Utamaro-A glimpse into Japan’s sexual ‘floating world’ of yesteryear

Thank goodness for sex, otherwise humanity would miss so out on so much great art.

A one-of-a-kind exhibit, Inventing Utamaro, opens at the Arthur M. Sackler museum in Washington D.C. April 9th. Japanese artist Kitagawa Utamaro’s large painting, Moon at Shinagawa, owned by the Freer Gallery of Art, has been joined by two other related paintings, Fukagawa in the Snow and Cherry Blossoms at Yoshiwara. 

Don’t let the prim-and-proper names scare you off.

Utamaro, born in 1753, specialized in paintings and wood block prints about the ukiyo or “floating world” – the ‘entertainment’ area of Edo (now known as Tokyo) that included the well-organized and legal brothels.

Yes. We’re back to sex. But, non-explicit, so don’t be scared to bring children to the exhibit of a stunning triptych of Asian art.

Guest curator Julie Nelson Davis of the University of Pennsylvania  teamed up with the Freer Gallery of Art’s senior curator of Japanese art James Ulak for the exhibit.

This is the world of elegant, educated seduction for profit. The paintings are  inhabited by exquisite women clad in vibrantly colorful kimonos, some holding children, all happy. Cherished pets run about.  The painted cherry blossoms flutter like the real ones on the trees outside the museum.

The three oversized paintings – one scroll, the others, screens — are an idealized, artistic  view of the world of the sex workers of Japan’s Edo period (1603-1868). Cherry Blossoms at Yoshiwara is likely set in the quarter where thousands of prostitutes entertained their clients. The Moon at Shinagawa is set an ‘entertainment’ house. In the Fukagawa in the Snow, the women were entertainers. Davis pointed out that the women’s kimono bows tied in the front, signified they were prostitutes.

This was not the reality of the sex trade in that world. The Sackler includes an accompanying exhibit points out that in reality,  “many women died during their time of service” with the “average age of death was twenty-one.”

Utamaro was a popular commercial artist also who produced wood block prints, and folded illustrated books. The Sackler has one of the carved wood blocks on display.

It’s worth picking up the small pamphlet put out by the museum to understand why the topics were chosen by the printers. In line with the censorship of the period,  prints  could only “represent approved subjects” such as “beautiful people” and “famous places.” No politics.

Who the triptych of scrolls were made for is uncertain but research suggests they may have been created for Zenno Ihei of Tochigi in the late 1780s. The trio were apparently painted at different times over fifteen years. They were first exhibited together at the Joganji Temple in Tochigi in Japan in 1879. The noted collector Charles Lang Freer bought “Moon at Shinagawa” in 1903.

Viewers are unlikely to ever see them together again because paintings of the Freer Gallery are not loaned. “Cherry Blossoms at Yoshiwara” came from the Okada Museum of Art in Hakone, Japan, and “Snow at Fukagawa” is from the Wadsworth Atheneum Musem of Art in Connecticut for this singular exhibit.

The exhibit runs from April 8th to July 9th, 2017 at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington D.C.


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Intense and Powerful – ‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’

Every life is precious in The Zookeeper’s Wife whether it is animal or human. In the face of the harsh brutality of the occupation of Poland, the casual cruelty of everyday life and the Holocaust, this film reminds us that courage comes in all forms and resistance always has a price — sometimes very, very high.

Based on a best-selling book, it belongs to the class of war movies (Enemy at the Gates, (2001), Defiance (2008)) that stay with you long after you leave the theater. It is beautifully acted, well-filmed and powerful  but have graphic scenes of execution and rape. You are now warned.

It’s 1939 and the Warsaw Zoo basks in the sunshine. Innocent families visit the elephants, walk past the tigers, the cheetahs, and the bald eagle. A baby camel follows Antonina Zabinski, (Jessica Chasten) the wife of zoologist and Director Jan Zabinski (Johan Huldenberg) through the happy place. Later that night a the dinner party, the Zabinskis host the head of the Berlin Zoo, Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl). He’s attracted to Antonina, a fellow animal lover – and as a woman.

Then Germany invades Poland, and reality bites. The zoo is bombed. People watch from their windows as the confused freed big cats walk by. Some are re-captured, some are killed by troops. Lutz comes to the Zoo’s rescue  but at a price: he wants to take their prized animals to Berlin.  Some of the animals aren’t prized enough to the Germans to be saved and are executed.

On the human side, the Germans herd the Polish Jews into the Ghetto where they are abused with beatings, rape, and starvation.

Early in the movie, the Zabinskis decide to protect and shelter Jews even though German troops come and go from the zoo every day. To keep the zoo going, it becomes a pig farm to feed the occupiers. Jan offers to take food scrapes from the Ghetto to feed the pigs. It gets him through the gates – and he brings some Jews out.

Then the Germans deport the Jews to the camps, and burn the Ghetto. Ashes float over Warsaw like snow. Most of the modern audience will make the connection to the death camps.

From there on it’s a matter of what will happen, who will live, who will die, and what will survive the occupation, and the conquering Russians. The fate of Heck and the Zabinskis are intertwined as is the fate of their Zoo, and that of hundreds of Jews.

The Zookeeper’s Wife isn’t an easy movie to enjoy — but it’s so worthwhile to see.

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Why all the kudos for ‘Logan?’

The first time I saw Logan, I was appalled by the violence and turned off by the story. I decided to give it another chance, see it a second time to see if I had the same reaction. So several weeks later, I went back.

Nope, same response. I don’t understand all the praise given to this nihilistically grim film.

Okay, before I get mugged by the fans, let me say I collected X-Men comics until the costs started to significantly cut into my income. I enjoyed the other X-Men films. I have seen the movie Unforgiven which was said to be an inspiration for this. I know people will say, “It’s just a comic book movie miniseries “Old Man Logan” so who cares about the death count?”

Logan is a very well done film, made with a sense of modern realism that makes its brutality more believable. It’s a road movie with bullet-riddled transport and a death mark on every character.

The plot is based on the need for Laura (Dafne Keen), Logan’s clone via the bad guys genetic manipulation, to get to a place called Eden, an alleged refuge for mutants. Her nurse tries to get Logan (Hugh Jackman), formerly an X-Man called Wolverine now a used-up limo driver, to take her there. Logan rejects the job but circumstances force him take it.

So what makes Logan difficult to watch?

Maybe it’s a lack of hope that permeates every digital second of film.

There is only one hero in Logan — Logan himself. He struggles against a merciless, grim world to take the elderly Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) to a permanent refuge.

That’s the most powerful relationship in the movie and the source of its greatest tragedy. Xavier, the most powerful mutant on Earth, has now been reduced to a resentful senior citizen who hates the pills that deaden his powers but controls the destructive seizures which destroys the world around him. It’s Logan’s love – and hate – that keeps him with Xavier.

It’s that duty that keeps Logan alive.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t help keep anyone else alive. The body count would rival a battle, and all the deaths are personalized. Logan slashes and stabs his way through most of them, spurting blood along the way.

The nurse who helps Laura escape is murdered. The normal family who gives an escaping Logan, Xavier and Laura a meal are murdered. The store clerk who almost gets gutted by Laura, is then tortured (and probably murdered) shortly after by bad guy Piece (Boyd Holbrook). Logan’s fellow mutant Caliban, (Stephen Merchant) the voice of reason, blows himself up. Xavier dies (non-heroically). Logan dies. Only Laura, a survivor like her “father,” lives to go with her fellow young mutants to Eden.

Both times I saw Logan the audience left silently, not a single positive comment or a smile. I can’t imagine why some parents brought their 8 year olds. What were they thinking? Maybe that Logan was just a comic book movie with meaningless CGI deaths?

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April 1917 the U.S. enters WWI

2017  is a commerative year. A century ago the U.S. entered “The War To End All Wars” on April 6, 1917.

