Saturday, March 28, 2009

Sketch on Paper to Sketch on Canvas

The day before yesterday, when I was working out, suddenly an image came to my mind - I quickly sketched the image on a piece of note paper. Today, still excited, I started to transfer the image to a canvas. Below are the sketches on paper and on canvas:

Sketch on paper

Sketches on Canvas

I'm eager to see the development of this painting.

Two Newly Finished Paintings

I just finished two paintings on Thursday and Friday respectively, after a six-month drought. The one I finished on Thursday (Bruges, Impression) is a painting inspired by my memory of Bruges, Belgium and a 1897 novel The Bells of Bruges (Le Carillonneur) by Georges Rodenbach. The one finished the day after (Progression) was a portrait half-surrounded by collage of familiar iconic images. Previously, I published the images of these paintings at near finished stages on March 9, 2009.

During last a couple weeks, I carefully evaluated these paintings, slowly inching towards the finish-line, so as not to ruin them at the last moment - disaster has struck before. Little by little, I fine tuned the color balances and a certain small details without altering the composition. Finally, I judged that I could not add anything more to them, thus I determined that they were finished. Excitedly but carefully, I signed and dated them. Voilà!

Bruges, Impression


Wednesday, March 25, 2009

A New Work

The dream that gave me the orange motif to the "Girl with a Doll" painting, also made me start a new one. Below is the very beginning of the process. All three photos were taken on 21 March 2009.

In My Cocoon (continued)

Following up my post of "In My Cocoon" on 19 March 2009, I started to play with light and shadow and tried to add complexity to the painting - at the moment, I am calling it Girl with a Doll.

The picture below was taken on 24 March 2009:

I didn't like the gesture of her right hand (18 March 2009) and adjusted it a bit. Her left foot was different from that on the picture taken on 19 March 2009. Now I have a second thought about that and might revert it back or place her left leg in between the position of now and then.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

In My Cocoon

Yesterday I had a conversation with a writer regarding our working processes. Such conversation -- almost a follow-up to my post Literature Inspired Paintings (March 17, 2009) -- helped me to articulate how I work. I said: "Sometimes, I feel I am encapsulated in a soft-walled cocoon, and move little by little to find my way. In darkness, I move up, down, left and right, pushing here, pushing there, trying to find my way out of the shell, desperately struggling for air and light. Through such trial and error, I, if successful, will be able to poke open the resilient membrane, and slowly creep out of the confinement."

These pictures below demonstrate how I have been feeling my way around recently.

"Picture taken 031909"

"Picture taken 031809"

I've posted this painting on March 9, 2009 - My Work in Progress. Ten days later, it moved into a direction I did not foresee then. The orange branch was suggested by a flower-patterned corridor I dreamed of last night. This serendipitous direction gives me shivers, and delight.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Literature Inspired Paintings

For me, what to paint is very crucial - unless it's a commissioned work, I often wrack my brain to come up with a right idea. Sometimes, an image comes to my mind like a flashlight, and sometimes a concept precedes an image. Sometimes, I dream of something hard to pin down and sometimes a great work of literature serves as seed and soil for my work to develop.

I have painted two paintings directly inspired by books I read.

I was deeply moved by passages in The Tin Drum (Die Blechtrommel) by Günter Grass, depicting the grandmother of the protagonist. In the early part of the book, in her layers and layers of earth-colored skirts, she worked in the fields, and squatted to rest just before her future husband found shelter from hot pursuers underneath her skirts. She was a young woman then. Later on in the book, as an old woman, she was sitting again, this time in a market selling roasted potatoes, with a hot brick underneath her skirts in order to stay warm. These vivid images inspired me to create a sitting woman, old, against a forbidding landscape: immobile, sad yet touching, displaying her knobby hands like weapons, ready to punch at anything harsh life throws at her.

My painting "Blindness" was inspired by Blindness (Portuguese: Ensaio sobre a cegueira, meaning Essay on Blindness) by José Saramago -- no one scene, but the novel as a whole. I was touched by the sudden breakdown of social order and surface nicety due to an unexpected and inexplicable epidemic. The book brought to imaginative life the core of my belief that human beings are capable of anything - evil or angelic. I tried to capture the bleakness I felt after reading the book, instead of attempting to illustrate any particular passages.

