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On the fourth floor of the Victoria & Albert Museum, tucked away in a small room off the staircase, in a case inviting you to figure out what its objects are for, I found my favorite artifact.  A mustache spoon!  For eating soup.  Half way across the bowl of the silver spoon runs an elegantly scalloped plate—to hold a gentleman’s facial apparatus our of the liquid as he sips his first course.  Fabulous!  It made my evening.

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Ah! Sweet home! The room of 15th-century Netherlandish masters at the National Gallery in London.  It is, for me, like Rome (and I do not mean to sound conceited – just in love):  no matter how many time I’ve been here, I never tire of the place, and it welcomes me back warmly with its familiar faces.

This time my return is particularly happy, because I’ve just visited the Gossaert show in the basement. Working in Flanders in the first half of the 16th century, Gossaert was, naturally, steeped in the tradition of his predecessors.  But there is something missing for me in his panels, despite all the meticulously detailed surfaces and newly spacious classicizing compositions.  He tries too hard: to impress you with his antiquarian knowledge, his technical mastery, his pomp and splendor.  Although he wants you to come close and admire his work, somehow he keeps you at bay.

Wondering what’s lacking for me in his paintings, I go upstairs, to pay my homage to Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, Petrus Christus.  They make me smile the moment I walk into their room.  I see what’s different about them: they are not showing off (though their command of the minutiae of the world is as fine as Gossaert’s); they are gentler, treating their characters with affection; their mood is more contemplative.  These painters inhabit the stillness they project onto their panels; Gossaert gets swept up in the whirlwind of the forms he stirs up.

One of my favorite pictures is Rogier van der Weyden’s “Magdalene Reading” (a fragment of a larger altarpiece, but a universe onto itself).  The young saint is so fully and quietly absorbed in her book that the activities on the margins of her vision seem like isolated notes, or occasional drops of water—the soft clank of the crystal prayed bead fingered by St. Joseph behind her, the shout of the hunter drawing his arrow outside the window, the murmur of the voices of the other figures in the room.  Magdalene does not notice them as she reads, her head inclined, eyes lowered, the chartreuse expanse of her dress forming an island of peacefulness.

Even the “Arnolfini Portrait” nearby—though full of its owners’ pride apparent in his fur cloak, her ornate dress, the ostentatious ceremonial bed behind them, the signature of Burgundian court artist they could hire to immortalize them—still does not to lose track of these people, the solemn dialogue between them, the details that make up their world. Gossaert with his busy mind and brush, I think, would have dispersed this moment and our attention in his bravura.

As I stand before my beloved van der Weyden and van Eyck, I realize that while Gossaert fusses with the surface of things, Rogier and Jan seek to convey how people and things feel.  And they invite you to do the same.  I fall in love with them all over again.  Besotted, I leave them reluctantly, mentally making my next date with them.

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On evil

I got an e-mail this morning that broke my heart.

Some time ago I have signed an electronic petition protesting the closing of the UCLA art library, a measure induced by the current financial crisis.  Since then I’ve been receiving all sorts of pleas for help.  A couple of them stare at me every day as I turn on my computer.  I will admit that I tend to trash them because I cannot sign on to every cause.  But today’s message unmoored me.

It told a story of a lovely Great Dane that had been locked in a garage by its owner and left to starve.  The dog weighed 53 pounds when it was discovered – astonishingly, still alive – having lost at least half of its weight.  It was literally a skeleton, its spine and ribs barren of any meat whatsoever—just a carcass covered by tight white skin.  The American Humane Association that found it has a Second Chance Fund which helps give such pets the necessary medical treatment.  They were asking me for a donation.

Fighting back tears I reflected on this message as I went on my morning walk with Audrey.  (I petted and kissed her with great tenderness and gave her extra snacks, as if such little acts of indulgence could help that poor Dane — who has, fortunately, been adopted and brought back to health by a loving family — and other such abused pets.) I find it incomprehensible that people can be so horrifically cruel to defenseless animals.  Why not take a dog you don’t want to keep to a shelter, or, as awful as it sounds, kill it quickly, rather than subject it to a torturous demise?  I am, of course, a dog lover, so naturally this story resonated with me.  But it also made me think of unimaginable instances of children being subjected to abuse.  And of how much – or little – can be done to stop this kind of suffering.  Some animals and children are, luckily, discovered and saved.  But not all, and not for all times.  The money I might send today to the American Humane Association will not preclude other cruelties from happening again and again.

We are all regularly approached via regular and electronic mail, telephone calls and street campaigns to contribute to charities of all kinds.  There are so many problems needing to be solved.  Most of the time I walk away from these entreaties.  I may be in a hurry, or deep-down indifferent to a given issue, or feel hopeless to make a difference.  I am pretty broke at the moment, so would $20 I might be able to give really do much good?  Or is that a lame excuse for inaction and washing my hands of someone else’s troubles?

I have been mulling over these questions all day, feeling dispirited by the endlessness of evil and haunted by the image of that miserable dog.  What can I do, can be done, to remedy such disasters?  Are small acts of kindness towards those around you meaningful contributions to making the world a bit better?  Are big financial donations a more effective solution?  What constitutes a significant act of goodness, given that wickedness will never vanish?

It feels important to me to give time to such reflections.  Perhaps to try to do something more specific:  send a check, or maybe spend some time caring for pets in a shelter.  At the very least, to not let myself fall back into complacency and forget this and other such stories, and to more consciously do any little thing that might be put in the scales to counterweigh the evil.

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