Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Grandness of Train Stations

[A series of photographs are posted at the end of the article]

I regularly view the photographs that are posted on the photography blog NYC: Daily Photos (photos are often posted daily, sometimes with a bit of a hiatus), and I saw the recent photo of the interior of New York's Grand Central Terminal.

I've posted below photos that I had filed away of Union Station, Toronto's train station. I find similarities between Union Station and Grand Central Terminal, which I discuss pictorially and descriptively below.

I often find that Toronto architecture of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries mimic New York buildings of the same era, trying to instill some of the American grandeur into the Canadian cityscape. Union Station is a grand example of this, resembling the imposing architecture of Grand Central Terminal (although I cannot yet verify if Canadian architects were specifically copying Grand Central Terminal, or just using a generalized architecture styles of the period. Impressive train stations were a common feature in large cities of this era).

Here's information on the Beaux Art design and history of Union Station, which opened in 1927.

And here's information on Grand Central Terminal's architecture. Grand Central Terminal, as it is called now, opened in 1913. The 1871 original, smaller, building called Grand Central Depot (photo below) was demolished:
After a steam locomotive accident in 1902, the station was redesigned with a two-level terminal to accommodate electric trains.
Here's more on Grand Central Depot:
There have been three structures at East 42nd Street and Park Avenue, bearing the name Grand Central...[The first one, Grand Central Depot], which opened in 1871, brought the lines of the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad, the New York and Harlem River Railroad, and the New York and New Haven Railroad together under one roof.
According to this site, the terminal's reconstruction and renovation history spans over 130 years.
The first terminal of that name [Grand Central] was erected in 1871 at Fourth Avenue (now Park) and 42nd Street, then close to the edge of the built-up part of the city. It was conceived and built by Cornelius Vanderbilt,

The terminal replaced an earlier nondescript building further downtown at 26-27th Street and Fourth Avenue (now Park Avenue South).
Renovations in 1886 began to expand the building:
Long distance and commuter travel grew much faster than expected, so Grand Central had to be expanded in 1886, and comprehensively renovated in 1898. But as traffic continued to grow, it was clear that a new terminal was needed.
And finally, extensive work began in 1902:
[I]n January 1902 there was a disastrous accident. In the tunnel at 58th Street, with visibility greatly impaired by smoke and steam, an inbound express smashed into the rear of a local that had stopped, killing and injuring scores of people. The public was outraged, resulting a year later in both the city and state outlawing the operation of steam locomotives in Manhattan after 1908...

William J. Wilgus (1865-1949), chief engineer of the New York Central, proposed, proposed instead thorough, imaginative, and innovative solutions that function superbly to this day:

1) construct two levels of tracks below street level, the upper for long-distance trains, the lower for suburban trains;
2) eliminate the steam locomotives and move all trains by electric power instead;
3) construct a monumental terminal building; and
4) sell air rights above the new underground train yards, permitting developers to erect buildings there and pay rent to the railroad.
From the Grand Central Terminal site:
[A] comprehensive revitalization plan based on the Master Plan for Grand Central Terminal. Construction began in 1996 with the cleaning of the Main Concourse Sky Ceiling...

The revitalization project culminated with a gala Rededication Celebration of Grand Central Terminal on October 1, 1998. This event garnered both national and international media attention, and marked the beginning of a new chapter of this venerable New York City landmark.
Over the years since these major works, the terminal has gone through various projects, from Donald Trump's renovation of the exterior, to the restoration of the Main Concourse ceiling by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
Ending in 2007, the exterior was again cleaned and restored, starting with the west facade on Vanderbilt Avenue and gradually working counterclockwise. The project involved cleaning the facade, rooftop light courts, and statues; filling in cracks, repointing stones on the facade, restoring the copper roof and the building's cornice, repairing the large windows of the Main Concourse, and removing the remaining blackout paint applied to the windows during World War II. The result is a cleaner, more attractive, and structurally sound exterior, and the windows allow much more light into the Main Concourse.
[Source: Wikipedia: Grand Central Terminal Restorations]
While doing Google image search, I found photographs of Grand Central Terminal in the 1940s by John Collier, including photographs of passengers. According to Wikipedia, Collier worked in photography and visual anthropology, and this education site further elaborates that:
John Collier Jr. applied still photography and film to cross-cultural understanding and analysis.
Many photographers have also documented the building, some artistically. I've posted some impressionable images below.

