Dial the Lobster

Bringing art into everyday conversation

You Decide!

Hello Lobster-friends!

In the spirit of democracy and of this blog (it is called “Dial The Lobster” after all) I’d like for YOU to decide which painting or artwork I will discuss next. Have a favorite artwork you’d like to share? Wanna hear my spin on it? Just leave a note in the comments below 🙂

Yours,

The Lobster.

Autumn Paintings

Happy Autumn (or Fall) Lobsterites!

In celebration of the season, I have chosen two autumnal paintings to talk about. After dissing Constable in my last post, and feeling mightily ashamed of myself for doing so, I thought it only fair to include his much-beloved “Epitaph to Joshua Reynolds” (1833-36).

Cenotaph to the Memory of Sir Joshua Reynolds by John Constable

I love this painting, but it makes me feel kind of nostalgic about England and Fall. Living in L.A. I don’t see too much of it. Anyway, ostensibly this painting is about the death of the revered painter Joshua Reynolds. The stag seems to represent him – his nobility, his virility (in art, anyway) his wisdom and his immortality. But personally, sorry Joshua, I just love the mood this painting creates. The tall, half-dead trees, the chill in the air, the forest fading away into a chasm of darkness. It makes death seem remarkably peaceful; the autumn of our lives like something we should be proud to reach…monumental, yet inviting, like jumping into a swimming pool in the dark.

My second pick couldn’t be more different. This is Cy Twombly’s “Autunno” (1993-5) This was painted as part of a series of four that celebrates each season, and for comparison purposes I’ve also posted “Inverno” (winter) and “Estate” (summer).

I’m not sure about this. Compared to “Inverno” and “Estate” it has a raw energy. “Inverno” feels fittingly threatening to me…all that black drifting in like a thundercloud. “Estate” feels dreamy, with its tears of yellow like smudged clown make-up. But I’m not sure I can relate “Autonno” to my own feelings about this season. It feels too…busy, and daring, lacking the serenity I personally associate with it. So, I guess I am a Constable fan after all! Which do you prefer?

Autonno

               Autonno

J.M.W Turner’s “Snow Storm” -The Sherbet Lemon of the Art World.

“What. The. Whaaa?” I think these were the words I uttered when I first beheld J.M.W. Turner’s epic “Snow Storm Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth (1842). You see, I wasn’t in the Impressionist Gallery. I was in the same gallery as all those rather dull Constables and Gainsboroughs and so on, and then…this. It hits you like a sucker-punch to the jaw. If art were candy, it’s the art equivalent of a sherbet lemon:

Turner

Let’s compare this to another popular painting of the time period, shall we? Constable’s “Salisbury Cathedral,” painted just a few years before:

Constable_Salisbury_meadowsWho am I to diss Constable, but compared to Turner’s work (and unfortunately for Constable, his works hang in the same gallery as Turners’ at the National Gallery) his stuff just seems…stale? Old-fashioned? Dare I say, the candy equivalent of a strawberry cream?? Sweet, comforting, and ever so slightly sickly.

This isn’t fair to Constable, of course. He was a master of brushwork, of sky and of light. He pioneered the depiction of realistic atmosphere and clouds. But Turner, in his late work, takes it to a whole new level, single-handedly (yes, really!!) inventing abstract-expressionism in one fell swoop and dip of his brush. Pretty much everything we see painted in the 1900s owes its debt to Turner. Not just the style of painting, but how it is painted: Turner famously turned his brush upside down to scratch surfaces with the wooden handle.

It’s Romantic, yet edgy and non-saccharine. It’s individualistic, yet not about the individual. It’s emotion and feeling set down in paint. It’s in love with power, and the power of the artist in particular to create and portray new worlds. In short, it’s the birth of modern art.

And now I really fancy a sherbet lemon…

Yours,

The Lobster.

Advice For Young Art Historians and Art Lovers!

Hey Lobsterites!

