Thursday, April 30, 2009

BitterGrace wishes everyone a happy May Day

...and a joyful Beltane to those who celebrate.

That rapture in the leafy dark!
Who is it shouts upon the bough aswing,
Waking the upland and the valley under?
What carols, like the blazon of a king,
Fill all the dawn with wonder?
Oh, hush,
It is the thrush,
In the deep and woody glen!
Ah, thus the gladness of the gods was sung,
When the old Earth was young;
That rapture rang,
When the first morning on the mountains sprang:
And now he shouts, and the world is young again!
Carol, my king,
On your bough aswing!
Thou art not of these evil days—
Thou art a voice of the world’s lost youth:
Oh, tell me what is duty—what is truth—
How to find God upon these hungry ways;
Tell of the golden prime,
When bird and beast could make a man their friend ;
When men beheld swift deities descend,
Before the race was left alone with Time,
Homesick on Earth, and homeless to the end;
Before great Pan was dead,
Before the naiads fled;
When maidens white with dark eyes shy and bold,
With peals of laughter on the peaks of gold,
Startled the still dawn—
Shone in upon the mountains and were gone,
Their voices fading silverly in depths of forests old.
Sing of the wonders of their woodland ways,
Before the weird earth-hunger of these days,
When there was rippling mirth,
When justice was on Earth,
And light and grandeur of the Golden Age;
When never a heart was sad,
When all from king to herdsman had
A penny for a wage.

From "A Lyric of the Dawn" by Edwin Markham, 1921. Read the complete poem here.

Read about the history of Haymarket and May Day at the Encyclopedia of Chicago.

Photo of a mayapple blossom by BitterGrace.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Flash

I was driving home from the violin shop today, listening to Jimi Hendrix sing “Foxy Lady”--not my favorite Hendrix by a long shot, but I’ll take Jimi any way I can get him. The sun had emerged after hours of gloom, the traffic was light, and I was slightly buzzed from my 2nd large coffee of the morning. I was feeling really good. Then suddenly I started thinking about perfume, and I didn't feel good at all.

I often laugh at my obsession with perfume. I recognize the absurdity of owning more perfume that I could use up in several lifetimes, and of having so many different scents I lose track of them all. I recently bought a backup bottle of one of my favorites, and when I went to squirrel it away, what did I discover? Another completely forgotten backup bottle, of course. You just have to smile at that kind of foolishness.

Sometimes I don’t smile, though. Sometimes I feel quite guilty about all the money that goes into collecting, and other times I’m disgusted by my need for this sensory crutch. Binge sniffing is not unlike binge eating in the way it turns a healthy sensual pleasure into a kind of curse.

But my thoughts this morning went beyond any such ordinary misgivings. I flashed on all the bottles cluttering my home, and the millions of other bottles floating around the world, and the ocean of poison that fills them--and I just about lost it. The absurdity of it was just too much to take. It’s almost impossible to accept that humans have evolved to this degree of pointlessness.

I should hasten to add that I have this feeling periodically about things other than perfume. In fact, I think today was the first time I ever linked it to perfume. Usually it hits me on those rare occasions when I happen to be on the highway at rush hour. I look around at all the other drivers and their passengers; I think about the fact that we are collectively hurtling along at a speed that, until quite recently, humans could only experience by jumping off a cliff; I consider that this entirely avoidable dance with death has become an indispensable part of our daily survival; and suddenly, the incongruity is intolerable. I feel, as I did this morning, that my awareness of it is about to push me right to the edge of insanity.

Just lately, I’ve found that cash register receipts also tend to set me off. Have you ever thought about the madness of paper receipts? There’s probably not one commercial transaction out of a thousand that actually requires a hard record. How many times have you bought a coffee in Starbucks, had the clerk ask if you want the receipt, and then when you said no, watched her tear it off and throw it immediately into the trash? Think about all the resources that went into the production of that receipt; i.e., the trees felled and pulped, the energy expended in the paper mill, the fuel used to ship the rolls, the ink used to print it. Then think of the cost of hauling the unwanted bits of paper to the landfill, or off to be recycled and start the whole ridiculous cycle again. You worked to earn the money to pay for all that. Kind of seems like a sick joke, doesn’t it?

