Friday, July 29, 2011

The Trompe l’Oiel Ceiling Fresco of Sant'Ignazio, Rome

The Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola at Campus Martius in Rome is the site of one of the greatest trompe l’oiel paintings in the world.  The fact that it is a ceiling fresco makes it all the more remarkable.
The church, dedicated to Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order, was built between 1626 and 1650.  It is a church in the Baroque style, and originally served as a rectory for the nearby Collegio, Romano. 
St. Ignatius is filled with masterworks of art, including a wonderful group of sculptures by Alessandro Algardi, Magnificence and Religion (1650), as well as several paintings by Andrea Pozzo (1642-1709).  Pozzo was a Jesuit brother, who took up painting after studying literature at the age of 24.
St. Ignatius contains Pozzo’s most significant masterpieces.  His frescoes created illusory perspectives of the dome, the apse and the ceiling.  These works were painted between 1685 and 1694, and define the High Roman Baroque style. 
These works were painted decades after construction of the church was completed.  Arguments with the original church funders prevented the installation of the planned dome, so, Pozzo created the illusion of one instead.  When viewed from inside, it appears you are looking up into an oval ceiling.  In fact, there is a brass plaque set into the floor of the nave at which the viewer is meant to look upwards.  The lofty vaults and statures are not real … only painted illusions.
Nothing that you see in the accompanying photograph is real – not the windows, not the curve of the roof, nor the columns and pillars.
The picture, the Apotheosis of St. Ignatius, celebrates the missionary spirit of two centuries of global preaching by Jesuit explorers and missionaries.  The painting is quite majestic and is a remarkable work of art in its own right, as well as a visual trick. 
Years later, Pozzo used his literary training to write a two-volume book on perspective for artists, Perspectiva Pictorum et Architectorum (1693 and 1698), which he illustrated with 118 engravings.  This is one of the earliest artist/architect manuals in the Western Canon and remained in print well into the 19th Century.
If you are planning a trip to Rome, do not overlook Sant'Ignazio.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Heiress of 1949

I recently had the pleasure of viewing The Heiress, the 1949 film starring Olivia de Havilland and Montgomery Clift, based on the 1880 novel Washington Square by Henry James.  It is a remarkable piece of work, essential viewing and accessible on DVD.
The film was written by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, who adapted their 1947 play.  It is a masterpiece of adaptation, one of the few instances of a film adaptation far outpacing its literary predecessor.
The film concerns Catherine Sloper (de Havilland), a simple girl of few accomplishments and much money.  She lives with her widowed, bitter father, Dr. Sloper (Ralph Richadson), who constantly compares Catherine unfavorably to her late mother.  Also in the household is Dr. Sloper’s sister, Catherine’s Aunt Lavinia (a magnificent Miriam Hopkins), a well meaning, but meddlesome and silly woman.
Catherine’s life changes when she meets the dashing Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift), who woos and wins Catherine.  Townsend manages to do something unexpected – he awakens passion in Catherine, bringing her to life and providing excitement, energy, color and a sense of self-worth.  However, Dr. Sloper suspects that the handsome Townsend is a fortune hunter, and spirits Catherine away on a six month European cruise, hoping she will forget.
Upon her return, Catherine is in love as much as ever.  During a rainy night rendezvous, Catherine and Townsend make plans to elope.  She tells him her father has cut off his portion of her inheritance, but they will be happy on her smaller income.  They plan for him to take her away at 12:30 that night.
Catherine, with her bags (along with all of her aspirations, dreams of love and self-respect) wait for Townsend to arrive, but he never does.  Townsend only wanted her money, and the bitter, unyielding, frosty Dr. Sloper was right all along.
Years later, after Dr. Sloper dies, Aunt Lavinia arranges for Catherine and Townsend to meet again.  He has greatly come down in the world, working as a lowly sea-hand, and he once again promises her love.  She arranges for him to leave his seedy lodgings and marry her, but when he returns to the house at Washington Square, Catherine locks the doors, the light inside slowly fading as she climbs the grand staircase.  Townsend will never have her love or her money, and Catherine’s revenge is complete.
One of the many remarkable things about the film is that its most potent set pieces are nowhere found in James’ novel, which is a much more insular character study.  The changes wrought by the Goetz duo make for a more dramatically satisfying work.
For instance, in the novel, Townsend is never depicted as anything other than a smarmy fortune hunter; while in the film, this is ambiguous until he jilts Catherine after midnight.
Dr. Sloper in James is ironical and detached, but nowhere near as bitter and mournful for his lost wife as he is in the film.  And Catherine, for James, is largely swept along by events.  She’s delighted to be the object of a handsome man’s ardor, but nowhere is there the sense that here is a woman wretched, starved for love, and slowly dying from want of attention.
The two great set pieces of the film: Townsend’s desertion of Catherine and his later comeuppance, never appear in the novel.  In James, Townsend mostly drifts out of the picture … he appears comfortable and portly to Catherine 20 years later only to be politely sent away.
The Heiress is a textbook example of how to adapt a literary work.  The overall structure and plot are the same, yet incidents are invented (or dropped) to translate the work into a dramatic medium.  In addition, the characters are modified only to the extent necessary for actors to interpret them more effectively.
And interpret them they do.  The Heiress is a little master’s class in film acting.  De Havilland, so often the vapid love-interest of Errol Flynn, was a fine dramatic actress when given a chance.  Her transformation as Catherine Sloper is perhaps the greatest performance of her career.  From young, callow and somewhat insipid, to hard, bitter and vituperative, De Havilland etches a portrait hard to forget.  She won the Oscar that year for her role, and it is richly deserved.
Montgomery Clift is fine as Townsend, but he lacks dash.  He is certainly a handsome presence, and he is artful enough to mask his ultimate caddishness.  However, he is too modern a figure, perhaps, for a period drama.  Oddly enough Flynn, though too old at this point, would’ve been a perfect choice: it would be easy to believe his pretty face hid a black heart.
Miriam Hopkins, a leading lady and pin-up girl of the 1930s, is a revelation as Aunt Lavinia: intrusive, stupid and silly, yet also human and touching.  Why this remarkable actress did not work more steadily throughout the 1950s is a mystery.
Ralph Richardson was nominated for an Oscar portrayal, and he does a fine job.  Richardson played the part in London in the 1948 production directed by John Gielgud.  However, the part was originated on Broadway by Basil Rathbone, and one cannot but regret that this wonderful actor’s performance was not recorded on film.  (See photo below.)  All of Sloper’s character traits – the incisive reasoning, the frosty demeanor, the masterful carriage – were all Rathbone trademarks; indeed, Rathbone won the Tony Award for his portrayal.  Wendy Hiller, who played Catherine on Broadway, stated that his performance was definitive, and it must sadly remain lost to posterity.
The film was directed by William Wyler (The Best Years of Our Lives, Mrs. Miniver and scores of others) and the score was written by Aaron Copeland.  It is perhaps Copeland’s score that is the weakest link of the film: listening to it, one expects at any moment Washington Square to be besieged by Jesse James.
I recommend that anyone interested in the art of literary adaptation spend some time with the Slopers of Washington Square.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Why a Duck?

