Friday, December 20, 2013

Review: The Passion of Artemisia by Susan Vreeland

Artemisia Gentileschi was born in Rome in 1593 and died in Naples in 1653. The novel The Passion of Artemisia imagines conversations, correspondence, actions and emotions based on documented history of her life and the art scene of the day.

Growing up the daughter of professional artist Orazio Gentileschi in the last decade of the 1500s, Artemisia was exposed early on to well-known paintings and sculptures in Baroque Rome. When she was still young, her father taught her sophisticated painting techniques. But she developed her own opinions, particularly about weak artistic depiction of women. For example, she noted a lack of emotion and intellect in women subjects of Caravaggio’s paintings.

At the age of 16, she was raped by a painter-friend of her father’s, and for his own selfish purposes, her father allowed the Roman court (at the rapist’s trial) to torture and humiliate Artemisia to get her to recant her testimony. After this, society shunned her and imposed a stigma of being a “whore,” which dogged her for decades. But Artemisia was determined not to live a life simply avoiding humiliation. And that determination surmounted many chauvinistic obstacles to leave a significant artistic legacy. She made many sacrifices and often grappled with the tension between her desire for human love and her passion for art.

I liked reading about Artemisia’s friendship with Galileo, who had his own struggles with the establishment. Wondering if Orazio and Artemisia would ever make peace with each other kept some suspense in the story. I liked imagining early-1600s Rome, Florence, Milan, and Naples as Vreeland described them. Artemisia’s refuge in friendships with two nuns and her conversations with her daughter felt real. Also interesting to me were the many observations, influences, and intentional empathies that Artemisia blended to interpret a certain subject a certain way on canvas. Any kind of artist in any era must do this. Another universal, timeless artistic reality was her struggle to make a living by following her artistic passions.

On page 238 of the edition I read, Artemisia laments, “Buyers saw no courage in age or unpleasantness. They didn’t understand that ugliness caught in real emotion would speak through the centuries. They wanted only ideal beauty. In another time I might have been able to paint her, but I had no more courage for invenzione. I had learned to bow to what paid for ball gowns and bread.”

For those of you close enough to visit The Art Institute of Chicago, until January 9, 2014, you can view Artemisia's painting "Judith Slaying Holofernes," on loan from the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. The exhibit features other paintings of the same bible story from around the 17th century. I was fascinated to see the dynamic emotion in Artemisia's depiction of Judith, in contrast to her contemporaries' more sterile portrayals. Artemisia boldly strode out of step with the art establishment of her time.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome

A sign inside Edith Wharton’s home in Lenox, Massachusetts, says:

Edith Wharton did not write happy endings. Her stories feature the lost chance; her characters yearn for someone to join them in that innermost room of the soul.

Having recently visited Wharton’s home, I wanted to read more of her writing. I began with Ethan Frome, which she wrote in 1911 while still living in the Berkshires. Those mountains and their harsh winters set a stark tone for the story of Ethan Frome. Even the town is named Starkfield. Consider one of the narrator’s first impressions of Ethan Frome: “There was something bleak and unapproachable in his face, and he was so stiffened and grizzled that I took him for an old man …” A longtime resident described Frome’s off-putting appearance this way: “Guess he’s been in Starkfield too many winters.” The snows in this rural small town were formidable as “white waves massed against the garden-fence.” As Ethan Frome transports the narrator in his horse-drawn buggy, the narrator notes: “… We came to an orchard of starved apple trees writhing over a hillside among outcroppings of slate that nuzzled up through the snow like animals pushing out their noses to breathe.”

Many such descriptions symbolize the suffocation of Ethan Frome’s love and dreams. Although I admire Wharton’s masterful telling, I find the story she tells to be depressing. Ethan marries Zenobia out of gratefulness rather than love, falls in love with Mattie, and ends up despairing of being loved by either of them. I won’t reveal how that actually happens. I suppose because Ethan sacrifices for decades to support the two women and care for their ailments, this could be called a love story. However, although committed to Zenobia and Mattie, Ethan finds no joy in his service to them. Compared with Wharton’s soaring descriptions of Mattie’s and Ethan’s rosy hopes and orange-flamed desire to escape together, what they are left with feels like gray ash—not even smoldering embers.

The sign in Wharton’s home proves true for this novel.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Edith Wharton's Home, The Mount

Edith Wharton did not write happy endings. Her stories feature the lost chance; her characters yearn for someone to join them in that innermost room of the soul. Whether Wharton achieved that in her own life, and with whom, is a story as mysterious and captivating as any of her fiction. [from a sign inside The Mount, Edith Wharton’s home from 1902 to 1911]

Ethan Frome was required reading when I was in high school. Since then I have read about Wharton’s characters’ yearnings in The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence. I admire Edith Wharton’s writing but knew little about the author, so we took a tour of The Mount in Lenox, Massachusetts.

