22. Lorenzetti and Neighborhood
Frederick Project: Elegy
Tuesday, April 7, 2020
This week, the week of Passover and Easter, is a strange one. I think of it as a place in the year where time folds over itself.
In our family, we observe Passover, the commemoration of the exodus. The story of enslavement and liberation told over and over down the generations. That story, the ritual of its retelling at a meal, is then the setting for the last supper, the prelude to an execution, and the foundation of the new testament, also celebrated in our family, by some devoutly, by others with colored eggs. Every year, a week where two religions show the knot that binds them together.
This morning when I woke up, I wanted to pay my respects to the dead.
It is April 7th, 2020. As of this morning, there were more than 300 dead in Illinois, more than 11,000 in the US, more than 78,000 in the world. Many of those people died yesterday and the day before. It is early for elegy.
In this morning’s news, several articles about racial disparities in the rates of illness and death. The Chicago Tribune reports that 68% of the people who have died in our community are those who have been treated as Black. “Black Chicagoans,” the newspaper says, “are dying at a rate nearly six times greater than white residents.” They lived on the south side, the west side, and were my neighbors, and my history teachers.
Our elected officials are quoted in the papers saying, rightly, that this is the result of generations of systemic racism and inequality. It is a week when history is compounding itself, and I would like to think about Lorenzetti.
Ambrogio Lorenzetti was an artist in Siena in the 14th century. He painted important frescoes in the Palazzo Pubblico called The Allegory of Good and Bad Government, which demonstrate how different every feature of life is, from the tilling of land to the way neighbors get along, under good government and bad government.
Two weeks ago, many of us watched or listened to the people of Siena singing together in the evening from balconies or behind shuttered windows, under lockdown.
Ambrogio Lorenzetti, like his brother Pietro Lorenzetti, who was also a painter, died of the Black Death in 1348 or 1349. These images are all from one of Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s late paintings, The Crucifixion, ca. 1345, which is at the Fogg Museum in Cambridge.
I got very interested in Sienese painting while I was writing a book about the art critic Bernard Berenson. Berenson was an early champion of the radical and lyrical late medieval Sienese work that was at first not especially popular among 19th century collectors; they preferred the more geometric departure from the middle ages that was effected in nearby Florence.
While I was thinking about Sienese painting, we were living in Cambridge, and I was astonished when I discovered that one of the great Lorenzettis was four blocks from our house.
I went often to visit this neighbor, an important history teacher, a delicate one.
The neighborhood is bannered and caparisoned in grief and bloodshed. We look in all different directions. The story folded over itself, is told again.
Sunday, July 30, 2017
My cousin Sophie is dying. She is ninety. It seems likely that she will die today, and I hurry to write those words to use the present tense one last time. We were with her, all of us, at different moments in the last couple of weeks. My mother is there now.
Sophie loved painting. She took painting classes in New York in the 1960s when she lived there, and there are still many of her paintings, some on squares of canvas with a cardboard backing, some directly on cardboard. They seem insubstantial, but they have held up for fifty years. She used a paint called caesin, which, a painter once told me, is actually quite a good paint, now mostly discontinued, and this has preserved the vividness of her choices of colors. She admired Marsden Hartley, always had a Marsden Hartley still life up in her small apartments, and, from the look of this picture, which I had not seen until last week, Cézanne.
Maybe it is a very good painting and maybe it is only wonderful to us. I did not have time to tell. But perhaps I would not even be able to tell if I spent a lot of time with it. I like the hot colors, the purples and oranges of a Bonnard, and I like the odd declivities between the shapes, all jumbled together, but not really impinging on one another. This was like Sophie, she had delight in color, saw no need for fussy restraint, and she was always unto herself, even when generous with other people. She was self-contained, but not elusive, she had an independent presence that I recognize in the objects she has painted.
I am sitting in the garden, a midsummer garden in which every plant bears a different combination of different shades of green, each unto itself, the whole so harmonious. Our daughter, whose middle name is Sophie, is behind me, sitting on the wooden steps, secluded under the arch of vines, reading a book. There will be a phone call, perhaps in a few minutes. A painting may say, now, we are here.
