Thursday, December 31, 2015

9th Canadian Challenge - 12th Review - Ossuaries

Dionne Brand is another one of Toronto's Poet Laureates, along with George Elliott Clarke.  In fact, she was the third, while Clarke was the fourth.  Judging from her 2010 book, Ossuaries, I am much more in tune with her than with Clarke.  I don't know how many of her other collections I will actually read, but I'll certainly consider delving into them occasionally, particularly as I still go to the City Hall library every few weeks, where they have many of her books on a special shelf with those of the other Poet Laureates.  Ossuaries actually won a major poetry prize, the Griffin Poetry Prize, in 2011.

While I was fairly sure what it was, I did check and an ossuary is a box or other storage container to hold holy relics, particularly the bones of a saint.  They aren't terribly common in North America, but Europe is littered with them.

Unlike many other poetry books, Ossuaries is conceived of as a book-length poem.  While it is often intentionally vague, the story-line such as it is, concerns a young female revolutionary, Yasmine, who sort of drifts back and forth across the U.S.-Canadian border (near Niagara) though I think I remember she was in Quebec at one point.  This woman is in Cuba for a while but then seems to return to the U.S.  There's even a bank robbery at one point to raise money for the leftist groups she supports.

Each section is labelled as a different "ossuary."  I'm not entirely sure why that would be, unless Brand means to hold up different aspects of the story, sort of like different kernels of a legend-in-the-making, and figuratively deposit each one into a different box.  I found the poetic form more than a little distracting and personally think that the story would have worked better as a novella or even a full-length novel.*  (Of course, in the end I didn't like Fanny Howe's novels, and those were a kind of fusion of poetry and prose, though they fell much more on the prose end of the spectrum.)

Of the different sections, I preferred the ones where I had some inkling of what was actually going on.  For me the highlights were Ossuaries IV, VI, XII, XIII and XIV.  In Ossuary IV, you got a sense of where this woman came from.  She got caught up in the Black Liberation movement but was subservient to a fairly abusive older man in the movement.  Jazz music and revolutionary tracts seem to mingle.  While she still can listen to Mingus with some apparent pleasure, she can't stand Miles Davis: "Pharoah's Dance" had been playing for thirteen / of its twenty minutes. Owusu lies on the floor digging / Miles, he love Miles, the thin mean horn she hated ..."  Also, "here's the difference, she told him, / between Miles and Bird, / Miles kept living, till life was rancid..."  Incidentally, this may be one of the places where Brand is trying to introduce a bit of space between herself and this character.  There is clearly a nihilistic streak in many revolutionaries, preferring martyrdom to life with all its messy compromises.  Frankly, this is a juvenile attitude, and Brand seems to be calling her out on it, ever so slightly.

In Ossuary VI, she has separated from Owusu.  It appears she is in upstate New York somewhere east of Buffalo, though the "exact location must remain vague," and Yasmine is quite paranoid, like a true revolutionary figure.  In this section, I am more drawn to the language than the "plot" such as it is:

where was she, that again, which city now,
which city's electric grids of currents,
which city's calculus of right and let angles

which city's tendons of streets, identical
which city's domestic things,
newspapers, traffic, poverty

garbage collections, random murders,
shoplifting, hedge

(Given the emphasis on urban poverty, I am not entirely convinced that this isn't Buffalo, but perhaps it could be Albany or Syracuse...)

Things get fairly unclear in the poem in Ossuaries XII and XIII.  She is in some gang or revolutionary cell that is going around upstate New York (Utica, Corinth, Syracuse).  There doesn't seem to be any point to these wanderings, other than they are on the run from the authorities; perhaps that is reason enough: "the car's got endless fuel, they drive on."

Again the poetic language is powerful, even though the metaphors in Ossuary XIII don't advance the plot:
who will see the bedraggled gawping doorways,
the solitary deaths of finches that winters strand,
before smiles were wire, and before knives

were food and teeth were asphalt,
before sunlight was acid, on cedar porches
and hair was exiled beneath gas stoves,

the shawls strewn everywhere, sightless
walks in cities, the bony sands, the acidic
shorelines of skyscrapers, the seething airwaves all over

the starving boats and lithic frigates,
stingless bees, the canvas shirts,
the bright darkness, the clotted riverbeds...

(And so on.)

In Ossuary XIV, Yasmine is on a train with a forged passport.  She has to stay cool, keep to herself ("she talked to no one, found and kept a lone seat") and assume that the forger was competent.  It isn't clear, but I think she has crossed the border back into Canada.

While this has more "plot" to it than many sections, it also has a knowing reference to T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land ("April is the cruelest month"): "inhale the tentative air / of this April, / supine, cunning month, or perhaps / fickle, or perhaps out of control, / or perhaps this damp new month will / share out its thirty days, in its usual rain / and gasps of sunlight, / and occasional blisters of snow...".

Yasmine nears her destination: "what did this arriving city know of her, / her recumbent violence, her real / name like a music, with perfume on the end / Yasmine, some long-fingered horn player, / could blow confessions over those two cool syllables...".

She is not stopped, perhaps is not even suspected, and leaves the train unhindered: "Yasmine gathers her legs, her perfunctory luggage, / scythes the train car with her lethal gait, / stands first at the door when the wheels stop / she steps into another country, another / constellation of bodies...".

The poem is fairly open-ended in the sense Yasmine sort of melts away into the new setting.  There is no shoot-out, not even a knock on the door in the middle of the night.  (Of course, that might come at any point in the future, particularly if someone in her cell sells her out.)  It's sort of a typical post-modern poetry ending, lacking closure.  It's probably appropriate, given that the main character is so used to hiding out and being constantly on the move.  There is no pat ending for someone gone underground, unless, of course, Brand decided to end on a shoot-out as in Bonnie and Clyde, which would be a different sort of cliché.  I don't think this book would be for everyone, but I thought it was fairly interesting and some of the metaphors were well-done.

On a second and third rereading, I really liked Ossuary XIV (the next-to-last one) and think it really stands up quite well.  While it is probably too long to be included in its entirety,** I'll think seriously about excerpting it if I ever make more progress on my transportation poetry anthology.  After all, there are not all that many poems set on trains, at least post-1950.

* According to this review, Brand is also a novelist, and perhaps she simply thought the storyline would be too thin and she could indulge in more flights of fancy in a long poem format.  There's an interesting, positive extended review here, and a review that focuses on the desolate beauty inherent in the poem and considers it a dirge for contemporary society.  (Final linked review is behind a partial paywall at the Globe and Mail.)  My take is that there is more distance between Yasmin's perspective on life and Brand's.  However, I must admit that I haven't read Brand's other works, but I suspect I'll get to that in 2016 (along with the thousand other things I am hoping to do...).