We began by walking a winding road past a rather elegant white stable building and through beautiful forests and myrtle-covered knolls. Modern-art sculptures along this long path in to the classic-architecture house looked odd on formal grounds. There’s modern, abstract art inside the house, too. Our guide said the designer justifies this by thinking Edith Wharton, if she were alive today, would have supported modern artists. In my opinion, she probably would have supported the artists themselves, but she may not have wanted her house to be a modern art museum, whatever “modern” meant in various eras. She had strong personal preferences and in fact, coauthored a book on home design. In designing her house, Wharton rejected the style of her time (Victorian) to preserve the classical symmetry and balance she preferred. For example, she placed some front shutters with no windows behind them, just so the house front would look balanced; in the interior, what looks like a double door is functionally a single door because she wanted it to match what was opposite in the room. As much as I like some of the modern sculptures, they seem out of place there.

Wharton was born into the Jones family, old New York society, although not among the absolute richest. She did not have formal schooling, but her father had an extensive library, and she loved to read. She had traveled with her family in Europe, was fluent in English, French, German, and Italian. She adapted what she liked in Europe when she created The Mount, “a cottage of the gilded age,” her own home, in 1902. She could afford electricity and indoor plumbing, a Ping-Pong table and a telescope. The Mount had beautiful plaster relief art on the ceilings and walls. I lost count of the number of fireplaces, but many of them had carved scenes on the back panels. When the fire was lit, it illuminated the scene on the back panel.

Wharton had a close circle of friends, and Henry James was among regular guests. She wrote nine books at The Mount (1902–1911). Although she posed for publicity photos writing at her desk, she actually wrote her stories on her bed between 9 and 11 a.m. She balanced an ink pot on one knee, held a beloved dog under one arm, and wrote with the other hand. She tossed completed pages on the floor. At 11, an assistant came in and picked up all the tossed papers, put them in order, and typed them up.

In all, Wharton wrote 38 published books. In 1920 The Age of Innocence earned a Pulitzer Prize. She was also an accomplished gardener. During World War I she visited the front lines and fed and housed 600 Belgian refugees. In recognition of her humanitarian efforts, France awarded her the Cross of the Legion of Honor.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

A Connection to the Land

At Shelburne Farms, just south of Burlington, Vermont, you feel a connection to the land  when you eat the cheese they make there from their own cows' milk and the chicken, turkey, and bacon from their own animals. Of course, it's a little harder to enjoy the pure flavor when you know these animals, whose names were once on a chalkboard in the barn, have given their lives for your sandwich.


We had fun watching goats and sheep eat their hay.
 When we ate lunch, I mistakenly set my plate on the bench of the picnic table. Within seconds, a rooster had snatched some turkey and bacon from my plate!

Thursday, October 3, 2013

I can see clearly now ...

Transformation viewed from our tent ...

Wine and Marshmallows

U.S. campground stores fill every vertical and horizontal surface, sometimes including the ceiling, with a hodgepodge of junky souvenirs, garbage candy, water toys, T-shirts. In contrast to the United States sugar and plastic chaos … The KOA camp store outside Quebec City felt completely calm, was mostly empty space except for a few neat cases and shelves of merchandise. What was this merchandise? Bottles of wine. Lindt chocolates. Artisanal cheeses. Loose-leaf tea tins. Designer scarves. Sequined evening wear. Oh, and their only bow to campfire tradition: marshmallows.

Another way I appreciated the French/Canadian preference for life’s finer things was in single-serving jam, honey, and peanut butter packets. In Canada, they’re the real deal. Cross the border to the U.S., and these little packets contain high-fructose corn syrup. Interestingly, the supplier of these packets to both countries is Kraft. They must use different recipes for different consumers.

On the other hand, Vermont shops and tourist attractions feature almost exclusively products handcrafted in Vermont from pure ingredients. My personal favorite so far is Liz Lovely’s gluten-free, dairy-free, egg-free, certified vegan Triple Chocolate Mint cookies. Had I known what a rich, chocolatey melt-in-your-mouth burst of fresh mint each bite was, I would have bought more of these cookies. Turkey at Shelburne Farms tasted pure and the greens freshly plucked from the earth. And in the Marketplace Café in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, my husband and I each ate the best sandwich we’ve ever eaten in our lives—all natural, local ingredients. Even bean sprouts—we would have felt like such hippies if it hadn’t been for all the necktied businessmen in the café as well. These pure-tasting, healthy meals included bacon. Could it be? Bacon can be a health food? :-)

Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Part Narnia, part Wonderland, part Oz, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is an imaginative tale of universal themes. Author Neil Gaiman introduces the narrator’s seven-year-old self to the cosmic battle of good and evil. At many points in the boy’s fantastical adventure among timeless creatures, he asks himself and his good friend Lettie, “Are you afraid?” He begins thinking only small children like himself feel fear and ends knowing even grownups are sometimes afraid. He also learns how to face and surmount fears. This story, descriptions, child’s perspectives, and symbolism are brilliant! It’s a fascinating tale that will draw you in. I listened to Neil Gaiman’s recording of this story on CD; I highly recommend the audio version.