21 November 2017

Stagedoom: A Caprice By Bob Thompson

"El si pronuncian y la mano alargan/
Al primero que llega."

"They swear to be faithful yet marry the first man who proposes."
Sometimes the way in to a picture begins with an emotional frisson.  Aesthetic appreciation or  historical underpinnings may add layers to the experience but the visceral response never lets go.   Stagedoom by Bob Thompson (1937-1966), one of several works the artist made  based on Francisco Goya's Los Caprichos of 1795-97, is that kind of work.  

In Goya's original (below), all the participants are morally compromised, from the nubile woman offering herself to the highest bidder and the church fathers who guide her, to the watching crowd.   Thompson made significant alterations to the image for Stagedoom.   Her nakedness emphasizes the young woman's vulnerability at the same time that the mask she wears dehumanizes her by hiding her facial expression.  The priests offer no comfort; their teachings imprison her.  And who could doubt the evil intentions of the hovering bird-like creatures, a frequent feature in Thompson's paintings.  The smiling death's head gives the game away.

Stagedoom, painted in 1962, the year Thompson visited Spain, exhibits a marked understanding of  the painful road to womanhood with its potential for physical and emotional violation.   In Goya's acerbic prints, Thompson recognized "the common prejudices and deceitful practices which custom, ignorance or self-interest have made usual " he had experienced during his Kentucky childhood.
In an alternative  history of post-war art the paintings of Bob Thompson  would occupy a prominent place.  Though only thirty-nine when he died from a heroin overdose, Thompson (1937-1966) left behind more than a thousand paintings and drawings.   Based in New York during the 1960s when the city was the undisputed center of the art world, he was also close to avant-garde jazz musicians Ornette Coleman and Charlie Haden, whose likenesses appeared in his works.

Stagedoom, while typical of  the intimate scale of Thompson's watercolors,  also shows the influences of Abstract Expressionism and  the  saturated colors of Pop Art.  Unlike Andy Warhol, whose appropriation of advertising images constituted a poke in the eye to all but a knowing few when they were made, Bob Thompson worked in utter, bold seriousness.   The artists he revered, Piero della Francesca, Titian, and Nicolas Poussin, all masters of classical European art,  gave him a symbolic vocabulary.  Their compositions provided Thompson a ready scaffolding for his technicolor nightmares of human and animal  interactions,   illustrating the varieties of human folly, as Goya had.

I began to think, my god, I look at Poussin and think he's got it all there.  Why are all these people running around trying to be original when they should just go ahead and be themselves and that's the originality of it all...You can't draw a new form... [the] human figure almost encompasses every form there is...it hit me that why don't I work with these things that are already there...because that is what I respond to most of all.” - Bob Thompson
I think...painting should be like the theater, a presentation of something...To relate, like painters of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance... painters were employed to educate the people...they could walk into a cathedral, look at the wall and see what was happening...I am not specifically trying to do that...I have much more freedom, but in a certain way, I am trying to show what' happening, what's going on,,,in my own private way.” - Bob Thompson

Images:
1. Bob Thompson - Stagedoom, 1962,  opaque watercolor and charcoal on woven paper, approximately 21 x 18 inches, Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute, Utica.
2. Francisco Goya - El si pronuncian y la mano alargan, plate number 2 from Los Caprichos, c. 1795-97,  intaglio print, Brooklyn Museum.

14 November 2017

A Sapphire Blue Sea












“The most beautiful country in the universe inhabited by the most idiotic species.” – Marquis de Sade from Voyage d’Italie, 1775-76.`

It was a disgruntled Marquis who wrote these words from exile  while under threat of imprisonment at home, Voyage d'Italie  being the best face he could put on his scandalous predicament. The peripatetic Stendhal (1783-1824), who served as the French consul to Trieste,  wrote that only Naples had "the true makings of a capital."  As for the other cities on the Italian peninsula, they were merely "glorified provincial towns like Lyon."   Rather mean-spirited commentary to heap on one of the world's oldest cities; when the Greeks arrived in the 8th century BCE they gave the name Neapolis (Greek for 'new city') to their place of exile.

Despite all evidence to the contrary,  legends persist that Horace and Virgil wrote there.  Beauty does that to people, inspiring poetry and bending the evidence.  An old Neapolitan superstition  has it  that  the Possuoli Bay is so beautiful that when moonlight strikes the water even  fish fall under its spell.  The usually rigorous W.H. Auden insisted, without much evidence,  that the German poet Goethe finally lost his virginity in Naples, at the age of thirty-seven.

Would there have been the mass influx of artists in the 18th and 19th centuries without an expanding international art market and the taste for exotic travel writing?  Voltaire, Joseph Wright of Derby, and Thomas Jones of Wales, were just a few who came and were beguiled the scenery - and the chance to witness an eruption by  Mt. Vesuvius.  Although most artists were not so fortunate (!) and had to rely on historical accounts, notably that of Pliny the Elder's Natural History, written, to be sure,  before he died on August 24, 79 CE, choked by ash and smoke when he sailed across the Bay of Naples to get a closer look at the eruption that buried Pompeii.  Still, it comes as a disappointment to discover that a great and upright painter like J.M.W. Turner fabricated his Vesuvius From Naples from the accounts of other lesser artists.

