In twenty-sixteen, I: Gazed in WONDER at the Renwick. Traipsed around the City of Brotherly Love, ate Philly cheese steaks, and admired the Mural Arts decorating the city’s walls and parking lots. Inspected the crack in the Liberty Bell and imagined our forefathers in Independence Hall. Toasted to Mike’s 62nd birthday. Worried about our youngest son’s lack of direction. Partially de-cluttered our house, using The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up (the Kon-Mari method), successfully weeding out clothing, accessories, kitchen appliances and books.
Janet Echelman – 1.8
Jennifer Angus – In the Midnight Garden
Central tower of City Hall
Street mural outside of our hotel
Eastern State Penitentiary
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Flew to Dallas, Texas and then drove to Oklahoma City to attend a friend’s second wedding. Walked on the grassy knoll and along the route where JFK was assassinated. Stood beside larger-than-life statues of George W. Bush and his dad at the George W. Bush Presidential Library & Museum. Walked among tulips and sat with Benjamin Franklin at the Dallas Arboretum. Stood under a rearing horse and saw a fake rodeo at the Cowboy Museum. Grieved near a field of empty chairs for the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing.
Fighting the Global War on Terror at the George Bush Presidential Library & Museum
the route heading to the triple underpass
The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza
urban sculptures in Oklahoma City
The Outdoor Symbolic Memorial
The Red River Rodeo at the Cowboy Museum
Stood by as contractors demolished our deck, laundry room and kitchen and then slowly built them again, in much nicer form.
Kitchen – BEFORE (this wall will become a knee wall)
Kitchen – BEFORE
Kitchen – BEFORE
Deck – BEFORE
Future screened-in porch
new kitchen and island
kitchen near door to screened porch looking into family room
our screened-in porch furniture
Attended my first husband’s book talk in April at Politics and Prose in D.C., where he discussed his newly published book, Mathews Men. Celebrated our daughter Sarah’s graduation, with a B.A. in English, from Virginia Commonwealth University in May. Enjoyed a spread of bagels at Sarah’s house, and later dinner and dirty martinis at Lucy’s, with both families in attendance. 🙂
Me, Adam, Sarah, Alex, Barb, Mike, Kema, Bill, Cody and Nicholas
the parents with their graduate: Mike, me, Sarah, Bill and Kema
Wandered through tulips and sunflowers at Burnside Gardens in Virginia. Visited four gardens around Philadelphia for my second trip to that city this year. Imbibed in Cabernets and Pinot Grigios at several Virginia wineries. Let our son’s lease in Richmond expire and watched with trepidation to see what he’d do next; fretted because we didn’t know where he would go or what he’d do. Felt relieved when we found he took off for a Tribal Design retreat in Vancouver and finally went Hawaii, where he is now leading tours for a hostel in Maui.
Asian garden at Glen Burnie
me at an Asian gate
the ruins at Chanticleer
flowers in the pond garden
all in white
Topiary Garden Longwood
Orangery at Longwood
Quarry Garden at Winterthur
Zephaniah Vineyard’s tasting room
Drove around the Ring Road in Iceland over a breathtaking 11 days (in search of a thousand cafés). Climbed around, behind, and to the tops of waterfalls. Admired sweeping vistas from our Polo VW rental. Hiked to the edge of ashy glaciers. Poked around inside turf-roofed houses. Ate cod, cod and more cod, as well as langoustine, lamb and gas-station hot dogs. Drove over 2700 km and walked 166,100 steps, or 70.4 miles. Returned home with walking pneumonia, from which it took three weeks to recover.
Siglufjörður on the edge of a fjord and a mountain in North Iceland
Standing on the edge of Godafoss
Waterfalls tumbling off the edge of the mountain north of Seyðisfjörður, in East Iceland
Glaciers at Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon in South Iceland
The Sun Voyager in Reykjavik
Laughed at the “Kurios” of Cirque de Soleil. Had a family reunion at our renovated house for my dad’s 86th birthday in September, where everyone except Adam attended. Enjoyed sushi and sake with my sister Stephanie, who came from California. Drove along the Skyline Drive amidst flame-colored leaves to West Virginia in early November to celebrate my 61st birthday and our 28th anniversary. Enjoyed delicious pizza and craft beer at Pies & Pints. Strolled through the eerie ghost towns of Thurmond and Nuttallburg. Hiked along the Endless Wall.
a dramatic scene on Skyline Drive
a tree amidst flames on Skyline Drive
The New River Gorge Bridge
The Historic Morris Harvey House
The Mankin-Cox Building
Thurmond Passenger Depot
Street art in Fayetteville
Parting shot of the Glade Creek Grist Mill
Nuttallburg Coal Mining Complex
The Endless Wall
The Endless Wall
Barely survived our contentious election and felt heartbroken over the results. Boycotted Facebook for a month and a half. Realized I have nothing in common with 62 million Americans.
Read/listened to 35 books/audiobooks (meeting my Goodreads goal!), my favorites being All the Light We Cannot See, State of Wonder, Circling the Sun, The Ambassador’s Wife, and The Glass Castle. Saw 39 movies in the theater, especially loving Joy, Eye in the Sky, A Hologram for the King, The Man Who Knew Infinity, The Music of Strangers, Dheepan, Hell or High Water, The Light Between Oceans, Sully, Girl on the Train, A Man Called Ove, Manchester by the Sea, and Lion. Dined on Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, Mexican, French, Japanese and Italian food.
Weighed 5 pounds more at year-end than at the end of 2015, despite continual attempts to lose weight. Took Pilates and dropped out because of utter boredom. Walked nearly 251 hours during 276 @3-mile workouts, or about 813 miles of dedicated workouts.
Passed the Virginia Real Estate Licensing Exam but never signed with a broker. Sent my novel to 23 agents to no avail. Applied for 32 jobs, 23 abroad and 9 stateside. Came up empty-handed on the book publishing and the job front. Got discouraged. Completed a Memoir class and wrote seven chapters of a memoir. Dreamed about how my future might look.
Celebrated Thanksgiving with Alex and Sarah, and Christmas with only Alex (Adam was in Hawaii through the holidays, jumping off waterfalls, body surfing and leading tours). Felt dismayed at our shrinking family gatherings.
Returned to Philadelphia (third time’s a charm!) to see “Paint the Revolution” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Admired the Gates of Hell and Crouching Woman at the Rodin Museum. Wandered through the Magic Gardens of mirrors and mosaics and found objects. Walked and walked through the outdoor gallery of Mural Arts to shake 2016 out of our psyches. Drove home through Amish country in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, amidst the clip-clop of horse-drawn buggies and faded laundry flapping on clotheslines.
“Garden of Delight” by artist David Guinn
Farm in Lancaster, Pennsylvania
Cleared our heads in preparation for 2017, when we are hoping for love, peace, healing, direction, confidence, boldness and endless adventure. 🙂
Friday, December 30: On our way home from Philadelphia, we take the roundabout route through Lancaster, Pennsylvania, just to get off the boring interstate. It’s always fun to drive on American back roads, through farmland and small towns.
The Pennsylvania Amish of Lancaster County are America’s oldest Amish settlement. Here, the horse and buggy remains a primary form of transportation, and the Amish people work in agriculture, businesses and cottage industries.
