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A Shift Towards Realism: The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

By Randy Jackson

Having a young son at a certain age when the Ninja Turtles were all the rage meant I knew the Ninja Turtles were named after four Italian Renaissance artists (Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo and Raphael). Raphael (he was the one with the red eye sash) was the biggest of this group of unlikely superheroes. He was a snapping turtle and the leader of these anthropomorphic crime fighting turtles living in the sewers of New York City.

Until recently, beyond the Ninja Turtle character, I was only vaguely aware of the Renaissance artist Raphael’s contribution to the world of art. That changed when I came across a photo of a certain painting, and not even a painting by Raphael himself, but rather a painting by one of a group of painters trying to resist Raphael’s influence in painting some 400 years after Raphael set brush to canvas.

Raphael – Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (1483-1520) – is widely considered to be the consummate high Renaissance painter. Following the traditions of Greek and Roman art in which artists sought to portray beauty in the ideal human form, Raphael painted humans with grace and dignity and with backgrounds of an idealized and ordered world. His influence endured for centuries and was particularly revered in the Victorian era in England.

By the mid-19th century, though, a group of young, highly talented artists resisted the historical style of painting practiced by Rafael and others. This group became known as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The particular painting that caught my roaming attention was one of the Brotherhood’s earlier works portraying sacred subjects in a stark and realistic way. Painted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, it was titled Ecce Ancilla Domini! (The Annunciation). The Annunciation was the announcement by the Angel Gabriel that the Virgin Mary would bear the son of God in her womb.

Normally paintings of the Annunciation are portrayed as glorious events with a winged Angel Gabriel bathed in golden light towering over a pious Mary who is looking demure and apparently calmly accepting this dramatic world-changing event in which she would be a central figure.

In this painting, however, Mary is a scared, uncertain young girl, still in her sleeping clothes, pulling away against the wall of her tiny room while a draped but otherwise naked, all powerful angel tells her of her role as commanded by God.

This painting was like a gut punch to me, so it was of no surprise to learn of the powerful reaction against the painting in Victorian society of the time.

The painting was considered scandalous and morally shocking. The author Charles Dickens wrote scathing criticisms of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, calling them “odious, repulsive, and revolting.” Dickens articulated the concern that an artist’s search for beauty is inspired by an ideal and not found in the raw reproduction of reality.

In fact, this painting of the Annunciation was not the work that drew the most scorn and criticism of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The full weight of condemnation fell upon them with their showing of a painting by John Everett Millais titled Christ in the House of His Parents.

In this painting, a thin timid looking Christ is being comforted after an apparent injury by an old, ordinary looking Mary. A bald, unremarkable Joseph works at his table, while John the Baptist, a half-naked street urchin, appears cowed and subdued with a bowl of baptismal water. This depiction of the sacred family of Jesus with details such as toenails that are broken and dirty shocked Victorian society. It was viewed by many as scandalously sacrilegious. Queen Victoria had this painting brought to her so she could see for herself what all the controversy was about. This left the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood nearly broken by the condemnation.

The challenge by the Brotherhood was to the Renaissance portrait of beauty as an ideal in art. This method of painting was represented by Raphael’s style and artists espoused it centuries. However, the Pre-Raphaelite kerfuffle was not just a reaction against a false ideal of beauty. It needs to be seen in the wider context of the time. Kenneth Clark’s Civilization (a 1969 BBC television series, followed by a history textbook) has a segment/chapter on “The Worship of Nature.” Clark argues that starting in the year 1725, Christianity as a source of creativity markedly declined, especially in England. Over the following hundred years people came to the notion that divinity is expressed in Nature. The artistic shift towards realism portrayed by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was an expression of this shift away from the artistic notions of the ideal and towards nature as it actually is.

As radical as these early works of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood seemed to be at the time, they were also understood by some as an expression of the concurrent Naturalism Movement. One such person was the highly influential artist, philosopher, patron, and social thinker John Ruskin. Ruskin became a principal defender of the Pre-Raphaelites against their critics. He encouraged all artists to “go to Nature in all singleness of heart rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing.” Nature, according to Ruskin, should be reflected in art in a realistic way, not an idealized version. What’s more, Ruskin believed truth is reflected in realism.

Ruskin’s view and influence won the day and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood went on to achieve outstanding success in their lifetimes. They became significant contributors to the evolution of art in the western world. The Brotherhood quickly moved beyond the paintings of sacred subjects discussed here. The majority of their subsequent paintings portrayed the stark reality of many aspects of everyday life in the Victorian era; we should note that Charles Dickens, shocked as he might have been by the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, addressed shocking Victorian social conditions throughout his novels.

