L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e ~ D o s t o ï e v s k i

L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e  ~  D o s t o ï e v s k i

Friday, December 14, 2012

One finger at a time

There's something about putting on and, especially, taking off a glove.  I don't know what it is, exactly, that I find so transporting about this very ordinary action.  But when I'm wearing gloves - especially nicer ones, thin leather ones - and I enter a building, walking and taking off one glove first, pulling at the finger ends, loosening, then sliding the glove off and clasping it in the other still-gloved hand, I feel like I'm on stage or, more so, in a movie.  Every single time I do this little movement, no matter where I am or how otherwise shabbily I'm dressed, I feel quite elegant, glamorous even.  I always feel delightfully cinematic.



Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Burning patterns and burnt language

This past Saturday, I co-emceed at a literary event.  Gigi and several other fantastic writers - some real heavy-hitters among them - read at the second of an ongoing, quarterly series, Burnt Tongue.  "Burnt" refers to writer and teacher Tom Spanbauer's workshop challenge to "burn" language, deconstructing/reconstructing language in the service of defining character, as a way to discover literary "voice".*  A central figure in Portland literary life - most of the writers who read are, or have been, students of his - Tom read last, a beautiful/awful passage from his current novel.

And everyone's work was really wonderful - funny, smart, touching, challenging - and the audience was rapt and appreciative.  But being as incredibly self-absorbed as I am - I'm an artist; I'm supposed to be that way, right? - I still found time to be overly critical of my emceeing performance.  Because it wasn't what I had imagined it would be; I certainly got the job done, but I wasn't the brimming font of charm I'd hoped to be.  That, combined with the dislocating effects of only-on-Facebook friendships - and more than half the crowd were FB friends of mine - got me snuggled up against old, negative behavioral patterns, the kinds of social (non)interaction I thought I'd gotten past, grown out of.  And then, finding myself down that rabbit hole, turning and wondering, "hey, I remember this unpleasant locale; how the hell did I wind up here again?"  Sunday - on Facebook, bien sûr - I mused a bit on my experience of the previous night.


First thought about last night's Burnt Tongue reading:
Married to a writer, I go to a lot of readings and hear a lot of great writing. But last night was something very special. And one of the incidental delights of the evening was watching Lidia Yuknavitch** across the room - she was in my direct line of sight - just beaming as she listened to the other writers read, her love for what her fellow writers do and who they are was so obvious. And I keep thinking that it was just the perfect expression of the amazing, loving camaraderie that is what Portland's writer's community is all about.

Second thought about last night's Burnt Tongue reading:

I got a good smacking from that weird FB condition. You know, that thing where you know SO much about your FB friends - their politics, their love life, their kids, their family, their job, their vacations, their health, on and on - and you have great, smart FB interactions, but in person, you don't know them AT ALL. I often find that gulf
very hard to bridge, makes me paralytically shy. And when that FB friend is someone whose work I tremendously respect, or even if I just think them very cool, it gets that much harder. So, trying to break the cycle, I'm outing myself to my top three from last night: Dear Monica Drake, who is a good egg to be sure, in the future I will try to do more than just bid goodnight as you and Kass exit the building. Mr. Mingo I will attempt more than a handshake or a wave; we might speak of large vegetables and France, even. And Miss Lidia - great, lustrous, vibrating soul of a woman - I will try to make it past just telling you that I'm kinda scared of you. Oy!

Third thought about last night's Burnt Tongue reading:
When I was younger, whenever anyone complemented me on anything, especially on my art, I - always - felt compelled to tell them what was wrong with the thing at hand, to tell them where I had failed in whatever way. Somehow, I guess I felt my over-critical self-honesty would be a service to us both; no one should be fooled. But at some point, someone pointed out that that was actually a pretty ungracious thing to do, that it denied, even disrespected the experience of the other; it spurned the gift of their complement. And really, it was very selfish, saying that my experience was more valid than theirs. And at some point, I stopped doing that.

