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Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Literature of the Discontent

I was standing behind a young couple while waiting to order coffee at the local cafe.  It was hard not to eavesdrop since the young man was a loud-talker, but the rationale behind the premise of what he was saying intrigued me (I can only assume it was a well thought-out argument but only caught pieces of it).  He was explaining to his companion that he only stored "classics" in his e-reader and not popular fiction.  "It's not," I was able to catch a full sentence that stuck with me, "like I would keep Harry Potter or vampire series in it."  If anything, his impassioned declaration stayed with me, and I started to look back some years (when I was still teaching) and to remember the argument of some of my colleagues regarding popular versus classical fiction.  I was continually "attacked" over my insistence that classics taught universal themes just as well as, say, Harry Potter or the many genre vampire series of the mid-to-late 2000s.  With regards to Harry Potter, especially, the department was even considering a "Harry Potter Symposium," and the idea of "Potterian Studies" was thrown around with great enthusiasm.  I was the man out in left field, waiting for the "ball" to be hit in my direction so I could drop it as I perpetually have all of my academic life.

It wasn't so much that I was opposed to books like Harry Potter as I was to the idea of jumping on a fad out of sheer popularity.  "Fads," argued Max Shulman in "Love is a Fallacy," "are the very negation of reason."  Now, you may call me an elitist, or a stuck up classicist or worse, a discontented son of a bitch.  Nevertheless, my argument for classics (which, incidentally, I never gave up) was that the universal ideas included in Harry Potter and some of the "friendly" vampire series (that is to say, friendship, loyalty, struggle, suffering, exaltation, love, rancor, reconciliation, etc.) were originally offered in books like "The Scarlet Letter," or "For Whom the Bell Tolls," or "Uncle Tom's Cabin," or "The Grapes of Wrath," or "Moby Dick," or "Sister Carrie," or "The Great Gatsby," or "The Awakening," or "Crime and Punishment" or "The Way of All Flesh," or "The Possessed," or "The Brothers Karamazov" or... you get the point... And what a better way to prepare students for a life of continual learning than the classics.  There's always time, I argued, for "those other books."  It was not to be... students always turned to "Potterian Studies" with unquenchable devotion.  The populist argument is, "well, at least the kids are reading."  That may or may not be a sound premise--what if, for example, the "kids" were in absolute rave about "Mein Kampf"?  Well, "at least the kids are reading," right?

I have great love for contemporary writers, among my top of all time there's always elbow room for Paul Auster and Haruki Murakami and Philip Roth but my love always gravitates toward classic illustrations of timeless themes.  Discontented or not, at least I am still reading, no?

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Friday, March 07, 2014

Where Have You Gone, Dr. Gachet? The Art World Turns its Lonely Eyes to You...

It was a cold Christmas eve, December 24, 1998, the last public showing of the Vincent van Gogh exhibition in Washington, DC.  The van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam loaned most of its exclusive collection to museums in Los Angeles and in Washington, DC while their facilities were being refurnished.  I stood in the freezing rain and snow for six hours to get a ticket.  While it may sound like my effort was valiant and (even to some) heroic, I had no one to blame but myself.  I was living in DC at the time, and had plenty of time during the day to attend the exhibit, but laziness and the proverbial "I'll-do-it-tomorrow" got the best of me.  And so it was that on Christmas eve, cold and overcast day in Washington DC, I stood in line (at the time populated by tickets scalpers and other procrastinators) and waited and waited and almost froze.  I got to the door just in time to receive one ticket for the last show of the day.  The last "open to the public" showing of this amazing collection--perhaps the single most significant van Gogh art collection put together in one place outside of Amsterdam.  A once in a lifetime opportunity that almost slipped through my fingers because of my carelessness and laziness and bad procrastinating habits.

I walked through the gallery carefully and at a non-hurried pace.  Despite it being the last public showing, the directors of the exhibit were well aware of people's desire to enjoy the paintings; we were given enough time to walk placidly with no time constraints.  I took it all in.  I can't remember exactly when it happened... perhaps it was as soon as I walked in and saw the first painting, "The Cottage," painted by van Gogh in 1885... suddenly, Frederick Chopin's "Etude No.6" in E flat minor invaded and colored every single perception, sense and instinct inside of me.  Here's Freddy Kempf's interpretation on YouTube:


I went out to dinner after the exhibit and could not shake the emotions off.  Sure, it was seemingly depressing without reason or explanation, but above all it was significant because I was able to measure the impact of both the art and the music, and how it all registered in me as a human being, the capacity for emotions and varying senses was as sharp as I had ever felt it up to that day.  I remember thinking over dinner that it had been a "ONCE IN A LIFETIME" experience, that I would never again see those paintings and feel those emotions unless I traveled to Amsterdam (which at the time was not even a possibility, it seems).

