Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thanksgiving at The Jade Sphinx

It is almost impossible to write about Thanksgiving this year, given recent events.  The ills that affect us as a nation and as a people seem particularly pernicious as this winter rolls around.  Predatory (indeed, homicidal) police roam both large cities and small country hamlets, our government spies on innocent Americans without restraint, and our politicians seem engaged only in political games-playing while the nation literally burns.  Our policies at home and abroad unravel around us while the criminally rich are getting much richer and the poor getting much poorer.  And the Average Man, that once-great American invention, seems to have a big target painted on his back.

Worse still, as a people we have lost many of the yardsticks that made us great.  Neighbors are balkanized into warring factions, divided by our differences rather than united in our community.  Cooperation, common curtesy, simple decency and respect for one-another have completely eroded into the ugly spectacle of everyday American life.  A ride in the New York City subway is enough to make even the most optimistic of us agree with Mark Twain when he wrote: There are times when one would like to hang the whole human race, and finish the farce.

And yet …

And yet … we here at The Jade Sphinx are happy.  We are not deluded that this is not a particularly dark period in our history, but we also know that is not the whole story.  With a little digging, one can find decency, humanity and compassion most everywhere. 

We see it in parents, couples, children, family and friends who truly love one another.  We see it in those few who work for the common good rather than personal gain.  And we see it in the eyes of people who care for us, in voices when lifted in song, and in the words and images of serious artists.

The anarchy that surrounds us is not the last word; it is often just background noise.  How many of us have particularly warm memories of periods when the world seemed most dire?  The horrors of man’s inhumanity to man are often sponged away by the bright furnace of warmth and humanity in their aftermath.  The good is not interred with our bones, rather, the poison of our evil is diluted and the good remains.

And, perhaps amazingly, we here are still optimistic.  Outside events shape our lives, but our internal outlook determines whether we are happy or not.  Life constantly amazes me, and the simple fact that I am alive takes me by surprise.  Life cannot sour me because I’m still living it – participating in the arts, laughing at jokes, enjoying books, eating delicious food, leering at beautiful people.  (We particularly like that last one.)  How can life be terrible when there is so much bounty to feed upon?  Despite the many negatives that life throws at us, we are grateful for our time, for being together, and for the miracle of life.

My goal during the past year of The Jade Sphinx has been to help, to some degree, to illustrate that miracle, and to help illustrate how that miracle works.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.  You may be in the darkness, but you are not of it. 

And now … I think we can now safely think about Christmas.

Tomorrow: Back to the Frick Collection!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, by John Singer Sargent (1892)

We continue our look at several pictures in the current exhibition at The Frick Collection, showcasing 10 masterworks from the Scottish National Gallery, with the picture in the show I loved most, Lady Agnew Of Lochnaw, painted in 1892 by your correspondent’s favorite painter, John Singer Sargent (1856-1925).

Sargent was one of the greatest, and most prolific, of fin de siècle artists.  A gifted portraitist, Sargent was also painter of many magnificent landscapes, a champion draughtsman and watercolorist, and he also painted the mighty frescoes found in the Boston Public Library and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Contemporary art historians and critics – largely a benighted lot – are troubled by Sargent and his achievement.  His talent is too prodigious to dismiss, but he does not comfortably fit with either within the Academic establishment or inside the Impressionist movement, both of which were dominant at that time.  What Sargent was, in short, was his own thing, an artist unique to himself who managed also to wonderfully illustrate his own time.

John Singer Sargent was born in Florence, Italy, to American expatriate parents.  He would study in Florence and Paris, and live in London and Boston.  He was one of most celebrated artists of his time, famous for his “society portraits.”  Near the end of his life, he visited the battlefields in World War I France as an official British War artist.  His frescoes for the Boston Public Library occupied his later years; they are both magnificent and completely unlike his other work.

The painting visiting the Frick is a portrait of Lady Gertrude Agnew, the wife of Sir Andrew Agnew, 9th Baronet.  She was born in 1865, and was all of 27 when Sargent immortalized her.  There is some irony in the portrait hanging in the Frick: in 1922, when the family hit financial troubles, they tried to sell the work to Helen Clay Frick in 1922.  Foolish woman – she turned it down.  Lady Agnew herself would die in 1932, following a long illness.

This is, by any critical and aesthetic yardstick, a magnificent picture.  It is easily the most striking piece in the exhibition – and is strategically placed in the center wall facing the viewer upon entering.  (The magnificent Constable, covered in these pages last week, is lost instantly – such is the power of the Sargent.)

Among the many component parts of Sargent’s genius was a deep and abiding understanding of the color blue.  It is the dominant color in his work, and he uses it to great effect both alone and in combination and contrast to other colors.  His use of blue here is nothing short of splendid, morphing through different shadings, contrasts with white, gold and pale red, and setting the mood of elegant repose.  The notion of Sargent the colorist is essential to understanding his sense of composition and how he saw the world around him.

