10 August 2017

Johanna Grussner: Out Of This World

"You're clear out of this world
When I'm looking at you
I hear out of this world
The music that no mortal ever knew

You're right out of a book
The fairy tale I read when I was so high
No armored knight out of a book
Would find a more enchanted Lorelei than I

After waiting so long for the right time
After reaching so long for a star
All at once from a long and lonely night time
And despite time, here you are

I'd  cry, out of this world
If you said we were through
So let me fly out of this world
And spend the next eternity or two with you

After waiting so long for the right time
After reaching so long for a star
All at once from a long and lonely night time
And despite time, here you are

I'd cry, out of this world
If you said we were through
So let me fly out of this world
And spend the next eternity or two with you" 

  - Out Of This World, lyrics by Johnny Mercer, music by Harold Arlen.


It feels odd to have to introduce Johanna Grussner to American audiences considering the warm reception her Naxos release No More Blues received from both the critics and listeners.  Grussner who  lived  in the U.S for eight years,  attended the Berklee School of Music on scholarship and then earned a Master's degree in jazz performance from the Manhattan School of Music in 1998.   She then taught at Public School 86 in The Bronx where she developed a program of vocal and instrumental instruction and music theory.  Oh, and she was born on the Aland Islands, off the east coast of Finland in 1972.  She returned  home in May 2001 when she brought a group of fifth grade students to perform gospel concerts in Helsinki.  Since 2001 Grüssner has lived in Stockholm, Sweden.

Her musical ambitions are expansive.  As a child, Grussner and her sisters Ella and Isabella formed a folk group  Daughters Of The Wolf.   The year before graduating from Berklee she recorded her first cd; the year after she formed her own nineteen piece jazz orchestra which toured Scandinavia, performing at jazz festivals and clubs, sometimes joined by the New York Voices.   Since moving to Sweden, Grussner has recorded not only jazz but Swedish and Finnish folk songs and even a record of Moomin songs for children based on the popular characters of author Tove Jansson.

Out Of This World is usually classified as a ballad because it lacks a pronounced rhythm.  Grussner turns this received wisdom upside down.   Her agile vocal technique and near perfect command of English paired with  accompanist Ulf Karlsson,  whose work on both six and twelve-string guitars is impeccable, combine to give a rhythm to the song that it has not had before, something between a walk and a bossa nova-ish lilt.  Unlike some singers with crystal clears voices, Grussner is also capable of deploying colors in her phrasing.  Thanks to her version, I will never think of Out Of This World as a standard again.  It lives.

The song is structured  without a verse; it has four sections – A, a variation of A, B, and back to the A variation in conclusion.  The elegance of the lyrical conceit demands it:   The Lorelei of Germanic legend was a beautiful maiden who threw herself into the Rhine River in despair over a faithless lover.   In recompense, the gods turned her into a siren whose voice was irresistible to all who heard it.  Alec Wilder (in his History Of American Popular Song, 1972)  heard in its melody  echoes of the mixolydian mode of Gregorian chant.   Mixolydian was the seventh  of eight modes (similar to key signatures ) in  medieval church music.  Arlen also used  melisma in Out Of This World, scoring two notes for the word “knew.”  

Melisma is a technique familiar to us from  its use in gospel music;  its use originated in early Christian plainsong.  Unlike  syllabic singing where  each syllable is accorded one note,  when a singer moves from one note to another on a single syllable, that’s melisma.  When Johnny Mercer came to write  this lyric in 1944, he had been working in Hollywood for almost ten years and it shows in its style; this was no Tin Pan Alley show tune to be belted to the rafters for applause.  Rather, it existed on an altogether more  intimate emotional plane.   Wilder was certainly right to describe Out Of This World as not being typical of Harold  Arlen's songs, but then it is not typical of anyone else's that I can think of either.  

P.S. Other standouts on No More Blues are a sultry version of Hallelujah, I Love Him So and Desafinado.


Listen to Johanna Grussner sing Out Of This World
Visit Johanna Grussner's website
No More Blues, a recording by Johanna Grussner, Naxos Jazz: 2005.

Image:
Photograph of Johanna Grussner, 2010, courtesy of Allaboutjazz.com.

28 July 2017

Writing The Book On Love

















"The thread
runs thin.
The need
runs hard.
Hard."
  - "Fate And Necessity" by Alkman, from Lyra Graeca, Vol. I, # 142.

