Sunday, October 19, 2014

Smokers in Art

Sapeck (Eugène Bataille):
Mona Lisa with a Pipe, 1883
I hate smoking. But I'm quite fascinated by smokers as they appear in artworks. A few days ago, I did a post on smokers in art for my food blog -- since some people have viewed smoking as a kind of consumption, analog to eating. I'm aware of a lot more smokers in art than I included there, though, so I'm expanding the post to include more pictures along with those in my earlier post.

Of course the first artwork I want to add is one of the numerous parodies of Mona Lisa smoking (though recently, she seems to have given up tobacco for other substances).

I chose the very early Mona Lisa parody at left. It was made before the theft in 1911 inspired a rage of interpretations, and long before Marcel Duchamp's famous "L.H.O.O.Q." Its creator was "proto-performance artist Sapeck (Eugène Bataille), who was known to travel the streets with his head painted blue." Evidently there were surrealist types in Paris well before the Dada movement! (source)

But to return to the topic of smoking in more serious art: during the Dutch Golden Age many painters of homey scenes included smokers. Around 150 years after America -- source of tobacco -- began supplying novel products for the European market, smoking seems to have been very well-established:

Adriaen Brouwer: The Smoker, 1630-1638
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Adriaen Brouwer: Smokers, ca. 1636
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Gerrit Dou: Self-Portrait, c. 1640.
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam 
Gerrit Dou: Man Smoking a Pipe, c. 1650.
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Adriaen Van Ostade: from Travelers at Rest
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Adriaen Van Ostade: The Smoker, c. 1647.
Adriaen Van Ostade: Smoker at a Window,
c. 1667. Detroit Institute of Arts
Dirck Hals: Gentlemen Smoking and Playing Backgammon, c. 1687
Vincent van Gogh painted several smokers:

An early Picasso in the Barnes collection surprised me with the cigarette in her hand:

Picasso: Woman with Cigarette, 1903
Throughout his career, Picasso continued to include smokers in a large number of his works. Many photos of Picasso show him with a cigarette. Here's one from over 60 years later:

Picasso: The Smoker, 1964

Cezanne painted a few smokers as well. Two pipe smokers are included in his famous card players, and his 1897 portrait of Henry Gasquet includes a cigarette:

Finally, also at the Barnes, this wonderful picture -- I believe the man in the lower left is smoking as he waits for his child to finish his music lesson. I couldn't stop looking at this painting.

Henri Matisse, The Music Lesson

As I said on my food blog -- I dislike the smell, the activity, and the risks involved with smoking. I'm very happy that it's no longer allowed in most public interior spaces, and it's becoming less and less common in outdoor public spaces. It's been years since anyone even gave a single thought to smoking inside my house, or inside most homes. That said, smoking was once a common activity, shared and enjoyed by a large part of the population (though some paid dearly for having done so). And it's thus well-represented in art.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Barnes Foundation Gift Shop

We loved the art collection at the Barnes Foundation today, but Mona Lisa always deserves a special shout-out! Here are the gift shop items I noticed:

Monday, October 06, 2014

Beautiful Fall Day

Arnold Road just into Jackson County is the location of Watkins Lake
(confusingly sometimes called Thorn Lake)
We spent the morning there yesterday in beautiful fall weather.

We were there looking for a Cackling Goose, which might just be the one on the left in this photo. Recently, ornithologists did DNA tests on the smallest Canada Geese. These geese have a somewhat smaller beak (compared to their heads, so it seems to be kind of stubby). DNA revealed that they are actually a separate species that hang out with the big guys. So we wanted to see it. Problem is, Canada Geese vary a lot in size. 

Thursday, October 02, 2014

A Comic Horror Suspense Social-Critique?

How many genres can you fit into just one book? Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix manages to include three or four of them -- seamlessly. The cover signals you that this book is about a store similar to Ikea. Look a little more closely, though, at the artfully framed (but inexpensive) artwork on the wall of the beautifully furnished room in the fake catalog:

When you start reading, you will quickly discover that the setting for Horrorstör is an Ikea knockoff called Orsk.  Employees at Orsk feel imprisoned in the maze-like display showrooms. Corporate "ethics" rule their behavior and fill them with dread of losing their jobs. There's other dread, too. Sometimes they go through doors that don't lead where they should. Morning crew members often find unexpected vandalism and messes. Basil, the store manager, wants to find out what's going on -- so he demands that two employees, Amy and Ruth Anne, stay with him overnight to watch for intruders.

