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Masterworks from the Beaverbrook Art Gallery

July 20, 2015

The Beaverbrook Art Gallery
Fredericton, New Brunswick
(2 May – 24 August 2015)

Judith & Norman Alix Art Gallery
Sarnia, Ontario
(19 September 2015 – 7 February 2016)

Audian Art Museum
Whistler, British Columbia
( May 2016)

Fredericton’s Beaverbrook Art Gallery opened in 1959. It was the gift of Lord Beaverbrook (Sir William Maxwell [Max] Aitken, 1879-1964) to New Brunswick, the province, where he grew up and first prospered. I cannot think of a comparable gift of this type in Canada. On opening day, he had not only paid for the land and the building, but had filled it with three hundred and twenty-three first class works of art. In addition to his own collection, he also convinced rich and powerful friends, in particular fellow New Brunswicker Sir James Dunn, to donate important pieces to the gallery before it opened. Since then the collection has grown to over two thousand works, that include a second gift of paintings from Lord Beaverbrook.

The current exhibition was initiated in 2009 by Terry Graff, now the gallery’s director, who was at time was its deputy director and chief curator. It took extensive research to put it together. The resulting selection of seventy-five major works from the collection has since toured the United States and Canada and is now being shown at its home, the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, for the first time. Graff has added forty additional works to the Fredericton exhibition which now virtually fills the gallery’s main floor viewing space. The impact is spectacular. Never before have so many of the gallery’s finest works been shown at one time.

They range in time from Lucas Cranach the Elder to Lucian Freud and Salvador Dali. It’s hard to pick favourites. Each time I view the exhibition, I come up with another list. Lord Beaverbrook wanted to emphasize British and Canadian art and the Masterworks exhibition mirrors not only his taste, but his predilection for realism. Of course, since Beaverbrook’s death in 1964, the gallery’s holdings have become much more eclectic reflecting the broad nature of art, but while he was alive, he handpicked every work in the collection. Lord Beaverbrook would have approved of this exhibition.

I have a soft spot for British 18th and early 19th century portraiture. There are some beautiful examples in the exhibition by the likes of Ramsay, Romney, Reynolds and Lawrence. The abstract quality of their brushwork within areas of clothing and background is outstanding, and their sheer virtuosity has always amazed me. To pick one, George Romney’s 1776-77 portrait of a young man, Charles Lennox, 4th Duke of Richmond, Duke of Lennox and of Aubigny, is a beautiful example in every way. Its portrayal of the young Charles resting outdoors with his dog possesses a beautiful strong diagonally composition combined with a carefully chosen palette. It certainly easily fits the criterion of masterwork.

It’s impossible to describe in a few words the many fine works in this collection. There is an excellent catalogue edited by Graff that covers, in detail, all seventy-five works in the original exhibition. Perhaps, the best known works in the show are Joseph Turner’s The Fountain of Indolence, 1834; Cornelius Krieghoff’s, Merrymaking, 1860; Lucian Freud’s, Hotel Bedroom, 1954 and Salvador Dali’s, Santiago El Grande, 1957, but everything in the Masterworks exhibition is of very high quality. Many of the works were involved in the infamous lawsuit between the heirs of Lord Beaverbrook and the gallery, which has now thankfully been settled largely in favour of the gallery.

Hotel Bedroom by L. Freud

Hotel Bedroom by L. Freud

Central to the suit was the Freud painting that was bought directly from the artist by Lord Beaverbrook in 1955 after it won the second prize of ₤500 in an art competition sponsored by his newspaper, the Daily Express. The painting was part of the original gift to the gallery in 1959. It is now worth many millions of dollars and is considered a key work by the artist. The small work (91.1 x 61 cm), is a haunting self-portrait of the artist is set in a Paris hotel room. He appears darkly in the background, while his second wife, Lady Caroline Blackwood, lies in bed in the foreground, her head resting on a pillow.

The work foreshadows the greatness that Freud would eventually attain. Fortunately, Hotel Bedroom is now firmly in the hands of the gallery and will remain in Canada rather than on an auction floor like those few works that were lost to the Beaverbrook Foundation in the suit.

