Saturday, March 31, 2018

Friedrich von Amerling's Beards

Friedrich von Amerling (1803-1877) was an Austrian artist who painted his way into the nobility; Emperor Franz Josef loved his work so much that he gave him that "von" in 1868. He did many wonderful works, mainly portraits. Today I want to focus on his amazing depictions of beards. As you will see, Amerling had a passion for masculine hair. I know I tend to feature portraits of women, because I find them more attractive, so here's a post for readers who prefer men. This is one of at least half a dozen of his works known (at least to the Internet) only as "portrait of a bearded man."

Same title.

Same title, although actually this one might as well be called "a beard with a man."

Portrait of the Banker Ignaz Biedermann.

A Monk with a Beard

A Turk with a Beard

Another Turk with a Beard

And yet another Turk with a Beard. If you think these men look rather western, remember that in Austria "Turk" basically meant Muslim, so these men might have been Bosnians or other Europeans.

A Young Venetian Man with a Beard, one of the characters Cicero called "barbatuli."

And a Self Portrait of 1880.

Pablo Neruda, "Ode to Happiness"

A green leaf fallen on the window,
New, shining;
An elephant's call;
A dazzling coin;
A ray of light. . . .

I scorned you, happiness.
I was badly advised.
The moon
carried me on her roads,
The ancient poets lent me
glasses to see,
but I placed by each thing a shadow,
on the flower a black crown,
on the beloved mouth
a sad kiss. . . .

A melancholy young man,
I found your hair scandalous. . . .

I erred.
Today I call on you, happiness.
You are necessary like the earth.

Like the fire you sustain the home. . . .

With you I want to go from home to home,
from town to town,
from flag to flag.
You are not for me alone.
We journey to the islands,
to the seas.
To the mines we go,
to the forests.
Not only lonely woodcutters,
poor laundresses
or hard-edged stone cutters
will receive us with fruit,
but all those parishoners,
the reunited,
from land and sea,
the brave young men
in their struggle.

With me through the world!
With my song!
With the star's half-seen flight,
And the joy of salt spray.

I will help everyone
because I owe
my happiness to all.

Do not be surprised
by my ambition;
I learned as a soldier
that my true duty was to happiness.

I fulfill my destiny with song.

— Translated by Ilan Stavans, modified by me. From a wonderful bilingual edition, Pablo Neruda: All the Odes, 2013, edited by Ilan Stavans. The odes were written between 1925 and 1945, and Neruda reworked and modified them many times, so it is hard to give a composition date for any of them.

Church Sign


How are you doing?

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Albrecht Dürer: Art in Nature

Art is omnipresent in nature, and the true artist is he who can bring it out.

 —Albrecht Dürer

The Demographics of the 2016 election and the Future of American Politics

Political scientists think they now know that the 2016 exit polls were wrong. Way wrong, in fact, which generated a lot of false narratives in the weeks after the election. Thomas Edsall has a run-down of how the picture has changed since and what it might mean. Excerpts:
In a detailed analysis of the 2016 vote, Pew found that 44 percent, or 60.1 million out of a total of 136.7 million votes cast on Nov. 8, 2016 were cast by whites without college degrees — demographic shorthand for the white working class.

Hillary Clinton won 28 percent of white working-class votes, according to Pew, less than Obama’s 36 percent in 2012. Still, a quarter of her total vote of 65.85 million — that is, 16.8 million votes — came from the white working class.
So of all the groups demographers divide the electorate into, the white working class is the biggest by far. If Hillary had done as well with them as Obama, it would have been a landslide.

