Schjerfbeck, really

Since the last International Women’s Day, I’ve blogged about, among other things, the historical violence against suffragettes, the exclusion of women from medical studies and the alarming rise in femicide. At the risk of appearing to downplay the plight of women, I’m taking a more positive approach to this year’s holiday, for which no one anywhere gets the day off work.

Last autumn I went to the Royal Academy of Arts in London to see their exhibition on the works of painter Helene Schjerfbeck (1862-1946). Who? Exactly – unless you’re from Finland. Not being from Finland, I hadn’t heard of her until the exhibition came along and received thunderous reviews in the press. The Guardian referred to Schjerfbeck as ‘Finland’s Munch.’ Other papers described her techniques in terms of Frans Hals and Velazquez and mentioned her being influenced by her contemporaries Cezanne and Picasso. All a rather blokey affair.

Yet, Schjerfbeck’s works have also been described as realism and expressionism, as haunting and melancholic and as pensive and intelligent. I went to the exhibition with these gender-neutral descriptors in mind, determined to judge the works devoid of comparisons to the male masters. Here are some examples of the paintings that moved me and made me feel that I had made a worthwhile discovery:

I especially liked the self-portraits made over time, drawing attention to the inevitable changes nature puts us through.

I suppose I could have written about this exhibition closer to the time, but as the weeks and months passed what seemed novel and intriguing simply become less so.  I wonder now if my mind had subconsciously compartmentalize Schjerfbeck’s paintings as being like this man’s and that man’s, and that I was no better than the arts reviewers in the newspapers. Asking myself to unlearn years of exposure to the male masters may have been a tall order. Yet, I’m glad I’m reacquainting myself with Schjerfbeck’s works and for having discovered many more of them online – she lived a long life and was highly prolific.

For those who say International Women’s Day serves little purpose and that men have the other 364 days of the year, without it, I probably wouldn’t have given Schjerfbeck a second chance. Happy International Women’s Day 2020!

The Exonerated Five

Like millions across the world, I’ve recently seen the Netflix programme When They See Us, a dramatization of the ‘Central Park Five’ story.

The four-part series has not been easy to watch. Even though I knew the five – teenaged boys at the time – were eventually exonerated, it was still painful viewing. This is more than just a story of African-American and Latino teenagers being interrogated by white police to the point of signing false confessions. The story follows the five convicted men and their families during the periods of incarceration (6-12 years) and their lives after prison before their verdicts were changed.

While the programme is being applauded for its accuracy, its verisimilitude, it’s important not to forget that this is drama. I don’t say that as a criticism – in fact, just the opposite.  As a work of dramatic art, it sometimes plays with the timeline, jumping back and forth to isolate each man’s story as a mixture of conviction and so-called ‘freedom’ once they were released with criminal records. And like any good dramatic script, the worst case was saved for last – one of the men, Cory Wise, was 16 at the time and was sent to Richter’s Prison for adult men, where the treatment by his fellow inmates was so excruciating he opted for years of solitary confinement. These renderings that truncate the years and reorder and select their most emotive moments for maximum effect are clearly features of art. In my eyes, the director/co-writer, Ava DuVerney is an artist of the highest calibre in creating these effects.

I also know that this is art because I enjoyed it so much and bring it to the attention of anyone I know who watches Netflix. True, it’s painful and sad and evokes a sense of fear. It’s what Aristotle called the paradox of negative emotions. We enjoy pity and fear in tragic drama even though we would not in real life. The fact that this drama was based on real life didn’t take away from that. If anything, the work blurred the lines of emotional responses as it blurred the lines of dramatization and reality.

And yet another emotion emerged from watching When They See Us – a palpable sense of shame. I remember when the story first broke. It was April of 1989 and I was still living in Edinburgh. The news story came to me as one of a woman jogger in Central Park in the wrong place at the wrong time – out on an evening when gangs of youth were ‘wilding’ – just acting wild, scaring passers-by, vandalising property and raping and beating a woman and leaving her for dead. That’s how it was reported at the time, consistently across Channel 4, BBC and any newspaper I happen to be reading. I later learned that this is how it was reported in the US as well. The story seemed so straight forward – a horrible, sickening crime. When the five teenagers were arrested, I remember thinking that it was a good thing someone was caught. But I also felt uneasy that they were all black and one Latino – ‘black and brown boys’ a phrase I have heard since – and that the victim was white. Such happenings feed into the racist’s view of the world, leaving us liberals appearing naïve and soft on crime.  I allowed myself to fall for the media interpretation – the story wasn’t about race, but about women being victims of rape, and this was one rare time when the guilty were caught. And if that wasn’t bad enough, shameful moment number 2 – the idea of confessing to crime a person didn’t commit wasn’t even in my world of possibilities.

Sometimes it takes a case like this to shake people out of their comfortable thoughts. This true-life story was obviously about race – the discrimination against African-Americans – and the DNA evidence confirmed that people – especially teen boys under interrogation – can confess to crimes they did not commit.

Exonerated five 2

Postscript – I’ve entitled this ‘the exonerated five’ to help the language and labelling to catch up with the truths.

To Autumn

No political metaphors here. I just wanted to say something about my favourite season. There have been many great poems in English about autumn, its imagery well exploited. Even though its symbolism has found its way into idiom – the autumn of our lives – I’m still moved by it.

Perhaps there is some nostalgia at work here. I first read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s famous poem in primary school and remember the experience largely because it was autumn at the time. It is favourite season by far. It brought words to the images I saw outside the classroom window:

Thou comest, Autumn, heralded by the rain,

With banners, by great gales incessant fanned.

At the same time it fed my escapist’s fantasies, adding scenes and aromas of a rural idyll far removed from anything I had seen in Chicago:

Thy steps are by the farmer’s prayers attended;
Like flames upon an altar shine the sheaves;
And, following thee, in thy ovation splendid,
Thine almoner, the wind, scatters the golden leaves!

At secondary school, I discovered Keats’ often quoted ‘Ode To Autumn’ (‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness…’) and a glut of other writers taking up the subject – Edna St Vincent Malay, Carl Sandburg, William Blake, Katherine Mansfield, to name a few.

Contemporary poets have also borrowed from this season, either as a subject in itself or as a leitmotif. But these works appear far and few between. Is it that urban landscapes have replaced rural ones for the majority of the world’s population? Or do we comment about it more visually with computers? Instead of poetry, my Facebook friends and I have often posted photos of our gardens or nearby countryside and city parks in the autumn months.

As a short-story writer, I pay my respects to the season by having the occasional character slip on wet leaves or take in the bright red-brown spectrum of colours or inhale the scents of dried lawns and wood-burning fireplaces. As I can’t paint or draw, here I reproduce Klimt’s The Beech Forest, alongside my photos of Ely at this time year. But whatever I do, I fear it pales next to the real thing. As with my childhood, autumn still provides escape, only now I take these meditative moments to allow my brain a rest from the toxic illiberal world we live in – political, but not a metaphor.

Autumn 2018-1.JPGAutumn 2018-5

Starry, Starry Night

I’m hoping this blog will purge the song from my head. The original tune by Don Mclean was never a favourite. Like its topic, the life and paintings of Vincent Van Gogh, it’s riddled with clichés and imagery of the ubiquitous works of art. The song was released when I was nine and Van Gogh was already an industry. Like any self-respecting kid, I rebelled against things cross-generational and ultra-popular. I adopted the view that Van Gogh wasn’t such a great painter, but merely the first pop artist, creating his own celebrity as he suffered for his sanity, clipped off his own earlobe and took his own life as lovers often do.Starry starry night 1

It wasn’t until I visited the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam some 25 years later that I felt a genuine admiration for the artist’s work. Yes, of course, Vincent (I think we’re on first names here) is still an industry, arguably an even larger one than he was in my childhood. But he’s not just about starry nights after a day of daffodils that catch the breeze from the painter with a severed ear. There’s the earthiness of his potato eaters and the delicacy of his Japanese-style almond trees that speak volumes for his skill and renderings of life around him and in his imagination (he never went to Japan). I’ve since toured the museum a few more times, searching for the lesser known works and avoiding the gift shop.

The song wouldn’t have lodged in my head had it not been for a reinterpretation by Lianne La Havas which featured at the end of the film Loving Vincent. La Havas’s version is more soulful, slightly less melodic, than Mclean’s. In case you haven’t seen it or heard about it, Loving Vincent (directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman) is an animation using Van Gogh’s paintings for the scenes and characters, including the master himself. It’s the only film of its kind, using 125 artists to hand paint the 65,000 frames. Many of the scenes appear to move slightly as if being painted or repainted before our very eyes – it’s visually hypnotic. This entrancing state is helped by the soft, rhythmic soundtrack (by Clint Mansell) to lift the audience into another world. The only thing holding the film back, as many critics have noted, is the mediocre script that revolves around the artist’s sudden death, suggesting that it wasn’t intentional.

Nevertheless, this melange of paintings, film and music needed to come together for me to remember, Vincent, this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you. (Oh, I wish it would stop). Starry starry night 3

Flemish (not so) Primitives

My taste in art has long been mostly modern – 20th century, some late 19th – Klimt, Matisse, Cezanne, O’Keeffe, Picasso, Kandinsky. But this recent trip to Bruges has turned that on its head. As luck would have it, the night before we left we happened upon the start of a new BBC4 series, The Renaissance Unchained, written and hosted by art critic and professional eccentric  Waldemar Januszczak. The first episode was about the so-called Flemish Primitives of the 15th century, for Januszczak the place where the Renaissance started – that is, not in Italy as has long been believed. (Still available on BBC iplayer, with some clips on YouTube.)

Waldemar, as we call him at home, made a good case for these paintings to be regarded as not so ‘primitive’ but instead as true masterworks. In one segment, he focussed on Jan van Eyck’s Madonna and Child with Canon Joris van der Paele, pointing out the detail that could make the viewer easily distinguish the textures of fur, velvet and lace. Although van Eyck was not the first to use oil, he is credited with having perfected oil painting techniques, mixing powdered colours with egg whites to come up with a concoction that spread more thinly and allowed for a greater variety of colours. These Flemish artists are also noted for breaking away from strictly religious themes and painting the everyday lives of real people.FlemishPainting-5.jpg

Some thirty-six hours after watching this programme, there I was at the Groeninge Museum studying this work for myself. Staring at the way the bristles in the carpet opened up over the steps in this magnificent painting, its complexity and visual subtlety transcended me to that place where creativity hinges on spirituality.

At the same time it made me feel ashamed of myself for having scoffed the Renaissance painters for so long. While I can appreciate the craftsmanship of Da Vinci, Botticelli and their ilk, I had tired of Madonnas and their pontificating children and tended to lump Renaissance paintings into a category of over-commercialised art. What’s the old expression – a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing? Mea culpa. I’ve now become an unofficial member of the van Eyck unofficial fan club. I’m also cultivating an appreciation for other artists of this early part of the Renaissance, having seen works at the Groeninge by Memling, Bouts and van der Goes.

While in Bruges, somewhere reading placards in a museum, I discovered an interesting take on the term ‘Flemish Primitives.’ It was FlemishPainting-2derived from the French premier, meaning that these FlemishPainting-3artists were the ‘first’ of
their sort.  If true, it’s a shame that this meaning has been lost.




Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter

My love affair with the writing of Elena Ferrante continues. This time with her third novel, The Lost Daughter, published in 2006. Leda is a divorced middle-aged professor with two adult daughters, who are away living in Canada with their father. On her summer break, Leda rents an apartment at a beach resort. Her observations and interactions with other holiday makers stirs up memories of her relationships with daughters and her now ex-husband. When a little girl loses her doll at the beach, a strangely twisted plot emerges.

la-figlia-obscuraLeda narrates the story with frankness and self-reflection which are as refreshing as they are brutal. This, along with the intrigue of the plot and subplots, kept this reader engaged to the very end.