Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Picasso as A Young Man: The Picasso Museum of Barcelona

Museum Review
Picasso Museum/Museu Picasso
Barcelona, Spain

  My sense is that this Museum has a rep. as an over-priced tourist trap, but I thought it was maybe the best "single artist/subject" Museum I've ever seen because it documents the Artistic growth of one of the most significant/popular Artists of the 19th, 20th and 21st century: Pablo Picasso.

 Pablo Picasso has been so thoroughly canonized by the Artistic/Industrial Complex that is hard to even think of him as anything other then a Greek God of studio art, but Museu Picasso has assembled a collection of materials that can thoroughly refute that conception of Pablo Picasso and his Art.

 Museu Picasso starts with Picasso's juvenilla, and guides us through his (extensive) formal education which took him to Madrid where has "dropped out" of the French Academy inspired "official" Artistic education, back to Barcelona, where he soaked in the influences of the proto-Modern Catalan "avant garde" and then to Paris, where he was heavily, and obviously influenced by the work of Henri Toulouse-Latrec.

 Throughout the galleries the visitor is able to gather a firm sense of the various stages of Picasso's Artistic evolution, from talented youngster encouraged by a family with means, to sceptical but avid student who is willing to "work the system," to shiftless Bohemian trying to "make a name"  and hanging out with fellow Artists in Barcelona, to Paris, where he meets with an Audience that is "ready" for the Artistic break-through of Cubism.

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Elizabeth Gaskell

North and South
by Elizabeth Gaskell
published in 1855

     In Lord David Cecil's seminal Early Victorian Novelists: Essays in Re-Evaluation, published in 1934, the Author discusses seven Early Victorian Novelists:  Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Gaskell/Mrs Gaskell, Anthony Trollope & George Eliot.

  If you compare those names in terms of Popularity on an Ngram- you've got George Eliot, Charles Dickens & Charlotte Bronte as the clear 1, 2, 3 and then the rest as clear also-rans grouped together at the bottom as a "flat-line."  Perhaps the "George Eliot" statistics include other George Eliot's, but the chart seems rather clear about Dickens and Charlotte Bronte being on top and every other Early Victorian Novelist having lesser popularity.

    Cecil, writing in 1932- mind you- close to a hundred years ago, already knew that Dickens and Bronte were number 1-2, which follows the Chapter order.  He identifies George Eliot as being on the cusp of the Modern Novel, and thus partially not an "Early Victorian Novelist."

    If you then compare the top three Early Victorian Novelists: Dickens, C. Bronte & Eliot to three comparably popular but excluded Novelists: Herman Melville, Jane Austen and Nathaniel Hawthorne, you can see that Austen, Dickens and Eliot maintaining a long term advantage over the rest of the field, Austen being number one "pre-Victorian" and Dickens being number one "Early Victorian."

    Set against this back drop, Elizabeth Gaskell is notable for her own work and for her work popularizing one of the top three Early Victorian Novelists, Charlotte Bronte.  As I've noted here before, Elizabeth Gaskell wrote a laudatory biography of Charlotte Bronte that enjoyed it's own massive popularity.   North and South is basically Gaskell's attempt to write an "Uncle Tom's Cabin" type of book about the factory worker/owner relationship, except she is on the side of the factory owner/slave holder.   I think she obviously deserves credit for pulling the Early Victorian Novel into the "present" in terms of plot matter but at the same time her style lacks the smooth psychological realism that began with George Eliot.

   Gaskell's flaw, as diagnosed by Cecil, is her inability to describe large-scale action sequences- the example in North and South is the risible Strike scene where the heroine literally rushes out in front of an angry mob and has a rock thrown at her head by a striker. However, like Uncle Tom's Cabin the sheer novelty of taking a power relationship seriously is worthy of inclusion onto a list like 1001 Books To Read Before You Die.  Gaskell has multiple books on the list.