Here's an interesting snapshot of American politics under the Trump administration, based on recent polling by Pew:
Voters who have completed college make up a third of all registered voters. And a majority — 58 percent — of all voters with at least a four-year college degree now identifies as Democrats or leans Democratic, the highest share dating back to 1992. Just 36 percent affiliate with the Republican Party or lean toward the G.O.P. . . . Voters with no college experience have been moving toward the GOP: 47 percent identify with or lean toward the Republican Party, up from 42 percent in 2014.
But because whites without college degrees are the biggest group, that 5 percent shift helps Republicans a lot. And this leads some Democratic strategists to say that the "Obama coalition" thing (minorities plus educated whites) is not a winning strategy. Ruy Teixeira:
There is no way around it — if Democrats hope to be competitive in Ohio and similar states in 2020, they must do the hard thing: find a way to reach hearts and minds among white non-college voters.
And to do that, says William Galston, they must ease off on immigration:
No issue has done more than immigration to feed populism, and finding a sustainable compromise would drain much of the bile from today’s politics. Defenders of liberal democracy should acknowledge that controlling borders is a legitimate exercise of sovereignty, and that the appropriate number and type of immigrants is a legitimate subject for debate. Denouncing citizens concerned about immigration as bigots ameliorates neither the substance nor the politics of the problem. There’s nothing illiberal about the view that too many immigrants stress a country’s capacity to absorb them, so that a reduction or even a pause may be in order.
Of course I support this analysis, since I am an immigration moderate myself. Another strategy would be to really pound on economic populism, going hard after bankers and billionaires and their tax cuts; the right sort of candidate might be able to win over quite a few working class voters that way without going anti-immigrant. But anyway all this demography makes it clear that for another generation Democrats must be able to win a third of the white, working-class vote to be nationally competitive.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Scott Alexander on Jordan Peterson on What the Humanities are For

Scott Alexander had the same experience with Jordan Peterson's new book that I had with his videos:
I got Jordan Peterson’s Twelve Rules For Life for the same reason as the other 210,000 people: to make fun of the lobster thing. Or if not the lobster thing, then the neo-Marxism thing, or the transgender thing, or the thing where the neo-Marxist transgender lobsters want to steal your precious bodily fluids.

But, uh…I’m really embarrassed to say this. And I totally understand if you want to stop reading me after this, or revoke my book-reviewing license, or whatever. But guys, Jordan Peterson is actually good.
If you're curious about why, read Alexander. I recommend it. Like me, he found that all the political hot air surrounding Peterson has nothing to do with his real message. He is a prophet, come to call us to a better, harder, way.

But I wanted to write about this:
Peterson is very conscious of his role as just another backwater stop on the railroad line of Western Culture. His favorite citations are Jung and Nietzsche, but he also likes name-dropping Dostoevsky, Plato, Solzhenitsyn, Milton, and Goethe. He interprets all of them as part of this grand project of determining how to live well, how to deal with the misery of existence and transmute it into something holy.

And on the one hand, of course they are. This is what every humanities scholar has been saying for centuries when asked to defend their intellectual turf. “The arts and humanities are there to teach you the meaning of life and how to live.” On the other hand, I’ve been in humanities classes. Dozens of them, really. They were never about that. They were about “explain how the depiction of whaling in Moby Dick sheds light on the economic transformations of the 19th century, giving three examples from the text. Ten pages, single spaced.” And maybe this isn’t totally disconnected from the question of how to live. Maybe being able to understand this kind of thing is a necessary part of being able to get anything out of the books at all.

But just like all the other cliches, somehow Peterson does this better than anyone else. When he talks about the Great Works, you understand, on a deep level, that they really are about how to live. You feel grateful and even humbled to be the recipient of several thousand years of brilliant minds working on this problem and writing down their results. You understand why this is all such a Big Deal.

You can almost believe that there really is this Science-Of-How-To-Live-Well, separate from all the other sciences, barely-communicable by normal means but expressible through art and prophecy.
I took dozens of humanities classes, too, but in only one did the professor really try to relate the material to the problems of human life. It was called Freud and Philosophy and it was basically about how everything in Freud's teaching related back to older stuff in western culture, all the way back to Socrates and Euripides, and how to shape your own approach to life based on all this old wisdom. It blew my mind. My lecture notes, which I still have, are dotted with stars and exclamation points. And it was taught by a graduate student, which is one reason why I have never been impressed by complaints about having graduate students teach courses.

Why isn't more of this done in college? Are professors too embarrassed and unsure of themselves? (Jordan Peterson, whatever else he may be, is clearly one of the most confident people on the planet.) Do they feel that trying to impart life wisdom is not part of education? Do they not believe in life wisdom? Do they think that their students have no interest in the wisdom they might impart? Do they worry that any discussion of meaning would degenerate into a feelfest? Or a lot of silly politics?

