Today’s Portrait: FIREFIGHTER

No, today’s portrait isn’t a flower! It’s occurred to me that other objects besides flowers can emanate presence and personality. Can demonstrate QUIDDITAS, the quality that Aristotle meant when he wrote of “thatness,” or “whatness,” or “what it is.”

When I was painting still lifes, that was the quality I was always trying to capture. The quidditas, the essence of the thing or things.

Admittedly it wasn’t what I had in mind when I offhandedly snapped this photo. I didn’t really have anything much in mind beyond, Hey, I wonder what the camera will do to this. And then, to my amazement and delight, there it was. There HE was.

The Firefighter

I can see him clear as anything, his silver helmet, his sturdy right arm ready with the hose. Not simply a fire hydrant down the lane, but The Firefighter!

Well, maybe it is isn’t quidditas. Maybe it’s another Greek concept. Maybe I’m dealing with metamorphosis. Whatever it is, it’s mythic, and it startles and amuses me. Maybe it will startle and amuse you too —

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TODAY’S PORTRAIT: Flowers of War and Peace

Who would have thought that this dreamy camellia would rouse thoughts of war and peace for me?

Camellia Pink

Her photo is only one among the many I snapped at the Spring Bulb Show at Mount Holyoke, and — I would have said — one of the least of them. A hundred flowers had more presence than this one, brighter color, more exotic form. But something about her kept my finger away from the delete button. The softness of the flower? its almost translucent quality? the gentle roundness of the petals?

Descended from Asian ancestors, the quiet, unassuming camellia has become a quintessential flower of the American South. It is the state flower of Alabama. It doesn’t get more Heart of the South than that! And what is more emblematic of the American South than the Civil War? Or the War Between the States, as they prefer to say down below the Mason-Dixon line.

People of my age, wherever in the US they lived, shared one formative experience about the South and the Civil War. The towering Civil War film epic, Gone With the Wind, based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Margaret Mitchell, first opened in 1939. It ran a staggering 238 minutes, and held viewers riveted every instant.  Although I would have seen it later on in my pre-adolescent years, and probably missed much of its adult meaning, I was already old enough to be profoundly moved by the love drama of its main characters.

Anyone who knows about it will immediately identify Scarlett O’Hara, that stunningly ineffable egoist, as its heroine. You’re certainly supposed to do so. All the publicity and hoopla belonged to Vivian Leigh as the predatory Scarlett:

Lawsy, Miss Scarlett!

But I’ve always had my own, perhaps more boring, more conservative preferences. My heroine was Melanie Hamilton Wilkes, friend and foil to Scarlett O’Hara. Melanie was played by a quiet, demure Olivia de Havilland.

Sweet Melanie

See, her dress even looks like a camellia! The intentional contrast is made clear in this still from the film:

PInk and Scarlet(t)

Here’s the gentle pink of the camellia contrasted with the glamorous red of the Scarlet(t) woman. In the same way, the forceful and dashing Rhett Butler of Clark Gable is meant to overshadow that consummate Southern gentleman Ashley Wilkes, portrayed by Leslie Howard. My mother, along with thousands of American women, sighed over Clark Gable. Me, true to form, I pined for Ashley.

So you see how many long ago emotions were stirred by the photo of the camellia, especially when I hunted through my archives for a flower that might represent Melanie’s predatory rival. And here’s what I found:

Prize-winning Cattleya

Showy, glamorous and expensive, this cattleya orchid took first place at the Amherst Orchid Society’s show a while back. My tastes haven’t really changed in all those intervening decades, though. To me, the prize winner is gaudy and vulgar and predatory, just like Scarlett O’Hara. Give me the camellia any day!

 

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TODAY’S PORTRAIT: REGAL ROSE

I don’t think I’d ever seen a purple rose before this bouquet arrived from the florist one day. Not only was the color regal — “born to the purple” describes a status as well as a hue — but the very set of this flower seemed regal to me.

Born to the Purple

The confident angle of the rose jogged my memory. What does this remind me of? Of course! The bust of the Egyptian queen Nefertiti. If a rose is the floral icon of the eternal feminine, the bust of Queen Nefertiti is its sculptural icon:

nefertiti

The Great Royal Wife (and sister) of the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhnaten, Nefertiti is 3,300 years young. She was crafted in 1345 BC, probably by the sculptor Thutmose, and she is unquestionably one of the most famous women of the ancient world.

The Hub and I saw her in her current home, the Neues Museum in Berlin, some years ago. I had been afraid that, like many other much-heralded works of art, the thing itself would not live up to its publicity. (The Venus de Milo doesn’t do much for me, nor does the Mona Lisa. No doubt my failing, not theirs, but still.)

