Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Rain From Heaven, All Souls, Oxford by Albert Goodwin


Though a Victorian landscape painter heavily influenced by John Ruskin, Albert Goodwin (1845-1932) is the spiritual child of J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851), who painted weather in all of its glorious manifestations.
Born into a working class family in Maidstone, Kent (he was one of nine children and his father was a butler), Goodwin left school to apprentice to a draper.  However, young Goodwin was an exceptional artist in his earliest boyhood, and he went to study with Ford Madox Brown and Arthur Hughes. 
Goodwin was exhibiting at the Royal Academy when he was only 15, and he became an Associate Member of the Royal Watercolor Society when he was only 21.  John Ruskin (1819-1900), one of the most influential art critics and teachers of the time, took him on an extensive European tour, which later translated into many watercolor pictures for Goodwin.
Hardworking and prolific (with over 800 works to his credit), Goodwin was obviously enamored of travel.  He trekked through Egypt (1876), India (1895), the West Indies and North America (1902, 1912) and New Zealand (1917).  He is considered to be the last of the great Victorian travelling artists, and he used his travels to inspire works in watercolor, but also to add color to his biblical oil paintings and large-scale pictures.   Along with Alfred William Hunt, Goodwin was the most successful artist to follow Ruskin’s appeal to synthesize Turner’s atmospherics with Pre-Raphaelite precision.
But though he was influenced by both Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites, Goodwin’s talent and unique personality managed to emerge from the shadows of his famous influencers.  There is an almost mystical quality to many of Goodwin’s landscapes … of beauty touched by strangeness.  Many of Goodwin’s pictures are of picturesque structures – ruined castles, looming bridges, Gothic spires – reaching out of the clouds of weather or the fog of night.  One cannot help but sense vast and different worlds swirling around our heaviest monuments, as if portals to other times and places were all around us.   His painting of Westminster, for instance, looks as if that wonderful building were emerging from a rampaging fire; while his Benares seems almost to emerge from the gloom of an opium dream.
The Rain From Heaven, All Souls, Oxford has this dreamlike quality.  The church emerges from the clouds and mist, almost hovering before the viewer like a gray illusion.  The picture, in watercolor, pencil, and, I believe, a touch of chalk, is a masterwork of economy.  The spires are suggested rather than delineated, but these are the suggestions of a gifted minimalist.  No information is lost, and a definite sense of place is secured.  The faint hint of a greater London in the distance works to ground All Souls in reality, as does the tiny, umbrella-carrying figures in the left foreground.  The sun tries to pierce the gloom overhead, as if an appeal from heaven.
It is not that Goodwin has created a picture that is ‘washed out,’ rather, he has created a realistic impression of rain, mist and fog.  The gray haze hovering over All Souls (and London beyond) is opaque and heavy with water – in fact, that Goodwin was able to neuter the natural luminosity of watercolor is a sign of his virtuosity.  It is a monochromatic masterwork.
One last note – it’s not impossible that the title is a little joke on Goodwin’s part.  A profoundly religious man, Goodwin would say that the rain came from heaven (and the heavens, literally), but is he not commenting, too, on the kingdom, or ‘reign,’ of heaven?  The more I lose myself in his misty swirls of gray, the less sure I am.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Cave of the Storm Nymphs by Edward John Poynter


With many of my readers still reeling from the effects of Hurricane Irene, I thought we might look at some of the nymphs and troublemakers responsible.  (Your correspondent, a New Yorker, did not emerge unscathed – a neighboring tree toppled into our yard, turning our deck and trellis into so many toothpicks.)
Sir Edward John Poynter (1836-1919) was an English painter and president of the Royal Academy.  Though English, he was born in Paris and left school early because of poor health.  He spent winters in Madeira and Rome, where he met the great English master Frederick Leighton in 1853.  So impressed was young Poynter by Leighton that he studied art upon returning to London before going to Paris to study with classicist painter Charles Gleyre.  (His classmates included James McNeill Whistler and George du Maurier, who would later record the Paris art world in his novel, Trilby, which also introduced the character Svengali.)
Poynter married society beauty Agnes MacDonald in 1866 and they had three children. Her sister Georgiana married artist Edward Burne-Jones; her sister Alice was the mother of writer Rudyard Kipling and her sister Louisa was the mother of Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin.  An illustrious family, indeed.
Poynter was more than an artist; he was also a celebrated teacher.  He was the first Slade Professor at University College, London, and principal of the National Art Training School.  He entered the Royal Academy in 1876, and also received a knighthood that year.
Like many artists of great talent and ambition, Poynter was enamored of large, historical canvases.  Many of his pictures depict the ancient world or touch upon the mythic qualities of the sea.  Many of his large pictures encompass the white-capped wastes of endless ocean, or take place in the underground grottos of mythic creatures.  His output declined in quantity dramatically with his acceptance into the Academy, where Poynter proved to be an able administrator.  He was a staunch advocate of high artistic standards, and lived to see the beginnings of a Modernism that would alienate much of art from the human condition for another 100 years. 
Cave of the Storm Nymphs was painted in 1903.  It is in many ways a remarkable picture.  The triangular composition ensures the dynamism of the three splendidly rendered figures.  The nymphs are in varying stages of action: setting aside a seashell harp, carelessly throwing away golden coins and lying luxuriously amid ship plunder.  The golden red hair of the top two figures is blown by wind and spray, the hair of the lower figure spreads wantonly about her head and purloined fabric.  The sculptural monumentality of the women is underscored by a sensitive rendering of anatomy.
The sand and cave wall of their retreat are thick with water – in fact, you can feel the cool dampness and moisture just looking at the painting.  Poynter uses few warm colors to enliven his work – the movement of the central figures and storm-tossed ship provide the vitality missing in his coloration.  The tempestuous green sea blows fiercely behind them, a ship reaching upwards before it is covered by the greedy, unforgiving waves.
It is clear here that the sea nymphs care little for the treasure, though they disport themselves around it so languidly.  No, these nymphs are sirens, luring seamen to horrible deaths as a form of amusement and diversion.
Poynter’s mastery of color and light are stunning.  Though the source of light is the raging storm without, it illuminates the contours of the nymphs within.  Rather than plunge the figures in darkness, it serves to illustrate their voluptuous contours.  The light also makes the shell-harp incandescent, the siren’s beacon for unwary sailors.  The hair of the central nymph seems to glow with the light; indeed, the hair of the central figure, and that of the nymph above, seems almost unhampered by gravity, as if they were still under water.
Cave of the Storm Nymphs makes us believe in an invisible world.  It is a picture cool and calculating, painted by a master at the top of his form. 
"Careless of wreck or ruin, still they sing
Their light songs to the listening ocean caves,
And wreathe their dainty limbs, and idly fling
The costly tribute of the cruel waves.
Faire as their mother-foam, and all as cold,
Untouched alike by pity, love or hate;
Without a thought for scattered pearl or gold,
And neither laugh nor tear for human fate."

