Friday, June 27, 2014

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, by Bill Bryson

Most Jade Sphinx readers are familiar with William McGuire “Bill” Bryson (born 1951) because of his amusing books on language, science and travel.  He has also been a fixture on television and radio, and is one of the smartest and funniest men on the contemporary scene.

However, the Bill Bryson that I enjoyed the most was the gentle memoirist who wrote The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid (2006), Bryson’s wry story of growing up in the 1950s and early 1960s.

Bryson grew up in Des Moines, Iowa, during a unique moment in American history: following World War II, Americans enjoyed unprecedented economic prosperity.  Returning GIs had children at a remarkable rate, and the resulting Baby Boomers had a brave new world in which to inhabit.  And inhabit it, they did.  Reading Bryson’s memoir is both sweetly nostalgic and oddly bitter … most Baby Boomers were “free range” children. We went outside after school, played, explored and created friendships without continual (and oppressive) adult supervision.  The very idea of a “play date” would’ve been inconceivable to us … every day was a play date.  Our imaginations were unfettered; we did not need electronic mediums to spoon feed adventures for us, we made them up in our own backyards.  The whole world seemed accessible by bicycle, and inexpensive paperbacks, comic books, radio and television filled our minds with visions of the American West or the depths of Outer Space.  It was a paradise for boys.

Sadly, multiple forces converged to destroy this boyhood Arcadia: the social upheavals of the 1960s destroyed our culture and the Reagan revolution of the 1980s destroyed our economy and political process.  The changes wrought by these two catastrophes have changed the very fabric of the nation, and we have been reeling from the after-effects ever since.

Today, children are squired by parents from one place to another; the idea of unsupervised play in unthinkable.  Most childhood entertainment has been so filtered through a prism of political correctness or so vulgarized by toilet humor as to be unfit for children or adults.  Worse still, the Internet and computer games have robbed children of valuable time to spend outdoors, making friends, or just daydreaming.  None of the changes in American childhood seem to be for the better.

Thunderbolt Kid takes us back to a happier, simpler time.  The book tells of Bryson’s times in school, of his heroic alter-ego (the Thunderbolt Kid), and, simply, what it was like to be a boy during the Great American Century.  It also deals with a period of ‘bad boy’ behavior that Bryson went through, and the various friendships he made.  (It did this reader a world of good to come across the name Jed Mattes [1952–2003], a very sweet man and friend who died before his time.  He knew Bryson when they were teens in the Midwest, and Bryson thought Mattes, who grew up to be one of New York’s finest literary agents, was sophisticated beyond his years.  Indeed, he was.)

At the end of the book, Bryson tells the reader that "life moves on," and that he wishes that the world today could be more similar to life in the 1950s and early 1960s. The last lines of the book are, "What a wonderful world that would be. What a wonderful world it was. We won’t see its like again, I'm afraid."

Too true.

For an idea of Bryson’s comedic touch, here’s a snippet from the book:

The only downside of my mother's working was that it put a little pressure on her with regard to running the home and particularly with regard to dinner, which frankly was not her strong suit anyway. My mother always ran late and was dangerously forgetful into the bargain. You soon learned to stand aside about ten to six every evening, for it was then that she would fly in the back door, throw something in the oven, and disappear into some other quarter of the house to embark on the thousand other household tasks that greeted her each evening. In consequence she nearly always forgot about dinner until a point slightly beyond way too late. As a rule you knew it was time to eat when you could hear baked potatoes exploding in the oven.

We didn't call it the kitchen in our house. We called it the Burns Unit.

"It's a bit burned," my mother would say apologetically at every meal, presenting you with a piece of meat that looked like something — a much-loved pet perhaps — salvaged from a tragic house fire. "But I think I scraped off most of the burned part," she would add, overlooking that this included every bit of it that had once been flesh.

Happily, all this suited my father. His palate only responded to two tastes — burnt and ice cream — so everything suited him so long as it was sufficiently dark and not too startlingly flavorful. Theirs truly was a marriage made in heaven for no one could burn food like my mother or eat it like my dad.

As part of her job, my mother bought stacks of housekeeping magazines — House Beautiful, House and Garden, Better Homes and Gardens — and I read these with a curious avidity, partly because they were always lying around and in our house all idle moments were spent reading something, and partly because they depicted lives so absorbingly at variance with our own. The housewives in my mother's magazines were so collected, so organized, so calmly on top of things, and their food was perfect — their lives were perfect. They dressed up to take their food out of the oven! There were no black circles on the ceiling above their stoves, no mutating goo climbing over the sides of their forgotten saucepans. Children didn't have to be ordered to stand back every time they opened their oven doors. And their foods — baked Alaska, lobster Newburg, chicken cacciatore — why, these were dishes we didn't even dream of, much less encounter, in Iowa.

