I am here at the southernmost southern point in the United States. Cannot go to Key West and not see the Hemingway House and go on a boatride or two. Here are some pictures for you to enjoy. Hey! Did you know that Key West was once owed by a Cuban man (it was private ownership) who sold the island to an American? Yep! It’s true.
Tuesday Night in San Francisco
Went to an absinthe tasting in San Franciso on Tuesday night. I am still not sure if the drink is legal in the United States or if what exists now is liquor or liqueur. No slotted spoon, no sugar cube and no water dripping on the sugar and into the drink a’la Ernest Hemingway. And so, there was no true vision of the green that the drink is supposed to be. My artist’s eyes were looking forward to seeing that.
It is just as well that I had no expectation of taste. I was surprised by absinthe’s strong anise flavor. It tasted like licorice. I hate licorice. Still, I was game and had two of the three servings allotted for the evening. By the third drink, however, when the serving had been elevated to a 74 percent alcohol level, I had had enough. I know my limit and so I stopped after drink number two (which was about a 35 to 45 percent alcohol level). No walking around the Mission District or getting on the BART drunk for me.
The Many Stories of Absinthe
Absinthe is rife with history and includes stories of art, agriculture (a la the Great French Wine Blight), the economics of supply and demand, medicinal elixirs, the French military in North Africa, European imperialism, the Belle Epoque period (the French counterpart of America’s Gilded Age), industrialization and urban sprawl, the beginning of women’s liberation/feminism, French and New Orleans cafe society, Social Darwinism, and the Prohibition/Temperance Movement(s). Artists too, feature prominently in the drink’s history. Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Verlaine, Picasso and Hemingway were all aficionados of the green fairy. Poet Oscar Wilde is said to have been a heavy drinker of absinthe but there is no real proof of this. Perhaps the only statement about absinthe that seems directly attributable and related to him is one he made to author Arthur Machen:
“I could never quite accustom myself to absinthe, but it suits my style so well.”
Far from being a heavy absinthe drinker, it seems that Wilde didn’t quite like this drink. Maybe like me, the infusion of anise which produces a licorice-like flavor wasn’t quite to his liking.
What is That Thing?
As a teenager I saw this Picasso sculpture in either New York or Philadelphia and thought that the sugar cube was a dice with too many numbers on each side. That was before I started reading the labels on museum walls. (Now I read them sometimes but only after I’ve seen the works, digested them and made of them what I want to make of them). I still say this looks like a dice in a spoon and it’s not a particularly good sculpture either. Maybe the only thing it has going for it is that it was created in 1914, which is the beginning of World War One. So historically, it is significant: This is the end of the Belle Epoch period, Bohemian Paris and the avant garde lifestyle enjoyed by many, including Picasso.
Blame the Drink
Absinthe has a bad reputation and has been blamed for madness, debauchery and even murder. Among the artists who were heavy absinthe drinkers, some veered toward insanity. Van Gough, Hemingway, and Verlaine all came from families with histories of mental illness: Verlaine drank himself to death and the other two committed suicide. Absinthe, with its incredibly high levels of alcohol (74 percent!) plus mental illness, plus alcoholism, all make for a deadly combination. But is the drink to blame for murder, madness and mayhem? I would say not. The trouble with the artists mentioned in this article is that they didn’t know their limit. They were incessant drinkers and probably all alcoholics. To blame the drink for these ills is tantamount to blaming violent video games and movies for the prevalence of gun violence in our society today.
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The Yellow House
You can watch a free downloadable movie (based on a book by the same name) about Van Gogh’s and Gaugin’s time together in the South of France. There is also a short animated introduction to the movie here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fGHwFn5xS5o.
I learned this interesting fact as I started doing research for my trip to Yellowstone National Park: The Yellowstone River is the only river in the contiguous United States that is not damned. The 692-miles long river rises in Wyoming on the Continental Divide, flows through Yellowstone National Park, runs northwards into Montana and finally flows into the Missouri River near Buford, North Dakota.
The River, a tributary of the Missouri, is known for its trout fishing. One of its forks was a favorite fishing spot of author, Ernest Hemingway. In 2011, an oil pipeline belonging to ExxonMobile ruptured in the river. Only with the passing of time will we understand the extent of the damage. No matter where in the world we are, we seem to manage to despoil our rivers.
