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Let’s celebrate spring by taking an internet trip to…south Poland? Zalipie is an ancient village in the province of Lesser Poland Voivodeship (which has been a center of Polish culture since the early middle ages). The village is a famous tourist attraction for an amazing reason. People in Zalipie paint exquisite colorful flowers on everything!
The tradition started more than a century ago, when women started painting bouquets to beautify their homes (or to distract attention from problem areas). The original artists used handmade bristle brushes, easily obtained pigments, and fat from dumpling drippings as their medium, however as the years passed and the tradition was passed down over generations the paintings have become larger, finer, and more colorful.
The village has earned the epithet “the most beautiful village in Poland,” and judging by these pictures which I have purloined from around the internet that description is apt. The omnipresent flower paintings in all different styles and colors shows that the artists of Zalipie are as innovative and inspired as they are tireless. Yet the photographs also indicate that the omnipresent floral folkart is not the only charm the village offers. It looks like it would be a pastoral paradise even without the exquisite flower art.
I can’t wait for spring to make Brooklyn into a natural gallery of flowers, but until then, I am glad I can go on the internet and check out the never-fading flower garden which the residents of Zalipie have made for themselves and the world.
The other day I rashly promised a post about Juno—or I will call her “Hera” since the Greeks invented her (?) and their name is more euphonic. Immediately though it became obvious that writing about the queen of the gods is not as simple as it seems. Hera plays the villain in many myths—particularly those of Heracles (indeed, her name is his name: Heracles means “Hera’s man”). She is a great and terrible antagonist–even more so than giant sentient animals, or super dragons, or the dark monstrous deities of the underworld. But why is that? How can a regal woman be so much worse than the gods of charnel darkness and stygian torture?
Hera is the eldest daughter of Rhea and Cronus. She was devoured by her father at infancy, but escaped (via mustard emetic) and joined her brothers and sisters fighting against the titans for world domination. Once the battle was won, she initially rebuffed the romantic overtures of her youngest and strongest brother, Zeus. The king of the gods then took the form of a bedraggled cuckoo and cunningly played upon her sympathy for small injured creatures in order to win her heart and her hand. After their marriage, however, Hera played the cuckoo in their relationship as Zeus dallied with goddesses, nymphs, and comely mortals of all sorts. Classical mythology is pervaded by a sense that Zeus, king of the gods and lord of creation who fears nothing (except for being replaced by a strong son) is extremely afraid of Hera. She is often portrayed as jealously lashing out at Zeus’ paramours and their offspring…or otherwise punishing those who act against her will or fail to pay her sufficient respect.
Hera’s animals are the lion, the cow, and the peacock (she put the hundred eyes of her dead servant Argus on the bird’s tail to give it even greater beauty). Her emblems are the throne, the chariot, the scepter, and the crown. She is sometimes portrayed wearing a strange cylindrical crown of archaic pre-Greek shape (which may indicate that she was a goddess of power borrowed from a pre-Greek society).
Hera tends to be portrayed as a rich powerful woman of a higher class who barely deigns to notice her inferiors. She is the goddess of women, marriage, wealth, success, and (above all) power. Her children are Ares, Hephaestus, Eileithyia (the goddess of childbirth), cruel Eris, and beautiful Hebe, the goddess of youth who married Hercules after his apotheosis.
Have you read “The Three Musketeers”? After spending the entire book struggling against the machinations of Cardinal Richelieu, the hero prevails and join forces with…Cardinal Richelieu. Power is like that, and so is Hera. She can’t effectively be fought against. The world is hers. She can only be appeased or beguiled… or served outright.
The way upwards is not through deeds of merit, or valorous acts, or fighting monsters—it is through political wiles, networking, and figuring out how to please extremely rich powerful people who are impossible to please and implacably oppose regarding you as any sort of equal.