The light is beautiful on this winter afternoon, painting the silos and barns with a golden color.
We see many homes with laundry flapping in the breeze.
The small town of Intercourse is a hub where many Amish and local people do business. It’s just east of Bird-in-Hand and north of Paradise. Here, shops sell Amish quilts, furniture and other handmade crafts. You can click on the link to read about how the town of Intercourse got its name.
Bird-in-Hand is another cute town in Lancaster, with cute shops congregating along the roadside. The history of Bird-in-Hand and its unusual name is here.
We come across some of the buggies that are so common here. This one is taking a rest.
We pass many on the road, but I have a hard time capturing them because they move at quite a clip. I do manage to snatch a photo of one.
The rest of our drive home isn’t quite so scenic. We do manage to get home safely after our fabulous trip to Philadelphia and to ring in the New Year the next evening, with me asleep before midnight. 🙂
In 1994, Isaiah Zagar started working on the vacant lots located near his studio at 1020 South Street, according to the museum’s pamphlet. He first constructed a massive fence to protect the area then spent years sculpting multi-layer walls out of found objects.
In 2002, the Boston-based owner of the lots discovered Zagar’s installation and decided to sell the land, calling for the work to be dismantled. Unwilling to allow the now-beloved neighborhood art environment to be destroyed, the community rushed to support the artist. After a two-year legal battle, his creation, newly titled Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, became a non-profit organization intended to preserve the artwork, says the pamphlet.
Embedded in the walls of the outdoor installation are bottles, bicycle wheels, pottery shards, and folk sculptures.
We find a lot of names, phrases and sayings embedded in chains across the walled-canvas.
Some of the Magic Gardens’ values include inspiring others, creating community, championing originality, and embracing the creative process unbound by conventional norms.
The Gardens also interprets Isaiah Zagar’s art with a lighthearted, celebratory attitude. They believe in working hard while still maintaining levity and humor, according to the website.
I love the multi-armed painter who might bear a slight resemblance to Zagar.
Here, the artist is cradled by a three-headed woman.
PHILADELPHIA is spelled out along one passageway.
Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens is like a wilder version of Gaudi’s Park Güell in Barcelona, though it has no actual gardens. I highly recommend visiting here for a quirky afternoon.
After we finish our visit, it’s time for us to head back to Virginia. We decide to take a convoluted route home, passing through the Amish countryside of Lancaster County.
Friday, December 30: After walking the southern half of the Mural Arts Walk, we head to Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens. As we walk down South Street, we pass a number of the artist’s murals on buildings and in alleys.
We find another mural with some religious verses adjacent to a small parking lot.
Zagar mural near Magic Gardens
detail of Zagar mural
detail of Zagar mural
Someone’s house is even decked out in mosaics.
The museum, spanning half a block on South Street, includes an immersive outdoor art installation and indoor galleries. As it’s the middle of winter, we first walk around the indoor galleries.
The artist, Isaiah Zagar, is an award-winning mosaic mural artist whose work can be found in over 200 public walls throughout Philadelphia and around the world, according to a museum pamphlet.
Zagar was born in Philadelphia and raised in Brooklyn; he received a B.F.A. in Painting and Graphics at the Pratt Institute of Art in New York City. The artist and his wife Julia settled in Philadelphia after serving 3 years in Peru with the Peace Corps. Zagar’s work is influenced by his travels as well as his interactions with international folk and visionary artists, says the pamphlet.
Zagar created the space at Magic Gardens using nontraditional materials such as folk art statues, found objects, bicycle wheels, colorful glass bottles, hand-made tiles, and thousands of glittering mirrors.
Visual anecdotes and personal narratives refer to Zagar’s life, family and community, as well as to the wider world, such as influential art history figures and other visionary artists and environments.
This place is a photographer’s paradise. Every surface is covered with mosaics and found objects, including the ceilings, stairs and bathrooms.
We walk outdoors into a small enclosed patio, but then are led right back into the indoor galleries.
We could spend hours and hours here marveling at all the details.
We brace ourselves to go the outdoor art installation. Luckily the area is enclosed and it doesn’t feel that cold outside. I hear it’s super crowded in summer, so I think it’s best we came at this time of year. The outdoor installation will follow in another post. 🙂
Friday, December 30: This morning, we have two goals before we need to return home to Virginia: 1) walk the south Philadelphia mural walk and 2) visit the Magic Gardens. We don’t have time today to do the north mural walk; that will have to wait for another visit.
Mural Arts Philadelphia was established in 1984 as a Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network, encouraging graffiti writers to redirect their efforts into constructive public arts projects. According to the website, the “collective mural-making process proves to be a powerful tool for generating dialogue, building relationships, empowering communities, and sparking economic revitalization.”
The work of the project serves a “larger movement that values equity, fairness and progress across all of society.”
“Women in Progress,” by artists Cesar Viveros and Larissa Preston, depicts the progress made in women’s rights.
Kenny Scharf is known for “using images of cartoons from his childhood, as well as inventing sometimes wild designs inspired by graffiti and club culture” (Philly Mag).
HOW and NOSM are twin brother graffiti artists born in Spain, who grew up in Germany and currently reside in New York, according to the Mural Arts website.
In a mural by Gaia, Philadelphia architect and urban planner Edmund Bacon gazes down at those traveling the streets of the city that he helped so much to shape. The use of light colors such as white and grey help the portrait to stand out for blocks.
I’m not sure what this one is, but it doesn’t seem to be on the official Mural Walk. Today, some earth movers are doing some heavy-duty digging in the adjacent parking lot.
“Building the City” by Michael Webb shows the builders and planners of the city.
Some of Philadelphia’s urban art is not listed as part of the Mural Arts program, such as this one shown below. With over 3,000 murals, the city is known as the world’s largest outdoor art gallery.
I don’t know that the building shown below has actual murals or simply panels hanging on it. There is one mural listed at this location on our mural mile walk map, but this doesn’t look much like the other murals we’ve seen.
My favorite of all the murals we see today is “Garden of Delight” by artist David Guinn. The artist returned to the neighborhood where he grew up to create this lush mural overlooking a community garden. “Two trees in the center lean into each other, symbolic of an embrace. The garden spills out from the space between them. This is to symbolize the spirit of community gardens and the people who work together to nurture these gardens,” according to Mural Arts Philadelphia.
“Pride and Progress” by Ann Northrup shows today’s unconventional families. According to Mural Arts Philadelphia, “the artwork occupies the entire west wall of the William Way Center, the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender community center in Philadelphia. The 55’x165′ mural depicts a gay pride festival in the midst of nearby landmarks, including the Drake Hotel.”
“Taste of Summer” by Ann Northrup is set in an idealized landscape – a combination of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania and “Perugia, Italy. The people are outdoors on a terrace eating, drinking, arguing, flirting, climbing trees, and sleeping. There is an element of indulgent comedy, within a garden of earthly delights.”
The mural is on the side of Vetri Ristorante, owned by James Beard award-winning Chef Marc Vetri.
