Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Michael Chabon’s Manhood

I just realized that the above title might promise more than I can deliver…
Michael Chabon (born 1963) is very much an anomaly in contemporary serious fiction: he is actively involved in telling a story and he wants you to like him.  As such, his remarkable popularity with the general reading public and with the literati is a happy coincidence that ensures both his continued publication and his serious critical reception.  This interest in narrative (and, to a lesser degree, genre fiction) is a refreshing change in American letters, which for decades has been mired in short, slice-of-life tidbits that read as if they were missing both the opening and closing pages.
I have found Chabon’s fiction to be very much a mixed bag.  I thought The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000) to be magnificent; indeed, one of the best books of the decade.  I also found his The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988), Wonder Boys (1995) and Werewolves in Our Youth (1999) to be powerful and affecting books.  However, in trying to craft more ‘literary’ forays into genre writing, he has churned out an astounding number of clunkers, including the incomprehensible Sherlock Holmes pastiche The Final Solution (2004), the sword-and-sorcery meller Gentlemen of the Road (2007), and the completely unreadable alternate history, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007).  (In fact, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is such a bad book that the thuggish policemen who so recently attacked peaceful American protestors should be forced to read it twice.  Aloud.)
Chabon’s second nonfiction book was Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son, published in 2009.  (His earlier books of essays, Maps and Legends, published in 2008, will be covered in a future post.)  Chabon’s Manhood encompasses a great deal of territory (sorry), and the full range of his musings and concerns make expansive and fascinating reading.  And, more so than after any of these novels, I closed the book thinking, “I like this man a lot.”
Chabon breaks his essays into interesting categories, such as Exercises in Masculine Affection, Patterns of Early Enchantment, or Studies in Pink and Blue.  Each and every section has much to commend it, and the essays in Tactics of Wonder and Loss contain passages that can only be called shimmering.  Here, for example, is Chabon writing about his own, aborted first marriage in his essay The Hand On My Shoulder: The meaning of divorce will elude us as long as we are blind to the meaning of marriage, as I think at the start we must all be.  Marriage seems – at least it seemed to an absurdly young man in the summer of 1987, standing on the sun-drenched patio of an elegant house on Lake Washington – to be an activity, like chess or tennis or a rumba contest that we embark upon in tandem while everyone who loves us stands around and hopes for the best.  We have no inkling of the fervor of their hope, nor of the ways in which our marriage, that collective endeavor, will be constructed from and burdened with their love.
Fine stuff, that. 
Chabon also has a great deal of insight on the richness of childhood imagination, and how the imaginative landscape of our childhood often coalesces into our adult frame of reference.  He, for example, loved the short-lived Planet of the Apes television show he watched as a boy because the format and premise were open-ended enough for his imagination to run riot and play a variety of different games.  He fears that current entertainment for children is so over-produced and so ironic that this lush imaginative landscape has grown smaller.  Chabon also believes that a healthy appreciation of ‘crap culture’ (comic books, junk movies, television) is not necessarily a bad thing, and that: what smells strongly of crap to one generation – Victorian penny dreadfuls, the music of the Archies, the Lone Ranger radio show, blaxploitation films of the seventies – so often becomes a fruitful source of inspiration, veneration, and study for those to come, while certified Great and Worthy Art molders and fades on its storage rack, giving off an increasingly powerful whiff of naphthalene.
Of course, as with any book of essays, there is some dross with the gold.  His Biblical mediations while watching the Barack Obama inauguration feel forced and his article on circumcision could be cut.  (Sorry.)  But for every minor misstep, there is an embarrassment of riches to be found in Manhood for Amateurs, and it comes highly recommended.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Fencing Master by Arturo Perez-Reverte