"Not Aphrodite, no.  But like a child,
Wild, Love comes down,
Almost as though walking on flowers -
But should not touch them,
Should not,
No."
 - "Not Aphrodite, No" by Alkman from Lyra Graeca, Vol. I, #6

     excerpted from Pure Pagan: Seven Centuries of Greek Poems and Fragments, translated by Burton Raffel, New York, The Modern Library: 2005

Most of us were taught in school that Ovid's Art Of Love, published near the beginning of the Common Era,  was the first major treatment of humankind's favorite subject but that, like some other pieces of received wisdom, turns out not to be  the case.  Six centuries before Ovid (43BCE-17CE) began composing his love manuals, a pagan poet on the Greek peninsula whose love poetry was much admired and featured at public celebrations. 

I.  Alcman, or Alkman,  was a lyric poet who lived during the 7th century BCE.  That he was a native of Sparta was something the ancients found hard to believe and so did scholars for most of the intervening centuries. His light touch and amorous nature did not harmonize readily with the dominant image of the  battle-hardened warrior although, as you can see from the verses printed above, for Alcman, love was a serious business.
Contained in the Suda, a 10th century Byyzantine lexicon, is this description  of Alcman, a man "of an extremely amorous disposition and the inventor of love poems."     His longest and most famous poem is the Partheneion, a choral song intended to be sung by young girls as a rite of passage into womanhood.  (Only fragments of his works have survived; three stanzas describing the initiation of a girl named Agido, are contained in a papyrus cataloged as Louvre e 3320.)  From Aristotle we learn that Alcman died of a disease caused by pediculosis, a contamination of the skin by lice that caused lesions, an ignominious death but  not uncommon at the time.
Alcman's poetry was, and should be still,  appreciated for its grace and simplicity; it doubtless benefitted from technological advances then taking place in the Greek language.  Its clean-cut syllables and  efficient graphing of sound  celebrated by the Canadian classicist Anne Carson in  Eros the Bittersweet,made it a supple vehicle for conveying emotion.

"When my love decides to go and then is gone,
I can still taste him, bitter in the throat; I still
feel the weight of his body as he fights sleep.
I do not fight it: on the contrary, I live there,
and what you see in me that you think is grief
is the refusal to wake, that is to say, is pleasure:
qui donne du Plaisir en a, and so it
when he couldn't sleep in that long still night
you sensed it and woke to show him how
to unfasten each and every button, then it us
promised you, even when he goes -
   - excerpt from "The Right To Pleasure" by Jessica Fisher, from Frail-Craft, New Haven, Yale University Press: 2007


II. Jessica Fisher (b. 1974) is an American poet who teaches at Williams College in western Massachusetts but her connection to the ancient Greeks, particularly to Alcman, is more than fanciful.  In her first collection Frail-Craft (2007) the poems resemble choral songs from an unknown Greek tragedy: pure, absolute, unbowed by the violence of the world, asserting the right to pleasure.

For further reading:
1. Philippe Brunet, La Naissance de la littérature dans la Grèce ancienne, Paris, Le Livre de Poche:
2. Anne Carson, Eros the Bittersweet, Champaign, Dalkey Archive Press: 1998.

Image:
Anonymous artist, Women In The Orchard (titled ascribed), no date, Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, MA.

06 July 2017

"They Told Me I Should Go To Rehab....."

























...so that is where I will be for now, not on a vacation but more like out for repairs.    In recent months my gait has been less of a walk and more like an old Tuscan dance, the saltarello; its name means "hopping step."
 While I'm away from the keyboard, I hope you will browse through the archives here and, if you find something that interests you, please comment and I promise to respond to each one as soon as I am able.

In the meantime, for summer reading I can recommend nothing funnier than American Housewife: Stories by Helen Ellis.   Ellis is a southern transplant to New York City who, when her writing career stalled after the publication of a novel some fifteen years ago,  became a housewife/ professional poker player.   Beginning with "The Wainscoting War," a tale of decorative mayhem in an upper East Side  Manhattan co-op, to "Dumpster Diving With The Stars," a reality show run amok in the Hudson Valley's antiques alley, and ending with  a woman who rescues pre-pubescent beauty contestants in "Pageant Protection,"  the fun never abates.  Published by Doubleday & Company: 2016.

Image:
Original photograph by Peter Librizzi, restoration by Renee Ing Akana at 28moons

03 July 2017

Luigi Ghirri: An Anthropologist Of The Metaphysical

























It is the kind of tromp l'oeil picture that many an amateur has accidentally produced, but in this instance the result  is so perfectly achieved that you want to know who is the photographer  - and where exactly is he in relation to the other elements in the photo?  Has he risen like Neptune from some watery deep just beyond the frame?  And when you learn that his name is Luigi Ghirri, do you wonder why  that name is not familiar?

















