Wednesday, February 15, 2017

5 (Long) Reasons Why You Should Come to the USA

moody shot of sunrise over pine forest
Sunrise in northern Michigan, November 2016
I try not to write politically charged posts on this blog, preferring instead to keep the focus on art and creativity. But it's been pretty hard to ignore the news lately, and as every day passes I feel more impelled to say something that speaks to the moment.

If you love Donald Trump, you might believe that there is a media conspiracy dedicated to preventing him doing what he was elected to do. If you loathe Donald Trump, you might already think he's done enough to be impeached. Instead of stepping into that minefield, I've just been trying to think of what I would say to a foreigner if they asked me the question: Why should I come to the United States?

It's been almost exactly fifteen years since I moved here from England, so this is partly for my own benefit, too, to enumerate some of the good things I continue to see in my adopted country:

  • The landscape: the variety of the landscape in the US is incomparable. Things that stand out in my mind after travelling to 36 states: taking long walks through the hills, mountains, woods, and swamps of Vermont; watching the sun set in the Nordic pine forests of northern Michigan; driving through the rolling prairie grasslands of South Dakota, seeing the wind take visible form as it swept across a vast swathe of grass, bending the tops of the stalks and creating a shadow that rolled towards our car from five miles away like a single wave on the ocean; the astonishing beauty of the western deserts, from the high desert of New Mexico to the Mars-like red rock landscape of the Mojave desert to the spiky Joshua Tree-filled lands of the western Mojave. One can find similar examples of outstanding natural beauty in different parts of the globe, but I can't think of another country that has some of the best examples of every kind within its borders.
  • The cities: yes, it's true that consumer culture seems like it can turn every town into an identikit collection of roads, ranch houses, and strip malls, with a Starbucks on every corner and a Walmart out by every highway. But the further you go in the States, the more you see the individual cultures of different cities: the Yankee-Irish vibrancy of Boston, the colossal energy of New York City, the Caribbean-French-Black culture of New Orleans, the Mexican-Indian heritage of the southwest, the subtle laid-back feel of San Francisco. 
  • Friendliness: if I only watched cable news, I would probably end up hating everyone and everything, no exceptions. But if I step back and think about everyone I know, and most of the people I have met during my time here, I would say that everyone, almost without exception, has behaved politely towards me on first meeting. And some of the finest human beings I've ever met -- the most intelligent, the most civic-minded, the most outward-looking, the kindest, the funniest, the most beautiful -- are Americans.
  • Positive attitude: it's a cliche about Americans that they are positive, "have a nice day" spouting go-getters. But the cliche happens to be true. If, like me, you're a European with an awareness of the tragedies of human history and a generally pessimistic view of human nature, the American disposition to believe that the best is yet to come and that everything will turn out ok in the end can be wearing. But I only have to spend a little time in Europe, where a general "can't-do" attitude can turn asking for a coffee into a power struggle, to make me miss being among people who generally want to make something happen rather than complain about the impossibility of changing things.
  • Openness: this is related to the last point. In England, and even when I encounter British people in the States, I can guarantee that within a few minutes of meeting for the first time, the "accent game" will be underway. That is, the British person will say to me "where are you from?" As soon as you name your home town, you can almost see the wheels turning in their brains as they try to answer the question they really want to ask, which is "what is that accent?" Which to a British person, means "what does your accent say about your social origins, and where do I place you on the social scale in relation to my accent?" In the USA, a variation of this can happen, but usually because even the mildest foreign accent can sometimes completely flummox them (particularly, I have to say, rural Americans). It's never about social class. Mostly, when I tell an American where I'm from, they just say they've always wanted to visit there, they did visit and they loved it, or they have relatives who came from there.

There are other things I could say, but if you've never visited the USA before, the cities, landscape, and the general attitude of the people are still more than enough reason for you to consider a visit.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Masterpieces Restored

When you enter the church of St. Sulpice in Paris, there is a small side chapel immediately on the right decorated with murals painted by Eugene Delacroix. Regular readers might know that Delacroix is a particular favourite of mine, and I've always wanted to look at these works, but they've been covered for renovations during my last few visits to Paris. To my delight, they were finally back on display when I went to the church n the middle of January.

Place St Sulpice, Paris
Corner of the Place St Sulpice with the church in background
On the left of the chapel as you face it, you see Jacob Wrestling with the Angel. Looking up, you see St Michael and the Dragon. On the right, you see Heliodorus Driven From the Temple.

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel

Heliodorus Driven from the Temple

St Michael and the Dragon
It's always a good question to ask why a public painter chose certain subjects, and these seem at first curious choices. In the story of Jacob, it's possible that Delacroix saw a metaphor for his own struggle with painting. This interpretation is reinforced by clues Delacroix painted into the pile of clothing lying in the foreground: the arrows sticking out of the quiver are actually paintbrushes, and the straw hat is painted from Delacroix's own hat. Delacroix worked on the commission for twelve years, and in fact he moved to a studio-house on the Rue de Furstenburg (now the marvellous Musee Delacroix) to be closer to the church.

After years of anticipation, I confess I was slightly disappointed in the murals. They don't have the power of the great paintings that now hang in the Louvre, such as The Death of Sardanapalus. But they are nevertheless filled with that instantly recognisable use of writhing human figures, and his mastery of complementary colours (particularly the red-green contrast in the Jacob painting).

Six restorers worked for more than a year on the restoration, and even in my less-than-great photos you can see how the colours.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

From the Journal of the Society of Arts, February 1864

While researching a new blog post about seeing Eugene Delacroix's murals in the church of St. Sulpice, Paris, I came across this announcement from the Journal of the Society of Arts, 1864:

It's a report of the sale of the entire contents of his studio, which is on the Rue Furstenberg in the St Germain des Pres district -- and which I wrote about visiting two years ago. Certain details indicate the excitement of the writer, even in what is otherwise a report of objects and prices: "contains no less than 858 lots," "numerous and remarkable decorative works of art." It goes on to describe the sketchbooks and watercolours:

The final part of the notice talks about the success of the sale, and the large sums of money being paid for the works:

The final total is between 7,000 and 8,000 pounds, which would be roughly 600,000 pounds at the current exchange (I used a chart from the Bank of England's website to do the conversion). A later notice, at the completion of the sale, states a total of 15,000 pounds, or about 1.5 million. Even that seems on the low side, considering how much an estate sale of a comparably important artist of our times would fetch.

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