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Friday, July 31, 2009

Let's Talk About Vampires

(drawing by Loren Capelli, in NY Times)

Is it anything about vampires we should know and we don't? Well, I've come from Dracula's country, so I dare to say I'm an expert. Two good friends from Baltimore, Ruth and Jerry, will be in Romania for a couple of days, and they will visit Bran Castle and the Snagov Monastery. Though the castle has no real connection with the bloody prince, it would be a good start to flame the imagination. As for the monastery, the legend says the prince was buried there (it seems, however, that the grave is not of him).

There are all kind of vampires: some of them are actually nice, very nice, though they appear as terrible when you first meet them. Some others had encountered sad events in their youth (or they expect sadness in their future); now they come with their tragic stories (or tragic expectancies) and make you cry.

I can tel you that I haven't found a bad vampire ever; anyway I was able to accommodate with any of them. It's true that I am a very understandable person, tolerant and nice, so don't take my words for granted.

Well, you think you know all about vampires. Then what about that?

A plane has landed at JFK and everyone inside is dead. Dr. Ephraim Goodweather, the lead in the Canary Project, the most skilled response team to biological threats, has been called in to investigate. Meanwhile, a local antiques dealer, Abraham Setrakian, sees the story on the news and has a feeling that an old master is at play: in the absence of God he had found Man. Man killing man, man helping man, both of them anonymous: the scourge and the blessing.

Hum, this seems threatening. I have to read the whole story: it's a new novel, The Strain, by Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan. I found some references on the web:

  • An old-fashioned approach to storytelling with a new history and future for vampirism.
  • Del Toro's original idea and Hogan's sharp and rich writing skills make this a compelling read.
  • It has the characterization and story arc to stand with any novel beyond the horror genre.
  • This one will keep you up late at night to keep the nightmares at bay.
  • Recommended for mature audiences only.
Well, these references could be just formal, so let's better see what the authors have to say. They wrote in today's NY Times an essay about vampires:

Tonight, you or someone you love will likely be visited by a vampire — on cable television or the big screen, or in the bookstore. Our own novel describes a modern-day epidemic that spreads across New York City.

It all started nearly 200 years ago. It was the Year Without a Summer of 1816, when ash from volcanic eruptions lowered temperatures around the globe, giving rise to widespread famine. A few friends gathered at the Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva and decided to engage in a small competition to see who could come up with the most terrifying tale — and the two great monsters of the modern age were born.

One was created by Mary Godwin, soon to become Mary Shelley, whose Dr. Frankenstein gave life to a desolate creature. The other monster was less created than fused. John William Polidori stitched together folklore, personal resentment and erotic anxieties into The Vampyre, a story that is the basis for vampires as they are understood today.

With The Vampyre, Polidori gave birth to the two main branches of vampiric fiction: the vampire as romantic hero, and the vampire as undead monster. This ambivalence may reflect Polidori’s own, as it is widely accepted that Lord Ruthven, the titular creature, was based upon Lord Byron — literary superstar of the era and another resident of the lakeside villa that fateful summer. Polidori tended to Byron day and night, both as his doctor and most devoted groupie. But Polidori resented him as well: Byron was dashing and brilliant, while the poor doctor had a rather drab talent and unremarkable physique.

But this was just a new twist to a very old idea. The myth, established well before the invention of the word vampire, seems to cross every culture, language and era. The Indian Baital (he's using the Tweeter, by the way - my note here), the Ch’ing Shih in China, and the Romanian Strigoi are but a few of its names. The creature seems to be as old as Babylonia and Sumer. Or even older.


The vampire may originate from a repressed memory we had as primates. Perhaps at some point we were — out of necessity — cannibalistic. As soon as we became sedentary, agricultural tribes with social boundaries, one seminal myth might have featured our ancestors as primitive beasts who slept in the cold loam of the earth and fed off the salty blood of the living.

Monsters, like angels, are invoked by our individual and collective needs. Today, much as during that gloomy summer in 1816, we feel the need to seek their cold embrace.

Herein lies an important clue: in contrast to timeless creatures like the dragon, the vampire does not seek to obliterate us, but instead offers a peculiar brand of blood alchemy. For as his contagion bestows its nocturnal gift, the vampire transforms our vile, mortal selves into the gold of eternal youth, and instills in us something that every social construct seeks to quash: primal lust. If youth is desire married with unending possibility, then vampire lust creates within us a delicious void, one we long to fulfill.

In other words, whereas other monsters emphasize what is mortal in us, the vampire emphasizes the eternal in us. Through the panacea of its blood it turns the lead of our toxic flesh into golden matter.

In a society that moves as fast as ours, where every week a new blockbuster must be enthroned at the box office, or where idols are fabricated by consensus every new television season, the promise of something everlasting, something truly eternal, holds a special allure. As a seductive figure, the vampire is as flexible and polyvalent as ever. Witness its slow mutation from the pansexual, decadent Anne Rice creatures to the current permutations — promising anything from chaste eternal love to wild nocturnal escapades — and there you will find the true essence of immortality: adaptability.

