Friday, June 29, 2012

The Western Art of William R. Leigh Part IV

We end our week-long look at the West of William R. Leigh (1866 –1955) with Walpi, Arizona, Hopi Reservation, painted in 1912. This is oil on canvas, 22 x 33, currently housed in the Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa. 

We had discussed how Leigh captured an other-worldly quality with is picture Afterglow Over the Zuni River, and I believe he manages to do the same thing here.  What is perhaps amazing, though, is that he does not need the dramatic coloration of dusk or the moon and a shimmering star to capture that sense of the uncanny; rather, he manages to convey a sense of mystery with a stark depiction of natural surroundings and a sense of remoteness.

Readers unfamiliar with Walpi would be interested to learn that it is a village in Navajo County, Arizona, inhabited by the Hopi-speaking Pueblo Indians.  Walpi is one of the oldest continuously inhabited villages in the United States; even today several of it inhabitants live without electricity or running water.  The overall Hopi Reservation is a system of villages based on three mesas (flatlands atop of mountains) and Walpi (the First Mesa) established in 1690.  (There is a photo of the actual site below, dating from 1920.)

Leigh was fascinated by the First Mesa, painting countless studies of it and sometimes going up to the mesa “between two and four o’clock at night to paint moonlight effects.”

We previously noted Leigh’s European training and his brilliant sense of color, both apparent in Walpi.  As Stephen Gjerston notes in his excellent Frontiers of Enchantment: The Outdoor Studies of William R. Leigh, The emphasis of the German school was generally on form rather than color, the latter tending to be dark, heavy and rather dull, the so-called brown school that attempted to imitate certain works of the older Spanish, Flemish and Italian masters.  But that didn’t seem to affect Leigh, who was apparently one of those rare individuals gifted with a natural eye for seeing color.  Even in his early work the color was more brilliant and natural than that used by most German painters.

But let’s look at Walpi and examine why it is so evocative.  I’m sure that many readers, if not told it depicted an American Indian site, would have conjectured that it was a painting of some fairy tale place or the remote keep mentioned in a fantasy novel.  Like many pictures of the sublime, there is something decidedly uncanny in the overall effect. 

Part of that, of course, if Leigh’s use of scale.  The small figure walking towards the village is in the distance – the village itself, further away still, is enormous.  (Another Native American woman, closer to the village, is little more than a red dot.)

Also dramatic are the cliff walls surrounding the mesa.  Leigh does not satisfy himself with a sheer drop; rather, these are moss-covered outcroppings alternately bleached by the sun or sucking up the ambient color.  The sense of the great desert surrounding the village (almost blue like the sea), also lends an air of remoteness and unreality to the composition.

Coloration, too, adds to the air of enchantment: dusk lends a bluish tint to the world, allowing dramatic shafts of sunlight to illuminate distant columns.

Leigh abandons his usual technique of a realistically depicting a central figure and rendering the rest suggestively – here, most everything is created on a range of Impressionism unusual in much of his work.  I think that this is perhaps because one of the more realistic, anchor figures that he places in many of his pictures would ruin the effect.  Like Afterglow Over the Zuni River the absence of people are essential to the dream-like effect.

There are many other works in the William Leigh corpus.  If you are interested in seeing more, please let me know.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Western Art of William R. Leigh Part III

We continue with our look at the West of William R. Leigh with The Leader's Downfall, painted in 1946.  This is oil on canvas, 78 x 126, a sizable picture.  It is currently housed in the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center, in Oklahoma City.

Leigh would often return to the West for inspiration, making countless color studies and oil sketches to be later developed into larger, more ambitious pictures.  He spent every summer from 1912 to 1926 in the Southwest, often staying at a friend’s ranch.  He also did not mind mixing pleasure with pleasure, spending his honeymoon in 1921 camping and sketching at Monument Valley and Yellowstone.

Leigh observed nature and learned from it, but he was not its slave.  Here is some advice Leigh provided a fellow artist:  It’s all right to be in love with nature, but don’t be fanatical … All our pine trees look like Christmas trees, for instance.  Pick out those to paint that are more striking and picturesque.  If mountains are too somber a color – key it up, etc.  In painting distant hills that are made up of a lot of different colors … lay in the sky, then the hills on the horizon, etc. on down the picture and compare the hills to get their true color and value and so on.  But keep looking to see how much darker one color is to the next and their true color. 

Leigh would spend 1926 to 1935 in Africa, working with Carl Akeley and the American Museum of Natural History.  Much of the work that came from these expeditions is fascinating, but, it is rather a shame that left the sun-kissed landscapes of America for the Dark Continent.  It’s not surprising that once the African excursions were over, Leigh concentrated on Americana once again.

Today’s picture is from later in Leigh’s career (a scant nine year before his death).  It shows Leigh’s skills as a colorist with a vengeance, as well as his inherent sense of drama.  The Leader’s Downfall depicts a group of American Indians pursuing wild ponies and capturing the leader.  Let’s look at some of the things Leigh does so wonderfully well.

The main figure (the Indian on the paint horse with the rope) is in a ‘spotlight’ created by a brilliant white dust cloud.  As a technique for drawing attention to the central figure it would almost seem too obvious, but Leigh makes it work.  Also, in true Leigh fashion, the main figure is depicted in a manner of extreme realism in terms of the draftsmanship.  Look at the wild eyes and flaring nostrils of the horse, let alone the muscular flanks and bone structure.  In addition, look at the feathers and lovingly rendered saddle blanket – here is virtuosity for its own sake. 

The Indian frames his own formidable profile with both his right arm and the dust kicked up by the horse.  More important, look at the line of torso and the precisely detailed capturing of his rib cage and shoulder muscles.  Or look at the fingers holding the bunched coil of rope.  My love for Western artists Charles Russell and Frederic Remington is second-to-none, but this level of exactitude was outside of their purview.  The central figure of this painting is a remarkable performance.

As with the other pictures we have looked at, Leigh renders the supporting figures in softer focus, almost an Impressionist style.  The landscape itself is only the merest hint of actual countryside, and the horses and other Indians are carefully constructed suggestions.

But the real thing about this picture is the coloration.  Looking at The Leader’s Downfall over a protracted period of time may make your eyeballs fat.  Here is a man who loves color and is not afraid to use it.  The overarching blue, purple, violet tones are underscored by the hot white of the upswept dust, and Leigh manages to create “hot” action with “cool” colors.  It’s impossible not to look at this remarkable picture with a deep respect for both the artist’s skill and his audacity. 

More William Leigh tomorrow!

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Western Art of William R. Leigh Part II

Yesterday we looked at a beautiful picture by William Robinson Leigh (1866 –1955), a forgotten master at depicting the American West.  Today we venture West once again with Leigh and his picture Afterglow Over the Zuni River.

During his trips West, Leigh would paint many small studies from nature.  These pictures would later be used as reference materials for paintings executed in his New York studio.  Leigh was able to incorporate the new technology of oil paint in tubes to work with relative ease outdoors and capture an initial impression and a sense of color.  It is the opinion of Stephen Gjerston, author of Frontiers of Enchantment: The Outdoor Studies of William R. Leigh, that this practice of alla-prima color sketching accounts for much of the fine color of his studio work. 

Leigh had a particular affinity for native Americans and their homes.  During a sketching trip in the summer of 1906, he spent time in Zuni Indian and Pueblo country.  In his journal Leigh wrote: I was eager to waste no time at all.  I saw that I needed studies of everything, the vegetation, the rocks, the plains, mesas, sky, the Indians and their dwellings.  Scores of studies.  Dependable studies.  I saw so far as possible I must be a sponge, soak up everything I saw … I started to paint, paint, paint.

Today we look at Afterglow Over the Zuni River. This is oil on canvas board, 13 x 17, currently residing at the Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa.  By any yardstick, Afterglow is a remarkable picture.

Perhaps the most startling thing about the painting is that nothing is really the color that you expect it to be.  This is perhaps the greatest pitfall that young artists make when attacking a landscape picture.  The immediate assumption is that clouds are white, the sky is blue, grass is green and water transparent.  However, any time spent in the outdoors open to the intoxication of color would give lie to those assumptions.  Clouds are never just white, as grass is seldom only green or skies blue.  In fact, in some of the more beautiful spaces of the American West, the natural landscape is a riot of color more than equal to anything a Post Modernist could dream up.

Here at the Zuni River, dusk has rendered the landscape purple.  Though the sky still holds some orange color from the setting (or already set) sun, the moon is out, a glowing scimitar in the sky.  The clouds, the river and the sandy river bed are stained purple as well, though the water really flows with a myriad of colors as it reflects the varying shades of dusk.

The Zuni village in the background is still – most native peoples were asleep with the sun.  However, the simple structures seem to be part of nature, as natural to the landscape as the river weeds Leigh uses to frame the image.

Afterglow is also a wonderfully evocative picture.  I believe – aside from the splendid and inspired color – the reason it is so effective is because of his use of the moon and the star in the upper left hand corner.  These celestial bodies provide a timeless sense to the picture – as if the Zuni River were part of an unending cosmos of creation and natural beauty.

What I find most fascinating about this picture is that, again, Leigh depicts the natural world in a fairly Impressionist manner; however, the moon and star have a sense of crystallization absent in Impressionism.  They are so clear and so cleanly delineated that they could almost come from an illustrated book of celestial bodies.  It is this mix of realism and a looser artistic style that I think is Leigh’s great accomplishment.

In the Zuni mythology, Awonawilona was the creator of the world, becoming the sun and making the Mother Earth and Father Sky, from whom all living creatures came.  The quiet power of that ancient deity can be felt in the picture, a sense of transcendence just beyond our power to see.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Western Art of William R. Leigh Part I

As summer starts and we approach July 4th, I wanted to touch upon the western art of William R. Leigh. 

There is a mistaken assumption that great art is a strictly European achievement.  However, many of the finest artists of the 19th and 20th centuries were here in the United States.  Not just Impressionists and Ash Can artists, but great masters who made as their subject the opening of the American West.

One of the artists overlooked in our veneration of the likes of Charles Russell (1864-1926) and Frederic Remington (1861-1909), is William Robinson Leigh (1866 –1955).  The three men were contemporaries, but Leigh managed to outlive the other two by some 30 years or more.  Like Russell, he was something of a wanderer, and made trips to the American West in search of subjects to paint.  While there, he made countless oil color studies that he brought back with him to his New York studio to further develop as full-scale pictures.  (Like another Western artist we have looked at, Charles Shreyvogel, most of his creations were executed here on the East Coast.)  Leigh was also something of a global explorer, going with the great taxidermist and sculptor Carl Akeley (1864 - 1926) to Africa.  (If you think you don’t know Akeley, think again: he is the man responsible for most of the great mounted exhibits in the American Museum of Natural History.)

Leigh was born in West Virginia and began his formal training at age 14 in the Maryland Institute in Baltimore.  At 17 he traveled to Germany, studying at the Royal Academy in Munich.  Leigh proved to be an industrious student; he worked with Karl Raupp in cast drawing and Nicolas Gysis in life drawing.  These men were superb teachers and Leigh learned much from them.  (As you may remember from earlier columns, Russell disdained formal art training.  One may well wonder what masterpieces he would’ve produced with a more solid sense of draftsmanship!)

Leigh also learned much from Ludwig von Loefftz.  His instruction emphasized an alla-prima painting method; this sense of spontaneity, along with Leigh’s already trained drawing methods, were a felicitous combination.  Leigh was now able to create vigorous, action-filled scenes with the precision and skill of a European master.

Leigh returned to the US in 1896, when he was 30, after 13 years studying abroad.  He lived in New York for 10 years, working primarily as an illustrator.  When Leigh hit 40 he ventured West to paint what was already a vanishing world.  As Stephen Gjerston writes in Frontiers of Enchantment: The Outdoor Studies of William R. Leigh: Leigh was able to break away and pursue his boyhood dream of painting the American West.  For Leigh, the West embodied everything that was intrinsically American.  Like Thomas Moran, he disapproved of American artists imitating foreign styles and was determined to paint pictures of the landscape and life that he considered to be uniquely American.  With his ability as a draftsman, his sense of drama and his eye for color Leigh was ideally suited to record the colorful and picturesque way of life in the Southwest; a way of life that was quickly vanishing.

Today we are looking at a picture called Master of His Domain, painted around 1920.  This is a good-sized oil, 40 x 30, currently in the Rockwell-Corning Museum, New York.  As already established, the draftsmanship is superb.  Look at how Leigh delineates the lanky muscles of the figure with clear, unfussy lines.  The face is powerful and introspective and never descends into caricature.  The left arm rests lazily on the bent leg; the right hand holds the right calf.  No excess of movement or line, just simple and natural, like the subject itself.  The quiver of arrows at his side is cleanly rendered, and particular attention is paid to his moccasins, armband and ornamental feathers.  This quiet virtuosity would not be out of place in the most finished production of the most skilled of European masters; indeed, the figure itself is a triumph of realism.

Where Leigh hits his masterstroke, though, is that he grounds this supremely realistic figure in a setting of almost Impressionist color.  The rocks, trees, cliff and sky are rendered in thick brushstrokes of color with little delineation or detail. 

In the barren but beautiful landscape, the figure is indeed master of his domain.  However, one cannot help but believe that Leigh was indulging in a bit of bitter irony with his title – this beautiful picture is also an elegy for an entire people and way of life.  The American Indian is indeed sitting on a pinnacle, but he will not be there for long.

More William Leigh tomorrow!

Friday, June 15, 2012

Important Birthdays: Judy Garland and Basil Rathbone

I could not let the week close without marking two birthdays important to our shared popular culture: singer-actress Judy Garland (June 10, 1922) and actor Basil Rathbone (June 13, 1892).  This year marks the 90th anniversary of Garland’s birth and the 120th for Rathbone.  An unusual paring, to be sure, but we at The Jade Sphinx are nothing if not eclectic.

So much has been written about Garland since her death in 1969 that most anything I could add at this point would be superfluous.  Let us note, however, that she was a remarkable talent: simply one of the most gifted singers or her era (and a focal point of the Great American Songbook), as well as an actress of unusual depth and sensitivity.  Younger audiences perhaps know her best from her turn as Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz (1939), and this is something of a shame.  Not that she is less than terrific – in fact, it remains one of the few “perfect” movies – but that there is so much more to Garland’s oeuvre than this one perfect film.

Readers interested in knowing the woman that Garland eventually became should seek out several films that showcase her varied talents.  Garland delivers a magnificent, subtle, non-singing performance in The Clock (1945), where she is wooed and wed by soldier Robert Walker in a brief 24-hour period; she is equally delightful in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), which may be her best musical film.  (Yes – better than Oz.  Rent it and see.) 

Garland was set loose by her studio, MGM, after executives managed to squeeze everything possible they could out of the young woman, casting aside the exhausted and ruined husk as no longer viable.  Garland was to prove them wrong in 1954, when she financed A Star is Born, her ‘comeback’ picture, which garnered her an Academy Award nomination.  This started the second half of her career, which was more interesting (if not as stellar) as the first half, and included a series of concert performances culminating in her great success at the Palace. 

The challenge in writing about Garland today is that any critic has to deal with the cult that has grown up around her.  Cult status has ruined our ability to fairly assess – to greater or lesser degrees – such diverse figures as Garland, James Dean, H. P. Lovecraft and fictional constructs like Star Trek or Sherlock Holmes.  (One day I will tell of my visit, as a journalist, to a Dark Shadows convention, which might rank as the single most surreal and grotesque occurrence of my life.) 

The problem with cults is that the one must cut through the miasma of fandom before reaching some kind of sane critical evaluation – and that is often the thing most cults want least.  It is my belief, for instance, that the well-meaning but fatuous groups of Sherlock Holmes aficionados (“Sherlockians”) have kept both aesthetes and academe from seriously assessing the literary contribution of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  Cultists protect their fetishistic properties with a fierce devotion, and woe to any of the uninitiated who seek to make a balanced critical judgment.

The Garland cult is somewhat less potent today: Tracie Bennett currently stars on Broadway in End of the Rainbow, which chronicles Garland’s final days.  This has met with some success, but also with uncomprehending shrugs.  The great  multitude that made up most of her fan base – gay men of a certain age – are no longer cultural arbiters, and younger fans are often without a clue as to what the fuss is all about.  I contend that if Garland’s legacy was shared by the multitudes rather than a smallish cult, her cultural currency would be greater today.

Sir Philip St. John Basil Rathbone was something commonplace today but unique in his era: a classical actor who specialized in popular entertainments.  Rathbone was, simply put, one of the most gifted actors of his generation:  handsome in a leonine way, blessed with a mellifluous voice and perfect diction, poise and hauteur, and an incredible range and physicality.  If Rathbone were alive today, his career would be similar to that of Patrick Stewart or Ian McKellen, both classical actors who have made popular successes.  (Indeed, one can only imagine Rathbone as Professor X or Gandalf!)

Like many actors with a gift for the classics, Rathbone was often most effectively cast as characters from a more romantic and swashbuckling past: Sherlock Holmes, Mr. Murdstone, Sir Guy of Gisbourne, Karenin, Levasseur and Ebenezer Scrooge.  Sadly, only one of his Shakespearean performances survives on film: Tybalt, in the largely ill-conceived MGM 1936 production of Romeo and Juliet.  Rathbone and John Barrymore, as Mercutio, are the only members of the cast to deliver striking performances.

The most gifted fencer in Hollywood, Rathbone was the “go-to” guy for costume dramas.  He often joked that he could easily have bested his frequent co-star Errol Flynn in most of their on-screen duels, significantly changing the plotlines had he done so.  This close identification with swashbucklers led him to be cast, later in his career, in the Danny Kaye comedy The Court Jester (1955), where he effortlessly sent-up his own image.

The year 1939 was a pivotal one for Rathbone.  Author Margaret Mitchell supposedly wanted Rathbone to play Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind (imagine his icy delivery of “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”).  Instead, he made The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, two films that would forever identify him with the Great Detective and limit his career as a serious actor.

Today, such an identification would lead to greater roles in big-budget junk movies (look at Robert Downey, Jr.); in Hollywood in the 1930s-40s, it meant an endless procession of B-pictures.  Rathbone toiled on Hollywood’s Baker Street for nine years before returning to Broadway.  There, he made a triumphant return in 1948 as Dr. Sloper in The Heiress, winning the Tony Award for Best Actor.  But, in the eyes of Hollywood, he was only Sherlock Holmes and the role in the film adaptation went to Ralph Richardson.  That Rathbone’s performance was not committed to film remains one of the great tragedies in movie history.

Sadly, Rathbone ended his career in low-budget horror films in the 1960s.  Despite these indignities, he also managed to perform a one-man show at the White House for President John F. Kennedy, recorded many classics for Caedmon Records (including the finest interpretations of Edgar Allen Poe ever conceived), and appearing in a live television musical adaptation of A Christmas Carol, The Stingiest Man in Town.

Rathbone was a singular film persona: he managed to bring a sense of glamour and romance to each and every role, often taking audiences out of the contemporary world into a more romantic vision of the past.  Ours is, sadly, a world too often too busy for such romance, and the world is poorer without it.  For those who relish such things, Rathbone’s many film performances remain a delight.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Charles Robinson Illustrates Oscar Wilde Part IV

We come today to an illustration for what is, I think, the most beautiful story in Wilde’s collected fairy tales: The Nightingale and the Rose

In this story, a student pines for a rose to give to his beloved, and thus ensure that she will dance with him.  The nightingale goes from tree to tree, looking for an exquisite red rose, offering to sing her most beautiful song in exchange.  The bird finds a tree that will produce the rose – but it must be colored red with the nightingale’s own heart’s blood.  The nightingale impales herself on a thorn on the tree, singing a beautiful song all night, creating a rich, red rose.  Finished, she falls dead.

The student finds the rose and presents it to his beloved, who spurns it in favor of the offerings of a rich boy.  The dejected student throws the rose into the gutter, where it is run over by a cart, before going off to study philosophy.

Of course, the story is open to multiple interpretations.  Is Wilde making a comment on empty social conventions?  Or the cost of things vs. value?  The inconstancy of love?  Maybe all of these things and more.  But your correspondent always thought that Wilde identified with the nightingale.  The nightingale is – in the strictest sense – an artist, creating beauty at great cost, only to have the results trampled in the gutter.  The artist gives his soul, only for it to be tossed aside.  What artist has not, at one time or another, felt the same?

Wilde writes:

"If you want a red rose," said the Tree, "you must build it out of music by moonlight, and stain it with your own heart's-blood. You must sing to me with your breast against a thorn. All night long you must sing to me, and the thorn must pierce your heart, and your life-blood must flow into my veins, and become mine."

"Death is a great price to pay for a red rose," cried the Nightingale, "and Life is very dear to all. It is pleasant to sit in the green wood, and to watch the Sun in his chariot of gold, and the Moon in her chariot of pearl. Sweet is the scent of the hawthorn, and sweet are the bluebells that hide in the valley, and the heather that blows on the hill. Yet Love is better than Life, and what is the heart of a bird compared to the heart of a man?"

So she spread her brown wings for flight, and soared into the air. She swept over the garden like a shadow, and like a shadow she sailed through the grove.

The young Student was still lying on the grass, where she had left him, and the tears were not yet dry in his beautiful eyes.

"Be happy," cried the Nightingale, "be happy; you shall have your red rose. I will build it out of music by moonlight, and stain it with my own heart's-blood. All that I ask of you in return is that you will be a true lover, for Love is wiser than Philosophy, though she is wise, and mightier than Power, though he is mighty. Flame- coloured are his wings, and coloured like flame is his body. His lips are sweet as honey, and his breath is like frankincense."

Once again, artist Charles Robinson is influenced by Art Nouveau style.  It’s important to remember that Art Nouveau, which flourished from the 1890s through the Great War, was more a design style than a new manner of painting the figure.  Art Nouveau was primarily a movement within the decorative arts, and book illustration was seen, by many, as mode of decoration.  Its curvilinear formations were most often influenced by flowers and plants, or other elements of the natural world.  It has a certain sensuous grace, to my eye, and is especially suited to figures that are fantastic or other-worldly.

The dainty illustration here is a wonderful evocation of the Art Nouveau aesthetic. How wonderfully “decorative” is the woman’s dress, festooned with blossoms (so much so, that it looks like an extension of the blossoms topping the garden wall).  The intricate line of her body and clothes mirrors the sweeping line of flowers, with her neck almost forming a delicate stem to support the flower of her head.  There is a great deal of downward draping from her form – sleeves, earrings and handkerchief – much like the drooping petals of a languid flower.  In fact, her lack of feet in some way reinforces the sensation that she, too, is rooted to the ground.

The young swain is indeed a saturnine lover and, looking at him, it is no surprise that he fails to live up to the high standards set by the nightingale.  The floral motif is reflected in the student, as well, with the voluminous tunic he wears looking like a flower bud.

The thing I love the most about Robinson’s watercolors is his delicacy of touch and subtle coloration.  These pictures are precise and gentle, but never precious.  Any additional detail would render the picture too ornate (or twee), but Robinson’s Spartan background serve as the perfect counterpoint.

One last thought about the story.  The nightingale, who sings and dies, is a great artist – selfless and brave.  I would not be surprised if this was the image of the artist to which Wilde himself aspired.  However, unlike the swallow and the Happy Prince, the nightingale is not rewarded in heaven or commemorated on earth.  It is possible that Wilde feared that all art is inevitably futile; or perhaps he simply thought that real artists must suffer.  In any event, one can only wish writing his tale brought a sense of resolution to him.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Charles Robinson Illustrates Oscar Wilde Part III

It is natural for anyone – be they devotee, scholar, aesthete – to turn to an artist’s work to get some sense of the inner man.  Every poem, every painting, any work of prose all spring from some part of the creator, and are aspects of himself. 

This practice, however, is also fraught with peril.  Where does the inner man end and poetic license begin?  Are we to judge Shakespeare, for instance, by the violence of Titus Andronicus and the bleak ending of Romeo and Juliet?  Or by the soaring language and mighty imagination of The Tempest?  Was Zola a degenerate for showing the world Nana, or a great humanist?  And where do we find the real man in an imagination as protean as Oscar Wilde?  Is the real Wilde the man behind The Picture of Dorian Gray?  Or the moralizing comedian of An Ideal Husband?  Or the blood-drenched decadent of Salome?

In the final analysis, we all must create the image of the artist in our mind’s eye, using both the existing work and our own empathy in interpreting it.  Each portrait reveals, as Wilde would say, both the artist and the sitter; to that, I would add it reveals the viewer, as well.

To me, the work which best explains Wilde the man are his two volumes of fairy tales.  These stories are only ostensibly for children; in reality, they are as close to moralizing as the great artist could get and still remain faithful to his own credo of art for art’s sake.  They also bring into stark relief Wilde’s generosity of spirit, his profoundly loving nature, his kindness and his love of language.

Wilde’s prose is often ornate and bejeweled, and this is certainly true in his fairy stories.  Here is more of The Happy Prince:

All the next day he sat on the Prince’s shoulder, and told him stories of what he had seen in strange lands.  He told him of the red ibises, who stand in long rows on the banks of the Nile, and catch gold-fish in their beaks; of the Sphinx, who is as old as the world itself, and lives in the desert, and knows everything; of the merchants, who walk slowly by the side of their camels, and carry amber beads in their hands; of the King of the Mountains of the Moon, who is as black as ebony, and worships a large crystal; of the great green snake that sleeps in a palm-tree, and has twenty priests to feed it with honey-cakes; and of the pygmies who sail over a big lake on large flat leaves, and are always at war with the butterflies.

“Dear little Swallow,” said the Prince, “you tell me of marvellous things, but more marvellous than anything is the suffering of men and of women.  There is no Mystery so great as Misery.  Fly over my city, little Swallow, and tell me what you see there.”

So the Swallow flew over the great city, and saw the rich making merry in their beautiful houses, while the beggars were sitting at the gates.

There is no ugliness in Wilde’s interior world; or, if there is, it is a cardinal sin.  To Wilde, beauty was both visible and invisible; though for him, like Gautier, “the visible world existed,” the invisible world was no less real.  Most of his stories for children are warnings against ugliness of spirit or demonstrations that the Philistine is unworthy of the artist.

Artist Charles Robinson, like Wilde, was incapable of ugliness.  The stunning watercolor above shows the beggars near the gates of a beautiful house, wherein the rich make merry.  Many Victorian-era moralists would have made a grittier and more textured image than this: imagine, for instance, what Sir Luke Fildes would have done with this passage.  But Robinson knew what Wilde meant when he wrote you tell me of marvellous things, but more marvellous than anything is the suffering of men and of women. There is no Mystery so great as Misery.  Wilde, who would come to know personal misery, also saw its exalted beauty, because misery is one of the great and inescapable mysteries of our existence.

In Robinson’s illustration, the beggars are huddled in a subdued blue, yellow and ochre light.  The faces are indistinct, but the eyes are hidden in shadow and the noses peek out from within hidden faces.  The figures are drawn in aspects of both supplication and adoration, looking as much like holy pilgrims as hungry people.

Color is also denied these unfortunates.  A garland of blossoms streaks behind the figures, and the greenery and the great house as so set in the background as to be another world.  The great pillar that supports the garland also serves to reinforce the distance between the people in the picture and the warm, comforting background.

Robinson does not rely upon the stylizations of Art Nouveaux here, opting instead for a lyrical realism.  It is an image of great sadness and even greater beauty which is, after all, the point of Wilde’s story.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Charles Robinson Illustrates Oscar Wilde Part II

We return to our look at some of the illustrations created by Charles Robinson for Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince and Other Tales (1888). 

Robinson (1870-1937) was born into a family of artists, and both of his brothers became illustrators, as well.  Robinson had a particular facility for illustrating children’s books – both with pen and ink drawings and watercolor pictures of delightful delicacy. 

Though we’re looking at his illustrations for Wilde’s fairy tales, I cannot help but include a page from A Child’s Garden of Verses (1895) by Robert Louis Stevenson (see below). Look at how Robinson creates his page layout -- the long illustration with the reaching minarets, all pointing upward to the moon.  The child in the lower foreground is a stand-in for ourselves, and one cannot help but look on in wonder.  He then balances this delicious drawing with the child and clock to the right, the chains of the clock pointing downward at the tyke, a perfect counterpoint to the adjourning illustration.  Masterful.

The story of the Happy Prince is tragic, indeed.  The Prince is a statue in the town square.  “He was gilded all over with thin leaves of fine gold, for eyes he had two bright sapphires, and a large red ruby glowed on his sword hilt … He was very much admired indeed.”

But the Prince is not only beautiful of form and figure, but of soul, as well.  He entreats a swallow, en route to make merry with friends in Egypt, to take various jeweled parts of his body to the hungry and suffering poor.  Before long, there is little outward beauty left to the Prince and the swallow, exhausted, dies at his feet.  Now shabby, the statue is taken down and burned in the furnace.  However, Wilde ends his tale on a redemptive note:

“Bring me the two most precious things in the city,” sad God to one of His Angels; and the Angel brought Him the leaden heart and the dead bird.
“You have rightly chosen,” said God, “for in my garden on Paradise this little bird shall sing for evermore, and in my city of gold the Happy Prince shall praise me.”

Robinson made two color illustrations for this story; here is the Palace of Sans-Souci, the home of the Prince when he was alive, and a place where sorrow is not allowed to enter.  This watercolor is a wonderful example of Art Nouveaux, and highlights all of Robinson’s strengths of composition.  If Sans-Souci is, indeed, a place where sorrow is not allowed to enter, how best to design paradise than as a place of great beauty … of marked stillness?  There are birds here, but they rest upon the grass (or on a maiden’s fingertip), at peace.  The women, beautifully dressed, are in conversation with one another, or listening to the lute played by one of their numbers.  The plants around them are in blossom, and a garland of flowers hangs overhead.  The highly idealized trees accentuate the heavenward thrust of the picture, and the curvilinear architecture that surrounds them is a perfect encapsulation of the Art Nouveaux aesthetic.

All of the women look alike.  Are they sisters?  Perhaps muses to some unseen artist?  The text tells us nothing more than Sans-Souci is a paradise, and to Robinson that seems to mean conversation, music, nature and beauty.  He may have a point.

Friday, June 8, 2012

The World Loses Ray Bradbury, Part II

Yesterday, we were talking about Ray Bradbury and love.  His heart was huge and copious – it had room for Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, and Capt. Ahab and Shakespeare.  As with all great lovers, Bradbury was somewhat indiscriminate, but his passion could not be faulted.

Because of his love, others found love, too.  The artists inspired by Ray Bradbury in one way or another would read like a list of some of the most popular voices of the past several decades: Stephen Spielberg, Stephen King, William Joyce, Rod Serling, Robert McCammon and Michael Chabon.  All of these writers/filmmakers have mined that deep vein of American nostalgia laced with science-fantasy, a cornerstone of the American literary voice.

Bradbury loved the movies, writing several himself.  His screenplay for Moby Dick (1956), directed by John Houston (1906-1987), is a masterpiece of concision and a model of adaptation.  His screenplay for his own novel, Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983), is something of a disappointment, as he felt the need to make changes to the plot.  These changes (including a whole reinterpretation of the Dust Witch, one of his greatest characters) greatly hampered the finished product, though it still has much to commend it.

In fact, much of Bradbury’s post-1960s work is a mixed-bag.  In The Bradbury Chronicles: The Lift of Ray Bradbury, Predicting the Past, Remembering the Future, biographer Sam Weller sums up Bradbury’s life from 1974 to the present in a scant 30 pages.  It’s possible that Bradbury, incredibly prolific and certainly promiscuous with his gifts, wrote himself out by the time he was 55 or so.  Sadly, the great man sought to sometimes go back to earlier masterpieces and ‘improve’ them, like a master craftsman handling his own work with wet varnish on his fingers.

But there was much to savor, still, in the later Bradbury.  Indeed Bradbury, always more of a short story writer than a novelist, actually started working seriously in the long form, producing some interesting work.  Perhaps the most interesting things about Bradbury’s later work was his persistent wish to rewrite his own life story.

A Graveyard for Lunatics, written in 1990, is a journey in nostalgic re-writing.  In this novel, young screenwriter Bradbury teams up with young stop motion animator Ray Harryhausen (both long-time real-life friends since adolescence) to solve a crime in a movie studio.  Green Shadows, White Whale (1992) rewrites his own experience working with Houston in Ireland on Moby Dick, and is a diverting fictional memoir.  From the Dust Returned (2001) is his homage to friend Charles Addams (creator of The Addams Family), inspirited by an Addams illustration intended for one of his books, but never subsequently used.  His two mysteries – Death is a Lonely Business (1985) and Let’s All Kill Constance (2002) – take him back to the Venice, California of his youth.

In 2006, Bradbury wrote a coda to what his perhaps his finest work, Dandelion Wine, called Farewell Summer.  In this slim book his protagonist, Douglas Spaulding (a thinly veiled Bradbury) experiences his own sexual awakening.

As the world mourns the loss of Ray Bradbury, perhaps it’s best to remember the things most notable about him: his gifts as a stylist, his love for all the artifacts of the great American Century, his central role as the bridge between High and Popular Art.  But more important, to your correspondent, is the man’s temperament.  Bradbury had a sense of wonder, and he wrote with a boy’s touch.  It was this eternal youth and strong sense of optimism that I think the world will miss the most.  Bradbury himself expressed this perfectly when, in an interview to have been published in The Paris Review, Bradbury spoke of the difference between himself and Kurt Vonnegut.

He couldn’t see the world the way I see it. I suppose I’m too much Pollyanna, he was too much Cassandra. Actually I prefer to see myself as the Janus, the two-faced god who is half Pollyanna and half Cassandra, warning of the future and perhaps living too much in the past—a combination of both. But I don’t think I’m too overoptimistic … It’s the terrible creative negativism, admired by New York critics, that caused [Vonnegut’s] celebrity. New Yorkers love to dupe themselves, as well as doom themselves. I haven’t had to live like that. I’m a California boy. I don’t tell anyone how to write and no one tells me.

I was lucky enough to meet Bradbury several times.  Each and every time I did, I made sure to tell him that he had a profound impact on my life and that I loved him dearly.  Today, I’m so happy to have had that chance.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

The World Loses Ray Bradbury Part I

The world lost one of its most haunting, poetic voices when Raymond Douglas Bradbury died on Tuesday, June 5th.  We are all diminished by his death.

The steady stream of obits and accolades over the past several hours have all read something along the lines of: “the first writer of literary science fiction,” or, “made science fiction respectable.”  He was compared in these notices to his contemporaries, Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008), Robert Heinlein (190701988) and Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007).

This simplifying of the story is expected in our media, but it does a great disservice to Bradbury.  Despite the relative merits of the gentlemen named above, they were not prose stylists as lyric, distinct and evocative as Bradbury.  Bradbury’s brand of American lyrical fantasy has more in common with Our Town and You Can’t Take it With You than the baroque excesses of Stranger in a Strange Land or Breakfast for Champions.  To capture the real flavor of Bradbury’s literary contribution, it makes more sense to compare him to Thornton Wilder (1897-1975), William Saroyan (1908-1981) or Sherwood Anderson (1876-1941) than Heinlein or Clarke.

Bradbury was born in Waukegan, Illinois, in 1920. It was a particularly American time and place, a moment that would be memorialized in the art of such painters as Norman Rockwell.  The impact of his birthplace on Bradbury’s art is remarkable: it laid a foundation of small-town American sweetness, optimism and community under much of his work.  These qualities are found in abundance in two of Bradbury’s novels, Dandelion Wine (1957) and Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962).  Both books are, in your correspondent’s estimation, two of the finest American novels of the 20th Century.

There are two overarching characteristics to Bradbury’s corpus – love and its blessed accomplice, enthusiasm.  Both are expressed through a deep vein of nostalgia – nostalgia for a lost past and an unforgotten childhood.

Bradbury was a man in love – in love with the pop culture of the American Century, in love with writing, and in love with the world.  When he was a boy, Bradbury met a carnival magician named Mr. Electrico, an encounter that would change his life.  Here’s the exchange, in Bradbury’s own words, from December 2001:

Back when I was twelve years old I was madly in love with L. Frank Baum and the Oz books, along with the novels of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, and especially the Tarzan books and the John Carter, Warlord of Mars books by Edgar Rice Burroughs. I began to think about becoming a writer at that time.

Simultaneously I saw Blackstone the Magician on stage and thought, what a wonderful life it would be if I could grow up and become a magician.

In many ways that is exactly what I did.

It was an encounter with another magician that changed my life forever.

During the Labor Day week of 1932 a favorite uncle of mine died; his funeral was held on the Labor Day Saturday. If he hadn't died that week, my life might not have changed because, returning from his funeral at noon on that Saturday, I saw carnival tent down by Lake Michigan. I knew that down there, by the lake, in his special tent, was a magician named Mr. Electrico.

Mr. Electrico was a fantastic creator of marvels. He sat in his electric chair every night and was electrocuted in front of all the people, young and old, of Waukegan, Illinois. When the electricity surged through his body he raised a sword and knighted all the kids sitting in the front row below his platform. I had been to see Mr. Electrico the night before. When he reached me, he pointed his sword at my head and touched my brow. The electricity rushed down the sword, inside my skull, made my hair stand up and sparks fly out of my ears. He then shouted at me, "Live forever!"

I thought that was a wonderful idea, but how did you do it?

The next day, being driven home by my father, fresh from the funeral, I looked down at those carnival tents and thought to myself, "The answer is there. He said 'Live forever,' and I must go find out how to do that." I told my father to stop the car. He didn't want to, but I insisted. He stopped the car and let me out, furious with me for not returning home to partake in the wake being held for my uncle. With the car gone, and my father in a rage, I ran down the hill. What was I doing? I was running away from death, running toward life.

When I reached the carnival grounds, by God, sitting there, almost as if he were waiting for me, was Mr. Electrico. I grew, suddenly, very shy. I couldn't possibly ask, How do you live forever? But luckily I had a magic trick in my pocket. I pulled it out, held it toward Mr. Electrico and asked him if he'd show me how to do the trick. He showed me how and then looked into my face and said, "Would you like to see some of those peculiar people in that tent over there?"

I said, "Yes."

He took me over to the sideshow tent and hit it with his cane and shouted, "Clean up your language!" at whoever was inside. Then, he pulled up the tent flap and took me in to meet the Illustrated Man, the Fat Lady, the Skeleton Man, the acrobats, and all the strange people in the sideshows.

He then walked me down by the shore and we sat on a sand dune. He talked about his small philosophies and let me talk about my large ones. At a certain point he finally leaned forward and said, "You know, we've met before."

I replied, "No, sir, I've never met you before."

He said, "Yes, you were my best friend in the great war in France in 1918 and you were wounded and died in my arms at the battle of the Ardennes Forrest. But now, here today, I see his soul shining out of your eyes. Here you are, with a new face, a new name, but the soul shining from your face is the soul of my dear dead friend. Welcome back to the world."

Why did he say that? I don't know. Was there something in my eagerness, my passion for life, my being ready for some sort of new activity? I don't know the answer to that. All I know is that he said, "Live forever" and gave me a future and in doing so, gave me a past many years before, when his friend died in France.

Leaving the carnival grounds that day I stood by the carousel and watched the horses go round and round to the music of "Beautiful Ohio." Standing there, the tears poured down my face, for I felt that something strange and wonderful had happened to me because of my encounter with Mr. Electrico.

I went home and the next day traveled to Arizona with my folks. When we arrived there a few days later I began to write, full-time. I have written every single day of my life since that day 69 years ago.

I have long since lost track of Mr. Electrico, but I wish that he existed somewhere in the world so that I could run to him, embrace him, and thank him for changing my life and helping me become a writer.

More Bradbury tomorrow!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Charles Robinson Illustrates Oscar Wilde

The tradition of beautifully illustrated children’s books is not a new phenomenon.  In fact, there was something of a Golden Age of illustration, starting with the Victorian era and lasting all the way to the start of World War II.  During this period, it was not just “picture books” that were filled with lovely and evocative pages, but prose stories as well.

One of the most felicitous parings of author and illustrator were Oscar Wilde and Charles Robinson.  Wilde’s fairy tales were only ostensibly for children; actually, he would often recite them at dinner parties and share them with friends.  (Though he also recited them in the nursery to his own children, Cyril and Vyvyan.)  These stories are magnificent creations – lyrical and lovely and often rife with paradox. 

They were greatly admired by actor George Herbert Kersely, who later went on stage and played a part in Wilde’s An Ideal Husband.  He sent a copy of the first collection of fairy tales, The Happy Prince and Other Tales (1888), to Wilde to autograph.  Wilde’s letter in reply read, in part, “I am very pleased that you like my stories.  They are studies in prose, put for romance’s sake into fanciful form: meant party for children, and partly for those who have kept the childlike faculties of wonder and joy, and who find simplicity in a subtle strangeness.”

Charles Robinson (1870-1937) was born in Islington, the son of an illustrator.  Obviously, art was in the blood, for his two brothers, Thomas and William Robinson, also became illustrators.  Robinson entered the Royal Academy, but was unable to attend because of his precarious financial state.

Robinson illustrated A Child’s Garden of Verses (1895) by Robert Louis Stevenson and met with great success.  After that, his lilting water colors appears in many great classic, including The Secret Garden (1911), Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1907) and Lullaby Land (1897).

The illustration above is from The Selfish Giant, one of the finest fairy tales in the Wilde corpus.  Vyvyan remembered his father telling he and his brother Cyril this story and asking why he wept as he done so.  Wilde answered that beautiful things always made him cry.

The overall design of this striking water color shows Robinson’s mastery of composition and color.  The delicate white blossoms denote both purity and death, and the lighter color around the child’s head is suggestion of a halo.  There is an almost subtle Japanese effect, with the one-direction sweep of the action and great amount of unused paper.  The wide-eyes of the child, along with the slightly over-sized head and under-sized hands, are still seen in commercial Japanese illustration and animation.

Here is how Wilde ends his tale:

One winter morning he looked out of his window as he was dressing. He did not hate the Winter now, for he knew that it was merely the Spring asleep, and that the flowers were resting.

Suddenly he rubbed his eyes in wonder, and looked and looked. It certainly was a marvellous sight. In the farthest corner of the garden was a tree quite covered with lovely white blossoms. Its branches were all golden, and silver fruit hung down from them, and underneath it stood the little boy he had loved.

Downstairs ran the Giant in great joy, and out into the garden. He hastened across the grass, and came near to the child. And when he came quite close his face grew red with anger, and he said, 'Who hath dared to wound thee?' For on the palms of the child's hands were the prints of two nails, and the prints of two nails were on the little feet.

‘Who hath dared to wound thee?' cried the Giant; 'tell me, that I may take my big sword and slay him.'

'Nay!' answered the child; 'but these are the wounds of Love.'

'Who art thou?' said the Giant, and a strange awe fell on him, and he knelt before the little child.

And the child smiled on the Giant, and said to him, 'You let me play once in your garden, to-day you shall come with me to my garden, which is Paradise.'

And when the children ran in that afternoon, they found the Giant lying dead under the tree, all covered with white blossoms.