Tag Archives: Moscow

Two Masterpieces from Must-see Show in Moscow

The State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow has put together a show of art collections of Schukin brothers, kings of the Russian textile industry at the beginning of the last century. Thanks to one of them Russia boasts a great collection of (post)impressionists, fauvists, and cubists. It was split between Moscow and The Hermitage in St.Petersburg in 1948 and is now reunited and exhibited to mimic the way Sergey Schukin hung his paintings.

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While critics applaud this decision, I can’t see real value here. Yes, most Russian avant-guarde artists got introduced to Western art when visiting Schukin’s home, and it might be interesting to see their “starting point” through “their eyes”, but something tells me it was not the hanging that inspired them, but the paintings themselves, and most likely, not as a group, but individually. Gauguin was striving to recreate a paradise lost, but I don’t think he would view his objective accomplished only after a buyer builds a wall out of his work.

All this travesty of Gauguin tapestry ended up with one of Van Gogh’s most amazing portraits, that of Dr.Felix Rey, being hung near the ceiling, where it can’t be seen properly. The portrait was rejected originally (being used to mend a chicken coop), and now it is pigeonholed as a painting which quality is somewhat below Gauguin’s works by hanging it to fill an empty spot above them.

This portrait is worth its own wall. Van Gogh painted it as a form of gratitude, immediately upon his release from Saint-Paul asylum. He portrayed the closest and most caring person in his life at the time. It is an icon of compassion and hope.

Look at the blue whites of his eyes! Look at the Monalisian smile created by his mustache! Look at the sensual lips an Instagram diva would kill for today! This young intern would become a world famous tuberculosis doctor…

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I wrote a bit about the secret to Van Gogh’s portraiture, and I can write a lot more about Van Gogh’s portraits, but let’s get back to the show, and, specifically Matisse.

We all know, thanks to Picasso, that great artists don’t copy, they steal. What is left unsaid, I believe, is that the theft must me meaningful: the stolen stuff needs to be processed and transformed by the artist into something new (even if Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst believe that out-of-court settlement would alone suffice, it would not). Matisse and Picasso were both thieves. They stole from Gauguin, from Cezanne, and from each other. Today, for the way they integrated African art into their own, they’d be facing cultural appropriation backlash on twitter. That thievery is well documented and appreciated. Yet, there was an artist in Italy from whom Matisse stole in broad daylight, and no one has noticed.

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Antonio del Pollaiuolo, 15th c., the Battle of Ten Nude Men. The etching reflects the idea that men can’t but fight each other. Matisse’s Dance is about love and harmony that men can achieve if they stop fighting and include women into their circle. One can see some violent vibes in Matisse’s Satyr, of course, but it was painted a year before the Dance, so let’s not exclude the possibility that the man in this painting leans down to wake up and invite the sleeping nymph to a dance.

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Matisse steals figures, alters them, and mirrors them, but his message is new and polar to that of Pollaiuolo.

Fortunately, the Dance is given its own – huge – space at the exhibition, but art appreciation is invariably spoiled by people queuing to have their photo taken in front of it:

IMG_20190618_204748 Matisse was a visionary, but he failed to foresee Facebook or Instagram. Were this painting a photograph or even a more realistic painting, it would be banned on both platforms, by the way.

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A cross between Stalin and Napoleon

Yesterday was the last day of the Victory Show at Moscow’s Central House of Artist, a monstrous box of concrete and steel that makes you wish the 1970s had never existed, at least architecturally.

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On symbolical dates, such as the WWII Victory Day, its bazaar mix of commercial exhibitions of Russian realist painters, fur trade shows, and antique fairs, is ousted by dedicated retrospectives of hundreds of paintings and sculptures. Fur trade shows quietly come back when the pomp is over,

The Victory Show was depressing. Not because the WWII or any war as a theme is depressing, but because the quality of art assembled to celebrate it was so low, propagandistic and false.

The best works there, actually, were a few drawings made by real war artists during the war. There was horrible truth in the bored faces of soldiers silently waiting for their train to arrive and take them to the front, and most likely to their deaths; and there was precious life in their unkempt uniforms, pot bellies, and oversized coats. I can’t show it, because it was badly lit, and, of course, no one cared to produce a catalogue, even though I would buy it to get those war-time drawings only.

