Saturday, July 23, 2016

Entry - 7.23.16

Sebastian Meschenmoser - Sumpf - 2005

I came across the image above on a site that indiscriminately presents art, fine and commercial, in all media by artists both professional and amateur.  I really like the democratic nature of the site.  It forces the viewer to evaluate artwork without any background information or preconceived notions.  If you like a work, you can simply put it in your “stack” for future reexamination or reference.  So I put the image above by Sebastian Meschenmoser into my stack and, from time to time, would see it there.  I’d never heard of Meschenmoser before, but the image intrigued me.  It pictures a stocky toddler in lederhosen and Tyrolean hat wading through a swamp.  In spite of the potential for disaster inherent in the situation, the moment caught by the artist seems calm and peaceful.  I think it was this strange duality, the contradiction between situation and mood, that brought me back to this image again and again.  This contradiction captures quintessentially the innocence of childhood which is characterized by a vulnerability unrecognized.

Being intrigued by this image, I eventually made the inevitable search on the internet and found many other images by this artist, most of which were based in fantasy and often presented violent and extreme situations.  Animals behaving like humans are commonly included in these images – as comrades of humans or battling against them or dispensing justice to them.  I liked his paintings.  I found them engaging and disturbing.

Sebastian Meschenmoser - Abgrund - 2013

Sebastian Meschenmoser - Baeren - 2006

Sebastian Meschenmoser - Diorama - 2009

Sebastian Meschenmoser - Eastern Lynch Party - 2012

Sebastian Meschenmoser - Still - 2013

Sebastian Meschenmoser - Wanderer - 2013

Digging a little deeper, I was surprised to find that Meschenmoser is an author and illustrator of children’s books; I was also somewhat pleased.  These works would be considered completely inappropriate for a younger audience here in America – by the way, Meschenmoser is a 36 year old German born in Frankfurt am Main.  I think that too often we Americans underestimate a child’s ability to process powerful, emotionally dense material, the exact kind of material that stimulates associations and sparks a rich fantasy life.  We filter and sanitize the art and literature that our children are permitted to experience, which, I believe, ultimately hampers creativity and originality.  Now I must admit that I was unable to gather a lot of information about Meschenmoser; he may have a very compartmentalized dual career as both a children’s book illustrator and a fine artist presenting work to an adult audience.  But, at a minimum, if his output is so diverse in content, it certainly can initiate a discussion concerning what material society deems appropriate for consumption by children.

Long ago, when just a teenager, I joined a friend in our Long Island neighborhood to celebrate New Year’s Eve and to babysit his younger sister, a child of about six or seven.  After my friend had performed on his guitar for a while and we had played a great number of ping pong games in the basement, the hour was approaching when it was determined that my friend’s sister should go to bed.   More for our amusement than hers, we decided to read her some bedtime stories and after some searching found stashed on a bookshelf a collection of children’s stories by Hans Christian Andersen, the nineteenth century Danish author.  I was only familiar with Andersen from the Hollywood movie starring Danny Kaye and believed him to be a sweet, gentle soul who wrote cute stories about the Ugly Duckling and Thumbelina.  My friend and I took turns reading stories, which we selected arbitrarily by thumbing through the thick tome.  Imagine our surprise and delight when we discovered that one story after another was filled with bizarre happenings, injustices, masochism, violence, maimings and death – all presented, of course, within a moralistic framework.  We particularly loved “The Red Shoes”, a story in which a young girl covets a showy pair of expensive red shoes which she, inappropriately, desires to wear to church.  Unfortunately for her, her pride is not overlooked by god.  Her feet, imprisoned in the offending shoes, begin dancing of their own accord and refuse to stop, carrying her over the landscape, from town to town, until the girl is utterly exhausted.  Since she is unable to remove the diabolical shoes, she decides to have a sympathetic woodsman chop off her feet.  But even then her penance is deemed insufficient; the amputated feet in the red shoes continue to dance, following the fleeing child, forever haunting her.  As we read these strange stories, our enthusiasm swelled and soon we were roaring with laughter, tears of joy literally streaming down our faces.  My friend’s sister was amused more by our hilarity than the stories.  But she was far from terrified by our readings and went to bed when requested to do so quite unperturbed by the evening’s entertainments.  Though I am certain that Andersen intended his stories to be edifying rather than humorously macabre, I am equally certain that he didn’t believe it odd or inappropriate to address eerie, sad and violent themes in his stories intended for children.

Another nineteenth century children’s book author, the German Dr. Heinrich Hoffmann, really had no intention of ever being published.  Frustrated by the dearth of good children’s books available for purchase one Christmas, he determined that he would write and illustrate a series of cautionary tales for his three year old son.  Delighted by the ten rhymed stories that Hoffmann created, his friends urged him to have them published, which he did anonymously in 1845.  The stories, mostly about children, tell of the exaggerated consequences, often ruinous and grotesque, that result from mildly bad behaviors.  For instance, a boy, who never watches where he’s going, falls into a river and nearly drowns, and a girl, who plays with matches, lights herself on fire and burns to death.  My youngest son and I became aware of Hoffmann’s work during a random internet search.  We came across an animated video of “The Story of Little Suck-A-Thumb” and were delighted, my son laughing gleefully at the absurd and macabre storyline.

Link to Little Suck-A-Thumb video:

I am sure that many people would object that these stories are not suitable for children, but I think they would be underestimating the natural intelligence of children.  The real fun of the stories is to see revealed the absurdly horrible consequences of fairly benign bad behaviors.  The more extreme the punishment, the funnier the story.  Of course, these stories are satirizing the predisposition of parents to attempt to modify their children’s behavior by forewarning of the undesirable ramifications of continuing to engage in said behavior.  “Don’t do that or you’ll put your eye out!” or “Keep making that face and it will get stuck that way!”  Ultimately, these unusual stories are poking fun at adults and do not seriously seek to provide edifying lessons for young children – only to entertain them.  Obviously, Hoffman did not want to terrify his three year old son.  It would be sheer folly for a sleep deprived, working parent to foster nightmares in a young child, but clearly the good doctor recognized that children could differentiate between real and fantastic activity.  I guess many others recognized this also for, when published under the title Struwwelpeter, these stories became popular throughout Europe and were printed in numerous editions.

