". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Reading Women Wealth and Art -- and Reading Women, Poverty and Catastrophe

     . . . . I have finished reading Donna M. Lucey's (2017) Sargent's Women: Four Lives Behind the Canvas.  

One of the four figures profiled in Sargent's Women is Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler. Elizabeth was one of the siblings in the tragic Chanler family, among whose possessions is the New York fiefdom of Rokeby, as the Chanlers were among the heirs to the unfathomably vast Astor family fortune. As Archie Chanler was Elizabeth older brother, she also figures largely in a biography I read last month, Lucey's Archie and Amélie: Love and Madness in the Gilded Age (2005). 

     . . . .Amélie Rives (Chanler) of Virginia, a member of the southern aristocracy born in the decade after the abolition of slavery, was a manic pixie dream girl before Zelda Fitzgerald's time. One of the great propagandists for the revised history of the War of the Rebellion, she found her métier to fame, and  thus, ultimately fortune in marriage to an Astor heir, by writing scandalous-for-the-time sexual fiction.  Good grief, on one page the author describes a man breathlessly kissing his inamorata's knee! 

Worse! the inamorata likes it! Adding to her ever lengthening tail of scandal Amélie painted herself.

She reproduced her self-portrait as a post card which she sowed broadcast across the lands!

Sargant never painted Amélie, though he did paint, as mentioned initially, Amélie's sworn enemy, her husband's sister Elizabeth.

     . . . .The first of Sargent's four women Lucey presents to us is Elsie Palmer, the oldest daughter of US railroad magnate, General (one the side of the Union) William Jackson Palmer.  Elsie ultimately married L.H. Meyers, author of the 1930's trilogy, The Root and the Flower, a philosophical-mystical-historical-fantasy set in the Mughal India of Emperor Akbar (where Meyers  never set foot).  I've been reading this for months, becoming too impatient to ever continue beyond a few pages every time I open the huge volume. Myers, ultimately finding this world far too unsatisfying in comparison with how it should be, killed himself.

As we can see from her subjects, Donna Lucey has a fondness for the more colorful figures out of the Gilded Age's obscene plutocracy. Being plutocracy heirs, the sorts of women Sargent's portraits have immortalized, his subjects don't generally merit book-length biographies, thus Lucey's decision to do four of them in a single work.  For example two of Sargent's women, Elsie Palmer and Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler, are remembered only for being one of the Great Artist's portraits, and the relationships with the men who made the money -- or, in Elsie's case, her author-husband who married her father's money.

For Lucia Fairchild Fuller, the one of them, who from early on, was actually poor, due to her father's bad business decisions which lost him his wealth, and her richer siblings' meanness, Lucey makes a convincing case that she should be better remembered than she is. This seems an odd decision on Lucey's part, as Sargent didn't paint Lucia, but her sister, Sally Fairchild, one of the greatest beauties of her day. However, Sally not only did not accomplish anything, she never even married a famous / rich fellow, despite many proposals early on. So, around the portrait of Sally, Lucey constructs the truly interesting story of the unpainted sister, Lucia Fairchild, who was a successful artist in her own right. Lucey made the right decision -- it is a fascinating story, that ends in untimely death, due to Lucia's overwork supporting a family of feckless husband and loving children.  But there is also a great deal of joy and fun in her life too, which the author describes in telling detail.

Isabella Stewart Gardner's home, now the Gardener Museum, from the outside, 

Inside the Gardner Museum
As well, the other exception to non-accomplishment among these four women is Isabella "Belle" Stewart Gardner, the woman who gave us the justifiably famed Gardner Museum in Boston. What a story!  What a character!  I had no idea. Over the years, due to the location of the Gardner Museum, I had a presumed idea in mind of who Isabella Stewart Gardner had to be: earnest, learned, proper, civic-minded as so many of the women we meet in the Boston of Louisa May Alcott. On the contrary, Isabella Stewart Gardner was a personage for whom "banned in Boston" might have been coined to describe her.  Banned in Boston but this flamboyant, vital woman, with exquisite taste and a brilliant eye for great art, wasn't slightly discommoded, and hardly noticed -- no matter though, Boston noticed her.  Perhaps that's why the author, in her illustration to Sargent's Women, included two "Belle" two portraits by Sargent -- he painted her twice!

It is impossible to unpick these women from their age, meaning the power and wealth of the men who were their fathers, brothers and husbands.  None of them would be remembered today without that wealth.  The wealth was staggering, almost beyond imagining, if some of them, such as J.P. Morgan and Gardner hadn't left behind the tangible results of some of what they spent that wealth on.  Ultimately, this knowledge and the descriptions of this milieu and these people left me rather more than uncomfortable, despite that some of them have left us museums and the objects in them. At what price to thousands and thousands and thousands?  And the staggeringly plutocratic oligarchies of today aren't even doing that. 

Perhaps I understand the suicide of L. H. Myers, poor Elsie Palmer's husband, better than I thought.  He turned communist, by the way, before he killed himself.

     . . . . From these portraits of a self-enclosed world of indescribable wealth, luxury and indulgence lived securely away from the era's indescribable poverty I turned to Omar El Akkad's terrible dystopia of environmental failure, constant war and terrorism, American War: A Novel (2017).  It is the story of the making of a terrorist in the third US Civil War between Red and Blue.  Part why this future USA is suffering constant warfare and terrorism, refugee and relocation camps, punishment camps like Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, is because it is in the interest of the other nations to keep the USA occupied with itself.  They send huge container ships filled with supplies to keep the Red rebels eating enough  to reproduce. They employ coteries of people who hunt likely recruites for a range of terrorist actions.  The refugee camps and prisons are among their most effective tools in the creation of such terrorists.  Massacres help too.

This making of terrorists, and what it is like to live this way, without occupation and future, in the ugly squalor of the degraded environment and Climate Crash,  is what the author is most concerned with -- because this is how the US has been making terrorists for generations. The author's text doesn't soft pedal this in the least.

Beyond that, since it is still the North vs South, oddly the author never mentions the history of slavery, white supremacy, just old hatred with a new flag.  He does say that the new hatred is deeply rooted in the old history -- which is described as the days of glory, chivalry and magnolias.  I'm still mulling whether or not this is successful. In the new hatred the south seems to have replaced racism with the Red nation's determination to keep on the fossil fuel teat vs the north and the rest of the world having moved far beyond that power source long ago.  It just seems -- stupid.  OTOH, keeping the old war alive as we have since 1865 due to outraged white supremacy and defeated slaveocracy is certainly stupid.  As we see every single day now, there are no limits to moronic hatred, belief and behavior.

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