Rainy Day Museum

Alfred George Stevens’s “Portrait of Sarah Bernhardt” (1885)

Alfred Stevens’s “Portrait of Sarah Bernhardt” (1885)

We typically scoff when the weather forecasters tell us that rain is on the way. Well, today it finally happened. Not that the heavens opened up, but my windshield did get a bit dirty. So Martine and I decided to visit the Hammer Museum in Westwood, which is located only a few hundred paces from where I work. I knew from passing it many times that the focus was on modern art, but there are two galleries with European art from the 19th century and earlier.

The painting which most caught my eye was by the Belgian painter Alfred Émile Léopold Stevens (1823-1906). It was an 1885 portrait of actress Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923). I was particularly impressed with the theatrical-style lighting from the left, including a striking glint around the model’s right eye. At the height of her career, Bernhardt looks like a commanding figure, even with the frilly ribbon around her neck. Her lips are pursed as if determined to get her way, yet she is delightfully feminine at the same time.

Also impressive was a Titian entitled “Portrait of a Man in Armor” and Rembrandt’s “Portrait of a Man Wearing a Black Hat” (both below).

Rembrandt’s “Portrait of a Man Holding a Black Hat”

Rembrandt’s “Portrait of a Man Holding a Black Hat”

Titian’s “Portrait of a Man in Armor”

Titian’s “Portrait of a Man in Armor”

It’s not that the museum’s holdings were all portraits: It’s just that it was the portraits that most held my attention.

What did not hold my attention was the museum’s substantial holdings of contemporary art. Call me a Philistine if you will, or even a Visigoth, but I prefer art that holds my attention. Stevens’s portrait of Bernhardt had me coming back several times. I did not even feel like entering the contemporary galleries after even the most cursory glances of their contents.

The Etruscan Smile

A Smile That Shines Across Millennia

A Smile That Shines Across Millennia

The whole world of the smiling girl in he above photo is long gone, but her smile still speaks to us. It tells us that, even in Ancient Rome, there was something to laugh about. When I took the picture on Friday, I did not note the provenance of the figurine, but I wonder if it was Etruscan. This ancient people is the only one that has allowed itself to be depicted as wreathed in smiles—very contrary to the picture we have of the dour Romans.

Below is a hollow cinerary urn from the Banditaccia Necropolis showing a married couple, whose ashes are presumably intermingled therein:

Hi, We’re Dead. Why Don’t You Come and Join Us?

Hi, We’re Dead. Why Don’t You Come and Join Us?

I guess my little figurine is not Etruscan.Their images always show them as having sharp features and almond eyes. The girl above is definitely Roman.

Not to change the subject, but it reminds me somewhat of the following poem by Robert Browning:

My Last Duchess

That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will ‘t please you sit and look at her? I said
‘Frà Pandolf’ by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, ‘t was not
Her husband’s presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek: perhaps
Frà Pandolf chanced to say, ‘Her mantle laps
Over my lady’s wrist too much,’ or ‘Paint
Must never hope to reproduce the faint
Half-flush that dies along her throat:’ such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
For calling up that spot of joy. She had
A heart—how shall I say?—too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, ‘t was all one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace—all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least. She thanked men,—good! but thanked
Somehow—I know not how—as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody’s gift. Who’d stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
In speech—(which I have not)—to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say, ‘Just this
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
Or there exceed the mark’—and if she let
Herself be lessened so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse,
—E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose
Never to stoop. Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive. Will ‘t please you rise? We’ll meet
The company below then. I repeat,
The Count your master’s known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretence
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object. Nay, we’ll go
Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!

That line about “all smiles stopped together” is grimly humorous.


Death in Antonine Egypt


Faiyum Mummy Portrait of a Woman in Her Prime

Faiyum Mummy Portrait of a Woman in Her Prime

It is becoming a Black Friday tradition for Martine and I to go to—no, not a shopping center!—but the Getty Villa Museum in Pacific Palisades to view their Greek and Roman antiquities.

