“All pictures painted inside in the studio will never be as good as the things done outside.” (Paul Cezanne, letter to Emile Zola, 1866)
Paul Cezanne, L’Estaque, 1883-85
The current exhibition installed in the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art is entitled Town and Country: Degas to Picasso. We will be studying the differences of rural versus urban living at the end of the 19th century into the early 20th century as well as the lure offered by both modes of living. With this exhibition theme and context in mind, what do believe Paul Cezanne meant in his statement quoted at the beginning of this first blog post? Also, do you have a personal preference between living in the country or living in the urban environment and, if so, what are your reasons for choosing one over the other?
During our time in the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art examining I Am The Greatest: Muhammad Ali exhibition, it appears many of us have warmed up to Ali and his life’s accomplishments. The range of this exhibition covers his early childhood when, at the age of 12, he had his bicycle stolen. That theft prompted the young Cassius Clay to want justice by beating up the kid who stole his bike. From speaking with a police officer and filing a theft report, young Clay was introduced to a gym where boxing was taught. Young Clay distinguished himself with his athleticism and incredible speed. By the age of 18, Clay was standing on the top pedestal in Rome in the summer of 1960 receiving the Olympic gold in boxing. After the Olympics, Clay and his boxing handlers turned this Olympic star professional. Upon winning the championship belt by beating Sonny Liston on February 25, 1964 at the age of 22, Clay would change his name to Muhammad Ali. Between February 1964 to December 1981 when Ali lost to Trevor Berbick (age 39+) and subsequently retired from professional boxing, Ali sought to distinguish himself as the greatest boxer and global personality for peace. As the years past, Ali received honors, awards, global recognition and, as a man of peace outside the ring, Ali dedicated himself to being an advocate of equanimity and non-violence.
Sunday Adelaja, the Russian/Ukrainian pastor of the Embassy of God, once exclaimed: “Awards and ceremonies are all an applause of discipline”. As you have looked upon and assessed the memorabilia of Muhammad Ali in this Bellagio exhibition, what are your thoughts of this global personality who rose to prominence the same time America’s pop culture became a global phenomena? Has Ali earned your “applause of discipline” and more?
As we prepared ourselves for the forthcoming I Am The Greatest: Muhammad Ali exhibition at the BGFA, we watched a number of videos of his fights and interviews with the press. We also listened to his thoughts on a variety of subjects delivered in his unique poetic and entertaining manner. A number of goals and promises that Ali made to himself stands out, I suspect, from this pre-exhibition preparation for us—the museum visitor. As Ali faced a number of challenges placed in front of him during his journey through life, he always seemed able to find another way to achieve his goal. What are your thoughts on Ali’s commitment and persistence to seize his goals?
As we prepare to enter the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art and partake of the artifacts related to Muhammad Ali, a number of objects seen in this exhibition will trigger thoughts and emotions in each of us. As a museum spectator, we will be surrounded by an array of visual stimuli all related to the life and time of a great American boxer who, through determination, will, speed, cunning and the heart of a fighter not only succeeded in being the heavyweight champion of the world three times but also became a global legend. What are your thoughts, as we transition from the classroom to the BGFA, on Ali seizing the opportunity to achieve a level of success that would endear him to the world?
Ali was graced with many physical and mental attributes. He was tall. He had a great body. He was very good-looking. He was fast and very agile for his size. He could move effortlessly it appeared. He incorporated natural fluid movement—that looked so awkward to the announcers, the boxing officials and the spectators because they weren’t familiar with his style early on—into his repertoire as a fighter which helped Ali stand out early in his career. Ali had the stamina and the will to prevail. He also had a psychological edge—he could get under the opponent’s skin with carefully chosen taunts and mockery. Many times Ali could be said to have already beaten his opponent before he even stepped inside the ring with his effective pre-fight trash-talking. Ali’s persona as a heavy-weight boxer had many layers which he carefully cultivated throughout his illustrious fighting career. Ali stated: “It’s the repetition of affirmations that leads to belief. And once that belief becomes a deep conviction, things begin to happen.”
What are your thoughts on a gifted athlete like Ali, who was blessed or gifted with so many attributes, who reveled in being brash, self-confident, mocking, derisive and a trash-talker as part of his training regimen, leading up to the scheduled fight?
Looking at Andre Kertesz’s photograph Paris, Rue Vavin (1925), one cannot escape the seemingly dead repetition of blank, anonymous windows as evocative expressions signifying what A.L. Rowse called “the movement of time congealed” in his book The Use of History (1946). For those of us who prefer and choose to live within the urban environment, it is hard, even suffocating, to contain our ramped-up “citified” energies within the static, arrested wood, stone or steel materials of residential architecture. Architects need to transform their building materials in a manner akin to fine art sculptures. Whereas sculptural form may be seen to exhale and move, so much of urban residential architecture appears comfortably ensconced in holding it’s breath! Urban residential architecture needs to embrace Constantin Brancusi’s admonition “Architecture is inhabited sculpture” (quoted in Stravinsky, Themes and Episodes, 1966)! The key word here is “inhabited”, not “inhibited”. What are your thoughts on Kertesz’s photograph of windows contained within the contradictory phenomena of static, repetitive forms all the while surrounded by inhabitants living out their lives as flexible individuals functioning within the urban environment?
