Saturday, August 29, 2015

Katrina 10 Years Ago

Hurricane Katrina, the most destructive and third deadliest hurricane in US history (1. Galveston Hurricane of 1900, 2. Okeechobee Hurricane of 1928), hit New Orleans and the Gulf Coast ten years ago this weekend.  The official death toll was over 1800 with about 1400 of those deaths in New Orleans.  The death toll and destruction were compounded by poor engineering decisions from decades earlier, by late and muddled government responses, by corruption, and by callous racism.  It was a natural disaster made into a catastrophe by human bungling and corruption.

Most of the coverage of the anniversary of the hurricane is upbeat stories about recovery.  Our culture just doesn't do sad very well, and sees grief as a disease to be treated rather than as an inevitable part of life and mortality to be suffered.  New Orleans and the Mississippi Delta will never be the same again, if for no other reason than those 1800 and more lives can never be replaced.  I also fear that the hurricane became a real estate development opportunity transforming a large mostly Black city into a smaller Whiter, and wealthier city with skyrocketing housing costs.  Many of the original residents of the city who fled can no longer return.

Here is Bessie Smith singing "Backwater Blues" which she wrote in 1927 after witnessing a record flood of the Cumberland River in Nashville, Tennessee on Christmas day, 1926.  The song soon became associated with another major natural disaster compounded by human negligence and callousness, the great Mississippi Flood of 1927.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015


More than a year later, here is my last post on my 2014 trip to Europe.  I end these posts where I began my trip, in Oslo, Norway.

All the photos are mine except where noted and are freely available.

The Dramen Fjord south of Oslo.

A container ship probably full of newly manufactured cars for sale in eastern Europe headed down the Dramen fjord for the North Sea and the Baltic.

What 9PM looks like in June in Svelvik, Norway.  It never really gets dark in the summer, so everyone sleeps with heavy shades pulled down.

Bill Paulsen's family and extended family in Svelvik where we dined on such Norwegian dishes as hotdogs, hamburgers, and steaks.  This was the first of many cookouts we enjoyed across Europe.

Our hosts in Oslo, Erik Hugin and Lasse Lauten, old friends of Bill's for years. Of all the couples and families that we met in Oslo, they were the only couple formally and legally married.
Erik works as a nurse in a local hospital and is hard of hearing, however he can lip read in about 5 languages.  Lasse is a computer genius who does consulting around the world and travels to the States frequently on business.  They were both marvelous and very generous hosts.

I especially enjoyed visiting the Viking Ship Museum on the outskirts of Oslo.  The museum contains two large ships and two smaller ones excavated from burial mounds in the early 20th century.

The famous Oseberg Ship, as magnificent in design as a Greek temple, and unlike a Greek temple, was intended to be seen in motion upon the water.
The hull is made from thinly cut oak timbers fastened with iron nails.  Pine wood planks make up the deck.  The ship has portals for 30 oars, 15 on each side, and a mast for a sail.  It was a fully sea-worthy vessel, but does not appear very worn.  It may have been used only for ceremonial occasions and may be older than the 9th century burial that contained it.

The magnificent stern of the Oseberg ship with a steering oar.
The remains of two women were found buried with the ship.  One was elderly (60- 70 years old).  The other was in late middle age (in her 50s).  The older one was apparently of great importance considering the remains of the garments buried with her.  The other younger one was less elaborately clad.  The relation between the two women remains unknown (mistress and servant? mother and daughter? lovers?).  According to dendrochronological tests of the timbers in the burial chamber, they were buried around 834.

The magnificent carved ornamentation on the bow of the Oseberg ship consisting of serpentine interlace pattern that appear across Europe in the 7th through 10th centuries, including in Gospel books of the time.

A close up of the carved ornament on the Oseberg ship.  The ornament extended below what would have been the waterline.

from Wikimedia

The Oseberg Ship under excavation in about 1904.  While the excavation was done in only one summer, extracting and restoring the ship took 21 years.  Recent examinations by museum curators revealed that the restorers shortened the length of the ship.

