Sunday, October 23, 2011

Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus

Standing on a hill overlooking the city, the Philadelphia Museum of Art with banner showing Rembrandt's Supper at Emmaus, part of the exhibition of Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus. Standing right under the banner, one sees a long set of stairs that meet the tree-lined Benjamin Franklin Parkway, with a view of the boulevard to City Hall.

Today I went to see the exhibition of Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus" at the Philadelphia Art Museum. Breaking with centuries of tradition, Rembrandt began to paint Christ on the basis of studies of living Jewish models, who it is believed may have lived in Rembrandt's own neighborhood, to which many Ashkenazi Jews came in 1648 from Eastern Europe. The Netherlands had opened its doors to Jews. Nora Hamerman has written a fascinating review of the exhibition.

Head of Christ by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1648-50

This painting of the Head of Christ is relatively small and far more moving than any print or Internet version of it, because of Rembrandt's detailed brushwork, particularly around the eyes, which gets washed out in the prints. Through this detail, which distinguishes Rembrandt's Heads of Christ from those of his studio pupiles, the great Dutch painter portrays a Christ with the emotions of one who took upon himself the sins of the world.

Rembrandt placed a high importance on his studies of Christ's face, keeping two of his oil studies in his bedroom.

The exhibition ends in Philadelphia on October 30. But there is good news if you are in the Midwest. The exhibition, which collects Rembrandt's paintings, drawings, and prints from many museums, will be at the Detroit Institute of Arts from Sunday November 20, 2011, to Sunday February 12, 2012.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Small Town Life in America: Five Good Reads

(All paintings by Childe Hassam, 1859-1935)

The small town was long considered to be the backbone of America, but now small towns struggle to survive as our agricultural life is increasingly curtailed and young people move to the cities and their mega-environs seeking higher-paying jobs and greater opportunities. In my meandering journey to "read America" (having seen only its eastern seaboard), I have been reading novels that take place in small towns and in which the town plays a role, in part to understand what a small town is, as opposed to the suburbs that have so defined American life since the 1950s. Here are four of my favorite novels and one play about small town life from the late 19th century to the mid-20th century.

Outskirts of East Gloucester, 1918

The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett, 1896

"After a first brief visit made two or three summers before..., a lover of Dunnet Landing returned to find the unchanged shores of the pointed firs, the same quaintness of the village with its elaborate conventionalities; all the mixture of remoteness and the childish certainty of being the centre of civilization of which her affectionate dreams had told. One evening in June, a single passenger landed upon the steamboat wharf. The tide was high, there was a crowd of spectators, and the youngest portion of the company followed her with subdued excitement up the narrow street of the salt-aired, white-clapboarded little town."

Main Street East Hampton, 1920

Time Will Darken It by William Maxwell, 1948

"To arrive at some idea of the culture of a certain street in a Middle Western small town shortly before the First World War, is a much more delicate undertaking [than an archaeological dig]. For one thing, there are no ruins to guide you. Though the houses are not kept up as well as they once were, they are still standing.... In every yard a dozen landmarks (here a lilac bush, there a sweet syringa) are missing. There is no telling what became of the hanging fern baskets with American flags in them or of all those red geraniums. The people who live on Elm Street now belong to a different civilization."

Maxwell's book is a heart-breaking story of a marriage in the first decade of the 20th century in which the town itself wields a strong influence as the novel takes us across the tracks and to the town center. Maxwell paints all of his characters and their actions with a brush that is dipped in compassion but still pointed enough to go straight to the heart of the matter.

East Gloucester, End of the Trolley, 1895

Intruder in the Dust by William Faulkner, 1948

"If you got something outside the common run that's got to be done and cant wait, dont waste your time on the menfolks; they works on what your uncle calls the rules and the cases. Put the womens and the children at it; they works on the circumstances."

A young man, Chick Mallison, nephew of the town lawyer, and Miss Eunice Habersham go to work to clear an African-American, who has been hauled to jail and is in danger of being lynched, of charges of murdering a white man. Miss Habersham was a "kinless spinster of 70 living in the columned colonial house on the edge of town which had not been painted since her father died and had neither water nor electricity in it, with two Negro servants [a married couple].... Miss Habersham and the man [servant] raised chickens and vegetables and peddled them about town from the pickup truck."

November in Cos Cob, 1902

The next two should be read back to back, since the second awakens our affection and near-envy of the simplicity and community that give our ideas of small-town life a radiant ambiance, while the first takes a look at thwarted longings and nightmares.

Winesburg Ohio by Sherwood Anderson, 1919

"The old man had listed hundreds of truths in his book.... There was the truth of virginity and the truth of passion, the truth of wealth and poverty, of thrift and profligacy, of carelessness and abandon.... And then the people came along. Each as he appeared snatched up one of the truths and some who were quite strong snatched up a dozen of them. It was the truths that made the people grotesques. The old man had quite an elaborate theory concerning the matter. It was his notion that the moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth became a falsehood."

