Friday, July 26, 2013

Cornelia Presenting Her Children, the Gracchi, as Her Treasures, by Angelica Kauffman, 1785

Another notable depiction of motherhood by Angelica Kauffman (1741 – 1807), one of two women who belonged to the Royal Academy at its inception.  The next female members would join 115 years later.

Ever the neoclassicist, Kaffman once again goes to the ancient world with Cornelia Presenting Her Children, the Gracchi, as Her Treasures, painted in 1785.  This large-scale painting illuminates the importance of motherhood on the course of history.  Cornelia Africana, the daughter of the general Scipio Africanus, was a Roman matron who exemplified the virtues of modesty, chastity, and honor. Her family was part of Roman high society, and she was an important social figure.  She is remembered by history as the mother of two sons with an enduring political legacy. Her sons, Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, who are often referred to as the Gracchi, were politicians in the 2nd century BC. They attempted to pass land reform and other progressive measures to ease the hardships of the lower classes, effectively attempting to make the Roman Republic more democratic. Both were assassinated during their tenures as tribunes by their peers in the patrician class for their liberal sentiments.

In this picture, Cornelia is talking with another society matron who is showing off her jewels.  Cornelia, however, shows jewels of quite another type:  her two sons, the Gracchi.  These are her greatest treasures; indeed, Cornelia was an important behind-the-scenes player in their eventual political ascendancy.

This is a subtly colored work, filled with deeply felt sentiment.  Neoclassical work can often feel cold or lacking in emotional vitality, but here is a picture filled with simple humanity.  Perhaps the most priceless element of the picture is the expression on the face of the anonymous matron.  You mean, these pearls aren’t better, she seems to ask.

Fortunately, Kauffman had the artistic virtuosity to realize such a subtle emotional moment.  Look at the expressions on Cornelia, as well as those of her children – they look alike.  Not only that, but Cornelia uses nearly the same expression with her hand used in another picture, Self-Portrait Torn Between Music and Painting, where Kauffman is also indicating the more important choice.

A remarkable work.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Self-Portrait Torn Between Music and Painting, by Angelica Kauffman, 1792

I must confess, I love this picture.  As noted in an earlier column, Angelica Kauffman (1741 – 1807) was a child prodigy in both painting and music.  (Winckelmann wrote that Kauffman had a sublimely beautiful voice.)  Her prowess as a painter was formidable, and she and her father toured Europe, painting portraits for high society much as young Mozart played pianoforte for royalty. 

But the decision between painting and music was not an easy one, as can be witnessed in this 1792 self-portrait.  (Self-triptych?)  It’s fascinating; centuries before the birth of Freud, Kauffman splits her personality into three parts, including a mediating Ego.  And at this point, the decision is clear – the musician will become a painter.

Look at the figures.  Kauffman left holds a music roll and the hand of the center Kauffman: her face is both imploring and wounded.  This is the look of a lover who knows she is being left. 

Now, look at the Kauffman right; she holds easel and brush and points dramatically to the distance: get to work!  Kauffman right does not touch Kauffman center, but there is no need; she has won.

Kauffman center looks guiltily at Kauffman left while motioning towards Kauffman right – the look says I love you, but I love her, more. 

Kauffman left has a garland of blue flowers in her hair; she is perhaps the more ethereal and artistic of the three.  Soulful, perhaps is the right word.  That quality of soul is missing from Kauffman right, and one wonders to what degree she felt forced to choose painting over music.  But these doubts are subverted somewhat by the neoclassical and painterly background.  Music never stood a chance.

Painters without number have executed self-portraits, but few have so explicitly illustrated their thinking. 

Questions of choice seemed to be a constant throughout Kauffman’s life.  Here is an excerpt from Nollekens and his Times, written in 1828 by J. T. Smith:

The reader will probably recollect the manner in which Angelica Kauffman was imposed upon by a gentleman’s servant, who married her under the name of Count Horn, and the way in which his treachery was discovered; as related in the early part of the present volume.  Angelica, however, was universally considered as a coquette, so that we cannot deeply sympathize in her disappointment; and as a proof how justly she deserved that character, I shall give an anecdote which have often heard Mr. Nollekens relate.  When Angelica was at Rome, previously to her marriage, she was ridiculously fond of displaying her person, and being admired; for which purpose she one evening took her station in one of the most conspicuous boxes of the Theatre, accompanied by [painter] Nathaniel Dance and another artist, both of whom, as well as many others, were desperately enamored of her.  Angelica, perhaps, might have recollected the remonstrance of Mrs. Peachum, where she says,

Oh, Polly! You might have toy’d and kiss’d
By keeping men off you keep them on:

However, while she was standing between her two beaux, and finding an arm of each most lovingly embracing her waist, she contrived, whilst her arms were folded before her on the front of the box over which she was leaning, to squeeze the hand of both, so that each lover concluded himself beyond all doubt the man of her choice.

More Kauffman tomorrow.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Pliny the Younger and His Mother at Miseno During the Eruption of Vesuvius, by Angelica Kauffman, 1785

We continue our look at Angelica Kauffman (1741 – 1807), one of two female painters inducted into the Royal Academy at its inception (the other being Mary Moser, 1744-1819).  Taught by her painter father, Kauffman displayed extraordinary talent at an early age.  She moved to Rome in 1763, where she met Johann Winckelmann (1717-1768), antiquarian and art historian who would prove to be one of the most powerful influences on an Aesthetic Movement he would never live to see.  Kauffman painted his portrait, along with other such luminaires as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 1832).

From 1766 to 1781, she lived in London, where she worked as a decorator and was instrumental in the founding of the Royal Academy.  After marrying painter Antonio Zucchi, she moved to Rome and lived among Continental European artists. 

