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Dear friends and readers,

I’ve been in the habit of treating the presentations I’ve heard over the last months at the Washington Area Print Group (a subdivision of the Sharp society) in rooms in the Library of Congress on my Sylvia blog (e.g., a talk on Writing with Scissors) as part of a diary, but thought the topic of this talk sufficiently germane to the terrain of this blog as it’s developed (see The Way We Watch TV Now) to warrant summary and commentary here.

Prof Metcalf developed an aspect of his book, the relationship of technology and economics with the kind of narrative that appears on TV. so the burden of his song was: Changes in technology and economics within TV have changed the way TV is made and how we experience it. He delivered his talk entertainingly — accompanied by many many stills.

He began with what TV was and had shots of older TVs in their wooden furniture. In the 1950s TV represented a central threat to the film industry, whose first ploys were teen films, big spectacles and 3-D movies. TV sold its product as one safe for a family in its private living room; the language was that the program was invited into this sanctuary. TV was radio with pictures and sought to reinforce culutral values of the family. In the US its purpose was to provide eyes and ears to watch and to see commercials.

A central writer for US TV at the time was Paul S. Newman who understand the particular format of TV programs meant characters couldn’t undergo transformation over a season as this would be disruptive and defeat the repeated expectation of sameness. He was superb at writing a structure not easy to do: you must produce a segment which moves to a peak at its end, yet at the same time be self-enclosed; you must avoid lulls because at any time the person can switch using the remote. Admittedly this structure does not necessarily make for great art (an understatement).

The BBC developed differently. It was paid for by millions of individuals who had licenses to watch TV, so it was commercial free. Its aims were education, elevation and entertainment. Traditional theater could appear on British TV much more easily; its purse was to question. There developed a tradition of challenging the audience. Programs were not meant to be re-used, re-run. In the US each program was developed with the idea of endless re-use.

The first long-form TV came from PBS and Masterpiece theater which Metcalf thought unfortunate. He called British costume drama boring for most people, staid. He never mentioned any specifically after that. It was a commercial channel which offered a model others could follow: Hill Street Blues. Male soap operas.

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The cast of Hill Street Blues, all men but two and these women dressed to look like men

People (he should have said “men”) were invited to watch the suffering of men. A typical episode would have the on-going A story (over the arc of the season), within the episode a story which concludes, and 3 other shorter on-going stories (B, C, and D, generally taking 3 episodes). He named a series of male-centered programs — like so many film critics I’ve encountered (many of them men), most of what he then cited was masculinist, not to say (not admitted) misogynist stuff. He also cited Wise Guy, The Fugitive. You need the mythos (the ongoing myth) and free standing episodes within that. Like others he then credited Dennis Potter’s Singing Detective (Michael Gambon) as quietly influential ever after. It used the situation comedy of the hospital ward as developed in British TV. He mentioned The Sopranos. These are versions of instalment publication (began in Victorian era). I suggested that Breaking Bad had departed from this in having one long story with two parallel heroes for 42 episodes. That’s part of what made it powerful and great art.

He also talked of the influence of the “concept album,” where all the music centered on coherent themes. At the same time itunes and downloading enable viewers to select a segment or episode or single song to listen to. We’ve moved back from the album concept to the single. What happened in the CD world (especially MTV) influenced what happened in the mini-series TV and DVD worlds.

What changed this situation? First, the cable companies who offered good and recent movies (“premium”), and in the 1980s in both Hollywood and the UK films were transformed by new ideals, technologies, independence. Prof Metcalf thought the advent of remote control devices next pushed writers into writing segmented TV: the point is to allow switching back and forth. (Which I dislike; once I sit down to watch a program I mean to watch that program until it’s done.) Then the VCR player ($1389) which allowed people to tape say the HBO movie. But this cannot compete with the DVD — which allows the film-makers to market their product divided up into serving sizes. You can curate your own TV. Many people now have a movie screen on their wall for their TV watching so they are imitating a movie experience.

The talk became more original when he began to talk of what the DVD has done to movies. For example, what is the authoritative version of a movie? You can buy Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad in a huge box with the hour-long episodes with commentary on, with deleted scenes, with features showing how an episode was made, what were the aims of the film-makers, and an alternative ending. I mentioned that I had bought Michael Winterbottom’s 6 part Trip to Italy to discover that the film-maker had gathered all the deleted scenes and then arranged them thematically to provide another half-hour of programming. A DVD in effect can be seen as providing manuscripts of the programs as well as later polished versions. They are packaged to look like books, to sit on shelves in a bookcase. Prof Metcalf suggested that the DVD which provides the largest amount of programming is what is seen as authoritative. We are paying more attention to screenplays as these are published and we can gather the precise lay out and emotional structure, study dialogue and description, montage. Very gradually both US and UK TV began the practice of hiring stars to shore up long-form stories.

The way we watch TV changed the TV we watch. The mini-series are now manufactured with DVDs and DVD watching in mind.

To some extent the talk degenerated at this point because he and the audience began to talk of favorite mini-series, which (again) were mostly masculinist, most of them produced for commercial TV. This reminded me of how in other places I’ve been women are unwilling to criticize the violence and misogyny of computer games, will let the men take over discussing football — for there were as many women in the audience as men. Implicitly the BBC and PBS took a beating, which brought home to me how many of these sorts of programs are aimed at women or at least have the female audience at least as much in mind. Many of the series were clearly highly violent. Three aggressive looking males on the covers of the DVDs.