I realize there’s nothing unique about my reaction to the deeply warped nature of modern life. Everyone has these moments of awareness, and the root causes of our predicament have been keeping great minds busy for quite a while now. (Marx, anyone?) But do we regard these flashes of (in)sanity as a true sight of sin, dump the ‘fume collection and hope renunciation means something? Or do we just dismiss them as existential alienation, crank up the Hendrix and have another cup of coffee?

The Vision of Daniel, Willem Drost, 1650. Image from Web Gallery of Art.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

One Sentence Perfume Review: Vol de Nuit, Guerlain, 1933

Her charm is that she can't decide whether she's a pixie or a vixen.

Notes per Basenotes: Hesperedic Notes, Narcissus, Galbanum, Oakmoss, Green notes, Wood, Iris, Vanilla, Spices

"Take the Fair Face of Woman... ", Sophie Gengembre Anderson (1823-1903). Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Photo of Mata Hari by Lucien Walery, 1906. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

"The day is fresh-washed and fair..."

The day is fresh-washed and fair, and there is a smell of tulips and narcissus in the air.
The sunshine pours in at the bath-room window and bores through the water in the bath-tub in lathes and planes of greenish-white. It cleaves the water into flaws like a jewel, and cracks it to bright light.

From "Bath" by Amy Lowell. Read the complete poem here.

Image from Historia del Arte Erotico

The wrong will

Last night, Dave and Nio were sitting out on the deck having a beer. Nio doesn’t actually get a beer, though I’m sure he would enjoy one. ...(Click here to read the rest.)

Friday, April 24, 2009

Jazz Fest starts today

I wish we could be there, but at least YouTube offers a taste of what we're missing. This is a clip from last year's festival of Papa Grows Funk, wailing away on "Fish-Eyed Fool."

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Three things I learned...

 Mr. Renkl's drawing class last Monday:

1. The universally adored Ambre Narguile smells like flea shampoo. That was the considered opinion of one of the students, and since his judgment was not influenced by any pre-established position on Hermes, JCE or the perfumista herd, I have no reason to doubt him.

2. It is fun to talk about perfume with people who are indifferent to the stuff. Of course, we all know what it's like to talk about fragrance with fellow addicts. (How do we find time for anything else?) Sadly, a lot of us also know what it's like to talk to people who think the whole business is self-indulgent, idiotic, bad for your health, etc. It was a refreshing change to chat about perfume with people for whom it’s just an engaging novelty. The inner workings of fragrance were pretty much new to all the students, though quite a few had seen Perfume and gathered some basics from it. I brought along some classic ingredients, like frankincense and myrrh, and they seemed to get a kick out of smelling them for the first time.

I expected to feel like one of those mildly pitiful eccentrics who collects porcelain spittoons or something, but if they pitied me, they didn't show it. They were just friendly and curious, and maybe a little baffled about how they were supposed to turn all the sniffing and talk of smells into an art project. I kinda wonder about that myself, but fortunately that's not my problem. I gave every student samples of 2 different perfumes, with no duplicates among them, which they're supposed to work with on their own. I'm curious to see what they come up with.

3. The ability to discern the qualities of a scent and "translate" it into other sensory realms is something most people possess. It's not a skill that's learned, and it's not peculiar to the perfume-loving minority. I had the class try to match unlabeled scent strips with the visual images of my One Sentence Reviews, and they did very well. I think they might have done even better if they'd been able to put the perfumes on their skin and experience the process of the dry down.

I also had them try to guess the colors for some of Dawn Spencer Hurwitz's color-inspired fragrances, and they were quite good at that, too. They really nailed Quinacridone Violet. Everybody said it was either pink or purple--and of course, quinacridone violet is both. I suppose that's mostly a tribute to DSH's talents, but it's still remarkable to me that they got it so precisely. It was a nice reminder that our little addiction arises from something primal in the human brain. Smell really does bring the imagination to life, even if its expression is sometimes distorted by marketing and fashion.

A Young Scholar, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, 1775-78.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

What, no post?

Yeah, I'm upset about it, too. I'll try to do better tomorrow.

Five Male Nudes, Albrecht Dürer, 1526.

Monday, April 20, 2009

"Printemps qui commence"

Today was my day to visit the drawing class. I took lots of samples, we played a couple of sniffing games and I did a little bloviating. There were 16 students in the group, so I thought the odds would have guaranteed at least one established perfume addict among them, but nobody confessed. Maybe all the time I spend cruising the scented corners of the Web has given me a distorted sense of our numbers out in the real world. In any case, I think they had fun. I know I did. I’ll write a little more about it tomorrow. Just now I need to get my lonely violin out of its case, as well as exchange a couple of words with Dave before he flies off to one of those mysterious consulting gigs.

