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Film review: “Earth Made of Glass” 15 years later, Rwandan Genocide Survivors share their unending quest for truth

In "Earth Made of Glass," Deborah Scranton's investigative documentary about Rwanda, Jean Pierre Sagahutu, genocide survivor, is haunted by his father's unsolved murder and has scoured the Rwandan countryside on a 15 year search. Photo courtesy San Francisco Film Society.

Fifteen years after the brutal genocide in Rwanda that pitted Hutu against Tutsi and left 800,000 Tutsi and Hutu moderates dead, Deborah Scranton’s documentary “Earth Made of Glass” is a monumentally necessary film.  In this compelling documentary, Scranton focuses in on Jean Pierre Sagahutu, a survivor of the genocide who has been on a 15 year quest to find out the truth behind who murdered his father, mother, three sisters and four brothers.  Juxtaposed with Sagahutu’s personal quest is the gripping commentary of Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s President, who has spent the past 15 years on his own quest–trying to bring global attention to France’s active involvement, under former President Nicolas Sarkozy, in training and arming Hutu militias in Rwanda and Congo, who led massacres of Tutsis and moderate Hutus. 

Intertwined with Kagane’s commentary is the story of Rose Kabuye, his Chief of State Protocol (and former officer in the Tutsi Rawandan Patriotic Front (RPF), former Mayor of the capital city Kigali and former member of parliament), who was arrested in 2008 in Frankfurt, Germany, on a French warrant, on charges of terrorism.  Her arrest came after a report detailing France’s hidden involvement in the genocide was released.  Kabuye was detained on charges of involvement in the 1994 murder of former Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana, who was Hutu, when his plane was shot down, an event seen as a catalyst for the 1994 Rwandan genocide.  Ms. Kabuye was accused of harboring commandos who shot down the plane.  She waived her right to extradition and was transferred to France, where she spent months in prison.  President Kagame shrewdly used the arrest as an opportunity to launch a counter-attack, denying that Kabuye, and the 8 other suspects, were responsible for shooting down the plane and tried to expose the French role.  The film investigates Kabuye’s quid pro quo arrest, asserting the charges were unfounded.  

Rose Kabuye, Rwandan President Paul Kagame's Chief of State Protocol, was arrested on November 9, 2008 in Germany under an arrest warrant issued by France. Kabuye was suspected of participating in the 1994 downing of a plane carrying former Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana whose death triggered a genocide. Photo: Simon Maina, AFP, Getty Images.

Scranton’s use of two simultaneously unfolding and intertwined narratives is complicated by the fact that Rose Kabuye’s story is not explored with enough depth to fully connect her arrest in Germany back to the charges of her involvement in (Hutu) Habyarimana’s assassination and the beginning of the genocide.   Despite this, President Kagane’s forthright way of speaking about the lingering concerns that face his nation is compelling.  What Scranton has gifted us with is Jean Pierre Sagahutu, an unforgettable hero, who humanizes this event of incomprehensible dimensions, lends raw immediacy and closes the gap between past and present.  Scranton seems to have unfiltered access to Sagahutu’s deepest thoughts and feelings and that poignancy is what anchors this film.  Sagahutu has suffered immensely, losing all nine of his family members, but for the sake of his children and his country, he takes the high road, seeking the truth over revenge.  In so doing, he models a way for a broken nation to heal and for its children to grow up without the scars of their parents.

“Of course you want justice, but before justice, you want the truth,” says Sagahutu early in the film.  “Even if they put the killer in prison for life, for you it’s for nothing …for the someone who killed my brother, sister, my mom, my father, what I want to know from him is the truth– that’s all.”  As Sagahutu’s story unfolds, we learn that he survived the genocide by jumping in a septic tank where he stayed for 2 months and 16 days, surviving on food handed down to him on a dog chain every few days.  When he emerged, he learned that his entire family had been slaughtered.  What ensues is his quest to find out the details of his father’s death. His father was a doctor who had been in practice for 40 years and was a well-respected member of the community.  He was called in to the hospital during the genocide and abducted en route at a road block and never seen again.  His son systematically questions everyone he can find about his father, including those who watched the Gacaca (reconciliation trials) in the village.   He learns that a man was tried for killing a man in the very place where his father was last seen.   As the story unfolds, and he goes on to confront this man in person, we wonder how we would endure if we were in his shoes.   Sagahutu holds on with a special tenacity that few could muster, affording this man a humanity was not extended to his father.  He gives the man the chance to speak, knowing full well that the story he is hearing will likely be a combination of the truth, lies and justifications.  He is patient.    

We also learn that, geopolitically speaking, the Rwandan genocide was infinitely complex–a situation where global politics trumped humanitarian concerns and where humanitarian concerns was the excuse given for lack of international military response.  Scranton devotes a significant portion of the film to France’s role in the genocide but still fails at clearly driving home all the salient connections between France’s vested history in the French-speaking country, its backing of the Hutus and the French-trained paramilitaries in Rwanda and Congo.  If the claims regarding a direct French influence as a factor in creating and sustaining the genocide were laid out more systematically, the film would be stronger.   In the absence of this clarity, it is a very good thing that Sagahutu’s story is compelling enough to assume the lead narrative.  

H.E. President Paul Kagame, Genocide Commemoration speech Nyanza, Rwanda, April 2009. Image courtesy Deborah Scranton.

While the film does not address the American role, it is worth noting that the Clinton Administration was forefront in opposing international action, a highly-calculated political decision which Clinton has recently publicly expressed remorse over.  Shocked by unexpected American military casualties in Somalia and a humiliating withdrawal, Washington insisted that a cease-fire in Rwanda, impossible to attain quickly, had to precede humanitarian aid.  And so there we stood.

While not implicitly stated, the most glaring reason for the international community’s inaction was that impoverished and perennially troubled Rwanda had no strategic, political, or economic significance.  All it had were growing piles of bodies.  If this situation is ever to change, we need more filmmakers like Scranton who are there to drive home the truth.

The road to healing in Rwanda as President Paul Kagame states is “to find a way midway between the need for justice and being held accountable and reconciliation.  Asking someone to put aside legitimate grievances is asking someone to sacrifice.  Forgiving for them is a price they have to pay for a better future but they know that will be made easier by the truth that is gained about what has happened and why it has happened.”  Nearly one million deaths, immeasurable heart-ache.  Never again, we hope.

“Earth Made of Glass,” Director and co-Producer Deborah Scranton; co-Producer, Reid Carolin; Music, Johan Söderqvist; Cinematography, P.H. O’Brien.   87 minutes, English

 Screens: Thursday, September 30, 2010, 7pm,   Landmark Embarcadero Center Cinema. One Embarcadero Center, Promenade Level

Following the screening, an engaging panel discussion will address the functions, roles and processes of documentary film as a form of investigative journalism. Phil Bronstein, editor-at-large at the San Francisco Chronicle,  will moderate a discussion with director Deborah Scranton; Robert Rosenthal, executive director of the Center for Investigative Reporting and Mathilde Mukantabana, president of Friends of Rwanda. 

September 28, 2010 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Film review: Lixin Fan’s “Last Train Home”—In China, a teenage daughter’s rebellion crushes her parents and points to the extreme vulnerability of migrant workers

Lured by the promise of money and an exciting urban life Zhang Qin, 17, quits school against her parents' wishes, leaves her rural village, and travels to Guangzhou to join the throngs of migrant factory workers. Once on this track, it will be very difficult for Qin to return to school.

In China, over 120 million migrant workers have sacrificed everything for a country that barely acknowledges them and they lead precarious and very fractured family lives.  This is China’s dirty little secret and Chinese-Canadian Director Lixin Fan exposes it brilliantly in his thoughtful documentary “Last Train Home” which has won nearly every award there is to win on the film festival circuit, including the prestigious Golden Gate Award for best investigative documentary feature at SFIFF 53 ( 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival).  The film opens this week across the Bay Area and it well-worth seeing, particularly for families with children who are old enough to read subtitles and curious about other cultures and their connection to our American way of life.