Santiago-El-Grande[1]

The massive Santiago El Grande is only one of three late paintings by Dali in the exhibition. The other two are La Turbite: Sir James Dunn, 1949 and Equestrian Fantasy: Lady Dunn, 1954. These large husband and wife portraits by Dali are fanciful, to say the least. Sir James appears wrapped in a gold sheet every inch a Roman emperor while Lady Dunn is dressed in velvet, seated on a horse with a falcon on her arm. Not surprisingly, the Santiago El Grande is the painting that is the most popular work in the gallery’s collection. It’s not only its size that overpowers viewers, but its composition. You look up, from below, at St. James mounted on horse. It’s painted in a limited blue palette and there are strange details to be found by the careful viewer. The atomic cloud under the horse, the small draped figure, in the right hand corner, Dali’s wife, Gala, and the even smaller figure, in the centre bottom, that the artist says is a self-portrait although this is not apparent. It is a very accomplished piece, perhaps the best late, work by the artist.

While the Masterworks exhibition continues on tour after Fredericton there is other good news from the Beaverbrook Art Gallery. It has just announced a twenty-five million dollar expansion of its facilities that will make the gallery the largest in the region. Phase one will encompass new galleries, storage space, an artist in residence studio and a café.

With the work starting almost immediately. The future bodes very well for the Beaverbrook Art Gallery and the public of Atlantic Canada.

Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, 25 May 2015.
* First published in Vie des Arts, #239, Summer 2015, pgs 64-65.

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The Reflective Gaze

April 19, 2015

William Forrestall / Stephen Scott
The Reflective Gaze
Saint John Arts Centre
20 Peel Plaza
Saint John, New Brunswick
7 November – 23 December 2014

Originally published in Vie des Arts, #238 Printemps 2015, pgs 90-91

There is a vast difference in the subject matter and technique of Will Forrestall and Stephen Scott, but they share a common bond in their dedication to realism. They share other things as well. Both live in Fredericton, New Brunswick; they both attended the same art school, Mount Allison University. They are both senior artists and, most important, they are friends who talk to each other about their art and have done so for years.

Will works almost exclusively in egg tempera while Stephen paints in oil and watercolour. Will’s paintings are worked up from preparatory drawings while the majority of Stephen’s paintings, in this exhibition, are plein-air (painted directly from nature). The observation of the natural world is a quality that these two artists have in common. They use the loaded word ‘gaze’ in the title of their exhibition. Gaze is often equated today in a negative sense as in the male gaze, but their meaning is more traditional, referring to a fixed or intent look. Their paintings do reflect their deeply felt philosophy on the nature and meaning of contemporary art.

I have talked to Forrestall and Scott many times about their art, but it is their paintings that speak to me most directly. James Joyce says in his, the Portrait of the Artist: “The artist, like the God of creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.” In other words, that art can be viewed apart from the artist who created it. This is not to say that the artist’s ideas and thoughts, are not important but rather, that a good art work must stand on its own merits. Forrestall’s lilies and coffee pots take on an importance that belies their mundaneness and Scott’s paintings are more than pictures of New Brunswick or Nova Scotia landscapes. Both artists’s work speaks to the world of universal values.

Image: Stephen Scott

Image: Stephen Scott

I was at this exhibition with two friends, neither one an artists, but they certainly understood the paintings and knew that they represented more than pictures of realistic things. Good art’s parlour trick is to stop viewers in their tracks and give them cause to think about what they are seeing. Realistic painting is a bit of smoke and mirrors. It is an illusion of reality. Will’s flowers and coffee pots are more than they seem and Stephen’s landscape are about more than about place. Painting is a chance for reflection.

3 Lilies 2 coffee makers -green

Image:  William Forestall

 

Will’s, Coffee and Flowers, 20”x40” (2012), offers a chance to reflect on the nature of objects; the coffee pots permanence versus the transience of the lilies. It is a 21st century take on the 16th century Dutch idea of nature morte transcending common still life with an often hidden comment on the fleeting quality of life. Stephen also owes a debt to Dutch and Flemish painters of the same period who brought bourgeois and secular values to landscape painting. Both his painting Storm Front, 14”x21” (2014), and his watercolour Study for Storm Front, 18.5”x25” (2014), are examples of landscape painting that bring universal human values to the genre. The study was done on site and the painting, from the watercolour, in the studio. The location, the Bay of Fundy, is not as important as the image of a coming storm and the change that it will bring. It is something that most viewers will understand independent of the painting’s geographic location.
Forrestall uses egg tempera in a very precise fashion building the painting surface to completion through minute cross hatching, but the detail is united as you stand back from the pictures. His paintings possess a quiet contemplative quality that draws you in and holds your attention. The works in the exhibition, with one exception, are generally larger works than those of Scott’s. While Will’s paintings are realistic they are also abstract.  The lilies in Coffee and Flowers and in Three in Blue, 33”x22” (2011) are in a very different space and scale from their backgrounds, but they are visually logical.