Most of the exhibition’s hundreds of paintings were showing off athletic Soviet solders with beautifully chiseled faces and burning eyes intent on killing Nazis; desperate women who lost or were about to lose their husbands and sons in the hell pits of war; Germans torturing or killing Russian women and children, or Russian soldiers distributing their bread and porridge to kids in Berlin.

The similarity of these artworks to North Korean war posters was frightening. I could not but wonder if Russia was mentally ready for and welcoming another tyranny. The ubiquity of standard-issue symbolic images of loss, sacrifice and victory was awkward to see. I had a hope that Russian artists could do better than showing eyes full of tears to communicate the horrors of war.

It saddens me that Russian artists seem to be unable to find new ways to express their thinking on war in ways that would be true, sincere, and resonant with modern people. In ways that would make people want peace more than avenging their great-grand fathers who perished 70 years ago.

Yet, there were two works by living artists that I found powerful.

The first one was a lithograph by Albina Akritas, made in 1986, and titled “Coming Home”.

DSC_0482 - копия I am sorry for my reflection in the glass.

I love the pause that the soldier takes before coming home. Imagine what thoughts are rushing through his mind. He’s standing there, watching his house, thinking… what? I can list about a dozen questions that I could ask myself in this situation, and that makes me realise the horrors of war stronger than another hundred of paintings showing maimed bodies. I don’t want the horror of this pause in my life, and that goes under the assumption that I stay alive in a war.

And to make one think about the chances of staying alive and be able to celebrate victory, another female artist painted an almost abstract work titled “Watching the skies”.

The artist’s name is Lidia Skargina, and seeing her work in this exhibition was a surprise as I happen to own her large-scale still life. I assumed she only did pretty pictures. I couldn’t be more wrong.

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The text in the middle says, rather conversationally, “Not a single bloke made it back to the village of Sheldyakovo from that war”.

There are silhouettes of people watching the skies at the bottom: they give the painting its title. Why are they doing that?

Up, and to the left of the centre, there is a shape indicating a star-topped memorial to the fallen men whose bodies have never returned to the village for a proper burial. In the right side, there is a symbol of belief, a belfry with a broken cross on top, that resembles a candle, to make you remember the loss or pray for them. There are a few more recognisable figures, lest you forget this painting is not an exercise in colour and abstraction, but a monument to very real suffering in a very real war.

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Yet, these symbols are subtle, never pushed in your face, often barely discernible.

The main focus is on the colour conflict here.

There are patches of blue sky, patches of peace that the sacrifice of those men, made possible, and which are made all the more precious through their conflict with the burgundy colour of dried blood that fights against mouldy grey shapes.

This is a painting as much about the survivors as about the fallen.

It is a piece that makes you think about that particular war, and wars, in general. Great piece.

But all hopes for revival of non-propaganda art are killed at the exit from the show, by a firing squad of four portraits:

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This is Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin, but above all them, there’s a portrait of Putin walking up the aisle made of flags and columns that morph into churches to deliver his inauguration speech. All by the same artist, who – together with the show organisers – is making a rather obvious point.

Is it a warm welcome to North Korea?  You could hear me optimistically saying “no” a month ago. I try to stay optimistic. It is sad, of course, to see the Personality Cult of the good ol’ Stalin’s days so effortlessly coming back, but (I am telling myself) it can hardly repeat itself in a 21st century information society.

Or can it?

Are the cossacks, who paid for and installed this bust of Putin in their village today, just a bunch of freaks with a fetish for military uniforms or kick-starters of a new trend? Is dressing Putin in Roman Emperor’s clothes bad taste or the first page in a new chapter of Russian history?

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On the bright side of it, you can still read my despatches from Moscow. So far, so good.

How do you feel about Russia nowadays? Tell me.

Paper, ink, magic

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This is a paper-and-ink sketch by Anatoly Zverev, a Russian artist who led the life of a homeless drunk, producing genius art along the way. While he is definitely worth talking about at length, right now, I want to share this tiny drawing, a photograph of which I made two days ago at an exhibition in Moscow.

