Archive for November, 2015

Life in people, life in things: Tadeusz Kantor exhibit in São Paulo

Saturday, November 28th, 2015

“Tadeusz Kantor Machine”: The biggest exhibition of Kantor’s artistic work in Americas.

From our correspondent Zbigniew Stańczyk, a former Stanford curator who has just returned from a centenary celebration for Tadeusz Kantor (1915-1990), considered one of Poland’s most important twentieth century artists, held in sunny Brazil:

One of the biggest Polish cultural events of 2015 took place in São Paulo, Brazil, and thanks to the Cinema Theater, I had the opportunity to participate in it. São Paulo hosted retrospective exhibition devoted to the full scope of the career of Tadeusz Kantor, widely considered to be among the most important and prolific painters and playwrights of the twentieth century. The audience reception was astounding, and certainly will be the subject of more than one analysis.


Children in the rubbish cart, from the play “In a Little Manor House” by Witkiewicz.

According to Jaroslaw Suchan, one of the curators of Kantor’s exhibit, “Kantor is to Polish art what Andy Warhol was to American art. He created a unique strain of theatre and was an active participant in the revolutions of the neo-avant-garde; he was a highly original theoretician, an innovator strongly grounded in tradition, an anti-painterly painter, a happener-heretic and an ironic conceptualist. His pioneering work remains powerful and influential today, challenging conventional boundaries between installation, performance and stage.”

All three floors of the SESC Cultural Center were turned into one great laboratory for actors’ workshops, film presentations, and of course the exhibit. The entire building was reconstructed, a thousand square meters of interior were repainted. Exhibit space was turned into a living theater. Mingling with the visitors, the actors of the Antropofagica Theater performed characters from Kantor’s plays. His face, recorded on film, appeared on a large-format, 6-meter screen, and dominated the entire exposition. He always loved being on the stage, in the middle of the action – and once again, he was given a chance to participate.

Kantor was constantly on a real or imaginary trip. Another curator, Ricardo Muñiz Fernandez, responded to this inclination by putting exhibited objects among the crates in which they were brought from Poland. Kantor liked to include packages on his canvases. He liked to immortalize them so they wouldn’t suffer the humiliation of losing their utility. In so doing, he restored the dignity of the things that were doomed to oblivion. Hence, a work of art appeared in a place where it didn’t have right to exist.


A scene from “The Review of Fire”

He rejected the formalism of museum exhibitions and curators. He went his own way by building an “anti-exhibition,” devoid of chronology. At the entrance to the 2015 exhibition, the organizers placed a large photograph of postwar Warsaw in all its devastation, serving as an introduction to the artist’s intellectual context: war destroying everything and everyone, degrading people to passive objects. The pulsating streets of São Paulo outside the building stood in marked contrast to this shocking accent.

Although Kantor never visited Brazil, he received one of the most important prizes of his life at the São Paulo Biennale in 1967. From the beginning, his name was associated here more with the theater than with the visual arts. The founder of the Center for Theatrical Research, who attended one of Kantor’s performances of The Dead Class during his visit to Italy in the 70’s, and Filho included the play in the actors’ training program and the word got out. That’s why the São Paulo exhibit devotes much attention to Kantor as a set designer, creator of para-theatrical activities, and a theater-theorist.

To illustrate Kantor’s presence in today’s performing arts, Brazilians invited Teatr Cinema from  Michałowice. The founder and director Zbigniew Szumski had followed an artistic path similar to Kantor’s. He graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Gdańsk and painted for years until he had exhausted its possibilities. He began doing theater. He appeared on the cultural stage in the 1990’s precisely at the time when Kantor departed from it. He continues the tradition of the Polish avant-garde with astonishing results. His vision goes far beyond the kind of work that took critics decades to accept in Kantor’s oeuvre. Szumski experiments in each performance. He has perfected his instrument: a group of actors who have worked with him for over twenty years. They brought River of Fire, a play that attempts to resolve the trauma of war experiences, to São Paulo. The title refers to the original meaning of the word Holocaust: “annihilation in flames.” The play depicts behavior of people cut off from the world, which had passed the death sentence on them.


Outside the SESC culture center in São Paulo.

Szumski makes frequent references to war as a last resort and gives a second chance to people who disappeared into the depths of darkness, denied the right to exist. Bringing  them back to life becomes  a conversation with the conscience of the artists and the entire community.