Luigi Ghirri began his career with a sense that everything that could be done with photography had already been accomplished.  He spoke often of how deeply affected he was by the view of Earth photographed from the Apollo 11 spacecraft.  "It was not only the image of the entire world, but the image that contained all other images of the world."   From this, Ghirri extrapolated the idea of the image-within-image, a framing technique that became a signature of his photographs.  He brought the eye of an anthropologist to bear on the seemingly unremarkable sights that surround us everyday but with an intensity that has been described as metaphysical, a word often applied to artists of his native Emilia-Romagna region, like Giorgio de Chirico and Giorgio Morandi.    Ghirri called these works  his "sentimental geography" but that does not exhaust the interest of, say,  those yellow traffic lights bobbing in the fog


Luigi Ghirri (1943-1992) grew up in the northern Italian province, a temperate area of broad fertile plains fed by the Po River, it  was created millennia ago  when the sea retreated, leaving  marshlands behind.  The aspiring artist moved to Modena, a small city but no  backwater, located near Bologna, the regional capitol and proud home to the oldest university in the world.   His studies in surveying and graphic design coalesced in a new hobby -  taking pictures - that quickly became his chosen work.

















Conceiving his photographs mostly in series, Ghirri presented them in books more often than in exhibitions which may have limited their initial  impact.  His first book Kodachrome, published in 1978,  featured the tightly cropped images that would familiar in his work. 
Ghirri's last home was at Roncosesi, not  far from where he was born.  Although he traveled,  he found all that he needed for his work there.   Formal, cerebral, witty, Ghirri always intended his photographs to explore rather than merely represent what was before him.


 “Everything has a blighted, faded quality about it now. Still, if you look at it for a long time, the old charm reemerges. And that is why I can see that I will lose absolutely nothing by staying where I am, even by contenting myself with watching things go by, like a spider in its web waiting for flies. You need to look at things for a long time…” – Vincent van Gogh 
 Ghirri copied this quotation from a letter written by Vincent Van Gogh to his brother Theo in his own journal.  

















Although admired during his lifetime, Ghirri's work has only grown in importance since his untimely death from a heart attack at the age of forty-nine.  "...(N)ow, in their faded and aging present state, Ghirri’s prints from the 1970s and ’80s signal themselves as relics of the first wave of the then-new colour photography, carrying with them both prescience and nostalgia.." Christy Lange wrote for Frieze in 2011.
In 2009, the Aperture Gallery in Manhattan hosted the retrospective It's Beautiful Here, Isn't It?, devoted to the work of the Italian photographer Luigi Ghirri (1943-1992).  Then, in 2013,  Matthew Marks Gallery, also in New York, devoted an exhibition  to Luigi Ghirri: Kodachrome.  This exhibition coincides with the republication of Ghirri's much admired book Kodachrome, by MACK, London, UK: 2012., a book he originally published himself in 1978.

Images: The estate of Luigi Ghirri is represented by Matthew Marks Gallery, NYC.
1. Paris (self-portrait in reflection), 1976, reprinted from Kodachrome, 1978, reprinted London: 2012.
2. Valli Grandi - Veronese, undated.
3. Fagnano Olona - elementary school designed by Aldo Rossi, 1985, Pompidou Center, Paris.
4. Reggio Emilia, 1973, Pompidou Center, Paris.

20 June 2017

The Prodigious Michele Cascella





















He was a prodigy, there was not doubt; certainly his father believed in him from the beginning.  He did poorly in school, being the kind of student that teachers described as being adrift with the clouds.  When one of his art teachers humiliated him in class, Cascella stopped going to school entirely.  This caused a crisis in the family: the boy's mother wanted him to make a religious vocation but his father, who supported the boy's artistic ambitions, won out. 

As an adult, Michele Cascella (1892-1989) credited Vincent van Gogh and Raoul Dufy as his artistic influences and, while it makes a good parlor game to tease out visual bits he took from them, no influence is sufficient to explain his skills in painting, drawing, lithography, and ceramics.   When I look at Orangerie, painted when Cascella was just eighteen, I see the lines used to describe the girl's skirt as coming straight out of Dufy, the lines and the colors work together but not in the usual academic way.  Cascella is fearless in using bright colors (blue, purple, yellow, orange) without ever letting them overwhelm this tranquil, workday scene.  The house in Abruzzo,  clad in stucco, is shown here in stark white, probably an indication of the midday sun.  The country house and the orange grove was a  subject Cascella often returned to, but seldom more effectively than in Orangerie.  He usually depicts orchards as pure landscape, absent their human gardeners.   Here he shifts his focus, making a young girl at work, staking and pruning, his subject, underlining the domestic element of the landscape. She kneels in a pose that appears, appropriately,  reverential in this Edenic setting. 

