A Visit to the Art Gallery of Ontario

Whenever I’m in Toronto, the AGO is a must-see. Over the Christmas holidays I had the chance to catch the last few days of an awesome exhibition there: Early Rubens, plus some impressive works from other artists.

I use the word ‘awesome’ not casually, I mean exactly as the word is originally intended. Flemish Baroque artist Peter Paul Rubens’s (1577-1640) paintings are huge, depicting Biblical characters and narratives in epic scale. On a wall I read this Rubens quote:

I confess that I am by natural instinct better fitted to execute very large works than small curiosities. Everyone according to his gifts; my talent is such that no undertaking, however vast in size or diversified in subject, has ever surpassed my courage.   –  Peter Paul Rubens, Letter dated 1621

Glad he mentioned ‘Everyone according to his gifts’, or else those who are afraid of heights would never be able to score any artistic achievement.

Anyway, this one in particular haunted me, The Massacre of the Innocents, around 1611-1612. Mothers try desperately to protect their sons against muscular men:

Massacre of the Innocents

Those entangled, near-naked bodies are men following an order from King Herod to kill all babies under the age of two after hearing that the King of the Jews had been born in Bethlehem. Mary and Joseph took their baby son Jesus and fled to Egypt to escape a ruler’s jealous rage and his desperate cling to power. Yes, Jesus and his parents were migrants, one of the early political refugees escaping from a ruthless government.

Fast forward several centuries to 1903, and in contrast to the massive scale of human tragedy of the above painting, I was drawn to this very quiet, seemingly simple painting of a mother giving a bowl of soup to her child. The mother looks unwell and seems to give away what she needs to her child. This poignant and sparse scene entitled The Soup is Pablo Picasso’s social statement of poverty and homelessness:

Pablo Piccaso The Soup

A more relaxed social scene. This painting from the 19th C. French landscape painter Eugène Boudin, Beach Near Trouville, linked my thoughts to a movie scene right away. Boudin’s work is dated 1864, that’s around the same period as Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women. Boudin depicts Parisian high society mingling on the beach town of Trouville. Notice the women’s dresses:

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My mental association was naturally the Greta Gerwig directed Little Women beach picnic scene. I couldn’t help but compare their formal attires even at the beach and the actual chairs they sat on in Boudin’s painting with the beach scene in Little Women, so free and casual (not displayed in AGO):

Beach Scene in Greta Gerwig's Little Women

Don’t you want to fly a kite with the March sisters on that sandy beach?

From the historic to the futuristic, the iconic Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama (born 1929) has invented visions of infinity with her experimental installations for three decades. Her work was exhibited at the AGO in 2017 and now the Gallery has a permanent set up Kusama called The Infinity Mirrored Room – Let’s Survive Forever. I had to reserve a time slot ahead for my visit. At my appointed time, which was another hour later, I still had to wait in line to go into the room.

It’s a room of silver spheres suspended from the ceiling and arranged on the floor set against mirrors. A person standing in the room will see seemingly infinite reflections:

Yayoi Kusama's Infinity Mirrored Room

Here’s the image of one silver ball in the middle of the room. I didn’t do any colour changes, so just interesting to see what looked to me was a silver ball came out green in the photo:

One silver ball

You can actually see me taking the picture. What does this all mean? According to Kusama, the room gives a person a sense of infinity and limitlessness.

Only two visitors were allowed inside the room at one time. And how long could we spend in there? One minute. A staff with a timer in hand monitored the flow of visitors. When our time was up, she knocked on the closed door for us to go out and another two would go in. Call it a visual oxymoron if you will: A one-minute taste of infinity. O the limits of our human experiences.

 

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Related Posts on Ripple Effects:

Alex Colville and the Movies

Bernini’s Corpus and Modern Movies

My review of Greta Gerwig’s Little Women

 

 

 

‘Faces Places’ with Agnès Varda and JR

From high art in the gallery (my last post) to street art, here catching the last chance for a Paris in July entry, I’m presenting the fascinating documentary, a road movie of making art in the open milieu of villages and among the working populace. Faces Places (2017) is an account of the venerable auteur of the Nouvelle Vague (The French New Wave: Goddard, Truffaut…) Agnès Varda (1928-2019), then at 89, going on a road trip with photographer and artist JR to scout for ordinary people to photograph in various obscure locales in France.

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Their larger than life photo prints are then pasted onto buildings or open places for everyone to view, evoking the shared joy of living, working, and the collective memory of a meaningful past. Like this one with photos of pioneer miners pasted on a row of dilapidated homes slated for demolition in a miners’ community. The one remaining homeowner who refused to vacate her house was moved to tears upon seeing the completion of the project.

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Art undefined and unconfined, once pasted onto these surfaces, JR’s black-and-white photographic images convert the whole building or structure into an art form. The world is his canvas. Unlike Banksy, JR is transparent with his creative process, and lets the public view his work in progress. A TED Prize winner (2011), his large-scale, participatory art projects are installed all over the world, albeit sometimes illegally according to local laws, but the people welcomed him.

