10 Major Benefits of Reading


Reading is one of the great pleasures of life. It’s an acquired taste, though. It doesn’t develop naturally. The habit of reading starts at home. Kids will probably develop a liking to books eventually, if they see their parents reading; if there are shelves with books around; if they are allowed to spend time in libraries and bookstores just playing with and touching books; or if they are read to by their caretakers. I grew up among books, and many people in my family read for pleasure, so, for me, it was easier to tackle the complex task of going through words and sentences and trying to make sense of them. It gets better and easier with practice.

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In addition to giving pleasure, there are many other proven benefits associated with reading. Here are some of them:

1. It’s entertaining. Reading is a wonderful and relatively cheap hobby. It helps you pass the time; it takes your mind off problems; it’s relaxing. You go places and meet interesting people in the stories you read.

2. Books can be mentors.  It’s said that to develop a professional skill or hone a natural talent, one needs coaching and mentoring. Not everyone can get these services. Great leaders, artists and people who stand out in their jobs and careers have always been mentored. Books can take this role. If you don’t have access to a human mentor, read their written words. Buy his/her biography. Books will even give you the opportunity to follow a number of mentors and get from them what suits you better. Vicarious experience can be a great source of learning.

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3. Reading improves your creativity.  Of course, the most direct consequence of reading is improving your writing skills. There’s nothing like exposure to good writing to put you in the right direction of writing well and more creatively. But reading also opens many other doors in your brain: You develop new perspectives and insights. You add new knowledge to what you had accumulated before and.. bang!…all of a sudden you come up with a super original idea. Innovation leads to success.

4. You will never feel lonely again. Have you ever travelled alone? Maybe not as a hobby, but, sometimes, you need to do that for work. And it can be very lonely. If you like reading, books will be friends you can take along with you wherever you go: Especially now, when you can have your whole library on your smartphone or tablet,  being able to download a new title at the touch of a button.

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5. Reading can be a life-changing experience. Some books have such a profound impact on people that they actually change the course of their lives. They give you such new angles on things, you decide to behave in a different way or start something new. They may make you go to another country; start a new career; decide to take a course on a new subject, change your investment plans (thousands of people have, for example, reported how the personal finance book Rich Dad, Poor Dad, by Robert Kiyosaki, has changed the way they think about their future).

6. Reading makes you smarter. It affects your brain in very powerful ways, creating new synapses (connections), improving your memory, broadening your attention span. Reading is the best brain workout. Great leaders are readers and this should say enough about how the activity boosts the powers of your mind.

7. Studies have indicated that reading can be a strong protection against the onset of brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia. It looks like the exercise brains go through when submitted to the effort of decoding, processing and linking words, making sense of passages and connecting them with what was read before acts as a shield against those conditions.

8. Reading reduces stress. It changes your mental context, makes your focus on something other than your most immediate worries; calms you down, and helps improve your general health.

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9. In the context of foreign language learning, reading is the most powerful skill in acquiring a new language. Reading in the target language – starting with simplified, graded readers and progressively moving on to unabridged books – is the strongest way to consolidate the grammar, vocabulary and linguistic functions you have been studying, as you observe them being used communicatively in its natural context.

10. Books will make you a better person. Reading about other people’s problems and lives, be them fictional or real; learning about how other people feel and see the world; exposing yourself to different dreams, passions, and aspirations; all this opens up your mind and boosts your empathy. As a result, you become a lot more tolerant of diversity and turn into a more evolved human being.

Are there any other benefits you would like to add to this list? Please feel free to write your comments below.

Jorge Sette.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fascinating Facts about Three of Velázquez’s Most Famous Paintings


If you are a fan of the works of Diego Velázquez, considered by many the painter of painters, I’m sure you’ll enjoy the information I gathered for this article:

1. Volcan’s Forge (1630)

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This is one of the uncommissioned paintings produced by Velázquez right after his first trip to Italy, where he stayed from 1629 to 1631. The painting shows the moment, narrated in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, when Apollo, the god of light, shows up at Vulcan’s forge, to tell him that his wife, Venus, the goddess of love, is having an affair with Mars, the god of War. Apollo is identified by the crown of laurel on his head and the orange toga he is wearing. Vulcan, the man on his right, looks horrified and even dangerous. He seems to be working on an armor for Mars himself.

Velázquez had become heavily influenced by Italian art during his trip. This is noticeable in this work by the choice of subject matter – mythology – and by the study of the male nude. However, Velázquez, being the great artist that he was, could not help but add a personal touch to the painting: as we can see, although the bodies replicate in their perfection and athleticism the idealization of the Greek-Roman statuary, the men’s faces look common, contemporary and even ugly. The exaggerated expressions of surprise and shock are a characteristic of the Baroque movement, which did not refrain from showing emotion. There is also an almost comic element to the painting, as it does not seem to treat Mythology with the respect it inspired in other painters. Apollo looks rather full of himself, which you can tell from his posture and body language, such as the curved back and the raised finger.

It’s also worth pointing out that the painting suggests a tri-dimensional perspective: the figure in the background, for example, looks blurred, as if we were actually seeing him from a greater distance. Some of the figures in the painting are displayed in front of others, a technique used to create the illusion of depth. In addition to that, the work suggests a combination of genre painting – the representation of the daily work in a regular forge – with the mythological theme. This kind of combination was rather unusual at the time.

Moreover, some critics claim the painting had the objective of enticing prospective patrons: the artist was perhaps trying to show off his draftsmanship, demonstrating how he could depict the male nude in different positions, in a balanced composition.

2. The Spinners (Las Hilanderas, 1657)

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Critics understand this painting as the representation of the fable of Arachne, as told by Ovid in the Metamorphoses. In the story, Arachne was a shepherd’s daughter who developed an extraordinary skill as a weaver. When asked who had taught her how to weave so well, she said she had learned it on her own. This insulted Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and the crafts, who showed up as an old woman to give Arachne a chance to apologize and acknowledge that her skill could only have come from the goddess. Arachne refused to do so, which made Athena furious. She reverted to her natural form and set up a contest with Arachne to prove who could weave better.