Of course the intruders come in not through the doors (those have been blocked by real people who later join in the night of surprises) but by spooky evil-smelling ghosts rising from below the store. Orsk just happened to be built on the ruins of a horrible 19th century prison called the "Panopticon." Long ago, it stood on the same swampy lot where Orsk now beckons to drivers on the freeway to stop and buy cheap household goods and umlaut-heavily-named furnishings. The head of the prison had theories about tormenting or outright torturing his prisoners to make them repent. He was just as well-meaning as the ambitious Basil, who meant well but terrorized poor Amy, who only wanted to have a better life than her past in the trailer park where her mother and step-father lived. Social critique! Horror! Suspense! Humor! All in one tightly-wound tale.

Each chapter heading has an extract from the Orsk catalog. At first these are normal parodies of the Ikea catalog -- not a particularly hard thing to satirize. But they slowly morph into something else, as the story becomes more and more petrifying, with poor Amy tied into a torture chair (sort of like a desk chair) and the other characters suffering in various ways at the hands of the ghosts.

The suspense is well-managed, as the night goes on and on, with almost-successful escapes, nightmare-like changes in the already scary floorplan (who hasn't been disoriented in Ikea?) and all sorts of other horror events. Cell phones continue to work, and the 9-1-1 dispatcher tries to help, but somehow on this night, the police can't find the location or see the store from the freeway. By the end, as illustrated on the back cover -- the store is trashed. The characters end up.... well, no spoilers.

I laughed. I had nightmares. So did a lot of amazon customers, it seems. A good time was had by all.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Summer of 1927

Bill Bryson's recent book One Summer: America, 1927, is a very enjoyable treatment of what it must have been like to live through the excitement of Lindbergh's flight in May, the thrill of watching Babe Ruth make his record number of home runs throughout the baseball season, and the pain of the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, which took place on August 15 of that year.

Other events of the summer occasionally distracted the newspapers from their nearly incessant coverage of Lindbergh and his triumph and his trip through the US, which Bryson returns to throughout the narrative. I admired his broader treatment of aviation before and after Lindbergh, and the way that Lindbergh's flight inspired the rise of the American flying industry. Bryson also explains the continued development of the automobile, especially mentioning Henry and Edsel Ford, the end of the Model T, and the upcoming Model A.

Bryson presents the political scene as it developed that summer. President Calvin Coolidge announced while enjoying his summer vacation that he did not choose to run for a second term. Of great importance was the pervasive negative effect of prohibition. Also interesting: the rise of both J.Edgar Hoover and Herbert Hoover.

One Summer: America 1927 is a fascinating book, and I found it much more fascinating because my parents often remembered certain events that Bryson detailed.

My mother graduated from Soldan High School in St.Louis in June 1927. She often spoke of Lindbergh and how his great success dominated the last weeks of her high school experience. Lindbergh's flight had a variety of St.Louis connections. Her class motto was "Ad Astra" -- to the stars -- and her classmates' vision was of going to the stars in a plane like "The Spirit of St. Louis."

Less often, my father spoke of how devastated he felt when he heard of the death of Sacco and Vanzetti, whom he believed were innocent. My parents rarely mentioned the politicians of that era, and I seriously doubt that they ever mentioned or thought about baseball in that age -- though Bryson several times mentions the St.Louis Browns ball team in his descriptions of Babe Ruth and his team's success.

Here are some pages from my mother's scrap book and graduation memories that illustrate her experience of the year that Bryson wrote about. (I've used them in earlier blog posts a few years ago.)

Little souvenir plane on a place card from an
event celebrating my mother's graduating class.
Family photos from that time.
Class photo. My mother's photo (which also appears on the place card) is in row 5, column 5.
Somewhere on this photo is the most famous member of Soldan's 1927 graduating class. Her name at the time was Kitty Fink. Soon after graduation -- under the name Kay Thompson -- Kitty Fink became a Broadway and Hollywood character and author of the children's book series about little Eloise who lives at the Plaza in New York. My mother didn't really remember her, because at the time, Jewish students (like my mother) didn't mix with Christian students (like Kitty Fink). When my mother attended her 25th class reunion, Kay Thompson didn't show up. She was far too famous, and I think by that time her age had diminished too much to allow her to admit what year she had graduated.

