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Archive for the month “September, 2014”

The Great Upheaval

Yesterday* I went to see The Great Upheaval at the AGO. Before even entering the exhibit, I reflected: what a great name. Images of mountains overturning, the earth being wrenched apart, deep chasms and I snickered at how appropriate the name of the exhibit was.

In a sense, however, rather than a great upheaval, the show begins to slowly chronicle from 1910-1918 the changes of what people had viewed as appropriate in art. The idea that the canvas was a window through which one could capture landscapes and recognizable moments marked the beginning of the end of traditional painting. However, great art does not exist in a vacuum and just as Flanders stood as the outpost for import of mercantile goods and was reflected in the lush paintings by Franz Hals, Jean-Baptiste-Simeon-Chardin, Pieter Claesz, Anthony van Dyck and others in the 17th Century, so the paintings of the early 20th Century would capture the tumult and unrest that was seething across Europe, feeling the rumble of revolt as it rolled towards war.

The breakdown of conventional ideas and mores was exploding all over Europe almost simultaneously from the Surrealist painters such as Man Ray to musicians such as Stravinsky to scientific discoveries regarding atoms and psychoanalysis to actual peasant revolts in Russia. Zurich during the war was magnet for refugees, exiles, anarchists, artist and radicals of all kinds ( Stoppard in Travesties, 1975, 69); it is not surprising that parallel art works emerged. Picasso and Stravinsky knew one another,and Freud and Einstein having a casual acquaintance.

Howard Gardner speaks to a Zeitgeist, a spirit of the time that infuses and energizes the culture of communities. Yet the question arises, whether the brilliant minds that appeared in small European communities at approximately the same time actually changed history, or did they reflect and deepen the significance of the events all ready occurring around them. Or perhaps much like the medieval or Renaissance artist, was the artist merely providing a window on the world?

In my doctoral thesis, I wrote about artists from the time of Goya to Kathe Kollwitz who used their art to comment and attack the leaders of their times. Van Gogh too depicted the life of the poor and Georges Seurat worried about the machine’s domination over people and the achievement of democratic rights for all workers. And anyone who has ever stood before Picasso’s “Guernica” will forever have the image of the mother, head flung backwards, holding her dead baby, etched in their consciousness. You can feel her screams that pierce the air.

I paused for a moment at the entrance of the art exhibit at the AGO, deciding whether to purchase the audio guide or not. For ages I have been shunning those annoying pieces of technology because they mess with my hearing aids and, more importantly, encourage listening as opposed to looking. However, as it has been years since I’ve sat in art history class, I decided on the guide and wound up hearing more and visually focusing less- except when I allowed myself to really examine the wonderful paintings.

The show opens with a Cezanne “Still life” (1879) and the guide points out the split in the picture-almost cutting the design in two. On one side, Cezanne’s gorgeous ( there are no lines in nature) fruits sit nicely on the tablecloth; on the other, the tablecloth might take flight as there is no stabilizing support for the fruit. If the listener wonders why, the audio guide speaks to the metaphorical nature of the surface being destabilized. Cezanne’s piece is prophetic, subtly but boldly ushering in a future which foresees the ends of tranquility and balance as war is not far, and life will be shattered- not quite into the precise cubes Picasso will herald but into blocks and bits of reality that will stand in for the solid ground rules that once directed artists.

It is an apt introductory piece as a painted metaphor for Cezanne heralds the 50’s Abstract Expressionism: the treatment of paint as paint; canvas as two dimensional ( Notice in this show, Gauguin’s paint applied to the very recognizable surface of burlap in “Haere Mai “(1891); colour for its own sake; the merging of fore and background as the structures of recognizable painting are folded into dust and a new sensibility rises from the ashes.

As a commentary piece to Cezanne’s table of shifting still life, Picasso’s “Moulin de Galette (1900) reminds us of Ensor, Nolde, Toulouse Lautrec and even Picasso’s well known “Le Gogule” and “Absinthe Drinkers” who blankly stare out of the frame, but ignore us, the voyeurs. There is a ghoulish feeling to this dance and bar scene of scary inhabitants who leer out. It is the scorn of the bohemians who go their own way, find their own inebriation and search their own souls, disdaining the public who like us, peer in, a mere audience to their actions. The seeds of rebellion have begun to sprout.

I wonder if the curator of this show held the same notions as I in this arrangement.

A quiet Seurat, “Peasant Woman on Grass” painted in his pointillist style provides insight into how background and foreground will merge as the green shadow of the background is intrinsically linked to the meditating woman in the fore. Although a traditional separation of forms can still be discerned, both parts of the painting are united by the mood, shape and technique.