Veduta, an Italian word meaning view, has come to be associated with paintings of grand urban vistas, which include large expanses of water.  And mountains are helpful, too.  Naples has both, including one of the most mythologized and ill-tempered of mountains, the volcano Mt. Vesuvius. One impressive example is The Bay of Possuoli Off the Coast of Naples by the German artists August Wilhelm Julius Ahlborn (1796-1857); it dazzles the  viewer with the intense lavender blue of the water, and is typical of its origins.  The veduta appears to have sprung from the paintbrushes of northern Europeans struck by the sublimity of beauty and terror in close proximity. Even spare and unromantic images, like Rooftops of Naples by Thomas Jones, of ordinary vernacular buildings that are now familiar from a million photographs, seem to hint at thrilling vistas just out of sight.













 Images:
 1. August Wilhlem Julius Ahlborn - The Bay of Possuoili Off the Coast of Naples, 1832, National Gallery, Berlin.
 2. Thomas Jones (1742-1803)- Rooftops in Naples, Aprile (sic) 1782, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, UK.

07 November 2017

Bacchus In Autumn

























What a melancholy sight Bacchus and  his four sleepy little satyrs make on a cold November day.   The enigmatic smile on his face resembles no one so much as the Mona Lisa.  The party's over and even morning's natural light is low.   Until March, when the Maenads will gather to celebrate with rituals of wine and  liberation.  As for the ice crystals on the grapes, they suggest this early morning followed a night of serious drinking.  

This Bacchus was sculpted in lead and gilded with plomb dore by the Marsy Brothers according to a design by Charles Le Brun, court painter to Louis XIV, a man the king described  as "the greatest French artist of all time."  And who would dare to argue with a king?   Be that as it may, the quartet of fountains depicting the four seasons were among the glories of the first progress of  water features to be installed at Versailles.  If Bacchus was a god of excess, Louis XIV was his fervent acolyte.  Fully a third of the cost of the improvements to Versailles was spent on the waterworks to supply its fifty fountains. And the town that gave the palace its name has been the sole supplier of water ever since.  Thanks to Louis XIV,  water is a recurring problem at Versailles to this day; the fountains can be turned on for visitors only one Sunday each month.

The Marsy brothers, Balthazar (c. 1624-1681) and Gaspard (1628-1674) were among dozens of sculptors employed by Louis XIV.   Along with the fountain of Bacchus (Autumn), they executed Basins for Flora (Spring), Ceres (Summer), and Saturn (winter).

Like the devastation Jupiter rained down on the giants who attempted to storm Mount Olympus, a hurricane swooped down on the palace  of the Sun King on Christmas night of 1999.  Morning revealed that some 100,000 trees had been felled including many of the oldest  specimens dating from the 17th century.    Initial fears that the gardens would never recover were proved untrue thanks to heroic  efforts by the French government, led by an army of helicopters that landed even before power could be restored.  And then, just as in the Sun King's day, once again Versailles became a construction sight, full of dirt and noise.

For his stewardship of the restoration, Alain Baraton, head gardener of Versailles then and now, received so many awards from a grateful nation that he wrote "I have more decorations than a Christmas tree."  Baraton's memoir of his life in the world's "grandest garden" was a best seller in France and its charm is evident in translation.   A middle child in a family of seven children, Baraton did not excel at school;  he recalls his time at horticultural school as being more servitude than liberation.  An impromptu visit to Versailles in the summer of 1976 resulted in the dream job he hadn't even imagined: gardener to the Gods.


For furthers reading:
1. Alain Baraton - The Gardener of Versailles: My Life in the World's Grandest Garden,  translated by Christopher Brent Murray, New York, Rizzoli: 2014.
2. Thomas Hedin, The Sculpture of Gaspard and Balthazar Marsy, Columbia (University of Missouri Press) 1983.
Images
1.: Jean-Baptiste Leroux - Le bassin de Bacchus en automne -Chateau de Versailles,  c.1672-75, photo from the collection of Jean-Baptiste Leroux, Paris.
2.  Thomas Garnier -  Le Bassin de Bachus - no date given, Grand Palais, Paris.

02 November 2017

Linda Nochlin Looked At Art. Art Looked Back.



















Kathleen Gilje's Linda Nochlin in Manet's Bar at the Olympia is a  tribute to a great historian that is as layered as Manet's original; a young woman stands in the public eye, meeting the gaze of all comers.  As an aspiring scholar, Nochlin looked beyond the popular Impressionists to their forebears, the Realists,  who offered a revolutionary reinterpretation of art history:  'II faut etre de son temps' [“It is necessary to be of one’s time.”]   In her studies of the French painter Gustave Courbet (1819-1877), Nochlin saw more than just a magnificent recording eye  but more, an encyclopedic knowledge of visual prototypes.  Like Courbet, Nochlin would make her mark on history by reinventing it.   Gilje began her career as a conservator at the Capodimonte Museum in Naples Italy. From restoration to reinterpretation seemed a natural progression; her 'revised' version of Jan van Eyck's The Arnolfini Wedding would bring a smile to the face of all but the most hardened aesthetic sensibilities.   

She was born Linda Weinberg to a family of secular Jewish intellectuals living in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. And  lucky to grow up just as New York City was becoming the center of the art world, usurping the place long held by Paris, then recovering from the twin devastations of war and Nazi occupation.   Vassar College, even in 1947, was no artistic backwater on the Hudson; its campus galleries were hung with paintings by artists as various of Agnes Martin, Joan Mitchell, Georgia O'Keeffe, Kay Sage, Florine Stettheimer and Veira da Silva.   Just as important for a developing aesthetic awareness was the presence on campus of women teachers and the school's brilliant background as a feminist institution.

