Monthly Archives: April 2016

Arbor Day

Grant Wood  Oil Painting  1932

School children in many US states today are planting trees to commemorate Arbor Day.  The first Arbor Day was celebrated in 1872 when the Secretary of the Nebraska Territory,  J. Sterling Martin, proposed a tree planting celebration.  More than one million trees were planted in Nebraska on that day.

A Michigan native, he and his wife missed the numerous trees when they moved to Nebraska.  Originally a reporter and then a newspaper editor, he began writing articles about the importance of trees.  He was passionate about educating his fellow pioneers and inspiring them to join him in his tree planting mission.

Today, Arbor Day is celebrated on different dates depending on the best planting season.  Since it’s celebrated today in Illinois, Indiana, and Pennsylvania, three states in which I’ve lived, I thought April 29 was the correct day for this post.

Here is a great place to learn about the history:  https://www.arborday.org/celebrate/history.cfm

Grant Wood is a Depression era Iowa artist.  His Painting American Gothic is one of the most famous American paintings of all time.  Although he studied in Europe and was particularly influenced by Van Ecyk, he found his inspiration at home in the Midwest.

He spent the majority of his life teaching in Iowa and is one of the best, and certainly the most well known Regionalist painter.  He was a founding member of the Stone City Art Colony where he taught and encouraged others to join the Regionalist movement.  He was also actively involved in the Public Works of Art Project in Iowa, as were his students.

Arbor Day depicts Grant Wood’s one room schoolhouse.  The teacher and boys plant a tree to commemorate the day. You can see a town in the far distance.  This painting is featured on the back of the Iowa state quarter.

I love this painting.  Love it.  There is something very satisfying to me in the parallel curved lines.  Start with the tracks on the road, then the layers of dirt, then up to the positioning of the boys in a U shape, and beyond them to the path next to the school.  Then the lines continue throughout the rolling hills.  It’s very orderly with the perfect fields.

Forget American Gothic, this is Regionalism at its best.  Of course, that could be the Midwestern girl in me.  Happy Arbor Day!

Each generation takes the earth as trustees. We ought to bequeath to posterity as many forests and orchards as we have exhausted and consumed.  –J. Sterling Martin

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Guernica

Pablo Picasso  Oil Painting  1937

Today we remember one of the first ever air raids of a civilian population in world history.  On April 26, 1937, the Spanish Civil War reached the Basque town of Guernica.  This wasn’t just a town, it was the cultural center of the Basque people and a symbol of their freedom.

Although the town was important to the Basque, it had little to no military significance.  There was an arms factory outside of the town that supplied the Spanish military and police, but it was really just a normal town.  A normal town full of an ethnic minority.  A normal town full of a free people during a very complicated civil war, a war which involved powerful militaries outside of their own.

The political situation was complicated.  Like most civil wars, there were two main parties at fight, the Republicans and the Nationalists led by Franco.  Also like many civil wars, these two sides were not fighting alone.  The Nationalists were supported by the Germans and Italians, the Republicans by the Russians and other communist parties.

April 26 was a market day.  Thousands of people were in the streets, as they were every single Monday at 4:30.  Some estimates suggest 10,000 were there.

For nearly three hours the civilian population of Guernica were bombed upon from above indiscriminately.  This wasn’t a single plane or even a single run.  In the end, there were five waves of the raid, including machine gun fire targeting individuals attempting to escape.

Conspiracy theories abound, but it is now widely accepted that while the German Condor Legion carried out the attack, it was under the direct order of the Nationalist forces.  The Spanish General Franco blamed the Republicans, his opposition in the Civil War.  The truth is that Franco, backed by the Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, wanted to terrorize and break the Nationalists.  The Basque were a particular thorn in his side because of their autonomy.

The Germans saw this as an opportunity to try out new tactics for the future.  Guernica is often compared to the Dresden bombing of World War II.  This would be the beginning of terror bombings, done solely to break the will of a people, with little or nothing to gain militarily.

The casualty reports from this day vary widely, everywhere from 350 to over 1,600.  It is sometimes also noted that it is believed over 800 people died in the days and weeks following the attack.  Regardless of the number, it was effective.  Franco would continue to lead Spain until he fell ill shortly before his death in 1975.

In 1937, Pablo Picasso was commissioned by the Spanish Republican government for a painting to represent Spain in the World’s Fair.  Although originally from Spain, after his visit in 1934 he didn’t return home but remained in France.

It’s said that after he read reports of the bombing of Guernica he was so moved he thought it was his responsibility to make sure the world knew.  A painting at the World’s Fair was the perfect way to do it.  Guernica is often considered one of the most influential anti-war works of art of all time.  It is also one of Picasso’s most well-known.

