Friday, September 30, 2011


Front view and back view of a printed bookmark I came upon today inside a heavy old volume on a shelf in a shadowy third-floor section of the library where I work. The Vico-Matic Automatic Coin Operated Copy Machine (manufactured by Federal Division, The Victoreen Instrument Company) clearly qualified in its day as quite a marvel, able to copy whole pages of books! No more of that cumbersome, longhand note-taking! "The Librarian Will Direct You to The Machine."

Apparently the word "photocopier" had not been invented when this eloquent bookmark was conceived. The novel inside which I found it had not been checked out since the 1970s -- and my pasteboard artifact had very likely rested there undisturbed for the past 30 years or more, patiently waiting to be re-discovered.

But nobody cares about this book nowadays. Yawning Heights, it is called (in English translation) -- an anti-Soviet protest novel of 828 pages by Aleksandr Zinovyev (1922-2006). There must be thousands of these passionate, anti-totalitarian gospels in existence. And most of them would seem to have been translated into English, not due so much to any particular literary merit, but because they served so well as ready-made anti-Russian propaganda during the Cold War. Useful they may have been, but also doomed to become obsolete in a generation or two, like most social-protest art. Today it is almost impossible to imagine that anybody (except the occasional, curious librarian) would want to pick up one of these formerly urgent stories.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

That Same Poussin

Nicolas Poussin
ca. 1636

This painting is beginning to be very familiar on this blog. Last December I talked here about its failure to sell at auction in London because bidding "stalled" at $21 million, a figure that fell short of the reserve price. Then in August I revisited the topic here, wondering why the Getty hadn't bought it. As I discovered today, it was also in August that an export license was granted by the British government at the request of the painting's private purchaser, the Kimbell Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas. (Below, a detail of the original Kimbell building by the great Louis I. Kahn (and one of his few successfully completed projects).)

Earlier this month the Kimbell put the painting on display and began to publicize the acquisition. The press in Texas reported rumors that the Museum paid around $24 million, negotiating anonymously after the auction's failure. After the purchase was made there was a three-month waiting period to give the British public (or philanthropists or institutions or whomever) a chance to raise funds and match the price and keep the work inside the country, but those sorts of appeals are seldom successful. On September 9 when the Kimbell's press release came out, the L.A. Times ran a culture blog asking the question I had asked in August: "why didn't the Getty grab the picture?" And with the question coming from the L.A. Times, the Getty actually replied --

David Bomford, the Getty Museum's acting director, responded to an inquiry: "The Museum opted not to acquire the Poussin in part because we had just completed the record-setting acquisition of the Turner ['Modern Rome—Campo Vaccino'], but more importantly because we feel that there are two Poussin paintings already in the Getty's collection that are at least as good: 'Holy Family' and 'Landscape with Calm.' We were also concerned about breaking up the set of the Sacraments that had been shown for many years at the National Gallery London."

Like most such public statements, this one rests on a firm foundation of misleading implications and disputable assertions, with surviving Poussins competing against each other for ranking (like American sports teams) and the white flag of immaculate ethics waving over the Getty's several unmentioned and still-smoking scandals.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Poetry's Purpose

Above is Joseph Brodsky, dead Russian poet. Below is a passage from a short essay by Leopold Froehlich in the October issue of Poetry.

I am dismayed when I hear questions about the utility of poetry. How do you use poetry, and what is it good for? This is odd. Poetry is song. No one asks, What use is song? What use are birds? Poetry has no use. It matters because of its inutility.

"Poetry is not a form of entertainment," wrote Brodsky, "and in a certain sense not even a form of art, but our anthropological, genetic goal, our linguistic, evolutionary beacon."

People go out of their way to ignore this beacon today, but they do so at their own peril. "By failing to read or listen to poets," Brodsky wrote, "a society dooms itself to inferior modes of articulation -- of the politician, or the salesman, or the charlatan -- in short, to its own."

