Monday, October 31, 2011

Happy Halloween: The Vision of Faust by Luis Falero

For Halloween I’m sharing a dainty dish called The Vision of Faust, by Luis Ricardo Falero (1851-1896).
Falero is a little-remembered painter with a marked taste for the outrageous and the bizarre.  He often painted witches, wizards and occult sequences from literary classics, and though his oeuvre was recherché, he was quite a gifted painter in his own right. 
Falero was born in Toldeo and entered the Spanish navy at an early age.  However, his artistic inclinations were stronger than his military ties, and he left the navy for a career in art.  He studied in Paris and London, where he later settled.  Falero had a deep and abiding love for astronomy, and the heavens around us were often integrated into his paintings.
Falero died early, only 45, though somewhat worn out by strife and ruin.  At the time of his death he lost a paternity suite brought against him by 17 year-old Maud Harvey, who was seduced by Falero while serving as both his housemaid and model.  He dismissed Harvey from service when she became pregnant with his child, and broke his promise to support her and the baby.  She won a judgment against him of five shillings a week.
Ironically, Johann Goethe’s Faust concerns a middle-aged scholar (the somewhat flabby man in the painting) who sells his soul to the devil, Mephistopheles, in return for regained youth and sensual pleasures. He seduces a young girl, Gretchen, who bears his illegitimate child, kills the baby and is sentenced to death, but her soul is spared from Mephisto's clutches.
Goethe's Faust is an extraordinarily influential work, influencing operas, plays, films and … this picture.  Aside from grand, cosmological themes, Falero was obsessed with the female nude, of which he was a master.  His command of feminine anatomy was immense, and his skills at coloration and tone formidable.  He rendered the female form with great charm and occasional wit. 
In fact, the erotic urges of some artists are, if you’ll pardon the expression, naked on the canvas.  It takes only a glance at Michelangelo’s body of work, for instance, to see his intense passion for muscular youths (the same can be said for American artist Paul Cadmus), and the overt passion by which Edgar Degas and Édouard Manet painted their female subjects made their passion for women visible.  Falero’s erotic impulse is blatantly visible in his finished work.  Note the rounded sensuality of the women in The Vision of Faust, and the creamy pinkish-white coloration.  The women fly though the air visibly contorted by passion or erotic release – it is an extremely sexual representation.  Indeed, even the hag/witch in the lower portion of the picture seems fired by a raw, sexual energy: one of her hands rests wantonly on the hip of a sensual woman, while the other fondles a ram’s horn. 
Faust, too, though pudgy and obviously middle-aged, is sexually objectified by his warm coloration, and, more importantly, by the echoes of his figure to the ram behind him.  A trick of the light playing on Faust’s hair gives the impression of horns, and his beard all too obviously mimics the ram’s profile.
Perhaps one of the key reasons this picture is so effective is its brazen, shameless sense of … blasphemy.  The thick, cottony clouds highlighted and lit from behind are strongly reminiscent of hundreds of religious paintings, and the huge, menacing bat in the upper left seems to be an inverse image of the dove. Where religious pictures often have the transcendent resurrection of the dead, Faust features a reanimated corpse, its skull face leering hideously.
The Vision of Faust is a remarkable painting … I just wouldn’t want it hanging on my wall.
Happy Halloween!

Friday, October 28, 2011

A Fake Leonardo at the National Gallery?

