Sunday, September 4, 2022

Giuliano's sister Pip's travels abroad bring back memories of France in the 70's and my introduction to Weltschmerz

  I had hitchhiked my way up from the Midi to Alsace via Paris where I spent some time with Alix and then moved on to find more work as a farm worker harvesting grapes in Alsace. I followed the northward ripening of the grapes. The last person to give me a lift as I approached Alsace happened to know a “vigneron” whom he thought might hire me. He dropped me off at the door of the wine grower’s estate (I believe his brother was part of the harvesting team) who did not hesitate to take me on. I learned later that even though they had enough workers they thought I had a pleasant smile. Like the family I worked for in L’Herault the vendanges were perceived to be a pleasurable social experience They liked to fill up the ranks of grape pickers with interesting characters, even though it was easier to hand the work over to professional farm workers from Spain who needed the work and would be more efficient. In Alsace many of the harvesters were buyers of the grower’s product, who came for a day or two to enjoy the outdoors and the camaraderie. Some I observed were certified alcoholics who enjoyed a bit too much the passing of the bottle at the end of each row and were quickly dispatched.  The time of year was like the mellow wine made of the “noble rot”. We were already getting into the end of October and mornings were chill.

One of the first co-workers I met was a sullen Cambodian who sported an oversized military jacket which judging from the way he wrapped his arms around his body didn’t seem to keep him sufficiently warm especially as I learned he was experiencing cold weather for the first time in his life. He had been sent to study in France by his father in Phnom Penh who was a wealthy jeweler. Whether intentional or not his departure from Cambodia coincided with the takeover of Cambodia by the Red Guard. His family was sent to concentration camps where they were killed. He did have relatives who were in refugee camps in Thailand that he communicated with.

The harvest lasted a week. I recall the evening meals were enjoyably shared with the owner. The lunch in the vineyards consisted mostly of cured uncooked bacon and wine to wash it down. Much to the disappointment of the family that hired me I overstayed my period of employment when I became horribly ill; I believe due to drinking the “new” wine in the village of Ribeauville and could not leave the dorm where I was housed. Alix had come to join me and nursed me back to health. 

However, all in all, I was better taken care of there than in the Midi where the workers were given lodging in cold water flats with a single unit gas stove to cook our own food on. We must have been advanced enough money to buy food. We got a quota of two bottles of free wine (“pousse au crime” they called it) each day on top of our pay that we could either save or return to the owner for reimbursement. I recall the Australians on their world tour hopping from one Commonwealth country to the next drank their quota. They marvelously could drink all night and get up refreshed the next morning to pick grapes whereas, if I were to march their consumption, I would wake up at 4 pm the next afternoon with a horrible hangover.  

Our boss in L’Herault created quite a presence. He drove a convertible Mustang. He was well over six feet tall and sported an impressive Asterix style mustache. I had worked for him the prior season when he hired Alix and I as we left an employment office where we inquired about work picking grapes. I suspect he waited to hire us after we left the office to avoid paying a finder’s fee. I remember the pleasure in being carried off to the grey village of Tressan, our place of employment, in the back seat of the Mustang with the top down. 

Tressan Languedoc

Living in the gloomy village, however, did have its entertainment value. Whatever happened out of the ordinary in town would make its way to be discussed in the central square in the evening by the “town fathers” so to speak. One topic that I recall inspired a few laughs was their mockery of the shape of the wife of a friend of mine who came to visit me from the States. She didn’t fit their French definition of femininity being a tad hefty or “big boned” as the euphemism goes. Another involved the interest an elderly woman Madame Thiollet showed in me by baking me on occasions traditional omelets mixed with flour. She worried that being alone without a mate I had no one preparing meals for me. She lived alone with her brain damaged husband who sat drooling off to the side of her poorly lit dwelling. He had been hit over the head accidentally with a shovel while doing road work. The dwelling smelled of spoiled fruit that she as a senior had permission to scour from the fields after the commercial harvest was done. In any case, the gossip of our friendship addressed what they (the evening news in the town square) thought was my intent through our friendship to inherit her house.  Years later after I returned to Boston living with my parents before starting my academic career, I received a letter In the mail ambiguously addressed to Mugar Belmont USA (or some address that should not have been sufficient to make its way to me) announcing her death. It came from her son. He had learned that I had made her acquaintance and that she thought enough of me that I should be informed of her passing. I vaguely recall the gossipers of the central plaza said her son’s wife had been a prostitute much to the chagrin of my elderly friend. Such unkind/ ungenerous g ossip. 