Like most people in Iowa in the 1950s, we were more cautious eaters in our house.* On the rare occasions when we were presented with food with which we were not comfortable or familiar — on planes or trains or when invited to a meal cooked by someone who was not herself from Iowa — we tended to tilt it up carefully with a knife and examine it from every angle as if it determining whether it might need to be defused. Once on a trip to San Francisco my father was taken by friends to a Chinese restaurant and he described it to us afterwards in the somber tones of someone recounting a near-death experience.

"And they eat it with sticks, you know," he added knowledgeably.

"Goodness!" said my mother.

"I would rather have gas gangrene than go through that again," my father added grimly.

In our house we didn't eat:

  • pasta, rice, cream cheese, sour cream, garlic, mayonnaise, onions, corned beef, pastrami, salami, or foreign food of any type, except French toast;
  • bread that wasn't white and at least 65% air;
  • spices other than salt, pepper and maple syrup;
  • fish that was any shape other than rectangular and not coated in bright orange breadcrumbs, and then only on Fridays and only when my mother remembered it was Friday, which in fact was not often;
  • seafood of any type but especially seafood that looked like large insects;
  • soups not blessed by Campbell's and only a very few of those;
  • anything with dubious regional names like "pone," or "gumbo" or foods that had at any time been an esteemed staple of slaves or peasants. 

All other foods of all types — curries, enchiladas, tofu, bagels, sushi, couscous, yogurt, kale, rocket, Parma ham, any cheese that was not a vivid bright yellow and shiny enough to see your reflection in — had either not yet been invented or was yet unknown to us. We really were radiantly unsophisticated. I remember being surprised to learn at quite an advanced age that a shrimp cocktail was not, as I had always imagined, a pre-dinner alcoholic drink with a shrimp in it.

All our meals consisted of leftovers. My mother had a seemingly inexhaustible supply of foods that had already been to the table, sometimes many times. Apart from a few perishable dairy products, everything in the fridge was older than I was, sometimes by many years. (Her oldest food possession of all, it more or less goes without saying, was a fruitcake that was kept in a metal tin and dated from the colonial period.) I can only assume that my mother did all of her cooking in the 1940s so that she could spend the rest of her life surprising herself with what she could find under cover at the back of the fridge. I never knew her to reject a food. The rule of thumb seemed to be that if you opened the lid and the stuff inside didn't make you actually recoil and take at least one staggered step backwards, it was deemed OK to eat.

Both of my parents had grown up in the Great Depression and neither of them ever threw anything away if they could possibly avoid it. My mother routinely washed and dried paper plates, and smoothed out for reuse spare aluminum foil. If you left a pea on your plate, it became part of future meal. All our sugar came in little packets spirited out of restaurants in deep coat pockets, as did our jams, jellies, crackers (oyster and saltine), tartar sauces, some of our ketchup and butter, all of our napkins, and a very occasional ashtray; anything that came with a restaurant table really. One of the happiest moments in my parents' life was when maple syrup started to be served in small disposable packets and they could add those to the household hoard.

*In fact like most other people in America. It is perhaps worth noting that the leading American food writer of the age, Duncan Hines, author of the hugely successful Adventures in Eating, declared with pride that he never ate food with French names if he could possibly help it. Hines's other boast was that he did not venture out of America until he was seventy years old, when he made a trip to Europe. He disliked nearly everything he found there, especially the food.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Blacklands, by Belinda Bauer

After covering Stephen King’s Joyland yesterday, I thought I would write about another recent novel with a young protagonist, Blacklands, by Belinda Bauer.  Here is the opening paragraph:

Exmoor dripped with dirty bracken, rough, colourless grass, prickly gorse and last year’s heather, so black it looked as if wet fire had swept across the landscape, taking the trees with it and leaving the most cold and exposed to face the winter unprotected. Drizzle dissolved the close horizons and blurred heaven and earth into a grey cocoon around the only visible landmark – a twelve-year-old boy in slick black waterproof trousers but no hat, alone with a spade.

This is a remarkably adept debut novel from journalist and screenwriter Belinda Bauer.  Blacklands is set on Exmoor, and details the cat-and-mouse struggle between 12-year-old Steven Lamb and serial killer Arnold Avery.  Avery is a child-murder who, 18 years before, murdered Steven’s 11-year-old Uncle Billy, and never revealed where he hid the body.

This crime, committed long before Steven was even born, has soured the young boy’s life.  His grandmother spends her time watching at the front window, waiting for her missing child to return.  Her daughter Lettie – Uncle Billy’s sister and Steven’s mother – lives with her with her own children, and the atmosphere is poisoned by grief, withheld love and emotional impoverishment. 

Cut off from her mother’s love and weaned on misery, Lettie has never been able to form any lasting attachments, and both Steven and his younger brother Davey have had a succession of “uncles,” but no father.  Uncle’s Billy room is never disturbed, and it sits there, a decaying shrine in a dark and damp house at the edge of the moor.

Young Steven, drowning in this toxic atmosphere, decides to do the only thing that makes sense to him – he will dig up the moor until he finds Uncle Billy’s body, hopefully closing this chapter of their lives and moving to a brighter tomorrow.