When Nochlin posed the question "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?"  in Art News (January, 1971), she was already moving beyond its stated premise toward  a visioon more complex and more exciting than any previously dared.  Nochlin knew that she was creating a new version of art history that would require new materials as much or more than a new theory

Nochlin, together with Ann Sutherland Harris, curated Women Artists 1550-1950, an exhibition that premiered at the Los Angeles County Museum in 1976, followed by a satisfying appearance on Nochlin's home turf at the Brooklyn Museum  the following year.  If ever an exhibition deserved to be called earth-shaking,  this was it.  The doubters were forced to take notice. "The history of Western art will never be the same again" wrote John Perrault in Soho Weekly.     Even the reflexively misogynistic Robert Hughes, averred called it "one of the most significant thematic shows to come along in years."  Museums that had been asked to loan works for the exhibition began to brnig them out of storage for display more often after Women Artists was so enthusiastically received by critics and public alike.

Her interest in  history made artist Deborah Kass  alert to the ways Linda Nochlin turned art upside down and gave it a salutary shake.    A cursory look at images from The Warhol Project might lead the viewer to include Deborah Kass in the category of art appropriators that Andy Warhol  perfected with his Brillo Boxes.  In place of Warhol's cool detachment, Kass offers up heartfelt admiration for her subjects.  Orange Disaster - Linda Nochlin is, like others in The Warhol Project,  a series of variations on her chosen theme; its title is Kass's smiling critique of Andy Warhol's dead-ended irony.  One person's disaster becomes another's  turn of the world. Thank you, Linda Nochlin.

Read an obituary for Linda Nochlin (1931-2017) at New York Times.

For further reading:
Realism by Linda Nochlin, New York, Penguin Press: 1971.
Women, Art and Power by Linda Nochlin, New York HarperCollins: 1988.
Bathers, Bodies, Beauty: the visceral eye by Linda Nochlin, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press: 2006.
Courbet by Linda Nochlin, New York, Thames & Hudson: 2007.

Images:
1. Kathleen Gilje - Linda Nochlin in Manet's Bar at the Folies Bergere, 2005, courtesy of the artist.
2. Deborah Kass  - Orange Disaster - Linda Nochlin, 1997, Paul Kasmin Gallery, NYC.

22 October 2017

Harry Van Der Weyden: An American Tonalist Abroad




















The first question most art-minded people ask about Harry Van der Weyden (1868-1952) is whether he was descended from the great Flemish painter Rogier Van der Weyden (c. 1399-1464).  Art historians answer with a resounding  "Maybe."
He was born in Boston, won a scholarship to the Slade School in London at age nineteen, and studied at the Académie Julian in Paris in 1890-1891.  Until World War I, he lived near Etaples  at Montreuil-sur-Mer on the Normandy coast.  During the war Van der Weyden worked as a camouflage officer with the British Royal Engineers from 1916 to 1918 when Etaples was a major transit point and storage depot for the British.  He died in London in 1952. Most of Van der Weyden's paintings are in private collections and tonalism, although a small part of his work, showed him at his best.
The sun was almost below the horizon on the evening in 1898 that Van der Weyden set out to paint.   In the shadow of the cliffs at left,  two men anchor a boat while another man rows toward shore and into  the shadows. Looking closely, you find a varied palette of tones has went into the making of this lavender-blue image.  The affinity with early photography is obvious in tonalism's monochromatic effects.  James McNeill Whistler and George Inness are the two American artists best known for their atmospheric paintings (and in Whistler's case, also prints).

For further reading, visit a review of the exhibition  American Tonalism.
Image: Harry Van Der Weyden - Landscape, 1898, Museum of Franco-American Cooperation, Blerancourt.

08 October 2017

The Georgics: Charles Daubigny & Childe Hassam



















This little beauty, Sunrise-Autumn  by Childe Hassam (1859-1935), is not in a museum but how well it would look paired with one that is - Charles-Francois Daubigny's Fields in the Month of June at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum at Cornell University.  At the time he painted Sunrise-Autumn Hassam  was still a young artist under the influence of the Barbizon School, fresh from his first trip abroad in 1882 and not yet ready to immerse himself in study in Paris at the Academie Julian.  In contrast, the Daubigny comes from the last years of a long, successful career, one that has been curiously overlooked until the recent exhibition Daubigny, Monet, Van Gogh: Impressions of Landscape.

I had never thought much about Daubigny until I saw Fields in the Month of June.  But there it was and I came to relish the times I sat on a bench in front of it, absorbing it or being absorbed into it, the light coming down from a window high above, my own personal floating world of meadows and agriculture, made seamless by the drive to Ithaca through other similar meadows.  It hardly matters whether Hassam painted his meadow in England or the United States, any more than that Daubigny's meadow is French; there is something charming and familiar in this vision of agriculture as human handwriting on the land.


















From a family of artists, Charles-Francois Daubigny (1817-1878) had his first lessons at home with his father.   Like Hassam after him, Daubigny apprenticed with an engraver; indeed his first exhibited works were prints.  His attentiveness to landscape was intensified by the year Daubigny spent with his friend Jules Breton aboard Le Botin, a houseboat converted into a movable studio; the two artists floated along the rivers of northern France, the Seine the Marne, and the Oise, on a matchless  peripatetic painting trip.

Without Daubigny, the man who inspired Claude Monet to establish a studio in 1872, the development of Impressionism would have been different.  In his day, Daubigny's landscapes were often dismissed as "mere impressions" for his use of rapid brushstrokes and his preference for capturing fleeting aspects of light. Theophile Gauthier, the author doubling as critic lamented, "His pictures are no more than sketches barely begun."   Understanding backward, the specialty of art historians, we now think of Daubigny and his cohort as being more romantic and less naturalistic  than they did themselves while it is the Impressionists who are considered more objective because of what we have since learned about visual perception.

You can read The Georgics by Virgil, courtesy of MIT.

Images:
1. Childe Hassam - Sunrise - Autumn, 1884, oil on canvas, 12in. x 18in., Sullivan Goss: An American Art Gallery, Santa Barbara.
2. Charles-François Daubigny, Fields in the Month of June, 1874, oil on canvas,  88in. x 53in., Herbert F. Johnson Museum, Ithaca, NY.

01 October 2017

Essex Moonrise: John Leslie Breck














I've written about this landscape before, one of the much loved and still missed landscapes of my childhood: the coastal marshlands of  Essex County, Massachusetts.   The Great Marsh, as it fittingly called,  enchanted me long before I saw it through the eyes of the artists Arthur Wesley Dow and Martin Johnson Heade.
To name the towns and beaches that border the Great Marsh is, for me like fingering a string of beads, each  one more beautiful than the last: Newburyport, Plum Island, Ipswich, Crane Beach, Essex, The Dragon.  Moviemakers concur: The Thomas Crown Affair was filmed at Castle Hill in Ipswich and The Witches Of Eastwick at Crane Beach, while The Crucible was shot on nearby Choate Island.

Salt marshes are nature's  lungs,  grasslands and tidal estuaries that ilter out storm water and pollution, thus protecting the fish, insects, mammals, and sea birds that live there and, not incidentally, their human neighbors.  But more than that, they are beautiful to behold; the air really does shimmer with a luminance I have seen nowhere else.
John Leslie Breck (1859-1899), who was born at sea near Hong Kong and spent his final years in and around Ipswich, made his most evocative paintings of the littoral zone, that restless, shape-shifting place between land and sea, a objective correlative to his favorite time for painting - the crepuscular hour between day and night.  And so it is that the blue marsh estuaries have turned violet and pink.  I wonder if Breck had ever had the twilight experience of seeing the earth's shadow in the eastern sky as the sun sets in the west, a demarcation between blue and violet that is a product of particles of the earth's atmosphere.  I first saw this as a child living in Newburyport one evening when my parents pointed it out to me from our backyard.

Claude Monet  settled his family at Giverny in 1883, just beginning to enjoy some commercial success in his forties, thanks to the efforts of his Parisian dealer Durand-Ruel.  He began by renting the house at Giverny, only becoming able to purchase it seven years later when he turned fifty.   It was no part of his intention to establish an art colony in  the picturesque Norman  village but by 1887 the first group of his American admirers had descended on him for the summer: Willard Leroy Metcalf, Theodore Robinson, and John Leslie Breck.   Breck  became an especially close friend of the artist.  However a  romance with Monet's stepdaughter Blanche ended badly and sent Breck home in 1890.  But Breck returned an altered painter, his colors brighter, his brushwork looser,  having cast his lot with the plein air or outdoor painters,  He died, an apparent suicide, at thirty-nine years old just as critics reckoned that he had come into his own as an artist.

Image:
John Leslie Breck - Essex  Massachusetts Moonrise, Breck family estate,  courtesy of Boston Center for the Arts.

24 September 2017

Elusive Brenda Bullion

When I walked into the Corners Gallery last October I had no idea that the owner would turn out to be related to an artist who had made a vivid impression on me on a visit to Ithaca eight years before, a long time to remember an image with no information other than a dry wall text.  A single watercolor drawing, the untitled one at left, had been included in an exhibition of prints and drawings Shared Experience at the museum at Cornell University in November, 2008.

The charm of this romantic figure resides in her specificity as much or more than in her self-consciousness and introspection.  How the horizontal movement of the scarf softens the otherwise relentlessness of the multiple verticals.

The charm of both drawings and watercolors is their customary intimate scale.  They are suited to domestic spaces and invite the viewer to live comfortably with them at length.  The gigantism of many recent paintings renders them more suitable to public spaces; how to relate to something that pushes the viewer away, maybe even out the door, makes them arrogant companions.
  
During the intervening years I made occasional efforts to learn about Brenda Bullion (1939-1992) to no avail.  Her early death and the undervaluation of drawing and watercolor when Bullion was working were woven into the scrim obscuring her work.
  
Ariel Bullion Eklund, the gallery owner,  is the daughter of Brenda Bullion.

Visit Corners Gallery

Image: Brenda Bullion - untitled, 1973, crayon and watercolor, Steven Barbash Collection, Herbert F. Johnson Museu, Ithaca, NY.

18 September 2017

From A Box Of Old Photographs



















As you can see, these are very old photographs.  If the little blonde girl with the Mary Jane shoes sitting at the left end of the front row is four years old then the date is 1920.   Her name is June Williams and she was my mother.  She was named for June Tolliver, the heroine of a Broadway play that my grandparents saw at the New Amsterdam Theater on West 42nd Street.  The Trail of the Lonesome Pine had been adapted from the wildly successful novel (1908) of the same name  by John Fox, Jr.  Florence Williams, or Billie as she was affectionately known, decided that if she ever had a daughter, June would be her name, and so it was.  Florence is the woman standing at the left end of the back row in this picture. 
Billie was an apt nickname for this woman, I think, although she died before I was born so I never think of her as my grandmother; she had her own kind of insouciance and her daughter adored her for that.   She knew  what forms of birth control could be found in the city, she liked to make gin in the family bathtub during Prohibition, and she sent Norman, her husband, scrambling around a movie theater to search for bugle beads when one of her sheath dresses popped a thread.   Her friend Kay married a wealthy bootlegger named Ray from the north shore of Long Island, a location that allowed rum runners to ply their trade with relative impunity and lots of nice chateaux to be had, especially after the movie industry migrated to Los Angeles.