Much more information is readily available on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, including:

A BBC Documentary on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FkWONORqHZw

Artist Movements on the Art Story Website:
https://www.theartstory.org/movement/pre-raphaelites/artworks/

A BBC Drama series on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, “Desperate Romantics”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sAiv1_qZ2Cw

Learning to Swim

By Randy Jackson

“The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea.” — Isak Dinesen

A kind of cultural cornucopia can bring fresh perspectives and new insights. When the land, the people, the climate are all different from what we are used to, it’s possible – if we are open to it – to learn new dimensions about something we thought we already knew. Spending time in Huatulco can offer such opportunities. As an example, in my time in Huatulco, I’ve come to appreciate new aspects of swimming.

I learned to swim as a child. As far as I can recall, like most children, I loved every moment in the water. Water meant playing. Amongst my band of childhood buddies, we named a small island (mostly a pile of driftwood) in the Columbia River after me because I was the first one (of us) to swim across the frigid brown spring waters (in doing so contravening all parental dicta not to do that). When I was a teenager, my high school was located within walking distance of a beach on a recreational lake. With our local hot springs pool below a cloud of shifting steam in the winter, and the coarse cinnamon sand beach in the summer, we teens had swimming meetup places free from parents the whole year round. Swimming throughout my childhood and youth remained synonymous with fun and play.

As an adult I decided to enter triathlons. This decision made swimming a more serious undertaking. Rather than swim for play, I swam for fitness. I began a long process of trying to learn how to perform the front crawl efficiently and for longer distances.

The front crawl is a weirdly complex series of motions performed while remaining face down in the water. Of all the swim strokes, the front crawl seems awkwardly unnatural, unlike anything seen in the animal kingdom. Almost all land animals know innately how to swim, moving their limbs while keeping their heads above water. What we call the dog paddle seems to be THE swim stroke of any animal with legs. However, camels, giraffes, porcupines, rhinos and, most notably, apes can’t swim. As an ape species, we humans have to be taught how to swim.

Worldwide, only about 50% of us know how to swim. The World Health Organization estimates that 320,000 people per year drown. Drowning, the WHO report, is the 3rd leading cause of unintentional death in the world. The CDC reports that in the US, on average, 10 people drown every day. Swimming lessons are not primarily intended to teach people how to have fun in the water, rather, they teach a skill set for survival.

As unnatural as swimming is to people, it’s curious that we humans have such a natural affinity towards water. In Egypt, at a place called Gilf Kebir, cave paintings dating back 8,000 years depict people swimming. How, in the eons of evolution, could a creature afraid of water and without an innate ability to swim – learn to swim? Could there be some evolutionary reason for this skill? Well, maybe – there’s the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis.

In 1960, an English marine biologist, Alister Hardy, pointed out that hairlessness is virtually unheard of in the animal kingdom except where the creature spends a good deal of time in the water. He proposed a different evolutionary narrative from that of the mainstream. He suggested that in our evolutionary history, a group of apes were forced, due to competition, to scavenge for food such as shellfish from the sea. This led to certain evolutionary adaptations: principally, to stand erect as the apes would have to do in water to propel themselves and to keep their heads up to breathe. Second, to become almost hairless like other creatures who spend large amounts of time in the water. And third, that humans have an insulating fat layer between their skin and their skeletal system that no other non-aquatic creature has – including the great apes. Elaine Morgan (1920 – 2013), a writer on evolutionary theory, has helped popularize the theory of the Aquatic Ape in her books on evolutionary anthropology (she has a TED talk on this theory – https://www.ted.com/talks/elaine_morgan_i_believe_we_evolved_from_aquatic_apes?language=en ).

In Huatulco, I came to realize that my swimming life, parallel to life overall, had three basic phases. The fun and play of youth, the work and responsibilities of adulthood and midlife, and the quiet enjoyment of things in retirement.

My enjoyment of swimming in Huatulco actually starts as I head out the door for an early morning stroll to the beach. With a towel draped over one shoulder, my swimming goggles in hand, my 3-block journey to the Pacific begins. The street sweepers, the shop owners, and passers-by all smile and greet me knowing I’m off to the beach for a morning swim.

Occasionally, at this beach, I see someone who has outfitted their dog with a lifejacket in the water. This allows pooches, like people in aqua fitness classes, to paddle their limbs madly without much forward propulsion. Buoyancy and propulsion, however, do not necessarily mean swimming. Hippos, who spend about sixteen hours a day in the water, don’t swim. Their dense bodies cause them to sink naturally. Hippos propel themselves by walking or running along the bottom. They have masterful control of their buoyancy by regulating the air in their lungs. They bob along the bottom like astronauts skipping semi-weightless on the moon.

