Monday, February 23, 2009

Roberto Banfi Rossi and the Rembrandt Syndrome

Cribbed Klimt

Bogus Bacon Holy Bird
Borrowed Dalì Fires

Walking toward the scala mobile to go to the center of Perugia, my eye has been regularly drawn to a shop on Via Masi just across from the Sangallo Palace Hotel. The two stories of Lemmi Sartoria are devoted to selling beautiful silk ties, scarves, and accessories, but what caught my eye is a painting in the main display window. The painting is a surreal landscape of warriors, brides, markets, horses, mountains and architectural fragments, sometimes transparent and glowing with color. I've tried to photograph it but as you can see, the reflections of the the outdoors complicate the scene more than it is already.

Recently, while meandering around the center of Perugia, I came upon the Artemisia Gallery in Via Alessi. Its sleek well-lit interior contrasts cheerfully with some of the forlorn neighboring shops. Piero Dorazio paintings on the walls inside invited a closer look. Dorazio was perhaps Todi's best known painter, with an international reputation derived from his teaching in New York and his distinctive, colorful, minimalist op art style. I enjoy his work and consider his fame and success well-deserved. Still, op art and minimalist abstraction have never stirred deep enthusiasm in me. Proceeding further into the gallery past works of other excellent artists, I unexpectedly found myself in front of other images clearly from the same mystical imagination as the painting in the Lemmi shop. The painter is Roberto Banfi Rossi. He lives and works in Perugia and he should be better known.

I have painted for most of my life and my paintings have been influenced by artists that I've admired, from Dalì in my youth, through impressionists to George Grosz, Francis Bacon, Aubrey Beardsley, Emil Nolde, Gustav Klimt to Duccio di Siena and other medieval icon painters. I've tried to copy or borrow elements from all of them. The painter at the top of my personal Olympus has always been Rembrandt. Seeing reproductions of his work in school I wondered what the fuss was all about, but upon finally seeing his paintings "live", I finally understood, and I've been blown away by them ever since. Unlike my other favorites, rather than being an inspiration, Rembrandt's work stopped me cold and induced long pauses in my painting activity. I can imagine Miles Davis having a similar effect on on young trumpet players, just as surely as hearing John Coltrane got more tenor players to quit than to start mastering the tenor saxophone. When the mountain ahead looms too high, sometimes it's hard to take that first step forward.

I can only hope that some of the elements that come together in the work of Banfi Rossi, from the brilliant color to the historic memory, incisive brush strokes, luminous glazes and above all, the fertile imagination, can find their way into my own work. At the least, may Banfi Rossi not inflict the curse of the Rembrandt effect. If you have any money for art, go buy a Banfi Rossi. They're way underpriced.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Where's Rudy?

A cliché that went around New York City in the late 90’s was that New Yorkers prefer their state and national governments liberal but their city government a little fascistic. These days the local preference seems to have shifted slightly towards plutocracy, but there was some truth in the old dictum. I never had much enthusiasm for Rudy Giuliani, finding repugnant his tolerance for police brutality. His revitalization of the city was largely due to the bubble during the Clinton years when New York’s economy was awash with cash. His post-mayoral self-aggrandizement has only gotten worse, but he did get one thing right. He understood that the tolerance of petty crime leads to the abandonment of the streets by a majority of the people, which in turn makes the streets less safe and leads to more serious crime.

The message never made it to Perugia, or perhaps to anywhere else in Italy. When living in Rome decades ago, I was always amazed by the routine trashing of trains, buses and cars by soccer hooligans. When some of the worst offenders were caught, they would be “punished” by being forbidden from attending matches for a few weeks. It never dawned on anyone to hold the hooligans responsible for the damage they caused. Perugia is an old city. Its Etruscan walls still have five huge arched portals, most of them with their upper portions rebuilt in the 14th Century. Old places have always fascinated me. I went to the sixth oldest college in the United States and loved walking over the hollowed stone steps, worn down over centuries by the footsteps of students before me. When I first encountered Rome, the experience of walking by two thousand-year-old buildings in the heart of a modern city created a sensation difficult to describe but which has never left me. It has to do with a connection to history and a sense of continuity. That feeling runs strong in all Umbrian towns and cities. It also intensifies my distaste for the disastrous sprawl on the outskirts of these cities, but seeing the growing abuse of a physical environment that records two thousand years of human history, the reaction goes beyond distaste. There is a serious drug problem in Perugia. The authorities say nothing can be done. Many drug dealers are arrested but 95% are back on the street within a few days. Syringes are freely sold in all pharmacies, with the undoubted advantage of limiting the spread of HIV and hepatitis among drug addicts, but what does it mean for the children playing and the sanitation workers cleaning up in the city’s parks, where thousands of syringes are discarded? As students and residents all know, the steps of the Cathedral, about 50 meters from the central police station, and the front of the church next to the entrance to the old hospital in Monte Luce are among the most trafficked drug dispensing venues in Perugia. It seems that the police don’t see it or don’t want to be bothered. The plagues of graffiti and discarded syringes may not be causally related but they seem to live in symbiosis.

