The Irretrievable Moment

One of my favourite parts about my job is getting to interview artists. I recently spoke with Jim Adams in advance of his upcoming exhibition at the Surrey Art Gallery. He characterized his art as the following:

I’m always looking for the irretrievable moment where you’re committed to the action but the action hasn’t actually happened yet.

This is evident in his paintings. A Japanese bride is on her way to get married less than a minute after the first atomic bomb is dropped. A contrail is faintly visible in the sky overhead. Other paintings envision a peaceful evening sunset before a meteor streaks across the sky. Locals enjoy their drinks in a White Rock Starbucks as the blue and red lights of a patrol car are reflected in the window, and you know something’s about to change. You can see images here.

After Adams mentioned this phrase to me that’s also the title of his art show, I’ve been noticing numerous irretrievable moments crop up in my reading.

IMG_4546

As you will probably not remember at this time last year, I was reading Crime and Punishment for GRNM (Giant Russian Novel Month). This year, a friend and I are tackling Tolstoy’s War and Peace. We are not going to be finished in a month.

I am about a third of the way through. Even though the plot is faint and meandering and the characters are numerous and changing, many of the characters (particularly Pierre) seem to embody what Jim Adams was talking about. It’s as if they are able to get out of their bodies and look at their lives from a distance, knowing they will go on to make this decision, and that decision will snowball into this other thing, and they don’t like it but they seem powerless to stop it. And so they don’t. In the meantime, I’m reading and shouting at them, “But it’s not too late! If you don’t love her, don’t marry her!” Or, “Get out of there now, you don’t have to lose all this money that you don’t have!”

Take Pierre on noticing Hélène for the first time and wondering if he should take her as his wife:

He recalled her former words and looks, and the words and looks of those who had seen them together. He recalled the words and looks of Anna Pavlovna when she spoke to him about his house, recalled hundreds of similar hints from Prince Vassily and others, and terror came over him at the thought that he might already have bound himself in some way to go through with something which was obviously not good and which he ought not to do. But while he expressed this realization to himself, on the other side of his soul her image floated up in all its feminine beauty.

Pierre knew that everyone was only waiting for him finally to say one word, to cross a certain line, and he knew that sooner or later he would cross it; but some incomprehensible terror seized him at the mere thought of that frightful step.

Or when he duels with Dolokhov after suspecting him of having a dalliance with his wife, though neither party wants to go through with it:

It was becoming frightening. It was obvious that the affair [referring to the duel], having begun so lightly, could no longer be prevented by anything, that it was going on by itself, independently of men’s will, and would be accomplished.

There is definitely a fatalistic streak in Pierre’s thinking. I also notice it in Rostov and Prince Andrei but, interestingly, not so much in the female characters. While I understand this feeling of “how way leads on to way” to borrow from Robert Frost, I think we tend to stick that irretrievable label onto our own lives more quickly than onto others’ lives. We are so entangled in our own that we sometimes can’t see there actually are other paths, other “roads not taken.” Sometimes I get the sense with these Russian characters that there’s even a Romanticism to fatalism, as if accepting the inevitable is heroic and must be so. But it’s so obvious as a reader that it’s not necessarily so.

I’m coming to a part in the novel now where the main characters are waking up from the false slumber of the inevitable, realizing that things can and should be otherwise, and perhaps it’s not too late . . .

Drawn in by Degas

My favourite outing the few times I’m in Houston is visiting their Museum of Fine Arts. I happened to be there recently when Degas: A New Vision was on display and got to see this retrospective exhibit of this famous French Impressionist’s work—the largest in the US in nearly 30 years!

img_4407

The exhibit begins with an insightful chronology of Edgar Degas’s life. I cherished this quote from his family because it shows such familial concern yet tenderness for their hardworking artist—something that all families of artists have felt at one time or another. I wish I could have told them from where I stand in history that it’ll be alright.

img_4386

Degas painted everybody everywhere—from prostitutes sitting in cafés to bourgeois women at concerts; from male patrons loitering backstage at ballets to businessmen making deals on the streets; from the ordinary event of women washing their hair to the spectacle of Parisian society watching a horse race. All these types of paintings were on display at MFAH but I’ll show you a few of my favourites that were particularly exciting to see in person.

img_4401

Edgar Degas, Rehearsal Hall at the Opéra, rue Le Peletier (1872).

I appreciate that Degas didn’t just paint final performances. He showed the work of preparing for a show—the stretches, repetition, boredom, sweat, and fatigue. He did countless drawings of ballerinas’ movements before he painted them (many of which were also on exhibit), and I like how the description on one of the panels said Degas became such a master of technique that he could tell when a ballerina had done a move incorrectly.

