Saturday, December 29, 2012

African Art: Heads and Masks

I have often written about African masks and why I find them so interesting and appealing. At our recent visit to the St. Louis Art Museum, I made it a point to look at the African collection, and to try to read some of the notes available about the items there. Africa is a huge continent with a wide variety of cultures and peoples, a long history, and much that's been lost, but much more that's preserved in what I see as a rather mysterious state.

The three heads shown above and in detail at left, for example, are 18th or 19th century post-mortem portraits of upper-class individuals from Ashan, Ghana, in a tradition that European visitors observed from the 17th to 20th centuries, according to the accompanying documentation. The heads would be displayed outside the village, where they would be "periodically visited and honored." I wonder what that meant, and what the heads meant to the people in the villages. These little hints never quite present as much as I wish they would.
"Our knowledge of African antiquity is still developing," explains one general-information placard. "The existing material record reveals cultures that produced sophisticated and compelling explorations of the human condition. ... The Sahel, a horizontal band stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea just south of the Sahara, has a long history as a trading nexus of goods, peoples, and ideas. Over the course of the first millenium BC, the region developed rice cultivation, sub-Saharan Africa's earliest cities, and important iron-producing centers."
Each area of Africa, each set of people, each river valley -- all seem to have equally long and complex histories, yet most museums have only a small number of artifacts that represent an entire people's history, and rarely are there really old items -- the St. Louis museum has a few of them, but I didn't photograph them. Below are a few pictures of other masks and sculptures of heads in the museum.

The museum does not have the name of the artists for a single one of these heads and masks, though they do seem to know the names of the rites or the special ceremonial societies for which the masks were used. For example, the Suku mask below was made for initiation ceremonies, during which young boys from a village learned about farming and hunting. The mask personified village ancestors, according to the label.

Mende Mask, Sierra Leone, Early 20th C.
Baule Mask, Je Society, Cote d'Ivoire, Early 20th C.

Suku Mask, Congo, Late 19th C.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

St.Louis Art Museum

Yesterday we spent several hours at the St.Louis Art Museum. I have loved this art museum since I was a child when it was the only one I had ever seen. The statue of St.Louis on his horse has greeted museum goers since the museum was founded, I presume around the time of the St.Louis World's Fair. Here we found him, against the winter sky.

The large entrance hall (not as large as in my memories) displays fewer statues than I remember from the past. Above is one of the most impressive of them, a work by Marcus Lupertz from 1986 -- so it wasn't one that I would have seen as a child.

We began with the temporary exhibit of works by Federico Barocci, borrowed from many world-famous collections, and especially from his native Urbino. I suspect that if I had seen one or two of his paintings in a museum in Italy (as in fact I probably have done) I wouldn't have found him remarkable. However, the exhibit highlighted his method of creating compositions by showing numerous studies and drawings as he did them for each work. The result was captivating. I may write more about this experience later.

Looking across the Entrance Hall Towards the Entrance to the Barocci Exhibit

After lunch in the little museum cafe, we continued with some African art, which I may also describe in greater detail later. The man on a horse (above) is a puppet from Mali, made in the 1960s. As so often happens with tribal works, the museum doesn't know the name of the artist. I have heard that people in cultures that made such objects often did know the names of the artists, but that the collectors never bothered to ask, though of course I know nothing detailed about this example. Ruby is visible behind the puppet through the display case at right. We continued with a brief walk through a few other galleries.

Van Gogh: Factories at Clichy

Van Gogh: Detail of figures in Factories at Clichy

Here are Ruby, Jay, and Len in front of a Monet water lily painting. The museum owns many fabulous masterpieces; of course we had time for not much besides the two exhibits we chose. And now I'm on the way home from St.Louis, and it might be a while before I return to this old favorite museum.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Lafayette, Indiana Art Museum

Recent pots and weavings from collectors in the Lafayette area

Small Zuni Olla

Weaving by Ruth Yabney

Taos Olla by Pam Luan Hauer

Zuni Lizard Pot by Anderson Peynetsa

We've been shopping in Southwest galleries and at several pueblos near Santa Fe for around 20 years, as have these collectors. However, we haven't bought very many pots (nor any weavings). Seeing this collection brought back the fun of looking. The museum displays were very effective, simple, and well-lit.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Chanukah Wrap-up

Last night was the eighth night, so it's over for this year. I hope you had a great celebration!