I was at the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College this weekend for the closing performance of David Eldridge’s new translation of Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck.  I am still suffering.
Considered by many to be the orphan child of Ibsen’s oeuvre, The Wild Duck (1885) is the story of Hjalmar Ekdal.  Hjalmar is the recipient of many kindnesses from Håkon Werle, who set him up in business and fostered the relationship and eventual marriage between Hjalmar and Gina, who was formerly a maid in the Werle household.  They have a daughter, Hedvig, who is going blind due to a congenital disease, and live with Old Ekdal, Hjalmar’s father.  Many years ago, Old Ekdal went to prison following a bad business deal with Håkon, who let the old man bear the full brunt of the law.
When Gregers, Håkon’s son, hears of all this, he is appalled.  An idealist, he breaks with his father, whom he sees as manipulative and deceitful, and moves in with the Ekdal family in an effort to get Hjalmar to open his eyes and see the reality of the situation.
However Hjalmar, Gina, Hedvig and Old Ekdal are already very happy.  While their lives may be built upon illusions, they are illusions that sustain and nurture them.  In the end, they are poisoned by Gregers’ rather selfish, hollow idealism, and the family falls apart.  Gregers also inspires Hedvig to shoot her pet duck to demonstrate her love for her father, but instead shoots herself to death.
In considering The Wild Duck, George Bernard Shaw wrote “you forget that you are in a theatre; to look on with horror and pity at a profound tragedy, shaking with laughter all the time at an irresistible comedy.”
One would be surprised in reading a synopsis of the play to find it a laugh riot, and that surprise would be justified.  Perhaps Shaw had a perverse sense of humor.  (Little girls shooting themselves are seldom the punch line of a good joke.)  Or, perhaps this translation by Eldridge is the real culprit.  In the notes Eldridge provides in the playbook, he writes, “here in 2011 we don’t often question whether it’s right to tell the truth, or ask at what cost to ourselves and others we tell the truth.  Modern life is a multiplicity of narratives that put our lives ‘out there.’  Whether on Facebook or on talk shows, in blogs or in newspaper columns, we constantly seem to be saying, This is who I really am and this is my authenticity.”  Translation: I cannot really understand historical context so instead here’s my take.
Eldridge does much to make the text more conversational and contemporary, but at the loss of Ibsen’s complexity and layered meaning.  Perhaps there are too many subtleties in the work for it to translate successfully – and perhaps it will always be Norwegian to me.
Total blame for this flat-footed, sluggish, exhausting disaster does not rest fully with Eldridge.  Director Caitriona McLaughlin makes one fatal misstep after another – starting with the party scene.  Done from the point of view of the party wait staff, one has the feeling she was pointing the proscenium in the wrong direction.  She also gives many of the waiters some low comedy business (one can only assume she owes the actors money) that makes little-to-no sense, and introduces some senseless modernizations that diminish focus from the text.  The one laugh she manages to muster involves a skinned rabbit – the equivalents of stooping to a rubber chicken.  Though the rabbit produces a laugh, it inspired most of the audience to entertain thoughts of an early dinner rather than of Northern European tragic-comedy.
Inter-scene music, provided by Ryan Rumery, was baleful.  Imagine discordant elevator muzak, but not quite as good, and you have some idea.  It’s not just that Rumery’s sound didn’t fit the play, it wouldn’t fit any play.
Performances were universally execrable.  Tom Bloom, as Håkon Werle, finds a single note and plays it throughout.  Mary Bacon, as Gina, seems more like a can-do sitcom mom (one expects her at any moment to warble One Day at a Time), bringing nothing to the role but a strong voice and a pert pair of hips.  Peter Maloney as Old Ekdal dithers nicely, but one had the impression of diminishing returns every time he entered the scene.
The most egregious offender of the cast, however, must be Dashiell Eaves as Gregers.  Granted it is a difficult part – by turns idealist and destroyer – but it seems completely out of Eaves’ grasp.  His voice is thin and his line readings strained.  He does, however, have a noticeable tattoo running from his collarbone up the side of his neck, and that remains his defining characteristic as an actor.
The Wild Duck seems out of place in the Ibsen canon.  Instead of lives ruined by lies and deception, here lives are ruined when happy fictions are stripped away.  It has long been an axiom of your correspondent that a little truth is a dangerous thing and that complete honesty is absolutely fatal.  This is an idea rich with irony and pathos – neither quality of which was on evidence at Bard.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Learning to See With Artist Paul Foxton Part II

