Sunday, August 26, 2012

(No.212) Visiting Arcadia in the Philadelphia Museum of Art

"Visiting the 'Arcadia' exhibition in the magnificent Philadelphia Museum of Art"

by Alastair Rickard

With architecture, as in life itself, it is becoming ever more difficult for me to be impressed with certain modern creations such as London's 'Gherkin' (the informal but apt title of 30 St.Mary Axe) protruding from the city's skyline like a boil on a baby's bum; or Quai Branly Museum beside the Seine in Paris, former President Jacques Chirac's legacy project and a building that is even less appealing to the eye than the legacy of another French president: the Centre Georges Pompidou museum of modern art.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art's main building is a truly magnificent 1927 neo-classical structure sitting at the end of a boulevard designed in 1917 by Frenchman Jacques Greber as a faux Champs-Elysees.

Nearby is the former head office of the Fidelity Mutual Life, an impressive Art Deco structure. It was acquired as an expansion venue by the Philadelphia Museum for $90 million, renovated and expanded to 114,000 square feet and opened in 2007. It is now called the Perelman Building.

The third building in the Philadelphia Museum's triumvirate is the Rodin Museum located not far along on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. It was opened in 1929 amd reopened in July of this year after a 3 year renovation. It houses more than 120 of Rodin's sculpures as well as his drawings and paintings.

Very near the Rodin Museum is the newly constructed and just opened Barnes Foundation gallery which houses one of the world's greatest private collections of art. More about the Barnes in a future column on

The main building of the Philadelphia Museum of Art has hosted since June 20 (closing Sept.3) a special exhibition organized by the Museum's senior European art curator Joseph Rishel. Sadly this is the only museum in the U.S. or Canada in which the exhibition can be seen. It is called "Gaugin, Cezanne, Matisse: Visions of Arcadia".

It is a shame that the Arcadia exhibition will not be seen elsewhere. It deserves to have a wider audience. Rishel has put together an impressive group of loans of works held by other museums and they make up most of the 60 works in the exhibition which features (mostly) the works of painters from the later 19th and early 20th centuries. They are all there in the service of the exhibition's view of Arcadia, "a mythic place of beauty and repose where humankind lives in harmony with nature".

Three cornerstones of the exhibition are Paul Cezanne's "The large bathers" (1906), whose home is the Philadelphia Museum's own collection; Paul Gaugin's "Where do we come from? Where are we? Where are we going?" (1897-98), on loan from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and Henri Matisse's "Bathers by a river" (1909-17), on loan from the Art Institute of Chicago.

In my view a fourth cornerstone of the exhibition (although much earlier than most works in the show) is Nicolas Poussin's "Le Grand Bacchanal" (The Andrians) ca 1627. But it does fit into this exhibition, witness Cezanne's comment that he wanted to "redo Poussin after nature".

In any case "Arcadia" creates the opportunity for a viewer to examine together these related landmarks in modern art. However, judging from several of the reviews of the exhibition by art critics the exhibition "fell flat". The main reason for such a judgement seemed to come down to failing to connect for the viewer the artistic dots in the Arcadia theme by using sufficiently bright, bold lines.

For example: The New Republic's critic thought the paintings will give "most well-informed museum goers ... a case of intellectual whiplash" in part, apparently, because the paintings "fail to communicate with one another". Could a criticism be more precious and pretentious? This sort of frilly comment, this filigree work on nothing, is hardly rare these days among those art critics trying to be seen to be holding the fort against the onslaught of artistic peasantry who are less likely to appreciate much less laud, say, a 6 ft by 6ft white canvas with 3 orange dots in one quadrant.

The Arcadia exhibition was one of two main reasons my wife Pat and I visited Philadelphia this month. The other was the recent opening of the new museum built to house the relocated Barnes collection.

