January 16, 2013
COUR, 7 RUE DE VALENCE: On display in “Two Views: Atget & Friedlander” through March 10, Eugène Atget’s photograph, printed by Berenice Abbott, is from “Eugène Atget Portfolio 1922,” printed 1956. Gift of David H. McAlpin, Class of 1920.(Courtesy of the Princeton University Art Museum)

COUR, 7 RUE DE VALENCE: On display in “Two Views: Atget & Friedlander” through March 10, Eugène Atget’s photograph, printed by Berenice Abbott, is from “Eugène Atget Portfolio 1922,” printed 1956. Gift of David H. McAlpin, Class of 1920. (Courtesy of the Princeton University Art Museum)

The mind-finger presses the release on the silly machine and it stops time and holds what its jaws can encompass and what the light will stain.

—Lee Friedlander (1934—)

These are simply documents I make.

—Eugène Atget (1857-1927)

No one knows who coined the phrase, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” It might have been an American newspaper editor in 1911 or it may go all the way back to Confucius. If you visit the Princeton University Art Museum’s new photography exhibit, “Two Views: Atget & Friedlander,” you’re almost sure to hear it or think it, but there’s a mystery guest in Atget’s Paris and Friedlander’s America who renders the old adage meaningless, turns it on its head, blows it to the moon. Depending on which translation of the four thousand-plus pages of Remembrance of Things Past (À la recherche du temps perdu, also translated as In Search of Lost Time) you’re referring to, Marcel Proust’s multi-volume work contains somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,200,000 words, any number or combination of which are worth a thousand pictures. You need more than mathematics to comprehend the magnitude of Proust (1871-1922). Walter Benjamin describes a “Nile of language” that “overflows and fructifies the regions of truth.” Virginia Woolf admits that her “great adventure is really Proust …. What remains to be written after that? One has to put down the book and gasp.”

A single sentence by Proust contains a quantity of phenomena even the most accomplished photographic artists would be hard put to keep up with, not to mention the translators E.M. Forster imagines confronting one such sentence, which “begins quite simply,” then “undulates and expands, parentheses intervene like quick-set hedges, the flowers of comparison bloom, and three fields off, like a wounded partridge, crouches the principal verb, making one wonder as one picks it up, poor little thing, whether after all it was worth such a tramp, so many guns, and such expensive dogs.”

Looking for Partridges 

Besides the edition of In Search of Lost Time (2000) illustrated by Atget’s photography, there’s A Vision of Paris,in which Proust’s words accompany Atget’s images. Although the pairing makes decorative sense, Atget would have assembled his Paris no less memorably and selectively had Proust never existed. On the other hand, in introducing Lee Friedlander, Photographs (1978), Friedlander feels close enough to Proust’s way of reimagining reality to quote in full a sentence from the master every bit as far afield as the one Forster’s word picture of hedges and flowers is describing. Here it is in all its Proustian glory (see if you can find the “partridges”):

Apart from the most recent applications of the art of photography — which set crouching at the foot of a cathedral all the houses which, time and again, when we stood near them, have appeared to us to reach almost to the height of the towers, drill and deploy like a regiment, in file, in open order, in mass, the same famous and familiar structures, bring into actual contact the two columns on the Piazzetta which a moment ago were so far apart, thrust away the adjoining dome of the Salute, and in a pale and toneless background manage to include a whole immense horizon within the span of a bridge, in the embrasure of a window, among the leaves of a tree that stands in the foreground and is portrayed in a more vigorous tone, give successively as setting to the same church the arched walls of all the others — I can think of nothing that can so effectively as a kiss evoke from what we believe to be a thing with one definite aspect, the hundred other things which it may equally well be since each is related to a view of it no less legitimate.

The foremost partridges that Proust’s “hunting party” of prose has been deployed to shoot down are the verb “bring”andthe “kiss” that occasioned the whole fabulous outing in the first place. This is a kiss the narrator, Marcel, has been longing for, dreaming of, since childhood. When he finally plants his lips on Albertine’s cheek, the world turns over, the city of Florence is vigorously realigned, rebuilt, repainted, above all seen — much as an inventive American photographer chooses to see a world unencumbered by rules of time and space and logic.

Stroll through Friedlander’s half of the “Two Views” exhibit and there’s no doubt how closely the photographer’s vision coheres with and reflects Proust’s approach to time, place, and memory. It’s almost as if the theatre of Friedlander’s imagery were shaped according to the stage directions provided in that exhilaratingly interminable prelude to a kiss, spaces contracted, disparate elements brought together, structures displaced and thrust into new formations, along with the urban horizons, New Orleans, Cincinnati, Chicago, Kansas City, compressed within the spans of bridges, in the “embrasure” of windows and mirrors, or “among the leaves of a tree.”

Stunt Man

The centrality of cars to Friedlander’s art would seem to set his work apart from both Atget and Proust. It’s not the car as subject that attracts him so much as the car as force, catalyst, enclosure, and high-octane photographic accessory. In Friedlander’s Hillcrest, New York (1970) you sit in the driver’s seat watching automobiles moving in opposite directions, at clumsy angles, against multiple backgrounds, where a distant human figure is walking downhill while still more distant human figures occupy a bench, as if in another dimension, everything expressing degrees of impediment and displacement, the template of a degraded reality that Friedlander is attacking like a stunt man driving through a plate glass window.

I wonder if Friedlander knew about Proust and fast cars. According to William C. Carter’s biography, Marcel Proust: A Life (Yale 2000), the novelist enjoyed speeding around Normandy in a red taxi with a professional driver (“It’s like being shot out of a cannon”). Too bad Friedlander couldn’t be there to photograph “the distant spires” Proust saw “appear and disappear against the horizon in constantly shifting perspectives” as he “marveled at the phenomenon of parallax and relativity so keenly felt in an automobile.”

