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March 17, 2008

Giotto and the Art of Heaven--Skeel

Like nearly everyone who loves Italian Renaissance art, I’ve often wondered why hell seems so much more interesting than heaven in the Last Judgment paintings. My own answer has usually been that, because we are sinful, we understand sin and its consequences far better than we do virtue. As a result, sin and punishment spur our imagination (we all have a bit of Dante in us), while heaven often looks more like a celestial game of ring-around-the-rosy (as in Fra Angelico’s lovely depiction at the San Marco monastery in Florence) than the true transformation the creation is groaning toward.

But after encountering Giotto’s Stefaneschi Polyptych in the Vatican Picture Gallery several days ago, I don’t expect to ask the question much any more. I now think it’s possible to show what heaven will look like, at least in a small way, and that Giotto, the thirteenth century Italian artist who transformed Western art, did it.

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March 29, 2008

Frida Kahlo and Immigration--Skeel

The hottest ticket in my neighborhood these days is the Frida Kahlo exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. One of the most arresting images in a show filled with startling images is a 1932 painting called “Self-Portrait on the Borderline between Mexico and the United States.” Like all of her art, “Self-Portrait” is about Frida. But it’s also about immigration, and for me, at least, it sparked a question I hadn’t thought about before: if Latin American culture suddenly became trendy in the United States, how would this affect the immigration debate?

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May 10, 2008

Nicolas Poussin and the New Morning in American Politics--Skeel

Making my way through the splendid “Poussin and Nature” exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York yesterday, I kept thinking about a comment Jed Perl, the New Republic’s art critic, had made in his review of the show. “At a time when the world around us, political or economic or cultural, seems more disheartening than it has been in at least a generation,” he wrote, “there is something thrilling about Poussin’s conviction that the discipline of painting can make life a little easier to bear.” This statement stayed with me, for two reasons: I couldn’t disagree more about the current political environment, and I never would have thought of Poussin as a painter who would speak to our current condition. Having seen the paintings, I too found them oddly relevant, but I’m still inclined to see the political glass as half full.

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May 14, 2008

Nicolas Poussin, the Art-- Skeel

Two final stray thoughts on the Nicolas Poussin exhibit at the Met (now over, alas), without the attempt to link the art to current events:

1) According to the wall text, “Poussin studied nature less to imitate its surface effects than to understand its laws.” In the landscapes featured in the show, Poussin seems to take nature apart and reconstruct it. The landscapes and still-lifes of the post-impressionist French artist Paul Cezanne have a somewhat similar architectonic qualify, though he omits the mythological narratives. I wonder if this is part of what Cezanne meant when he said, more than two centuries after Poussin, that he intended “to do Poussin all over again from nature.”

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July 10, 2008

Trees-Skeel

I suppose everyone has a favorite tree. Mine as a child was an elm, the only tree in our backyard, that had a thick, sturdy branch just low enough for kids to jump off into a pile of fall leaves. We’re blessed with a number of trees in our yard in the Philadelphia suburbs, but none as memorable as that elm. The tree with the prettiest leaves in our area is the tulip poplar– the leaves are like miniature fleurs-de-lis and cascade down from the tree’s crown– but we have to walk a few blocks to see one.

If I had to name my least favorite tree in our yard, I might well have settled on a tall, crooked, scraggly pine tree that stood squarely in the middle of our view as we looked out from our screened in back porch.

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November 29, 2008

Paris--Skeel

I've been in Paris this week for a wonderful conference at the University of Paris-Nanterre.  It's my third visit to Paris, separated by twenty years from my second (a short visit during my honeymoon) and twenty-four from my first (a month here during a year I spent wandering through Europe after college).

One of the books I brought to read was a journal I kept during my first visit.  According to the journal, I arrived with only 20 British pounds and no job.  I did, however, have Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast, which enthused about being young, poor, and happy in Paris.

