An Italian Postscript (1)

Though not at all religious, when in various places I tend to visit churches, especially in Europe, or South America, or, as well, temples in Asia.  While scarcely an academic, I think I am drawn to these places as they tend to tell you much about the cultures in which they were built, and which have (or haven’t) preserved them.   As the apparent trajectory of most civilizations seems to have transited a major period in which religion was the dominant organizing mechanism – determining roles, status, and social values – churches and temples are a repository both of a culture’s highest level in the arts, and at the same time provide deep clues as to the essential grounding of that culture’s present day behavior, even if, for the most part, the religion has been left behind.   This summer, traveling in Italy, a place with which I am pretty familiar, having traveled there many times and lived there some years, and where I was in my own description, a “church junkie,” I indulged this habit again. Fortunately we were in different areas and I was able to see many new places, some of them utterly amazing.

While I could easily find my way there if in Bologna, a Google search fails to help me identify the church where this painting is, one of a series, this one depicting the execution of saint whomever she is.  As painting it is neither famed nor I  imagine thought by any experts to be “good.”  What I found remarkable was its Nude-Descending-Staircase compression of time, a morbid inversion of animation.

Italy, by the grace of its sun and warmth, its geological terrain, mountains and lakes, and long dazzling coastline; by its cuisine, and the unfolding richness of its cultural heritage, is a place of extraordinary sensuousness.  Sometimes it seems as if every part of it had been caressed by a lover of amazing talents, and we are given the residue of millennia of such opulence.   Nature, architecture, the arts – sculpture, painting, music, theater and city planning – all offer up a sumptuous feast for the eye, ear and palate, not to mention the brain.   One drowns. Which perhaps explains the seemingly perverse constancy of the morbid death-oriented imagery which the Catholic religion regurgitates endlessly, a nearly infinite litany of torture, the body maimed in myriad creative manners, such that the long list of saints which are celebrated in paint and stone seem primarily known for the manner in which they were dispatched from this earth, rather than for what they did in this life.

Thus, for example one of my favorite places in Rome, a bit off the beaten tourist path, is San Stefano in Rotondo, an ancient basilica begun in 468.  Architecturally it is an unusual structure, round from the outside, and inside with both circle of columns, but also a wall which bisects the center, with arches in it; light enters through a high clerestory.  The effect is a place of an embracing calm, a perfect architectonic centering which inherently induces a meditative state.  Such is the architecture.

Basilica di Santo Stefano al Monte Celio, Roma, after recent restoration

As if to counter-balance the beatific calm of this structure’s form, the walls are lined with relatively crude frescoes made in the 16th century depicting, as in a horror show, the death-theater of a sequence of saints.   Sometime, I suspect in the 19th century, labels were stenciled onto them, probably to point to literary description: who, when, how….

Aerial view, San Stefano in Rotondo

Again and again, Italy confronts us with seeming opposites.  The lovely small cities curled upon a craggy mountain-top,  roofs tumbling down the flanks of their settings; the wonderful narrow streets leading to the sudden openness of a lovely piazza, the dazzling high vistas overlooking an agricultural valley – all these are not the happy product of intelligent design and pure aesthetics, but are rather the by-product of times of constant war and piracy.  It was an enormous added cost to build on such heights, inaccessible and willfully, deliberately, difficult to reach.  Everything needed to be hauled up – food, water, the resources to make things.  All of this was a huge burden, and in a time when all of our work-saving machines did not exist:  if it came up it was hauled by man or animal.

