Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy New Year

Happy New Year to everyone (and a happy birthday to my Mom today!). Here is Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's Dance at the Moulin Rouge, 1890 (in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, click to enlarge) as a suitably festive image.

Speaking of Toulouse-Lautrec, here's an exhibition to add to the Spring Roundup below: "Toulouse-Lautrec and Paris" at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute (Williamstown, MA) from February 1st through April 26th. The show will include nearly all of the Clark's holdings on the artist, along with works by some of his contemporaries (e.g. Degas and Steinlen). Over eighty oil paintings, posters, photographs, drawings, and lithographs will be featured.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

A Nativity at Night

This post comes a few days late for Christmas, but it is always a good time for a beautiful painting. In honor of the season, I give you one of my favorite (if not very favorite) Nativity scenes in European art, the lovely late 15th-century "Nativity at Night" by the Netherlandish painter known as Geertgen tot Sint Jans (image courtesy the National Gallery website, click to enlarge). This small (34 x 25.3 cm) oil painting on wood panel today is in the National Gallery in London and is one of the earliest nighttime Nativity images. I first saw it in an undergraduate Northern Renaissance art history class about twenty years ago and have loved it ever since.

Geertgen tot Sint Jans is thought to have been born in Leiden and to have been a pupil of the Haarlem painter Albert van Ouwater, one of the first Netherlandish oil painters. Geertgen, however, had a short career; he was associated with the monastery of the knights of Saint John in Haarlem (hence his nickname) and died there in his late twenties. Only about a dozen to 15 works attributed to him survive today (some are disputed). We do know that some of his paintings were destroyed by iconoclasts during the Reformation.

This peaceful Nativity is partly inspired by the visions of the 14th-century mystic Bridget of Sweden, who envisioned the dazzling body of the infant Christ at the Incarnation. The Virgin Mary, angels, and even friendly animals gather around the manger; Joseph stands in the shadows, hand to his chest in awe. In the background, a hovering angel gives another point of light, announcing the good news to the shepherds on the hillside. Throughout, Geertgen tot Sint Jans uses the medium of oil paint to its best advantage, in his rendering of light and shade, and careful detail. Photographs do not do this piece justice -- in the museum, faced with its small size, one can appreciate even more the delicacy and virtuosity of Geertgen's hand, as well as the moving nature of the subject.

Happy Holidays to all and a belated Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Showcasing Women in Ancient Athens

Today's New York Times includes a review of the new exhibition at the Onassis Cultural Center, "Worshiping Women: Ritual and Reality in Classical Athens." This important new show, which runs through May 9th, was co-curated by Nikolaos Kaltsas, director of the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, and Prof. Alan Shapiro of Johns Hopkins University, a mentor of mine who served on my dissertation committee. It includes objects from several Greek collections, not only those of the National Archaeological Museum but from smaller national museums like that at Brauron.

What makes this exhibition important is its challenge of the notion that women in ancient Athens lived lives of strict seclusion and restriction. While women could not participate in political life, it's true, one arena where they played a very important role is the religious life of the city. The exhibition explores the festivals and rituals in which women took part, as well as the representation of female deities in Athenian art.

This is a topic close to my heart -- my dissertation focused on images of female musicians on Athenian vases -- and I encourage anyone heading to New York or living there to check out this show. The Onassis Center is located at 645 Fifth Avenue, near 52nd Street; their website is for more information.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Banner Year for Van Gogh Books

The Van Gogh Museum has just released their 2009 publications programme (download it at their website), and I might as well write them a big check right now for the things I plan to buy. It's going to be a banner year in van Gogh studies!

The "big one," the publication that has the potential to reshape our understanding of Vincent (oh! how my pulse races!), is the Five Volume, Completely Annotated, Fully Illustrated, In-Process-Since-1994 new edition of van Gogh's complete correspondence. 2500 pages! 2000 illustrations! It is set to be released in October 2009 (about the time of my own book, I love it), in conjunction with a special exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum showcasing actual letter manuscripts, and in English, Dutch, and French editions. All editions include the original text of all the letters in brand new translations, annotated commentary on each letter, and illustrations of all works of art discussed in the letters. The English edition is being released through Thames and Hudson, which I hope means it will be easily available via Amazon stateside. According to the VGM's publication programme, the cost is 300 Euros until January 2010, at which point price goes up to 350 Euros (price in US dollars not given). The volumes will also be available digitally through a special website.

What makes this publication exciting is that the letters will be included and translated as Vincent wrote them: no euphemisms (so his sometimes salty language will stay in), no amendments, and no excised passages. Johanna van Gogh-Bonger's original collection of the letters, quite understandably, left out some passages that might be sensitive to the family or that she felt might be otherwise inappropriate. What could those be?! (Ten bucks says I will be shouting "Gah! I want that in my novel! And it's too late!" many times while perusing the five volumes.)

As if that weren't enough to get me giddy, two more 2009 publications from the VGM will definitely make it to my bookshelf:
*Louis van Tilborgh and Ella Hendriks, Vincent van Gogh Paintings, 2: Antwerp and Paris, 1885-1888: the next volume of catalogues of the VGM's permanent collection. 500 pages, listed at 99 Euros. The recent volumes of the drawings catalogues have been available via Amazon, so this one may be too. Otherwise it can be purchased through the VGM website in autumn 2009.

*The latest volume in the slim-but-packed-with-good-research Van Gogh in Focus series, entitled "Van Gogh and Montmartre." These, unfortunately, are only available at the VGM or through its website. I have three of the five earlier titles, and they're terrific.

Happy Reading in 2009!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Spring Exhibition Roundup

With the New Year come new shows. This list is in no way intended to be comprehensive, but here are some upcoming museum exhibitions that strike my fancy:

*Art Institute of Chicago: "Becoming Edvard Munch: Influence, Anxiety and Myth" (Feb 14th-April 26th). This major show will include ca. 75 paintings and 75 works on paper by Munch and his peers (including, apparently, something by van Gogh although the AIC website does not say what). The exhibition is meant to challenge the popular-culture view of Munch as emotionally unstable. Munch made the news recently when his "Vampire" sold for over $38 million at Sotheby's NY November auction. N.B. the AIC's new Impressionist and Post Impressionist galleries open December 16th.

*Baltimore Museum of Art: "A Circus Family: Picasso to Léger" (Feb 22nd-May 17th). This exhibition showcases images of the circus and circus performers in the early 20th century, but begins with the late 19th century and posters by Toulouse-Lautrec. Picasso's sympathetic saltimbanque images form the core of the show.

*British Museum, London: "Babylon: Myth and Reality" continues until March 15th. Considering that ancient Babylon lies smack in the middle of modern conflict in Iraq, this show is both timely and important.

*Getty Center, Los Angeles: "Captured Emotions: Baroque Painting in Bologna, 1575-1725" (Dec 16th-May 3rd). This show focuses primarily on the famed Carracci family of painters, but also includes work by other Bolognese notables such as Guido Reni and Guercino. Bologna is one of my favorite European cities, can I just say -- amazingly under-touristed but filled with good things to see (and eat).

*Musée d'Orsay, Paris: "See Italy and Die" (I love the title), from April 7th to July 19th. An exhibition of 19th-century "Grand Tour" photography which promises to be a treat.

*Museum of FIne Arts, Boston: "Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice" (March 15th-August 16th). This one is co-organized by the MFA and the Louvre, and will feature sixty paintings from European and American collections. I love Tintoretto -- this looks like a great show.

*National Gallery of Art, Washington DC: "Pompeii and the Roman Villa" will be on view until March 22nd. A student of mine saw this one over Thanksgiving and said it was terrific. Running from 1 February until 3 May will be "Pride of Place: Dutch Cityscapes of the Golden Age," co-organized with the Mauritshuis in The Hague and intended to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Dutch exploration in the Hudson River Valley. Jacob van Ruisdael's famous view of Haarlem and the bleaching fields will be featured (I teach that painting in survey and was happy to see it in person in The Hague last year).

*Philadelphia Museum of Art: "Cézanne and Beyond" (Feb 26th-May 17th). Includes forty paintings and drawings by Cézanne, plus numerous works by other artists to show his context and influence.

*Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels: "Alfred Stevens" (May 8th - 23rd August). This Belgian painter is less-known now, but in his day, he was hugely successful. He lived much of his career in Paris and was close friends with Edouard Manet, among others. One of his models (and his possible lover for a while) was none other than Victorine Meurent, the model for Manet's "Olympia."

And on the van Gogh front...
*Kunstmuseum Basel: "Vincent van Gogh Between Earth and Heaven: The Landscapes" (April 26th-Sept 27th). Ohhh I am sorry to be missing this one!

*Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam: "Van Gogh and the Colors of the Night," the European showing of the exhibition currently in New York, from 13 February through 7 June. The VGM has posted their entire exhibition calendar for 2009, which includes "Van Gogh's Letters: The Artist Speaks" from 9 October through 3 January 2010. The letters show is HUGE because it coincides with the VGM's release of THE definitive new edition of Vincent's letters and the launch of a special website dedicated to the correspondence. Be still my beating heart!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Vincent Does It Again

The three-month, three-billion-Euro van Gogh exhibition at the Albertina Museum in Vienna closed earlier this week, and the numbers are in: 589,180 visitors to yield the best-attended exhibition in Austria for 13 years. (The museum expected 450,000.) Average attendance was 6000 visitors per day, making the exhibition the 10th most popular in the world for this year.


