I teach a writing class to young artists and designers, and for guidance and inspiration we look at the history of Western art and the stories people tell about it. Something we’ve realized together as we learn more and more is that often what historians thought a man did first, in fact, a woman artist had beat him to it.
The first example of this that comes to mind occurred in 2016 when I was in New York City visiting an exhibit called The Keeper at the New Museum. The exhibit introduced me to the mystical and minimalist work of Hilma af Klint, a Swedish spiritualist who by day painted landscapes and botanical illustrations and by night created paintings based on instructions she received from a disembodied French entity who wanted her to record the “immortality of man.”
Hilma af Klint kept these paintings hidden from her family and the public. They were discovered after she died in 1944, along with a stipulation in her will that the paintings be kept secret for at least twenty years after her death. No one in the public saw her private work until the mid 1960s, and it is only now gaining international recognition as being the first examples of non-objective painting in Western art, having preceded Kandinsky’s by at least four years.
Today, I learned of another example. I’d always thought Duchamp supplied us with the first example of the Readymade. Turns out, I was wrong. One year before Duchamp put his signature on a bottle rack, artist Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven named a rusted metal ring Enduring Ornament, thus exalting it from an everyday object to an art object.
My readings of western art history thus far have been ones that centred Duchamp’s Fountain as a turning point in modern art and one of the first examples of Conceptual Art. But even this is contested. It’s possible that Freytag-Loringhoven not only created the first readymade, but that she also created Fountain.
Duchamp denied this later in his life, but in 1917 he wrote his sister a letter stating the following: “One of my female friends under a masculine pseudonym Richard Mutt sent in a porcelain urinal as a sculpture. It was not at all indecent—no reason for refusing it. The committee has decided to refuse to show this thing.” Further, his claims that he purchased the urinal from J. L. Mott Pottery Company could not be true; they didn’t make the model in 1917.
Detractors of the theory that Freytag-Loringhoven made Fountain point to the fact that she never publicly disputed Duchamp was the actual creator (whereas 2018 readers of this detail might have a more nuanced understanding of how difficult it is to publicly denounce a powerful man, especially a famous one).
Freytag-Loringhoven was often penniless as she struggled to make a living as an artist in NYC. Eventually she returned to Europe, and died in Paris in 1927 under mysterious circumstances when the gas was left on in her flat. She was fifty-three years old.
September 18, 2018
The Vancouver Art Gallery’s exhibit Cabin Fever comes to a close in just over a week. I’d expected to see the allusions to both the Romanticism of Thoreau’s Walden and the postmodernism of Cabin Porn. What I hadn’t expected to see was a corner of the exhibit devoted to the cabins built to temporarily house refugees of the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco that killed 3000 people and destroyed 80% of the city.
However, with the cottage camps (set up in local parks) came different complaints from the city’s middle class. The troubles were no longer ones of depraved immorality, but now the more annoying “idlers and paupers.” At least the tenement tenants had stayed in their own buildings!
September 17, 2018
Walking past the little free library in my neighbourhood the other day, I saw this book, Caravaggio by Gilles Lambert.
Whenever I see a secondhand book about Caravaggio, I feel compelled to take it home. His face, or a likeness of it, painted by BC artist Sheryl McDougald, hides behind a bike cassette on the cover of my first book Pedal.
I knew Caravaggio was an excellent painter, an asshole with a fatal temper and possibly a pedophile. But in this book, I learned something new. There’s an old adage among heterosexual women: if you want to know what sort of date you’re on, watch how he treats the server. Caravaggio once threw a plate of steaming hot artichokes into a waiter’s face, striking him with the earthenware dish.
September 14th 2018
Today, The Globe and Mail published a piece (for subscribers only) by Russell Smith called “CanLit versus its scholars.” In it, Smith discusses two subjects related to writing in Canada. The first, that bestselling Canadian author Iain Reid didn’t attend a university creative writing program; the second, the upcoming Canadian Literature Symposium at Carleton University (initiated by Jennifer Blair and Jody Mason) calling for papers that “analyze the literary cultures of Canada / of Indigenous nations within the boundaries of Canada in relation to past and present institutions.”
Of his reader, Smith asks these questions:
Smith employs the words “monstrously” and “epidemic” rhetorically, since nowhere will you find them in the actual conference description. He uses “monstrously” to qualify “oppressive,” a form of which you will find in the conference description, as Blair and Mason pose their own question: “If social oppression is linked to structural inequalities, how have the local, regional, national, and global institutions that have mediated the literary in Canada entrenched or resisted those inequalities?”
