Midwinter Merriment

As temperatures fall and the trees shed their leaves, we are reminded that yet another year has passed. The winter solstice is upon us and midwinter is here. The blustery winter chill beyond the walls of hearth and home may be bleak, but December is now as it has been through the ages a season of feasting, celebration, and merrymaking. Though the season’s once pagan festivities—from Roman Saturnalia to medieval Scandinavian Yule—have come to hold religious meaning for many in the modern world, even the familiar Christmastide customs of our more recent ancestors met the year’s end with feasting and bacchanalian revelry.

At the NCMA, the anticipation of midwinter merriment finds me again standing admiringly in front of Dutch artist Jan Jansz den Uyl’s 1635 still life ‘Banquet Piece.’ The candles have burnt low, the tablecloth has been pulled askew, and the last of the wine has been drunk, leaving only a few goblets lying prone atop the table. A lemon peel, oyster shells, and bread crumbs are the lone remnants of a great feast which, one might imagine, has just come to an end only to begin again some hours hence. In the background, a lute is propped up against the table, no doubt abandoned there in the early morning hours as the last of the partygoers stumbled off to bed. This exquisite work, despite its subdued monochromatic tones, is one of festive opulence that mirrors near perfectly the exuberance of the historical holiday season.

In den Uyl’s native Holland, Sinterklaas Avond, the midwinter hoornblaazen, and Christmas Day—three festivals all taking place in December—made for a month of near constant celebration and the eating of traditional foods like kerststol, a fruited raisin bread that dates back to the early 15th century. Such celebrations, as exemplified in Dutch painter Anthonie Palamedesz’s ‘Merry Company’ (hanging nearby in the NCMA’s European galleries) united food, dance, and drink in the spirit of Christmastide carousing.

As the ground froze with the advent of winter in early modern Northern Europe, a largely agricultural society celebrated this long awaited period of rest with a multi-day feast. Increased trade from the Far East meant dried fruits and spices were available even as the fields lay fallow. Currants, raisins, citrus peel, cinnamon, nutmeg—these flavors today still define the culinary palate of the holiday. In England, a soused boar’s head marked the apex of Christmastide. In a 15th century English carol of the same name, revelers sing:

The boar’s head in hand bring I,

Bedeck’d with bays and rosemary.

I pray you, my masters, be merry

Quot estis in convivio 

The boar’s head, as I understand,

Is the rarest dish in all this land,

Which thus bedeck’d with a gay garland

Let us servire cantico

Other classic English Christmastide dishes included mince pies, roasted beef, spiced broths, plum pudding, and a traditional medieval pottage called frumenty.

Though the absent owners of the fine brass tabletop vessels in ‘Banquet Piece’ would likely have been comfortably middle class, the Yuletide spirit of celebration has throughout history transcended class distinctions. In Henrick Ter Brugghen’s 1623 painting, ‘Boy with a Wine Glass,’ a modestly attired young Dutchman peers gleefully out from the canvas, tapping his finger on the rim of a more than generous serving of wine. The bacchanalian atmosphere of the season was of course helped along by a hearty tradition of drinking. Mulled wine. Wassail. Eggnog. Cakes soaked in brandy—or tipsy puddings—relied on alcohol to preserve perishable ingredients to last through a hard winter. Ter Brugghen’s boy no doubt needed little prodding: indulgence was the worthy reward for a year of labor and hard work. During Christmastide, as sung in an early 13th century Anglo-Norman carol, all must partake:

Lords, by Christmas and the host

Of this mansion hear my toast!

Drink it well—

Each must drain his cup of wine,

And I the first will toss off mine:

Thus I advise.

Here then I bid you all Wassail,

Cursed be he who will not say Drink, hail!

A Fresh Look at the Epic Landscape

There is no doubt Albert Bierstadt’s dramatic landscape Bridal Veil Falls (circa 1871-1873) is among the highlights of the American collection at the NCMA. The painting’s majestic waterfall and idyllic pastoral foreground have a quiet kind of beauty. Landscape is, after all, a rather traditional format – one we modern viewers may find familiar or even somewhat conventional. But let us pause here again for a second look at what this work has to teach us about how those in the artist’s time understood America, its powerful geography, and its promise as a nation.

The nineteenth century in global history saw the golden age of European colonialism in Asia and Africa. Looking to keep pace with imperial economies and influence, the United States – a comparatively young country – sought to claim its own identity as a nation of power and promise. For many, the key to securing the nation’s place in the world lay in a geographic trope; that boundless opportunity personified in the untrammeled wilderness of the American West. Writing in 1845, prominent editor John Louis Sullivan proclaimed that, as a nation, it was “our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” The conquering of the West had become a symbol of American destiny – a national epic yet to be written.

