Love Stories, Martín Espada, and more
As London’s National Portrait Gallery closes for redevelopment, it has organized an international tour launching, including many works never before seen in the U.S., at the Worcester Art Museum. "Floaters," Martín Espada's collection of poems that explore bigotry, protests and love, is the 2021 winner of the National Book Award in poetry.
>> There's a lovely quotation by Wilde
after he comes out of prison, saying,
"The very fact that he's ruined my life
makes me love him more."
>> BOWEN: I'm Jared Bowen, coming up onOpen Studio,
love is in the air at the Worcester Art Museum,
where centuries of British portraits
are tellingLove Stories.
>> BOWEN: Then the winner of this year's
National Book Award for poetry, Martín Espada.
>> It's important for me to provide some movement
from the general to the specific,
from the abstract to the concrete.
>> BOWEN: Plus, at the Gardner Museum,
a show of Titian paintings fit for a king.
>> They haven't been back together
since they left the royal collection.
It's all now onOpen Studio.
First up, if all you need is love,
head directly to the Worcester Art Museum.
That's where a treasure trove of artwork has just arrived
from London's National Portrait Gallery.
Rarely seen outside England,
they are a valentine to love, in all its forms.
At the Worcester Art Museum, love abounds.
Romance is romanticized.
This is what love looks like, even what it sounds like.
>> "How do I love thee, let me count the ways?"
You know, and I'm not even an English major.
I know that one.
>> BOWEN: The hand of Elizabeth Barrett Browning,
who wrote that sonnet, is cast here in bronze.
Held by that of her husband, fellow poet Robert Browning.
>> We have not just the clasping hands.
With them, we have the paired portraits
of Robert and Elizabeth,
both in their separate spheres,
both independent minds,
but inclining gently towards each other,
reflecting their continuous support.
>> BOWEN: These galleries could also be described
as love on the run.
The art here represents centuries
of some of the greatest holdings
in London's National Portrait Gallery.
But with the museum temporarily closed
as part of a $47 million renovation,
they're out on an international tour.
It's launched in Worcester, Massachusetts,
under the bannerLove Stories.
Lucy Peltz is the show's curator,
speaking to us from London.
>> Touring shows of some of our absolute
cherished highlights and masterpieces
that otherwise would rarely go on loan.
And it's also been an intellectual project,
because for the first time, the largest
and most important collection of portraits in the world,
i.e. the National Portrait Gallery,
has considered from the point of view
of the role of love and desire.
>> BOWEN: It's love in the time of the Renaissance.
Love among the ruins.
And everlasting love.
Perhaps I'm asking you to play psychologist here,
but can you tell me why I and so many others
are just so mesmerized by a sleeping David Beckham?
>> I can tell you why I'm mesmerized by it.
He's very beautiful.
I might imagine myself lying in bed just contemplating him,
as I might do my own partner.
And so the intimacy,
and just enjoying that sense of his ease.
>> Love has many facets,
and it expresses itself in different ways.
And the ways in which people form connection are unique.
>> BOWEN: Claire Whitner is the Worcester Art Museum's
European art curator.
>> We see very intimate moments
and our own interest, sort of as, like, pop culture
for the love of celebrities,
and how do we consume the love of others.
>> BOWEN: She says John Lennon and Yoko Ono
cultivated their love for an eager public
while Audrey Hepburn positioned herself as a muse.
>> You see this kind of multiplication
of her public image in one particular photograph,
getting at that point of becoming a public muse--
you know, someone that is the projection of mass desire.
>> BOWEN: Here, love is manufactured and it's messy.
Mary Wollstonecraft ran away
with the married poet Percy Shelley, finding both love
and the inspiration for Frankenstein.
Then there's Wallis Simpson and Edward, Duke of Windsor,
who renounced the British throne.
This is Cecil Beaton's wedding day photograph.
So why the long faces?
It was taken just as he likely learned
she wouldn't receive a royal title.
And then there's the love saga of Lady Emma Hamilton.
Known for dancing nude at private house parties,
she was the muse of 18th century portrait painter George Romney.
She had numerous affairs with aristocracy,
including Charles Greville.
>> Ultimately, Greville becomes tired of Emma,
and he sends her to live with Lord Hamilton, his uncle.
He falls in love with her and they get married.
And all is going well until
Horatio Nelson shows up and begins this torrid love affair.
She bears his child,
and Lord Hamilton, rather than separating with Emma,
decides that they're just gonna all three of them live together
in this sort of ménage a trois.
>> BOWEN: And that's not even the love
that dare not speak its name.
That was Lord Alfred Douglas
writing about his affection for Oscar Wilde.
A love that landed Wilde in prison, recalls Lucy Peltz.