Typical of the time, there is an Asian influence, consistent with the then-current Aesthetic Movement of things Japanese and Chinese.  This underscores that Lady Agnew is not only a lady of taste and refinement, but up-to-date with current modes of aesthetic expression. 

Let us look also at some of the things perhaps not blatant at first glance:  note, for example, how Sargent suggests the flesh of her left arm under the gauzy material of her dress.  Look at how the pattern on the chair is beautifully rendered without being stuffy or academic; much is suggested, but all that is necessary is said.

The pose is quite special.  Notice how her body is twisted to face one way, while the chair is adjusted to face the other – both creating the tension of a V.  (The power of this pose is underscored by how Lady Agnew clutches the base of her chair.)  And in the center of that V, Lady Agnew looks straight out at the viewer with a gaze frank, strong and enigmatic.  Last week we were looking at the portrait of Allan Ramsay’s wife; both Ramsay and Sargent are able to write volumes with the expressions of their subjects.  Where Ramsay relates a placid and affectionate beauty, Sargent paints a woman elegant, commanding and hypnotic.  She is fully aware of her status in life, her own intellectual and artistic attainments, and her own power as a woman. 

Finally, Lady Agnew holds a blossom in her lap, the white of the petals offset by her lilac sash.  Though literally draped in beauty, Sargent paints a figure of power and presence – a formidable woman indeed, and a perfect centerpiece to this splendid show.

Tomorrow: A special Thanksgiving message!

Friday, November 21, 2014

Vale of Dedham, by John Constable (1827-28)

We continue to work our way through the fabulous exhibition at The Frick Collection, showcasing 10 masterworks from the Scottish National Gallery, with a glorious picture by John Constable (1776-1837).

We have written of our deep and abiding admiration of Constable’s artistry in these pages before.  Perhaps the greatest painter of weather ever, Constable had an uncanny ability to convey the magic of a place.  That sense of almost otherworldly beauty in the everyday world is illustrated perfectly in this picture, his last major painting of the Stour Valley and his definitive treatment of the East-English countryside.  The Vale of Dedham is a masterpiece.

Constable was born on the River Stour in Suffolk; his parents were Golding and Ann (Watts) Constable.  Golding was a wealthy corn merchant, and owner of a small ship, The Telegraph.  John was the second son, but his older brother was mentally disabled and John was expected to pursue the family business.  John dutifully worked in the business once leaving school, but a series of sketching trips in Suffolk and Essex made it clear that John was more artist than businessman.

Constable would paint the English countryside for the rest of his life.  Early on he met George Beaumont, a collector who showed young John a series of pictures that opened up his eyes to the possibilities of art; and Thomas Smith, a professional artist who encouraged John to paint (but suggested he remain in the family business).

In 1799, John persuaded his father to let him pursue a career in art, and the elder Constable provided a small allowance.  John entered the Royal Academy Schools and attended life classes and studied and copied the old masters.  He would exhibit paintings at the Royal Academy by 1803.  He was also a devotee of religious sermons and poems – and his sense of immanence translated into his art.

John had a childhood friendship with Maria Bicknell; once in love with her, he proposed.  The marriage was opposed by Maria’s family, who saw John as a social inferior; John’s parents approved, but would not support the couple until John was more financially secure in his art.  They were married in 1816.

John was not a very financially successful artist, and would struggle to raise his seven children.  In 1828, Maria became ill with tuberculosis and died; she was only 41.  Much like Allan Ramsay after the loss of his wife (see yesterday’s post), Constable never fully recovered from the blow.

Vale of Dedham is the result of a holiday trip in Suffolk in 1827 with his two eldest children.  Of the finished picture, Constable would write to friend John Fisher that he had painted a large upright landscape (perhaps my best).  The picture was well regarded when it debuted at the Royal Academy in 1828, and many consider it his finest work. 

This work really explains the genius of Constable.  The picture is teeming – trees, vegetation, lake, village in the distance, gypsy and child in the foreground, passing cow, hidden cottage, small bridge, distant boats…. In less gifted hands, this would be fussy stuff, but Constable makes all these pieces integrated parts of the overall landscape. 

For an outlandish comparison, think of Constable as a kinder, gentler Hieronymus Bosch.  Both painted scenes of overwhelming fecundity; in Bosch’s world, this density is a source of overwhelming horror.  To Constable, this density was mostly a matter of extreme awareness – overwhelming, perhaps, but also natural and organic.

Important, too, to Constable’s aesthetic is the sense of an England and English tradition unsullied by change.  The technological and scientific advances of Constable’s era were significant, and the Industrial Revolution threatened to change the look and manners of the English countryside for all time.  Like most sensitive souls, Constable was deeply aware of everything that is lost with each new technological era, and his work is suffused with a gentle nostalgia.

Finally – no one (Turner included!) painted the sky like Constable.  It isn’t merely a question of color, but of quality of weather.  Constable’s skies contain distant storms, areas of sun, omens locked in the clouds.  The novice uses a dab of white to paint a cloud, the genius uses his full palette.

