Sunday, February 27, 2011

Immersed in Fragonard's World, or, A Kiss at the Frick

One of Lobster & Canary's favorite places is the "Fragonard Room" at the Frick Museum in NYC. (Click here for the Frick's description of the room, and scroll down especially for the superb virtual tour.) We could sit for hours there, moving only to shift our gaze from one painting to another, deepening our selves into what Fragonard portrayed, until we are wholly absorbed into the Arcadia, flowing with the progression of love, until we are part of the story and indeed make the story our own.

But where is this place? It is a fantastical world created through the ever-changing interaction between Fragonard's paintings, their positioning in the physical space at the Frick, and the viewer-- an immersive, interactive, multimedia game avant la lettre. (*) It is a play setting, with a narrative suggested, yes, but waiting for the viewer to complete it, make it real-- to join it. An enclosed garden of the mind, lush, feathery and fronded; Fragonard takes us into the mysterious woods-- those copses striated with walls and statuary-- other artists put in the background of their grand historical or religious paintings, the vistas glimpsed from the window behind a duke or on a hillside above the procession. Fragonard puts us inside, and teases us to fulfill and participate in a story of intimacy, desire, pursuit, consummation and contemplation. (**)

We are surely near the enchanted wood in A Midsummer Night's Dream:

"Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night..." (Act II, scene 1/ Oberon speaking to Puck).

And to the Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia:

"Does not the pleasantness of this place carry in itself sufficient reward for any time lost in it, or for any such danger that might ensue? Do you not see how everything conspires together to make this place a heavenly dwelling? Do you not see the grass, how in color they excel the emeralds [...]? Do not these stately trees seem to maintain their flourishing old age, with the only happiness of their seat being clothed with a continual spring, because no beauty here should ever fade? Doth not the air breathe health which the birds (both delightful both to the ear and eye) do daily solemnize with the sweet consent of their voices? Is not every echo here a perfect music?"

And who are the players? She seems startled, he uncertain, or is that merely a trick of our eye? Have they a prior connection? Is he agent for another, or a principal in Cupid's game? What words does he use to entreat and plead his case? What words does she use to deflect, encourage, taunt or reassure?

Is he doomed Acis and she Galatea? ("Not Showers to Larks so pleasing,/ Nor Sunshine to the Bee;/ Nor Sleep to Toil so easing/ As these dear Smiles to me," as Pope said of them). Is the giant Polyphemous lurking just beyond the pastoral gate?

Perhaps he is Amadis of Gaul, reuniting with Oriana, to protest his faithfulness after his long absence on the Insola Firme, and to plan how best to overcome the enmity of her father, King Lisuarte?

Or maybe she is Aricia, overcome with relief to be welcoming Hippolyte in the Forest of Erymanthus, protected by Diana, and to have survived the rage of his stepmother?

Then again: could this be Polexandre, finding at last after so many adventures on strange and elfin shores, his Alcidiane, heretofore only a vision and a hope?

Finally, what is to become of the young lovers? As Dryden posed the question in "The Flower and the Leaf; or, The Lady in the Arbour":

"...she gave her maid to know
The secret meaning of this moral show.
And she, to prove what profit I had made
Of mystic truth, in fables first conveyed,
Demanded till the next returning May,
Whether the leaf or the flower I would obey?"

If ever you can, dream yourself a while into the Progress of Love in the Fragonard Room at the Frick-- it will well repay your effort.

(*) Scholars have done good work exploring how Fragonard and the Madame du Barry envisioned the placement of the original four paintings at her chateau and how Fragonard might then have positioned the four plus the additional two in his relative's house when du Barry rejected the paintings. The lively academic debate underscores the importance of understanding the context of the art, of seeing these scenes not in isolation but as a unified composition...stills from a movie or play, as I view it.

(**) A brilliant riff on Fragonard's "Progess of Love" is Yinka Shonibare's "Jardin d'amour" installation at the Musee du quai Branly in 2007. Click here to see this. Lobster & Canary is a huge fan of Shonibare's ongoing revisionist interpretations of Western art (we noted his recent show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art). Fragonard to Shonibare, in the garden of love-- a multi-player game that has been "online" for centuries, drawing on themes and characters going back to Homeric times...

Sunday, February 20, 2011

A Picnic Along a River Flowing In Several Directions At Once

The Thames that housed the prison-hulk holding Magwitch, the Trave along which the fate of the Buddenbrooks unfolds, the Seine that bisects the drama of the Comedie Humaine are no less invented than the Rain Wild River up which both dragons and Bingtown Old Traders sail, the rivers Tar, Gross Tar, and Canker that feed “morbific” New Crobuzon, and the River Moth that sustains Ambergris (sv. “Festival of the Freshwater Squid” in Duncan Shriek’s history). The mainstream literary world periodically forgets, ignores or even tries to dam the shared headwaters and the connecting rivulets. Happily the currents seem to be converging once again, the latest eddying in the long-running debate over the idea and utility of fiction, a debate tinged in Western thought with wariness over the seductive but potentially misleading powers of mimesis.

David Hartwell has charted the creation of a mainstream literary world in the United States that excluded by the mid-twentieth century what is now sold as fantasy & science fiction. He captures the process with this anecdote:

“Late in this process of marginalization, I recall that in an English Literature course at Williams College in 1961, when I was assigned E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, the chapter on fantasy was the only one skipped. ... Realism was good art; the novel of the inner life of character was good; the fantastic was not.”

Michael Moorcock traces a similar course for fantasy in his native England:

“It’s probably fair to say that the rift between romanticism and realism began to manifest itself in the mid-19th century... [...] While Jane Austen established our taste for the subtle social novel, it took F. R. Leavis to insist that moralistic realism was the only serious form of fiction. ....we are still haunted by the more old-fashioned school of criticism with which I grew up and which believes fantasy to be not quite kosher.”

A few readers—Colin Wilson, Guy Davenport, George Steiner, famously Auden—continued to discuss, say, Tolkien along side Musil, Broch and Mann, but for decades they were lone eels against the stream. (Might we see Virginia Woolf—who died in 1941--as their forerunner; the Woolf of Orlando, and essays such as “The Strange Elizabethans” and “The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia”?). Remarkable in its uniqueness, The New Yorker published fourteen of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Broceliande tales between 1972 and 1976, including “The Duke of Orkney’s Leonardo.” In the past fifteen years or so, however, and with accelerating vigor, the stream has reversed itself—the eels, now numerous, are racing with the current.

Dating the points at which the river undid the oxbow is hard. Moorcock suggests as one juncture Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass winning the Whitbread Award for best children’s novel in 2001. Certainly the river spills its banks from that point, with the unprecedented success of Rowling’s Harry Potter series (1997-2007) and the Lord of the Rings films by Peter Jackson (2001-2003), the National Book Foundation’s awarding Stephen King its Medal for Distinguished Contributions to American Letters in 2003, the Man Booker long-listing Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell in 2004, and the Library of America issuing editions of H.P. Lovecraft (2005) and Philip K. Dick (2007-8).

Acceptance—indeed, canonization—of these authors by an expanded and expanding mainstream is the waterfall. Earlier came a hundred upwellings, spates dragging up the riverbed, the subtle redirecting of currents that ultimately forced the banks to collapse. Some notable waves along the way include Moorcock’s Mother London shortlisted for the Whitbread in 1988, and Octavia Butler receiving, as the first-ever writer of speculative fiction, a MacArthur Foundation “genius award” in 1995. I suspect Angela Carter’s many essays in the London Review of Books, The Guardian and elsewhere in the 1970’s and ‘80s also did much to validate the fantastic for the “common reader.” Joyce Carol Oates, Marina Warner, A.S. Byatt, Umberto Eco, Salman Rushdie and Jeannette Winterson were (and are) other good friends to the genre, likewise Borges, Calvino, Cortazar and Carpentier in their times, making the fantastic salonfaehig without taming or stunting it.

In short, “fantasy and science fiction”—I prefer Clute’s term “Fantastika” and Mieville’s “the weird fiction axis”—looks more and more like the books shelved over in the “literature” section. And vice versa: think Junot Diaz, Helen Oyeyemi, David Mitchell, Rabih Alameddine, Ben Okri, Michael Chabon, W.G. Sebald, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, among others. Our meta-discourse sounds more and more like that attending “literary production.” Whether the bywater came to the river, or the river to the slough, is less interesting than the fact of conjunction. More interesting still is where the conjoined river will take us next.

[Citations & References:

Hartwell, “The Making of the American Fantasy Genre,” in Peter S. Beagle (ed.), The Secret History of Fantasy (Tachyon, 2010; orig. pub. 2009), p. 368.

Moorcock, Wizardry & Wild Romance: A Study of Epic Fantasy (MonkeyBrain, 2004; revised ed., orig. pub. 1977), p. 16.

