Showing posts from September, 2007

The Age of Rembrandt: Dutch Paintings in the Met

The exhibition should be re-titled The Age of Acquisitions. Arranged according to how and when the Met acquired these paintings, the exhibition is less about the painters than about the Met and its curators and donors. Which is a huge disappointment to anyone who wants to learn more about the painters and the paintings.

The Rembrandt self-portraits excited me much less than before. This time round I was struck by how sensitive the Dutch were in painting portraits of old women. I also liked very much a wonderful still life by Willem Kalf (1619-1693), a painter I discovered for the first time here. It makes me think of the Dutch/Flemish tradition from which Matisse's still life paintings sprang.

Still Life with Fruit, Glassware, and a Wan-li Bowl, 1659

The composition of Wheat Fields, by Ruisdael, is magnificent. The road, grandly rutted, reminds me of the river in Turner's Dieppe Harbour, in the Frick. Both have the same intensely mixed colors, though one is of land, and the other…

TLS September 28 2007

from James Hall's review of Patricia Lee Rubin's Images and Identity in Fifteenth Century Florence:

In her section on vision...she refers to Lorenzo Ghiberti's discussion of optics in his autobiographical treatise, and then concludes that the primacy of sight was "unquestioned" in fifteenth century Florence. Yet one of Ghiberti's most striking remarks concerns the discovery of an antique statue of a hemaphrodite in a drain in Rome: "In this statue were the greatest refinements. The eye perceived nothing if the hand had not found it by touch". No doubt Giovanni Chelleini and his descendants would have thought the same about Donatello's roundel, and would have passed their fingers over it both to appreciate the marvellous variations in texture--and to touch God. Art was cherished and pored over, and not just glanced at on the way to the market, bank or port.


from Bharat Tandon's review of Philip Roth's Exit Ghost:

Exit Ghost's focus is…

London Bridge Triolet

London Bridge is falling down the stairs,
rocks and girders klumpety-klump-klump.
Where is the floor? Where is the siren? Where
London Bridge is. Falling down the stairs,
eighteen-wheelers, drivers, cabs and fares
pile on top of the bright twisted dump.
London Bridge is falling down. The stairs,
rocks, and girders klumpety-klump clump.

Helvetica, the documentary

Helvetica is everywhere. Born of post-war idealism, it represented for its creators, disseminators and users rationality, clarity, accessibility, transparency, and accountability. Above all, it was seen as modern; it was the still usable part of modernism. At the same time, the font was seen as neutral. It had no ideological designs on the words, but conveyed the content like clear plastic wrap. I was intrigued by this apparent contradiction between modernity and neutrality, or how one was seen by postwar designers as almost the equivalent of the other. Helvetica, from the Latin word for Switzerland, Helvetia, is a Swiss font.

In the eyes of its detractors, Helvetica is the font of bureaucracy and corporations. IRS uses it on its forms, as do American Airlines and Target for their names. In the 1970s, the rejection of Helvetica was a form of protest against the Vietnam War. The pendulum swings, and now some designers adopt Helvetica, but with some personal variations. Innovation, inste…

Milestones in the Study of Human Anatomy

information from "Bodies: The Exhibition" website:

162 BCE
Galen moved to Rome and became a physician at the imperial court. He was the attending physician at a gladiators' school.

1522-1523 CE
Jacopo Berengario da Carpi published the first detailed anatomical descriptions of the human body in a series of illustrations.

Andreas Vesalius' On the Workings of the Human Body features elaborate and accurate drawing of the dissected human body. This tome marks the beginning of modern anatomy and emphasized the importance of dissection.

The painting Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, by Rembrandt, demonstrates the intimate connection between artists and anatomists.

Henry Gray's Anatomy, Descriptive and Surgical is first published.

Work on the Visible Human Project began with the goal of creating complete, anatomically detailed, 3-D representations of the normal male and female bodies.

The Human Genome Project is successful in identifying the approximately 2…


Behind the wall is a lake,
paddles a grown lake
until the greying wall breaks.

