Edmonton: Acting As If

I don’t get it . . .

I love living in Edmonton.  Pretty much every body I know thinks Edmonton is the bee’s knees, or so they tell me.  I often tell people, both here and far away, that I’ve never been to or heard of a place I’d rather live than here on this block tucked between Old Strathcona and the Mill Creek Ravine, on the edge of the centre of Edmonton.

So, I don’t get why the online comments stuck at the bottom of Edmonton news stories are so often a series of diatribes against the city, half-witted name-calling directed at our elected officials, and complaints about winter or God knows what.

One day on Twitter I managed to pin down a fellow who claimed to hate Edmonton and asked him what exactly he hated.  His answer? “South Edmonton Common.  It’s stupid to have a place like that when we have winter.”

Seriously.  He hates a metropolis of over a million people, a city where there are constant festivals of arts, dance, theatre, literature, sports, food; a city where people harvest grapes and strawberries from back yard gardens well into October, a city with more frost-free days than Calgary to the south — he hates this city because there’s a busy outlet mall at the edge of town when we don’t have the perpetual summers of currently burning California!

I don’t get why young people in Thomas Wharton’s creative writing classes “hate it here.”  Mr. Wharton should mention to his classes that great novelists wrote about London and Paris and New York not because those cities were great, but because they knew those cities and by writing, helped to make the cities great.

When I read about Mr. Wharton’s students, I think of my University friend, Chris, who, back in 1983 hated Edmonton and was desperate to get back to Toronto.  Within a few years she was in an apartheid era South African jail, as it turns out.  I don’t think she ever spent much time back in Toronto, but before her death about a year ago she helped in her small way to end apartheid and continued to the end helping to improve her adopted country and continent.

My friend Chris, it seems, very quickly lost her hatred of places other than Toronto.  Indeed, she found herself, through force of circumstance, in one of the most oppressive locations in the world, one of the most un-Toronto and un-Canadian of societies (ignoring for the moment the lessons drawn by South Africa from Canada’s “solution” to the “Indian Problem”).  And Chris made herself the centre of a lifelong effort to improve the lives of girls and women in Africa, beginning with her adopted daughter.  Imagine: a White Canadian ex-pat adopts a young Zulu girl in apartheid South Africa!  Chris went ahead as if apartheid didn’t exist.  Within a few years, Chris was interviewing Nelson Mandela for a biography, and her daughter was sitting in Madiba’s lap, and Apartheid really didn’t exist.

What does all this have to do with Edmonton?  With a some hints from former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson’s final 2014 Massey Lecture, “Gross National Happiness”, I’ll explain.  Early in her lecture, Ms. Clarkson quotes Northrop Frye:

We participate in society by means of our imagination or the quality of our social vision. (p. 149)

Next, Clarkson introduces  the idea of living “As If”, borrowed from the German philosopher Hans Vaihinger.  As she distills Vaihinger’s As If philosophy:

You act As If something is true if the result of that act of imagination will bring benefits. (p. 150)

I find these two concepts to be key to understanding something that I sense to be happening in Edmonton.  This city is absolutely bursting with imagination, and, perhaps to a similar extent, is filled with profound social vision.  And the most powerful force in Edmonton right now is an unusual urgency in many citizens, from regular working people right up to the Mayor and Council to behave every day As If their dreams for their homes, their neighbourhoods, and their city were Reality.  This is the urgency my friend lived in Durban as a young working mother and every day of her life.

Vaihinger’s As If philosophy has somehow become — maybe always has been — the unstated philosophy of the movers and shakers of Edmonton.

In our last municipal election, Josh Semotiuk, a bearded thirty-something electrician and fan of Motorhead ran for mayor.  Everyone in the city, not least Josh, knew he wouldn’t win, but he and the other candidates consistently acted As If @josh4YEGmayor were a Twitter handle that could easily change to @joshYEGmayor.  And, in his Motorhead T shirt he made good points at candidate forums, cutting through dross that often appears at such events, and made the campaign more honest than it might have been.

In the end, the forcefully optimistic (and very tall) Don Iveson won the election.  He and his Councillors have spent their first year in office acting As If every citizen has tremendous ideas, As If citizens all have a perfect right to button hole any one of them at the Art Gallery of Alberta, on the sidewalk, or on Twitter, and As If Edmonton is the Best Place To Be.  And a whole lot of citizens are acting that same As If philosophy.