As a theme the Arcadia exhibition's collection of art may have seemed insufficiently coherent to some critics. It invited facile criticism for hanging only 10 works by its three headline painters. But it brought together an impressive collection of paintings related by theme, especially those by French artists. Seeing the Arcadia exhibition was a rewarding experience and the result of an effort for which the Philadelphia Museum of Art deserves to be congratulated.

For Pat and I what was also rewarding was being able to visit just a few of the Philadelphia Museum's permanent galleries, in particular its European Art 1850-1900. This part of the permanent collection has as its focus Impressionism and the evolution of avant-garde art. What an impressive collection of works by principally French painters: many by Claude Monet, Paul-Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissaro among others.

Monet's stunningly effective "Morning at Antibes" (1888) stands out for me as does his "The Japanese footbridge and the water lily pool, Giverny" (1899). In sharp contrast is his "Water lilies, Japanese footbridge" finished in the year he died (1926) by which time his eyesight had deteriorated very badly. Pat has been to Monet's Giverny home and gardens; he is one of her favourite painters. She gazed at the 1926 painting of an unrecognizable Giverny garden scene and said, as she turned away, "it makes me feel sad".

For me one of the most enjoyable parts of visiting any gallery for the first time is the encounter with paintings with which I am completely unfamiliar but particularly like or discovering a work by a favourite artist which I have never seen even in a book.

Two examples from my too brief time in the Philadelphia Museum's European Gallery: "Return from the races" by Giuseppe De Nittis (1846-84) and an earlier work by one of my favourite painters James (Jacques-Joseph) Tissot "Portrait of Eugene Coppens de Fontenay".

Obviously one cannot begin to do justice to a permanent collection as large as that held by the Philadelphia Museum of Art on a single visit, especially based on time remaining after visiting a major special exhibition like "Arcadia". The Museum is a major cultural institution. A visit is richly rewarding.

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Wednesday, August 15, 2012

(No.211) Sun Life, Manulife & the Kabuki theatre of expectations

"Sun Life, Manulife and the Kabuki theatre of gerrymandered expectations"

by Alastair Rickard

It is time once again for the spin and response involving quarterly financial results for two publicly traded companies that particularly interest me: Sun Life Financial and Manufacturers Life, both of Toronto and constituting two of the three largest Canadian life insurance companies.

The New York Times, referring to reporting of corporate quarterly results, recently offered a warning "not to get swept away by the Kabuki theatre of gerrymandered expectations." It noted that these results are often "lathered up with the companies' spin, (making) the exercise more like a Rorschach test for reporters: what they see is what they think they see."

Some observers trace such problems with lack of clarity back to the dot-com boom when tech companies seemed to convince many analysts and financial reporters that 'net income' wasn't as important as their half-baked 'new metrics' of corporate performance.

I think this criticism has much to recommend it.

A recent Duke University survey of the chief financial officers of 169 publicly traded U.S. companies showed that the CFOs think about 20% of companies 'adjust' their earnings statements " to misrepresent economic performance". Indeed this survey reminds me of one to which I have referred in this column: the anonymous survey of life insurance actuaries in which a large majority thought much life insurance pricing is unsound.

This pattern in the reporting of earnings/results has set up a sort of quarterly dance involving journalists, one often joined (notes The Times) by analysts "who try to forecast quarterly results, and the companies which provide guidance to them." Some analysts will give pessimistic predictions of results and then "positive surprises follow when the actual results are announced. The press often collaborates in this exercise by couching the results as a win, even if the quarter was lousy."

This is where the Kabuki theatre analogy really comes into play. Indeed all of these dance steps were on display last week in the media reporting of quarterly results of Sun and Manulife and the concomitant 'expert' opinion of various analysts.

The Globe and Mail's Report on Business reported (Aug.9) that Sun Life's profit per share (9 cents) exceeded analysts' expectations (8 cents) but the Financial Post said (also Aug.9) that Sun had "missed analysts' expectations by a wide margin".

