Doesn’t this look like the artist painted a “real” bouquet? Surprise! He didn’t, at least not in the strict sense of the word. I love Dutch art from 16th-17th centuries because it’s so sneaky — the reality portrayed in the paintings is illusory (also, the paintings are justfun!) Even a very wealthy person, much less an artist (even a successful one like van Huysum) couldn’t afford a bouquet like this — the flowers would simply be too expensive. So artists painted imaginary bouquets, juxtaposing flowers that bloom at different times of the year, flowers the artists had never seen (these guys sometimes worked from prints or other paintings) or flowers that were so rare they could only be seen by visitng a specialized botanical garden, as van Huysum did on occasion (there was one in Haarlem).
It’s hard to see all the details (if you want to really zoom in on the digital image, go to the website of London’s National Gallery. It’s worth the time), but do notice the butterflies flitting about among the blossoms, the droop in a few of the flowers and, oh yes the fly! (it’s the little brown speck on the left side of the ledge supporting the vase, above the bird’s nest and below the blue flowers; find the grapes and look slightly above and to their right). A century before, these items would have been intended as a reminder that we, like the flowers and the butterflies, are emphemeral beings, and, like them, will soon disappear. Van Huysum, however, was the last of the great Dutch flower painters and by his time these floral masterpieces were largely cherished for their sheer visual beauty rather than their moral message. For any gardners wandering by my blog — how many different species of flowers can you count? (hint — there are at least twelve!) And, while you’re enjoying the blossoms, notice those adorable little cupids in the relief on the terracotta vase! And the fruit! And the bird’s nest and ……………….
I know, I know — theoretically, we all love, love, love poetry! We love it so much, in fact, that we never read it! Or am I judging everyone by myself (I think psychologists call this phenomenon “projection”!). I pretty much skip reviews of modern poetry collections and become positively indignant when the NY Times Book Review devotes an entire issue (once a year, I believe) to poetry; I immediately click away to something else if my internet journey takes me, by mistake, to a poetry site, and yet ….. it wasn’t always so. When I was a kid, I loved poetry, read tons of it and can still recite bits and pieces of my favorites by heart. I even composed quite a bit of bad poetry myself, teenagey angst-filled stuff handwritten in a grubby little notebook, which was thankfully lost in one of my many moves (there were some advantages to living in a pre-computer age — no backup files!). Admittedly, my taste (not to mention my work product) was pretty pedestrian but it was heartfelt; poetry meant something to me and I thought it should matter to everyone else. But then, in my mid-twenties, I just stopped reading and (thankfully) writing the stuff.
I think several factors led me away from poetry. Foremost, as it usually is, was “life itself” — things got busy, there were jobs and husbands to get and lose, journeys to take and places to visit, degrees to earn — well, I’m sure you get the picture. As I got older, I took to reading different kinds of literature, switching from non-fiction and poetry to a heavy diet of contemporary and classical fiction. Then, most poetry is hard; it needs to be read with care and attention (no skimming!), with the meaning slowly teased out over time and from repeated readings; quite simply, I think I just didn’t have the intellectual energy to deal with it. Last, but far from least, when I tried venturing back into poetry at various points over the years, it seemed as though poetry had moved on and that contemporary poets were writing in a language I literally didn’t understand and didn’t much like.
So — where do I stand now vis à vis this oldest of all the arts? In the last few years, I have begun to realize how much poorer my reading life is without at least a little poetry in it. Very, very tentatively I’ve returned to reading a few old favorites and I’ve actually dipped a toe into modern waters and tried the work of a few new poets (Jane Hirshfield is a favorite. If things aren’t going quite your way, try her “Three-Legged Blues.” If that doesn’t give you a little perspective on the doldrums, you probably need some serious professional help). I pay at least token homage to poetry: every April, I buy a book of poetry; I still give shelf space to the remnants of my poetry collection and I keep a skinny little file of poems that catch my eye now and again. And, this year, I’m writing this blog post! For ideas far more creative than mine on how to make your life a little more poetic, check out these suggestions from the Academy of American Poets.
Are there any other former poetry addicts out there who’ve gone cold turkey, in a way similar to me? Or better yet, or there any avid poetry readers who’d share their thoughts on what poetry means to you or how you’ve incorporated poetry into your life?
A few years ago, whenever I took even very short road trips, I began to make a point of checking out whatever art museum, historical house or major monument happened to be in my vicinity. I can’t tell you how much fun it is to do this — it’s like a treasure hunt, with something gorgeous to look at or a fascinating bit of history to learn being the treasure. And — it’s easy to do! Going to see the relatives for Christmas and driving through Florida? Don’t miss the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum at Winter Park, which has the most comprehensive collection of Tiffany glass in the WORLD! (and there’s a great Middle Eastern restaurant a block away, where you can have lunch afterwards!) Traveling to or near Pittsburgh? You owe it to yourself to detour for at least a few hours to the Carnegie Museum of Art, whose collection includes paintings by James Whistler, Mary Cassatt and Winslow Homer. Did you know that the great Impressionist painter Paul Degas had family connections in New Orleans? If you’re lucky enough to visit that charming city, take a break from the French Quarter and visit the city’s art museum, located in the middle of a vast urban park (bigger than Central Park in NYC), which includes among its holdings Degas’ portrait of his sister-in-law, painted during his 1872 visit to the city. Do you find yourself near Montgomery, Alabama? Don’t miss the chance to visit the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Civil Rights Center and accompanying monument, which was designed by Maya Lin (perhaps better known for her Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.) and lists the names of those murdered in the struggle for equality.
It’s easy to forget that the smaller museums often provide a wonderful experience that larger collections often do not: they allow you to view an entire collection in a reasonable amount of time without being overwhelmed by physical or mental fatigue, they frequently have overlooked gems and/or reflect their founders’ personality in interesting ways, and they are often located in wonderful buildings that are worth seeing just for themselves, regardless of the art they contain (check out, for example, the beautiful Palladian building housing St. Petersburg, Florida’s Museum of Fine Arts, located adjacent to Tampa Bay). Google, as always, is helpful in locating these treasures or, for the more traditionally minded, guides are available; here are two good ones that I’ve used fairly often:
Last week I was very excited to add a new gem to “my collection” of small art museums when I visited Oberlin, Ohio. Unlike my previous treasure hunts, in which the museum was an incidental discovery on my way to somewhere else, this time around the museum itself was a destination. As I have no doubt mentioned at least several million times over the brief life of this blog, I’m currently spending a lot of time, not to mention energy, in researching (and hopefully writing — that comes next!) a paper on Sofonisba Anguissola, one of those (very) rare female artists who lived and worked in 16th century Italy and Spain. As I’ve been able to discover only a few of Sofonisba’s paintings in the United States, you can imagine my excitement in February when I discovered that Oberlin College’s Allen Memorial Art Museum has one! Last weekend I was finally able to see it for myself and it did not disappoint:
Aside from Sofonisba’s painting, the museum has a small but wonderful collection of ancient, Asian and European art. The latter includes works by Cezanne, Monet (two paintings), Rubens, Jan Steen, Chagall, Matisse, Modigliani, Courbet and more! Admission is free, the staff is friendly and the interior of the building is as gorgeous as the exterior. Moreover, although the museum is clearly well-attended, there’s space and quiet to enjoy the art even on a relatively busy Saturday afternoon. Believe me, dear readers, it doesn’t get much better than this:
When you’ve finished with the museum (or before, preferences vary!) you can spend a pleasant few hours wandering around Oberlin, which is a great little college town with some remarkable attributes. Oberlin was founded in the 1830s by a couple of visionaries who combined spiritual aspirations and high ideals with ascetic notions about work and lifestyle (the founding “covenant” of “Oberlin Colony” expressly forbade its residents to indulge in alcohol or a rich diet!) The idealism bore fruit in the 1850s, when Oberlin was known as a hotbed of the radical abolitionist movement. It was also a key juncture on the underground railroad, that network of secret routes and safe houses operated by abolitionists and their allies who (at great risk to themselves) smuggled desperate fugitives escaping from the slave states to the north and freedom. Did you know that Oberlin College (then known as the Oberlin Collegiate Institute) admitted African American students from its beginnings in the 1830s and allowed women to matriculate as “regular” students as early as 1837?
Another thing that makes a morning wandering around Oberlin so enjoyable is that the college itself is almost an outdoor architectural museum, containing as it does some remarkable examples of late 19th and early 20th century buildings designed by the leading architects of their time.
Oberlin’s architectural jewels extend from high Victorian structures to an early Frank Lloyd Wright house; the latter, at one time a private residence, is now part of the Allen Memorial Museum.
Finally, Oberlin has many of the best features of a traditional college town:
A highly individual bookstore (actually, I saw two. Oberlin Books, however, seems more oriented towards textbooks) ….
Some interesting (albeit limited) retail shopping ….
… and FOOD! Oberlin has several interesting eateries; in my limited amount of time I had to limit myself to only two …..
In short, if you’re ever close to northern Ohio (Cleveland is the region’s “big” city) don’t pass up a chance to visit Oberlin!
After a bit of thought, I’ve decided to make Monday on the blog “Miscellany Day,” i.e., a time to feature whatever interests me at the moment, whether it’s a painting, photo, movie, travel experience, short story or even — a BOOK! Since it’s spring, and, around here, that means cherry blossoms, I thought that I’d make the subject of my first “Monday Miscellany” my recent excursion to the Tidal Basin to see the cherry trees. The blossoms don’t last very long — making them a perfect symbol of spring and of human existence — so if you want to see them you can’t delay. This is the first time in many years that I’ve gone to the trouble — and believe me, it does involve a little planning, as cherry blossoms mean crowds, as well as spring — but worth it, don’t you think?
Although I seldom read poetry any more, cherry trees and spring always bring me back to one of my very favorite poems, from A. E. Houseman’s Shropshire Lad:
Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.
Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.
And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.
And, speaking of nature’s beauty, I’ll end with my last image from the Tidal Basin, which perfectly expresses my own view: