Canada and the Impressionists: New Horizons at the National Gallery

Amidst all the other things going on I was pleased to spend time at the National Gallery yesterday. The new exhibition featured some exceptional works of arts from a range of Canadian artists from Emily Carr to James Wilson Morrice. A catalog was produced and, as usual, it is a well produced book with nicely coloured plates and good paper for viewing them. I will go several times to the exhibit after reviewing the catalogue and reading the essays.

A screen grab from the NGC website showing Helen McNicoll’s Sunny September, 1913.

For now my head is brimming with questions such as how these artists thought about impressionism and their pictured responses – and would the artists assembled in this collection think of themselves as impressionists, whatever that might have meant to each of them? The catalogue and its essays will help me understand this better from a curatorial and academic perspective. I am cognizant of the use of the term “impressionism” and how it was originally a satirical take on what once critic assumed was an “unfinished work”.

I take this as my starting point: as the camera aesthetic emerged as a means of visualization and “freezing time” (think Muybridge) and “documenting” time (think of the use of the camera for policing and anthropological itemization), imaginative works of paint were not limited by the “instant” nature of time and could allow interactive lighting effects between the viewer and the object of art to mimic time but non-synchronically.

As an aside I find that I need a multi-media or a multi-modal perspective, not a “virtual collage” but rather an assemblage of techniques and tools to reflect upon. Since each medium* has its own “perspective” and each has their own benefits, when I approach objects like this exhibition I want to create my own first impression before I consume too much of other people’s perspectives and biases accrete. Much like how I normally don’t like to listen to the audio guides the first time: I prefer to take my time and explore on my own initially. This is an entitled view, of course, since I can visit this Gallery frequently.

*Marshall McLuhan has been on my reading list of late. I have recently found a copy of the first article that I ever wrote on the internet back in the 1990s on McLuhan, filled with my embarrassingly youthful utopian ideals about the global village and its hope.

My interest in Impressionism is its treatment of light. I see this predominately in relation to the emergence of photographic tools and aesthetics and how these challenges were faced by painters.

Of course by the time I saw the first work at the Gallery, it was the colouring that most grabbed my attention. And notwithstanding some lighting issues in several of the rooms (since these rooms were designed for prints and not framed canvas works) with shadows that interfered with the artists composition (the Carr landscape has its yellow sky darkened), the works are a cornucopia of styles and techniques that provided several hours of viewing pleasure. The application of paint and its control was intriguing like this example, from Ernest Lawson’s Canal Scene in Winter.

Ernest Lawson’s Canal Scene in Winter, c.1894

I have been reading the essays from the catalogue and am struck by a remark that artists such as Maurice Cullen shared certain attributes with Hokusai. It struck a cord with me since I have shared that opinion not only of Cullen but that many works of easel paintings of landscapes from the mid-19th century share not just the colouring and loose brushwork but also that same “angle of view” that resembles an aerial perspective or a hilltop view as opposed to a eye-line frontal viewing perspective. Visualization in late Meiji (called “modernizing” Japan in the West) Japan shares many of these elements. This presages the aerial views that were popularized by painted visualizations from hilltops, tall buildings, airplanes or balloons in the early 20th century. I think of it as an “anthropological” perspective. It differs for me from a “cartographic” perspective used by the Dutch in Elizabeth Sutton’s work, for example. It assumes an objective rather than a notational perspective. It is this assumption of “objective” that is soon to be the subject of much attention in the first half of the 20th century.

David Milne The Blossom Pickers, c.1911-12

The artist and the viewer have a larger focal length and more encompassing view that someone that would be a participant in the visual would have; not necessarily omnipotent but detached. So while the more “standard” impressionist work from the urban streets of Paris were photographic, many took the imagined perspective from slightly above. Note the Harris below compared with the Milne. Also, its opposite in the Henri Beau.

Lawren Harris Winter Afternoon, City Street, Toronto, or Sunday Morning, 1918
Henri Beau Woman With Parasol, 1897

And my three favourite works from this visit are below. I cannot help but make the connection between the urban and industrial works and Burtynsky’s photographs in his Anthropocene.

William Blair Bruce Landscape with Poppies 1887
J.E.H. MacDonald Tracks and Traffic, 1912
Lawren Harris Moonlight, Corner Store, Toronto, 1911

Photography, visualizations, art and identity: “seeing” people in data

As all of you know February is Black History Month.

