Friday, May 9, 2014

Changeable Weather, by Gustave Leonard de Jonghe

Here, a picture for anyone who has suffered through this winter and current spring…

As we have seen in previous pictures, the draftsmanship and compositional skills of Gustave Leonard de Jonghe (1829 - 1893) are formidable.  As with the previous two paintings we have looked at, de Jonghe had superb skills of drawing and composition, strategically placing figures within the painting to create the most dramatic effect.

Here, however, de Jonghe conveys emotional impact chiefly through color.  The painting Changeable Weather is a series of grays and blacks punctuated with dots of color to create a somber mood.

The rooms in which our human figure inhabits are washed-out gray.  Wan sunlight through the gauzy portion of the curtain is diffuse, and even the painting behind the figure is indistinct.  The only significant daubs of color are the elaborate shawl draped over the chair, upon which rests her yellow-brown gloves.  This lack of color is accentuated through the blackness of her dress and cape.

The landscape outside the window, too, is washed-out and somber.  Indeed, the simple whiteness of the subject’s complexion becomes an almost incandescent pallor by comparison.  The white bonnet hangs from her hand, and seems to comment on the expectant, hesitant look upon her face.

Finally, the window is closed … heightening the sense of enclosure and compression.

So, yes, as is to be expected, the drawing and composition is executed with de Jonghe’s usual mastery … but what is interesting and significant here is that the sense of foreboding and uneasy expectancy is achieved primarily through color.

A masterful piece of work.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

A Playful Moment, by Gustave Leonard de Jonghe

We had so much fun last week looking at a picture by Gustave Leonard de Jonghe (1829 - 1893), that we could not help but revisit him.  De Jongh was a painter and watercolorist of figures and genre scenes. He started his artistic training with his father, Jean-Baptist de Jonghe. After his parents died, the young de Jongh was granted a small pension by the Corporation of Curtrai to aid him in his study of art. He studied under François-Jean Navez at the Academy of Brussels, though his painting style was most strongly influenced by his friend, and fellow Belgian painter, Louis Gallait, who also advised de Jongh on many of his career decisions. Although de Jongh started his career painting historical and sacred subject matter, he is most famous for his genre paintings with bourgeois themes and rich materials. In 1855, he became in the direct successor of the renowned Belgian painter, Alfred Stevens, in Paris. He exhibited at the Royal Academy with his painting, The Birthday Wishes, in 1875.

Today’s picture features another society lady interacting with her pet.  But whereas L’admiratrice du Japon involved a moment of inter-species tension, today we simply have cats being cats.

Our society lady is in an opulent room treated with green leather, perhaps as a nod to Whistler and his famous Peacock Room.  Japanese screens, a vase and an urn help to makeup the décor, indicating again that our gentle aesthete is current with the fin de siècle fad for Japanese bric-a-brac.  The green upholstered chair behind the book table (stacked with complimentarily-colored red leather volumes) and the gilt embossing on the wall to compliment the screen unify the color scheme. 

The cat, playing with the pendulous folds of the lady’s dress, is elegantly and casually rendered.  The folds of the lady’s dress are carefully crafted without being fussy – and readers should remember that mastering the folds of drapery or clothing were something that the 19th Century Masters drew and re-drew in order to master their form.

The fabric of her dress – alternately satiny and velvety – has a wonderfully tactile quality.  And the picture is, perhaps, ever so slightly … naughty.  Our lady lifts her skirt while playing with her cat, exposing the gauzy whiteness of her petticoats.

Marvel, if you will, for a moment on de Jonghe’s mastery of drawing.  The intricate leg of the table, the leaves of the wall sconce, the graceful curve of the woman’s body, the almost casual brilliance of her hands --this is a control drawing that has been long missing from most of our contemporary artists.

More de Jonghe tomorrow!

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Encores! Presents Irma La Douce

Readers of The Jade Sphinx are perhaps weary of hearing about the swelligant series of musical revivals at City Center here in Gotham.  Encores! is simply one of the chief pleasures of living in New York, where the audience is often as interesting, varied and engaging as the show.  Here, musical theater buffs congregate for restagings of 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.