Readers with a taste for historical fiction (or simply fine novels) could do no better than The Fencing Master by Arturo Perez-Reverte (born 1951).  Though it has been several days since I’ve finished the book, it has been echoing through my head with the persistence complicit of a fine novel.
Perez-Reverte came to my attention first through his series of swashbucklers about Captain Alatriste, set in the 17th Century Spain.  My taste for swashbucklers and meticulously researched historical fiction, mixed with the author’s reputation, led me to believe that there was a tasty dish in store for me.  However, I must confess that I find the Alatriste novels to be very weak tea, indeed.  Alatriste never comes to life as a character, and the novels lack plotting both deft and dense which is the hallmark of good swashbucklers. 
So it was with some trepidation that I approached The Fencing Master, first published in 1988.  This novel is not part of any ongoing series, and in it Perez-Reverte manages to create a tale both touching and chilling, complex in its machinations and simple in its humanity.
Don Jaime Astarloa is the fencing master of the title.  The year is 1868 and the place is Madrid.  Don Jaime’s place in the world is rapidly shrinking: the ascendance of revolvers and rifles have made the art of fencing obsolete and his aristocratic clients now use the foil for sport and exercise rather than on the field of honor.
Don Jaime is a true aesthete: the art of fencing is the center and core of his existence.  Intertwined with that art are all of the things that make fencing his religion – honor, chivalry, elegance, justice and discipline.  However, time has not been not been kind to the maestro.  Working in the silent devotion of his craft, the world has largely passed him by.  Not only is the sword becoming obsolete, but huge political forces are at work in Spain, deep and complex intrigues that could topple the monarchy.
Don Jaime spends much of his free time working on his monumental Treatise on the Art of Fencing, and spending time with a small circle of friends at the local café.  He believes that his life is largely over, and that he is marking time (and saving money) for the day when he would descend into the care of some religious order that cares for the elderly.
All of that changes dramatically when a beautiful woman, Adela de Otero, comes to him for fencing lessons.  At first Don Jaime is reluctant – teaching the art of fencing to a woman is simply not done – but when he learns of her already considerable prowess, he relents and the lessons begin.
From this simple premise, Perez-Reverte creates both a thrilling melodrama and a poignant meditation on change and the insularity of our lives.  Though Don Jaime has lived beyond his time, he is a man of honor, of discipline, and chivalry.  But what do these qualities mean in a world that no longer values them?  And is Don Jaime a fool, an easily manipulated codger without a clue as to how the ‘real world’ works, or a hero who manages to live life by his own ethical and artistic lights?
Perhaps what is most affecting is Perez-Reverte’s generosity of spirit while writing about Don Jaime.  This is an affecting portrait of a good man without the capabilities necessary to navigate a world increasingly ugly and corrupt.  Here is Perez-Reverte describing his weekly café visit:
Fausto arrived with the toast.  Don Jaime dunked his thoughtfully in his coffee.  The interminable polemics in which his colleagues engaged bored him enormously, but their company was no better or worse than any other.  The couple of hours he spent there each afternoon helped him salve his loneliness a little.  For all their defects, their grumbling, and their bad-tempered ranting about every other living being, at least they gave one another the chance to give vent to their respective frustrations.  Within that limited circle, each member found in the others the tacit consolation that his own failure was not an isolated fact but a thing shared to a greater or lesser measure by them all.  That above all was what brought them together, keeping them faithful to their daily meetings.  Despite their frequent disputes, their political differences, their disparate moods, the five felt a complex solidarity that, had it ever been expressed openly, would have been hotly denied by all of them but that might be likened to the huddling together for warmth of solitary creatures.
The Fencing Master is on par with the finest works of Dumas.  Heady praise indeed, but if that will induce you to buy this book, then let it stand.  You will not be disappointed.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling

Most contemporary mainstream, popular books that seek to put the significant people and events of the past into some kind of narrative often fail because, for a variety of reasons, we have managed to collectively fail to appreciate or understand that the past was … fundamentally different.
Many of the social constructs we take for granted are, historically speaking, of recent creation.  So too are our notions of hygiene and cleanliness, our sense of responsibility to society and to one another, our sense of where and when to recourse to violence.  Changed, too, are our appreciation of fidelity to a particular faith or credo, the way we dress and our social expectations, and (sadly) our sense of honor.
In short, the people of the past could not be more different than we if they were Martians.  The reasons for our lack of intellectual and emotional empathy with the past are many and far-ranging.  The ubiquity of a distancing technology, the many and beneficial effects of social mobility (at least while it lasts in this country) and the impact of science to wipe away the superstitions of a millennia are but a few of the reasons.  For a popular historian to truly become simpatico with the distant past requires a deep knowledge of then-prevailing opinions, politics, social norms and day-to-day living.
For those of interested in the Renaissance and many of the gigantic figures who loomed so large within it, I recommend Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling by Ross King without reservation.  It tells the story of the often stormy relations between the artist Michelangelo and his patron, Pope Julius II.  Other historical figures who play a part in the history are Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Savonarola, Erasmus and Martin Luther.
For those of us who expect our popes to be gentle vicars of Christ, men who spearhead the message of peace (or intolerance) of the Church, Julius II will come as a great surprise. A warrior Pope, Julius spent nearly on battlefields of Italy trying to regain control of once-Papal lands now under French rule as he did in the Vatican. Along with his host of occasionally murderous cardinals and courtiers, and sometimes with the advice of his daughter (I did say popes were somewhat different then), Julius sought to use the Church as a means by which he could restore all of Italy to the grandeur and international influence it held in the age of Caesar.
Needless to say, such a titanic character had a titanic ego.  To help refashion the world around him, and to leave a lasting artistic legacy forever attached to his name, Julius selected Michelangelo as one of his leading artists and visionaries.
This selection was not an easy one.  Every bit as arrogant, egocentric and difficult as Pope Julius, Michelangelo had no use for the warrior Pope and hoped to continue building his career in Florence.  However, refusal of a Papal commission could have fatal consequences, and with great misgivings the great artist went to Rome.
Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling masterfully tells the story of how Michelangelo painted the magnificent frescoes of the Sistine Chapel, and the four years of misery, fear, intimidation and frustration he suffered while doing so.  A suspicious, nasty, ungenerous, physically dirty and fairly rancid individual, Michelangelo did not work happily under duress, threats or discomfort.  The fact that Raphael – younger, better looking, popular, beloved – was creating rival masterpieces (e.g. The School of Athens) a few away at the same time did little to improve his mood.
Most amazingly to us – who now, after centuries of looking at the iconic images of the Sistine ceiling as one of the most magnificent artistic achievements of the western world – Michelangelo insisted that he was a painter of no ability at all, and that his effort was doomed to failure.  Draw whatever parable of artistic self-blindness you want here.
Sometimes a name looms so large in history – like Michelangelo – that it is almost impossible to think of a flesh-and-blood human being in there as well.  Ross King manages to bring these huge historical characters to life in a real and vibrant way, and makes us understand both the richness and strangeness of the Renaissance.
Here, for example, is the warrior pope about to leave for battle following negative omens:  “Julius was undaunted by the omen, and for the next week Rome bustled with preparations.  Finally, before dawn on the morning of the twenty-sixth of August, after an early Mass, he was borne in his litter to the Porta Maggiore, one of Rome’s eastern gates, where he gave a blessing to those who had risen to cheer him on his way.  With him were five hundred knights on horseback and several thousand Swiss infantry armed with pikes.  Twenty-six cardinals accompanied them, together with the choir from the Sistine Chapel and a small army of secretaries, notaries, chamberlains, auditors – a good part of the Vatican bureaucracy.  Also among the company was [artist] Donato Bramante, who served among other duties, as the pope’s military architect.”
King (born 1962) is also the author of Brunelleschi’s Dome and the novel Ex-Libris. We will revisit his work soon.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Charles Dickens: Action Hero

Helena Bonham Carter as Miss Haversham
in the Upcoming Great Expectations

I should not, at this late date, be amazed at the cultural priorities of contemporary film production companies, nor of the people who regularly consume the offal smeared across our movie screens. 
Every few months, it seems we are bombarded with news stories about disgruntled aficionados who feel that movies based on comic books have desecrated sacred texts.  “The costumes are wrong!” they shriek, or “but he didn’t do that until later in the comics series!”
More amusing still is the fidelity Hollywood pays to wretched television shows of yesteryear, as if our cultural detritus were of deep, mystical importance.  (“Look, he said just what Dr. Smith would’ve said on Lost in Space.  Kewl!”)  Do we really need a new version of The Munsters (coming to a TV near you); come to think of it, did we need the original version of The Munsters…?
What makes all of this jackanapery all the more ridiculous is that only our junk is sacred, while it is seemingly open season on our fine arts heritage.  The recent film Anonymous posits that William Shakespeare was not Shakespeare – a tired bit of flummery that only Roland Emmerich (the mega-budget Ed Wood) would consider for a large-scale mainstream junk movie.  (Or, as the perpetually adolescent editorial board of Wikipedia dubs it, a “political thriller and historical drama,” which is rather like calling Winnie-the-Pooh a treatise on ursine behavior.)
Now that Hollywood has settled Shakespeare’s hash, they move onto spitting on yet another classic with an upcoming adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations.
The horror being molded from a heaping, pullulating pile of rancid celluloid is not merely that which comes with concision or adaptation into another medium.  Oh, no, because now we are being dished up what we have always wanted – proof that Dickens was a writer of action novels.
As recently reported by the BBC, this new version of Great Expectation is being directed by Mike Newell and written by David Nicholls.  As Nicholls told the BBC, Dickens wrote "great action … It's very fast moving - with all kinds of twists and turns - so we're very much approaching it as a thriller … What we didn't want to do was impose an anachronistic genre on to Dickens - we didn't want to turn it entirely into a film noir."
Thank heavens.  Turning it entirely into a film noir would just ruin it.
For those who collect examples of overweening hubris coupled with utter cluelessness, here are Nicholls’ other revelations:  he not only includes flashbacks to Miss Haversham’s wedding (“when Pip goes to see her, it’s a bit like going to see Hannibal Lecter – it’s a real set piece”), but changes the ending of the novel, as well.  As Nicholls’ says, “Dickens came up with two endings - one which is incredibly bleak and one which is unrealistically romantic and sentimental … Neither are quite satisfactory and we've come up with an ending that isn't in the book - and is somewhere in between …It draws on events in the book but takes them in a slightly different direction, but is in no way sacrilegious."
Oh, well.  There’s still The Munsters.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Percy Bysshe Shelley at Occupy Wall Street

