Friday, July 23, 2010

Fine Arts Friday: Just a Reminder

Children on the Shore by Mary Cassatt, 1885

This is a favorite painting of Americans, undoubtedly of those, like myself, that spent summer vacations at "the shore." It reminds me of the happiest playtimes that children can have in freedom at the beach. Of course, parents need to keep a watchful eye that children don't stray or get into trouble in the water, but for the most part, unless a parent wants to join in the fun and assist in creating an ocean castle, fortification, or living burial ground, it is best that adults stay out of the way (applying sun lotion only and otherwise not worrying about clothes or sand or wet).

These two charming little girls are equipped with shovels and a bucket. A bucket is useful for carrying water and also for shaping sand for fortifications, but no other equipment is needed; clam shells are good shovels. My brother's family and I plunked our kids at a beach one afternoon with absolutely nothing, and they managed to play for four hours in perfect bliss.

There is so much going on at the beach--sand crabs, shells, the constant motion of the waves and whatever they bring up, the eating away of the sand around your toes and your castles as the tide comes up ever closer and then recedes, the seaweed, the clouds, the invitation to skitter and slide in the shallow surf, gulls catching fish, gull political conventions, sandpipers fretting, instant relief from heat in an ocean that always surprises, skate and fish remains, boats going by, holes that fill up with water from the bottom, sand sharks, fishermen, mud pies that need to be made, the ocean breeze, and constant noise of surf and animals and wind and jabbering with friends about what you will build and how, with improvisation along the way.

And the beach accommodates children of all ages together in an ensemble of play. Here are photos of my brothers and two friends playing on the shore. The littlest one there (on the right), my youngest brother, never left it, living his adulthood on the Florida eastern coast. At the beach he was always and thoroughly absorbed. If you have access to a beach and young kids, take advantage. They have a ball--you have a rest. Mother beach takes over.

Happy summer, everyone!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Clothes that Bespeak Femininity

Keri Russell in The Magic of Ordinary Days.

I love the clothes that Keri Russell wears in the Hallmark movie, The Magic of Ordinary Days. Russell wears cotton blouses that are, in fact, exquisitely cut to fit, with fine flowery prints and beautifully cut dresses also with flower prints.

A lively print shirt dress with accompanying sweater.

The dresses all fit to a T, so that although Keri Russell is alluring, she is always dressed modestly. Of course, few of us are as beautiful as Russell, but I think most women would look better in clothes like these than in many of the outfits I see on the street or the grocery store, which often are either sexy but not necessarily feminine, or are unfeminine by virtue of being sex-less.

A superbly cut red skirt with a red and green flower print blouse that reminds me of Liberty of London prints available at Purl Soho.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Fine Arts Friday: "I Am Going to See Grandma"

I Am Going to See Grandma by William Merritt Chase, 1889

American impressionist painter William Merritt Chase created this pastel of his two-year-old daughter, Dorothy, as her mother buttons her coat in preparation for a visit to her grandmother, who lives cross-river in Brooklyn.

Needless to say, this is a beautifully rendered image. The room's furniture and rug both frame and point us to the mother and her child. The beautifully harmonized colors unify the well-established but cheerful surroundings that lack the oppressive darkness one often associates with Victorian interiors.

Click on the painting to see it in a larger size and get a good look at little Dorothy's expression. Although she is excited, as the title tells us, Dorothy is patiently standing still while her mother primps her coat so all is in order for grandma's inspection. But the tilt of her head and her half-smile show she's also enjoying the joke: "I see you drawing me getting ready to see Grandma, Daddy!"

Monday, July 12, 2010

Creating a Mary Garden

In this medieval painting Mary gives the Baby Jesus a flower. Strawberries, signifying Fruitful Virgin, grow in the raised garden behind them.

(I realize this is a little late, but consider it early for next spring!)

The Mary Garden is a tradition from the Middle Ages, when gardens were created with flowers and shrubs that all signify names of the Virgin Mary or her attributes. Medieval gardens were usually small and enclosed and featured trellises like the one in the painting above.

If you have a garden, most likely numbers of the flowers and shrubs you have planted signify names of Mary or her attributes, such as humility (violet) and purity (lily), or also her eyes (forget-me-nots) or her heart (begonia), or even an event like Easter (forsythia, known as the Easter Bush), the Flight into Egypt (lavender), or a Lenten rose.

A Mary garden in Australia, compliments of Under Her Starry Mantle.

A Mary Garden gives praise to Mary and also invites us to contemplation, especially if it is centered around a statue of Our Lady. Mary gardens are traditionally enclosed. But even if you are not able to strictly create a Mary garden, it is a lovely thought to know the religious meanings of the plants that you may already have. In my garden, for instance, I have hydrangeas and was very happy to learn that they mean Ave Maria. They sit next to forsythia, the Easter Bush, and a rose bush, meaning Mary's Glory, and in front I have petunias (Lady's Praise).