“Last Train Home” is Fan’s directorial debut but he is well-respected for his previous work on the award-winning “Up the Yangtze,” also shot in China and pointing to the perils of modernization for the poor. “Last Train Home”  represents the filmmaker’s brilliant immersion into his subject to capture a poignant story of one Chinese family that could easily be the story of any of China’s 120 million migrant factory workers who lead lives of extraordinary hardship to offer their children a way out of poverty.  Fan focuses on the Zhang family—Zhang Changhau (father) and Chen Suqin (mother)—from a rural village in Sichuan province who have been piece workers in clothing factories in Guangzhou for 15 years.  They made the difficult decision to leave their infant children with their grandmother in the family’s ancestral village in countryside and let her raise them.  She survives on subsistence farming and the money the Zhangs send back from the city.  In life, the Zhangs have been confronted with a series of choices that all lead to undesireable outcomes.

The film captures the Zhang’s herculean efforts to get back home for the Chinese New Year, their much-awaited annual two-day train journey that provides their only chance to see their two children for a day or so until the next New Year rolls around.  Every year, 120 million workers leave China’s cities and return to their rural homes too, making this the largest recorded human migration.  In 2007, a horrific storm shuts down most of China’s transport and the Zhangs barely make it.  Fan’s beautiful cinematography, wideangle pans and occasional close-up shots of distress, show  these people as they must appear to the Chinese government—amorphous pixels in a larger whole.

Lxin Fan, director of "Last Train Home" (2009), chose the backdrop of the annual Chinese New Year exodus of migrant workers to the countryside to examine the shameful plight of Chinese migrant workers who have enabled China's economic development.

What awaits the Zhangs upon their return home is their disrespectful and resentful teenage daughter, Qin, who doesn’t see the value in pursuing her education and announces she too is going to become a factory worker.  Their younger son Yang is less anxious, bearing the constant chiding of his grandmother to study more.  He proudly shows his report card to his parents and announces that he is among the top in his class.  They respond by asking why he is not number one.  

 The Zhang’s want the best for their children but their absence in their daily lives has created resentment and the pain of abandonment.  In phone calls home, they obsessively focus on their children’s school performance–and they are both uneducated—and fail at forging a real connection.  Like many, they are a family in name, held together by sweat equity and set to crumble.  Multiply that story by 120 million and it becomes the plight of a country, a country that is catapulting forward with its migrant workers as shock absorbers. This is the new China and like it or not, we here in America are part and parcel of it.  Watch and learn.

Opened Friday, September 24, 2010, in Bay Area theatres.

Directed by Lixin Fan; Edited by Lixin Fan, Mary Stephens; Director of Photography, Lixin Fan; Camera Operators, Lixin Fan, Shaoguang Sun; Music by Olivier Alary; Produced by Mila Aung-Thwin, Daniel Cross; Zeitgeist Films release.  87 minutes.  In Mandarin and Sichuan dialect with English subtitles.  This film is not rated.

Geneva Anderson: Why did you focus on this particular subject matter—migrant workers?  I suspect it’s because it hits on the inherent tensions in the society itself and within families…this rapid paced economic transition has real consequences for individuals.

Lixin Fan:  Yes, but it’s also personal.   I began to work for China’s CCTV as a journalist early in my career and I used to travel across the country a lot with many peasants and migrant workers on trips to remote areas all over the country.  When I  came back to Beijing, the city where I lived, the great disparity between the rural China and urban metropolis China was almost unfathomable and it struck me every time.  I started to think where does all this economic advancement come from, at what price and where is it leading?  I realized that there are 160 million migrant workers who have been contributing, sacrificing on an individual level for three decades since China opened up its market.  I don’t think the government has done enough to help them on either an individual or national policy level.  Also, the urban residents don’t really appreciate or understand the hardship they have and that’s why I started to make this film–to tell the story of migrants to create awareness for those who live in the city and also for the government and outside the country as well. 

GA: What message do you hope that an American audience will come away with after seeing his film?

Lixin Fan:  The film is about migrant workers and the workers’ lives at the other end of the world, which is actually very connected to our life here in the West because of this process of globalization where everything they make is shipped out to the West and consumed by us.  I really hope that after watching the film, that audiences in the West will take some time to rethink our lifestyle here and what we can do in our own lives to change certain things.

GA:  Your budget for the film was about $1 million.  As a newcomer, how did you get your film funded and what issues were involved in that?  I understand that in China you were accused of taking foreign money and therefore being subject to foreign influence?  Do claims like these really carry weight in China?  What was your reaction?

Lixin Fan:  I felt extremely lucky, being a newcomer, to get external funding to make the film that I always wanted to make.   I moved to Canada 4 years ago and I worked on “Up the Yangtzee” as the Associate Producer and I got to know the production company, Eyesteelfilm, through that work in Montreal.  I started my research and filming in 2006.  The first phase of shooting was funded by my friend in China, not any official or broadcaster funding, rather through individual private investment that I was able to make a trailer, put together a really tight proposal, and to complete the first years of filming.  The production company had faith in this project so we teamed up and travelled to many festivals to pitch this to broadcasters and funding agencies all over the world.  Funding-wise, we had Telefilm funds in Canada, the Quebec Province Art fund, and many broadcaster pre-sales and in the States, ITVS and Sundance documentary funds.  When all this came together, we were able to sustain the filming for three years, a very nice budget for a documentary.

When I went back to show the film in China, there were accusations that I was taking the Western money to essentially reveal the bad/shameful side of China.  I don’t think of it that way but given how important the notion of saving face is culturally in China, I can understand that this occurred.  I think of like this—if my mother were very ill and she needed some unpleasant medicine and if I, as a loving son, had the choice of giving her this medicine or sort of tricking her and telling she was ok when she wasn’t, my mother might be unhappy with that bitter medicine but it’s going to help treat her in the long-run whereas a lie will do nothing.  I believe in what I do because telling the truth is better for China and for the world.

GA:   Were these claims made by people your age?  I hope not because it’s people of your generation who all this is going to fall on like a ton of bricks.

Lixin Fan:   Exactly.  I can tell you that these comments were mostly made by elderly people, the older generation.  When I showed the film in Vancouver, Canada, an old Chinese lady, an immigrant to Canada, was furious after the Q&A.   She pointed her finger at me and called me out on showing this dark side of China to Canada.  I was surprised and very sad that she had not gotten any distance from all of this.

GA:  What is the general level of receptivity in Asia, HK and China to a film that address these serious issues and their social consequences?

Lixin Fan:   We already screened it in Guangzhou International Documentary Film Festival and it went quite well.  The audience thought it was a very truthful accounting of this situation.  Many of the audience were university students who had come from the countryside and they were very moved by it.  A boy told that me that it was the story of his life because his elder sister was working in a factory while he was at university.  We will screen it in Shanghai too.

I gave a copy of the film to the Zhangs, who were both working in the factory.  At the end of the film, the mother has returned to the village but she actually returned to the factory last year.  The father later told me that he was very sad watching three years of their life on screen.  And the mother said she still cannot understand why Qin, their daughter, hates them so much while they have sacrificed everything for her.  This is a very tragic situation.

GA:  What has happened with Qin since you shot the film?  She was very vulnerable.

Lixin Fan:  Qin quite her job at the bar and went to find work at a hotel in Hubei province in Central China.  At the last Spring Festival (2009), the mother told me that Qin had called them and said she was ok and was making friends in the city but that she was not coming home for the New Year.  She’s a very rebellious girl but she’s smart and she’s claiming her independence in the city. Obviously, she’s chosen in an entirely different way than her parents had planned for her which way to escape through university education and have a good job and security in the city but she had to have it her way.

GA:  Qin drew a line in the sand.  Isn’t this symbolic of that whole generation, who might be looking at the lives of sacrifice their parents and grandparents have lived and not wanting all that responsibility put on them?   

Lixin Fan:  China is setup so that the older generations sacrifice for the younger and in their old age, the elderly are cared for by the younger.  The parents’ generation really sacrificed everything.  You see it in the film–the parents are far from home, living in meager circumstances and they send all their savings back home to the grandmother and kids.   After either getting old so they can’t work any longer or the competition weeds them out, they would go back to their village and start farming on a small plot of land.  This is in essence their retirement from the government in the absence of any social benefits.  This land is it for the rest of their lives.  Qin’s generation, grew up in the opening up period, a much freer society, with TV and hamburgers.  They pretty much adopted the liberal ideas from the West.  I do not know if they will shoulder this responsibility as their parents did, but this is a looming problem.  The very immediate issue is how they will survive in the city with no education, no skills and compete against the much better educated city kids.  This is a problem with no easy answer.  After the financial crisis, the state had to come up with a stimulus plan and a portion of that is dedicated to education benefits for these migrant workers.  I spoke about this with a friend of mine here who is an economist and he is very skeptical about this approach. 