Monday, December 10, 2012

We are prepared

John Hodgman reminds me that we could have had many reasons for having a natural-gas backup generator installed today. We thought we were preparing for brief power failures. Maybe it will help us if the Mayans were right, though Hodgman discouraged me from that hope by mentioning the 1000 foot blood-wave that will obviously flood all of Ann Arbor and surrounding areas, no doubt including our generator. We have not and do not plan to purchase 2 years worth of groceries, either. We just want our pipes to remain non-frozen and our Trader Joe's gyozas and ice cream to remain actually frozen if there's an outage. Just sayin'.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Istanbul and The Dervish House

My book club usually reads conventional novels, memoirs, and nonfiction. This year, we decided to choose a science-fiction book, based on the recommendations of friends of some of the members. We picked the highly respected 2010 book The Dervish House by Ian McDonald.*

I volunteered to lead the discussion next Monday -- my discussion questions:

  1. The Dervish House takes place in Istanbul 2027, and involves many futuristic technology innovations, like nanotech pills that change one’s brain and flying transformer robots that can be operated by a child as well as by police spies. McDonald also does a lot with character development and local color.
    How would you compare the characters and atmosphere to those in the novels we more commonly read? Were they convincing/appealing/memorable?

    Local color: view of the Bosphorous from our hotel balcony, 2006.
  2. The novel is structured into five chapters titled MONDAY though FRIDAY. In each chapter is a series of quick events with constantly changing characters. (Characters featured in the sketches include Necdet, Can Durukan, Georgios Ferentinou, Adnan, Ayse, Leyla; also at least 20 minor characters.) Sketches of historic events and flashbacks to the characters’ lives are interspersed. Also, background on the varied ethnic identities, the city, and lots of deal-making.
    Did you find this kaleidoscope of impressions and personalities challenging or enjoyable to read?
    Note: I conclude that this presentation is really complicated since several reviewers I checked got details wrong!
  3. Each character seems to have his or her own trajectory. Ayse’s search for the “Mellified Man” seems to be most central at first, but she achieves her goal around 2/3 of the way through and it turns out to be secondary. Suspense increases a lot after this plot element is finished, as Necdet is kidnapped and the boy Can Durukan and his friend the economist Georgios Ferentinou hone in on what’s really going on.
    Did you find this effective? Did the ending seem well supported by the buildup to it? Or too surprising?
  4. McDonald used a lot of trendy science – nanotech, robotics, neuroscience, non-linear science, economic modeling, statistics, etc. Also politics, religious fanaticism, nationalism, etc.
    Did it intrigue you/get your interest/impress you or did you find it unappealing in some way?
  5. The unifying theme of the book is that every important character lives or works in a 19th century building called the Dervish House.
    How did the author use this, and was it enough to bring together all the disparate elements?

* The Dervish House was nominated for two major SF awards (a Hugo and an Arthur C. Clarke award), and won two other awards (British Science Fiction Award and Campbell award). We usually use prepared questions but I did not find any on the web.

Friday, November 30, 2012

We have a Christmas Market in Ann Arbor, too

This evening, we went to the Farmers Market and Kerrytown for the Ann Arbor Kindlefest or Weihnachtsmarkt -- also known as Midnight Madness. Food booths; hand-made gift items, Christmas decorations, and greens, a wine-tasting at the wine store, sales of all goods in other stores at 10 or 15% off, and many musical groups attracted huge crowds. Downtown, a few blocks away, we saw gallery parties, more musical groups on the street, an Elvis impersonator, and more crowds.

Glühwein, warmed in huge metal urns over portable camp stoves, was made from Charles Shaw wine (familiarly known as 2-buck Chuck from Trader Joe's -- same selection of wine at one gallery where we stopped). Booths offered "Konditorei" and "Würst" with sauerkraut. I don't know if the German names reflect the ethnic German culture that once was a major part of Ann Arbor, or if there's some other reason for the German signs. Of course there was also a booth selling salsa, and others with a broad variety of food types.

Inside we enjoyed some music:

Our favorite group among those we saw was playing hot jazz in a corner of the Kerrytown shops next to a door. We were able to stand on the stairs and enjoy their music for a while.

Outside people gathered around numerous fire pits and even toasted marshmallows. Luckily, it wasn't terribly cold or windy.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

A Walk in the Park

Today we enjoyed a beautiful Sunday afternoon bathed in autumn sunshine. It seemed like a perfect time for a walk. We were diverted by a realtor open house not far from our house. The property for sale had a lot of charm because many of the rooms had not been much changed since the house was built in around 1920. The rooms were quite small, with built-in cupboards instead of closets, and with a number of other retro features including a delightful screened porch which I've often admired while passing by. The furnace appeared to be very, very old. It had a sticker for the company that had installed it, which began NOrmandy 3-... instead of 663-... . Those alphabetic "exchanges" on telephone numbers became obsolete in the early 1960s!