The tennis courts in the background were part of the summer home at Lake Success, in the Town of Great Neck.     The name Lake Success is not a descriptor as I once imagined; it is a corruption of the name Sukut, taken from the Lenape Indians along with their land by people like my ancestors.  There are no men in this picture because they were back in the city working during the week while the women and children enjoyed a respite from the heat, a custom of the time before air conditioning among the fortunate classes.  
Speaking of whom, William K. Vanderbilt purchased the land around Lake Success in 1902 for a summer home for himself and his new bride.  Vanderbilt was  an enthusiastic yachtsman but by 1904 he had become smitten with anything motorized, be it bicycle, motorcycle, or racing cars, and he set a land speed record at Daytona Beach.   He infuriated his Island neighbors with his noisy drag racing ways.  One of my mother's uncles was killed in an automobile accident; newly married in 1904, he was thrown from a car he was driving on Christmas Eve of 1905 and hit his head on the curb.   Such accidents were not yet common when most people didn't have cars; his bride Rose never got over the shock.















Something about the children in this next photograph has always reminded me of John Singer Sargent's painting Carnation, Lily, Lily, RoseYes there are four children here and only two in Sargent's painting but for me the two children, June at right holding a bouquet of wild flowers and her cousin Ruth at the left, a year older and taller are the story in this picture.  Both girls would narrowly escape death from thyroid cancer as adolescents and their relationship was so close that Ruth, who died first, was the last person  my mother called  for on her own deathbed.  This early summer day must have meant something special to the girls; all the photographs taken that day are precisely dated Tuesday, June 28, 1919.

Although this last picture is not dated, on the visual evidence  June appears to be about eight years old.  This was taken at home in West Orange, New Jersey, in the house built by Norman for his family, and these are Billie's sisters, Lottie and Lillie posing with their niece.    Lillie was the caboose baby of the family and the story is rather sad and typical for its time.  After begetting two daughters, their father deserted the family for eleven years, indulging his wanderlust for sailing around the world, while knowing that his wife and children would have to return to her parents' home for support.  When he reappeared, they made her take him back and there are no photographs ever after that show a smile on her face, and yet Lillie was, by all accounts, a delightful person and her niece's favorite.   June  was nicknamed Chick for her yellow hair; I still have an envelope of it and  after all this time the hair still glows like spun gold thread.  As for me, I still hope to learn someday what kind of touring car that is parked  in the driveway. 



Images: from the author's personal collection.

07 September 2017

Artichokes & Ardor





















The nubbed leaves
come away
in a tease of green, thinning
down to the membrane:
the quick, purpled
beginnings of the male.

Then the slow hairs of the heart:
the choke that guards its trophy,
its vegetable goblet.
The meat of it lies, displayed
up-ended, al-dente,
the stub-root aching in its oil.
 -"Artichoke" by  Robin Robertson

That is one tumescent flowering artichoke, you may be thinking after reading this poem by Robin Robertson.   I thought of furniture, specifically the old custom of decorating the four posters of a bed with finials shaped like artichokes, as a symbol of hope.  What makes the pairing of this poem and that woodblock print uncanny is that both Robertson and the artist Mabel Allington Royds share Scottish roots; Robertson was born there and Royds moved there to teach at the Edinburgh College of Art.
It turns out that Robin Robertson is far from the first person to connect the artichoke with male potency.   In the 16th century, for a woman to east an artichoke was scandalous; this aphrodisiac thistle was reserved for men.   It was Catherine de Medici who married King Henry II of France at the age of fourteen in 1533 who announced a change in mores: " If one of us had eaten artichokes, we would have been pointed out on the street.  Today young women are more forward than pages at court."  
And if you decide to enjoy an artichoke, why not prepare it as the ancient Romans did, with a combination of honey, vinegar, and cumin. 

Image:
Mabel Allington Royds (1874-1941) - Artichoke, 1935, National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh.

27 August 2017

Ernst Haas: Intimate Space


















"What birds plunge through is not the intimate space,
In which you see all Forms intensified.
(In the Open denied, you would lose yourself,
would disappear into the vastness.)

Space reaches from us and translates Things:
to become the very essence of a tree,
throw inner space around it, from that space 
that lives in you.  Encircle it with restraint.
It has no limits.  For the first time, shaped
in your renouncing, it becomes fully free." 
  -  Rainer Maria Rilke, (the favorite poet of Ernst Haas), translated from the German by Gabriel Caffrey

Alfred Eisenstadt, Yousef Karsh, Irving Penn, Richard Avedon - and Ernst Haas. Haas  belongs  in their company as one of the great photographers of the  20th century but Ernst Haas has been, if not neglected by the critics, then  somewhat  overshadowed by the photographic avalanche we now live with.  The Viennese-born Haas, who was a member of the Magnum Photo Agency, and later its fourth president, gradually moved from photojournalism to an increasingly personal art.  


It is this element of Haas's work that I want to look at.  The photos here were included in a book, The Creation, published in 1971, as Haas visualized the natural world to the accompaniment of texts, mostly drawn from the Old Testament. (The book became a surprise bestseller, making for the largest print run ever for a photography book.) Although Haas was captivated by the possibilities inherent in color film,  you can see that he deliberately avoided the high contrasts that caused the word 'garish' to attach to Kodachrome.  A heap of petals or an intact hydrangea and what difference does it make in this world of intimate space?   And what marvelous coincidence led Haas to an ice formation that resembles a design from the shops of the Wiener Werkstatte or the spermatozoa that Gustav Klimt flung across his "decorative" portraits of the wives of Viennese aristicrats?


















