jose clemente orozco

san iledefonso collegeIf you think of Mexico and 20th Century painting, it’s only natural that your mind gravitates toward the power couple, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Their politics and personal stories have become a mythology entwined within their art – often superseding it. (And much more about them later.) Yet amongst Rivera’s contemporaries, Jose Clemente Orozco was often considered the more gifted artist. A social realist painter, Orozco specialized in bold murals that established the Mexican Mural Renaissance along with Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Yet before my arrival in Mexico City I had never heard of him.  That changed rather fortuitously at San Iledefonso College, a museum and cultural center in the historic center of the city, where the painter’s epic frescoes grace three floors of courtyard walls and stairways. In the 1920s, soon after the Mexican Revolution, the government sponsored mural paintings with themes centering on Mexico’s history and politics of the post-Revolution era, but Orozco – in a marked distinction from Rivera – was highly critical of the Revolution, and used his art to examine the bloody toll the movement took on ordinary Mexicans as it lined the pockets of both the upper classes and the church. Influenced by Symbolism – and satire – the politically committed painter takes on the history of human suffering from the time of Cortes’ conquest: the landscapes are somber, the working classes are oppressed, death is dignified and anonymous, the privileged bourgeois is distorted, the revolutionaries are blinded by revolution. Beyond form and composition these are not necessarily always aesthetically pleasing works of art but, wow, there’s no denying their power.

jose orozco

Stairwell Orozco

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poet’s glen, creggan church

poets glen creggan churchUnassuming at first glance, Creggan Parish Churchyard is one of the more important and historic properties in Northern Ireland. The church was likely founded as far back as 1450 by the O’Neills, who built a castle at Glassdrummond, near the Irish Sea. While all traces of the pre-Reformation church have disappeared, it’s thought that the O’Neill family vault was situated underneath the original church. (Remains of a subterranean doorway were recently found during repairs to the existing modern structure.) The adjoining graveyard is also the burial-place of three eighteenth century Gaelic poets, who give this picturesque area of trails and sculpted gardens its evocative name: Art Mac Cooey, Pádraig Mac Aliondain and Séamus Mór Mac Murphy – poet, outlaw, and self-described handsomest man in Ireland.

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abbaye de valmagne

IMG_2611The magnificent Abbaye de Valmagne in Montagnac, founded in 1139, is one of the most well-preserved in France. Unusual in that though it was home to just a small handful of monks, the church and accompanying cloister are massive, having been inspired by the great cathedrals of Northern France. As with all good ruins it went from prominence to obscurity in just a few short centuries. Eventually it was confiscated by the government and sold into private hands. Having been looted and abandoned the empty church made the perfect 18th century wine cellar for a Mr. Granier-Joyeuse. Ironically it was the wine that ultimately saved the structure, providing support to the interior walls until proper buttresses could be added to the exterior. To this day the abbey remains in private hands, focusing its efforts on organic gardening and in a nod to monks, brewing small batch beer.

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main street carcassonne

carcassonne panoramaLooks can be deceiving: Carcassonne is not a castle. Surrounded by almost 2 miles of fortifications it’s the largest walled city in Europe. The first signs of settlement in this region of Languedoc date to about 3500 BC, but things didn’t take off until the Romans identified the hilltop site as strategic and started building fortifications. Next came the Visigoths, who expanded the fortress into a fiefdom – until the Papacy stuck its nose in. Pope Urban II arrived to bless the foundation stones of a new cathedral and turned the growing city and its environs into a secondary seat of church power – all the better to launch a crusade against the pesky Cathars, a religious group which rejected Catholicism as the Church of Satan. Holy war, as we all know, is very good for business. More ramparts went up, dungeons were built, and towers were erected to house the Inquisition. Carcassonne became a border citadel between France and Spain that remained unconquered until the 17th century, when an economic revival under Louis XIV trumped the city’s military significance. In truth Carcassonne wasn’t so much conquered as absorbed into a burgeoning colonial empire. Cite de Carcassonne, as it’s now called to distinguish it from the modern-day town of Carcassonne down the hill and over the river, is no longer a functioning city – technically. Yet it’s been restored to varying degrees of authenticity in an example of artistic simulacrum. Populated with shops, hotels, and tourists eating ice cream at outdoor cafes, the city appears at first glance authentic. But not unlike Disneyland’s Main Street USA, it’s all a facade. And yet I have to give someone serious props because it’s an awfully good one at that.
carcassonne main street

carcassonne

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at the theatre: the testament of mary