The story unfolds in two stages in Velázquez’s painting. In the foreground, we see the contest itself, as it takes place. Athena would be the older woman on the left. The fact that she is the goddess is betrayed by the youth and the skin glow of her exposed leg. Her ability is demonstrated not only by the relaxed attitude in which she operates the spinning wheel but also by the speed of the instrument, whose stokes we can hardly see.

Arachne, on the other hand, is seen working furiously on the right, with her back to the viewer. Arachne’s skillful work is also indicated by the speed of her performance – notice that her left hand moves so fast it seems to have 6 fingers! They are assisted by three other women in their work.

The conclusion of the story can be seen in the background of the painting. Arachne’s final work – represented here by a copy of Titian’s The Abduction of Europe – beats Athena’s. Athena, the woman wearing a helmet in the painting, is so angry that she rips Arachne’s work to threads. The goddess is seen here at the moment when she is casting the curse that will turn Arachne into a spider, so she will spend the rest of her life spinning webs. The obvious lesson is humans must not compete with the gods.

Just like in the previous painting we analyzed, Velázquez’s work in Las Hilanderas is a clever combination of genre and mythological themes. The women in the foreground look just like her contemporaries at a weaving workshop. It’s in the background that we have a more explicit reference to the myth, marked both by the presence of Athena is his Greek clothes and by the replication of the mythological work of Titian.

3. The Toilet of Venus (The Rokeby Venus, 1647-1651)

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This is the only nude study of a woman painted by Velázquez to reach our days. He seems to have painted three, but two of them are lost. This kind of risqué painting was the object of careful surveillance by the Catholic Church during those harsh times of the Spanish Inquisition. Artists who dared to break the rule faced the threat of excommunication.

This painting, which is sometimes called The Rokeby Venus due to the fact that it was in the Morrit Collection at Rokeby Park, shows the goddess who personifies love and beauty lying with the back to the viewer and looking into a mirror held by her son, the god Cupid. The blurred image in the mirror is explained by the fact that ideal beauty cannot be represented.

However, contrary the trend of the times, Venus looks slimmer than the more voluptuous women usually depicted by other painters. She is also a brunette, while most other representations of Venus show her as a blond. These details all seem to indicate a wish to depict just a beautiful Spanish woman of Velázquez’s own days. Besides, the painting does not show any of the other items that characterize the goddess in other paintings, such as myrtle, roses and jewelry. Except for the presence of the winged Cupid holding the mirror, nothing indicates she is the goddess.

It’s interesting to notice how her curvaceous body is echoed by the rounded belly of Cupid and by the folds of the drapery and bed sheets.

Just like in Velázquez’s most famous painting, Las Meninas, which we discussed in a previous blog post (please click here for the post: https://jorgesette.com/2020/03/14/las-meninas-by-velazquez-under-the-magnifying-glass/), the presence of the mirror, and the fact the goddess seems to be looking at us through it, incorporates an element of mystery to the painting. It seems to stimulate a conversation between the work and the viewer, generating a discussion about the dichotomy between art and reality, representation and fact.

This brings us to the end of our blog post. It’s fascinating to discover the facts, the legends and the stories behind famous works of art. If you have further info, opinions or questions about the paintings discussed above, please don’t hesitate to enter your comments in the box below. We would love to share your perspective with our readers.

Jorge Sette

 

Oliver Sacks – A Review of His Autobiography, On the Move: A Life


Neurologist, researcher, clinician, but especially a great storyteller, Oliver Sacks has millions of fans around the world. His books, which are essentially collections of case studies from his experience looking after patients with brain disorders, can be said to have established a new literary genre.

To me, the appeal of reading Oliver Sacks’ autobiography, On the Move: A Life, was to catch a glimpse of the real man behind the public figure and to learn more about the amazing neurological cases and concepts I’d read about in some of his previous books.

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The autobiography tells us about aspects of his private life that didn’t make their way into his clinical stories. We learn, for example, about his rebel side as a lone motorcycle rider in the 50s and 60s, and about his love of strenuous – and sometimes foolhardy – physical activities, such as extreme weightlifting, swimming in dangerous waters and hiking alone. We also find out about his Jewish family background, his evacuation to a boarding school run by a sadistic headmaster during the second world war, his homosexuality, solitude and 35-year celibacy, and his drug addiction during the 1960s (although he was considered only a weekend “tripper,” having to cope with a challenging job during the week).

What struck me particularly was Sacks’ peripatetic nature, made explicit in the title of the book. It seems he was trying to escape from something, perhaps from himself, due to the fact that he was different – like his patients – but also from his family and the burden of growing up with a schizophrenic older brother. However, being constantly on the move may have been a consequence not only of the restlessness of his soul but also of the strong mental and physical energy he exuded until very late in life.

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Oliver Sacks

What mainly resonated with me was his account of his obsession with writing. Sacks kept journals, taking notes of his experiences, registering his observations, thoughts and feelings. He always had a notebook on hand, even when he went swimming – which, he claimed, stimulated his mind – and he would sometimes dash out of the water to scribble his thoughts down on the pad lying nearby. He may never use those notes when he was writing his books later on, but putting his thoughts down on paper was a powerful way of clarifying his ideas and reflecting on intriguing points; it was like carrying out a conversation with himself.

Laypeople cannot judge how good a doctor Oliver Sacks was. His track record as a researcher and even as a clinician has been disputed a number of times. Also, his decision to base his stories on the cases of real patients caused controversy, as some people claimed it was unethical. His first book, Migraine, was aimed only at the medical community, but it inevitably appealed to a wider public and generated popular interest. He then gave up trying to make his accounts mere reports on medical facts and purposely imbued his stories with themes, metaphors, and humanistic and philosophical considerations, which took his writing to a whole new level.

Sacks’ case studies never give the reader the impression he’s taking advantage of his patients or exploiting them for commercial purposes. He doesn’t come across as someone who’s treating human misery as a circus show. He genuinely seems to care, and his stories, despite the unthinkable suffering of many of the people involved, are mostly uplifting. He reinforces our belief in the power of humans to come to terms with tragedy and even to overcome it.