Caseclla was born in  Ortona, a city on the Adriatic Sea,  in 1892. His father Basilio, a polymath, was an engraver, ceramist, lithographer and illustrator, was the boy's first teacher.  Basilio's career was given a boost when he given  a plot of municipal land to build a laboratory and art studio for his lithography business.  Michele's first job at his father's business was the painstaking task of filling in backgrounds on lithographic stones.  But his father also gave him more traditional art projects such as copying  drawings of the old masters.  Unable to draw well himself from nature, Basilio sent Michele and his brother outdoors, supplied with a box of pastels, chocolate and cheese, to paint.
    
Basilio judged that the boy was ready to exhibit in public and so a show was arranged in Milan for the fifteen year old (this was in 1902), followed by a show in Paris the next year where Michele sold his first painting.    At eighteen he had already taken his place as a regular among the cultural set in Milan.   

In another prodigious move, the now twenty year old artist began an affair with the thirty-eight year old Sibilla Aleramo, one of Italy's most famous writers and already the author of the feminist classic A Woman (1906). (I read the novel in college but confess to only a vague memory of it at this point.) 

Cascella's career would be long and varied, not a footnote to youthful achievement as are some who succeed early.  Cascella won a gold medal for painting at the 1937 Paris Exposition Universelle, where Raoul Dufy created a sensation with his multi-panel mural La fee electricitee.  He made his first visit to the United States in 1959 and thereafter spent six month of each year at Palo Alto, California. In 1977 the City of Ortuna re- dedicated their art museum  to Cascella; more than five hundred works by three generations of the family are included in its collection.  When he died at age ninety-seven in Milan, he was buried in his hometown of Ortona.

Image: Michele Cascella -Orangerie, 1912, Cascella Museum, Ortona.

09 June 2017

Camillo Innocenti: The Cottagers

















Poor Camillo Inoocenti (1871-1961).  Unlike some of his fellow painters, Innocenti gets no entry in the Grove Dictionary of Art, even in the wake of the ground-breaking 2008 exhibition Radical Light: Italy's Divisionist Painters, 1891-1910 at London's National Gallery.   One reason often given for the neglect of the Italian painters is their lack of group cohesion, sometimes also know as self-promotion.  Of course, some of the cohesion attributed to other  groups of artists has been applied to them by critics, the artists themselves being busy with more pressing concerns like where to apply the paint brush.

In The Cottagers Innocenti painted something he had seen frequently while growing up.  Before air-conditioning,  it was the custom among the bourgeoisie for the wives, children - and even pets - of to decamp from the heat of the summer months in the cities to the countryside in search of  cool air  and relaxation. Still,  women and girls  were careful to shield their skin from the effects of the sun, hence the hats and stockings; relaxed though their postures may be as they lounge on lawn chairs, to our eyes they are dressed for company more than for  an intimate family tete-a-tete.  Innocente  was known for his  portrayals of women,  turning from the conventional female figure in elegant déshabillé, to more sensitive and nuanced images.  The Cottagers, an inter generational gathering, is one of Inncenti's finest meditations on the stages of women's lives, captured in the doldrums between  the defining seasons of education and marriage.  An element of that fineness is how the artist managed to rise above his own rather conventional ideas about women with his brush: " ...woman is  mysterious,  fragile,  mutable,  impassioned and also artificial ."(translation by JL).

Like innumerable other aspiring artists, the young Innocentei was encouraged to pursue a less uncertain career.  His father thought the classics would be a more suitable field for the son of successful architect, but  at age twenty-four, Camillo realized that he preferred drawing, working as an assistant  to  the decorator of the Candelabra Gallery at the Vatican. Three years later he was admitted to the Rome Institute of Fine Arts Rome.  Disappointed by his academic studies, he began searching for a fresher style.  In 1901 in Spain, he encountered the paintings of Goya and Velazquez,  but it was as much  popular scenes and landscapes that attracted him as the old masters.