My Submissions to Alphonse Berber Gallery, Berkeley

Recently I stumbled upon a new gallery (Alphonse Berber Gallery) on Bancroft Way, near UC Berkeley. I submitted 10 works below for consideration:

Diptych - Sorrow and Suffering:



Three Figures:


Bombed Bridge, I:

Rape Fields:




Monday, March 16, 2009


Last Saturday, I saw an Italian movie "Gomorra," (Gomorrah) directed by Matteo Garrone, based on book by Roberto Saviano. The screenplay was credited to Maurizio Braucci, et al.

It contained a series of brutal and heart wrenching tales in gangster- and drug-infested Naples, Italy, concentrated on a housing project compound that had the character of a human dump. Watching people trapped in the hopeless situations was difficult and sobering experience. The movie was brutal but not nauseating. Violence was portrayed as a matter of fact, not depicted as sensual experience as Hollywood might have done, or pornographic sadism, à la Mel Gibson.

Such a hard life, trapped in eternal hopelessness reminded me a Romanian movie: "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," written and directed by Cristian Mungiu, which told a story that takes place in Romania in 1987. Different culture, different class of people, different variety of trap, yet the same bleakness. Inevitably, I also think about the many human tragedies happening everywhere.

Humankind is damned, but some people are more damned than others.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

It Is Easier for a Camel to Go Through the Eye of a Needle

According to the report by Tom Abate in San Francisco Chronicle (Saturday, March 14, 2009 -, former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, Speaking at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research's 2009 economic summit, "told an audience of several hundred business and academic leaders how factors such as shoddy mortgage practices, questionable financial securities, the stagnation of real wages, and subsequent over-borrowing by many Americans, had all crept up, virtually unnoticed, to shutter homes and swell unemployment rolls."

Virtually unnoticed?

Even a lay person such as I could see those increasingly visible problems. Are our governmental official really oblivious to the obvious or are they just really reluctant to face up reality? It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.

Civil Union, Marriage and Holy Matrimony

Recently, quite a few readers of the San Francisco Chronicle have suggested that all marriages should be called "civil unions," whether same-sex or opposite-sex, unless they are blessed by religious organizations. This is a dead-wrong proposal. Marriages, historically, in many cultures have always been civil actions, without religious content or implication. They were mostly social, often financial contracts. This supposedly progressive proposal to call all marriages "civil unions" will replace the discrimination against same-sex couples with discrimination against non-religious couples. Civil Union as a category was created as a compromise to accommodate same-sex couples and is innately a secondary class term. In these modern days, in order to respect and protect the rights to all members of the society, we should continue to call the marriages recognized by civil society and government "marriages," while those blessed by the religious organizations can be called “Holy Matrimony” as they have been for a very long time. This is far better than demoting the marriages of my grandparents and my parents into second class ones.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Gary Snyder at Morrison Library - 5 March 2009

San Francisco-born Gary Snyder is a world-renowned poet, essayist, and environmentalist. According to a UC Berkeley website, he "has published sixteen books of poetry and prose, and received the Pulitzer Prize in 1974 for Turtle Island. Snyder has traveled widely and lived for extended periods of time in Japan, where he studied and practiced Rinzai Zen. He is currently a professor at University of California, Davis." On March 5, 2009, he read in the Morrison Library in Doe Library from 12:10 pm to 1:00 pm.

I had a meeting from 10:30-noon. As soon as I left the meeting, I rushed to the library but the entrance was totally blocked by a few dozen disappointed listeners who could not get in. Robert Hass introduced Gary Snyder. However I tried, I could not make out the words. Then Gary Snyder stepped upon the podium. Again, I couldn't hear him. Hugely disappointed, I decided to leave. The consolation was that I did hear him a few years ago in Oakland.

I was also very glad that there were so many young people who still admired such "archaic" form and practitioner.

UC Berkeley promised a webcast but so far the audio or video files are not available on their website yet -

Stay tuned.


In the comment, a kind reader forwarded me the information below:

Here's the URL for the page that has UCB's webcast: ... also on YouTube at

San Francisco Opera 2009-10 Season

I just finished annual ritual of renewing my half-season subscription to San Francisco Opera. The 2009-10 season boasts a few exciting productions and singers and some "chestnuts" to save the company in these financially challenging times.

I'm looking forward to seeing Verdi's Il Trovatore. I've seen it before but the new David McVicar production inspired by Goya's paintings boasts a cast that's hard to resist: Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Sondra Radvanovsky, Stephanie Blythe. I don't know much about tenor Marco Berti, hopefully, he won't let his colleagues down.

Ewa Podleś tries for the second time to make her SFO debút, alas, in a minor role in Il Trittico by Puccini, a composer I often find too emotionally manipulative. I'll trade this production for Verdi's Otello.

