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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.

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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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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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An internet photo (we do not yet carry an ipad camera as a regular thing)


A cat curled up in its pod (Detail from A Lady with a Harp below)

We spotted the turtles before we did the pussycats, probably because the turtles moved and the pussycats didn’t. Also we were out-of-doors and it was earlier in the day.

Saturday morning our plan was to return to Madison Square garden & exchange our 5 o’clock train on Sunday for one much earlier in the day since for Sunday the reasonable prediction was much colder and heavy rain all day, and thus far our three visits to NYC had involved much living in the streets, walking, eating, watching, strolling, gazing. We’d had our Starbucks coffees and croissants in Bryant Park on the usual teetering pastoral green chairs and wobbly table while reading the New York Times, then succeeded in the exchange ($120 extra), taken the subway up, and entered the Park at 76th and found ourselves in the Ramble.

A lovely thick green lake with people rowing beckoned, so we got on that path, and following the stones I thought I saw a fake (stone sculptures very small) set of 4 turtles sitting very still on some stone or log. In Alexandria, where we live there are fake ducks in some of the ponds so life-like you think they are bobbing for fish. We came up to the log and I thought I saw one of the turtles move its head. Nothing unexpected. Often in Alexandria I see real live ducks come up to the fake ones. But then a much smaller size turtle began to climb the log. It struggled to pull up, and almost fell back, but somehow held out and heave-ho, up it got. Then I saw another turtle on the log appear to squiggle in response, and realized the whole lot of them were alive. This new medium-sized one, then four adults, each with a flipper on the others, and finally a very tiny baby turtle, at first hidden by the mother and facing another way.

We had happened on turtle pond. Over across the other side, nests of turtles.

I don’t know how long we walked, it was such a beautiful morning, in the 70s, sunny, breezy. We passed by some area where people were bird-watching: cameras, binoculars, special outfits, alert-looking with books all announced this. One man smiled from a bench and said hello as we passed.Past a playground named after its benefactor (the one with the three-bears statue) took us to the piazza before the Met museum and we went in.

It’s a vast people’s playground nowadays. We tried two of the exhibits and found one was done from a curator’s perspective (the Bernini clay models a vast distance from the blown up photos of the spectacular installation art (so to speak) everywhere in Rome, another mindless (how people love to fake photographs with no sense of what this implies). On the roof this Escher contraption for which one has to get a timed-ticket. So we visited a couple of favorite places — a room of Hubert Roberts badly hung and badly in need of cleaning amid the formal detritus, all uncomfortable to live in, of the super-rich 1% of ancien regimes (“period rooms”). This day for a time the museum, with its continual atavastic scary animal-like bizarre gods (a middle eastern room) and high hierarchical (wealthy, war-like) subjects (everywhere), reminded us how 90% of art has ever been deplorable.

Jim joked to a guard, where is the nearest elevator. He not getting it, I said “we want to get out.” “Get out!” the astonished man smiled. “Don’t we love it here?” I excused myself that my feet were hurting and I am old. He pointed to a corridor leading to stairs and an elevator.

I don’t mean to say it was all loss. A few good moments here and there. The Hubert Roberts. A Reynolds of a small woebegone young boy aristocrat not yet trained out of his humanity. And Marianne Dorothy Harland (1759–1785), Later Mrs. William Dalrymple by Richard Cosway (English, Okeford 1742–1821 London), which used to be exhibited as A Lady with Harp:

Bad picture, absurd posture, showing off what luck had thrown the young woman’s way (as long as she obeyed all materialistic and rank demands), it had nonetheless caught my attention because of the title (I thought of Austen’s Mary Crawford, of Mansfield Park fame), and when we went over what did we notice but that 200 years ago people were providing pods for cats to curl up in — just the way our scared-y cat Ian loved to. The thought crossed our minds that in this era only rich cats might have this luxury, but then when over an hour later we happened on a museum-school we had never heard of before, the National Academy Museum, and went inside to view its collection, we came across an American picture with a perhaps not quite so rich little girl and lo and behold near her feet, a cat curling up in a more home-made pod.

We’ve become very fond our our two pussycats and as a consequence stronger animal lovers, more alert to the presence of cats than we’ve ever been before and to how others treat them and other animals too. I’m convinced we were too young when we had our dog, Llyr, and were not sensitive enough to her presence and needs.

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We spent 5 days & nights to NYC, the first full day of which I had attended a Burney conference, and the second morning I was with a long-time (constant) Janeite friend and her son. I’ll blog about the conference separately on Austen reveries. Herewith is another travelogue, a record of Jim and my good times together away from home. And again our choice was the exhilarating tolerant good city.