We all try and grow up and come to an acceptance of the muck of our experience, remold ourselves into a shape that better suits who we really are on the inside. And then, there you go. In an unplanned dive, you find yourself back in an almost forgotten, but still awfully comfortable, uncomfortable place. Which sounds - terribly - important but, really, I'm just trying to say that people were so nice to me last night about my co-emceeing stint. And because - I - didn't do quite what I imagined I'd do, I proceeded to bat away their kindness. Well, basta! Thank you, sweet people. I do appreciate it. xo 

Fourth (and final) thought about last night's Burnt Tongue reading: 

It was really all about the WRITING! (Beautiful, beautiful writing....)


*  Tom Spanbauer, giving a fuller explanation of the concept of "burning" language: 

[from a workshop description]  "... the first thing we will encounter is voice. How to create it. Saying it wrong, saying it spoken rather than written, saying it raw. By challenging old creative writing workshop language, we will investigate what my teacher [Gordon Lish] called Burnt Tongue. The New York Times, in its review of  The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon [Tom's best known book], called it Poisoned Lyricism. Character lies in the destruction of the sentence. How a character thinks is how she speaks..." 

[from another workshop description]  "Participants should expect a close look at their writing. Sentence by sentence. What we’re really doing is deconstructing language down to the fundamentals, in search of voice. Character lies in the destruction of the sentence. By analyzing parts of speech – adverbs, abstract nouns, received text, clichés, “proper” grammar – each student will get to scrutinize his or her language as it goes onto the page, and in that scrutiny, come up with some new and exciting ways to get rid of that creative writing sound, or that weird way one’s writing sounds formal, distant, boring, drab."

[from an interview]  "Lish’s workshop met once a week, and there were maybe 120 people in his class. Instead of being theoretical, it was all, What does this sentence sound like? How to create a voice, and to get authority of voice by “saying it wrong”—what he called “burnt tongue.” It’s a way of writing as if you were speaking, of making your prose sound raw or strange or off or wrong or weird. Basically of fucking up your syntax."

And a quote from Chuck Palahniuk, Tom's best-known student:

"The next aspect, Spanbauer calls "burnt tongue." A way of saying something, but saying it wrong, twisting it to slow down the reader. Forcing the reader to read close, maybe read twice, not just skim along a surface of abstract images, short-cut adverbs, and clichés." 

**  In case you're not familiar with the names, Lidia Yuknavitch and Monica Drake are two of the best known and respected writers who happen to live in Portland.  (They're also part of the same writing group that includes the above-quoted Chuck Palahniuk and Cheryl Strayed - rare air!)  And their respective - and also very talented - spouses are Andy Mingo, a filmmaker, and Kass Alonso, a writer.

Friday, November 23, 2012

"L'ai-je bien descendu?!"

Several years ago, not long before Gigi and I found each other, I stumbled upon an overly-efficient but, to my mind, rather elegant method of racking up credit card debt.  Bidding on Ebay for vintage postcards and cartes de visite of mid-nineteenth to early-twentieth century European royalty.  (I now own a quite impressive collection - two volumes full - and, yes, the cards are paid off.  And, yes, I hardly ever even remember that I own them.)  I suppose I was lonely, bored.  The best, most fertile condition for reckless, not-very-useful-or-ever-will-be expenditure.  In my bidding and buying frenzy, I only managed to veer off-topic twice:  I have a small cabinet card from 1902 of a young Austrian military cadet; I suppose his lyrical beauty is sufficient explanation for the departure.  And the other  - the cabinet card pictured above - I have no explanation for whatsoever.

The image is of a young Cécile Sorel, the famous French actress.  She's obviously in costume for a play, but I don't know which.  Other than her name, I knew nothing of her before the purchase, and only a little more now:

Born Cécile Émilie Seurre in 1873, she made an early start in the theatre and by 1901 had been admitted to the Comédie-Française.  She had a long and successful career there; her most celebrated role was Molière's Célimène.  Internationally known, she was charming and vivacious, and held the friendship of many a "great man".  As was common with popular actresses of the day, her photograph - in costume or in the latest fashion - was in every journal or newspaper, and her lifestyle was as commented on as her acting. 