But as he talked the BBC and British programming emerged as centrally providing quality to imitate and modify to an American model. He differentiated between mini-series that had a single person controlling the vision, and that still happens in British TV where a single author or at most 3 authors will write the scripts and the script writer become the organizing linchpin of what is done) and one that was the result of a fluid team of people. He also talked of how now that the soap operas has become a province for male suffering, comedy is a place for women to vent and expose issues of concern to them (Sex and the City, Nurse Betty).

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This promotional shot justifies Laura Mulvey’s famous paper about how film caters to the male gaze

American TV stopped in the 1950s but British TV continues to present live performances from the theater. The acerbic British TV sitcom may be regarded as dropped into melodrama to produce modern versions of say Sherlock Holmes. Someone mentioned how the rape story in the Downton Abbey fourth season outraged people; Metcalf was interested in how such an incident often covers but 3 episodes.

Some series especially praised and discussed: The Wire, for women and men, The Gilmore Girls (this appears to be a blend of screwball comedy and melodramatic romance, reminding me of Austen films). Clive Owens in Knick, a Steve Sodenberg product: Sodenberg did everything but write the screenplay and act in the series. Metcalf noted that again and again if you watch an individual episode it may seem funny, light, but when you watch the arc of the season, the series comes out as more serious, at times implicitly tragic (or explicitly as Breaking Bad). The good do win or if they go down to defeat we feel for them and there is sensitivity to beauty. These citations did bring out how often a Network or producer will cancel a mini-series that seems to be doing so well, getting so much praise. Why? the audience demographics are too old: they will not buy the products. The show is there for the commercials. The corporations making these are not content with modest or high profits; they want huge ones. (This is the sort of thinking that did in the rentals of books-on-tape and the choices of middle-brow excellent books not best-sellers nor high prestige old classics.) Lost leaders are programs which are made to attract people knowing they will make less money, but gather an audience who will remain loyal to the station for a while.

I enjoyed the talk though recognized the skewed nature of the presentation (of the examples). Afterward when a group of us went over to a restaurant to have dinner together the talk really did stay on the topic, on the TV people watch and how they watch. In this group many watched TV on their computers, as part of Netflix or streaming deals. When it did get down to what people really watched among this group, it was late night viewing (after all work was done and the person could do no more) of less avante garde popular shows. Metcalf said he watches all his viewing on his computer on some special channel where he can reach programs and movies made in a variety of countries across the decades.

What am I watching late at night just now? Ken Taylor’s Jewel in the Crown out of Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, directed and produced by Christopher Morahan.

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Susan Woolridge as Daphne Manners the raped heroine

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Art Malik as Hari Kumar, the deeply betrayed unjustly treated hero – it made his career

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Charles Dance and Geraldine James as our traditional white couple

These brilliant 1970s series didn’t make it into Prof Metcalf’s narrative …. This would include the 74 Pallisers (a Simon Raven product) and Poldark (written by several people and it departs a lot in sexual detail and the ending from the books, but directed and produced by the same men) — both ran on US TV in the same year. The book of essays coming out on BBC costume historical drama which includes mine on Andrew Davies’s two adaptations of Trollope novels credits the 1967 Forsyte Saga and its popularity with starting the long decades of making such films, recently fallen off here in the US because of lack of money — so one gets thrillers instead. Downton Abbey has not been enough to re-start the engine for making mini-series from classic books. It is itself not an adaptation after all. The Singing Detective actually belongs to this narrative too.

But it was nonetheless instructive to listen to (Prof Metcalf knows a lot about TV) and I wish I could afford the book.

Ellen

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And she to me: ‘There is no greater sorrow
than thinking back upon a happy time
in misery …
One day, to pass the time away, we read
of Lancelot — how love had overcome him …
this one, who never shall be parted from me,
while all his body trembled, kissed my mouth …’ Dante, Inferno 5, translated Allen Mandelbaum

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Act One: the stage scene as a whole

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Act One: Francesca (Eva-Maria Westbrook) and Paolo (Marcello Giordani) meet: he pretends to be her bethrothed

Dear friends and readers,

The 1984 Pre-Raphaelite picturesque production of Riccardo Zandoni’s Francesca da Rimini (libretto Tito Ricordi) is wonderfully absorbing in its HD Met Opera format (conductor Marco Armiliato; production Pero Faggioni; set designer Ezio Frigerio; costume designer Frana Squarciapino, lighting Gil Wechsler). I had not expected to enjoy it so much. Breaking through the fussily-decorated elaborate Pre-Raphaelite picturesque and early 20th century art deco decor, its core and action are fuelled by primary passion: the coerced marriage of Francesca (Eva-Maria Westbrook) secured by trickery: Paolo (Marcello Giordnai), the youngest handsome brother of the groom allows himself to be presented as the groom); these desperate adulterous lovers driven passionate in the way of Cavalliero Rusticano or Il Pagliaccio; the violent brutish lame murderous anguished husband, Giancioot (Mark Delavan); the even more brutal vengeful one-eyed malacious younger brother, Malatsetino (Robert Brubaker).

It’s the stuff of a verismo tale except occurring among aristocrats of the 13th century, and first turned into literature by Dante who presents the lovers after death in fifth circle of hell,

… a place where every light is muted …
The hellish hurricane , which never rests,
drives on the spirits with its violence;
wheeling and pounding, it harasses them … (Inferno 5)

“damned because they sinned within the flesh … now here, now there, now down, now up, it drives them./There is no hope that ever comforts them — no hope for rest and none for lesser pain.”

