Category Archives: Art

Paddington and Walker Evans

Paddington 2

Paddington 2

I spent a delightful morning in Paddington’s London, followed by an afternoon of modern art and photography at the San Francisco MOMA. Both offer a welcome respite from the ugliness of Trump’s America. (“If you’re kind and polite, the world will be right” vs. “shithole countries.”)

Paddington 2 opened today here in the US, and right now the movie has 100% positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. I went to the early bird bargain matinee at the San Francisco Cinemark Century 9. I was happy to find that they’d installed recliner seats, although the leg rest went up without the back reclining. Instead, the raked rows of recliners have a solid partial wall behind each of them that block your view to everything in front but the screen. It’s nice not seeing people check their phones and fidget, but it’s also a bit isolating.

Paddington 2 is a treat from beginning to end. The production design is colorful and creative. The cast is top-notch. The effects appear effortless, which is a tribute to the efforts of the many people who bring the bear to life. The story is engaging for adults like me, and presumably fine for the kids, too. (I didn’t take any with me.) Honestly, I can’t think of anything to criticize. Wait, just one thing. The closing credits have a lot going on, delightful things that you shouldn’t miss, but you won’t actually read the credits while they’re happening. That’s okay for me though, because I will be seeing the movie again.

Ben Whishaw once again provides the voice of Paddington. Sally Hawkins and Hugh Bonneville are back as the Browns, and their kids (Samuel Joslin and Madeleine Harris) have done a lot of growing since the last film. Feisty Julie Walters and cranky Peter Capaldi are back, too. Joanna Lumley isn’t onscreen for long, but she makes the most of her time. I love Tom Conti in anything, and Richard Ayoade (The IT Crowd) and Eileen Atkins have fun cameos. Brendan Gleeson and all the actors rocking pink stripes are terrific, and Hugh Grant is clearly having a good time hamming it up. He deserves his BAFTA nomination for the closing credits alone.

Paddington 2 cast (photo credit: Roscommon Herald)

Walker Evans – Flood refugees at mealtime, Forrest City, Arkansas, 1937

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art currently features a Walker Evans exhibit with over 300 prints, and it’s just a few blocks from the cinema. The San Francisco Public Library has a program called Discover & Go, offering free passes to many of the museums, swimming pools, and attractions in the Bay Area. All you need is an SF library card. The pass for the MOMA is good for 2 adult admissions (kids under 18 are already free), and you just need to make your reservation the month before.

Walker Evans (1903-1975) was an American photographer best known for his depression-era photographs for the Farm Security Administration. Not surprisingly, the rooms featuring these photographs were the most crowded. The Walker Evans exhibit is divided into two parts, with the museum cafe located in between. Some of the prints are tiny, and they include early self-portraits from photo booths. There were also materials on display by other people that Evans collected. I love photos of faces, so I was drawn to the portraits, especially the ones from the 1937 Mississippi flood and the subway series. Other featured subjects include posters, signs, store windows, trash, tools, architecture, and African objects.

I also explored the Robert Rauschenberg exhibit, then visited the other floors with Lichtenstein, Mondrian, Warhol and Rothko. Many other artists too, of course, but these guys even I recognize without having to check the description. It wasn’t too busy on any of the floors, so a great day to explore the collections. The gift shop on the ground floor is always worth a visit, too.

For a few hours today, the world was right.

Walker Evans – Lunchroom Buddies, New York City

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Taqueria “Art”

San Francisco has a lot of great taquerias, and I love a big vegetarian burrito with lots of sour cream and guacamole.  While the food is great, the art on the walls is sometimes…questionable.  This masterpiece is above the salsa bar at a place on Haight Street.  I often eat my burrito and study it, wondering what happened to this woman’s other breast.

I did wonder if this image was too “mature” to post, but honestly, it’s on the wall in a public place!


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The Guns of August

“The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”   Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary

Starry Night Over The Rhone, Vincent Van Gogh 1888

Starry Night Over The Rhone, Vincent Van Gogh, 1888

Because my post on Armistice Day, the end of World War 1, got such a huge response, it seemed right to commemorate the beginning of the Great War.  Here’s the complicated timeline:

June 28, 1914  Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife are assassinated in Sarajevo.

July 28, 1914  Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary declares war on Serbia.

July 31, 1914  As an ally of Serbia, Russia announces full mobilization of her armed forces.

August 1, 1914  Germany mobilizes her armed forces and declares war on Russia.

August 3, 1914  Germany declares war on France.

August 4, 1914  Germany declares war on a neutral Belgium and invades in a move designed to defeat France quickly, causing Britain to declare war on Germany.

A Star Shell by C.R.W. Nevinson

A Star Shell by C.R.W. Nevinson. 1916

References: The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman is a detailed account of the start of World War I.   The timeline of WWI came from this site.  Here is a poem based on Nevinson’s painting.

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Remembering Simon Pettet

I met Simon Pettet in September, 1986. I was in London visiting my eccentric uncle, Dennis Severs, famous for his restored Georgian house in Spitalfields. On my previous visit to the house in 1980, Dennis was living alone with Whitechapel the cat (aka Maj) and three kittens named Hackney, Stepney and Bethnal Green. Six years later, the kittens had grown up and moved out, Dominic the Footman was busy working about the house, and Simon Pettet was lodging on the top floor.

Simon was just returning to England after working at a summer camp, teaching art to a bunch of spoiled American teenagers. I arrived at 18 Folgate Street a few days before he came home, and Dennis couldn’t wait to tell me all about him. He was a 21-year-old artist who specialized in blue and white delft pottery. He had his studio nearby in the East End, and he would dash off to work on a series of “push-bikes” (never just a bike to Simon) that always gave him problems. Dennis described Simon as a true original. I didn’t need to be told that Simon was unique, because there weren’t many people who could live in that house with my uncle. Not only was there no central heating or electric lighting, but Simon’s bed was sitting under a leak in the roof. One night he knocked over the bucket balanced on the headboard and was drenched in icy water. Nights after a performance in the house, he would have to open his window and wait for the stench of rotting cabbage to clear before he could go to bed.

I knew what Dennis meant by “an original” as soon as Simon came through the door.  He wore heavy work boots, and he stomped across the floorboards, all elbows and knees and voice and energy. He burned bright,  and the words bubbled out of him. I loved him instantly. He told us how the American kids at the summer camp mocked him for calling erasers “rubbers,” and he was excited by the design on a can of American shaving cream. It was the only souvenir he brought back with him. He also had plaster gargoyles for the Dickens bedroom in his duffle bag, which my uncle asked him to pick up in New York. Dennis was so excited, we all rushed upstairs to put them around the Scrooge bed. Unfortunately, we didn’t secure them properly, and one of them fell on a visitor’s head the following night.

I could sit in my chair in the kitchen, with Maj on my knee, just watching Dennis and Simon all day. I would listen to them tell stories, usually about parties from the night before, as we made toast against the kitchen fire and drank coffee. One of Simon’s best stories was how he accidentally flipped a slice of gateau onto a white sofa at a fancy party, and he had to try to hide the frosting marks from the host. Simon also had a secret stash of objects he had broken in the house, hidden in his cupboard, waiting to be mended. Dennis knew all about them, but he pretended otherwise.

One of the best London nights I ever had was with Simon in the West End in 1988. I don’t even remember exactly what we did, probably just ate dinner and visited a few bars. It was his company and his conversation that entertained me. Even though I had known him for two years by then, I still had to explain to him that Dennis was my uncle and I was his niece, and how that was different from a cousin. Somehow he had never bothered to learn that stuff.

Another memorable outing we had together was in 1991, when Dennis took both of us to the National Theatre for my birthday. When we arrived at the theatre, I suddenly couldn’t remember if I had blown out the candle in my bedroom. I was horrified at the thought of burning down my uncle’s house. I started to fret, and I whispered my worries to Simon. We spent the evening giving each other panicked looks.  I even went to the pay phones at intermission, figuring that if the answering machine picked up, the house was probably still intact. After the play ended, Simon and I both urged Dennis to take us home. He wanted to get coffee and dessert, so we continued to suffer together. Of course, everything was fine when we arrived back at the house, or I wouldn’t be writing this. Dennis would have murdered me! Simon couldn’t help telling Dennis all about it later, though.