Back home in 1903, Innocenti gravitated to the divisionist painters, their youth and their sense of liberty from the old rules of paining.   Following World War I, he did set decoration in the up and coming Italian film industry on such projects as Cyrano de Bergerac and Ben Hur.  Had he not detoured to Cairo for a fifteen year stint as director of its School of Fine Arts (from 1925 to 1940), he might not have been so easily forgotten by his countrymen.  As for them, the next years of war were a time of poverty and uncertainty.  Innocenti showed his work at the 1905 Venice Biennial  and in 1909 he introduced a solo show of his works as well as participating in the Biennial group showing.  His work is the collection of   the National Gallery of Modern Art, and in several other Italian museums. 

Image:
Camillo Innocenti - The Cottagers, 1912, National Gallery of San Luca, Rome.

23 May 2017

How To Be Lazy - Even In Translation

 "I could have a job, but I'm too lazy to choose it;
I have got land, but I'm too lazy to farm it.
My house leaks; I'm too lazy to mend it.
My clothes are torn; I'm too lazy to darn them.
I have got wine, but I'm too lazy to drink;
So it's just the same as if my cup were empty.
I have got a lute, but I'm too lazy to play;
So it's just the same as if it had no strings.
My family tells me there is no more steamed rice;
I want to cook, but I'm too lazy to grind.
My friends and relatives write me long letters;
I should like to to read them, but they're such a bother to open.
I have always been told that Hsi Shu-yeh
Passed his whole life in absolute idleness.
But he played his lute and sometimes worked at his forge;
So even he was not as lazy as me."
- Po Chu-I, 811 C.E., from The Importance Of Being Idle by Stephen Robins, Prion Books, Ltd., London: 2000
Laziness (La Paresse) by Felix Vallotton, 1896.

Neil Philip of Idbury Prints comments: "This is great, isn't it? The translation is by Arthur Waley, though the last line has been altered, to its detriment. Waley's line reads as follows, with the "he" in italics which I can't do:

So even he was not so lazy as I.

Hsi Shu-yeh is the Taoist poet Hsi K'ang (223-262 C.E.). No doubt the transliteration of all these names has changed since Waley's day. "

And I replied:  "The editor of the anthology didn't include any source credits, but I was so taken with the poem that I hoped the spirit of Po Chu-I wouldn't mind."


Image: Vincinzo Balocchi  - Young Girl Sleeping In A Chaise Lounge, 1960, Museum of the Story of Photography, Florence.

09 May 2017

Music Under The Radar: Alice Coltrane

I first heard the music of  Alice Coltrane when I was a student, doing my homework by the radio; she had recorded several times before and I had certainly heard the music of her (by then) late husband, saxophonist John Coltrane, but until I heard her album Eternity I had no idea what she did.  As varied and impressive as the music was - from the Afro-Cuban percussion propelling Los Caballos, Coltrane's musical tribute to the elegance and playfulness of a horse's movements, to Spring Rounds, her orchestral version of Igor Stravinsky's Rite of Spring  with   shimmering washes of harmony - nothing affected me like the opening piece Spiritual Eternal.  
Here Coltrane  plays the Wurlitzer organ, an instrument that, until she adopted  it, got even less respect from  jazz musicians than the Hammond B-3.  It begins with a series of modal arpeggios that move seemingly at random until they are resolved by a large orchestra entrance and they all join in playing a jazz waltz.  No Dixieland band this, the orchestra's  blend of brass and strings takes some inspiration from the Society Orchestra of James Reese Europe (1891-1919), the man Eubie Blake christened "the Martin Luther King of jazz."   Coltrane's solo playing soars with the jagged drive of bebop, a music she heard growing up in Detroit, deployed in her quest to make  universal music, along the way incorporating  Indian classical raga, blues, and the occasional Viennese twelve-tone row.   This is definitely not dance music but by the time  the last glorious long-drawn out note fades, I am never sitting.

I never wanted to miss the Wednesday evening  program on WAER-FM,  the  Syracuse University radio station.  Hosted by a woman, something unusual in 1976, the hour was crammed with music I still love:  harpist Dorothy Ashby,  heard on Stevie Wonder's Songs In The Key Of Life, pianist and composer Jessica Williams, then in her San Francisco phase recording as Jessica Jennifer Williams, and vocalists Esther Satterfield (The Land Of Make Believe) and from Brazil, Flora Purim (Open Your Eyes, You Can Fly, Nothing Will Be As It Was Tomorrow).