Many of Scott’s paintings in the exhibition are very small at some five by seven inches no more than sketches, really, but they offer an eyeful. They remind me of the best small oil sketches of the Group of Seven. He is able in a few well- delivered brush strokes to capture the essence of a situation. When viewed closely his paintings are totally abstract, but, like Forrestall’s work, when viewed from a proper distance, fall together beautifully. He uses paint as a musician uses notes to build a melody. In music, it’s what’s not there—the silence between notes—that is important. Similarly in Scott’s paintings, it’s what we think we see that’s important. He makes our eyes, and our brains, work to complete the picture.

As artists, Forrestall and Scott have worked for a very long time—between thirty and forty years—dedicated to a continued commitment to realism. Their work is different, but they share a constant belief in realism. Isolation from artistic centres like Toronto and Montreal might be a reason for their devotion to their respective visions. They are certainly aware of what is going in both Canada and the rest of world, but they choose to work near to where they were born and received their artistic training. It’s good to see art that is about quality and craftsmanship and not just about keeping up with fashion.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, Sunday, February 15, 2015.

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Paring my Nails

February 25, 2015

The other day I was paring my nails and I had a Proustian moment, my very own madeleine. My mind went back to 1962 when I first read James Joyce’s words in the Portrait of the Artist describing his epiphany: “The artist, like the God of creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.” Those words of Aristotelian/Thomistic logic struck me like a thunderbolt then and they still ring true. An art work, while the product of the artist, stands apart from its creator. One cannot exist without the other, but once the artist releases, gives birth, to the work of art, it exists on its own merits.

I have been thinking about this separation of art from the artist for over a half of a century. Certainly the genesis of a work of art exists in the mind of the artist and its execution is by the hand of the artist. However, once it’s done, it stands on its own. Anonymous art works are no less valuable those by a known artist. Art works by a scoundrel, Caravaggio, are no less valuable than those by a saint, Fra Angelico. The history of art is filled with very good art done by very bad people.

Valuable is a funny concept in regard to works of visual art. Is a Gauguin worth hundreds of millions of dollars? No, it isn’t, it is priceless and if priceless, then it is also valueless. The worth of a painting comes when it is seen by a viewer. There is something obscene about the current art market with its ever increasing prices at auctions for art works both good and bad. Of course, art has always been a hobby horse for the rich. People without taste trying to prove otherwise are nothing new, but we appear to have reached a new high (or is that low?) in money chasing art. That is too simplistic as many high end art purchases are investments pure and simple. Investment in art has outstripped other investments many times over. It’s simply buying and selling art like pork bellies only more profitable.

What’s to be gained by the forces of triumphal commodity capitalism in having someone like me go into a museum and look at a painting. Where is the money in that? Actually, the price of looking has gone up since I was young with most art museums requiring hefty admission fees plus even more money for so-called ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions. I’ve been to exhibitions recently that ended up costing thirty-five bucks to join the herds in a jam-packed gallery. Lucky me, I have a press card that gets me in free and often to private views of exhibitions, but as a child and young man art museums were generally free. My grandfather would take me to San Francisco’s deYoung and Legion of Honor from about the time I was ten. It was there that I fell in love with paintings. As a teenager, I lived in England and went to public art galleries and museums there and in Paris. Later, as an art student, I went to museums in San Francisco and New York. All without paying a cent.

You are the product of your experiences and I doubt if my life would have followed the course it did had I not gone repeatedly to museums when I was young. It is interesting that fifty years ago, and more, the galleries were often quite empty and I had whole rooms to myself. It’s a paradox that even with high admission charges the museums are more crowded now than then. This seemingly blows my theory that museums are more elitist now, but it’s who doesn’t go rather than who does that matters regardless of the attendance figures that is important. What is more, those that should, don’t and their numbers are increasing. Yes, museums have free days and school tours, but it begs the point that museums are seen by many as elite. That’s a shame.

meaning_meaningWhat drives people to become artists? Why did Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, the young artist in question, want to be an artist and not a plumber? Even then a plumber would make a better living than a poet, but a poet’s life was a whole lot better than a plumber’s at least in Stephen’s eyes. Joyce’s hero wanted romance; to be a romantic. I think romance is still a good idea a century after Joyce’s book. Certainly, art offered me a way out boredom and on to a path that I hoped would end in adventure. When I was twenty, I didn’t think of making a living or about saving for a pension plan. I wanted to be an art hero and that’s why I read Portrait of the Artist. If Stephen could do it, I reasoned, so could I. I don’t think I ever became the hero I wanted to be, but my life has been filled with wonders and it wasn’t boring. I’m slowing down a bit now. It is the winter of my life, however, I’m hoping for a couple more springs before the curtain drops.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, Monday, February 23, 2015.

