Sunday, November 25, 2007

Opening Windows: Impressionists and Joyce

(Reflections on the exhibit "Inspiring Impressionists" at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, following which I attempted another foray into Ulysses by James Joyce.)

My brand loyalty to Impressionism is very strong. At art museums, I save the Impressionists' displays for dessert. I sigh when I hear music associated with the "impressionists," and I'm liable to weep for Debussy's last three sonatas. So Atlanta's High Museum special exhibit Inspiring Impressionists was a special treat.

Most of the big names were gathered there. There were Cassatt, Degas, Sisley, and my favorite impressionist dark-horse, Pisarro. Here, Pisarro is represented by a close view of a young female servant carrying an empty drink glass on a tray. Just as I was noting how often an unfamiliar impressionist painting that I like turns out to be Pisarro's, I noticed the first impressionist painting in the exhibit that I didn't like, and it was his: desultory depiction of a servant sweeping a floor around a carelessly drawn table.

The big stars are Monet and Manet, and now I will be able to remember which is which. Monet is the bad boy, and Manet is the team player. Manet's modest words, writ large in the first chamber, tell us, "No one's work is less spontaneous than mine: I learned it all from studying the old masters" (quoted badly, from memory). This is the thesis statement of the exhibit. At the other end of the exhibit, Monet strikes the opposite tone, claiming total spontaneity and nothing owed to tradition. The exhibitors juxtapose his works with others that he would have known by Dutch and French artists of the century previous to his to show that his work owes something to them.

The outstanding pieces, though, were interesting precisely because they were not typical and not necessarily even likeable. It was a bit startling to see, for example, that a big canvas re-telling of the Biblical story of Jephtha and his daughter, done in the grand old style - only more stiff, more drab - was by Manet. Early work, it falls flat between the two stools of illustration and impressionism. Nearby, we see Manet's smudgy version of a Renaissance scene of the Crucifixion, beside a photo of the original. His blurring of the original's crystal-sharp images adds nothing good to the scene, but his comment about his version helped me to understand what he was after, and what he and the other impressionists do achieve in their most characteristic work. He remarks that, while he admired and copied Italian and Spanish Renaissance painters, "one cannot breathe the air" in their works.

Manet is so right! Run-of-the-mill Renaissance works are so neatly realized, so purposefully arranged, so rich in detail, that the viewer can only appreciate them, as if admiring a display through a frame, behind glass.

Impressionists seem to have opened the window to let the viewer breathe the same air as their subjects. I've always felt this about my favorite Monets, and it's true of the ones, here, too. We see some windmills under grey-white sky; we see a Dutch church at the end of an avenue bisected by a canal; we see a distant town from a curve of the Seine. We do get the impression of water's lapping, of the haze in the air, of motion, of our just happening by a scene. We feel the temperature, we hear the rustling of the tall grass. I suppose, if I were a Martian or a Saharan, I might not understand that those blurred green waves in the corner there are thick tall grasses; but, having been in fields and streams before, I feel strongly the power of these works to evoke sense - memory. Their practices of cropping the frame, of hurrying and broadening the brush strokes, of choosing subjects that are ordinary, of blurring the distinctions between objects and backgrounds, also blur the distinction between observer and observed. We feel like the artist has opened a window onto real life at some moment, somewhat carelessly, instead of feeling like the artist has staged a tableau.

To use a slightly different analogy from my own experience, it's the difference between watching a play and being in it. The blurring, the odd cropping, the lack of apparent story-telling, all leave room for the viewer (the actor, in my analogy) to imagine the environment and the feel for himself.

The impressionists are not the only ones to get this effect. For example, the Dutch masters of the seventeenth century, Vermeer especially, have that same quality of opening a window onto real life, and it's no accident that windows so often figure in their works, as the source of light for interiors, and as a source of interest as we get glimpses through them in depictions of Dutch streets. A few of those are here in this exhibit, too, including a portrait by Hals, whose work always impresses me with this quality and something else, too: good humored affection for whoever appears in his work. Another artist I didn't know, Fragonard, b. 1730, uses those same broad brush strokes in a painting of a young woman reading that achieves the same effect.

Curiously, while the Impressionists were ridiculed for their triviality and carelessness in a time when artists were expected to portray the great and to teach religious ideals, it is the impressionists' work that speaks religion as I understand it. It revels in the beauty of creation and perception itself, dignifying the homely people and objects with their close attention. It's a prominent theme of the Bible, that God is present in the smallest, the weakest, the most overlooked (cf. Joseph, the Jews, the suffering servant, the widow's mite, the Good Samaritan, and the cornerstone which the builders rejected).

