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Monthly Archives: January 2011

La Gioconda, star of the Louvre

The Louvre is, so they say, the most visited museum in the world, racking up 6 plus million each year.  Tickets run about 10 Euro, so do the math.  It’s a business.   As a business those who run it know what “sells” and at the entry are large notices, with Leonardo’s pin-up girl blown big, pointing the way to Mona Lisa, the fabled mysterious lady.  There, pushed away about 3 meters by a large wooden barrier, and encase behind thick glass, she looks out, bemused.  It is not a very big painting, so between the distance and the glass casing, it is not really possible to look at it, qua “painting.”  What you see is Mona Lisa, spectacle, and the spectacle of Japanese and Korean girls posing, leaning against the barrier, smiling and/or with their ubiquitous V fingers, long ago having lost its meaning and now simply a mandatory reflex before a camera.

In my view this painting is not actually a very good painting, especially when compared to contemporaneous work.  While Leonardo was clearly an intellectual giant of his times – polymath engineer, inventor, painter, poet, etc., he wasn’t really that great a painter.  Or so says humble me.  (A similar opinion I hold for Van Gogh, whose museum I visited yesterday in Amsterdam.)  But the matter of whether La Gioconda is really a great painting or not is irrelevant: it is a most famous painting, and that is what the Louvre is selling.   Along with the name The Louvre, which is as its numbers testify, also famous.  And hence the new Louvre Abu Dhabi, building designed French architectural star Jean Nouvel, begins to rise, the arts logo mania gone wild.

The Louvre, Abu Dhabi

But, back in Paris, the old Louvre, formerly the absurdly vast home of French royalty, became a museum, and not so long ago, I.M. Pei, installed his pyramid, gracefully placed in the court-yard, an impeccable work of high-modernist style, nestled almost invisibly into the ornate classical French architecture which houses the museum.   It was Pei’s new entrance which kick-started the Louvre, shifting from fusty old museum to modern market economy logo champ.

I.M. Pei’s Louvre Pyramid

Regardless of the revamping, the vast spaces of the Louvre, while housing unquestionable works of art of the highest order, is also the warehouse for great swath’s of art of questionable taste and quality.   In fact, from an artistic viewpoint, perhaps 80-90% could be skipped without any loss, unless one is a historian or has some other specialized reason to look at huge canvases of dubious artistic value, however much prized they were in their own time.   Thus it becomes a kind of amusement to look at bedraggled tourists glancing at the little placards beside the paintings, and looking upward to vast battle scenes, historical tableaux or religious tripe, gazing at the meters of canvas, and thinking it is, because it is in the Louvre, great art.   Small wonder they collapse on the benches, exhausted from taking in this vast collection of stuff, and wonder what it’s all about.

Here’s a little compendium of things I took shots of, not because I thought it great art, but because I found it of interest in one way or another – because it was odd, kitschy, or otherwise stuck out from the generalized dross which covers the walls of this massive museum.

Those are some of the paintings I took photographs of, for this reason or that.  As it turned out the one painting I really wanted to see, and wanted to show to Marcella, Vermeer’s tiny Lacemaker, just happened to be in a wing that was closed on Thursdays, the day we were there.  So we didn’t get to see it.  I’d seen it before, when it was in a different place, in a narrow and tiny little alcove backed up against the huge room full of ghastly Rubens paintings.  Alas.

At the Bistro L’Arte Brut

Paris is a place of cafes and bistros, where the social life is a major element in daily life – to sit with friends and talk, share a coffee or a glass of wine, glance out the window and watch life pass by, while displaying oneself as if on a stage.

Since my last visit to L’Orangerie they did a major change: moved Monet’s two oval Water Lilly rooms from the basement to the top floor, with a big architectural restructuring.  The new space has filtered natural light from the ceiling, and seems cleaner in design, and more spacious (though I imagine that is just a trick of the light.)  The other collection, which I find rather weak, is now banished to the basement.

