The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art [SFMOMA] has responded to the pandemic in a variety of ways, none of which are likely to please its supporters. Furloughs announced in August of 2020 were understandable; the museum, like all arts institutions, had to close as Covid-related lockdowns spread. This followed the laying off of 131 on-call employees a few months earlier. Now that the end of the pandemic is possible, and the museum re-opened, you would expect them to gear up to rebuild and renew audience engagement – preparing to make a big splash, as it were.
However, as this report from the SF Chronicle shows, SFMOMA marches backward instead of ahead. The museum’s “Raw Material” podcast is to be re-imagined, transformed into an online and in-gallery program about current exhibitions. That in itself is lamentable, but not too bad. The museum’s “Open Space” online publication, which concentrates on interdisciplinary works by artists, is shutting down completely in the Fall.
Less understandable is the ending of the Modern Art Council, a volunteer group concerned with fundraising and social events, particularly the Contemporary Vision Awards dinner. I admit I know little about this group but, in the straitened economic climate of the pandemic, is ending a fundraising group a good idea? I thought money was the root of the museum’s problems. If the Council needs new blood, or changes to its operations, fine, but closing it completely reduces opportunities for museum supporters to get involved.
Worst of all are the long-running programs that are ending solely for economic reasons. The Artist’s Gallery at Fort Mason Center has been around since 1946, and has connected businesses, individuals, and Northern California artists through sales, rentals, and loans, the kind of synergy the corporate world would fetishize decades later. The Gallery will close at the end of the year, probably to catch potential Christmas shoppers before they pull the plug. How exactly does this closure benefit the museum, which exists to serve its audience?
SFMOMA’s film program began in 1937, only two years after MoMA in New York City began its ground-breaking program. It is scheduled to close at the end of Fall 2021. Inexplicable. That’s all I can say.
SFMoMA sent a statement to the Chronicle which included this sentence: “In order for SFMOMA to sustain a healthy institution for our community, we must shift our approach to make these goals more actionable and successful in today’s dramatically changed environment.” I have a few questions. Does this mean that new forms of these programs might arise, more actionable (?) forms, a la the “Raw Materials” podcast? If so, why shut down the old ones with no successor ready for public scrutiny?
Let me reassert a truth about museums that museums often hide: attendance does not drive income. Donors contribute the most, and, as news reports have shown, many wealthy people and corporations actually got richer during the pandemic. I went to SFMOMA’s website to look up their financial reports, although 2020s figures might not be available yet, but all I found was the Annual Report for the 2013 and 2014 fiscal years. It’s been a while since I worked at a museum, but back in my day museums were required to make their reports publicly available. Because of the unique conditions of the pandemic, every datum should be marked with a great big *, and not be considered as a foretaste of the future.
Museums are charitable, educational institutions, and transparency is crucial. These cutbacks will result in seven jobs lost – minor in the museum’s big picture – but the loss to its supporters is far greater. A museum’s core duty is to the community; it is not a profit-making enterprise. SFMOMA ought, but isn’t likely, to show what efforts it made to boost contributions from its donors and what efforts were made to save these programs.
UPDATE: A petition has been started on change.org asking SFMOMA to reconsider. You can sign it here.
Something in me has been drawn to musical improvisation recently. Perhaps it’s the pandemic, the vicarious thrill of hearing people in close proximity sharing their thoughts and skills. Perhaps it’s fatigue from too many programmed, pre-determined pop songs. Just cut loose already!
A few months ago I listened through the entire discography of King Crimson, the important yet under appreciated progressive rock group. They frequently built up songs from improvisations, aided and abetted by their prodigious technical skills. Having run through their works (favorite albums: their debut, In the Court of the Crimson King , of course; Red, , and Beat ) I began to search around for something with its roots in improvisation, yet not just more prog.
Then I saw the announcement of a new album by Rising Appalachia, the hard-to-describe group consisting of sisters Chloe Smith and Leah Song, with several other musicians in support. Just as King Crimson is always Robert Fripp, the sisters are Rising Appalachia, regardless of whoever else plays with them. (And yes, until recently I had never considered these two groups analogous, though both like to draw from a variety of musical styles to create their distinctive sounds. Should I call Rising Appalachia “progressive folk”?)
