Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Pearl and the Pumpkin – A Forgotten Halloween Classic

Your correspondent remembers a time when Halloween was a holiday primarily celebrated by children.  As I dimly recall that era, we kids purchased some great, inexpensive costumes, or, better yet, made our own.  We would trick-or-treat after school and then, if we were especially lucky, television would make the day perfect with a vintage monster movie, preferably something starring Bela Lugosi (1882-1956) or Boris Karloff (1887-1969).

Things have changed quite a bit.

Today, one would be hard pressed to find children celebrating the holiday at all.  Misguided, unimaginative parents fear something “unwholesome” about Halloween, and church leaders and other professional blue noses prate piffle about “satanic influences.”  As if wearing a Capt. America costume before eating a pound of licorice was the fast road to perdition...

But worse than disenfranchising children from the holiday, adults have coopted it as their own, making what was once a childish frolic of skeletons and ghost stories into a sort of demented Mardi Gras.  As if the Baby Boomer generation was not sufficiently infantilized, it continues to make matters worse by taking the very stuff of childhood and perverting it into an extended flight from adulthood.  If your children are home while you are in a Halloween party … then something is seriously wrong.

Not that adulthood means leaving behind the fun of Halloween completely.  Many of the great classics of English literature are ghost stories (Hamlet, anyone?), and the shudder tales of M. R. James and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle remain champion reading.  And if, like your correspondent, you have an interest in the children’s literature of the past century, you could do much worse than finding a copy of The Pearl and the Pumpkin by Paul West and W. W. Denslow.

Denslow (1856-1915) is, of course, remembered primarily as the first illustrator of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, in 1900.  Denslow was considered to be one of the major contributors to the success of the book, as his illustrations were applauded by critics and children alike.  Baum and Denslow would work on several other books, including Father Goose: His Book, and Dot and Trot of Merryland; jointly holding the copyrights of their collaborations.

However, things went sour when the Wizard of Oz was adapted for the stage.  Baum wrote the show and Denslow designed the sets and costumes – but the two would quarrel when Denslow insisted on 50 percent ownership of the show.  It would be the last time the two worked together – though Denslow earned so much from the book and the show that he was able to buy an island off of Bermuda and crown himself King Denslow I.

Baum would, of course, go on to write 13 more Oz books, and dozens of other classic children’s tales.  Illustrating the Oz stories fell to John R. Neill (1877-1943) who, to this viewer’s eye, surpassed Denslow’s conception to become the finest illustrator of the Oz corpus.

Immediately following the windfall of the Oz book and stage play, Denslow sought to duplicate its success.  He worked with writer Paul West to create The Pearl and the Pumpkin in 1904.  (It would go on to become a successful show in 1905, running in Boston and New York before touring the country.)

For sheer audacious invention, it would be hard to beat The Pearl and the Pumpkin.  The story begins on a farm in Vermont, where Joe Miller has perfected a method for growing perfect pumpkins.  He and his cousin, Pearl, are all set to celebrate Halloween when they are visited by the Ancient Mariner (complete with albatross and crossbow), who contrives to learn the secret of perfect pumpkins because the pirates down in Davy Jones’ Locker (including Long John Silver, Balckbeard, and Capt. Kidd) are hungry for pumpkin pie.

Before too long, Joe is turned into a giant pumpkin boy by a sprite called the Corn Dodger, and they (along with a baker and professional canner) all end up under the sea, battling pirates and contriving to get Joe back to normal. 

The book was clearly designed with a stage extravaganza in mind (the Glinda-like figure, Mother Carey, even has a bevy of chorus girls behind her), but the joyous energy, high spirits and bright good humor make the book a unique experience.  Denslow created illustrations for every page – including some spreads that straddled both open pages.  Fortunately, the book was available in a facsimile of its 1904 edition from Dover Books, and can be found in places like New York’s Books of Wonder.

I could think of no better way to celebrate Halloween.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Esther Pasztory Will Discuss Artist Jean-Frédéric Waldeck at The Dahesh Museum Gift Shop

This week readers can return to the Dahesh Museum of Art Gift Shop, located at 145 Sixth Avenue in New York for another edition of the Salon Thursdays series.  Salon Thursdays is a free program where leading arts scholars provide illustrated lectures, and on November 1st at 6:30 P.M. the Dahesh presents Jean-Frederic Waldeck: A Nineteenth-Century Artist Painting Exotic Mexico, courtesy of Esther Pasztory, Professor of Pre-Columbian Art History at Columbia University.  She will discuss the life and work of this quirky Orientalist who went to Mexico and made the ancient Mayans and Aztecs vivid in an entirely modern way.  Professor Pasztory is the author of Jean-Frédéric Waldeck: Artist of Exotic Mexico, a fascinating look at this controversial figure.  For further details, call the Dahesh at 212.759.0606.

The life of Jean-Frédéric Waldeck (1766-1875) is shrouded in mystery.  He gave his birthplace as Paris, and Prague and Vienna, and alternated between claiming that he was English, Austrian or German.  Depending on circumstances, he also claimed to be a Baron, a Duke or a Count.

What is certain is that he went to Mexico when he was 60 years old to copy the newly discovered Maya ruins of Palenque and other Mesoamerican centers.  His representations of Mayan and Aztec art were the first produced by a European artist, and as such, were seen through a Neoclassic lens.  Waldeck eventually went native, painting his Mayan mistress and scenes of everyday life.

Because of the many half-truths and sometimes outright falsehoods he told over his lifetime (including that he participated in major exploratory expeditions that have no record of his involvement), Waldeck’s reputation has now been of interest mainly to scholars and archivists.  Professor Pasztory took some time from her busy schedule to talk about Waldeck and her upcoming lecture with The Jade Sphinx:

Can you please tell us a little about your talk at the Dahesh this Thursday?

I’m going to talk about Waldeck’s life and work; first about the inaccuracies people have perceived in the work and why they do not value him, and, also about my discovery that there are inaccuracies in his work because he was mainly more interested in art than he was in illustration.  I will also provide insight on various paintings he made while he was in Mexico.

Waldeck tried to approach Mayan and Aztec art through a European artistic tradition – what were the values or pitfalls of such an approach?

Let’s put it this way: Waldeck tried to be everything.  He tried to be an illustrator, he tried to be an artist, and he tried for anything in his era he could probably be in order to make fame and fortune.  And by being a Neoclassic artist, he was able to see the naturalistic and beautiful aspects of Mayan art that his contemporaries would not see.

Waldeck has not been taken seriously by scholars, and his work, mostly hidden in archives, is unknown to most art historians.  Is it time for a reassessment?

I definitely think so.  I think he is an artist like the Orientalists of the 19th Century, but rather than go East, he went West.  And he was interested in the exotic, and he gave us some fascinating images of the exotic in the Americas.

In my cursory look at Waldeck’s biography, I see that he sometimes said he was various different European nationalities.  He often claimed royal titles.  How were you able to get your arms around such an elusive figure?

It was not that difficult.  We don’t know where he was born, but it’s probable that it was in Prague or Vienna.  When he was a child (and we don’t know how old), he went to Paris, France, where he operated as a French artist.  All of his journals are in French, there are no German or foreign language words in his notes.  So though he was not of French birth, he was French by his upbringing.
He didn’t go into Mexico until his late middle age.  The great mystery of Waldeck is that we don’t know a great deal about his early life.  He made a lot of grand statements about the expeditions he was on, but they can’t be proven.  The only part of his life that we can prove is that period in Mexico.  He went to Mexico specifically to paint the Mayan ruins that he came across in a lithographer’s studio in England.  (He was working in England at the time.)

Please tell us about your book, Jean-Frédéric Waldeck: Artist of Exotic Mexico.

What I tried to do was situate Waldeck in his time, and within the aesthetic ideas of his time.  What would his background and training bring to the Mayan ruins?  Actually, he brought a great many books with him, as he was an intelligent and learned person.  So I was mainly interested in the context through which he saw these things.  I also thought he was an interesting 19th Century artist – not a major one, but certainly an important minor one.

Do you have other books in the works?

Yes – Aliens and Fakes, which is about the crazy theories people have about the origins of Native Americans; things like extraterrestrials, and Lost Tribes of Israel and trans-Pacific travel.  All of these strange theories people come up with to explain the existence and heritage of an entire people.

I’ve always found that pseudoscience both fascinating and a little ridiculous.

I think I don’t want to poke fun at it – that’s all too easy.  I want to explain why people believe in these ideas, why it made sense to them, and why it still does, to some extent.  It’s a phenomenon that does not want to go away.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Important Birthdays: Bela Lugosi

Though no one would seriously argue that Bela Lugosi (1882-1956) was one of the movies’ greatest actors, there is little room for debate that he was one of the screen’s most iconic. 

Perhaps there is something about cinema that is anathema to truly great acting – the medium is too broad, too large, too loud for subtlety.  But those who make the grand gesture or can fill the screen with personality or individuality often become icons.  That Bela Lugosi is recognized now, 130 years after his birth and 56 after his death, is a tribute to the innate genius he brought to the screen.

Lugosi’s legacy to motion pictures remain a handful of interesting performances, a generous number of truly bad B films, and a legend that has lost none of its potency.  Typecast as Dracula forever after his 1931 film appearance, actor and role merged for eternity when the actor requested that he be buried in his vampire costume.

To the popular imagination, Bela Lugosi is Dracula, despite the considerable difference between the actor and the character as described in Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel.  Never before -- or since -- has an actor become so defined by a solitary part.  The identification was so great that for the rest of his life, the actor was billed as Bela "Dracula" Lugosi.  No other actor's face, voice, inflections or body language holds greater supremacy over the part than those of the Hungarian expatriate. 

Lugosi first played the role on Broadway.  When Dracula premiered in Broadway's Fulton Theater, neither the critics nor the audience realized that they were witnessing the creation of one of modern theater history's great signature roles.  Though Lugosi was generally praised for his work, the thought of a supernatural protagonist on the Broadway stage was a concept that took a while to settle in.  The passion that Lugosi brought to the part -- he so mesmerized actress Clara Bow at a performance of Dracula that it was the start of a stormy romance between the "It" girl and the undead Valentino -- along with his intensity, strange intonation and charisma, made Dracula acceptable to critics and audiences alike.

Many actors to later play the role found themselves hobbled by the long shadow of Lugosi.  When Martin Landau played Dracula in a revival of the Edward Gorey production of the play, he found that audiences would accept nothing but the Lugosi conception.  (And this, 10 years before Landau won the Academy Award in 1994 for playing Lugosi in Tim Burton's Ed Wood.)  Gary Oldman, a terrific actor who made his mark in challenging roles, frankly admitted that the voice he used in Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) was "pure Lugosi."

Dracula distilled for children -- everything from Sesame Street’s Count to General Mills' breakfast cereal Count Chocula -- is simply Lugosi and water.  When George Hamilton played Dracula in Love At First Bite (1979) he portrayed him as a lovelorn Bela Lugosi, caught in a world that had forgotten romance.  Leslie Nielson in Dracula:  Dead and Loving It (1995) also closely studied Lugosi's delivery and mannerisms.  Even Adam Sandler's Dracula in the current Hotel Transylvania imitates Lugosi -- and even makes an on-camera joke about it.

As Dracula, Bela Lugosi has appeared on toys, games, model kits and magazine covers.  Any television or radio commercial employing Dracula also employs Lugosi, for it is the actor and not the part that other players adapt.  Posters, greeting cards, record albums, Halloween costumes, iron-on patches, candy boxes and bubble gum cards have all borne Lugosi' likeness.  Bela Lugosi's face adorned the cover of Bram Stoker's novel as early as 1947, when the Pocket Books edition featured a painting of Lugosi hovering over a sleeping victim.  His association with the novel continues to this day, and Lugosi's visage continues to appear on the covers of many editions of Dracula, including the inexpensive Barnes and Noble reprint sold nationally.

No actor to play the part after Bela Lugosi has achieved the same long-lasting impression or has penetrated as far into popular myth.  Lugosi's Dracula is the yardstick by which all other interpretations are measured, a standard which has not diminished despite the many fine performances that followed in Lugosi's wake.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Whistler on Art

Originally I had planned to look at various posters selling the latest Hollywood wares, but after 10 minutes of this exercise I came away so despondent that I opted for something a little more interesting.  Look for our take on film advertising at a future date.

On my night table is Whistler on Art, a compilation of selected letters and writings edited by Nigel Thorp.  It makes for interesting reading.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834 – 1903) is one of the most fascinating figures in the history of art – and his work and influence remain polarizing to this day.  Whistler’s work is perhaps best seen as the bridge between the Academic tradition and Modernism.  Though the Impressionists presented a radical break from established artistic tradition, Whistler was never really a member of their order, nor did he always approve of the excesses of the Impressionists.  Whistler’s influence was long-lasting and deeply felt by painters as diverse as Henry Ossawa Tanner, William Merritt Chase and John Singer Sargent.

But more than his technique and coloration, perhaps his longest-lasting contribution was to the philosophy of art.  Whistler devoutly believed that a picture should always be removed from its narrative, and be seen purely as an arrangement of color, line and mood.  He thought painting should aspire to the quality of music – just as we know music is sad when we hear a funeral dirge without knowing that it is a funeral dirge, and pictures should inspire certain moods and impressions without the viewer knowing any ‘backstory.’  It is no surprise that he used musical terms for many of his pictures, including Nocturne, Arrangement and Symphony
This, I believe, is all well and good in the latter years of the Victorian era when Enlightenment values and a Humanist tradition prevailed.  However it was Whistler’s views, I think, that opened the door to the excesses of Modernism and the eventual degradation of art.  Surely, the thinking goes, if a picture is any arrangement of color, then mere squares, dots or smears of color are art, as well?  Without Whistler there could be no Damien Hirst, or Tracey Emin.  As Whistler wrote, Art should be independent of all claptrap – should stand alone, and appeal to the artistic sense of eye and ear, without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it, as devotion, pity, love, patriotism, and the like. All these have no kind of concern with it, and that is why I insist on calling my works “arrangements” and “harmonies.”

And that, I believe, was the beginning of the end.  I’m sure if Whistler – a conscientious and industrious if sometimes technique-challenged painter – could resurrect himself from eternity, he would be appalled at how his ideas have been applied to sharks in formaldehyde, urinals, cow effluvia and floor sweepings.  In fact, the great man may have had to rethink his entire philosophy.

Like many who believed in Art for Art’s Sake, what Whistler really argued was that beauty was paramount, more so than moralizing or instruction.  Beauty is at the core of Art for Art’s Sake.  Later painters and philosophers, however, have taken the Art of Art’s Sake credo to mean that art is anything we wish it to be.  It is not.

Reading Whistler on Art is an at-times heart breaking experience.  Letters from his earliest youth show a sweet boy, in love with art and devoted to his family.  Even through his mid-twenties, Whistler seems like a gentle-minded man.  But something happened to his temperament, and the once-youthful sweetness drowned in bile, bellicosity and bitterness.  He became an argumentative, blustery and sometimes clownish figure, always in some kind of contretemps with whatever ‘establishment’ he felt slighted him at that moment.  Perhaps Whistler’s greatest failing is that he never left his emotional adolescence.  It was a template that would be slavishly copied by many Twentieth Century artists.

Here are some pearls to be found in Whistler on Art:  Take the picture of my mother, exhibited at the Royal Academy as an Arrangement in Grey and Black.  Now that is what it is.  To me it is interesting as a picture of my mother; but what can or ought the public to care about the identity of the portrait?

The imitator is a poor kind of creature.  If the man who paints only the tree, or flower, or other surface he sees before him were an artist, the king of artists would be the photographer.  It is for the artist to do something beyond this: in portrait painting to put on canvas something more than the face the model wears for that one day; to paint the man, in short, as well as his features; in arrangement of colours to treat a flower as his key, not as his model.

This is now understood indifferently well – at least by dressmakers.  In every costume you see attention is paid to the key-note of colour which runs through the composition, as the chant of the Anabaptists through the Prophete, or the Huguenots’ hymn in the opera of that name.

Equally fine, though I disagree with the sentiment, is: The masterpiece should appear as the flower to the painter – perfect in its bud as in its bloom – with no reason to explain its presence – no mission to fulfill – a joy to the artist – a delusion to the philanthropist – a puzzle to the botanist – an accident of sentiment and alliteration to the literary man.

Interested readers can find some truly champion Whistlers in the Frick Collection in New York, as well as the National Gallery in Washington, DC.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Please Don’t Squeeze the Cemin

Hardened Gothamites are used to seeing strange things on the streets of New York City.  Often, the very strangest things come in the form of sponsored “art” projects designed to provide concrete canyon dwellers with a respite and bring their benighted souls closer to that transcendent thing we call “art.”

Or something.  Needless to say, most of these community art projects are dismal failures.  Community trusts are too frightened of anything that could be perceived as highbrow, or culturally exclusionary or even remotely interesting – how, under those restrictions, would it be possible to succeed?  Better stick with the tasteless pabulum that is all-to-available in galleries today.

And no better example of that pabulum can be found than up and down Broadway with seven sculptures by Saint Clair Cemin (born 1951) organized by the Broadway Mall Association in collaboration with the Paul Kasmin Gallery.  Ideally the world’s largest paperweights, these sculptures underscore the high camp joke that the Fine Arts have become in the United States.  Or, as “art historian and critic” Donald Kuspit writes, Cemin’s endgame modernism – a synthesis of old modern manners, breathing surreal new life into them – artfully condenses the absurdity in singularly perverse works.  Yes, I’ve read that twice and it still makes no sense.  Equally delicious is his official bio, which reads: Saint Clair Cemin … looks to string together the rational, the unknown, the unconscious, and the dream with a synthesis of old modern manners, breathing new life into them. Saint Clair Cemin creates surreal portraits of absurd characters as well as sculptural snapshots of his own past, blurring the line between figuration and abstraction in this collection.

Or something.  The piece above is called The Four, and is described as a Corten steel sculpture that longs to be at once both geometric and organic.  I stood before the sculpture just this weekend, and I didn't immediately notice it longing to be anything.  I, on the other hand, quickly started longing for some of the sculptural treasures in the nearby Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Readers with a sense of humor and high tolerance for camp can see all seven of Cemin’s sculptures in parks and pedestrian malls along Broadway between 57th and 157th Streets.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore – the Book Version

It should by now come as no surprise that we at the Jade Sphinx think writer, illustrator and animator William Joyce is a genius.  His magnificent drawings and water colors (so evocative of the Golden Age of Illustration), his delicious sense of whimsy, and his uncanny knack for finding the word that is the most fun have positioned him as the pre-eminent children’s entertainer of the early Twenty-First Century.  In an age when so much of children’s entertainment is violent or “dark,” the Joycean oeuvre is a welcome shaft of brilliant sunlight in what is often a very shadowy room.
So we approached the book version of Joyce’s Oscar-winning short silent film, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, with something bordering on trepidation.  (Joyce co-directed the film with Brandon Oldenburg.)  Why … when the film was so enthusiastically reviewed in these pages?
My initial hesitation was mainly because of the ambiguous and mystical qualities of the short film.  Surely a print version – dependent on text as well as visuals – would rob the story of some of its alchemy?
Well, I’m happy to report that the book version of Morris Lessmore is as beguiling as the video-version and the downloadable app.  If anything, the book version is more mysterious than the film version – with ambiguities of equal power and subtlety.
To recap the story – reader Morris Lessmore has his life thrown into chaos by a violent tornado.  Walking through the wreckage, he sees the vision of a beautiful girl carried away by books as if lifted by balloons.  He enters a magical library, where he spends the rest of his life caring for the books and sharing them with the world.  (Visitors to the library enter in black and white and leave in glorious color.)  After decades in the library, an elderly Lessmore leaves as a young woman comes to take his place.
While the film is dense with mystical passages, the book provides different conundrums.  With snappy pacing and retro visual style, we watch Lessmore spend his life tending books in a massive library.  But while he is caring for the books there – and sharing them with people in need of the curative powers of fiction – he also closes each day by writing in his own journal.  As Joyce writes, The days passed. So did the months. And then years.  When an elderly Lessmore finally leaves to join eternity, he leaves behind him his own book.  As Joyce writes, His life was a book of his own writing, one orderly page after anotherHe would open it every morning and write of his joys and sorrows, of all that he knew and everything that he hoped for.  The contents remain a mystery to the reader, but the question must be asked: is the library really a metaphor for our lives, with each book representing every life lived?  Or is Joyce saying that each and every life is a book of blank pages, to be filled with deeds good or bad, as our final contribution to the great library of the world?  Or is Joyce saying that we must leave books of value (or lead lives of value) for those who will come after us?  (A typical Joycean detail is that the top of Lessmore's pen forms a question mark.)
The very malleability of the story is one of its great satisfactions, along with the Joycean habit of including references to beloved pop culture touchstones, including everything from Winsor McCay to Buster Keaton to The Wizard of Oz.  It is no wonder that Lessmore spent several weeks on the New York Times bestseller lists – and as the holidays near, it would make an ideal gift to a young person starting on the personal, life-changing journey of reading.  The art (in collaboration with Joe Bluhm) is transcendent — a visual feast for young and old alike.  More important, after sharing Morris Lessmore with a child (or lucky adult), it is interesting to ask the listener, what do you think it means?
In other Joyce news: two new volumes in his ongoing Guardians of Childhood cosmology are just arriving in bookstores now: Toothiana, Queen of the Tooth Fairy Armies, is a young adult novel, and the picture book The Sandman: The Story of Sanderson Mansnoozie.  Expect reviews in the weeks to come.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Johann Friedrich Overbeck: Doubting Thomas (1851)

We continue our look at Johann Friedrich Overbeck (1789 – 1869), leader of the Nazarene Movement which sought to return art to its more Christian, early Renaissance roots.
Fate was kind to Overbeck after his arrival in Rome.  The Prussian consul, Jakob Salomon Bartholdy, commissioned Overbeck and fellow Nazarenes Peter von Cornelius, Friedrich Wilhelm Schadow and Philipp Veit to create a fresco telling the story Joseph and his Brethren for his home, the Palazzo Zuccari.  This led to commissions from Prince Massimo for frescos illustrating Tasso, Dante and Aristotle.  Perhaps this commission did not reflect his High Christian ideals, as he worked on this for 10 years before passing the task onto his friend, painter Joseph von Führich.  Overbeck would then turn to a subject perhaps closer to his heart, the Vision of St. Francis, for the Porziuncola in the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli near Assisi.  Rome would remain his artistic and spiritual home until his death in 1869.
Doubting Thomas (or The Incredulity of St. Thomas), painted in 1851, amply displays all the strengths and weaknesses of Overbeck’s work.  The picture is based on the Biblical account of Thomas the Apostle who, when confronted by the resurrected Jesus, insisted on touching His wounds in order to believe it was truly He.  (Hence the common parlance “Doubting Thomas.”)  Once he stuck his finger into Jesus’ wound, he professed his faith – becoming Thomas the Believer.  Jesus says, “Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.”  (The negative effect unquestioning faith has had on humankind is incalculable – but that is a subject for a different blog.)
Overbeck frames the central images of Christ and Thomas with a wonderful circular window, further enhancing the centrality of the images with the natural light of the sky.  The tiled floor and framed central figures call to mind such early Renaissance masters as Masaccio (1401 – 1428), an artist linking the Gothic and Renaissance traditions.
All the figures seem too posed for any sense of naturalism, such as Christ’s upraised arm allowing Thomas to touch the wound while bestowing what looks like a blessing at the same time.  This Christ is also much younger and more approachable than the rather patrician Jesus of Christ in the House of Mary and Martha.  The distribution of weight on both of His legs also seems reminiscent of classical statuary – something which certainly would not have been Overbeck’s wish.
Though certainly a ‘good’ painting, again I cannot help but wonder at what Overbeck was seeking to toss aside.  Below is a painting of The Incredulity of St. Thomas by a late Renaissance master, Caravaggio (1571-1610).  It is by any yardstick a magnificent painting – and more human in scope and feel than that of Overbeck.  More importantly, Christ and his disciples are in no way diminished by the blatant humanity of the piece.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  Thomas is a real human figure lined by care, and the wound in Christ’s chest is certainly a horrific reminder of His ordeal.  Granted the different styles, aesthetics and eras of both artists, but why would Overbeck believe a less sophisticated approach to his art equaled deepened religious conviction?  It is a question similar to those of today, who think religious devotion equals a distrust of science and a renunciation of the modern world – a world which, to the dismay of some, continues to spin.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Johann Friedrich Overbeck: Christ in the House of Mary and Martha (1815)

We return this week to the Nazarenes, a group of artists who sought to bring art back to the time of the early Renaissance, free from the influence of the later masters, such as Michelangelo and Raphael.  Just why the early Renaissance was held up as an ideal is an interesting question.

The leader of the movement, Johann Friedrich Overbeck (1789 – 1869), believed that art had been corrupted by Enlightenment-era thinking.  He thought that painters in the Academy were spurred by visions of artistic excellence, and not by divine inspiration or love of God.  He wrote a friend during his training to say that he was losing his faith in humanity while studying art, and was forging a closer connection to God as a way to cope with the rigors of contemporary life.  Overbeck was, in short, much like many people terrified by the real world:  looking for comfort in an idealized past or seeking solace in the myths of religion and the supernatural. 

Overbeck was born in Lübeck, the product of three generations of Protestant pastors.  Overbeck left Lübeck in 1806 to study art under Heinrich Füger in Vienna.  Füger was a teacher steeped in the Classical tradition (he had trained under Jacques-Louis David).  Overbeck absorbed the lessons taught in the Academy, but found the lack of religious focus inimical to his views on art.  He created a following of his own while at the Academy – eventually calling themselves the Nazarenes.  After four years, he and his followers would be expelled. 

Overbeck went to Rome in 1810, where he stayed mostly for the next 59 years.  (He became a Roman Catholic in 1813.)  He was joined by other artists attracted to his way of thinking, including Peter von Cornelius, Friedrich Wilhelm Schadow and Philipp Veit.  They lived in an old Franciscan convent, San Isidoro, where they worked hard and prayed harder.  A Holy Order of Artists is an idea not without charm, but I believe the Nazarenes rejected too much that was good and embraced quite a bit that was retrogressive.  They believed firmly in a hardness of outline which robs many of the figures of any feeling of being within their space, and used light, composition and color mainly as a means to further an argument rather than to create images of beauty. 

Today’s picture, Christ in the House of Mary and Martha, was painted in 1815.  The story can be found in Luke 10: Jesus visits the home of Martha and Mary.  Mary sits at His feet and listens to Him speak while Martha proceeded to "make all the preparations that had to be made."  Martha becomes upset that Mary did not help, and Christ says: "Martha, Martha ... you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her."  In short, one could call it a summation of the entire Nazarene philosophy.

There is much to admire in this picture but, to my mind, very little to love.  The attempt to reimagine an early Renaissance aesthetic is admirable, but it never looks like anything other than a pastiche.  Worse still, Overbeck’s high mindedness seems to rob the picture of any drama it might have: instead of sitting at Christ’s feet in raptures, Mary looks rather bored by it all.  And Martha, the scold, looks more like a harried house frau than a lost soul.  Christ seems rather patrician and formidable in profile – more Basil Rathbone than Prince of Peace.  And who is that standing behind him – looking for all the world as if she wished that she, too, were seated?

But … what Overbeck gets right he hits in spades.  The trio behind Jesus are depicted with the gentle lines of the early Renaissance Masters, and the room and furnishings reflect that period’s love of detail for its own sake.  The folds of the clothes are lovingly detailed and at the same time flat – aping the sometimes unsure sense of depth found in early Renaissance pictures.  Also present is an out-of-window view, another favorite trope of the early Renaissance, featuring something that comments on the foreground action.  Though I can’t be sure, it certainly looks to my eye like Jesus bringing Lazarus back to life … which justified the faith of both Mary and Martha.

Move Overbeck tomorrow.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Leda and the Swan by Heinrich Lossow

Knowing what we do of German artist Heinrich Lossow (1840-1897), it is perhaps not surprising that he would eventually tackle one of the most sexual myths of antiquity: the story of Leda and the Swan.

According to myth, Zeus seduced (or raped) Leda on the same night she slept with her husband King Tyndareus (King of Sparta).  The union bore several children, including Helen and Polydeuces, the children of Zeus, as well as Castor and Clytemnestra, the children of her husband, Tyndareus.  In some versions of the story, Leda laid two eggs from which the children were hatched.

The tale seemed to fire the Renaissance imagination.  Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519) painted a picture illustrating the story – a painting which no longer exists.  (There is a copy, though, by Cesare da Sesto [1477–1523], which gives us a good idea of what it was like.)  Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475 -1564) painted it in tempera – it, too, no longer exists, though copies were made from the cartoon.  It is not beyond supposition that both of these pictures were deliberately destroyed by later generations who found the story (and its graphic depiction) wince-inducing.

The power of the story outlasted the Renaissance – W. B. Yeats (1865-1939) wrote a version of the story in verse, and the image has also been coopted by Cezanne and other Modernists.

Lossow’s painting is not going to erase any daydreams we may have of lost Leonardos or Michelangelos, but it does have points of interest.  The composition is simple, but effective.  Starting with Leda’s boots, the central figure forms an impressive S, leading all the way to the bend in the swan’s neck.  The quality of the swan’s feathers is rendered with a few deft strokes in the dark hollow of the wing, and the animal’s head is (thankfully!) mostly obscured by Leda’s throat.

Leda, for her part, is clearly enraptured by the disguised god’s attention, and it is no mistake that a blossom buds directly overhead.  Perhaps what I find most interesting is that it seems probable that the model for Leda was the same model for the monstrous, sexually rapacious Enchantress that we looked at in a previous post – even the headdress is similar.

Again, I’m not quite sure that I am entirely comfortable with Lossow’s grasp of anatomy.  Surely Leda, when standing, would have dumpy piano legs for a glamour-puss; nor am I sure where the one visible wing of the swan drops to when obscured by her leg.

But Lossow wears his erotic obsessions on his sleeve.  In addition to the profusion of blossoms, it is not too much of a stretch to liken the rolling fields of grass to pubic hair, and Leda’s outstretched right hand is not warding off her attacker, but taut with ecstasy. 

Lossow’s Leda is an easy picture to study, but a hard one to like – which, in in the final analysis, may be my ultimate summation of his entire body of work.  There is a great deal going on in much of it – but not much of it is interesting or admirable.  My initial choice to close out this look at the artist was to examine A Precarious Game in some depth (see below); but looking at it closely, I didn’t think there was anything to say about it worth saying.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Young Mozart Playing the Organ by Heinrich Lossow

A marked change from yesterday’s picture, don’t you think?  Well … on second thought, perhaps not quite so much.

Let’s look at the picture first, and note what it does right.  Here two monks, one young and beautiful, the other older and somehow fretful, listen to the boy genius Mozart play the organ.  Some kind of musical worship is clearly planned, as can be seen by the music stands at the ready.  The fresco barely visible above the young Mozart’s head and the columns, cornices and elaborate moldings indicate that the church is rather a grand one.

Note how Lossow separates Mozart from the monks.  Not only is he elevated above their heads by the organ chair (which is also on a platform), but also by his elaborate blue coat, stockings and richly dressed hair.  Lossow further frames Mozart by separating him from his surroundings by the pillar on the right and the doorway at the left.  The sense of elevation is important … not only is Mozart literally above the monks, but he is metaphorically closer to heaven.

Lossow does, I think, a commendable job on depicting the church.  Like most churches, its coloration and light change depending on one’s vantage point, and the sense of massive space and monumentality is caught with what is really a minimum of detail.  The columns, archway, bit of fresco are there – but our imaginations fill in the rest.

Where the picture fails, I think, is the poor job Lossow made of foreshortening Mozart, as his overall proportions seem more dwarfish than youthful.  Also, a greater contrast of expression between the younger and older monk would have provided Lossow with the opportunity to make some deeper comment … an opportunity that is somewhat wasted here.

However, I think it is interesting to look at this picture with Lossow’s other work in mind.  Remember that Lossow was a pornographer of some note, and that yesterday’s picture of the rapacious sphinx also had a strong carnal undercurrent.  Simply put, what we see in The Young Mozart Playing the Organ is a forbidden pleasure.  Whether through fear of interrupting the boy genius, or because of burdensome strictures of their religious order against musical indulgence, the monks here are clearly enjoying a pleasure that they should not have.  It is of a piece with Lossow’s seeming preoccupations.

In that light, that is why I think Lossow missed a bet by not underscoring the expressions of the two monks with greater emotional detail.  It was an opportunity to tell a narrative on the effects of either pleasure awakening, or pleasure denied for years.  What is a simple, almost kitschy picture could have had true narrative heft and physiological insight.

More Lossow tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Enchantress by Heinrich Lossow

Well, if this didn’t enliven your Wednesday, nothing will…

I have not been able to learn much about German artist Heinrich Lossow (1840-1897).  Like many artists covered here, he was the son of an artist, sculptor Arnold H. Lossow; his brother, Friedrich Lossow, would become a noted painter of wildlife.

Lossow received some initial training from his father, and he later studied at the Munich Academy of Fine Arts under Karl Theodor von Piloty.  He continued his artistic training while traveling through France and Italy.

Lossow was also a noted illustrator, as well as a painter, enlivening editions of Shakespeare and many German novels; he was also curator of the Schleissheim gallery near Munich.  Lossow was a prolific pornographer in his spare time, and several drawings of the most salacious kind can be found through a quick Internet search.  His most interesting success in this field of endeavor is a painting called The Sin.  I’ll not reproduce it in these pages, but those interested in the private lives of nuns and priests can see it easily with yet another Internet search.

So, clearly Lossow’s imagination was … interesting, as can clearly be seen in today’s painting The Enchantress, which Lossow painted when he was 28.  In this picture, a young man falls under the erotic spell of a granite garden sphinx, locking one another in a passionate embrace.

Where to begin?  First, perhaps the most impressive thing about the picture is Lossow’s mastery of light.  The cool illumination is clearly moonlight, suffusing the entire scene with pale whites and blues.  Look, too, at the shadow thrown by the leaves on the sphinx.  That is the cool shadow of moonlight … and perhaps only the moon is the proper witness to what happens here.

The vegetation in this garden is lush … perhaps too lush for a proper garden.  Both the riot of vegetation and the moonlit gate in the background leave one wondering whether this is a garden or cemetery.

The man’s clothes are beautifully rendered, with an almost tangible sense of the velvet and satin.  But perhaps the most interesting thing about the male figure (and the painting overall) is the way in which traditional gender roles seem to have been switched.  It is the man who is supine in the embrace – indeed, his right hand seems to hold the amorous sphinx at bay.  Also, it is the female sphinx who holds him in place – look at the granite biceps and forearms tense as she closes tightly around her lover … or victim.

The headdress the sphinx sports also underscores her power as a pagan goddess and a figure from a dim, pre-Christian past.  Her otherworldly qualities are accentuated by the moonlight, and by her rather blank and terrible eyes.  Her claws would appear to be very dangerous – particularly when made of stone! – and the gentleman in her grip is clearly outclassed.  One wonders if he will survive this encounter.

There is a marked whiff of the unsavory in this picture.  Visitors to any collection of world class master paintings have seen various images of ancient monsters, creatures of myth and gods and goddesses.  But rarely have they reached from the cool depths of antiquity to prey upon modern man.  Or, perhaps this is Lossow’s not-so-gentle dig at various art connoisseurs and aesthetes.  A love of art can be a consuming passion, and this may be Lossow’s literal warning to anyone who loves art and antiquity too much…

More Lossow tomorrow.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Fred Plotkin of Operavore: Inaugural Speaker at Salon Thursdays at the Dahesh

To launch the Salon Thursdays series of free lectures at the Dahesh Museum of Art Gift Shop, curators selected one of the most learned and engaging fine arts critics and scholars in New York today, Fred Plotkin.  His presentation, Aida: One Woman, Two Nations, and Verdi’s Egyptomania, will take place at 6:30 PM on October 4th at the Dahesh Gift Shop at 145 Sixth Avenue in New York.  People interested in attending can call the shop at 212.759.0606, or visit online at  If you have an interest in Verdi, opera, or all things Egyptian, this is a must-see event.

Plotkin is familiar to radio listeners for his intermission features during the New York Metropolitan Opera international radio broadcasts, where he does audio essays, intermission features and is a popular guest on the Met's Opera Quiz. His seminars at the Metropolitan Opera Guild are always sold out and he has lectured about opera for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, BAM, the Smithsonian, the Morgan Library, the Los Angeles Opera, the Wagner Society of Southern California, the Salzburg Festival and the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino.

Plotkin is also the author of the best-selling Opera 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Opera and Classical Music 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Classical Music, which has also enjoyed a vogue in both the UK and China. 

Readers who are avid WQXR listeners can also read Plotkin’s entertaining and informative blog, Operavore, which can be found at:!/people/fred-plotkin/.  It is highly recommended.

Fred Plotkin took a few moments out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions prior to his lecture this week.

I’ve heard you say that Giuseppe Verdi was one of the most significant figures of the 19th Century art world in Italy.  Why is that?

I would say that Verdi was the most significant cultural figure in Italy in the 19th Century. His life spanned from 1813-1901 and, though he grew up in a rural setting, he immersed himself in literature and music on his own. With his great genius, rigorous discipline and fiery though compassionate temperament, he saw his art as a vehicle for communicating his principles while never compromising the sheer visceral pleasure that his operas (really, music dramas) provided at the time and still do.

Can you tell us a little bit about how and why Aida was commissioned?

By the time Aïda was commissioned, he was in his mid 50s, the richest and most successful composer in the world. He had not written an opera for several years and could pick and choose his subjects. The commission came from the Khedive of Egypt to coincide with the opening of the Suez Canal and the Cairo Opera House. Ultimately, Rigoletto was the opening opera but Aïda did have its world premiere there. I believe that Verdi viewed Aïda as an opera that was meant for Italians to see and wrote it with them in mind. That will be part of the subject of my talk at the Dahesh Museum.

You have said that Aida is a profoundly political work.  In what way?

Aïda is about how private passions collide with public service. In addition, just because one nation can dominate another militarily, it does not mean that the occupied nation has been conquered on the deepest level. The title character in this opera may be a slave in one country but she does not forget that she is the princess of another. Even the conquerors (the Egyptians in this case) come to realize that their might can only go so far.

How has this work been interpreted – and reinterpreted – over the years?

In countless ways! Perhaps too many. I saw a production in Europe in which the Egyptians were Nazis and the Ethiopians were the oppressed Jews. This completely missed the point of the opera and trivialized the horrors visited upon Jews, gays, Gypsies and others during the Holocaust. I believe, with all operas, that superimposing a concept on an opera only diminishes that work. It is more important for musicians and stage directors to really apply themselves to understanding the intentions and aesthetics of composers and librettists and find inspiration from them.

Can you tell us a little bit about Operavore?  How did it come about?

I was approached by WQXR, America’s iconic classical music radio station, in the winter of 2011 to be a writer for their new blog about opera, then known as WQX-Aria. This was part of the station’s plan to expand its reach and connection with listeners (who are intensely knowledgeable and loyal) and to also create topics for discussion. In short order, the station added an Operavore feed in which you can listen to opera all the time streamed on I was happy to sign on, with the proviso that I not do reviewing because I know so many people in the opera field. Instead, my two articles a week cover a wide range of issues that have opera as a common link. So I might write about singing, teaching opera, production design, politics, sex, food, wine, conducting, finances, and the five senses, all in relation to opera. I do one article a month as part of a series I call Planet Opera, in which I write about one city and its relationship to opera. These have included the more predictable places (Milan, Vienna, Barcelona) but also unusual but significant spots such as Ghent, Genoa and Dublin. Next up is Cincinnati.

Finally, do you have any projects in the pipeline you would like to share with our readers?

I lead a very popular series at the Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò of NYU (24 West 12th Street) called “Adventures in Italian Opera” that is free and open to the public. In it, I am joined by great practitioners of Italian opera who come and talk--meaningfully, not superficially--about how they do what they do. This season’s dates are Oct 24 (Remembering Richard Tucker); Nov 9 (David Alden on directing Un Ballo in Maschera); Dec 3 (tenor Giuseppe Filianoti, star of La Clemenza di Tito and La Rondine); Feb 26 (Celebrating Giuseppe Verdi on his bicentennial); Mar 12 (José Cura on performing Otello); Apr 30 (Fabio Luisi, principal conductor of The Metropolitan Opera).

Many thanks to Fred Plotkin – we will be speaking with him again in the future!

Monday, October 1, 2012

The Dahesh Museum Launches Salon Thursdays, Offering Free Lectures at Their New Downtown New York Gift Shop

Last week your correspondent was invited to the grand opening of the new gift shop of the Dahesh Museum of Art, located at 145 Sixth Avenue in New York.  For the past several years the Dahesh has been a museum without walls, as significant portions of this important collection have traveled the world in various shows and exhibitions.  In conjunction with the new store location, the Dahesh has completely revamped their Web site, and readers are urged to visit it to learn about the collection and travelling shows:

The new space is also the location of an upcoming series called Salon Thursdays, where leading scholars of the arts will provide free programs starting at 6:30 PM.  For further details, call the Dahesh at 212.759.0606.  The initial series of Salon Thursdays include:

October 4: Aida: One Woman, Two Nations, and Verdi’s Egyptomania, presented by Fred Plotkin, celebrated author, scholar and blogger on all things opera.  His blog, Operavore (!/people/fred-plotkin/) is highly recommended to anyone interested in Opera and Classical Music.

November 1: Jean-Frederic Waldeck: A Nineteenth-Century Artist Painting Exotic Mexico, presented by Esther Pasztory, Professor of Pre-Columbian Art History at Columbia University, who will discuss the life and work of this quirky Orientalist who went to Mexico and made the ancient Aztecs vivid in an entirely modern way.

December 6: Making Their Mark: Drawing by Academic Artists in the Nineteenth Century, presented by Dr. David Farmer, Director of Exhibitions at the Dahesh, which will explore the role of drawing in the development of those artists who trained in the academies and ateliers of Europe and America in the 19th Century.

The new store is a treat for aesthetes of all stripes, including beautiful things for the home, reproduction prints and posters, and an impressive collection of scholarly books on the Classical tradition.  More importantly, the offices of the Dahesh are now in one location, allowing museum administrators to better work together on travelling shows and creating a tentpole in Hudson Square to possibly reopen the museum downtown.

Your correspondent is a great believer in the Dahesh and its mission.  It is the only institution in the United States devoted to academic art of the 19th and early 20th centuries.  The curators and scholars there have worked tirelessly to reassert the work of Europe’s academic tradition in the broader context of European and American 19th Century art.  They have managed to do this elegantly, despite the dismissal of academics chocking on a shallow, Post Modernist aesthetic, and a rapacious art market suspicious of actual beauty.  The genesis of the collection was assembled by Salim Moussa Achi (1909-1948), who envisioned a museum of academic European art.  Perhaps one day the dream will become a reality once again.

Tomorrow we will share a few words with Fred Plotkin, first speaker in the Salon Thursdays series and blogger at Operavore.