>> There's a lovely quotation by Wilde,
from a letter to a friend after he comes out of prison,
saying, "The very fact that he's ruined my life
makes me love him more."
>> BOWEN: This being a British show,
the fitting finale is the façade of the fairy tale,
the ongoing one that has played out within the royal family.
But, says Peltz, it's one that implicates us all.
>> The final section, "Love and the Lens,"
which ends with Harry and Meghan
looking absolutely besotted with each other.
And what we know evolved,
and whatever we may think of their decision,
we think back to Diana and the terrible events that befell her
as a result of our desire
as consumers of images of celebrity life,
and especially celebrity romance and celebrity heartache.
>> BOWEN: Just one of the many love stories you'll find here,
for better or for worse.
Next, the winner of this year's National Book Award
for poetry is Massachusetts writer Martín Espada.
The book is calledFloaters,
the title he gave to a poem he wrote
after seeing a devastating photograph
of a migrant father and daughter face down in the Rio Grande.
He has been praised for observing
where others turn away, as we discuss here.
Martín Espada, thank you so much for being with us today.
Congratulations on the award.
>> Thank you very much. >> BOWEN: To begin,
because so much of your subject matter
deals with human rights and social justice issues,
I wonder if you consider that your writing
has a very specific purpose
and what that purpose serves for you.
>> Well, certainly that is one major purpose of my writing.
It's not the only focus of what I do.
In fact, the book is...
includes not only political poems,
but love poems as well.
Of course, this being my book, they're political love poems.
Um, but there's a, there's a broad range.
It's a difficult book to define, even for me.
I will say that this comes from a tradition,
and the tradition includes not only poetry, but photography.
Because my father, Frank Espada was a documentary photographer,
created the Puerto Rican Diaspora documentary project,
and therefore was a major influence on my work.
>> BOWEN: Well, I was reading about that,
and I was quite struck by, by what that thread is
between photography and poetry, specifically.
>> There are several threads.
One thread is certainly what we think of as the image.
Now, of course, when I speak of the image in poetry,
I'm referring to all five senses, and...
as opposed to merely the visual.
But we also must come back to that word "purpose"
that you used earlier,
because my father's purpose was very focused, as is mine.
His intent was to document the Puerto Rican migration.
So it's about the meeting of art and advocacy.
It's about the meeting of craft and commitment.
>> BOWEN: I wonder how poetry is particularly well suited
for, for documenting and mirroring this time
and these, these circumstances that we're in today.
>> I think poetry is able
to capture certain intangibles.
that are elusive in other media.
Poetry is able to do something to move people.
It's able to do something
that gets behind or inside the headlines.
You may have noticed it in the book.
There are many poems that are narrative poems.
There's storytelling poems,
but they also have a journalistic quality,
and even have journalistic sources,
which I cite in the book.
>> BOWEN: To go back to what you just said,
in describing your process for finding words
and scenes and moments, but, but all senses,
do you feel as you're encapsulating something,
as you're describing an environment, a situation,
are you, are you there?
Do you smell where you are, do you feel where you are?
>> It's important for me to provide some movement
from the general to the specific,
from the abstract to the concrete,
to put not only myself,
but to put the reader or the listener there, too.
Now there are many circumstances in these poems when I was there.
And it's important to emphasize that when I write such a poem,
it's an act of witness.
>> BOWEN: Well, by way of example,
let's talk about your poem "Floaters," which,
of course, is the title of the book as well.
And I wonder, take me to that moment
when you first saw the photograph
that became so indelible
of a father and daughter face down in the Rio Grande.
>> I don't even think I could tell you where I saw it first,
because I saw it in so many places all at once.
And it sparked... outrage.
It sparked grief.
But it also sparked what we call truther-ism.
"Have ya'll ever seen floaters this clean?
I'm not trying to be an aSS
"but I HAVE NEVER SEEN FLOATERS LIKE THIS,
Could this be another edited photo?"
So alongside the photograph,
there was this commentary, specifically
in the "I'm 10-15" Border Patrol Facebook group page,
questioning whether this was doctored or staged.
And so I wrote the poem
in response to that photograph,
but also in response to that Facebook post,
the mentality behind it.
>> BOWEN: And finally, I just want to end with,
there's a lot of conversation about your work
that revolves around
activism and our political situation today,
but there is a lot of humor in your work.
Is that something that comes naturally?
Is it something that you find as a release valve?
>> It's actually something I have to be careful with,
because in some ways it's too easy for me.
I think I have much more to say than,
simply trying to give someone else a giggle fit.
But, you know, the humor also occurs in poems
where the subject matter is otherwise quite serious.
The last poem of the book is called "Letter to My Father."
It's about Hurricane Maria, in Puerto Rico, and I,
in the poem, I'm talking to my father's ashes
in a box on my bookshelf.