A current scandal in Perugia is referred to as T-red. In part of the ongoing drive toward the glories of privatization, the city contracted for the installation and administration of equipment that would photograph cars passing through red lights at selected intersections. The contractor then sent out summonses and collected fines totaling millions of Euros. Points were also applied to the car owners’ drivers’ licenses. After a flood of protests, an inquiry discovered that many of the traffic lights had been speeded up to go from green through orange to red in considerably less than the legally mandated time. Judges have thrown out the procedure, at least until the abuses are corrected, and while the politicians run for cover, restitution of the fines awaits the outcome of class action suits.

Instead of employing all those cameras to entrap and defraud motorists, the city fathers and mothers might have deployed those cameras in historic parts of the city to capture the artistry of the local vandals. The cost of such surveillance could probably be recaptured by assessing fines equal to, and in addition to, the not insignificant costs of repairing the vandals’ handiwork. If the costs of maintaining the cameras prove excessive, the Comune could simply offer to pay a reward to anyone providing a photo of vandals in action leading to a conviction. With the current proliferation of digital cameras and even cell phones that take pictures, the economic crisis could be turned to the advantage of the urban environment as bands of unemployed bounty hunters patrol the streets at night. No doubt there would be some public outcry. “Boys will be boys” is a common theme in a country where boys are boys until eligible for pension, and TV “intellectuals” will plead that youth without hope need to express themselves. Self-expression is wonderful and many people have learned to write and to paint in all sorts of environments, even while in prison. Let’s just not confuse self-expression with the devastation of the shared public environment.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Jazz and Painting

The largest art show ever held to celebrate the relationship between jazz and art ends its three-month run in Italy on February 15th. The Century of Jazz: art, cinema, music and photography from Picasso to Basquiat, is at MART, Museo di arte moderna e contemporanea di Trento e Roverato, in Roverato, near Lake Garda in the far north. The show, curated by Daniel Soutif, Gabriella Belli, and Joseph Ramoneda, will next move to the musèe du quai Branly in Paris for three months and then to the CCCN in Barcellona from July 21st to October 18th.

Many painters such as Dubuffet, Leger, Pollack, Grosz, Van Dongen, Picabia, Picasso, Otto Dix, Mattisse, Stuart Davis and Man Ray have been inspired by jazz and are represented in the show, not to mention record jackets and a number of films with jazz soundtracks. Several musicians, most notably Miles Davis, also painted, and have space in the show. Daniel Soutil, the organizer, says that in his opinion, Mondrian, whose work was transformed into the style we know him for by his exposure to jazz, best captured the essence of the music. What then, is the essence of jazz; spontaneity, rhythm, exuberance, emotion, aural decoration, composition, texture? Fortunately, many people see it in different ways, and many are represented in the show. My own feeling is that the work of Paul Klee, or even more, that of Miro, reflect the spirit of jazz better than does that of Mondrian, but I have no idea if either of them paid any attention to jazz. We do know that Jackson Pollack, whose work might suggest an affinity with Ornette Coleman or Albert Ayler, listened to Dixieland while painting. Many people painting jazz musicians or suggesting images of the music today, tend to favor expressionism, whether figurative or abstract. That approach often works well but it runs the risk of becoming a convention. My own paintings of jazz figures are really reinterpretations of old paintings, especially 14th century icons, rather than any attempt at a graphic interpretation of the music. The music moves us in different ways. The notable thing is that it has moved so many and continues to do so.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Provincial Elders Speak

Although A View from Acqualoreto is a new blog, its title is not entirely appropriate at the moment since we’re in winter exile in Perugia. Nevertheless, Perugia is still Umbria, indeed it’s the capital of Umbria. Last week I noticed a poster advertising a joint meeting of the provincial councils of Terni and Perugia, open to the public, to discuss the role of provincial governments in the new political plan for Italy. This is not an insignificant issue. The Italian Constitution was modified seven years ago with a view to delegating more autonomy and responsibility to local government but thus far the Government has not managed to define how the federalism is to work. It seems that now the Berlusconi Government has proposed the elimination of the provincial governments.

