It is a strange yet common tendency of the beginner artist to think that the use of a reference object or image — a live model, for example, or a photograph — is somehow cheating. The beginner thinks, as I have thought at times, that a true artist is able to generate beautiful pictures directly from his or her imagination, without having to “copy” from something in front of them. Of course, this idea is both accurate and completely misleading. Many artists, through rigorous training and ongoing practice, have internalized the makeup and proportions of the human body (to take a common subject) and can render it at will — this being more than adequate a skill for artists employed in the fields of, say, fashion design or advertising. But many other artists regularly use live models or photographs as reference points, either because they are trying to capture the look of a specific person (rather than an imaginary one), or because they are trying to understand more perfectly the human form itself. Some, of course, are trying to do both.
Archive for the ‘History’ Category
It is not normally my practice to blog from work (see “mortgage payments”), but having discovered historian Rob MacDougall’s Old is the New New via his link to Jeet Heer’s Sans Everything post on Homer Simpson and Irish stereotypes, I was immediately entranced by both his buoyant writing style and his remarkably eclectic range of historico-cultural interests — so I felt compelled to drop what I was doing and tell you about it. Go check out his site, and for your first mind-expanding sally, read his post Angels and Octopodes.
What are you still doing here? Go!
Though few members of the public give much thought to ranking the prestige of different art forms, if forced to do so it is likely that watercolour painting would be granted an affectionate but decidedly second-tier status. We think of pretty landscapes formed with washed-out pigments: light browns, greens, yellows, pinks and reds that tend to pink, of Englishmen in sunhats sitting patiently in a field, enjoying a hobby for idle gentlemen. Meanwhile, in a stratum below all of this lies our childhood memories of dipping thin brushes in water, rubbing them against coins of hard paint, and applying the resultant mixture to soggy paper.
There is some truth to all of this, but it is at best a half-truth. The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries saw the emergence of painters who used watercolours to sublime effect: Thomas Girtin, John Constable, and J.M.W. Turner – who produced three times as many paintings based on watercolours as on oils — elevated landscape art to a position of dominance, at least for a time. Lesser known today but judged by earlier critics to have been one of the most innovative and artistic of the watercolourists was John Sell Cotman (1782-1842).
Readers of the Globe and Mail will already have seen today’s front-page-above-the-fold article on diplomat Robert Fowler’s return to Canada and his interview on national TV about his abduction last year by a splinter group of AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb — itself a splinter group of the Algerian insurgency of the 1990s), which adds some interesting first-person colour to this otherwise murky story. If you missed it the first time around, you may wish to read my August 7 post on the recent history and wider context of politics and insurgency in northwest Africa, and on the contested identity of AQIM itself.
According to American and European intelligence and military sources, there is a growing menace to Western security in (to use the intervention-justifying cliché of recent times) “the vast ungoverned spaces” of northwest Africa. A New York Times story published earlier this month itemized a string of violent events in the region that officials blame on Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a group that apparently formed in the final years of the Algerian civil war of the 1990s and that was until recently known as the Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat (GSPC).
“Is there a threat? There sure is a threat,” Gen. William E. “Kip” Ward, commander of the two-year old United States Africa Command, told journalists in June, and the NYT piece echoes his tone of certainty. By only its third paragraph, the idea that the incidents “reflect Al Qaeda’s growing tentacles” in the region has already appeared as a foundational assumption.
At the beginning of Cristian Mungiu’s Palme d’Or-winning film 4 Weeks, 3 Months, and 2 Days, the camera lingers on a goldfish in a square bowl. The fish seems to be trying to escape, not by jumping out, but by pushing directly against the glass, its tail thrusting spiritedly but without result.
It is an effective if too obvious metaphor for Romanian society under the latter days of communist strongman Nicolae Ceauşescu; the action here takes place in 1987, two years before the dictator’s fall. As the camera pulls back, we see that the bowl rests on a fold-out table in the dorm room of two female students at a regional technical college. The women are preparing for a trip of some kind. Gabita is packing a bag nervously, while Otilia ventures up and down the halls of the dorm, attempting to buy a pack of Kent cigarettes from a student-run black market dispensary two doors down, and purchasing soap for her friend to add to her baggage.
As far as the bulk of the American — and for that matter, world — press is concerned, the Iraq War ended sometime in early 2008. Casualty rates suffered by American troops had dropped significantly, and this happy circumstance was generally credited to the “surge” of up to 40,000 additional troops deployed to Iraq starting the previous summer. Presidential candidate Barak Obama did his part to move the spotlight away from the Persian Gulf by pointing to Afghanistan as the site of the really important war (a claim underscored by increasing levels of violence in both Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistan), and the rapidly developing global financial crisis did its part. By January 2009 it seemed likely that the average Beltway pundit would once again have trouble finding Iraq on a map.
A moment of great rejoicing for human rights activists and champions of the rule of law came at the beginning of this month as former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori was sentenced to 25 years in jail for “crimes against humanity”, having authorized murders, kidnappings, and torture as part of a severe anti-terrorist campaign in the 1990s. Fujimori’s sentencing, one must hope, will send a powerful message to government leaders around the world that maintaining public security is an insufficient excuse for violating fundamental human rights, and that even presidents will be held to account for the crimes they commit in office.
But not in America.
A very interesting article appears today in the Independent, discussing some policy concessions proposed by representatives of the Taliban who have been quietly negotiating with Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government. Among the proposals: a commitment to refrain from banning the education of girls, measuring the length of beards, or making the wearing of burqas compulsory.
This puts in a new context yesterday’s revelation that President Karzai recently signed a law that codifies the rights of Afghanistan’s Shi’as to be governed by family law based on traditional Shi’a jurisprudence, which (it is believed, since the law itself has not yet been publicly released) prevents women from refusing to have sex with their husbands or leaving the house without their husbands’ permission.
A prominent literary editor once told me that a good reviewer did not have to like every book that he read, but that he absolutely had to have the capacity to like every book. In this spirit, I make a habit of opening a new book with the greatest optimism and eagerness, convinced that I’ll enjoy both the process of reading it and the comparative chore of writing the review itself.
It doesn’t always come to pass, of course. Fortunately, most books I’ve reviewed have been fascinating and well-written. A minority have turned out to be well-conceived and reasonably well-executed, but significantly flawed in logic or perspective (of course, in some ways these are more fun to review, since they offer more room for argument). But only one book so far has made me want to give up and put it away, and this before I had read even a third of it. To clarify, it’s not an atrocious book at all, but rather one that again and again refuses to rise to its own potential. And that can be a more painful experience than it sounds.
Hooked (and how could you not be)? Then by all means, read on…
Aladdin’s Lamp: How Greek Science Came to Europe Through the Islamic World
By John Freely
(Alfred A. Knopf; 303 pages; $27.95)
Review published in the San Francisco Chronicle (March 22, 2009)
After nearly eight years of conflict in the Middle East and Central Asia, it is hard to say that the American public is much more knowledgeable about the Islamic world than before the war began.
With global economic growth having come to a shuddering halt, credit markets on life support, currencies faltering, and unemployment rates forging upwards, the United States Army is finally enjoying some relief. Overworked and stressed out, its recruiters have started to meet their annual goals with appreciably less effort, as unemployed young men, defeated by the recession, walk into their offices to sign up for what they hope will be one or two tours. “I’m doing this for eight years,” 22-year-old Sean O’Neil told the New York Times. “Hopefully, when I get out, I’ll have all my fingers and toes and arms, and the economy will have turned around, and I’ll have a little egg to start up my own guitar line.” After an apprenticeship in St. Louis that didn’t pan out, O’Neil had found himself $30,000 in debt; a stint in the military looked like the next best option.
In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.
– Christina Rossetti, 1872
The Christmas season is over, and with it my temporary but rich television diet of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, and Frosty the Snowman — shows both necessitated and once or twice elevated into rituals of repeated viewings by the involvement of an excited young child. It is all cuddly and positive stuff, of course, with the possible exception of the Grinch, who, despite his alleged role in the “stealing” of Christmas, turns into a benevolent old fellow by the end of the tale, and who is, even at his worst, nothing more dangerous than a grumpy but efficient con-man.
Not being a card-carrying progressive — by which I mean only that I’ve long suffered from an instinctive pessimism about what humans are capable of achieving, though it’s a reflex that I’ve gradually gotten better at keeping in check — I’m occasionally struck with a deep sense of amazement (and related feelings of both gratitude and guilt) at the amount of social change that has in fact occurred in the past century. My amazement can be triggered by something as simple as the visual memory of a British pub filled with a thick haze of cigarette smoke (a memory that takes me back only to 1990), an image that feels almost barbaric in comparison with the clear-aired restaurants of today, or by something as shocking — in fact, as forgotten — as the black and white news footage playing behind the initial credits of Gus Van Sant’s Milk, which shows gay men being herded out of taverns and, their faces turned away from the cameras, into police paddy wagons. North American society has travelled quite a distance from that time to this.
