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Francis-Noël Thomas | An Examination of Flemish Painters

Categories: Nonfiction

Rogier van der Weyden and James Ensor: Line and Its Deformation

From the new NER, 35.1

The grand and bombastic building on the Leopold de Waelplaats in Antwerp that has housed the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten (Royal Museum of Fine Arts) since 1890 closed on October 3, 2010, for a major interior reconstruction that is not expected to be completed before 2017. During this reconstruction, some of the museum’s better known nineteenth- and twentieth-century paintings have been exhibited as far from Antwerp as Japan; some of its rare fifteenth-century panel paintings were exhibited last year in the beautifully preserved sixteenth-century Rockox House, just a twenty-minute walk from the museum.

The Seven Sacraments

There is something to be said for seeing nineteenth- and twentieth-century paintings and fifteenth-century paintings in separate and respectively congenial settings, but the 1890 building did more than provide wall space for paintings that had little in common with its architectural ethos and belonged to separate and sometimes antagonistic cultural worlds. The museum went beyond exhibiting individual paintings, even individual styles of painting; it exhibited antagonistic concepts of painting.

When it was inaugurated in 1810, the museum absorbed what had been the collection of the city’s Academy of Fine Arts. In 1841 that collection was supplemented by a bequest from one of the earliest and greatest collectors of Early Netherlandish painting, Florent van Ertborn, a former mayor of Antwerp. In the 1920s, it began to collect contemporary painters, notably James Ensor.

Van Ertborn’s collection was assembled at a time when the Early Netherlandish masters were out of fashion, their work unknown to all but a tiny public. Panels from what is now one of the most famous European paintings of the late middle ages, the Ghent Altarpiece (1432), were kept out of sight by nineteenth-century bishops of Ghent, who were scandalized by the life-size nude representations of Adam and Eve.

When I first went to Antwerp, it was expressly to see paintings that were part of the van Ertborn bequest, although I knew nothing about the bequest at the time and had never heard of Florent van Ertborn. I had fallen in love with the Early Netherlandish paintings I had seen in American museums and in printed images illustrating books on the subject. I knew very little of the history of the painters’ reputation.

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New from Larry I. Palmer in the new New England Review—35.1

Categories: Nonfiction

The Haircut | Larry I. Palmer

It was a Wednesday around 8:30 p.m., a week before Thanksgiving, 1958, when I strolled down the third floor corridor of Bancroft Hall towards Ted Bedford’s faculty apartment. He was on duty that night—thus the open door. Jef, one of my fellow preps (what ninth graders were called at Phillips Exeter Academy), had invited me and his roommate, Brink, to spend the holiday break with his family in Salem, Massachusetts. It was the first time I had visited Bedford’s faculty office, a space sealed off in the back foyer of his family living quarters by a mahogany door exactly like the one I lingered just outside of now, in the dorm hallway, an unsigned permission slip from the Dean of Students in hand.

Bedford sat at his desk, facing away from the hall and poring over some papers as I waited for him to notice me. He turned his head towards me with a glance that asked, “What’s up?,” his eyebrows becoming question marks as he peered over his glasses. I handed him the slip and asked him to sign it because my adviser was out of town. Bedford pushed his chair away from his desk and spun to face me, his smile so wide it seemed to touch his sideburns. “Well, I got a deal for you. Before I’ll sign, you must get a haircut.”

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NER Classics | The Long March of “Orientalism”

Categories: NER Classics, Nonfiction

The Long March of ‘Orientalism’: Western Travelers in Modern China,”
Nicholas R. Clifford’s report from abroad, appeared in NER 22.2:

Graves, graves, graves, countless ancestral graves in countless ancestral fields! Always the presence of death! A few naked trees along the railwayembankment . . . now and then the dark crenellated walls of some ancient city . . . (Agnes Smedley, 1943) . . .442px-Brooklyn_Museum_-_Chinese_Ship_(Tosen_Zu)_with_Listing_of_the_Sea_Route_from_China_to_Japan-2

They are drawn conventionally enough, these pictures. Travelers finding in a foreign land—here, the China of fifty or sixty years ago—a waste of unchanging hopelessness: a land perceived as corrupt, superstitious, and burdened by a conservatism so rigid it might be taken for stupidity. The images themselves betray a frustration, a kind of fed-upness by the observer with the observed. In no sense are they original, for their pedigree reaches back a century and more, each succeeding generation adding its own detail and coloration to the features conjured up by Western fancies of the country.