Two years later, I did find myself in Amsterdam, and on a beautiful spring day April 2001, I spent the entire day at the Vincent van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.  It was an improvised trip and I will not get into the details of it here.  What is significant about the Amsterdam visit was that it cleared up my experience during the Washington DC exhibition.  While attending a lecture that day, the phrase "the melancholy expression of our times" came up.  The lecturer referred to it in passing, mentioning something about Vincent's correspondence with his brother Theo.  I picked up a copy of "The Letters of Vincent van Gogh" while at the museum in Amsterdam and soon understood (albeit not exactly) why I had felt the way I did that day in DC, and, perhaps more importantly, why Chopin's etude penetrated all of my senses that cold day.  I am sorry this has turned out to be more about my impressions of van Gogh's art than about the book I am about to recommend everyone to read.  Cynthia Saltzman's "Portrait of Dr Gachet: The story of a van Gogh Masterpiece" is by far one of the best non-fiction books I have ever read in any genre.

The beauty of Cynthia Saltzman's "Portrait of Dr. Gachet: The Story of a Van Gogh Masterpiece" rests precisely where most recent books of art history fail.  Saltzman writes with such brilliance and clarity, it is difficult not to make an allegorical comparison to the master's canvases themselves.  She has a gift for narrative that is informative and full of nuances and it fuels the interest and engagement of the reader.  The book is peppered with biographical sketches of those personages of the art world connected to the van Gogh masterpiece, Portrait of Dr Gachet.


Saltzman's list of characters begins with those closest to Vincent van Gogh, and, after the artist's untimely death, it collects a veritable list of the "who's who" of European art dealership and collecting from the late 1800s to nearly a century later.  I was most impressed with Saltzman's ability to engross the reader in a time-travel experience.  Those mentioned are depicted with a descriptive/narrative writing style that simply won't let the reader go.  Beginning with Johanna van Gogh-Bonger and her dealings with Ambroise Vollard, the Paris art dealer, to the tragic and heartbreaking story of Georg Swarzenski, to the Nazi's confiscation and atrocities, this book is the most amazing account of all things related to how van Gogh's work influenced the art world both in the collecting and artistic sense.  The biographical sketches do not overshadow the other segments of the book dedicated to chronology of events and the cataloging of appraisals and ownership/provenance details.  On the contrary, both the historical and factual content are woven nicely in what (again) I describe as the perfect non-fiction writing style: engaging, informative, beautifully phrased and a pleasure to read.

This balance is nicely crafted and created with masterful wordsmith.  Saltzman writes about the portrait of Dr Gachet in both interpretative and concrete fashion without tumbling or disrupting the essence of what she wants to convey:
"At the most literal level, Portrait of Dr. Gachet was a gesture of self-possession, a graphic realization of the contention van Gogh had spelled out in a letter to his distracted brother, that Gachet, 'certainly seems to me as ill and distraught as you or me.'  It spoke to van Gogh's rational understanding of his illness, his fears of the unresolved consequences of the doctor's failure to address his disease, and their momentary sympathy.  It also demonstrated the lucidity of mind that he brought to the act of painting.  In painting the portrait, van Gogh reversed the roles of patient and doctor and scrutinized Gachet as the patient afflicted by their shared diseased.  ('Melancholy' was thought among the medical profession of the time to be a form of neurasthesia or nervous collapse). In representing Gachet's physiognomy as a map of his state of mind, van Gogh followed the practice of French physicians throughout the nineteenth century, who employed paintings, drawings, and photographs of lunatics as diagnostic tools.  But Gachet's haunting countenance is not one of a madman; a rational being, he comprehends the nature of his own suffering."
In passages like this one (and many more throughout the book), Saltzman creates the perfect balance between analysis and imparting information about the subject matter.  She takes into consideration a great deal of research information available and draws conclusions expertly without losing the essence of both her own perspective and those who came before her.  Of particular interest is Saltzman's approach to the portrait itself, as I found out in reading this nearly perfect volume how much of the work's interpretative evocation is truly Saltzman's own, original in both content and scope.

The premise of the book is the run-away economy that led to the "disappearance" of Dr. Gachet from the public viewing/museum circuit.  In May 1990, a Japanese businessman bought the Portrait of Dr. Gachet for $82.5 million and just as quickly stored it away in a warehouse.  His death in 1996 left the van Gogh masterpiece in a sort of artistic purgatory.  To this day, a Google search on "Portrait of Dr. Gachet" adding variables like "location" or "owner" or "sale" yields, for the most part, links that are either offline or vastly out-dated.  It is amazing to see that even 15 years after the publication of Cynthia Saltzman's book, no one really knows where Dr. Gachet vanished to. 

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