Category Archives: Biographies and Memoirs

Lives, historical and personal

Master of Shadows The Secret Diplomatic Career of the Painter Peter Paul Rubens by Mark Lamster

I read this for the Fort Worth Kimball Museum’s book club. I knew next to nothing about 17th century history – just a little about the Stuarts, Cromwell, and the Great Fire – but not European doings. Now I know way more than I ever wanted. Some of it little came in handy when I was teaching early American literature this summer. One never knows what random information one may pick up that might come in handy at the most unexpected times.

The audience for this book would, I think, be readers who want to know more about political history and art history. It is not for the casual reader; it is not light reading. Also, I have the paperback edition with few illustrations – all in black and white. I don’t know whether the hardback would have more painting, and in color. I was lucky enough to have Rembrandt’s Eyes by Simon Schama, which is chock full of Ruben’s paintings mentioned in Master of Shadows.

I was also relatively unfamiliar with Rubens. I knew the name, of course, but his paintings are not as ubiquitous as are those of Monet, Rembrandt, Botticelli, or Munch. Chances are, you, like myself, are much better acquainted with the adjective than the work of the painter. Few people can cite a Rubens painting by name, but “Rubenesque” has become a synonym for any amply proportioned female. Rubens has fallen out of style and is now thought of as an Old World master of a painting style—symbolic representation, heavy on Greek and biblical references—that we now think of as musty and antiquated. High Baroque, the style in which he painted, is nowadays synonymous with pointless complexity. After all, how many modern museum-strollers have the time to invest in all of the reference books needed to make sense of his allegories? But despite the one-dimensionality associated with the painter’s name, here’s a book that puts Rubens in a whole other frame.

Peter Paul Rubens got more done in one day than most of us get done in a lifetime. Rubens wasn’t content with merely being, conceivably, the world’s greatest painter during his lifetime. Instead, he filled his resume with an impressive array of occupations. Like superspy, for one—in addition to treaty negotiator, statesman, wealthy landowner, antiquities dealer, and factory head.

Rubens the politico-spy is just one of his many pursuits that surface in Master of Shadows, but it’s perhaps the least likely, given what was regarded as an artist’s lack of prospects when it came to upward mobility in the 16th and 17th centuries. Painters had a relative low status in society and were viewed as manual laborers because they worked with their hands. They could, possibly, earn a fortune. Rubens certainly did, with many royal and ecclesiastical commissions, which he met, with the assistance of helpers and students executing large portions of the paintings that bore his name. Painters were rarely drafted into diplomatic service, despite what Mark Lamster cites as the most natural cover: they had the ear of kings, queens, dukes, and assorted courtiers.

Rubens was eventually put on military salary by the Spanish crown (which had dominion over his native Antwerp). He was handsome, affable, quick-witted, and a natural salesman and he knew when to keep his mouth shut. Lamster calls him “the perfect spy.” There’s no doubt that Rubens’s undertakings were useful to Europe’s volatile politics. Intrigue was everywhere, with one clandestine deal being canceled out by another, and a third in place as a fall-back.

Rubens worked primarily as an operative for the Spanish crown, which was engaged in a prolonged war with the emerging Dutch republic, a conflict that engulfed all of Europe’s powers and involved the countries’ colonies. Rubens believed he could resolve this perpetual war, and he devoted several years of his life to this effort, risking all that he had achieved. He would arrange for a peace between Spain and England, with the expectation that England would then force its Dutch ally to compromise with Spain. It was a shrewd bit of strategic thinking, but it would not work unless Rubens could convince England and Spain, traditional enemies, to come to terms. Ultimately, Rubens did not succeed, although he was knighted by both Philip IV, King of Spain, and Charles I, King of England. One can see the sources of conflict in Europe that extend even to the 21st century. Lamster does a valuable job of sorting out the tangled politics of the Low Countries during what was a violent, complex, and energetic era. I was never entirely clear exactly what was going on, but I suspect the participants weren’t either.

Rubens was able to balance affairs of state with his personal business interests. He was not an agitator, at least externally; repeatedly browbeaten by various members of the nobility, the painter/spy worked ceaselessly to please, winning the favor of kings (such as Spain’s Philip IV) who had previously held his lack of a birthright against him.

Rubens approached negotiations as he might have approached a painting. That is, as a problem to be solved, requiring just the right balance of materials and techniques—shadow, color, and symbolism on the painting side of the equation; pointed reasons, financial assurances, and talk of shared interests at court.

