Monday, September 29, 2008

Our Moldin' Corral

For years, American's have had a feast of easy money. All kinds of buffets--especially Aunt Fannie and Uncle Fred-- wanted to take us in as customers and let us try our hand at the fat of the land. Like the dulled football spectator watching the game with a box of Cheez-Its, we kept thrusting our hand in the bag for a couple more. But then--during the fourth quarter--the box was suddenly empty.

The end of the day found us a fattened and, oddly enough, still hungry for real food. We reached for our wallets to pay for our past meal so we could then order another, but were surprised to find that we hadn't the means to pay.

And the bank-buffets? They were all out of food to give us. All that's left is an empty kitchen, a pile of sloppy leftovers--ranch dressing encrusted salad plates, a few morsals of bad canteloupe, a piece of t-bone from the steak--a bbq stained shirt,and a stomach that's been stretched from our years of overeating.

Luckily, there's that trustworthy and efficient Dietician, ol' Uncle Sam, willing to sweep up our dirty plates, hide them away in a doubtlessly magical kitchen, and order us some new dishes, a fresh set of flatware, and another round of drinks. Banzai! Bon appetit!

But...wait? Who's going to wash the old dishes?

Best not to think about it now. They'll get clean. One of these days...

Thursday, September 18, 2008


--the name of the village has been shoveled into my mind time by English teachers in my formative years. I heard the name at least once a year (whenever Shakespeare came up. It seemed that my teachers loved to throw in this town name as that one little piece of tidbit that they remembered from their college days). I had no idea what "on Avon" meant, and I always tended to confuse the Stratford scene with my few other associations of England, most notably the Disney animated feature Robin Hood. So, in my mind, I pictured Stratford on Avon as a village in a forest glen populated by bald-headed friars and lyre-strumming roosters.

I am in a bus driving back to London from the modern Stratford. The green and beauty of the countryside keeps me awake--I don't want to fall asleep and miss the scenery.

By nature, I am always skeptical of "tourist traps"--places of historical merit that are so full of artificial atmosphere and "pay here for a look" that the solemnity or majesty of the area is swallowed up in capitalism. The Tower of London was such a place for me. I feel like I am wasting time anytime there are more glass display cases and usheres hurrying you along than there is seconds an hour. Stratford had a little of the tourist trap atmosphere, but felt it was very honest in its identity. Sure, the "shrines to Shakespeare" shop got a little tiring--a Shakespeare bra? Shakespeare insult magnets? Come on guys. The energy of the town was genuine, despite the kitsch.

My visit to Shakespeare's birthplace was rushed because of the large afternoon crowds. However, the guides were very helpful and friendly. One of them even too k time to leave his station and show me some of his favorite signatures in the "autograph window."

Stratford was an enjoyable place, but once I'd visited shop after shop of Shakespeare gifts, I couldn't help but thinking , "What? All this for Shakespeare?!!??" Perhaps I'll be convinced by the end of this term that Shakespeare really deserves the magnets, mugs, lingerie, postcards, plates, pens, cards, and chocolate bars.

Portraits In General (Not "Portraits of a General"--that's a completely different topic)

Why was the Renaissance age fascinated with portraits? They show power. They show pride. They exhibit a hope to last forever, if not in the body, at least on a wall or canvas.

Virginia Woolf once wrote that "the essence of snobbery is that you wish to impress other people." Was it for snobbish reasons that King James wanted his portrait the size of a large room, with his horse's head shrunken like a voodoo doll?

Life, wrote William Hazlitt, is a struggle to be what we are not and to do what we cannot. If Hazlitt is to be believed, we are, as he goes on to say, very much what others think of us. Is that the reason for these portraits. To impress others? To impress the courtiers? To impress other nobles? To attempt to impress themselves?

Is it vanity, then, that guides the rich, the royal, and the "noble" of this age to wish for a portrait? In many respects, these portraits are an expression of vanity. Even more than pride, vanity wishes to show to all ones worth. Says Schopenheaur "pride is an established conviction of one's own paramount worth in some particular respect; while vanity is the desire of rousing such a conviction in others and it is generally accompanied by the secret hope of ultimately coming to the same conviction oneself."

A portrait lives on--men (and Virgin Queens) do not.

