabeth Fox-Genovese died on January 2 of this year. A historian and wife to the historian Eugene Genovese, she made her name working with her husband on the historical issues of slavery. Originally on the left, she and her husband converted to Catholicism. Ms. Genovese became a regular contributor to First Things and contributed greatly to women's historical studies. In her older years, as part of the journey of she and her husband out of the left, this eminent scholar became a vocal opponent of feminism as a force destructive to both women and their families. She and her husband were not blessed with children but she was a strong advocate of the protection of children through the protection of their families. She is the author of Women and the Future of the Family (2000), Feminism is Not the Story of My Life: How the Feminist Elite Has Lost Touch With the Real Concerns of Women (1996), Feminism Without Illusions: A Critique of Individualism (1991), and Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South (1988), which received the C. Hugh Holman Prize of the Society for the Study of Southern Literature, the Julia Cherry Spruill Prize of the Southern Association of Women Historians, and was named an outstanding book of the year by the Augustus Meyer Foundation for the Study of Human Rights. In September 2003 Dr. Fox-Genovese received the Cardinal Wright Award from the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars. The award is given annually to a Catholic adjudged to have done an outstanding service for the Church. Go to to read her Michelmas speech, "Feminism and the Unraveling of the Social Bond," go to for an article, "What Can We Hope to Accomplish? The Prospects for Evangelization in Dangerous Times," and see for her article, "Faith, Fashion, and the Vocation of the Laity in a Secular, Postmodern World." She was an editorial board member of the Catholic magazine, Women for Faith and Family, and an advisor to First Things. Throughout her life, Mrs. Genovese was a courageous woman who life was transformed by becoming a Catholic in er never-ending quest for truth.