Review : Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay
Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay by Christopher Benfley
Pages : 270
Genre : Non-Fiction
My Rating :
From the Book’s Jacket :
An unforgettable voyage across the reaches of America and the depths of memory, Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay tells the story of America’s artistic birth. Following his family back through the generations, renowned critic Christopher Benfey unearths an ancestry- and an aesthetic-that is quintessentially American. His mother descends from colonial craftsmen, such as the Quaker artist- explorer William Bartram. Benfey’s father-along with his aunt and uncle, the famed Bauhaus artists Josef and Anni Albers-escaped from Nazi Europe by fleeing to the American South. Struggling to find themselves in this new world, Benfey’s family found strength and salvation in the rich craft tradition grounded in America’s vast natural landscape.
Bricks form the backbone of life in the rural Piedmont of North Carolina, where Benfey’s mother was raised among centuries-old folk potteries, tobacco farms, and clay pits. Her father, like his father before him, believed in the deep honesty of brick, that men might build good lives with the bricks they laid. Nurtured in this red-clay world of ancient craft and Quaker radicalism, Benfey’s mother was poised to set out from home when a tragic romance cracked her young life in two. Salvaging the broken shards of his mother’s former life and exploring the revitalized folk arts resisting industrialization, Benfey discovers a world brimming with possibility and creativity.
Benfey’s father had no such foundation in his young life, nor did his aunt and uncle. Exiled artists from Berlin’s Bauhaus school, Josef and Anni Albers were offered sanctuary not far from the red Piedmont at Black Mountain College. A radical experiment in unifying education and art, Black Mountain made a monumental impact on American culture under Josef’s leadership, counting Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, and Buckminster Fuller among its influential students and teachers. Focusing on the natural world, innovative craftsmanship, and the physical reality of materials, Black Mountain became a home and symbol for an emerging vision of American art.
My Thoughts :
When TLC Book Tours offered me the opportunity to review this book, I felt both excited and a little unsure. After all, even though I do study art history, American art, pottery and related topics are far from my expertise. I did worry I would have a hard time to get into it, but I shouldn’t have; Benfey’s writing pulled me in from the start.
Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay is a book that defies genre classification. It’s a memoir, a story of family, a book about art, history, nations… It is all of this and a little more, all of it coming together in one single narrative. Benley retraces his own origin through his parents and grand-parents’ story while narrating the historic and cultural background of each, and this is what I mostly enjoyed about his book : the intimate point-of-view. It makes history sound a lot more personal and a lot less clinical, all while sticking to the facts.
The book is divided in three parts, and I found them almost all equally interesting. I did enjoy reading about Wedgwood and the Cherokee in the last part, since I am curious about both but haven’t read a lot about either in the past. But, if I am honest, I do wish I could have read even more about the author’s uncle and aunt, Josef and Anni Albers. Maybe because I had heard a little of them before, of maybe because they felt closer to my field of study, I was the most intrigued by their part of the story, and I could have read a complete book about them. However, with a book so full of stories, it was clear the author had included just enough of them.
On a final note, I really liked Benfey’s writing. At times it was a bit unclear which point he was trying to make; he would mention an event, which related to someone specific, which then ended up being a story about someone else, sometimes coming back to the original idea, and sometimes not. It wasn’t a negative point for me; on the contrary, it is precisely what made this non-fiction book more personal and different from a traditional, dry history book.
I am so glad I got the chance to read this book; I’ll be honest and say that it isn’t something I would have picked by myself, but it was certainly a great experience. Benfey made me travel through time and space, gave me a lot to think about on history, family and artists, all of this wrapped in pleasant writing.
For more information or to read more reviews on this book, visit its page on the TLC Book Tours website.
Wordless Wednesday : Napoleon’s Tomb
This gallery contains 8 photos.
(click on picture for gallery view!) Napoleon’s Tomb, Les Invalides, Paris 2010. One of the most impressive place we visited on our trip! For more Wordless Wednesday, click here!
The Beauty of Reading – Part IV
I never stop looking for art on the subject of reading, and I was a bit surprised to realize it’s been over a year since I did one of these posts!
The third one focused on children being read to; this time around, I chose paintings of young girls reading by themselves.
Oh, the magical world of books!
Small Young Girl Reading by Seymour Joseph Guys, 1877
Ethel Reading Bluebeard by Alfred Morgan 1881
Reading Girl by Bremen Johann Georg Meyer Von (19th century)
Reading Girl by Bremen Johann Georg Meyer Von (19th century)
Young Girl Reading by the Window by Walter MacEwen
Home reading by Elliot Bouton Torrey
What I like about all these paintings is that they all seem relax, like they’re enjoying their reading and not forced to study. I relate to these children with a sweet touch of nostalgia; books were a wonderful comfort to me as a kid and they still are to this day.
Can you pick a favorite? I think mine are the first two.
To see the previous “Beauty of Reading” posts :
Review : An Object of Beauty
An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin
Pages : 292
Genre : Fiction, Art
My Rating :
What it’s about :
An ambitious young woman, Lacey is ready to take the New York art market by storm. With both wits and looks on her side, Lacey has no problem making her way up the social ladder while building herself a career. But her ascension is not without risks and difficult decisions, and her actions are not without consequences – both for her and the people around her.