Concerning Atget, it’s worth noting that the brightest image in his predominantly sepia portion of the “Two Views” exhibit (Cours, 7 rue de Valance) is centered on a resplendent Renault touring car. In The World of Atget: Modern Times (Museum of Modern Art 1985), a note by editor John Szarkowski says that because Atget preferred to see Paris on his own terms (“I can safely say that I possess all of old Paris”), he “withheld recognition of the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe” and was equally reluctant to focus on automobiles — at least until he discovered that particular Renault, in Szarkowski’s words, “as handsome and strange as a heathen conqueror, in the homely, decaying courtyard.”

More important than the car, however, is the courtyard. Friedlander would appreciate the natural convergence of forms and angles (no need to do any fancy photographic shape shifting), and the same could be said of Proust, who would conjure wonders of literary art from this “homely” courtyard’s wealth of surfaces, the texture of the sloping roof of the garage and the masonry, the yawning dormer windows of the structure opposite with its stairway sheltered by yet another sloping roof. There are at least six or seven suggestively weathered canvases on which paintings could be imagined by the writer who turned a “patch of pale yellow” on a wall into “something rich and strange” in Remembrance of Things Past.

The End of Life

The month before Atget’s view of the “decaying courtyard” dated June 1922, Proust ventured outdoors for what may have been the last time (he died in November), his goal the Jeu de Paume, where one of his favorite paintings, Vermeer’s View of Delft, was on display. Even before he reached the street, he was feeling faint and needed help from a friend, who escorted him to the museum and the Vermeer and later said that he was shaken by the outing. Proust’s shaky last viewing of the Vermeer inspired one of the most celebrated and haunting sequences in his work: the death of the writer, Bergotte, who is also feeling unwell as he gazes into the View of Delft at the “little patch of yellow wall” that was “like some priceless specimen of Chinese art, of a beauty that was sufficient in itself.” His dizziness increasing, he fixes “his gaze, like a child upon a yellow butterfly that it wants to catch, on the precious little patch of wall.” He finds himself thinking, “That’s how I ought to have written,” that he ought to have made his language “precious in itself, like this little patch of yellow wall.” Repeating it to himself, “Little patch of yellow wall, with a sloping roof, little patch of yellow wall,” he sinks down on to a circular settee, thinking it’s “nothing, merely a touch of indigestion” when a “fresh attack” strikes him, he rolls from the settee to the floor, and dies.

The long paragraph pondering spiritualism and other worlds that follows the moment of Bergotte’s death is, according to Carter’s biography, as close as Proust ever comes to “declaring some sort of belief in the afterlife.” The writing is also noticeably less difficult than the prose Forster playfully improvised on and Friedlander used for a preface. The paragraph ends with a rather flat summary, for Proust, “So that the idea that Bergotte was not dead for ever is by no means improbable.” Proust improves on the same idea after describing Bergotte’s funeral: “They buried him, but all through that night of mourning, in the lighted shop-windows, his books, arranged three by three, kept vigil like angels with outspread wings and seemed, for him who was no more, the symbol of his resurrection.”

Proust will experience a resurrection of sorts in 2013. It was 100 years ago, November 14, 1913, that Swann’s Way, the first volume of Remembrance of Things Past was published in Paris. The Morgan Museum and Library’s upcoming commemorative exhibit, “Marcel Proust and Swann’s Way,” begins on February 15.

Curated by Peter C. Bunnell, photography curator emeritus at the Princeton University Art Museum and former curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, “Two Views” will run through March 10.

AND DEATH SHALL HAVE DOMINION: Dylan Thomas’s defiance of death notwithstanding, Federico Castellon portrays an entirely different sentiment in this 1968, 12 x 8¼ inch lithograph titled “And The Red Death Held Illimitable Dominion Over All.” The image, which comes from the collection of the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, is one of a series on show together with works by Francisco Goya in a new exhibition opening on Wednesday, January 23, in the gallery at The College of New Jersey.(Image Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York.)

AND DEATH SHALL HAVE DOMINION: Dylan Thomas’s defiance of death notwithstanding, Federico Castellon portrays an entirely different sentiment in this 1968, 12 x 8¼ inch lithograph titled “And The Red Death Held Illimitable Dominion Over All.” The image, which comes from the collection of the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, is one of a series on show together with works by Francisco Goya in a new exhibition opening on Wednesday, January 23, in the gallery at The College of New Jersey.
(Image Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York.)

In an exhibition appropriately titled “Fear and Folly: The Visionary Prints of Francisco Goya and Federico Castellon,” the art gallery at The College of New Jersey (TCNJ) features prints by two artists who have much in common even though they are separated by about a century and a half.

Both Francisco Goya (1746–1828) and Federico Castellon (1914–1971) were born in Spain. Their work on display here focuses on the human condition and at times gives the impression that the two were contemporaries.

Famed as a romantic painter and printmaker, Goya is regarded as the last of the Old Masters and the first of the moderns whose work influenced the likes of Picasso and Francis Bacon. He was a court painter famed for flattering portraits, but his work took a darker turn later in life after a serious illness left him deaf. A bleak outlook and fear of insanity can be seen in such works as the nightmarish Saturn Devouring His Son, which Goya painted directly onto the wall of his home.

Castellon is a mid-twentieth century Surrealist who moved with his family from Spain to Brooklyn, New York, when he was just seven years old. Largely self-taught, he became a friend of the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera when his mother took him to a lecture given by Rivera during his installation of the murals at Rockefeller Center. Rivera helped Castellon achieve his first solo exhibition when he was just 19 years old. Castellon went on to win several prestigious awards, including two Guggenheim fellowships, and to a career in teaching at Columbia University and elsewhere. He also created illustrations for Life magazine and for numerous books.

The TCNJ exhibition, which opens on Wednesday, January 23, and continues through March 7, was organized by the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts in Michigan. It’s an exhibition in which artistry and literature collide.

