Food debates

Kathleen lays out potatoes, freshly dug from the ground, on our living room floor for drying.

Kathleen lays out potatoes, freshly dug, on our living room floor for drying.

I had this conversation with a young person the other day.

Young Person: I can’t eat that.

Doug: Why not? I grew it myself in my own garden.

Young Person: Look at it! It’s covered in dirt.

Doug: I’ll wash it off.

Young Person (hot with conviction): It grew in the dirt. Dirt! Bugs crawled all over it–I get sick just thinking about it.

Doug: That’s the way things grow. Soil, water, sunlight. Fertilized by you know what.

Young Person: That’s disgusting! I’m not eating anything like that.

Doug: Well, Precious, where does your food come from?

Young Person: You really want to know? I can’t believe this! It’s like I’m talking to a child. See this. (points to a bag of cookies) It’s clean. No dirt! And it tastes good. It has a brand name everyone’s heard of so you know that it’s safe.

Our conversation breaks off here. We go our separate ways, convinced the other is a lost cause. The young person believes food grows in plastic bags with fancy labels, protected by factory protocols from such harmful things as the outdoors and natural elements. For my part, I think such humble things as soil, water and sunlight may be essential for the growth of food. Furthermore I believe it’s unwise to despise the very things that are essential to us.

My conversation with the young person is complicated by two additional factors: religion and psychology. Sociologist Mary Douglas tells us that eating habits reflect religious values. If you’re an ecologist, then industrial farming, genetically modified food and fast food are abhorrent evils. If you worship technology, pop culture and mass media, then you’re likely to scoff at traditional farming methods, organic food, sit-down meals and eating with your family. Fast food goes hand in hand with the belief that what God wants for you is to make your life as easy and convenient as possible, especially in the short term. People’s accelerated eating habits mirror a revolution in people’s religious thinking. We no longer “reap what we sow.” Instead “we deserve a break today.”

How can two sides have a conversation when each side feels their religious values and indeed their very sanity is being called into question? Freud coined a phrase “reality testing,” which he claimed each of us do all the time. We are constantly testing ideas and images with everyday experience. This is not to say we don’t fool ourselves and make up crazy justifications for foolish actions. You might say every act and exchange is a kind of test, but we fudge the results. We cheat, misread and ignore the results of our tests. Freud believed that the perpetual cheaters developed nervous disorders. He believed this could happen to cultures and to societies as well as to individuals.

Is there any way we can reality-test our food, religion, sanity debate? One test could be: try growing your own food. Try growing food outdoors in soil; try growing food indoors without soil, water or sun. We can give a name to this test: self-reliance. Why is self-reliance important? It’s an aid to survival. It develops character and self-confidence. It provides an individual with a solid foundation from which to grow. The opposite of self-reliance is dependence on others. In a specialized world, we all come to depend upon the services of others. But with this dependence, we learn to be critical, to compare services and costs. We share notes with our friends and join networks. We are vigilant to avoid scams and traps. When we receive bad service, we protest and boycott. In short, we become wary and diligent shoppers. This is another form of reality-testing.

In a complex world, we need both forms. We need to do things for ourselves and when it’s not practical to do this, we need to join networks that engage in critical evaluation. The young person and myself, we may not always agree on our food, but I hope that we can agree that helplessness, isolation and uncritical thinking are harmful ways of being. When we agree on the importance of productive and active reality-testing then we can start to join together and build a truly healthy community.

The Ghosts of Alice Munro

Alice Munro

Alice Munro

When it was announced this week that short-story specialist Alice Munro had won the Nobel Prize for literature, Canadians from coast to coast shook their heads in wonder and smiled inwardly with deep satisfaction. Canada has produced many great writers, but no other writer has such unequivocal support or is more admired than Alice Munro. She writes with modesty, with precision, with insight into human character and has the skill to evoke a powerful range of feelings with subtlety and nuance. She is truly Canada’s Chekhov.

The following quote by Munro has appeared in just about every tribute and news-story about the author: “I want to tell a story in the old-fashioned way—what happens to somebody—but I want that ‘what happens’ to be delivered with quite a bit of interruption, turnarounds, and strangeness. I want the reader to feel something is astonishing—not the ‘what happens’ but the way everything happens.”

But how exactly does Munro achieve this? I approach this question by looking at two stories about neighbors, “The Shining Houses” (from Dance of the Happy Shades, 1968) and “Fits” (from The Progress of Love, 1985). One is the story of the cruelty of supposedly good people; the other traces a town’s reaction to the murder/ suicide of an elderly couple. Both stories have an outward action and an inward action. Events trigger reactions and it is the contemplation of these reactions that awaken a new sense of understanding in the central characters.