It’s also fascinating to see how he edited his preliminary drawings when he added them to his paintings. Notice in At the Louvre (1879) how the two women change position and the umbrella changes hands. Interesting fact: the woman leaning on her umbrella was fellow Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt.

This ballet rehearsal was probably my favourite to see transformed from a textbook page to the colours and brush strokes on the gallery wall:

img_4406

Edgar Degas, The Rehearsal (1874).

The composition is so striking. Degas crams all the figures into the upper left and bottom right corners, leaving your eye to wander up the middle where the central ballerina leans forward on one leg. Her outstretched arm connects the gap between her and famous Parisian dance master Jules Perrot. Degas literally renders a slice of contemporary life here through the truncated legs on and around the staircase and the two cropped groups of ballet students—one set working, the other waiting.

img_4409

Edgar Degas, Theatre Box (1880).

Degas has the reputation of being an acute observer of contemporary life. You can see that in the painting above where he isolates a female theatre-goer in an ornate box. The artificial light of the stage reflects back on her face, making her look ghostly. Going to the theatre is a social event (especially for this time period in Paris), so why is she alone? Degas captures the alienation typical of modernity. I think this painting is another way of showing that feeling of being alone on a crowded street.

img_4420

Edgar Degas, In a Café (The Absinthe Drinker) (1875-76).

The last work I’ll mention is In A Café (The Absinthe Drinker). Talk about alienation! This painting so moved me when I first studied it in undergrad that years later I wrote a short story about a blind date inspired by it. I like how Robert L. Herbert describes what’s going on in Impressionism: Art, Leisure, and Parisian Society:

Shoulders slumped, eyes cast down, feet splayed out, her costume frowzy, she is the café habituée rooted to her seat, without aspirations. She will derive little comfort from the man next to her, the kind of elbow-leaner who will remain there for hours, eventually shuffling off to an uncertain destination. This is one of Degas’s most devastating images of public life.

There are many devastating things about this painting—how the floating tables trap the man and woman behind their drinks; how the two figures sit beside each other without engaging; how Degas seats us at the table diagonal to these forlorn figures, watching all this as if we too are supposed to be as detached as the painter but we cannot help but be drawn in.

img_4388

La La Land of Sun and Shadows

I used to not enjoy watching movies that were musicals—the unreality of everyone in town bursting out of doors, grabbing props, knowing all the words and having the same choreographed movements to a song. I felt this way in Mamma Mia. Also, the plots of these musicals seem to be paper thin, inferior to the song and dance numbers. Maybe my tastes have changed, or I’ve gotten better at suspension of disbelief, or this movie integrated plot and song better because I really enjoyed Damien Chazelle’s La La Land starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. It was one of the most whimsical and magical movies I’ve seen. (warning: spoilers ahead)

From the opening scene of traffic gridlock on an LA freeway where drivers come out of their cars singing the same cheerful song (“Another Day of Sun”) and dancing on their hoods and trunks, it sets the tone that yes, this is going to be a musical, there is going to be singing, and there are going to be scenes that would never happen in real life. I went along with it. Thankfully the plot still held up without the songs, of which there actually weren’t that many.

This movie is significantly set in LA where young dreamers go to chase their dream. This might show my ignorance but until looking up “la la land” in the Oxford American Dictionary, I didn’t realize its origin is actually a reduplication of LA and refers to “Los Angeles or Hollywood, especially with regard to the lifestyle and attitudes of those living there or associated with it, i.e. a fanciful state or dreamworld.” True enough.

la-la-land-featured-image-gosling-stone

Gosling plays Sebastien or Seb, a 30-something jazz pianist afraid that classical jazz is going to die and dreams of opening his own jazz club where he can play all the free jazz he wants to and not get fired over deviating from a stilted Christmas set list that happens when we meet him at the beginning of the film.

Stone plays Mia, a barista who goes from audition to audition, trying to catch her big break and become an actress. She is not having much luck though. She reluctantly goes along to parties with her roommates in the hopes of meeting someone who can help her out, since it’s implied that it’s all who you know.

