Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Steven Lauritano at Salon Thursdays at the Dahesh

Once again the Dahesh Museum provides a haven for people passionate about the arts with yet another Salon Thursdays event.  These events are completely free to the public, featuring guest scholars, historians and artists making presentations that instruct and delight.

The Dahesh ushers in May with the delightfully titled Have Caryatids, Will Travel: Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s Architecture in Motion, presented by historian Steven Lauritano.  In his presentation, Lauritano will talk about the anonymous, ancient craftsman who first decided to substitute a sculpted female body for a load-bearing column.  This was a new element in the architectural vocabulary: a “caryatid.”  A caryatid is a fixed, structural member who, by virtue of her human form and gesture, suggests a capacity for movement. Such figures appeared only rarely during antiquity, yet the 19th Century witnessed a surge in popularity for the caryatid, with female architectural supports popping-up across European cities from London to Berlin. By following a sequence of these ‘modern’ caryatids – copied, modified, multiplied and re-deployed in the projects of Prussian architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781-1841) – Lauritano will showcase a little-appreciated portion of the 19th Century design world.

Steven Lauritano is a PhD candidate at Yale University in the History of Art Department. Lauritano currently serves as a fellow in the Berlin Program for Advanced German and European Studies at the Freie Universität Berlin, where he is completing his dissertation research on the architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel and the re-conception of spolia in 19th-century design.

The Dahesh Museum of Art Gift Shop is located at 145 Sixth Avenue, near the corner Dominick Street, in Manhattan.  This event is free, and starts at 6:30 PM.  The Dahesh is easily accessible from the 1 train to Houston Street, and the C and E trains to Spring Street.  The space is wheelchair accessible, and seating is first come, first served.  For further details about Salon Thursdays and the gift shop, call the Dahesh at 212.759.0606.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Cromwell Before the Coffin of Charles I, By Paul Delaroche (1831)

We close this weeklong look at the pictures of Paul Delaroche with a scene that happened (at last!) after an execution.  Here is Oliver Cromwell gazing at the body of his nemesis, Charles I.

As we remember from yesterday’s picture, Strafford Led to Execution, we know that Charles was a hard-headed practitioner of real politik, who did not hesitate to cast longtime friends to the wolves in the name of political expediency.  Charles fought the armies of the English and Scottish parliaments in the English Civil War. He was defeated in 1645, and surrendered to a Scottish force that handed him over to the English Parliament.  Charles refused to accede to demands for a constitutional monarchy, and escaped in 1647.  He was re-imprisoned on the Isle of Wight, where he forged an alliance with Scotland.  However, Oliver Cromwell had control over England by 1648, and then Charles was tried, convicted and executed for high treason in 1649.  The monarchy was abolished and the Commonwealth of England began (lasting a scant year, when the monarchy was restored to Charles’ son, Charles II). 

It’s important to remember that Delaroche was among the most popular and highest paid painters of his generation.  It was a generation that brooded upon the French Revolution decades earlier, and had lost much of its optimism.  Instead, Delaroche had a particular affinity for history’s victims.  One critic claimed he specifically chose subjects “that attack the nervous system of the public.”

Delaroche regularly synthesized French history through the prism of English history; and after the defeat of Waterloo there was a great interest in English history in France, and in the works of Walter Scott, Shakespeare and Byron.  Delaroche was drawn to the Civil War, which he saw as a forerunner of the French Revolution, where he cast Charles as a proto-Louis XVI and Cromwell as a less-dapper Napoleon.

Delaroche paints Cromwell Before the Coffin of Charles I with the Lord Protector—“brutal as fact” in the words of the poet Heinrich Heine—standing over the body of his defeated enemy. Though Delaroche would deny any specific connection, it is impossible not to interpret this work as a comment on recent French history.

Delaroche does not trust this man; preparatory drawing of Cromwell

Ever theatrical, Delaroche paints a tableaux.  We witness the horrible crimes of history, and watch the victors and victims saddled with their aftermath.  For greater verisimilitude, Delaroche built little stage sets, including plaster model figures, to help his artistic imagination.  More important, he never let actual history get in the way of a good story – in fact, the scene depicted above is apocryphal.  There is no record of Cromwell gazing at the corpse of his vanquished enemy, but Delaroche had heard the story and knew it contained all the artistic truth his history needed.

The important thing is that Delaroche always gets the big picture right: pity the suffering, despise the powerful and corrupt, and be deeply suspicious of the mob. 

The Cromwell of today’s picture does not seem to be the hero of English parliamentary law, but, rather, yet another politician ensuring that a powerful enemy was out of the way.  One hand rests by the hilt of his sword, the other holds open the coffin.  The tiled floor suggests, to me, a chessboard, and Cromwell has certainly outmaneuvered the King.  There is deep satisfaction on his face, but what does he look at so intently?

Look closely at the corpse of the dead monarch, and you will see the bloody stiches around the dead man’s neck, where the king’s head had been sewn back on the corpse.  Nor is the dead man attired in kingly robes befitting his office, but a simple shroud of white, no different from that wrapping any dead commoner.  He does not lie in state, but his simple coffin is propped on a chair.

I do not think Delaroche believed Charles to be a good man (or monarch); in fact, his sympathetic painting of Thomas Wentworth before execution, a mean and deadly trick Charles played on a key ally, makes that fairly plain.  But, neither, does Cromwell seem to capture the painter’s admiration.

In fact, after painting so many history pictures with executions, betrayals and excess of power, I believe Paul Delaroche knew politicians for what they are.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Strafford Led to Execution by Paul Delaroche (1836)

After yesterday’s splendid (and harrowing) picture of the Execution of Lady Jane Grey, it dawned on me that political executions were something of a specialty of 19th Century French Academic Painter Paul Delaroche (1797-1857).  Here is yet another stunning example of his dramatic sense of history painting, and his sure hand in finding the telling, poignant psychological moment.

Strafford Led to Execution is not only an interesting picture, but it is also an important lesson to remember when anyone is naive enough to believe the cant of our political leaders (on the Left or the Right). 

Thomas Wentworth, 1st Earl of Strafford (1593–1641) was an English statesman and a major figure in the period leading up to the English Civil War. As we will see tomorrow, this was a period of particular interest to Delaroche, primarily because, I believe, he was able to look at French political history through the safe prism of English history.  Wentworth sat in Parliament and was a supporter of King Charles I, acting as Lord Deputy of Ireland from 1632–39. He became a leading advisor to Charles when he was recalled to England, strengthening the royal position against an increasingly powerful Parliament. When Parliament condemned him to death, Charles signed the death warrant and Wentworth was executed.

Wentworth was an advocate of the right of the Commons, as against those of the King, but after Parliament pushed through the Petition of Right in 1628 (and following the assassination of Wentworth’s pro-monarchist rival George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham), Wentworth had a change of heart of changed camps to the side of monarchy.  He proclaimed The authority of a king is the keystone which closeth up the arch of order and government.  Words, I’m sure, he would have loved to have later eaten.

Wentworth now worked to ensure the powers of monarchy; and, in the process, rose up the political ladder himself.  Now, when enmity arose between king and commons, Wentworth advocated the most extreme and violent measures to compel the compliance of errant Englishmen.

These actions did not endear Wentworth to Parliament.  By 1640, he had become the personification of Charles’ very rule.  When Charles was obligated to later summon Parliament once more, the first order of business was to impeach Wentworth.  However, years as courtier prepared him for all kinds of political maneuvering, and Wentworth repelled the charges and was acquitted.  Proving that the more things change the more they stay the same, Parliament decided to pass a bill of attainder, which condemned Wentworth to death, anyway.

Charles had guaranteed Wentworth’s safe passage during his most recent summons to London; in addition, the writ of execution could not be enforced without Charles’ signature, anyway.  But popular hatred for Wentworth threatened to escalate into full-scale revolt, and Charles had to do something.

In a grand gesture, Wentworth wrote to Charles, releasing him from any previous promise.

Sire, out of much sadness, I am come to a resolution of that which I take to be the best becoming me; and that is, to look upon the prosperity of your sacred person and the commonwealth as infinitely to be preferred before any man’s private interest. And therefore, in few words, as I have placed myself wholly upon the honour and justice of my peers, I do most humbly beseech you, for the preventing of such mischiefs as may happen by your refusal to pass this bill, by this means to remove this unfortunate thing forth of the way towards that blessed agreement, which God, I trust, shall for ever establish betwixt you and your subjects. Sire, my consent herein shall acquit you more to God than all the world can do beside. To a willing man there is no injury done; and as, by God’s grace, I forgive all the world with a calmness and meekness of infinite contentment to my disloding soul, so, Sire, I can give the life of this world with all cheerfulness imaginable, in the just acknowledgment of your exceeding favours; and only beg that, in your goodness, you would vouchsafe to cast your gracious regard upon my poor son and his three sisters, less or more, and no otherwise, than their unfortunate father shall appear more or less guilty of this death.

Imagine, then, Wentworth’s surprise when Charles…. Accepted.  Never imagining desertion from the monarch he had served so faithfully and too well, Wentworth quoted scripture, Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.  Political expedience and high human sacrifice are a never-changing constant in real politik.

Charles requested of Parliament that Wentworth have a week to prepare himself; Parliament instead scheduled the execution for the very next day.  He was beheaded on Tower Hill; supposedly the crowd watching the bloody scene was 200,000 strong.  (An over-estimation, surely, as that was nearly the entire population of London at the time.)