After touring the house from basement to attic, we finally walked over to Burns Park. By this time the light was very vivid. The green grass was almost eerie.

People sitting in the park seemed surrounded by halos from the slanting rays. The school building, with its cupola on top, looks like a chateau at times like this, though from close-up the flagpole gives it away. Too bad they never paint the cupola -- I'm afraid some day it will rot, and then the illusion of the Chateau of Burns Park will fade away.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Franz Werfel: The Forty Days of Musa Dagh

“The most horrible thing that had been done was not that a whole people had been exterminated, but that a whole people, God’s children, had been dehumanized.” – The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, 2012 edition, p. 727)

I found The Forty Days of Musa Dagh – which I had never before read in any form -- amazing in a number of ways. I devoured the dense, nearly 900 page novel in just a few days, unable to put it down. I read the newly-published translation of Franz Werfel’s 1933 masterpiece, which includes about 25% more narrative than the previous English version.

I should write a long review, including some research into Werfel himself, but right now I only want to cover a few generalities about the wonderful quality of the book.

First, I admired Werfel’s research into the 1915 massacre of Armenians by the Turks. I think the history of these events was already being suppressed by the late 1920s when Werfel began writing. His description of the ragged, starving, perishing Armenian masses of men, women, and children from the village of Zeitun was vivid. His descriptions of the Turkish authorities and their rationale for the genocide (not yet given a name) were overwhelming.

The day-by-day description of the people of seven Armenian villages near the Syrian coast who hid in the woods on the mountain Musa Dagh and resisted the deportation to nowhere being inflicted by the Turks is powerfully drawn. Each episode is based on true stories, particularly the survival of a few thousand villagers on Musa Dagh and their rescue by French troop ships.

Werfel maintained a remarkable balance between descriptions of collective suffering and of individual agony, so that the reader’s consciousness is drawn in both directions. He occasionally mentions acts of mercy by non-Armenians, but clearly shows that the moral bankruptcy of the Turkish leaders (quite a few directly taken from history) corrupted the common people, who are mostly depicted as looting and then resettling the villages whose inhabitants have been forced out. Also corrupted: the military, civil, and police authorities who directly deprived the Armenians of life and property.

On the political side, I kept thinking: how could Werfel write a Holocaust analogy before the Holocaust began? But I know the tragic answer: he was trying to warn of the terrible future that somehow he saw so clearly. Although he clearly admires the German Pastor Johannes Lepsius, another of the historical characters depicted in the book, he had no illusions about the meaning of the events to the mainstream German observers. While Lepsius begs everyone who will listen to act to save the Armenians, almost no one will listen to him; what aid he musters is too little too late. My very sad reaction to Werfel’s attempted warning was that the main learners who took a lesson from the massacre of the Armenians were the Nazis, not the humanitarians and not any future victims.

On the novelistic side, I was also impressed by the author’s choice of central characters, the French-educated Gabriel Bagradian. While the history is powerful, I thin Werfel keeps the reader’s attention through the depiction of Bagradian, his family, his determination to save his fellow Armenians, and his close relationships. Bagradian’s conflicts between his self-interest and his loyalty to his people, his developing identity from identification with France and Europe to embracing of an Armenian identity, his developing leadership in military and political affairs, and his tragic ending create a perfect story against which Werfel presents the historical themes.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Black Soldiers in World War II


The Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum, depicted above, is located on the bank of the Mississippi river on the campus of the University of Minnesota. It's an impressive piece of architecture by Frank Gehry.

On a brief visit there last week, I was impressed by their collection of works from New Deal art programs, and especially by a painting, "Wheels of Victory" painted in 1944 by American painter Philip Evergood (1901-1973).

The documentation accompanying the painting says "Created in the waning days of World War II, Evergood's painting at first may seem a celebration of American industry." However, the documentation continues, the painting seems "more melancholy than victorious," because it may be making a reference to the labor disputes about African Americans: could they join the railroad union and hold non-menial jobs? "Is the soldier here to remind viewers that African-Americans contributed to America's victory in war overseas but were not allowed to hold good jobs on the railroads at home?"

The white men in the painting do look pretty complacent to me, with their "pocket watches and church papers."

