The Morganatic Marriage: A Peculiar Pair

The saying goes as such, “opposites attract.” If that is the case, then the two paintings I chose will be married forever. One painting, The Forest Fire, is a large landscape painting that typifies the Italian Renaissance. It is large and blurs many of the things we take for granted in the modern world, such as the distinction between humans and animals. The second painting, An Old Woman with a Rosary, is by a French impressionist centuries later. It is not a panoramic and all-encompassing painting like The Forest Fire; rather, it focuses on the life of one obscure woman that hardly any one would have recognized.  Also, Cosimo’s painting is anti-religious and Cezanne’s can be interpreted as being extremely religious. On the surface, it seems like there is nothing in common. One tells the story of the world in a glorious way, and the other way is an obscure and nearly abandoned painting. But they both connect in this way: they both actually do tell the story of the world in their own way. One goes for the universal in the particular (Cezanne), and one just goes for the universal (Cosimo), but they both work very well and it speak to different people in very strong ways.

 

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Three People Coming Home: The Salvific Power of Art

Both Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso called him “the father of us all” (paul-cezanne.org). They were referring to Paul Cezanne (1839-1906). He is one of the most important painters of the nineteenth century, and is often credited as being the bridge between the 19th century conception of art and the drastically different aesthetic of 20th century art. He is often considered an impressionist, and sometimes even a post-impressionist because he is the one that bridged the gap between the two.

The term “impressionist” was first deployed as an insult to a ragamuffin group of artists. It consisted of those painters whose works were rejected by the art establishment, and thus recalcitrantly set up their own exhibition.   Many of their paintings are “landscapes, and scenes from modern urban and suburban life painted in bright, pure colors” (nationalgallery.org). Sometimes, Impressionists even painted outside rather than in a studio. Their worked signaled a change in content. Before they rose to fame, the middle class was not deemed an acceptable subject for serious art. Moreover, the peasants were always limned as “comic yokels, or timeless figures of rural life” (nationalgallery.org).

The same thing was going on in literature. Novelist such as Zola, who was Cezanne’s friend, and Flaubert, wrote about the middle and lower classes. As a whole, the French aesthetic was undergoing a great change that had started with the French Realism of Daumier, Millet and Courbet (who Cezanne says was a major influence on him, in particular). Ordinary people were now seen as worthy subjects in art and became tragic and even heroic figures of serious literature.

In this context, “An Old Woman with a Rosary” arose in 1895-6 by Paul Cezanne. In some ways it fits very nicely in the Impressionist ideal, but in other ways it does not (the painting is very dark and gloomy, at least on the surface). The title very clearly signals what the painting is about. Cezanne paints an old woman staring down vigorously towards the ground in deep meditation. She is clutching a rosary in her hand.  In one sense, this piece of art is very impressionistic in that it depicts the lowly and the rejected. Poet Joachim Gasquet claims that the sitter for this painting is an ex-nun who escaped from a convent and was wandering aimlessly until Cezanne took her in as a servant (nationalgallery.org). Gasquet found this painting in Cezanne’s house lying on the floor.

Cezanne, being the Impressionist he is, saw dignity in this woman. She was a woman caught between two worlds. On one hand, she was a member of the Church in which she escaped. Without the church, she is caught up in the swift nature of modernity, which she might not have been ready for either. Cezanne, at least for a short time, might have very well have been the personal savior she was looking for, and she might have been the savior Cezanne was looking for. Cezanne was a devout Catholic, as can be seen in his letters in Michael Doran’s Conversations with Cezanne (artsandfaith.com). He was raised in a Catholic home in the south of France, but went astray from his faith as he got older. Later on in life, due to his sister, he returned the Catholic Church.

Due to his faith, he stopped hiring nude female models because he was afraid of the consequences it might have on the community. He is considered an ingenious painter now, but most of his recognition did not come until after his death. He lived a very lonely life, and a Christian artist and friend of Cezanne, Emilie Barnard, wrote that Cezanne dedicated his life to art, but “found only derision, scorn, exhaustion, dissatisfaction, and death” (artsandfaith.com). However, he then says that people will realize his greatness one day; moreover, he realizes that “Cezanne was a Christian!” and is thus comforted by that verity.