Taking a look back at most classic children’s literature created prior to the twentieth century, I find that many of the most beloved stories were populated by sinister, terrifying characters and presented eerie, frightening and often gory storylines.  Having evolved organically within a folk culture, most fairy tales, but those of the Brothers Grimm in particular, reflect the subconscious fears, aspirations and associations of the members of the communities in which they developed and function without regard of any standards of what is appropriate for children.  The cycles of Arthurian romances and Robin Hood stories, ETA Hoffmann’s The Nutcracker and the Mouse King and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, all traditional staples of a child’s library, contain many adult and violent themes.  Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and JM Barrie’s Peter Pan all contain underlying contexts addressing sexual themes approached from an adult’s perspective.  In the twentieth century, Roald Dahl is probably the premier children’s author, yet his books are rife with strange, unsettling and gory occurrences.   The cartoons I grew up watching (Looney Tunes, Tom and Jerry and Krazy Kat and Ignatz Mouse) were often incredibly violent.

Now I’m not promoting a steady diet of violent and frightening reading and viewing material for our children.  When still a kid, I sometimes thought that the persistent presentation of violent subject matter in the cartoons I watched was somewhat over the top – really a bit sick.  But, even at a young age, I was able to process the material and empathized with the characters on the receiving end of all that hilarious violence.  My point is that children can process difficult and unsettling material.  Not only can they tolerate it but, as I stated earlier, may find it essential to establishing a rich and satisfying fantasy life, a key component to the initiation of creative thought.  It seems that these days we’ve reinvented children’s literature and animated movies, diluting or avoiding completely scenes of horror and violence, seeking a mildly pleasing pablum of positivity and edifying material easily digestible but lacking much flavor.

For instance, though Disney used Hans Christian Andersen’s story as the inspiration for The Little Mermaid, the studio changed the ending dramatically.  In Andersen’s tale, a mermaid, seeking to secure the love of a handsome prince, takes on human form at great cost to herself.  When the prince chooses to marry a princess from another kingdom, the mermaid has the opportunity to return to her true form if she will kill the prince.  The mermaid actually intends to fulfill this obligation but at the last moment cannot act.  Brokenhearted she leaps into the sea, dissolves into seafoam and is transformed into an earthbound spirit, thereby receiving a spiritual reward for her compassion and commitment.  Disney revamped the story completely, making teenage rebelliousness the central theme of their animated movie.  Ariel, the mermaid, feeling stifled by the restrictions imposed by her overprotective father, surreptitiously takes risks, exploring forbidden realms, and, during one of her forays, saves Prince Eric from drowning, instantly falling in love with him.  I won’t go through the whole plot, but you can rest assured that Ariel never considers killing the prince in this version, the story ending happily with the newly married Ariel and Eric sailing away on a ship together.  The movie version, stripped of the tension, excess and religious underpinnings of Andersen’s tale, now serves a dual purpose, cautioning parents not to be unreasonably restrictive with their charges and warning children not to push the envelope too far.

Clearly, the contemporary model for media marketed to children does not permit the excess and edginess that was par for the course just a generation of two ago.  No longer do writers and artists seek to intrigue, thrill, excite or, heaven forbid, frighten their audience.  Today the goal is to edify, to present a prepackaged, mundane truism for ready consumption by our youth.  So the plots of children’s books and movies will usually revolve around a central lesson like: “Girls can do things too!” or “We should protect the environment!” or “Racism is bad!” or “It’s okay to be different!”  All admirable concepts, but I can’t help wondering a few things.  If a child hasn’t been brought up to embrace these elemental ideals, is a Disney movie really going to make a difference?  And after being bombarded over and over with the same enriching messages, are our children feeling bored, numb and a bit manipulated at this point?  Finally, I can’t help but wonder if any of this material will stand the test of time.  One or two hundred years from now, will anyone be interested in this stuff?

These changes in children’s media shouldn’t really surprise us.  We as adults are undergoing regular indoctrination in our daily lives.  For instance, at my office, all workers must undergo regular training on a number of topics often addressing professionalism and personal behavior.  A decade ago, we might have received training on a pertinent topic every two or three years.  Today, annually, we are enrolled in an ever expanding array of online courses which focus on a wide variety of topics including, among others: ethics, workplace violence, reasonable accommodation, equal opportunity employment and sexual harassment.  On a fairly restrictive schedule, we take the same courses every year while trying to meet the demands of our jobs.  I sometimes feel like I’ve been banished to a Maoist reeducation camp.  It’s pretty clear that management believes that with repetitive positive tutelage it’s possible to effect major changes in the attitudes and behaviors of the workers.  We Americans are bombarded continuously with a wide range of material intended to make us better people; commonly, news programs, advertisements, television shows, movies, social media, the courts and our jobs push an agenda intended to shape us into ideal humans – never mind that the definition of “ideal human” changes every fifteen minutes.

America has become a nation of thin-skinned milquetoasts poised to succumb to the vapors at the slightest offensive gesture or ill-chosen expression.  Under the banner of “Political Correctness”, an army of avengers fight the good fight, vanquishing all those who stand in the way of the establishment of their Utopian society.  A momentary lapse in judgement, a drunken comment or a poorly conceived joke can easily result in public condemnation, social ostracism, loss of employment and loss of community.  A career, indeed a life, can be defined by a slip of the tongue, the choice of the wrong word.

And I’m not so naïve as to believe that these slip-ups, faux pas and missteps do not result from deep-seated, long established opinions, convictions and prejudices.  Often they do.  But isn’t it better to permit people to air their opinions, to encourage an honest and open dialogue on the issues most pertinent to our continued survival and well-being, than to shut down discussion and vilify those who disagree with our sacred truisms?  Do we really want to live in a gray society in which everyone says the same thing, in which everyone holds the same beliefs true?