Their album, entitled The Lost Mystique of being in the Know, is an outburst of energy prompted by the hoped-for dwindling of the pandemic. Reunited after a long stretch of enforced separation – here, in their words: ‘We went into the studio during covid after not seeing one another for 10 months and just “pressed record”.’ It’s a peaceful, loving reunion, joyful in the thrill of collaboration. No one hogs the spotlight; no one seems left out. I always believe that the best records are those you can listen to again and again, concentrating on a different band member each time, and not get bored. A lot of pop music, pretty as it is, does not reward close listening. Rising Appalachia does.
Chloe and Leah are in good form vocally, especially Leah, whose voice in recent years has sometimes shown a little roughness, the toll of touring. The fiddle work, from fiddler/bassist Duncan Wickel (and perhaps the sisters also) brought the comparisons to King Crimson into my head: the fiddle work on Tempest and Clay sounds unworldly, and the fiddle hovering in the background at the start of Lost Girl reminded me of the mellotron so often used by King Crimson. The Appalachian folk influence, combined with bits of jazz and hip-hop, are always as part of their musical melange, but here they seem to reach beyond those, comfortably and effectively. The Celtic melody of Catalyst, the African influence of newest band member Arouna Diarra on Ngoni (which is not just the song title, but the name of the instrument Diarra plays), the mixture of soul and jazz on Top Shelf – whose idea was it to play the fiddle through a Leslie speaker (or an effects box to mimic a Leslie)? – all combine to make an album that is not a reflection of our lockdown past or present, but more an introduction to the good days to come. I should also mention multi-instrumentalist David Brown and percussionist Biko Casini, whose contributions support and enliven the mix.
To continue the prog comparisons for a moment, we come to the final song, Depth, which runs over 9 minutes without seeming overlong, their epic for the album and contains another signature Rising Appalachia element, a rap by Leah Song. As the last notes pass, we are left savoring the sounds of some other place, a world outside our temporary confinement, a place that sounds like home – the home few of us have, but many wish for, where music is not boxed into categories, but all mingle and play together. Most of us imagine this place to be imaginary, but the evidence is plain: Rising Appalachia have been there.
The title of this post is a quote from John Updike, but it seems particularly relevant when reading the works of Robert Walser (1878-1956), for Walser’s writing is intimately concerned with little moments, often trivial and seemingly banal. I almost wrote inconsequential, but Walser takes these little observations and incidents and ruminates on them as few other writers have. I have written about Walser before here.
Which brings me to A Little Ramble: In the Spirit of Robert Walser (New Directions books), a book inspired by a series of Welser-inspired exhibitions at Donald Young Gallery, Chicago, in 2011-12. Produced at the very end of Young’s life, the book serves as a tribute to him as well. In the book, artists are paired with newly translated pieces, or excerpts of same, by Walser. As you can imagine, such a book deals with minute observations, facets of that great pile of littleness. Exhibition catalogs are so often fixated on documentation and pedagogy that it is often to the smaller shows, the ones without parochial intent, that gems appear. Walser, as the unwitting primary contributor, sets the tone and provides the best work. “A picture is worth a thousand words” is an imperfect aphorism, and A Little Ramble shows how each has its place in the sun.
Fortunately, some contributors are switch-hitters, such as Moyra Davey‘s photographs from her Subway Riders series accompanied by her essay RW JG, which links Walser and Jean Genet , or Tacita Dean‘s essay Sluggardizing, paired with art Dean found at a flea market.
A Little Ramble is a continuation of the exhibitions, a coda which endures long after the shows, and indeed the gallery itself, have ceased to exist. It is a reminder that details have meaning – any still life artist could tell you that, and the best show you without telling – and every moment is precious.
I’ve been working a lot, and using that as an excuse to avoid blogging. There is little good news – I did get my first vaccine shot recently, with the second scheduled for late April, so yay for that – and I don’t want to dive yet again into the museum world’s poisonous dalliance with monetization. To summarize: deaccessioning is when works are sold out of a museum collection and the revenue used to buy more art, an established practice; monetization is when works are sold and the money used for non art-related purposes, a harmful practice. This is why the most important monetary gift you can give is an unrestricted one. If they need money to keep the lights on and pay the staff, your dollars will be put to good use. Don’t force (though too often it is not force, but poor management that leads down this path) the museum to sell art to keep the lights on!
But enough of that. Today I’m going to tell you a brief story. I keep thinking of it over these pandemic months, as it takes place amid crowds and the world that used to be. First, a drawing to set the scene, the New York City subway.
I was on the subway, bound for Penn Station after a day browsing in museums, a good day years ago. The train was not crowded, but reasonably full. Near me was a heavyset man in dirty blue jeans and a plaid shirt, his posture slightly sagging, his face tired; a working man heading home after a full day. There was a kid in his late teens or early twenties, in a black leather jacket, slim and tattooed. I was blandly dressed in khakis and some sort of shirt; my fashion sense was minimal in those days.