Work of Artist Paul Foxton

Today we conclude our interview with Paul Foxton, the man behind the blog Learning to See.  I urge my readers interested in art to look at this remarkable resource.  It can be found at:

Learning to See is an amazing public document.  What inspired you to chronicle your return to drawing in such an exposed manner?
Narcissism probably! Who doesn't like to bang on about themselves all day?
It's been a useful record for me though, I'd recommend anyone to do it. You can look back and see your progress, see where you followed dead ends. It's an effective way to learn from your mistakes, because you can't hide from them. You can't edit and rewrite your history in your mind (as I believe we usually do) when it's right there in front of you and lots of other people have seen it too.
I remember when I came back to painting, I was hunting around for good websites that could help me learn. I found some step by step articles that left out more than they described. They seemed to me to be largely about artists showcasing how good they were, these articles were useless as learning tools. It made me angry. I resolved to make the most useful posts I could about my own practice, to describe everything as fully and completely as I could, leaving nothing out. I suppose I've tried to make the site I couldn't find for myself six or seven years ago. It's different now, a lot more people are blogging about painting, there's a lot of videos on YouTube that weren't there then. There's a lot more good information freely available. It's a positive thing.
The site has also helped me to connect with people, that's been a wonderful experience. It's reason for being now, what I want from it most, is to help people like me who are struggling with teaching themselves to draw and paint, if I can. I want it to be less about me and more about other people who are learning too. What I hope for more than anything is that I might be able to help people to have happier and more enriching lives by helping them to draw and paint better. I want to make their struggle easier for them if I can, because I know how tough it is to teach yourself. That seems to me to be about the best thing I could aspire to right now, much more important than how good I get at drawing and painting myself.
You detail many techniques on your site – sight-size, Old Master copies, loose sketching – which is the most appealing to you?  And which has taught you the most?
I'm not sure I could pick one, and if you asked me this question again in a year, I'd probably have a different answer anyway. Which method you learn most from will depend on your personal goals and how close you are to achieving them I think. I've learned a huge amount from sight size but I'm moving away from it now. Dependence on the visual effect has become a straight-jacket for me, something I feel the need to break out of. It's stopping me create.
I think if you want to get better at drawing the main thing is not to worry too much about this or that technique, it's to put aside some uninterrupted time every day and practice. Don't beat yourself up, enjoy it, or else what's the point? Don't be afraid to explore. Keep an open mind. Don't take anyone else's word for anything, test things for yourself. Practice till your fingers bleed if you like, but enjoy it. If it becomes a chore, you progress more slowly and the love dies.
Do you really believe that anyone can be taught to draw?
Yes, beyond question.
But what about talent?  Isn’t talent essential?
I don't believe in talent, at least not in the usual definition. I don't believe we are born with gifts, I believe they develop. I've written about why here:
What materials would you recommend for a beginner?
It really doesn't matter what you use I don't think. What matters is the thinking and the feeling behind what you do, not what you do it with. Anything that can make a mark can become a vehicle for expression.
What essential piece of advice would you offer someone who is staring at that blank sheet of paper for the first time (or after a long absence)?
Relax. Make a mark. All you have to do is start, and then keep going, the rest will follow in time.
That's easy to say and much harder to do, no-one knows that better than me. But procrastination is your worst enemy. Give yourself something simple and easy to do to start with. Make a regular appointment with yourself and keep it. Put aside a little time every day, ten, fifteen minutes, and progress from there. Take joy from small achievements, and they'll build into something much bigger over time.
Finally, to get a little philosophical, how do you define artist?
I don't. I'm too busy drawing, painting and writing in what little spare time I have to worry about such unproductive questions.

Anyone interested in the serious study of drawing, and in the journey of a gifted autodidact, should visit Learning to See.  It can be found at:

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Learning to See With Artist Paul Foxton Part I

