Archive for September, 2008
Starry Night is one of Vincent Van Gogh’s most famous painting, and, rightfully, one of the most famous and revered paintings in the world. The vision it represents is often called “hallucinatory,” but, despite popular misconceptions, few artists were as intelligent, learned, or rational than Vincent. As he told his brother Theo in one of his many, brilliant letters, maintaining this composure was a constant struggle: “I am feeling well just now. … I am not strictly speaking mad, for my mind is absolutely normal in the intervals, and even more so than before. But during the attacks it is terrible–and then I lose consciousness of everything. But that spurs me on to work and to seriousness, as a miner who is always in danger and makes haste in what he does.” The “attacks” are there, but van Gogh’s paintings aren’t the product of those attacks; they’re the product of his struggle against them. (By the way, I found this quote in the brilliant art critic Robert Hughes’ collection Nothing If Not Critical, and encourage anybody who wants to learn about art to pick it up.)
Some of the glorious results of Vincent’s struggles are currently on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The show, which opened this week, is called “Van Gogh and the Colors of the Night.” Starry Night is on display, alongside van Gogh’s other visions of the night. The first major work is the Potato Eaters, and one of the last is the stunning Café Terrace at Night. Nothing here of dismembered ears and depressive visions, just the quarry of that “work and seriousness” Vincent mentioned to his brother Theo. We’re all the richer for it.
Stop by if you can, or view the online exhibition here.
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(After “Invisible Man” by Jeff Wall)
One of the most influential photographers working in the world today is Jeff Wall. His photographs are extremely large, back-lit “cibachrome” works (basically, extremely large slides). More importantly, they are images of elaborately set-up scenarios: an apartment that looks like it was destroyed in a hurricane or earthquake, a “conversation” among dead troops in World War II, the restoration of an enormous mural. But one of Wall’s greatest works draws its imagery directly from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.
In the preface to Invisible Man, the unnamed narrator describes an unusual project he has embarked upon. In order to take something back from the society that has taken so much from him, the narrator is fighting a war against Monopolated Light & Power. More specifically, he is stealing electricity in order to illuminate his basement hovel with 1,369 light bulbs. A lot has been said and written about what Ellison is trying to express here, but Wall took a very different approach. He simply recreated the scene in perfect detail, and took the photograph above. More than any work of literary criticism, Wall’s photograph demonstrates just how radical and surrealist Ellison’s imagery is. Reread the book with Wall’s photos in mind, and you’ll find hundreds more images like it.
Wall’s After “Ralph Ellison”, and dozens of other works by him, are currently on exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago. View the “online exhibition” here.
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The Yellow Christ by Paul Gaugin (1889)
One of Gaugin’s most famous quotes was, “In order to do something new we must go back to the source, to humanity in its infancy.” In his life and art, Gaugin took this notion very literally: he spent much of his adulthood living in the South Pacific in an attempt to become better acquainted with “humanity in its infancy.” Of course, inhabitants of those islands would take strong issue with the notion that they were simple primitives, however kindly the accusation was meant. Nonetheless, it is a testament to Gaugin’s seriousness that he pursued his ideals with such tenacity.
But rather than being a sustained anthropological inquiry into the origins of art and culture, Gaugin’s primitivism was the same thing primitivism always is: a rejection of contemporary aesthetic ideals. From the time that late-Renaissance painters began refining techniques with optics to the late-19th century, much painting was a steady march of greater precision and greater realism. Perspective, shading, the play of light on matter–painters from da Vinci to Delacroix pursued these ideals for centuries. Gaugin rejected them. He used bold splashes rather than subtle gradations of color, and rejected perspective altogether.
In the 20th-century, however, a major irony emerged at Gaugin’s expense. Cave paintings that actually dated from the “infancy of humanity” were discovered throughout Europe. What did they reveal? A detailed realism. Perhaps humanity’s infancy wasn’t so “primitive” after all.
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The most tragic episode of American history was also one of the longest-lived. The horrors of slavery finally ended in 1865 after a long and bloody civil war. But they were soon followed by the horrors of lynching, which added another century of indignity to the 400-year abomination of slavery.
In 2000, Americans were given a shocking reminder of just how horrid this century-long crime was. The reminder was given to them by a collector named James Allen. Between 1975 and 2000, Allen built an odd and disturbing collection. It began when he found a postcard in a small antique shop that depicted a lynching. However, the crowd was not reacting with the appropriate degree of horror. In fact, they treated the event as a social outing. Rather than shying away from the camera, they were posing in front of it, a burned and hanged body behind them like the Eiffel Tower in the background of a family snapshot. Allen soon discovered that postcards like this one were very common, and he began to collect them. He finally displayed his collection in 2000 in one of the most disturbing photography exhibits ever presented. The name of the exhibit, and the book that was published at the same time, was Without Sanctuary. With state governments doing nothing to prevent lynching, and a federal law prohibiting the practice never being passed, many Southern Blacks were truly without sanctuary from these horrifying acts. To be reminded yourself just how horrifying these acts were, click here to view a photo-gallery of the postcards. Be forewarned: they are very graphic.
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A new edition of The Intellectual Devotional, this time with a focus on Modern Culture, will be available in stores on October 14. (Click here to pre-order your copy.) As well as continuing to expand on posts from the General Edition, “The Devoted Intellect” blog will introduce and expand on material from the Modern Culture devotional. Today’s entry on James Brown is from the Music section.
James Brown (1933–2006) recorded his first hit, “Please, Please, Please,” in 1956 as a member of a band called the Flames, a rhythm and blues group led by the vocalist Bobby Byrd (1934–2007). It was an impassioned soul track, not surprising from an artist who has been nicknamed the Godfather of Soul and Soul Brother Number One.
But while Brown’s best soul tracks are comparable to those by Sam Cooke (1931–1964) or Ray Charles (1930–2004), his greatest contribution was to the musical form that he invented and pioneered a decade later: funk.
Funk was born February 1, 1965, when Brown, already a veteran performer, entered Arthur Smith Studios in Char-lotte, North Carolina. He brought along a band of nine musicians, including the famous saxophonist Maceo Parker (1943–). Brown had lyrics as well, but there wasn’t much to them. He wanted a song to encompass every style of dance popular at the time, so he shouted out their names one by one: “the jerk,” “the fly,” “the monkey,” “the mashed potato,” “the twist,” “the boomerang.”
While Brown sang, his musicians shot out notes all around him, each one a quick, staccato burst. Every note sounded percussive. As Brown wrote in his autobiography, “I was hearing everything, even the guitars, like they were drums.” The song Brown and his band recorded in a single take that day—“Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag”—was the per-fect prototype for funk, a style that values rhythm above all else.
Over the next four decades, Brown would earn another of his nicknames: “the Hardest-Working Man in Show Business.” His output included classic singles such as “I Got You (I Feel Good)” (1965), “Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud” (1968), and “Mother Popcorn” (1969). He also per-formed elaborate live shows, including his 1963 Live at the Apollo, which some critics regard as one of the greatest live performances ever recorded on tape. Brown died in 2006, but his funk revolution is carried on to this day by nearly every pop artist in the world.
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