Opposite Enna, Sicily, is Calascibetta, whose people are “stupid” said a very young and bright teenage guide to us; so much for neighborliness

As a culture Italy is a dense mosaic of isolated towns and cities, each rooted in a particular and peculiar history, so deeply embedded that most inhabitants feel more of their town or city than of a nation.  The sense of being Italian seems only to emerge during World Cup football tournaments, when rooting for the Azzuris is a collective national mania, or when Italy is criticized by an outsider, even if it is the same critique Italians level against themselves domestically.  In these two cases the regional and city identifications lapse and Italians are, if only briefly, “one.”   This regional identification derives from not so long ago, when most cities were in fact little states, busily warring with one another, making alliances, and breaking them.  Fidarsi bene; non fidarsi meglio. Hence the city walls, fortifications, and tendency whenever possible to build them on readily defensible heights.   Down below were armies, brigands, and insecurity.   This was Italy’s history from the break-up of the Roman Empire until Garibaldi’s campaign unified the peninsula in 1860.

Giuseppe Garibaldi

The fragmentation of Italy into smaller units, centered on a city or region, is seen clearly in the shifts in styles in the arts and architecture.  While, for example, the Baroque is a general style (1600-1800) its effects shift considerably as one moves down the peninsula, from the relative austerity to the north to the often heavy and opulent excesses of Sicilia.   These “tastes” are also reflected in the balance of the culture – food, dress, music, and of course, behaviors to match.  Those to the north despise the southerners as “beasts” and  point variously to their wild driving manners, their menagerie of organized crime syndicates  – the Mafia, Camorra, ‘Ndrangheta – their corruption, and other proofs of the lower status of the mezzogiorno. Never mind that the country’s most recent scandals have come out of Lombardy and Milano, with its leading star being none other than Silvio Berlusconi, the Premier, who now seems chronically mired in mud, whether it is fiscal, legal or sexual.   And is also in bed with the Sicilian Mafia.   As were his predecessors.  Still, even a casual survey of the Italian boot finds it more orderly and Germanic to the north, and more, well, maybe African, as one heads south.   Such are the blessings of Italy’s traditional regionalism and diversity.

Mosaic, Rimini

[With a backlog of pictures from Italian travels of the last few years, I will start to print some here, soon, the first groups to be called Sicilian Suites.]

Walker Evans

Walker Evans, shadow self-portraits

The other evening, on returning to Seoul, I went with a few friends to an exhibition of Walker Evans photographs.  The setting was high up on the 18th floor of a classy building facing the Olympic Park in the southeast corner of the city in a new Photography Museum.   I had been acquainted, closely, with the work of Evans since long ago in 1960, where I was introduced to photography at the Institute of Design at IIT, where I studied a few years, one in a class by Aaron Siskind.  I recall having bought a book of Evans’ pictures, poring over it lovingly.  I am pretty sure I also saw a number of direct prints at the Chicago Art Institute.   And since then I have frequently returned to Evans, in books, and in isolated photographs in museums, and of course in the now ubiquitous famous images imprinted on our culture from those which appeared in James Agee’s Now Let Us Praise Famous Men.   Walker Evans’ images not only reflect America, but they are now deeply embedded in its culture, they are a profound part of America.

Sharecroppers wife.Country church, Beaufort South CarolinaFrame house, Charleston, S.C.

A handful of Walker’s pictures have gathered for themselves an iconic status as quintessential American images, as with the sharecropper’s wife, an image which can stand with Grant Wood’s American Gothic, or any number of those of illustrator Norman Rockwell, or Jasper Johns’ Flags, or the Chrysler building in New York City, or Edward Hopper’s paintings.   Each of these, along with many others, captures some fundamental element of what makes America itself, just as certain images manage to condense and symbolize other cultures:  a Giotto or Michaelangelo for Italy, a Hokusai for Japan, or Goya or Ribera for Spain.

