In Anticipation of Camping

from All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews:

We spent the whole time, it seemed, setting everything up and then tearing it all down. My sister, Elfrieda, said it wasn’t really life—it was like being in a mental hospital where everyone walked around with the sole purpose of surviving and conserving energy, it was like being in a refugee camp, it was a halfway house for recovering neurotics, it was this and that, she didn’t like camping—and our mother said well, honey, it’s meant to alter our perception of things. Paris would do that too, said Elf, or LSD, and our mother said c’mon, the point is we’re all together, let’s cook our weiners.

AMPS

At the Audain (Again)

The best art exhibit I’ve seen this summer is the current one at the Audain Art Museum in Whistler—Masterworks from the Beaverbrook Art Gallery. The Beaverbrook Art Gallery is located in Fredericton, New Brunswick, and I remember feeling a little disappointed when I realized it wasn’t going to work out make it there on my Maritimes trip in 2014. So when I heard that 75 paintings were travelling to Whistler for this temporary exhibit (I believe it was the only stop in BC), there was no way I was going to miss it. And it did not disappoint.

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The description of the exhibit reads:

Masterworks from the Beaverbrook Art Gallery was initiated to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in 2009. The focus of the exhibition is the Gallery’s founder William Maxwell Aitken (Lord Beaverbrook) and the artists he collected and cultivated, who in turn influenced the passion he had for collecting. 75 paintings are presented by world-renowned artists, such as Cranach, Copley, Delacroix, Gainsborough, Constable, Reynolds, Romney, Sargent, Sisley, Turner and Freud; and by prominent historical Canadian artists, such as Krieghoff, Morrice, Carr, Milne, Gagnon, and members of the Group of Seven. A highlight of the exhibition is Salvador Dali’s monumental painting Santiago El Grande.

I spent a lot of time in this exhibit. There were so many paintings in so many styles  (e.g. Realism, Impressionism, Romanticism, Surrealism) and from different time periods. There were also quite a lot of “stars” whose work I had never seen in person until now: Dalí, Gainsborough, Sargent, Delacroix—the list goes on.

Here are some highlights (and I apologize for my crappy camera phone):

This is one of the first works you see when you walk in. Lots of symbolism going on in this surrealist painting (the description is helpful at pointing out things I would have otherwise missed). The Catholic Church and nuclear physics were big influences on Dalí.

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Salvadaor Felipe Jacinto Dali, Santiago El Grande, 1957.

This is considered one of Gainsborough‘s most brilliant full-length portraits:

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Thomas Gainsborough, Lieutenant Colonel Edmund Nugent, 1764.

When I first saw this painting below, I thought, “Now there’s a woman you don’t want to mess with.” Helena Rubinstein apparently created one of the first worldwide beauty brands and was the world’s first female self-made millionaire. She looks the part. The description reads, Although she was only five feet tall, the cosmetic magnate is shown from a low viewpoint and with her left arm held to her hip, which serves to enhance her strong and dominant personality.

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Graham Vivian Sutherland, Helena Rubinstein, 1957.

I remember learning about Eugène Boudin in a French Impressionism art course in university. He was a precursor to the Impressionists and one was one of the first French landscape painters to paint en plein air (outside). He taught Monet.

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Eugène Boudin, Personnages sur la plage, before 1898.

The Impressionism works were my favourite. Alfred Sisley was a founding member of the Impressionist movement and, something new I learned from the description, he was the only Englishman among the French Impressionists. His seascape shows the rugged beauty of Wales:

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Alfred Sisley, La falaise de Penarth, le soir-temps orageux, 1897.

A painter of dramatic scenes, I learned Eugène Delacroix, a leader of French Romanticism, was often inspired by the writings of Dante, Goethe, and Shakespeare as subjects for his art.

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Eugène Delacrois, Lady Macbeth Sleep-Walking, 1850.

This next one stood out to me because the style was so different than anything else in the exhibit—almost cartoon-like characters, or as the description calls it, “matchstick figures go[ing] about their everyday life.” This is a scene in Northern England that highlights the sense of alienation that often accompanies urban life.

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Laurence Stephen Lowry, Industrial View, Lancashire, 1956

This large and dreamlike painting was done by William Turner, English Romantic landscape painter and forerunner to the Impressionists.

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Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Fountain of Indolence, 1834.