I expected to be constantly questioned about Barack Obama this week, but he's come up less often than I would have thought.  To be sure, the bookstores prominently display books about his election with titles like La Victoire Historique and Les Secrets dùne Victoire.  But there's been surprisingly little quizzing about him, which has made me wonder if we`ve been a little too obsessed with the significance of Obama`s victory back in the US.

The economic crisis, by contrast, has come up constantly, and I find myself thinking about it at odd times.  Walking down the Champs Èlysses, which is decorated with beautiful violet lights for Christmas, I wondered how much the ritzy stores (and a Peugeot showroom, where a car with gull wing doors was surrounded by tourists taking pictures) have been affected by the crisis.  This morning at the Louvre, as I looked at an angel hovering above the crucified Christ in a Giotto painting, his hands covering his face in dismay, it occurred to me that I've seen that same expression on the faces of the beleaguered stock traders on the front page of the newspaper every few days this fall.

In a strange way, the crisis may do more than anything else (an exciting new president, a new foreign policy) to create a renewed sense of common, international bonds.  At least if it doesn't spur a round of protectionism-- which so far, thankfully, it hasn't.

December 14, 2008

Poetry in Motion--Skeel

One of the most exciting contemporary poets is the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski. I review "Eternal Enemies," his new book of poems, here. But don't take my word for it. Next time you're in a bookstore, skim through a few of the poems in "Eternal Enemies." Even if you've vowed never to read a book of poems, he may be the kind of poet who will make you change your mind, or at least make a small exception to the vow.

Here's the first poem, "Star" (set in Krakow, where Zagajewski lived during his college years), which establishes the tone of the book:

 

I returned to you years later,
gray and lovely city,
unchanging city
buried in the waters of the past.

I'm no longer the student
of philosophy, poetry, and curiosity,
I'm not the young poet who wrote
too many lines

and wandered in the maze
of narrow streets and illusions.
The sovereign of clocks and shadows has touched my brow with his hand,

but still I'm guided by
a star by brightness
and only brightness
can undo or save me.

December 30, 2008

Inaugural Poets--Skeel

            After poet and Yale professor Elizabeth Alexander was announced as the inaugural poet, fellow poet Paul Muldoon was quoted as saying he was confident the choice was due to literary merit.  I hope there was a twinkle in his eye when he said this.  Literary merit surely was one consideration, but one doesn't have to be a cynic to suspect it wasn't the only one. 

 

Inaugural poets, like other inaugural speakers, have always been chosen for symbolic reasons as well.  John F. Kennedy's choice of Robert Frost as the first inaugural poet was the closest to entirely merit based.  When John F. Kennedy chose him, Frost was something like our national poet.  He was beloved, had carefully tended his reputation as the people's poet, and was widely (though sometimes grudgingly) admired by other poets.  (The closest poet to this status today is probably Billy Collins, but he does not have Frost's status among fellow poets and does not seem quite so all- American).  Although Frost was an obvious pick, he also symbolized the old fashioned (implicitly Protestant) traditions of rural America, a constituency Kennedy wanted to reach.  Bill Clinton's choice of Maya Angelou in 1993 reinforced his sympathy for minorities, and 1997 Miller Williams represented homespun Arkansas wisdom--Clinton as a man of the people. 

 

A key attraction of Alexander to Obama, it seems to me, is that her poetry is intensely race conscious, but in a way that is less hostile to mainstream American culture and less anchored in grievance than the work of many of the best known black poets of the past generation.  She is, in a sense, a bridge between that past and post racial politicians like Obama himself.  (More on this, hopefully, in a follow up post on Alexander's poems once I've read more of it).

 

Two more thoughts on inaugural poetry. 

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January 28, 2009

John Updike's Passing--Skeel

John Updike was for me a little like an old friend you keep meaning to visit but never quite get around to visiting. Years ago, I read several of his Rabbit novels, and I occasionally read his short stories later on. But in the last decade or so, my contact with his writing has been limited to his art reviews in the New York Review and occasional book reviews.

