April 29, 2012

What was (is) a Trabant?

Enquiring little “l.a. urban hipsters” wanted to know.  To wit-

This was a Trabant.

This is a Trabant.

Powered by a two-stroke pollution generator that maxed out at an ear-splitting 18 hp, the Trabant was a hollow lie of a car constructed of recycled worthlessness (actually, the body was made of a fiberglass-like Duroplast, reinforced with recycled fibers like cotton and wood).

A virtual antique when it was designed in the 1950s, the Trabant was East Germany's answer to the VW Beetle — a "people's car," as if the people didn't have enough to worry about. Trabants smoked like an Iraqi oil fire, when they ran at all, and often lacked even the most basic of amenities, like brake lights or turn signals.

But history has been kind to the Trabi. It looks rather picturesque here.

Thousands of East Germans drove their Trabants over the border when the Wall fell, which made it a kind of automotive liberator. 
Once across the border, the none-too-sentimental owners immediately abandoned their Trabis and traded them in for a posh capitalist toy.

Just kidding, or am I ?   ϡ

April 25, 2012

Are women made of marble?

   I have a great liking for the sculptures of Canova, that Italian who straddled the last half of the 18th century and the first quarter of the 19th, and specialized in Popes and nudes. He built the monument to Pope Clement XIV, which is a splendid jewelcase, and he was made curator of the Vatican Museum by Pope Pius VII and was sent by him after Waterloo to fetch back from Paris the works of art Napoleon had stolen from Rome.
   He also made the famous nude statue of Napoleon's sister Pauline, who was said to be a nymphomaniac (but what weight does that carry?  "Nymphomaniac" is a word coined by men to describe women who behave as they do themselves). It has occurred to me that perhaps Canova induced Pauline to sit for him in nakedness in order to insult in her person the womenfolk of an enemy of his country, but if he did he failed. For whenever he sculptured a nude woman he lifted her right out of reality. She ceased to be among the womenfolk of any man, enemy or friend, she became a child begotten on a wedding-cake by a moonbeam, without past and with a future, which is simply the perpetuation of an eventless present, flawless, isolated, not dead, but not alive.

   This curious quality, which is not exactly unearthly, rather experienceless, sometimes makes hay of his subject. He produced a Penitent Magdalen who is obviously regretting not her sins but her inability either to remember the complained-of incidents, or to understand why they caused this agitation, while most anxious to smooth everything over as pleasantly as possible. (Which is how she got into trouble in the first place.)

   Canova also illustrated a legend contrariwise in his Cupid and Psyche. There is no question but that nature had taken its course with the god and the girl in that story; Apuleius would no more have had it otherwise than would, say, Kenneth Tynan or Henry Miller. But in Canova's delicious sculpture it is just impossible that these lovers should have even embraced. Anything more than the most rarefied ecstasy would shatter the two fragile vessels. This work of art is utterly outside life, it has a blatant air of being removed from reality; it is not important in its abstract forms, which are tied too closely to the physical forms it over-prettifies; but one would really have to be an irredeemable prig not to adore it.
  Canova was a conspicuous fantasist, but it is not his peculiar failing. The art of sculpture does not show great competence in dealing with women, it has not provided the information about them which it has collected concerning men. I often think that when I start talking back on the Day of Judgment, and point out that the faults have not all been on one side, I shall be sure to mention, among the little things which would have given me pleasure but which were not forthcoming, though well within the resources of Providence, and doing nobody any harm, is a gallery about 200 yards long, with a sculptor's masterpiece set one to every four yards on each side, in perfect lighting. It would be a feast of beauty, and it would teach anyone who wanted to understand men quite a lot they ought to know. Only about men. I would have no marble women in my gallery.

   I would pick my marble men from all over time and space. I would certainly have the Colleoni equestrian statue by Verrocchio from Venice; and how it would repay the study of a woman who was thinking of marrying a man of action. Colleoni was one of the good soldiers and sportsmen who live so close to their dogs and horses that the animals take on human characteristics. Colleoni's dandified horse might be telling him a rumour he had heard from a mare.  
   Then there could be the exemplar of the sluttishness of genius, Rodin's Balzac; Verrocchio's David, warning all who may be concerned that the hero may be homosexual; the Prince of Flowers and the Knight of Eagles, who attract but give no promise of tenderness, of the abandonment of reserve; the Crusader on his tomb at Dorchester, a grand brute like an old prizefighter, a raw lump of courage, and very good at that; the Chinese head of the Disciple with Long Eyebrows which has been on my desk these thirty years, who knits his brows and lowers his eyelids and considers it coolly and sweetly. There would be ninety-three others as good as those; and any woman could learn from them what men are like.