With that in mind, Steven dutifully digs and digs – finding nothing.  It is only then that he gets the idea of writing Avery, asking for clues to where the body of his uncle might lie.

Of course, writing to young Steven is too much excitement for Avery, who manages to escape and make his way to the moor…

Bauer never grants Steven with abilities that are out of line with a young boy; in fact, the entire exchange with Avery comes about simply because one of his teachers (usually too oblivious to really know who Steven is), remarks in passing that he writes good letters.  Steven is a boy of average intelligence but too-little money: his family is the working poor and their drab lives are not improved by treats or possessions that others take for granted.  It also shows a decaying England, still ravaged by decades of Toryism run amok. 

However, the great pleasure of this rather grim tale is in watching Steven grow.  We watch as he grapples to understand the adult world, moving from potential victim to, ultimately, Avery’s nemesis.

Better still are the touches that show how deeds long since past ruin lives, poison relationships, and deeply affect our children.  Acts of violence do not happen in a vacuum, and the damage done by murder only begins with the dead body.

Though structured as a thriller, Blacklands is really a novel about murder, how it affects families and communities, and how cruelty sometimes builds a momentum of its own.  Though at times it is grim stuff, Blacklands is well worth reading.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Joyland, by Stephen King

Though the fact is probably sending Harold Bloom into cardiac arrest, it is past-time that we acknowledge that Stephen King (born 1947) is one of the Great Men of American Letters.  This has been a contentious point among critics and academics – King is an unashamedly commercial writer (of horror and fantasy fiction, yet!), is pointedly ‘non-literary,’ and, worse still, extremely popular.  Three points which would destroy the critical reputation of any writer.

But … King has proven to be just not any writer.  The author of 50 novels and some 200 short stories, his works have sold over 350 million copies, and that is not counting his screenplays, reviews and essays.  His novel, 11/22/63, takes as its conceit a time traveler seeking to stop the Kennedy assassination, and was one of the most satisfying reads I’ve had in some time.

Why has it taken so long for King to finally be rewarded with critical acclaim he so richly (abundantly!) deserves?  I would venture to guess that much of it has to do with class.  Arts criticism in the US is largely conceived along lines of social class; most anything embraced by “the people” is instantly suspect, and critics who take it seriously do so at their peril.  This is not to say that all Pop Culture is worthy; most of it, in fact, is trash.  But not all success is suspect – sometimes, artists become wealthy and beloved simply because … they are good at what they do.

These thoughts were in my head while I started the summer by reading King’s charming, sweet and gently nostalgic novel, Joyland.  Though King is celebrated for his horrors and his deft control of suspense, for this reviewer, his real genius lies in recording the experience of the boyhood of American Baby Boomers.

King is, in fact, the Poet Laureate of Boyhood.  The portions of his novels that always affected me most were the sections featuring his young adult protagonists.  Adolescent males are found in books as diverse as It, Salem’s Lot, Christine, and Hearts in Atlantis, as well as his masterful short story The Body.  I always felt that King had a peculiar knack for describing the experience of boyhood, with its rich joys, its even richer longings, its glorious victories and its often unforgettable defeats.  It is the thing he does best.

Joyland is set in a North Carolina amusement park in 1973.  The protagonist is Devin Jones, a student at the University of New Hampshire who takes a summer job at Joyland amusement park. Devin finds that he has a talent for "wearing the fur," Joyland-talk for portraying Howie the Happy Hound, the park’s mascot. One day, he saves a child from choking on a park hot dog. The heroics earn him the trust and admiration of the park's owner, and he receives additional responsibilities.

As summer goes on, Devin and his friends learn that several years earlier a girl had been murdered in the haunted house attraction, and her ghost still haunts the ride.  Of course, Devin and his friends investigate the story; while doing so, Devin also befriends a frail, wheelchair bound boy and his mother.
It’s important to note that the tone of the book is much more important than its Hardy-Boys-At-The Fair plot, and that tone is one of wistful nostalgia.  Devin straddles childhood and adulthood throughout the novel.  He loses his virginity, learns the fragility of life, and comes to the conclusion that people are not always as they seem.  The book is told in flashback by the now-adult Devin, who looks on at his younger self with a sometimes rueful eye.

One of the many touching things about Devin is that he genuinely likes children, which is rare in a young adult.  Dressing up as Howie the Happy Hound is a noble calling, as Devin’s boss explains to him:  This is a badly broken world, full of wars and cruelty and senseless tragedy. Every human being who inhabits it is served his or her portion of unhappiness and wakeful nights. . . . Given such sad but undeniable facts of the human condition, you have been given a priceless gift this summer: you are here to sell fun.

It could almost be King’s manifesto.

At this point, I must confess that reading King in the key of Adolescent Boy will often make this reviewer cry.  I did not cry while reading The Body … I wept.  King connects with our collective youth in a way that few writers can, and whenever I read his books I am confronted by the stark, often terrible realization of all that I have lost with adulthood.  Somehow, there is a very young man deep inside of King’s psyche who remembers exactly how it was.  Much like Ray Bradbury, to read Stephen King is to be young again.