When I was a teenager in the early 1970s, one would often see Rabbit, Run and perhaps Rabbit Redux on the bookshelves at friends’ houses, next to a lava lamp and a copy of The Happy Hooker. I think it is in part due to my deep ambivalence about that era that I’ve always preferred Updike’s predecessor as the bard of American suburbia, John Cheever.

But Updike’s eye for detail, and the beauty of his sentences, surely justify his reputation as one of the great twentieth century American novelists.   And the world he captured was, in all of its confusion, the world that many of us or our parents lived.

I’d be interested to hear others’ views of Updike, of favorite Updike writings, or of his significance as a writer and critic.

April 16, 2009

Veronese and John the Baptist--Skeel

With the possible exception of several Caravaggios, my favorite painting in Rome on my most recent visit was this painting (the reproduction here isn't great) of Saint John the Baptist by Veronese, in the Borghese Gallery. The planes of the painting—John’s body and arms, the trees in the background—are at slightly rakish angles, and the colors—reds, oranges, olives—seem pleasingly unexpected. 

The figure of Jesus in the lower left, just coming into view, must have been painted with John 3:22-26, especially verses 29-30, in mind. When asked what he thinks about his disciples flocking to Jesus, John the Baptist says: “The bride [i.e, God’s people] belongs to the bridegroom [i.e. Christ]. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and is now complete. He [Christ] must become greater, I must become less.”
 
This, in my view, is one of the greatest acts of humility in history. 
 
When I recently mentioned this painting, and the passage from the Gospel of John, to a dear friend who knows more about art than anyone I know (and, truth be told, likes the Veronese painting but doesn’t love it as much as I do), I commented that it’s hard to imagine a superstar of any sort in our own time saying, as John did: my turn is done; I’ll step aside now.
 
My friend responded that the verses reminded him, “on a more mundane scale,” of a conference on academic medicine he attended two years ago. One of the presenters was one of the leading figures in the field, “a senior man but still in his prime. Another was a rising star. The former, introducing the latter, made remarks very close to John’s. I was moved,” my friend recalled, “as was, visibly, the ‘rising star.’”

December 15, 2009

Two Italian Poets--Skeel

Here is a little review of a pair of very interesting Italian poets that might be of interest to a few folks-- particularly those who are tired of my rambling on about the proposed financial reforms.

March 7, 2010

Art and Markets--Skeel

Through a quirk of scheduling, I was in Amsterdam a week ago for a corporate law conference and (after a brief return home) am now in Milan and Rome for nine days with the twelve students in my Globalization of Corporate Governance seminar.   The combination of corporate law conferences and side trips to several of the world’s great art museums has gotten me thinking—however ill-informedly—about the relationship between markets and art.

In my seedtime, we always assumed that great artists invariably resisted the commercial tendencies of their time.  But after a couple of hours with Rembrandt’s paintings of wealthy burghers (like this one, The Sampling Officials (1662)) from 17th Century Holland in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, or the Medici commissioned paintings in the Brera here in Milan, it seems clear that art-as-resistance is not a universal tendency. In 17th century Holland and Renaissance Italy, markets and art blossomed in tandem.
 
It may be that artistic trends alternate between fellowship with and resistance to markets. But I’m more inclined to suspect that markets and art invariably move in roughly parallel directions. The fragmentation of the art world in the past several decades may, for example, echo the destabilizing effects of globalization and rapid innovation in the financial markets.  Perhaps this means that we will see a period of neotraditionalism both in art and in corporate and financial life once the current crisis passes.

March 24, 2010

Caravaggio at Rome's Quirinale--Skeel

The Caravaggio exhibition at the Quirinale in Rome is one of those rare exhibitions that would justify a special trip. I’m tempted to try to go back (though I readily concede that I’m always tempted to go back to Rome). Caravaggio died young and didn’t leave a huge number of paintings, so the exhibition isn’t large by blockbuster standards: ten rooms, often with one or two paintings per room. But it is a rare opportunity to see the full sweep of Caravaggio’s career in a single setting.