I counted 13 lines and 2 dots.

That’s all he needed to give you a beautiful nude, who’s got mass, shape, movement, and emotion.

Russians and Snow: love-hate relationship

It has been scientifically proven that regular exercise (like walking the dog) stimulates brain activity, especially when the snow’s fresh and the temperature outside is not at the mythical level when thermometers knock on windows begging people inside to let them in for the night. Stumbling through the white-powdered woods (avoiding owners of big and cruel dogs) I thought of why snow is so important for Russians. Why do they love winter and hate it? Why do they wait for winter to come and then lament incessantly if it decides to stay for another month or two?

But first, I want to immerse you into the real fresh-snow environment to get you in the mood.

Perfect fit with fatalism

Winter fits well with the fatalistic outlook on life that many Russians hold dear to their heart. (You can read more on it here, but don’t forget to come back).

107074417_large_43Indeed, even the most depressing winter is known to yield way to spring. It is the zebra of life, when a bright stripe follows its black counterpart in a fatalistically predetermined way. Don’t resist the blackness you’re in, have patience to live to see the light. Contemporary art is there to drive the point home, like in the recent example of an artist nailing his scrotum to the Red Square in a vivid illustration of people’s passiveness to the governmental onslaught on their rights.

Harsh or rather unpredictably severe winters are both a bane and a bonus. Regardless of how much labour a peasant invests into the next year harvest, a long winter can cancel it out. No point in investing much labour, right?

A foreign agricultural investor comes to a Russian village to witness the scene of bitter devastation and depravity. He asks a villager smoking on the steps of his dilapidated house and looking particularly starved,

“Do tomatoes grow in these places?”
“No…”
“Do cucumbers grow in these places?”
“No…”
“Do potatoes grow in these places?”
“No…”
“That can’t be! Are you sure you’re planting them in the right way?!”
“Oh, but I didn’t say they won’t grow if we plant ‘em”

One just has to passively wait out the black patch, which may be, actually, coloured white on the surface. And this takes us directly to the Russian view that everything has – under the surface – a second, and often deeper or different meaning.

There’s always another layer. To everything.

Scratch off the white layer of snow and you get to the real stuff. Not that it would win you any prizes, except the knowledge of what is hidden beneath. There’s always a second layer of meanings in Russian literature or paintings. You may not want to learn what this second layer is about (and people who sasfied their curiosity often wish they hadn’t), but if you’ve been exposed to Russian culture for any prolonged time, you won’t have a choice. It comes involuntarily.

Take Anna Karenina and the episode when Vronsky breaks the back of the horse he is riding in a race. Vronsky didn’t want to break the horse’s back, so his intentions were not bad. He just wanted to ride it and to enjoy winning.  And he couldn’t shoot the horse because he loved it. The episode shows Vronsky as a competitive and sensitive man capable of love, and serves the storytelling end by exposing Anna’s feelings for everyone present to see. The second layer of meaning is that Vronsky would do the same to Anna, and won’t even be able to finish her off or prevent her rather accidental suicide because he lacks the strength of character required of men to take full responsibility for women (as Tolstoy believed men should). P.S. I hate to admit it, but Leo Tolstoy would probably stangle a visiting feminist, breaking his own rule #1 of not trying to overcome evil by the opposing force. 

Landscapes of Russian artists often represent the second-layer idea by showing not just the snowy surfaces, but offering viewers a glimpse of what is hidden beneath the white blanket.

At first glance, this Winter, painted by Ivan Shishkin in 1890, is about a magical sleeping forest. It does look like a one, right?

Shishkin Winter 1890

There’s nothing really wondrous or complicated about the composition or realistic accuracy of this painting. Tree trunks and branches laden with snow are not very difficult to paint: there’s a lot of purely natural rhythm in a forest, along with export quantities of eye-pleasing black and white contrast:

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What is magical about this painting, is its hidden story about the forest floor. This small fragment of the white foreground shows how much labour went into (seemingly) meaningless whiteness. How many different hues of non-white colours, how many brushstrokes:

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The under-the-surface meaning becomes obvious when the image’s contrast is maxed out and the stormy sea carrying along shipwreck debris shows up in place of the almost uniformly white surface.