Kauffman mainly painted history pictures and mythological subjects, where she displayed sentimental notes and a refined sense of color.  In today’s picture, Pliny the Younger and His Mother at Miseno During the Eruption of Vesuvius (1785), Kauffman dramatically depicts the destruction of the cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii, both doomed to be buried by mud and lava following the eruption of Vesuvius (AD 79).  Kauffman focuses on a family scene to illustrate the horror of the moment.  Here, Pliney is clearly interrupted from his studies with his mother by news of the catastrophe.  The volcano erupts in the background, and the resulting storm creates a tumultuous sea.  The mother, more in-the-moment than her son, uses her headpiece to protect herself from the tragedy; her scholarly son needs to be roused from his books and papers by a messenger before he notices. 

Pliney’s letter to the historian Tacitus is a first-hand account of the tragedy, and the starting point of Kauffman’s imaginings:

My dear Tacitus,

You ask me to write you something about the death of my uncle so that the account you transmit to posterity is as reliable as possible.   I am grateful to you, for I see that his death will be remembered forever if you treat it [sc. in your Histories]. He perished in a   devastation of the loveliest of lands, in a memorable disaster shared by peoples and cities, but this will be a kind of eternal life for him.  Although he wrote a great number of enduring works himself, the imperishable nature of your writings will add a great deal to his survival. Happy are they, in my opinion, to whom it is given either to do something worth writing about, or to write something worth reading; most happy, of course, those who do both. With his own books and yours, my uncle will be counted among the latter. It is therefore with great pleasure that I take up, or rather take upon myself the task you have set me.

He was at Misenum in his capacity as commander of the fleet on the 24th of August, when between 2 and 3 in the afternoon my mother drew his attention to a cloud of unusual size and appearance. He had had a sunbath, then a cold bath, and was reclining after dinner with his books. He called for his shoes and climbed up to where he could get the best view of the phenomenon.  The cloud was rising from a mountain -- at such a distance we couldn't tell which, but afterwards learned that it was Vesuvius. I can best describe its shape by likening it to a pine tree. It rose into the sky on a very long "trunk" from which spread some "branches." I imagine it had been raised by a sudden blast, which then weakened, leaving the cloud unsupported so that its own weight caused it to spread sideways. Some of the cloud was white, in other parts there were dark patches of dirt and ash. The sight of it made the scientist in my uncle determined to see it from closer at hand.

He ordered a boat made ready. He offered me the opportunity of going along, but I preferred to study -- he himself happened to have set me a writing exercise. As he was leaving the house he was brought a letter from Tascius' wife Rectina, who was terrified by the looming danger. Her villa lay at the foot of Vesuvius, and there was no way out except by boat. She begged him to get her away. He changed his plans. The expedition that started out as a quest for knowledge now called for courage. He launched the quadriremes and embarked himself, a source of aid for more people than just Rectina, for that delightful shore was a populous one. He hurried to a place from which others were fleeing, and held his course directly into danger. Was he afraid? It seems not, as he kept up a continuous observation of the various movements and shapes of that evil cloud, dictating what he saw.

Ash was falling onto the ships now, darker and denser the closer they went. Now it was bits of pumice, and rocks that were blackened and burned and shattered by the fire. Now the sea is shoal; debris from the mountain blocks the shore. He paused for a moment wondering whether to turn back as the helmsman urged him. "Fortune helps the brave," he said, "Head for Pomponianus."

At Stabiae, on the other side of the bay formed by the gradually curving shore, Pomponianus had loaded up his ships even before the danger arrived, though it was visible and indeed extremely close, once it intensified. He planned to put out as soon as the contrary wind let up. That very wind carried my uncle right in, and he embraced the frightened man and gave him comfort and courage. In order to   lessen the other's fear by showing his own unconcern he asked to be taken to the baths. He bathed and dined, carefree or at least appearing so (which is equally impressive). Meanwhile, broad sheets of flame were lighting up many parts of Vesuvius; their light and brightness were the more vivid for the darkness of the night. To alleviate people's fears my uncle claimed that the flames came from the deserted homes of farmers who had left in a panic with the hearth fires still alight.

Then he rested, and gave every indication of actually sleeping; people who passed by his door heard his snores, which were rather resonant since he was a heavy man. The ground outside his room rose so high with the mixture of ash and stones that if he had spent any more time there escape would have been impossible. He got up and came out, restoring himself to Pomponianus and the others who had been unable to sleep. They discussed what to do, whether to remain under cover or to try the open air. The buildings were being rocked by a series of strong tremors, and appeared to have come loose from their foundations and to be sliding this way and that. Outside, however, there was danger from the rocks that were coming down, light and fire-consumed as these bits of pumice were. Weighing the relative dangers they chose the outdoors; in my uncle's case it was a rational decision, others just chose the alternative that frightened them the least.

They tied pillows on top of their heads as protection against the shower of rock. It was daylight now elsewhere in the world, but there the darkness was darker and thicker than any night. But they had torches and other lights. They decided to go down to the shore, to see from close up if anything was possible by sea. But it remained as rough and uncooperative as before. Resting in the shade of a sail he drank once or twice from the cold water he had asked for. Then came a smell of sulfur, announcing the flames, and the flames themselves, sending others into flight but reviving him. Supported by two small slaves he stood up, and immediately collapsed. As I understand it, his breathing was obstructed by the dust-laden air, and his innards, which were never strong and often blocked or upset, simply shut down. When daylight came again 2 days after he died, his body was found untouched, unharmed, in the clothing that he  had had on. He looked more asleep than dead.

Meanwhile at Misenum, my mother and I -- but this has nothing to do with history, and you only asked for information about his death. I'll stop here then. But I will say one more thing, namely, that I have written out everything that I did at the time and heard while memories were still fresh. You will use the important bits, for it is one thing to write a letter, another to write history, one thing to write to a friend, another to write for the public.


More Kauffman tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Angelica Kauffman, Self Portrait, 1787

I was recently taken to task by New York arts advocate Clarissa Crabtree for the lack of women artists covered in The Jade Sphinx.  The simple – and lamentable – fact is that women, by and large, were not accorded opportunities to pursue artistic careers until the Modern Age.  There were exceptions, of course, and among them was Swiss-Austrian Neoclassical painter Angelica Kauffman.