Few of us are aware of the importance of São Paulo as one of the most influential cultural centers in the world. This cosmopolitan city of 20 million has dozens of  theaters and museums on the highest level. The exhibition received excellent reception and is considered by the local critics as most important event of the year.

Cinema Theatre, a follower of Kantor’s ideas, tours internationally and makes frequent appearances at many important festivals. I was curious how the theater’s avant-garde repertoire would resonate with the Brazilian audience. Each performance ended with a standing ovation, which lasted for minutes. We met the leading Brazilian actors, directors, and artists. Wrocław, European Capital of Culture in 2016, has to include performances of this unique theater in the next year program. I can’t imagine it any other way.

All photos by Zbigniew Stańczyk. Read more about the three-month exhibit, which ended earlier this month, here


In 1970, Kantor created an 8 meter high folding chair made of concrete which was placed in Wroclaw among street traffic. It was to make an impression of something abandoned. He explained: “This artistic condition existed not in the chair, not in the form but in the surrounding. The existence of this chair caused all of the surroundings to become artistic.” Below, a smaller chair.


Have a scapegoat for Thanksgiving! “It’s a ritual sacrifice, with pie.”

Wednesday, November 25th, 2015
President Barack Obama, National Turkey Federation Chairman Gary Cooper; and son Cole Cooper participate in the annual National Thanksgiving Turkey pardon ceremony in the Grand Foyer of the White House, Nov. 26, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

President Obama, National Turkey Federation’s Gary Cooper, and Cole Cooper in last year’s “pardon” at the White House. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

I’ve always been ashamed of the annual White House ritual: the turkey pardoned for a crime it did not commit. Mock laughter accompanies the mock crime. Meanwhile, while thousands upon thousands of other helpless animals are slaughtered across the nation. 

All across America, fractious families unite for the day over the real carcass of a dead bird – it is the very symbol of a national and familial unity. Is the Thanksgiving turkey a classic scapegoat? I figured I couldn’t be alone in my hunch, and I wasn’t. René Girard, who died earlier this month, is much on my mind this Thanksgiving, and he helps us get a handle on the strange ceremony, with a little help from his friends:


Harry Truman started it in 1947.

Karen Davis writes in More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality (Lantern Books, 2001):

“The idea of a Thanksgiving turkey as a scapegoat may seem like a parody of scapegoating, but what is the scapegoat phenomenon but a parody of reason and justice? The scapegoat, after all, is a goat. Animals have been scapegoats in storytelling, myth, and history every bit as much as humans and probably more, as the scholar of myth and ritual, René Girard observes in Violent Origins: Ritual Killing and Cultural Formation (Stanford University Press, 1988). Social animals especially have been scapegoated since time immemorial. ‘[I]n all parts of the world,’ Girard says, ‘animals living in herds, schools, packs – all animals with gregarious habits, even if completely harmless to each other and to man,’ have been vilified.

“This is not simply a matter of other cultures and ancient history. Evans shows how the belief that ‘everything must be “well-thought, well-said and well-done,” not ethically, but ritually, contributed to the fact that until quite recently, European societies hauled birds and other creatures before the bar in legal ceremonies as absurd as any scene in Dickens. ‘[E]xtending from the beginning of the twelfth to the middle of the eighteenth century,’ he tells us, the culprits were ‘a miscellaneous crew, consisting chiefly of caterpillars, flies, locusts, leeches, snails, slugs, worms, weevils, rats, mice, moles, turtle-doves, pigs, bulls, cows, cocks, dogs, asses, mules, mares and goats.”

Jared Christman explores another angle of the ritual, writing in Grave Pawns: Civilization’s Animal Victims: “The pardon therefore performs the same basic function as the scapegoating sacrifice theorized by Girard in Violence and the Sacred, although instead of one special victim being scapegoated, every animal except for one special non-victim is scapegoated.”


Eisenhower kept it up.

