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It’s hard to say which is better known, “The Scream” or “Mona Lisa.” The DaVinci has been called priceless, Munch’s painting has the more exact price of $119,922,500.00, which is getting up there toward priceless.
You may wonder why anyone would pay around $120 million for a piece of board, no matter what was portrayed on it in pastel. Of course, this is more than a board with a pastel drawing on it. It’s a figure of a man screaming under a blood red sky. Furthermore, it’s a fine example of Expressionist art, and in the view of some critics Expressionism was the bridge between Impressionism and abstract art, so this work has historical value as well.
It’s also true — and this may contribute more to answer the question of why pay so much for this portrait — that the image is remarkably recognizable, hence famous. OK, so it looks like the crayon work of a talented but deeply troubled adolescent. But people who have seen any of the artist’s four versions of “The Scream” remember it. It’s been reproduced on mugs, in cartoons, T-shirts and even an inflatable toy the size of a small child. It doesn’t matter whether you see it in a book or tacked on a college dormitory wall, the image is wholly different from what you’ve seen before.
So, like a celebrity who is famous for being simply famous, the painting has become famous, ubiquitous. Social critics and pop psychologists have contributed their heavy insights, saying that “The Scream” embodies contemporary angst and that the 1895 art work was prescient, forecasting the dreadful times that lay ahead. And maybe you’ve learned that Munch wrote about the inspiration for the work and later painted it on the frame, as a poem: I was walking along a path with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.
Finally, during the past few months Sotheby’s, the auction house which handled the sale, pumped the media full of curious information about the work and it’s probable sale price. And Sotheby’s did well. Every report from those who were at the auction sounds as if the auction was a spectacular theatrical event all of its own.
There’s been some speculation that whoever bought “The Scream” — and the price rules out the notion that a museum purchased it — sought it simply as a way to bank some of his or her millions. I mean, you have to put your money someplace, after all. The idea in this instance is that no matter the vagaries of the stock market, the painting will go up in value. We skeptics at Critical Pages don’t think so. We think paintings have a hard time getting big bucks at auction when the stock market has collapsed and, furthermore, there are fashions in art just as surely as there are fashions in clothing.
There’s no telling why whoever bought it wanted it so fiercely that he or she was willing to pay so much. We doubt it was a lust for art. Anyway, it’s more colorful than the “Mona Lisa.” And “Mona Lisa” wasn’t up for auction.
Joan Didion’s most recent book is a meditation on the death of her only child — a death which followed shortly after the death of Didion’s husband, which she had recorded in her previous book. Such events stagger the imagination and most of us avoid thinking of them. Jo Page, the essayist and fiction writer, is also a Lutheran pastor and has thought about these things longer than many of us. We’re happy to present her reflections in the essay below.
I started reading Joan Didion’s book, A Year of Magical Thinking, out of a blend of fear, horror and a voyeurism I didn’t like in myself. In it she details the sudden death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, which occurred while she was also dealing with a succession of illnesses that afflicted her 39-year-old daughter, Quintana Roo. Quintana died after the book was completed.
The Danish proverb, “shared sorrow is halved sorrow,” may be true, but in my reading the book I was not doing anything to reduce Didion’s sorrow. I was just looking in at it.
Didion now has a new book out, Blue Nights, which is another foray into the landscape of loss, in this case, the life and death of her daughter. Writing in New York magazine, Boris Kachka says “The book is about many things: mental illness, fate, and our overgrown faith in medical technology. But it is most importantly a reckoning with her shortcomings as a mother.”
Though I was drawn to read A Year of Magical Thinking, I will not be reading Blue Nights for more reasons than the obvious one: that the subject matter is brutally sad. It’s more complicated than that and more personal. I’m a mother watching the slow ascent into adulthood of my two daughters and I find it a difficult and sometimes heart-wrenching job.
In parenting—or at least in mothering—there are always two constants: fear for your child’s welfare and doubt about whether or not you are doing a good job in loving them and raising them. These twinned constants—fear and doubt—are absolute states. Why I ever thought this would lessen as they grew up I have no idea.
But as I watch my daughters outgrow their childish need of me, I feel a fear of becoming useless and a sense of my own mortality. That all sounds grim, I know, but I’m not alone in this. Kyra Sedgwick of all people, with brilliant insight, described mothering grown children in terms of employment: “You’ve had this job forever, it’s the job you always wanted to do, and you were pretty good at it. Then you get fired for no reason!”
Once they’re past a certain age you recognize there are no do-overs. You recognize that what you’ve done as a mother, you’ve done. You can’t shelter them as you once could from all the perils we move among in our lives. You can’t shield them from the slings and arrows of adulthood.
Didion, however, wades deeply into the fear and doubt terrain.
When we talk about mortality, she writes, we are talking about our children: “Once she [Quintana Roo] was born I was never not afraid. I was afraid of swimming pools, high-tension wires, lye under the sink, aspirin in the medicine cabinet. . . . I was afraid of rattlesnakes, riptides, landslides, strangers who appeared at the door, unexplained fevers, elevators without operators and empty hotel corridors. The source of the fear was obvious: it was the harm that could come to her.”
She fears she is neglecting her daughter. She feels she bears some responsibility for Quintana’s mental health issues, her overuse of alcohol. She finds Quintana’s journal and castigates herself for reading from the perspective of a writer rather than a mother.
Enough. In fact, too much.
When my children were younger I used to write about them fairly frequently. As they have gone from childhood into early adulthood I write about them less and less. I think it’s partly out of a sense of respect for their lives. Their stories were once mine to tell as I wished. Now they belong, fully, to them.
It isn’t that Didion discusses her daughter’s life story that bothers me about Blue Nights. It’s that she’s calling awareness to the irreversible and the irretrievable. Unlike her long partnership with her late husband, the relationship between parent and child is unstable and mutable; its hallmark is that children grow up, move on, and claim the rights to their own stories.
Parents lose the rights to those stories, however close the bond between parent and child remains. And I do hope the bond between my daughters and me remains strong; I’d love to be one of those mothers whose daughter lives close enough to see each other frequently, without involving long car drives, plane tickets or hours of separation.
But that’s not my decision anymore.
They will make their own choices. They will tell their own stories. And I will remember, not without bittersweetness, the stories of theirs that I have been able to tell.
You know who painted the glorious sun-shot scene just above. (You’re right, it’s by Claude Monet.) And you know who painted the scandalous nude below. (Right again, it’s by Édouard Manet.) And you can probably recognize a painting by Berthe Morisot or, if not a Morisot, surely a few peaches by Cézanne or a dancer by Degas. You’re familiar with these 19th century painters because you like their works. In fact, a great many people enjoy paintings by Manet and Monet and Cezanne and Pissarro and Seurat and – well, the list goes on.
As printing technology and inks evolved over the past hundred years, copies of images by these painters spread across Europe and the West. Reproductions of their paintings are now for sale everywhere from classy shops offering expensive prints to book stores selling illustrated kitchen calendars. But have you ever heard of Ernest Meissonier? Have you ever looked at one of his paintings? Have you ever seen even cheap print of his work? (If you said No, you’re in the great majority.) Yet in the world of art, Ernest Meissonier held top place far above those other painters. In fact, he was the most famous and, as a result, the richest painter in the Western Hemisphere. And he wasn’t just a pop success. He was the favorite of art critics, was showered with awards, and his paintings commanded the highest prices. Here below is one of his better known works.
Now you know. Meissonier was most highly regard for his exactitude – he was a great horseman and at one point had a special mini-railroad track laid out so he could be pulled in a cart along side a galloping horse to study the movements of the horse’s legs with greater accuracy. He had a collection on military garments and knew the position and color of every button and ribbon; he once had a group of cavalry ride across a wheat field, trampling it so he’d be able to more accurately portray a particular battle which involved such a scene.
But political, social and cultural forces are always changing, and what constitutes the best in art evolves with those changes. France and the city of Paris itself underwent great and at times horrific changes, and these inevitably played out in galleries and salons as well. Precision and exactitude, polish and finish, lost favor to a new way of portraying the world. The revolutionary and sometimes scandalous vision of painters like Manet and Courbet began to make sense to people. And Ernest Meissonier went into eclipse, a penumbra from which he’s unlikely to emerge. (more…)
Maybe you recall the movie Before Sunrise and its follow-up, Before Sunset, or perhaps you’ve seen L’Auberge Espagnole along with it’s sequel, Russian Dolls. These aren’t new films. The earliest, Before Sunrise, was made in 1995 and the most recent, Russian Dolls, came out in 2005. They’re not deep, heavy-weight films. But they’re interesting movies with remarkably authentic, likeable characters and real conversations — a rarity in movies — and they offer us the special pleasure of seeing fictional people blunder and develop over time. Each of these films was an acclaimed critical success. If you haven’t seen them, you may have four movies to enjoy.
Before Sunrise and Before Sunset focus exclusively on two characters: Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Cèline (French/American actress Julie Delpy.) In Before Sunrise, this pair of twenty-something travelers meet on a train and end up together in Vienna where they spend the night talking, getting to know the city and each other until they part at sunrise. That’s it, they talk and get to know each other and promise to meet again in six months. These are two very engaging and intelligent young people who are open to experience and who hook up the way young people do. That they are interested in each other’s ideas (Not exclusively, of course. This is an imitation of real life.) places this movie above just about every other twenty-something flick.
But Jesse and Cèline don’t get together six months later. The sequel, Before Sunset, was filmed nine years later, and the story takes place after the same lapse of time. Celine attends a book store reading by Jesse, now a successful novelist who is in Paris to promote his book. Jesse has a plane to catch and the couple have only “until sunset” to talk, to catch up on each other’s life. They’re the same talkative, engaging, interested and interesting people they were nine years earlier, but they’ve matured. Or, to put it another way, life has knocked them down a few times. Jesse is unhappily married and has a son he loves; Cèline, an environmental activist, is unsatisfyingly involved with a photojournalist. Happy marriages are not easy to come by, but maybe this thirty-something pair has a future. Or maybe not.
Before Sunrise and Before Sunset are narrow aperture films that focus wholly on two characters. Furthermore, Before Sunset plays out in real time, giving the viewer an even more closely framed cinematic experience. On the other hand, L’Auberge Espagnole and Russian Dolls are sprawling stories with a jumbled multitude of characters, and Russian Dolls spreads out geographically, too, taking place in Paris, London, St Petersburg and Moscow. (more…)
You probably know about Sarah Palin’s novel misinterpretation of Paul Revere’s ride – the famous gallop he made through the countryside to warn the militias, the Minute Men, that the British were coming. According to Palen, Paul Revere rode through Boston warning the British that “they weren’t going to be taking away our arms.” In addition to giving comics another opportunity to skewer the irrepressible Sarah, her remarks have drawn attention to the ride and to Longfellow’s poem about it.
“The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” is a wonderful poem to memorize and to recite. It’s an exciting, colorful narrative and the lines go at a great gallop — yes, yes, we know it’s a romanticized rehearsal of the facts, but it’s still a great, rousing poem with many memorable passages. And what’s wrong with a burst of rousing rhymed patriotism? Let’s enjoy this.
The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.
He said to his friend, “If the British march
By land or sea from the town to-night,
Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch
Of the North Church tower as a signal light,–
One if by land, and two if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm,
For the country folk to be up and to arm.”
Then he said “Good-night!” and with muffled oar
Silently rowed to the Charlestown shore,
Just as the moon rose over the bay,
Where swinging wide at her moorings lay
The Somerset, British man-of-war;
A phantom ship, with each mast and spar
Across the moon like a prison bar,
And a huge black hulk, that was magnified
By its own reflection in the tide. (more…)