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In “Station Eleven,” All Art Is Adaptation – The New Yorker

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In “Station Eleven,” All Art Is Adaptation

Illustration of a theater stage overgrown

Illustration by Katherine Lam

“Station Eleven,” Emily St. John Mandel’s hit novel, from 2014, is the kind of book you gulp down in a sitting. I recently reread it in an afternoon; my partner devoured it on two short flights and a layover. The book inspires the sort of voraciousness that it ascribes to its virus, which blazes around the globe in a matter of days, killing ninety-nine per cent of the people in its path. The story’s main action takes place twenty years later, in the “After,” where a fierce young woman named Kirsten tours with a band of Shakespearean players, encountering agrarian communes and violent cults, keeping the flame of art alive. That time line has a clear, tight shape—it builds to a climactic confrontation and the resolution of a mystery—but Mandel splices it with flashbacks to the “Before,” our familiar, dazzling chaos of electricity, cars, and cell phones. There, the seductive figure of Arthur Leander, a playboy actor who dies onstage of a heart attack, bridges far-flung character arcs. We meet his ex-wife Miranda, whose pensive comic book about a stranded astronaut, “Station Eleven,” falls into Kirsten’s hands; Jeevan, an aspiring E.M.T.; and Leander’s second ex-wife, Elizabeth, and son, Tyler.

It’s not always easy to pinpoint what makes a book “unputdownable,” what gives it the feverishly consuming quality that “Station Eleven” has. (Although COVID-19 adds fangs to the premise, the novel was wildly popular before the pandemic.) But some of the book’s swiftness derives from its consistency—from a tone that never changes or breaks, slipping through your body like a pure, bright beam. For all their disparate circumstances, Mandel’s characters can evoke variations on a single person: wistful and dreamy, with a competent, vigorous exterior; invested in values such as beauty and goodness; and working to surmount their flaws. The over-all impression is of an author less interested in individuals than in manifesting a minor-key mood coupled with a hopeful, humanist vision.

Station Eleven,” the HBO Max show whose finale airs Thursday, is something else entirely. Where the book felt stylized, more like poetry or a fable, the series embraces the messiness, range, and complexity of life as real people live it. One doesn’t binge it; ideally one watches its ten episodes slowly, more than once. And it differentiates the novel’s characters, allowing them to summon a wider breadth of experience. On a superficial level, Miranda is now a Black woman with roots in the Caribbean. Arthur was born in Mexico, not British Columbia, and is also more than simply charming; he exudes a sly, almost dangerous sweetness. Jeevan (a soulful Himesh Patel) becomes a freelance culture critic—“I don’t have a job,” he clarifies—who, rather than surge into action during Arthur’s heart attack, can only stand by helplessly. He adopts a girl—an eight-year-old Kirsten—whose parents have disappeared with the onset of the virus, and one of the show’s time lines follows him, the child, and Jeevan’s brother Frank as they hole up in Frank’s apartment tower to wait out the apocalypse.

The show takes one particularly smart liberty with its source material, rethinking art, what it does, and why it matters. Mandel infuses her novel with traditional aestheticism. A wagon in Kirsten’s troupe, the Traveling Symphony, bears a slogan cribbed from “Star Trek”: “Survival is insufficient.” The book’s pandemic survivors are desperate for music, poetry, and performance, and they hunger for scraps of text, even from a brooding comic about space travel. (Onscreen, Jeevan is allowed to wail that the titular cartoon is “so pretentious!”—an opinion that would upend Mandel’s delicately reverent atmosphere.) For post-pandemic audiences, the purest, strongest drugs are Beethoven and the Bard. As one member of the Symphony says, “People want what was best about the world.”

Art may be the world’s premium product, but, for Mandel, it is also not entirely of the world. Its unearthly qualities are represented in part by the spaceman of Miranda’s comic. Here, the novel draws on the old, melancholy notion of art as a beautiful lie. According to the book’s organizing metaphor, “Before” was all theatre, lights, and fantasy; “After” is like waking up, as a planet, from a discombobulating dream. It’s no accident that Arthur’s death ushers in the new order. He is a mascot of pre-pandemic civilization: wealthy, famous, and magnetic, but too entranced by trifles. After the flu hits, humans lose the protection of political institutions, and suffer waves of looting and extremism, but they eventually reconstitute themselves in agrarian coöperatives. They no longer care about impressing one another at dinner parties; they crave “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The Symphony forms to recapture glimmers of what was lost. In the book’s careful balance, the old dispensation’s ruin is offset by what these characters have gained—and yet an air of romantic nostalgia, of mourning, prevails.

