Friday, March 30, 2012

Charles M. Russell: The Life and Legend of America’s Cowboy Artist

We close the week by returning yet again to the West of myth and of my yearnings and imaginings.  Why does the West of myth call to me so?  One would be hard pressed to find a place perhaps less suited to your garden variety aesthete, a man who prizes his lapis lazuli dressing gown more than any other article of clothing … or is that not quite so?  The West is a place of stunning natural beauty, and the myth of the men and women who made the West the very building blocks of literature and drama.  There is also a sense of freedom in the West, open ranges and the promise of endless opportunity.  Looking at images of the West, I feel young again.  And so, though some of my more waggish readers quip that I might someday need to rename this column The Jade Cactus, we will continue to look at art inspired by this uniquely American period of history.  (Besides, if Oscar Wilde could drink his way through the Old West while lecturing badmen and miners about Benvenuto Cellini, surely I can spend some time there in my imaginings.)

We have spent several columns looking at the work of Charles M. Russell, the famed “cowboy artist” (1864-1926).  Much has been written about Russell, some of it by the artist himself and his wife, Nancy Russell, and his studio assistant, Joe DeYong.  But there really was no full-scale, authoritative biography until Charles M. Russell: The Life and Legend of America’s Cowboy Artist by John Taliaferro in 1996.  Taliaferro (born 1952), an independent historian and former senior editor for Newsweek, seems fascinated by classic Americana: another of his biographies is Tarzan Forever, the life of Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Taliaferro’s Russell biography is a wonderful achievement: comprehensive, engagingly written, and put together with a deep sympathy for the man himself and his world.  Taliaferro tells us how Charlie, born of well-to-do parents back east, became enthralled with the West and became a cowboy before finding his own artistic voice and spending the rest of his life documenting what he saw with paint and canvas.  Charlie was perhaps his own greatest creation – he may have started out a dude, but he ended up the genuine article.

Much of what we “see” when we think of the West is the result of Russell and his contemporary, painter Frederic Remington (1861-1909).  These two artists, along with real-life scout and showman William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody (1846-1917) created many of the visual cues that we associate with the West, and their vision continues up to today in movies and television.  (Indeed, Russell was a great friend of early screen cowboy William S. Hart, and the painter was often on the set as Hollywood started envisioning the West.)

Taliaferro gives great credit to Nancy Russell for making Charlie a success, and this is, in many ways, a joint biography.  Taliaferro is also a smart and perceptive critic – I have been reading about both Russell and Remington for years, and Taliaferro provides the best summation of the differences between the two men that I have ever read:

…who did he think he was, painting the West in such a savage light?  There lay the grudge, and there lay the difference between the two.  Over and over, Charlie would appropriate Remington’s subject matter and designs down to the most minute cock of a rifle or snort of a pony.  But he always injected a different mood and message.  Remington was in many ways terrified by the West and its boundless physicality.  Indians were depraved fiends; whites were always innocent victims or plucky heroes.  Where Remington’s Blackfeet were thugs dragging home hostages, Charlie’s were a bedraggled but brave family struggling through winter.  Or when Remington painted a circle of horses fighting off wolves with their hooves, he succeeded in conveying only grisly violence; in Charlie’s version, the put-upon horses are making a valiant stand to protect their helpless colts.  To Remington, a rider turning in his saddle to shoot at his pursuers is A Fugitive; to Russell, a man in the same situation is an honest soul fleeing to safety.  Where Remington assigns heartless cunning, Charlie sees a more honorable instinct.  And though Remington had better command of color and was a superior draftsman, in his Western work at least he strove to communicate only militancy, danger and dread.  Charlie’s untrained hand was forever guided by sympathy.

Taliaferro’s book closes sadly (as it must, at this late date) with Charlie’s physical decline and eventual death.  However, Charlie Russell, history’s cowboy artist, was an anomaly among great painters in more ways than one.  On any list of truly great artists, Charlie Russell may have been the one who was, by and large, truly happy.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Enduring Love by Ian McEwan

I was incredulous upon learning that Amsterdam, one of the most disappointing novels in recent memory, was also winner of the 1998 Man Booker Prize for Fiction.  It was not that the author, Ian McEwan (born 1948), is a bad writer; quite the contrary.  It was simply that in writing Amsterdam McEwan threw away a potentially wonderful book in order to tell a protracted and laborious shaggy dog story.  Though many post modernists may have found this final trick amusing, it produced nothing more than a sigh from me.

So, it was with some trepidation that I approached another of his celebrated novels, Enduring Love (1997).  Enduring Love is an interesting psychological novel, but also one that asks some rather large questions, such as, how do we fill up the empty spaces within ourselves?

Enduring Love details the plight of Joe Rose, a successful science writer.  One day he and his long-term lover, Clarissa, witness a hot air balloon lose control with a young boy inside the passenger basket.  Joe and several others grab the ropes that would secure the balloon to the ground, but a gust of wind pulls it from their hands.  One man, John Logan, holds on longer than the others and is carried hundreds of feet into the air before falling to his death.

To make matters worse Jed Parry, one of the men who also grabbed for the ropes, responds to the tragedy by asking Joe to pray with him.  In no time at all, Parry becomes obsessed with Joe, writing long love letters, calling him constantly, offering to bring him closer to God and hovering outside his front door.

The tragedy is that, despite all of Joe’s misgivings, he cannot make anyone believe that Parry is a threat or dangerous.  The police laugh off his concerns and Clarissa blames Joe himself for mishandling the situation.  In addition, Clarissa is not even entirely convinced that Parry exists outside of Joe’s imagination…

Though by turns a tragic romance, thriller and a novel of psychological suspense, I think McEwan is after bigger fish than mere thrills.  Joe, our successful writer, is a frustrated scientist.  He fills his world with reason and a dry catalog of facts; he fills his life by stocking his mind.  Clarissa is a scholar specializing in the work of poet John Keats, and spends much of her time tracking down lost or missing correspondence from the great poet.  She and Joe are also childless, and she spends a great deal of time with younger relations and the children of friends.  And Jed, who seems to have very little life at all, fills the emptiness of his soul with visions of God and worship of Joe.  In fact, the love he bears for Joe has very little to do with Joe the man himself, and is, instead, a grandly constructed romantic fantasia.  It’s not the Jed has sexual feelings for Joe, but, rather, Joe becomes a filter by which he can measure, dedicate and justify his own life.

One can’t help but think that McEwan is writing, in fact, a profoundly religious novel.  In an increasingly secular world, where many creeds seem to have become little more than cultural touchstones, how does one fill the void left by unanswered questions?  What are the stories and the myths we use to give meaning to our lives?  And, more importantly, can any of us really connect when we each ‘worship’ differently than eachother?

One more thing about McEwan -- despite the melodrama of the plot and complexity of the issues raised, the man has a real and pungent sense of humor and of irony.  Later in the story, Joe decides he needs a gun for protection.  He goes to a drug dealer of his acquaintance, Johnny, and they head out to buy it from some low-comedy thugs:

We were still stuck in traffic.  On the radio the jazz has been dishonestly succeeded by a program of atonal music, an earnest whooping and banging that was getting on my nerves.  I turned it off and said, “Tell me more about these people.”  I already knew they were ex-hippies who had made it rich in coke.  They had gone legal in the mid-eighties and dealt in property.  Now things were not so good, which was why they were happy to sell me a gun for an inflated price.

“Relative to the scene,” Johnny said. “these people are intellectuals.”

“Meaning what?”

“They got books all over the walls.  They like to talk about the big questions.  They think they’re Bertrand Russell or something.  You’ll probably hate them.”

I already did.

Enduring Love is highly recommended.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Pipe Dream Plays Encores! at New York City Center

New Yorkers actively engaged with the splendors of the Great American Songbook could do no better than making a regular pilgrimage to New York’s City Center for the Encores! series of musical revivals.  Encores! is dedicated to presenting rarely revived or otherwise little-known musicals complete with full book and score.  Artistic Director Jack Viertel and Music Director Rob Berman have done a wonderful service for theater-lovers and anyone interested in our musical heritage.  Encores! has played at City Center since 1994 and your correspondent has had more enjoyable nights at the theater in this venue than through any other in the city.  The recently renovated City Center is a glorious site, and to see classic musicals in this space is one of the privileges of living in the city.

The second show for the 2012 season is Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s little-seen (and littler appreciated) Pipe Dream, which originally opened in 1955.  It was their seventh show and a monumental flop.  Rodgers and Hammerstein had originally conceived of a stellar cast including Henry Fonda and, possibly, Julie Andrews or Janet Leigh.  These plans never came to fruition and the show’s eventual cast, including Helen Traubel and William Johnson, later came to believe the show was cursed.

Part of the original problem must have been the source material – John Steinbeck’s short novel Sweet Thursday, his sequel to Cannery Row.  Though it has the charm of being the only Broadway musical about a marine biologist and a prostitute, the original devastating reviews destroyed any hopes of a national tour or London production. 

So how does the new Encores! production play?  In three words: it’s just great.

Briefly: Doc, a marine biologist, lives his life free and happy.  He spends a great deal of time with his friends, beachcomber Mac and not-too-bright sidekick Hazel (actually a man with a woman’s name – his mother was not too bright, either).  He also spends a great deal of time with the prostitutes at Fauna’s house of ill repute.

Into his life comes Suzy, down on her luck.  Though she also ends up in Fauna’s house, she challenges Doc to be more than he is.  Eventually, they both grow into more ambitious and connected people, and fall in love.

Never a fan of the Rodgers and Hammerstein corpus, I must confess that this was the first time I’ve found a score of theirs to be … jaunty.  Writing about beach bums and loose women seem to have liberated their staid sensibilities, and both create a score that is bouncy, loose and fun.  The song Sweet Thursday has all the pizazz of a classic 1930s jazz number, and Thinkin’ is certainly the finest comic song in their repertoire.  Also terrific The Next Time it Happens and All At Once You Love Her, simply their most lilting first act closer.  One cannot but help think that a more ‘respectable’ show would’ve elevated several of these numbers into standards.

The cast is uniformly fine, with particular standouts being Tom Wopat and Leslie Uggams.  Wopat, once one of Broadway’s most trustworthy leading men, seems to be comfortably seguing into character parts and Uggams has a certain glamour that makes her compulsively watchable.  Television star Will Chase, as the hero Doc, is an extremely pleasing and handsome presence, and Laura Osnes sings Suzy with a warm and lilting grace.  Also effective is Stephen Wallem in the one-note role of Hazel – he manages to make what could be an annoying caricature a true comic turn.

It seems impossible that a show that features a reenactment of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in a whorehouse could be one of the sweetest things on Broadway, but that happens to be the case.  Kudos to the Encores! team for reviving this little-known show – this limited engagement is highly recommended!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Life of Michelangelo Buonarroti by John Addington Symonds

The great Renaissance artist Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) was the subject of much biographical interest in his own lifetime.  He lived to see two full-fledged biographies, both by rather historically unimportant painters, Giorgio Vasari (1511 – 1574) and Ascanio Condivi (1525–1574).  Both men were friends of Michelangelo, and that in itself is a testament to their stamina and quality of mercy.  As an artist, no one could touch Michelangelo; as a human being no one wanted to touch him…

In the centuries following Michelangelo’s death, many people attempted to retell his life, including his nephew.  Most of these books following his death are fairly worthless.  The Renaissance was a remarkable time in many ways, and one of the more interesting things about it is that manners and mores were changing at an alarming rate.  One of the facets of his life that raised eyebrows soon after his death was his love for Tommaso dei Cavalieri (c. 1509–1587). This relationship was the subject of much debate in his lifetime, and grew more loaded as the populace became more religious and faithful.  Michelangelo wrote many love sonnets to the young man, who was 23 years old when Michelangelo met him in 1532, at the age of 57.  Another beautiful youth, Cecchino dei Bracci, inspired Michelangelo to write 48 funeral epigrams.  When Michelangelo’s nephew gathered these love poems for publication, he changed the genders of the intended to the female.

Another enduring myth generated post-mortem was that the great love of his life was aristocratic widow Vittoria Colonna, whom he met in Rome in 1536 or 1538 and corresponded with for decades.  Many have tried to build a legend of romance between the two, but the exchange of sonnets and the occasional afternoon grappa does not a grand romance make.

Credit for the first truly authoritative biography of the great artist must go to aesthete, Renaissance scholar and minor poet John Addington Symonds (1840 - 1893), who wrote The Life of Michelangelo Buounarroti in 1893.  Symonds was the first scholar to have full complete access to the Michelangelo family archives.  This alone is astonishing – the archives had remained closely guarded and only fragments were made available by friends of the Buonarroti family.  The Italian government gave Symonds full access to the archives in the early 1880s, thanks largely in part to Symonds’ impeccable Renaissance scholarship.

It was not just the breadth and depth of Symonds’ historical knowledge, but also the feeling and sensitivity of his artistic judgment that made him the ideal man for the job.  Symonds was also the translator of The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, still the most poetic translation extant, as well as the author of biographies of Shelley and Ben Johnson.

Symonds also suffered much from his own conflicted sexuality.  Though largely homosexual, he married Janet Catherine North, and spent the rest of his life in passionate friendships with other (often younger) men.  As would be expected by someone so conflicted (and given the historical period, just two years before Oscar Wilde was imprisoned for “gross indecency”), Symonds vacillates between insisting that Michelangelo’s love of younger men was “spiritual,” or arguing that he was a remarkable man even if it were not.

And Symonds is a compelling, erudite and fascinating writer.  Here is he is, writing about Michelangelo’s David:  In the David Michelangelo first displayed that quality of terribilità, of spirit-quailing, awe-inspiring force, for which he afterwards became so famous. The statue imposes, not merely by its size and majesty and might, but by something vehement in the conception. He was, however, far, from having yet adopted those systematic proportions for the human body which later on gave an air of monotonous impressiveness to all his figures. On the contrary, this young giant strongly recalls the model; still more strongly indeed that the Bacchus did. Wishing perhaps to adhere strictly to the Biblical story, Michelangelo studied a lad whose frame was not developed. The David, to state the matter frankly, is a colossal hobbledehoy. His body, in breadth of the thorax, depth of the abdomen, and general stoutness, has not grown up to the scale of the enormous hands and feet and heavy head. We feel that he wants at least two years to become a fully developed man, passing from adolescence to the maturity of strength and beauty. This close observance of the imperfections of the model at a certain stage of physical growth is very remarkable, and not altogether pleasing in a statue more than nine feet high. Both Donatello and Verocchio had treated their Davids in the same realistic manner, but they were working on a small scale and in bronze.

Symonds’ The Life of Michelangelo Buonarroti is available free for your e-readers at or Project Gutenberg, but there is also a splendid two volume edition published by the University of Pennsylvania Press with an introduction by art historian Creighton E. Gilbert that is quite wonderful.  If you have a serious interest in the life of the one of the greatest figures in art history, this is the place to start.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

E. Aster Bunnymund and the Warrior Eggs at the Earth’s Core!

Regular readers know my affection for all things William Joyce and The Guardians of Childhood, his on-going project of picture books and children’s novels.  Now just in time for Easter, Joyce returns with his second-ever novel in the series, E. Aster Bunnymund and the Warrior Eggs at the Earth’s Core!

With the Guardians series, Joyce hopes to create an entire cosmology that incorporates all of the beloved figures of childhood: Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, Mother Goose and the Tooth Fairy, among them.  To create a backstory, Joyce has conceived of a cosmic battle bringing together all of these figures into opposition against Pitch, also known as the Boogeyman.  The first novel in the series, Nicholas St. North and the Battle of the Nightmare King, laid much of the groundwork and introduced us to North (who will later become Santa Claus), the wizard Ombric, the girl Katherine and the robotic Djinni.

Now that much of the necessary exposition is out of the way, Joyce jumps into this installment with a great deal of dash and a sense of high adventure.  In E. Aster Bunnymund, the children of Santoff Claussen are kidnapped by Pitch, and Katherine, Ombric and North band together to travel to the earth’s core to rescue them.  On the way, they enlist the help of the last of the fabled brotherhood of Pookas, the seven-foot tall warrior rabbit E. Aster Bunnymund. 

The initial relationship between the giant rabbit and Santa is one of petty bickering and snide remarks.  Though E. Aster Bunnymund is a tough egg to crack, he and North form an alliance that will clearly create the foundation of what will be a league of great children’s heroes.

William Joyce (born 1957) is, of course, the Academy Award winning author and film-maker.  His heartbreaking The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore was one of the more delightful and moving shorts of recent memory.  As is often the case with Joyce, part of the great delight is to track his many, varied and often uniquely intertwined pop culture inspirations.  Joyce’s imagination is like a great attic filled with comics, old TV shows, pulp novels and adventure stories, toys and Americana, and tumbled and jumbled together until it forms something uniquely its own.  Part of the great fun is running a mental finger down the line of his inspiration and watching him tickle the source.

E. Aster Bunnymund, with his large ears, inter-species bickering and snide comments about “humans” obviously is Joyce’s nod to Star Trek’s Mr. Spock.  And much of the backstory for The Man in Moon (with his super-science Golden Age later destroyed in a cataclysmic space explosion) harkens back to Superman, as does Ombric’s inability to alter events of the past.  Joyce also provides a delicious echo of Sherlock Holmes and The Hound of the Baskervilles when he closes a chapter with, “Mr. North,” he said with dramatic relish.  “They were the ears of a gigantic rabbit.”

The most significant influence in the current book is, of course, Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950), author of several ‘Scientific Romances” set in the earth’s core.  (Burroughs so loved the earth’s core that he even set one of his later Tarzan novels there!)  In a neat bit of homage, Joyce employs Burroughs’ method of plotting by splitting his heroes into three separate narrative threads that meet in the closing chapters, and by creating a magnificent “vehicle of wonder” to get our heroes to the earth’s core: the rabbit’s wonderfully realized egg train, much like the Iron Mole in Burroughs’ novels.

Joyce pulls all of these tricks with great humor and elan.  This book is filled with delightful little throw-aways (books in Ombric’s library, for instance, include The History of Levitation While Eating and Mysteries of Vanishing Keys), and his chapter titles are a hoot (consider The Bookworm Turns or the chapter on warrior eggs called The Mad Scramble). 

But what impresses the most is not just Joyce’s narrative drive and endless invention and good humor, but his deep and committed belief in the world he has created.  Despite his pop culture references, Joyce is no ironist and his work is devoid of snark and sarcasm.  It is a fully realized universe created by a man with a mission – and we can feel Joyce’s commitment on every page.  It’s a remarkable performance.

If you do not already own a copy of E. Aster Bunnymund and the Warrior Eggs at the Earth’s Core!, then hop to it!

Friday, March 16, 2012

Self-Portraits by Émile Friant Part Four

We finish our week-long pictorial autobiography of Émile Friant with this magnificent self portrait from 1925.  Our hero is 62 years old and would only live another seven years.

With a complete lack of vanity, Friant charts for us the changes in his physical self.  His hair has thinned even more, his ears have grown with age, his handsome face is lined with age and is now somewhat shrunken.  The raw energy of the man caught in the previous portraits is gone, and Friant is now a thin, delicate creature of unique loveliness.  His virile beauty is gone and has been replaced with a deeper, more touching ethereal quality.

Once again, Friant shows a remarkable sensitivity in the painting of his own hands.  His right hand (again!) holds the brush, and each finger is beautifully articulated.  But look, too, at his ear, previously hidden by his once-luxuriant hair.  (He even manages to delineate the sections of his hair matted with oil.)  The ear is beautifully molded and rendered, capturing the supple curve and creating a believable sense of depth. 

Unlike the previous three portraits, here Friant actually records his clothing with some exacting detail.  His Legion of Honor medal is proudly displayed on his lapel, and his suit coat, waistcoat, and tiepin are rendered in a naturalistic manner.  The stitching down the side of his trousers is perfectly visible, and the bulge of his pocket square visible in his breast pocket.  Friant, with this picture, is much fussier in his style and underlying drawing; as if wishing to demonstrate his increased virtuosity.  It is a picture by a master who has been painting for nearly 50 years, and has only increased in his powers.

Another change from the pervious self-portraits is that Friant is clearly not painting himself in this picture.  The figure on his canvas appears to be wearing a red blouse, and perhaps a long blue skirt, as well.  His palette, however, does seem to echo the rich ochre coloration of his surroundings.  (As always, the canvas is suggested with very Impressionistic brushstrokes.)

But what I think has changed the most over the course of the self-portraits we’ve examined here is the quality of his gaze.  Look closely at Friant’s eyes here.  If the previous portraits showed Friant eager, or expectant, or ambitious, or self-possessed, his brush here captures eyes that are deep with a benign wisdom.  These are eyes that have seen much and understood even more.  These are the eyes of a man who knows, an experienced man who now lives philosophically.  Yes, they are searching eyes, but also compassionate – a quality we have not seen on this artist’s face before.  The eyes in the other portraits looked directly at you, expecting to learn what they could from us, the viewers.  Now these eyes have seen all that was there, and forgives.  In short, they are the eyes of an artist.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Self-Portraits by Émile Friant Part Three

Today we move away from the young adult Émile Friant of 1887 to the ever-so-slightly older Friant of 1893.  Our artist is now 30 years old, and already the recipient of the grand prize at the Paris Salon and the ribbon of the Legion of Honor.  He is an artist at the pinnacle of his success. 

Time has been, if anything, kinder to Friant that we might have supposed in his self-portrait of six years earlier.  Much of the puffiness of his face is gone, as are the jowls.  His hair is still thin, but it has retained a wonderful reddish tint, and his generous mustache and beard help to accentuate the almost luminescent coloration of his face. 

Now a man of means and affairs, Friant returns to his tie and frock coat, the self-conscious modeling in an artist’s smock now over. 

As in the earlier portrait, Friant delineates his face and hands with crystal clarity. Here there is not even an Impressionistic background to compete with the figure; Friant sits alone in thickly painted bluish-white background.  The hands are crafted with Friant’s customary delicacy and sensitivity.  Note how the light captures the subtle shape of his fingers from the knuckles down.  (Note, too, that yesterday Friant held his brush in his left hand, and today it migrates to his right!)

His face is a masterwork of blended colors, from nearly white to pink to near-purple.  And the hair atop his head and in his mustache and beard captures and reflects light, brilliantly illuminating nearly each and every individual hair. 

As usual, his coat, tie and canvas are mere suggestions, but look closely at his palette.  The overarching color is a bluish-white, the same at the background. 

What has changed the most over the last six years is Friant’s gaze.  His self-portrait at 15 was that of an inner-directed adolescent, ready to wrestle with the world.  His look at 24 was one of challenge and preparedness, as well as self-confidence.  Here, his gaze is that of one who has seen much, met with some success, and looks at the world from a perspective of experience.  The eyes are less clear, more heavily lidded -- more guarded, if you will.  It is possible to imagine that the Friant of the earlier two portraits had never been wounded in any way; not so the man of 30.  Life has left its mark on him, as it does all of us.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Self-Portraits by Émile Friant Part Two

Yesterday we looked at a boyish self-portrait by Émile Friant (1863-1932), executed when he was just 15 years old.  Today we jump ahead nine years, to 1887, when our artist was a young man of 24 years.

One of the things that fascinate me most about Friant is that his style and philosophy of painting seemed ingrained so early.  In the self-portrait at 15, Friant sought to capture his own visage in the most realistic manner possible while delineating his shirt, cravat and jacket in the most Impressionistic manner.  That (perhaps uneasy) truce is still much in evidence for this later picture.

First, let’s look at Friant.  The Friant of this picture is still a very young man, but also an accomplished artist.  He is one scant year away from winning the grand prize at the Paris Salon and two years from the gold medal at the Exposition Universelle in Paris and the ribbon of the Legion of Honor.  His hair, once luxuriant, has thinned early and his face has thickened considerably.  His generous bottom lip is now more generous still, his nose flatter and the once square jaw has become unfortunately jowly.  He also has grown the bushy red beard behind which he would hide the rest of his life. 

One thing that has not left him, however, is the intensity of his gaze. That sense of challenge, that note of preparedness to meet adversity is still very much intact.  In fact, the gaze of the earlier portrait is perhaps inner-directed, as if mercilessly scrutinizing his own capabilities and zeal before the battle; the gaze here is a man sizing up the world and marshaling those forces within prior to battle.  It’s a remarkably naked look – not romanticized in any way, frank, openly ambitious, curious and intelligent. 

Please compare the now thickened face with the hand holding the brush.  Such delicacy of touch, such tapered and exacting fingers -- Friant paints his artist-hands with all the fidelity and realism of the face.  Both stand out in marked contrast to the manner in which the rest of the picture is executed.

Again, once away from his own very human flesh, Friant uses the tropes of Impressionism to render his own figure.  Look at the arm connected to that so-delicately-painted hand: the paint is applied thickly, the folds and grooves of the sleeve suggested with swathes of color, leading up to the collar of the smock which is nothing but indistinct suggestions.  The informality of the style matches his informality of dress: not only is Friant in his artist’s smock, but he wears no tie (unlike his 15 year old self).  The easel (or canvas) upon which he paints seems indistinct of contour (especially the outer line facing the artist), and the color of the back side of the easel/canvas colored and toned with obvious brushwork. 

Look, too, at how he captures the outside world beyond the windows with uncomplicated masses of white, gray and beige paint.  There is a gate beyond the window (and perhaps a tree), but the bars are not rendered with the same exactitude as his own face and hand.  The studio around him is also gray, with a sketchy bit of design work next to the window.

One of the most fascinating things about the 1887 self portrait is the figure outside the window (and behind a wall, it seems).  A man turns towards the window and looks inside the studio at the artist.  Who is this shadowy figure?  Is Friant making a comment on his own self-directed gaze, or perhaps articulating ourselves as we look at him?  Is Friant separating the artist from the rest of society?  (This is possible as Friant, sans tie and in smock, embodies the image of the artist that was a caricature even in his own day.)  Or perhaps it is the critic, looking over Friant’s shoulder and commenting upon work from which he is far removed?  It is just one of the many questions that come to mind when regarding this fascinating, neglected artist.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Self-Portraits by Émile Friant Part One

If art history is written by the winners, then many great masters were effectively excised from any sane chronicle of art history with the advent of Modernism.  One such talent was Émile Friant (1863-1932), a French naturalist painter born in the small town of Dieuze, about 25 miles northeast of Nancy, in eastern France.  Friant’s father was a locksmith and his mother a dressmaker.  Like many of the artists covered here, Friant was something of a prodigy.  Friant studied under Louis Theodore Devilly (1818-1886) while still a teenager; Devilly was the director of the school of drawing in Nancy and an advocate of realism. 

Friant was only 15 years old when he made his debut at the annual Salon in Nancy in 1878.  His great abilities were readily apparent; he was soon awarded a municipal scholarship for study in Paris. He entered the studio of the famous Alexandre Cabanel (1823-1889), but Friant felt constricted by Cabanel’s severe Academic style and returned home.  Friant was better inspired by other Lorraine artists, including Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848-1884) and Aimé Morot (1850-1913).  He would go on to enjoy a very successful career and win many honors, including the grand prize at the Paris Salon in 1889, the gold medal at the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris, and the ribbon of the Legion of Honor that same year.

Friant eventually became a professor of painting in 1923 at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, France.  He was later promoted to the position of commander in the Legion of Honor, and made a member of the Institut de France.  Friant died from the results of a fall he suffered in Paris in 1932. 

Friant’s work is interesting as he seems to straddle two distinct epochs.  Though he may have balked at Cabanel’s training, Friant could never fully embrace the movement toward Impressionism.  Like the Impressionists, Friant painted pictures of everyday life – however, he did so without the splotchy tricks most often used by Impressionists.  Art history often calls those caught between the Academy and Modernism “Realists,” but to do so also does discredit to Friant’s masterful feel for color and tone.

Like many artists, Friant painted a series of self-portraits throughout his lifetime.  The portrait that we look at here is of the artist aged 15 or so.  Before looking at the art, let’s take a moment to look at the artist.  Friant at 15 is a very handsome youth indeed; his red hair is thick and bushy, swept over his large brow.  His eyebrows are thin and sculpted, his gaze steady and clear, his mouth well formed with a generous bottom lip.  His chin is square and his nose noble and straight.  In adulthood he would hide his good looks behind a bushy beard.

But it is his expression that is most arresting; or, perhaps it would be better to say his gaze.  This is not the gaze of a young man filled with dreams (or youthful indolence), but, rather the fierce look of a youth ready to grapple with the world.  His brows knit in concentration, his mouth set with determination, the muscles of his face tense as he considers his next move.  If not for the youthfulness of his hair and the smooth texture of his skin, this could easily be the portrait of an experienced soldier, a businessman of affairs, or a seasoned academic. 

Friant paints his own countenance in a classical manner – the realism of his hair, his features, the representation of his eyes and mouth – nothing about the head would be out of place in the most classical, Academic of paintings.  However, Friant’s brushwork becomes loser and less defined once we move away from his head.  His shirt collar and tie are little more than generously painted suggestions, and his coat conveyed with sketchily applied gray, blue and white paint. 

You could say that Friant’s early portrait seems to encompass all of the contradictions of his style and career – a naturalist painter finding a home in a modernist world.  It is an interesting moment in our art history, one that we will look at again tomorrow with a later self-portrait.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Quest of the Sacred Slipper by Sax Rohmer

Few guilty pleasures in life are more delicious than immersion into the delirious, pulpy universe of Sax Rohmer.

Born Arthur Henry Sarsfield Ward (1883–1959) in Birmingham to a working class family, Rohmer initially toiled as a public servant before becoming a writer.  Rohmer was an incredibly well-read man and amateur Egyptologist; he also was a working writer in every sense of the term, knocking out magazine articles and comedy sketches. 

Rohmer published several stories and a novel before really hitting his stride in 1913 with the publication of The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu.  This novel was actually a collection of several inter-connected short stories, strung together by one over-arching narrative thrust:  secret agent Nayland Smith and his comrade Dr. Petrie working to rid the world of an evil criminal mastermind bent on taking over the world.  The next two novels in the series, The Return of Dr. Fu-Manchu and The Hand of Fu-Manchu, were also short stories strung together.  When Rohmer revived the series in 1931, with Daughter of Fu Manchu, he turned to full-novel form.  Some of these later novels are the best in the series (such as the Trail of Fu Manchu), but the sustained narrative structures does seem to knock the wind out of some of them.

Rohmer also wrote several different series of detective novels, featuring such characters as Gaston Max and Morris Klaw (who featured largely in supernatural mysteries).  Rohmer was one of the most well-paid thriller writers of his generation, and for laughs would sometimes sign his name $ax Rohmer.  He and his wife moved to New York after World War II and he died in 1959 from avian flu.  His wife, along with his assistant, Cay Van Ash, wrote a splendid biography of the man in 1972, called, appropriately, Master of Villainy.  (Ash also wrote two Fu Manchu novels of his own, one featuring Sherlock Holmes, and they are equal to those of Rohmer.)

It’s hard to imagine the full impact of Rohmer’s legacy today, after Fu Manchu has been watered down by countless imitators and the tides of political correctness.  However, it’s safe to say that without Fu Manchu and Nayland Smith, there would have been no James Bond, as author Ian Fleming had said that Rohmer’s novels were a key influence on his style and his decision to become a writer.  Many of the tropes that were invented or perfected by Rohmer have become today’s clichés, and the debt the thriller genre owes him is immeasurable.

Part of the great fun to be had by reading Rohmer is his fevered emotional pitch, the heavily scented style of his prose, and the sheer momentum of his narrative.  There are two other key ingredients of Rohmer’s charm.  First, nearly everything a reader comes across in his novels – no matter how outlandish – is usually real.  If Rohmer says there’s an 18 inch poisonous centipede, rest assured, there is one.  Another key is Rohmer’s commitment to his story and his characters – this man believed.  There is never a hint of irony, never less than his 100% commitment as an artist.  He may not have been writing literature, but he wrote it as if he was.

He was also a master of description.  Here, for example, is there first time the world knew of Fu Manchu:  Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long, magnetic eyes of the true cat-green. Invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect, with all the resources of science past and present, with all the resources, if you will, of a wealthy government--which, however, already has denied all knowledge of his existence. Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr. Fu-Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man.

My affection for Rohmer came flooding back to me during a recent reading of his sublimely lurid The Quest of the Sacred Slipper, first published serially in Short Stories Magazine and collected into novel form in 1919.  Sacred Slipper is available for free from the invaluable and Project Gutenberg.  Seekers after vintage shivers need go no further.

How to describe The Quest of the Sacred Slipper?  Pure purple romance.  It starts with our narrator, a newspaper man named Cavanagh, inheriting responsibility for a Muslim holy relic, the Slipper of the Prophet (once worn by Allah himself) after the man who uncovered it, Prof. Deeping, is murdered.  Two factions are after it – a league of Muslim assassins called the Hashishin, and a celebrated American cracksman named Earl Dexter (also called The Stetson Man for his taste in hats).  The Hashishin are led by the murderous Hassan of Aleppo, and leave a trail of severed hands and dead men as they and Dexter pursue the slipper, with Cavanagh and Scotland Yard’s Inspector Bristol always one step behind.

All of this is delivered in a delirious, ornate, heavily scented style; as if Oscar Wilde and Ian Fleming collaborated on a thriller while drinking too much absinthe.

Of course, many readers will snort at the Hashishin – ritualistic Muslim murderers who smoke hashish before committing their crimes.  But remember, it’s Sax Rohmer we’re writing of here, so it’s no surprise that the Hashishin actually existed after a fashion, and that the word “assassin” actually derives from the same root.  And for Rohmer to have anticipated murderous Muslim fanatics roaming London fully 90 years before it actually happened adds additional irony to the notion that he was a mere pulpy romance writer.  (I often think of Leslie Charteris, creator of Simon Templar/The Saint, who wrote that World War II showed that writers of “Yellow Peril” fiction for the 20 years previous might have been onto something.)

Here’s a taste of some of the incensed delights to be found in the Golden Slipper:

All that I knew of the weird group of fanatics – survivals of a dim and evil past – who must now be watching this cottage as bloodlustful devotees watch a shrine violated, burst upon my mind.  I peopled the still blackness with lurking assassins, armed with the murderous knowledge of by-gone centuries, armed with invisible weapons which stuck down from afar, supernaturally.

Or: Many relics have curious histories, and the experienced archaeologist becomes callous to that uncanniness which seems to attach to some gruesome curios. But the slipper of the Prophet was different.  No mere ghostly menace threatened its holders; an avenging scimitar followed those who came in contact with it; gruesome tragedies, mutilations, murders, had marked its progress throughout.

No one would argue that Sax Rohmer was a great writer, or that his novels enter the elevated realms of high art.  But he did do something no thriller writer was ever able to pull off – he wrote trash that could be savored by aesthetes.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Amsterdam by Ian McEwan

Amsterdam, inexplicably winner of the 1998 Man Booker Prize for Fiction, is a remarkably uneven novel … one is nearly tempted to say disjointed. 

That is not to say that Ian McEwan’s prose style is lacking.  He is not a luminescent stylist in the manner of, say, Michael Chabon, but McEwan writes with a striking economy of line and incisive ability to capture character with a phrase.  So how did so accomplished a writer fail so badly with this book…?

Amsterdam tells the story of four people, one dead and her three surviving lovers.  The novel opens at the funeral of Molly Lane, who died painfully after a swift and debilitating illness.  Molly seems to be that perfect woman who can only be realized post mortem: she is loving, sexy, talented, erudite, carefree and supportive.  Clearly too difficult to write in anything other than the reminiscences of other characters. 

Among the mourners are composer Clive Linley and newspaper editor Vernon Halliday.  Each had longish affairs with Molly in the past, and are friendly with each other independent of her.  Also attending is Foreign Secretary Julian Garmony, another of Molly’s ex-lovers.  Garmony is an extreme right-winger (he would seem to be nearly as loathsome as our former President Bush) in line to become Prime Minister who uses the funeral as an event to glad hand reporters.

Also attending is Molly’s husband George, a wealthy publisher of trashy books. 

Following the funeral, Clive -- perhaps McEwan’s one sympathetic character in the novel -- fears that he too may be ill.  Both he and Vernon were upset by the horrific details of Molly’s passing and he discusses end-of-life care with Vernon.  Both men vow that if either becomes too sick or too debilitated with illness to live with dignity, that the healthy man will help the other find the release of death.

Clive’s illness proves to be nothing more than anxiety, and the novel lurches to its next key plot point: George has uncovered, among Molly’s effects, compromising photos of Garmony in drag.  He sells them to Vernon’s newspaper and Clive and Vernon argue bitterly over the morality of publishing them.

Vernon decides to print them, and is absorbed in the roll-up to publication while Clive works on his symphony, commissioned by the government to celebrate the coming millennium.  The bitter words exchanged have festered to some degree in both men, and their misunderstandings escalate after Garmony out-maneuvers Vernon by having his wife make the photos public herself.

All of this is good stuff.  Both Clive and Vernon are realistically rendered, each with a some degree of sympathy.  And while this is not a comic novel per se, there is a great deal of humor in the depiction of each man.  We also get an idea of the inner workings of Clive as an artist.  Here he is thinking while taking a train across London:

In his corner of West London, and in his self-preoccupied daily round, it was easy for Clive to think of civilization as the sum of all the arts, along with design, cuisine, good wine, and the like.  But now it appeared that this was what it really was – square miles of meager modern houses whose principal purpose was the support of TV aerials and dishes; factories producing worthless junk to be advertised on the televisions and, in dismal lots, lorries queuing to distribute it; and everywhere else, roads and the tyranny of traffic.  It looked like a raucous dinner party the morning after.  No one would have wished it this way, but no had been asked.  Nobody planned it, nobody wanted it, but most people had to live in it.  To watch it mile after mile, who would have guessed that kindness or the imagination, that Purcell or Britten, Shakespeare of Milton, had ever existed?

What happens to McEwan’s book then is quite tragic – the final chapter seems to flee from the main body of his story and turn into some kind of grotesque shaggy dog story.    Let me make this clear – the closing chapter of Amsterdam seems to belong to another book; it comes almost completely from left field, as if McEwan suddenly remembered he had been writing a comic novel, and decided to close it off with an unfunny joke.

With his conclusion, McEwan successfully breaks the covenant between writer and reader by effectively defacing and erasing all that has come before.  What is doubly confusing to your correspondent is that McEwan seems to want to write a straight novel while playing some cheap kind of post modernist game.  That Amsterdam won the Booker Prize is just one unpalatable aspect of the book among many.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Capt. Alatriste Novels of Arturo Pérez-Reverte

Like most aesthetes, your correspondent is slavishly addicted to novels of swashbuckling romance.  A good swashbuckler has a tremendous sense of style, is written with élan and thrives on a heightened sense of drama, emotion and plot.

So, it’s natural that many people have pushed on me the historical romances of Arturo Pérez-Reverte, author of several novels about solider and swordsman-for-hire Captain Diego Alatriste y Tenorio, and his young companion, Íñigo Balboa y Aguirre.  With these novels, Pérez-Reverte clearly shows his ambition to create a series that rivals the D’Artagnan romances of Alexandre Dumas.

Pérez-Reverte (born 1951), author of the excellent The Fencing Master already covered in these pages, has set a laudable goal for himself with these books.  The author admits to being horrified at the lack of depth in the coverage of Span’s Golden Age in contemporary schools, and sought to correct this with a series of historical romances that fully detail the glory that was Spain.

However, it is his very ambition that sinks the Alatriste novels, as Pérez-Reverte forgets the romancer’s pledge to recreate history, rather than teach it.  I have just finished the fourth in the corpus (The King’s Gold), and, at this point, despite my devotion to the genre, could not possibly go back for a fifth (or seventh, as that is where the novels now stand with no sign of letting up) helping.

Pérez-Reverte does not wear his erudition lightly, and the novels stop regularly for Alatriste or one of the supporting characters (often real-life historical personages) to rattle off long bits of poetry, historical detail or antiquated epigrams and aphorisms.  This is amusing in small bits, but page after page is rather like a historical romance written by a Spanish Charlie Chan – very little goes a long way indeed.

Moreover, the great masters of the form (talents as diverse as Dumas, Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Walter Scott, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Rafael Sabatini) had a wonderful flair for intricate plotting.  Indeed, one of the deep joys of swashbuckling romance is its complexity of plot, almost for its own sake.  That love of plot is usually married to a depth of emotion – not just love, but hate, lust, the thirst for revenge, envy and self-respect.  However, the Alatriste novels never deliver this density of plot; indeed, they have more the plodding feel of 17th Century police procedurals, where Alatriste and Íñigo make a bloody path from point A to point B. 

Missing, too, is that sense of style, that distinct touch of panache so essential to the genre.  Perhaps this is because Alatriste is a taciturn battle-weary survivor, or that Íñigo, our narrator, is too young for such embroideries.  But this ennui prevents the books from ever really taking off – they cannot inhabit the more expansive corners of our imagination because they have no appeal to our sense of fun.

It is often with the supporting characters – the various aides, schemers and villains – that the author of romances truly shines, and here, too, Pérez-Reverte fails.  The recurring villain of the piece, Gualterio Malatesta, an Italian fencing master, is clearly the Basil Rathbone part.  However, like Alatriste, he never really comes to life – we know he’s the villain because he gets to sneer quite a bit, but there is never that passion for naughtiness, that sheer delight in vileness, that essential theatricality, that marks a great swashbuckling heavy.  Angélica de Alquézar, who spends most of her time in the books alternately trying to seduce or murder Íñigo, is weak tea indeed, never becoming more than a pale shadow of Dumas’ Milady de Winter, her most obvious influence.  Historical figures, such as Francisco de Quevedo (1580–1645), come off more like name dropping than fully rounded characters, a trick Dumas, for example, admirably pulled off with Cardinal Richelieu.

Part of the problem may be inherent in the series itself – because they are set in Spain of the 17th Century, the Alatriste novels cannot help but escape a whiff of provincialism.  While most European nations at the time were unified under one strong ruler, Spain was in essence broken up under various feudal lords who served the King.  In addition, both royalty and the Catholic Church used religion to keep the people pliable, ignorant and afraid.  Spain simply had not the expansive, intellectually exploratory or cohesive feel of England or France at that time. 

I must confess that the shortcomings of 17th Century Spain detailed in The King’s Gold inspired extremely uncomfortable comparisons to the present-day United States as I read the novel.  Here’s a passage that I found disconcertingly familiar:

Most political activity, therefore, consisted in a constant to-and-fro of haggling, usually over money; and all the subsequent crises that we endured under Philip IV – the Medina Sidonia plot in Andalusia, the Duque de Hijar’s conspiracy in Aragon, the secession of Portugal, and the Catalonia War – were created by two things: the royal treasury’s greed and a reluctance on the part of the nobility, the clerics, and the great local merchants to pay anything at all.  The sole object of the king’s visit to Seville in sixteen twenty-four and of this present visit was to crush local opposition to a vote in favor of new taxes.  The sole obsession of that unhappy Spain was money, which is why the route to the Indies was so crucial.  To demonstrate how little this had to do with justice or decency, suffice it to say that two or three years earlier, the Cortes had rejected outright a luxury tax that was to be levied on sinecures, gratuities, pensions, and rents – that is to say, on the rich.  The Venetian ambassador, Contarini, was, alas quite right when he wrote at the time, “The most effective war one can wage on the Spanish is to leave them to be devoured and destroyed by their own bad governance.”

Perhaps my overarching problem with the Alatriste novels is that their setting – 17th Century Spain – has too, too many similarities with the worst components of 21st Century American life: an exploitive over-class, unquestioning religious devotion, a hawkish international stance and the crippling provincialism of many of its people.  Hardly my recipe for romance.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon

Some time ago we covered Michael Chabon’s wonderful book of essays, Manhood for Amateurs.  As a professed Chabon devotee, it is with some surprise that I confess disappointment at his earlier essay collection, Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands (2008).
Chabon (born 1963) is one of our most interesting, contemporary literary writers.  He is one of a small number of literary writers who still care about craft, construction and well-made stories, as well as the expansive humanity found in the best fiction.  He also has a more-than-healthy respect for quality genre fiction.  His books, though, have largely been hit-and-miss affairs.  The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is one of the most remarkable books of its decade, and Wonder Boys, Werewolves in Their Youth and The Mysteries of Pittsburg are all equally fine.  He floundered terribly with the unreadable The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, and Gentlemen of the Road (his sword-and-sandal tale) and The Final Solution (his poor rift on Sherlock Holmes) are perhaps, if anything, worse.
And yet I both like and admire Chabon.  He is a critic of remarkable sensitivity and his prose style is fluid, descriptive and often achingly beautiful.  No post modernist, Chabon values human beings, human interactions, and the deep and vital connection people have with art.  We need more like him.
That is one of the reasons I was so disappointed in Maps and Legends – many of the essays are almost brilliant, but they never quite take off.  Also, the essays here are often so disjointed, with too many disparate elements almost connected by a central argument, that they never feel organic or honest.  These are largely essays as performance art, with Chabon seeing what he can get away with.  He could do better.
However, we must congratulate Chabon on his fearlessness.  Many serious writers would dread losing membership in that august body by admitting to a passion for comic book artist Howard Chaykin, or admiring Cormac McCarthy’s sole foray into science fiction, The Road.  Chabon is determined to find art in all manner of places, and that is a gift.
As with all essay collections, this is a mixed bag.  Many of the essays are only interesting to those already familiar with the genre he addresses: his thoughts on Howard Chaykin and comics legend Will Eisner are really only meaningful to the already-initiated, and one feels that Chabon missed an opportunity to make larger points.  He almost scores high with his essay on Sherlock Holmes, but, as with many essays here, Chabon introduces so many side issues (pastiche, genre-fiction in general and detective fiction in particular, the sinister nature of secrets) that one nearly forgets his central point, if he ever had one.  (And Chabon and his editors should both know better – it’s Professor Moriarty, not Dr. Moriarty…)
In “Imaginary Homelands,” Chabon details how a Yiddish phrasebook inspired The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, and the essay is infinitely more amusing, interesting and moving than anything found in his novel.  Also excellent is his discourse on the ghost stories of M. R. James, and in “My Back Pages,” Chabon describes, with great wit and depth of feeling, his struggle to write his first novel. 
Chabon’s three greatest strengths are his great empathy, his expansive feelings toward literature and the human spirit, and a limpid prose style.  Here is Chabon writing about Philip Pullman’s series of fantasy novels:
Like a house on the borderlands, epic fantasy is haunted: by a sense of lost purity and grandeur, deep wisdom that has been forgotten, Arcadia spoilt, the debased or diminished stature of modern human-kind; by a sense that the world, to borrow a term from John Clute, the Canadian-born British critic of fantasy and science fiction, has “thinned.”  This sense of thinning – of there having passed a Golden Age, a Dreamtime, when animals spoke, magic worked, children honored their parents, and fish leapt filleted into the skillet – has haunted the telling of stories from the beginning.  The words “once upon a time” are in part a kind of magic formula for invoking the ache of this primordial nostalgia.
Equally fine is Chabon writing about the Norse mythology he read as a boy: Loki never turned up among the lists of Great Literary Heroes (or Villains) of Childhood, and yet he was my favorite character in the book that was for many years my favorite, a book whose subtitle might have been “How Loki Ruined the World and Made It Worth Talking About.”  Loki was the god of my own mind as a child, with its competing impulses of vandalism and vision, of imagining things and smashing them.  And as he cooked up schemes and foiled them, fathered monsters and stymied them, helped forestall the end of things and hastened it, he was god of the endlessly complicating nature of plot, of storytelling itself.
Throughout Maps and Legends, Chabon has wonderful things to say about the adventure of childhood, the even-greater adventure of adulthood, genre fiction and fine art, and his identity as a father, a husband and a Jew.  The essays may not all hold together in any organic way, but there are treasures strewn throughout.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Titian’s Abraham and Isaac

Like the earlier David and Goliath we examined by Titian, this representation of Abraham and Isaac is now in the church of Santa Maria della Salute in Venice. It was originally made as a ceiling painting for the Santo Spirito in Isola; Titian’s other ceiling painting for that church depicted Cain and Abel.  (If the composition and foreshortening seems “funny,” remember this would ideally be seen from below.)

Titian was born Tiziano Vecellio in Pieve di Cardore in 1489 (dying in 1576, quite an old man by Renaissance standards).  He was perhaps the greatest Venetian painter of his era; his contemporaries called him The Sun Amidst Small Stars (after the final line of Dante’s Paradiso).  Titian was equally at home with landscapes, portraits and large narrative pictures.  Despite his compositional felicity and superior draughtsmanship it is perhaps is his unique mastery of color upon which his reputation rests.  His style changed often throughout his lifetime, but his serious study and application of color was a constant throughout his career.  His later works were, perhaps, muted compared to his earlier pictures, but his overall approach also grew in subtlety.

By any yardstick, this is a remarkable picture.  The painting is characterized by the spiraling movement of the figures, the counterpoised pose and the strong intersecting diagonals.  Like Caravaggio and Rembrandt, Titian chooses the moment when the angel appears just before Abraham can murder his son in an act of devotion to God.  But it would be hard to imagine a painting more unlike the other two – let’s start by looking at his characterization.

If Caravaggio’s Abraham is an unthinking zealot and Rembrandt’s a confused duffer, Titian’s muscled prophet seems to our eyes more like Samson or Hercules.  Though he holds Isaac’s head down (like Rembrandt), this sword thrust would most likely cleave Isaac’s head from his body.  (And note, too, that this is no simple knife – it is a sword.  This Abraham is a figure of potency, indeed.)

The angel here is unlike the celestial interlopers of Caravaggio (who seems oddly human) and Rembrandt (who is definitely otherworldly) – this angel is more in line with the putti seen decorating various religious paintings of the period.  That so simple and childlike an angel can stop so massive a human seems incredible; however, the face of Titian’s angel seems to us the most urgent of the three.  This angel will stop this madness, regardless of his relative size.

Which brings us, as is almost always the case in this story, to the artist’s depiction of Isaac.  Caravaggio showed us an adolescent clearly terrified and abused; Rembrandt a heavenly youth of beautiful whiteness, his face brutally hidden by his father’s massive fist.  The Isaac of Lievens is clearly conflicted, unable to see the angel above him and clearly uncomfortable in his father’s grasp.  But Titian’s Isaac is different – this is no adolescent, it is a young boy.  And despite straddling a funeral pyre, with his father holding his head and face away, he seems curiously nonplussed.  This Isaac is too innocent of his father’s intention, too young to fully appreciate that he is about to die, and that makes the scene doubly horrible.  (Indeed, his face is eerily similar to that of the ass and the lamb, all of them, to Abraham, little better than dumb animals.  Note that the older man seems to stand on one and put his full weight on the other.)

Note, too, that, like Caravaggio and Rembrandt, here Isaac seems to be lit from another source.  Caravaggio’s Isaac is horribly white – perhaps in terror, perhaps rendered so by the artist in a mode of self-identification.  Rembrandt’s Isaac looks as if a hot spotlight lit his youthful lines, focusing the picture on his boyish innocence.  Titian, however, aligns the light of heaven alongside his Isaac – the clouds are highlighted with white, heavenly light, throwing Isaac’s simple robe into stark outlines.

Interesting, too, and again like Caravaggio and Rembrandt, Titian cannot help but fetishize Isaac.  The most luminous focal point of the picture is Isaac’s bottom, and it can not be unintentional.  There is something in this myth that seems to inspire in even the most devout of souls dark contemplations of parental abuse, sexual and otherwise.

Though this is bound to raise hackles, to my eye Titian’s picture is far superior to that of Caravaggio, Rembrandt and Lievens.  Possibly because of its intended use as a ceiling picture, the composition is more dynamic, more energetic and more frenetic than the other pictures we’ve looked at in this series.  (Note the train of Abraham’s robe trailing behind him.)  Titian was also a draughtsmam of prodigious ability: the rich musculature of Abraham and the soft lines of both Isaac and the angel are wonderfully captured, and the triangular quality of the composition keeps the eye going from victim to angel with zealot locked between them.

Also, Titian’s sense of color cuts through the haze of sanctity that usually envelops the story, making more clear and more terrible just what was about to happen here.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Angel Prevents the Sacrifice of Isaac by Rembrandt van Rijn (c. 1635)

Yesterday we looked at how Dutch artist Jan Lievens envisioned the Biblical story of God’s edict to Abraham to murder his own son, Isaac, as a sign of his devotion.  Lievens was a contemporary (and sometime studio partner) of Rembrandt van Rijn, who also painted his own version of the story.  Unlike Lievens, who painted the scene after Abraham spared Isaac and killed a ram instead, Rembrandt, like Caravaggio before him, chose the more dramatic moment of the story when the angel appears and stops Abraham in his murderous intent.

Rembrandt (1606 – 1669), of course, is one of the world’s most famous and celebrated painters.  His is one of the few names (like Leonardo and Michelangelo) that have become shorthand for “artist.”  His revolutionary use of light and color, in addition to the sensitivity with which he portrayed the human condition, were combined with a supreme sense of composition and narrative.  He is truly one of the great masters.

Rembrandt was born into a middle class family; he showed an early aptitude for art and studied first with Jacob van Swanenburgh, and later (alongside Jan Lievens) with Pieter Lastman.  Lastman was deeply impressed by Caravaggio’s use of light and color, and it’s probable that Lastman held up the Italian Renaissance master as a model to his students.  (Caravaggio himself painted a deeply disturbing version of the Abraham and Isaac story.)

Rembrandt became one of history’s most celebrated portrait painters.  He married Saskia van Uylenburg in 1634 and her father, an art dealer, was able to secure a great deal of work for his son-in-law.  The couple lived and worked in the Breestraat, a busy street on the boarder of the Jewish neighborhood.  Rembrandt studied many of the faces he saw there, and this study stood him in good stead for his masterful pictures depicting Old Testament figures.  Rembrandt created more than 300 Biblical works, including drawings and etchings. 

Despite his success, Rembrandt was never very competent when it came to financial affairs.  He lived way beyond his means, using much of his money to buy art and antiquities.  He sold much of his collection to avoid bankruptcy in 1656 including Roman busts, Japanese armor and his collections of minerals and gems.  The art establishment, always out to get him, represented by the painters guild actually created a rule that artists in Rembrandt’s financial position could not trade as painters.   Rembrandt was forced to move into a smaller house and he died in dire financial straits.

The Angel Prevents the Sacrifice of Isaac was painted around 1635 and, as is usually the case with Rembrandt, he finds the decisive, dramatic moment of the story to illustrate with his brush.

Rembrandt was much the same age as Lievens when he painted his version of Abraham and Isaac.  And though both men are great masters in their own right, I think that the Rembrandt is by far the superior picture of the two.  Both artists focus on Isaac, but where Lievens pinpoints the ambiguity of the boy’s emotions, Rembrandt details his lily white youth and supple boyhood.  Indeed, the bleached white of Isaac’s torso shows that the heavenly light is not on Abraham, but on Isaac.

Nor is Isaac any willing murder victim; like Caravaggio’s possible self-portrait in the same role, this is an Isaac who is clearly being abused by his father.  Abraham’s hand covers the boy’s face and mouth – he cannot cry out, nor can he breathe.  His hands are tied behind his back, but his body and legs twist and squirm in terror. 

It is curious, too, that Rembrandt’s Isaac, like Caravaggio’s, is nude or mostly nude.  This curious fetishizing of Isaac links the work of these two masters, and will also be in evidence tomorrow when we look at Titian.

Where Caravaggio paints Abraham as an emotional blank, though, Rembrandt creates a very different picture of the prophet.  Here, Abraham is clearly a confused old duffer, dropping his knife in surprise at the arrival of the angel.  There is no sense of purpose, as with Caravaggio, or perhaps continued malign intent, as with Lievens, but, rather, simply infirmity and, possibly, dementia.  One wonders how the old man managed to subdue the boy in the first place.

Also interesting is the angel.  It appears here that the angel arrives in the proverbial nick of time – and the look on its face seems to indicate more than a touch of disapproval of the entire incident.  (What, it seems to ask, are you crazy…?)

I would draw your attention to the hands of both Abraham and the angel – they seem, to me, curiously deliberate.  The hand smothering Isaac is quite massive, and the hand that held the knife seems quite powerful indeed – hardly the hands belonging to so old a man as Abraham.  The angel’s hand clutching Abraham’s wrist also seems powerfully delineated, with dark patches between fingers, while the hand heavenward seems curiously feminine and small. 

As is often the case with this story, one wonders what happens once the angel drifts heavenward.  Isaac is already tied and lying on what would be his funeral pyre.  The ram that will be killed in his stead is nowhere in evidence – so we have to ask, how does one move from this moment of supreme drama and religious mania back to normalcy?