I am currently rereading The Joke by contemporary author Milan Kundera.  In this novel, Kundera, who matured in the heady postwar period as Czechoslovakia embraced Communism, presents a protagonist (Ludvik) who, made jealous by his girlfriend’s effusive communication about participation in a distant Party training session, writes a sarcastic postcard to her, critical of optimism and a healthy atmosphere.  He tosses in the phrase “Long live Trotsky!” just to shock her, even though he has no idea what the then disgraced revolutionary stood for.  Ludvik, a committed and loyal Party member, writes the postcard as a joke – but also recognizes that he intends to zing his girlfriend for innocently expressing enthusiasm at being separated from him.  Unfortunately, the postcard is intercepted, and he is summoned to District Party Headquarters to explain himself.

And what do you think of optimism? they asked. Optimism? I asked. Why, nothing special.  Do you consider yourself an optimist? they went on.  I do, I said uneasily.  I like a good time, a good laugh, I said, trying to lighten the tone of the interrogation.  A nihilist likes a good laugh, said one of them.  He laughs at people who suffer.  A cynic likes a good laugh, he went on.  Do you think socialism can be built without optimism? asked another of them.  No, I said.  Then you’re opposed to our building socialism, said the third… And you are a Trotskyite.  For heaven’s sake, whatever gave you that idea? I protested.  Did you write it or did you not?  I may have written something of the kind as a joke, but that was two months ago, I don’t remember.  We’ll be glad to refresh your memory, they said, and read me my postcard aloud: Optimism is the opium of the people!  A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky!  Ludvik.  The words sounded so terrifying in the small Party Headquarters office that they frightened me out of my wits.  I realized they had a destructive force I was powerless to counter,  But, Comrades, it was meant to be funny, I said, knowing they couldn’t possibly believe me.  Do you feel like laughing? one of the Comrades asked the other two.  Both shook their heads.
-          Milan Kundera, The Joke

At first, he expects his fellow Party members to understand his intentions and believes the whole storm will simply blow over but later is forced to see things differently.

Slowly I came to realize that there was no power capable of changing the image of my person lodged in the supreme court of human destinies, that the image in question (even though it bore no resemblance to me) was much more real than my actual self: that I was its shadow and not the other way around; that I had no right to accuse it of bearing no resemblance to me, because I bore the guilt for the lack of resemblance; that the lack of resemblance was my cross, to bear on my own.
-          Milan Kundera, The Joke

Ultimately, he is expulsed from the Party and is forced to leave the university he attends, thereby losing his right to defer military service.  He is assigned to a penal battalion and, as a result of an infraction, serves some prison time.  Meaningful employment becomes an impossibility.  His previous involvement in an artistic ensemble is severed, as well as all ties to the community in which he matured.

Of course, we would feel justified in condemning how the protagonist is treated as resulting from the misguided intentions of a totalitarian, Communist regime that prioritizes the welfare of the collective ahead of that of the individual.  But we must recognize that the Party saw itself as a vehicle in creating a better society, and, to accomplish this goal, the way that people thought and functioned had to change.  Evidence of “bad” thinking had to be addressed or society would slip back into its old comfortable and abusive patterns.  I don’t feel that the Communists of postwar Czechoslovakia were any less idealistic or well-meaning than America’s social crusaders of today.  They both share the same goal: to make positive change in their societies.  The tools for accomplishing this goal are also the same both then and now: 1) consistently use all forms of media available to disseminate your message and 2) ensure that any violator of your code of ethics is punished quickly and severely.  In America today, social media is the primary tool used to assert a new enlightened morality on the population; it’s the fear of public embarrassment and the potential loss of revenue that drives individuals and businesses to act swiftly to atone for even minor indiscretions.  The pattern is predictable.  A statement is issued or press conference is held in which full culpability is assumed by the offender(s), a sincere apology is tendered and punishment is meted out (whether that means resignation from position, loss of endorsements or exile from a social or power structure is determined by the specific circumstances).  There is usually no investigation, hearing or trial.  Intense media pressure assures that justice will be meted out swiftly.

I’m not sure what the answer is.  I do want to see positive social change made in our society, but I’m also dismayed to witness the erosion of one of our central freedoms: the right of free speech.  Of late, I’ve been reading a lot of American history, particularly focused on the period of the Revolution, and I believe that the Founding Fathers would be troubled by our willingness to accept ever-tightening restrictions on a freedom that they saw as essential to the balanced functioning of a democracy.  Whether these restrictions are imposed by the government or special interest groups or the population in general is immaterial; the results are the same.  A truly flourishing democracy is by its very nature sloppy, irreverent and contentious and presupposes a citizenry of robust, mature adults that can weather the storm of uncensored debate necessary to it survival. 

As always, I encourage all to comment here.  If you would prefer to comment privately, you can email me at: .

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Entry - 5.15.16

                             To turn, as swimmers into cleaness leaping,
                             Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary…
                                                                                   -Rupert Brooke

Gerard Wickham - Conrad - 2016
Just a few weeks ago, I finished my youngest son’s portrait, a small oil painting executed on poplar panel.  He is just fourteen years old, a pivotal age in a child’s development into adulthood.  With one foot still anchored securely in the cradle, he is dependent on his parents for sustenance and guidance, but, at the same time, he is more capable than ever of taking action independently and sees himself as ready to take on the challenges of the wider world.  I recognize this time in his life as one of possibilities.  Choices he makes now will often have an impact far into his future.  I sort of see him as a courageous explorer embarking on a journey into unchartered territory.  On one hand, I envy him, but, on the other, I’m glad it’s not me doing the trailblazing.  These were some of the ideas kicking around my brain as I started this portrait.  To successfully convey them in imagery, I chose to make some radical changes in my normal practices.

Usually in painting, I present my subject indoors, lit by artificial lighting, ordinarily multiple sources carefully arranged to maximize sculptural effect and to establish a satisfying interplay of darks and lights.  I prefer to depict the figure in a shallow space, activity organized parallel to the picture plane – somewhat akin to the manner in which figures are presented on the tympanum of a Greek temple.  I also typically minimize the effect of atmosphere and shadow, offering an interpretation of visual reality that eschews ambiguity and distortion.

