Thursday, March 31, 2011

Million Yuan Painting by a Beginner

The picture about was a painting by a well-known TV hostess, actress Ms. Ni Ping done in traditional Chinese style and was sold in a charity auction for the price of RMB or Yuan 1,180,000 (about USD180,015).  It was reported that Ms. Ni repeated told the buyers that she was a beginner and amateur and her works should cost much.  When she saw the price kept going up she grabbed the gavel and stopped the escalation.

For comparison, she perhaps resemble Katie Couric the most, amongst her American peers.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Rethinking of Classics

The performance of The Rape of Lucretia by Benjamin Britten by the visiting Castleton Festival Opera, conducted by its founder maestro Lorin Maazel, in Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, was a richly rewarding evening.

As summarized by Steve Masover in his thoughtful reminiscence, "the opera tells of Tarquinius, a prince of Rome and son of the last Etruscan king, and of chaste Lucretia. Tarquinius savagely rapes Lucretia, who consequently commits suicide. These grave offenses rally the simmering Roman populace to a boil and precipitate overthrow of Etruscan rule and establishment of the Republic."

The story is a classic and had been rendered many times by many authors, playwrights and artists.  When I sat in the theater, I was struck a few times by the ambiguity this version by Benjamin Britten and his librettist Ronald Duncan.

What I am going to say below, perhaps will be controversial, and might upset someone with my observations which might not be the intent of neither the creators of the opera, nor the presenters of this particular production.

However, classics invite comparison and re-thinking.  At least, my wayward observation and thoughts, perhaps can be interpreted as viewing the classic from another angle.

I was struck by the demeanor of Lucretia (contralto Ekaterina Metlova) when she greeted Tarquinius, a mixture of dignity and slight coquettishness, which naturally does not mean an invitation for invasion of her body and soul, as many rapists would have claimed to defend their monstrous deeds.  Women's self-expressions are by no means invitations of insults of any kinds.

After the brutal on-stage rape, Lucretia summoned her husband home and revealed her shame to everyone, in her heartbroken and eloquent lament:
Last night Tarquinius ravished me
And tore
The fabric of our love.
What we had woven
Tarquinius has broken.
What I have spoken
Never can be forgotten.
Oh, my love, our love was too rare
For life to tolerate or fate forbear from soiling.
For me this shame, for you this sorrow.

Collatinus [her husband]
If spirit's not given, there is no need of shame.
Lust is all taking - in that there's shame.
What Tarquinius has taken
    Can be forgotten;
What Lucretia has given
    Can be forgiven.
(He kneels to Lucretia.)

Even great love's too frail
To bear the weight of shadows.
(She stabs herself.)
Now I'll be forever chaste,
With only death to ravish me.
See, how my wanton blood
    Washes my shame away!
(She dies.)
I was once again, struck by the ambiguity here.  There love was both a chaste and sensual one, as demonstrated earlier, before the assault.  Their love was very strong too.  Yet, I wondered what she had spoken could not be forgiven and I also wondered how easily the bond and the fabric of their love can be torn irrevocably and what kind of fabric it was that had been torn.   It seemed to me, in the end, that her shame was the realization that her love to her husband and her yearning for sensuality was not necessarily inseparable one.  She didn't not welcome the rape but she perhaps had blamed herself for bringing it upon herself, however unjust her self-doubt was.  It was also possible that the prince represented not only brutal conquer, but a physical temptation also, at least before the assault.  This self-doubt and realization of her "impurity" were the damages to the fabric which hold their marriage holy and chaste.  That, was the drove her to her desperation, more than the obvious shame and brutalization she suffered in the hands of the royal prince.

It is understandable that Benjamin Britten had injected some ambiguity into this story, considering the torment he suffered as a devout Christian and a homosexual.  The opera, was in one sense, the physical demonstration of his own struggle before chastity and temptation.

I hope this speculative rumination would not give people impression that I am indifferent to Lucretia and other women's suffering.  Rather, I saw their suffering from multiple angles and saw another layer of their suffering as human beings.

Classics are immortal and can withstand rigorous re-examinations.  Often, they serve as foundation of deeper understanding of human nature.  Their well-know stories, or the skeletons of them, allow later authors and artists to push the envelops further.

The recent movie The Tempest, based on Shakespeare, by Julie Taymor, gave us a Prospera (Helen Mirren) and a fascinating feminist twist.  The good versus evil fairy-tale Die Zauberflöte by Mozart, can be viewed from a feminist lenses as well.  I do see it as a tale of repression against women and their futile struggle for self-determination.  The Queen of the Night is the true heroine.

When we think of Medea, we often think her as a wronged woman who killed her own children to revenge her husband Jason.  Yet, that "traditional" view only started by a most original invention by Euripides.  Before the fifth century BC there seems to have been two variants of the myth's conclusion. According to the 7th-century BC poet Eumelus, Medea killed her children by accident.  The poet Creophylus, however, blamed their murders on the citizens of Corinth.  Euripides' filicide Medea became the standard for later writers.

I also enjoyed the movie by Medea by Lars von Trier, in which, her eldest son helped her to hang his younger brother and himself.  I am working on a painting of Medea, which will feature a pregnant Medea, who could foretell the terrible fate of the fetus in her womb.