While my readers are well aware that most of the nonsense, hogwash and jiggery-pokery in the arts today largely revolves around Modernism, Post-Modernist theory and the art ‘business,’ there is sometimes a refreshing bit of unmitigated bleat to liven things up for those of us genuinely interested in the fine arts.  I refer, of course, to the upcoming show at London’s National Gallery (November 11- February 5) featuring their recently discovered painting of Christ by Leonardo.
Let’s take a moment first to think of Leonardo da Vinci, one of the greatest minds of the Italian Renaissance.  Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci (1452-1519) was an illegitimate child who grew up to be a painter, sculptor, architect, inventor, scientist, musician, engineer, mathematician – indeed, simply listing his many accomplishments can make lesser men feel woefully inadequate, so I’ll stop here. 
Because da Vinci was both a perfectionist and a tireless tinkerer, not many of his artistic achievements survive to the present day.  His experimental methods sometimes led to the ruination of his own works soon after completion, or, as is more often the case, he seldom moved beyond conception because of technical difficulties or simple lack of follow-through.  His mind was too filled with ideas – for improving our understanding of anatomy, or creating a new varnish or devising a new weapon of war, whatever – for him to have been completely successful at anything.  Indeed, Leonardo was the kind of guy who dreamed of how to finish a project before he had even begun it.
Though there are several hundred surviving pages from Leonardo’s notebooks – including designs, random notes, quick sketches and his shopping lists – there are very few finished Leonardo paintings, and even there some doubt remains on attribution.  So when the National Gallery promised to unleash the lost Leonardo, Salvator Mundi (Savior of the World),the art world took notice.
Perhaps the most depressing facet of this entire debacle has been how willing Dr. Nicholas Penny, Director of the National Gallery, has been to trash his own reputation and his hard-earned expertise.  Dr. Penny was the previous Clore Curator of Renaissance Painting at the National Gallery, with a doctorate from the Courtauld Institute.  He was also an Andrew W. Mellon Professor at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts.
But it seems that anyone with the necessary £16 ticket fee is as much of an expert as Dr. Penny.  Here is what Dr. Penny said in an October 9 London Times interview comparing Salvator Mundi to The Lady with the Ermine and the Mona Lisa:
They respond, but hold something back. You can’t think about them except in relationship to the viewer. They imply a narrative of which you are a part. That was not true of portraiture before Leonardo. The Salvator Mundi radiates intense presence. But because it’s Leonardo you do wonder if you’re going mad–and you certainly want people whose opinions you respect to look at it.  People can judge for themselves.
Perhaps that radiated presence was something in the ventilation system, for here we have a man who has seriously devoted his life to art and art history, saying to the world that an uninformed opinion is as good as an informed one.  Only in this Post Modernist World, where arguments that are “faith based” hold as much water as those built upon science, experience and knowledge, could such a distinguished scholar so debase himself.
Is it a real Leonardo?  (No … I’m not going to say judge for yourself.)  I do not have the real expertise necessary to make a determination like that, nor have I physically seen the picture.  But, as long as Dr. Penny invites us to make a judgment, let’s open that door and walk right through it.
The face of the Salvator Mundi Christ seems to be familiar to those of us who have looked at Leonardos because of the eyes, which seem both sleepy and knowing, and have that quality of ‘mystery.’  However, I find it extraordinarily unlikely that Leonardo would paint Christ against so dark and empty a background.  Look at Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks or Mona Lisa or even the unfinished St. Jerome, and you’ll see that he was a great believer in some kind of misted background that perhaps commented on the foreground figures.  (Yes, Lady With an Ermine is also against a neutral background, but she is the ringer.)
Also, just what is that in His hand?  A crystal globe?  We know Leonardo was interested in optics, but if he were making some kind of in-joke, wouldn't it perhaps be a little more clear?
Also – I have two perfectly good eyes, and have been using them for many, many years.  No ‘radiated presence’ comes through my optic nerve (whatever the hell a radiated presence may be), and I certainly don’t feel as if I am in contact with an interesting and profound mind, as I do with other of Leonardo’s works.
I also have a perfectly good nose – and it detects the faint, sweet odor of horse puckey.  The National Gallery’s show, Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan, is a huge, expensive undertaking for the museum.  It is only natural (too natural!) to want to up the ante a bit with news of a possible new Leonardo.  The ‘discovery’ of this ‘lost’ masterpiece has created considerable coverage for them (evidence: this column) and it shows no signs of stopping.  If you are in London sometime in the next two months and have a spare £16, take a look and feel the radiated presence.  And then, you to, my son, can be an art expert.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Soul Breaking the Ties That Bind It to Earth

We conclude our overview of Pierre-Paul Prud'hon (1758--1823) with this, one of his most haunting works, The Soul Breaking the Ties That Bind It to Earth.  It is one of two paintings left unfinished at the time of Prud’hon’s death, and is a moving testament to his final years of pain, regret and dreams of reclamation.
This painting, one of the largest Prud’hon ever created (9.5 feet by 6.5 feet) is perhaps the least famous of the master’s works, but it may be among the most affecting.  It was created after the suicide of Prud’hon’s lover, Constance Mayer, and it is not impossible to see where dreams of souls unleashed and free could not be far from the artist’s thoughts.
Prud’hon wrote, “What attaches me, alone in the world, to life? … Alas, I was attached only by the bonds of the heart, only by feelings of affection.  Death has broken them in what was dearest to me … What do I have left to replace this happiness? … The emptiness of a soulless life, an emptiness without support, deep shadows without a glimmer of hope … Will death come quickly enough to save me from this unending pain and give me back the peace that I will find only there?  … You, who should have followed me, you are no more – all of my thoughts, my impressions, and all that remains of my existence are bound to your tomb, to which all my wishes aspire.”
Though unfinished, this is a remarkable picture.  The central figure is indeed complete, as any look at her luxuriant hair and the details of her wings would reveal.  She reflects both golden and white sunlight, and the drapery around her heavenly form seems, to me, finished.  The wings of the figure are particularly impressive – obviously painted with a brush called a ‘fan,’ alternately mixing and creating gradations of shade and color.  The clearly visible brush strokes create a feathery impression, and one can well believe that these are the wings of an angel. 
It is only at the bottom of the picture that Prud’hon probably has not finished his work – look at the study for the picture (see below) that Prud’hon did before painting the actual picture and you can see where his other ideas lay.
In the study for the picture, the figure’s feet are fettered to the earth with chains – missing in the finished picture.  Also, the figure is more completely covered in a voluminous red robe, obscuring her legs and standing in contrast to the wings.  It is possible that Prud’hon originally planned for the robe to be red in order to make the wings pop out.  Also, the wings in the study are golden or yellow-tinted, as is the celestial light from above.  For the finished picture, Prud’hon went with white robe, wings and celestial light – creating a purity of color to make the red of the serpent’s robe at her feet stand in starkest contrast.
There are at least eight initial studies for Soul extant, some drawings or cartoons, others mini paintings.  I think the body language of the study shown here is, in its own way, more striking than that of the finished picture.  The figure in the finished picture has a cool composure, a chilly passion that allows us to believe that this soul is indeed unfettered.  How different from the study, where the body is clearly still of this earth and, in some degree, still in pain.  It is almost as if each iteration brought the figure (and Prud’hon) closer to some kind of peace before the work was actually completed.
Prud’hon’s idea of a religious picture is consistent with his Age of Enlightenment.  While the figure represents the soul, there is no Christian iconography on hand – in fact, the figure seems bathed in the light of Truth rather than the light of heaven.  And while it’s unknown whether he began the picture before or after Mayer’s suicide, the picture clearly is a more personal one to Prud’hon because of the tragedy.
How much solace can an artist receive through his work?  It seems to your correspondent that sometimes artists work in an exalted state of grace, as if receiving guidance from the spheres.  It may not last long, but this finger of grace can transform the most base tragedy into a shared and moving experience.  I like to think that the image of The Soul Breaking the Ties That Bind It to Earth was on Prud’hon’s mind when he closed his eyes that last, final time.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Prud’hon My Absence: Male Nude Leaning on a Rock