I don't believe that my mother ever knew that Kitty Fink's paternal ancestors were Jewish but abandoned the religion. "Unfortunately, anti-Semitism existed on both sides of the Atlantic and so, like many others, the Finks submerged their Jewish heritage in order to assimilate into mainstream society," writes Kay Thompson's biographer.

Bryson deals with antisemitism in his discussion of Henry Ford and his trial that summer (where he officially rescinded his virulent attacks on Jews) and on the later support for Nazism of Charles Lindbergh. He mentions the fact that both of these paragons accepted and never repudiated medals from Hitler. I appreciated Bryson's treatment of this issue in the midst of all the excitement of the era.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Best Seller: "My Promised Land" by Ari Shavit

The popular book My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel by Ari Shavit deserves its reputation. The portraits of Israeli individuals, starting with the author’s own great-grandfather in 1897 were vivid. Each chapter depicted an era, epitomized by one or several individuals who embodied the spirt of that age – the essence of history, both negative and positive.

In each era, as Shavit presents it, the vision of the Zionist founders, pioneers, leaders, defenders, settlers, or good citizens contrasts to their blindness towards the Arab inhabitants who were displaced as the country of Israel emerged. However, the author’s sympathy and loyalty to his country allows him to provide nuances, understanding and empathy, as well as a keen analysis of the situation. He sees both sides, but he knows which side he’s on.

I’m not going to write a review, exactly, as this book has been reviewed vastly often including in all the mainstream journals and over 1000 times on I’m going to talk about what it means to me.

In my own reading, I especially enjoyed revisiting my past experiences in Israel as Shavit’s geography introduced me to a great deal of history of places I have been. He was born in Rehovot, where I have spent most of my time during my three visits to Israel, making the descriptions of how the original old orange groves were planted most interesting. Shavit’s promised land may not exactly be my own, but I loved the overlap!

On all three visits to Israel, we stayed at visitor housing in Rehovot, where Len was visiting the Weitmann Institute. Shavit was born here: his father was a physicist. Two photos of the Weizmann campus from our 2006 stay:

He also talks a great deal about the history and impact of Israel’s nuclear program, headquartered at Dimona. While driving from Rehovot to Eilat we once passed by this area – full of warnings to mind your own business, so we did. 
Google map showing the nuclear complex near Dimona (I think)
One high point of that trip was a visit to the moshav at Nahalal. And during all our trips, on several weekend outings, we stayed at various kibbutz accomodations: Shavit obviously has much to say about the history of the moshavs and kibbutzes. I’m not sure he mentions that one way that they have tried to adjust to the way their world has changed is to transform family accommodations for members into tourist accommodations for both Israelis and foreigners.

Moshav Nahalal seen from the Nahalal cemetery.

I never visited any settlements in the West Bank or Gaza, but I found Shavit’s discussion of the settlers extremely enlightening. Don't get the idea that I'm not interested in the political and moral dimensions of his fascinating book. The other reviewers have definitely done them justice -- I'm just describing the other thoughts I had when reading, and the expanded historical dimension that his writing offered me.

A tower in Ramleh, near Rehovot,
which I saw without knowing what I was seeing.
Shavit's book has provided me with much more insight.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Mona and Cats

My new Mona Lisa Piggy Bank, a hand-made ceramic from Peru,
purchased at Peaceable Kingdom in downtown Ann Arbor.
I'm so delighted with my beautiful new Mona Lisa piggybank that I am interrupting my series of pictures from my trip to Holland to include her.

However, I'm now going to continue this post with several photos of cats that I took while walking around the picturesque streets of Amsterdam and other Dutch cities.

Amsterdam, a beautiful day, many people were
sitting on the stoops of their houses.
Cat on a canal barge. 
Another cat. 
Window cats.
Cat about to cross a street in The Hague.
These cats are dedicated to my blogger friend and cat lover, Jeanie of the Marmelade Gypsy.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

A Few Windmills

The Dutch countryside is splendid; it looks like a series of painting from the Dutch Golden Age. We loved windmills, sheep and cows, canals and other waterways, and a sky that varies all the time.

We are back in Ann Arbor but still have vast numbers of photos to enjoy and post.