Friday, March 21, 2014

Buffalo Bill Cody With Children (Date Unknown)

It is rare that we look at photos here at The Jade Sphinx, but this photo has always touched me; so much so that a copy hangs on the wall over my desk.  It is of frontiersman, scout, Pony Express Rider and showman William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody (1846-1917) in a tent on the grounds of his Wild West Show, telling yarns to his little pards.

By all reports, Cody was a lovely man.  He never refused an old friend, a hard luck story, or a child.  Cody was extremely open-handed, friendly and willing to take care of others (except, perhaps, his wife, Louisa). 

You may remember that we have previously covered the story of cowboy artist Daniel Cody Muller (1889-1976), who was born in Choteau, Montana.  Muller’s father was killed by a horse when the artist was nine years old, and he was soon after adopted by Buffalo Bill.  In his memoir, Muller writes of the 18 years he spent with Cody and of his time on both the Cody ranch and working the Wild West shows.  The Cody in Muller’s memoir is a warm-hearted man of deep compassion and sympathy.  Muller would not be Cody’s only unofficially-adopted child: he also raised Johnny Baker (1869-1931), a sharpshooter with the Wild West, as his own son, and his love for children was nearly legendary.  Indeed, in a tumultuous life of adventure, fame and cowboy-high-spirits, the sole tragedy of Cody’s life seems to be the loss of his son, Kit Carson Cody (1870-1876) to scarlet fever.

To get a flavor of the real man, there is a story that during the 1915 season, when Cody no longer owned the Wild West and was working for the Sells-Floto circus, the show was menaced by a flash flood in Fort Madison, Iowa.  Most of the show’s four hundred crew fled the scene, leaving the aged and infirm Buffalo Bill to rescue women and children with the help of five crewmembers.  Also while working for Sells-Floto, he would later grow enraged when he learned that executives had advertised a twenty-five cent admission fee and charged fifty cents at the door.  Not long after, Cody pulled his gun on the owners and demanded out of his contract.

In more than 15 years of reading obsessively about the Old West, there are only two figures who I desperately wished to have met: cowboy artist Charlie Russell (1864-1926) and Cody.  And when I picture him in my mind’s eye, it is more often in photos like the above rather than imagining him in his more perilous endeavors.

Though today’s photo was obviously staged, look at the avuncular Cody in full Wild West regalia, head slightly bowed so the sun catches his oversized Stetson and glistening white beard.  The camera catches him mid-story, holding what appears to be a piece of Native American embroidery.  Though the little girls are dressed in white and organdy pinafores, things are rough in the back area of the Wild West Show.  This is a place for play and fun and myth.  As usual, Bill is making time for everyone.

I cannot help but think of later photos of other Western Icons surrounded by children.  A quick search on the Internet would yield photos of Tom Mix, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Hopalong Cassidy surrounded by children – but, as usual, Cody got there first.  I believe that it was he that created and fostered the myth of the Western Hero as the friend of childhood, a trope that has been with us for over 100 years.

Take a moment and imagine ourselves back there.  We’ve seen the Wild West (or are about to), and sneak behind to the performer’s tents.  There is the great man himself, impossibly tall and romantic in his colorful western clothes.  He beckons us over and we sit, while he unfolds a tale of Western Adventure, of days gone by and pioneer adventure.  We listen as he talks, his aged voice rich and dramatic, and the whole pageantry of the West opens before us.  And we know that once that great voice and great heart are stilled, the West will really be gone forever.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Percy Bysshe Shelly by John Addington Symonds (1978)

We here at The Jade Sphinx are always interested in the lives of great artists; and if the biography is written by one of the preeminent aesthetes of his day, all the better.

Sadly, outside of a handful of devotees, few remember the great writer, biographer, poet, essayist and aesthete John Addington Symonds (1840—1893).  Like most aesthetes, Symonds had a personal and emotional connection to the Italian Renaissance.  He would write a masterful, seven volume history of the era (Renaissance in Italy, 1875-1886), a splendid biography of Michelangelo (1893), and translations of Cellini’s autobiography (1888) and Michelangelo’s sonnets (1878; the first English translation of the painter’s poetry).

Symonds was also deeply devoted to Hellenism, writing Studies of the Greek Poets (1873-1876), which more closely aligned him with the Aesthetic Movement, and he wrote several volumes of poetry, as well.

A mind and aesthetic so protean, however, ranged across history to find congenial subjects.  He wrote of Ben Johnson (1886), Sir Philip Sidney (1886) and Walt Whitman (1893).  However, one of his more interesting biographies is of the Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley (1878).

It may seem strange that we are emphasizing more the biographer than the biographee, but for Symonds biography and criticism were merely a mode of autobiography.  While we learn a great deal about Shelley (1792-1822) in this volume, we learn even more about Symonds.

Shelley was one of the greatest of Romantic poets.  He was a political radical and champion of the underdog.  He was an important part of a circle of poets and writers that included Leigh Hunt, Lord Byron, Thomas Love Peacock and his wife, Mary Shelley (author of Frankenstein).  He was also involved with other politically progressive thinkers of the day, including William Godwin (Mary’s father), and influenced the political thinking of Henry David Thoreau.  After his death, Shelley became the idol of figures as diverse as Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw and W. B. Yeats.

Though he died just before his 30th birthday, Shelley’s literary output is remarkable for its virtuosity, its lyricism and its breadth of intellectual scope.  What might have been had he lived longer must remain a mystery, as the poet drowned in a sudden storm off the Gulf of Spezia in his sailing boat, the Don Juan.  The boat had been custom-built for the poet, and sank.  Shelley’s body was cremated on the beach near Viareggio.  Surprisingly, the poet’s heart would not burn, no matter the degree of heat and flame, and his widow took it away with her.