I have always been drawn to the late Egyptian mummies from around A.D. 200, roughly the period of Rome’s Antonine, or so-called “good”, emperors. There was an active Greek community at the time in Alexandria and other coastal areas near the mouth of the Nile, mostly consisting of civilian and military officials. Some were Pagan, others Coptic Christian. Especially around Faiyum, hundreds of mummies were found with painted portraits of the deceased. Strangely, most of them died in their childhood, youth, or the prime of their life. (C.A.T. scans of mummies found with intact painted portraits showed that the age of the body corresponded with the age of the painting.)

Below is an epitaph of one Krokodeilos, who died during this period:

O traveller, stop by me, and learn well who I was:
Besarion’s most loved son, by name Krokodeilos,
But two and twenty summers was my whole life’s span.
Entombed my body lies, beneath a mass of sand,
But my soul’s gone heav’nwards, to Oblivion’s land.
Some day all mortal men in Hades must reside;
This thought brings comfort to the shades of those who’ve died.

Mummy Portrait of a Young Man

Mummy Portrait of a Young Man

At the time these paintings were made, there was very little wall painting being done; whereas the art of mummy portraits was a highly regarded profession. Many of these mummy face paintings have survived with rich coloration intact. Since the Greeks constituted the upper classes of the communities in which they lived, they could usually well afford to commemorate their dead in this way.

The only question I have is: Why did they not produce face paintings for the dead who passed away at an elderly age?




Peru in the Rear View Mirror

Schoolchildren with Teacher in Lima’s Plaza de Armas

Schoolchildren with Teacher in Lima’s Plaza de Armas

It is now almost two months since I’ve returned from Peru, and it’s beginning to seem as if it all happened years ago. When you replace one present with another, it becomes part of an ever-diminishing past. Well, I have no intention of jettisoning some beautiful memories, such as:

  1. Seeing Peruvian schoolchildren, such as the ones above in front on Lima’s Palacio de Gobierno. (You can see the security personnel in the background.) Kids always make me feel good about the future, even if I don’t have any of my own.
  2. Being awestruck by the Volcano Sabancaya in eruption from Colca Canyon.
  3. Reliving my past by visiting the most ornate and gorgeous Catholic Churches I have ever seen.
  4. Experiencing heartfelt gratitude in Puno when I bought a handmade alpaca scarf from an old Aymara woman.
  5. Eating delicious wor won ton soup at a Peruvian Chinese restaurant, or chifa, on a cold day.
  6. Interacting with the Peruvian people in my broken Spanish, and finding it no bar to communicating with them.
  7. Feeling that the Inca moment in history is still going on, especially in the Sacred Valley.

Because today is Thanksgiving, I will give thanks for Peru and for all the other wonderful places I have seen, all the kind people I have met, and that I still have it in me to want more.


Santa Monica 1966-2014

The Santa Monica Promenade Today

The Santa Monica Promenade Today

When I first arrived in Los Angeles between Christmas and New Year in 1966, the whole place looked brand spanking new. I had just arrived on the Santa Fe Railroad’s El Capitan at Union Station and saw a city very different from the grimy red brick and industrial pollution that was Cleveland. Within the first two days after my arrival, I took the Santa Monica #3 bus from San Vicente and Barrington down to the Santa Monica Mall, or, as it’s called today, the Promenade.

I was impressed by the neatness and cleanliness of the place. There were movie theaters, restaurants, bookstores (yes, several), anchored by a J. C. Penney at the north end by Wilshire. It used to be fun to visit Santa Monica. The place made such an impression on my friends that most of them still think I live in Santa Monica, rather than West L. A.

But now, I try to avoid Santa Monica, even though it begins a scant two blocks west of me. All the restaurants I loved are gone, replaced by places that are more pretentious and less tasty. The bookstores? Now there is only one, a Barnes & Noble at the Wilshire end. The movie theaters are sort of hanging on, but it looks as if the Criterion were history. The J. C. Penney store is long gone.

What changed? There are two ways of looking at it. On one hand, the city has become a ghetto for the 1%, with only a few downmarket neighborhoods along Pico Boulevard that escaped gentrification. Also, I have changed. My taste in food is probably far different from that of the 21-year-old that ate at Castillo’s (the daughter of the owner was muy guapa), Las Casuelas, Marco Polo, Chowder Call, the Broken Drum (“You Can’t Beat It!”), the Little Inn Swedish Smorgasbord, El Tepa, the Great American Food & Beverage Company, and the El Sombrero on Fifth Street. Somewhere between Santa Monica becoming too hoity-toity for me, and my own self developing into another person, I found the place chilled me.