From Spiritual Eternal, I worked my way backward to her first recording as a leader, A Monastic Trio (1968) and the transcendental Journey In Satchidananda (1970), discovering along the way her other instruments, the harp played with feather-weight glissandi (remember those arpeggios), so different from the strong melodic line of Dorothy Ashby, and the piano.  Coltrane, I learned, had replaced the titanic McCoy Tyner in John Coltrane's quartet  the year before his death, something that certain Coltrane fans equated with the snake in the garden. For this, and for her experiments with the note-bending capabilities of modular synthesizers, she remained outside the jazz mainstream for the rest of her life.  That Alice Coltrane needed to become a leader in order to have a group to play with after her husband's death in 1967, seemed unworthy of comment at the time.  It makes me think of an exchange between contemporary trio leader Michele Rosewoman and a an unnamed male musician: who he asked her  "What's with this all-woman thing?" as her group was setting up for a performance.   Rosewoman turned and gestured toward his band with the reply "What's with this all-man thing?". 

A strong spiritual element of one sort or another had been in Alice's musical life from childhood.  Born Alice McLeod in Alabama in 1937, she joined  her mother i playing pinao and organ for their church choir after the family moved to Detroit.  At the same time,  Alice  played jazz dates in local clubs.  Sister  Marilyn McLeod became a songwriter for Motown Records; her hits include Love Hangover for Diana Ross and Same Ole' Love for Anita Baker.  

When Alice met John Coltrane, the two joined were joined togetherin seeking  transcendence in non-Western religious books such as  the Quran, the Bhagavad Gita, and writings on Zen Buddhism Alice would ultimately find a home in Hinduism and founded a Vedantic Ccnter in California, where she lived until her death in 2007.   Musicians Herbie Hancock and Sun Ra pursued a similar quest for a system of belief that could free black people from the oppression they were subjected to in America.  This is what Su Ra meant when he declared, "Space is the place."

After 1978, and the move to Los Angeles, Alice Coltrane seldom recorded but, thanks to the encouragement of her son, saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, she recorded one final album, Transilinear Light.
Listen to Alice Coltrane - Spiritual Eternal from Eternity, 1976. 
World Spirituality Classics 1: The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda 2017,  has just been released  by Luaka Bop Records

Images:
1, unidentified photographer - Alice Coltrane, from Journey In Satchidananda, 1970, Impulse Records.
2. Jeff Dunas, photographer - Alice Coltrane, from Translinear Light, 2004, Impulse Records.



01 May 2017

Marisol, Our Contemporary

When the current Whitney Biennial opened on March 17 in Manhattan after three years of preparation, its theme  "(the) creation of the self" seemed  hermetic and out of touch, especially coming from people who think of themselves and their preoccupations as driving the culture.   This moment, as it turns out, calls for a kind of engagement with the world.
A month before, the Canadian writer Margaret Atwood had asked  What Art Under Trump? in The Nation, reopening an old debate.  Artists, she pointed out,  have often been lectured on their moral duty.  Atwood didn't invoke The Metamorphosis Of The Gods by the late Andre Malraux but she could have.   Malraux traced the path taken by the divine aura from the ancient world to art museums as our relationship to the divine has been transformed into a a veneration of objects. The sacralization of contemporary art is about money.   Paintings, books, theater, and films, are not inherently sacred, no matter what price  they command in the marketplace, although they have in the past served religious  functions, in ancient Greek theater and medieval cathedrals, to name two instances.  


A recent bequest to the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo seems like a more response to the moment.   When Marisol Escobar died last year, she left  more than 100 of her sculptures, some 150 works on paper, thousands of photographs and slides, and a small group of works by other artists that she collected to the Albright-Knox. The bequest also includes the artist’s archive, library, tools, and the artist's New York City loft apartment. The sale of the apartment, worth an estimated $4 million to $5 million, will bolster the art gallery's operating endowment.
Why the Albright-Knox Gallery, located some 450 miles from New York City, the place where Marisol lived for decades?  It was the first museum to acquire Marisol's work for its collection when Seymour Knox purchased The Generals in 1962.  The artist and the museum director became  friends with Marisol making frequent appearances at  openings and events there. "She was incredibly grateful to Mr. Knox for his purchase of The Generals and Baby Girl. said Carlos Brillembourg, Marisol's longtime friend and co-executor of her estate with Mimi Trujillo.  Baby Girl  also  became an instant hit when the museum purchased it in 1964.  The little girl (who is very big) dwarfs her tiny doll-like mother.  And Marisol had another link with the Queen City: throughout her career,  Marisol was represented by the gallery of Sidney Janis, a Buffalo native.