Church in a New England Village, 1901

Our Town by Thornton Wilder, 1938

"Stage Manager: The name of the town is Grover's Corners, New Hampshire--just across the Massachusetts line: latitude 42 degrees 40 minutes, longitude 70 degrees 37 minutes. The First Act shows a day in our town. The day is May 7, 1901. The time is just before dawn. The sky is beginning to show some streaks of light over in the East there, behind our mount'in. The morning star always gets wonderful bright the minute before it has to go, doesn't it?"

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Revolutionary Road: First Step in an Exploration

A 1950s modern home interior.

Earlier this month I read the book Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates (1926-1992) and then watched the 2008 film of the same name starring Leonardo di Caprio and Kate Winslet. Richard Yates made his name with this book in 1961. A novelist whose novels resided far from the bestseller lists, Yates is being apprised anew, especially with the release of Revolutionary Road and the acknowledgement of their debt to him from more current writers such as Richard Ford.

Winslet, especially, and di Caprio put in fine performances as the central couple of the book, Frank and April Wheeler, who live the life of typical suburbanites: April is a housewife, there are two children, and Frank works in New York City for "Knox Business Machines." Frank, buried somewhere in the public relations or sales despartment, does not do his job well, sloughing off as much as he can out of boredom.

Frank and April Wheeler as played by Leonardo di Caprio and Kate Winslet

Despite the cast's best efforts, the movie skips over the surface of the book. This is about all it can do, because Yates has written a real novel: we are privy to the inner-most thoughts of the characters, beyond what they say; we learn about April's childhood, which helps to explain why she is so uncomfortable with family life in the suburbs and also hear Frank's reminiscences of his father (who was earlier a salesman for Knox, although Frank never told him he also works for the company) and of his father's strong hands.

The back cover of the Vintage paperback edition advertises Revolutionary Road as "the most evocative portrayal of the opulent desolation of the American suburbs." The novel, it claims, shows "how Frank and April mortgage their spiritual birthright, betraying not only each other, but their best selves."

Really? Frank and April met at a party in Greenwich Village, she studying to be an actress, and he not doing much of anything but known to be an interesting talker, which trait sweeps April off her feet. There is no indication in the book that Frank was seriously preparing himself for an artistic career in any medium. The two have an affair, and April becomes pregnant. She wants to abort the child, but Frank successfully fights against and proceeds to get a job. They marry and move to the suburbs. This entire pre-episode is missing from the movie.

The young Richard Yates, authoring painful probes into the human condition of the times

April, now a housewife with two children, is restless. Her attempt to play the lead female role with a new community theater proves to be a disaster, and it is in the failure of this effort that the Wheelers come right up to the edge of the canyon that separates them in their marriage. Prompted by her dramatic failure, April insists that they pull up stakes and their children and move to Paris, where she will be a highly paid secretary and Frank will "find himself." It is never clear who is to take care of the children.

Frank reluctantly agrees, but soon the Wheelers run up against two obstacles: One of Frank's bits of off-hand writing has met with high-level company approvals, and there are offers to join a high-level promotional team, with higher pay and greater interest. Two, April is again and very unhappily pregnant. She proposes, again, abortion. Frank strongly fights against this, even to the point of accusing April of being crazy and needing psychiatric help because she does have natural motherly feeling (understandable given her orphaned childhood).

The message from the movie is that April is right--the suburbs are bleak and hopeless; there is no real life, only conformity. Conformity in the suburbs and conformity on the job--conformity which crushes true life. April declares (in the book) that "conventionality and morality are the same thing, aren't they?" But she has no real passion of her own, only a desperate desire to escape from what she perceives as self-suffocation. While Frank toys which such ideas, he not anymore serious about them than he is about his job or the woman he has a brief affair with in the office (after April tells him, in her rage over her dramatic failure, that he is no longer the man she loved and married, he is no longer a man). He does, however, like to attack suburbia and those who inhabit it as a way of exerting his own self-image as a superior, more serious being.

The Wheelers drink a lot, and so do their friends. Their children are entranced by TV. There is no religious faith.

Many families of the 1950s were headed by former GIs of World War II.

The book's center is the sharp knife-edge between the outlooks of these partners in a tortured relationship, although April's are so erratic and often so vicious, it is hard to sympathize with her. Yates never proffers a solution.

Yates also gives us the character of Mrs. Givings, the real estate agent who found the Wheelers their home on Revolutionary Road. Living with an older retired husband, she tries to befriend the Wheelers and wants them to help with her only son, a long-term patient at the local mental hospital. In a meeting with the Wheelers and the Givings' son, Mrs. Givings observed that they all seemed to be enjoying the afternoon, as was she: "the sound of their easy, nostalgic laughter filled her with pleasure, and so did the taste of her sherry, and so did the sherry-colored squares of sunset on the wall, each square alive with the nodding shadows of leaves and branches stirred by the wind"--a thought that comes to someone who is determined to make the best of it. Mrs. Givings, unlike the Wheelers, was also a hard worker.

It is noteworthy that for both Frank and his friend Sean Campbell, who lives next door with his family, their self-images of greatest potency and competence were wrapped up in their experiences as GIs in World War II. Perhaps these men were less discontent, because they had already experienced something they knew they could never achieve again. I don't know.