In short, the book is of a piece with an Arcadian literary tradition that laments the end of paradise but holds up knowledge as a consolation. The adaptation, created by Patrick Somerville, rejects much of this pastoralism. Indeed, Somerville’s attitude toward art seems almost practical by comparison. His texts have a specific purpose: they serve as trapdoors into the subjectivities of the living and the dead. Art matters to the world of this “Station Eleven” not just because it strengthens the social fabric—it’s an experience people can share—but because it notates and preserves the luminously erratic lives that the show itself is at great pains to capture. Miranda’s literary achievement, in her comic, proves secondary to the miraculous way in which it responds to characters’ particular emotions and conflicts. Why do we need art when the world has ended? Because, Somerville answers, it encodes the vivid presence of everyone who’s gone.

A lesser show might make a bolder claim. It might, for instance, reduce Mandel’s aestheticism to grandiose platitudes about how art can save us. But the fact that survival isn’t sufficient does not mean that art is. In both versions of “Station Eleven,” beauty’s power over death is provisional and fleeting; on the show, it’s not even close. While staying in Frank’s aerie in Chicago, the eight-year-old Kirsten directs the brothers in a reënactment of a scene from her comic book. The performance is meant to distract the trio from looming loss; with food supplies dwindling, Jeevan wants to leave the tower, and Frank wants to stay. That they decide to postpone “real life” for art’s sake, for the play, accelerates disaster—an intruder has time to burst in—and yet the scene, in which the comic’s protagonist, Doctor Eleven, bids farewell to his mentor, is also a consecration. Without it, the brothers wouldn’t have been able to say goodbye to one another. Speaking as characters, they become most completely themselves.

Twenty years later, Kirsten’s worn copy of “Station Eleven” has become talismanic to her. Lines from the text reverberate through the show—“I remember damage,” “I don’t want to live the wrong life and then die.” The cartoon binds Kirsten to a man known only, at first, as the Prophet. Played by Daniel Zovatto, he’s unnervingly soft-voiced and serene, like someone whose pain has alienated him from feeling. He seems to know the words of “Station Eleven” by heart, but his reading of it discards the theme of memory. In fact, he has crafted a youth movement around one particular snippet: “There is no before.”

The book withholds the Prophet’s identity until its last act, contributing to its elegant velocity. Somerville, though, unknots the enigma (spoiler: the Prophet is Tyler, Arthur Leander’s son) almost as soon as the character is introduced. In the novel, Tyler is familiar with “Station Eleven,” the comic written by his father’s former wife, but more enthralled by the Bible, with its doomsday imagery and insistence that everything happens for a reason. A straightforward villain, he incarnates the deceptive uses of fiction, the narcotic power of too-tidy explanations. The show, in turning him into a “Station Eleven” superfan, dims the focus on how art can lead people astray. Now the crucial fact seems to be that two fervent readers, Tyler and Kirsten, are interpreting the same text differently.

The shift is telling. HBO’s “Station Eleven” is obsessed with adaptation, the way that people (many of them actors) reuse and project upon a source. It’s awash in references: Christmas carols, the funk band Parliament, Bob Dylan, “King Lear” and “Hamlet.” There’s also the most transcendent cover of rap music that I’ve ever seen on TV, a set piece that somehow crystallizes a character, a situation, and the human situation, all at once. Most of the art featured on the series doesn’t exist in its original form. It comes filtered through individuals, who carry and change it in time—shaping, recontextualizing, extracting what they need. One feels as though Somerville were triangulating between the texts and his characters to locate some mysterious quality that hovers in the middle. When Kirsten, Jeevan, and Frank stage “Station Eleven,” for example, the play works because the actors and the dynamics among them are so real. Yet the players grow more alive in the performance; their actual dynamics are heightened by it.

In reconsidering what makes art valuable, Somerville does not so much dispute Mandel’s judgments about the past (shining and false) and the future (real and hard) as collapse them. Episodes alternate between the current adventures of the Symphony and the immediate aftermath of the flu, as well as passages from the protagonists’ more distant histories. These melded chronologies seem to insist on the simultaneity of life and memory, just as they evoke the blur of fact and fantasy. Characters’ experiences, like their fictions, become indelible and living parts of them. At one point, Kirsten-as-Hamlet recites a monologue about bereavement while her eight-year-old self is shown discovering that her parents are dead. Later, she hallucinates that she has returned as an adult to Frank’s high-rise, where she watches, again, the ghostly play.