Each artist is represented by a series of prints: Goya’s etchings from Los Disparates (The Proverbs) and Castellon’s lithographs for Edgar Allen Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death. “Many artists have been drawn to things dark and fantastic, but few have probed the human condition with the insight and truthfulness found in these images,” comments exhibition curator, Greg Waskowsky of the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts. Los Disparates was the last of Goya’s major series of etchings, and it was unfinished at the time of his death.

The prints in the Los Disparates series contain some of the most horrifying, fantastic, and enigmatic creations of his imagination: strange bird-men soaring through dense darkness, a wild horse abducting a woman, and hosts of witches and grotesque imaginings in dark shadows.

The images that Castellon created for The Masque of the Red Death are considered among his most remarkable accomplishments, technically and artistically. His work on Poe’s classic horror tale was a commission from Aquarius Press of Baltimore in 1969. His imagery maintains the spirit of Poe’s story.

In conjunction with the exhibition, Professor Amze Emmons will discuss the history of prints as a means of communication, as well as contemporary print making practices in a special lecture titled “Print Culture, Past and Present,” on Friday, February 15, at 11:30 a.m. in Mayo Concert Hall in the Music Building. A relative newcomer to TCNJ, having been appointed just last year in the department of art and art history, Mr. Emmons is an artist, illustrator, and curator. He has an MA and MFA from the University of Iowa where he focused on printmaking, digital media, and photography.

The art gallery at TCNJ Art Gallery is located in the Arts and Interactive Multimedia Building (AIMM) on the campus at 2000 Pennington Road in Ewing. It is open to the public free of charge on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays from noon to 7 p.m. and on Sundays from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. For more information, visit tcnj.edu/artgallery or call (609) 771 2633.

December 19, 2012

“It’s so fun to be reading with Gerry,” said poet Alicia Ostriker on Saturday afternoon at Labyrinth Books.

“Gerry” was another poet, Gerald Stern, a Pittsburgh native who has written 17 poetry collections and won the National Book Award, the National Jewish Book Award, the Ruth Lilly Prize, and the Wallace Stevens Award, among others. He currently lives in
Lambertville.

Ms. Ostriker, a former English professor at Rutgers University and current resident of Princeton, was born in Brooklyn. Her writing includes 14 poetry collections as well as several books on the Bible, and her prizes include the Paterson Poetry Prize, the William Carlos Williams Award, the San Francisco State Poetry Center Award, and the National Jewish Book Award.

The two are good friends, and on Saturday they complemented — and complimented — each other with their introductions, rapt attention to the others’ readings, and easy banter. It is not surprising to learn that they are currently sharing an “Arts of Respect” residency at Drew University.

Introducing Ms. Ostriker, Mr. Stern noted that her latest collection of poems, The Book of Life, is a reference to the Jewish belief that, on Yom Kippur, people’s fates for the coming year are sealed in a heavenly book. “Jews are so obsessed with books that their God is even a librarian,” he joked.

Ms. Ostriker described the volume as a “diaspora of poems” that “speak to each other” about what it means to be Jewish, female, and a poet, “yesterday and today.”

Her selections on Saturday afternoon included a poem about being with her relatives Becky and Benny in Far Rockaway, a place that “is past the last subway station” where aging Jews, “warty like alligators,” soak up the sun “as if it were Talmud.”

Segueing from that first generation that was “so full of yearning for the young ones,” she read poems about the joys of being with a grandchild; Allen Ginsburg’s saintliness; being in Israel; and, more than once, arguing with a God who allows tragedies like the bombing of Kosovo to take place. “Judaism is at a turning point,” she observed as she finished. Although we “don’t know how yet,” she suggested that these differences would occur because “women will help imagine it.”

Ms. Ostriker transitioned to her role as introducer, by walking around the podium three times. She described Mr. Stern as “our mad poet … a cross between Whitman and Rimbaud,” who deserves his many prizes.

Reading from a recently published book of essays, Stealing History, Mr. Stern cast an eclectic net as he considered everything from dragonflies to Turkish restaurants in Paris.

Wearing a cap and well-worn jeans, Mr. Stern explained that rather than being “essays,” the works in Stealing History were divided into “sections” that reflect the “chaos you will encounter” in life. “Essays would be more meditative,” he observed. “This gets right to it.”

One reviewer described the book as “patient and wise, but also frenzied, angry — kind of wild. It’s loose and free, but also elegantly written. The work is a trip, full of humor, wit, and wisdom.”

The essays are very personal, as is Mr. Stern’s poetry. A poem about Eleanor Roosevelt in In Beauty Bright imagines Mrs. Roosevelt meeting Vice President Henry Wallace for lunch at One Fifth Avenue so that they can plot on ways to get Franklin to do good. Briefing the audience on Saturday about the poem, Mr. Stern said that as a young man, he regularly read Mrs. Roosevelt’s column, “My Day,” and that he kept a photograph of her next to one of his grandmother. “’Did you know her?’” he reported someone asking. “’Sure,’” he replied. “’But you didn’t,’” said the other. “’Sure I did,’” responded Mr. Stern. “’I wrote a poem about her.’” Other poems were about Whitman in Camden (“Broken Glass”), a little white Fiat (he had to run with it and then jump in to get it started), and Nietzsche (“he suffered from shame and sadness in different cities”).

“I’m a spy on myself,” said Mr. Stern. In their awareness of what’s human, unjust, inexplicable, and very funny, Mr. Stern and Ms. Ostriker are members of the same ring.


November 21, 2012

I have the uncomfortable feeling that I am carrying a volcano around with me. My salvation is in being loved.

—Woodrow Wilson, from a letter to Ellen Axson

When I saw the floodlit, misty, gloriously chaotic fountain facing the Woodrow Wilson School one night not long after we moved to Princeton, I didn’t know its name, but I had a notion of the story it was telling. I’d been learning about Wilson’s triumphs and tribulations while working on Alexander Leitch’s A Princeton Companion. I thought of it simply as Wilson’s fountain even after learning that its official name was the Fountain of Freedom and that its stated message was “to symbolize Woodrow Wilson’s vision of lasting world peace” or, according to another source, “to symbolize man’s quest for peace and freedom.”