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Another, and a bit more complicated (it doesn’t have any snow in it), painting example of a riddle wrapped in mystery and shrouded in enigma can be found here.

Now you are ready to appreciate a parable that brings together PATIENCE, SECOND LAYER OF MEANING, AND WINTER:

Russia. Winter. Frost. A bird gets frozen in mid-flight, and falls down in a snowdrift. A passing cow deposits a cowpat (US: cow pie) right on the spot on which the bird has fallen. The bird gets warmed up, returns to life, sticks out its head out of the cowpat and is immediately snatched by a cat, with fatal consequences. Now, this tale is about (a) Patience, for one shouldn’t stick one’s head out when buried deep in shit (b) Seeing true meaning behind the obvious conclusions (those who put you deep into shit are not necessarily your enemies; while those who help you to get out from it are not always your friends). 

A long winter: bonuses

Long, frosty, unpredictable, and bleak winters can justify anything, of which the most important indulgence is the regular vodka intake. It warms the body from within and cheers up the spirit that hasn’t seen sunshine in a month. Readers from the UK would agree not seeing sun is depressing, even if air temperature is not -20C (-4F).

Russian winters, with all their unpredictability, have been a natural barrier to other nations who had entertained ideas of conquering the passive Russians throughout the last few centuries. 

It is rumoured each time Russia is blessed with a mild winter, visitors to Les Invalides in Paris can discern a murmur coming from the Napoleon’s tomb, “This year it might just work!”

Winter (as a defence weapon) has often featured in Russian art, like in this 19th century painting showing guerilla peasants ambushing French troops in 1812.

Vasily Vereschagin, 1895 - "Let them get closer"

Vasily Vereschagin, 1895 – “Let them get closer”

Other nations may not especially like Russians (what with all those xenophobic reality shows about Soviet/Russian/Ukrainian emigres on TV and the bunch who govern the country itself), but there’s one thing for which Russians can always expect to garner some respect. It is their ability to survive the Dreadful Russian Winter. The side-effect is that The Game of Thrones loses a lot of suspense here, because “winter is coming” can hardly scare anyone.

The Perfect Cleaner

Muddy streets, shabby buildings, and dirty cars cease to exist when a decent snowfall hits a large city like Moscow.  Everything becomes brand-new white in place of shite. Urban Russians love winters for their decorative ability, and they especially welcome what is known as “the first snow” (which is not, actually, the first snow in the season, but the first snow that blankets the ground for at least a few hours).

Russian painters absolutely love this moment, but in their own, Russian way. Type “first snow paintings” in Google Pictures and you get 90% of paintings without people. Just landscapes. Type the same phrase in Russian (“первый снег картины”) and 90% of paintings would have people in them welcoming a new reality into their lives. 

First snow changes the Russian outlook on life from the gloomy late autumn despair to the positive expectation mode. That’s the basic psychology behind some of the most famous works in the first-snow department.

Arkady Plastov, The First Snow, painted in 1946:

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There’s no need for an art critic to feel the contagious smiles of kids who stepped out of their log cabin. This is a pure, simple, and the most famous image of first snow in Russia.

Modern and contemporary artists stick to windows through which people watch snowfalls changing their world:

Sergey Tutunov, Winter has come. Childhood. 1960

Sergey Tutunov, Winter has come. Childhood. 1960

Nude women doing the snow-watching are often the main selling point for misogynist art-lovers:

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I hear nudes sell better than cute boys, girls, and even cats.

Speaking of felines, I can’t miss the last painting I wanted to show, done by a great guy living 60 km away from Moscow. He knows and feels Russia better than all the sages and philosophers who keep searching for the Russian National Idea, but maily find cigarette stubs and empty vodka bottles under the snow.

Vasya Lozhkin. The First Snow.

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The Bane of Russian Intellectuals. Part III

Could a 5-year-old boy from a middle-class Jewish family dream of becoming the chief “court” painter of a country that hadn’t yet come into existence when he took a pencil and started drawing everything he could see around himself?

Could he imagine his mentor, a great artist himself, would name him the new Rafael, but then refuse to see him or even hear of him when he was at the summit of his career?