In “Spring,” David Guinn “designed the mural to connect the trees on either side of the wall, on Pine Street and in the backyard of the house, as if there were a park in front of the wall rather than a parking lot. The artist wanted to paint the trees crisply and in detail but at the same time have a soft and organic feel. He was inspired by the idea of making soft forms out of discreet, hard-edged blocks of color.” (Mural Arts Philadelphia)
David McShane’s “Mural at Dirty Franks,” a local watering hole, is painted with pictures of people named, or partially named, Frank.
“Theater of Life” by Meg Saligman is about the many roles we play in our lives that make up who we are.
“Gimme Shelter” by David Guinn was sponsored by the City of Philadelphia, Morris Animal Refuge, and individual donors.
One of the most iconic of the city’s murals, “Philadelphia Muses” explores today’s diverse artistic disciplines. “It features newly imagined, contemporary muses of the arts taking part in a gigantic game of artistic vision,” according to artist Meg Saligman.
We end our walk on South Street at the fascinating Magic Gardens, Isaiah Zagar’s unique mosaic art environment. I’ll write about this magical place in another post. 🙂
“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery – celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.”
– Jim Jarmusch
On December 20, I started reading the classic novel by Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita. I wrote this review of it on Goodreads:
It’s easy to despise the deeply flawed pedophile Humbert Humbert, with his long-time sexual abuse of his 12-year-old nymphet/daughter Dolores Haze (his Lolita, his Lo). I have put off reading the book forever because of the subject matter, which is certainly hard to take.
That being said, it’s hard not to fall in love with Nabokov’s prose. I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Jeremy Irons, and found some scenes to be so perfectly rendered, so engrossing, that I had to check the book out of the library so I could read and study the passages. Nabokov’s prose is so detailed, so observant, so meticulous, so perfect, so nuanced! If only I had such command of the English language. And to think that Nabokov was born in St. Petersburg in 1899 and English wasn’t even his first language, having moved to the U.S. in 1940. I highly recommend this book just to experience the author’s writing style and wonderful use of language.
I was engrossed in the book at the time we went to Philadelphia, admittedly bowled over by the author’s writing style. So it was a strange coincidence when we went out to look for a dinner restaurant near our hotel, The Independent, and we happened upon the enticing Lolita tucked into a narrow space on South 13th Street.
We sat down at the bar because it was crowded; no matter, we enjoy sitting at the bar anyway. I found an appealing new drink on the menu: a jalapeno and cucumber margarita, which was ultra-refreshing and not too sweet. As I sipped this marvelous concoction, I mentioned to one of the bartenders, a young woman, that it was serendipitous that we found Lolita because I’m right in the middle of listening to the audiobook.
She gushed that she adored Nabokov: “His prose is amazing! There is nothing like it!” Her enthusiasm matched my feelings, and I felt an instant kinship with her. This is what reading will do to a person.
We enjoyed Lolita’s ambiance, as well as our fabulous dinners: chipotle shrimp enchiladas verdes(charred tomatillos, serranos, garlic & cilantro) stuffed with roasted sunchokes, sauteed local greens, queso mixto & radish salad for me, and queso fundido(charred corn puree, queso mixto, local mushroom mix, roasted baby corn & poblanos, served with warm corn tortillas – served with house-made chorizo for Mike.
Inspiration is found in unlikely places. All one has to do it be open to it, recognize it, and run with it. After reading Lolita, I can only dream of writing like Nabokov. I know I don’t have that talent, but if I could remotely approach him, I would be happy. I’ve been thrilled by writers before, and I’ve yearned to have such natural and spontaneous creativity. In writing classes, teachers often encourage students to find admired masters and try to mimic their style. Of course, a writer is also supposed to find his or her own “voice” when writing. But my voice seems so boring!
When I read something like Lolita that makes my heart beat faster, that takes my breath away, then I want to study it, dissect it, analyze it, and try to take something away from it. If I could write even one sentence like that, just one….it might be possible to write another, and yet another.
In the book, at the beginning of part two, Humbert Humbert and Lolita take a road trip across the country. I’ve taken many American road trips in my life, and Nabokov captures a small part of their journey perfectly in this passage:
Now and then, in the vastness of those plains, huge trees would advance toward us to cluster self-consciously by the roadside, and provide a bit of humanitarian shade above a picnic table, with sun flecks, flattened paper cups, samaras and discarded ice-cream sticks littering the brown ground. A great user of roadside facilities, my unfastidious Lo would be charmed by toilet signs — Guys-Gals, John-Jane, Jack-Jill and even Buck’s-Doe’s; while lost in an artist’s dream, I would stare at the honest brightness of the gasoline paraphernalia against the splendid green of oaks, or at a distant hill scrambling out — scarred but still untamed — from the wilderness of agriculture that was trying to swallow it. (p. 153, 50th anniversary edition, Lolita, June 1997)
This scene is wonderfully rendered. The picture of “huge trees” advancing toward the moving car, clustering “self-consciously by the roadside,” and providing “a bit of humanitarian shade” is not only great description but it prompts in the reader a leap of imagination. It endows the trees with human qualities — self-consciousness and humanitarianism — and prods us to see them with vague and tender recognition. We might not have described them that way ourselves, but we feel the rightness of the description. The “sun flecks” suggest a summer afternoon, indolent and barely breezy, the setting for a romantic rendezvous that has now ended, with remnants of confetti scattered as reminders. Samaras seem exotic; when I look them up, I find they are a type of fruit with a flattened wing of papery tissue developing from the ovary wall. The discarded ice-cream sticks conjure up children, and yes, Lolita is a child, a nymphet, that thing Humbert longs for, that thing he can’t resist. Here, like the child Lolita is the object of Humbert’s desires, the flower and the ice-cream sticks are both exotic and sexual; together, they hint at the protagonist’s pedophilia, of which we are all too aware from our reading. Humbert even finds Lo’s unfastidiousness attractive; we already know this from what we’ve read before. Nabokov doesn’t waste any opportunity to infuse his writing with reminders of Humbert’s obsession.
I love the different names on the toilet signs, a fantastic detail which captures the nuances in the monotony that one sees on a road trip. We all know the frequent stops we have to make on a road trip, especially as a child, “How much further, Dad? I need to go to the bathroom!” I can just picture the gleaming “gasoline paraphernalia” of the 1950s (Lolita was published in 1955), painstakingly polished by gas station attendants who cared lovingly for their roadside facilities. And I love how the distant hill “scrambles out — scarred but still untamed” much like his own Lolita. She is certainly scarred, but he’s never really able to tame her.
How can we write fabulous prose? It seems to me some people have a natural ability to do so; others of us have to struggle mightily to come up with one good sentence. Just looking at Nabokov’s prose, here’s what I take away:
Be observant when you’re out in the world. Notice every little detail. This one is hardest for me, as I seem to wander around with blinders on half the time.
Carry a notebook or a camera so you’re always ready to capture what you see or feel, what you smell or hear, what you taste. Take time-outs with your notebook at a cafe to write notes.
Note anything unique and unusual; anything that is out of place. The flattened paper cups, the discarded ice-cream sticks. Things that seem unimportant yet create such perfect details in a story.
Note things that are mundane: the picnic tables, the roadside facilities, the gasoline paraphernalia, the names on the toilets. These are things that everyone sees and expects to see, and often go unnoticed.