Vampires find their niche and mutate at an accelerated rate now — in the past one would see, for decades, the same variety of fiend, repeated in multiple storylines. Now, vampires simultaneously occur in all forms and tap into our every need: soap opera storylines, sexual liberation, noir detective fiction, etc. The myth seems to be twittering promiscuously to serve all avenues of life, from cereal boxes to romantic fiction. The fast pace of technology accelerates its viral dispersion in our culture.

But if Polidori remains the roots in the genealogy of our creature, the most widely known vampire was birthed by Bram Stoker in 1897.

Part of the reason for the great success of his Dracula is generally acknowledged to be its appearance at a time of great technological revolution. The narrative is full of new gadgets (telegraphs, typing machines), various forms of communication (diaries, ship logs), and cutting-edge science (blood transfusions) — a mash-up of ancient myth in conflict with the world of the present.

Today as well, we stand at the rich uncertain dawn of a new level of scientific innovation. The wireless technology we carry in our pockets today was the stuff of the science fiction in our youth. Our technological arrogance mirrors more and more the Wellsian dystopia of dissatisfaction, while allowing us to feel safe and connected at all times. We can call, see or hear almost anything and anyone no matter where we are. For most people then, the only remote place remains within. Know thyself we do not.

Despite our obsessive harnessing of information, we are still ultimately vulnerable to our fates and our nightmares. We enthrone the deadly virus in the very same way that Dracula allowed the British public to believe in monsters: through science. Science becomes the modern man’s superstition. It allows him to experience fear and awe again, and to believe in the things he cannot see.

And through awe, we once again regain spiritual humility. The current vampire pandemic serves to remind us that we have no true jurisdiction over our bodies, our climate or our very souls. Monsters will always provide the possibility of mystery in our mundane reality show lives, hinting at a larger spiritual world; for if there are demons in our midst, there surely must be angels lurking nearby as well. In the vampire we find Eros and Thanatos fused together in archetypal embrace, spiraling through the ages, undying.


(A Life in Books)

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Chaise Longue of Alvar Aalto

Alvar Aalto - Chaise Longue, 1936–37
molded birch plywood, cotton webbing

(The Met)

(Avangarda 20)


Daniel Gross: Recession is Over, Recovery's Problematic

Daniel Gross in Newsweek:

In Westport, Mass., about 60 miles southwest of Boston, traffic crawls along Route 6 as drivers make their way to the nearby Atlantic beaches like Horseneck or Baker's. A 10-worker crew pouring and raking asphalt onto the road slows their progress. It's the kind of small annoyance drivers nationwide face each summer. It's also one small manifestation of President Barack Obama's ambitious strategy for jump-starting the economy.

In April, the P.J. Keating Co., a construction firm based in Lunenburg, Mass., bid on about a dozen stimulus projects funded through the U.S. Transportation Department. It won two contracts, including this $4.06 million job, rescuing what would have been a dismal year for P.J. Keating, says David Baker, 36, a manager of construction operations. As business dwindled over the past two years, the firm laid off about a dozen people. We definitely would have been faced with another half-dozen layoffs had we not gotten these stimulus projects, Baker says. Instead, the company kept all its remaining 300 employees, and hired five new ones. Ordinarily, a few -government-funded jobs, like traffic on Route 6, wouldn't be noteworthy. But the tableau neatly encapsulates the promise—and pitfalls—of an economy at an inflection point.

The Great Recession, which rolled over our financial lives like one of P.J. Keating's giant pavers, is most likely over. Home sales, while still far below the levels of a year ago, have risen for three straight months—a first since 2004. The stock market has rallied 44 percent since March, thanks to renewed optimism and improving earnings from big companies like Goldman Sachs and Apple. In June, seven of the 10 indicators in the Conference Board Leading Economic Index pointed upward, including manufacturing hours worked and unemployment claims. Macroeconomic Advisers, the St. Louis–based consulting firm, says the economy is expanding at a 2.5 percent annual rate in the current quarter. Economic activity will increase slightly over the remainder of 2009, Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke told Congress.

Irrational exuberance, it's not. But even stagnation would be an improvement over recent history. The U.S. economy shrank at nearly a 6 percent annualized rate between September 2008 and March 2009, a shocking slowdown that pitched the global economy into recession for the first time since World War II. This looks an awful lot like the beginning of a second Great Depression, Nobel laureate Paul Krugman said in January. Catastrophe may have been averted. But when economists proclaim a recession over, they're celebrating a technicality: they mean economic output has stopped contracting. And while that is good news, you might wait a while before adding Judy Garland's rendition of Happy Days Are Here Again to your iPod. GDP growth alone can't feed a family, or pay a mortgage. Cursed with a high national debt load and blessed with a dynamic, growing workforce, the U.S. economy needs annual growth of at least 1.5 percent just to feel like we're standing still.