In that respect, Joyland does not disappoint, and I found myself crying as Devin made that often agonizing transition from boyhood to adulthood.  The plot of Joyland may only “get the job done,” but the character of Devin is the kind of thing that makes King, in all his messy glory, a “literary writer.”

Joyland is a novel about summer and about our shared American experience.  Read it before the season ends.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Empire of the Summer Moon, by S. C. Gwynne

Well … wow.  Having read deeply about the American West for two decades, I had thought that there would be few surprises left in store for me.  And then, happily, I came across S. C. Gwynne’s masterful, Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History.  If you read only one book about the so-called Indian Wars, let it be this one.

The North American aboriginal people have been so romanticized and sanitized since the drug-addled 1960s – which re-envisioned them peyote-dropping, love-happy hippies – that contemporary readers have lost sight of just how brutal and dangerous they were.  The Plaines Indians were really more of a Stone Age people, resistant to change, without a written language or cultural attainments, totally lacking in science, and predicated on a life of horsemanship and continual warfare.  They were a truly formidable foe to settlers in the American West who came from a tradition of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and a muscular Christianity.  The worlds of the Western settlers and the Indians were as alien to one-another as to be almost other-worldly.

Settlers were completely unprepared for the level of savagery -- wanton rape, torture and mutilation were common currency among the Comanche -- and the battle between both peoples soon devolved into greater brutality on both sides.  Gwynne is utterly matter-of-fact in placing blame on both sides – there was more than enough violence to go around.  The history here is neutral, and the lack of a sanitized take is sure to discomfort partisans of either side of the issue.

Gwynne frames this sad history with the stories of Cynthia Ann Parker and her son, the Comanche chief Quanah.  As a girl, Cynthia Ann watched as Comanches brutally murdered and raped most of her family.  Kidnapped to help increase Comanche numbers (the mortality of Comanche infants was incredibly high, and kidnapped women were chattel for child-bearing), she worked as a slave to a Comanche band.  Eventually, she would become one of the wives of Peta Nocona, one of the most powerful of Comanche raiders.

However, her uncle James Parker spent years and years searching for Cynthia Ann.  (Yes, this story became the model for the John Ford film, The Searchers, in 1956.)  He never did find her, but the adult Cynthia Ann was found among the survivors after a military raid and returned to her family, along with her child, Prairie Flower.  Cynthia Ann is an incredibly poignant figure – ripped from one reality as a child and forced into another, and then, ripped from that and brought back into a world she no-longer knew.  A lifetime among the Comanche had left her completely unprepared for Western life, and she sickened and died, mourning the loss of her world, her husband, and her son, Quanah.

Quanah fared much better than his mother.  One of the most recalcitrant leaders of Comanche bands, he raided, stole horses and killed many before he accepted life on the reservation.  While there, he decided to beat the settlers at their own game, becoming something of a businessman by manipulating fees for use of his land, building a grand house, and shaming the government into additional funds.  He actually can be seen in a short Western film (the first two-reeler) shot in 1908, The Bank Robbery.  It can be seen here:

When not focusing on the Parkers, Gwynne writes about Ranald S. Mackenzie, the man who would destroy the Comaches and become America’s greatest Indian fighter.  He graduated first in his class from West Point (the same year of George Armstrong Custer), and would later befriend and educate Quanah.  We also meet the fiery Jack Hays, the greatest of the Texas Rangers, and the source of countless legends of the Old West.  It was said that before Hays, Americans came into the West on foot carrying long rifles, and that after Hays, everybody was mounted and carrying a six-shooter.

S. C. Gwynne is a journalist who writes for The Dallas Mornings News, and is a former bureau chief and senior editor at Time.  What he seeks to do with the hauntingly titled Empire of the Summer Moon is paint on an extremely large canvas the full immensity of events during the Indian Wars of Texas and Oklahoma.  It is peopled with many heroes, more than its share of villains, and many who were a little bit of both.  It is set against a dazzling (and deadly) landscape, and encompasses several decades.  The book is rich in history, drama, violence and humanity.  It comes very highly recommended.

Friday, June 20, 2014

The Art of Alfredo Rodríguez, Part III: A Golden Moment (2013)

We conclude our look at Alfredo Rodríguez (born 1954) with this, A Golden Moment, painted just one year ago.

Though the last two pictures we looked at were of American Indians, Rodríguez spends nearly as much time painting miners, prospectors and Wild West bad men.  He also paints children of the plains, as well as Mexican and Indian women in a manner that could only be called Sanitized Cheesecake.

Rodríguez is a conundrum – a painter of undeniable skill and talent, but without any taste or point of view.  He too often relies on pyrotechnics to achieve his effects, and short-changes his own considerable abilities.

Today’s picture is certainly not Rodríguez at his best; though correct enough in its component parts, they don’t seem to fit together in any real way.  The prospector is wonderfully drawn, but there is no real sense of his weight or bulk upon the rocks.  The gun in his belt looks more like something drawn on his shirt than a real weapon, and I’m not quite sure where the back of the man’s body is hiding.