Munro's first collection of stories, Dance of the Happy Shades

Munro’s first collection of stories, Dance of the Happy Shades, 1968

“The Shining Houses” has a single narrator and the story revolves around her sudden awareness of the vulnerability of an individual who stands apart from the impulses of the community. In a neighborhood that is being gentrified, rapidly changing from sparse unkempt hobby-farms to densely-packed suburb with well-attended gardens and manicured lawns, one old lady who refuses to change is seen as a bothersome nuisance; her home is an eyesore to the movement of progress. A plan is put in place to evict the old lady and have her house torn down. The narrator sees the callousness of this scheme, and the uncharitable lack of sympathy for someone who represents part of the history of the place. The new neighbors act selfishly, but disguise this self-interest as community virtue. This is how Munro describes it: “And these were joined by other voices; it did not matter much what they said as long as they were full of self-assurance and anger. That was their strength, proof of their adulthood, of themselves and their seriousness. The spirit of anger rose among them, bearing up their young voices, sweeping them together as on a flood of intoxication, and they admired each other in this new behaviour as property-owners as people admire each other for being drunk.”

When the narrator refuses to go along, she realizes, as an individual acting in opposition to the group, she opens herself up to a similar kind of targeting. So why does she take the oppositional stance that she does? She is powerless to help the old lady who will be evicted. She has no influence within the group. Still there is a sense that by voicing her opposition, she has performed a small act of courage and held true to her own conscience. She may pay a price for this in the future. In fact that price has already begun as the narrator starts to separate herself from the others in her mind.

The Progress of Love

The Progress of Love, 1985, winner of Governor General’s Award for fiction

“Fits” has a more complex structure with its diverse narrators and multiple back-stories. Reactions to an unexpected and gruesome crime reveal striking differences among the characters, whose values are shaped by long-ago events. A husband thinks back on his former love affairs with married women, affairs he now regards as an avoidance of reality. Munro writes: “‘There are things I just absolutely and eternally want to forget about,’ Robert had told Peg. He talked to her about cutting his losses, abandoning old bad habits, old deceptions and self-deceptions, mistaken notions about life, and about himself. He said that he had been an emotional spendthrift, and had thrown himself into hopeless and painful entanglements as a way of avoiding anything that had normal possibilities. That was all experiment and posturing, rejection of the ordinary, decent contracts of life. So he said to her. Errors of avoidance, when he had thought he was running risks and getting intense experiences.”

Tiring of these passionate but difficult entanglements, the man marries a practical woman who shares his desire for a home and family. Unfortunately, his wife lacks imagination, as well as the ability to share her deepest feelings with others. This failing becomes glaringly clear after the wife discovers the bodies of the murdered couple. The wife informs the police but neglects to tell a single member of her own family of her horrific discovery, nor does she confide to them any sense of her reaction to this shattering event.

The way people talk and interact with one another is one of Munro’s chief concerns, the bridges and barriers created by the slightest of gestures. She sets up the differences between husband and wife like this: “His friendliness and obligingness were often emphatic, so that people might get the feeling of being buffeted from all sides. This is a manner that serves him well in Gilmore, where assurances are supposed to be repeated, and in fact much of the conversation is repetition, a sort of dance of good intentions, without surprises.” In contrast to the husband’s garrulousness is his wife’s reserve. “Peg smiled as she would smile in the store when she gave you your change–a quick transactional smile, nothing personal … Robert once told her he had never met anyone so self-contained as she was. (His women have usually been talkative, stylishly effective, though careless about some of the details, tense, lively, ‘interesting.’) Peg said she didn’t know what he meant.”

The husband contrasts his wife’s non-reaction to the crime to the over-reaction of the town’s people who can’t stop talking about the murdered couple and the possible motives for why it happened. The husband is aware of his own over-active imagination. It’s a flaw, but at least it is one he’s able to share, along with his struggle to manage it in appropriate ways. After a long winter walk, he decides to return to his wife, though he remains troubled by her cool demeaner.

The story ends with new information, information unknown to the husband. This information suggests the wife was indeed affected by the scene she witnessed. She was so affected that she lied about certain details in order to cover-up what she went through. The husband doubts his wife, but his understanding of her is incomplete and imperfect. This is where the story ends, with doubts, lies, and an imperfect understanding of the other. It is not the murder that is strange in this story; it is the way the murder leads to a maze of unexpected connections and misconnections, misgivings and unresolved needs, among the seemingly unimportant characters.

Alice Munro as a young woman.

Alice Munro as a young woman.

I’m tempted to link Munro to the movement of Magical Realism often associated with Gabriel García Márquez, Isabel Allende, Salmon Rushdie, and other writers who mix fantastic elements into otherwise closely observed and detailed stories. While Munro’s prose is not as saturated and flowery as these more ‘tropical’ writers—she has that Northern coolness of temperament—two key features of Magical Realism abound in her work: the multi-layered stories-within-a-story and the presence of ghosts. By ghosts I mean the sudden (often inconvenient) eruption of the past into the present and the feeling of characters being haunted by a force not known or knowable by others.

