Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Molotov's Magic Lantern: A Journey In Russian History by Rachel Polonsky and Some Journeys of My Own

In the midst of winter, I finished reading Molotov's Magic Lantern: A Journey In Russian History by Rachel Polonsky.  As if I didn't have enough of the Siberian chill, I picked up One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by , translated by Ralph Parker, while recuperating from a nasty cold at my slightly heated apartment. These two books made a great pair of winter reading, for people like me who are not afraid of visiting and re-visiting harrowing terrains.

What attracted me to British journalist Polonsky's dreamy iteration in the Putin's Russia, with unbroken linkages to the Soviet history, particularly those from the 1910s through 1940s, was the panoramic tapestry she deftly waved together, with threads of ancient yarns she picked up in the old Bolshevik Vyacheslav Molotov's apartment library in Moscow, through historical stories and her travel journalistic reports, ranging "from Arctic to Siberia and from the forests around Moscow to the vast steppes" [Goodread].  Molotov was one of the most ruthless apparatchik who had condemned hundreds if not thousands people, many of those he had known and had called friends before, to their death marches.  More poignantly, his library contained volumes of carefully preserved, thoroughly read and annotated books whose authors he had sent to the Gulags.  Her  book was a "condensed history of the country had suffered and is still suffering in certain degree from war, famine and totalitarianism" [Goodread].

And who had captured the terror of the most brutal Stalinist era better than Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, in his slim but heavy immortal volume, the above mentioned One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich?

The GoodReads gives such description of the novella: "A masterpiece of modern Russian fiction, this novel is one of the most significant and outspoken literary documents ever to come out of Soviet Russia. A brutal depiction of life in a Stalinist camp and a moving tribute to man's triumph of will over relentless dehumanization."  Wikipedia summarizes the plot as this: "The themes of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich center on authoritative oppression and camp survival. Specifically discussed is the cruelty and spite towards the fellow man, namely from prison officials. Solzhenitsyn explains through Ivan Denisovich that everything is managed by the camp commandment up to the point where time feels unnoticed; the prisoners always have work to do and never any free time to discuss important issues. Survival is of the utmost importance to prisoners. Attitude is another crucial factor in survival. Since prisoners were each assigned a grade it was considered good etiquette to obey. This is outlined through the character of Fetiukov, a ministry worker who let himself into prison and scarcely follows prison etiquette. Another such incident involves Buinovsky, a former naval captain, who is punished for defending himself and others during an early morning frisking."

The life in the Gulag was as bitter as Siberian winter, and I am very grateful to the author that we have such a vivid documentation of the human sufferings in the hands of tyranny in the name of the people.

Reading this book was hard for me, because it had many family resonances, which like most Chinese sufferings in the hands of Communist regime, still remain largely untold and undocumented.

While I was waiting to be born, my father was sent to a "Cadre School", a sort of labor camp.  Unlike the Soviet system, it was not individuals who were sentenced to the camp during Cultural Revolution - that did take place in late 1950s when Mao and his Cadres were condemning "Rightists" - rather, it was wholesale internment of entire work units, small or large.  Neighboring my father's camp, were similar "schools" for my maternal grandfather and his younger brother.  Another close uncle of mine was sent to another camp several hundred kilometers from them and from home.  Those camps were not prisons per se, and their inmates didn't wear numbers but the rest were not much different.  Before they were able to build camps, they slept in the open during cold nights even when the temperature dropped to as low as Fahrenheit -25 to -30 degrees.  They were made to work, some units and individuals light and others heavy.  My great uncle slept on cold stone "bed" and my grandfather was so sick that he could not even climb back to his shed after a trip to outhouse. They were fed with pickles and preserved Chinese cabbages similar to sauerkraut which caused ulcers when cooked without oil or grease, meal after meal for six long-winter months every year.

