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Chicago, Part Two

Why go to galleries, I ask my husband? I accompany him to sports events because I love him, not them- although every once in awhile I am raised to my feet in ecstatic jubilation, surging with a crowd astounded by a great baseball play. He responded that he likes to see the famous pieces he has read about. 

Back in art history class forty years ago, that was my reason to hitchhike throughout Europe, desirous to see the originals paraded in the dark in my university classes at U of T. I sat with my friends, devouring those honey buns sold outside of Sydney Smith, knitting, chortling ,having a blast. But somehow these works – by Gauguin or Titian or Rembrandt worked their magic and my quest was to see them- for real- in their European homes.

I always drew, and maybe it was my aunt -who gifted me with oil paints that I wasted because I had no idea how to use them- who stimulated my interest. But every June, having worked two jobs to pay for my trips, I would set off in search of the originals I had glimpsed on the screen in those darkened halls, one quick flash one after another.And at night after class, during the school year I found my way to a life drawing class in pursuit of understanding line, colour” form and shape.
But recently even I ponder, as I asked my husband, why do I come ? 
I look at art differently now, not trying to ingest an entire gallery. I look and choose. For me, it is years of study, but more importantly looking. So I see connections, chronologies, resonances, echoes, symbolism, trends, themes. Maybe as Albert Barnes did in trying to educate his students so many years ago. But when I had sat in the dark, scribbling madly to record the dates of paintings to regurgitate on tests, a kid in the 60’s, one studied the slides by looking within the frame, identifying those formal elements of line, colour, shape… Years later my daughter at Queens University explained how her art profs placed the painting within the context- of a society, a movement, a place. Making so much more sense. 

In Chicago, we stand before La Grande Jatte, and all the critics flow into my head. I’m thinking about the women in Les Poseurs, the hard working models accompanied by their umbrellas and hats exhausted after a long day of posing. Now I see them in La Grande Jatte reproduced in the cylindrical figures here. There’s an exotic pet, a monkey on a leash, a dog. And in my head from parts unknown I ‘m drawn to the comment that men in the painting are not really interested in fishing for fish but finding a prostitute along the Seine. In the background the huffing industries, in the foreground the workers in their finery seeking a Sunday repose . Seurat the champion of democracy painting in dots, pointillism, each one an identical dab. Talk about form and content coalescing.I’m admiring and noting the frame made especially by Seurat for the painting. It is huge. But I also notice some very large and beautiful Maurice Denis’s and wonder about the over sized canvases. Wondering if there is a story here. So much eye candy.

And too many people taking selfies in front of the masterpieces. Been here. Done that:they must be thinking. Collecting selfies like so many baseball cards. Maybe to document a vague notion of something famous.

Later I wander over to The Museum of Contemporary art. A guide says there is a huge Tiffany lamp on the second floor, but I’m too embarrassed to ask: maybe I’vemisread or in the wrong museum. First there’s an exhibit on fugitives highlighting Angela Davis and Patty Hearst, from my past. Interesting challenging ideas, some captured in photos.Then there’s a room focusing on the theme of witness, prurient, hidden, taboo topics that include hands mangled and cut, a Parisian woman stripping in an elevator, victims of race riots…a Cindy Sherman dressup and photographer Walker Evans people watching people. So many questions to reflect upon that span time, place, gender and society

But the tickle for me is a travelling show by Los Angeles artist, Marilyn Thater in her exhibit Sympathetic Imagination that spans several halls: projected images on the wall create mini ephemeral scenes. There are daffodils, grassy molls , bee hives and I can walk into the scenes , become part of the art. Or disrupt them, creating new shapes.

Two monkeys chatter and scratch as someone leaves her seat and the theatre. Are we also the observers, or participants within someone else’s movie house. I love the temple that reminds me of Spain’s Elhambra. I notice I can be like Alice as tall as the arches or small enough to fit through the keyhole. I stretch my arms and eclipse several walls. I tuck my purse behind me and create a new boundary or barrier. I am part of this piece, changing it-just as the other viewers who stroll into the room.

I laugh out loud. I had not expected to be part of the artist’s oeuvre that day.

Maybe that is why I love art: it can demand or elicit or evoke a response, creating something unexpected , a new way of seeing or experiencing life.I’m an adult playing like a child. Serious play.

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Generations

En route to visit daughter# 2 several months ago, we turned on Marc Maron’s WTF and listened to two interview/ conversations. One was with Ivan Reitman of Meatballs and Ghostbusters fame and the other was with David Bronner scion of a famous German-Jewish family whose soapmaking tradition began in 1858. Each man spoke about relationships with family. Most specifically father and sons.

Ivan’s son, Jason, went on to produce less funny films than his father such as Up in the Air and Thank You for Smoking. In the conversation that highlighted Reitman’s early work with John Balushi Howard Shore ( actually a cousin on my mother’s side!), Martin Short and others, Ivan Reitman displayed a kind of humility and forthrightness about his directing career and what he suggested triggered Saturday Night Live’s emergence into comedy programming, My interest wasn’t so much on what Reitman said, but how he said it. Touching on a plethora of topics that eventually veered towards Jason, he displayed great affection and respect for his son, without being saccharine, or over the top. I flashed to a loving portrait I had seen the day previously at the AGO of the artist Henry Moore and his mother reading to him as he curled into her body. They were shown caught in a personal moment. No words, but the loving relationship was clear. Here in the podcast, it was the timbre of the words that responded to Maron’s questions and encouraged Reitman to carry on as long as he chose.

The second interview revealed that David Bronner ( whose “ magical” soaps are sold at Whole Foods) great grandfather who had had visions and was even locked away in a mental institution. On his soaps’ wrappings were printed such thoughts as “If I am not for myself, who am I for?”, from Rabbi Hillel as well as other messages to promote self-reflection into unity, collaboration and world peace. The soap business passed to David ‘s father and uncle who appeared to have followed a more conventional style of soap wrapper. Eventually David who had scorned any previous links to the business, took over: working for a year with his father who eventually passed away.

Here the conversation came alive as David Bronner presented his own mission: to wrestle from Monsanto harmful agents, and to work towards foods that are not genetically -altered as an impetus to maintain a healthier environment. He even sowed actual seeds on the White House lawn. David obviously hoping to garner attention to his causes, locked himself in a metal cage outside the White House, protesting the illegality of growing hemp, one of his soap’s main ingredients. The mantle had been passed to the grandson from his father, grandfather and great grandfather into this generation.

Bronner seems to have almost unconsciously inculcated the visionary spirit of his ancestors: towards improving the world. He spoke with such passion, explaining that only enough money to run the company is taken out and additional profits go towards charities. I was reminded of Albert Barnes, American physician, chemist, businessman, art collector, writer, educator, and founder of the company that produced Argyrol : silver nitrate antiseptic solution for the treatment of gonorrhea and a preventative of gonorrhea blindness in newborn infants. Philosophically, Barnes believed in profit-sharing with his workers and promoting diversity. His collection of mainly Impressionist art at the Barnes Collection ( a must-see for all art aficionados) is housed in Philadelphia. Mentored by John Dewey, Barnes was considered a rebel.

Both the Reitman and Bronner families had escaped oppressive regimes, Russians in Czechoslovakia, and Nazis in Austria, risking everything when they arrived in their new countries of Canada and the U.S. Perhaps having lost family or striving to establish themselves in foreign places had refocused parental energy towards demonstrating love and relationships in tangible ways, proving to their children that values live in people, not places. By the way, on September 8, the day before 2010 TIFF opened, Ivan Reitman and his sisters christened Reitman Square, the new headquarters of the Toronto festival’s year round administration on the property left to them by their own parents. Rather than parents being just a footnote or a passing comment, the interviewees revealed a real connection to the driving forces of their forbearers, paying more than just lip service.

As a parent and grandparent myself, I segued into how I and my husband will be remembered: hopefully more than our son’s lament that he was stashed with friends on his 5th birthday and pushed down hills because we were at work; or anger at being forced to share a bologna sandwich with his sisters. Hopefully it will be a memory of a trip where he consumed a delicious pizza outside Rome in an ancient castle aptly called Il Castello. Will he recall Howard and me dressed as maid and butler serving his friends at a celebratory lobster dinner for him , all of us consumed with laughter at each courteous course.

Maybe it will be our daughter’s birthday in Montebuono during Howard’s sabbatical; or perhaps a family boat cruise to Rio or watching the Cubs in Chicago all together. Maybe it will be revisiting our faces charged with pride and happiness at a graduation here or away; or Howard’s chaperoning the CCOC to Salt Spring Island. More likely it will be a resurgence of annoyance at the overwhelming deluge of toys loving bestowed to grandkids on my birthdays that riled my children into suppressing anger; or the “horrid” bulgur chicken or “healthy” spaghetti served to them as children. I hope it will be a mixture of some things good at least.

As the years go by, I actively try and make those moments with my own parents resurface, recalling more of myself; and with myself, them. Like buds from trees, we are parts of a whole, that continue to bloom and carry on, even when the branches have withered .

Comprehending Music

I am a visual art person. I have a Masters in Art History. I have always drawn and more recently started to paint. However, although I enjoy music, particularly, classical or what my grandsons refer to as “dinda music”, as my special name from them is “dinda”, I truly do not know how to listen.

My father’s avocation, vocation and passion was the perfection of sound and therefore, music. I rejected this aspect of my early life: unable to understand this link he shared with my musical sister. In any case, my lateral, visual- consuming brain would not have cottoned to the search for the purity of electronic calculations that snaked through circuitry, wires and tubes and out into the world to produce a more perfect realization of sound in installations that found their homes in university listening rooms. He was gifted. I see him in my mind’s eye at his workbench, a watchmaker perfecting each jewel until it became a masterpiece.

Both my sister and I were given music lessons at the piano. I did not practice, possessed no talent and as she demonstrated an ability that landed her in competitions and concert halls, even Massey Hall, I demurred and scowled. One day, I discovered a note from a piano teacher that exhorted my mother to stop wasting her money, that I was a lovely girl, but… When I confronted her, she said that people can be wrong. Well, this teacher was not wrong.

Eventually childish behavior loses its grip and we understand that our bratty actions only hurt ourselves and deprive us of something we may actually enjoy. So it was for me, allowing myself to go beyond silly jealousies and feelings of resentment. Eventually the dial on the radio came to rest on classical stations that attracted and calmed me.And lately I’ve been attending free concerts at the operahouse and exposing myself to a wide assortment of music from Indian ragas to Beethoven’s Hammerklavier.

Sometimes I attend with friends, sometimes by myself. November 19, 2013 . Artists of the Glenn Gould School performed a Brahms Quartet in G Minor, Op.25. I pinched my eyes shut because it helps me concentrate on the music. Any visual stimulus distracts me and the setting for these one hour concerts is glorious: all floor to ceiling windows on University Avenue, the old colour-turning trees in front of Ogoode Hall, people in a rush crossing the street- loiterers, even repairs on the Avenue draw my attention. I am suddenly delighted to pick out a bright red hat or intense yellow jacket in the gray throng that flows on the street. Pop, away from the sound and towards the visual I veer.

In critiquing art, I know the language. I can consider social context; I can examine the physical properties of shape, texture, line, colour, relate parts to whole; I can place the painting or sculpture within historical parameters, comparing or contrasting it with artists or art movements in the day, before or after. I can parse the elements as Albert Barnes did or reject that form of analysis: I can call up the critical interpretations by the Griselda Pollocks, the Clement Greenbergs, the Christopher Humes. Sadly I possess no such compass for music.