Sunday, December 7, 2008

Mellow Out

Consulting the online calendars of artists' birthdays for today, I learn December 7th belongs to two very disparate artists whose work I happen to like very much: the 17th-century Baroque sculptor par excellence, Gianlorenzo Bernini, and the 20th-century American painter Stuart Davis. Pictured is Davis' "Mellow Pad" from 1945-51 (image from WebMuseum, click to enlarge).

I dig "Mellow Pad." That's right, the classicist-aka-van-Gogh-junkie digs "Mellow Pad." Admittedly, Davis has been an acquired taste, and I wouldn't call myself well-versed in his work, but "Mellow Pad" for me conjures up two things: my love of jazz and the year I lived in New York, before I came to Florida. Davis wasn't from New York, but he showed there, and his paintings capture its essence: the noise, the neon, the crowds, the craziness. I remember seeing "Mellow Pad" the first time I went to the Brooklyn Museum during my NYC year, and it's one of the images I associate with that time in my life.

"Mellow Pad" also shouts jazz. Not smooth jazz/Kenny G stuff, I mean the real deal: Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, the bebop that Davis knew very well and sought to express in paint. I became a fan first of French jazz (leave it to me to do it backwards) after a happenstance visit to Paris during the 1996 Fête de la Musique -- jazz on the street corners of the Latin Quarter near my hotel, jazz in the Métro, this musical cacophony that set my brain to whirring. New York finished the job; I have fond memories of going to some basement joint in Greenwich Village where Kool-Aid flowed freely (no liquor license) and so did the beat, courtesy of some NYU students channeling the 1940s. I pull out my bebop now when my head feels busy and my nerves are jangled, when what I need is not something slow, but something to get whatever-it-is out of my system. (Um, like now with the end of the semester...) Jazz is healthy for a personality like mine, because it reminds me that sometimes disorder and the seemingly chaotic possess a strange harmony. Translation: don't get worked up, baby, mellow out!

In the past, I've showed "Mellow Pad" in art appreciation class. There's always some forehead-wrinkling at first, then I say, "Listen to this." On goes some Charlie Parker ("Ko-Ko" is usually my track of choice). Aha! Now they see it: the syncopation of colors, of notes, eschewing the obvious in favor of the unexpected. And the title -- Mellow Pad. Say it out loud. Mellooooow paaaaad. That's more Miles Davis-y and "Nature Boy," that title, smooth and, well, mellow.

Yep. I dig it, daddy-o.

ps. Stuart Davis' work was influenced by van Gogh, whose paintings he saw in the famous Armory Show. Had to be said. ;-)

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Happy Birthday, Monsieur Lautrec!

November 24th is the birthday of Henri-Marie-Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Montfa (1864-1901), to my mind one of the most colorful figures in art history. Replicas of his famous poster designs for the Moulin Rouge and the Divan Japonais decorate many a kitchen or dorm room nowadays, and certainly his distinctive drawing style found admirers in his own time, including Vincent van Gogh.

Although they are grouped together in art history textbooks under the Post-Impressionist umbrella, most people might not realize van Gogh and Lautrec were very close friends. They must have made quite a pair in the Montmartre cafés and cabarets, the socially awkward Dutch preacher's son and the flamboyant, 4'11" son of aristocrats with his trademark bowler hat. They met in the studio of Fernand Cormon, where Lautrec was studying alongside artists like Émile Bernard when Vincent arrived in Paris in early 1886. The particulars of their friendship are not well documented in the surviving source material, but it seems Vincent introduced Lautrec to the influence of Japanese prints, while Lautrec helped bring Vincent into the avant-garde fold. Vincent invited Lautrec to exhibit in a group show he organized at the Restaurant du Chalet in 1887 and probably encouraged his brother Theo's purchase of Lautrec's painting Poudre de riz (Rice Powder, click image to enlarge) in January 1888. (This painting today is in the Van Gogh Museum, along with a pastel drawing Lautrec made of Vincent in a café.) Lautrec's painting of Mlle. Marie Dihau at a piano influenced Vincent's portrait of Marguerite Gachet at the piano in 1890 while at Auvers-sur-Oise. From model-painter Suzanne Valadon, who possibly posed for Poudre de riz, we learn Vincent was a frequent but shy guest at Lautrec's artist soirées; from Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, we learn the two friends last saw each other in early July 1890, when Vincent made his last trip to Paris from Auvers and a luncheon was held in Theo and Johanna's apartment.

My favorite van Gogh-Lautrec story centers on the exhibition of Les Vingt in Brussels in early 1890. Vincent showed six works (including two Sunflower canvases) but did not attend the opening, because he was at the hospital in Saint-Rémy at the time. Lautrec showed five works in the exhibition and did attend the inaugural dinner on 16 January. The Belgian painter Henry de Groux, drunk and disorderly, proceeded at the dinner to insult Vincent's paintings, referring to him as an 'ignoramus' and 'show-off.' The equally drunk Lautrec flew into a rage and insisted de Groux rescind his comments or face the consequences ... Lautrec's friends had to stop him from challenging de Groux to a duel over the matter. Eventually de Groux was made to apologize.

Unfortunately, any letters exchanged between Lautrec and van Gogh no longer exist. Three brief letters to Theo from Lautrec do survive, including a letter of consolation dated 31 July 1890, after Vincent's death. Lautrec did not learn of his friend's passing in time to attend the hasty funeral in Auvers. Lautrec writes, "You know what a friend he was to me and how eager he was to demonstrate his affection -- unhappily, I am only able to tell you all this by clasping your hand very warmly but in the presence of a coffin."* Lautrec would die at nearly the same age as Vincent, just shy of thirty-seven, eleven years later in 1901.

*Trans. in R. Pickvance, ed., "A Great Artist is Dead: Letters of Consolation on Vincent van Gogh's Death" (Van Gogh Museum, 1992).

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Home to Italy

The Cleveland Museum of Art has agreed to repatriate 14 objects of dubious provenance to the Italian government, the latest in a string of repatriations from museums and private collectors in recent years. The objects include Etruscan and Greek artifacts (the Greek material either ancient imports to Italy or made in the Greek colonies of south Italy/Sicily), and a medieval processional cross. See the list and links to object information/pictures on Prof. David Gill's superb blog Looting Matters.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Novel Reader

Around mid-November 1888, while in Arles, van Gogh painted this "liseuse de romans," or novel-reader, today in a private collection (click on image to enlarge). She is rendered in a sketchy, expressionistic style and seems to have been an experimental piece on Vincent's part, namely because he was not working from a model, his usual practice. He painted this figure from his imagination, and if he based her on someone he knew, we don't know her identity. In the letter to his sister Wilhemina in which he describes this picture (W9), Vincent mentions his house-guest, Paul Gauguin, adding that Gauguin "strongly encourages me to work often from pure imagination." As someone who preferred to base his pictures in something tangible, even if he altered reality in the end, Vincent found this technique "de tête" a challenge.

Particularly noteworthy here is the book in the woman's hands. To a viewer of our time it seems innocuous, but a viewer of Vincent's day would instantly identify the book as a "modern" novel, typically published as yellow-covered paperbacks. Books are a recurring motif in van Gogh's work; often he depicts the novels that he enjoyed so much, by authors like Zola or the Goncourts. But such novels were acceptable reading for a man -- not for a woman. Vincent differed from most men of his time in believing women *should* read modern novels, so they themselves could be modern in thinking and worldview. As art historian Judy Sund* says it, for "this imagined female...[to be] reading a yellow book (i.e. a modern novel) with wide-eyed attention reflects the artist's conviction that everyone should read, and suggests anew that his conception of the ideal woman included a devotion to the modern fiction that was modelled on his own" ("Favoured Fictions," p. 260). Vincent's surviving letters to his sister Wil include many reading recommendations. In the letter mentioning "La Liseuse de Romans," he says, "It is a very good thing that you have at last started to read Au Bonheur des Dames" [a novel by Emile Zola about a girl working in a Parisian department store]. We can contrast Vincent's attitude with his brother Theo, who says in a letter to a female acquaintance (T1a), " many fine things are written that one can hardly discuss, at least with ladies. Zola, Guy de Maupassant and others will go on belonging to the forbidden fruits for a long time to come." One wonders what he thought of Vincent's encouraging Wil to read exactly those books!

*Judy Sund, "Favoured Fictions: Women and Books in the Art of Van Gogh," Art History 11, 2 (June 1988) 255-267.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A New Day

It's a great day for America and a great day for our world. Congratulations to President-elect Barack Obama and Vice President-elect Joe Biden!

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Who's That Lady in the Hat?