At age 89, Agnès Varda became the oldest nominee in Oscar history when Faces Places was nominated for Best Documentary for the 2018 Academy Awards. It’s now on DVD and Blu-ray. Her numerous older works may not be accessible for us so readily. Check your streaming or on demand services. I was able to watch two of her excellent films Vagabond (1985) and Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962, click on link to my review). Don’t miss this short clip on IMDb “Agnès Varda in Memoriam”.

The soul-stirring original music by Matthieu Chedid complement the meaningful duo collaboration. At the beginning, JR talks with Varda to organize the making of their joint project. We see them exchange the following dialogues:

AV:  What I like was meeting amazing people by chance.

JR:  So you want to carry on that way, with no plan or itinerary?

AV:  Yes. Chance has always been my best assistant.

JR:  Do you think chance will work for both of us?

AV:  Maybe.

From the film, we can see chance had worked for both of them marvellously.

 

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~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

 

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Paris in July is hosted by Tamara at Thyme for Tea

PIJ2019 Tamara

Other Paris in July 2019 Posts on Ripples:

Pictures at an Exhibition 

‘Coco Before Chanel’ directed by Anne Fontaine

‘Gemma Bovery’ to cool your summer day

‘A Sunday in the Country’ is an Impressionist Cinematic Painting

Pictures at an Exhibition

I didn’t go to Paris for these, but Vancouver, B.C.   I visited the Vancouver Art Gallery for their exhibition “French Moderns: Monet to Matisse, 1850-1950” in March this year. Here’s a description from their poster:

The works in French Moderns exemplify the avant-garde movements that defined Modern art from the late-nineteenth to early-twentieth centuries, tracing a formal and conceptual shift from depicting the pictorial to evoking the idea, from a focus on naturalism to the ascendance of abstraction.

 

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Before the art, there’s the architecture and interior, an art piece in itself:

Interior VAG.jpg

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Some of the works with their description:

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Edgar Degas.jpg

 

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Claude Monet, Rising Tide at Pourville, 1882. Along the Normandy coast.

 

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Eugène Louis Boudin, mentor of Monet. Sur les bords de la Touques, 1895.

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Berthe Morisot, Madame Boursier and Her Daughter, c. 1873.

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Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Still Life with Blue Cup, c. 1900

 

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Camille Jacob Pissarro, The Climb, Rue de la Côte-du-Jalet, 1875.

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Henri Matisse, Flowers, 1906

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Gabriele Münter, Nightfall in Saint-Cloud, 1906. (Don’t you wish nightfall is like this?)

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Paul Cézanne, The Village of Gardanne, 1885-86.

I like this one the most:

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Marc Chagall, The Musician, c. 1912-14

 

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This is my last post for Paris in July, 2019, hosted by Tamara at Thyme for Tea.

PIJ2019 Tamara

Other Paris in July 2019 posts on Ripple:

‘Coco Before Chanel’ directed by Anne Fontaine

‘Gemma Bovery’ to cool your summer day

‘A Sunday in the Country’ is an Impressionist Cinematic Painting

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Related Posts on Ripple:

Art Gallery of Ontario

Tate Modern: Georgia O’Keeffe Exhibition

Alex Colville and the Movies

‘A Sunday in the Country’ is an Impressionist Cinematic Painting

If the Impressionist painters were to make a movie, what would it be like? A Sunday in the Country (1984) could very well be an exemplar. French director Bertrand Tavernier used the camera as a paintbrush to tell his story, while the cast bring to life the human pathos that are deeper than a painting on the wall could convey. 

A Sunday in the Country - Un Dimanche à la Campagne (1984)

Monsieur Ladmiral is an elderly artist living in an idyllic country house on the outskirt of Paris. The setting is pre-WWI. M. Ladmiral is a widower, his daily routines assisted by a lived-in, indispensable housekeeper called Mercédès (Monique Chaumette). His home is cozy with classic charm, the adjacent studio, inspiring. The camera leads us to see every details of M. Ladmiral’s house and moves fluidly from far to close-in on the artist’s workplace, a quiet haven and a treasure trove of memories and life works. With his colours, Ladmiral attempts to capture traces of youth and life.

M. Ladmiral’s son Gonzague (Michel Aumont) and his wife Marie-Thérèse (Genevieve Mnich), together with their three children, come visit him from Paris every Sunday, but not frequent enough still. His two grandsons, Emile (Thomas Duvall) and Lucien (Quentin Ogler), add lively sparks to his serene environs, while little Mereille (Katia Wostrikoff) is simply adorable.

No matter how much Gonzague tries to give him, grandchildren and his family’s frequent visits, the son knows he’s a disappointment to his father. Deep in M. Ladmiral’s heart, he longs to see his daughter Irène (Sabine Azéma), who seldom visits. Irène is single, exuberant, fearlessly independent and cheerful, or at least, on the surface. She drives an automobile, a new invention. “Look at your sister Irene,” Ladmiral tells Gonzague. “She forges ahead.” Then after a beat, “you don’t.” Nice going, Dad.

The pace of the film is leisurely, taking its time for viewers to hear (or read the subtitle of) every single dialogue, capture every nuance, and observe every item in the mise en scène. Life is too precious to hurry by. As well, we get to appreciate the humour, but often as guise to underlying relational tensions.