Oh, I still use their excellent library—though I have to pay for the privilege now. But Martine and I almost never eat in Santa Monica any more. Today, for a change, we ate at the El Cholo on Eleventh and Wilshire. And we regretted it.

Take Your Pet Everywhere

This Is Going Too Far!

This Is Going Too Far!

Before I write another word, I want you to know that I am against this trend. I think there is an implied threat of legal action if one’s beloved oochie-woochie poochie is denied admittance anywhere. It’s a nasty trick to play on someone who is probably earning minimum wage and is afraid of repercussions if he or she is responsible for making a bad decision.

In the October 20, 2014 issue of The New Yorker, there is an article by Patricia Marx entitled “Pets Allowed.” It discusses the trend of people who have applied for an emotional support permit for their animal. We are not talking about legitimate service animals, such as seeing-eye dogs, but of a quasi-legal form of “permitting” pet owners to take their animals wherever they go. Your “permit” comes with a letter attesting to your emotional need to be always close to your pet. The article contains one such letter:

To Whom It May Concern:
RE: Patricia Marx
Ms. Marx has been evaluated for and diagnosed with a mental health disorder as defined in the DSM-5. Her psychological condition affects daily life activities, ability to cope, and maintenance of psychological stability. It can also influence her physical status.

Ms. Marx has a turtle that provides significant emotional support, and ameliorates the severity of symptoms that affect her daily ability to fulfill her responsibilities and goals. Without the companionship, support, and care-taking activities [?!] of her turtle, her mental health and daily living activities are compromised. In my opinion, it is a necessary component of treatment to foster improved psychological adjustment, support functional living activities [?!], her well being, productivity in work and home responsibilities, and amelioration of the severity of psychological issues she experiences in some specific situations to have an Emotional Support Animal (ESA).

She has registered her pet with the Emotional Support Animal Registration of America [sounds real, don’t it?]. This letter further supports her pet as an ESA, which entitles her to the rights and benefits legitimized by the Fair Housing Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. It allows exceptions to housing, and transportation services that otherwise would limit her from being able to be accompanied by her emotional support animal.

You can buy cloth ESA badges from Amazon.Com. Does the buyer have to provide proof? Nope. Are you interested in getting into this scam for yourself? Just click here or here. You might have to fill out a questionnaire, mail a check, but you will not find yourself in front of a real psychiatrist diagnosing your actual mental health condition.

This brings me to one of the more squirrely elements of our culture of fear. We know we must not discriminate against the disabled, whose rights are indeed protected by law, but mental health is a big gap in our healthcare system—one you can drive an eighteen-wheeler through. There exists in general a thriving industry aiding people who want to take advantage of the rights of the disabled without themselves being disabled. You can see the disability stickers on cars driven by perfectly healthy young people who just happen to prefer close-in parking spaces.

What bothers me about the whole ESA thing falls neatly into three categories:

  1. Landlords will rent apartments to tenants with an ESA, regardless how phony, and even if there is a no pets policy. Martine and I are currently being victimized by one such dog who barks and whines for hours on end because her owner has decided to dispense with her “care-giving” services for an evening.
  2. If the trend gets even more out of hand, people will refuse service animals, which are in fact legitimate and certified.
  3. People’s pets can cause inconvenience to others, such as when an airline had to call in a hazmat team to clean up a particularly noisome pile of dog do left in the aisle of a flight.





Who Wants To Be President?

I Can’t Think of Any Advantages, Can You?

I Can’t Think of Any Advantages, Can You?

The above picture of a standee of Mitt Romney after his 2012 electoral debacle pretty much sums up for me the joys and sorrows of being the President of the United States.

I remember while growing up people asking me if I wanted to be President. While I was immensely flattered at the time, now I think the presidency is a booby prize, similar to being one of those carnival sideshow attractions in which people throw pies at your face or a ball that dunks you into a tank. This country is so evenly divided between the two political parties that you are guaranteed of being hated by millions of people, many of whom would like to see you impeached, assassinated, or at the very least publicly humiliated.