The full-on light streaming in the early photos of Grand Central (see the 1929 photo posted below - The main concourse at Grand Central Terminal) will never be reproduced according to this photographer because:
(1) skyscrapers now block that exact light from shining through the windows at that position
(2) [Grand Central Terminal] is now a ‘smoke free’ place and so the cigarette & cigar smoke that mainly created the haze in the original photo will be never more.
Still, the grandeur of the station remains, and the windows let in enough sun to bathe the interior with majestic light.
Grand Central Station Zodiac Ceiling, New York
Photograph by Kidist P. Asrat

Grand Central Station Zodiac Ceiling, Detail, New York
Photograph by Kidist P. Asrat

Interior of Union Station, Toronto
Photograph by Kidist P. Asrat

Interior of Union Station, Toronto
Photograph by Kidist P. Asrat

Grand Central Depot, ca. 1885
Photograph from H.A. Dunne Archive

Grand Central Terminal, 1941
Photograph by John Collier
The Library Of Congress

The main-concourse information
desk at Grand Central Terminal
in New York, October 1941
Photograph by John Collier

The main concourse at
Grand Central Terminal, 1929
Photograph from the New York Transit Museum

Four-faced clock at a kiosk
inside Grand Central Terminal
on the east side of Manhattan, with
a noticeable amount of sunlight
shining through some of the windows.
Photograph from Wikipedia [Link to larger image]

Grand Central Station, 2009
Photograph from Dan K. Allen Photos

Afternoon rush hour
Grand Central Terminal, Main Concourse
Photograph from NYC Daily Pictures

Grand Central Terminal, exterior
Photograph from Gothamist

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Conquering the Architecture of Death

The Shard, London

Conquering the Architecture of Death
ChronWatch.Com 02/7/08
Kidist P. Asrat

Just before the stealthy rise of Hitler, there were many signs in German culture which inadvertently anticipated the annihilating environment that Hitler sought.

Expressionist German filmmakers of the 1920s such as Robert Wiene and Friedrich W. Murnau were making symbolic films about their degenerating society and individuals in purely symbolic, rather than realistic, terms. They built this sense of doom through set designs and lighting. Structures were on the verge of collapse, or caving in on their inhabitants; shadows and their subjects were misplaced; hallways and corridors were twisted and claustrophobic. The actual realities of the post World War I inflation, the high unemployment, and the general sting from the losses of the war never figured in the films.

Horror and fantasy became symbolic devices for the filmmakers to make films which ignored the physical realities of their environments, but surreptitiously captured the mood. The German public was highly captivated by the macabre themes of these films.

Our current equivalent of these expressionistic films is not the cinema, but architecture. The last couple of decades has shown a proliferation of architectural “directors” such as Frank Gehry and Daniel Libeskind, who build these very same types of disorienting structures with jagged, broken, and disjointed forms, not as stage sets, but as actual buildings.

There is always an initial recoil from these buildings by the public and critics. But, they eventually become very popular, with the public attending Libeskind’s Berlin Jewish museum in the millions, the new additions to the Denver Museum of Art boasting attendance higher than for any other year prior to the addition, and the Crystal extension at the Royal Ontario Museum breaking attendance records during the 2007-2008 holiday season. Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim has become a national tourist attraction in Spain.

The critics have yet to explain the public’s enormous interest in these buildings. Yet, the reaction of the modern-day public is no different than how its 1920s counterpart responded to the German expressionist horror films. It is the same dark fascination for death and destruction (Libeskind’s architecture has been called deconstructivist architecture) that draws people in the hundreds of thousands to these close-to-collapsing buildings.

There is a certain thrill in entering the twisted corridors, with unexpected paths: sometime leading no-where, and other times taking one to the next room of collapsing walls. Just like in horror films, the anticipation and excitement for something potentially foreboding is the drawing factor. Yet, none of the public would ever (I would wager a high bet on this) have a home built in that style. Libeskind’s public buildings are just curios one enters to leave soon after.

But architecture, the most public and practical of all the arts, is not something we can escape from. We will still have to face these buildings daily on our streets. And in fact, this deconstructivist architecture is being commissioned for ordinary office buildings and churches, and no longer remains in the realm of the occasional national museum or landmark.

Why do these modern architects build structures that prefigure death and annihilation, and why does the public oblige by accepting them on their streets?

One proposition I would like to make is that they project the dearth of hope for the future. Beauty, permanence, and solidity are the works of people who are confident that whatever they are making and participating in--buildings, art, literature, film--will have a legacy, and will benefit and be appreciated by future generations. A myopic vision of the future translates into buildings that are about to destruct and collapse, film repertoires that are filled with unredeemable monsters, and art that depicts horror, thus condoning violence and death, rather than life and continuity.

The 21st century atmosphere in which deconstructivist architecture thrives is very different from that of expressionist filmmakers of post World War I Germany. We cannot complain of being on the losing side of a great war. Yet, there is another war being waged. A war that has been going on for the good part of a century, and in fact initiated around the very time when the German filmmakers were entertaining their 1920s audiences.

Our war is a war on culture, that we seem to be losing. Our transgression is that we no longer believe in our common sense, and our common heritage, and cannot project our cultural legacy into the future. We opt instead for titillating horrors and mediocre and dangerous structures. The 1920s Germany became more hospitable in the 1930s. But Germans had given up by then. Whatever anxiety and gloom we may feel now is no excuse to succumb to the doomsayers of our time. We really can be the architects of our destinies.