Kauffman (1741 – 1807) was born in Switzerland, but grew up in Austria where her family originated; her father, Joseph Johann Kauffman, was a painter.  He taught her the fundamentals of drawing and painting, while her mother taught young Angelica several languages.  She also was a skilled musician, and the young woman was torn between which art was to be her master. 

However, her precocity in painting was immense, and Angelica was selling work and professionally painting portraits while still an adolescent.  When only 13 years old, Angelica went with her father to Milan, Rome, Bologna and Venice where, like the young Mozart and his music, she was displayed as a prodigy with the brush.  She spoke French, English and Italian (as well as German) and this facility with language allowed her to make a lucrative living painting portraits of visitors to Rome. 

She was introduced to Lady Wentworth, an English aristocrat, while in Venice, and returned with her to the UK.  There she painted the portrait of celebrated actor David Garrick (1771-1779) and became something of a society painter.  She also befriended painter Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), and worked with him to create the Royal Academy.  She was only one of two women (the other being Mary Moser, 1744-1819) to have R. A. after her name – however, her friendship with Reynolds and membership in the RA was not without dissent.  Painter Nathaniel Hone included a nude caricature of Kauffman in his satirical 1775 painting The Conjurer – but later painted it out.  The picture was not accepted by the Academy.

Kauffman was an annual exhibitor with the Royal Academy from 1769 until 1782, and in 1773 she was appointed by the Academy with others to decorate St Paul's Cathedral.  The work would never be completed. 

Upon the death of Kauffman’s first husband (they were separated – almost as much of a scandal as a lady painter!), she married Antonio Zucchi (1728–1795), a Venetian artist then living in the UK.  She became part of the social and artistic scene of Venice, and continued to contribute to the Royal Academy until 1797.  When she died in Rome in 1807, the entire Academy of St Luke followed her body to her tomb in Sant'Andrea delle Fratte, carrying two of her best pictures in the parade.

Today we look at Kauffman’s self-portrait from 1787.  It is a stunning work.  Kauffman does not paint herself as a society lady or a great beauty (though she is quite lovely), but, rather, as a working artist, complete with portfolio and drawing implement.  Her identification with her craft is clear.
Notice the exquisite handling of the images on the highly-cinched belt, which includes classical figures and clearly indicates her Italian sympathies.  Moreover, the landscape over her shoulder is clearly that of Italy, rather than England, Switzerland or Austria. 

She uses a great deal of transparent white to create the gauzy quality of her gown, and she depicts her oddly masculine hands with a deft touch.  Her hair is plaited atop her head and adorned with a simple ribbon.

One of the more interesting questions is – how did she do this picture?  In most self-portraits, the artist is looking at the viewer, mainly because the artist was – at the time – looking at a mirror.  But here, Kauffman has turned to the side – a remarkable act of virtuosity.

More Kauffman tomorrow.

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Lone Ranger’s Code of the West

We had so much fun writing about the new Lone Ranger film last week that I thought I would call to your attention a little-known gem of a book, The Lone Ranger’s Cold of the West by Jim Lichtman.  It is still available on Alibris and Abebooks, and comes recommended.

Billed as An action-packed adventure in values and ethics with the legendary champion of justice, Lichtman actually creates a guide to living-a-good-life as if imagined by the Lone Ranger.

The major conceit of the book is that Lichtman, an ethics specialist who created a training series to enhance individual responsibility, communication, and team performance, meets the Lone Ranger and Tonto while considering what it means to live as a good person.  Each chapter narrates a story from the Ranger’s fabled past, and each has a moral lesson that results in what Lichtman calls The Lone Ranger’s Code of the West.

To his credit, throughout the book Lichtman finds the Ranger and Tonto to be a bit of a drag – their relentless do-goodism and interferences on behalf of justice are sometimes overreaching or sanctimonious.  But despite the verbal sparring between the author and the Ranger and Tonto, Lichman comes to realize that the Lone Ranger was striving to live larger than all of us, to be both an ideal and an inspiration.  And though no one could really live up to the impossibly high bar of moral behavior the Ranger erects, it is certainly something to work towards.

In short, the Code says that the Lone Ranger is Honest, Fair, Caring, Respectful, Loyal, Tolerant, does his Duty and is Morally Courageous.  But, even more interesting, Lichtman plays the game of What Would the Lone Ranger Do – a tool for character-based decision making.  (And much more interesting than WWJD…)

What Would the Lone Ranger do rests on three principals:

First, the Lone Ranger considers the interests and well-being of all likely to be affected by his decisions.

Second, he makes decisions characterized by the core ethical values of honesty, fairness, caring, respect, loyalty, tolerance, duty and the moral courage to do what needs to be done. 

And finally, if it is clearly necessary to choose one ethical value over another, the Lone Ranger will do the thing that he sincerely believes to be the best for society in the long run.

Lichtman also hosted an extremely long-lasting seminar, “Values, Ethics and the Lone Ranger,” which further fleshed out what he considered the Ranger’s teachings.

Lichtman playing Plato to the Lone Ranger’s Socrates is a very amusing conceit, and he manages to bring the whole thing off with considerable style.  The Lone Ranger’s Code of the West can be found at many used book-sellers for as little as $5, and is well worth the investment.

And some day, you might find yourself asking, “what would the Lone Ranger do?”

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Magic, A Fantastic Comedy, by G.K. Chesterton

This … philosophical comedy comes to us from 1913, and is an example of Chesterton at his mystical, questioning best.  The setting and set-up are simple: Patricia Carleon, daughter of a duke and a girl given to nature and fancies, meets a man who tells her that he is a fairy.  When it is revealed that he is really a conjurer there for a village entertainment, she is heartbroken.

However … is he really “just” a conjurer?  This becomes the subject of much debate between a clergyman, the Rev. Cyril Smith, the village doctor, Grimthorpe, and Patricia’s recently-arrived-from America brother, Morris.  The action takes place in the Duke’s drawing room, complete with French windows with a view out into the lawn and neighboring homes.

As practical, scientific Morris “exposes” the sham tricks of the conjurer, more and more inexplicable things occur which could only be the result of magic;  Morris has a fit and needs medical attention.  The following exchange occurs between Rev. Smith and Dr. Grimthorpe:

Doctor. I have got him into bed in the next room. His sister is looking after him.

Smith. His sister! Oh, then do you believe in fairies?

Doctor. Believe in fairies? What do you mean?

Smith. At least you put the person who does believe in them in charge of the person who doesn't.

Doctor. Well, I suppose I do.

Smith. You don't think she'll keep him awake all night with fairy tales?

Doctor. Certainly not.

Smith. You don't think she'll throw the medicine-bottle out of window and administer—er—a dewdrop, or anything of that sort? Or a four-leaved clover, say?

Doctor. No; of course not.

Smith. I only ask because you scientific men are a little hard on us clergymen. You don't believe in a priesthood; but you'll admit I'm more really a priest than this Conjurer is really a magician. You've been talking a lot about the Bible and the Higher Criticism. But even by the Higher Criticism the Bible is older than the language of the elves—which was, as far as I can make out, invented this afternoon. But Miss Carleon believed in the wizard. Miss Carleon believed in the language of the elves. And you put her in charge of an invalid without a flicker of doubt: because you trust women.

Doctor. [Very seriously.] Yes, I trust women.

Smith. You trust a woman with the practical issues of life and death, through sleepless hours when a shaking hand or an extra grain would kill.

Doctor. Yes.

Smith. But if the woman gets up to go to early service at my church, you call her weak-minded and say that nobody but women can believe in religion.

Doctor. I should never call this woman weak-minded—no, by God, not even if she went to church.

Smith. Yet there are many as strong-minded who believe passionately in going to church.

Doctor. Weren't there as many who believed passionately in Apollo?

Smith. And what harm came of believing in Apollo? And what a mass of harm may have come of not believing in Apollo? Does it never strike you that doubt can be a madness, as well be faith? That asking questions may be a disease, as well as proclaiming doctrines? You talk of religious mania! Is there no such thing as irreligious mania? Is there no such thing in the house at this moment?

Doctor. Then you think no one should question at all.

Smith. [With passion, pointing to the next room.] I think that is what comes of questioning! Why can't you leave the universe alone and let it mean what it likes? Why shouldn't the thunder be Jupiter? More men have made themselves silly by wondering what the devil it was if it wasn't Jupiter.

Doctor. [Looking at him.] Do you believe in your own religion?

Smith. [Returning the look equally steadily.] Suppose I don't: I should still be a fool to question it. The child who doubts about Santa Claus has insomnia. The child who believes has a good night's rest.

Doctor. You are a Pragmatist.

So, of course, we are now in familiar Chestertonian territory: the question of “reason” vs. “belief.”  Like Dickens before him (and GKC idolized Dickens), Chesterton saw magic in the everyday.  An almost pagan animism is rampant in the works of Dickens, and while Chesterton sees the mystery inherent in all the natural and man-made world around us, he, unlike Dickens, tends to put a more Christian spin on the great mystery.  However, Chesterton also believed that Christianity was merely one prism through which one could perceive the magic of the ordinary.

The era just before (and immediately after) the Great War was also the Golden Age of Fairies in England.  The little folk were seen everywhere, or perceived to be seen everywhere, and this is not surprising.  That period was perhaps the most dramatic break between the Old and New Worlds – more so than the Industrial Revolution.  Life had become increasingly more urban, methods of killing more efficient, and lore and legend that had survived for generations was becoming lost.  People felt ungrounded, as if the world that they had known for so long no longer existed, and was replaced with something foreign and profoundly unhealthy.  The cult of nature – and of natural gods, such as fairies, elves, Pan and assorted wee-folk – had its powerful last hurrah before being wiped away forever by progress.

Chesterton was, by nature and temperament, a man who would applaud the return of fairies into everyday life, and one who could resist what might be an eternal question: do things become real simply through the power of our believing in them?

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

All Things Considered, by G. K. Chesterton

Not many people today remember Gilbert Keith Chesterton, (1874 – 1936) outside of his delightful Father Brown detective stories.  This is a shame, because Chesterton was also one of the outstanding critics and thinkers of his age.  It has been argued that we are all born with a natural sense of wonder, but that by age 13 or so it is beaten, combed and prayed out of us.  Chesterton never lost that childlike innocence and clarity, and mixed that sensibility with a gargantuan intellect.  To read Chesterton on Dickens or Shakespeare, for example, is to see these writers anew, as if some profound truth were staring us in the face and it took a little boy to point it out.

Gargantuan was perhaps the perfect word for Chesterton in other respects.  He was simply enormous, both tall and hideously corpulent.  He wore a broad-brimmed slouch hat and cape, and often carried a sword cane.  Of such figures legends are made, and Chesterton, the man himself, influenced writers who converted the easily recognizable figure into a string of fictional characters.  (Most notably amateur detective Dr. Gideon Fell, created by author John Dickson Carr.)

Chesterton’s political thinking was fairly close to that of your correspondent, writing that the whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.  Hauntingly prescient to 2013 America.  I have been reading a great deal of Chesterton latterly and have found him a balm for a somewhat bruised soul. 

Chesterton was also a journalist, and writing for the London Daily News.  His 1915 book All Things Considered features more than 30 columns on a variety of different subjects.  Leaving few stones unturned, Chesterton writes about daily annoyances, on literature, on missing trains, on Modernism … Chesterton wrote over 4,000 newspaper columns, and this is, understandably, the smallest sampling.  Anyone interested in learning more about this fascinating man should look at his newspaper columns while also reading his many novels and books of sustained criticism.

In the introduction, Chesterton writes This is a collection of crude and shapeless papers upon current subjects for it is mostly concerned with attacking attitudes which are in their nature accidental and incapable of enduring. Brief as is the career of such a book as this, it may last twenty minutes longer than most of the philosophies that it attacks.  So, yes, many of the bugaboos and cultural concerns are outdated, but the refreshing take on reality and the authorial voice remain magnificent.

Here are some quotes:

But I never succeeded in saying the quite clear and obvious thing that is rally the matter with modernism.  The real objection to modernism is simply that it is a form of snobbishness.  It is an attempt to crush a rational opponent not by reason, but by some mystery of superiority, by hinting that one is specially up to date or particularly “in the know.”  To flaunt the fact that we have had the last books from Germany is simply vulgar; like flaunting the fact that we have had all the last bonnets from Paris.  To introduce into philosophical discussion a sneer at a creed’s antiquity is like introducing a sneer at a lady’s age.  It is caddish because it is irrelevant.  The pure modernist is merely a snob; he cannot stand to be one month behind fashion.

Here’s something quite terrific: They are books showing men how to succeed in everything; they are written by men who cannot even succeed in writing books.

On reformers: It is a fact that optimists are more practical reformers than pessimists. Superficially, one would imagine that the railer would be a reformer; that the man who thought everything was wrong would be the man to put everything right. In historical practice the thing is quite the other way; curiously enough, it is the man who likes things as they are who really makes them better… It is because the optimist can look at wrong not only with indignation, but with startled indignation… The pessimist can be enraged at wrong, but only the optimist can be startled [enough to want to change it].

On Shakespeare: Nobody could say that a statue of Shakespeare, even fifty feet high, on top of St. Paul’s Cathedral, could define Shakespeare’s position. It only defines our position towards Shakespeare. It is he who is fixed. It is we who are unstable.

Like much of Chesterton’s criticism, this book is available for free on  It is an invaluable site for bibliophiles.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Don’t Believe What You Hear: The Lone Ranger is Quite Terrific

So, it’s time to admit something of my age and say that I grew up during the great Nostalgia Craze of the 1970s.  The Marx Brothers were heroes on college campuses around the country, W.C. Fields was cultural touchstone, interest in vintage films and television seemed inexhaustible, and people reconnected with the glories of the Golden Age of Radio.

And not just adults!  No, in the 1970s just as many teenagers could identify Bela Lugosi or Myrna Loy as could hum lyrics from The Rolling Stones or The Bay City Rollers.  This sense that Pop Americana was a smorgasbord from which we could pick the most tasty morsels is all but dead – many of my students would rather be skinned alive than watch a black-and-white film, and the current zeitgeist demands that anything “old” (that is, prior to about 1980) is somehow “camp.”

The one anomaly to this current dismissal of Pop Culture Past is the fetishizing of superheroes – figures that actually pre-date the grandfathers of most contemporary film-goers.  So it is completely understandable that Disney would bankroll a big-budget retelling of one of the grandest myths of the Great American Century, The Lone Ranger.

The Lone Ranger was created by writer Fran Striker (1903-1962), first appearing in 1933 on radio station WXYZ, owned by George W. Trendle (1884-1972).  Trendle later claimed credit for creating the Ranger, which is not surprising considering how successful the program became.  The show was an enormous hit – it was geared towards kids, but more than half of the audience was made up of adults.  The radio show would last until 1954, and moved to television show from 1949 to 1957.  The Lone Ranger was also the subject of two movie serials, three motion pictures, and one execrable TV movie.  He was also fodder for writers and marketing-empire-builders, with eight novels by Striker, countless comic books and Big-Little-Books, and toys and games beyond number. 

These fueled the daydreams of countless boys.  I came across the Ranger myself when I was 10 or so and the local radio station, WRVR.FM, started a series of weekly radio rebroadcast five nights a week: Gangbusters, Fibber McGee and Molly, The Shadow, The Lone Ranger and The Green Hornet.  I loved them all – and was hooked on the Ranger for life.

Though the mythos has often been tweaked over the past 80 years, the basic origin of the Lone Ranger remains the same.  He was one of a band of Texas Rangers who were ambushed in Bryant’s Gap by the notorious Butch Cavendish gang.  All the other rangers died in the attack; their bodies found by an American Indian named Tonto.

Tonto buried all of the rangers, and also made a fake grave for the surviving ranger, so that Butch and other bad men of the West would not seek him out and finish the job.  As Tonto said, “you only ranger left; you Lone Ranger.”

This is – essentially – the story that the new Lone Ranger film sets out to tell.  As my readers probably know by now, the film has been a colossal bomb for Disney, rivaling last year’s disaster that was John Carter (based on the John Carter of Mars novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs).

However, we here at The Jade Sphinx (let me break this gently) absolutely loved John Carter.  It was a thrilling evocation of all that was great about American pulp fiction.  Surely the Disney’s Long Ranger could not be all bad?

In short, it’s not.  It is something of a glorious mess; there is so much going on, and it is a rich and interesting film, asking more questions and demanding more imagination than the average summer junk film.  If anything, it’s a film crammed with too many ideas rather than just bland CGI action effects. It is faithful to the overall ideals of the Lone Ranger mythos, but also effectively transgressive. Though it will not be to everyone’s taste, I recommend it highly, despite its many failings.

Where to begin?  The film opens in 1933 at a carnival, where a child obsessed with the radio Lone Ranger finds the now-ancient Tonto (Johnny Depp, in the most interesting performance of his career) in the sideshow.  Tonto, in his dotage, initially thinks the boy is the Ranger himself, but, once he is set right, tells the boy the story of how he and the Lone Ranger came to be.

However, the story, in the telling, is full of holes and frankly incredible incidents of Native American mysticism.  Is the old Indian lying…?  Or is this how he remembers it?  Or does he simply imagine it all?  The film never fully answers these questions, and the viewer is invited to decide for himself.

In this telling, Cavendish (a vile-looking William Fitchner) is not only an outlaw, he’s in the pay of an unscrupulous railroad executive.  These Big Business interests are supported by the US military, and the whole fetid stew of corporatism, the military and organized crime connive to blame the Indians for various depredations as an excuse for moving them from their land to make way for the railroad.  (As one of the chief tells the Ranger before his group is decimated by a Gatling gun, “we are ghosts already.”)

Before John Reid (Armie Hammer) becomes the Lone Ranger, he is a young district attorney, ready to bring the rule of law to the West.  His brother (a convincing James Badge Dale) is a Texas Ranger on the trail of Cavendish, and the brothers are together during a horrific ambush, leaving all the rangers dead, except for our hero.  In an especially gruesome touch, Cavendish is part cannibal, eating a piece of his victims.  He munches on the heart of the Lone Ranger’s brother before making his escape.

Much of the humor of the film is found in how the Ranger and Tonto learn to work as a team – yes, it is a buddy movie, as well, with all that entails.  Hammer’s Ranger is the ultimate square – like Jimmy Stewart in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, he’s a by-the-book law-and-order type, who believes that law and justice are the same things.  He is uncomfortable outside of his frame of reference, and he is all too often incompetent at heroics.  In fact, Tonto thinks that the Ranger’s brother would’ve been much more effective as an avenger, and claims that kemo sabe means “the wrong brother.”  Hammer and Depp work wonderfully well together, but the comedy is too forced, and the jokey banter between the two of them hurts the overall tone of the film.

In fact, tone seems to be the main problem of The Lone Ranger.  By turns The Lone Ranger is a serious revenge picture, buddy comedy, meditation on the corrupt complicity of the military and Big Business, an action spectacle and a damnation of this nation’s treatment of its indigenous peoples.  There are needless plot points (there are two sequences with Helena Bonham Carter as a wooden-legged madam with a gun in her heel that can excised without notice, saving perhaps 20 minutes of running time), and sometimes the sense of overkill boarders on the grotesque.  But there cannot be bounty without excess, and our unreliable narrator somehow makes these disparate parts work as a whole.

The screenplay, by Justin Haythe, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio is an intentional funhouse mirror of our cinematic Western tradition.  The movie has echoes of everything from One Upon a Time in the West to The Searchers to Little Big Man to They Died With Their Boots On to The Iron Horse – taking images, ideas and concepts from all of these films and throwing them back at us in a purposely distorted vision.

It is only in the film’s final act, as the Lone Ranger and Tonto hijack a train under the control of railroad magnate Latham Cole (the excellent Tom Wilkinson) to the stirring strains of The William Tell Overture that we have standard Lone Ranger heroics, as the duo ride horses atop the train, dangle from couplings and perform stunts that would do Buster Keaton proud.

Just as science fiction is always about the present and never really about the future, the Western film is always about the modern world and not our mythic past. Each generation gets the Western it deserves, and The Lone Ranger does not paint a pretty picture of America in 2013.  The Ranger comes to learn that the rule of law does not hold for Big Business or the military, and that the lives of the poor or disenfranchised are considered exploitable and expendable by the establishment.  Tonto presses the mask upon the Ranger throughout the film, but it’s only when the Ranger realizes that there is plenty of law but very little justice that he decides to embrace it.  “If this is the law,” he says, “then I guess I’ll be an outlaw.”

The Lone Ranger is a film, I think, that the viewer takes con amore or not at all.  I was hooked in the opening moments – director Gore Verbinski creates images in the carnival (and throughout the film) of remarkable beauty and richness.  Sadly, when I saw the film at New York City’s Ziegfeld Theater, we were two of perhaps 12 patrons for the evening show.  The film is flop of monumental proportions and, if you will, I have a thought on that as well.

It’s not that The Lone Ranger is a bad film – perhaps not a coherent action picture, but it’s an elusive and subtle pastiche that is satisfying on many, many levels.  The real problem, in terms of box office, is simply that people don’t want it.  The West is not part of our increasingly urban zeitgeist, and, to it’s credit, The Lone Ranger even tries to address past political injustices by making Tonto the most important and complex character.  True to his code (and unlike the current Superman), the Ranger never deliberately takes a life, strives for a high standard and believes in the rule of law.  Perhaps, there is just no place for the Lone Ranger in contemporary America.

One last parting note – readers interested in Western films from the 1950s (and there were two Long Ranger films that decade) could do no better than visiting Toby Roan’s indispensable blog 50 Westerns From the 50s.  You can find it here:’s a treasure trove of information for the Western film buff.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Born on a Mountaintop by Bob Thompson

My more indulgent Jade Sphinx readers will forgive me if we head West once again as we close out the week.  (And to the wag who sent a comment saying that we should perhaps change the name of this blog to The Jade Cactus by Cherokee Bob, please know that we will take it under advisement.)

No figure – including that glorious tall-tale-spinner Buffalo Bill Cody – is more riddled with confusion, controversy and misinformation than that hero of the Alamo, David (Davy) Crockett (1876-1836).  Despite a strong predilection for all facets our Western Myth, I must confess that Crockett and other early frontiersmen have never really been of particular interest to me.  I am too young to have been consumed by the great Crockett fad started by Walt Disney in 1955, when America’s youth actually wore coonskin caps and went about singing The Ballad of Davy Crockett.  (“Born on a mountaintop in Tennessee/Greenest state in the land of the free/Raised in the woods so knew every tree/Kilt him a bear when we was only three/DAVY, DAVY Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier!” and so on for some 20 verses.)  This fad was as pervasive and as powerful as the furor that surrounded Elvis Presley and the Beatles – if less pernicious than either – and those who were true believers seem never to have lost the faith.  Believe it or not, I once worked for the head of a global public relations firm who was still so besotted by the Crockett craze of his boyhood that he still wore a coonskin cap.  Now that is devotion.

However, Davy Crockett has now come magically alive to me in Bob Thompson’s delightful Born on a Mountaintop: On The Road With Davy Crockett and the Ghosts of the Wild Frontier, and I finally see why the Crockett myth is so compelling.

For those looking for a straightforward biography, Thompson’s book will come as a disappointment.  Instead, he goes after something much more interesting and personal.  Much in the manner of Footsteps biographer Richard Holmes, Thompson writes a book literally pursuing his subject.  He traces the historical Davy by following him through Tennessee, westward, and then to Washington, where he served two terms in Congress.  We go with Davy on a book tour through Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York, and then retrace those fateful steps to Texas and the Alamo.

Though chasing ghosts, Thompson is extremely aware of the difficulties inherent in this method.  He writes:  “The past is a foreign country,” as the novelist L.P. Hartley wrote, but I think that Hartley understated the problem.  The past is a foreign country that’s impossible to visit.  You can’t just skip across the border, hire yourself a translator, and ask old John Crockett where he was on the afternoon of October 7, 1780 --- let alone get up close and persona with his celebrity son.

The historical Crockett he finds is a man of contradictions.  Born dirt poor, he received little education.  He fought the Creeks and took part in several important skirmishes in the Indian war.  After several unsuccessful attempts are raising his standard of living, he married (after his first wife died) a woman of modest means, but still of relative means.  He became a local politician and ended up going to Congress – first as a supporter of Andrew Jackson, and then as his bitter enemy.

The paradoxes are many.  Here was an Indian fighter who went to Congress and bitterly fought Jackson on an illegal Indian land grab.  He was really “the poor man’s friend,” but he hobnobbed (or tried to) with Eastern Brahmans.  He concocted the most outrageous tall tales about himself, but took umbrage (mostly) when others did so.  Losing his seat in Congress – thanks mostly to Jackson (a man who makes George W. Bush look like Mother Theresa) – he heads West again and becomes embroiled in the battle for Texas liberty.

How and why?  Well, Davy’s time in Texas is just little more than the last three months of his life, but Thompson devotes more than a hundred pages to it.  Like all men, Davy was complicated and self-contradictory.  He really did believe the fight in Texas was “the good fight,” but he also saw it as a way to revive his flaccid political career, and maybe get some land out of the deal. 
Thompson starts the book by explaining that his two young daughters became interested in Crockett after hearing Burl Ives sing the Ballad, and how he spent years becoming fascinated himself.  He also spends a great many pages on the Crockett craze of the 1950s, and examines where fact and fiction overlap.  (Not very often is the verdict.) 

Thompson was a longtime features writer for The Washington Post, and his Born on a Mountaintop is an eccentric, elliptical, solipsistic and often discursive book.  However, it is also a fascinating read and an interesting meditation on Americana, past and present.  It comes highly recommended.

Tomorrow we return with another legend: The Lone Ranger! 

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Explorers Club at Manhattan Theater Club

Farce is an extremely difficult balancing act, so it is with considerable delight that I strongly recommend The Explorers Club, currently playing at the Manhattan Theater Club at New York City Center Stage 1.  I laughed long, loud and lustily, and required several cocktails afterward to regain composure.

The play takes place in London in 1879.  The Explorers Club (wonderfully realized by set designer Donyale Werle as an elaborate bar filled with such exotica as elephant tusks and snowshoes) is faced with dramatic challenges: the acting president want to admit an accomplished female explorer, and the bartender is currently missing in action.

Phyllida Spotte-Hume (a marvelous Jennifer Westfeldt) arrives with her own savage, Luigi (the athletic Carson Elrod) to make her presentation; her candidacy is nearly undone by the returning hero Harry Percy (a magnificent David Furr) and elder archeologist and religious fanatic Professor Sloane (a wry John McMartin).

Fortunately, acting president Lucius Fretway (a handsome Lorenzo Pisoni) not only loves Spotte-Hume, but is actively campaigning for her inclusion.  And her science is so impeccable!  As the lady-explorer says when talking about the “lost tribe” from which Luigi came:  “They have hunted nearly all the animals to extinction, and are forced to subsist on a jerky made of toad.  The toad is poisonous.  But most of the poison boils off when the toad is poached in urine…”

Well…, after Luigi accidentally slaps Queen Victoria (long story) and Sloane is nearly murdered by irate Irishmen after explaining that they are the lost tribe of Israel (ditto), the club is besieged by rioting Irishmen, the London police force, and, perhaps most insidiously, a cabal of murderous monks led by the vengeful former associate of Fretway. 

Through the course of the evening, the savage disguises himself as the missing bartender, we have a visit from the home office, there is talk of airships, most cast members quote Gilbert & Sullivan and we are treated to some of the best physical comedy I have even seen on stage involving flying highball glasses.  In short, this is a ribaldry funny cocktail created expressly for the Masterpiece Theatre set.

Kudos to Tony-nominated writer Nell Benjamin for concocting such a colorful bauble.  In an age where political correctness would make imperial empire jokes nearly impossible, she upends the contemporary political discourse by reducing all politics to what they are at core: ludicrous folly.

The direction by Marc Bruni is spot-on, never missing a beat.  The cast is uniformly excellent, and terrific support from Max Baker, Brian Avers, Steven Boyer and Arnie Burton

The Explorers Club is playing though August 3rd, and this is a comedy not to be missed. 

Thursday, July 4, 2013

When I Was a Kid (1905), by Charles Marion Russell

It’s no secret that we here at The Jade Sphinx love the work of Charles Marion Russell (1864-1926), the cowboy artist.  The boyish Russell went West in his early youth, and worked as a cowboy, watching the waning days of the American West with an artist’s eye.  He didn't seem to be very effective in the saddle, but it was all he wanted and he was happy.
Charlie’s vision of the West was that of a boy, one of endless prairies and freedom.  His was an eternal boyhood – both promise and nostalgia at the same time.  The West (and his boyhood) became to him a Lost Eden which he missed and to which he could never return.

Charlie spent the rest of his artistic life drawing and painting the West that loomed so large in his personal myth.  He often sketched himself in his wryly funny letters, and sometimes showed up in his own paintings.  This wonderful gouache picture from 1905 is Russell at his relaxed best.  The landscape and figures in the background are effectively accomplished with some broad strokes of color, while Russell reserves the full potency of his representational prowess on himself and his horse.  Russell was not an especially effective horseman in real life, and much of his boyhood West was spent sheep-herding.  But here is Russell’s youth as he saw it in his mind’s eye, with steely eye looking into the distance, rifle over saddle and ready for whatever was over the next horizon.

Remembrances of boyhood and anticipation of what’s over the next horizon hit somewhat somber notes for your correspondent this July 4th.  Russell’s work remains a poignant reminder of what we have lost in our culture, our national spirit, and, more important, in our civil liberties. 
Perhaps we should all take a page from Russell’s notebook, and preserve the best parts of ourselves (or, at least, the myth of the best part of ourselves) along with the vision of the Founding Fathers as we move as bravely forward as we can.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

It’s a Turd! It’s a Pain! It’s the Man of Steel!

It sure isn’t Superman

It was with a mix of elation and trepidation that I realized two iconic Pop Culture figures from the previous American Century would be resurrected this summer: Superman and The Lone Ranger.  Though such figures do not normally fall under the purview of The Jade Sphinx, both have had such a long-lasting and profound impact on the way we view ourselves and our culture that attention must be paid.

But the America of 1933 (the birth of the Lone Ranger) and of 1938 (the debut of Superman) are very different places from that of 2013.  Could both figures survive the transition into what we laughingly refer to as modernity without losing some vital essence, the very things that made these figures what they were?

Well, in the case of Superman, the answer, sadly, is no.  We do not often go to big budget junk pictures, and it is rare that we find them satisfactory.  However, Man of Steel, directed by Zack Snyder, must hit a new low for a genre with a decidedly low bar.  Never have I seen a blockbuster film so cynical in its conception, so ham-fisted in its execution or so bleak in its worldview.  What should have been an exhilarating romp that left one with a sense of wonder instead is a grim and dour computer game, devoid of life, sentiment, wit, intelligence or fun.

This creates an interesting aesthetic conundrum.  For those who know the core of the Superman mythos (and surely he is as mythic to modern America as Theseus was to the Ancients), the story runs thus: on the planet Krypton, scientist-statesman Jor-El realizes that the planet will soon explode.  He unsuccessfully tries to convince the powers that be that doom is imminent, so he builds a rocket to send their infant son, Kal-El, to the distant planet earth.  The ship leaves just before the planet explodes and lands in the cornfields or rural America (usually Kansas, in most tellings).  He is raised by the rustic Kent family, given the name Clark and taught American virtues and a sense of honor and of duty while growing to manhood.  He moves to the big city (literally a Metropolis) and becomes a great protector and savior, a symbol of courage, honesty and purity by which all humanity can aspire.

The aesthetic conundrum at the core of The Man of Steel is simply this: how can Snyder and his producer/writer (Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer, respectively) take this same material and fashion out of it a film so grim, so lacking in warmth, so devoid of hope and so ugly to look at?  Every artist brings something of themselves to whatever theme they approach, but surely some themes are, at their core, immutable?  Surely the fundamental message of great myths – be it hope or despair, transcendence or degradation – would shine through?

Apparently not.  Every choice made by Snyder and company was calculated to leech Superman and his mythos from any sense of grandeur, any sense of fun, any sense of transcendence.

First, let’s look at Krypton.  In both the comics and the films, the planet is often presented as a kind of paradise.  The comics showed us a primary-colored super-science wonderland worthy of Flash Gordon.  And the latter Superman films with Christopher Reeve opted for a futuristic Greco-Roman splendor, with a sparse purity often associated with Greek drama.

In Man of Steel, Krypton is as ugly as the nightmares of H. R. Giger.  Its inhabitants wear gray latex drag while moving through what looks like a massive digestive track.  Snyder and company have Jor-El die when he is stabbed in the gut by the film’s villain, General Zod – saving the explosion for Superman’s mother.

We then see the grown Kal-El finding himself while bumming through the US.  Reporter Lois Lane has a run-in with him, and soon investigates the story of the mysterious man with strange powers.  But soon General Zod and his cadre of Krypton survivors come to earth, looking for Kal-El because it seems that Jor-El downloaded all of Krypton’s genetic information into his infant son.  With this information, Zod hopes to recreate Krypton on earth… leaving no place for humanity.

Where to begin?  First off, Snyder shoots the film with a near complete de-saturation of color.  Imagine a black and white film poorly daubed with a waxy crayon and you get the effect.  Worse still, the thudding, repetitive and unpleasant score by Hans Zimmer is more reminiscent of the antics at a stoner’s rock concert than a glorious science-fiction romp. 

As for the special effects – they are not that special.  When Superman and Zod battle at the climax (seemingly forever), it is blurred motion and fast-cutting, more computer flummery than cinema.

The performances are nearly invisible.  Henry Cavill may be the handsomest man to don the blue-and-red suit, but he lacks the charisma of Brandon Routh or Christopher Reeve.  (Or George Reeves!)  His Superman is a cypher.  No one else manages to make any impression at all except for Kevin Costner as Pa Kent – and a film is in trouble when the most energetic player is … Kevin Costner.

But the fundamental problem with the seething mess that is Man of Steel is one of tone and artistic vision.  It seems that Snyder and Nolan wanted to do an “adult” take on Superman, but to them “adult” can only mean gloomy, negative and nihilistic.  I weep for the intellectual and emotional maturity of both men if that is indeed their yardstick of adulthood, because it is both horribly restrictive and blinkered.  Transcendent joy is as much an “adult” aesthetic as the cheapest form of tragedy, but try telling that someone with the emotional sense of a 15 year-old.

The filmmakers nail their own coffins finally with their vision of Superman, himself.  For more than 70 years, Superman was the “good guy;” the man we looked up to, the person we all aspired to be.  This vengeful, glum and, finally, not terribly bright man may be many things, but he will never be … Superman.

Tomorrow, a special Fourth of July message.