For the nineteenth century’s rejection of the “falsifying genres,” see George Levine, The Realistic Imagination (U. Chicago, 1981). On the downstream impact of rigid genre channeling, see Nancy Ellen Batty, “ ‘Caught by Genre’: Nalo Hopkinson’s Dilemma,” in A.L. McLeod (ed.), The Canon of Commonwealth Literature (Sterling, 2003). For insights on current genre-blurring: Neal Stephenson, “Science Fiction Versus Mundane Culture,” at Science Fiction as a Literary Genre symposium, Aug. 5, 2008 at Gresham College, London,

Wilson, Tree by Tolkien (Capra, 1974); Davenport, The Geography of the Imagination (North Point, 1981); Ross Smith, “Steiner on Tolkien,” Tolkien Studies 5 (2008); Auden, The Dyer’s Hand & Other Essays (Random House, 1990; orig. pub. 1962).

Chabon, Maps & Legends: Reading & Writing Along the Borderlands (Harper, 2008); Conjunctions:39—The New Wave Fabulists, ed. by Peter Straub (Fall, 2002); Okorafor, “Is Africa Ready for Science Fiction?,” (August 12, 2009); Jas. Patrick Kelly & John Kessel (eds.), Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology (Tachyon, 2006); Rusty Morrison & Ken Keegan (eds.), ParaSpheres: Extending Beyond the Spheres of Literary and Genre Fiction (Omnidawn, 2006); the two Interfictions anthologies, edited by Sherman with resp. Theodora Goss and Christopher Barzak (Interstitial Arts Foundation, with Small Beer Press, 2007 & 2009); Goss, Voices from Fairyland (Aqueduct Press, 2008); Laura Miller, The Magician’s Book (Little, Brown, 2008). Also: Matthew Cheney’s blog The Mumpsimus; VanderMeer’s Ecstatic Days; Cory Doctorow’s column in Locus; John Scalzi’s Whatever.]

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Tao of Tiepolo (Gesturing with Roberto Calasso)

I remember staring at the vistas painted by Tiepolo in the Residenz at Wurzburg, yearning to float up and join the jolly, sleek figures in their billowing clouds, bathed in milky light. That was 25 years ago, and still I dream of Tiepolo's celestial fields and the swirling squadrons of gods, angels, wise men, and cherubim.

No one captures the essence of Tiepolo-- and the sheer in-sighing of his works-- better than Roberto Calasso, whose study of the painter was published by Knopf in 2009 (well translated by Alastair McEwen) as Tiepolo Pink. Calasso is one of the most original thinkers alive today: polymathic, eccentric, finding connections that others miss, making his case with gentle flamboyance (some of his points seem innocuous at first glance, only to reveal their ambition upon closer reading). He dares the reader to follow him along strange trajectories, using his erudition not as a bludgeon but as a diviner's rod.

Lobster and Canary will come back to Calasso and Tiepolo Pink in later postings. For now, we are tasting this amuse-bouche by Calasso, half-understanding what he means, and anticipating the teasing forth of further meaning:

"Tiepolo is an extreme example of Taoist suppleness in art, a quality inconceivable before him, and never attained after him. If he was shelved for a century, if certain canvases of his lay rolled up in storehouses, it was only because history rightly perceived him as an intruder, while it stubbornly worked to make sensibilities denser, more unsophisticated." (pg. 32, Calasso, Tiepolo Pink).

Friday, February 4, 2011

Hubble Ultra Deep Field; Kepler-11

* Peering back to the Big Bang...

Last week astronomers announced in Science that they have found what might be the oldest object ever observed in the universe, a galaxy known as UDFj-39546284 in a part of the heavens known as the Hubble Ultra Deep Field.

The galaxy appears to have born just 480 million years after the Big Bang, i.e., some 13 billion years ago.

What a glorious discovery! Piercing the veils of night to find the Old Ones, original star stuff.

* Finding new worlds....

Also last week another group of astronomers, analyzing data from NASA's Kepler space telescope, announced in Nature the discovery of over 100 Earth-size planets in other solar systems.

My favorite so far is a clutch of six planets circling a star called Kepler-11, c. 2,000 light-years away. Five of the six may have atmospheres, although none of them appear capable of supporting life.

These discoveries (we only found the first exo-planets in 1995) make our Earth a little less lonely. Just knowing we have siblings, however remote and however silent, brings extra cheer to the canary.