Ernst Haas (1921-1986) did not always want to be a photographer; he vacillated between a painter or  an explorer, wishfully looking for a way to combine the two.   But World War II came to Europe and everything, including the education of a young man from Vienna.  It was his introduction to the photography of Werner Bischof  in Bischof's native Switzerland after the war that set him on course at last.   It was thanks to sponsorship by the Magnum Agency that Haas finally obtained a rare visa to come to the U.S.

Images:
1. Ernst Haas - Hydrangeas
2. Ernst Haas - Ice formation

10 August 2017

Out Of This World: Johanna Grussner

"You're clear out of this world
When I'm looking at you
I hear out of this world
The music that no mortal ever knew

You're right out of a book
The fairy tale I read when I was so high
No armored knight out of a book
Would find a more enchanted Lorelei than I

After waiting so long for the right time
After reaching so long for a star
All at once from a long and lonely night time
And despite time, here you are

I'd  cry, out of this world
If you said we were through
So let me fly out of this world
And spend the next eternity or two with you

After waiting so long for the right time
After reaching so long for a star
All at once from a long and lonely night time
And despite time, here you are

I'd cry, out of this world
If you said we were through
So let me fly out of this world
And spend the next eternity or two with you" 

  - Out Of This World, lyrics by Johnny Mercer, music by Harold Arlen.


Considering the warm reception her Naxos release No More Blues received from both the critics and listeners, Johanna Grussber should need no introduction to jazz fans.  A native of Finland, Grussner   lived  in the U.S for eight years,  attended the Berklee School of Music on scholarship and then earned a Master's degree in jazz performance from the Manhattan School of Music in 1998.   She then taught at Public School 86 in the Bronx where she developed a program of vocal and instrumental instruction and music theory.  Oh, and she was born on the Aland Islands, off the east coast of Finland in 1972.  She returned  home in May 2001 when she brought a group of fifth grade students to perform gospel concerts in Helsinki.  Since 2001 Grüssner has lived in Stockholm, Sweden.

Her musical ambitions are expansive.  As a child, Grussner and her sisters Ella and Isabella formed a folk group  Daughters Of The Wolf.   The year before graduating from Berklee she recorded her first cd; the year after she formed her own nineteen piece jazz orchestra which toured Scandinavia, performing at jazz festivals and clubs, sometimes joined by the New York Voices.   Since moving to Sweden, Grussner has recorded not only jazz but Swedish and Finnish folk songs and even a record of  songs for children based on the popular  characters created by Tove Jansson.

Out Of This World is usually classified as a ballad, because it is deemed to lack a pronounced rhythm.  Grussner turns this received wisdom upside down.   Her agile vocal technique and near perfect command of English paired with  work on both six and twelve-string guitars by her accompanist Ulf Karlsson, is impeccable.  Together they  give a rhythm to the song that it has not had before, something between a walking blues  and a bossa nova-ish lilt.  Unlike some singers with crystal clears voices, Grussner is also capable of adding colors to her phrasing.  Thanks to her version, I will never think of Out Of This World as a standard again.  It lives.

As to its mechanics, the song is structured  without a verse; it has four sections – A, a variation of A, B, and back to the A variation in conclusion.  The elegance of the lyrical conceit demands it:   the Lorelei of Germanic legend was a beautiful maiden who threw herself into the Rhine River in despair over a faithless lover.   In recompense, the gods turned her into a siren whose voice was irresistible to all who heard it.  Alec Wilder (in his History Of American Popular Song, 1972)  claimed that he heard   echoes of the mixolydian mode of Gregorian chant in Arlen's melody.   (Mixolydian was the seventh of eight modes, similar to modern key signatures, in  medieval church music.)  Arlen also used  melisma in Out Of This World, as when he scored two notes for the word “knew.”  

Melisma is a technique familiar from  its use in gospel music;  its use originated in early Christian plainsong.  Unlike  syllabic singing where  each syllable is accorded one note,  when a singer moves from one note to another on a single syllable, that’s melisma.  When Johnny Mercer came to write  the lyric to Out Of This World in 1944, he had been working in Hollywood for almost ten years and it shows in its style; this was no Tin Pan Alley show tune to be belted to the rafters for applause.  Rather, it existed on an altogether more  intimate emotional plane.   Wilder was certainly right to describe Out Of This World as not being typical of Harold  Arlen's songs, but then it is not typical of anyone else's that I can think of either.  Sui generis, anyone?

P.S. Other standouts on No More Blues are a sultry version of Hallelujah, I Love Him So and Desafinado.


Listen to Johanna Grussner sing Out Of This World
Visit Johanna Grussner's website
No More Blues, a recording by Johanna Grussner, Naxos Jazz: 2005.

Image:
Photograph of Johanna Grussner, 2010, courtesy of Allaboutjazz.com.

28 July 2017

Writing The Book On Love

















"The thread
runs thin.
The need
runs hard.
Hard."
  - "Fate And Necessity" by Alkman, from Lyra Graeca, Vol. I, # 142.