The only U.S. President in recent times to have been liked by more than 50.1% of the population was Ronald Reagan, and then even he came in for a forest of brickbats toward the end of his second term when it appeared that his memory was fading. I was actually at the Reagan Presidential Library when Ronnie died. A newsman pushed a microphone into my face and asked me what I thought his legacy would be. I answered: “I didn’t care much for him as President, but he was a good communicator.” Of course, that never made it into any news program.

I can see why Hillary Clinton may decide not to run in 2016: She would be roundly hated by millions. She saw that whole Kenneth Starr impeachment charade over her husband’s peccadilloes, not to mention that whole Whitewater fracas. And there were some who wanted to frame her for the “murder” of Vince Foster in 1993.

Would I run for President? I would—but only if I could have right-wing pundits executed at will and senate and house members arrested for being too obstreperous. And what are the chances of that ever happening?


The Liberator and the Ombú

I Had to Come All the Way to Peru to See This Argentinian Tree

I Had to Come All the Way to Peru to See This Argentinian Tree

It is a tree from the pampas of Argentina, which, although I have been to that country twice, I have not yet seen at ground level. My first acquaintance with the tree is from W. H. Hudson’s little known (but excellent) Tales of the Pampas:

In all this district, though you should go twenty leagues to this way and that, you will not find a tree as big as this ombú, standing solitary, where there is no house; therefore it is known to all as “the ombú,” as if but one existed; and the name of all this estate, which is now ownerless and ruined, is El Ombú. From one of the higher branches, if you can climb, you will see the lake of Chascomus, two thirds of a league away, from shore to shore, and the village on its banks. Even smaller things will you see on a clear day; perhaps a red line moving across the water—a flock of flamingos flying in their usual way. A great tree standing alone, with no house near it; only the old brick foundations of a house, so overgrown with grass and weeds that you have to look closely to find them. When I am out with my flock in the summer time, I often come here to sit in the shade. It is near the main road; travellers, droves of cattle, the diligence, and bullock-carts pass in sight. Sometimes, at noon, I find a traveller resting in the shade, and if he is not sleeping we talk and he tells me the news of that great world my eyes have never seen.

Then, in September, while walking in Lima’s Pueblo Libre between the Museo Larco and the National Museum of Anthropology, I saw my first Ombú, which I photographed.

Sign Identifying the Ombú Tree

Sign Identifying the Ombú Tree

What I find interesting about this sign, and this particular tree, is that the seed was purported to have been sowed by José de San Martín, an Argentinian who is considered by the Peruvians as the great liberator of their country. Curiously, Simon Bolivar did more than San Martín to actually free the country from the Spanish yoke, but it was the Argentinian who first declared Peru’s freedom. In the end, it was Bolivar who finally sealed the deal by his military victories.

They would have done it together, if it were not for the fact that they didn’t get along well together. Bolivar felt that San Martín was horning in on his action, and that he was quite capable of actually liberating Peru by himself. The discouraged San Martín returned to Argentina.

In 2011, Martine and I visited his tomb in the Metropolitan Cathedral of Buenos Aires, where a military honor guard protects his remains.

So it was not only my first Ombú, but it was a historically important one at that.


The Chinese Garden

Craggy Limestone Rock from Lake Tai

Craggy Limestone Rock from Lake Tai in China

Today Martine and I visited the Huntington Library and Gardens in San Marino. As usual, we started in the Chinese Garden, with its strangely impressive rocks such as the free-standing one in the above photograph. With Martine’s persistent tendonitis (or whatever it is), she seems to do better with light exercise, especially on a sunny day. We also put in about two or three miles of walking on the extensive grounds of the gardens.

The most spectacular gardens are the Chinese and adjoining Japanese gardens, together with the cactus garden and the lily ponds. The rose garden was still very much in bloom, though the herb garden—a particular favorite with Martine—is undergoing extensive replanting with the change of the seasons.

We are members of the Huntington, allowing us to go there any time for free.