Surely not.

This posting covers the story of Isaac Brodsky, an artist who studied under Ilya Repin, fell in love with the working class, and charmed its leaders to achieve wealth and fame. His tale is the story of trade-offs artists had to make in 1920s. Malevich, Kandinsky and many other artists had stayed true to their talent and became famous worldwide, post-mortem (as usual). Isaac Brodsky went on to become the most famous painter of the Soviet Union and descended into obscurity less than eighty years after his death.

You may want to step back to Part I and Part II of the series to better understand the type of moral dilemma we are to experience in a few pages. Part II covers one of the most important paintings of Brodsky’s main influencer: Ilya Repin. It is an attempt to explain how infatuation with the Common Man of Labour had been shaping art in Russia by the time Brodsky was born.

EARLY YEARS

Isaac felt the burning need to draw and paint anywhere, everything, all the time. It was the same kind of passion that made Leonardo’s dad drop the idea of a notary career for his illegitimate son, and take him to Verrocchio’s workshop. So, when Isaac turned 12, his parents sent him to Odessa’s art school, in which he would spend the next 6 years studying under exceptional artists, who are nonetheless barely known outside Ukrainian art history community today.

Odessa was a bustling trading city in the Black Sea where fortunes were made, lost and remade again. The city had a very European front, with a very Russian stuffing. Get the feel of it, in this gallery, and spot the stairs that Sergey Eisenstein made globally famous in his Battleship Potemkin movie.

Brodsky was a sponge kind of student; he absorbed a lot from his teachers. The Gallery below shows works of his tutors in Odessa, Kostandi and Lodyzhensky, two very different painters who had a strong influence on Brodsky’s early concept of beauty, choice of colours, and composition. These artists were even faster to adapt modern European painting trends into their art than the academically suppressed painters of St.Petersburg. First, they were geographically closer to major European art centres, and second, they were Ukrainian artists, who had always wanted to look more European than the average Russian.

Gravitating to Europe or not, Odessa Art School was an academic institution. It meant students had to copy old masters a lot. When it was founded (about 40 years before Brodsky joined it), the board invited an Italian artist to help define teaching practices. The guy’s name was Luigi Iorini. He used to ask his students to copy the outline of a chicken egg. If there was a micro-error, he’d tear up the imperfect drawing and ask the student to do it again. Erasers were not allowed. Some students would spend up to a month perfecting their “egg copy”. This lesson was meant to show students the difficulty and importance of copying masters of the past. Iorini was still teaching at the time of Brodsky’s studies there.

Lodyzhensky was a king of watercolorists, who favoured pure colours in striking combinations, and Kostandi was fond of mixing colours and contrasting them in softer ways, via the interplay of light and shadow, in a manner that could be defined as soft impressionism (softness is, by the way, the main difference between the Russian and Ukrainian languages: the latter goes much softer on consonants and much more melodious on vowels). Impressionists would save effort on painting each and every detail, and aim at the creation of emotions in viewers through a conflict of colours. If the main conflict was between the blue sky, a white dress, a green parasol, and torrid grass, individual details like a flower that stands out, or uniquely different shapes of clouds were not important to Monet (guess which painting I had in mind). Kostandi would never sacrifice detail to make his colour conflicts more pronounced. His photographic attention to detail we will soon see in Brodsky’s work. Kostandi also loved painting common people, their lives, pains, and joys, something he knew well enough to add a certain psychological depth on top of documentary accuracy.

Kostandi’s most famous painting titled, “Out and towards becoming someone”, was painted in 1885, when Brodsky was a one-year-old. We will see its influence in Brodsky’s first major portrait painted in 1908.

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It is a simple, but powerful tale of a girl taking the train to a large city in the hope to secure a future different to what a common peasant girl could expect. She is sad to leave her previous life, severing ties with her relatives for years or even decades. Her right hand stretches out to her past, her face is turned towards the places she’s leaving, but the train takes her body away, towards a slim possibility of becoming someone other than a peasant girl.

After graduation from Odessa Art School in 1902, Brodsky was immediately accepted to the Fine Arts Academy in St.Petersburg, which dropped entry exams for the young talent. He was a Jew, and it was difficult for Jews at the time to move across Russia. They had to live in specially designated areas, and there were hurdles for them to enter universities. So, it was not a small achievement. Everyone could see the 18-year old man had a rare gift.