Tavernier won Best Director at Cannes Film Festival in 1985 with A Sunday in the Country, as well as the César Award for his adapted screenplay. The film also saw Azéma who plays daughter Irene won the Best Actress César Award and Bruno de Keyzer for Best Cinematography.

The film is an adaptation from the French novel by Pierre Bost entitled “Monsieur Ladmiral va bientôt mourir”, translated in English: “Mr. Ladmiral will die soon”. Have to say, the movie title is much more appealing. One note though, be patient with the 1:40 min. of credits rolling at the beginning with just white words on black background without image. You’re looking into the mind of an old man. While the overall mood is warm and amusing, the undercurrents of  disappointment, mortality, and separation gently flow throughout the film.

On that Sunday as Gonzague and his family are visiting, Irene drops in unannounced in her automobile. Free-spirited Irene is a fresh breeze to the hot countryside, her automobile a progressive symbol for everyone to admire. She charms with her energetic presence and spontaneous delights. But as viewers, we are privy to her psyche and anxiety when she’s alone. Tavernier deals with the past and the present seamlessly, melding them as if showing us memories are natural extension of our present self, so’s our imagination. As she stands by the window looking out to the lawn, we see Irene’s flashback of her mother saying, “When will you stop asking so much of life, Irene?” 

Irene’s visit is short, albeit one that leaves a significant impact on her father. She takes him on a ride in her automobile to a guinguette for a drink and a dance, an episode that’s bound to be indelible in M. Ladmiral’s last memories. Guinguettes were open-air taverns in the outskirts of Paris where people would come on Sundays to have drinks and casual meals, listen to music, and dance. In the style of Renoir’s Bal du moulin de la GaletteTavernier paints a beautiful Impressionist movie moment in this scene:

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During the memorable father-daughter chat at the guinguette, M. Ladmiral talks about his own style, and admits that he’s a traditionalist unable to catch up with the changes other painters have brought about. Unable or unwilling, no matter, he’s at least honest to himself in painting the way he does, he tells Irene. In tearing eyes, daughter looks fondly at her father and asks him to dance with her.

Irene has to leave right after she drives her father home from the guinguette, upon receiving an upsetting telephone call. Later that evening, Gonzague and his family have to catch the late train back to Paris as well. After seeing them off, M. Ladmiral walks back home from the train station alone. For an old man, every goodbye could be the last.

But the final scene appears to turn the tide. M. Ladmiral goes into his studio, takes down the painting he’s been working on, a still-life subject he’s painted numerous times before and in a style he’s been following all his life. He replaces it with a blank canvas on the easel, sits down, and looks at it ponderously. Like his son’s, his life, too, has been a disappointment to himself. What M. Ladmiral is thinking staring into a blank canvas at that moment is up to anyone’s interpretation. What I see is a slight, nuanced smile on his face. Every blank canvas is a fresh start no matter how old you are.

 

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

 

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This film review is a participation of the 6th Paris in July event at
Tamara’s Thyme for Tea. 

PIJ2019 Tamara

Related Posts on Ripple Effects:

Arles: In Search of Van Gogh

Séraphine and the wrought-iron chair

Inspired by Vermeer

 

 

 

 

 

We all need intermissions

… in between movies. Get out of the dark chamber. Off the snack-littered couch. Watch the large screen Nature has to offer.

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Nothing is ‘just a sparrow’. Or, just some rocks. Here’s the true colour of the water in Lake Louise, Alberta. The famous, majestic lake you’ve probably seen on postcards or travel websites, but here you get to see the tiny sparrow by the Lake:

Sparrow.jpg

Blurry? Yes, so’s Monet’s paintings.

After a few days of rain, yesterday’s sunlight brought me out to the river. My heart leapt up when I saw these Pelicans preening in the morning sun:

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500 Pelicans

Makes me think of Degas’ ballerinas:

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Blurry? You wouldn’t mind a bit, I bet.

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‘Roma’ and the Power of Childhood Memories

This awards season, a black-and-white film stands out. Many have noted its cinematography and director Alfonso Cuarón’s versatility, from his multiple Oscar-winning space drifting Gravity (2013) and adaptation of P. D. James’s dystopian thriller Children of Men (2006) to the current Roma, a semi-autobiographical work. Surely I agree to all these, but it’s the personal resonance that the film evokes that makes it so memorable for me.

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Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo in Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma. Photo courtesy of TIFF.

I first saw Roma at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival in September. The large screen effects are enfolding. Cinematography is thoughtful and the state-of-the-art Dolby Atmos sound mixing–especially the climatic ocean scene towards the end of the film–was totally engulfing, as if I was alone in the raging sea, despite sitting in a fully packed theatre.

Watching it again this time on my laptop streaming from Netflix is another experience. The intimacy and allowance for repeat viewing and listening to specific dialogues (re-reading the subtitles) are the obvious benefits. Especially with our local theatres not screening the film, the streaming service has a definite role to play in bringing the worthy feature to more viewers. Certainly if Roma plays in your local theatre, do watch it on the big screen as the production was meant to be seen.

