Saturday, April 25, 2020

Paris France by Gertrude Stein is infuriating, simplistic and ... a lot of fun!

Gertude Stein's Paris France is infuriating, arrogant, simplistic, and ... a lot of fun to read. Her style, bare and repetitive like a song, is not as stylized as in some of her other books. The sentence patterns, loose but not too loose, are repetitive without driving you to distraction. Combined with the humor and the wit, the style makes for a more pleasant read than say A rose is a rose is a rose, and actually succeeds in courting musicality.

Stein muses about what France is at its essence, and this is the distillation of her analysis, if you can call it that:
"So there are two sides to a Frenchman, logic and fashion and that is the reason why French people are exciting and peaceful."

This sentence appears in modified versions on nearly every page, as a necessary conclusion. The question is, who the hell did Gertrude Stein think she was to be able to resume France in the 1900-1940s in a sentence? An arrogant prick, that's who. But a sympathique prick, no doubt.

Below she argues the French perceive themselves as Latin because they are logical. Ok. Maybe. Then she states logical people do not want to go to war, and certainly Stein proves by that deduction that sheis not French and logical, because in fact the logical Romans really had a thing about going to war all the time.
"When you first really get to know the French one of the first things that puzzles you is the insistence upon their latinity. They do not consider Italians or Spaniards latin, but they the french are latin, they insist upon being Gauls but all the same they are latin. Finally I realised that what they meant was that the spirit of latinity was kept purer by them the Gallo-romans than  it was in Italy which lost its latinity when they were overcome by barbarians and never recreated it, they might take on the forms and symbols of Rome but essentially the latin culture went out of Italy and it never existed in Spain so its true home has been France. And there is a good deal of truth  in it all. At first I did not know what they were talking about but gradually I did begin to feel what they meant by their latinity.
    They meant of course logic, the only people who were interested in logic were the Romans, logic because logical people are never brutal, they are never sentimental, they are never careless, they are never intimate, in short they are peaceful and exciting, that is to say they are French. The French understand war because they are logical, they do not care to go to war because they are logical, and to be logical is to be latin. That is what I was gradually understanding. It took me a long time to really understand it."

She assembles paragraphs of sweeping judgments, some of which are intriguing, others simplistic, often both. These ramblings, which are not actually rambling in the sense of over loquacious but in their lack of depth, are intercut with stories and anecdotes whose importance seem to originate from having been witnessed by Madame Stein, or have happened to people known by her, Dukes for example.
Stein and Toklas at their most stylish

Stein feels quite confident in answering the question of how come France was the cultural capital of the world, or at least of the Western world in the late 19th century/early 20th century. This bygone era has become history, as the French capital has lost this title to New York City, and Beijing, and Berlin, and Kinshasa, and Singapore, and Delhi. Despite her ironical, distanced tone, Stein's excitement at having been a part of the Parisian scene is still palpable:

"So the 20th Century did need France as a background. France might play with the idea of the destruction of the family as the beginning and end of everything but it could never convince any Frenchman and so France was a background for beginning of the 20th Century, it had had its one real effort to believe that the family and the things the family holds in its hands and walks on and eats and drinks and which belong to that family, they had their try-out of trying not to believe and that’s it the beginning of 19 century in the first french revolution, but it really was not interesting. Wars yes and excitement yes, but really not interesting. There is no logic to it, no civilization to it and no fashion.       So when the 20th Century was going to start in to try it out all over again, the Frenchmen were very content to be in it but not of it." I guess her writing teacher did not tell her about getting rid of "so" in her texts.

Some of her judgments do not apply to modern France, and it raises the question of whether France has changed, or Stein was wrong. She states that the French do not punish their children. Now, the French punish their children much more than Americans, even corporeal punishment is common in all classes of society.

Despite the book being called Paris France, it's full of anecdotes about Stein's neighbors in the countryside, and these stories do work as a windows on France before WWII. The content seems to have been the result of the following process: Stein and Toklas take a walk with their dogs close to their countryside home. They run into people and have a nice little chat with them. Stein the genius extracts a great insight about France from the meeting, and a relevant anecdote.