Minotaur / 牛頭怪 / Minotaur

In 2005, I completed a painting of Minotaur.  My Minotaur was a tormented soul.  He did not view his slayer Theseus as enemy, rather than his liberator, from his heinous physical trapping.  In eager anticipation, he observed the incoming galley in full sail.  The ball of black thread, which would be given to Theseus by Ariadne to aid his exit from labyrinth, sat quietly next to Minotaur's elbow, and can be nudged off precipice easily.  But, Minotaur was pensive and resigned to his fate and only shed a large clear tear.

My interpretation of Minotaur echoed an excellent and disturbing opera Minotaur by Harrison Birtwistle.  The opera was premiered in 2008, and its programs says:
The Minotaur does not fully comprehend the duality of his physical nature as half-bull, half-man; only in sleep and, ultimately, in death does his human side become evident. Ariadne hopes that, with the help of the Oracle, she will enable Theseus to find a way out of the labyrinth should he survive his encounter with the Minotaur. She believes she can persuade Theseus to take her back with him to Athens. Both see the Minotaur as scapegoat and deliverance.

Some re-interpretation took different route.  Instead of inventing a new dramatic twist, adding some obscure details serve the original stories well.  One such effort was John Updike's Gertrude and Claudius, which was a prelude to the famous Shakespeare play, focusing not on the Queen and Hamlet's fratricidal stepfather.

Another book in this vein I enjoy enormously was David Malouf's Ransom.  Publishers Weekly summarized the book thus:
Revisiting scenes from The Iliad and delving into the hearts of two ancient heroes, Malouf (Remembering Babylon) evokes the final days of the Trojan War with cinematic vividness. After Achilles withdraws his forces from combat, a move that cripples the Greek army, his best friend, Patroclus, persuades Achilles to let him take the Myrmidons back into combat and to wear Achilles' armor. After Trojan king Priam's beloved son, Hector, kills Patroclus, guilt, rage and grief drives Achilles on a frenzied quest for revenge that sees him slay Hector and then tie Hector's corpse to his chariot and drag it around the besieged city. Priam, desperate to stop the desecration, decides to visit the enemy camp and offer money in exchange for Hector's body. He hires a humble cart driver and, aided by Hermes, they set out on a journey that takes Priam into the unknown and toward a meeting with Achilles. Though Malouf's sparingly deployed details, vigorous language and sly wit humanizes these tragic heroes, the story is unmistakably epic and certainly the stuff of legend.
Legends never die.  They live on in re-imaginations of generations after generations.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Rape of Lucretia at Cal Performances, Berkeley

 Last night, I attended a performance of Benjamin Britten's "The Rape of Lucretia" by Castleton Festival Opera, conducted by its founder maestro Lorin Maazel, in Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley.

I had long loved this chamber opera and glad to had the chance to see it in a hall with more appropriate size than San Francisco Opera's War Memorial Opera House.  Britten's music was economic and austere, but with pages and pages of startling beauty.  He was very dept in setting mood and narrate drama with his notes.  His vocal writing was masterful - I still believe that there are only two operatic composers who can set the difficult English to music right - Handel (Händel) and Britten.

The staging matched the beauty and the economy of the music perfectly.  There are many telling details are very startling and effective.  The singers mostly made very positive impact and I particularly enjoyed the singing of tenor Vale Rideout as Male Chorus, soprano Arianna Zukerman as Female Chorus, bass Michael Rice as Collatinus, contralto Ekaterina Metlova as Lucretia, baritone Matthew Worth as Tarquinius, and mezzo-soprano Alison Tupay as Bianca.

However, I wasn't expect for an uncomplicated little story,the opera would have lasted so long, much longer (two and half hours including one intermission) than I was prepared for and longer than I would have liked.  The story is a simple one: Rome was ruled by Etruscan lords, who were waging a war with the Greeks.  An cruel bet proved all noble Roman women except Lucretia, wife of Collatinus, was virtuous.  This piqued Etruscan prince Tarquinius, who became drawn to her virtue and determined to destroy her virtue.  He raped her, she committed suicide.  Opportunist Roman politicians incited Romans to rise to overthrow the Etruscan lords.

For this lurid yet simple story, Britten's librettist Ronald Duncan added a big them of Christian sacrifice, which was quite interesting and often moving, but dramatically quite a stretch.  The inclusion of Chrisitian element definitely made the story bigger, and more universal; however, it also diminished its universality.  Quite I few times, I was reminded of the recent Tunisian revolution, sparked by the self-immolation of a street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi on 17 December and led to the ousting of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali 28 days later.  There are many gestures with Christian significance by the Male and Female Chorus, often reminded me of mega-churches in the U.S., with their outstretched hands and touting of the Bible.  Those gestures got too repetitive and tedious, and had manipulative, controlling undertone, and even slightly sinister.

The Male Chorus was a gratifying role for a tenor, but not necessarily for the audience.  For an ideal dramatic structure, that role should have been made much smaller.  However, since it was created for Britten's life partner, wonderful tenor Peter Pears, the role was inevitably big; to balance it, the Female Chorus became unnecessarily big as well.  They contributed to the drama, but perversely, reduced the drama by their over-long staying on stage.

I couldn't help but comparing this opera to Stravinsky's "Oedipus Rex" which had more lurid and complicated story, yet its using of a commentator (a narrator) was much more appropriate in length.  The Narrator related background stories and propelled the story headlong to its climactic conclusion; while here, the Male and Female Chorus force-fed the virtues and sacrifices of Jesus Christ and other Christians to the audience.  It eventually became a spectacle audience was forced to partake, to witness the self-flagellation of the homosexual Benjamin Britten to tone for his "sin" publicly.