Yesterday’s heroic actions, both here in the US and abroad, of the rising Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement have put me in mind of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s magnificent poem, The Mask of Anarchy.
Mask was written in 1819, following the Peterloo Massacre.  In August, 1819, the cavalry attacked a crowd of some 70,000 peaceful protestors who had gathered to demand reforms of parliamentary representation.  It was a time of incredible unemployment, and austerity measures on behalf of the government were making matters worse.  During the demonstration, local authorities called on the military to arrest the movement’s leader, Henry Hunt, and other key followers.
In a manner that eerily foreshadows recent events in New York, Portland, Seattle and Oakland, the cavalry charged into the crowd with drawn swords.  Some 15 people were murdered during this early police action, and more than 500 were injured.  Wags of the time called the massacre Peterloo in an ironic comparison to the recent Battle of Waterloo.
Shelley (1792-1822) -- idealist, humanist and liberal – was appalled at the heavy-handed behavior of the government, and at the unthinking violence on the part of the cavalry.  He wrote The Mask of Anarchy in response, but the poem was not published until 1832, after the poet had drowned off the coast of Italy.  It was published with a preface by fellow poet Leigh Hunt, who had initially withheld it from publication because he “thought that the public at large had not become sufficiently discerning to do justice to the sincerity and kind-heartedness of the spirit that walked in this flaming robe of verse.”
Readers who want to read the whole poem can see an online edition of the 1832 first edition here:
I’d to close today with my favorite passage from the poem:
Stand ye calm and resolute,
Like a forest close and mute,
With folded arms and looks which are
Weapons of unvanquished war.

And if then the tyrants dare,
Let them ride among you there,
Slash, and stab, and maim and hew,
What they like, that let them do.

With folded arms and steady eyes,
And little fear, and less surprise
Look upon them as they slay
Till their rage has died away

Then they will return with shame
To the place from which they came,
And the blood thus shed will speak
In hot blushes on their cheek.

Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you-
Ye are many — they are few

The Peterloo Massacre was one of the defining moments of its age, as, I believe, OWS will prove to be to ours.  The poem should be required reading for the police of our once-great nation.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Cat and Mouse by Gunter Grass

I will admit upfront that novels of teenage angst are meaningless to me.  I was as dumbfounded by the cult of J. D. Salinger’s vapid Cather in the Rye in my adolescence as I am now in my near-dotage.  So when a friend passed along Cat and Mouse, by Gunter Grass, I approached it with trepidation.
On the plus side, the young men in Cat and Mouse have a little more on their plate than did poor old Holden Caulfield: World War II, the rise of Nazism, navigating the Hitler Youth, and that thing about girls.  How could it not be more interesting?
Well … it is and it isn’t.  While Grass avoids the relentless-navel-gazing-game he loses ground with the obscurity-is-profundity gambit.  The novel concerns a teenage outsider named Mahlke, who manages to perform many feats both strange and wonderful to the delight and bewilderment of the young men around him.  Mahlke is a great swimmer, and has gone so far as to create (we are told) a secret room for himself in the hull of a sunken submarine.  He can hoodwink teachers, is capable of remarkable feats of endurance, is something of an athlete and, of course, has an unusually large penis. 
Unfortunately Mahlke (his friends dub him “the Great Mahlke”) is as much Jimmy Olson as Clark Kent.  He has an abnormally large Adam’s apple, and he often wears freakish neckwear to cover it (everything from bowties made of ping pong balls to screwdrivers hanging from shoelaces).  In addition, he has a major predilection for the Cult of the Virgin, and is often found prostrate before images of the Mother of Christ.
Sadly, what adds additional confusion to this hodgepodge of grotesque character detail is that our narrator (who does not name himself until nearly 50 pages into this slim volume) is unreliable.  He tells one story, then backtracks and questions whether it is the correct version or not.  Indeed, he cannot even remember the details of his own life; when a schoolteacher is arrested (“probably for political reasons”), the still unnamed narrator writes: “Some of the students were questioned. I hope I didn’t testify against him.”   This type of literary guessing game is for more patient, forgiving readers than I. 
What saves Cat and Mouse from being a total mess is the overarching sense of guilt with which Grass infuses every page.  Our narrator is consumed with guilt over everything: the way his life has turned out, the eventual fate of Mahlke, the end of his boyhood, indeed, the very course of Germany and the war itself.  Readers in the United States have not yet had to grapple with the kind of national guilt that plagued Grass and his generation (though I suspect upcoming generations will notice the collective blood on our hands all too well), and it strikes a note not often found in our literature.  But what Grass has done with Cat and Mouse is to present a grim meditation on heroism, and to show that this precious commodity can be made squalid and rancid by war and national guilt.
This pervasive theme was no doubt borne of the very real guilt felt by Grass himself.  Grass was born in 1927, and at the beginning of his meteoric literary career indicated that he was too young and too uninvolved to be an active part of Hitler’s Germany.  However, in an August 2006 interview, Grass admitted that he was a member of the Waffen-SS, an essential part of the Nazi party and its key instrument in committing war crimes.
Grass has spent his life after the war in left wing and pacifist causes and violently opposed the reunification of Germany.  Perhaps Grass, like the narrator of Cat and Mouse, has never been able to feel free from a sense of guilt.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The World’s Most Expensive Photograph