To the governments of Israel and of much of the Western world, the current battle against Hamas in the Gaza Strip is a black and white case of democracy versus terrorism. Israel claims that its sole motivation is the reduction of rocket fire from the territory; defence minister Ehud Barak has declared repeatedly that “our aim is to force Hamas to stop its hostile activities against Israel and Israelis from Gaza, and to bring about a significant change in the situation in the southern part of Israel”. There is no tone of tragedy or sadness in this statement and in others like it, only a stern-sounding bureaucratese meant to evoke a sense of determination and cool professionalism. Yet for those who claim to love democracy, especially for those who claim to see it as the solution to the intractable problems of the Middle East and of the world in general, there is a political tragedy going on, for two democracies are at war. (more…)
The contemporary Western image of Somalia was forged in 1993, when American special forces and U.S. Army Rangers fought an overnight battle in Mogadishu with the militia of General Mohamed Farrah Aidid, resulting in the loss of 18 American soldiers and the wounding of 73 more, and the deaths of up to 700 Somali militiamen and several hundred civilians. The battle was described in Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War (1999), and retold in Ridley Scott’s 2001 film of the same name. Say the word “Somalia” and you’ll summon visions: of the half-clothed bodies of American soldiers being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu by dancing crowds, of thin young men in dungarees manning heavy Soviet-era machine guns mounted on the back of Nissan pickup trucks, of emaciated civilians waiting in line for food. (more…)
It sold for nearly $2.1 million dollars, that little oil painting shown above. Only 12 by 15 inches, the work came to the art world’s attention a few months ago, when a Vancouver woman decided to have her collection appraised. The painting by Group of Seven founder Lawren Harris had been given to the woman’s father, commercial artist Gordon Davies, by Harris himself in the 1930s, and it had remained in the family for more than seventy years. Interestingly, the piece itself is merely a sketch for the painting “Greenland Mountains”, which was purchased by the National Gallery of Canada in 1936, mislabeled, and subsequently turned into a 1967 stamp celebrating the Canadian landscape. The Danes must have been very proud. (more…)
U.S. special forces attacked a village/building/camp (select one) inside Syria on Sunday, killing eight people, according to Syrian officials. A rationale, given “on background” as all such messages are these days, was soon forthcoming: the area near the Iraqi town of Qaim had long been regarded by the Pentagon as a crossing point into Iraq for weapons, money, and foreign fighters, so as the unnamed U.S. military official in Washington told AP, “We are taking matters into our own hands.”
This, obviously, raises serious issues of national sovereignty, jus ad bellum, and the rule of international law. But the most serious of all is the question of how I’m supposed to keep track of this stuff. (more…)
Written by Sydney-based “PK” (the P standing for Paul, the K being of unknown origin), Bibliodyssey is a blog devoted to the collection and display of the visual culture locked away in old books and only now being made available digitally by libraries and archives around the world. PK’s range of interests is stimulating and broad, covering the decorative arts of the late medieval Islamic world on one day, and the eerie but fascinating illustrations of 20th-century Louisiana artist Caroline Durieux on another.
Visit it. Bookmark it. Enjoy it.
As both myself and Jeet Heer have noted recently, American military policy towards Pakistan’s tribal areas has recently taken a more aggressive turn, with stepped up missile strikes and even an unauthorized ground attack by U.S. special forces. Although American generals have not launched additional incursions — the policy has not yet turned into a re-run of the invasion of Cambodia in 1970 — they are playing a most dangerous game that risks destabilizing the country for the sake of killing some Taliban leaders.
Pakistan’s increasing fragility as a state was the subject of a powerful essay last week in the Washington Post by Indiana University’s Sumit Ganguly, a longtime observer of Pakistani politics. How grim is the news?:
Today’s ongoing crisis — marked by a rash of suicide bombings, the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto last December, inflation as high as 25 percent and a resurgent Taliban movement — could spell doom for the Pakistani state itself. The global financial crisis has only made matters worse: Pakistan’s foreign-exchange reserves are collapsing, and credit markets are worried that it could soon default on its debt payments. The grim truth is that Pakistan is becoming something alarmingly close to a failed state.
What’s most effective about Ganguly’s piece is the comprehensive but concise overview of the 60-year path that has gotten Pakistan to this precipice. A failed state, after all, is rarely the work of a year.
In late January, 1984, Soviet-backed Afghan MiGs crossed the border into Pakistan and bombed targets in the village of Angoor Adda, killing 42 people. After another series of cross-border raids in 1987, which reportedly killed 85, State Department spokesman Charles Redman made the following statement:
These deliberate attacks are brutal attempts to force a change in Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy. They will not work. We are confident that Pakistan will continue its courageous and principled search for peace and, at the same time, to continue to offer a haven to almost three million Afghan refugees.
Twenty years later, in early September, 2008, U.S. special forces in Afghanistan crossed the border into Pakistan and raided the village of Angoor Adda, killing 20 people. Since August 20, U.S. drones have launched more than ten missile attacks on Pakistani soil.
Let it never be said that U.S. foreign policy is uninformed by history.