All those said, I was glad that I had seen this wonderful opera live.  Kudos must go to Cal Performances which presents many gems ignored by the biggest operatic player in the Bay Areas - San Francisco Opera, led by a conservative and inward-looking impresario David Gockley, who had canceled a planned Peter Grimes, apparently due to economic woe.  In last decade, only Gockley's predecessor, the more adventurous Pamela Rosenberg had presented a Britten, the most satisfying Billy Budd, which proved a highlight of the last decade at San Francisco Opera.

Cal Performances will present Britten's "Albert Herring" tonight and tomorrow afternoon.  I would love to see Britten's other masterpieces: Peter Grimes, Death in Venice, Curlew River, and The Midsummer Night's Dream.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Politics and Profits

Thirty-five years after his death, Mao Zedong still enjoys respect or even reverence from many quarters in China. For example, in April 2010, Telegraph reported that Chinese protestor throws ink at portrait of Chairman Mao:
An angry Chinese protestor has attempted to throw ink over the famed giant portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong that hangs in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, police in China have confirmed.

Police wrestled the man to the ground last weekend after he threw a bottle of ink at the portrait, a potent symbol of Communist Party power which hangs on the Tiananmen gate tower where Chairman Mao declared a new republic 60 years ago.

"At around 13:35pm, April 5 2010, a man was put under control after he threw a plastic bottle of ink towards the Tiananmen gate tower," the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau confirmed in a statement faxed to The Telegraph.

The audacious attack echoes the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest when three young men threw ink-filled eggs at the portrait in a gesture of defiance against China' Communist ruling party that resonated around the world.

The three men, Lu Decheng, Yu Zhijian, and Yu Dongyue, received some of the harshest sentences in the crackdown that followed the violent crushing of the protests, being jailed for 16 years, 20 years and life respectively.

That kind of disrespect to the Mao could not be tolerated by Chinese government, if it was out of political motivation.

However, if it was done in the name of development, the story could have a different ending.

Technews reported that 
A real estate company wrecked the statue of the 'Great Helmsman' -- China's most powerful figure between 1949 and 1976 -- while re-developing a district in Longlou town in Wenchang region, reported Hong Kong's South China Morning Post.

Erected in 2008, the 9.9m white marble statue had attracted many visitors, China News Service (CNS) reported.

"Developers now wield the greatest power of destruction in China, tearing down houses and flattening martyrs' mausoleums in the name of development," another (Internet) post remarked on"
Indeed, in the name of development, developers, often combined with power of unchecked government and ruthless mafia, wrecked homes for profit at well.



The demolition of Mao's statue earned some condemnation from China's leftist corners but it is doubtful any developers involved would suffer the fate of those angry protesters who "defaced" Mao's giant portrait.

Profits tramps politics.  Call it progress.

Mao Zedong Statue in Shenyang, China - Matthew Felix Sun's Drawing_7339
Mao's Statue in Shenyang

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Traffic Signage and Other California Quirks

The first few years moving from Ohio to California was rather difficult for me to cope with the many quirks of California, particularly the confusing and inconsiderate signage of all traffic systems.

My biggest complains are the split exit lane which could go to both directions.  In Ohio, that lane would be clearly marked and riders need not to shift lane unnecessarily to go to say left or right.   But in California, a panicked drivers shift from that split middle lane to the left or right and only realized later that the need not to change lane at all.   Finally, there are signs telling drivers the split lanes go to both directions but they usually came up way to late, after the lane change have been accomplished.

Another good thing in Ohio is the numbered highway exits.  After having consulted a map, one could just count the numbers of the exit and prepare for his or her own.  Numbers are much easier to ready than letters.  Again, more than 10 years later after I moved to California, finally I saw some exits with numbers.  But those numbered exits won't help much, because those numbered exits are inconsistently marked, discontinuous, and on the warning/lead signs the numbers are no where to find, or vice versa.

San Francisco Chronicle just published a congratulatory article on the signage experiment by BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit, aka commuter trains) in its Ashby station.

I have traveled from Ashby before and after the signage change and I must agree that it has improved quite a bit, though hardly enough.

Look at the picture below:

One can see that one platform pointing at Richmond direction which the other pointing at Fremont and Millbrae.  The problem is that many people, if they are unfamiliar with BART, would not know which direction will lead them to the most common destinations: San Francisco or San Francisco Airport.

Using the destination of the trains as the labels of the lines can work, if those destinations are well known and stay constant.  No.  That's not what BART has. Take Pittsburg/Baypoint train for example.  That train sometimes stops at Concord and the incoming train and the platform sign would say it is a Concord train. Or say a train goes to San Francisco direction can stop at 24th Street Mission in rush hours.

On the front of each rushing income train, some feebly lit small light bulbs would form the destination of the train as well.  But who can read those?

The most sensible way to label those five (5) BART lines are using the existing color coding system with the destination more broadly defined, by calling
San Francisco (SF)-Richmond Train Red East Bay (EB),
Richmond-SF Train Red SF,
SF-Pittsburg/Baypoint Train Yellow EB,
Pittsburg/Baypoint-SF Train Yellow SF, etc.
For the line goes north and south in East Bay alone, they could be called Orange North and Orange South.

