Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Bertolucci’s The Dreamers

This week, The Jade Sphinx will be looking at movies that have fallen through the cracks and we start with Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, released in 2003.

The Dreamers created something of a scandal upon its release for its frank and open depiction of teenage sexuality, garnering an NC-17 rating.  (It is amazing to note that the public of 2003 was surprised to find out that teenagers actually had sex, but that’s a topic for another post.)  The film is set in Paris in 1968, right at the start of the infamous student riots, and concerns three young people, a Parisian brother and sister, and an American university student.  The trio meet, learn of their mutual love of film, and the siblings invite the American to live with them in their Paris apartment while their parents vacation out of town.

What happens next is a prolonged ménage au trios, both physical and intellectual.  The trio argue about the relative merits of Greta Garbo, leftist politics and art both pop and fine, while becoming bedmates.  Bertolucci shies away from explicitly underscoring the sexual romance between the young American and the French brother, but shows no restraint in the physical attachment between our hero and the sister.

Life in the sprawling apartment is very enclosed and …, well, incestuous.  The outside world is largely forgotten, including the missing parents and the brewing rebellion outside.  When they do reemerge, the question becomes, have they become the people they have crafted within their protective cocoon, or have the changes not been so profound?

The Dreamers is wonderfully cast, particularly Michael Pitt (born 1981) as Matthew, the American film student.  He has a certain narcissism in keeping with one so young and privileged, but he also displays remarkable vulnerability and tenderness.  One could well believe that he is growing, emotionally and intellectually, as the film unrolls.

Equally strong is Eva Green (born 1980) as Isabelle.  This was Green’s breakout film, leading to her role in Casino Royale (2006), the silly and self-important reboot of the James Bond series.  Her Dreamers performance is uniformly excellent, and courageous for its naked intensity.  (No pun intended.)  Louis Garrel (born 1981), already a familiar face on the international film scene, is brooding and mysterious as brother Theo.  His performance is subtle, always hinting that something is going on just beyond his sculpted and placid beauty.  I am surprised that his career has not had a more stellar trajectory.

That Bernardo Bertolucci (born 1941) should make a film frankly addressing sexuality should come as no surprise from the director of Last Tango in Paris (1972).  The Parma-born Bertolucci started his career with intentions of becoming a poet, but quickly focused on cinema in his college years.  Bertolucci is intensely invested in the language of film, and The Dreamers, with its endless talk about movies and what they mean, is a film for cineastes.

Bertolucci’s film is based on the novel The Holy Innocents, by the late Scottish novelist Gilbert Adair (1944-2011).  The novel is more frank about the Matthew-Theo connection, but the film is otherwise a fairly straightforward adaptation.

Why write about The Dreamers nearly nine years after its release?  Your correspondent was dismayed that the film was received with a collective yawn when first released.  The Dreamers is a beautifully photographed film (doing more for Paris than Midnight in Paris could ever hope to achieve) filled with deft and honest performances.  It also managed to capture a fascinating time and historic event with a sure hand – the film never has the ossified feel of many a period piece.  I believe the film was kept at bay simply because teenage sexuality cannot work for American audiences outside of the smirking banality of comedies like Porky’s.  Articulate, worldly young people terrify us. These are teenagers arguing over art, over classic film and over various political questions – all with intensity unique to adolescence, when we are convinced (and probably right) that we know everything.  So, The Dreamers is a film about exploration – mapping that frightening terrain called adulthood, fashioning an identity from art and the world of the mind, and, yes, finding fulfillment in sexual release.  The trio here are standing on the shoulders of those who have come before them, and are alternately terrified and exhilarated by the view.   

But, really, what has stayed with me all these years was the image of dirty feet.  At one point, Green navigates the mess the apartment has become and the bottoms of her feet are black with filth.  And this, really, is what it means to be young.  The three of them have dirty feet while their heads are in the clouds – and I would be hard-pressed to find a better metaphor for adolescence.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Damien Hirst Hits the Spot

LSD, by Damien Hirst; Insert Your Own Joke Here

One can only imagine that Damien Hirst had a very accommodating mother. Think of them together in little Damien’s nursery so many years ago…

Damien (age three): Look, Mommy, I’ve painted a picture!

Hands her a page littered with multi-colored dots.

Mother Hirst: That’s nice, dear.

Damien: Do you know what it is?

Mother Hirst (turning it this way and that): Ahh … surprise me.

Damien: It’s a painting of Daddy!

Mother Hirst: Someday, lad, you’re going to be a great painter. Or something.

Damien: No, no, Mommy. I’m going to be a rich painter!

Mother Hirst: Come give Mother a kiss and be sure to behave.

Damien Hirst (born 1965) is Britain’s wealthiest living artist, valued at £215m by the Sunday Times. (That’s more than $300 million American, folks.) He stands, with Professor of Drawing Tracey Emin of England’s Royal Academy, as a horrific example of the cynicism and hucksterism that has penetrated the contemporary art scene.

Hirst was born in Bristol and grew up in Leeds. His father, a car mechanic, left the family when Hirst was 12 and he was raised, for the most part, by his mother, Mary Brennan. Though she was a strict disciplinarian (and, if one reads between the lines, boarder-line abusive), Mrs. Hirst encouraged his artistic ambitions. Hirst would later attend the Leeds College of Art.

Hirst hit the jackpot when crackpot Charles Saatchi (of the global advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi) promised to fund whatever work Hirst wanted to make. With this bankroll, Hirst “created” The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, which debuted at the misnamed Young British Artists exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery in London. Physical Impossibility was a dead shark pickled in a tank of formaldehyde -- it sold for £50,000 and Hirst was nominated for the Turner Prize.

Hirst went back to the slaughterhouse with Away From the Flock, which was a sheep in a tank of formaldehyde. Sadly … Hirst gets the money, but not the joke. In 1993 artist Mark Bridger walked into the gallery where Away From the Flock was on display and poured black ink into the tank, retitling the work Black Sheep. One would think the world owed Bridger a vote of profound thanks (at least we could no longer see the sheep), but Hirst did not enjoy being topped by a wit greater than his, and pressed charges.

Hirst is currently in the news again thanks to The Complete Spot Paintings, 1986-2011, which are featured in Larry Gargosian’s 11 galleries dotted around New York, London, Paris, Geneva, Rome, Athens, Hong Kong, and Beverly Hills. And if you love spots, then these 331 paintings are for you. Teenagers with acne – beware!

Now, the most amazing thing about these paintings – aside from how utterly puerile and ridiculous they are – is that Hirst himself did not paint most of them. He has had a team of assistants spotting canvasses for him for decades – for Hirst, like a deadbeat dad, the creative act often begins and ends with conception. Many of his spot paintings were actually done by Rachel Howard – and Hirst himself has said the only difference between spots painted by himself and spots painted by someone else was merely a question of money...

Fortunately, we here at The Jade Sphinx are not the sole voices of sanity wailing in the wilderness. In a recent New Yorker review Peter Schjeldahl wrote that, “…to like them would entail identifying with the artist’s cynicism, as heards of collectors, worldwide, evidently do. Hirst will go down in history as a peculiarly cold-blooded pet of millennial excess wealth. That’s not Old Master status, but it’s immortality of a sort.”

Substitute “immorality” for “immortality,” and I could not agree more.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Oscar Wilde: Detective!

Yesterday we looked at Built of Books: How Reading Defined the Life of Oscar Wilde, one of the most original and fascinating biographies of Oscar Wilde in years.  But … fiction writers have also pursued the shade of our favorite Victorian aesthete.  Have they fared as well as biographer Thomas Wright?
In short, no.  There is no shortage of novels that “star” or feature Oscar Wilde, and too many of them are hardly worth the time and effort necessary to read them.  Here are some to avoid.
Writer Gyles Brandreth has his own cottage industry of Oscar Wilde mysteries, with four already on bookshelves and more on the way.  They are (as of this writing): Oscar Wilde and a Death of No Importance, Oscar Wilde and a Game Called Murder, Oscar Wilde and the Dead Man’s Smile and, of course, Oscar Wilde and the Vampire Murders.  These books have the fairly original conceit of being “narrated” by Robert Sherard, a real-life poet and man of letters who wrote several volumes of reminiscence regarding his friendship with Wilde.  Various other luminaries of the period make appearances in the books, including Dracula author Bram Stoker, actress Sarah Bernhardt and, naturally, Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
There has been an enormous vogue for mixing historical figures and detective fiction ever since Nicholas Meyer wrote of Sigmund Freud and Sherlock Holmes in his 1974 novel The Seven Percent Solution.  The Freud-Holmes novel is actually a very strong one, presenting a fresh look at two fascinating personalities, one actual the other fictional.  The downside of the book has been its long-ranging influence.  We have now been treated to a crime-busting Teddy Roosevelt, Leonardo da Vinci as detective, the poet Longfellow solving crimes, even, believe it or not, the sleuthing team of Edgar Allen Poe and Davy Crockett.  Conan Doyle and magician Harry Houdini has been paired together in so many novels, I’m sure their ghosts have taken up housekeeping.  I keep waiting for a mystery solved by LBJ’s dog.
It’s not the Brandreth’s Wilde mysteries are bad … they are often entertaining trifles.  But his concept of Wilde is in keeping with your secretary’s monthly book club: velvet jackets, a few tired epigrams and a touch of twee charm.  In addition, the frequent collaboration in these books between Doyle and Wilde rings false – they may have inhabited the same historic space, but they lived in different worlds.
Moving from the ridiculous to the more serious, we have Desmond Hall’s I Give You Oscar Wilde.  This biographical-novel is told from the point of view of one of Wilde’s acquaintances, and hits all the highs and lows of Wilde’s life.  It commits the one unpardonable sin when writing about Wilde: it’s dull.
Perhaps the most egregious offender in the Wilde-in-fiction sweepstakes is author Louis Edwards for his book, Oscar Wilde Discovers America.  Edwards writes of Wilde’s American lecture tour and his real-life valet, an African-American named Traquair.  Of course, the two become fast-friends (Wilde calls his manservant Tra) and when the young son-of-slaves is not whispering epigrams into the great man’s ear, he is opening him up to the possibilities of life.  At one point, deep under Tra’s influence, Wilde even predicts the advent of jazz.  (I swear I’m not making this up.)  Yes – you guessed it – Oscar Wilde Discovers America is The Help dressed with a green carnation.  And, like Kathryn Stockett’s novel, Edwards’ book is alternately tedious and ridiculous.
Others have used Wilde as a fictional character – and more successfully.  We’ll be looking at some of those books in future weeks.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Part II -- Built of Books: How Reading Defined the Life of Oscar Wilde

Today we conclude our review of Built of Books: How Reading Defined the Life of Oscar Wilde, by Thomas Wright
In short, Wilde is too large a personality, too large a mind for us to get our hands around comfortably.  Just when we think we’ve cut him down to a manageable size – oh yes, the man who loved not wisely nor well enough – some other aspect of Wilde comes to pull away the veil through which we see the distorted image.  Just when we think of Wilde’s life as a great tragedy, he laughs at us; and when we think of his deep and rich vein of comedy, he makes us weep at the equally rich and deep agonies of life.  (Languishing in prison, Wilde was asked by a guard about then-popular novelist Marie Corelli.  And Wilde, a man at that time in hell, said from behind his prison bars, “Now I don’t think I’ve got anything to say against her moral character, but from the way she writes, she ought to be in here.”)
We keep returning to Wilde, but none of our recreations rings entirely true.  The movies have been particularly unkind to Wilde.  Robert Morley, a gifted actor within his own range, was never more than a walking aphorism in Oscar Wilde (1960), and Peter Finch and Stephen Fry (in 1960s’ Trials of Oscar Wilde and 1997’s Wilde, respectively) both have a martyred look, as if Wilde’s life was all tragedy and no comedy.  And the Wilde of Nikolas Grace in Salome’s Last Dance (1988) was … not the Wilde of history or myth.  None of these actors manage to convince as a man of genius, though Vincent Price, in Diversions of Delights, has come, perhaps, closest to the Wilde of fact and legend, and Edward Hibbert was also excellent as the replacement Wilde in Gross Indecency.
Wilde has now turned up in a series of detective novels of varying qualities by Gyles Brandreth, the latest of which is Oscar Wilde and the Dead Man’s Smile.  These books are amusing time-wasters, rich with little details of Victoriana, but Wilde running around pretending to be Sherlock Holmes is something of a misconception.  And Neil McKenna's 2003 biography, The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde is an insult both to Wilde and to anyone engaged in real biographical research.  I have never seen a “biography” use the words “perhaps” and “possibly” with such wilde abandon.  Indeed, many of McKenna’s assertions (and McKenna makes a bunch them) start as off-hand jokes made by Wilde morph into bizarre and convoluted theories of Wilde’s sexual practices.  This is rather like the Life of Wilde authorized by The National Enquirer … and about as authoritative, too.
However, every now and then a new book on Wilde comes along that manages to both capture the real, multiform Wilde, and also radically redefine how we think about him.  And Built of Books: How Reading Defined the Life of Oscar Wilde, by Thomas Wright, is such a book.
Built of Books (published as Oscar’s Books in the UK) is a visionary type of literary biography: a look at Wilde’s life as measured by the books he had read.  As such, it is not obsessively concerned with the factual incidents of Wilde’s external life.  (For that, I recommend Richard Ellmann’s masterful Oscar Wilde.)  Instead, what Wright attempts to do is immerse himself in Wilde’s reading and, by so doing, enter into the great man’s mind itself.  Few biographies dare intrude upon the subject’s internal life; Wright attempts to recreate it.  It is a daring and audacious plan, one that in lesser hands could only end is disaster or ridicule.  Instead, Wright manages to magically resurrect Wilde and map the myriad and poetic byways of his mind.  In more than 30 years of reading about Wilde, I have never come across so original, so accessible and so successful a book.  Here is Oscar Wilde, brought back to life.
Wright takes us through Wilde’s upbringing – largely resting on the oral tradition of Irish folklore.  Wright posits that this is the wellspring of Wilde’s particularly musical language, and his gifts as a talker, as well.  He takes us by the hand and leads us through Wilde’s years at university, outlining the Hellenism that was one of the tent poles of his philosophy, as well as introducing us to the aestheticism that grew out of this hothouse atmosphere.
Later chapters take us through Wilde’s personal Tite Street library, his prison reading lists (and book bills), and the books he bought while roaming the Continent following his disgrace.  Wright had the enviable honor of examining many of Wilde’s personal volumes, and makes deductions about the physical act of Wilde reading (usually while drinking wine or sometimes actually nibbling on the pages themselves).  He also traces Wilde’s thinking based on various marginalia and from inscriptions in presentation copies to friends and lovers.
Like most great biographies, Built of Books was the result of a personal quest.  Like many who worship at the Alter of Oscar, it started for Wright with a boyhood reading of The Picture of Dorian Gray.  His interest in Wilde and the intellectual life of Victorian England grew, and, over time, he became obsessed by the man and his reading.  As he writes, Wilde would be my Virgilian guide to the circles of world literature; his life and art the thread with which I would navigate the labyrinth of the history of ideas.  I hoped, too, that he would be a sort of Socratic mentor, who would help me give birth to a new self.  He vowed to read every book that Wilde had read, as well, and eventually ended up in Wilde’s alma mater, Magdalen.  Candidly, Wright notes in the final chapter that he was not intellectually up to the task.  Having produced a list of volumes that I was certain Wilde had read (or at least owned), I was forced to confront the even more depressing truth that, intellectually, I was simply not up to the task of comprehending them all … It is ironic that Wilde characterized his own period as an “age of the over-worked and the under-educated;” an age in which people were “so industrious that they become absolutely stupid” and where thought was “degraded by its constant association with practice.”  What would he say if he came back to visit the philistine, workaholic, mortgage-enslaved England of our day?
Wright recognizes that Wilde was that rarity – a dandy with a sense of humor – and writes with sly wit, himself.  His book is peppered with little asides that gladden the heart.  When writing about an impassioned fan letter Wilde received from a young man, he writes: [Wilkinson] was also very appreciative of Wilde’s suggestion regarding his reading.  “I shall always,” he wrote, “be grateful to you if you trouble to recommend me particular poetry to read; I am thankful to say that I play neither football nor cricket, so I am really comparatively at leisure.”  It is a shame that the pair were destined never to meet, because Wilkinson sounds exactly Wilde’s type.
Like others, Wright was introduced into the furnace of Wilde’s art and intellect through The Picture of Dorian Gray, and has come out of it a different man.  He more than repays that debt by breathing life into Wilde once more with Built of Books, the most remarkable, enjoyable and revitalizing act of literary alchemy I’ve read in many years.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Part I -- Built of Books: How Reading Defined the Life of Oscar Wilde

For years, Dorian Gray could not free himself from the influence of this book. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he never sought to free himself from it.  – Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
I will break from tradition somewhat with this post, and insert an annoying autobiographical passage.
I started reading detective and gothic fiction of the Victorian era when I was a boy.  It was almost as if a world opened before me – a world of the mind and of the senses.
Armed with these twin passions, I also greatly enjoyed the pop culture transformations of them, including (or, perhaps, especially) the series of films based on the works of Edgar Allen Poe starring Vincent Price.  I became a card-carrying Vincent Price devotee.
So, imagine my delight when, in 1979, Price came to New York to star in the Broadway production of John Gay’s Diversions and Delights.  Diversions is a one-man show that takes as its conceit Oscar Wilde lecturing a Parisian audience near the end of his life.  The Broadway run did not last long, but it rapidly moved off-Broadway, where it settled at the Roundabout Theater (then on West 23rd Street) for an extended stay.
Diversions and Delights is a remarkable work.  Culled largely from Wilde’s own writings, it also incorporates bits of later-written biographies and much of Gay’s own keen dramatic sense.  I believe that only two plays about Wilde have really captured him to some extent: Diversions and Moises Kaufman’s Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde.
I initially went first to see Price, but returned again and again for Wilde.  I asked the management of the Roundabout if I could work as an usher at the theater in exchange for seeing the show every night, and I managed see Price as Wilde some 30-odd times.  It was a revelation to me.
Once the show was over, I immediately procured a copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray, and it became my golden book – I read it countless times after first buying it, so much so that passages of it are now forever locked in my memory.  It was the beginning of a life-long love affair with Oscar Wilde.
In Dorian Gray, Wilde writes of a book that poisoned Dorian – a heavily perfumed volume that opened to him wonderful sins disguised with incomparable beauty.  I was indeed luckier than Wilde’s fantastic hero – instead of being poisoned by a book, I was saved by one.  London during the Yellow Nineties and fin de siècle Europe became for me an alternate world where I lived another, perhaps more intense, life.  Just as Renaissance Italy became for Wilde and his mentor, Walter Pater, more of a state of mind than an historical period, the world of the aesthetes became a cornerstone of my philosophical compass.
Aside from the dramatic and fantastic events of Wilde’s life, I became deeply enamored of the philosophy of aestheticism, and looked too at others who explored the same creed.  I became interested in Walter Pater, John Ruskin, James Whistler, Aubrey Beardsley, Johann Joachim Winckelmann and Théophile Gautier.
But more than aestheticism and a fascination with the Victorian era, I was deeply moved and beglamoured by Wilde himself.  And the thing that most fascinated me was that he was a figure at times fully-defined, and at others horrifyingly indistinct.  And that is because, I believe, that Wilde the man was too multiform and protean.  He embodied the Renaissance ideal of mastery of many types of mind and genius.  Even after reading Wilde for more than 30 years, I find it remarkable that the man who wrote the witty drawing-room comedy The Importance of Being Earnest is also the man who wrote the strangely musical, Symbolist Salome.  I have difficulty reconciling that the keen mind who deduced the possibility of Willie Hughes with the brain responsible for The Selfish Giant; and that the pen responsible for The Mind of Man Under Socialism is the same that wrote The Harlot’s House.  And is it possible that the bare, blunt and deeply affecting lines of The Ballad of Reading Goal could be written by the same man who wrote the perfumed and sensual Picture of Dorian Gray?
In the contemporary public mind, we have cut Wilde down to our own smaller-size.  We do not have the proper aspect ratio of the whole, multi-talented man.  We think of Wilde the Gay Martyr, or Wilde the Sensualist.  But these are only parts of the picture – if indeed they make up any significant proportion of the man at all.  To really know Wilde, we must know Wilde the gifted classics scholar and intellectual; Wilde the poet and Wilde the playwright; Wilde the novelist and Wilde the political thinker.  We have to consider Wilde’s upbringing and his deep appreciation of Irish folklore before knowing Wilde the fantasist.  We must know Hellenism and the works of Pater, Ruskin, Symonds and Mahaffy before we can fully understand Wilde the aesthete and dandy.  Aside from his success as a writer, the list of his accomplishments in so brief a life are immense, staggering: the finest talker and raconteur of his age, lecturer and arts advocate, moralist and social critic.  One of the most fascinating images in my mind’s eye is the thought of Oscar lecturing the denizens of the Old West about Cellini’s place in the history of art – it’s too delicious.  And to top it off, his was one of the most fascinating personalities of an age crammed with remarkable figures.  In his bravery and insouciance, his remarkable panache and élan, Wilde was also a swashbuckler without a sword, a courtier who became a type of personality unto himself.
Perhaps the only constant in Wilde’s life was his deep an abiding aestheticism; his passionate, deeply-ingrained and unending devotion to Art.  An appreciation of the arts (and the art of life) was encoded in Wilde’s DNA, it was impossible for him to engage in the world in any other way.  He saw his personal experience (both his joys and his tragedies) through the prism of art, and the world around him either reflected the canons of art, or fell disappointingly short.  There are many disparate facets of Wilde the man to explore, but if they are not seen through the green-tinted glasses of an aesthete, we do not see them as they really were.  It was the filter through which his protean intellect travelled, and the fundamental core of his philosophy and personal vision.
It is not impossible to believe that Wilde courted, to some degree, his own ruin and disgrace because it was the ending most dictated by satisfying dramaturgy.  That every epoch of his life, from his meteoric rise to his exile where he roamed Europe under the name Sebastian Melmoth, was in some way performance art, that he lived strictly for dramatic, aesthetic effect.
Tomorrow we finish our review of Built of Books: How Reading Defined the Life of Oscar Wilde

Friday, January 13, 2012

What Do Artists Owe Us As Human Beings?

Michelangelo was a truly wretched person.  Smelly (literally), paranoid, argumentative, rude and money-mad, he was not the man who would become your beloved uncle.  Other painters who were not the nicest of men include (and this is just the cream of a very long list) the murderer Caravaggio, the murderer Wainewright, the absent husband-father Gaugin, the deranged Van Gough.  (In fact, recent inquiries indicate that perhaps it was Gaugin that slashed away Van Gough’s ear…)  Picasso was a philanderer and possible collaborator, and not the most generous of men, and Fra' Filippo Lippi broke his priestly vows and fathered a son (the mother was his model for the Virgin).  And so it goes.
Before too many composers start snickering at their paint-stained colleagues, there is the monstrously bullying anti-Semite Wagner and moody and unpleasant Beethoven.  Conductor Herbert von Karajan and pianist Ellie Ney were card-carrying Nazis.
Writers do not fare much better.  Ernest Hemmingway was a bully, drunkard and a wretched husband and father.  (There was a collective sigh of relief from all who knew him once he committed suicide.)  Coleridge and De Quincey were drug addicts.  Poe was a drunkard and snob.  Bernard Shaw was an early supporter of Mussolini and Pound favored Hitler. 
And need I remind you that President Abraham Lincoln was shot by … an actor?
Pop culture fares no better.  Mel Gibson and Tom Cruise are crackers to different degrees.  O.J. Simpson murdered his wife.  (Sue me, big fellah.)  L. Ron Hubbard managed to con several generations out of millions of dollars (now billions) with an invented religion.  (A business model which still attracts your correspondent…)  Rock stars are notorious for drug use, and rapp singers are equally famous for the rap sheets detailing their crimes.  (Rapp ‘music’ is indeed a remarkable cultural commodity – it is the first time in history that music was created largely by criminals for criminals.)  Mark Wahlberg started out as a cheap hood responsible for one crime victim losing an eye.  (At least he only had to see half of Walhberg’s movies…)
And what about the families of artists…?  Are they under scrutiny, too?  Harry Connick Sr., father of Sinatra simulacrum Harry Connick Jr., spent more than a decade willfully trying to execute a man his office knew was innocent.  Does that mean we should dislike Harry Jr. and his music?
However, it is important to remember that without the above we would not have the Sistine Ceiling, the Ring Cycle, The Sun Also Rises, The Rhime of the Ancient Mariner, The Raven, and Pygmalion among other masterpieces.
So if the question is, what do artists owe us as human beings, then the short answer is – nothing.  No artist owes the human community more (or less) than is required of any other human being.  Of course, it’s always delightful when one’s artistic heroes turn out to be big-hearted and generous of nature.  It’s nice to know that G. K. Chesterton was a lovely man or that Charles Dickens was warm and good natured, for instance.   But neither man was a saint – they were human beings, flawed and all the more interesting for it.
However, the real question is not whether or not artists owe humanity more or less than anyone else, but rather should they be treated (or considered) any differently?  And here the answer is short and unambiguous – no.
Artists may be above convention, but certainly never above the law.  Nor does an artist automatically get a pass simply because he is dedicated to making art.  Hemmingway was a wretched father and husband who happened to write several interesting novels – I’m not sure that the children he crippled emotionally were particularly enamored of his prose.  And I doubt that John Thompson, the man almost murdered by Connick, Sr. and his office, is going to a Harry Connick, Jr. concert anytime soon.  As an artist Michelangelo could not be touched – as a human being, no one wanted to touch him.  And measured by any yardstick other than aesthetic achievement Wagner was a vile and abominable human being.
But once we know of the (sometimes horrific) failings of artists, what is the proper reaction of people who regularly engage with the arts?  That is perhaps the most interesting and most key question.  For example, I have always been able to enjoy Wagner’s music, but I was born decades after the Holocaust and the anti-Semitism of fin de siècle Germany is not particularly relevant to my life.  However – I understand and appreciate the Wagner ban in Israel.
Michelangelo’s shortcomings as a person were so personal – and are now so distant – so to mean nothing to me as I contemplate his unparalleled artistic achievement.  None of Caravaggio’s crimes are evident to me on the canvas and Fra Lippi’s indiscretions now strike me as more amusing than sinful.  However, the very things that made Hemmingway a loathsome human being are there on the pages of his work for all to see: the posturing, the bullying, the macho-minded idiocy.  And I certainly have a harder time taking Shaw seriously as an intellectual when I see that he was beglamoured by an unlettered thug like Mussolini.
So, the cut-off point for the aesthete and the bad-boy (or bad-girl) artist must be purely a personal one.  Do we forgive them for their lives?  I am not prepared to say that art (and artists) are too removed from morality for this to be a valid question – it’s perhaps a primary question.  For myself, I’d never pay money for any work that would in some way fill the pockets of Gibson, Cruise, Walhberg or Connick – you may feel differently.
I would be interested to learn from my readers where they stand on this question.  Does the art erase the bad behavior of an artist?  And if so, why?

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Undershaw House

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: Steel True, Blade Straight

If I had told you that the home of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), where he wrote The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) and The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1905) still stood, what would you expect?  A museum?  A shrine?  And if I added that it was here that he entertained the creators of such literary masterpieces as Peter Pan and Dracula?  That Virginia Woolf was a guest?  Wouldn’t you expect people waiting to see it?
Wrong.  How about converting it into some tacky apartments, instead?  Proving that America does not have a monopoly on Philistinism, we learn the following from The Folio Newsletter:
Undershaw, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's home in Hindhead, Surrey, is the subject of a legal bid by campaigners aiming to prevent it from being converted into flats. The house, which overlooks the South Downs, was built by Conan Doyle in 1897 for his wife Louisa, who suffered from ill health. After her death a decade later, he sold it. The house is virtually untouched from the period and retains such features as the family coat of arms, which appears on the impressive stained glass windows. Undershaw also remains significant to fans of Conan Doyle as the place where he wrote many of his most famous works. With continued uncertainty about its future, however, it is in a state of neglect and has been boarded up because of recent acts of vandalism.

The Undershaw Preservation Trust claims to have identified a buyer for the property who wants to restore it to its former glory as a single family home, but has so far failed to convince the local council to stop developers from pushing forward with plans to convert the property despite its status as a listed building.
Again and again we see this callous disregard for our shared cultural heritage.  Doyle himself drafted the first designs of the house, which rests on a three-acre lot, and passed his plans onto architect Joseph Henry Ball to complete. Doyle had installed an electric plant (rare in those days) and a railway in the grounds for the use of his children.                         
But what galls me more than the desire to convert this historic site into apartments is that the house has already been vandalized.  The urge to vandalize beautiful things (and this includes the scourge of graffiti, surely one of Satan’s means of assuring us he’s ever-present) is a tragic part of the human makeup that never seems to go away.
But this sad story also brings up larger questions.  When Neil Caffrey of Fossway Ltd bought the building for development, he could not have been ignorant of its historical significance. Does he simply not care?  Or does money trump history, art and the public good? (Rest assured your correspondent has a healthy respect for money.) 
And what of the vandals?  It occurs to me that vandals never desecrate ugly things, only objects of beauty or significance.  This is part of our overall cultural decay: the further we retreat from beauty, from our shared cultural history, and from the achievements of those who have come before, the more we grow to hate and distrust those things.  Be warned, it’s a short step from acts of vandalism to lives of barbarism.
Readers interested in doing something to protect Undershaw can find more information here: http://www.saveundershaw.com/.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Tracey Emin … Professor of Drawing?

"No Sleep" a 1994 Drawing by Tracey Eim

The good news is that I did not write about many of the horrible wrongs in the art world during the holiday season.  The bad news is that the holiday season is over and I have to explain the persistent rumbling you hear below ground.
Rumbling, you ask?  Yes, what you hear is William Turner and John Constable and dozens of other great masters rolling in their unquiet graves.  And what disturbs their well-earned rest, you ask?  Simply this – England’s Royal Academy has appointed Tracey Emin as Professor of Drawing.
Take a moment to pull your chins from the floor.
Emin is perhaps best known for deluding an alternately arrogant and ignorant art market into believing that her unmade bed was a work of art.  This work, called My Bed, had yellow-stained sheets and the surrounding area was festooned with condoms, empty cigarette packets, menstrual-stained underwear and her slippers.  This Post Modern joke was nominated for the Turner Prize in 1999.  One amusing story about My Bed is that the museum cleaning lady tried to tidy it up, and had to be stopped by security… Another work from this period was Everyone I Have Ever Slept With, which was a tent embroidered with (you guessed it) the names of everyone she had ever slept with.
A youthful folly, perhaps?  Perhaps not.  Emin has recently spent her artistic energies (just writing that phrase makes my fingers cramp) “creating” drawings rendered out of stitching, which she often accompanies with various bon mots, such as:  You Cruel Heartless Bitch Rot in Hell and, my favorite, Harder and Better Than All of You F---ing B------s.
The Royal Academy Schools form the oldest art school in Britain, and currently about 60 students study in the Schools on a three-year postgraduate course.  This important link (or former important link) to the studio-based practice in all fine arts was a haven for students who had demonstrated ability, commitment and potential for significant work.  Under “Professor” Emin’s tutelage, who knows what they may accomplish?  An over-used duffel bag, perhaps?  Or maybe scuffed and muddy shoes, filled with sand?  Dentures floating in a glass of cloudy water, anyone?
For those of you think my objections sound like a bachelor uncle shocked over naughty words scrawled in his art history book, think again.  My objection has nothing to do with her lack of talent, or that fact that Emin is less an artist and more a publicity stunt than anything else.  My fundamental objection lies in the fact that we (yes, the collective “we”) are willing and eager to toss aside our important artistic heritage to accommodate frauds, mountebanks and hucksters.  I’m appalled that theory has taken precedence over emotion, that human connection has been sacrificed to “cool” and that we have become as a people so afraid of beauty and its expression.  Have we gone so far in our flight from the beautiful, from the sublime and from the transcendent that now we rob our young artists of achieving these things by putting them under the influence of the scribbling huckster? 
Emin is quoted as saying: “being an artist isn’t just about making nice things, or people patting you on the back; it’s some kind of communication, a message.”  I believe, in her heart of hearts (deep down where one may still reside), Emin’s message to the world is: “sucker!”

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Morpheus by Jean-Bernard Restout

Not many people today are familiar with Jean-Bernard Restout (1732-1796), but he belongs to that era of great painters who also happened to be adventurers in their own right.
Restout was born in Paris, the son of Jean Restout (1692-1768), one of the major religious painters of the first half of the century.  Young Jean-Bernard learned the science and craft of painting from his father and his brother-in-law, Noel Halle (1711-1781), a history painter. 
In 1755 he won second prize at the Prix de Rome competition, and won first prize three years later with his Abraham Leading Isaac to the Sacrifice, the money from which enabled him to go to Rome to study. Jean-Bernard was approved by the Académie Royale in 1765, received in 1769 and became a professor in 1771. Between 1767 and 1791 he frequently exhibited at the Paris Salon.
Jean-Bernard was an extraordinarily gifted painter and, with his abilities and family connections, seemed to be secure in a promising career.  However, young Jean-Bernard was appalled at what he considered to be the Académie’s draconian artistic strictures, and rebelled.
Jean-Bernard resigned from the Académie during the French Revolution in 1789 because of admission regulations that favored privileged candidates. In 1793 he became president of the Commune des Arts formed by Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), which was dedicated to loosening the Académie’s stranglehold on teaching, exhibitions and commissions.
During the political turmoil of the Revolution, Jean-Bernard was thrown into prison, but was released at Robespierre’s downfall on July 27, 1794.  With the advent of Modernism, Jean-Bernard has fallen into obscurity, but his talent is a delight to true connoisseurs.
The masterpiece above is Jean-Bernard’s vision of Morpheus, which can be found today at the Cleveland Museum of Art.  It is a mid-sized canvas, about 38x51, and depicts the god of dreams asleep himself.  Morpheus had the ability to take any human form and appear in dreams, but his true visage was that of a winged daemon.  Daemons are benevolent spirits, often spirit guides or gods themselves.
Look at Jean-Bernard’s command of anatomy; the reclining Morpheus pivots at the waist, the breadth of his chest wide and flat, while his legs bunch below his twisting pelvis.  The laurel wreath on his head denotes that Morpheus is indeed a king of some variety, and the wings seem more angelic than pagan.  The crossed feet and outstretched arms are unmistakable cognates for images of the crucified Jesus – is Jean-Bernard connecting the blessing of sleep with the King of Peace? 
This sleep of Morpheus is indeed the sleep of oblivion – note how heavily the body rests, the complete unconsciousness in the face, the abandon of his unsteady perch on the bed.  It is also a sleep healthy and restorative – see how lovingly Jean-Bernard tints the body with delicate pinks, whites and red flesh tones.  Did Jean-Bernard muse upon his own dreams while painting the King of Sleep?  We’ll never know, but the figure’s complete surrender to sleep, along with its promise of other invisible worlds, make this a remarkable picture.