If, in the book, “survival is insufficient” sets up a comparison between life and art, the series suggests—in a limited but real sense—that they’re one and the same. Throughout the show, there’s a thousand-yard P.O.V. shot that intrudes in moments of death or transformation. It’s meant to evoke the perspective of Doctor Eleven, tranquilly observing from space, but it could easily belong to a past or future version of any of the characters, or to a chorus of the flu dead. Early in the novel, after Jeevan tries and fails to revive Arthur, he looks up at the theatre’s “cavernous” emptiness: “fathoms of catwalks and lights between which a soul might slip undetected.” But, in the adaptation of this moment, the perspective is reversed. Instead of peering through Jeevan’s eyes, the camera stays on him while soaring higher and higher. The human body shrinks as the show’s vantage fuses with that of the departed soul. It’s as if art’s job is to let no one go undetected—to provide the audience that most people, real or imaginary or absent, would be lucky to deserve.

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A Tricky First Case for the Man Who Wrote the Rules on Nazi Looted Art – The New York Times

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The diplomat and lawyer who helped write the treaty used around the world to guide restitution claims is representing the family of a childhood friend, which has been sued to surrender a painting.

Few people have done more to advance the cause of people seeking to recover property lost to the Nazis in World War II than Stuart E. Eizenstat.

As a diplomat and lawyer, Mr. Eizenstat, 79, has advised five U.S. administrations, including that of President Biden, on Holocaust issues. He has negotiated with European governments and companies, recovering more than $8 billion for Holocaust survivors and families, and helped write the landmark Washington Principles on returning looted art, a treaty now used around the world to “expeditiously” promote “just and fair solutions” to restitution claims.

“No self-respecting government, art dealer, private collector, museum or auction house should trade in or possess art stolen by the Nazis,” Mr. Eizenstat said in an essay in 2019.

But, as a lawyer, Mr. Eizenstat had never gotten involved in an individual restitution case. That changed a few months ago when he agreed to help a childhood friend whose family is being sued by the heirs of a Jewish couple whose art collection was seized by the Nazis.

Since 2015, relatives of Ludwig and Margret Kainer have pursued a claim for a painting by Pissarro, the Impressionist master, that was once a part of the Kainers’ collection. Last May, the heirs sued the family of Gerald D. Horowitz, and in the ensuing weeks Mr. Eizenstat, a childhood friend of Mr. Horowitz’s wife, Pearlann Horowitz, agreed to work on the family’s behalf.

“Different claims to artworks that changed hands during World War II have different merits; some are clear cut and some are not,” Mr. Eizenstat said in a statement to The New York Times last week. “Our investigation of the historical facts concerning this painting has convinced us that this is less than a clear cut claim that raises complex historical questions and includes contradictory information.”

Mr. Eizenstat said Mr. Horowitz, who bought the painting from a New York dealer in 1995, had acted in good faith, without any sense there was a cloud on its title. He said his efforts to reach an amicable settlement were in keeping with his life’s work and that both sides had reached an agreement in principle.

“I believed,” he said in his statement, “I was particularly qualified to undertake the task of finding a ‘just and fair solution’ to both sides, as contemplated by the Washington Principles of which I was a principal negotiator.”

Though Mr. Eizenstat’s clients are themselves Jewish, the optics of his surfacing for the first time in a restitution case, not on the side of claimants, but of defendants, have surprised some experts in the field.

“I think it’s unusual that he is showing such limited support for the claimants,” said Lynn H. Nicholas, a historian and expert on Nazi looting whose 1994 book, “The Rape of Europa,” is credited with drawing attention to the scope of the issue. “But I don’t know all the details and he may have good reason.”

Lefevre Fine Art Ltd./Bridgeman Images

The painting, “The Anse des Pilotes, Le Havre,” an oil on canvas work from 1903, depicts a harbor scene and was part of the Kainers’ collection when the couple left Germany in 1932, eventually settling in France, according to court papers. Unable as Jews to safely return after the Nazis grabbed power, the Kainers stayed away, and in their absence, their world-class art collection and other furnishings were seized by the Berlin tax office, according to the suit filed in federal court in Georgia by 15 Kainer heirs.

In 1935, more than 400 Kainer possessions, including the Pissarro and 31 other paintings, were sold at auction in Berlin, the suit says, to pay a Reich flight tax, a financial instrument that was often used to punish Jews who fled the country. In 1963, a German appeals court ruled that the tax levied on the Kainers had been discriminatory, according to James Palmer, founder of Mondex Corporation, a company that pursues restitution claims and is representing the Kainer heirs. In addition, the Kainer heirs have a page from the 1935 auction catalog that references the painting.