What a strange, disturbing, irresistible career it was. Four hundred years later, Caravaggio still resists being put in an art historical box. He managed to paint some of the most magnificent Biblical paintings we have, while also leaving disturbing images of sexually charged young boys—both of which are well represented in the show.
 
Caravaggio’s paintings are not flawless in the way, say, a Raphael painting sometimes seems flawless. Often the objects are oddly small in scale in comparison to the figures. In “Card Sharps” [here], the dice at the lower left seem microscopic by comparison to the scale of the figures. But paintings are often so arresting, and so psychologically rich, that the distortions seem trivial. (And it may be that art historians even have clever explanations for them).
 
The exhibition includes the original version of “The Conversion of Paul,” which hangs in Santa Maria del Popolo, a fifteen minute walk from the Quirinale. For some reason, the original version was rejected. It’s not quite as dramatic as Caravaggio’s second effort, but it too is a remarkable painting. I assume art historians have an explanation for the rejection—the only thing I could imagine is that perhaps Paul’s bare chest seemed inappropriate for the chapel for which it was intended.
 
Caravaggio seemed to have a thing for John the Baptist: he presented John in a variety of different poses, most of which are far removed from the Biblical portrayal of John. John is often languid and effeminate, with a hint of sexuality. Perhaps this reflected the interests of Caravaggio’s patrons. My favorite of portrayal of John is this one, which looks an awful lot like a psychedelic rock singer from the 1960s—someone who might have performed at Woodstock. (Extra credit if you name the singer he most resembles).
 
It’s hard to imagine a better day than one that begins with the St. Matthew paintings in San Luigi dei Francesi and the Madonna of the Pilgrims nearby, includes several hours at the Quirinale, and concludes with a visit to The Conversion of Paul and “The Martydom of St. Peter” at Santa Maria del Popolo. But if you’re thinking about doing this, buy your tickets in advance on the internet. It took me three tries to get in: I was thwarted once by the huge crowds, and a second time when I tried to slip in at the end of the evening (there were no crowds, but I was turned away because I hadn’t reserved a ticket in advance). 

April 26, 2010

Interview With Poet Charles Wright--Skeel

Many many years ago, while I was in law school, I took a poetry workshop with Charles Wright.  He was already a well-known poet then, and he's subsequently won the Pulitzer Prize and many other awards.  In addition to being a superb poet (the critic Helen Vendler recently described him as one of America's major poets) and a true gentlemen, he's also quite funny.  Here is a little interview culled from a conversation I had with him a few months ago: skeel-charles-wright-interview.pdf

Here's a bit of information about Wright and one of his poems. 

 

May 2, 2010

The Influence of Books--Skeel

John Wilson, the editor of Books & Culture, devoted his column in the current issue to a list of the ten books that have most influenced him. His list is quirky and fun, as one would expect, and it started me thinking about the books that have most shaped me. Here are a few of mine, which I hope will spur comments or, better yet, your own list:

1.  The Bible:  I’m tempted to suggest that, for Christians at least, the list should be defined as the most influential books other than the Bible. But for most of us, that wouldn’t be the real list. I didn’t grow up in the church, and reading the Bible after my sophomore year in college had a Damascus Road effect on me. The first thing that struck me was the psychological depth of the key figures. Even before I finished Genesis, I knew they were, and it was, true.
 
2.   Eileen Simpson, Poets in Their Youth. Simpson was the first wife of the poet John Berryman; this memoir recounts the coming of age of Berryman and his generation of poets, especially Robert Lowell and Delmore Schwartz.  I still find the intensity of their commitment to poetry both unbearable and irresistible. 
 
3.   Robert Lowell’s Poems: A Selection. Really an extention of No. 2, and vice versa. I bought the elegant little brown Faber and Faber paperback while living in London for seven months in the year between college and law school. Lowell was the first poet I loved. He was the rare poet who shed a successful style (the thundering, formally rhymed poems of his early career) and adopted others. I love best the poems of Life Studies, the 1959 book that launched confessional poetry, which is full of evocative lines like “Crows maunder on the petrified fairway” in “Waking in the Blue,” a poem about his stay in a country club-like mental institution.
 
