I took the F train to the Lexington Avenue-63rd Street Station and came out on the 3rd Avenue exit. As I took the elevator up to the street I passed several mosaics, the last of which you can see in the photo below. The mosaics are by Jean Shin, a Seoul-born New York City artist. I hadn’t seen her work before, but after seeing these mosaics, I will make an effort to see more works by her.
My impression on seeing this mosaic was that it shows the nearby Queensboro Bridge (see featured photo) which connects Manhattan to Queens. The visual resemblance is striking, but I was wrong. It turns out that Shin captures an older elevated train station which was replaced by the subway line. The girders shown here held up the elevated track. This is a part of New York I hadn’t seen before, and I had no idea that there were elevated tracks in the city. One lives and learns, sometimes too late.
I could have guessed: the entrance to this station was as lit up as the doors to one of the shows on Broadway around it. I’d dodged photo ops with Batman and Captain America before ducking into this shelter. I should have known that this cave would not be just another little hole in the wall. It was a full scale museum. I’d browsed a full catalogue of art works in the subway, but had forgotten to count how many there were in the subway station at Times Square and 42nd Street. Since I did not have a floor plan, I would miss several, but the ones I saw were marvellous.
I came face to face with a wonderful mural by Roy Lichtenstein as soon as I entered. It shows an Art Deco future from a Buck Rogers comic book, so different from the reality of that future around it. Lichtenstein made the Times Square Mural on a commission from the MTA, so the juxtaposition is deliberate. Very often that future is talked of as an utopia never found. But this was the weekend of Charlottesburg, and I could not help thinking how much more vibrant the New York above ground is than the future of these musty old imaginations.
Apart from Roy Lichtenstein, one person who called out that Buck Rogers future is the science fiction writer William Gibson in a great story called The Gernsback Continuum. I had it in mind as I walked along the 16 meter long mural, admiring the bright colours and the last gathering of all of Lichtenstein’s life’s themes. The mural was installed in 2002, a couple of years after my few months in New York. This was the first time I’d seen it. Lichtenstein died in 1997, and this work from 1994 was one of his last major pieces.
It has clearly been a very long time since I was in New York City. One lovely new thing that has happened is that there is more art in the subway. The example you see in the featured photo is from the Lexington Avenue and 59th Street station. Quite a stunner; it is called Blooming, and the artist is Elizabeth Murray.
A beautifully quirky set includes the example above. The whole set together is called Earth Potential. The temporary installation in the city hall park is by Katja Noviskova. It blends beautifully with the surroundings, as you can see. As one walks around Manhattan now one sees a lot of interesting outdoor art.
I haven’t written about shopping before. But when the shop window looks like the featured photo, perhaps I could do it. We walked into the shop to look, and it was full of things which were as wacky as these. Apparently Art Escudellers of Barcelona collects contemporary sculpture and ceramics from across Spain. Apart from the figures which are meant to stand in your home and brighten it we also found things which are useful, beautiful, and equally costly.
We didn’t have time to go to the Museu de Ceramica, so it was pleasant to walk into a cool shop to spend a little time just looking at the samples of Catalan ceramics on display here. If we had to buy ceramics we would have spent some time researching the shops.
There’s a clutch of very famous 17th century Dutch painters whose paintings we usually take to define the style. You can walk through a gallery of paintings from this period pausing only at the Rembrandts and Vermeers and Hals. But this time and place also produced a set of very skilled still-life painters. Walking through the galleries in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, I was reminded of this. The names Ambrosius Bosschaert or Balthasar van der Ast were not familiar to me, but when I stopped in front of their canvases (detail from van der Ast’s just below, from Bosschaert’s in the featured photo and the last one in this post) I was immediately drawn into their world.
The Thyssen-Bornemisza is one of Madrid’s Golden Triangle, the others being The Prado and the Reina Sofia Museum. This was the private collection of the Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza, who started by buying up the collections of American millionaires who had fallen on hard times during the Great Depression. I decided to spend half a day in this museum because it was extremely hot outside, and I had half a day between checking out of my hotel and catching my flight back home.
With these three examples of the many butterflies I followed in this part of the collection, I thought I’d managed to spend one of the hours in this museum quite fruitfully. In slow stages I moved on to the abstractions of the early 20th century. This museum is the missing link between the collections of the Prado and the Reina Sofia, so it was an afternoon well spent.