For the first time ever we bought ahead for all 4 evenings plays we wanted to see. The last three times we’d been back to the city this year and last year too we had had some good times, but managed never to see even one serious play. A combination of family emergencies & tragedy, the reasons we had come to the city, and just plain bad luck had got in the way: nothing on at half-price tickets we wanted to see or there between times when the opera or ballet is on or when the Delacorte did one of its marvelous performances of Shakespeare and other plays.

So we determined to make up for lost time. After Obama’s empty-chair indifferent performance against an exultant bully-boy Romney, we needed their inspiriting rebelliousness. How do New York City’s stages differ from those of DC, Virginia, & Maryland? Well, with no effort and on particular aim to see anything closely commenting on the political and economic catastrophe wreaked on the world for the last 30 years by a succession of US reactionary militaristic regimes and all their allies, client states, collusive victims and flunkies, three of the four did just that, and the fourth was not far off.

I’ll begin with the most magnificent and powerful of the lot, the great Brian Friel’s Freedom of the City, at the Irish Repertory Theater, on 22nd and 6th (not far from where Jim and I lived for well over a year — 22nd and 10th)


Joseph Sikora as Skinner dressed up in the Mayor’s robes, Napoleonic hat on head, cavorting about on the Guildhall

The play’s occasion was the slaughter of 13 people when on January 30, 1972 British soldiers shot down a peaceful civil rights march in Derry, Ireland (“Bloody Sunday” it became known as). The Commission and judges set up to investigate found no one responsible, no soldier or officer was tried or even disciplined. Only in the last 10 years has another enquiry been set on foot which reversed the findings of the early court and the Tory PM apologized.

Way too late. One of the awarenesses Friel’s play brings home to the audience is the three people who in the play stumble by mistake and panic into the guildhall will never be brought back. Nothing can ever undo what was done nor make up for it. The fantasy elaboration is to put before us three characters, Michael, an embittered young seemingly permanently unemployed man who longs to live a productive self-respecting life with wife, children, goals, good work; Lily, an impoverished mother of 11 living in a condemned shack behind a railway, with no hope of any improvement in her life or for that of her family (she has had no access to contraception), and a loner outsider, Skinner, refusing to be coopted into, or justify the stupefying displacements and compromises the other two seem silently to accept — all the while endlessly talking. These three inside are interwoven with the cold impassive judge coming to his inexorable conclusion they are dangerous armed terrorists, using the evidence of a constable, and a psychiatrist; a ludicrous professor with her deconstructionist understandings; a reporter. Hovering over them the British soldiers armed, in camouflage outfits, with terrifying weapons at the ready. I reread the play tonight and was so moved. I can’t find any reviews so link in just the wikipedia article on the play itself.

At the Booklyn Academy of Music The Paris Commune, a Cabaret by Steven Cosson and Michael Friedman as directed by Steven Cosson. BAM is now made up of 3 (!) theaters: beyond the opera house, this modernistic building with its black box, and another I saw across a parking lot disguised as a green park.

Most people seem not to have heard of this bloody slaughter, much less know that as many people were killed by the French military in this 4 month period as were murdered in the 1792 Fall Terror so often detailed as a peculiarly horrific occasion in order to indite the French revolution. Basically what happened was the people of Paris took over the gov’t of France and for a time succeeded in holding on and beginning to reform and plan a sort of new deal (separation of church and state, no night work, pensions, remission of rents, ease of debts). This time it did not take the armies of four countries (England, Prussia, Spain and Russia united to defeat Napoleon’s armies) to crush and slaughter the rebellion.


Daniel Jenkins as the baker

Cosson and Friedman present the incident by a combination of rousing songs, actively rebellious character types in soliloquies and scenes interspersed with (ironic) songs of a soprano (Offenbach) and citizen types (baker and his wife, seamstress, politician). Everyone had to work very hard to give us a sense of a large crowd in frenetic activity. The language at the end and final song made the parallels with our own time and the recent destruction of the Occupy movement in the US and elsewhere.


Cock: the title refers as much to the staging of the play (in an apt cock-pit) as the lead actor’s penis

Cock by Mike Bartlett has (I think) an unfortunate title. It is not at all pornographic, not salacious: I took it to be the playing out of the lives of three unlucky people involved with a self-indulgent bisexual young man, John (Cory Michael Smith): M (Jason Butler Harner) the unfortunate male lover who supports him in a fantastically expensive apartment in London, W (Amanda Quaid), a young woman he meets and brings to a dinner cooked by M; and John’s father, F (Cotter Smith) who wants his son to marry and produce grandchildren. The acting is superb, controlled; I didn’t find it funny but rather poignant, a stinging representation of relationships endured under the circumstances and pressures of our era.


The two brothers confronting one another with Kathleen McKenny as Katherine, Dr Stockmann’s wife, as moderating influence

The least exhilarating (the proscenium stage realism creaks) and yet most directly relevant and at moments suddenly so eloquent was the fully (elaborately) staged Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People in a new translation by Rebecca Lenkiewicz in an elegant Broadway theater, formerly the Biltmore now called the Manhattan Theater club (probably the first time Jim and I had been to Broadway in years). The acting was again superb, minor and major roles, but especially Boyd Gaines as Dr Stockman who has discovered the water of the town is contaminated, and Richard Thomas as his brother, Peter, a politician. Reviews have been rightly excellent (see highlights). I just wished that the central speech was not against what the majority wants or needs. Ibsen’s language derives from his own rebellion against the restrictive social mores of his country and class when what is on the minds of US people today is a political and economic and military oligarchy enforcing vast capitalist profits for a very few at the expensive of the decent lives and the earth itself for everyone else.

The four theaters were all just about filled. We also in the DC area do not have a population which goes to the theater like this. To be fair, we are talking about millions living in, close to, or near Manhattan, while in my area we have suburban distances to travel and theater is scattered across the area. This matters.

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What else did we do?


Mickalene Thomas: this tiger cat image conveys some of the glittery texture of her work

We made it to the Brooklyn Museum for the first time in a few years, and were fascinated by Mickalene Thomas’s determined reversal images of much French impressionistic and white male art in The origin of the Universe: she replaces the white men & women with black women, and her pictures of the natural world and art in-doors sparkle with glitter and bold colors. It’s true that central to her project is supposed shock, but what has not been emphasized anywhere I can see is there is a story she tells here: of her and her mother’s supportive relationship (many of her pictures are of her mother), of her mother’s hard life (one where she endured physical abuse in a coerced marriage for many years). If you go, you’ll find this one touching rather than just about hard success. We again saw Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party, some favorites in the American collection (new ones brought up) and the kind of odd new art (like a covered wagon made out of Christmas lights) found everywhere in active museums nowadays. There is a real attempt at the Brooklyn to mirror its surrounding population’s history and culture too. We were too tired to go very far into the Botanical Gardens once again.

We did, though really look at some some 300 out of 7000 [!] pictures said to be owned at the National Academy of Art. We just happened on the place later in the afternoon. A thin townhouse, its sign for an exhibit of self-portraits by women artists caught my eye, and we went in. It was like a trip through the history of American academic art, and quite revealing it was — we spent 2 hours there. Modernity and women’s art first hit these people around 1970, but they are making up for lost time. I now know what one of my favorite modern artists, Jane Freilicher looks like. Unfortunately, the feel of the place is exclusive, the behavior of some of its patrons snobbish, and online they don’t share much. By contrast, the Neue Galleries make the experience comfortable for all, even non-members. (This business of membership is creating little coteries — one is now found on the fourth floor of the Metropolitan museum.)

I won’t omit Lord and Taylor’s flagship store. Everyone who looks like they have money enough to spend is welcome. It too is filled with lovely art: really nice women’s clothes (probably men’s too) galore set out beautifully. I discovered that just like Kohl’s, L&T today indulges in putting prices on garments they don’t mean. When you get to the cash-register you just may find (not always) several different sales at once. The styles, choice, price and help everywhere account for the store becoming filled by the time Jim and I left. I bought myself a new fall jacket — and when we got back to the Princeton threw out my now ragged black one. Bras, a warm hat, neat thin woolen elegant gloves. I had to restrain myself not to go for more.

And we didn’t miss bookstores. At the Strand I got myself a new edition of a new translation of Lampedusa’s masterpiece, Il Gattapardo (complete with new introduction, notes, appendices), a new volume of Leopardi, a pleasurable and not too untrue anthology of bellestristic essays on Central Park (well chosen and inroduced by Andrew Blauner), a novella by Wm Dean Howells, A Sleep and a Forgetting, I’d never heard of.

Jim did not buy himself any new clothes nor books. I should perhaps have labelled this blog good or magical moments from our celebratory time away: Jim’s 64th birthday (yes we sang the Beatles’ song) and our 44th wedding anniversary. He seemed content to be open to experience, have it accessible, among the endless stream of people, seemingly sleepless once you go outside, staying again at the Princeton, enjoying what we did, being alive together at liberty. We ate out in fancy restaurants two different evenings, once Italian, and (recommended) once French (a place called the Marseille). We inhabited the bar for a time each night, and twice were content just to dine on its snacks, and sometimes talking with the other like-minded circumstanced inmates.

As I trundled my bag behind me on our way home through the tunnel and a narrow space where another person was standing I said to her, “I don’t want to hit your feet” so she smiled obligingly moved them.

Ellen

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