I ask my readers to forgive my several days absence, but your correspondent had heavy business obligations that kept him away.  I had also promised another work by Pierre-Paul Prud'hon (1758--1823), so here is another magnificent academic drawing by the master, Male Nude Leaning on a Rock.
The model for this drawing was named Lena, one of two models used by Prud’hon with the same name.  Were there two Lena brothers, or father and son?  That is not known, and though Goncourt states that Lena was the ‘usual male model’ for Prud’hon, it’s unlikely with his bald pate and rather prominent features that he did much work for the artist.  Indeed, he seems to appear in only two other drawings.
This work is done on blue paper with black and white chalk.  I have not seen the original myself, but it appears that a smaller piece of paper was hitched to a larger one – you can see that the figure’s toe and part of the rock extend beyond a horizontal line near the bottom of the page.
This drawing is little short of magnificent.  Note how Prud’hon uses white chalk to accentuate the straining muscles of the arms, which are used to support the weight of the model.  Note, too, how the figure seems to twist to one side as it leans forward – a natural reaction for anyone in the same pose.  (Try it yourself.)  His genitalia are pushed to the side to accommodate his bent leg, and Prud’hon uses a masterful circular shadow thrown by the arm over the bent leg to create a rounded mass as it juts forward.  He also uses a mix of black and gray to delineate the length of the body as it recedes into the distance, and builds up very dark shadows on the arm and arm pits where the light cannot reach.
Though one might think the foot partially hidden by the rock is overlarge, it is important to remember that artists habitually draw feet too small, and that a normal-sized foot is usually as large as a normal sized head.
The truly magnificent achievement of this drawing is the head – for the head is not level, but both tilted and turned.  Prud’hon manages to capture the shift in perspective caused by the tilt and – perhaps my favorite detail of the drawing – the dark shadow cast by the head over the shoulder does not fully cover the barest section of shoulder blade that manages to capture light.
Most artists of Prud’hon’s heroic age made academic drawings during their initial artistic training, and then abandoned the practice.  They drew, of course, but mainly studies or cartoons as a preliminary step to developing a painting or fresco.  Not so Prud’hon, who continued to produce academic drawings throughout his life.  This made him something of an anomaly – these drawings were often time-consuming to create and had little value to collectors or buyers at the time – indeed, Prud’hon’s magnificent drawings were considered of negligible value once his work was sold at the time of his death.  Now, they are considered his greatest artistic legacy.
But he loved to draw.  There is a story told by Eugene Delacroix, who knew several of Prud’hon’s students, including Auguste-Joseph Carrier.  Delacroix wrote that:
In the last years of his life, Prud’hon could be seen spending all of his evenings in the studio of one of his students, Monsieur Trezel, drawing from the model as if he were a student himself.  He felt very comfortable there, with his pencil case in hand, in the company of these young people.  His kindness toward them was inexhaustible.  Many accomplished artists also had reason to praise him.  He often neglected his own work to help colleagues out with his advice and his able hand.
Tomorrow we will take a look at a Prud’hon painting.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Prud’hon’s Standing Male Nude

We return to the incomparable drawings of Pierre-Paul Prud'hon (1758--1823) with this standing male nude.  Again, Prud’hon uses black and white chalk on blue-toned paper – cut narrow to accentuate the length and statuesque quality of the figure. 
The light falls on the figure from the front, creating a white blaze on the upper torso and upper part of the stomach.  The face, with its deep-set eyes and delicate nose and full-lipped, expressive mouth, seems almost Christ-like in repose.  The expression is enigmatic, partially hidden by the sweep of delicately rendered hair. 
Note the deep hues beneath the figure’s chin, left arm and pubic area.  The light was obviously harsh and dramatic, and both the figure’s sculpted features and voluptuous musculature are accentuated to great effect.  The navel, as well, seems rendered with an almost feminine flourish.
“Voluptuous” and “feminine” are perhaps provocative words when describing a male nude, but look again and the figure.  Prud’hon’s figure drawing sometimes had the most remarkable bi-sexual quality: men often feminized or woman oddly muscular and statuesque.  The figure here could well-be described as a strange mixture of Beyonce and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Prud’hon does not clearly delineate the hands of feet of the figure – it is clear that torso, arms and legs are the focus of our gaze.  The fleshy, somewhat hippy lines of the stomach and thighs are underscored by a dark accent mark beside the figure, and the groin area is soft, flaccid and somewhat sexless.
Looking at the face … is it not possible to see just a passing resemblance to Prud’hon’s student, lover and artistic collaborator, Constance Mayer?  I make no allusions – coy or otherwise – to Prud’hon’s relations with her, but if Mayer was indeed Prud’hon’s ideal, is it not possible that a hint, the faintest trace of her, could be found in even his most masculine compositions?
Prud’hon’s nude academic drawings have been revered for over 200 years, and art students have been drawing from copies and prints for nearly that long.  They often hang in the halls of the Art Students League in New York City, where the most ambitious and scrupulous students look, learn … and occasionally genuflect.
More on Prud’hon and Constance tomorrow!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Prud’hon’s Portrait of Constance Mayer

Pierre-Paul Prud'hon (1758--1823) was a French painter and one of the most superlative draughtsmen of his time.  He was born in Cluny, Saone-et-Loire, and was trained in France and Italy.  He worked primarily in Paris and was a favorite of Napoleon.
There has been much debate over whether to characterize Prud’hon as a Classicist or Romantic artist, and there is no better illustration of this conundrum than this stunning drawing of Constance Mayer, rendered in black and white chalk on blue paper.  It was drawn sometime around 1805 and by any yardstick is a remarkable drawing.
Before lingering on this lovely image, let’s spend a moment on the story of Prud’hon and Mayer, one of the most tragic and affecting in the history of art.  Mayer was born in 1775 and was an artist herself, taught by J.B. Greuze, among others.  She was a pupil and later lover of Prud’hon, raising his children for him instead of his invalid wife.  They also collaborated on several paintings and the historical record is sometimes cloudy on what components were from Prud’hon, and which were courtesy of Mayer. 
On her deathbed in 1821, Madame Prud’hon requested that he never remarry, and he promised her, “no, never.”  Upon hearing this, Mayer bade farewell to her own pupils and cut her throat with Prud’hon’s razor.  Prud’hon was not able to save her life and his own health declined after the incident.  He died in 1823, and Prud’hon and Mayer were buried in the same grave in Père Lachaise, Paris.
What a magnificent picture.  Mayer seems to have turned away from her work to give Prud’hon a smile.  The light falls from above, creating dark shadows on her face and around her eyes, which are vibrantly alive.  There are times when the moment seems too intimate, and that we are mere intruders.
Note not only Mayer’s curls, but the shadows they throw on her forehead and the hollows of her eyes.  Not only that, but through some alchemy of chalk and paper, Prud’hon manages to convey a sense of dew upon his beloved’s brow.  The artist uses white judiciously – note how it highlights the moist, and most reflective sections, of her face but not her teeth, which would render Mayer little better than an advertisement.  He also uses his paper to create a satisfactory mid-tone, allowing him to gradually build shadows under the curve of her neck, and create a deep, velvety black for the collar of her jacket. 
The ribbon in her hair is clearly, but not fussily, delineated, and the white of her blouse (or, perhaps, her artist’s apron) creates a non-distracting focus.
This portrait so clearly illustrates the dilemma of whether Prud’hon was a Classicist or Romantic simply because it accomplishes both goals so splendidly.  The portrait has a mastery of line, command of form and finish that clearly aligns Prud’hon with the polished Classicists; however, the homey, almost spontaneous nature of the pose and costume clearly falls in the province of the Romantics.  For this correspondent, I contend that Prud’hon was an arch-Classicist – Romantics (and later Impressionists) largely gave up on drawing, and this picture is literally a glowing example of drawing virtuosity. 
This portrait was probably drawn during the first year of their liaison, so Mayer is around 30 years old here.  Mayer herself obviously loved it, for she painted a miniature from this drawing for her father.  The original always hung near Prud’hon’s easel.
After Mayer’s suicide, he gave the drawing to another of his pupils, August-Joseph Carrier.  He could not look at it any longer, and told Carrier “hide it well, my friend, I am not strong enough to bear its sight anymore.”
It is impossible to look at the smiling Mayer, so young, so vibrant, and so pleasantly sensual, and not think of the horrible end that awaits her.  Our historical hindsight adds to the profound pathos already evident in the picture for, as with many Classicists, Prud’hon captures the pathos of the human condition simply by expertly recording it.
More on Prud’hon and Constance tomorrow!

Friday, October 14, 2011

Renoir's Dance in the Country Sketch

Today, another pretty drawing by Renoir, this, a study for his later painting, Dance in the Country, painted in 1883 and currently at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris.   The painting was commissioned a year earlier by wealthy merchant Paul Durand-Ruel; it is a sister picture to Renoir’s Dance in the City, painted that same year.
The male figure was modeled by Paul Lothe, Renoir’s friend, and the woman is Aline Charigot, who later became Madame Renoir.  The finished painting is rather large -- both figures are life-size – and features Renoir’s characteristic limpid coloration.
But let’s look for a moment at the drawing.  That this is a quick study (executed in brown wash and watercolor with a brush over a pencil sketch) is fairly clear.  Lothe’s arm around Charigot is clearly a little too long above the elbow, and Renoir seems a tad uncertain as to where on the man’s shoulder to place the lady’s hand.  Moreover, Charigot looks more pained than pleasured, a misstep Renoir corrected in the final painting (see below).  Charigot, a simple country girl somewhat in awe of her celebrated husband, looks at us from the finished painting with an open-mouthed grin, teeth showing, truly happy.  It took Renoir a few studies (there is an additional pencil study for the drawing in the Honolulu Academy of Arts) before he captured her mix of happiness and abandon.
What Renoir does do well here is convey the sense of movement; this is not two people standing still in the simulacrum of dance, but a man and a woman really moving.  And Renoir, always colorist before draughtsman, cannot help but apply blue wash to the man’s pants and details of her dress – color was to the Impressionists what line was to the classicists.
While it is always interesting to look at a painting’s preparatory drawings, it is usually the finished work that is the most arresting.  However, I will chance a sacrilege at the Impressionist alter and opine that I think the drawing – a sketch, really – is somehow more beguiling than the finished work.  The drawing has an immediacy and intimacy that the painting lacks, and the line is not obscured by Renoir’s sometimes ‘fuzzy’ brushwork.
Before we leave Renoir, here’s a great story the artist told about how he acquired a Paul Cézanne watercolor (quoted from Renoir, an Intimate Record, by A. Vollard):
Coming back from Italy, I went to the Midi.  I looked up Cézanne and proposed that we should go to Estaque together to paint.
“Oh, don’t go there!” cried Cézanne, who had just come back.  “Estaque is done for!  They’ve put up parapets.  I can’t bear it!”
I went just the same, a little saddened by the thought of how they must have spoiled it; but I was encouraged when I found the same old Estaque, and if Cézanne had not told me, I would never have noticed any change.  His parapets were just a few stones one on top of another.
It was on this trip that I brought back a magnificent water-colour of Bathers by Cézanne, the one you see there on the wall.  The day I found it, I was with my friend Lauth.  He had been suddenly taken with a violent diarrhea.
“Do you see any good leaves around?  No, I don’t want pine-needles.”
“No, but here’s some paper,” I replied, picking up a stray piece at my feet.  It was one of the finest of Cézanne’s water-colours; he had thrown it away among the rocks after having slaved over it for twenty sittings.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Renoir Drawing, Peasant Girl With Dog

This very pleasant drawing, Peasant Girl With Dog, was done in red chalk on cream-colored paper by Pierre-August Renoir (1841-1919) in 1894, one of the most celebrated Impressionist painters.  With perhaps the exception of Edgar Degas, drawings by Impressionist masters are relatively rare – mainly because Impressionists gave up on drawing.
The characteristics we associate with Impressionism largely emerged from the paintings of Renoir and Claude Monet executed between 1867 and 1870.  Between the two of them, they changed the ‘language’ of painting, the after-effects of which are felt to this day.   Impressionists painted directly from the subject (dancers, farmers, seascapes, picnicers) to retain the changing nature of appearances.  They achieved this effect by using broadly painted broken brush-strokes, and by trying to capture objects as they change.  (It is not unusual for an Impressionist still life to include slightly wilted flowers.)  I also think of the advent of Impressionism as the era in which the mind and optic nerve parted ways: the largely intellectual, skill-based discipline of drawing (and painting) was largely abandoned in favor of sensation. 
The canon of Impressionists paintings has, once this new language of painting became more familiar, become very popular with the public.  This is largely because many of the Impressionists (Renoir, Monet, Degas et al) were wonderful colorists.   They painted slices of life rather than epic history or Biblical pictures, or formal portraits, and with this revolution, the centuries-old artistic tradition that began in the early Renaissance began to erode.
Renoir was born in Limoges and moved to Paris in 18S45. His early work was as a porcelain painter, and he used the money he earned to attend the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, where he became a pupil of Gleyre with Monet, Bazille and Sisley. He exhibited in four of the eight Impressionist exhibitions which launched the movement and was one of the leading lights of the revolution until it was perceived that his native good humor led the more zealous Impressionists to dismiss him for not being ‘serious.’  (It is a mystery to your correspondent why ‘dour’ is equated with ‘serious,’ but that is perhaps the topic of a future post.)
We’ll look at Renoir’s life in greater detail tomorrow, but till then, let’s look at the above drawing.  The overall effect is a very pleasant one, but it seems to your correspondent to be little more than an artful doodle.  The woman’s anatomy looks to be sound, but much more is suggested than depicted.  The arm supporting the head seems a bit crabbed, and the head itself unevenly fitted to the torso.  The dog resting on the woman seems to be to scale, until one begins to wonder upon what low object the woman is sitting, or ponders how big is the bottom of the dog’s body.  The other dog is standing on its hind legs, unless it is a dry run for the final depiction of the dog.  The trees and fields are sketched out with a few loose lines, but mass is convincingly created.  So, like much of the Impressionist canon, the overall effect is quite nice, but it does not really support detailed viewing.
If I sound prejudiced against the Impressionists, well …, I am.  While I love much of the work, I cannot separate my momentary optic pleasure from the realization that the movement was the beginning of the end of art.  As Impressionists largely abandoned the discipline of drawing and the long apprenticeship of the Beaux-Arts tradition, art became less about skill and more about ‘feeling.’  It may be a big step between the pretty pictures of Renoir and the horrors of de Kooning, but Impressionism was the necessary first step that made the ugly irrelevancies of Modernism possible.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Heart of the Sunset by Rex Beach