In the stories I’ve cited, the evicted woman in “The Shining Houses” serves as a kind of ghost and she affects the narrator in ways that her other neighbors will never understand. The evicted woman is the only character with a back-story, which tells of a ghost-like husband who abandoned her. Munro has her narrator uncover this fact: “She did not talk to many old people any more. Most of the people she knew had lives like her own, in which things were not sorted out yet, and it is not certain if this thing, or that, should be taken seriously. Mrs. Fullerton had no questions of this kind. How was it possible, for instance, not to take seriously the broad back of Mr. Fullerton, disappearing down the road on a summer day, not to return? ‘I didn’t know that,’ said Mary. ‘I always thought Mr. Fullerton was dead.” “He’s no more dead than I am,’ said Mrs. Fullerton, sitting up straight … ‘he’s just gone off on his travels, that’s what he is.'” The old woman refuses to move from her rundown house because otherwise how will the ghostly husband ever find her? The eviction, which she does not know is in the works, will cause a metaphysical rupture from which it is unlikely she will recover. This is the purpose of the ghost.

“Fits” draws its title from a theory advanced by the character Robert: people behave like landscapes that are prone to periodic earthquakes, eruptions, and other fits, the causes of which are largely hidden and invisible. The ghost in this story is also a husband who has deserted his wife and disappeared in search of a place that is equal to his imagination. The ghostly husband represents the need for imaginative or psychic connection with another person. Without this, one encounters the ghost state of metaphysical rupture. Robert has taken the ghostly husband’s place and sees a similar dilemma opening up before him. “A man doesn’t just drive farther and farther away in his trucks until he disappears from his wife’s view. Not even if he has always dreamed of the Arctic. Things happen before he goes. Marriage knots aren’t going to slip apart painlessly, with the pull of distance. There’s got to be some wrenching and slashing.” Fits of strangeness reveal the truth that any life contains its fair share of secrets and scars that can never be entirely erased, as well as images and emotions that cannot be communicated adequately from one person to another.

I’d like to thank my sister Janet Pope for suggesting the topic of this post and for lending me copies of the two stories by Alice Munro. Along with the books, Janet wrote me the following note to add to this blog:

“Like an archaeologist assigned an unpromising site, Alice Munro takes ordinary people and starts digging through layers, accumulations, detritus of the past till she uncovers evidence of a richly imagined life. This patient exploration in story after story changes the reader. She enlarges the assumptions we had about others which are usually narrow and static. She makes us see that people are endlessly complex, ‘moving out of their prisons, showing powers we never dream they have.’ Through the Munro process, we, as ‘ordinary people,’ learn to recognize and respect our subterranean depths.”

Double Solitude: Animals in the Art of Alex Colville

AlexColville.TragicLandscape,1946

Alex Colville. Tragic Landscape, 1946

Slow and meticulous, almost clinical in his approach to art, Alex Colville is not thought of as a spontaneous reporter embedded in the thick of action. Yet this is precisely how he started his career, going directly from art school to the battlefields of WW II. His deployment as war artist in 1944 took the budding Canadian artitst overseas for 18 months. Colville’s book, Diary of a War Artist, testifies to the formative nature of this experience. One of the lessons Colville learned was that a detached point-of-view that eschews overt emotion paradoxically adds to the viewer’s emotional experience of the work. Colville also sensed that in wartime mundane actions take on an inordinate importance for soldiers involved in dangerous and uncertain missions. These lessons were unexpectedly confirmed after the war when Colville found time to visit the major art galleries of Holland. Here he encountered Dutch Baroque art and recognized in deHooch and Vermeer two kindred spirits. Colville saw how these artists turned away from the exoticism, violence and supernatural elements of Biblical stories, replacing this external drama with an internal drama that recognizes in daily life its own mystery and significance.

alex_colville_1978_Dog_and_Priest

Alex Colville. Dog and Priest, 1978

Art critic Tom Smart has defined one of Colville’s most important themes: the need for order in a world that threatens to disintegrate into chaos at any moment. Many commentators use the words “anxiety” and “alienation” when describing Colville’s work. Yet it is hard to say just where or how this anxiety arises. The faces of figures are often hidden or obscured, creating a mask-like effect that adds mystery and intrigue to the image. While the action depicted in the image is often frozen, the composition is so precisely worked out that there is an unconscious feeling that if anything moves the delicate balance will be marred or revoked.

Alex Colville. Hound, 1955

Alex Colville. Hound, 1955

In his exhibition catalogue Alex Colville: Return (Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, 2003), Tom Smart notes how animals in Colville’s work function as surrogates for the artist. There is undeniably a close  relationship of people and animals in these images. To the point that Colville portrays domestic animals with a seriousness, sensitivity and rapport rarely seen in the history of Western art. What makes the artist’s rapport with animals so unique is the way he suggests that animals sense the world differently than people do. In many cases, animal senses may be more acute and perceptive than human senses and faculties of recognition.