And as many of you know, I am an avid reader and lover of data visualizations and art, it has become my pandemic passion in addition to baking bread and meditation sessions. This is one of my latest book acquisitions and has intersections with Black History Month here in Canada and data collection & data visualization, what we do here in CDOB: Black Lives 1900: W.E.B. Du Bois at the Paris Exposition.

The pioneering American activist and sociologist hand-drew infographics showing and representing the progress of Americans of African descent since the abolition of slavery in that country, a scant 35 years before. As a sociologist, he conducted research employing various ways to assemble data including in-person interviews, community data collection using standardized forms, and research into State taxation and household records. The variables that Du Bois visualized include family income, occupations, taxable property and mobility. These data visualizations and accompanying photographs from across the United States formed an exhibition of 500 photographs as well as charts and other maps that were collected for the Paris Exposition in 1900.

This is one of the earliest examples of the use of colour and infographics for knowledge transmission. While mapping and other forms of visualization were the predominant way to “see” information for centuries, the rise of photography as a way to standardize and itemize information was a revolution for statistical data collection. This torrent of data collection led to the demand for new ways to present complex data, a similar problem faced by us today. This was over 120 years ago! Adding yet another reason to celebrate DuBois: as a pioneer in data visualization.

But what does this have to do with Black History Month in Canada? Du Bois wasn’t Canadian but he did enter and stay in Canada as a visitor. Yes, its a stretch.

In 1905, Du Bois, then a professor at Atlanta University gathered 29 men from 14 states in Buffalo, New York to discuss the “accommodationist” stance that they claimed that Booker T. Washington advocated. These men were public leaders and intellectuals who were interested in making a stronger community, a stronger country. They sought a place to retreat to in order to think, debate and plan.

From Buffalo, they then travelled to the Erie Beach Hotel in Ontario near Niagara Falls, spending a week in Canada.

According to Du Bois’ own writings at the time, the group sought a “quiet place outside the city near the water where we can be to ourselves, hold conferences together” and have access to recreation; the Erie Beach Hotel in Ontario was their destination.

I agree that the Canadian side of Niagara Falls is much nicer than the American side.

Photographs of these infographics can be found in the Library of Congress link below. No known information is available on the photographers of these works that were taken at the 1900 Paris Exposition.

Du Bois’ hand-drawn charts, maps and graphs represented the achievements and economic conditions of African Americans in radically inventive forms, long before such data visualization was commonly used in social research.

From the publisher.

From the Paris 1900 collection that can be found here: Library of Congress

The message from the Minister of Health that can be read here recognizes the significant and unique challenges faced by Black Canadians.

A Story of Film: A New Generation

I was more than impressed by this documentary of recent film made by Mark Cousins available on demand. This is international in its scope and certainly is epic for what it attempts to survey. Films from Korea to India to Chile are featured with an eye to how filmic visualizations have appeared on screens from 2010-2020 including the effects of Covid on such things as on-demand and streaming content. I was pleased to add a few new films to my “must watch” list for my holidays including Baby Driver, Moonlight and Vengeance.


The Dante Project

Edward Watson

I watched the stream of this ballet and I was very impressed. I don’t know a lot about the technical aspects of dance but I was utterly enthralled by the motion of these dancers along with the music of Thomas Ades. The production of the stream was impressive and while I do love going to the theatre, seeing this on my own couch with a blanket and slippers has a lot of appeal.

The art by Tacita Dean was really intriguing! Her inverted mountainous landscape was fantastic as the backdrop of the inferno and the dancers wore chalky grey and black that, as the dancers would embrace, let out these ghostly clouds. It was really awesome. There were hints not only of Botticelli in her visualization but to her earlier chalk work. The use of Dean’s street photograph from what looks like Los Angeles dominated by a massive tree. Like her chalk drawings, Dean has visualized trees in her work, including photographing Majesty, one of the largest oak trees in England.

The street visualization is rendered as a photographic negative, dominated by a Jacaranda tree (I had to look it up). The tree evidently blooms purple in the summer. This as a negative would show up as a surreal green. This is the backdrop to this Act where Dante sees his own and Beatrice’s history unfold. And while her art was static for each of the first two Acts, the third is a film of ever shifting celestial orbs. The production was really breathtaking!

