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Gauguin in Seattle

February 8, 2012 Leave a comment

The show Gauguin & Polynesia: An Elusive Paradise opens tomorrow at the Seattle Art Museum. Last night, Gail and I attended a special preview, which I’ll describe in a moment. First, the show description from the website:

Seattle Art Museum presents the only United States stop for Gauguin & Polynesia: An Elusive Paradise, a landmark show highlighting the complex relationship between Paul Gauguin’s work and the art and culture of Polynesia. The exhibition, on view at SAM Downtown February 9 through April 29, 2012, includes about 60 of Gauguin’s brilliantly hued paintings, sculptures and works on paper, which are displayed alongside 60 major examples of Polynesian sculpture that fueled his search for the exotic. Organized by the Art Centre Basel, the show is comprised of works on loan from some of the world’s most prestigious museums and private collections.

Gauguin (1848–1903) is one of the most influential and celebrated artists of the late nineteenth century. From early on in his career he sought inspiration from outside French society in both his life and his work. While his Polynesian experience was a defining factor in both his art and his posthumous reputation, many exhibitions devoted to his work have treated the artist’s direct relationship with Polynesian art as only one small part of his larger enterprise. Through a balanced analysis of Polynesian art alongside Gauguin’s works, this exhibition shifts the emphasis and brings Polynesian arts and culture into the center of Gauguin studies.

We arrived around 6:40 and crowded into the south lobby with the other guests for a short cocktail reception. Close to 7:00, we were all ushered into the adjacent auditorium. Unfortunately, I seem to have tossed the program for this part of the evening, so I don’t have at hand some of the names. In any case, before the ceremonial thank yous and the scholarly lecture, the evening kicked off with a bang. The lights were dimmed and the curtain lifted to reveal five Polynesian drummers. Three younger men, naked from the waist up, appeared from the wings, and performed a haka. That might ordinarily be difficult to follow up, but Charlie Wright, the chair of the SAM board, is pretty smooth, and he agilely kept our attention as he thanked a long list of individuals and organizations for making the exhibition possible.

Next up, an engrossing presentation about Gauguin’s life, his art, and the works in the exhibition by Chiyo Ishikawa, the Susan Brotman Deputy Director for Art and Curator of European Painting and Sculpture, and Pam McClusky, Curator of Art of Africa and Oceania. (They gave repeat performances today during the general members preview.) We were released at 8:00, with the option of proceeding upstairs to the exhibition itself or hanging out in SAM’s main lobby and event space for food and entertainment.

We started with the food and entertainment. Two tables were set up with identical, Polynesian-themed offerings. There was a small placard listing the items, but to read it I would have had to hold up the line, so I just took one of everything — they were all hors d’oeuvres sized — and proceeded to the drinks table, where I grabbed the featured drink, a rum punch complete with umbrella. I’m not generally a rum punch drinker, or a rum drinker at all, but I didn’t want to be ungracious, so I took it. We found a couple of the rapidly disappearing empty seats, ate our food (pretty darn good; I would happily have had seconds, or thirds, but the lines were long and we had art to see), took our drinks, and squeezed in through the crowd for a view of the entertainment. The same musicians who were the haka drummers, along with a few more, were playing music to which three trios danced: the half-dressed men and two trios of half-dressed women. Well, more than half dressed. One trio of women had bikini tops that looked like molded plastic. Gail explained to me later that they were to be thought of as coconuts. The other trio had fabric tops. And they had little wrap skirts. I was ready to abandon them and my punch so we could see the exhibition, but Gail, who was standing closer up with a better view, seemed to be enjoying the dances, so I waited.

Round about 8:20, we headed upstairs and entered the exhibition. As the blurb above explains, and as the curators demonstrated during their lecture and slide show, the distinctive feature of the exhibition is its juxtaposition of Gauguin’s paintings (presented chronologically) with Polynesian sculpture and artifacts. This is surprisingly effective, as one passes from a room of paintings to a few artifacts, more paintings, an entire room of Polynesian objects, a room of woodblock prints, and so on. I wasn’t entirely convinced that I would want to see a show of 60 Gauguins, but the alternation helps to keep one’s eyes fresh and one’s interest piqued. Plus, the opening lecture oriented us well. Many of the objects were already familiar, allowing us to examine the art without fussing with the signs or bothering with the accompanying audio headsets.