** At least in a printed anthology.  An on-line anthology could contain almost anything.  I have been sorely tempted to just pull my proposed anthology together and put it on-line, but that would violate so many copyrights -- and burn so many bridges -- that if I ever did go legit later down the line, I would find many doors closed against me.

Aga Khan Blues

I may have mentioned that I went up to the Aga Khan Museum right after it opened.  It is a decent museum, focusing on Islamic art with most of the space given over to rotating exhibits.  (It is a bit odd that they did not plan it out for a bit more space for the permanent collection.)

I am not really that upset that the founder is attempting to get tax-exempt status, which is in line with most of the other museums in Toronto.  What does bum me out is that the price is really out of line for what you actually see on any particular visit.  It is $20 for adults and $15 for children -- way out of line.  Wednesday evenings it is free (or perhaps pay what you can), and I have thought about trying to make it up there, as opposed to the AGO, which also has its free evening on Wednesday.  However, I have been pretty busy these past few weeks and not able to get away at all, and certainly not a couple of hours early, which is what it would take to catch the subway and then the bus to get to the museum.

I had kind of forgotten about the whole thing until I saw that the Pape-Danforth Library often has passes to the Aga Khan Library (I should have investigated this sooner).  But in what I think it really an unreasonable restriction, the passes are not valid during the holiday break.  The current exhibit, which is the only one I really want to see, ends on Jan. 3, and the passes aren't valid until Jan. 5.  So even though the museum is open tomorrow (one of the few things that is), I'll take a pass, since I know I won't consider it worth spending $20.  Even though the next exhibit isn't quite as interesting, I'll take the kids one weekend in Feb. or early March before the pass expires.  (The sweet spot might be between Feb. 6 and 14 when the Istanbul exhibit has opened and they are playing Kiarostami's Five in a different part of the museum, though I know I won't be able to watch the whole thing, particularly with the kids in tow.)

The Aga Khan Museum has decided to celebrate Abbas Kiarostami with a retrospective that runs from Jan. 28 Feb. 25 to March 27 April 3.  Actually, now that I have read this more carefully, it looks like this is a retrospective at the TIFF Lightbox downtown, which makes it vastly more appealing to me.  Apparently, the details are still being worked out, and it might even shift by a few days here and there.  I might be persuaded to go see The Traveler, Kiarostami's first feature and one not easily available.  I'm not sure about the others, since they are generally not that hard to rent on DVD and most of them don't seem to require the big-screen treatment and indeed might even benefit from being seen in a more intimate setting.  I'll see how I am feeling in Feb. and March and what else I am doing before I commit to getting any tickets.

Edit: It took TIFF a while to update their information, but they have some interesting pairings here, which is more definitive than the link just above.  I'm away for much of March, but I'll certainly consider seeing The Traveler on March 24.  There's a small to moderate chance I will decide to see Like Someone in Love on April 3.

Best theatre of 2015

I simply saw too much theatre in 2015 to try to boil it down to a top 5 or even a top 10.  I'll just list the plays that I found something notable to enjoy, as best as I can recall in the order I attended these plays.  (I'd say this covers 65% or so of the non-Shakespearean theatre I attended, though there were a few shows I really didn't care for, which I will let sink without a trace.)  I've tried to include all the links to meaningful internal posts with my thoughts, but I'm sure I missed a few.

The Other Place by Sharr White (Canadian Stage)

The Object Lesson by Geoff Sobelle (Harbourfront)
Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre de Laclos/adapted by Christopher Hampton (Red One)
Problem Child by George F. Walker (Red Sandcastle)

Blithe Spirit by Noel Coward (Mirvish)
A Woman is a Secret by John Patrick Shanley (RipJaw/Storefront Theatre)
Blood Wedding by Federico Garcia Lorca (Buddies in Bad Times)

Travesties by Tom Stoppard (Segal Centre - Montreal)
Infinity by Hannah Moscovitch (Tarragon)
Nongogo by Athol Fugard (Canadian Stage)
Boston Marriage by David Mamet (Headstrong Collective @ Campbell House)

The Bigger Issue by George F. Walker (Crazy Lady/Theatre Passe Muraille)
Trudeau and the FLQ by Michael Hollingsworth (Video Cabaret)
Trudeau and Levesque by Michael Hollingsworth (Video Cabaret)

Top Girls by Caryl Churchill (Shaw)
Mud by Maria Fornes (Theatre Asylum)

The Comedy of Errors by Shakespeare (Canadian Stage - High Park)
The Physicists by Friedrich Dürrenmatt (Stratford) 
887 by Robert LePage (Canadian Stage)

Intelligent Homosexual's Guide ... by Tony Kushner (Shaw)
The Tall Building by Jill Connell (Toronto Fringe)
Merry Wives of Windsor by Shakespeare (Toronto Fringe)
Twelfe Night by Shakespeare (Toronto Fringe)
Moby Dick by Herman Melville/adapted by David Catlin (Lookingglass - Chicago)

We the Family by George F. Walker (Hart House)
Albertine in Five Times by Michel Tremblay (UT Drama Centre)
Possible Worlds by John Mighton (Stratford) 

Yours Forever, Marie-Lou by Michel Tremblay (Soulpepper)

Talking Heads by Alan Bennett (Perfectly Peter @ Campbell House)
Wonder of the World by David Lindsay-Abaire (East Side Players)
Lady Windermere's Fan by Oscar Wilde (George Brown)
The Castle by Howard Barker (Red One) 

I did see one play in December (Tails from the City), which was an outdoor spectacle at the Evergreen Brickworks in Toronto.  I took my daughter.  She enjoyed it, even though we got caught up in a bit of a snowstorm, but even she agreed there was no meaningful plot, so I can't really put it up against these other plays.  After some back and forth, I decided I am going to skip Red One's The Chasse-Galerie, though I might go next year if they do make this an annual event.  I'm also going to skip the remount of Three Men in a Boat, since I already did see it and I need to be at least a bit smarter about money.  (It was/is worth seeing once, however.)

There were a couple of rarities on the list -- not only the dusting off of Dürrenmatt's The Physicists, which I enjoyed quite a bit (possibly my favourite production at Stratford this year), but Fugard's Nongogo and Fornes's Mud.  There is no question that I didn't see all that many comedies this year (aside from Shakespeare).  Even Stoppard's Travesties is a mix of humour and history, though I enjoyed it very much.  Probably the purest laugh-out-loud comedy of the year was Wonder of the World.  Not sure about next year -- it will probably be dominated by "serious" plays, but I'll probably see the farce Boeing Boeing at Hart House in the spring.

