Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Finding of Medusa

Today, we look at Perseus finding the Gorgon Medusa, part of a series of paintings by Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898) inspired by William Morris (1834-1896) and his book The Earthly Paradise (1896).

The Gorgon Sisters are among the most repulsive creatures in ancient mythology.  The Gorgons – Medusa, Stheno and Euryale – were the result of an incestuous relationship between the monstrous deities Phorcys and Ceto.  Medusa, with her head of writing snakes rather than hair, could turn men to stone with a glance.

There are many versions of the story of Perseus killing Medusa.  In general, Perseus used his shield, a gift from the goddess Athena, to look at the reflection of Medusa, rather than at the monster herself.  Using this trick, he was able to decapitate her with a sword from Hephaestus.

Surprisingly, the potency of Medusa really begins once she is decapitated, as her disembodied head take on a narrative life of its own.  Perseus uses the severed head as a weapon, and even kills the Kraken with it in some versions of the tale.  Perseus would eventually give the head to Athena, who placed it on her shield, the Aegis.

Despite the gruesome aspects of the myth, Burne-Jones seems incapable of painting anything that is not beautiful.  In The Finding of Medusa (1882), Medusa here is tall and svelte, with a strong but attractive face.  He does not depict a head full of snakes – perhaps too gruesome an image for his art to express – but her windblown hair does have a serpentine suggestion.  The other sisters, who should be equally baleful, are quite beautiful in their way.  The Gorgons here are also equipped with wings, and look more like fallen angels than pagan monsters. 

As with other pictures we’ve looked at in the series, the background is an unreal dreamscape; however, unlike The Rock of Doom and The Doom Fulfilled, the background here is suggested with a few broad brushstrokes, rather than depicted with any significant detail.  The craggy mountain range and color-splashed melodramatic sky make it more of an emotional landscape than anything recognizably earthy.  Even the armor of Perseus, so lovingly depicted in other paintings, seems here rather rushed.

Much more interesting to me is the surviving watercolor study Burne-Jones did before creating the actual painting (see below).  Like many great masters, Burne-Jones conceived of his figures first as nudes, and draped them with clothing later on.  Here, we see Medusa’s movements beneath her pendulous robes and have a better understanding of the pivot of her body.  Also – the expression on Medusa’s face is much more effective than that on the finished picture. 

In the final painting, Medusa is a beautiful, if evil, woman now afraid.  The Medusa of the study seems to be more frozen – more (if you will) stone-faced.  This seems in keeping with the magical powers of the Gorgon: and despite that ‘frozen’ quality, this visage is much more expressive.  This is evil in full realization of its own, upcoming doom.    

More Perseus tomorrow, but for now, here is the passage in Morris that so inspired Burne-Jones: 

And midst this wretchedness a mighty hall,
Whose great stones made a black and shining wall;
The doors were open, and thence came a cry
Of one in anguish wailing bitterly;
Then o'er its threshold passed the son of Jove,
Well shielded by the grey-eyed Maiden's love.
       Now there he saw two women bent and old,
Like to those three that north he did behold;
There were they, sitting well-nigh motionless,
Their eyes grown stony with their long distress,
Staring at nought, and still no sound they made,
And on their knees their wrinkled hands were laid.
       But a third woman paced about the hall,
And ever turned her head from wall to wall
And moaned aloud, and shrieked in her despair;
Because the golden tresses of her hair
Were moved by writhing snakes from side to side,
That in their writhing oftentimes would glide
On to her breast, or shuddering shoulders white;
Or, falling down, the hideous things would light
Upon her feet, and crawling thence would twine
Their slimy folds about her ankles fine.
But in a thin red garment was she clad,
And round her waist a jewelled band she had,
The gift of Neptune on the fatal day
When fate her happiness first put away.
       So there awhile unseen did Perseus stand,
With softening heart, and doubtful trembling hand
Laid on his sword-hilt, muttering: "Would that she
Had never turned her woeful face to me."
But therewith allas smote him with this thought,
"Does she desire to live, who has been brought
Into such utter woe and misery,
Wherefrom no god or man can set her free?

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Rock of Doom by Edward Burne-Jones

We continue looking at the cycle of Perseus paintings by Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898) inspired by William Morris (1834-1896) and his book The Earthly Paradise (1896).

Burne-Jones was born in Birmingham, the son of a frame-maker.  His mother died he was only six and he was raised by his father and the housekeeper, Ann Sampson.  Despite these humble beginnings, Burne-Jones was able eventually make his way to Exeter College, Oxford, where he studied theology.  (He earlier studied art at the Birmingham School of Art from 1848-1852).  It was while at Oxford that he first met Morris.  Both were poets and deeply interested in the Middle Ages, or, rather, a Victorian idealized vision of that period.  Burne-Jones also became deeply affected by the Arthurian legends at this time – further crystalizing his artistic vision into a fabulous past that never was.

Both men were to come under the influence of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), who was instrumental in both men becoming artists.  Burne-Jones left Exeter before receiving his divinity degree and Morris, of course, went on to secure his reputation in arts and crafts and poetry.

Yesterday, we saw The Doom Fulfilled, where Perseus battles the Kraken, a hideous monster about to kill Andromeda.  The Rock of Doom is the prequel to that painting, created in 1885, showing Perseus appearing before Andromeda.  It includes all of Burne-Jones’s signature strengths.

Perseus appears in his armor, approaching Andromeda with arms outstretched.  Indeed, he removes his helmet so that Andromeda can see him; and his countenance is as open as his body language.  His sword is placed rather suggestively before his pelvis, and his hands and feet are bare.  (And though this may be beating the point, I would venture that the rock to which Andromeda is chained has a distinctly phallic look.)  His armor, however, is detailed with a large declivity running down the front of his chest, bisecting a larger circle, as if to draw attention to his heart.  Over his arm is the sack containing the head of Medusa, the gorgon who could turn men to stone with a glance.

Andromeda, nude and chained to the rock, looks down, rather than at, Perseus.  It is not improbable to think that she gazes at the sword, entertaining dual thoughts of eros and thanatos.  Unlike Perseus, her arms are behind her body and, for all of her nudity, her body language is closed off, unlike that of Perseus.  And though a certain amount of idealization is expected in the female nude, the Andromeda of Burne-Jones has the unreal, glacial beauty of a statue come to life.

What is most fascinating to me about The Rock of Doom and The Doom Fulfilled is how spatially equal both Andromeda and Perseus are.  This is particularly marked here – both figures occupy the foreground on equal terms, and both have the most distinctive coloration in the picture.  With his cool blue armor and she with her warm flesh overpower the dreamlike landscape that surrounds them.  From body language to the language of art, each figure compliments the other.

Burne-Jones is not interested in painting landscapes that can be found in the everyday world, but, rather, dreamscapes.  His people have the placid beauty and balletic grace of dream figures.  This is the core of his art and what makes it so distinctive and valuable: Burne-Jones did not need the fripperies of surrealism or post modernism to escape the everyday.  Though we can see birds over the surf in the distance, the waves do not seem any different in size of scope from the ripples of water around the feet of both figures.  Foreground and background become one, as is often the case in medieval pictures, but here through a trick of perspective rather than a flaw in it.     The buildings on shore look more like organic mounds, parts of the earth rather than homes in which people live.  The whole picture is, in short, a perfect synthesis of Burne-Jones’ mastery of style and intent.

More Perseus tomorrow, but for now, here is the passage in Morris that so inspired Burne-Jones: 

Now hovering there, he seemed to hear a sound
Unlike the sea-bird's cry, and looking round,
He saw a figure standing motionless
Beneath the cliff, midway 'twixt ness and ness,
And as the wind lull'd heard that cry again,
That sounded like the wail of one in pain;
Wondering thereat, and seeking marvels new
He lighted down, and toward the place he drew,
And made invisible by Pallas' aid,
He came within the scarped cliff's purple shade,
And found a woman standing lonely there,
Naked, except for tresses of her hair
That o'er her white limbs by the breeze were wound,
And brazen chains her weary arms that bound
Unto the sea-beat overhanging rock,
As though her golden-crowned head to mock.
But nigh her feet upon the sand there lay
Rich raiment that had covered her that day,
Worthy to be the ransom of a king,
Unworthy round such loveliness to cling. . . .

Then unseen Perseus stole anigh the maid,
And love upon his heart a soft hand laid,
And tender pity rent it for her pain;
Not yet an eager cry could he refrain,
For now, transformed by that piteous sight,
Grown like unto a God for pride and might,
Down on the sand the mystic cap he cast
And stood before her with flushed face at last,
(And grey eyes glittering with his great desire
Beneath his hair, that like a harmless fire
Blown by the wind shone in her hopeless eyes.
       But she, all rigid with her first surprise,
Ceasing her wailing as she heard his cry,
Stared at him, dumb with fear and misery,
Shrunk closer yet unto the rocky place
And writhed her bound hands as to hide her face;
But sudden love his heart did so constrain,
With open mouth he strove to speak in vain
And from his heart the hot tears 'gan to rise;
But she midst fear beheld his kind grey eyes,
and then, as hope came glimmering through her dread,
In a weak voice he scare could hear she said,
"O Death! If though hast risen from the sea,
Sent by the gods to end this misery,
I thank them that thou comest in this form,
Who rather thought to see a hideous worm
Come trailing up the sands from out the deep.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Doom Fulfilled by Edward Burne-Jones

It was such a pleasure to close last week with artist Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898) that I decided to spend this week with him, as well.

We have established that the Victorian mind found solace, inspiration and identity in a robust nostalgia.  This was not a personal nostalgia as much as a national depth of feeling: by looking at myths of the past, the Victorians sought to remake themselves in a more heroic manner.

Burne-Jones was commissioned to paint a series of pictures depicting the feats of the mythological hero Perseus by conservative politician (and Prime Minister) Arthur Balfour (1848-1930).  Burne-Jones created several large-scale paintings in the series, but, alas, did not finish the entire cycle.  The completed paintings can be found in Stuttgart’s Staatsgalerie.

For inspiration, Burne-Jones turned to another artist: William Morris (1834-1896).  Morris, aside from starting the Arts and Crafts Movement (and, hence, aestheticism), was also an instrumental force in the creation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.  Morris was also a poet and medievalist.  His most celebrated work was The Earthly Paradise (1896), a collection of poems bound in a leather strapbound book.  The Earthly Paradise chronicled a group of medieval wanderers who set out to search for a land of everlasting life.  At length, they come upon a colony of ancient Greeks, still alive, who tell them a series of stories, including the myth of Perseus.

The Doom Fulfilled details a later moment in the sequence.  As you may remember, Perseus rescues his lover, Andromeda, from a sea monster called the Kraken.  Most artists go overboard in depicting this undersea threat, creating monsters 50 feet tall and looming like one of Ray Harryhausen’s creatures.  (Indeed, Harryhausen had a crack at the Kraken himself with his Clash of the Titans in 1981 – one of the most enjoyable bad movies ever made.)  Here, Burne-Jones creates a Kraken that is more bejeweled anaconda than giant sea monster.

Let’s look at this remarkable picture.  Burne-Jones had a wonderful and subtle gift – to render figures in action in attitudes of repose.  Look at most of his corpus and you will find figures engaged in physical activity (or about to engage in it), but delineated in a manner that is almost dream-like.  This gives much of his work an other-worldly quality, almost as if he were painting pictures first seen in our subconscious.

Burne-Jones stages his spectacle in a stony grotto, placing Andromeda on her own pedestal and creating a pyramid around Perseus and the Kraken in order focus attention on them.  The cool blue of both Perseus and the Kraken keep them in the background, while the bright flesh tones of Andromeda push her closer to us.  It is curious to me that both Perseus and the Kraken are the same shade of blue.  Perhaps Burne-Jones thought, if Andromeda was merely a prize, that there was little difference between Perseus and the Kraken. 

While Perseus cuts a heroic figure in his blue armor, Burne-Jones does not create a muscled man-god out of Michelangelo.  Rather, the heroic contours of his body are created by the armor he wears.  Perseus’ face is like many of those you will find in Burne-Jones’ work – introspective, intent, and locked in the gaze cast upon someone else.  Look at The Beguiling of Merlin from last week – rarely has an artist ever been so effective in exchanging charged emotions between subjects through the power of a glance.

Andromeda is beautifully drawn and painted.  Could she, too, have been modeled by his lover, Maria Zambaco (1843-1914)?  Possibly.  The Andromeda of Burne-Jones is not a screaming hysteric; instead, she watches the battle of Perseus and the monster with a cool detachment.

“Cool detachment” may be the perfect way to describe the Perseus series.  I am filled with admiration for the mastery of Burne-Jones, but it strikes me as a cold genius.  There is passion but no mess, lots of fire but little heat.  It is a genius that chills the intellect – a wintry blast of virtuosity that is just what is needed in the dog days of summer.

Tomorrow – more of Perseus!

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Beguiling of Merlin by Edward Burne-Jones

I had planned on posting some rather melancholy thoughts on our culture’s endangered future, but thought instead to end the week on a more hopeful note.  (Expect dire things next week!)  So, instead, let’s close the last week before the unofficial start of summer with this marvelous picture, the Beguiling of Merlin, by Pre-Raphaelite master Edward Burne-Jones, painted between 1872 and 1877.

With one-hundred-plus years of distance between us and our Victorian betters, it is easy to dismiss them as seemingly antiquated, stuffy or (cardinal sin of our age!) somehow repressed.  Actually, these misconceptions have little to do with the reality of Victoria’s age and her people.

The Victorians were actually an extremely modern people: dedicated to exploration, adventure, technology, experimentation and the scientific method.  (It is no mistake that detective fiction found its greatest expression in Sherlock Holmes, a romanticist’s view of the perfect scientific reasoner.)  However – and here is the great paradox – there was also a deep and vibrant strain of nostalgia to be found in the Victorians, and this sentiment colored their art and culture.

Nostalgia has a rather bad name today; it is associated with backwards thinking, slowed development or an escape from reality.  Disdain for nostalgia has recently given rise to the most loathsome locution in the modern lexicon of slang: “old timey.”  This is a meaningless phrase that often leaves your correspondent reaching for the nearest weapon (or heaviest dictionary) – and its practice should not be encouraged.

For the Victorians, nostalgia was not a mere wistfulness for the past; rather, it became a type of romanticism.  By imagining (or re-imagining) a better, greater past, the Victorians found a way of connecting with that best part of themselves, and also creating a template by which to measure future accomplishments.  This wasn’t an escape from reality as much as a redefinition of it – becoming a sort of secular religion that defined them as a people.  Whether it was an idealization of the English countryside or veneration for the age of Wordsworth (or Johnson), the Victorians connected with the imagined shades of their forebears and listened to their lessons.

One of the most persistent strains of Victorian nostalgia was for the great age of King Arthur.  Arthurian romance was the theme of their great poets, novelists, and, of course, painters.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (itself a sort of extended exercise in self-improving nostalgia) was greatly drawn to the myth of Arthur.  The Beguiling of Merlin is taken from one of the key moments in the legend.  Merlin, Arthur’s conscience and advisor, is trapped by Nimue, the Lady of the Lake, within the confines of a great hawthorn bush.  Nimue reads from her book of spells – and the great wizard will be imprisoned for all time, never able again to aid the great English king.

The Beguiling of Merlin is a cautionary tale: Merlin is consumed with lust for Nimue, but she refuses to become his lover until he teachers her the secrets of sorcery.  Once he has done so, she uses her new-found powers against him and, in the process, starts a cycle of events that will destroy Camelot.  The power of Victoria’s empire – which controlled a great deal of the world and its resources and people – would never be used against the powerless for base reasons without dire consequences.  How effectively the Victorians abided by this lesson is open to debate.

Artist Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898) was primarily a watercolorist before turning to oils.  His lover was Maria Zambaco (1843-1914), who was a favorite model of the Pre-Raphaelites and whose image can be found in many great pictures, including works by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and James Whistler.

Let’s take a moment to savor this magnificent picture.  The length of the picture is, to my eye, essential to its success, because it is used to delineate both the strength of Nimue and the languor of Merlin.  Nimue’s body twists to glance at Merlin, and her body language is all carless mastery and undisguised contempt.  Indeed, she seems about to walk away, book of spells in her hand, as if the great wizard offered no challenge at all.  Indeed, it is only in her face that Nimue holds a hint of sympathy – her face shows all the regret that her body cannot express.  Oceans of heartache and unnecessary tragedy can be found in her delicate profile.

Merlin lies in the hawthorn, powerless.  His arms lay limply at his side, his fingers lank and uncontrolled.  His face, too, seems affected by the paralysis of Nimue’s enchantment, but look at his eyes.  He looks at Nimue with all the hurt of betrayal, all the disappointment of failed love.  Those eyes, which can see visions of the future, know that he will be imprisoned there, and his own folly the cause of nationwide catastrophe.

The drapery of the figures is magnificent – look at how Burne-Jones uses Nimue’s robes to capture the movement of her legs.  The robe twists at the waist, with her body, and the fingers holding the book are delicate and beautifully rendered. 

Delicate, too, are Merlin’s feet, which are drawn with great sensitivity.  They are off the ground – indeed, Merlin will never meaningfully connect with this earth again.  The gray of his hair draws attention to the white of his haunting eyes – and cups the V-shaped shadow in his neck, framing his face. 

About the whole picture is a supreme delicacy of touch, a refinement of purpose that is mesmerizing.  As usual, Burne-Jones’ sense of color is astonishing.  The hawthorn is a pinkish, bluish white – but one never feels springtime, only death.  Nimue’s enchanted hawthorn may be the most beautiful coffin ever depicted in western art. 

Let’s share, for a moment, the nostalgic urge of the Victorians.  Think, for a moment, of the great wizard still in some great wooded vastness of England, repentant still for his many wrongs, but also still aware of the great gifts he could bestow upon his people.  Perhaps the magic of Nimue is not for eternity, and another Arthur will return to us with Merlin in tow, guided by wisdom, honesty and a sense of justice.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Harlem’s Franco the Great

Readers yesterday were momentarily concerned by my advocacy of some genre fiction.  Has The Jade Sphinx abandoned high artistic ideals?  Is junk now art?

Well, no.  My point is simply that sometimes the keenest satisfaction is to be found in art in its humblest forms.  However – that does not change the fundamental proposition that there is good art and there is bad art.  And also that -- somewhat lower in stature than bad art -- we find much of graffiti and street art.

This brings us to a quick look at Harlem, New York celebrity Franco the Great.  Self promotion does not seem to be a problem for Franco the Great – if you don’t think he’s great, he’ll be the first to correct you.  A quick look at his Web site reveals his own tagline, Franco the Great.  Known as Harlem’s Picasso.  Artist Extraordinaire. 

Franco Gaskins was born in Panama.  After a rather tragic accident in his youth (he fell on his head), he became an amateur magician while maintaining an interest in the arts.  He came to the United States at the urging of his grandmother in 1958, where he established himself in New York as muralist.  Since the 1960s, Franco has been painting pictures on the iron security gates that protect many Harlem storefronts at night.  His images are often of celebrities (Mr. T, Michael Jackson, various basketball players), or turgid representations of angels, heaven or some other syrupy strain of mysticism.

There is very little that can be said of Franco’s art that hasn’t already been said about the work of the child or younger relation adorning your refrigerator: it’s not actually good, but if you like that sort of thing, that’s the sort of thing you like.  To my eye, his lack of composition, unsteady anatomy, bad coloration, parochial worldview and vapid technique does not make him a master of folk art; rather, it makes him a practitioner of something much more insidious: non-art.

Non-art is the sort of thing that vandals scrawled all over subway cars and on the sides of abandoned buildings throughout the 1970s.  Non-art is often a crypto-criminal act, a defacement making a political statement or a desperate cry to improve self-esteem.  Non-art is forging an identity at someone else’s expense; usually made by the artistically and intellectually unengaged.  Non-art is the repulsive “community projects” erected by amateur artists for tasteless bureaucrats as a sop to the aesthetically impoverished.

Harlem is also the site of another wonderful example of non-art: the mural on the side wall of the Adam Clayton Powell Plaza at West 125th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Blvd.  By no aesthetic yardstick could this be called good work (see below); but it does seem to draw both tourists and locals.  One amusing trick learned in long contemplation of this work is how to tell tourists from Harlem natives: tourists pose in front of it for photos, residents stand in front of it to urinate.  (My New York readers are welcome to visit the site themselves lest I be accused of yellow journalism.)

Many of Franco’s security-gate murals would have been mercifully removed by a new city law concerning gates; however, his works have been preserved for removal to an outside art gallery at the East River.  One can only hope the critics there don’t stream in so regularly as those at Adam Clayton Powell Plaza.

Non-Art and Public Restroom
at Adam Clayton Powell Plaza

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The New Yorker Misses the Point … Again

Every now and then your correspondent can only shake his head in wonderment at the good people at The New Yorker

For example it’s not unusual for Adam Gopnik, the magazine’s resident Renaissance man, to say something utterly and completely off the deep end.  And the art criticism in the magazine sometimes seems predicated on nothing more than insisting that Modernism is still relevant, gosh-darn-it, and you had better believe it because we at the New Yorker say it’s so.  And as for its film criticism …, well, let’s say that, like most Puritans, New Yorker film critics suffer from the sneaking suspicion that some one, some where is having a good time.

So I was not greatly surprised when I found in the latest issue an especially witless essay by Arthur Krystal on “guilty pleasures” in fiction.  (“Easy Writers,” May 28, page 81.)  Now, let me say upfront that I certainly believe that there is such a thing as good art and bad art.  Indeed, The Jade Sphinx is predicated on the very notion that there is a hierarchy in art.  However, your correspondent must part company with Krystal when he uses the idea of genre fiction as his baseline for gauging a guilty pleasure.

Now, as Oscar Wilde, patron saint of our blog wrote, “there is no such thing as moral or immoral book.  Books are well written or badly written.  That is all.”  I’m sure the ghost of Wilde would forgive us if we also observed that there is no such thing as a novel that is a guilty pleasure or not a guilty pleasure – again, novels are well written or badly written.  What astonishes me is not that Krystal is so far off the mark … but that we, in 2012, are still having the discussion at all.

One hundred or so years ago, our intellectual and aesthetic betters knew this.  Bookstores were not broken into ghettos of mysteries, young adult novels or science fiction stories.  Indeed, the new H. G. Wells novel was set alongside the new book by Henry James, and Arthur Conan Doyle shared shelf space with Joseph Conrad.  If you want to make the argument that a mere genre story could never be art, let’s admit that Hamlet is a crime story (and a rather good one at that) and Macbeth a fantasy (ditto) and start relegating Shakespeare to the proper literary ghettos.

Even more amusing is that Krystal seems to have little understanding of what fiction is or what it does.  Here’s a sample: “Skilled genre writers know that a certain level of artificiality must prevail, lest the reasons we turn to their books evaporate.  It’s plot we want and plenty of it.  Heroes should go up against villains (sympathetic or hateful); love should, if possible, win out; and a satisfying sense of closure and comeuppance should top off the experience.  Basically, a guilty pleasure is a fix in the form of a story, a narrative cocktail that helps us temporarily forget the narratives of our own humdrum lives.”  In that brief passage, Krystal has relegated to “genre fiction” nearly the entire corpus of Charles Dickens and Jane Austen.  No small feat, that.

However, even a stopped clock is right twice a day, and Krystal does make one intelligent observation: “Modernism, of course, confirmed the idea of the commercial novel as a guilty pleasure by making the literary novel tough sledding.”  He mitigates the quality of the observation by implying that perhaps, this is the way things should be.  Indeed, “serious fiction was serious business, and a reader might tire of it.”

Well, he’s half right, at any rate.  Most contemporary literary fiction is virtually unreadable.  (The New Yorker is an especially egregious offender in this regard: often, the short fiction reads as if it were missing the opening and closing paragraphs.)  I remember emerging from Susan Sontag’s “novel” The Volcano Lover, for instance, with all the cheer of one who had been repeatedly battered about the head and face.  David Leavitt, Toni Morrison (fit punishment, really, only for serial murderers and repeat sex offenders), Cormac McCarthy and Annie Proulx have all written their share of unreadable books adored by the literati.  And if this is the current state of literature, I think I’ll hide deep within the pages of Edgar Rice Burroughs until the whole thing blows over.

However, I am being too hard on Krystal, as he closes his essay with an apology to genre fiction:  “Such writers have a gift that is as mysterious to nonwriters as plucking melodies out of thin air is to nonmusicians.  Plotting, inventing, creating characters, putting words in their mouths and quirks in their personalities – it all seems pretty astonishing to me.  The prose may be uneven and the observations about life and society predictable, but, if the story moves, we, always involuntarily, move with it.  And, if we feel a little guilty about getting so swept up, there’s always ‘The Death of Virgil’ to read as penance.”

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

Envy lucky Gothamites who can regularly visit New York’s City Center to view the Encores! series of musical revivals.  Encores! is dedicated to restaging little-seen shows with top-notch casts and the finest orchestra performing on Broadway.  The creative minds behind the series are Artistic Director Jack Viertel and Music Director Rob Berman, who have done a superb job of mounting these shows since 1994.  Added sauce is the fact that City Center has recently been renovated to something like its former glory.  In short, the best way to describe Encores! is that it is a distillation of every dream you ever had of seeing a Broadway musical, and really delivering on that promise.  It is rare that I have a more enjoyable night at the theater.

As Viertel said last night in his brief pre-curtain remarks, the proof a good musical is that it works as an aphrodisiac.  Surely few shows better fit that bill than 1949’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, with music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Leo Robin, and adapted for the stage by Anita Loos from her own novel with an able assist from Joseph Fields

Briefly, showgirls Dorothy Shaw (Rachel York) and Lorelei Lee (Megan Hilty) set sail on the Ile de France, leaving behind Lee’s fiancée, button-king Gus Esmond, Jr. (Clarke Thorell).  Also on board are aging Lothario Sir Francis Beekman (Simon Jones), his wife, Lady Phyllis (Sandra Shipley) and Philadelphia millionairess Mrs. Ella Spofford (Deborah Rush) and her son, Henry (Aaron Lazar).  Needless to say, there will be shipboard shenanigans, terrific songs and fleet-footed dancing, and comedy both high and low.

The original Broadway cast included Carol Channing as Lorelei Lee (and you probably remember Marilyn Monroe in film version), and while no one in the cast has that kind of star power, Hilty delivers a lusty, busty and deftly comedic performance.  She labors perhaps too much under the ghost of Monroe – the original performance by Channing indicates that there is more than one way to play the part – but it is possible that audiences now would accept nothing less than Monroe-lite.  For all the imitation, though, Hilty does manage to incorporate her own comic sensibilities to the role.

York, as Shaw, has less incandescent wattage than Hilty, but she does manage to do something different with the part.  No mere Jane Russell knockoff, Shaw imbues her part with that hard-bitten cynicism associated with flappers.  Shaw also has the best dance number in the show, bar none, I Love What I’m Doing, danced with a bevy of shirtless Olympians.  These dancers, who cavort throughout the show in a variety of guises, carry much of the action on their muscular shoulders.

Kudos, too, to the indefatigable, peerless clown Simon Jones.  His number, It’s Delightful Down in Chile, performed with Hilty, is a comic treat.  Other songs include I’m Just a Little Girl from Little Rock (complete with three encores), the paean to Americana Homesick, and You Say You Care.

The orchestration of Styne’s score was another highlight of the evening, and the chorus provided a tuneful accompaniment to the action.

As would be the case with any revival of the show, much of it boils down to the performance of the signature number, Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.  This ditty is perhaps one of the greatest bits of comic poetry to be found in the Great American Songbook

A kiss on the hand may be quite continental
But diamonds are a girl's best friend
A kiss may be grand... but it won't pay the rental on your humble flat
Or help you at the automat
Men grow cold as girls grow old
And we all lose our charms in the end
But square cut or pear shape these rocks don't lose their shape
Diamonds are a girl's best friend

Hilty delivers the number with oomph to spare, and I promise that you will leave the theater humming the number to yourself.

If there is any complaint with Gentlemen, it has nothing to do with the Encores! superlative revival.  Rather, it is that one of the grace notes of classic Broadway musicals is a sweetness too often missing from contemporary life.  This sweetness goes far in bringing satisfaction and even, if I may, a touch of the sublime.  Gentlemen has wit and brass, but there is a touch of cynicism at its core that somehow makes it, for your correspondent, less than perfect.

Gentleman only runs from May 9th to the 13th.  Tickets are available at:  You owe it to yourself to go.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Tokyo String Quartet

Great art may be forever, but great artists are not themselves always so lucky.

That melancholy thought struck me as I heard the legendary Tokyo String Quartet perform last weekend under the auspices of People’s Symphony Concerts.  I have attended People’s Symphony on-and-off now for more than 20 years and this concert will always rank with me among the most memorable.

The Tokyo String Quartet formed in 1969 at the Juilliard School of Music, and the founding members all attended the Toho Gakuen School of Music, studying with Hideo Saito.  Success came rapidly to the quartet, winning first prizes at the Coleman Competition, the Munich Competition and the Young Concert Artists International Auditions.

When not on tour, the quartet serves on the faculty of the Yale School of Music (where they’ve been since 1976) and you can hear them on more than 30 albums under RCA Victor Red Seal and Deutsche Grammaphon.  Or, you may remember them from appearances on Great Performances … or even Sesame Street.

The quartet currently consists of Martin Beaver and Kikuei Ikeda on violin, Kazuhide Isomura on viola and Clive Greensmith on cello.  These wonderful musicians perform on the Paganini Quartet, a group of renowned Stradivarius instruments named for the legendary virtuoso Niccolo Paganini, who played these very instruments during the 19th Century.

The Tokyo Quartet was joined Saturday by Alon Goldstein on the piano, and it was a serendipitous grouping.  The quartet played Haydn’s Quarter in E-flat Major, Op. 76, No. 6 with a beautifully lyric touch.  They followed with Debussy’s Quartet in G minor, Op. 10, transforming what is often a cold, intellectual piece into a moving experience.  After the interval, Goldstein joined them for Brahms’ Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34.  Readers familiar with this piece know the emotionally affecting tenor of this piece, and many people in the audience were reduced to tears.  Perhaps the theatrical showmanship of Goldstein helped keep the quartet (and the audience) in check, as he played with dramatic flair and grandiloquent verve.  Thinking it would be impossible to top all this, the five returned for an encore of Dvořák that served as a perfect palette cleanser.

The concert was ultimately melancholy as your correspondent realized that The Tokyo String Quartet would soon be no more.  Both Isomura and Ikeda plan to retire, and, rather than reassemble with other players, the group has decided that the 2013 season will be its last.  They will be on tour for the next year and a half, and you are urged to see this extraordinary group if at all possible.  They have also released a new album of Franz Schubert’s String Quintet on the harmonia mundi label.  This is the last, and perhaps the most haunting, of Schubert’s chamber works, and Tokyo captures both the light and the dark of the piece. 

You can learn more about the final tour of The Tokyo String Quartet on their Web site:

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Moon and Sixpence

Herbert Marshall and George Sanders
in The Moon and Sixpence

After agonizing over Michelangelo’s ecstasy, let’s take a look at one film about art that gets it right.

In 1942, director Albert Lewin (1894-1968) made a film version of William Somerset Maugham’s 1919 masterpiece, The Moon and Sixpence.  An art collector and aesthete, Maugham was fascinated by both art history and the then-contemporary art world.  He had long wanted to write about the painter Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), but the novelist held sway over the historian, and Maugham wrote a highly fictionalize version.  In Maugham’s novel the painter, called Charles Strickland instead of Gauguin, is a middle-aged English stockbroker who leaves his wife and goes to Paris to become a painter.  He knows nothing of painters or painting, but something inside of him demands an artistic outlet.

After starving in a garret and learning his craft, he is befriended by a Dutch painter, Dirk Stroeve, who is convinced Strickland is a genius.  Stroeve nurses Strickland out of a long and dangerous illness, and is repaid for his kindness when his wife wants to run away with Strickland.  When he later jilts Mrs. Stroeve, she kills herself, another victim of Strickland’s artistic obsession.

Strickland eventually moves to Tahiti, where he lives with a native woman for many years before succumbing to leprosy.  He has painted the walls of his simple home with countless symbolic images, finding his artistic voice through an appreciation of the culture and customs of the primitive people he befriended.  His native wife, respecting his last wish, burns the house to the ground.

Though unnamed, the narrator is Maugham himself, and he becomes involved in the Stickland household through his friendship with the first Mrs. Strickland.  He also meets with Strickland in Paris, and later tracks down the story of Strickland’s fate in Tahiti while traveling the world himself.  

The genius of Maugham’s structure is that The Moon and Sixpence is really about two artists, Strickland and the narrator.  Both are creators and each has an individual aesthetic vision.  The major difference is that the narrator is passive – he watches life unfold around him and draws his art from it.  He may sometimes take a part in an event, but often from behind a mask, or a remove of indifference.  Strickland, on the other hand, is the protagonist of his own life – affecting lives around him for good and evil through a rapacious self-involvement.  Though the tale never becomes a confrontation between the two artists – either of talents or of temperament – the disparity between the two of them is instructive.

It would be impossible to think of a more appropriate writer and director for the film version than Albert Lewin, who was head MGM’s script development department under the legendary Irving Thalberg.  Moon is Lewin’s first film as a director; he would only direct five more.  He wrote all of them, producing several himself.  As a filmmaker, Lewin was also an aesthete – his films are all remarkably literary and subtle, filled with delicate grace notes and a sense of refinement. 

Moon and Sixpence the film remains very faithful to its source material, and is further bolstered by two remarkable performances.  Herbert Marshall (1890-1966) here named Geoffrey Wolfe, the Maugham stand-in, is superb.  Marshall started his career as a suave leading man, and graduated into playing benign uncles, sympathetic older men and writers.  (He would play Maugham again in The Razor’s Edge in 1946.)  Marshall had a gentle affect mixed with a sense of refined distance – a wonderful choice for Maugham/Wolfe.  It is obvious that anyone would confide in him, but his essential aloofness would keep him the perpetual voyeur. 

Strickland is played by the magnificent George Sanders (1906-1972), in what would be one of his first starring roles in a big-budget A film. Sanders would become Lewin’s secret weapon, starring in three of his six films (the others being The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Private Affairs of Bel Ami in 1945 and 1947, respectively).  Sanders is one of the most fascinating leading men from Hollywood’s Golden Era: he was not classically handsome, nor athletic, nor even particularly likeable.  However, he had a remarkable voice, by turns honeyed and sardonic.  Cynicism and sardonic irony often were his cinematic calling cards, and he spent many years as Hollywood’s favorite cad.  Strickland is something of a change for Sanders – there is a brutal, overbearing quality to the part, which Sanders, with his large physicality, captures wonderfully, but it provides little opportunity for his signature brand of silken villainy.  He would kill himself in Barcelona, Spain, in his 65th year.  His suicide note said that he was bored.

Steven Gerey (1904-1973) is quite marvelous as the mousey painter Stroeve, and Albert Bassermann (1867-1952), immortal thanks to his work with Hichcock and his role in The Red Shoes (1948), provides strong support as the doctor who treats Stickland at the end of his life.

The Moon and Sixpence is a difficult film for cineastes.  It is readily available on DVD, but the end sequence, where the camera lingers lovingly on the wall paintings of Strickland’s jungle home, were shot in Technicolor, and most prints are in murky, washed-out black and white.  However, George Eastman House struck a restored print complete with the Technicolor sequences which later aired on the indispensable Turner Classic Movies.

The Moon and Sixpence is one of the essential movies about artists – a subject that we’ll address again in the future.  If you ever have the opportunity, by all means catch it – even if it means seeking out the inferior DVD print.

So why does the film version of The Moon and Sixpence “get it right?”  Because the search for art is always the search for something transcendent, and more beautiful within us.  Often this search leaves devastation and ruin in its wake, as is the case with Strickland, or to an emotional and social detachment, as it does with Wolfe.  No quest is without its price, and The Moon and Sixpence shows that sometimes the coin comes very dear.

The title?  Maugham had written both that if you look at the ground for a sixpence, you miss the moon, and that if you looked only at the moon, you missed the sixpence at your feet.  As with much art – your personal point of view will drive your interpretation.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Agony and the Ecstasy

Make that mostly Agony….

If, at this late date, we come to the inescapable conclusion that movie-making is not only an art, but an art of considerable alchemy and artistry, we must also come to the conclusion that most filmmakers can not use that art to make movies about art.  Nearly every film about our significant painters, composers, sculptors and actors are sad affairs – either pompous with a feigned “significance,” or so self-consciously “arty” as to become ridiculous.

One of the most egregious offenders is Carol Reed’s 1965 film The Agony and the Ecstasy, about the sparring between Renaissance master Michelangelo and Pope Julius II during the painting of the Sistine Ceiling – one of the most significant achievements in the history of art.

It is precisely because of that significance that Reed, usually a deft and gifted filmmaker, failed so miserably.  Because here was a story of importance and significance, by gum, and nearly everyone involved was so busy posing with importance and significance that they all forgot to make a movie that was human, moving and alive.

The problems start with the source material.  Michelangelo would be a magnificent subject for a film if movie-makers were not cowed by his lofty reputation and wanted to say something significant about this brilliant, difficult, conflicted man.  But screenwriters Reed and Philip Dunne (1908-1992) decided instead to adapt Irving Stone’s (1903-1989) utterly puerile and unreadable book of the same name instead.  To their credit, they jettison much of Stone’s material and try to craft an original screenplay, but the rot had already set in.

Add to that calamity the casting of Charlton Heston (1923-2008) as Michelangelo.  Perhaps the finest looking and sounding bad actor in the history of cinema, a role like Michelangelo demanded subtleties that were beyond Heston.  He sure looked fine in a beard and artist’s rags, but once he opened his mouth to emote, the effect was ruined.  A dull pall of earnestness squeezes his performance of any juice it might have had, and one longs for just that touch of ham Heston exhibited in less demanding roles.

Heston is not helped at all by the film’s conception of Michelangelo.  After making a decorous claim that our hero is not homosexual (“no, not that,” he says, nodding at one of his drawings of a male nude), they also render him strangely neuter by saddling him with a sexless romance with Diane Cilento (1933-2011) – as the Contessina de Medici, yet!   So, poor Heston is forced to mope around the wonderful Sistine Chapel sets, or look at the fresco recreations by painter Niccolo d’Ardia Caracciolo and mummer banalities about the hand of God and whatnot. 

What Heston does have going for him, aside from a classically handsome look and a fine voice, is that remarkable ability to be acceptable as a figure from the past.  His most significant roles – Michelangelo, Moses, Ben-Hur, General Gordon – were all figures of a dim and romantic past; it would be inconceivable to cast one of his contemporaries, say Paul Newman, and get away with it.

Other supporting players do not help.  Adolfo Celi (1922-1986) is a reptilian Giovanni de Medici, but the most egregious turn is Harry Andrews (1911-1989) as the great architect Bramante (1444-1514), playing with all the subtlety of an Agatha Christie red herring in a provincial rep company.  I couldn’t help thinking that if Michelangelo ended up with a knife in his back, Harry Andrews did it.

How could Reed, who made such wonderful films as Odd Man Out (1947), The Fallen Idol (1948), and The Third Man (1949), been responsible for such a flaccid mess? 

Well, the good news is that the film is not a complete mess.  Sharing nearly equal screen time with Heston is the divine Rex Harrison (1908-1990) as Pope Julius.  Harrison was simply the finest light comic actor of his (or any other) generation, and his casting as the Pope is a stroke of genius.  Though a straight, dramatic role, Harrison infuses the Pope with all of his customary charm and Shavian wit.  Indeed, the first scene pitting the Pope against the Artist is all weighted in God’s favor simply by the delight we have watching Harrison twinkle from behind his designer robes.  Harrison dances throughout the entire film on the balls of his feet, and if a contemporary Pope had that much devilish esprit, it would be enough to interest me in religion.

The Agony and the Ecstasy opens with a brief voice-over narration talking about Michelangelo and his works:  surely something more necessary today than in 1965.  The film was also lavishly shot in Cinemascope and Todd-AO; it was a wonderful picture to look at, if not watch.   Somehow it was nominated for five Academy Awards.  It won none.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The First Anniversary of The Jade Sphinx

Twelve months and 172 posts later, The Jade Sphinx celebrates its first anniversary.

The first post appeared on Friday, April 22nd, and detailed my thoughts on The Page Turner, by David Leavitt.  In the months since then, we have looked at topics as diverse as Benvenuto Cellini and Fred Astaire, Cultural Decay and Christmas Carols, public statuary and role of the artist in society.

The Jade Sphinx came about courtesy of my deep and abiding dedication to a 19th Century aesthetic philosophy.  I had felt (and still do) that beauty had lost its primacy and cultural importance; that we as a people were on a road leading to a deep and arid cultural abyss.  The significance of this sea change chilled me to my very soul, and I sought to create an Eden were beauty was celebrated and willful ugliness condemned.  I wanted it to be a place where, if I could call down from the heavens the shade of Oscar Wilde, the great artist and critic would feel at home.  In my hubris, my goal was to educate the public.  Instead, I educated myself.

Of the Top Ten posts for the first year, according to sheer numbers of readers, eight of them have been about fine arts practitioners both past and present, one has been a film review (oddly enough, for a little-appreciated animated masterpiece, The Iron Giant), and one an overview of a children’s book (The Man in the Moon, by William Joyce).  It is my hope that the eclectic nature of The Jade Sphinx is one of the reasons you return again and again, and it is my goal to continue that in the future.

Finally, there is no point in thinking aloud if no one is listening.  I am deeply humbled and gratified by the number of people who have come to The Jade Sphinx for beauty or solace, and appreciate the many emails and comments I’ve received.

As this is a work in progress, please take this opportunity to comment on this enterprise, both past and future.  What has moved you?  Annoyed you?  What would you eliminate?  What stirs you to return?

Many thanks, and now on to Year Two!


James Abbott