TLS September 21 2007

from Oliver Dennis' Commentary piece "Smoke rings" on the first unapologetic poet of Australia, John Shaw Neilson:

He was born in 1872 to parents of Scottish ancestry at Penola, South Australia. Neilson's father, John Neilson, wrote poetry, and encouraged his son's interest in doing so. His wife, Margaret, was by all accounts warm and loving, but also rigidly Presbyterian and prone to nervousness....the family moved throughout north-west Victoria in search of a better life, but never managed to overcome their poverty as other early settlers had done. Neilson worked with his father clearing scrub, and often composed poems in his head.


the concluding lines of "The Walker on the Sand" (1934):

The spires so delicate are but the fears
Of the poor fishes back a million years;
These terraces that bring the eye delight
Are but the wishes of the birds at night.
They all have feared the Riddler, he who planned
The reptiles and the fishes hungry from the sea.
Slowly I wal…

NY City Opera's Margaret Garner

I watched only my second opera yesterday afternoon. Margaret Garner is based on the real story of a runaway slave who killed her daughter to rescue her from slavery. The same story inspired Beloved, by Toni Morrison who wrote the libretto for the opera.

Unlike the novel, the opera focuses less on the moral complexity of that act of infanticide than on the far more black-and-white struggle of Edward Gaines, the plantation owner, whether to ask for Margaret's reprieve from execution for the crime of stealing and destroying his property, her children. As such, the opera has a feel-good atmosphere to it, despite the horrific acts of oppression, rape and murder. Edward Gaines asks for the reprieve, but Margaret pulls the platform lever to kill herself anyway, and is transformed into a spot-lit spirit wandering among both blacks and whites standing around the hanging. Anthony Tommasini of the NYT described the ending as "a major miscalculation," and I agree. It tries too hard t…


Peace--leaning against a wall
watching the world pass
before the wall collapses


Green apples on an old tree
dead sentries off the Great Wall

TLS September 4, 2007

from Adam Bresnick's review of Clive James's Cultural Amnesia: Notes in the margin of my time:

Given the torrent of arguments and cataract of topics under consideration, James relies on style to provide the glue for his project, professing his "faith that the unity would come from the style". Now style, as Roland Barthes once argued, amounts to the distillation of the writer's body, the scripted trace of his likes and dislikes as they move from impression to expression. Style is the very index of the writer's sensibility in the old sense of the term.


For James, it is the Viennese writer Alfred Polgar, little known in the English-speaking world, but greatly esteemed in the Germanophone one, who is the model stylist, as Polgar manages to attend to his own text and the reality it would represent with equal acuity. James cites a few marvellous aphorisms that make one wish Polgar's works were readily available to the English reader: "The striking aphorism …

Poetry Thesis Workshop with Marie Ponsot

92nd Street Y just contacted me today to tell me Marie Ponsot has accepted me for her year-long Poetry Thesis Workshop, based on my 6-page manuscript submission. The workshop meets once a week, on Wednesday evenings, in two semesters of eight weeks each. I am really looking forward to working with her and the other workshop participants on my Book of the Body sequence. I have to immerse myself in that sequence again soon. Get into the Body, so to speak.

Mr. Otto Fong Comes Out (2)

I received a reply from the Headmaster of Raffles Institution to my letter of support for Mr. Otto Fong, a letter which also asked the school to allow the teacher to re-post his open letter on his blog. The background to this, and my first letter, may be read here.

I will not quote the reply from Bob Koh, the Headmaster, who signed off as Bob, since it is private correspondence, but I will give the gist of it in order to contextualize my follow-up letter. Mr. Koh's reply was very brief. It thanked me for sharing my views, and reassured me that the school would continue to focus on educating its students. It made no reference to my request for the school to allow Mr. Fong to re-post his letter.

I sent a follow-up letter to Mr. Koh today. The school's press statement cited by my letter was published in this New Paper article.