Her beautiful apartment on the Quai Voltaire was famous for its elegant, but daring décor and perfect taste; Cecil Beaton in his "The Glass of Fashion" devotes several pages to describing it, all but foaming over in nostalgic rapture:

 "...The fine boiseries were of eggshell blue and gold.  Against a magnificent Coromandel screen she placed a couple of Jacob fauteuils in lobster-scarlet velvet.  [...]  The floor, of white and pigeons'-blood marble squares, was spread with leopard skins, while the walls, of an eggshell brown, were hung with medallions of carved stone.  The dining table of marble was copied from one at Versailles and was covered with a cloth of gold tissue.  For her dinner parties huge garlands of scarlet poppies... were stretched in festoons the length of the table...."

Two of Beaton's drawings which were included in the book.

Apparently she was long engaged to wealthy American architect Whitney Warren, but in 1926, at the age of 52, she married the much younger Guillaume-Henri-Robert, comte de Ségur-Lamoignon who, an actor himself, went by the stage name of Guillame de Sax.  Not a successful union - they separated but never divorced - the chief benefit of this marriage was that she was able to spend the rest of her days happily employing the glamorous appellation, la comtesse de Ségur.

She retired from the Comédie-Française in 1933, and at the age of sixty, made nearly unrecognizable by a radical face-lift (see more below), she completely reinvented herself as an improbable star of the music hall.  At her first appearance in this new sphere, after making her long descent of the escalier Dorian at the Casino de Paris, she paused at the foot of the stairs and uttered one of the most famous phrases in all of music hall history:  "L'ai-je bien descendu?!"  ("I came down well?")


I'm pretty sure that the bared breast in the center image above is only a product of artistic license; Sorel was in her sixties at 
this point, after all.  The costume design in the sketch by Drian, above right, is shown as worn in the photograph above.

In 1937, in a role that suggested typecasting, she played an aging courtesan in Sasha Guitry's Les Perles de la couronne.  She continued working in the theatre during and through the end of WWII.  Even as her career inevitably waned, she was still to be seen everywhere - with other celebrities, in the newspapers; always très à la mode - until, it seems, she thought perhaps the time had come for one last transformation.

Being glamorous and dramatic about town.  (On the left, in 1947, with Jean Marais and Edwige Feuillère.)

Like so many grand ladies with a perhaps too glamorous past, in her old age she rediscovered God.  And in 1950 the comtesse de Ségur decided to retire from life and took vows of the Third Order of Saint Francis of Assisi.  Until her death, she wore the "sackcloth" habit of the order - though her habit was white and red, rather than the regulation brown, and was made up for her by leading couturiers.  She died in 1966 at the age of 93.

The year before her death, resplendent in her religious robes, reminiscing about 
her former glories.  Still the actress.  Et encore très animée et charmante.


In her memoirs, Mes cahiers bleus (My blue notebooks), famous courtesan Liane de Pougy speaks often of Sorel.  (De Pougy and Sorel had similar trajectories; both married a much younger, low-rent aristocrat, whom they later separated from but never divorced, thus keeping an attractive title - Liane became Princess Ghika in 1920 - and both spent their waning days as part of a religious order.)  Reading between the lines, de Pougy sounds a bit jealous of Sorel, and in describing the effect of the latter's cosmetic surgery she doesn't temper her frankness:

[In 1933, after seeing her photograph in a newspaper]  "Sorel has had her nose done and her face lifted so often that she has ended with a different face.  She is still pretty through it all, but one wonders who it is."

[And the next year]  "I saw Cécile close up at Armenonville in July.  [...]  She is fairly frightening, her body delicate, supple, quite fashionable, her face tortured, the eyes sunken and too wide open.  They say that she has had her eyelids lifted and that now it's impossible for her to shut them completely...."

And this was in 1934.  The technology of rejuvenation has certainly advanced since then, and its results are usually much less crude.  But in her quest for the permanent bloom of youth, for reasons both personal and professional, the comtesse de Ségur was certainly a woman ahead of her time.

The "new and improved" Cécile Sorel.  In the photograph on the right, Sorel is
made ready by the writer Colette, who briefly had her own cosmetics business.
With Willy Michel, photographed in his Photomaton in 1939.  Visible here, as
proof of the drastic face-lift, is the rather alarming recession of her hairline.

