Thursday, May 29, 2008

Capitalism still has some contradictions

In the Style section of the NY Times today is an article about prices of clothing, specifically that ordinary clothing (such as Walmart or Macy's sell) is going down in price, while luxury goods, sold at stores I can't even name, continue to have the price that the traffic will bear. Anyway there are two wonderful paragraphs:
“We as a business cannot afford to have a customer take a second look and ask, ‘Do I need this?’ ” said Bud Konheim, the chief executive of Nicole Miller. “That is the kiss of death. We’re finished, because nobody really needs anything we make as a total industry.”

The divergence of price extremes has become so striking that some fashion executives, including Mr. Konheim, are openly asking whether prices have reached both their nadir and apex at the same moment. “As far as bottom costs go, we’re there,” Mr. Konheim said. “I think we’ve exploited all the countries on earth for people who really want to work for nothing.”

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Vraiment faux

"Vraiment faux" -- truly false! This was the name of a remarkable exhibition at the Fondation Cartier in the summer of 1988. And indeed, why wouldn't the foundation run by Cartier want to discuss frauds of all sorts? They are just the ones to deal with this problem, beginning with copyright violations -- as in counterfeit watches as well as with coin and bill counterfeiting, art forgeries, and openly executed copies made by artists standing beside their easels in the Louvre.

At the time of this exhibit, the Fondation Cartier was on the outskirts of Paris in a tiny almost-rural town called Jouy-en-Josas. The foundation owned land and buildings long ago associated with the manufacture of toile de Jouy, a printed upholstery textile popular long ago (and brought back into style from time to time). It took forever to get there on public transportation, as it was on a quite obscure railway line, which I found quite fascinating.

The foundation, the exhibit, and the catalog were and still are fascinating. What could be more appropriate, for starters, than a catalog covered with astro turf? Within these scratchy covers are scholarly articles on every aspect of copying and forgery illustrated by a wealth of imagery.

An entire section presents every aspect of jocondologie, and even uses this obscure word.
Here are a few Mona Lisa images from the imaginative pages of this well-researched catalog.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Shakespeare & Co.

I read Shakespeare & Co. by Stanley Wells because of Bill Bryson, whose Shakespeare: The World as Stage so often quoted the author. While I was disappointed in Shakespeare & Co. as a whole, I found that it triggered my imagination. As I read, I was frequently visualizing what it must have been like in Shakespeare's day to attend theater performances, and what the playwrights had to deal with, besides rivalries, getting paid, and keeping ahead of the censors. Although Wells doesn't write vividly, he logs a lot of source material. Here are some of the things I learned or thought about.

A theater in Shakespeare's time could be open-roofed, like Shakespeare's Globe, and lit by daylight. Other theaters were enclosed and lit by candles. The candle-lit theaters may have forced the division of plays into acts and scenes, for a pause to relight the candles. In open-air theaters, action could be nonstop.

Audiences -- who came from all social levels below the monarch -- ate, drank, and moved around during the performance more than they would now. As for Queen Elizabeth and her successor King James, they had private theatricals that enabled them to enjoy the same plays without mixing with the over-excited spectators at the public theaters.

I found Wells' discussion of child actors interesting. Everyone knows that very talented boys played every woman's role in Shakespeare's plays. What's also interesting is that some of the other companies had exclusively boy actors, who put on complex and demanding plays. Wells suggests that they did a great job of playing all parts, old and young, men and women, and could identify well with their roles.
"Their performances may have had the appeal of miniaturization, an effect not unlike that produced by seeing a Mozart opera performed by puppets. There must surely have been an element of burlesque in their need to wear false beards and artificial bosoms, to pad themselves into portliness, to deepen their voices into martial gruffness or raise them into the squeakiness of senility, and to assume other physical characteristics of adulthood. And there may even have been a touch of ambivalent sexuality in audiences' reactions to the adolescent, or pre-adolescent boys' impersonation of nubile young women and of sexually mature, sometimes corrupt adults." (p. 171)