Hunawihr Alsace

I am not sure of the Cambodian’s name. Leng Noon or Noon Leng. We addressed him as Leng. We became friends, a friendship that lasted ten years even after we returned to the US where he once came to visit. He eventually found training in the hospitality industry. While Alix was finishing her degree at the beaux-arts I returned for a short stay in France and swung down to the Loire valley where Leng was living. He lived in a tent on the edge of a field in order to save money for his education. I passed several days with him. One memory that still haunts me to this day was a meeting he took me to of Cambodian refugees in a public hall. On the middle of the stage sat a man who seemed to have some authority over the others. Leng came up to talk with him in a seemingly deferential manner and then left. Leng must have explained to me who he was and what was the purpose of the meeting but I imagined that the meeting was of a political nature. Was it an anti Khmer-Rouge organization or maybe the contrary, pro-Khmer. A chill ran through me as the notion of politics and identity took hold of my imagination. Was Leng trying to assert his fealty to a political party, so as to avoid being on the wrong side of the power structure. I recall the way  Rosanna Warren brilliantly describes the peripatetic survivor Max Jacob as he negotiates  the complexity of the Parisian avant-garde only to find himself despite his conversion to Christianity unable to distance himself from his Jewish origins as the government of France is taken over by the nazi-sympathetic Vichy government. He was holed up in a monastery south of paris which he thought would provide him some sort of protection from the Vichy. He was found out, nonetheless. Others thought that Picasso his mentor or one might say that Jacob was his mentor had enough connections among the "powers that be" to save him from the hands of the Vichy. The avant-garde was a sort of meta identity beyond nationality but it had a small constituency. When the hold of national identity reared its ugly head certain ethnic identities were suddenly lethal. Hearing that Jacob was in a prison waiting his turn to be shipped off to Germany Picasso quipped that Jacob was an angel and he would lift himself over the walls to freedom. 

Rosanna Warren’s book on Jacob came out before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Now, all the trademarks of national identity, fealty and loyalty that marked WW2 reassert their terrifying presence. Notions of a sort of Ur Slavic identity independent of the Occident is dredged up to justify the invasion and of course the Western European hold on Ukraine is perceived to be one of decadence. It is like a deck of card that gets reshuffled and one never knows were one will end up in that deck of cards or whether one will be dealt a losing or a winning hand. If the story of Jacob and the revival of ethnic and national identities seemed distant when the book was published in 2019 before the violence of Ukraine, of a past more than 70 years ago Rosanna’s book was prescient of what was to transpire in Europe.

One night in Tressan, the vendangeurs were gathered together on the central plaza drinking; we were all drinking pastis. As the evening wore on an Irish boy and a French girl showed some interest in hooking up. They could not communicate since neither one nor the other knew the others language. I found myself negotiating this tryst. The essence of the discussion that all was OK as long the Irish boy would use protection. The Irishman had a friend who showed little interest in participating in where his friend was headed.  Over the next few days I got to know him better. He described how his personality had been irreparably marked by the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland where a bombing near by where he was walking left nothing but body parts. It must have blocked his interest in the passing pleasure that his fried would experience that night in Tressan. 

Like the Australians he had been on a world tour. He had not been home in several years. I asked him if I could do his portrait. I liked it so much I said I would keep it for awhile but if he would share with me his home address I would send it to him at a later date. When I left for Alsace at the end of the vendange I left my art supplies behind with the intention of coming back to pick them  up. I returned a year later. Oddly enough the wandering Irishman had come to Tressan that very day to see if I was still there. I don’t recall what he had been doing all that time. We passed the day together reminiscing, Among his stories he told I recall only one. Well before he finally made it home to his house in Northern Island his mother had received the drawing. When she opened up the package and saw the face of her long absent son, she broke into tears.