Friday, November 9, 2012

One foot in....

Health matters can be very confounding to an aging hypochondriac.  The doctors roll their eyes at you when you shuffle in with your long, hand-written list of all the things that presently ache or dribble or sting.  At this point in your life you're apparently supposed to be broken down and feel vaguely wretched all the time; you're not sick, dear, you're just old.  So how can you ever manage to discern if any one (or several) of those creaky or lumpy annoyances is actually something else?  Something real.  Something that will one day, quite unexpectedly to everyone but you who, of course, has been expecting this your whole damn life, cause you to drop down dead right in the street.

I do hope that, by some frantic calculation, I'll be able to resolve this bewildering question... before it's too late....

Friday, November 2, 2012

It started with Queen Olga

 Queen Olga of the Hellenes, born Grand Duchess Olga Constantinovna of Russia, first queen of the current Greek royal line, grandmother of the Duke of Edinburgh, etc., was really quite near-sighted.  I've always been charmed by the way she would often pose for official studio portraits (as opposed to merely informal family snapshots) with her trusty lorgnette; if the camera intended to focus in on her, she seemed determined to return the compliment.

The first idea I had for my current show at Froelick Gallery, here in Portland, was certainly inspired by this short-sighted personage.  I quickly started forming other ideas related to sight.  How we enhance and obscure our vision, intentionally and unintentionally.  Literally and metaphorically.  It's a bit of a gimmick, I guess - eyeglasses, mirrors, veils - but it certainly seems a pertinent metaphor for an artist.  All I do is see.  And I'm constantly adapting my sight, literally, as I make art; taking off and putting on my glasses, adjusting to the variances in natural and artificial light.  And then adapting the sighted world, respecting the laws of what we perceive as real-in-the-world, while forcing reality to fit the truth of my imagination; altering color and light, reflection and proportion - the too-small waist and the too-small shoe aren't possible, but absolutely true in the sight of my imagination.  And I think because I see these impossibilities so clearly in my imagination, they translate as somehow correct - impossible but true - in my paintings.

The show is titled, La Vue à travers.  The view through.  It's rather a small group of paintings, but the lovely people at Froelick wanted a show from me this year, and they understood that I was already booked for a full show in Seattle in June.  So when we spoke of this at the beginning of the year, they were very accommodating and agreed to a smaller than normal body of work.  There are only five painting in this exhibition, but I'm very happy with the work.  And I learned a lot, making it.


People ask me a lot about my process, so I thought I'd show the finished work alongside the small sketches that are my only working out of theme and composition before I actually start drawing out the image on the panel; I only work out the final design and all the details at that point.  I always jot down my ideas on 3x5 pads.  I include visual notes and sometimes ideas for titles.  With two of the paintings here, I needed to make an additional sketch - a rare event.

After I was all but finished with the painting, I decided that Le Miroir should have some sort of unglamorous plant rising up on the left side.  For compositional balance and irony.  So I sketched out something attractive and imaginary - only God can make a tree, but I fabricate plants all the time - though the little weedy item ended up slightly different in the painting itself.  And I wasn't having an easy time drawing out the hat in Le Voile, so I needed to step back and come up with a proper hat design before I could continue; it ended up being my favorite part of the painting.

I always tell people that I don't draw well, and I don't.  I've never developed any dexterity or fluidity; my sketching is crude, and I erase much more that I actually draw.  But honestly, for paintings, I only need to draw enough to set the image firmly in my imagination and then, on the panel, as a strong base upon which to paint.  I don't need any more than that.  Ça suffit!


La Lorgnette - acrylic on panel - 24x18 - 2012

Le Monocle - acrylic on panel - 16x12 - 2012

Le Miroir - acrylic on panel - 36x24 - 2012

Les Lunettes - acrylic on panel - 24x24 - 2012

Le Voile - acrylic on panel - 24x18 - 2012

Friday, October 19, 2012

Hands and paper


Books.  And magazines, pamphlets, catalogues.  Newspapers.
And letters.  Typed letters.  Hand-written letters.  Telegrams.
Printed greeting cards in the mail.  Postcards sent.  Stacks of photographs, shuffled through.