The World's Most Expensive Photograph
(No, I Don't Get It, Either)

Sigh.  As if yesterday’s story on Peter Woytuk’s “installation” on Broadway was not enough to break the fragile crystal of this aesthete’s heart, now we have news that Rhein II, a 1999 photograph by Andreas Gursky, was sold at Christie’s New York for the world-record-setting price of $4,338,500.  You can see the photograph yourself, above.
Well .. where to begin?  Let’s start with Christie’s own Web site, which reads that the photo is a “breathtaking masterpiece of scale and wonderment, as well as the icon of Andreas Gursky's pioneering photographic oeuvre."
Well, at least the Christie’s copywriter is earning his or her money.  This ink-stained wretch goes on to write, “reaching out towards infinity, the work invokes a contemporary take on the ‘sublime’ with the astounding perfection of line and color achieved through the invocation of an apparently natural landscape."
The 73x143 in. color print is face-mounted to Plexiglas (no note if the buyer paid extra for that) and was bought by a “distinguished German sucker collector.”
Now, I’m sure that printing a picture that is 73x143 is a formidable task itself; and I’m sure that the good Mr. Gursky (born 1955) photoshopped it to his heart’s content.  However, this is a perfect example of the breakdown of our collective aesthetic sense, and how the hucksters have invaded a once rarefied realm.  Then again, I’m sure our “distinguished German collector” is not really interested in the arts, but is that most horrible kind of parasite, the art speculator. 
Perhaps a scam of such magnitude is only possible in our current Balkanized intellectual environment, where the world’s most famous auction house would engage in such monumental flummery as to pawn a holiday snapshot off as art and expect a gullible public with deep pockets to buy it as such.  Regular readers of this blog will think back to our recent examination of various masterpieces based on the Biblical David, and wonder what has happened to both the arts and the people that support them. 
I know I do.
I would like to break precedent here at the Jade Sphinx and make a direct offer to Christie’s.  Below are two recent camera-phone snaps taken while visiting Stony Brook, Long Island.  To quote Christie’s again, the viewer is "not invited to consider a specific place along the river, but rather an almost 'platonic' ideal of the body of water as it navigates the landscape".
Yeah.  That’s what I meant.  An opening bid of $1 million (I’m not greedy) can take them away.  Surely there is a “distinguished German collector” for me, too?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Peter Woytuk’s Large Animal Sculptures Invade New York

There are times when your correspondent can only shake his head in disappointed wonderment.  It seems, at times, as if New York actively demonstrates that it can only support public art that is ugly, irrelevant or meretricious.  After the appalling Frederick Douglass statue in Harlem and the gaudy Andy Warhol in lower Manhattan, how much lower can the City Fathers sink?
There answer is: lots lower.  Currently the city is under siege, an attack calculated by the Broadway Mall Association, the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation and the Morrison Gallery of Kent, Connecticut (note that Morrison is safely several states away).  The weapon, a series of “whimsical and captivating sculptures” dumped on city streets from Columbus Circle to 168th Street. 
The sculptures are the work of Peter Woytuk (born 1958), who obviously took his early experiences with Play-Dough too closely to heart.  What can one say of Woytuk, other than yet another “artist” has flimflammed civic-minded boobs?  Here is a snippet of Woytuk’s bio, courtesy of his representative, the Morrison Gallery:
In recent years, Peter has been experimenting with life-size and monumental sculpture. His group of bulls, in particular, were first selected because he was attracted to the "sprawl of mass" displayed by seated and reclining bulls on the farms surrounding his former studio in New England. In his interpretation, Peter has somewhat altered their shapes. As he explains, "they're basically large volumes of simplified bovine forms. Their backbone contours, the overlapping silhouette lines of bull groupings, mirror the shapes of the hills surrounding my studio. I kind of like to think of them as the cow as landscape." Ultimately for Peter, the end result is not only the objects themselves but also the way other people respond to and interact with them. He is pleasantly surprised that the bulls have "become sort of a playground for children. They're inviting and great to climb on," he explains.