GA:  So this impetuous rebellion of Qin could have a permanent impact that puts her on track for a very precarious life.

Lixin Fan:  Yes, I would agree with you.  I can’t say there is no hope, but once she took that track, it is going to be very difficult to go back and get an education.

 GA: Can you describe the situation of shooting in the train station?  It looked very dangerous and frightening.

Lixin Fan:  It was like a war-zone.  The police and army were all there trying to restore order. That was in 2008 when China got hit by a big snow storm which basically threw out the half out the country’s railway system.   Me, the crew and cast–we all got stuck in that station for three days.  It was really challenging to shoot there.  Whenever the crowds start to move, they really lift you and you literally get carried away in different directions and there is no control at all.  At night, there are so many people shuffling that it’s impossible to keep your eyes on the subject, no matter how close.  Everyone was wearing a wireless microphone and I gave them all a bunch of batteries and told to change every few hours to make that we could stay connected.  I told the mother and father “If you don’t see us, talk into the mic and we’ll find you.”  And we did lose each other and find each other again and again.

GA: Is there anything the Zhangs asked you to edit out of the film?

Lixin Fan:  I had total editorial control and the Zhangs were very good and trusting people.  I think you are asking about the fight and that was a very tense moment but they never asked me to edit that at all.  In fact, we sat down and talked for hours after that and, in the end, I ended up asking them if I could use that and they said yes.

GA:  What is your next project?

Lixin Fan:  I am trying to combine energy with the philosophy of Chinese Taoism in the storyline so that it is all about finding a balance between human beings and nature.  I will film at a wind farm construction site in the Gobi desert.  I will also film in a Taoism martial arts school in a remote area where the Taoism philosophy originated.

September 27, 2010 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

5th Annual Taste of Petaluma this Saturday…immerse yourself in gourmet Petaluma, support Cinnabar Theatre

 

Gopal Gauchan, owner/chef at Everest, 56 East Washington Street, will be serving his delectible Everest Pizza, oven-baked nan piled high with shredded chicken, artichokes, cheese and a killer sauce made from local tomatoes. Gopal's menu offers a fusion of Indian, Nepalese and Tibetan foods.

In case you haven’t noticed, the dining scene in Petaluma has changed dramatically and our city has become THE gourmet dining destination for Sonoma County and the wine country.  With more than 75 restaurants, cafes, wineries and downtown merchants participating in this Saturday’s 5th annual Taste of Petaluma, the downtown area will be a foodies’ paradise and your chance to get acquainted with Petaluma’s abundance of fantastic dining opportunities.  Last week, I accompanied Taste of Petaluma’s energetic coordinator Laura Sunday along on a pre-taste to several of this year’s participants and am delighted to report that Taste of Petaluma will have some real gems.

Taste of Petaluma is not your run-of-the-mill ‘Taste of… Fill-in-the-Blank…explained Laura Sunday.  “Most of these taste events have you going from booth to booth to sample food that has been prepared ahead of time, or assembled on the spot and you never get to experience the ambiance of the restaurant which is a huge part of going out to eat.”  Taste of Petaluma offers the unique opportunity to sit down, eat, and chat with the owners of these local eateries, all of whom have very interesting stories to tell about how they landed in Petaluma.  There are also numerous samplings of locally-produced beers, brandies, champagne, ports, and wines, in many cases paired with cuisine.   

The festive afternoon will also include loads of live musical entertainment (schedule) —jazz, folk, blues, rock, jug band, acoustic guitar, even Elvis—all over the downtown area and the opportunity to stroll

Affendi's owner/chef "Joe" Besir brews fresh tea in his Turkish Samovar for his customers.

 through the city’s numerous art galleries and shops, many of which are hosting multiple samplings.

A $60 ticket will buy you 10 dine-around tickets, enough to provide both lunch and an early dinner and no one will walk away hungry.  For the hosts, who donate all the food and beverages, the effort and expense is well-justified.  “Last year I served apricot chicken to 60 people,” said Gopal Gauchan owner/chef of Everest, 56 East Washington Street, in the Golden Eagle Plaza.  “People came in all year long and brought their families and friends and everyone asked for apricot chicken.  Taste of Petaluma is a way for us to get involved with the community.”

We began our culinary tour with dessert–traditional Turkish baklava from Afendi’s Turkish Grill  restaurant in the Plaza North Shopping Center.  Chef/owner Serdar “Joe” Besir greeted us with steaming hot tulip-shaped glasses of fragrant Turkish black çay (tea) that he had just brewed in his copper samovir.  You may have heard about Afendi’s grilled meat—lamb, chicken or beef–doners or kebabs—or the belly dancing on the weekends. Their desserts are beautifully done too, very satisfying and not too sweet or syrupy.  Joe will be sampling Pistacio Baklava (Fistikli Baklava), Walnut Baklava (Civilzi Baklava) and Sweet Semolina Cake (Revani).  Baklava is eaten all over Turkey, Greece, and Central Asia.  Joe makes his without shortcuts.  His own handmade phyllo dough is layered with chopped nuts and honey, resulting in a rich, sweet flaky pastry that is addictive.  Joe believes that tea is a crucial part of Turkish hospitality and

Afendi's Turkish Grill, Golden Eagle Plaza, has already built a reputation for its grilled meats. Owner/chef Serdar "Joe" Basir will be sampling traditional Turkish baklava in Taste of Petaluma at Louis Thomas menswear, 150 Kentucky Street.

that Afendi’s will never charge for its tea.  While Afendi’s is just a few months old, it is so popular that reservations are required on the weekends.

Teri Velasco owner/chef at Velasco’s North of the Border (190 Kentucky Street) will be serving chilaquiles, a traditional Mexican dish of fried tortilla quarters topped with a special chilaquiles sauce that has been handed down through her husband’s family.

Be sure to cross the bridge to the Golden Eagle Shopping Center to sample the Everest Pizza at Everest Indian Restaurant and say hello to owner/chef Gopal Gauchan.  Gopal describes his cuisine as a fusion of Indian, Nepalese and Tibetan cuisines and stresses that while the flavor is intense, the food is not highly-spiced.  (Those who want more spice can request it.)  If you take a close look at Gopal’s Everest pizza, you will see that its crust is made of his own clay-oven baked nan (flatbread) and the cheese is not melted.  Instead, he piles cooked chicken breast, crispy artichokes and mozzarella cheese atop a rich and sweet sauce he makes from local tomatoes and garnishes the pizza with sun-dried tomatoes.  Come in for a 6 inch slice.

Teri Velasco owner/chef at Velasco’s North of the Border (190 Kentucky Street) has participated in all but one Taste of Petaluma and says it’s her favorite event of the year because she gets to meet so many people.  She will be serving chilaquiles, a traditional Mexican dish of fried tortilla quarters topped with a special chilaquiles sauce that has been handed down through her husband’s family and on top of that chicken, onions, Mexican cheese (queso fresco) and sour cream.  Teri utilizes as many fresh and local ingredients as possible and says it makes a difference—her customers have complemented her on the sweetness of her tomato sauce made from her own garden’s  sun-ripened tomatoes.

Jacob Gamba of risibisi will be serving their signature mushroom risotto, a mouthwatering dish that is so turbo-charged with mushroom, it will leave you wanting to try everything on their expansive menu.

Risibi at 154 Kentucky Street is serving a creamy mushroom risotto to die for—prepared with fresh local shitake and porcini mushrooms and Carnaroli rice, a short grain high starch Italian rice that retains liquid, holds its shape better than Arborio rice which is commonly used in risotto in the US. According to manager Joe Gamba, the secret to great risotto is slowly adding broth to the rice which both slowly cooks the rice and releases its glutens and stirring constantly.  But why not let Risibisi take care of the work—their risottos change daily, they have an extensive menu of Italian delicacies and an inviting upscale atmosphere.    

Gourmet desserts are my downfall but I don’t like them excessively sweet.  Viva Cocolat at 110 Petaluma Blvd North has been in business for just 2.5 years but chocolatier/owner Lynn Wong was voted best chocolatier by Bohemian Best of the North Bay for 2009 and 2010.  Wong offers freshly-

Lynn Wong chocolatier and proprietress of Viva Cocolat will be sampling Milk Chocolate Toffee Truffles with Valley of the Moon Winery's Sonoma County Port.

made chocolate desserts and a variety of premium chocolates from the world’s best chocolatiers.  “We came to Petaluma 18 years ago, making the migration from Mill Valley to Novato to Petaluma to start a family.  Chocolate was my passion and I wanted to do something I loved and to be involved in the community and model that to my kids.”  Wong loves it when customers introduce her to new exotic chocolates. 