While it’s possible to connect the quest for freedom with the force field of water splashing, jetting, gushing up and down and in and out of the craggy contours of the 20-foot-high bronze sculpture, it’s a real stretch to imagine a “vision of lasting peace” in all that tumult. Everything’s at cross purposes, like a massive celebration of disorder and conflict, with the jets coming and going every which way, some at angles, spilling mist and spray in all directions. There’s joy, poetry, and music in the play of light and the sound made by the water, but the total effect is best reflected in the title “Woodrow Wilson: A Complicated Man,” the election-of-1912-centennial site honoring the Princetonian who on the eve of his election as governor of New Jersey in 1910 said “men are not put in this world to go the path of ease; they are put in this world to go the path of pain and struggle.”

Speaking of pain and struggle, consider how Caligariesque the sculpture becomes when the water’s shut off. This bleak, twisted mass sculpted by James Fitzgerald (1910-1973) could just as easily serve to mark a battle scene where great losses were sustained.

Achievement and Adversity

It’s a short walk from Wilson’s fountain to Wilson’s top hat, which can be seen in Firestone Library’s Milberg Gallery exhibit, “The Election for Woodrow Wilson’s America.” Too bad the display can’t be on the main floor where more people could view that lustrous black topper. It’s also worth a trip to the second floor to see a photo of a handsome 20-something Wilson sporting a mustache or maybe to read the letter from 1884 when he was courting Ellen Axson, in which he writes, “I’m making a fright of myself for your sake. I am letting my hair grow long for the sake of the look you want.” Jump ahead 31 years and there’s a more familiar President Wilson beaming, in his element, at the 1915 World Series between the Red Sox and the Phillies.

I keep coming back to the top hat. What a sheen it has, so dark, so deep, so rich. But it looks too somber, too grounded somehow. Too much J.P. Morgan, not enough Fred Astaire. It needs to be blown about or perhaps tossed into the fountain’s stormy vortex and set bouncing and bobbing until the topper’s dancing on the top. Though the exhibit commentary informs us that Wilson wore this hat when campaigning for the presidency, most photographs online show him wearing it or its mate in Europe, at Paris and Versailles with Lloyd George and Clemenceau. Wilson is glowing, the Great War is over, he’s signed, sealed, and delivered it, and put the U.S.A. on the center stage and now he’s got big plans for world peace.

(Dream on, says the fountain. Stay the course, says another spray. Keep fighting, says a jet shooting in from the side.)

James Chace’s book, 1912:Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft & Debs — The Election that Changed the Country (2004), begins with Wilson in his glory, enjoying a hero’s welcome in France, flowers raining down on him, the streets of Paris thronged with “the largest number of Parisians ever to welcome a foreign leader,” banners reading “Honor to Wilson the Just,” reporters writing “No one had ever heard such cheers …. Oh, the immovably shining smiling man!” All through December 1918 it was more of the same, cheered in England, treated like a king in Rome, where he was “met with near-hysterical demonstrations,” and “blew kisses to the crowd.”

Not so fast, says the fountain, don’t forget that back home the Republicans have won both houses of Congress and are denouncing the “shining smiling man” — “Mr. Wilson has no authority whatever to speak for the American people.” Same old, same old, achievement blown to a mist by adversity. Think of what Senate leader Cabot Lodge and the Republicans did to Wilson’s dream of the League of Nations. The chapter, “Woodrow Wilson: The Conservative as Liberal,” in Richard Hofstadter’s American Political Tradition (1948) is full of references to Wilson’s combative character, his volcanic intensity and need to be loved (as in the quoted admission from another letter to Ellen Axson). The chapter also features phrases from Wilson’s 1912 campaign that could be taken from media coverage of the campaign of 2012: “the middle class is being more and more squeezed,” “the interests that have squeezed out the middle class are the same that control politics,” “the laws do not prevent the strong from crushing the weak,” and “the business of government is to organize the common interests against the special interests” [Wilson’s emphasis].

In his way, Wilson seems nearly as unlikely a president in 1912 as Obama was in 2008. Even now, consider how improbable it would be for someone like Wilson to be elected and sworn in on Inauguration Day: a scholar, an intellectual, historian, author of numerous academic texts, a visionary who, in Hofstadter’s words, “learned to look upon life as the progressive fulfillment of God’s will and to see man as ‘a distinct moral agent’ in a universe of moral imperatives.” If anything, such a person seems as far out of the mainstream as an African American with a Harvard degree, two books under his belt, and a more practical, flexible concept of priorities and imperatives.

The Movie

My sense of Wilson, the flawed hero striving for the greater good (that star-crossed quest for peace played out in criss-crossing streams of his fountain), has little in common with the depiction of the 28th president in Darryl F. Zanuck’s wartime biopic Wilson (1944). As James Agee put it in his long, typically brilliant August 19, 1944 review in The Nation: “With the best intentions in the world, Hollywood took a character and a theme of almost Shakespearean complexity and grandeur, and reduced the character to an astutely played liberal assistant professor of economics.” What follows is a litany of similarly fatal reductions of themes and events: “the millennial, piteous surge of hope and faith which bore Wilson to Paris,” “the colossal struggles between Wilson and Clemenceau and Senator Lodge,” “Wilson’s terrifying, possessed trip around the United States,” all reduced to “a high-grade sort of magazine illustration.”

Wilson was the most expensive film ever made in Hollywood up to that point, costing even more than Gone With the Wind. In fact, Zanuck was so devastated by the resulting box office disaster (it lost millions) that he decreed that Wilson never be mentioned again in his presence. The film does include numerous Princeton touches (students serenading Wilson with “Old Nassau” after he’s been elected) that may move all but the most jaded alums. The rub is that a true Princetonian named Jimmy Stewart might have saved the day if he hadn’t been serving in the U.S. Air Force at the time. Instead of Alexander Knox, a little-known actor with minimal presence, you’d have had a major star who would have brought his tensely suppressed fire-in-the-belly ferocity to the part.

