Sunday Salon 1-15-17

Sunday Salon badge squareTime and Place: 9:15 Sunday morning, at my main computer at home.

Reading: I’ve recently finished Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, and will be writing about it here in the next several days. In need of some inspiration, I’ve just started Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert. And much of my home remains dedicated to my to-be-read stack.

Viewing: Continuing my gradual exploration of the films of Alain Resnais, I watched his penultimate film, You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, on FilmStruck earlier this week. Despite the oddly trivial title, the film itself was quite mysterious and wonderful, even better – and perhaps a more appropriate valedictory, somehow – than Life of Riley, his last film, which I watched last week. My other film for the week, Lonelyhearts, was from a DVD that I purchased based on a very impressive partial viewing of the film on Turner Classic Movies not long ago. Lonelyhearts, based on Nathanael West’s famous short novel Miss Lonelyhearts, might be a little chatty and ponderous. But it is also deeply moving and human, and I took it very much to heart. The film also features some great performances, by Montgomery Clift and Robert Ryan in particular.

Listening: My music listening has, once again, been dominated by works I am writing about for Reno Chamber Orchestra and Reno Philharmonic Orchestra program notes. Should I get those notes done in the next couple of days, as I should, then I can take a week off before the next set of notes, for an all-Tchaikovsky concert by the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine. As mentioned below, I finally acknowledged this week that I have gotten back to writing music of my own, and that music received a little attention as well. Lastly, the person whose music has probably most influenced my own, Mike Oldfield, has a new album coming out in a few days. Return to Ommadawn is something of a sequel to his 1975 album Ommadawn that is one of my desert island CDs. Needless to say, I’m more than a little excited about this.

Blogging: My two main posts for this week were a little unusual. One was a description of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which stores seeds of the world’s major crops in case of emergency. The other post was a more personal one on my return to writing music after many years away. It was the first time I had actually tried to describe what I think about when I create music. Being so revealing made me a little uncomfortable, but I hope that it will also spur me on to more creating.

Anticipating: I have created some good momentum for myself in the last couple of weeks, after a rather down Christmas and post-Christmas period. I’m exercising regularly and writing a lot, and feeling somewhat optimistic that these positive trends will continue.

And finally:

Writing Music

I am writing music consistently again, for the first time in over fifteen years!

It started a few weeks ago, with an unusual chord progression on strummed acoustic guitar that I came up with quite a while back but never developed. After returning to it and messing around for a bit, I came up with a jaunty little bass solo to go on top of it; after three or four takes, I had it right. Then I added string synthesizer to fill out the harmonic structure. But rather than just using thick chords, I did three different single note tracks, separated in space to keep the texture transparent. Drums were next – first a prerecorded drum loop, then my own banging on hand drums and one of my kitchen chairs (which has a nice sound when thwacked with drum sticks). As I was doing this, I realized that the bass line, which was originally going to be supportive, was actually strong enough to be the lead melodic voice. So I added a few more synthesizer colors and some slightly rude punctuation toward the end by two electric guitars, playing in harmony a short phrase derived from another of the melodies of the piece. And that was that.

My next project is to take what I think will be the central melody of the composition, which in its initial form is heard in a Steve Reich-y style on marimba and then moves to spacey synthesizers with an added countermelody, and turn it into a polyphonic vocal piece. There will be two voices for sure, and possibly three if it doesn’t sound too cluttered. I think I will use “ah” sounds or nonsense syllables, rather than actual words. That same melody will also be slowed down and turned into what I think will be a pretty violin and oboe duet, accompanied by acoustic guitar, or perhaps harp.

I’ve assembled quite a few other bits, too – a quasi-Irish dance played on a recorder, a fun disco-techno dance interlude with just percussion loops and synthesizers, a trio of (sampled) harps playing a repetitive pattern that is nicely hypnotic, a vaguely bluesy acoustic guitar riff backed by vibes and glockenspiel, and so on. How all these bits will fit together, or even if they’ll fit together, remains to be seen…

Svalbard Global Seed Vault

Inside a mountain on an island halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole resides the largest collection and reflection of crop diversity in the world.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault stores seed samples of the world’s crops, duplicates of the samples stored in the world’s other seed banks. It has the capacity to store 4.5 million samples. Since each sample contains an average of 500 seeds, the total capacity is something like 2.25 billion seeds. Right now, around 860,000 seed samples are stored there, or between one-third and one-half of the seed diversity stored around the world. More than 150,000 distinct varieties of both rice and wheat, as well as hundreds of much less common plants, are represented. Priority is given, not surprisingly, to crops that are important for food production and sustainable agriculture. Almost every country in the world has deposited seeds there, although China and Japan haven’t yet joined in.

svalbard-1The Seed Vault is housed over 400 feet inside a mountain – “Platåberget,” or “plateau mountain” – on the island of Spitsbergen in the Arctic Svalbard archipelago, just over 800 miles from the North Pole. Cary Fowler, a conservationist who helped start the Vault, has said, “If you look at it, it’s a pretty simple facility. It’s a big tunnel.” It’s so cold at Svalbard that the seeds would be safe even if the refrigeration failed. There is also considerable permafrost, and little tectonic activity there. It’s at a high altitude, so flooding isn’t an issue, and the humidity is very low. The seeds are stored at just below zero Fahrenheit in foil packages, and should be viable for many centuries.

There are around 1,700 gene banks around the world that safeguard food crops. But not all of them are in the best of shape. The seeds are aging, and the technology they use is behind the times. Many of them are vulnerable to natural disasters, accidents, or even the disappearance of governmental funding. War can be an issue, too – the seed banks of both Afghanistan and Iraq have been lost that way, and those of the Philippines and Egypt have been damaged by fire and looters. In fact, due to the civil war in Syria, in 2015 the Svalbard Global Seed Vault authorized the first withdrawal of seeds in its history, to replace some lost at Aleppo’s seed bank (luckily, Aleppo had stored duplicates of some 80% of its holdings at Svalbard).

svalbard-2Conservationist Cary Fowler, with the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), started the Seed Vault. When governments started thinking about the potential danger to crops, Norway was one of the few places still trusted by most nations. It was also willing to put up all of the $9 million needed to start the project. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault officially opened on February 26, 2008 with its first deposit, of rice seeds, delivered by Kenyan environmental activist and Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai. Norway even provided for some art for the facility, in the form of the illuminated Perpetual Repercussion by Norwegian artist Dyveke Sanne, which runs the length of the facility’s roof and down to the entryway, marking the location of the vault from a distance.

The Seed Vault is owned and administered by Norway’s Ministry of Agriculture and Food. The Global Crop Diversity Trust provides financial support for the operation of the Seed Vault and, until recently, the transportation of seeds to the facility. NordGen, the Nordic Gene Bank, operate the facility and maintains a public database of the samples stored there. The seed vault functions like a safe deposit box, with the Vault owning the building but the depositor owning the seeds.

Food security is a challenge in developing countries. Crop diversity is key in developing plants that can withstand disease, pests, and changing climates. However, there has been some dispute about whether preserving crop diversity is best done by institutions like the Seed Vault or by working in the field with individual communities. Research, for instance, suggests that as much as 75% of global crop diversity is actually held by farmers around the world, most of them women.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is, in a sense, the world’s backup plan – or, to use more dramatic language, a “doomsday vault” – insurance against both catastrophic and incremental loss of the world’s crop diversity.

Sunday Salon 1-8-17

Sunday Salon badge squareTime and Place: 10:30 Sunday morning, a little later than is my norm – that’s what I get for sleeping in and feeling well-rested – at my main computer at home.

Reading: After having read Haruki Murakami’s first novel, Hear the Wind Sing, as my last book of 2016, I made his second novel, Pinball, 1973, my first of 2017. Like Hear the Wind Sing, it was relatively short, and I finished it in a couple of days. I’ve now moved on to Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone. It is quite wonderful, and suits my current frame-of-mind well. I plan on writing about it here at the blog fairly soon.