What’s most moving is the director’s gentle rendering of his maid and nanny Cleo (first-time performance by Yalitza Aparicio) in his childhood home in Roma, an upper-middle class neighbourhood in Mexico during the years 1970-71. Cuarón juxtaposes Cleo’s personal ordeal with the political backdrop of the time, and weaving an unassuming life of a maid with episodes of an earthquake, a fire and a threatening ocean climatic scene. Other than these, the everyday work of a maid are deceptively mundane, for underlying are the emotive elements of human relationships.

Cleo is an essential member of the household, cleaning, cooking, serving, and taking care of the four children and their parents. She’s the one who puts the younger ones to bed and wakes them up in the morning. From the nuanced, naturalistic framing and some deeply affective moments, Roma is an ode to those who care for children not just out of duty but genuine love.

The reciprocal sentiments from the children, mom Sofia (Marina de Tavira) and grandma Teresa (Verónica García) make the glue that hold the family together at a critical time when the father (Fernando Grediaga) disappears, supposedly on an academic trip to Quebec but coincidentally is seen on the street with another woman. Here the role played by Cleo, a maid, is delicate and precarious. “No matter what they tell you, we women are always alone,” wife Sofia says to Cleo one night returning home by herself half drunk. Cleo shares her pain.

The film belongs to Yalitza Aparicio who plays Cleo with unadorned naturalness. Before this first time acting, she was a preschool teacher. This could well explain her instinctive fondness for the children under her care in the film. Cleo has her personal sad experience with a young man with a different agenda, and it is the family and the children that rekindle her zeal after a personal tragedy, a remarkable exchange of mutual support and kindness.

As the cinematographer himself, Cuarón’s planning of shots is meticulous and masterful. The camera captivates from the opening credits. We see the close-up frame of what looks like clay tiles of the ground, yes, they are, as water is splashed on them and sounds of sweeping and cleaning are heard. As the story unfolds we learn that it is Cleo cleaning dog wastes in the family porch. But don’t lose sight of this seemingly mundane scene. Once water is splashed on the flat, dirty tiles they reflect an open sky above with an airplane flying across from afar. That is the exact ending shot of the film. From waste-filled clay tiles on the ground to the open sky, water is the agent of reflection, a cleansing element, and towards the end, water marks a confirming love and new zest for life.

Last week, I made a long distance phone call to the maid and nanny of my family when I was growing up in Hong Kong. She is 97 years old now and living on her own, still goes to the market to buy fresh ingredients to cook for herself. I was able to chat with her and send well wishes. Childhood memories are powerful markers of identity and experiences; thanks to Roma for evoking such while one is unaware, as it works magic in creating new imagery to sustain them.

 

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

 

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Wintry but not bleak

Extreme cold warnings greeted the New Year in Toronto. A record low temperature was recorded on January 5, a frigid -23C (that’s -9.4F). I’m happy to say that I was there to experience such a newsworthy occasion during my stay over the Christmas and New Year holidays.

Here are photos I took on that very day, January 5, 2018, witnessing an awesome sunrise over Lake Ontario. Wintry but not bleak:

Sunrise

Sunrise over Lk Ontario Jan 5.jpg

 

Inside it’s always warm. And on a cold day, looking out the window can be a meditative respite:

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Artist and writer William Kurelek (1927-1977) knew how to find pleasure in the cold. Why of course, he was born in Alberta, and spent his childhood years on the prairies:

Kurelek

 

As well, Shelley’s positivism is always a boost for me. No need to wait for the groundhog. “O Wind, If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?”

No matter what the weather, it can still be it a worthwhile year.

 

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When is a window not a window?

Arti was in NYC for a week in September.

It was Friday afternoon free admission time when hundreds lined up several city blocks to get into MoMA, Museum of Modern Art. Once in there, it was like inside the Tower of Babel (not that Arti had been there), but just imagine the whole world had converged in this space, all kinds of languages were heard.

After visiting MoMA, some questions came to mind. Here are the Q & A’s. (Photos were allowed. The following were all taken using the iPhone 6)

When is a window not a window?

When it’s encased in plexiglass, with the name Marcel Duchamp placed beside it, declaring it to be an objet d’art. Dada-di, Dada-dum…

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Or, when is a spider an objet d’admiration, something larger than life?

When it evokes a Kafkaesque vision:

Giant Spider 1

Spider

And why is the arachnid a double-edged sword?

Well, the artist Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010) saw it as a friend when it captured bothersome mosquitoes in her Connecticut country home. As well, Bourgeois also saw it as a symbol of her mother. Wait, not in looks or nature, but in the work that they do. Her mother was a tapestry restorer. Bourgeois saw sewing and spinning web to be a similar form of action.

How do you take a good photo when there are crowds everywhere? A bit similar as how to get to Carnegie Hall, patience, patience, patience. The following are the before and after effects at Monet’s Lily Ponds:

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Monet's Water Lilies 1.jpg

What’s the major excitement of the whole experience? The ecstasy of seeing some famous artworks unexpectedly, ones that Arti had never thought she’d see in real life.