Describe the things you see using human qualities – “cluster self-consciously” or “provide a bit of humanitarian shade.”
If you have trouble with this, note what you see and then brainstorm words that might describe human emotions or states. Experiment with word pairings. I love when a word is paired with another word in a surprising way.
Find active verbs to describe static things: “a distant hill scrambling out.”
Make something mundane seem interesting: as in the frequent stops at the roadside facilities and the bathroom names.
So, what could I come up with in my attempt to write a Nabokov-like paragraph about a road trip?
As we drive north on that white-lined freeway fenced in by concrete barriers, the Toyota RAV’s rubber wipers swish the drizzle to and fro on the windshield, a squeaky metronome. Sedans and SUVs from Maryland, Virginia, The Garden State — even the Sunshine State with its green-leafed oranges — press in as they whizz past, their tires flinging dirt-infused mist on our windshield. A Warehouse for Lease! slumps on the fringes, punctuated by green highway signs with white letters announcing exits like Bel Air and Emmorton Road. Black spiny trees blur along the roadside approaching Exit 80, where blue signs announce Food: McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, Wendy’s, Dunkin’ Donuts. U2 sings “Mysterious Ways” and highway vagabond Miranda Lambert wants to “go somewhere where nobody knows.” I’ve snagged my left thumbnail and as usual, I don’t have any nail clippers in my purse. The annoying snag persists. A brown sign announces we’re passing Susquehanna State Park and another forbids U-turns and when we cross the bridge, a ghost brigade of mist rises off the Susquehanna. Barns, silos, and bristly sepia fields scroll past and an aqua “Town of Perryville” water tower mutters a greeting. On the stretch of industrial corridor near Port of Wilm, metal utility towers spread their triple-triangle arms and factories belch smoke, gasping their last breath. Blue-green porta-potties stand in formation along the tracks and containers lie like coffins on idle trains. The derelict train station’s windows are broken. Citywide Limousine squats beside a lot of Ryder trucks and an empty pedestrian bridge covered in chain-link looms over us as we sputter underneath.
Finally, “Pennsylvania, State of Independence,” welcomes us while Hidden Figures of NASA stand in all their mathematical genius on an electronic billboard. Run-down brick row houses hug the highway behind a thin veil of chain-links. CSX rail cars hunker along the highway, dead in their tracks. Another billboard promises “The Wounded Warrior Project helps me heal the wounds you can’t see.” At Philadelphia Energy Solutions, giant cylindrical tanks with blue bands around the tops squat on the land and, next door, bundled paper haphazardly occupies a recycling plant. A pink “Risqué Video” sign entices those so-inclined. We skid into the Philly outskirts, land of the free and home of the tired.
I’d like to challenge my readers to write a paragraph describing something or someplace and share it as a link in my comments.
Sometimes you need to take a departure from what you do to something that’s slightly different in order to get inspiration. ~ Tori Amos
I love to find inspiration in unlikely places. On our trip to Philadelphia, I was inspired by art, architecture, photography, observation, and even by an encounter in a restaurant. I’m always seeking an answer to the question: How do I live my life more creatively? How do I travel mindfully and create art? Whether it’s photography, a short story, a poem, a novel, a blog post, or an essay — even a cocktail hour — how can I make my daily life more fulfilling and give something of myself to the world? How can I express myself and be utterly true to who I am? These are questions I grapple with, and my blog(s) and other creative outlets are the way I express myself and hope to connect with others.
Since we were on a roll through the museums of Philadelphia, we made a beeline at 4:30 p.m. for the Barnes Foundation, practically next door to the Rodin Museum on Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Even though we were burnt out on museums by this late afternoon, we decided that if the museum was open for at least one more hour, we’d make a quick visit.
Albert Coombs Barnes (1872-1951), “established the Foundation as an educational institution with the goal of using art as a teaching tool to foster critical thinking and analytical skills.” The Barnes holds one of the finest collections of impressionist, post-impressionist, and early modern paintings, with extensive works by Renoir, Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso and many others.
The walls of the museum are unconventionally displayed, with art arranged as composition or “ensemble.” Each wall in the permanent collection mixes art and craft across cultures and periods. Barnes experimented with arrangement according to light, line, color, and space, rather than chronology, nationality, style or genre. Walking through the permanent collection at the Barnes Foundation is a very different experience than one at other museums because of the unusual and creative displays.
When we found the museum was open until 6:00 because it was a Friday, we paid the admission and went in. We headed directly for the special exhibition, Live and Life Will Give You Pictures: Masterworks of French Photography, 1890-1950, in the Roberts Gallery; the exhibition was to end on January 9. We would do a quick walk through the permanent collection if we had time and energy, as we had heard amazing things about it.
Though we were allowed to take pictures of the special exhibition, we weren’t allowed to do so in the permanent collection. So if you want to see the magnificent paintings and art so creatively arranged in this place, you’ll have to visit here yourselves. 🙂
You don’t make a photograph just with a camera. You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved. ~ Ansel Adams
From the late 19th century to the early 20th, photographers and painters traded aesthetic ideas and were interested in many of the same features of contemporary experience. These photographers focused on Paris, which was radically transformed in this period of rapid industrialization, urbanization, and class stratification. As with the other visual arts, progressive photography tried to innovatively represent these developments in the modern-day cities.
This exhibition was titled after a remark by Henri Cartier-Bresson and displayed vintage prints of nearly 200 classic images made between 1890 and 1950 by French photographers and photographers working extensively in France. The salon-style hang was organized thematically.
I found the thematic arrangement of photos at this exhibition to be inspirational and thought-provoking; similarly, I am inspired by the thematic arrangements of photos on blogs resulting from WordPress and other bloggers’ photo challenges; one blog I especially love to visit for inspiration in this regard is Steve McCurry’s blog. Generally, when I write my blog, I arrange my photos in a logistical day-by-day accounting of a journey, or a place. I feel like I’d like to get out of the rut of doing this and to focus on thematic photographic storytelling. It would be more time-consuming and challenging, but I think it would be more rewarding.
Paris’s population quadrupled during the 19th century, and the bustling crowds became a signature motif for the impressionist painters, such as Monet’s 1873 Boulevard des Capucines. Decades later, photographers explored the possibilities of the ever-shifting crowd. Others honed in on the crowds, picking out the new spectrum of characters — from the homeless to sex workers, to laborers, shop and factory workers, businessmen and aristocrats (from a sign at the museum).
Here are a few photos of mine on the theme of STREET LIFE:
San Juan, Puerto Rico
San Juan, Puerto Rico
Manufacturing and the demands of a new middle class led to an increase in commodity culture in 19th-century Paris. The world’s first department store, Le Bon Marche, opened there in 1852, and photography became enamored of commerce, reflected in images of shops, store windows, advertising, and bodies available for purchase on streets and in brothels.
Eugene Atget became intrigued by consumerism — shop windows, the artful presentation of goods, mannequins as uncanny substitutes for the human form — shown in this image of a corset shop on a fashionable boulevard. Corsets were 19th century fashion necessities. Their arrangement in rows emphasizes their regularizing effect on the female body, according to a sign in the museum.
Here are some photos of COMMERCE from Richmond, Virginia and Santorini, Greece.