There certainly are a few interesting things on the horizon for 2016, but I'll probably just try to port this page over and extend it to cover the second half of 2016, rather than going into great detail here.  I do think I am going to cut way back at Stratford this year (only the Ibsen play for certain and possibly All My Sons if the reviews are very strong).  There are actually two plays that are probably worth seeing at Shaw -- Strindberg's Dance of Death and perhaps Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession (again depending on the reviews).  If this was all in Toronto, I would go to both of these and even Wilde's A Woman of No Importance, but I just do not care to travel that far.  Maybe if they come up with a shuttle bus like Stratford I would consider going, but for now Shaw is off my radar.  That's probably just as well, since it seems I am most attuned to independent theatre anyway, judging by what I really enjoyed over 2015.

9th Canadian Challenge - 11th Review - Lush Dreams, Blue Exile

You might be excused for wondering why I bothered reading another book of poems by George Elliott Clarke after I had not been particularly impressed by Traverse.  That's a fair question.  I suppose it is the fact that I kept seeing his books when I went to the City Hall library.  At any rate, I decided to read another collection, and it was Lush Dreams, Blue Exile: Fugitive Poems 1978-1993.

The first section is vaguely political, and Clarke has a few poems about the October Crisis when Trudeau sent troops into Montreal to try to stomp out the FLQ separatist movement.  It is just a bit amusing to read a poet with Black Nationalist leanings contemplating this use of state power/aggression, aware that he was not being targeted or particularly at risk.

"October Crisis" is probably the best of this group.  First Clarke watches the police move in (or imagines he is there watching, which is nearly the same):
All this hurt night, police clatter through rues
Constricted by their fears, and splash through glass,
Wade through sawdust doors, to handcuff lovers
And strip-search their fat, suspicious tomes,
Mistaking cubisme for communisme ...

There is something intriguing in how it was primarily intellectuals that were swept up in the arrests during the October Crisis.  This occurred in France and other European cities during the 1960s, but was far less common in North America.

Back in Ottawa, there is quite a different response, where party politics (and party tribalism) outweighs any genuine outrage.  (For that matter, it wasn't as if the Progressive Conservatives could afford to be seen as on the side of the FLQ!)
Now Liberals quote slick, quisling Latin
To each other in the gun-hushed Commons,
Softening, with suave, veronal accents ...
Their unapprehended insurrection.

It's very difficult for me to say where I would have fallen on the spectrum regarding the October Crisis.  If I had been under 20, I definitely would have been opposed to the government's actions.  I am not as sure how I would respond to armed rebellion (on the part of the FLQ) now that I have far more to lose.  I would probably have been a resigned supporter of doing what was necessary to keep the peace.  In any case, regardless of what one thinks about Trudeau's actions, by definition the State cannot lead an insurrection, so I think Clarke's final word of the poem is poorly chosen.

While in general, Clarke comes across as an urban poet, he has a few poems where he is exploring the countryside and the people living there, acknowledging they are much closer to nature.  "Hinterland" and "Homage to the Beloved Country" are probably the best two along these lines.  Ironically, even though he is writing in a negative fashion, saying essentially that there is much to be found and studied in the "hinterland": Hinterland is that country / you cannot even begin / to imagine," almost all the interesting imagery in the poem are wrapped up with the urban, either full-blown cities or "sea chanty towns."

I simply think Clarke is on firmer footing when in urban contexts, and it was a relief for me when he turns his attention to Halifax in "Halifax Blues."  He certainly doesn't pull any punches, painting a pretty bleak picture:
Junked cars bunch, hunch like rats; laundry,
Lynches, dangles from clothelines; streetlamps sputter,
Gutter, blow out; gross, bloated cops
Awake and pummel Lysol-scented drunks,
While God grins at scabbed girls who scour the streets
To pass pestilence to legislators.

(I wasn't particularly impressed with Halifax and particularly not the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, but I didn't hate it with such passion.  I would be interested to hear if Clarke was persona non grata in the Maritimes after publishing this and a few similar poems.  He's probably better off in Toronto anyway.)

While there were a few poems that stuck with me in Blue Exile (that's how I refer to this book), in general I wasn't particularly taken with this collection.  I think I am basically through with reading Clarke, as I am just not on the same wave-length he is, aside from sharing a very general interest in "the urban," but most 20th Century poets are urban poets, so that in itself is no real recommendation.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Horrible teachers

This post will try to pull together a few things that have been on my mind lately.  And no, despite my increasing annoyance at the elementary teacher job actions and strikes in Toronto and Vancouver, this has nothing to do with any of the teachers my children have had.

The trigger (and I use the word advisedly, since there appears to be an entire generation so delicate that they require warnings and ask in advance that their lecturers avoid "trigger words") was reading Sylvia Townsend Warner's Mr. Fortune's Maggot.  In so many ways, this is an inverse of the (superior in my view) novel by J.F. Powers: Morte d'Urban.  In Morte d'Urban, a smooth, urbane (and urban) priest is more or less banished to the wilderness of rural Minnesota, where he essentially rediscovers his faith and finds a new purpose ministering to his new flock.  In contrast, Mr. Fortune somewhat perversely chooses to become a missionary (despite the strong misgivings of his superiors), fails miserably at it, and, incredibly, is not recalled, despite making no progress at all -- making only one partial convert in 3 years.  I'm just not really feeling the payoff, since books about people failing in their careers are generally not that entertaining for me, though I might make exceptions for those where they are thwarted by external forces.  I guess I just don't see Mr. Fortune rising to the level of self-consciousness where he can identify his own short-comings as a priest.  (For all his failings, Fred Vincy of the novel Middlemarch at least realizes that he would make a lousy priest and he exerts himself (to some degree) to find another calling.)  Anyway, Mr. Fortune has such a weak understanding of human nature that he thinks he can comfort or at least distract his young charge by teaching him abstract mathematics and starts with geometry.  He, of course, is just as poor as a geometry tutor as he was/is as a priest.

The other main strand behind this post is what I consider a generational gap between Gen X and Gen Y.  There was some article by a Millennial either in the Guardian or in Slate (I can't seem to retrieve it now) where as a bit of an aside the author said that it should be taken as a positive sign that Millennials cared enough about their education that they often asked to retake mid-term exams where they had done poorly.  Most of the commentators below the line that addressed this aspect of the piece were a bit incredulous and hostile, and certainly in general, the reception of the piece was negative, feeling that the author had merely proved their point about how disappointing Millennials really were.  Nonetheless, there was one very persistent Millennial below the line who kept asking if Boomers or Gen X'ers would like it if they were fired for one bad day at work or one botched project.  Aside from the fact it is a silly comparison (getting a bad grade is not the same as being fired -- it is more like getting a bad mark towards one's annual review and this definitely does happen when someone botches a major project), it definitely reflects a very different approach to education -- that it is a continual process, that rewarding progress should matter more than absolute standards and that educators need to accommodate students with different educational needs -- and when taken to the logical extreme, that students have no meaningful accountability.  I don't really hold with any of this, but this is more or less what the education lobby has been promoting in North America for a decade or two.  (I'm not trying to single out educators -- every profession suffers from quite a bit of groupthink.  I just happen to think that the current trend in education is a pernicious one.)

