Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a conference

One of the great benefits of being in Madrid for my Summer break is being able to attend all sorts of events that are difficult to find in South Florida.

I recently had the pleasure of attending a great series of conferences on Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, the brilliant Mexican Baroque writer (and musician, architect, scientist, and cook!), whom I studied a bit for my PhD at UNC.

The conference was hosted at the great Fundación Juan March (which I have already mentioned here) and the speaker was Esperanza López Parada, professor of Latin American literature at the Complutense University in Madrid.

The first lecture was on Sor Juana’s time, her life, and her writings in general. It is always interesting to learn new facts and perspectives on someone you have studied.

The second lecture focused on the poem Primero Sueño, and it included actor Beatriz Arguello reading the poem. The commentary and the reading were masterfully interwoven, making for an extremely rewarding experience!

López Parada cited my UNC professor (and PhD Committee Member Rosa Perelmuter, which was very moving for me). We even chatted a bit after the conference, which was a nice little plus.

Here is a video López Parada showed us of the adaptation into song of one of Sor Juana’s most famous poems: Hombres necios.

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!

Almodóvar

 

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I can’t believe that in 182 posts and almost ten years of writing this blog I have never dedicated a post to Pedro Almodóvar (although I have mentioned him a couple of times). Forgive me, and let me change that.

Pedro Almodóvar is indubitably Spain’s best know director. He has won two Oscars (I think that is double what any other Spanish artist has – but don’t believe me 100%), has had a handful of nominations, a bunch of Goyas (Spain’s Oscars), his breakout film Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown was made into a Broadway musical, etc. etc. But more important than his fame or awards is the quality of his films. You see, Almodóvar has an instantly recognizable way of telling a story -and what stories they are! I believe part of his success lies in how Baroque his narratives are, and how they key right into our psyche. Along the story, Almodóvar layers his personal punctuation marks: a colorful palette, a stylish, kitsch decor, perfect locations, and a cast he squeezes the best out of, some of them repeatedly, like Penelope Cruz, Antonio Banderas or Carmen Maura. In that respect he is a bit like Woody Allen -another one of my favorites- in that they really get the most out of the actors, and that, I believe, is the sign of a great director. Then there are his quirks: every movie has a signature song that marks it, his brother Agustín always gets a bit part, so you are always on the lookout for that. This, by the way, is something Hitchcock also did -insert himself in his movies, which I think is what inspired Almodóvar. Finally he sprinkles a touch of post modernism and surrealism here and there, just to keep the viewer on edge.

I do not have a single favorite Almodóvar film, I have a few. Both Volver and Todo sobre mi madre (All About My Mother) stand out. Both of these are staples of my Advanced classes, as many of my students will testify. I just watched Almodóvar’s 21st film (which was what prompted me to write this) Dolor y Gloria (Pain and Glory). It is good, all his films are good, but not the best. So, although it received an Oscar nomination, it was not really up to snuff. I will not divulge any spoilers this time (you are welcome), only to say that it is, or at least it feels, autobiographical. 

Most of Almodóvar’s films take place in and around Madrid, with a few of exceptions. Todo sobre mi madre splits between Madrid and Barcelona, Volver, like the name implies takes us to a village in La Mancha not unlike the one Almodóvar is from, La piel que habito (The Skin I Live In) takes place in the countryside of Toledo, Los abrazos rotos (Broken Embraces) takes a turn in the Canary Islands, and a few other exceptions. Madrid is part of the story, it becomes another character. This is something Woody Allen also does with New York, blending it into the narrative.

Also interesting is to see Almodóvar’s evolution as a filmmaker. His first film Pepi, Lucy, Bom y otras chicas del montón (Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls Like Mom) coincides with the birth of La Movida which was an artistic/cultural reaction to 40 years of dictatorship. La Movida was a radical pendulum swing for Spain, it was an over the top celebration of freedom, and Almodóvar hits the note with a raw, sexual, low budget film that captures the Zeitgeist of the time. His current films on the other hand have the sleek look of the bottomless budget of a Hollywood darling.

If you are already an Almodóvar fan, tell me your favorite film of his -and why- in the comments. If you are a newbie grab one, any one, of his films and enjoy!

 

Sevilla

It had been over fourteen years since I had been to Sevilla, but I recently managed a three-day getaway to that magic city by the Guadalquivir, and it never disappoints.

The reason for the trip was the various exhibits celebrating the 4th Centenary of native baroque artist Bartolome Murillo’s birth.