The Fountain Rules

The last image you see in the Milberg exhibit is an extraordinary piece of pointillist photography from 1918 by Arthur S. Mole in which 21,000 officers and men at Camp Sherman in Chillicothe Ohio have been assembled to form a “living portrait” of Wilson. The photographer climbed a 70-foot-high tower to shoot the picture of the human tide he’d shaped to the president’s approximate likeness. It’s a magnificent image, but it doesn’t really do Wilson or his story justice. For that, go to the fountain — or to the various Princeton exhibits and events marking the 1912 election centennial (http://wilsoncentennial.org/). On December 8 (2 p.m. and 4 p.m.), The Historical Society of Princeton is hosting a walking tour of places in the community that were a part of Wilson’s life as a student, faculty member, and president of the University. $7 adults; $4 children. To register, call (609) 921-6748 x102, or email eve@princetonhistory.org.

The Harper’s Weekly cover is on view in the Milberg exhibit, which runs through December 28. The man in the rear is Wilson’s vice-president, Thomas R. Marshall of Indiana, who during a Senate debate once famously announced, “What this country really needs is a good five-cent cigar.”

 

November 14, 2012

AT THE BATTLE MONUMENT: Artist Jean Lareuse’s 1998 ceramic with portraits of Generals George Washington and Jean Baptiste Rochambeau, is at the foot of Princeton’s Battle Monument.

Artist Jean Lareuse was born in 1926 to Catalan parents in French Guiana, Africa, and while his career has been international in scope, he has left his particular stamp on one of Princeton’s favorite historic sites: the Princeton Battle Monument adjacent to Morven and Borough Hall.

A ceramic frieze created by Mr. Lareuse in 1998 and located at the foot of the Monument, commemorates the August 31, 1781 meeting in Princeton of the army of King Louis XVI, commanded by General Rochambeau, and the army of General Washington, during their march to victory in Yorktown. The work was commissioned by the American Society of Le Souvenir Français, and French officials were present at its dedication. Mr. Lareuse’s wife, Caroline, was included in the day’s celebration, having been invited to join the Honorary Committee of the French Consulate in New York City.

Longtime residents of Princeton, the Lareuses live in an art-filled house on Shadybrook Lane. Chagall, Mr. Lareuse’s favorite painter, is well-represented along with Miró and Picasso, who was friends with Mr. Lareuse’s father. Other shelves are lined with sets of books handed down by Ms. Lareuse’s family, which included several Princeton alumni.

Mr. Lareuse continues to paint — at an admittedly slower pace — in a well-lit, back room of the house. An area of the garage has been designated for packing and mailing paintings, as well as copies of Mr. Lareuse’s books. These include a heavily illustrated catalog, Jean Lareuse: Le Plus Catalan des Peintres Américains (The Most Catalan of all American Painters); a tribute to his adopted country called L’Amérique, la magnifique (in French); and a children’s book, Devils in the Castle (in English). The artist is looking forward to a new show of his paintings in Toulouse, France, this spring.

Mr. Lareuse’s subjects cast a wide net. His early youth was spent near the Longchamp Racecourse in France, and scenes of jockeys tensely poised above their competing horses is a favorite theme, along with depictions of well-dressed men and women watching in the stands. A later childhood experience, growing up among priests to whom he was sent after his mother’s death, is reflected in a variety of religious images, and include work in stained glass. Still later, the colors used by Impressionists appealed to Mr. Lareuse’s Catalan sensibility. A recent cataract procedure has restored his passion for bright color after an interval of painting darker pictures.

Mr. Lareuse reported that he actually began painting at the age of 13, and studied in the south of France. He eventually attended the École des Beaux Arts in Paris. His first one-man show, in 1948, was in Paris at the Galerie Ariel, and his second, also in Paris, at the Galerie Drouant-David in 1952. Since then, he has taken part in many group shows, including the Biennale de Menton and the salon d’Automne. His paintings hang in galleries in London, Caracas, New York, Montreal, and Washington, D.C., among others.

There’s sadness when Mr. Lareuse talks about his mother’s early death (he was six), and when he talks about publishing his children’s book — which is actually related to his mother’s death. While he was sent to a school run by priests, Mr. Lareuse’s sister was sent to a convent school, and Devils in the Castle was inspired by her experiences there. Unfortunately, he said, when it was published in 1979, critics suggested that his images of uniformed girls were based on Ludwig Bemelman’s Madeleine stories. Since the stories that inspired it took place long before Madeleine, perhaps, Mr. Lareuse suggests, Bemelemans copied him.

Mr. Lareuse will be appearing at Labyrinth Books next spring at a time to be announced. In the meantime, signed copies of Jean Lareuse: Le Plus Catalan des Peintres Américains are available by calling Labyrinth at (609) 497-1600.


October 3, 2012

“LIFTING A SECRET”: Fertile Crescent artist Nezaket Ekici will be performing this piece on Thursday, October 4 at Princeton University’s Lewis Center for the Arts, Matthews Acting Studio, 185 Nassau Street. Audiences are invited to visit the installation in progress from 2 to 8 p.m. and to return at 8 p.m. for the culminating performance.

Miss Butterfly is going to meet the sun; as she is looking for a way out and reaching for the light, she becomes caught in a spider’s web. —Shadi Ghadirian

The piece of impromptu performance art recounted here happened in Turkey long ago at a crossroads clearing near Eregli, 243 kilometers south of Kirsehir, the birthplace of Nezaket Ekici. I’d begun the previous day’s journey in Izmir, where Ebru Özseçen was born. Ekici and Özseçen are among the 24 artists represented in the Rutgers Institute for Women and Art’s “The Fertile Crescent: Gender, Art, and Society,” a complex, many-faceted show of unparalleled scope that is currently spreading the wealth over multiple venues through the enlightened leadership of curators Ferris Olin and Judith K. Brodsky.