The story has a basis in actual events, and before this 1914 opera after a play by Gabriele d’Annunzio whose language came through the modern English subtitles (“The stars are drowned in the sea” Paolo says), the story had been told in many versions, staged, sung, painted mostly (it seems in Pre-Raphaelite style). Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1855) tells the spiritual after-death Dante version:

Rossettiblog.

but Alexandre Cabanel (1870) prefers the theatrical murder (reminding me of Wallis’s Death of Chatterton, which is just now hanging at the National Gallery in DC, part of a Pre-Raphaelite exhibit):

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What distinguishes this opera is its highly dramatic play with effective vigorous scenes, sung to music said to be a mix of Strauss, Puccini and Debussy: the love duet at the close of the second act which in the required way the lovers are reading of Lancelot, let the book fall and then “read no more” is just sweepingly swayingly lush,

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It ended as swiftly as Cav and Pag; the words were simple and music felt sudden and elemental at the close: the lovers are stabbed to death and the bodies drop on the stairs, with the actors making sure they ended up flung over one another.

It was said the production was revived because Westbrook asked for this, and she sang and acted her part to perfection. She did carry the opera; she was hardly ever not there, and was endlessly singing. She got to wear the loveliest of embroidered costumes. In her interview she insisted the story was not just credible; coerced marriage happens still today. This is a big disingenuous since the motives given the lovers are hopelessly lachrymose and ethical, but the situation is given bite by ferocity of the behavior of the husband and his demented brother. Delvan was powerful, Brubaker memorable, especially when threatening Francesca and then going down below to behead a man in the midst of being tortured and screaming. Jim said Giordani sung weakly; I wished the lines about him had said she loved him for his goodness and kindness, for he’s not handsome, nothing like a Rufus Sewell.

The opera is fleshed out by Water Scott like happening: a comic minstrel opens the piece, offering to serenade Francesca’s ladies with the story of Tristan and Isolde (anticipating the story to come) — we are led to fear for his life because at the hands of these criminal males. Her ladies were characterized enough, her sister (a kind of Dido relationship):

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A supposed battle takes place in Act 2 which is not convincing as the production did not take advantage of modern screen computer techniques at all. It was grotesque, with a gold-layered siege ram set on fire (like something taken from an Aida set). In act three a bloody head is flung about in a pillow case.

Francesca da Rimini
Delavan as Gianciotto in a Walter Scott-like knight-warrior outfit (aware he is a bad guy in the interview he asked our “hostess” what she had in her wallet)

And what a pleasure it was to see a new great grand opera. While I knew the story of course (the opera audience does not practice the inhibiting nonsense of no-spoilers), I had no idea how it would work out as an experience. The surprise element added to my experience.

Any flaws? well, yes. It just took too long between scenes which intervals sometimes seemed much longer than the acts. At one point the camera cut away far too quickly from a genuinely moving scene to Sondar Radvanovksy as “hostess” which her commercial blurb and hype. While we really enjoyed watching the behind-the-scenes setting up of the scenery and curtains, and painted flats, there was just too much of it, and it made the production feel as staid as some Victorian drawing-room. I’d love to see a new post-modern kind of production, with maybe a mimed scene of the woman raped by the husband, a far more effectively suggestive violence for the battles, and a mimed-coda added on where we see the lovers in hell. In Claus Guth fashion, it could critique even Dante for punishing those whom life had punished enough.

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Rodin’s The Kiss (1888), said to be originally titled Francesca da Rimini

As to the play itself, there was something funny to see the principles act out the love scene over a book, and wait for the book to drop. Everyone accepted this because it was in Dante. More seriously, while here was the inevitable falsifying of sexual life so that what was the real horror of this situation, marital rape, was obscured from view; as Izzy said, the “lesson” of the play was not that adultery was evil. The lovers are not evil. It was deceit and brutality that were the evils in this opera. So it had no trouble speaking to our time. As Maria Stuarda seems to have not been revived for decades and now is utterly a propos, so Francesca da Rimini, if revived for a diva, seemed to please the audience strongly for its fable and presentation, which (to refer to the Pre-Raphaelite exhibit’s comments on my blog), revealed a pseudo-medieval, literary highly sexually liberated (for the men) art fit the pre WW1 world.

Few women in the arts or as patrons have interested themselves in her story. Josephine Bonaparte bought a 19th century painting of the story; Gabriele d’Annunzio’s play was written for Eleanore Duse:

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Eleanore Duse as Francesca da Rimini (1901)

and Olga Gorelli, a 20th century Italian composer wrote some music.
Renata Scotto played the part with Placido Domingo as Paolo, and Cornell MacNeil as Gianciotti in 1984, the production now available as a DVD.

Ellen

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Dear friends and readers,

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Theodore Rousseau (1812-67), Sunset from the Forest of Fontainbeau (the Dyke Collection).

