If you’ve never heard Nina Simone’s version of George Harrison’s song “Isn’t it a Pity,” I can’t think of a more fitting day to do so. While Harrison wrote the song about the pain caused by broken relationships, Simone takes it to a whole new level. Small changes in the lyrics and the way she uses her incredibly heart-breaking voice to wring out every emotive nuance turns the song into something much larger than what it had been before. It’s about when societies break down, when our humanity tears apart, when we forget about who we are or could be, when we fail to see all the beauty around us, including inside us.
Joe Taysom wrote the following in Far OutMagazine about how Simone transformed Harrison’s song:
“[Simone’s] voice is one of the most incredible sounds that has ever graced the earth so when you mix it with George Harrison’s mercurial songwriting then you’ve got an emphatic mix and her cover of the former Beatles guitarist’s track ‘Isn’t It A Pity’ is a true delight. . . . . [Her]11-minute cover feels more like theatre than it does music as her voice takes the listener on a rollercoaster of emotions where she makes every word that came from Harrison’s pen years previously come to life. It was this ability to express another’s emotion which elevated Simone to legendary status and it shines on this effort.”
The song meshes so well with Martin Luther King’s messages of love:
“At the center of non-violence stands the principle of love.”
“Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.”
“Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into friend.”
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.”
Simone’s version is long, 11 minutes, but I hope you will listen all the way to the end. I think you’ll be glad you did.
I knew nothing of Alice Neel or her artwork until I came across a retrospective of her at the MET in my newsfeed. It’s not the kind of art I’m usually drawn to and yet it struck me full in the face. I could not look away. It was those faces looking back at me, steely-eyed, or curious, defiant, indifferent—each face imposing in its own way. Each strong and vulnerable at the same time. All their frailties exposed as well as the undeniable beauty of their imperfections. And even more so, what impresses is the precise and utter uniqueness of their individual humanity.
“For me, people come first. I have tried to assert the dignity and eternal importance of the human being.’’
So writes Alice Neel of her artwork, and that’s what I saw there—the dignity and the eternal importance–of each person in those portraits. That’s what she revealed.
Raw, caustic, gritty. All the nicety, sentimentality, and usual clichés stripped away. Leaving the viewer, this one at least, feeling raw, exposed, vulnerable herself. Stripped down to that one commonality that unites us—-our fatal flaws and the dignity by which we bear them. We see this in all her paintings.
We see it in the careless and somber curiosity of the two restless girls gazing at the artist intent upon capturing their likeness. How can you look away from those eyes? Or the ones in the next portrait.
This distended body of the pregnant woman whose “deer-in-the-headlights” face reveals all the expectant wonder and uncertainty of what lies before her.
The close-eyed submission on the face of the proud artist Andy Warhol as he allows the indignities of an abused body to be revealed.
The dark brevity of a young Vietnam draftee who expresses the resignation and uncertainty of a future that is left sketched so lightly before him.
The weary warmth and love of the breast-feeding mother, and the helplessness and hunger of the child who so desperately depends upon her.
The somber “back at ya” gaze of the nude man in all his hairy splendor, completely vulnerable to the female gaze in a role reversal.
Then there’s the last self-portrait of Neel herself toward the end of her long career, gazing away into the distance with a kind of calm resignation or disregard, while the bulk of the portrait is filled with the lines and planes of a full, well-used, aging body. What we leave behind. What was dear to us and others. What will be no more.
But for now here she is, her body open and on display in all its imperfect glory. She dares us to look away from our own mortality. But also invites us to see the “dignity and eternal importance” of each and every one of us.
Story-telling is in our bones. It rises through us like sap through roots and leaves into the air. It began when galaxies spun star-dust into the atoms that spin still through our bodies, reminding us that the stories of our births go back eons and stretch far away into a future we are spinning still.
The poem below by Lisel Mueller says it all, and inspired this post.