Kennedy's Irish Pub, New York

Stained Glass Ceiling

Stained Glass Ceiling

The "Library": Wood and Lace

Book Shelf

Christmas Wreath and Gilded Wallpaper

Lace Curtains

Failte Irish Pub, Toronto

The Victorian Parlour

The Victorian Parlour Wallpaper

Portrait on Glass

Corner Curtain

Glass Carving

Ceiling Mural

Stained Glass Panel



Stained Glass Divider

Monday, February 4, 2013

Brooklyn Bridge

Here are some photos and background of the grand Brooklyn Bridge.
The Brooklyn Bridge is a bridge in New York City and is one of the oldest suspension bridges in the United States. Completed in 1883, it connects the boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn by spanning the East River. With a main span of 1,595.5 feet (486.3 m), it was the longest suspension bridge in the world from its opening until 1903, and the first steel-wire suspension bridge.

Originally referred to as the New York and Brooklyn Bridge and as the East River Bridge, it was dubbed the Brooklyn Bridge, a name from an earlier January 25, 1867, letter to the editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, and formally so named by the city government in 1915...

The Brooklyn Bridge was initially designed by German immigrant John Augustus Roebling, who had previously designed and constructed shorter suspension bridges, such as Roebling's Delaware Aqueduct in Lackawaxen, Pennsylvania, Waco Suspension Bridge in Waco, Texas, and the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge in Cincinnati, Ohio.

...While conducting surveys for the bridge project, Roebling sustained a crush injury to his foot...which left him incapacitated and soon resulted in his death, not long after he had placed his 32-year-old son Washington Roebling in charge of the project.

Washington Roebling also suffered a paralyzing injury as a result of decompression sickness shortly after the beginning of construction on January 3, 1870. [U]nable to physically supervise the construction firsthand, his wife Emily Warren Roebling stepped in and provided the critical written link between her husband and the engineers on site. Under her husband's guidance, Emily studied higher mathematics, the calculations of catenary curves, the strengths of materials, bridge specifications, and the intricacies of cable construction. She spent the next 11 years assisting Washington Roebling helping to supervise the bridge's construction...

The towers are built of limestone, granite, and Rosendale cement. The granite blocks were quarried and shaped on Vinalhaven Island, Maine, under a contract with the Bodwell Granite Company, and delivered from Maine to New York by schooner.

The Brooklyn Bridge was opened for use on May 24, 1883. The opening ceremony was attended by several thousand people and many ships were present in the East Bay for the occasion. President Chester A. Arthur and New York Mayor Franklin Edson crossed the bridge to celebratory cannon fire and were greeted by Brooklyn Mayor Seth Low when they reached the Brooklyn-side tower...

At the time it opened, and for several years, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world—50% longer than any previously built—and it has become a treasured landmark....

The architectural style is neo-Gothic, with characteristic pointed arches above the passageways through the stone towers. The paint scheme of the bridge is "Brooklyn Bridge Tan" and "Silver", although it has been argued that the original paint was "Rawlins Red."
[Source: Wikipedia: Brooklyn Bridge. More at Wikipedia]

The Synthesis of Beauty: From Strength Comes Kindness

Abraham, Isaac and Jacob
Rila Monastery, Bulgaria
Kidist P. Asrat
The Synthesis of Beauty: From Strength Comes Kindness

Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were not merely three highly accomplished spiritual individuals. They formed a dynasty, in Hebrew shalshelet, which is derived from shalosh, meaning "three." According to Kabbalistic thought, each of the three patriarchs created a different spiritual awareness in the world, each becoming one of the three pillars necessary to support the establishment of the nation. Abraham is identified with chesed or "kindness." Isaac is identified with the opposites of kindness, namely gevurah or "strength" and din or "justice." And Jacob is identified with the merging of the above -- “tiferet” or beauty. Thus, the patriarchs represent (to borrow the Hegalian model) thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. Once synthesis is achieved, the nation can emerge.
Rabbi Ari Kahn
In this explanation of Jacob’s death and his revelation to his sons of their roles in the future (as the twelve tribes of Israel), the author talks about the three patriarchs - Abraham, Isaac and Jacob - and how they connect with each other.

Abraham is identified with kindness, Isaac with the opposite strength, and Jacob with beauty.

In fact, Jacob is the synthesis of the two.

It makes perfect sense that beauty is a synthesis of kindness and strength.

Any work of art that is too strong will come off as harsh and unconnected.

Any work that is too kind will appear weak and sentimental.

Beautiful works of art need to combine harshness and sentimentality to bring us closer to an authentic feeling, that is neither too cold nor too mawkish.

Jacob's beauty must have had just the right combination of strength and kindness in order to form the authentic tribes of Israel.