All these have become thin images on a screen.  Chemical and phantom.
A finger's tap may call them forth.  But our touch can never meet, never know that other existence, a reality of shape and texture and ink.
Our words, our thoughts and memories are only in our eyes and minds, now.  When they used to be in our hands, as well.


Thursday, October 11, 2012

Of bullfighting, sex, and the human animal

A friend of mine posted a photograph on Facebook yesterday of a bullfighter being horrifically gored.  He captioned it simply, "Sometimes when you stab an animal that animal will stab you back", as a statement against the institution of bullfighting.  While I understood his point, I can't imagine that he has many FB friends who are also tauromachophiles, and who might thus be converted by the sight of this incredibly gruesome image.  Many, if not most, will feel that what happened to Juan José Padilla last year was only just, considering his chosen profession, but I'm unable to view the incident in quite such a simple, straightforward manner.

For the record, I'm no fan of bullfighting.  And though I generally regret the passing of traditions that contain any element of beauty or glamour, I think that bullfighting should and must pass away.  The animal rights aspect - and for the horses used in the corrida de toros, as much as for the bulls - is clear; the whole business is indefensible.  And yet I think we - especially we Americans, so decisive and short-sighted and unsubtle in all things - don't look with any depth as to why this tradition still exists.  And why it arouses such a deep veneration and passion in those we can't otherwise argue are simply savage or uncultured.  What do they see and experience that we don't?

Though it is usually referred to as a sport or bloodsport, I'd have to agree with the alternative argument that it is an art form.  (A perverse one, yes.)  And much more than that, a ritual.  A very codified ritual of violence.  Blood ritual is not something very comprehensible or attractive to the majority of modern society, and certainly anathema to the ever-lurking Puritan ethos of Americans.  But bullfighting goes back to prehistory.  Prehistory.  And I believe there is something elemental in this bloody pageant that, from the comfort of our modern existence, we now find incomprehensible and rightly horrific.  But has the instinct that would call us to witness this sort of prehistoric theatre been bred out of the majority of us?  Are we safe enough in our soft world that our genetic material can let go all that?  Or is it yet a part of our makeup?  Will it always be?  (The constant insane violence around the planet would seem to answer yes to that query.)  As we get farther and farther away from the original workings of nature, as a technological construct is more and more our living reality, what is our connection with our historical and biological needs and instincts?  Can we maintain a balance that is healthy for us, in the physical and emotional forms we inhabit?

Which brings me to sex.


I'm loathe to even bring up this topic, since people will make all sorts of assumptions about my own sex life and my relation to "the act".  And I'll feel compelled to make all sorts of suspicious defense for the quality and variety of said sex life.  I'll need to try and convince all and sundry that I have a very healthy regard for the delightful activity, and that I'm surprisingly hangup free, and -- well, you see where we get to with this.  But, as with most things, I can't help but pipe up when I have something to say.  And I can't help but observe that our modern society is in a complete frenzy about sex.  Still. 

We had the sixties, didn't we?  And then the Seventies.  We've even had Madonna.  (Still do, apparently.)  You'd think we'd be a little fatigued by the constant, adolescent chatter about sex.  Like it was something new.  Maybe - but only maybe - we do it better now, otherwise it's the same old terrific thing.  The difference being that, for several decades now, we've had a seemingly ever escalating obsession with it.  Or at least our obsession with talking about it, portraying it, seems to keep escalating.  It is ever present in the media, in advertising, in popular music.  And especially in film, graphic or even actual.  Its pointed inclusion seems to be a current prerequisite of most entertainment, "high" or "low"; it's often its raison d'être.

And there is a definite pressure in the arts to make work that is sexualized and graphic.  I know or am acquainted with a lot of writers, my wife among them.  A lot of them write a lot about sex.  To be clear, I have no problem with that; writing about sex is just as valid as writing about anything else.  (Much of it deals with abuse, which I put in a different category altogether, and don't take issue with here.)  But I think that within the literary community and in publishing, there's a sense that if there isn't a fair amount of sex in your work - good, bad, or ugly - and if you aren't being quite graphic, that you're backing off of something important and "deeply human", and that therefore your work is probably shallow and maybe even cowardly.  (And not terribly marketable.) 