The Gokstad Ship, an even bigger ship with 16 pairs of oar portals used for the burial of a man in his 40s who probably died in battle sometime in the 10th century.  The posts on the bow and stern are restorations.  The originals were long ago destroyed by the conditions of burial.  The bow and stern posts may have originally looked something like those on the Oseberg Ship.

Another view of the Gokstad Ship.
The Vikings were among the greatest of all pre-modern sea-faring peoples.  Their only rivals in distances traveled were the Polynesians in the South Pacific.  Ships like this carried them from Constantinople to Labrador and down the Volga river.  They left remains of settlements on the Atlantic coast of Canada and carved runes into the marble of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople.

The remains of 2 smaller boats found buried with the Gokstad Ship in the background.

The museum has not only the ships, but all of the surviving goods from both burials.  Here is the only surviving Viking cart from the Oseberg burial.

A carved head from the cart

One of a series of poll ornaments from the Oseberg burial.  These were all very different from each other and strikingly carved with ferocious monster heads that must have looked even more ferocious when they were brightly painted.

A detail of the monster head from the post above; even with the once painted eyes now blank, it still seems to audibly roar.

Another poll ornament covered with interlace carving

The snarling beast from the above poll ornament.

Another monster even more elaborately carved with inlaid metal eyes.

An amazing sled with inlay work and interlace carving everywhere.

A street in Oslo near where I stayed, and on the way to Frogner Park.

The main drag of Oslo, Karl Johann street viewed toward the west and the Royal Palace.

from Wikipedia

The same view on Karl Johann street painted by the great Norwegian artist Edvard Munch in 1890, a little further up the street from where I was.

Looking east on Karl Johann Street toward the Norwegian Parliament

from Wikipedia

The same view painted by Munch in 1893 with the Parliament building more visible to the right.
Without resort to any of the usual rattling bones and grinning skulls of conventional horror, Munch transforms the respectable citizens of Oslo out for a stroll on a summer night into a threatening hoard of ghosts.  The shooting perspective of Karl Johan street only adds to the claustrophobic effect of the oncoming crowd.

This small modest building is the National Gallery in Oslo, smallest of all the museums that I visited.  Inside is one of the most famous paintings in the world, the "Mona Lisa of Modern Art."

And wouldn't you know it, photography is permitted everywhere in the museum except in this gallery housing many of Edvard Munch's most famous paintings.

And there it is photographed from outside of the gallery, Edvard Munch's The Scream from 1893.

All of the painting reproductions are from Wikipedia.  I saw a lot of major paintings by Munch in that little gallery in that small museum.  I could not photograph any of them.