However, university professors are brought up in a different system (much more dog eat dog), and it is fair to say that teaching students is more or less an afterthought, particularly at the more prestigious schools.  So it is a bit of a buzzsaw effect when students brought up through high school in a more supportive system hit university.

I probably would not have even written this post except on a shuttle bus back from the Brick Works yesterday, I overheard a young woman (probably the upper end of Gen Y) complaining about a terrible professor who would not let a friend of hers retake a mid-term.  I had kind of thought it was an urban legend, but here was the embodiment of this generation's entitlement in the flesh.  While she had some concrete examples of why he was a terrible professor, I still don't see why it is incumbent upon the professor to change the grading system or to offer make-up exams, unless that was clearly spelled out in the syllabus.  (For example, in the class I taught, I made it clear that the students could delay handing in one assignment for a week with no questions asked, but they could only do it once.  For a different course I TA'ed, it was spelled out that the lowest grade on one assignment would be dropped.  I think these are examples of trying to accommodate students and understanding that not all assignments will register equally well for all students.  But it is simply unfair to allow one student to get preferential treatment on a mid-term!)

I had professors I got along well with, but I simply didn't understand what they wanted on an assignment, and I accepted the poor grade.  No question I was unhappy about it, but it wouldn't even have crossed my mind to complain about it.  For that matter, I ran into a professor where my style of learning and his lectures didn't coincide at all, and I eventually had to withdraw from the class and retake the class with a different professor. That was certainly unfortunate, but again, I think it is one of the things one learns in college -- that not everything revolves around you and your needs.  (In the spirit of full disclosure, I did try to get the "W" taken off my transcript after I passed the course the following semester, since I thought that was within the rules, but I didn't pout when I found out I had withdrawn too late.)

Given all the quirks of academia -- and all the years I was part of it -- it is actually surprising that I have not had that many terrible professors.  Most were quite good.  I did have some I didn't find very inspiring, but I still learned something from them.  I had one statistics professor who was quite good on abstract theory, but it was only the follow-up lectures by the TA that allowed any of us to understand the practical details and thus complete the assignments and pass.  (This is a case where the department took preemptive corrective actions.  I might have had a more sympathetic ear for those Millennials if we had been given lectures on one thing and been tested on another.)  I did have one professor of philosophy take over a course and change the entire direction -- we had to spend far more time on Hegel than was allotted, and this ended up being a disappointing course, not just because of the swerve but because I was not in sync with this professor's style.

In terms of the worst, as I think over my whole career, I only had one professor who literally dusted off old notes and gave the same lecture year after year.  He was probably the third worst professor I had.  The second worst was at U Michigan where a professor of religion basically insisted that we parrot back what she had lectured to us in our term papers.  The very worst was a professor at U Toronto, who, in addition to expecting us to parrot back her line of thought, was actually quite sarcastic to students in the out group. Hands down she was the worst professor I ever experienced.  Yet even there I didn't go and complain about the grade (though I did think it unfair) or ask to resubmit a paper.  However, a few years later I did try (unsuccessfully) to sink her chances of tenure when UT contacted me, somewhat out of the blue.

I think professors and university students always have some gulf between them, but it seems to have gotten much worse in recent years.  Expectations are unchecked, and a consumerist mindset has infested many of the students (and their parents!) that it is the students who are paying for a good education, which by necessity includes getting good grades.  The more privileged and prestigious universities are making some headway against this tide, but the trends are not promising.  While there are many days I wish I was in academia, I also read about these Millennials expecting to retake tests and negotiate their way to a better grade, and I realize I am well out of that.  I'm quite sure I would be rated as an unsympathetic and unfair teacher myself with poor scores on, particularly on the Hotness score.  It kind of boggles my mind that this is what matters nowadays.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Best reads of 2015

While I am still working my way through George Eliot's Middlemarch -- and hope to wrap it up in the last few days of 2015 -- I can tell right now is not going to crack my top 10 or even top 20 books read in 2015.  The plot is reasonably clever, but I do not care for Eliot's obtrusive narrative voice.  It is somewhat easier to take than in The Mill on the Floss, which I really did not care for, but I just feel that I am constantly being told what to pay attention to in each chapter and, worse, how I should think/feel about all these events.  Dickens and Trollope also share this weakness on the completely omniscient narrative voice, but somehow Eliot is continually rubbing me the wrong way.  (It doesn't help that one of the characters starts out as totally feckless and spoiled, though it appears he finally get serious about choosing a career after he is disappointed in not receiving a large inheritance from his uncle.  I just do not respond well to feckless characters, which was continually a problem when I was reading Barbara Comyns's novels.  Perhaps I also see a bit too much of Casaubon in myself -- and don't care for the novel acting as a mirror.  Not the irrational jealousy, but the unwillingness to finish large, ambitious projects, perhaps in part to avoid opening oneself up to criticism.)

At any rate, building off of my 2014 round-up post, I think I have the format down.  I list the top 5 books of the year (not counting books I re-read since those aren't precisely discoveries, and I only re-read books that already rank very highly on my personal enjoyment factor).  Then I round it off with other books that stood out among the dozens of books I read over the year.  I link where possible to the posts that have discussed these books, either in detail or just in passing.

Top five books of 2015:

Gregor von Rezzori An Ermine in Czernopol
Ivan Vladislavic The Restless Supermarket
Albert Cossery Proud Beggars
Friedrich Dürrenmatt The Physicists (saw and read this in 2015)
Bruno Schulz The Street of Crocodiles/Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass (often published together in one volume)

Franz Kafka's The Trial edges out Djuna Barnes's Nightwood for the best book reread.

Honorable mention:
Andrey Platonov Happy Moscow
Tom Stoppard Travesties (saw and read this in 2015)
Barbara Comyns The Juniper Tree
Elizabeth Taylor A View of the Harbour
Molly Keane Time After Time
Jerome K. Jerome Three Men in a Boat
Angela Carter Nights at the Circus
Irène Némirovsky David Golder
Michael Ondaatje The Cat's Table
R. K. Narayan Mr Sampath: The Printer of Malgudi

The Narayan is an interesting case as I thought a few parts felt familiar, but it wasn't until this dramatic scene towards the end where one of the minor characters goes off the deep end and tears up a movie studio that I decided I had definitely reread the book.

After some internal debate, I decided to add The Cat's Table as well.  I find this a flawed novel, in the sense that Ondaatje tried too hard to overcomplicate the structure of the novel.  Frankly, it would have been so much better as either a simple story of the boy on a ship headed to England, or one step removed -- the retrospective view of this trip.  But the shifting back and forth in time was too precious and undermined what was well done.  Still, if I prune away the elaborate structure, the remaining shipboard scenes were quite entertaining.