Charles would later hear his own death sentence, and one wonders if thoughts of his loyal servant came to mind.

Prior to leaving for execution, Wentworth received the blessing of Archbishop Laud, also imprisoned in the Tower by Charles I, and later executed in January 1645.  Like Wentworth, Laud was arrested, imprisoned and executed as a pawn in the struggle between King and Parliament.

Delaroche’s interest in martyred English royals mirrors post-revolutionary French artists’ fascination with English literature and history, just years after their own regicide.  If this picture lacks the strong, emotional impact of the pictures of Lady Jane Grey and the Children of Edward, that may be because Wentworth was no innocent victim.  However, it does depict grace under pressure as the courtier bows before the barred window of his fellow political prisoner to receive his blessing.

The figures are, once again, kept to a minimum: five principals and the arms of Laud, gesticulating through the bars.  The jailer in his red doublet rests unconcernedly on is sword, while the soldier on the far right looks up at Laud with a blandly disinterested air.  The judge, holding the order of execution, looks at Wentworth solemnly, but there is no pity or compassion; he is simply posing as he fulfills his orders.

The only emotion is that of Wentworth, which is profound resignation and disappointment; his son, who weeps, literally, on the arm of the law; and, interestingly, in the graceful gestures of condemned archbishop.  Delaroche’s message is clear: the wheels of government crush its people without concern or regret, its criminal acts implemented by disinterested bureaucrats.

More Delaroche tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Execution of Lady Jane Grey by Paul Delaroche (1834)

Gad, I love this picture; behold the wonders of 19th Century Academic Art in all its glory.  Be warned, though: the current art establishment believes The Execution of Lady Jane Grey to be little better than kitsch, and admiration for Delaroche’s technical virtuosity, theatrical sense and incomparable draftsmanship a sign of antiqued and louche taste. 

Paul Delaroche’s (1797-1857) remarkable drawing and sense of composition, the picture’s almost licked finish, and its sense of history tinged with Romanticism is everything that Modernism has rejected.  Delaroche, in fact, was too brilliant too late.  The very earliest proponents of Modernism began to disdain his achievement – Van Gogh called Delaroche one of the “very bad history painters” and affected to hate his work.  If we make a riposte to Van Gough through the mists of time, we must make sure to address his good ear…

The Execution of Lady Jane Grey was bequeathed to the Tate Gallery in the early 20th Century, and had been banished to storage by 1928.  In 1974, the picture was resurrected for show at the National Gallery.  And there, something quite remarkable happened.  The public, neither interested in, nor gulled by, mainstream art historians discovered the picture and lined up to see it.  Delaroche’s work has proven so popular that the wooden floor before it must be polished far more often than other spots in the gallery.

And no wonder.  Look at everything that Delaroche does in this picture.  There are only five life-size figures, and they are superbly and dramatically placed within the frame.   Lady Jane Grey was the great-grand-daughter of Henry VII, and, at 17, she was named successor to the throne of England by her cousin, Edward VI.  The plan, at least, was that the crowning of Protestant Jane would shore up Protestantism and keep Catholic influence at bay.  However, her claim on the crown was too weak, and she reigned for a scant nine days, after which she was deposed and executed for treason by the rightful monarch, Edward’s half-sister, Mary Tudor.  Delaroche sets his scene in the Tower of London on the morning of the execution, February 12, 1554. 

The girl (little more than a child) is behaving with magnificent poise, which makes the emotional scene more poignant.  She is on the scaffold and dressed only her undergarments.  Her clothes are piled beside her lady-in-waiting, who has collapsed in grief against the left wall.  Her other handmaiden faces the wall, the horror to come too much to bear. 

Grey, blindfolded, reaches out for the chopping block where, moments later, her head will be cleaved from her body.  Sir John Brydges, the lieutenant of the Tower, gently guides her to her death; his heart-breaking solicitude increases the emotional pitch of the picture.  Even the executioner directs his gaze away, awed by the enormity of the sin he is about to commit.  Look at how he shifts his weight to one leg, his right hand almost releasing the axe.  Delaroche manages to depict different emotional reactions from the players of this tragedy, inspiring a multitude of emotional responses from us, the viewer. 

Preparatory Drawing By Delaroche 

If yesterday’s picture, The Children of Edward, fills us with melancholy, Jane Grey is deeply, wrenchingly, viscerally moving.

Wisely, Delaroche keeps the representation of their surroundings to minimal gray-tones and subtle stone carvings.  The bare stage, if you will, maintains focus on the figures and the deeply human connection is never lost.  The one non-human touch of any significance is the straw surrounding the block; this, if nothing else, underscores the horror to come when we realize that it is there to soak up the young girl’s blood.