A hundred years later it’s a mostly forgotten war.

World War I monument at Arlington Cemetery

World War I monument at Arlington Cemetery

While the United States World War One Centennial Commission was established  by Congress in 2015, it wasn’t funded. On the anniversary  PBS’ American Experience will start a six-hour documentary over three nights. The Library of Congress had a small poster exhibit “World War I: American Artists view the Great War.” 

In popular culture, World War I never died. Charles Schultz’ Charlie Brown cartoon had Snoopy, the popular dog who thought he was a fighter pilot against the German “Red Baron” von Richthofen.

Filmmaker George Lucas gave us the Indiana Jones series of movies but also the television series, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. Jones served under an alias in the trenches, and later as an intelligence agent. Circling back to reality, Lucasfilm provided documentaries on the DVDs along with the fictional episodes. Speaking personally, I shared them with my young nephew and niece at Xmas and they were fascinated by the fiction and reality.

In the real world, the declaration of war by a reluctant President Woodrow Wilson swept  up young American men and send them to the muddy battlefields of Europe. Over 4 million served; 53,402 soldiers died in battle.

Our involvement in World War I went from April 1917 to November 1918 – a year and a half. US troops participated in major battles such as Chateau-Thierry and the Marne.

Contemporary poster celebrating the Third  Division actions in World War I

Contemporary poster celebrating the Third Division actions in World War I

As shown by an earlier posting on Norman Prince, Americans were headed “Over There” earlier than April 1917. The Lafayette Escadrille consisted mostly of American volunteers.

Even before 1917 there had been a consideration of a “draft” or what it became known as, the “Selective Service Act of 1917.” Wilson may have wanted a volunteer force but reality bites: not enough men signed up. So the draft went into effect in May of 1917 with the registration of young men. Many would not return to the until 1919 or later.

On the Commission’s website is a register of events for World War I commemorations.

A memorable part of World War I were the poppies that flourished in “Flanders fields” . The Centennial Commission created “WWI Poppy kits” to raise funds to build the planned  National WWI Memorial in Pershing Park in Washington D.C. General John J. Pershing was the WWI commander, only the second “General of the Armies,” a six-star general, in U.S. history.

The other one? George Washington.


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Like journalists, illustrators like Rockwell and Nast speak to the masses

Great artists don’t reproduce history, they interpret it.

Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., Oct. 26, 2016

Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., Oct. 26, 2016

Earlier this week I went out to Stockbridge, Massachusetts to the museum dedicated to illustrator, Norman Rockwell. I’ve said since my art school days that the major diff. between a fine artist and an illustrator was that the latter has to tell a story and convey information. A fine artist in the modern era does not have to.

Rockwell’s art from his early Saturday Evening News covers to the Four Freedoms to the civil rights and UN paintings always told stories. His work may now viewed as kitschy or dated, but it has an emotional timelessness. In fact, the New York Times mentions the upcoming sale of his “Which One? (Undecided; Man in Voting Booth)” in relation to the election.

I came away from Rockwell thinking that if he were alive today, he would have loved the multi-cultural world that’s coming. He’d have taken the complicated narrative of the 2016 presidential politics and provided one, maybe two, paintings that would sum today’s Presidential politics up in all its terrible glory. Like journalists, illustrators speak to the masses.

The exhibit of Thomas Nast's cartoons. (Yes, it's blurry. My camera malfunctioned.)

The exhibit of Thomas Nast’s cartoons. (Yes, it’s blurry. My camera malfunctioned.)

Along with Rockwell’s paintings, the Museum had a show of Thomas Nast’s political cartoons which helped bring down NY’s corrupt Tammany Hall in an exhibit, Presidents, Politics & the Pen. The cartoons show the timeless elements of politics and elections: corruption and greed.

Politics have invaded too much of our lives this year. We’ve been privy to wicker cage fights in the primaries, the Thunderdomes of the national debates. Every day someone whips off the sheets to reveal some other political item to feed or, that feeds the open mouths of voracious readers. It’s like watching the lions be served new victims in Rome’s Colosseum on a daily basis although it’s a toss-up who are the lions are each day.