Worse, the data point that means the most to our psychological well-being—unemployment—is likely to keep climbing. The loss of 6.5 million jobs since December 2007 has spurred the sharpest rise in the unemployment rate since the 1930s. As manufacturing jobs move overseas and companies struggle to further reduce costs, unemployment—which stands at 9.5 percent—is likely to rise above 10 percent. There's a difference between having an expansion and an economy that has recovered, says Lawrence Summers, Obama's chief economic adviser.

Having survived a near-death economic experience, Americans now need to focus on surviving what's likely to be a pokey, painful recovery. "I see 1 percent growth in the economy in the next few years," says New York University economist Nouriel Roubini. "It's going to feel like a recession, even when it ends." Shifting our unwieldy $14 trillion economy from rapid reverse into neutral took heroic efforts from the Federal Reserve, the Treasury Department (in two administrations), two sessions of Congress, and, of course, the taxpayers. But the greater challenge may be getting the economy to start growing at a pace that creates jobs, boosts incomes, and raises corporate profits—all without triggering inflation.

A year ago, NEWSWEEK dubbed this a new kind of recession—one caused by turmoil in housing and finance rather than manufacturing or weak consumer spending. Now that it's over, we'll need a new kind of recovery. For 60 years, policymakers have relied on a series of simple tools for combating slowdowns and promoting growth: the Fed cuts interest rates, government slashes taxes, and a deregulated Wall Street provides easy money. All of which spurs debt-fueled consumption and the movement of goods and services around the globe.

No more. The Fed literally can't cut interest rates further—the overnight interest rate it controls is at zero. Given the deficits and Democratic control of Washington, the prospect of broad-based tax cuts are slim. Americans are still stuffing cash under the mattress. The last several recoveries were not sustained because they were based on bubbles, they were led by consumption, and they enhanced inequality, says Summers. The president's emphasis is on having a different kind of expansion.

The Obama administration's strategy rests on what some might call industrial policy or excessive government intervention—or even creeping socialism. I call it the smart economy. It means eschewing the blunt economic instruments we've always used and focusing resources and rhetoric on strategic sectors: renewable energy/green technology, infrastructure, broadband, and health care. It means making investments to run vital systems more intelligently and efficiently, thus creating a new infrastructure on which the private sector can work its magic. This philosophy, legislated in the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, holds that a mixture of targeted investments, tax credits, subsidies, reforms, and direct purchases can preserve or create jobs in the short term, improve America's economic competitiveness in the long term, and catalyze private-sector investment.

It's too soon to judge whether this enormous fiscal and political gamble will work. But as was the case the last time the financial sector destroyed itself—the early 1930s—it will be up to Washington to lead the way. We're witnessing an immense and aggressive substitution of public capital for private capital—and it is probably essential to our recovery. But the best-laid plans of Ivy League academics and charismatic young presidents frequently go awry (see: Vietnam). The stimulus package will work its way into the economy very slowly and, by itself, isn't nearly large enough to make up for all the wealth and jobs lost in the past two years. And there's great uncertainty as to how one of the most crucial components of the smart economy—health care—will be affected.

Those on the right say the Obama plan can't work simply because it's directed by government. (Every Republican in the House voted against the stimulus plan.) But even some on the left say it's aimed disproportionately at industry. In an economy in which consumers account for 70 percent of activity, what we need is more demand for goods and services, says Lawrence Mishel, president of the Washington, D.C.–based Economic Policy Institute. The missing pillar in Obama's articulation is really making sure that people's wages rise in tandem with productivity. Critics and allies alike fret about the pace of aid.

In his first hundred days, Franklin D. Roosevelt said he wanted 250,000 young men working in the forests for a dollar a day. Despite the howls of organized labor, a quarter of a million men were toiling in the Civilian Conservation Corps by the summer of 1933. They planted 3 billion trees, built 800 state parks, and saved the nation's topsoil. Larger public-works programs like the Civil Works Administration swiftly put millions of people to work erecting bridges and building dams.

Things aren't going quite as swiftly in New Deal 2.0. So far, only a fraction of the stimulus funding has entered the economy via tax cuts ($43 billion), and another chunk via aid to state and local governments ($64 billion). Much of that, however, was used to avert cuts rather than to create jobs. New York City, for example, was able to avoid laying off 14,000 teachers. And because the contracting process is more complicated than it was in the 1930s, the investment component will take more time. So far, only about $120 billion in new spending has been promised to specific programs. Using a rough guide that $92,000 of government spending creates a job, the White House assumes the stimulus will preserve or create 1.5 million jobs by the fourth quarter of 2009 and another 3.5 million by the fourth quarter of next year. But the White House says less than 10 percent of the employment impact from the stimulus will take place during 2009.