I remember that William and Mary used to have an institution called the "Last Lecture" in which a professor close to retirement would try to distill the wisdom he or she had learned in a whole career of research and study into an hour. The one I attended was pleasant but no more. At the time I was already sure I could do much better, and now I feel certain. But I am not sure if what I would say would be very valuable to 20-year-olds; my own children don't seem to pay much attention to me.

But if we don't share our thoughts about wisdom with each other, how can wisdom grow?

Monday, March 26, 2018

20th-Century Chinese Painting at Sotheby's

Highlights from an upcoming auction. Above, Fu Baoshi, Scholars Trekking in Snowy Mountains, 1945, and details.

Gao Qifeng, Sincere Heart, detail.

Jiang Zhaohe, Elderly Lady and Elderly Man. 

Zhang Daqian, Lotus in Summer Breeze, 1970.

Huang Junbi, Summits and Clouds, 1942, detail

Isaac Newton's Theological Obsessions

From Oliver Moody's review, in the February 23 TLS, of Rob Iliffe's Priest of Nature:
By the middles of the 1680s, when he gave much of his energies over to alchemy and the decoding of apocalyptic prophecy, he had an even more remarkable idea. When mankind was still young, "before the first memory of things," Newton surmised, Noah and his sons had come up with a pure and pristine form of worship that subsequent prophets – Christ among them – had contrived only to debase.

The original religion had found its expression in holy flames surrounded by vestal temples such as Stonehenge and St. Bridget's fire. . . . These shrines, Newton wrote, stood allegorically for the place of the Sun at the centre of God's cosmos. Over time, the metaphors had gradually come to obscure the truths they depicted, and as the sacred learning was passed down by Moses and the ancient Egyptians, the prisca sapientia had degenerated into idolatry.

This sort of claim was unusual but not exceptional in Newton's time. What was extraordinary was his belief that the Noachian faith had embodies a better and truer conception of the universe than anything that came after it. Modern philosophers could only hope to unravel its insights from the tangle of esoteric riddles in which they were preserved.

This conviction led Newton down some strange byways. At one point he defended the account of Egyptian theology given in Aristophanes' The Birds, where Night is said to have spread her black wings over the chaotic void and laid an egg containing Love, which eventually hatched and created all the gods and living things. Night, Newton explained, was the unseen deity, and Love the spirit that had moved over the face of the waters in Genesis 2. He also thought that Plato had ultimately inherited an understanding of universal gravitation from the same source, and that before him Pythagoras had hit on the inverse-square law by hanging hammers of different weights from taut sheep intestines. . . .

When we think about the unfurling of the European Enlightenment, we tend to think of it as a great exploratory enterprise, advancing experiment by experiment, conjecture by conjecture, into the vast sphere of the unknown. For Newton, though, the words may plausibly have had a very different meaning. He was simply using the instruments of geometry and history to pare away the greasy crust and canker of forty misguided centuries.
This fascinates me. Historians often assert that science began to progress when investigators stopped looking to the past for answers and began searching for their own. Scorning the "knowledge" of the past, it is said, became a key part of the scientific attitude. ("History is bunk.") But this was absolutely not true of Newton, who simultaneously pursued his own scientific researches and his ever more esoteric attempts to uncover the ancient, pristine wisdom he was sure was hidden in alchemy and prophecy.

Plus he really, really hated Athanasius, the fourth-century bishop who led the Council of Nicaea and did more than anyone else to make belief in the Trinity Christian orthodoxy. Newton hated the doctrine of the Trinity:
For Newton, this creed was nothing short of devilry. The worship of Christ as a face of the godhead was not just akin to the cult of the golden calf; it was far more insidious. As Iliffe shows, Newton threw himself into the prosecution of Athanasius with much the same urious zest and legalistic diligence that he brought to his academic disputes with Hooke and Leibniz. Athanasius and his followers were not simply wrong; they were a cabal of thuggish crooks who had hijacked an entire religion by falsifying texts, perverting holy Scripture and threatening to bring down the Roman Empire through violence. This incandescent hatred of a man who had been dead for 1,400 years formed perhaps the greatest passion of Newton's life.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Awesome Jobs Number 1

Meet Chris Skaife, Master Raven Keeper at the Tower of London, and one of his charges, Merlin. From Spitalfields Life.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Gustave Moreau

Gustave Moreau (1826-1898) was a French painter who had a conventional career – middle class family, École des Beaux-Arts, two years in Italy, paintings in the Salons, eventually a professorship – but left an unconventional body of work. (Oedipus and the Sphinx, 1864)

Moreau was intensely religious, although he subscribed to no particular orthodoxy, and he saw his art as an exploration of spirit. (Pieta)

Art, he once said, is the language of God. (Moses, 1893)

This may be his most famous work these days, The Apparition.