After weeks and weeks of ice, gloom, rain, and wind, I am already yearning for spring (although there is certainly plenty more winter left!). To keep everyone’s spirits up, here are various paintings and photos of people wearing crowns woven out of flowers. Such a headdress is the symbol of youth, vitality, happiness, growth, and warmth—the very opposite of winter’s barrenness. Gaze upon the lovely wreathes and floral garlands and think of the coming flowers and the green shoots of spring. Someday the gray rain, the dark rain, and the white ice will pass and the balmy weather and bright colors of spring will reemerge. Until then here are some allegorical pictures to remind you of the next season!
The trees are changing color, Halloween is fast approaching, and the day was beautiful—which means today was the perfect time for the annual autumn trip to Greenwood Cemetery, the immense Victorian graveyard at the center of Brooklyn. As always, I was enthralled by the towering specimen trees, 19th century mausoleums, and the rolling moraine landscape, but, also I was decidedly shocked to find the cemetery was different! There was a new addition, and for once, it did not require a pile of fresh dug earth, a crowd of mourners, and a diminution of the human family.
Instead of a new grave, there was a huge beautiful bright white marble allegorical statue of a nude man standing on top of two writhing mermaids! What happened to bring this twenty foot Greco-Roman hand-carved titan to the quiet midst of my favorite necropolis? Well, I looked up the story (i.e. read the extensive plaque), and discovered that the statue was moved because women obtained the right to vote in the United State. Fans of the constitution will note that the nineteenth amendment was ratified in 1920, two years before “The Triumph of Civic Virtue” was finished by the Piccirilli Brothers (Ferrucio, Attilio, Furio, Horatio, Masanielo and Getulio). What happened?
As it turns out, “The Triumph of Civic Virtue” is probably the most controversial work of art in New York City’s history (certainly it is the most scandalous to be bought with public money). The statue’s bizarre history involves the way power shifts in a democracy, the changing meaning of symbols, and the greatest constant in art—the artist’s eternal inability to cope with deadlines. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the allegorical work was designed by Frederick MacMonnies to stand in front of City Hall in Manhattan and to represent American politics. The handsome and robust figure of Civic Virtue stands triumphantly astride two snaky sea goddesses who represent the two great public temptresses of vice and corruption. However, since the actual marble carvers, the Piccirilli Brothers, were very busy (and artistic creation does not always obey the schedule of small-minded foot-tapping bureaucrats) the statue took a very long time to finish and was delivered years late.
The statue was finally completed and installed in front of City Hall in 1922, but by then its era had already passed. Newly empowered women voters hated it for depicting women as semi-human beings who are subordinate, naked, and prostrate at the foot of an armed man (an allegory which seemed all too familiar to them). Not only was it decried as sexist: the classical Greco-Roman aesthetic was at odds with the modern new styles of the roaring twenties. Additionally the manly (but diminutive and lumpy) mayor, Figueroa de Laguardia, did not like looking up at the statue’s muscular backside as he (the mayor) stared out over his city from his office. Together the mayor and the suffragettes exiled the statue to Kew Gardens Park beside Queens Borough Hall where it languished at the center of a fountain for long decades. However even that was not enough to placate the artwork’s detractors who still demanded that it be moved far away from the center of political power in Queens. The great women’s rights crusader Anthony Weiner even suggested that it be sold online on Craigslist! Finally Greenwood cemetery stepped in with a protected public (but not very accessible) space for the statue and with funds for a renovation. The “Triumph of Civic Virtue” was surreptitiously moved to the cemetery in December of 2012.
I can’t help but feel like the suffragettes might have had a point. Why isn’t civic virtue a lovely & mighty lady like Justice, Temperance, or even Columbia herself. The statue is magnificently carved and executed, but it also looks like a dark fantasy of mermaid abuse. Yet its weird history says more than it does about who we are (and who we were). Queens’ loss is Brooklyn’s gain, and I am happy the statue found a pretty home where my fellow statue lovers and I can regard it up close. “The Triumph of Civic Virtue” is both great, troubling, and hilarious , however, considering the statue’s provenance—from city hall, to a tertiary borough, to an empty cemetery–perhaps it can also be considered empowering.