The Embarkation for Cythera

Antoine Watteau’s “The Embarkation for Cythera”

Antoine Watteau’s “The Embarkation for Cythera”

It is a strange view of love, almost theatrical, as young, beautiful, and well-dressed men and women prepare to leave by boat for Cythera. Better known as Kythira, an island off the southeastern tip of the Peloponnesus, Cythera is reputed to be the birthplace of Venus. As usual, the painter, Jean-Antoine Watteau, has not seen fit to provide an explanation. Will the young couples come together and dedicate themselves to the enduring flame of love eternal? That would seem to be indicated by the little putti flying in the air at the left of the painting.

Alas, Watteau makes no promises. I have always thought of him as one of the greatest of painters—certainly the greatest painter of his glitzy century—and also as a poser of questions rather than a supplier of answers.

Painting of Commedia dell’Arte Figures by Watteau

Painting of Commedia dell’Arte Figures by Watteau

What about that Pierrot in the above illustration? He is being introduced as if on the stage, while various other figures, ranging from lusty young men and women with babies to the elderly couple at the right of the frame. As the central figure, Pierrot is the image of innocence. It is almost as if the painter is giving us the full spectrum of love and life without indicating any clear preference of his own. Again, we are left with a question.

Finally, here are three studies for a black boy that are totally realistic:

Three Studies of a Young Black Man

Three Studies of a Young Black Man


There you have it: An incredible beauty wedded to strangeness, by a painter who is not well known in this country, but who always has made we wonder.

 

Two Long-Stemmed English Roses

Penelope Pitt, Viscountess Ligonier, by Thomas Gainsborough

Penelope Pitt, Viscountess Ligonier, by Thomas Gainsborough

Since Valentine’s Day is coming, I thought I would honor the lovely British ladies commemorated in the galleries of San Marino’s Huntington Museum. By and large, they are tall, have velvety pale skin, and look formidable. The first is Thomas Gainsborough’s 1770 portrait of Penelope Pitt, Viscountess Ligonier. The Viscountess had a scandalous life, according to the Huntington Museum:

While serving as envoy-extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary to Turin (1761-68), George Pitt enrolled Penelope and her sister in a convent in Lyons, France, to be educated. While there she became acquainted with Edward Ligonier, lieutenant colonel in the British army. On December 16, 1766 they were married in the chapel of the British Embassy in Paris. They returned to England, where, in April 1770, her husband became Viscount Ligonier on the death of his uncle, the great military war hero, John Ligonier. In November of that year, Lady Ligonier renewed a prior acquaintance with Vittorio Amadeo, Count Alfieri (1749-1803), a young Italian ensign who later gained fame as a tragic poet celebrating the overthrow of tyranny by champions of liberty. Lady Ligonier was a woman “who delighted only in extremes,” according to Alfieri, and their flirtation soon escalated into a passionate “frenzy,” until their “mutual imprudence attracted the attention of her husband.” After confessing to Lord Ligonier as well as Alfieri (who rescinded his offer of marriage on learning of her previous affair with her husband’s groom, John Harding), Lady Ligonier fled to Calais, France, with her sister-in-law, Frances (Ligonier) Balfour (1742-1813), who had abetted the affair. Her husband sued for divorce and the marriage was dissolved. Lady Ligonier afterwards spent much of her time in France, but occasionally returned to England. At Northampton on May 4, 1784 she married Private Smith, a trooper in the Royal Horse Guard Blues.

Lady Frances Courtenay, Painted by Thomas Hudson

Lady Frances Courtenay, Painted by Thomas Hudson

Unlike Lady Ligonier, Lady Frances Courtenay led a much more conventional life. Unfortunately, she died at the age of 40. If she had hung around for another year or two, she, too, would have been a viscountess. The above portrait was painted in 1746.

The Huntingon is full of portraits of stunning English women, usually of the nobility. These two particularly struck my eye and, uh, my own personal appetite.