Following the publication of Awakenings and A Leg to Stand On, Sacks gained notoriety, but it was the publication of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat in 1985 that turned him into a public figure and a celebrity recognized worldwide.

One of the most interesting passages in On the Move covers the time Sacks worked as a consultant for the movie Awakenings, based on his book. Although Sacks hadn’t loved the script, which contained some fictitious subplots he wasn’t comfortable with, he decided at one point that the movie was not his, and, therefore, not his responsibility. This realization liberated him, allowing him to adopt a more relaxed attitude and to accept his role in the project.

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Robin Williams and Robert De Niro in Awakenings

In his autobiography, Sacks praises actor Robert De Niro’s extensive and detailed research to play the postencephalitic Leonard L., stating that De Niro would sometimes stay in character for hours or even days after filming. Sacks also comments on how weird it felt to be mirrored by Robin Williams on the many days they spent together as the actor researched the model behind the character he would portray –  based on Sacks himself. I watched the movie again to write this post and found it a bit dated, lacking a drier, less sentimental approach to the subject. It could have benefited from a wittier and more creative script, since it wasn’t supposed to be a faithful replication of real life. I wonder how much better it might turn out if it was remade today, especially as an HBO production. I loved Robin William’s performance – subtle, subdued and contained. As for Robert De Niro’s, I’m afraid he didn’t convince me in the role of a postencephalitic patient.

In summary, reading On the Move: A Life was as fascinating an experience as reading Sacks’ previous books. His language and fluency are remarkable. He writes through examples; he doesn’t explain or define concepts in technical ways. That’s what makes it easy for us to appreciate his stories.

Reading Sacks’ books, I learned a lot about curious brain conditions I never suspected existed. I became familiar with a wealth of new words and concepts: aphasia, amusia, musicophilia, synesthesia, visual cortex, auditory cortex, Tourette’s syndrome and prosopagnosia, to name just a few. In his wonderful book Seeing Voices: A Journey into the World of the Deaf, he made me understand that sign language is just another mode of language, not unlike verbal language in its sophistication and capacity to express all kinds of concepts, both abstract and concrete, through perfectly structured grammar. These kinds of enthralling revelations are the stuff his books are made of. You simply can’t put them down once you get started. On the Move: A Life is equally irresistible.

Sacks found out he had melanoma in his right eye in 2005. When it metastasized to his brain and liver in January 2015, he knew his death was imminent, but he seemed to have already come to terms with it. When he publicly announced his predicament, he added: “I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.” On the Move: A Life gave me a sense of a life well lived, packed with adventures, experiences, profound learning and fulfillment. Oliver Sacks died on August 30, 2015.

Jorge Sette

10 Books You Should Read to Understand Brazil Better


Congratulations, you got a new job. You will be relocated to Rio? How exciting. How did you manage to grab such an interesting post? You must know a lot about Brazil and speak good Portuguese. Or maybe you are just the only person who had the availability to move to this country. Whatever the reason, or despite how much you might already know about Brazil, I would strongly recommend you read the books listed below to get a crash course in the country. They are all fun to read and will contribute in their own way a small piece of understanding to complete the puzzle.

I’m Brazilian myself, spent most of my life here, and still profited a lot from reading these texts. Here they are:

1. The Brazilians, by Joseph Page.

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This is one of my favorite books about Brazil. It’s visibly written by someone who loves the country, and despite its very objective, and sometimes hurtful, analysis, makes you feel appreciated and liked as a local. Besides, it covers many different aspects of the culture and history of the country, including the national religions and the nuances of the current power structure, all written in a light and pleasant language. I particularly liked the way it analyzes the way the different social classes interact with each other in Brazil, with all the hypocrisy and paternalism that underlies these brutal relationships. However, the book was written way before the passing of a new set of Constitutional amendments (PEC 478 – known as PEC das Domésticas) in 2013, regulating the working  life of the “empregadas domésticas” (Live-in maids; a very typical Brazilian institution), and therefore broadening the professional rights of these underpaid and exploited workers more than 100 years after the abolition of slavery took place in the country.

2. Brazil on the Rise, The Story of a Country Transformed, by Larry Rother.

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Written around the time when the now infamous cover of the magazine THE ECONOMIST showed an illustration of the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio taking off to the skies as a potent rocket on its way to a future of fully developmental glory and economic power, the book gives us the historical and economic background necessary to understand how we got to where we were by the end of the two mandates of the Labor Party, under president Luís Inácio da Silva (Lula). It focuses on the economic and political aspects and the obstacles the country had to overcome on its path towards democracy and to arrive at the reasonable level of economic stability we had some 6 years ago. Of course, things are not looking now as great as when that issue of THE ECONOMIST came out, but corrections are being made along the way and I firmly believe we will realize the bright potential we have been predicting for the past 500 years.

3. Futebol Nation: A Footballing History of Brazil, by David Goldblatt.

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The English writer does not sound very sympathetic to the country and its people. The writing is a cold and dispassionate account of the importance football gained in Brazil since its introduction in the early years of the 20th century and its ramifications through the history of the country. Although it became clear after the World Cup (2014) that football seems to have lost a lot of its importance to Brazilians – given the sense and irony most of the population demonstrated after the historic loss to Germany with a scoreline of 7×1, the book makes it clear that, especially from the 1950s to the 1990s, football was Brazilians’ greatest source of pride. It is also evident how strongly we identified the values of the nation with this foreign sport, allowing and making it easy for politicians to tap into its people’s naive passion to advance their own agendas. Although the book does not take into account the World Cup of 2014, it covers the June 2013 social unrest and popular demonstrations directed mainly against the realization of the over-budgeted upcoming event. All in all, it’s a very interesting read, even for those who are not really into the sport.