If we wonder how or why Delaroche was able to connect so viscerally with this particular historical incident, it would do well to remember that only a scant 40 years earlier, Delaroche’s countrymen cut off the heads of their own aristocracy.

By any cultural yardstick, this is a magnificent and moving painting.   

More Delaroche tomorrow.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Children of Edward by Hippolyte Paul Delaroche (1831)

Today we start a weeklong look at the work of Hippolyte Delaroche (1797-1857), also known as Paul Delaroche.  Paul came from an artistic family; his father was an art dealer who made his fortune buying, selling and cataloging art.  His father encouraged young Paul and worked hard to advance his artistic education, sending young Paul to work with Baron Antoine-Jean Gros (1771– 1835) in 1818.

Paul studied landscape painting at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and he made his first appearance in the Salon with an oversized picture, Josabeth Saving Joas (1822). This picture met with great success and, as a result, he soon became the friend of such luminaries as Géricault and Delacroix.  In fact, the three of them were the center of the historical painting scene of the era.

Following his debut, Paul spent most of his life as an active (and prolific) artist.  He visited Italy in 1838 and 1843, when his father-in-law, Horace Vernet (1789-1863) was director of the French Academy. His studio in Paris was in the rue Mazarine, where he built a reputation for patient industry.

The great love of Paul’s life was Louise Vernet.  They married in 1835, the same year he exhibited Head of an Angel, for which she served as a model.  Paul never recovered fully from the shock of her death 10 years later, aged only 31.  After her loss he created a series of small, exquisite pictures based on the Passion of the Christ, focusing his attention on the story’s dimension of human suffering.

Paul was extremely adept at history paintings – meaning not only pictures depicting historic events, but also mythological or biblical pictures, scenes from great literature and allegorical paintings. 

The key to Paul’s enduring success was that he had a dramatist’s eye and sense for the key moment of heightened tension.  His pictures depicting past events were not, perhaps, always scrupulously accurate in the representation of the actual historical moment, but were always intensely dramatic and psychologically true.

With that in mind, let’s look at one of his great pictures, The Children of Edward (1831).  The scene is, of course, familiar to anyone who has seen Shakespeare’s Richard III.  Two princes, held in the Tower of London, are about to be smothered on the order of Crooked-Back Richard, their uncle and usurper of their rights (and, eventually, the throne of England).  Knowing the fate of the children as we do, the sense of dramatic suspense is remarkable.

The two children, pale with terror, cling to one another on a four-poster bed in a dark room.  Edward V, and his brother Richard, children of the late king, Edward IV, have heard a noise and stopped reading.  The king gazes sadly at us, the gaze of his younger brother is drawn to the door, where his eventual murderer will enter.  The dog sees the shadow of a foot in the light under the door….

When this picture debuted at the Salon in 1831, it was a riotous success.  It was immediately purchased by the administrators of the Royal Museums; indeed, it was the inspiration for Casimir Delavigne to write a play, The Children of Edward (1833), which is little-performed today.

With this picture, Paul renders the subject in a manner both natural and emotional.  The children are quite real, and the dog emphasizes the tragic pathos of the moment.  There are few warm colors in evidence, and Paul’s inherent sense of dramatic romanticism is contained – such a moment did not need embellishment.

The scene can be found in Richard III, Act 4, Scene 3, where it is described in the words of Sir James Tyrell, who had commissioned their murder from Dighton and Forrest:

The tyrannous and bloody act is done -
The most arch deed of piteous massacre
That ever yet this land was guilty of.

'O thus', quoth Dighton, 'lay the gentle babes';
'Thus, thus', quoth Forrest, 'girding one another
Within their alabaster innocent arms.
Their lips were four red roses on a stalk,
And in their summer beauty kissed each other.
A book of prayers on their pillow lay,
'Which once', quoth Forrest, 'almost changed my mind.
But O, the devil' -- there the villain stopped,
When Dighton thus told on, 'We smothered
The most replenished sweet work of nature,
That from the prime creation e'er she framed.'

More Delaroche tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Egyptomania, by Bob Brier

Many know Bob Brier (television’s Mr. Mummy) through his many televisions appearances, as well as through such best-selling books as The Murder of Tutankhamen, The Daily Life of the Ancient Egyptians and The Secret of the Great Pyramid.  We were lucky enough to do an extensive interview with Bob that will run soon in these pages, but, for now, let’s look at his latest book, Egyptomania.

If we at The Jade Sphinx have a taste for all things Egyptian, we are the merest pikers compared to Bob Brier (born 1943).  He has coined the word Egyptomania to cover everything from a passion for exquisite antiquities to a taste for Egyptotrash.  In his book Egyptomania, he charts a course of the West’s love of all things Egyptian starting with the Roman invasion all the way through to the Napoleonic wars that brought scores of artists and scholars to the region, and the bursts of King Tut craziness that erupted with the discovery of his tomb and through the revival of interest in the 1970s.