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Dead White Male Philosophers

January 29, 2015

I had a second look at the image that accompanied my last post which was a page out of the Modern Library’s edition of the Philosophies of Art and Beauty edited, in 1964, by Hofstadter and Kuhns from their chapter on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics concerning what is art. I find what Aristotle had to say about art still holds water. It was written sometime before 322 BC or, to be politically correct, BCE; a long time ago. I first read this text in 1966, forty-nine years ago. I’m not sure which came first, the high-lined or underlined text or why I did either. It’s likely that I underlined the text while I was using the book in a course on art theory I took from Albert Elsen in 1966 at Indiana University while at graduate school and the high-lining was when I used the book as a text in my own course on art criticism that I taught many times during my teaching career. But that’s beside the point. What is important is what Aristotle had to say around two thousand four hundred years ago and how our understanding of the problems of art remains pretty much the same. So much for progress.

Aristotle tells us that all is art: “…whose origin is in the maker and not the thing made; for art is concerned neither with things that are, or come into being, by necessity, nor with things that are so in accordance with nature…” Makes sense to me. You can’t really have art without the artist. Of course, once you have a work of art, it can pretty much stand on its own without the artist. It’s a chicken and egg thing. The big deal is the idea. Mind you, this is where Plato and Aristotle part company. Is the idea in God’s hands or the artist’s mind? I’ll stick with the artist, thank you very much, and leave God wherever he, she, or it may reside. I really don’t believe that art is several times removed from the ideal. I don’t like the idea (Plato’s in The Republic) of art, and the artist, coming in third place after the idea of a bed.  Art is it’s own thing and certainly not an imitation of the real. And art can be an improvement over nature.

Ideas, even good ideas, are, of course, a dime a dozen or twelve cents Canadian and good ideas that result in good art are rarer still. In Metaphysics, Book IX, 25, Aristotle states the obvious: “…for he who does a thing well must also do it, but he who does it merely need not also do it well.” Therein lies my problem; most of my good ideas, intentions, have gone undone. Which leads up to the last sentence on the illustrated page from his Nicomachean Ethics: “Art, then, as has been said, is a state concerned with the making, involving a true course of reasoning, and lack of art on the contrary is a state concerned with making, involving a false course of reasoning; both are concerned with the variable.” Ah, the variable, but that’s the subject of another whole post. I’ll stick for the moment with the ‘making’.

plato

Aristotle also states in his Nicomachean Ethics, this time in Book II, that: “…we often say of good works of art that it is not possible either to take away or to add anything, implying that excess and defect destroy the goodness of works of art, while the mean preserves it; and good artists, as we say, look to this in their work.” Yes, too much is too much and too little is too little. What is needed in a work of art is balance. Finding that balance is the difficult part. In my life drawing classes I often had my students erase as much as they could from what they thought was a finished drawing and still have it hold together. The result was almost always a better drawing. The reverse was telling them that they had a certain amount of time to produce a finished drawing, say ten minutes, and then when the time came, tell them to continue drawing. The result of this exercise was mixed. Sometimes the drawings got better and sometimes worse. Believe it or not, my idea for these exercises did come from my reading of Aristotle. Talk about applied philosophy.

If dead white ancient Greek and Roman male philosophers teach us anything it is that the problems surrounding the making of art have changed very little since the fifth century BCE. We, or at least I, have failed to find any solutions. Yes, times and media have changed. I don’t want to debate here about the sex or race of who makes art; only what it is art and what it is that drives human beings to make it. Whether people picked up sticks and drew animals on a wall or whether they make videos, some do it, or did it, better. They made art. Many thousands of years ago or yesterday doesn’t seem to make a difference. The why and what questions remain. I think that art is more than shadows on the wall. There is something in human nature that gives us the will, as Aristotle thought, to do something well. I just wish that I knew more about that something that does gives us the will to make art. It’s all questions and few answers. Damn.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, Tuesday, January 27, 2015.

