Thursday, February 28, 2013

Rainforest Under Glass

Most of these pictures were taken inside the 4-story Rainforest environment, humid and hot, where abundant tropical butterflies and birds in flashing colors occupy the same unrestricted spaces as the visitors on the upward-spiraling ramps, without barriers. All three of us could stand watching their hovering, their flight, their visits to a little round treetop feeding table. We stood right next to a shrub with little purple flowers while a dozen or more striped or incandescent-blue butterflies sucked nectar from those flowers with no seeming awareness of our human presence at all. (Perhaps treetop tropical butterflies have no need to comprehend what human beings might be, so feel safe in ignoring them.) A discreet sign by the elevator that whisks visitors from the top of the exhibit down to the tunnel underneath the rainforest pool (full of large active rainforest fish and other swimming creatures) asks people to check for any butterflies that might be clinging to their clothing, so as not accidentally to carry them out of their warm bright expensive artificial paradise.  

We had lunch on a terrace to one side of the new complex built by Renzo Piano for the California Academy of Sciences. Mabel Watson Payne had a baby ice cream cone for dessert.

Phoebe Hearst Fountain

When we reached the Music Concourse in Golden Gate Park on Wednesday morning Mabel rushed ahead to admire the lion and serpent sculpture in the middle of Phoebe Hearst Fountain. It is one of her favorite pieces of public art.

At the entrance to the Academy of Sciences, two policemen on Real Horses were talking to some older children. Mabel petted both horses and learned their names – Buster and Rusty, I think (though Mabel might correct me). One of the policemen gave her a sticker.

Bus Sun

On Wednesday morning Mabel Watson Payne and Daddy  took me along on the bus routes they have learned all about for destinations such as Golden Gate Park, where we were headed.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Bus Pair

Mabel Watson Payne and Daddy stare in awe on Wednesday morning as the bus passes the place where Mabel was born.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Mrs. Marjorie Metz

I could not find any spot – in the big group of paintings posted below – for Stanley Spencer's elongated 1958 portrait of Mrs. Marjorie Metz. This picture overwhelmed any company I put it near. No doubt foreseeing this difficulty, Spencer provided Mrs. Metz with companions of her own, inside the picture. Much deep staring was required on my part before I could figure out that the maidens in the background are components of a porcelain flowerholder-with-figurines on some kind of table or other surface behind Mrs. Metz. The flowers are daffodils with tulips (maroon and black) plus several small clumps of yellow berries that function a bit like diadems in Mrs. Metz's splendid tawny hair. More flowers invade the foreground. Their source is unknown. And then there is the strapless satin dress in blue, embroidered in black, giving way to a foreshortened melodrama of green-shadowed folds at the knees. Yet all this extravagance of pattern and color, fragrance and texture subordinates itself to this village matron's creamy flesh, bare of jewels (except for those heavy, sober, matrimonial rings – third finger, left hand).  

Stanley Spencer

 Cookham, 1914

 Cookham: Mending Cowls, 1915

Cookham: Terry's Lane, 1922

 The Red House, Wangford, 1926

Clipped Yews, 1935

Patricia at Cockmarsh Hill, 1935

Cookham: The Jubilee Tree, 1936

The Boatbuilder's Yard, 1936

Self Portrait, 1936

Landscape with Magnolia, 1938

 Cookham Dene: Landscape, 1939

Cookham Dene: Rock Garden, 1942

Daphne Spencer, 1951

Portrait of Miss Ashwanden, 1958

Another of the side-paths branching off from John Singer Sargent last week ended up leading me to Stanley Spencer (1891-1959) who lived and painted for most of his life in the Berkshire village of Cookham. The final painting of his career appears immediately above. Miss Ashwanden was the 17-year-old daughter of neighbors. At the time this picture was painted both the subject and the artist knew themselves to be dying of incurable diseases – a situation that reads almost too much like an Alan Bennett play to be believed. Yet the picture breathes, independent of its awful ironies. The tender pink of the pullover.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Words & Pictures


Even gold leaves bunched in the gutter seem to urge you
cough it up, spill the beans, whatever grief you keep,

what joy, what secret evil: all the passing faces now
inviting you to cast aside the knots of sound

to sit at least and quantify, expand the parasite,
clarify the tulip's flake, the turnip's blight–

(They don't care that Roethke made it rhizomes
twining from the cellar dark, Poe a boil-eyed Kraken)

You should write more poems about depression.