Beauty That Seduces Us Into Evil

Kidist P. Asrat

I have been on a book project, Mere Culture, for about a year now. Here is a short piece I did on the evil in movies, parading as aesthetics.

The Coen's films have been described as aesthetically superior by most film critics. But the Coen's signature entrapment is making gory blood something to contemplate in terms of form and color. They could be pardoned for this, since after all, we keep forgetting in this age of slickly reconstructed movies, film has always aspired to be an art form.

No Country for old Men is no different, and seduces us into watching the most horrifically violent scenes in the name of aesthetics.

The slow-moving, often still camera, is especially good at defusing anxiety in the midst of mayhem. That technique permeates throughout the film and abets us into watching these scenes. That great film aesthete, Robert Bresson, also constructed his scenes of pathos and nihilism with long, still tableaux, as though beauty would excuse what we saw.

Our 21st century seems immune to violence. We relish on violence in our movies. And film directors need to up the violence ante to fulfill our demands. But now we're subtly entering into the domain of excessive violence, which I think only leads to evil.

No Country for Old Men was released in 2007 near the end of November, anticipating the holiday (Thanksgiving and Christmas) crowd. The film is a raw contrast to what we would expect from these peaceful and joyous seasons, especially Christmas.

As Jesus' imminent death even at his birth (through Herod's decree) anticipated his later death, we should be wary of this violence that presents itself during these holy days. We may be in for an even bigger battle, a war between Good and Evil, in which everyone of us will have to participate. We better chose our side early, and prepare ourselves by fighting the many small battles along the way in anticipation of our imminent, eminent war.

One simple way would be to boycott and renounce films like True Grit. We are, after all, the audience, and voluntarily (so far) either go or not go to such films. Word of mouth, letters to the editor, blog posts, also do go the extra mile. The worst we can do is allow filmmakers like the Coen brothers to think that they can.

Desecration of Beauty

Otto Dix Sailor and girl 
61 x 48.5 cm

Beauty and Desecration City Journal, Vol. 19, No. 2, 2009.

At any time between 1750 and 1930, if you had asked an educated person to describe the goal of poetry, art, or music, “beauty” would have been the answer. And if you had asked what the point of that was, you would have learned that beauty is a value, as important in its way as truth and goodness, and indeed hardly distinguishable from them. Philosophers of the Enlightenment saw beauty as a way in which lasting moral and spiritual values acquire sensuous form. And no Romantic painter, musician, or writer would have denied that beauty was the final purpose of his art...... At some time during the aftermath of modernism, beauty ceased to receive those tributes. Art increasingly aimed to disturb, subvert, or transgress moral certainties, and it was not beauty but originality—however achieved and at whatever moral cost—that won the prizes. Indeed, there arose a widespread suspicion of beauty as next in line to kitsch—something too sweet and inoffensive for the serious modern artist to pursue. In a seminal essay—“Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” published in Partisan Review in 1939—critic Clement Greenberg starkly contrasted the avant-garde of his day with the figurative painting that competed with it, dismissing the latter (not just Norman Rockwell, but greats like Edward Hopper) as derivative and without lasting significance. The avant-garde, for Greenberg, promoted the disturbing and the provocative over the soothing and the decorative, and that was why we should admire it.

The value of abstract art, Greenberg claimed, lay not in beauty but in expression. This emphasis on expression was a legacy of the Romantic movement; but now it was joined by the conviction that the artist is outside bourgeois society, defined in opposition to it, so that artistic self-expression is at the same time a transgression of ordinary moral norms. We find this posture overtly adopted in the art of Austria and Germany between the wars—for example, in the paintings and drawings of Georg Grosz, in Alban Berg’s opera Lulu (a loving portrait of a woman whose only discernible goal is moral chaos), and in the seedy novels of Heinrich Mann. And the cult of transgression is a leading theme of the postwar literature of France—from the writings of Georges Bataille, Jean Genet, and Jean-Paul Sartre to the bleak emptiness of the nouveau roman.

Of course, there were great artists who tried to rescue beauty from the perceived disruption of modern society—as T. S. Eliot tried to recompose, in Four Quartets, the fragments he had grieved over in The Waste Land. And there were others, particularly in America, who refused to see the sordid and the transgressive as the truth of the modern world. For artists like Hopper, Samuel Barber, and Wallace Stevens, ostentatious transgression was mere sentimentality, a cheap way to stimulate an audience, and a betrayal of the sacred task of art, which is to magnify life as it is and to reveal its beauty—as Stevens reveals the beauty of “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven” and Barber that of Knoxville: Summer of 1915. But somehow those great life-affirmers lost their position at the forefront of modern culture. So far as the critics and the wider culture were concerned, the pursuit of beauty was at the margins of the artistic enterprise. Qualities like disruptiveness and immorality, which previously signified aesthetic failure, became marks of success; while the pursuit of beauty became a retreat from the real task of artistic creation. This process has been so normalized as to become a critical orthodoxy, prompting the philosopher Arthur Danto to argue recently that beauty is both deceptive as a goal and in some way antipathetic to the mission of modern art. Art has acquired another status and another social role.