With the Internet we are bombarded endlessly with information, with visual, with video, with immediacy. Each piece of information has the same weight of importance as the piece of drivel before it. It’s a flow of endless visual and written graffiti full of daily crap.

Both Norman Rockwell and Thomas Nast were storytellers. Their works have a clarity that tells a reader what they are saying without having a caption.

That’s what we need nowadays. Clarity with wit (Rockwell) and a sting (Nash.)

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A century ago aviator Norman Prince died in WWI

Now he’s being remembered for his life, patriotic deeds and the manner of his passing.

WWI aviator Norman Prince in Washington National Cathedral in D.C.,

WWI aviator Norman Prince in Washington National Cathedral in D.C.,

Prince is credited with creating the famed Lafayette Escadrille, a group of American volunteer flyers who were part of of the French Air Service during World War I before the U.S. joined the war in 1917.

These are centennial years of World War I, the War to End All Wars, 1914-1918, the war that scarred generations in Europe on both sides. The ramifications shattered the elite governments and countries that ruled before. It remade the Middle East; it created lasting grudges, and it gave aviation a boost in the way for air combat.

Prince was an American aristocrat, a graduate of the elite Groton School and Harvard. He was a lawyer with a passion for aviation that led him to learn to fly when few people would take the risks of early aircraft. His family had an estate in France, and he spoke the language.

In 1915, the second year of the Great War when the U.S. was still neutral, Prince sailed to France and convinced the military and government that he, and other flyers, could aid them against the Germans.

The French agreed. American volunteers flew French Nieuport 11 bi-planes and took heavy casualties, but more volunteers arrived to take their place. In December 1916, they became known as the Lafayette Escadrille.

However two months earlier, Prince had become a casualty. He was returning to his aerodrome after doing escort duty, during which he shot down an enemy plane, another kill. Night had fallen, and as he glided down in the dark, his wheels caught on a wire. The Nieuport flipped, crashed.

Bailey injured, he died two days later.

Prince could have been just another flyer lost in history except for his afterlife. His body was returned to the U.S. and buried in the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. in an elaborate tomb with a near life-size statue, and testaments from two Marshals of France.

Carved on one side of the tomb is “In 1915 Norman Prince and his 267 aviators flew to the help of the Liberty of the world – Foch Marshal of France,”  while on the other is “(Norman Prince) has distinguished himself by a bravery and a devotion beyond compare – Joffre – Marshal of France.”

On October 14, 2016 the Washington National Cathedral held a commemoration of his death a century ago. Descendents of his family attended as did the U.S. Air Force Honor Guard, members of the World War I Centennial Commission and Rear Admiral Margaret Grun Kibben, Chief of Chaplains, United States Navy. The tomb was flanked by American and French flags.

The tomb of WWI aviator Norman Prince in Washington National Cathedral in D.C., Oct 14, 2016

The tomb of WWI aviator Norman Prince, flanked by U.S. and French flags, in Washington National Cathedral in D.C., Oct 14, 2016

Several casual onlookers sat in the nave.

Kibben said that Prince was “America’s son, rough and rowdy,” one of the 16,710 who died in that war among whom are Ernest Hemingway who wrote “A Farewell To Arms” and poet Alan Seeger whose poem “I have a Rendezvous with Death” was invoked at the commemoration. (Seeger was the uncle of noted folk singer Pete Seeger.)

After the main ceremony, the family went into the alcove where the tomb stands to lay a wreath, and prayer given.

“…We humbly beseech thee, O Lord of Hosts, to accept our thanksgiving for all who have fought a good fight and won the crown of victory, especially for your servant Norman Prince…”

The roll call of names of the flyers from the Escadrille was called. Family answered until l Norman Prince’s name rang out.

Silence. A second call. Silence. A third time. Then, the bugler played Taps, filling the cathedral with sorrow.


