Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Proust's Madeleine

As a fan of fine literature and food, I was curious when I first ran across Edmund Levin's article for Slate "The Way the Cookie Crumbles: How much did Proust know about Madeleines?" 

In Remembrance of Things Past, the narrator tastes some crumbs from the bottom of his teacup and experiences a flood of childhood memories: 
"I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure invaded my senses."
In his article, Levin argues that Proust pretty much made the whole thing up. A typical madeleine leaves no crumbs he argues, and worse yet, he claims that the crumbs have no taste. 

Like Proust's child narrator, I've loved madeleines since I was a kid. When I was a young girl growing up in Olympia, my mom would take me to Batdorf and Bronson after ballet or violin and I'd always have one of their delicious madeleines (I think I tried the cookies with pretty much every beverage there - but tea was the best). My mom and I would chat about art, music and all manner of delightfully grown-up topics while taking in the aroma of roasting coffee beans and thumbing through independent newspapers. Those are fabulous memories. 

At least I thought they were! 

For a moment after reading Levin's article, I questioned my childhood experiences. Were Proust and I both crazy? I knew I'd tasted those crumbs, but it had been a while. Surely this food writer must be right, and I wrong. There's no way he would have made this up...right? 

To see if I could replicate some childhood memories and have a "Proust moment" of my own, I sat down with Julia Child's recipe from The Way to Cook and the madeleine pan I received for Mother's day. I figure that if anyone could settle this once and for all, it was Julia. 

Here's Julia's recipe (more or less). 

2 large eggs, lightly beaten
2/3 c. sugar
1 c. flour + 1 T for preparing pans
5 oz. butter
pinch of salt
zest of 1 lemon
juice of 1/2 lemon
1/2 t. vanilla

Now, while I fiddle with Julia's ingredients a bit (she calls for "drops of lemon juice and vanilla" - whatever that means), I stick to her preparation guide fairly religiously: 
  • Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. 
  • Measure 1/4 c. eggs into bowl. Beat in sugar and flour. Blend and allow to rest for 10 minutes. Madelines 015
  • Melt butter in saucepan. Bring to a boil and let brown slightly (it should be a lovely caramel colour). Place 1 1/2 T. in a bowl and set aside (very important!)
  • Stir the rest of the butter over ice until cool but still liquid
  • Blend the cooled butter with the reserved 1/4 c. of the eggs into the butter with the salt, lemon juice, rind and vanillaMadelines 019
  • Mix remaining butter (1T) with the 1T of flour you have reserved, and use the mixture to prepare the madeleine pans. 
  • Divide batter into 24 lumps of 1 T each (okay, so I don't follow this part so religiously - measuring 1 T for each madeleine should do the trick)Madelines 010
  • Bake 13-15 minutes or until browned around the edges and a teensy bit on top!Madelines 005
I love this recipe. I put a fair bit of lemon juice in my madeleines. I like them that way - they smell positively divine when they come out of the oven! And Julia's trick of mixing the melted butter with the flour and using the mix to prep the pans is pure genius - there's never so much as a speck of batter left clinging to the pan. All you need to do afterwards is rinse the pans with warm water. Don't use any detergent - it's unnecessary, and can harm the seasoning of the pan. Also, don't buy a nonstick madeleine pan! It's a terrible waste - not only are most nonstick pans junk, but even the expensive ones won't allow your madeleines to brown properly.

These delightful cookies are pure poetry, and will leave delightfully perfumed crumbs in the bottom of your teacup after dunking. Feel free to use your spoon to capture a few, a la Proust, when no-one's looking!

Now to the controversy. Levin extrapolates several things about Proust's madeleines from the text, all of which seem silly to me. Most importantly, he argues that Proust's madeleine would have needed to be very dry, in order produce such a quantity of crumbs. Now, this is plain nonsense. Has this guy ever dunked a donut? 

I could go on... but for now, I think I'll just enjoy my madeleines. 

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Art and the iPad

Apple's iPad will be coming to Canada on May 28, and it is already making waves in the United States. Touted by Apple as "the best way to experience the web," the iPad is everything we've come to expect from Apple - sleek, sexy and designed to inspire envy. But what impact will the iPad have on the art world?