Commerce in Santorini
Commerce in Santorini
The new forms of industry visible in and around cities became important motifs for photographers in the latter part of the 19th century and at the same time prompted a nostalgia for pre-industrial times and the communal values associated with non-mechanized labor.
The middle class grew hungry for entertainment, so cafes and bars began to dominate the urban landscape, as did dance halls and theaters, street entertainers and sporting events. On weekends, trains carried the new leisured classes to suburban retreats.
Two working class couples picnic on the banks of the Marne River outside Paris. Their social status is significant: the photograph was snapped in the year that French workers were first awarded a paid annual vacation. Cartier-Bresson shoots the group from behind, capturing one figure refilling his glass.
Here’s a photo capturing LEISURE in Cascais, Portugal.
Henri Cartier-Bresson took his first photographs in 1931, but it was when he bought a Leica in 1932 that he began to capture pictures on the fly, capturing what he called “the decisive moment:” “To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.”
In 1947, Cartier-Bresson co-founded Magnum Photos, the first international cooperative agency for photojournalists. Under its auspices, he documented international events. He was perhaps best known in the later 1940s and 1950s for his coverage of Asia.
In 1948 and 1949, Cartier-Bresson photographed extensively in China, just as the Communists were wresting control of the country from its exiled last emperor, Puyi (1906-1967). Cartier-Bresson’s photos introduced Western audiences to a mysterious place and culture, and, at the same time to evidence of its transformation. Here, a court servant, castrated in order to focus his loyalties on the imperial dynasty, grins awkwardly at the photographer.
Based on the theme of REPORTAGE, and the photos exhibited here, below are a few photos showing cultures in far-flung lands. I hope to find more time to create thematic blog posts in the future, because I find them fascinating. 🙂
Fisherman in Al Musanaah, Oman
Fisherman in Oman
Nizwa Souq, Oman
Nizwa Souq, Oman
Rifle day at the souq in NIzwa
Snake charmer in Rishikesh, India
Longji Rice Terraces in Guangxi, China
Longji Rice Terraces in Guangxi, China
Longji Rice Terraces in Guangxi, China
ART FOR ART’S SAKE
Some early photographers aspired to make images that would be embraced as fine art. Resisting photography’s documentary competencies, they selected subjects associated with painting — biblical, mythological and historical narratives; landscapes, portraiture, and still life — and manipulated their pictures to approximate the look of painting and drawing.
I love being inspired to create stories or themes around photography and I hope I’ll find time to do this in the near future.
If you feel inclined to create a thematic photo collage or blog post around one of these themes, I’d love for you to link your blog to this post! It would be fun to see what you come up with. 🙂
“Man’s naked form belongs to no particular moment in history; it is eternal, and can be looked upon with joy by the people of all ages.” ~ Auguste Rodin
When we paid admission to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, we also got free admission to the Rodin Museum, a short walk down Benjamin Franklin Parkway, itself intended to evoke the Avenue des Champs-Élysées in Paris. The more famous Musée Rodin in Paris opened in 1919. Its collection includes 6,600 sculptures, 8,000 drawings, 8,000 old photographs and 7,000 objets d’art. The more intimately scaled Rodin Museum in Philadelphia has over 140 bronzes, marbles, and plasters, as well as eight works in the garden outside.
Though I’m not particularly enamored of sculpture as an art form, I figured it wouldn’t hurt me to learn something about this greatly admired artist. Rodin possessed a unique ability to model a turbulent and deeply complex surface in clay. Many of his most notable sculptures were criticized during his lifetime; his work clashed with thematic and classical sculptural traditions, as well as mythology and allegory. He modeled the human body with realism, and celebrated individual character and physicality. Although Rodin was sensitive to the controversy surrounding his work, he refused to change his style. Before finally earning fame, he spent several decades as a decorative artist, as he was denied entrance to the École des Beaux-Arts three times (Wikipedia: Auguste Rodin).
Approaching the museum, we meet Rodin’s famous sculpture, The Thinker.
Rodin originally conceived The Thinker for The Gates of Hell in 1880-81, but in 1889 he exhibited it as an independent sculpture, titled The Thinker; The Poet, Fragment of a Door.
On August 16, 1880, Rodin received a commission to create a pair of bronze doors for a new decorative arts museum in Paris which never materialized. Nevertheless, the sculptor worked on The Gates of Hell for 37 years, during which time he continually added, removed, or altered the more than two hundred human figures that appear on the doors. Some of his most famous works, like The Thinker, The Three Shades, and The Kiss, were originally conceived as part of The Gates and were only later removed, enlarged, and cast as independent pieces.
Rodin’s initial inspiration came from Inferno, the first part of Dante’s epic poem The Divine Comedy. Rodin imagined the scenes described by Dante as a world with infinite space and freedom from gravity. This allowed for radical experimentation by the artist, with figures that obey no rules in their poses, emotive gestures, or sexuality. According to the Rodin Museum‘s website, for Rodin, the chaotic figures on The Gates of Hell enjoyed only one final freedom—the ability to express their agony with complete abandon.
Inside the museum, we find a despairing marble figure modeled on Greek mythology, Danaid (The Source), condemned to eternally carry water from a leaking jug. The figure was originally modeled for The Gates of Hell, but Rodin didn’t include it in the final version.
The Martyr, modeled in 1885, depicts a naked dead or sleeping female figure in blackened bronze.
The founder of the Rodin Museum wanted a large marble as the centerpiece of the collection and asked the Musée Rodin in Paris for permission to have a copy made of the artist’s famous embracing couple. Carved after Rodin’s death, this replica of The Kiss is marked as such on the back.
The Thinker was subsequently cast in bronze in three different sizes, including this one inside the museum, of the original, or medium, size. Despite the fame of this piece, the individual who modeled for it is unknown making him an “everyman.”
Samuel Stockton White III (American, 1876-1952) was the only Philadelphian to model for Rodin. The award-winning bodybuilder was introduced to the artist in 1901 as a possible subject. White assumed this position, which recalls The Thinker.
Adele Abbnruzzesi, a young Italian woman who was one of Rodin’s favorite models, assumed this provocative pose in The Crouching Woman while resting between modeling sessions. Rodin nicknamed this figure “the frog” and used it on The Gates of Hell and in I Am Beautiful.
The Crouching Woman holds a special place in my heart. Some years ago, while I was taking poetry classes at Northern Virginia Community College, I went to the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington for a poetry-writing session led by one of the curators at the museum. She encouraged us to use art as inspiration for poetry. I loved the session as I was learning that you could write poetry about anything in life, no matter how mundane or how grand. As we wandered around the museum, I was captured by a Rodin sculpture, She Who Was The Helmet Maker’s Once-Beautiful Wife (Celle qui fut la belle heaulmière), 1885-1887. At that time, I was depressed by the toll aging was taking on me, so I focused on this sculpture. I studied the sculpture with great interest, taking notes for a poem I’d try to write at home. The Crouching Woman was also at the Hirshhorn, in the same room, and I included her in the poem. You can find the poem at the end of this post. I’m not into rhyming poetry, so you’ll be disappointed if you enjoy rhymes.
I love the idea of creating something from my travels, or even my day trips — a short story, a poem, a novel, a blog post, a photograph or series of photos based around a theme. I love immersing myself in a place and discovering something that moves me and inspires me to be creative. The experience becomes an interactive one: a place or experience gives something to me, which I take and shape into something meaningful for myself and for the world.
“Nothing has really happened until it has been recorded” ~ Virginia Woolf
We can walk all the way around Saint John the Baptist Preaching. Says Rodin about the peasant who offered his services as a model and inspired this sculpture: “I immediately thought of a Saint John the Baptist, in other words, a man of nature, a visionary, a believer, a precursor who came to announce one greater than himself. The peasant undressed, climbed onto the revolving stand as if he had never posed before; he planted himself firmly on his feet, head up, torso straight, at the same time putting his weight on both legs, open like a compass. The movement was so right, so straightforward and so true that I cried: ‘But it’s a man walking!’ I immediately resolved to model what I had seen” (Musee Rodin).
Saint John the Baptist Preaching
another view of Saint John the Baptist Preaching
another view of Saint John the Baptist Preaching
Rodin made a sculpture to honor Honoré de Balzac, the French novelist and playwright. According to Rodin, the sculpture aims to portray the writer’s character rather than a physical likeness. I’m unable to get a decent photo of the sculpture, which is here in the museum. However, in the same room, I find a bust of the novelist Jules-Amedee Barbey d’Aurevilly (French, 1808-1889), one of Balzac’s most fervent supporters and an early sponsor of the Balzac monument. In 1909 Rodin was approached to design a memorial to d’Aurevilly; a version of this bust, showing the author’s fashionable features and dress, sits on a high pedestal in the Norman City of Saint-Sauveur-le-Vicomte, his birthplace.
Eternal Springtime was modeled in clay in 1884; cast in plaster and painted white in 1885. Rodin originally conceived of Eternal Springtime as part of The Gates of Hell, but he didn’t include it because the happiness expressed by the lovers did not seem appropriate to the theme of The Gates.
The Cathedral is a combination of two right hands, belonging to two different figures. Parallels may be drawn between the mysterious inner space that seems to emanate from the composition and Gothic architecture (Musée Rodin: Cathedral).
Another view of The Cathedral
We find another sculpture, Two Hands, modeled before 1909 and cast in 1925.
Outside, in the garden, we find The Three Shades. These identical male figures — known as shades, or ghosts from the underworld — are closely related to Rodin’s figure of Adam. However, rather than awakening to life as Adam does, the shades embody death, sleep and loss of consciousness. Rodin placed The Three Shades atop The Gates of Hell to draw attention to the scenes of damnation unfolding below, and years later, enlarged and exhibited them as an independent figure group.
Here’s my poem from the my little poetry session at the Hirshhorn. I’m sorry I don’t have a photo of the sculpture, but you can find it in the link above, from the Boston Museum.
She Who Was the Helmet Maker’s Once-Beautiful Wife
Her skin flows –
down her frail neck, rib cage, legs –
then solidifies, bronzed.
Gravity – hypnotic –
tugs at her deflated breasts. Punctuated
by sunken nipples, invisible aureoles, they lounge
against her ribs, her tired mound of belly.
Her hair hangs in a horseshoe on her back.
Her kneecaps jut in knotted knobs, dark
and pockmarked as peppercorns.
The pitted surfaces of her skin
refract the museum light,
deflect her despair
to her companions – Crouching Woman,
Head of Sorrow, Kneeling Woman Combing Her Hair.
The Hirshhorn docent points at her,
while students scribble in notebooks,
raincoats tossed over their arms.
Rodin insists she was once beautiful,
and maybe she was, but today
and until bronze disintegrates,
her essence hides within a craggy oyster shell,
pearly, air-thin bones under loose-fitting skin.
Inside her hollows, she just remembers
wandering to her husband’s shop
on woolen summer evenings,
moonlight glancing off canary grass,
a whippoorwill’s lament in liquid air.
on her skin as she watched his shoulders
strain in the light from the fire.
She silently slid her fingers over the cool ridge
of a helmet, her own reflection – beguiling –
in the metal-mirror curve.
She loved to seduce him on those ancient evenings,
the helmets – like a crowd
of floating, gleaming heads – peering
as she and her husband
made tangled love
on the dusty floor.
“Once you have traveled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers. The mind can never break off from the journey.” ~ Pat Conroy
When an invitation to relive or extend a journey offers itself, I will always take it, no matter in what form. Often, after visiting a foreign country, I will bask in a book set in that locale, extending my experience of that place. When I come across buildings or gardens with particular architectural styles, those commonly found in exotic locales — European Gothic cathedrals, Chinese dragons or gates, Japanese gardens, Islamic mosques — my heart skips a beat; I ease back in time to my wanderings through those magical places. Whenever I take urban hikes through cities or natural landscapes, I feel that same sense of adventure I had when immersing myself in an exotic place; I remember the anticipation as I set off to explore China’s Longji Rice Terraces or Nepal’s village to village trails.
I felt a sense of exhilaration, as well as nostalgia and longing, on visiting the new South Asian Galleries at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I was taken back to a not-so-long-ago time when I lived and traveled extensively in South Asia. I loved meandering through the happy reminders found in this place.
We had already visited the “Paint the Revolution” special exhibition and, rather than exhausting ourselves trying to see the rest of this great and sprawling museum, we picked one part of the permanent collection to visit. We walked up to the second floor via the Great Stair Hall Balcony and headed for the reopened South Asian Galleries.
We passed through the European Art Gallery from 1100-1500 on our way to the South Asian Galleries.
First we came upon some mosaic tiles from Iran. As these are Islamic, they reminded me of so many beautiful tiles I found in Oman, UAE, Egypt, and even in southern Spain, originating from the Moorish conquest. These Tile Mosaic Panels from Iran (Isfahan) are from the Safavid dynasty, 1501-1736.
Detail mosaic tiles
Tile Mosaic Panels, late 1400s – Iran (Isfahan)
I visited what seemed like infinite numbers of Buddhist temples in Korea, Japan, China, Myanmar, Vietnam, Singapore, and Thailand, and, to this day, I always feel a sense of peace when I see Buddhist figures anywhere in the world. Here, we found a gilded bronze White Tara, Buddhist Goddess of Compassion (1700s-1800s) from Inner Mongolia, Autonomous Region (Dolon Nor, Chahar province, China). The compassionate Buddhist goddess Tara is a bodhisattva (Buddhist savior). The eyes on her palms and forehead show that she sees and helps all living beings.
This Chinese cabinet is covered with symbols from ancient China: cranes as symbols of longevity and immortality; two deer, a stag and a doe, symbolic of domestic harmony between husband and wife; pot-shaped vase designs, painted in blue and green, suggestive of endless wealth; and lotuses representing purity.
The man in the detail of one panel is a successful merchant and the bolt of cloth next to him likely refers to his source of wealth.
In Tibetan Buddhism and Hinduism, a mandala helps seekers of enlightenment along their spiritual path. It represents both god’s palace and the entire cosmos in a geometric-circular format. It may be two-dimensional (a drawing or painting) or three-dimensional (a sculpture or architectural space).
By meditating on a mandala, a person undertakes a mental journey, beginning in the outermost circle – which can hold human patrons, teachers and lesser deities – and progresses inward to become one with the god or divine couple at the mandala’s center (according to a sign at the museum).