In this portrait of my son, it was essential that he be presented outdoors.  Space represents possibilities, challenges, the unknown.  Sunshine obliterates nuance, transforming sculptural form into flat planes where it touches directly.  While I most often opt to portray an individual straight on, I chose here to depict my son from below, making him appear more heroic and bringing in a large swatch of clear blue sky to fill the space behind him.  Initially the garage was not included in the painting, but I added it in later because it was needed.  It anchors the composition, providing contrast with the broad expanse of the sky, but I was particularly interested in the web of shadows cast on the face of the structure.  It is late fall.  Though the day is clear, the sunlight bright and transforming, the sun is low on the horizon, its reach already becoming feeble.  The trees are bare.  Winter is coming on.

It’s hard to put into words exactly what I was hoping to project in this portrait, but I feel that I got it right, that I arrived at the image I had in mind before getting started.  Although the decisions I make in constructing a painting are usually very deliberate, dissecting a work, as I have done above, is generally fruitless and misleading.  The impact of visual art is overwhelmingly emotional and immediate.  So, my advice is to study the painting, skim over my words.

The concept of adolescence is a fairly recent invention.  It wasn’t until Victorian times when upper-class children were receiving extended education that the period between the age of thirteen and the early twenties was considered a unique stage of life stationed between childhood and adulthood.  Prior to that the natural assumption was that, when a child was physically capable of taking on an adult role, he or she would do so.  Hence it was the norm to find children employed or encouraged to marry at a very early age.  With the development of the concept of adolescence, children experienced a delay in the assumption of adult roles and responsibilities.  To some, this delay must have come as a welcome relief and to others, a purgatory; most likely, for the majority of adolescents the experience represents a little of both.  Rarely is a child, upon entering adolescence, equipped to function in the adult world; expectations are simply too high and the world is an incredibly complex place these days.  On the other hand, the adolescent often feels the need to assert him or herself as fully mature and far more sophisticated than the adults who serve as authorities or guides within his or her life.  This duality results in an uneasy limbo, a frustratingly long period enhanced by freedom from real responsibilities yet defined by seemingly absurd restrictions, thwarted ambitions and unfulfilled desires.  So adolescence is definitely a charged period in human development characterized by intense emotions and regular upheaval – which really makes for an ideal theme to address in art.  I thought it would be interesting to take a brief and very selective survey of how some artists explored this theme in their work.

Before modern times, it was the norm to dress children, once out of infancy, identically to adults, so it can be a challenging task to identify adolescents in paintings.

Peter Paul Rubens - Clara Serena Rubens - c1615

Sandro Botticelli - Portrait of a Young Man - c1482
We are more accustomed to seeing teenagers establishing their own unique styles of grooming and dress, styles that commonly challenge accepted standards and can often seem ridiculous or offensive to adults.

Anne-Louis Girodet - Portrait of a Youth - 1795
When I first saw this portrait by Girodet, I thought that the young man depicted was a street urchin too impoverished to dress properly and get a professional haircut.  Upon performing a little research, I learned that this youth embodied the prevailing styles of post-Revolutionary France.  His simple dress with exposed neck was quite fashionable at the time this portrait was painted.  The boy’s odd, disheveled hair-do was actually arranged in a popular style of the era known as “Oreilles de chien” or dog’s ears because of its resemblance to the dangling ears of a spaniel.

A child’s transition into adulthood can be painful to both the child and the parents.  Often, a happy and unguarded child can become closed-off and distant during this period.

Edvard Munch - The Four Sons of Dr. Linde - 1903
In this group portrait by Munch, the oldest son is not engaged with the viewer.  His head is tilted wistfully to the side.  His eyes no longer see; they are focused internally on private dreams and musings.  There is already a divide that separates him from his younger siblings.

John Singer Sargent - The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit - 1882
Sargent also addresses the gulf between childhood and adulthood.  The children in this painting are arranged so they retreat, youngest to oldest, away from the viewer, the two oldest sisters set in a distant, dark alcove which places them both physically and emotionally apart from the group.  The senior of the two is turned in profile, shrouded in shadow, no longer accessible to the artist and, consequently, the viewer too.

 Some artists have taken a very positive view of adolescence.

Elisabeth Vigee-Le Brun - Portrait of  the Artist's Younger Brother - c1770
Vigee-Le Brun portrays her brother as a student, armed with the tools of his trade, venturing forth happily into the world to obtain the education and skills necessary to a successful adult.

Edouard Manet - Luncheon in the Studio - 1868
With this work by Manet, as is common within his ouerve, it is a little difficult to differentiate between reality and artifice.  Obviously, the setting is staged: the interior of a studio stocked with props and costumes. We are encouraged to question whether the three individuals, a youth commanding the center of the scene, a man seated at a table displaying food and tableware and an indistinct woman standing in the background grasping a carafe, are “real” people inhabiting the studio space or simply models posing within that space to play a role or fulfill compositional needs.  A potted plant residing in the corner of the room asserts a presence equivalent to that of the people inhabiting the space.  The leavings from the meal are arranged similarly to articles inhabiting many a Dutch still-life.  There is a wall hanging behind the man that curiously resembles a map that appears in the background of several of Vermeer’s paintings.  The helmet and weapons hearken back to Rembrandt.  With this preponderance of references, Manet is deliberately deconstructing his own image, suggesting that the artist cannot address experience without being influenced by art history and that the boundary between actuality and craft is extremely tenuous.  After some consideration, a determination becomes possible.  The man portrayed is an artist who has taken a break from his work to share lunch with a young man, most likely his son.  The meal is over.  The artist is enjoying an after meal smoke, while the youth pauses before exiting the scene and a servant waits to be summoned to pour more coffee.  A comparison between the adult male and the youth is revealing.  The adult, sporting a full beard and dressed plainly in dark clothes crowned with a gray top hat, sits behind a table filled with the remains of an elaborate meal.  He is lost in his sensual pleasures, momentarily oblivious to his surroundings.  He is passive.  Conversely, the youth is active, demanding our attention.  He is dressed fashionably, almost flashily, in a pork pie hat, light, subtly striped pants, a white shirt striped in blue and a patterned tie.  His hair is neatly cut.  He gazes confidently past the viewer with a smug, confidant expression on his face.  He appears more than adequately prepared to confront the world.

At the turn of the twentieth century, many artists were forthrightly addressing themes of sexuality in their work, and their exploration of adolescence naturally focused on the development of a sexual identity resulting with physical maturation.