Wells made some interesting points about the props and costumes used in Shakespeare's day, and included as reference material the only surviving lists of props and costumes. He especially emphasized details of stage business, use of trap doors, and the like. Will Kemp, the comic actor, would dance famous jigs on stage after the performance -- and once as a publicity stunt, jigged for a "9-days wonder" through 100 miles of English countryside. Actors often sang songs as part of the play (famous in Shakespeare, of course). Plays then used so many tricks. Witches and gods appear on stage in Pericles and Cymbeline. A dinner appears and disappears in The Tempest. Dreams, ghosts and visions appear, requiring all kinds of special effects, which had to work in front of a live and very close audience, who sometimes could even purchase seats onstage. (See p. 218 for this discussion.)

Theater goers at the time became familiar with plays and characters. The audience had common stories in mind already, often based on the standard grammar school curriculum of that era. They also liked occasional re-runs, often with new scenes or new twists -- we all learned how Shakespeare adapted plays that had already made a story popular, improving them of course. Wells makes no comparison, but I was often thinking about the TV and movie characters that everyone knows and refers to today. Within one Shakespeare-era play, characters might refer to lines or characters in an earlier popular drama, and the audience would be expected to get the reference.

The amount of regulation and censorship of that time is another interesting topic Wells covers. The "Master of the Revels" had duties to keep theaters in line with regulations and to license each play before it could be performed. Strong oaths were outlawed at one time, and existing playbooks, or scripts, had to be revised to comply. Many political and religious topics were totally illegal. During outbreaks of plague, contagion forced closure of all theaters.

As I say, the level of details about performance was amusing, but I found the book often weakly organized. The juicy bits in the book occur at random in his muddle of chapters. Although each chapter claims to be about a single playwright, the author doesn't stick to any topic particularly, but ranges among many subjects. I found it especially distracting that he discussed the presentation of plays not only in their own time, but also throughout the 400 subsequent years, so suddenly instead of learning about Elizabethan and Jacobean theater style, you are hearing about David Garrick in the 19th century, or a 21st century performance at Stratford, England.

So all in all, if I had to suggest that you read a book on Shakespeare, this would be near the bottom of my list. At the top: James Shapiro’s Shakespeare and the Jews and especially his A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599. I also liked Bryson's book and Will in the World: How Shakespeare became Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Mona Lisa Video

Be patient! Although this is in French, it has wonderful imagery and connects to Jean Margat, the review Bizarre, the "traité de Jocondoclastie" and to Boris Vian as well. A winner!!

Me and Surrelaism (along with some less egotistical thoughts)

I have always been fond of the surrealists, including André Breton, shown above from an article concerning the current inflated value of his manuscripts. Several news items this week discussed a sale at Sotheby's yesterday of nine of these. All noted the surreal nature of their present high value, which is so at odds with their contents. A French collector, Gérard Lhéritier, founder of the privately-owned Museum of Letters and Manuscripts in Paris, purchased all of these documents for €3.2 million -- around $5 million. I believe that the actual auction price was quite a bit more than predicted, in fact.

Irony, iconoclasm, lack of respect for the conventionally "great," disparaging the tight links between art and money, and nonconformity naturally dominated quite a few of these documents. I love a situation filled with contradictions such as this. It's totally amusing.

I like to think that my Mona Lisa interests and collections are influenced by some of the absurdist approaches to art that originated in the 1920s. I believe that Jean Margat, who invented the term Jocondologie in an important issue of Bizarre (right) was still reflecting some of these ideas in the 1950s.

Besides making art of various sorts, surrealists were taken with the idea of a "manifesto" -- a document that laid out some principles of art and self-expression and usually decried the capitalist use of art and giving it a value in mere money. An early example -- perhaps the first -- is Breton's Surrealist Manifesto, written in 1924, included in yesterday's sale. A comment by Kevin Jackson, from the Guardian: "The true offense [of this sale] lies in the way in which sneaky old capitalism, once again, has so ingeniously taken a movement aimed at its violent destruction and turned it into luxury goods."