For the second time, I'll skip Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail - I love the opera but it stubbornly stayed at the bottom of my wish list - too little time.

La Fille du Régiment by by Donizetti will bring Diana Damrau and Juan Diego Flórez together, with the well traveled production by Laurent Pelly. I had the good luck to hear Juan Diego Flórez twice, but on both occasions his original female leads canceled due to illness. I really hope to hear the amazing Damrau. This opera was not in the half-season series I signed up for, so I purchased added-on single tickets in order to beat the crowd. Count this opera as a possible sold-out.

Delicious Salome will finally be staged for the first time since I moved to the San Francisco area. The combination of Oscar Wilde and Richard Strauss is irresistible. My favorite mezzo-soprano Irina Mishura (I saw her as Carmen in Cincinnati and Adalgisa in SFO) will return as Herodias. The beautiful Nadja Michael will sing Salome. I hope her voice will be as beautiful.

Otello was not in my series but I don't want to miss Johan Botha's Otello. He might be stiff but I do hope his voice will knock me out. I'm also looking forward to hearing his co-stars Svetla Vassileva and Marco Vratogna, all making their respective local debút.

I love Gounod's Faust - call me old fashioned. I do hope they keep the Walpurgisnacht ballet.

Another Puccini of the season is a spaghetti western - La fanciulla del West. Even Deborah Voigt won't be able to entice me to see that one.

The last offering is Richard Wagner's Die Walküre, conducted by Donald Runnicles. The first installment of the Francesca Zambello production was terrible. She might have done wonders elsewhere to earn her huge fame, but all her works here are mediocre. Even the good nights, such as Jenůfa, were due to composer's and singer's strength. I'm so envious of Los Angeles where people can see an Achim Freyer's amazing production. The only reason I want to keep this is Runnicles and his forces - Christopher Ventris (Siegmund), Eva-Maria Westbroek (Sieglinde) and Nina Stemme (Brünnhilde). I'm not taken by Mark Delavan's Wotan in Das Rheingold but he was at least competent.

Die Walküre will be conducted by my favorite Wagnerian Donald Runnicles, who is deserting us, as Pamela Rosenberg did. But who can blame them? This entire season had no edgy works, no contemporary opera, unless you count Salome. The few new works Gockley is considering all stay in the vicinity of Bernstein, Copland, Menotti and Barber - tuneful Americana, unchallenging, inoffensive. Or, we got the silly east-meets-west The Bonesetter's Daughter. Where are the proven masterworks by Thomas Adès, Harrison Birtwistle, Osvaldo Golijov, Hans Werner Henze, Poul Ruders , Kaija Saariaho, Aulis Sallinen and Mark-Anthony Turnage, to name a few?

Maybe I am being too harsh. At least Gockley gave us Erich Wolfgang Korngold's Die Tote Stadt. Hopefully, more.

San Francisco feels so provincial.

Limelight - 36" x 30", Oil on Canvas
© Matthew Felix Sun

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Remembering My London Trip (2004)

The newly identified likely Shakespeare portrait, reminded me my wonderful trip to UK, along with the Netherlands and Belgium, in 2004.

Since this was my first trip to UK, I naturally visited other prominent landmarks, such as Parliament, Westminster Abbey, etc., but museums and theaters were definitely the highlights of the London visit.

On the very first day, I tried to catch the Edward Hopper retrospective, which ended that very day (5 September 2004), in the newly opened Tate Modern, metamorphosed gloriously from a former power plant. Unfortunately one of the Underground lines was closed on weekend, so it took much longer for me to get to our hotel; and when the proprietor offered a nicer room after we checked in, we were detained further. The bus we took to the museum stopped off the regular route so we had to walk a long stretch and when we breathlessly reached the window, they had just stopped selling tickets to the Hopper exhibit. The consolation was the Tate itself. Honestly I don't remember the collection much, except for some enormous sculptures in the front hall. The museum itself was a masterwork, with a breathtaking view of the Thames.

The main place for paintings was National Gallery. It had way too many treasures for me to recount. My favorite was "The Doge Leonardo Loredan" (1501-4) by Giovanni Bellini, and "The Arnolfini Portrait" or "Portrait of Giovanni (?) Arnolfini and his Wife ('The Arnolfini Portrait')" (1434) by Jan van Eyck. Incidentally, when we moved on to Brugges, Belgium in the same trip, we stayed in Hotel Lucca, built by the very same Arnolfini.