This Satchakravarti Samvara Mandala from Tibet is made up of six smaller mandalas. Each holds a different Buddha in sexual union with his female counterpart.
Mandalas are also found throughout Nepal; I bought a couple in Kathmandu to bring home. I still need to find a place in my house to hang them.
A thangka is the Tibetan term for a painting made on cloth that can be rolled up for travel or storage and unrolled and hung for use. Thangkas most often depict Buddhist deities, renowned religious teachers, or a mandala (a god’s cosmic palace). In Nepal, these types of paintings are often called paubhas. I bought one of these in Nepal, as a memento of my journey.
I cherish the mementos I have of my Asian travels, and of all my travels. They preserve and extend my travel experience. Collecting these items turns my travel into a collective experience of my repeated immersions into different cultures. Displaying them in my house surrounds me with happy recollections of travel moments and what I gleaned from them – a sense of independence, resilience, adventurousness and camaraderie with fellow travelers. These mementos spark a yearning to return to places I’ve been, to explore them again with fresh eyes and a new depth of appreciation.
In a traditional residence of a Chinese nobleman, a reception hall was the most formal building, where official activities were conducted. This Reception Hall from the Palace of Duke Zhou, displayed in its entirety here, was originally part of a Beijing palace built in the early 1640s. The hall has a thirty-foot ceiling and brilliantly painted floral and animal motifs on its beams and brackets that convey auspicious wishes. This hall is presently furnished with works of art dating between the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, the period during which the hall was in use.
It was dark in the room where this reception hall was exhibited, so it was difficult to get a photo of anything but one of the painted roof beams. Beams such as these in China delighted me every time I encountered them and remembered to turn my eyes to the ceiling.
I love the grand vision of the museum’s Director Fiske Kimball (1888-1955), who envisioned architectural elements providing historical context to objects on display. This whole reopened South Asian Gallery has architecture displayed in a grand way; I felt as if I were walking through ancient Asian cultures.
The hall in one large room is constructed as part of the Madana Gopala Swamy temple complex, dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu and his avatar Krishna. Apparently a woman, Adeline Pepper Gibson, purchased sixty granite carvings she found piled in the temple compound from local authorities in 1912. Most of the complex still stands in the famous temple-city of Madurai in southern India.
figure in the Madana Gopala Swamy temple complex
figure in the Madana Gopala Swamy temple complex
A visit to South Asian galleries wouldn’t be complete without something from Japan. Some Japanese tea houses were set up here, but it was hard to get decent pictures in the strong light.
Surihaku theatrical robes are used exclusively in Noh drama to symbolize the uncontrolled passions of certain female roles. This Noh Costume from 1700s Japan is a silk satin weave decorated with patinated metallic leaf applied to a stenciled paste base (surihaku), representing the reptilian skin of the character, who has been transformed into a serpent or demon by the corrosive power of jealousy and hatred.
A modern piece from 2008, Kotodama (the soul of language), is embellished with word-filled fragments from antique books and accounting ledgers and layered scraps of red silk from kimono undergarments. For the artist, Maio Motoko, words had spiritual power. Here, the assembled fragments create a visual world of words.
Finally as we exited the South Asian galleries and made our way back out through the European galleries, we stopped to admire the French Gothic Chapel. I am always enamored by decorative doors, and these doors I find particularly beautiful. This one reminds me of doors I found during the two years I lived in Oman.
The chapel was composed of elements from two buildings that were part of a large religious community at Aumonieres near Dijon in central France that was administered by the Knights of Saint Anthony. This nursing order, founded in the 11th century, established many hospices.
We finally walked out of the Philadelphia Museum of Art by 3:20, only an hour and a half after we entered. It was a good visit and not too tiresome, and we were able to enjoy the special exhibition and one part of the permanent collection. We used a number of suggestions from the compact but interesting book, How to Visit a Museum. I hope to take to heart more of David Finn’s ideas for exploring museums during these winter months, when it’s too cold and generally miserable to explore outdoors.
Living is like tearing through a museum. Not until later do you really start absorbing what you saw, thinking about it, looking it up in a book, and remembering – because you can’t take it in all at once. ~ Audrey Hepburn
Why do we visit museums? I don’t know about you, but I visit them for a hodgepodge of unrelated reasons. When I’m at home near Washington, D.C., where so many museums are free, I visit them to pass the time, to have special day outings (topped off with lunch or dinner), to learn about cultures, to explore artists and artistic styles, to have something to do in miserable weather, to expand my appreciation for beauty, or simply to be inspired — either to expand my creativity or to discover new travel destinations.
While traveling, I don’t visit museums as often as I ought to, mainly because of time constraints. I would usually prefer to be outdoors doing urban or nature hiking. Most often I go if there is a really famous museum or collection to see, such as the Louvre or the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, or the National Archeological Museum in Athens. Sometimes, such as when we visited the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico, we went only because it was pouring rain. In Barcelona, I visited Fundació Joan Miró and Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya-MNAC only because I had nearly four days there and these museums happened to be on the Barcelona Bus Turista route.
To be honest, I’ve always felt overwhelmed by museums. I’m always exhausted after I’ve visited one, as I’ve usually attempted to see the whole museum over a 3-4 hour stretch. Because I’m rushing through, trying desperately to see everything, I feel only slightly enriched by the multitudes of things I’ve seen. I feel like I’m not devoting enough time, or I’m devoting too much time; mostly I’m feeling unfocused and adrift. I feel guilty because I’m giving the art too little consideration. By the time I’m done, I’m too often relieved the whole experience is over. Frankly, I’ve never thought about how one should visit a museum and thus have done it haphazardly.
That is, until I read the thin volume: How to Visit a Museum, by David Finn. You’ll have to read the book to get the full value of David’s wisdom, but when Mike and I went to Philadelphia right before New Year to see the special exhibition themed “Paint the Revolution: Mexican Modernism, 1910-1950,” I tried to put into practice some of David’s suggestions; one we took to heart is that we should go at our own pace and try to limit our time to 1-2 hours.
First, I thought about why I was so set on seeing this special exhibition. It was due to leave the Philadelphia Museum of Art on January 8, so time was running out. The event was highly publicized so I felt abuzz with excitement. I had gone to Mexico for a two-week study abroad trip in May of 2007, before I discovered my love of photography, so my pictures from there are disappointingly pathetic. I would love to go back now with a new eye to appreciate and capture the colors, art, and culture of Mexico: the whimsical parrot-hued villas and haciendas, arched doors and windows, colorful and folksy tiles, the ubiquitous Virgin Mary, plantations, Talavera vases. I had seen the 2002 film Frida and was inspired to see some of her work as well as that of her long-time lover, Diego Rivera. Finally, I didn’t know anything about the Mexican Revolution and wanted to learn something about it. I wondered what finally pushes people to revolt against evil governments.
The one thing I forgot about special exhibitions is how crowded they often are. This one was no exception. However, I still managed to enjoy it by taking David Finn’s advice and following my instincts. He says: Be prepared to find what excites you, to enjoy what delights your heart and mind, perhaps to have esthetic experiences you will never forget.
