Thursday, December 31, 2015

Of Cabbages and Kings: a 2015 cultural diary

The Historical Dilettante
Yup, that's me.

When I was a kid back in the 1970s, I regularly read a column by long-time Pittsburgh Post-Gazette staff writer Win Fanning entitled "Of Cabbages and Kings."  Mr. Fanning covered the television beat and his curiously-titled column was replete with TV trivia and programming notes. I was intrigued by the by-line sketch of the bespectacled author chomping on a cigar, and with impeccable kid-reasoning I decided I ought to become a journalist (if I didn't become an archaeologist or a nurse or a veterinarian instead) so I could create my own perplexingly-titled column fronted by an enigmatic, cool self-portrait.

My career aspirations didn't quite turn out the way I planned. But I do maintain this oddly-titled blog, and I do have access to photography filters. No cigar or shades, though.

I ain't got nothing on Win. I know that.

Anyway, when I was older I realized that Fanning had titled his television errata column after a line in Lewis Carroll's poem The Walrus and the Carpenter. It's a dark poem recited by Tweedledum and Tweedledee to Alice, and features the aforementioned Walrus and Carpenter blithely chatting up some oysters before devouring them. Walrus leads off the discussion by announcing to his buddy and the listening oysters:
"The time has come," the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things:
Of shoes--and ships--and sealing-wax--
Of cabbages--and kings--
And why the sea is boiling hot--
And whether pigs have wings."
(Illustration by John Tenniel)
Carroll knew, of course, that life was filled with non-sequiturs and perplexing riddles to challenge both adults and little kids contemplating quirky TV columns. I wasn't raised in a literary or even very literate family. It was a surprise to my working-class parents that I was bookish, and I am grateful they recognized this as a (mostly) good thing and nurtured my interests as best they could. But no one I knew could put the likes of cabbages and kings in context, so I spent a lot of my youth with brow furrowed, wondering what such obscure references meant. Sometimes I'd stumble upon an answer, but a lot of the time I faked knowing things and hoped the answers would be revealed before I embarrassed myself.

As a grown-ass, educated woman I'm certainly now far better equipped (with Mr. Google by my side) to understand literary references and to even make my own. But I've never lost my cultural curiosity (pop or highbrow, depending upon my mood). I'm forever wanting to experience and know things, and to tap into the experiences of others.

With that as prologue, here's my point: it's the end of the year and all the cool kids are making their best-of lists. I've never been good at ranking but I still can't resist the lure of list-making. This, then, is my year-end hodgepodge. It's less "best-of" and more a partial recounting of the cabbages and kings that made my synapses fire and inspired me to learn this past year.

And so the time has come, the blogger said, to talk of many things....

Let's talk theater first. The year 2015 was a good one for seeing plays that made me think. Take, for example, My Fair Lady at Pittsburgh Public Theater. I took my daughter to see this production in January, not because it's a favorite of mine, but because she'd read George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion in school and we thought it'd be fun to see the derivative musical. I'd not have gone on my own, despite (or maybe because of) having watched the movie many times as a kid when it came around annually on one the networks (When I try to explain to my kids that we had three choices for screen entertainment back in the day, they stare at me with compassion and pity). My Fair Lady features vivid characterizations, witty lines and catchy tunes...but damn, this show makes me twitch. Time Magazine declared in a 2014 article about the 50th anniversary of the film that My Fair Lady "isn’t misogynistic—it’s about misogyny.” My teen agreed that this was true because she felt the show wasn't about a guy changing a girl, but rather about a girl struggling to maintain her personal integrity and sense of self in spite of the manipulations of a controlling guy. It's a fine but important distinction. When you back up and view it from that perspective, My Fair Lady becomes way more than a quaint period piece. Its themes reflect and transcend attitudes from many time periods, and its satire of class prejudices resonate with contemplative modern audiences who recognize their own social attitudes.

But with that said, we drew the line at revisionist theory proposing Eliza as a feminist archetype. True, she espoused choices and articulated what she would and wouldn't stand for. But we still found her limits cringe-worthy since she ultimately allowed herself to remain with a guy who consistently treated her badly. Neither my daughter nor I lust for vengeance, so we (regretfully) rejected the urge to imagine Eliza flinging those slippers at Higgins' head as the curtain fell. But we both dared hope that if Eliza really felt the boor was worthy of her time that she'd embark on a campaign of sensitivity training to rival Higgins' transformative efforts on her...and that she'd walk out the door for good if it wasn't successful.