Next Week:  More From the Scottish National Gallery at the Frick.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Margaret Lindsay of Evelick, The Artist’s Wife, by Allan Ramsay (1758-59)

One of the great delights of the current show of masterpieces from the Scottish National Gallery is discovering an artist who has been off of my radar: Allan Ramsay (1713-1784).  After standing transfixed before the portrait of his beautiful bride, I have to find ways of viewing his wonderful art in person.

Sadly, the one negative of viewing this wonderful piece is the awful security forces at the Frick.  It would seem as if they were trained expressly to keep people from engaging with the masterworks on display.

While there, one guard in particular – a Pearl W. according to her name tag – admonished people for gesticulating in front of the pictures, looked over another visitor’s shoulder while she was making notes, and scolded your correspondent for taking off his glasses to lean in for a closer look.  She – and most of the security team at the Frick – should not be in a business where they have to interact with the public.

But, back to the picture -- Margaret Lindsay married Ramsay against her family’s wishes.  She had been taking drawing lessons from Ramsay, and was an accomplished artist in her own right.  When the two fell in love, Ramsay wrote to her father, ensuring him that he could care for his daughter, despite supporting a daughter from his first marriage, as well as his two sisters.

Her father, from the Clan Murray and with strong Pro-Jacobite ties, strongly believed that the marriage was beneath his daughter.  However, marry they did, and remained happily together, producing three children.

Ramsay and his wife spent the early part of their lives together touring Italy, including Rome, Florence, Naples and Tivoli.  There, they were engaged in antiquarian pursuits, and spent time copying old masters.  He also made considerable money painting portraits of tourists.

Returning home in 1761, Ramsay became a painter in the court of George III.  There, he worked mainly as a portraitist, and the king commissioned so many royal portraits to be given to ambassadors and colonial governors that Ramsay had to employ multiple assistants.

Ramsay retired from painting for literary pursuits.  He was also nursing a disability caused by accidently dislocating his right arm, and further stymied by the death of his beloved wife in 1782.

He soon returned to Italy, where he had been happiest, and died there in 1784.

Well … what can one say about this beautiful and haunting portrait that is not evident simply by looking at it?  There is minimal background detail – just a simply suggested doorway and bit of lintel that is almost invisible in this photo, but quite noticeable in the actual picture.

This Spartan background does well to heighten the placid beauty of Mrs. Ramsay.  But her placidity never denotes coldness – quite the contrary, her frank gaze and gentle smile denote considerable warmth and tenderness.

Her tenderness is underscored by the flower she holds; however, her surroundings seem not to register with her as much as her gaze at we, the viewer.  This is a frankly engaging look, and she looks at us with honesty and without defenses.  It is a frank and open countenance, full of benevolence and a touch of nurturing motherliness.

Ramsay has mastered details without ever becoming fussy.  Look at the bit of blue lace that adorns her hair, or, better yet, look at the intricate notes of her shawl.  It is exquisitely rendered without ever becoming precious, just as the vase suggests a world of detail without ever becoming formal in its composition.

Speaking of composition – look at Ramsay’s flawless sense of composition.  The line of Margaret’s arm, lower arm and hand lead the eye down, then up, and directly back to the head.  Simple, yet such basic building blocks are essential in the success of a work; the eye is in constant movement, and we are held by the force of her personality and her husband’s artistry.

It is no mistake that the blue lace that adorns her hair points to her broad and noble brow, as well as her clear and lovely eyes.  The grace, poise and ease of Mrs. Ramsay are remarkable, and it is no wonder the artist adored her.

Tomorrow, we return to the Frick for a look at John Constable.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Fêtes Vénitiennes, by Jean-Antoine Watteau (1718-19) at The Frick Collection

It is always a treat when one of New York’s major museums mounts a show that is scalable, smart and well-balanced, and that is what The Frick Collection in New York has done with its current Masterpieces From the Scottish National Gallery, on view through February 1, 2015.

The Frick has gathered 10 superb paintings from the collection, ranging from the Florentine Renaissance to 19th Century society pictures.  It includes wonderful works by such masters as Thomas Gainsborough, John Constable, El Greco and Velazquez.  It is a show not to be missed.

The Scottish National Gallery was founded in 1850 in Edinburgh, and is one of the finest museums in the world.  It has an extraordinary collection of paintings, sculptures, prints and drawings – and the question of what to show at a traveling exhibition must have been a mighty one.

However, this bite-size show rises to that challenge – there is not a piece in it that is not a masterpiece in its own right.  Those not in New York should rest easy – the show will also travel to the de Young, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and to the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. 

Between now and Thanksgiving I wanted to share my favorite pieces in the show in The Jade Sphinx.  We start with Fêtes Vénitiennes, painted by Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), in 1718-19.

Watteau had a brief career, cut short by premature death, but his legacy has been long lasting and influential.  He veered away from the stuffy excesses of the prevalent Rococo style, and his use of color and movement was influential for decades after his death.