Dear Bob,

thank you for taking the time to write back. I understand your busy schedule may allow only a brief reply for the moment. But, at a time better for y…

Richard Sorabji's "Self"

from the chapter "The Self: is there such a thing?"

One reason why the notion of the self comes in is that humans and animals could not cope with the world at all unless they saw things in terms of I. The notion 'I' belongs to te same group of notions as 'now', 'here', 'yonder', 'this', 'that', 'today', 'past', 'present', 'future', 'ago', 'hence'....What I would emphasize is that these words and the corresponding ideas have an irreplaceable importance, because they have a unique ability to guide action and emotion. If Adam Smith knows, 'An arrow gets to be fired through the window of Adam Smith's study on May 1 2004', he will have no idea whether precautions are called for, except insofar as he can also judge, 'I am Adam Smith', and 'Today is May 1 2004'. Otherwise Adam Smith might be anybody, and 2004 thousands of years into the past or future. These wo…

TLS, September 7, 2007

from Bettina Bildauer's review of Nikalus Largier's In Praise of the Whip: A cultural history of arousal:

Eighth-century hermits might have been the first to practise self-whipping, although the evidence is unreliable. Voluntary self-flagellation first became common in the eleventh and twelfth centuries in the monastic orders, where whipping had previously been used only as a punishment. The eleventh-century Benedictine writer St Peter Damian played a crucial role in popularizing this practice. It was incorporated into rituals of penitence and confession, of praying or singing the Psalter, but also into private devotion....In 1260/61, flagellation became a mass movement. The city of Perugia, perceiving itself in crisis, officially suspended work for a month in order to allow the citizens to repent and whip themselves. A procession went to Bologna, and flagellant processions soon started up throughout Europe, as people everywhere took out a month or longer to repent in this extr…

Kwame Anthony Appiah's "Cosmopolitanism"

I admire Appiah's respect for reason and his understanding of its limits in grappling with the question of what we owe to strangers. If the book gives more arguments against other philosophical positions (such as Postivism, or the concept of cultural patrimony, or the ethical theories of Peter Singer and Peter Unger) than arguments in support of its own, it is partly because such clearing of the ground is necessary before we can see better the complexities of the question. The title of the crucial chapter, "The Primacy of Practice," shows where Appiah's philosophical thinking and sympathies lie.

From the Introduction:

So there are two strands that intertwine in the notion of cosmopolitanism. One is the idea that we have obligations to others, obligations that stretch beyond those to whom we are related by the ties of kith and kind, or even the more formal ties of shared citizenship. The other is that we take seriously the value not just of human life but of particular …

Mr. Otto Fong Comes Out in an Open Letter

Mr. Otto Fong, a Science Teacher from Raffles Institution, my alma mater, came out as gay in his blog. The school has since gotten him to delete that blog-post, an action supported by Singapore's Ministry of Education. In a statement released on September 10, the Ministry said that it “does not condone any open espousal of homosexual values by teachers in any form, in or out of the classroom” as "teachers are in a unique position of authority and are often seen as role models by their students."

You can read Mr. Fong's letter on Fridae as well as Online Citizen. The letter strikes me as courageous and thoughtful, and its posting on the blog a well-considered decision. It comes hot on the heels of Lee Kuan Yew's recent comment (International Herald Tribune, August 24, 2007) that striking down anti-gay laws is "a matter of time."

I wrote an email to Bob Koh, the Headmaster of the school, in order to support Mr. Fong, and to ask that the school allow the rep…

Queens Museum of Art

Visited the Museum for the first time on Saturday. It is located behind the Unisphere, a metal globe surrounded by fountains, in Corona Park, Flushing Meadows. Of the works on display in the exhibition, Generation 1.5, I was most excited by the ballpoint pen drawings of the Korean artist, Il Lee. According to this NYT article, Mr. Lee has been making ballpoint pen drawings for 25 years; he began shortly after moving to the United States in the mid-1970s from his native Korea, where he was born in 1952. He went first to Los Angeles then to New York.