At the same time,
I recall my father in the first part of the poem,
and some of it is funny. >> BOWEN: For the most part,
when I've interviewed artists over the years,
they're reluctant or sometimes can't pick a favorite.
But you have said that that poem, the letter,
the letter to your father, is your favorite.
>> To be honest, my favorite changes sometimes.
You know, how could I look at this book
and say that the wedding sonnet in the book,
the one I read at my own wedding, is not my favorite.
And yet if I had to pick one poem to read,
I would read "Letter to my Father."
"You once said: My reward for this life
"will be a thousand pounds of dirt shoveled in my face.
"You were wrong.
"You are seven pounds of ashes in a box,
"a Puerto Rican flag wrapped around you,
"next to a red brick from the house in Utuado
where you were born, all crammed together on my bookshelf."
>> This is a poem that speaks to me, to my father,
to our relationship, to my community,
to the island, but also to history.
And if there's one poem that I keep coming back to
for that reason, it's that one.
>> BOWEN: Martín Espada, thank you again for your work
and congratulations again
on the award. >> Thank you very much.
>> BOWEN: There's still some time
to get your holiday fixings, and fix, in Arts This Week.
>> You see, George, you really had a wonderful life.
>> BOWEN:It's a Wonderful Life turns 75 this year.
A box office bust, the film was also nominated for five Oscars,
including best picture; it won none.
But, of course, it went on to have a very long life.
This is your chance to Imagine Van Gogh
by installing yourself in the work of the Dutch painter
by way of a fully immersive, towering 360-degree experience.
Walk among the gods and goddesses
as the Museum of Fine Arts unveils
its completely reimagined Greek and Roman galleries.
They feature more than 500 objects from the ancient world,
including artifacts on view for the first time.
The RISD Museum in Providence offers a brand-new exhibition
tracking the first 15 years of Pakistani artist
Shahzia Sikander's career.
She weds painting traditions to contemporary art.
Ring in the New Year with Boston Baroque,
which offers a live and live-streamed concert,
launching with music by Mozart, among others.
Now an exhibition many have already proclaimed
is the art show of the year, if not our lifetime.
On view at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum,
a collection of Titian paintings
not seen together in more than 400 years.
This is one of the last weeks to see the show,
so we're taking another look at a piece
we first brought you in September.
At first blush, there is somuch to absorb:
a master painter working at his most majestic;
skin bared to carnal extremes;
but also an atmosphere of terror.
And then there is this:
seeing these six Titian paintings reunited
for the first time since the Italian Renaissance.
>> It's huge.
They haven't been back together since they left
the royal collections in Spain
over the course of several centuries.
>> BOWEN: It was Spain's young and soon-to-be-king Philip II
who commissioned Titian to paint this series in 1550.
Hiring the Venetian painter was akin to landing Picasso
as your interior designer, says curator Nathaniel Silver.
>> Titian was the celebrity painter of Europe.
He painted for popes.
He painted for princes.
He was the personal painter to the Holy Roman Emperor,
who was Philip II's father.
Everybody who was anybody wanted a Titian.
>> BOWEN: Titian painted the works over ten years.
In that time,
Philip became king and the world's most powerful ruler.
But the monarch gave the artist free rein.
>> Usually it was, you ordered the work of art,
you signed the check, and you know, that was it.
This is really the artist having quite a big voice.
>> BOWEN: The series depicts ancient mythological stories
as written by the Roman poet Ovid.
But Titian distilled the writer's epic text
into jam-packed paintings teeming with symbols.
>> Titian calls these paintings thepoesie.
And the word literally translates as painted poetries.
He is putting his own stamp of originality on them.
You could say that he's challenging the written word
with the painted image.
He's challenging the pen with the brush.
>> BOWEN: They reflect on and telegraph a world of violence.
In the paintingDanaëë, the god Jupiter
transforms himself into gold dust,
descending on the nude princess to impregnate her.
InDiana and Callisto, Jupiter is again a perpetrator,
having assaulted one of the goddess Diana's nymphs.
>> Diana is pointing out her finger of judgment at Callisto,
casting her out of her sacred spring.
Callisto is lying here,
and if you look carefully at her eyes, you see she's crying,
the other nymphs around her exposing her pregnant belly.
This is no less than the shaming of a rape victim by her peers.
The whims of the gods
leave so much of the fates of mortals out of the hands
of mortals themselves.
It's a hard painting, it's a very hard painting.
And it's hard to reconcile
the beauty of the way in which it's painted,
of the fabulous palette that Titian uses,
the incredible sunset behind it,
with the horror of its subject.
>> BOWEN: The works are metaphors for war and conquest
and a world often consumed with violence.
It's Titian offering commentary
while also working at the height of his career.
>> He's a painter's painter.
He's a virtuoso with the brush.