The media reports and their quoted experts once again maintained an overwhelming focus relating the companies' quarterly results to low interest rates and weak equity markets -- the usual suspects.  There were Sun's reduced earnings of $59 million net operating income down from $425 million in Q2 2011 while Manulife's Q2 loss of $300 million was, the Financial Post reported, "better than the shortfall ... expected by analysts."

Sounds familiar, as does this reference to Manu's $677 million charge to "revalue long term investment assumptions but the results beat analysts' expectations" apparently because the charge "was slightly smaller than expected". Why? Perhaps because Manulife's spin in advance of its Q2 results was that the charge would be in the $700 - $800 million range.

Oh and let's not overlook a commonplace in the coverage of Sun and Manulife: how they and their media partners in this symbiotic relationship return each quarter to portentous references to the companies' Asian operations as if these had somehow endowed the companies with the keys to the Royal Canadian Mint, senior management only awaiting receipt of le mot juste to unlock the vault door. But best to ignore the fact that the key doesn't always work (e.g., Sun Life's Q2 operating net income of $15 million from its Asian operations compared to Q2 Canadian operations of $186 million).  

One problem with this sort of quarterly Kabuki theatre performance is that it can leave investors (and policyholders) less than clear about a key company reality:  how effectively does it operate the actual business of a life insurance company in Canada and elsewhere ?

Now, we hear endlessly about the negative impact of low interest rates, equity markets etc on a company's earnings. What does not get rehearsed or even mentioned most of the time is why this magnitude of negative financial impact came to be felt by the company, about its connection to how the core business was operated: i.e., how the company went about 'selling stuff' and the pricing and soundness of what it sold and how it was sold.

Too bad the financial media and the industry analysts had not paid rather less attention previously to company spin and more to the implications of what Sun Life and especially Manulife were actually doing in their marketplaces in product terms when they followed:
(1)  a risky over-emphasis on pushing the sale of truckloads of variable policies, while
(2) increasing that risk exponentially by offering unrealistic guaranteed returns on this variable business, and
(3) in Manulife's case, the absolutely looney strategy (in wild pursuit of enhanced profits and greater senior executive compensation) of putting zillions of this doubly risky business on the books and leaving it unhedged from 2004.

One of my continuing themes in these columns and elsewhere has been the need for the life insurance industry's commentators (and yes, many of its senior executives too) to spend more time actually looking at and thinking about the actual business they are supposed to be operating. It is important, for instance, for commentators of all stripes to attach the appropriate significance and provide context to statements about, for example, the company's product design and pricing.

For example, this from Sun Life's Q2 2012 Financial Report in the section reporting on its Canadian operation (the most consistently important source of company profit for years post-acquisition of Mutual Life/Clarica Life): Sun "is making changes in the third quarter of 2012 to further de-risk [sic] its individual insurance and investments products, including price guarantee reductions ...."

Translation: Sun Life is continuing the long overdue process we began awhile ago to stop selling stuff some executives in the company unwisely thought made sense (when we were trying to impress the market with growth in the volume of topline sales rather than a smaller volume of sales which were actually profitable). It was product which was stupid to sell in the first place because of its under-pricing or trendy but ultimately unsound design or both. We will concentrate on selling more product that generates ROE margins that may not be as spectacular as we once expected would be the case with the 'guaranteed variable' stuff that's now eating even Sun's financially hedged lunch. As policies they need to be predictable and reliable, and can be when you have (as we do in Canada) your own quality, proprietary career agency distribution system on which you can rely to deliver sales.

Finally, midst all the spin to be seen during the quarterly performance of the Kubuki theatre, I was pleased to note the comment from an analyst who actually seems to have his eye on the right life insurance industry ball. John Kinsey, portfolio manager at Caldwell Securities, told the Toronto Star (Aug.10) that "I think for these [two life insurance] companies you have to use some common sense and look at their main business and how it did. How are they doing in Asia and with their core business? Is it competitive? Have costs gone up? Eventually the equity and interest rate factors will just settle out."