Author Rex Beach

Our fathers used to like that sort of piece, I believe.  The longer I live, Dorian, the more keenly I feel that whatever was good enough for our fathers is not good enough for us.  – Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Few things can gladden the heart more than reading the over-ripe melodrama of our grandparents.  One master of this form was novelist Rex Beach (1877 – 1949), who was also a playwright and Olympic water polo player.  His most famous novel is undoubtedly The Spoilers, written in 1906.  It is one of those gloriously sprawling potboilers detailing the taming of Alaska, complete with miners, prospectors and corrupt government officials.  (Alas, Sarah Palin is nothing new…)  The Spoilers was adapted for the movies at least five times, the lead played by both Gary Cooper and John Wayne in different versions.  His 1909 opus The Silver Horde (another Alaska story) was twice adapted for movies, once starring Joel McCrea.
Beach came to his adventure tales honestly.  He was born in Atwood, Michigan to a prominent family and was a successful lawyer before he succumbed to gold fever and went to Alaska for the Klondike Gold Rush.  He turned to writing after the failure of his prospecting plans – only to find gold of another kind with a wildly successful writing career.  He knocked out novels and plays, along with producing the odd film-adaptation of his own work, and became quite a rich man.  In 1949, two years after the death of his wife Edith, Beach committed suicide in Florida at the age of 71. In 2005, when the home Beach lived in was remodeled, a bullet was found in the wall, believed to be the bullet that killed him. 
The book which concerns us today is Heart of the Sunset, which first saw the light of day in 1915.  Like many forgotten treasures, Heart is available for free download at to your Kindle, or from the invaluable for the e-reader of your choice.  (A quick word about if you’re a serious book-lover and own an e-reader, this is a gold mine of quite another sort.  Upon receiving my first Kindle, your correspondent was able to download some 300 of his favorite books in minutes, and now carries them with him everyplace.)
Heart of the West is not … good. It is, in fact, terrible in that delicious way that only vintage potboilers can be.  Heart does not take place in Beach’s accustomed Northern setting; indeed, the action surrounds the people of Texas and Mexico during the tensions of the time, and our heroes cross the Rio Grande several times.
Heart tells the story of Dave Law, a square-jawed he-man Texas Ranger with an uncanny gift of talking to horses.  Law is tracking down a group of bad men who are dealing with Mexican revolutionaries, led by the evil Gen. Longorio.  Longorio is a wonderful creation: a vicious and brutal egomaniac who is nearly tamed by love of the beautiful and virtuous Alaire – who also loves (and is loved by) Law.  Unfortunately, Alaire is married, at the moment, to one of the men who Law is currently hunting.
Oh … and there is one additional complication.  Insanity runs through Law’s family, and the quick-tempered lawman is afraid that he too, will one day go mad.  But … was he adopted?
Law may make a credible hero in 1915, but he is perhaps a tad too brutal for modern readers.  Capturing one of Longorio’s henchmen, he tortures him for information.  Here’s a glimpse of Beach’s breathless prose:
Seizing the amazed Mexican, Dave flung him upon Morales’s hard board bed, and in spite of the fellow’s struggles deftly made him fast.  When he had finished –and it was no easy job – Jose lay “spread eagled” upon his back, his wrists and ankles firmly bound to the head and foot posts, his body secured by a tight loop over his waist.  The rope cut painfully and brought a curse from the prisoner when he strained at it.  Law surveyed him with a face of stone.
“I don’t want to do this,” he declared, “but I know your kind.  I give you one more chance.  Will you tell me?”
Jose drew his lips back in a snarl of rage and pain, and Dave realized that further words were useless.  He felt a certain pity for his victim and no little admiration for his courage, but such feelings were of small consequence as against his agonizing fears for Alaire’s safety…
Well … our hero does rather graphically torture his captive.  Take that, James Bond!  But our antagonists fare little better.  Here is Longorio after his plans are thwarted:
His face was like tallow now, his lips were drawn back from his teeth as if in supreme agony.  A moment and the hoof beats had died away.  Then Longorio slipped his leash.
He uttered a cry – a hoarse, half-strangled shriek that tore his throat.  He plucked the collar from his neck as if it choked him; he beat his breast.  Seizing whatever article his eye fell upon, he tore and crushed it; he swept the table clean of its queer Spanish bric-a-brac, and trampled the litter under his heels.  Spying a painting of a saint upon the wall, he ran to it, ripped it from its nail, and, raising it over his head, smashed frame and glass cursing all saints, all priests, and churchly people.  Havoc followed him as he raged about the place wreaking his fury upon inanimate objects.  When he had well-nigh wrecked the contents of the room, and when his first paroxysm had spent its violence, he hurled himself into a chair, writhing in agony.  He bit his writs, he pounded his fists, he kicked; finally, he sprawled full length upon the floor, clawing at he cool, smooth tiles until his nails bled.
“Christ! O Christ!” he screamed.
I know how he feels.
Heart of the Sunset is a heady dish for anyone willing to undertake it today.  And while it is easy (too easy) to poke fun at the cultural detritus of a bygone age, I hasten to remind us all that this week’s lead entertainment story is the release of a trailer for The Avengers.  What will be the reaction to that 96 years hence!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The John Wayne Statue at John Wayne Airport