Of course, it was late, we were hungry (those hors d’ouevres not quite adding up to a complete dinner), and I didn’t want to be out too late. So we didn’t give the show its due. We got a pretty good overview, which had to do. We have until the end of April to return for a closer examination. And we will.

If you’re in the area, get your timed entry tickets and go too. Or, have a look at the exhibition catalog. In the meantime, below is one of the paintings on loan to the exhibition, Gauguin’s famous Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, usually residing at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Categories: Art, Museums

Pym

February 6, 2012 Leave a comment

After finishing Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin two Friday nights ago, I thought about turning at long last to Tony Judt’s Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, a natural successor, as I mentioned in writing about Bloodlands. More natural, indeed, than I even realized, what with the publication last week of Judt and Snyder’s joint enterprise, Thinking the Twentieth Century, which was reviewed in the Sunday NYT Book Review yesterday by Francis Fukuyama. (The book is based on conversations between Judt and Snyder before Judt’s death two summers ago.)

Instead, the next morning I found myself downloading Robert Crais’ new crime novel, Taken. I was a fifth of the way through when I stopped to write about it a day later, a week ago yesterday. By last Wednesday, the momentum was too much. I got home late that evening from the department’s annual dinner, read another 50 pages before going to sleep, then awoke at 4:30 Thursday morning and read the last 115 pages. Pretty good. Crais’ best in a while.

Once again, I had to figure out what to read next. Judt’s Postwar? Friday night, I paged through it, then saw the Fukuyama’s review on-line of the Judt-Snyder book and considered that. But I was leaning toward a novel, and at the top of my list has been Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding. I wasn’t feeling ready for a 500+ page commitment just yet, so I returned to my list of books to keep in mind, explored a few, then reminded myself of why Mat Johnson’s Pym was on the list. The reason was Adam Mansbach’s review in the Sunday NYT a year ago today, in which Mansbach begins:

“If we can identify how the pathology of Whiteness was constructed,” the narrator, Chris Jaynes, proposes early in “Pym,” Mat Johnson’s relentlessly entertaining new novel, “then we can learn how to dismantle it.” For Jaynes, the only black male professor at an “intimate, good but not great” college, the project of making whiteness visible has led to an obsession with “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket,” the only novel by Edgar Allan Poe.

It’s as good a place as any to begin. Toni Morrison has written that “no early American writer is more important to the concept of American Africanism than Poe,” and his single work of long fiction is a simmering trove of racial terror. Poe’s protagonist, Pym, is a hapless seafarer whose adventures culminate in the discovery and exploitation of Tsalal, a tropical island located improbably close to Antarctica and populated by primitive natives so dark even their teeth are black. “Horrors from the pit of the antebellum subconscious,” Jaynes calls them.

I was ready for an adventure. I downloaded it, began reading, and now I’m some 90 pages in. It’s fascinating, constantly surprising, with a passage every few pages that is completely captivating. For instance, early on, the protagonist discusses the Diversity Committee at Bard College, the small school (a real school) on the Hudson River in New York where, as part of the novel’s plot he has been denied tenure by the president. Talking with a new colleague, Jaynes explains that

“the Diversity Committee has one primary purpose: so that the school can say it has a diversity committee. They need that for when students get upset about race issues or general ethnic stuff. It allows the faculty and administration to point to it and go, ‘Everything’s going to be okay, we have formed a committee.’ People find that very relaxing. It’s sort of like, if you had a fire, and instead of putting it out, you formed a fire committee. But none of the ideas that come out of all that committeeing will ever be implemented, see? Nothing the committee has suggested in thirty years has ever been funded. It’s a gerbil wheel, meant to ‘Keep this nigger boy running.'”

Coincidentally, Improv Everywhere, which has been re-mastering and re-releasing videos of some of their old missions, today put out a new version of Meet a Black Person, in which comedian Colton Dunn went to Aspen in 2006 to offer just that service.