It is all much of a muchness to Brier, whose enthusiasm is boundless and indiscriminate.  More important, he manages to bring a remarkable variety of things to life, from shipboard explosions during the English attack on French forces during the Battle of the Nile, to the sometimes bizarre juxtaposition of various ancient cultures on cigarette boxes in the 1920s.  (Some of these images, despite their inherent silliness, are wonderfully evocative Art Deco and Art Nouveau compositions.)  Brier has written a book that is completely accessible to all ages, and can be read with satisfaction by adults or presented to younger readers who are cultivating their own interest in Ancient Egypt.

Brier wonders aloud why Ancient Egypt has such a grip on our imaginations, and not, say, Ancient Mayans or the Babylonians.  He believes that it is an odd mixture of the familiar and the exotic: while believing in jackal-headed gods and the actual physical resurrection of the body, the Egyptians also had a surprising modernity in medical research, statesmanship and religious philosophy.  They are different… but not enough to be completely alien. 

Equally important, an enthusiasm for Ancient Egypt has a wonderful zest and, well… zaniness that makes King Tut breakfast cereal possible, along with scholarly research on hieroglyphs.

Brier’s book makes many interesting side-trips, among them the various engineering feats that made the transportation of Egyptian obelisks possible to Rome, London and New York.  The stories of these three voyages are book-worthy in themselves, and Brier does a terrific job of maintaining a zippy narrative while keeping track of all the moving parts. 

Also delicious is Brier’s argument that the start of Egyptomania was during the Ancient World.  The Romans were enthralled by the hieroglyphics they could not read; while Alexander the Great (who nearly conquered all of the known world), wanted to become an immortal pharaoh.  He also relates how Emperor Hadrian built Antinopolis as a memorial to his lover, the beautiful Antinous.  We have never fully recovered.

As we grew up on Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney, Jr. and Christopher Lee emerging from behind Egyptian pillars to put the whammy on various reincarnated loves, Brier’s Egyptomania was catnip to us.  We highly recommend his book to anyone with even a passing interest in the subject.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Threepenny Opera, with F. Murray Abraham

New York-area readers hungry for a little Weimer Republic-era color could do no better than the recent revival of The Threepenny Opera, currently at the Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street, Manhattan.  In an English adaptation by Marc Blitzstein (1905-1964) of the Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) book, the small but game troupe of professionals breathes new life into the show with music by Kurt Weill (1900-1950).

Under the direction of Martha Clarke (born 1944), this production owes its artistic inspiration to the style of the seductive and seedy era of Weimar Berlin, and it is gamely played by the Atlantic Theater company.  The Blitzstein translation of the original is the same as appeared in the US in 1954, when the Opera played at the Lucille Lortel Theatre.

The Opera was originally adapted from an 18th Century English ballad opera, John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera.  The Weill-Brecht show opened originally in Berlin in 1928, and was hailed as a socialist criticism of capitalist society.  Though filled with many fine songs, only The Ballad of Mack the Knife has since become a standard.  (There is a wonderful recording of Lotte Lenya, Mrs. Kurt Weill and star of the original production, singing with Louis Armstrong here:

The story is simply told: two-bit punk Macheath (Mack the Knife) marries virginal Polly Peachum.  This enrages her father, who is King of the Beggars, and he works to have Macheath hanged for past crimes.  However, Tiger Brown, the Chief of Police, is an old crony of Mack’s, and he ensures the criminal’s safety.  When Peachum finally has Mack behind bars and heading towards a well-deserved hanging, the villain receives a pardon from the Queen, along with a baronetcy. 

Working on a bare-bone set, the cast manages to convey the seamy back-streets of London, a brothel, the home of the beggar king and an open-air hanging.  The invention of the staging is matched only by the game playing of the cast, who invest the show with rare theatrical alchemy.

Though Clarke’s staging is uniformly creative, it is, to our taste, marked by a taste for the sordid and the seedy.  It was hardly necessary for the brothel scene to be punctuated by moments of simulated sex or gratuitous nudity.  (No prudes here at The Jade Sphinx, we like nudity more than the next fellow.  It just doesn’t have to have such an unsavory, sordid air.)  At times, Clarke doesn’t trust the material and over-compensates, hardly necessary, considering the inherent theatricality of the show.  Clarke’s work may be very smart, but it leaves a dank taste at times.

As the Beggar King, F. Murray Abraham (born 1939) cuts a wonderfully, Fagin-like figure.  By turns majestic and threadbare, he manages to invest his character with a tremendous, conniving energy.  Mary Beth Peil (born 1940), as his wife, Mrs. Peachum, is a powerhouse of venom and indignation.