More egregious is the dog, who looks like he was stenciled onto the background, like one of those sets we got as children where we rubbed figures into pre-painted pictures.  The poor hound seems to hang there, not really in this picture at all, and obediently looking off to the side to see if its time to get out of it. 

How can this happen?  Again – look at the man, divorced from the rest of the picture.  Or, better yet, look at the pickaxe, bucket and pan.  All are executed with a sure hand; even the dog -- the component of the picture that screams “kitsch” with bruised lungs – is competently done.  It’s just that all of these pieces look like they were stitched together, a painting more Frankenstein than Buffalo Bill.

Alfredo Rodríguez clearly wants to be a modern Charles Marion Russell or Frederic Remington; but his passion is commercial, not personal.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Art of Alfredo Rodríguez, Part II: American Indian

We are spending this week looking at the work of Mexican-born artist Alfredo Rodríguez (born 1954), who currently lives in California. 

Rodríguez, like many of his generation, grew up to be obsessed with the American West.  It’s important to remember that though Westerns are few and far between today, that the 1950s and 1960s were a boom time for Western films and television shows; comedian Bob Hope once quipped that NBC meant “Nothing But Cowboys.”  While a boy growing up in Mexico, Rodríguez got a steady diet of American television Westerns playing in reruns.  Like many of his generation, he was marked for life.

Rodríguez’s work has been covered in such books as Western Painting Today by Royal B. Hassick,  and Contemporary Western Artists by Peggy and Harold Samuels; he has also been covered ins such magazines as Art of the West, Western Horseman, and International Fine Art Collector. He has illustrated textbooks and histories, as well, and the prolific artist is one of the most successful contemporary painters in the Western genre.

We at The Jade Sphinx wax and wane on our admiration for Rodríguez.  His efforts to keep the American West alive are met here with riotous applause.  So, too, are his abilities as an artist.  We just wish he had better taste.

Today’s picture is a case in point.  It is quite striking – Rodríguez’s skill at drawing is in full display here.  Look at the network of fine lines etched into the subject’s face, let alone the shadow of his long hair playing against his cheek.  More impressive still are the feathers atop his head, created with such complete control of line and contour as to be surprisingly lifelike.

His sense of coloration is more subdued here than yesterday’s picture – though the dramatic sky, dotted with clouds and merging into the wooded background is perhaps a bit too calculated.  And there, in short, is our problem with the work.  This is a picture calculated to its every brushstroke.  Not that all great pictures are not planned – that’s not exactly what we mean here.  Instead, it seems as if Rodríguez were checking off a list of tropes necessary or expected for this type of picture, and delivering them without comment or insight.

Is our Indian stoic and insightful?  Check.  Brilliant blue sky and wide-open spaces?  Check and check.  Peaceful village rendered in desert colors?  Check.  Water, grass and teepees?  Check, check, check.  It’s not that there’s anything wrong with this picture – it is actually quite splendidly done – it’s just that there is little-to-no point of view and composed by route.  One cannot help but wish that Rodríguez harnessed that remarkable technical ability into a more personal statement on the West.

It makes a superb cover for a paperback Western; as a finished work of art that stands alone on its ability to move us, it falls short.

More Rodríguez tomorrow!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Art of Alfredo Rodríguez, Part I: Profile of a Chief (2006)

This past week, we were lucky enough to entertain a dear friend who is also deeply devoted to the arts.  We were talking about the art world in general and The Jade Sphinx in particular when he opined, “you know, you may want to write about artists who are still alive every now and then.”

Astonishing thought…

At the same time, I had been reading S. C. Gwynne’s masterful Empire of the Summer Moon, a look at the Comanches, who were at one time most powerful Indian tribe in American history.  (Expect more on this book, later – it is magnificent.)  And that called to mind the paintings of Alfredo Rodríguez (born 1954).

Rodríguez started drawing and painting in his earliest boyhood; it was as natural to him as learning to walk or speak.  He was born in Mexico, and grew up fascinated by stories of the American West.  The West of his imagination is peopled with strong, colorful Indians, prospectors, homesteaders, and miners.  His pictures have been corralled by private collectors and several corporations, and he currently exhibits at numerous invitational art shows around the country, including the Masters of the American West at the Autry Museum in Los Angeles, as well as in the Heritage Gallery in Scottsdale, Arizona, The West Lives On Gallery in Jackson, Wyoming, and the Art Pacific Gallery in Wailea, Hawaii. Collectors include the late Gene Autry, actress Connie Stevens, and Pilar Wayne (widow of actor John Wayne).

Rodríguez became a professional artist 1968 and made a steady career of magazine illustration before moving into fine art painting.  He has been a remarkably prolific painter, and his oeuvre varies remarkably in quality.  There are works that have a striking, stark declarative power – here is the past as I see it, peopled by remarkable giants now long gone.  Other pictures, particularly those involving children or family scenes, are sentimental and soft … bordering dangerously on kitsch.  Like many painters who have had to make a living in the extremely competitive field of magazine illustration, Rodríguez often panders rather than paints.  However, when Rodríguez is at the top of his game, he is quite something.

