Beckett, do you even know what you are talking about?

Dear Samuel Beckett,

How are you doing? I am doing well. Or at least, I was…then I read Endgame.

Beckett, seriously, does this play even mean anything? You originally wrote the play in French, right? Then translated it to English? Do you even speak French? Or were you the kid in class that only memorized key phrases and made it seem like you spoke French? Because, after reading Endgame, it seems like you only knew the words “finished” and “window.”

At the beginning of the play, Clov wonders at what point individual grains make up a heap. After I finished Endgame, I wondered at what point individual words make up a play. Have you seen a play before, Beckett? This was nothing like the play (sic) I have seen in the past. It didn’t even have an old, Jewish man trying to cut off a pound of flesh from a Venetian merchant. And yes– the only play I have seen is The Merchant of Venice.

People want to break out of their own cycles, so they pay good money to go out to the theater for a night. And what do you do? You write a play about the cyclical nature of life. That’s a real dick move.

Audiences want Zookeeper and Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 because Kevin James doesn’t force us to think about our place in the world. The only thing Kevin James forces is himself into his clothes. But since you didn’t write Zookeeper (or its much anticipated sequel), I was forced to think about some things.

Is it all cyclical, Beckett? Have I just been living the same day over and over again within my own, two-windowed version of life? Have I really accomplished anything? How often have I come close? How many times have I dressed to leave, only to stay? Clov and Hamm accomplish nothing in the time we see them. Yeah, they talk to each other and Clov occasionally carries something, but no work is done; neither Clov nor Hamm apply force to anything outside of their shelter to create change. They are just waiting for the end.

I guess that’s all they can do: wait. There is no suicide in a chess match, only waiting for your opponent to take you. But after that, a new game starts. Is that the only way something new can start? By ending? Hamm ponders out loud, “Perhaps I could go on with my story, end it and begin another.” I find that line interesting, even though (much like the rest of the play) I am not entirely sure what he means by it. Can we end our current stories to start fresh ones? Is one person capable of leading multiple stories? Are stories the same as lives? Are you getting any of this down there, Beckett?

Another line that supports the necessity of finishing one thing before starting something else comes at the beginning of the play. Clov stands on stage and states, “Finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished.” So after Clov says “finished” about ten times (reinforcing my theory that it was one of the only French words you knew), the play starts. It quite literally can’t start until Clov is finished with his finishing.

One of the last things Hamm says is, “The end is the beginning, and yet you go on.” What does he mean here? Life is fairly short. Is he saying that despite the fleeting nature of life, we still persevere and continue on with it? It also could mean that since life is so short, what we choose to do with it is actually extremely important. If our lives had no end, our choices wouldn’t be nearly as important. If we didn’t die, our endless, individual days would continue. Only after we die do they finally become a little heap.

I’ve got a lot of questions in there for you. Like I said, I was doing fine until I read Endgame. But the unexamined life is not worth living, right?

-Ben

P.S. I loved you in Quantum Leap. It was cancelled too soon.

French/Off: Matisse vs. Manet

Henri Matisse was a French artist, and his painting The Joy of Life (1905-06) depicts a park of nude men and women frolicking and enjoying life.

Hmm, nature, nudity, and the French. That sounds a bit familiar, doesn’t it?

Unlike Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass (1862-63), Matisse’s work was celebrated. He was even seen as a great contributor to the Fauvist art movement: art that focused on using strong colors more as how they are experienced emotionally than how they are represented in reality.

Although Luncheon and Joy both take place in nature, have characters (some nude) in Renaissancian poses, and problems with perspective, the paintings are really quite different.

Manet’s painting were done in the style of Realism. Although some of the technical elements may have been off, viewers can clearly identify the figures and setting in the painting as an accurate representation of what bearded men, naked women, and trees look like.

Matisse is painting when Fauvism is popular. Yeah the size of some of the characters in the painting doesn’t make sense, but does that really matter when the characters are bluish-green figures taking a nap on the yellow grass in the red shade of a tree?

Manet’s nude woman in Luncheon is scrunched up and doesn’t take up much space. Her clothes, fruit, and gin occupy about the same amount of room as she does. She stares directly at the viewer, contracting almost as if she were caught in the act of something dirty.

Matisse’s nude women are scattered throughout the setting with elongated, sensual poses.They are not aware of the audience. Or if they are, their euphoria outweighs their shame.