I enjoy my share of "graphic".  Yes, I do.  But that doesn't keep me from thinking that things are quite a bit out of balance in this regard.  What is it that keeps us so continually fixated on sexuality, ours and that of others, fictive or real?  Not all of us are still working out the effects of our sexually repressive childhoods, are we?  We don't all need to reclaim our sexuality and maximize, fortify our performance and/or pleasure, do we?  Our sexual selves really don't need this much expression, do they?  Or is it...?


I believe that the further we get from any sort of a natural existence, the more we find ourselves connected to and are often troubled by our more "animal" instincts.  Our moral conscience has advanced to a point of civilization where most would find bullfighting - blood ritual - abhorrent, but what is retained within us, unalterable?  To varying degrees we are all conscious or unconscious of our biological underpinnings and heritage.  But finding ourselves submerged in the disorienting technological soup of modern life, it becomes increasingly difficult to function with any sort of human/animal certitude; our lives are machine-made, but where does the animal still lurk?

Which brings us back to sex.  The farther we remove ourselves from nature, and the more dislocation we sense in our not-yet-adapted bodies, the more fiercely we crave a connection with the animal we find in our genetic selves, the connection that we experience through sex.  Our lives are so altered by the unnatural, our instincts so denied, that we flee to the safety of our sexual lives.  Because sex is one of the very last places left to us that allows for an unaltered, untempered connection with our purely animal selves.  I believe the unbalanced nature of our lives has led us to an unbalanced obsession with sex and sexual expression; we hunger for some vestigial connection with the elemental within us.  The animal instinct has become a refuge.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Winston Wächter booth at Art Platform - Los Angeles

Here are a few pictures from last weekend's big art fair in LA.  I was very pleased that WW took three of my paintings with them, and gave my work some "southern exposure".  They hung La Légèreté délicieuse de la grandeur and Un regard oblique, and had L'Équilibre "in the closet".  Golly, it's been simply years since "the closet" was in play...!

Thank you Stacey, Megan, and everyone at Winston Wächter for all your support of my work.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Rex - briefly

By way of my friend Stephen Rutledge's excellent and informative blog, I'm informed that yesterday was the birthday of film reviewer Rex Reed; he's seventy-four.

When I was growing up, I saw him on television talk shows all the time.  Daytime and nightime.  Long before I understood what "homosexual" was, what "queer" was, I knew that he was that.  I guess it's just one of those things one recognizes.  The languor, the bitchiness.  And right or wrong, I'm sure his example was very instructive to a generation of gay men coming up; is this what I am?  Is this how I am to behave?  Is this how I am to gain acceptance?

And his public "personality" seemed to be the point of his frequent appearances on mainstream media.  His film reviews were hardly reliable.  Or even the point.  He seemed too much interested in score-settling and scathing bon mots - or just making stuff up - to really be taken seriously as a film critic.  He never seemed all that comfortable in front of the camera, and was fairly humorless.  It was his ever-caustic drawling that put him "on the couch"; he could always be counted on to say something mean-spirited and outrageous.

And then he was quite photogenic.  A great swathe of dark hair, long lashes, sparkling eyes.  And it was that sort of soft, feminized, loose-mouthed, Southern sort of male beauty.  Pretty but lacking structure; Elvis-ian.  The sort of beauty that, at first glance, I might find attractive but, almost immediately, the slackness becomes rather repellent.  Though Reed may be entirely different in his personal life, at this distance, the lack of heart, the pointed unkindness Reed demonstrated time after time on the television of my childhood, was ultimately just us unattractive as his pretty face.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Belle Grove - une maison perdue

I've never been able to love the South.  If for no other reason than that I grew up in the sixties, and I clearly remember scenes of the Civil Rights Movement on television.  Children turned away from segregated schools, police turning fire-hoses on peaceful protesters, the hateful faces of Southern whites.  I was very young, and when my parents explained it to me, told me about the history of slavery and the change that African Americans were trying to effect in the South, I knew that the vicious resistance of Southern whites was wrong.  I knew it was wrong.  And, perhaps childishly, I've never been able to forgive the South, never been able to hear a soft Southern accent without a cringe.