Savory applications are all the rage right now in the chocolate world and Wong will be sampling her lusciously creamy Milk Chocolate Toffee Truffles, with Sonoma County Port from Valley of the Moon Winery (Glen Ellen) from 2006 Souzao and Syrah grapes.  Wong says the secret to her artistry lies in the premium chocolate she uses– either Guittard (French conceived, based in Burlington, CA) or Callebaut (Belgian), depending on the application. 38% cacoa couverture is the foundation for the ganache in her Milk Chocolate Toffee Truffles which are hand-rolled in buttery toffee bits.   Wong selected this truffle especially to accentuate the port which has aromas of currants, cherry and dark chocolate that carry through to with accents of cinnamon and nutmeg. 

 Walking in to Jacqueline’s High Tea, 203 Western Avenue, can be an assault on your senses—it’s unapologetically girlie–but get over it!  IF you love tea and unforgettable homemade desserts, this is home central.  Afternoon tea, cream tea, dessert tea, high tea, tea parties, a cup to just relax—Jacqueline offers it all in a relaxed bistro setting.  Double Dark Chocolate Mate tea (Honest Tea) got my attention and will be one of several teas she will be sampling for Taste.  At 5 calories per cup, it’s a guilt free match made in heaven of antioxidant-rich, organic, roasted Yerba Maté blended with aromatic organic dark cocoa.

Jacqueline owner of Jacqueline's High Tea, 203 Western Avenue, is the force behind the unforgettable almond creme.

  Jacqueline will also be sampling her famous orange-cranberry scones—light, flaky, freshly-baked.  Along with the scones, don’t pass up the chance to try her famous almond crème—an airy sugar-free, fat-free whipped concoction that will have you eating it with a spoon right from the bowl.   There’s also homemade lemon curd, fresh jam and whipped butter. Few know this but Jacqueline also painted a lot of the gorgeous Trompe L’oeil wall panels that create the ambiance at Jacqueline’s.  Men are more than welcome too—her husband Frank will greet and seat you but in all matters of tea and dessert he defers to the boss.   Frank really won my heart when he told me that Jacqueline supported him through thick and thin in his forty years in the music industry and he’s happy and proud to help her.  Yes!!   

Tickets sales will be capped at 1500 and Taste of Petaluma’s proceeds  will go to Cinnabar Theatre which was founded by the legendary Marvin Klebe in the early 1970’s in the old red schoolhouse that was the original Cinnabar School (near the intersection of Skillman Lane and Petaluma Blvd. North.)   Over the years, Cinnabar Theatre, a non-profit dedicated to encouraging community participation in the arts, has grown to become the community’s most beloved opera and theatre company committed to community education as well.  The theatre offers a highly regarded Young Repertory Program that  trains youth as young as 4 years old  in the dramatic and musical performing arts.  Now in its 38th season, Cinnabar is opening “Travels With My Aunt” this Saturday (September 24 – October 17, 2010), Giles Havergal’s lively adaptation of  the classic Graham Greene novel.  

Laura Sunday, Taste of Petaluma's organizer, relaxes at Jacqueline's High Tea with a cup of double dark chocolate mate tea, a mate with a rich chocolate aroma and heavenly taste...just 5 calories per cup.

Anyone who twitters can join Cinnabar’s ”hash-tag” party  #top2010 .  Cinnabar will be giving away tickets to different shows throughout the day.

This year, Taste of Petaluma has partnered with the Petaluma Downtown Association to offer “Petaluma Packages,” geared to weekend visitors.   Two-night hotel stays have been bundled with tickets to Taste of Petaluma, to Cinnabar’s Theatre’s newest play “Travels with My Aunt,” and to Petaluma’s 24th Annual Antique Fair (this Sunday), or breakfast.  

TICKETS:  

$50 Advance-Sale Tickets are available until 5 pm, Friday, September 24th.

Tickets purchased after 5 pm will be $60.  Sales are capped at 1500 tickets.   

 Advance Sale tickets can be picked up at WILL CALL at Helen Putnam Plaza after 10:30 a.m. on Saturday

Purchase:  before event — online at Taste of Petaluma, or by calling Cinnabar Theater (707) 763-8920,  or at the following downtown Petaluma venues:  Gallery One, Haus Fortuna, I Leoni, Pelican Art Gallery, Hollingsworth Jewelers.

day of event— tickets sold at 10:30 a.m. on at Putnam Plaza (Petalma Blvd.), Haus Fortuna (111 2nd Street). No credit cards ticket purchases day of event. 

Ticket Package Includes: • Book of 10 tickets – one sampling item per ticket. Additional tickets can be purchased throughout the day for $6 each.• Street Map of sampling locations • Menu of food and special events offered by participants • Taste of Petaluma tote bag to first 500 guests

September 21, 2010 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Kendall-Jackson’s Heirloom Tomato Festival–Food, Fun, and TONS of TOMATOES

The festival is all about tomatoes and attendees could sample over 170 varieties freshly picked from Kendall-Jackson's organic sensory garden.

Last Saturday’s Kendall-Jackson Heirloom Tomato Festival at the Kendall-Jackson Wine Center turned out to be a hoot for ARThound and the weekend’s hottest gourmet ticket.  The event’s 3,000 tickets were sold out in early September.  The festival, now in its 14th year, was well worth the $65 donation, which went to the School Garden Network of Sonoma County, a nonprofit dedicated to sustainable garden and nutrition-based learning programs for local students.   Considering there was ample opportunity to gorge yourself on as much food as you could eat in 5.5 hours, 5 complementary samplings of Kendall-Jackson wines, and loads of great entertainment, there was a lot of value in that ticket too.  True, this festival is all about heirloom tomatoes but it’s also a very well-run gourmet event, and by that I mean fairly high-end gourmet.  Fifty-five of the area’s top restaurants sampled incredible delicacies using heirloom tomatoes that came right from Kendall-Jackson’s own gardens, with attendees voting on whose dish was most delectable.   The event also included a number of timed cook-offs which pitted top chefs against each other, winners determined by audience applause.   

Tasting Tent: 170 varieties

Central to the annual event is a large tent with long tables holding dozens of plates of sliced heirloom

ARThound loved the sweet carrot-colored and orange-sized "Glory of Moldova" which makes an excellent juice.

tomatoes, organized by color/type which attendees are encouraged to taste with toothpicks and then rank.  This year, there were over 170 varieties that had been freshly picked from Kendall-Jackson’s organic culinary gardens, which were also available to tour.  I had come to try “Zogola,” a huge, deep-red beautifully fluted on the shoulders beefsteak.  Its taste was reportedly full-bodied, tangy, rich and sweet.  And like the fascinating and legendary first King of Albania, who I imagine is this tomato’s namesake, Zogola is noble and reliable.  While listed on the JK tasting sheet, there was no Zogola to be found, so I made my way down the tables and landed upon the luscious “Glory of Moldova,” which seduced me immediately with its rich carrot-orange color and sweet mild taste and that name, harkening to the Republic of Moldova’s independent status.  I had visited this remote rural area when it was still part of Romania.  A prolific late-season heirloom that yields 2 to 3 inch fruits, I was told that Glory of Moldova makes fantastic juice. 

Mia Brown of Lodi won 6 of 18 available awards, including the prestigious "Golden Trowel" in the annual tomato growing competition.

To be honest, I have to reveal my personal biases.  As a journalist who spent years in the former Eastern and Central Europe and the Balkans, I am easily moved by any Siberian, Ukrainian, Black Sea or pre and post-glasnost names.  And with good reason, many of the exotic purple, dusky brown, bluish brown and mahogany skinned tomatoes that Northern Californians are currently so enamored with, hail from this part of the world.

Originally, black-purple tomatoes were native to the Southern Ukraine during the early 19th century and were found on a small Crimean peninsula.  They spread throughout the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia and ultimately made their way here, where we marvel at their colors and bold complex taste. In tomato tastings all over, blacks are placing as high as reds or pinks.   Actually, “black” became the new red among tomatoes a few years ago in the haute food world and now it seems like almost everyone has tried them.  They are gorgeous sliced and served plain on a plate, sprucing up a salad or sandwich and they are robust enough for sauces.   This year’s festival offered—Black, Black from Tula, Black Krim, Black Plum, Paul Robeson, Purple Prince, Cherokee Purple. 

