Tuesday, September 20, 2016

First learning encounter with sculptor Auguste Rodin

We viewed the special exhibit 'Rodin: Transforming Sculpture' at the Essex Peabody Museum in Salem, Massachusetts the day before we flew to San Francisco simply because we just wanted to see the iconic The Thinker and The Kiss sculptures of Auguste Rodin. We did not know much else about him and his works; hence, this museum visit became Rodin 101 appreciation course for us.

Big white drapes were hang from the ceiling and along the walls of the six exhibition galleries to give the feel of roaming around his studio. There were some 175 pieces on display, big and small, in clay, plaster, marble, patinated plaster, and bronze.

The first gallery had configurations of hands, small statuettes, and up in the wall was The Gates of Hell, the bronze doors that were inspired by Dante's Inferno. We later learned that some of Rodin's major works were originally planned for The Gates, and some figures there were transformed into independent pieces.

One of them is The Three Shades, or the souls of the damned in Dante's Divine Comedy. This trio of nude male in exaggerated twisted pose can also be found at the top of the said The Gates. 

The Three Shades.

In the Christ and Mary Magdalene, which shows a dying man nailed to a rock with a naked mourning woman kneeling in front of him, the Magdalene is said to have been derived from one of the condemned figures in The Gates. 

Christ and Mary Magdalene.

Rodin also called this Prometheus and the Oceanid and The Genius and Pity, thus giving his art piece religious, mythical and secular undertones. On the whole though, we were looking at polished surfaces of naked bodies esp. that of the contorted female against the rough marble on which these are mounted.

While we were looking for the iconic The Kiss, we encountered variations of the kissing theme such as the Eternal Spring. Literature on Rodin's artworks tell us that the latter piece was originally modeled while he was planning The Gates of Hell.

Eternal Spring.

The Kiss.

There were indeed many other naked bodies in this Rodin exhibition like the famous The Thinker both in bronze and patinated plaster; St. John the Baptist in plaster, which we think has resemblance with The Awakening Man in bronze; Adam in bronze and Eve in patinated plaster.

The crooked finger of Adam pointing downward reminded us of Adam's finger in Michaelangelo's mural of the creation in the Sistine Chapel. On the other hand, the brawny contortions in the body of Rodin's Adam contrasts strongly though with the polished structure of Michaelangelo's David. Nevertheless, we found traces of Michaelangelo's influence in the Rodins.

The Thinker.

Adam and Eve.

In contrast to the nudes were the fully robed Monument to Balzac and the three clothed Burghers of Calais, all in bronze.  It was interesting to read that this robed Balzac was controversial, and it took years for Rodin to make several studies before he finally came out with this distillation of the persona of the French novelist and playwright as being alone but with head aloft.

Other Rodin's studies of Honore de Balzac on exhibit were his head in bronze, and his full naked figure in plaster.

Monument to Balzac (top left); bust (top right) and full figure (bottom).

Only three of the six Burghers of Calais were part of the exhibit. These draped figures represent the burghers who chose to sacrifice their lives to save their city during the Hundred Years War,  According to literature on this commissioned work, the figures are arranged in a circle, thus not one of them is the focal point. Rodin created two versions. The Burghers in the memorial in Calais are mounted on a pedestal, and the others at the Musee Rodin in Paris were on the ground so that viewers can go around them.

Three of the six Burghers of Calais. 

The special exhibit was on view from 14 May to 05 September 2016. As expected, the do-not-touch rule was enforced but the organizers provided us slabs of the media (clay, plaster, marble) to feel in lieu of the polished or rough body surfaces of the artworks. We're thankful though that photography was allowed.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

9/11/16: Remembering the Twin Towers

The first thing we had in mind when we got to New York recently was visit the National September 11 Memorial & Museum (9/11 Memorial in short), which opened on the anniversary day five years ago, 

The Memorial consists of twin pools, each about an acre in size, surrounded by bronze parapets where names of the people killed in the attacks of 11 September 2001 and 26 February 1993 are inscribed.  The north and south pools are set within the footprints of the original Twin Towers, which were known then as One and Two World Trade Center (WTC), also as North and South Towers, respectively. 