Edvard Munch - Puberty - c1894
Here Munch presents adolescence as a horrifying period of transition.  This girl, naked and vulnerable, draws her knees together tightly and places her hands between her thighs protectively.  Her eyes are wide with the realization that she is being perceived differently than in the past, that her innocent childhood days have lapsed.  The weight of sexual responsibility, personified as a dark, looming shadow, haunts her like an ever-present specter.

Ferdinand Hodler - Spring - 1901
Hodler, on the other hand, defines adolescence as an exciting period of sexual awakening akin to the seasonal rebirth of the natural world in spring. 

 A number of my favorite contemporary artists successfully introduce the theme of adolescence in their work.

Fairfield Porter - Jerry - c1955

Fairfield Porter - Lawrence at the Piano - 1953

Fairfield Porter - Chris, Sarah, Felicity - 1959
Porter’s adolescents are depicted in a protected environment insulated from external judgement.  They dress plainly and comfortably with little concern to impress an audience or project their adultness.  There is a lazy clumsiness in their bearings.  The inexpensive sneakers, elaborately decorated slippers and pants hiked high on the waist exposing bare ankles attest to their ties to childhood, their allegiance to the familial nest.  But their faces express a sullen boredom, a barely recognized desire to explore territories beyond the safe confines of the home.  Only in Chris, Sarah, Felicity do we see a young male who dresses more provocatively and projects the aura of hostility and rebellion we commonly associate with youth culture today.

Alice Neel - Olivia - 1975

Alice Neel - Olivia with Rubber Plant - 1977

Alice Neel - Swedish Girls - 1968

Alice Neel - Ginny in Striped Shirt - 1969
In all of her portraits, Neel insightfully dissects her subject, not cruelly but choosing to use humor and compassion as her primary instruments to explore her sitter’s personality.  When painting adolescents, Neel evokes their moody isolation, reveals the insecurity and awkwardness underlying all of their apparent bravado and exaggerates the absurd fashions which they often embrace so readily.

Andrew Wyeth - Roasted Chestnuts - 1956

Andrew Wyeth - The Swinger - 1969
Wyeth expertly documents the wiry body type that often results from years of rapid growth in the early adolescent years.  These young men appear impossibly lean and lanky.  I’ve particularly admired The Swinger for many years.  In this painting, Wyeth skillfully captures the nonchalance and swagger so essential to youth culture in the 1960s.

Sally Mann - Emmett and the White Boy - 1990

Sally Mann - Candy Cigarette - 1989

Sally Mann - At Charlie's Farm - 1990
In many of her photographs, Mann has recorded images of her children’s development.  Some of her finest work addresses the theme of adolescence, particularly the period just before physical maturation.  The children in these photographs are attempting to project an adult-like sophistication and worldliness, even an aura of threat.  They seem more than willing to embrace the forbidden behaviors and practices of adults, but, of course, we recognize that we are only observing children’s games, the mock interpretations of grown up activities.  There is a darkness and sadness in these photographs.  We, as viewers, share a mother’s response to witnessing her children abandoning the security, wonderment and innocence of childhood to venture into the world of adult complications, awareness and responsibility.

Even my small survey has shown that artists have expressed quite diverse opinions concerning adolescence.  I think this most likely reflects the views of the general population also.  Adolescence can be characterized as a period of amazing change, exciting challenges and expanding opportunities.  Conversely, artists have portrayed this phase of life as one of awkward transformation, emotional instability and slavish conformity to fashion.  Inevitably, with the taking on of the onus of adult responsibilities, a loss of childhood enthusiasm and innocence results.  Often adolescents are too impatient to make the transition into adulthood – a symptom of the “grass is always greener” syndrome which seems to infect most people of all ages in contemporary society.  Looking back now, I realize that childhood is an incredibly unique and fleeting period of our lives, one that should be savored and extended for as long as feasibly possible.  And, even as adults, we should struggle to retain a childlike perspective, permitting us to experience our banal and ordinary surroundings with a fresh eye and to take great pleasure in the seemingly insignificant occurrences of our daily lives.  For an artist, this struggle is particularly critical, for without the ability to see “reality” in a new way…to find the extraordinary in the ordinary…to view as fascinating that which others ignore, the creation of credible art is impossible.

“I, Eternal Child, always watched the passage of the rutting people and did not want to be inside them, I said – spoke and did not speak, I listened and wanted to hear them and see into them, strongly and more strongly.”
-   Egon Schiele

As always, I encourage readers to comment here.  If you would prefer to comment privately, you can email me at:

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Entry - 3.26.16

Memories are so elusive.  Once I’d thought my memories had foundations of stone only to find later that my childhood understanding of the past was filtered through a distorting prism, that phantom events had infiltrated my chronology or that significant happenings had escaped my notice entirely or were simply washed away by the passage of time.  After so many years, the line between fact and fabrication has blurred until I’m no longer sure of anything.  And so many of the people who defined my early life have died that there really are no authorities to turn to for a more reliable truth.  I’m left with my fragile memories, flawed as they are.  So perhaps this is not so much a history as it is a story.

 I was about three years old when my grandfather died, so I have only the vaguest memories of him.  He was a gentle, smiling man who loved children.  He tried to engage me and entertain me with silly games and tricks.  Photos of him from this period show a man depleted by a long battle with lung cancer, his small frame wasted away, his head skull-like.  His visage could easily have unnerved an adult, but, being such a young child, I kept my own perspective.

Domenico Ghirlandaio - An Old Man and his Grandson - 1480
 He was found by my grandmother in his favorite armchair where he had settled for an afternoon nap.  Though I remember little of that time, I was told that the loss struck my mother and grandmother hard.  My grandmother retreated into herself, her natural gregariousness giving way to silent introspection.  Over time, she mended, or so I assume since I can only remember her shy laughter and her smiling, welcoming face.  Even from the most horrendous storms and upheavals, nature cures herself, and we are no different.  There were trips to the cemetery where my mother and grandmother would place flowers on my grandfather’s grave and we children would be scolded for darting and careening amongst the headstones.  I was fascinated by the flags and the flowers and the endless rows of perfectly aligned, identical headstones.