On Friday, the Van Gogh Museum announced it has confirmed the authenticity of two little-known female portraits in its collection, that is to say, their attribution to van Gogh himself. Although in the past they were claimed to be original van Goghs, the seeming difference in style from other examples had cast doubt. But in-depth research using paint samples, careful examination of the supports (=the stretchers), and the discovery of a Paris paint merchant's stamp on the verso of one of the portraits suggest both pictures date from Vincent's Paris period, most likely from spring 1886, when he was studying in the studio of Fernand Cormon. At that point, he was trying to work in a more conventional style, which explains the look of the pictures.

One of the two, showing a lady in a hat, is shown here. (You can see both pictures and read more about the discovery in the Associated Press article and on the Van Gogh Museum website.) The other picture shows a woman seated with hands folded in her lap. But who are these women? We have no idea, and we will probably never know. The lady with the hat intrigues me in particular -- if this painting were from a few years later, I'd be picking my jaw up off the floor. Why? Because she looks a lot like how I've imagined my novel's heroine, Rachel!

The Van Gogh Museum will be showcasing both portraits, and the research involved in attributing them, in a special focus exhibition through September 2009.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Autumn Rhythms

Autumn has arrived in Florida -- high of only 65 today in St Petersburg! Brrr...that's January weather! I had to excavate a sweater this morning from the depths of the closet, forgotten since about February.

In honor of the lovely fall weather (many folks outside FL actually have autumn leaves to see), here is one of Vincent's many autumn-themed pictures, "Autumn Landscape with Poplars," from October 1884, while he was living in Nuenen with his family. Today the painting is in the Van Gogh Museum, having made a circular route through galleries and collectors. Vincent loved fall, and he used his (at this point) newfound interest in complementary colors to celebrate the season: orange leaves, blue sky. He also used a perspective frame to construct the image, a wooden frame strung with string that he adopted early in his artistic career and continued to use until around May 1888 in Arles. The perspective in this picture is mostly successful, aside from the bridge-fence at left, which is a bit off, and the size of the farmhouse in the background, which is slightly too big. But in general Vincent displays his growing confidence both in the rendering of perspective and in the paint medium.

The woman walking into the foreground wears a traditional Dutch mourning shawl, a garment that Vincent seems to have admired for its visual qualities, as he depicted it more than once in paintings and drawings. Here, the theme of mourning and melancholy ties in to the passing of time and the passing of the seasons. But Vincent's attitude about autumn was not gloomy -- he considered autumn to be part of the cycle of life, and as such, it had its own beauty.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Signs & Wonders

I wouldn't call myself a superstitious person per se, but I do believe in signs: coincidences that aren't really coincidences, little nods from the universe that can show us we're on the right path -- or the wrong one. So when I stopped by the post office today to mail my signed author contracts for The Sunflowers to Avon/HarperCollins, imagine my reaction when I saw a colorful sunflower display on the counter to celebrate the USPS new Sunflower Stamp!

Speaking of signs & wonders, I have to mention a big local miracle: a mere six or seven minutes away from where I'll be teaching my class tonight, the Tampa Bay Rays will be playing Game 1 of the World Series. Now the Rays were *dismal* until this season, really dismal, the joke of the league. But now they are American League champs! They could win it all! Worst to first! Superstitious folks may tell you it's not a coincidence, that changing the name from "Devil Rays" (which many people thought would bring a curse on the team when team was created in 1998) to just "Rays" this year made the difference. I don't know about that ... but it does make you go HMMM...

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Up for Auction

On the evening of November 3rd, Sotheby's NYC will be hosting its fall Impressionist and Modern Art night sale. Among other goodies, including a very nice Munch, is this van Gogh painting of a plaster cast, dating from his time in Paris (1887). The estimate is $ 7- 10 million. The provenance is solid and can be traced back to the van Gogh family collection; collector Paul Cassirer acquired the painting from Johanna van Gogh-Bonger in 1910, and the painting was first publicly exhibited in Berlin in 1914. The picture here comes from the Sotheby's website; they have a larger image available there.

Learning to draw and paint from plaster casts, especially casts of antiquities, was a mainstay of the academic tradition. Vincent had the opportunity to work from casts in the fine arts academy in Antwerp, which he briefly attended before going to Paris in February 1886, and also in the studio of Fernand Cormon, where he took instruction after arriving in Paris. In Cormon's studio, he met such fellow artists as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Émile Bernard. Bernard later described Vincent working in front of casts: "Seated before a plaster cast of a classical sculpture, he copies the beautiful forms with the patience of a saint. He wants to seize hold of these contours, those masses, those reliefs. He corrects himself, passionately starts afresh, erases, until finally he wears a hole in the paper with the vigorous rubbing of his eraser." *

Vincent's many drawings and sketches after casts, as well as some paintings, reveal his determination to master the human figure, especially the nude. He also had a small collection of reduced-scale plaster casts at home; the painting to be auctioned was done after one of these. The actual cast, along with a few others, is still in the collection of the Van Gogh Museum. A display-case of them was set up in the galleries during my 2007 visit. He could have acquired them any number of places in Paris; they were sold in shops and even by street vendors for not much money. While some casts he drew and painted multiple times, this one he seems to have depicted only once.

I've seen a picture of the painting before, and when I saw the cast too, it made my classicist alarm go off. The other casts of Venus that Vincent used are clearly based on real Venus sculptures and exhibit classical poses. But this one is weird. Someone can feel free to correct me, but I can't visualize in my mental leafing through ancient statues of Venus an example of a Venus seated like this. It's not very 'ladylike' compared to other examples (mentally extend those broken legs out and you'll see what I mean). If I may go out on a limb here (pun intended), I think the cast-maker took the Belvedere Torso -- an extremely famous sculpture very popular as casts for study -- and made it female. I include here a picture of the Torso as a comparison. If that is correct, then this cast would have been made in one of the literally hundreds of private casting workshops in Paris, not an 'official' workshop connected with the Louvre or École des Beaux-Arts. Which would explain why Vincent could afford it!

*1911 quote, trans. in M. Vellekoop and S. van Heugten, eds., Vincent van Gogh Drawings, vol 3: Antwerp and Paris (Van Gogh Museum 2001) p. 141.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Sun Salutations

Last week, I learned I have elevated blood pressure, for all I know a fairly recent development, right on the borderline to stage 1 hypertension. Since I am clinically a healthy weight and don't smoke, stress and lack of exercise are the probable culprits. I'm trying to make lifestyle changes to avoid going on medication, and my certified-yoga-instructor sister suggested I take up yoga, which according to studies has positive impacts on blood pressure levels. Today is day 4 of my new yoga regimen. In this morning's practice (I use dvd's at home for now), during the meditation, I found myself casting for a visual image to serve as inspiration. The Van Gogh painting pictured here (click image to enlarge) popped in my head, and I think I've found the perfect inspiration image to waken me to each day.

Meditating on an image is not about "facts," but the facts for me help provide the inspiration. Vincent painted this in late Nov-early Dec 1889, while he was in the asylum at Saint-Rémy. The walled wheatfield was visible from his bedroom window, and he drew and painted it many times during the seasons of his year there. This particular painting is unusual for him because it was done specifically for an exhibition: an exposition hosted by the avant-garde artists' group Les Vingt, which would be held in Brussels in early 1890. After receiving the invitation to participate--a great honor--Vincent chose five works from his Arles and Saint-Rémy oeuvre for Theo to send, and made this one especially. Also unusual for him at this point in his career, he spent weeks on it, working and reworking it to the point he felt it perfect. "I am curious to know what you will say," he wrote to Theo. Theo replied, "[It] has poetry in it." Vincent wrote to artist friend Émile Bernard about this picture and said, "I have tried to express calmness, a great peace." Vincent believed that his painting helped him with his illness and that painting soothing pictures would soothe his mind -- self-diagnosed art therapy!

What a life-affirming result. The rising sun with its "yellow halo" (Vincent's words), the greens of the young wheat growing in the field, the undulation of the Alpilles mountains behind...the painting reminds me what it felt like in summer 2007 to stand in that very field (now a flower garden), feel the warm sun on my face, the brisk wind at my back. A day that had no stress at all, just enjoyment of the moment and the experience of travel. I am reminded with this picture that even at his most ill, Vincent tried to find hope and peace in the world around him, especially in nature. And if that's not inspiring, I don't know what is.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Van Gogh in Brescia

The Museo di Santa Giulia in Brescia (northern Italy) will be hosting an exhibition of 85 drawings and 15 paintings from the Kroller-Muller Museum from 18 October through 25 January -- "Van Gogh, Disegni e Dipinti". The exhibition will be divided into five sections, covering the major periods in Vincent's artistic career, and represents one of the largest exhibits of van Gogh's drawings ever held in Italy. The paintings in the show are paired with preparatory sketches and drawings. Pictured here is a drawing of two women walking among cypresses from 1890, done in Saint-Remy at the asylum.

Legge italiano? Clicca qui.

What a Hottie, He Throws Lightning!

We're talking about fifth-century BC Greek art in art history survey today, and I have to share on this blog a photo I'm sharing with my class. I took this in the National Museum in Athens in March 2007, wanting to get an oblique back view of the famous Artemision Zeus (he probably was originally throwing a lightning-bolt, now lost). What I didn't notice until I had downloaded the photo to my computer at home was the gaggle of fellow females checking him out. Hilarious!

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Bella Ostia

Today's New York Times features a terrific article about the unveiling of newly restored buildings in Ostia Antica, ancient Rome's port town and an archaeological site open to visitors. It took nine years to complete the restoration project -- the buildings contain fragile frescoes, and conservation takes money that needed to be raised. The results are amazing.

I visited Ostia Antica back in 2004 for the first time, and I recommend it as an easy daytrip from Rome. You take a suburban train, then it's a short walk to the site. It's a splendid alternative to Pompeii if your plans don't include the Bay of Naples. The ruins of Ostia Antica include public buildings like theaters and temples, as well as buildings that reveal the everyday life of citizens: apartment buildings, bakeries, laundries, and even fast-food joints (thermopolia). There are wonderful mosaics and paintings to see, most in their original homes. I was particularly interested in the various religious structures of the town; as is typical in Roman cities, all manner of cults and deities are represented. In addition to temples dedicated to the Olympian gods (Jupiter, Ceres, etc), you can find sanctuaries devoted to foreign gods, including Isis and Serapis, Attis, Cybele, and Sabazios. There's a Jewish synagogue, as well as one of the earliest preserved Christian basilicas. The most evocative experience for me was visiting the so-called Mithraeum of the Baths (pictured, courtesy Wikimedia Commons). I had the site virtually to myself that day (aside from an Italian school-group or two), and descending into this underground, cave-like sanctuary of Mithras was like walking back in time. It was very easy to imagine a gathering of Mithraic worshipers in that space.

It's possible to spend at least half a day, or even a whole day, at Ostia Antica. There's a nice archaeological museum with many of the sculptural finds, and a cafeteria for lunch or a snack. I suggest buying the guidebook to the site (available at most museum bookshops in Rome) to better enjoy your experience, as there is much to see. The site tends to be under-touristed in general, but I found a weekday made for a peaceful visit. Not much shade, so wear your sunscreen!

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Tulip Mania

Catherine over at Versailles and More (I read this blog regularly, can you tell?) provides an apt comparison for the recent Wall Street collapse: the 17th-century phenomenon of tulip mania in the Netherlands. Allow me to add my two cents about tulip mania...

First, a reading recommendation: the novel "Tulip Fever," by Deborah Moggach. I read this after my trip to the Netherlands last year, wanting to learn more about tulip mania in a fun-reading way. I enjoyed this book very much, and if you're like me, when you get to a certain point near the end, you'll exclaim "Oh NO!" (Read it -- you'll see what I mean.)

And second, an interesting painting: pictured, "A Satire of Tulip Mania" by Jan Brueghel the Younger, ca. 1640. I discovered this painting on a visit to the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem during my Dutch trip. It's a "singerie," a painting in which monkeys are used as an allegory to expose the foibles of humankind. Here is the museum's own description, from its website:

"One monkey points to flowering tulips while another brandishes a tulip and a moneybag. This is how artist Jan Brueghel indicates that this painting is about the tulip trade. A sale is concluded by hand-clapping. Bulbs are weighed, money is counted, a lavish business dinner is savoured. The monkey on the left has a list of names of expensive tulips. The sword at his side is a status symbol. Farther back, a monkey sits like a nobleman astride a horse. Another in the mid-foreground is drawing up a bill of sale. The owl on his shoulder symbolises folly. Brueghel is ridiculing tulip mania by depicting the speculators as brainless monkeys. The painting also shows what happened when the tulip trade crashed: a monkey on the right urinates on the - now worthless - tulips. Behind him a speculator who has run up debts is being brought before the magistrate. A monkey sits weeping in the dock and in the centre at the back a disappointed buyer is wielding his fists. At the back to the right a speculator is even being carried to his grave."

Brueghel's painting follows much of 17th-century Dutch genre painting by providing a moral lesson for the viewer, here done as a scathing satire of human greed. Vincent van Gogh knew about tulip mania; in a letter to his mother, he provides a comparison to the art market of his day that proves an odd premonition: "Those high prices one hears about, paid for work of painters who are dead and who were never paid so much while they were alive, it is a kind of tulip trade, under which the living painters suffer rather than gain any benefit. And it will also disappear like the tulip trade. But one may reason that, though the tulip trade has long been gone and is forgotten, the flower growers have remained and will remain. And thus I consider painting too, thinking that what abides is like a kind of flower growing. And as far as it concerns me, I reckon myself happy to be in it." (letter 612, November 1889, written in the asylum of Saint-Rémy).

I highly recommend the Frans Hals Museum to anyone visiting Haarlem, and I recommend Haarlem for anyone visiting the Netherlands. It's an easy train trip from Amsterdam and a charming town. The museum has a superb collection of mostly 17th-century Dutch art (it was larger than I expected), beautifully presented. Try to visit Haarlem on Saturday, when a market takes over the square around the cathedral of St. Bavo, and don't miss the cathedral itself -- Frans Hals' tomb is inside. The market of Haarlem will always be special in my culinary memory as the first place I had a stroopwaffel: a sort of waffle sandwich with syrup inside, but that description in no way captures the absolute heaven that is a stroopwaffel!

Monday, September 29, 2008

Fall Exhibitions in Paris

Ah, Paris. More museums than you could shake a stick at. Catherine Delors over at Versailles and More has put together a terrific list of exhibitions coming up this fall. Plenty to keep artlovers busy!

Saturday, September 27, 2008

A Star Has Fallen

We've lost another great one: the incomparable Paul Newman has died, at the age of 83, after a battle with cancer. Look up 'movie star' in the dictionary and Paul Newman's name must be there: not only gorgeous and talented (pictured: Newman with Diahann Carroll and Sidney Poitier in the jazz-themed romance "Paris Blues"), he was classy, generous, and kind, a loving husband to Joanne Woodward, a loving father. An American classic. Rest in peace, Mr. Newman.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Other Starry Night

Visitors to MoMA's "Van Gogh and the Colors of the Night" will be able to see one of my personal top 3 van Gogh paintings, "The Starry Night over the Rhone," painted in Arles in late September 1888. The painting belongs to the Musee d'Orsay in Paris but travels quite a bit for various exhibitions.

A photograph cannot do this painting justice. There's such movement, such texture in the way the paint is built up on the surface of the canvas, that (as with most van Goghs) you want to reach out and touch it. I first saw this painting in person in 1996 at the Orsay, and it took my breath away. Every subsequent viewing, I've discovered something new. I love it so much I gave its creation a whole chapter in my novel!

In Arles, you can stand on the very spot where Vincent painted his picture, today marked with a poster. (I did this, of course!) The skyline looking downstream as Vincent saw it actually hasn't changed all that much. But Vincent took liberties with the sky: as Charles Whitney explained in his 1986 journal article "The Skies of Vincent van Gogh," the Big Dipper (or as Vincent referred to it in a letter to Theo, the Great Bear) is a constellation of the northern sky, whereas Vincent is facing to the southwest. Presumably he turned toward the north while working to observe the stars, then created this composite scene. But why? Prof. Whitney in his research learned that the southwestern sky in Arles at the time Vincent created his painting was not very exciting, with only a few stars; moreover, there was a full moon around that time, which would have been visible to the south. For whatever reason, Vincent opted not to paint the moon (which in other pictures, he likes) and instead chose the stars. The fact there was a full moon debunks a common myth: that Vincent painted outside in Arles with candles stuck in his hat (we see this in the film version of "Lust for Life," for example). He wouldn't have needed it.

As for the couple in the foreground, described by Vincent in a letter to Theo as "two colorful little figures of lovers": happy couples with linked arms were a motif in Vincent's work while in Paris and Arles. In some cases, as here, the man is shown with a yellow straw hat, and it is tempting to see the painted couples as Vincent's wishful thinking. (In my novel, I have some fun with the painted couples...)

Vincent was very proud of this picture and held it in higher esteem than the more famous Starry Night (painted in June 1889). It was even exhibited, together with the Getty "Irises," in the Salon des Independents in Paris in fall 1889. It did not sell, and we learn later that Theo and his bride Johanna hung the Starry Night over the Rhone in the salon of their Paris apartment.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Fall Exhibition Roundup

Good things coming in American & European museums this fall! Here are some exhibitions that caught my eye:
*Van Gogh and the Colors of the Night, Museum of Modern Art, New York (12 September - 5 January)
*Van Gogh retrospective, Albertina Museum, Vienna (5 September - 8 December). Includes 50 paintings and 100 watercolors and drawings.
*Hadrian: Empire and Conflict, British Museum, London, until 26 October
*Pompeii and the Roman Villa, National Gallery, Washington DC, 19 October- March 22. Wish I could pile my Roman Art class into a couple of minivans and go see this one!
*Renaissance Faces: Van Eyck to Titian, National Gallery, London, 15 October - 18 January
*Art and Empire: Treasures from Assyria in the British Museum, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 21 September - 4 January
*Art in the Age of Steam: Europe, America, and the Railway, 1830-1960, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, 13 September - 18 January. I made my first visit to the Nelson-Atkins in March 2007: it's a fantastic museum!
*Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs, Dallas Museum of Art, 3 October - 17 May
*Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs, Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory University, installed at the Atlanta Civic Center, 15 November - 25 May. Yep, you read that right: there are TWO King Tut shows in the US this year!
*The First Emperor: China's Terracotta Army, High Museum of Art, Atlanta, 16 November - 19 April
*Mystery and Glitter: Pastels in the Musee d'Orsay, Musee d'Orsay, Paris, 8 October - 1 February. The pastel rooms at the Orsay are among my favorites: generally quiet, generally peaceful, with gorgeous artworks. This show will highlight some of the pastels that usually, by necessity, live in storage. The 'poster image' by William Degouve de Nuncques was on view in the pastel rooms my last visit (May 2007) and held me spellbound.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

A Thousand Words

This is just about the neatest exhibition idea EVER. Last week a show called "A Thousand Words" opened at the York Art Gallery in the U.K., curated by none other than writer-in-residence and one of my favorite authors, Tracy Chevalier. For the exhibition, Tracy chose a series of paintings from the Gallery's collection, works she felt could inspire thoughtful comment or even a story. Here's the neat part: the exhibition designers used blackboard-paint and created strips and blocks around the paintings where visitors could chalk in their ideas. Tracy included some of her own thoughts in the labels accompanying the artworks.