The documentation refers to the black soldier as looking on "despondently." To quote the National Geographic summary of the Black experience in World War II:
"African-American soldiers and civilians fought a two-front battle during World War II. There was the enemy overseas, and also the battle against prejudice at home."
Perhaps this is the subject of this impressive and maybe subversive painting.

Despite the formation of the famous unit of Tuskegee Airmen, most Black soldiers were given only duties like janitorial and kitchen services. "Black soldiers were generally restricted from combat," the article points out. However, "the realities of war would soon blur the lines of race. One major breakthrough came during the Battle of the Bulge, in late 1944.... General Dwight D. Eisenhower, faced with Hitler's advancing army on the Western Front, temporarily desegregated the army, calling for urgent assistance on the front lines. More than 2,000 black soldiers volunteered to fight."

When the black soliders returned home, mostly to homes in the South, they faced a return to the segregated lives and horrendous maltreatment that they had known before the war. Truman desegregated the military, and thus ended open discrimination in job assignments, in 1948, but the Civil Rights struggle  had only begun.

My book club selection for November is The Grace of Silence by Michele Norris of NPR -- a book with a focus on exactly the same topic: the unjust treatment of returning Black soldiers. In this memoir, she concentrates on the experiences of her father. He returned from service to his native Birmingham, Alabama, where Black citizens were still experiencing the worst of the humiliating and dehumanizing features of segregation and racial hatred.

In trying to understand her father after his death, Norris unearthed a part of her family history that no one had ever mentioned and that no one wanted to talk about after more than 60 years. Shortly after his return to Birmingham, he had been shot by a policeman, spent a night in jail (as she said, this was an incredibly dangerous place for a young Black veteran), and had paid a high fine which used up family funds that could have been better used to invest in business. She felt that the experience had been powerful -- too powerful to discuss.

Norris described the struggle of Black veterans to register to vote in Birmingham soon after the war, and the decision of her father and some of his brothers to move north, and his purchase of a  home in a white neighborhood. She was born in Minneapolis (not that far from the museum where I saw the painting), and her own experiences, which are briefly discussed in her memoir, are quite different from those of her father.

I've recently seen a lot of connections to the topic of Blacks in World War II and their experience when coming home. Earlier this month, my book club read Mudbound, which includes a fictionalized (and I would say, sensationalized) account of a returning Black Southern veteran. Also, not long ago at the Civil Rights exhibit in the Henry Ford museum, I saw the restored bus where Rosa Parks performed her famous historic refusal to sit in back. The connection of this to the struggle of veterans to the struggle for Civil Rights is interesting -- as the National Geographic article says "Not only had the war opened a new window of opportunity for blacks, a number of the civil rights leaders of the 1950s and '60s, including Medger Evers, had been trained in the Army, where they acquired leadership and organizational experience."

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Children’s Book by A.S.Byatt

The real center of The Children’s Book is life at the end of the Victorian era – which sounds like too big a topic for a novel, but somehow Byatt pulls it off. She talks about how family life at the end of the 19th century was special with an independent life for children in an upper class family, who were often numerous and left to themselves to wander in the woods or explore the country-house environment where they were being raised. She makes up five families, with many children, in which to explore her idea.

The world of children and families in the late Victorian era is a powerful topic. The contrast between wealth and poverty and the contrast between the rights and possibilities for men and women in Victorian society affects each of the families in the story.  Every character struggles with his or her social and gender-caused position and its limits. Several characters rise in status, especially Olive and Violet, a coal miner's daughters, but privileged members of the upper middle class as adults. Olive is the matriarch of the novel’s most central family and a successful author, and her sister Violet is the quiet unmarried aunt (but things are not quite as they seem).

As they mature, the children of the five families develop a variety of literary, social, artistic, and political consciousness. They are influenced directly and indirectly by famous people who lived then – the Fabians, suffragists, anarchists, socialists, even Emma Goldman, cultural leaders like Rudyard Kipling, G.B.Shaw, and William Morris. The characters attend lectures in London, Cambridge, Oxford; join real socialists and other activists, and travel to witness conditions in other countries. They put on plays – especially Shakespeare plays – which seem to them iconic, and whose organization gives them experience of various sorts. (Also, it’s a typical thing for that era’s family to do.)

The novel is full of real places and things, all made very vivid. The father of one of the major families is a department head at the emerging Victoria and Albert Museum in London – the museum is both physically and conceptually central. A number of the characters gather for a visit to the Paris World’s Fair, where they see Loie Fuller dance among other things. The women in the novel dress up for dances and theatrical performances – the descriptions of gowns and hats are lush and indulgent.