The great proof of this change is in the productions of opera, which give the denizens of postmodern culture an unparalleled opportunity to take revenge on the art of the past and to hide its beauty behind an obscene and sordid mask. We all assume that this will happen with Wagner, who “asked for it” by believing too strongly in the redemptive role of art. But it now regularly happens to the innocent purveyors of beauty, just as soon as a postmodernist producer gets his hands on one of their works.

An example that particularly struck me was a 2004 production of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail at the Komische Oper Berlin (see “The Abduction of Opera,” Summer 2007). Die Entführung tells the story of Konstanze—shipwrecked, separated from her fiancé Belmonte, and taken to serve in the harem of the Pasha Selim. After various intrigues, Belmonte rescues her, helped by the clemency of the Pasha—who, respecting Konstanze’s chastity and the couple’s faithful love, declines to take her by force. This implausible plot permits Mozart to express his Enlightenment conviction that charity is a universal virtue, as real in the Muslim empire of the Turks as in the Christian empire of the enlightened Joseph II. Even if Mozart’s innocent vision is without much historical basis, his belief in the reality of disinterested love is everywhere expressed and endorsed by the music. Die Entführung advances a moral idea, and its melodies share the beauty of that idea and persuasively present it to the listener.

In his production of Die Entführung, the Catalan stage director Calixto Bieito set the opera in a Berlin brothel, with Selim as pimp and Konstanze one of the prostitutes. Even during the most tender music, copulating couples littered the stage, and every opportunity for violence, with or without a sexual climax, was taken. At one point, a prostitute is gratuitously tortured, and her nipples bloodily and realistically severed before she is killed. The words and the music speak of love and compassion, but their message is drowned out by the scenes of desecration, murder, and narcissistic sex.

That is an example of something familiar in every aspect of our contemporary culture. It is not merely that artists, directors, musicians, and others connected with the arts are in flight from beauty. Wherever beauty lies in wait for us, there arises a desire to preempt its appeal, to smother it with scenes of destruction. Hence the many works of contemporary art that rely on shocks administered to our failing faith in human nature—such as the crucifix pickled in urine by Andres Serrano. Hence the scenes of cannibalism, dismemberment, and meaningless pain with which contemporary cinema abounds, with directors like Quentin Tarantino having little else in their emotional repertories. Hence the invasion of pop music by rap, whose words and rhythms speak of unremitting violence, and which rejects melody, harmony, and every other device that might make a bridge to the old world of song. And hence the music video, which has become an art form in itself and is often devoted to concentrating into the time span of a pop song some startling new account of moral chaos.

Those phenomena record a habit of desecration in which life is not celebrated by art but targeted by it. Artists can now make their reputations by constructing an original frame in which to display the human face and throw dung at it. What do we make of this, and how do we find our way back to the thing so many people long for, which is the vision of beauty? It may sound a little sentimental to speak of a “vision of beauty.” But what I mean is not some saccharine, Christmas-card image of human life but rather the elementary ways in which ideals and decencies enter our ordinary world and make themselves known, as love and charity make themselves known in Mozart’s music. There is a great hunger for beauty in our world, a hunger that our popular art fails to recognize and our serious art often defies......... I used the word “desecration” to describe the attitude conveyed by Bieito’s production of Die Entführung and by Serrano’s lame efforts at meaning something. What exactly does this word imply? It is connected, etymologically and semantically, with sacrilege, and therefore with the ideas of sanctity and the sacred. To desecrate is to spoil what might otherwise be set apart in the sphere of sacred things. We can desecrate a church, a graveyard, a tomb; and also a holy image, a holy book, or a holy ceremony. We can desecrate a corpse, a cherished image, even a living human being—insofar as these things contain (as they do) a portent of some original sanctity. The fear of desecration is a vital element in all religions. Indeed, that is what the word religio originally meant: a cult or ceremony designed to protect some sacred place from sacrilege.

In the eighteenth century, when organized religion and ceremonial kingship were losing their authority, when the democratic spirit was questioning inherited institutions, and when the idea was abroad that it was not God but man who made laws for the human world, the idea of the sacred suffered an eclipse. To the thinkers of the Enlightenment, it seemed little more than a superstition to believe that artifacts, buildings, places, and ceremonies could possess a sacred character, when all these things were the products of human design. The idea that the divine reveals itself in our world, and seeks our worship, seemed both implausible in itself and incompatible with science.