The year is 1857. A young Albert Bierstadt has just returned to New Bedford, Massachusetts from Dusseldorf where he trained as a painter. Joining his fellow landscape artists of the prominent Hudson River School, Bierstadt began his career painting pastoral scenes from New England and upstate New York. Growing furor in the American imagination over Western promise, however, soon had its draw on Bierstadt and the artist made the necessary arrangements to join an expedition bound for California.

Embarking in 1859 on the first of many journeys westward he was to undertake throughout his career, Bierstadt carried with him a letter of introduction from then U.S. Secretary of War John B. Floyd. In the company of a wagon party of U.S. government surveyors, explorers, and various military personnel, Bierstadt paused to sketch mountain vistas, prairies, waterfalls, and other natural marvels along the way. In correspondence dated March 1, 1860, expedition leader Colonel Frederick W. Lander praised Bierstadt’s stereoscopic sketches as “highly valuable” and greatly “interesting to the country”.

Envision America in the middle of the nineteenth century. It was a time in which the Western landscape was yet relatively unknown to the population. Few had ventured west of the Mississippi as the rough terrain, limited infrastructure, and dramatic seasonal weather made westward travels especially arduous. Even with the advent of the First Transcontinental Railroad more than a decade later, the splendors of the Tetons, Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon, among others, held a mythic place in the American imagination.

Upon his return to New York, Albert Bierstadt quickly rose to prominence as a nationally-acclaimed landscape painter and was elected to the National Academy in 1860. Subsequent trips to Yellowstone and Yosemite in the 1870s provided material for a number of Bierstadt’s most famous paintings, which some contend were instrumental in inspiring Congress to pass the 1872 Yellowstone Park Bill; legislation that formally created the world’s first national park.

In his paintings, Bierstadt provided the American public with a window to the unknown West, inspiring awe at the majesty of a landscape that had come to be synonymous with the national future. For a traveler witnessing these landscapes for the first time, the experience must surely have been an emotional one. And Bierstadt’s works convey that emotion; an immensity and sense of wonder that imbue landscape with power. In the 1870s, that power inspired and motivated the American public, cementing a place for geography in the national consciousness.

Though Bierstadt’s later critics panned his romanticized interpretation of the American wilderness and, on the national stage, ‘Manifest Destiny’ gave way to new political conversations, the significance of the his work was in no way diminished. Albert Bierstadt himself was a product of the once popular Romantic school; a style that embraced evocative sentimentality and emotion as a critique of those logic-driven ways of thinking promulgated in the arts during the Enlightenment era.

The story of Bridal Veil Falls, as with much of Bierstadt’s work, is one of nationalism, American exceptionalism, and the westward mandate brought to life in nature. Bierstadt was no ordinary artist; he was an adventurer, an idealist, a romantic, and, perhaps most of all, a product of his time. Similarly, Bridal Veil Falls is no ordinary landscape. Rather, it is an epic metaphor for geographic nationalism and the American Edenic myth; a metaphor whose power in Bierstadt’s own lifetime lay in its ability to parallel the United States’ hope for its future in our modern world. 

Myanmar’s economic landscape in 2015: Foreign investment and transitional democracy

YANGON-- In the wake of Myanmar’s post-2011 democratic overtures and the subsequent abrogation of non-military sanctions by the US and EU, President Barack Obama has pledged to take a ‘long and broad view’ of Myanmar’s progress toward democracy. Forging new diplomatic ties will augment US economic interests in the Asia-Pacific region and, in so doing, facilitate economic growth. Yet, critics warn foreign investment may also serve to bolster an only nominally civilian government with a record of widespread human rights abuse. As President Obama urges caution, pundits weigh the benefits of foreign investment in Myanmar against potential human rights setbacks.

Economic stagnation

Prior to a wave of recent economic optimism – one side effect of the new constitution adopted in March 2011 – the economy of Myanmar had been in decline since the coup d’etat of 1962. Under the notorious Burmese Way to Socialism, a disastrous economic scheme to nationalize industry, the ruling military junta plunged the nation into catastrophic economic bankruptcy. Though Myanmar is rich in natural resources, by 1987 it had come to be recognized as one of the most impoverished nations in the world.