Watteau was deeply influenced by figures from commedia dell’arte while learning his craft in the workshop of Claude Gillot (1673-1722).  The actors from the commedia had been expelled from France for several years, but the costumes, masks and mummery were to loom large in his boyish imagination.

Watteau also created the genre of fêtes galantes, scenes of bucolic and idyllic charm, suffused with a theatrical air. Some of his best known subjects were drawn from the world of Italian comedy and ballet. 

The picture on hand at the Frick is well within that tradition – and it is one before which I spent considerable time.  It is a picture that seems to generate feelings both celebratory and foreboding, as what is clearly a party also seems spooky and … uncanny.

The moody garden setting would not seem out-of-place in a pen-and-ink drawing by Edward Gorey, and the coloration seems both subtle and vibrant.

The figures, so clearly part of a costume party, add another note of the strange to the picture, where figures in fancy dress disport themselves in an atmosphere that is playfully erotic.

The air of erotic play is personified by the background statue that is blatantly sexualized, and by the two male figures on either side of the picture who gaze openly at the woman center-stage.  (I also like the blue-costumed figure in the back with a tricorn hat; an aesthete who looks on with a critical eye.)

There is also a private joke in the picture – the musette-playing fellow to the far right is Watteau himself, while the dancer in pantaloons and turban is Nicolas Vleughels, a Flemish painter, who was Watteau's friend and landlord.  The actual story of why they are represented in the painting has been lost to time.

Not easily seen in the reproduction here is the wonderful coloration – though painted in oil, it looks for all the world like pen and watercolor.  The dress of the central female figure is dazzling, and lightens up the whole picture, providing life and vitality to the proceedings.  The band of color that shimmers down her dress is almost the source of light in the piece, capturing, surely, the pearly rays of the moon.

This small picture (22x18) is a little master class in mood and tension through color and composition.  Be sure to see it.

Tomorrow:  Painting by Allan Ramsay!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Christmas Dolls at Figureworks

Randall Harris, Director of the Figureworks Gallery in Williamsburg Brooklyn, has used a personal Christmas memory as an invitation to stretch the creativity of more than 50 artists.

In the mid-1960s, Harris’ sister Jane received a much-wanted doll for Christmas.  It was the perfect gift to steal the heart of a 10-year-old girl.  However, a short while later, her less-privileged cousins came over, and Jane and Randall’s father, feeling charitable towards the cousin, made Jane give her new doll away.

Cue Christmas Calamity: Mrs. Harris was livid, Jane was heartbroken, and Randall ran upstairs to make a replacement doll from an old toilet paper roll.  The incident passed into family legend – and Randall’s father, still alive and well-into his 80s, still has not lived it down.

But it did more than that.  It also began a tradition where every year Randall created a hand-made doll for Jane every Christmas. 

Harris decided to honor that tradition by enlisting 50 artists to create a doll for a special exhibition, with Jane acting as "guest judge.”  She judged the creations of local artists, and would take home the winning doll.

Your correspondent attended the grand opening reception at Figureworks last week, and was on hand when Jane Harris selected artist Clarissa Crabtree.

It was a particular pleasure to see the work of celebrated arts advocate Clarissa Crabtree win the award; she has been mentioned in these pages previously as a champion of Gotham’s cultural initiatives, lending her industry, savvy and business acumen.  Now making her debut as an artist herself with a doll that is both kinky and sweet.  With its mop of wild green hair and homespun gingham dress, the doll looks sweetly and serenely on, a mix of East Village and rural Kansas.  The fingers are elegantly articulated, and the simple but expressive face brand it a delicious piece of urban folk art.

The other dolls in competition are inventive, as well.  One, taking the directive of art and doll literally, combined both by embedding a doll within the picture canvas.  Another droll work was the doll opening a box to find … another doll.

Also on hand was a wonderful photo of a discarded mattress on the street (not an unusual image in New York), elongated with pink material and tape to form a doll lying beside it.  All the works are for sale – except that of the winner, who, oddly, is the only one who cannot sell her work.

This exhibition, compact and fun, is on hand through December 21. 

A quick word about Figureworks, which showcases 20th century fine art that explores the human form. Established artists drawing inspiration from the human figure are represented, and Figureworks handles a diverse selection of figurative art incorporating the male and female nude, portraiture and narratives. Figureworks opened in 2000 and is located 168 North 6th St. (1 block from Bedford Avenue “L” train); Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NY 11211.  Hours are Saturday and Sunday from 1:00-6:00 PM, and the Web site is:

With Christmas nigh, what better way to start the season than with a trip to Brooklyn to see some interesting, emerging artists create holiday dolls?

Friday, November 14, 2014

We Go To the Movies

Or, rather … we don’t.

We here at The Jade Sphinx must confess that we rarely go to the movies.  (I hear they talk now.)  There are several reasons for this, and I’m sure I am not alone in my feelings on them.

Let us not even discuss the simple, depressing fact that the majority of major American films are not fit for adult consumption.  If your idea of cinema is Pacific Rim or The Avengers, you have problems beyond the scope of this blog to fix.

No, instead, let’s talk about how unpleasant it can be simply to go to the theater.

At one time (and certainly in the living memory of many readers), going to the movies was simple and a joy.  It did not cost much, and if one got caught seeing a bad or indifferent film, it was not too much of an investment to simply leave and go to another theater and see a different film.  With ticket prices upwards of $15 here in New York, that course of action is a little less likely.

Also, theaters were not always so sold out in advance, so there was no need of getting there 15-to-20 minutes in advance to ensure a good seat.  Better still, there was no need to sit through 15 minutes of commercials.

Yes – commercials, not trailers for other films.  How often have you been trapped in a theater and subjected to commercials for Coke or other revolting products?  If I wanted to watch commercials with little-or-no intrinsic merit, I would stay home and look at them for free.  To pay top dollar and get stuck with commercials is adding insult to injury.

And the trailers are no better.  Either they provide all the major plot points in advance (or all of the laughs), or they show that the film to come will be so horrific as to save us the trouble of going.  But we still have to sit through them.  Think we are kidding?  Look at the trailer for the upcoming Avengers film.  It has science fiction and comic book fans salivating – when actually, it is a coarse, ugly and noisy piece of work.  (You have been warned.)  You can see it here:

Who in heaven’s name would see rubbish like that?

Worse still, since the rise of the multiplex and the thudding, eardrum-bursting event film, it is almost impossible to see a smaller, more introspective film without hearing the latest mindless blockbuster through the wall of the neighboring theater.  Somehow, the sound of gunshots, explosions and various fart jokes do not improve all movies.

However, the very worst aspect of going to the movies today is the people in the theater with you.  Raised on television, raised without simple manners or even common human decency, one goes to the theater today with people who talk back to the screen, discuss the movies with their friends, and who text or make phone calls during the film.  Finding someone in New York who actually bathes before going to the movies is always a pleasure – and an increasingly rare one. 

The last time we visited the cinema was to see The Lone Ranger – which, because it was an (undeserved) flop, the theater was empty except for my friend and myself.  And it was the Ziegfeld, one of New York’s flagship theaters.  All theater visits should be so pleasant.

New York revival houses are no safer – to “sophisticated” New York audiences, anything more than 15 minutes old is camp.  It is nearly impossible to enjoy films from the 1920s-through-the-1950s without witless catcalls and derisive hoots from unwashed hipsters.  For the cineaste, digitization and the Internet have been a blessing – it means we can catch rarities without the hipsters.

Perhaps, really, the problem isn’t going to the movies, but going to the movies in New York.  The city is a teeming, seething, pulsating mass of putrescent offal, malodorous and greasy by turns, and unfit for civilized human habitation

Thursday, November 13, 2014

We Get Letters

One of the many benefits of conducting one’s education publicly, as we try to do here at the Jade Sphinx, is that our broad range of subjects brings us a broad range of letters.  (Oh, very well … emails; but it doesn’t sound quite the same, does it?)

Without further ado, let’s dip into our mailbag in-box, and see what we have there.

You write about children’s literature a great deal.  Do you think that’s a fit subject for adult criticism?

Short answer: yes.  In fact, I’m rather surprised at the question.  There are many children’s books – the works of Andersen, Grahame, Milne and Barrie come to mind – that rank among the most important novels in the language.  More important – a truly interesting children’s book can be read on multiple levels.  I believe that children are amused by the animal shenanigans to be found in Wind in the Willows, while adults will pause at the more subtle philosophical asides and implications. And if my home were sinking into a concrete quagmire, I would salvage a great many classic children’s books from my library before I grabbed many contemporary novels.

And keeping on a contemporary note, some of the most interesting things on bookshelves today are found in children’s books.  Look at the rich imaginative world of William Joyce, for example.

Do you really hate all rock music, or is that an affectation?  And if you do, how do you avoid it?

I am nothing but a catalog of affectations.  But, seriously, yes, I have hated most all popular music from the rock era onwards.  It’s not simply that all of it is bad – though it is; or that it is very bad for you – though it is that, too; rather, it is simply because we have lost so much by embracing so little.  The palette from which rock (and funk, pop, bubblegum, rap … and all the other playground words we use to describe it) paints with sound is a very limited one, indeed.  We now find ourselves in a musical landscape which has very little room for romantic love, or simple idealism, or even, it seems, common decency.  It is no surprise that mores and society have both degraded since the advent of rock.  If a personal library is the measure of a man, then popular music is the measure of a people, and what our music says about us flatters no one.  When contemplating contemporary music, it is inexplicable to me that we do not all simply retreat from it in shame.

As for hiding from it … it is a continual battle.

I found your lamenting a lack of humor in The Iliad and The Homesman to be more than a little quirky.  Do you really think that humor can be found in most anything?