Yes, they liked your mother's stark & balding head
but also wanted ghosts: some charismatic

ancestors conspiring in those hospice corners.
These others are too distant, they're too cold. Inscrutable

 . .. as onyx sarcophagi swimming with infants?
As poltergeists inside a prison sphere of brass? –no, no

Where are the stone and bones and blood? Here are petroglyphs
pecked out of cliffs. Here is the wild boy of Aveyron

who never learned to speak in any dialect but thicket.
But where are the tears? Where is the rubble and ash?

(Is it a turnip of grief or a turnip of desire?) Or else enough
with the lists just tell us a story, so here is a story:

Once an ox in the heart of Bamako Market
lived hitched to a mill wheel, all its years in darkness,

conceiving only toil in the grist dust, labor blind & silent,
never knowing there was such a thing as sun.

Amy Beeder (b.1964) from Now Make an Altar (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2012)

Paintings by George Shaw (b.1966) from an ongoing series called Scenes from the Passion, set in and around Tile Hill, the council estate outside Coventry where the artist grew up.

Strange Color

I had walked across town and was still early for the first showing of Haneke's Amour on Sunday afternoon, so wandered a few blocks into Pacific Heights and found this view of San Francisco Bay from the intersection of Steiner and Pacific. It seemed to me that the water was such a strange and fascinating color that I should refrain from all adjustments. The least little nudge might make it evaporate. 

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Red Ceiling

This is the screen (or part of it) at the Clay Theater on Fillmore, one of several small surviving neighborhood movie theaters in San Francisco. The ceiling is covered in red wallpaper. I went to an early show here on Sunday afternoon. Waiting for the film to start, I tried to remember when was the last time I paid to see a movie in a movie theater, but I couldn't remember. That's how rare it is in these late days. However, this was Michael Haneke's new film, Amour, with Emmanuelle Riva, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Isabelle Huppert. It already won the 2012 Palme d'Or at Cannes and is currently nominated for five Academy Awards.

Looking up showtimes this morning on SFGate (the online version of the San Francisco Chronicle) I could not avoid an entirely unwanted but solidly embedded capsule review by local film critic Mick LaSalle  – "don't go in without a word of warning: When director Michael Haneke isn't boring the audience, he is torturing it" – which only confirms my belief that there needs to be an international law to protect serious films from the trauma of being shown in America at all.

To be fair, in December when the film was released in this country The New York Times published an intelligent and expansive review by Manohla Dargis. Nowhere, though, have I read sufficient praise for the soundtrack, soaked at crucial intervals in Schubert's piano music. The same sound dominated The Piano Teacher, Haneke's unforgettable 2001 film starring Isabelle a troubled, Schubert-loving piano teacher. In Amour she plays the troubled daughter of retired, Schubert-loving piano teachers. In both films, this inimitable music serves as code for emotions too deep and complicated for ready expression in words. 

Haneke's Castle

I had tons more fun watching Michael Haneke's film adaptation of The Castle (first shown on German television in 1996) because I had recently read Roberto Calasso's opinions about Franz Kafka's elusive, everlasting significance in the book called (simply) K. The film stayed much closer to the text than I expected, with voice-over reading canonical passages of some length while silent figures on screen functioned much like full-page illustrations used to function in novels published long ago. It felt as if Haneke had voluntarily restrained his usual rambunctious inventiveness, intent instead on paying unadorned tribute to Kafka.   

I had not been aware that Haneke cast Ulrich Mühe in the role of K. And what a complicated, unpredictable yet convincing performance this actor gave in that role. He became internationally famous ten years later starring as an East German surveillance officer in the German-made Hollywood-style thriller released in English as The Lives of Others and winner of the 2007 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. Mühe's performance was the one redeeming feature of that reductive, inadequate film. I also had not known that he died of stomach cancer only a few days after making the journey back and forth from Germany to California for the award ceremony.