Though the military regime that came to power in 1988 revoked some of the country’s totalitarian socialist policies (e.g., permitting a small degree of both expansion in the private sector and foreign investment), the economy continued to suffer from serious macroeconomic imbalance and broad environmental mismanagement from 1988 to 2011. Rampant corruption and the continued state co-ownership of private enterprise suppressed opportunities for growth. A dual exchange rate system allowing state-owned enterprises to divert funds while simultaneously giving the junta power to control rates contributed to skyrocketing inflation and other economic distortions.

Despite an increasing current-account deficit in the late 1990s, the state arbitrarily closed off border trade, thereby putting an end to what had for years been an economic lifeblood. Rice exports, once an essential component of the state’s international trade, also declined exponentially between 1994 and 1997. In 2003, a major banking crisis proved yet another serious setback to the economy when the junta forcibly closed twenty private banks. Further restrictive measures against those financial institutions that remained severely curtailed the private sector’s access to formal credit.

Meanwhile, continued human rights violations and state-sponsored repression abetted deteriorating foreign relations. While most of the nation’s overseas development assistance had been halted in the wake of unrest between 1988 and 1990, the US renewed heavy economic and political sanctions against Myanmar in 2003, followed by further sanctions from the European Union in 2007. Due to widespread instability, corruption, and inefficiencies in Myanmar, foreign investment from neighboring countries like China and Thailand was largely deterred – apart from investment in natural gas and hydropower – between 1990 and recent reforms.

Structural changes and liberalization

But that may be changing. Myanmar is a resource-rich nation with the potential to develop effective means to manage its resources and stake its revenues in projects that will improve internal conditions. Myanmar formally transitioned to a new democratic government in August of 2011, amid much speculation as to whether sincere economic reform was to follow. The new constitution was celebrated alongside a slew of progressive anti-corruption laws, currency exchange rate reform legislation, tax reforms, and the repeal of foreign investment restrictions.

Amid these structural changes, the civilian government announced a draft of its new foreign investment law in a significant move to liberalize the economy; a signal that Myanmar’s new leadership is actively seeking investors. Under proposed legislation, foreign firms will be able to fully own their enterprises and qualify for unprecedented land leases, all without the involvement of local or government partners. These measures, once in place, would dramatically reduce barriers to foreign enterprise and increase the appeal of investment in Myanmar for some of the world’s leading corporations.

Economic liberalization efforts also inspired newfound confidence from Myanmar’s former development partners. Pursuant to sweeping democratic reforms, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) announced its reengagement with Myanmar in 2012; introducing a $512 million loan to fund a network of infrastructure development projects slated to better facilitate increased productive economic activity in the country. The infusion of this capital into a nation that had not seen a development loan from the ADB for more than thirty years instigated a waterfall of related investments in energy and transportation infrastructure.

By the end of January 2013, a bevy of international lenders followed suit and, together with the Myanmar government, announced a major debt cancellation agreement. Japan and Norway joined the Paris Club – a group of nineteen creditor states including the US – in relieving Myanmar of an enormous debt burden, constituting the forgiveness of a landmark 60% of the national debt.

Though this vote of confidence demonstrated the international community’s positive outlook on Myanmar’s economic future, the nation’s promised social and political reforms have not entirely kept pace.


While the government pours its efforts into democratic reforms in the nation’s central Bamar regions – and thousands of political prisoners, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, have been released – Myanmar’s minorities continue to suffer from deteriorating civil liberties and human security, with particular international concern for the nation’s Rohingya Muslim minority.

The question of ethnic self-rule left unresolved at independence has perpetuated tense relations between the central government and Myanmar’s ethnic states; a conflict that has lingered even despite the nation’s 2011 democratic overtures and subsequent reduction in authoritarianism. Historically, ongoing civil wars; endemic humanitarian abuse; illegal extraction operations; and environmental destruction have caused these minority ethnic states to be hardest hit both socially and economically – and violence continues today in Shan, Karen, and Kachin states. The fragmentation of the economy into more self-contained areas, however, has also provided some hope of staving off economic collapse in minority states. Myanmar’s border regions and pastoral areas are self-sufficient where rural economy has not been disrupted by conflict and the burgeoning trade in opium.

Though some criticism has surfaced over the reestablishment of diplomatic ties despite instances of ongoing human rights abuse in Myanmar, the climate among the international community is one of constructive engagement. Many of Myanmar's neighbors (Thailand, India, and China) have for years adopted a globalist approach to development and progress, and with the embrace of democracy and mixed economy in Myanmar following recent reforms, the rest of the international community appears poised to proceed in similar course.

The seeds of political change are inevitably linked with Myanmar's economic future. Corporate investments and the expansion of crucial internationally-backed infrastructure projects exemplify the long view of democracy in Myanmar and the idea that democratic transition, for any modern state, is a gradual process.