Looking ahead, I have quite a few shorter (250 pages or less) novels coming up, which always makes me feel particularly "productive" in crossing books off my TBR pile.  Based on my current pace, in the second half of 2016, I should start hitting Tobias Smollett for the first time.  I hope I can get into the right frame of mind to read him, since he is supposed to have written quite a few "rollicking" novels.  (Sometimes the humor of the past doesn't quite translate to the present.)  At some point after this, I should get around to rereading Bell's Waiting for the End of the World (and I'll see if it has such a big impact on me this time around -- here's hoping).  The back end of the year features quite a few longer books, including Wallace's The Pale King, Murakami's 1Q84 and Thackeray's Vanity Fair.  While I suspect if I stick closely to the reading list I won't quite make it to Vanity Fair in 2016, I might rearrange it to tackle it in December, as I tend to have more time off around the holidays.  That's something to look forward to at any rate.

Best wishes to all for 2016!

The main galleries of the Cleveland Museum of Art

No question the most compelling reason to get to the Cleveland Museum of Art is to see the special exhibit, which heavily features Monet's paintings of his garden, along with other key Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings of gardens.  There is just over a week left, so if you haven't already made plans, it may already be too late.  I spent a bit over an hour trying to soak it all in, and it was certainly worth the trip.

I haven't spent all that much time in Cleveland, though I went a couple of times for conferences in 2001 and 2003 (both times I snuck away to the Cleveland Museum of Art) and then I went once or twice for work probably around 2008 or 2009, though I don't think I had time to get to the museum.  I suspect I did not go, since the big renovation of the museum would have been happening at that time, and I certainly don't remember seeing a lot of construction activity.  The main difference is that the original building had its main entrance facing a small pond.  This has now become a secondary entrance and it was actually closed for the winter!

You had to walk around to the north side.  (That's a bit of a shame as people will generally miss out on seeing Rodin's The Thinker in what used to be the front of the museum.  It is only a small dark dot in the photo above.)

One quite important change is that the north entrance is lower, so that after you enter and go past the gift shop and the main atrium (note the long line of people trying to get tickets for the show), you start on what used to be the lower level (Medieval art and Asian art and Islamic art and even textiles).

I suspect with the new configuration, these galleries are visited slightly more often than before.  On the whole this is a good thing.  I knew I had very little time, however, and pretty much raced around the bottom in about 15 minutes.

I'm generally not much of a fan of Medieval art, but in honor of the season, I will post this Adoration of the Magi, which I thought was well done (if a bit out of focus).

Giovanni di Paolo, The Adoration of the Magi, ca. 1442

I then went upstairs and almost immediately was confronted with a very powerful Turner painting, depicting the burning of the Houses of Parliament in 1834.

 J. M. W. Turner, The Burning of the House of Lords and Commons, 16th October, 1834, 1834-35

As it happened, no one at all was in the gallery with me, so I was able to soak it in (again, keeping one eye on my watch).  I took a few detailed close-ups, as it is just hard to get a sense of what Turner was doing without getting close to the paintings.

While from a selfish perspective, it was nice to have the painting all to myself, I think it a shame that the AGO couldn't convince the Cleveland Museum to loan them this painting for their Turner exhibit (perhaps they didn't ask), since the companion piece from the Philadelphia Museum of Art is in the show, and putting them side by side would be really quite cool.

J. M. W. Turner, The Burning of the House of Lords and Commons, 16th October, 1834, 1834-35

I like both views, but I do have to give the nod to the painting held in Philadelphia as the contrast between the fire and the on-coming dusk makes it a bit bolder.  I think the composition is a bit more interesting as well.  I should be able to get over to the AGO for a short visit tomorrow, and I'll try to spend a bit of time in front of this painting if the crowds aren't too bad.

Anyway, the clock was ticking, so I headed out of the original 1916 museum building into the new galleries.  They were terrific with far too many paintings to detail.  I'll put up a few that really caught my attention without a lot of commentary.  In general, my photos came out pretty well with a few exceptions.  Fortunately, most of the ones that were blurred were ones that are in the new museum handbook, which I did purchase.  And indeed, many of the images are on the Cleveland Museum website, as is the case with an increasing number of museums.

Georges Braque, Guitar and Bottle of Marc on a Table, 1930

Paul Cezanne, Mount Sainte-Victoire, ca. 1904

Vincent van Gogh, The Large Plane Trees, 1889

Andre Derain, The Houses of Parliament from Westminster Bridge, 1906

Pablo Picasso, The Harem, 1906

Pierre Bonnard, Café Terrace, 1898

Edouard Vuillard, Café Wepler, 1908-12

I turned the corner and came to the gallery with the painting I was really looking for: Max Beckmann's The Last Duty of Perseus.  I don't really understand the painting, but it is definitely powerful if a bit too gruesome.  (I actually wasn't that sad not to have the kids with me as I couldn't really have taken much time in front of this painting with them around.)

Max Beckmann, The Last Duty of Perseus, 1949

At this point, the collection started turning towards surrealism and then the abstract expressionists.  While there were several important works here, I was most drawn to the Stuart Davis,* with its pop sensibilities creeping into abstraction, and the Guston, which is arguably a pop work.  (I probably wouldn't have been too upset if either of these paintings had gone back into storage, though I was certainly glad to see them.  I would have been quite upset, however, if the Beckmann wasn't on view.)

Philip Guston, Tour, 1969

Stuart Davis, Composition Concrete, 1957-60

It was probably just as well that part of Japanese art galleries were closed for renovation, and I kept moving around the ring to reach Indian art.  I took a minute to snap this photo of Ganesha (the god of travellers).  Who knows if that gave me just enough karma to catch my Greyhound bus out of Cleveland...

However, I knew I was living on borrowed time by the time I reached the American galleries back in the 1916 building.  In fact, most of these photos are blurred, but a few ones turned out reasonably well (both by Childe Hassam incidentally).

Childe Hassam, Fifth Avenue, 1919

Childe Hassam, Fifth Avenue Nocturne, ca. 1895

Then it was really and truly time to go, so I ran into the gift shop, retrieved my bag and set out onto the mean streets of Cleveland, hoping to find a cab to take me back downtown.  I certainly wouldn't be averse to returning to Cleveland and checking out the museum again, but I hope it will be in a few years when I can rent a car (probably driving the whole family there), so I don't end up in such a jam again.