The U.S. Air Force Honor Guard cases the colors as they leave the tomb of WWI aviator Norman Prince in Washington National Cathedral in D.C., Oct 14, 2016

It was over. The Honor Guard left. The family filed out. The casual watchers left. Prince was left in peace.

In her homily, Kibben said that Norman Prince was one of a generation  “committed to the God of their parents.”

His parents are buried in the National Cathedral’s crypt a floor below… almost exactly beneath their son.

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The Rat Patrol (another classic of 1966)

50 years ago, 1966, was a good year for television.

We’ve already had numerous documentaries on Star Trek which led to movies, series, spin-offs. Mission Impossible (hello, Tom Cruise!) also premiered which has also had an afterlife, The Monkees made young fans (me) swoon and The Prisoner debuted as an intriguing puzzle box of reality and security. People talk about it even now.

And then there was The Rat Patrol first broadcast September 12, 1966. It was based (sort of) on the real life exploits of the British Long-Range Desert Patrols during the North African campaign of World War II.  it starred Jeeps!, war, tanks, and five very handsome men, only four of them on the Allied side – the late Christopher George (Sam Troy),

British actor Gary Raymond, star of The Rat Patrol, in 2001 at the Long Range Desert Convention

British actor Gary Raymond, star of The Rat Patrol, in 2001 at the Long Range Desert Convention

Gary Raymond (Jack Moffitt of the British Army), Justin Tarr (Tully Pettigrew) and Lawrence Casey (Mark Hitchcock) on the Allied side.

Hans Gudegast played Captain Dietrich of the German Army. He later changed his name to Eric Braeden, of The Young and the Restless.

Rat Patrol had all the ingredients to make it a hit. First filmed in Spain, then in Los Angeles, it was adventure-laden. It ended its run in 1968. (UK viewers back in the day, and likely now, protested the twisting of their real wartime history for television, a complaint heard even today in Hollywood.)

But there were dangerous accidents. Actors were switched in and out. Chris George had a terrible accident at one point.

After The Rat Patrol‘s run ended, the show vanished into late night television. Cable TV would run it occasionally. Fans in the know dug out their VCRs and made tapes, knowing that the show had probably been hacked apart for more advertising. Then came 2010 and the DVDs. Finally it was possible to see the complete shows.

What did fans find out about it?  It had bang-bang action. It was fun to enjoy. Despite being historically-inaccurate, you could get a feeling for a little-known (in the U.S.) period of World War II.

The characters weren’t one-dimensional. Dietrich was a Captain in Rommel’s Afrika Corp and considerably smarter than almost every other character in the show. He just had rotten luck every time he ran up against the Rat Patrol. His injuries included getting shot at, hit in the head, and dragged in the street. Then again, many members of the Rat Patrol took damage as well. (I suspect they would have been invalided out in one week if the show had reflected reality.)

It wasn’t as simplistic as it could have been. There were men of virtue, honesty and bravery on all sides. (Also handsome actors.) The Englishman, Moffitt, contrasted with the Americans. The German,  Dietrich, is a contrast with all of them. The Allies always win, though sometimes it was a Pyrrhic victory. The shows often showed deception and espionage. They often asked the question “Who can you trust?” and sometimes it was the enemy.

The actors moved on to other projects. Christopher George died in 1983 of a heart attack. Justin Tarr was reported dead in a surfing accident in 2012. Lawrence Casey lives in the New York area. Gary Raymond continued acting in the UK, and in 2001, came to the US for a small Rat Patrol convention where I had the honor of meeting him.

Gary Raymond or "Sgt Jack Moffitt" of The Rat Patrol at the 2001 Long Range Desert Convention

Gary Raymond or “Sgt Jack Moffitt” of The Rat Patrol at the 2001 Long Range Desert Convention

So, 50 years later, thank you creators, actors and fans of The Rat Patrol. It’s still a hell of a fun show.

As they would say, before roaring off in a shower of sand – “Let’s shake it!”



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