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Marginalia: Life on the Edges

January 21, 2015

I am attempting to move my library office from the basement of my house to the first floor. It’s not because I’m getting too old to go up and down the stairs, but because I’m returning the office back to what it was, a guest apartment. The challenge is that the guest room upstairs that will become my office is much smaller and already full of books.

Books, you see, are my problem. I have been collecting books for over a half century. They’re easy to come by and very difficult to get rid of. I don’t seem to be able to throw them away. Can I be sure that my copy of Wordperfect for Windows for Dummies won’t come in handy sometime? Actually I’m just dropping that tome into a blue recycling bag as I write this. There it goes. Painful. Now for rest and it’s a lot. Books to the right of me, books to the left of me, books everywhere and the problem is that rest of the house is already full of books.

My friends, who are keen on technology, tell me I don’t need books anymore as everything is available online. Just throw them out, they say, you’ll be a better man for it and, besides, they add, we might be able to find a place to sit down when we visit your house. They might as well tell me that I could do without sex too. Which may be good advice. At my age too much excitement could kill me. Of course, there is the online sex too, but that leaves much to be desired despite the daily stream of young women who have read my Facebook profile and are dying to meet me.

Every book I own, you see, has a story to tell me. It’s not necessarily the content; it’s more about how I acquired the book. Did I buy it, was it a gift or did I borrow it and forget to return it? Yes, I did buy that copy of the Selected Poems of Ezra Pound at City Lights in San Francisco in December of 1965 when I was home for Christmas from studying for my MFA at Indiana University. How about a copy of Cézanne, a tiny Fontana Pocket Library of Great Art edition, that given to me by a certain Mrs. Lund during a trip on a freighter from Hull, in England, to San Francisco in 1954? We had become friends on the month long trip and we talked about art the whole time. I was fifteen and she was in her thirties. I was in love with her and, besides, it among my first books on art. Throw these two out? Not on your life.

Then there’s the copy of Ogden and Richards’s The Meaning of Meaning that I should have returned to the University of Manitoba’s library by December 28, 1971. I’ve yet to finish the book. Some books take longer to read than others. On the subject of marginalia, there’s my copy of the Modern Library edition of the Philosophies of Art and Beauty edited by Hofstadter and Kuhns that I bought in February 1966 for a class in art criticism taught by Albert Elsen at Indiana. I used the book, the same book, to teach a similar course for over thirty years. I couldn’t say the course was as good as Albert’s, and I did keep in touch with him, but it was my best shot. The book is held together with duct tape and every chapter is underlined or marked with a highliner with my ‘brilliant’ remarks on the margins. It’s a history of my teaching career and my friendship with Elsen.

There’s the heavily annotated The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume 2, also from the 1960s, once owned by my late second wife, Candice. I can’t pick it up without thinking of her. She was a brilliant woman. The book is hardly a page-turner, but I often use the book as reference. Now, it shouldn’t take me all that long to go through the thousand or so books in the basement if I continue at this rate.

Visitors often ask me if I’ve read all the books I own. Actually, I have at least attempted to read them all like the before mentioned The Meaning of Meaning. It’s just that some are easier reads than others. My dog and cat are lending their noses as I go through this hopeless task of culling my library. I think their advice is about as good as I would get from any of my friends. My excuse is that we all need history, if we are going to avoid the mistakes of the past, to paraphrase Santayana, and my books are my history. If I stop reading, stop writing, senility will surely step in the fill the gap or, at least, that’s how I view my race to the end of time, my time.

Let’s see, there are first editions, signed editions, rare books, books by friends and hundreds of exhibition catalogues going back over fifty years. I pity my children trying to make heads or tails of my library after I’ve ‘passed’ to that big archive in the sky. They’ll likely give them to the Sally Ann or throw them away. At least, that’s the advice I would give them. On second thought, why not burn my body on a big stack of books or, better still, throw a match into my library with my body sitting at the desk. It would be a Viking literary funeral—dust to dust, rubbish to rubbish.

aristotle

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, Monday, January 19, 2015.