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Walter Howell Deverell (1827-54), Twelfth Night (with Elizabeth Siddal) (Pre-Raphaelites first room)

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Susan Herbert, “King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid after Edward Burne-Jones”

Dear friends and readers,

Though we hadn’t a good leg or knee between us, and it had rained as in a monsoon in the morning, yesterday afternoon Jim and I set forth to the National Gallery around a quarter to two because we had promised ourselves we would see the much advertised new “blockbuster” show of Pre-Raphaelite paintings. It was sunny by then and warm, and by the time we left although I was limping super-slowly, letting myself down the stairs one at a time, and Jim not much better, the experience had been well worth it, though as sometimes happened as much for the “lesser” show, Color, Light and Line, that had not been heralded, trumpeted, advertised, several rooms of quietly brilliant beautiful, unusual 19th & early 20th century French drawings and watercolors (mostly) from the Dyke Collection:

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Gustave Dore (1832-83), A River Gorge in a mountain landscape,

tucked away on the first floor, just before the side entrance of the museum (well after and apart from the ever-expanding Museum shop), as for the Pre-Raphaelites, which despite the large size, unexpected Shakespeare and narrative delights, the delicacy of these, and stunning use of color of other of the paintings, where the colors still sparkled on the canvas

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John Everett Millais (1829-96), Marianna

and originality of still others,

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William Dyce (1806-64), Pegwell Bay

did not teach us anything new about the Pre-Raphaelites as a group.

We learned more about them or their art as a whole a couple of Christmases ago in one of these small unadvertised shows where it was contended the paintings came far more from an interaction of natural landscape, photography, science studies than literary and medieval longings. That it’s easy to make fun of this exhibit, precisely this kind of picture in a group by substituting cats for the people suggests the solemn absurdity of some of the pictures, and the lack of an adequate perspective.

There seemed nothing set before us to make sense of the pictures in the way of an exhibit a couple of years ago. The individual paintings were therefore what one could enjoy, with each of the rooms having a theme. One of the most interesting for me was the one with wallpaper, furniture, tapestries, screens, but nothing was said about Morris or the Pre-Raphaelites politics. Ford Madox Brown’s Work. I put the lack of discourse down to the way just about any decent political talk is simply erased in popular American media. But nothing on religion much either: the Middle Eastern landscapes of Hunt are not presented as landscape natural art but religious iconography (The Scapegoat). Rossetti’s Found (1854, unfinished) was presented as about modern life (!?): how so? were these 19th century Italian outfits? to me, most of all what was the attitude towards sex here.

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(The colors are all blended so that it’s unfinished is part of its charm)

While the paintings often seem to worship female sexuality and reject simple macho-male images, they can equally be seen to proscribe sex altogether. But there was no feminist discourse either. There were some Julia Cameron photos scattered here and there. But no sense of women’s development of an idiom of Pre-Raphaelitism of which there was one (see Deborah Cherry’s book). No Evelyn de Morgan. Nothing to comment on how these girlfriends were used, no comment on a room filled with huge pictures of so-called “beauties” — to me these are grotesque because of the masculine nature of the faces and huge size of the women’s bodies which seem to encompass one.

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This Proserpine by Dante Gabriel Rossetti is less grotesque than the others, but the face is the same and the allusion to women as dangerous (the apple).

Could the room be about fear? In life certainly these men seemed to be in charge — they had the high status, the money, lived much much longer.

And what is the relationship of this Proserpine to this woman, Jane Morris said to be its model? The photo itself by Wm Morris is a perspective on her so she is endlessly constructed for us:

JaneMorrisphotoblog
The exhibit says nothing

This Elizabeth Siddal, A Lady AFixing a Pennant was there, but no explanation. Gentle reader it’s very small with a modest (very inexpensive) frame:

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So, how easy for Susan Herbert to poke fun:

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Susan Herbert’s “The Awakening after Wm Holman Hunt”

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Susan Herbert’s “Pysche after John William Waterhouse”

One consequence was Susan Herbert’s books — two of them in the shop — seemed appropriate without however as I said ruining any enjoyment of the pictures, and the exhibit downstairs feeling superior. Perhaps perversely, but also because I own reproductions of so many of the famous pictures included in the exhibit instead of buying the catalogue, I bought ($40 cheaper), Susan Herbert’s parody, Pre-Raphaelite Cats.

I recommend seeing the exhibit nevertheless. where and when else will you see these astonishing paintings brought together in one place again? Or ever see any of them? The Pre-Raphaelite paintings project, many of them, complex real psychological states, original, beautiful, make statements worth thinking about on sex, religion, social life, and in one room are made from unusual materials too (tapestries, painted chairs, stain glass windows). Although some painters were unaccountably missing (no John Waterhouse), see it also for the lesser known painters, pictures, sculptors, and the striking famous landscapes. e.g., Dyce’s Pegwell Bay. A favorite for me was Ford Madox Brown’s picture from his window: An English Autumn Afternoon — Hampstead — Scenery (1853).

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There was this exquisite small marble scultpure by Alexander Munro, Paolo and Francesca (remember “that day they read no longer” from Dante?):

MunroPaoloandFrancescablog

There are many photographs of the company and the women who served them and painted themselves (Siddal, Jane Morris, Jane Burden, Fanny Cornforth, about whom we were told nothing, suddenly she was just there and painted as as “Mouth to be Kissed”). The exhibit ends with some series paintings, one on Perseus: The Rock of Doom, The Doom Fulfilled, and the strangely compelling The Baleful Head, the latter (frozen dead images in a fountain looked down at by Perseus and the maiden) influenced George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda.

What seemed to unite the whole show — one sought for something — was finally it literary content, Shakespeare, Scott, a medievalism which became a rationale or cover.

John Anderson’s review of the Pre-Raphaelites (much of it came from the Tate) is not enthusiastic, but Kayleigh Bryant does the movement justice and gives you a slideshow. The exhibition book catalogue expensive but it might come down in price soon.

The shop for the Pre-Raphaelites had the most exquisitely beautiful scarves, sewn exquisitely delicately with strips of velvet. It was all I could do to stop myself from buying one: $60 each so I didn’t. Perhaps they were intended to be there as examples of Pre-Raphaelite kind of craftsmanship or an artistic ideal? If so, no explanation. One was wrapped around a dummy knight.

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I write this blog, then, also to tell of the other exhibit. Color, light, and line.which does not lend itself to cat parodies.

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This George Lemmen was not there, but it represents the quality of the sort of thing by him that was —

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Lemmen was featured as a pointillist and someone who like Vuillard did paintings of the people he lived with doing ordinary domestic tasks — women sewing

Strange these museums and their curators. Not only was the show not advertised (showing a lack of faith in museum-goers), but the catalogue has been printed only as hard-cover and there were few of them in the museum and at high price (over $60). I did buy the catalogue when I came home, on the Net for less than half that price so can’t share many of the pictures and lack the names of the painters and illustrators, several of them relatively unknown.

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Paul Huet, A Meadow at Sunset, pastel

There was a wall of Paul Signacs, Vuillards, Dores, Monets, George Lemmen, Pissaro, Morisot; watercolor, gouache, pen and ink, charcoal, pastel and mixed medium. The periods of art represented include romanticism, realism, impressionism, postimpressionism, pointillism (neo-impressionism), symbolism, the Dykes looked for quality, not coverage, and were delighted to find great work among unknown artists (so were not looking necessarily to make money). Some of my favorites where I can remember the artists’ names were Eugene Isabey, Alexandre Calame, Maxime Lalanne: here’s a selection of small reproductions.

I’ve found a large version of one where you can gather the quality of the paint: Henri-Joseph Harpingies, Autumn Landscape, Washerwoman.

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blog size version

It’s the unexpected that delights us, the unassuming. Many of these were unashamedly romantic: cliffs at twilight, tiny people in forests, near streams. Old people who were nobody. I liked the highly romantic drawings of landscape where there were no people. So often landscapes will have one or two tiny people. Not here.

The Examiner goes over why these colors, light washes, lines should so absorb us, and the nature of the Dyke Collection. The exhibition book catalogue, looks chock-a-block with pictures and has contributions by six people.

There was an informative plaque in tribute to the Dykes who apparently intend to leave most of their collection to the musuem.

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Both shows eshewed painting the rich, famous, the military and the powerful.

Three more pictures:

Arthur Hughes’s April (click for large size which does justice to the purple coloration) is there:

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(blog size version);

this Maxime Lalanne:

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As to the cats, I recommend at least looking at Herbert’s irreverent fond mockery. Apparently she’s done several such books of art with pussycats, often of Victorian pictures. Herbert’s pictures are here on line if you are so unlucky as not to have a live pussycat with you in your home. Looking at them did lead me to some good books on the history of the cat and the pictures we have of them over the centuries, Caroline Bugler’s The Cat: 3500 Years of Cats in Art.

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Susan Herbert, “Ecce Ancilla Domini after Dante Gabriel Rossetti” (making the expression and stance of the women’s scared eyes in the original — rightly terrified of pregnancy?)

Ellen

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Hubert Robert (1733-1808), The Old Bridge (1775) — or The Stranded Pussycat

Dear friends and readers,

On Boxing Day we again went to the National Galley as we have for a couple of years now (see Wiseman and Warhol. (We’ve gone to the Philips Gallery also.) Boxing Day is the second day of Christmas, Victorian and modern style, and the explanation for the custom and name is this was the day people who owned and governed great houses, gave their servants presents in boxes the next day. (They showed this in last year’s Downton Abbey Christmas special.) Our way of doing this is to have fun at museums which some years ago now we learned are ready for us: the National Gallery regularly has a blockbuster show, and side-shows too, are ready for the crowd, which, even in the pouring ice of this past Dec 16th, obliged by coming in great numbers.

I admit we waited until after 1 pm when the sky was merely pouring out rain. So it was an abbreviated Boxing Day, without lunch out in the the museum’s cafe. But when we got there we managed a whirlwind tour by 4 or so, when we decided it looked awfully dark and windy out there, and feared that our Jaguar (with its front-wheel drive) would not be happy if we returned to it in the cold dark.

I cannot say we felt inspired or that anyone’s spirits soared as we went through the rooms of Lichtenstein’s pictures. OTOH, the paintings were compelling in their unexpected mimicry of every day forms. Like the marbled composition book: Laura and Izzy wrote in such books for years; Izzy still does.

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Composition Notebook, a painting by Roy Lichtenstein

There were recognizable washing machines, trash cans (the hinge not open and then open with a woman’s leg in high heels next to it); balls of twine. He seemed to us to be making fun of other artists especially: there was cubism outdone, Picasso exposed (as Lichtenstein first gave us a cartoon-yet-real version of a girl, then half-way to cubism, and then an over-the-top imitation). He redid Monet in his cartoon-y style, and even did seasons (hairy-cupcakes or haystacks in all the seasons).

He’s know especially for his imitation cartoons:

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Drowning girl

Most of them have lugubriously sentimental cries to “Brad”. This one caught my eye because of the scary hands: limp well-manicured large hands are ubiquitous in these cartoons paintings, making them after a while creepy. This one has thick swirling lines while others have dots: hundreds & hundreds in the three colors used by printers all in straight lines. He was once dubbed “the dot man.” In many of these painted cartoons the women — or girls — are supposed sexy. Really they are bland is probably what Lichtenstein shows us. There were a great many of violence action-adventure.