There are four levels of government here: national, regional, provincial and local. The two Houses of Parliament in Rome have about 950 members. There are 20 regions of varying sizes, each with its own regional government, and within the regions there are a number of provinces, each with its own full supply of elected officials. The number of provinces per region varies, from the eleven of Lombardia to the two of smaller regions such as Umbria, with a total of 103 provinces in all of Italy. Within the provinces there are large numbers of comuni, or townships and their size varies enormously. For example, the Comune di Roma contains more than three million people while our Comune of Baschi has about 1800 residents. Of Perugia’s 50 or 60 comuni, only 15 have more than 5000 residents. The complications are predictable and I’ve seen some of them before in New York, where New York City building regulations often conflict with those of the state, and some national codes and standards must also be complied with. Building applications routinely require the services of a whole new professional category, the expeditor. It is perhaps worse in Italy where overlapping jurisdictions are the rule.

The meeting was scheduled for 10:00 AM in the meeting chamber of the Province of Perugia. Stepped banks of seats on all four sides were individually labeled with the name of their occupants, while in the central (orchestra) section, the first two rows of seats were all marked “reserved”, leaving three rows of seats (18 total) for the public. At 10:00, apart from a few people at the assistants’ and press tables on the periphery, the only seat occupied in the room was the one I had taken. Eventually a few councilors wandered in to take their seats and “the public” doubled to its final size of two with the arrival of a 68 year old geometra from Giove. He later got up to make an impassioned plea for the diffusion of solar panels, an interesting and welcome discourse which seemed to have nothing to do with the topic at hand. At 10:30 a woman, the President of the Province I believe, tried to call the meeting to order to hear a live speech on a huge TV screen by another official, probably the President of the Association of Provincial Governments, who couldn’t be there. At first the audio didn’t work but after a few minutes a crackling, inaudible sound was established for the remainder of the speech. Whatever might have been able to be heard was drowned out by the continual chattering of the 20 or 25 delegates, out of the anticipated 50 or 60, who eventually showed up.

Many live speeches followed. One of the first, by Sig. Giovagnoli, a representative of the Region, said that while the Constitution must be respected, it was essential that the inefficiencies and overlapping responsibilities be eliminated. The last and best speaker that I heard, (I left after 3 hours)a councilor named Ruggiani, spoke articulately and passionately, saying that if something needed to be eliminated, it should be all the appointed agencies, never accountable to the voters, which had been created to administer the water resources, the forests, parks, etc., and that the provinces should reassume the responsibilities for what they are supposed to administer. Between those two speeches, most others were nearly incomprehensible to me. In part, this is because after 35 years, my comprehension of spoken Italian is not what it should be, and in part because my hearing isn’t all that good anymore. Nevertheless, some of it was because many of the speakers mumbled, spoke in a monotone, or worse, spoke in an empty political rhetoric signifying nothing. Virtually all started by affirming that they would never defend the role of the provincial government just to protect their jobs and proceeded to say how they only wanted to protect the Constitution and the citizenry. I’m not sure that the elimination of the institution of the Province is a good thing, but the conduct of this meeting was as good an argument for its abolition as I could imagine.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Was Tom Daschle Cheated by the IRS?

Amidst an outpouring of sentiments ranging from disappointment to outrage, the press, perhaps desensitized by prolonged exposure to stories of bailed out CEO's being paid tens of millions of dollars, has failed to ask some pertinent questions regarding the derailment of the Secretary of Health nominee.
  1. How was the value of the car services that he received determined? His personal use part (80%) of $319,070. would be the $255,256 declared that Mr. Daschle received. Did Mr. Hindary (InterMedia) declare this amount as a business expense?
  2. The tax belatedly paid by Mr. Daschle (not including interest) was $128,703. which is just a tad over 50% of the value said to be received. The maximum tax rate (for amounts over $357,000) is now 35%. Why is Mr. Daschle paying 50%? Is there a different tax rate for Democrats?
  3. Are there any more important people who need to be driven around Washington for more than $106,000. a year?)*
*In my last paid position, I drove all over the five boroughs of New York City, although I had other responsibilities involved with getting buildings built. Driving around Washington DC shouldn't be much more difficult. Times are tough. A new Cadillac can be bought in DC for $50K and gasoline in the US is dirt cheap. Any more Daschles in need of a ride should put in their request to I'm ready to roll.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Jazz from New York to Perugia