The Twin Towers and The Sphere at the 9/11 Museum. Photo by the author.

The first item we saw upon entry to the Museum was a blow-up picture of the Twin Towers with the large metallic sculpture called The Sphere in the foreground. And as we gazed at it, memories of more than 30 years ago came flooding in.

In 1982, for six months, we commuted from upper west Manhattan via the A Express subway train to Cortlandt to get to the World Trade Center. We would get into the the express elevator to the 78th floor sky lobby where we'd transfer to the local elevator to get to our cubicle at the 89th floor. We were in training in health physics with Ebasco Services, the largest tenant then of Two WTC (South Tower), occupying 16 floors between the 77th and 93rd. 

Up and down these elevators became quite routine for the lunch breaks either at the ground floor or around the neighborhood, and for the rush to the PATH or to the subway stations nearby for those heading home to New Jersey or elsewhere in New York, respectively,

We were originally facing the windows through which we could see the canyon of buildings on Broadway. One time as we were looking at the view of buildings from our desk, we suddenly realized that the tower was swaying: the vertical frames of the windows were moving vis-a-vis the skyscraper in the distance.  That made us turn the table around, and henceforth, had our back to the windows as we pored through our training materials.

We remembered taking a picture of the Twin Towers before we left New York for a job training in Tennessee. There had also been other pictures that we took at the lobby where the giant tapestry of Joan Miro hang, and those at the top, where, on clear, sunny days, we could see the city and New Jersey as far as our eyes could reach.

The Twin Towers, Oct 1982. Photo by the author.
Our picture of the towers reminded us that on the day before 9/11, we were at the Austin J. Tobin Plaza, near The Sphere, and we had fun looking at two young Frenchmen trying to get a souvenir photo of themselves with the top of the towers as background. One of them had to lie down with a camera so that he can get the other one framed by the towers as he stood on the parapet around The Sphere. 

This sculptural piece, badly damaged, is installed at the Battery Park, We learned that it would be relocated within the 9/11 Memorial. 

The damaged The Sphere at Battery Park. Photo by the author.

On 9/11, we were preparing to leave our friend's house in Queens for the WTC because we wanted to buy a discounted ticket for a Broadway musical. I think it was The Producer, at a TKTs booth there to avoid the long queues at Times Square. We were having coffee and watching TV. When the first plane struck one of the towers, we thought an accident had just happened. We were all glued to the breaking news still unaware that these were terrorist attacks. When the towers came down, the young man in the house was almost in panic, deeply worried of  his friends who were working within the WTC complex. 

Subway trains to lower Manhattan were suspended that day. Some lines were opened the next day and we could get to the Penn Station on 34th Street. The Amtrak trains were running, and we decided to leave for Boston.

The train was full, and everybody it seemed had a newspaper to read. The headlines were all about the terror that hit the United States on 9/11: the attacks on the towers and the Pentagon, and an aborted one due to the heroic act of the passengers.

Relics from the towers at the 9/11 Museum. Photo by the author.

We felt the terrorist scare when we were approaching Providence, Rhode Island. Suddenly, without explanation, the train stopped on the tracks. The wait for it to resume running became stressful and tense. The mobile phones of passengers calling their friends or families provided the logical answer to our predicament. Our train was stopped because authorities were searching another train on the other track for suspected terrorists.

The parapet around the 9/11 Memorial pools. Photo by the author.

9/11 wrought a drastic change in the airport departure protocols. We were among the first to taste stricter security procedures from Boston to San Francisco on our way home to Manila a week after. We remember that our check-in baggage were selected for inspection in Boston, and we had a good laugh with the inspector regarding the large quantity of chocolate candies we were bringing home. They were very alert for pointed objects.  In San Francisco, a good friend who was on the same flight with us had a micro screw driver in his carry-on. He argued that it's something not easy to find in Manila, hence, as an accommodation, it was wrapped, tagged, and checked in, in a way, with the flight crew.