I was lucky enough to visit Simon at his pottery studio when he was painting a pair of delft shoes for the drawing room. They were meant to belong to Mrs. Jervis, and they were left by the fireplace in “The First Position.” Simon made many pieces for 18 Folgate Street, including the fireplace tiles in the master bedroom, depicting the neighbors who lived in Spitalfields. He made many obelisks, and there was also a series of mugs based on late 18th century semi-industrial ware. I have one of these mugs, brought to me by Dennis on his final trip to San Francisco.

The last time I saw Simon was in 1992. He was still burning bright, but he was dying of AIDS. He passed away on December 26, 1993, at the age of 28. Dennis died six years and one day later. Their work and my memories remain.

Simoninkitchen ps copy

Photograph ©M. Stacey Shaffer 1991

Photographs of Simon’s fireplace tiles can be seen here.


Filed under Art, Photography, Real Life, Travel

In Remembrance: Armistice Day

It’s a fine thing that all veterans are remembered and honored for their service today, but I find myself focusing on World War I—a war most people know very little about.  The place names where horrific battles took place—Ypres, Verdun, Passchendaele, the Somme, Loos—resonate far less now than they once did.  It’s impossible to encapsulate all that the First World War was and what it meant in one little blog post, but here are some facts, some quotes from the book Back To The Front by Stephen O’Shea, and some art of World War I.

“In Northern France, from October 25, 1914, to March 10, 1915, there were only eighteen days without rain.  The misery of millions of men, standing in cold and muddy ditches on end, can only be imagined.” (page 62)

C. R. W. Nevinson, "Paths of Glory," 1917

“In the summer and fall of 1914, France lost as many men on the battlefield as the American army would in all of the twentieth century.” (page 27)

“The [Ypres] Salient’s defining moment was the week of July 25 to July 31, 1917, when the British army fired off 4,283, 550 shells (or 107,000 tons of metal) along a front twelve miles wide, then had its infantry try to wade through—in the rain—the ensuing soupy morass in the face of sustained machine-gun fire.”   (page 20-21)

Eric Kennington, "Gassed and Wounded," 1918

The battlefield of Verdun had the highest density of dead per square yard.  This ten month conflict had over a million casualties.

The Battle of the Somme:  “It was the biggest fiasco in British military history….No fighting force on the Western Front would ever lose so many so quickly, and for so little….By noon, all along the narrow swathe of no-man’s-land from Gommecourt to Hébuterne to the River Somme, 60,000 young men lay wounded, dying or dead, a carpet of bloodied khaki that writhed and moaned in the sullen sunlight.  Optimism began to drain from a culture that had conquered a world.” (page 87)

John Singer Sargent, "Gassed," 1918-19

Messines Ridge:  “…the operation was  a British success, for the simple reason that the attackers blew the German lines to smithereens.  The surprise lay in nineteen gigantic underground bombs.”   “The blast was clearly heard in London… as the shock wave from Belgium buffeted the southern counties of Britain.”  (page 49)

C. R. W. Nevinson, "A Taube," 1916-17

By the end of the war, 11% of France’s total population had died or been wounded.  230 soldiers died for every hour of the 4¼ years that the war was fought.  One half of the 70,000,000 men and women in uniform were either killed, wounded, or prisoners of war.  One half of those who died have no known grave.

One of the lasting legacies of World War I is known at the Iron Harvest.  Tons of bombs and shells were dropped along the front, and it is estimated that at least one in four failed to explode.  Many of these sank into the mud and are still being brought up when farmers plough their fields.  After all this time, the French government still collects about 900 tons of unexploded munitions every year.

“Never such innocence again.” –  Philip Larkin,  MCMXIV


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