Several months pass before money from Washington arrives in paychecks in places like Westport, Mass. The Department of Transportation, which received $26.6 billion for highway projects, has approved 5,777 projects and promised $16.9 billion in spending. It generally takes six to eight weeks to get a project advertised and approved, and then a notice to start, says Joel Szabat, deputy assistant secretary for transportation policy. By the end of May, transportation projects had already directly created between 6,000 and 7,000 jobs. That's encouraging, but still a drop in the bucket—especially given the demand for work. In March, Lew Wood, superintendent of Amtrak's maintenance facility in Bear, Dela., received the go-ahead to hire 55 workers to help carry out a $58.5 million stimulus-funded project to repair 60 passenger rail cars. When we advertised the 55 jobs, we got 6,000 applicants, many of whom were former General Motors and Chrysler employees, Wood says.

The benefits of resurfacing roads and improving train service—fixing existing infrastructure and stimulating existing industries—are obvious and easy to gauge. But a significant chunk of the smart-economy program entails efforts to create new commercial infrastructure and new industries, which are more abstract and whose success is difficult to measure. That's especially true for the alternative-energy and clean-technology sectors, which received lots of goodies in the stimulus package: a $6 billion loan-guarantee program for alternative-energy investments, a $4.5 billion federal green-building-conversion effort, $5 billion in funds to weatherize low-income homes, and cash to promote smart-grid technologies.

Anthony Costa, acting commissioner of the General Service Administration's Public Buildings Service, says his agency has awarded 80 projects worth $375 million (out of a total of $5.5 billion granted in the stimulus bill) to upgrade federal buildings. The Blue-Green Alliance, a joint venture of unions and environmentalists, says 850,000 manufacturing jobs in existing plants could be converted to green jobs—building new products with the same equipment and employing skills of current workers. New Flyer, a Canada-based company that makes hybrid buses in St. Cloud, Minn., has received $213 million in orders for new hybrid buses from agencies in Philadelphia, Chicago, Milwaukee, and Rochester, N.Y., and that are funded wholly or in part by the stimulus bill—a sum equal to roughly one quarter of its annual revenue.

These initiatives are a boon for the minority of businesses whose core operations can be easily adapted to smart-economy projects. But in order for this effort to succeed, the impact has to be deeper. Creating entirely new types of businesses involves the government placing bets on specific technology sectors—and on specific technologies within those sectors. We invested in the interstate highway system in the 1950s for reasons of national security, but it had tremendous economic benefits that nobody could have anticipated, says Mark Zandi of Moody's Economy.com. The smart minds behind the smart economy, by contrast, believe they know the precise positive outcomes to be generated by investments in renewable energy. Energy Secretary Steven Chu may be a Nobel Prize–winning physicist. But as his department sifts through loan applications for different types of alternative-energy projects, will he prove to be a good venture capitalist? Should loan guarantees go to projects that use traditional solar panels or thin-film solar that can be stamped onto building materials?

And while they do create jobs, many alternative-energy projects aren't particularly labor-intensive. Wind farms don't require armies of workers to maintain them. In Colorado, government officials and executives have been talking up what Gov. Bill Ritter calls a new energy economy. The Denver region can boast thousands of new jobs connected to solar research and wind-turbine manufacturers, but they don't come close to making up for the 50,000-plus jobs lost in the area since the recession began. By 2018 investments in renewable power generation and transportation fuels, retrofitting buildings, and research could lead those sectors to employ 2.54 million jobs, according to the consulting firm Global Insight. That's nice, but hardly the difference between muddling through and a supercharged recovery.

The U.S. government does have a pretty good long-term record of midwifing new industries, and creating new commercial infrastructure that spurred massive private--sector investments. The state-funded Erie Canal, which led to massive growth in upstate New York and the upper Midwest, was followed by privately backed waterways. Congress built the first telegraph line from Baltimore to Washington in 1844 before entrepreneurs were struck by lightning, as the telegraph was called. The first transcontinental railroad was heavily financed and subsidized by Congress in the 1860s—and helped trigger a half-dozen copycat lines.

There are signs that public investment in green technology is already catalyzing some private investment. These are dust-bowl days for venture capital. But on July 22, eMeter Inc., a San Mateo, Calif.–based startup that makes smart-grid management software, says it raised $32 million in new venture-capital funding. The company, which has 160 employees, is betting its business will grow as some of the $4.5 billion earmarked for smart-grid technology flows to utilities. We're prepared to hire people rapidly once the stimulus action really starts, says eMeter CEO Cree Edwards.

When the private sector creates new infrastructure—with or without government help—all sorts of good things can happen. That was the case in the 1990s with the Internet. Seeking a repeat, the stimulus package allots $7.2 billion for expanding the nation's broadband infrastructure into mostly rural areas. (Only 63 percent of Americans subscribe to broadband at home.) What does stringing high-speed fiber into the hamlets and hollows of Appalachia have to do with job creation? Plenty, says Wally Bowen, founder and executive director of the Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN), a nonprofit wireless-Internet provider in western North Carolina. Many people who got on the Internet in the mid-'90s had real progress in their lives in these remote rural areas, managing their health conditions or a home business, only to be left behind when broadband passed them by, says Bowen. He cites an octogenarian widow in the small town of Murphy who has been supplementing her income with eBay, but has lately been having difficulty with dial-up. MAIN is part of a consortium of local businesses and public-private partnerships seeking $50 million in broadband stimulus money to lay new fiber and erect wireless towers. A study by Columbia University professor Raul Katz estimates that as many as 128,000 jobs could be gained over four years just in the construction of new networks.