All of this came to mind as I struggled once more through chapter 6 of ULYSSES. I know that Joyce struggled mightily to write it, and it's a struggle for me to read it; but when I do "get" what I'm reading, there's that same feeling that the mediator Joyce has stepped aside, and I'm really there with Dedalus and Bloom and whoever else. Again, I'm having to read like an actor, learning to make the mental connections between one line and another, with no director there to lead me through it.

I wonder if anyone has ever tried to re-write ULYSSES in a conventional narrator's voice, stage - managed and careful to distinguish thought from spoken word, past from present, main action and side-show? It wouldn't be very interesting in itself, but it might help someone (the writer, perhaps) to appreciate Joyce even more.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Updike on Beauty: Refocusing the Eye of the Beholder

(reflection on a couple of readings in DUE CONSIDERATIONS, a collection of prose by John Updike, published this past month.)

An earlier article in this blog takes up the age-old question, "Is beauty merely a matter of opinion?" (see March 27, 2007

Skirting a definitive answer, John Updike provides a succinct partial answer. "The beautiful is, from one perspective, simply what we need -- a meal to the hungry, a bed to the weary. . . ." But "appreciation of beauty is empathy with a creator." Updike, whose aspiration to be an artist was sidetracked by writing, describes the way a painting by Vermeer draws the viewer into "an ordinary world re-created by a human hand and eye, and our sense of the beautiful becomes a kind of awed applause at another human being's extreme and tender skill" (Due Considerations 663-4).

In the context of an article on "the future of faith," Updike describes the negative of his Vermeer experience. On a vacation in Italy, feeling the ubiquitous images from the life of Christ becoming "a repetition like that of certain maddening television commercials," Updike took in a contemporary art exhibition, he writes,

"I made my way from one pavilion to another, exposing myself to artificial fog and upside-down dandelions... unintelligible whispers and showers of magenta dust... a room of electronic numbers.... Everywhere, abrasive irony and nihilism. ... The desire to shock the hardened art connoisseur into some kind of response had become veritably frantic; there was hardly an inch of the void, of disgust, of scorn left to expose, in this age of post-faith. Only the vegetation and the other spectators... belonged to a world I wanted to be in, a world I could recognize to be continuous with the world of my childhood" (32).

The two passages meet in "religion" in its broad original sense of "connection" (as in ligament). The glass of water, the youthful museum-goers, the painting by Vermeer, and a stand-out painting of the Annunciation connect to the beholder's physical need or remembered experiences. The works of art connect the viewer to the creators' minds. The ugly works deny connection, except in the way they divide their audience into camps of those who look for beauty and those who deny that beauty has any reality beyond the eye of the beholder.

Thursday, November 22, 2007


(reflections on an article in the November 2007 issue of WEAVINGS by Mark S. Burrows, and a poem in POETRY by Dean Young from the same month.)

"Gyrovague," I learned today, is St. Benedict's term for the kind of monk who never settled into one monastery. Compounded from gyro "to spin" and vague, the foam on a wave, it's a perfect word for those who "drift . . . slaves to their own will and gross appetites." And who, today, doesn't?

Restless on this day of rest, I flipped idly through one journal, then another, happening on two articles germane to this topic.

First, a poem by Dean Young struck me as a kind of secular psalm celebrating the world's constant movements, its tectonic churning and the "sluggish seeth[ing]" of ice bergs and tides. Young's own lines demonstrate how the mind flits from one things to another, associating sounds (mouse, house, moon, mood, "sadness heaving" and "gladness somersaulting... like a kid's drawing of a snowflake"). Even when the poem seems to be settling down into a love lyric, it flies off again with a fantasia on terminology shared between cars and guns:
...No matter
how stalled I seem, some crank in me
tightens the whirly-spring each time I see
your face so thank you for aiming it
my way, all this flashing like polished
brass, lightning, powder, step on the gas,
whoosh we're halfway throught our lives . . . .
- "Easy as Falling Down Stairs" by Dean Young

A few lines after that, watching the sleeping loved one's face as she has a "galloping dream," the poet muses, "Maybe even death will be a replenishment."

That dovetailed with the next article I picked up in the journal WEAVINGS. Through time, in both life and death, the author writes, a "stream" flows "like a winter river buried beneath layers of ice." That thought, expressed by church history professor Mark S. Burrows, takes off from lines by Rilke about "the eternal flow" of time -- identified as an aspect of God -- that connects past and present, living and dead, in one continuum or community.

