18 September 2017

From A Box Of Old Photographs



















As you can see, these are very old photographs.  If the little blonde girl with the Mary Jane shoes sitting at the left end of the front row is four years old then the date is 1920.   Her name is June Williams and she was my mother.  She was named for June Tolliver, the heroine of a Broadway play that my grandparents saw at the New Amsterdam Theater on West 42nd Street.  The Trail of the Lonesome Pine had been adapted from the wildly successful novel (1908) of the same name  by John Fox, Jr.  Florence Williams, or Billie as she was affectionately known, decided that if she ever had a daughter, June would be her name, and so it was.  Florence is the woman standing at the left end of the back row in this picture. 
Billie was an apt nickname for this woman, I think, although she died before I was born so I never think of her as my grandmother; she had her own kind of insouciance and her daughter adored her for that.   She knew  what forms of birth control could be found in the city, she liked to make gin in the family bathtub during Prohibition, and she sent Norman, her husband, scrambling around a movie theater to search for bugle beads when one of her sheath dresses popped a thread.   Her friend Kay married a wealthy bootlegger named Ray from the north shore of Long Island, a location that allowed rum runners to ply their trade with relative impunity and lots of nice chateaux to be had, especially after the movie industry migrated to Los Angeles.

The tennis courts in the background were part of the summer home at Lake Success, in the Town of Great Neck.     The name Lake Success is not a descriptor as I once imagined; it is a corruption of the name Sukut, taken from the Lenape Indians along with their land by people like my ancestors.  There are no men in this picture because they were back in the city working during the week while the women and children enjoyed a respite from the heat, a custom of the time before air conditioning among the fortunate classes.  
Speaking of whom, William K. Vanderbilt purchased the land around Lake Success in 1902 for a summer home for himself and his new bride.  Vanderbilt was  an enthusiastic yachtsman but by 1904 he had become smitten with anything motorized, be it bicycle, motorcycle, or racing cars, and he set a land speed record at Daytona Beach.   He infuriated his Island neighbors with his noisy drag racing ways.  One of my mother's uncles was killed in an automobile accident; newly married in 1904, he was thrown from a car he was driving on Christmas Eve of 1905 and hit his head on the curb.   Such accidents were not yet common when most people didn't have cars; his bride Rose never got over the shock.















Something about the children in this next photograph has always reminded me of John Singer Sargent's painting Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose.  Yes there are four children here and only two in Sargent's painting but for me the two children, June at right holding a bouquet of wild flowers and her cousin Ruth at the left, a year older and taller are the story in this picture.  Both girls would narrowly escape death from thyroid cancer as adolescents and their relationship was so close that Ruth, who died first, was the last person  my mother called  for on her own deathbed.  This early summer day must have meant something special to the girls; all the photographs taken that day are precisely dated June 28, 1919.

Although this last picture is not dated, on the visual evidence  June appears to be about eight years old.  This was taken at home in West Orange, New Jersey, in the house built by Norman for his family, and these are Billie's sisters, Lottie and Lillie posing with their niece.    Lillie was the caboose baby of the family and the story is rather sad and typical for its time.  After begetting two daughters, their father deserted the family for eleven years, indulging his wanderlust for sailing around the world, while knowing that his wife and children would have to return to her parents' home for support.  When he reappeared, they made her take him back and there are no photographs ever after that show a smile on her face, and yet Lillie was, by all accounts, a delightful person and her niece's favorite.   June  was nicknamed Chick for her yellow hair; I still have an envelope of it and  after all this time the hair still glows.  As for me, I still hope to learn someday what kind of touring car that is parked  in the driveway. 



Images: from the author's personal collection.

07 September 2017

Artichokes & Ardor





















The nubbed leaves
come away
in a tease of green, thinning
down to the membrane:
the quick, purpled
beginnings of the male.

Then the slow hairs of the heart:
the choke that guards its trophy,
its vegetable goblet.
The meat of it lies, displayed
up-ended, al-dente,
the stub-root aching in its oil.
 -"Artichoke" by  Robin Robertson

That is one tumescent flowering artichoke, you may be thinking after reading this poem by Robin Robertson.   I thought of furniture, specifically the old custom of decorating the four posters of a bed with finials shaped like artichokes, as a symbol of hope.  What makes the pairing of this poem and that woodblock print uncanny is that both Robertson and the artist Mabel Allington Royds share Scottish roots; Robertson was born there and Royds moved there to teach at the Edinburgh College of Art.
It turns out that Robin Robertson is far from the first person to connect the artichoke with male potency.   In the 16th century, for a woman to east an artichoke was scandalous; this aphrodisiac thistle was reserved for men.   It was Catherine de Medici who married King Henry II of France at the age of fourteen in 1533 who announced a change in mores: " If one of us had eaten artichokes, we would have been pointed out on the street.  Today young women are more forward than pages at court."  
And if you decide to enjoy an artichoke, why not prepare it as the ancient Romans did, with a combination of honey, vinegar, and cumin. 