4.   Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species: Another book on my London reading list. Whatever one thinks of the religion and evolution debate, it’s hard to deny the beauty and power of the book that touched it off. Darwin was a poignant, meticulous, visionary man, and it comes through on nearly every page. (One surprise: the Galapagos Islands figure much less prominently than I would have imagined.)  
 
5.  Walker Percy, Love in the Ruins. As a high school and college kid with vaguely literary aspirations living in the South in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it would have been hard to escape Percy’s influence. This is a strange, unsettling book, but it seems to me to capture the anxieties of a strange, unsettling time. John Wilson’s inclusion on his list of Message in a Bottle, Percy’s essays on language, called this one to mind.
 
6.  Vladamir Nabokov, Speak, Memory. For me, Nabokov occupies the same place in my affections as Pablo Picasso does among artists: I deeply admire his work, but don’t love it. Nabokov is a little too calculated for my tastes. But I make an exception for his memoir, Speak, Memory. It’s the most elegant, moving, subtly crafted memoir I’ve ever read. I often open it at random and read a page or two, just to experience the prose.
 
7.   F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby. I think this is the most nearly perfect novel written in English. It’s hard to think of 1920s America without thinking of this book. It will be interesting to see how it ages now that the central motif—a man trying to insinuate himself into the propertied class—no longer resonates in the same way, with the decline of the WASP.
 
8. Golden Guide to Butterflies; Mammals; Birds; Reptiles and Amphibians. Okay, this is cheating a little. But I spent much of my childhood chasing butterflies and studying the pictures in these guidebooks.  I read the text too, and learned how to make a butterfly net and to tell the difference between Piliated and Ivory Billed woodpeckers (one is a majestic horse, the other a unicorn, in the birding world).
 
9. C.S. Lewis’s essays.  I came to Lewis late, and find the Lewis cult in some Christian circles suffocating. But no one could capture a core theological concept (or a literary one, for that matter) in a memorable metaphor like he could, and make natural law lite so much fun to read. I especially love, and repeatedly return to, “The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses” and “Reflections on the Psalms.”
 
 
So what books changed your world?

October 5, 2010

Franzen's Freedom--Skeel

Just as the tsunami of attention for Jonathan Franzen’s new novel Freedom began, I was looking for a topic for a Christian Legal Society talk at Penn Law School. As a result, I found myself, for almost the first time ever, reading a trendy book while it was still trendy.

The story centers on a couple named Walter and Patty Berglund, and their children Joey and Jessica. Walter is initially a lawyer at 3M in St. Paul, Minnesota, and later works for several environmental organizations. Patty is a former second team All-America basketball player at the University of Minnesota. The “freedom” in the title refers both to the Bush era promotion of free markets and political freedom, and to the characters’ efforts to find freedom from their relational commitments—Patty through a tryst with Richard Katz, a cool rock star who is Walter’s best friend from college; Joey by moving next door to live with his girlfriend and her despised Republican family. 

An aside: the reviews I’ve seen invariably mention Franzen’s explicit references to War and Peace. I assume that Walter’s name is intended to echo James Thurber’s Walter Mitty (another frustrated dreamer); and Walter’s young Bengalese love interest Lalitha calls Nabokov’s Lolita to mind in ways both obvious and subtle.
 
Christianity plays only a tiny role in Freedom, in the form of a somewhat caricatured evangelical character who comes in at the very end of the novel. (Judaism figures slightly more prominently, when Joey gets mixed up with a neo-con character). But Franzen’s repeated suggestion that freedom isn’t everything we might imagine it to be made me think of the Apostle Paul’s discourse on freedom in Romans 6. 
 
For Franzen’s characters, escape from a relationship invariably brings its own unfreedom, accompanied by its own unhappiness. The disillusionment usually involves sex, but my favorite illustration comes in a minor scene involving Walter’s visit with a brother who was dashing and disdainful of Walter in his youth, but has had three wives and is now nearly destitute. When the brother tells Walter that he stays out of his kids’ lives because he’s only capable of caring for himself, Walter says, “You’re a free man.”
 