To learn all about Mary gardens, you can go here and here and to see a beautiful Mary garden in Annapolis, go here.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Fine Arts Friday: Mary's Flowers in the Portinari Altarpiece

Still Life in the center of the Portinari Altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes, 1476-1479.

Flowers, in two vases next to a wheat chaff and surrounded by strewn violets, form the lower section of the frame for the image of the Infant Christ in this large triptych that now resides at the Uffizi Museum in Florence, Italy. The iconography of this still life points to the underlying theme of this Nativity scene: the Virgin Mary and her relationship to Christ and Christ's relationship to us through His Passion.

The exquisitely painted flowers each have a meaning:
The lily was a symbol of Mary and her purity. The stalk represented her religous mind, the leaves her humility, and the flower her mercy. The lily, it was believed in the Middle Ages, had first grown from tears that Eve shed as she fled the Garden of Eden. There are two lilies here on one stalk, with the number two signifying Christ's dual human and godly nature.

Also in the vase are three irises, white and blue for purity and heavenliness and three perhaps for the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. The iris was itself a symbol of light and hope, but its leaves, seven in number here, signify the seven sorrows of Mary:
The Prophecy of Simeon over the Infant Jesus. (Gospel of Luke 2:34)
The Flight into Egypt of the Holy Family. (Gospel of Matthew 2:13)
The Loss of the Child Jesus for Three Days. (Luke 2:43)
The Meeting of Jesus and Mary along the Way of the Cross. (Luke 23:26)
The Crucifixion, where Mary stands at the foot of the cross. (Gospel of John 19:25)
The Descent from the Cross, where Mary receives the dead body of Jesus in her arms. (Matthew 27:57)
The Burial of Jesus. (John 19:40)

The columbine in the clear glass, with the light shining through in the left of the glass, symbolizes the Holy Spirit, or the Divine Spouse.

The three carnations peeking out over the rim of the glass symbolize love, and their number symbolizes the Trinity. It was believed that the carnation first grew from the tears of Mary for Christ.

The violets symbolize faithfulness, humility, and chastity.

The meanings of these beautifully rendered flowers are part of the great symphony of van der Goes' painting, to which we are called as participants.

Portinari Altarpiece central panel.

The wheat chaff and the liturgical garb of some of the angels point to the Eucharist, in which we partake of the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, who sacrificed his life for our sins in the Passion. The Passion is the invisible theme of the painting, as shown in the solemn visage of Mary, who foresaw Christ's Passion from the beginning, and the pious stance of Saint Joseph and the angels, as if in preparing to receive Holy Communion. The empty shoe before Joseph is a reminder of God's words to Moses on Mount Sinai before the burning bush: Put off your shoes from your feet, for the place you are standing is holy ground."

Nevertheless, even though this painting is "hallowed ground," we, like the shepherds, are invited to join in this scene, which is not at our eye level or above us, but is slanted toward us, a beckoning to bear the sorrows of Mary for her Son and to join in the sacrifice of the Eucharist.

You can see all panels of the Portinari Altarpiece here. Van der Goes painted the altarpiece in Flanders on commission for the Sant d'Edigio chapel in the Santa Maria Nuova Hospital in Florence, Italy.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Some People Struggle Very Hard to Keep Their Families Together

Winter's Bone 17-year-old heroine, Ree Dolly, with her younger brother and sister.

Winter's Bone, based on the novel of the same title by Daniel Woodrell, won the Sundance Festival Grand Jury Prize this year. Set in the Ozarks of southeastern Missouri, the film, directed by Debra Granik, tells the story of Ree Dolly, daughter in a family heavily involved in producing the highly addictive drug, crystal methamphetamine, or "crank." Because her father has jumped bail and signed over title to the family's land and house to pay his bond, the 17-year-old Ree vows to find him to keep a roof over the head of her remaining family: her brother and sister and her mother who has slipped into catatonic mental illness.

The sacrifice Ree is willing to bear, her determination, and the pain she suffers in her search are difficult to comprehend. One wonders that she has not followed her mother's road into obliviousness.

I suspect that the cruel codes of a criminal drug culture are the same everywhere, no matter who is involved, and no matter what the drug. The story could have been taken place in any city in the U.S.A.

What distinguishes Winter's Bone is that the setting is one most Americans are not familiar with and have seen little of in film; we have not been inured to it. Far from milking the sterotype of "hillbilly" though, the film forces us to confront real human beings, their faces taut with conflicting emotions--compassion and cruelty--who are trapped. We are forced to take in this reality in a profound way because there is no Hollywood gloss, no stylization, no pulling back from the harshness, no attempt to draw attention to acting, no artistic flourishes for the sake of artistic flourishes--the film is entirely at the service of the subject. While Winter's Bone revolves around violence-- both the threats and the results of it, we do not see much violent action per se. The removal of violent acts from the film eliminates, it became clear as I thought about it, a major method of Hollywood gloss that functions to anaesthetize the audience. There is also no unrelenting drive to doom--another Hollywood method to distance us from what we are seeing.

