Thursday, November 6, 2014

Book Review - "The Strike" by James M Denis

"The Strike", by James M Dennis Book Review (on Amazon) by Brandy Larson James Dennis’s book, The Strike, is unique in its inception as a fascinating “biography of a painting,”as well as of Robert Koehler, the German-American artist who painted the unprecedented canvas of industrial workers confronting a frowning factory owner in 1885-86. Widely exhibited in Europe and America, the painting was eventually lost in storage, rediscovered,restored, re-exhibited and ultimately purchased in 1990 by the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin, Germany. Professor Dennis first became aware of the painting through correspondence with Lee Baxandall, a political activist and former graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Intrigued by an engraved reproduction of the painting, Baxandall tracked it down in the early 1970s, bought it, had it restored, and found venues for its exhibition with the help of a prominent labor union in New York City. En route, he gathered mostly biographical information on Koehler’s career that he eventually gave to Dennis, hoping it could be fashioned into a book. Best known for his monograph on Grant Wood and a subsequent book, Renegade Regionalists, Dennis also has had a longstanding interest in political history, especially that of the immigrant German communities of Milwaukee and Chicago. These included radical, socialist leaders of the burgeoning labor movement that was largely born in Bismarck dominated Germany during the 1870s. Robert Koehler was born in Hamburg, Germany in 1850 and his family moved to Milwaukee four years later. His father was an independent machinist while Robert was apprenticed as a lithographer. His art talent was appreciated by a patron, a brewer, who sponsored his return to Germany where he was enrolled at the Royal Academy in Munich. The Strike was his diploma painting, an unusual subject for an“academic” painting. Large scale (over six by nine feet), it was initially exhibited from 1886 to 1894:first in New York City by the May-Day beginning of the nationwide Eight-Hour-Day Strike, then in Munich, followed by the 1889 Paris Exposition, Milwaukee, and the Chicago World’s Fair. It was finally purchased by public subscription in Minneapolis where Koehler was hired to develop and direct its School of Fine Arts. A few years after his death it was stored out of sight. The book’s front cover features a color detail of The Strike with the top-hatted owner confronted by a gesturing spokesman surrounded by fellow workers, smoky factories clouding the horizon. Eight other color plates of Koehler’s work accompany fifty-seven black and white illustrations showing his development, as well as examples of other artists who depicted workers demanding better conditions. Dennis provides a brief Introduction, an Afterward, seventeen pages of notes, and an excellent eleven-page index. The 235-page book is published by the University of Wisconsin Press, which published his very first book: Karl Bitter, Architectural Sculptor, about a Viennese artist who left his mark on the state capitol building in Madison and more extensively, Manhattan,including its Plaza with its famous fountain. The Strike is one of a series of Studies in American Thought and Culture, edited by the late Paul S.Boyer. I found The Strike to be clearly written, a trove of delightful, superbly presented insights about the artist, his career, and his masterpiece painting. Its “biography” includes fascinating details of the culture and timbre of the times, especially of the decades’ struggle by working men and women against exploitation, for decent working conditions, and living wages. While this book has special appeal for those attracted to Art History, it will be enjoyed by anyone curious about a timeless painting that survived many challenges in order to serve as a window, a kind of time capsule, of the Industrial Revolution and early modern life.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Blonde Beauty

"Blonde Beauty" by Brandy Larson 9/2014 There she was - the blonde squirrel, first I ever saw. Her extended family snack at the squirrel cafe in my backyard year round, next to the casual compost pile - some squash seeds, a pancake here, a few corn chips there and mound of black sunflower seeds. The favorite of birds the bag says, though birds rarely get a chance at this treat. This group are the usual greys, but most of them have blond ears. True, squirrels are just rats with bushy tails, as a friend said. Still, I love watching the little critters twitching their tails and chasing each other around. In the early spring, food I set out for them was uneaten. I mentioned this Karen, my back fence neighbor, who also noticed this and started looking around nearby backyards. She saw some poison bait had been put out and even went so far as to dye some rice blue and sneak into that backyard to replace the toxic stuff - but it was too late. I asked who was it, but she wouldn't say. Karen called the city and found out that it isn't illegal to poison squirrels in Madison, though Wisconsin has laws with big fines and jail time for animal cruelty. This is not cruelty? What a terrible way to die. I felt sad and bad for several days, missing my furry friends, but soon another squirrel drifted into the newly opened territory and a new squirrel set was running up and down the trees, fences and across garage tops, finding the snacks I'd set out and filling the niche of this microcosm on the Isthmus. But until when? True, the world is full of tragic violence of huge consequence. Maybe concern for these little critters is small potatoes. But not to me. Maybe I can make a sign for my own front yard that says, Honor the Squirrels, Don't Poison Them. Meanwhile, I wonder how long it will take for nature to surprise me some morning with another blonde beauty?

Friday, April 25, 2014

The Narghile Bar (Istanbul)

> The Narghile Bar > > The wind pushed down the dark, fast moving Bosporus, its current dancing with reflected lights, penetrating everything with dampness. It was December and we'd taken the Metro to Tophane, with 15 narghile (hooka) bars, all in row. > > The bars looked inviting from afar, golden light spilling out into the night, their big banks of windows steaming up. The cultural tradition of narghile smoking was re-embraced in the 90's. Before that the bars were the domain of the old-school Turks, enjoying a tradition dating back to Old Persia, probably before the 1600's. Now they are filled with people of all ages. Though called bars, no alcohol is ever served. > > I hadn't seen Aydin in 4 years. He looked very cheerful & rosy, his high color aided by the chilly night. Sitting in a low booth across from each other over a small coffee table, the waiter arrived and we chose our tobacco flavor, cappuccino for something new. At the tall counter to the side the ates(h)cuk - fire guy - stoked his brazier preparing coals. Next to him were long rows of the 3 foot tall, rainbow colored glass pipes and the snake-like hoses that carry the smoke from bowl to mouth piece, hanging long and limp from wooden pegs. > > Ayden was handsome as ever with his elongated Modigliani face, hazel eyes, perfect Turkish bird-wing eyebrows and aquiline nose. My Turkish had not improved since I'd been out of the country. His English had - somewhat - more foreign girlfriends, no doubt. We worked at our conversation using the translating dictionary and our old-faithful system sketching out some of our nouns and verbs, faster and a lot more fun. We also used a kind of sign language we'd invented for ourselves. My brain was working overtime to recall any of the 3 (out of a dozen or so) verb forms I knew. > > Another server had come for our drink order. We started with tea that arrived on a big tray full of small, steaming tulip glasses. Our pipe soon arrived with milk in the bottom instead of water and was set on the floor. The atescuk made a bee-line with his sleeve of coals, picking out several with a flourish and laying them neatly on top of the tobacco. The head waiter had a silver mouth piece and offered assistance, puffing mightily to get the pipe started and blowing out a dragon-like cloud of smoke. We all laughed. Ayden entertained me with his usual mime-like expressions and gestures, covering his undercurrent of huzun, classic Turkish melancholy. That's Islam, they're all fatalist, it's "written in the book." We passed the pipe hose back an forth, puffing contentedly and lighting an occasional cigarette for variety. The fire guy came around to refresh our coals. > > Next I ordered a Turkish coffee, orta (medium sugar). It doesn't take too long to drink the tiny cup (making sure you sip daintily so the sludge on the bottom doesn't end up in your mouth). Then I tipped the cup upside down on the saucer and placed a coin on the bottom to absorb any remaining heat. After a few minutes I rotated cup to the left three times and turned it over. Although it was my cup I offered to read the coffee grounds for Ayden. Nothing too decipherable there, tho I must have come up with a couple of predictions. > > > It takes about an hour to smoke a narghile. We called for the check - hetsap. I offered to pay, but WHAT?! The cappuccino pipe was more pricey than I expected. We bundled up and walked out into the frosty air hand in hand. It wasn't until later I figured out they thought I was a tourist, so had charged me double. > > > > > > >

Friday, April 4, 2014

Miss Balbina, Treasure Beach, Jamaica

Shortly after I got in Billy's Bay, Treasure Beach Jamaica, Miss B, my proprietress, said her hair was making her scalp feel "scratchy," so she went next door to her son Jerry's and Gayon, her grand daughter shaved her head! She does this periodically. Her hair had been short and curly, fluffy and silver with some darker areas. It looked lovely. It took a little getting used to seeing her like this! B is 75 now and may have lost a little height, but still is tall. She uses a staff (fish trap stick) for moving around the yard. I got her a good knee brace a couple of years ago but I think it isn't very comfortable. She has that goat corral on the property next door. The goats come down in the early evening and she puts them in there for the night. The goats and kids belong to 3 different parties. I counted 11 adults, but there are probably more that aren't so regular in their habits. Many kids were being born while I was there. I LOVE them! And I love to see her walking up the slight incline in the morning when she lets them out and they form a line walking behind her as the come up the path to their day of freedom and foraging. I helped her doctor a couple of new kids, she still does the vet work and buys all the supplies herself with her limited funds. She moves around the yard sweeping up, hand washing in the yard, dragging wood up from Delephina's land next door for yard cooking and roasting coffee. Gone are the days when she would leave the yard with her machet, a towel and an length of rope. In those days she came back from the bush to the north with a huge bundle of firewood balanced on her head. My guess would be 40 pounds or more. Her out building, the wood fire kitchen is full of Jerry's fishing equipment, so she has a fire pit over by the fence. Andre got fish for us one night from the incoming fishermen and she prepared and fried them, then "cooked them down" on 3 stones in the pit. Delish! Andre, the Polish guest, found out when Uke's boat was coming in and he walked down to the sea after dark with - no light - to get some. He invited me to go down there with him, but it had just rained hard and the path was muddy. It was overcast, so no moon or stars. I said no thanks. He said there were NO lights down at the beach where the fish were being unloaded, sorted and weighed for sale. Not sure how they could weigh them in the dark. Maybe they just part out by size & by basket. Or perhaps they were weighing them a little later using headlights from the trucks that come down there to ice them down and ship them out. Back in the day B would rush down to the beach at dark when Jerry's boat came in and help unload the catch. She came back to the house energized and full of sea water! Slice of life -