I am not recommending this book as a pleasurable read. (Read a good review of it at Booksnob and read a good review of the movie atLetters from a Hill Farm.) I read it because I am, in a snail-like pace, looking at thethe 1950s, through literature produced during the decade and soon thereafter. Yates was considered a chief chronicler of this era, along with John Updike, whom I have not yet read.

Although the 1950s is often indicated as the high point of the housewife, real life in the 50s, I believe, was far more fraught with psychological difficulties. It was during the 15 years after the World War II that the seeds of the 1960s cultural rebellion were sown. What was really going on inside the homes of America? I started thinking about this when I observed the startling differences between 1938's film Four Daughters and its 1954 remake Young at Heart.

If you know of books that explore the inner life of this era, I'd be very grateful for any recommendations. And if you have any thoughts on this era, from your own readings and experience, I would love to hear them, either through comments or email. Many thanks.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Fine Arts Friday: A Painting for the Sartorialist

Afternoon in the Park by William Merritt Chase, 1879

(Click on the painting to see a larger version.)

American impressionist William Merritt Chase painted this portrait when he was 30 years old. Here we see a young lady in the park who may be watching an event, given her folding chair, or perhaps she is in an artificial setting contrived by the painter.

Whatever the circumstances, we see a quietly confident young woman meticulously and tastefully dressed. I don't know if her dress is high fashion for her time, but the principles of its assembly are timeless. It is hard to imagine that she wore such an outfit on the advisement of her mother; she wears her clothes as the possessor of her style.

The arms of the chair match the red in her hat, the flower on her bodice, her belt, and fan, but we can note that she had already perfectly matched these items herself in dressing and chosen a gold bracelet and necklace to offset the outfit's dominating warm pinks and red. We can also note that the white lace of the bodice and the cuffs beautifully frames the dark intensity of her hair, eyebrows, and her expression, which speaks of a relaxed but thinking woman.

Or, perhaps her outfit was assembled for her by the artist. Either way, we have sartorial elegance.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Creating Beauty in the Frontier Home

Inside of a Nebraska sod house

I am always moved when I read about the efforts of women to make their frontier homes comfortable and beautiful--with barely any materials to do so. From this effort comes the American tradition of scrap quilting, for instance. Here, Mrs. Grace Snyder describes how, as a new wife, she worked to make her house livable for herself and her cowboy husband:

All the time I was growing up, on the homestead and the other places we had lived, Mama had "made do" with the little or nothing she had on hand to fix up her homes. Now I found I could do the same. We didn't have a table for the living room, so I made one by driving two old broomsticks into the sod wall and laying a wide board across them. I covered the shelf with a pretty scarf and put the parlor lamp and the Bible on it and set my rocking chair beside it. With old blankets for padding and one of my quilts for a cover, I turned the old wire cot into a decent front-room couch.

For a spare bed in the empty middle room, I propped an old bedspring from the Squaw Creek shack on canned goods boxes, and covered the bed and boxes with the pretty quilt I had made that long, lonesome winter at Aufdengartens (a family she worked for earlier). There wasn't a closet or a chest of drawers in teh whole big house, but I made out with stacks of boxes, covered with pretty calico curtains. And when I had hemmed and hung curtains at all the deep windows, the house looked really nice.

Birdcage outside of a sod home. Many frontier women, including Grace Snyder's mother, had canaries or other birds in cages inside or right outside the home.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

What Is Civilization, Anyway?

Sculpture signifying grammar on the wall of the Chartres Cathedral.

The quote on the right-hand sidebar of Under the Gables reads: "Every home was a brick in the great wall of decent living that men erected over and over again as a bulwark against the perpetual flooding in of evil. But women made the bricks, and the durableness of civilization depended upon their quality."

I firmly believe this, but it does beg the question: What is civilization?

In Chapter 4 of the 2009 book In Search of Civilization: Remaking a Tarnished Idea by John Armstrong, there is one answer that sounds promising:

Civilization is the life-support system for high-quality relationships to people, ideas, and objects: it feeds and sustains love ('love' is the one-word version of the phrase 'high quality of relationship'). In genuine love we do not only have an appetite for and devotion to something or someone, but we also perceive what is good and loveable and recognize our own need to meet and engage with that.

The life-support system for love has two aspects. First, civilization seeks to find and protect the good things with which--potentially--we can form high-quality relationships. And second, civilization fosters and protects the qualities in us that allow us to love such things for the right reasons. The qualities that inspire love are: goodness, beauty, and truth. And when we love these qualities we come to possess the corresponding capacities of wisdom, kindness, and taste....

Love is the antidote to fashion and gossip; for love spurns rapid change; it repudiates the language (and the inner attitude that fuels the words) of what is 'hot' or what is 'in.' Love spurns trivia--or, better, longs for what is real and substantial.

Mr. Armstrong's book explores the Athens branch that feeds into Western civilization, without exploring the contributions of the Jerusalem branch. Nevertheless, by placing love at the center of his definition, the door is open to a fuller definition that encompasses both, I hope.