The last time I saw Leng was in the USA in 1986. His visit coincided with our family’s move from a job in North Carolina to one in New Hampshire. We had two cars that had to be moved up north so we gave one to him and let him drive it wherever he wanted as long as he ended up in Maine where we had bought a house. He and his girlfriend arrived in time although we were in a sort of chaos for not having hired a lawyer to finalize the contract on the new home as the moving truck arrived in our driveway. That day happened to be Leng’s birthday and he insisted we celebrate it. I was overwhelmed with the mess of the unresolved closing, so I ignored his request for a celebration or as I recall we may have done  something subdued at a local restaurant. I never heard from him again. 

Maybe one day I will receive a minimally addressed letter from him like the one from Madame Thiolet's son that will recall our good times together.

Moon over Montmartre 

                                      A link to a blogpost with an escape from Weltschmerz 

Saturday, April 2, 2022

Charles Giuliano's 150 years celebration and survey of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts

Charles Giuliano

 This document of the 150 year history of the Museum of Fine Arts is mostly cobbled together from interviews by Charles Giuliano of the actors who shaped that history. One of the first is a 1976 interview of a Globe writer who was part of a team that wrote an expose to take down (or so it appeared ) the newly appointed MFA director Merrill Rueppel. It sets the theme of interviews that expose the machinations of behind the scenes struggle between the old guard board and efforts of others to bring new blood into the Museum. Charles has been connected to the Museum soon after graduating from Brandeis when he was employed in the Egyptian department. He stayed close to the museum via these interviews in his role of journalist for multiple Boston newspapers. He clearly has garnered the respect of his interviewees. Considering that he rarely lobs softball questions one might think that it would have been wiser for them to avoid him, but almost fifty years later he brings the reader, without skipping a director, up to the present with an interview of the current director Matthew Teitelbaum. Maybe the numerous directors all felt that they have to post the “Charlie card” on their resume in order to be truly enthroned as director of the MFA. 


Getting a conceptual handle on these interviews and the scrutiny they provide in the context of the history that came before, is a bit of a struggle. I fell back for help on the template of a recent book by art critic Jed Perl: Authenticity and Freedom. Authenticity can be seen as meaning tradition and often in Perl’s hand as something numinous and quasi-religious.  A case in point is his use of an anecdote about the musical career of Aretha Franklin. She had her start as a singer in her father’s church choir. She was imbued in the gospel tradition of singing that had a long history in black American culture. When she made the break (freedom) into popular music that tradition was always there to shape her new music. The music had roots. The origin of the MFA as a recipient of invaluable Japanese art at its beginning was similar and had a purity that nothing in the later history of the MFA could match. Its collection of Japanese art was given by bluebloods Morse, Bigelow and Fenellosa who lived in Japan as practicing Buddhists and in their collecting of the Japanese artifacts had eventually received the imprimatur and permission of Japanese collectors and scholars such as Okakura Kakuzo, who in turn became the first curator of the Boston collection. Moreover, Okakura was a world-renowned scholar of Zen Buddhism whose “Book of Tea” is purported to have influenced Martin Heidegger’s understanding of Japanese thought when Okakura studied under him in Germany. The Japanese who were initially shocked by the export of national treasures such as the “Burning of the Sanjo Palace” put a stop to any further expatriation. They eventually accepted it as a way of sharing the Japanese cultural heritage with the world. However, this is to be contrasted with the unseemly attempt to transfer a Raphael from Italy to Boston by Perry Rathbone toward the end of his tenure that necessitated a whole book by his daughter to rehabilitate his reputation. Jan Fontein, director and curator of the Asian collection said that these exchanges with the Japanese were a generation ahead of the ”repatriation movement” .

Money and lack thereof becomes another leitmotif of the book. Bigelow was well off. The Japanese collection was well endowed. Moreover, its cultural value was never questioned. These were cultural treasures by deceased artists. A hilarious anecdote that sheds light on the topic of money in one interview relates the reaction of a French curator of Textiles at the MFA, who lashed out at Alan Shestak in a meeting of curators that he was tired of hearing about money, and that in Lyon, where he worked in the museum, to talk about money was beneath them. He refused to shut up about his opinions and eventually was fired. He refused to leave his office and had to be chased out by the police in keystone cop style. Of course, in France everything is paid for through taxes up front and one never knows the real cost of things. The Metropolitan in New York receives millions from the state of New York. Boston nothing. The National Gallery gets all its money from the government. Expenses always seem to exceed income even during the halcyon days of Malcolm Rogers who somehow increased the endowment but increased the debt at the same time. 

Later in the book a recurring theme is who among contemporary artists should be collected. Ananda Coomaraswamy, the curator of the collection of Indian art (1933-1947) felt that no living  artist should be collected. Problem solved. But the MFA was expected to collect Boston artists, first the Brahmin Boston Impressionists and then the Jewish Boston Expressionists (Hyman Bloom, Jack Levine and Karl Zerbe). A thorough collecting of the latter was obviated due to rampant anti-Semitism. Every curator had their faves. One director liked Hyman Bloom up to a point and another only looked at Color Field but could not tolerate Hans Hoffman. Merrill Reuppel turned down the purchase of Pollock’s “Lavender Mist” which at the time was reasonably priced and was soon acquired by the National Gallery. The turning down of this masterpiece is another recurring theme of lost opportunities, along with the dearth of “modern classics” by Picasso and other cubists. Somehow the MFA never heard of the Armory Show. They would eventually get a Picasso but it was not one of his best. When I taught at UNC-Greensboro they had in their collection one of De Kooning’s women. The story behind its purchase is that it was bought for $5000 dollars and the director was fired for spending too much on it. Unfortunately, such a serendipitous mistake was not made at the MFA. 

What could have been:"Lavender Mist"


As a born and bred Bostonian, Charles does a great job of following the vagaries of the city’s economy to which the success of a director and the MFA seemed inextricably tied. The period of the establishment of the Ancient Egyptian, Classical Greek and Roman, Japanese and Indian collections corresponded to the building of Back Bay. The sluggish economy of the 1970s when townhouses in the Back Bay were going for $70,000 weighed heavily on the Museum’s ability to raise money. 


To stick with the conceptual structure of Authority and Freedom that Perl provides: i.e. freedom would be  the letting go of the authority of the early collections of Asian art works  with which early curators established their authority at the inception of the MFA.. The freedom might be more related to the necessity of responding to the multiplicity of art forms and styles that in fact the museum has a hard time keeping on top of and on dealing with the issues of racial equity that must be addressed if the Museum is to garner the respect of and truly represent the community. Racial tension has always been a reality in the Boston community that the Museum has mostly tried to ignore and struggled to address. But that is far from the days when housing and displaying the artifacts of ancient cultures were the only worry.  The business side that so upset the French curator did not reduce everything unnecessarily to the big buck but, according to Barry Gaither, adjunct curator of African American Art, the arrival of Seybolt, a so-called uncouth Midwesterner from the business world of Underwood Devilled Ham to the board of trustees, was appalling to some but to him a breath of fresh air. Gaither a black saw himself as another outsider like Seybolt. And when someone mentioned that Rathbone was not a Bostonian, Gaither answered that he was trained at The Fogg. Seybolt a protégé of former MIT president Howard Johnson had strong Washington connections that would become crucial in getting financial contributions from DC to support travelling shows. 

The mostly Brahmin board probably lived in the glow of the MFA’s early days when they were able to keep the museum self-sustaining but not expanding. Keeping the museum up to date, after the market crashed in the late ‘60s, probably required the intervention of the Seybolt/Rueppel regime. The expansion of the US government in the days of the Great Society required that the Museum establish Washington connections belying the vision of the centrality of Boston as the Athens of America. Already left economically behind by New York City it could not blithely ignore Washington DC as a source of money.


How will it deal with the virtual museum? The NTP? Just as the advent of Zoom in the age of Covid unexpectedly opened up the possibility of working from home so the virtual museum of the metaverse might do the same to the museum goer. How does the Museum continue to take in revenues in a wide open world of art without walls? And how does racial equity differ from racial equality in its impact on the functioning of the museum within the community? The goal of the MFA should be to exert its freedom by staying ahead of the game and not play "catchup". 


