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.