Today’s painting, Profile of a Chief (2006), exemplifies all that is great and questionable in Rodríguez’s work.  The technical aspects of Rodríguez’s work here are quite wonderful: notice, the superb draughtsmanship in the depiction of the face, or, better yet, the brushwork that not only delineates the lines of various feathers, but moves them in-and-out of shafts of light.  Though the visible hand has aged into a claw, the deep lines in the knuckles and stained thumbnail are clearly visible.  The beadwork is rendered with loving detail, and the fringe of his buckskin has a wonderfully tactile quality.

And yet … and yet, Rodríguez becomes the victim of his own desire to please.  The coloration of the picture, though striking, is simply too … much.  It is if Rodríguez almost did not trust his own considerable talent enough, and felt the need to overcompensate, to dazzle with color to hide any possible defects in the drawing.  Many contemporary painters are guilty of this – extremely talented men and women who, without the long tradition of atelier training to provide confidence and context, default to excess to guarantee success. 

For all of its excesses, though, Profile of a Chief is a well-executed picture.

More Rodríguez tomorrow!

Friday, June 13, 2014

The Reading Lesson, by Léon Augustin Lhermitte

Today we conclude our weeklong look at the life and art of Léon Augustin Lhermitte (1844 – 1925), celebrating the 170th anniversary of his birth. 

Lhermitte’s earliest experience with the arts was copying pictures in popular illustrated magazines and studying the work of other French painters.  His school-teacher father encouraged his work by allowing him to sketch.  As the boy’s talents expanded, his father showed his drawings to Count Walewski, then minister at the École des Beaux-Arts.  Walewski was impressed, and offered the boy a scholarship of 600 francs, permitting him to enroll in the École Impériale de Dessin.  Here he was introduced to a type of study of drawing that was based on memorization, a technique also used by James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903).  In this way he could view a scene, especially a landscape scene, and employ his memories to more fully execute the painting back in his studio. 

Lhermitte took part in both the Exposition Universelle in 1900, where he served as a member of the jury, and, the Exposition des Pastellistes.  In the latter part of his career, Lhermitte moved away from representing the human figure and concentrated more and more on landscape.  Figures in space lost their individual identity, and became part of the larger landscape composition.  At the same time, though, he also increased his focus on images of mother and child, as seen in today’s picture.

In his older age, Lhermitte stayed close to his home and executed several landscape pastels based on the banks of the Marne, which was near his studio, and other landscapes near his home.  He was decorated with several honors from across Europe, such as the Chevalier of the Order of St. Michael in Germany, and his works were regularly acquired by the state after initial exhibition.  His life and career ended on July 28, 1925 in Paris.  His reputation would wane considerably, but Lhermitte gained new cultural currency in the 1990s, when he was reappraised by an exposition at the Musée d’Orsay.

Here, Lhermitte moves away from the primacy of the landscape and back to the human scale.  With The Reading Lesson, Lhermitte celebrates simple motherhood and even simpler pleasures.  The centrality of the mother as wellspring of a food, support, education and emotion succor was a theme to which he would return regularly.  Did Lhermitte miss his mother… or, perhaps, was his mother absent, and he missed what he never knew?  I have not been able to discover the answer to this question … but many artists (be they writers or painters or musicians) who focus on an idealized past, often do so because they feel as if they had missed some vital emotional connection in early life.  It’s possible that, to Lhermitte, The Reading Lesson is a fantasy painting.

Most critics agree that Lhermitte’s oil paintings are not as aesthetically pleasing as his drawings, and The Reading Lesson is a case in point.

Here, as with his pastel work, Lhermitte renders details vague with a few, loose brushstrokes.  He dapples the hair of the little girl and the bangs of the mother with white to emphasize the golden light which fills the background sky, and washes out the distant hill, as well. 

Also, it seems that Lhermitte’s formidable sense of composition plays him false here.   In other drawings we have seen, the composition is such that it leads the eye around the canvas, taking in the human figures and landscape, alike.  Here, Lhermitte plants his central figures dead-center, and provides no tension for the eye.  It is a very static composition.

For all of its sweetness, I am not nearly as enamored of this painting as I was of the drawings seen earlier this week.  It seems too soft, too diffuse, as if Lhermitte was using a visual shorthand to inspire our emotional response.  In other drawings, the fact that the figures were vague and indistinct added to the mystery of their actions and interactions.  That same indistinctness is markedly unsuccessful when the intention of the picture and the emotions involved are more concrete and precise.  It is almost as if his loose style works well with ambiguity, but descends into disposable sentiment when taking a more defined direction. 

Finally, the two figures lack the humanity-in-all-its-flaws quality of the three drawings we looked at.  These are idealized figures, not actual peasants or laborers.  When a painting would not be out of place on a Hallmark card, we must question its overall success.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Washers Along the Marne, by Léon Augustin Lhermitte

Today we continue our weeklong look at the life and art of Léon Augustin Lhermitte (1844 – 1925), commemorating the 170th anniversary of his birth. 

