Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Rochester Painting

We had some arboreal death and destruction in our yard last week.

The elm tree that had shaded part of our property for the thirty-plus years we have lived here - and for at least that long before we arrived - contracted Dutch Elm disease. In March and April, when all of its comrades were proudly modeling their springtime green fashions, the elm remained as naked as mid-December. We called the tree-care company that has treated the elm for several years, and they gave us the bad news.

It took three men with a cherry picker, several chainsaws, and a bunch of ropes about eight hours to totally dismantle the stately tree. By law the wood, being diseased, had to be removed and professionally disposed of. Three days later two other men came by with a stump grinder and eliminated the last above-ground vestiges of the elm. Because the trunk was so large, and its root system was so deep, it is doubtful if we can plant another shrub of any significant size to replace it.

In the process the lumberjacks moved some of our lawn ornaments - including a pair of pink flamingos that were located in a small woodland garden next to the site of the deciduous massacre. They laid the displaced avian ornaments on the grass alongside another perennial bed.
"They remind me of the Rochester painting." Mars said to me.

The "Rochester painting" is "Shooting Flamingos" (1857) by the American artist George Catlin. It is housed in the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester, New York. Mars and I used to visit that museum frequently during our many visits to that upstate New York town while our son attended college there. It is an unpleasant subject matter, and a troubling painting. Yet this oil on canvas work became, in some strange way, my favorite artwork.

But it wasn't an aesthetic judgment that I felt good about.

The piece is one of ten works that Catlin painted on commission for Hartford Connecticut gun manufacturer Samuel Colt. The shooter portrayed is the artist himself and the location is the Grand Saline on the Rio Salado, south of Buenos Aires, Argentina. He is shown blasting his weapon - with almost cartoon-like intensity - into the air towards the long pink line of softly painted birds flying overhead. Flamingos plummet helplessly to the ground and lie strewn, dying and dead, on the landscape. The scene was painted from memory - Catlin was apparently too busy emptying, loading, and firing his weapon to even take a moment to sketch.

The painting was prominently displayed, but even if it were not, we (or at least I) would have sought it out. I was never quite sure why. Was it like the roadside accident that you slow down and crane your neck to gawk at? Or was it more like the attractive force of the baptism scene from "The Godfather" - one of the most emotionally affecting cinematic segments I've ever witnessed.

"In the final extraordinary baptism scene, probably occurring in 1955, Michael acts as godfather at the christening of his sister Connie's (and Carlo's) child, his nephew and namesake... The scene brilliantly crosscuts back and forth from the church to locations throughout the city as gangland murders are orchestrated. With controlled intensity, Michael engineers a cold-blooded mass killing of Barzini, Tattaglia, Greene and all other rival gangleaders of the Five Families to settle the "Family business." While methodically committing the series of vicious and bloody counterattack murders to confirm his position as the new godfather, he is at the church altar listening to holy recitations of the priest during the baptism - in juxtaposed scenes." (

This whole Godfather thing was brought to mind by two other exemplars of this parallel editing technique that Mars and I witnessed in the past month or so.

We pretty much missed the television series West Wing in its original incarnation so we are now backfilling that gap in our education via DVD. In Season 1, Episode 10 Toby (the White House Communications Director) becomes obsessed with providing a proper burial for a homeless Korean War veteran who is found dead on the National Mall. In the end, the somber military funeral that he orchestrates is crosscut with scenes from the feel-good White House Christmas festivities.

We also watched the season finale of Glee, in which Vocal Adrenaline (the rival singing group) is performing the Queen classic rock number "Bohemian Rhapsody" at Sectionals competition, while Quinn (one of the Glee gang) is having her baby, with ensemble, at the hospital.

"The full-length "Bohemian Rhapsody," its bombast cut with the operatics of Quinn's delivery, was one of those examples of the weird, multivalent collision that is Glee working in every way: it was entertaining, over-the-top, risk-taking and simultanously [sic] utterly artificial and very real." (Time magazine TV critic James Poniewozik)

That totally explains my fixation with the dead flamingos. I am not just another sadistic bird hater posing as an art house aesthete. I am much, much better than that.

Art does not just happen. Totally without the cooperation of George Catlin - who was just trying to make a few bucks doing an ad poster for a gun company - my imagination must have fashioned its own private "multivalent collision" between the raw violence of flamingo slaughtering, versus its artistic depiction and the cultivated setting in which the artwork was displayed.

Now I wonder, "How quickly will it occur again if I leave our own pile of fallen lawn ornaments lying in the brush?" And "Should I be nervous that Mars keeps playing the Baptismal Fugue from the Godfather soundtrack on our stereo?"

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