“Around the Thanksgiving table, the cultural relations of the nation merge with the blood relations of the family. Through the carcass of the sacrificial victim, the family becomes a microcosm of the nation and the nation becomes a macrocosm of the family. The size of the culinary victim is key: the entire turkey can be dismembered and consumed at a household gathering. This creates a ritual symmetry between the dimensions of the victim’s body and the dimensions of the cultural building block of the family. …

“This sovereign ‘pardon’ of a token animal has become ritually necessary because the industrialized scale of Thanksgiving creates a pressing need for expiation and the shifting of blame from the victimizers to the victims. Against the holiday’s backdrop of rampant factory farming, the pardon of the “innocent” bird scapegoats every other “criminal” turkey for advanced civilization’s sins against nature. …

“With each passing year, the comforting illusions of the Thanksgiving feast, its New World mythology, conceal less and less the industrialized context of the sacrament. Any serious pretense of the new Eden is long gone. The bird upon today’s Thanksgiving table is a bloated, assembly-line caricature of the wild turkey of the 17th-century American woods. Of soupcourse, even the mythology of the original Thanksgiving of the Plymouth pilgrims was a bright shining lie. The cagier fowl of yesteryear’s table was the victim of a ritual protocol of nation-building about as new as the Old World hills.”

Well, there you have it. History has it that the real Thanksgiving was celebrated in St. Augustine, Florida, some years earlier in 1565, when the Spaniards shared a communal meal with the local Timucuans. What was on the menu? Bean soup. Read about it here.

Update: NPR is onto the story here.

Update on 11/20/18: A comment from George Dunn: “It’s a ritual sacrifice, with pie.” ~ Anya on Buffy the Vampire Slayer

The Holocaust: what was it like for the kids in hiding?

Monday, November 23rd, 2015

safest-lieA promise is a promise. We don’t usually do “young adult” fiction here at the Book Haven, but in this case I make an exception – a duty as well as a pleasure. Seven years ago, over bronowicka wegetariań„ska and some very good wine and vodka at Pod Baranem in Kraków (I later learned it was one of Czesław Miłosz‘s favorite restaurants in that wondrous city),  I heard the story of Irena Sendler, who had died a few months before in 2008. It was an extraordinary tale told late in the evening by her friend and Holocaust survivor Lili Pohlmann of the city’s Judaica Foundation.

Now the story is well known, but back then it wasn’t. I was skeptical of Lili’s claims of her close friend who had saved thousands of Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto. Why had I never heard of her? I went back to my Kraków apartment and googled, and confirmed Lili’s account – since Sendler was a Polish patriot, the Soviet authorities had had an interest in suppressing the story, which became known only after 1989. I resolved pretty much then and there to do what I could to share the history, as I have done here and here and here and here and here, and a few other places as well. So how could a not cover Angela Cerrito‘s well-researched The Safest Lie when the publisher, New York’s Holiday House, sent it to me?

The fictional story is told from the point of view of one of Sendler’s hidden children, nine-year-old Anna Bauman. When she hears her new, assigned name, Anna Karlowska, she says, “The words are heavy and far away, like a stone thrown so far out into the lake that it is impossible to hear the splash.”

Sendler herself makes two brief appearances in the book under the code name she used, “Jolanta.” Her first when she makes arrangements to rescue Anna from the Warsaw Ghetto. Sendler said that, for each child saved, she needed a team of 25: 10 to smuggle children out, 10 to find families to take the children, and 5 to get false documents.The second encounter occurs when Anna is in hiding at a convent school – Sendler said not a single convent had refused to shelter a child.

In The Safest Lie, the fictional Anna overhears a conversation of an unknown woman with Sister Maria:

As I dust the first windowsill, I hear Sister Maria’s conversation through her open door.

“We heard of your capture. We even received news of your death.”


To honor her.

“In these times, one doesn’t know what to believe,” answers a woman. The voice is decisive, but so low. Someone used to talking in whispers. It’s low and rumbly, but strong. I try to slow my breathing and quiet my heart so I can hear properly. I know that voice! Jolanta? My heart drums in my ears. Could it be? 

“Perhaps the news you heard was true. Today I am Mrs. Dabrowska. Tomorrow perhaps another name. We try to be safe, though we know safety isn’t always possible.”

Oh how I wish I could run into Sister Maria’s office. I want to ask Jolanta a million questions. … Outside the door, I hear Sister Maria say, “Fifteen will help a great deal.”

“Tomorrow then,” says Mrs. Dabrowska, who sounds just like Jolanta.

I walk into the office and set my cloth on Sister Maria’s desk. I study the woman. Her hair is not like Jolanta’s, and something is different about the face. Could it really be her? The woman smiles at me. I’ve never seen Jolanta smile. “And how are you today?” She places a hand on my arm.

“Very well, thank you,” I say. The hand doesn’t feel familiar, but the woman’s yes do. Does she know me?

“Anna, please excuse us,” says Sister Maria.