Nearby stood a black woman and her daughter, the latter being about five or six years old, at a guess. The little girl was talking to anyone who would listen. She wanted everyone to see how clean her teeth were, as they had been professionally cleaned for the very first time. She explained that she had a doctor just for her teeth, and his name was Doctor Dentist.
The surrounding cast of tired, otherwise occupied New Yorkers were beaming at her, because she was so adorable -and her teeth were brilliantly white and clean. Her mother kept a hand on her shoulder, trying not to laugh. It was a fleeting, trivial moment, but when I think of New York I remember her smile and her pride at her newly cleaned teeth. I wonder who Doctor Dentist really was, and still hold out hope that that was his real name. My mother knew a clergyman whose last name was Priest; stranger things have happened. Nothing important or momentous happened on that subway ride, but now that crowds are dangerous and I have not been in NYC in ages, it keeps coming back to me.
A little Easter morning blessing to that little girl, who might be a teenager by now – I forget how many years it has been – and hope she continues to make strangers smile.
Since this is an art blog, a little more subway art for you:
In a loose-minded, silly mood tonight, having just coined one or two words (later I will look them up and see if either of them is real) and eager to share them with you. Therefore, I announce, a nontest.
And what is that?
Simply, a nontest is a contest without a winner. I don’t mean a tie; I mean a contest which is never concluded, judged, rated, or in any way changed past the initial question. Whether answers come in or not is irrelevant. No expiration date exists. It is a perpetual motion machine that produces nothing.
If it produces nothing, why do it?
Although it produces nothing, by participating in the nontest you might produce something yourself. A train of thought may emerge, decisions made. These will have no effect on the nontest, but you have been warned to expect nothing.
So – to the nontest itself:
Along with nontest, which now has a definition, I coined a word with no definition: snither. This nontest seeks to find a definition for snither, be it noun, verb, or what-have-you. Are you snithering now, and if so, is that good or bad? Are you snithered? I someone/thing snithering you? Have you misplaced your snither, and is that it beneath the credenza?
I intend to edit any comments with extreme prejudice: tell me how you would define snither, but don’t tell me which other definitions you like best. This is a nontest, not a beauty pageant.
Prophets often lead lopsided lives. Their pronouncements, whether predictive or admonitory, are pored over endlessly, but the person behind the words is often in shadow or reduced to a caricature over time. What did Isaiah have for breakfast, and who (if any) did he sleep with? And what does it mean when that prophet turns out to be an ordinary person?
Sol LeWitt (1928-2007) was the foremost prophet of conceptual art (he preferred the small “c”), which provided an intellectual, often cooly detached riposte to Abstract Expressionism’s grandly emotional gestures. LeWitt transformed the idea of the mural with his multitudinous wall drawings, his best-known and most multitudinous works. “I think the cavemen came first, (p. xiv)” was his response when he was given too much credit for drawing on a wall instead of paper or canvas. That diffidence, and wry accuracy, was typical of him. His “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art” (1967) and “Sentences on Conceptual Art” (1969) are holy writ to many artists. He stands as one of the artist-prophets of the second half of the twentieth century, a designation that rightly would have made him uncomfortable. To his mind, if I may paraphrase Douglas Adams’ The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “Sol’s just this guy, you know?”
(Full disclosure: I was part of the crew who executed Wall Drawing #1131: Whirls & Twirls at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford CT during the Summer of 2004. I met Sol on less than a handful of occasions, and always too briefly. My account of executing the wall drawing can be found in Art in America magazine or October 2005.)
Since his death, questions of legacy arise. Instead taking the vanity route and endowing a LeWitt museum (I’m looking at you, Clyfford Still) he chose to house a huge selection of wall drawings at Mass MoCA, giving that youthful institution a boost in attendance and a signature installation that will last, at least, until 2033. His career is dotted with other such generous instances. His rivalries and jealousies he kept to himself.