In Pym‘s world, one where dozens of African-Americans in Gary, Indiana, can believe that their background is more Native American than African-American until, to their dismay, DNA testing by a University of Chicago proves otherwise, a “Meet a Black Person” stand sounds entirely believable.

Watch the video. Read the book.

Categories: Books, Humor

Change We Can Believe In, XXVIII

February 5, 2012 Leave a comment

Change We Can Believe In: Illegal Drone Killings

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism , based at City University in London, released a report yesterday on our country’s covert drone war in Pakistan. The investigation, done for the Sunday Times, reveals that

since Obama took office three years ago, between 282 and 535 civilians have been credibly reported as killed including more than 60 children. A three month investigation including eye witness reports has found evidence that at least 50 civilians were killed in follow-up strikes when they had gone to help victims. More than 20 civilians have also been attacked in deliberate strikes on funerals and mourners.

As noted earlier in the report, “Obama claimed last week [drones strikes] are used strictly to target terrorists, rejecting what he called ‘this perception we’re just sending in a whole bunch of strikes willy-nilly’.” The meaning of the word “terrorist” stretches further with each passing year, but calling rescuers and mourners “terrorists” is a new low.

Glenn Greenwald followed up the report with some useful commentary, observing that

the Bureau is extremely scrupulous, perhaps to a fault, in the claims it makes about civilian drone fatalities. Its findings here about deliberate targeting of rescuers and funeral attendees are supported by ample verified witness testimony, field research and public reports, all of which the Bureau has documented in full. As [Bureau member Chris] Woods said by email: “We have been working for months with field researchers in Waziristan to independently verify the original reports. In 12 cases we are able to confirm that rescuers and mourners were indeed attacked.”

We can’t have an open discussion of our drone war because it is secret and Obama won’t provide details. Not that there’s evidence that Congress welcomes such a discussion. And the Republican candidates (other than Ron Paul) criticize Obama for not doing even more. American exceptionalism indeed.

Categories: Politics, War

Cambridge Hoops

February 5, 2012 Leave a comment

Jeremy Lin going up against Deron Williams yesterday

[Bill Kostroun/Associated Press]

That hotbed of college basketball, Cambridge, Massachusetts, is having quite a year, what with Harvard ranked #23 in the ESPN/USA Today poll, #26 in the AP poll, and likely to move up after a pair of league wins this weekend, while MIT is ranked #5 among Division III schools. Exciting times for Cantabrigians, as well as former Cantabs like me.

The best basketball player in Cambridge during my decade in residence (and my two subsequent years in Boston) didn’t play for Harvard or MIT. He starred at Cambridge Rindge and Latin, right next to Harvard: Patrick Ewing, locally famous long before he headed off to greater fame with Georgetown and the Knicks.

Second best? Maybe James Brown, a college classmate of mine who had been hotly recruited out of DC’s national basketball powerhouse, DeMatha. He passed up the big-time schools for Harvard, where he was all-Ivy in his three varsity years but couldn’t lead Harvard to a league title. He would go on to a different sort of fame, becoming the sports broadcaster and TV personality better known as JB.

And now Harvard has become the Ivy power JB couldn’t make them forty years ago. They tied Princeton for the league championship last year, narrowly losing a painful playoff game for the automatic NCAA tournament bid and being passed over for an at-large slot. This year, undefeated in league play and with an overall 20-2 record, Harvard has a good shot at an at-large bid if it fails to win the Ivy title.

Plus, recent Harvard alum Jeremy Lin may be at the start of a successful NBA career, in his second season, after last night’s breakout performance with the Knicks. Howard Beck explained in today’s NYT:

At some point in this frantic and peculiar season, a less likely, less expected story may arise from the chaos. But it will be difficult to beat a night when an undrafted prospect from Harvard took over Madison Square Garden, outshined three of the N.B.A.’s biggest stars and ignited an instant love affair with New York.

It happened Saturday night, although even the 17,763 in attendance might still doubt what they saw.

Jeremy Lin, whose unusual résumé is more well known than his game, emerged as the Knicks’ momentary savior, packing the box score with career highs and leading his team to a stress-relieving 99-92 victory over the Nets.