* While researching something else, I learned that the Stuart Davis is the earlier study for a larger painting (33% bigger but otherwise almost identical) in the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh.  I've been meaning to get down one of these days, and I'll try to make sure it is on view when I do.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Albright-Knox -- what's on view

As I already related, I was so disappointed that they didn't have the Max Beckmann on display at the Albright-Knox.  I saw it in on tour in Milwaukee, but should have seen this painting at least twice (had we made it back in July 2014 but were derailed by a combination of an excessive line-up at the border and truly terrible Google directions).  Personally, I think they should have reinstalled it after it was returned.  Perhaps it will be reinstalled in the front of the museum and perhaps not.  I probably will not return unless I am sure it is back on view or there is some other incredibly compelling reason for me to go.

Within the Monet exhibit proper, the curators were mostly showing off their own collection but skewed towards the Impressionists and the early phase of post-Impressionism (roughly Gauguin to Kandinsky).  This particular painting struck me as only middling in quality (not so dissimilar from the art warehouses that sell paintings tossed off by the hundreds).

Jean-Francois Raffaelli, La Porte St. Denis, ca. 1909

However, I did like the bottom right corner of the painting, which had a bit of an Impressionistic flair.

I'm sure this is just pure fancy on my part, as the odds that he would have seen and or been inspired by this seem infinitesimal, but the simplified forms and color scheme of the Raffaelli reminds me just a bit of early Stuart Davis, particularly this painting.

Stuart Davis, Place des Vosges, No. 2, 1928

This painting is not in the Albright-Knox -- and I have a second beef with them for not reinstalling the Stuart Davis that they do own either!  It happens to be in the Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University.  I probably visited the museum on our trip through the Ivies back in the mid-80s, but I certainly can't recall if I saw this at the time.  I've pretty much decided to travel to the Stuart Davis exhibit at the Whitney this summer and/or at the National Gallery in early 2017.  I'd say the odds are quite good this will be lent to the exhibit, but if not, I suppose a road trip to Ithaca is not out of the question, but there would have to be some other reason to visit Cornell than just to see one painting!

Perhaps my favorite painting that they had reinstalled was this one by Giorgio de Chirico.

Giorgio de Chirico, The Anguish of Departure, 1913-14

While it is very hard to make out, it appears that the box car is hitched up to (and perhaps is being pulled by) some kind of animal hidden in the shadows.  The train proper (practically a de Chirico trademark) is incredibly small, but it can be seen in the distance.

In terms of completely new (to me) paintings, I thought these two were interesting, combining hints of cubism with figurative painting.

Roger de La Fresnaye, Marie Ressort, ca. 1912-13

Albert Gleizes, L'homme au hamac (Man in a Hammock), 1913

Of the two, I liked the hammock painting a bit better.  I wouldn't call it a wasted visit, but it didn't really live up to my expectations.  On the other hand, the main purpose of the trip (to get to Cleveland) met and somewhat exceeded my expectations, so I suppose it all evened out.  (Now had I been stuck in Cleveland an extra day due to my own foolishness, I might be thinking about the trip in a very different light.)  I'll discuss the Cleveland Museum of Art in the next post.

Christmas Interlude

I wouldn't say this has been exactly a relaxing Christmas, but I do feel I got around to quite a few things that I really wanted to get done.

I took care of the stockings fairly early on Christmas Eve, but then fell asleep and had to finish wrapping from about 3 am onwards.  Fortunately, the kids no longer run downstairs at the crack of dawn.  I heard my son walking around and 7 or 7:30, but he didn't actually come down, and my daughter slept in (I guess that is a side-benefit of her no longer believing in Santa).  Still, I was quite surprised that they didn't really make it down until just before 9 am.

It was definitely a smaller number of presents this year, though partly because they are getting other things, like the skates and skating lessons and so on.  I had to replace a laptop for my wife, and I would have been perfectly happy leaving it under the tree, but she wanted it as soon as it arrived...

My daughter started to get quite upset, since the one thing she had wanted was a thesaurus.  (Kids these days...)  There was one present left, and she didn't even want to open it.  Of course, that was a dictionary and a thesaurus from the grandparents, so she was happy after all.

I tried to relax for a bit and called relatively a bit later in the day.  Then I went downstairs to deal with my present (to myself).  I had bought one more bookcase to try to make the chaos downstairs a bit more manageable.   It took a while to put it together, in part because it is so space constrained that I had to move a bunch of boxes just to get the room to put the pieces down.  Then I reversed a piece (just like I did with the desk).  I was going to try to just live with it, but it actually would have made attaching the back difficult if not impossible.  So I undid a few parts and managed to put it right.  I had to be extra careful so that I didn't tear out any of the screws or dowels.  Then it took another few hours to go through the boxes and pull out the books I wanted.  I still am missing a few, but I have so many to read that I am not going to worry about them.  I'll try to clear out a shelf or so each year, and in a few years I'll be ready to go exploring for the lost books.

That took much of the day, so I spent a bit more time with the kids.  (I had meant to teach them how to play backgammon, but perhaps tomorrow...)  Then I decided to try to move the sewing machine downstairs to see if I can get done with the first set of curtains and maybe a stuffed toy for some visitors we are hosting tomorrow.  If this goes well, I will say I more or less have my touch back, and I can attempt the curtains and then the skirt and pajamas that I want to make.

And I decided I wanted to do some holiday baking.  I bought the ingredients for cream cheese cookies, molasses cookies (and/or ginger snaps) and something special I have in mind (pumpkin bars on a graham cracker crust).  Maybe next year I will be up for the sugar cookies that you roll out and cut into shapes.  I did that with the kids one year in Vancouver but just didn't feel up to it this time around.  In fact, given the late hour -- and the fact that I don't want to burn down the kitchen just to make holiday cookies, I stuck with the cream cheese cookies.  They came out pretty well.  I should have time to attempt one of the other two recipes tomorrow morning before our guests arrive, but for now it is definitely time for a cat nap.  It has been a long day for Santa's helper...


We haven't entertained a lot of guests in a long time, and it was maybe a bit overwhelming.  After about 2 hours, they said another friend was dropping by, and I gently suggested we meet her at a nearby coffee shop, and we talked there for another 90 minutes before the kids looked totally exhausted.

Anyway, the cream cheese cookies were a minor hit.

I simply did not have time to get to the other cookies while the guest were here.  Or rather I had started them, but between the shortening not being soft enough and the brown sugar being rock hard, I wasn't making much progress with the dough.

Curiously, letting it set out while we all got caught up softened it to the point I was able to finish all the mixing fairly easily after the guests left.  I wouldn't say the dough looked that appetizing, but the rolled up cookies looked pretty good (I was making ginger snaps with my daughter).

However, I think the recipe had the wrong mix of flour to shortening, since the cookies spread out into a kind of Jabba the Hutt cookie that completely covered the baking sheet.*

Broken back up into smaller pieces, it tastes ok, but not as good as I would have hoped.