It depicts Salome and Herod; Herod has just offered to give Salome whatever she asks, and she is imagining the head of John the Baptist.

The Gustave Moreau museum says,
Moreau wanted to create a body of work where, in his own words, the soul could find all the aspirations of dreams, tenderness, love, enthusiasm and religious ascent towards the higher spheres, where everything in it is elevated, inspiring, moral and beneficent; where all is imaginative and impulsive soaring off into sacred, unknown, mysterious lands. Moreau’s painting is meant to inspire dreams rather than thought. It seeks to transport the viewer into another world.
The Death of Sappho.

Desdemona, 1875. Moreau is sometimes said to have been the first Symbolist painter, but actually the Symbolists were one of those groups with a manifesto and a closed membership, and Moreau was not one of them. But he was responding to the same currents of thought: revulsion at industrial society and a longing for a spiritual rapture that would carry us away from the sordid world.

The Dream of a Man of Mongolia, an illustration to one of La Fontaine's Fables. Moreau completed more than 8,000 paintings and drawings, of which I have seen about 50. This makes me wonder what is hiding in that immense body of unseen work.

Self portrait.

Jerry Brown on America Now

Connie Bruck has an interesting piece about California politics in The New Yorker. Of course my favorite part is about Jerry Brown, my favorite politician. I like him because he has interesting philosophical views and a profound skepticism about human knowledge, but still does stuff like this:
When Brown began his third term, in 2011, California had not recovered from the Great Recession. The state was running a deficit of twenty-seven billion dollars, unemployment was at twelve per cent, and its credit rating was the lowest of any state in the country. With help from a recovering economy, Brown balanced the budget, first through spending cuts and then with a temporary tax increase. Today, California is in the black and has even banked an emergency fund of eight billion dollars. Unemployment is less than five per cent. 
So that's my ideal of a politician: somebody who has lots of interesting ideas about humanity and society but can also manage the legislature and balance the budget. As to how Brown feels about the current moment:
Still, there is nothing halcyon about Brown’s vision of the future. At a press conference in January, he unveiled his valedictory budget proposal. Its centerpiece is an addition of five billion dollars to the emergency fund. Brown walked over to a blown-up cardboard graph and made clear that this was no cause for celebration. Pointing to the very end of a red bar that represented his term, he said, with a slight smile, “The next governor is going to be on the cliff. . . . What’s out there is darkness, uncertainty, decline, and recession. So, good luck, baby!”

Brown has been ambivalent about dwelling on his apocalyptic vision. “If you talk too much, you’re odd, they can’t hear you,” he told me, “but if you don’t talk about it, then no one will know.” For him, the “potential for doom” resides in two threats: climate change and the nuclear-arms race. “People may now be worried about North Korea, but not about the fact that Russia and America could get into a nuclear exchange,” he told me. “The fact that in forty-five minutes it could be over is not a problem in the minds of ninety-nine-point-nine per cent of the people.” He continued, “I’m just saying that human beings in 2018 are living with unimaginable powers of both creativity and utter, final destruction. That being the case, a degree of wisdom and restraint and discipline and openness is absolutely required if we’re going to make it and we’re going to survive.”

Brown also sees danger in the growing discord between Democrats and Republicans. “The last time we had that, we had the Civil War,” he said. Infuriated by the President, California Democrats—such as Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, who is leading the race to replace Brown, and State Senate leader Kevin de León, who is challenging Dianne Feinstein for her seat in the U.S. Senate—have argued that the state is a “sanctuary,” and the antithesis of Trump’s Washington. Brown’s opposition to Trump is somewhat different. On occasion, he drops some “rhetorical bombs,” as he has called them, but he prefers a measured, pragmatic approach. Brown rejects the idea that a state can offer sanctuary from the federal government, and he does not like to talk about “the Resistance,” either.