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Saving Their Lieutenant by Charles Schreyvogel


I have been enjoying our time in the American Western frontier so much that I think we’ll stay there throughout the week.

Wits as diverse as Gene Autry (1907-1998) and Cole Porter (1891-1964) have made sport of the drug store cowboy, and a quick look at your correspondent would guarantee a snort of derision if any affectation were made of being a ‘real Western character.’  (The Upper West Side of Manhattan, perhaps, but no further!)

However, a deep and abiding love for the myth of the American West can be a potent and nourishing thing.  I have been entranced by the West ever since first researching a novel that would include cowboy star Tom Mix (1880-1939) and that has led to a lifelong love affair with Buffalo Bill Cody (1846-1917), Western movies, classic Western television and radio shows, and, of course, Western art.

It seems that many of the artists that have made the most substantive contributions in defining the way we think of the mythic American West have been tenderfeet, or worse, what would now be called Eastern Liberal Elites.  Figures as diverse as Owen Wister, Ned Buntline, Zane Grey and Frederick Remington were all Easterners.  To that list we must add painter Charles Schreyvogel (1861-1912). 

Schreyvogel spent most of his life an underappreciated (and underpaid) painter.  He grew up in New York’s Lower East Side, the poor son of German immigrant shopkeepers.  Unable to afford formal art training, Schreyvogel taught himself how to draw.  He won the Thomas Clarke Prize in 1901 at the annual exhibition of the National Academy of Design.

Schreyvogel was enraptured by the myth of the West, then gaining terrific potency through dime novels and Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West.  A visit to Cody’s Wild West was a life-changing event for the young artist.  Schreyvogel would later make several trips West to paint Indians, but Cody and his theatrical milieu were his real creative wellspring.  He was a frequent guest at the Cody home, and his work is more a homage to the idea of the Wild West than a realistic depiction of the sort found in Russell and Remington (who hated Schreyvogel as a poseur).  In fact, one of his paintings, The Summit Springs Rescue, shows Cody in action against the Cheyenne. 

Schreyvogel’s paintings of the West now reside in the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma, and the Gilcrease Museum, also in Oklahoma.  Since the American West is filled with many ironies, it is irresistible to point out that many of these classic Western paintings were created in Schreyvogel’s studio in Hoboken, New Jersey.  (Annie Oakley was also a longtime New Jersey resident, living in Nutley.)

Saving Their Lieutenant is typical of Schreyvogel’s work.  It is a scene of dynamic action, seemingly coming right towards the viewer (a recurring motif in his work and clearly influenced by the Wild West shows of the era).  Horses and cavalrymen are clearly and cleanly depicted, while the barren Western landscape is rendered in a few economical strokes of color and detail.  The high country of the background is so subtle as to almost meld with the horizon point, creating the illusion of limitless depth and space to his vision of the West.

It takes perhaps a second glace at the painting to realize that the figure in the foreground is actually cradling his commanding officer in the crook of his arm.  The ‘hero’ of the painting manages to keep his lieutenant mounted while fighting off the suggested hoards of rampaging Native Americans in the background.  This is, perhaps, illustrative of Schreyvogel’s strongest quality, and the biggest difference between him and Russell and Remington.  Where Russell paints a lyrical and idyllic West, and Remington a West of hardship and travail, Schreyvogel’s West is a land of heroism.  He is the first great American painter influenced by the myth of the West rather than its actuality, and, as such, has become something of a mythic figure himself.


Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Ride the High Country of 1962