Here’s a little something seasonal to divert you in the meantime. This is Olga Borodina singing “Printemps qui commence” from Camille Saint-Saëns' Samson et Delila. It’s not exactly a happy spring ditty. It’s a song of deception and seduction. (See the opera’s Wikipedia page here.)

Sunday, April 19, 2009

"Crow school is basic..."

Crow school
is basic and
short as a rule—
just the rudiments
of quid pro crow

From "Felix Crow" by Kay Ryan. Read the complete poem here.

The Crow King, c.1200. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Speaking of ghostly voices,

...the phone rang this afternoon. When I answered I could hear the sound of a call center in the background. A perky female voice said, "Is David there?"

"No," I lied, "Can I take a message for him?"

"Sure. Will you tell him the National Rifle Association called?"

I burst out laughing. "No, I don't think I will. Thanks anyway." *Click*

I'm still smiling as I type this. Hanging up on the NRA felt so damn good

Thursday, April 16, 2009


The best thing about walking in the woods is that there aren’t any ghosts there. Most of the world is filled with ghostly chatter. Disembodied voices speak to us everywhere we go. Tinny singing haunts the marketplace. Belligerent spirits shout at us through the radio. Giggles and screams of pain come from the TV....(Click here to read the rest)

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

More excuses

I'm working on a real post, I swear, but this week has turned hectic. Aside from the usual chores, I'm trying to get ready for a violin recital, and I need to collect my thoughts (along with a lot of perfume samples) for a visit to a college drawing class on Monday. The professor knows of my One Sentence Reviews, and asked me to come do scented show and tell as a way of helping the students experiment with olfactory associations in their work. I expect this will be fun, but right now it's got me scrambling through the chaos of my collection, trying to find useful, inspiring and engagingly weird stuff to take.

Speaking of connecting the senses of sight and smell, for some reason this painting sent me to my tiny bottle of vintage Le De Givenchy. I've always loved the scent, but I never realized until today what a melancholy fragrance it is.

Self-Portrait, Caterina van Hemessen, 1548. Image from Web Gallery of Art.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

You'll have to excuse me

I don't have time for a blog post this evening. There's a bad book I must read. I'll be back tomorrow. (Happy tax day, fellow Americans.)

Lady Reading in an Interior, Marguerite Gérard, 1795-1800.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Thoughts on the two Mackies

One of the goodies I found in the vintage samples from Dave's mom was a mini of the original Bob Mackie perfume, which arrived on the market in 1985. As I type this post, I’ve got a dab of it on my left hand, and a spritz of its relaunch, Mackie (1991), on my right. If I said the two are like night and day I’d be guilty of understatement. I feel a little like Lokai.

The current Mackie, for those of you who wouldn’t be caught dead sampling something so mainstream, is a shrill floriental dominated by tuberose. It’s a much thinner version of two heavyweights that came out around the same time: Estee Lauder Spellbound and Givenchy Amarige. (A herd of these heady, spicy florals werer launched in the early 90s, before the world of mass market fragrances became nothing but fruit juices and Angel clones. Vicky Tiel Sirene and Nicole Miller's signature fragrance are a couple that still survive.)

Mackie is a particularly one-dimensional example of the genre. There’s a touch of fruit, chiefly raspberry, in the top, but most of the life of the scent is in the floral heart. Tuberose and more tuberose, plus touches of jasmine and orange blossom, rest on a rather light spicy/ambery base. Although it’s quite loud--a real sillage Godzilla--Mackie has an odd lack of depth. You couldn’t call it sheer, but the relative absence of animalic or heavy resinous notes gives it a brittleness that is unusual in a floriental. You keep waiting for those powerful florals to develop or decay, but they just sit on the skin and slowly fade, like perfect plastic blossoms left in a sunny window

Bob Mackie, on the other hand, is a classic 80s floral chypre. It has an unusual fruity opening, rich with peach and a touch of black currant, but it quickly transitions to a heart of jasmine, neroli, lavender and rose. The base is a warm combination of moss and woods. There’s a potent civet note that becomes very pronounced once the flowers have entirely disappeared, but the overall character of the scent remains ladylike, refined. It’s a sensual fragrance, sexy but not shameless.