I was drawn to the brilliant orange marigolds in a caravan of punt boats along a canal in The Offering of 1913 by Saturnino Herran. The artist is known for his innovative approach to representing scenes of everyday life and indigenous customs. Little did I know that orange marigolds are placed as offerings on altars and graves on the Day of the Dead. The varied ages of the passengers allude to the cycle of life. I like the detail of the baby and the girl’s face, which looks rather melancholy.
The Offering by Saturnino Herran
Detail of girls and babies in The Offering
Alfredo Ramos Martinez (which by the way is my mother’s maiden name), liked to emphasize the effects of natural light and atmosphere. This pastel shows a Flower Seller traveling with wares by a punt boat. Seeing this pastel so close made me wish I could learn to do pastels, but first I need to learn how to draw!
Here, a man and woman, Peasants, stand in a typically Mexican landscape identified by the cacti on the ridge and the prickly pears the man carries. This is another gorgeous pastel.
Some of the paintings I simply admired in passing for their use of color without studying them very carefully.
I love this Portrait of Marin Luis Guzman (a Mexican writer) by Diego Rivera, mainly for his brightly colored Mexican serape, and the equipal, the woven wicker chair, he sits on. The top of the writer’s head is stylized in the manner of a matador’s hat. I love these symbols of Mexican culture and would be inspired to find examples of these on the streets of Mexico if I revisited.
Portrait of Martin Luis Guzman (1915) by Diego Rivera
Detail of serape
After a Cubist period in Diego Rivera’s work, he went back to following the old masters, especially Renoir and Paul Cezanne, in this Still Life with a Bottle of Anise.
After Rivera returned from France, he traveled through Mexico for two years to capture indigenous culture. I love the colorful mural panel depicting native couples in traditional garb dancing the Zandunga, a traditional Mexican waltz popular in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. I love how the dance takes place under arches formed by banana trees.
Dance in Tehuantepec (1928) – Diego Rivera
Detail – Dance in Tehuantepec
Diego Rivera also painted 17,000 square feet of murals depicting the Agricultural Revolution from 1926-27. These decorated the Ministry for Public Education in Mexico City and showed the Mexican people’s revolt against the old social order. In the exhibition, these murals are shown as a rotating video on a blank wall, so we can stand and watch an ever-changing panorama.
As fascinated as I am by Frida Kahlo, I was excited to find this Self-Portrait in Velvet, her first self-portrait, which drew on the early Renaissance master Sandro Botticelli and his paintings of women with their elegantly elongated necks. As a lover of textiles and rich color, I love the pattern on the shawl collar of her dress. I also love how Frida never hesitated to portray herself with the hair above her upper lip and her ungainly eyebrows. She seemed to embrace her less-than-feminine characteristics.
Frida Kahlo traveled with Diego Rivera through the United States for a number of years, and in this painting, Self Portrait on the Border Line Between Mexico and the United States, Mexico is represented by archaeological ruins, lush plants, and flowers, while the United States is mechanical and industrial, with its skyscrapers and smokestacks. Kahlo stands between the two worlds, holding a Mexican flag.
I love the curly hair and coy face, as well as the fountains and birds, in The Powdered Woman by Adolfo Best Maugard.
The Powdered Woman (1922) – Adolfo Best Maugard
detail of The Powdered Woman
I’m always drawn to Mexican architecture and colors. It brings back memories of my visits to Mexico City and Cuernavaca in 2007.
As we walk further into the exhibition, we come to the paintings focused on the revolution. Here, David Alfaro Siqueiros depicted Zapata, a man of action who led peasants against landowners, a political martyr, and the human personification of the Revolution itself.
Alfredo Ramos Martinez, after moving to California in 1928, became known for painting a picturesque world of rural flower and fruit vendors, agricultural and craft workers, and indigenous Mexican families, such as the Flower Seller I showed above. Zapatistas (formerly Mexican soldiers) belongs to a subset of works on themes of conflict and struggle.
Zapatistas (1932) – Alfredo Ramos Martinez
Detail of Zapatistas
Finally, Luis Arenal Bastar painted The Death of Zapata in 1937.
Fermin Revueltas showed industrialization creeping into the Mexican economy here in Port.
Three Nudes by Julio Castellanos shows a spirit of classicism that was strong across Europe in the 1920s. He gave the women dark complexions and surrounded them with the rush chairs and white plaster walls of a typical Mexican home.
In the original version of The Birth of Fascism, David Alfaro Siqueiros painted the female figure giving birth to a monstrous newborn with the heads of Hitler, Mussolini, and William Randolph Hearst, the U.S. newspaper publisher seen by the left as an American Fascist. A few years later, he removed the portrait heads, painted over a view of a partially submerged Statue of Liberty, and added a swastika floating on the water’s surface.
Home altars in Mexico are often dedicated to the suffering Virgin Mary in Mexican folk Catholicism. This painting, Altar de Dolores (Altar [for the Virgin] of Sorrows), is organized around a dark-skinned Virgin surrounded by objects traditionally placed on such altars, including bitter oranges symbolic of sorrow, sugar-paste angels, and sprouting wheat that refers to Eucharistic bread and by extension to the body of Christ.
Altar de Dolores (Altar [for the Virgin] of Sorrows) – 1943 – Maria Izquierdo
Detail – Altar de Dolores
Mock battles and disguises are typical of the carnival that marks the beginning of the Catholic Lent. These enigmatic figures suggest the interaction between life and death, good and evil.
Manuel Rodriguez Lozano painted his first fresco, Pietà in the Desert, the Virgin Mary cradling the dead Christ, while he was incarcerated on false charges, probably politically motivated, in Mexico City’s Lecumberri Prison.
Below are a couple of posters related to Fascism.
I’m not sure of this painting’s significance, but the colorful Lion and Horse was painted by Rufino Tamayo in 1942.
Troubled Waters earned Jose Chavez Morado a prize in a 1949 Excelsior newspaper competition for paintings of Mexico City. This allegory of social stratification, corruption, and other evils of modernization continues a perennial theme of modern Mexican art: life in the big city.
Finally, Juan O’Gorman won first prize in the 1949 Excelsior newspaper competition for Mexico City. Besides showing the center of town, it is also about the capital city and the power of national symbols. Two hands hold up a 1540 map of the gridded Aztec capital to connect the present to the past. The figures floating over the skyline are the feathered serpent, representing the Mesoamerican deity Quetzalcoatl; the golden eagle from the Mexican coat of arms; and a pair of flying nudes with the tricolor flat emblazoned with the slogan “Long Live Mexico.”
I thoroughly enjoyed this exhibition, while also learning about Mexican culture and the Mexican Revolution. While we drove to Philadelphia, I read aloud to Mike from my phone while he drove, all about the history and important figures in the Revolution; thus, we learned some of the history before we went, further helping us to appreciate our experience.
One thing David Finn recommends in his book is that when you go to see a special exhibition, you should make it a point to visit some part of the permanent collection while you’re there. Since we’ve come all the way to Philadelphia to see this exhibit, we also wander through the New South Asian Galleries. I’ll share those with you in another post. As I’ve lived and traveled throughout South Asia, visiting this part of the museum was a special way for me to travel vicariously back to that part of the world. 🙂