4. Backlands: The Canudos Campaign, by Euclides da Cunha.

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Considered one of the most important books of the Brazilian canon, this text is a journalistic account of the conflict of Canudos – supposedly a civil war between monarchists and republicans at the end of the nineteenth century – which took place in the arid and difficult geographic region known as the backlands in the interior of Bahia. The official story says that a group of backlanders (sertanejos), led by a religious fanatic, Antônio Conselheiro, the Counselor, built up a settlement constituted of thousands of huts forming a kind of overcrowded slum, spreading over the valleys and hills of the region. The book reads like a novel, once you manage to get through the slow and dragging geological, topographical and climactic minutiae used to describe the region in the first couple of chapters. Then it finally gets to the action, depicting with cinematographic vigor the 4 military incursions into the settlement of Canudos, defended fiercely by the backlanders (sertanejos and jagunços, the latter considered bandits infiltrated in the community).

5. The War at the End of the World, by Mario Vargas Llosa.

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While Backlands was meant to be an objective report of the Canudos War in Brazil, this book by Peruvian writer Llosa is a fictionalized version of the events. It tells the same story, but as novels go, adding the thrill and emotional twists of the format. The book depicts characters on both sides of the war, offering a balanced perspective of what happened. It’s considered one of the author’s best books. Llosa himself considers it his most accomplished novel, and it features in Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon.

6. A Death in Brazil, by Peter Robb.

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A thrilling account of 500 hundreds years of Brazilian history, Australian writer Peter Robb’s book also reads like a novel. The writer lived in Brazil and offers authentic and knowledgeable insights into the country, its people and culture. He also talks very candidly and passionately about the country’s serious problems and inequalities. The death of the title is the mysterious assassination of PC Faria’s, fixer and bagman to corrupt President Collor in the early 1990s, but the book does not focus on this. It covers, among other things, the brutal slavery system we had in the country until 1888 (longer than anywhere else in the Western world), the destruction of the fugitive slave settlement of Palmares, the Canudos war, Brazilian cuisine and literature. A must-read.

7. 1808 – How a mad queen, a coward prince and a corrupt court fooled Napoleon and changed the History of Portugal and Brazil, by Laurentino Gomes.

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Written by one of the most influential journalists of Brazil, this is the first installment of a trilogy that covers the history of the country from the transfer of the Portuguese royal court to Rio de Janeiro in 1808, in a maneuver to escape the Napoleonic wars, to the events surrounding the Proclamation of the Republic in 1889.

It took 10 years of research for the first volume to come to light. It’s a well- written, direct and very readable account of the story of the arrival in Brazil of D. Joao VI, his wife, Carlota Joaquina, and their entourage, changing the destiny of the colony forever by paving the way for the declaration of independence 14 years later. Mixing the personal anecdotes of these characters – some of them very funny – with important historical events, Gomes offers the reader a sprawling overview of those times in the colony.

1808 was awarded two Jabuti Prizes, in the categories of best reportage-book and non-fiction book of the year.

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8. 1822 – How a wise man, a sad princess and a money crazy Scotsman helped D. Pedro create Brazil, a country that had everything to go wrong, by Laurentino Gomes.

This is the second volume of the trilogy we mentioned above. Now we are focusing on the story of D. Joao VI’s son, Prince Pedro, and the role he played in the declaration of the independence of the country, culminating in the historic Cry of Ipiranga, and then becoming the first Emperor of Brazil. The book reads like a thriller, depicting the highly charged political events, the confronting factions and the many different interests that led Pedro to decide to stay in the country and cut its ties with Portugal. It portrays D. Pedro I as a wild, sensual and determined young man, who did not refrain from playing the role history reserved for him. 1822 added two other Jabuti Prizes (the third and fourth) to Laurentino Gomes’s collection, again in the categories of best reportage-book and non-fiction book of the year.

9. 1889 – How a tired emperor, a vain marshal and a wronged teacher collaborated for the end of the Monarchy and the Proclamation of the Republic in Brazil, by Laurentino Gomes.

The third volume of Gomes’s acclaimed trilogy revolves around the Proclamation of the Republic in Brazil, bringing down the Empire, which had been the most stable and solid government in the region for 67 years. Emperor D. Pedro II – 0ne of the most educated man of his time – was banned from Brazil with his family, being exiled in Europe. Marshal Deodoro da Fonseca, a former anarchist and a friend of the deposed emperor’s, was in charge now, despite his old age and debilitated health.

10. Gabriella, Clove and Cinammon, by Jorge Amado.

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Besides The War at the End of the World, this is the only other novel I included on our list of top 10 choices for the reader who wishes to understand Brazil. Written by Jorge Amado, Gabriella takes place in the small town of Ilheus, in the state of Bahia, during the economic boom of the cacao in the 1920s. The book consists of two intertwined stories: the first is the romance between the bar-owner Nacib, of Syrian origin, and the drought immigrant worker Gabriella, who becomes his cook and mistress; the second story is the confrontation between the conservative plantation colonels (powerful heads of landowner families) and the wealthy young man Mundinho Falcão, who represents the arrival of modernity, efficacy and urban values in the rural underdeveloped and backward region. Readers will be delighted to have all their senses and intellect arrested, as they immerse in the world of Gabriella: Amado describes the tastes, smells, and texture of the local foods; the funny, and sometimes violent, local customs; the hypocrisy of a narrow-minded and provincial society; the brutality of machismo; and the bright colors of what is supposed to be a microcosm of Brazil and Latin America.

I guess these 10 books will give newcomers enough introductory background and information on the beautiful, challenging and diverse country I’m lucky to live in. Welcome, good luck with your new job, and don’t forget to rate and comment on this post.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette.

 

Four of Brazilian Writer Lima Barreto’s Main Works – As Modern and Relevant as Ever


Lima Barreto, the acclaimed journalist and author of the Brazilian Belle Époque, is more popular than ever these days. The author was honored at the FLIP (International Literary Party of Paraty) a couple of years ago and that made him even more well-known.  New editions of his work have been released since then. Along with these, there was also the publication of a very well-researched biography, Lima Barreto – Triste Visionário, by historian Lilia Moritz Schwarcz (Companhia da Letras), available at the main bookstores.