Before I became a teacher, I studied long and hard to attain my PhD in Art History. Whether or not it was worth it is a question I could debate all day, but one thing that the process taught me was how to approach art analysis, and ‘reading art’ (art literacy?) in general. And although research and archival work was not my strength AT ALL, analysis and my ability to write about art, was. One of my happiest moments as a human being on this planet (sad, I know!) was when one of my supervisors, at the end of my viva, said ‘I wish I could write about art the way you do.’ This meant a lot more to me than the celebrations afterwards, I can tell you.

Parting from academia is something I have slowly come to terms with over the course of my life. I have often questioned why I gave up, and there were practical reasons, and psychological reasons, but I think that perhaps there were also – for want of a better word- ‘spiritual’ reasons too.

You see, one of the reasons I was successful as an art analyst was because I knew, and still know, one of the secrets to creative and insightful analysis of a painting. And I think the reason I have/had this ability was because of some very special teachers I had, who taught me to open my heart as well as my eyes to art.

When many of us encounter  a painting in an art gallery the tendency, I think, is to externalize it. To see it as something ‘other’ and distant; to read the wall plaque, to search for context.

The key to good analysis, though, is to enter the mind of the painting. Does this make me sound like a loon? The best way I can describe it is that you become part of the painting, and drop all the outside context. Rather, you view it as an extension of yourself.

As the American scientist Evelyn Fox Keller beautifully puts it, “…the highest form of love…is intimacy that does not annihilate difference.”

In other words, you lean into the painting; put your whole self into it, whilst at the same recognizing and respecting the distance between you and it.

I wish that I could explain in more concrete terms, but I’m sure you’ve all experienced moments like this in class, or in an art gallery, when you’re regarding a work of art more subjectively than objectively. A connection sparks in your head between something in the painting and a childhood memory, or a line from a poem, or something you saw in another painting a couple of weeks ago. Do you follow that trail where it leads? Or do you snap your mind shut and go back to taking notes?

The same could be true of any learning experience; not just learning about art. But art invites it, and to not listen to our instincts or to the stirring of our hearts is to cut ourselves off from all that makes art so beautiful. I’m not sure that the art history world invites this kind of personal connectivity to art, at least insofar as it informs analysis and academic publishing. Hence, one of the reasons I quit. But perhaps I shouldn’t have. Perhaps I should have pushed back. Perhaps it’s up to the next generation of art historians to celebrate this form of inquiry, and reestablish art history as a discipline that is interdisciplinary, inter-related, ‘inter’ everything.

lobster telephone

There’s Nothing Wrong with Sentimentality in Art

Lobster-friends, a lot of art critics deride ‘sentimental’ art. Philosopher/critic Anthony Savile states that sentimental art is deceptive, promoting a “false picture of the world,” and an escape from reality.

No exhibit more poignantly captures the dichotomy between escapism and reality than “Pompeii, The Exhibition,” currently showing at the California Science Center in L.A. The gallery takes us on a tour of artifacts culled from Pompeii’s gorgeous villas and gardens – many of them heady with the scent of escapism and, yes, sentimentality. We know where all this is tending, of course. With horrible irony, the ‘post-volcano-eruption’ section of the gallery displays casts of Vesuvius’ victims, curled up, hands over mouths to shield them from the ash – they look horribly like sculptures; the kind that Pompeii’s many wealthy citizens commissioned for their gardens.

And yet…perusing this exhibit, none of the art from Pompeii feels like an escape from reality, though much of it is undeniably sentimental. Take a look at this adorable marble sculpture from a garden villa: as pristine as if it had been carved yesterday.

four little dogs

Evidently, this little quartet of dogs belonged to the villa’s owner, and desiring to capture them forever (goal achieved) the owner had them turned into art, only to be dug up years later during Pompeii’s excavation.

Maybe it’s me, but I see no ‘escape from reality’ here. There is nothing fantastic or escapist about emotion and love to my mind. Maybe when a work of art is overwrought with emotion to the point where it is melodramatic or unbelievable: yes, that’s another story. But to decry sentimental art in general seems like a gross misunderstanding of what sentimentality is. Far from being divorced from reality, sentiment allows us to connect in a visceral way with that which is, to us, most real. And for most of us that means our family, our children, our friends, cute kitty YouTube videos, our pets – essentially, our relationships. Not wars and bombs and poverty and death. Obviously, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care about those things (of course we should) or that we should shy away from them. But to argue a point on the basis of what is and isn’t ‘real’ seems simultaneously sweeping and reductive.