I have spent some hours in these two rooms, some time ago with a DV camera, before they installed little barricades, dancing a few inches from the surface, shooting the wonderful painterly delirium which was Monet’s world.  Once I watched an older American woman brush her hand against the surface – which is quite textured and rather invites a tactile approach, though the woman was promptly reproached by the guard.  I find myself wondering about most of those who come to this, as in a pilgrimage, an obligatory tourist matter, as they sit on the benches and gaze.  Few come actually close to the surface of the work, but sit back at a distance, where the abstraction of painterly coloring forms a diffuse impressionist image of water, lillies, tree trunks, reflections.     Only a few move close, where the scale of the work takes over and immerses one in a sea of painterly effect – strokes of the brush, the gentle build-up of color, the textures, taking in one’s whole sense of vision.  Monet was clearly here a precursor of the abstract expressionists, of color field artists like Rothko or Morris Louis, demanding that you immerse yourself into the totality of the painting, which in a push-pull manner reveals itself as precisely painting, and as a sublime spiritual experience of pure color and in a Heideggerian sense, “being”.  One goes into this kind of painting and experiences the hard reality, literal paint, and in doing so it makes a quantum leap to something else.   My guess is those that sit on the bench and see a pond with water lillies do not get this.

Just what each of us sees, I am not at all sure.  What I am sure of is that Monet made a work of art that will last as long as we humans care about such things.

In the 18th arr., near Montmartre

Stepping out to the damp gray cold of January, into the central court of the place we’re staying in – graciously offered by a friend’s parents, we move along to the Metro for another day of museums.   This day was the August Rodin museum, south of the Seine.

I’d been there before, many years ago, as well as seen a lovely exhibition at the Villa Medici in Rome still longer ago.  And naturally seen the occasional piece here and there, in museums or otherwise.  Like really good work, one can come back again and again, and be stunned by his capacity to capture the core of character and life in the hard materials of his art.  His work, particularly the ensembles of multiple figures, is effectively cinematic, alive with tensions and interchanges between the figures, the spaces they fill.  Truly wonderful work.

Garden of the Rodin Museum, with dome Les Invalides in background

The museum was also showing a collection of Henry Moore pieces in the context of his studio work – macquettes, plaster versions in preparation, and the like.  For a “muscular” sculptor like Moore the setting next to Rodin was frankly unfortunate, and made his work seem weak by comparison, as well as rather dated.  While Rodin’s work is clearly of its time, this comes across as a strength.  In Moore’s case it’s the opposite.

Henry Moore

Unfortunately we’ll just be missing the installation at the Louvre Pyramid of a very large scale work by another British (though living for some time in Germany) sculptor, Tony Cragg.  It opens in the next days, just as we are leaving.

[The above are a few of the 200 pictures I took of his work that afternoon:  Rodin makes it easy.]

Under a regime of what might be called “torture tourism,” prompted by the constraints of limited time, we bought a four day ticket to an array of Paris’ museums, for, if one crams things, a discount. Our first use was to visit the Concierge, formerly a prison for none other than that Marie, as well as others headed for a beheading in the Terror. It was crammed with a film-oriented exhibition of historical movies done in Paris. Yet another exhibition mounted by people who apparently also lost their heads, so absent was their “work” from anything compelling. Mainly we were biding time until the chapel adjacent, the Sainte Chapelle, opened. Curiously while living in Paris a year and a half, and rather an architecture buff particularly appreciative of Gothic engineering, I’d never been to it. Habitual poverty incurs some dubious habits, which persist in me today. The chapel is a stunning work of thin stone columns, held only by gravity, rising to an arched ceiling, and illuminated with brilliant (even on a gray day as was ours) stained-glass sheathing. A really delicate and wonderful work of engineering.

Sainte Chapelle’s filigris of glass

We then strolled on, towards the Pompidou, stopping for a lunch along the way.  Paris is a wonderful city for walking, almost anywhere.  When I lived here, in 1997-9, I spent endless hours walking – usually with daughter Clara in a carriage, going from Belleville all the way to the Left Bank or Opera.  At that time Belleville was a mixed neighborhood of Arab and Asian people, and frankly not many French, though now I understand it’s become a chic place for young people.  The usual low-rent area becoming colonized by artists, followed, once-safe, by the professional hipwasie.

The Seine, running high, from a bridgeChâtelet Roof-top view from Pompidou Center