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Lima Barreto was born in 1881 in Rio de Janeiro and dedicated his life to writing and literature. His father was a typographer with connections with the powerful Empire Senator Viscount of Ouro Preto, who became Lima Barreto’s godfather. His mother, a freed slave, was a school teacher. She died when the writer was only six.

The key to understanding his artistic work is the overlap between the stories he created and his biography. Dark skinned (a mulato, as we say in Portuguese) and born in the lower echelons of society himself, he understood very well, and experienced first hand the issues discussed in his novels and short stories.

The main themes of his realistic pre-modernist fiction are the problems of the recently founded Brazilian Republic: class and race prejudices; the cynicism, incompetence, and arrogance of academics, journalists, politicians and the police force in general; the oppression women were subjected to. Not surprisingly, many of the problems Brazil had a hundred years ago are still current, making Lima Barreto’s works powerfully modern and still very relevant.

Lima Barreto had a productive but short life. He died at the young age of 41, plagued by alcoholism and related mental illnesses.

The books listed below have not been translated into English yet (except for The Sad End of Policarmo Quaresma), but, if you speak Portuguese, you can easily order them from Bookwitty.

  1. Recordações do Escrivão Isaias Caminha (Memories of the Clerk Isaías Caminha)

 

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Lima Barreto’s debut novel was received coldly by the critics and the literary community of the time. The resentment of the protagonist-narrator and the sarcastic (although disguised) way in which he describes powerful figures of the contemporary society irritated many people who possibly identified themselves with the characters depicted in the novel and felt ridiculed by it. In the novel, Isaías, a boy from the countryside, does exceptionally well in school and is predicted to have a bright future, due to his intelligence and hard work. As a young man, full of hopes and willing to expand his horizons, he leaves his family and hometown, coming to Rio de Janeiro with a letter of recommendation for a congressman. Isaias thought it would not be difficult to find a good job, given his previous scholarly success and this single connection with a powerful politician. It does not take long, though, for his dreams to be crushed. Rio turns out to be a concrete jungle, where the doors are tightly closed to dark-skinned men. The novel tells the story of the deterioration of the young man’s self-esteem and his progressive submission and passive acceptance of the brutal rules that govern Brazilian society.

  1. The Sad End of Policarpo Quaresma

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This novel marks the transition from Realism/Naturalism to the Pre-Modernist literary movement in Brazil.

Policarpo Quaresma, the protagonist, is a methodical civil servant who lives with his spinsterish sister in the suburbs of Rio at the end of the 19th century. He is a naïve and rather optimistic nationalist, who believes that he himself can act as a force to preserve the traditions of Brazil in the face of the fast modernization and internationalization the country is going through.

To accomplish his nationalist objectives, first, he writes a letter to the Parliament proposing that the national language be replaced by Tupi, the indigenous language spoken by the local tribes who lived along the coast of the country before the arrival of the Portuguese. The idea is received with such mockery and disbelief that Quaresma suffers a nervous breakdown, being confined, for a while, to an asylum for the mentally ill.

Recovering from the illness, Quaresma decides to move with his sister to a farm on the outskirts of the city to live a more peaceful life in contact with nature. There, he tries to initiate, again practically single-handedly, an agricultural reform, aiming at setting an example to his countrymen, teaching them how to make the most efficient and rational use of the fertile soil of his beloved fatherland. This results in another failure, as he cannot count on any official help with his endeavour.

Finally, he sides with President Marshal Floriano Peixoto (a real historical figure), joining the military, to fight against the Second Naval Revolt, only to find out that the leader, contrary to Quaresma’s idealization, lacks the brains and military-strategic mind of a Napoleon, being nothing more than an authoritarian and unskilled dictator to a barbaric country in the periphery of civilization and capitalism.

  1. Clara dos Anjos

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Published after Lima Barreto’s death, the novel has a simple and direct plot. It’s the story of a dark-skinned girl from the suburbs (the impoverished neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city of Rio de Janeiro, rarely portrayed in our literature) who gets seduced and abused by the white guitar player Cassi Jones, a notorious crook from a slightly higher social social class. However, the focus of the book is not really the plot. Clara’s sad story is just a pretext for the author to explore important connected issues. The main theme of the novel is the suburbs and its inhabitants: the members of the poorer classes of Brazil. Lima Barreto, with his precise journalistic prose, describes their small and difficult lives, the destitute environment they are forced to live in – despite the high taxes they pay, which are hardly used for their own benefit; the excessive drinking habits of the men; their music and literature; and the repression suffered by their passive and conservative women.

  1. Contos Completos de Lima Barreto (Lima Barreto’s Complete Short Stories)

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Besides journalistic articles and novels, Lima Barreto also left us a great number of short stories. Again, in those works, his main themes are the description of daily life in the city of Rio de Janeiro and its suburbs during the years of the Brazilian Old Republic (the period comprised between the end of 19th century and the beginning of 20th century), written with irony and sharp criticism against the political system of the time, the ingrained racism of our society, the oppression of the lower classes in general and the limitations imposed on women in particular. He also rebuked the mediocrity of the cultural and literary elites of the country. His attempts to mock Brazilian society while denouncing its serious flaws have made a profound mark in our literature.

Would you like to share your opinion about Lima Barreto? Please write your comments below.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stephen King Teaches Us How To Write Well


Writing is a very personal (and messy) activity. Effective writers do not necessarily follow the same writing process. Besides, writing can be difficult and painful. According to a well-known quote by Hemingway, There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.