Laura Osnes (born 1985), as Polly, was recently seen in the Broadway production of Cinderella, and there are few more beautiful voices currently on Broadway.  Her acting is clean and direct, her charisma high and her singing magnificent.  More please.

Also solid is Rick Holmes (born 1963), as Tiger Brown, as well as two standouts in the ensemble: Timothy Doyle and Jon David Casey.  Doyle first came to our attention for his scene-stealing turn opposite Frank Langella in Fortune’s Fool some 10 years ago, and we wonder why he is not a bigger star.  Casey has an impressive physicality and presence, and his handsome face can easily transform into effective menace.  I’m sure we will see more of them both.

Perhaps the one disappointing performance comes from leading man Michael Park (born 1968), as Mack.  Where the role calls for calculating, slimy insouciance, Park never seems to be more than the self-centered football star remembered from our college days.  He never effectively projects menace, intelligence or charm – vital components of Mack.  Fortunately, the overall quality of the show transcends the hole in its center.


Friday, April 4, 2014

Jacob Collins at the Dahesh

This season’s batch of Salon Thursday lectures, created and hosted with customary aplomb by the Dahesh, continued on a high note last night when Jacob Collins -- New York City artist, teacher, and founder of the Grand Central Academy – came to discuss the foundation of his contemporary art school, patterned on the model of the 19th-century atelier. 

My long-standing admiration for Collins as an artist, an arts activist and a teacher is without bounds.  He has been at the forefront of a strong, pervasive and ever-growing movement to correct the course that art (and art history) has taken after its disastrous, dehumanizing collision with Modernism.  For Collins (like your correspondent and millions of others in an invisible majority), the break from the Academy was not an explosion of new freedoms, but an invitation to hollow, ridiculous and often offensive amateurism and self-indulgence. 

Aside from the beauty of his work, Collins also joins such diverse figures as Graydon Parrish, Ted Seth Jacobs, Anthony Ryder and Ephraim Rubenstein as an important teacher to new generations of artists who aspire to virtuosity.

Collins spoke to a packed house last night (April 3), in a relaxed and conversational forum.  After telling us about himself and his mission to rescue art from Modernist muddle-headedness, he opened the floor for questions, charming the crowd for more than an hour.  Any man who says, unashamedly, I love stuffy, old fashioned humanism.  Many have argued that the world that I’m in is lonely, but the rest of the world that I am fleeing is moving so quickly that I cannot apprehend it is a kindred spirit to these pages.

Though not explicitly stated as such last night, what Collins is seeking is a return to a Renaissance Ideal; another Age of Enlightenment.  Modernism has robbed art of its human element, and the fundamental connection between great art and great emotion has been lost in a morass of irony, ‘theory’ and hucksterism.

As Collins said during his opening: What got me here?  As a kid in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, I grew up in a time from which I felt distanced.  Something gave me a sense of loss.  I recognized that something was missing when I looked at the work of the great Renaissance masters through the 19th Century, which is really the Renaissance arc.

I was outraged in my youthful way by its absence, by a lack of continuity.  What happened, I wondered?  Why can’t we have that art?  And why am I discouraged by teachers and experts rom pursing that ideal in my own studies?

Of course, Collins realizes that an engagement with the past does not mean living in the past.  As he said, the problem with that is that it’s reactionary.  But there is clearly something wrong with the 20th Century.  And that there is some cultural suppression of the humanist impulse is fairly obvious.  I’m at a point where fixing something that is wrong is a big part of my life.  That, and I want to make beautiful art.

One would think making beautiful art was part of the agenda for any art student, or any art school.  But Collins did not find that to be the case.  First, I had to learn how to draw and paint decently.  That was very hard.  Years later, I started an atelier because I kept bumping into people who wanted to do this – become part of the artistic tradition – under a coherent structure.  When I was a kid, I wanted to fix things and make them look good.  And that, in a way, is what I’m doing with the Academic Tradition.  My great ambition was to be a marvelous artist; not by contemporary standards, which I thought were false and ugly, but by the high standards of the 19th Century.

I thought we would change the culture, which was a charming fantasy.  My goal isn’t to step into some throne of art culture, but to open up space for artists working in this tradition.  And that is slowly happening.  This culture and ideas and philosophy is more advanced than it was 20 years ago.  What is missing is the patronage, a way of having some kind of nexus with the culture.

Collins is acutely aware that the very language of the current art establishment is against him.  He says, This revival of interest seems natural in that reconnecting to drawing and painting is natural.  There is today an “institutional avant-garde,” to use a contradiction in terms, but there it is.  There is a deep, false, association of art with the notion that, as progressive politics are morally good, and regressive politics are morally bad, regressive art is bad.  It’s a cultural value that’s universally accepted – ergo, progressive art is morally good and regressive art is morally bad.