National Portrait Gallery boasted many important portraits and I was equally fascinated by their Tudor portraits and contemporary ones.

I was very moved by the Parthenon Frieze (aka Elgin Marble) Room in The British Museum. The great reading room was stunning and I looked for the footprint supposedly left by Karl Marx. The newly covered grand courtyard was visually stunning and I stayed there for a long while, as if time ceased to exist. I also loved their Babylonian and Egyptian collections. I felt disoriented after the visit.

I stumbled upon the Wallace Collection, which was the "finest private collection of art ever assembled by one family" according to their own website. I honestly, though, cannot remember a particular piece, only the general musty and mysterious atmosphere. According to Frommer's, "the art collection includes works by Watteau, Boucher, Fragonard, and Greuze, as well as such classics as Frans Hals's Laughing Cavalier and Rembrandt's portrait of his son Titus. The paintings of the Dutch, English, Spanish, and Italian schools are outstanding."

The last museum in London I visited was Tate Britain, which featured British art, particularly Turner's.

Our day trips in UK included a rain-drenched trip to Stonehenge and an excursion to Cambridge, highlighted by the mandatory punting on the Cam. The permanent collections at Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge contained remarkable antiquities from ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Again, I cannot pinpoint any specific piece of work. I only remember that I felt exhausted and exulted.

In other cities, besides fine arts, cathedrals and cemeteries, I might go for classical music. In London, I went for drama. It was Olympic year in Greece so we were blessed with two remarkable plays by by Euripides -- Iphigenia at Aulis at Royal National Theatre and Hecuba at Donmar Warehouse. The former was good and it was wonderful to see one play at Royal National Theatre but the later was an experience as remarkable as the opening night of Spring Festival in Prague, with President Václav Havel in attendance. I rank Hecuba as the best drama experiences I ever had, period. It turned out that the actress Clare Higgins won Laurence Olivier Best Actress Award for this portrayal. I had never heard of Donmar Warehouse before but a little searching yielded some information: Since 1992, Donmar original productions have received 27 Olivier Awards, 17 Critics' Circle Theatre Awards, 9 Evening Standard Awards, as well as 12 Tony Awards from eight productions transferring to Broadway (

I had a certain trepedation when I approached Shakespeare's Globe Theatre for Measure for Measure by Shakespeare. Kitsch! I was afraid. Jesters opened the curtain and trumpets rang out. Kitsch! I murmured. It turned out to be a nice surprise. It was a high quality performance, not the tourist trap at all. A few hours' standing and looking up the raised stage tired me, though in our general standing "seats" I did feel that I had experience a little bit resembled those of the great Elizabethans.

I was surprised that I loved London more than I cared to admit. The Queen was in Scotland for her summer holiday therefore she didn't deign to receive me. Alas.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

"Too Big to Fail" - Another Case of Language Abuse

Our government officials love to abuse English in order to confuse people's minds. The top offenders in the Bush years were "War on Terror" and "misunderestimate." The offender of these days is "Too big to fail," which was broadly used by members of the Obama administration, and shamelessly taken up by the media, to describe business entities that need taxpayers to bail them out. In fact, entities that are "too big to fail" need no bailouts, because they will never fail: that is the meaning of this peculiar phrase. An accurate description of businesses to which government and media are referring would be that they are "too big to let fail." This is not only grammatically correct, it will also clarify the current economic situation, which our officials and media seem keen to keep murky.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

"Crime and Punishment" and "Betrayed"

Last week, I attended the performances of "Crime and Punishment" at Berkeley Repertory Theatre and "Betrayed" at Aurora Theatre. The two plays were fascinating and a little frustrating in different ways, though overall both were qualified successes.

Crime and Punishment, based on Fyodor Dostoevsky's seminal novel, was adapted by Marilyn Campbell and Curt Columbus, and directed by Sharon Ott. The feverish degeneration of Raskolonikov's mind was faithfully captured and presented, symbolized by the multi-layered, functional doors, like the cells of protagonist’s brain. The staging itself was a triumph. The adaptation, blessedly devoid of the trap of a cheap thriller, focused tenaciously on the main point of the novel, which was admirable. However, there were a few dead spots, no where more damaging than the gratuitous and embarrassing "questioning the audience" out of blue. It was a desperate act to engage by shaking the shoulders of the audience. The final transformation and denouement of the play was murky and rushed, therefore less than utterly convincing.

