Appreciating Andrew Wyeth

I’ve had a few nasty discoveries of late. All too often, I’ve found out that things I’ve always valued are considered to have very little value in the estimation of the going market. They’re just not worth as much as I’d believed.

“And why the hell not?” I’ll ask, irked, when given the dismissive news by financiers, appraisers, auctioneers, and agents—anybody whose expertise I’ve called upon for a valuation.

It doesn’t sit well, disillusionment—especially when you think the rest of the world has got it all wrong, and when you’d been counting on their tastes to be in line with your own.

So I wasn’t in the mood for more of the same the other day, after I went to The National Gallery of Art’s new exhibit on Andrew Wyeth. I like Wyeth very much, and after seeing the works—wonderful, evocative renderings of various portals in the farmhouses that he memorialized around his Maine landscape—I did a little research to learn more about some of the images.

Lo and behold, turns out Andrew is a favorite whipping boy of the modern art scene.

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Making It New: The Image Fall Appeal

Consider the coffee table. It’s a venerable and eminently practical piece of furniture. Most of us have at least one. It’s a great place to put centerpieces, books, even literary journals. Some of us may put our coffee mugs on it from time to time.

But have you ever noticed how often these days that coffee tables aren’t coffee tables? Walker Percy did. In Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Guide, Percy noted that a home and garden magazine had listed fifty ways to make coffee tables…out of something else. The examples cited included: a polished Cypress stump, a lobster trap, a large spool for telephone cable, and a stone morgue table, with the runnel for blood used as an ash tray.

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The Mill and the Cross

In Breughel’s panoramic painting, “The Procession to Calvary,” the fallen Savior, collapsed under the cross beam, is mostly ignored. Although he’s right in the center of things, nobody pays him too much mind. Instead, the fantastic landscape that surrounds him churns with a thousand wheels of activity, each cog connected to the other, spinning upon its fellows like the clockwork mill that sits atop a monument of stone, high above.

Breughel seems to have loved this approach, philosopher artist that he was. It made a lifetime of statements for him: E.g., “Yes, a winged man is falling from the heavens over there to my right, but I’ve got forty acres to plow and my feet are killing me.” Historic things can happen throughout a day, implies Brueghel; still, the pot boils, the baby cries, and the cow bellows to be milked; our attentions go elsewhere. The eschaton might begin its fateful crack right next door, but chances are we’ll be tying our shoelaces when it does. One of Breughel’s modern descendants is the Englishman Stanley Spencer, who used Cookham village to stand in for the world, going about its hum-drum business as its creator ambles by on the road to reality’s inversion.

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Becoming Baroque

Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” Oscar Wilde’s mischievously challenging line appears across the opening frame of a film about Concerto Italiano’s recording of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos.

The film came unexpectedly into my hands. I hadn’t listened to the Brandenburgs in a while, and felt a need for their exuberating uplift. So I got the CDs from my public library, not knowing these performers but taking a chance on them.

I was wowed by the crisp liveliness of their performance. And delighted to discover that, along with the CDs of the six Brandenburgs, came a 2005 DVD about Concerto Italiano’s recording process, featuring interviews with their director, Rinaldo Alessandrini.

Alessandrini thoroughly enchanted me. Sporting the scruffy look, he spoke brilliantly, with a thoughtful twinkling joy, about baroque music.

The speed and invention of Italian baroque music—as with Bach’s Brandenburgs, which were inspired by the Italian baroque—force us to maintain a lightness in performing. It requires us only to bring out its elegance, its beauty, to make it speak very calmly. For the audience, it becomes a calm, cordial communication.

Baroque music as conversation: Alessandrini kept returning to this metaphor. [Read more...]

Controlling the Shot

Guest Post

By Tyler McCabe

We set sail for Robben Island prison at noon amid five-foot swells. The Atlantic was dark and agitated like a clubbed fish, and my camera pitched around my neck. We would be attending the official educational tour of the island.

Viewing, that is, the whole God-awful shebang: communal cells which held civilians and activists during apartheid, single cells which held Muslim leaders from the East Indies and indigenous African leaders, the limestone quarry where prisoners worked with pick and spade, the graveyard for lepers, the church for officers, and the maximum security cell where South Africa’s first democratic president, Nelson Mandela, was held for eighteen years.

The ferry churning through Table Bay held sixteen hunkering tourists composing a small army of sight: thirty-two eyes, sixteen cameras. We strapped cameras to our bodies like firearms. [Read more...]