Vintage lover that I am, I suppose this is where I should start moaning about the decline of mass market perfumery as evidenced by the two Mackies. It’s certainly true that you couldn’t ask for a clearer illustration of the crass turn the fragrance industry took in the late 80s/early90s. Original Bob Mackie is a meticulously composed perfume with warmth and depth, definitely a fragrance for a grown-up woman with a touch of glamour. Mackie smells like a successful chemistry experiment that could be worn equally well by a teenager, a senior citizen or a department store mannequin.

And yet, for some reason, I’m disinclined to mourn the oldie. Maybe I’ve just been sniffing too many vintage perfumes, but I’m beginning to understand why the market tired of glamour and maturity in fragrances. Grand perfumes are, well, grand. They are beautiful and complicated, and they demand a lot of the wearer. You have to live up to them. Sure, you can drench yourself in Mitsouko while wearing jeans and flip-flops, but it’s a little like reading A Thousand Plateaus while you wait for the bus. On some level, you are just kidding yourself.

There's something to be said for the bland, characterless perfumery of the present day. It's heresy, I know, but almost no one lives and dresses to suit the great classics we all love so much. Since we can't do them justice, maybe it's better for them to pass away.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Look who's back

Two male hummingbirds appeared at my feeder this afternoon, the first of the season. I've kept a single feeder up since mid-March, since I hate to see the first arrivals disappointed when they come to the usual hanging spots. Year after year, the birds remember precisely where the feeders should be, and if there's not one present they'll fly in a swooping circle around the site as if they can't quite believe it's missing.

It's especially sweet that they showed up today. Almost makes me believe in the Easter Bunny. There aren't many things in life that give me pure, uncomplicated joy, but the annual return of the hummingbirds always does. (I think I said that in a post last year, and probably the year before. Reiteration is part of the pleasure.)

If you don't have real hummingbirds to watch--or even if you do--you might want to go here to see a collection of John Gould's beautiful hummingbird prints. Click on the thumbnails to enlarge.

Photo of a male ruby-throated hummingbird from Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Courtesy of Dave the gardener

I took these pics in our yard today. I thought those of you who are still waiting for spring to bloom might enjoy them.

From your blossoming garden gather fragrant memories of the vanished flowers of an hundred years before.
In the joy of your heart may you feel the living joy that sang one spring morning, sending its glad voice across an hundred years.

Rabindranath Tagore*

*From "The Gardener 85." Complete poem at Poetry Foundation.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Resentment, and other fine feelings

The warm spring weather is back now, but winter returned for a couple of days earlier this week. It even snowed a little. The pretty dwarf larkspur, which is very plentiful here, has gone a little droopy and sad as a result, but the blooms have survived. Wildflowers are tough...(Click here to read the rest.)

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

"I thought I was growing wings..."

I thought I was growing wings—
it was a cocoon.

I thought, now is the time to step
into the fire—
it was deep water.

From "Seeing for a Moment" by Denise Levertov. Complete poem at Poetry Foundation.

Four Allegories: Falsehood (or Wisdom), Giovanni Bellini, c.1490. Image from Web Gallery of Art,

Monday, April 6, 2009

Scott Walker: 30 Century Man

Scott Walker is probably not a name you'll recognize, especially if you're under 40, but you almost certainly know his voice. He sang the lead vocal on the Walker Brothers' 1966 hit "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore"--a song I can never hear now without thinking of the sappy but irresistible scene in Truly, Madly, Deeply.

I have to admit that I had no idea Scott Walker was still making music until I saw Scott Walker: 30 Century Man. (Yes, it's "30," not "30th"--the odd phrase comes from the title of one of Walker's songs.) As it turns out, he's gone from singing MOR pop to creating remarkable experimental recordings. He still uses the song as a form, but he's taken it to some unfamiliar sonic and poetic territory. You can listen to some samples from his 2006 record "The Drift" here.

The film consists mostly of interviews with Walker and other musicians, and it focuses almost exclusively on Walker's evolution as an artist. There's precious little about his personal life, and the music business is only discussed in terms of its impact on his creative output. By all rights, SW30CM should be a very dull movie for anyone who isn't a passionate Scott Walker fan, but the film's modesty actually serves to heighten the drama of Walker's artistic struggle. The fimmakers' aim is to give us a glimpse of an intensely private process--Walker's journey inside himself to find a unique musical truth. A bells-and-whistles production that called attention to itself would only distract us from that story.

That said, the film doesn't take itself entirely seriously. It shows a wry attitude toward the pop culture of the 60s and 70s, and makes gentle fun of some of Walker's weirder musical techniques--e.g., recording the sound of a guy punching a side of meat. The cast of interviewees is impressively diverse, ranging from the instantly recognizable (Bowie, Brian Eno) to the less recognizable but pleasingly hip (Evan Parker, Jarvis Cocker.)

If you really have no patience at all for experimental music, then SW30CM might not be worth your time; but even though I wouldn't want to listen to Walker's songs every day of my life, I found the film's portrait of the artist fascinating. I came away thinking about all those Big Questions: Is it possible to have success in the world and still live an authentic life? Is every artist ultimately a blinkered, hobbled being? Where does vision end and ego begin?

The film was actually made in 2006, in conjunction with the release of "The Drift," but it's enjoyed haphazard distribution, especially in the U.S. It's had very short runs at indie theaters around the country. The only upcoming screening listed at the film's website is in San Francisco in May. It's currently out on DVD in Britain and will be coming out here in June. Netflixers should keep an eye out for it.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

One Sentence Perfume Review: Lady Caron, Parfums Caron

Lady Caron is a beautiful, elegant woman whose expensive make-up doesn't quite match her skin tone.

Notes per Fragrancex: Neroli, Jasmine, Raspberry, Peach, Rose, Oakmoss, Sandalwood

Woman at her Toilette, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1889. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Two improbably good things from the Reagan era: Galanos, and Ivoire de Balmain parfum

Dave’s mom is well aware of my fragrance fixation, and she has given me some lovely gifts of new and vintage perfume over the years. Dave had a birthday in March and she sent him some artisan pottery, which he collects. As part of the packing material for the pots--and with me in mind--she threw in several dozen old carded perfume samples she had cleared out of a drawer. Most of them date from the early to mid-80s, when samps were still generously handed out at cosmetic counters. (Yes, boys and girls, there was a time within living memory when just buying eye shadow or mascara could get you a handful of new scents to test. How quickly civilization declines.)

A lot of the samps are fragrances that were introduced in the decade of big shoulders and have since become reliable warhorses: Poison, Diva, Red Door, and (gasp!) Giorgio, among others. Most of these don’t seem to have changed at all over the years, so I won’t bother reviewing them. You may get some thoughts from me soon on the notorious Giorgio, but for now I’ll stick to blogging about some of the rarities in my little treasure trove.

The original Galanos, launched in 1979, is a scent I vaguely recall as an establishment glamour frag, something that a bookish, pinko, Goodwill fashion plate like me wouldn’t have been caught dead wearing. (A reviewer on Basenotes mentions that James Galanos was Nancy Reagan’s favorite designer--a fact I had happily forgotten, but which probably accounts for my attitude toward the perfume.)

I’m still bookish, pinko, etc., and I recoil from Nancy Reagan as much as I ever did, but I cannot deny that Galanos is a wonderful fragrance. A love child of Youth Dew and Tabu, this smooth oriental has a bouquet of flowers in its heart, and there’s an irresistible mossiness in the base that is missing from both parents. It lacks the slightly harsh woody notes of Youth Dew, and though it’s not exactly vegan, it does not have the funky civet smack of Tabu. The drydown is ambery and floral, with hints of tonka and vetiver. “Refined” and “mature” are the adjectives it brings to mind. It would make a fine signature for one of Louise Dahl-Wolfe’s style goddesses.

(I should point out that the scent I’m talking about is an EDT of the first incarnation of Galanos, which was presented in a bronze packaging with green and/or black accents. The scent was relaunched in the mid-90s in a blue box, and I believe it was tweaked, if not wholly reformulated, at the same time. It’s been discontinued altogether now, and pretty much all the remaining stock seems to be the later formula. A few bottles of the first version are floating around ebay.)

One of the surprising things about this collection of samples is how many of them are parfum. There’s even a vial of Chanel No. 5 in parfum. I can’t imagine Chanel tossing around such freebies today. But as happy as I am to have the little taste of No. 5, I’m even more delighted that the samp of Ivoire de Balmain (1980) is parfum as well. Ivoire EDT is a staple of my fragrance wardrobe and I had never had a chance to try the parfum, which is pretty scarce, until now.