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We are all Charlie or in my Case: I am Mike

January 14, 2015

I was trained by the US Army to be a combat photographer. It was considered to be a very dangerous job. I volunteered. I was seventeen at the time and none too bright. Fortunately, the only time I spent in a combat zone was for sixteen months in Korea in 1957 and 1958. The real war had ended in 1953. I subsequently spent nearly forty years of my life teaching art at university and, in particular, teaching drawing. I was following my post army credo, make love not war with an emphasis on the love. I thought that art would not be a dangerous job for me or my students. The recent events in Paris have proven me wrong.

A former student of mine, Michael de Adder, is one of Canada’s best known political artists. In fact, I’m in the process of organizing a major retrospective of his work at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton, New Brunswick for next year. We had spoken, before the shooting in Paris, about cartoons he had drawn that proved too hot to be published and others that when published that got him and his publishers in trouble for being too provocative. These were, of course, the kind of materials that I wanted to include in the exhibition.
Political cartoonists work within a very short time line. They need to know what is going on and what’s going to be of interest to the paper’s readers. They need to be provocative. Who wants boring cartoons. They need to have an opinion. Nothing should be sacred; yet if it’s too far off the wall, then the paper won’t likely publish it. Mike does everything a good political cartoonist ought to do. The one thing he should not have to worry about is getting killed in the process.

by Micheal de Adder (used with permission)

by Micheal de Adder (used with permission)

There’s been a lot of ink spilt in the last little while over the Charlie Hebdo shootings some of it very good and some, too much, lamentable. Salman Rushdie, who does have some real experience with extremism, vented his frustration, during a TV interview, over what he calls the buts. These are the people who say, yes, the events in Paris were terrible, an attack on free speech, blab, blab, but if Hebdo had been more sensitive to people’s feelings, none of this would have happened. This begs the point of what Charlie Hebdo was, and is, a slightly off-kilter, satire magazine. The old Mad magazine or the National Lampoon on steroids. Charlie Hebdo is not in the business of being sensitive. Rushdie said that you are either against an outright attack on freedom or you’re not; there is no middle ground. He is right.

I’m able to avoid what Mike must confront. I’ve told the magazine, that I’m still writing for, that I’m going to only write about exhibitions and subjects that I like. I figure that there’s a lot of bad art and why, at my advanced age, should I get my knickers in a knot venting about stuff I don’t care about. I guess I’m back to my make love stand of the 1960s. Mike, on the other hand, has to deal, on a day to day basis, with a lot of awful stuff and be funny at the same time. People do get offended and write letters to the editor. If they didn’t, Mike would likely be looking for another job. I do know that he believes in what he draws and is passionate about his work.

The danger of an event like the Hebdo shootings is that cartoonists, consciously or sub-consciously, will self censor themselves or be censored by their publishers. It’s easy to understand why. Getting yourself killed over your art is an option to be avoided. The main problem that faces most North American cartoonists is running afoul of the politically correct. This is a quagmire that I am all too aware of after a lifetime in academia. Seldom does a day pass that there isn’t a letter to the editor in the newspapers that I read where someone is offended by an editorial cartoon. Fortunately objections normally stop there and the next day all is forgotten.

Political cartoonists are like the court jesters of old. The jester had the difficult job of telling the king the truth and had to be skillful to keep his head. One assumes that even temperamental kings had a sense of humour or they would have had a hard time finding jesters. The people who murdered the staff at Charlie Hebdo had no sense of humour. Truth often needs humour to make us see the absurdity that surrounds us.

These are dangerous times and we need windows to truth more than ever. I doubt that if I were living in Paris today, that I would have been a regular reader of Charlie Hebdo, and I did briefly live in Paris, but I sure as hell would be buying a copy now. I’m proud that Mike was my student. I might have helped him learn to draw, but his talent, and bravery, are his own. So, I am Mike as well as Je suis Charlie.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, Monday, January 12, 2015.

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North Beach Follies: Chapter 1.4

January 7, 2015

Mary Hamilton was dusting in the living room when the three men entered. Dante was sure that his mother disapproved of his appearance, he sported the classic beat look—disheveled army surplus—, but if she did, she never let on. George was the first to speak. “Mom,” he sometimes called Mary Mom when Dante was around, Dante thought that this was stupid, but that’s parents for you, “Meet Jake Storm. Dante’s new room mate.” Mary said she was glad to meet him and that she was sure that the two of them would have a great time in their new place. “Dinner is not going to be to around seven. Your Dad is fixing up something quite special for you two—Beef Bourguignon. (Dante’s dad was a good cook and did most of the cooking of the ‛special’ meals for the family.) What have you guys got planned for this afternoon?”