Unlike the Yellowstone River which I only recently started learning about, I am quite familiar with the Hudson River. The Hudson was the site of many environmental studies and environmental activism during many of the years that I lived in New York. Along with the Long Island Sound, the river had been under severe stress. The details below are an apt description of the Hudson of the 1970s and ’80s, and perhaps, of the ’90s too:
“New York City was dumping 1.5 billion gallons per day of raw sewage into the River, the paint from Tarrytown’s GM plant dyed the River a new color each week, the Indian Point power plant was killing millions of fish each day, the National Guard was filling tidal wetlands at Camp Smith, and Penn Central Railroad was discharging oil from a pipe at the Croton Rail Yard. The oil floated up the Croton on the tide, blackening the beaches and making the shad taste of diesel.”
Man, business and government were killing the river. Today the Hudson has rebounded, thanks in part to a Riverkeeper boat that patrols the river in an effort to protect it from environmental lawbreakers. But other problems like the introduction of non-native invasive species (example, water chestnut and zebra mussels) have altered and impacted the aquatic animal populations. What will the river look like in ten years, fifty years, from now?
The Mississippi River on Exhibit
If you ever read the adventures of Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn, you will recall that one of the biggest stars in both books is the Mississippi River. Just like the Morant and Yallhas Rivers in Jamaica (See The River Road, Part One), the Mississippi held a special place in my childhood fantasies. I read and re-read Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn and pretended that my local river was the Mississippi upon which steamboats ran and adventures were to be had. Now my old friend is on view at Stanford University’s Cantor Museum.
In an exhibition that runs until June 2013, photographer, Richard Misrach brings the Mississippi River to life in a way that is far different from Mark Twain’s version of it. Though invisible in some of the photographs, the river is still very much a presence in each of the twenty-one images. The larger than life scale of the photographs (each is about five or six feet high), makes it unlikely that the viewer will soon forget the subject matter. The title of the show? “Revisiting the South: Cancer Alley.”
Cancer Alley is an eighty-five mile stretch of the Mississippi River, from Baton Rouge through to New Orleans. There are innumerable industrial plants there. All are drawn to the region because of favorable taxation policies. The first photograph that the visitor encounters upon entering the gallery is to the immediate right. The photograph is striking for two reasons: First, there is an ethereal light beyond which the viewer cannot see and so, cannot imagine what it is that the woman in the photograph is looking at. The second striking thing about the photograph is that the lady doesn’t seem to belong inside this house. Is she standing in a museum looking outwards? Is she the owner of the house or merely a visitor? As you move closer to the photograph you learn from the wall tag that she is a tour guide. The plaque reads, “Tour Guide, Nottoway Plantation, White Castle, Louisiana, 1998.”
Today’s Nottoway is a tourist destination. In yesteryears, it was a slave plantation. Not so long ago, this woman would have been a slave in this place. She may have been in the fields or she may have been in the house but either way, she wouldn’t have had time to stand around, looking out windows.
This show makes me Jim, the runaway slave (in Huck Finn) kind of sad. Today there is destruction of communities, the river and the environment. The entire show is dressed in poverty, destruction and degradation. In Huck Finn there was hope — hope that Jim would be free, hope that he wouldn’t get sold down river, hope that he and Huck would remain on the island in the river, happy and undetected. If you read the book as a child, you know all about hoping, hoping, hoping, against all odds. Today, after viewing the show, I hope that the:
- Mississippi River, poisoned and polluted as it is, will make a comeback
- people, like the woman in the photograph, will be able to continue living there
- petro-chemical factories that pollute the area be forced to stop degrading the environment and everything connected to the River (including the nearby communities)
- cancer rates in the area will subside/lessen
As is the case of the pollution of the Yellowstone River, only with time, will one have answers to these questions.
- Cancer Alley photographs by Richard Misrach: http://www.artdaily.com/index.asp?int_sec=2&int_new=61569&b=cancer%20alley#.UW2A8bWCmSp
This show runs from October 2012-February 24, 2013
The Nazis’ Entartete Kunst Show Revisited
A better title for the show would have been, “A War on Modern Art: The Notorious Hitler/Nazi Purge of 1937,” or quite simply, “The Entartete Kunst Show.”