The Funeral of Shelley

Such a Romantic figure would be irresistible to a sensibility like Symonds’, and it is clear that the later aesthete falls, to some degree, in love with his subject.  Here is Symonds on Shelley’s boyhood:

Such as the child was, we shall find the man to have remained unaltered through the short space of life allowed him. Loving, innocent, sensitive, secluded from the vulgar concerns of his companions, strongly moralized after a peculiar and inborn type of excellence, drawing his inspirations from Nature and from his own soul in solitude, Shelley passed across the stage of this world, attended by a splendid vision which sustained him at a perilous height above the kindly race of men. The penalty of this isolation he suffered in many painful episodes. The reward he reaped in a measure of more authentic prophecy, and in a nobler realization of his best self, than could be claimed by any of his immediate contemporaries.

Here Symonds describes the physical appearance of the poet:  His eyes were blue, unfathomably dark and lustrous. His hair was brown; but very early in life it became grey, while his unwrinkled face retained to the last a look of wonderful youth. It is admitted on all sides that no adequate picture was ever painted of him. Mulready is reported to have said that he was too beautiful to paint. And yet, although so singularly lovely, he owed less of his charm to regularity of feature or to grace of movement, than to an indescribable personal fascination.

It is clear that Symonds was besotted by Shelley, and that his feelings for the poet cloud his vision.  He blithely excuses some of the poet’s most egregious behavior, and sponges away sometimes deadly effect he had on others.  Shelley becomes, for Symonds, an ideal; a swain of infinite beauty and even greater promise.  Near the close of the book, Symonds writes:

Shelley in his lifetime bound those who knew him with a chain of loyal affection, impressing observers so essentially different as Hogg, Byron, Peacock, Leigh Hunt, Trelawny, Medwin, Williams, with the conviction that he was the gentlest, purest, bravest, and most spiritual being they had ever met. The same conviction is forced upon his biographer. During his four last years this most loveable of men was becoming gradually riper, wiser, truer to his highest instincts. The imperfections of his youth were being rapidly absorbed. His self-knowledge was expanding, his character mellowing, and his genius growing daily stronger. Without losing the fire that burned in him, he had been lessoned by experience into tempering its fervour; and when he reached the age of twenty-nine, he stood upon the height of his most glorious achievement, ready to unfold his wings for a yet sublimer flight. At that moment, when life at last seemed about to offer him rest, unimpeded activity, and happiness, death robbed the world of his maturity. Posterity has but the product of his cruder years, the assurance that he had already outlived them into something nobler, and the tragedy of his untimely end.

Like many who value art above mere fact, Symonds was incapable of resisting Shelley’s romantic charm.  The book remains a revealing portrait of both subject and author.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Magnificent Ambersons, by Booth Tarkington

Not many people read Booth Tarkington (1869-1946) these days, and that is a great shame.  Tarkington was, at one time, one of the nation’s most popular writers, and he was known for the gentle lyricism of his prose as well as the faintly wistful and nostalgic tone of his worldview.

Tarkington is only one of three novelists (the others being William Faulkner and John Updike) who won the Pulitzer Prize for literature more than once.  He won the prize, most significantly, for what has now become his most famous novel, The Magnificent Ambersons (1918; won the Pulitzer in 1919).

Many would argue that it is his nostalgia for a vanished America that has hurt Tarkington’s cultural currency, but I doubt that.  No, I believe that Tarkington’s literary reputation was glossed over because he saw both the positives and negatives of the encroaching Modern World, and was very clear-eyed in his assessment of it.

This came to me quite distinctly while recently rereading Ambersons.  It is the second novel in his Growth trilogy, which included the now-forgotten The Turmoil (1915) and The Midlander (1923; retitled National Avenue in 1927).  Ambersons was famously made into a film by Orson Welles in 1942, but the film, fine as it is, was but a pale reflection of the novel.

The novel tells the story of George Amberson Minafer.  He is born into the wealthy and socially-connected Amberson family and is, for want of a better term, a spoiled brat.  Shallow, snobbish, uninterested (and uninteresting), his bad-boy behavior has a certain energy and dash, but he is a thoroughly selfish and wretched human being.

George behaves as a young prince in his Midwestern town, and, for all practical purposes, he is.  When Eugene Morgan, who courted his mother, Isabel, back in the day, returns to town, George meets and falls in love with Morgan’s daughter, Lucy.  When George’s father dies, it seems as if Morgan and Isabel will finally reunite; however, George’s selfishness and high-handed behavior ruins their chance of happiness.

When George leaves with his mother for Europe, the Amberson fortune slowly crumbles while Morgan, who makes automobiles, grows richer and richer.  George and Isabel return to the town, where Isabel dies.  When his grandfather dies almost immediately after, George learns that the family is now completely destitute.

Throughout the novel, the townsfolk grow to hate George, and pray that he will get his ‘comeuppance.’  This he receives in spades, losing his family, his home, his fortune, his reputation and his self-respect.  He is relegated to living with, and caring for, his maiden Aunt Fanny and working for a chemical plant.  Worse yet, George loses his hometown, as well.  As auto-manufacturing grows more important, the town grows into a city, and then into a metropolis.  The landmarks of the Gilded Age created by the Ambersons are gently erased by time, leaving the world he knew and his family name little more than a dim memory.

However, in Tarkington’s world, nothing is ever so simple.  While George certainly gets everything he deserves, and then some, we cannot help but feel sorry for him.  His crimes seem to be no more than the arrogance of youth and the stupidity of entitlement.  In fact, in adversity George rises to the occasion handsomely.

More tellingly – and here is where Tarkington loses credibility with Modernists – he makes clear exactly what was lost by a world changing so much.  Though George’s world was class-conscious, insular and snobbish, the new democratic age is chaotic, uncertain and vulgar.  Where George’s world was parochial, self-centered and precious, the modern world hopelessly diffuse, avaricious and filthy.  Tarkington saw it all – the failure of multiculturism, the rubble of our cities, the noise of our “culture,” our obsession with hucksterism and our deluded sense of social mobility.  He knew that the gains were real, but the losses irrevocable and possibly fatal.