“Nothing special mom. I thought we would take a walk downtown. We’ll be back long before dinner” Dante and Jake finished their beers, said good by to George, and walked down to San Carlos Avenue, the town’s main drag. Dante liked the idea of taking Jake on a tour of his home town if for no other reason than to shock the locals. Jake, if anything, looked even more beat than did Dante and the sight of the two of them strolling through town was sure to raise eyebrows. It didn’t take long. They were about halfway down the first block of San Carlos Avenue when they were stopped by a policeman.

“And what do you two freaks think you are doing here?” the cop huffily asked.

“Why, nothing officer,” Dante replied, “We are visiting my parents. Mr and Mrs George Hamilton.”

“You got any ID,” said the officer.

“Of course,” Dante answered and gave him his California Driver Licence which still had his parents address on it. He also gave him is old Military photo ID. “I just got out of the Army and moved to the city. Is there anything wrong? Are you looking for somebody?” he asked.

“No. Just checking. How about your friend?” the cop said glaring at Jake. Jake had given the officer his Montana licence and was looking none too sure about this turn of events.

“He is my room mate and we are down here visiting my parents for dinner. Do you want to call them and check?”

“That won’t be necessary. I just want to make sure that there wasn’t any problem,” the officer said giving the two back their ID.s.

After the officer left Dante said, “Wasn’t that great? He wanted to bust us because of the way that we looked. I’m sure that it pissed him off when he found out that I was a local. I love this shit.”

“I could do without the heat myself,” Jake replied, “What would have happened if we were holding and he searched us. We would be in deep shit.” Jake was of course right, but Dante had a sense of useless adventure that keep him in and out of trouble most of the time.

“No sweat, Jake. We were clean and besides we have our rights, right? Let go back home and have a couple more beers before dinner.”

The two of them kept mum about their adventure with the law during dinner.

The next day, back in the city, Dante and Jake moved what little possessions they had into their new place on Pfeiffer Street. “Not bad,” Dante said, “This sure beats some of shit holes I’ve called home over the last little while. All I’ve got to do now is find a job to pay for this and school.”

Jake thought that there shouldn’t be problem. “There’s always something around where you can make a few bucks.” Fine for you to say, Dante thought to himself, has Jake had a bit of a nest egg and was getting some money from home.
“Well, we still have most of the summer to get our shit together before classes start,” Dante said.

“Man, this is San Francisco and this is where it’s happening. I don’t know about you, but me—I am going to get laid as much as possible and stay stoned,” Jake enthused.

“Sounds like a plan, but let’s try and not get busted in the process,” Dante added.

They decided to take a break and walk down Grant to get a coffee or a drink. “Let me take you to LaPavoni. It’s a new place right next door to City Lights. They sell espresso machines and have a little coffee bar as well. Nice people and they gave me a little work taking photographs of their stuff,” Dante said.

It was a very short walk from their place to the heart of The Beach. They were as happy as two pigs in shit. They were in the right place at the right time and knew that fame and fortune was theirs to claim. They walked through the beaded curtain that was doorway into La Pavoni and Dante said hello to Bella the wife of Jim Norton who were the owners of the place. “What’s happening? Selling any machines?”

“Nothing to write home about,” she said, “Americans still have a lot to learn about a good cup of coffee.” Jim and Bella had lived for awhile in Italy and had decided to move to San Francisco and open a coffee bar, but their major business was importing commercial espresso machines, La Pavoni machines, and hence the name of their place.

She was right, Café Trieste up the street at just opened three years ago, in 1956, and was the first espresso bar in the western US, much less San Francisco. “Listen, I’ll do my best to keep you in business. I can drink a lot of coffee,” Dante said.

Jake was remarking that the coffee pickings were even slimmer in Montana. They sat smoking and slowly sipping their espressos while trying to look cool for passing tourists. “Man, we should charge the city for sitting here and being cool. Like nobody wants to watch normal assholes drinking coffee at some dump on Market,” Dante added.

“Does that make us abnormal assholes?” Jake asked.

“It all depends on your definition of asshole. I think I’ll go next store and see what’s happening at the bookstore and maybe buy a book. Don’t want to let my mind rot.”

“Suit yourself. I’ll join you in a minute. Got to finish this smoke.”

Hyde Market St SFO police archives

Dante ambled next store to City Lights and said hello to Shige, who as usual, was sitting behind the register. He looked around for awhile at the books on art and philosophy. He picked up a copy of a small paperback by Ortega y Gasset, On Love, “ You think, I would like this? Shige,” he asked.