According to Tracy Chevalier's website, the exhibition's opening night was heaps of fun, as museumgoers actively engaged with the works and scribbled on the walls. The response has continued to be huge in the week since. What a wonderful idea this is! I always wonder what folks are thinking when they are standing next to me in front of this painting or that sculpture in a museum -- in this exhibition, those folks can tell the world. As Tracy puts it, "I wanted to...encourage people to do what I do when I'm looking at art -- make up stories about it." Hear hear!

The show runs until 11 January 2009. You can read more about it on the York Art Gallery website.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Colors of the Night Opens!

MoMA's "Van Gogh and the Colors of the Night" opens this Sunday the 21st and runs through January 5th. Reviews have already appeared with the New York Times,theNew York Post, and the New York Sun. The Times calls the show an "anti-blockbuster," not the typical van Gogh exhibit that goes on for miles and seems intended to overwhelm the senses. This is a more focused show in its theme and goals; a good recent comparison might be the excellent "Van Gogh and Expressionism" that was shown at the Neue Galerie in New York in summer 2007.

One of the exhibition's primary goals is clearly to show the familiar in new ways. As I've said many times, the popular image of van Gogh is not the measure of the true man, and the works chosen for the show say this too. I especially like that the show includes a display of books read by van Gogh that fit the 'night' theme; one of the things about Vincent most people probably do not know is that he was a voracious reader and quite erudite in multiple languages. This exhibition is an opportunity both to admire some of the most beautiful paintings he created -- one of my favorites is there, the "Starry Night over the Rhone" -- and to get to know him better.

To control the crowds, MoMA will have a timed-entry system for the exhibit (unless you are a member, in which case timed tickets are not required). You can read more about the exhibit and purchase online tickets at MoMA's website.

Monday, September 15, 2008

New Van Gogh Cultural Center

Over the weekend a new van Gogh-themed cultural center opened in Zundert, the small town in the southern Netherlands where Vincent was born. The former pastor's house, built on the site of Vincent's birthplace, has been converted into an exhibition space and documentation center. (Note: none of Vincent's paintings are displayed here, at least not yet.)

Vincent possessed a strong emotional connection to Zundert his entire life, even as he moved to many different places. Particularly during his illness, memories of his childhood there comforted him. I wanted to visit both Zundert and Nuenen during my trip to the Netherlands last year, but alas, there was no time.

You can read about the new center here.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Let's Make Conferences More Fun!

I am refraining from discussing politics on this blog, but this thought I've got to share. I did watch the conventions, I've been watching the speeches, and I've decided academic conferences must be reformed. Wouldn't the conference of any professional organization be more fun if...

-Speakers used TelePrompters. No more looking down at your paper to read your talk. No more monotone. Head up, voice strong, let's put some emotion into it! Clapping and cheering after key lines encouraged. ("And that's why I believe we must RETHINK our perception of of fifth-century BC Athenian education! We must CHANGE our discipline!" [crowd roars])

-Attendees wore silly hats like the DNC/RNC delegates. Mine would have the ancient star of Vergina on the front and sunflowers sticking out the top.

-Musical interludes were played after every talk. Let's rock the casbah!

-Two words: Balloon Drop.

Now *that's* a conference worth attending.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

A Tough Act to Follow

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has chosen a new director to replace Philippe de Montebello next year: not surprisingly, they played the process close to the vest, and not surprisingly, they chose one of their own. Thomas Campbell, curator of tapestries at the Museum, will take over the post January 1st. You can read more about Dr. Campbell and the challenges of the position in the New York Times. I suspect the choice was something of a surprise, and I also suspect some folks were weeping into their Wheaties yesterday at missing the post for themselves.

Dr. Campbell, whose degree is from the Courtauld Institute, certainly has big shoes to fill. Philippe de Montebello has been Director for 31 years and presided over any number of successes and controversies. During my ten-month fellowship at the Met back in 2000-01, I met Dr. Montebello only once, at a luncheon he hosted for the Fellows. The word 'patrician' is routinely attached to him, and with good reason: he's one of those people that makes you sit up straight in your chair and wish you'd gone to a Swiss finishing school. He oozes a certain je ne sais quoi beneath his very gracious manner. Lord of the manor, more like. I think I said five words during the whole luncheon, intimidated into silence (= a rare thing). I've not met Dr. Campbell, but the buzz about him is positive.

The Met will be honoring Dr. Montebello with an exhibition of 'greatest hits' acquisitions from his time as director, from 24 October to 1 February.

Monday, September 8, 2008

A Blogging Award!

Thank you to Margaret at The Earthly Paradise for giving me & VGC a blogging award! Very much appreciated!

I'd like to pass this one to some blogs that I hadn't discovered yet on the last pass. Here they are...

Life and Times of a "New" New Yorker: Graduate student Amanda takes on the big city, reads a bunch of books, and shares it all with us.

Art Blog by Bob:Bob's an artlover, and it shows!

My Marathon Mommy:my sister Chantel blogs about life as a toddler's mom, owner of a franchise of Baby Boot Camp, and someone who's preparing for her first marathon. She makes me look lazy. ;-)

Congratulations to all!

Sunday, September 7, 2008

When Friends Move Away

Last week, I submitted the revised manuscript of "The Sunflowers" to my editor at Avon/HarperCollins. It will be poked and prodded (aka line-edited & copyedited), sent back to me after that, but essentially it's begun its journey to publication. When I hit the "send" button -- nowadays one does it simple as that -- I didn't dwell too much on it, but the next morning I woke up feeling quite listless. Melancholy, even. I felt the same way, I remember, when the I submitted the final version of my nonfiction book to Cambridge UP a few years ago, but that was more of a "now what" feeling after years of working on it (and the dissertation before it). This was different. I pondered it and realized the problem.

My friends had moved away.

Vincent, Rachel, and all the characters of my story had been with me every day, even if just in the form of a thought, for 2 years and 3 months. I'd gotten to know everything about them, I listened to their hopes and fears, I struggled to do them justice on the page. Like a faithful scribe I set down the voices I heard in my head (which, granted, felt a bit spooky) and more than once was moved to tears by the emotions the story conjured in my heart. Their world was my escape-world, and I loved going there. To suddenly *not* be going there any more felt ... sad.

I didn't expect to be that subsumed into my story when I began. In my other life I am an academic writer, after all, and in that world, one remains somewhat detached from one's subject. Nothing I'd written before had ever made me cry (well, except when I got snarky peer reviews in the journal submission process). I didn't expect my characters to become my friends -- I even begrudgingly like Paul Gauguin, whom you'll see someday Rachel does not like at all. I tell myself, maybe they aren't spending time with me any more, but in time my friends will be introduced to all kinds of people, and maybe, just maybe, folks will like them as much as I do.

And maybe, just maybe, I'll find new friends I like just as much. Or at least close to it.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

New on the Bookshelf

It is a truth universally acknowledged that I am an obsessive-compulsive book-buyer and could probably use a twelve-step program. The arrival of my birthday last week and the resumption of regular paychecks as the academic year began meant a flurry of Amazon activity and multiple visits from the nice UPS man. My Van Gogh library got a particular boost with two new books that were released this week...

Bogomila Welsh-Ovacharov, "Van Gogh in Provence and Auvers" (Universe 2008): This is actually a reprinting of an older volume that had been out of print for a while. A fairly large coffeetable-type volume with text written by one of the top van Gogh scholars, this is a fabulous addition to my VvG shelves. The layout is handsome, the illustration quality top-notch. I love the inclusion of illustrations of vintage postcards from Arles, Saint-Rémy, and Auvers-sur-Oise, some of which I'd seen before, some I had not. Vintage photographs of some of the people Vincent knew, including Dr. Félix Rey, the postman Joseph Roulin, and Roulin's wife Augustine, are also featured. This is not a 'scholarly' book with footnotes, etc. -- it is accessible to any reader interested in van Gogh.

Sjraar van Heugten, Joachim Pissarro, and Chris Stolwijk, "Van Gogh and the Colors of the Night" (Museum of Modern Art/Van Gogh Museum 2008): the English-language edition of the exhibition catalogue. A slim but very handsome volume, designed and produced by the Van Gogh Museum's publications staff (my graphic design colleagues on campus tell me the Netherlands is a mecca for graphic design, and it's true that anything the VGM produces is absolutely stunning). The book features essays on the themes of the exhibition, authored by MoMA and VGM curators. The essay I read last night, for example, concerns "The Formation of Crepuscular [I love that word, try saying it out loud] and Nocturnal Themes in Van Gogh's Early Writings" by Joachim Pissarro and is incredibly interesting. A checklist of the works included in both the MoMA and VGM venues of the show appears at the back in the form of a list of illustrations (with an asterisk by the exhibited pieces). For all the sound scholarship of this catalogue, I have to say, I miss the days of exhibition catalogues that have individual entries for each piece in great detail. The tendency now is to have catalogues that don't seem so much like catalogues, I presume so they will find a broader audience. Even so, this book is first-rate and adds a great deal to the Van Gogh literature. It also makes me wish I could go see the show: my plan was to fly up for a day to NY, but the airlines have cut the early-morning flights out of Tampa (eg the 6 am, my past flight for such a venture) and raised the fares so much that it's just not possible. I take consolation in the fact that most of the paintings in the show I have seen before in their original homes; many of them are from the Van Gogh Museum and the Kröller-Müller Museum. The drawings and letters, though, I'm bummed to miss!

Speaking of VGM produced books...they got me good last week by sending out an email offering 20% off everything in the online shop for three days only, for their online newsletter subscribers. Sometime probably in this next week, the nice US Postal Service man will bring me Volumes 1 and 2 of the VGM's catalogue of their van Gogh drawings, which will complete my set (I have 3 and 4 already). Even with the exchange rate and shipping costs, it was far cheaper to obtain these books from the VGM than Amazon, *and* proceeds go towards VGM acquisitions. It's an altruistic thing to buy them, I told myself. Hooyeah!

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Rest in Peace, Mr. Melendez

Like most folks of my generation, my introduction to art came in the form of hand-drawn animation: the movies and tv specials that peppered each year. I was sad this morning to hear of the passing of Bill Melendez, one of the great ones, known most of all as the animator of 70 "Peanuts" films and tv specials. He was Charles Schultz's number one guy for bringing his characters to animated life. "Charlie Brown Christmas" and "The Great Pumpkin" (my personal favorite) are just two of his creations; he won five Emmy awards for his "Peanuts" specials. He also won Emmys as the animator of the first "Garfield" and "Cathy" tv specials, and two Emmys for the animated version of "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" (which I remember very well) in 1979. Before partnering with Charles Schultz, Melendez worked for Warner Bros. animation studios and Disney. Before leaving Disney in 1941, Melendez drew for "Pinocchio," "Fantasia," "Bambi," and "Dumbo."

You can read more about Melendez's remarkable career here in his Washington Post obituary. Each time we lose one of the classic great animators, I can't help but think: they don't make 'em like they used to.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Last Week in New Haven

If you were planning to catch "Starry Night" and "Cypresses" at the Yale University Art Gallery's focus-exhibition, time is running out. The last day to see these two paintings in New Haven is September 7th.

Next stop for "Starry Night" is back home at MoMA for the "Colors of the Night" exhibition, opening September 21st.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Happy Birthday To Us

Today is my birthday -- we won't say the number, but I will admit to being as old as Walt Disney World in Orlando. I share my day with some fabulous folks ... the luminous Ingrid Bergman, the incredible jazz musician Charlie Parker, and among artists, Jean-Baptiste-Dominique Ingres (pictured here in a self-portrait, age 24). There are a couple of other famous people who have birthdays today, but honestly, I don't want to advertise them. ;-)

Today is also notorious in history as being the day Hurricane Katrina made landfall in 2005. Let's take a moment to honor those Gulf Coast residents who suffered as a result of the storm, and to pray for the safety of that region again, as Hurricane Gustav bears down this weekend.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Lascaux in Peril

Get ready to get ticked off. The Paleolithic cave paintings of Lascaux, discovered in 1940 and dating from about 15,000 BC, are in danger of deterioration from fungal outbreak, triggered by the installation of a new air-conditioning system in 2001. By the end of summer of that year, the new contamination was apparent, and the last seven years have been spent trying to bring things under control. A massive bureaucratic 'blame game' has also been underway, as French government officials repeatedly deny the extent of the damage and point fingers at each other. Reading details of the damage and the cover-up will truly make an artlover's blood boil.

The International Committee for the Preservation of Lascaux, formed by a group of concerned artists in 2005, has been working tirelessly to expose the bureaucratic tangle surrounding Lascaux and to issue calls for action. Thanks to their efforts, UNESCO's World Heritage Center is now investigating the problem, and more media coverage has appeared (see on their website a PDF of a 2006 Time magazine article and a May/June 2008 Archaeology magazine article). Lascaux may be placed on the WHC's list of endangered sites, which would lead the way for drastic intervention. ICPL's website has an online petition that you can electronically sign to show your support. Save the Caves!

Photo: deer painting from Lascaux wall, photos from 2001 (top) and 2007 (bottom). Note black fungal spots in the 2007 photo. Images from Archaeology magazine website (

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Beautiful Fictions

If there is one motif indelibly associated with van Gogh more than any other artist, it's the sunflower. He recognized it himself as "his" flower, and his paintings of sunflowers were among his own favorites in his oeuvre. He made eleven sunflower paintings between August 1887 and February 1889, four while he was living in Paris, seven while in Arles. The precise chronology (and in one case, the authenticity) of the Arles sunflower paintings remains debated, but here is one version of recent thinking:
*Vase With Three Sunflowers, private collection, late August 1888
*Vase With Four Sunflowers, lost in World War II, late August 1888
*Vase With Fourteen Sunflowers, Neue Pinakothek, Munich, late August 1888
*Vase With Sixteen Sunflowers, National Gallery, London (shown), late August 1888
*Vase With Sixteen Sunflowers, Seiji Togo Memorial Sompo Japan Museum of Art, Tokyo, early December 1888 (This version, a copy of the London canvas, is famous for selling at a then-record price at a 1987 auction. Its authenticity has been debated, but recent research on the canvas material suggests it is authentic and was painted during Paul Gauguin's stay in Arles.)
*Vase With Fourteen Sunflowers, Philadelphia Museum of Art, late January 1889 (A copy of the Munich canvas. Recent research suggests it was given by Theo van Gogh to Paul Gauguin as part of a picture exchange sometime in spring 1889. Gauguin greatly admired the London and Munich sunflower canvases--Vincent had hung them in Gauguin's bedroom in the yellow house--and wanted the originals. Vincent adamantly refused, but seems to have made the Philly version as a copy for Gauguin to have if it did not sell elsewhere.)
*Vase With Sixteen Sunflowers, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, late January 1889 (another copy of the London canvas)

The four sunflower canvases done in August 1888 were intended to be part of a series of twelve to decorate Vincent's new house, to create an artistic atmosphere, as he said, like stained glass windows. They were painted at a time of cheerful, idealistic optimism for Vincent -- a point I've made before, that Vincent was not the perpetually gloomy, even violent, person that popular myth imagines him to be. Late summer/early autumn 1888 was a good time: he was excited about having a house of his own, he had big ideas about artists coming to stay and creating a 'studio of the south' (unfortunately, the first artist he invited--Paul Gauguin--did *not* turn out well and ended up being the only one). You can read his enthusiasm in his letters.

Another point is essential about the London and Munich canvases in particular, because it's not something most people realize when looking at the paintings ... they're fictions. Ever tried putting sunflowers in a vase? My sister and I made a trip to a local sunflower field in August 2006 while my novel manuscript was in its earliest draft -- an inspiration trip. The field was planted by a strawberry farmer wanting to have something pretty during the fallow period. A local newspaper wrote about it, and lots of folks stopped there to admire the flowers. We saw a couple of artists painting the day we went. I cut three sunflowers to take home (I wouldn't have, except the farmer was planning to raze the field the next week anyway, to plant the berries). Put them in a vase, then ... plunk! The vase tipped over. Sunflowers have very heavy heads. You can't have the stems too long and have a vase stay upright. That was three flowers -- fourteen or sixteen would be impossible! Sunflowers also wilt very quickly. Vincent complains about that in his letters to Theo and says he had to work fast. The London and Munich canvases are manipulations of nature: Vincent used real flowers as his inspiration, yes, but he did not sit in front of a vase of fourteen and sixteen sunflowers and paint them just like we see them. Nothing new in that -- 17th-century Dutch painters specialized in floral fictions, spectacular bouquets of flowers that bloom all seasons of the year and in that age, would be impossible to have all at the same time. It was standard procedure for Vincent anyway, to begin from nature and then make it his own. "I find it all ready in nature," he wrote Theo in a letter, "only it must be disentangled."