Manet was trying to capture everyday life. Fauvist works usually had more traditional subject matter. Although these characters seem to represent normal, everyday people, I don’t think 20th century France had blue and pink residents walking down its streets. Fauvism is almost a contradiction because it seeks to capture the ordinary not with amazing accuracy, but with extraordinary forms and colors. Because of the colors, this reminds me of some sort of paradise on earth. There are goats, and naked women, and ring around the rosie– that certainly sounds like my version of paradise.

But one of the most striking features of this painting is that it doesn’t make me feel uncomfortable. There are nude figures galore in this painting. There are even nude figures playing what appears to be the clarinet, and I am naturally distrustful of anyone who plays the clarinet. Yet, I am at ease while viewing this painting.

Manet’s Luncheon has one nude woman in it. One. She stares right at me, and I am very creeped out by it. I feel like I am simultaneously violating and being violated. She isn’t even playing a clarinet either.

By painting with vibrant, emotional colors and including relaxed, sensual characters, Matisse creates an environment where overt sexuality is normal. It’s not hidden; it’s not taboo. It is clear and present.

Luncheon on the Grass, or: Trolling in 19th Century France

Édouard Manet worked on his painting The Luncheon on the Grass from 1862-63. It depicts a nude woman sitting next to some toppled fruit and two bearded gentlemen while a large, possibly (but not probably) Amazonian woman bathes in the background.

I just viewed this painting on the Internet and really saw it up close for the first time. I have to say, it kind of made me feel weird. And this is coming from a guy that is not easily made to feel awkward. Just to be clear, it wasn’t like a my-body-is-changing-and-I-don’t-know-why weird.

Check out Representative Todd Akin’s advice column at collegehumor.com

It made me feel like a violator. When I clicked view image after my Google search results came up, I locked eyes with the nude woman in the foreground. Wow that made me uncomfortable. I doubt I looked at it for more than two seconds, but it felt like two minutes. I actually had to close out of that image, go to a different result, and open that one instead.

I think that reaction is important. Many of the paintings inspired in Paris at this time drew from Renaissance art, which drew from classical Greek and Roman art. There were nude, female forms in those pieces, but they were depicting goddesses.

The woman in this painting isn’t so much nude as she is naked. She isn’t Venus sprawled out on the surface of an ocean; she is drunk and sticking her foot in-between a guy’s sprawled out legs.

But despite being intoxicated, she is still pretty aware of her surroundings because SHE IS STARING DIRECTLY AT THE VIEWER OF THE PAINTING WITH HER LARGE, UNFEELING EYES. Venus normally didn’t stare at you from paintings. And if she did, she is a goddess. It’s not like you feel dirty looking at her—she is a deity. That would be like looking at a unicorn. If you happened upon a unicorn in a wooded clearing, would you feel awkward if it stared at you? The reason this makes me (and probably others) feel uncomfortable is because the odds of walking into a risqué picnic in a park is much more likely than seeing a unicorn or the goddess of love.

Another factor contributing to the feeling of easiness is probably the sheer size of this painting. It is 8’8”x 6’10” –or roughly the size of a dorm room. That is massive (for a painting—not a room) and rather imposing. It’s hard to escape a woman’s gaze when it takes up an entire wall.

Speaking more to the size of the painting, I think it is very important that Manet decided to make it this large. In nineteenth century France, paintings of this size were normally reserved for historical pieces. These canvases were meant to house Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of the French, not Nick Bronson, baker of bread. Yet, in this painting, there are four very average looking people in a very common looking place. I’m not saying this clearing isn’t beautiful, but it is just a park.

In a period concerned with classicism and honoring history, Manet took a different approach. I think that he looked around and said, “Hey, we are living history right now. The stuff you guys are doing has been done over and over and over again. We need to pay attention to the here and now otherwise we will lose it.” It probably sounded snootier because he was French, but you get my point.

He did use his large canvas for a historic piece. He was documenting the middle-class French citizens. And on top of that, he did it in a way that mocked what other painters were doing around him. He gave his characters poses that were used in many Renaissance paintings, but he colored them in harsh, severely contrasting tones, the brush strokes in his background look quick and almost nonchalant, his characters are flat and pressed into the canvas, his perspective in the painting doesn’t seem to make logical sense…

Bottom line: Manet was a troll. And now we are learning about him because of it.