What these interviews succeed in doing is conveying the increasing multidimensionality of the Museum over the years from simple roles of storing, curating and exhibiting art, to the never ending need to raise money and the imperative of community outreach. Although at times the directors seem hapless and self-absorbed, they all in their own way add to the success and survivability of the MFA. Charles Giuliano who is one of the few Boston Critics to observe the Boston Art Scene holistically has included in his quiver of accomplishments a global understanding of the MFA. 

Link to buying the book on amazon




Saturday, February 5, 2022

"Authority and Freedom" by Jed Perl


In his latest book “Authority and Freedom”, Perl establishes a paradigm that spells out a healthy antidote to the purpose for which art is currently practiced in our culture. He sees it as a paradigm that has always existed even as far back as the work of Egyptian artisans millennia ago where the hand of the craftsman can set itself off from the strict story telling of the hieroglyphs. In the Middle Ages artisans told stories in paint, glass and sculpture from the Bible but let come into play their own fantasies of what took place in the biblical story book. Hence: Authority and Freedom.  The church embodies on the one hand the notion of authority, the traditionalist base that dictates how one should proceed as artists according to the parabolic story line of the Bible. On the other hand fears of sacrilege did not hinder the freedom to play of the artisan who pushes against the limits of the authorization. According to Perl priests would take notice of these deviations from the tradition but I suppose once something is written in stone as it were it is hard to excise. They live on untouched to this day. The choice of the word authority seemed awkward to me at first glance as cognates such as authoritarian come to mind and must be explained away as not being what Perl intends. The meaning of authority Perl wishes to work for him is borrowed from his readings of the writings of the philosopher Hanna Arendt in particular  ”What is Authority” for whom the word has more in common with the latin word augere meaning augment. Authenticity is another cognate that unlike authoritarian is closer to Perl’s intent. 

The book is built out of many examples from the history of art, music and poetry among other artistic domains to elucidate the dynamic between authority and freedom. If you look up the usage of authority in the dictionary it tends toward imposition of dogma to be accepted due to its, legal validity, gravity and authenticity.  In a religious realm it is a passage of scripture that settles argument. In the hands of an individual, it represents the power to reinforce or convince people through a command. In fact, many of the examples of authority that Perl provides for the most part seem to grow out of the spiritual realm. His description of a memorable rendition of "Wholy Holy" by Aretha Franklin points to the roots of her popular music in the heart of the black Southern Baptist Church. Gospel becomes the authority for the breakaway of her career into the realm of pop. But this breakout can at times be a breakdown as in the poetry of T.S. Eliot’s the “Waste Land” where the spirituality of the past is seen to dissolve and fragment no longer providing the pillars of wisdom that so forcefully shaped Western Culture. 

The dichotomy of Authority and Freedom can take place historically from one cultural artifact to the next but can take place within the work of the individual artist’s career. Perl points out that the classicism of Michelangelo’s early work becomes blatantly Baroque later in life as it breaks down the classical canons that other Renaissance artists followed. It can be seen as well as a harbinger of the Baroque that followed the Renaissance. 

Authority has a numinous almost prophetic aspect to it in the hands of Perl. It is a source of clarity and insight that tries to organize the world harmoniously. It devolves into the secular but out of that movement art happens. The individual is the agent of this evolution. The aforementioned Medieval craftsmen sneak their opinions and play it into their sculpture and painting but in the case of Mozart and Beethoven there is a battle between them and the aristocracy that in the day owned their musicians. Both wanted to be respected as creative forces in their own right. I recall an anecdote of Beethoven and Goethe taking a walk in the countryside around Vienna when they encounter an important Hapsburg to whom out of deference Goethe instinctively bowed. Beethoven according to the story trudged right past him and said: “He should be bowing to me.” Mozart also tried to establish himself as a commercial success beyond the patronage of the aristocracy. He wanted to be his own authority in breaking away from societal authority where they were in many ways no more important than valets The notion of genius cannot be ignored as the center of gravity that establishes these shifts in authority from the aristocratic overlords to the creative individual.   The world would then submit to an authority built out of force of genius. What an exciting dynamically charged interaction! It is the birth of modernity.  