Maybe Brodsky had this right, and this is the highest purpose of poetry, or song: It keeps us from listening to fools.

(The last word is magically rendered for our convenient appropriation by top-dog L.A. all-around artist Ed Ruscha.)

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Consoling Photos

If I were prudent I would save these last few photos of Mabel Watson Payne until later in the week, because there almost certainly won't be any more for a goodly while. She and her parents are happily settled in midtown Manhattan (the mother of the family on a business trip, with family amusements tucked in around the edges). They will stay there and have adventures all through the coming weekend, not returning to San Francisco until the following week. Which means I probably won't see them until the next weekend -- and that seems very far away indeed.

So I should really save these pictures back, to use farther along in the dry spell to come, but I was never very good at postponing pleasures. The sequence immediately above was taken at lunch time last Saturday. Now, of course it is well known and true that Mabel Watson Payne has not learned to talk in words yet -- but she has lately perfected methods of her own for telling complicated stories with her hands.

Since her first birthday another change is that many of the bottles taken whenever her mother is absent are filled with cow's milk rather than stored-up mother's milk. Both sorts of milk are swallowed with equal gusto and disappear rapidly.

Even though I am glad to think about and vicariously savor the enjoyments of travel (such as the Central Park Zoo, which I know was part of the plan) I will still inevitably be plagued with impatience until Mabel Watson Payne is back in her nest.

Monday, September 26, 2011


The Pre-Raphaelite Lens was published earlier this year in conjunction with a show at the National Gallery in DC. Curators selected a group of Victorian photographs created in the Pre-Raphaelite spirit and then juxtaposed them with a similar number of jewel-bright Pre-Raphaelite paintings.

To my mind at least, the photographs won out decisively in visual interest. And I was especially happy to discover three crisply glowing plates (as seen below) with unfamiliar photographs by Lady Clementina Hawarden (already established some while ago as an official favorite here.)

Art historian Graham Clarke maintains that Lady Hawarden throughout her short career as a photo-pioneer specialized in what he calls, "the depiction of women in a closed and constricted privileged environment." The phrase intrigued me and set me looking for additional examples of her work to see how far I could agree.

She was active only for a few years, from the late 1850s through the early 1860s, recruiting her own children and servants to pose in an upstairs room of her own London house. (The same few props and backgrounds keep reappearing -- the same tall mirror, the same draperies, windows, furniture, even the same wallpaper with its regular rows of six-pointed stars.)

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Book Reading

From Saturday's photos taken chez Mabel Watson Payne it turns out I have three sets of reading-photos involving three different readers. First her grandmother, with the all-cloth monkey book. Mabel Watson Payne seems to nurture a special fondness for stories about monkeys. She will even make a monkey sound, upon request. "Tsssk, tsssk, tsssk."

At the end of the afternoon nap the parents returned, happily loaded down with bags of books from the annual Friends of the San Francisco Public Library book sale out at Fort Mason in a vast warehouse. This is an event they rarely miss. And some of the previously-owned books they found this year were children's books. Those needed to be shared right away.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Morning Nap

Early on Saturday I went over to the apartment of Mabel Watson Payne so that her parents could go out and accomplish things in the city. After greetings and instructions, my first job was to wrap this baby up and put her peacefully down for the prescribed morning nap at 9:00 (not forgetting that she now likes to sleep with Klapar the Panda in the bed, for company).

Then after the nap there was plenty of energy for games to be played ...

... and jokes to be made ...

... and gossip to be shared ...

... and affection bestowed.

Frog & Baby

When we came home from the playground Friday afternoon Mabel helped me lower the blinds in the living room against the blasting western sun. Shortly afterward, Daddy arrived from his shopping trip. We heard about the blue jeans he did find and the umbrella he did not find.

Then he went off to the kitchen to make a big salad. Mabel settled in with her friend the mechanical frog, studying the workings of its underside.

Raising the blinds, we made the last photo (below) in imitation of her mother's well-known ghost-baby Polaroids.