A counter topic to family and social life is the life of artists. There are at least three characters who have enormous creative gifts: Benedict Fludd a very troubled and eccentric ceramicist; his apprentice Phillip Warren, born very poor and lower class but driven to create from his childhood; and already-mentioned Olive Wellwood, a writer of  fantastic tales encompassing the title’s “Children’s Book.”

The beauty of ceramic vessels – shape, color of glaze, decorative elements, workmanship – and the details of the potter's craft are described with love and attention to visual and tactile detail. Byatt makes a great effort in explaining the many challenges in creating a pot on the wheel, mixing a glaze, loading a kiln, and firing the contents. The characters appreciate the beauty of pots and are aware of the history of earlier ceramicists.

The process of writing – creating imaginary worlds, myth and fiction, setting up characters, choosing words – and the effect of writing on an audience are another fundamental theme. Olive’s tales begin as specific gifts to each of her children, in some cases with a problematic effect. They continue to become a way that she earns a living for the family – which also causes a variety of problems for herself and her complicated relationship with her husband.

Several of the characters struggle with understanding their identity, which is often vexed by the complex relationships of their parents and those who seem to be their parents. Some of the most mistreated characters develop stong identities anyway; some of the most loved fail. Byatt manages to subsume the identity question in other themes, mentioning often the emerging medical specialty of psychoanalysis and creating at least two very troubled suicides who don’t get any help in this respect.

The narrator often steps back and describes historic events and their social consequences. Nothing is explicit, but no reader could be unaware of the coming fate of the families whose youth are contemporaries, as often mentioned, of Rupert Brooke. He is often present at meetings or informal events that the fictitious characters also attend – we know what that portends. Byatt is aware that her readers must be thinking of the First World War and what it will do to her characters, and she’s ruthless in her final chapters, when it happens.

I loved this book. I was amazed that with so many characters and so much going on, Byatt always kept me on top of the family place of each character as he or she was mentioned. The graphic horrors of the Great War were kept at bay by the long history of the characters and their aspirations; the inevitablilty was handled wonderfully. 

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Decluttering for no special reason


Our old sideboard gave us good service, but it was time for it to go: we bought a new one with a big hutch a few years ago, and shoved it into a corner. Last weekend, I cleared all the stuff out of it (some is visible on top in the photo, waiting for my new plastic box for attic storage of holiday items).

I shopped it around to friends -- no takers. Today, the PTO thrift shop, which is a combined fund-raiser for all the PTOs in town, set the truck for it. They also took a box of glassware and other items that didn't make the cut to be rescued. The tablecloths that were in the middle drawer replaced photo albums in the newer sideboard, while the albums found a home in my desk upstairs, which was also new last year. A couple of bottles of cognac and liqueur are now in the pantry.

Everything seems to start a cascade of rearrangements and give-aways, but somehow it's done.


Our garage has accommodated our unused ancient windsurfers since we gave up our lakeside cottage in 1999. Maybe I shouldn't admit that. This stuff is so obsolete no one wants it.

As of this afternoon, the windsurfers are gone. I hired a trash hauler to come during the same time-window as the PTO truck, so we only had to wait once. The windsurfers' sails were occupying space in the basement -- they are now also gone. The old porch railings (leaning against the garage wall at left) are gone. A lot of unwieldy styrofoam is gone. Two old counter tops are gone -- we never found a way to use them. Len was delighted because the old paint cans are also gone from the basement. The trash hauler/truck driver says "I'm stronger than you think," and that's really true; he carried away some really heavy stuff.

Here's the truck. Besides being strong, the driver can miraculously back into a driveway as narrow as ours:


The sails on their way into the trash truck (paint cans visible to the left) --


Oh! This feels good! Stuff has such a way of insinuating itself into one's life. Decluttering is great.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Old Cars

cars 3

cars 1

cars 2

camping 2

camping 1

The Old Car Festival at Greenfield Village provides a chance to see the amazing labors of many old-car hobbyists. Some preserve old cars in their original condition; others restore the cars to shiny newness. Some dress up in the apparel of the same vintage of the cars, starting around the turn of the 20th century, and going just past 1930, I think. Some collect old equipment, such as fire trucks or camping vehicles and gear for old-style camping. I wrote on my food blog about the collector who displayed a cooking box that fit onto a Model T exhaust manifold. Quite a show!