Unbeknownst to me a seismic shift was occurring in my young life, one that would impact on most of my childhood years.  Devoted to her family, my mother determined that my grandmother would be visited on a weekly basis.  So every Saturday my parents, my siblings and I would make the hour drive to my grandmother’s home to keep her company.  We would arrive in the early afternoon and wouldn’t leave until quite late – commonly after midnight.  When I was very young, I didn’t mind this routine.  My grandmother lived with Pete the Parakeet and an ornery, gray-muzzled dog named Smokey in a sprawling house with gingerbread colored, asphalt siding that my grandfather had built himself.  Early on, it all seemed pretty magical, but, as I got older, I grew to resent losing one day of my precious weekend… after what I considered an endless week of schoolwork.  I wanted to be at home with my things, my own routines and, most importantly, my friends from the neighborhood.

Our visits to my grandmother attained a routine of their own.  Shortly after our arrival, the children were scooted out to the yard “to play” – as if once out the door we would spontaneously erupt into fun and games.  Watching television was the great Satan of my childhood, and my parents forcefully encouraged my siblings and me to find less passive, more enriching activities to occupy our time.  So we would usually go out to the large detached garage that was set at the end of a long cement driveway that flanked the house to rock in the green wicker rockers that crowded about the structure’s doorway.  When we got bored with that we might walk to the nearby schoolyard to play on the swings and jungle gym or climb a tree.  As reward for our efforts we were handed a few bucks and sent to Babbitt’s, a small neighborhood convenience store, to buy Italian ices.  Back at the garage, we scraped away at their impenetrable skins with small wooden paddles, carefully working the edges until we could flip the ice entirely and get to the dense stew of sugar and food coloring which settled on the cup’s bottom.  Having served our time, we were granted a reprieve and were permitted to watch television until dinner.  Usually we chose ABC’s Wide World of Sports or repeats of Secret Agent and Mission Impossible.

A red patterned formica-topped table sat in the center of my grandmother’s cozy kitchen.  An old fashioned, compact refrigerator with rounded corners hummed away in the corner, hiccupping whenever starting or stopping.  Amid much grunting and cursing, my father and uncle had cut a large rectangle out of the south wall of the kitchen and installed shelving on which my grandmother displayed her knickknacks: figurines and ceramic pieces she’d collected over the years.  I especially coveted two china dogs, one brown and one yellow, that were arranged on the bottom shelf where I could easily see them.  Through the shelves you could peer into the next room where my grandmother kept a jungle of plants that were healthy and thriving – in stark contrast to my family’s feeble attempts to sustain houseplants at our home.  Having matured in a farming community, my grandmother had a green thumb and carefully tended to all flora both indoors and out in her yard.

The table was set with china plates etched with a crinkly web of minute cracks and fissures.  My tenuous memory tells me that we always had pot roast and mashed potatoes, but that can’t be true, can it?  For dessert, we had oatmeal cookies, stale from sitting in the tin too long, or jello corrupted with the fruit that my grandmother added as a special treat for us kids.  At my age, I didn’t understand that my grandmother was a diabetic, that there wouldn’t be a lot of sweets in her home, the few that gained entry tending to linger there awhile.

After dinner, my siblings and I would retreat to the living room while the adults packed away leftovers and washed and dried the dishes.  As we watched Petticoat Junction, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Mannix, the adults sat at the kitchen table, my grandmother nursing a small tumbler of ginger ale while the others drank beer from the smoked drinking glasses that my parents had brought back from their Virginia Beach honeymoon.  The living room was sweltering, both summer and winter, and, drenched in sweat, we soon passed out draped across the sofa or sprawled across the carpet.  Eventually we were roused from our sleep and ushered grumpily to our car for the ride home.

My grandmother would display the flag on all patriotic holidays.  During one of our visits, she asked me if I would replace the line on the flagpole that stood in her small front yard.  I readily agreed.  Since I was still pretty young, my mother had reluctantly consented to this, but my grandmother was delighted.  As we stood around the flagpole, I was given my instructions, handed the line, then lifted and placed on the pole.  The two women pushed me by my bottom as high up as they could, but after that I was on my own.  I was a very active, adventurous child who regularly climbed trees and got into all sorts of mischief, so this task didn’t unnerve me at all.  I immediately began shimmying up the pole and was soon on level with the roof of the house.  I looked down to see my anxious mother watching me skeptically, but my grandmother was smiling broadly and cheering me on.  I must admit that as I neared the top I was a bit surprised to discover how tall the flagpole really was.  Nevertheless, I continued to the top.  Once there, the process became a little more challenging because I had to thread the line through a pulley and to do that I had to release my grip on the pole, something I hadn’t considered while still on the ground.  I froze for some moments while the ladies waited perplexed below.  Then I got up my courage, embraced the pole tightly with my thighs and fed the line through the pulley.  That accomplished, I quickly slid down to join my relieved mother and ecstatic grandmother.  After patting me on the back, my grandmother turned to my mother and said, “Did you see, Marion?  He’s just like his grandfather!”  To be compared with my grandfather made my young heart swell.

The weekly visits continued throughout my childhood, but, as we, one by one, reached our teen years, my siblings and I were permitted to remain at home while my parents made their regularly scheduled excursion.  We would do our homework, hang with our friends, walk our dog and savor a TV dinner in the evening hours before going to bed.  My older siblings worked part-time jobs during this period and would often be gone for most of the day.  We did not see as much of my grandmother as before, but she made occasional visits and joined us for many holidays.  As she grew older, my grandmother inevitably became less agile and broke bones in a number of falls.  She stayed at our home for extended periods during each recuperation and, once healed, she would return to her independent life of shopping, visiting with friends, attending church and, most importantly, playing her beloved bingo.  But the years were taking a toll on her.  I remember on one occasion my parents rushing off unexpectedly to care for her when she had a dangerously high fever and was pretty delirious.  After being reprimanded by her stern German doctor for neglecting my grandmother’s health, my father, a fearless amateur physician, stayed up with her the entire night sponge bathing her and forcing her to drink liquids.  She pulled through, but it was becoming increasingly evident that her days of living on her own were numbered.