But here and there one glimpsed a love of art and art objects.

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I enjoyed the rooms towards the end of his career where he did his studio in this heavy-line bright single color way, projecting a given decade by a familiar object. Very inventive and very autobiographical too.

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Artist’s studio, foot medication (1974).

There were a couple of beautiful frames of intense color in waves, all shiny (one turquoise blue, the other a pink) that Izzy noticed. One Laocoon with his sons devoured by serpents which emerged from brush strokes of paint.

The show takes you step-by-step through Lichtenstein’s life and works, and milieu. It’s difficult to say what was the original impetus. Lichtenstein had come from a Manhattan family, but transferred to Ohio art school for college, and after WW2 returned to the mid-west to teach. When he came to NYC, he is described as undermining the abstract expressionists, but this seems to me not enough explanation. Lichtenstein did have a financial success using pop –like Warhol — and possibly he found to keep up this kind of ridicule of supposedly pop and cultured art paid well, and his art dealer kept him at making what would sell. The provenance of many of the items was neither the artist’s estate or a museum, but “private collection” (undisclosed). Perhaps later on he felt he could not break out of being “the dot man.” I can’t say. But the exhibition left me cold. Think of how Seurat used dots and one can measure the distance from most of Lichtenstein’s art to visionary painting.

We spent much less time in front of the Michelangelo statue now called Apollo-David — because no one knows which figure the artist had in mind). The statue, though, projected a depth of feeling even in or maybe because of the deliberately unfinished state. There was no hype; it was just in the center of a room. Tellingly, there was hardly any one there. Yet the museums must have gone to intense trouble to move it from Florence to hear. Jim thought maybe they had someone personally carrying it in some super-wrapped package. Handle with care.

Apollo-Davidblog

You can walk very close up and behind and make up your mind whether the figure has a stash of arrows at his back or not.

Two exhibits (one near Lichtenstein) were intellectually stimulating and we had the fun of feeling we came upon them by chance. We hadn’t: “The Shock of the News” was next to the Lichtenstein. The stuff wasn’t shocking but it was an exhibit of newsprint, starting before WW1 when there was a fad for putting newsprint inside a frame or making it part of a painting and bringing the exhibit up to the 1980s or so. Again I was startled to see famous and familiar headlines and pictures (as Lichtenstein startles me). The point of the exhibit was to show the viewer how central newspapers were in our experience at the time — today they’ve been partly replaced by the Internet. You had to take time to read the fine print and look at the images and also read what the curators had to say.

It was a trip through recent history from the angle of what would sell to the general public, what could attract attention.

There was an exhibit of camera work where artists took photos of people or places at intervals over the years was where last year we saw a marvelous exhibit of Pre-Raphaelite landscapes which taught me I had very narrow and distorted views of Pre-Raphaelitism. I watched individuals grow old, sometimes sad; places change or remain the same; one series of four sisters covered a wall – them when teenagers to them in their sixties. They looked like they loved one another, at least stayed together through many an ordeal and some happy moments (at beaches) too.

The National Gallery museum (like the Met in NYC) also practices replacing or changing around permanent exhibits so as to bring up from storage art objects they used to keep hidden in the basement. One large one (it seemed to us) was of American art: furniture, paintings, objects of all sorts (from chess sets to book holders to various instruments). Much of it from the later 18th century into the middle 19th. It was fun for me to recognize Martha Jefferson Randolph’s son (I just read Kierner and Gordon-Reed’s books). Some of the paintings were unexpected good psychological studies. I got an especial kick out of things like an early 19th century chess set.

We didn’t neglect some of our favorites of the permanent collection. Wm Turner, a turn of the 19th century landscape, some Corot, other landscape artists of the later 17th century. For example, this one with its sweet dog:

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Wm Turner, Mortlake Terrace (1827)

For me the best art experience of the day was to come upon the original of Hubert Robert’s The Old Bridge, a favorite of mine, a copy of which is scotch-taped to one of the walls in my workroom — and to discover for the first time the top rung has an old woman reaching out for her tiny cat. Look again, dear reader. You see see a cat crouched on a narrow gate-looking iron. The old woman is trying to reach the poor creature, fearful it will fall.

Nowadays I see cats everywhere — and keep confirming they are in a lot of paintings.

At Christmas the National Gallery becomes a building filled with genuinely stimulating art objects, with good cafes to eat at. It’s not wildly over-crowded (like the Met). Many (but not too many) people enjoying either the exhibits and art or the flowers and furniture arrangements and music in various garden-courts. If you’re seeking some tradition, some habit to enable you to get through this winter holiday season with good memories to cling to, I advise Boxing Day at the National.

I’ll be away for 4 days, at the MLA Conference in Boston. When I come home I hope to have a lot to write about again — as Jim likes to go the modern sessions, all about the movies, is not Eurocentric, looks to understand history. He says we will go to one “unfogged” dinner of bloggers on the Net. I hope we won’t be too cold. We stay at the St Botoph’s Club, a place with a good restaurant, nice rooms, with a long tradition of having music concerts and art lectures and the like.