We then strolled to the Beaubourg Center, a vast museum of modern and contemporary art housed in a Richard Rogers/Renzo Piano building, a scandalous place when built owing to its hyper-modern style plunked in the midst of a traditional area of Paris.  Immediately after opening it became a justifiable tourist magnet and developed as a successful social gathering point, obliterating the criticism.  We took in the permanent collection, housed on two massive floors, a compendium of modern art from Kandinsky and Picasso and on through to contemporary work.  It is a good collection, but to my increasingly jaded eyes, almost the whole modernist era is, with the infrequent exception, a pallid and thin affair which diminishes with familiarity.  Believe me, I am familiar with it, and the more I see, the less I see.  Which is the inverse of what I find in really great art, which grows and gains depth as you gain familiarity with it.  So the walk through the Pompidou’s collection (not for the first time) became a forced march, sparking cynical thoughts and reflections on the whole enterprise of art in the last century and the present.  And more.  Increasingly it seems to me that the arts of our recent times has reflected our culture in its fragmentation and division into specialities, aping the behavior of the complexity of industrial/scientific organization.  Hence we have, quite distinct and separate, a myriad of art movements most of which bare little relationship to each other aesthetically or thematically.  And most of which have a brief life span, though each has now reverberated onward, echoed in various regurgitive reformulations passed off as “new.”  From the cynic’s view, little “new” has been done in the last 80 years or so.  Or maybe more.

She looks at Chagall, he looks at Balthus’ pedo-pornMarcel Duchamp takes “art” on a turn it’s never recovered from

Paris Opera, photo by Marcella

Following 2 frantic weeks of flat-out workaholism, days of 18 hours and more of work hunkered in our little living box, a few days ago went to Incheon and in a state of complete exhaustion slipped into my economy-class seat, chatted with my seat-mate,  a young German-Korean lawyer a bit and then fortunately grabbed some sleep.  Change-over in Frankfurt and the hop to Paris, train into Gare du Nord.  The last time I’d been to the station it was perhaps predominantly Algerian; this time it had shifted to 90% French African.  Disorganized and grubby as the place is, I feared that Marcella would not find me in its largeness, but right on time she showed up at the RER gate  and we caught the Metro to near where we’re staying, in the apartment of Marianne Dissard’s parents, just north of Sacre Couer.  I had hoped to hit the ground running and be up and about on Sunday but the combination of the previous weeks of hard-core work and jet-lag found me thinking better to rest up a day.   Today it’s off to some museums and enjoying the streets.  Haven’t been here for, I think 9, years.

Seoul, the week before departure

Back in Seoul the frantic weeks included rustling up someone to listen to the sound of Imagens de uma cidade perdida, and try to dig out some of the Portuguese. A last ditch inquiry with the Portuguese Embassy begot an answer, from a man I’d met last spring at the Pedro Costa retrospective at Jeonju, Paolo Lopes Graça.  He graciously sat down with me a few hours, listening to the clips I’d culled, and translated for me, and I rushed back and dropped in  for a day, which I think will make the film a lot more palatable to non-Portuguese understanding viewers.  The film screens in the Rotterdam festival as follows:

Friday, 01/28/2011,  14:30 Cinerama 5

Monday, 01/31/2011 14:30 Cinerama 7

Tuesday, 02/01/2011 22:15 LV 6

[I’ll have a more complete notice and item on the film coming up later.]

On top of the work of getting subtitles into the film and making a final tape to post to the festival, I was also doing a cram bit of work preparing for an exhibition in Jerusalem, which involved getting old celluloid stills scanned (and getting hit with a to-me surprising $500 bill), prepping them for printing in Israel, as well as laying out a somewhat complex photo-montage of a sequences of shots I’d taken long ago at London’s Victoria and Albert museum, of the Gianbologna sculpture there of Samson Slaying the Philistine.  These two things involved a quick quasi-learn of Photoshop and Illustrator, both of which I had a slight knowledge of, but nothing compared to now (and there’s a ton more to learn when I return to Seoul).

But meantime Paris in winter for the next days.  Here’s some more images, taken by Marcella in the week before I arrived.

Bienvenue a Paris !

Imagens de uma cidade perdida

Just a little note, for those interested.  Newest film was invited to Rotterdam festival, where both Marcella and I will be to see friends, films, and introduce and do Q and A with film.  Imagens (Images of a lost city) is a portrait of a disappearing Lisbon, which was shot when I lived there, 1996-98.   It is mostly shot in the area around the Alfama, Castelo de São Jorge, and Graça, though there are other places glimpsed.  These are old neighborhoods in the center of the city, a hint of what once was Lisboa.

I first saw Lisboa in 1964, while traveling on an Italian freighter, as one of 12 passengers, enroute to Tampico, Mexico.  Beginning in Genoa, other stops included Livorno, Marseille, Cadiz, then Lisboa and on across the Atlantic where we could have stopped in Habana but the United States had imposed its embargo, so we went on to La Guaira, a port for Caracas, and then on to Vera Cruz and finally Tampico.   It took a month, and cost all of $150, meals included.  It was an Italian ship so the food was pretty good.  It was a fantastic adventure too.