    But if one put as many fine sculptures of women in a gallery, men would learn very little from them, for the information disclosed would be, for the most part, that women have faces and bosoms and bottoms, and we do not need the art of sculpture to tell us this. There seems to be a limiting factor on the representation of women by sculptors which can be seen very clearly in the history of the portrait-bust. The golden age of that artform was the 15th century, which produced masterpiece after masterpiece in which human beings were preserved in marble for ever. My favourite is the old physician Chellini, whom the skill of Bendetto da Majano has let us know as we know our own doctors. There he is in the Bargello, giving us his prescription, telling us to cultivate cynicism to the last degree possible before it begins to damage our fundamental faith in the universe, and always watch the dose.

   But there are almost no portrait busts of women in this period. There is just one of the first order by Desiderio da Settignano which shows a long-necked girl with a look of speed about her head that one sees in a racehorse or a whippet; one can imagine her legging it away from violence in that violent age, dodging the dungeons and the inheritance-hunting abductors. For the rest, Laurana made a regrettable bust of Isabella Sforza which is like the retouched photograph of a bride in a glossy magazine, and Verrocchio committed another of epic insignificance representing a woman clasping a bunch of primroses, the bossy President of a Quattrocento Garden Club. The male portrait busts give every trait of the sitters; they have the double function of presenting the total truth about an individual and a universal type. "An ideal type" is not quite the same as a universal type. It makes a vague allusion to some feminine activity of which men have heard and approve. But how vague.
    Think of the report a social worker would have turned in on the Virgin Mary. It would surely have conveyed that from an early age Mary had known trouble, and from the strange beginning to the bitter end had shown courage and resourcefulness. But nearly all sculptors (and many painters) represent her, even at the Crucifixion, without a line on her face, and often not even any impression, and no look of intelligence or liveliness or love. All one can say of some Virgins is that they are not actually dropping the Holy Child. And pagan deities fare no better if they are female. The goddesses are often just big girls, standing about.  Pallas Athena is a large woman with a fancy for wearing a fireman's helmet, Diana does not look as if she had sense enough to train hounds,  Venus looks as if she wanted nothing in particular out of life, which was not the case.
   The saints are just as deficient in psychological meat. Donatello's Judith, pausing in the middle of decapitating Holofernes, looks in front of her like a housewife, who, halfway through preparing a dish, has forgotten the recipe. The most positive saints have negative faces. What we are all missing by this pretence that nothing is going on inside women is brought home to us by the exceptional sculpture, rarer than rare, which is on too high a level to make pretence: the queens on the porch at Chartres, who show that experience is a great teacher when it finds great pupils, and that the school where it teaches is co-educational.

   There is no use making a fuss about it: the attitudes of men make life difficult but not intolerable. But that is why I would have no serious statues of women in my ideal gallery. Still, I would ask Providence to surround my gallery with a park.  This park I would pepper with statues of women which do not pretend to be serious: a certain nymph from the park of the Palais de Rambouillet, who has the right crescent moon look of youth; two leaden versions of Mme.du Barry and Mme. de Pompadour, transmogrified into sphinxes; two little pussycats, no better than they ought to be, who imprudently personify Arithmetic and Rhetoric in a summerhouse in the Vatican Gardens; and, whatever else I find, every statue of a woman ever carved - by Canova. He carried indifference to the interior life of women to the last degree of nonchalance, but how he cared about their exteriors!

  And how gracefully he reminds us that the war of the sexes has a redeeming feature in the frequency and intensity of the armistices.

April 13, 2012

Say what?

As we limp through election season, alternately moaning and groaning and kicking and screaming, one thing seems clear above all else-no one is particularly happy about the way things are going.  The problems facing the country seem as intractable as they are overwhelming, and there is general agreement that we are at a critical point as a nation.  However, polls I conducted around the neighborhood among friends and acquaintances show that no matter whom they end up casting their ballots for, it is a choice made grudgingly at best.  What they feel most passionate about is that the current field of candidates simply does not measure up.
As a friend was moved to state: “The front-runners look more like shipwreck victims who have washed up on the beach than sure-handed captains of the ship of state.” As a result, a make-the-best-of-it mood has gripped voters. Not exactly what you would call a ringing endorsement of the options offered up by our vaunted two-party system.

Election politics has always been something of a wild, unpredictable free-for-all, but the level and character of the discourse is now flirting with the absurd.  As economic problems have grown, so has voter alienation.  As a result, politics has become a fractious battle of special interests competing for votes.  One result of this competition has been the unfortunate albeit necessary focus on gimmicks to divert the public’s attention.   