I’ve been scanning the faces of the women on the Fertile Crescent website (fertile-crescent.org), with its “signature images” of the artists and their art. The faces are remarkable. Strong and delicate, sultry and refined, some sly, some shy, some witheringly stern. For reasons that will soon become apparent, I’m trying to imagine what these women looked like when they were children. Since the impending scene takes place once upon a time in Turkey, I’ve been paying special attention to the photos of Nezaket Ekici, who has a bold, no-nonsense air, and Ebru Özseçen, who appears demure and unassuming, although her video “Jawbreaker” is edgy and erotic.

The closest I’ve come to finding the features of the child I’m searching for is in the smile of the Iranian artist Shiva Ahmadi whose work is described in the online commentary as “at once meticulous and loose, playful and somber, mythical yet very much dealing with the real.” These are qualities similar to those of the performance-artist-in-the-making I shared the roadside stage with late one hot August afternoon. Since Ahmadi’s contribution to the Fertile Crescent won’t be on view until Thursday, October 4, at the Arts Council, I have yet to see her work in person, but the samples displayed online in Google images are stunning and the equal of anything in the exhibit, even including the Iranian photographic artist Shadi Ghadirian’s darkly impressive “Butterfly Series” at the Bernstein Gallery.

In the Clearing

It’s the hour before sunset and I’ve been dropped off at a spot that appears to be the province of children. Earlier in the day at a Turkish version of a truck stop cafe where men sat talking and sipping tea while women in heavy robes worked in an adjacent field, I’d seen, not for the first time, an example of what women were up against, at least in the provinces.

After the long hot hours in the open back of the truck from Konya, I head for the nearest shady spot, stow my pack, and prepare to relax. Not for long. I have company in the person of a sunny, forthright little blonde of around ten, whose name I later learn is Atalette; she’s accompanied by a tawny-haired barefoot sprite of maybe six (possibly her little sister) who is hopping and peek-a-booing and dancing in place behind her. The name this mercurial being goes by is Gül (pronounced “Jewel”), according to Atalette. They want me to join them out in the clearing where the other kids are waiting, as if a show with a guest appearance by a skinny, unshaven, 20-something American had been advertised in advance of my arrival.

What can I do? Hot and tired as I am, I obey the call. It soon becomes clear that I’m to be merely the go-between, the prop, the sorceror’s apprentice. The sprite is focused on my shabby, shapeless straw hat. Lurching forward, dancing backward, spinning sideways, she sees something outlandishly, overwhelmingly desirable in the ludicrous object that I’d been wearing ever since a friend abandoned it on Mykonos. She has plans for that hat; designs on it, you might say. Too shy and too short to put her plan into action (she’d need wings or a ladder), she turns to Atalette, who mimes the message: Gül wants not merely to hold the hat but to put it on. And perhaps something more, something unlikely and unimaginable that is still only beginning to take shape for her. So I hold it out, here, take it, try it on, but that would have been too easy, too prosaic, too adult. Instead, after circling me, coming at me and backing off, she performs an impish pirouette and charges across the road, splashing happily in and out of a stream before disappearing briefly behind some trees; then back she comes in a zestful zig-zag, one dirty hand outstretched, only to retreat again, giggling, as if she were teasing me and herself and the boys who have been stolidly watching us the whole time.

Finally the moment arrives when the artist artfully and artlessly commands me to put the misshapen yellow blob on her head, a slapstick coronation, as she all but disappears under it. Then off she goes, a sudden gust of wind forcing her to hold the hat with one hand while wildly paddling with the other as she dances down the road followed by one of the older boys, who retrieves the hat, and solemnly returns it to me, like a diplomatic enforcer dealing with a potentially punishable indiscretion.

Meanwhile the sun has begun to set, giving the moment an aura of melancholy glory. So dazzled and disarmed am I by this time that I want her to have the hat, for good, forever, it’s hers, she’s given it a new life. I want to see her go dancing off with it again, and so she does, only to surrender it once more, tearlessly, bravely, wisely, to the relentless boy, who grimly brings it back to me. At this point Atalette has had enough: she tears into the enforcer, punching and kicking him in a kind of ecstasy until he slinks off. A beautiful moment, and it’s only the beginning now that both girls have the hat, and off they go, shouting and laughing down the road, passing the enchanted entity between them, until it seems to take flight on its own, glowing golden in the sunset light.

 

A truck is coming, it’s a ride clear to Adana. I grab my pack, ready to leave the hat with them, but Gül hands it back with a wise old look that seems to say, “It’s not for us, it won’t ever be ours, that’s how it is, that’s life.”

All the children are waving as the truck pulls off. I’m standing in the open back. Gül has stopped moving, it seems, for the first time since I got there. She’s giving me a strong, steady look I can’t help reading something into, perhaps some dawning awareness in her of the wider world at the other end of that road. Most children at her age still have a spark of genius in them but she’s aglow with it, burning with it, and I’m thinking of the lounging men and laboring women I’d seen earlier and what it suggests about “gender and society,” and I know, with a heavy, sinking certainty, that one day not that far in the future both these brilliant girls will be working in the fields while the grown-up boys sit drinking tea and talking politics and watching the women work.

Dream On

I’d like to think that the artists of the Fertile Crescent, Nezaket and Ebru, Negar and Sigalit, Shazia and Shirin, Farah and Parastou, are grown-up, productive, liberated versions of Atalette and Gül. I thought as much four years ago when I met Arzu Komili, a Princeton senior from Turkey whose exhibit at the Lewis Center I visited at Communiversity 2008. Ed Greenblat’s photograph of her has been cheering up my work space, smiling out at me, ever since. Arzu may have been born and raised in Istanbul, in a well-to-do household, but there’s a hint of the roadside sprite in her smile.

The two Turkish artists in “The Fertile Crescent” website may be half a generation younger than Atalette and Gül would be now, but the boldness of their themes and concepts suggests that they have fought the good fight against similar odds. Born in 1970 a half day’s drive from the crossroads near Eregli, Nezaket Ekici lives in Germany now and will be at the Lewis Center tomorrow, Thursday, October 4, in a performance piece she calls “Lifting a Secret,” in which she’s drinking coffee and reading passages from an adolescent diary she kept about a forced marriage arranged by her father. As her anger mounts, she spatters the wall with coffee, which, as it drips down, reveals the passage from the journal she’s been reading and that she’d written on the wall with petroleum jelly before beginning the performance. She refills her cup over and over again, slopping the coffee on the passage until all her words have emerged. Coffee makes the case nicely; it’s a darker and more dramatic developing fluid than the tea the men in the cafe were drinking while watching the women work.

For 41-year-old Ebru Özseçen, who also lives in Germany, indulge me for a moment and imagine the sort of art Gül would produce if by some miracle she’d run off to Europe to become a dancer or singer or sculptor or filmmaker, lured by the glow of that moment when the hat became her creation. In her artistic statement, Ebru plans to explore mundane reality in order to discover “its magical and unseen aspects, in the process, revealing a space where fantasy and memory hide in plain sight.”

You can see Ebru Özseçen’s brief video Jawbreaker on YouTube, as well as a four-part conversation apparently taking place in the proximity of the White Cliffs of Dover. In her proposal for a competition on “New Forms of Remembering and Remembrance,” she writes of a “memorial kindergarten” that “will be visible in the evening after the children go home …. The other phase will be seen in the morning, when the walls are lowered, and the children enter the kindergarten. When the children sleep, the work … stands guard”

Princeton Venues

Nezaket Ekici will also take part in the Arts Council of Princeton’s portion of The Fertile Crescent, from October 4 to November 21, along with seven other Fertile Crescent artists, including, as mentioned, Shiva Ahmadi, whose work can be seen on page 15. For full details about other venues, including the Princeton Public Library and the Princeton University Art Museum, visit http://fertile-crescent.org/signatureartists.html.

Note: In the unlikely event that readers of this column have read or may read my book Indian Action: A Journey to the Great Fair of the East, they will find an expanded version of the scene in the clearing with additional players and a different focus.

July 25, 2012

On my way across campus to the University Art Museum, I see a single leaf drifting toward the September 11 memorial garden at Chancellor Green. I’m in a don’t-take-anything-for-granted mood, my reporter’s notebook in my hand, my objective a show called “Encounters: Conflict, Dialogue, Discovery,” which opened July 14 and will be on view through September 23. At the time, I know nothing of the work of Gabriele Münter and the only Aurora I know of is the Aurora Borealis.

In art exhibits you go from one work to another, looking, attending, thinking, so it must be because I’m already in a museum state of mind that I’ve been paying attention to this one yellow leaf. How come it’s falling now, in the middle of summer? I’m waiting to see where it ends up so I can have a closer look.

As it’s about to come to earth by the 9/11 memorial bell, the leaf flutters to life and flies away. Though I’m not in the museum yet, I take out my pen and write, “Butterfly = leaf.” The real exhibit has begun.

The Shadow of Aurora

The carnage at a Colorado multiplex showing The Dark Knight Rises seems a long way from an art museum on the campus of an Ivy League university. Yet the same film opened across the street from the campus at the Garden Theater with a midnight screening a day before the midnight show in Aurora. Meanwhile, visitors to the exhibit are going to see it differently now than they would have if, like me, they had come to it the day before the shooting.

A large, attractively designed hand-out showing a plan of the museum is accompanied by a colorfully printed essay about the exhibit that refers, appropriately enough, to “commonality,” “cultural encounters,” “entangled interaction, mutual impact,” and “points of contact” that “occur across place as well as time …. Such encounters elicit curiosity, bemusement, or, sometimes ardent condemnation and rupture” (the last word is printed in big pink capital letters against a purple background). When you read the preceding statements after learning that a lone, heavily armed gunman shot and killed at least 12 people and wounded 58, “encounter” becomes the mother of all euphemisms. At the end of the essay, which was apparently co-written by the Curator of Asian Art Cary Y. Liu, Project Coordinator Francesca Williams, and Curatorial Fellow Juliana Ochs Dweck, “rupture” is among the five key words that are highlighted and defined (viz, “to burst open — treaty, nation, body, or belief”).

Because of the killings in Colorado, I’m more attuned to terms of “rupture” and “conflict” than “dialogue” and “discovery” as I look back over my exhibit notes. The words of a New York Times article about the shooting, “Fantasy became nightmare, and a place of escape became a trap,” have me asking the obvious: “Aren’t people going to an art show also looking for a place of escape?” More likely, the long view provided by a presentation that spans centuries offers something more enlightening than a vivid, violent, big-screen vacation from routine; speaking of “fantasy as nightmare,” for instance, there’s Goya’s image of the artist slumped over his desk, his head buried in his arms as a nightmare phantasmagoria of owls and bats hover over him in “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters,” the etching from Los Caprichos that inspired the most spectacular encounter in “Encounters,” Yinka Shonibare’s massive four-part photographic adaptation of Goya’s original vision.

Encountering Carnage

If you don’t count the leaf that became a butterfly, Le Carnage is the first object mentioned in my notes, an oil on canvas painted by Georges Clairin (1843-1919), described as a “mock Equestrian battle” in the curator’s commentary. My scribbled comment is, “Why ‘mock’? Mock carnage?” You’ve got robed and turbaned warriors and horsemen firing rifles and pistols, the skies in the background blazing like hellfire; there’s a dead horse in the right foreground and on the other side, if you look closely, you can make out at least three corpses. Few museumgoers will be able to view this scene without thinking of the ongoing folk tale of carnage being told in the media and spreading like a virus online. There’s even a lone gunman in the painting, a Hell’s Angel lookalike, the only warrior with a pistol and there’s nothing fake looking about the flame spurting from the barrel.