Two of the tensions existing between the downtown district of large cities versus the untouched openness of the country featuring its rural environment are the issues of concentration and diversity. The imperative need for the concentration of diverse peoples in downtowns in order for them to be vibrant and successful is the exact antithesis of the lure of country life. Transitioning from rural living to the energy of urban dwelling was a challenge on many levels. Jane Jabobs stated: “Everyone is aware that tremendous numbers of people concentrate in city downtowns and that, if they did not, there would be no downtown to amount to anything—certainly not one with much downtown diversity. You can’t rely on bringing people downtown, you have to put them there.” Because of the large number of people dwelling in cities, you have to accept and expect a certain amount of trial and error, experimentation, accident and maybe even a little chaos. Over the centuries we see clearly that cities are, in fact, immense laboratories of experimentation. And it is that experimentation which genuinely contributes to the thrill of living within the urban environment. What are your thoughts of the tensions between density, concentration and diversity defining the city versus wide-open spaces and considerably less accident or chaos if one chooses to reside in the country?
Robert Henri, Cafe Bleu, St. Cloud, 1895-99
Robert Henri, Cafe by Night with Japanese Lanterns, 1895-99
Richard Florida maintains that “Places that succeed in attracting and retaining creative class people prosper, those that fail don’t.” This idea put forward by Florida is not necessarily knew to 20th century Modernism. But Florida does encourage us to look again at the current conditions of the modern urban environment and he strongly encourages us to recognize that cities possess a deeper force that pertains to its inhabitants than we have been acknowledging or paying homage to as we make critical decisions and choices affecting the well-being of our urban living context. Florida has long been a proponent of a new class of people inhabiting our burgeoning cities. He points out the following fact related to contemporary urban life: “Beneath the surface, unnoticed by many, an even deeper force was at work—the rise of creativity as a fundamental economic driver, and the rise of a new social class, the Creative Class.” Eugene Louis Boudin, the French artist who painted Washerwomen Near a Bridge (1883), shows us quite effectively how the middle class workers, in this case washerwomen, contribute to the arterial life blood of the new, modern city. These washerwomen are performing a daily chore and, as they go about their task of cleaning clothes, they not only get to know one another but they undoubtedly exchange ideas through conversation and communal dialogue. Such seemingly casual communication is, in fact, part of the requisite flow of life within the city. What are your thoughts on Florida’s dictum that “Human creativity is the ultimate economic resource?”
Eugene Louis Boudin, Washerwomen Near a Bridge, 1883
The Industrial Revolution and the Age of the Machine impacted all, especially those living in the Western World in the late 18th through the 19th centuries. The rise of city living inspired a number of artists to cast their gaze to the new urban environment composed of the new phenomena of mingling masses. Other artists were less disposed to extoll the emerging “modern” urban lifestyle and were determined to milk the country as a refuge for humankind. By the waning years of the 19th century, Berlin had closed the population gap with Paris and London. German artists, responding to their “northern” tendencies, gravitated to the darker motifs and the less savory side of modernization’s impact on daily life in the big cities. Those artists who were not inspired by the modern city and resisted the lure of increased opportunities within the “multiplicity of choice” that was the new urban environment, turned their gaze on the notion that the modern city was, in fact, not a muse at all but was proving to be quite detrimental to the mental and physical well-being of its recently transplanted citizens. Some artists felt the city had lost a key component necessary for people to live happily together. And that key component for these artists had to do with perceived balance between nature and occupant. Frank Lloyd Wright summed up this balance relationship between structure and resident in the following statement from his Autobiography published in 1932: “No house should be ever on any hill or on anything. It should be of the hill, belonging to it, so hill and house could live together each the happier for the other.” What are your thoughts on “Urban Disenchantment” and the “Country as Refuge”?
Max Beckmann, The Disillusioned, 1922
Kathe Kollwitz, Portrait Study of a Woman of the Working Class
A number of the artists included in the BGFA’s Town and Country exhibition focused their aesthetic gaze on the urban opportunity of “seeing and being seen”. The social interaction of people moving by each other along the enlarged sidewalks of Haussmann’s redeveloped Paris evolved into a powerful economic engine where new ideas could be exchanged through casual conversation. The expansive sidewalks running parallel to Haussmann’s widened boulevards enabled became a key factor propelling a cafe life as a new economic driver within the urban environment. Haussmann, either intuitively or by sheer fortune, understood the power of a rising middle class within the growing industrialized city such as Paris. Richard Florida, the contemporary writer/critic of today’s urban environment, offered the following observation extolling the freedom generated by the co-mingling of people strolling along the boulevard’s ample new sidewalks. Florida exclaims: “People don’t need to be managed, they need to be unleashed.” What are your thoughts on Florida’s notion of unleashing the urban dweller and, by doing so, propelling forward the creative class as a primary mover of the new economy?
Jane Jacobs stated, in her seminal book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, “The point of cities is multiplicity of choice.” The deeper meaning of Jacobs’ pronouncement is engagement of the urban populace. When urban designers enable the inhabitants to have a voice in the development of their environment, the vitality of the city is enhanced. When cities are developed by everybody, then those spaces will provide something for everybody! The urban dwellers need to be allowed to shape the main public places of a city—namely, the streets and their sidewalks! It is vital to recognize that movement within the city through streets and sidewalks are vital organs as these arterial pathways of movement attract people. City streets and their respective sidewalks naturally devolve into a ballet of choreographed movement. Over the course of any given day, that sense of structured movement never repeats itself from place to place. This lack of repetition of movement within the urban area is part and parcel of the power and importance of sidewalk contacts for attracting people toward one another and the potential for exchange of ideas—new and old! Jane Jacobs summarized the importance of streets and their sidewalk contacts in the following passage: ‘To science, not even the bark of a tree or a drop of pond water is dull or a handful of dirt banal. they all arouse awe and wonder.” What are your thoughts on the “multiplicity of choice” offered urban dwellers through movement within the city space?