Lary Bloom (yes, Lary with one R), author, playwright, and longtime newspaper columnist/editor for The Hartford Courant, not to mention a friend of Sol LeWitt and his second wife, Carol, undertook to raise the curtain on LeWitt’s life in toto, a counterbalance to the many college theses and art books on LeWitt’s professional life. Sol LeWitt: A Life of Ideas is the result, and one I have returned to several times in my (admittedly biased) artistic studies. In my journal I wrote that LeWitt was “…as his reputation describes, soft-spoken, self-effacing, unassuming – what in less famous people is called shy.” That, now that I have read Bloom’s book, was not quite accurate. LeWitt did not seek or have any interest in the machinations of fame, or the hoops that must be jumped through to reach them. His closest analogue might be former New Yorker editor William Shawn, whose reticence and broad influence are similar. (Not everyone can be Anna Wintour or Jeff Koons – or wants to be.) Like Shawn, LeWitt was generous but firm in his convictions, and both men found the glare of publicity to be distasteful. Shawn’s private life was commemorated by New Yorker stalwart (and Shawn’s longtime lover) Lillian Ross in Here But Not Here (1998); Bloom’s approach is as repertorial as Ross’s, but covers more territory, and from a less intimate viewpoint.
Like a teenager flipping through a novel to see if there are any sex scenes, readers might want to seek out the seamy underbelly associated with the bohemian lifestyle. Everyone has a dark side, but LeWitt’s was as thin as an ink wash, and will disappoint the prurient sensation-seeker. Bloom makes a conscientious effort to avoid hagiography, but it’s an uphill struggle; fortunately, his personal relationship with the artist keeps idolatry at bay. LeWitt was no saint, but he was far saintlier than any of his contemporaries, lacking any addictions, bigotries, or dark events in his life. Perhaps he was a little too serious (“Sol doesn’t do fun,” Carol said. (p.xii)) but he never strayed into pedantry or art-babble, and his vices were minimal almost to the point of being uninteresting. If he had one flaw, it was his tendency to date women in their 20s after he had left his 20s behind; age difference was a recurring bugbear in his love life. I have not counted, but the low-key, visually un-spectacular LeWitt seems to have been quite the ladies man, which comes as the biggest surprise of the book. None of the women he dated left with hard feelings; the closest was a comment from a woman named Karen Gunderson, whom LeWitt left for someone else: “How could you be critical? It was the ‘70s, after all.” (p.190)
LeWitt the writer is almost as admired as LeWitt the artist, and quotes are scattered throughout the book. I have long savored one of LeWitt’s comments in response to accusations that he had stolen his best ideas from European artists: “Those who understand art only by what it looks like often do not understand very much at all. (p. 280)” Bloom wisely avoids the internecine questions around Conceptualism – is it an outgrowth of Minimalism, a companion movement, or its own thing? – which can be better debated by theorists and critics.
LeWitt’s relationship with artist Eva Hesse, immortalized by the letter he wrote her in 1965 and the many reprinting and readings of it, was more complex than some of his amours. Her reputation as an artist has risen slowly but steadily since she died of cancer in 1970 at age 34. Her relationship to him was much in the mentor-student mold, almost a father figure; his feelings for her ran deeper, though the difference in their ages worked against him yet again. His letter, urging to her “…just DO” has been enshrined among the best motivational letters of its era. You can find readings of it online (such as Benedict Cumberbatch reading it here), plus essays and even hear it set to music. Bloom made the admirable decision to include the entirety of LeWitt’s famous letter, not just the first, eminently quotable, half.
The scene moves from growing up in Connecticut (including an adolescent bit of proto-punk poetry damning his hometown of New Britain) to New York City, to Italy, and back to Connecticut. Weep for the accounts of living in New York in those days ($45 a month for his apartment in Hester Street in1961, equivalent to $387 today). Bloom’s newspaper experience allows him to move briskly through elements that must be noted but bear little to no impact on the story, such as LeWitt’s very brief first marriage. He does not delve deeply into the art historical/philosophical roots of Conceptualism, as that has been covered in depth many other places by more knowledgeable hands. Carl Andre’s reference to LeWitt as “our Spinoza” captures LeWitt’s philosophical impact, though LeWitt, unlike Spinoza, was spared the censure of his peers. Andre’s own scandal – he was accused and acquitted of murdering his wife, artist Ana Mendieta, a case that still divides the art world – is dealt with efficiently, without judgement or dilation. Bloom keeps his focus on LeWitt, bringing the book in at a readable 303 pages, plus notes and bibliography.
Conceptual art was born out of wedlock, a free child of the 1960s, parented by various artists across Europe and the United States. “In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art (Paragraphs on Conceptual Art, Artforum magazine)” neatly sums up some conceptual practices, and LeWitt’s specifically.