Mia Brown's "San Marzano Redorita," a Sonoma County favorite for sauces, won the Paste competition.

An heirloom that I grow in my own garden, the Japanese Black Trifele, produces pear-shaped globes with a rich flavor that can’t be beat. 

Growing Contest–Looks, Flavor, Weight 

Growers from far and wide entered the home-grown tomato-growing competition where judging was based on looks, flavor, and weight.  The “Golden Trowel Award” for best of show went to Mia Brown of Lodi for her “Green Doctor” tomatoes which won the Cherry and Currant Division.  Brown seems to have had the right tomato karma this year—she got 6 of 18 awards given, more than anyone else.  The Largest/Heaviest tomato was a 2lb 4.5 oz “Pineapple Stripe” tomato grown by Brad Agerter of Healdsburg.  Other categories included “White and Green,” “Yellow and Orange,” “Pink and Red,” “Purple, Brown and Black” and “Paste.”

 

 

Sonoma Cheesemaker Sheana Davis of Epicurean Connection paired a dallop of her creamy award-winning Delice de la Vallee cheese with Kendall-Jackson heirloom tomoatoes and dresed it homemade balsamic vinegar and Kendall-Jackson Estate olive oil.

Gourmet Samples–GALORE!

 

The chance to try amazing tomato gourmet delicacies created right before your eyes by some of the area’s top chefs is what makes this festival so popular.  All of them use freshly picked heirloom tomatoes supplied by Kendall-Jackson and, in many cases, KJ olive oil and wine too.   Here are a few that caught my fancy—

Carrie Brown of Healdsburg's Jimtown Store was serving a romesco, a Spanish-inspired gourmet spread.

I started off with dessert, no breakfast.  Chef Rene Jakushak of Nectar Restaurant (Hilton Sonoma Wine Country) did tomato waffles (pureed Brandywine tomatoes are a staple in the pink batter), with heirloom tomato whipped butter, a sweet tomato syrup, topped with ground pistachios.  The amazing thing about this combo was its sweet taste, hinting at its prime ingredient. 

Cheesemaker Sheena Davis of Epicurean Connection, Sonoma, was sampling scoops of her award-winning Delice de la Vallee cheese, a sweet and creamy blend of fresh triple cream cow and fresh goat milk, over heirlooms with fresh homemade balsamic and Kendall-Jackson Estate extra virgin olive oils.  By 1:30 pm she and her beaming assistant Eva (manning the scoop) had served about 4,500 samples.  “We’re gonna keep going,” she said.  “People can’t get enough of this.”    Like many of the vendors I met, Davis’ acclaim in the highly competitive cheese world is hard-won and something she is very proud of.   She had a copy of cheese aficionado and author Juliet Harbut’s The World Cheese Book proudly displayed at her booth and told me that she had authored the American cheese section, quite an honor.  As it turns out, Davis’ section of this gorgeous cheese book is packed with wisdom about cheese making and pairings.

Just down the way, Carrie Brown, proprietress of Healdsburg’s charming Jimtown Store, was sampling more of Davis’ cheese with her own “Spicy Pepper Jam” and another delicacy–Spanish “romesco” sauce of roasted red pepper, toasted almonds, smoked paprika, garlic, and olive oil, topped with cucumber-fennel slaw on a hand-cut corn tortilla chip.  Brown proudly informed me that her spicy pepper jam is soon going to be sold in tubs in the refrigerated cheese sections of stores like Whole Foods so that it can be paired with the fresh cheeses it so wonderfully complements.  Coups like this are to be celebrated. In my enthusiasm, I forgot to inquire about the tomato component of her offerings….aheemmm.

Part of the fun is getting to vote by casting your chip into the bowl of your favorite vendor.  This year’s people choice Food Vendor Award went to Tolay, Sonoma County Cuisine (at the Sonoma Sheraton Petaluma) and executive chef Danny Mai for their “Sope de Tinga,” chicken sopes with tomato sauce.  Mai is well-known for appropriating ideas from several different regions and then recreating them in his own assimilated signature dishes.  He told me that his inspiration for cooking comes from chef Rick Bayless who has changed the image of Mexican food in America and yet remains a very humble and authentic person.   Mai’s sopes were essentially very thick homemade tostadas piled high with a perfect mix of simple ingredients—shredded chicken, cubed

The "People's Choice Award" went to Sonoma County Cusine's "Sope de Tinga," Chicken sopes with tomato sauce.

heirlooms and chiplote in a salsa called tingua, cilantro, fresh cream, sour cream and feta cheese.  At 4-inches in diameter (among the most generous servings offered), these chunky heavenly Cal-Mex treats, with their rainbow of bright colors, had everyone buzzing.   I had two.  Hats off to Tolay! 

Adam Mali, executive chef, Nick’s Cove in Point Reyes, offered up thousands of oysters simply topped with mild heirloom tomato varieties.  Sean Thomas, aka The Zinful Chef, offered another winning seafood-tomato combo– yellow heirloom tomato lobster bisque that looked mild but actually delivered a robust red tomato taste.  Thomas was one of these chefs who was really chatting it up with people, and was as interested in their opinions as he was in telling them about his innovative catering.  

I topped off my afternoon of tasting with a long wait in line for Anthony Bonviso’s Watermelon Tomato Mint gelato at Fiorello’s Italian Ice Cream stand.  Fiorello’s is a San Rafael institution and Anthony told me he is currently refining his popular basic wine sorbet into several spin-offs. 

Tomato Talks

Tomato guru Amy Goldman, from New York gave a fascinating, informative and humorous lecture on

Amy Goodman, author and chairman of the Seed Saver's Exchange, encouraged people to grab and save the seeds of the tomatoes that most impressed them.

 heirlooms to a standing room only audience.  As chairman of the Seed Savers Exchange (the largest organization of rare seed devotes in the world) she also had a lot to say about the  Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway, the ultimate safety deposit box for biodiversity and global food supply preservation, storing duplicate collections of seeds on behalf of gene banks from around the world.  (ARThound will be devoting a special article to Goldman and her work later.)

 While the heirloom varieties that Seed Savers Exchange has contributed—for example, “Tomato German Pink”– make-up only a small portion of the total “deposits” at Svalbard, she mentioned that these are from seeds conserved

Laura Taylor of Woodland Hills produced a unique and gorgeous Tomato calendar that tracks the tomato-growing season with photos, tasks, recipes.

by its members who are largely home gardeners.  Goldman encouraged people to snatch and save the seeds of those heirloom tomatoes that catch their fancy.  For those interested in germinating and starting their own heirlooms, her book The Heirloom Tomato, has everything a novice needs to know on the topic. 

After Goldman’s lecture, I ran into gardener Laura Taylor of Woodland Hills, who gave me a copy of her tomato calendar, a gorgeous month-by-month guide to growing tomatoes that begins in March and runs through February.   Taylor represents the pioneering attitude that, along with the climate, has established Northern California as a Mecca for gardeners.  While yet to start her own heirloom tomatoes from seeds, she has an unbridled passion for tasty tomatoes and a knack for gardening that she has turned into a business.  She has branded herself  “Laura Taylor at Home in the Garden,” teaches  tomato growing and cooking classes, blogs about tomatoes, and has numerous media appearances.  She came to this year’s KJ festival with a dream and mission—to be a featured tomato author/lecturer in the future.

 

TICKETS– The festival is a perennial sell-out.  Tickets, $65, are pre-sold only (3,000 are available) and are available online at www.kj.com, or the Kendall Wine Center itself or the Healdsburg Tasting Room.   Inquire about May, 2011.