With Walker Evans there is a seeming self-effacement, in which he disappears into his work, as if he chose to not exist, but to be supplanted by those things which he photographed, as did Eugene Atget.  It is a work which is minimalist, direct, almost as if there were nothing to it.  For the most part he presents things frontally, as if to simply say “there is this.”   And then this.  And this.   It seems almost artless, and yet it is of the highest art, capturing so much with seemingly so little.   And yet cumulatively what emerges is a very distinct vision, one which would seem to be easily replicable, but which is not.   Evans’ legacy is vast, written in a long list of photographers, very widely different, whose work can be seen refracted in Evans’ lens:  Bruce Davidson, Robert Frank, Joel Meyerwitz, Paul Strand, among many other Americans; or Berndt and Hilla Becher abroad.  Or among painters, Warhol, or even Rauschenberg, along with Johns and Hopper, and many others.    The list is long and would include filmmakers, such as James Benning and certainly myself.

Easton, Pennsylvania

Bessemer, AlabamaReedsville, W. VirginiaGraveyard, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

In books, however well made, or on the internet, one doesn’t really get to see these pictures.  The exquisite craft and artful concerns which went into their making disappear in the reduction to what the digital means of the net can do, or even in the best of printing for books.  To see the actual images one must go to a show like the one I went to here, or to a museum with archival quality prints.  The tonal range of Evans’ work is gorgeous – a rich delicate palette of grays, here and there a white, or a dense deep black.   On looking at the prints one can see how attuned his eye was to these qualities, and how much control he took, as well as how much he was attracted to certain things from which he could compose his images with an artist’s sensitivity to the effects of his medium.   As with other truly great photographers, it is this attentiveness to the nature of his medium which elevates him beyond just “taking pictures.”   As simple as his images appear, they are in truth rich and complex demonstrations of what can be done artistically with a camera, film, chemistry, light and a subject.  If you wish to really understand Evans’ capacities, go to an exhibit such as the one I saw, or visit a museum with a good collection you can access.   It is similar to seeing a real Durer watercolor of a bird’s wing, Wing of a Roller, as I did in Vienna, and seeing the pale reproduction the museum there offers.  There is really no comparison.

As I wandered this exhibit, one time, then another and then another, re-seeing these images, my eyes moistened.  In part it was owing to the artful beauty – not just the “look” but the content of these images, and their rich understanding and embrace of life, our lives.  In part perhaps it was due to these images being far closer to the reality of my young life than is today’s America – there has been a profound change, and these images recall for me the “Negro” shanty-town I would visit across a large field from the house where I lived when going to high-school in Fairfax, Virginia.  They recall the times I hitch-hiked in the mid-west in the late 60’s, in Wisconsin and Illinois, and later from California to Montana in the early 70’s.  Since that time a flush of wealth and corporate uniformity has left much of this older America in the dust, and the new suburban housing developments, the cities all gleam with a thin plastic veneer that lacks the character of that older time.  Perhaps my tears were nostalgic, a signal of passing times and loss.  In part they came as I sensed something our country has lost – not merely of the “look” which Evans images captured and which could not be found today – but of the soul.   However ragged, however poor, however crude, that old America had a character which our present America lacks.  Perhaps it has to do with hard times, with genuine difficulty, with real work.  I sense the same thing in Europe where it seems that everything has gone slack and what is present exists more for tourists – even if they live there – than being emblematic of a real life.   Or perhaps it was for my recognition that those shadow-portraits which Walker Evans took of himself in his youth reminded me of my own gangly young self, unsure, as one must always be unsure, taking first steps out into the world, yet feeling that something stirred inside, and something would come of one’s tentative efforts.  And naturally, being shadows, they reminded of our evanescence.   All together these feelings entered me, looking at these wonderful photographs, and traced a life-long etching in my own soul.

Child’s grave, Alabama

Thank you, Walker Evans.

[The Metropolitan Museum in New York maintains a very large on-line collection of Evans’ work which is deeply instructive for watching how an artist grows.  There’s very much, but it is worth it to take some time to look, carefully, as he did.]

American Pastoral #12

Obama giving Iraq war alleged withdrawal speech in newly decorated Oval OfficeOld timey cash registerJasper Johns Flag sold for 28 million dollars

Oklahoma land rushOklahoma City Federal BuildingTimothy McVeigh

Sarah Palin giving speechAmerican parking lotsTeaparty billboardMassey mountain-top removal coal mine, W. Va.Roger Clemens departing arraignment hearingRanch, South DakotaTexas City, Texas; BP refinery in backgroundNogales, New Mexico, then and nowJ.P. Morgan, 1904Meth lab, Kalamazoo, MichiganSalmonella tainted Wright County Egg factory, Galt, IowaSingle-bullet theory JFK diagramLouisiana shrimp shopRonnie Lee Gardner, last Utah prisoner to be executed by firing squadGlacier National Park, MontanaButte, Mt   (photo Lynn Weaver)Leo Castelli, art dealer (with Ruscha on wall)

Ben Bernanke, Fed director at Congressional hearingWarhol painting sold for 32 million dollarsAngry SimpsonsWall Street

American cultural icon (Copyright)Texas City, Tex. BP refinery explosion costing 15 lives

Redwood, Eadweard Muybridge

It is autumn on an even numbered year, and in turn it is time for America to crank up its bi-annual electoral machinery to its maximum pitch.  As customary and traditional the word high and low is that the newly installed President’s party is headed for a come-down, in this case perhaps a loss of its majority in the House and Senate.  Not that the closing two year cycle suggests it would make much difference: with a commanding, though “blue dog” tainted, majority in both chambers, the Democrats could barely limp a step without kow-towing to the vociferous shouts of right-wing commentators and politicians, who endlessly suggested Obama was in any event not legitimate by nature of his birthplace, his religion, and, sent only by transparent code words, his color.   For some in America a (half) black man cannot be resident in the White House.  These same people generally take their words literally, whether in this case, or in the Bible.

President Obama has, by his turn, not served himself well since the election.  Admittedly faced with an avalanche of welcome-to-the-job problems (thank you Mr Bush and company), which he faced with a calm coolness which might be admirable in some contexts, and in truth for the problems he faced was the right comportment – yet the tenor of the nation begged for passion and he seems to all appearances to be dispassionate.  Entering office he was perched on a wave of genuine public enthusiasm which he promptly deflated with both his demeanor and his staff and policy choices.  Perhaps this is revealing of his real political beliefs, which if so are essentially hard-core American corporate conservative with a lip service to broader public interests, or perhaps it was revealing of a naive political miscalculation.  In either case, much of the liberal/left is sorely disappointed, while the seething right clearly declines to be mollified by any gesture of compromise.

Thusly are our politics reduced to a pathetic cartoon in which the utterance of any truthful analysis of our national circumstance is political suicide.  No, our temperamental children will not face any reality that deprives them of their instant gratification.  Being woefully ill-educated, trained for decades to be selfish first and social last, and to run in horror at any word that begins with “c-o-m” our voting public is now bent on social destruction, deluded that they can have everything, pay no taxes, war for fun while utterly ignoring it, trash their neighbors, and somehow the grand “American Exceptionalism” will exempt them from all costs.  Naturally it will not, and as the cost is being applied, our electorate appears to be running full-tilt into the arms of exactly those who sold them the sweet story that you could have it all and not pay for it.  Were Reagan alive in two years, he’d probably win in a landslide of historic proportions, never mind it was his philosophy and economic policies which induced our current situation.  Ah, but he was, despite being a rather bad actor, a very good politician in that he could pull the wool over almost any sentimentalist’s eyes.

Thirty years on we are paying a very steep price for this shared delusion, and given the mind-set of the public, the price will likely get a lot steeper as our lemming herd runs as fast as it can to all the wrong people and policies – a sure-fire formula for even worse problems in the coming years.   Doubling down on our misguided practices is going to require the “miracle” which our Glenn Beck’s pray for, but the real world doesn’t work on miracles or snake oil.  Americans, accustomed to thinking of themselves as “different” and always being Number One, are likely to show their meanest and nastiest side as their delusions crumble about them.  The current season is merely a prelude.