The book is short, written in an easy tone, fun, and not a bad read for anyone interested in that period of French history. Personally, I have sympathy for Stein, because she was a woman, a lesbian, and made no mystery about it. In the vein of the self aggrandizing, flamboyant, vociferous celebrity, she gets my vote over Hemingway, even if he had a hell of a sharp pen. And below, as a parting gift, is a story with a nice narrative, and striking images, such as these small boys on oversized bicycles because the French were not rich enough to give bicycles to their children. Children bikes probably didn't exist. Here's this sweet piece:

"Helen Button was her name and she lived in war-time. She lived somewhere but the thing that is important is that she lived during war-time.
There is a great deal of war-time in history and Helen Button lived in it. (...)
   Of course children do go in and out as they like a great deal more in war-time than in peace-time for there is not much use in just staying at home while it is war-time. 
   Helen Button started out with her dog William. As they were walking along suddenly William stopped and was very nervous. He saw something on the road and so did Helen. They neither of them knew what it was at first and at last as they approached very carefully they saw it was a bottle, a bottle standing up right in the middle of the road. There had been something in the bottle but what, it looked dark green or may be blue or black, and the bottle was standing up in the middle of the road not lying on its side the way a bottle on the road usually is.
   William the dog and Helen the little girl went on. They did not look back at the bootle. But of course it was still there because they had not touched it.
   That is war-time.
   When Helen went out there were a great many little boys on the large bicycles about. The bicycles were so tall that they cannot get on the seat at all but they were all over the country wriggling from side to side to have their ride and when they saw water and some of the roads were under water they went forward and back through the water to make it splash. That was because their big brothers and their fathers were gone away and that made so many more little boys able to play. 
   Then Helen did know it was war-time. 
   Helen and her dog William were out every day and almost every evening and they always saw someone. They knew a boy named Emil who was a big boy with very large eyes and a dog named Ellen. Ellen the dog had been born in the country against which they were fighting. Emil looked at his dog and wondered if he could love him. The dog loved Emil but could Emil love him.
   As Helen and her dog William came along Emil's dog Ellen sniffing along the side of the road in the sand and finally went sniffing up the bank. Helen's dog William went sniffing too. Perhaps there was game there, very likely because in war-time men did not go shooting nobody hunted anything only dogs and cats hunted in war-time, Emil the boy with large eyes sighed about this. He said dogs hunt in war-time but they do not get much, anybody could see two or three dogs going together to hunt and waiting to see if anybody saw them because in peace-time of course they can not go hunting. Then Emil said but cats in peace-time or in war-time, they sit and watch and prey. (...)
   Helen had a grandmother and when she had been the age of Helen there had been war-time. She told Helen how one day she had a slice of bread and there was very little bread to be had, but she did have a good big slice and she was just commencing eating it. A soldier came along an enemy soldier on a horse, he stopped and got off this horse and not roughly but he did, he took the slice of bread out of her hand, she had just had one bite and he gave it to his horse who ate it and he went away on his horse and he did not say anything."

Please note: I have tried to reproduce the text's random capitalization. For Stein, all French people seem to be men, and a dog named Ellen is a he. In the story of Helen, the characters all have English names or English spelling of French names. My guess is that Stein could not be bothered to find out the real names or relevant spellings. Or she invented the whole thing. Which is still pretty gracious.

Stein's famous portrait by Picasso

And finally an anecdote, but that illustrates how injustice could affect a woman, and a lesbian's life. Stein left her art collection as a trust to her partner Toklas. When the collection became extremely valuable in the early 60s, the Stein family had it seized while Toklas was away from France, on the pretext she was not taking care of it properly. Toklas was never able to recover it, despite legal action. It's also distressing that Stein did not leave the collection to Toklas as an inheritance. Selling one piece would have saved her from her poverty in her late years. 

Published and written by  - - Arabella von Arx

Monday, March 30, 2020

What should we keep of the new normal?

People waiting in line with social distancing
We got together virtually and talked about how we are experiencing the pandemic, what are our fears and our hopes.
We’re sad that some people have died, suffered, and that a lot more will. We’re worried for that risk which is all around us, and might take away some of the people we love, and ourselves too, naturally.
We wonder what ways, or rites, we can come up to to express that sadness, to mourn as a community, now (virtually) and when the pandemic is over (a ceremony in cemeteries, other ideas?).

                                                                     * * * * * * *

Our world will be changed, it will never be the same, and we are trying to think of ways to veer it in a direction we value: more wholesome, just, zen. Less consumerism? Less production? Less pollution?
Some of the things that are happening are good, some are bad. Below is a list. We want to have our voices heard about how this pandemic is handled: social action. Two proposals, one physical: we stand at our windows with posters expressing our views: lives over dollars, save small businesses, help to illegal immigrants, suspend rents, suspend mortgages, etc.

Virtually, we could have a day of action where we all express on the internet (instagram, fb, twitter) our political views through photos, memes, statements.


 THE NEW NORMAL (post covid19)
Bad hair cuts
Less commuting
More work from home
Either or.
Less traveling
Keep? More environmental solutions.
Less flying
Keep. Bring back transatlantic ships, they pollute less.
Less socializing
Lose. More “in the flesh” events.
Lots and lots of time on the Internet
Lots of sex with one partner (or two)
Less work
Less pollution
More time with loved ones
More time alone
More physical exercise
Either or
More caring
Hospitals overwhelmed
Small businesses endangered
Help from govt, from us
Virtual parties
Keep (for people who are sick, isolated, depressed, far)
More cooking!
Either or.
No restaurants, gigs, concerts, shows, exhibitions
Virtual shows, gigs, art.
People lose their job
Help from govt, from us
Some people have more access to health, some have no insurance
Justice, equality.
Illegal immigrants get no help
Justice, equality.
We read more
Either or.
Bad teeth
Lots of time with pets
Feeling we’re in this together, everyone
Hairy legs, and other places on the body
Either or.

At the end of this long tunnel of isolation, we want to celebrate too. Maybe pick a date, and have a huge dance party at the park where everyone brings their own music and dance our liberation.

Skyping from NY to MD

We would love to have your comments, ideas, reactions, feelings, below!

This was contributed by Ingrid Norton, Nupur Mathur, Hyojin Yoo, and Arabella von Arx

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Not a review: Michael Rakowitz at the Jane Lombard Gallery

Michael Rakowitz is showing work at the Jane Lombard Gallery in an exhibition entitled:

Detail of work at the top

He has recreated his versions of those particular works that have been destroyed by ISIS at Nimrud. Above is an example, the bright colors coming from wrappings with arabic branding on them. The relationship between the destruction of the art and the wrappings is unclear. ISIS can not be accused of promoting consumerism, they don't promote anything but nihilism, the only relationship seems to be that the wrappings are Arabic. ISIS has been able to establish itself in Iraq following the chaos left by the American invasion. This military action was justified as a response to Saddam Hussein's "weapons of mass destruction". It appeared later that there were no such weapons and that US intelligence had no convincing evidence that they ever existed, and that the motivation was purely to access petrol.

In that sense, the destruction of these world heirlooms can be imputed to the interference of the US in the region. The same could be said of the destruction of art such as the Buddha statues by the Taliban, as the US armed the mujahhideen when the enemy was the USSR. We had no idea when the Taliban blew these statues that one day the Taliban would seem rather mild and self disciplined in comparison to ISIS. Ironically, the Assyrian civilization was one of brutal militarism.

Organisations such as the Taliban and ISIS would not waste their time and dynamite blowing ancient monuments if they did not purpose to antagonize the West. One can feel quite helpless if this iconoclasm is only attributed to fundamentalism. But if these actions are, correctly, imputed to Western inference in the Middle East, we can exercise our political rights to prevent this kind of short sightedness in the case of the Taliban, and self serving politics in the case of Iraq. Imagine a foreign power (no names here, as I prefer my coffee non radioactive) poured funds into survivalist groups in the US, we would soon have a number of Timothy McVeigh empowered to blow up more buildings with babies. 