Smith’s use of the words “monstrously” and “epidemic” is a deflecting tactic. The question of the conference is by all accounts levelheaded. Various social and economic stats of women, LGBTQIA folks and BIPOC show us every day that oppression does indeed exist. Certainly Smith isn’t arguing against that?
By overblowing the question of the conference, he makes the questioners themselves appear melodramatic, or even hysterical, and therefore easy to dismiss. We’ve seen it before, and I’m sure we’ll see it again.
Smith employs a similar rhetorical device when he calls it a “ludicrous hyperbole” for Blair and Mason to describe Canada’s schools of creative writing as having “entrenched cultures of sexual violence.”
A ludicrous hyperbole? But how can that be, when in fact two of Canada’s most famed writing schools (University of British Columbia and Concordia) have in the last two years either terminated or suspended professors facing allegations of sexual assault and sexual harassment?
Maybe it’s the word “entrenched” with which Smith takes issue. One meaning of the word is “difficult to change.” If Smith thinks it’s easy to change the culture that allows sexual violence to occur within creative writing schools, I’m here to tell him, it is not. Ironically, the Globe and Mail giving platform to his opinion that so recklessly diminishes the complaints of victims is proof of that.
Smith ends his piece with a declarative statement: “The scholars of Canadian Literature are not very interested in books.”
How he knows this with such grave certainty, I’m not sure. Maybe he has access to each of their bookshelves and reading habits. Maybe he is privy to their conversations at book clubs. Maybe he follows them to bookstores. Maybe he can see into their heart of hearts. Maybe he knows something I don’t: that one’s interest in dismantling structural barriers to publishing has an inverse relationship to one’s interest in books.
Or maybe he just thinks that every conference should be about people who look and write like him. Oh, and Iain Reid, I guess?
September 13, 2018
The question of teacher-student relationships is a tough one. If they’d been banned at Cranbrook Academy of Art, would the world have missed out on one of the great creative relationships of all time, Charles and Ray Eames? Or could the two designers simply have waited the few months until the end of semester to embark on their inevitable journey together, one that lasted from May 1941 until Charles’s sudden death in 1978 and produced not only furniture but industrial design for WWII, hundreds of films, toys and graphic design.
Lately, I’ve been reading about Case Study House #9, aka the Eames House, the interior of which is a true sensory and sensuous delight. Ray (a nickname for Alexandra) was the visual artist, having begun in NYC as an abstract painter studying under Hans Hofmann, and the home–preserved just as it was when Charles died–is full of objects she collected and arranged that on their own have ‘little value’ but taken together create a rich and deep variety of colour, texture, rhythm and movement. Flowers–roses, lobelia and Santa Barbara daisies–and plants–ficuses, ferns and philodendrons–line the glass walls both inside and out, blurring the distinction between outdoors and indoors.
Initially, the Eameses meant to build the house cantilevered out across the meadow, but the war delayed the arrival of their building materials for so long that they ended up spending time on and growing attached to the expanse of grass and thus changed their design so that the home nestled into the hillside. They must have been frustrated at first, sitting on their blueprints for months and then years, but after a while, Ray said they realized that taking down the Eucalyptus trees and covering up the meadow “seemed criminal.” The imposed waiting period, in the end, made things better.
September 12th, 2018
I recently read Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll, a glitzy tragicomedy that follows one woman’s attempt to escape her terrible past by making her present self unrecognizable. Part of this transformation involves becoming hyper aware, almost to the point of obsession, with etiquette. Ani (Née TifAni) knows that if she is going to pass as a blue blood in her new circle of old money, there are certain habits and behaviours that must appear to come natural to her. Throughout the novel, we see her execute peak performances in moments of high tension. Encountering the spouse of a man who knew Ani at her most traumatic? She still remembers not to say “Nice to meet you.” At a gala full of millionaires? She still remembers to flip the empty oyster shell upside down onto the ice. At a tense dinner with her future in-laws? You pass the salt and the pepper together, always. These customs help Ani exact control over a life that continues to unravel as she keeps running from two major traumas that only the strongest–or the luckiest–girls could survive.
In Luckiest Girl Alive, Ani knows that for every etiquette rule she’s learned the hard way, there’re more that remain obscure to her and are used by others to prove that she doesn’t belong. At the end of the novel, having reached the point where she can’t physically withstand any more inauthenticity, Ani performs the ultimate high-society faux pas. To take back the control that a group of boys wrested from her in her youth, she must let go of everything she’s been white-knuckling for so long.
September 11th, 2018
Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye // Photo by Laurence Baulch, Creative Commons
In 1931, Swiss architect Le Corbusier completed arguably his most famous building Villa Savoye, a reinforced-concrete modernist manifesto, and last week, Danish artist Asmund Havsteen-Mikkelsen sunk it in the Vejle Fjord.