I’ll be completely honest, I’m not a fan of cubism.  I actually would have zero interest in this painting if I didn’t know the history behind it.  Picasso intentionally painted no traits that were specifically related to the bombing of Guernica so it would stand the test of time and can be applied to any war situation.

There is a lot of speculation about the symbolism in this painting.  I think the pain and suffering of the people is quite obvious.  The broken sword in the center symbolizes a crushing defeat.  What I naturally think of as a cluttered, over-crowded space is meant to be seen as crushing oppression.

Picasso continued to live in Paris during the occupation.  Needless to say, he wasn’t particularly popular with the Gestapo.  One story is told that during a search of his studio an officer saw a photo of Guernica and asked Picasso if he created it.  His reply?  “No, you did.”

Today, take a moment to consider the innocent men, women, and children lost in the name of war.  When you think about it, they are all innocent.  Children are not born to kill each other, but the reality is that they do.  Those pilots and gunners were not born to massacre, but they did.  Try to keep perspective when someone nonchalantly suggests carpet bombing to make a point.  That point has already been made.

 

 

 

Chernobyl. Last Day of Pripyal

Alexey Akindinov  Oil Painting  2014

Thirty years ago the world witnessed a catastrophic nuclear disaster, one that would be considered the  worst until Fukushima Daiichi in 2011.  This level 7 disaster (on a scale of 7) came just seven years after the level 5 accident at Three Mile Island.  On April 26, 1986, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Pripyal, Ukrainian SSR experienced a meltdown that released radioactive particles into the atmosphere of most of western USSR and Europe.

Because the plant was state run out of Moscow, the Ukrainian government did not initially receive word about the explosion or continuing fire.  The people of Pripyal went about their daily business.  It would be several hours before they were asked to evacuate.  Even then they were told everything was under control, it was a minor incident.  Those evacuated left the majority of their possessions as they were told they would be able to return after about three days.  Their possessions remain there thirty years later.

Thirty one deaths were originally reported as a direct result of the explosion.  That number is now generally thought to be closer to 50 when you include those in a helicopter crash, although the number is still disputed.  Hundreds of fire and rescue workers suffered from acute radiation poisoning.  Some believe the actual total of deaths related to the meltdown could eventually be as high as 4,000, mostly due to thyroid poisoning.  Still others believe an additional 5,000 on top of that will deal with cancer or illness related to the fallout.

There is a lot of data available not only about the direct human toll, but also about how the radiation effected the air, the water, and the land, as well as the economic impact and social impact.  After this event, many countries upgraded or changed their nuclear power regulations and evacuation plans.  Although the US had already implemented several safety upgrades and changes after Three Mile Island, public opinion was unmistakably shaken.  The nuclear energy sector in America has never fully recovered.

This amazing painting by Alexey Akindinov tells three stories at once.  To the right there is a circle enclosing a mother with a baby in Pripyal looking out toward Chernobyl.  They look out to the Ferris wheel in the distance.  The circle is framed with small radiation symbols.  She does not yet know what is to become of her home, her health, or the health of her baby.

The largest part of the painting is the middle section of the plant itself.  Note the workers fleeing in the background.  The fire fighters and rescue workers attempt to extinguish the flames.

The lower left depicts the scene of the miners digging a tunnel to build a cooling slab under the fourth reactor.  This was done so they could build a sarcophagus around the reactor to keep it from releasing further radiation to the atmosphere.  Notice the collapsed miner outside the tunnel.  A note about the original sarcophagus, it was built to last twenty or thirty years.

The entire painting is covered with what I would describe as snowflakes.  This is really what drew me to this painting.  They are to represent the radiation that was saturating the air.  I think the texture this creates is just incredible.

There are a lot of close ups of this painting here:  http://www.akindinov.com/news-archives/368-news-19-10-2014-en  This website also has a lot of information about each of the vignettes represented in the artist’s own words.  The translation is a bit sketchy, but you’ll get the picture.

There are also some very interesting photos and diagrams in this current USA Today article.  http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2016/04/25/chernobyl-30-year-anniversary/83220302/

 

 

 

Colonial Penguins

Matt D at collageOrama  Illustration  2016

Today is World Penguin Day.  Not to be confused with National Penguin Awareness Day which is in January, today is actually about penguin migration.  Traditionally, today is the day Adelie penguins return from their long migration at sea.

Check out lots of penguin facts and amazing photos here.  http://www.penguins-world.com/

Did you know a group of penguins is called a colony?  Nothing on earth is funnier to me than animals wearing clothes.  Nothing.  The only thing that can make that better is a good play on words.  They are colonial penguins.  Get it?