The painting’s path for the next 60 years is not completely clear, though it was owned for some time, Mr. Palmer says, by a German industrialist who had bought it at the auction.

In 1995, Mr. Horowitz purchased it from Achim Moeller Fine Art in New York, but only after checking with a respected database that tracks looted art. The painting was not listed.

In 2014, the Horowitz family lent the work for display at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, around which time it was identified by Mondex, which was already working with the Kainer heirs. The Kainers had died in the 1960s without children, and their current heirs claiming the painting are the children and grandchildren of cousins.

The heirs sought restitution of the painting in 2015, and presented the Horowitz family with evidence that, by 2005, the painting had been listed in the Pissarro catalog raisonné as plundered “from L. Kainer,” according to the court papers.

But Mr. Palmer said the Horowitzes did not want to move forward with discussions because they were uncertain about who were the rightful heirs. (At the time, a foundation created by Swiss bank officials had been established to serve as the heirs to the Kainers and Margret’s father. But in 2015, a German court found that the Kainer relatives, not the foundation, were the couple’s true heirs.)

More recently, the Kainer relatives have presented additional evidence to support their claim, according to their court papers, including documents showing the Kainer couple had registered the work as looted with the French Department of Reparations and Restitutions, which published a record of the work, along with a photograph, in 1949.

And auction houses have treated several other paintings from the Kainers’ collection that had been sold alongside the Pissarro in 1935 as looted property. In 2009, for example, Christie’s sold Edgar Degas’s “Danseuses,” once owned by the Kainers, for nearly $11 million under the terms of a restitution agreement. (At the time, the agreement recognized the Swiss foundation, not the relatives, as the heirs.)

Atelier Binder/Ullstein Bild, via Getty Images
Atelier Binder/Ullstein Bild, via Getty Images

Mr. Eizenstat began advising the Horowitzes sometime after the Kainer heirs took their claim to court last spring, according to Mr. Palmer, and is helping out the lawyer on the case, Joseph A. Patella.

Mr. Palmer said he was a little intimidated when Mr. Eizenstat joined the negotiations, which are being led by the Kainer heirs’ lawyer, Jason Carter, grandson of former President Jimmy Carter.

Mr. Eizenstat worked in the Carter administration as chief domestic policy adviser and served as deputy secretary of the Treasury in the Clinton administration. His numerous awards include France’s Legion of Honor. Last year, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum awarded him its highest honor for working “tirelessly to secure a measure of justice for Holocaust survivors.”

“He is dealing with governments and policy and dealing on a much wider macro level,” Mr. Palmer said, “so for him to be involved in a very personal level, it was a surprise.”

Mr. Eizenstat said in his statement that he joined the effort in part because Mr. Horowitz is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and unable to defend himself.

“The Horowitz family are pillars of the Atlanta Jewish and secular community, with a sterling record of philanthropic support for a wide variety of charitable organizations, including the Atlanta Holocaust Survivor Support Fund,” Mr. Eizenstat said in the statement.

One sticking point in the negotiations, Mr. Eizenstat said, had been that Ludwig Kainer “appears to have made knowingly false claims about the circumstances of the alleged confiscation of the Pissarro, and had full knowledge of who possessed it after the war.”

He did not say what those false claims were. However, Mr. Palmer acknowledged that Mr. Kainer had misled French authorities around the time he first filed his claim by reporting that the painting had been lost in France. Mr. Palmer defended Mr. Kainer’s decision, saying that at the time Mr. Kainer couldn’t afford a lawyer to file a claim in Germany, and didn’t believe he would receive justice there. He also didn’t know the painting’s location, which Mr. Palmer said was required to file a claim with German authorities.

Though the negotiations appear to have been successful, there were some bumps in the road. Last week, before an agreement was reached, Mr. Eizenstat had said the settlement talks with Mr. Carter had been “advancing in a productive manner until this shocking breach of trust and improper conduct by Mondex, making sensational allegations to the press about confidential settlement negotiations.”

Mr. Eizenstat also took note in his statement that Mondex is a for-profit company, saying, “It is well known that Mondex acts and receives compensation from the Holocaust claims of others.”

Mr. Palmer said that some portion of the fees the company collects must go toward covering costs it incurs in pursuing restitution claims, “which we do with passion and pride.”