Not all contemporary statues celebrating iconic figures of American history are as dire as the recent travesty at Frederick Douglass Circle in New York perpetrated by sculptor Gabriel Koren.  During a recent trip to John Wayne Airport in Southern California, your correspondent had the pleasure of seeing the massive nine foot statue of Wayne sculpted by Robert Summers.  It is a terrific piece of work.
The airport was renamed the John Wayne Airport in 1979, shortly after Wayne’s death, and is the first airport named after an actor.  The statue was dedicated in 1982, and stands on a two-tier platform so visitors can get close to the figure. 
Artist Robert Summers (born 1940 in Cleburne, Texas) began creating figures of animals with bread dough as a toddler, and drew and sculpted consistently during his school years.  He has had no formal art training, except for a brief course mixing colors when he was 15 years old, but he managed to master a variety of mediums, including pastel, pencil and oil.  He now divides his time between painting and sculpting.  His western-themed landscapes have a pleasing command of color and a real sense of composition.
Summers also serves as an Associate Director of the Creation Evidence Museum, proving once and for all that there is not necessarily a correlation between artistic talent and intelligence.
The Wayne statue stands in the lobby of the airport’s newest terminal, gazing out into the California desert through large plate-glass walls.  It is somewhat kitschily augmented with an enormous American flag behind the figure; but, even with that misstep the effect is impressive.
Summers paid enormous attention to detail, and western film buffs would be gratified to see that he has captured Wayne’s inimitable walk and stance, let alone face and expression.  Summers is also sure to include Wayne’s belt buckle, first worn in 1948’s Red River (directed by Howard Hawks), and worn subsequently by Wayne in western films for the rest of his life.  The costume would appear (at first glance) to be the one worn by Wayne in The Sons of Katie Elder (1965), and Summers accurately captures the drapery of clothes on the moving figure. 
The question of whether Wayne was an accomplished actor or not is the topic of perhaps a future post, but his impact on western films and Americana in general is mighty and immeasurable.  Perhaps no figure has done more for the modern Western film (inheriting the mantle of both Tom Mix and William S. Hart) than Wayne, though perhaps the genre needed Clint Eastwood to maintain its vitality for the Baby Boomer generation.  Searchers of western Americana would find a visit to the John Wayne Airport a worthy pilgrimage, pilgrim.

Monday, October 10, 2011

And the Oscar Goes To….

Vincent Price as Oscar Wilde

For many of us, there is one author who seems to capture the essence of our innermost thoughts and philosophies; our daydreams and waking dreams are put down on paper and the secrets of our lives exposed to the reading world before we have actually lived them.

For me, the author with whom I’ve had the most affinity was Oscar Wilde, patron saint of this blog.  My intellectual and spiritual relationship with Wilde’s work is worthy of a detailed essay, but for today I wanted to discuss representations of Wilde himself, presented in other media.

Though Wilde has appeared as a character in several films, I never thought that any particular actor has captured the whole essence of the man.  Robert Morley played Wilde on stage, and later in the 1960 film Oscar Wilde, but his interpretation never seemed to me in any way organic.  Never for a moment could I sufficiently suspend disbelief that I was watching Wilde rather than an amusing and witty actor cast outside of his range. 

For while Morley was an actor of surprising range when he chose to exercise it, physically and emotionally he was all wrong for Wilde.  In addition, Morley’s film was based on a very popular (at the time) play Oscar Wilde by Leslie and Sewall Stokes, which sought to paint Wilde as something of a tragic martyr.  He was indeed that, to a degree, but this view is such a distortion of the whole picture of Wilde’s life as to ring false.  (It’s interesting to note that John Neville played Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde’s seducer and destroyer; Neville and Morley played brothers Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes in the otherwise forgettable Study in Terror.)

Closer to the mark, I think, was Peter Finch, who played Wilde in The Trials of Oscar Wilde, also in 1960.  The film itself is not particularly good, though James Mason is a standout as Edward Carson, the man who prosecuted Wilde.  Finch’s Wilde was closer to a three-dimensional human being than the caricature created by Morley could ever hope to be, and one wishes that the performance was surrounded by a better film. 

Nickolas Grace played Wilde in Ken Russell’s ornate, rather repulsive Salome’s Last Dance in 1988.  Those familiar with Russell’s oeuvre will either be simpatico to his approach, or not.  This film is not available on DVD (neither are Oscar Wilde or The Trials of Oscar Wilde), but it often plays in revival houses and is interesting for the Russell completist.