In other words: common sense tells one to look at the business these companies are in and how well they operate them.

To which I can only say 'amen'.




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Monday, August 6, 2012

(No.210) Charles Willeford & Hoke Moseley

"Charles Willeford and Hoke Moseley: no leak in the morning until you've written a page"

by Alastair Rickard

I was reminded recently that favourite fiction of mine hardly evokes universal agreement. Someone told me his wife picked up a book I had reviewed favourably in a column but put it down part way through because she so disliked it and wondered how I could possibly have recommended it. I was not surprised. As the bishop said to the actress, tastes differ.

And that brings me to what, for some people at least, may turn out to be an acquired taste.

Charles Willeford served in the U.S. Army between the wars and was a decorated World War II tank commander in the American Third Army. He did a variety of jobs on civvy street over the years and worked at becoming a full time writer.

He was full of stories he delighted in telling based on his interesting and adventurous life: from being a 12 year old drifter riding the rails during the dirty thirties to a flea-circus barker to an actor. Some of his followers think his two volumes of autobiography are his best books. By the time he died age 68 in 1988 he had written twenty novels (most out of print).

Willeford, who later in his life taught writing at a Miami college, once told a young would-be writer that the secret to writing was  to "never allow yourself to take a leak in the morning until you've written a page. That way you're guaranteed a page a day, and at the end of a year you have a novel."

Near the end of his life Willeford created a continuing character he named Hoke Moseley, a Miami homicide detective. Hoke was living and working in 1980s Miami, a city in transition especially after President Jimmy Carter's Mariel boatlift of Cuban 'refugees, many of them criminals from the prisons Castro took the opportunity to empty.

Hoke is an ordinary man only occasionally competent at living. He struggles with family and financial fallout from an unsuccessful marriage with two adolescent daughters, and with the changing nature of big city policing as well as the changing racial and ethnic profile of both Florida and the Miami police department.

For most of his time as a published writer Willeford had only a cult following but he became and still is much admired by other American crime fiction writers. Probably his best fiction is the four Moseley novels. This quartet has been republished in softcover editions, each one introduced by one of Willeford's contemporary crime novelists and admirers: Elmore Leonard, Donald Westlake, Lawrence Block and James Lee Burke.

During his life Willeford never achieved anything approaching the success as a novelist that any of these four American writers have had. But the republished Hoke Moseley novels are posthumously elevating his reputation as a writer and enlarging his readership.

As Donald Westlake said: "Charles Willeford wrote very good books for a very long time without anybody noticing.... And then along came Hoke Moseley."

Hoke tries to be a good detective but tougher and meaner people often get the better of him. He is lied to and betrayed and often is discouraged by the apparent futility of what he does as a policeman. But he keeps on keeping on and sometimes he is successful.

If you like quirky crime novels in which there's not much mystery but a fair bit of grit; or you prefer so-called police procedurals in which the 'procedures' are mostly ignored; or you find absorbing a detective who, while basically a decent person. is hardly politically correct, then you are likely to enjoy the Hoke Moseley novels. Too bad Charles Willeford wrote only four before he died.

Because Hoke's life in this quartet of novels moves ahead chronologically from novel to novel, the reader will get more out of each of them if they are read in the order they were written and published (all are now in print):

Miami Blues (original publication date -1984)

New Hope (1985) 

Side-Swipe (1987)

The Way We Die Now (1988)

There are very distinctive elements of plotting, character and dark humour in Willeford's Moseley stories that make me think of novels by Elmore Leonard and Donald Westlake. But he is unique and I like this series. So did that old master Elmore Leonard who is now in his 80s and still writing novels that are not just bestsellers but great, well-written stories.

Charles Willeford, wrote Leonard, "was an original, a natural, with talent that reached far beyond the crime-novel genre .... What he did, no one does better."




blog archive: to access back numbers of RickardsRead, go to the blog archive listing  and use the links which appear beside every column on

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