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The Image Factory | Rick Barot

Categories: Nonfiction

A first look at NER Vol. 34 Nos. 3–4

http://www.sxc.hu/photo/909552I was born in the Philippines. When I was ten, my family immigrated to the United States, settling in Oakland. My father worked in a factory that made cardboard boxes, my mother worked at a government office. Between them were over a dozen siblings, scattered throughout California: aunts and uncles who were accountants, nurses, telephone company workers, postal service workers. They had all gone to college, but had the immigrant’s understandably practical view of why you went to school, why you went to work, what things you could get from working. Among these aunts and uncles were readers of books and lovers of jazz and opera, and distantly, in past generations of my father’s side of the family, there had been writers. But otherwise life was family, work, and church. Nothing here was a spur or a hindrance to my becoming a writer, and so I went ahead. Because I had gotten good grades all my life, everyone assumed I knew what I was doing with myself—even if, in the years I’m talking about, I always had my eyes averted, I was always a blur at the edges of gatherings and conversations.

And if I knew at some level that poetry was supposed to encompass the whole of who I was, it would be a very long time before I knew what that whole could include. Poetry was this paradox: it invited a largeness of self even as it foreclosed my ability to see myself as anything beyond the poet I desperately wanted to be. Poetry was emotion, it was intense language. It was a tradition, a canon. Poetry for me was a deeply literary identity before I saw it as a space where sociological, social, political, and other elements of identity also converged. Being an immigrant, being gay, having had an ambitious education, having grown up middle class in a liberal, diverse, culturally abundant part of the country—these were real enough facets in the lived life, the way categories of identity could be checked off on an application form. But in the poems I tried to write, these things were abstract, puzzling, barely available and acknowledged resources. I didn’t know how these things could be expressed in my poems, nor did the poems and poets that I loved at the time give sanction for expressing them in the first place. A time would come when I realized those resources were there; but that was much later.

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The Trial of Joseph Brodsky | Frida Vigdorova

Categories: Nonfiction

From the current issue, NER 34.3–4
Translated from the Russian by Michael R. Katz
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Today marks the 50th anniversary of the first hearing in the trial of Joseph Brodsky (1940–96), who was, in 1964, a 24-year-old poet and translator at the start of his career. In the Soviet Union, every able-bodied adult was expected to “work”—those who refused risked being criminally charged. The poet Brodsky was, by this logic, accused by Soviet authorities of crimes against the state and found guilty of “social parasitism.” A smuggled copy of Frida Vigdorova’s court transcript, newly translated and annotated here by Michael R. Katz, documented the courage and candor with which Brodsky responded to the Judge, and brought his work to the attention of the West. 

First hearing of the case of Joseph Brodsky.
Session of the Dzerzhinsky District Court.
City of Leningrad.
February 18, 1964.

Judge: What do you do for a living?

Brodsky: I write poetry. I translate. I suppose . . .

Judge: Never mind what you “suppose.” Stand up properly. Don’t lean against the wall. Look at the court. Answer the court properly. (To me) Stop taking notes immediately! Or else—I’ll have you thrown out of the courtroom. (To Brodsky) Do you have a regular job?

Brodsky: I thought this was a regular job.

Judge: Answer correctly!

Brodsky: I was writing poems. I thought they’d be published. I suppose . . .

Judge: We’re not interested in what you “suppose.” Tell us why you weren’t working.

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Confessions of a (Six-) Figure Painter | By Peter Plagens

Categories: Nonfiction

From the current issue (34.2):

Bad Boy jacket image - © Eric Fischl by Gérard Rondeau 1993

To get a couple of things out of the way at the top: Eric Fischl isn’t all that bad, either as a painter or a person. As a smart-ass conceptual artist friend of mine (who has no particular affection for the dauber’s craft) points out, “He can move it around.” But before I get to Fischl’s recent memoir,* this personal anecdote:

My wife, Laurie Fendrich, teaches at a university that, in 2006, organized a symposium about the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. She invited Eric Fischl, whose commemorative bronze sculpture, Tumbling Woman, had met with great protests and ultimately a rejection, to participate. He did, for free. The school scheduled several simultaneous sessions, so that the audience for the Fischl panel was much smaller than it should have been, and, moreover, the tech stuff got screwed up so that the artist was unable to project images from his computer. But he took the snafu like a trouper and, afterwards, over a cup of coffee, waxed calm and philosophical about the whole event. A real gentleman, she said.

