Last Post of 2013: Inspired by David Hockney

I can think of no better way to spend a lovely San Francisco afternoon than to go to the museum. Two days ago I went to see the David Hockney exhibition at the De Young Museum in San Francisco.  This is one of the largest current exhibitions of his work in the United States.  Of course it has been wildly popular, so I had the bright idea of joining the hordes of people flowing into the museum on a holiday weekend to view it.  My friend Charlotte had told me it was life changing, which made me both eager to see the work and a little skeptical. I didn’t know much about Hockney other than that he painted a lot of pretty blue swimming pools in L.A. back in the 1970’s.

At first it was difficult to enjoy the art, especially since I kept stumbling over people with audio guides glued to their ears. I was cranky, not happy to be trapped with all those strangers, but as I started to weave my way through the crowds, the art did what art always does: it took hold of me.

What was it that grabbed me, that shook something loose in me?  Partly it was the color and scale of the work. I loved having to put my head back to gaze up at his huge canvases full of vibrant color as well as individual works mounted in groups high up to the ceiling.   

Partly it was his use of technology. I was mesmerized by the drawings he had done on his iPad and iPhone. I loved the fact that this man in his 70’s continues to embrace new media to accomplish his art. The quality of those drawings is different, soft and with a rather mysterious air about them, as if the world they depict was misty, with a haze in the air that put everything into soft focus.

However, it wasn’t just the vibrant color that enthralled me. I found out that recently Hockney has been working in charcoal to record the same views of his native Yorkshire countryside at different times of the day and season.  I’ve always been such a sucker for color that I’ve never been much interested in drawings.  But those series of charcoal drawings stunned me.  Running up and down the walls, they made me stop and look slowly at each one. I thought about how I have forgotten to do this very thing – sit and reflect and record the passing of the day and what is happening around me.  I’ve been too busy worrying about the twists and turns of my own mind to sit and observe what is going on around me.

I did that last summer at Ghost Ranch – every morning going outside and gazing at the sky, trying to experience what each day brought. But recently, after the initial euphoria of establishing my writing routine, I’d forgotten to lift my eyes from the page to look at the stripe of sun that falling across the page of my journal. Or watch how I  make shadows dance with my pen as I carry it along the pages. I have forgotten to notice the sweet, spicy scent of the candle that burns among my jumble of rocks and flotsam that I’ve gathered to remind me of the person I want to become. 

What I got from the exhibit:  the reminder to look up, look up, look forward. And take hold of everything at your disposal to create.To make sure I don't forget (at least for a little while), I bought this print of one of Hockney's watercolors.

Continuing Journeys of The Sneaky Observateur

“People travel to faraway places to watch, in fascination, the kind of people they ignore at home.” – Dagobert D. Runes

Outside Hampton Court outside London, February 2012

The British Museum, London, February 2012

The British Museum, London, February 2012

The British Museum, London, February 2012
The British Museum, London, February 2012

The British Museum, London, February 2012

Drepano, Greece, June 2012

Drepano, Greece, June 2012

Nafplio, Greece, June 2012

Syntagma Square, Nafplio, Greece, June 2012

Ancient Greek Theater at Epidavros, Greece.  June 2012
The Fish Market, Athens, Greece, June 2012

Agamemnon's Tomb at Mysennea, Greece, June 2012

Dancing With The Madonna

One of my favorite paintings in the world is in one of my favorite places in the world:  the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.  The painting in question is in the room with Botticelli’s famous “Primavera” and “The Birth of Venus”.  Those two paintings are so popular that the room is always packed with people - even those who have no deep interest in art.  I remember my second visit to the Uffizi – I was traveling alone so I had been spending as much time as possible in museums and churches, soaking up art to my heart’s content. There was no one to beg me to leave, but also no one to share my experiences with.  Every time I turned from a piece of art, excited to see it again, my only companion was my notebook - that trusty shield that protects all solitary travelers.  However, as long as I had the paintings, I could be content. But on this day I couldn’t get near enough to see because of a tour group that flocked together in front of the naked Venus clothed only in her blonde hair.  They made me more than a bit cranky so I sat on a bench to wait them out. This is usually an easy thing to do since most people look at art for so short a time. I sat there feeling - I confess this freely - smug and superior to these "check it off my list" type of tourists.

            On this day, that wait was fortuitous because I had to make do with gazing at the other Botticelli paintings in the room – no less beautiful – but much less famous.  Perhaps because they are subtler, they take longer contemplation.  One in particular caught my eye. Titled “Madonna of the Pomegranate,” what drew my attention was the expression on the Madonna’s face.  Usually Mary is depicted with a sweet, pensive look or even a bit of sadness – as if she were well aware of the end of her story.  But this Mary, instead of gazing joyfully or lovingly at the heavy baby clasped in her arms, looked downright bored.  And why was she holding a pomegranate?  It made me remember my childhood obsession with Greek and Roman myths, of Persephone and her ill-fated bite of the pomegranate that kept her half the year in Hades. It made me curious enough to find out that in Christian iconography the pomegranate is a symbol of resurrection and eternal life (Symbols in Christian Art & Architecture  In light of that, her expression is even more intriguing. Forgetting my own loneliness, I sat there a long time. Just what was Mary thinking?   

Madonna of the Pomegranate
- A painting by Sandro Botticelli in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy

I have waited here for centuries,
clasping this heavy infant in my lap,
beset by the whispers of angels –
always words of
praise and adoration,
alleluia and Ave Maria.
Glory becomes tedious.

Sometimes I think the child
teases me holding
a pomegranate in his hand,
its ripe skin split to reveal its seeds –
glistening rosary beads
which tempt me
to seize something for myself.

Visitors no longer notice me,
never puzzle the meaning
of the strange fruit
my son carries.
They would much rather exult
in the riot of Spring,
the brilliance of Venus.

I long to shake off these stiff robes,
clothe myself in waves,
strew my hair with roses and dianthus.
I’d like to sink my teeth deep
into the pomegranate,
roll the seeds across my tongue,
be-rouge my lips with juice.

To relieve my monotony,
I’d relish anything,
even welcome
the revelation of fear.
How lucky was Persephone!

                             (Poem originally published in my chapbook, In the Poem an Ocean, Big Table Publishing Co. 2012)