 from Wikipedia

Edvard Munch painted 4 versions of The Scream in 1893 (he painted over 40 more versions later in his life), 3 of those original versions are in Oslo divided between the National Gallery and the Munch Museum.  The 4th is in a private collection.
This is the first and most famous version painted in oil and pastel on cardboard (it must be a conservator's nightmare).  To my mind, it is also the best retaining all the original emotional power of the dark epiphany that inspired this image.  Munch originally gave this painting a German title, Der Schrei der Natur (The Scream of Nature).  In his diary in 1892, Munch described the experience that inspired this painting:
"I was out walking with two friends -- the sun began to set -- suddenly the sky turned blood red -- I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on a fence -- there was blood red tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city -- my friends walked on, and there I stood, trembling with fear -- and I sensed an endless scream passing through Nature."
The place where this vision happened is usually identified as a road above the Oslo fjord on the Ekeberg hill near an insane asylum where Munch's sister Laura Catherine was a patient.
The Scream is Munch's most reductive and distorted subject.  He never did anything quite like this again (other than repeated versions of this painting).  Everything Munch describes in his diary entry is there; the fiery sunset, the blue-black fjord, the two friends walking on, everything except the figure screaming in the foreground.  It is a blank featureless, sexless, ghost of a figure that seems to rear up suddenly in front of us.  We seem to be levitating above the ground as the friends walk down the shooting perspective of the road and off the picture. Munch reduces the landscape to a pattern of swirling and sweeping shapes that begin to collapse the distinction between land and sky, and between near and far.  Munch took a very personal experience and sought to universalize it by making it into a pattern that he believed could successfully describe the anxiety that inspired this vision more authentically than a conventional figurative painting.
"Show me an angel and I will paint it," declared the artist Gustave Courbet.  Edvard Munch replied, "The camera cannot compete with the brush and canvas so long as it cannot be used in heaven and hell."  Munch took the confident materialist positivism of his age to task arguing that we cannot separate the world from the eye and the mind that perceives it, that no one is a camera, a blank mechanism looking at the world.  We cannot help but look at the world through the lens of our own memories, experiences, and imaginings.  The health and happiness of our perceiving minds -- or the lack of it -- is an inextricable part of the world we live in.
Munch's paintings, including The Scream, are mostly autobiographical and personal.  Munch grew up in dire poverty surrounded by illness, insanity, and death.  Munch's mother died of tuberculosis when he was five.  His favorite sister, Sophie, died of the disease when Munch was fourteen.  Munch's father was a morbidly religious man who always warned his children that their mother was weeping in heaven over their disobedience. Munch's sister Laura Catherine became mentally ill and his brother Andreas died of tuberculosis soon after his wedding.  Munch financially supported the remaining members of his family out of his earnings as an artist all of his life.

 from Wikipedia

Munch's Madonna 1894, is a deliberately blasphemous image that is also very neurotic and misogynistic.  Munch went through a lot of bereavement at the very same time he went through adolescence and sexual awakening.  An older woman tried to seduce him when he was still a teenager.  Those experiences together with his father's very dark piety caused him to see sexuality and death inextricably intertwined.  He saw life as a dance of death with no escape.  He saw woman as the portal of death through sexuality.  In this he was not much different from many other artists and writers in a deeply misogynistic age where the femme fatale played a large role in male imaginations.  In this painting, a seductive young woman emerges from the swirling background with black snaky hair and a face that begins to turn into a death's head.  She wears and infernal red halo; a deliberately ironic inversion of the halo of the Virgin Mary.

from Wikipedia

Death in the Sickroom 1895
This painting is a reminiscence of the death of his beloved sister Sophie from almost 20 years before.  She dies in the chair on the right with her back to us.  On the left center dominating the painting is Munch's sister Inge.  Munch shows her as she was in 1895, not in 1877 when Sophie died.
The floor plane tips up and chiaroscuro is kept to a minimum flattening the forms of the picture into a kind of pattern.  Though a sweeping rhythmic line ties most of the figures together, they all grieve separately in isolation.
What struck me about the painting most when I saw it was the complexity of the color.  A large palette of colors went into creating that over-all jaundiced sickly color effect.  The black mourning clothes don't have a scrap of black in them.  They are all thinned out washes of blues and purples, even a little green here and there.  They become black in the overall context of the painting.

from Wikipedia

Moonlight, 1893

A favorite painting of mine, a girl in a black dress fades into the surrounding darkness and becomes a ghostly menacing figure.  The shadow behind her is even more menacing and seems to have a life of its own.  The moon appears reflected in the window behind her on the right.  Again, reproduction fails to convey the complexity of means that went into making such a seemingly simple color effect; a lot of washes, glazes, and scumbling.

I've always loved Munch's work, but I was surprised by how moved I was by it when in the presence of the originals.  Munch may have died in 1944 at 81 years old, an international art star and a Norwegian cultural treasure, but he certainly didn't start out that way.  The grief and anxiety that produced these pictures was a high price to pay, and those emotions are still very palpable in the presence of these pictures.

Christian Krogh, The Sick Girl, 1880 - 1881

Krogh was a close friend of Edvard Munch, and like Munch made probably his best painting out of the tuberculosis epidemic that swept Europe at the end of the 19th century.  Krogh shows a girl with tuberculosis with a lot of clues that her illness will not end in recovery; the rose and the point of view which subtly suggests an open coffin.