The Art of Paul Foxton

You can learn how to draw better – that is the lesson of the blog Learning To See, written and illustrated by artist Paul Foxton.
In late 2005, Foxton returned to painting after a gap of many years.  As he started rebuilding his artistic muscles, Foxton chronicled the long and labor-intensive process in a very public manner: by posting his progress regularly on his blog, Learning to See.  The record of his journey is a wonderful resource to anyone trying to draw better, or understand the process by which artists master this fundamental component of their craft.
The site has dozens of interesting passages, including notes on how to practice more effectively, the mysteries of composition, and sight-size drawing.  Foxton is also generous with more than his growing expertise: the site is liberally illustrated with his own work.  This is a gift to any serious student, for while looking at a finished drawing is useful, watching the process of drawing, including the missteps and excisions, is a god-send. 
Visitors to Learning to See can also see Foxton’s casual ‘café sketches,’ where he captures life on the fly with his sketch pad, as well as his efforts to copy the lithographs of 19th Century French Academician Charles Bargue (1827-1883) that were circulated around the ateliers of the time for students to copy.
Among the many things to admire about Foxton are his rigor and his honesty.  Opinions held at one time and not altered later on as his views evolve, honestly chronicling his journey.  He is also quite a terrific writer: anyone who has tried to learn to draw from books knows that one of the biggest obstacles is often the ham-fisted prose of the artist!  That is not a problem at Learning to Draw, as Foxton’s pen is as fluid as his pencil.  For example, here is Foxton thinking aloud while explaining the planes of the head, “One of my original ideas when I came back to painting was that I wanted to get back to portrait painting. I find portraits fascinating, and am often to be found skulking around the National Portrait Gallery. But all the portraits I've done in the past have been of the cheesy copied photo variety. When I was a street artist in my twenties, every now and again people used to ask me to copy poor quality snaps of their nearest and dearest, which I used to do quite happily for them. I couldn't say the work was particularly inspiring and the results were invariably awful; they were crimes against art for which I should have been excommunicated, but along with the change people threw into my hat they paid the bills.”
Though Learning to See is not a portfolio site, Roxton does have several of his paintings on view.  His work reveals a delicate sense of coloration and a sure brush-stroke.  His still life paintings have a serene beauty that makes an interesting contrast to his more muscular drawing style.  I am particularly enamored of his painting Wedgwood Saucer, Bottle and Silver Egg Cup (made all the more valuable by his write up detailing its creation).
Paul Foxton was gracious enough to take time from his busy schedule and answer a few questions for us.
Did you draw as a child?  And, if so, how did you fall out of the habit?
Yes, I did draw. I used to like to spend time on my own, still do actually, and a lot of that time would be spent drawing. I don't remember when it started, but I do remember that getting approval for drawing well was a nice feeling. I think that's probably how an early skill with something grows. As a kid you want the approval of the people around you. If something you do tends to get you that approval, you'll do it more.
Drawing was also a way to escape into another world. I used to copy drawings from Marvel comics, Spider Man, that kind of thing. I mostly liked to draw Spider Man. As I got better I suppose I became known amongst friends and school mates as someone who could draw. It's like a self-fulfilling prophecy in a way, you draw well because you draw well. By the time I was in my teens at school, I was doing uncomplimentary cartoons of the teachers that went down pretty well with my class-mates.
Drawing is one of those things you could be good at at school without being thought of as a swot. It's not like being good at maths or science, which would mark you out for bullying. After I left school, I rebelled, dyed my hair, became a punk. This was in a small town in the north east of England, where being different wasn't looked on very favourably. I remember sitting in a pub one evening and bunch of what used to be the hard kids at school sat on the next table. One of them started making loud comments about the way I looked, it looked like it was about to get nasty. But the leader of the group said “Leave him alone, he's a good artist.” Drawing can even save you from getting beaten up, apparently.
I don't know how I fell out of the habit. I was doing commercial work as I got older which I became disillusioned with. I hated the work. I think that partly killed it. Drawing and painting became something else. It was no longer a world that could be escaped into that represented freedom. It was about marching to someone else's tune. Just like the rest of life. Perhaps that was it. I stopped drawing and painting and put what creative energy I had into music instead.
What first inspired you towards art?  Were your parents encouraging?
I think I've answered the first part of this question as well as I can above.
As for the second part, I think my parents believe that they did encourage me yes, but they were worried that I wouldn't be able to make a living from art, quite understandably. They wanted the best for me and they didn't see art as a viable alternative. I was required to take other, more academic subjects along with art, which I hated. It was something of a bone of contention.
In The Practice and Science of Drawing, Harold Speed contends that aspiring artists should be actively discouraged, because only those who can't be discouraged will keep going. It's one of the few things I disagree with him on, and vehemently so. It's important to have encouragement early on, very important.
What did you do in the period between your initial drifting away from art and your return in 2005?
All sorts. In a way I was lost. I did a lot of music, I learned about computers, I got a proper job for the first time in my life. I could see it as a mistake, and in a way it was. But the important thing is to learn from experiences and to move on. There's still plenty of time left, for all of us.
I met my wife Michelle in that period, without who's love and support I doubt I would have made it this far, so I wouldn't go back and change things even if I could. It's not so much where you've been, it's where you're going that matters I think.
Some drawing teachers will tell you that when a person drew in their youth, that actually is a deficit in learning to draw in adulthood.  (Something about hard-wiring bad habits, I believe.)  Do you agree, and, if so, how do people overcome that?
I think that's complete nonsense, frankly. Who gets to decide what is a good and what is a bad habit? Some teacher who wants you to draw the way they do? Drawing regularly, practicing any skill regularly, builds and reinforces connections in your brain. Neuroscience tells us this. It's how we learn. Practice may be more or less effective, but it's never a waste of time and never counter-productive in my opinion.
A lot of kids these days like to copy manga. That's art to them. From one perspective, you could say that they're not using their own creativity, that they're just copying, but they're also stretching the mental muscles required to draw. If that's what they like to do, that's what they should do. It's never going to be bad for them and it'll motivate them to practice. How can that be bad?
What artists were particularly inspiring to you?
Were or are inspiring? When I was a kid I was fascinated by comic art, fantasy art too. I wanted to draw like that. I used to copy Spider Man and Hulk drawings and was fascinated by the way they drew the muscles, how the shadows made the the forms.
The artists that inspire me the most now are people I'm lucky enough to know, if virtually; people I see struggling on despite difficulties, motivated to get better and improve; people like Lisa Gloria, Sadie Valerie, Julian Merrow-Smith, Shaun Day, Linda Tracey Brandon. There's more. My online painter friends. These are the artists that inspire me now.