9/11 reverberates in every airport around the world. One can not even get a bottle of water past security. 

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Did Jose Rizal leave his heart in San Francisco?

Many Filipinos entering the United States for the first time through San Francisco may be surprised to know that national hero Jose Rizal preceded them here more than a century ago.

From Tokyo, he wrote his parents and siblings that "[o]n the 13th of [April 1888] I leave for America on the steamship Belgic of the Oriental and Occidental Company. I intend to stay in America some weeks and afterward depart for London where I should be toward the end of May."

The steamer sailed from Yokohama, and based on the data from the 'Marine Ships in Port' of 'The Maritime Heritage Project - San Francisco 1846-1899', a voyage of the Belgic in 1890 took 15 days 13 hours and 44 minutes before it dropped anchor at the port in San Francisco.

The Port of San Francisco, 1849. (Source: The Maritime Heritage Project.)

On Saturday, 28 April, Rizal wrote in his diary: "We arrived in the morning at San Francisco, We docked, They say that we shall be quarantined, The little customs launch came to visit us. They have unloaded the silk cargo: Each bale costs about $700. They are not afraid of the silk and of the lunch."

The next day, Sunday, he noted: "The second day of the quarantine, We are bored. I no longer know how to amuse myself."  And he wrote to his parents: "Here we are in sight of America since yesterday without being able to disembark, placed in quarantine on account of the 642 Chinese that we have on board coming from Hong Kong where they say smallpox prevails. But the true reason is that, as America is against Chinese immigration and now they are campaigning for the elections, the government, in order to get the vote of the people, must appear to be strict with the Chinese, and we suffer. On board there is not one sick person."

On the third day: "The quarantine continues. I read in the newspapers a statement of the health inspector against the quarantine."  He wrote to his friend Dr. Ferdinand Blumentritt: "We are anchored in this port under quarantine. We don't know how long it will last, although there are no sick passengers aboard and the ship did not come from a filthy port. The reason for this is that we have 643 Chinese passengers and, as elections are approaching, the government wants to be in the good graces of the people. We protest, but it is useless for, as the Spaniards say, it is like exercising the right to kick."

On 01 May, Rizal said they signed a protest against the quarantine and the Englishmen wrote to their consul. After six days of quarantine, in the afternoon of 4 May, they, the first class passengers finally stepped on American soil.  The Japanese and Chinese remained on board.

At that time, the disembarkation point was not the postcard Port of San Francisco we see today. So where did the Belgic docked?  Gary Kamiya provided the most probable answer in his book Cool Gray City of Love: "The thousands of Chinese immigrants that poured into the city disembarked at the Pacific Mail Steamship pier, near what is now First and Brannan."

Marker on the wall of the Palace at the Montgomery St-
Market St. corner.

From there, Rizal could have taken a coach to the first class Palace Hotel on New Montgomery Street, where he lodged at "$4.00 a day with bath and everything included"  Based on the historical data of 1887, he stayed in a sunny outside room with southern exposure that cost '$4.00 per day and upward.'  It was more expensive by a dollar if he stayed in an outside room 'with facing street.' The cheapest were for outside rooms facing open courts: '$2.50, $3.00 and upward.'

There was not much in his diary from which to deduce how Rizal spent his short time in the city,

He simply wrote: "...Stockton St. 312. I saw the Golden Gate ... (one illegible word). The customs-house. A letter of recommendation. On Sunday the stores are closed. The best street in San Francisco is Market Street. Stroll. -- Stanford, the rich man. -- A street near Chinatown."

We must note that Rizal might have been referring to the Golden Gate Strait, the entrance to San Francisco Bay, because the iconic bridge was built in the 1930s. Or, he could have gone to the Golden Gate Park but he could not have walked to this large public park as it was too far from the hotel. He did not mention taking the streetcar that was already running to this place in 1887.