Lucian Freud, grandson of Sigmund Freud, worked in a hyper-realist style. I spent a while trying to figure out what was going on in this painting, the man in shadow, the woman somewhere else. Even though the title is “Hotel Bedroom,” I keep wanting to call it “Hospital Bedroom.”

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Lucian Freud, Hotel Bedroom, 1954.

The exhibit had several Group of Seven paintings depicting their signature Canadian landscapes, but I was more drawn to this inner city portrait that you don’t often see from them. Indeed, the description states: When [Harris] settled in Toronto in 1910, he turned his attention to making drawings and paintings of dilapidated old houses and working-class shacks in the city’s fringe area, a theme which is unique within the work of the Group of Seven.

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Lawren Stewart Harris, Morning, c. 1921.

And my favourite one in the whole show, hands down, is this one below. Those blues! Those golds! Those reflections of rocks in the water! The picture doesn’t do it nowhere near justice nor gives you a sense of the large panoramic size it actually is, but believe me, it is incredible. I always associate Sargent‘s name with portraiture (and apparently he was the highest paid portrait painter in the world for some time), but by 1907 he announced his intention to retire from portraiture as a business, which he referred to as a pimp’s profession, and devoted more of his time to landscape painting. I’m glad he did so the world has this:

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John Singer Sargent, San Vigilio, Lake Garda, 1913.

Masterworks from the Beaverbrook Art Gallery is on until September 11. I highly recommend going to see it!

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The lovely “treehouse”space on the 2nd floor

Celebration of Light

Last night I was among the 500,000 people estimated who swarmed to English Bay to watch the Honda Celebration of Light fireworks by the Disney team representing the USA.

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Except I didn’t watch them from the ground. Thanks to very generous friends, I watched them from this apartment building.

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It was a perfect view. There were almost as many boats as people.

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We ventured down while waiting for the show to begin so we could experience the crowds.

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Around 9pm, two fireboats circled around the barge, showing off their impressive water cannons for some pre-show entertainment.

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Once the sun had set, it started to look like Christmas lights on the water with all the boats out there.

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And then at 10pm, the sky lit up with the magic of fireworks set to iconic Disney songs. We sang along to “Under the Sea,” “Let it Go,” “The Circle of Life,” and “When You Wish Upon a Star” (the Disney theme song). They also played the Pirates of the Caribbean and Star Wars theme songs.

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The fireworks didn’t make shapes of Disney characters (no Mickey Mouse or castles in the air) but there were some new things I hadn’t seen before. I loved these gold ones that, once erupted, turned to glistening sponges that lingered in the sky.

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It was a fabulous night and a great way to finish the month of July.

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Ten Stories, One Outline

The opening sentence of Anna Karenina goes, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

That sentence very much came to mind when reading Outline by Rachel Cusk, one of the five books shortlisted for the 2015 Giller Prize.

Outline

The novel is a series of ten conversations that the almost invisible narrator (who remains nameless until very late in the book) has with friends and strangers when she’s in Athens to teach a summer writing course.

The ten conversations (one for each chapter) consist of all eloquent and loquacious speakers who tell the narrator the outline of their life story. She rarely interjects, rarely gets asked questions in response, rarely reveals much of her story.

All we know is she is a divorced writer with two sons who lives in London:

I said that I lived in London, having recently moved from the house in the countryside where I had lived alone with my children for the past three years, and where for the seven years before that we had lived together with their father. It had been, in other words, our family home, and I had stayed to watch it become the grave of something I could no longer definitively call either a reality or an illusion.

That quote gives you an example of Cusk’s sparse yet penetrating prose that hits you with a melancholic punch to the gut. And that’s just one sample. While there are some funny moments in the novel (usually in the form of wry observations), overall, it’s quite a depressing book.

Each conversation discusses a relationship and, most of the time, it’s a failed marital one. I’m wracking my brain trying to think of one conversation that depicts two people content in marriage. Nope. Ryan, a fellow teacher at the summer school, is the only character who is currently married, and even the way he describes his relationship sounds less than inspiring, to say the least:

They shared the work of the kids and the house—his wife was no martyr, as his mother had been. She went off on her own holidays with her girlfriends and expected him to take care of everything in her absence: when they gave one another freedoms, it was on the understanding that they would claim those same freedoms themselves. If it sounds a little bit calculated, Ryan said, that doesn’t worry me at all. There’s a business aspect to running a household. It’s best if everyone’s honest right at the start about what they’re going to need, to be able to stay in it.