Lisboa at that time was still a very isolated little piece of Europe, under Salazar, and distant from almost everywhere owing its location on the edge of the Iberian peninsula, the bad roads, and poverty.  Then there were almost no cars, and little children trailed me as I went into the Alfama, the rare tourist.  It was at that time an extraordinarily beautiful city, its little pedrinas and stone inlays, its azulas (blue ceramic tiles which covered many buildings as protection against the ocean climate) all marking each square centimeter as being lovingly attended by hand and craft.  I had seen many other European cities, but Lisboa left a deep impact.    Later, in the early 1980’s I returned, to shoot a documentary (never finished)  for the BFI on Raul Ruiz, and renewed my acquaintance with Lisboa, which had already been somewhat ravaged by modernity, and which had begun to look like a run-down 3rd world city.  Again I returned in the late 80’s, and had a traumatic and passionate affair with a Portuguese singer, who quite inadvertently influenced the making of All the Vermeers in New York, which is dedicated to her.

And again I returned, then with my partner of 5 years, Teresa Villaverde, a young (at that time) Portuguese filmmaker who had pursued me for several years after meeting me at a small festival in Dunquerque, in 1991 or so.  In 1997 our daughter Clara was born, at the same time I was shooting the material that became Imagens de uma cidade perdida.  In 1998 we moved to Paris.  On November 2, 2000, Teresa Villaverde Cabral – having almost completed shooting of her film Agua e Sal in which a surrogate filmmaker (a curator of photo exhibits), who was played by an Italian actress, Galatea Ranzi, who happened to look almost exactly like Teresa, especially after a bit of hair-cutting, etc., is breaking up with her husband, played by Brazilian singer  Chico Buarque, and who together have a young child, played by Clara Villaverde Cabral Jost – kidnapped Clara from our home in Rome, where we’d lived since leaving Paris.   In the film the same occurs:  Clara is kidnapped by her film mother. (More gruesome is that owing to typical filmworld crap, Clara’s cinematic kidnapping was filmed after her real one – despite vehement objections to the Portuguese Juvenile court.)

To say a long and very unhappy period followed, as a completely corrupt Portuguese system closed around their “star” and legality was cavalierly trashed in the interests of an “important” Lisboa family.  I have been unable to see my daughter, whom I had raised almost single-handedly for 3 and a half years while her mother had the more important matter of making her films (Os Mutantes and Agua e Sal), since August 2001.  Teresa Villaverde has refused all contact, sent back gifts for Clara, and otherwise behaved in a manner typical to those called Parental Alienators.   It has, for me, been a tragedy, which I am certain has been doubled, or worse, in Clara.  She will have her 14th birthday on March 27 of this year.

Clara, on her Facebook page, which was closed down the day I asked to “friend” her.

To say I have a conflicted sensibility about Portugal and Lisbon would be a considerable understatement.  My experience there, perhaps reflected in Imagens, is fully expressive of the Portuguese inclination towards fatalism and sadness.   For them it is as if a part of their DNA, a cultural piece which they are obliged to carry.   They have a particular word for it, saudade. However fanciful it sounds, the place is pervaded with it, and in a sense they are proud of it.  It is little wonder they are currently undergoing their economic travails, and surely in a way, they imagine they deserve it.

Imagens de uma cidade perdida runs 93 minutes. It’s slow and languid, like Lisboa.  It is drenched in both beauty and melancholy, again, as Lisboa is.  Its screening times and places in Rotterdam are as follows:

Friday, 01/28/2011,  14:30 Cinerama 5

Monday, 01/31/2011 14:30 Cinerama 7

Tuesday, 02/01/2011 22:15 LV 6

Also screening in Rotterdam will be a retrospective of my friend Nathaniel Dorsky’s films.  See this.


[Update:  Imagens has been invited in competition at the Yamagata Film Festival, Japan; Oct. 6 – 13.]

As the new year enters, 2011 Gregorian calendar version (Chinese is coming up on Feb. 3, year of the Rabbit; رأس السنة الهجرية‎ was a month ago, on Dec 7, making 1432 for Muslim counters), the usual year-end prognosticators and past year celebrants all pitched in with their views, good, bad, headed up, headed down.   For my tea-reading exercise I list the following headlines, each of which tells a tale, and together make some kind of figure hinting at that future.

A few days ago it was

Several Warnings, Then a Soldier’s Lonely Death

This item told the story of a young American, troubled in personal life, who signed up to serve, and after exhibiting ample signs of  his troubles, committed suicide in the parking area of America’s airbase in Kandahar, Aghanistan.  The military declined to call it a suicide, at least so far.