Andrew Wyeth - Barn Loft - 1956
So many of my memories of that time are connected with my grandmother’s garage where I had spent so many idle hours.  The structure was enormous and packed with the dross accumulated over many years past.  At the rear there was a glider seat that hung suspended on four straps.  Many a summer night, I would lie on that seat gently swaying in the dim yellow glow of a distant house light, half-listening to the crickets chirping and the unintelligible chatter of the adults gathered in the front of the garage, the aroma of beer and cigarette smoke infusing the humid air.  There was a square hatch in the garage’s ceiling that provided access to its attic.  Without a dropdown ladder, the attic remained terra incognita for many years, but bored children will eventually explore every square foot of a property given enough time.  By placing a folding ladder beneath the hatch and balancing on the top step, I could just reach the lip of the hatch and pull myself onto the floor of the attic.  The scariest part of the process was reaching up through the hatch and putting my hand onto the dusty, wooden floor.  Sleepy wasps would gather at the entrance, and more than once I got stung when I placed my hand directly upon one of them.  There was a lot of old things up there: boxes filled with papers and clothing, screens and storm doors and tall wardrobes (or chifferobes, as my mother called them).  I was most intrigued by the decorations I found there, remnants from celebrations long forgotten: welcome home parties, New Year’s celebrations and wedding and baby showers.  On one of my visits up there, I fanned open white paper wedding bells and hung them from the rafters.  I stretched banners from one end of the attic to the other.  Satisfied with the results of my efforts, I dangled from the hatch until my foot made contact with the ladder’s top step, then descended, leaving my indiscretions to be discovered by the next intruder to that space.  Perhaps my most poignant memory of time spent in that garage dates back more than thirty years.  My grandmother could no longer live on her own, so the house my grandfather had built, that old fashioned structure with crystal doorknobs, a freestanding bathtub and a terrifying, labyrinthine basement, was being sold.  We were at the house to pack up what could be saved and dispose of what couldn’t, and I had been working all day, moving furniture and boxes, sorting through years of possessions and cleaning room after room.  While out in the garage to take a break, I recognized that this would be my last visit to this place.  The new owner intended to level the garage, cut down the crab apple and pear trees that had occupied the backyard since before my birth and divide the property in two.  On the new lot, he planned to build a large, modern house that would tower over the neighbors’ homes.  It was getting late.  Sunlight was already creeping along the floor of the garage.  Someone had pulled a large wardrobe to the front of the structure, and, out of idle curiosity, I took a look inside and found two uniforms, one from each of the two world wars, carefully preserved and hanging side-by-side there.  I hoped that someone planned to save these heirlooms from the dumpster, but, being just a kid without influence or a place of my own to store them, I didn’t pursue the matter.  I thought it would be a shame to lose these tangible artifacts of our family history, a history that I had over the years learned piecemeal from my grandmother and mother.  The story, as I understand it, goes like this…

Having suffered some romantic betrayal from a longtime lover, my grandfather determined that he would remain a bachelor and devote his working life to the US Army.  He enlisted with the cavalry and quickly developed a lifelong love of horses.  I recall hearing that he joined Pershing on his fruitless pursuit of Pancho Villa in Mexico.

Leopoldo Mendez - Pancho Villa - c1944
When America became a combatant in World War I, he was sent to Europe.  I know little of his activities during the war, except that at some point he was mustard gassed and transported to a hospital to convalesce.

Otto Dix - Sturmtruppe geht unter Gas vor - 1924
At the war’s end, Allied troops occupied Germany’s Rhineland with the local population being required to billet the soldiers.  That is how my grandfather came to be living in my grandmother’s home on the outskirts of Koblenz.  As I have said earlier, my grandmother grew up in a predominantly agrarian community; it consisted of a core village of homes and outbuildings surrounded by fields, privately owned and independently farmed.  Most households kept livestock, a cow, a pig and some chickens at a minimum.  A church, shops and opportunities for employment were to be found in a larger town within walking distance of their small village – a journey demanding enough to be undertaken only once a week.  I would say that my grandmother’s family were solidly middle class.

(My grandmother is third from right.)
As these things happen, a romance blossomed between my grandmother and the American soldier staying in her home, and they determined that they would be married once the occupation was over.  My grandmother told me how her family tried to teach my grandfather the language by pointing at things and supplying their German names: der Tisch, das Stuhl, der Löffel, das Fenster.  I once asked her, “But, Grandma, how could you agree to marry someone who you couldn’t even talk with?”  With a wry smile and a twinkle in her eye, she replied, “Oh, there are other ways to communicate.”

When the Americans ended their occupation, my grandfather was required to return to the States to be decommissioned.  He promised that he would come back to Germany to marry my grandmother.  Her father warned her, “He will not come back”, but my grandmother was sure that he would keep his word.  And he did.  When he returned to Germany, he suggested that they make their life together there in my grandmother’s homeland, but she felt that there was too much resentment and bad feeling after the war for an American ex-soldier to be accepted by the local population.  Instead, they were married and traveled to Holland where they boarded a ship bound for New York.

Initially, they lived in the City, but my grandmother couldn’t adjust to the crowds and the noise and the filth.  So they moved over the county border into Nassau, which in those days was fairly undeveloped with clusters of private dwellings interspersed among stretches of open farmland.  There my grandfather built the home that I knew as a child, the home in which he and my grandmother were to raise their four children.  Customary practices were changing rapidly in those early years of the twentieth century, and some of their babies were delivered by a doctor at their home while others were born in the hospital.  My grandfather was versatile and could perform a multitude of jobs, but I believe he was primarily a roofer.  He joined the Volunteer Fire Department; my grandmother, the Ladies Auxiliary.  They watched their children grow and prosper, each of them attaining a high school diploma, which was the norm for middle class kids at the time.

During the Second World War, they saw their two sons sent to join the fighting, one in Europe and the other in the Pacific.

Miraculously, they both came home, alive and uninjured.  Upon his return, one of my uncles planted hundreds of flowers in my grandparents’ backyard, an undeniably sane response to the experience of war.  Years later, my mother still recalled the sight with awe.  In the postwar years, my grandparents’ children married and settled on Long Island, as the surge in development carried families further and further out on the Island toward the Forks.