Back in 1992 Sevilla hosted the World Fair, called Expo ’92 coinciding with the 5th Centenary of Christopher Columbus departing on his little trip from that city along its navigable river. The Expo was a smashing hit. For it, Spain built its first high-speed train from Madrid, the AVE, which, reaching speeds of 300kph (186mph for those stubborn Imperialists) does Madrid – Seville in a nifty 2.5 hours! So obviously we took the train. Once there we stayed in a gorgeous loft overlooking the Archivo de Indias and the Cathedral with its amazing Arab Minaret turned bell tower, the Giralda.

Sevilla is a walking city, so that is what we did, walk around the park, by the river, along the old streets of the magical Santa Cruz neighbourhood, across the river into the Triana neighbourhood, peeking into the cute patios, checking out old palazzo Casa Pilatos, and the new “setas” designed to give shade to the main square on the hot summer days. Along the way we arrived at the Museo de Bellas Artes which is hosting the main Murillo exhibition. To say it is breathtaking is an understatement. The museum has gathered Murillos from around the world so you can really go deep into Murillo’s craft, style, personality, and nuances. It blew my mind.

But besides Murillo, Seville has amazing food. We stopped at old hangouts like Morales, Las Teresas and el Rinconcillo where I used to go with customers and suppliers, and enjoyed the arab influenced tapas, the bounty of the nearby Atlantic and Mediterranean, and local specialties like garbanzos with spinach or ox tail, all washed down with lovely local white wines and sherries.

Something else that is abundant in Seville is churches. There are churches and convents and monasteries on every block and each one is worth stopping in. It might seem glib to say but most of these temples are Baroque, it can be a bit overwhelming to see such a profusion of decoration: angels and leaves and thingys. It looks like there is no space left without a decoration, and that was precisely the goal, in fact it has a name: horror vacui in latin, meaning fear of emptiness. A main reason for the wealth of baroque art is that Sevilla was the landing port for all the ships coming in from America, so a lot of the silver and gold did not make it out-of-town, if you get what I mean.

If you have been to Sevilla you know one could write for hours about it. If you haven’t been, what are you waiting for?

 

 

The 18th Century as literary hinge

When I “discovered” 18th Century Spanish literature, something that really struck me was what a critical element it was in the history of literature and how little credit it gets. The 18th Century is a literary hinge in the evolution of literature. While it can be argued that every century, or era, is a “hinge” era, a time between times, the 18th Century exercises as a flexing point in what has been called the pendulum of literary movements. Being the philistine that I am, I can only use Spanish literature for my example:

The ilustrados (18th C educated Spaniards), whether they liked it or not, were actually building on the shoulders of the Baroque, with its chiaroscuro and trompe l’oeil, which they hated. This, in turn, was a reaction to the Renaissance which was short lived in Spain in favor of the more mysterious and why not, fun, Baroque, more suited to the Spanish temperament (perpetuating stereotypes, the Spanish are a Baroque people. Disagree? Go watch an Almodovar film). For the Spanish literati, the solution to what they considered centuries of muddle was to build a one way bridge to the classic ancient Greeks and Romans as Luzán proposed in his Poética (1737). As much as the Enlightened writers wanted to, they could not get there without the rich legacy of medieval letters and art and everything that followed. For example, my man, Padre Isla (1703-1781), a precursor to the ilustrados, indeed goes back to the ancients, but he also relies heavily on St. Bonaventure, St. Thomas Aquinas, and especially Cervantes and Quevedo, creating his narrative from a blend of centuries of letters. Consciously or not these are the foundations the 18th Century had to build on.

On the other hand the Enlightenment’s obsession with societal good which even led to the elimination of the novel in Spain due to its reliance on the first person singular, is the launching pad for the Romantic movement where that “I” is all important. Equally, the Enlightened enthusiasm for scientific enumeration led to the naturalists. The reaction to those developments will be realism, modernism and postmodernism.

In big bold brushstrokes there are the Classics, Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque eras leading up to the Enlightenment, and the Romantic, Naturalist, Realist, Modernist and Postmodernism after it. How do I then explain the fact that my sides, arms or rays of my angle are lopsided? Well it must be taken into account that both the Classical and Medieval periods encompass centuries, while the last big three movements occurred within the 20th C. due to the advances in communications and technology, so just counting movements is not the same as considering the influence and repercussion of  those movements. This of course is taking into account all the differences in labeling periods and movements. No style is 100% unique, as one genre blends into another.

Thus, a solid grasp of 18th Century literature opens up an understanding to what happened before and after on the literary continuum. From a teaching standpoint, understanding the enlightenment offers the key to the past as well as to the future of literary history.

P.S.: When I explained this idea to my thesis director during one of our coffees, she liked it so much she took a picture!