At the same time, philosophers like Shaftesbury, Burke, Adam Smith, and Kant recognized that we do not look on the world only with the eyes of science. Another attitude exists—one not of scientific inquiry but of disinterested contemplation—that we direct toward our world in search of its meaning. When we take this attitude, we set our interests aside; we are no longer occupied with the goals and projects that propel us through time; we are no longer engaged in explaining things or enhancing our power. We are letting the world present itself and taking comfort in its presentation. This is the origin of the experience of beauty. There may be no way of accounting for that experience as part of our ordinary search for power and knowledge. It may be impossible to assimilate it to the day-to-day uses of our faculties. But it is an experience that self-evidently exists, and it is of the greatest value to those who receive it.

When does this experience occur, and what does it mean? Here is an example: suppose you are walking home in the rain, your thoughts occupied with your work. The streets and the houses pass by unnoticed; the people, too, pass you by; nothing invades your thinking save your interests and anxieties. Then suddenly the sun emerges from the clouds, and a ray of sunlight alights on an old stone wall beside the road and trembles there. You glance up at the sky where the clouds are parting, and a bird bursts into song in a garden behind the wall. Your heart fills with joy, and your selfish thoughts are scattered. The world stands before you, and you are content simply to look at it and let it be.

Maybe such experiences are rarer now than they were in the eighteenth century, when the poets and philosophers lighted upon them as a new avenue to religion. The haste and disorder of modern life, the alienating forms of modern architecture, the noise and spoliation of modern industry—these things have made the pure encounter with beauty a rarer, more fragile, and more unpredictable thing for us. Still, we all know what it is to find ourselves suddenly transported, by the things we see, from the ordinary world of our appetites to the illuminated sphere of contemplation. It happens often during childhood, though it is seldom interpreted then. It happens during adolescence, when it lends itself to our erotic longings. And it happens in a subdued way in adult life, secretly shaping our life projects, holding out to us an image of harmony that we pursue through holidays, through home-building, and through our private dreams.

Here is another example: it is a special occasion, when the family unites for a ceremonial dinner. You set the table with a clean embroidered cloth, arranging plates, glasses, bread in a basket, and some carafes of water and wine. You do this lovingly, delighting in the appearance, striving for an effect of cleanliness, simplicity, symmetry, and warmth. The table has become a symbol of homecoming, of the extended arms of the universal mother, inviting her children in. And all this abundance of meaning and good cheer is somehow contained in the appearance of the table. This, too, is an experience of beauty, one that we encounter, in some version or other, every day. We are needy creatures, and our greatest need is for home—the place where we are, where we find protection and love. We achieve this home through representations of our own belonging, not alone but in conjunction with others. All our attempts to make our surroundings look right—through decorating, arranging, creating—are attempts to extend a welcome to ourselves and to those whom we love.

This second example suggests that our human need for beauty is not simply a redundant addition to the list of human appetites. It is not something that we could lack and still be fulfilled as people. It is a need arising from our metaphysical condition as free individuals, seeking our place in an objective world. We can wander through this world, alienated, resentful, full of suspicion and distrust. Or we can find our home here, coming to rest in harmony with others and with ourselves. The experience of beauty guides us along this second path: it tells us that we are at home in the world, that the world is already ordered in our perceptions as a place fit for the lives of beings like us.

Look at any picture by one of the great landscape painters—Poussin, Guardi, Turner, Corot, Cézanne—and you will see that idea of beauty celebrated and fixed in images. The art of landscape painting, as it arose in the seventeenth century and endured into our time, is devoted to moralizing nature and showing the place of human freedom in the scheme of things. It is not that landscape painters turn a blind eye to suffering, or to the vastness and threateningness of the universe of which we occupy so small a corner. Far from it. Landscape painters show us death and decay in the very heart of things: the light on their hills is a fading light; the stucco walls of Guardi’s houses are patched and crumbling. But their images point to the joy that lies incipient in decay and to the eternal implied in the transient. They are images of home.

Not surprisingly, the idea of beauty has puzzled philosophers. The experience of beauty is so vivid, so immediate, so personal, that it seems hardly to belong to the natural order as science observes it. Yet beauty shines on us from ordinary things. Is it a feature of the world, or a figment of the imagination? Is it telling us something real and true that requires just this experience to be recognized? Or is it merely a heightened moment of sensation, of no significance beyond the delight of the person who experiences it? These questions are of great urgency for us, since we live at a time when beauty is in eclipse: a dark shadow of mockery and alienation has crept across the once-shining surface of our world, like the shadow of the Earth across the moon. Where we look for beauty, we too often find darkness and desecration.

The current habit of desecrating beauty suggests that people are as aware as they ever were of the presence of sacred things. Desecration is a kind of defense against the sacred, an attempt to destroy its claims. In the presence of sacred things, our lives are judged, and to escape that judgment, we destroy the thing that seems to accuse us.