On my last Sunday in Spain I took the short day trip from Madrid to Toledo. This is really worth it, if you have the time, and the inclination to see one of the old capitals of Castile. One of the highlights is the immense cathedral filled with chapels and side-chambers. Apparently the reason why it is so large is that it was established by razing the old mosque, and wanted to build over the full area that it occupied.
I took a ticket with an audio guide and meandered through the place, looking for the paintings by El Greco, Raphael, Murillo, Velazquez and Goya. After finding them, I followed the audio-guide’s whispered commands and came to the chapel you see above: dedicated to the new kings of Castile. The two sepulchres which you see in the featured photo belong to Henry III of Castile and his wife, grandparents of Isabel who, with Ferdinand, were instrumental in unifying Spain. All that is history. What I don’t understand is this business of three pillows. Wouldn’t that be too high for comfort?
Toledo calls itself the city of three cultures. This is most visible in the monastery of San Juan de los Reyes. I walked through the Jewish quarter, and past the synagogue, into this large monastery built in the Mudejar style by Islamic architects and artisans, and found a stunning building.
There is a wonderful mix of Christian spaces with Islamic decorations in the tiles on the floor and the woodwork in the ceilings along the corridors. But my eyes were caught by the exuberance of the details on the carvings on pillars and pediments.
I have seldom seen this kind of naturalistic detail outside of India. I walked slowly along the verandah bordering the central courtyard, admiring each piece of sculpture and taking a few photos. I’m sure each of these has been fitted into a symbolic belief structure, and if I were well-versed in medieval Christian symbolism I would see other layers of meaning under them.
I just took pleasure in what the simple artists saw: a dog, a pig and a duck. Satisfied with my slow circuit around the central garden, I waddled out.
I saw everyday pottery from before the modern era in various parts of Spain. In a village museum in Andalucia I saw the plate shown in the featured photo. The decoration looked very modern. When I looked at the date, it turned out to be from the early 20th century. I liked the red colour of the fired clay, which you see in the rim. The thin white glaze and the faded green decoration looked very nice too.
In the same place, I saw the pieces which you see above in the photo on the left. These pieces are also Andalucian and come from the early 20th century. On the right, above, is a detail from a painting by Murillo. If it shows contemporary pottery, then it is Andalucian, and from the early 17th century. Three hundred years has changed this pottery a little. The shapes are very similar. The newer pottery has somewhat of a brighter glaze. This could be because the firing kilns are hotter, and therefore allow different glazing.
Finally, I leave you with photos of pottery I saw in Toledo, said to be from El Greco’s time. If this is an example of mid-16th century Castillian pottery, then it is remarkably similar in colour and design to tiles from other parts of Spain and Portugal of that time. Interestingly, even now one finds in southern France, pottery with similar decoration.
walking near the magic fountain of Barcelona, I spotted a pigeon which was as still as a heron stalking its prey. I looked again and found a clever bit graffiti.
Barcelona has a light touch.
Learn from the almond leaf
Which flames as it falls.
The ground is burning.
The earth is burning.
–Eunice de Souza, 2016.
Eunice de Souza died this rainy weekend. She was 77, and a member of a generation from Mumbai who remade Indian poetry in English. She was never as well-known as Arun Kolatkar, the older Nissim Ezekiel, Adil Jussawalla (who was, for a while, her colleague in the Department of English in St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai) or Gieve Patel. However, the enormous outpouring of emotion from her erstwhile students this weekend testifies to the deep impact she had. One thing that emerges from this is her personal flamboyance.
This arose from her not taking much account of what others thought of her. One tiny example of this can be seen in the photo alongside. It shows her in her kitchen with her pet parrot Koko. He appeared in her poetry. He was also brought up as an excuse when she didn’t want to leave home: "I don’t think Mr. de Souza will want me to go." Her friends knew this for a joke. She alludes to this in-joke in a poem called Guide to a Well-behaved Parrot: I shout at him/He shouts back/Really, I may as well have been/married.
In recent years I remember her from her weekly column about literature. They were clear, free of academic jargon (but not of humour), and spoke to her readers as equals. It was hard to connect this to her bleak last collection of poems, Learn from the Almond Leaf, many of which have been quoted in this Sunday’s newspapers. I will end this post with another poem from this collection:
My mother’s bones in a niche.
My aunt’s ashes likewise.
–Eunice de Souza (1940-2017)