Exhibition Spotlight McMullen Musings

The Perfect Storm: Climate Catastrophes in “Hieroglyphs of Landscape”

Student Ambassador Chris Rizzo (MCAS, 2022) talks about his personal experience with the awful power of nature as a Wisconsin native.

I grew up in suburban Wisconsin, where winter takes up the whole year. Each October we don our heavy winter coats and mittens that transform us into big puffy marshmallows, the default clothing for most of my family and friends until late April, sometimes May. Winter on the water, however, is an entirely different beast. For those of you who have grown up near the Great Lakes, you know the conditions I speak of. Lake Superior, or the “Lake of Storms,” the northernmost and deepest Great Lake, restrained by Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the Upper Peninsula, can become especially dangerous. Hurricane-force winds create waves almost five stories tall, roughly the height of Stokes Hall. In the winter, water temperatures fall as low as -30 degrees Fahrenheit. The majority of the lake freezes over yearly. Storms can rise without warning and have carried at least 350 vessels into the deep since human beings first settled its shores. 

One of the greatest storms to menace Lake Superior was the Mataafa Storm of November 28, 1905. Twenty-nine cargo and fishing craft sank, brought under by massive waves and top winds recorded at 68 miles per hour, smashed against the rocks, or ran aground on shorelines. The SS Mataafa was one of these vessels, broken in two by the sheer force of these massive waves as it attempted to make a run to safety in Duluth Harbor. Nine men died of exposure in the night after the ship broke apart. One body had to be cut out of a solid block of ice when rescue crews could finally arrive the next day. 

The drama of the Mataafa Storm, thought by some to be the worst storm ever seen on Lake Superior, evoked a kind of collective shock in the region that reverberated around the United States, much like natural disasters we face today, such as the California wildfires of recent years or any of the massive hurricanes that have slammed the East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico. People could not conceive of a storm that could sink twenty-nine ships, end thirty-five lives, and inflict damages of over 3.5 million dollars (102 million in today’s currency) all in one night. Natural disasters not only show us the raw, unadulterated power of Mother Nature, but also our own weakness and fragility.

Natural disasters not only show us the raw, unadulterated power of Mother Nature, but also our own weakness and fragility.

Since ancient times shipwrecks have fascinated and horrified us. We need look no further than the tale of the Titanic to know that this is true. Imagined calamities in literature can hold just as much power as the real. From the tales of Homer’s Odyssey to a modern novel like Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, the shipwreck is a classic disaster. This event represents a derailment of the hero’s journey and a decisive start of something new. These authors recognize that not only does a shipwreck offer a clean slate upon which a new story can be told, but it also speaks an important message of who we are and where we come from, as well as our own naivety. In the case of the SS Mataafa and all the other ships that sunk in Lake Superior on that stormy November night, the outcome was seen as unexpected and unavoidable, but in reality, it was anything but. 

Storms are the perfect challenge our boldness; when the sea asserts itself and batters our fragile boats with massive swells and howling winds, we are no match for Nature’s uncaring destruction.

The very act of sailing is one that issues a challenge to nature. Water is meant to be a barrier to humanity, but sailing allows us to traverse the sea, carrying people and cargo from place to place. Shipbuilding is such a precise art because a balance must be struck; a vessel cannot be so heavy that it sinks like a stone, but it also cannot be so light that it is overturned by a ripple on a pond. Storms are the perfect challenge our boldness; when the sea asserts itself and batters our fragile boats with massive swells and howling winds, we are no match for Nature’s uncaring destruction.

Shipwrecks and the messages they convey also weighed heavily on the minds of Romantic painters. William Trost Richards, whose seascapes are currently on display at the McMullen Museum, dwelled on these themes. Several of his works show remnants of ships washed ashore as a central element in a lonely beach scene or a twilight view of the coast. Russian Romantic Ivan Aivazovsky also shows a preoccupation with sinking ships and ships in trouble. This naval motif really does reflect the mood of the nineteenth century. Unlike centuries past, Romantic thinkers, authors, and artists were comfortable dwelling in a space of uncertainty and meditating on themes of mortality and fragility.

So often in modern life we take our apparent mastery over the seas and skies for granted. Over 90 percent of the world’s trade in cargo and raw materials moves in vessels over the sea, and travel by planes is one of the greatest luxuries of modern life. But we often forget just how fragile these networks of transport and trade are. As the Mataafa Storm on Lake Superior and the works of nineteenth-century Romantics like William Trost Richards prove, nothing can be taken for granted. When we lower the sails and batten down the hatches, we are acting in defiance of greater powers. We hold contempt for any authority that seeks to control us, and rebel against a fundamental part of our own humanity, that our fragile lives can all be extinguished by the waves of a single storm. 

William Trost Richards, “Beach Scene with Wreck,” Brooklyn Museum, accessed November 19, 2019.