For more about the production itself:

The artist as detective

I am watching The Trouble With Harry, directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

The main character, outside of the dead Harry, is Sam Marlowe (SAM Spade, Philip MARLOWE), an artist who acts like a detective. Based on a 1950 novel by Jack Trevor Story who, interestingly, also wrote Sexton Blake stories who was originally based on Sherlock Holmes, the archetype of “detective” for many. Saul Steinberg’s opening sequence is excellent!

Marlowe is a painter who feels unappreciated and comments that his work would sell better in Manhattan. His calm style of elicitation reveals the reality of the situation that the characters find themselves in and he even sketches a realistic funerary portrait of Harry when he initially finds him. This visualization is composed much like a mug shot with a tight frame on the face.

My point here is that in 1950 a character who is introduced initially as a canvas painter, an artist, an abstract expressionist artist, is easily acceptable as the “detective” by the audience. This shows how artists were seen not as bohemian eccentrics; rather, the artist is here visualized as someone who easily “solves” the case and has access to hidden truth.

And I missed it at first but here is Hitchcock’s cameo as he walks by the very out of place rich guy who is interested in Marlowe’s paintings.

The poet, the artist, the sleuth—whoever sharpens our perception tends to be anti- social; rarely “well-adjusted,” he cannot go along with currents and trends. Marshall McLuhan, The Medium Is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects (1967)

Bibliographies: Breathing Books

I spent a wonderful day at the Nordik on Wednesday. The snow lightly fell on my head but disappeared before it hit the steam of the hot pools. I practised tummo and other breathing techniques in both the heat and the cold. It was blissful.

With the COVID pandemic breathing became, for me, like Heidegger’s hammer: paid attention to only when broken. Graham Harman’s work is on point here and in a lecture he once talked about how no one misses an object like oxygen or the chair that you are sitting on unless something happens to it. If the chair that you are sitting on disappears, you become aware of it. As working from home set in, I began to focus my attention on my breath and attention on my mind as a healthy mental habit.

As is my routine, I looked to expertise on breathing, reading as much as I could and watching videos and learning sessions. I will blog on this more later but the Netflix series called Headspace was really good! It makes mediation very accessible.

I began to track my meditation sessions in Oak (iOS). My habit is now 188 days in a row that I stacked (more on this later) in order to make it that way. I spend 30-60 minutes a day in both meditation and breathing, finding myself wanting to spend more time than that occupied solely with the present.

Here is a screenshot of my iBook collection of breathing books and a few personal growth “mind mastery” type books. Wim Hof is a popularized form of Tummo breathing but is easily accessible. He has guided breathing sessions that I use often. His cold therapy is challenging but each time I shower, I finish with cold water. It certainly does wake me up!

Learning to breathe properly is the key. Moving away from shallow breathing in the chest and into diaphragmatic breathing. This is a technique that I learned in yoga class decades ago. One easy Buteyko technique to ensure that you learn proper breathing from the start is placing your hands befind your head. Yes, just put your hands behind your head and breathe. Either through your nose or mouth, you will find that it is difficult to breathe the wrong way. As I felt the right way to breathe, into the diaphragm, I recall this while I am breathing during the day to ensure that I am on track. And I am also drinking more water.

Dante, Tacita Dean and ballet streaming on my big screen? Mkay.

I was reading this interview with British artist Tacita Dean where she discussed her role in the set design of the Royal Ballet production of The Dante Project. It turns out that they are streaming the production!

I am very much looking forward to seeing the set design by Dean, one of my favorite contemporary artists as her art transitions as the “place” upon which this visualization of the Commedia occurs. Her art is the frame of the theatrical performance which isn’t that strange when you think about set design and its historical traditions. Beginning with chalk as a medium (which always makes me think about Dean’s work on Twombly), Dean’s visualizations have certainly changed in both medium and method over her career as I gather will be shown in this ballet – from chalk at the Gates of Hell to film and the arrival of the light in Paradise. Her philosophical point about the typological differences between medium and technology seem to me to be a key feature of her Aristotelian methodology. And while Hal Foster may decry this as bad news, perhaps I am more sympathetic since I concur more with Dean’s approach to visualization and the encyclopedic tradition.