September 18, 2010 Posted by | Food | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Call it a Gift, Call it a Loan, the Fisher Collection shines at SFMOMA

Chuck Close, Agnes, 1998; oil on canvas; 102 x 84 inches; The Doris and Donald Fisher Collection at SFMOMA; ©Chuck Close, courtesy PaceWildenstein, NY; photo: Ellen Page Wilson

Times flies.  In the last days of our glorious Indian summer, a subtle reminder.  If you haven’t seen the spectacular show “Calder to Warhol: Introducing the Fisher Collection,” you should:  its three-month run ends Sunday, September 19, 2010.   This is one of the largest exhibitions SFMOMA has mounted and it is the lynchpin of its 75th anniversary program, representing the museum’s latest coup—a novel partnership that will secure its place among an elite handful of the world’s contemporary art museums.   The show presents 161 of the 1,100 artworks in the iconic collection that the late Gap founder Donald Fisher collected with his wife Doris over 40 years and essentially loaned to SFMOMA for a very long time.   The details are still being worked out but a Fisher Family trust will own the works; a Fisher family foundation will interface with SFMOMA; and SFMOMA will house the collection for the next 100 years in its new museum-addition, thereby accessing one of the greatest private collections of modern and contemporary art in the world.  

The enthusiasm is well-deserved— the Fisher collection is a private collection like no other, with a breadth and depth that is rarely achieved.  It is particularly distinguished for its concentration of works by key artists Alexander Calder, Chuck Close, Philip Guston, Ellsworth Kelly, Anselm Kiefer, Roy Lichtenstein, Agnes Martin, Gerhard Richter, Richard Serra, Cy Twombly, and Andy Warhol.    It includes extensive groupings of seminal pieces by several of these artists and traces their creative evolution through entire bodies of works. Gary Garrels, Elise S. Haas Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture, has done an exceptional job of showcasing this sampling over the 4th and 5th floors of the museum and the rooftop garden.  

As SFMOMA director Neal Benezra put it, “This is the culmination of decades.  Of course, they had money and used it well, but money and enthusiasm don’t always lead to something of real substance.  Don was very active on the SFMOMA board for years along with Doris and now their son Robert.  They watched and participated and donated several significant pieces prior to this, demonstrating a strong commitment to contemporary art….This is just the beginning;  there’s much more to come.”  

Calder to Warhol: Introducing the Fisher Collection, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, through Sunday, September, 19, 2010.    www.sfmoma.org   151 3rd Street, San Francisco, CA, (415) 357-4000.  Closed Wednesdays.  Adults: $18.

September 15, 2010 Posted by | Art, SFMOMA | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Saturday’s Juicy ticket– Kendall-Jackson’s Heirloom Tomato Festival

Photo-op? With over 175 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, in all sizes, shapes and colors, you can shoot away at Kendall-Jackson's 14th Heirloom Tomato Festival, Saturday, September 11, 2010.

Who doesn’t love a freshly-picked sun-ripened tomato?    Kendall-Jackson’s 14th Annual Heirloom Tomato Festival, at the Kendall-Jackson Wine Center, which I am heading to later today, will offer more than 170 heirloom varieties in every size, shape and color for tasting and ranking.   The festival—sorry, it’s SOLD OUT—raises money for the School Garden Network of Sonoma County and will feature some of our area’s top chefs in a timed cook-off creating new heirloom tomato masterpieces,  50 gourmet food purveyors offering generous samples of their own tomato-inspired dishes (tomatoes supplied by Kendall-Jackson), plenty of Kendall-Jackson wines especially paired with tomato delicacies, educational food and wine seminars, and music.  All the tomatoes will have been picked right from the Kendall-Jackson’s organic sensory culinary gardens which you will also be able to tour.  There is also a tomato-growing contest, adding a kind of county-fair quality to the event.

There is no food I look forward to more than tomatoes, and heirloom tomatoes, as opposed to hybrid tomatoes, just can’t be beat for their outstanding and varied flavors.  Heirloom tomatoes are open-pollinated varieties introduced before 1940, varieties that have been in circulation more than 50 years, or seeds that have been passed down for several generations through a family.

The KJ festival will feature about 170 varieties of classic and colorful heirlooms like Green Zebra, Stupice, Mortgage Lifter, and Cherokee Purple, which grow very well in Sonoma County, and the opportunity to try some varieties you may have never heard of.   I am looking forward to tasting the exotic-sounding “Zogola.”  The only reference that comes to mind is that of the legendary Zog of Albania, who became the Balkan nation’s first President and then King of Albania–he lived in dangerous times and enacted daring reform legislation.  I am expecting nothing less than a large, zesty, dynamic tomato.  In fact, taste aside, this is the underlying lure and legacy of the heirloom–we all love and need a good story, one that fuels our individual fantasies.   Go out and find your Zogola!  

Guests will be able to sample and rank freshly-picked tomatoes in pure form and sample tantatlizing tomato dishes created by nationally renowned chefs.

This year, the festival also features acclaimed author and horticultural guru Amy Goldman, from New York, whose book The Heirloom Tomato, is regarded as one of the best on the subject.  Goldman who also wrote best-selling books on melons and squashes, and is  chairman of the Seed Savers Exchange (the largest organization of rare seed devotes in the world), will lead a seminar on heirlooms at 1 p.m.   If you want a lasting treat, buy yourself a copy of her book at the festival, pour over Victor Schrager’s photography and try Goldman’s numerous recipes which are delicious, easy to follow and draw on diverse cultures.  If you want the real-deal heirloom experience, get some seeds, or a starter plant (if you must), get your hands dirty, and prepare yourself for the deeply gratifying process of watching nature take its course.  You will be subject to nature’s forces which may include gophers, insects and viruses but there is NOTHING more gratifying than seeing those first love apples start to appear and –at the perfect moment–which you decide–picking and eating them.

In terms of instant tomato gratification, the possibilities are endless at today’s festival, all you need to do is pace yourself over the course of the afternoon.  Bring some sun protection like a hat because it’s going to be hot.  And then there’s the wine–the event will feature continuous wine-tasting opportunities.   

TICKETS– this year’s festival is completely sold out.  Tickets, $65, are pre-sold only (3,000 are available) and are available online at www.kj.com, or the Kendall Wine Center itself or the Healdsburg Tasting Room.   Inquire about May.

September 11, 2010 Posted by | Food | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Final Week: de Young Museum “Birth of Impressionism,” the first of two unique Musée d’Orsay shows that bring Paris right to Our Doorstep

The Fifer. 1866. Édouard Manet (1832-1883). Oil on canvas, 63 3/8 x 38 1/4 inches. RMN (Musée d’Orsay)/Hervé Lewandowsk

Every era has its radicals– those who challenge the entrenched status quo, usher in sweeping change, and, finally, are upstaged themselves.  For the past 3 months, the de Young Museum has explored those early independent Impressionist painters who broke the rules of academic painting and shocked the conservative mid-19th century French art scene with a scandalous infusion of light and color.  The early Impressionists set entirely new standards for how artists saw and depicted nature and subsequently, they have influenced generations of artists.   “Birth of Impressionism: Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay,” now in its final week, presents a remarkable group of nearly 100 mid to late 19th century paintings, some well-known, others not, that showcase the antecedents of Impressionism.  The works are from Paris, from the Musée d’Orsay, the former Beaux-Arts railway station on the left bank of the Seine that was converted into a museum by architect Gae Aulenti some 25 years ago and is currently being refurbished for its silver anniversary.    

The back story on how they came to the de Young is that Dede Wilsey (FAMSF Board Chair) and John Buchanan (FAMSF Director) were attending the auction for  Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Berge’s estate in Paris in February 2009 and over dinner learned from Musée d’Orsay Director, Guy Cogeval, that the museum needed a safe place to stash its Impressionist treasures while the plaster and dust were flying.  The duo politely pounced and Cogeval invited them to select what they wanted of Orsay museum treasures eligible to leave the country.   They choose about 240 works in two days and the details—the thematic split into two shows, transport, financial and insurance issues– fell into place over the coming year.   The De Young is the only museum in the world that will likely ever have two consecutive special exhibitions from the Musée d’Orsay of Impressionist art of this caliber which attests to its glowing stature in the museum world and our good luck.      

This first exhibition, co-curated by FAMSF’s Dr. Lynn Federle Orr, PhD, Curator of European Art, begins with paintings by naturalist artists such as Bougereau and Courbet, the great symbolist painter Gustave Moreau and includes early works by Manet, Monet, Renoir and Sisley as well as a selection of Degas’ paintings that depict images of the ballet, the racetrack and life in “la Belle Époque.”  The second show, “Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne and Beyond: Post-Impressionist Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay,” (September 25 – January 18, 2011)  will present 120 of the Musée d’Orsay’s most famous late Impressionist paintings, including those by Monet and Renoir, followed by the more individualistic styles of the early modern masters including Cézanne, Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Van Gogh, and the Nabi painters Bonnard and Vuillard.  