Though a celebrated painter, Lhermitte was more importantly one of the great draughtsmen of the era, who created work in charcoal and pastel of deep and profound beauty.  His pastels contributed to the increased use of the medium in the latter half of the 19th Century, and his work influenced the Impressionists. 

Lhermitte began using pastels in 1885, just one year before he exhibited for the first time at the Société des Pastellistes Français.   He submitted a dozen pastels which depicted daily life in the areas of Mont-Saint-Père and also his travels to Vittel, Berneval, Laren, and Wissant.  These works and public exhibitions were an important step in the acceptance of the pastel.  He became a mentor to a group of young pastellistes; and he grew to love the medium so, that he would almost abandon charcoal drawing.   

Lhermitte became famous in England after traveling there in 1869, and again after the Commune of 1871.  He hit his stride when celebrated art dealer Durand-Ruel bought several of his charcoal drawings and invited him to participate in his “Black and White” exhibition.  This resulted in a great critical success for Lhermitte and a large British client-base. 

As his fame with charcoal and pastels grew, he was contacted by another international dealer, Wallis, who had galleries in Great Britain, Canada, and the United States.  As scholar Monique Le Pelley Fontenay writes, During his lifetime Lhermitte was very highly regarded in Anglo-Saxon countries where the picturesque and the healthy values celebrated in his painting and pastels were particularly appreciated.  Values of work and family appear frequently in his work.  Like Jules Breton and Rosa Bonheur, Lhermitte was appreciated because he represented the “good old days” … Throughout his life Lhermitte pointedly ignored the Industrial Revolution, fixing instead on the image of society before its disappearance, the vision of a paradise lost for the citizens of big cities, of a time frozen outside the march of history.         

Since we here at The Jade Sphinx have made a life out of pointedly trying to ignore the modern world, we understand Lhermitte’s mission.  In today’s picture, The Washers Along the Marne, we have a deceptively simple composition.  Notice how Lhermitte’s placement of the figures triangulates our gaze from the three figures to the landscape background and back again.  Reading left-to-right, our eye is caught in a loop as it goes from left-most figure to right-most figure, the Marne, and back again. 

Look, too, as his mastery of body language.  Though simple country women, they bear their labors with a stoic dignity; in fact, you can almost feel the continual and routine toil on their shoulders.

And Lhermitte uses his pastel to such economic effect.  We are never bombarded with information, but what he provides us speaks volumes.  The two faces that we can see clearly are not delineated with academic precision, but the lines are suggestive of deep emotion.  Is the seated woman leaning back with a look of fatigue?  Regret?  Or merely making a point?  And the standing figure – is that realization or surrender?  We cannot be sure, but the emotional quotient remains high because the figures are completely human and engaged with one-another.

Equally eloquent is the figure with her back to us; keeping her head down, and almost sheepishly reaching for the next piece of washing, she clearly does not wish to be part of the exchange between the other two.  Or, equally likely, she is listening where she is not wanted.

I admire this picture greatly.  There is so much information and so much economy of style and execution.  There is a sense of dusk, almost an end-of-day (or end-or-era) feel to the picture, that one might be tempted to call it homespun melancholy.  With his muted colors and grave faces, Lhermitte depicts loss by simply illustrating a passing moment.

More Lhermette tomorrow!

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Chelles, by Léon Augustin Lhermitte

Today we continue our weeklong look at the life and art of Léon Augustin Lhermitte (1844 – 1925). 

This July marks the 170th birthday of the artist, who is currently represented in museums around the world.  His work can be found in Amsterdam, Boston, BrusselsChicagoFlorenceMontrealMoscowParisRheims, and Washington, DC.  Amazingly, outside of academia and a handful of aesthetes, he is largely forgotten.

L'hermitte showed artistic talent as a boy and his upbringing in the rural village of Mont Saiint-Père in Picardie provided him with the subjects and landscapes that would become the staples of his oeuvre. In 1863 left his home for the Petit Ecole in Paris where he studied with Horace Lecocq de Boisbaudran (1838-1912).  He would also form a life-long friendship with Jean Charles Cazin (1840-1901), and became acquainted with celebrated artists Alphonse Legros (1837-1911), Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904), and Auguste Rodin (1840-1917).  He made his debut at the Salon of 1864, where his charcoal drawings revealed that he had a sure touch in depicting the natural world. His first work, Bords de Marne près d'Alfort, caused a sensation, and L'hermitte gained a reputation for being as capable with oils as with pastel and charcoal.

He would win many honors, including the Legion of Honour in 1884, where he was made an officer in 1894 and a commander in 1911. He was elected a member of the Institute in 1905. In 1890 he was one of the founding members of the Société National des Beaux-Arts, of which he was later elected Vice-President.