Keeping in mind that age tends to diminish top notes, I find that this parfum concentration is less assertively green than the EDT. The brisk dose of galbanum I’m accustomed to is quite muted here. There’s a hint of soft lemon, a bit of bubbly aldehyde, and then it’s straight to the floral heart, where jasmine and hyacinth are dominant. I’ve always been baffled by the inclusion of carnation in the list of notes for Ivoire, since I can’t find it all in the EDT, but the parfum has a rich carnation note that fleshes out the composition very nicely.

The moss in the base is a chypre lover’s dream, and it’s accompanied by a light amber that lends warmth and sensuality to what I’ve always considered a rather austere scent. If you love Ivoire and you can afford the prices (e.g., $29 for a 2 ml sample), then I’d say the parfum is well worth pursuing. Personally, I’ve sworn to resist the chase, but we’ll see how long I hold out once this vial is gone.

I think this post is quite long enough, so I’ll stop here and return to the 21st century. Check back later for a few words on Ombre d’Or, the original Mackie and other faded beauties.

Mary Jane Russell in Dior Dress, Paris, 1950, photographed by Louise Dahl-Wolfe. Image from the website of Christie's.

Invocation (detail), Frederick Leighton, c.1880. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The day seems to have gotten away from me again

I'll try to get those vintage reviews up tomorrow. Tonight I need to torture myself and the dogs with some violin practice. Have a sweet Friday.

Phaethon, engraving by Thomas de Leu, after Antoine Caron, 1614. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Random thoughts on hearing the critic speak

I think there’s always an element of embarrassment in being a critic. Every time I write a review, there’s a part of me that thinks, I shouldn’t be doing this. It seems arrogant and fundamentally disrespectful to the work being evaluated. Even if I rave about something, I’m still presuming to judge, and when that judgment is published it creates a sort of smokescreen between the work in question and readers of my review who haven’t yet encountered that work. People often say they aren’t influenced by reviews, and maybe there are people who can simply jettison any criticism they’ve read, but I know I can’t. However wrongheaded or forgettable they may be, reviews always seems to be lurking in my brain when I finally get around to consuming a book, movie or perfume.

So I completely understand why a lot of people take a dim view of someone like Peter Schjeldahl, whose superstar status as a critic gives him tremendous power to influence the public’s response to art. Power like that inspires plenty of hostility, especially among people in the art world who feel they’re undervalued by the cultural establishment he represents. One of Dave’s arty pals gave him a hard time for going to hear Schjeldahl speak, and even people who admire his undeniable talent feel the need to grouse about his elitism, as in this blog post.

As that post noted, Schjeldahl is a glib as a speaker, a little too much of a showman. I don’t know what he’s like in front of a New York or L.A. crowd, but he did talk down a bit to his audience of art students here in the hinterlands—not in a pompous way, but like a comic who has to keep reminding himself not to be too fast for the room. Still, he was quick to point out that he’s from the hinterlands himself, which has got to be encouraging to any bright kid who feels stranded in this backwater. The fact that he’s a public intellectual with no college degree also makes him a good example for kids who have grown up in an era when there’s a terrible overemphasis on academic qualifications.

But the thing that was really wonderful about hearing Schjeldahl speak was the sense you got that, even after decades as a professional critic, he still finds tremendous joy in the presence of art. He’s cynical about the business of art—who wouldn’t be?—but the love of beauty still consumes him. After he’d been talking for over an hour, he latched onto the subject of Rembrandt and began to talk about Rembrandt’s two Lucretias. I won’t try to repeat what he said, but he entered the scene of each painting and interpreted every detail with the full power of his imagination. You could tell that, for him, those scenes had tremendous immediacy, full reality. He was near tears as he described the feelings of Lucretia in the later work, as she sits alone waiting to die. His emotion was not a performance; it was a glimpse he gave us of how he experiences art.

It's a cliche to say that the world is becoming increasingly soulless, that we are slaves of technology and of consumerism's stranglehold on our instincts--but it's a cliche because it's true. Humanity is being hollowed out, and the modern world hates passion. It was wonderful to see Schjeldahl's passion for those Rembrandts. It was a reminder of what human beings really are: the animals that seek beauty.

Go here to read Schjeldahl riffing on a Rembrandt show. You'll find a New York Times article about Rembrandt's two Lucretias here.