I leave the room and wait at the end of the hall by the statue of Mother Maria. I pray again. Should I speak with her? Should I ask if she’s Jolanta? I wait until the lady leaves Sister Maria’s office. When I see her walking away, I decide it can’t be Jolanta. The woman drags her left leg. It looks like every step causes her pain. Not at all like Jolanta, who took short, speedy steps.

Irena Sendler had been captured, tortured, and sentenced to a firing squad by the Germans in 1943. Although they had broken her feet and legs, she escaped. She lived until April 2008.

Anyway, it’s a gift idea for the coming month. It’s a fast-paced, moving 181 pages. I had trouble putting it down.

Adam Johnson gets National Book Award – and boy, was he surprised!

Thursday, November 19th, 2015

He told his family to stay home.

Short story collections don’t often win a National Book Award, but one did last night – and we couldn’t be more delighted that it did. Pulitzer prizewinning Adam Johnson‘s Fortune Smiles was awarded the fiction prize. No one was more surprised that Adam himself. He was clearly not expecting to be on the stage Wednesday night.

“I told my wife and my kids, ‘Don’t come across America because this is not going to happen,’” he told the Los Angeles Times.

A short story collection won last year (Phil Klay’s Redeployment) and lightning doesn’t often strike the same place twice with the big-ticket literary award.

Adam won a Pulitzer for his Orphan Master’s Son, but he first came to critical notice with in the short story genre, one that he missed after working on his long novel about life in North Korea, which he called a drama with “one central character, and a supporting cast of 23 million” (read it here).

“I think the short story is a machine, and it has lots of gears that turn: Voice, style, architecture, chronology, scene selection,” Johnson said in a recent NPR interview. “I think they’re difficult, but they can be very perfect and powerful — I missed them, working on a novel for many years.”

When I first wrote about Adam six years ago here, he thought he would always be a niche artist:

fortune-smilesHe admitted that not everyone will be a fan of his “off-kilter, quirky humor.” When he sees furrowed brows and incomprehension at his readings, he thinks, “Don’t buy it! It’s not for you!”

He sees writers occupying more of a niche market, like magazines. No one insists, he pointed out, “You have to read the latest Cat Fancy – you’ll die if you don’t!”

Hence, while most authors dream of immortality, Johnson anticipates obscurity: “There will be no statues of Adam Johnson – I don’t think so,” he said, smiling slyly and sipping his iced coffee.

We’ll wait and see, Adam. We’ll wait and see.

Meanwhile, Ta-Nehisi Coates won the National Book Award for nonfiction for Between the World and Me, a visceral exploration about the experience of black men in America.

“Every day you turn on the TV and see some kind of violence being directed at black people,” Mr. Coates said in an emotional acceptance speech. “Over and over and over again. And it keeps happening.”

Read more about this year’s awards at the New York Times here.

Marcel Proust and “a world based on kindness, scrupulousness, self-sacrifice”

Wednesday, November 18th, 2015

Vermeer’s “View of Delft”: “He took a turbulent reality, and made it look like Heaven on earth,” according to one art critic.

Los Angeles poet Timothy Steele offers a few words on one of the preeminent writers of France, ever:


Tim Steele

One of the literary greats of Paris and of the world, Marcel Proust died ninety-three years ago today. The many subjects he treats in In Search of Lost Time include mortality and the work of Johannes Vermeer, and the two come together in the scene of the novelist Bergotte’s death. Readers will remember that Bergotte, though gravely ill, goes to an art exhibition to see Vermeer’s “View of Delft,” which is on loan in Paris from the Maruitshuis museum in The Hague. Bergotte finds his way to the gallery in which the masterpiece hangs and focuses his admiration on “a little patch of yellow wall” in the painting. (Proust is perhaps referring to the wall on the far right side, or to the roof and wall just to the left of the double-turreted Rotterdam gate.) After reflecting that he should have written as Vermeer painted, layering his stories with color to give them greater warmth and depth, Bergotte sinks to a circular settee and suffers his fatal heart attack. Proust writes:


Au revoir, Marcel.