Click on Page 2 at the bottom to travel further!

Breaking news: artist nails down his scrotum to Red Square

I am sure you’ve seen this in the news. A lone naked man is sitting on the cold cobbles of the Red Square. He is then approached by a policeman who urges him to stand up. The camera shows the naked man can’t do it, because his scrotum is nailed down to the stones.

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The video link is here: http://www.rucrash.com/play/?v=2386

The man was then taken to a hospital where doctors classified his art as a suicide attempt. It is very likely the man would be sentenced today to psychiatric treatment. Most Russians would support this decision, at least this is the impression you get when you read through online commentary.

The artist’s intentions are clear: this Action is a metaphor illustrating that the fatalist, passive, subjugated Russian public has been reduced to a system slave in Putin’s Russia.

It is the third time the artist harms himself to send out a politically charged message.

He first became known when he sewed up his mouth protesting against the imprisonment of Pussy Riot girls, as a symbol of the muffling of free speech in today’s Russia.

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His next metaphor was putting himself naked inside a roll of barbed wire and revealing the resulting installation on the steps of St.Petersburg legislature office. It was meant to show that an artist in today’s Russia is not free; each time he tries to move the system punishes him by a cut.

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And now, this, done in the heart of Russia, the soul of Moscow, on the cobbles of the Red Square that have seen centuries of bloodshed, executions, and victory parades. It is, perhaps, the only public square in Russia where smoking is not allowed. Mummified Lenin is still there in the Mausoleum, and Stalin’s grave is just slightly off to the right from it. And from now on tourists would be taking photographs of themselves standing on the “Scrotum Spot”.

Is this art?

Why I think it is not.

All the metaphors are weak, because they are way too obvious, and don’t add anything new to what we already know. They do not delve into the problems they are highlighting at a level deeper than just stating the problems exist. A newspaper cartoonist could do it (and some of them do it very creatively and artfully).

Imagine a life-like mannequin instead of the living person. It would be the same metaphor, same message, but less impact because people are not interested to know how a dummy wriggles itself out of the barbed wire roll, or gets unnailed.

With a dummy, it would be a cute (but not exciting) installation exhibited in galleries (for a short time), travelling around the world (once) and promoting discussions (among people who like chewing on the obvious).

With a live man being a part of it, it becomes a performance that makes the system – against which it is directed – jump with joy. It is easy to present the guy as a lunatic, and thus show that anyone who is against the system is a similar whacko. This performance does the opposite of what the artist intended.

As my readers are probably aware, I believe the act of Pussy Riot was great art.  I explained why, here. Their message was multi-layered and it sent ripples around the globe. For instance, Pussy Riot girls didn’t just state the problem of the Church being a perfect lover for a Police State. Their art has shown that when Christian values get in a contradiction with the Police State objectives, the former are easily betrayed by the Church for the greater good which the Church sees in continuing governmental support of its institutions. They made it crystal clear that the Russian Orthodox Church was always ready to betray its Christian principles, and that it was not  good for you (not Christianity itself, though!)

The scrotum act is solely interesting from the art history point of view because it is an unusual mix of installation and performance. 

It is widely known that when you do a poo on your neighbour’s porch and then press the door bell button, it is an installation. If you press the bell button first, and then do a poo, it is called a “performance“.

When this artist reveals himself, he is an installation. When the police covers him with a blanket, and takes him to hospital, it becomes a performance. Is body mutilation in a public place worth making a statement that belongs solely to the domain of art criticism? I am not sure.

I am pretty sure though that I won’t want children witnessing this. I don’t know if that’s a good thing for children to see. I could live with that were it done inside a gallery space, but not in a public square.

It is political protest in the form of body mutilation, but it is not art.

UPDATE of Novermber, 12th: The guy pierced his scrotum in advance, waited until it healed and then just inserted the nail through an already safely existing hole. Good for him. The idea of his “action” was offered to him by his cellmate the last time he was locked up by the police. It is what prisoners do when they protests against unfair treatment.

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