Peter's decision to create large-scale sculpture has brought about an interesting dilemma –where to have such enormous work cast. For his larger sculptures, Peter has been using foundries in Thailand and China. According to Peter, these facilities, which are used to "working on twenty-foot Buddhas," have "the ability to pour very large-scale sculpture. They're almost unique in their capacity to melt and pour a great amount of metal." The resulting product is finely crafted under the scrupulous direction of the artist.
Ah … finely crafted under the scrupulous direction of the artist.  In short, high-end junk for a people who no longer believe in real art.  One is delighted, however, that children are smart enough to know a large-scale toy when they see it, and act accordingly.
The above bird (bird?) can be found at the train station at Broadway and 72nd.  It is representative of the show, which is to say that none of the other pieces are better or worse.  Another worm at the core of the Big Apple…

Monday, November 14, 2011

Frank Langella at the Cornell Club


Your correspondent had the great pleasure of listening to a question and answer session with legendary actor Frank Langella last Friday at New York’s Cornell Club.  The luncheon event, presented under the auspices of the Hudson Union Society, presented Langella in a discussion about his latest star turn in Terrance Rattigan’s (1911-1977) Man and Boy, and then opened the floor to questions.
Langella is one the Americans actors who has carved-out both formidable film and stage careers.  For over 30 years he has morphed from a handsome leading man to a distinguished character player; Broadway roles have included Noel’s Coward’s Gary Essidine (Present Laughter), Sir Thomas More (A Man For All Seasons), actor Junius Booth (the interesting and overlooked Booth by Austin Pendleton), and, of course, Dracula in the Edward Gorey production of Dracula.  (He played a vampire of another type recently in Frost/Nixon, rightly portraying the former president as a slightly rancid revenant.)
Langella’s film career has been more spotty.  Studios worked to make him a mainstream leading man (playing Dracula as a romantic idol, for instance, or in the wonderful Those Lips, Those Eyes), but Langella was never wholly successful as a traditional lead.  Langella’s persona is too epic, too dangerous, and too larger than life for conventional leads.  By temperament and by technique, he is ideally suited for such figures as Sherlock Holmes and Leonardo da Vinci, Prospero and Cyrano.
Langella has had a formidable handicap to his classical theater ambitions – he is an Italian-American born in New Jersey.  (I well recall one waggish New York Times reporter calling him, “Bayonne’s gift to classical theater,” which is both snobbish and stupid.)  Langella, born in 1938, joins a small, select group of North Americans – Christopher Plummer and Kevin Kline come to mind -- with capabilities at classical parts to rival their European counterparts. 
If you have the opportunity to see Langella in Man and Boy, do not miss it.  Rattigan’s 1963 drama about a monstrous captain of industry, and how he ruins the lives of both investors and his own son, could not be timelier as the temperature drops around our Occupy Wall Street heroes. 
Last Friday, Langella was an amusing interview.  He graciously answered questions about his turn as Dracula – though it’s quite clear that he is more than tired of it.  (“It took the industry 10 years to forget that I played Dracula; it took me 10 minutes.”)  He also revealed that he is a dedicated craftsman as well was a great artist – he believes in being on and delivering for audiences.  If you can’t ‘turn it on’ or ‘turn it off,’ you should not be an actor.  He also told of an actor who had played Hamlet and three months after the run, could still not let go of the role.  “Then you did it wrong,” Langella said.
Happily, he spoke at length about Cyrano, who has played three times on stage, and he is preparing to direct a production next year.  It’s Langella’s belief that there is more than a little Cyrano in every man.  “We are all blocked by something – we think we’re too fat or think we’re too ugly, or that our nose is too big – and because of that, we’re unworthy of the love of a beautiful woman,” he said.  “But what Cyrano missed is that he was loved for his soul, and if a person has a beautiful soul, he is always worthy of love.”
Langella spoke with a mix of nostalgia and amusement about his upbringing in a noisy Italian-American home.  (“If pots weren’t flying, I thought something was wrong.”)  He also spoke at length about his preference for stage work, and how proud his is that his has mainly been a theatrical career.
It is always alarming to see a great actor at his ease.  I had the impression that I was with an indulgent uncle rather Dracula, Cyrano and Prospero.  But that is Langella’s point – there is something grand and elemental in even the most quiet people.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Caravaggio’s David and Goliath