Those expecting something as straightforward as the museum’s last blockbuster, “Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs” will be challenged in the very best sense of the word.  This is an academic and probing look at the various roots of Impressionism rather than a line-up of immediate wows.  The show is also beautifully presented—exquisitely lit and hung (lower than usual) and actually shows these works to better advantage than the (pre-renovation) Orsay ever did with its whitish walls and harsh lighting environment.   The de Young’s special configurable exhibition walls, have been organized into nine small galleries or salons painted in specially-selected rich dark hues ranging from a Venetian red, to rich taupe to velvety Seminole brown which complements the artworks and adds atmosphere all along the way.    

Conceptually, the show succeeds in illuminating a messy topic—the many factors that contributed to and ran along side of the birth of Impressionism.   Salon painting has been combined with modernity in all aspects—Manet from the 1860’s, the Ecole de Batignolles, the beginnings of Symbolist art, and the influence of modernization. The show also points to the French state’s success in its 19th century collecting practices—several of these masterpieces were acquired directly from the artists at the time.  

Birth of Venus. 1879. William Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905). Oil on canvas, 9 ft. 10 1/8 inches x 7 ft. 5/8 inches. RMN (Musée d’Orsay)/Hervé Lewandowski

This is not the de Young’s first stab at this topic.  In April-July, 1986, in collaboration with the National Gallery of Art, the de Young Museum under curator Charles Moffett, brought together about 150 works from collections all over the world and presented them as they were first seen in the Impressionist movement’s original eight shows. That remarkable assemblage of works, “The New Painting: Impressionism 1874-1886,” was immensely popular and this current exhibition draws heavily on that scholarship.  

The Salon

The show begins with an exploration of 19th century painting styles emerging from the dictatorial government-sponsored Salon.  The early Impressionist artists all called France home during the mid-19th Century and competed with each other for an exhibition place at the annual Salon, the only juried exhibition of new painting and sculpture in Paris.  Acceptance in this official yearly salon was the gateway to financial success but the Impressionist artists sought to circumvent the Salon and its stifling rules and stage their own shows and sell their own works.   The Salon’s taste ran to “la grande peinture” or “le peinture d’ histories”–elevated historical, religious, or mythological themes derived from the study of ancient and Renaissance art with an underlying moral purpose.   Subcategories include nudes (always in an allegorical context), Orientalism (fueled by artists traveling to exotic outposts) and battle paintings (inspired by the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 that inspired younger artists to tackle the subject).  With the emergence of photography, these topics began to wane as the public’s interest in realism was peaked. 

William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s famed “The Birth of Venus,” 1879, dominates the entire first gallery.  A textbook example of classical 19th century academic painting, the allegorical piece does not depict Venus’ actual birth from the sea, rather her transport in a shell, (metaphor for the vulva) from the sea to Paphos on Cyprus.  The fleshy Venus, executed in milky hues, is flanked by adoring mythological cherubs and centaurs.  The painting encapsulates what irked the Impressionists most about the painting of the day—false sentiment, mythological content removed from reality and its hallmark “licked finish,” a process codified by the French Academy whereby the surface of painting was smoothed so much that presence of the artist’s hand was no longer visible.   

Galatea. Circa 1880. Gustave Moreau (1826-1898), Oil on wood, 33 5/8 x 26 3/4 inches, RMN (Musée d'Orsay) /René-Gabriel Ojéda

Notable in the second gallery, “The Salon” is symbolist painter Gustave Moreau’s “Galatea,” circa 1880,  a work with an intoxicating dream quality and a spectacular etched surface treatment making it appear that little jewels have been set into the canvas.  Moreau  shared with the Impressionist artists that followed a highly experimental use of paint, tone, color and a lack of regard for socially accepted themes.  A nude nymph sits languidly in a sensual grotto that is adorned with a profusion of anemones, corals and flora and she is spied upon by a three-eyed monster.  This picture is based on a story from Greek mythology, about the unrequited love of the Cyclops, Polyphemus, for the Nereid, Galatea who loved the shepherd Acis.  Stéphane Guégan curator, Musee d’Orsay, told me that this oil on panel piece should not really have been lent because of its extreme fragility.  Galatea triumphed at the 1880 French Salon.  The show also includes Moreau’s “Jason,” 1865, another icon of French symbolism that was exhibited at the Salon of 1865 (and harshly criticized) and bought by the French state in 1875. 

As you wander through the 9 galleries, you will see that some of the paintings have a protective “cason,” a glass covering that ensures a temperature and humidity- controlled environment especially important for panel (wood) paintings.  Musee d’Orsay curator Alice Thomine-Berrada explained that a Musee d’Orsay conservator came especially from Paris and stayed for one week, inspecting, cleaning and repairing works and their fragile frames after their travel to San Francisco.   In some cases, the results were astonishing– Berthe Merisot’s beloved work “The Cradle” was very dark before leaving Paris, so dark that the hair of the baby was not visible.  After its varnish was cleaned, and in the well-lit de Young gallery, the painting’s fine details stand out.  

Another thing you will notice is a profusion of very ornate gilded and carved frames which, to our modern eye, are distracting, particularly so with the works of Cezanne and Monet, where they seem to intrude into the canvas.   According to Musee d’Orsay curator Alice Thomine-Berrada, these frames reflect the bourgeoisie taste of the day and have been coupled with the paintings for so long that they are considered part of the artwork.   “We all have the idea that the Impressionists were revolutionary but after 10 years or so they were deeply appreciated and the bourgeoisie loved and bought their paintings.  In order to fit into the ornate style of their apartments, the paintings were put in these frames.” 

General Prim. October 8 1868. 1869. Henri Regnault (1843-1871). Oil on canvas. 124 x 102 inches. RMN (Musée d’Orsay)/Hervé Lewandowski

The Impact of War 

The third gallery entitled “The Terrible Year” refers to two dramatic French military defeats in 1870-71 that devastated French moral and affected artists directly, many of whom enlisted and some fled.  At the Salon of 1872, over 30 artists showed works directly related to war.   “Juan Prim,” Henri Regnault’s superb life-size 1869 portrait of General Prim and his gorgeous black steed is a stand-out.   While making a tour in Spain, Regnault observed the general, the hero of the hour, in action, and created the memorable image of the general as a military demagogue amidst the backdrop of his troops.  Although Prim commissioned the portrait, he was not satisfied with it and refused to accept it.  The work had tremendous appeal with the public though and was a great success at the Salon of 1869.  As a prized artist, Regnault was exempt from military duty but he was dedicated and volunteered to serve in one of the last battles of the Franco-Prussian war and was killed at age 27. 

Manet 

 “French painters and Spanish Style,” the next salon, illuminates how Spanish painters, in particular Diego Velázquez and Francisco Jose de Goya, influenced the early Impressionists, especially Édouard Manet, a focal artist in this exhibition.  The following gallery is devoted entirely to Manet and his notable exploits with the Salon which continued until his death.  Even as a young artist, Manet’s innovative style tended to bold strokes and unexpected contrasts and his subject matter was unconventional in that it rejected the Salon’s established hierarchy of genres (history paintings and allegory at the top and still life and landscape at the bottom) and focused on more ordinary but provocative subjects–prostitutes and debauched drinkers.  The Salon would not accept this and slapped him down at every opportunity.    

Manet’s first submission to the Salon in 1859, “The Absinthe Drinker,” despite its fashionable Spanish resonance (the current Empress, Euginie, wife of Emperor Napoleon III was of Spanish origin), was rejected for its traditional full-length portrait configuration devoted to a socially marginalized individual.    His extraordinary works Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe (1862-63) and the tantalizing Olympia (1863) (not in the show because they are not allowed to leave France) were also subsequently rejected for their deviation from accepted artistic convention and their scandalous low-life subject matter.   Despite repeated official rejection, Manet sought acceptance from the Salon while clinging to his friend Baudelaire’s advice…to depict a contemporary realism, to be “le peintre de la vie moderne.”    He never exhibited with his Impressionist friends but influenced them heavily.   Early in his career, and ahead of Impressionism, Manet found a way of working that addressed their polemic–the revolt against academic rules and the application of pictorial means to contemporary subject matter.   