The ancient Assyrian reliefs that were acquired in various ways by institutions in the Western World were saved from destruction by ISIS, necessarily. The show seems to be an indictment of the movement pressuring these institutions to return the work to their originating countries. Also the stunning beauty of the original reliefs contrasts jarringly with the current branded look, providing added motivation the original work not be destroyed (See beautiful original on the left). At least, that's how I perceived it, which was somewhat puzzling. I'm quite ready to believe that Rakowitz had good intentions, I wish they had been clearer.

Caption accompanying the work above at the gallery

Written and published by  - -  Arabella von Arx

Monday, January 27, 2020

Not a review: Wheeler at Zwirner

The title states that this is not a review, in the sense that I try to communicate my personal experience of a gallery event in Chelsea rather than discussing the work which I will let speak for itself.

I have a problem with a panel with 3 white guys even if one has a charming Italian accent, I know I'm being dogmatic, but it does feel terribly déjà vu. I was incapable of listening to anything Germano Celant said, maybe it's his accent, and he is likely to have said some very interesting things, he is the guy who coined the term "Arte povera" and who heads the Prada Foundation in Milano - maybe he is better with the written word. He does have a most charming name too, a whole story could be imagined around that name!

Doug Wheeler was more arresting. He stuck me as being the interesting case of a man who was shy to start with in life. Had he chosen another path, he would have had to overcome it. But he has become a famous artist, and  this allows for every idiosyncrasy of the personality. The artist is sold "as is" :with the understanding he is not able, nor expected to conform, and his failings are his qualities as they are linked to his creativity.

Wheeler, 81, has a handsome mane of long white hair. Its always a fun exercise to imagine a man with his long hair trimmed short. And I thought, imagine, imagine this doctor's son had had a career in a corporation. Or had started his own business of medical supplies. He might have had to beat the shyness out of his system, as is expected of what one calls a real man, of a breadwinner. And I can see his face shorn of hair, he would have had to compact into something showing power and control his spread out sitting position that is a self conscious attempt at appearing relaxed, and why not, It is a very different person yet the divergence in these paths might have been caused by something seemingly benign, like a bit of bullying by a cousin or an over demanding father.

My impression is that Wheeler knows the show business. He's been there for a while now. He probably doesn't really like it but it's the ransom of celebrity, and he'll play along, which is fair enough. He tells his stories, gamely. Does he tell these stories repeatedly? You would think, from their content's relationship to his artistic path, but if he has told them before, it's not obvious from the fresh, convincing delivery he achieves. He's a good story teller. He recalls his father the surgeon flying his small plane to remote areas in Arizona. Scary landings on high streets when there was no runway. His father would say: see that patch of the sky over there that's particularly blue? Don't go there. They're turbulences. John Wayne! In fact, minimalism has something macho about it. For a start, there is a certain arrogance in asserting that a very simple piece is a worthy art work just because the artist says so. Nothing soft or intricate or empathic about minimalism or conceptual art, these qualities typically needing figurative art or complex abstraction.

He tells of his father letting him fly the plane. Of the  landscapes seen from above, of the different
experience of the world. Of wanting to communicate his sensory experience of the world to others. 
He speaks simply, he is humble, he often seeks the gaze of his wife in the audience, the Hollywood producer Bridget Johnson, and mentions her by name. He also refers to another man in the audience by name, maybe to break the mythology of the famous artist on stage addressing the anonymous reverential audience, which is sympathique.

But still he is there, and he speaks, filling his expected role. The Zwirner son, Lucas, moderates. He's the picture of the young golden boy, well to do, confident, educated, handsome. WASP. Does he know suffering? I guess everyone suffers at some point. It's not a criticism of Lucas. It's a genuine question. The people  I know personally that have been born into exceptional privilege do not strike me as happier than the average Josephine (the average woman informed me she prefers Josephine to Jane).

At the end of the show, people take selfies in the Infinity Room.

And this ... is definitely not a review.

Written and contributed - reluctantly - by  - -  Arabella von Arx