This reminds me of another reader who asked how an aesthete could have a sense of humor.  I think the only possible reply is that an aesthete must have one.

True story: my husband and I were leaving Cambodia on our way to Thailand.  We were at the airport, going through customs.  The customs agent processing my husband’s passport looked at him, looked at the document, stamped it, and nodded him on.  My customs agent looked at me, looked at my passport, looked at me, looked at my passport…. Finally stamping it and holding it out to me.  But – before I could take it, he snatched it away and held up and tiny, printed sign that read, TEN DOLLARS COFFEE MONEY.  I cocked an eyebrow at him and countered, “how much do you want for tea?”

What encounter with art changed you profoundly?

Too many to list here.  Perhaps the most formative was a one-man show by John Gay about Oscar Wilde called Diversions and Delights.  It starred Vincent Price and I went multiple times in my early teenage years.  I’ve never been the same.

When the Apollo Belvedere came to New York as part of the touring Vatican show – again in my teenage years – I stood before it for hours, transfixed.  Here, I thought, was something utterly and completely perfect in every way. 

After reading your piece on the New American Philistine, I suggest you leave your mother’s basement and walk around the real-world for a bit.

Many thanks for the breath of fresh air.  Or something.

Brickbats aside, America isn’t the Land of the Philistine, it’s the Promised Land of the Philistine.  We don’t want to hear it, and pretend that all aesthetic opinions are created equal, and that democratization of taste allows the cream to rise to the top.  But none of that, however, is quite true.  Signs of our cultural decay are all around us, and plain to see.  We are gorging ourselves on junk, and it is killing us. 

Do you have questions?  Send them in for a future column!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

We Visit Barnes & Noble

When your correspondent lived on the Upper West Side of New York, one of the happiest places on earth was the Lincoln Center Barnes & Noble.  Many an hour (and many the dollar) was spent there in satisfied bliss.  Few things are more wonderful than browsing the stacks of a major bookstore, discovering new authors, or finding books by already beloved names. 

Being Barnes & Noble, there was also an extensive remainder section, for those interested in cheap books (and who isn’t?), as well as one of the most elaborate children’s books sections in the city.  What bliss.

Sadly, that Barnes & Noble was closed to make way for a Century 21, a clothing store.  Sigh.  I suppose we must have clothes, too, but they are a poor substitute for books.  (Indeed, one must be careful before some entrepreneur creates wearable books…)

After moving uptown – aesthetically and culturally the greatest mistake of your correspondent’s life – bookstores became scarcer.  It was only by zipping through other parts of town that I could dip into the Union Square Barnes & Noble, or, better still, Books of Wonder in the West Village or the Strand in the East.  (Both stores should be consecrated, and rest on hallowed ground.)  So, it was with a great deal of anticipation that we prepared to head to the Barnes & Noble on West 82nd to hear a talk presented by the authors Grand Opera: The Story of the Met.  The presentation was wonderful.  Sadly, the bookstore was not.

Though I am willing to admit that I am cranky and out of touch, I was amazed at how bookstores have morphed and degraded into high-end junk shops.  Don’t believe me?  Well, there on the parlor level of what is now, probably, the flagship B&N store, book-buyers can select Batman, Superman or Green Lantern figures.  Fortunately, Dickens doesn’t take up too much space.

Nearby, there are rows upon rows of Party Games.  Beyond that, Jigsaw Puzzles.  Standing silent sentinel in a center aisle are Star Wars light sabers and Dr. Who toys.  Not to mention a whole section of This Season’s Must-Play Games.

The café on the top floor does a brisk business, and yards of space has been cleared away to make room for a Nook kiosk, to sell the Barnes & Noble Kindle knockoff. 

And room for actual books shrinks…

I know that the book world has changed, and that the Internet and books to download have altered the landscape forever.  Bibliophiles and aesthetes are a dying breed, and New York’s book-culture is a shadow of its former self.  (New York was once the epicenter of the book world; no such place exists any longer.)  But we here at the Jade Sphinx are always too well aware of what we lose with every technological gain.  And the death of the hard-copy book trade – which was, for all intents and purposes, just abandoned by both the industry and book-buyers – may be a cultural and intellectual blow from which we may never recover.

While I love (and own two Kindle devices), there is less serendipity book-shopping online than there is in a physical bookstore.  How many readers have browsed through the stacks only to find just the ‘right’ book ‘magically’ fall into their hands?  Or, have run into authors, neighbors or other interesting people?  (Two of the most interesting conversations I’ve had in bookstores were with actors David Warner and Richard Thomas, both of whom I ran into at the now-gone Lincoln Center Barnes & Noble.)  Or make a realization paging through a random volume that left shockwaves rippling through life for years to come?

Better yet, who does not get a thrill running a hand over a new book, holding it close and inhaling its heady ink and new binding smell?  Or marveling at brightly colored illustrations in a new children’s book?  Or just being surrounded by books – a sensation both sensual and homey.