Image:
Mabel Allington Royds (1874-1941)- Artichoke, 1935, National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh.

27 August 2017

Ernst Haas: Intimate Space


















"What birds plunge through is not the intimate space,
In which you see all Forms intensified.
(In the Open denied, you would lose yourself,
would disappear into the vastness.)

Space reaches from us and translates Things:
to become the very essence of a tree,
throw inner space around it, from that space 
that lives in you.  Encircle it with restraint.
It has no limits.  For the first time, shaped
in your renouncing, it becomes fully free." 
  -  Rainer Maria Rilke, (the favorite poet of Ernst Haas), translated from the German by Gabriel Caffrey

Alfred Eisenstadt, Yousef Karsh, Irving Penn, Richard Avedon - and Ernst Haas. Haas  belongs  in their company as one of the great photographers of the  20th century but Ernst Haas has been, if not neglected by the critics, then  somewhat  overshadowed by the photographic avalanche we now live with.  The Viennese-born Haas, who was a member of the Magnum Photo Agency, and later its fourth president, gradually moved from photojournalism to an increasingly personal art.  


It is this element of Haas's work that I want to look at.  The photos here were included in a book, The Creation, published in 1971, as Haas visualized the natural world to the accompaniment of texts, mostly drawn from the Old Testament. (The book became a surprise bestseller, making for the largest print run ever for a photography book.) Although Haas was captivated by the possibilities inherent in color film,  you can see that he deliberately avoided the high contrasts that caused the word 'garish' to attach to Kodachrome.  A heap of petals or an intact hydrangea and what difference does it make in this world of intimate space?   And what marvelous coincidence led Haas to an ice formation that resembles a design from the shops of the Wiener Werkstatte or the spermatozoa that Gustav Klimt flung across his "decorative" portraits of the wives of Viennese aristicrats?


















Ernst Haas (1921-1986) did not always want to be a photographer; he vacillated between a painter or  an explorer, wishfully looking for a way to combine the two.   But World War II came to Europe and everything, including the education of a young man from Vienna.  It was his introduction to the photography of Werner Bischof  in Bischof's native Switzerland after the war that set him on course at last.   It was thanks to sponsorship by the Magnum Agency that Haas finally obtained a rare visa to come to the U.S.

Images:
1. Ernst Haas - Hydrangeas
2. Ernst Haas - Ice formation

20 August 2017

The Single Petal Of A Rose: Jay De Feo


"The White Rose is a fact painted somewhere on a slow curve between destinations.  This is all I remember.  This is all I know." - Jay De Feo, 1965

"I first saw the rose in De Feo's top-floor apartment on Fillmore Street in San Francisco.  It was in a bay window - the only thing in the room - and the windows on either side of it were splattered with pint, so that light came in softly.  Paint encrusted floor and walls, giving the impression of  a kid of primordial cave, in which the panting was an apparition, a flower, a great female symbol.  the power of the work was overwhelming." - Walter Hopps, curator, Pasadena Art Museum

Can all the wonder of nature, of life itself, be expressed by the single petal of a rose?  Jay De Feo thought so; that is why she made so many variants on that single theme throughout her career.


Jay De Feo (her name, so don't be confused) worked on The Rose for eight years; it was all literally touch and go, adding layers and daubs, not by chance but in search of a revelation akin to the emergence of life from the primordial soup. As a student in Florence, Italy, De Feo had spent hours  communing with the frescoes of Biblical scenes in its churches and would try, through a variety of media, to reach the transcendence she had experienced through them.   In De Feo's work, whether painted or photographed, light seems to emanate from the very petals of the rose.  She could not bear to let The Rose go, even when it was listed in the catalog for an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1959.  Fortunately, several other works did make it to "Sixteen American Artists" where De Feo shared a gallery  two other young artists -Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns

Her eviction from the Fillmore Street apartment forced the issue in 1965 and Hopps arranged for the painting (which by then weighed over a ton) to be transported to Pasadena, where it remained unseen and neglected for two decades,  entombed behind a wall at the San Francisco Museum of Fine Art.   Hopps recounts how, when he finally had to tell De Feo that the painting was done and she needed to return home to San Francisco, she lay down on the street next to the bus and began to cry. Thanks to Hopps, The Rose was finally rescued from behind that wall in California and sent to the Whitney Museum in New York where it has undergone three restorations.
Standing somewhat apart from her male Abstract Expressionist counterparts,  De Feo's work looks startlingly modern today.  Her use of photo-hybrids, collage, and especially her striving beyond the "thingness" of the everyday,  her "irrepressible need for spirituality" (Eileen Berkovich), all look prescient now that figuration an landscape are again acceptable subject matter for artists.
In making The Rose De Feo broke the boundaries between painting and sculpture in a way that is not unlike the dissimilar work of her female contemporary, Eva Hesse.  Hesse was fortunate to be celebrated during her brief life while De Feo is more like her contemporary, Helen Frankenthaler, in having her art reconsidered since her death. (Frankenthaler is currently the subject of two simultaneous exhibitions at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts.)

Jay De Feo was born in Hanover, New Hampshire in 1929, studied art at Berkeley and lived in the Bay area for most of her adult life.  Shortly before her death in 1989, she was forced to move from her Oakland studio when it was damaged in the Loma Prieto earthquake.

For further reading:
The Dream Colony: A Life In Art by Waler Hopps, with Deborah Treisman, New York, Bloomsbury: 2017.

Visit Jay De Feo website  here.

Images:
1. Jay De Feo - untitled rose photograph - gelatin silver print - torn paper, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
2. Jay de Feo - The Rose, 1958-1966, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City.   Note that the museum has changed the title from De Feo's original White Rose.
3. unidentified photographer - Jay de Feo in front of The Rose, courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art.

10 August 2017

Out Of This World: Johanna Grussner

"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.


Considering the warm reception her Naxos release No More Blues received from both the critics and listeners, Johanna Grussber should need no introduction to jazz fans.  A native of Finland, Grussner   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  songs for children based on the popular  characters created by Tove Jansson.

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

As to its mechanics, 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)  claimed that he heard   echoes of the mixolydian mode of Gregorian chant in Arlen's melody.   (Mixolydian was the seventh of eight modes, similar to modern key signatures, in  medieval church music.)  Arlen also used  melisma in Out Of This World, as when he scored two notes for the word “knew.”  

Melisma is a technique familiar 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  the lyric to Out Of This World 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.  Sui generis, anyone?

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) composed what seem to be the first surviving love manuals, a poet from the unlikely Greek city-state of Sparta  was the author of love poetry so admired that it was mandatory 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 until now. 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 needing little introduction.
Contained in a 10th century Byyzantine lexicon is this description  of Alcman as 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 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 e 3320 at the Louvre.)  From Aristotle we learn that Alcman died of 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 benefited 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 Bittersweetmade 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 was
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 is
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.

When the subject is love, especially eros, the millennia just melt away.  Time collapses in the face of fervor. 

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 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, a dance whose 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 flags.  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 the photographer is - and where exactly is he in relation to the other elements in the picture?  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 more 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 he was moved 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 northern Italy, a temperate area of broad fertile plains fed by the Po River, 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  impact on the public.  His first book Kodachrome, published in 1978,  featured the tightly cropped images that would become his signature.
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  represent what he saw  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 no 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, Michele 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 the 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 the visual bits he took from each of 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 working together but not in the usual academic way.  Cascella is fearless in using bright colors (his debt to Van Gogh) 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 were often Cascella's subject but seldom more effectively than in Orangerie.  He usually depicts orchards as pure landscape, absent their human gardeners.   Here he shifts the focus to a young girl at work, staking and pruning, his subject, underlining the domestic element that makes a  landscape out of nature. Her pose 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.  That Michele far outstripped his younger brother appears to have caused not too much rancor.
    
When Basilio judged that the boy was ready to exhibit in public, he arranged a show  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 Michele Cascella was ready to take his place among the cultural set in the city.   

In another prodigious move, the twenty year old artist began an affair with 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 those of some who succeed early. He 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.  Cascella 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

The Cottagers: Camillo Inocenti

















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 from the outside 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 - to decamp during 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 Innocenti'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 while 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.   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 academic rules.   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.  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

Alice Coltrane's Eternal Spiritual

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 Alice 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 does.  The music begins with a series of modal arpeggios that move seemingly at random until they are resolved by a large orchestral entrance whereupon 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 am standing in awe and joy.
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 with Chuck Mangione) 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 Alice Coltrane's 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 and straight melodic lines 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  an unnamed male musician who, when 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 in 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 have included Love Hangover for Diana Ross and Same Ole' Love for Anita Baker.  

When Alice met John Coltrane, the two joined together in searching  for  transcendence in non-Western religious books such as  the Quran, the Bhagavad Gita, and in 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.