And the years slowly drifted by, as is always the case, barely perceptibly, with events to celebrate and in which to take pleasure and others to mourn and regret, though, under deep circumspection, perhaps, we would be prone to observe that most days pass unremarked with little occurring to differentiate one day from that which preceded it or that which will follow.  And so my story inevitably comes full circle to the years after my grandmother’s house had been sold and she came to live permanently with my family.

During this period, my grandmother and I became great friends.  As this entry will attest, I was fascinated with her stories of the past and questioned her greedily on details from her childhood.  When I was in grad school, I would emerge from my morning painting sessions in the basement to join my mother and grandmother for lunch.  I can vividly recall sitting at our kitchen table, my head still full of my morning’s labor, tomatoes from my mother’s garden set on the windowsill to ripen in the sun and my mother and grandmother rehashing happenings from long past, almost madly obsessed with establishing an accurate chronology of those events.  Whenever I planted anything, my grandmother, leaning on the cane that the passage of years had forced upon her, would hobble after me into the yard and watch my efforts.  Once she declared wistfully, “Oh, if only I could get down there with you and put my hands in the soil!”  Though my grandmother rarely touched alcohol, on special occasions I sometimes goaded her into doing shots of Jägermeister with me, and, with cheeks aflame, she would laugh and argue with me while the candles burned down after our evening meal.  I never heard my grandmother say anything critical of anyone.  She honestly liked everyone she met, but, in particular, she was committed to her family.  Ignoring each of our faults and indiscretions, she would only recognize the kernel of decency and excellence that she was certain resided at our cores.  She took particular delight in informing folk (the dentist, barber, podiatrist or the checkout lady at the supermarket) of how many grandchildren and great grandchildren she had.

I drew or painted my grandmother’s portrait a number of times during the 1980’s.  Whenever I asked her to pose for me, she would blush demurely and object, “Nobody wants to see an old lady.”  To which, I invariably replied, “Well, I do.”  And she would reluctantly sit, I believe, quite pleased with the attention.

Gerard Wickham - Franziska Normann-Young - 1980
Of course, once established in her new quarters, my grandmother had to scope out a new location at which to play bingo, and luckily my parents’ church provided a convenient venue.  My father would take her there in the evening once a week.  When he wasn’t available, one of us kids would do the driving.  On one occasion when I was the designated chauffeur, I discussed logistics with her on the drive over.  “I’ll drop you off at the front of the church.  You’ll wait there while I park the car, then I’ll come get you and help you to your place.”  She looked at me defiantly.  “I don’t need any help.  I can do it on my own.”  I pleaded, “Please, Grandma!  If you get hurt, it will be me who gets in trouble.”  She grumbled unhappily.  She was already over 90 then, and there were two flights of stairs to be maneuvered to get down to the large room where the bingo games were held.  Once at the church, I pulled over to the curb and helped my grandmother out of the car.  I looked down at her stout frame supported on her cane.  “Now just wait here.  I’ll be back in a second.”  After tearing through the parking lot to quickly find a space, I raced back to the front of the church to collect my grandmother.  She was gone.  I rushed into the building, sprinted across the lobby and, upon approaching the stairs, found my grandmother, still on the first flight, frantically scurrying downward, two hands on the railing, her cane, hooked over her forearm, trailing behind.  I quickly caught up with her, grabbed the cane away from her and helped her down the stairs and to her seat.  She huffed a little and fought me a bit but had to succumb to this minor indignity.  I left the building feeling completely exasperated, but, at the same time, couldn’t help but admire her undiminished tenacity.

Understanding in her early 90’s that her stay with us was finite, my grandmother began to spend hours in her room sifting through papers and documents, old cards and letters and photographs, organizing them in bundles secured with rubber bands.  During those last years, my nephew lived at the house with her.  She would invite him into her room and show him photographs of members of her extended family overseas until, at the age of two, he could identify each individual on sight, pronouncing his or her name with a perfect German accent.  Apparently, my grandmother was taking stock, tidying up her legacy, in anticipation of a time when she would no longer be available to offer information or provide answers to our questions.  Being of a similar mind, I asked her one day to pose for a photograph in the morning light at my parents’ backdoor.  She disappeared for about a half hour, returning formally dressed, bedecked with a necklace and earrings, her hair carefully arranged.

She died rather suddenly from complications resulting from extremely minor surgery.  I was living in the city at that time and didn’t get a chance to see her in the hospital before she was gone.

Endnote:  I like to visit cemeteries, a habit I probably picked up in my teens during camping trips made annually with my parents and siblings along with my aunt, uncle and their children.  My uncle would suddenly pull over to the side of the road upon sighting a particularly old graveyard, and we would all tumble out of our cars to tramp amongst the graves, studying the headstones, reading the often unusual names and determining the age of the markers.  The practice has stuck with me to this day.  In my own town, I am particularly drawn to a timeworn cemetery located behind a church built in the early 1800’s, its confines girded in a low, flagstone wall.  Frequently, while my wife shops nearby, I’ll visit this cemetery and meander among the markers, each individually unique and commonly quite elaborate.  There are sections of the cemetery that are very old.  Some of the individuals buried there were born around the time of the American Revolution; others must have fought in the Civil War.  I construct stories about the dead.  The husband and wife, whose headstones are surrounded by those of their young children who predeceased them by many years, lost them in a horrible epidemic.  The widow who lived for forty years after her husband’s death remained faithful to his memory while watching the world change dramatically: cars replacing horses, electricity coming into use, a world war consuming a generation of our nation’s youth.  The two teens who died on the same day, their headstones positioned side-by-side, were the tragic victims of an ill-fated, drunken, midnight joyride.  It consoles me to delude myself that I can recreate the narratives of these individuals from a few lines of numbers and letters, that their stories, once as vivid as my own, did not die with them.  But that is purely an emotional response.  Intellectually, I recognize that, for the vast majority of us, the imprint we leave behind will be erased completely within a generation or two after our deaths.  Not a comforting thought, to say the least.  Perhaps that is why I made the effort to record here these impressions of my youth and resurrect my grandparents’ saga in this spare and flawed account.

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