In another letter Paul Cezanne writes a letter to his niece, he asks that she pray for him because now that old age has caught up to him, he can now find support in religion alone. His letters reveal a man who was deeply lonely, and found solace in the God of the Catholic Church (artsandfaith.com). During his lifetime, the old woman with the rosary and Paul Cezanne seem to be very identical: both people were considered rejects by the broader society, and clung to faith for hope. It is therefore no surprise that Cezanne drew her.

Her days are dwindling, and her life has been hard. One only needs to see the way Cezanne drew hew face to see this. The colors correspond with a somber mood also: pervasive darkness. She is looking down intensely, ruminating on life, with a great mix of emotions: angst and frustration, but also hope for tranquility symbolized in the rosary and her future life. The humanity found in this woman is well rounded and tender. She is an ex-nun, but still searching for a faith to cling to. She is dressed in dark clothes, but her face and hands show glimmers of light and highlights that she is still gripping a rosary. There may be a light at the end of the tunnel.

One critic makes the astute comment that, in many ways, this painting is a self-portrait, and claims, “he knew from inside his own heart what it means when despair of the past meets with the startling recognition of hope in spite of it all” (arttoheartweb.com). And just like Cezanne and the old woman’s faith, this painting itself was almost lost. Gasquet found it in Cezanne’s family house. It was lying on the floor of Cezanne’s studio, and it had a pipe dripping on it. If one looks closely enough, one case see that the lower left hand corner is marked by steam or water (nationalgallery.org). Ironically enough, “the painting was rescued and today hangs in one of the world’s greatest art museums,” The National Gallery in London, which is where I saw it just a month ago. It seems that the story of the painting, Cezanne, and the old woman, are all one of loss and redemption.

Whether or not one is a Christian – that is beside the point – this painting speaks to the power of art itself. When I saw it and read the description of the painting, I was very inspired because I am a man who has experienced much doubt in my own personal faith with God. Many miles away from home, in another country even, surrounded by people from all other the world in the National Gallery Museum, I was very quickly overwhelmed with hope and peace by looking at this painting. When I focused in on the painting, I felt like there was no one else in the room (even though it was very crowded). I felt like I was as close to God as I ever will be on this side of heaven while praying that I do actually see him on the other side after death. To put it simply, this painting took me home.

This painting did that for me, but I am well aware that it will not do that for everyone, and that everyone will not agree with my religious beliefs. Again, that is beside the point. The point is that one painting even had the power to do that to one person (me) is amazing. Everybody has been through a different set of experiences that has led to them believing different things about the world. Who knows the nun’s life story? I am sure it is as complex as yours and mine. Cezanne had the amazing ability to capture it all in one shot, and any piece of art has the ability to mean as much for somebody as this painting did for me, and that is the point: to highlight the power of art. It is a powerful thing that can move people just like Cezanne was probably moved when he actually met the woman and heard her story.

Art has the power of religion. It can embody an ideal so beautifully that is seamless. It can speak to a person in a tough situation and literally save them. I experienced that on a miniature scale when I saw this painting, and many people from all over the world can say the same thing about various encounters with art of various forms. It seems here that at least three people associated with this painting were saved: Cezanne, the old woman, and now me. Art knows no race or age or gender or time. It speaks beyond them, and I would encourage all people to expressly support art because we live in a world that is overly obsessed with the tangibly practical. Nonetheless, there is power in art in the same way there is power in romance and religion. In one sense, one can make a rational argument for it, but at the end of the day one must admit, “It just does.” If you are unconvinced, oh, just wait, and it will hit you one day, too. You may be watching a television show or a movie, reading a classic book, listening to a song on the radio, or roaming through the rooms in the National Gallery. There is power in art, and younger generations should be exposed to it frequently at a young age through the school system and in public entities that support it.

