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Culture and Arts

Culture Watch

by Emily Mitchell

In this issue:


Think you know all about Rembrandt? His paintings and his world are expertly and stylishly re-visited by historian Simon Schama in Rembrandt's Eyes. 

From Spain, director Pedro Almodovar's All About My Mother is all about women and pays a grand tribute to women, their friendships and ability to renew themselves. 

One of the teens who integrated a Little Rock school in the '50s, Melba Pattillo Beals in her memoir White Is a State of Mind, looks back on her life. On CBS's Judging Amy, Tyne Daley plays one of TV's few drawn-from-life older women. 

Rembrandt's Eyes by Simon Schama
(Knopf; 750 pages; $50 - Amazon: $35)

      Ask anyone to name the world's most famous master of brush and palette and chances are the reply will be this: Rembrandt. All those Dutch men and women in somber black with stiff, chalk-white ruffs at their neck, those self-portraits of the artist with his deep introspective gaze. Ah, yes, we think, Rembrandt.  Yes, we know him. So much has been written about him in art-history tomes and psycho-pop biographies that there scarcely seems a need for yet another book. But Simon Schama is no ordinary writer and this is no ordinary book. A British-born historian who now teaches in the U.S., he has made his reputation--and alarmed many academicians--by viewing the past through the prism of art and then writing about it with vigor and style. The social and political backdrop of Rembrandt's Eyes is 17th century Holland, and in the foreground is a group portrait with the artist, a majestic central figure who looks directly out at us across two centuries. Schama has created with words what Rembrandt created with paint:  the substance of life and the shadows that pass across it. 
      War, rumors of war, deprivation and Croesus-like wealth characterized life in the religiously divided Netherlands of Rembrandt's day. Schama guides the reader through this complex terrain, branching out in leisurely excursions to explore the historical byways of Dutch art, the conflicts between Catholics and Calvinists and the lives of the painters who influenced Rembrandt or were his rivals. 
       In his early 20s Rembrandt was already an  accomplished painter in Leiden with a studio and pupils. But the miller's son had ambitions his home town could not satisfy. Amsterdam was the place to be. As time went by, his fortunes there rose, he married and his son Titus was born. Then his art went out of fashion. Commissions became fewer. Loss clung like a shroud. His wife died, and much later his common-law wife succumbed as well. Creditors sprang up from  everywhere, and his home and most of his possessions were sold off. At the end, the plague carried away his beloved Titus. Through it all, he kept working, turning out drawings, etchings, paintings, and as his life changed and darkened, so did his art. It became richer, deeper. 
     The eyes of the book's title have loaded meaning. Blindness, both internally and externally, fascinated Rembrandt. He painted Homer and Samson; he painted sightless beggars and the elderly. "Rembrandt's entire career was a dialogue between outward and inward vision,'' Schama writes, "between the glitter of the hard, unforgivingly metallic surface of the world and the vulnerability of mortal flesh.''  And then there are the eyes in the self-portraits, painted while he regarded his own image reflected in a mirror. In the later ones especially Rembrandt does not flatter himself--or us. As Schama describes them in one painting, the eyes are deep set and black, "the brows raised a little as if accustomed to discomfort, ringed round and round again with puff circles, wheels within wheels that speak of nights without sleep, of sorrows without end, of the crushing weight of life's travail.'' 
     Schama makes a compelling case for Rembrandt as modernist. Over time, he abandoned the slick, enamel-like painted surfaces adored by the good burghers. The threads of the canvas, the brush's defiant jabs and emotional thrusts assume weight, take on importance. In Rembrandt's hands, they are not just the medium, they are part of the story. The drawings and etchings, Schama argues, show Rembrandt becoming fascinated by the possibility that doing the work itself, the physical process, could be the subject of art as much as the objects being represented. 
     It is Rembrandt as humanist who awakens our emotions, and Schama makes that abundantly and movingly clear. He painted the well-to-do, of course. He had to; his vanity demanded it, and they paid well. But he didn't flatter, and he made hundreds of works of ordinary people, the flesh of their faces with pits and pocks, sagging with worry, haggard and worn. He somehow seems able both to understand and--far more difficult--portray the totality of existence, the union of life with death. The later self-portraits radiate with a sense of our common mortality. Time and care have stripped away outward ambition and worldly desire, Rembrandt's eyes tells us, but I, I remain. 

All About My Mother 
Written and directed by Pedro Almodovar

     Pedro Almodovar likes women.  Let's take that a step farther and say he loves women and he loves what it is to be a woman, even if you happen to be a man. The Spanish director's newest film, All About My Mother, is a poignant and touching tale of tangled female relationships and maternal instincts. Manuela (the heartbreaking Cecilia Roth) is a hard-working  single mother of a teen. An accident on a rain-soaked night in Madrid forces her to revive old memories and retrace painful footsteps. Traveling to Barcelona, Manuela joins up with an old chum, a transvestite whose realistic appraisal of sex and the body is her (his?) means of survival. Manuela's circle of friends grows to include the pagan--an aging lesbian actress and her young addicted girlfriend--and the saintly--a doomed young and pregnant nun. The movie has already won a Golden Globe and is an odds'-on favorite for the other one, the one named Oscar. 
      The most overused and shallow word of the '90s--remember them?--was "closure.''  It would crop up whenever death or treachery caused injury, as if there were a magic door we could walk through and shut behind us, leaving the past behind and making all hurts vanish. Almodovar here gets it right. Pain leaves an imprint. It lingers, stays underneath the heart and with time and new experiences is transformed, given meaning.  In the flash of a second, the world Manuela built for herself shatters. There's no closure for her; she accepts grief at the same time as she receives and returns love. 
     Almodovar pays tribute to the classic backstage drama of All About Eve and chain-smoking Bette Davis, and central to his plot are the tragic Southern sisters Blanche and Stella of Streetcar Named Desire. It's more than a nice touch or a directorial homage to pop female icons. Bette, Blanche and Stella here represent three sides of the eternally female: the powerful woman fighting for what she wants, the fragile creature always depending on the kindness of strangers, and the mother prepared to do anything to protect her child. 


White Is a State of Mind by Melba Pattillo Beals 
(Berkley; 338 pages:$12.95 - Amazon: $11.01)
     For the African-American students who integrated Little Rock's Central High School back in 1957, the second year was unendurable. As if white opposition from  students and adults wasn't enough, under economic pressure many in the black community were demanding an end to the brave effort. Melba Pattillo Beals, one of the "Little Rock Nine,'' recalls the fear and upheaval of those days in White Is a State of Mind, newly out in paperback. (Her previous memoir Warriors Don't Cry won the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award.) Unable to bear the torment, Beals is sent by the NAACP to California, and to her shock, is placed in the care of a white family.  It is a turning point for the insecure young Southerner. Beals courageously writes about the struggle to keep her footing on the quicksand of race relations, as she becomes a college student, a wife and mother and finally breaks free to stand tall as a writer and her own woman in America's Black - and-white world. 

Judging Amy; CBS

The scarcity of African-Americans and Hispanics in TV series made headlines last year, and producers yelled for re-writes. Did anyone mention the non-presence of older women? The strong, independent woman over 50 is almost extinct on evening television.   One good exception is Maxine, the no-nonsense mother, grandmother and social worker played by the admirable Tyne Daley in Judging Amy.  Daley refuses to make Maxine a lovable character; she's prickly and stubborn. She speaks her mind and is capable of making a mistake. But she's woman enough to say so and then get on with it.  ©


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