Hurry to the Clark for Van Gogh Exhibit

(Also Whistler's Mother)
Sterling and Francine Clark Art Gallery
Williamstown, MA
Through September 13 (9/27 for Whistler)

Early homage to Millet
As clichéd as it may sound to postmodern ears, Vincent Van Gogh is my favorite artist. I would, however, be the first to admit that any museum launching an exhibition of his work could be accused of risk-aversion—perhaps even pandering to middlebrow taste. Put simply, Van Gogh (and most other impressionists) has been overdone. In that spirit, let me state that if you've been avoiding a trip to Berkshires to catch "Van Gogh in Nature" because you're convinced it's just a nostalgia trip down Starry Night Lane, you're mistaken. One of the great joys of the Clark Art Museum show is that its 40 oils and 10 drawings are, for the most part, not famous works.

The red anchor
They are, as the title implies, works that explore Van Gogh's relationship to nature. Being that it's Van Gogh, that relationship was complicated. He simultaneously felt more peace amidst nature than anywhere else, yet was so overwhelmed by it that bald mountains, fecund fields, and majestic cypress trees made him feel unworthy and were another nail in the self-built depression coffin that led to his suicide at age 37. But what a glorious 37 years they were. The Clark exhibit shows Van Gogh's evolution as a painter who first drew inspiration from Daubigny and Millet—check out Van Gogh's homage to Millet's The Sower­—to one whose unique style only fully emerged in nature. It began with drawings and oils of a marsh executed in 1881, then we see his palette come alive with color when he
moved from the somber Dutch countryside to France—first to Paris, but with full vibrancy in the countryside (Arles, the asylum grounds of Saint-Rémy, and Auvers-sur-Oise). That vibrancy extends to subtle things, such as the way Van Gogh often used a splash of red to anchor his work and forced the viewer's eye to roam where he wished.

Early spring or late snow?

It wasn't the only psychological game he played. We see an orchard awash in white, but it's an April scene and the only reason we have to see blossoms rather than a late snow is our knowledge of the Provence climate. We view farmhouses in Auvers, but we only know that the winding blue course disappearing around a tree is a country lane rather than a stream because there's a solitary figure trudging down it. For those who want to psychoanalyze even more, as a youth Van Gogh painted variations of Millet's The Sower, but as he entered his mid-30s, sickle-wielding reapers more often appear. Ahh, that line between genius and madness. From May 1889 to May 1890, Van Gogh was in an asylum, but it was also his most fertile period—one in which he created a new work nearly every other day. He left Saint-Rémy to be near his brother in Auvers and created a stunning oil unlike others, Landscape at Auvers in the Rain in July of 1890, and was dead before the month ended. [See image below]

Auvers in the Rain
The only drawback to this triumphant show lies, once again, with the Clark's unfortunate rebuild. The exhibit is in the basement special exhibit gallery of the new wing and is dimly lighted. The harsh track lighting neither shows Van Gogh's radiant tones to full advantage, nor relieves the sense of being in a bunker. Though one could construct a useful metaphor about the gloaming just beyond the rays of light, I doubt that this what was intended when the show was hung.

Also on exhibit at the Clark's airy Stone Hill Center is James McNeill Whistler's iconic 1871 painting Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1, better known to posterity as Whistler's Mother. There is also a small collection of Whistler etchings and prints, but the painting is the big attraction. The pocket-sized show also tells the tale of how the painting, which yielded mixed to scathing reviews when first executed, became famous (after 1932, nearly 30 years after Whistler's death). There are also a few choice parodies of the work. The biggest attraction of all is that as remote as Williamstown, Massachusetts might be, it's cheaper to get there than to fly to Paris to see Whistler's famed work in its permanent home, the Musée d'Orsay. I'll grant you that a trip to Paris has side virtues, but you won't need a passport if you get to the Berkshires before September 27. Rob Weir
The blue path. Note red roof.


Spool of Blue Thread is Classic Anne Tyler

Anne Tyler
Knopf, 368 pages, # 978-11018744271
* * *

After 50 years and 20 novels, you know what you'll get from Anne Tyler: Baltimore, family dynamics, realism, humor, poignancy, and big events chained to smaller ones. It's a testament to how well Tyler has honed her craft that we keep coming back instead of turning away.

Here's another reason why Tyler remains so readable: her families are plebian in the good sense of that word. Hers are not the sort of books that try our patience because we're sick of privileged brats whining about their luxury problems. Tyler's families are filled with infuriating people but because they feel like kin, we open the front door. To a great extent, her latest novel is about the many that come back versus the few that choose other paths. This time her family is the semi-functional Whitshanks, who are dead ordinary even though several of them think they are special. A Spool of Blue Thread tells a four-generation story spanning seven decades, but it's not told sequentially, and one of the major characters is the family home on Bouton Road. 

The Whitshank saga begins with Junior, a Depression-era handyman who begins a dalliance with the coquettish Linnie, unaware of the myriad reasons why he should have looked the other way. It's a toss-up who is more obsessed and obstinate, but the two eventually marry and sire two children, son Redfield and daughter Merrick. Along the way Junior builds his own construction business and one of his projects is the Bouton Road house, originally built for one of Baltimore's solid middle-class citizens. Junior, however, lusts after his own creation. To many, it's simply a well-built non-nonsense kind of house, but Junior knows how he fitted every frame, groove, and truss and is happy to play the role of informal Mr. Fixit for every problem that arises just so he can spend time within its walls. When circumstances make the home available for purchase, Junior jumps at the chance, though his wife feels the neighborhood is above their station and is probably right.

