Home » ARTSY FARTSY » JEAN SHEPHERD Kid Story–more Picnic & (128) ARTSY Variations on a Theme

JEAN SHEPHERD Kid Story–more Picnic & (128) ARTSY Variations on a Theme


I said, “A picnic!  What do you mean a picnic?  At night?”

“Yep, they say there’s a picnic down at the forest preserve.  Let’s go.”

So I got my bike out of the garage and got out on the road behind Schwartz and Flick and Bruner, peddling off into that fantastic maw—through this enormous, swirling cloud of mosquitoes, dripping sweat behind us as we went, heading to the forest preserve.  The first time I ever went to a picnic that began at night.

We arrived at the preserve and there was just a great big banner across the front, and it had a symbol on it.  No letters at all.  We drifted down the gravel road.  And there was a kind of excitement—Oh, a picnic at night!  It was a quiet picnic.  There was no band playing.  In every picnic we went to there was some kind of a cockamamie band.  Either it was the Greek-American accordion players or a Dixie band—they always had Dixie bands.  Once in a while some of them would show up with a bunch of guys playing little round things—that was the Croatian-Americans.  They had these black suspenders and puffy sleeves.  But this picnic had no band at all.  Nothing.

Through the woods we could see some lights ahead of us.  Orange lights bobbing up and down.  And then we saw.  Are you ready, friends?  Are you really ready?  I couldn’t believe it.  There in front of us was a whole strange, shifting mass of people like some mirage.  There were big ones and little ones maybe a foot high or three feet high.  There were some big, tall, skinny ones.  But they all looked alike.  Great crowd of them moving past a long table that had food on it.  They had potato salad and it looked like boiled hot dogs.  We would not stay long enough to find out.

I said to Schwartz, “What the heck is that, Schwartz?”

Schwartz said, “It’s a picnic.”

Flick said, “Yeah, come on, let’s get some.  Flick was the dildock of the crowd.  He was always ready to go.  If tarantulas were having a picnic, he’d be there.  He didn’t care.”

And Bruner said, “Aaaaa, I’m scared!”

I said, “What is it?”

Schwartz said, “It’s the Ku Klux Klan!”

We were at the yearly picnic of the Ku Klux Klan.  The KKK.  Have you ever seen a crowd of Ku Klux Klanners moving around in the woods with their capes and robes and those long pointed hoods with the two little black eyes?  With the big cross on the chest?




In music, variations can be thought of as repetitions of a theme

with one or more musical aspects changed, either slightly or drastically.

Over the years I’ve found that I especially respond to variations on a theme in art, humor, and other areas. My understanding is that it was rather popular in music of the 17th century. Beethoven and Brahms were enamored of the idea. In the 20th century, Maurice Ravel “had long toyed with the idea of building a composition from a single theme which would grow simply through harmonic and instrumental ingenuity.” First performed in 1928, his “Bolero” is widely known for its obsessive repetition.  (However, the extraordinary ice dancing in the 1984 Olympics by Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, using five-and-a-half minutes of “Bolero,” doesn’t do skating variations at all, but performs continuously different and elegant moves.)

Hokusai, my favorite Japanese woodblock-print artist, was obsessed by Mount Fuji as a religious focus, and, in 1831, portrayed it in his color print series, “36 Views of Mt. Fuji” (contains 46, not 36 images), and in 1834 produced the three-volume monochromatic book set in black, white, and grays, “A Hundred Views of Mount Fuji.”

Best-known color prints from “36 Views” and

two double-page and two single-page images from “100 Views.”

In Japanese netsuke, I discovered that the portrayal of the shi shi dog has been done in a wide variety of forms, and has become one of my favorite examples of variations on a theme.

My shi shi netsuke, displayed in sand,

including ivory from 18th, 19th, and 20th century.

Also some loose-leaf pages with photos of a few variations.

Picasso, among his obsessions, created many images of the Artist and his Model and Artist with Created Work, especially in color, and in his 1930s series of  etchings for Vollard.

An oil, and a crayon image. In the oil on the left,

I like the way he simultaneously depict the model posing,

and as the painted image on the canvas.

Two etchings in the Vollard series.

Some humorists and cartoonists I enjoy also delight in variations on a theme. I especially remember the cartoons of Sam Cobean, who was very popular in the 1940s and early 1950s. Best known are his variations showing the thought balloon above the head of someone who is imagining the person he is viewing (usually imagined naked).


The New York Times of August 11, 2017, in its arts section, has a short piece on Van Gogh’s sunflower paintings. They provide a short, additional “variation.” (Note that the first and last renditions shown are very similar, and the second, third, and fourth are very similar to each other.) For me, his sunflowers are metaphors for a larger obsession Van Gogh had with the sun itself–its intense brightness, color, heat, fire (the flowers’ petals are flamelike), and life-giving power itself. I show part of the article, plus my favorite Van Gogh depicting the sun.



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