I suspect this As If philosophy has been a part of Edmonton’s social DNA from the time of the Fort up on the river bank and from the earliest meetings of Nations at Pehonan.  Even in the grey, windswept downtown days that cause my friend in Seville to still refer to our city as “Deadmonton”, there were those like Mel Hurtig and Joe Shocter and dapper Englishman John Neville who imagined, and acted As If we were the Metropolis of Tomorrow Today.

Ms. Clarkson writes of Canada:

Because we have lived As If, our multicultural, diverse country has become a reality.

I would argue that because my friend Chris, and countless others, acted As If apartheid didn’t exist, Nelson Mandela became President.  And because Joe Shocter acted As If cold-calling a great British actor would actually bring the man to Edmonton, John Neville walked the boards at the Citadel.  And because John Neville acted As If Edmonton were the centre of the theatre world, Brent Carver and Nicky Guadagni pulled up stakes from Toronto and London to play Romeo and Juliet to crowds of Edmonton theatre goers.  And those crowds acted As If they were worthy of the performances, and so they were.

In my years living in this little neighbourhood I’ve gotten to know business people, actors, writers, poets, visual artists, construction workers, nurses, teachers, musicians, doctors, pharmacists, politicians . . . all the varied individuals that make up any city — or village.

Many days I hear impotent bellyaching about potholes, the new arena, the old airport, or the weather. But every day I see people in Edmonton doing the As If thing.

I see it at the art galleries like Latitude 53 and dc3 Art Projects, at theatres from the Walterdale to the Citadel.

I see it from furnace installers, reno guys, home builders, butchers, baristas, booksellers, municipal politicians.

I see social engagement in artist like Dawn Marie Marchand and Aaron Paquette, in writers like Todd Babiak, in business owners like Kim Fjordbotten of the Paint Spot, campaigning tirelessly for #yegarts, and in a very shy butcher I know who is obsessive about business expenses and yet provides hot lunches at cost to kids at the school across the street from his shop and thinks Edmonton is both the bee’s knees and the cat’s pyjamas.

I see Steve and Sharon Budnarchuk, owners of Audrey’s Books, successfully carrying on As If ebooks, Amazon and big box stores didn’t exist.

And all the artists of the Nina Collective who act As If making art is human nature for all humans and so make it true every day.

What a gap there would be in Edmonton if not for the Spinelli family acting As If Edmonton were a little piece of Italy and creating the Italian Centre Shop.  And consider the Carrot Cafe and the people of the ‘hood around 118 Ave. They acted As If they had the coolest part of town, a centre for festivals and the arts, and you know what? Now it’s cool, and KaleidoFest is one of Edmonton’s most brilliant jewels.

Thirty years ago Brian Paisley acted As If Old Strathcona was the greatest theatre hot spot in North America and The Edmonton Fringe Theatre Festival, the greatest theatre festival in North America, was born.

A century ago, Edmonton’s municipal government acted As If their little northern city were bigger than the Big Apple and set aside the biggest urban green space on the continent, our unbelievably beautiful River Valley Parks.

A few years ago my friends Carlos and Bernardo came to Edmonton from Mexico. They bought a convenience store and acted As If Edmonton absolutely required a wickedly great Latin American grocery store. A few months ago Tienda Latina doubled in size.

And the Bissell Centre. . .

And the Hope Mission. . .

And the thousands of marvellous, huge, tiny, fun, beautiful and moving things happening in this city.

When I read Adrienne Clarkson’s Massey Lectures I feel like I’m reading a description of Edmonton, particularly when she discussed Vaihinger’s philosophy.  As my friend Chris did when she found herself living under Apartheid, a critical mass of Edmontonians act As If the place we live is how we want it to be for ourselves and others.

And through that act, we make it so.

Oilsands v Hydroelectric: a reality check on Site C

Yesterday the British Columbian and Canadian Governments gave the Site C hydroelectric project on the Peace River environmental approval because “the benefits provided outweigh the risks of significant adverse environmental, social and heritage impacts.”  It seems the governments have gone back to odd dreams from 1978 of a world made more hospitable for its dominant species.  The Site C project is being touted as a “clean energy” project with clearly audible undertone of “not like the miserable tarsands!”

While I’m no particular friend of the strange things done under the midnight sun by the men who moil for oil, and while I’m no enemy of the hope of better living through technology, I have no illusions that hydroelectric megaprojects are a fine, clean, green power line to a happy future.  So, a quick reality check.

As of 2013, according to the Pembina Institute, the six active surface extraction projects in the Alberta Oilsands have disturbed about 715 km² of boreal forest.  The companies conducting the extraction are required by law to restore that land to “equivalent land capability” when they’ve finished the mining.  Whatever one may think of the possibility of such restoration, or of government’s ability to enforce such a requirement, the gesture has at least been made toward “leave it like you found it”.

