It is hard to believe that Pogo has not been a regular comic strip since July 1975. Since early childhood, I have been a big fan of newspaper comics; and Walt Kelly’s Pogo was one of my favorites. How is it that a cast of characters dwelling in Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp could be so universal, even in our twisted times?
There was Pogo Possum himself, whom cartoonist Kelly described as “the reasonable, patient, softhearted, naive, friendly person we all think we are.” He is surrounded by such swamp buddies as the slow-witted Albert Alligator, generic expert Howland Owl, dim mud-turtle Churchill “Churchy” LaFemme, self-important canine Beauregard Bugleboy, misanthropic Porky Pine, and a host of others.
If I felt I could afford it, I would collect all the Pogo comic strip books and read them regularly. There aren’t too many current cartoon strips about which I could say that. It would be an activity best described as blowin’ smoke rings into the teeth of fate.
Ushuaia, Argentina is the southernmost city on Earth. There is one town which is further south by a few miles: Puerto Williams, Chile, which is mostly a Chilean naval base. I have never been to Puerto Williams, but I did pass by it on a boat ride on the Beagle Channel to Estancia Harberton. Below is as close as I could get to Puerto Williams without going through Chilean customs:
The whole Tierra Del Fuego area, both in Argentina and Chile, is endlessly fascinating. That’s where the Andes comes to an end, sputtering out by Ushuaia and the Dientes de Navarino in Chile. In the above picture, thee are high mountains behind Puerto Williams that are mostly hidden in cloud, though you could make out the rough outline of their summits.
Mark Twain once wrote, “If you don’t like the weather in New England, wait a few minutes.” That is even more true of Tierra Del Fuego. After all, my last day in Ushuaia in 2006 (it was November 15 to be exact), dawned fair and turned into a blizzard. You may say, “Well, it was November, after all!” We were, however, in the Southern Hemisphere, so it was supposed to be like May in the Northern Hemisphere. The truth is, it can snow on any day of the year in Ushuaia.
There are compensations. The cuisine includes king crab (centolla), which is widely available at reasonable prices. The city is chock full of museums, most prominently the so-called Maritime Museum, which was built as a prison to house Argentina’s most dangerous criminals, including Simon Radowitzky, the anarchist responsible for killing a ranking police officer. Ushuaia was for many years Argentina’s Alcatraz.
Ushuaia was where I broke my shoulder in a blizzard. (That’s why I remember November 15, 2006.) The location was the corner of Magallanes and Rivadavia, where I slipped on ice and fell hard with my shoulder on a high curb. They have since put up a traffic signal there, so it is easier to cross the road.
Although I saw this painting at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, it is actually on loan from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Apparently Aelbert Cuyp (1620-1691) painted several canvases of the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt to escape Herod’s massacre of the innocents born around Bethlehem. According to the Gospel of St. Matthew (2:16):
Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men.
This painting appealed to me because it moves its subject into an obviously European setting—certainly as far removed from the Sinai Peninsula as it is possible to be. At the same time, the scene is as peaceful as a bucolic Poussin or Lorrain painting of the same period.
Cuyp was noted for his landscapes. According to the Wikipedia entry on him, “he is especially known for his large views of Dutch riverside scenes in a golden early morning or late afternoon light.”
It’s not the largest European capital, but Reykjavík is to my mind one of the most interesting. Within hailing distance of the Arctic Circle, it can have some of the worst weather imaginable. Yet it is relatively small (about 131,000 souls) and is walkable—if it’s not too windy and wet. You can feed the sea birds by the Tjörn, the municipal pond, but they could just as easily attack you for the goodies you are doling out. The people are friendly, but it seems everyone in town gets shitfaced drunk on the weekend.
There is an air of mystery about the city, which is one reason why the mysteries of Arnaldur Indriðason and Yrsa Sigurdardottir, among others, are so popular.
I have been to Iceland twice, once in 2001 and once in 2013. Both times I fell in love with the city and wished I could stay longer. My first day in 2013 was my favorite. It was near the summer solstice, when it does not get dark until the middle of the night, and then only for a short while. Even after my long flight, I fought jet lag by forcing me to stay up until 7:00 AM Los Angeles time. I even took an evening ghost tour through the local cemetery with the sun still up past 10:00 PM Iceland time.
As I walked the streets of the city, I noticed that many of the buildings had walls of thick corrugated steel, frequently brightly colored. The stucco and chicken wire constructions that protect L.A. from earthquake damage would be blown to bits by the Arctic storms. I ran into one in Myvátn where the rain was blown horizontally through every micro-opening in my parka. And all I was trying to do was to get to the grocery store across the street.