 

Lost Worlds

Seljuk Bowl

Seljuk Serving Tray

Even when we don’t know we are, we are wearing blinders. There was recently a show entitled “Court and Cosmos: The Great Age of the Seljuqs” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. What most people do not realize is that the Seljuks were a different people than the Ottomans who followed in the 14th century. From roughly 1071 to 1307, there was a Seljuk Empire that stretched, at times, from Samarkand to Anatolia. The “Turks” the West was fighting during most of the Crusades were the Seljuks. To the permanent settlers of the lands taken over by the Crusaders, both the Christians and the Turks were barbarians.

Too many cultures of whose existence we are either totally unaware or in other ways woefully ignorant have passed through the lands we have studied over the last two millennia. And our focus has typically been only on Western Europe and the lands of the Mediterranean. Asia and especially Africa are tierra incognita to us still. As an Eastern European, I am dismayed that Americans know so little about the peoples who were merely regarded as Soviet Satellites since World War Two. I doubt whether as many as 0.1% of students could name the countries bordering on Hungary, for example.

An Item from the Metropolitan Art Museum of New York Exhibition

An Item from the Metropolitan Museum Art of New York Exhibition

According to a review of the exhibition by Peter Brown entitled “Splendors of the Seljuqs in New York” for the The New York Review of Books for August 18, 2016:

But the meaning and uses of many of these objects are hard to grasp. Faced by so much beauty, we must constantly remind ourselves that we are not walking through a splendid jeweler’s store. These objects once lived. They had a part in solemn ceremonies. They conjured up images of the good life. Many are covered in inscriptions in Arabic and Persian that only few of us can decipher. Even their geographic placing is puzzling to us.

We Americans have to realize that we live in the world, and that we form an ever decreasing share of the world’s wealth and culture. Why are our students not being taught a global perspective on history and culture? Not only are we not a “City on a Hill,” but we are more Podunk-ized as time goes on. Thank you Mister Trump for making us all wear the Emperor’s New Clothes.

Regarding Henry

Henry Miller (1891-1980)

Henry Miller (1891-1980)

Is Henry Miller famous? Or is he just infamous? Or is he both?

I have just finished reading a book of his essays, reviews, and prefaces entitled Stand Still Like the Hummingbird (1962) and find myself alternately idolizing and deploring the man’s work. Of course, he is probably most famous for his novels featuring S-E-X, especially The Tropic of Cancer (1934). And yet, he can write like a Bodhisattva, as in the essays “The Hour of Man” and “The Immorality of Morality.”

In the latter essay, he wrote what I regard as the definitive answer as to how to live in the era of Trump:

Neither would I urge one to run away from the danger zone. The danger is everywhere: there are no safe and secure places in which to start a new life. Stay where you are and make what life you can among the impending ruins. Do not put one thing above another in importance. Do only what has to be done—immediately. Whether the wave is ascending or descending, the ocean is always there. You are a fish in the ocean of time, you are a constant in an ocean of change, you are nothing and everything at one and the same time. Was the dinner good? Was the grass green? Did the water slake your thirst? Are the stars still in the heavens? Does the sun still shine? Can you talk, walk, sing, play? Are you still breathing?

And yet, in another essay entitled “To Read or Not To Read,” Miller brags about reading fewer books “I tried to make it clear that, as a result of indiscriminate reading over a period of sixty years, my desire now is to read less and less.”

One of Miller’s Water Colors

One of Miller’s Water Colors

Is it perhaps because Miller also sees himself as a painter, particularly of water colors? The ones I have seen are pretty good, and I shouldn’t be surprised if the author likes the act of pure creativity involved in coming up with these scenes, which he does not paint from life.

In the end, I see Henry Miller as, at times, gifted by his muses—and at other times merely producing when the muses aren’t present. There is a certain lack of consistency in his work. I will continue to read him for the times I find he is spot on.