We see Rubens’s political concerns feeding into his art, yielding it greater narrative scope. His early work evolved into a style where the relationship between metaphor and meaning became more direct. He had to make sure that his patrons understood precisely what his art was conveying. Satisfying human vanity went a long way in Rubens’s political career, and visualizing a king as a metaphorical god of justice and happiness, beloved of his flock, made for a favorable frame of mind when a favor was needed.

Mark Lamster’s affection for his subject is so complete and his research is so thorough that “Master of Shadows: The Secret Diplomatic Career of the Painter Peter Paul Rubens” manages to be generally engaging, instructive and thought-provoking. My occasional impatience arose, undoubtedly, from my overall lack of interest and experience with 17th century European history.

Lamster demonstrates the relationship between Rubens’ diplomatic assignments and his important artistic commissions. The author also reveals Rubens to be an attractive and likable man who clearly interested and charmed those around him.

Lamster provides a portrait of a major painter at a time when artists were still fully integrated into the intellectual, social and political affairs of their time. For Ruben, the artist was very much a man of affairs — well-educated, -traveled and -schooled in the social graces. Flemish painters, like their Italian counterparts, were members of respectable, even prestigious guilds. It’s not hard to see how a man as self-possessed and as socially gifted as Rubens could find a role in high-level diplomacy.

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Red Brick Black Mountain White Clay by Christopher Benfey

This is not a book I would have selected to read, but then I have named this blog “All Books Considered.” And I was kind of assigned this book for the Artful Reading book club at Fort Worth’s Kimbell Museum. (Actually, I didn’t realize it was a book club; I thought the authors or some other experts were going to come and lecture – there are two more books in this series.) Anyway, that’s what reading is for – to open your mind to new experiences, not just entertain or inform.

The director of this long-standing book club asked us what we would say to persuade someone else to read this book. I’m still thinking about that.

Christopher Benfey is literary critic and Emily Dickinson scholar. He is the Mellon Professor of English at Mount Holyoke College. Benfey holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University. Benfey is a specialist in 19th and 20th century American literature. He is also an established essayist and critic who has been published in The New York Times Sunday Book Review, The New Republic, The New York Review of Books, and The Times Literary Supplement.

 He also seems to be related or acquainted with everyone who mattered in the second half of the 20th century. More about that later… He seems to have been everywhere and what he doesn’t know, doesn’t matter.

The title comes from the three parts of the book, although the book’s organization is very free flowing. One of Annie Albers’, his aunt, painting is titled “Red Meander,” and that is exactly what this book does – meander throughout the world, the arts, history, people, and Benfey’s thoughts. The subtitle for the book is Reflections on Art, Family, & Survival.

As I said, there are three parts to the book. The first part concentrates on the origin of his mother’s family. Rachel Elizabeth Thomas descended from colonial explorers and Quaker craftsmen. Her family settled in the Piedmont area of North Carolina, famous for its red clay, and was a brick layer. Seagrove is in the area, which I learned, is notable for its many folk potteries reaching back more than two hundred years, and is sometimes referred to as the “pottery capital of North Carolina”, or pottery capital of the world. Jugtown, one of the premier potteries, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  I had never heard of this place; I seemed to be one of the few in the book club who hadn’t. Benfey explores the geology, history, economy, art, and family background concentrated on this area of the country.

However, he also traces his father’s family’s history in this first part. His father, Otto Theodor Benfey, had left Germany before the war. His aunt and uncle, Josef and Anni Albers, left Germany when the Nazis closed the Bauhaus school in 1933. The Bauhaus had a major impact on art and architecture trends in Western Europe, the United States, Canada, and Israel in the decades following its demise, as many of the artists involved fled, or were exiled, by the Nazi regime. The Benfeys have a distinguished, prominent family history, including Christopher’s father, a chemist, who conceived the spiral design of the period table of the elements, and Theodor Benfey, a German philologist who taught Sanskrit and made a major scholarly contribution to the study of fairy tales at the same time the Brothers Grimm were collected their tales.

If any of this seems linear, I am misleading you. This information is scattered throughout the book. Thank heavens for the index!