I have seen many films, some of which changed my life. I have seen many sad films, the postwar Italian realist films being among the saddest. No movie has ever moved me as much as Winter's Bone. The only film that it calls to my mind is Charles Burnett's independent sleeper of 1977, Killer of Sheep, which explores the life of an African American family in Watts.

I know that Winter's Bone reflects a harshness that is the life for a sizable swath of rural Americans. For a documentary glimpse of this world, which proves that Winter's Bone is not "stretching things," you can see on You Tube Diane Sawyers' "Hidden America: Children of the Mountains," which first aired in February 2009.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Fine Arts Friday: Now Let Us Praise Flower Sellers

At the Florist by Childe Hassam, 1889

In Paris in the years 1888 and 1889, Childe Hassam created a series of paintings of flower sellers at their work. At the time, the flower sellers congregated around the Bastille. At the Florist is so beautiful pictorially, it nearly takes your breath away. (Click on a painting to see it better in a larger size.) I love that Hassam has painted the very young flower sellers wrapped in the same white as the flowers themselves. The one girl whose face we see has the feature and aura of a cherub from an Italian Renaissance painting. The same white wrapping is picked up in the cap of the maid accompanying her mistress to the florists.

The Flower Seller by Childe Hassam, 1889.

In this painting, Hassam highlights the relationship between the two girls in the painting: the flower seller and the girl walking with her mother. The flower girl looks imploringly at the younger girl, and one assumes that she wants the child to ask her mother to buy her flowers. The younger girl meanwhile is fascinated by the flower seller. Either she is looking at the flowers, but more likely she is apprehending the flower seller as a young girl, like herself, but in a startlingly different position than herself; the flower seller has no childhood, having been hurled into adult activities for reasons of family poverty or even loss of family. The mother meanwhile ignores the flower seller and is hustling onward. I find it noteworthy that in the painting Hassam's shadowing of the heads of all three figures makes it appear almost as if each has a nimbus. In the left middle ground is the figure of a mother and child, the mother clearly from the working class. "There but for the grace of God go I."

Flower Girl by the Seine by Childe Hassam, 1889.

In this painting again, Hassam is focusing on the contrast between the flower seller and the flower buyer. As can be seen from umbrellas carried by those who have already passed, it is raining, but the flower girl lacks cover. She is looking at the woman in black with her black umbrella, who has just bought flowers now held by her daughter. We have little doubt that the flower seller as she gazes at these two is pondering the difference in their stations in life.

Parisian flower sellers were organized. One hundred years before Hassam painted the subject, the flower sellers of Paris put forward a Cahiers de Doleances (Register of Grievanes) to the Estates-General (spring 1789--the year of the French Revolution) to protest the dismantlement of the flower sellers' association in 1777. The cahiers begins:

The freedom given to all citizens to denounce abuses that press on them from all sides to teh representatives of the nation is doubtless a certain omen of an impending reform. Confident of this, the flower sellers formerly forming the community of the female sellers of flowers and bouquets of flowers of the city and suburbs of Paris dare to address themselves to you our lords [the Estates General]....

Heretofore, flower seller candidates had to pay a fee to join the flower seller association, which had been formed in 1735 "through the kindness of Louis XV." The association's banning in 1777 under the laissez-faire doctrine of Finance Minister Anne Robert-Jacques Turgot, caused a leap in the number of flower sellers and hence a commensurate decrease in each woman's share of the market, "as the number of consumers does not increase proportionally" to the growing number of sellers. This was causing problems within the flower selling community:

The lure of thee earnings, however, limited as they are and even more a strong propensity to idleness, encourages a crowd of young peole of the fair sex to practice the profession of the supplicants, and since their profession cannot feed them, they seek the resources they lack in licentiousness and the most shameful debauchery. The supplicants' cause is also that of morality.

The flower sellers community particularly directed its cahiers to the Third Estate (the elected representatives), who are "friends and brothers and it is to them that it falls to plead the cause of the destitute."

The supplicants will not cease to send wishes to heaven for the preservation and prosperity of the representatives of the nation.
Signed, The said merchants, represented by Madame Marl, syndic of the community.

Source: Doleance particulieres des marchandes bouquetieres fleuristes chapeliers en fleurs de la vile and faubourgs de Paris in Charles-Louis Chassin, Les Election and Les cahiers de Paris en 1789, Vol. 2, pp. 53-57, found in The French Revolution: A Sourcebook, by Philip G. Dwyer and Peter McPhee.

I do not know what happened, or if the flower sellers that Hassam painted were organized into a legal association.