Why We Tell Stories
I Because we used to have leaves and on damp days our muscles feel a tug, painful now, from when roots pulled us into the ground
and because our children believe they can fly, an instinct retained from when the bones in our arms were shaped like zithers and broke neatly under their feathers
and because before we had lungs we knew how far it was to the bottom as we floated open-eyed like painted scarves through the scenery of dreams, and because we awakened
and learned to speak
2 We sat by the fire in our caves, and because we were poor, we made up a tale about a treasure mountain that would open only for us
and because we were always defeated, we invented impossible riddles only we could solve, monsters only we could kill, women who could love no one else and because we had survived sisters and brothers, daughters and sons, we discovered bones that rose from the dark earth and sang as white birds in the trees
3 Because the story of our life becomes our life
Because each of us tells the same story but tells it differently
and none of us tells it the same way twice
Because grandmothers looking like spiders want to enchant the children and grandfathers need to convince us what happened happened because of them
and though we listen only haphazardly, with one ear, we will begin our story with the word and …
Lisel Mueller, Alive Together: New and Selected Poems. (LSU Press October 1, 1996)
The single-most, salient symbol of Christmas, for me, is a shining star in the night sky.
It’s what wakened the shepherds and fell them to their knees, what mesmerized the Magi and led them across a wild desert with precious gifts in hand. It’s what shone above a humble dwelling, revealing a holy trinity–mother, father, child. It’s what revealed the Christ, a promise of hope, salvation, peace on earth, and goodwill toward all.
It’s what leads us each year away from our mundane, daily lives to a world full of wonder, magic, and mystery. It’s what drops us to our knees in recognition of the vastness and beauty of the universe, and our own humble and radiant place within it.
For me Christmas will forever be wrapped in the silence of a starry night, the background against which the beautiful pageantry and rituals and traditions of Christmas unfold.
All unite in igniting that sense of awe and wonder and delight, of humility and holiness:
The Christmas tree all aglow in the dark, pointing upward to the heavens.
The magical whimsy of that great gifter, Santa, driving his sleigh across a night full of stars.
The children tucked in their beds as their fondest wishes magically descend in the night to await the first light.
Whole streets full of houses ablaze in the night, inviting the gasps of wonder and delight in the young at heart.
Candles shining in a still, dark church as voices unite and rise in songs of joy and adoration.
All are mere reflections and whimsical mimicry of that first night of wonder so long ago. It’s what brought us, and still brings us, to our knees when we realize all that childlike wonder and delight, humility and awe, generosity and love and innocence, lies deeply embedded in each one of us.
It signifies a promise of hope, salvation, and wholeness. Of identity with out own Christ-like nature, our own unity with the divine.
We are that shining star in a dark night.
We are those humble shepherds and adoring Magi.
We are that infant cradled in the holy Trinity.
We are that promise of hope and salvation and holiness.
Christmas is the Christ, and a bright star in a dark night is what leads us to him, to our own humble rebirth full of awe and wonder: the recognition of the Christ in each of us.
May the peace and power and glory of the Christ be with you all this Christmas.
He’s considered by many the father of American modern art, and yet I’d never heard of him until visiting the New Bedford Whaling Museum this October. I was stunned and mesmerized by what I saw, and astonished I’d never seen his work before. The exhibit “A Wild Note of Longing” was aptly named. The wildness of his images, the sense of mystery and romance, evokes a kind of longing of the spirit, of the heart, for something that lies just beyond our reach.
”Have you ever seen an inch worm crawl up a leaf or twig,” Ryder once wrote, ”and then, clinging to the very end, revolve in the air, feeling for something to reach something? That’s like me. I am trying to find something out there beyond the place on which I have a footing.”
Apparently I’m not alone in that feeling of being struck by lightning when I first discovered Ryder’s paintings so unexpectedly (in a whaling museum!). The Flying Dutchman was the first painting I saw walking into the gallery. Since coming home I’ve being doing research and came across a lecture given by artist Bill Jensen on his first encounter with Ryder’s work: “[I] rounded a corner and discovered five small Ryder paintings salon hung. I felt as if I had been hit by lightning. I had never seen paintings that had such PRESENCE.”
‘I was struck by a LIGHT that seemed to burn from deep within them. I was struck by the painting’s intense DRAMA: their EMOTIONAL AND INTELLECTUAL GESTURING of every shape, every mark, every color to every shape, mark, and color; their weight of immense DENSITY and in the next instant their WEIGHTLESSNESS. They had a feeling that time had been COMPRESSED. They had that “SLAP IN THE FACE REALITY” that reveals powerful INVISIBLE FORCES in and around us. These paintings seem to be constructed of LIVING TISSUE.’ [Emphasis his. You can read the rest of his lecture notes here.]
