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Pieter Bruegel

January 19, 2012 3 comments

I mentioned throughout the fall that when the Wall Street Journal would finally stop being delivered (they kept delivering it long after I stopped paying), I would miss the book reviews, and the arts and culture coverage in general. Thanks to WSJ book reviews, I was led to two books that I would not have read otherwise, Robert P. Crease’s World in the Balance: The Historic Quest for an Absolute System of Measurement and Max Egremont’s Forgotten Land: Journeys Among the Ghosts of East Prussia. Add Larry Silver’s Pieter Bruegel to the list.

The last day the Wall Street Journal was delivered was December 23. A few days later, I used my iPad WSJ app to find out how much content was available, and sure enough, it knew I no longer had full privileges. But I discovered that I still had access to a significant amount, including most of the Saturday book reviews and the food-wine-auto coverage. On New Year’s Day, I checked online for the WSJ’s weekend reviews from the day before, and there was Jonathan Lopez’s review of Pieter Bruegel.

I can’t remember when I first became a Bruegel fan. One of his most famous paintings, The Harvesters, is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art — the cover of Silver’s book is a detail — but I can’t say I remember admiring it in my childhood. During a stay in Antwerp to attend a conference in 1978, with side trips to Bruges and Brussels, I fell in love with Flemish art. I began to read about it, made sure to stop by The Harvesters when in Manhattan, and checked out the Flemish paintings whenever passing through other major museums, such as the National Gallery in London. In 1983, I returned to Antwerp for another conference and spent more time in museums. In 1985, during our honeymoon, I arranged for us to pass through Antwerp for a couple of days between longer stays in Paris and Glasgow so Gail could share my little hobby. But I haven’t been back to Belgium since.

Regarding The Harvesters, here is its reproduction at the Metropolitan’s website:

The Harvesters, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1565

And here is what the gallery label says:

This panel is part of a series showing the seasons or times of the year, commissioned from Bruegel by the Antwerp merchant Niclaes Jongelinck. The series included six works, five of which survive. The other four are: “The Gloomy Day,” “Hunters in the Snow,” and “The Return of the Herd” (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna); and “Haymaking” (Lobkowicz Collections, Prague).

This remarkable group of pictures is a watershed in the history of Western art. The religious pretext for landscape painting has been suppressed in favor of a new humanism, and Bruegel’s unidealized description of the local scene is based on natural observations.

For years, those Bruegel seasons paintings in the Kunsthistorisches Museum made me eager to visit Vienna. Three decades later, I still haven’t made it, and the list of places Gail and I want to visit keeps growing. Some day. In the meantime, perhaps I can content myself with the book. In the WSJ review, Silver writes that

“Pieter Bruegel,” a superb and sumptuous monograph by the scholar Larry Silver, is an object of beauty in its own right. This large-format volume presents all 40 or so of Bruegel’s surviving paintings and a wide selection of his drawings and prints in color plates that render tone and hue with scrupulous accuracy. Mr. Silver’s text offers an indispensable introduction to Bruegel’s achievement—in Mr. Silver’s phrase, “the epitome of naturalism in art, the climax of the Netherlandish tradition.”

The book isn’t cheap. List price $150.00. But only $91.30 from Amazon, in stock, a lot cheaper than a trip to Vienna.

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Categories: Art, Books

Could Be Worse

January 19, 2012 Leave a comment

Above is Ted Rall’s cartoon from today, with the title “More Coffee” and the question, “What will be Obama’s sales pitch for 2012?”

If I were choosing, I’d go for the one on the left. It’s irrefutable. Can you imagine a McCain presidency?  Would we already have begun a war with Iran?  I’ll give Obama that. He has tread carefully, ignoring the war-mongerers.  

Then again, Obama has signed a law allowing indefinite detention of US citizens; he has claimed and exercised the right to murder US citizens; he has waged undeclared war on Libya, not to mention Yemen and Pakistan (if you consider killing people with unmanned drones an act of war); he has institutionalized domestic spying.

I could go on. But however long the list, one can’t escape the logic of the argument that it could be worse, an argument the Republican candidates reinforce every time they speak. A winning sales pitch for sure.

Categories: Politics

Parks on Writing

January 19, 2012 Leave a comment

There’s a great little piece by writer and translator Tim Parks (author of the book pictured above) at the New York Review blog site today about writing within, or without, a home culture. Of particular interest are the contrasting examples he gives of students in his creative writing class — one writing a historical thriller about a culture foreign to him in time and place, another writing about a group of family and friends in England now — and the relative merits of their work. Before introducing these examples, Parks writes that

For most of us, the set of behaviors we call personality, or self, forms initially in a family of three, four, or five individuals, then develops as it is exposed to the larger worlds of school and, in our teens perhaps, our town, our country. The richness of our individual personalities is a measure of the complexity of the relations that sustain us. A word spoken at home or school can be dense with nuance and shared knowledge in a way unlikely to occur in a casual exchange at rail station or airport, however fascinating and attractive an exotic traveling companion may be. This is not an argument for staying at home, but for having a home from which to set out.

Parks’ observation is loosely connected to a claim I have often made to Joel, that I am his working definition of a normal adult. He may, over time, revise this definition, but he’s stuck with me as his initial frame of reference.