These transfers of power,not to diminish the validity of the event in the work itself where this battle takes place are societal events. The most recent societal shift is the ongoing dissolution of the Beethovian individual that thrust itself into richer and deeper and more powerful notions of self-hood, by the Marxist-Leninist belief that the individual only has an identity by being part of the societal whole. The battle of Beethoven to assert his individuality in the context of aristocratic sponsors participates in the larger societal struggle against the kings and queens that had shaped the world through the 19thc with one violent revolution after another culminating in the Russian Revolution at the beginning of the 20thc.  Power was handed down from one generation of royalty to the next and over time the European aristocracy intermarried to create a superstructure that exists in part to this day. Beethoven was a radical, who looked to Napoleon to break down the established order, freeing the individual to create their own story. This is an incredibly dynamic storybook. But what happens when you are told that the state, which represents the newly liberated masses, cannot be criticized or that the individual’s life has no private meaning only a political one. 

Any attempt to see the individual as separate from the state and other than as a manifestation of liberation of the masses is suspect and treasonous. To ignore this is referred to as “false consciousness”. That is: your very being is suspect if you don’t see how oppression is built into the capitalist system of which you are a part. In the Soviet Union gulags were set up to cure individuals of this false consciousness and a paltry yet courageous few such as Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn were able to reach out to the West with stories of the how horrible the oppression was in the USSR. Shostakovich’s music embodies the anxiety of existing in this authoritarian world where one’s loyalty to the cause of the worker is always under scrutiny. 

Perl ends his book with a a story about W.H. Auden’s famous eulogy to W.B. Yeats. It embodies the essence of the Authority/ Freedom interplay. There appeared around the same time several essays by Auden about Yeats who in the 30’s showed sympathy for the European fascists. In the eulogy Auden charitably saw this as a sort of silliness and a sentimentality for the old aristocracy that Yeats admired and from whom he received patronage. In the end Yeats’s poems are well wrought and to this day resonate with the general public and therefore can be seen as democratic. He exercised his freedom to be a maker of poems even if when it came to his “doing” in the world of politics he failed miserably with his allegiances. (Perl distinguishes the making of the poem over which the poet has absolute control with the doing of politics where mistakes can be made in a world that is often beyond our control.) What seems to be missing in this description of Yeats is his theosophical interests. They seem to be the authority by which he gives gravity to his language. He will apply it, so it seems, through magical incantations. Although I can find no proof the lines “The silver apples of the moon, The golden apples of the sun” taken from the  “The Song of Wandering Aengus” seems to have some source in a magical symbolic incantation .They to this day have a feel of the mysterious in them. Ray Bradbury named a collection of his short stories “Golden Apples of the Sun” and said his wife had introduced him to Yeats and these words had the same effect on him as they do on me. Could this be the authority hidden in Yeats’s work? The  spiritual authority he attributes to Aretha Franklin from her Southern Baptist gospel roots. In lesser hands of a not  great maker of poems, the influence of theosophy could be stultifying as Flannery O’Connor commented about a very catholic novel she was told to read and admire by a catholic priest, whose dogma was correct but whose story was badly told.

I had a face to face interaction with Auden in 1970 that is strangely pertinent to this essay. He came to dinner with the Scholars of the House at Yale, a group I was part of whose members were allowed to work on independent projects during their senior year. I was an admirer of Yeats and must have known at the time about the Eulogy he wrote for him. I asked him after dinner what he thought of Yeats. He responded very adamantly that he was a fascist. And left it at that. How did Ed Mendelson his biographer who accompanied him to the dinner react? Auden passed away the following year. Did he no longer have the same tolerance for Yeats’s politics? Did it finally seem to matter that he supported fascists? A classmate Joe Knight who studied English Literature at Yale and Harvard said there is evidence that Auden was extremely jealous of Yeats’s talents. At the end of his life did the wrong politics gave Auden the possibility of cancelling Yeats’s greatness as a poet. It suggests that behind the concern for art being politically correct is the illness that Nietzsche said awaited our culture as a whole: "the waste land grows": Resentment or “Ressentiment” as he used it is the deeply sour well out from which we channel art into predetermined realms of activity. Perl's new book is its diagnosis.