The benefits from more investment in broadband and communications could extend far beyond elderly eBay sellers. As MIT researcher William Lehr says, Broadband is a key ingredient to make the rest of this smorgasbord of projects work. For example, the stimulus package included $19 billion to computerize health information, which would allow doctors, patients, and insurers to share data easily. The move, intended to save billions of dollars, has already spurred private-sector investments. In July, the networking giant Cisco and the huge insurer UnitedHealth announced plans to build a technology network for health providers, with the help of stimulus funds.

Digitizing health records is the ultimate no-brainer—the typical doctor's office is far lower-tech than the typical grocery store. But that may prove to be the easiest task in bringing the tenets of the smart economy to the vital health-care industry. The stimulus package contained plenty of cash for the sector, one of the few areas in which employment held up during the recession: $10 billion for the National Institutes of Health, and $24.7 billion in subsidies to help people who have lost their jobs to purchase coverage. But that's only the down payment. The case the Obama administration makes for its expensive, ambitious health-care-reform program is as much about economics as it is about social justice. Health care, 16 percent of the economy, is inefficient. The lack of affordable health insurance is a barrier to hiring and entrepreneurship. And a failure to control the cost of Medicare and Medicaid will crowd out other investments and make it more difficult to sustain consumption. If we do not control these costs, we will not be able to control our deficit, President Obama said in his occasionally combative July 22 press conference.

True. And that points out one of the challenges in relying on smarter health care to contribute meaningfully to economic growth. The reform envisions large new expenditures and investments: Congressional Budget Office estimates of major provisions yield a sticker price of $1 trillion over 10 years. But it's also supposed to generate huge cost savings through the application of technology, efficiencies, and negotiating power. A July report by the White House's Council of Economic Advisers states that health care is forecasted to remain a large source of job growth in the labor market, especially for positions like registered nurses and physical therapists. Yet the gale of productivity enhancement, reform, and cost control the Obama administration wants to unleash on the sector is likely to result in the reduction or elimination of many existing health-care jobs. The debate about the impact of health-care reform will continue to rage even if legislation is passed this year. And the plan that ultimately emerges—if one emerges—will likely be influenced more by interest-group and partisan politics than by smart-economy thinking. Audible in Washington last week: the sound of expectations being ratcheted down.

To a large degree, the U.S. economy must now cope with an era of lower expectations. Road building isn't a recipe for full employment, green technology won't displace fossil fuels in this decade, the benefits of universal broadband may be overblown, and the dysfunctional health-care system won't shift overnight from a headwind to a tailwind. The recession may be over, but there's likely to be plenty of tough slogging ahead.

Does that mean the smart economy is a waste? Absolutely not. Declaring the stimulus a failure five months after its passage is a little like calling the results of a marathon at the second-mile marker. Virtually all these investments are necessary. They will make the economy and specific industries smarter. They are intelligent economic and political strategies. But they're not sufficient. Large as it is, the stimulus can't fill the hole we've created or bring a series of large industries into the 21st century. Each imperative requires investments far in advance of what even the most free-spending liberal could imagine. Transforming the nation's energy production and transmission system will take an investment of trillions of dollars over decades, says Dan Arvizu, director of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo. "The private sector has to make this happen."

Historically, the economy has kicked into higher gear when a development comes along that can touch every part of the economy, not just particular sectors: the steam engine, electricity, the computer chip, globalization, the Internet, cheap money. By definition, it's almost impossible to know what the next disruptive, discontinuous great leap forward is going to be. On several occasions, Lawrence Summers has remarked that when he was involved in the big economic summit Bill Clinton held after winning the 1992 election, he didn't recall hearing many mentions of the words "the Internet."

Past performance is no guide to future returns. That's the disclaimer that every investment manager provides clients. And it's true in economic terms, as well. The U.S. has historically responded with resilience and flexibility to periods of economic distress. Despite the army of authors dedicated to the proposition that the New Deal was an unadulterated failure, FDR's efforts averted disaster, ended the nation's worst economic downturn, and created lasting infrastructure that has paid economic dividends for decades—from the Hoover Dam to the Appalachian Trail (the real one, not Mark Sanford's fictional one). History suggests, but doesn't guarantee, that the U.S. is likely to do so again.

Until the next big thing comes along, consumers and businesses will continue to do what they've been doing for the last several months: pay down debt, restructure, and focus on survival. Using federal resources as a lever and crutch, we'll have to take satisfaction in small, incremental gains. It'll be grueling work—much like repaving roads in Westport, Mass., in the middle of August.