Viewing: My movie viewing for the week has included The Scarlet Pimpernel, the 1930s version with Leslie Howard and Merle Oberon, and the last film by the great Alain Resnais, the very stylish and stylized Life of Riley (this makes me want to catch up on the many more recent Resnais films that I’ve never seen). Inspired by a reference in Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City, I also finally saw the fascinating documentary Finding Vivian Maier, on the photographer whose work was only discovered and appreciated, almost by accident, after her death.

Listening: My music listening has largely been tied to the program notes I am currently writing for the Reno Chamber Orchestra and Reno Philharmonic Orchestra. Their upcoming concerts feature works like Mozart’s Symphony No. 31, the “Paris,” and Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3, and I’ve enjoyed spending time with this great music. Next on the writing schedule is Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 6, a piece I haven’t heard for a very long time but which I remember liking quite a lot.

Blogging: I managed two pretty substantial blog posts this week, one on Julia Wolfe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning composition Anthracite Fields (which is going to be performed in San Francisco on February 26 – possible road trip!), and another on the exhibition The Brothers Le Nain: Painters of 17th-Century France, currently to be seen at the Legion of Honor. This latter article, I personally feel, is one of the best blog posts I’ve done in some time. Even if you don’t read the 2,000 or so words I wrote, the art works are very attractive indeed.

Anticipating: After a stretch of reasonably high-quality writing this past week, I’m hoping for something like the same this week.

And finally: Still celebrating the arrival of 2017…

The Brothers Le Nain: Painters of 17th-Century France

The Brothers Le Nain: Painters of 17th-Century France is the first major American exhibition devoted to the three Le Nain brothers. 44 of the 65 known works attributed to the Le Nains have been assembled from sources including Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral, London’s National Gallery, Queen Elizabeth II’s Royal Collection, the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., and the three sponsoring museums, San Francisco’s Legion of Honor, Fort Worth’s Kimbell Art Museum, and the Musée du Louvre. The exhibition can be seen at the Legion of Honor through January 29, 2017.

Antoine (c. 1598–1648), Louis (c. 1600/1605–1648) and Mathieu (c. 1607–1677) Le Nain were born in Laon, a small town in the Picardy region of northern France, and were trained by the same unidentified artist. Around 1629 they left Laon and moved to Paris. By the time of the deaths of Antoine and Louis in 1648, they were among the best-known painters in France, famous for their portraits, altarpieces and other religious works, scenes from mythology, and sympathetic depictions of poor and working people. They were also among the first members of Paris’s Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture. All three remained unmarried and childless, and they always worked together, never identifying themselves individually in the paintings, all of which are simply signed “Le Nain.”

The unfinished Three Men and a Boy (c. 1640-45) is thought to be a portrait of the brothers. Conventionally, the painter of a painting is depicted looking straight out at viewer – in this case, the man in the middle. There is some stylistic indication (i.e. the curl of the hair) that the painting is by Mathieu. Therefore it may be that he is at the center, with the older brother, Antoine, at his right and Louis at his left. But no one knows for certain. During a cleaning in 1968, the boy at the right was revealed, along with the colors at the lower right that were probably part of a composition that was never finished.

Le Nain, Three Men and a Boy, c. 1640-45

Le Nain, Three Men and a Boy, c. 1640-45

The exhibition arranges the paintings by theme rather than chronology, with religious works coming first. Their earliest known commission in Paris was for six altarpieces for a convent church associated with the reigning queen, Anne of Austria. In the mid 1630s, they received a commission for three altarpieces for Paris’s greatest cathedral, Notre Dame de Paris, an indication of the fame they had achieved. Two of those, intended for side chapels, are included in this exhibition; the third still hangs at the cathedral. The Nativity of the Virgin (c. 1636), probably by Mathieu Le Nain, is full of naturalistic details and expressive faces. A wet nurse holds the infant Mary, while in the background, St. Anne, Mary’s mother, is resting from her labor, helped by two nursemaids. Mary’s father, St. Joachim, looks on, backed by two angels, one of whom points upward at heaven, emphasizing the holiness of the scene.
Le Nain, The Nativity of the Virgin, c. 1636