The engine of change here, for Tarkington and the town, was the advent of the automobile.  Life got faster, noisier and dirtier.  Yes, opportunities and horizons expanded, but at what cost?

Our recent rereading hit a significant chord because, all too often, we see ourselves as a (hopefully much nicer) later version of George.  Most of the time, I no longer recognize my city, my country or my world.  Here, for example, is George walking around what was once a beautiful, turn-of-the century town:

On Sunday mornings Fanny went to church and George took long walks. He explored the new city, and found it hideous, especially in the early spring, before the leaves of the shade trees were out. Then the town was fagged with the long winter and blacked with the heavier smoke that had been held close to the earth by the smoke-fog it bred. Every-thing was damply streaked with the soot: the walls of the houses, inside and out, the gray curtains at the windows, the windows themselves, the dirty cement and unswept asphalt underfoot, the very sky overhead. Throughout this murky season he continued his explorations, never seeing a face he knew—for, on Sunday, those whom he remembered, or who might remember him, were not apt to be found within the limits of the town, but were congenially occupied with the new outdoor life which had come to be the mode since his boyhood. He and Fanny were pretty thoroughly buried away within the bigness of the city.

One of his Sunday walks, that spring, he made into a sour pilgrimage. It was a misty morning of belated snow slush, and suited him to a perfection of miserableness, as he stood before the great dripping department store which now occupied the big plot of ground where once had stood both the Amberson Hotel and the Amberson Opera House. From there he drifted to the old "Amberson Block," but this was fallen into a back-water; business had stagnated here. The old structure had not been replaced, but a cavernous entryway for trucks had been torn in its front, and upon the cornice, where the old separate metal letters had spelt "Amberson Block," there was a long billboard sign: "Doogan Storage."

To spare himself nothing, he went out National Avenue and saw the piles of slush-covered wreckage where the Mansion and his mother's house had been, and where the Major's ill-fated five "new" houses had stood; for these were down, too, to make room for the great tenement already shaped in unending lines of foundation. But the Fountain of Neptune was gone at last—and George was glad that it was!

He turned away from the devastated site, thinking bitterly that the only Amberson mark still left upon the town was the name of the boulevard—Amberson Boulevard. But he had reckoned without the city council of the new order, and by an unpleasant coincidence, while the thought was still in his mind, his eye fell upon a metal oblong sign upon the lamppost at the corner. There were two of these little signs upon the lamp-post, at an obtuse angle to each other, one to give passers-by the name of National Avenue, the other to acquaint them with Amberson Boulevard. But the one upon which should have been stenciled "Amberson Boulevard" exhibited the words "Tenth Street."

George stared at it hard. Then he walked quickly along the boulevard to the next corner and looked at the little sign there. "Tenth Street."

It had begun to rain, but George stood unheeding, staring at the little sign. "Damn them!" he said finally, and, turning up his coat-collar, plodded back through the soggy streets toward "home."

Our cities, our countries, our very lives are all dynamic things.  They are supposed to change.  But all too often change is heralded as a great and good thing simply because it is a change, because it is new.  We think of what we gain but are seldom very conscious of what we lose.  While most critics and academics embraced writers who sang of the emerging American Century, Tarkington told us all what it would cost.  He was the Poet Laureate of Loss; no wonder his cultural currency is low.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

NY Comics and Picture-Story Symposium at The New School

Regular readers of The Jade Sphinx are well aware of our love of both illustrated books and comics, one of the few, great indigenous American art forms.  So, we are eagerly anticipating a symposium slated for tonight, March 18 -- the 79th meeting of the NY Comics and Picture-Story Symposium at Parsons, the New School.  The presentation is Picture Stories/Stories with Pictures, and it will be hosted by scholar Patricia Mainardi

Few fans of the comics medium seem to be aware of Rodolphe Töpffer (1799 – 1846).  Töpffer was a Swiss-born teacher, author, painter and cartoonist.  He illustrated many books which are considered to be among the earliest examples of the comic form.

However, while Töpffer was creating his first comic books in the 1830s, book illustration was also undergoing a transformation.  Where books once had a few, sparse illustrations, new printing techniques encouraged hundreds of illustrations.  Artists were now faced with new questions: What to draw? How to draw? How to integrate text and image?  The lecture will survey the parallel history of illustrated books and comic books, mirror images of each other in their first flower of development.

Patricia Mainardi is an art historian, professor emerita in the doctoral program in art history at the City University of New York. A specialist in 19th Century art, she has published numerous books and articles on topics from painting to comics and is currently completing  a book on nineteenth-century illustrated print culture, including comics, caricature, and illustrated books and periodicals.

The above illustration is by French illustrator, engraver and painter Tony Johannot (1803-1852), and reads:  And so, in the guise of friendship, the villain managed to steal my brain, which he took for himself, for, as my head shrunk in volume, his grew larger, published in Travel Where You Will, Book Written with Pen and Crayon, with Vignettes, Legends, Episodes, Commentaries, Incidents, Notes and Poetry, 1843.

The lecture will take place at 7:00 p.m. at Parsons The New School, 2 West 13th Street, in the Bark Room (off the lobby). It is free and open to the public.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Hadleigh Castle, by John Constable (1829)

A little more John Constable (1776-1837) today as we wash the taste of Francis Bacon out of our mouths.

Constable was born on the River Stour in Suffolk; his parents were Golding and Ann (Watts) Constable.  Golding was a wealthy corn merchant, and owner of a small ship, The Telegraph.  John was the second son, but his older brother was mentally disabled and John was expected to pursue the family business.  John dutifully worked in the business once leaving school, but a series of sketching trips in Suffolk and Essex made it clear that John was more artist than businessman.