One of my own life goals is to increase my appreciation of the world I inhabit, to cultivate a finer awareness of the things around me. Colville suggests that animals have an extraordinary awareness of the world around them. They are curious and alert seekers. People  empathize with animals and are able to share their experiences as co-adventurers. Colville uses animals to suggest the expansion of consciousness through empathy with another creature. But at the same time humans are clearly separate from animals and the recognition of this separation is a reminder of the inherent limitation of our consciousness.

Alex Colville. Cyclist and Crow, 1981

Alex Colville. Cyclist and Crow, 1981

“Colville has said: ‘I am inclined to think that people can only be close when there is some kind of separateness.’ When he says this, Colville does not mean the egotism of ‘having one’s own space,’ but rather the responsibility of caring for the individuality of the other.” (Burnett 1983: 108). In his essay, Alex Colville: Doing Justice to Reality, anthropology professor David Howes  concludes:  “the Canadian soul is never at one with itself: its “integration” is contingent upon being juxtaposed to some double, as in Colville’s couples [or human/ animal pairs]. In Canada, the minimal conceptual unit is a pair as opposed to a one.”

It is this double solitude, empathy combined with an acceptance and respect for difference, that underlies most of Colville’s paintings featuring animals and people. Colville uses animals as agents helping us increase our awareness of the world, as well as teaching us to tolerate difference and appreciate aspects of the world that are beyond our understanding.

The Flying Change

Kathleen read me this poem last night from one of May Sarton’s journals (After the Stroke):

I see that age will make my hands a sieve/ But for a moment the shifting world suspends/ its flight and leans toward the sun once more/ as if to interrupt its mindless plunge/ through works and days that will not come again./ I hold myself immobile in bright air/ sustained in time astride the flying change. — Henry Taylor

It made me think of forces I cannot control. Getting into a mind space where I am less of a control freak, where I just allow things to happen, accept the things that do happen, while also contributing to making things happen. To participate in the forces of change enjoying both “the moment the shifting world suspends” and  the “mindless plunge” alike.

 

Words and Pictures: Joanne Light

Joanne Light. Mariposa Rosa and Her Cat, 1976

Joanne Light. Mariposa Rosa and Her Cat, 1976

A long overdue post about Nova Scotian artist and poet Joanne Light  whose exhibition of images and texts was recently held in Halifax at the Unitarian Church Hall. The series of brightly-coloured paintings emerged from the memory of a childhood struggle with the concepts of good and evil. These concepts were introduced in terrifying hell-fire sermons that both mesmerized and bewildered Joanne as a child. In her exhibition, Joanne draws in the style of her younger self as she tries to exorcise demons from the past. The exercise is filled with humour, as allusions to pop culture and invented characters spring up along the way. Accompanying each image are texts in poetry and prose. For the opening of the exhibition, the artist skillfully blended words and images in a performance accompanied by slide projections.

Joanne Light has worked as a teacher and writer in various parts of Canada, including several years in Northern communities. Her interest in landscape and geography is apparent in both her poetry and her visual imagery.

Joanne Light. Clone Goods Do a Bad Disguise as Mother Nature

Joanne Light. Clone Goods Do a Bad Disguise as Mother Nature

 

Treacherous Waters: The Talented Mr. Ripley

The Talented Mr. Ripley. Cover of the 1st edition, published by Coward-McCann in 1955

Tom Ripley is a counterfeiter, con artist and murderous anti-hero, yet his journey of self-discovery is strangely compelling in Patricia Highsmith’s gripping crime novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley, first published in 1955. There are many ways to regard this novel: as a portrait of human pathology, as an adventure story, as a travelogue, as a critique of American values of the 1950s. Today I approach this novel as part of a series of blogs on water imagery and symbolism in art & literature.

The cover of the first edition gives some hint to the meaning of water in the novel. It serves as a barrier separating characters, preventing their understanding of one another. Water also runs a meandering, unpredictable course–like the twisting plot that features false identities, murder, pursuit and cover-up.

Early in the novel, Highsmith upsets expectations of water signifying anything romantic. “The atmosphere of the city became stranger as the days went on … As if when his boat left the pier on Saturday, the whole city of New York would collapse with a poof like a lot of cardboard on a stage. Or maybe he was afraid. He hated water. He had never been anywhere before on water, except to New Orleans from New York and back to New York again, but then he had been working on a banana boat mostly below deck, and he had hardly realized he was on water. The few times he had been on deck the sight of the water had at first frightened him, then made him feel sick, and he had always run below deck again, where, contrary to what people said, he had felt better. His parents had drowned in Boston harbour, and Tom had always thought that had something to do with it, because as long as he could remember he had always been afraid of water, and he had never learned how to swim.” (p. 25)

The Queen Mary steaming down the Hudson River in 1946. Tom would have boarded a similar ship on his passage to Europe.  Photo by Andreas Feininger

The author connects water in Tom’s mind with childhood trauma. But the ocean voyage also has a liberating effect on Tom. “He began to play a role on the ship, that of a serious young man with a serious job ahead of him … He was starting a new life. Goodbye to all the second-rate people he had hung around and had let hang around him in the past three years in New York. He felt as he imagined immigrants felt when they left everything behind them in some foreign country, left their friends and their relations and their past mistakes, and sailed for America. A clean slate!” (p. 34-35)

Patricia Highsmith at work

The story reflects aspects of Highsmith’s own life. Her self-exile from the USA, restless travels, learning languages, making new friends and growth as a writer. The excitement of fresh encounters is tempered by memories of an unhappy childhood and the persecution she felt living as an openly gay woman in McCarthy-era America. She spent time in Mexico, Italy, and France before settling in Switzerland and finding a receptive ear at the Swiss publishing house Diogenes Verlag.