“He was dead. Dead forever? Who can say? . . . All that we can say is that everything is arranged in this life as though we entered it carrying a burden of obligations contracted in a former life; there is no reason inherent in the conditions of life on this earth that can make us consider ourselves obliged to do good, to be kind and thoughtful, even to be polite, nor for an atheist artist to consider himself obliged to begin over again a score of times a piece of work the admiration aroused by which will matter little to his worm-eaten body, like the patch of yellow wall painted with so much skill and refinement by an artist destined to be forever unknown and barely identified under the name Vermeer. All these obligations, which have no sanction in our present life, seem to belong to a different world, a world based on kindness, scrupulousness, self-sacrifice, a world entirely different from this one and which we leave in order to be born on this earth, before perhaps returning there to live once again beneath the sway of those unknown laws which we obeyed because we bore their precepts in our hearts, not knowing whose hand had traced them there.”

– In Search of Lost Time, trans. C. K. Scott Moncrieff & Terence Kilmartin, vol. 5 (New York: Random House, 1993): 245-46.

Mozart and the intelligence of love

Monday, November 16th, 2015

Opening night at the opera. (Photo: Elena Danielson)

Before I made the trek to Opera San Jose yesterday, a friend tipped me off that a line from Dante Alighieri opens one of the scenes in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart‘s Marriage of Figaro (read about the production here). This perfectly cut diamond of an opera has sometimes been compared to the Italian poet’s masterpiece, The Divine Comedy; both oscillate between the highest and the lowest that the human species has to offer – from the supercelestial to the depraved. But did Mozart crib a line from Dante? Where?

He didn't mean to do it.

Did he crib from Dante?

Larry Hancock, the learned and amiable general director of the San Jose Opera, was equally mystified when I asked him at the Q&A session following his pre-show presentation. He told me to keep my ears open.

Well, an easy thing to do at an opera from one angle – but in the San Jose Opera’s excellent production, it was also easy to lose track of scholarship in the beauty of the music and the magic of this very well-matched cast of singers. There wasn’t a weak link in the long chain. So I forgot all about Dante.

By Act II, I was swept up in the Countess’s great self-pity aria (there’s always one in a Mozart opera), Susannah’s banter, and the smitten Cherubino as he began to sing the song he wrote for his Countess, Voi che sapete che cosa è amor. The supertitles rolled on the screen – “Ladies, you who know the intellect of love…,” or words to that effect. The text suddenly seemed very un-Mozartlike, and a frisson ran through me. I raised my pointed finger to the overhead screen in slow recognition, and it froze there in mid-air, till my discomfited companion jerked my hand down again.


Scandalous priest

I had been expecting a line from The Divine Comedy. Instead, of course, this is one of the most famous passages of La Vita Nuova, the work in which Dante describes his love for Beatrice Portinari, and his anguish at her death – as well a meditation on love as a transcendent force in our lives and as a poetic theme. “Ladies who have the intelligence of love,/I wish to speak to you about my lady…” (Donne ch’avete intelletto d’amore, i’ vo’ con voi de la mia donna dire…)

Not dead on, but close enough, and certainly an Italian audience would recognize the homage even faster than I did.

I found Larry in a hallway during the intermission. How did this Viennese composer come to utter the words of Dante? He probably didn’t, he said. He suggested I look instead to the famous librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, a dissolute priest banished from Venice who eventually took to the pen for his living. And aren’t we grateful he did? He was the most celebrated librettist of his time – and he certainly would have known his Dante well, even if he didn’t take the poet’s sterner admonitions to heart.


He got it right.

I highly recommend this Marriage of Figaro, which continues through November 29, so you can pay a visit over the Thanksgiving over the weekend.

It was my first time attending an opera in about a decade. What inspired me to accept an invitation several weeks ago, during a time of very intense deadlines? It was the first opera I had ever attended way back in 1978 London, at the English National Opera, so it strikes a deep chord in me. More importantly, however, I recalled that René Girard said, “The Marriage of Figaro is, for me, the most mystical of all music.” No doubt he was moved by its recurring themes of escalating vengeance, sublime forgiveness, and finally, peace and reconciliation.

Little did I know I would be attending it the day after his funeral, and two days after a massacre in France. Elijah Ho noted in the San Jose Mercury:

On Opera San Jose’s Saturday night opening performance of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, French police stormed the Boulevard Beaumarchais of the 11th arrondissement in Paris, where but a few feet away, the Bataclan theater had become the site of unspeakable horrors. The boulevard, which leads directly to the Place de la Bastille, is named for the playwright on whose revolutionary work Mozart’s opera is based, one which prefigured the most famous storming in history. … In November 1963, Leonard Bernstein famously remarked after the assassination of President Kennedy: “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”