Music and Spring and All

Henri Matisse, Music, 1907-1910
Henri Matisse painted a great number of pieces centralizing on the form of the human body. In this series, painted between 1907 and 1910, his figures can most commonly be found capering, playing, and making music. These works, at the time, were considered uncomplicated in both composition and color. Yet, Matisse’s work with the human form left an indelible impact on his successors.

“What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter - a soothing, calming influence on the mind.” – Henri Matisse

In Matisse’s series largely characterized by the human form, Music, stands closest to the aforementioned quote. The painter’s five subjects conjure a peculiar reaction: synaesthesia. The image possesses colors that are all exceedingly close in tone creating this pseudo-resonant effect, which gives its viewer a feeling of composite sound. The subjects complement this resonance by forming an even more musical cadence, rising and falling across the painting.

William Carlos Williams’ 1923 poem Spring and All parallels Music in an unconventional way. Now, one could relate a poem like Langston Hughes’ Life is Fine to Music, through highlighting the metaphorical rise and fall of Hughes’ narrator with Matisse’s oscillating subjects. Yet, Williams’ poem of awakening and self-awareness more closely parallels what Matisse accomplished in Music. Williams’ prose forms a gradual crescendo of activity; from a wintery, cold, and desolate setting, to a livelier and less ominous one. Music’s subjects mimic this crescendo perfectly, moreover they parallel Williams’ object in their battle against the ground.

Spring and All
By the road to the contagious hospital
under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the
northeast -- a cold wind. Beyond, the
waste of broad, muddy fields
brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen

patches of standing water
the scattering of tall trees

All along the road the reddish
purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy
stuff of bushes and small trees
with dead, brown leaves under them
leafless vines --

Lifeless in appearance, sluggish
dazed spring approaches --

They enter the new world naked,
cold, uncertain of all
save that they enter. All about them
the cold, familiar wind --

Now the grass, tomorrow
the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf

One by one objects are defined --
It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf

But now the stark dignity of
entrance -- Still, the profound change
has come upon them: rooted they

grip down and begin to awaken

  • 3:13 PM

The Stonebreakers and The Communist Manifesto

Gustave Courbet, The Stonebreakers, 1849
The Stonebreakers by Courbet undeniably depicts the concern for the plight of the poor and the working class. The two figures toil to remove stone from a road in construction. This work requires little skill and almost no intellectual capacity and is usually reserved for punishing chain gangs in modern times. Rather than glorifying their work, Courbet dresses his figures in tattered garbs to further illustrate the nature of their work and the intense amount of physical exertion needed. Additionally, this work embodies the realist movement as Courbet paints an accurate account of the ill-treatment and of the workers that was an all too common facet of mid-century rural life in France. Courbet makes a point to retain the workers identity in order for the work to transcend the individual and serve as a universal representation of suffering.

The two stonebreakers and the surrounding scene are painted with rough brushwork, reflecting the work itself. The figures are positioned against a low hill typical of rural France. The hill rises and takes up the entire upper half of the composition, leaving only a small window to the sky in the upper right hand corner. This effectively isolates the laborers and suggests that they are physically and socio-economically trapped by their work. One year prior to Courbet’s The Stonebreakers, Karl Marx and Frederic Engels published The Communist Manifesto. They write about the plight of the worker in Chapter 1 of the manifesto titled Bourgeois and Proletarians, “In proportion as the bourgeoisie, i.e., capital, is developed, in the same proportion is the proletariat, the modern working class, developed — a class of laborers, who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labor increases capital. These laborers, who must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity, like every other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market.” Courbet, whether intentionally or not, embodies the ideas of Marx and Engels through his realist depiction of the plight of the laboring class in France in his work The Stonebreakers.
  • 12:00 AM

The Palace at 4 a.m. and Shakespeare Sonnet 30

Alberto Giacometti, Palace at 4 a.m., 1932
My dear friend and mentor Robert Demeritt lies in a hospital struggling with cancer and pain. I want to speak to him. I want to tell him bad jokes from the Borscht Belt. I want to read to him passages from Wallace Stegner's The Angle of Repose, which he gave me several years ago. I want to gripe about my day. I want him to explain the intricacies of the Chinese language to me, tell me that story again about cutting high school and running into his dad at a burlesque theatre. I want him to, as he always does about five minutes after setting foot into his home, offer me the good scotch. And then we will talk and laugh. 

Alberto Giacometti constructed Palace at 4 a.m. in 1932, and at one point he called it, "a fragile palace of matchsticks." While the structure's outlines remain set, even sturdy, the interior openness strikes me as particularly isolated. Some may take that as speaking to the distance that we feel from each other, but I do not. Instead the sculpture contains its figures, in fact even celebrates their enclosure. The human condition may be frail, Giacometti tells us, but we do share that fragility with each other. 

In his novel So Long, See You Tomorrow, William Maxwell uses Giacometti's sculpture as a controlling metaphor for his protagonist (really Maxwell) and his feelings towards his childhood and an old friend, focussing particularly on the two boys climbing and playing on a still-being-framed house. But Maxwell's novel goes so much deeper, exploring how we remember and what that memory - whether real or created - means. He writes: 

"What we, or at any rate what I, refer to confidently as memory - meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivion - is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling.  Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end.  In any case, in talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw."

The passage proffers a hard truth in pillow-soft rhythms. We all may change our stories from time to time; we all may feel sorry for ourselves because something doesn't go as we envisioned. However, we also get to live in that palace of matchsticks with others. And that abiding friendship helps salve our pains. 

As I sit here with the house quiet, worried about my friend, I am somewhat comforted by Bob's earlier admission of being at peace with what he faces. Bob and I love words, and those words often bring us to the Bard, who in Sonnet 30 wrote:

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time's waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death's dateless night,
And weep afresh love's long since cancell'd woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanish'd sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o'er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored and sorrows end.

My dear friend and mentor Bob lies in a hospital bed, but I shall not moan this sad account. I shall be happy he's my dear friend. 

  • 11:23 PM

Tommies Bathing and The Wasteland

John Singer Sargent, Tommies Bathing, 1918.
"After the torch-light red on sweaty faces
After the frosty silence in the gardens
After the agony in stony places
The shouting and the crying
Prison and place and reverberation
Of thunder of spring over distant mountains
He who was living is now dead
We who were living are now dying
With a little patience"
 - T.S. Eliot, "The Wasteland"

Lying by the water, nakedly savoring the peace of the grass, two British soldiers take a brief hiatus from the poisonous gas and flinging bullets that plagued the trenches of World War I. Yet despite this image of a short peacetime, death still looms, willing to take even the most vulnerable men under its wing.

John Singer Sargent and T.S. Eliot both shuddered at this atrocity, unwilling to accept the disposability of human life that filled European battlefields for four years. Yet Sargent's Tommies Bathing and T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland" have a similar sentiment of futility regarding the deaths resulting from the first World War. The nudity and curled positions of the two British soldiers in Sargent's painting show a heightened vulnerability, as they sprawl on the only patch of living shrubbery in sight. Surrounding the men is an abyss of dead, muddy grass, encompassing the image of new life with a looming death. Even without "the shouting and the crying" of the battle, the men still face inevitable expiration. World War I left all artists barren, replacing joyous, carefree images with desolate, nihilistic portrayals of human nature. Death became simply a body count, and individuality meant nothing in the wake of such large-scale extermination.

  • 12:00 AM

Siegfried Forgets Brunhilde and Cat's Cradle

Anslem Kiefer, Untitled (Siegfried Forgets Brunhilde), 1975-80
Depicting a pitch black, dystopian world, Anslem Kiefer's Untitled gelatin silver print captures a hauntingly eerie scene. Illuminated by a harsh spotlight, the mushrooms stand as testament to nature's tenacity, while the glass bottle is a stand-in for man's presence. Reminiscent of photographs taken after the dropping of the atom bomb, the contrast in this photograph makes the white snow taken on an ashy quality. The singed nature of this photograph is further explained by the text written in with pen, reading after translation, "Seigfried Forgets Brunhilde." 

Alluding to Richard Wagner's epic opera in four parts, "The Ring of the Nibelung," Untitled documents the devastation Valhalla after, according to Norse mythology, all of the gods and demons have an epic battle that engulfs the entire world in flame. 

But what drew me to this photograph wasn't its mythological content. I found this world to be more like Vonnegut's Snowball Earth from his 1963 novel Cat's Cradle.

"There were no smells. There was no movement. Every step I took made a gravelly squeak in blue-white frost. And every squeak was echoed loudly. The season of locking was over. The Earth was locked up tight." 

Slashing through the photograph is what seems to be a valley formerly filled with water. Now it gleams metallic. The long shadows cast by the light source have more substance than shapes casting them. Only the glass bottle seems held firmly in place. I imagine it was this uncapped bottle that housed the shard of Ice-Nine before it was released. 

Drawing on ancient and modern influences, Anslem Kiefer captures with his camera what writers aspire to describe in hundreds of pages of text. This photograph serves as commentary on past destruction as well as a warning against future devastation. 

  • 12:00 AM

The Parliament in London, Stormy Sky and The Silmarillion

Claude Monet, The Parliament in London, Stormy Sky, 1890-1910
“But Sauron was not of mortal flesh, and though he was robbed now of that shape in which had wrought so great an evil, so that he could never again appear fair to the eyes of Men, yet his spirit arose out of the deep and passed as a shadow and a black wind over the sea, and came back to Middle-earth and to Mordor that was his home. There he took up again his great Ring in Barad-dur, and dwelt there, dark and silent, until he wrought himself a new guise, an image of malice and hatred made visible; and the Eye of Sauron the Terrible few could endure.” --J.R.R. Tolkien, The Simarillion.

Monet paints The Parliament in London, Stormy Sky with an unusually menacing tone. The contrast between the violent sky and sea with the black buildings contributes to Monet's abstract evil. The shroud-like tower piercing the orange sky does not provide any feelings of peace or justice, but only a dreamlike essence of fear. 

J.R.R. Tolkien's dark and evil character Sauron would seem fit in this painting. The vicious force of the sky and eerie calm of the sea seem incredibly Mordor-esque. It is almost surprising that the all seeing Eye cannot be found perched atop Monet's dark tower. Monet's depiction of a stormy day in London could also be perceived as a typical afternoon in Mordor as seen in J.R. R. Tolken's The Silmarillion.

  • 12:00 AM

Ophelia and Being Dead

John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851
"She did not have the leisure or the knowledge to be fearful. She just felt -- for a tumbling instant -- like she'd often felt at night, half conscious in the falling shudders of a dream. Winded, weightless and betrayed. Hear heard collided with her ribs. Her body shook and arched. Her head was loose and hurtling through rimless chambers. Some conjuror had vaporized the earth and emblazoned all the space through which she fell with pixilated, pulsing lights. Her final moments were kinetic, abstract, pointillist."--Jim Crace, Being Dead.

Millais's Ophelia depicts Ophelia, from Shakespeare's Hamlet, floating in a river just before she drowns and meets her demise. Ophelia's face symbolically reflects her quickening transition from life to death, as her eye lids seem to be on the verge of closing. She is surrounded by a pitch-black pool that seems to be draining the life out of her. In addition, the painting's representation of her body position shows a sinking movement. Her waist seems to be pulling her down under water while her hands drifting right above the water with curled fingers, exhibit a drowning sensation. It seems as though death itself is sucking Ophelia into its grasp--a bottomless pit of despair.

