Saturday, March 16, 2013

Manet and Picasso

ManetÉdouard Manet was the premier portrait artist of the late 1800’s: he painted across the transition from realism to impressionism, through a world being revolutionized by the introduction of photography and the introduction of tube paints.  The RA is reviewing his work in Manet: Portraying Life, on view through the middle of April.

The show is expensive, 15 gbp to enter and the queues are slowed as they purposefully try to limit flow through the galleries.  But, once inside, it’s a very good survey of Manet’s style and the range of his works.

He strikes me as conventional, technically accomplished but self-consciously perfecting rules for composition.  His use of light and detail are designed to draw the eye around he painting. Manet - Music in the tuileries Squint at Music in the Tuileries, and the bright whites circle from the faces in the lower center around counter-clockwise to the men in shadows.  The vertical lines of the trees are repeated in the Manet - The Croquet Gamestovepipe hats, one forest echoing another.  In  The Croquet Game, the most detailed parts of the picture follow the diagonal line across the canvas, fading to blurred foliage off-axis.

The same happens with his portraits. The  eyes and brow, the banks and locks that frame the upper face, are very detailed: the gaze is very alive.  The mouth is detailed as well, but the nose is barely shadowed in, the hands are often indistinct (illustrated by his portrait of Suzanne, his Dutch wife, in profile).

Manet - The promenade Manet - Mme Manet in the Conservatory - CopyManet - Mme Manet in the Conservatory Manet - The smoker - Copy

The unfinished limbs and backgrounds,much criticized at the time, are what we now see as Impressionistic.  The question, for me, is whether Manet saw it, or whether he was just bored with hands and forests.

I also think he was  a very aspirational painter.  Thee is little evidence of the poor or the everyday: his subjects are merchants in formal settings.  His paintings reflect well on them; their patronage reflects well on Manet.

Picasso - Dwarf DancerNot far away, the Courtauld Gallery is showing Becoming Picasso: 1901.  A fraction of the size of the Manet exhibit with Picasso - Dwarf Dancer - Copyabout 25 paintings on show until late May and costing only 6 gbp, I think it tells a better story.  The first room shows Picasso exploring portraiture (in Picasso - Portrait of Bibi - CopyThe Dwarf Dancer and Portrait of Bibi) much as Manet had 25 years earlier.  Strong contrasts, detail in the eyes and mouths., a strong gaze, and the rest of the picture left indistinct.

But the next room, filled with paintings created only months later, abruptly coalesce into the novel lines and blue tints that are recognizably Picasso.  I was particularly fascinated by The Blue Room and The Absinthe Drinker, as evocative as anything by Manet.

 Picasso - The blue room Picasso - Absinthe drinker

PicassoAnd his portraits thereafter blossom into the familiar style that became the foundation of modern art.

The juxtaposition of the two shows gave a lot of insight into the process of capturing identity through portraiture, and how both the painter’s technique and the viewer’s eye changed in half a century to what we create and experience today.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Tech Cloud Wednesday

Google Reader logoIt’s inevitable.  I copied all of my RSS feeds into Google Reader last weekend; Google retired the service today.  The announcement is typically horrible corporate doublespeak: “As a company we’re pouring all of our energy into fewer products. We think that kind of focus will make for a better user experience.” I’m not sure how they reason that eliminating the service enhances my experience unless it was somehow horrible to begin with.

I’m still in  a running exchange with Delta over similar foolishness after I spent two hours trying to (unsuccessfully) book a flight through their website and agents. First they condescended that they understand how people can be confused by computers, then that they were confused by bad weather long the Eastern seaboard.  None of which addresses the actual error logs that I sent to them.

Why can’t tech companies hire someone who can talk with, empathize with, their customers?

Back to Google.

Google promises to export feeds, and various sites are promoting to offer seamless imports into their products.  Freely is in a particularly unseemly haste to get users to post admiring comments everywhere.  For desktop, I still like NetVibes, and for tablet, gReader (unfortunately named, but actually independent of Google).  gReader has a nice magazine-style interface and is working to eliminate their dependence on Google.

CNET is recommending FlipBoard or Currents, both good, but neither are RSS aggregators.  Instead they are pushing a mix of pay magazines,  newspapers, and sponsored feeds.  It would be sad if ‘choose your eatery’ from the universe of establishments was replaced b constrained  tools that only allow choice from a single buffet.