National Gallery

Erasmus and his labors. He was a humanist, a Cambridge professor, an advocate to reform the Catholic church. The book he holds looks to be written in Greek. Or is it Latin? I am not a classicist, so I couldn't tell you. It's not English, that's for sure. My guess is Greek, simply because Erasmus WAS a humanist. The Labours of Hercules of Erasmus of Rotterdam. It fits, I guess. Never had to kill a hydra, but I hear going against the Catholic Church and advocating a new way of learning is tough stuff.

Holbein also painted The Ambassadors. A few thousand academic papers could be written about the all of the symbolism mixed in with this painting; I'll keep it simple here, more so because I'm not an art guy (I appreciate it, see it, but, for the life of me, mostly never understand the "correct" interpretation). Katie R noticed a broken string on the lute. That could only mean one thing. Those ambassadors need another string (ba dum chhh). Ok. Seriously. It probably reflects the discord of the times. As I move to the right hand of the painting, I see a skull appear on the bottom of the work. The skull often represent man's mortality. We're gonna die. We are going to die. If you look up, though, with the natural movement of your eye, you will notice a silver crucifix in the left hand corner of the painting. Hmmm….death but. But what? Well, salvation. Christianity. God's kingdom. Perhaps this portrait reflects fideism and the plea to trust in God.

National Portrait Gallery

Queen Elizabeth the 1st. Ahh, how white thy face shines in portraits! Why wast thou shunned by love's strait arrow, unwed, unbed, and unbecomed?

Probably because you were picky, power hungry, or maybe just a little too focused on running Britain.

Ditchley's portrait shows you with the most power. Here you stand atop a map of England. Your feet smash down on the globe, your skirt is wide, ready to overtake all. The pearls on your dress, the jewels sewn in your garment are impressive. You glimmer and shine like a queen should. You rise towards heaven with your might but…

The other painting by Ditchley portrays you as austere and stern. You wear no smile; perhaps that would betray your image of power. You wear your crown with strict dignity. Your collar of lace (maybe it's not late--I'm a man and so I assume that anything that is white and frilly on a woman is lace) is aligned with the fashion of the time and…

Your hair is not as long as your coronation portrait. Here you have flowing gold hair, the color of your dress. Beautiful, golden locks. Your hair matches the cold crown, orb and sceptre…truly you were destined for this power, your hair becomes it, your eyes become it, but…your husband

Never did.

Tate Britain

If you see a man in his 'powers' (that's what our x country team called the ridiculously short shorts they wore) running up and down the halls of the Tate Britain, don't panic. It's only an exhibit sponsored by Martin Creed.

While at the Tate Britain, you may see a painting of The Virgin Queen by Nocholas Hilliard. You might notice that the painting is a symbolic representation of the queen. The jewel above her head is a phoenix, a symbol of her virginity. There are no thorns on the stem of roses in her hand. This alludes to the Virgin Mary, again a symbol of Elizabeth's virginity. The showdowless portrait, with ostentatious clothing and fancy decorum, is a symbolic representation of the monarch. Why shadowless? Perhaps Elizabeth wants to present the image that all light emanates from her. Perhaps she is trying to keep the focus on her, with eyes not wandering to shadows. Or, perhaps, she told Hilliard that she wanted the picture to be "showerless" (meaning no rainclouds) and he misunderstood. Only Hilliard and Elizabeth really know the answer to this conundrum.

Victoria and Albert Museum

Victoria and Albert Museum: I

The displays on the church in this museum are a good contrast of pre and post Reformation sentiments in Britain. Before the Reformation, churches were furnished to appeal to the senses. They were richly decorated with ornate tapestries and ostentatious robes and costumery. Even the Bibles--a costly work in itself--were ornately decorated. Edward VI and Elizabeth I, Protestant minded royalty, reformed this pagaentry to plainer displays. The Puritan moralists attacked the ostentatious displays of the church. Reformers replaced crucifixes in the churches with royal coat of arms. The pre-Reformation painting on display (no 23) shows a crucifixion scene. This painting is an example of the catholic sentiments of the time.

Victoria and Albert Museum: II
A Young Man Among Roses, Hilliards painting about court life, is a representation of a courtiers devotion. The coutier declares his devotion to the queen with his hand on his heart. He wears her colors and symbols in his dress. Clothing was one of the most popular way to express ones wealth and feelings in the times. In this painting, the painter and the sitter of the paining devised the symbolism together.

Sadly, the display of Elizabeth was under a canvas wrap the day I visited the museum. I asked the curator when the display would be available for viewing, and she looked at me like I was plotting a robbery. Must be the red hair. I'm sick of discrimination.