Paul too teaches that the “freedom” we’re tempted to imagine is illusory. Those who reject the Gospel may be free from its strictures, he says, but they are slaves to sin. The Gospel offers us freedom from sin, but requires a commitment to Christ. The Bible offers a very different conclusion than Franzen’s characters, of course: while the wages of sin is death, Paul says at the end of Romans 6, “the free gift of Christ is eternal life.”
 
What can those of us who rejoice in “the free gift of Christ” learn from a novel like Freedom? The novel should prompt us to ask whether we’re living as if Christ is our real freedom, or whether we’re putting too much hope in political or relational freedom.
 
Borrowing from comments I’d heard at church several weeks earlier, I suggested two very practical steps the students might take to deepen their commitment to the freedom offered by Christ. The first is to think seriously about the importance of the Sabbath, and of taking time away from studies and work to be with God’s people. The second is to become involved in a local church, even if they are only here temporarily. Both are deeply countercultural, and often especially challenging for students.
 
Needless to say, the advice applies to me and to many of you, too.
 
 

November 2, 2010

It Is What It Is--Skeel

I first heard this expression two years or so ago, when a poet friend in New York used it. It reminded me a little of Bill Clinton’s disquisition on the word “is,” and much more of a little poem by Galway Kinnell which managed to squeeze three “is’s” into a single three word line. (The poem, “Prayer,” I think in its entirety, is: “Whatever what/is is is/what I want. Only that. But that”)

I quite like the expression in small doses. Used once in a conversation, “It is what it is” seems to me to suggest a clear-eyed acceptance of complexity that doesn’t pretend that every difficulty has an easy solution. Used more than once in the same conversation, it quickly becomes annoying.

December 17, 2010

A Contemporary Caravaggio?--Skeel

This very interesting article (unfortunately, not fully available yet) on Caravaggio in the current New Republic reminded me of an email conversation with my friend (and Pepperdine law prof) Bob Cochran a couple of weeks ago.   Bob asked me who I think the closest contemporary analogue to Caravaggio is. I won’t mention my answer, because it was much less interesting than Bob’s. Bob proposed Mel Gibson. I think it’s a terrific comparison. Gibson isn’t as gifted as Caravaggio, of course, but he’s extremely gifted, and his reckless, disturbing life is no longer separable from his art.

February 17, 2011

Borders--Skeel

I once wrote a poem about the bankruptcy and liquidation of a department store called Arlan’s, which figured prominently (the store, not the bankruptcy) in my own childhood. The news that Borders had filed for bankruptcy didn’t have quite the same effect, but it isn’t far off.

Borders was the first store with a café in Philadelphia—before Starbucks and before Barnes & Noble-- at least as I remember. I spent hundreds of hours in the Borders in Center City, Philadelphia in the 1990s, sipping coffee, reading or working, and wandering over to the shelves to look at the poetry shelves, or essays, or other things. Borders was as likely to have an odd or unusual book as a good library. They also had wonderful readings (as well as a few very strange ones).
 
Bankruptcy doesn’t mean that Borders is destined to become simply a memory, but the odds of a successful restructuring don’t seem great. Unfortunately, the very qualities that make Borders (for me, at least) a far more appealing bookstore than Barnes & Noble may weigh against survival. Barnes & Noble is full of best sellers and management books, and rarely seems to have anything else. This is no doubt the only plausible strategy in a world where you can get any book in the world from Amazon in four or five days. Best to keep the books everyone wants right now, because anything more interesting will spend too much time on the shelves.  
 
Borders did spell doom for many a small, quirky, local bookstore.   But Borders was an excellent bookstore itself. I for one will miss it a great deal if it doesn’t survive bankruptcy, or survives as only a handful of stores.
 