"Not Aphrodite, no.  But like a child,
Wild, Love comes down,
Almost as though walking on flowers -
But should not touch them,
Should not,
No."
 - "Not Aphrodite, No" by Alkman from Lyra Graeca, Vol. I, #6

     excerpted from Pure Pagan: Seven Centuries of Greek Poems and Fragments, translated by Burton Raffel, New York, The Modern Library: 2005

Most of us were taught in school that Ovid's Art Of Love, published near the beginning of the Common Era,  was the first major treatment of humankind's favorite subject but that, like some other pieces of received wisdom, turns out not to be  the case.  Six centuries before Ovid (43BCE-17CE) composed what seem to be the first surviving love manuals, a poet from the unlikely Greek city-state of Sparta  was the author of love poetry so admired that it was mandatory at public celebrations. 

I.  Alcman, or Alkman,  was a lyric poet who lived during the 7th century BCE.  That he was a native of Sparta was something the ancients found hard to believe and so did scholars for most of the intervening centuries until now. His light touch and amorous nature did not harmonize readily with the dominant image of the  battle-hardened warrior, although, as you can see from the verses printed above, for Alcman, love was a serious business needing little introduction.
Contained in a 10th century Byyzantine lexicon is this description  of Alcman as a man "of an extremely amorous disposition and the inventor of love poems."     His longest and most famous poem is the Partheneion, a choral song to be sung by young girls as a rite of passage into womanhood.  (Only fragments of his works have survived; three stanzas describing the initiation of a girl named Agido, are contained in a papyrus cataloged as e 3320 at the Louvre.)  From Aristotle we learn that Alcman died of pediculosis, a contamination of the skin by lice that caused lesions, an ignominious death but  not uncommon at the time.
Alcman's poetry was, and should be still,  appreciated for its grace and simplicity; it doubtless benefited from technological advances then taking place in the Greek language.  Its clean-cut syllables and  efficient graphing of sound  celebrated by the Canadian classicist Anne Carson in  Eros the Bittersweetmade it a supple vehicle for conveying emotion.

 *      *      *      *      *      *      *       *        *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

"When my love decides to go and then is gone,
I can still taste him, bitter in the throat; I still
feel the weight of his body as he fights sleep.
I do not fight it: on the contrary, I live there,
and what you see in me that you think is grief
is the refusal to wake, that is to say, is pleasure:
qui donne du Plaisir en a, and so it was
when he couldn't sleep in that long still night
you sensed it and woke to show him how
to unfasten each and every button, then it is
promised you, even when he goes -
   - excerpt from "The Right To Pleasure" by Jessica Fisher, from Frail-Craft, New Haven, Yale University Press: 2007


II. Jessica Fisher (b. 1974) is an American poet who teaches at Williams College in western Massachusetts but her connection to the ancient Greeks, particularly to Alcman, is more than fanciful.  In her first collection Frail-Craft (2007) the poems resemble choral songs from an unknown Greek tragedy: pure, absolute, unbowed by the violence of the world, asserting the right to pleasure.

When the subject is love, especially eros, the millennia just melt away.  Time collapses in the face of fervor. 

For further reading:
1. Philippe Brunet, La Naissance de la littérature dans la Grèce ancienne, Paris, Le Livre de Poche:
2. Anne Carson, Eros the Bittersweet, Champaign, Dalkey Archive Press: 1998.

Image:
Anonymous artist, Women In The Orchard (titled ascribed), no date, Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, MA.

06 July 2017

"They Told Me I Should Go To Rehab....."

























...so that is where I will be for now, not on vacation but more like out for repairs.    In recent months my gait has been less of a walk and more like an old Tuscan dance, the saltarello, a dance whose name means "hopping step."
While I'm away from the keyboard, I hope you will browse through the archives here and, if you find something that interests you, please comment and I promise to respond to each one as soon as I am able.

In the meantime, for summer reading I can recommend nothing funnier than American Housewife: Stories by Helen Ellis.   Ellis is a southern transplant to New York City who, when her writing career stalled after the publication of a novel some fifteen years ago,  became a housewife/ professional poker player.   Beginning with "The Wainscoting War," a tale of decorative mayhem in an upper East Side  Manhattan co-op, to "Dumpster Diving With The Stars," a reality show run amok in the Hudson Valley's antiques alley, and ending with  a woman who rescues pre-pubescent beauty contestants in "Pageant Protection,"  the fun never flags.  Published by Doubleday & Company: 2016.

Image:
Original photograph by Peter Librizzi, restoration by Renee Ing Akana at 28moons

03 July 2017

Luigi Ghirri: An Anthropologist Of The Metaphysical

























It is the kind of tromp l'oeil picture that many an amateur has accidentally produced, but in this instance the result  is so perfectly achieved that you want to know who the photographer is - and where exactly is he in relation to the other elements in the picture?  Has he risen like Neptune from some watery deep just beyond the frame?  And when you learn that his name is Luigi Ghirri, do you wonder why  that name is not more familiar?

















Luigi Ghirri began his career with a sense that everything that could be done with photography had already been accomplished.  He spoke often of how deeply he was moved by the view of Earth photographed from the Apollo 11 spacecraft.  "It was not only the image of the entire world, but the image that contained all other images of the world."   From this, Ghirri extrapolated the idea of the image-within-image, a framing technique that became a signature of his photographs.  He brought the eye of an anthropologist to bear on the seemingly unremarkable sights that surround us everyday but with an intensity that has been described as metaphysical, a word often applied to artists of his native Emilia-Romagna region, like Giorgio de Chirico and Giorgio Morandi.    Ghirri called these works  his "sentimental geography" but that does not exhaust the interest of, say,  those yellow traffic lights bobbing in the fog


Luigi Ghirri (1943-1992) grew up in northern Italy, a temperate area of broad fertile plains fed by the Po River, created millennia ago  when the sea retreated, leaving  marshlands behind.  The aspiring artist moved to Modena, a small city but no  backwater, located near Bologna, the regional capitol and proud home to the oldest university in the world.   His studies in surveying and graphic design coalesced in a new hobby -  taking pictures - that quickly became his chosen work.



