Of course I’ve always been drawn to images of ships at sea, and that’s part of the appeal. There’s so much drama here, so much movement, you can almost hear the waves beating against the hull, the shrieking of the wind in the sails, feel your body hefted by the waves as you grasp at the rails, mesmerized by the beauty and the wildness of it all.
I wrote a poem once called Night Howl about being on a hurricane watch aboard La Gitana one night in Pago Pago, Samoa. These images remind me of that poem and that night, and so many other moonlit nights at sea.
I wrote in that blog post: “Human consciousness is the mirror through which the universe sees and knows itself, and through which we see and know ourselves—the fullness of being, our primal past and present standing face to face.” That’s what I see in Ryder’s paintings, but it’s not just the sea images that move me. It’s also his use of color and composition, the elemental shapes and striking contrasts, the way light seems to emerge out of the paintings, and the themes he choses, so many drawn from myth and legends.
Below are a few more favorites, including what is considered his masterpiece–Jonah.
Some say Ryder is a painter of dreams. But as Jensen says in his notes on Ryder: “This can be misleading unless one understands that dreams are reality condensed.” This is true of the myths and legends and Biblical stories that he uses as points of departure to reveal what lies below the surface of our common day experience—that “something more” we yearn for that lies so tantalizingly just beyond the reach of our fingertips.
Time-travelling—that’s what it feels like when listening to Erik Satie’s Gnossienne. When I close my eyes and let the music move me, I’m transported to faraway places and distant times. I can see the mist rising from the river, the arched bridges, the damp gray stones of gothic towers tilting toward sullen skies. I can feel the cool breath of the river, smell the sweet-dank dampness of rain-drenched streets, hear the clatter of distant hoofs on cobblestones. It’s almost as if I’ve entered some strangely familiar dreamscape, or the distant landscape of an idealized past.
These dark, insistent, melancholy notes play us and ply us across space and time in rapturous eloquence. It reminds us that we share so much of our common past, our common humanity, to the art and music and literature that inspires us.
I’m reminded of the short story “The Garden of Forking Paths” by Jorge Luis Borges, and this particular quote:
“This web of time – the strands of which approach one another, bifurcate, intersect or ignore each other through the centuries –embraces every possibility. We do not exist in most of them. In some you exist and not I, while in others I do, and you do not, and yet in others both of us exist. In this one, in which chance has favored me, you have come to my gate. In another, you, crossing the garden, have found me dead. In yet another, I say these very same words but am in error, a phantom Time is forever dividing itself toward innumerable futures. — Jorge Luis Borges, from “The Garden of Forking Paths,” Collected Fictions. (Penguin Books September 1, 1999) Originally published 1941.
And also, this from Rilke:
Even the past is still a being in the fullness of its occurrence, if only it is understood not according to its content but by means of its intensity, and we–members of a world that generates movement upon movement, force upon force, and seems to cascade inexorably into less and less visible things–we are forced to rely upon the past’s superior visibility if we want to gain an image of the now muted magnificence that still surrounds us today. — Rainer Maria Rilke, from “On Life and Living,” The Poet’s Guide to Life: The Wisdom of Rilke, ed. and trans. Ulrich Baer (Modern Library, 2005)
And finally, from a Nobel Prize winning physicist, this:
“This life of yours which you are living is not merely a piece of the entire existence, but is in a certain sense the whole; only this whole is not so constituted that it can be surveyed in one single glance. This, as we know, is what the Brahmins express in that sacred, mystic formula which is yet really so simple and so clear: Tat tvam asi, this is you. Or, again, in such words as ‘I am in the east and in the west, I am below and above, I am this whole world’.