In the second part of the book, Denfey relates the Alberses’ careers in this country. After Josef and Anni Albers reached the United States, the architect Philip Johnson, then a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, arranged for Albers to be offered a job as head of a new art school, Black Mountain College in North Carolina.  In November 1933, he joined the faculty of the college where he ran the painting program until 1949. Black Mountain College was a new kind of college in the United States in which the study of art was seen to be central to a liberal arts education. Many of the school’s students and faculty were influential in the arts or other fields, or went on to become influential. This connection is responsible for Christopher Benfey’s acquaintance with so many well-known later 20th century artists and writers. Although notable even during its short life, the school closed in 1957 after only 24 years. In 1950, Albers left Black Mountain to head the Department of Design at Yale University.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a lover of Albers’ work. Her office walls boast works on loan from the Smithsonian, including two original Rothkos, a painting by Max Weber, and one by Josef Albers. (Another Albers painting, which usually hangs in her chambers, is currently part of a traveling exhibit. Ginsburg vows that she won’t retire until it returns.)

After digressions to Mexico, Japan, Italy, Germany, Chile, Cuba, Greece, China, France, and nearly every state in America (and I’m sure I’ve missed a few), we come to part three in which we travel to England to trace the development of Wedgwood china. Josiah Wedgwood became fixated on the white Cherokee clay in North Carolina. Several attempts were made to possess this unique material; in the end, John and William Bartram, father and son, Quakers, manage to take back five tons of the white Cherokee clay to Wedgwood, resulting in the superb china that resulted in Wedgwood being named Potter to Her Majesty.

So we come back to pottery, North Carolina, clay, and Quakers. Everything in this book is connected. I can only imagine a graphic depiction of names, places, and materials.

Back to the director’s question: What could I say to persuade someone to read this book? Many in the club were most interested in pottery. If you collect or create pottery, you must read this book. Otherwise, if you are interested in American history, from colonial times to the 20th century, this will provide you with much you may not be aware of (as I was). However, you must not expect a linear narrative; you must be ready for that meandering, I mentioned. I became very frustrated during less than interesting sections, was confused trying to make the connection between all the elements, and wished that Benfey would just get on with it. Nevertheless, I’m glad I made it through the entire book. One lesson may be that everything is connected in this world, in one way or the other. Another lesson may be that one should not close one’s mind to a book – one never knows what one may learn.

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Chanel Bonfire by Wendy Lawless

A review of this book I read compared Georgann Rea to “Holly Golightly turned Mommie Dearest.” I was thinking more like Auntie Mame turned Edith Beale. I had trouble believing that this was nonfiction, a memoir of a hellishly mind-boggling childhood, but by the end I was right there with Wendy, hoping that she and her sister would turn out all right. I also felt sorry for Georgann, that no one intervened in the situation to get her help. Unfortunately, many families need help but aren’t getting it. Part of the problem is the lack of resources, but a great deal can be attributed to shame and secrecy of dysfunctional families.

The girls’ father was prevented by their mother from contact, telling them he wasn’t interested in them. Their stepfather did all he could do for them but finally couldn’t do any more. The emotional and physical abuse inflicted by the mother prevented them from reaching out to anyone who might have intervened. Wendy tried to hide the cracks in their fractured family from the rest of the world.

The book is narrated in the first person by Wendy Lawless, a moderately successful actress, Chanel Bonfire is provocative and affecting, sometimes humorous, and filled with sadness and loneliness. Wendy tells her story in a stunning, straightforward manner that is very moving.

Not many families face the same problems that Wendy and Robin did. Georgann is constantly reinventing herself as she trades up from trailer-park to penthouse, suffers multiple nervous breakdowns and suicide attempts. She manages to marry up, from a Guthrie actor to a successful Broadway producer, and went from a trailer to an apartment in the Dakota. She enjoyed the money, the social status, the alcohol, the attention, the men, everything but her children.

When her second husband had had enough, despair pervaded and nothing about this family was normal. Georgann had affairs with innumerable men and women, never finding what she wanted.
We learn that Georgann was abused by her wealthy adoptive parents, enduring many of the humiliations that she subjected her own children to later in her life.

At one point, Wendy began therapy and found answers to her situation. Her therapist helped her plan how to protect herself and set herself free from her mother. She became an actress and is married to a screenwriter and has two children. Her sister works as a freelance writer after graduating from Hunter College. They reconnected with her father who walked her down the aisle at her wedding.

Her mother was found dead in her apartment; she had been dead for four days.

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