More tomorrow!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Bronzino's Portrait of a Young Man

To atone for inflicting the horrific graphic of sociopath James Harrison upon you yesterday, I thought we could enter once again a more elevated realm by the contemplation of beauty.
The above painting is Bronzino’s Portrait of a Young Man.  It was created sometime in the 1530s, and is painted on wood, roughly 30x40. 
Bronzino (Agnolo di Cosimo di Mariano) was a Florentine painter of the Mannerist period who lived from 1503-1572.  Bronzino was the son of a butcher, and at an early age he went under the tutelage of artist Jacopo Pontormo, who would later introduce Bronzino to the Medici family.  (Many scholars believe that the relationship between Bronzino and Pontormo was also a romantic one, but we may never know the full truth of that.)
Bronzino became court artist while Cosimo I de Medici was Duke of Florence.  Eleanor of Toledo, the Duke’s first wife, was a great champion of the artist, and her premature death in 1562 diminished his support within the family. 
As he grew older, Bronzino became a prominent fixture of the Florentine art scene.  He took a leading role in the activities of the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno, which he helped create in 1563, and was a great teacher of younger artists, including Alessandro Allori.  Bronzino was living in the Allori household at the time of his death.  He was also a journeyman poet of no great distinction.
The Portrait of a Young Man hangs in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and your correspondent visits this picture regularly.  During the Met’s recent Drawings of Bronzino show, historians using X-ray imaging determined that Bronzino re-drew and re-painted the head extensively at some later date.  He also altered the structure of the room behind the Young Man, providing a more central showcase for the figure.  That may be, but the finished work is remarkable
Along with his fresco work, Bronzino was a celebrated portraitist.  The Young Man of the portrait holds an open book, so it is not improbable that he was a young poet or writer friendly with the artist.   Vasari in his monumental Lives of the Artists mentions the names of several of possible sitters, and it has recently been suggested that this panel may portray Bonaccorso di Pietro Pinadori (born 1502), mentioned by the author alongside Ugolino Martelli and Lorenzo Lenzi, both of whose portraits have been identified.  I would love to think it is a self-portrait of Bronzino, and while this is unlikely, the notion appeals to the romantic in me.
Our elegant Young Man exhibits certain hauteur, but is never condescending.  He wears little ornamentation – a single ring – but his surroundings are an elaborately carved chair and table.  He has one lazy eye, but it somehow heightens his look of intelligence rather than diminishing it.
A copy of this painting hung for years in my living room.  Why I am so beglamoured by this picture?  Several reasons, I believe.  The Young Man represents an ideal: his easy elegance and intellectual attainments are obvious.  The hand on his hip contrasts the hand holding the book, creating a sense of both sensuality and calm.  He has the matching gifts of youth and beauty; he is already master of the world and his life is only just beginning.  He embodies the Renaissance  courtier’s ideal of sprezzatura, which, as Wayne A. Rebhorn wrote, made a courtier appear fully at ease, someone who was “the total master of self, society’s rules, and even physical laws … [creating] the distinct impression that he was unable to err.”
We would all do well to lock the image of Bronzino’s Young Man in our memory, and see in him an idealized version of ourselves.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Barbarians Beyond The Gate #1: James Harrison

The American Sports Idol In All His Splendor

First, I apologize to my readers for the ugly, offensive graphic.  However, it is an unfortunate necessity.  The purpose of The Jade Sphinx is two-fold: to celebrate beauty and to examine our current culture, both high and low. Sadly, today, we look into a particularly repulsive low.
The worthy pictured above is an individual named James Harrison.  He is probably unknown to my more cosmopolitan readers, but it seems that he is a football player of some renown.  He was the recipient of a fawning article on July 13 in the Men’s Journal ( and is the idol of millions. 
At one time in America’s (now seemingly distant) past, sports figures were revered by children and unlettered adults looking for images of heroism.  This practice continues today – it just seems that our ‘sport’s heroes’ are less and less worthy of the honor.
Before going into the article, let’s take a closer look at this photograph, chosen to illustrate a world-famous sports figure.  The guns that Harrison holds are his own.  (One can only infer that he has a remarkably small penis.)  The scowl is the look of a colicky child or school bully, not that of a mature man.  His steroid-enhanced physique is covered in tattoos, a strangely primitive practice of body ornamentation that has inexplicably returned to the modern world, and he squints in that patented way low-self-esteem cases often do when acting tough.
Let’s quote a few lines from the profile, so we can take an accurate bell weather of the state of American hero worship.  Author Paul Solotaroff mentions in passing Harrison is the “man who knocked two Cleveland Browns cold in the span of seven minutes last year … saying he liked to ‘hurt’ opponents. He amended that in the next breath, saying he tried to inflict pain without causing serious injury, but it sounded like lawyer-ese and was ignored.”