IMG_1547There’s something thrilling about watching a great artist dangle on the precipice of a cliff, walking the razor’s edge between sublime and ridiculous. Fiona Shaw is such an artist. An actress of fierce conviction and commanding presence, I expect it would be mesmerizing to watch her read from the phone book, such is the power of her craft in plumbing the depths of truth out of even the most banal material. Fear not Broadway’s Walter Kerr Theater, mind you, where there is no need to worry about the quality of the writing being strained. Playwright Colm Toibin, whose elegiac novels revolving on themes of personal identity rank among some of my favorite, has fashioned a demanding, intelligent play out of the twinned myths of religion and fantasy. The Last Testament of Mary is no gnostic gospel, but it does imagine the later life of the Blessed Virgin as a woman in self-imposed exile. Mary does not believe that her son was the son of God and furthermore she refuses to co-operate with those simpletons – the writers of the gospels – who insist on visiting her. Mary is a mother, first and foremost, who had the misfortune to have a son who let things go to his head. It is the mother’s paradox for her to simultaneously grieve his death yet curse his megalomania, which turned the unforgiving spotlight of iconography on herself. This Mary wants none of it. And if she were left alone on a bare stage to tell us her story, we would sit enrapt. Yet director Deborah Warner, whose often visionary collaborations with Ms. Shaw stretch for more than a quarter century, will have none of that. For ninety minutes this Mary is a ceaselessly fidgety fuss bucket: moving a chair here, an amphora there, forever arranging then rearranging props and tables with an unlit cigarette dangling from her mouth. If the action is meant to underscore some greater emotional reality it’s not entirely convincing. In fact, Mary’s vulnerability is at its most ferocious when words become too much and the inability to communicate vents itself through the painful stomping of her feet, like a child caught in a tantrum. Designer Tom Pye is complicit with Ms. Warner, littering the stage with enough detritus – not to mention symbolism – to keep an actor busy for two plays, let alone the single act which makes up this evening. It’s too on the nose: the barbed wire, the ladder, the tree which dangles from the sky, its roots not touching the earth. We can’t help but be riveted by Ms. Shaw, who commits to her character so completely that even an act of gratuitous nudity does not take us out of the world of the play. Yet it’s the viewer’s paradox to both applaud the fearless conviction of an artist and wish someone had the good sense to leave her well enough alone.

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sunset, cape sounion

sunset at sounion

For a civilization so closely aligned with the Mediterranean, it is remarkable there are no temples in Athens dedicated to Poseidon, the god of the sea. However, on the rocky peninsula of Cape Sounion, which juts into the sea at the southeast tip of Attica, the Athenians built him a sanctuary – as well as two to the goddess Athena, patron of their city – that today stands as one of the most remarkably situated of all classical ruins. Built on the summit of the rock, which rises 200 feet out of the water, and surrounded by stout walls, the Temple of Poseidon at Sounion keeps watch over the great expanse of the Aegean. As you’d expect, it’s also a magical place to watch the sun set. Click the panoramic image, then click again for greater detail.

temple of poseidon

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chicken church

chicken church

A Tampa Bay, Florida church has become a sensation thanks to hundreds of people flocking to see the mystical face of Our Lady of the Poultry. Well, not really, but with large round windows resembling eyes and red roof tiles giving the appearance of a beak, the ‘chicken church’ is attracting a curious fan club. Congregants at the Chicken of Church by the Sea say they regularly spot passers-by stopping to get a memento of the unusual-looking building with a roof that spreads out like a pair of red wings. Threads have appeared online dedicated to the building, with hundreds of users trying to find out more about the ‘Chicken Church’. Could a meme be far behind? For the record, the church on Madeira Beach was founded in 1944 by a group of fishermen; it’s lighted cross used as a nautical landmark to guide them back to land. And the church’s bird-like features are actually a cleverly disguised compass – its wings represent East and West, while the beak and tail symbolize North and South – giving new meaning to the lyric “Jesus, show me the way”.

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when the swallows come back

the serra chapel

Mission San Juan Capistrano has the distinction of being home to the oldest building in California still in use, a chapel built in 1782 known as Serra’s Chapel. (The hand-carved baroque altar is estimated to be over 400 years old.) One of the best known of the California missions, the success of the settlement is evident in its historical records. Prior to the arrival of the missionaries, some 550 natives were scattered throughout the local area; by 1790, the number of converted Christians had grown to 700, and just six years later nearly 1,000 recent converts lived in or around the Mission compound. However, the most surprising thing I discovered is the criolla or “Mission grape.” Planted at the Mission in 1779, the first wine produced in Alta California emerged little more than four years later, setting the stage for what would become California’s wine industry. The ruins of The Great Stone Church – all but leveled by an 1812 earthquake – are a renowned architectural wonder, but the Mission is enshrined in popular culture by the annual “Return of the Swallows.” According to legend, the birds, who have visited the San Juan Capistrano area every summer for centuries, first took refuge at the Mission when an irate innkeeper began destroying their mud nests. Perhaps more impressive is the fact that the American Cliff Swallow spends its winters in Argentina, making the 6,000-mile trek north each spring in search of warmer climes, if not religious enlightenment.