   In fact, I only learned of the Cecil book by the bibliography included with the Oxford World's Classics version of Mary Barton, which was her first Novel published in 1848.  Mary Barton is on the 1001 Books To Read Before You Die list, as is Cranford, published in 1853.  I had to read Cranford in it's Dover Thrift Edition, which is a clear sign of "minor classic" status today.

  I question whether you need three whole Gaskell title on the 1001 Books To Read Before You Die list, she was writing at the same time as Dickens, and while I understand why you want to include minor Authors- and one Gaskell book is great- three is over kill, especially because of the lack of contemporary interest.  Or perhaps that's a reason to include her.  I don't know.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

41 Degrees/Grados (restaurant) Review

Albert Adria, chef/owner 41 degrees

Here is what I knew going in:

1. 41 Grados is a restaurant in Spain. It is run by Ferran Adria (sorry I'm going without the accent mark on the last "a.") and his brother, Albert Adria.   Ferran Adria was the chef at elBulli, a three star Michelin restaurant in Barcelona that closed in July of 2011.

2.  41 Grados occupies the same building as a "tapas bar" named "Tickets."  Tickets is owned by both Ferran Adria and Albert Adria.

3. The Chef that signed our menu at 41 Grados was Albert Adria, not Ferran Adria.

4. 41 Grados is "too new" to be assigned stars by the Michelin guide.

  If you are going to take the Restaurant seriously as an Art form, i.e., "a specific shape, or quality an Artistic expression take" you need to be able to compare works of Art in the same field.  Thus, the Michelin guide is a pretty good yard stick since it is an international rating system, functions simply with a range from one to three Michelin stars, and covers any Restaurant that would aspire to Art.

   My thesis in this review is that 41 Grados deserves a "three-star" Michelin rating.  That is based on my experiences at other three-star awarded Michelin restaurants, my observations about "objective" standards that influence the award of a Michelin star in 2012, and my subjective dining experience.


French Laundy (Yountville, CA.) - I ate at French Laundry with my parents and future wife during law school.  It was a very heavy, very long tasting menu which left both my wife and I sick with digestive issues all night.  Everything about the restaurant experience was very well managed and there was a low restaurant staff to customer ratio.

Gary Dankos (San Francisco, CA.) - I ate at Gary Dankos a couple years after I ate at French Laundry- it was a very heavy menu- that may or may not have been French-inspired.  The physical surroundings were opulent at there, again, was a low staff/diner ratio- though not as low at that at Franch Laundy.

Akelare (San Sebastian, SPAIN.)  - Ate at this restaurant the week before I ate at 41 Grados.  Akelare is a very well established three star Michelin spot that perhaps isn't as "hot" as it was the year before, or two years before.  Twelve course (?) tasting menu- two different ones with different dishes.  Stunning physical location on a cliff overlooking the Bay of Biscay.

Arzak (San Sebastian, SPAIN.) - Ate at this restaurant less then 24 hours after Akelare. Located in the city at what is essentially a multi-generational family restaurant on a Gastronomy hot streak.  After we made the reservation but before we dined the daughter chef of the father/daughter pair was awarded "Best Female Chef in The World" and then got some press in the London Guardian for that achievement (August 18th, 2012.)  Outclassed Akelare just in terms of being an obviously "hotter" restaurant with a bit more of an inspired vibe- reservations were difficult to make compared to Akelare.

To give you non fancy diners an idea about the NUMBER of three star Michelin restaurants in say, New York, in 2012, we're talking five restaurants, including one which is also by Thomas Keller of French Laundry.


  The Michelin Star is supposedly awarded on the basis of foot alone, which omits obviously important Restaurant related factors like the staff/diner ratio, format of the menu and spirit that don't fit into the food.  That said, I can't help but think that standard is only achieved when a precise degree of control is exercised in the presentation of the food to the diner.   If you are talking about a strictly "how good is the dish?" standard, you need a well conceptualized dish being prepared perfectly and delivered to the diner "fresh."  Any delay, no matter the cause, is going to decrease the rating that the food itself can achieve by a scoring diner.