Zoon Politikon)

Pierre Louÿs

(Le Parnasse des Lettres)


Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Botticelli: Portrait of a Boy

It is at the National Gallery of Art in Washington: a great painting of Botticelli. The smile of the boy can suggest many contradictory things, but the ambiguity is very firmly controlled by the artist.

(Washington DC National Gallery of Art)


Balthus at Met

The Mountain, 1936-37
oil on canvas

The Mountain: I tried to catch the image with my camera, then I gave up; it's impossible to get the subtlety of the play of light and darkness, so I recurred at a very good photo, from a weblog that says, a quirky representation of young hikers in the Bernese Oberland, with is references to Courbet, Caspar David Friedrich and Poussin that it approaches pastiche.

And then I passed to Thérèse: I was thinking at a portrait of a boy, by Botticelli, on view at Washington National Gallery. The portrait by Botticelli is subtly ambiguous; the portrait by Balthus is openly provocative and raises many questions.

And those who put questions suggest also possible answers. Was the master a pervert, as some believe? Maybe not, others would say, he was so disgusted by the common mentality regarding art, by the common social values, that he could only be sarcastic in his ouevres, no other way.

Well, the artist was very straight in giving an answer, once for all: his paintings shouldn't be read about, just looked at. Here is the telegram he sent for his 1968 retrospective at Tate:


Thérèse, 1938
oil on cardboard

(The Met)



Two Paintings by Magritte

The Empire of Light, II, 1950
oil on canvas

I had seen another version of The Empire of Light two years ago, at the superb Menil Collection in Houston. It is full of mystery and of poetry. Like all Magritte's works, it accumulates oddities on purpose: sky in full day, city in full night, and some other, less obvious at first sight. And the greatest mystery here is that these oddities create a fine balance of the composition.

As for The Menaced Assassin, I knew it only from art books. A masterpiece of the Absurd: it is elegant, it is minimal, it is odd, it is crazy, it is perfect.

The Menaced Assassin, 1927
oil on canvas

Here's what the MoMA catalog says about The Menaced Assassin:

A woman's naked body, blood trickling from her mouth, lies on a couch. The well–dressed man who is presumably her killer—the assassin of the painting's title—stands ready to leave, his coat and hat on a chair and his bag adjoining, but he is delayed by the sound of music: languidly relaxed, he listens to a gramophone. Meanwhile two men (agents of the law?), oddly alike, wait in the foyer to ambush him, armed with club and net. And behind him three more men, triplets to the others' twins, watch from over the balcony, witnesses outside the action's frame—like reflections of the painting's viewers, peering in from the other direction.

Magritte's Belgian brand of Surrealism deals in clear visions with unclear meanings. Unlike the fantastic dreamscapes of Paris Surrealists such as Salvador Dalí, his settings are strangely normal, and his protagonists are bourgeois gentlemen in ties and bowler hats. Yet he specialized in permanent irresolution, in mysteries without a key. The Menaced Assassin must be rooted in detective novels and movies, which fascinated Magritte, but its studied frozen quality, the impassivity of its actors, puts it in another dimension from the dime thriller.

Disturbingly, the gaze of the three men at the back meets the viewers' own. The murderer himself is menaced; the viewers themselves are viewed.


(René Magritte)


Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Madonna of Dali

Salvador Dali - Madonna, 1958
oil on canvas
Click on the image to have a larger view.

(The Met)


The Met

I was at the Met last weekend to see just the Moderns, as time to spend was very short and a radical choice was mandatory. I had in mind the Francis Bacon retrospective, but the first work I met was the Shark of Damien Hirst. I will try to come later to Hirst: he is too astonishing to be characterized here in two words. Is he the Picasso of nowadays? Maybe, reason being the same aggressive attitude. But, no, it is much more to say, and a contemporary master needs time to be understood. So what I will do is to offer here some photos I was able to make: Balthus, Hopper, Dali, Aalto, maybe also Dale Chihuly (I failed the photo I took of one of his works; hopefully I find the image on the web).

(New York, New York)


Words of Wisdom on the Back of a Subway Card

The fish trap exists because of the fish. Once you get the fish you can forget the trap. The rabbit snare exists because of the rabbit. Once you get the rabbit, you can forget the snare. Words exist because of meaning. Once you get the meaning, you can forget the words.
Where can I find a man who has forgotten all words, to have a meaningful conversation?

- Bedford Avenue Station in Brooklyn -

(New York, New York)


Russell Crotty

Cassiopeia over Dry Chaparral, 2004
ballpoint pen and watercolor on paper mounted on fiberglass

Artist and amateur astronomer Russell Crotty works on paper-covered globes and large books. He covers them with detailed images evolving from a network of fine pen lines, making calligraphic notes on astronomy and ecology.


Jim Lambie

Jim Lambie (Scottish, born 1964) - Screamadelica, 2004
gaffer tape and printed paper on wall, dimensions variable

Moderns consider life without the comforts of an established canon, but it still clings stubbornly to Minimalism and Post-Minimalism (Roberta Smith).