This awesome illustration is from one of my favorite etsy shops, collageOrama.  You can find them here:  https://www.etsy.com/listing/82908855/penguin-art-print-a-colony-of-penguins?ref=shop_home_listings

Welcome Home, Penguins!

 

 

Easter Rising Centennial Commemoration Mural

Gael Force Art Community  Mural  2016

One hundred years ago today on May 24, 1916, the Easter Rising began.*  The Irish Republican Brotherhood organized the Irish Volunteers, the Irish Citizen Army, and the women’s paramilitary group Cumann na mBan in seizing key locations in Dublin.  The 1,600 people were fighting for the establishment of the Irish Republic, an independent Irish state.

Six days later the insurrection was suppressed. The casualty numbers seem to vary depending on the source, but most sources say there were nearly 500 dead and 2,000 wounded.  The leaders of the Rising would be executed a few weeks later.

For a good step by step breakdown of the six day Rising as well as the days leading up to and following, take a look here:  http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/heritage/1916-schools/a-blow-by-blow-guide-to-the-easter-rising-1.2353931

Although the majority of Irish people were not at first inclined to support the Brotherhood, after the 15 executions public support started to swing.  In 1922 a treaty was signed to move beyond Home Rule.  “The Treaty” (officially the Articles of Agreement for a Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland) established the Irish Free State.

The Irish still continue to this day to fight for their rights and freedom.  The Easter Rising is generally accepted as the event that changed the views of the nation’s people.  Although it was slow, gradual change, it led to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 when direct London ended in Northern Ireland.

Ireland, Northern Ireland, and British relations are historically complex.  I certainly can’t cover even a miniscule amount of their history in one blog post.  Please continue researching on your own!  (And please take a look at one of my very favorite historical figures of all time, Michael Collins.)

I think most Americans have no idea this type of mural is extremely popular in Ireland, particularly Belfast.  I didn’t either until I was recently able to watch some university lectures specifically on this subject.  I would strongly encourage you to visit http://www.extramuralactivity.com to see many other examples.  You can also find a really cool interactive slide show and map here:  http://belfast-murals.co.uk/

I also suggest you visit the Facebook page of Gael Force Art where you’ll find many more close-ups of this amazing work.   The photo credit also belongs to that site.  They are a West Belfast Artist Collective.  There is so much going on here it’s much better for you to see all the close-ups and the descriptions they give there.  Or if you’re in Ireland you can see it on Falls Road in Belfast.

I’ll just point a couple of my favorite things about this mural.  Obviously, the largest section of the mural is the burning GPO with an incredible phoenix rising from the flames.  The wings are amazing and lead your eye right up to the quote at the top.

I like the incredibly clever use of the giant newspaper clipping.  It’s framed inside a billboard type box that normally holds the name of an accounting agency (see the photos of the mural in process).  They took what could have been a hindrance and not only made it work, but made it one of the most interesting parts of the piece.  To continue the 3D look, they’ve used the framed portraits of eight of the leaders, including Countess Markievicz, (look out for a post about her someday as well) and surrounded the clipping.

I think this mural is an amazing commemoration to those that gave their lives one hundred years ago today.  Today we remember our brothers and sisters of the Irish Free State.

*The Rising is generally remembered in Ireland on Easter instead of the actual date, but I started this blog after Easter and really wanted to include something.

St. George and the Dragon

Vittore Carpaccio  Tempera on Panel  1502

Traditionally, the people of England celebrate St. George’s Day on April 23 to commemorate his martyrdom on this date in 303 AD.  Like most saints, it’s very difficult to separate historical fact from myth.  St. George’s story swirls with contradictions and mystery.  I won’t even bother to try to get to the bottom of it,  I’ll just hit some highlights.

St. George was a Roman soldier in the time of Emperor Diocletian in the late 200s CE.  His father had been a Roman army official in what is modern day Turkey.  His mother was from Palestine.  They were both Christians and raised George in their faith.

Possibly because the emperor knew his father, George rose quickly through the ranks and was part of the Imperial guard by his mid 20s.  On February 24, 303 CE Diocletian issued an edict essentially demanding the conversion of all of his army.  Each soldier was to offer a sacrifice to the Roman gods.  Not only did George very publicly refuse, he declared he was a Christian.  Although offered riches and land, he held to his beliefs.

He knew his execution was imminent, so he gave his money and possessions to the poor.  He suffered through torture, although the stories of his torture vary widely.  Most stories say he died on three separate occasions and was brought back to life.  Eventually, he was decapitated to finish him off.