Thus you can throw yourself flat on the ground, stretched out upon Mother Earth, with the certain conviction that you are one with her and she with you. You are as firmly established, as invulnerable as she, indeed a thousand times firmer and more invulnerable. As surely she will engulf you tomorrow, so surely will she bring you forth anew to new striving and suffering. And not merely ‘some day’: now, today, every day she is bringing you forth, not once but thousands upon thousands of times, just as every day she engulfs you a thousand times over. For eternally and always there is only now, one and the same now; the present is the only thing that has no end.” ― Erwin Schrödinger,
I went to see a rare collection of eight Titian paintings gathered from around the world. But the Venetian palace that Ms. Gardner built to display her artwork was as fascinating to explore as the Titian masterpieces. It was opened to the public in 1903, a labyrinth of magnificently appointed rooms rising four stories tall and built around a lush, enclosed, garden courtyard.
I was a little piqued at first because none of the painting on display included the names of the artists or paintings, or any information about them, as you usually find in museums. So you were flying blind, guessing whose painting is this, and where did that one come from. Is that amazing Spanish dancer a John Singer Sergeant? It is. And that lovely terrace by Matisse? Right again. But I missed the Rembrandt self-portrait and the Botticelli I got wrong. Some of my favorites turned out to be from artists I was unfamiliar with. Fortunately you can explore her art collection and her rooms on the website.
Still, it was a feast for the eye, not only the paintings but the elaborate furnishings and wall tapestries and carpets. Even murals on ceilings.
It created aa lush and exotic atmosphere in which to experience the artwork. And the way one room wound around another and led to little alcoves and long hallways, pretty soon you felt as disoriented in space as you were in time, and everywhere your gaze fell was some extraordinary painting or sculpture to arrest your attention.
The final room I viewed was where the Titians were collected and I spent quite a bit of time just allowing myself to absorb them. The title of the Collection is: Women, Myth, and Power. I may have more to say about these works later, but for now, here is what the Museum has to say:
“Between 1551 and 1562, Titian created a series of monumental paintings for King Philip II of Spain. Celebrated as landmarks of western painting, the six poesie — or painted poetries — envision epic stories from classical Antiquity. Titian reimagined these familiar tales and used his modern style of painting to shape the future of western art. For the first time in over four centuries, Isabella Stewart Gardner’s fully restored Rape of Europa is reunited with its five illustrious companions in the exhibition’s finale and its only American venue on an international tour including to the National Gallery, London and the Museo del Prado, Madrid. This exhibition explores each painting’s story, its drama, raw emotion, and complex consequences illustrated in each painting, reconsidering what the poesie meant in their own time and how they resonate now. Newly commissioned responses by contemporary artists and scholars engage with questions of gender, power, and sexual violence as relevant today as they were in the Renaissance.”
Adding to the mystery and allure of Ms. Gardner’s museum is the famous art heist that took place in 1990. Thirteen pieces worth $500 million were cut out of their frames by two men posing as police officers. None of the work has been recovered, including Rembrandt’s The Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633), his only only known seascape. The empty frames are still on display.
If you love art and are in Boston, don’t miss this treasure. It’s a feast for the senses.
In several of his films, Ingmar Bergman plays with the notion of multiple layers of reality. This can be seen as early as The Seventh Seal, and continues with Autumn Sonata, and Wild Strawberries, culminating in what was intended to be his final film, Franny and Alexander.
In some ways, Franny and Alexander is a tour de force. It speaks to us on so many levels. It can be seen, in part, as a family saga, a farce, a fairy tale, a theatrical play, a Gothic Romance, and a supernatural horror story. It is, in fact, all these things at once.
Yet each differing perspective can be seen as a different layer of reality, a different way of looking at the same material. Each appears as a separate backdrop against which the film can be seen, which, when lifted, offers a new view, a new level of perception, a new “reality.”
We can see this in the opening sequence. The first shot reveals a close-up of what appears to be an ornate building. As the camera moves down the building, we see a row of footlights and what now appears to be a stage. A series of painted backdrops are lifted to reveal new scenes. But it is only when the last backdrop is raised that we see a child’s face, huge, behind the scenes. This is when we realize that the stage is but a child’s theater and the row of footlights are candles. The camera seems to be inviting the viewer to see through these multiple layers of “reality,” perceptions of the real, to the final revelation, the child, or rather, the child’s imagination, as revealed through his dreamy gaze.