Of course I understand that racial hatred in America has never been merely confined to the South.  Our whole history has been steeped in racial hatred, in the submission and degradation of non-whites.  But the smug Southern, bible-thumping, self-righteous racial prejudice I saw on the television, at such a young age, bred a mirror prejudice in me.  Even though I can readily rationalize otherwise, even though I know it's wrong, even though I know my own prejudice has stayed put while the country has moved on, I'm not sure I'll ever entirely rid myself of the feeling that the South is a bad place.

Parallel to this, even as a lover of beauty and of excess, as a lover of buildings, still some part of me has always shunned a closer understanding and appreciation of the great architecture of the South.  Specifically plantation architecture.  It isn't something I've given much conscious thought to but, certainly, it must stem from my horror at the idea that all that richesse was only made possible because of slave labor.  The idea that such beauty was created under that system, at that particular cost, makes me want to turn away from it.  (But then how many of our great buildings were realized under those conditions, the White House most prominently.)

And yet... and yet....  Years ago, I came across a book called "Ghosts Along the Mississippi", by Clarence John Laughlin.  Originally published in 1948, it was filled with images of lost or soon to be lost buildings of the Old South.  (Some, happily, were later saved.)  The title was apt, of course, as the photographs captured all the ghostly decomposition of those once brilliant structures.  You could almost feel their shame at their present state - stripped, crumbling - collapsing with history and memory, as they closed in on themselves.  But there was one, more than any of the others, that caught my imagination.  One whose beautiful proportions and fine detail made its decay, its apparent loss, all the more distressing to me.  I've never forgotten that beautiful house.  Belle Grove. 


The mansion at Belle Grove Plantation was one of the greatest, largest and most beautiful residences ever built in the South.  Adapted from Wikipedia:

Belle Grove, also known as Belle Grove Plantation, was a plantation and elaborate Greek Revival and Italianate-style plantation mansion near White Castle in Iberville Parish, Louisiana. Completed in 1857, it was one of the largest mansions ever built in the South, surpassing even that of the neighboring Nottoway Plantation. The masonry structure stood 62 feet high and measured 122 feet wide by 119 feet deep, with seventy-five rooms spread over four floors.

Belle Grove was owned by John Andrews, a wealthy sugar planter.  Andrews owned over 7,000 acres spread over several plantations. By the 1850s, his more than 150 slaves were producing over half a million pounds of sugar each year. Andrews built the mansion from 1852 to 1857 at a cost of $80,000, not including the free (slave) labor or the plentiful cypress lumber and hand-made bricks produced on the plantation. The house was designed by New Orleans architect Henry Howard. 

Following the American Civil War and ensuing collapse of the plantation economy, Andrews sold the home and plantation in 1867 to James Ware, for the meager sum of $50,000. The Ware family continued to live and farm the plantation until the early 1920s. After several bad crop years, they were forced to sell the home. From 1925 onwards the house sat vacant.

The post-War era at Belle Grove saw the finely crafted home rot away in Louisiana's harsh environment. Neglect allowed a leaky roof to expand and destroy one wing of the mansion. Several owners purchased the home, each with aspirations of restoration, but none had the means necessary in the lean years of the Great Depression and World War II to stop the onslaught of rapid decay. On March 17, 1952, a mysterious fire during the night destroyed what remained of the house.

Many, if not most, of these photographs are the work of Walker Evans, taken in 1935.


Viewing these images gives me the most conflicted feelings; pondering this house, I recognize compartments of emotion and thought that can never open into each other, can never resolve.  So much of me feels wretched that such a beautiful thing is lost to the world.  I feel so strongly - always - that beauty should be preserved, honored.  The craftsmanship that was employed here was exemplary and irreplaceable.  And then what of the enslaved people who helped to build this magnificent house, who worked there; this was their house, too.  Their lives and work were in the wood and stone and brick of this house.  But part of me, pained by the thought of the incredible evil of the system that made possible its birth, feels that in some way it "deserved" to die.  Very possibly its dissolution and passing was just.  I don't know....