Christina’s World (1948) by Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009). And what is the blue patch in the middle? Arti’s watermark.

Christina's World.jpg

The only Edward Hopper (1882-1967) at MoMA, Gas (1940). As an avid bird watcher, Arti of course would have loved to see Nighthawks but Gas would do, for the serendipity.

Gas

And glad to see Paul Cézanne’s (1839-1906) healthy diet:

Healthy diet

Ta-da! This is probably one of the most compelling reasons for many to visit MoMA, van Gogh’s The Starry Night (1889):

Starry Night

Which was the most memorable for Arti?

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One: Number 31, 1950 (1950) by Jackson Pollock (1912-1956)

Never thought it was so big, 8′ 10″ x 17′ 5 5/8″ (269.5 x 530.8 cm). No easy dripping.

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A few related posts on Ripple Effects:

Arles: In the Steps of van Gogh 

Inspired by Vermeer

Edward Hopper, William Safire, the Visual and the Word

Alex Colville and the Movies

Art and Cliché

A Movie to Celebrate Canada Day

Happy Canada Day to all my Canadian readers!

To celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday, and pay tribute to the Canadian spirit, I’d like to recommend the movie Maudie, about the folk art painter Maud Lewis (1903-1970). Born in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, Maud lived with her brother Charles in their family house until he sold it. In the movie, Maud overhears Charles telling their Aunt Ida he will pay her to accommodate and look after Maud in her home.

Maudie

Born with a small frame, disfigured facial features and deformed fingers, Maud suffers from severe rheumatoid arthritis as an adult. Such handicaps however do not cripple Maud’s sanguine spirit and fierce independence. While staying at her Aunt’s place, she answers an ad for a housekeeper posted on the bulletin board of the local store. She jumps at the opportunity as she sees it as a way to move out of her Aunt’s and strive for her own independence.

The house that needs a housekeeper is home to Everett Lewis, a fish peddler in the village of Marshalltown, on Nova Scotia’s northwestern shore. Everett’s abode is a cramped, one-room hut with no running water or electricity. With her arthritic hands Maud cleans the floorboards and tends to Everett’s daily needs, cooking on the wood stove and bearing with Everett’s demeaning outbursts. The rule of the house is, he first, then his dogs, his chickens, and lastly, Maud.

Does Maud feel defeated? Well sure, but just temporarily. Her resilient and cheerful spirit can move even a mountain of a misanthrope. Not long after, she and Everett got married. “A pair of odd socks,” she says of their seemingly incompatible personalities. We hear it often nowadays, “diversity is strength”. The Lewis’s household is evidence to that.

And of course, there’s the economic factor.

Maud turns Everett’s dingy house into a pleasant abode. She begins to paint on every surface: the walls, windows, door, stove, washbasin with lively flowers, birds, and whatever she sees in nature. She also picks up small, discarded wood boards to paint scenery and snowscapes. Not long after, a sign “Paintings for Sale” is placed outside their tiny house to diversify the household economy.

Deer painting

Maud is one successful entrepreneur. Her folksy paintings soon draw the attention of passers by; the cheerfully decorated little house on the wayside soon becomes a stop for designated shopping and repeat customers, a point of interest for visitors. Later, it becomes a converging site for news crews and journalists. Each piece of board painting is sold for about five to six dollars, a card, 10 cent. Everett is the finance minister and holds the purse strings.

The movie presents Maud’s story with beautiful and absorbing cinematography. The pace is slow, allowing viewers to immerse in the outwardly harsh life of Maud’s, in contrast to her vibrant spirit and life-affirming talents. A tiny window is a frame of the world outside. The last part of the film comes to a sad note as Maud succumbs to illness of the lungs.

Now, to the making of the movie. The subject is Canadian, Maud Lewis is very much a Canadian folk art icon, her works are in the collection of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. The filming location is Newfoundland and Labrador. But note this: the movie is helmed by Irish director Aisling Walsh (BAFTA nom Fingersmith, 2005), Maud is played by the English actor Sally Hawkins (Oscar nom Blue Jasmine, 2013), Everett is played by American actor Ethan Hawke (Oscar nom Boyhood, 2014). If I were a protectionist ruler, I wouldn’t have let them come in to make it.

But then again, this is Canada, eh?

 

~ ~ ~ 1/2 RIPPLES

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RELATED POST ON RIPPLE EFFECTS:

Séraphine and the wrought-iron chair 

 

 

 

 

Silence the Movie Arrives in the Most Unwelcome Time

 

Why is La La Land being embraced so readily and Silence shunned? Evidence from box office sales and nominations during this Awards Season clearly show the difference between the two. Just now, the Oscar Nominations are in. La La Land: 14  Silence: 1

Allow me to speculate.

One in glamorous primary colours, the other shrouded in misty shades of gloom. One a fantasy, romance in song and dance, the other realism of suffering, persecution, death. One is layback, relaxing entertainment, the other is 2.5 hours of intense engagement. One charms, the other disturbs. When offered at the end of a tumultuous year, and as we step into a new one when hopes and fears are renewed, the choice is easy. La La Land is an amiable feature (although I won’t get into the overrated debate here), but Silence sure doesn’t deserve the disregard it’s getting.

It’s just that Silence arrives in the most unwelcome time. But then again, there’s no suitable time for a feature like it. Isn’t it revelatory and even prophetic that this film, probably director Martin Scorsese’s most important in his oeuvre, seems to be a total outcast, a lost cause? Exactly, that’s just as it would have ended up.

It would be ironic, wouldn’t it, for a film about spirituality, other-worldly and intangible values, and challenges of faith in the face of persecution to be celebrated by this power and fame-obsessed, material world? For it to receive praise and honor would be the ultimate irony indeed.

In a society which aims at being great, where ratings, numbers, wealth and social media status define success, where loudness rules and silence shunned, it is only expected that a film entitled “Silence” will not be cheered on. It runs against the grains of popularism, for it’s a film about failure.

I have posted a book review of Silence back in December, 2016. In it is a historical note. To summarize, Christianity was introduced to Japan by Francis Xavier in 1549. It was well received then, and by 1600, there were 300,000 Christians in Japan. But the Edo Period beginning in 1603 changed everything. Ruler Tokugawa Ieyasu ordered expulsion of foreign influences and Christianity had to survive underground. Torture was used to drive Christians to disavow their faith. Stepping on the fumie, a brass plague engraved with a Christ figure, is the convenient way to show one’s apostasy, leading to instant release. During this time, the Catholic Church received the news that the stalwart leader of the Jesuits mission in Japan, Father Christovao Ferreira had disavowed his faith and became an apostate. He had since lost contact with the Church.

The film doesn’t need many words to explain these historical events, for its visuals are self-explanatory. It starts off with father Ferreira’s apostasy, apparently under duress as he sees his flock being tortured to death. Liam Neeson’s gaunt and horrified expressions speak all. That’s the power of cinema.

ln-in-silence

Back in Portugal, two young priests, Father Sebastian Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver) appeal to their superior Father Valignano (Ciarán Hinds) to allow them to go to Japan to look for Ferreira and to seek the truth of the situation. Thus begins the story.

I’ve long learned not to judge a movie adaptation according to how loyal it is to the book, for the two are different art forms and a direct transposition may not be possible. But here is one exception. I’m glad that Scorsese’s Silence, co-written with screenwriter Jay Cock (Gangs of New York, 2002), is surprisingly faithful to Shusaku Endo’s historical novel, and that ‘faithfulness’ is both desirable and most admirable here.

By following Endo’s storyline to the dot, extracting pertinent text from the book as dialogues and voiceover, and spending time to cover the all important Epilogue, the director shows his desire to honour the author’s work, a wish that had long hidden in his heart. Indeed, it has been twenty-five years since Scorsese first read Endo’s masterpiece and was so deeply moved that he knew he needed to film it one day.

Another way we see Scorsese’s regard for Endo is his restraint when portraying the tortures of Japanese Christians. What we have, surely, is visual, graphic scenes which, while reading the book are left to the author’s descriptions and our imagination, but on screen are left to the director’s discretion. Kudos to Scorsese, those scenes are done with much restraints. This was a welcome surprise to me. I went into the theatre braced for his treatment like the ending scene of Taxi Driver (1976), or the bloody mayhem in Gangs of New York (2002). I need not have worried. But what I was hit with I had not expected.

Scorsese can definitely unleash more gore in Silence. But he chose not to. The scenes in the film are done with the utmost respect and dignity for the persecuted. Here’s a confession, I’m not one who easily succumbs to emotions, never need a Kleenex while watching a movie in the theatre. Here in Silence, as I watched the three Japanese Christians hanging on the makeshift crosses at the seashore swallowed up by the rising waves, tears slowly streamed down my face. What more, the guy sitting behind me was sniffing away, uncontrollably.

 

The main actors are powerful in taking hold of our emotions. Liam Neeson’s painful expressions both at the beginning and the end are very moving. Adam Driver lost 50 pounds for his role. His skeletal form is almost painful to watch. The Japanese actor Yôsuke Kubozuka is effective as Kichijiro, the ‘Judas character’.

The emotion of the whole film, however, is driven by two actors: Andrew Garfield as young father Rodrigues and the calculated, ruthless inquisitor Inoue played by Issei Ogata. The two form a stark foil: the hot-blooded idealist slaughtered slowly by the cold, harsh ruler. A tidbit for those who had watched Taiwanese director Edward Yang’s Yi Yi (2000), Ogata is Mr. Ota in there.

Garfield is effective in leading us to feel for Father Rodrigues’ sad and tragic journey. Martyrdom is the path to glory, and an easy way out. But no, Rodrigues isn’t given that luxury. Rather, he is faced with a most precarious test, tearing his soul and conscience, that is to apostatize or see his flock die by torture. It is unfortunate that the film has not been well received. Garfield deserves a nomination for Silence.

While it may be about the hidden church that runs underground to avoid annihilation, Silence is more about one man’s struggle with faith and doubt, and ultimately, making his choice and living with it for the rest of his life.

Here’s the rub. In this ‘either or’ society we live in, Rodrigues’s predicament is particularly distressing for us. It is often convenient and tempting to oversimplify issues and splitting them into clean-cut opposing sides, either B or W, L or R, D or R. In Silence, we’re confronted with yet another dichotomy: Devout or Apostate. What Scorsese reveals to us with his last scene is that, the line separating the two is blurry and permeable.

silence-and-beauty-free-chapter-mako-fujimura-1

In his compendium book to the movie, Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering, Japanese-American artist Makoto Fujimura, who is special adviser to the film, discusses the necessary existence of a ‘hidden’ identity to those practising Christianity in that historical era in Japan. For 250 years during the anti-foreign, ironclad Shogunate rule of the Edo Period (1603-1868), the only way to survive as Christians was to become hidden, Kakure Kirishitans as they were called in Japan. Stepping on the fumie, as the officials say, could well be only a formality, for it likely did not represent the heart. It is unfortunate that the persecuted Kakure Kirishitans had to succumb to this double life. As outsiders looking in, should we be so easy to judge them? Silence challenged us with that question. Unlike the bold declaration of Western Christianity, the Kakure Kirishitans held on to an inner faith that on the outside was wrapped with weakness and failure, total submission to the ruling authority. A painful, paradoxical existence.

The crucial, final scene in the film, which is the Epilogue of Endo’s book, holds the key to the question. I appreciate Scorsese’s closure. That is also how Fujimura explains Endo’s viewpoint. No spoiler here. Cinematically, the production is an artistic and powerful work worthy of Endo’s masterpiece. Scorsese’s quarter-century quest had not been in vain. Being recognized or not in the Awards Ceremonies just may not be as important an issue.

Of course, there’s always the bottom line. After investing so much resources, time and talents in the production, it is only natural to wish for a positive return. Could the voice that speaks to Rodrigues at that most crucial fumie moment speaks also to Scorsese as well regarding his film Silence?

“Trample! Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world…”

 

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

 

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CLICK HERE to read my review of the book Silence by Shusaku Endo

British Library & St. Pancras Station

THURSDAY, OCT. 6

Well you win some and you lose some. Having tasted the delicious treat that’s the Georgia O’Keeffe at Tate Modern, I came to British Library the next day to find they’ve just finished with a major Shakespeare exhibition there marking the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death.

The British Library is another must see for me, having ‘discovered’ it the last time I was in London a few years ago. In their Gallery is their permanent collections of iconic papers and manuscripts that define the history of civilization, like the Gutenberg Bible, The Magna Carta, handwritten score of Handel’s Messiah, Middle Eastern and Asian manuscripts and sacred scripts, Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook, handwritten lyrics by the Beatles with comic drawings on the side… just to name a few of the 200 items on display, free to the public.

 

Enough of words. Here are some pics of British Library:

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Storeys of rare books:

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Looking down to the main area:

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Art works are everywhere. I like this piece by British artist Patrick Hughes, entitled “Paradoxymoron”. His signature style is the changing perspective for the viewer. A ‘normal’ painting from the front:

Paradoxymoron Front View.jpg

The painting gradually shifting to 3D as the viewer moves to the side:

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Finally, from the side, a complete 3D version:

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Here’s from the other side:

The other side.jpg

 

And how did we get to British Library? We took the Tube from Victoria Station to the St. Pancras Station. You’ve seen the magnificent make-over of King’s Cross Station from my last post, here’s another superb alchemy of the old and the new. St. Pancras Station is an international transportation hub for trains. The scale is massive and the architecture style, Gothic Revival.

st-pancras-station

I’m most impressed by the interior, the public art and the huge bronze sculpture by Paul Day (2007). Here are some pics:

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Bronze Sculpture.jpg

Amazed by how detailed this huge sculpture is. Look at the folds of the clothing:

Details.jpg

Here are some of the vignettes circling below the tall sculpture. Whimsical perspectives:

 

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perspective

 

 

Saying goodbye to soldiers going to war:

Going to War.jpg

 

… and the modern goodbye. I like this one the best:

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Tate Modern: Georgia O’Keeffe Exhibition

TUESDAY, OCT. 4

Six years ago I first visited Tate Modern. I was wowed by its ingenuity, a derelict power plant on the south bank of the River Thames converted into a modern art gallery. I didn’t hesitate to revisit this time around.

The Tate Modern was designed by the Swedish architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, the 2001 winner of the Pritzker Prize, the ‘Nobel Prize’ of architecture.  Their concept of maintaining the industrial motif and juxtaposing it with the artistic is a marvellous idea.  Furthermore, they have turned the massive, hollow industrial space in the centre into a welcoming people space, the Turbine Hall. When I got there on an overcast Tuesday morning, I saw people, many are families with children and babies, lay on the massive floor space, yes, actually lying down, to view the mobile, mixed media installation from the ground.

How much more ‘grassroot’ can you get? The symbolism is ingenious as the people space breaks down the barrier of ‘high art’ and ‘public art’. In another area, several large helium-filled fish ‘balloons’ floating in mid-air, kids and adults playing with them. Interactive art, like an invisible sign saying, ‘Please do touch the art objects.’