Officially, the Army says only that Sergeant Senft, 27, a crew chief on a Black Hawk helicopter in the 101st Airborne Division’s aviation brigade, was killed as a result of “injuries sustained in a noncombat related incident” at Kandahar Air Base on Nov. 15.

Sergeant Senft was but one of a modest army of military suicides incurred by America’s willful domestic policy of trying to pretend there is no war – though our national budget groans under the weight of them – by consigning the actual fighting and experiencing of it to a tiny slice of the populace who are sent again and again to do and witness the worst of humanity’s activities.  Small wonder these mostly rural, under-class economically, culturally deprived souls crumble under the crush of what they are asked to do, hidden, off far away.

Sgt. David Senft

4,000 Dead Birds Drop From the Sky

Then there was this story, from out of the Ozarks, one of the places that Sgt Senft might have come from (he didn’t; we was from Grass Valley, California, in the Sierra foothills).   On New Year’s Eve it rained birds in Beebe, Arkansas.  Red-winged blackbirds, to be precise.

One thing is almost certain: the bird drop is not related to the 83,000 fish that died a few days earlier in the western part of the state, the biggest fish kill in Arkansas that anyone can remember. They were spotted by anglers last week and reported to the Game and Fish Commission, which spent New Year’s Eve measuring and counting dead fish that had spread out for nearly 20 miles.

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise

Black bird singing in the dead of night
Take these sunken eyes and learn to see
all your life
you were only waiting for this moment to be free

Blackbird fly, Blackbird fly
Into the light of the dark black night.

Blackbird fly, Blackbird fly
Into the light of the dark black night.

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise,
You were only waiting for this moment to arise,
You were only waiting for this moment to arise

Body of U.S. Military Expert Is Found

James P. Wheeler, III

James Fallows, a national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine, wrote in an article on the magazine’s website that he had known “Jack” Wheeler since the early 1980s. A photo on the website shows a youthful, businesslike Wheeler in a dress shirt, tie and suspenders, in front of a map.

Wheeler, Fallows wrote, had spent much of his life trying to address “what he called the ’40 year open wound’ of Vietnam-era soldiers being spurned by the society that sent them to war.”

Mr Wheeler’s body was found in a trash dump as it tumbled out of a garbage truck in Delaware. In the NYTimes article the matter of just who might have done the killing is daintily skirted. Elsewhere the story is muddier.    Mr Wheeler was a former military man, an initiator of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC, and involved with the military-industrial complex.  One must wonder a bit just what he knew and who stood to lose or gain by his death.

Open wound, still

I won’t bother to quote the utterances of those newly elected representatives entering the halls of Congress these days, aside from to say that the shrill cries of cutting costs (which never include the military’s costs) is sure to assist in sending the nation further deeper into the “recession” soon to become a down-right Depression as towns, cities, counties and States begin to foreclose on themselves, the Feds frantically print more money thinking the solution may lie there whereas it is the lies of monetary policy, and everything to which it is connected, which are a great part of the problem.   These are they guys who are now going to lead us with their hatchets in hand:

Senator Mitchell McConnellRepresentative John Boehner, (as in boner/hard on/erection)Rep. Don YoungRep. Jerry LewisThe real Jerry Lewis, thenThe real Jerry Lewis, now

Of course, if one were to connect these little dots in the cosmos of our contemporary moment, one might reasonably come away with the conclusion that our immediate future is dim.  There appears in these images the signal of a declension.  Rather than gathering the will to look reality in the face, the prerequisite for then doing something about it, we have chosen a mixture of denial, rage, ranting, and electing the pasty-faced guys above to sort out our problems.   It appears that the national community has jointly stuck its head in the sand, or perhaps some more unseemly place.   Those above  intend to do their “problem solving” by pulling the plug on most of the social services which one takes for granted – fire department, police, community library or swimming pool.  Except, of course, the military.   And so into this second decade of the new century, the sturm und drang continues, almost for sure to bring the country to a grinding halt.  At this stage intelligence, rational thought, modesty, or any of the qualities the times and circumstances call for are out of the question.  Rather we will get simple-minded slogans and a higher decibel level.  One day not too far away I imagine social disturbances of a kind which will logically lead to the imposition of martial law.  It seems that way in the tea-leaves I read, anyway.   However dramatic all this might seem, perhaps it is good to place it in perspective and see how so very tiny our dots actually are in the context of reality.

A belated Happy New Year!