We go from the sublime David of Michelangelo to the profoundly disturbing David and Goliath of Caravaggio.  Born Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610), Caravaggio was the original ‘bad boy’ of art.  His remarkable body of work, with its heightened drama and use of differing levels of dark paint, created the bridge between the High Renaissance and the Baroque school of painting.
Caravaggio trained in Milan under a master who had trained with Titian.  He moved to Rome while still a young man in his 20s and quickly set up a reputation as a painter of considerable skill.  He also established his reputation as a wild man – drinking, brawling and having a string of affairs with young boys.  He killed a man in 1606 during an argument, and fled Rome with a price on his head.  He was involved in serious fights in 1608 and 1609 (in Malta and Naples, respectively), and died at 38 from a fever in Porto Ercole, near Grosseto in Tuscany, while on his way to Rome to receive a pardon.  This picture of David and Goliath was sent ahead of Caravaggio to Rome as a Papal offering prior to his pardon.
Let’s look at this remarkable picture.  If you look closely at the upper left hand of the canvas, you’ll see that David has just entered a tent, presumably the tent of Saul, to display the head of Goliath.  Notice that the sword is at an angle to David’s groin, another (perhaps unconscious) instance of the Renaissance mind eroticizing David.
It is reported that Caravaggio referred to the figure of the young David as “il suo Caravaggino” or, in English, “his little Caravaggio.”  This pun has puzzled art historians for centuries.  Was Caravaggio referring to his young studio assistant (and probable lover), or did he paint a picture of his younger self?
If Caravaggio did indeed paint his younger self as David, this picture becomes even more amazing because Caravaggio modeled the face of Goliath on himself, as well – making this picture of David and Goliath a double-portrait.
The face of Goliath is not that of a monster nor giant, but a dissipated satyr.  The eyes are heavily lidded and puffy, the mouth slack and weak, the teeth rotting, the hair long and unkempt.  But, underneath it all, is there not a resemblance between David and Goliath?
Even more remarkable is the expression of young David’s face.  There is none of the serene self-satisfaction of Donatello, nor the heroic resolution of Michelangelo.  Rather, this David seems mournful as he regretfully holds the head of Goliath into our view.  Could this not be Caravaggio looking regretfully upon his older self?  Or, if as is supposed, this picture was a Papal offering, a promise that the older, monstrous Caravaggio is now dead, eliminated by his own better self?
Caravaggio’s David and Goliath is a puzzle inside of mystery – and one of the most enigmatic works of the Renaissance.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Michelangelo’s David

Michelangelo’s David is, of course, the most famous male nude figure in the world.  It has been photographed, recast, and rendered into kitschy souvenirs.  But despite five centuries of familiarity and more recent efforts to render the masterwork irrelevant or banal, this 17 foot colossus maintains its power to enthrall, inspire and move.
Its gestation was not easy.  The work was originally entrusted to Agostino di Duccio (1462) and then to Antonio Rossellino (1476), but both gave it up as a bad job.  The block of marble mined from the Opera del Duomo of Florence was flawed with veins, was too tall and too narrow, and otherwise unacceptable.  Leonardo also turned down the job (no surprise there) and the marble slab was left in the courtyard of the Opera del Duomo until 1501.
When the David project was resurrected by the gonfalonier Pier Soderini, who was engaged in another artistic and intellectual revival of Florence, he approached Michelangelo.  That artist – an incredibly difficult, arrogant, argumentative man – could not resist the opportunity to succeed where other artists had failed.  He was only 26 years old and would complete the commission in two years.
David was originally commissioned to be one of a series of statues lining the roof of the Florence Cathedral, but David was placed instead in a public square outside the Palazzo della Signoria.  Its reception was both rapturous and censorious.  Soderini thought the nose too big – Michelangelo went up to the face and pretended to chisel away at it.  Soderini was satisfied and Michelangelo secretly cursed him as a fool.  Some conservative factions – and philistines seem to be with us in every age – threw stones at it.
Where to begin writing about this, perhaps the greatest achievement of Western art?  That David is beautiful is a given, but what can we glean about the statue other than youth and beauty?
First, let’s see where this David is different from the David of Donatello and Titian.  The first thing you’ll notice is what is missing – Goliath.  There is no headless body, no foot resting on the severed head.  Indeed, Michelangelo depicts David before killing the giant – his hand holding the stone that will kill Goliath close to his thigh, sling at the ready, eyes on his adversary.
Note, too, David is heroically nude, in the Classical mode.  This David is not just the Biblical David, but also every hero from antiquity through to the present day.  The statue is Perseus and Achilles and Hercules as well as David – he represents an ideal of young heroism.
Unlike most statues of antiquity (or those based on a Classical ideal), Michelangelo eschews the placid beauty of the face for one of handsome intensity.  Seen from the front, David has a handsome and resolute profile.  But approach the statue from other angels and the face alters – intensity turns to thoughtful composure to a face coldly assessing a great danger.  It is this human dimension that elevates Michelangelo’s David from some chilly ideal of humanity and breathes life into the figure.
The head and hands seem to be slightly too large to accommodate the figure.  The common view is that, since it was meant to be viewed from below, that Michelangelo made them too large to accommodate the change in perspective.  I, myself, do not agree with this theory.  Rather, I think the head and the hands are accentuated because they are the organs of thought and action.
Michelangelo’s David is such a part of our environment that it seems almost impossible to imagine the world without it.  It is my favorite work of art, and a large porcelain copy is on my desk as I write these words.  The figure of David provides both solace and inspiration, and remains an ideal – physical, spiritual and intellectual – to which we can all aspire.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Titian’s David and Goliath