This year’s crop of Encores! productions included the incandescent Little Me and the fetching and moving Most Happy Fella.  They close out the year with a first – a revival of a European musical that is perhaps best known through its US film version – which was, oddly enough, made without music.

Irma La Douce was first performed in Paris in 1956.  It has a score by Marguerite Monnot (1903-1961), with book and lyrics by Alexandre Breffort (1901-1971).  It ran for four years.  It moved to London’s West End in 1958 – where this version, directed by Peter Brook (born 1925), ran for three years.  It was mounted on Broadway by David Merrick (1911-2000) in 1960.  The English adaptation and translation was by Julian More, David Heneker and Monty Norman.  It ran for one year.  (An empiricist might conclude that musicals about prostitutes play better in French.)

Most readers will be familiar with the non-musical film version of 1963, starring Jack Lemmon (1925-2001) and Shirley MacLaine.  The film version shares with most musicals a frenetic energy and a colorful, vibrant bounce, and comes recommended.  (However, Jack Lemmon is often an exhausting screen presence, and is at his most febrile here.  You have been warned.)

The story concerns Irma La Douce, a successful prostitute who lives in Paris. A poor law student, Nestor le Fripé, falls in love with her and is jealous of her clients. In order to keep her for himself, he assumes the disguise of a rich older man, "Oscar," and takes many odd jobs to pay for her. Finally no longer able to sustain his exhausting life, he disposes of his Oscar identity, only to be convicted of murder, and transported to Devil's Island.  He escapes and returns to Paris, where he proves that he is innocent before reuniting with his beloved.

As always, Encores! are wonderfully staged and mounted.  This is the first-ever full set in the series, by John Lee Beatty, and it’s a stunner.  Sadly, the set is really quite the best thing about the show.  The entire production never manages to build momentum, and despite their best efforts, the cast lacks the verve and panache necessary to pull off the show. 

As Irma, Jennifer Bowles sings wonderfully well, but her dancing (more stomping than stepping, really) is lamentable.  Nor does she really have the personality, nor the energy, necessary to stop the show through any of her solo numbers.  Rob McClure, in the dual role of Nestor and Oscar, lacks the comic timing and farcical sense that someone like Christian Borle or Danny Kaye would bring to the role, and leaves little impression.  Indeed, the entire cast is too subdued to electrify the farcical proceedings, and the resulting show just lies there lifelessly.  The one exception is Malcolm Gets, as the bartender, who sings well and plays adroitly.

This lack of energy is the result, in part, of the pedestrian staging by director John Doyle.  It would seem that his idea of bedroom farce is a great deal of running and mugging, without positioning his players in any strategic way around the stage.

The main problem, of course, is the book, by More, Heneker and Norman.  There is a persistent melancholy note, and, more telling, it is never quite as smart as it thinks it is.  It also relies upon the old chestnut of someone not recognizing their disguised lover, not even during sex.  It doesn’t work in Shakespeare, and it hasn’t worked since then.  Worse still, the book never really exploits the comic potential of the material, and the manic qualities inherent in the book devolve into mere whimsy.

An unfortunate end to what was a stellar season at Encores!, but even the best are entitled to an occasional misstep.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Egyptian Craft Sale at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church

We just got word from WQXR.FM’s classical music hostess (and Jade Sphinx reader) Nimet Habachy that the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church is hosting a sale of Egyptian crafts to help Egypt’s Moqattam community.  The sale will be held May 6, 7, and 8, from Noon till 8:00 PM at the Church, located at the Christian Education Center (lower level), 7 West 55th Street, New York. 

These sales are essential if Egypt's Moqattam community is to continue to survive.  The schools and the recycling project that sustains the Moqattam continue to give hope to the young women and their families ravaged by the recent revolution. 

“As the Egyptian Revolution enters its third year, it has become clear that the sales of goods made in Egypt and sold in New York and elsewhere keep this project not only alive, but expanding,” Habachy told your correspondent.  “Many girls and women and their children are waiting to enter the two schools in Moqattam, and the sale of new quilts, rugs, bags, place mats and paper products from Cairo will fund this initiative.  We are so proud of the achievement of these young women who work so hard, and who manage to create beauty in such difficult circumstances. By joining us in this project, you help many poor women in this very poor country to a better life.”

The Moqattam hills near Cairo’s Citadel is the home of the Zabbaleen people.  This community produces many of the Egyptian craft items that are purchased by us here in the West.  Ongoing violence, demonstrations and curfews have restricted normal activity, and Cairenes are not venturing out to purchase the cottage-industry goods produced by the Zabbaleen people, and their survival has become dependent on the sales of their goods in the US.

The Zabbaleen supported themselves for generations by collecting trash door-to-door from the residents of Cairo for nearly no charge. Notably, the Zabbaleen recycle up to 80 percent of the waste that they collect, whereas most Western garbage collecting companies can only recycle 20 to 25 percent of the waste that they collect.  Living conditions for the Zabbaleen are very poor, as they live amid the trash they sort in their village, and with the pigs to which they feed their organic waste.

As trade for these simple people withers away, the Zabbaleen will suffer – the efforts to advance hygiene and literacy in the community will languish and the two schools which have been established will disappear.

We here at The Jade Sphinx attended the last sale and returned with a bag-full of goodies.  This event is recommended to those who want to support a worthy cause, and find beautiful, hand-made things at an affordable price.  

Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Japanese Fan, by Gustave Leonard De Jonghe (c.1865)

Good heavens, I love this picture.  In the original French, the title for this painting is L’admiratrice du Japon; translated into English, the title The Japanese Fan is a double pun, making reference to the fan on the floor, and the woman herself.

It was painted by Gustave Leonard de Jonghe, who was born on February 4, 1829 in Courtrai, Belgium. He was a painter of figures and genre scenes, working in both oils and watercolors.  De Jonghe was the son of Jan Baptiste de Jonghe, himself a talented artist and Gustave’s first teacher.  (How often have we come across artists initially trained by their fathers?)  Afterwards, Gustave continued his artistic studies with the acclaimed master teachers and artists, Louis Gallant and Francois Josef Navez (1787 – 1869). Gustave would also study under the famed Belgian artist, Alfred Stevens (1828-1906).

De Jonghe began working in Paris and beginning in1850, exhibited at the prestigious Paris Salon and continued to do so throughout his career. The Paris Salon awarded him with a third place medal in 1863 and, that same year, he received a medal in Amsterdam.  Honors increased in 1864, when Belgian King named him Chevalier de l’Ordre de Leopold.

In 1882, de Jonghe suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and returned to Brussels. In 1884, he moved to Antwerp, where he would die in January 1893.  Most of his work now rests in private collections, though several significant paintings can be found at the Musee d’Orsay, Paris, and The Hermitage, St Petersburg, Russia.

In 1855, Gustave de Jonghe moved from Belgium to Paris and exhibited regularly in the Salon for the next thirty years.  This period was the dawn of the Aesthetic Movement, which celebrated the beauty and delicacy of blue and white china, and the subtle coloration and grace found in an idealized view of Japanese living.  The Japanese and blue and white china craze would later enthrall such diverse figures as James Whistler (1834-1903), Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) and de Jonghe’s own teacher, Alfred Stevens.  Collecting china and Japanese clothing and kimonos became a mania in major European cities, and often served as shorthand for refinement and delicacy of taste.  (Catalogs or picture books of Japanese scenes lie at our subject’s feet.)

The woman in the picture is obviously a fan of all things Japanese; and is the focus of the painting.  The Japanese fan, though, which may also be the point of the title, is simply an object on the floor.  The composition centers on the confrontation between the bird and the young woman which has, it appears, caused chaos in the room.  It is uncertain whether the woman is disciplining the cockatoo or the bird is threatening her.  To underscore the whimsy of the piece, the violent scene on the Japanese screen behind her reinforces the impression of a conflict between the two antagonists.

The wit of the picture is matched by de Jonghe’s masterful execution and composition.  Though the Japanese influence would later mean much to the Impressionists, de Jonghe flawlessly delineates kimono, dresser, china and screen.   Also precise is the subject’s expression, easily recognizable to any pet owner, just wait until I get my hands on you….