Let’s parse this for just a second: this is a leading men’s publication, highlighting a $9 million-dollar-a-year sports thug with a gun-toting photograph, lionizing his efforts to harm other human beings.  It is time that we acknowledge that the barbarians are not just at the gate, but they have invaded and restructured our civilization, our discourse and our aesthetic.

Solotaroff finds it “refreshing” that Harrison is the “same guy off field, as on,” which is, I suppose, his way of endorsing bullies, braggarts and probable sociopaths.  He also wrote of when Harrison “iced” (to use gutter argot) two players, in a deliberate attempt to injure.  Solotaroff writes that Harrison: “desperately loves football for its fireball explosions, the blood burn he gets from planting his right foot and blowing up the guy with the ball. It is all he’s ever craved since he discovered at 10 that he could smash another kid as hard as he liked and not catch a whipping from his mother, Mildred.”

Asked what drives him on Harrison grows reflective: “Likely as not, what drives him now is the fury that drove him as a boy, when, as the youngest of 14 kids in the house, he had some epic meltdowns. He punched holes in the walls when he lost video games, set fire to himself and an attic rug playing with lit matches and rubbing alcohol, and ran around shooting birds and squirrels in his yard in Akron, Ohio.”

Now, in most communities with access to proper psychiatric care, this would be a warning sign of a dangerous mentality.  To our good friends in the National Football League (NFL), this is a resume.

Harrison is not only a fast man with a debilitating blow, but with an insult, as well.  The article quotes Harrison at length, referring to critics and other enemies as: faggot, devil, dictator and mother-f----r.  (I must confess that I would find his opinion of your correspondent too delicious for words.)  Nowhere, however, is there any indication that it is probable that Harrison himself has suffered one concussion too many.

He has been arrested for domestic assault (over a religious issue – I kid you not!), believes that students and teachers should be armed, and is a great advocate of corporal punishment.  To the 50,000 people who have signed up on his Twitter account, his pearls of wisdom drop like gentle rain.

The questions that all of this raises are many and disturbing.  Why is a person like James Harrison playing professional sports?  Why is he lionized?  Why do Americans so adore their guns – so much so, that they are now fashion accessories?  More important – is the well of American manhood so permanently defiled that James Harrison passes for a role model?

The people a culture selects as its heroes are, perhaps, one of the most potent indications of its overall health.  I can only guess that the United States, or at least those who wallow in the orgy of violence, narcissism and big money called the NFL, is in great trouble indeed.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Down Mean Streets With Lawrence Block Part V

Today we conclude our week-long interview with Grand Master Lawrence Block.

JA: Are your comfortable making public appearances?
LB: I have been. Yeah, I enjoy it. I like travel. Even book tour-type travel. It's exhausting, but it's supposed to be. If it's not, it means you're not doing it right!
JA: Is it more and more part of a writer's life to take control of the selling of one's self?
LB: I don't know if you can control it. You take a part in it. But it seems to be, it seems to be. The book tours are a fairly recent phenomena in American book publishing. Fifteen years ago, hardly anyone toured and the tours were all media oriented and confined to writers of non-fiction or extremely topical fiction that would get on various local shows. Frequently there were no bookstore appearances. The idea of bookstore driven tours with signings, or sending out fiction and first book writers in many instances lately, I don't know how productive that is. I know it can be enormously frustrating for the writer who shows up at a bookstore where no one has heard of him and the store has anywhere between zero and one copy of his book. I think there may be rather more touring going on now than makes sense. But I enjoy it. Doing too much of it this year, because I toured for A Long Line of Dead Men in November, and for Burglars Can't Be Choosers in February. And I'm going out again in June for The Burglar Who Thought He Was Bogart.
JA: Where are you going?
LB: Mostly the mid-West.
JA: Are your biggest sales in the mid-West? New York? The West Coast?
LB: New York. But, all over.
JA: Would you say publishing has changed radically from your early days?
LB: I'm sure it has, but I can't say how. I don't know that I had much sense of what was going on when I started out, so it's hard to tell how it's changed. There are fewer houses, but they're larger. Editors have less decision making power. Houses are run rather more by sales departments and less by editorial departments than they used to be. I don't know that any of these changes are good or bad.
JA: Surely the superstore has played a role?
LB: That's quite recent. It certainly is playing an enormous role. I don't know if it's affecting writers, but it's affecting independent book-sellers. It's unfortunate the way the smaller stores are getting caught in the crunch that way. On the other hand, it's hard to go into a brand new Barnes and Noble and say, "This is bad for American publishing," or "This is bad for American writers and readers."
JA: I think one of the problems with the superstores is that maybe new writers are on the shelves for three weeks, if they're lucky, and then they're remaindered or sent back. I think with smaller stores they would have longer shelf lives. But I don't know what the facts are.
LB: I don't know either. But they have a hard time getting into smaller stores, too. If a superstore carries a 120,000 titles, the smaller stores would carry a fraction of that. So I don't know if that's true. It has always been tough to be a first-book author. But it's always been tough to be an unpublished writer trying to get published. It's always been tough to aspire to a career in any of the arts -- and I think it's supposed to be tough. We say that it's more difficult now to break in, but I don't know if that's true. It's never been easy. And it seems to me that I remember hearing 30 years ago that it was tougher than it used to be! It's like Greenwich Village, for God's sake. When I first came here in the mid-1950s, people were saying, "It's nice here, but you should've seen it 10 years ago!"
JA: Mystery fandom has become so vocal and so active. The emergence of Murder Ink and Scene of the Crime and Foul Play bookstores can be directly attributed to fans, along with countless newsletters and mystery book bulletin boards on Internet and America On Line. Of course all of this has affected the market, but do you think it has affected the production of the work? For the writer?
LB: Has fandom affected me? I don't know. I'm not sure. I think the proliferation of all of this has been quite recent. For example, there was one conference for years, The Bouchercon, and only recently has there been an explosion of local ones. I think they're probably good for the biz, good for writers and all.
I think, though, there's a real danger for the writer in paying too much attention to all of that. Someone suggested that I subscribe to Dorothy L. on line, so I did. I subscribed to it for two days, and then unsubscribed. Not that there was anything wrong with it, but what did I need it for? I didn't want all that coming into my computer every day, and I realized it would be a real mistake to read it all. And this is not to deny the validity of anything that is said on it, I just think the writer should not be monitoring what is being said about him or anybody else too closely. One way to put it is that the worse disservice I could do to my readers is to try to give them what they want.