Digital artists are already excited about the art apps being offered for the iPad, which allow users to draw using either fingers or a stylus using any number of digital brushes. This enthusiasm is hardly surprising, given that last June an illustration done entirely on the iPhone using the iTunes Brushes app graced the cover of The New Yorker. The magazine's art editor, later told The New York Times he appreciated the fact that the cover didn't feel digital, and that the image was "free flowing...poetic and magical." The artist, Jorge Colombo, confessed that one of the biggest attractions of working in this medium was its low profile and portability, which permitted him to stand for over an hour on 42nd Street in Manhattan without being bothered by curious onlookers. Obviously, that would have been a rather more difficult task, if he'd been working on an easel! (or even with a sketchbook).

Of course, not everyone is thrilled. Performance artist Kenny Irwin of dOvtastic Microwave Theatre has already engaged artistically with the iPad - by microwaving it. Yup, there are some who feel that the best response to this new technology is to destroy it using less advanced technology (or perhaps I've missed the point - if there even is one).

But others are making more optimistic use of the iPad.  Claudio Arango of Bogotá, Colombia, has become the first known artist to conduct an exhibit of his artwork using the iPad.  

Below you can see a film of Arango demonstrating his art to passersby using the iPad:

On his blog, Arango states that his goal is for his artwork to be "móvil, remezclado, y libre" ("mobile, remixed and free"). It's a noble manifesto, and one that seems appropriate for art created on such exciting new technology. Of course, some will note that the people who encounter Arango on the street may be more interested in the iPad than what's on it. This is a valid point, but I am intrigued by Arango's art, and by his forward thinking approach. Arango does digital artwork, primarily female nudes, and he is highly tech-savvy (he blogs and is on flickr, twitter, YouTube, tumblr and Facebook). With more and more artists taking advantage of the sort of presence social media affords, it won't be long before technologies like the iPad are as important to artists as paintbrushes were in the past. The web has already become the primary medium in which people encounter art, how long before it becomes the principal tool for creating art? Of course, as an art blogger, I may be a bit biased, but when you consider today's architects and designers, most simply could not function without computer aided design, and artists are quickly joining the ranks of the technology- dependent. This may be disturbing to some, but then again, thousands of years ago, artists who painted on cave walls were making use of frightening new technology!

Now, I'm not sure if digital art is the future of art, but it will certainly be a key component of the art world of the future. And how could it not play a pivotal role? Representing yet another portable, web-friendly device, the iPad ensures that art will never be more than a click away. It will change the way an entire generation interacts with visual media. It's strange, but the iPad may very well be the first place my daughter creates her own art.

What do you think? What place does emerging technology like the iPad have in the art world, and how might it change the way we look at art? I'd love to hear your thoughts (and if you are an artist who is already brainstorming ways to take advantage of this new medium, or others like it, please join in!).

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Utopia Matters: from Brotherhoods to Bauhaus

From May 1 - July 25, 2010, the Guggenheim museum in Venice will be presenting "Utopia Matters: From Brotherhoods to Bauhaus." The exhibit is headed by Vivien Greene, who curates the 19th and early 20th century Art at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

Utopia Matters will examine "the evolution of utopian ideas in modern Western artistic thought and practice" and features over 70 works of art drawn from the decorative arts, design, photography, paintings and sculpture.  A broad spectrum of historical Utopian art movements will be examined, including the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Primitivism, the German Nazarenes, William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement, Neo-Impressionism, De Stijl, Bauhaus and Constructivism. The exhibit will end with works from the 1930s, when the Bauhaus was closed. 

If you haven't noticed (the title of this blog is pretty much a dead giveaway), I'm quite the fan of Utopian artistic movements, so this is one exhibit I would dearly love to see. I've always been fascinated by the intersection of art and idealism, and there are countless fascinating historical examples of artistic groups and individuals who have sought to improve life through art. 

Utopia Matters was first seen from January 22-April 11, 2010 at the Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin, so if you were lucky enough to attend that exhibit, be sure to leave a comment and let us know what you thought! I'm afraid a trip to Venice before July probably isn't in the cards for me, but I would love to hear what others have to say about their visits. 

Image is Piet Mondrian's Composition 10, courtesy Wikimedia.