“What is that?” Brown said. “People are striving to frame their campaigns rhetorically. But I’m not running a campaign. . . . I’ve criticized the President when I thought he was wrong, but my life doesn’t revolve around Donald Trump.”
That's exactly how I feel; calling yourself “the Resistance” makes Donald Trump the most important issue, and he is not. Questions about what sort of society we want and how to get along with each other are much more important.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Mario Cea, Diving Kingfisher

Via the Met.

Genetic Differences between Races are Trivial Compared to those between Men and Women

Geneticist David Reich has a thoughtful article in the Times today about what modern genetics is teaching us about race. He tries hard to hew a middle line between racism and "races are social constructs," and I think he does a pretty good job. But this is what I find interesting:
So how should we prepare for the likelihood that in the coming years, genetic studies will show that many traits are influenced by genetic variations, and that these traits will differ on average across human populations? It will be impossible — indeed, anti-scientific, foolish and absurd — to deny those differences.

For me, a natural response to the challenge is to learn from the example of the biological differences that exist between males and females. The differences between the sexes are far more profound than those that exist among human populations, reflecting more than 100 million years of evolution and adaptation. Males and females differ by huge tracts of genetic material — a Y chromosome that males have and that females don’t, and a second X chromosome that females have and males don’t.

Most everyone accepts that the biological differences between males and females are profound. In addition to anatomical differences, men and women exhibit average differences in size and physical strength. (There are also average differences in temperament and behavior, though there are important unresolved questions about the extent to which these differences are influenced by social expectations and upbringing.)

How do we accommodate the biological differences between men and women? I think the answer is obvious: We should both recognize that genetic differences between males and females exist and we should accord each sex the same freedoms and opportunities regardless of those differences.
Of course that is a lot easier in theory than in practice, but anyway the basic point stands: the only moral position on genetic differences between different human populations is to treat everyone equally well.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Giovanni Boldini

Giovanni Boldini (1842 – 1931) was an Italian painter who lived and worked in Paris for most of his career. His father was a painter of religious scenes, but the younger Boldini went in a very different direction. L'Espagnole du Moulin Rouge, 1905.

He became close friends with Edgar Degas and palled around with other members of the Paris art scene; this is one of his two portraits of John Singer Sargent, 1890.

Party at the Moulin Rouge, 1889.

He painted in a variety of styles, from something like realism (Le Comte Robert de Montesquiou, 1897

To something like Impressionism (The Worldly Singer, 1884)

To his own medley of aggressive, sketchy brush strokes (Canal in Venice with Gondolas, c. 1905).

And he knew everyone; this is Giuseppe Verdi

According to a 1933 article in Time magazine, Boldini reveled in the title, the "Master of Swish."

Girl with a Black Cat, 1885

And then there is this painting. Since Boldini ran with the elite artistic set, he of course had his share of affairs or rumored affairs, including rumors of a liaison with socialite Marthe de Florian. Florian resided in a splendid right bank apartment that was later occupied by her granddaughter, known as Madame de Florian. Madame fled Paris during World War II at the age of 23, and although she never went back she continued to pay rent on her grandmother's flat until her death at 91. Rhiannon Wastell:
From 1942 then, until a wintery December afternoon in 2010 – when it was entered by auctioneer Olivier Choppin-Janvry – the decadent apartment remained frozen in time, a time capsule recording the precise moment of de Florian's sudden flight.

Amid the luxurious if dusty furnishings, the wizened taxidermy and mountains of ephemera ranging from dressing tables to Disney toys, Choppin-Janvry came across a mesmerising Boldini portrait of a beautiful woman wearing a pink muslin dress, accompanied by a stack of ribbon bound love letters, including some from Boldini himself, addressed to Marthe de Florian. It became clear she was both his lover and the beauty in the painting. A reference found in Boldini’s wife's records has confirmed the identity of the portrait's subject, dating it to 1898, when de Florian was just 24 years old.
That, I would say, was one lucky auctioneer. And one seriously swishy painting.

Colonade at Versailles, 1889

Portrait of Lina Cavalieri

Portrait of Marthe Bibesco, 1910