Lhermitte’s graphic work became more popular after as he exhibited regularly at the Salon, though he still hadn’t attained his desired level of success.  That changed when one of his paintings, Paying the Harvesters (1882), was purchased by the state and hung in the Luxembourg museum before being transferred to the Hotel de Ville at Chateau-Thierry.  This led to many commissions and established Lhermitte as an artist of rustic life.  As scholar Gabriel Weisberg observed:  to Lhermitte, rustic activity embodied dignity, for he believed workers in the fields seldom complained … Bolstering these ways of representing workers were the locales in which Lhermitte places his figures.  The countryside was seldom dour or depressing, the atmosphere often appeared light and airy … and the environment seemed spacious.

Lhermitte was called the singer of wheat by critics and devotees, but he was also adept at interior scenes of peasant life at home, often emphasizing the effects of light in his pictures.  He also concentrated on images of mother and child, as well as women in domestic scenes, such as doing laundry along the Marne.  In these cases, Lhermitte combined each of his interests to create his compositions.   

In today’s picture, Lhermitte once again creates an almost mystical sense of place with a few loose strokes of pastel.  This piece, 13x17, conveys the heavy shadows and suggestive lighting of early dawn or late dusk; the light renders the tree branches indistinct and vague, while the landscape reflected on the water is almost indistinguishable from the landscape itself.

And there, in the corner, almost as if Lhermitte was purposely recreating something pinging the corner of our eye, we see a figure emerge from the water.  It takes a moment – perhaps one blink – to confirm that it is the figure of a woman, escaping into the woodland like a mythical figure.

Without being able to see it in my hand, I believe the paper is blue-toned, which allowed Lhermitte to create the distant mountains and a reflected sky with nothing more than blank space.  The use of white chalk on the water, of course, creates a sense of movement and a dappling effect.

This is no grand scene from a history painting – it is not Dante and Beatrice or the Death of Caesar.  No, this is, instead, the moment that passes by all to swiftly, and remains locked in our memory.  If yesterday Lhermitte managed to make us know a group of women just by their body language, with this picture he recreates one of those passing moments that remain, in some uncanny sense, eternal.

More Lhermette tomorrow!

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Au Lavoir (The Washhouse), by Léon Augustin Lhermitte

After a brief hiatus, The Jade Sphinx returns with a weeklong look at artist Léon Augustin Lhermitte (1844 – 1925).  Lhermitte was a French painter and etcher who primarily depicted rural scenes and peasant workers.  He was born in Mont-Saint-Père, and was student of Lecoq de Boisbaudran (1838-1912).  Lhermitte gained recognition after his show in the Paris Salon in 1864.  His many awards include the French Legion of Honour (1884) and the Grand Prize at the Exposition Universelle in 1889. Lhermitte died in Paris in 1925.

Lhermitte lived in the Aisne until he was about 20, developing a deep and abiding love of rural life, which became the focus of his work – often creating images of the work and daily life in the countryside of his time.

He came from a humble family and for many years earned his living with minor engraving work in France and England, before winning recognition at the Salon from 1874. Fame came after 1880, when the artist successively entered several large paintings depicting the life and people of his native village of Mont-Saint-Père. His pictures The Cabaret in 1881, Paying the Harvesters in 1882, and The Harvest in 1883, used the same figures which can be identified from one painting to another.

Though many 19th Century artists relied on imagery introduced by earlier generations of painters, they also re-envisioned these older themes by executing them with progressive techniques.  Lhermitte took the recognized imagery of peasant and rural life and revitalized these themes by using more contemporary media, such as pastels.  His impact was felt on artists of the time -- Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) who wrote that, If every month Le Monde llustré published one of his compositions … it would be a great pleasure for me to be able to follow it.  It is certain that for years I have not seen anything as beautiful as this scene by Lhermitte … I am too preoccupied by Lhermitte this evening to be able to talk of other things.

Lhermitte’s passion for the rural landscape was shared by fellow-artists and modern audiences alike, and his work helped perpetuate the image of rural life and landscape into the 20th Century.    

In today’s picture, Au Lavoir (The Washhouse), we see Lhermette’s masterful command of the rural idiom.  This is charcoal and pastel on paper (19x24), and the artist creates a touching and homey scene with these basic materials.  Four women are doing the chore of cleaning clothes for their families – and from the poses of women, it is clear that this is a regular ritual.  The women position themselves to reduce the wear-and-tear on themselves, and they look at one-another to exchange the latest gossip. 

For this picture, Lhermette’s worked on beige-toned paper, allowing the paper itself to create the clay-colored background of the earth and the stones of the cistern.  The stones are mostly suggested, rather than slavishly depicted, and the trees and sod of the rolling hillside are a few deft touches of charcoal and pastel. 

Lhermette uses white chalk to create a little pathway from the countryside to the cistern, creating a distinctive social space within the countryside.  The Washhouse of Lhermette’s imagination is a social square of the simplest sort, where housework, gossip and simple country connections take place.

What is amazing about this piece is that with these component parts, Lhermette creates a whole life.  We know these women, and their lives, and the day-to-day  routines on which they run.  It is a remarkably human and subtle piece of work.

More Lhermette tomorrow!