You’d have to really be up on your Eastern European saints to know Stanislaus Kostka; the 16th century Jesuit novice somehow isn’t even the best-known St. Stanislaus from Poland (an honor that goes to Stanislaus Szczepanów, the 11th century bishop martyred at the hands of a guy literally named Boleslaw). Long story short, Kostka grew up a boy of weak constitution but strong religious fervor in a (surprise!) harsh patriarchal family with six siblings and one older brother in particular who – we are told, probably by way of the younger siblings – ragged on him often. After education in Vienna, an alleged visit from St. Barbara and a long trip through Germany and Austria that ended with employment in a Rome boarding school, Kostka realized in a vision that the last fever he had would get the better of him, promptly wrote a letter to the Virgin Mary and died in the small hours of August 15, 1568, at the age of 17. In the Renaissance, being self-aware enough to realize you had a weak immune system was basically enough to get you beatified and canonized; in the Gilded Age, it was enough to get you Chicago’s first Polish Catholic church.
Given the exhibition’s modest title, Van Gogh’s Bedrooms at The Art Institute of Chicago made for a considerable cultural experience before it closed this past week. Curators devised a show winding its way from a giant wall-sized map detailing all 37 of the Dutch artist’s chronicled residences to a serpentine timeline of his life wrapping its way into rooms replete with exotic pieces that influenced him, carefully positioned portraits and drawings, and even a life-sized imitation of the Yellow House’s bedroom itself. The whole thing culminated in the three Arles paintings arranged alongside one another in chronological order. For an exhibit about an alarmingly cramped bedroom, you got your money’s worth.
You had to, really – maybe it’s heartening to see from a cultural studies perspective but, as a sane patron, waiting in line for 90 minutes (or more during peak weekend hours) can turn from enriching to scut work, even if it is art’s most famous sleeping quarters.
Right now, there is someone somewhere out there with wrists of God who walks among us. Maybe he’s sharing a favorite father-daughter moment. Maybe he’s napping on a boat or out hunting quail or quietly flexing to himself in a bedroom mirror or playing the absolute worst golf of his life. Maybe he’s thinking about a dragon tattoo or the implications of that new Kendrick Lamar record. Maybe he’s snorkeling.
The 2015 MotoGP season gets underway this coming Sunday. Persian Gulf winds will blow sands across the straights. The sun will bleach out the day before giving way to the pitch black of night. Powered by more than 450 million lumens, Losail International Circuit will come alive with the power of enough energy to light a city street from Doha to Moscow. Maybe a few hundred participants, hangers-on, questionable expats, and natives with the money will see it happen in person because that’s how motorsports works in the Middle East. And it’ll be enormously entertaining because, even sitting in an uncomfortable thatched chair at home, grand prix bike racing’s circus is a blast to watch. There’s no feeling in sports quite the equal of anticipation’s release.
And yet, it won’t feel complete. Casey Stoner may be doing a lot of things right now. You know what he isn’t doing? He’s not riding a motorcycle competitively. He may not be riding one at all. He may not even be thinking about it. And it’s our fault.
There’s not much to get excited about in the second half of February. If you’re in most of the Northern Hemisphere, it’s cold; football is over, if you’re that kind of person; there’s hockey and basketball and soccer, sure, but all of that’s just waiting around and tying up narrative loose ends; the grotesque excess of awards shows has Twitter at full buzz; there are no holidays off.
But there is a magical place that exists around this time every year that suspends reality for a few hours on Sunday and takes you away to bring out the best in motorsports. Thousands of people flock to the seaside to attend and see the world’s best on one of racing’s most picturesque venues. Here, the sands are just that little bit whiter, the grass a little bit greener, the ocean a little bit bluer. Competitors must contend with seagulls as much as each other. You can soak in the history even as you watch it happen in real time on television. It’s the antidote to your winter bunker mentality blues.
Yes, the World Superbike Championship was back at Phillip Island this weekend. Were you expecting something else?
I don’t remember the first time. I remember things surrounding the first time but not the thing itself. I remember welcoming the torrential rain left over from Hurricane Ike on my sunburned arms. I remember a crowd full of people enthusiastically booing Dani Pedrosa on the grid and cheering Nicky Hayden’s crutches on the podium. I remember Valentino Rossi. I remember Nico Terol.
I don’t remember much of the second time, either. A brief mental snippet from Saturday morning as bikes stream past – two seconds, maybe three. Enough to know that it was real and that I did not just imagine it or Nicky Hayden’s flat-track demo laps or Jay Leno chilling trackside in denim or a crowd full of people politely clapping Dani Pedrosa on the grid and cheering Ben Spies on the podium. I remember Toni Elias. I remember Nico Terol.
The third time I saw Marc Marquez race in person was different. He was riding a MotoGP bike for one. He was on pole gunning to remain undefeated through the first ten races of 2014 for another. He was in his moment as the best motorcycle road racer on the planet.
Spoiler alert: This is another sermon on greatness. Greatness is a quality reliant on perception, I know, and everyone’s got a different view from where they sit. For last Sunday’s seventh annual Red Bull Indianapolis Grand Prix, mine happened to be trackside. This is what I think about on vacation.
The alarm went off.
You woke up. Maybe you were fully awake with the adrenaline of anticipation by the time it started; maybe you were still half-asleep and in a daze of obligation. Friends congregated around a television – you could have been one of them – or you just kept your phone charged to ensure you got the texts as they rolled in. You had cereal, or you started in on the drinking. Grease was standing by as a coping mechanism. You were decked out in the attire of a country you’ve never visited and don’t know anyone from, or just your pajamas. Your Twitter feed was open. All the quips from strangers you’ll never know rolled in. And you remember where you were when David Luiz scored after 18 minutes. The knockout rounds had truly begun. The day was just beginning.
For you, anyway. Somewhere else, I was already in the process of interviewing the first of four candidates for a position at my radio station. I had already traveled an hour north from my apartment by the time of Luiz’s goal. My cereal was long gone. I wasn’t watching. I had been up since 4am. I had already seen genius again.
Everyone has seen The Old Guitarist. It’s one of those paintings, like The Mona Lisa or Starry Night or The Persistence of Memory, that has survived time and trends and somehow made it into the Western cultural subconscious – people who don’t like or know anything about art still vaguely recognize it. If you’d like to see The Old Guitarist in person (and you should, even if security tells you not to), the painting hangs among the walls of the Art Institute of Chicago. It’s something else.
The subject matter is simple: an old, blind beggar playing a guitar in rags on a Barcelona street. But what’s noticeable is how the color palette plays to the subject matter, a gradient of blues that sets the tone of the painting. It’s not the only one: Between 1901 and 1904, Pablo Picasso painted several works with a similar eye that are still being examined today – in fact, just this week, it was revealed that infrared technology had uncovered another layer in 1901’s The Blue Room.
Contemporary critics and the public, however, did not receive these paintings warmly. The beggars and prostitutes of his art soured crowds that had been showing a great interest in his work just a year before. We know it now as Picasso’s Blue Period, a dark layover in the artist’s life.
So you’ve got one of the great artists of his time making challenging works – some inarguably among his best – in a state of desperation and nobody’s noticing. This is a post about art, sure, but it’s also about sports. And no one is painting a more desperate picture in the art of motorcycle racing right now than Jorge Lorenzo.