My favorite painting

The Prodigal Son, from my friend Irina

This might sound heretical coming from a Spaniard, but my favorite painting is not by Goya or Velazquez or Picasso or Murillo or Dalí or Miró, it is by Rembrandt (Leiden 1606 – Amsterdam 1669), and it is not even in a Spanish museum.

Unfortunately, I did not realize I was looking at what would be my favorite painting when I saw Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son when I was seventeen and visiting The Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg with a handful of school friends. I was probably more concerned with looking at pretty girls or wondering about the evening’s plan with cheap Soviet Vodka -ah yes, the year was 1983, with Leonidas Brezhnev in charge of the Soviet Union!

Not long after, my father gave me a book: The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Meditation on Fathers, Brothers, and Sons by Henri Nouwen and I was deeply moved. I understood the painting and it became my favorite. Nouwen, a priest (1932-1996), threads the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11–32) with the painting, covering each detail, each character in Scripture and the painting.

The father’s hands gently placed on the boy’s back, the brother’s jealous, angry stare, the servant, the mother, even another person almost invisible in the background, the son’s broken sandals, the capes, everything has a purpose and a meaning. The painting, painted in Rembrandt’s last years, is as spiritual as they get. It asks for your meditation, it questions our behaviors as sons and daughters. You feel the weight of the father’s hands on your back, their warmth. The painting forgives you.

What was my surprise when I discovered that a poster of the painting hangs in my school’s library, right outside my office! I walk by it many times every day, and every day I am reminded of Rembrandt, of the Prodigal son, and of my trip to Russia many years ago.

Some of my other favorite paintings are Velazquez’s Meninas in the Prado, pretty much anything by Goya, Velazquez´s Inocencio X in the Doria Pamphili Gallery in Rome, every Sorolla painting, I’ve already mentioned Frida Kahlo in this blog, etc., etc., etc., the list goes on and on. But this one wins.

What is your favorite painting? Comment below, I would love to know!

Poster next to my office!

Joseph Roth and Gustav Mahler, brothers separated at birth??

My car is an old VW Golf, it still has a CD player! Not a fancy multi-disk unit, just a single CD at-a-time thing. So I put in a CD and it stays there for months, it is all I listen to. This has been going on for years: Bach’s Goldberg Variations (of course the original Gould recording), Van Morrison’s Born to Sing, no Plan B, the Tous le Matins du Monde soundtrack (which I found in a literal mountain of CDs being sold by some very trashy looking folks in Vermont, which leads me to believe that a, it was stolen or found, or b, I am a bad person who stereotypes people by their looks), Mozart’s Requiem… you get the idea. Well for months I have only listened to Mahler’s symphony No. 5.

Joseph Roth was a turn of the 20th Century German writer. I have read Job, The Story of a Simple Man twice, in 2003 and 2018, The Collected Stories in 2006, and I just finished The Radetzky March.

As I read the book and listened to Mahler, I realized how extraordinarily similar they are in their art. Both artists manage to convey the full spectrum of feelings in a single work, in my example: The Radetzky March and the Symphony No. 5 which is not even considered Mahler’s best work. Of course, his best symphony is a highly debated topic (I would go with No. 2).

This capacity to transmit feelings got me thinking about their similarities, there are a few:

Both lived around the same time Roth 1894 – 1939 and Mahler 1860 – 1911.

Both were Jewish (although Mahler became a Catholic so he could continue working…)

Both lived in Vienna at the turn of the century –although not at the same time- and attended the same university, although neither was originally even Austrian (Mahler was Bohemian, modern day Czech Republic and Roth from Galicia, modern day Poland and Ukraine) but both were in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This is critical since both artists reflect the fall of the empire in their work.

Of course, at the end of the day each artist’s capacity to make the receptor of the art feel something is based on his or her craft and abilities. But let’s just say that reading and listening (not at the same time) I was transported from happiness to sadness, from victory to defeat, from walking in a field in Spring to avoiding enemy fire. Thank you Mahler and Roth.

Here is the Third movement from Mahler 5. It is directed by my dear friend and old colleague Benjamin Zander, a Mahler scholar!!

Ad Reinhardt, the victory of minimalism

One of the wonderful things of being in Madrid is that many interesting places are walking distance from home. If they are a bit farther away, I can always jump on a rental scooter, on a little motorbike, or a bicycle, if it’s harsh weather I can take public transportation like buses or metro. In a worst-case scenario, I can rent a car per hours. My dinosaur Land Rover cannot be legally parked downtown.

Recently I walked to the Fundación Juan March, which I have talked about before in this blog to see a great exhibit on Ad Reinhardt, a groundbreaking abstract American painter. The exhibit was split into two distinct areas: an area of his paintings showing his evolution into the purest minimalism (see the photo of the red painting) where a monochromatic canvas has only the most subtle color variations, mesmerizing!

The other part covers Reinhardt’s career as an illustrator, teacher, activist, and designer.

He also coined some evident but necessary phrases like

Art is Art. Everything else is everything else

Ad Reindhardt

or

Art is too serious to be taken seriously

Ad Reindhardt

If you get a chance to see the exhibit in Madrid, go now. If Madrid is not an option go check out his paintings at the Museum Folkwang Essen, SFMOMA in San Francisco, and of course the New York MOMA and the Met.

Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Mexican Modernism

I guess that like most people, I knew the pop culture Frida Kahlo: Mexican artist, unibrow. It was not until I started teaching that she always popped up in different cultural units and readings. So, I did some research and was blown away! Soon we were doing full units on her, watching documentaries, and writing essays for class. I was so fascinated by this woman, that in 2008 I took the train from Boston to see an exhibit of her paintings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

When the Norton Museum of Art up the road from me in West Palm Beach hosted an exhibit based on her, her husband Diego Rivera, and Mexican Modernism, I liked it so much I went twice!

Unlike other exhibits, this one delivers on what it promises; It not only has a delightful selection of Kahlo’s work, but it also has a good representation of Rivera’s work and of the whole Mexican Modernist movement, it even has a dozen Mexican dresses on show.

Of course, the real star here is Kahlo beyond the pop culture iconography; Her strength as a survivor of polio, and of having a bus handrail impale her pelvis at 18. She is a crucible of pre-Columbine and Hispanic culture, of Christianity and ancient Mexican religions, of nature and urban environments, of communism and capitalism, of sexuality, and so on with everything.

Besides the dresses, the exhibit has other nice touches like the photos Patti Smith took on her visit to Kahlo’s house in Coyoacán in Mexico City, and a quote from Carlos Fuentes, one of my favorite writers. It is a wonderful exhibit and if you are in Southern Florida you should see it.

As I have mentioned before on this blog, the Norton Museum is an oasis of culture in the suburban wasteland that is Southern Florida, so a morning at the museum with a lovely coffee in the courtyard and a visit to the gift shop is a morning well spent.

Return to culture (at last)

One of the massive pluses of living in a major world capital is the amazing cultural offering one has access to. I really needed this cultural stimulation. The problem with the word culture is that it has been made to sound elitist, refined, distant from the people, the stuff Frazier and Niles Crane did, but in truth it is just beauty, beauty created by man – and woman of course! The least important bit is if we call it culture, art, or whatever.

I have been lucky to live in major cities where I became a cultural junkie: London (where it all started for me), Paris, Boston, New York, even Chapel Hill – a college town, but obviously with a thriving cultural scene. Unfortunately Naples only had a couple of cultural outlets (which I squeezed every last drop from), and in NJ I didn’t get a chance to explore although of course the heavy stuff was in NYC…

In the less than three months back in Madrid I have been lucky to experience:

  • A brilliant piano recital by local piano star Luis Fernández Pérez playing Händel, Scarlatti, Rameau, and Bach. For free at the Fundación Juan March.
  • A play/recital of Federico García Lorca’s poetry by stage icon Nuria Espert.
  • Jean-Paul Sartre’s eerily prescient play Nekrassov (1955) about the “fake news”.
  • A gorgeous version of The Nutcracker by the prestigious Compañía Nacional de Danza and the Teatro Real house orchestra!
  • Visits to the Sorolla museum, the Museo del Romanticismo, and a score of art exhibits including “Rediscovering the Mediterranean” at the Fundación Mapfre with paintings and sculptures from the XIX and early XX Centuries.
  • After fourteen years I again became a member of the Amigos del Prado, which allows me free entry to the Prado, avoiding the queues. I have, of course, already gone twice!
  • Seeing a couple of concerts in bars around town by chance.
  • Never mind being surrounded by amazing architecture.

Et cetera, et cetera, down to awesome street musicians and performers! And this is with limited time and money. The cultural menu is, in fact, overwhelming, but I am happy to nibble and enjoy!

Culture is the widening of the mind and of the spirit.

Jawaharlal Nehru

 

Museo del Romanticismo

In past posts I have written about the Museo Sorolla and the Lázaro Galdiano, Two of my favorite museums in Madrid. Today’s turn is for the Museo del Romanticismo, another unknown jewel of the Madrid museum offerings.

Fortunately for us locals,  most tourists are pressed for time and just rush through the Prado and by Picasso’s Guernica at the Reina Sofia. They rarely venture any further to discover other really rewarding pearls of art and history, at most they will check out the Thyssen (major works of minor artists and minor works of major artists), thus completing what is known as the Art Triangle (all three museums are a stone’s throw from each other).

But beyond that trio, there are plenty of other, obviously much smaller, museums.

The Museo del Romanticismo is housed in an old XIX C. palazzo in a quiet neighbourhood, in a small street. No fireworks here. The fireworks are inside as the museum is chock-full of art, furniture and objets, even King Fernando VII’s toilet! (as one would expect, it is a very nice piece in wood and velvet, with the poop going to a key locked drawer – we don’t want anybody stealing royal poop!). But the real treasure is a huge Goya painting in the tiny chapel (oratorio). Other pieces include the gun journalist Larra used to kill himself, and much, much more. To finish the visit is the obligatory cute gift shop and an even cuter café with garden seating in good weather!

This year I had a chance to go with my nephew Jimmy. We had a nice stroll and got to see a temporary exhibition on Rafael Tegeo, possibly Spain’s favorite XIX C portrait painter.

Dalí and the Dalí Museum

 

The biggest collectors of Dalí where Reynolds and Eleanor Morse, who founded the Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg – the one in Florida, not the original one. My Spanish V class went on a field trip to visit it.

This year in  Spanish V we studied early 20th Century Peninsular literature and culture. It was an exciting course: we started with late 19th C. Naturalism, reading Emila Pardo Bazán’s short stories, and moved on to Miguel de Unamuno’s San Manuel Bueno, mártir, a proto existentialist text. (To read more about Unamuno and Existentialism see my previous post about Existentialism and the Quijote), we saw Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou, while studying and reading about Surrealism. We read Federico Garcia Lorca’s poetry  and talked about the Second Spanish Republic and how that led to the Spanish Civil War.

Our visit to St. Petersburg was fun. We took a van for the two hour drive North (with the obligatory stop at Starbucks to start the road trip). Once there, the Museum had our visit very well prepared. We explored the galleries and the students each presented on a work they had studied and talked a bit about Dalí. Outside the museum we walked around the gardens and labyrinth. From there we went a couple of blocks to hip, thriving, Central Ave in Downtown St. Pete, where the students  ordered their lunch – in Spanish – at Red Mesa Mercado, a street side taquería. While the students enjoyed some free time to explore the area, I enjoyed a nice coffee, then we drove back to Seacrest.

The trip was a cultural and pedagogical success, we all learned about Dalí and discovered a little bit of wonderful St. Petersburg – the one in Florida, not the original one.

On the importance of culture, art, and beauty.

If we do not take time to appreciate beauty, how are we spending our time? This year has been another remarkable year for art, culture and beauty in Chapel Hill. It is a town with an exquisite taste for that which is beautiful. I have been lucky to enjoy that, even when in the stress of finishing my dissertation I had to miss some great performances.

The season started for me with Juliette Binoche, of whom I have been a big fan since the 80s, playing Sophokles’ Antigone in the T.S. Eliot translation, what a presence! I love strong women (now you know my vote for November 8).

UNC artist-in-residence, violinist Gil Shaham played Bach’s six violin solos. I think I still have goosebumps.

Two days later Shaham played Verdi and Tchaikovsky with the UNC Symphony.

As I become older, I have become more and more selective in my taste, but being a lover of the Portuguese Fado, I went to see Mariza, It was very nice, although I miss the tavernas in Alfama.

Another highlight of the year was listening to Riccardo Muti, directing the Chicago Symphony’s Beethoven’s Fifth and Tchaikovsky’s Fourth. Of course as an encore he regaled us with some Verdi!

In November I saw The Ensemble Intercontemporain play some modern pieces. Pierre Boulez’s sur Incises for three pianos, three harps and three percussion blew my mind. Rock and Rollers talk about Phil Spector’s “Wall of sound”, I have also heard it mentioned about Brian Eno and U2, but this piece is more like a tactile wall of sound, like a curtain of sound. Watch for yourself and tell me what you think in the comments section!

Before the Christmas break, I saw the great Carolina Ballet’s Nutcracker. Don’t mess with tradition.

Gil Shaham performed again in February, playing Prokofiev and Beethoven and I got to go with my composer friend, James.

After defending and delivering my dissertation I managed to catch a few more great events. The evening my dissertation was accepted by the Graduate School, I rode old Rocinante to a nice opera recital in Durham, Talya Lieberman sang a fantastic mix of Handel, Ravel, and Kurt Weill. Brava!

Back at UNC’s Memorial Hall I saw Les Arts Florissants perform a repertoire of Baroque Serious Airs and Drinking Songs. What a brilliant way to say farewell to four great years of jaw dropping concerts at Carolina Performing Arts.

Again with my dear friend James, we saw the North Carolina Symphony perform Handel, Haydn and Stravinsky’s modernist masterpiece The Firebird (1919).

On the theater front I saw not one, but two, Chekhov plays: Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard, which the last time I saw performed was by my students at the Walnut Hill School for the Arts! I also snuck in one musical: Sweeney Todd, lovely Gore!!!

Of course I always support students’ productions and concerts which included two operas, the UNC Baroque Ensemble, the UNC Symphony Orchestra, and the University Chamber Players.

All in all, an extremely rewarding season, the likes of which I do not foresee enjoying in the near future.