In contrast, Site C will destroy through flooding a horizontal surface area of 93 km².  Because of the mountainous area involved, the actual ecological area destroyed will be much larger.  The governments have acknowledged in advance the “significant adverse environmental, social and heritage impacts.”  They even acknowledge that this “clean” project will result in greenhouse gas emmisions from the rotting vegetation – a carbon sink before the flooding – for years afterward.  There are no requirements to return the land to its previous state. The project is permanent, the destruction is forever.

So, with a single megaproject British Columbia intends to destroy forever an area 1/7 the size of all surface extraction projects in the Alberta oilsands.  Somehow this permanent destruction is claiming the “Clean Energy” label while confessing “significant environmental” impacts. By the way, B.C.’s W.A.C. Bennett dam, completed in 1968 in the spirit of utopian, nature controlling High Modernity discussed in my earlier post, has already destroyed twenty times the area Site C would destroy. That’s almost three times as much natural area destroyed by one hydroelectric dam as has been strip mined – with the requirement of restoration – in Alberta’s tar sands.

The oilsands companies and the Alberta Government, for all their flaws and self-interest, at least grudgingly acknowledge that when one makes a mess, one has the responsibility to clean things up as best one can.


I’m glad I have visited the beautiful valley of the upper Peace River. Before long, it will be gone forever.

Reciting Beowulf as though I know what I’m saying.

Some time ago I realized that when I read Old English (or Latin) verse out loud, I read as though I didn’t really know the meaning of what I was saying.  I knew how to sound out the words and I even could offer a translation, but I didn’t actually sound like I meant it.  I set myself the vague goal of someday really getting to know the first twelve lines of Beowulf so that I could say them with real understanding, conversational, the way I would read a passage from Shakespeare, or Yeats, or even Chaucer, not the largely bombastic declamation that often afflicts renditions of Beowulf. Remember: Beowulf is known to us not because rough, mead-swilling warriors enjoyed it, but because Medieval Catholic monks thought the poem was worth preserving.

I suppose the seed was planted back when a mutual acquaintance got me together with David Ley for a brief bit of tutoring for his role as Hrothgar in Blake William Turner’s Beowulf the King.  But I have to thank writer and fellow erstwhile Old English scholar Angie Abdou for really spurring me to get down to brass tacks and conduct the experiment.

So, here it is — Beowulf 1-12 as though I know what I’m saying:

And here is the text, punctuated as I think it should be:

Hwæt. We Gardena,         in geardagum
þeodcyninga,         þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas         ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scefing         sceaþena þreatum,
monegum mægþum,         meodosetla ofteah,
egsode eorlas.         Syððan ærest wearð
feasceaft funden,         he þæs frofre gebad:
weox under wolcnum,         weorðmyndum þah,
oðþæt him æghwylc         þara ymbsittendra
ofer hronrade         hyran scolde,
gomban gyldan.         þæt wæs god cyning!

“Let’s make the Earth more hospitable for its dominant species!”

“Given wit and imagination, the Earth can be made vastly more hospitable for its dominant species and congenial life forms.” Small is beautiful but big isn’t all that bad either.”  — “Terraforming the Earth” by Ralph Hamil, Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, July, 1978, p. 65.

When I was a teenager in the 1970s, I was a science fiction geek.  In my mind, tomorrow was a technologically and socially Brave New World in a very positive, non-Huxleyan sense.  For a time I subscribed to Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact magazine.  I look back at those magazines now and then.  I see early publications by unknown authors such as George R. R. Martin and Orson Scott Card.  And, I see the exciting predictions in the “Science Fact” department.  An article that has troubled me for a while now is Ralph Hamil’s “Terraforming the Earth”, from July 1978, a few months before my seventeenth birthday — and a few months after I saw the future Captain of the Starship Enterprise on the Stratford stage playing the King of the Faeries.

I look back at “Terraforming the Earth, and I realize that as bad as the current joint environmental catastrophe of climate change and species extinction is, it might have been worse.  Thirty-six years ago, Hamil offered a generation of future scientists and engineers an inspiring collection of Gee Whiz! geoengineering ideas.  Hamil laid out inspiring plans by which “the Earth can be made vastly more hospitable for its dominant species and congenial life forms” (p. 65).  “Hospitable” in this context seems to mean “lots of electrical power, lots of high-speed rail, and lots of irrigation water in places it doesn’t belong.”

Hamil begins with praise of damming rivers:  “Hydroelectricity is clean energy” but admits that “damming rivers sometimes leads to backwater sedimentation, rapid silting, and disruption of marine life and scenic quality.  It frequently requires relocation of homes on about-to-be flooded land” (p. 48).  I can’t help but think of China’s Three Gorges Dam, British Columbia’s proposed Site C Dam and the displacement and destruction caused by countless hydroelectric projects around the world.  I wonder: is Hydroelectricity truly “clean energy”?

When I consider the proposals Hamil raises with some degree of seriousness in this article I can’t help but feel we dodged a bullet by somehow avoiding most of them.  Just imagine if the massive diversion projects of the Soviets had gone ahead:

“The scheme [to divert Russian rivers from the Arctic Ocean to central Asia] is faulted by those who fear that with a lessened flow of fresh water, the Arctic ice pack may shrink, with deleterious effects on the world’s climate.  Some experts worry that the cool air above giant reservoirs would injure crops to the south while the added weight of the waters may stimulate earthquakes” (pp. 49-50).

And it wasn’t just Soviet scheming.  Hamil also references Newsweek’s praise of the North American Water and Power Alliance (NAWAPA) which would have diverted a number of arctic rivers, including the Mackenzie and the Peace (currently the centre of controversy over the abive mentioned Site C Dam proposal), south through the Rockies to the Fraser, Kootenay and Columbia and through extensions to the Rio Grande and East across the prairies to the Missouri and the Great Lakes.  One third of the power generated by this scheme would have gone to pumping the water to unnatural places.  But the U.S. Southwest would have irrigation water , For a time.  What could possibly stand in the way of such a wonderful proposal?  Well, next to cost, the biggest obstacle Hamil suggests is “Canadian reluctance to export its waters” (p. 49).  Those shortsighted Canadians.

What else would make Earth more hospitable?

How about flooding 140,000 square miles of Brazilian rainforest?

or damming the Strait of Gibraltar and the Dardanelles to generate electricity from inflow into an evaporating Mediterranean?

or the more modest proposal of damming the Red Sea for the same purpose?

Dam the Congo River and flood 350,000 square miles of Equatorial African Rainforest?  Dam the rivers of the Indian subcontinent, including the Sacred Ganges?

Dam the Bering Strait for goodness sake!

On p. 52 Hamil suggests that “Mideast peace might someday join Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and, perhaps, an independent Palestine in a Jordan Valley Authority for power generation and irrigation purposes.”  The political foresight is as accurate as the environmental.

Hamil lists all sorts of plans to make new salt lakes in below-sea-level areas of land and tells us, the Soviets “have rejected a plan to drain the Aral Sea.” p. 53  Look again!

Iceberg dams for the Northwest Passage. Diverting the Gulf Stream to the Maritimes. Draining Lake Erie.  The list goes on, blithely unaware of zebra mussels and Asian carp.

Hamil’s brief discussion of tidal and wind power is much more rational, although there is no suggestion of any possible negatives here, especially after those superconducting power lines make a world-wide power grid (p. 57 ff.)

Despite in the end explicitly denying an Asimovian dystopian vision, Hamil depicts a Trantor-like “Ecumenopolis” of 20 billion urban dwelling people connected by highspeed railways linking continents through trans-oceanic tunnels (many of which tunnels would be unnecessary if all the trans-oceanic dams got built).  Whence the food to feed the urban billions?  From all that newly irrigated desert and rainforest, one presumes.  And there must be some nature reserves scattered about for those “congenial species” we’ve kept around.

And then . . .

Oh boy!  Gosh! As though channelling Hugo Gernsback (whom he references):

“By the first half of the 21st century . . .” atomic powered locomotives!!!!

And the canals!  Panama’s is child’s play! Hamil draws lines across every continent, joining the river basins of India, diverting the Danube to the Sea of Azov, trenching Central America repeatedly.  Sadly, “Opponents of the new interoceanic canals warn that mixing the wildlife of two dissimilar zoological regions can result in serious ecological disruption.”

But on a positive note:

“Several of these stalled canal schemes might become feasible if nuclear devices could be used for excavation purposes” although, “The missing element of general world sanity may long inhibit such uses [of nuclear devices]” (p. 62).  Because, I guess, the definition of “world sanity” is “using nuclear devices to blast canals through continents”.

But Hamil’s not finished.  With perhaps his best bit of prophecy he tells us that if we are truly going to make Earth hospitable, we have to do something about the climate:

“If humankind is ever to get a handle on both short and long range climatic trends, it will have to utilize tools to alter productive forces in both these weather factories [the oceans and the icecaps] (p.62).

Antarctic coal!

Ocean mining!!

Industrial complexes in the oceans!!!

Cities on the ice of Antarctica and Greenland!!!!

Towing icebergs to desert regions!!!!!

“By the next century” !!!!!!

Let’s get that Global Planning Commission going!

But, remember:  “The entire planning process must be permeated with concern for the ecological well-being of the planet” (p. 64)  Hamil suggests that computers and their sophisticated programming will make modelling simple and keep everything shipshape and Bristol fashion.  Oh, and human rights. Hamil suggests the importance of considering the rights of humans living in the area of terraforming projects, for example, by making Third World construction projects labour intensive, thereby providing jobs for the local underclasses.  Give them a hand up through hard manual labour rather than by educating and training them to be skilled labour.  I notice Quebec’s “James Bay Scheme” on Hamil’s chart of “Examples of planetary engineering: proposed hydroelectric projects” (p.61).  I wonder how that clean energy project worked out.    The first phase was constructed without any serious attempt at environmental assessment or consideration of the human rights of the Cree in the area. The environmental and human damage was incalculable.  Hydro Quebec tried to proceed with phase two, the Great Whale Project, but the Cree used the Canadian Courts to hold the developers’ feet to the fire.  In the end the damage Great Whale would do was so great and so obvious that the Quebec Government “put the project on hold indefinitely”, effectively pulling the plug.  In hindsight, it is clear that the only way these “terraforming” mega-projects ever went ahead is when “ecological well-being of the planet” and human rights do not in any way permeate the planning process

The strangely distorted and rose-coloured vision throughout the article is stunning.  But at the end, there is a brief moment of clarity, obscured immediately by a “but”:

“Sheer magnificence of imagination ought not to hypnotize us.  But an emerging world civilization out to be capable of far more enduring works than its tribal predecessors with their meagre resources” (p. 65).

Well, Mr. Hamil, it’s looking more and more like our emerging world civilization has indeed constructed those enduring works by means of our “terraforming” ambitions and their unintended consequences :  climate change and extinctions. But somehow we haven’t made the Earth more hospitable for any species, “congenial” or otherwise.

I suppose we lacked the wit and imagination.

In 1978 as much as we do today.


I’m feeling really annoyed at the Dean of Edmonton Theatre Reviewers

I’m feeling a little annoyed at Colin MacLean, “the Dean of Edmonton Theatre Reviewers.” You see, when writing in the Mary Poppins playbill earlier this year about the then-upcoming Citadel production of Romeo and Juliet, he reminisced about the 1976 Citadel production of the same play:

“It featured Canadian Brent Carver (who went on to win a Tony in New York) and a young Tom Wood as Mercutio. (Also it featured a Juliet who performed the balcony scene topless but that is another discussion.)”

Well, Colin, that Juliet you dismiss with such puerility has a name. She’s Nicky Guadagni. John Neville brought her to Edmonton fresh from playing Miranda to Paul Scofield’s Prospero in London. She’d graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. She’s since been nominated for five Geminis and won two. She’s had as successful a career as that young man who played her Romeo in 1976. I’d argue she’s gone much further than her Mercutio.

It is absolutely shameful and sexist of you to dismiss Nicky Guadagni as the topless, nameless Juliet on the balcony.


By the way: if I remember correctly, Mr. Carver also played that scene topless, Colin.

Check out Ms. Guadagni’s CV here.

And then see again what the Dean of ‪#‎yegtheatre‬ Reviewers has to say about her:

Colin MacLean being sexist

La Vie Moderne: Paris 1880-1910 (and a little bit of Toulouse-Lautrec) at the Art Gallery of Alberta

The most important thing to say about the current exhibition on the second floor of the Art Gallery of Alberta is that it is  a magnificent, overwhelming survey of the graphic arts produced in Paris in the decades around 1895.  It presents a tremendous opportunity for the student of art history.  It is a marvellous collection of beautiful art to be enjoyed for its own sake.  Art Services International has assembled a stunning collection of works and the Art Gallery of Alberta has again done a great service to Edmonton by bringing La Vie Moderne to our city.

But . . .

Everywhere the show is being marketed as somehow a Toulouse-Lautrec exhibit.  If you go to the AGA expecting a Toulouse-Lautrec show, you’ll be sadly disappointed.  Only about ten percent of the works are by Toulouse-Lautrec and most of those few are not particularly outstanding examples of his work.  Art Services International would have been wise, I think, to give the exhibition a more honest title.  The show presents the flowering of La Vie Moderne in the works of a wide range of artists working in media from lithograph, to oil, to shadow theatre.  Historically accurate or not, Toulouse-Lautrec is not shown by this exhibit to be central to the scene: he is no more than one of the many inspired artists working to show and shape the modern life in Paris.

With that out of the way . . .

I would like to comment a bit on the exhibition and some of the works and then I will say some things about the accompanying catalogue.

The Exhibition

The works are somewhat haphazardly divided by subject matter: Landscapes, Scenes of Daily Life, Cabaret Life, The Cafe-Concert, Portraits, Symbolism, and a few works depicting the Circus, and, of course, a single wall of Toulouse-Lautrec’s works.  I say “haphazardly divided” because, for example, Mucha’s absolutely monumental portrait of Sarah Bernhardt, will listed in the catalogue with the Portraits, is hung at the AGA with scenes of the Cafe-Concert.  In fact, the entire show seems to be hung in such a way as to make reference to the catalogue as difficult as possible.  If one perseveres, however, it will be found that three works, Auguste Jean Baptiste Roubille’s shadow theatre influenced “La Comedie”,  André Devambez’s amusing theatre audience character study “Une Première au Théâtre Montmartre”, and Charles Maurin’s exquisite “Jeunes filles a la charrette” are wholly absent from the show.  A disappointment.

A few works I would like to point out

Guilloux’s “The Lake” (Catalogue 10) is absolutely luminous.  A tiny jewel of a painting that is in no way done justice by the washed-out reproduction in the catalogue.

Lacoste’s “Hazy Sun” and “View of Paris” (14 & 15) also are betrayed by the catalogue reproductions. The Hazy Sun is, in fact, a hot white textured ball reaching out to the viewer over an oppressively atmospheric heat haze.  The “View of Paris” also is hazed by the summer heat and the high clouds are a line of fire in the sky.  Lacoste has put all of summer’s light and heat and weight onto cardboard with a bit of paint.

Jeanniot’s “Le Parc Monceau” (17) has done for a Paris winter what Lacoste has done for summer. Our feet are we with slush, the damp wind gets inside our coat.  The air itself seems to be rushing through le Parc Monceau, looking for a warm, dry place.

Rivière’s “Isle of the Swans” (18) is a large, magnificent pastel and crayon piece heavily influenced by Japanese graphic art.  Two women and a dog share the empty artificial island in a twilight of ochre and violet.  The formal lines of trees are bare, reflected in the huge puddle of melted snow.  Rivière has drawn a piece of great ballance and strength with great assurance.

Maurin’s “Woman Sleeping” 21 is a simply stunning piece of draughtsmanship!  One thinks to single out that right hand, they eyes, the left shoulder, but the pencil work is all perfection.  And Maurin has used his interesting vaporizer painting technique on the pillows, the coverlet, the background.  So fine!  And so sad that Maurin’s “Jeunes filles a la charrette” (20) is not on the wall at the AGA.

Carrière’s “Young Violinist” (29) is a little disturbing.  The pale child violinist seems to creep from the shadows like some sort of revenant.  Fascinating.

Lunel’s “Illusions of the Evening” (34) feels ominous.  There is more than a little of the terror/horror story illustration about the woman hurrying toward the viewer, the stiffly erect man following her and the horse-drawn cab further behind but gaining on her.  Sublimely discomfitting.

Bernard’s “Still Life with Fish” (39) is a marvelously bold collection of coarse brush strokes making a luminous and realistic still life of unreal colours.

Laugé’s “Composition of Three Flower Vases” (40) in contrast, is a meticulously controlled composition of fine, largely parallel brush strokes.  In person the brush strokes are much more subtle than in the catalogue reproduction.

And here I will mention two Toulouse-Lautrec pieces:

“Troupe de Mlle Églantine” (60b) is to be noted for two things: the rapid, minimal lines; and those black-stockinged right legs raised in dance which have come to be a symbol of Lautrec, Montmarte and fin de siècle Paris.

“La Vache enragée” (62b) again has the rapid minimal lines. This poster has a whimsy which takes away any possible horror stirred by the wealthy man’s jaundiced skull-like features or terror of the enraged cow in pursuit.  This is a cartoon, in the Saturday morning sense, and a perfect advertisment for the convention-flouting journal of the same name and for the artists’ parade called the Vachalcade.

It is fascinating to see Manet’s “Polchinelle” (66).  Here Manet shows remarkably assured drawing skill, so different from the childlike mess he so often makes of horses.