Food in my Manchurian home city Shenyang had never been abundant and in winter days of Mao's era, we had only pickles, preserved and "fresh" Chinese cabbages as vegetables.  Polonsky's following descriptions of Russia reminded me of those bitter days in Shenyang: 
... an American bulldozer appears (bringing a new word into the Russian language) with the tractors and Studeakers and spam 'from beyond the ocean...' (Page 291)

"Anyone who has worked in the north knows the joy that every single leaf can give." (Page 292)
Yes.  Vegetables were scarce so was meat.  Even spam was great food when I grew up, and one could always find chunks of meat in the otherwise homogeneous mass, with their clear strands of meat filaments.  One of the reasons I could tolerate school outings would be lunches of such spam sandwiches, which were quite a envy of some other kids. 

Naturally, many Chinese people don't have to suffer such food shortage nowadays - they traded it for bad air and bad water - and many kids have never heard of, let alone would understand the importance of winter  Chinese Cabbages purchases, which were usually organized by residential committees and on the assigned purchase days, people could even get a day off from work, in order to purchase, transport, clear, store and pickle several hundred pounds of Chinese cabbages for the entire family for the whole winter, as documented in the pictures below, spectacular events of those days in Northern China:

- Banned Books in Mao's China
- What to Expect from Record High Chinese Overseas Students
- What One Cannot See on Flickr in China
- My Two Christmases in China


Friday, January 25, 2013

My Favorite Paintings at Antwerpen Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten (Antwerp Royal Museum of Fine Arts)

My day trip to Antwerp, after the Cathedral of Our Lady, where we saw amazing Rubens panels, included Rubens' House and the grand Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten (Antwerp Royal Museum of Fine Arts), which boasted some masterpiece paintings of several centuries.

My favorite painting in this museum was a fifteen century painting, Madonna Surrounded by Seraphim and Cherubim, a stylish, otherworldly, actually very strange presentation of the Virgin, the Child and some strangely devilish red Seraphim, juxtaposed with equally sinister deep ultramarine blue Cherubim. All the figures were highly stylized and looked like plastic dolls, almost ghoulish; yet with very precise and delicate lines, Maria and Jesus, with their perfectly rounded head and her breasts, one of which exposed, were ultimately quite subtly ravishing, pale, pensive, accepting, frail yet steely,  Their tone of pearl gray, brilliantly set off against the elements meant to be supportive and comforting but here not without an under current of menace. Utterly unforgettable.

Madonna Surrounded by Seraphim and Cherubim
Jean Fouquet
1452, oil on panel, 94.5 x 85.5 x 1.2 cm

My second favorite painting there was another strange piece - this time it was the situation but not the presentation - Venus Frigida by Peter Paul Rubens, whose figures were just his usual Rubenesque, confident and glowing, even in distress.

Venus Frigida (Frozen Venus)
Peter Paul Rubens
1614, oil on panel, 145.1 x 185.6 x 38 cm

Here, the love goddess Venus and her son Cupid, stripped of their protections, shivered in the cold, with their naked bodies exposed to the cruel element.  Her back to the viewer, showing us her rather muscular physic and he hovering underneath her gauzy veil, shrank to a cute ball, on top of her discarded arrows.  It was a funny situation and I wanted to laugh out loud ticked by the sight of the suffering Cupid, cuter than usual, but her accusing eyes stopped me from being insensitive.  Even a goddess with a muscular back, she was suffering and it called for compassion.  A satyr approached them, with his cornucopia filled with delicacies.  Perhaps, as a follower of Bacchus, he was trying to reignite the fire of life in the them; or he was about to take advantage of the vulnerable two.  Venus's turned away head might be a rebuke to his advancement.  His dark and untidy appearance dramatically contrasted to the refined shapes of Cupid and Venus, adding spices to the drama, so did the stormy dark landscape to the left and the bare tree trunks to the right.