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Works Cited:

“An Old Woman with a Rosary.” The National Gallery. www.nationalgallery.org.uk.

Web. 21 July 2013.

“Guide to Impressionism.” The National Gallery. www.nationalgallery.org.uk. Web. 21

July 2013.

“Paul Cezanne.” Arts and Faith. Artsandfaith.com. 25 Jan 2008. Web. 21 July 2013.

“Paul Cezanne.” The National Gallery. www.nationalgallery.org.uk. Web. 21 July 2013.

“Paul Cezanne: An Old Woman with a Rosary.” Art to Heart. www.arttoheartweb.com.

13 Sept 2008. Web. 21 July 2013.

“Paul Cezanne Biography.” Paul Cezanne – The Complete Works. www.paul-      

          cezanne.org. Web. 21 July 2013.

Heading Boldly into the Unknown

Ad fontes! Ad fontes! So goes the cry of the Italian Renaissance. It was a time in which people were going “back to the sources,” and Piero di Cosimo did exactly that with his landscape painting, The Forest Fire. The painting is housed in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England, and it dates back to about 1505. This painting, along with two of his other paintings, The Hunt and The Return from the Hunt which are now in the Metropolitan Museum, all deal with the history and origin of humanity. Cosimo gets his inspiration from a passage from Book 5 of De Rerum Natura (“On the Nature of Things”) by Lucretius, who lived from 98 to 55 BC. Lucretius’s work, of course, also deals with the origins of humanity and earth as a whole. Piero paints a poetic interpretation of Lucretius’s classical work (The Ashmolean Museum).