Song Dong

Beijing-based artist Song Dong (b. 1966) explores notions of transience and impermanence with installations that combine aspects of performance, video, photography, and sculpture. Projects 90, his first solo U.S. museum show, presents his recent work Waste Not. A collaboration first conceived of with the artist's mother, the installation consists of the complete contents of her home, amassed over fifty years during which the Chinese concept of wu jin qi yong, or waste not, was a prerequisite for survival. The assembled materials, ranging from pots and basins to blankets, oil flasks, and legless dolls, form a miniature cityscape that viewers can navigate around and through (MoMA Catalog).






Monday, July 27, 2009

Rufino Tamayo: Animals New York

Animals New York, 1941
oil on canvas

Rufino Tamayo, the Mexican wizard of the red color.



Roy Lichtenstein at MoMA

I would name this Still Life with Mondrian and Hat Carrier. I know that I should not call names on the works of Roy Lichtenstein, but I like enormously his art, so I hope to be forgiven.


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Jasper Johns at MoMA: From Juan Gris

Jasper Johns at MoMA: two works with the same title: From Juan Gris, both from 200, both ink on transparentized paper. If you look at them, there are two variations on the same motive. Actually, there are two kind of carbon copies after a work by Juan Gris. For me, it was a surprising Jasper Johns: I had known him exclusively concerned to find the iconic in targets and digits.




Skeletons Fighting over a Pickled Herring
(James Ensor Exihibtion at MoMA)

I was visiting MoMA for the second time (the first had been in 2001): so many masterpieces, it's overwhelming, you should come several times, to take slowly room after room. It's impossible, as always lack of time.

I will try to put here, in future posts, some impressions.

(New York, New York)

(Contemporary Art)

The Last Lover

(image of a full-page plate from an edition of Les Chansons de Bilitis)

I found firstly the English version:

Come, boy, pass me not by without having first loved me. I am still beautiful at night. Thou shalt see that my autumn is warmer than the spring-time of another.

Seek not for love among virgins. Love is a difficult art in which young girls are little learned. I have studied it all my life in order to give it to my last lover.

My last lover, that shalt be thou, I know it. Behold my mouth, for which an entire people has paled with desire. Behold my hair, the same hair that Psappha the Great has sung.

I will gather in thy favor all that is left of my lost youth. I will destroy the memories themselves. I will give to thee the flute of Lykas, the girdle of Mnasidika.

A friend showed me the original:

Enfant, ne passe pas sans m'avoir aimee. Je suis encore belle, dans la nuit; tu verras combien mon automne est plus chaud que le printemps d'une autre.

Ne cherche pas l'amour des vierges. L'amour est un art difficile ou les jeunes filles sont peu versees. Je l'ai appris toute ma vie pour le donner a mon dernier amant.

Mon dernier amant, ce sera toi, je le sais. Voici ma bouche, pour laquelle un peuple a pali de desir. Voici mes cheveux, les memes cheveux que Psappha la Grande a chantes.

Je recueillerai en ta faveur tout ce qu'il m'est reste de ma jeunesse perdue. Je brulerai les souvenirs eux-memes. Je te donnerai la flute de Lykas, la ceinture de Mnasidika.

Here is another version, the Spanish translation by Carlos López Narváez, Último amante:

Mancebo, no pases de largo sin gustar mi amor:desnuda en la noche, mi carne recobra esplendor; más sabio y feliz que cualquiera frágil primavera, mi otoño te entrega su ardor.

No esperes placer de las vírgenes: ese arte sutillo ignoran ingenuas doncellas, no es cosa de abril. Viviendo su rlto constante, al último amantedar quiero la esencia febril.

Mi último amante ha llegado: eres tú, doncel.Toma, pues, mis labios -cisterna de ansioso tropel, y toma también mis cabellos que aún guardan ellosde Safo divina la miel.

Tendrás de mis cálidas vides el jugo mejor;aún los más hondos recuerdos quemaré en tu honor. Serán tuyas mis joyas más ricas, la flauta de Lykasy de Nasdyka el ceñidor.

(Pierre Louÿs)


Thursday, July 23, 2009

Parnassian Intermezzo

Yoko Shibata
reading the Japanese version of a poem by Pierre Louÿs.

It happened that while thinking at the video and the poem within it I was attending an onLine discussion. It was about Nabokov and his Lolita: a masterpiece playing on the thin line of ambiguity. Was the Russian master condemning his hero? Or giving him a chance? We should not forget what Flaubert said once, Madame Bovary c'est moi! Are the personages of a book alter-egos of the author? Is it there talk about some deep obsessions (or deep fears) of the artist himself? Does each character just play a variation on the soul of the creator?

Another book by Nabokov, Ada: an impossible love between a brother and a sister, spanning over eighty years of life. Is it about love only? Or an attempt of Nabokov to have the control of time? Time marked only by ultimate experiences, the only way to give time a sense?