Le Nain, The Nativity of the Virgin, c. 1636

St. Michael Dedicating His Arms to the Virgin (c. 1638) is another of the Notre Dame de Paris altarpieces. One of their masterpieces, the painting draws the eye from St. Michael’s shield and the lovely landscape beyond, up to the Christ child blessing the saint, and into the brightly lit, yet veiled, heavenly realm. Once again, the characterization and sheer humanity of the faces and gestures are noteworthy. An influence of Orazio Gentileschi, who had also recently worked in Paris, is clear in the harmony of composition and the colors. Caravaggio is an obvious influence on another of their large religious works, Nativity with a Torch (c. 1635-40), with its single source of light, cinematic staging, and compressed figures.

Another religious genre in which they excelled was paintings of devotion intended for private homes. These usually took the form of depictions of saints or stories from the Bible. The Le Nains lived during the Catholic Counter-Reformation in France, and such paintings were much in demand. The Adoration of the Shepherds (c. 1635-40) is especially beautiful. Its subject is taken from Luke 2:8-20, when the shepherds have just arrived from the fields to worship the newly-born Jesus. Mary, idealized with her perfect skin and almost unearthly clothing, contrasts with the tattered clothes and dirty, wrinkled feet of the shepherd at the front, and the slight glow that seems to emanate from the central Christ child. The painting is full of arresting, poignant details: the piece of straw in the foreground, the patient humility of the donkey, the dangling vine on the arch above the scene, and the chips in the columns.

Le Nain, Adoration of the Shepherds, c. 1635-40

Le Nain, The Adoration of the Shepherds, c. 1635-40

The Le Nains also became specialists in depictions of charitable acts. Poverty was a big problem in Paris at that time, and a group of wealthy, religious-minded people believed that compassion and charity for the poor were part of a properly religious life. In Peasant Interior with Old Flute Player (c. 1642), the bread and wine on the table, with its beautifully white tablecloth, is probably meant to evoke the sacrament of Eucharist, and the woman with child Mary and Jesus. Jean-Jacques Olier, the Le Nains’s parish priest, wrote that the Eucharist is closely associated with the poor, in that both symbolized sacrifice, and that every meal should be regarded as a sort of Eucharist.
Le Nain, Peasant Interior with Old Flute Player, c. 1642

Le Nain, Peasant Interior with Old Flute Player, c. 1642

The Peasant Family (c. 1642), possibly by Louis, may depict a visit to a poor family by a woman from the Daughters of Charity (Filles de la Charité), wealthy women who did Christian acts of charity. The woman at left wears a blue-gray dress and white headdress, the standard garb for the Daughters of Charity. The water and wine once again stand in for the Eucharist. The size of the painting indicates that it was probably commissioned.

Around 1640, the Le Nains turned their attention to depictions of humble everyday life, perhaps influenced by the paintings of peasants and soldiers by Flemish artists like David Teniers II. The Le Nain brothers’ father bought land and leased it to farmers, and so the Le Nains grew up well acquainted with these people. There is never any sense, though, of looking down on the poor or pitying them, though – even in straightened circumstances, they are proud and confident. Personally, I feel ennobled looking at the peaceful, patient, dignified faces of the people in these paintings.

In The Resting Horseman (c. 1640), perhaps by Louis, those qualities are evident in the faces and stature of the figures – the dignity of the man at right, the kindly expression of the woman at left – and their placement slightly above line of landscape. Much the same goes for the farmers in Peasants Before a House (c. 1640), part of the Fine Arts Museum’s permanent collection and recently conserved. The stone building is typical of the time, with a storeroom below and stairs leading to the living area above. It’s possible that the bare feet of the boy was meant to recall the 1639 Revolt of the va-nu-pieds (barefooted ones), in which Norman peasants protested a salt tax. The restrained colors and sometimes unusual scale of the different figures, isolated in their own spaces, has, for some, called to mind the abstraction of Cubism (Georges Braque was an admirer of the Le Nains).