Looking at Remington’s An Assault on His Dignity yesterday put in mind of one of my favorite Western films, Ride the High Country, directed by Sam Peckinpah in 1962.  Though hailed by many as Peckinpah’s first great film (a view with which I disagree – I think Ride the High Country is his only great film), High Country is, I believe, more significant as a ‘transitional’ Western, bridging the gap between the great Hollywood fantasies of the American West and the latter mud-and-muck ‘realistic’ aesthetic first championed by the Italian westerns of Sergio Leone.
High Country was written by N.B. Stone, Jr. and Robert Creighton Williams, and like many of the best westerns, focuses on the end of an era and the displacement of the men who defined it.  As a meditation on the end of the West, it is as memorable as Don Siegel’s The Shootist (1976) and Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992), and boasts two wonderful, career-defining performances by Joel McCrea (1905-1990) and Randolph Scott (1898-1987). 
McCrea and Scott play two lawmen who helped tamed the West.  Now past their prime, each are looking to hold onto as much dignity (and make as much money) as possible.  The film eloquently depicts their obsolescence in the opening sequence.  McCrea rides into town to find the citizens lined against the sides of the road.  He naturally thinks this is a demonstration of welcome, but a policeman (looking like a Keystone Cop of the ‘20s and not a Western law figure) brushes him aside – the town is out to watch a race between horses and a camel.  Almost immediately after dismounting, McCrea is nearly run down by an automobile and the policeman calls him “old timer.”
At a nearby carnival, he spots Scott, now trading on his own legend as a two-bit carny.  In ridiculous wig, mustache and beard, Scott is tarted up like the world’s oldest incarnation of Buffalo Bill Cody or Wild Bill Hickok, using buckshot to hit targets.  McCrea explains that he’s in town to win the commission on guarding a gold consignment through what’s left of the badlands, and the two old timers set off.
Complications, of course, follow.  Scott feels that he has spent his life taming the West and has gotten very little in return – he and his young pard plan to steal the gold en route.  The trio also picks up a runaway (Mariette Hartley), who is running away from a stifling, violent religious fanatic of a father.
The real joy of High Country is the continual interplay between McCrea and Scott.  Originally, the roles were to be reversed, with Scott playing the honest and honorable lawman, and McCrea the more cynical, out-for-what-he-can-get ex-lawman.  However, in the reading, both realized that switching parts would be more effective, and they were entirely correct.  McCrea’s flat, Midwestern delivery is perfect for the moral compass of the picture, and Scott, in the role of a lifetime, uses his rich, Virginian accent to great effect as he makes sardonic, pithy remarks throughout the film.  In fact, his running commentary is one of the most satisfying elements of the screenplay, and the timbre of his voice is essential.  What also adds to the overall effect of their performances is that High Country is also a comment on their careers – throughout the 1950s (and much of the 1940s), both men focused primarily on Western films.  They bring to their performances the full weight of their screen images, and audience expectations of who they were and what they will do.
Also effective is Hartley, in her first film role.  This is long before she perfected her slightly arch, comedic delivery, and it is almost as if we are witnessing a different actress entirely.  Warren Oates and L.Q. Jones round out the cast, and they make definite impressions.
I had written that I think High Country is a ‘transitional’ Western – this is mainly because there is a stunning interval that takes place at a mining camp.  The camp is not a Technicolor-kissed bit of Warner Brothers mythmaking, but a muddy, messy, barren backwater.  Hartley is about to be married into a family of miners – each of them seemingly more brutal, more demented, and more dedicated to rape and rapine than the other.  The wedding ceremony takes place in a brothel peopled by characters that would make Fellini blanche.  Hartley is almost brutalized there, until McCrea and company save the day, with Scott cynically arranging a ‘miner’s trial.’ 
This sequence is wonderful, but it is also … ugly.  It is an abrupt sea change in the aesthetic of the Western as movie-goers knew it in 1962.  Indeed, it is more than the 20-odd years from McCrea’s own Buffalo Bill (1944) or Scott’s Frontier Marshal (1939), it is an eternity.  And while I much prefer the Westerns of Hollywood’s Golden Age to the later films that followed in the tradition of Sergio Leone, I find it significant that two of the most cherished figures of one era helped usher in another – which, again, underscores their coming obsolescence.
(Just a side-note here on the mud-and-muck ‘realism’ of later Westerns: ‘realism’ is always a loaded word when dealing with Westerns.  As historical events unfolded, many of the most significant figures of the West understood the mythic quality inherent in the pageant of their lives, and worked with publishers and early-filmmakers to help define it.  The ‘realistic’ Western is really an affectation of sorts, supplanting one myth with another one, and questions of ‘realism’ are injudicious.  Indeed, many towns and the people in them were cleaner in the Old West than they are today.)
High Country was not an enormous hit in the United States when first released.  (Oddly enough, neither was The Shootist, John Wayne’s farewell Western and the coda to his career.)  European critics, however, were ecstatic, and High Country beat Fellini's 8 ½ for first prize at the Belgium Film Festival and won the Paris film critics award for best film.  Critics do not always get it right on the first pass, but many of them do. 
Ride the High Country is available on DVD, loaded with several extras and commentary of little-to-no value.  The movie, however, is magnificent and essential viewing.


Tuesday, August 23, 2011

An Assault on His Dignity by Frederick Remington


In an earlier post we discussed the influence of Charlie Russell, the cowboy artist, on our collective memory of the American West.  Russell shared the honor of being the premiere artist of that time and place with another gifted painter, Frederick Remington (1861-1909).  Though there is a great commonality in the approach and aesthetic of both painters, each man had a radically different vision of the West.
The West of Russell is a gentler place; there are certainly rough-and-tumble aspects and very real danger, but, in essence, Russell’s West was a boy’s dream of freedom and escape.  Russell thought the West was a rapidly vanishing Eden, and longing and innocence are almost always part of his work.
Remington’s West was a place infinitely more harsh.  The common image of a bleached skull of a steer (shorthand for the badlands of the west in everything from films to animated cartoons) was first used by Remington; indeed, it became for him something of a motif.  It is not unusual in Remington to find cavalry men defending a waterhole in the pitiless American desert, or American Indians run down in defeat, exhausted and hopelessly outgunned, or men on horseback fleeing a raging storm. 
The figures in Remington often have a remarkable energy, and he was masterful in his depiction of the horse-in-motion.  He style was loose, almost like that of the Impressionists working then in Europe, and he was a gifted draughtsman that could work in oil, watercolor, and pen and ink.  Later in his career, he was a gifted sculptor in bronze, as well.
Initially, Remington intended to be a journalist, drawing and painting on the side.  He began his art studies in 1878 at the newly formed School of Fine Arts at Yale, in New Haven, CT.  He also studied, for only a few months, at the Arts Students League in New York.  However, Remington was not temperamentally equipped for formal art training: drawing from plaster casts left him chomping at the bit.  He started roaming the American West in 1881, travelling through the Dakotas, Montana, the Arizona Territory and Texas.  He returned east in 1882 and started providing illustrations for Harper’s Weekly. 
In a 1905 article in Collier's Remington later recalled his early inspiration for depicting Western subjects, writing: "I knew the wild riders and the vacant land were about to vanish forever….And the more I considered the subject, the bigger the forever loomed. Without knowing exactly how to do it, I began to try to record some facts around me, and the more I looked the more the panorama unfolded … I saw the living, breathing end of three American centuries of smoke and dust and sweat."
Remington collaborated with Own Wister (1860-1938), author of the first significant Western novel, The Virginian (1902) on The Evolution of the Cowpuncher, published in Harper’s Monthly in 1893; Remington provided the concept for the project, including factual information, and Wister wrote the stories.  It is a cornerstone work of the Western genre.
An extraordinarily fat man, Remington died after an emergency appendectomy led to peritonitis on Boxing Day, 1909. His weight complicated the anesthesia and the surgery, and chronic appendicitis was cited in the post-mortem examination as an underlying factor in his death. 
An Assault on His Dignity is a wonderfully representative work of Remington’s oeuvre.  The cowpunchers that surround the American Indian boy are painted with a few deft strokes, but there is more than sufficient detail to provide each figure with a distinct character.  The men lean forward on their saddles with a predatory pose, as if ready to reach out for the boy. 
But look closely at the composition.  As the cowpunchers surround and loom over the very small Indian boy, the shadows of the men and horses are dark and oppressive on the parched scrub.  The boy, who is naked (or nearly naked) boasts no saddle or hat, and looks into the distance, away from his tormentors.  His face is beardless and almost half-formed: the face of an infant.  He cannot allow himself the luxury of a reaction, as the cowpunchers would use that, too, against him; however, his horse is bug-eyed and alert to danger.  As always with Remington, the horses have both monumentality and grace of movement – each animal is believable and three-dimensional.  The extraordinary expanse of the Western horizon is delineated by a limited palette of warm yellows and cool blues and whitish purples, demarking great distance. 
Remington, with great economy of style, centrally locates the victim (the Indian boy), surrounding him with predators in a desolate landscape.  There is no help to be had, and he is all alone in the wide-open spaces: a unique type of sunlit terror.


Friday, August 19, 2011

Jewish Folk Craft Guild Exhibits at New York’s ASA College

Birch, by Marina Falkov

New York readers would be interested in stopping by the ASA College offices at 1293 Broadway (One Herald Center) for the International Arts Exhibit, presented in cooperation with the Jewish Folk Craft Guild.  The exhibit is open until September 15, with hours from 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 9:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m. Sunday.  Admission is free.
The  Jewish Folk Crafts Guild Inc. is a multi-disciplinary arts non-profit organization dedicated to presenting and preserving quality visual and media arts programs reflective of artists from Russia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia and, of course, the United States.  The ASA, founded in 1985, currently has more than 3000 students, 20 programs of study, and focuses on computer studies, healthcare, business and criminal justice.
Show visitors will see a number of fascinating works in a variety of media, reflecting a rich cultural heritage and a considerable degree of technical skill.  The exhibition features professional, semi-professional and amateur artists, and is a wonderful bell weather of New York’s continuing cultural vibrancy.  Watercolors, pen-and-ink drawings and oils adorn the rather spare walls of ASA, allowing visitors the opportunity of looking at the works in depth.
Several artists show yeoman work, including Lyudmila Shamis, Zinalda Kelebeyeve, and Marina Falkov.  Falkov, who has exhibited elsewhere in New York and Long Island, has works spread throughout the exhibition, including a dramatic piece in acrylics, called Moonlight, and another in the same medium, Birch.  Birch is a stark landscape, devastated by the dogs of war, fit only for blasted trees and carrion birds.
New Yorkers interested in a continuing Eastern European tradition, or simply in participating in a community art event, are urged to go.  Recommended.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

In the Studio by Alfred Stevens


Though seldom considered today (thanks, mainly, to our intense interest in ‘artists’ like Jackson Pollack and David Hockney), Alfred Émile Léopold Stevens (1823 – 1906) painted too many magnificent pictures to be swept aside by the tide of contemporary art ‘criticism.’

Stevens was born in Brussels.  Both his older brother and son were painters, and another brother an art dealer and critic.  He came from talented parents – his father was something of a celebrated collector in his own right, and his mother ran the Café de l'Amitié in Brussels, a meeting place for politicians, writers, and artists.

Like many artists of the time, Stevens studied at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, where he mixed with several Neo-Classical painters, and in 1843 he went to Paris where he studies at the École des Beaux-Arts.  He started to show his own work in 1851, and he quickly became a medalist at the Paris Salon. 

Stevens soon became known for his masterful pictures of women in contemporary dress. He became a glittering part of the Paris social scene, befriending such worthies as Alexandre Dumas, Théophile Gautier, and Eugène Delacroix (who was a witness at Stevens’ wedding to socialite Marie Blanc).

During the Franco-Prussian War, Stevens fought for the French before returning to Belgium with his wife and family before the Paris Commune.  They returned to Paris after the war and he continued to win acclaim and commissions.  However, Stevens did not successfully manage his income, and after outliving most of his friends and family, died alone in a Paris hotel.

In the Studio is a remarkable picture for a variety of reasons.  Socially, it is quite interesting for a painting of the period to depict female artists.  Though there were certainly women painters at the time, they were, at best, marginal figures.  But also look at the easy composition: the painter stands aside her easel, palette in hand, listening in a languid attitude.  The studio visitor, obviously a lady of substance, leans forward in concentration and engagement.  The model, on the other end of the room (and of the social spectrum) sits isolated on the couch, splendid in her ornate dressing gown (which, no doubt, belongs to the artist).  Despite her classical beauty, the face seems, in repose, sullen and care-worn.  She is indeed a woman apart.

The studio itself is rich with the props and details often found in studios of this era – and is particularly rich in bits of Orientalia, including fans and a golden Japanese screen.  Stevens was a key figure in creating an interest in Japanese art, which was exploited by many artists of the era, including Whistler.  This wonderful picture is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and my readers are urged to visit it.

Below, to provide an additional taste of Steven’s Oriental oeuvre, here is his delightful La Parisienne japonaise.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The New American Philistine

Recently I received an email which read, in part, “you are often railing against the philistines, but you have yet to really define who they are.  Just so I fully understand your points of view, who are these philistines that you see every day, and how can I recognize them?”
Good questions all.  You correspondent must confess that defining the contemporary philistine is a formidable task: the picture must, thanks to the rapidity of change, shift too fast and too regularly for a concrete definition to take hold.  However, like the good judge and pornography, I know it when I see it and so, in that spirit, following are some of the defining traits of the new American philistine.
None of these characteristics, separately or in-and-of-themselves, are enough to label one a philistine, but one or more are a sure sign of cultural and intellectual decay.
Multiple tattoos, for instance, or, anyone with tattoos that are visible when fully dressed.  Why this repulsive, tribal holdover has reemerged is a mystery of terrifying potency; at times, it almost seems as if modern man wishes to run around in grass skirts and nose bones, which leads us to the next signifier.
Multiple piercings – if an individual is pierced in the eyebrow, nose, tongue, perineum, lip or has more ear holes than a rotary phone, then a charge of philistinism is warranted.  In fact, I had recently seen a woman with so many piercings in her lip that watching her drink was like looking at a fountain.
If underwear is at all visible when fully clothed, then that person is a philistine (and rather unhygienic, to boot).  Similarly, if trousers are worn so low on the body that running becomes impossible, you are witnessing witless philistinism.  Such individuals invariably have photographs of themselves with: a baseball cap turned sideways or backwards, thumb-index-and-pinky-finger extended, tongue pointed at camera, or, a gun.
If you are near someone listening to an iPod, MP3 player or similar device through earphones and you can hear the music, you are near a philistine.  If you can hear the music through their earphones more than two feet away, it is quite possible that the wearer is not only a philistine, but functionally brain dead.  The same is true of car stereos audible outside of the actual car itself.  Which leads us to another indication…
If the subject is interested in rock (be it ‘classic,’ glitter, glam, pop, bubblegum, hard or whatever), funk, rapp, hip hop, reggae, gangsta, disco, gospel or soul, then you are dealing with a philistine.  This, I’m afraid, is beyond debate.
If the person in question owns fewer than 25 books (not including, of course, children’s books and/or comics and ‘graphic novels’), then they are a philistine.  Similarly, a taste for Dan Brown, Harold Robbins, or Harry Potter is highly suspect.
A philistine thinks movies made pre-1980 are ‘old,’ refuses to watch anything in black-and-white or with subtitles, and equates box office success with quality. 
If the television is on whenever the subject is at home, they are a philistine.  If they have a predilection for Mad Men, they are a philistine with pretentions.
If artistic tastes run towards graffiti, ‘tagging’ or other forms of public vandalism, then you’re dealing with a philistine.
If tastes turn towards ‘art’ that incorporates any of the of the following – feces, urine, decapitated cows, lard, blood or detritus – then that individual has surpassed philistinism and entered barbarism.  If you have paid a considerable amount of money for a signed urinal, ‘street art,’ a soup can label or a bucket of broken glass, you are not just a philistine, but a sucker, as well.
The philistine decorates their home with ‘collectibles’ issued by the Franklin Mint.  Often, there is at least one picture of a napping puppy, throw pillows with ‘cute’ phrases stitched into them or potpourri.  If you, gentle reader, find yourself in such an atmosphere, run for the nearest exit.
These are the signifiers that immediately come to mind.  I now open the floor to my readers – how do you define the new American philistine?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Music Man of 1962


No summer would be complete without a visit to River City, Iowa, circa 1912, courtesy of Professor Harold Hill.  I refer, of course, to The Music Man, one of the last great Broadway musicals, and certainly one of the last great Hollywood musical films.  The 1962 film is a (somewhat neglected) masterpiece, and ripe for revisiting on DVD or Blu-Ray.  As summer slips away, find time to see it.
The Music Man tells the story of con man “Professor” Harold Hill (Robert Preston), who glides into sleepy River City one summer, promising to start a boys band.  He alternates hustling parents for money for uniforms and musical instruments while romancing the town librarian, Marion Paroo (Shirley Jones).  Marion realizes that Hill is a liar, cheat and crook, but she also knows that he has been a real friend to her younger brother, the lisping Winthrop (Ron Howard – yes, that Ron Howard), and that his brand of snake oil has also brought the town back to life.  In the end, Hill is captured by a now angry townspeople and … well, you should really see the movie.
The Music Man is based on the Broadway musical of the same name by Meredith Wilson (1902-1984), which debuted in 1957.  The Music Man is now the focus of some small controversy, as it won five Tony Awards, including Best Musical, trouncing the now-more-highly-regarded West Side Story for that honor.  (The Music Man also won the Grammy Award for Best Cast Album that year.)  While awards are, by and large, puffery and relatively unimportant when considering the legacy of a work of art, I believe, in this instance, that the Tony went to the truly better show.  One of the most fascinating aspects of The Music Man is that it is both a send-up of Americana and an authentic representation of it.  This wonderful duality is part of the complexity that becomes more apparent with each viewing.
Wilson, a native of Mason City, Iowa, said the show was "an Iowan's attempt to pay tribute to his home state."  Wilson worked on the show for eight years, doing some 30 revisions and writing more than 40 songs before the show took its final shape.  Songs include “Trouble,” “Iowa Stubborn,” “Till There Was You,” “Seventy-six Trombones,” and my favorite, a counterpoint number combining “Lida Rose” and “Will I Ever Tell You.” Marion’s theme, “Goodnight My Someone,” is actually the same as Hill’s, “Seventy-six Trombones,” one in waltz time, the other in a march tempo, underscoring that they were made for each other.
The film is over-loaded with charms, chief among them the beautiful evocation of 1912 small-town America.  The clear cerulean skies, the nighttime stillness, the sunny days – it’s all there, as if the filmmakers had managed to distill the essence of summer and trap it in celluloid.  The costumes are bright, the lighting sun-kissed and orchestrations of the Broadway tunes bouncy and full-bodied.  The director, Morton DaCosta (1914-1989), also directed the original Broadway show, and kept many of the techniques common for storytelling on stage intact for the film version – do not be surprised by character spotlights, background fades and actors entering the frame stage left.  DaCosta used many of the same techniques with his film version of Auntie Mame (1958), and both films were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture.  The Music Man was nominated for six Oscars, winning one, for Best Musical Score (adaptation) – and it is my favorite film of 1962.
Most musicals boil down to the performances: even a great score can be sunk with lackluster talent.  The Music Man is superbly cast throughout; even the smallest character parts are embodied by recognizable types.  Paul Ford and Hermione Gingold are terrific as the blow-hard mayor and his aristocratic (but feather-brained) wife; Buddy Hackett (usually a performer best taken in small doses) is fun and believable as sidekick Marcellus, and Pert Kelton, as Mrs. Paroo, nearly steals the film with a few well-placed sighs.  The wonderful Mary Wickes, Peggy Mondo and Sara Seegar play the town hens, and they are delicious.
Shirley Jones (born 1934) – some three months pregnant for much of the filming – plays Marion.  She is a perfect choice; there has always been something starchy and unyielding in her screen presence, which works wonderfully well for the flinty librarian.  Her almost incandescent beauty stands her in good stead as she falls for Hill, and her looks of longing carry great emotional weight.
Robert Preston (1918-1987) played Hill in the original Broadway production, but he was by no means a shoe-in for the film version.  Bing Crosby lobbied long and hard for the role, but to no avail.  Jack Warner, the film’s producer, first wanted Cary Grant (?!) and, later, Frank Sinatra, who also actively campaigned for the part.  Wilson insisted on Preston, however, and movie magic was made.  (Sinatra was so incensed at losing the part that he never spoke to Preston again.)
Prior to The Music Man, Preston was most often cast as the villain or the second leading man.  That he was by no means a singer, nor a dancer, is the key to his success in the role.  Harold Hill works best when the actor in the role is musical, rather than a singer.  (Two rather different things.)  Preston has a wonderful feel for music and rhythm (in an earlier film, as a western villain in 1948’s Blood on the Moon, Preston sings to himself throughout the action), and inherently understood the mechanics of music.  “Professor” Hill, who is neither a musician nor signer (he cannot even read music), must have the qualities of music without real accomplishment – it’s really the whole point. 
Preston’s Hill is one of the great American movie performances.  His energy is indefatigable – Preston comes across like a force of nature.  His enthusiasm for the con, for women and for mischief are infectious, and his ability to toss off a lie a marvel.  It’s not that Preston’s Hill is that horrible cliché, “a villain you love to hate,” but, rather, how we ourselves would like to be had we the capacity to lie for profit.
This brings us to one of the fascinating paradoxes of the film.  Hill sells River City a lie, a terrible, expensive and rather disappointing lie.  However, it is a lie that nourishes, energizes and unites – it is a lie that becomes town myth.  Essentially, The Music Man posits that an empowering lie can be better than a mundane truth.  It argues, in short, in favor of a great American political, advertising and religious tradition.  It is a movie not to be missed.


Friday, August 12, 2011

The Frederick Douglass Circle Statue

Gabriel Koren's Frederick Douglass

On September 20th at 11:00 a.m., various notables will gather to finally unveil and inaugurate a new public space, the Frederick Douglass Circle, located at the northwest corner of New York’s Central Park.  They need not bother.
Not that Frederick Douglass is not eminently worthy of celebration -- he is.  It is just a pity that this $15.5 million travesty is the vehicle.  The whole sorry spectacle started a little over four years ago.  When the initial public space was planned, the eight-foot statue of Douglass was to stand above a huge granite quilt, forming an array of squares loaded with symbols, supposedly part of a secret code sewn into family quilts and used to aid slaves traveling the Underground Railroad.  The only problem was, the whole code-in-a-quilt story was a myth, and a rather poor one at that, and the original design had to be scrapped.  Now the statue is near a bronze wall studded with stars, which, I imagine, can only lead the more credulous children playing in the Circle to believe that Douglass worked for NASA.
Work on the Circle began in 2004, with a projected completion date of 2005.  That was then pushed back to 2008.  It was not finished, however, until 2010 – with its dedication now a year later.  Insert your own “New York minute” joke here.
The square was designed by Algernon Miller, and, all things considered, it is relatively innocuous.  He managed to work some of the quilt mythology into the paving stones themselves, though the overarching effect is still somewhat underwhelming.  It is certainly a better, more fitting, and more aesthetically pleasing refuge than the appalling Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial defacing Washington, DC, designed (if that’s the word) by Lawrence Halprin. 
Miller worked with the Studio Museum in Harlem to find a sculptor for the figure of Douglass and, here, in a nutshell, is where the project completely degrades into farce.  Out of a field of six artists, they selected Gabriel Koren, and the figure he crafted is one of nearly unparalleled horror.  The arms and legs of the venerable Douglass seem completely and utterly out of proportion – one thinks he could scratch his ankles without bending over.  The details of his hands, shoes and trousers seem sketchy, at best, and one is not sure if he is ready to address an audience, or needs to steady himself after a night out on the town.  The face and hair are amateurishly delineated – indeed, Koren makes the famed orator and abolitionist look like a dyspeptic smurf.
Though the city and state footed the bill for this $15.5 million amateur art project, the Circle and statue itself were commissioned for a mere $750,000.  (That figure may have increased once the original plans including the granite quilts were scrapped, but I have not been able to confirm that yet.)  It is currently a haven for skateboarders, tired nannies and drunks, so the investment has not been a complete waste.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Modern Master Max Ginsburg Wins for “War Pieta”


There are many current artists producing remarkable work, though one may never know it looking at most gallery offerings or contemporary arts journals.  However, there is a growing tide of modern masters working in an artistic tradition that requires true skill, virtuosity and vision.  One of these is Max Ginsburg, who recently won the Best In Show prize of $10,000 for the 2010/1011 Salon Competition bestowed by the Art Renewal Center for his stunning War Pieta.

First, a word about The Art Renewal Center (ARC), created in 2000 by a group of artists, art collectors, historians, and enthusiasts.  The ARC advocates standards of craftsmanship and excellence while maintaining a virtual museum with over 63,000 images in its library – a treasure trove for the serious art student or connoisseur.  ARC’s Salon Competition seeks to recognize modern masters of drawing, color, form, vision, light and composition.  As Kara Ross, ARC Director of Operations, writes about the awards this year:  “Nothing says more about a culture then the art it idolizes. It represents what it values, what it thinks about, and essentially what it deems worth remembering. Art is the representation of a people, encapsulating its essence on every level. The artists participating in this competition are helping to bring the culture back to its most important root, its humanity.”  The ARC can be found at: www.artrenewal.org.
Max Ginsburg was born in Paris (his parents were travelling) in 1931.  His father was portrait painter Abraham Ginsburg.  Max came of age during a dark period of American art, when a market-driven modernist establishment actively devalued the place of both representational art and of beauty.  He worked for many years as an illustrator while painting pictures depicting life in New York with a raw energy and a keen eye for detail.
One of the many canards that the modernist establishment hurls at real artists is that the beau arts tradition is played out, that is has nothing left to say because it deals mostly in trite, idealized images.  This puffery is easily dismissed by reality and a quick survey of much of the contemporary work in the realist tradition, which actively seeks to reconnect art with our humanity.
Ginsburg is firmly in this tradition.  A quick look at his oeuvre (and you can find it here at: www.maxginsburg.com) shows a painter clearly in the classical tradition grappling with real-world issues.  His painting depicting the horrors of Abu Ghraib is a stunning masterwork that combines imagery of the crucifixion of Christ with the tortures committed by a corrupt, amoral American military.  Other pictures deal with contemporary families losing their homes to foreclosure, homelessness, and economic chaos. 
War Pieta is a disturbing image.  It is also a powerful, poignant, beautifully rendered one.  As Ginsburg writes on his Web site: “I sought to symbolically connect, and contrast, the image of a real mother screaming in anguish over the death of her soldier son with the Old Master images of the Madonna mourning the death of her son in a rather unreal, quiet and serene way.”
In this, Ginsburg succeeds powerfully.  Ginsburg’s sense of color is sure, his composition sound and his control of anatomy terrific.  Behind the horribly mangled American soldier and his devastated mother are burning oilfields, the focus (and the prize) of this horrific folly.  This riveting and wrenching work is the artistic equivalent of a gut-punch; close your eyes and you may find the image still seared into your retina.  The pain is palpable, the mother’s scream unquiet in our imagination, and the brutality of her son’s mutilation leaving us all somehow guilty and complicit.  I imagine, one day, it will be the centerpiece of a George W. Bush Presidential Library, depicting his greatest and most vicious crime.
Max Ginsburg has created a picture for the ages.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Atkinson Grimshaw’s November Moonlight


One of the sadder side effects of the way art history is written is that great masters of light and color are under-appreciated when critical rhetoric moves in a different direction.  Case in point: John Atkinson Grimshaw (1836-1893).
Grimshaw’s story is an interesting one.  Born in Leeds to a working class family (his father was a policeman), Grimshaw first found employment as a railway clerk.  However, he dreamed of becoming an artist, a choice that did not sit well with his father.  Grimshaw did have a London studio for a brief time, but, mostly, he recorded life in Northern England and parts of Scotland.  He bought Knostrop Hall on the outskirts of Leeds and was a prolific painter until his early death from cancer in 1893.  Four of his children would themselves become painters.  (A well-read man, Grimshaw named all of his children after characters in Tennyson poems.)
Though Grimshaw painted many types of pictures (portraits, ‘society’ pictures and even the odd fairy painting), it is his landscape work examining different types of light and weather that best exemplified his talents.  Grimshaw had a genius for weather, and his use of light allowed him to capture both mood and appearance in his landscapes.  He had a unique sense of twilight, of moonlight, of fog and rain – where lesser painters would create mud, his brush left limpid delineations of light and tone.
Grimshaw lived and worked during an interesting time in art history.  His contemporaries included, for example, Edgar Degas, Paul Gauguin, Vincent Van Gogh and James Abbott McNeill Whistler.  Grimshaw was not part of an avant-garde, had no particular or dramatic ‘story’ of his life, and he created little controversy.  Art history moved on without him – a great mistake even without the benefit of hindsight.  Now that representational painting and artistic expertise are having their own renaissance, Grimshaw once again is attracting notoriety.  A new retrospective exhibit called Atkinson Grimshaw – Painter of Moonlight is running from 16 April 2011 to 4 September 2011 at Mercer Art Gallery in Harrogate.
Let’s close the week with a look at Grimshaw’s November Moonlight.  The cold, grayish-blue of the moonlight illuminates this streetscape.  The rutted, damp road reflects this cold light, and the dead trees stand out in dramatic relief.  The cart rider is alone, which underscores the unforgiving nature of the season.  Everything about this picture says late autumn, chilly air and the onset of winter.  However, Grimshaw brings a vital element of life by employing yellowish light to the parlor windows, creating a sense of warmth, of hearth and of refuge.  The stone wall, however, which is clearly illuminated by the cold moon, separates our rider from the home – he is alone, with only the cold moonlight for company.
This is a type of painting seldom done today, filled with quiet mastery, human connection to landscape and sublime emotion.  We could do much worse than reconsidering John Atkinson Grimshaw.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Tissot’s Passing Storm


Since we were looking at moon and candle light yesterday, I thought we might move on to that interesting light that occurs just before a storm breaks.
A Passing Storm was painted by James Jacques Joseph Tissot (1836-1902).  He was a French painter who spent much of his life in Britain.  Like many artists of his generation he studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, exhibiting in the Paris Salon.  Like James Abbott McNeill Whistler (who was also a friend), Tissot became enamored of Japanese objects and costumes, and incorporated them for some time into his work.  (When Degas painted his portrait of Tissot, he depicted him near a Japanese screen.)
Tissot left France following the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, settling in London.  His painting evolved further, and Tissot spent the next several years depicting beautifully dressed society women. 
Though never really an Impressionist (his brushwork and drawing ability were too precise for that categorization), Tissot had many ties to the Impressionist community.  He stayed in London until 1882 when his lover, Mrs. Kathleen Newton, died of consumption.
Like many people who lose a loved-one, Tissot reacted by becoming more interested in faith.  He spent much of the remainder of his career painting religious pictures – one of which, What Christ Saw From the Cross, is a masterpiece of foreshortening.  However, I have never cultivated a taste for his religious work: like many born-agains, Tissot’s religious vision is cloudy and somewhat ossified.
Tissot painted several pictures where the action takes place in front of windows.  It was his signature device, and a very effective one, too, as his control of light was remarkable.  (Looking at many of these pictures at once the viewer can see the same windows, and sometimes the same costumes on the models, used to differing effects.)
A Passing Storm was painted around 1876.  The title is a clever joke on Tissot’s part: in the background, storm clouds gather while in the foreground, young lovers have obviously just quarreled.
Let’s look at the figures first.  The man in the painting stands on the terrace separated from his lover, brooding.  (One might say that his face has clouded over.)  She lies inside on the divan and though her body assumes the attitude of one who has recently been upset, look at her face.  She clearly is enjoying her power to manipulate him – in fact, she is happy to let him stew.
But of particular interest is that special brown-gray quality light has just before a storm.  There are patches of bright, cool light cutting through darker, muddier illumination.   Tissot manages to capture the quality of “glare” from the water, as a result of moisture in the air, and one can almost feel the cool rain about to come.  Think of the onset of storms you have witnessed yourself, and remember that quality of light.  Has not Tissot managed to capture it with is brush?
Tissot managed to create a picture that not only dazzles with his control of light and color, but matches the exterior atmosphere with the emotions of his subjects.  We have much to learn from him.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Candlelit Market of Petras van Schendel


One of the more obscure masters of light and color was Petrus van Schendel (1806-1870).  Schendel was born in Terheyden, and did his artistic apprenticeship in Antwerp from 1822 to 1828.  He knocked around Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague before permanently settling in Brussels in 1845.  (He is still often called “a Belgian painter.”)
Schendel was heavily influenced by 17th Century Dutch painting, eventually developing his own particular mastery of light, specifically candlelight and moonlight.  His Market Scene by Moonlight was a Gold Medal winner and the painting was later bought by Queen Victoria.  I can think of few painters who so wonderfully capture the unique properties of subtle illumination; it is no accident that the French dubbed him Mr. Candle.
The picture above is Schendel’s The Candlelit Market.  I have not been able to find a year for this picture, but I would judge it to be painted in the early 1850s. First, look at how remarkably Schendel captures the quality of moonlight in the upper right hand section of the canvas.  Moonlight has a very distinct visual quality – it cannot be mistaken for sun or artificial light.  It has a cool, off-white illumination, and Schendel achieves just the right tone and color. 
Now, look at the warm, golden illumination afforded by the candles.  The flame tints the flesh tones with warmth and vitality, leaving the unexposed skin swathed in gray-black shadows.
Most remarkable of all, look at the central figure holding the basket.  The light in front of her (to our left) is red-yellow and warm.  However, look at the top of her bent back and shoulders, facing the moon, and note the outline of cold, off-white moonlight. 
The moonlit buildings are complete and fully-realized without being fussy.  What we have here is a window into a distant past, a vanished way of life which we can only imagine in our most romantic fancies.