McMullen Musings

Alvin Epstein, Beckett, and the Absurdity of The Fulbright Triptych

McMullen Student Ambassador Dana Connolly, LSEHD ’22, reflects on The Fulbright Triptych and actor Alvin Epstein’s legacy in art and theatre.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to meet Alvin Epstein at the Actor’s Shakespeare Project Spring Gala. During his storied life on stage, Mr. Epstein established himself as the authoritative actor-interpreter of Samuel Beckett’s absurdist drama. Epstein made his Broadway debut as Lucky in Beckett’s opus, Waiting for Godot. Soon after, he played the leading role of Estragon, launching his career into the absurd world of Beckett.  

After a stint of Broadway successes, Epstein became a founding member of the American Repertory Theatre at Harvard, establishing himself in the Boston theatre scene. In Boston, Epstein supported local and nonprofit theatre ventures, and was a lover and cultivator of Boston’s Artistic Heritage. 

Alvin, at age 92, spoke in hushed tones but indelible wit. Sitting upon a monumental career in the art world, he seemed mostly unbothered.  I felt as though he had embraced the absurdity of the life that he imitated on stage for so many years. Epstein’s contribution to The Suspension of Time: Reflections on Simon Dinnerstein and Fulbright Triptych, echoes this sentiment. 

The title, “Where Are We? When Are We?” is pulled straight from Beckett’s oeuvre (although in truth, it’s a Back To The Future Quote). Epstein bemoans the lack of guard rails that Dinnerstein gives to the viewer: no “dynamic diagonals to lead [the] eye,” the paintings “immense” size feels suffocating to the casual interpreter. Every intricate detail is so carefully organized, only a fool would attempt to decode a painting layered in this much symbolism and personal history! Like Beckett’s long, confusing, inane plays, The Triptych overwhelms the viewer with content, giving them no point of entry. 

So Epstein has a piece of advice: “read it,” not as a book but an anthology of family history. Wade into the uncertainty, sample the absurdity, “linger,” where you wish. Waiting for Godot taught audiences the paramount importance of choice. The Triptych is so dense with meaning that the viewer must pick and choose what to focus on. Each texture, inscription, portrait, and sketch ensures that no person experience the Triptych the same way twice. To describe the Triptych, as Epstein tried to, is to describe how one viewer experienced it in one fleeting moment. 

That’s okay. Epstein found comfort in the indefinite. If you’re still looking for concrete answers, consider Wittgenstein’s message, inscribed in the bottom left of the center panel of the triptych: 

“Every form of life could be other than it is.”

  1. Simon Dinnerstein (1943—), The Fulbright Triptych, c. 1971-74, oil on wood panels, 79.5 x 168 in. Palmer Museum of Art, Pennsylvania State University, Gift of the Friends of the Palmer Museum of Art.
  2. Mili, Gjon. First American Production of “Endgame,” in 1958The New York Times. December 11, 2018.
McMullen Musings Uncategorized

My Favorite Museum: The Museum of Fine Arts

By Amir Boulos

The Museum of Fine Arts is in Boston, Massachusetts. It was established in 1876 in  one of the oldest American cities. However, bigger cities like New York and Los Angeles have taken larger portions of the American population, dazzling viewers with skyscrapers and lots of lights. Boston has stayed humble, with its quaint buildings dicing narrow streets. And…..

We got the MFA. That’s right. The MFA.

Best Impressionist section in the world.

No, actually, the MFA has the best Impressionist section in the United States.

The Impressionists were the original Avant-Gardes. I have always looked up to the rebels in history and, here, in the quaint, controlled city of Boston, we have the best showcase of the most famous art rebels. Is Boston controlled or rebellious? I’m not sure. The Museum of Fine Arts is no flashy show. We have the occasional exciting exhibition like Takashi Murakami last year, but it is more usually like the Winnie the Pooh exhibition we have currently. Our Impressionist stars put the team on their back and as soon as you drift through their section, you have already been tackled by a 300 pound linebacker – one of differing light.

As you walk down the first hallway in the section, you see the contrast between Renoir’s vividness on the left and Sisley’s more subtle work on the right. Pissarro and Cezanne come next down the hall in a more harmonious manner with their Post-Impressionist styles. Paul Signac wraps it up with some more modern Neo-Impressionism for the touchdown. Through the narrow walls, you have somehow walked down a sunrise and experienced the satisfaction of a beautiful natural scene. It is like the Chestnut Hill Reservoir during a sunny fall day, like the breath of relief from the constant buzz of the city. The earthy feeling of warmth and light in such a scene is a breath of fresh air in the beige-grey architectural context of the MFA.

The relatable subjects hit that nerve of nostalgia or serene bliss. Students need that on those gloomy, cold days with finals up ahead and social drama on their backs. I could bore you with the details of each piece, but that sensation is why I frequent the MFA.

You also have the adjoining rooms with Monet’s Lilies, Monet’s Haystacks, Van Gogh’s House, and Degas’ Dancers. So many of the most impressive pieces by some of the Impressionist movement’s greatest artists have had such an impact.

These kinds of pieces make a student like me want to keep achieving, to give that extra push, to have the chance to have even a tenth of the influence as these legends. So, I go to the Museum of Fine Arts for that happy familiar feeling and the sheer impact of those Impressionist rooms.