While Millais's painting of Ophelia shows a girl in despair, it also showcases a type of romanticism of her situation. Though the black water is murky and sinister, the dying Ophelia is depicted rather beautifully through her facial features, dress, and flowers floating around her. In addition, her arms are spread out and her facial expression is strangely provocative. Just like Ophelia, Celice from Being Dead is quickly approaching her end. The narration shows rapid progression from the state of consciousness to death. In addition, Celice's physical positions while dying (her head being loose and her body arched) show her vulnerability and weakness in the face of death, just as death sucks Ophelia into the water. Neither ever had a chance and both only committed the "crime" of love. The last main similarity between Ophelia's situation and Celice's situation is that both are victims of nature. Ophelia's body is surrounded on all sides by plants, grass, and other forms of nature which prevent her escape, the same way that Crace's novel expresses the nihilist concept that life is a product of nature and will end in nature's hands with no real purpose.

  • 12:00 AM

Nightmare and Eurydice

Henry Fuseli, Nightmare, 1781

Before I go down there, I won’t practice my music. Some say practice. But practice is a word invented by cowards. The animals don’t have a word for practice. A gazelle does not run for practice. He runs because he is scared or he is hungry. A bird doesn’t sing for practice. She sings because she’s happy or sad. So I say: store it up. The music sounds better in my head than it does in the world. When songs are pressing against my throat, then, only then, I will go down and sing for the devils and they will cry through their parched throats.

Eurydice, Don’t kiss a dead man. Their lips look red and tempting but put your tongue in their mouths and it tastes like oatmeal. I know how much you hate oatmeal.

I’m going the way of death.

Here is my plan: Tonight, when I go to bed, I will turn off the light and put a straw in my mouth. When I fall asleep, I will crawl through the straw and my breath will push me like a great wind into the darkness and I will sing your name and I will arrive. I have consulted all the almanacs, the footstools, and the architects, and everyone agrees: I found the right note. Wait for me.

Orpheus”    -- Scene 17, Eurydice, by Sara Ruhl

When confronted by Henry Fuseli’s Nightmare, one cannot help but feel a sense of unease, if not from the awkward proportions, then surely the strangeness of the subject and their eyes. Although love does not come to mind when staring into this painting, it brought me to a scene from Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice. At a glance, the two works seem to be completely different. Yet allowing my mind to wonder, I imagine Orpheus, driven mad from Eurydice’s death, ponder on how to regain his lover. The king of the underworld in this case would be the horse, luring him in.

The painting allowed me to imagine, in a peculiar way, this emotional tragedy. In Orpheus’s letter to Eurydice, he compares his actions to animals, acknowledging that he lives as an animal they way they do. That his actions originate from necessity as animals do to.

The king of the underworld, the horse in the painting, wants both Orpheus and Eurydice to die so that he could have their souls. He enters their lives and leads Eurydice to death with temptation. He then uses her to lure Orpheus.

Fuseli's Nightmare fully encompasses the dark emotions that pertain to the play. An odd couple, they complement each other nicely.

  • 12:00 AM

Fishermen at Sea and Dagon

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Fishermen at Sea, 1796
“I cannot think of the deep sea without shuddering at the nameless things that may at this very moment be crawling and floundering on its slimy bed, worshipping their ancient stone idols and carving their own detestable likenesses on submarine obelisks of water-soaked granite. I dream of a day when they may rise above the billows to drag down in their reeking talons the remnants of puny, war-exhausted mankind—of a day when the land shall sink, and the dark ocean floor shall ascend amidst universal pandemonium” – H.P. Lovecraft, “Dagon”

The ocean floor houses more secrets than the space in between planets and lies closer to home. Telescopes allow for scientists to glimpse places trillions of light years away, but they cannot clearly gaze upon the thinnest portion of Earth’s crust. We do not know what rests on the ocean floor. We do not know what lives there. But we do know things can lurk and survive in the deepest ocean trench. This dearth in knowledge shrouds the ocean in mystery, leaving the deep waters of the world as an unexplored frontier. And we always fear what we do not know.

In Turner’s Fishermen at Sea, a whirlpool threatens to swallow up the fishermen’s boat and drag them to a watery Hell. The ominous feeling arising from the overall darkness of Fishermen depicts the ocean as an unstoppable force of nature that possesses the powers of a god. The darkness also gives the ocean an aura of primordial ambiguity.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft, a horror and science fiction writer of the early 20th Century, also explored the god-like qualities and mysteries of nature in his short fiction, such as “Dagon.” Lovecraft, unlike Turner, embodies the dark savagery of nature in a fictitious pantheon of dark gods that take pleasure in tormenting humanity. In both Turner and Lovecraft’s work, man fights nature, and man loses. Repeatedly.

In “Dagon,” a man who has been stranded at sea during a WWI naval raid accidently sails his raft into a portion of the ocean floor that has mysteriously risen to the ocean's surface after a large earthquake. The man finds obelisks decorated in images of sea monsters and other odd life forms and eventually comes face to face with Dagon, a weather god Lovecraft borrowed from ancient Canaanite lore. In Lovecraft’s tale, Dagon appears in the form of some humanoid monster and later haunts the nameless protagonist after he gets back to dry land. Dagon embodies the power Turner’s ocean has over the fishermen. Turner and Lovecraft painted and wrote of nature's conquest of mankind.
  • 12:00 AM

Peasant Women Digging up Potatoes and Elizabeth Bentley

Vincent van Gogh, Peasant Women Digging up Potatoes, 1885
This excerpt comes from Elizabeth Bentley, a young women who worked in a factory, and was interviewed by the House of Commons Committee in 1832.

"It was so dusty, the dust got up my lungs, and the work was so hard. I got so bad in health, that when I pulled the baskets down, I pulled my bones out of their places. I was about thirteen years old when it began coming, and it has got worse since." 

An excerpt from Isabel Wilson, 38 years old, mother and worker.

"I have been married 19 years and have had 10 bairns [children]:...My last child was born on Saturday morning, and I was at work on the Friday night... None of the children read, as the work is no regular..When I go below my lassie 10 years of age keeps house..."

Van Gogh's, Peasant Women Digging up Potatoes, is similar to other van Gogh paintings with peasants as the subject. But this one directly relates to the excerpts above. Times were tough for peasants and the working class during the time of industrialism, even more so for women. This painting depicts a women hard a work and uncomfortably bent over.  Van Gogh was an expert at capturing the laborious work that the peasant had to perform. It's telling that he doesn't show their faces - they are anyone, everyone.

Especially in comparison to the excerpt from Elizabeth Bentley, this painting is the image one would picture while listening to the words of the women above
. Women had to not only worry about themselves, but often times their children. The statement from Mrs. Wilson exemplifies the toil that had to be done.

  • 12:00 AM

Saturn Devouring His Son and Mrs. Dalloway

Perhaps the most startling and disturbing piece of his collection, Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son depicts the god Saturn carnivorously eating his son, fearing that his children would one day overthrow him. One would argue that such grotesque imagery does not and cannot mesh with Virginia Woolf’s 1925 portrait of Clarissa Dalloway—an overly-reminiscent semi-socialite preparing for a soiree.
Francisco Goya, Saturn Devouring His Son,
In comparing the two works, I have found it crucial to interpret Goya’s piece in an alternative fashion than most would. I see less of a monstrous god tearing at the flesh of a human and more of a deranged old man feasting on his youth. Saturn, painted as if on the verge of tears, desperately crams the body of a youthful, fit man into his mouth. Grey-haired and weathered, it is almost as if the man hopes to find the Fountain of Youth in his poor son’s body—wishing to taste the hazy memories of juvenescence.

Clarissa Dalloway, “who [feels] very young, but at the same time unspeakably aged," constantly dwells on the past. When venturing into the city to prepare for her party, Dalloway reflects on her youth in Bourton, questioning her choices in life and love. Attempting to fill the gaps torn by her aging self, Dalloway constantly seeks company, feeding off the energy of those around her. She finds herself longingly gawking at those younger than her, remarking “They looked so clean and sound…she in an apricot bloom of powder…she loved Lords; she loved youth…” In a way, Dalloway is the human embodiment of Goya’s creation. Starving from the turmoil of old age, both characters wish to reclaim a sense of power, control, and vitality—cannibalistically sucking from the youth of those closest to them. 
  • 12:00 AM

Nighthawks and The Killers

Edward Hopper, Nighthawks, 1942. 

The door of Henry’s lunch-room opened and two men came in. They sat down at the counter. … Outside it was getting dark. The street light came on outside the window. The two men at the counter read the menu. From the other end of the counter Nick Adams watched them. He had been talking to George when they came in... ‘That’s the dinner,’ George explained. ‘You can get that at six o'clock.’

George looked at the clock on the wall behind the counter.

‘It’s five o'clock

‘The clock says twenty minutes past five,’ the second man said.

‘It’s twenty minutes fast.’

‘Oh, to hell with the clock,’ the first man said.”

- Ernest Hemingway, The Killers

Only a dim street light and interior lighting of a diner illuminate the shadowy recesses of Hopper’s street in his painting, Nighthawks. An accurate portrayal of American culture in the 1940s, Hopper’s subject matter was influenced by Hemingway’s 1927 short story The Killers. The quiet atmosphere and serenity of the night mutes the subtle, predatory current that taints the tranquility of the scene.The painting’s indifferent protagonists, a white-clad barman, two fedora’d men and a woman who resembles a starlet rather than a common streetwalker, avoid eye contact with the painting’s audience. Their ignorance effectively emphasizes the barrier that Hopper creates as means of separating his audience from the dangers residing in Nighthawks.

Hemingway, in The Killers, sets his tale in another 24 hour diner.  As a small town’s local restaurant serves its steady flow of clientele in the post-afternoon snack and pre-dinner mealtime, two hit men disrupt the business’s peace.  Their superiority spark the staff’s tentative frustration and Nick Holden’s downplayed courage. In his attempts at defending the diner’s negro employee, Nick finds himself tied to the cook, while the two hit men impatiently plan their impending murder. Dramatizing the suave brashness of a mafia, Hemingway initially introduced the two hit men as common trouble makers who refused to adhere to the diner’s menu policies. Of course, their innocence was quickly strangled by their mission to “kill [a Swede] for a friend. Just to oblige a friend.”  To make matters worse, the diner’s broken clock confuses the hit men and the reader, creating a timeless quality to the dangers that Nick and the restaurant staff face.  Hopper mimics this same infinite, through paranoia, by isolating and ostracizing the diner from any mechanism that alludes to the passage of time. His painting does not include a clock that assures the sun rise in few hours. Instead, the blanket of shadows that shroud the abandoned streets push the viewer closer into the diner’s radiant interior -- closer to danger. 

  • 11:40 PM

Starry Night Over the Rhone and Guinevere

Starry Night Over the Rhone, Vincent Van Gogh, 1888
As she turns her gaze
Down the slope to the harbor where I lay
Anchored for a day

Guinevere had golden hair
Like yours, mi'lady, like yours
Streaming out when we'd ride
Through the warm wind down by the bay
Seagulls circle endlessly
I sing in silent harmony
We shall be free
- David Crosby, Guinevere

Vincent Van Gogh painted this unforgettable image, Starry Night Over the Rhone, in 1888. This painting depicts a nighttime view of the town of Arles, along the bank of the river Rhone. It was painted on a bank only a few minutes walk away from where Van Gogh was living. The painting exhibits obvious similarities to the more famous The Starry Night, although, I feel this painting is superior. Unlike The Starry Night, the eye is not immediately directed towards the sky by swirls. Instead, a horizontal line divides the painting into two halves, neither outdoing the other. This gives the viewer more freedom to wander about the painting without feeling distracted or conflicted. The more textured brushstrokes on the top half appear more aggressive and physical, while the bottom half feels comparatively serene.

When considering the couple in the foreground, I was reminded of the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young song
Guinevere, a romantic tune set among the sights and sounds of a harbor. The lyrics from the last verse depict a couple walking along the bank of a harbor, losing themselves among the anchored ships and endless circling seagulls in the sky. Starry Night Over the Rhone reflects a similar sentiment, with the calmly anchored boats on the bottom, contrasted by the endless stars in the sky. Thinking of the painting from the point of view of the couple gives it a completely different perspective and reveals the true source of its power-an ordinary nighttime scene transformed into something extraordinary, not by any persons’ doing, but by simply being.

  • 12:00 AM

The Daughters Of Edward Darley Boit and The Virgin Suicides

John Singer Sargent, Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, 1882
You’ve just stepped into a place were you are not welcome. Their gaze meets yours and you immediately go to turn away. You’ve locked eyes with the Boit daughters. They are mesmerizing, and utterly untouchable. These sisters are the focus of John Singer Sargent’s The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit. The girls in the painting are just as mysterious as the Lisbon sisters in Jeffrey Eugenides’ 1993 novel The Virgin Suicides.

Julia Boit, the youngest, resembles the spirit and joys of youth. While Florence and Jane, hide in the dark ashamed of the adolescence. None of the daughters in the painting ever married, and they all turned to each other for support. They were a cult in and of themselves. The Lisbon sisters of suburban Detroit allowed no one in either, and remained aloof to the outside community. Eugenides writes, “It didn't matter in the end how old they had been, or that they were girls, but only that we had loved them, and that they hadn't heard us calling, still do not hear us, up here in the tree house, with our thinning hair and soft bellies, calling them out of those rooms where they went to be alone for all time, alone in suicide, which is deeper than death, and where we will never find the pieces to put them back together.”

As you try to piece the Boit sisters’ stories together, you find your self faced with an impossible task. They are connected, yet eerily separated from each other. These nineteenth-century sisters’are cold and they beckon you to drop your gaze. The Lisbon sisters hold the same mystery, the closer you get to these girls you realized how far they are from reality. They are beautifully haunting, and hard to shake.

  • 12:00 AM

Lion Devouring A Rabbit an On the Origin of Species

Eugene Delacroix, Lion Devouring a Rabbit, 1856
On the Origin of Species, published by Charles Darwin in 1859, shaped the world of science and the secular world forever. Eugene Delacroix created Lion Devouring a Rabbit only three years prior to Darwin's masterwork. Within these three years of contemplation for his new painting, buzz about "Natural Selection" and "Descent with modification" zipped throughout the ears of all Europeans.

In Darwin's third chapter, titled "Struggle for Existence," he describes the direct competition among and between species. The world plays a balance game of keeping life in check. On one side, rabbits have been known to reproduce rapidly and could overpopulate a given area with bunnies. The lions (or predators) counteract the immense amounts of rabbits by eating the majority.

Now lets say that within this large springtime rabbit population, there were some exceptionally fast rabbits that could escape a lion's clutches. Of course, it's not all that simple, but the species exhibits signs of evolution and natural selection. On the other hand, catastrophism, a concept thought of by Malthus, and strongly revered by Darwin, tells the tale of the world washing over itself with a cleansing of species. Or, it may be known as a catastrophe that can wipe out many species.

Darwin writes, "
In looking at Nature, it is most necessary to keep the foregoing considerations always in mind never to forget that every single organic being around us may be said to be striving to the utmost to increase in numbers; that each lives by a struggle at some period of its life; that heavy destruction inevitably falls either on the young or old." 
For the destruction of Delacroix's rabbit, it certainly has reached its "heavy destruction." The dark mosses show nature's true colors for destruction and survival of the fittest. The expressive and romantic exaggeration of the lion's mane gets down to business, and no matter how beautiful he may be, he still destroys so his kind can move forward, knowing nothing of how he contributes to the success of natural selection.
  • 12:00 AM

Manao Tupapau

Paul Gauguin, Manao tupapau, 1892
Paul Gauguin desired an escape from Europe, but more specifically from France. Yet, as evinced in his own notes, he was unable to truly ever escape French rule due to his regrettably poor ability to speak any other language. Subsequently, Gauguin would be restricted to only journey the colonies of France.

Within his travels Gauguin’s subjects were most commonly brown, sometimes Samoan, and almost always youthful women. Any critic who would endeavor to cut down Gauguin’s work would almost certainly attack the ostensible flaws, sexism and racism. And accordingly a critic would almost always choose to first examine his most famous work, Manao tupapau, to bolster their arguments.

Through even the most perfunctory reading of Gauguin’s exceedingly abundant narrative/commentary on his life in the isles of French colonized Tahiti, Martinique, and Polynesia, one can understand the reductive quality of the aforementioned criticism.

The two principle reasons Gauguin painted M.t. were to address his distaste for Manet’s Olympia and his ambivalence concerning colonialism. Manet’s Olympia possesses a subject described by many as seductive, inviting, and erotic. Olympia’s viewers feel solicited, if not appealed to come into Olympia’s bed to enjoy her pleasures.

Gauguin expresses his disfavor of this female allurer by making M.t’s viewers feel almost shameful for the entreaties. Tehura, Gauguin’s long-time mistress and subject for M.t., lies frightfully on her stomach exactly opposite the stance of Olympia. Her face evokes auras of fear, abandonment, and contempt – also directly contrasting Manet’s subject. M.t.’s viewer cannot feel the same invitation, if anything he should feel rejection and scorn.

So, what else can we glean from M.t. on the subject of colonialism? With Tehura serving as any indicator, we simply understand that we can’t empathize with her strife. The viewer’s occupation of her home, and attempt at her, cannot be comprehended from the recipient’s end – colonialism can’t be understood via Colonizers to Colonized. Also, let the viewer begin to question the significance of the ominous figure overseeing Tehura. Dark, without discernable shape, and alarming; Gauguin’s reflection on colonialism should be overt.
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Postman Joseph Roulin

Postman Joseph Roulin, 1888, Postman Joseph Roulin 

The Roulin Family is group of portraits that Vincent van Gogh painted in Arles between 1888 and 1889. The portraits, featuring Joseph, his wife Augustine and their three children, Armand, Camille and Marcelle, was VanGogh’s attempt at practicing his portraiture technique. During that time period, finding a family that was willing to sit down for portraits, in spite the instantaneous results of photography, was rare.  