When my father, who doesn't speak English, visited me, he referred those lines with those colors used on BART map.  I did tell him to look at P and B, but I had constant angst over the Pittsburg/Baypoint train might stop at Concord and my father would have missed his train.
Another way to to it is labeling those lines with numbers.  Considering we have only five lines, it is eminently doable.  No. 1 EB, No.1 SF, etc. would work much better for many residents and visitors, many of them don't speak English or not too well.

Yet, waiting for real creative and constructive thinking from unionized BART, with its usual glacier pace, is like waiting for Godot.

Perhaps, California was a shining example of American success.  Now it is the laughing stock of the nation and the world.

In my blog article Which End of the Boat Sinks First? - Dueling Between Democrats and Republicans, I described California thus:
Governor Jerry Brown proposed deep services cuts for the poor and middle class, hoping to get support from Republicans to put a temporary tax extension on a special election ballot.  But deadline came and went and he got no support.  The huge imbalance of public workers pensions and benefits are not addressed by the Democrats either.  One would hope these two ruling parties would barter some of these.  No.  If anything same can be done, we are not in California.

The Republicans and Democrats, sitting in two ends of this leaking boat, instead of working together to scoop out water and fix the leakage, are fighting tooth and nail to ensure that the other end of the boat sinks first.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Painter Accused of Appropriating Imagery Created by Photographer

The case I'm discussing is not that closely watched case involving Richard Prince - who was sued by photographer Patrick Cariou for using his published photos without permission and causing fiscal damages, who was found having violated the copyrights and his claim of fair-use exceptions would not apply.

Rather, I'm talking about a copyright case in China.  That's right in China.

A photographer Xue Huake, is suing Yan Yaya, a painter well-known in China for her Tajik children paintings, of plagiarism.  He accused the painter of using using his photographs for eight paintings being exhibited, auctioned and included in her monograph.

He demands Yan to stop infringement, apology, compensate for economic loss of 12 million Yuan (about 2 million US dollars), and to destroy those works.

The painter claimed that the photographer was only able to take pictures of the subjects through her connections.  However, it seems her claims were mostly on this ground of returning a favor and she had not disputed the fact that she made those paintings without the knowledge, let alone permission of the photographer.

The case is currently being tried in a district court in Beijing.  It is worth pointing out that though copyrights infringement is rampant in China, authors and artists are increasingly keen to protect their rights.  It was reported recently that more than 40 writers have signed a letter to accuse Baidu (a search engine which has a 75 percent market share in China, after the exit of Google) of providing their works for free to download on its online library Baidu Wenku, without their permission.  The author said "Baidu has become a totally corrupt thief company" that runs a "marketplace of stolen goods."

The Richard Prince case has been ruled in the favor of the photographer in the initial ruling and it would very interesting to see how the damage is judged and how the judgments will withstand any legal challenges.

Below is the excerpt of the report of Richard Prince case in New York Times:
A federal judge in Manhattan has ruled against the artist Richard Prince in a closely watched copyright case, finding that Mr. Prince – who is well known for appropriating imagery created by others – violated the law by using photographs from a book about Rastafarians to create a series of collages and paintings.

The decision, found in favor of Patrick Cariou, a photographer whose book "Yes Rasta," featuring portraits he took during several months in Jamaica, was published in 2000. According to the suit, Mr. Prince used 41 or more of the pictures from the book as the basis for a body of work he called "Canal Zone," which was shown in St. Barts and in a 2008 exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea. A gallery that was planning to show Mr. Cariou's photographs canceled that exhibition after learning that Mr. Prince had already created works based on the photographs.

Mr. Prince has argued that his use of the photographs should be allowed under fair-use exemptions to copyright protections, which allow limited borrowing of protected material for purposes like commentary, criticism, news reporting and scholarship. But Judge Batts wrote that for fair-use exceptions to apply, a new work of art must be transformative in the sense that it must "in some way comment on, relate to the historical context of, or critically refer back to the original works" it borrows from.

Mr. Prince testified in the case that he had no interest in the original meaning of the photographs he used. In creating the "Canal Zone" works he mainly used the imagery as a way to make references to painters like Picasso and Willem de Kooning and to connect the works to a postapocalyptic screenplay he was planning that featured a reggae band.

For that reason, and because Mr. Prince used the imagery for commercially available paintings, Judge Batts ruled that he and the Gagosian gallery violated Mr. Cariou's copyrights. She ordered all unsold copies of the "Canal Zone" paintings and other related works to be impounded and ordered that the gallery inform anyone who already owned copies of the works that it would be a violation of copyright laws to display them. She also ordered the parties to return to court in May to discuss possible damages. 

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Taking Artistic Risks

Two recent stories gave me resources to discuss on taking artistic risks. One was last weekend's Metropolitan Opera's broadcast of Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov, featuring the great German bass René Pape in the title role.  Pape, born in 1964, started to sing the hugely demanding role Godunov as early as 2006, at the relatively young age of 41 or 42.  Obviously, he had taken a certain artistic risks by tackling the role so early in his career, though his deep, rich voice is a perfect fit for this tormented role.

If one can argue that he might should have wait for several more years, then let us not to forget the story of American base George London, who was a great component of Boris Godunov.