 

In Highsmith’s novel, the first function of water is to separate the characters into two realms: the worldly but rootless Europeanized Americans and the vulgar money-making stay-at-home Americans. The next function of water is to set Tom on his way to discovering what kind of person he is, identifying and developing his own unique talents. This is the classic hero’s journey, something the reader might well identify with. Perversely Tom’s talents involve lying, deception and murder–all socially unacceptable traits. Tom tries to fit in with the people he encounters, and is stung by their rejection of him. The rejection is largely based on class prejudice. Tom is not rich and independent like the others. He does not own a yacht. He lacks their education and knowledge of art and foreign languages. However he is a quick study and is able to mimic their ways quite easily. At first this mimicry amuses the superficial young aristocrats, who nonetheless feel themselves to be innately superior to Tom. This smug superiority arouses a murderous resentment.

The novel changes moods abruptly. These changes often occur around water.  The first murder takes place on water. Tom Ripley kills a man, but has trouble disposing of the body. In the process Tom is accidently knocked overboard. “He was in the water. He gasped, contracting his body in an upward leap, grabbing at the boat. He missed. The boat had gone into a spin. Tom leapt again, then sank lower, so low the water closed over his head again with a deadly fatal slowness, yet too fast for him to get a breath, and he inhaled a noseful of water just as his eyes sank below the surface. The boat was farther away. He had seen such spins before: they never stopped until somebody climbed in and stopped the motor, and now in the deadly emptiness of the water he suffered in advance the sensations of dying, sank threshing below the surface again, and the crazy motor faded as the water thugged into his ears, blotting out all sound except the frantic sounds that he made inside himself, breathing, struggling, the desperate pounding of his blood.” (106-107)

This terrible scene is followed by a couple of pages detailing Tom’s escape from death and his recuperation in a nearby town. He boards a train and feels himself begin to change. “The white, taut sheets of his berth on the train seemed the most wonderful luxury he had ever known. He caressed them with his hands before he turned the light out. And the clean, blue-grey blankets, the spanking efficiency of the little black net over his head–Tom had an ecstatic moment when he thought of all the pleasure that lay before him now … other beds, tables, seas, ships, suitcases, shirts, years of freedom, years of pleasure. Then he turned the light out and put his head down and almost at once fell asleep, happy, content, and utterly, utterly confident, as he had never been before in his life.” (p. 111-112)

Actor Alain Delon plays Tom Ripley in the French film, Plein Soleil, 1960 (directed by René Clément), the first of many adaptations of The Talented Mr. Ripley.

Water suggests a reversal of fortunes. From grovelling subservience to wealthy independence. A powerless working-class youth, unrecognized by the world, becomes a resourceful self-confident criminal. But Tom’s confidence periodically gives way to paranoia. Just as water covers up evidence of Tom’s crime, the fear arises that either the body or the stolen boat will wash ashore or resurface in some incriminating way. It is part of Highsmith’s perverse genius that she encourages the viewer to root for the villain, to cheer when he eludes capture, keeping this addictive story going.

The novel ends as it begins on a passenger ship. The sea as barrier and divider of people, as deadly, deceptive, ever-changing in its moods, is an appropriate symbol for this reckless adventurer who counts on luck and his own devious improvisational skills to make his way in the world.

 

Water & Photography

Street photography pioneer André Kertész (1894-1985) brings a poetic surrealism to everyday activities. My discussion of three photographs in which water appears in Kertész’s work is Part 2 of a series on treatments of water in art. (Part 1 here)

André Kertész. Underwater Swimmer, Hungary, 1917

The Underwater Swimmer shows water as a source of recreation. It is integral to good health, self-renewal, an image of rebirth. We are not shown the edges or confines of the pool: it is a microcosm, a mini-universe. The man adapts so perfectly to these conditions that he seems almost amphibious. The water both reflects light and is a medium through which light travels. Both of these properties elicit a sense of wonder and surprise in the viewer and add to the magic quality of the image. The water produces playful patterns, while the thrown shadow makes the figure appear to soar above the bottom of the pool.

André Kertész. Homing Ship, Central Park, 1944

Moving from Budapest to New York via Paris, Kertész, a Jewish refugee, turned his back on the horrors of the Second World War, though the image of a sailboat on the run does hint at his own precarious immigrant status at this time. A puddle in a city street or cobbled square produces momentary mirror-like effects of a fantastic upside-down world through which characters pass as in a dream. Part of this dream quality comes from the fact that the characters themselves are unaware of how dream-like their world is. The boat that runs away from a vanishing pool of water seems to affirm reality is stranger than fiction.

Kertész  had trouble selling photographs in America. Editors told him his compositions were too complex, often with the key action of the picture happening in the distance rather than in the foreground. (Pierre Borhan, André Kertész: His Life and Work, 1994, pp. 24-28) But this deep-focused multi-planed world is precisely what makes the images so charming and so charged with irony, as one character is oblivious to a telling aspect–the signs and symbols–of the city around them.

It is highly characteristic of Kertész that he uses a puddle as his source of water imagery. What could be more transitory, more humble, more ignored, even scorned than a puddle in the street! Yet these fortuitous pools help the photographer transform an ordinary street scene into a scene from a dream.

André Kertész. Rainy Day, Tokyo, 1968

In this hillside parade of teetering umbrellas, Kertész uses a high angle view to create a humorous effect. The pedestrians, diminutive and anonymous underneath their bulky shields, appear to be corralled and herded by the signs and signals of the urban environment. Water is an important part of this environment. Though invisible in the photo, water conditions this absurd behaviour. Kertész encourages us to laugh at ourselves, but there is no shame or superiority in this laughter. Rather there is a sense of empathy and understanding, delight and transformation.

Kertész skillfully exploits the properties of water–luminance, reflectivity, mutability, invisibility–to add poetry to mundane situations. In his image of the swimmer, he shows water as a source of health and renewal. In his picture of the sailboat on the run, he shows water as a transient and vanishing substance whose presence should not be taken for granted. In the picture of the umbrellas following an arrow, he shows water as an invisible part of life to which we make necessary adaptations. In all, water is an important element of this photographic dream diary of the 20th century played out on the streets of its greatest cities.

 

 

The Young Man and the Sea

Water and ocean appear frequently in the art of Robert Pope. They reflect his need to connect images with a sense of place, his native Nova Scotia, a peninsula surrounded by the North Atlantic. The artist presents his environment as an ever-changing water-world, open to voyages of the imagination. This blog looks at different uses of this water imagery, and how these changes affect the meaning we read into them.

Robert Pope. Study for Harbour, 1985.

In 1985, Robert developed an image called Harbour. A couple seen from above view a dazzling array of irregular shapes and foamy swirls in moving water. The hypnotic patterns invite a state of reverie, reflection and daydream.  Robert wrote in an artist’s statement from this time: “I believe we take aspects of our physical environment as metaphors for our experience. Our lives are directly affected by the economic and environmental benefits of the sea. We are drawn to its beauty and danger. Its ancient rhythms reflect our notions of life and eternity.”

 

Robert Pope. Surf, 1988

In his painting, Surf, an enormous wave crashes between a couple. The water voices their sense of  exhilaration, passion, annihilation. The painting is from a series based on Elizabeth Smart’s experimental novel, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. Here is a sample quotation: “But I have become part of the earth: I am one of its waves flooding and leaping. I am the same tune now as the trees, hummingbirds, sky, fruits, vegetables in rows. I am all or any of these. I can metamorphose at will.” (p. 43)

In this context, the word “metamorphosis” indicates the transformative power of love, both in its positive inspirational aspects and its obsessive, self-destructive aspects. The painting uses water as a symbol of this transformation. The crashing wave also alludes to Hokusai, the great Japanese artist (1760-1849) who worked in the genre known as ukiyo-e. Ukiyo-e translates as “pictures from the floating world,” meaning the in-between world, the not-quite respectable world of pleasure, travel and adventure opening up to the newly prosperous middle class. In Hokusai’s most famous image, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, Hokusai contrasts the violent and transitory effects of water with the calm permanence of the distant Mt. Fuji. Robert looked for similar contrasts in his own work, but with more of a focus on human psychology.

Robert Pope. Metamorphosis, 1986

Robert Pope. Sketchbook studies for Metamorphosis, 1988

In the studies at right for the painting Metamorphosis, the water’s abstract patterns turn a woman’s face into a jigsaw puzzle–a woman drowning in love. Smart writes how she “craves violence for expression, but can find none. There is no end. The drowning never ceases. The water submerges and blends, but I am not dead. O I am not dead. I am under the sea. The entire sea is on top of me.” (Elizabeth Smart, p. 118-119) The mood becomes darker here, though Robert’s image suggests birth as well as death. The water functions almost as a mask. Through psychological projection, the water becomes symbolic of a state of mind, the unconscious and its powerful effects on human character.

 

Robert Pope. Patient Daydreaming, 1986

Robert was being treated for cancer at this time. (He died in 1992 of the side effects of the treatment for Hodgkin’s Disease.) Above is a sketchbook drawing done from his hospital room in Princess Margaret’s Hospital in Toronto. He is dreaming of escape to another place, turning his confined room into the cabin of a fantastic ocean voyage.

Robert Pope. Intravenous Solution and Ocean, 1991

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Robert’s subsequent series “Illness and Healing,” the ocean landscape gives way to a hospital landscape filled with busy doctors, staff, technicians, patients and visiting family. Yet water imagery reappears in one key image. An I-V pole stands before a window, with the ocean visible beyond. The painting contrasts interior with exterior, contrasts vertical pole with horizontal waves, contrasts medical instrument (science) with nature, contrasts the liquid in the solution bag (feeding into the patient’s bloodstream) with the limitless waters beyond.

In a sketchbook Robert copied the passage: “God come down out of the eucalyptus tree outside my window, and tell me who will drown in so much blood.” (Elizabeth Smart, p. 35) Underneath, Robert noted: “Blood is a simultaneous symbol of birth, life and death. Water operates the same way, a life-giving substance that one can drown in.” The picture Intravenous Solution and Ocean shows no patient, but indicates a dream-like interior where an awkward instrument provides an artificial life-line. The image suggests end of life, which mysteriously may not be the end. The water encourages the viewer to think of infinity, continuity, cosmic forces transcending the limits of our perspective of individual being.

Water appears in different ways in the art of Robert Pope. Water provides a sense of place. Water is playful, transformative, unpredictable and dangerous. Water is composed of patterns that are hypnotic and graphically compelling. Water assists the psychological projection of mental states. Water serves as a kind of mediation of unspeakable feelings between two figures. Water evokes a dream of escape, an invitation to daydream and imagination. Water suggests new perspectives on our fixed notions of time and being. These new perspectives have religious overtones, as well as being a statement of creative possibilities for artist and viewer.

 

 

 

 

Poesia: Art, Love & Inspiration


The figures are half submerged in shadows. The landscape features lush trees, a distant shepherd and flock, a water fountain, a luxuriously clad musician and friend and two naked goddesses (who may or may not be visible to the self-absorbed gentlemen). It is a tantalizing picture of love, music, nature and inspiration. This poetic painting, so moody and mysterious, suggests mythology without illustrating a specific story.

Giorgione, Fête Champêtre, 1509-1510

Nature imagery and love poem combine in Renaissance art in an “enigmatic pastoral” genre often referred to as poesia. This blog looks at two more recent examples of poesia to demonstrate the adaptability of this remarkable genre.

In modern times, the painters Manet and Munch revolutionize the lyrical mood of these pastoral images by introducing troubling contemporary elements, suggesting strongly the need for love, but implying that love is imperfect or imperfectly fulfilled.

Edvard Munch. Dance of Life, 1900

In the image above, Munch’s dancers move from the youth on the left to the lonely widow on the right in a symbolic cycle of life. The moonlit landscape, a meadow that overlooks a beach, casts an eerie spell on the figures who move as if in a trance through their allotted roles. Munch turns poesia into an allegory, where love is seen as a kind of obligatory social expectation and those who fall outside the norm of it find themselves unhappily cast out.

Robert Pope. Orchard, 1987.

The Canadian artist Robert Pope (1956-1992) added his own take on this ever-changing genre. The above image shows a landscape that both separates and connects figures who stand as if awaiting the signal for a duel. The artist turns natural elements like the apple tree into a mandala-like signifier that must mediate the unspeakable feelings of his spellbound lovers. The landscape is charged with energy and significance, but the meaning is ambiguous. Like the Giorgione, the image is moody and mysterious. Like Munch, the image of love unfolding suggests both anxiety and compulsion.

In Orchard, there is a mythic allusion to Adam and Eve and the forbidden tree of knowledge. Like other peosia images, Robert’s Orchard departs from the mythic source to tell its own story. Robert was inspired by Elizabeth Smart’s novel By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept (1945), the story of an unhappy love affair between a poet and a married novelist. The figures in the painting are poets, much as the figures in the Giorgione’s poesia are musicians. By creating a series about poets who break a taboo by falling in love, Robert returns to Giorgione’s theme of artistic inspiration, but complicates it by suggesting that the practitioners of art, poetry and love enter a dreamscape that is dangerous and possibly forbidden.

The Garden of Eden is ultimately a story of acquiring knowledge and self-awareness, a knowledge that makes people human, but also separates them from nature. This separation is symbolized by the expulsion from the garden. Poets and artists see the world differently. Instead of accepting exile and taking pride in our separation from nature, poets dare to dream of reuniting with nature, of re-entering the garden. Robert’s Orchard suggests that the landscape, so central to the poesia genre, may not symbolize an idyllic safe-haven for poetic inspiration, but rather a kind embattled almost unrecognized zone to sneak into at night at the user’s peril.

Poesia is a genre still vibrantly alive in contemporary art. The license these poetic images take with mythology allow them a flexibility to adapt to new circumstances and changing attitudes. At its best, the genre is mysterious and paradoxical, exploring both social and rebellious elements in processes of love, art and creativity.