I don’t know if I will ever get to Reykjavík again in this life, but in a way it has never left my dreams. As Edward Gorey once said: “I have fantasies of going to Iceland, never to return.”
I choose to translate the title of painting as “A Calm and Serene Time” (from the French “Un temps calme et serein”). Ever since I first ran into his paintings at the Cleveland Museum of Art as a high school student, I have loved the work of Nicolas Poussin and his near contemporary Claude Lorrain (about whom in a follow-up post).
The 17th century in France has always been a special interest of mine, and Lorrain, Poussin, and a handful of others have only engaged my interest the more in the intervening years.
According to the description on the Getty Center’s website”
In the late 1640s and early 1650s, at the height of his artistic maturity, Nicolas Poussin turned from historical narrative to landscape painting. Landscape with a Calm does not illustrate a story but rather evokes a mood. The ordered composition and clear, golden light contribute to A Calm’s utter tranquility, while glowing, gem-like colors and fluid paint strokes enliven this scene of benevolent nature. Poussin’s sketching campaigns in the Roman countryside with his friend and fellow landscape painter Claude Lorrain account, in part, for its fresh observation of cloud-scattered sky and grazing goats.
The peacefulness of this image and its subtle classical overtones makes me regard this as one of my favorite paintings at the Getty Center.
Eight years ago, I came across a strange book that I fell in love with. It was by a Ukrainian author who was born in Leningrad (1961) and writes in Russian. Death and the Penguin (1996), his first novel translated into English, became an international bestseller. According to Wikipedia:
The novel follows the life of a young aspiring writer, Viktor Alekseyevich Zolotaryov, in a struggling post-Soviet society. Viktor, initially aiming to write novels, gets a job writing obituaries for a local newspaper. The source of the title is Viktor’s pet penguin Misha, a king penguin obtained after the local zoo in Kyiv gave away its animals to those who could afford to support them. Kurkov uses Misha as a sort of mirror of (and eventual source of salvation for) Viktor. Throughout the story, Misha is also lost, unhappy and generally out of his element, literally and figuratively. One of the striking themes of the novel is Viktor’s tendency to go from justifiably paranoid appraisals of his increasingly dangerous position to a serene, almost childish, peace of mind.
From then, I went on to two other novels and a nonfiction work:
Penguin Lost (2005), a sequel to Death and the Penguin
The Case of the General’s Thumb (2000)
Ukraine Diaries: Dispatches from Kiev (2014)
I am currently most of the way through my favorite of his works: Grey Bees (2018) about a gentle Russian beekeeper who lives in a mostly deserted village in the contested “Grey Zone” between Ukraine and the Russian-occupied Donetsk “People’s Republic,” formerly part of Ukraine. During the course of the story, Sergey Sergeyich travels between zones and tries to survive the fragmentation and confusion that occurs because of Putin’s desire to rebuild the Russian empire as it was. And this was before Putin’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine.
It is not possible to read this book without falling in love with the author’s gentleness in spite of the world falling to pieces around his ears.
Yesterday at the Getty Center, I spent most of my time in the Medieval and Renaissance galleries, reacquainting myself with old friends. One painting that fascinated me was “The Story of Joseph” (circa 1485), attributed to the Florentine Biagio d’Antonio, which in foreground and background gives several early episodes of the tale of Joseph from the Old Testament. By focusing on different parts of the image, one saw different scenes from the story.
The following is the description of the painting from the Getty Center website:
Drawn from the Old Testament, a series of continuous narratives depicts episodes from the life of Joseph, the favorite son of the Hebrew patriarch Jacob. To make the story easier to follow, Biagio d’Antonio included inscriptions identifying the principal characters.
In the left-hand loggia, Jacob, seated on a throne, sends Joseph to his half-brothers tending sheep in the field. In the far left corner, the brothers, jealous of their father’s love for Joseph, strip him of his jacket and throw him into a pit. Passing merchants purchase the young boy from his brothers for twenty pieces of silver. In the background to the right, the merchants board the ship that will take them and their cargo to Egypt. In the right-hand loggia, the brothers show a blood-smeared coat to their father as evidence that Joseph is dead. With his head in his hand, Jacob mourns his son, whom he believes to be dead.
It’s almost as if this were a precursor to the cinema by telling a detailed story in a single still image. One of the things I love most about Medieval and Renaissance painting are the picturesque landscape backgrounds, which lend an aura of fantasy.
Many people (Martine among them) don’t care for the repetitive Biblical themes of the art of the period. What interests me is the almost endless variety within a familiar, given subject matter.
This year the Getty Center in Los Angeles is celebrating its silver anniversary. I took the MTA 761 bus to the museum (neatly avoiding the $20 parking fee) and spent several hours looking at the new exhibits and reacquainting myself with the Medieval, Renaissance, and 19th century artworks in the permanent collection.