My Favorite Museum Collection Series

>> My Favorite Museum Collection Series 61: My Favorite Paintings at Musée de l'Orangerie, Paris  
<< My Favorite Museum Collection Series 59
My Favorite Paintings in Cathedral of Our Lady, Antwerp (Antwerpen), Belgium

List of My Favorite Artworks in the Museums I've Visited  

Saturday, January 19, 2013

My Favorite Paintings in Cathedral of Our Lady, Antwerp (Antwerpen), Belgium

We had only a day trip to Antwerp, whose art scene was dominated by the great Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens.  In one of several stops, the Cathedral of Our Lady (De Kathedraal), we saw several of his great panels.  Most ambitiously conceived and marvelously executed were two triptychs, which were my favorites in this great house of worship and temple of art.

Both triptychs depicted the crucial moment of Jesus's life cycle - The Elevation of the Cross (1610) and The Descent from the Cross (1612-1614) - moment before and after his death - the subject matters hardly need explain.

The Elevation of the Cross (1610)

The Descent (Deposition) from the Cross (1612-1614), Visitation (Left), Presentation (Right)

The most impressive aspect of these panels was the dynamism of the central panels.  Everything, everyone was animated, on the move, actively engaged in a vivid, moving drama.  It seemed that subtracting any muscle would have caused the collapse of the whole mass of people and object centering on the passive and immobile Jesus.  There were large swaths of colors surrounding the parlor of Jesus.  Another wonderful contrast of the artistic decision.  Rubens' figures were fully modeled and differentiated and characterized.  One felt that one could tell who they were and what they had done and what they were to become. 

There were some continuity between these two triptychs - both Jesus or Jesus and his throe cut across the enormous panels diagonally, adding the sense of dynamism.  Unsettled.  Dangerous.  The side panels of "Elevation" were the continuation of the central panel, sad and moving, while the side panels of "Descent", both calm and happy, described before and after Jesus's birth - the Visitation and the Presentation, adding poignancy to his agonizing death.

As a renown colorist, Rubens gave us a combustion of varied yet subtly harmonized colors.  The achievement of his through these two triptychs alone were monumental.

My Favorite Museum Collection Series

>> My Favorite Museum Collection Series 60: My Favorite Paintings at Antwerpen Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten (Antwerp Royal Museum of Fine Arts)
<< My Favorite Museum Collection Series 58: My Favorite Sculpture and Painting at Church of Our Lady, Bruges

List of My Favorite Artworks in the Museums I've Visited

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

First Painting Completed in 2013

Last weekend, I completed my first painting in 2013.  It was landscape with a figure - a young man or boy, rowing a canoe in a cold day.  The atmosphere was chilly, dark, but the background houses were somewhat bright and cheerful.  It was an interplay between cold and warmth, between suffocating black and iridescent paler hues.

The atmosphere I strove to achieve for this painting was a certain melancholy, solitude yet not tragic.  The black water actually shimmered and danced.  This a painting with hope, befitting for the beginning of a new year, after a year filled with events of personal sadness.

Rowing / 划船 / Rudern
Oil on Canvas
22" x 28"

Other Related posts on Art · 文化 · Kunst:
- New Presentations of My Yearly Artworks
Unexpected Successes of "Stringed White Dresses - An Installation"
"White Dress" Series Continues - A New Drawing and a New Painting
- 2012 Recapitulation - Video Presentation of Paintings Completed in 2012
- Revolutionary Way to Shop for Clothes. What About Frames?
- Before and After - A Painting Framed
- Baby's New Clothes

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Between Holidays

Between Christmas and New Year, a friend taught me a marvelous German word to describe the said period, Zwischenjahreszeit, which meant the time between those two major holidays, two important if not the most predominant landmarks on calendar, in the predominant Christian regions and countries, in one of which, the USA, I have lived more than half of my life, just surpassed the time I had spent in my native land, China, in which, incidentally people are observing Christmas, as one of the "Hallmark Holidays".  To be more precise, it was the Christmas Eve they observe in China, known as "Peaceful Night", or "Silent Night", apparently after the Christmas carol "Silent Night" by Joseph Mohr (1792-1848), and was utterly devoid of any religious context.  It was quite disorienting to hear that numerous young people roamed about in the chilly streets and raided brightly-lit and thematically decorated department stores in China, jousting amongst the thickets of red Santa Claus, aka Papa Christmas (Christmas Old Man), and green Christmas trees.

