Archive for November, 2011

Wonder When The All Clear Will Come

November 25, 2011

Though it is not exactly the story he tells, in his new book The Bear History of a Fallen King, French cultural historian Michel Pastoureau shows how the coming of consciousness gave its bearers power which descendents have yet even now to effectively tame.

In prehistoric times bears were feared, perhaps deified as a result, and thus immortalized on cave walls.  Common in Europe they were more than a match for dimwitted pre-humans.  Once the light went on however, so was the hunt and the rest, well, history.

By the time of Charlemagne in the late eighth century it was mere sport.  He led forays that were responsible for incredible ursine carnage – thousands upon thousands.  By the 1200 sightings in the wild had become rare.  Bears did however make trifling appearances in zoos, circuses, and traveling minstrel shows.  They’re there now nearly extinct.

Reminds me of a roundtable discussion amongst nuclear weapon developers on NPR a decade or so ago.  Moderator asked about what had led to a particular cold war multiple level of magnitude increase in throw-weight.  Answer?  “It was a sweet technological problem.  Hee, hee, hee.”

Fortunately, we also are thus far this side of extinction.  But cf the ongoing decimation of species, climate change, and pressure of well armed hungry thirsty populations, the all clear is not yet out.

Funny thing though is that, with luck, the significant expansion of North American breeding bear populations might be an indicator of a new coming to conscience.  They are messy, destructive, and sometimes violent and deadly.  Yet, “The people [in their range] look at these bears as members of the community”.*

If a friend was killed or your kitchen destroyed by Yogi or Boo Boo the incident would not be something of which to make light.  However, yesterday was Thanksgiving and maybe we should look with favor upon the fact that these days the response to an initial minor incursion might not be to whack.  That there’s maybe an incipient wonder about the cosmic distribution of sentience and consciousness.

*WSJ; 11/21/11; As Bears Multiply, Human Clashes Rise.

**Photo on top of Cro-Magnon painting in Chauvet cave from Smithsonian 12/10

Wonder If He Still Had An Accent

November 18, 2011


   OK.  See that guy?  That’s William Godfrey. He was born in Kent England late eighteen-forties and began life in an orphanage.  Somehow left/escaped and in 1855 made his way to the states as a stowaway.  Found work as a butcher’s apprentice.  Few years later mustered into the Union Army.

  Was captured and taken to the infamous “Can this be hell?” Andersonville prisoner-of-war camp shortly after its opening in February 1864.  Roughly one in three fell to its deadly mix of beatings, squalor, and disease.  Before succumbing, one, hometown Geneseo Illinois, showed a tintype of fiancé.  Her name, Myra, was the last word to leave friend’s lips.

  Emaciated and dehydrated, Godfrey said that he survived interment by making his way, under the dark of each night, over and around the dead and dying to a fetid creek.  Months felt like eternity, but miraculously, come summer, he became part of a prisoner exchange and led a group of forty men driving 200 cattle 300 miles to meet Sherman in Atlanta.

  Fourteen survived to join the General’s conflagratory march to the sea.  There, he boarded a ship which caught fire and foundered off Cape  Hatteras.  Didn’t know how to swim and went down three times that he remembered – the last of which fondly…  Came to on deck of another ship making north.

  Marched in a parade in Washington, DC.  Eastern army was done up in crisp uniforms and white gloves.  Passing before President Lincoln’s box, Godfrey and the rest of the Western army were bedraggled, barefoot, barehanded, and bareheaded.  They felt disgraced, but were fed and regained energy and horizon.

  War ended soon thereafter and he mustered out to homelessness.  Thought of that tintype which he’d somehow kept, made his way to Geneseo, and even though the scrap was by then but a vestigial facsimile found where lived she of whom it had been taken.  Found her in a garden.  Found her beautiful beyond any dream. 

  She’s the one in the photo below, at lower right.  Great-Great-Grandma Godfrey.   Babe in starched linen is my mom. Grandma Gretchen is holding her with Great-Grandma Lu standing behind.  Grandpa Godfrey was gone by then, but had apparently led every town and county parade – fully festooned – till he was no longer able.  Wonder if he still had an accent.

Wash of the Zeitgeist

November 11, 2011

The three pictures you see below were all painted by Iowa native son Marvin Cone.  All come up for auction next week.  All are interesting – all the more in juxtaposition.

The first, just below, is titled “Sunlight and Shadows – Luxembourg Gardens Paris 1929”.  Though it is expected to draw the least interest and least dinero I quite like it for a number of reasons.  First, it is indeed pleasant to look at.  Though not exactly exuberant, it conveys a fine sense of the joy concomitant with a stroll through a park in the height of fall foliage.

  And I know that park.  It’s not far from the Louvre and my first perambulations therein followed shortly after an eye-opening Art History 101 and during a revelatory term abroad.  I fell under the spell of the ‘City of Light’ the moment I stepped off the train.

And further to that point – the painting, having been executed in 1929, came well after the height of impressionism and a decade after the creation of cubism by Picasso and Braque probably just blocks away.  I relate in a proud and positive way to the combination of naiveté and insouciance indigenous to this great state.

The painting below – “White Barn No.1” clearly, if blandly, has turned away from what some (still!) would call European avant-gardism.  Stated more positively, it is a visual metaphor for the hard working, simple and straight-forward valued folks of our nation’s heartland.

  “Farm Silhouette” at bottom is expected to make the highest bid of the three lots – $125,000 to $175,000 – and for me also has the most complex emotional tone.  On one hand it evinces a crepuscular nostalgia for rural America.

On the other, well, it made me think of the Cormac McCarthy title Outer Dark and the outer dark is not a good place to be… “They aint a soul in this world but what is a stranger to me… I’ve seen the meanness of humans till I don’t know why God aint put out the sun and gone away…”

Cone painted “Farm Silhouette” in 1948 – long after the sunset of Regionalism, after the horrors of WWII, after the incredible industrialization ofAmerica, and after he and his better known brethren (Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, and John Steuart Curry) were compared with the social realists of 1930s Russia.  As an artist, on that bluff, he must have felt from afar the wash of the abstract expressionist zeitgeist.

“Farm Silhouette” is the only one of the three I’ve seen in person and an interesting experience it was.  Next to last on the scene, I took a call from a soon to arrive expert.  “Where do you have it?”  “We’re in the vault.” “Get it out of there; the blue tone of the fluorescents won’t do it justice.”

We moved to a room bathed in natural light and even though not directly before the sun, what a difference it did make.  Slapped myself in the head for the umpteenth time.*

Clearly the painting is in very good condition with original frame and stretcher.  Black light inspection showed no in-painting or restoration.  Paper trail (aka provenance) seamless all the way back to the artist.

Lot to think about…

*cf post of Sept 23, 2011.  Also, I recently listened to a tenured painting professor bemoan a temporary studio classroom lit with fluorescents.  “Unbelievably shitty…”

Route Description

November 4, 2011


  OK, I have another friend.  When he was about two or three his mother watched in horror as his great grandfather proffered to him a sip of bourbon.  Several years later while watching father and friends imbibe and pestering for a taste this friend was given a shot glass full of gin.

  Snuck some from time to time till when as a sophomore got a six pack from another friend’s older brother.  He downed five in quick succession and companion couldn’t finish the one.  Went on to college where the stuff was sanctified.  Guess that, honestly, not much happened during the week, but on weekends, well, he doesn’t really remember. 

  Vagabond years were more Dionysian than Apollonian.  Compadres were of a mind and proud to be successors to a storied group known as the “Vulgarians”.  Once, late after a revel at the Bar Nationale, one snuck up behind a gendarme and relieved him of his revolver.  Fortunately, the genius hadn’t noticed the weapon was tethered around flic neck and lost grip.

  Midst career and family this guy only occasionally lost hold and was able to cover tracks and count on short memory and collective norm.  No major bruises, breakages, or blackouts. 

  Problem really developed during shift from original indoctrination and responsibilities toward look at the future.  Seemed easiest not to deal, to make excuses, and to cover psyche’s symptoms.  Like TS Eliot wrote, “humankind cannot bear very much reality”. 

  But, then remembered Frost’s “Forgive O Lord my little jokes on thee and I’ll forgive Thy great big joke on me”.  And finally, interestingly, Michael Jackson: “If you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and make a change”.

  Me? I’ve always said that my favorite drink by far is ice water.  First thing in the morning and last at night is a huge glass of l’eau glace.  Our two ice machines are always empty.  I don’t mind when berg in my large tumbler shifts, Adam’s Ale spills, and I look like a drunken idiot. 

  Plus, know what? Ice water is good for losing weight.  In a recent WSJ* were the results of a study that found that: “Drinking cold water causes the body to burn more calories and could be an effective weight loss method…”

  Yep, climb into the sack after a tall glass and it’s shivery for a while, but dreams are crystal clear.