Well, not really. He built a scale model of Villa Savoye and submerged it in water as a comment on Brexit and Trump: “I think the Russians and Cambridge Analytica have been cunning enough to see the potentials of psychometric profiles to influence and manipulate voters via the internet. Through this meddling, a certain sense of democracy has ‘sunk’.”
People really love or hate Le Corbusier. Obviously, Havsteen-Mikkelsen believes he represented some sort of democratic ideal, while social scientists have blamed his urban planning theories for the fated low-income housing projects in post-war America. (This contradiction was embodied by Dali, who counted Le Corbusier as a “friend” even though his “death filled (Dali) with an immense joy.”)
Here are the four best moments from the greatest film of all time, Dirty Dancing.
1. The moment Baby, egged on by Johnny’s incredulity, resolves to learn that goddamn mambo better than anyone else has ever learned the mambo in the history of white ladies learning the mambo.
2. The moment Robbie refuses to help pay for Penny’s abortion and recommends Baby read The Fountainhead so she can learn why “some people matter and some people don’t” and Baby–with the intensity of a Canada goose guarding her young–hisses for him to “stay away from my sister” and pours iced water all down Robbie’s dishonourable crotch.
3. The moment Baby figures out her hypocrite father’s game and sees he doesn’t want her to “make the world better,” he wants her to “make the world better for people like HIM,” and while she may have let him down (by ordering that illegal abortion that almost killed Penny), but you know what? “YOU LET ME DOWN TOO (BY BEING CLASSIST AF)!”
4. The moment Tito and Penny finally get to let loose on the main floor because let’s face it they are the best characters in this contemporary masterpiece, the end.
September 7th, 2018
This is a table my father built.
There were two of them and when I was a child they flanked my mother’s bed for a period of time. My sister and I had chores every weekend and I dusted these tables with lemon furniture polish and rags made from torn cotton. My mother smoked cigarettes while reading in bed, and the ashes, mixed with the polish, would gather in the corners and stick in the crevices. I’d tighten the cotton around my finger and dig my nail into the corners as deep as I could, but I could never get it all.
After she remarried, the tables moved to the basement. Then, when my sister was furnishing her own home, they migrated there, to her own basement. Last Christmas, when I slept next to one, I realized it would make the perfect coffee table for my small apartment. The top lifts off like a tray. I imagined small gatherings in which I loaded the tray with cheese and grapes and bread and carried it from my kitchen area the three steps into the living room and placed it in front of guests who would ooh and ahh at the convenience of a piece that is both a tray and a table.
So at the airport we wrapped it in plastic and it boarded a plane and met us in Vancouver. I decided the stain–almost black–was too dated and the cigarette burns had to go. This home is now. This home is healthy. But paint stripper wouldn’t bite through the surface layer and we ended up having to sand down every inch. It was January and the rain kept us in the garage and a fine layer of dust flew up from the electric sander and settled on the lawn chairs and my bicycle so that when I arrived at work my hands would be covered in a fine brown silt.
Even the smallest of renovations take longer than one can imagine and between classes and dog walks and meal preps and workouts and time spent sitting in silence it was two months before the table was ready to reenter our home and fulfill its dual purposes: to remind me that my father made something; to hold the things that nourish us (books; food; drink).
Of the first guests we had over, one was a woodworker. I told him my father had made this table and he looked at it closely, lifting the tray, running his hands along the legs.
“I don’t think he made this,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“These pieces were built in a factory and he fit them together.”
Same, same, I guess, but different. I can’t ask my mother if that’s true, because she’s gone. And I can’t ask my father, because he is gone too. But regardless of what role my father played in constructing this table, it has proven very useful in this home, and for that, I am grateful.
September 6th, 2018
“Great artists steal.”–Pablo Picasso
At the hair salon on Tuesday, waiting for my appointment to start, this National Geographic on the table. The headline, “Pablo Picasso: artist, provocateur, rogue, genius,” and in the bottom lefthand corner, a quote from the artist: “When I was a child, my mother said to me, ‘If you’ll become a soldier, you’ll be a general. If you become a monk, you’ll end up as the pope!’ Instead, I became a painter and wound up as Picasso.”
Context matters! When did Picasso say this self-aggrandizing statement, and to whom?
He said it later in his career, comfortable with his status as a living legend, sometime between 1943 and 1953, after Cubism, after Surrealism, to one of the many women he abused, an artist herself, Francoise Gilot. A woman whose cheek Picasso burned with a cigarette when she refused to move in with him. A woman whose paintings Picasso told art dealers not to buy after she finally left him.
To that cover of National Geographic, I humbly submit this addendum (from a December 8 2016 story in Elle Magazine). Context matters!