The hour grows late and the shadows lengthen. We finish our coffee and head for the street.
Kindly, he walks me to the Christopher Street subway station at Sheridan Square. Around me, the city night life shifts into gear. I ask one more question.
"The New York of Matt Scudder is such a dangerous place, the streets are mean. Do you feel safe here?"
He looks at the neighborhood streets. "Sure I feel safe. New York's no different. The world's a dangerous place."
And he smiled.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Down Mean Streets With Lawrence Block Part IV

More of our 1995 interview with Lawrence Block…..
JA: And your future books?
LB: There is an upcoming Burglar book in June.
JA: Really!?
LB: The Burglar Who Thought He Was Bogart. That's the next book that will be coming out.
JA: Can you give us a quick preview?
LB: Sure. It will remind people in certain ways of The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca, I suspect. In the course of it Bernie, because of a relationship he's involved in, goes to the movies every night during a Humphrey Bogart festival. So he sees two Bogart films every night, and this inevitably begins to bleed into his psyche as the case goes on.
JA: Sounds great. One of your most significant villains was James Leo Motley. From what sick part of your brain did he come from?
LB: (Laughs.) I don't know. He was just sort of there! He was such a good villain, I was sorry to kill him. When I finished that book, I thought that it was not sound economics. I should've gotten more than one book out of James Leo Motley. But as I said before, the bad guys are as much aspects of myself as the heroes. (His grin sneaks up on him.) I don't rush to proclaim this!
JA: Maybe there's a Motley prequel somewhere.
LB: Never know.
JA: I think it's fascinating that Scudder in essence executed Motley at the end. That's another adventure that changed Scudder as a man, and because of that Motley is more interesting a villain than someone like, say, Hannibal Lecter.
LB: Pretty compelling character, though, Hannibal Lecter. I don't know that I always manage it, but I like to try to get in touch with the humanity of the bad guy. For me one of the more interesting things about A Walk Among The Tombstones, for example, was that the villain was a real nasty guy. And there was one window of opportunity where Scudder was talking to him at the end, and the sense of the person came through. I thought that was interesting. There's a non-series book of mine called Random Walk, I don't know if you know it, that has a serial killer. It's a multiple viewpoint book, and about a third of it is from his viewpoint. I don't know if anything you do at a keyboard takes a tremendous amount of courage -- it's not like facing man-eating tigers in Borneo -- but the one thing my work does demand is the courage to confront parts of one's self that one would prefer not to look at. And that happens sometimes in the villain, and sometime in the hero.
JA: Have you come away disappointed with what you learned of yourself through other characters? Or happy?
LB: No, not sorry. But generally one is reluctant to look into the dark corners of one's self. But what you learn eventually is that they are there anyway, whether you look or not.
JA: Any thoughts on a writer's life? Would you tell your son to be a plumber?
LB: I've told my kids to do whatever they want. But I think that it's a wonderful life. I'm enormously grateful for it. That doesn't mean that every moment of it is unmitigated joy, but that's okay.
JA: Didn't you own a gallery somewhere at some point?
LB:  Oh yeah, for one year in 1970-71. In New Hope, PA. I opened it so I would have something to do.
JA: Were you writing at the time?
LB: I was writing and living in the country. Writing would only take up so much of my time. I would go into the city to an apartment I kept there and hole up and write. But I needed something to do for the rest of the time, where there would be people to talk to. So I opened a gallery. Didn't last terribly long, but it was interesting to do. But as soon as the lease was up, I was out of there.
JA: What sort of work did you exhibit and sell?
LB: Whatever artist would turn up, I'd take their work. Some good stuff.
JA: Did you get a book out of it?
LB: No.
JA: Not yet.
LB: I learned certain things, not the least of which is I'll never do it again. But I was thinking about all of that recently when I was thinking of the amount of non-writing work that I was doing these days. The amount of correspondence, interviews, book tours, speeches, all the stuff, and I was contrasting that to twenty years ago when the only work-related thing I did was write. That, and every once in awhile carry the manuscript to my agent. And that was why, for example, that I had the time to do something like open a gallery. But now... no time! I'm not objecting. I like what I'm doing. And I could certainly cut down on some of it if I wanted to, like eliminate some of the travel and correspondence, but it's manageable.