A detail of Krogh's The Sick Girl.

There are some fine works by Caspar David Friedrich in the Oslo museum including this view of the artist's hometown of Greifswald in the moonlight; a small picture.

A beautiful old lecture hall in the National Gallery in Oslo.

Bill Paulsen and I visited the home of Vidkun Quisling, the Fascist Norwegian Prime Minister who willingly collaborated with the Nazi occupation and whose name has become synonymous with treason.  The home and estate are now a Holocaust studies center.  Norway's Jewish population was so small that most of it was transported in one trip on a single ship to Poland and to Auschwitz.

from Wikimedia Commons

Quisling with Hitler in Berlin.  The Norwegians don't have a death penalty, and haven't had one for decades, but they made an exception for Quisling.  He was tried for treason after the war and shot.

One of the strangest and most spectacular sights to see in Oslo is Frogner Park featuring the work of Gustav Vigeland whose sculptures fill this park.  He worked with a small army of sculptors and stone cutters to create this installation in the park, a life's work.  It is as odd as it is spectacular swarming with nude figures of men and women of all ages in a huge sculpted spectacle that has something to do with the human condition.  He even designed the paving, ironwork fences, and balustrades in the park.

The centerpiece of the Vigeland sculpture installation in Frogner Park, The Monolith carved from a single piece of stone over 46 feet high and composed of the intertwined bodies of 121 figures.

The Monolith with one of many equally striking sculptures that surround it.

Needless to say, these sculptures can get very suggestive sometimes.  How could a swarm of intertwined nude figures not be suggestive?
They are all types.  None of them are particular or individuated.

A closer view of the Monolith.

from Wikipedia

Gustav Vigeland with a sample of his work.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Jon Stewart Conundrum

Is Jon Stewart really all that brilliant and innovative a comic genius, or is the American news media just astonishingly corrupt and incompetent?

And the answer is yes.

Jon Stewart does his last broadcast tonight.


Firestorm created by the atomic bomb blast, Hiroshima, August 6, 1945

Seventy years ago today, the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima beginning the Atomic Era. The attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki 3 days later remain the only use of nuclear weapons in war. Did the Bomb end the war, or did the late entry into the war against Japan by the Soviets end it? I don't know. I must admit that I agree with the historian Francis Pike who says that it's hard to imagine any American President of any party deciding differently after enormously high American casualties at Tarawa, Okinawa, and Iwo Jima where the Japanese defenders fought tenaciously, and facing the prospect of an invasion of the Japanese homeland.

And yet, the use of so terrible a weapon on a civilian population is hardly something to be proud of. The Atomic bombs were the culmination of the indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets by all sides throughout the War. The firebombing of Tokyo in March of 1945 by American B-29s under the command of General Curtis LeMay was the single deadliest raid of the War killing more people than the raids on Dresden, and Hiroshima. The point of all of these raids (including those by Hitler over Warsaw, Rotterdam, and Britain) was terror. Their strategic value was minimal. The point of all of them was to frighten and demoralize populations into surrender. Frequently they had the opposite effect, hardening the resolve of populations to resist. The real motivation behind such attacks despite elaborate strategic reasoning in official statements was revenge.

The central role of nuclear weapons today as mutual blackmail among nations is the legacy of not only the raids on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but the whole policy of targeting civilians by the Axis and Allies during World War II. With the end of the Cold War, the situation has become even more dangerous, not less. The single greatest threat to everyone is the prospect of such weapons coming into the hands of non-state actors like terrorist organizations or crime syndicates. Almost as big a threat is the potential use of such weapons in long running and volatile conflicts like that between India and Pakistan, or just about any of the many conflicts in the Middle East. We are living with the legacy of a series of Faustian bargains made between 1940 and 1945, a stalemate created by weapons too destructive to use.


There is no such thing as a "good war."  There are only wars of desperate necessity and gratuitous aggression.  Most wars are are both.