Conceiving his photographs mostly in series, Ghirri presented them in books more often than in exhibitions which may have limited their  impact on the public.  His first book Kodachrome, published in 1978,  featured the tightly cropped images that would become his signature.
Ghirri's last home was at Roncosesi, not  far from where he was born.  Although he traveled,  he found all that he needed for his work there.   Formal, cerebral, witty, Ghirri always intended his photographs to explore rather than  represent what he saw  before him.


 “Everything has a blighted, faded quality about it now. Still, if you look at it for a long time, the old charm reemerges. And that is why I can see that I will lose absolutely nothing by staying where I am, even by contenting myself with watching things go by, like a spider in its web waiting for flies. You need to look at things for a long time…” – Vincent van Gogh 
 Ghirri copied this quotation from a letter written by Vincent Van Gogh to his brother Theo in his own journal.  

















Although admired during his lifetime, Ghirri's work has only grown in importance since his untimely death from a heart attack at the age of forty-nine.  "...(N)ow, in their faded and aging present state, Ghirri’s prints from the 1970s and ’80s signal themselves as relics of the first wave of the then-new colour photography, carrying with them both prescience and nostalgia.." Christy Lange wrote for Frieze in 2011.
In 2009, the Aperture Gallery in Manhattan hosted the retrospective It's Beautiful Here, Isn't It?, devoted to the work of the Italian photographer Luigi Ghirri (1943-1992).  Then, in 2013,  Matthew Marks Gallery, also in New York, devoted an exhibition  to Luigi Ghirri: Kodachrome.  This exhibition coincides with the republication of Ghirri's much admired book Kodachrome, by MACK, London, UK: 2012., a book he originally published himself in 1978.

Images: The estate of Luigi Ghirri is represented by Matthew Marks Gallery, NYC.
1. Paris (self-portrait in reflection), 1976, reprinted from Kodachrome, 1978, reprinted London: 2012.
2. Valli Grandi - Veronese, undated.
3. Fagnano Olona - elementary school designed by Aldo Rossi, 1985, Pompidou Center, Paris.
4. Reggio Emilia, 1973, Pompidou Center, Paris.

20 June 2017

The Prodigious Michele Cascella





















He was a prodigy, there was no doubt; certainly his father believed in him from the beginning.  He did poorly in school, being the kind of student that teachers described as being adrift with the clouds.  When one of his art teachers humiliated him in class, Michele Cascella stopped going to school entirely.  This caused a crisis in the family;  the boy's mother wanted him to make a religious vocation but the father, who supported the boy's artistic ambitions, won out. 

As an adult, Michele Cascella (1892-1989) credited Vincent van Gogh and Raoul Dufy as his artistic influences and, while it makes a good parlor game to tease out the visual bits he took from each of them, no influence is sufficient to explain his skills in painting, drawing, lithography, and ceramics.   When I look at Orangerie, painted when Cascella was just eighteen, I see the lines used to describe the girl's skirt as coming straight out of Dufy, the lines and the colors working together but not in the usual academic way.  Cascella is fearless in using bright colors (his debt to Van Gogh) without ever letting them overwhelm this tranquil, workday scene.  The house in Abruzzo,  clad in stucco, is shown here in stark white, probably an indication of the midday sun.  The country house and the orange grove were often Cascella's subject but seldom more effectively than in Orangerie.  He usually depicts orchards as pure landscape, absent their human gardeners.   Here he shifts the focus to a young girl at work, staking and pruning, his subject, underlining the domestic element that makes a  landscape out of nature. Her pose appears, appropriately,  reverential in this Edenic setting. 

Caseclla was born in  Ortona, a city on the Adriatic Sea,  in 1892.  His father Basilio, a polymath, was an engraver, ceramist, lithographer and illustrator, was the boy's first teacher.  Basilio's career was given a boost when he given  a plot of municipal land to build a laboratory and art studio for his lithography business.  Michele's first job at his father's business was the painstaking task of filling in backgrounds on lithographic stones.  But his father also gave him more traditional art projects such as copying  drawings of the old masters.  Unable to draw well himself from nature, Basilio sent Michele and his brother outdoors, supplied with a box of pastels, chocolate and cheese, to paint.  That Michele far outstripped his younger brother appears to have caused not too much rancor.
    
When Basilio judged that the boy was ready to exhibit in public, he arranged a show  in Milan for the fifteen year old (this was in 1902), followed by a show in Paris the next year where Michele sold his first painting.    At eighteen Michele Cascella was ready to take his place among the cultural set in the city.   

In another prodigious move, the twenty year old artist began an affair with thirty-eight year old Sibilla Aleramo, one of Italy's most famous writers and already the author of the feminist classic A Woman (1906). (I read the novel in college but confess to only a vague memory of it at this point.) 

Cascella's career would be long and varied, not a footnote to youthful achievement as are those of some who succeed early. He won a gold medal for painting at the 1937 Paris Exposition Universelle, where Raoul Dufy created a sensation with his multi-panel mural La fee electricitee.  Cascella made his first visit to the United States in 1959 and thereafter spent six month of each year at Palo Alto, California. In 1977 the City of Ortuna re- dedicated their art museum  to Cascella; more than five hundred works by three generations of the family are included in its collection.  When he died at age ninety-seven in Milan, he was buried in his hometown of Ortona.

Image: Michele Cascella -Orangerie, 1912, Cascella Museum, Ortona.