While most of the collections were free and photography was allowed, I was excited to learn their current event was a Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition, paid admission and no photography. Interesting to note that there’s no O’Keeffe works in UK public collections, thus making this exhibition all the more rare and valuable.

Before I entered the exhibition room, I only had one image in my mind: flowers. Georgia O’Keeffe was a painter of flowers, wasn’t she? And with 100 pieces of O’Keeffe’s works on exhibit, lots of flowers. How wrong I was.

Certainly, the cover of this beautifully designed accordion pamphlet uses the iconic O’Keeffe subject of flowers, but I soon found that she was a highly versatile artist, and cerebral in style and subject matter. No photos were allowed in there so I had to take a picture of the pamphlet for you to visualize. For the rest of the post, I’m afraid I’ll have to make do with my clumsy written words to describe my experience with the magnificent visuals.

 

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Here’s a synopsis of the exhibition in a sequence of rooms following the life of O’Keeffe as an artist. And thanks to this compact, informative pamphlet, I’m still learning even after I’ve come home.

1. The Early Years – abstractions in charcoal, made while she was an art teacher in Virginia and Texas. There are colourful watercolours and vivid oil paintings inspired by the landscapes of both States. My fave has to be the Red and Orange Streak, 1919. So here I see Georgia O’Keeffe, the emerging abstract painter.

2. Moved to New York in 1918 and produced more abstraction while exploring other artistic possibilities such as chromesthesia, where musical tones elicit particular colours, “the idea that music can be translated into something for the eye”. This is also the period when she painted more sensory content, and for some, eroticism is evoked. I like this quote: “When people read erotic symbols into my paintings, they’re really talking about their own affairs.”

3. O’Keeffe, Stieglitz and their Circle. As muse, collaborator, and finally spouse of photographer Alfred Stieglitz, O’Keeffe is presented in photography in this section. I find O’Keeffe’s personal portraits particularly revealing; Stieglitz’s portraits of her all exude a special boldness and independence. Here we see her beginning fondness of clouds, depicted in A Celebration 1924, the year they married. Clouds evolving into petals later?

4. O’Keeffe the New Yorker. I never knew. Here I see her stylistic depiction of the urban cityscape of NYC. O’Keeffe and Stieglitz lived on the 30th floor of a skyscraper, a convenient vantage point to paint tall buildings. “… I think that’s just what the artist of today needs for stimulus.” After the 1929 Wall Street crash, however, she moved out of NYC. The vision of the urban promise dismantled with the market crash.

5. Upstate, New York, Maine, and Canada. Lake George, trees, clouds, apples and leaves. For a change, from metropolitan New York to Nature.

6. Finally, we begin to see her flower paintings. They are huge. The photo of the pamphlet cover above, Jimson Weed/ White Flower 1, 1932, is 48″ x 40″. BTW, I just checked online, that painting is the world’s most expensive painting by a woman. Walmart heiress Alice B. Walton bought it for $44.4 million in 2014. I should have looked at it a while longer. But from the short stop when I stood in front of it, I could see the gradual change of light and shadow on the petals, meticulously painted. Most impressive was the sheer size of it.

Why paint a tiny flower this big? Here’s O’Keeffe’s answer:

“Nobody sees a flower, it’s so small… I’ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it… I will make even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers…”

7. New Mexico: Taos and Alcalde. Paintings of the vast, horizontal expanse of the land in contrast to the vertical, tall skyscrapers of NYC, earth-built dwellings, crosses, Native American and Spanish colonial features. In Taos O’Keeffe met Ansel Adams and other artists.

8. O’Keeffe found the white bones and animal skulls left on the barren Southwestern desert a worthy subject for her paintings. A sharp, harsh contrast with the soft petals of flowers, but the light and shadow gradients convey the same fondness from the artist’s eyes.

9. Red earth, pink cliff of the landscape in the Southwestern expanse. O’Keeffe discovered Ghost Ranch, a tourist attraction and later bought her first home there. During the 1930’s to the 40’s, she delved into the area with immense passion, especially the flat-top mountains or mesa.

10. White Place and Black Place, two locales she continued to stylize in her painting. From the realism of the earthy desert expanse shifted to more stylized contrast of white and black.

11. The artist continued her focus on bones, in particular, the holes in them; when she lifted them up towards the sky, the blue piercing out from these holes. The bones too are symbols of death and destruction, a parallel of WWII and the death of Stieglitz in 1946.

12. The Southwest and Native American influences on her subjects while living in New Mexico during the 1930’s and 40’s.

13. Lastly, from landscapes to skyscapes. I was confronted with another huge painting, inspired from her airplane travels during the 50’s and 60’s: Sky Above the Clouds III, 1963. Since I couldn’t take any pictures at the exhibition, I just have to do this. Here, take a look at this photo of the pamphlet, section 13 on the right. The painting is on there. Clouds like ice floes against a distant, pinkish sky.

sky-above-the-clouds

 

Definitely more than just flowers.

 

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 Tate Modern and Billy Elliot

Alex Colville and the Movies 

Art Gallery of Ontario

Beauty and Terror