Having said that, I firmly believe that a beginning writer can benefit from some guidelines and tips, before developing his own writing method, style, and voice. I like to teach my language students the basic steps of a methodology called process writing, which puts the drafting at the center, rather than the final product. The more drafts a writer produces, the better. Of course, you need to know that beyond a certain point, your writing can begin to deteriorate, so it takes practice to develop the gut feeling of when to stop working on a certain piece. A good editor can help you with that. If you want to know more about process writing, please refer to a previous post I wrote on the topic: http://wp.me/p4gEKJ-1ot

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In his best selling manual ON WRITING, author Stephen King draws on his long and productive experience as a successful fiction writer to give us some help on how to write well. Besides being very interesting, as the author mixes anecdotes of his personal life and backstage accounts of how some of his most famous books came to life, this manual also works as a very useful introductory guide on how to write effectively. I’ve selected five of his best tips to share with you and took the liberty to add my personal comments to his suggestions. But you must read his book for a more comprehensive idea of the subject. His pieces of advice are mainly about fiction, but I believe many of his points apply to good writing in general

 

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1. Read a lot and write a lot. Stephen King recommends you spend at least 4 to 6 hours a day either reading or writing. He says he aims for writing 2,000 words a day. But this piece of advice varies from author to author. I heard Lionel Shriver, another famous writer, say that she sticks to 1,000 words a day. Malcolm Gladwell, in his brilliant book Outliers, claims that to achieve world-class mastery in any field, one needs to dedicate some 10,000 hours to it. He uses The Beatles, the lawyer Joseph Flom, Bill Gates and other successful people as examples. This is a hard call, but I thought I should be honest with you and warn you about the work ahead if you wish to become a star.

 

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2. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered. Philip Roth, considered by many on of the greatest American authors, stirred controversy, shock and strong criticism within the Jewish community when he published his first books. By the end of the 60s, he wrote an outrageously funny novel about a man obsessed with masturbation, which definitely put him on the black list of polite, civilized people with good taste. You can’t write to please. You write to express your truth, to reveal the hypocrisy of your community, to probe into the souls of real human beings. This is likely to cause you trouble. Salmon Rushdie spent decades in hiding, threatened to be killed, after allegedly insulting the members of the Muslim faith. This is a very high price to pay. Wearing the pleasant social masks most people don’t hesitate to put on and being a genuine and respected writer are incompatible. Are you prepared to deal with it?

3. Most of us do our best in a place of our own. I beg to disagree. Most of my writing is done in public cafés and bistros. The presence of pulsating, vibrant life around me gets my creative juices going and helps me put my ideas down on paper. However, I agree that you need to isolate yourself mentally, if not physically, to be able to produce effective writing. If you can’t do that in public, find a nice office, or a room, furnish it with everything you need to write well and close that door. You should be able to concentrate and avoid interruptions wherever you are.

4. A strong enough situation renders the whole question of plot moot, which is fine with me.The most interesting situations can usually be expressed as a What-if question. It looks like Stephen King tends to start his stories from a situation he imagined. He often conjures what-if scenarios to come up with something compelling and unusual. What-if can boost a whole lot of interesting ideas in the brainstorming phase of writing. Not every writer does that, though. An alternative is to start from a different, unique character from whom the story will stem and possibly take unpredictable turns. Most Hollywood scriptwriters use yet another method: they start by outlining and putting a firm structure in place. They think in terms of plot, with defined turning points, clearly delineated phases the hero goes through, character arcs and an edifying end. If you are interested in finding out more about how to write scripts following the Hollywood model, I would recommend Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey: Mythical Structure for Writers, based on the mythological studies of Joseph Campbell, presented in the book The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

 

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5.Description begins in the writer’s imagination but should finish in the reader’s. Don’t over describe. Detailed descriptions are boring for most contemporary readers. All the author needs to do is to apply some quick brush strokes highlighting the main elements of a setting or the physical traits of a character. The reader will be happy to use his imagination to fill in the blanks. Pick important details that help the reader construct the whole on his own. Don’t spoon-feed the reader.

All these tips can be of help to the budding writer, but, as I explained at the beginning of this post, writing is a very idiosyncratic activity and it will take you some time to find and develop your own tools. In addition to that, remember, you need to put in at least 10,000 hours of hard work if you wish to break through the clutter and become a star, according to Malcolm Gladwell. No time to waste then, start today!

Au revoir

Jorge Sette

 

 

What do Classic Novels have in Common?


Classic novels and the Western Canon (Shakespeare, Swift, Cervantes, Austen, Dickens, Flaubert, Melville, etc.) are sometimes used as synonyms. In this post, however, we apply a broader definition to the former, extending the concept to a certain category of written stories that may have originated in any part of the world, as long as they sustain the set of common characteristics we discuss here.

In his famous 1986 short essay, “Why Read the Classics?”, Italian journalist and writer Italo Calvino gives an all-encompassing and powerful definition of classic novels:

“A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.”

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Italo Calvino

We couldn’t agree more. In addition to that, we would argue that classic novels share the following traits:

Language: One of the main features of classic books is the careful use of the language they employ, which leans towards the innovative, the unique and the artistic (meaning: evocative, non-referential language that stands in its own right, for its beauty or unconventionality). The classics normally establish new standards of language use; they formalize in writing what was once only oral, for example. Classic writers create new linguistic facts: expressions, words, metaphors. They coin new lexicon

Originality: Classics convey new perspectives and worldviews; they provide groundbreaking insights into the human experience. They change the way readers see the universe. When reading the classics, we sometimes discover where certain ideas came from, who first expressed them. We realize that people didn’t always have the same feelings their contemporaries share about things, and that sometimes it’s possible to pinpoint the specific moment the innovative thought was introduced.

Freshness: Classics are books that can be reinterpreted over and over again. They adapt effortlessly to new eras and offer a lens through which different realities can be analyzed. Pride and Prejudice is not read today in the same way as was when first published in 1813. Modern readers add layers of new personal and communal meanings to their interpretation of the original text, experiencing it in completely novel but still relevant ways.

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Seminal: Classics inform and influence innumerable artworks and ideas. Contemporary movies, TV series, and literature, for example, are constantly borrowing and repurposing the themes, characters, plots, and even the language of the classics. Who doubts that Jaws (both the book and movie versions) is a modern-day Moby Dick?

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Moby Dick

Longevity: They endure and remain in print. The strength of their plots, the charisma of their characters, and the essentiality of their ideas get handed down from one generation of readers to the next. They resonate with the reader in primeval and timeless ways. You will probably find an edition of The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde in most bookstores you walk into around the globe.

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Oscar Wilde

Eternal truths and grand themes: Classics deal with what is essential to human beings. They identify universal feelings and behaviors, incorporating these archetypical entities into specific contexts, which make them more palpable and understandable.

Identity: Because classics tend to represent the zeitgeist of their times in such accurate and interesting ways, they become part of the very fabric of shared culture.

As you will have noticed, our criteria for identifying classic novels is flexible and can be rather subjective. Ultimately, given the extraordinary number of great books available today (from all kinds of times and regions), it’s necessary for the reader to establish their personal library of classics. Everyone has their own list of favorites: books that have changed their lives; books that helped them through difficult times; books that are relevant to them in unique ways; books that marked important moments. These are classics too – on an individual level.

Jorge Sette

 

Velázquez – The Iconic Painter of the Spanish Baroque


Considered the painter’s painter, Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez was born in Seville in 1599, growing up in the old Jewish quarter of that booming city.

Velázquez was an apprentice to Sevillian artist Francisco Pacheco for 5 years. However, it did not take long for the pupil to surpass the master in technique, which did not bother Pacheco at all. He was very proud of the young artist, who would later become his son-in-law. At the age of 19, Velázquez married Pacheco’s daughter, Juana, and had two daughters by her.

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Velázquez

In 1623, he was invited to go to Madrid to paint the portrait of King Philip IV. The king liked the painting so much he commanded Velázquez to became his personal painter. From then on, only Velázquez was allowed to paint the king, and all his other portraits were taken out of circulation. Later on, Velázquez rose in the court to also become the king’s curator (being the person in charge of choosing and purchasing the furniture and paintings that would decorate the king’s palaces). Velázquez served the king for over 40 years, while Philip IV was the most powerful man on Earth.

At the beginning of his career, Velázquez soon distanced himself from the usual religious themes most Spanish painters produced at the time, due to the influence and power of the Catholic Church, and the overwhelming surveillance of the Spanish Inquisition. Instead, he started painting bodegones – kitchen and tavern scenes, involving common people – which, despite being considered a low genre of painting in those days, started to attract the attention of rich purchasers and patrons. Among these paintings, we have, for example, Old Woman Frying Eggs, and the breathtaking Water Seller.

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Old Woman Frying Eggs

His art was clearly influenced by Caravaggio in his use of contemporary, common people as models, and also in the use of the dramatic contrasts of light and shadow (chiaroscuro). Another major influence on Velázquez’s work was the art of Flemish baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens, who spent seven months at the court of King Philip IV on a diplomatic mission. Later, after spending time in Italy on two different occasions, he incorporated elements of both the contemporary local art and features of the Renaissance into his technique.

When he began working for King Philip IV, his main assignments consisted of portraits. He painted the members of the royal family in a great number of portraits, but his most famous ones are his own slave and studio assistant Juan de Pareja’s and the stunning portrait of Pope Innocent X. The realism and strength of these works, in which Velázquez managed to capture not only the physical but also the personality traits of his models, astonished his contemporaries and are a source of awe and inspiration to many artists to this day. Since most of Velázquez’s works were made for the king, they remained unseen for many years, hanging from the private walls of the royal family’s many residences.

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Pope Innocent X

In addition to the bodegones and portraits, he also produced famous mythological scenes (e.g. The Triumph of Baccus; Vulcan’s Forge; The Spinners; The Rokeby Venus), landscapes (e.g. Philip IV Hunting Wild Boar) and historical scenes (e.g. The Surrender of Breda).

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Vulcan’s Forge

Velázquez’s technique, draftsmanship and use of color have amazed the general public, critics and other painters for centuries. He’s many people’s candidate for the post of best painter ever. His paintings are included in what is called the Spanish Baroque movement of the XVII century, but they stand out as very personal and unique, the work of a genius.

Velázquez struggled his whole life to become part of the nobility he served so faithfully. His Jewish blood, however, was a constant obstacle for him to achieve such recognition. Only at the very end of his life, in 1658, did he become a knight, receiving the insignia of the Military Order of Santiago, the red cross that features on his chest in his most famous painting Las Meninas.

Velázquez died on August 6th, 1660, at the age of 61.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette

 

 

 

Five Takeaways from the Book TED Talks – The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking


Founded by Richard Saul Wurman and Harry Marks in 1984, the TED conferences originally featured talks focused on Technology, Entertainment, and Design. Under the catchy tagline Ideas Worth Spreading, the range of these talks has since expanded to include other academic, scientific and cultural topics.

If you have ever watched any of these talks, you will have noticed that they are not the usual boring PowerPoint-based presentations we get in conferences of all kinds. Storytelling techniques – long a proven method for grasping and keeping listeners’ attention – prevail in most TED talks. Another obvious key to their success in the succinctness; speakers have 18 minutes to tell a compelling narrative.

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In his engrossing book, TED Talks – The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking, published last year, Chris Anderson, who took over the conferences in the early 2000s, offers the reader a truckload of useful and practical suggestions on how to put together and deliver a memorable presentation. A must-read for everyone who needs to speak in public these days (and who doesn’t?)

To whet your appetite, we have selected five of the most stimulating presentation tips we found in the book. See below.

1.What is the takeaway?

As you organize your talk, decide on what is the point you are trying to make. There must be an overarching theme connecting all the elements of the story. This is called a throughline in movies, plays, and novels. As a planning exercise, make sure you specify a concrete objective in no more than 15 words. What is your goal? What do you want to accomplish? What do you want the audience to do, how do you want them to feel after you leave the stage?

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2. Get personal.

Speakers need to connect to the audience, break the ice and build trust. A talk is much more than mere words. You need to engage the audience on many levels. There are different ways to do that. Making eye contact with the audience, for example, is always effective. Showing some kind of vulnerability, such as admitting that you are nervous, may also work. Using humor at the beginning – through a personal anecdote, presenting funny visuals, or by playing with irony and sarcasm – may do the job. Don’t try to be funny if you are not comfortable with it, though.

