Sunday, March 30, 2008

Happy Birthday Vincent -- and an Announcement

On 30 March 1853, Vincent van Gogh was born in the small town of Groot Zundert, in the southern province of the Netherlands known as Brabant. Happy Birthday Vincent!!!

And in honor of Vincent's birthday: time to let a cat of the bag, a cat who's been squalling pretty loudly already. Less than two weeks ago, I signed a contract for representation with Barbara Braun of Barbara Braun Associates, a literary agent with a PhD in art history (yay!) who represents my favorite author, Susan Vreeland. The project in question? A historical novel about none other than Monsieur Vincent, which I've been working on since June 2006 -- my first novel after years of academic writing.

While not saying too much, it's called "The Sunflowers" (at the moment) and is set during the last two years of Vincent's life, primarily in Arles and Saint-Rémy. I was seized with inspiration after a visit to Auvers-sur-Oise in May 2006 -- something that incredibly special day spoke to me, and a story began to emerge. Last summer I spent time in Holland and France to continue the research. Right now I am doing another set of revisions, pruning and trimming, and the current plan is for Dr. Braun to approach editors sometime this summer or early fall. Here's hoping my work can find a good home, and someday, readers who will enjoy and learn from it, as I've been enjoying and learning every step of the way.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Read This Book!

It's nice when you find a book that not only gets you thinking, but practically smacks you upside the head. Last night I finished "The God of Spring" by Australian author Arabella Edge -- I thought I'd read every art-themed novel out there, but somehow I missed this one when it came out last year in hardback. It was just released in paperback. The subject is Theodore Gericault's sublime painting "The Raft of the Medusa" (today in the Louvre), and if you know anything about that painting, you know Edge had a lot to work with.

The structure is fantastically done: after beginning with a dissatisfied, discontented Gericault (overwhelmed by a love affair), the novel proceeds in parallel stories between Gericault's creation of the painting and survivors' narratives of what happened to those shipwrecked on the raft. Just when you're waiting breathlessly for Gericault's next move or the survivors' next ordeal, Edge zooms you to the other of the parallel stories. Guaranteed to keep you reading. Gericault, and the reader, descend deeper and deeper into the Medusa tragedy, Gericault to the point of obsession. Warning: there are parts not for the squeamish, and if you already know the painting's story, you can guess what those are.

Edge's research is good, and her prose skillfully avoids melodrama or fussy-ness. I teach "The Raft of the Medusa" every year in survey (we just did it, in fact), I've stood in front of that painting any number of times in the Louvre, and yet when I finished the novel, I felt I had gotten to know the painting and the artist in a whole new way. This book deserves attention and it deserves to be read!

Vincent at the Airport

From 9 April until 7 July, eight van Gogh canvases belonging to the Van Gogh Museum will be presented in the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam Schiphol, a free museum in the Amsterdam airport. The museum is located behind passport control between piers E and F, and is open from 7 am until 8 pm. The display is called "Vincent van Gogh: Nature Close-Up" -- one of the featured canvases is a blossoming almond tree painting from Arles. A museum in the airport: what a great idea!

In-town at the Van Gogh Museum, a new exhibit opens 4 April to celebrate Amsterdam's designation as World Book Capital for 2008. Entitled "Treasures from the Van Gogh Museum Library," this display will present rare 19th-century books from the museum's collection, as well as some of Vincent's letters and artworks related to the theme of reading. The exhibit is intended to highlight advances in art publications during the 19th century and how these impacted artists like van Gogh.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Van Gogh's Pieta

"I had a piece of bad luck during my illness -- that lithograph of Delacroix's, La Pietà, along with some other sheets, fell into some oil and paint and was ruined. I was sad about it, so I have been busy painting it ... I have made a copy of it which I think has some feeling." (Letter to Theo, Sept 1889, LT 605)

Although many of van Gogh's paintings possess a spiritual subtext, he rarely created overtly religious images. Part of this derived from his mixed feelings about religion and religious imagery, part of it was practical: he didn't think he should paint important figures like Christ without good models. (This was the reason he gave Theo for abandoning a canvas of Christ in Gethesmane while at Arles.) The handful of Biblical-themed paintings done by Vincent are variations on compositions by other artists, based on lithographs. One of these is the Pietà, painted in early September 1889 after one of his attacks at the Saint-Rémy asylum.

Vincent compared his variations on other artists' works to musical performances, with Délacroix in this case as the composer and himself as the musician, free to interpret the theme as he chose. Because he worked from black-and-white prints, he improvised the color in his versions. His Pietà uses bold blues, and in the background, golden yellows that speak to the Easter sunrise and hope for resurrection. He emphasizes lines and curves, the slumping body of Christ echoing the lines of the rocks at right, and in perhaps the most personal element, gives Christ red hair. In a "Raising of Lazarus" study near the end of his stay at the asylum (based on a print by Rembrandt), Lazarus is given red hair as well; perhaps this was Vincent's way of consoling himself in his suffering, identifying himself with suffering figures of the New Testament. Hope is here, though, just Vincent believed he would eventually recover from his illness.

The Pietà canvas seems to have been special to him. It was one of the few he took to Auvers-sur-Oise after leaving the asylum, instead of storing it in Paris with Theo, and it must have been in his room at the Auberge Ravoux when he died. Theo took it back to Paris, and today it hangs in the Van Gogh Museum, never sold by the van Gogh family. The ruined Délacroix lithograph remains in the museum's collection, too.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Happy 1st Bday to My Nephew!!

A year ago today, my precious nephew Anthony entered the world and filled my family's lives with sunshine! Happy Birthday to my little friend!

Nonfamilial blogreaders will think I'm making this up, but Anthony is quite the van Gogh fan. The Baby Einstein Baby van Gogh dvd I bought him when he was very small is still a favorite mellowing-out dvd, and his new favorite book is the Metropolitan Museum's "Vincent's Colors" children's book I got him for Christmas. He sits up straight and blurts out...something in his language...when we get to the Sunflowers page, and at the end, he whimpers to be read again. I read "Vincent's Colors" a record six times straight over the weekend.

I wish I could paint Anthony a picture for his birthday, but since I have the artistic talent of a bedpost, I attach here Vincent's beautiful "Almond Trees in Blossom," painted for HIS nephew, Vincent Willem, in February 1890, a few weeks after little Vincent's birth. Because le grand Vincent was in the asylum at Saint-Remy at the time, he did not meet le petit Vincent until May, but the baby was in his thoughts. As Anthony is often in mine!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Gauguin Goes Getty

The LA Times reported yesterday that the J. Paul Getty Museum has acquired its first painting by Paul Gauguin, "Arii Matamoe (The Royal End)," painted in 1892 during the painter's first trip to Tahiti. It is planned to go on view in early April. Museum director Michael Brand is quoted as saying, "We had a clear need for a great painting by Gauguin to accompany our Post-Impressionist masterpieces by van Gogh and Cézanne." The Getty already has two of Gauguin's drawings and a sculpted wood self-portrait.

The Getty owns "only" one van Gogh painting, but if you can own only one, it might as well be the exquisite "Irises" of May 1889, painted early in Vincent's stay at the asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole at Saint-Rémy. The Getty acquired it in March 1990 in a special deal brokered with Sotheby's, following a bit of a convoluted snafoo between Sotheby's and a collector who had bought it in 1987 at a Sotheby's auction. Neither the purchase price of the van Gogh nor the purchase price of the new Gauguin have been revealed by the museum.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Museums of Paris

One of the things I love most about Paris -- my very favorite European city to visit -- is the sheer plethora of museums. I've been lucky to spend a lot of time in Paris on several different trips, but I have not come close to visiting them all. The Louvre and the Orsay are on everyone's list, and I certainly spend much time at both, but here are others I enjoy.

Musée Rodin: I first visited this one over ten years ago, before they built their new visitor pavilion and everybody else found it. It's a treat, such beautiful sculptures and gardens, best visited on a beautiful day when you can sit outside among the roses. (And on a weekday, when it's not super-busy.) Now with the new pavilion they offer more exhibitions; I caught a great one of Rodin's collection of Japanese prints last year. They have a few van Goghs, including one of the Arles harvest scenes and my favorite of the Père Tanguy portraits.

Musée Marmottan:This one's a little out from the center, but worth the trip. The Monets on the ground floor are the stars, but there's plenty else to see. My first visit here, I'd been to Giverny the day before, and that turned out to be a happy order of things. A progression of Monet's waterlilies are hung, from the more naturalistic to the increasingly abstract. I found myself loving the late-period waterlilies that usually are more ignored. "Impression:Sunrise" is here, the painting that gave its name to the movement.

Musée Gustave Moreau: This one was at the top of my list last trip, because I'd never been. Fantastic. Moreau's former home and studio form the museum, and the studio walls are hung floor to ceiling with Moreau's incredible visionary paintings. A particular treat is the cabinets filled with his drawings. Most museums keep drawings locked away in storage for their safety, but here you can look at them in the special cabinets. They give a wonderful sense of the artistic process.

Musée Délacroix: In the same vein, on the Left Bank you can visit Délacroix's former home and studio and see some of his works there. This museum is best visited after you've seen the most famous Délacroixs at the Louvre.

Musée Guimet: I was blown away by this museum of Asian art last year. It was much larger than I expected, and I hadn't allowed enough time to see it all. I usually eschew audio-tours, but I took one here, and it helped to fill in the large gaps in my knowledge. (We didn't have an Asian art professor at my university, sadly.) The Cambodian and Indian material was my favorite.