But take heart: Things are not usually as bad as they seem.  Okay, maybe they are.  What is needed here is a moment to step back, take a deep breath, and try to gain a broader perspective.  And I can’t think of a better way to do this-our elected leader’s head-in-the-sand-and-ignore-them policy notwithstanding-than to look around.  Any American feeling sick and tired of the same old uninspired blather from the candidates, or the obsessive focus on possible scandal, might want to consider the campaign tactics of the Italian Moana Pozzi and the Party of Love.  At meetings, the plunge of Pozzi’s neckline was almost suicidal, and the split of her skirt reached nearly to her armpits.  But there was also Pozzi unclothed: To raise money for her campaign, she charged $10 to watch her strip at the party headquarters in Rome.  And we Americans think Jerry Brown is unconventional.
Unfortunately, however entertaining the fun and games of Italian politics may sound in comparison to our own seemingly moribund system, these distractions mean that the critical issues get completely lost all of which is to say that while our own political system is far from perfect, it still looks pretty good when viewed from the right angle.
And finally, out of the mouth of babes, with their inbuilt sense of right and wrong Urban Hipsters at the library replied when ask about all this- “Say what? Don’t you grown-ups vote these dudes into office? If they won’t do their job can’t you just fire them?”  Not a bad idea and perhaps we should lower the voting age too.

April 10, 2012

Beware the midnight hour; all is silence and madness.

“The Grand Canal at Midnight” by Felix Francois G.P. Ziem

They charge from their tour boats like Trojans from the horse. These tourists who march behind their leaders' banners and take the city by siege claiming their booty from souvenir stalls: gondolier hats, gondolier shoes, gondolier shirts, and bumper stickers that proclaim, VENEZIA!
As the guides invade the hush of churches their booming voices ricochet off the walls. Old ladies in black shawls unfold themselves from prayer and wander out into the light, surrendering their peace to the invading hordes. That is, after all, the Venetian tradition, staying one step ahead of the barbarians.  It’s what first drove them to this improbable place, to set a civilization on a foundation of reeds and swamps, leaving terra firma and pragmatism far behind.
The tourists take the church of Santa Maria dei Frari at a trot. Thirty seconds for Titian's Assumption, three for Bellini's Madonna triptych.
The call to a waiter at Florian's, "Hey, Amico!" Amico approaches formally. A woman in her sixties with an open, innocent face and hair permed for the ages puts down her copy of Europe Cheap! and asks, "Is your orange juice like it was in Rome? You know, kind of bitter?" The waiter bows slightly at the waist and says, "I don't know, madame. I was not in Rome."
Disneyland or Venice?  Well, it depends; the city will oblige and be either, depending on what you want. Do you want something to tell the Rotary Club back home or do you want to be moved? Do you dare to be moved?
If so, book a room on the Grand Canal. Never mind that people will tell you it's noisy and you won't be able to sleep. That's not why you won't be able to sleep. It's amazement, not noise, that will keep you wakeful. Book a room on the Grand Canal so that you can observe Venice when it is most itself. At dawn and midnight. This is when it will have its way with you.
Six in the morning. The sun sprays gold across the canal's green slick, and the work boats ply its path. The deep grunts of the motors slowing down, revving up, changing gears. Your wake-up call. The postman shouts from his boat to the garbageman in his; the garbageman greets the greengrocer floating by with baskets of dewy figs reflecting the early light. Their voices bounce off the water's edge and echo along the palazzo walls, bringing the news of the day.
The news of the day is that you cannot be casual about Venice once you have made your commitment to know it. There is no escaping its demand that you see and be moved. Try as you might to shake it by spending hours in lace shops, mask shops, paper shops.  Each dawn, as you hear the bells of Santa Maria delIa Salute, the church built to honor Mary for driving the plague from the city, you will be reminded of the fragility of life on the water. And you will feel just that fragile, just that vulnerable.
If you give yourself to those quiet times before the arrival of the hordes, if you dare give yourself over to enchantment, you will not be the first to be left speechless. How to describe it? How to put a finger on it and press it down as if it were a butterfly captured for closer scrutiny? Captured for revelation. It's no wonder that Byron regularly swam the length of the Grand Canal. Swam out into the lagoon. Swam to the Lido. Swam for his life and wavering sanity. He was trying to clear his head, to find the words to describe this mystery posing as a city. But for the pollution, you too might swim the canals as if your life depended on it, as if you could swim to revelation.
Of course, you can get away from the crowds all together. Leave the city for a place with a pool and a garden, peace and quiet, and cool, clean air. Head for the camaraderie of other Americans and relax with the news of New York and Boston after too much news from Bellini and Titian. Leave Venice and ease your mind.
But if you dare put yourself at the mercy of Venice, book a room at the Gritti Palace and stand on your balcony over the Grand Canal as nighttime comes, as the curtain descends and the players kick off their shoes and masks. The audience departs amid complaints or praise, depending on their expectations. They will discuss whether it was worth the journey, and leave you behind as the lights go off and the poignancy of an empty theater settles about you.
If you remain as silent as your surroundings, you'll begin to sense the presence of old actors and old dramas, long since played out. Venice at midnight, when the tour boats have cast off the pier at the foot of San Marco, when the sellers of maps and masks and postcards have closed their stalls with a violent clang of metal, when the potbellied baritone who sings " '0 Sole Mio" from the helm of a hired gondola has silenced his voice with a glass of grappa, when the guides have folded their banners and soaked their feet, this is when Venice returns to her senses.
And this is when you are at risk. You cannot divert your attentions with another trip to Krizia or Bottega Veneta. Harry's Bar is closed, and you cannot eavesdrop on the petulant ladies who complain, "Well, next time we'll insist that we be seated upstairs." The doors of the Accademia are locked against your compulsion to see, to learn, to swallow a culture whole. The tourists have left their sun blocks and novels on the beach at the Lido, and their chatter of restaurants and bargains has retreated to dreams. No more clatter of cups and glasses at the espresso bars, no more shouted conversations between boatmen. Venice returns to her watery loneliness, relieved by an occasional cry of a seabird diving through green, guided by the moon's reflected light. A cat protests the silence and then surrenders to it.