Christians have inherited from Saint Augustine and from Plato the vision of this transient world as an icon of another and changeless order. They understand the sacred as a revelation in the here and now of the eternal sense of our being. But the experience of the sacred is not confined to Christians. It is, according to many philosophers and anthropologists, a human universal. For the most part, transitory purposes organize our lives: the day-to-day concerns of economic reasoning, the small-scale pursuit of power and comfort, the need for leisure and pleasure. Little of this is memorable or moving to us. Every now and then, however, we are jolted out of our complacency and feel ourselves to be in the presence of something vastly more significant than our present interests and desires. We sense the reality of something precious and mysterious, which reaches out to us with a claim that is, in some way, not of this world. This happens in the presence of death, especially the death of someone loved. We look with awe on the human body from which the life has fled. This is no longer a person but the “mortal remains” of a person. And this thought fills us with a sense of the uncanny. We are reluctant to touch the dead body; we see it as, in some way, not properly a part of our world, almost a visitor from some other sphere.

This experience, a paradigm of our encounter with the sacred, demands from us a kind of ceremonial recognition. The dead body is the object of rituals and acts of purification, designed not just to send its former occupant happily into the hereafter—for these practices are engaged in even by those who have no belief in the hereafter—but in order to overcome the eeriness, the supernatural quality, of the dead human form. The body is being reclaimed for this world by the rituals that acknowledge that it also stands apart from it. The rituals, to put it another way, consecrate the body, and so purify it of its miasma. By the same token, the body can be desecrated—and this is surely one of the primary acts of desecration, one to which people have been given from time immemorial, as when Achilles dragged Hector’s body in triumph around the walls of Troy.

The presence of a transcendental claim startles us out of our day-to-day preoccupations on other occasions, too. In particular, there is the experience of falling in love. This, too, is a human universal, and it is an experience of the strangest kind. The face and body of the beloved are imbued with the intensest life. But in one crucial respect, they are like the body of someone dead: they seem not to belong in the empirical world. The beloved looks on the lover as Beatrice looked on Dante, from a point outside the flow of temporal things. The beloved object demands that we cherish it, that we approach it with almost ritualistic reverence. And there radiates from those eyes and limbs and words a kind of fullness of spirit that makes everything anew.

Poets have expended thousands of words on this experience, which no words seem entirely to capture. It has fueled the sense of the sacred down the ages, reminding people as diverse as Plato and Calvino, Virgil and Baudelaire, that sexual desire is not the simple appetite that we witness in animals but the raw material of a longing that has no easy or worldly satisfaction, demanding of us nothing less than a change of life.

Many of the uglinesses cultivated in our world today refer back to the two experiences that I have singled out. The body in the throes of death; the body in the throes of sex—these things easily fascinate us. They fascinate us by desecrating the human form, by showing the human body as a mere object among objects, the human spirit as eclipsed and ineffectual, and the human being as overcome by external forces, rather than as a free subject bound by the moral law. And it is on these things that the art of our time seems to concentrate, offering us not only sexual pornography but a pornography of violence that reduces the human being to a lump of suffering flesh made pitiful, helpless, and disgusting.

All of us have a desire to flee from the demands of responsible existence, in which we treat one another as worthy of reverence and respect. All of us are tempted by the idea of flesh and by the desire to remake the human being as pure flesh—an automaton, obedient to mechanical desires. To yield to this temptation, however, we must first remove the chief obstacle to it: the consecrated nature of the human form. We must sully the experiences—such as death and sex—that otherwise call us away from temptations, toward the higher life of sacrifice. This willful desecration is also a denial of love—an attempt to remake the world as though love were no longer a part of it. And that, surely, is the most important characteristic of the postmodern culture: it is a loveless culture, determined to portray the human world as unlovable. The modern stage director who ransacks the works of Mozart is trying to tear the love from the heart of them, so as to confirm his own vision of the world as a place where only pleasure and pain are real.

That suggests a simple remedy, which is to resist temptation. Instead of desecrating the human form, we should learn again to revere it. For there is absolutely nothing to gain from the insults hurled at beauty by those—like Calixto Bieito—who cannot bear to look it in the face. Yes, we can neutralize the high ideals of Mozart by pushing his music into the background so that it becomes the mere accompaniment to an inhuman carnival of sex and death. But what do we learn from this? What do we gain, in terms of emotional, spiritual, intellectual, or moral development? Nothing, save anxiety. We should take a lesson from this kind of desecration: in attempting to show us that our human ideals are worthless, it shows itself to be worthless. And when something shows itself to be worthless, it is time to throw it away.

It is therefore plain that the culture of transgression achieves nothing save the loss that it revels in: the loss of beauty as a value and a goal. But why is beauty a value? It is an ancient view that truth, goodness, and beauty cannot, in the end, conflict. Maybe the degeneration of beauty into kitsch comes precisely from the postmodern loss of truthfulness, and with it the loss of moral direction. That is the message of such early modernists as Eliot, Barber, and Stevens, and it is a message that we need to listen to.