Rivière’s illustrations for “The Temptation of St. Anthony” (73.1-73.5) are fascinating and offer a hint of what the shadow plays must have been like.  And the zinc cutouts (76-81) which were used for some of the plays give a hint of what an elaborate production the plays could be.  What a fascinating thing it would be to see a shadow play somehow restaged!

Vidal’s book cover “La Vie a Montmartre” (90) is beautiful and whimsical (there’s la vache enragee again). Dancers and artists float in the sky above Paris. Life is good in Montmartre!  Again the catalogue doesn’t do justice to the work.  I particularly noticed the simply managed atmospheric perspective of the lithograph.

Legrand’s “Private Bar” (115) is a fascinating piece. I’d love to find out more about the story behind the black man and the little white girl sitting together in the Private Bar.  A small detail I found of interest is the ads for Bass Ale above the girl’s head.  Bass Ale also features prominently in Manet’s “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère”.  It is sad that Bass has vanished from our modern life.

Villon’s “From other bars” (118) is reminiscent of Degas’ “l’Absinthe”, but here the couple are gazing blankly toward and through – not at – each other.  There is only melancholy here.

Veber’s “La Cariatide” 120 is absolutely hilarious because of the expression on the Cariatide’s face as she looks down on the theatre goers with their own varied expressions from interest, to shock to disgust, to boredom and perhaps even to a few cases of narcolepsy.  Very nice.

Legrand’s Dancers (122-127) are exquisite! The dancer in 124 is strong and in control, whatever the nature of her pose. Legrand’s washes of blue and black provide a simple depth which allows the dancer’s figure to thrust forward.  The blush wash (not well reproduced in the catalogue) on chest and thigh in 127 bring the dancer to warm life.  The young redhaired dancer in 122 and 125 is marvellously alive in variations on the same pose.

Mossa’s “Salomé” 155 I found to be quite interesting because Salomé seems to be presented in a manner very similar to the no well-known Minoan snake goddess discovered by Evans in the ruins at Knossos. Evans first published his find in 1904, three years before Mossa’s “Salomé”.  Could Mossa have heard of Evans’ discovery or seen pictures of the bare-brested snake goddess?

Maxence’s “Hour of Peace” (156) is a simply breath-taking watercolour.

Chabas’ “Daydream” (157) is yet another piece not done justice in the catalogue reproduction.  The subtle greens in the sky and reflected in the water and picked up in the dress of the woman, while visible in the small photo, are simply not of the same effect as when standing before the piece in the gallery.

Guilloux’ “Belle Isle” is simply luminous in person.  The sun and its reflection leap off the canvas.  The light of this sunset (sunrise?) piece is remarkable.  His “The Waterway” 171 again does wonders with light, this time of the moon.

Ménard’s “The Temple of Corinth” (175) I found personally interesting because of it’s very limited palette and its classical subject.  What is not apparent in the catalogue reproduction is the sketchiness of the brushwork.  The temple columns are painted with a quick series of lines through which the sea and distant headland can be seen.  A fascinating piece.

Mucha’s portrait of Sarah Bernhardt (186) I’ve already mentioned.  It is a glorious piece of work.

A few notes on the Catalogue

In her Acknowledgements, Lynn K. Rogerson is absolutely right that we in Edmonton should give our thanks to Catherine Crowston and Laura Richie “for their foresight in making this rich cultural experience available to [our] communit[y].”  The exhibition, despite misleading marketing and missing pieces, is truly a marvelous thing to experience.  The catalogue which accompanies the exhibition, while beautiful and big, leaves much to be desired.

While the essays are very helpful in providing a general context for the art works, the commentaries on individual works I found to be uneven.  Sometimes there was simply no commentary and so, I was left wondering, for example about Legrand’s “Private Bar” (115).  At other times I detected hastiness and superficiality of analysis, for example concerning the placement of the blond woman’s hands in Osbert’s “Rêve du Soir (168) (she clearly has her hands clasped together on her friend’s shoulder and the shape on her face is a shadow). And research seems hasty at times, as in the suggestion that the small stream beyond the railway in Roy’s “Young Girls in a Landscape” is the Siene when it clearly seems to be the small Le Cailly River near Deville-les-Rouen and the young ladies seem to be standing in the vicinity of le Bois l’Archevêque, perhaps near the location of the present Cimetière Communal de Deville-les Rouen.  But now I’m just showing off.

As I’ve mentioned, the reproductions in the catalogue are not the best.  Many works appear muddy, washed out, or dull. Others are garish and bright compared to the actual works.