My Thoughts :
This is the book I had been waiting for since the start of 2011. A book that will forever stay with me and will be shelved proudly among my favorites.
This wasn’t my first experience with Steve Martin’s writing and I had already been charmed twice before. So, I was expecting something good from An Object of Beauty, especially since its subject, art, is so close to my heart. What I hadn’t expected was to be blown away by a story centering on such a character and where in truth, very little happen.
But the thing is, An Object of Beauty is much more complex than that. Though we are following Lacey’s career from the start to her later years, she sometimes felt more like a vehicle for the captivating setting of New York’s art world. Martin goes at length to describe the arts, the events, the important characters, sometimes more than is necessary for the novel. I’m guessing some readers, not enthusiasts of the art world, will get bored with the history lessons, but I personally loved each second of it. And what fiction Martin added to history to create his novel just worked perfectly.
And while the book presents its story’s as being about this ambitious young woman, it isn’t exactly about Lacey. The book is written not from the first person nor from an omniscient narrator, but by Daniel Franks, a friend of Lacey. Therefore, the narrator is unreliable in the sense that he doesn’t always know what was going on with Lacey at one point in time. He relies on what she may have told him, on what others have told him or on his own experience, but I felt it created a form of detachment between the character of Lacey and I, the reader. Rather than taking you inside Lacey’s mind and life, the book is more like meeting with a friends who tells you all about this person that he knows but that you, personally, have never met; it might make you curious about this person, but it would be hard to get attached.
The narrator also has his own purpose and that, for me, was an excellent surprise. It’s not a “twist” in itself, but more like a late development that made me go “Ah! now I get it!” It follows with a certain mysterious event happening around the middle of the book, I think, but of which we don’t know the details until close to the end.
As for Lacey, she was fascinating enough but not in an exaggerated manner. While she charms and flirts, she doesn’t sleep her way to the top but uses her instinct and her knowledge, too. And let me tell you, I loved the idea of an ambitious career woman who’s not a cheap seductress (as often portrayed in fiction), and who can charm without giving everything away. She wasn’t perfect either, but she certainly had her strengths.
Wrapped up with Martin’s excellent prose and illustrated with many of the arts mentioned, An Object of Beauty is certainly deserving of the praise it has received so far. While it might not be everyone’s cup of tea, I think those who like it will really, really like it.
As for me, I am keeping my copy on a safe shelf, to be re-read in a not so far future.
Wordless Wednesday : “La Fermière” by Alfred Laliberté
La Fermière is a sculptural fountain realized by Alfred Laliberté in 1915, and located at the Marché Maisonneuve in Montreal. You can see the woman farmer on the top, young men struggling with animals at the center, and turtles splashing water all around. It is a most appropriate sculpture for the market 🙂
Photographed by me on July 17th.
For more Wordless Wednesday, click here!
While in Versailles – some thoughts on photography
When visiting the famous Versailles on our trip to France a year ago, I was faced with a contradiction I have rarely met in my short photography life : as beautiful and rich in details and history as the place was, I found it almost impossible to photograph.
Not because of the crowd – which was, let’s say it, an attraction in itself. You could hardly take a picture without having another tourist standing in the way. If photographs really do capture your soul, certainly no one left Versailles with theirs still intact.
Not because the place lacks in the aesthetics department, either : the place is, indeed, beautiful, and was in the process of being restored to its former glory when we visited.
No, the Château de Versailles is, indeed, a stunning place, where it seems you could take a picture every second from morning to night and still not have photographed it all. From its imposing exterior to its dazzling gardens, the place is filled with “oohs” and “aahs” moments waiting to happen.
But you see, the thing is, Versailles has been photographed so many times before, I felt like I already kind of knew the place. On magazines, in books, in movies, Versailles is an illustrious piece or architecture and history that is impossible to ignore.
As a result, I was left wondering : how could I photograph it in a new, different way? How could I make sure that the pictures I took would bring back my memories of this beautiful sunny day, without looking like pale imitations of all the similar ones before? How could I make these souvenirs as personal as the experience was?
Because our memories are unique, most of us want our pictures to reflect that. We don’t want to look through our albums, solid or virtual, and feel it’s the same as our next door neighbor’s, who went there with his wife 15 years ago.
One of my photography teachers used to say : “If you take 1000 photographers, and place them all on the same spot in the same conditions, and ask them all to take a picture of the same thing, you’ll still end up with a thousand of different pictures, even if your eye can’t always perceive the difference.” I get what he meant; but it’s still a challenge, when I point my lenses at things, to make sure that at least I, can see the difference when going through my pictures.
In the end though, I had to step back and simply “enjoy the ride”, as they say. Sure, tons of my pictures (if not all) would look similar to all the other ones out there. But I didn’t want to live my experience solely through the lens, either. To use another commonplace, I had to “live in the moment”, and worry about the rest later.
It’s surprisingly hard to do when you’ve spend so much time photographing everything. You look at stunning architecture and think “That would make such a great picture!” But I don’t regret it for one second : I still managed to take an amazing amount of pictures, and they are filled with memories I couldn’t have otherwise. 🙂
You said it!