Simply a magnificent painting by the Venetian painter, draughtsman and designer Titian (born Tiziano Vecellio 1489-1576).  Perhaps the greatest Venetian painter of the Renaissance, Titian was called by his contemporaries The Sun Amidst Small Stars (after the final line of Dante’s Paradiso).  He was a remarkably versatile painter, equally at home with landscapes, portraits and large narrative pictures.  He is particularly important to art history because of his unique mastery of color.

Titian was born in Pieve di Cardore, in Venice, and lived to be quite an old man by Renaissance standards.  His style changed often throughout his lifetime, but his serious study and application of color was a constant throughout his career.  His later works were, perhaps, muted compared to his earlier pictures, but his overall approach also grew in subtlety. 

This painting is now in the church of Santa Maria della Salute in Venice. It was originally made as a ceiling painting for the Santo Spirito in Isola; Titian made two other ceiling paintings for that church, Cain and Abel and the Sacrifice of Isaac. 

Look at the barren landscape Titian uses for his tableaux – nothing save some rocks and the merest hint of vegetation and blasted scrub to the right.  The place – and perhaps not even the time – are not important in this picture, rather, the only reality of the picture is the eternal struggle between boy and monster that take up frame.

Unlike Donatello’s bronze David (or Michelangelo’s, which we will look at later this week) David is mostly clothed.  (Indeed, he wears more clothing than the traditionally heavily armored Goliath.)  Curiously, his simple tunic rides heavenward, revealing his leg and the curve of his bottom.  His arms, too, are extended heavenward, obscuring his face and placing emphasis on his musculature.  I find this fascinating – the Biblical text specifically describes David as ‘beautiful,’ but it seems as if Renaissance artists make a point of eroticizing the boy hero.  This is not surprising as David was the patron saint of the Florentine state, and the Renaissance put a very high premium on male beauty.

David’s physical proximity to the fallen giant is surprisingly intimate, as if here were straddling the corpse of his foe.  The size and musculature of the brute are clearly contrasted to that of the boy; this painting includes a particularly gratuitous wound where the head was severed from the body.

Titian’s superlative use of color is also demonstrated by the exsanguinated body of Goliath.  The arms and head are already white marble, the blood having run from his dreadful neck wound.  The face of Goliath, though fierce, seems curiously at peace.  One cannot help but wonder if this monster is glad to finally be free of his own brutality.

Titian again uses vibrant color in the sky and the heavenly light it sheds on the scene below.  Look at how the clouds draw in white-yellow radiance close to the opening, and build into brownish grays moving away from the light.   More importantly, look at how the light plays on the arms of the triumphant David, also highlighting part of his torso and his leg – as if God sends a signal of approval to His champion.  The same light falls on Goliath, but rather than adding tints of celestial color, the light of heaven renders him yellowed or dead white.

One last thing before we stop looking at this extraordinary picture – note Titian’s command of drawing.  The basis of all great painting is sound draughtsmanship, and take particular note of Goliath’s toes and fingers, the curve of his great sword or the extreme foreshortening of the composition.  This is a splendidly drawn painting, and Titian’s anatomy and composition – his entire dramatic narrative – are unlike any other depiction of the story.  Titian’s David and Goliath is, simply, one of a kind.