Lin scored 25 points, nearly doubling his previous career high, and finished with 7 assists and 5 rebounds, energizing a Knicks offense that desperately needed a boost. He outscored his celebrity teammates, Carmelo Anthony (11 points) and Amar’e Stoudemire (17 points), and outdueled Deron Williams (21 points), the Nets’ All-Star point guard.

Rapturous chants of “Je-re-my!” filled the arena. Every fourth-quarter basket was met with a booming, “Jeremy Linnnnn!” from the public-address announcer, Mike Walczewski. When the final buzzer sounded, Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy” blasted from the arena sound system in tribute.

Don’t forget MIT. Alex Wolff wrote at SI Friday of their unlikely emergence as a D-III power.

Noel Hollingsworth, a 6-9 computer science and electrical engineering major, plays the role of immovable force. Recruited to Brown by First Brother-in-Law Craig Robinson, Hollingsworth transferred to MIT after Robinson left for Oregon State. His presence ensures that teammates Mitchell Kates, Jamie Karraker and Billy Bender get good looks. “The defense has to make a choice,” says Karraker, who leads the nation with 4.5 three-pointers per game. “If they double down on Noel, one of our shooters will get open. If they faceguard the shooters, Noel or Will [Tashman, the other frontcourt starter] will get loose.”

MIT held off Springfield* yesterday, 69-67, for their 20th win against a single loss, marking their fourth consecutive season of 20 wins or more.

The Beanpot hockey tournament — the best of all Boston college sporting traditions — starts tomorrow. BU vs. Harvard in the opening game, BC vs. Northeastern immediately after. For a change, local basketball may be getting more attention.

*Need I point out that Springfield College is the site of basketball’s creation, the one-time home of James Naismith? There’s a reason the Basketball Hall of Fame is in Springfield. See here for some of the history.

Categories: Sports

Quotes of the Week

February 5, 2012 Leave a comment

[Recent post from Dogs Against Romney]

Thanks to Joel, I’ve been a regular reader of Robert Paul Wolff’s blog, The Philosopher’s Stone. Two days ago, in one of his occasional notes on the Republican presidential race, Wolff took a brief look at Mormonism, suggesting that it is no odder than any other religion. Wolff concluded by wishing that the religious aspect of Romney’s life be looked at more closely as a clue to Romney’s essence, rather than Romney’s financial dealings or penchant for strapping the family dog to the roof of the station wagon: “As the political season unfolds, I am looking forward to some searching examinations of the [religion] that constitutes the essence of Romney’s most deeply held beliefs.”

But this isn’t my quote of the week. The quote is the preceding passage, in which Wolff suggests that the focus on Romney’s work with Bain Capital and his tax status is mis-placed. After all, Wolff observes,

Who ever doubted that the super-rich get super-rich by writing favorable tax laws for themselves? What good is capitalism if it cannot even protect the 1%!

A healthy dose of reality, for sure, and a reminder that nothing about the economic policies of the Republican candidates should surprise us.

As it turns out, I had a quote of the week lined up for last week as well, but never got around to it. It was from Victoria Azarenka, the tennis player from Belarus who won the Australian Open last weekend for her first victory in a major. She has been one of the bright young stars of the women’s tour for a few years (still only 22), but also the worst offender among the corps of screamers that populates the tour.

What am I talking about? Have a look, or listen:

I was enjoying the ability to watch some of the matches live in the evenings during week two of the Open, thanks to the time difference between here and Australia. For example, two Tuesdays ago, I caught the end of the much-anticipated quarter-final between Kim Clijsters and Caroline Wozniacki. But when it came to watching Azarenka against Agnieszka Radwanska, forget it. The semi-final pairings were a disaster, with Azarenka against Clijsters in one and runner-up-for-biggest-screamer Maria Sharapova in the other against Petra Kvitova. The pity is, these were both interesting matchups, ones I would have liked to see, in principle. But no way was I going to subject myself to the screaming.

And the screamers both won! What a pity! Azarenka-Sharapova was an intriguing matchup (though Azarenka would go on to win easily), but unwatchable.

In the NYT two Wednesdays ago, just after Azarenka beat Clijsters in the quarter-finals, Ben Rothenberg wrote about the grunting. When asked, Sharapova responded, “You’ve watched me grow up, you’ve watched me play tennis. I’ve been the same over the course of my career. No one important enough has told me to change or do something different.” She makes an important point: Until the tennis authorities decide to do something about this, nothing will change.

Meanwhile, Azarenka wins the award for quote of the week:

It’s the way I am, the way I play, the way I used to play when I was a kid. As a child I was really weak, so I had to give that little extra power there. It kind of stuck with me, so that’s it.

Power? What do her shrieks have to do with power? What possible purpose do they serve other than distracting the opponent. And annoying all of us who might otherwise have an interest in supporting women’s tennis.

Categories: Politics

Purposeful Life

February 2, 2012 Leave a comment

Two days ago, I wrote about the death earlier that day in Afghanistan of my friend’s son Will. The theme of the post was the senselessness of the war and of such deaths. Today I celebrate Will’s purposeful life.

Lawrence Dabney, a war correspondent, wrote about Will two months ago in The Faster Times, describing him as

the sort of Marine that war films are made about. Unflappable, assured, and grimly competent, he is charismatic in spite of the ridiculous mustache that he and half the Corps seem to sport (not, as I first thought, a Movember thing—these last the whole deployment). At 23, he is young for a Sergeant. Both his parents are history professors.

Sgt. Stacey joined the Marines five years ago. He hesitates before answering why. “Saying I came in for the war makes it sound like for some reason I like it, which isn’t true,” he says, squinting a little in the desert sun. “But I came in because I felt like it was important. Now that it’s winding down, I feel like there’s other things I want to do.” When his contract expires, he plans to go back to school to study history.

Tuesday, Dabney wrote again. I hope you don’t mind if I quote at length from the piece.

[Will] commanded the squad I was embedded with when I ended up in my first firefight, and it was plainer than anything that he kept the men under his command alive. I’ve already written about him, his confidence and charisma and strangely rugged wisdom for a young man of twenty-three, his ridiculous mustache, but now there is more to say because Will is dead.

Will was killed this morning by an IED blast somewhere in Now Zad district of Helmand province. He was the only casualty, though another marine was injured by a second IED. He was on a dismounted foot patrol and some halfwit insurgent managed to cram enough explosive material into the bomb that it killed him. He’ll be buried in Arlington, I hear. Today was his mother’s birthday.

… No-one wants another Marine to die either but there are those who are special, whose loss hurts more than others, and Sgt. Stacey was as special as they come. He had a bright and concentrated flame within him that could cut through stone. It spelled death and failure for his enemies and gave life to his comrades. Quite literally gave life—there is no doubt in my mind that his cold competence, his charisma and cool under fire, his wisdom so far beyond his years that I wonder just what it is that old people are supposed to be so wise about, kept the men under his command alive.

[snip]

There are people like that in the world, and you know within seconds when you meet one. Their madness bends them to different winds but ours took us both to war. In it there is the potential, sometimes, most certainly in Will, for incredible things. To change the universe we live in, the course of humanity itself and the prisms through which we understand the world. But it comes at a price, and—most unfairly of all—that price is only borne by those who through dumb luck do not live to see their madness bloom.

They die. They must pass through the fire to become who they need to be—they are drawn to it like moths—and it not a test of fortitude or courage but only of chance to determine whether they emerge from the other side alive. If they do, the world awaits. But most do not. Many die in the first moments of their descent; Will was so close to emergence that he could feel the daylight warming on his skin.

Will was a rarity among service members. Young and wise is nothing new to the military, but his intelligence and charisma made him something special. Had it come to it I do not doubt that the Corps would have done everything in their power to convince him to stay. He is the sort of man you would want commanding your troops, analyzing a million pieces of data to save a few extra lives, beloved by every man beneath him though none truly knows him.

[snip]

He brought something human to the world, an attribute in remarkably short supply for all the humans there are. His soft-sandpaper, young Clint Eastwood voice doled out insight and kindness to the men he led and the people he met. Among all that, he was an ordinary and relatable human being who gave me a sharpie to ‘fix’ my smiley-face patch and whose Facebook picture is just him, standing in a crowd, holding a can of beer. His life ended in tragedy, but it was lived in grace.

Amen.

Categories: Life, War