Tomorrow we conclude our interview!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Down Mean Streets With Lawrence Block Part III

Welcome to the next installment of our Lawrence Block interview.

JA: You seem to be a quintessential New York writer. What is it about this city?
LB: It's home to me in a very important way, I guess. That's been as true even for the times I haven't been living here. I grew-up in Buffalo, but I visited New York off-and-on starting with my college years. I love it. I find it terribly energizing.
Lynne and I got our "Golden Years" out of the way early. We moved to Florida in the mid 1980s and discovered that it was manifestly not for us. So now we feel that we've had a retirement to look back on! But, down in Florida, I figured that now that I'll be here for the rest of time, I'll start writing novels set down here. And then I thought, gee, I don't know if I can do that, because I don't know what human lives are like down here. Intuitively. I do know that in New York. I somehow always have, and I can't say that about other places.
New York's not only my home, but will always be my spiritual home. That makes it nice to be living here and writing about it. A lot of people have said that the city is almost a character in the Scudder books. And I suspect that's true. I've written books set elsewhere, of course, and will undoubtedly continue to, most probably short stories than novels. But you can never tell what the future holds. But I think I'm advised to keep most of my stuff in New York, because that's what I handle better.
JA: Your series reflects very different New Yorks. The city in the Scudder books is another world from Bernie's.
LB: Same streets, but very different. Every once in a while I get the question, could Bernie and Scudder ever be in the same book? My answer is always -- they're don't live in the same universe! They're both in New York, but they're very different.
JA: You mentioned short stories a moment ago. Like a Lamb to the Slaughter is a wonderful collection. What are the different demands of the short story? Do you have a preference?
LB: Hmm. I don't know what the difference in the form is. I know that any number of novelists don't write short stories, or can't write them. I've always found myself comfortable with the shorter length, as well.
Short stories are enormously satisfying. They come a good deal closer to instant gratification -- about as close as writing comes. You sit down with one idea, pretty much hold the whole thing in your mind at once, and that day or the next you get up and you're done. It would be nice to write books that way, but one can't.
JA: Unless you're Edgar Wallace!
LB: Right. They're also satisfying because there are any number of things for myself that I can do in a short story that I wouldn't be inclined to do in a novel. Settings I wouldn't use, or write from the point of view of characters that I wouldn't be interested in sustaining for a whole novel. All sorts of things like that.
Someone asked if there would be an Ehrengraf novel, and the answer has to be no. He couldn't sustain a novel, but he's perfect for short stories. Lots of things like that. They're fun that way.
JA: The Ehrengraf stories are tremendously satisfying. What was his genesis?
LB: Ehrengraf came about as the result of an adventure in creative plagiarism. Not the obvious plagiarism, that he is a lineal descendent of Randolph Mason,  Melville Davisson Post's character. I can see where one could come to that conclusion, but I never read those stories so I couldn't plagiarize Post exercising all the will in the world.
There was an element of a Fletcher Flora story in an issue of Manhunt sometime in the 1950s where a friend saves her friend from a murder conviction by committing another similar murder while the guy was in prison. I thought there had to be something I could do with that that wasn't actionable plagiarism. Then I thought of a defense attorney who did that, and the character just evolved. Fred Dannay at Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine was very taken with Ehrengraf because he immediately thought it was a homage to Melville Davisson Post, and made it clear that he would be pleased to see more stories about Ehrengraf. I found that more ideas accrued, but there were a limited number of variations one could work on this theme. And I didn't want to write the same story over and over, and I think there is a total of eight Ehrengraf stories. It's very frustrating, because publishers said if I got a book-length collection of them, they'd publish it. But there was no way that was going to happen. Happily, Jim Seels in California did that small press, limited printing of the eight stories collected.
JA: Are they still available?
LB: I think he has some left. It's a hefty price. I think he gets $125 for it. It's a very limited edition and beautifully produced. His phone number is (714) 455-1319.
JA: You were talking about the genesis of Ehrengraf. Now for the question that all writers dread: where do you get your ideas?
LB: I keep up with the newspapers, and read things that pass in front of my eyes. I don't specifically seek anything out. An idea only works if it somehow resonates with a writer at a particular time. There are ideas that cross my mind that I shrug off, and years later they have something for me that they didn't the first time.
JA: Can you think of one?
LB: (Laughs.) No.
JA: Favorite mystery writers? Preferably dead, so you won’t get anyone mad at you.
LB: So many. I did a piece for American Heritage years ago that I think mentioned 16, and...
JA: I have trouble answering questions like that, myself. People ask your three favorite movies on Monday, and on Thursday you come up with three different.
LB: Right!
JA: But there are no mainstays that come to mind?
LB: No. I read less now than I used to. I hesitate to...
JA: I'll let you off the hook. What about authors you recommend to other writers. I know you have a great affection for P.G. Wodehouse and Somerset Maugham.
LB: And John O'Hara, whom I continually reread. I can't think of anyone in particular that all beginning writers should be advised to read. I think beginning writers should read what works for them. I have any number of writer friends who recommend Faulkner, and he has clearly been an important influence on fiction. But you know what? Faulkner never really worked for me. This is not Faulkner's fault; I don't know that it's my fault. But there are books that may have little to recommend them, but when I read them they were alive to me in a certain way that made them more significant.

More tomorrow!