The three actors gave decent to great performances except for the speeches and body language mannerisms of Delia MacDougall who portrayed an array of roles, and somehow slightly out of sync in Tyler Pierce's portrayal of Raskolonikov in his emotional outbursts or physical responses to exterior knockings. His flaw was not as damning as in comedy and could be ironed out easily with the run. The other actor J.R. Horne was brilliant as inspector and Sonia's father.

The overall impact was however strong and the non-linear structure served Dostoevsky well, considering the enormous challenge of staging such an internalized story. It was a 90 minutes evening well-spent.

Betrayed, written by New Yorker's staff writer George Packer, depicted the plight of some Iraqis who had participated in re-building Iraq after the country was invaded by the US forces and Sadam Hussein was overthrown. These Iraqis became stigmatized and faced threats on their lives, and indeed some died because of their "collaboration" with the US. The journey from naïvety to the awakening of an idealistic diplomat, Prescott, who tried to help those Iraqis, was almost parallel to that of the playwright, who, as a journalist, helped to drum up the invasion of Iraq. Consider this his own atonement.

One would not and should not compare this play to those by Ibsen, Strindberg or Chekhov. The characters, though vividly written and performed, stubbornly remained types. I believe that was out of the choice. The playwright didn’t want us to dwell on one individual, but rather a class of such people who magnanimously pronounced that they, the helping Iraqis, didn’t really feel betrayed. So, the play should be best described as "Betrayed?"

The evening was preceded by an event hosted by The List: Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies. The List Project was created by Kirk Johnson to help such Iraqis to relocate to safe countries. Prescott seemed based on Kirk Johnson as well. After the show, Johnson was joined by CEO of, who had reached out to him to set up a social network to advance his cause, representative from Tides Foundation who helps non-profits to incubate, and a relocated Iraqi engineer who currently works at UC Berkeley. It was a moving experience to see so many people come together to atone for our sins. It was mentioned that PBS had video-recorded the New York production of Betrayed and it is a mandatory viewing for us, the Americans -- it was in our names, that our Army invaded and is still occupying Iraq.

Power of Words

Dalai Lama is on the headlines these days. Anyone who cares to know the reason can find out easily and form an informed opinion. However, this article is not to address any political issue but a note on culture.

A few days ago, I had an interesting conversation with a friend regarding the power of words. The case study is how the perception of Dalai Lama in Mainland China was reinforced, if not created, by the power of words.

Through propaganda from each side, the perceptions of Dalai Lama within and without China were the opposite. Besides above-mentioned propaganda and historical impacts, one of the reasons that Dalai Lama is viewed as demon or hooligan in Mainland China was due to the incidental choices of four Chinese characters used to represent the four syllables of Da-Lai-La-Ma – 达赖喇嘛.

Out of the four characters, only the first one has generally nice meaning and sound, while the latter three either sound harsh and grating, or are closely associated to, connected to, and imply deviousness, a pockmarked person, or leprosy. For example, 赖 means a person or behavior that is dishonest and disregards rule or niceties.

Through these historically chosen unflattering words, Chinese speakers fell under the influence of the subtle persuasion of words, which in due time reinforced the devious image of Dalai Lama broadly perceived by ethnic Chinese.

* This analysis is purely a cultural one and does not represent any political view on Dalai Lama or Tibetan issue. – MFS

Monday, March 9, 2009

My Work in Progress

Even though it's most satisfying to show finished work, people have wondered what my unfinished work looked like at various stages. Unfortunately, my unfinished paintings are currently in similar stages, but they still give a sense of my working process. Below are the paintings I'm working on:

My Favorite Artists

A few weeks ago, I was invited to participate an art project by submitting a personal list of ten. As an artist, what else than my favorite artists? Therefore my favorite artists are:

1. Albrecht Dürer

2. Anselm Kiefer

3. Max Beckmann

4. Käthe Kollwitz

5. Tiziano Vecelli

6. Sandro Botticelli

7. Fra Bartolommeo (di Pagholo)

8. Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn

9. Andrea del Sarto

10. Odilon Redon

This list only reflect my own personal connections to the greatest artists in the history. It was a difficult decision - so many great artists have to be omitted...

Sunday, March 8, 2009


Finally, I'm ready for my own blog. I would like to create a forum to discuss cultural events; and, perhaps, some social commentary as well, since I strongly believe that art should not be separated from life.

I also would like to use this blog as a platform to reach my friends and supporters, and provide for a broader audience frequent updates of my work-in-progress.

-- Matthew Felix Sun --