Le Nain, Peasants Before a House, c. 1640

Le Nain, Peasants Before a House, c. 1640

Paul Cezanne’s paintings of card players in the last years of the nineteenth century were inspired by The Card Players (c. 1640-45), about which Cezanne supposedly said, “This is how I would like to paint.” The dark, slightly ominous and tension-filled scene – there always seems to be some intrigue in artistic depictions of card playing – once again calls Caravaggio to mind. Despite their religious background, the Le Nains didn’t shy away from depictions of “suspect” activities like dancing and card playing. Sometimes there is some moralizing involved, for instance with one figure apart and standing in judgment.

Children are very often featured in Le Nain paintings. The kids are always sympathetically painted, and seldom look like little adults. For instance, in the charming Preparations for the Dance (c. 1643), painted on copper and therefore likely by Antoine, the children, each depicted with great individuality, dance to the music of the flute player, with a woman smiling with amusement in the background. A small touch that frequently brings their facial expressions to life is a tiny dot of white paint within the dark iris of the eye. Poussin and Rembrandt admired this work, and Jean-Antoine Watteau even copied the heads of the children and the old woman in a chalk sketch. Likewise, the composition might be a little congested, and the perspective not quite perfect, but how can one resist the subtle and vivid characterization, the expressiveness and distinctiveness of the faces of the children, in Woman with Five Children (1642)?

Le Nain, Preparations for the Dance, c. 1643

Le Nain, Preparations for the Dance, c. 1643

While portraits of the wealthy was a major source of income for the Le Nains, as it would have been for most painters of their time, only one such traditional portrait of theirs still survives – the grand Portrait of the Comte de Tréville (1644). The subject, Jean-Armand du Peyrer (1598-1672), had been a captain in the Mousquetaires de la Garde, or Royal Musketeers – a character with his name shows up in the Alexandre Dumas novel. But the painting was made after his musketeer days, as his musket is not depicted. The fine brushwork and the details of the lace, leather, and lush fabric make this work a standout.

Allegory and mythology were also fairly frequent subjects for the Le Nains. Among their masterpieces in this area is Bacchus and Ariadne (c. 1635). Ariadne, languorous and beautiful and glowing at the lower left, and the similarly graceful Bacchus at right, who instantly falls in love with her (signified by his hand at his heart). The ethereal quality of Ariadne contrasts with the physicality of her pose and the cloth around her arm and behind her. In the Allegory of Victory (c. 1635), a figure with wings and a palm frond (traditionally representing victory) stands on a female figure whose legs end in a tail of a serpent. Given that this was painted in the time of the Counter-Reformation, are we seeing here Catholicism’s victory over Protestantism?

Le Nain, Bacchus and Ariadne, c. 1635

Le Nain, Bacchus and Ariadne, c. 1635

As their works were not individually signed, attributing specific authorship to the three brothers is difficult. However, there are some stylistic hints, certain kinds of figures and repetitions of models and layout, that help identify the individual painters. This question is a fascinating sidelight of the exhibition. Generally speaking, the curators believe that Antoine painted the smaller works on wood or copper, as well as those featuring children. In his paintings, small brush strokes are the norm, along with brighter colors and a bit of impasto for textures. Louis, with his more muted colors and frequent shadowing of parts of faces, may have produced the peasant-populated genre scenes. Mathieu, who had the longest career, worked in light and varied colors, and probably was responsible for the larger religious works.

While their star has dimmed somewhat over the centuries, artists like Paul Cézanne, Edouard Manet and Gustave Courbet all expressed their admiration for the Le Nains. This exhibition, and the beautiful catalog that accompanies it, should help restore the brothers to their rightful place in art history.