Pastoral (Angel Hunters), 1950 by Leonora Carrington (1917–2011)
Buddhist Lama, 1875 by Vasily Vereshchagin (1842-1904)
I went by my favorite used bookstore the other week to pick up the copy of Tatyana Tolstoya’s novel The Slynx last week. (I’m halfway through it, and it’s fantastic stuff—dirty, cruel, funny, unexpectedly moving—like a filthy generative loam that isn’t exactly poisonous, but will certainly yield side effects.) After seeing this diagram earlier in the week, I looked for a copy of Thomas C. Oden’s 1969 multidisciplinary
text Structure of Awareness. I was unsuccessful there, but I did spy something called The Shape of Content by the artist Ben Shahn. I’ve long been a fan of his work, so I picked it up and thumbed through. I ended up reading most of it this weekend.
The Shape of Content (the title now is not exactly ironic, I guess) collects a series of lectures Shahn gave to Harvard students in the late 1950s. The first lecture is a somewhat boring apologia, a kind of What the hell am I doing here?, but the following material is good stuff, if not exactly fresh. There are plenty of illustrations too, mostly unrelated to the, uh, content of the words (although they are of course intimately related). Illustrations like the one above, and this one, below, make the 144 pager seem, well, kinda short.
Here’s Harvard UP’s blurb:
In his 1956–57 Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, the Russian-born American painter Ben Shahn sets down his personal views of the relationship of the artist―painter, writer, composer―to his material, his craft, and his society. He talks of the creation of the work of art, the importance of the community, the problem of communication, and the critical theories governing the artist and his audience.
Eve, 1927 by Dorothy Webster Hawksley (1884-1970)
The Water-Melon and Three Red Peppers, 1949 by Eugène Berman (1899-1972)
Sailing Boats – Morning, 1926 by Hiroshi Yoshida (1876-1950)
Forest Heart, 1933 by Hans Emmenegger (1886-1940)
Olga Knipper-Chekhov as Nastasia, 1923 by Boris Grigoriev (1886-1939)
Spiral Head III, 1950 by Pavel Tchelitchew (1898-1957)
Fisherman with a Crab, 1923 by Boris Grigoriev (1886–1939)
Philosophers, 1990 by Gely Korzhev (1925-2012)
Fumée d’ambre gris (Smoke of Ambergris), 1880 by John Singer Sargent (1856-1925)
Japanese Beggar, c. 1904 by Vasily Vereshchagin (1842-1904)
Untitled (Seated Man), 1927 by Pavel Tchelitchew (1898-1957)
There’s a nice long profile of Ishmael Reed in this week’s New Yorker magazine.
The profile is by Julian Lucas, who does an excellent job covering both Reed’s extensive literary output as well as his biography. While Lucas’s profile is generally sympathetic, he doesn’t shy away from Reed’s many (many) battles (Lin-Manuel Miranda, Alice Walker, Ralph Ellison, the New York literary establishment, etc. etc. etc.). The print edition of the article is titled “I Ain’t Been Mean Enough,” which comes from a line from Reed’s 1973 poem “The Author Reflects on His 35th Birthday”:
For half a century, he’s been American literature’s most fearless satirist, waging a cultural forever war against the media that spans a dozen novels, nine plays and essay collections, and hundreds of poems, one of which, written in anticipation of his thirty-fifth birthday, is a prayer to stay petty: “35? I ain’t been mean enough . . . Make me Tennessee mean . . . Miles Davis mean . . . Pawnbroker mean,” he writes. “Mean as the town Bessie sings about / ‘Where all the birds sing bass.’ ”
Lucas’s Reed is not a cantankerous caricature though. We get a nice survey of the man’s works situated against his ever-evolving politics and aesthetics. Nor does the profile dwell too long on Reed’s earlier novels (which I confess are my favorites—the most recent long work of Reed’s I’ve read was 2011’s Juice! I had absolutely no idea before reading the profile that Reed has a new novel out this summer, The Terrible Fours).
There’s a measure of defiance to his late-career productivity. Wary of being tethered to his great novels of the nineteen-seventies, Reed is spoiling for a comeback, and a younger generation receptive to his guerrilla media criticism may be along for the ride. “I’m getting called a curmudgeon or a fading anachronism, so I’m going back to my original literature,” Reed told me. “In the projects, we had access to a library, and I’d go get books by the Brothers Grimm.” Now, he says, “I’m reverting to my second childhood. I’m writing fairy tales.”
Raft, 2020 by Aron Wiesenfeld (b. 1972)