The portrait of Postman Joseph Roulin, featuring the father dressed in the customary blue of a carrier’s attire, interests me more than any other Roulin portrait. Van Gogh uses an imaginative technique to create the shading and seating posture of Joseph.  Roulin’s acquired the unique child-like style that people like to refer too. Van Gogh’s attempt at using concrete, non-blended colors to shade the deep blue of his suit, becomes more apparent as the viewer’s eye descends below Joseph’s buttons. The dark contrast between the deep arctic blue and the light colors pushes Joseph’s form forward, towards the audience. Also, I like his beard. 
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Paris Street; Rainy Day

Gustave Caillebotte, Paris street; Rainy Day,1877

      Paris, being one of the biggest tourist destinations in the world, is best known for its luxurious lifestyle along with its landmarks: The Eiffel Tower, Louvre, Arc de Triomphe, and many others. The stories of the catabombs and underground tunnels below echo through out the city. Tunnels run below the city of Paris that lead the giant lime stone quarries. These quarries are the key source to most of the stone used to make these monuments buildings that we know today. The mining of these quarries resulted in over one hundred and fifty miles of tunnels and caverns that weave through out the underside of this monumental city.

     The maze that is the underside of Paris provides a strong history lesson. An explorer, within the endless miles of tunnels, can find Nazi Bunkers, French resistance rooms, and graffiti on the wall from the French Revolution that is sketched in with carbon black. It is not recommended for claustrophobic people to explore the catabombs due to their tight spaces and at some points, the explorer has to army crawl on his stomach. These tunnels are not all about fun and games. Exploring them is risky because they are often flooded and they have the possibility of collapsing. In 1774, the street “Rue d'Enfer” collapsed because of the strain on the tunnel walls. It is interesting to learn about the darker side of the "City of Light". These tunnels provide more than a story, they provide a historical background about revolution, progress and art.
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Munch, Edvard, Anxiety, 1863-1944 
Munch’s collection of Anxiety paintings, uses the same haunting faces of its characters, draws out a feeling of hopelessness and blank expression from its audiences. I admire Munch’s work in this collection because the unique landscapes and disfigured forms accurately reveal the “anxiety” that the paintings are known for. Of the collection, my favorite work is “Anxiety.”

The fiery colors of the background have no warmth behind the distressed faces, making it seem like a eternally regressing background. The painting clearly reveals Munch’s agoraphobia, through the muted and hopeless expressions of the people. Despite their obvious despair, Munch implies that the characters continue to walk forward, oblivious to anything but their living hell.  

The cool colors and striking contrast in outlines and shading that Munch uses, further pushes his subjects forward, creating a progressive motion that pushes them over the bridge. All his subjects are practically faceless, except for the woman in the foreground who is portrayed with both hands in a strangling motion around her own neck.

The expressions almost seem robotic and inhuman. Uniform motion only adds to the horror of this painting. The swirling colors of the background create a vortex that traps the audience within Munch’s sense of panic that the woman clearly expresses.

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Edvard Munch, Melancholy, 1891
Melancholy by Edvard Munch does not refer to one particular work or medium. It began as a pastel drawing in 1891, in 1892 Munch painted several versions and added “Yellow Boat” to the title, and in 1896 he created a woodcarving. These works were set in Asgårdstrand, Norway, where Munch spent most of his summers between 1889 and 1906. The main figure is said to represent writer Jappe Nielsen, who suffered for his hopeless love of Oda Krohg. She is pictured with her newly-married husband, Christian, on the pier. Ironically enough Christian Krohg, Norway’s leading artist at the time, published an article giving the painted version much praise and attention.

I enjoy the pastel sketch the most of the three mediums because I believe that Munch’s ability to portray desperation and melancholy feeling touches the surface of emotion, but both leaves freedom for and encouragingly accepts the honest passionate reaction of the viewer. Jappe’s figure is the most finished portion of the work. Behind him, his memories begin as the canvas unfolds into color and dimension. A darker line extending from the tip of his nose, across the bay and toward the figures seem to connect the two. The characters of his lost love and her new husband seem too painful to remember, thus are barely touched. As is the ocean, which opens up a plethora of opportunities for Oda to sail away and never return.

I enjoy this painting for its external simplicity as well as its complexity of line and movement. The seemingly unfinished canvas leaves a plethora of emotional opportunities for viewers that all revolve around the melancholy Jappe.
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The Artist's Mother

Geroges Seurat, The Artist's Mother, 1882-83

Georges Seurat lived a secluded and short life. Seurat neglected to socialize often and worked often in solitude. The only loving Seurat truly encountered was through his mother Ernestine Faivre. Seurat's sketch, The Artist's Mother, recites the tearful tale of his lonely life.

When Georges Seurat was born in 1859 to father Antoine-Christophe he was the youngest of three children and definitely not considered important. Antoine-Christophe, being a lawyer, only visited Seurat and Ernestine once a week destroying any kind of relationship between Seurat and his reclusive father. Ernestine became everything to Seurat in his childhood. When it came time for him to leave his mother behind and attend Paris' art academy at the age of 19, Seurat adopted his fathers isolated personality towards others.

Seurat continued his isolated way of work through his one year service in Frances military during 1879. Upon his return Seurat moved into a small art studio with two other young artists. It was here that Seurat sketched The Artist's Mother. All of Seurat's gloomy sentimentality can be felt in this portrayal of his mother. Just as Seurat missed his mother, you can feel the mother's pain at the absence of her son.