There are many, many stories and myths surrounding the slaying of the dragon.  Most involve some sort of damsel in distress.  There is one version that I like best.  It says that Diocletian’s wife, Empress Alexandra, witnessed George’s torture and suffering.  She was so moved by his resolve that she too converted to Christianity.  She is the damsel present in the story.

The dragon is the representation of Diocletian himself.  George “slayed” Diocletian not by killing him, but by standing by his faith.  By doing so, his death brings Empress Alexandra to the light, freeing her from her unchristian life and missing out on eternal afterlife.

It’s said his story was brought back to England by the Crusaders.  The story also spread to the Eastern Roman Empire and eventually to Georgia, where he is also the patron saint.  No, the country was not named for him, but they don’t really mind if you think that.  There are numerous stories of St. George protecting armies and heartening soldiers.

Vittore Carpaccio was a Venetian artist in the late 15th, early 16th centuries.  He was one of the early masters of the Venetian Renaissance and studied under Bellini.  His style evolved into what is considered “orientalist,” which is the category in which  St. George and the Dragon falls, generally meaning he used a Middle Eastern setting with more accurate architecture and details.

Like many versions of the St. George story, this painting is set in Beirut.  The buildings in the background are obviously designed to represent Lebanon.  The landscape is sand with little vegetation.  It is slightly annoying to me that St. George is blonde as his father was Turkish and his mother was Palestinian, but I guess you can’t have everything.

In the far right you see the woman, Empress Alexandra in my mind.  She’s in prayer to be saved.  St. George is on his stallion slaying the dragon with his lance.  And scattered on the ground are body parts and skulls, representatives of the victims of the beast.

Regardless of how you view the St. George story, I encourage you to take a close look at this wonderfully macabre painting.  I also encourage you to read some of the many, many versions of his story.  Happy St. George’s Day!

 

 

 

Death of the Pharaoh’s Firstborn Son

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema  Oil Painting  1872

There are two sides to every story.  Realistically, there are multiple views to every story.

And Moses said, “Thus says Yahweh, ‘About the middle of the night I will go out through the midst of Egypt, and every firstborn in the land of Egypt will die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the firstborn of the slave woman who is behind the pair of millstones and every firstborn animal. And there will be a great cry of distress in all the land of Egypt, the like of which has not been nor will be again.   Exodus 11: 4-6*

Tonight Jews and (some) Christians celebrate Passover.  They remember the actions of Moses and Aaron  that led to the deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.  They thank God for persuading the pharaoh to free them.  However, we may want to take a moment to remember the “persuasion” tactics.

Read the quote above a second time.  Yes, he was enslaving what’s said to be hundreds of thousands of people.  Yes, he had nine plagues before this to free the slaves.  Yes, he was duly warned.  And yes, he was a father.  He mourned bitterly for the death of his son, as did every other non-Israelite in all of Egypt.

Think about that.  Think of every father and mother, brother and sister, grandparent, friend.  Think of every innocent child.   “And there will be a great cry of distress in all the land of Egypt, the like of which has not been nor will be again.”

When Passover is celebrated this evening we’ll thank God for passing over the doors of those that made the sacrifice of the lamb and marked their lintels with the blood.  We’ll thank God for being delivered from slavery.  We’ll thank God for sending Moses and Aaron to lead.  I ask that everyone also take one moment to remember the loss of children, the innocents who were sacrificed due to the decision of one man and one God.

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tedama was a Dutch painter who moved to England in his early 30s.  He lived there the rest of his life and eventually earned partial rights as a British denizen.  Classically trained, he is most well known for his wonderful paintings of classic Greece and Rome.  Although generally considered a Victorian painter, he knew many of the most influential Pre-Raphaelites and was obviously influenced by their work.

I find this painting of the pharaoh with his dead son in his arms so striking.  I know it doesn’t seem to fit the occasion, but as I mentioned at the beginning, every story has two sides.  The child’s mother has collapsed on her son.  The servants wail and mourn the loss.  In the background dancers and musicians play.  And in the upper right corner, Moses and Aaron await the decision of the pharaoh to let their people go.  I like to believe they also said a prayer for those lost.

The deep gold tones of this painting really set the mood.  The candles are well represented as the light sources and cast eerie shadows.  The pale skin of the dead child and his grief stricken mother draw your eye directly to them, then straight up to the face of the pharaoh, stunned, shocked at the pain.  He has decided the God of the Jews is strong.  He will let the people go.

Sorry to make this one so gloomy.  It really is a day of celebration.  Chag Pesach Sameach.  Happy Passover.

*I prefer the Lexham English Bible translation.  I also realize that for many this is not a historical story, but a myth or fairytale.  I think it really doesn’t matter how you look at the story, as long as you think about the fact that every decision made has a consequence, good or bad.