So one new addition on my lists of things to do over the holidays is to enjoy this production. I didn’t get a chance to write about it but the BCBallet show Garden that was at the NAC a few weeks ago was really great and, much like seeing the production of Blindness, gave me much needed access to the arts! Now my only issue is to find the right evening to stream 3 hours of Dante!

And I am learning that I need to write less and use my visualizations in this blog.

James Hyman’s The Battle for Realism

I have been looking forward to reading The Battle for Realism and I finally decided to, at the least, start it the evening before my vacation since it deserves my attention. One of the ‘verticals” that I read in is Cold War history, one area in my graduate studies, this with Brian Loring Villa. As an aside, I have come to realize that this was an “academization” of earlier attraction / allure (Garcia again) to the fictional “spy” characters as portrayed in both novels and motion media that I shared with my older brothers and my father. Who knew that all those late nights trying to stay up to midnight to watch James Bond movies on television with my dad would play out like this? FYI – this was pre-videotape / NetFlix for those who don’t understand what I just wrote.

From the cover flap: The author proposes that realism in Europe during the early Cold War years occupied a radical vanguard position and stood in opposition to the competing claims made for American abstract expressionism. He examines two distinct visions of realism—social realism and Modernist realism—and explores their political implications and ideological significance.

One recent work that intersects diplomatic and art history that led me to Hyman is Mark Greif’s The Age of the Crises of Man. While Greif discusses literature and not visualization, it is the same space for me. Clement Greenberg’s work on abstract expressionism is of relevence as is the social realism of Continental artists. I finished Greif as I began work on Peggy Guggenheim so it is still fresh in my mind.

Working Philip Guston and Cy Twombly in here was difficult but very intellectually rewarding. Hint - it was in Rome, not Venice.

Greif writes about Saul Bellow’s 1944 Dangling Man (Ibn Sina – floating man – knowledge by presence- al-insan al-muta’alliq) and Ralph Ellison’s 1952 Invisible Man as works of literature that exemplify this “crises” stemming from the awesome destructive nature of the bomb and the insignificance of man in the face of science. The bomb and Auschwitz showed us ourselves better than art could. But this was what art was supposed to do best?

So from what I gather, Hyman is writing about how realism manifested itself in British painting both by British artists such as Bacon, Freud and Coldstream but also artists in Britain and how both of these groups interacted with the streams of thought from outside within this Cold War rubric of bipolarity. This also includes how British artists retained their Britishness but under the umbrella of American preponderance of power. I am reminded here of the All Too Human exhibit that I saw at at the Tate in early 2018. More on this later, I *think* that the Slade school plays in here with Coldstream.

So without too much ado before I write the entire article – my larger argument is that art was now political not because of the power of art as propaganda as Greenberg and others portrayed it or how they saw how they could utilize it, seeing its power both in the New Deal but also for mass mobilization in Cold War Europe and by the Soviet Union, but it was a pragmatic turn – art could no longer hold itself to as a tool of truth and or beauty so its absorption into the particular mode of liberal capitalism promoted diplomatically by the US in Europe enabled its critical use as a diplomatic tool against the Soviet bloc. New Deal collectivism became the novus homo abstract expressionist auteur which later was visualized as cowboys in American and Italian film, samurais in Japan.

Science threatened that specific key element of the visual art storyline in the late 1940s just as photography threatened key elements of studio canvas paintings in the 19th century. Others modalities of visualization such as impressionism in the 19th century and abstraction were highlighted, leaving realism to the technology of the lens rather than the brush. Movies would later occupy much of this visual cultural space of propaganda, shifting the narratives of legitimacy for the brush elsewhere. I’ll stop here since it is already too disconnected and isn’t assembled properly.

At some point I will actually write this piece on Rauschenberg and Twombly in Rome and the Cold War but I will just leave this here to remind myself.

Data Vulnerabilities

Statistics Canada data servers have been offline for a few days. At first there was some confusion since I assumed it was something on my end but a note was put up at the STC site saying that it was due to an “overabundance” of caution. I have been following the Log4J vulnerability, called Log4Shell. Not confirmed but since AWS and other cloud servers are on the list in Github so is this what they are cautious about?

GitHub Log4Shell patch – Cyberreason and LunaSec mitigation.

GitHub list of impact on manufacturers and components.

Microsoft Security Blog