As told by Opera News magazine, George London sung Godunov at the Met for the first time at the even younger age of thirty-two.  He went on became the first non-Russian singer to be invited to sing Godunov at Moscow's Bolshoi Opera, in 1960, aged 40.  The other artistic risk London took was in Wagner.  In 1958, London performed the leading role of Wotan, in the groundbreaking recording of Richard Wagner's opera Das Rheingold, conducted by Sir Georg Solti, and produced by John Culshaw for Decca.  Again, 38 is a relatively young age for Wotan.  However, the operatic world and London himself must be grateful for his risk-taking decisions, because "in early '60s, shortly after he turned forty, that he began exhibiting signs of vocal distress. The problem was eventually diagnosed as a paralyzed vocal cord, a condition that never improved. London was able to maintain his career only for another few years before he had to retire from singing completely."  He actually retired from singing in 1967, aged 47, almost exactly the age of Pape.

Sure, one can argue that London's paralyzed vocal cord was at least partially due to its early heavy demand, as if Maria Callas' dramatic weight loss contributed to her premature vocal decline.

However, considering what artistic risks Callas had taken over the one and a half decades she was in her vocal prime, we could understand that her premature vocal decline was almost a calculated decision.  Her action told us that she had decided to become a brilliant comet, rather than a slow burning ember.  Many people, opera singers or not, had much longer careers, but made far less impacts and contributions to their respective fields.  Another similar case is Elena Souliotis, who burned even briefer and crushed even more spectacularly but people would always remember who she was.

A DVD La forza del destino made similar case for the risk-taking:
The 35-year-old José Carreras, looking like a teenager, sings the heck out of Don Alvaro, and now in hindsight it's clear that he gave too much.   But what a performance! Since the opera is given complete, it also includes the "Sleale!" duet, which comes dangerously soon after "Solenne in quest'ora" and is therefore usually cut or moved: it is very close to real dramatic tenor territory.  Carreras holds nothing back.  His chemistry with Caballé in the first scene is delightful and they sing beautifully together--and he is just as good in the three duets with baritone Piero Cappuccilli, who sings Don Carlo.

Artistic risks are not confined to how to use one's talent, but also concern how uncomfortable an artist would allow oneself to be, in order to grow.

This leads to the second story.

The wonderful Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu, who withdrew from her Met Opera engagement of Faust:
Ms. Gheorghiu's manager, Jack Mastroianni, said she could not abide the production, which is being directed by Des McAnuff.  Mr. McAnuff has moved the action from its more typical 19th-century setting to the World War I era.

"She felt uncomfortable with the concept," Mr. Mastroianni said.  "She conceives of the work in a more French Romantic way, in the period, as opposed to something being updated."
I can understand Gheorghiu's nervousness in the new approach, which was different from how she was used to.  But, this alone, failed to convince.  Any story, even as Faust, can be interpreted in many setting and angles, and through these trials, a performer could really dive deep into the character.  Her reluctant to stretch is a shame because she has wonderful voice to offer and is an actress with enough fire and temperament to made greater impact to theater.  Her reluctant to take risk, will diminish her statue and made her artistic promise unfulfilled in some ways.

I'm not urging people to push their resources beyond reasonable boundary.  The troubled career of once-promising tenor Rolando Villazón definitely is a cautionary tale.  However, not every risk-takers suffer a crash.  Soprano Leonie Rysanek and mezzo-soprano/soprano Christa Ludwig both took great risks and had very long careers (though both had certain rough patches). 

Risk-taking is part of the game for any kind of artist.  As a painting, I can paint paintings I know would sell endlessly, with the consequence of no artistic growth.  I would try few new things, and sometimes, deliberately make myself uncomfortable and see how far I can go.  I can be only as good as I am willing.

René Pape

Friday, March 18, 2011

Oil Painting "In Distant Country" Completed

Last Wednesday, I completed a painting I'd been working on for several months:

In Distant Country / 在遙遠的国度 / In fernem Land

I was first struck by a vision of stark contrast between muted landscape and saturated world and my desire to capture this contrast brought to my trip to Bruges, Belgium, where beautiful city landmark buildings glistered in the sun but quite muted at night.  My morning trip to the canal to greet "my" swans etched these impression to my mind and they serve a perfect model for my painting.

The title of this painting is a phrase from Richard Wagner's Lohengrin "In fernem Land". In this aria, mysterious knight Lohengrin related his background. He came to Brabant, on chariot pulled by a swan, to defend a wrongly accused maiden Elsa.  Somehow, the medieval story of Lohengrin, with the mythic characters abundant, felt quite right for my painting depict a medieval town, with its eternal swans, despite the fact that Bruges is not in Brabant's proper, but very close.

This paining can also be viewed as a companion piece to my "Bruges, Impression" which was completed in 2009:

Bruges, Impression / 布魯日,印象 / Brügge, Eindruck

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

One More Painting Featuring White Dress

Last weekend was a fulfilling weekend.  I was able to wrap up two paintings I'd been working on for months.  I discussed the first one - White Dresses a couple days earlier and today, and now I am going to discuss my White Dress with Birds briefly. 

For this painting, the white dress was not in the original plan.  I was in the process of working on paintings with portals and this painting, at its half-finished stage, felt very empty and devoid of meaning and life.  While juggling between works, I was suddenly hit with the idea of incorporating a white dress into this one.  The dress should be airy yet dominant, unlike that in the White Dress I completed in 2005, or the White Dresses with featured a multitude of floating dresses.  I also used bold graphite outline to set the boundaries of windows and the grids on the dress, to emphasis the contrast and texture. 

The white dress was hanging freely yet being confined in the narrow interior; the curtains were billowing but flew inwards; the birds on the dress were confined in their little cell, however pretty.  The painting thus achieved a sense of a deliberate incoherence and clashes, in a subtle and nonviolent way, and enigmatic too.