Georges Seurat accomplished many a great feats in his unexpectedly short life, and his mother supported him till the end. One year after The Artist's Mother Seurat moved into another studio that was only about a kilometer from his parents home. Seurat died in his mother's home two days after visiting her. The Artist's Mother carries the weight of a lost son.
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Woman with a Rake

Jean-Francois Millet, Woman with a Rake, 1856-57
The demure figure of Woman with a Rake acts as a trademark of the working class, laboring to harvest their own crops. Jean-François Millet’s work portrays the everyday life of the lower class farmers. Painting the laborers in their natural state and setting, Millet captures the simple, yet hard, lifestyle of the masses.

Off in the background, other women perform similar laborious tasks. However, they appear much less serene and upright than the sole figure in the foreground. While she casually peers down at the rake in hand, the rest of the women strain their backs as they work painstakingly hard.

Towards the right in Woman with a Rake, there lies a structure in the distance. It appears to be possibly a bridge in ruins, broken with age. This signifies the position of these working women. They are trapped in a life of labor, with no escape. These figures are a part of the farming class and will forever be in the taxing and bleak world of Woman with a Rake.
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Banks on the Seine at Suresnes

Georges Seurat, Banks on the Seine at Suresnes, 1883
Geroges Seurat’s Banks on the Siene at Suresnes holds great contrast in the subject matters. His Impressionist painting is both peaceful and disturbed. The man sits calmly by the serene waters of the Seine River in the quiet suburbs of Paris. However, the apparent train crossing through in the distance interrupts the soothing serenity in the rest of the scene.

A study for the final work, Bathers at Asnières, Banks contains a level of solitude which the former does not. Bathers contains numerous men, shirtless and sunbathing. The man in Banks loses his shirt and his hat, eliminating the lonesome peace of the preparatory study.

The sole man in Banks also stands out because of the construction of his form. Compared to the indefinite and smudged setting, the man is clearly outlined along with his shadow. This study for the final painting achieves a calm seclusion, while the finished product crowds and busies the   composition.
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Vincent van Gogh, Shoes, 1886-88

Everyone enjoys stories where the hero overcomes all odds and achieves some great goal. Heros such as Hercules completing his 12 labors, Bernini redeeming himself with The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, and even Rocky Balboa jogging up the staircase of Philadelphia Museum of Art forge inspiration. Vincent van Gogh fought to be one of those heroes. Unfortunately van Gogh's many obstacles in his path proved to be too much. Temporal Lobe Epilepsies, Bipolar disorder, Thujone poisoning and Lead poisoning from his diet, Hypergraphia, and frequent Sunstrokes were a few of his obstacles. van Gogh also failed miserably in careers before to becoming an artist. 

First at the an early age van Gogh worked as an art dealer for the Goupil and Co. firm. Shortly after receiving the position van Gogh was fired due to his attempts to assure customers why certain paintings on display were poor quality. After this blunder van Gogh tried out several different professions. Teacher, bookseller, and missionary, none of these held any more success. Even van Gogh's love life crumbled before his own eyes. The two women van Gogh fixated himself upon both felt differently. Eugenia, his first love, regarded van Gogh with disgust when he approached her, and Kee, van Gogh's first cousin, also rejected him for obvious reasons. This love for his cousin also destroyed what little respect van Gogh's father Minister Theodorus van Gogh. 

Vincent van Gogh's painting Shoes is one of van Gogh's only works displaying his struggle. Van Gogh's shoes lay in the street. They are worn down and broken just like him. His shoes have felt all of his pain. Vincent van Gogh killed himself on July 29, 1890. Van Gogh made it to the top of the Philadelphia Museum of Art stairs only for a moment, and now all that can be found is his Shoes.  
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Vampire (Love and Pain)

Edvard Much, Vampire (Love and Pain), 19894
Originally titled Love and Pain, Vampire represented a scandalous work by Edvard Munch in 1894. Between 1893-94, Munch painted three versions of Vampire, highlighting different portions in each. Furthermore, during the 1890s, Munch grouped several works under a common theme of love. These paintings include The Voice, Separation, Jealousy, The Kiss, Love and Pain, and Madonna. These works were displayed initially at an exhibition in Berlin. They were part of a larger undertaking by Munch know as,"The Frieze of Life," which explored themes such as love, fear, death, melancholy, and anxiety.

could portray a couple’s loving embrace or a vampire’s tortured grip. Some interpret “vampire” as a reference to prostitution. Either way, Nazi Germany deemed this piece “morally degenerate.” Nonetheless, a thought provoking work, it is hard to deny to the complex feelings expressed in this painting despite Munch dismissing the picture as "just a woman kissing a man on the neck." For the past 70 years, this controversial work featuring a woman with fiery red hair squeezing and pressing her lips against an unidentifiable man has remained in the hands of a private collector. However, in a 2008 Sotheby's auction in New York, the piece sold for $38,162,500, shattering the previous record of 31 million dollars set for The Scream by Munch.
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Vincent Van Gogh, Irises, 1889
Vincent van Gogh admitted himself to asylum at Saint Paul-de-Mausole, in Saint-Remy in May 1889. During his stay there he was surrounded by gardens, which obviously was the inspiration for Irises. Starry Night was also created around this time, along with about 130 other paintings.

In September of that same year a few of van Gogh’s paintings were shown in Rhone at the the Société des Artistes Indépendants Exhibition in Paris. His brother, Theo, wrote him shortly after this, “The exhibition of the Independents is over and I’ve got your irises back; it is one of your good things. It seems to me that you are stronger when you paint true things like that, or like the stagecoach at Tarascon, or the head of a child, or the underbrush with the ivy in vertical format. The form is so well defined, and the whole is full of colour.”

Van Gogh viewed this painting as a “study,” and therefore there is not drawing of it. He studied the movement of each flower individually, making them unique, and giving each one their own vivid coloring.  Also, like other artists of this time, Van Gogh was influenced by Japanese woodblock prints. This painting in particular shows the influence that the Japanese woodblocks had, especially seen through the thick and dark outlines of the flowers.