Manet’s “The Fifer,” (1866) singled out for the exhibition poster, at first appears as direct as the young boy in uniform staring out at us from his portrait but it exemplifies the eerie complexity of Manet.  The boy’s recognizable stance seems to be derived from a French tarot card.  He is positioned and playing his flute against the backdrop of flat gray void that seems to both make him stand out and to engulf him in silent emptiness.  How can he ever be heard?  Who will hear him?  In this work, as in others, Manet delves deep into the human psyche, to a place of discomfort, evoking a complex confrontation with the hidden.  Whether it’s “The Fifer,” “Woman with Fans” (1873), or “A Bar at the Folies-Bergere” (1882), we project onto their staid silence.     

Bazille’s Studio. 1970. Fredéric Bazille (1841-1870). Oil on canvas. 38 5/8 x 50 5/8 inches. RMN (Musée d’Orsay)/Hervé Lewandowski

Musee d’Orsay curator Alice Thomine-Berrada’s argues in the exhibition catalogue that Manet, while supportive towards the Impressionist movement, cultivated a unique style that remained distinct from Impressionism.  (“Manet: Between Tradition and Innovation,” pp. 110-114) 

 The Impressionists’ Early Gatherings

After quite a build-up, the final three galleries devote themselves to works that most consider classics of early Impressionism.  The shift is palpable as we visually experience the sharp break with tradition.   The 7th salon, “École de Batignolles” traces how the early artists—Manet, Renoir, Bazille, Scholderer, Fantin-Latour –each radical in their own way, shared a dialogue and friendship while remaining artistically distinct and highly experimental.   “École de Batignolles” was an early name given to the group of artists who were later called the Impressionists.  The phrase itself refers to informal meetings of these artists and intellectuals with Manet at the famed café Guerbois on the rue de Batignolles which ultimately led to the decision in 1867 to set up an exhibition separate from the Salon.  While these famed 8 exhibitions of “new painting” did not begin until 1874, their genesis was in these early stimulating gatherings.   The phrase also refers to a group of interconnected portraits executed by these artists that round out their sense of camaraderie.   Henri Fantin-Latour’s “Homage to Delacroix” (1864), his “A Studio in the Batignolles” (1870) and  Frédéric Bazille’s “Bazille’s Studio” (1870) are three striking but completely different portraits whose theme is the tight bond between these artists.  

Frédéric Bazille’s large painting, Family Reunion,” (1867) stands out with its bold execution.  The subject is Bazille’s family on holiday in the South of France and each of the ten figures is captured portrait-style, looking directly towards the viewer, as if captured by a camera.  This serves to unify the composition but also adds the sensation of an odd stiffness.  The contrast is spectacular– the sun is shining brightly but the group is under the shade of a large tree whose foliage filters and articulates very sophisticated light and shadow effects against the subjects, their clothing and surroundings.

Family Reunion. 1867. Frédéric Bazille (1841-1870). Oil on canvas, 59 7/8 inches x 7 ft. 6 ½ inches. RMN (Musée d’Orsay)/Hervé Lewandowski

Classic Impressionism  

Standing in the final galleries and beholding the most famous early Impressionist masterpieces is something that has to be experienced in person. The Impressionists’ flickering brushwork was highly effective in capturing a sense of immediacy–the fleeting quality of light and atmosphere.   Several works by Camille Pissaro, the only Impressionist painter to show in all eight of the Impressionist exhibitions, point to his reverence for nature and his agility in creating lighting effects that capture its seasonal moods.  “Path through the Woods, Summer” (1877) captures light shining through dense forest, illuminating a path, while “Hoarfrost” (1873) captures the stillness of a winter’s day.  

Turkeys. 1877. Claude Monet (1840-1926). Oil on canvas. 69 x 68 inches. RMN (Musée d’Orsay)/Hervé Lewandowski

There is nothing simple about the masterwork of Claude Monet, including his deliberate sense of improvisation that suggested rather than described what the eye was taking in.  Standing in front of his huge (6 x 6 ft) “Turkeys,” (1877), we are amused at his vibrant celebration of foul and seduced by its vivid hues.  The head of turkey asserting itself in the lower left of the canvas is marvelous—a spiraling ribbon of pure color.  Monet, like other Impressionists, laid light and dark colors right along beside one another, producing bold contrasts that created palpable visual tension in their artworks.   The brushstrokes enforced this– the white feathers of the turkey’s companions are rendered in long and thick impasto strokes, creating a rough irregular surface texture that mimics actual feathers and captures and reflects light.   This was no accident– the Impressionists were keenly aware of new scientific discoveries that led to a new understanding of color and the placement of contrasting and complimentary colors to created visual tension in their artworks.  Primary colors were brightest when they were brought into contrast with their complementaries. 

The Gare Saint-Lazare. 1877. Claude Monet (1840-1926). Oil on canvas, 29 ¾ x 41 inches. RMN (Musée d’Orsay)/Hervé Lewandowski

In terms of subject matter, along with landscapes and the cherished beauty observed in casual, everyday life, the early Impressionists were also very interested in modern urban life and suburban landscapes.  Monet’s “Saint-Lazare Station” (1877) celebrates the marvel of modernization and stunning architecture of the Saint-Lazarre station, a bustling terminus for several important train lines.   We can almost feel the energy of the steam trains coming and going amidst a sea of travelers—everything dissolved in expressive bursts of steam.  Monet created an astounding array of highlights and shadows in this painting without using any earth pigments.  Instead, he created his own palette of browns and grays by mixing new synthetic oil-paint colors (taken for granted today ) colors such as cobalt and cerulean blues, synthetic ultramarine, emerald green, viridian, chrome yellow, vermilion, and crimson lake.  Even his shadows are comprised of blended color.  The Lazare gare was a popular subject with the Impressionists and Manet’s “The Railway” (1872-73) currently in the National Gallery of Art, uses the station as a backdrop for his portrait of a young woman and child. 

Gustave Caillebotte’s The Floor Scrapers, ”  (1875) depicts a mundane task that we can hardly imagine worthy of celebrating in paint– laborers stripping a wooden floor of its varnish.  The spectacular lighting renders it so otherworldly that several people have told me they just can’t get it out of their head.  The painting is also one of the first depictions of the urban proletariat as opposed to the rural peasants in Jean-François Millet’s “Gleaners” (1857) or “Normand Milkwoman on Her way to Gréville,” (1874).   Caillebotte’s vision was thoroughly modern, and his paintings offered treasured glimpses into Parisian life: interiors, views over the rooftops from balconies, strollers on the bridges and avenues.

The Floor Scrapers. 1875. Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894). Oil on canvas, 40 1/8 x 57 5/8 inches. RMN (Musée d’Orsay)/Hervé Lewandowski

Impressionist Dialogues 

 Once the impressionist movement was born, there was no turning back and artists began to challenge classical values across the board.   Within a relatively short time period, Impressionist artists were depicting all aspects of daily and modern life with new grace and freedom. The show concludes with a number of works by Edgar Degas, all of which convey a very present sense of movement and immediacy.   Degas adopted new compositional approaches inspired by Japanese woodblock prints (in particular Hiroshige), photography and graphic illustration.  By studying series of photographs, he learned the technique of selective framing which allowed him to focus on exactly what he wanted to depict compositionally and to infuse his work with a sense of spontaneity.   Despite their spontaneous appearance though, Degas often made numerous preparatory studies.  The show offers several examples of his well-known paintings of racehorses and ballet dancers.  

I found the unusual intimacy of “The Pedicure” (1873) to be disturbing, no creepy.  An older man is clipping the toenails of a young girl who is reclining back on a sofa and appears to be sleeping or ill. She is shrouded in yards of sheeting and appears quite vulnerable.  Light streaming in through a window gives the scene a Rembrandtesque resonance.

 There is no pat answer to exactly what Impressionism exactly is –certainly, it was a different way of seeing and an art of immediacy, movement, great vibrancy and the exploration of everyday life—all captured in the play of light and color.  I can’t wait for the second installment.  END

Birth of Impressionism will have the following extended hours this week— 

Thursday, September 2, 2010, until 10 pm (last ticket 8:30 pm) 

Friday & Saturday, September 3 & 4, 2010, until 11 pm (last ticket 9:30 pm) 

Sunday, September 5, 2010, until 10 pm (last ticket 8:30 pm) 

Monday (Labor Day), September 6, 2010, until 9 pm (Last ticket 7:30 pm) 

Tickets and additional information:  www.orsay.famsf.org/

September 1, 2010 Posted by | Art, de Young Museum | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments