Thursday, November 26, 2015

The first refugees

I believed the worst was behind,
the voyage over, cramped and tossing,
the first winter, harsh, finishing
the house as the snow began to fall,
and a spring, glorious, the explosion
of trees into green, into life. We prayed,
we joined in service, we planted what
seeds we had with us and what seeds
the people beyond the trees gave us.

Then came the fever. I dug your grave
as the children watched, our children
who alone kept me moving, caused me
to arise in the morning, he has
your dimple, she has your eyes.

The harvest was good, not overflowing
but good, we would not hunger this winter,
and the leaders and the women thought it
right to mark the harvest, and we prepared
our game, our squash, our maize,
fruits from the forest, and the people
beyond the trees came through the woods,
and watched for a time, finally walking
into our midst, with more game, and fish,
and berries we had not seen before,
creating an abundance. And we spoke
of God’s provision in this beautiful, hostile
land, and we prayed, and ate, and shared
all we had.

But I still think of you, your dimple
and your eyes, and measure the pain

in the thanksgiving.

Photograph: recreation of Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Images of War, War of Images

Yesterday, I described our visit to the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University in St. Louis, to see the exhibition of “The Paintings of Sir Winston Churchill.” Directly across the hall from the Churchill paintings is another exhibit, this one on World War I: “Images of War, War of Images.”

Two wonderful exhibits at one time in the same museum – and they’re both free.

Last year in London, we visited the World War I Galleries at the Imperial War Museum, a brilliant display of the history of the war. (I reviewed the book describing the galleries this past July.) The museum also had an exhibit of the art of World War I, which we missed for lack of time, but you can get a taste of the exhibit by reading Art from the First World War by Richard Slocombe.

What the exhibition in London included but did not go into great depth on was the role of images, art and propaganda in World War I.  That is the focus of the show at the Kemper Museum.

Art wasn’t the only creative activity that went to war. Magazines, newspapers, recruiting posters, war bond drive information and much else played significant roles. When the United States entered the war in 1917, President Woodrow Wilson appointed George Creel to lead the Committee on Public Information, often referred to as the Creel Committee, to keep up morale at home and helping people understand the task ahead. Today we would call it a committee for propaganda.

The United States was a Johnny-come-lately to the war propaganda effort; Britain, France, Germany, Russia and Italy had already been long involved in efforts to depict their opponents as fools at best and monsters at worst. The Germans didn’t help themselves with the unprovoked invasion of neutral Belgium and the death and destruction that followed, including the famed medieval library at Louvain.

Yet it wasn’t all propaganda. People went into the war with an understanding of their world, that life was getting better and better, the idea of progress as a major principle in economic, social and cultural life, and that cavalry still had an important role to play in warfare. They confronted the technology-based slaughter of both the western and the eastern fronts, and warfare involving civilians in a massively new way. Louvain was destroyed, but even London experienced bombing by German dirigibles. People, and especially soldiers, came out of the war profoundly changed. And that included the artists who went to war.

This is what the Kemper exhibition is about, and it is filled with paintings, posters, drawings, diaries, magazines and newspapers, short films made after the war, and even artifacts like soldiers’ self-decorated helmets. An accompanying book, Nothing But the Clouds Unchanged: Artists in World War I, edited by Gordon Hughes and Philipp Blom, provides insight into what the exhibition includes. The book is published by Getty Publications, and The Getty Museum has provided a considerable number of the works included in the exhibition.

The Kemper has done itself proud with these two exhibitions. The only issue we had was parking – it’s easier on weekends on the famously overcrowded Washington University campus but we did manage to find a metered spot adjacent to the museum.

But if you have the opportunity, see them both (and they’re free).

Illustration:I Have You, My Captain. You Won’t Fall,color lithograph by Paul Iribe, 1917; Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Paintings of Sir Winston Churchill

In 2006, a new art museum building was opened in St. Louis – the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, on the grounds of Washington University in St. Louis. As it turns out, it’s not really a new museum; it originally opened in 1881 as the St. Louis School and Museum of Fine Arts. And it’s one of the oldest teaching museums in the United States.

Last week, we visited to see its latest exhibition, “The Paintings of Sir Winston Churchill,” co-sponsored by the National Churchill Museum in Fulton, Missouri (home of Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech and with a first-class museum on Churchill in World War II). Timothy Riley, paintings curator for the National Churchill Museum, curated this exhibition at the Kemper.

In some ways, this felt like old home week.

Kemper Art Museum
One of the people instrumental in bringing the exhibition together was Richard Mahoney, the CEO for whom I wrote speeches for seven years. He was more than a fan of Churchill; he was a collector of Churchill memorabilia and had read virtually everything about the British statesman. One thing you may not know about speechwriters is that, if they’re worth their pay, they will read what their speakers read. Wall Street Journal, check. Business Week, check. The History of the English Speaking Peoples (four volumes)? The History of World War II (six volumes)? And does anyone know how many speeches Churchill gave?

It was a lot of work. Things went fine until the CEO started reading Charles Dickens, starting with The Pickwick Papers. I ended up buying the 21-volume set of Charles Dickens' works published by Oxford University Press. And read Peter Ackroyd’s 1000+page biography of Dickens. On the cool side, I was about the only person I know who ever got paid for reading the works and biography of Dickens in the office. (The vice chairman at the time, for whom I also wrote speeches, was a major fan of Mark Twain. Yes, I’ve had an unusual career, even for a communications person.)

At one time, four paintings by Churchill hung in our company’s conference center. At least three of those are in this exhibition at the Kemper Art Museum (I’m uncertain about the fourth). Many of these paintings have a history, and the exhibition tells those histories. One, of Marrakech, was painted while Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt met at Casablanca; it was the only painting he did during World War II and he gave it to Roosevelt. Another, of the surf at Miami Beach, was painted in the six weeks in 1946 Churchill stayed there while preparing the Iron Curtain speech. Still another was submitted under another name to an amateur competition and won first proze, although one judge dissented and said no amateur could have painted it.

It’s a wonderful exhibition, with works loaned by the Getty Museum, the Hallmark Art Collection in Kansas City, the Chartwell Art Collection, and numerous private collections. Churchill painting about 550 paintings, and about 50 are included at the Kemper show. It runs through Feb. 14. For sale in the Kemper shop is Sir Winston Churchill: His Life and His Paintings by David Coombs with Minnie Churchill; the price is $55 (although, oddly enough, Amazon sells it for considerably more.)

Right across the hallway from the Churchill exhibition was one on World War I; more on that tomorrow.

Illustration: Boats at Cannes Harbor, oil on canvas by Sir Winston Churchill (1937); National Churchill Museum, Fulton, Mo.

Monday, November 23, 2015

‘On Glasgow and Edinburgh’ by Robert Crawford

Scotland beckons.

We’ve taken vacations to the United Kingdom for the last four years, and focused on London and southern England. But given the fact that my first novel has scenes set in Edinburgh, which I’ve never visited except via the internet, Scotland has started exerting a stronger pull. After reading Robert Crawford’s On Glasgow and Edinburgh, the pull has become irresistible.

This is not traditional travel writing. This is more like a well-researched, filled-with-fascinating-facts love letter to two cities, which, Crawford points out in a long introduction, maintain a usually friendly rivalry for pre-eminence in Scotland.

What Crawford does for both cities is to take the areas where most visitors would see – the historical areas, the museums, the shopping districts, the historical neighborhoods – and then provide a detailed look at where they came from, who lived there, what life was like, and interesting facts (like murders and trials). The result is a rich tapestry of understanding, a look into life and people across different historical eras, and how these two cities developed as they did.

This is the kind of book you read before you visit. Perhaps you even bring it with you to consult during your visit.

Edinburgh Castle
You walk with Crawford on streets and neighborhoods, like the Royal Mile in Edinburgh and Buchanan Street in Glasgow, and you find history, commerce, art, literature, architecture, science, medicine, and people. You discover who built the universities, where the great art collections and libraries came from, and how Edinburgh became a royal capital and Glasgow a manufacturing one (and why both revere the poet Robert Burns).

And you discover Edinburgh’s poetry library, and Glasgow’s Mitchell Library. You learn who it was who pioneered what today we called an English literature course (Adam Smith, he who wrote The Wealth of Nations and the “father” of capitalism). You meet Mary Queen of Scots, Lord Kelvin, Dr. Joseph Lister (pioneer of antiseptic surgery), the murderers Burke and Hare who supplied cadavers to Edinburgh’s medical school, the architects, artists, sculptors, tobacco merchants, and shipbuilders. Best of all, Crawford does this in a well-written narrative; this is no laundry list of facts and figures but a story, a great story of two cities which have had a tremendous influence worldwide.

Robert Crawford
Crawford is Professor of Modern Scottish Literature at the University of St. Andrews, and a fellow of both the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the British Academy. He’s the author of The Savage and the City in the Work of T.S. Eliot (1991), and well as several works on Scottish literature, including Bannockburns: Scottish Independence and Literary Imagination 1314-2014, The Bard: Robert Burns, A Biography (2009), and Scotland’s Books: A History of Scottish Literature (2009). He is also a published poet, with six poetry collections, including Talkies (1992), Masculinity (1996), Spirit Machines (1999), Full Volume (2008), The Tip of My Tongue (2011), and Testament (2014). Earlier this year, he published Young Eliot: From St. Louis to The Waste Land, which I reviewed at Tweetspeak Poetry.

On Glasgow and Edinburgh is an informative, entertaining delight.

Yes, Scotland beckons.

Top photograph: The main building of Glasgow University on Gilmorehill. Photograph of Edinburgh Castle by Kevin Casper via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The weapon

After Acts 22

He tells his story
at the temple, and
they listen attentively,
even respectfully, until
he says what God told him
to do: go to the Gentiles. Then
follows the familiar uproar, as
it always does when truth
is spoken. They pick up
their stones, the soldiers prepare
to lacerate his back, until he asks,
do you flog a Roman citizen who
has committed no crime?
In fear, in shock,
they stop at this brandishing
of a weapon they did not expect.

Illustration via The Dore Bible Gallery.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Saturday Good Reads

This week, the news from Paris remained bad. Following the horrific bombings of last Friday night, the French bombed the ISIS city of Raqqa in Syria and raided an apartment in the Parisian suburb of St. Denis (home of the first Gothic cathedral); ISIS made threats against Washington and New York; the White House announced that its ISIS strategy was unchanged (I suppose that means ISIS is still contained, a statement the President made hours before the Paris bombings); and a global debate erupted over refugees.

My Facebook timeline has looked like a religious war zone. Like most issues these days, the refugee issue instantly polarized opinion (thank you, social media). If you oppose accepting Syrian refugees, you are a Christian apostate and Jesus will dropkick you right out of the church. If you support accepting Syrian refugees, you are knowingly a party to terrorism and don’t be surprised when your own church is attacked.

What’s most interesting to is how Christians’ sentiments align with those of the political parties.

David Rupert has a different take. He’s been telling the stories of Christian refugees from the war zone of the Mideast. What David reminds us is, regardless of our politics or our polarized views, God is in control and is doing some amazing things.

Some good poetry, good advice for writers, and good photography. And in honor of the third (and final) volume of Mark Twain’s annotated autobiography being published by the University of California Press, we have Twain’s 100 Greatest Quotes.

Life and Culture

A crisis our universities deserve – Ross Douthat at The New York Times.


Poetry in Medicine and Wendell Berry Reads ‘The Peace of Wild Things’ – Maureen Doallas at Writing Without Paper.

Brett Foster – D. S. Martin at Kingdom Poets.

Lift Erth Rise – Robbie Pruitt.


Timeline photo and Palm Frond Studies – Tim Good at Arts by Tiwago.


5 People Every Writer Needs – Molly Page at Thin Difference.

English is Not Normal - John McWhorter at Aeon.


When Fear Rules – Diana Trautwein at Just Wondering.

Finding Hope Amidst Tragedy – Matthew J. van Maastricht at thealreadynotyet.

The 100 Greatest Quotes by Mark Twain

Photograph by Lucy Toner via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Friday, November 20, 2015

The Abstract Art of Agnes Martin

It may be the space – a refurbished power plant with a spectacular open interior several stories high. It may be the shop for art and related books. And it may be that I’m understanding modern art better than I did. But since 2012, when we started making annual pilgrimages to London for vacation, the Tate Modern is one of my favorite art museums in the city.

In 2012, our hotel was on the South Bank, near Westminster Bridge. The Tate Modern was around the bend in the Thames, across from St. Paul’s Cathedral. I could “walk the hypotenuse” from our hotel and considerably shorten the distance. I went three times that year, once to see it, a second time to see the Edvard Munch exhibit, and a third time to see the museum again.

This year, my growing understanding of modern and contemporary art was to be tested at the Tate, with an exhibition of the paintings of American Agnes Martin. It’s officially abstract art, but I won’t argue with anyone who wants to call it minimalist. Pastel minimalist, in fact.

The Islands, 1961
Martin (1912-2004) was born in Canada but eventually landed in Washington State, where she finished high school. She trained as a teacher, but went on to Columbia University in New York to study fine art and art education. After study at the University of New Mexico and a return to Columbia, she became interested in East Asian thought. After receiving her masters in 1952, she went to Taos, New Mexico, doing teaching and other work to support her art.

The exhibition covered her work from the early 1950s to her death in 2004. I paid the fee (about US $18) and walked through rooms initially containing small paintings, gradually giving way to larger and larger works. There was a calm, a serenity about these paintings. They were about light color, in mostly pastel shades, and minimalism is a suitable description for many of them. (As it turned out, my favorite work in the exhibition was entitled “The Book,” a smallish painting that was the least abstract work of all of them.)

Agnes Martin in 1954
These paintings are not about passion; if anything, they suggest the absence of passion. The almost-faded colors of many of them, the similarities they exhibited, and the presence of lines and geometric shapes suggested a detachment, a separation from the world. I wasn’t left cold but I was left feeling distant, a very different response from the exhibition of Martin’s British contemporary, Barbara Hepworth, at the Tate Modern’s sister museum, the Tate Britain.

I enjoyed the exhibition, but I can’t say I became a fan of Martin’s work. Perhaps it was too detached, too zen. I kept straining to hear the winds of New Mexico but instead heard only a rather marked silence.

Resources on Agnes Martin and her work

Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art by Nancy Princenthal.

Agnes Martin by Briony Fer.

Agnes Martin by Lynne Cooke, Editor.

Painting, top: Happy Holiday, oil on canvas by Agnes Martin, 1999.