The Cy Twombly (1928-2011) special exhibit left me speechless. Who slipped up? The man’s work left me shaking my head: Nothing in the gallery spoke to me except to say, “Just pass on through, Bud—the quicker the better.” There was another exhibit on “Conserving de Kooning,” but as I didn’t give a hang for Willem de Kooning’s work, I passed up on it.
Curiously, for the first time, I began to have my doubts about French Impressionism. There was a huge crowd around a Van Gogh still life which was nice, but not spectacular. I disliked some of the Claude Monets: There were some haystacks and a study of the Cathedral of Rouen, but I thought they were merely experiments in the quality of sunlight at different times of the day.
The Monet that grabbed my attention was a painting titled “Sunrise.” According to the Getty:
In the muted palette of the emerging dawn, Claude Monet portrayed the industrial port of Le Havre on the northern coast of France. The brilliant orange of the rising sun glimmers amid the damp air and dances on the gentle rippling water, lighting up its iridescent blues and greens. Barely discernible through a cool haze, pack boats on the left billow smoke from their stacks. Painted during the spring of 1873 as the country struggled to rebuild following the Franco-Prussian war, this Sunrise might also metaphorically suggest a new day dawning in France.
What struck me about the painting was its hovering on the edge of abstractness while still being clearly representational. I love the sun trying to break through the early morning fog and clouds.
In the days to come, I will discuss some other paintings and photographs that favorably impressed me. My visits to the Getty Center and the Getty Villa always energize me. I have long since given up regularly visiting the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as it is expensive ($16 for Seniors) and they are perennially suffering attacks of constructionitis. They are replacing their perfectly adequate main building with a more jazzy building with less exhibition space.
Okay, so he’s no great stylist. You won’t quote his poems at length the way you might quote Keats or Shakespeare. But I guarantee you will get what he has to say because it is written to communicate simply and directly. You can read a book of Bukowski poems the way you read a pulp novel, from end to end, with total comprehension. In my book, that counts.
can’t find the handle,
mugged in the backalleys of nowhere,
too many dark days and nights,
too many unkind noons, plus a
steady fixation for
the ladies of death.
finished, roll me
to the birds of Normandy or the
gulls of Santa Monica, I
talk to old men over quiet
is this where my suicide complex
I am asked over the telephone:
did you ever know Kerouac?
I now allow cars to pass me on the freeway.
I haven't been in a fist fight for 15 years.
I have to get up and piss 3 times a night.
and when I see a sexpot on the street I
finished, back to square one,
drinking alone and listening to classical
much about dying is getting ready.
the tiger walks through my dreams.
the cigarette in my mouth just exploded.
curious things still do
no, I never knew Kerouac.
so you see:
my life wasn’t
Bolton Hall was named after a man called Bolton Hall. It was built in 1913 in Tujunga as the clubhouse of a utopian community called Los Terrenitos, or Little Landers. It was one of two communities inspired by the teachings of William E. Smythe. (The other was at San Ysidro, just across the fence from Tijuana, Mexico.)
According to a prospectus issued by Smythe in 1913:
The Little Lander is his own boss. His notion is not an acre nor half an acre, but “so much land as one individual or family can use to the highest advantage without hiring help.” No landlords or tenants, no employers or hired hands! Men work lovingly for themselves, while the best of them work but grudgingly for others. In moments of exaltation the Little Lander loves to think of himself as the Spiritual Man of the Soil—the man who works in conscious partnership with God in finishing the world. His own man on his own place, he works more in the spirit of the artist than of the farmer.
Any agricultural surplus from the small plots was donated to a cooperative: “The wagon calls to collect his vegetables, fruit, flowers, eggs, poultry—whatever he has to sell—and ship it to town, where it is received by the market manager and disposed of direct to consumers…..”
In many ways, the Little Landers were kin to the Distributists in England who followed the writings of G.K. Chesterton and the Catholics influenced by Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum. Unfortunately, like almost all utopian communities, the Little Landers of Los Angeles lasted only for a few years. In 1917, Little Landers Incorporated was disestablished for failure to pay taxes. By 1925, almost all of the original settlers had left.
Unfortunately, the soil of the Tujunga area was not conducive to farming, so the dreams of small-plot farming did not come to pass, not here anyway.
Today all that remains is the Bolton Hall Clubhouse, which is a fascinating museum of local life. Martine and I spent an afternoon chatting with the docents inside the stone building, which was surprisingly cool considering the external temperature (90º Fahrenheit or 32º Celsius).
If you have any feeling for the area in which you live, I recommend supporting small local museums, which usually have fascinating stories to tell of the people who first settled an area and how their descendants fared.
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