At the beach, the regular morning swimmers are typically returning from their swims when I arrive. Como la agua hoy? Hay medusas? (jellyfish). There is comradery amongst us daredevil adventurers, who, with a bit of practiced swim technique can leave the security of land for that other, and larger part of the planet, the world of water.

This water world offers an engagement with nature like no other. Viewing a beautiful panorama or listening to the crash of ocean waves can be wonderful experiences – except for all the many distractions. For most of us, our minds continue to churn on other things wherever we find ourselves. When immersed in water however, we leave those distractions behind as the “here and now” floods our awareness. And we begin. Reach and stretch and pull and kick – breathe – a rhythm forms – rocking from side to side – breathe – we glide through the water.

Occasionally, I will experience a sense of efficiency and flow that more accomplished swimmers often speak of. For me, those moments are few and brief, but wonderful enough to keep me coming back for more. After all these years, I am still trying to learn how to swim properly. I’m slow and my front crawl needs work, but more than ever before I now understand what I want out of swimming. I seek the quiet thrill of moving through the water smoothly and efficiently. With luck, and more time in Huatulco to practice swimming, I can continue learning new aspects of swimming.

A Brief History of Cooking

By Randy Jackson

Today, perhaps more than any other time in human history, food has been elevated on a cultural pedestal of reverence. The depth of knowledge and appreciation for a wide variety of cuisines among so many people seems to be a cultural characteristic of our times. Celebrity chefs, food shows and food networks, never mind food pictures posted on Instagram, are only a few of the many indicators of this interest. The term “foodie” was first coined in the 1980s and is now in common use. The American Heritage Dictionary defines a foodie as “a person who has an ardent or refined interest in food and who eats food not only out of hunger but due to their interest or hobby.” Travel, immigration, and the abundance of food and ingredients from all over the world have all had a hand in this current cultural obsession with food and cooking. However, today’s modern hipsters of cuisine are only the most recent green sprig of growth in the long history of cooking.

Our evolutionary record shows the harnessing of fire coincided with the growth of the human brain relative to body size. This development took place roughly 1.9 million years ago. Harnessing fire had multiple benefits to humans, but chief among them was that it allowed the cooking of food. Cooking food increases the caloric value and reduces the energy required to digest it. Cooking food also enabled early humans to eat certain tubers and roots that were otherwise inedible.

I think it safe to assume that grilling was the first cooking method. Studies of primitive tribes, even today, show how an animal is cooked (it’s estimated that there are more than a hundred “uncontacted peoples” worldwide, half of them in the Amazonian jungle). The entire carcass is thrown onto the open fire. The fire, along with some scraping, removes the fur. Then as bits of the animal are deemed cooked, they are cut or torn from the carcass and consumed. It’s easy to see the direct lineage of this form of cooking to the tossing of a piece of meat onto the barbeque today.

The earliest dishes beyond grilling were probably soups and stews. There is some evidence from Japan dating back 10,000 years of a type of stew made by putting flesh and water into an animal’s paunch and boiling it over a fire. No doubt soups and stews were being made much earlier than this. Once mankind had figured out how to cook in a container of some sort, it only made sense they began boiling up bits of almost anything they could find.

There is an ancient tradition in Oaxaca – still practiced – of making “stone soup.” National Geographic has a documentary showing this
(https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/intelligent-travel/2010/10/04/mexicos_stone_soup/). The cooking method consists of putting water, vegetables, and fish into a smooth rounded depression in the rocky ground. Then a stone is heated on a fire before dropping it into this natural cauldron, and the soup is cooked. It’s easy to imagine how different flavors were discovered by experimentation or by chance when something new was added to the soup or stew.

Let’s not forget about bread. Archaeologists in Jordan have found the remains of flatbread made with wild barley and plant roots – about 14,000 years old, it predates agricultural practices by thousands of years. Societies all over the world have independently found ways to make bread. Mash up grains, add water to make a paste, fry on a hot rock – and presto! For example, the original inhabitants of what is now California developed a complex procedure to make flour for flatbread out of acorns. Source material for bread was everywhere once man learned to harness fire.

Harnessing fire and cooking required greater social organization and division of duties – there had to be fire tenders, wood gatherers, hunters, etc. A central fire also brought people together for longer periods, especially at night, which increased social complexity and likely helped in the evolution of language.