And of course the political manifesto is a concept that both preceded and followed the early 20th century art movements. I recently blogged about a related document, from the Futurists, a related art movement of that era. Who could forget The Communist Manifesto from the previous century? Who remembers the S.C.U.M Manifesto by Valerie Solanis, which appeared in the 1960s or 1970s some time. (S.C.U.M. as most people have probably forgotten if they ever knew, stands for "Society for Cutting Up Men" and was an outlier in the Feminist movement, which had other slightly saner manifesto writers among its adherents as well. But I digress from Surrealism.)

From the Independent, dated May 20: "Breton (1896-1966) preached, and practised, an 'instant' approach to art and thought which rejected the conventional idea of enduring value. He might well have rejected as an absurdity the idea of paying an estimated €500,000 (£400,000) for his hand-written and illustrated 21-page argument for 'uncontrolled' art."

Besides the surrealists, I also love Dada, an allied movement (though distinguished profoundly by the theoreticians and manifesto writers). Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp, early Dadaists, later re-made their earlier disposable artworks, such as L.H.O.O.Q. or Mona Lisa with a mustache, and the famous urinal titled R.Mutt. In case you are new to this, L.H.O.O.Q. pronounced letter-by-letter in French is an off-color pun, contributing to Dada view of the concept of a masterpiece and of Mona Lisa worship. Just my thing.

After first throwing things away, Duchamp and Ray made sure that museums and galleries had ample works to display. In old age, they changed their minds about money, it seems. Breton may never have done any such thing, but time has done the job.

Just one absurd thing: publication of the many photos of surrealists inspired by news of the sale of Breton's papers show that these extreme non-conformist art experimentalists seemed virtually always to wear a suit and tie. Wow, times change don't they?

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

New Brooch

Another Mona Lisa adornment, much more creative than most! "My Aunt Debbie" has a website that shows a few more quirky items.

Monday, May 19, 2008

How did I miss this?

Well maybe despite the lovely Mona Lisa, I have never been able to get into Pratchett at all.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Back to Shakespeare

From time to time, I read another Shakespeare book. After all, as Bill Bryson says in Shakespeare: The World as Stage -- "The amount of Shakespearean ink, grossly measured, is almost ludicrous. ... Shakespeare Quarterly, the most exhaustive of bibliographers, logs about four thousand serious new works ... every year."

This is good for me, a reader with a yen to read something new about Shakespeare from time to time. Bad for writers like Bryson, who says immediately after giving these stats: "To answer the obvious question, this book was written not so much because the world needs another book on Shakespeare as because this series does. The idea is a simple one: to see how much of Shakespeare we can know, really know, from the record." (p 20-21)

So I read this one, continuing with my 2007 resolution which has served me well for a year and a half. And Bryson's book is a very entertaining read. He takes Shakespeare seriously, but not too seriously, avoiding the excesses of flip that he often indulges himself in. There are all kinds of good things: even an insight into why the cover image may or may not look like the Shakespeare, a playwright who lived 400 years ago. And why it's wise to spend no time bothering with the idea that this man didn't write the plays.

Bryson sticks to his claim that he's only trying to find out what is known without speculation -- not much. He deftly combines the Shakespeare info with info on the critics and speculators, emphasizing both the life and the origins and dates of the plays. As a result, he debunks or even pillories the most speculative and thus arrogant of critics -- no fools are gladly suffered here. He's not reverent (Bill Bryson, reverent?) so he doesn't gush about the bard. But he has plenty of respect. The overall result is a book with lots of really useful details about Shakespeare himself, about made-up or over-the-top claims and legends, and about how so much incorrect or unsubstantiated stuff had its start. He refrains from tackling any actual literary judgments of the works, which keeps the pace up and the book short.

Finally, I thank Evelyn for giving this book to me. It was a good Mother's Day present. I appreciate it as much as last year's good Mother's Day read, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which has been in the news all year. And to follow up, I've already ordered another book by an author that Bryson cites a lot.