Book Five of Lucretius’s passage “describes how the origins of civilization were laid when early man conquered his fear of fire and learned how to use it to work metal” (Andrew Graham-Dixon). A similar theme was developed by Vitruvius, the Roman architect, in which he wrote about the “olden days” when men and wild beasts lived similar lives in caves and groves and were both “kept alive by eating raw food” (Andrew Graham-Dixon). However, when man conquered his fear of fire, and was then able to create a more advanced society, he quickly began to “rule the earth,” as it were, due to the human race’s ingenuity. Lucretius’s story, and Cosimo’s poetic interpretation of it via landscape art has universal implications for the future of mankind in many ways.
Piero di Cosimo was an Italian born in 1462 and died in 1522. He was a major figure of the Italian Renaissance, which began to sprout during his time period, and ended in the late 1500s. The word renaissance means “rebirth.” It is important to understand with greater depth the story behind Lucretius’s story before we can understand Cosimo’s painting. In the New Yorker, Stephen Greenblatt writes about his time as a student in Yale and he found Lucretius’s two-thousand-year-old-poem marked down to ten cents. He quickly bought it, and it turned out to be one of the most important pieces of literature he has ever read. He writes that this poem gave him the strength and “the means to elude the suffocating grasp of [his] mother’s fears and the encouragement to take deep pleasure in my brief time on the shores of light” (Greenblatt). Greenblatt tells us in the article that his mother was afraid of an early death. It had a great impact on him at a young age: “the dread of her dying had become intertwined with a painful perception that she had blighted much of her life––and cast a shadow of my own––in the service of her obsessive fear” (Greenblatt). Lucretius’s poem spoke to him because he says it spoke a singularly clear message to him: “Death is nothing to us” (Greenblatt).
For a long time this poem was overlooked and intentionally suppressed because, for a long time in European history, the Church was so intertwined with the political life. Therefore, the art had to reflect the beliefs of the Church, and this poem by Lucretius sure did not reflect those beliefs. In fact, it very much contradicted them because Lucretius’s poem told a very modern and evolutionary story of the origin of man. It did not posit that humanity was the crown of God’s creation. In Lucretius’s world, there is no Great Chain of Being or any belief that man is made of God’s image. In Lucretius’s world, all of nature (including humans) is made of the same stuff: atoms. Lucretius was very much an Epicurean, and thus believed that man should pursue pleasure. There is no idea of a master plan or divine architect or intelligent design. In Lucretius’s world, all we have is the material world, and therefore, we should enjoy that material world for all that it is worth and not worry about the rewards and punishments that may or may not be handed out by God or gods that may or may not exist. This is what made Stephen Greenblatt’s mother’s life a tragedy, and her son decided to not follow her path. It taught Greenblatt to live “not in fear of the gods but in pursuit of pleasure” (Greenblatt).
Greenblatt is keen to realize that the same shift took place during the Renaissance. He argues that this new pursuit of pleasure changed the dress and etiquette of the courtiers, the liturgical language, and quotidian designs and decorations. Even more broadly, the cultural shift of the Renaissance is what imbued Da Vinci’s scientific and technological explorations, Galileo’s astrological findings, Francis Bacon’s new and daunting research ideas, Richard Hooker’s theological mind, Machiavelli’s politics, and so forth. Greenblatt thinks that the one thread that ties all these seemingly unrelated and influential people together is that their ideas “were crafted in such a way to produce pleasure” (Greenblatt). It was a turn away from Christian ascetism in which people were burdened with what an angel or a demon might think, and a turn towards a new aesthetic that questioned the authorities and the status quo.
It is no coincidence that the Church did not like Epicurus or any of his followers, such as Lucretius, and many people during Cosimo’s time may not have even heard of him because the Church suppressed his work. The Church depicted Epicurus maliciously because of his odd crew of acolytes that included even women. One account about Epicurus said, “he vomited twice a day from overindulgence” (6). However, this seems very unlikely and specious and many people (especially the Church) have taken his philosophy out of context. Epicurus once wrote to a friend to send him a little pot of cheese so that, when he pleased, he could “fare sumptuously,” and one of his followers even argues that it is not possible to live pleasurably without also living “prudently and honorably and justly, and also without living courageously and temperately and magnanimously” (qtd. in Greenblatt). In other words, epicureanism never meant some extreme version of hedonism that justified licentiousness and debauchery, but it did offer freedom from the burdens of the Christian ascetism of the so-called “Dark Ages” that might have very well restricted and stifled many great minds during that time. With this background in mind, one can now see why this painting now signals a big change in art, and represents the essence of the Italian Renaissance. It is a time period when art and ideas flourished immensely.
Jonathan Jones of The Guardian writes about The Forest Fire, “no one can be quite sure what Piero was getting at, but this is more than a straightforward landscape incident; the epic, synthesized panorama makes us feel something of world-historical weight is going on” (1). Like stated before, this painting stands for a time before rigid divisions were set between humans and animals. If one pays close enough attention, one will find monstrous hybrids in The Forest Fire – even “pigs and deer with men’s faces” (2). It is a painting in which anything can happen and it signifies a “time before nature was categorized, classified, and subordinated to human will” (2). Piero di Cosimo was an interesting person, and this picture reflects his personality. Tuscan chronicler Vasari once wrote that he never had his rooms swept, and “he allowed his vines to grow, and the trees to shoot over the ground, nor were his fig trees ever trimmed, or any other trees, for it pleased him to see everything wild, like his own nature” (qtd. in 2). Vasari goes on to write that he spent much of his time observing flora and fauna, and it gave him the supreme “pleasure and satisfaction that drove him quite out of his mind” (qtd. in 2).
One can tell that Cosimo loved nature very much from the tender and awe-inspiring nature of The Forest Fire. I can see why Cosimo was drawn to Lucretius’s work. They were both wild men who dared to think outside of the box, as it were. It is no coincidence that Cosimo would find a work that was suppressed by the dogmatic Church, be inspired by it, and want to find a way to recreate his ideas through art and make it accessible to a new generation. The symbol of fire displays the overall message of Lucretius and Cosimo best. The very thing that the people were afraid of – fire – turns out to be the very thing that leads the people to unprecedented progress. The message is clear: do not be afraid of the unknown, because when you embrace the unknown and the uncomfortable, it leads to true growth, maturation, and knowledge.
This work of art, which is premodern, turns out to be very postmodern also. Modernity, unlike this painting, is a time when all nature and knowledge is classified and subordinated to the human will. The great postmodernist Lyotard realized that these classifications have been used to justify all kinds of evil, which are ultimately displayed in the colonialism, slavery, and the holocaust. Lyotard realized that we as humans must find a new way to structure knowledge that eliminated the binary oppositions that are ripe for blatant abuses and declivity. The object-subject, white-black, human-animal, civilized-barbaric distinctions, just to name a few, must be eliminated. Postmodernist Martin Heidegger, ironically enough, felt the same way. It is no surprise then that he admired the ancient Greek philosophers for their freedom of thought. They lived in a time when people thought without rigid categories. Thales could simply say, “All is water,” and see where the idea went. The boundaries were not there: the arkhe was yet to be found, and minds wandered in wonder for the sake of the pleasure it brought. In other words, in Heideggerean terms, they were in search of dasein. Modernity looked down on that type of thinking and wondering (and look at where it got us), but yet now we are postmodern. The Western World is trying to disassociate from its past, rewrite its history, leave the modernist baggage behind, and began a new and free era. This painting by Cosimo may be a great place to start thinking about the world differently again.