When he stepped out for a walk, the first thing that he could have noticed were the cable cars that had been running along Market Street since 1883. These cars replaced horse-drawn rails. He might have preferred to walk rather than take the cable car; hence, his remark that Market was the best street of the city.

When he strolled on Market, he could have noted at the corner of Geary and Kearny, a short distance from the hotel, Lotta's Fountain: a cast iron sculpture painted in bronze with lion's heads and other ornaments. Historical accounts say that this fountain was presented to the citizens of San Francisco in 1875 by the famous Lotta Crabtree, who started her career as a vaudeville performer in the city during the Gold Rush days.

The Lotta's Fountain in 1901 when Pres. McKinley visited the Palace Hotel.  (Source: Wikipedia)

The Lotta's Fountain today near the Palace Hotel. Photo by the author.

Except for the other buildings and street scenes, the vintage and recent photographs of Palace Hotel with Lotta's Fountain are quite similar except that the original hotel, where Rizal stayed, was gutted by fire in the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake. The reconstructed one was opened in 1909.

'Stanford, the rich man.'  Rizal was referring to Leland Stanford, one of the 'Big Four Millionaires' from the Gold Rush and was also dubbed a robber baron. His farm spawned the Stanford University. Did Rizal hear about his anti-Chinese attitude when he was governor of California? He lobbied for the restriction of Chinese immigration during his term.

'A street near China town,' he wrote. Did he go there? The scene could have been similar to Binondo of his student days in Manila.

He was in San Francisco for two days and two nights, and left for Oakland in the late afternoon of 06 May 1888 on a ferry boat. From there, he would board the train that eventually took him on a coast-to-coast journey to New York City.

From London, Rizal would relate his overall impression of America to his friend Mariano Ponce in his letter of 27 July 1888: "I visited the largest cities of America with their big buildings, electric lights, and magnificent conceptions. Undoubtedly America is a great country, but it still has many defects. There is no real civil liberty. In some states the Negro cannot marry a white woman, nor a Negress a white man. Because of the hatred of the Chinese, other Asiatics, like the Japanese, being confused with them, are likewise disliked by the ignorant Americans. The customs is excessively strict. However, as they say rightly, America offers a home to the poor who like to work."

He cited his sad experience in San Francisco: "There was moreover much arbitrariness; for example, when we were in quarantine. They placed us under quarantine, in spite of the clearance given by the American consul, of having been at sea for about one month, of not having a single case of illness aboard, and of the telegram of the governor of Hong Kong declaring that port free from epidemic. We were quarantined because there were on board 800 Chinese and, as elections were being held in San Francisco, the government wanted to boast that is was taking strict measures against the Chinese to win votes and the people's sympathy. We were informed of the quarantine verbally, without specifying its duration. However, on the same day of our arrival, they unloaded 700 bales of silk without fumigating them; the ship's doctor went ashore; many customs employees and an American doctor from the hospital for cholera victims ate on board. Thus we were for about thirteen days. Afterwards only the passengers of the first class were allowed to land, the Japanese and Chinese of the 2nd and 3rd classes remaining in quarantine for an indefinite period. It is said that in that way they got rid of about 300 Chinese, letting them gradually die on board. I don't know if this is true."

In November that year, the Americans were going to elect their president. The incumbent was Grover Cleveland (Democrat). In California, they voted for the Republican challenger Benjamin Harrison.

The Chinese issue of Rizal's time resonates in the present debates on immigration policy between the Republican Donald Trump and the Democrat Hillary Clinton. Trump had swiped at illegal immigrants particularly the Mexicans, but he also clawed at people coming from what he deemed terrorist nations, and tagged the Philippines as one of them. "We're dealing with animals," he trumped.

Rizal's diary entries and letters were taken from the book Jose Rizal Reminiscences & Travels published by the National Historical Commission of the Philippines in 2011.

Recommended reading on the historical and current views of San Francisco:
Kamiya, Gary. 2013. Cool Gray City of Love: 49 Views of San Francisco. Berryville, VA: Berryville Graphics, Inc,