 

April 17, 2011

Florence--Skeel

In my experience, travelers fall into two camps: those who always assume they’ll be back, or act as if they do, and those who don’t. For those who assume that each visit is one off, the best experiences are no doubt especially vivid and intense.

I fall squarely into the other category.  The odds that I will ever travel to Australia again are not great, yet when my family and I visited a decade ago, I noted which things might or might not warrant a closer look, as if the visit were simply a scouting trip.
 
Our attitudes toward travel surely have parallels elsewhere in our lives as well. I suspect that those of us who assume that we will be returning find it harder to say goodbye, and experience loss as a series of small, sad epiphanies rather than a single devastating blow.
 
It is especially sweet for those in my camp to find ourselves back in a special place we’ve imagined returning to. Yesterday morning, at the end of a three day stay in Florence for a conference on the Eurozone crisis, the vagaries of Italian opening hours gave me just enough time to visit two of my favorite places in Florence: San Marco, the museum in the monastery where Fra Angelico lived; and the Church of the Ognissanti, which has an enormous painting of the Last Supper by Ghirlandaio, Michelangelo’s teacher.
 
The Fra Angelico paintings in San Marco can only be seen in person there. Each small, white-washed, chapel-like cell on the second floor of the monastery has a single devotional fresco. In the annunciations [here is one], Gabriel is as modest and abashed as Mary; Judas is half hidden—only his lead-colored halo giving him away—as the apostles listen to Jesus deliver the Sermon on the Mount [here]. Even the crucifixions—the dominant motif—are almost unbearably elegant. 
 
Ghirlandaio’s Last Supper takes up an entire wall of the convent adjoining the Church of the Ognissanti, and is only open Monday, Tuesday and Saturday mornings (for the happy reason that the church and convent are still actively used for worship). The Ghirlandaio fresco is much more psychologically complex than Fra Angelico. Judas sits on one side of the long table facing Jesus and the other apostles, who interact in a multitude of attitudes: John evidently drowsy (no doubt he will be the first to fall asleep in Gethsemane), Peter with a thumb in the air and knife in his hand, others busily conversing or, in one case, brooding. 
 
In The Stones of Florence, Mary McCarthy identifies both Fra Angelico and Ghirlandaio with the “Maytime” mode of Florentine painting, which she contrasts with the more severe, autumnal tendencies of Masaccio or Michelangelo. I'll admit that neither alone is altogether satisfying. Nor would the world be quite so rich if there were only one kind of traveler, those who think they'll be back, or those who accept that they're leaving.
 

June 23, 2011

Every Riven Thing--Skeel

Here is a short review of Christian Wiman's new book of poems, Every Riven Thing.  Wiman is the editor of Poetry, the leading poetry magazine, and is a terrific poet.  If you're thinking about reading one book of contemporary poems this summer, Every Riven Thing is worth a look.

July 30, 2011

Winehouse and Freud--Skeel

It’s hard to resist comparing the two famous artists who recently died, the singer Amy Winehouse and the artist Lucian Freud (grandson of Sigmund). In one respect, they couldn’t be more different. While Winehouse burned out at 27, Freud lived to see his 88th birthday. But both were risktakers who aimed to shock.  Freud’s risktaking seems to have been in service of his art, rather than for its own sake. With Winehouse, the priorities were reversed.

An obvious question for Christians is whether their art is problematic, praiseworthy, or some combination of the two. I lean toward praiseworthy with Freud’s paintings. “Benefits Supervisor Sleeping,” his famous painting of an enormous, naked woman, appalls many viewers. (Where is abstract art when you need it?) But it seems to me raise important questions about conventional conceptions of beauty, as well as the erotic intentions of art. And it’s an undeniably stunning painting. 
 
Winehouse’s music seems to me a closer call. I’ve watched the YouTube video of her “Rehab,” which says “no, no, no” to those who’ve tried to persuade the singer to go to rehab, a number of times this week. It’s a remarkable performance, and can be seen as poking fun at the celebrity rehab culture. But it also glorifies dissipation in a way that surely will be tempting to others in the future.