I thought about that when working on my manuscript, because it relates to what I see as the goals of historical fiction. Especially when writing about real people, it's important to have the facts straight and be as faithful as possible to history as we know it. But then you have those 'windows,' those places where we don't know the facts and where it is possible to invent and imagine -- put more flowers in the vase than historical sources show us. Present a beautiful fiction that looks pretty darn convincing and inspires emotion and depth of feeling from the viewer/reader. Van Gogh was a master of that, and it's a lesson for us all.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Into the Source

Classes begin next week at my university, and that means faculty meetings this week, workshops, syllabus tweaking, library runs, etc. (but fortunately, *not* Tropical Storm Fay!). It always means reflection for me: for close to my whole life, the new year doesn't actually begin in January. It begins in late August, time being reckoned by the academic calendar. For close to my whole life, my birthday has always been the first week of school too; nowadays *that* means I look at my fresh-faced freshmen and ponder how I'm getting older but they're not.

This year I also think about when I was a fresh-faced freshman at Emory University in Atlanta, twenty (!!) years ago. I still have my booklet from orientation week with all the activities and logistical matters; I pulled it out for nostalgia's sake recently and smiled at my scrawls in the margins. Everything that week seemed so new, so scary but filled with promise.

For some reason, I've also reflected on an artwork on the Emory campus, which by the way, is one of the most beautiful university campuses there is. I first learned of the environmental sculpture "Source Route" by George Trakas in art history survey, when we were given a list of artworks to choose from for an essay assignment. "Source Route," we were told, lies in the deep wooded ravine behind the art history building. It was commissioned by the art history department in 1979 for a symposium and has been there ever since. I remember going to the bridge crossing the ravine and peering down to find the artwork: it's twin paths of concrete, steel, and wood, one leading down into the ravine, the other on the opposite bank leading out of it. In between, in the ravine's bed, flows a small creek. There's no bridge or stepping path across the creek: Trakas wanted you, the viewer, to find your own way across the creek and up the path out of the ravine. "No way," I thought. "I could slip and fall and hurt myself, or mess up my clothes. I could get my shoes wet or dirty." On a more mercenary note, I thought I couldn't get a 4 page essay out of that and still get an A. So I did not go into the ravine that day. I picked something else from the list, wrote my essay, and got my A.

I can't really remember why I did eventually go down the Source Route, except that it was junior year. I think one of my friends told me he'd gone down it and thought it was neat. So one day, when I had on suitable footwear and it was nice and dry so I wouldn't slip, I went too. I did worry about falling on the way down, because Trakas didn't want it to be easy, but I felt that I should go the whole way, not turn back. At the bottom--a surprise. The creek looked so different close up. Everything looked different, sounded different. The ravine was so deep I couldn't hear the passing cars hardly at all, or see much except for the road-bridge. But I could hear the birds and the wind in the trees, and for just that moment, I didn't care very much about getting my shoes dirty. I felt very bold indeed as I crossed the rocks of the creek, and, when I emerged at the top of the ravine, I felt I had made a journey. And I realized I could have written a very nice 4 page essay after all.

I'm certain Source Route was intended by Trakas to be a life lesson. About the passage of time--because the sculpture changes with every passing season. (I read that a big tree fell across the ravine near the sculpture a few years ago, for example.) About the impermanence yet permanence of nature in the face of change, nature as the root of all life. (The ravine had actually been planned to be filled in and construction to take place -- the university's decision not to do that helped inspire Trakas.) And perhaps most of all, about the need to be courageous and willing to take a journey, even if it looks tough. Even if your shoes might get dirty.

[The photo pictured comes from a 2003 article about the sculpture in the Atlanta edition of Creative Loafing. Surprisingly, you will find next to nothing if you Google the sculpture. It's still Emory's secret.]

Saturday, August 16, 2008

More France in Fiction

It's been a while since I've made a 'good books' themed post, but I sure have been reading. Here are three recent reads worth sharing, all French-themed historicals:

*Joanne Harris, Holy Fools: I made it my business to read most of Harris' books this summer, when the only one I'd read until this year was Chocolat. I'm such a fan of her use of imagery and language -- I wasn't at all surprised to learn from her website that she has a background in both music and linguistics. Her prose has such rhythm. Holy Fools is set in 1605, on an island off the Brittany coast (her modern-set Coastliners is also set on a Breton island and shares some interesting themes with Holy Fools) at a remote convent. One of the nuns, Soeur Auguste aka Juliette, has a secret past: she was a performer in a traveling circus, and came to the convent with her daughter to escape that past. But her past finds her when her former fellow performer and nemesis, a devious character named LeMerle, appears at the convent in the guise of a priest. A game of cat-and-mouse ensues as both LeMerle and Juliette work from behind their disguises...LeMerle to create mayhem in the convent, Juliette to preserve the way of life there. A splendid read that kept me turning the pages! Fans of Harris' other books will see interesting connections, namely in the mother/daughter theme (cf. Chocolate and Girl with No Shadow), the theme of magic (ditto), and the theme of islands (cf Coastliners).

*Sandra Gulland, Mistress of the Sun: Another new-to-me author from this summer, and now I want to read the Josephine B. trilogy. Mistress of the Sun is set later in the 17th c than Holy Fools, when king Louis XIV is a young man. The heroine is Louise de la Vallière--known as Petite in the book, which erases the clumsiness of a hero named Louis and a heroine named Louise!--and the novel follows her from her childhood through her longtime life as the king's mistress. But it's not a typical "king's mistress" story. The character of Petite is endearing, and as for Louis...well, I'll leave that for readers to decide. Sandra Gulland uses imagery beautifully here -- I particularly liked the opening chapters with the horse Diablo and how those themes resonated through the rest of the book. Another very good read that kept me up late.

*Elizabeth Robards, With Violets: This book I got as an ARC from my editor at Avon--it will be appearing as an Avon-A paperback this fall. It was actually published as a hardcover by Five Star back in 2005, but I admit I had not heard of it until my editor told me about it. This one is set in 19th century France, and the narrator is the Impressionist painter Berthe Morisot. The novel centers on the period in Morisot's life from when she met Edouard Manet (one of my favorite artists) until she married, and imagines the relationship between Morisot and Manet. In 'real life' we do not know the 'truth' of their relationship, because they and their families successfully kept details secret. Naturally art historians speculate all over the place based on what we do know, and Robards is able to have fun speculating too. Based on surviving letters and other source material, the 'real life' Berthe Morisot was a rather brooding person, given to bouts of depression and self-doubt about her art and about her life. Robards tries to convey that while maintaining a romantic tone to the story. She uses a writing style that is impressionistic in itself and feels a bit like Morisot's painting style. In the author's note, Robards explains she was inspired to write the book by a trip to the Musée Marmottan in Paris, one of my favorite places to visit in the city.

I have a whole stack of other things to read, but alas, summer is ending and that means back-to-school on the 25th and less time for fun reading. (On the bright side, it also means back-to-paychecks!) I've got my eye on a number of things coming out this fall, including Elizabeth Peters' The Laughter of Dead Kings, Claude Izner's Murder on the Eiffel Tower, and Barbara Cleverly's Bright Hair About the Bone (the second in her new Laetitia Talbot archaeological mystery series). Stay tuned!

Friday, August 15, 2008

Watchin' the Tropics

**EDIT: I'm noticing a number of Florida neighbors in my blogstats who are looking for things like "fay spaghetti plot" on Google and end up here--as you can see, not a weather blog. Go to Weather Underground or the website for the National Hurricane Center and you'll find all the latest information. Stay Safe!**

Most readers of this blog won't need this useful link, but any US readers who live on a coast vulnerable to tropical disturbances will want to know about Weather Underground (see under Favorite Links at left). My sister Chantel -- an extreme-weather watcher since we were kids -- told me about this site after I moved here, and since the crazy hurricane season of 2004, I use it whenever there's something Chantel tells me we need to keep an eye on. It was four years ago today (well, in terms of it being a Friday--the date was 8/13/04 I think) that Hurricane Charley exploded in intensity on its way to Florida and while en route to Tampa Bay, decided to make a last minute right turn into Port Charlotte and environs, where it caused immense destruction. Stupidly I had not evacuated St Pete, although I had evacuated my apartment, which is in a flood zone, under official orders. I was staying with a friend who was not in the flood zone, but if a Category 3 or 4 storm had indeed come calling, flooding would be the least of the problems. (The media loves telling us that if a major hurricane did hit Tampa Bay, St Petersburg would turn from a peninsula into an island with most of its coastline underwater--including my apartment and my campus.) I don't think I've been as scared in my life as I was on 5 am that day looking at how the storm had grown overnight and was heading right for us. Now I'm a Nervous Nellie about the tropics, and news today of a tropical somethin' that could well intensify to a gal named Faye and possibly annoy Florida in the next week has me jumpy.

It does not help that Florida is most vulnerable during Aug, Sept, and Oct. During school. When I have responsibilities to my students and can't just cancel class and flee town when the spaghetti models* start to look dicey. When any cancelled class, whether I do it or the weather does it, screws up my syllabus!