Serendipity: David Stofsky Talks with God

To Me, This Was the Highlight of John Clellon Holmes’s Go

To Me, This Was the Highlight of John Clellon Holmes’s Go

In the book, David Stofsky is Beat poet Allen Ginsberg. His poet and dope fiend friend Ancke (Herbert Huncke) is staying with him and has just been tucked him for the night. The chapter continues:

But that night he had a dream, without trappings, without symbols; a dream of extraordinary clarity while he dreamt it, but which he could not remember at all clearly when he awoke.

He walked down an inky corridor, which like one of those in [his friend] Waters’ building or in his own, and he was out of breath, as if he had come up many long and tiring flights. The door at the end of that corridor did not surprise him, nor, when he opened it without knocking, did the large and shadowy hall beyond it; a hall such as one can rent for fifteen dollars a night in Harlem brownstones; long, the fancy moldings, and dusty crepe streamers giving it a pathetic and abandoned appearance. Nor was he surprised by the throne at one end of it, a throne that was not surrounded by an ambient light, or even very clean and polished, but still somehow regal and entirely proper to the figure sitting there: an aging man of once powerful physique, now vaguely weary, His untrimmed beard fanned out in white folds upon His chest, His eyes shining with muted brightness as only an old man’s eyes can shine out of the limpid stillness of an old face. God.

Stofsky approached, without fear or excitement, and found himself on his knees, looking up, still conscious of his breathlessness. He paused for an instant, peering at the face, realizing an old, skeptical curiosity concerning it which he somehow knew would be tolerated; noting the wrinkles, the faint pink glow of the cheeks, the expression of weary passivity.

Then he began to tell all that had happened since [he had] the visions, endeavoring to stick close to the facts and keep the report brief and accurate. All the same, it seemed to him to take an inexcusable time to go through it all. Finally, reaching Ancke and mentioning his worry over his future, he came to the end.

“I should have had you here before, I know,” God said with an audible sigh. “But then…” And He looked down at Stofsky with an expression of such sadness and such resignation that Stofsky was actually embarrassed to have been the cause of such a look on God’s face.

“But what am I do do next, Sir?” he managed to say.

At that, he thought that God might lean forward and touch his head with one of those large, veinless hands, so gentle and sorrowful was the light which bathed His Face. But He did not.

“How shall I help them now? You see, I’m so confused and tired—,” forgetting that God must know everything.

“You must go back, and even doubt,” God said after a moment’s pause, ”and remember none of this. There’s an end which you shall discover. It waits there for you. Without you, it cannot happen. And it must.”

“But what shall I do?”, wanting, with childlike earnestness, some sign to guide him, to make acceptance easier.

“Being saved is like being damned,” God said with thoughtful simplicity, as though it was one of the unutterable secrets of the universe given to Stofsky now because he had been patient, because he had come so far.

Then God did lean forward until His beard fell straight down into His lap and Stofsky could see the wet brilliance of His large eyes. “You must go,“ He said, “Go, and love without the help of any Thing on earth.”

For a second, Stofsky seemed to recall the words; then remembered a line like that in [the poems of William] Blake, and thought that perhaps this was not God at all, but Blake himself. But then, looking closer, he knew it was God, and thought it wonderful and just that God should quote Blake, too.

As he was about to rise, however, a question rose in his mind, something almost irreverent and certainly mortal, and even though he suspected that he had no right to ask it, he could not let the opportunity pass somehow.

“Things are so terrible,” he began. “The violence, misery, the hate … war and hopelessness … I wonder,” and he gave one fearful and yet challenging glance into Those Eyes. “Why can’t You help all that? Do You know how human beings suffer? … Can you help them, Sir?” [Ellipses are in the original]

God’s face grew dim and drawn, as though the question gave Him pain He knew there was no sense to feel, but pain He took upon Himself in spite of that. He seemed for that moment a majestic and lonely man in His rented hall, on His dusty throne, who had received too many petitioners, too long, and understood too much to speak anything but the truth, even though it could not help.

“I try,” He replied simply. “I do all I can.”

Then Stofsky woke, and it was still dark.He could remember most of it, as though it had just happened, and felt a kind of heavy peace. But very soon he fell off to sleep again, and dreamt no more, and had forgotten when the morning came.