Having left the secular Communist China early, I had completely missed that ungodly spectacle in China; while living in the US, with a Jewish partner, I still haven't gained personal connection to Christmas, one of the most important holidays on the calendar, and I equally have lost the connection to the most important holiday in China, the Spring Festival, more widely known in the US as the Chinese New Year.  I do still observe it, mostly with an obligatory meal centering on handmade dumplings, but I have skipped the excitement and anxiety during the Zwischenjahreszeit in China, between New Year and the Spring Festival. 

Therefore, instead of being tween seasons, I am in the no man's land, cultural wise.  I think it would be proper to call my state of being as Zwischenkulturen, with occasional excursion into the depth of those regions, even concurrently, such as the only two times I tried to visit a Christian/Catholic churches during Christmas time were when I was in China, in my college years.

In Dalian, a commercial harbor and sister city of Oakland, California, during a Christmas Eve, my friends and I tried to crash a service in a small parish church but were turned away.  At the same time, a shadowy old woman approached me, apparently having heard me of desiring for a copy of the Bible, hinting at that if I had visited the church more often, and gained their confidence, they would give me a copy of the Bible, which was and is not allowed to be openly sold or given away in China. I was rather put off by her air of mystery and didn't go back to the church.

Despite the obvious nervousness my sister felt when I let her know of our visit to the church, sans the fact of the Bible offering, she, being two years older and had been subjected to brain washing more, surprised me one or two years later, agreeing to try to enter a large cathedral in Shenyang on Christmas Eve.  The courtyard of the basilica was packed and we barely had spots to view the solemn procession, fitted with mitre, robes, incense, simultaneously spiritual and pompous.  And that marked the end of my church visit career during Christmas seasons.

A marginalized presence is a double-edged sword.  Being a loner, I don't feel too awfully excluded by such disconnection, and even appreciate the solitary time necessary for me to work on my paintings and drawings, without worrying about which department stores to raid in order to secure the right gifts against a long list; but time to time, an inevitable sense of alienation still set in, causing my holiday blues. I have benefited from my duel-cultural background tremendously, therefore, I shall not complain.

Yet, it is time to gear up for the high holiday in China and here it is time to take down the Christmas trees.  

IMG_7629 - Winter in Shenyang, China, February 2010

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Calligraphies at San Francisco Modern Art Museum

Upon a friend's strong recommendation, I visited San Francisco Modern Art Museum (SFMOMA) today to see Jay DeFeo's retrospective, which was already on my agenda since my visit to De Young Museum last week when I saw several of her impressive graphic works and remembered one of her monumental paintings I'd seen at Berkeley Art Museum before.  Below are some of her works I saw at De Young Museum:

DSCN5733 _ Jay DeFeo at De Young Museum, San Francisco, December 2012

DSCN5734 _ Jay DeFeo at De Young Museum, San Francisco, December 2012

Her retrospectives were impressive and there were much to admire and even love, though her intellectual way of art making sometimes failed to generate resonance in me but far superior to the better-known Jasper Johns, of whom an exhibit was also organized and was shown at SFMOMA at this time.

However, the most interesting exhibit at SFMOMA at the moment was several large banners of calligraphy hanging in the lobby, from top fifth floor to the second.  They included writings in several languages including Chinese, Arabic and perhaps English, Tibetan, etc.  Individually or in group, they were delicate, solid and ethereal.  Balm to the eyes.

DSCN5786 _ Calligraphy at SF MOMA, January 2013

DSCN5788 _ Calligraphy at SF MOMA, January 2013

DSCN5792 _ Calligraphy at SF MOMA, January 2013

DSCN5797 _ Calligraphy at SF MOMA, January 2013

DSCN5798 _ Calligraphy at SF MOMA, January 2013

DSCN5799 _ Calligraphy at SF MOMA, January 2013

DSCN5800 _ Calligraphy at SF MOMA, January 2013

DSCN5814 _ Calligraphy at SF MOMA, January 2013