Of the above painting, “BL-060” (2005), the NYT article says: "[it] is pure graphic intensity. A large, horizontal, heavily inked abstraction, it suggests a mountain range, the ocean, a wide-open landscape and even a rain cloud — nature captured in abstract terms. From some angles you’d swear you could step right into the picture."

The drawing I like best is the one below. I don't know its title. Its beautiful abstraction remind…


Together we watched the wild desolate seascape
in the movie about the spotless mind. Montauk,
we know today, is neither wild nor desolate:
not the lake-harbor in the shape of a human head,
where motorboats march in a column to marinas,
and fancy restaurants serve seafood kept fresh by the sea—
orange-red lobster in the raw, oven roasted fluke,
sweet mahi mahi, lemony mussels, wild salmon;
not the Village, where souvenir vendors sell Montauk
tank tops and, knowing summer’s term, Montauk sweatshirts,
where in the barrack-style beach motels bivouac
surf soldiers darkened by the experience of sun,
where the Atlantic, ancient, absolvent, adjacent
to the one main drag, drowns the Sturm und Drang
of adulterous couples, estranged couples, gay couples,
and Indian families finding another sacred fount;
not wild, not desolate, not so at the lighthouse,
the first savior of ships erected in these States,
with its museum of maritime wrecks, coastal maps—
sounding the measurements of safe passage to sea
and back, or jo…

TLS August 24 & 31 2007

from David Arnold's review of Martha C. Nussbaum's The Clash Within: Democracy, religious violence and India's future:

In a work that moves at times erratically between history, gender studies and psychoanalysis, she asks why the Hindu Right seems so obsessed with the idea of purity - whether the Hindu faith or of Hindu women - and is so vehemently hostile to a Muslim minority that is relatively small, poor and powerless. She sees the Right as having an underlying need to counter the deep divisions within the highly heterogeneous Hindu community by asserting its own militancy and in seeking out Muslims as its irreconcilable opposite.


In a further search for explanations, Nussbaum turns to India's founding fathers, adding to the inevitable Gandhi and Nehru a third figure, the Bengali poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore...Her preference is for Tagore, a man of wide symapthies rather than narrow nationalism, whose experiments in education encouraged individual develop…

Montauk Aug 31 to Sep 3

We first saw the wild desolate seascape of Montauk together, in the film "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" starring Jim Carrey. From that point we decided we would find a time to visit this fishing town at the eastern end of Long Island.

The Montauk we found was neither wild nor desolate: not at the harbor at the neck of the enormous lake, where water crafts--sailboats and motor-boats--were docked at marinas like so many cars in parking lots, and where expensive restaurants boasted of fresh local seafood--cold mussels, steamed lobster in the raw, oven roasted striped bass, pan seared fluke fillet--and of stunning views of the harbor and the lake; not in the Village, where beach shops selling Montauk tanktops, shorts, jackets and sweaters competed with each other, having vanquished the local department stores, where pancake restaurants offered cheap breakfasts to young surfers and loafers, alongside fancier establishments cooking up early bird dinners and late night live…

POETRY September 2007

On the Long Island Rail Road train to Montauk, I read Kay Ryan's review of The Notebooks of Robert Frost, edited by Robert Faggen. The review was absorbing, so I did not pay much attention to the towns and villages flashing by.

In the notebooks Frost displays a kind of mind that thinks in PowerPoint, generating stays against confusion almost before there was any confusion. He repeats to himself what he insisted on publicly: "Nothing more composing than composition," and in fact the phrase is the first line of Frost's final notebook. More tenderly he says, "To me any little form is velvet." Generally, however, the form is more Sharpie than velvet. His notebook thinking runs to arrows, vectors, circles, bulls'eyes, ascending trajectories, descending trajectories. "There is trajectory from less to more," he says in one place, and makes a little chart of the subcategories of this general truth: "From little or no family to more family…