The bulk of the book, though, is spent with the next generation. Red is a chip off the old carpenter's block—both in skill and stubbornness, but he does one thing very well when he marries Abby, a social worker and founder of lost souls. They eventually have four children of their own plus a lad nicknamed Stem, whom they take in when his father—one of Red's employees—dies. Tyler plays off the truism that those who fix the problems of others can seldom do so within their own families. Their third child, Denny grows up—or more accurately fails to do so—to be an infuriating disappointment to just about everyone whose path he crosses. Maybe he's mildly autistic, or maybe he's just a loser who need his butt kicked until it meets his shoulders, but one of the things everyone except Abby and Denny himself know—including his nieces and nephews—is that you can't rely on Denny. He disappears for years at a time, only to resurface with a new partner (and eventually a daughter), a new set of problems, and tales of all the careers he begun and abandoned.   

Abby is the emotional tongue and groove of Whitshank generations two through four, but when dementia begins to claim her and Red's health begin to fade, the children have to come up with a plan. Denny reappears as the anti-Prodigal Son to be their caretaker—an absurdity complicated by the fact that Stem has already moved in with his children and his wife, Nora, who is a serious—as in very serious–Baptist. If you think this is the most dysfunctional thing about the Whitshanks, you're not even in the ballpark. Flashback narratives unspool various family dramas in ways that make the Whitshanks seem like Ozzie and Harriet at one moment and the Adams Family the next.

Spool of Blue Threads is a page-turner that seems much shorter than 368 pages. I wouldn't call it a profound book, but it's clever in places, including its title—whose secret isn't revealed until near the end—and in its references to color. Of that I will say only that blue is generally associated with loyalty, wisdom, and tranquility; in the book it generally presages something quite different. So let's just call this one what it is: a very good Anne Tyler book. And sometimes that's enough.

Rob Weir


My Old Lady Worthwhile Despite its Flaws

MY OLD LADY (2014)
Directed by Israel Horovitz
BBC Films, PG-13, 107 minutes
 * * *

The British film My Old Lady didn't do much at the box office in either Britain or North America. It's easy to understand why, as it's a film for older audiences that stars Maggie Smith, Kevin Kline, and Kristin Scott Thomas—all of whom are decades past their A-list days. It's also a slight film with a terrible title and a miscast lead (Smith). Despite numerous flaws, though, it's a better film than its dismissive reviews would have you believe and is worth watching on a night lacking better options.

The set up is that Mathias Gold (Kline) is an aging American sad sack. He's not a loser per se; just one of those guys who suffers from perpetual bad luck the way someone with stomach ulcers has constant heartburn. He sells his New York City apartment and liquidates his scant resources to head off to Paris to take possession of an apartment left to him by his estranged (and emotionally absent) father. It's spacious, has a nice garden, and is located in a highly desirable part of the Marais district—the sort of place one can offload overnight for millions of Euros. That's exactly the plan—until Mathias arrives and finds that it's occupied by a 90-year-old woman, Mathilde Girard (Smith), and her middle-aged daughter, Chloé (Scott Thomas). When Mathias gives them notice, he receives his father's final blow: the apartment isn't technically his, nor was it entirely his father's to grant. It is covered by a viager, a French law that not only grants Mathilde life occupancy, but which also requires the apartment's deed holder—now Mathias—to pay her a 2400 Euros per month stipend! Even worse, as Mathias learns, the apartment came to his father through Mathilde, who was his mistress all the time his mother was alive and after the death of Mathilde's husband. Well that certainly explains why he spent so much time in Paris! It also complicates his reactions to Chloé, who might actually be his sister.

From here we have a pretty standard farce with all the usual predicaments. Can Mathias disencumber himself of his wanted tenants? Where is he going to get 2,400 Euros per month until he figures it out? What would he go back to even if he had the cash? He and Chloé hate each other, or do they? How does either of them deal with the hurt over the neglect they suffered due to their parents' past freewheeling, bohemian lifestyle that left little room for affection for children? And so on.

You could probably write the script Horovitz directed for the simple reason that you've seen it before. For all of that, the film is diverting and fun because both Kline and Scott Thomas make it so. They play wounded older children well, especially as they grapple with the ways in which they have revisited the sins of their parents. It helps that Kristin Scott Thomas is fully bilingual and capable of playing a character caught between worlds on numerous levels. Kline, who has always had a flair for comedy, is also strong as a Yank bumbling his way across Paris and trying to make sense of French language and bureaucracy—neither of which he has a prayer of mastering. The weak link, surprisingly, is Maggie Smith. She's the right age and though we get a rather obviously contrived throwaway line about how she was born in England (No kidding!), for someone who has allegedly lived in Paris for much of her life, she's about as French as a toaster muffin is English. Good for Mags that she keeps getting parts at age 80, but as talented as she is, she's worn out the role of crotchety dames like Downton Abbey's Violet Crawley. We no longer see the character; we see Maggie Smith playing that character. Moreover, the role in My Old Lady demands an actress that exudes more cultural sophistication than she provides, and it really should have gone to an older French actress such as Emmanuelle Riva, Claudia Cardinale (who is French, not Italian), or maybe even Jeanne Moreau. If you must cast an English woman, how about someone with allure more in keeping with the character's hippie-like past, such as Julie Christie (who, shockingly, is now 75)? And for heaven's sake lose the patronizing title and rename the film. Viager? The Arrangement? Living with Sins? Anything else!

Even with a better title and casting this would be little more than a frothy romp, but such films have their place. So does this one. I fully anticipated I'd hate this movie and switch it off after 20 minutes. I didn't. Some nights all you need is a hundred minutes of non-taxing diversion.
Rob Weir