Certainly it is better to have a catalogue for a huge exhibit such as this than to have no reference material, but there is much that disappoints in this book.

While I have been critical of a number of things about Toulouse-Lautrec and La Vie Moderne: Paris 1880-1910, I must emphasize:

Please go to the show and take time to absorb the marvellous works on exhibit.  The Art Gallery of Alberta is the only Canadian stop for La Vie Moderne. Please take advantage of this wonderful opportunity!

Toulouse-Lautrec and La Vie Moderne: Paris 1880-1910 is at the Art Gallery of Alberta until November 16, 2014

Hasty Thoughts on Angie Abdou’s “Between”

I can’t help thinking that “challenging” is an overused word in the book review shtick, but,  Angie Abdou’s Between is a challenging book.  It’s not challenging in a stylistic sense, like Joyce or Woolf — Abdou’s writing is laid-back and accessible.  And Between is not a monumental modern day À la recherche du temps perdu — it’s a quick three hundred pages covering a year in the lives of an upper-middle class Canadian family and their Filipina nanny.  Potentially pretty tame stuff.  And while Between is perhaps challenging  in that it acknowledges that parenting is often gruelling, that one must often “make the conscious choice to laugh instead of cry”, the deep challenge of the novel, I think, is a challenge to our fundamental assumptions about what is desirable in life.

“Between” is the story of Vero and Shane, 40-something parents of Eliot and Jamal and Ligaya, the nanny they bring to Canada to look after their children.  The basic premise in some ways makes me roll my eyes like Debbie in Stoppard’s The Real Thing: “Infidelity among the architect class. Again.”  Rich people have it so tough.  As annoyingly self-absorbed and blinkered as Vero and Shane are, what becomes quickly clear is that they are a mirror held up to Canadian affluence.  What starts out as the story of a couple suffering the burden of success, desperately trying to find themselves or lose themselves in drugs and sex, soon becomes a mesh of interwoven metaphors pointing to larger issues than “Where will Vero get her Percocet today?”

Early in the book, Shane tells Vero “We can have everything. Let’s take it.” This becomes their almost unwavering policy through the book, from bringing Ligaya to Canada, through their Saturnalian Jamaican holiday, to the final crisis in Ligaya’s basement bedroom.  Near the middle of the book, Vero remembers (and quickly forgets) a statement her own mother once made:

My generation worked for a world in which women could do anything. Your generation misinterpreted that to mean that you must do everything.

Shortly after, Vero and Shane are at the Jamaican resort named “Hedonism”, making a brave effort to do, in fact, everything.

There is a sense of panic in “Between”. Vero spends her days frantically doing little or nothing.  Her work is proofreading manuals for military equipment, manuals which will be translated into Arabic, rendering her work pointless.   Her children seem to be little other than frustrating pieces of furniture until Ligaya takes over as parent. At that point the boys become cute things to look at before another round of Bikram Yoga.  Vero is unable to see the obvious: she doesn’t want the life and the family she’s constantly chasing.  Almost all that’s left for here is the meaningless chase.

Ligaya, on the other hand, can’t have the life she wants with her family in the Philippines.    She is constantly and productively working to make life better for her employers and for their children in order to make life better for her own family.  Neither woman is particularly happy, but Ligaya’s life has purpose beyond “I can have it, so I’ll take it. I can do it, so I must.”

And, Ligaya’s thought: “This world is not made for women. Not in the Philippines. Not here. Maybe not anywhere.”  This fact is made most explicit (word chosen carefully) at the resort which is “everywhere and nowhere”, where the rules are clearly made by men.

Before the Jamaican holiday, Vero, talking like an English major, says “sex is a metaphor!” Although no one seems to realize it in the book, the holiday proves her absolutely right.  In fact, almost everything in Between is a metaphor.  The resort is “nowhere and everywhere”.  “Bikram yoga: destroying the environment one tree pose at a time!” “SWEAT KILLS!”  In a surreal scene, Vero demands of a young man “Protest the oil sands, the war in Iraq, the cuts to public transit, for God’s sakes.”

And the young man’s response sums up Vero and Shane’s life, Between and our world: “They’re all the same thing.”

In the end, Abdou offers a solution, a resolution to vast, tangled web of self-deception which is a big metaphor for our diseased, tangled, self-deceiving  society: the outsider takes control.  Remembering that Ligaya’s name means “Happiness” in Tagalog, the final two words of the novel provide yet another layer of metaphor, and a touch of hope:

“Ligaya drives.”