3. Visuals.

We all know the staggering amount of technology available out there to help public speakers: slides showing graphs, photography, infographics, animations; video, audio, etc. Yet, it may come as a surprise that at least one third of the most viewed TED talks do not make use any of these tools. So maybe you should ask yourself: do I really need to use them? And how much of it is really necessary? Most people are extremely familiar with these so-called innovations by now anyway, so it’s hard to make an impact based only on them. Besides, visuals may distract the audience, taking their attention from you! Then again, great slides may add to the presentation, especially when they do not only repeat and highlight what is being said verbally. Ideally, visuals should reveal (show something that can not be easily described by words); explain (make concepts clearer: a picture is worth a thousand words!); and delight (give the talk aesthetic appeal).

4. To memorize or not to memorize.

Although most TED speakers have their presentations scripted out beforehand and memorize them, this approach does not work for everyone. There’s beauty and power in variety. You need to discover your own natural style. Possible options: you can write and memorize your talk; use in-the-moment language to talk about something you are familiar with (it helps to have a mental structure of the points to cover, though); or even read your piece! Whatever makes you more comfortable and confident. However, remember that preparation is essential for any format you choose.

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5. Traps to avoid.

There are some speaking styles TED organizers do not recommend. The sales pitch: trying to sell products or services directly through your talk may damage your reputation as a speaker. The main job of a speaker is to give not to take. So be careful. Find out if this is the kind of talk your audience is expecting. The ramble: to be under-prepared or not to have a set objective is insulting to the audience; the org bore: talks that focus on the greatness of an organization or on how amazing their staff is will probably bore the audience to death – they don’t work there after all. The inspirational performance: despite the fact that great TED talks deeply inspire and move the listeners, this effect cannot be manipulated through tricks and gimmicks. It needs to feel real. So avoid copying the so-called “inspirational” talks, where the speaker is full of self-praise and despicably phony.

For more tips, I strongly recommend you get the book now and make sure your next presentation is a hit.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette

 

 

Impressionism – A Cautionary Tale


Impressionism is one of the most popular movements of Western Art. It took place between 1870 and 1880, mainly in France, and suffered a lot of resistance at the beginning, since critics, art dealers and the public in general were more used to the academic and “serious” kinds of paintings that would hang from the walls of the official Salón, a very popular government-sponsored art exhibition that took place every year in France.

The typical paintings you would see at the Salón would feature religious, historic or mythological subjects. They would follow the guidelines of realistic art set by the Renaissance and followed by most masters for almost 500 years. The paintings looked subdued in the use of color, valued good draftsmanship and had strict rules of perspective. In addition to that, they were perfectly finished and varnished.

The impressionists started to systematically deconstruct these rules.

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Coquelicots (Poppies At Argenteuil) by Monet, Claude, 1873.

The artists

Monet is considered the quintessential Impressionist painter. The one who practically set the rules and followed them to the very end of his long and productive career. Other famous impressionists were Renoir, Degas, Sisley, Morisot, and Pissarro. They had been heavily influenced by pre-impressionists, like Manet and Courbet, whose art was already moving away from the standards of classic realism.

The technique

Today you will hardly come across someone who does not like Impressionism. The main reason is that Impressionist paintings are usually uplifting, colorful and full of light. They are cheerful works that make most people feel good. Composed of short, broken, brush strokes, in unmixed bright colors, Impressionist art works conveyed how reality appears to us under different light conditions. They avoid rigid contours or lines, drawing was secondary to the use of color. Shadows were never black, but painted in darker hues of colors, which varied throughout the day and in accordance to the season of the year. For more traditional eyes, the paintings can sometimes look rather unfinished.

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Two Sisters (On the Terrace) by Renoir, Pierre-Auguste, 1881.

The origin of the name

In a 1874 exhibition, Monet presented a painting called Impression: Sunrise (see image below). All it showed was a couple of solitary boats on the sea in Le Havre under a red sun reflected on the water. It was painted in quick, diffused, brush strokes. The art critic Louis Leroy, from the magazine Charivari, was not happy with what he saw. He fiercely mocked the artists that painted like Monet and used the very title of the painting to criticize their style, claiming they were mere impressionists. His paintings, Leroy said, looked more like sketches than finished works of art. Despite the derogatory use of the word, Monet and his friends boldly appropriated the name and started to use it officially to define their revolutionary new style. Impressionism had been born.

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Impression, soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise) by Monet, Claude, 1872.

Where the paintings were made

Usually impressionists would paint en plein air, meaning the outdoors. This is where they could best capture the effects of the changing light on trees, flowers, people and water. Some of them would sometimes finish their work indoors, but hardliners, such as Monet, would work outside every day, under different weather conditions, completing their works there.

 The subject matter

Impressionists would do landscapes, seascapes , portraits and still life paintings. But they hardly included anything outstanding. Their themes were scenes and items of everyday reality: moments of contemporary Parisian life, flowers, boats, expanses of water, sunsets…The simpler, the better. Their point was to study and convey how color worked under light. You need to step back from an impressionistic painting at a museum to fully appreciate what it’s all about as a whole. The closer you get, the more the image gets fragmented into singular dabs and brush strokes without specific forms or meaning.

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Sand Heaps by Sisley, Alfred, 1875.

Impressionism is at the very beginning of what we call Modern Art. Those painters influenced strongly all the art movements that followed them, such as fauvism, cubism and surrealism. Impressionist paintings sell for millions of dollars today. It’s hard to believe that they were once discriminated against and frowned upon. Monet lived in poverty for great party of his life until he was recognized as a great innovator.

There’s perhaps a cautionary tale there. The value and importance of contemporary art is almost never acknowledged at its inception. So, perhaps we should hold our judgment when confronted with some new form of Art and try to understand what it really means and learn to identify the possible seeds of radical transformation we are witnessing.

How do you feel about Impressionism? Do you have any favorite painters or works in the movement? Please, let us know.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette.