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Ageism and the Queen

Why was it that when Mic Jagger produced his last child a few months ago he was not shown in a rocking chair beset with grey hair and cane. More likely, with responses of thumbs up and “Attah boy,” gossip was impressive that an old dude was still so young.

But be a woman – of quite a lesser age! and the image that comes to mind is dowdy, frumpy, lacking in lustre. In the last year, I have been associated with this image at least twice.In not revealing my own age but describing myself in blogs and articles as a child of the 60’s I have received negative epithets that suggest I am ready for the Mosha Zakanam( Yiddish for old folks home). And it really infuriates me.

My grandparents WERE old and worn out by their 50’s, my buby Molly huffing and smoking “ special” asthma cigarettes, her stringy hair pulled back in a bun and never dyed, her short waisted body always in drab shapeless dresses, her lopsided hobble completing the resemblance to a crone. Yet the image of her lilting warm eyes remains as well. Molly’s husband ,Sam, was unsmiling, ageless, posture ramrod straight, and although he did not wear tails, one had the impression that behind his back he might have carried a pointer stick. They spent their days, before I knew them, crouched over sewing machines at Tiptop Tailors, immigrants with few choices but the weight and burden of life on their thin shoulders.

My mother’s parents, too, although seemingly better polished, also were not attached to a particular age; however, I did think of all grandparents and people taller than I as “old”. My mother’s father always cupped a half- smoked cigarette in his palm, and appeared to be coasting or dancing across the floor. My other grandmother’s scowl was timeless as well, angry from her dislocation from Europe, her cleaning and cooking for the landsmen from Poland my grandfather,Joe, trooped through their doors as unwelcomed guests. As a child, I found my grandparents all distant and cool, rarely hugged or even smiled at by them. Yet my mother adored her father, and the stories concerning special foods my father’s mother made for him out of love were endless.

But I was a baby boomer, one destined to jangle my lovebeads into grandparent hood.As well, all those my age had aged nicely, strengthening their core, exercising, consulting the latest experts on health and food choices, contemplating mindfulness training, gauging their cholesterol, finding Contemporary clothes to disguise the bag and sag of accumulated years. We moved easier( well some with knee or hip replacement), we were more knowledgeable about good heart choice meals and more veggies. We got down on the floor with our grandkiddies. We learned how to commandeer technology, computers, iPhones, IPads, that superseded typewriters, adding machines, snail mail and telephones. Some even ventured on Social media. So we moved with the times and adapted.Unlike the dinosaurs( or so I reckoned).

So last year when I had a trio of blogs accepted in a newspaper in cool California, I was pretty impressed that such a publication that appealed to a youthful culture would first, be interested and then actually, pay for my writing. The first two blogs , on my experiences in the San Diego scene, perhaps hinted at someone beyond a Millennial; however, the third concerned how I had tripped at Belmont Park, an experience I explained that had occurred from my earliest days as I am continually caught off guard by a scene, a flower, a friend and wind up with tangled feet hitting the ground hard, my head and body two separate entities, my knees permanently purple.

However the index that located the blog in the zine introduced my piece as” Old Lady Trips”. And I do not think they were punning on a Canadian connection to pot.

So infuriated was I that I emailed my contact who demurred that it was his editor who applied titles, not him.I immediately forwarded him a recent photo of me. True, it was flattering, as I did not send a picture of me in my worn nightie and rollers in my hair.He responded, “Oh my…!”. Oh my, in deed.

But just yesterday , so delighted to have an article published in a national newspaper, I could not wait to see the accompanying sketch. To my horror, the picture which did highlight the pointillism of Seurat’s Grande Jatte in the background ,displayed in the foreground a frump: the author(ME!). Upon closer examination, I noticed a purple cardigan, impressive rump and the most unshapely calves on the figure holding on to a picture frame. Her hair harked to the 20’s. Horrified , I looked closer to identify the personage as Queen Elizabeth the second- and not the one now dramatized in The Crown either. Certainly not a baby boomer.

What were they thinking? That someone who sat in a lecture hall in the 60’s was now 90? That someone who visits and discourses on art and art galleries is a decrepit soul who creeps in and out of rooms? That all this art stuff belongs to the over the hill types? The idea of the Queen being drawn into a picture frame was in deed cute, but truly, except for her horses and corgies, I have never associated her royal highness with colour, shape or form- with the exception of perhaps an interesting matching hat to her ensembles.

I wanted to scream ageism, sexism and send off a caustic comment to the paper, but my husband reminded me such a blast might prevent anything of mine being published there again should I follow the petulant like Trump model wherein he twittered about Meryl Streep’s comments at the Golden Globes. But perhaps only twerps tweet. So I took the higher ground . “Go high, “intoned Michelle Obama in my ears, and I chose to explode my outrage here in my blog.

Still, why is it that men get better with age, and women even boomers, get older?

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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.

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.

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