Sophie Degan died early in the morning of August 1st. May she rest in peace.
Sunday, February 19, 2017
I was standing in our kitchen this afternoon, and the light from the garden was coming through the windows, garden light, unlike any other, and I started to think of painted gardens. How it is that sometimes the paint itself is even more beautiful than the real light.
Yesterday and today the air is full of light, sixty-four degrees, sixty-seven degrees, days like April. The trees are rushing to throw off their silver February garb. Green shoots are already up in the garden, although next week it is to freeze.
A friend of my friend’s has died. We are in different cities and cannot take a walk together. He wrote that it would be nice to go to a museum.
The last time we were in the same city – he was here, in Chicago – we went to the Art Institute, and looked at this and that, and what we were taken by was Vuillard. In one room, there are two beautiful earth-banners. Landscape: Window Overlooking the Woods, 1899, is twelve feet long, eight feet high.
The other, Foliage—Oak Tree and Fruit Seller, 1918, is a little over nine feet across, some six feet high. You could go every day to look at them.
I had just seen them for the first time a few days before my friend’s visit, so we could begin together. There is a woman on the left side, with a child, there, back in the leaves, that is the fruit seller.
In making Foliage—Oak Tree and Fruit Seller, Vuillard used the medium of distemper, in which paint pigments are bound with melted glue. You have to paint quickly, it dries very fast. The wall text also points to the “closely ranged tones of the palette.” Sage against olive against forest. In life, friends are like this, right up next to each other, in contrast and bound in their shared medium.
The abstraction of paint, that it may represent both the thing and the light, both the evanescent and the enduring, that would be a comfort, if we could go and look at it today.
Les Débâcles, first
Monday, February 23, 2015
débâcle: the violent flood that follows when the river ice melts in spring
In the winter of 1879-1880 the weather was unusually stormy and cold. All along the Seine there were record quantities of snow and ice. That winter, Claude Monet was at Vétheuil, a village near Argenteuil and to the northwest of Paris. Monet was living in straitened circumstances with his children; his beloved wife Camille had died earlier that year, in September. The remaining Monets were sharing a household with Alice Hoschedé and her children. The winter was so fierce that even at Christmas it was impossible for them to be joined by Alice Hoschedé’s husband, Ernest, who had been one of Monet’s important supporters and collectors. Ernest Hoschedé was suffering through his own difficult period; he had gone bankrupt two years before, and his entire Impressionist collection had been sold at disastrously low prices. It is not entirely clear how the merging and transformation of the Hoschedé and Monet households took place, but this grim winter was to prove a turning point both in Monet’s life and in his work as a painter.
I have been reading about that winter, and the paintings Monet made then, for nearly a year. Reading very slowly, chiefly in one catalogue called Monet at Vétheuil: The Turning Point. The catalogue caught my attention in a used bookstore here in Cambridge, in part because the show that occasioned it was held at the University of Michigan Art Museum in Ann Arbor, where I am from, and in part because the subject of the paintings is winter. My father died in Ann Arbor in early February of 2013, during a bitterly snowy fortnight. This February, two years later, I am again confronted by mourning and by snow. Although I have been thinking about these confluences for many months, I am not making any progress on drawing them together as an essay. So I have decided to try writing a series of broken pieces instead.
During the winter of 1879-1880, Monet painted a series of canvases of the snowbound river and of the eventual catastrophic breakup of the ice. The series of paintings, called Les Débâcles, take their name from the river floods that followed the thaw in early January of that year. Until this point, much of Monet’s work had been of urban landscapes. There had also been portraits and still lifes; the work depicted or implied the presence of people. But this winter, he painted landscape alone, deliberately removing the boats and industry which photographs from the time show to have been part of the landscape at Vétheuil. Instead, the viewer of the painting is alone in nature; the subject of the pictures is the terrible majesty of winter and its devastations.
Saturday, May 17, 2014
What would it be to begin without a location in time? A letter or an email always begins with a date, even the hour; when I begin these entries my first instinct is always to situate in time – last Wednesday, after studying Ernst’s collages. But I think part of the strangeness of Arshile Gorky’s Summation is that it avoids a location in time. The experience is of many, local, whirring events or personages. Maybe as the mind feels on waking in the night, though with more tranquility than that, as, on a quiet day, taking a thankful walk. The mind casts about, and, although it dreams and wonders about the unknown and recollects and watches the known, this is not really felt as looking forward and backward but as looking around.