“Four Little Dogs,” is not simply a charming, sentimental piece. It’s a powerful statement about what endures, and what has endured: the simple beauty of life, and of love.

Salvador Dali Says…Hit The Snooze Button!

Hey Lobster-folk!

You know that feeling in the morning when you’re still exhausted and just can’t BEAR to get of bed? The alarm is pinging in your ears, thoughts of work are swirling in your imagination (oh no! The presentation is today!) and then suddenly you remember with a feeling of ecstatic, er, ecstasy….I HAVE A SNOOZE BUTTON!!!

Well, I don’t know when the snooze button was invented- although whoever invented it is surely one of the unsung heroes of the 20th century- but with his usual uncanny prescience I believe Salvador Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory” might contain a hidden message for snooze-button-aficianados everywhere. Here’s the painting, which you will recognize from museum gift shop teatowels worldwide:

As the MOMA website helpfully reminds us, this painting is indubitably about time. Note the melty clocks. But how come no one has suggested that this painting isn’t REALLY about time, it’s about sleep: how lovely it is, and how we really, really don’t want to wake up and go to work?

Firstly, look how happy Dali is! Yes, that weird squidgy figure with one eye is supposedly Dali himself. And I love how perfectly Dali captures that blissful feeling of sleep, whilst at the same time showing in a concrete way the weird detachment we have from our bodies when we doze. You know how sometimes our legs twitch or kick up? We’re not feeling part of ourselves. And here, Dali’s tongue dribbles out of his nose as he snoozes away.

Draped over his form is a blanket, but it’s not a blanket – it’s a clock. Ugh, that ever present reminder that we will have to get up soon. Similarly, a tree is holding out- like a butler I can’t help but think- another clock, draped like a towel (shower-time?) And then two more clocks: one draped over the edge of the table (perhaps representing an alarm clock) and the other, face down, appears to be a wind-up pocket watch of some sort – the portable watch we take to work (now called an I-phone). It’s swarming with ants, as if it’s a crumb of food. There’s a weird irony to ants being attracted to something so clean and shiny, but that just goes to show how much Dali hates clocks in the morning. To him, they’re crumb-like annoyances he’d like to brush off. And why is it face down? Maybe because Dali can’t bear to think about….work, or life!

It makes sense that these clocks are melting…in a half-asleep state time is humming round the edges of our consciousness, and their softness here crystallizes this idea in visual form.

But if we are in any doubt as to the ‘hidden’ meaning of this painting, look at the time on the clocks: five minutes to seven! Yes, folks, just like you and me, Dali only has five minutes to sleep until that alarm goes off! If snooze buttons had been invented back when Dali was around (HAD THEY?) he’d definitely be using it methinks.

Am I reading into this too much? Am I bonkers? I literally can’t read this painting in any other way, and yet I’ve never read a similar analysis. Let me know what you think!

Yours,

The Lobster.

Art as Therapy, Therapy as Art: Decisions and Struggles

Hello Lobsterites!

How well do you cope with conflict, making a difficult decision, or getting through a personal struggle? Well, for consolation, here’s “Laocoon and His Sons” to make you feel better!

laocoon

Poor Laocoon is having a bad day. He’s been punished by the Gods for trying to save Troy from the wooden horse scheme, he’s had to fend off venomous serpents, and now, at the height of his struggle, he’s about to be bitten (see snake head to right).  Well, this is the Greek myth, but regardless of the story behind it surely no other work of art (and in this case, we’re looking at a Hellenistic Greek sculpture, now in the Vatican) encapsulates so perfectly what it feels like to really ‘struggle’ – be it physically or mentally. The tensions in the work embody the desire for ‘balance’ nicely- everything moves to the left, like a wave, but the boy on the right tilts slightly in the opposite direction, evening things out. And look at the two triangles of negative space, one under Laocoon’s arm; one under his son’s arm on the right. I could go on pointing out counter-balancing effects like this for a while…

In other words, this work is about the push-and-pull of life; its certainties and uncertainties; hope and collapse, and most poignantly perhaps, life and death. The son on the left is dying, Laocoon is about to die, and the son on the right looks to be escaping. Regardless of his final fate (yeah, he dies too) in this moment the sculpture depicts all three states of mortality; all three states of suffering. And of all the looks of anguish on these faces, none is worse than that  of the escaping son, as he watches his father about go down.

laocoon son's head

This is an exquisitely rendered portrayal of fear, pain, and downright desperation.

Well, something of a theme on this blog has been pairing works of art with…other stuff. I’ve done poetry, I’ve done books, but now I’m doing…a therapy session!

In his book “Art as Therapy,” (great read by the way) Alain De Botton argues that we should start treating art as a medium which can teach and console us. Well, now we have proof that therapy can be art, too.

In an incredible video (below) we see Carl Rogers, the founder of Person-Centered Therapy, counseling a (brave) lady called Gloria. PCT is all about showing empathy, withholding interpretation, and resisting being the ‘wise counselor.’ Rogers wanted clients to arrive at their own answers, as a means of empowering them and resisting placing his own values on them.

Gloria is going through her own personal struggle, and the serpent-like quality of her conflict – which twists and contorts around her as she weighs the pros and cons of each decision, seeking balance in a strange echolalia of the sculpture, is something we can all relate to. It’s Laocoon’s struggle as it exists within all of us.

And Roger’s handling of it is amazing. He gently lifts the ‘snake’ from off of her shoulders and places it in front of her, where she can deal with it safely and examine it from all angles. I’ve always been in awe of therapists and the therapeutic process, but this is something else. Watch and gawp. And if you’re going through your own difficulty with a tough decision, this will definitely help.

A Book and A Painting…Sargent and Henry James.

It’s time to crack open those pumpkins! Just kidding…in L.A. at least, it’s rocking the high 90s, and it was 104 today! But for some reason the stores are full of candy corn and foam spiders. Still, at least I am honoring fall in my own special way. I’m rereading the gothic novel “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James (published 1898…I think!).

James was a realist, but here he takes realism and, well, ‘turns the screw’ on it a bit, heightening realism’s pitch until it teeters dangerously into what some might call psychosis.

It tells the story of a governess who is semi-seduced (this bit, like the rest of the novel, is ambiguous) into taking “full custody and care” of her handsome employees’ charges: a very creepy pair of kids, Miles and Flora. You know that bit in The Shining, with the twins in the corridor? Anyway, this “angelic” couple start to see and hear things (ghosts, of course) but pretend they don’t. The governess is desperate to ‘save their souls’ from the corrupt evil influences that pervade the house, and sets out on a mission to confront this evil. The ending, like the rest of the novel, forces us to question the reliability of the governess’ narrative, as well as the nature of this evil, which is never named by James, but subtly suggested to be of a sexual nature.

James basically took the Victorian notion that children are ‘pure and innocent’ little darlings, and turned this on its head. At the same time he foreshadowed Freud’s writings on “Family Romances,” “Repression,” and “The Uncanny,” by alluding to…well, pretty much all of these things.

He was also friends with John Singer Sargent, whose painting “Daughters of Edward Darley Bolton,” reminds me eerily of the tone and mood of “…Turn of the Screw.”

Sargent Daughters of Edward Darley Bolt

Ostensibly a painting depicting the four children of a rich family, there is something a bit ‘off’ here, isn’t there? The strange doppelganger effect of the two children in the shadows, echoing the doubling of the tall vases both left and right. The shadows themselves. The way the children stare at us, as if guilty. Or…is it we who are guilty? As a viewer, this painting feels designed to make us uncomfortable, just as we feel uncomfortable in our encounters with Miles and Flora in James’ book.