Cloud-ComputingThe broader point, also made over at Forbes, is that the Cloud does not belong to users.  We are constantly being urged to move photos, data, applications, backups to the cloud rather than to local alternatives (USB disk drives are my favorite: a terebyte of space for less than $100).  At its limit, the “Chromebook model” holds that a computer should only need a high-res touchscreen, a fast processor, and a high-speed internet connection.

I’ve had cloud services shut down five times this year, taking down websites, photos, links, and contacts.  I create backups if I’m notified, but there is time and effort involved with re-establishing the service elsewhere. 

I hate to be cynical, but these services exist to mine your data and link you to advertisers  If they can’t do that successfully, you’re toast.

SIM hipOne last note:  I’m still trying to buy a local data-only chip.  O2 and Virgin don’t offer one; T-Mobile does.  However, unless you have a bank account linked to a UK address, they can’t sell it to you (my Barclays account with a Dutch address doesn’t qualify).  I can’t decide if this is an anti-laundering or anti-terrorism policy, but it is an absolute block.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Power politics

house of cardsI binged on House of Cards last weekend.  This is the 13-episode Netflix political drama (derived from the BBC series of the same name) about House Majority Whip Francis Underwood’s venal scheming and manipulation as he works his way to power in Washington.  It’s not a very pleasant series: nobody is very nice, everyone uses everyone else, and even the sympathetic characters come off as hopeless.
But it  does get me thinking about the ways in which I try to gain power, or try to tilt those who have power to act to my own advantage..
My relationship with power, as one of my angel investors once told me, is complicated.  On the one hand, I know and can do lots of things, have a good record of accomplishment, and that gives me a foundation of authority.  But, he observed, I also tend to be deferential and hesitant, overly rational and soft-hearted, too easily intimidated and too quick to try to see both sides.

In particular, I tend to avoid conflict, and to either take indirect or extended approaches to resolving it when a quick, face-to-face confrontation is necessary.  I remember someone in college characterizing me as The Instigator: setting up actions but then stepping back to observe the results.

I prefer to think of myself s more of an Influencer.

.power and infuence

The approach is valid, works for me generally, but I’m currently in situations here it simply won’t work.

One is a negotiation for an asset that likely enhances our product offering.  I’ve established a relationship with the owners, made an assessment, put down an offer,  been  clear about my limits.  However, the other side has been inconsistent in responding, used my offer to elicit interest from other parties, and is overvaluing the item out of sheer naiveté about what I’m able to do with it.

The other is a confrontation in which we are trying to wrest control from one person and vest it in another.  We’ve discussed the need and the alternatives, put a brief, clear proposal out and have set limits around the process.  While initially agreeing, the other side then had second thoughts and withdrew, angry.  To take the emotion out of it,we sides lawyered up, and threats and demands are now ongoing.

Without a middle ground, both have moved me towards unfamiliar and uncomfortable ground where resolution depends on effective exercise of power.

741450aSince my generation uses movies as a touchstone, this brings me around to thinking about House of Cards (Most people see fear as a weakness. It can be. Sometimes for my job, I have to put fear into people), Frost/Nixon (I shall come at you with everything I got, because the limelight can only shine on one of us. And for the other, it'll be the wilderness, with nothing and no one for company but those voices ringing in our head) or even Road House: (Never underestimate your opponent;  Take it outside unless an immediate response is absolutely necessary; Always be nice, until it’s time to not be nice.)

‘Which really serves to convince me that this is not my style.  Instead, I work from three principles:

  • Be very clear and resolute about  my position: know where the line is that I won’t back across.
  • Believe and be prepared to walk away when and if that line is crossed, and
  • Bring along experienced, objective, trustworthy help, and take their advice.

influenceBy doing what’s uncomfortable and trying new strategies when  traditional strategies fail, I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to resolve the problems in front of me (or learn to stay away from these tactics in the future). 

It’s all adapting, learning, and rehearsal:  Seth Godin wrote this week about how to prioritize time to drive business and personal improvement.  Eliminate the things that don't matter, that you're never going to get better at or that you're already good at, and focus on:

  • The important
  • The things that you currently don't do very well
  • The things that you're capable of doing a lot better if you invested effort and time

It’s all ‘way better than turning into soul-less Francis Underwood.