One episode did leave me wanting more. In 1970, LeWitt was assembling a show and catalogue at the Gemeentemuseum in the Hague, a show that carried special poignancy, as he was working on it when Eva Hesse died. His instructions to curator Enno Develing “I know a lot of people dislike my work and they should have some say in the catalogue. If there are any other unfavorable reviews you know about and want to use it’s okay with me.” (p. 156). Without having seen the book, I cannot say whether or to what extent Develing obliged LeWitt; Bloom does not inform us. Who includes negative opinions in an exhibition catalog? Certainly Mass MoCA, in their companion book to the LeWitt retrospective. Sol LeWitt: 100 Views (2009), did not, despite including notes, tributes, and anecdotes from a wide variety of artists, curators, and critics.
The book’s chief frustration is visual rather than verbal. The necessary and obligatory center section of illustrations show mature works, but none of the rarities and juvenilia that might have expanded on the text. You can buy any number of books that cover his works: his structures (he preferred that term over “sculptures”) and his wall drawings, from the black-and-white ones that began and ended his career, to the explosively bold color of his mature years. (Here I question myself: the wall drawings seemed to burst forth in full ripeness, with none of the tentative qualities many other artists have when exploring a new idea. The early wall drawings are understated, but not immature.) Bloom refers many times to small works made as gifts, sketches made off-the-cuff and the like, but we do not get to see them. LeWitt’s art holds such joy and engages the mind so completely that I crave more, especially the rarities, but I understand the need for concision.
LeWitt’s ideas have a life of their own, and continue to be passed on to successive generations. Should you wish to learn about the man, this is the book to start with, and will likely stand as definitive for some time. Bloom has found a near-perfect subject: nothing to repel, no feet of clay to ruin the admirer’s notions, and access to friends and family sufficient to be comprehensive. While the prose does not enthrall, as Rebecca Solnit’s “River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West” (2003) or delve as deep into artistic philosophy as Lawrence Weschler’s book on Robert Irwin, “Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees” (1982), Sol LeWitt: A Life of Ideas stands on its own as a worthy biography and a worthwhile read.
Sol LeWitt: A Life of Ideas (2019) by Lary Bloom, is published by Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT
The departure of Charles Venable, formerly Director and CEO of the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields, was an unexpected surprise, and a welcome one. I had been planning a post on how Venable’s mismanagement of the museum merited his dismissal, but he himself resigned (willingly or not we will likely never know), intending to add to my “Stupid Museum Tricks” posts, when word came down. Even more surprisingly, the Board of Trustees and Governors of Newfields issued a public apology (below), a truly rare occurrence:
The final straw, ironically, came about because Venable was about to be moved into a new position, and included, well, read for yourself… this is from the job listing for Director:
This is a blunder right from the start. Racism in museums, whether in staffing, programming, all across the board, is one of the primary challenges to the field. This listing, though seeking to broaden the museum’s audience, also makes it clear that the “traditional, core, white art audience” is its own thing, separate from the community as a whole. It’s a poor choice of language, and one that the executive search firm working with Newfields, m/Oppenheim, ought to have flagged immediately; the posting was revised, but too late. It was one straw too many, and the arts community rose in outrage.
Keep in mind that many of the other straws were just as bad, and Venable himself is only part of the problem. Staff turnover under Venable’s leadership has been extensive and damaging to the museum’s reputation, with former Associate Curator of American Art Kelli Morgan writing to Venable about the “toxic” work environment, and citing a “racist rant” from a member of the Board. Venable became Director in 2012, and his tenure has not been viewed positively in the museum world. Eliminating free admission in 2015 led to charges that portions of the community were being overlooked in favor of the wealthy. In 2017 the institution as a whole was renamed Newfields, as the museum also includes gardens, a park, and two historic houses, but this was seen as diminishing the museums central role. With some educationally light programming, and little to no emphasis on the museum’s holdings, Newfields seemed headed in the wrong direction. Venable is, I hope, not a token sacrifice: the Board has promised improvements, and they should be held to that. Since a new Director was already in the museum’s future, the time is now, doubly so since the reopening of the country following the pandemic will add extra importance to how museum’s re-engage the public.
It is time for a more open and transparent attitude at Newfields: sometimes the openness is physical (Venable had the gardens enclosed), economic (work to re-establish free admission; it is a long-standing myth that admissions bring a significant portion of a museum’s revenue), and internal (transparency in salary, anti-racism training, and programming that keeps the museum’s collection front-and-center). It’s a troubled institution, but there is great potential as well. I hope some talented executive gets the job, and gets the healing and repair started promptly.
ADDENDUM: This essay on Artnet, written by former Indianapolis Museum of Art Director Maxwell Anderson, spells out many of the problems at that troubled institution.