Willy and the Mona Lisa

This picture is from Willy's Pictures by Anthony Browne, one of my favorite art books. That's Willy himself with the pencil in his hand in the fine monkey hands of Mona Lisa.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

A portrait of the artist as a procrastinator

Slate is featuring the topic of procrastination this week, and one article has this to say about Leonardo da Vinci:
It turns out the ancient Greeks may well have procrastinated. And Leonardo da Vinci left a whole stack of unfinished projects. Also—this is conjecture on my part, but seems plausible—I'm guessing the people of Pompeii spent their final moments wishing they'd been a bit more on the ball about fleeing that bubbling volcano.
Some of the kindest, most interesting people are pretty lazy, and not at all powerful. Take da Vinci: He was totally awesome, despite—as my extensive research suggests—being an easily distractible scattershot. His very strength was that he allowed his mind to wander where it pleased, instead of always locking into the task at hand. Sure, maybe you wouldn't want da Vinci as your air-traffic controller. But you'd definitely want to have a beer with him—am I right? And despite his problems knuckling down, the guy produced oodles of brilliant, imaginative work.

The author didn't repeat any of the large additional body of evidence that Leonardo was a great procrastinator, but I could add this: Leonardo never seemed to actually finish his portrait of Mona Lisa. He did not deliver it to her or to her family. Well, maybe she was just never ready for him to finish painting. Maybe she's the champion procrastinator in this story. There's always an excuse.

The truth is, Leonardo took Mona Lisa's portrait with him when he went to France at the end of his life, and the king of France acquired it after Leonardo died. It has been French national property ever since.

Mona Lisa in the Obituary for Robert Rauschenberg

Today at Omnivoracious: an obituary for Robert Rauschenberg -- The Passing of a True Texas Trailblazer: Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008). The illustration is a book cover reproducing a portion of one of his works. It's not the only time that he incorporated a Mona Lisa within his imagery. Below: a snapshot of the obit.

Aside: my bookshelf is still the banner on

Monday, May 12, 2008

The back of the Mona Lisa

This isn't a joke: it's a photo of the actual back of the painting, which is painted on wood, from A closer look at the Mona Lisa | Musée du Louvre -- a website with much detail about the Mona Lisa.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Mona Lisa in Jerusalem

And finally, to celebrate Israel at 60, here is a photo of Mona Lisa gracing a shop sign in Jerusalem. It was along the Via Dolorosa, if memory serves me. Date: Spring, 1997.

Ha'aretz Reports on Israeli Independence Day

Yesterday I wrote about my memory of the Israeli Independence Day celebration we attended on the beach in Tel Aviv. The same was happening earlier today, as illustrated by these two photos from Ha'aretz. I wish I could be there:

Sixty Years of Israel

From Ha'aretz: an image to celebrate Israel's 60 years! After an evening of fireworks, they will have a day of family barbecues and national commemorations. We were there for the 50th celebration in 1998. I think there's a lot to celebrate in Israel's history, and I wish I could have been there to see the fireworks and dancing in the streets that were taking place a few hours ago.

In 1997, we went to the beach in Tel Aviv and watched the air force aerobatic troop and the navy trip of various boats along the entire coast. It's such a small country that the planes fly over it in just a few minutes. Here are some of the photos from that celebration:

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

A Million Years Ago

Like most enjoyable travel books, Linda Grant's The People on the Street: A Writer's View of Israel at first seems to be a book about one's own experience. Grant does a great job portraying the appeal of Israel and the contradictions embedded in its reality -- as definitely brought home by the photo on the cover, attributed to one of her Israeli friends/informants.

Some first impressions of Israel in her book:
  • The way that Israelis react to the catastrophe of a suicide bombing or other such event.
  • The surprise -- if you're Jewish-- of finding Jews in every walk of life, and of finding so many types of people.
  • The way that an Israeli landlord deals with a plumbing emergency (including the existence of a Jewish plumber, see point 2).
  • Some funny things about Israeli use of language to express their existential situation and the precariousness of their situation.