In this La La Land where characters are living in their fantasy more than their reality, Mia and Sebastien keep running into each other, including at one of these parties, and you know how it goes from there. I went into this movie excited to see the extremely talented and likeable pairing of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone after their evident chemistry in Crazy, Stupid Love , and they were fantastic. It didn’t matter that their singing wasn’t flawless, though it was definitely adequate. It had a rawness to it that made it more genuine and endearing.

g8f1ucxy_400x400

Their love story plays out against the backdrop of them pursuing their work dreams and all the ups and downs along the way. One of these “downs” is Sebastien joining a pop-jazz group called The Messengers so he can have a steady gig even though Mia thinks he’s selling out to do so. Tired of vacuous auditions, Mia writes and performs her own play to a very small audience that her own boyfriend failed to make it to due to a commitment with his band. Many other reviewers have picked up on this as well but it struck me immediately after watching the movie that we see all these scenes of Sebastien playing the kind of jazz that makes him come alive, but we never see Mia acting in her play that makes her come alive. Although he reads her script and tells her it’s amazing, Sebastien never once sees Mia act. As this Vox article states, the movie does care more for Sebastien’s character. Ultimately, Mia does get an audition which she nails in what is the most heart-wrenching and gutsiest song  (“Here’s to the hearts that ache, / Here’s to the mess we make”), but it lands her a role in Paris and their long-distance relationship doesn’t work out or was never attempted. Before she leaves, they say to each other, “I’ll always keep loving you.”

la-la-land-633x356

The movie ends five years later where Mia is an A-list actress, happily coming home to a daughter and a husband who is not Sebastien. Her and her husband go out to dinner and step into a jazz club called Seb’s where they see the man himself and he sees her. When he sits down to the keys, he plays his and Mia’s theme song, a melancholic waltz more than jazz. Mia’s mind goes down memory lane in one of the loveliest montages of the film where she imagines every scene—how things were supposed to be, who they were supposed to be with. It’s very bittersweet. Mia and Seb look at each other from across the room before she leaves, and there is a small smile on both their faces, proud of what the other has become, but also pained that they did it apart and that road is closed off to them now.

I read that this ending is divisive and some people really don’t like it. I do, though I will admit that the trailer and sunny opening sequence don’t set you up for this “shadow side.” It defied the predictable ending I was expecting from a movie classified as a musical romantic comedy, and it also seemed a more realistic commentary on La La Land: maybe you can’t have it all.

Marpole’s Golden Tree

A piece of Stanley Park has uprooted to my neighbourhood of Marpole. With a bit of a colour change.

The newest public art in Vancouver is Golden Tree by Douglas Coupland, installed this past August at the corner of Marine Drive and Cambie Street, in front of Intracorp’s MC2 development.

img_4163

This artwork sure adds colour to a cloudy day. View from Marine Gateway.

It stands out alright, not just for its size (13 metres tall, the exact replica of Stanley Park’s Hollow Tree), but it also stands out for its colour—gold.

In an interview with the CBC, Coupland says, “I think its more a head-turner, a, ‘what the heck was that?’ That’s my favourite reaction.”

Just to clarify, Stanley Park’s famous 700 to 800 year-old Hollow Tree is still standing in Stanley Park. After the heavy windstorm in 2006, the tree was scheduled for removal due to safety concerns, but thanks to the efforts of the Hollow Tree Conservation Society and private donations, it is still standing (albeit with cables and steel).

Coupland’s replica is made out of steel-reinforced resin and fiberglass, encased in a gold finish.

img_4166

The gold looks a little garish to me. I tend to think I would like it better if it looked natural but then it would be like having a real tree there except you know it wouldn’t normally grow there so then it would just be weird. At least the gold makes it distinct. And better than highlighter purple or blue or pink. There’s something regal and magical about gold. Maybe it’s already “growing” on me (see what I did there?).

img_4167

But why replicating this tree in Marpole is significant, I do not know. All the CBC article mentions is that Coupland said there are a lot of memories attached to the tree, which is why he chose to imitate it: “I think it takes us from one century to the next.”

Maybe so, but what is the relationship between Stanley Park, the northernmost point of the city, and Marpole, Vancouver’s southernmost? Obviously the artist is trying to make some sort of connection here with the large image of Stanley Park in the background of the artwork.

img_4174

Does the tree reference something in Marpole’s history that not many know about? Or is it trying to say something about old and new? Nature and city? Nature and art/imitation?

I love that Marpole is getting more and impressive public art but I wish this piece spoke better to its context.

Have you seen Golden Tree yet? What are your thoughts?

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.

IMG_20160717_121240880

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.

IMG_20160717_111427232

Salvadaor Felipe Jacinto Dali, Santiago El Grande, 1957.

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

IMG_20160717_112035633

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.

IMG_20160717_113553269

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.

IMG_20160717_115732996

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:

IMG_20160717_121040762

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.

IMG_20160717_115314337

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.

IMG_20160717_120700092

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.

IMG_20160717_120844389

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.”

IMG_20160717_113138600

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.

IMG_20160717_121521940

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:

IMG_20160717_121831985

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!

IMG_20160717_123412034

The lovely “treehouse”space on the 2nd floor

A Poem to Picasso

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

womanreclining

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?

guernica

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