Burrows writes in the context of an article, "Vigils and the Rest," about life in the slow lane, a monastery he visits. He writes of "stability of place" experienced by monks who don't "gyrovague" around. In opposition to the life of constant motion that Dean Young seems to celebrate, Benedict's discipline offers a life of cyclical regularity in prayer and song, chores and simple meals, a stability of life that allows one to be attentive.

Just writing that, the in-born Protestant side of me shouts, "Attentive? If that's all you're doing with your life, there's nothing to be attentive to!"

So one source says, life's in constant flux, and just enjoy that. The other one says, all this motion is keeping us from ever being "present" in our own lives, and keeping us from ever knowing God's presence.

I guess both sources would agree that whooshing through our lives isn't a good thing, and they agree that something important is moving in us, "replenishing" us even in repose. The essential thing, if we can do it, is to pay attention, so that something other than drift and appetite directs us.

Of course, "paying attention" is what poetry, the arts, prayers, and this blog, are for - to hold our fleeting moments up to scrutiny, for appreciation.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Last Five Years: Self-Expression isn't Enough

(Reflections after seeing THE LAST FIVE YEARS, written and composed by Jason Roberts Brown, at Actor's Express Theatre, Atlanta, and JACQUES BREL IS ALIVE AND WELL AND LIVING IN PARIS at the Alliance Theatre, Atlanta one month earlier.)

For the last ninety minutes, a pair of appealing singing actors and an ensemble of instrumentalists took me and an audience through THE LAST FIVE YEARS, a frankly autobiographical work in which the freshly divorced Jewish composer-playwright wrote about a freshly-divorced Jewish novelist . It required a great deal of stamina from all concerned, in a way that a three hour performance of KING LEAR does not. Now I'm trying to figure out why. My thought -- which began to detach from the action around one-third of the way through the show -- is that KING LEAR somehow is about us and our world as much as it is about an ancient king. But THE LAST FIVE YEARS never gets beyond the artist's self-expression. It's never our story, and it feels a little distasteful to be watching this artful dissection of the affair, however brilliantly it's done.

Here's what's right about this production: The two stars Natasha Drena and Jonathan MacQueen were likable and pitch-perfect in songs that stretched their ranges and their breath control to the limits. The playwright-composer begins the play with Natasha as "Cathy," singing to her 28-year-old ex-husband how his leaving "still hurts." The composer follows that immediately with the husband "Jamie" at 23 singing about the "Shiksa Goddess" named Cathy whom he has just met. Beginning at opposite ends of the five year relationship, the arc of their story reaches both backwards and forwards on parallel tracks. The evening alternates between Cathy and Jamie, each singing to a telephone, or to an invisible partner, except for a magical sequence mid-way, when they marry, and another song at the end, when one is saying "Good-bye" for the night, and one is saying "Good-bye" forever. We appreciate their attraction to each other, and we sympathize with their frustrations. For awhile, we feel like participants in the affair.

Also right are the songs themselves. There's a pop-Broadway pastiche, and a classic Broadway pastiche, and a lilting waltz that could have been composed any time in the last century, but most of these songs are extended AABA songs with folk-rock sounds and pop vocal techniques. The rhymes fall into place neatly, always making a point. The lyrics seem natural, like speech. The music is composed in multiple meters to make it supple and expressive, swinging and rocking one minute, pensive the next.

Here's where I begin to find my dissatisfaction, though. The lyrics sometimes tell a specific story, as Cathy tells of her odd roommates in summer stock in Ohio, and as Jamie tells about his agent and John Updike's review of his new novel. More often, though, the lyrics are scrubbed free of specifics, and are generalized iterations of the well-worn grooves of relationship-speak: I love you, I miss you, I need to be free to pursue my dreams, I believe in you, I can do better than this, or -- old, old story -- I'm tired of my wife, so let's be lovers. I noticed that the lyrics occasionally resorted to images that had nothing to do with the milieu of the story -- something about flight here, something about water there. Only those trite images reached beyond the stereotyped concerns of the two stereotyped principles. The knowledge that this is essentially the story of the author and his ex-wife doesn't make this any more bearable. In fact, considering what a self-centered jerk the once - endearing young man turns out to be, I wondered if the whole play isn't a personal apology to his ex?

This is essentially drama as imagined by adolescents: The girls whom I teach are endlessly fascinated with who's going with whom, and who's jealous, and who's flirting -- but the interest is all in their insulated circle, nothing of interest to the rest of us.

At the end, my hosts turned to each other and said, "Okay, who's the one you hate more, him or her?" We all agreed, 'him," but that's not much of a reason to drive to Atlanta and sit through ninety minutes.

Looking back over the whole play, I can say that I'm glad I went once. I feel like I've been through the affair. That's an artistic achievement. I also appreciated the craftsmanship of the music, lyrics, and the overall structure of the play, with its backwards-forwards movement ( reflected in the song - fable about a man for whom time moves backwards). But I'd have preferred melodrama, artifice, or some kind of question to be considered besides, "Why doesn't their relationship outlive their sexual attraction?"

For contrast, there's another all-sung revue JACQUES BREL, its eponymous composer-lyricist evidently self-indulgent and self-important. Songs toyed with the same two techniques: strophic repetition, so that verse after verse travelled the same melodic ground, building to a faster or louder climax. Then there was irony: incongruously vivacious music setting grotesque and bitter lyrics, sweet little melodies for pathetic stories. Unlike FIVE YEARS, these songs are usually political, sung from a vantage point far above the personal: whether they're about "timid Frieda" or about the toredadors' bulls as a metaphor for soldiers, they're about types and groups, people who are alienated or hypocritical. The songs all have their effects, and they give the performers chances to sing softly, or growl, or sing stridently, or to dance like Vaudevillians. The end result is, rather like LAST FIVE YEARS, to think, "Gee, that composer sure is skilled, and, gee, I wouldn't want to invite him over for dinner."

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Play Rabbit Hole: No Easy Answers

(reflections on RABBIT HOLE by David Lindsay-Abaire, produced by Theatre in the Square, Marietta, GA, directed by Susan Reid)

Before the play RABBIT HOLE begins, the audience at Theatre in the Square in Marietta, GA, can admire a perfect recreation of a handsome contemporary living room and kitchen, the fourth wall cut away. Once the play begins, we see maternal Becca (Antonia Fairchild), her punk sister Izzy (Kate Donadio), her affable husband Howie (Charles Horton), her ebullient mother Nat (Marianne Fraulo). For the duration of the play, they talk intelligently and naturally about the kid sister's latest boy friend, and about work, the gym, grocery shopping, real estate marketing, the dog, the Kennedys, sex, birthday gifts, and recipes. No matter where they turn for conversation, each one turns to "it" -- the couple's grief over the loss of their five year old boy Danny. By the end of Act One, this maze of conversational dead ends has the audience feeling trapped on that handsome set with the characters. When Howie tells Becca, "Something's got to change," we're there, too.

The change we hope for may come via Jason Willett, the teenager whose car struck the boy. In a letter, he asks to be allowed to meet with the parents. He says that he didn't know Danny, but the obituary mentioned Danny's toy robots, and Jason is into science fiction. Is the playwright positioning the older boy to be somehow adopted by the couple? As played by actor Matthew Judd, we hope so: he's an appealing kid, well-spoken, a little awkward, honest and earnest. We guess that he will show up at the house in Act Two, there'll be cathartic recriminations and tearful forgiveness, and in some way, he will become a part of their family. We're wise to all of this: we saw it in movies about psychotherapy (from SPELLBOUND to ORDINARY PEOPLE and beyond) and we see it enacted daily on talk shows. We know the language: "We've got to talk about this . . . It's never going to be the way it was . . . I'm in a different place from you . . . No one is to blame. . . You should talk to someone."

But these characters are too aware of popular psychology, as we are, to accept any such easy answers. That's how it is that the characters articulate their feelings clearly and honestly, yet still can't communicate. Every attempt to reach out is thwarted by their second-guessing ulterior motives. For example, when the husband gets amorous, the wife accuses him of wanting to conceive a child to replace Danny. In that scene, and nearly every scene that follows, someone protests, "That's not what I'm saying... that's not what this is about."

Usually, I find some technical aspect of the script to hold on to when the emotions are getting to me. (See my blog entry last month about THE YELLOW BOAT, another play concerning the death of a child). Here it wasn't until late in the second act that the playwright knocks a little hole to let in light from the world beyond those "four walls." It's the teenager's sci-fi story concerning a son's search for his late father through eponymous "rabbit holes" to alternate dimensions. Becca immediately draws a parallel to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, how Orpheus can't accept the death of his loved one, and he goes to the Underworld to bring her back, but, Becca says simply, "It doesn't work out."

That idea of infinite potential endings seems to me to be a key to the playwright's method in this play, as each scene is built around one or two alternate solutions to the problem of their grief, none of which quite pan out.

The characters all mean well, and they all speak well, and we like them. We laugh at their foibles and, sometimes, at their lame attempts to cover up social discomfort. We hear reflections on loss and grief that strike us as true (such as, it never goes away, but you learn to cherish it as your last link to the loved one). By the time the end of the play had arrived, I was hoping it wasn't over -- still hoping for a final resolution. What we get is less than final, but more real, and more satisfactory.