Musée Cluny: I usually stay in this neighborhood of the Quartier Latin, so the Cluny is typically on my list for a re-visit. Some of the displays need updating, but the objects are so interesting one can manage without snazzy labels and wall texts. The highlight is the foray into the once-Roman baths, not to mention the famous Unicorn Tapestries.

Musée Carnavalet: Like the Moreau, this was one I hadn't been to until last year. A fantastic treasure-trove of Parisian history that kept me busy for quite a while. I particularly liked the rooms relating to the Revolution, a period that has always fascinated me. Unfortunately, some of the 19th century rooms were closed on my visit, so I'll have to go back next trip.

Petit Palais: I think this venue is better known for its special exhibitions, but the permanent collection is nothing to sneeze at. Naturally I like the antiquities best; they have some quite nice Athenian vases.

Musée de Montmartre: On Rue Cortot, partly occupying a building once lived in by Renoir while he painted the Moulin de la Galette. I love this small museum with its Toulouse-Lautrec posters and its recreation of a Montmartrois café. It's a delightful peek into the unique culture of this arrondissement.

Bibliothèque Nationale, Cabinet des Médailles: this one is really for hard-core antiquities fans. Some fabulous Athenian vases are here -- famous ones -- and the incredible Roman cameos are worth the trip. The celebrated Grande Camée de France, formerly in the royal collections, is here, and it's much bigger than you think it is going to be.

Even in the Louvre and the Orsay, there are less-visited corners worth seeking out. The Louvre's ancient Near Eastern collection is one of the best in the world, and yet you're likely to have the galleries to yourself. Ditto for the Islamic art galleries, decorative arts collection and the Campana collection of Greek vases. At the Orsay, I love the Art Nouveau section on the quiet middle level. One of Vincent's paintings of the Saint-Rémy asylum is tucked away with the Kaganovitch collection on level 4, away from the rest of the van Goghs and the accompanying teeming crowds with camera-phones.

Museums I still need to visit...the Musée Jacquemart-André, the Musée Maillol, the Musée Cognacq-Jay, and out in St-Germain-de-Laye, the museum of prehistoric artifacts. Guess I have to go back sometime soon!

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Bravo, Christian!

What's the point of having a blog if I don't dish about a significant cultural event like the season finale of "Project Runway"?! Kudos to sassy--excuse me, fierce--little Christian Siriano for being the Season 4 winner, and to all three finalists for presenting such beautiful collections. I think this was the first season where I smiled and sighed through nearly every look marching down the Bryant Park tent runway. Christian and Rami were my favorites since episode one, and in general I think all three final collections had a level of professionalism and impeccable construction that went beyond the first three seasons.

But somebody had to win, and Christian's dramatic line carried the day. That two-toned feather dress at the end...*swoon*. No, his clothes aren't really practical or wearable, but as artworks, they sing. Loudly and fiercely!

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Spartans in Speedos

Well, I did it. I finally watched "300." Back when it was in the theater, the trailer made me turn up my snobby little academic nose and kept me away, but I borrowed the dvd from my brother-in-law and watched it last night. (It's on cable now, too.) And you know what? It's actually pretty good! Not "Gladiator" good -- I LOVE "Gladiator" -- but a rollicking hoot just the same.

Let's not confuse "good" with "accurate," though. Spartans fought in tunics, not superhero-briefs, and while those swirling capes look fabulous on screen, they were unsuitable for hoplite warfare (your enemy could throw it over your head, choke you round the neck with it, etc). Xerxes would have looked nothing like his cinematic counterpart, and not one elephant turned up at the real battle of Thermopylae. But the ESSENCE was there, and that's what made the film for me. We see the with-your-shield-or-on-it legendary bravado of the Spartans, the total extent to which the Greeks were outnumbered by the Persians, and the heroic sacrifice of the 300. Some of the dialogue came straight out of Herodotus, too. I definitely got into it, and I loved the last bit where the surviving Spartan leads the charge at Plataia. (I got a little sad thinking how few moviegoers probably knew what the heck the battle of Plataia was and what it meant, but what can you do.) The film's message of heroism being remembered was so key in ancient Greek culture -- Spartan, Athenian, or otherwise -- that the film would have made the original 300 very proud indeed.

I've been to Thermopylae, and I've been to Sparta. The memorial to the Spartans at Thermopylae is literally by the side of the highway, so it's not the most romantic setting. Sparta though is amazing; you cross these incredible mountains to this town nestled in a valley, and even in its modern incarnation the memory of ancient times is there (true in all Greece). We visited the Menelaion, a Classical shrine dedicated to the memory of Menelaos and Helen (real people, as far as the Greeks were concerned). Standing on that windy hilltop, the rugged landscape all around, one feels very close to the ancient Spartans. The archaeological museum in Sparta is worth visiting, too; the Spartans weren't dedicated building-builders and art-makers as the Athenians, but their artifacts are fascinating nonetheless.

So it's all about the essence when it comes to "300." "Gladiator" captures the essence too -- "Troy" doesn't. Perhaps that's a post for another day.