mission bells

mission san juan

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the return of the apsara

apsara dance

The relatively recent history of Cambodia is horrific. Under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge the country was subjected to a radical social engineering project in the 1970’s that aimed to create a purely agrarian Communist society. Around two million people were forced from the cities to take up agricultural work in the countryside. The party controlled what they wore, whom they could talk to, how they acted. Children were believed to be tainted by the capitalism of their parents, so they were separated, indoctrinated in communist ideology and made a dictatorial instrument of the party, given leadership roles in the torture and execution of anyone suspected of being a traitor. And almost everyone could be considered a traitor: intellectuals, artists, minorities, city-dwellers and anyone with an education. In little more than four years the Khmer Rouge killed an estimated 1.5 million people – a fifth of the country’s population – through torture, forced labour, starvation, and executions. Unbelievably, one of the many groups targeted were the Apsara Dancers, practitioners of the classical Khmer dance which dates back to the 7th century. (The Angkor temples are festooned with thousands of images of the Apsara. During this period, dance was ritually performed at the temples as both entertainment and as a means of delivering messages to the gods.) Although 90 percent of all Cambodian classical artists perished in the genocide, the tradition of the Apsara was resurrected in the refugee camps in eastern Thailand with the few surviving Khmer dancers. Yes, I had come to Cambodia because I wanted to see the temples, but what I needed was to see this dance: elaborately dressed, performing a slow and figurative set of hand gestures and poses, invoking the gods and enacting epic poems; a testament to the power of art and a point of national pride. (Plus, anyone with even a passing familiarity with The King & I will immediately notice where Jerome Robbins stole his best ideas.) The return of the Apsara augured not only a reestablishment of civil society but,  more importantly, a resurrection of the country.

apsara dance 2

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three monks alighting on a temple

three monks

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more angkor

entrance to angkor

More than just temple ruins, Angkor is in fact an entire region of Cambodia, which served as the seat of the Khmer Empire. Flourishing from the 9th to 15th centuries it was the largest preindustrial city in the world, with an elaborate infrastructure connecting a sprawl of almost 400 square miles to the well-known temples at its core. Those temples, buried amid forests and farmlands, number over a thousand – from piles of brick rubble unearthed in rice paddies to the magnificently restored Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world. Followers of this blog will note the similarities Angkor Wat shares in design – if not scale – with Wat Chaiwatthanaram in Ayutthaya. Both follow the basic plans of Khmer architecture: a temple mountain (“Mount Meru”) bounded by raised rectangular galleries, all within a moat and an outer wall – and all richly ornamented with decorative elements and statuary. Built in the first half of the 12th century, Angkor Wat is even more unusual in that although the site was neglected it has never been completely abandoned, remaining a significant religious centre through Hindu then Buddhist kingdoms, colonialism, and civil war – its preservation abetted by the expansive moat which kept the encroaching jungle at bay.

angkor wat

angkor courtyard

angkor wat - interior panorama

angkor way 4

apsara dancer detail

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the ethereal allure of wat chaiwatthanaram

Compromised by the severe flooding which affected Thailand last year, the temple of Wat Chaiwatthanaram remains closed to the public but the grounds are open and the complex is easily visible behind a surround of caution tape. Constructed in 1630 by King Prasat Thong as a memorial to his mother, the composition of the temple layout is interesting in that it reflects the Buddhist cosmology: the large Prang that stands in the centre symbolizes Mount Meru, the central axis of the universe, surrounded by concentric rings of seven cosmic oceans and seven mountains. At the four corners of the universe are the four continents (the four smaller Prangs) where human beings live. Despite, or possibly because of, the limited access, I found Wat Chaiwatthanaram to be the most striking of all the temples in Ayutthaya. The grass, untrammeled, has grown in dense and lustrous. This luminescent lake of green makes an ethereal contrast to the red bricks of the Khmer-style structures, creating just the right mood for contemplating life, the universe, and everything.

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ayutthaya

The historic second capital of Thailand, then known as the Kingdom of Ayutthaya, was founded in 1350. Glorified as one of the biggest cities in Southeast Asia and a regional power for some 400 years, it reached its apex in terms of military might, wealth, culture, and commerce in the 16th century, when the Kingdom’s territory extended into and beyond present-day Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar. Ayutthaya had diplomatic relations with Louis XIV of France and was courted by Dutch, Portuguese, English, Chinese and Japanese merchants. Conquered by Burmese invaders in the late 18th century many of the city’s magnificent structures were almost completely destroyed and the ruins which remain were abandoned after a new king liberated the Kingdom and moved the capital to Thonburi, across the river from modern-day Bangkok. A UNESCO’s World Heritage site, the ruins of Ayutthaya are today one of Thailand’s archaeological highlights, with three palaces and over 400 temples strategically located on an island surrounded by three rivers connecting the city to the sea. The architecture is a fascinating mix of Khmer and early Sukhothai styles. Some cactus-shaped obelisks, called prangs or reliquary towers, denote Khmer influence and look something like the famous towers of Angkor Wat. The more pointed towers, called stupas, are ascribed to the early Sukhothai influence. And everywhere you look there is praise to Buddha.

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blessings of an angry monk

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wipe your wheels & take off your shoes

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