Irises is currently located in Los Angeles, at The Getty Center. It’s also on the list of the most expensive paintings ever sold, selling for 54 million dollars in 1987. 
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Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève

Henri Labrouste, Bibliotheque Sainte-Genevieve, 1839-1842
Henri Labrouste’s architectural career was sparked, and consequently defined, with his first public commission, Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève. From 1839 to 1842 the architect worked methodically on his deign for what would signal a new movement in the architecture world at large – eclecticism. The building’s highly anticipated opening for public use occurred in 1851.

The library was devised as a quasi-basilica attributed to the Roman mode, with principal foundation as a prolonged rectangle. The book stacking on the ground floor mirrors the facade's harsh rustication outwardly. Labrouste’s second floor in his monumental library contains an immense reading-room, and can be accessed by a staircase block, which extends centrally from the rear façade. The stairway highlights Labrouste’s mathematical prowess, for a viewer is afforded the ability to supervise any point of the reading-room opposite the entrance.

Of the most astonishing features of the library, the structure of the reading-room stands apart. For the first time in a monumental structure exposed iron framing was employed for aesthetic value. The huge frame is comprised of intricately decorated arches and piers. Along with these iron works, the colossal arhced windows cover the walls of the Library. These large windows let in ample amounts of natural light, which produce an interesting skeletal shadow when shining on the meshing of the framework.
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Mahana no atua (Day of God)

Mahana no atua (Day of God), Paul Gauguin, c.1894.

Burdened by a lack of business and physical isolation in the French colony, Paul Gauguin expresses his frustration towards European imperialism by contrasting native Tahiti with the “proper” civilization of France. In his painting Mahana no atua, translated as The Day of God, Gauguin remarks on practicing non-Christian faiths by depicting a series of scenes from a Tahitian ritual. The high-flying colors and grandiose juxtaposition of scenes creates a jig-saw pattern of nature and religion to contrast the primitively- structured forms of the Tahitians. Three nude Tahitian women recline at the forefront of the painting, acting as the only barrier that exists between the viewer and the omniscient Polynesian statue. The background shapes the painting, pushing movement towards the ritual by acting as a wall that stops the viewer’s sight from regressing too far into the surrounding landscape.

Stylistically, Gauguin creates the religious idol, the central protagonist of Mahana no atua, to symbolize all Eastern religions. However, the true blend of cultures that compose the central idol get lost in translation. The statue bares too much resemblance to the Polynesian god Hina for it to represent other Vedic and Asian cultures. Furthermore, the painting’s seemingly antiquated subject matter disrespects the sanctity of the Tahitian idol, portraying the religion as anti-Christian and uncivilized instead of in a positive light.

The figures in the foreground overshadow the more-relevant characters in the background. The distanced characters are fully clothed and are caught preparing for a prayer-like ritual. Along the pale yellow shoreline leading away from the idol, a boat, cabin and a horse-like animal allude to more advanced and cultured behavior. However, a cursory look at the painting will only allow the viewer to embrace the antiquated and uncensored behavior of the nude forms in the foreground. The audience will immediately associate the Polynesian practices with savagery.

Multicolored water creates a kaleidoscope-esque pattern that pushes perspective towards the awkwardly placed figures relaxing in different positions on the beach’s shore. The disproportionate form of the provocative woman in the foreground, pictured as combing her hair and dipping her feet into the ocean’s radiant water, coupled with the ominous idol, creates a vertical divide between the endlessly retreating shore and water, pushing perspective closer to the blotched cloud-filled sky. Gauguin’s use of flagrant colors only taints the religious message that the painter tries to convey. The subdued white hues pose no match for the gaudy, tropical landscape. In comparison to Gauguin’s other paintings, Mahana no atua does more to displace native culture rather than sanctify it.
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Dance at Le moulin de la Galette

Auguste Renoir, Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette, 1876
August Renoir's Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette depicts a cheerful scene of a typical sunday afternoon in Paris. Once a week, working class people would dress up and gather at Le Moulin de la Galette to drink, dance, socialize and eat galettes. Interestingly, the figures in the painting were not actual attendees, instead Renoir created portraits of his friends, with the occasional professional model thrown in.

Compositionally, the painting is chaotically crowded. From the foreground all the way to the back of the painting, there appears to be an endless amount of people. The only points of relief from the mass of humanity are near the dancing couple on the left, and the space above the heads in the distance at the very top which occupies one fifth of the painting. Every visible face bears an expression of merriment, which, in conjunction with warm lighting creates an instant sensation of joviality, even upon first glance. The sunlight appears patchy, and creates somewhat of a polka dot pattern on several individuals in the foreground. The couple on the left seem to have found a large patch of sun, creating a spotlight effect. Renoir's ability to turn such a quant get-together into a painting full of emotional surprises make him one of the most celebrated impressionist artists.
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The Potato Eaters

Vincent van Gogh, The Potato Eaters, 1885
When Vincent van Gogh set out to create The Potato Eaters, his goal was not to generate beauty. By choosing rough figures and painting them in such an unattractive light, Van Gogh hoped to capture their hard work and labor. He wanted the viewer to see that the everyday worker earned their food by tilling it themselves and eventually getting to eat it. Unfortunately, The Potato Eaters did not receive the response Van Gogh had hoped. The public, as well as critics, hated the piece. They despised the hideous figures, even though Van Gogh had intended for them to be ugly. The viewers disagreed with the dark colors after becoming accustomed to Van Gogh's typically colorful palette. Potato Eaters was also the artist's largest piece. Standing 82 by 114 centimeters, the dull-colored work was quite substantial. After the unanimously negative response to Potato Eaters, Van Gogh vowed to never create such a large piece again. He returned to his usual repertoire of color when creating At Eternity's Gate five years later.

At Eternity's Gate, while containing a more sorrowful subject matter, received a more positive response because of it's bright colors. The man with his head in his hands is painted in rich cerulean and sits near a red-orange crackling fire.

It is clear that people continued to dislike The Potato Eaters years later. In 1991, the Vincent van Gogh Museum was robbed. Included in the stolen works was Potato Eaters. Roughly half an hour after the crime, the burglars ditched the priceless art and fled.
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