He knows how to apply the minimum of paint
to create a particular figure
and get the most out of it pictorially.
>> One of the things that I love
about the installation at the Gardner is how intimately
they converse with each other.
>> BOWEN: Peggy Fogelman is the director
of Boston's Gardner Museum, the last stop on what has been
an international tour of the works--
one stalled but not derailed by a global pandemic.
>> It's not an easy undertaking, and took, you know,
a couple of years of negotiating, actually.
>> BOWEN: The works remained in Philip's Madrid palace
only for about 20 years
before being scattered throughout Europe.
But this one, titledThe Rape of Europa,
came to the U.S. 125 years ago by way of the museum's
shrewd founder and collector, Isabella Stewart Gardner.
Here, Jupiter appears again, as a bull this time,
stealing away with the princess Europa to Crete,
where he impregnates her and she ultimately gives birth
to the first of European civilization.
It was Gardner's prized masterpiece,
if not a fraught one.
>> It made quite a splash when it came to Boston.
She talks about men sort of bowing down before Europa
and women averting their gaze.
She was very much enamored of the emotional responses
to works of art.
>> BOWEN: The purchase was so monumental, Gardner's friend
the writer Henry James wondered if the pope
would sell her one of the Vatican rooms next.
And she loved the painting enough to give it
a singular space in her museum,
built to resemble a Venetian palazzo.
>> The Titian Gallery-- she named the whole gallery
after this painting, she was so enamored of it.
And everything that's arranged on the wall
and the colors in that fabric
is really evocative of the painting.
>> BOWEN: At the exhibition's end,
Europa returns to the empty space on this wall.
The other five paintings return to their European museums.
But, says curator Nathaniel Silver,
this once-in-a-lifetime reunion
has made them more relevant than ever.
>> You know, we see horrifying things every day.
And we're forced to reckon with these forces
outside of our control.
And that's exactly what Titian is forcing Philip to do.
>> BOWEN: Next, opera singer Martina Bruno gives new meaning
to the underground arts scene.
She serenades subway riders.
And instead of performing at the Met,
she's sharing her Puccini playlist
with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority
of New York.
(singing "Habanera" fromCarmen)
>> I know how it is to work in the morning
in the hustle and bustle.
One day, I heard a little girl sing
and it really touched my heart.
It made a difference in my day.
And so I was like, you know,
maybe I could do that for other people.
I had just graduated college and I was like,
"What am I gonna do with my life?
Let me help people out, while I figure it out."
And so one day there was this lady.
She came up to me really, really upset.
"You know, you have a beautiful voice, honey!
"You sound just like an angel!
What are you doing down here?" (laughs)
And I was like, "I want to be an angel."
I decided to take this seriously at some point
and not just moonlight.
I was tired of getting harassed by the cops,
and becoming part of MUNY allowed me to have a schedule
and then I could really keep that schedule, that structure.
So right now I am
at Yale Divinity School,
where I will be getting my M.Div.
I work as a chaplain, I gig a lot,
and so that's how I kind of balance everything.
I don't think I would have ended up at divinity school
if I didn't sing in the subway.
People are crying and telling me all their issues
in the subway!
And I wanted to be able to be of service.
I tend to, like, do the goodies, oldies but goodies.
I like to tap into the collective consciousness
of New Yorkers.
So, it's, like, laden in your subconscious,
and people usually react to things that are very familiar.
"Ave Maria's" a big one.
Listen, I could sing "Ave Maria" all day.
(singing "Ave Maria")
Whether it'sCarmen or opera or sacred music,
I give my all.
I sing it because its good communion with you,
with the person who's listening.
It humbles me, because I sing, I worship.
(indistinct MTA intercom announcement)
I love the shuttle, I do the Grand Central shuttle.
It's just less interference, basically,
and I guess my comfort zone. (chuckles)
I'm used to being there, I like the energy.
Every subway has its own culture.
Which is kind of weird but it's true.
When you're in Grand Central, there's a lot of
business people, but then people transiting,
and it's a very interesting mix.
I just want them to know
that they heard a angel and they're not alone.
I'm not saying I'm an, my, my personality is angel,
but at that moment, that's what I'm wanting to channel.
Singing in the subway, it can be very
chaotic but very beautiful at the same time.
That's New York City.
>> BOWEN: And that is all for this edition ofOpen Studio.
Next week, we get to the heart ofLove Story
with Ali MacGraw and Ryan O'Neal.
Plus, unlikely Cabaret couple Alan Cumming
and NPR's Ari Shapiro.
Until then, I'm Jared Bowen. Thanks for joining us.
As always, you can visit us online at GBH.org/OpenStudio.
And you can follow us on Instagram and Twitter,
@OpenStudioGBH; I'm @TheJaredBowen.
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