I’m neither a musician nor critic, just a lifelong jazz enthusiast who has had the extreme good fortune to be in the right place at the right time to hear the best of this wonderful music; New York City in the 60’s, early 70’s and again at the end of the century; Rome in the 70’s and 80’s, and in Umbria from the second edition of Umbria Jazz, in 1974, to the present. My good fortune could be compared with that of a classical music devotee who lived in Vienna between 1770 and 1820 to see Mozart and Beethoven perform. I’ve been able to see Miles and Monk and Trane, and almost everyone else I’ve wanted to hear, perform live, on many occasions.

I’ve also seen a lot of changes over three and a half decades in Italy. Years ago the jazz festivals almost exclusively featured big name American musicians. Most of those jazz legends are no longer with us, but while new musicians have developed to replace them, after all the years of exposure to the top US musicians at festivals and clinics, a new wave of extremely talented Italian musicians has come to the fore. In recent years Americans have increasingly been a minority of the musicians at any given festival. The wave of Italian musicians seemed to start with pianists and bass players, who often got to accompany the great horn players traveling alone.

I went to only a couple of concerts at the 2008 edition of Umbria Jazz but the most fascinating music I heard from there was on a RAI radio rebroadcast of a concert by the Ramberto Ciammarughi Trio, which included Miroslav Vitous and Fabrizio Sferra. Ciammarughi is no young upstart. He’s been recording and playing concerts for about 25 years, often, as described above, with well known musicians visiting from the US. However, while teaching and composing for the theater, he hasn’t played the festivals for a few years, and his name is hardly a household word in Italy. Last year he showed up again in Perugia, first at the Jazz Hotel in the winter, and then at Umbria Jazz. Being from nearby Assisi, he’s a “local” musician, but nobody I’ve heard recently is more deserving of national and international recognition. Go hear him if you get the chance.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Obama's Start

The selection of a cabinet well before the inauguration was an auspicious start, whether we fully approve of the choices or not. While I share some concerns about the emphasis on continuity over change in the defense and economic spheres, the immediate material and symbolic changes in the Department of Justice and in the environmental sector are cause for real optimism. The idea of putting environmentalists in the environmental agencies represents almost as radical a transformation as did Bush’s policy of putting lobbyists for regulated industries in charge of the regulatory agencies.

Fortunately for those of us who do political cartoons, the post-Bush GOP has not lost its comic touch. As millions of Americans have lost their jobs and/or homes, the House Minority Leader, and numerous other GOP “leaders”, continue to propose tax cuts as the way to resolve the nation’s woes. Those who have nothing left to pay taxes on will certainly be relieved to hear that things will improve as soon as John Thain's tax burden is lifted.

A New Start

During the early years of the new millenium, I filled my sketchbooks with cartoons documenting the endless stream of fiascos perpetrated by the Bush Regime. These gradually evolved into a more formalized set of cartoons emailed to a growing number of friends and acquaintances and eventually formed the basis of my website

Mercifully, Bush is now gone and it’s time for new initiatives in Acqualoreto as well as Washington. The cartoons and the website will continue but friends such as Linda Richardson and Ruth Gruber have suggested that a blog would be more suitable for running commentary and feedback, so I’m rolling out the blog.

Among the blogs that I read, Linda’s has a light and humorous take on life in Umbria, and Frank Gruber (Ruth’s brother) writes a regular column on the politics and policies in his hometown of Santa Monica, California, a place I’ve never been to and probably will never see. His discussion of local issues resonates with me as prototypical of the conflicts and interests present in communities everywhere. Frank manages to combine strong opinions and enthusiasms with a remarkable openness to other points of view. It’s good reading for anyone interested in urban issues and planning. I hope I can bring similar attention to bear on the issues found in our village of Acqualoreto, the region of Umbria, and in Italy generally, although I will continue to comment on US politics as well as other personal enthusiasms, from jazz to art and architecture.

I’ll start this by distribution to the cartoon list. I hope that some of you will subscribe to the blog. If you want to be removed from the list, just let me know. I welcome your comments.