White Dress with Birds
White Dress with Birds
Oil on Canvas
20" x 24"
Completed in 2011

You can see other paintings I'd done with the motif of white dress below:

White Dresses - 500
White Dresses
Oil on Canvas
22" x 28"
Completed in 2011

White Dress / 白色連衣裙 / Weißes Kleid
White Dress
Oil on Canvas
20" x 16"
Completed in 2005

Monday, March 14, 2011

High Romanticism - German Tenor Jonas Kaufmann's Recital in Berkeley

One of the most eagerly expected local debut took place in University of California, Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall last Sunday.   The Munich born tenor Jonas Kaufmann, accompanied by Viennese pianist Helmut Deutsch, sang Liedern (art songs) by Robert Schumann and Richard Strauss, including the entire cycle of Dichterliebe (Poet's Love), set to texts by Heinrich Heine by Schumann.

The recital was co-presented by Cal Performances and San Francisco Opera.  Cal Performances' website states:
Taking Met Opera audiences by storm in May 2010 in sold-out performances of Carmen and Tosca and appearing this spring in the Met's Robert Lepage production of Die Walküre, Jonas Kaufmann is the tenor that everyone is talking about. An exceptionally versatile vocal artist, he makes his highly anticipated Bay Area debut at Cal Performances, revealing his abundant talents as a lieder interpreter. "He has everything: intelligence, musicianship, and resourceful technique," says the New York Times.
Kaufmann was greeted by thunderous applause when he and the accompanist appeared on stage.  It is hard to tell if it was due to celebrity gazing factor, or genuine gratitude for the white hot tenor making an appearance in our humble town of Berkeley.  The performers tried hard not to be affected by this warm and perhaps a tad embarrassing enthusiasm in order to stay in the mood for the program and rather suddenly dived into the German high romanticism immediately.  It took him a couple bars to warm up and unleash his powerful tenor, formidable musicianship and the intensity ideally suited to the Byronic heroes he had sung in many exulted opera houses. 

His timber was baritonal and heroic, not the most caressing sound, though he can float seemingly effortless pianissimo.  His dynamic range was amazingly large and when called for, his voice was powerful and even overwhelming.  His voice production was somewhat backwards and a little covered, therefore lacks the exhilarating brightness and Italianate coloration, say, à la Pavarotti.  Most impressive was his intense but never melodramatic communicative and emotive power.  His manner was restraint and more intense because of that. 

After the intermission, we were treated with Strauss's Five Songs after Felix Dahn.  They were less substantial perhaps, but gave the evening a rather welcome humorous relief, enlivened the otherwise an unrelentingly gloom evening.

After that, we were led back to the terra firma of yearning, but also some mellowness and understanding of life, which manifested the end of the epoch of aristocratic romanticism, the kind of longing, to me, forever associated with northern countries when the days were short and the sun was weak, and hope seemed forever elusive.  

The rapturous audience gave them long standing ovations and eventually Kaufmann and Deutsch favored the audience with five encores.

I had thought that he might sing a French aria from say Werther.  But as a serious musician, he was obviously committed to the lieder literature and all but one encores were lieder.  The exception was a number from operetta,  Das Land des Lächelns (The Land of Smiles) and the music though catchy, was still in full swing of burning passion and longing.   It was quite impressive for him to resist the temptation to diving into operative numbers, which surely would have driven the audience into frenzy.  Instead of a celebrity doing his song recital, he presented himself as a committed recitalist, though it can be argued that his voice obviously suited more to larger-than-life operative roles.

San Francisco Opera's 2011-12 season has been announced and Kaufmann again has not been engaged so far.  This very fact makes me feel very provincial.

Lone Traveler / 孤獨的旅行者 / Einsamer Reisender

Saturday, March 12, 2011

White Dresses - First Painting Finished in 2011

I just completed the first painting in 2011 - White Dresses.  It continued on the white dress motif I started in 2005.  The dress is still floating in the air, but gets multiplied by large numbers and the flaming red is replaced by much duller green:

White Dresses - 500
White Dresses
Oil on Canvas
22" x 28"
Completed in 2011

For comparison, below images is the one I completed in 2005 - White Dress:

White Dress / 白色連衣裙 / Weißes Kleid

White Dress
Oil on Canvas
20" x 16"
Completed in 2005

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Journeyman Artists

Last week, I heard a fascinating story on NPR - Cake: Flying High After A Record Low, on the Californian rock band Cake.

According to the interview, "Cake unveiled its sixth album, Showroom of Compassion. Released on the band's own independent label, Upbeat Records, the album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. However, it did so after selling just 44,000 copies — the lowest No. 1 in the 20-year history of calculating record sales.
That revelation reflects a music industry deeply changed since Cake's last new release about seven years ago. As lead singer John McCrea tells All Things Considered host Melissa Block, he knew the band needed to proceed with caution."

The story continued on the McCrea's musing on his life - the difficulty of sustaining a nomadic touring life and the possibility of stopping touring.  
After two decades with Cake, McCrea has started to think about his life after the band — which might mean taking his interest in farming and gardening more seriously. "I think I want to live a little closer to the ground," he says. "There's something pretty healthy about working every day outdoors, and not being on an airplane all the time."

But for the moment, McCrea says he's content to keep playing. As for the dubious honor of making the lowest-selling No. 1 album ever, McCrea says that kind of contradiction is "perfect" for a band like Cake. "Optimism and pessimism are actually buddies sitting together on the same sofa," he says. "I mean, that's sort of what we're about."
This interview gave us a vivid picture of some very successful artists as journeymen.  I'm using the term journeyman in the loosest sense.  Real journeymen would have killed to achieve the level of success Cake has accomplished.  However, as McCrea notices, they were not at the same celebrity level as Lady Gaga.

According to Wikipedia,
A journeyman is a trader or crafter who has completed an apprenticeship. A journeyman was a craftsman who had fully learned his trade and earned money but was not yet a master. To become a master, a journeyman had to submit a master work piece to a guild for judgment. If the work were deemed worthy, the journeyman would be admitted to the guild as a master.

The word "journeyman" comes from the French word journee, meaning the period of one day; this refers to their right to charge a fee for each day's work. They would normally be employed by a master craftsman, but would live apart and might have a family of their own. A journeyman could not employ others. In contrast, an apprentice would be bound to a master, usually for a fixed term of seven years, and lived with the master as a member of the household, receiving most or all of their compensation in terms of food and lodging.

In parts of Europe, as in later medieval Germany, spending time as a journeyman (Geselle), moving from one town to another to gain experience of different workshops, was an important part of the training of an aspirant master. Carpenters in Germany have retained the tradition of traveling journeymen even today, although only a small minority still practice it. In later medieval England, however, most journeymen remained as employees throughout their careers, lacking the financial resources to set up their own workshops[citation needed]. In France, they were known as Compagnons.

The terms jack and knave are sometimes used as informal words for journeyman. Hence "jack of all trades, master of none"—someone who is educated in several fields of trade, but is not yet skilled enough in any to set up their own workshop as a master.

In professional sport, the term "journeyman" refers to a player who is experienced, but has yet to achieve a major success. It is a term particularly used to refer to quarterbacks in American football; players such as Trent Dilfer, Kelly Holcomb and Tony Banks are recent examples of journeymen quarterbacks. Its also used in Pro Boxing/Wrestling.
From journeyman to master, in modern days, is not as well defined as before.  Skills, luck and temperament.  Then there are stars, and there are star of stars.

New York Times published a very touch tribute, A Last-Minute Juliette Stands Tall in Verona, to a star-journeyman operatic soprano Hei-Kyung Hong, who stepped in to sing Juliette at the Metropolitan Opera, when the marquee soprano Angela Gheorghiu canceled suddenly due to illness.
There are singers who hold an opera company together, and they’re not the ones you might think. These singers don’t star in new productions; their photos aren’t on the posters. They sing the supporting parts, the Zerlinas and Micaëlas, and when they do get leading roles, it’s often late in runs after the critics have gone home.

But they work steadily: the soprano Hei-Kyung Hong, one of the best and most indefatigable of these singers, has performed with the Metropolitan Opera no fewer than 348 times since her debut in 1984.

Stalwart artists like Ms. Hong are the ones ready to step in when international stars call in sick. On Wednesday, the soprano Angela Gheorghiu, citing an unspecified illness, announced that she was dropping out of the Met’s revival of Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette,” which opened Thursday evening. She was replaced by Ms. Hong, who in true Met veteran style had gone on for another ailing Juliette back in 1996.

Ms. Hong rose to the occasion with an elegant, touching performance. Her voice is cool and slender, but the understated detail of her singing makes it feel more imposing than it is: the way she poignantly colored her farewell to Roméo at the end of the balcony scene; her dreamy murmur of his name in the bedchamber duet.

Though not the most galvanizing stage presence, she is a fine, subtle actress. It’s not easy for a 51-year-old singer to impersonate a teenager, but Ms. Hong was convincing and true, resisting every temptation to overplay. When she saw Roméo for the first time, her posture changed almost imperceptibly. She stood up taller; her gestures relaxed; she seemed to mature in front of your eyes. Her performance was full of such telling touches.

If the performance lacked a certain intensity and grandeur, it was still a pleasant night at the opera — a good way to be reminded of, and give thanks for, the quiet artistry of underappreciated singers like Ms. Hong.
I know it is silly to call a soprano who has sung at the Met for more than 348 times, in roles including the Countessa from The Marriage of Figaro (Le Nozze di Figaro) and Violetta from La Traviata.  However, considering her lower profile, comparing to Renée Flamings and Angela Gheorghius, what consisted of her career, is not unlike a journeyman.  This is not an insult, rather than a tribute to a wonderfully self-depreciating, even humble star singer and a very fine musician.

The world, art world or otherwise, cannot sustain itself, it is has only stars.  Stars attracts people to a world both masters and journeymen built together.  In the art world, particularly pre-Renaissance time, journeymen artists were those who left behind anonymous paintings in churches in remote and tiny villages, and one can still encounter them in their original settings in places like Italy.

Though some are more content to be on the "grass root" level and be happy with a low-pressured career, most craftsmen, artists and sportsmen would love to rise above journeyman status, and achieve stardom.  But the journeymen are really the pillar of our civilization, even though we have to admit that we do need megastars to keep any artistic aspiration alive.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

What Chinese People's Daily Reported on Libya Crisis

The crisis in Libya have not generated much media coverage in China, for reasons one can only speculate.  Whatever little coverage on Chinese Communist Party's Official Throat and Tongue (Mouthpiece) - The People's Daily, the focus was squarely on the heroic feat Chinese government accomplished to evacuate its trapped citizens in Libya.

A typical store is 5 March story - Chinese Evacuation Efforts Inspired Fervent Patriotism (中国撤离行动激发强烈爱国热情).

The article made a incredible read and I will include the original after my translation:
On the occasion of triumphant accomplishment of evacuating 35,860 Chinese citizens from Libya, "People's Daily" on March 3rd published a long headline story "Save every compatriot's life -- a documentation of the action of evacuating Chinese citizens from Libya under the fortitude leadership of the Chinese (Communist) Party Central Committee and the State Council."  This report gave rise to intense reactions, and inspired the fervent patriotic enthusiasm in readers.

Many readers called or left messages online, claimed one after another, that the evacuation act demonstrated the philosophy of Chinese (Communist) Party and government -- "people first and governing for the people", and the country's (China's) development and stability was the solid foundation for this evacuation, and (we) must cherish and firmly seize the opportunities of important strategic development.



The evening of 3 March 2011, in the Jordanian capital International Airport, departing Chinese workers waved national flags.
Photo: Xinhua News Agency

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Happy International Women's Day

Today is the International Women's Day.  I wish all the women a happy Women's day and the rest be reminded the sacrifices women usually make to maintain a career and be a caregiver.  Roles have changed but the basic societal role of women has not shifted much.  Below are a few paintings and drawings I made in the past, and I include them here to salute women:

Grandma / 祖母 / Oma
Oil on Canvas
40" x 30"
Completed in 2003

Woman in White Straw Hat / 帶白草帽的女人 / Frau mit weißem Strohhut
Woman in White Straw Hat
Oil on Canvas
28" x 22"
Completed in 1997

Aspects / 方面 / Aspekte
Oil on Canvas
28" x 22"
Completed in 2006

Liberation Road / 解放路 / Befreiungstraße
Liberation Road
Oil on Canvas
18" x 24"
Completed in 2010

Matthew Felix Sun's Live Drawing_1585

Matthew Felix Sun's Live Drawing _ 5416

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Modern Art Iraq (Online) Archive

Title unknown,
Khaled Albassam, 1958
A new online archive came to into existence in February 2011 - The Modern Art Iraq Archive (MAIA). The website states that its mission is to document Iraq's threatened modern artistic heritage. The site will house images, many of whose originals are now lost, from the Iraqi Museum of Modern Art, and other publications and documentation. The website states that "MAIA's goals are to raise awareness of the diverse body of modern works of Iraqi art, to help locate their current whereabouts, and to assist agencies working to prevent their illegal movement and sale. MAIA aims to reach a wide and participatory audience across the globe, and offers users the ability to document, discuss, explore, and enrich Iraqi artistic expressions and experiences."

MAIA was launched with over 700 works and documents and the archive continues to grow as new works will be add continuously and they invite people worldwide to contribute information about the works. Its homepage states:
The Modern Art Iraq Archive (MAIA) is a resource to trace, share, and enable community enrichment of the modern art heritage of Iraq. Explore the works by artist, browse through related textual materials, or add your own images or stories to the archive.
The website is not dissimilar to many artist community website in their visual presentation and it currently has the following categories:
Styles and themes vary greatly and there were many surprises, most significantly that it contains many figurative works and even nudes, in contrary to many people's preconception of what Iraqi art would be:

Title unknown, Faiq Hassan, Date unknown

The more unique part of this website is the "Texts" section, which includes fascinating documentations like these:

- Exhibitions 1940s - Documentary Materials (معارض ١٩٤٠ - وثائق)
- Personal Documentation (وثائق شخصيه)
- Magazine Articles (مقالات من مجلات)

Central to the development the of website, according to MAIA, "were ease of use, translation into Arabic, extensive and inclusive documentation, community contribution, and syndication of content elsewhere on the Web." One curious thing to know is if the translation done automatically or manually. This is a very convenient feature and could facilitate culture understanding amongst groups of people. On my personally website, I included titles in my first and third language - Chinese and German, respectively - together with English titles in my portfolio and it did increase hits. I did it manually, since the site where my portfolio module is hosted - Flickr - does not provide an automatic translation feature, nor do my alternative portfolio sites on ArtSlant or Saatchi Online. A multi-lingual website is always a cause for celebration.

The contribute page allows people to upload their own materials, including stories, images, video, and audio.

The website however did not elaborate on how it will "assist agencies working to prevent their illegal movement and sale," and it would be interesting to learn.

The San Francisco Chronicle just reported a story of tracing a 6 feet wide painting by Ralph Fasanella, previously displayed at the Oakland Public Library and the Oakland Museum of California. It took Laura E. Ruberto great effort to locate this "missing" art, in African American Museum & Library at Oakland, its home since 2003. Apparently, an provenance agency like MAIA is very important to help identify and catalog works of art.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Video Presentation of My Abstract Paintings

Abstraction is a highly cerebral activity that it intimidates me, a sensualist fundamentally.  But, over the years, not only my paintings started to become more abstract, by the natural development -- once you've painted any subjects and objects you fancies, what's next left do do -- I also made foray into purely abstract paintings as well.  Below is the video presentation of such efforts:

>> Video presentations of paintings and drawings, Part XXI: Oil Painting "Liberation Road" on Video
<< Video presentations of paintings and drawings, Part XIX: One More Life Drawing Video from Last Year

List of Video Presentation of My Artworks