A retrospective of Robert Pope’s work is currently on view at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax and will be on view until December 9, 2012. More info on Pope’s work and his legacy can be found at the Robert Pope Foundation website.

 

Paperback Art

Romance, surrender, rescue. The girl in the boy’s arms. The girl in the robot’s arms or the monster’s fist. Screaming, swooning, terror, ecstasy. The very stuff of movies, harlequin novels, trashy drama. Guilty pleasures.

Book cover, 1950 and Movie Poster, 1956

Book cover, 1950 and Movie Poster, 1956

Why is the Asimov cover image (seen above) uninspiring, whereas The Forbidden Planet poster is fun, saucy and weird? The tilted perspective, the grinning face, the bathing beauty–is she an astronaut or an extra from a Tarzan movie who walked onto the wrong set? No pretence at realism here. Enter loveable Robbie the Robot, stick in a Chinese pagoda, fainting women, Grand Canyon rock forms, and it is, as advertised, amazing. The movie sadly does not live up–how could it?

Cover art: E. Gorinstein

Compare this delightful cover illustration by E. Gorinstein from the 2002 J’ai Lu edition of Les robots (I added the English title pun). Here we see robot not as alien monster but rather robot as funky car. Its eyes serve as headlights, antenna as steering wheel/ gear shift, chin plate as pedal. The astronaut looks bored for a space cowboy, which adds to the humour. This is not an astonishing adventure but something he does every day. Like operating a backhoe. The purple Ziggy Stardust spacesuit adds a note of style. The illustration depicts one of the early stories in Asimov’s vision of human-robotic symbiosis and delightfully conveys Isaac Asimov’s humour of robot psychology.

Expedition_to_earth.BallantineEdition 1953, Cover Art Richard Powers

 

Illustrator Richard Powers

The most versatile and experimental of science fiction illustrators. A complete illustrated list of his book covers can be found on the invaluable site, Internet Speculative Fiction Database. Early work owes a debt to surrealism. Later work makes use of paint splatter and collage. This 1953 cover illustrates Clarke’s story The Sentinal, the starting point for the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. A monolith, depicted as an irregular undulating pyramid, is shown on the surface of the moon with the Earth in the distance beyond. The monolith raises the question: is it a natural form or a manufactured object? An ant-sized human figure throwing a giant shadow appears on the horizon under a hovering blimp-like eye.

 

Case of Conscience, 1958. Cover Art by Richard Powers

Starship Troopers, 1959. Cover art Paul Lehr

Here is another cover by Richard Powers. In the story, missionaries and scientists establish a colony on a remote planet with few natural resources valuable to humans, except for a substance used in the making of nuclear bombs. The colonists debate whether they should reveal the truth to other humans or suppress it.

Abstract expressionism, atomic structures in a novel obsessed with Cold War posturing. Both an anthropological approach to SF, and a religious fable, James Blish’s A Case of Conscience is cited by Orson Scott Card as a strong influence for his novel Speaker for the Dead. 

 

 

Cover art Paul Lehr

The insect-like space craft with its dark cavernous shadow, monumental in scale next to the uneven line of waiting figures, produces a bizarre effect, as in the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch. We ask what is it, in this confrontation with the unknown. The green sky with blue clouds suggests an alien atmosphere. The yellow fire on the horizon is all that distinguishes sky from ground. The luminance of the wash, the hard sheen of metal, the contrast of scale, all give this design a graphic punch that matches the drive and gusto of Heinlein’s writing.

Cover Art by Bob Pepper

 

 

 

Illustrator Bob Pepper

Just how do you illustrate a Philip K. Dick novel anyway? Using a Pop Art approach, as in this illustration by Bob Pepper, is not a bad idea. Pop Art is linked to the mass consumption of a consumer society. Pop Art is often produced using similar methods of mass reproduction like Andy Warhol’s silkscreen prints. Other artists mix Pop icons with Op Art, using bright colours, bold semi-abstract patterns suggesting psychedelic material or attitudes of mind, as well as an ecclectic sensibility that is as open to comic books as it is to Eastern mysticism. In this illustration, Pepper shows the mask-like features of a face barely covering a skeleton and robotic gears, from which seem to pour a parade of clone-like sheep. It immediately makes one think: does a robot have a mind and if so how human is that mind? What exactly are we looking at here? Man or machine? This is the very ambiguity that underlines Dick’s novel.

Album Cover Art by Bob Pepper

Remember a time when people got pleasure just looking at an album cover? More on artist Bob Pepper can be found here.

Popular movies, books and art share ideas and strategies for conveying other worlds. Experiments with visual styles, such as surrealism and Pop Art, unite books of the future with the period in which they were created. The references to Fine Art push a once-marginal genre to new levels of respectability. Pulp art is fun, pushing proprieties of tastefulness. Modern art is innovative, pushing boundaries of aesthetic experience. Science fiction cover art draws on both, adopting visually daring designs to match the unconventional ideas found inside the covers.

Cover art: Richard Powers