Some people have perhaps read a bit too much into the ambiguity of the painting, suggesting a direct correlation between childhood and corruption/evil, as in “Turn of the Screw.” Rather, I think this painting just makes the point that we don’t always feel comfortable around children, for a variety of reasons. Ever seen a child have a conversation with an invisible friend? Ever seen one kid pummel another kid? Children are ‘tapped into’ a never-ending stream of fantastic and, yes, violent thoughts. Of course, Lewis Carroll knew this only too well, using this knowledge to great effect in “Alice in Wonderland” – who can forget the Queen of Hearts’ cry of, “off with her head”? I think Sargent realizes it too, along with his friend Henry. It’s not that children are corruptible per se, or less innocent than they seem…it’s that they revel in imaginative, scary, uncensored worlds in a shamelessly abandoned way that we cannot ourselves indulge in. Unless, of course, we go mad. And THAT’S why it’s scary.

Now the twins in “The Shining,” are another matter entirely.

A Poem and A Painting: The Art of Losing

Hey Lobsterites!

I thought it might be fun and interesting to start a little series where I pair amazing poems with equally amazing artworks that (to my mind) illustrate, clarify, or expand upon a theme from the poem. Today’s pairing is about loss, and how and why we might lose someone. First, the poem. It is the incredible “One Art,” by Elizabeth Bishop. This is probably my favorite poem of all time, which is why I chose it for this first ‘pairing’ experiment…

 

One Art

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;

so many things seem filled with the intent

to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster

of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.

The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

 

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:

places, and names, and where it was you meant

to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or

next-to-last, of three loved houses went.

The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

 

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,

some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.

I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture

I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident

the art of losing’s not too hard to master

though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

 

What I love about this poem is the pay-off at the end. The moment when we realize that losing her loved one IS a momentous disaster, despite the author’s attempts to kid herself that it’s not-  that it’s akin to losing ‘things.’ We learn simultaneously how much she loves him: more than her memories of people and places; more than her ‘cities’ and ‘realms,’ which makes the loss seem even more staggering. And then the incredibly self-deprecating refrain, “the art of losing isn’t hard to master,” which reminds us with a kind of savagery that we should never take what we have for granted, and that the ‘losing’ of it is our own fault. The whole poem is a downward spiral as well, from the mundane and trivial annoyance of losing keys, to the grief of losing a loved one. It’s a masterclass in poetry.

Now to the artwork. Despite my alliterative blog post title, this isn’t a painting, but a sculpture! I chose Bernini’s exquisite “Apollo and Daphne” (1622-25) which I find almost impossible to view without a tear welling up. Some backstory: Apollo was in love with the beautiful nymph, Daphne, but she was a proto-feminist, and wouldn’t succumb to his (or any man’s) advances, preferring to spend her time rambling in the woods. When Apollo (with some help from Eros) finally catches her, Daphne pleaded with her father, Peneus  to save her, which he does: by turning her into a tree.

This story had been told in art many times before, but never with the sense of horror  that Bernini manages to convey. This is, to all intents and purposes, a rape about to happen. A double-horror stems from Daphne’s shock as her hands begin to morph into leaves.

Despite its underlying violence, Bernini doesn’t want us to think of Apollo as a monster. When you look at Apollo’s face close-up it is full of sadness, shock, and a sense of loss. And there is sadness too in the fact that where his hand finally touches the object of his desires, she has already turned into tree-bark. Daphne is a metaphor not just for Apollo having to face the consequences of loving ‘too much,’ but for the ‘art of losing’ in general. We lose, both Bishop and Bernini say, through an excess of wanting and striving, and an inability to accept the inevitability of loss. Bernini says it loudly and plainly; Bishop coyly and ironically, but the message is the same: we must let go of what we cannot have or risk losing not just a person dear to us, but ourselves as well.

apollo and daphne

Picasso’s “Owl” is Just…Perfect.

Hey Lobster-folk,

Picasso is known for his doodles and sketches (I guess we can’t be having ‘blue periods’ ALL the time) but my favorite by far is this one, simply titled “Owl.”

 

picasso owl

 

For me, “Owl’s” quiet simplicity puts the masculine energy of a Jackson Pollock, or the spiritual aching of a Rothko to shame. What does it demand of us? Nothing, but our empathy for another creature; our willingness to let it just…be. Perhaps, at the end of the day, there is no greater or more important artistic statement that can be made.

Yours,

The Lobster.