He said that there had been no agreement to maintain any confidentiality about the talks. “Certainly a ‘just and fair’ solution requires candor and transparency,” Mr. Palmer said. But, he said, more important is that the agreement in principle “is a very productive result for all of the parties involved.”

Mr. Palmer added that during the negotiations he had told Mr. Eizenstat it was an honor to work with him. “I told him that we would not have been in existence if not for him, so I thanked him,” he said. “I am very cognizant of the contribution he has made to the rest of the world.”

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Art with heart: B.C. artists are saying thanks to frontline staff by offering them their works – CBC.ca

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B.C. artists are using their skill and creativity to thank frontline workers by offering them original works through an online platform. 

Artists can donate their work by making a submission on the Arthanks website, where each available piece is displayed in a photo. Frontline workers can then browse through the options and request a piece of art. 

“We connect the two. We just say here’s the art, here’s the recipient, please get together socially distanced and hand it off,” said David MacLean, a North Vancouver-based artist who came up with the idea.

“When you give a piece of art it’s kind of original, it’s a little bit different, it’s a little more than just a one-off thank you,” he added. 

MacLean says the concept of Arthanks was formed as he found himself painting more during the pandemic.

“I was getting madder and madder about the grief that frontline workers are taking … and thinking, ‘what have I done?’ Well, nothing. I’ve done little or nothing to help,” he told CBC’s The Early Edition on Thursday.

MacLean began giving his art to friends and family who were frontline workers — including nurse Robyn Whyte, who he met at a Deep Cove cafe.

Whyte said the two had chatted about their professions and MacLean offered her one of his works after noticing a wolf design on her sweater. 

“It just happened … he was donating a piece of art that was related to wolves and I couldn’t say no, it’s a beautiful piece of art,” said Whyte. 

MacLean had informally donated about 20 pieces of art when he reached out to Ginger Sedlarova, a friend in the local art scene, to help recruit volunteers and expand the initiative. 

He said they have given away about 40 pieces of art since the initiative started last summer, and they are now looking for more artists to donate. 

The works on display currently include paintings, vases and miscellaneous pottery.

He said all frontline workers are welcome to request a piece of art, including health-care workers, education workers and those in customer service-facing jobs such as grocery store clerks — “anyone who put themselves at risk to help us in this time of COVID,” according to the Arthanks website.

In receiving her gift, Whyte said she was reminded that people are thankful for the contributions of frontline workers. 

“It’s great to be acknowledged. We’ve all been working very hard and it’s just going on so long…” she said. “I know that there’s people out there who are thankful and I really appreciate it.”

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Restoration of Michelangelo’s Pieta statue in Florence reveals flaws in marble

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The restoration of Michelangelo’s famed Pieta dell’Opera del Duomo in Florence has revealed that the single block of marble from which the masterpiece was sculpted was flawed, offering a likely reason for why it was abandoned before it was completed.

The statue, better known as the Bandini Pieta, represents the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene holding the body of Christ as he is taken down from the cross by a man, Nicodemus, whose face is the self-portrait of the Italian Renaissance artist.

“It’s a Pieta that has suffered and is very intimate… it is a really personal statue,” Beatrice Agostini, director of the restoration project, told Reuters.

The works of restoration confirmed that the 2,700 kg piece of marble had veins and numerous minute cracks, particularly on the base, which may have been the reason for Michelangelo’s decision to stop working on the sculpture before finishing it, a statement said.

The artist had initially planned to place the sculpture next to his tomb but only years after beginning to sculpt it, in the mid 1500s, a then 75-year old Michelangelo decided to abandon the masterpiece, giving it as a gift to a servant, who then sold it to a banker, Francesco Bandini.

Restorers did not find any sign of hammer blows, making it unlikely the widespread hypothesis that an unhappy Michelangelo tried to destroy the sculpture in a moment of frustration, the statement added.

The non-invasive restoration started in 2019 but was interrupted several times due to the COVID-19 epidemic. Deposits were removed from the sculpture’s surface, which was then cleaned, bringing it back to its original hue.

The project was commissioned and directed by the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore and was financed by U.S. non-profit organization Friends of Florence.

“The operation has restored to the world the beauty of one of Michelangelo’s most intense and troubled masterpieces,” a joint statement said.

Visitors have been able to witness all stages of the process as the statue was always on display, in an open laboratory, on a platform, behind a glass screen.

 

(Reporting by Matteo Berlenga in Florence, writing by Giulia Segreti in Rome, editing by Angus MacSwan)

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