The film continues to pull back layer after layer of curtains to reveal the tenuous and shifting nature of reality.
In the final scene, the grandmother is reading from Strindburg’s “A Dream Play.” She reads: “Anything will occur. Anything is possible and likely. Time and space do not exist. On the tenuous ground of reality, imagination reaches out and weaves a new pattern.”
Reality is seen to be not singular, but as consisting of ever-deepening layers of reality, one on top of the other, in a richly dense and complex multiplicity.
I was reminded of this film when listening to one of Alan Watt’s talks that I wrote about in another post. And I wonder if the reason Bergman’s films resonate with so many people is that we sense a truth here. We see this perspective not only in film and art, about the mystery of things, these shifting perspectives and “layers of reality,” but we see it in science, how beneath these seemingly solid bodies lies unseen, shifting worlds that swirl and collide and contradict each other.
I question often what is real and not-real, and wonder if it’s more complex than that. Perhaps it’s not a case of what’s real or not, of one or the other, but shifting perceptions of what’s real, some dark, some light, that weave together a reality that is deeper and more complex than our superficial lives allow us to see.
POSTSCRIPT: In searching for photos for this post, I happened upon Roger Ebert’s review of the film, which also, surprisingly (or maybe not so), refers to the film as having “shifted into a different kind of reality.” I’ve added an excerpt of his review here:
“There are fairy-tale elements here, but “Fanny and Alexander” is above all the story of what Alexander understands is really happening. If magic is real, if ghosts can walk, so be it. Bergman has often allowed the supernatural into his films. In another sense, the events in “Fanny and Alexander” may be seen through the prism of the children’s memories, so that half-understood and half-forgotten events have been reconstructed into a new fable that explains their lives.
What’s certain is that Bergman somehow glides beyond the mere telling of his story into a kind of hypnotic series of events that have the clarity and fascination of dreams. Rarely have I felt so strongly during a movie that my mind had been shifted into a different kind of reality. The scenes at night in the Jacobi house are as intriguing and mysterious as any I have seen, quiet and dreamy, and then disturbing when the mad Ismael calmly and sweetly shows Alexander how everything will be resolved.”
What do you think? Have you seen any of Bergman’s films? Do you think there’s more to us, or reality, than what we experience in the everyday?
I first posted this, in slightly different form, in 2014.
I spent Sunday morning in bed with my coffee listening to Chopin’s complete nocturnes playing on my phone beside me. Think of that. Music created centuries ago played by a pianist years ago streaming in my room, my consciousness, here and now.
Each keystroke playing me as if I was the instrument it played. As if the music arising in the room with no piano in sight were fingers keying notes within the body of some vast collective consciousness.
Aside from the way the notes rippled through me, thrilling and caressing and demanding, was that crystalline silence between each song and each hovering note. The silence that held thought at bay as I listened. The silence that allowed feeling to be all, to allow me, whatever this me is, and this music, whatever this music is, to be one entirely inseparable thing.
I’ve always loved the intricacy of highly textured things, in art as well as in the natural world, like tree bark, fungi, and moss. And I’ve always been intrigued by what makes highly textured things so satisfying to the eye, even when we cannot touch them.
My home studio features the highly intricate and textured art from the San Blas islands of Panama, thick layers of colored fabric that’s been cut away to reveal parts of the fabric beneath, and then sewn with such tiny hand-stitches you can barely see them.
Another textile artwork in my studio comes from Sierra, Peru, depicting a village scene with stuffed doll-like stuffed figures. These I can touch, but I don’t need to, to feel them, to appreciate the depth and texture.
So it’s not surprising I was drawn to the work of Julie Bland and other textile artists. Julia’s work is highly abstract and and fuses together several mediums and techniques to create intricate collages: stitching, weaving, braiding, cutting, painting. Some of her artwork is deeply textured, others delicate and almost ethereal.
Textile is one of the most ancient arts, and most often it’s women who create it. For practical as well as aesthetic reasons. We love to feel what we wear, and we love to feel what we see, and texture is what makes that possible. Touching is so elemental, and so satisfying, even when the eye alone is doing the touching, as we are doing when viewing the artwork on this page.