I had to crane my neck to get a good look at Simon Bolivar and George Washington  whenever I visited The Generals;  it stands seven feet three inches tall.  The brightly painted wooden sculpture evokes a smile and memories of toy soldiers, but there is serious business going on here.  Washington and Bolivar were both leaders of independence movements in the Americas, but their imagined appearance together suggests a  satirical viewpoint; these mounted leaders with their feet hanging in air may be out of touch with reality.  A Marisol sculpture, I soon recognized, is always about more than one thing at a time.

About Marisol there is the lingering sense that her successes as an artist were never commensurate with her achievements.  Born in Paris to Venezuelan parents, growing up privileged on three continents, possessed of   unusual talent  and beauty, she arrived in New York to study with Hans Hofmann in 1951.  Sizing up the male art world of Abstract Expressionism, she learned to navigate its prejudices, her determination to create unbowed.  At age twenty-seven, Marisol created a series of wooden sculptures she named The Hungarians; when it was featured in Life magazine, the  artist sitting surrounded by the wooden figures struck a nerve.    At her left was a family on a wheeled platform that could have been a train or perhaps a bus.  An image of attempted escape is implied; a mother cradles an infant while the father stands behind a toddler, but where will they go?  The Soviet Army had recently invaded Hungary and  the world  watched in horror but failed to respond to tanks rolling through the capital city Budapest, crushing bodies and spirits alike.  Surely it is no accident that in Marisol's work, the people who are trapped are looking at us.
Because the art world caught up with Marisol in the 1960s, her work has often been pigeon-holed with pop Art - and left there when styles changed - but her work has not dated.  Marisol  But her astute mimicry of human behavior was much deeper than a silk screen of a soup can.   Dubbed a "Latin Garbo" for her beauty, the feminist nature of her social critique has  become clearer with time. 
“Marisol was an important figure, subtly affecting change by her silence and the particularity of her position … She was the female artist star of pop art, [but] she dramatized it in a very subdued way, through her intensely quiet manner.” – Carolee Schneeman
“Marisol was among the most highly respected artists of the 1960s. As the decades passed, she was inappropriately written out of that history. My aim was to return her to the prominence she so rightly deserves.” – Marina Pacini, curator, Memphis Brooks Museum

In 2014, the Museo del Barrio was the first New York museum to present a solo  exhibition of Marisol’s work.

Images:
1.  unidentified photographer - Marisol touches up The Generals at the Albright-Knox Gallery, Buffalo, 1963, courtesy Albright-Knox Gallery.
2. unidentified photographer -  Marisol and a guest with The Generals, November 18, 1963,  courtesy Albright-Knox Gallery.
3. unidentified photographer, Marisol - The Generals, c.1961-62, courtesy Albright-Knox Gallery.
4. unidentified photographer -  Marisol - Baby Girl, 1963, courtesy Albright-Knox Gallery.

25 April 2017

Chaud Lapin !


















"To the carrot, the rabbit is the perfect incarnation of Evil."  - Robert Sheckley. 

Add marigolds to that thought and start a list.  When I was little I was taken aback by my mother's frustration at finding her newly planted marigolds serving as lunch for the neighborhood rabbits.  "Why can't they eat the dandelions instead?" she wailed to no one in particular, certainly not the rabbits who continued nibbling contentedly until she chased them away.  The rabbits would often  hide under the family sedan parked in the driveway and stared up at us with what, to my six year old eyes, looked like mingled sorrow and reproach.   Why else plant those luscious, low-growing flowers, if not for them?   I was so upset by this early encounter with adult insensitivity and importuned so loudly that eventually my mother promised to plant more marigolds ins spite of the predictable results.   And there were other little adversaries in the garden.  From my mother I learned that squirrels dig up spring bulbs; they eat the sweet tulip bulbs but, disdain the bitter taste of  daffodils, so they replant the bulbs in incongruous locations.  My mother was so attached to her gardens that each time we moved we had to drive by houses where we had once lived just for her to see how the flowers were being cared for.

Chaud lapin translates literally from the French as 'hot rabbit' but its meaning is metaphorical; something along the lines of 'randy devil.'

The late Robert Sheckley (1928-2005) was that rare exception among science fiction writers, one who had a sense of humor, albeit sometimes a dark one.  He gave one of his books the title Bring Me The Head Of Prince Charming;  I can imagine the outrage if a woman dared to use that title.

Image:
A detail from The Lady And The Unicorn, wool and silk tapestry, c.1495-1505, (Musee nationale du Moyen Age) Musee de Cluny, Paris.
The tapestries were deisgned in Paris and woven in Flanders.  They disappeared from puiblic view, only to be found by Prosper Merimiee, author of the novel Carmen, in 1841.  Merimee, it should be noted was an archeologist, among other things, when he discovered the tapestries moldering in a castle in central France.  Three years later, after George Sand saw them she began to publicize their existence.