To mount a full riposte to the habit of desecration, we need to rediscover the affirmation and the truth to life without which artistic beauty cannot be realized. This is no easy task. If we look at the true apostles of beauty in our time—I think of composers like Henri Dutilleux and Olivier Messiaen, of poets like Derek Walcott and Charles Tomlinson, of prose writers like Italo Calvino and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn—we are immediately struck by the immense hard work, the studious isolation, and the attention to detail that characterizes their craft. In art, beauty has to be won, but the work becomes harder as the sheer noise of desecration—amplified now by the Internet—drowns out the quiet voices murmuring in the heart of things.

One response is to look for beauty in its other and more everyday forms—the beauty of settled streets and cheerful faces, of natural objects and genial landscapes. It is possible to throw dirt on these things, too, and it is the mark of a second-rate artist to take such a path to our attention—the via negativa of desecration. But it is also possible to return to ordinary things in the spirit of Wallace Stevens and Samuel Barber—to show that we are at home with them and that they magnify and vindicate our life. Such is the overgrown path that the early modernists once cleared for us—the via positiva of beauty. There is no reason yet to think that we must abandon it.

Shalimar: Senses in a Bottle

Kidist P. Asrat Unpublished Sight, sound, touch, taste, and of course smell combine together to make Shalimar.

 Guerlain, one of the oldest fragrance companies in the world, introduced its famously exotic perfume ‘Shalimar’ in 1925. A combination of flavorful spices, aromatic woods and smooth, powdery florals gives this perfume a distinctive fragrance. A secret ingredient called Guerlinade, which goes into all the Guerlain perfumes, was added to seal the final product.

As perfumeries (and individuals) were gathering their favorite scents over the centuries, spices, florals, woods, roots and animal scents were combined in non-discriminate manners, with their scents being the decisive factors. Spices (for food) and perfumes were only recently separated as serving the two distinct senses. Vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg and even cloves have always been part of perfumes, and continue so today. Some perfume manufacturers even bring in whole foods such as ‘pumpkin pie’ to add to the ever-enlarging perfume vocabulary. Shalimar, true to this ancient practice in perfume making, includes the versatile vanilla as one of its ingredients.

The ancient Greek botanist Theophrastus considered these compounded scents to be the most sophisticated and successful fragrances, and even suggested that perfumes be considered along musical terms. Modern-day structuring of the various scents considers the whole product in terms of a musical chord. Top notes are the most short-lived of the odorants, followed by the more enduring middle notes, or corps odors, and finally the clinging bottom notes, or the fonds. All this in an effort to balance out the real substance of the perfume which are the bottom notes. Left on their own, these bottom notes can be initially overpowering, and rely on the two other higher ‘chords’ to gradually introduce their heavier scents, and soften them over time.

According to its compositional notes Shalimar’s ‘notes’ are: Top notes: Bergamot, lemon, hesperidies. Middle notes: Rose, Jasmine, Iris, Patchouli, Vetiver. And base notes: Vanilla, incense, opoanax, sandalwood, musk, civet, ambergris, leather.

Guerlin realized that a visually styled flask would elevate their perfume to the status of art. By collaborating with Baccarat crystal to form the now famous Shalimar flask, Guerlin displayed its perfume to the public for the first time, in its perfect bottle, at the famous Exhibition of Decorative Arts in Paris in 1925. Shalimar and Art Deco were thus inaugurated. But as always, in the history of perfume, Shalimar was only following an ancient tradition where the flask is just as important as the fragrance.

Scents and fragrances have always been a mixture of pomades, oils, waters, and creams. Shalimar is no exception. In addition to the exclusive perfumes and sprays, lotions and creams promise to deliver smooth powdery textures which are imbued with the famous Shalimar scent.

Shalimar the perfume has come full circle. Not only as a fragrance but as a visual, aural, tactile and even flavourful concoction. As with most artistic attempts to appeal to the feminine, Shalimar has diverged into as many senses as possible to make the apparently simple experience of a perfume into a rich and complex one.

- Barille, Elizabeth. Guerlin. New York : Assouline, 2000
- Kennett, Frances. History of Perfume. London : Harrap, 1975.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Donna Karan's Pure Rose

Donna Karan's Pure Rose perfume comes in an unadorned bottle. But it is the perfect, tear drop, shape (especially the 5oz bottle). Perhaps Karan got lucky with her design, or she might be going into some deep romantic story to find the tear drop for her bottle. The scent is also very well constructed. It really does smell of pure rose. Often, rose perfumes are a little too citrusy. With Pure Rose, Karan has created the perfect blend of citrus and floral. Here are the notes for Pure Rose:
freesia, vanilla, sandalwood, lotus, rose, jasmine, white amber, orchid, dew-drop petal accord

Jill Biden's Earrings

Jill Biden wore these earrings to the inauguration. They are by New York jewelry designer Kara Ross, who calls them "Maze button drop earrings." They are white sapphires sand mother-of-pearl set in sterling silver.