Elaine Blair, referring to the book as “autobiographical fiction” in the New Yorker, sums up the author’s attitude towards relationships well when she writes: “Lovers may find reasonably comfortable arrangements together, Cusk suggests, but in one way or another each will be diminished by them.”

I was impressed with Cusk’s ability to put a cast of characters down on the page so quickly and effectively, and then even more impressed at how many different ways she told their unhappiness (that’s when the Tolstoy quote came to mind). Yet after about the third conversation that barely raised its head above cynical water, I started feeling sad for the author. I remember thinking as I was reading it, “This book could have only been written by someone who’s divorced.”

I admit that because I’m still a newlywed, my view of marriage isn’t as nuanced as someone in their mid-forties. But the way relationships are portrayed in the book implies there is no beauty or flourishing or amplification in marriage, which I don’t think is accurate.

What we get in Outline are ten monologues. You can’t really call them conversations if only one person is doing the talking. The same thing could be said of this book. All these monologues can be summarized with some variant of “relationships are disappointing.” Where’s the other side to the story?

What was so fascinating for me about the novel is the psychological/sociological undertones about how we tell stories. Each character is obviously selective and subjective with the outline they offer of their lives. And so the reader is also playing detective as we go along—is what we’re hearing true? Especially when it’s filtered indirectly through the voice of a detached and depressed narrator?

Perhaps the biggest revelation I came to at the end of the book is that I didn’t particularly care for the narrator. Her story was so faintly sketched there was no substance there to hold on to. When she summarized her response to an elderly Greek bachelor who made a pass at her, saying, “I was not interested in a relationship with any man, not now and probably not ever again” and that she’s “trying to find a different way of living in the world,” one that’s “unmarked by self-will,” I either didn’t believe her or didn’t get the sense that she was any happier for her efforts. Even though we know little about her, it becomes more and more evident that she is grieving the aftermath of her marriage but is she grieving it well?

She does need to talk and process what’s happened, it’s just too bad the people she chose (or chose her) reinforce her own disappointment.

A Poem to Picasso

Tuesday this week, I saw Picasso: The Artist and His Muses at the Vancouver Art Gallery.

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Pablo Picasso, Reclining Woman Reading (1960).

I learned a lot. And most of what I learned about the man, I didn’t like. Picasso didn’t seem very easy to love and live with. And yet there is his art, his strange, powerful, game-changing art. But his art and his life are so intertwined. And I appreciated that this exhibit focused on the six women behind so many of his paintings, making room for their stories and personalities that get dwarfed by the man who immortalized their bodies.

As is often the case when I have mixed feelings about someone, I wrote a poem.

you’re like Henry VIII
with his six wives
though you only married two

born in Spain but French
at art
and women

Fernande was your first crush
with Olga you said I do
Marie-Thérèse came blonde and bright

Dora came in tears
Françoise actually left you
and finally Jacqueline, a wife for the end

you acquired mistresses
like you finished paintings
fast, flattening every angle

here she sits
here she reads
here she weeps

here she lies
here she stares
here she is elsewhere

over six dozen
and they all start
to look
the same

the double face, changing into the next
easier to paint secrets
than keep them

a cheek was something to burn
with the butt of a cigarette
a body, something to dissect

you were a cruel
unfaithful man
but then, what to do with Guernica?

you paint it as you see it
you saw horror well
but, I wonder, is that the only story to tell?

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Photographic replica of Picasso’s Guernica (1937) at the Vancouver Art Gallery.

Sunshine Coast Road Trip

A little late, but here are the rest of our Sunshine Coast pics from our trip in May. First part is here.

The Artist and I drove the Lower Sunshine Coast all the way to the last town, Egmont, stopping at most of the small towns along the way.

Here’s a brief look at our one-day road trip:

1. Roberts Creek

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2. Davis Bay

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3. Sechelt

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4. Halfmoon Bay

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5. Madeira Park

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7. Francis Point Provincial Park

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6. Pender Harbour & Garden Bay area (view from Pender Hill)

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This short but steep hike with incredible views was one of my favourite things we did.

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7. Skookumchuck Narrows Provincial Park (& Skookumchuck Rapids)

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The rapids were supposed to be “medium” height but this is about as good as they got.

And last but not least, a black bear we saw from the safety of our vehicle (phew!)

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