“Sure, have you read anything else by him?

“No, but I have heard the name.” So, Dante sprung the buck thirty-five for the book and as an afterthought said, “Shige, do you of any work around The Beach? I need a gig.”

“Come to think of it, I’ve heard that the record store down the street is looking for someone. Know the place I mean? They sell mostly classical records.”

“Yeah, I’ll give it a try. Be nice to work on the street; close to the pad and the school.” By then, Jake had joined him in the store,

“What’s shaking, Man?” he asked.

“Just heard about a possible job down the street at that record store. Think I’ll go down and ask,” Dante replied.

“Maybe you should think about what you are going to say first. Let’s go next door to Vesuvio’s have a beer and talk it over.” “Right on. Let’s do it.”

They settled on a table at the bar, ordered two beers, while Dante mulled over the best way to con himself into a much needed job.

It can’t be that hard, he thought, I know the names of a bunch of classical composers that I can throw at them in the store. His parents were always playing classical records and listened to the opera on Saturdays. “OK, Jake, if I go down, talk fast and sound like I know what I am talking about, what’s to lose?”

“Suit yourself, but I’m going to have another beer. You can pick me up on your way back and, perhaps, we could go for a cheap dinner in Chinatown.”

The record store, The Record Lyre, was just a couple of doors down the street, on Columbus, towards Pacific so Dante didn’t have far to go. Entering the store, he spotted a rather straight looking guy sorting records, he was the only person in the shop. “I’m looking for the manager.”

“You have found him. I’m actually the owner, Ken Jackson, what can I do for you?”

“My name is Dante Hamilton and I heard from Shige at City Lights, that you might be looking for somebody to work at the store.”

“Could be. What do you know about classical music and records?”

“Music something, records not that much. I just got out of the army and I’m starting at the California School of Fine Arts in September.”

“OK, tell me about the music part,” Ken said.

“I can pretty much do the alphabet of classical composers: Albinoni, Bach, Cherubini, Debussy, Elgar, Franck, Grainger, Handle…”

“Enough,” said Ken, “But I would be interested what you would come up with for X.

“X and Z are a problem, but there’s always Vivaldi and Walton”

“You’re a smart ass for such a young kid.”

“And I know the difference between a symphony and a sonata.”

“OK, OK, you got the job. Two bucks a hour. When can you start?”

“Now?”

“Monday will be fine. 10am. You know we have weird hours. Open to twelve and on Sundays.”

“Suits me just fine. Thanks, Ken. You won’t be sorry. By the way, I like the name of your store Record Lyre rather than Record Lair. How did you come with that?”

“Thought it would look better and people who knew could figure out that we sold classical music.” Dante didn’t know it at the time, but this job was going to be an adventure. He went back to Vesuvio’s where Jake was still nursing a beer and talking up a couple of chicks which, Dante assumed, he was trying to line up.

“Girls this is Dante,” they looked up, but it didn’t look all that promising, “How did you do?”

“Aced it, Man. Start Monday.”

“Cool, you girls like to go with us to Chinatown for something to eat?”

“Not tonight,” said the blond and the prettier of the two, “We’ve got to get back to Oakland and there’s classes tomorrow. We’ll see you around.”

Fat fucking chance, Dante thought, as they both got up and left. “Shit, Jake, I did not even catch their names. I bet they are going to Mills. Why else would they be going to Oakland? We aren’t going to get laid this way.”

“Hey, man, the night is young.”

Dante and Jake exited Vesuvio’s turned left on Adler Alley, the short street than ran between City Lights and the bar, that was the transition between Grant and Columbus Avenues and between the two worlds of Chinatown and the Beach and their two very different worlds. It didn’t take along to find a cheap place to eat. The secret was to find a place where where the Chinese ate like Sam Wo’s, which was where they went, and then to order off the menu in Chinese or, in reality, point to something on the menu as, at least, the prices were in English. Often there was a surprise like chicken foot soup which looked like chicken broth with little hands in it, but it was always a bargain.

“Well you’ve got a job and we’ve a place to live. What next?” Jake remarked while trying to master the art of chopsticks.

“I guess we’ve got to make ourselves felt. Like we’re small fish in a big pond. Nobody gives a shit about us,” Dante replied.

“Well, it’s all about art, isn’t it?,” Jake said.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, Friday, January 2, 2015.

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