Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Good Life, Picnic Baskets and Participation

On San Francisco Bay they are about to race for the America's Cup in those amazing AC-72's.  The  wing masts are ten stories tall.  The boats are fragile and when the wind blows 20 knots they won't race.  In a moderate breeze the twin hulls levitate out of the water and they fly around the course at 43 knots, balanced on slender  foil and rudder wing.  The sailors wear a helmet, body armor, breathing apparatus, electronic headcount system, and an underwater position locator.  They complete the 10 nautical mile course in 25 minutes.  They have killed five seals this summer.  Picnic baskets are not allowed.

Meanwhile, at the Museum of the Legion of Honor (June 1 - October 13)  there is an exhibit,  "Impressionists on the Water," that depicts a more peaceful and participatory relationship with the water, worlds removed from the gladiatorial battle being waged by moguls of industry on the Bay.
[There are] more than 80 remarkable paintings and works on paper by Impressionists such as Claude Monet, Gustave Caillebotte, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Camille Pissarro and Post-Impressionists such as Maurice Denis and Paul Signac—artists whose breathtaking artistry reflects their own deep understanding of pleasure boating and competition. ...
The scenes are intimate and calming.  
[E]ngagement with boating as both pastime and artistic subject is at the heart of the exhibition. In the countryside west of Paris new patterns of life, including the idea of middle-class leisure, reflected the social and economic energies of an emerging modern world. Artistic innovations such as painting out of doors developed to capture the spirit and quick pace of recreational activities. The Impressionists’ brushwork suggests both the atmospheric effects and the sensations of movement that contribute to the invigorating experience of boating.
Invigorating, yes .... but they don't mean hydrofoiling at 40 knots invigorating.   One of the stars of the show, Renoir's "Oarsmen at Chatou" (1879),  is set in the same town as "The Boating Party" (1880-1881), and evidently features some of Renoir's same friends. The dandy in white jacket (probably Gustave Caillebot) and a finely dressed lady (Aline Charigot who became Renoir's wife) are standing at the river's edge, perhaps preparing to to step into the rowing skiff helpfully being steadied by a friend standing in the water, although Caillebot seems preoccupied with the races out on the water.  Two men are engaged in friendly competition; a sailboat drifts lazily down-stream in the distance.  No one's got white knuckles.  The picnic basket with a bottle of wine, bread, and cheese is surely hidden just behind the comfortable seat.

The museum displays examples of the skiff in the foreground here, as well as the racing sculls farther out on the river.  They are beautiful, and the varnish work is impeccable, but really ... the spirit of these pictures would have us take these boats out to the Oakland estuary with a picnic basket, not look at them in a museum.  

Caillabot, they tell us at the exhibit, was quite the sailor.   His "Regatta at Argenteuil" (1893) is one of my favorites in the show.   There is a regatta going on.  Caillabot, in a self-portrait, is at the helm finely balancing the tiller with one finger.  It seems he just rounded the leeward mark and is heading back up-wind.  Unlike the current version of the America's Cup, this race involves tactics, not just speed.  Caillabot is about to tack onto port tack and will have to contend with the boat coming down-wind still heading to the leeward mark;  fortunately that other boat is also on port tack and will have to give way as the windward boat.   Matters are complicated by the current.  You can tell Caillabot is sailing down-current by the way the moored boats are floating on their buoys.  Life is good if you're Gustav Caillabot. 

What do these Impressionist painters tell us about life?  They show us the beauty of the landscape, the pleasures to be had.  They encourage us to partake.  Break out that picnic basket, float on the Seine.  Don't break a sweat doing it.  What does the America's Cup race tell us?  We are plebs on the shoreline, watching a spectacle.   The richest men in the world are putting on a show, aren't they great!  But, hey, we've got the picnic basket.  


  1. Thank you for your post. I meant to ask you about the mood in the city towards America's Cup. My sense from the NY Times and living in the Midwest is that a bunch of the super wealthy (as opposed to the just wealthy) have overwhelmed the sport with money and ego.
    We also so an impressionist show this week. At the Art Institute. This mainly covered the impressionists painting their patrons, wives and girl friends in the latest fashionable garb.
    I went with two artists who didn't think the works were consistently good. And in fact, a number of the paintings were found in the studios of the artists. Never sold or given away.
    The impressionists are treated harshly in Chicago because the Art Institute relies on them so heavily for marketing.

    I enjoyed the capturing of emotion. Especially, Sulking by Degas.

    The show lacked historical context but it did make you wonder about how those women tolerated those excessively complicated garments.

  2. Thanks Don: Ellison hoped to make the competition into a wider audience sport this year by going to the biggest fastest boats possible, by having the races on a close to shore course on San Francisco Bay. They've had poor luck with Oracle losing a boat last year, Artemis losing a boat and and their Olympic medalist tactician in a tragic accident in May. It's taken everyone longer to figure out how to sail these boats than expected, and the cost ($100,000,000/campaign) has limited the field to 4 teams instead of the hoped for 15.

    San Franicscans have been generally disinterested, and the press has picked up on that and played up the "we're too cool to be interested in this" angle. It hasn't helped that, so far, there has been no real competition. Artemis didn't get in the water with their new boat until the Luis Vuitton semi-finals and lost badly to Luna Rossa. Luna Rossa was no match for the Kiwis.

    That said, the current estimate is that 2 million will view the races live over the summer, which is respectable attendance for a baseball season. The atmosphere at the waterfront is very festive, and if the Cup finals next week turns out some close racing, the event should still be considered a success overall.