If you want to bring back that art, the argument goes, you are bringing back the culture that went with it.  If you want to go back to that type of art, then you want to go back to a culture that preceeds progressive politics … but I think that is a specious argument.  It should be, instead, couched in terms of Modernism vs. Humanism.  But Post Modernist thought rejects that because it bound to its own irony. 

The context and the language of art – so many people have created a language of art that has, built into it, a value system that is antithetical to this art.  You need to have a new language to discuss it.

How we have gotten to this impasse is also a topic that animates the artist:  The phenomenon of the last 100-150 years is unusual.  It’s like the Renaissance in reverse.  There was a “scrap that” attitude of the 20th Century that is almost historically without precedent.  That has led to a fragmented art world.  My hope is that some patronage would evolve to support these artists and this type of art.

The question of why it happened – I’ve spent my life thinking about it.  There is a sort of taboo for people who advocate on behalf of pre-Modernist art… but, part of me feels that’s just too bad.  All I want is to collect around me people who are interested in this.  It’s a different world.  As I say, if you want to play the piccolo, and connect with people who like it, don’t spend time in heavy metal concerts.

It was an extraordinary evening with an extraordinary man: gifted artist, philosopher, and activist.  Kudos, as always, to the Dahesh for providing an ongoing forum for art scholarship and outreach.

One last brief word about The Grand Central Academy of Art.  This is the school founded by Jacob Collins, located in mid-town Manhattan.  To quote their Web site, The Grand Central Academy of Art … is built on the skills and ideas that have come from the classical world, the Italian Renaissance and through to the Beaux-Art tradition of the nineteenth century.   The Academy is a center for the revival of the classical tradition where a new generation of artists is supported in the pursuit of skill and beauty.  Interested readers can learn more at:

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Jade Sphinx Gets Letters

The mailbox at The Jade Sphinx has, if nothing else, the charm of variety.  Here are excerpts from some of the missives that have recently made their way into our mailbox.

You like all of this old stuff.  Don’t you like anything that isn’t campy?

This, simply, knocked us for a loop.  Campy?  I believe this person should have their literacy surgically removed.  Camp is a word used by people who have no reality beyond their kitchen sink.

Are grand opera, Victorian novels, the paintings of Gerome campy?  No … but they often dwell in the realm of high emotion.  Emotion unprotected by irony terrifies modernists.  You might say our feet are planted in separate … camps.

I read your thoughts on Shelley and his poetry, as well as his political activism, and enjoyed them a lot.  I also saw your criticism of the entertainment at the White House in 2011.  I can’t get it – are you a liberal or a conservative?

I am an aesthete.  I cannot really align myself, then, with either party; the right has destroyed our Hellenistic political model, and the left, our culture.  Rather like the choice between burnt toast and burnt fingers – neither is satisfying.

You always seem so sure.  Do you ever have second thoughts?  Or have you reevaluated some of your opinions and changed your mind?

Good Lord, yes.  But first, a word on opinions.  Everyone has opinions; they are the most easily had and most disposable commodity in the world.  However, what is rare is an informed opinion.  Without that informed cultural background, an opinion is about as useful as the reader’s comments on Amazon.

That said, I often reevaluate and realize I’m off the mark, most frequently when I am writing about pop culture.  There are particular tropes, settings and ideas which gratify certain deep-seated longings and prejudices on my part; if a work of art touches on one of these things, I admit I am more disposed to like it.  For instance, most anything set in the 1930s will run a positive electrical current through what is laughingly called my brain; work set during the Victorian Era will do the same.  And I will meet any Western more than halfway.  And my mind is crammed with tons of lumber from my boyhood – gothic sensibilities, elegant or dramatic costume, grand gestures, romantic balderdash of all sorts find a happy home in my brain.  I do try, however, to be as clear-headed in my judgments as my natural prejudices allow.

A case in point is Orson Welles’ Black Magic, reviewed in these pages.  I am quite sure that it is an unjustly overlooked masterpiece… except when I’m not.

As long as we are making admissions, I also confess that there are several things that will never get a fair hearing in these pages, including popular music from the rock era onwards, irony, digital and electronic amusements, most television, surrealism and a host of other modernist ills.  I don’t understand these things, I don’t like them, and I don’t invest my time in them.

Though not a question, this comment was in our mailbox a few months ago:  You write about Oscar Wilde a lot and about cowboys a lot.  It’s weird.

Well, the writer has something there.  I might change the name of this blog to The Wilde, Wilde West and leave it at that.  No, scratch that.  I don’t understand, fully, why the art of the American West is not considered as “canonical” as European art.  I believe the West is the central American myth – more so than the Founding Fathers – and to truly understand contemporary America, one must first understand the settling of the West.  America is the core story of the 20th Century, and American aesthetes who disregard that fact in favor of Eurocentrism, do so at their peril.

Do you have any questions you would like answered?  Let me know and we’ll run your letters in upcoming columns.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Encores! Presents The Most Happy Fella

Once again Encores! at City Center demonstrates that New York is heaven for all musical theater buffs.  Encores! is dedicated to restaging little-seen shows with top-notch casts and the finest orchestra performing on Broadway.  The creative minds behind the series are Artistic Director Jack Viertel and Music Director Rob Berman, who have done a superb job of mounting these shows since 1994.

The first show of the season was the delightful Little Me, which was nearly incandescent in its brilliance.  Could Encores! we wondered, maintain this high level of quality?

Well, with The Most Happy Fella, they have succeeded beyond wildest expectations.  Fella is everything a Broadway musical should be: tuneful, funny, dramatically sound and, ultimately, moving.  If Little Me was a diverting romp, Fella is a show that will stay with the viewer for years to come.  I cannot recommend it enough.

The original Broadway production of The Most Happy Fella premiered in 1956, with book, music, and lyrics by Frank Loesser (1910-1969).  It was quite unusual for the time, in that the show did not conform to the standard Broadway musical template – it was more dramatic than comedic, most of the dialogue was sung, and the show dealt with subject matter usually seen in operas rather than musicals.  The story revolved around an older man romancing younger woman, and was based on the play They Knew What They Wanted by Sidney Howard (1891-1939). Despite its lack of convention, the original production was a hit, running for 14 months.  (One interesting side-note, the original show was funded by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz; in fact, her television counterpart went to the show in an episode of I Love Lucy.  Cross marketing is nothing new!)

The Most Happy Fella has narrative conventions somewhat similar to Cyrano.  In San Francisco of 1927, Italian grape farmer Tony Esposito romances a beautiful, younger waitress Rosabella by letter.  When it comes time to send a photo, he instead provides a photo of the younger and more handsome Joe, the farm foreman.  Of course, Rosabella comes to the town and learns that she has been deceived.  Before she can leave, however, Tony is injured in a trucking accident and Rosabella remains to marry the injured man.

Of course, their road to happiness has many complications, including Rosabella’s intermezzo with Joe, interference from Tony’s spinster sister, and community expectations.  But rather than have these conventions resolve in a standard musical-comedy manner, the show has a great deal of dramatic heft.  The setbacks experienced by the characters are very real, and each slight hurts like a physical blow.

The cast, as is usually the case with Encores!, is a Master’s Class in musical theater. Oddly enough, the two leads, Laura Benanti (born 1979) as Rosabella, and Shuler Hensley (born 1967) as Tony, are simply serviceable.  But Cheyenne Jackson (born 1975) as Joe, is luminous.  Gifted with a beautiful voice, good looks and charisma that is palpable, it is a mystery why this fine actor/singer is not a bigger star.  Though his part is smaller, he makes an indelible impression.  It seems as if nothing in the theater is beyond his protean talent.

However, the evening really belongs to Heidi Blickenstaff (born 1971), who plays Cleo, Rosabella’s best friend.  She is a powerhouse, and she galvanizes the show.  Her number Big D (about coming from Dallas) is a showstopper that infuses the second act with verve, adrenalin, and old-fashioned show biz razzmatazz.  Sharing the number with the fetching Jay Armstrong Johnson, as her simpleminded beau, Blickenstaff takes what is already a wonderful show and brings it to a whole other level.  It’s the kind of barnstorming not seen since the days of Ethel Merman or Judy Holliday, and the experience is electrical.  Blickenstaff and Johnson reunite for another number, I Like Everybody, and, once again, the result is magic.  I have now resolved to see anything featuring the dynamic, charismatic Blickenstaff.

Musicals ultimately come down to the quality of their songs, but a show where most of the dialogue is sung presents problems in the production of standards.  But while there may be no timeless tunes on hand, there are many terrific songs.  Joey, Joey, Joey, performed by Jackson, is wonderfully ethereal.  And Standing on the Corner, with Johnson, Ryan Bauer-Walsh and Arlo Hill, is a terrific comedic treat, as is when Zachary James, Bradley Dean and Brian Cali team up for the musical numbers Abbondanza and Benvenuta

Loesser was going after something more with Fella; it is an extremely aspirational show, and even when it doesn’t work completely, it is admirably ambitious and nothing less than entertaining.  It harkens back to a time when musicals were more than an existing songbook with a loosely constructed book to hold it all together.  The production is also ambitious for Encores!, with perhaps their largest cast ever and most elaborate settings.  Once again, they prove that musical theater is one of the fine arts.

The production is directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw (born 1962) and it is something special, even for a series and production team that are never less than magnificent.  As with all Encores! productions, the run of the show is extremely limited, and Most Happy Fella ends April 6th.  You do not want to be one of those unhappy fellas who missed it.