Ellen

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boulevardItaliensblog
Edouard Cortes (1882-1969), Boulevard des Italiens (c. 1900)

Gentle reader,

In case you were wondering: yes I changed my header from Antoine Watteau’s Shop-sign of Gersaint (now more fittingly at Austen Reveries, a blog for Austen & the 18th century) to one of Edouard Cortes‘s many depictions of Boulevard des Italiens, one of Paris’s four major boulevards at the turn of the century. Lately I’ve had a strong preference for later Edwardian, early 20th century (fin-de-siecle?) paintings. I’ve enjoyed all the great world-cities I’ve managed to visit. Books, plays, films, opera, art, music, all need the rich terrain of the city to be realized.

Ellen

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Colm Toibin when much younger

Dear friends and readers,

Last night we went to a local bookstore which regularly hosts talks and classes about books (as well as a weekly storybook hour for children and tours too), Politics and Prose. We’d never been there before, and to the area only once, when last July we were invited to come to a fourth of July barbecue (what a treat for us). A member of the Irish embassy asked all those who came to read James Joyce’s Ulysses on Bloom Day. We heard about this because Jim got an email from the Irish embassy which now has his name.

A large old-fashioned bookstore, two floors (!), where books are actually set up by their categories and within that the author’s name (like a library, like Borders once was). A couple tables upfront with latest sellers, and in the back audiobooks on CD. You can wander about and come upon treasures just like this. I saw Alice Kessler-Harris’s A Difficult Woman (a biography of Lillian Hellman) on display, but had decided for Toibin’s Love in a Dark Time: And Other Explorations of Gay Lives and Literature, a book of somewhat rewritten essay-review meditations published elsewhere (the LRB, the NYRB and other places). If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know how much I like his essays, and how I’ve loved those of his novels I’ve read thus far. It turns out I’ve read 4 of 7 (In praise of Colm Toibin: Un-put-downable).

Last night he was there to promote his latest novel (apparently the 7th), The Testament of Mary. Yes the central character is the Virgin Mary (does she have a last name like the rest of us?). It’s a really a novella, a short one at that, and from what he wrote a retrospective meditation by Mary some 20 years after the brutal crucifixion of her son. She is now living in safety, relative peace, left to herself by all and two visitors show up, one Lazarus. Yes he takes liberties — good historical fiction often does. The core idea is the irretrievableness of what happened and how she cannot forget and if she could change it, do it differently somehow, how she longs to. It’s memories poured out. As a subjective narrative by a women it harks back to his great The South. He seems to have a predilection for writing heroine’s texts (Brooklyn, Henry James in The Master is a kind of male heroine).

What a large crowd. It did not overwhelm the store, but it was much larger than we’d expected of such an intellectual sensitive author. There were not enough chairs for all.

He began by telling us of his trips to Venice and two paintings of the Virgin he had stood before repeated: a Tintoretto, perhaps The Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, and a Titian, The Assumption. What he seems to have liked especially about the latter was her red robe and how she soared above reality. He is himself getting older.


Recent photo — he does look like this, only he is a small man, somewhat bent, light brownish-white skin, light brown hair

Today I see that the Tintoretto has Mary in a red robe too, and the picture’s content against the reason for its festival, takes us across her life.

They were the inspiration for the book. He did not tell us why he wrote it, only that he would like it to be taken seriously and he didn’t mean it as a mock. He didn’t think the church would bother notice it — he said this in answer to one question afterwards. He does read very well, and his voice was how I’d imagined it, Irish lilt but not too heavy. I stayed awake and listening for much of it, though when his register came too low I couldn’t hear it all. We were in the back, having arrived only ten minutes before the “reading” started.

It was obvious he’d done this many times. He was smooth, and seemed such a sweet man. These sorts of things are part of what makes an author successful. The book launch. He’s learned how to do it. Among questions asked were does he have a routine, a place he always writes, what does he write with. He said he writes anywhere and with any thing (mostly a pen) and no he’s not a routine type. He does sometimes have to write a book quickly or whatever quickly lest he forget it; get it down, and then he comes back to work at it. He is not a man who has written a lot of very long books, say like Dickens, Trollope, Margaret Oliphant, Wm Dean Howells, and they all had fixed routines and places they wrote. He has made his career through socializing too and his oeuvre (in pages) most actually be preponderantly non-fiction.

I wanted to reply to something he had said before starting his readings. He said that other “classic” fiction novels, 19th century, were no help “here.” He comically alluded to Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Dickens’s Miss Havisham, they could not help him. Nor Henry James. Perhaps Mrs Touchett (Ralph’s mother, isolated, alone, an “odd” woman.) While he was reading I thought of Daniel Deronda’s mother, Eliot’s older heroine who returns 25 years after giving her son up to another so she could have an operatic career, a life of her own. Now bitter, not remorseful, but regretful because after all she ended up marrying and having children anyway. The dreams she had had not been realized and how here was this son reproaching her.
But the mike was too far away.

I didn’t try to buy anything directly afterwards. The line became very long. Instead we walked three stores down to the Comet, a pizza place with ambience. A large screen played over and over the poignant short Italian film, The Red Balloon. No sound just the images before you. The walls gray. The tables ping-pong, the seats benches. Soft lights. We had two pizzas, small, a white (all cheese, garlicky nothing else) and a red (just tomato sauce topping, more spicy, reminding me in its heavy dough and yummy surface of pizza in NYC in the 1950s, so-called Napoles-like). A carafe of chianti. The place was moderately full.

We talked. We realized this was probably the first book reading we’ve ever gone to as such. Play readings by a group, lectures, maybe a book reading within a performance of other things, but not alone. Jim said we never went to the Folger poetry readings because they cost. This was for free. Also the people were less known and there was obviously time for too much talk. So too much egoism would be on display he felt. I remembered going to listen to Empson read his poem in the Graduate Center in the 1970s. How he read little and talked much of his poetry. But the talk was splendid, really insightful (as Toibin’s was not quite, though not deliberately misleading as say Andrew Davies on his films), and how John Hollander got up to ask questions, all admiring and how Empson (spiteful in this but perhaps made uncomfortable) cut him down, half-mocked him. Also a lecture by Margaret Mead at the Museum of Natural History. All I can recall is how intelligent and humane she was and ever after have reacted to all dismissals of her work, denigrations of her with a memory of this seeing her and knowing they are unfair to her.

We decided we would try some more at this place. Then to support the bookstore, we went back. That’s when I bought Love in a Dark Time. All the Testaments to Mary were gone. To tell the truth, I was not sure I wanted it, as I felt it would be wrapped up in Catholicism as some level, and I’m an atheist. I was sure it’d be feminist in intent. If Toibin had said he found out or invented a last name for her, and told us of it, I might’ve. They had only had his most recent novels: (Blackwater Lightship two copies, one still left, and mostly Brooklyn and The Master, latest and best known. I have them all plus The South and Homage to Barcelona (not there). But there was suddenly one copy as if from deep in a basement (the girl at the counter said it was “a backlist” book), this book of essays. So I snatched it. His essay on Wilde’s exposure of his homosexuality as “found out,” as a person wanting to be “found out” has influenced my thinking ever since.

We got home by 10ish, not too long to write one final blog on Jane Austen’s letters. I’m not going to give them up, but maybe go yet slower and do it by myself. The prompting from Austen-l helps, and the sense (however deluded) of reaching people, but the flak, the continual cliched readings and occasional either preposterous or theoretical agendas don’t help me at all. I waste time and make no friends refuting them.

Earlier that day I had talked on WWWTTA about Temple Grandin’s film about how animals form bonds, friendships, and people’s perception of them, and the trajectory the film belonged to. Really worth while and gotten into other debates on the growing dissemination of how it’s okay for women to subjugate themselves to sadism, even light fun … ), but I’ll add these as brief comments here later today.

We wished we could have more such nights. People are only gradually becoming aware of what a delightful city DC is slowly turning into. The neighborhood around there is small houses, apartments further off, and some shopping blocks. It’s marred by a large street which traffic streams through daily and that obscures the quiet ambience of the play otherwise. I’ve vowed to myself to read Love in a Dark Time, Homage to Barcelona, and (connected to Toibin and the project on book illustrations to Trollope which I’ve just finished — a blog this weekend), Amy Tucker’s The Illustration of the Master.


Reprinted by Tucker, it was chosen by James as a frontispiece for A Portrait of Lady, and could serve as frontispiece for Toibin’s The Master.

Ellen

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Simon Keenleyside as Prospero

Dear friends and readers,

Lest it be thought I’ve gone over-the-top in my praise of so many of these Met Operas transmitted by HB, my reaction to the first act of Ades’s and Oakes’s Tempest was it’s so still, and “there’s nothing doing.” I didn’t like the (to me) screetch-y high notes of Ariel, nor the lack of long melodic arias. The costumes were trying too hard. Keenleyside with his skin tattoos, feathers on his head, was still not US Indian-like; Ariel in pink fluff with ludicrously heavy-make-up – all green eyes; the lovers far too well-fed and smooth, he like something out of When Knighthood was in Flower, she like some fairy tale maiden in the Blue Fairy Book. Robert LePage’s re-building of aspects of La Scala on stage could have made for a disconnect, it added nothing.

What took time to emerge was the focus on an ethical-psychological relationship between Caliban and Prospero: when Prospero loses Ariel, he’s left without consolatory dreams. Ares really gave us an adaptation, serious interpretation of Shakespeare’s play (Enchanted Island was more Dryden/Davenant).


Audrey Luna as Ariel

The play-story does not depart from any of the hinge points of Shakespeare’s; Meredith Oakes’s script brought over to operatic music Shakespeare’s austere visionary core with its intimations of dream aspiration and realities of brute animal creatures and vicious envious evil (Caliban and the Milanese apart from Ferdinand). The young lovers were appropriately innocent for their short beautiful songs and their and all the music was like Debussy (Pelleas et Melisande) — ever there quietly beautiful. After a while the set also turn of the century, with its conceit the people are in an opera house grew tiresome. Yes there was a computer island, soft sea, and we began to see the slow emergence of Prospero’s character as regretful, remorseful, bitter yet in act willing to forgive began. That’s part of the play’s naturalistic miracles.

The last part or act was so moving to me. Keenleyside showed how well he can act: I identified with him as the older person having to give over, to let go, and I liked the presentation of Caliban as an aspect of the solitary Prospero. None of the really powerful lines were omitted, and Prospero’s response to Miranda’s “O brave new world,” was plangently disillusioned.


Alan Oates as Caliban

I’d like to see it again so I could enter into Act 1 from the perspective of what is to come.

As to the interviews, Deborah Voight can carry these off. To some extent she asks real questions about singing technique. You could see in Ades’s eyes a moment’s oh I wish I didn’t have to do this hype but he managed and gave eloquent interviews where he spoke more simply and directly about writing and putting on the opera and his relationships with the singers. He said that he saw himself as their support.

Some reviews: this review particularly insightful and with good photos and stills. See New York Times review. Another review.

Ellen

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