*Spaghetti models: When the National Weather Service runs computer models on the storm's potential path, each model produces a line. All the lines are juxtaposed on a map to show the range of possibilities--the totality is known as the "spaghetti plot" or the "spaghetti models" because of how it looks. The NWS uses the spaghetti models to graph what's called a "Cone of Uncertainty" (I love that term, I have to say). If Tampa Bay falls at any point into the Cone of Uncertainty, Dr. Bundrick starts squawking and flapping her arms like a chicken.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Night & Day

Boston Globe writer Sebastian Smee has an insightful review online today of Yale University Art Gallery's dual display of "Starry Night" and "Cypresses." I've not seen YUAG's exhibit (sadly), but I've seen both those paintings in their regular homes (MoMA and the Met respectively) and my opinion is the same as Smee's: "Cypresses" is the more dynamic painting of the two. Smee characterizes "Starry Night" as feeling more like an experiment -- quite rightly, because despite its fame and icon status, "Starry Night" was atypical of van Gogh's oeuvre and not a piece that particularly stood out for him. It *was* an experiment, an abstraction done indoors when he was not able to go outside and do a proper night scene. (Being in the asylum of Saint-Rémy at the time and only allowed to roam the countryside during the day.) Vincent had experimented with abstractions -- in the sense of scenes done from his imagination, not from nature -- while Gauguin was staying with him in autumn 1888, but by this time had largely abandoned the method. "Starry Night" is an anomaly. "Cypresses" is much more the kind of painting Vincent enjoyed creating and is much more 'characteristic.' When I had my research fellowship at the Met some years ago and would make my pilgrimages to the van Goghs, "Cypresses" was one of those I liked the best, for its textures and sense of movement. You can *feel* the wind in the trees and grasses, and trust me, on a day of mistral, the air feels exactly that swirly.

If my blogstats are any indication -- I've been getting a LOT of Connecticut visitors this summer -- the YUAG show is doing very well. Any visitors want to share their experience? Is YUAG's own experiment of a two-painting exhibition, limiting the number of visitors so all can engage well with the pictures, successful?

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Sweet Vincent!

Talk about genius. That "Starry Night" is made of cupcakes!

Today's "Van Gogh" Google search turned up reference to a new-ish book called "Hello, Cupcake!" which includes the recipe. I found this image on the authors' blog. The historical van Gogh didn't care much for sweets, but I sure do, and I might have to take a crack at it sometime!

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Camera Shy

Vincent van Gogh was very camera shy, it seems. A photograph of him age 13 and another of him age 18 survive, and this one of him as an adult...from the back. Emile Bernard is the young man facing the camera. In general, Vincent was a bit distrustful of photography vs. portrait painting: when Theo sent him a photograph of their mother in September 1888 (while Vincent was living in Arles), Vincent thanked him in a letter then wrote, "But I do not care for it at all as a real likeness." He then proceeded to paint a portrait based on the photograph, adding the rich color he loved.

I understand Vincent's camera-shyness, and next week I have to face it head-on (literally) when I have author photos taken for my book and for Avon's promotional materials. I'll be working with a former student of mine, Brandi Morris (see her website here), and I hope she can do something with me. I'm SO not photogenic, and somehow I have to look approachable, smart, pretty, engaging, and fashionable all at the same time, for those readers who actually do look at the photos when considering whether to buy a book. We'll be going for a very soft look, in keeping with the novel's subject (thank goodness I've been growing out my hair), and we're thinking of shooting here on my (our) campus, since it's on the water and quite scenic. *Sigh* I'll get up in front of however many people and yak all day long without fear -- but photos freeze me. Deer in headlights is definitely not the look we want!

Monday, August 4, 2008

Meet Tropical Storm Edouard

Take an art history dork (me) and an extreme weather dork (my sister), add Photoshop. Meet Tropical Storm Edouard! (The fabulous Edouard Manet, bien sûr!) Chantel and I can afford to jest when Edouard is a low-level storm and heading the other way from FL. ;-)

Sunday, August 3, 2008

When Art Overwhelms

On a trip to Florence in 1817, the French novelist known as Stendhal experienced dizziness, heart palpitations, and other frightening (he thought) symptoms after viewing great architecture and works of art (including Caravaggio's Bacchus at the Uffizi, seen here). In the late 1970s, Italian psychiatrist Graziella Magherini, after observing dozens of cases in her Florence clinic of tourists with similar symptoms (and some even more extreme), gave the condition a name: Stendhal Syndrome. She wrote a book on the subject in 1989, and the term has stuck ever since.

It's hard in some ways to have a truly emotional reaction to works of art, because the big museums at least tend to be so crowded and noisy. How can you engage meaningfully with something when some oblivious bozo with an audioguide or a camera-phone is edging you out of the way? But it can happen, and it sure has happened to me. I can think of three particularly notable occasions when I was "overwhelmed" beyond just an adrenaline rush --
a) My first visit to the Louvre in 1996, when I saw the Victory of Samothrace, the only artwork that has ever made me actually cry (little tears, not a big boohoo). Had to sit down. Revived self with coffee and pastry in museum cafe.
b) My first visit to the Van Gogh Museum last year (surprise). Talk about sensory overload, walking up the stairs to the main floor and seeing in one sweep Sunflowers, Bedroom at Arles, The Yellow House, etc, etc, etc. Familiar as those pictures were from books, they still knocked me over in person, and it was the quantity as much as anything. Felt dizzy, had to sit down. Probably would have cried if museum were less crowded. Recovered self with tea and cake in the museum cafe.
c) A visit to the Met last summer (by no means my first), when I discovered the Greek art curators had newly created a *whole study gallery* of *every Greek vase previously in storage*. I didn't know it was there! Had never seen many of those vases before! I was the only person in the gallery, I had them all to myself! Completely caught off guard, my knees went weak, my heart pounded, I had to sit down. Recovered self later with ... you get the point. :-)

Art historian James Elkins wrote an interesting book called "Pictures and Tears," which he based on a few hundred letters he received (after a call for submissions online) from people who had strong emotional reactions in front of artworks. Not surprisingly, a few of those people mentioned van Gogh paintings as artworks that had moved them to tears. Vincent would love that: he wanted people to be moved by his work and to understand that he himself was someone who felt deeply. In my novel "The Sunflowers," there is -- of course -- a scene when the heroine, Rachel, has a Stendhal Syndrome moment, the first time she visits Vincent's studio in the yellow house. Predictable, perhaps, but grounded in something real: I rewrote the scene after going to the Van Gogh Museum, when I didn't have to imagine any more what it would feel like for her. In the VGM, I looked around me at other faces: some people were doing the "museum shuffle" from picture to picture, not seeming particularly enthused, but the others -- dazed looks, open mouths (seriously), big wide eyes. Overwhelmed.

Have *you* ever been moved by an artwork like that?

Friday, August 1, 2008

The Return of Victoria

The magazine, that is. I don't know how I missed this, except that I seldom visit the magazine section of the bookstore these days, but one of my favorite magazines from back in the day -- Victoria -- has returned. Returned last November, evidently. A reference to it on the blog The Earthly Paradise sent me scurrying to the magazine's website then to Amazon to buy a subscription.

I was a loyal reader of Victoria from the year it first appeared (1987) until about the mid-1990s or so, when, steeped in graduate-school angst, I grew a little tired of it. I kept every issue I had, and I guess they're still in my parents' basement. Oh, I loved that magazine! In 1987, I was a high-school senior, loving the Brontës, loving my British lit course, loving European history, eager to eat up a pretty publication that spirited me to a gracious world of afternoon tea and blissful gardens. I'm so excited that it's back! In a world that seems more and more stressful and ugly, it's nice to think a little bit of bliss can be bought for $19.99 a year.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Hidden Van Goghs

A team of scientists and art historians have used the latest technologies to find the portrait of a woman hidden beneath one of van Gogh's paintings. Pictured is a digital reconstruction of the face underneath "Patch of Grass,"otherwise known as "Pasture in Bloom," a painting done in 1887 while Vincent was living in Paris (today in the Kröller-Müller Museum). The team first used conventional X-ray to examine the picture and were able to see the rough outlines of the face. But by using a particle accelerator and more advanced X-ray techniques at a laboratory in Germany, they were able to "see" the portrait better and reconstruct its colors. An article summarizing the findings appears in today's Los Angeles Times and more detailed results are being published in a scientific journal. The team's research not only uncovers a "hidden" van Gogh but leads the way to similar uses of X-ray technology in the examination of other artworks.

As for the woman's portrait--the style links it to a series of 'peasant' heads Vincent painted while he was living in Nuenen with his parents in 1885, a series that culminated in "The Potato Eaters." For some reason, Vincent didn't think this study worth keeping and reused the canvas. Because his work output often outpaced his canvas supply, he seems to have reused canvases quite a bit...which leads one to wonder what else lies beneath the canvases hanging in museums. Last year, one of the Van Gogh Museum curators and a restorer from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston discovered a scene of wild vegetation beneath a scene of a ravine done while Vincent was in Saint-Rémy (read about that discovery here). Van Gogh Museum curators also discovered a portrait of a woman beneath the 1887 portrait of café owner Agostina Segatori (the VGM has the x-ray on their website). Vincent didn't think these discarded images important, but they're important for art historians, giving a more complete view of van Gogh's artistic production.