We found her in a small room all by herself, in a glass case. The room was dark, the case was spot lit, and I — was mesmerized. I could not take my eyes off the regal face. I walked around and around, drinking her in from every angle. Even the milky empty socket of the left eye could not detract from her radiance. Simply put, she is perfect. Every inch a queen, every inch the beautiful woman. We spent a long time together that longago morning, she and I.

And once that memory had been jogged, the purple rose in my bouquet recalled that royal form and meaning for me. The rose itself is now long wilted and gone, but the photo remains to remind me of Nefertiti, and of a marvelous truth. Roses may live and die. So do human beings. But there is beauty that exists  beyond life and death, and when we glimpse it, we too — for a moment at least — share in the eternal.

Posted in Art, Flowers, Life and Death, Memory | 29 Comments

TODAY’S PORTRAIT: HIBISCUS, BABY!

And now for something COMPLETELY different — La Hibiscus!

Look at that hibiscus go!

Talk about in-your-face!  No shrinking violet she. Her philosophy is, If you’ve got it, flaunt it! A hot-blooded lady from the tropics, our hibiscus is right out there. In her gorgeous color, her glamorous pose, her whole exotic demeanor, she reminds me of a floral Carmen Miranda.

You’re mostly young things out there, I can hear you now:  Carmen who?

Carmen Miranda, the Brazilian Bombshell, the lady in the tutti-frutti hat — still doesn’t ring a bell, does it? She was a Brazilian singer and dancer who was popular from the 1930’s until the 1950’s on Broadway and in Hollywood. In 1940, she made her first Hollywood film, “Down Argentine Way“, with Don Ameche and Betty Grable. Her exotic looks, flamboyant clothes, Latin accent, and outrageous hats heaped with fruits and vegetables became her trademarks. And, like the hibiscus flower, she was a real charmer.

Wikipedia reports that in 1945 she was the highest-paid woman in the United States. Her dazzling, dizzy song and dance numbers provided much-needed relief during the hard years of World War II. 

I remember her from the movies in the 1940’s, when I was just old enough to clutch my quarter and head off with friends to a Saturday matinee. (Those quarter matinees, by the way, included two movies, both the feature and a B-movie to go with it, a newsreel, a serial, and several cartoons. Not bad, huh.) Because I haven’t seen or thought of her for decades, I went to Youtube to check her out. After all, things can play brilliantly in memories of long-ago that, seen again, fall flat in the present. 

But not in this case! She really was a star. There are lots of Youtubes I could have picked to show you. It was a tough choice. But I think I’ll go with this one, and if you like what you see, you can try some others yourself. Here she is, as brilliant and outrageous and charming as a hibiscus flower:

The movie is Week-end in Havana (1941), starring Alice Faye and John Payne. (Don’t remember them either, I suppose!) As in most of her movies, Carmen Miranda appears as her starry self in a night club scene (or two or three) to entertain the lead actors in their romantic drama. They don’t make movies like this any more! Just as well, perhaps. Nevertheless, maybe you can see why the brilliant flower makes me think of this brilliant performer —

 

Posted in Color, Dancing, Flowers, Memory, Music, Photography | Tagged , , , , , | 35 Comments

TODAY’S PORTRAIT: violet

Shrinking Violets

In contrast to cheery Johnny Jump-ups and bold-faced pansies, there’s an introverted branch of the Violaceae family. Violets, true violets, are modest and demure. They shelter underneath their heart-shaped leaves, and even great masses of them never seem to call attention to themselves. Unless you really look, you don’t realize quite how beautiful violets are. They shrink from the public eye, the origin (I suppose) of the descriptive phrase, “a shrinking violet.”

Lucy's Violet

But there have always been some who have valued the reticent beauties.

A violet by a mossy stone

Half hidden from the eye!

Fair as a star, when only one

Is shining in the sky. 

Does that have a familiar ring? It’s from a poem by William Wordsworth, the English nature poet, and it begins “She dwelt among the untrodden ways…”  The poem is one of five that collectively are called the “Lucy” poems. In them, the poet tells of his  unrequited love for an idealised girl, Lucy, who died young. Whether or not there ever was a real Lucy, or she was simply a poetic device, no one knows for sure. But since a romantic story trumps a poetic device any day, there is much speculation about who she was, and the circumstances of Wordsworth’s loss, if there really was a loss.

In the world of the poem, no one noticed Lucy, just as no one notices violets. They hide wherever they can, even in the grass.

Violet, Alone

No one noticed her, except the poet who loved her. And when she was gone, still no one noticed. Except the poet. Just three stanzas of limpid simplicity, with a final line that is one of the most moving in English lyric poetry. You can read them here. Better still, though, for those of you who love poetry, you can hear Sir Andrew Motion, an English poet, novelist, and biographer, who was Poet Laureate of the U.K. from 1999 to 2009, read it aloud, with an intelligent and enlightening discussion that, for once, doesn’t detract from the poem itself!  Here’s the Youtube, if you have the time and inclination:

And in the springtime, all of you, when our fancies sometimes turn to thoughts of love, don’t forget to look out for the beauties that dwell, unnoticed and unsung, among us.

(I wonder: is there something you love in the same way in which Wordsworth loved Lucy?) 

 

 

Posted in Art, Life and Death, Listening, Mindfulness, Nature, Personal Essay, Poetry, Quotes, Wisdom | Tagged , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

TODAY’S PORTRAIT: HERE’S JOHNNY!

Not only because I think he resembles an impudent rascally adorable little boy — but because that’s actually his name!

One Was Johnny

I can hear you thinking, What is she talking about? That’s a pansy!

Well, yes and no.

Johnny Jump-ups are in the same family as pansies, the Viola family. But they’re wilder, smaller, are exceedingly hardy and they sprout up quickly, hence their name, Jump-ups. I never planted the Johnny Jump-ups that flourish in spring in my front garden. They were just there, and from time to time, more volunteers join them:

Johnny Jump-ups

This is a whole bunch of the kids. They’re bright and brash and bring a smile to my face whatever mood I was in before I saw them. Cute little kids, shining in the grass. Boys just wanna have fun!

(Johnny Jump-ups, Viola tricolor, have also been called by other names, like heart’s easeheart’s delighttickle-my-fancyJack-jump-up-and-kiss-mecome-and-cuddle-methree faces in a hood, or love-in-idleness.  In past times they were used in herbal medicine for epilepsy, asthma, skin diseases and eczema. V. tricolor has a folk history of helping respiratory problems such as bronchitis, asthma, and cold symptoms. Its expectorant properties prompted its use in the treatment of chest complaints such as bronchitis and whooping cough, and as a diuretic, it has been used in treating rheumatism and cystitis.)

Compared to the wildly flourishing Johnny Jump-ups, the cultivated garden pansy is a whole ‘nother matter.

Pansies, that's for Thoughts

Altogether larger, more imposing and stately, its face rewards pondering, responding to. Which may reflect the origins of its name, from the French verb penser, to think, with its accompanying noun, pensées, thoughts. “There’s pansies, that’s for thoughts,” says tragic Ophelia in her madness (in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where, we might argue, she is the victim of Hamlet’s over-thinking).

There’s nothing mad about these pansy faces, however:

Pansy Faces

Calm beauties, each of them.

 

Posted in Flowers, Happiness, Personal Essay, Pioneer Valley | Tagged , , , , , , , | 34 Comments

TODAY’S PORTRAIT: YOU CAN CALL HER PEONY

Two young things were the subjects of the first two flower portraits. So it’s exciting to turn to a more assured, mature beauty for our third. She is known formally as Paeonia Suffruticosa, but Peony is the name we are likely to recognize her by:

Chinese Tree Peony

How lush, how full, how magnificent she is! Proud. Self-confident. And somewhat different from the herbaceous peonies that we grow in our flower borders.  (At least to my eyes.) Paeonia Suffruticosa belongs to the family of tree peonies, tall hardy shrubs that are temperamental enough to suit a diva’s personality, but rewarding enough to be worth the effort.

And what a family history she has! Tree peonies already hundreds of years ago were considered the ideal flower by Chinese literati, the poets and painters of ancient times. She has been found for centuries “on vase and jar, on screen and fan” (to borrow from Gilbert & Sullivan’s Mikado). If there can be said to be a national flower of China, it is the tree peony, the pride and joy of many public gardens there.  And the admiration and veneration of the Japanese doesn’t lag far behind. 

When we visited famed Chanticleer Gardens in Wayne, PA, last summer, we were greeted at the entrance gates to the mansion itself by a whole tribe of tree peonies. I chose one among these gorgeous sisters for a close-up; but any and all of them were stunners:

Chanticleer Mansion Entrance

When we lived in the Berkshires, I was a guide at one of the so-called “cottages,” actually mansions, from the Gilded Age. Naumkeagthe home of Joseph Choate and his family, has magnificent, unusual gardens. But in the two summers I worked there, the terrace of tree peonies never fully came into bloom, at least not for more than a couple of days, and sparsely. Conditions were never quite right — too cold, not cold enough; too much rain, too little rain. Perhaps because Chanticleer is farther South, perhaps because this was a particularly favorable late spring, tree peonies were bursting forth all around us, a deluge, a veritable waterfall of beauty.

I’m glad to have seen them.

 

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