Startling Stories was a classic pulp science fiction magazine, published from 1939 to 1955, filled with scantily clad damsels being menaced by bug-eyed monsters or deadly robots while square-jawed heroes fought to rescue them – not always as broad as that, but always fun. Along with its sister SF magazines, Thrilling Wonder Stories. Captain Future magazine and, in later years, Fantastic Story magazine, it entertained readers such as my father, who was a regular reader in the first half of the 1940s.
A revival of Startling Stories in 2007 did not last, and now another attempt, by Wildside Press, has debuted. Why am I blogging about it? Well, because I have a story in the premiere issue. You can check out Wildside’s listing – it’s also on Amazon. A small image of the cover is below.
I had planned to entitle this “Stupid Museum Tricks Redux” but picked a more visceral word instead, as this recurrence is always accompanied by a sickly feeling in the stomach. Oh, not this again…
Once again museums are looking to “monetize” – an ugly word if ever there was one – their collections in order to deal with debt. The Covid-19 pandemic is an unusual event, but museums are responding to the pandemic’s stresses in familiar, disheartening ways. I recommend you start with Andrew Russeth’s article on Artnews, which covers the sad situation and some of its precedents.
This time it is the Met, flagship art museum of the United States (I think that’s not hyperbole) that is considering deaccessioning works to deal with a $150 million deficit. As soon as word got out – they are only considering deaccessions at this point – criticism began. Writer and podcaster Tyler Green began a petition, which I urge you to sign. Former Met Director Tom Campbell sounded a warning. Now it’s my turn to echo their concerns.
What is the point of having millionaires, and even billionaires, as Trustees to a museum if they do not understand that their role is primarily financial? Deficits are their problem, for they hold the collections in trust. Any museum Director or curator who has to look at their collection as though they were a rancher forced to cull the herd has been betrayed by their leadership. The Met has a large board, 36 members by a very quick count, plus 20 Honorary Trustees, and 33 Trustee Emeriti – about 90 people in all. Do they not have sufficient money/connections to make up this deficit? And let’s bring in the ex-officio Trustees while we’re at it. They could contribute expertise and connections, even if money is not always their role.
I’ve been singularly fortunate during the past year. I know people who have lost loved ones to Covid, but no one close to me has died. This charmed life, not without its elements of privilege, might make me a bit jaded, but no. Out of all this, we must preserve those things we want to have on the other side, when at last the contagion is gone and life restarts. Museums selling art in order to buy art in order to diversify their collections is something that will have to be argued on a case-by-case basis. This, selling where sales cannot be justified, is something else entirely.
We will have to wait and see what the Met’s Board decides and which, if any, works end up on the auction block.
I recently treated myself to a book, Hiroshige: One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, one of Taschen’s beautifully printed and bound art books. These outstanding prints, made between 1856-58, are not only beautiful, they show us a world that no longer exists. Buildings have been replaced, the landscape worked by successive generations; even the name has changed, from Edo to Tokyo. Hiroshige was showing the world he lived in, but now he shows us a lost land. I’m not being nostalgic – how can one be nostalgic for a place he has never been? – but I got to thinking about seeing old landscapes with modern eyes. In fact, there is no other way to see them.
Inspired by the book, my imagination made the logical leap: if this is no longer a real place, it is then a fantasy. His understanding of the landscape, his renderings, are the only “real” depictions but, as art, they are not real. As I’ve written before, realism is not reality.
Edo/Tokyo was and is a major city, but my mind went out into the countryside of pre-industrial Japan, and further into fantasy, to Yuki Urushibara’s manga series, Mushishi, and the anime series adapted from the manga. In Mushishi the land is imbued with magic and magical beings – mushi – which are only visible to some. It’s not a big step from Hiroshige’s bucolic (to our eyes) cityscapes to the forests and farmland of Mushishi. Just add a little magic – a little more magic, since time already imbues the past with additional meaning. The magic of bygone places comes from us.
Artists have long added meaning to landscapes, commenting, telling stories, or just setting mood through the trees and hills. Giorgio de Chirico and the Surrealists took the components of a city and made dreams out of them.
This post relates back to my older post on Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (my post here). Every place becomes imaginary. L. P. Hartley’s “The past is a foreign country…,” the opening line of his 1953 book, The Go-Between, has endured because we know it to be true. Realism becomes fantasy with time. I suppose I could just have put up the images with Hartley’s quote and left it at that – but this wouldn’t be much of a blog then, would it?