I've gotten some advice from the cookie doctor (my dad) to see if the remaining dough can be salvaged, but I suspect this is just going to go into the bin as a failed experiment.

* I'm taking my son to the new Star Wars movie on Monday, so it is sort of on my mind at the moment.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Problems in Buffalo & Cleveland

Now the dark side of the trip: transit just sucks in these cities.  If you are intentionally trying to avoid renting a car because you are a) cheap, b) don't like driving, c) just generally keeping your carbon footprint down or d) some combination of the above, you probably ought to avoid these cities, or indeed the vast majority of the U.S. aside from New York, Chicago, D.C., San Francisco and arguably Philadelphia, Portland and Seattle.  It just isn't worth trying to figure out the bus systems and then potentially getting stranded.

I had planned the trip to have a 6 or so hour layover in Buffalo, to allow me to get to and from the Albright-Knox Museum.  I'd gone twice in the past on the bus.  I specifically looked up the bus route from the Buffalo Greyhound terminal to the museum, and it said to take the 25B Tonawanda route.  That name was definitely an eye-opener, and not something I would have come up with on my own.  The previous two times, I had asked the driver if the bus went by the museum, but I was almost an old hand at this point.  I kept my eyes open and things started to look not quite right.  The driver mumbled something about a reroute, but it was completely impossible to hear in the back.  I definitely should have gone and asked, but I thought I recognized one store, so I sat back and waited a bit longer.  Finally, I asked and it turned out that the buses had been completely rerouted and the 25 went up Delaware (though the sign on the bus still said Tonawanda, so they are updating this extremely slowly and inefficiently, since the bus is supposed to read Delaware).  Now it was the 20A Elmwood that I should have taken.  I was totally out of luck and to add insult to injury the bus driver wouldn't (or couldn't) give me a transfer!  I walked across several blocks to get to Elmwood and then walked south towards the museum.  I probably would have taken a bus back, but the service is not very good.  I must have walked a mile and didn't see any bus overtake me!  I only saw one cab in that whole time as well, but he wasn't taking any fares.  So I was pretty steamed by that time, since I was given such a bad steer by the transit agency's own website.  (I should have taken a screenshot but I didn't think about it at the time, since it didn't seem necessary.)

Then I enter the museum and find out that roughly half is given over to a small Monet exhibit -- and that they have suspended their reciprocal privileges with the AGO, so if I want to see these paintings I will have to pay the full exhibition price.  I thought that was pretty unmannerly.  There should at least be a discounted rate.  I went around and saw the paintings not in the exhibit, including a few I hadn't seen before, but it seemed like pretty slim pickings frankly.  So I paid to get into the Monet exhibit.  It was ok, though they only had 8 Monets on view and only two that I would consider masterworks (a water lily painting on loan from Dallas and a haystack from the Art Institute of Chicago).  Maybe 8 or so paintings were the Albright-Knox masterworks that I had seen last summer in Milwaukee (as discussed here).  So it was nice, but not really worth $15 in my view.

I was fairly upset that they had not put the Max Beckmann back up.  Seeing that again would have helped me feel that this was not a completely wasted side trip.  It's not like there wasn't space on the museum back wall.  And it is featured on one of their postcards.  Call me crazy, but when a museum advertises itself with a certain number of paintings (through the postcards that they sell), they ought to try a bit harder to actually have these paintings on view most of the time.  I would say that each time I am back visiting the Albright-Knox, I actually like it a bit less (being totally befuddled by their decisions of what to show and not show).  Given the general unpleasantness of this trip to Buffalo, I probably won't be going back unless there is an absolutely amazing special exhibit, and I call and confirm that they have put Beckmann's Hotel Lobby back on view.

Getting back to the downtown wasn't nearly as difficult, and I had a bit of time to wander around.  I bought some shoes at Payless and some snacks for the bus ride to Cleveland.  I was actually asked if I was going to pay for them with my WIC stamps!  And while I am sure it is temporary, at the Greyhound station, the regular restrooms were all shut down and people had to go outside to some trailers and Porto-potties.  Let's just say that downtown Buffalo is not really a thriving metropolis...

The bus ride to Cleveland was fairly uneventful, and I was able to have a seat to myself.  (I did read a fair bit on the trip, but half of what I had expected to get through.)  I took a cab from the Greyhound station to the Glidden House, which is a pleasant hotel out by the Cleveland Museum of Art.  I would certainly stay there again if I go to Cleveland again, which is no sure thing.

I got up fairly early, though I had some work to take care of.  I didn't get to the museum until 10 sharp.  If I had known everything, I would have tried to get there 10 minutes sooner, as it would have made a big difference, since the will call line was fairly long.  I enjoyed the Impressionists in the Garden show quite a bit and stayed slightly over an hour.  That only gave me about an hour and a half to see the rest of the museum.  I went through the lower level quite quickly (maybe 15 minutes) and reserved most of the remaining time for the upper level, which is also where they expanded the museum the most.  I'll write about what I saw there in the next post.

The bottom line is that by the time I finished up with a visit to the bookstore and getting my bag back from bag check, it was exactly 1 pm.  This was extremely tight timing, since the Greyhound bus left at 2 pm!  So not very good planning on my part, and I kept doubling down on bad mistakes.  First, I didn't see any information desk in the museum where they could help me order a cab.  I should have just insisted, even if that meant interrupting the people at the ticketing desk.  Second, I had hoped that there would be a cab dropping someone off outside the museum, but that was a complete misreading of the situation.  So I decided to walk over to Euclid to catch the main bus back to downtown (the Health Line).  And I saw it drive by, and the information screen hinted that the next one would be 30 minutes later!  Seriously, what terrible service for such a major transit corridor.

At this point, I was wondering if I could hail a cab and started walking towards the medical center.  After a bit of time, I realized that this was not going to happen, but I didn't have any phone number to call a cab.  This was more bad planning on my part, since most times I write down a few cab companies when I am in a strange city.  I guess it was a bit of brain freeze, as well as just assuming I would take local transit back from the museum.  (It was certainly unfortunate that the Greyhound bus wasn't leaving at 2:30 or so, since then my panic levels would have been kept in check.)

I finally tried to turn on my internet service on the phone, and it simply wouldn't work, even after I turned data roaming back on!  So there I was completely stuck with no cab numbers and the clock ticking!  I finally called my wife and had her text me back some numbers.  I reached a cab company and he said that it would be 20-30 minutes to send a cab over!  Are you kidding me?  And then I remembered that Cleveland is a lot like the south side of Chicago, though seemingly worse in terms of transit service, and you just can't expect to get around without a car.  To make things worse, I saw another one of the Health Line buses go by.  (Most likely it wouldn't have gotten to the downtown in time anyway, but I was going out of my mind with anxiety at this point, and this just seemed to be taunting me.)  So I just stayed put and stewed.  The cab driver showed up in about 15 minutes, and he was a bit of a speed demon anyway, so he was more than happy to try to get to the Greyhound in less than 15 minutes.  I think he managed it in 10 minutes, and I was incredibly grateful that I had been saved from my own bad decisions.  Of course, I didn't have much time to do more than hit the restroom and get a few things out of the vending machine.  (I ate incredibly poorly on this trip.)  Then the bus driver took his time, and we loaded and left 10 minutes late.  But Murphy's Law suggests that had I gotten on that second Health Line I missed, I would have turned up at 2:03, and the Greyhound would have left on the dot...

The bus back to Buffalo was a bit more crowded, and I had to share my seat.  I also had to do a fair bit of work, which I hadn't been expecting.  When I was finished with that, it turned out that none of the reading lights worked!  The layover in Buffalo was shorter than it should have been but I didn't really care at that point, so long as I made it back to Toronto.  The main issue on this leg was that we were held up 30 minutes by one passenger who was finally cleared at Customs, and we also picked up a Canadian who had been refused entry to the U.S. and had to take the bus back home!  So there are a lot of lessons learned, but the main one is just not to go to Buffalo and Cleveland without having access to a car.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Monet exhibit in Cleveland

I am just back from Cleveland where I went specifically to see the Painting the Garden exhibit.  It is on for slightly over 2 more weeks, but some of those days are lost to holidays.  (After this, it goes to the Royal Academy in London from Feb-April 2016.)  The lines are getting pretty long, so it is worth pre-ordering tickets, particularly if coming from out of town.

This was quite an impressive exhibit, and if one is a big fan of Claude Monet, I would say it is a must-see exhibit, particularly if you are in the Midwest or even as far away as New York.  I actually ran into someone else from Toronto who had come down to see the show and might even go back a second time.  I am glad I went, though I would definitely do a few things differently in the future.  I think I will use this post to discuss the exhibit, the next post to talk about what went wrong on the trip (many things actually) and then close on a more positive note by discussing the rest of the paintings I saw at the Cleveland Museum of Art in a third post.  I actually have not been there since the remodeling & expansion, so there was quite a bit more to see, but I'll get to that later.

As one might imagine, this was an exhibit just awash in color, which was a nice contrast to the wintery landscape outside.  While it wasn't particularly cold, there was snow on the ground in Cleveland and most plants have packed it in for the year.

There were a couple of nice surprises, including a painting by Cezanne and a glorious Caillebotte from a private collection where these red flowers explode out of the foreground.  I assume this is in the catalog, but I won't be reunited with mine until March or so (long story).  While French impressionist painting dominates the show, the second half has more conventional painting by their contemporaries (including John Singer Sargent) then moves into the post-impressionists, such as Van Gogh, Munch, Klee (while I like Klee, I thought this was a stretch), Kandinsky and Matisse.  The show is sort of anchored by this last painting by Matisse, actually owned by the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Henri Matisse, Interior with an Etruscan Vase, 1940

While I really like this painting and spent a fair bit of time examining it, I think it is another huge stretch to say this is a "garden" painting.  One critic, trying to make the connection, say that it is due to the pressures of war that the garden must be brought inside, but that still doesn't make it a garden in my view.

In terms of what is not on view, a different critics wishes that the Tate Britain had been willing to loan this painting by John Singer Sargent to the show, or to the London venue at least.

John Singer Sargent, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, c. 1885

Reading a bit more about the backstory behind this painting, it does seem a bit churlish not to loan it to the Royal Academy show, since Sargent was a member of the RA and in fact the RA owned the painting and eventually donated it to the museum that became the Tate Britain!  I suppose it had just been loaned out before to a different show.  I assume I have seen this painting in person, as I made several trips to the Tate Britain over the years, but it obviously didn't make a huge impression on me at the time.  It is painted en plain air, like the Monets but stylistically it is so different that I, for one, am not devastated that it was not part of the show.

The second half of the show circles back around to Monet as he got increasingly more adventurous and even a bit abstract.  He began breaking things down into shapes, and I can see where he probably influenced Cy Twombley for example and perhaps Matisse in his late water lilies sequences.  Apparently, Monet was influenced by the adventurousness of Turner late in his career and started working with radical color schemes, and even unusual textures.

I found the Japanese bridge series particularly fascinating.  In the first half of the show, there are two quite attractive but conventional paintings of a Japanese bridge in Monet's garden.  I will just post the more famous of the two, which is in the collection of the Musee d'Orsay.

Claude Monet, Le bassin aux nymphéas, harmonie verte, 1899

He continued working this theme regularly, and this post is excellent at showing some of the intermediate stops along the way to these late, radical yet wonderful transformations of the bridge.  Two of Monet's late bridge paintings are in the last room of the exhibit.

This one is in the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

Claude Monet, The Japanese Bridge, 1923-25

This one is from the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Claude Monet, Nymphéas, Japanese Bridge, 1918-26

I actually took the time to go back to the earlier version then to see these again.  They are so textured, even more than Van Gogh, that it really pays to see them in person.  It is hard to believe they are from the same painter that did the painting in the Musee d'Orsay, but Monet traveled quite a distance in his artistic journey, perhaps further than most people (including me) often credit him.  While I didn't see it, apparently there was a show in 1998 in Boston (and in London at the Royal Academy again) called Monet in the 20th Century, which really focused on the late bridge sequence (including these two) and quite a few of his final water lily paintings.

However, that show did not have the huge water lily triptych, which is the main reason it is so important to see this show if one loves Monet.  This painting was broken up and the individual canvases are owned by the Cleveland Museum of Art, the St. Louis Museum of Art and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City (I've never been to the last one but hope to some day).  The three canvases are only put together every 30 years or so.  I am quite surprised that they are making the trip to London, but all the more reason to go. (I do expect the crowds will probably be twice as dense as they were in Cleveland.)

This is how they look all put together:

Claude Monet, Water Lilies (Agapanthus), ca. 1915-1926

What is interesting is that these paintings very much follow Impressionist principles in the sense that from a distance, it is clearly a pond full of water lilies, but up close (even closer than this view of the left-hand panel, which is the one the Cleveland Museum of Art owns) they start breaking down into abstract forms.

Now this is not the only way to get a Monet fix, even at this huge scale.  Now that the MoMA has expanded, they basically always have their triptych on display, but I still recall the time when this was a rare event for them to break it out of storage and put it up near the restaurant on the second floor.

Claude Monet, Reflections of Clouds on the Water-Lily Pond, ca. 1920

I like both, though I would say that the triptych owned by MoMA is slightly more conventional than the one on view in Cleveland.  Nonetheless, I am looking forward to a chance to see the Monet in New York this March.  I am certainly hoping there will be fewer snags on that trip than this one, but that is a different post altogether.