The infamous Nazi art exhibition of 1937, Entartete Kunst, sought to stamp out certain art forms, including abstraction. It had the opposite effect. By drawing attention to modern art, the Nazis helped to make it unforgettable.
Wassily Kandinsky, the Russian painter and theorist, has been credited with creating the first purely abstract Western artworks. He taught at the Bauhaus until the Nazis closed it in 1933. His use of colors, shapes and lines so offended their sense of beauty that in the Entartete Kunst exhibition, they declared his art to be “crazy at any price.” Included in the current Cantor exhibition are several Kandinsky pieces that are representative of the ones featured in the 1937 show.
In 1929, The Great Depression hit Germany hard. Over five-million Germans and Austrians were out of work. The “unacceptable” were blamed for infecting the society. Anything and anyone violating the Nazis’ sense of classical German beauty (Aryan) were deemed degenerate and therefore, to be destroyed. In defense of this destruction, Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, is heard declaring on archival film, “Der Fuhrer liebt die Kunst, weil er selbst ist ein Kunstler” (The Feurer loves art. He himself is an artist).* Unfortunately, this love extended neither to abstract/modern art nor its creators.
Book burnings began in Berlin in 1933: German and Austrian books were burned alongside books by “corrupting foreign influences.” This included books by Ernest Hemingway, H.G. Wells and the German playwright, Heinriche Heine. Heine, in his 1821 play, Almansor had written the following line:
“Das war ein Vorspiel nur, dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen.” (“That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people also.”)
The 1937 Degenerate Art show featured many of Kandinsky’s works, including an edition of the book, Klange (Sounds), and the portfolio of twelve prints entitled, “Kleine Welten” (Small Worlds). None of the works in The Cantor’s exhibition were actually in the Nazi sponsored art exhibition but both shows feature(d) a copy of Klange and several prints from Kleine Welten.
Also on view at The Cantor is a reproduction of the 1937 Nazi exhibition catalog (in both German and English). This too, was disturbing and did what it was meant to: It shocks the visitor by its immediacy and also by its accessibility to the English-speaker.
Over one-hundred artists and six-hundred pieces of art (including illustrated books like Kandinsky’s) encompassed the Nazis’ 1937 art exhibition. When the Degenerate Art Law was passed a year later in 1938, the Nazis had confiscated more than 16,000 objects of art.
Julien Bryan’s Archival Films
Chilling and voyeuristic are apt descriptions of Julien Bryan’s 1937 short films. The documentary of the museum goers viewing the show is numbing, disturbing, evocative and sad. You wonder which attendees will become murderers and who will be murdered. What are visitors thinking as they view the show? Is each visitor thinking for himself or has he allowed his thinking to be sanctioned by the State? Who, at that show, will help those in need and who will turn on “the other?” You wish you didn’t know how it ultimately ends.
Three links to various Bryan documentaries are embedded below. These are silent, black and white films. Because they are soundless, they are all the more harrowing. They have a certain magnetic pull, drawing the viewer in in a way that modern films do not. In their silence they force you to pay attention, to listen with your eyes.
Who was Julien Bryan? He was an American photographer, filmmaker and documentarian who traveled throughout Europe in the 1930s. He tried to warn America of the dangers of Nazism and Fascism based on what he saw in his travels abroad, in Russia, Poland, Germany and Austria. His documentary films of the era are now part of the public domain. Access them here:
- Munich Exhibition of Degenerate Art — Filmed by Bryan when he visited the 1937 Nazi exhibition.
- Pupils at Goldschmidt Jewish Private School in Nazi Germany — Bryan filmed the Goldschmidt Jewish private school shortly after Jews were no longer allowed to enroll in public schools in Germany. Again, you wish you didn’t know how this all turns out.
- Hitler Youth Girls –Here Bryan documents the indoctrination of German/Aryan school children, even during playtime.
*”PBS Film Chronicles Nazi Art Suppression”, The Daily Gazette, (Tuesday, April 6, 1993) <http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1957&dat=19930406&id=XWlGAAAAIBAJ&sjid=LukMAAAAIBAJ&pg=1166,1427669>