“venice looking east from the guidecca sunrise” by joseph mallord william turner

For Ms. Anja.  Not yet hooked on Venice?  Just you wait.  Not so much for the first impression, or even the first day or week, but that growing feeling of unease and intrigue and the realization that you are in a place unlike any other.

April 03, 2012


 “For darkness restores what light cannot repair.”
― Joseph Brodsky

At night when its magnificent palaces are reflected in the shimmering water, Venice, in all its unreal beauty does look like a movie set.  

When I opened the window for the first time  I realized that at nine o'clock in the morning the streets were already busy with tourists. The Co-op supermarket only a leisurely five or six minute walk from the house was packed because every budget-conscious tourist seemed to have found their way there.
Nearby there used to be a bakery, a little general store, a butcher, a green grocer, a newsstand, and a cobbler – in short, everything needed for everyday life was close at hand. Now they have all been transformed into souvenir shops. The street is a continuous succession of small shops selling fake Murano glass, pizzerias charging eight euros a slice, tourist restaurants, bars and pastry shops. The post office I could not find for ages.
Venice is a difficult city to live in, normally.  Difficult too, to make an appointment on time because public transportation is so crowded that you have to fight your way onto the vaporetto. The whole infrastructure is geared toward tourists, from the prices in the stores and restaurants to the theatre performances in English and concerts of classical music in churches where the musicians wear Baroque costume. Property is absurdly expensive, and there are fewer and fewer markets, schools, kindergartens, clinics, and hospitals.

In the past fifty years Venice has lost 65 per cent of its population and only 23 per cent, mostly older people, live in the city's historical centre. Just a few decades ago, 150,000 people lived in the old part of town, but today that number is barely 40,000, and it is steadily declining: partly because Venice is too expensive to live in and people are moving to outlying areas, to Mestre for instance, and partly because there is no work for the young and educated. Venice has an excellent university, lots of young people come here to study, but they don't stay. If you don't want to be a waiter or a maid or to help the elderly, you don't have much of a choice.

Many Venetians are renting out apartments others have sold their property and are  nibbling away at their capital. The fact remains, however, that for those who live here – and it is an aging population – life is becoming increasingly hard. One has to survive the onslaught of millions of tourists every year, that mass of people pouring through the streets of this magnificent city of canals and little alleyways that are rarely more than three or four metres wide. Venetians know only too well that they are living not in a city but a museum.

And that Venice is becoming less and less a real, living city, and more and more a museum of Europe's past, embodying all the glory, wealth, power, beauty and art of times long past. That is precisely why millions of tourists come to see it. The mass tourism industry was the first to realize that there was money to be made.

At the same time, the Venice of today is a perfect metaphor for Europe as it once was, the Europe whose culture and values Europeans swear by, take pride in and wish to preserve.