We’re still in October, and the basics seem to be staying pretty constant. The main themes of life this month continue to be art, culture, and friends, all under a chilly rainy sky. We’re not drowning in floodwaters, as the people of central Thailand are, but we too have had enough rain and dampness to last us awhile. I’m ready for some sunshine!
Meantime that warmth and optimism has to come from other sources. Just yesterday I went with a friend to a free concert at the Opera House here in Toronto. There’s a kind of amphitheatre two floors up. That's where the free noontime concerts are held. This one was by the Zodiac trio - have you heard of them? I hadn’t - who are American and French: clarinet, piano, and violin. They were terrific, and so was their program. The concert title was “Music from a Silenced Nation: Soviet Composers.” I knew Shostakovitch and Stravinsky, but the other two were new to me: Edison Denisov (one movement of an amazing sonata for solo clarinet, moody and impressionistic with slides and quarter tones, completely remarkable); and Galina Ustvolskaya, whose Trio, written in 1949, was haunting, each movement tailing off into silence, a questioning suggestive absence.
Then there’s the Chagall, the AGO show on Chagall and other artists who were born in the Russian empire and worked in Russia and then mostly in France, in the first half of the twentieth century. In my ignorance I knew nothing about many of the artists in the show. Apart from Chagall paintings and drawings, there was a wonderful Lipschitz bronze and some lovely Kandinsky’s, but it was the work by the others, called collectively the Russian Avant-Garde in the show’s title, that was new to me and sometimes took my breath away. I didn’t know about Sonia Delaunay or Natalia Gontcharova, nor about Tatin, Malevitch, Rodtchenko... If you have a chance to get to Toronto’s AGO before January 10, do go. And try to make time for two visits, because ther’s a lot to absorb.
There’s often discussion in art and literature crcles, and argument, about whether knowledge of the artist or writer is important or should even be a factor in appreciating the work. At the end of the Chagall is a long (fifteen-minute, maybe twenty-minute) film made in the 1970’s I think, when he was living in the south of France (he died in 1980 at the age of 98, a beautiful looking man). Somehow, watching him talk about his work, watching him work, and hearing about his first stay in Paris (1910-12) when he met Braque and Picasso and the other painters in that then-vibrant art community, helped me get a handle on his achievement. Until then, to me the paintings were whimsical or amusing or sad or sorrowful, sometimes all at once, and their colour and vibrancy and life-force was extraordinary, but I’d never been able to get hold of them for myself. I sat on the surface, you could say, but didn’t “get” them, most of them.
After the film somehow things fell into place: the pictures aren’t disciplined workings out of a theory or a geometry, they’re pure expressions of how he was feeling. In them there are elements of the painterly schools or techniques (the newspaper seller has a cubist feel in parts, in the papers he carries, for example), but he has digested all that others were doing and remained himself. He’s always Chagall, the man from Vitebsk, not contained or constrained by theory or specific techniques.
Now to go back and look at the whole exhibition with fresh eyes. What a treat to have the show waiting for me a few blocks away.
All this Russian art and creativity, from the AGO show to the Zodiac Trio program, is a reminder of how much the world lost in the twentieth century because of anti-Semitism and the totalitarian politices of Stalin et al. Artists were persecuted, some of them managing to flee, others not surviving. (Of the artists in the Chagall show, almost all died in France; one died in 1944 in Auschwitz; I wonder about all that got buried in history, whose work we don’t know about) It’s also a reminder, as the Zodiac clarinetist said in some opening words, that human creativity is remarkably tenacious. Even in difficult circumstances, many artists manage to produce work and to keep their integrity. They’re valuable to us all, a reminder of the larger view, the bigger horizon, the potential in all of us.
That’s the warmth we find in art and music in this chilly damp weather.
Other warmth comes from the glow of the leaves, still clinging, many of them, despite the rain and winds. The huge maple out my back window, a squirrel high-rise, is a blend of red and green against the sky, wind-tattered at the edges of its generous canopy.
And then there’s Diwali, the festival of lights, which was last night. We aren’t Hindus, but we did have tiny candles lit and other lights on. It was dark and chilly outside but the house was full of welcome conversation as we talked and ate mostly leftovers with good friends in the warmth of our shared humanity.
AND AS FOR THE DETAILS: We ate well, in many stages, with a backdrop of roasted pumpkin (I was cooking small pumpkin halves to soft, to then puree them for soup), very autumnal altogether. The "menu": dal with cauliflower, reheated with some water and olive oil, and thickened with leftover rice, comfort food at its best; leftover Italian sausage from Sanagan's, sliced fairly thinly, wok-fried to reheat and tossed in the wok with leftover tubetti; multi-colourd fresh carrots cut into sticks, for crunch; and fresh rice to take care of the lovely sauce on some leftover Thai chicken curry, red curry, small pieces of chicken, and delectable. For afters I simmered chopped Grey County apples in brown sugar and a little water, then served them with a dollop of very unsweet stewed damsons and a long lick of maple syrup.