Geraldine Brooks wrote:  for to know a man's library is, in some measure, to know his mind.  As the once-great bookstores of our once-great cities recede before dwindling away completely, can the same be said for our minds?

Friday, November 7, 2014

Master Humphrey’s Clock, by Charles Dickens

Even the greatest authors are sometimes taken by surprise at their own work.  Case in point is Master Humphrey’s Clock, by Charles Dickens (1812-1870).  I had been dipping into it the week prior to Halloween, and a tasty treat it is.

But it is not, however, anything like Dickens intended it to be.

Master Humphrey’s Clock tells of a lonely, elderly cripple (Master Humphrey), who lives in a spacious home complete with ornate longcase (grandfather) clock.  The clock case holds a wealth of papers – stories told by members of a private club, called Master Humphrey’s Clock.

Members of the club include Jack Redburn, a gentleman of a free-and-easy sort; an older, unnamed deaf gentleman; retired merchant Owen Miles; and Mr. Pickwick, so well remembered from the book The Pickwick Papers.  Downstairs, the servants have a mirror society, Mr. Weller’s Watch, run by Mr. Weller (Pickwick’s servant), the barber and Mr. Humphrey’s maid.

The book, then, is a frame story about Humphrey and his friends and servants, and the stories they tell.  Serendipitously for the time of year, English story-tellers when confronted with glowing hearths and bottles of port usually tell stories with a grim or macabre flavor.  Master Humphrey’s Clock contains one rather somber, medieval revenge tale, as well as a splendid “ghost story,” complete with a gibbet, masked aristocrats, midnight runs and mysterious witches.  It is almost impossible to put down.

This being Dickens, his natural inclination towards comedy cannot be suppressed, and Mr. Weller’s tale is one rich with low comedy and dialect shtick.  If your taste runs towards that sort of thing, then this is the sort of thing you’ll like.

Dickens’ greatest critic – author G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) – thought Master Humphrey’s Clock to be mid-level Dickens at best.  But, Chesterton also argued that it was incredibly emblematic of the way the great man’s mind worked – the central ideas of home and warm hearth, the delight in story-telling, the larger-than-life characters who seem like old friends upon meeting them.  Also in evidence are Dickens' untrammeled flights of fancy, his pawkish humor, and his taste for the outlandish.  And GKC may be right … many writers with a particularly distinctive voice sometimes sound like imitations of themselves, and Master Humphrey is the greatest imitation of Dickens mimicked by the great man himself.

If this sounds as if I were not recommending Master Humphrey – do not be deceived.  It is a wonderful romp that can be enjoyed without hesitation.  Indeed, as autumn progresses and winter approaches, there are few better places to be than beside the hearth and longcase clock of Master Humphrey.

All of which would be a surprise, to some extent, to the author himself.  Master Humphrey’s Clock started not as a collection of short stories, but as a magazine written entirely by Dickens.  The premise of the publication was Humphrey and his friends gathering weekly to read stories stored in the clock.

Initially, the magazine was a success, but sales soon slumped.  Dickens then started telling the story that would become The Old Curiosity Shop, the serialization of which took over the entire magazine.  Sales soared to 100,000 weekly; he then started Barnaby Rudge in the same magazine, which also met with marked success.

Though not a great book in itself, Master Humphrey’s Clock made The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge possible; to this reader’s view, that makes it a very important book, indeed.  It is available for free download at the indispensable, and comes highly recommended.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Pagan Papers, by Kenneth Grahame (1893)

Regular visitors to The Jade Sphinx know of our love for children’s literature.  Few figures of the field loom larger than Kenneth Grahame (1859-1932), author of Wind in the Willows (1908), one of the great classics of the field.

Readers familiar with Wind know that it chronicles the adventures of Rat, Mole, Badger and Toad along the banks of the river.  Rat and Mole are often contentedly picnicking along the riverbank, simply “messing around in boats.”  Badger’s spacious underground abode provides comfort, books and plentiful food.  It is a perfectly sexless idealization of ease and creature comforts.

So it should come as no surprise that one of the recurring themes in Grahame’s oeuvre is that of escape.  Like many of the great children’s authors, Grahame had an ambivalent attitude towards adulthood and its concomitant responsibilities.

Poor Grahame had a tumultuous life.  He was born in Edinburgh, Scotland.  His mother died when he was five, and his alcoholic father gave young Kenneth and his brothers and sister to the children’s grandmother, in Cookham in Berkshire.  Grahame loved the countryside there, and it was there that he was introduced to the pleasures of boating.  These years in Cookham would be remembered as the happiest of his life.

Following his years at St. Edward’s School in Oxford, Grahame wanted to attend Oxford University.  He could not do so, his guardians claiming that it was too expensive.  Instead, this sensitive and introverted boy was sent to work at the Bank of England in 1879, where he rose through the ranks until retiring as its Secretary in 1908.  The reason for his retirement was that an anarchist broke into the bank and shot at Grahame three times, missing each shot.  The incident forever shattered his nerves; he would move back to the country in an effort to find peace.