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Putin Cracks Down | By Ellen Hinsey

Categories: Nonfiction

AtmosphereFrom the current issue (34.2):

When I arrived in Moscow, a week before the March 4 presidential election, it was below zero and winter was grinding to a close. At midday the downtown was completely tied up—lines and lines of cars were stalled in one of the city’s eternal traffic jams. The advancing tires slowly churned a black sea of slyakot—a tenacious type of slush—that splashed on BMWs and tinted-glass luxury cars, as well as on the capital’s poorer pedestrians’ boots. For security reasons, Lenin’s tomb on Red Square was closed; a single soldier in uniform paced back and forth in the snow. A few streets away, a piercing wind circled the Lubyanka, the former home of the KGB and now headquarters to its successor, the FSB—the Russian Security Forces—and still a working prison.

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Wetland Reflections

Categories: Nonfiction

From Joseph McElroy’s essay, “Wetland Reflections,” in the current issue:

red buoyPeople live here, of course; and close by. The apartment dwellings are visible if you look. Still, amid this population and from my vantage, it is another element I contemplate. Where Eastern Boulevard Bridge carrying the Bruckner Expressway across the Bronx River connects two sections, even neighborhoods, of the south Bronx, you are unlikely to glance out your window, driving east or west, to mark the glimmering, quite narrow road of water below. If you are walking the bridge, going home from work or with your child, you can pause to see to the south this substantial stream bending left as it approaches its mouth just out of sight, a mile away, joining estuaries with the East River. Nearer at hand, Cube Smart Self-Storage, scrap metal warehouses, flats fixed, body work, a car-wash, a U-Haul, Gulf station, checks cashed, a paper-recycling facility are for the eye like the city sounds that can seem to hide the river. Yet in the near distance, in a boat slipping past a dilapidated two-story industrial building, three or four young people rowing pause, like a distinct exception, as the person with the sweep oar in the stern, a woman, addresses them, and you can feel some waterborne privacy of the talk you can’t hear.

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[image: "Boya roja" / franciscobernalperez / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0]

 

Reviewing

Categories: Nonfiction

From Hilaire Belloc’s “Reviewing,” in the current issue:

356px-Plate_XIII_A,_Morphology_of_Guillainia_and_LithidionThe ancient and honourable art of Reviewing is, without question, the most important branch of the great calling which we term the ‘Career of Letters.’

As it is the most important, so also it is the first which a man of letters should learn. It is at once his shield and his weapon. A thorough knowledge of Reviewing, both theoretical and applied, will give a man more popularity of power than he could have attained by the expenditure of a corresponding energy in any one of the liberal professions, with the possible exception of Municipal politics.

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My Mother, Gardening

Categories: Nonfiction

From Joanne Jacobson’s essay, “My Mother, Gardening,” in the current issue:

511px-Alleged_location_of_Eden_crop“Can you see anything inside?” his companions cried out to the archaeologist Howard Carter when he opened King Tut’s tomb, secreted in the sands for thirty centuries. “Yes!” Carter called back, “Wonderful things!” It was November 4, 1922: two and a half years before my mother was born. Carter and the others dizzily wandered the chambers where the young pharaoh had been buried, his sandals exquisitely carved, braided in solid gold to simulate woven reeds. All of Tut’s organs, his heart and his liver, each kidney and his stomach, were embalmed and laid in stoppered canopic jars, then fitted into golden coffinettes. Coffers of fish and assorted meats, thirty jars of wine, four complete board games, one hundred thirty-nine ebony, ivory, silver, and gold walking sticks, fifty linen garments—for the Egyptians believed that earthly human affairs continued in the afterlife—were preserved in the airless, crowded rooms.

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