Similarly Kandinsky’s “Winterscape with Church”( 1910) celebrates the flatness of the canvas. Shapes lose their prescribed forms, the boldness of the primaries, strong blues and reds, the tipping of the perspective meshes the front and back again in an almost kaleidoscopic whirr. While we still can recognize remnants of the familiar buildings and clouds, now they are interlocked, avoiding the perspectival view that people had come to expect in portraying buildings and landscapes: as if seeing through a window. Beneath our feet, the earth begins to shake and we feel uncertain about the solid ground that had once supported traditional and expected interpretations.

We see this convergence of back and foreground in painting over and over again: in Delaunay’s “Red Eiffel” tower, a recognizable symbol of modernity, a manmade construction of steel that the Futurists will laud. Umberto Boccioni, will announce in his party’s manifestos that traditional subject matter must go and be replaced by the essence of pure motion and movement, building processes and materials of a fast approaching future. Leger as well in his “Smokers” presents colors dulled in puffs of smoke, cubist forms that are obscured, but ascend upwards and out of the picture space. Modernity eclipses the past.

Ironically exhibited is a small painting by Marcel Duchamp, usually celebrated for his penchant for motion in “Woman Descending the Stairs.” Here, we view a tranquil moment ,“ Apropos of Little Sister (1911)”, where a slouching woman reminiscent of Lautrec’s red-headed model with a drooped head in long black stockings bends forward. The strong linearity of the pose, the occluding/obfuscation of back and foregrounds, a feeling of a sketch for a moment of repose and quiet reminds us of the complexity of the artist’s search.

Similarly, Chagall halts the headlong onslaught into the future with his disarming colours both in his “ Soldier Drinks” and “Paris through Windows.” His luminescent primary colours, his surreal upside down people, animals with human heads, steeples and samovars from Russia ensure we recognize his signature motifs. They literally stop us in our tracks and envelop us in his interior world where the viewer feels safe, dreamily ensconced in broad areas of exuberant jewel tones. In Chagall’s upheaval, he showcases an inner egotistical expression that focuses on the artist’s right to paint what he wants, how he wants, where he wants, perhaps obliterating the outside world for the security within.

However not unaware of the trends and realities that surround, for his studio in Paris witnessed the visits and influences of Matisse, Picasso and others and he himself had experienced pogroms in Russia, and anti-Semitism in Europe, Chagall flamboyantly creates his own dramatic spaces, outside of the real world, elevating his private landscapes to a realms of magical dominance.

In a way, the Modigliani “Nude” (1917) is like that as well. The strong diagonal of the nude pushes the figure into our space, even cutting off her legs. In spite of the force of the composition, the model sleeps blissfully, uncaring of the stir she causes through the boldness of her pose that recalls the odalisques and harems of Delacroix that also caused a commotion in their day. Paradox always, the tumult of the interior world of the painting obscures the exterior insecurity of the world posed or all ready engaged in battles. Yet the boldness of the attack on space and colour in these works mirror those larger wars: posed in their destructive forces on how reality was once constructed.

This exposure of an inner world as opposed to the presentation of the external world likewise was championed by the group Dir Bleue Reider, inaugurated by Kandinsky and Franz Marc in Russia who sought to represent the spiritual in their paintings. The luscious “Yellow Cow” that celebrated Marc’s wedding is a joy in the joy it exudes. Marc has written that he envisaged the horse and the rider as the artist moving forward into a new world. And his compatriot Kandinsky a believer in the apocalypse and devotee of Anton Strindberg appropriated musical terminology to express those contentions. Both artists were transfixed by Swedenborg’s mysticism.

As well, Kokoschka’s “Errant Knight” expresses his emotional distress at his lover Alma Mahler’s actions as this landscape washed in waves of blue projects his personal despair on to the viewer: certainly a new mode of expression for the artist.

The Great Upheaval is a thoughtful, well curated show. Many of these paintings are not the ones you have studied in art books. They provide a fresh look at the upheaval that changed the history of art forever. It provokes reflections on the role of the artist in society and reinforces to the public the necessity of art as talking points and a reminder that art must live openly, provide commentary and solace from the horrors of repression and oppression : beyond private galleries and museums into real living places- schools, malls, city centres, office buildings wherever people gather.

* Please remember I write these, stock pile them, revise and edit them at a later date. So “ yesterday” was not Thursday, September 25, 2014.

Knitting

Before there was knitting, there was corking : four little nails hammered into a circular wooden tunnel, and a small pick that you used to place wool over wool over the nail heads until a long tail emerged from the hole in the tunnel. I was given this activity when I was little, a prelude to making crafts and eventually knitting. My mother and her sister were knitters. My mother told me that when they were little girls they would save Popsicle and sucker sticks to stand in the place of needles. I could imagine two tots, their heads solemnly touching, tongues tight: a Norman Rockwell illustration for the 1920’s.

My mother knitted for my sister and me. When I was in junior high and an unexpected invitation arrived for a classmate’s bar mitzvah, my mother went into high gear and began to fashion me an outfit, much like the elves who labored every night for the shoemaker in the Grimm’s tale. She produced a stunningly beautiful red Channel-like suit edged in two lines of fluffy white angora. I thought it the equal or better than whatever fabulous find the Forest Hill socialites at my school might wear to the celebration. That suit made me feel confident and I must have gleamed my happiness throughout the festivities. Perhaps my hair even looked nice on that occasion.

But there were other knitted goods as well. A Mary Maxim sweater with model tee-cars. My sister chose horses on hers. Strangely, she did not ride and I can’t remember her ever fantasizing about those four legged champs, or even reading Black Beauty. Maybe she imagined herself clearing the hurdles at some posh summer camp. But my sweater pattern choice was based on hoping to win my father’s praises which it did because he was a fan of all things car-like; as cars were his means of mobility, of traveling unimpeded without his wooden crutches, the props that slowed him down. So I selected a model-T car and he certainly approved.

My mother was talented and exacting in her work. In contrast, most of my early knitting projects were what I would call “creative”, featuring large holes when dropped stitches occurred, or bulging sections where too many stitches had grown. I did not care that the integrity of the pattern had been disrupted. Or so seriously altered that one would never know I had begun attempting to reproduce a particular image in a book. Later I would try and fix those mistakes by adding an applique or pulling the stitches this way or that into a new design- if I could find the miscreants that had evaded my knitting needle. I once described those early knitting endeavours in a Family Circle issue that chronicled how my knitting history changed once I had babies. Ironically at present, torn bits and holes, rather than mistakes by a sloppy knitter now flourish as fashion statements, not sloppy omissions or errors that mine once were.

If a lacey open so- invented creative pattern was acceptable for me alone, along with those funny nose cozies I concocted for keeping my nose toasty warm at high school, my children’s wearing garments would have to be pristine. Over and over again I would knit and rip, ensuring the perfection of tiny garments: from booties to blankets, with additions of baubles, cables or small rabbits, they followed the patterns exactly. There were thick scratchy hats with pompoms; there were vests with Paddington and Mickey; there were matching tops and bottoms in soft pastels and more. But now they had to be perfect for my own tiny perfect beings who deserved not attempts but garments realized as they had appeared in the pictures from which I had chosen them.

But my mother’s work was always seamlessly perfect. She was delighted that one Sunday while out rambling with the children on Markham Street, I had had to locate a phone booth to report that several people had stopped me on the street to compliment the sweaters the children were sporting : made of course by my mother. “Every stitch a stitch of love,” she would say: these of Humpty Dumpty both before and after his fall for my oldest girl; and a gorgeous stampeding train set against a background of navy, no doubt a forerunner of Thomas- for my son.

I passed the train sweater, at my son’s insistence onto my grandson and I look forward to seeing him wear it one day. But it seems parents today ( now you know I am really part of the passing generation with telltale phrases like that) prefer Gap disposable clothes. And I must admit that few moms have time to handwash a wool toper and lay it flat. I suppose that was the reason for the invention of acrylic blends that can be tossed into the washer and arrive out only slightly smaller and misshapen.

However, even children begin to demonstrate preferences in their clothes. My grandson demands “ handsome man” shirts which means shirts that button down the front in place of long-sleeved tees. And for some reason, he favors plaids. Maybe the result of a secret clan intermarriage years and years back in our ancestry. Or perhaps the precision of the pattern or the colours that cross and intertwine delight him.

In spite of my labours, my husband refuses to wear the Fair isle vests that took hours upon hours to produce as each strand of wool must be twisted and carefully carried along the wrong side of the pattern to satisfy the instructions. Recently I also made a sweater for my son-in-law. For some reason the annoying garment grew to such a size that a friend who wields a mean sewing machine and scissors first cut and then restitched the pieces into a better more fitted size. Suffice it to say, although warm, it did lack the proper look as the arms still hung long and the body continued in its shapeless pursuit to locate a shape.

I sigh to recall the miracle of Kaffee Fassett’s Twelve Virgins painstaking transformed into wool by my laboring mother who explained that only one painstaking row of knitting could be done a night because of the 32 different contrasting strands of wool in one single line of knitting. It took her an entire year to complete the project. I should hang it like a beautiful Japanese kimono on a wall; it is so incredibly beautiful. I remember her grumbling somewhat, saying a man, Fassett, had no idea how to translate a pattern as he had made it much more complicated than need be. Likely she was right –about the complexity of the layout.

Still I continued to knit, and although when I discovered that my husband had placed that Fair isle vest into the bag for Goodwill, I decided his intent was clear.

My girls are still delighted should I fashion a poncho or sweater for them. I see them wearing the sweaters and I am pleased, feeling a kind of invisible umbilical cord connection, intermittently pulsing with warmth and love. But these days, knitting is- as it was for my mother, a kind of therapy. Although once I was drawn by colours, textures or gorgeous models in knitting books from Italy or New York, chic women against sunsets or lingering over coffee with friends in prosaic alleys. A glamorous life in glamorously well- constructed knits.

I now knit to calm my mind. Life as we know is not always controllable and we are victims to the whims of chance and misfortune. Knitting banishes much of that. When a tired husband slumps asleep after a busy day, I knit to the background noise of some cooking show on television. My fingers remain nimble, my mind stopping here and there to figure out instructions –that I can no longer discuss with my mother who would have known the meaning of the words or the symbols presented. We used to ruefully laugh that even knitting books, besides their cost, had changed and whoever wrote out the instructions was never clear enough-at least for my understanding.

Recently I showed my grandson an old pattern of a dinosaur with protruding parts and he agreed to let me make it for him. He has worn it but I fear its end will be somewhere in a bottom drawer or giveaway box with the figure of the Canadian moose and the one merino wool one with the difficult fire engine buttons. Once when he was in daycare I commandeered four separate needles at once to concoct a hollow snake scarf pattern. He let me wrap it around his neck –only once, confiding, “ We’re not allowed scarfs in Daycare”, and solemnly added in a whisper, “ They kill children”.

My hall closet is full of a bevy of sweaters, many with cables, which I do actually wear. It is in the colours and textures that I find solace and maintain my links to the past and future.

Where stories take us

We begin to tell stories at an early age. At first they are a story
about self, the me, the ego of our lives as we fancy ourselves the center of the universe and so we are, the focus of our parents’ lives. We are dressed and fed and cared for and loved. So it makes much sense that our first tomes revolve around us. We are the subject of every plot whether in pursuit of crayons or finding the perfect marionette or chasing a ball into the corner and being trapped by a big dog or an insurmountable piece of furniture.

Gradually our world widens, and our stories allow in more people and maybe mom, dad, grandpa, or teasing brother is a figure in our narrative where adoring faces play a role. We think in stories as we explain and recant our lives to ourselves, speculating on where we fit, who fits with us and where our stories have occurred and grown.

Not surprisingly we are always egotistical, the first person narrator presiding as we move beyond our fingers and toes towards those at the footposts of our houses: the nannas and ooh-ooh bears who have cuddled us, but pushed us outwards exceeding the confines that have kept us safe. Bruno Bettleheim’s Uses of Enchantment explains why children are so fascinated by witches and dark deeds.

Further, in The Edge of the Precipice: Why Read Literature in the Digital Age, the author writes,

Humans, strange creatures that we are, make sense of our lives by telling stories. In the space between each day and the next, we refresh our minds by concocting the most fantastic and elaborate fictions. We spend roughly a third of our lives thus, re-arranging our scattered experiences into stories…That we do it at all is bizarre and inexplicable. But as long as we do it, we will crave stories – human stories, stories that speak to us – in our waking life. The Internet, powerful as it is, cannot change that …
(Peter Swirski in The Globe and Mail, December 21, 2013)

Those of us who are readers lust for new books that will entertain, intrigue, disturb and delight us, particularly with elements from worlds with which we are comfortable. In “What I Loved” by Siri Hustvedt (surprisingly married to Paul Aster!), she surrounds her characters who are artists or art historians in a world familiar to me. With every reference to Manet or Modilgilani I feel at home, intrigued and fascinated by the tale of two boys, the lifelong friendship of their fathers and ensuing destructive relationships. Art is integral to the story, a metaphor for real life distortions with its intricacies, shadows, personages behind and beyond the constricting frames of paintings described. Performance art in the story reminds me of Alan Kaprow and Christo’s mammoth installations such as wrapping the Reichstag in Berlin or the canopy of yellow umbrellas in California and blue umbrellas in Japan at the same time. Memories from my youth and older. So the story,for me, became a touchstone to connect with matters that matter to me.

My husband loves biographies of presidents and countries. He thinks in terms of politics, the rise, the fall, the conundrums of people who play powerful roles. For relief, he also reads fiction. He likes Wayne Johnston-unlike me, perhaps a mixture of both worlds. His interests more eclectic and wide sweeping than mine.

But art like literature if we allow it to, encourages us to transform what we know: to see things differently, from fresh eyes, as Picasso said, “To see with the eye of a child”, and perhaps, if we gaze longer, linger more thoughtfully, and dismiss what we have been told to think, we might deepen our comprehension of ourselves. AS my second grandson would chirp, ” I do it mine own self”. Baudelaire is reported to have also exclaimed, “A child sees everything in a state of newness.”

Years ago when I taught Magic Realism in my Post-colonial Literature course at Northern Secondary, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude did that for my students. They were encouraged to look once again as a child might, imagining beyond the literal.

For example, magical events in One Hundred Years continue to multiply with such events as people literally shrinking when they age so that their shoes and hats fall off doll-sized body parts; blood flows down streets where violence has occurred; young girls levitate themselves into the heavens: multiple points of inspiration where real documented actual events have occurred and impossible, fantastical happenings are intertwined. South America’s intrigues, assassinations, takeovers are represented along with the countries’ three civil wars and the infamous Banana Massacre(1929). I lingered on the steps of the actual ”United Fruit Company “ in South America, incredulous it still stood, but renamed. Marquez’s overriding theme in the book is that no imagined event can be as fantastical as those lived out in the atrocities of war and abrogation of individual rights.

In their class presentations, one student convincingly linked mathematical symbols to the structure of the novel, diagramming and explaining the metaphysical on two levels; another student concocted a series of pictures that reflected the disintegration of the Buendia(the family protagonists) house; another tied his hands together to become a visual metaphor for repression in the novel. Yet another to represent the fecundity of a couple that resulted in the proliferation of farm animals baked copious sugar cookies in the shape of pigs and horses.

Before teaching the novel I had read it and found it difficult to follow. Imagine one sentence that unwinds beyond a full page, and the density of ideas in the novel thickly translated from its original Spanish; however, working with my students back then and sharing their excitement at the miraculous wonderfully unbelievable fairytale quality of the story- based in political and social reality in South America- re-energized me to find delight and embrace the book myself. My understanding was further enhanced by the students’ work that emerged. In deed, my students taught me, often, I will admit, more than I originally knew. One of my cherished possessions remains a child’s book of pull-outs, flip-ups, colour changes and animation that four talented students gave me after their introduction in an incredible presentation.

For my students, taking their own initiatives to extend the meaning of the novel even propelled them outside of the classroom. Some contacted Amnesty International who came to our class with two representatives: one speaking quietly in Spanish explaining the perils of the para-military in Colombia, Gabriel Garcia’s birthplace. Others became involved with Street Kids International and went to Ottawa on behalf of the Colombia’s displaced and victimized youth. Thus, the book that confounds and blurs the verisimilitude of actual facts much like a fairytale had sparked a seed: a Jack and the Beanstock seed that sprouted in unlikely places breaching the confines of our classroom.

Paolo Freire a South American philosopher and educator was a leading advocate of critical pedagogy. He is best known for his influential work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. He worked with the poor, talked about “ co-creating” so that workers might have a stake and take responsibility for changing their own lives rather than accepting the theories and narratives of others. Nonetheless, he encouraged the downtrodden to see from new perspectives, tell their owns stories, extend traditional boundaries and attempt new venues to promote change. To create their own NEW stories.

Just yesterday as I again struggled with the translation of Javier Marias’ The Infatuations, I was struck by the conversation of the observer-story teller, Maria and a friend. She reflects at length in her head about absolutely everything which is sometimes pretty tedious. Yet several ideas stick with me profoundly,

…once you’ve finished a novel, what happened in it is of little importance and soon forgotten. What matters are the possibilities and ideas that the novel’s imaginary plot communicates to us and infuses us with…( Vintage,2013,p.132).

From my very first year of teaching in the Jane-Finch corridor, in a Grade 12 class when we were studying Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Pied Beauty”, a young woman had offered,

“Maybe a weed isn’t a weed to nature, maybe it’s a flower”.

That is what a good story does, it sticks in your imagination and grows upwards, outwards, entangling and blooming unexpectedly, becoming part and parcel of your own trajectory, a thorn that pricks you, embeds in your head until, a fresh blossom erupts.

A simple story that begins and ends with you.

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