Indeed, these were some of our first impressions when we lived in Israel in the spring of 1998, our first-ever visit there. Our experience with the plumber who couldn't fix the back-up of bathtub water from the drain on the floor of our apartment flashed through my mind. The late-night phone calls beginning, as Grant points out, "Where are you?" -- really wanting to know that you are not in the place that's just blown up. The expectation that we, too, would call around after hearing any bad news... I was being lulled by delight in a sense of the familiar, through someone else's eyes.

As the book went on, though, it dealt more and more with the political and literary side of Israel, and I found it more surprising and deeply interesting. Grant's stay in Israel lasted four months, beginning in October of 2004, with a return visit -- to interview Gaza settlers about to be displaced -- within the next year.

Here's what really shocks me: I have been following Israeli events and politics ever since our first visit, and the times and events Grant describes seem to me to be a million years ago. Israeli history, in my view has collapsed hundreds of years into just a few, and the last few years are no exception. From beginnings in the 1950s as agricultural producer of oranges and vegetables, through an industrial revolution that lasted only maybe a decade, Israel emerged as a high-tech powerhouse. Grant's descriptions of the 2003-2004 era make me think the same compression of time occurs there politically. Her portrayal of the removal of the Gaza settlers and her individual interviews with them are vivid. Yet the return of land to the Palestinians now seems so much more remote than a few years ago. Its consequences at the time she wrote were so unknowable: as the future always is. But now we do know, and this makes the events she describes seem beyond remote.

Rather than peace, the ceding of this territory brought a horrific war with Lebanon. Rather than see the Israelis as willing to negotiate, their enemies saw the choice of giving up land as weakness. Ironically, in the context of this war, one of the very interesting literary contacts Grant described is with the writer David Grossman. From Grant's (sometime) paper, the Guardian: "As the Lebanon war raged, David Grossman, the celebrated Israeli writer, publicly urged his government to accept a ceasefire. Just days later, his soldier son was killed by one of Hizbollah's final anti-tank missiles." Grant, writing two years earlier:

"David Grossman told me, 'There is not enough reassurance in the galaxy for Israelis.' ... And so we may have to face the nightmare that the war between the two peoples cannot be concluded; there is no deal that can ever be signed that will not give way, almost at once, to the resumption of the struggle. No US administration, however even-handed, can resolve or even impose a deal over land that can neither be shared nor divided. As long as the Israelis want a Jewish country, and as long as the Palestinians want the right of return, there can be no agreement. And there is no sign whatsoever of any movement of any significance in Israel against the idea of a Jewish country." (p. 198)

Grant makes readers grasp the impasse over how to divide a contested and very small area between two sets of demands from two peoples. Today, the quest for justice and fairness that seems so unreachable seems unchanged. Her many anecdotes about the Israelis and Palestinians she met brought the conflict to life. The future is as unknowable as ever, no matter how much one tries to grasp the present.


Monday, May 05, 2008

Yes, she has a graphic

I googled and found an image of the troubled Mona Lisa that shows a grapic. Also, from CNN I learned that the Mona Lisa is "a luxury cruise liner that went into service in 1966."

UPDATE: this is evidently a really badly run ship. In 2004 the New York Times reported on the problems with tourists in Venice. Paolo Costa, Mayor of Venice, has a "nightmare vision ... that one of the many ocean liners that sail through Venice every year will eventually go prow-first onto St. Mark's Square. Earlier this month, that nearly happened when a 655-foot-long cruise ship named the Mona Lisa beached in the fog in a muddy channel off the square." (See Venice Journal; To Venetians' Sorrow, the Sightseers Come in Battalions)

Mona Lisa SOS

From the BBC: A German-owned cruise ship named the Mona Lisa, en route from the Polish port of Gdansk to the Latvian capital Riga, hit a sandbank. Its passengers are being evacuated. I can't see from this photo that it has any graphics of its namesake. Hat tip to my friend Sheila.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Enigmatic searches

From April, 2005 -- Mona Lisa search engine?