The most critically successful Wilde in movies has been Stephen Fry, who starred in the simply titled Wilde in 1997.  This film was a significant success, and helped launch the career of Jude Law, who played Lord Alfred Douglas.  It’s time that I admitted to the rather unpopular view that I thought Fry was not particularly good in the part, and that the film underwhelming.  (Law, on the other hand, is a powerhouse, and possibly delivered his best performance to date – his Douglas is beguiling, dangerous and utterly crackers.)

Fry, director Brian Gilbert and screenwriter Julian Mitchell work so hard to make Wilde a tragedy that, they too, make the same error as Robert Morley: the tragic Wilde is not the complete picture, and is a distortion of the very essence of the man.  For despite how ornate or perfumed his character and outlandish and eccentric his behavior, Wilde was also the supreme comedian of his age.  Any motion picture of Wilde is fundamentally untrue unless it is also, to some degree, wickedly funny.  Wilde the martyr is free of comedy – but Wilde the comedian who became a martyr is a complex and more interesting figure.

Not surprisingly, Wilde is most effectively portrayed onstage, where audiences seem more comfortable with this paradox than in our movie houses.  Moisés Kaufman’s masterful Gross Indecency creates for us a Wilde who is archly funny and profoundly tragic.

Perhaps the finest representation of Wilde was in John Gay’s one-man play, Diversions and Delights, which starred Vincent Price on Broadway at the Eugene O’Neill Theater in 1978, and later, off-Broadway, at the Roundabout Theater.  The conceit of the play is Wilde, near the end of his life and living under the pseudonym Sebastian Melmoth, gave a lecture in Paris telling the story of his life.

It would be nearly impossible to imagine a more serendipitous collusion of actor and part than Vincent Price and Oscar Wilde.  Both were great champions of the arts, both men of deep erudition and each possessed a natural and delicious wit.  I was lucky enough see Price in Diversions and Delights at the Roundabout nearly every night of its run, and now whenever I think of Wilde, on one level or another I imagine Price.  It is, to date, the definitive performance of Wilde.

Happily, Gay’s Diversions and Delights is about to be revived by the Ensemble Theater Company under Kevin Shinnick.  We caught up with Mr. Shinnick last week to get an over of his plans for Diversions and Delights, and his vision of the fledgling Ensemble Theater Company.

Tell us about the Ensemble Theater Company

Well, Craig Dudley and came this close about two years back to getting a production of Diversions and Delights off the ground Off Broadway , so we decided we would now try and form a new nonprofit Professional Off Broadway Equity Approved Company.  Diversions and Delights will be our first production.

What are the company goals?

We want to offer hands-on experience and support to the next generation of theatre artists and audiences, and to produce quality, intelligent theatre that will engage, inspire, entertain and challenge with forgotten or retired theatrical productions; and to celebrate the essential power of the theatre and an ensemble cast to illuminate our common humanity.

We also want to provide opportunities to actors and others interested in pursuing a career in the theatre industry by offering them a chance to learn from seasoned mentors and give them exposure to talent, situations and experiences that they might not otherwise have in their current educational situations.  Though it’s probably best to remember something Wilde said at this point:  “Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught!” - Oscar Wilde

Will you have a stock company of actors?

We will have company members but the ideal is to bring new talent both off and on stage , and let them work with those who are professionals and get them seen . Plus we want to provide talented professionals having difficulty getting seen to show their talent to others…

Why did you choose Diversions and Delights as your inaugural show?

Frankly, it is a show I fell in love with back in 1978 when I sat front row center and watched Vincent Price become the legendary wit and playwright.  
The play is currently unpublished (though trying to find a company smart enough to pick it up), so we were fortunate enough to speak to the very generous and talented author, John Gay. 

What is it about Oscar Wilde that continues to make him relevant and compelling in the 21st Century?

In an age of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell ,gay marriage, gay rights, as well as civil liberties being trod upon , free speech and free press  being stifled (there are protesters being stomped on at Wall Street as I make this reply ,whose protest went on for almost two weeks before the press in general began to cover it) and the general dumbing down of the general populace.

We feel that people want to see entertainment that also stimulates their mind, and has something to say on the human condition .  Another show we are looking at is a piece I directed 10 years ago called The Crimson Thread, which deals with women's issues, as well as unions, in a brilliant funny and touching fashion . 

What’s is like working with the playwright on this production.  What is his involvement?

We contacted him directly and he could not be nicer.  The play has been done rarely since the 1978 tour, so we hope our production will bring attention to this funny and touching piece.

Right now, we are trying to raise funds for the theatre company. If anyone wants to make a donation they can go to Donations from $5 to $5000 can be made via credit card through Fractured Atlas, and are tax deductible. 

Also, on November 18th, Sentimental Journey is performing at the TRIAD in NYC. Parts of the proceeds will go to benefit TETCNY's fundraiser campaign. You can learn more here at:  Also, people can visit our Web page at 

We’re looking for new members and contributors, as well as a Director of Development and a Web Site Designer.  Anyone interested can contact me through the Web site.

Thank you, Kevin!