Constable would paint the English countryside for the rest of his life.  Early on he met George Beaumont, a collector who showed young John a series of pictures that opened up his eyes to the possibilities of art; and Thomas Smith, a professional artist who encouraged John to paint (but suggested he remain in the family business).

In 1799, John persuaded his father to let him pursue a career in art, and the elder Constable provided a small allowance.  John entered the Royal Academy Schools and attended life classes and studied and copied the old masters.  He would exhibit paintings at the Royal Academy by 1803.  He was also a devotee of religious sermons and poems. 

John had a childhood friendship with Maria Bicknell, which later blossomed into a deep and abiding love.  The marriage was opposed by Maria’s family, who saw John as a social inferior; John’s parents approved, but would not support the couple until John was more financially secure in his art.  They were married in 1816.

John was not a very financially successful artist; and he struggled to raise the seven children they had.  In 1828, Maria became ill with tuberculosis and died; she was only 41.  Constable never fully recovered from the blow, and wrote hourly do I feel the loss of my departed Angel—God only knows how my children will be brought up.  He did manage, however, and Constable cared for his children for the rest of his life.

In 1814, John visited the ruins of Hadleigh Castle while touring Essex with his friend, Reverend W.W. Driffield.  He wrote to Maria: there is a ruin of a castle which from its situation is really a fine place – it commands a view of the Kent hills, the nore and north foreland & looking many miles to the sea.  He made drawings in his sketchbook and based the painting (and preliminary sketches) upon this first impression.

This was a particularly difficult time for John.  It looked as if his plans to marry Maria would come to naught, and that the position of their mutual families would keep them apart.  He wrote that the melancholy grandeur of the sea shore reflected his mood, and he put aside the drawings for some time.

John returned to his previous sketches following Maria’s death.  This scene of loneliness and desolation, of ruin and remorse, must have been deeply aligned with his own mourning and sense of loss.  This picture, some six feet in length, was a work that helped lift the painter out of his depression.

It’s been said that if Turner was a painter of the sun, then Constable was a painter of the sky.  It is almost as if he painted his entire autobiography in the sky.  In this picture, a solitary shepherd or wayfarer (along with his dog), comes upon the majestic and romantic castle ruins.  One of the towers has a deep tear in its very center, as if rent by a heavenly finger.  Holding a staff, the figure is a pilgrim, or a searcher; not unlike the shepherds who found their way to Bethlehem.  (It is possible that he is one of the attendant cattle herders, but his isolation from the cattle and holding of the staff makes the probability of his being a spiritual pilgrim too compelling.)

A herder and cattle are visible in the distance; they, at one with nature, take the landscape for granted.  And the sky above, melancholy with clouds, is broken by shafts of heavenly light.  The sea, equally eternal, is brilliantly illuminated by the shafts of light.

The palpable sense of mystery, of eternity, of the sublime is overwhelming.  No ordinary landscape, Constable’s picture of Hadliegh Castle is a man’s soul laid bare.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, by John Constable (1831)

After looking at the disgusting and depressing picture by Francis Bacon (1909-1992) Tuesday, I thought we’d cleanse our palette with a little more uplifting art news.  This landscape picture by John Constable (1776-1837), Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, painted in 1831, is now starting a UK tour, and is currently on show at the National Museum in Cardiff.  For anyone traveling through the UK in the next several months, it is essential viewing.

The picture, considered by many to be Constable’s masterpiece, shows Salisbury Cathedral under a heavy cloud broken by an arched rainbow, as seen from across the River Nadder.  Scholars have interpreted the picture as the artist’s attempt to come to grips with the recent death of his wife.

Constable himself thought highly of the picture, writing that it was better than anything I have yet done.  The picture was first exhibited at the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition in 1831 and later in a regional exhibition in Birmingham.  Constable wanted it to be viewed by as many people as possible, and this traveling show continues his wish well into the 21st Century.  The picture will stay in Cardiff until September before moving on.

Constable grew up in Suffolk and he painted so many landscapes there that the area in now known as Constable Country.  Constable’s happy marriage ended when his wife Maria died from tuberculosis in 1828.  This devastated the artist, and he wore black for the rest of his life.  He wrote to his brother Golding, the face of the World is totally changed to me.

In contemporary art world parlance, Constable is stodgy, boring and hopelessly twee.  We here at the Jade Sphinx feel differently.  On the contrary, his work is bracing, detailed, powerful and visionary.  Let’s take a closer look at this picture.

Following the death of Maria Constable, John joined Archdeacon Fisher in Salisbury, where the prelate encouraged him to create a picture for the Royal Academy.  Constable made sketches there for what would ultimately become this picture.

Though Constable made a study of rainbows, the rainbow here is not an “accurate” depiction.  Rather, it seems to be more symbolic of God’s covenant with man promising the sublime after a life of difficultly.  Constable was also inspired by poet James Thomson (1700-1748), whose poem The Seasons provided succor to the grieving artist.  In fact, Constable selected lines from the poem to appear alongside the painting’s title in the Royal Academy catalog. 

As from the face of heaven the scatter’d clouds
Tumultous rove, th’interminable sky
Sublimer swells, and o’er the world expands
A purer azure. Through the lightened air
A higher lustre and a clearer calm
Diffusive tremble; while, as if in sign
Of danger past, a glittering robe of joy,
Set off abundant by the yellow ray,
Invests the fields, and nature smiles reviv’d.

The arc of the rainbow ends at the home of Archdeacon Fisher, who has provided Constable so much support in his grief.  The rainbow is no mere dab of color to help the composition; rather, it is an affirmation of Constable’s faith in the face of crippling despair.  It is also no accident that the top of the cathedral spire stands out in the one bright spot of the overcast sky. 

Two other things to notice – both the cart driver talks to his companion, oblivious to the sky, but the dog in the foreground gaze openly at the rainbow, while the horses seem to bend their heads in reverence.  Man often misses the divine cues provided by the natural world, but some things are wiser than man.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Expensive Garbage: Portrait of George Dyer Talking, by Francis Bacon (1966)

So, today we look at another example of the lunacy of the current art market.  On Valentine’s Day this year, the above painting, Portrait of George Dyer Talking, by “artist” Francis Bacon (1909-1992) sold at Christie’s, London, for £42,194,500.  The seller was reported to be a Mexican financier, David Martinez Guzman, who bought the picture from a private collector five years ago for $12 million. 

Two thoughts, before going a bit into the history of this truly revolting picture.  First, I think we have to create a whole new terminology when talking about the “value” of art.  One yardstick of value is the price these things fetch – rubbish sold by hucksters, sharks and con men to blinkered, unthinking, rich and over-entitled dunderheads.  If we want to say that the Portrait of George Dryer Talking is “valuable” because it fetched such a high price, fine.  However, by any aesthetic yardstick, the picture is a ridiculous and mendacious piece of calculated chicanery, without anything to recommend it to anyone with even the slightest sense of beauty or taste.  In short, perhaps we need a new word for “value” to apply towards art that uplifts, instructs, is beautiful, comments on the human condition, and brings the viewer closer to a sense of the sublime, and leave “value” for expensive garbage of the type created by Bacon and peddled by corrupt auctioneers.

Second, the prices fetched for works by people such as Bacon and Damien Hirst (born 1965) and Tracey Emin (born 1963) indicate only one thing: that more and more members of the 1% have too much money and too little taste.  The prices realized for these pictures have nothing whatsoever to do with intrinsic merit, and everything to do with a rapacious art market that turns art into a commodity, and plays into the insecurities of collectors by convincing them that junk is art.  Sad times, indeed.

Above is the picture, along with a photo of the original model, George Dyer.  The story goes something like this:  in 1963 Dyer, a petty criminal and sneak thief, broke into a home in South Kensington.  The place was filled with canvas and paint and half-finished male nudes.  A man – painter Bacon – comes into the room and says, “you’ve got two choices.  I can call the police, or you can come to bed with me.”  Dyer chooses the latter – in the long run, he would have been safer in prison.

Bacon, an abusive drunk, became Dyer’s lover.  Dyer became Bacon’s muse.  Bacon spends years abusing Dyer horribly.  The two stayed together until Dyer committed suicide on October 24, 1971, two days before Bacon’s career-making retrospective at the Grand Palais.  By that time, Dyer himself had become an alcoholic, and suffered long-term depression.  He killed himself with alcohol and barbiturates in a room at the Paris Hotel where he reconciled with Bacon following a breakup.  He was only 36. 

Let’s take a look at this picture – Dyer sits in a bare, purple room with a blood-red carpet lit by a single light bulb.  One eye seems to be missing, almost as if it were gouged out of the skull.  The mouth is covered by gauze or bandaging; at any rate, as an avenue for speech, sound or nourishment, it has been rendered void. 

Dyer’s arms are fused before him, much as if he were in a straightjacket, his hands rendered invisible.  One leg knees upward, as if seeking release, but both legs fuse into an indeterminate swatch of color.  His legs have been rendered as useless as his eye and his hands and his mouth.  Papers of some kind litter the floor, but Dyer looks away from them, in fact, he seems to be trying to get away from them.

What images come to mind?  Prisons?  Abu Ghraib?  Mad houses?  Thoughts of torture, torment and humiliation?  Whatever comes through in this picture, Bacon’s smothering, suffocating influence on Dyer is perfectly clear, as well as Dyer’s anguish.

That such an ugly, decadent and anti-human picture can be considered a modern “masterpiece” is a telling and shameful indictment of us as a culture and as human beings.  That someone would invest £42,194,500 in it – even if the buyer himself thought it was rubbish – is an unpardonable offense to man and nature; much like investing in Nazis in 1933 because they look like a good bet.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Ulf Dingerdissen Wins the Eleventh Annual Graduate Student Symposium in 19th Century Art

Ulf Dingerdissen

One of the great advantages of living in New York is vitality of the artistic academic community, and the opportunities for deep conversation, enriched understanding and continuing education.

These thoughts ran through my mind as I had the pleasure of watching Ulf Dingerdissen, of the University of Goettingen, Germany, win the Eleventh Annual Graduate Student Symposium in 19th Century Art for his paper and presentation, The Practical Realization of Romantic Art Theory: The Riepenhausen Brothers and Their Etchings for The Life And Death of Saint Genevieve

During his presentation, Dingerdissen demonstrated that when Franz and Johannes Riepenhausen published their cycle of fourteen etchings for Ludwig Tieck’s drama Leben und Tod der Heiligen Genoveva (1806), Romantic art moved from a purely literary sphere to include representational art.  Dingerdissen compared these etchings during his presentation with writings of the most influential Romantic art theorists, demonstrating that the Riepenhausen brothers translated Romantic art theory into practice.  It was a remarkable performance as young Dingerdissen fielded many questions from a room of dedicated and welcoming scholars.

Dingerdissen was joined by nine other young scholars at an all-day symposium hosted by Dahesh Museum of Art; the symposium was co-sponsored by the Association of Historians of Nineteenth-Century Art (AHNCA).  The Dahesh bestowed the Dahesh Museum Art Prize for Best Paper, a gift from the Mervat Zahid Cultural Foundation.

This year, there were over 55 submissions for the prize – with nine making the cut for yesterday’s public presentation.  Dingerdissen’s paper will be published in an upcoming issue of Nineteenth Century Art Worldwide.

The nine speakers were introduced and their sessions moderated by Petra ten-Doesschate Chu, of Seaton Hall University, Peter Trippi, President of the AHNCA, and Patricia Mainardi, of the Graduate Center, CUNY.

“The quality of work we get always astounds me,” Chu told your correspondent during a break.  “This symposium has become an increasingly important event in the art scholarship world because the papers are so good.  The atmosphere of the symposium is also highly charged because both scholars and alumni attend and ask probing questions and provide a collegial atmosphere for group learning.”

Handlin, Slavkin and Jasinski Talk During Break

Aside from Dingerdissen, many of the presenters made a particular impression.  Mary Slavkin, Graduate Center, City University of New York, used statistical analysis of reviews and catalogs to make revisionist points in Statistically Speaking: Exhibitors at the Salons of the Rose + Croix.  Slavkin raised the point of fame and celebrity during an artists’ lifetime, and how (or if) that means anything to the historical record.  I found her use of scientific methodology to make aesthetic points interesting and refreshing.

Also terrific was the presentation by Emily Handlin, Brown University, The Naked, Absolute Fact: Photography and Other Famous Truth-Tellers.  In her presentation, Handlin demonstrated how Eadweard Muybridge’s photographs from Animal Locomotion (1887) raised questions about the relationships between visual technologies, perception, and knowledge. Handlin made wonderful use of composite photos that were used in the 19th Century to prove various points, and discussed how the use of them continues, to one degree or another, to this day.

Your correspondent was also deeply impressed by Kylynn Jasinski, University of Pittsburgh, and her presentation The Aryan Contribution: Visualizing Race Through Architectural History in Charles Garnier’s History of Human Habitation.  In her paper, Jasinski writes of Charles Garnier’s display at the 1889 Universal Exposition, which integrated then-contemporary theories of race to show the history of the Aryan migration through architecture.  Never missing an opportunity to talk about the American Old West, your correspondent spent a wonderful few minutes after the lecture taking with Ms. Jasinski about the Native Americans who performed at various world expositions with Buffalo Bill Cody.

There were also wonderful contributions by: Kara Fiedorek, Rachel Newman, Kanitra Fletcher, Russell Stephens and Ágnes Sebestyén.  

Finally, kudos again to the Dahesh for making their space so much more than a mere museum store.  From Salon Thursdays to events like this, the Dahesh continually looks for ways to drive the relevance of 19th Century Art, underscoring a deep and abiding commitment to education, outreach and scholarship.

Ágnes Sebestyén

Friday, March 7, 2014

Dave Gilbert and Buckles Interview, Part IV

Today we conclude our interview with cartoonist Dave Gilbert (born 1971),creator of the comic strip Buckles.  As someone dog-sitting for the past four months (and with two more months to go), I can say that if dogs had opposable thumbs, they would rule the world by now….

How do you work with King Features?

I e-mail all of my work.  I draw classically, using an ink brush and Bristol board, and then scan it into my computer and color it there.  American Color takes care of the reproduction.   Bud Grace, the guy who does Ernie, also e-mails it in.  I think Ernie is terrific, it kind of reminds me of early MAD Magazine.

What about your fans?  Do you get a lot of mail?  Do they suggest stories?

I get a fair amount of mail.  I try to answer all of it, although sometimes I miss a few.  And the ones I miss always write me back, and remind me that I haven’t answered!  I find I have a hard time sometimes answering letters, and e-mail is easier.  I haven’t gotten ideas from readers yet, but very often they write to tell me that Buckles is just like their own dog.  And I like that, it’s what I’m setting out to do.

How long does it take you to draw an individual strip?

Depends on the action, on my mood, everything.  Some days I could crank a strip out, even when starting with no ideas, from beginning to end, in less than an hour.  And other days, it could take upwards of six hours.  It really depends.

I understand that Buckles has been optioned for an animated series.

Yes, through Hearst Entertainment, the same people who did the Bloom County special and The Tick.  I thought The Tick was brilliantly funny. 

Being a former animator, would you be working on the animation yourself?

No.  They asked if I wanted to, but I think I’ll focus my energies on the strip.  But I’ll put my hands into the show as much as I can.

Would you write it?

No, but I wouldn’t mind writing a few episodes, and I’m supposed to see everything before it goes through.  As the creator, I’m want to make sure it turns out as well as it can.  But, I haven’t talked to them in  while, and I don’t know the current status of the project.

And in your dreams, who’s the ideal voice for Buckles?

I don’t know!   I guess it’s mine, only a little faster.  I thought about that when Hearst brought it up. I know the voices have to fit the characters and the way they’re drawn.  I think Buckles needs to sound... eager, and kind of on the edge.

Have you been getting a lot of reader response?

When Buckles first came out, a lot of papers were doing reader polls on their favorite strips.  Happily, Buckles won a whole bunch of them, nearly five across the nation.  One in Burlington, Vermont, and one in Oklahoma, and a couple of others I can’t remember.  It was a good beginning for the strip.

Any plans for Buckles merchandising?

I would love it.  I always felt that I would know I had made it in the industry when I had a stuffed animal.  When I could hold one up and say here’s a 3-D, solid character.  Or a Buckles cup, that would be fun.  I might worry about over-merchandising.   I agree with Bill Watterson about purism, but I don’t know how far I would take it.  I’ve already done the poor thing, and it’s vastly overrated.  I do care about my characters though, and I’m very cautious about what could happen to them.  After something like Buckles underwear, I don’t know where it would go.  I think I would need a Buckles book, first.

Are there plans for a book?

Not anything solid, now.

Do you have plans for branching out into other strips? 

I don’t know.  I’m really happy with Buckles, and that takes up all of my time.  I don’t know how I could break up my time to do a different strip.  Maybe one day I would add a different part to Buckles, that would sometimes make it feel like another strip.  When Watterson did Spaceman Spiff in Calvin and Hobbes, he got to do a whole different strip.  Or Snoopy and the Red Baron.  And these things bring a whole new dimension to the characters. 

Any thoughts on a cartoonist’s life?

Yeah.  Even when I’m away from my desk, I’m still working.  The best part, though, is that I can roll out of bed and into my desk.  It’s not a long commute.  I don’t know what I would be if I weren’t a cartoonist.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Dave Gilbert and Buckles Interview, Part III

This week, we are running an interview I conducted some 18 years ago with celebrated cartoonist Dave Gilbert (born 1971), creator of Buckles.  We open with him talking about his first trip about a bird named Abercrombie, which never really went anywhere, and how it was later worked into Buckles…

How far did Abercrombie ever go?  Was it actually ever syndicated?

No.  I sent it off to the syndicates, and King Features was the only one that sent me any real feedback on it.  Jaye Kennedy sent my stuff back saying that it's a strong bird strip, but not strong enough to be syndicated.  He recommended making the old couple young, and I did that, and took some other suggestions, and it eventually evolved into Buckles.

Do you think dogs are funnier than birds?

I don't know.  I think Buckles has more personality than Abercrombie.  But birds are funny ... look at Shoe

I never think of him as a bird!  With his rumpled sports clothes and cigar, I always think of him as a person.

He's a person who happens to have feathers.  I have no problem with that, though, and don't mind it if it works for the overall premise of the strip.  I had tried another strip called The Back Alley, which had a whole bunch of talking animals and took place in a back alley.  It was about animals, but really they were just little people with fur on their faces.

So tell us about Buckles.  We know he's a dog, with real dog limitations...  What else about him?

He's a mutt, and the biggest thing about him is his insecurity.  And he takes his insecurity to the max.  He's very emotional.  I don't know if he's pretty much like every dog, or mostly like me. 

Do you think that tapping into that insecurity is something that's very ‘90s, and that helped the strip?  Is there something about Buckles that says something about us in the ‘90s?

Buckles, having a lot of my personality, is easy for me to write.  I have a pretty good idea of how I would react to most situations, and I guess I’m a pretty ‘90s guy.  I don’t know ... I guess my personality was marketable.  I hope it stays that way.

What about the other characters in the strip?  What about the couple?

They’re Paul and Jill.  Paul is pretty much the owner, and he sees Buckles as a dog. Because Buckles is a dog, Paul thinks Buckles should sit when he’s told and stay off the couch, that kind of stuff.  He’s kind of hard, but in a dog-owner kind of way.  And Jill, who is the softer, kinder one, treats Buckles like a kid and let’s him on the couch, things like that.  It drives Paul crazy.  There is a bird, too, named Arden, who used to be named Abercrombie.  He’s the backyard friend.  There’s also a flea, who you never see.  He’s very intelligent, and whenever Buckles is in trouble, or needs someone to talk to, he turns to the flea.  The flea’s the smartest of the two... he can read, and Buckles can find things out that way.

Hopefully that’s not based on you!  How far ahead are you on Buckles?

About at the deadline. 

Do you find that you’re composing the gag, and then drawing the strip?  Or drawing the strip and then coming up with the gag?  How do you work out your ideas?

There’s so many different ways to do it.  Sometimes an idea just pops into my head and it’ll be there.  Lately I struggle and struggle.  Mostly I get the idea or the gag first, and then I work around how I’m going to draw it.  The drawing is really important:  I like to put a lot emotion into Buckles’ visuals as well as the writing.

Do you keep a notebook of things to develop into ideas?

Oh yeah.  I’ve got several, and I always go back to them.

Are you always working on it?

I’m always thinking about it.  I have yet to figure out a way to stop thinking about it.  I set up a schedule that I tried to work by, but sometimes I’m at the drawing board at midnight after I’ve come up with a particularly good idea.  Even when I’m at the mall, or just trying to relax, I think that I should be working. 

Is there any one particular venue that’s good for ideas?  Do you get most of them from the newspaper, or television, or while sitting in the bathtub?

That changed a lot.  I would flip through books, like Bloom County or Calvin and Hobbes, and they would inspire me.  Or I’d flip through Newsweek, and for a long while I used to get ideas while taking a shower.  Now, I don’t know, it really switches.  I don’t know where they’re coming from, lately, I just sit down to think and hope they come!

More Dave Gilbert and Buckles tomorrow!

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Dave Gilbert and Buckles Interview, Part II

Thanks to the thunderous response to our recent interview with comics legend Lee Falk (1911-1999), we pulled this interview with Buckles cartoonist Dave Gilbert (born 1971) from the archive.  I have also been dog-sitting for the past four months, and my temporary pet, Orpheo, hopes that you enjoy this insight into a dog’s life….

So you started cartooning in school? 


Did you have any formal art training?

No, not really.  Just the usual stuff in high school.  I tried taking art classes, but with mixed success.  I took a cartooning class and practically failed it. 


Yeah.  The teacher told me not to pursue cartooning:  I had no talent and no future. 

What kept you from listening?

I liked cartooning too much. 

So what made you think of Buckles?

He's a dog that I would draw as a warm-up exercise, something I would doodle when I sat down at the drawing table.  Before I draw I always have to doodle first.  Originally, he used to have his ears up.  Then, one day I just put the ears down, instead of upwards, and somehow his personality just kind of came out.  He was this insecure little dog with big eyes, and slightly neurotic.  And he started taking on a life of his own.

And when was this?  While you were still in school, or when you worked as an animator?

It was just after my first year of college, and when I worked in animation.

Was Buckles based on a dog of yours?

Actually, he's based on me, and my whole personality.

So you're Buckles?

Yeah, pretty much.  My friends say that.  They go as far as saying I look like Buckles, but I don't get that.

Do people think you’re funny?

(Thoughtfully)  Gee, I hope so.  At least, I haven’t had any complaints.

Was Buckles your first shot at a strip?

No, I had another strip called Abercrombie, which was about a bird.  There was a dog in it that was just like Buckles, but the bird was the main character  Buckles, who was called Scruffy in this strip, lived with the bird in an old couple’s backyard.  All the characters were there, I just kind of rearranged them for Buckles.  I made the couple younger, and I made the dog the main character because I always thought he was funniest one in it anyhow.  But I was hesitant to do a dog strip because there are so many of them out there already.  Having my own, syndicated strip was something I wanted my whole life.  I just turned 26 this year, and I was syndicated at 24, which made me the youngest syndicated cartoonist at the time.

I think there's something about dogs ... because they are so human, or because they have so many human traits.

I know what you mean, so I've tried to make Buckles different.  He's a dog, but I try to write him as a human.

You do things in your strip to keep him dog-like, rather than making him a human in a collar and leash.

He still has limitations.  He's still a dog.  The fact that he “talks” is that his owners know him so well they know what he means without his saying a word.  But he can't open doors, and he can't read. And there are other limitations that he's aware of, that he can't stand about himself, which is also an insecurity about him. 

What made you consciously set out thinking about his limitations as a dog when most other cartoonists treat their canine characters differently?  Was this your way of distancing Buckles from the rest of the pack?

When I first conceived Buckles, I did some strips and sent them to the syndicates, never thinking that it would go anywhere.  I thought a dog strip would be too limiting.  And I guess that's where the notion of keeping him more like a dog came from, of taking his imitations and turning them into an advantage.  It really works for him not to be able to do certain things, even though it's harder to write.  When he's walking down the street, for example, he can't read a STOP sign.  And since he can't read things, he has to find out information in other ways. 

But it also underscores that he's really a dog. 

Right.  You don't lose sight of the fact that he's an animal.  In most animal strips, they really don't look or behave like animals, just like funny-looking people. 

More Dave Gilbert and Buckles tomorrow!

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Dave Gilbert and Buckles Interview, Part I

We here at The Jade Sphinx have been dog-sitting since November for the world’s greatest canine, a Lab-Chow mix named Orpheo.  He is 16 years old, sweet tempered, and the best canine companion a man could have.

This is bound to amuse longtime friends of yours truly, as my hatred of pets of all kind has been the stuff of legend.  For years my immediate response upon touching (let alone petting) an animal was to wash my hands and control my breathing until a sense of cleanliness returned.  So when the notion of Orpheo staying with us for six months first came up, I balked.  But after several months of walking Orpheo, bathing Orpheo, playing with Orpheo and feeding Orpeho … I simply can’t imagine not having him nearby. 

Thinking about Orpheo inspired me to pull another story from the archives – and since we had such a positive reaction last week when we ran our interview with legendary comic strip creator Lee Falk (1911-1999), we decided to resurrect another interview with a celebrated pen-and-ink man.  The following is an interview we conducted in 1996 with cartoonist Dave Gilbert (born 1971), creator of the popular King Features comic strip, Buckles.

Orpheo and I hope you enjoy it.

Dave Gilbert made history when he was only 24 years-old.

It was then, in March, 1996, that King Features Syndicate first distributed his comic-strip Buckles, and Gilbert became the youngest cartoonist ever to write and draw a national strip.

Early success is something Buckles shares with his creator.  The plucky pooch quickly found national distribution in more than 100 newspapers, and went on to win reader polls in Oklahoma City and Salt Lake City (where he garnered a higher percentage of the vote than did Gov. Mike Leavitt in that year’s gubernatorial election).

Blond and blue-eyed, Gilbert looks more like a college kid than a nationally syndicated cartoonist.  Much of the Gilbert’s thoughts on life creep into his strip, and his fresh and sometimes quirky philosophy has been embraced by readers of all ages.  A recurring motif of the strip chronicles Buckles’ “romance” with a fireplug.  Because the fireplug is an inanimate object, Buckles projects all kinds of qualities and charms into it.  “Which I guess,” Gilbert says, “Is just my way of saying relationships are what you make of them.”

We caught up with Dave Gilbert at his home and studio in Syracuse, New York.
You were born and raised in Syracuse, New York?

Yep, I’ve been here all my life.  I don’t know if I want to stay.  The best thing about being a cartoonist is that I can work anywhere.  I could just pack up my computer system and go anywhere I wanted to.  But I think I’ll just stay here until I figure it out.

What first got you interested in comics and cartooning?

I guess I was always interested in them.  Disney animation was a big thing for me when I was a little kid.

Are there, or were there, any particular Disney movies that really did it for you?

No, I pretty much like them all.  I wanted to be an animator for the longest time.  In fact, I worked for an animation company here in Syracuse before I was syndicated.

What kind of work were you doing at the animation studio?

I was everything from a cleanup artist to an assistant animator.  I was also an animator, too, but not quite a full-blown one.  Then I discovered syndication, which I like much more.  Doing a syndicated strip, I have no boss...

Were there particular comic strips, or artists, that in some way inspired you?

Oh yeah.  Obviously Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes, Berkeley Breathed’s Bloom County, and Fox Trot.  They were my three major inspirations.

And what about that work lit your fire?  Was it just the medium, or the art, or what?

I think it was the characterization, and the way these guys wrote and drew.  I don’t think Fox Trot was as well drawn as the others, but the writing on that strip was just incredible.  There was something about all three strips that made them come alive.  Especially the characterizations of Calvin and Opus, they power both of their strips and make them fun.  They have a lot of life to them, and that's what I wanted to recreate in my own work.  I’d love to meet Berkeley Breathed, I hear he’s terrific.

I think Calvin goes back to a long tradition going back to Little Nemo in Slumberland, actually, with the sort of thing that a kids sees but other people don't.

Yeah.  That’s even in Walt Kelly’s Pogo to a degree, and he was another one of my major influences.

More Dave Gilbert and Buckles tomorrow!