Heady stuff for a musical, to be sure, but our post-mortem discussion enhanced the show for me. I learned that sometimes twitching in one's seat at a musical can be good for a soul (if you can sit still long enough to figure out what's so unnerving).

And then there were original productions, like Grist for the Mill, produced by Dog and Pony Show Theatricals. I get out to see live theater far less than during my pre-parenthood days, back when I actually worked in the seedy Pittsburgh drama underworld. I'm usually supportive if a friend is performing, but even then I must admit that part of my watching brain is distracted by assessing production values and another part of me is preoccupied with vague wishes that I was still walking the boards. But during this performance of a short story written and performed by local theater phenom Lissa Brennan, I was wholly present and riveted to her words and performance. Despite having known the playwright over many years, this was the first time I'd had the opportunity hear her voice as a dramatic writer. I loved the concept and execution of this piece. The fun Lissa had as writer/performer with language and storytelling was evident and energizing.

Maria Kolivaska Minnaji
The town of Braddock had been the literal and dramatic setting for Lissa's play. Having gathered enough intellectual grist for the mental mill, I wandered around the actual mill town afterwards and wondered about my own family history in the Westinghouse Valley. For a time, my great-grandmother ran a boarding house in East Pittsburgh for men working those insane shifts in the mills. I'm haunted by what I don't know about their lives. Details are forever lost. Not only were they busy surviving versus documenting, but my family makes a twisted virtue out of keeping personal history private. I came away resolved to continue pursuing my genealogical research.

I was drawn to other productions for different reasons. Back when I worked as a psychotherapist, I felt it crucial to maintain a supportive foundation by willingly bearing witness to my patients' painful histories. Psychologist Alice Miller has eloquently written about the empowering nature of what she termed an 'enlightened witness' in the lives of the abused. An enlightened witness supports a victim in the transition to becoming a survivor by sitting with the stories, and that in turn helps to mitigate powerlessness, preserve and pursue hope, and break the cycle of perpetual abuse. I can vouch for the value of sustained active listening, however 'New Age' that may sound, because I saw firsthand how it facilitated healing. Although I no longer work as a therapist, my cultural choices are often guided by a conscious decision to bear witness to mankind's internalized inhumanity through readings and presentations related to slavery and the Holocaust. I feel a moral responsibility to do this because it's crucial for me to understand the worst of history in order to combat modern-day injustices. Plus as a parent, I feel it's part of my job description to be informed enough to connect the dots with my kids.

And so I went to see For the Tree to Drop, produced by Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre. This was the world premiere of a play also written by the talented and hard-working Lissa Brennan (Okay, seriously, not a stalker fan-girl...personal connections will tear me from the vast suburban cultural wasteland every time). Inspired by Antigone but set in the antebellum/early war-torn South, this play's focus on maintaining dignity and grace in the face of slavery's dehumanization echoed my long-held beliefs about the power of an enlightened witness.

Later in the year, we took our teen and tween to see The Diary of Anne Frank at Pittsburgh Public Theater so they could also bear witness. Anne Frank's diary tops the list of a half dozen formative books from my adolescence. I've visited Anne Frank Huis in Amsterdam and I think I've probably read every biography and analysis of her life and history that's been published. This was the second production of the play that I've seen, and while I have some personal issues with how Anne is written, I am pleased that her story continues to be told.

In addition to these and other local productions, I got to take in some theater while traveling. I am not much for the overblown emotionality of musicals, although I do appreciate the talent on display. But Gershwin is my man, so I was thrilled to take in a preview of An American in Paris on Broadway last spring in NYC. This is a far more morally ambitious production compared to the movie, thereby allowing a layering of modern sensibilities and circa-1951 post-war perspectives that I appreciated.

Cardinal Wolsey's and Henry VIII's Hampton Court Palace
I also spent a day enjoying Wolf Hall I and II produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company on Broadway, and even got to meet author Dame Hilary Mantel. I enjoyed the BBC production later in the year for its performances and production values, but I preferred the more stripped-down theatrical version because it laid bare the bones of the story. And the story is really the thing, not the scenery (or chewing thereof). Mantel crafted an entertaining story with historical precision that was accessible to even non-Tudor history buffs, but her genius was in telling a familiar tale from the perspective of an ordinary man who experienced an extraordinary rise to power. I enjoyed her writing and felt encouraged about the popularity of the stage and broadcast productions because I think they proved that with an engaging presentation, accurate history can intrigue and even entertain non-historians. (Plus I got to meet the author during intermission).

A different imaging of Tudor life was at the core of texts&beheadings/ElizabethR, a play I saw at the Folger Shakespeare Library. I went in thinking it would be a straightforward portrayal of Elizabeth's life through an examination of her writing, but I couldn't have been more wrong...or more pleased to be wrong! It circled around and reflected back on itself, initially disconcerting but always intriguing. The framing 'game' structure didn't work for me personally; the concept was interesting but I thought the execution clumsy and a bit too obvious. But even with that distraction, I'm still thinking about this show months later. The actresses mesmerized with their recitations and characters, but we weren't allowed to forget that they were acting when they switched to narrative formats, using modern language in asides. I found those switches distancing and jarring but I'll own that my historical pedantry and knowledge of the subject matter sometimes interfered with my being entertained. We never got close to really 'knowing' Elizabeth I in this play, but then no one ever really did in life, either. The score by Gina Leishman was sublime, as were the performances, and in those moments the production floated out of time and space. I hope a recording will be forthcoming. This was one production that challenged me out my comfort zone, and I was glad of it and left wanting more.

I don't tend to see a lot of movies but I took in a few this year. The 1942 classic Casablanca was live-scored by the Pittsburgh Symphony and I do so love that film, so off we went. In addition to the characters we've come to know and love, Casablanca, famously featured Morocco and Paris (albeit both created on a soundstage); WWII not just as the setting but as a cultural phenomenon; and the nobility and moral conflicts of La Résistance française even as such were playing out in real life in France. All of that outweighs the romantic schlock that drives the plot -- which is a good thing because otherwise I'd not be able to stand it! Plus there's the witty and infinitely quotable dialogue. And let's face it, Ingrid's costumes are fabulous.

I was worried that live scoring might prove distracting. Pittsburgh Symphony played along with the score, with the orchestra situated onstage directly beneath the projection screen and Guest Conductor Emil de Cou following the film on a monitor. It was impossible for the musicians to play throughout the entire film as they would have interfered with some key dramatic moments, so the original score dominated in certain scenes. Because of that, at times it didn't seem as though this was the best use of a full orchestra. As it turned out, the symphony didn't distract since our attention was thoroughly riveted by the film. My family thought the best moment was when the small Rick's Cafe band was augmented by the full PSO swelling into patriotic majesty during La Marseillaise.

This is an iconic film and always enjoyable as such, but the magic was enhanced for me by watching this film in the very movie house where Pittsburghers first saw it back in the day. What we now call Heinz Hall was built as Loew's Penn Theatre movie palace in the late 1920s. Casablanca premiered in the same building in Pittsburgh on January 23, 1943!

I like when things come full circle. Here’s looking at you, kid.

Trafalgar Square, National Gallery in background
A few of my alternate 427 careers have to do with museum curation, so I was hooked on the subject matter of National Gallery before ever seeing it. A New York Times review describes the documentary as being "....about art and process, money and mystery, and all the many, many people gazing and gawping..." which I guess pretty much sums it up. I loved this film for its behind-the-scenes peeks at conservation efforts; for the examples of people trying to use words to describe their reactions to art (including a group of visually impaired patrons who experienced embossed reproductions of artworks); and for the meta-conversations about making curation relevant to the public. But mostly I loved it for the long still shots of people looking at art. You wouldn't think (or at least I didn't) that looking at people looking at art would be fascinating, but it is. After I saw this movie, I resolved to spend some more time when in galleries not just soaking in art, but watching the people soak it in as well. Once I've reached a personal saturation point at a museum, I find myself trying to clear my visual palette by staring blankly at a wall. Now I also people-watch...and frankly, watching people looking at art is more interesting than looking at a blank wall.

Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, Gustave Klimt
I also saw Mr. Turner and The Woman in Gold Based based, respectively, on the lives of painter Joseph William Mallard Turner and Maria Altman (whose family won a seven year battle against the Republic of Austria for the return of Gustav Klimt's iconic painting of her aunt, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I). I enjoyed both films but my inner-historical pedant felt that while the portrayals rang true to the essence of what I'd read about each person, there were too many fabricated scenes and embroidered bits aimed at ratcheting up the drama quotient. Real lives that are compelling enough to get movies made about them ought to be portrayed as close to the facts as possible. I was particularly annoyed at how badly The Imitation Game altered the story of Cambridge mathematician Alan Turing for "dramatic purposes." I understand the argument that an entertaining if not entirely factual portrayal can serve to stimulate  interest and exploration. But I don't believe that's a strong enough argument when weighed against the need to respect and honor an individual and the historical record. (And this is why I've never been invited to work in Hollywood!)

I'm nothing if not contrary so therefore it shouldn't shock that I am intrigued by revisionist Shakespeare productions. The play's the thing so don't mess with the man's words, but I'm fine with innovative productions. Purist period reproductions, deconstructed, whatever -- go for it. But damn it, your staging and costuming choices need to make cohesive, consistent and internal sense. A local production of Othello was well-acted and staged but I felt it abandoned that thread of production continuity with random costuming choices. National Theatre Live's filming of Benedict Cumberbatch's Hamlet was dramatically impressive (and he redeemed himself in my eyes for his overwrought pseudo-Khan with this performance). But the costuming and some staging left me puzzled. The play's the thing! In related news, I'm now a third of the way through my goal of seeing all of Shakespeare's plays performed live (What? I'm totally counting that Hamlet).

I attended several adult education classes at Carnegie Museum of Art this year: Picturing Across the Atlantic: The Beginnings of American Art with art historian Isaac King; John White Alexander's Murals for Mr. Carnegie's Museum and Their Survival in the Smoky City with Curator of Education Lucy Stewart and Chief Conservator Ellen Baxter; and Lasting Impressions: Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Fin-de-siecle Paris with art historian Clarisse Fava-Piz. I know better, but I still feel like CMOA was spying on my art history interests when choosing subject matter for its adult education programs this year!

I'm fascinated by the emergence of art and culture in the fledgling United States and how such coincided with the creation of our founding stories, particularly narratives attached to George Washington. Dr. King wove all these factors into a fascinating tapestry.

Thomas Hart Benton's America Today
Thomas Hart Benton's America Today
The mural lecture was of particular interest since I'd spent some time gazing at Alexander's staircase mural at the Carnegie last year when I wrote about Andrew Carnegie (I still like to think that's him up there). I enjoyed getting to know more about the artist and this work within the context of American Muralist tradition. Learning more about that tradition helped me better appreciate seeing Thomas Hart Benton's America Today mural, simultaneously on exhibit at The Met.

The Impressionist lecture series provided a great foundation for several art appreciation pilgrimages that I took later in the year. Since I usually avoid what's trendy, it's a little embarrassing that I claim among my favorite genres and artists one who'd also among the best-loved in popular culture. The world's obsession with Van Gogh has as much to do with gossiping about his dramatic life as it does with appreciating his actual art. There's a corresponding apologist attitude in art historian circles that tries to ward off speculation about Van Gogh's 'madness' in favor of solely focusing on the art. Good luck with that, I say, because I don't believe we do our collective understanding justice when we divorce any artist from his art, circumstances or times. That's not to say that every discussion about Van Gogh should begin and end with absinthe, ears and asylums! But a discerning study of his foreshortened life illuminates many of his artistic choices. My background as a psychotherapist specializing for a time in the treatment and research of bipolar disorder compels me to believe that Vincent Van Gogh's concurrent psychiatric and medical illnesses were pervasive and episodically dominating. He could function well enough for long periods and was not completely divorced from reality, but that reality was always filtered through the need to manage his episodes and symptoms. 

This particular lecture coincided with the Carnegie's Visiting Van Gogh: Still Life, Basket of Apples exhibit, and it also served as a nice primer prior to my family's summer trip to Paris and Auvers-sur-Oise.
La Mairie d'Auvers and The Town Hall at Auvers by Vincent Van Gogh

Auvers field and Wheat Fields near Auvers by Vincent Can Gogh

Église Notre-Dame d'Auvers

L'église d'Auvers-sur-Oise, vue du chevet by Vincent Van Gogh

My personal appreciation of art has its foundations not in artistic theory or personal attempts at creating, but in an understanding of art as an expression of personal interests and influences; as a manifestation of social, religious and cultural influences; and as a method of historical record-keeping. The lesser-known figures of the Impressionist era are as interesting to me as the big names, so I was delighted to visit Discovering the Impressionists: Paul Durand-Ruel and the New Painting at Philadelphia Museum of Art and Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter’s Eye at National Gallery. Caillebotte's collection formed the core of the Musée d'Orsay, which I visited later in the summer. If he's widely known for anything it's for his patronage of the Impressionist movement, but Caillebotte was a precise, meticulous painter of dramatic perspectives. It was a joy to see so much of his work in one exhibit. Durand-Ruel was a shrewd businessman whose commitment to the Impressionist movement nearly bankrupted him, but retrospectively seems a stroke of genius. His approach to selling art (literally and figuratively) influences the market to this day. It was awe-inspiring to see the assembled collection and realize how many different artists and visions he brokered.

Audubon's Aviary: The Final Flight (Part III of The Complete Flock) at New York Historical Society was a different kind of visual treat. The Historical Society owns Audubon's original bird watercolors and illustrations, and this particular exhibit showcased preparatory watercolors for the double-elephant-folio print edition of his The Birds of America. It was thrilling to see the great naturalist-artist's work up close and view some of his techniques. The images were displayed in the order in which they were engraved, thereby allowing us to view them sequentially in the order Audubon created them -- just as the original subscribers would have done. The University of Pittsburgh owns one of the 120 complete double elephant folios of John James Audubon’s Birds of America known to exist, and I like to stop in at Hillman Library to ogle whatever image is on display when I'm there. (You can peruse the online images HERE).

Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine
With Angels and Archangels: Spotlight on Angelic Images at The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine was a tour led by Senior Cathedral Guide Tom Fedorek. I first become aware of St. John the Divine when I read Madeline L'Engle's adult novels A Small Rain and A Severed Wasp. Those books, with their themes of compassion, acceptance, and moving forward in spite of our imperfections, have long resonated with me. That the modern-day Gothic cathedral-in-progress which served as the setting really existed seemed too good to be true! Visiting it over the years has been a pilgrimage of grace for me, even though work has stopped on the building. I'm always intrigued by the stories I imagine are embedded in stone and glass and this thematic tour was, well, divine.

There have been other plays and movies and art,  wondrous travels that I'm still sorting through, a renewed if intermittent interest in poetry, and above all books and music (both listened to and performed). All of these things have been the embodiment of antidotes when exposed to bottomless social media rage...what I've used to fill myself when drained by a world gone mad with extremist rhetoric. This embarrassment of cultural riches is something I feel so very, very lucky to have experienced, and that privilege has prompted me to think about what I can give back to the world. I'll finish up my cabbaging and kinging by mentioning one last event that is also serving as a personal beginning.

The We Can Do It! exhibit at Heinz History Center examined the Pittsburgh homefront during WWII with a particular focus on this city's industrial output. It offered detailed perspectives on a particular time and place, and I hope some of the pieces will remain on permanent exhibit. 

My kids and father, We Can Do it, Heinz History Center
I'd volunteered at the museum beginning in 2011 but haven't been connected much following the untimely death this year of Volunteer Coordinator Sandra Baker, a fellow later-in-life historian whom I considered a friend and mentor. The program she nurtured has changed in a way that excludes me, and I need to redirect my historical energies. My late mother-in-law left behind a collection of letters written by her 17 year old self and her parents to one of her brothers serving in the Army Air Force during World War II. All four brothers served in the military in some capacity during that war, two in active combat in the European theater. The letters are a unique record of one family's experiences, but I think they are universally appealing. Inspired by the We Can Do It! exhibit, I'm hoping to transcribe these letters, perhaps with a goal toward publication.

I'm looking forward to the coming year. Perhaps I'll finally learn why the sea is boiling hot, and whether pigs have wings. Bonne santé!

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