The characters from Ada speak sometimes about the poetry of Pierre Louÿs, trying to find there a way to explain themselves. Is it the erotism in literature a way of the artist to give sense to the spanning of time?

Here is the French original of L'Arbre, the poem that Yoko Shibata recites in Japanese:

Je me suis devetue pour monter a un arbre;
mes cuisses nues embrassaient l'ecorce lisse
et humide; mes sandales marchaient sur les

Tout en haut, mais encore sous les feuilles
et a l'ombre de la chaleur, je me suis mise a
cheval sur une fourche ecartee en balancant
mes pieds dans le vide.

Il avait plu. Des gouttes d'eau tombaient et
coulaient sur ma peau. Mes mains etaient
tachees de mousse, et mes orteils etaient
rouges, a cause des fleurs ecrasees.

Je sentais le bel arbre vivre quand le vent
passait au travers; alors je serrais mes
jambes davantage et j'appliquais mes levres
ouvertes sur la nuque chevelue d'un rameau.

And here is an image of Pierre Louÿs, the Parnassian poet who continued to write delicate erotic verses even while on his deathbead.

(The Thousand faces of HANAFUBUKI)

(Pierre Louÿs)

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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Deceptive House of Roy Lichtenstein

Roy Lichtenstein - House I
model 1996, fabricated 1998
fabricated and painted aluminum

The house is changing its shape as you move in front of her. A great creation of Roy Lichtenstein, on view in the Sculpture Garden of the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.

Roy Lichtenstein is best known for the pop paintings based on advertisements and comic strips that he made in the 1960s. He also produced a significant body of sculpture, including large-scale works designed for the outdoors. House I incorporates the hallmarks of the artist's style: crisp, elemental drawing, heavy black outlines, and a palette based on primary colors. Whereas most of the artist's sculpture approximates freestanding paintings in relief rather than volumetric structures in the round, some of his late sculpture, such as House I, exploits the illusionistic effects of a third dimension. The side of the house at once projects toward the viewer while appearing to recede into space (NGA).

(Washington DC National Gallery of Art)

(Contemporary Art)


Following the Raven in Baltimore

(musical background: Reverie, by Debussy)

The spirit of E.A. Poe is flowing in Baltimore; you feel his presence on the streets, along the walls, carried by the wind in front of old churches, then stepping by for a little while in the small bookshop on Charles Street. A Poe exhibition is on view at Enoch Pratt Library these days: old photos of the writer, manuscripts, letters, princeps editions, memorabilia. And a splendid translation into French, made by Baudelaire.

So it started my day in Baltimore, under the sign of Poe, and of the Raven, at Pratt Library, and so it ended, at Theatre Project, late in the afternoon (but I'll come later to it).

Meanwhile I walked on the streets all day long: there was a huge festival, with lots of people, and tents, and food, and all kind of artistry, and fun.

It was very hot and the sun was pitiless. But that was not the main problem with me: my photo-camera was playing nasty, as the batteries were working only now and then. I managed to record a video at Pratt Library, and then these two photos, and that was almost all.

Was it that they were not properly charged? Was it that the sun was without mercy for my head? Or was it the spell of the Raven? Maybe so, and I realized that when I took the stairs up to the entrance of Theatre Project, to watch an experimental performance: a puppet show where the Raven was telling the life of Poe! Splendid theater, splendid show, splendid performers, full of youth, and enthusiasm, and talent.

As I was not able to use my camera there, I'll give you here just the link to the leader of the theatrical show: Will Haza. He made a great impression on me. It was as I was living again in my young years, when I was so crazy about all forms of experimental theater. I had been in Prague and I knew about heir puppeteers there. Believe me, here at Theatre Project it was like being again in Prague of my youth!


(Claude Debussy)

(Edgar Allan Poe)

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Monday, July 20, 2009

A Luóhàn and a Demon

It comes from China, from the times of Ming Dynasty (c. 1644). You can admire it at the Freer Gallery of Art in DC. A Luóhàn tempted in vain by a Demon. Eternal beatitude, and eternal temptation: one of the themes of meditation in each religious system.

(Smithsonian Castle)

The Statue of Niō

There are two Niō at the Freer Gallery in DC, and for good reason: the gates in the Japanese temples from Kamakura Period (early 14-th century) were guarded by two such statues. Unkei was maybe the greatest artist in those times, and the legend goes that he was not carving the wood; he was just finding the shape of God inside.

(the musical background is Yuki Theme by Alin Dimitriu)

And here are two close-ups:

(Smithsonian Castle)

Baltimore: The Greek Orthodox Cathedral

The Greek Church in America is under the authority of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. The other Orthodox churches are generally part of OCA (Orthodox Church of America), organized in national dioceses (Romanian, Bulgarian, Serbian, Russian, etc). Part of the Russians belong to ROCOR (Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia). There are also Orthodox dioceses under the authority of the Churches from their origin countries.


(Icon and Orthodoxy)