  So, here's the thing about 41 Grados- you get 41 actual courses- which includes cocktail pairings but does not include the wine.   There was an obvious heritage shared with elBulli- one course was announced as being an "elBulli classic dish from ten years ago."  The word on the street in Barcelona is that older Brother and elBulli honcho Albert Feria is busy opening a Peruvian and Mexican restaurants (two separate restaurants) so I think the idea is to get Albert Feria his own Three Michelin Star rating.

  41 Grados is obviously making use of techniques that were elBulli invented.  I don't intend to belabor the point, but there is actually a documentary on Netflix about elBulli that describes the nuts and bolts elements of  "Molecular Gastronomy."  The difference between 41 Grados and Arzak and Akelare is like the difference between going to a concert and seeing a band that is "on the way up" verses seeing a more established Act that has already made a reputation- you can't help but be excited by the new kid on the block.

 41 Grados only seats 14 people at a time, so getting a reservation is complicated at best- my wife booked two months out and we BARELY got in.  Is it worth a trip to Barcelona: Yes.

 The final argument that I would like to make in support of 41 Grados as a three-star Michelin restaurant is that the tasting menus at French Laundry and Gary Danko were so heavy they made her sick- and we both felt GREAT after plowing through 41 enumerated courses at 41 Grados.  That achievement, in and of itself was revolutionary and deserves to be singled out as an astonishing achievement in the field of fine dining.

 "Heaviness" can be seen as the enemy of "Food Art," and I think 41 Grados understands that at the same time they understand the need for whimsy and novelty in the upper echelons of the Michelin star set.

  41 Grados ought to be awarded three Michelin stars as soon as is polite to the other restaurants- if you look at a list of ALL the Three Star restaurants you can see that the restaurants I've mentioned as context above are clearly a fair representation of "what's out there."  I guess the only question is whether the Michelin reviewers can get a reservation on their 2013 grading trip to Spain.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Guggenheim Bilbao Museum (review)

Guggenheim Bilbao w/ Jeff Koons Flower Dog

The Guggenheim Bilbao Museum
Bilbao, Spain

       It's funny, if you had asked me before today how many "Museum Reviews" I've written on this blog I would probably have said 20-30 but it's more like 5- and not because I haven't been to plenty of Museums, but because I haven't written reviews about those Museums.  But I think Museums, particularly Museums about Art and History, play an important part on how we think about Art- they represent a kind of focused energy about an Artistic discipline OR Geographical place, more so then say does an LP by an indie band.

     Since opening in 1997, the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum has been what you call a "home run" in the Arena of government funded Art projects (GUGGENHEIM BILBAO MUSEUM WIKI)  I, for one, ended up there almost entirely because of the Museum.  Sure, maybe I would have gone to Bilbao without the presence of The Guggenheim Bilbao Museum (like I went to Barcelona. San Sebastian, Sevilla, Granada and Cordoba at different times, even though they don't have a Gugginheim Museums), but honestly I kind of doubt it.

    The presence of the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum within Bilbao reminded me of a visit I paid to Cincinnati, Ohio, in the United States, a few years back.  In Cincinnati, they have the Zaha Hadid designed Contemporary Art Center.  The Guggenheim in Bilbao is like that on an order of several magnitudes.

Guggenheim Bilbao- Richard Serra Sculptures

   The main attraction at the Museum, other then the building itself which is designed by Frank Gehry, is the Richard Serra installation- several dozen tons of labyrinth style steel mazes, brought to you by a multi-national Steel corporation.   The major rotating exhibit was David Hockney paints the area near his house (in landscapes) which uh... had a lot of paintings in it, let's put it that way.

Frank Gehry, just chilling out.

  Bilbao itself has mid tier European city charm- certainly enough "old town tapas" style dining action to keep you busy at night. The Museum has a one star Michelin restaurant at the back.

Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin

Book Review
Uncle Tom's Cabin or Life Among The Lowly
by Harriet Beecher Stowe
Published in 1852
Read on an Amazon Kindle, public domain edition

  Above all, Uncle Tom's Cabin was a monster, monster hit- with sales in excess of one million copies in Great Britain and half a million copies in the United States within three years of publication.  Today, Uncle Tom's Cabin is better known for the controversy it has inspired due to its frank depiction of the conditions of slavery in ante-bellum America.   I never read Uncle Tom's Cabin in school, but I was certainly aware that:

 a) It existed
 b) It was where the term "Uncle Tom's Cabin" came from
 c) That it was a hugely popular and successful book that was published before the civil war by an Author with Abolitionist beliefs.

    Harriet Beecher Stowe has attained a canonical status that compares to the two other "Major" novel writers from America in that period, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville.  If you look at a graph comparing their relative popularity between 1800 and 2000, you can see that Harriet Beecher Stowe has held her own against both Hawthorne and Melville, though I suspect that is more for her popularity among non-literature or quasi-literature related disciplines like "history" and "gender studies" etc.

 Stowe only surpasses Hawthorne in over-all popularity between 1866 and 1888- after that

   I suspect if you looked at the largest Audiences for these three Authors, Nathaniel Hawthorne would have the largest Audience of school assigned and general audience attention because he wrote in an accessible style and wrote in school friendly formats like the short story.   Melville's largest Audience would be higher education "types": students, teachers, and those who aspire to advanced education.  Stowe's largest Audience would be academic specialists- graduate students and Professors.

Portrayal of the character of "Topsy" from Uncle Tom's Cabin

   Considering that all Authors are neck and neck in a current Google Ngram comparing the three, it's hard to say that any is more "worth while" then the other- though my sense is that if we were to look ten years from now you'd see Herman Melville reinforcing the dominance he's displayed since the 1950s-60s.  Both Melville and Hawthorne "take off" in the 1940s and 50s, but Stowe's level of popularity stays relatively flat.

    Uncle Tom's Cabin is particularly shocking for anyone who's come of Age in the "P.C." era where the very use of the "N-word" is a highly charged subject.  Obviously, I take the position that you take a historical text "as it comes" and don't imply modern canons of construction when discussing the work in question.

   Stowe was an unabashed abolitionist, and the purpose of Uncle Tom's Cabin was to encourage the abolition of slavery.  Taken in that context, the racist characters and "Jim Crow" dialect of the African American characters can be seen as a  well-meaning attempt to provide "realism" to the text.

Portrayal of Uncle Tom of Uncle Tom's Cabin

   I wouldn't say that school kids should be reading Uncle Tom's Cabin- it is no doubt an Adult book today.   I can't even imagine how awkward it would be to try to teach this book in a public school. I wonder if anyone even tries to get anyone to read Uncle Tom's Cabin.  Judging from the consistent popularity the answer must be yes, but perhaps the frequency results from the frequent citation to Stowe as the writer in Academic sources.

  The main take-away for me personally was the demonstration of how slavery ripped apart slave families.  When you look at society today and problems with families and crime etc., there is no way you can disregard the impact that slavery had on the perpetrators and victims.   For that reason I think it's incumbent on a modern reader to really grasp the way that slaves were separated from spouses and children with impunity by slave owners.  That, and the fact that Slaves were not "people" for the purposes of the Justice system, and could thus not testify about excesses committed by slave owners.

  The sheer success of Uncle Tom's Cabin as a novel among purchasers of Novels can be seen as a major catalyst for the more "social problem" oriented Authors of the mid 19th century.  If you look at the next Novel that will be reviewed here, Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South- you can see a writer who is in the mainstream of popular British Literature- a biographer of Charlotte Bronte, for God's sakes, who certainly must have read and reacted to Uncle Tom's Cabin.  North and South was published three years after Uncle Tom's Cabin.  Like Uncle Tom's Cabin, North and South grapples with an "Issue" but it is the issue of Factory worker/owner relations, rather then slavery.

 I imagine the popularity of Uncle Tom's Cabin must have been a shock to the established taste makers of 19th century London.  I can almost imagine Elizabeth Gaskell reading it in her study and having a light bulb go on.

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