So as I listened, I saw things: I translated the beginning disruptive invasive sounds into Kandinsky’s bursts of colour on the canvas; the rising crescendos propelled me upwards towards multicolored stained glass windows in 14th Century Gothic churches,experiencing an almost ecstatic soar; the folkloric repetitions plummeted me back to earth , towards tables of beer mugs and camaraderie that recalled Brueghel’s swaying peasants, dancing and thumping one another on their shoulders. My friend heard motifs. I cannot say that I discerned them throughout the performance. I could entertain a movement from dark to light reminiscent of say,Michelangelo’s Adam parting the heavens in the Sistine Chapel, suggestive perhaps of from chaotic to collaborative from the commencement of the Allegro to the final Rondo all zingarese: Presto.

I wondered how others perceive music. Did they know the language, the arrangement of crescendos and diminuendos; were they were guided by their knowledge of the Baroque? I knew about Baroque in art: all those twisting tornadoes, staircases, oddly shaped pearls, overdecorated room, dramatic contrasts…. Were others like me content to just float on their emotional response? I seemed to be the only one swaying, moving my body to capture and respond viscerally to the instruments. Or maybe they swayed inwardly.

My friend said she enjoyed watching Jamie Parker, on the piano, stretching his stubby fingers to unbelievable octaves. I noted but did not pause on that technical triumph. It did not interest me. I thought, Renoir later in life also strapped paint brushes on his fingers when arthritis overtook his flexibility.

Just as a few weeks previously when Julie Hereish and Michel-Alexandre Broekaert from Montreal recently returned from studying in Vienna to perform here, I ventured they might be lovers, so entwined were they with one another and the music. Interesting threesome! I was transfixed by their faces and Julie’s graceful arms that never stopped lovingly caressing her cello. More emotionally engulfing than practical manoevers- at least for me. That day as at the Glenn Gould Artists’ performance, I reflected, the piano is the spine that supports and holds the music together. It is a champion in its own right, but essential to bringing out and together the music. It is a tender giant with power that dazzles for itself, but also kept gentle and tame as it plays nicely with the other instruments.

And I thought as I did seeing Kudelka’s new interpretation of Swan Lake: that these creators of dance and music are genius. Could my brain even stretch to imagine the difficulties of developing, and executing every single segment( for instrument or ballerina) that makes sense individually and ensemble?

On Saturday night, wise daughter #1 reminded me that there is a language, patterns and traditions that these composers began with en route to departing or reaffirming the precedent paths others had taken. Truly the artistry takes one’s breathe away- even if I do not know a way to officially understand it.

But I know it envelops my soul. It simply makes me feel differently! That’s the message in Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch : art changes you: “ that a really great painting [piece of music] is fluid enough to work its way into the mind and heart through all kinds of different angles, in ways that are unique and particular… it’s a secret whisper from an alleyway- Psst, you. Hey kid. Yes you” (Little, Brown and Company, 2013, p.758)

And because this is my blog, I cannot leave the topic without addressing the impact and importance that art has on our/everyone’s children: for itself and for learning. So here is my naked diatribe:

It is no secret that I love the arts and when I think that schools will not focus on them, or even worse remove them, I fret. My doctoral thesis work demonstrated their importance, particularly for at-risk students: motivating and providing a reason for staying in school. At the very least- administrators might look at the connection between math and piano, rationalizing that music raises those stupid scores that are supposed to indicate how well children have learned.

In 1980, Elliot Eisner , educational guru, wrote an (actually many) article listing what a child learns when she draws: problem-solving, contextual knowledge, relating segments, verisimilitude, physical control of tools, differentiation between real and imagined, competencies in multiple areas— and on and on. One crumby scribble opens up a huge range of learning opportunities. And I am quite sure the same applies to music, dance, and film.

Life without the arts? Unthinkable.

Lucky me to have sat for a blissful hour in a room reverberating and ringing with the resonances of magical sound. Maybe everyone comprehends in their own special way,ferreting out pleasure that makes sense to them alone. Like me.

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