Grahame published his first book, The Pagan Papers, in 1893.  He would follow this with his first two great novels about children, The Golden Age (1895) and Dream Days (1898).  He would not write again until after marrying Elspeth Thomson in 1899.  They had one child, a son named Alastair (nicknamed Mouse), born blind in one eye and plagued by various mental problems.  Grahame would tell Mouse stories about the woodland denizens around them.  These stories would eventually morph into Wind in the Willows.

Sadly, the stories provided only a limited amount of succor to Alastair, who would commit suicide by lying on a railway track two days before his 20th birthday.

The Pagan Papers is a collection of essays on the general theme of escape.  It has little (or nothing) to do with paganism as is understood today; actually, it was a long mediation on the invasive and horrifying transformations brought about by the machine age, and extolls the virtues of long country walks, rivers, the countryside, and welcoming pubs.

While the tone varies wildly from piece to piece, what is unmistakable is that the book is suffused with a powerful emotion, a particularly English yearning produced by the countryside.  Again and again Grahame urges pastoral escape, transgression against an increasingly urban system, and recognition of the genius of remote places, often represented in pagan figures like Pan.  That these essays were written by a man in the stranglehold of a formal job, distant from his beloved countryside, should come as no surprise.

This reader found many of the passages moving.  This is from his essay in favor of loafing and idleness:

When the golden Summer has rounded languidly to his close, when Autumn has been carried forth in russet winding-sheet, then all good fellows who look upon holidays as a chief end of life return from moor and stream and begin to take stock of gains and losses. And the wisest, realising that the time of action is over while that of reminiscence has begun, realise too that the one is pregnant with greater pleasures than the other — that action, indeed, is only the means to an end of reflection and appreciation. Wisest of all, the Loafer stands apart supreme. For he, of one mind with the philosopher as to the end, goes straight to it at once; and his happy summer has accordingly been spent in those subjective pleasures of the mind whereof the others, the men of muscle and peeled faces, are only just beginning to taste.

Here is another, in a more puckish vein: In these tame and tedious days of the policeman rampant, our melancholy selves are debarred from many a sport, joyous and debonair, whereof our happier fathers were free … 'Tis a sad but sober fact, that the most of men lead flat and virtuous lives, departing annually with their family to some flat and virtuous place, there to disport themselves in a manner that is decent, orderly, wholly uninteresting, vacant of every buxom stimulus. To such as these a suggestion, in all friendliness: why not try crime? We shall not attempt to specify the particular branch — for every one must himself seek out and find the path his nature best fits him to follow; but the general charm of the prospect must be evident to all. The freshness and novelty of secrecy, the artistic satisfaction in doing the act of self-expression as well as it can possibly be done; the experience of being not the hunter, but the hunted, not the sportsman, but the game; the delight of comparing and discussing crimes with your mates over a quiet pipe on your return to town; these new pleasures — these and their like — would furnish just that gentle stimulant, that peaceful sense of change so necessary to the tired worker.

My favorite passage, though, has to do with his friendship with a wandering painter – it is a view of freedom that resonates strongly with anyone in a restrictive job:  This allowed him to take along with him a few canvases and other artists' materials; soda-water, whisky, and such like necessaries; and even to ask a friend from town for a day or two, if he wanted to.

He was in this state of comparative luxury when at last, by the merest accident, I foregathered with him once more. I had pulled up to Streatley one afternoon, and, leaving my boat, had gone for a long ramble on the glorious North Berkshire Downs to stretch my legs before dinner. Somewhere over on Cuckhamsley Hill, by the side of the Ridgeway, remote from the habitable world, I found him, smoking his vesper pipe on the shaft of his cart, the mare cropping the short grass beside him. He greeted me without surprise or effusion, as if we had only parted yesterday, and without a hint of an allusion to past times, but drifted quietly into rambling talk of his last three years, and, without ever telling his story right out, left a strange picturesque impression of a nomadic life which struck one as separated by fifty years from modern conventional existence. The old road-life still lingered on in places, it seemed, once one got well away from the railway: there were two Englands existing together, the one fringing the great iron highways wherever they might go — the England under the eyes of most of us. The other, unguessed at by many, in whatever places were still vacant of shriek and rattle, drowsed on as of old: the England of heath and common and windy sheep down, of by-lanes and village-greens — the England of Parson Adams and Lavengro. The spell of the free untrammelled life came over me as I listened, till I was fain to accept of his hospitality and a horse-blanket for the night, oblivious of civilised comforts down at the Bull. On the downs where Alfred fought we lay and smoked, gazing up at the quiet stars that had shone on many a Dane lying stark and still a thousand years ago; and in the silence of the lone tract that enfolded us we seemed nearer to those old times than to these I had left that afternoon, in the now hushed and sleeping valley of the Thames.

This is a wise and wonderfully wistful book.  It is available at the indispensable, and comes highly recommended.