Why is it only now, many months after I saw and struggled with Summation, that this seems evidently its mode and quality? I remember that when I went to see it I was in a hurry to get home to the baby and had been unable to find a taxi, and that there were only a few minutes before closing. I remember that I hoped to find something to help me think about my father. Perhaps, fixed on locating the sequence of events in the months before he died, turning from this to picture hurrying to the immediate needs of next days, I was too oriented toward calendar time to see the Gorky. [Here it is, whole, though too small to feel at wall's expanse.]
In my mind now it seems well-distributed, elegant and coherent. It would be very difficult to say where it starts, even where one’s eye lights first or in what order it observes. A summation bears a different relationship to time, or happens in another realm of time – a repetitive, cyclical, associative time – not approachable in a sequence of minutes, but felt in the round of years. Part of the fear of death must be that, as the minutes are torn from us one by one, we will not be able to hold, and hold to, the beautiful spaciousness of rounding in time.
Surrealism and Form
Sunday, November 3, 2013
There are other feelings for form, of course, but that doesn’t mean the Surrealists didn’t have formal feelings. Form is often described in spatial terms, as arrangements of objects, as landscapes with prominent and receding features. Perhaps the Surrealist feeling for form could be evoked by inversion: one could speak of a disarray of objects, or of interior landscapes in which prominence is, like that in dreams, more a matter of excitation and disturbance.
This is not to say that when you look at, say, a Max Ernst collage, your eye is not still balancing the long pointed beak of the rooster against the long line of the legs of the naked woman he has turned over his knee, but that your awareness of the beak and the body, as a beak and a body, are affecting your seeing as loci of attention in a way that is not mostly about parallel lines but about balancing visceral experiences and grappling with perceived and imagined relations between them.
The thought I’ve been trying to get articulated for a few days, since seeing Arshile Gorky’s Summation, is that these turbid experiences of suggested meaning might still in some way be understood as formal.
I rushed into the MoMA last Saturday at 5:00 (the museums closes at 5:30). I didn’t plan to go, had been in New York for five days without setting foot in a museum, had given up on the possibility of going, all of us, the baby, too, were sick, we were leaving early the next morning. After a meeting, I had been unable to get a cab for fifteen blocks and realized I was within blocks, decided to chance it…
These are all aspects of seeing art in New York, but I’m not sure which should be brought out and which let drop. I was hoping to hit Abstract Expressionism. My father loved Rothko and I thought maybe if I got one of those I could use my ten minutes for missing him, but the one I saw through a doorway opening had a kind of bright lime green edge that I recoiled from and before I quite realized what was happening I saw a Gorky and thought I’ve been meaning to think about Gorky and stopped.
In the wall text next to Summation, Gorky is quoted as saying, “There is my world.” I could see from the dates that he had died the next year, and remembered dimly that there was something untimely and terrible about his death. [I looked it up later. He killed himself the following year, at the age of forty-four, after a gruesome two years, in which his studio burned down, a car accident left him with a broken neck and a temporarily paralyzed painting arm, and his wife left him, and took their two children.] What had stayed in my mind was the sense that he had been an extremely important link from the Surrealists to the Abstract Expressionists – and that his loss had been bitterly mourned by both André Breton and Willem De Kooning.
The significance of Gorky’s influence was pointed out both in the Whitney drawing retrospective (winter 2003-2004), a show I thought was very profound, and in “Abstract Expressionist New York,” at the MoMA three years ago. Although people do talk about it, I still think it is easy to overlook how totemic and dream-oriented the Abstract Expressionists were in their early days. Frank O’Hara’s great essay on Jackson Pollock has a long useful section on Surrealism.
Another approach in the direction of my hoped-for thought might be: if one thinks of the forms discovered by the Surrealists as being in some way taken in and then diffused throughout the canvases of the Abstract Expressionists then one could in a way actually be a witness to this in looking at the works of Gorky.