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Works Cited:
Greenblatt, Stephen. “The Answer Man.” The New Yorker. 8 May 2011. Web. 21 July
2013
“ITP 181: The Forest Fire by Piero di Cosimo.” Andrew Graham-Dixon.
http://www.andrewgrahamdixon.com. 10 May 2003. Web. 21 July 2013
Jones, Jonathan. “Take me to your dodo.” The Guardian. 17 July 2002. Web. 21 July
2012.
“The Forest Fire.” Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology. http://www.ashmolean.org.
Web. 21 July 2013.

What have I collected since my time in Oxford?

I bought a sweatshirt that reads “The University of Oxford.” I will buy another one here at Stanford. It is a tradition I have: buy one piece of clothing at every school I visit. If I just go there on a vacation or tour, I will just buy a shirt, but if I do research there, I buy a sweat shirt (I have a MSU one, an Uiowa, and now a Uoxford one). Right now, these objects function as clothing, but also as souvenirs. In the future, I am sure they will only function as reminders of all the places I have done research because I will not longer be able to fit them.

I also have taken pictures, recorded videos, and posted blogs. These will function as precious memories of the time I have spent here. My blogs will function to recollect what was going through my mind during my time at Oxford. It is always interesting looking back at one how viewed the world during a particular time. As I get older, it will only get more precious. The pictures and videos often speak louder than the words do, however. I am glad that I took a lot of them. I am normally not good about that, but I made sure to this time because this is really big deal. Also, my parents enjoyed looking at them.

These might be my two favorite:

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Another thing I have collected is the pamphlets from the museums I have visited. I have been to the Pitts River Museum, the Museum of the History of Science, the Victoria and Albert Museum, The Museum of Natural History, and the list goes on. I also have made sure to keep up with all the itineraries that the WISC/OSAP Program gave us as we took our trips to London, Bath, Stonehenge, Windsor Castle, and so forth. This is a good way to remember all the places I have gone. I have also kept a few tickets and programs from the Shakespeare plays I have attended. I tried to keep some type of reminder of all the various things I have done.

Also, I have organized a special folder dedicated to all the things I have learned since I have been at Oxford. This includes my graded essays on Shakespeare plays from Dr. Ballam, my notes from Dr. Harvey’s class, and all the other random things that I gained an interest in since I have been here, including 19th century French Realism, Opera History, Classical Music, Boxing, The Great American Novel, and so forth. This will help to show just how much I have grown since I have been here. I grew not only from my class and tutorial, but from the students around me (whether they be students from MSU, my IWP roommates, other foreign exchange students, or permanent Oxford students).

Lastly, I have kept a few of the emails I printed out from the Christchurch College Email List Serve. For example, they always email us a weekly menu of the food they will have each day for lunch and dinner. The food was always very good. I am thankful for that because I heard New College food is nowhere near as good! I like keeping up with little things like that. I really do not have anything I intentionally “collect” in the strict sense. I just like keeping things that I know will trigger my memory later on in life.

 

Reflections: You must use a converter.

So everyone knows that when you go overseas, you have to use a converter and adapter. If not, your electronics will be ruined. This is a very ripe symbol for the whole overseas experience. One’s mind, in many ways, has to convert to how things are done in the particular foreign country, or else. Myself, a young black kid from Vicksburg, MS, who has always lived in Mississippi, had to convert and adapt. They do not think the same in England, whether that be politically, religiously, or in social graces. Everything is different — even the air you breathe as you walk the streets. The good humans are those who are flexible and find a way to make the most out of this unique opportunity to study abroad. It is not always easy. It most definitely takes some adjusting. The unexpected will come, but one must embrace the spontaneity and mishaps and roll with the punches. It is an invaluable experience. In many ways, I feel like I am just beginning to call this place my own. Alas, it is time to return to the States, and I am looking forward to my research at Stanford, and my last year at Mississippi State University. Who knows, I may be back? Someday, somehow, and the sooner the better.

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Well, it’s been real…

I will leave this town in about five hours. I will catch the bus to London Heathrow, and then find terminal 1, which is where I will fly from London to Philadelphia. I will have a layover in Philadelphia, and then fly to the San Francisco Bay Area. It has been a great time. Great city, great university, great roommates. I would not trade it for anything. I am lost for words. I did not get to travel as much as I would have liked to. In fact, I did not leave England, but I feel like Henry James did as he discussed his Grand Tour in his letters. I am a wiser man, a better man, a stronger man, a more mature man. Thanks, Oxford.

(Henry James)

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London Again!

Friday, June 21, 2013

So I went to London again with Molly and Anne Tulloch of Marymount University after my last class with Dr. Harvey and the MSU crew. We went to the Pitts River Museum, and it was very interesting. Not as Eurocentric, but also not as narrative. I wish I had more time to go there again and look at it more, but Stanford is calling me!

We took the bus to London, and it only costs 13 pounds for a trip to and fro. We got there and took pictures at Trafalgar Square and Buckingham Palace, and then went to the National Gallery. WOW WOW WOW! It was so inspiring. We did not even spend that much time in there, but the art was so inspiring. I am not surprised that it is considered one of the best museums in the world. I focused most of my time in the Impressionism rooms. Cezanne’s “An Old Woman with a Rosary” was the most intriguing one to me. I could look at that portrait for days. What is that lady up to? Only God knows.

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We then walked around more (The Thames River to our right), just taking in the view. We then went to a pub, and then went to The Globe — yes, The Globe! So this is why I decided to return. I was not planning on traveling again, but Dr. Harvey got tickets from his cousin to see an all-female casting of The Taming of the Shrew and I he had an extra. He invited me to join him and his wife. What an awesome couple! We had great seats and this was probably my favorite play out of the three I saw during my time here. It was definitely the most entertaining; it makes great social critiques. More than anything, it is stressing, in existential terms, that being-for-others matters more than being-it-itself. We are slaves to how other people view us. The all-female casting of the play reiterates the theme Shakespeare emphasized so much, and I think he would be proud. I know I was. The Globe’s environment is amazing. It has a large area where people just stand, and, of course, it has an open roof. The actors were very interactive with the audience. I can only imagine how The Globe was when Shakespeare was living (Of course they had to rebuild it because it burned in a fire, but they re-did the dimensions to recreate the feeling).

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After the play, it was around 10:45. We took the scenic route back to the bus, and London is so beautiful at night. The bridges are lit up in blue, and Big Ben is lit up in green. WOW! What a great trip. One other thing I took from this second trip to London is that I must live in a city where major art galleries and theatre houses are prevalent. I am taking this into consideration when I apply to grad schools. I feel like this will add so much to the college experience. It is a great way of learning about history in general. I can see why people love big cities so much now!

(This is the amazing picture at the National Portrait Gallery by Cezanne, “An Old Woman with a Rosary”)

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