We all remember the famous opening lines from the first section of T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land, entitled “The Burial of the Dead”:
April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
This past April was indeed identical to such a description. In addition to the prolonged winter chill, there were endless human conflicts and natural disasters. First, it began with the shooting spree at Fort Hood military base near Killeen, Texas in which four people, including the gunman were killed, along with 16 others wounded. Then, the ongoing international crisis in Crimea involving Russia and Ukraine escalated for the worse—on April 15 the Ukrainian parliament declared Crimea a territory temporarily occupied by Russia. To our dismay, the condition of political and social unrest in Egypt has not at all improved since last July’s coup d’état. In the southern city of Minya 683 people were sentenced to death by the same court house which sentenced 529 people a month earlier. Meanwhile, a series of tornadoes in Arkansas and Oklahoma took at least 16 lives, and a fast-moving wildfire in sections of San Bernardino County in Southern California covered 800 acres and forced the evacuation of at least 1,650 homes. And, on the morning of April 26th I read the disturbing news that Donald Sterling, the owner of the L.A. Clippers, had directed racist comments towards African-American athletes. What followed were devastating telephone calls from two artist friends, Tomas Vu and Ishmael Randall Weeks, informing me that Gandalf Gavan, a good friend of ours and an amazing citizen of our art community, had died suddenly in his studio at the age of 39.
All of the above events left me speechless, feeling quite desperate and infused with anger and deep sadness about the human condition. I am reminded again how fragile all of our lives really are. Actually, at this year’s Scholastic Art Awards ceremony I mentioned how Paul Gauguin’s epic painting “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” is so prescient even today, when there is no virgin land on earth to which we can escape. First, it profoundly represents the three stages of life: birth, maturity, and death. (The painting is constructed like a drama on stage, suggested by the curtain-like forms painted in yellow in the upper left and right corners. And even though the title is also painted on the upper left corner, suggesting that the narrative should be read from left to right, the piece is actually read from right to left. In addition to the subordinating figures, whose presence fuse with and amplify the background landscape, three prominent women represent the passing of time. A child represents the beginning of life, the central group of figures symbolize the daily duties of young adulthood—particularly the full-standing figure of a blossoming youth reaching to pick an apple of knowledge, and on the left a woman approaches death appearing reconciled and resigned to her thoughts.) Second, even when Gauguin vowed, while in his greatest doubts, that upon the painting’s completion he would commit suicide, he did not: there were too many more paintings, prints, ceramics, woodcarvings, etc. to be done (see the fantastic exhibit Gauguin: Metamorphoses, through June 8, at MoMA). Essentially, one of the ways in which we can generate positive energy and send it out to the world is to fulfill our duties with love and devotion.
As Leonardo has said, and I often repeat, “A well-spent day brings happy sleep. A well-spent life brings happy death.” My love for art and culture is reassured by the following segment by Meyer Schapiro in a letter he sent to his wife Dr. Lillian Milgram Schapiro in 1929—the year he received his doctoral degree in art history from Columbia University (after Princeton had denied him admission for his doctorate on the basis of anti-Semitism):
The portals and cloisters of Moissac are better than what can be said of them. How glad I am [Ernest] DeWald thought of assigning them to me, two years ago at this very season. To be with them is to be happy indeed. And to study their details is to live in perpetual discovery and pride.
Finally, Happy Spring!