“Men of the Red Earth”

Martine and Me at the Autry Museum

Martine and Me at the Autry Museum

Today, Martine and I stayed as far away from the Black Friday Madness as possible. Instead, we went to the Autry Museum of the American West in Griffith Park. At the #RevolutionaryVision show, we took the above picture, showing a pleasant looking woman and the strange character who photobombed her.

The Autry has been opening some new galleries and updating others. There was a nice exhibit of Mabel McKay’s Pomo Indian basketry, and the usual excellent art of the West. Below is Maynard Dixon’s “Men of the Red Earth”:

“Men of the Red Earth”

“Men of the Red Earth”

Born in Fresno, California, Maynard Dixon (1875-1946) is probably one of the best painters of the American Southwest. Although the museum was founded by Gene Autry, it attempts to present a panoramic picture of the West, including the land, the Western films, the art, the myths, and the environment.

I’ve always thought it an excellent place for travelers from other countries to visit—though I suppose they will continue to troop to Hollywood and be disappointed.

Wild Nature

“Mare au Crépuscule” (1850) by Theodore Rousseau

“Mare au Crépuscule” (1850) by Theodore Rousseau

When I went to the Getty Center last Sunday, there was a traveling exhibit of the mostly landscape paintings of Pierre Etienne Théodore Rousseau. I had never heard of him before. I even asked one of the docents whether that was the same as Henri ”Douanier” Rousseau. Then, when I saw the paintings, I realized that here was a very different artist.

Théodore Rousseau painted nature as she is seen, not as a manicured garden. Here were trees that were alive and dominated the landscape. And man does not figure as a dominant force in most of his work.

“The Pond Near the Road” (1848)

“The Pond Near the Road” (1848)

Étienne Pierre Théodore Rousseau (1812-1867) was considered to be a painter of the Barbizon School, which takes its name from the village of Barbizon near the Forest of Fontainebleau, where many of its adherents would gather. Their work was marked by “its tonal qualities, color, loose brushwork, and softness of form” according to Wikipedia.

After all these years, I am getting a little fatigued with many of the impressionist painters; so it was a relief to see someone who work made me stop in my tracks admiring an artist who was new to me.

“Tears of the Lord”

Paul Pletka’s Paintings “Tears of the Lord” at the Autry National Center

Paul Pletka’s Paintings “Tears of the Lord” at the Autry National Center

One of the paintings I saw on Saturday’s visit to the Autry National Center is Paul Pletka’s “Tears of the Lord,” which depicts a bloody crucifixion on an Aztec cross, with native Americans in ceremonial garb walking by the foot of the cross.

It reminds me of the strange mix of Christianity with Andean religions that I saw in Peru in 2014. As one who has had a Catholic education through age 17, I was amazed by the beauty and ornateness of the churches in Lima, Arequipa, Puno, and Cusco. The farther I got from the larger cities, however, the more I saw signs of local religious practices alongside the Catholic images.

In the 1980s, when my brother and I visited the State of Chiapas in southern Mexico, we saw something even more extreme—so extreme, in fact, that we were made to sign statements in advance that we would not photograph inside the church or any of the religious ceremonies. The penalty for violation? Tourists had been killed for disrespect of the local customs. In the church of San Juan Chamula, the Christian statuary was decked out with corncobs and flowers. All pews had been removed, and the Mayans prayed by lying on their stomachs with their arms outstretched. The altar was de-emphasized altogether. Instead, there were various worship stations scattered around the nave.

And where was the local priest? The Catholic clergy had been kicked out more than a hundred years previously as part of a revolt. The churches they left behind were adapted to highland Mayan religion.

As I look at Pletka’s painting, I see the native peoples of the Americas incorporating all or part of Christianity, but insisting on their own brand of religious syncretism as well. At the tiny church in Corporaque, Peru, near Colca Canyon, I felt very far indeed from the Cathedral at Cusco. The only modern touch was that I was being filmed. Apparently, a nearby church was ransacked by thieves; and many of the small churches took measures to protect their ecclesiastical treasures.