14 April 2017

Jacques Prevert: A Celebration

Forty years have passed since the death of Jacques Prevert on April 11, 1977.   Prevert, a lyric poet in a country that reveres its masters of song, going all the way back to the medieval troubadour Francois Villon (1413-c.1463), the French  are marking the occasion with numerous celebration.  Although Prevert's name may be somehwat vague in North America, French children learn Prevert's songs as soon as they begin school. 
Like Villon,  Prevert's poems were passed around on handmade copies and by word of mouth during the German Occupation, much as the peripatetic Villon's verses  were sung in taverns by people who probably could not read them.   When Prevert's poems were  collected in book form for the first time  in Paroles (Songs, 1946)  they caused a sensation.  He had experienced something similar the year before when he collaborated with the Hungarian composer Joseph Kosma on the song Les feuilles mortes.  Autumn Leaves, as it is known in English, has become the most recorded song of all time.  For their part, Parisians and all the French, even those who had escaped the Occupation, were   ready to celebrate and Prevert gave them what they needed - romantic nostalgia, in song with Les feuilles mortes and in the film Les enfants du Paradis, a romance among theater people set in the 1820s.

Fortune smiled on the boy Jacques, giving him a loving mother and an unconventional father.    After leaving school, Prevert served in the French army during World War I, getting as far from home as Constantinople.  Returning to Paris,   he was introduced to the Surrealist circle, and their leader Andre Breton, by his friend Raymond Queneau in 1925.  Their abhorrence of war and the utter absence of what the French reverently refer to as la gloire  drew the circle together.    But within three years Breton expelled Prevert from the group; the younger man's anarchic sense of humor was no match for Breton's heavy-handed leadership.  For his part, Prevert considered Breton too "grave." In what counts as a surrealist move, Prevert went to work for an advertising agency and began to write the poems that eventually became Paroles.

Prevert's gallery of usual suspects included clerics ("Poetry is everywhere as God is nowhere") and the military  but, unlike others he named names, never hiding behind abstractions.  That was the kernel of his "anti-intellectualism,"  his scorn for the typical scholar  who would "expend his life erecting a self-glorifying  monument of theories."   Prevert called out the "religious insincerity" of the Popes, especially during war times, and social injustices in the persons of Marechal Petain and the French colonials in Vietnam.  His youthful encounters with the poor, introduced through his father, led t Prevert to join the Ocotber Group, a troupe of amateur actors in the 1930s.  The plays they put on may not have been much more than "agit-prop" but Fabian Loris, a Prevert biographer syas, "It was not a theater, it was a way of life,  with Jacques Prevert as its strong foundation, his humor corroding like acid on a plate."   The Communist Party was not amused but the public was and this kept the group members safe.  Meanwhile Prevert also put his politics to work in  screenplays, among them Le crime de monsieur with Jean Renoir (1935), an idyllic story of a publishing cooperative in the days of the Popular Front and Quai des brumes with Marcel Carne (1938), the story of an Amry deserter.

Abstraction, in words or images, meant little to Prevert who believed that "everything starts from something."  According to Prevert, if you paint a bird and the painting doesn't sing, "it's a bad sign."    In Gilbert Poillerat's  Portrait of a Bird that Doesn't Exist   bird song is made visible, a sunny version of the shadows on the wall of Plato's cave.   Remember that Plato believed sensations are the vehicle that allows us to experience what is universal; ideal forms he called them.   A fanciful picture of a child at the beach on a summer day anchored, so to speak, by ontology.
So who was Gilbert Poillerat, an artist who never seems to get more than two paragraphs to himself in any written forum?    Poillerat was a maitre- ferronnier, a specialist in metalwork who studied for eight years, from 1919 to 1927 with the Art Deco master, Edgar Brandt.  According to journalist Mariana Paul-Bousquet, it was his graceful iron balustrades that made Poillerat's name and fortune.  In 1943, she wrote: "They are like a winged language,  crossing from the present to sweet visions from childhood."  (translation JAL)   There are those wings again! 

Paris-Prévert by Danièle Gasiglia-Laster was just  published by Editions Gallimard in Paris.

Images:
1. Israel Bidermanas - Jacques Prevert in Paris, 1954,Pompidou Center, Paris.
2. Gilbert Poillerat (1902-1988)  - Portrait-de-l'oiseau-qui-n'existe-par, 1979, Pompidou Center, Paris.