Here I am presuming to trod on Parks’ turf. Sorry about that. Let me back off.

Parks picks up his theme again later with reference to the two students:

If there is a problem with the novel … the problem is rather a slow weakening of our sense of being inside a society with related and competing visions of the world to which we make our own urgent narrative contributions; this being replaced by the author who takes courses to learn how to create a product with universal appeal, something that can float in the world mix, rather than feed into the immediate experience of people in his own culture. That package may work for some, as I believe my student’s account of dramatic upheavals in the Mongol empire will work for many readers; it has its intellectual ideas and universal issues: but it doesn’t engage us deeply, as I believe my other student’s work might if only he could get it right. And this is not simply an issue of setting the book at home or abroad, but of having it spring from matters that genuinely concern the writer and the culture he’s working in.

Parks’ article is provocative. And short. I suggest reading it in full.

Categories: Culture, Writing

Snowed In

January 19, 2012 Leave a comment

Our spruce tree

I don’t want to make too big a deal about the weather here this week. It’s not like we’ve gotten all that much snow, though other parts of western Washington did. And it’s not like getting snow is all that unusual, though some winters we don’t get any. (It’s typical when the colder winter storms move through that temperatures hover right at the rain/snow line, bringing snow to higher elevations or to areas a little outside Seattle that lack the dual moderating influences of Puget Sound and Lake Washington, with just traces of snow falling within Seattle.) But I have to say, it’s unusual to have six consecutive days of snow. And today’s sleet/ice/snow caught the forecasters by surprise.

I should explain or remind readers that snow tends to stop traffic in Seattle, especially when it turns to ice, because we’re a city of hills but not a city of plows. When I first moved here, roads just didn’t get plowed. Now the major roads do. But when snow is followed by falling temperatures and ice, the city comes to a standstill.

I wrote on Sunday about the early stages of this unexpected weather. On Saturday, it snowed briefly. I got in the car, dashed down to the local commercial neighborhood, and took care of some errands, but the snow had stopped before I got home. Sunday brought big snow in some areas, 3-4 inches here. Monday was cooler. Not too bad a day. No significant accumulations. The snow on the roads was packed hard and we kept the cars in. We walked down to the commercial neighborhood for lunch and to buy provisions. (Monday was a holiday, so getting to work wasn’t an issue.)

Tuesday was supposed to be the calm before the big storm on Wednesday. I drove to school, with temperatures in the high 30s. To my surprise, it was precipitating when I arrived, a sleety snow. By noon it was flat out snowing, and did so for a couple of hours. Very light, and with the temperatures still well above freezing, nothing stuck. From late afternoon through the evening, there was lots of melting. The drive home was easy, and at home I could hear melting water pouring through the downspouts.

The Wednesday storm (yesterday) was initially predicted, days ago, to be part of a big warm front with early snow followed by heavy rain and melting. Then it appeared that the storm would come through farther south, bringing very heavy snow here, on the order of a foot. By Tuesday night, the prediction was downgraded to 2-5 inches here, and that turned out to be about right. The big issue was whether I should get up early and walk in to school for class. Or could I drive? Or would school shut down, something it never used to do, but has in recent years in order to keep thousands of commuters off the roads? By 10:20 PM Tuesday there was no closure announcement, so I went to bed ready to get up early. But I awoke around 12:45 AM, reached for my iPad, and discovered I had missed the closure announcement, which had come through around 10:45 PM. No school. I shut the alarm.

The snow didn’t start yesterday until 4:00 AM, and never fell heavily here in Seattle, but didn’t stop until early afternoon, leaving another 3-4 inches on the ground. As predicted, snow was much heavier to the south, as much as 12-15 inches over southwest Washington. And still farther south, in Oregon, the warm front we were supposed to get had arrived, with temperatures of 50 degrees. An icy precipitation continued to fall later in the day, but nothing significant. Nonetheless, at 8:50 last night, the university announced a closure for today too. Today was supposed to be a transitional day, cold but with little precipitation, with warm air and rain finally arriving tomorrow.

Well, that didn’t happen. As local weather expert Cliff Mass explained this morning, everyone got the prediction wrong. What we got instead was an ice storm. Real bad to the south, where there are power outages. Not too bad here. But a complete surprise based on last night’s outlook. Still, as of this morning, the sleet was to stop by 1:00 PM this afternoon. Instead, it turned to snow, which is still falling. Gail and I walked down to the stores again a couple of hours ago, got some lunch, bought some food. It wasn’t too bad. Packed snow on the roads, crunchy snow where no one had driven or walked. The snow still falling is light.

We’re still supposed to get warmer weather starting tomorrow. Days of it, 40s and rain. This will all be gone quickly. The big question is whether the roads will be safe in the morning, before the warming and rain do their work. In particular, will the university close again? If it doesn’t, will anyone besides me show up to my class? It’s a disaster either way — missing yet another class, or holding a class to which few people come. With the Monday holiday, this whole week is turning into a disaster, making a mess of the start of the term.

I took the photo at the top with my iPhone on our return from this afternoon’s outing. Just for the heck of it, I offer a contrast below, a shot of Sankaty Head lighthouse in Nantucket taken last September as we cycled back from ‘Sconset to Wauwinet. I would say I’d rather be there, but, you know, it’s actually quite lovely here.

Categories: House, Weather