Before your thoughts can turn to more benign matters, the next thing the museum shows you is a case containing a dagger with an ornamental handle in the shape of a Saracen with sword upraised, about to behead a crusader. And above the dagger is a pen and brown ink sketch by Tiepolo of a Saracen Cavalryman. After that come a legion of Amazons followed by two terra cotta Amazons from 300-280 B.C. in blue leather boots and lavender-colored skirts. As the exhibit brochure suggests, conflict and rupture are everywhere.

The Sleep of Reason

I first saw one of Yinka Shonibare’s massive photographic revisitings of “The Sleep of Reason” at the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Museum at Rutgers four years ago (“Goya’s Book of Dreams: Sharp as the Point of an Etching Needle, Sept. 10, 2008), but the four-fold impact here is considerably more impressive because of visual excitement created by the arrangement. It’s rare enough to speak of a “view” unfolding within the confines of a museum, but what the curators have created is very definitely a view, and a great view at that. You enter the exhibition gallery on your left as if coming to the summit of an old world city — imagine yourself, say, atop the Palatine Hill in Rome peering through a statuary-ornamented balustrade at a Nigerian Sound and Light spectacle fashioned with fabrics from London’s Brixton Market.

Or, to put it another way, less fancy and more fact, what you see is a matchless matching of the photographic clarity and richness of color and design with which Shonibare has clothed the four dreamers, each one representing a continent, Africa, Asia, America, and Australia. The genesis of the work — Goya’s vision remastered in living color — is implicit in Shonibare’s personal history. Born in London in 1962, he moved with his family to Lagos, Nigeria, when he was three years old. At 18, after returning to Britain, he contracted an inflammation across the spinal cord that left him disabled. Because of his disability, he depends on a team of assistants to help him manifest his visions, the essence being composed of the African and Indonesian fabrics he buys himself from the aforementioned London market.

Shonibare includes his MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) whenever he uses his name, to emphasize his hybrid identity. “I have always viewed art as a form of opera, or as being operatic,” he explained in 2004. “And opera is excessive; it is beyond the real, and therefore hyper-real.”

The opera in images arranged around Shonibare’s hybrid, hyper-real aesthetic is all about, according to the museum’s summer 2012 magazine, the pursuit of “the ideas of cross-cultural discovery — and its attendant dislocations — as a common human experience and of the visual arts as a crystallization and visualization of that experience.”

Cosmic Encounters

Instead of presenting the effect of a view across an earthly vista, the other half of the exhibit, which is located in the gallery opposite the one centered on the spectacle of Shonibare’s “Sleep of Reason,” offers views of the moon and the cosmos, with an emphasis on “encounters with the unknown,” including “other spiritual realms or celestial worlds” and “so-called encounters of the third kind.” The epigraph of moment is from Lewis Rutherford, the father of celestial photography, who observed on January 8, 1865: “Few things have inspired as many myths and mysteries as the moon.” The range is stunning. You go from photographer Ruth Bernhard’s shiny, smashed-flat teapot to Howard Russell Butler’s “early scientific visualizations of other planetary bodies” to Liu Guosong’s hanging scrolls, five full moons painted after the first lunar landing.

Having infinitely expanded the dimensions of the subject at hand, “Encounters” allows a larger view of what happened at the Century cineplex in a place called Aurora. For one thing, scientists at NASA have predicted that in 2012, the Aurora Borealis will be the brightest and most intense in 50 years. Last April 24, according to an article in Huffington Post Science, “The Aurora Borealis put on a dazzling show in more than a dozen states,” including Colorado and Illinois. A post from County Antrim in Northern Ireland described “vertical green pillars of light some 60 degrees high accompanied by amazing pulsating motions like the beating of a heart.”

Münter’s Moments 

When you leave “Encounters” make sure to stop by the gallery of 19th − early 20th century art to see the newly displayed paintings by Gabriele Münter (1877-1962), from the repository of works of the Berlin-born artist donated by Frank E. Taplin, Class of 1937, his wife Margaret (Peggy) Taplin, and their family. The paintings include a thoughtful self-portrait of Gabriele in her early thirties, peering at us, at once focused and wistful, from under an extraordinary lampshade of a hat, and an oil on board from 1910 of her fiance-for-a-decade, Wassily Kandinsky, age about 44, holding forth over coffee to a young woman named Erma Bossi.

In a 1958 interview with Edouard Roditi in Dialogues – conversations with European Artists at Mid-century, Münter said, “My main difficulty was that I could not paint fast enough. My pictures are all moments of my life – I mean instantaneous visual experiences, generally noted very rapidly and spontaneously. When I begin to paint, it’s like leaping suddenly into deep waters, and I never know beforehand whether I will be able to swim …. When I painted my ‘Blue Mountain,’ I had learned the trick. It came to me as easily and naturally as song to a bird.”

In the context of current events, murder and mayhem, art shows and butterflies, it’s hard not to think of another Gabrielle, the survivor of another shooting in the west, Gabrielle Giffords. Which brings us back to the present, July, 2012, where a carpenter who makes crosses for the victims of massacres travels from his home in Aurora, Illinois, to Aurora, Colorado, with 12 more.

———

The image of The Sleep of Reason (Africa), 2008, C print mounted on aluminum, is from the Collection of Nancy and Rodney Gould, courtesy James Cohan Gallery, New York/Shanghai.


June 13, 2012

OPENING NIGHT: “For the end of the year show, we try our best to not select or take out any art work,” reported curator Veronika Bychokova. “The purpose of this show is for the students to exhibit their progress throughout the year, so whatever art work they feel they want to show, we fit in. We do set a requirement of no more than two pieces per person, or else the gallery would just be too crowded.” (Photo by Allegra Dobson)

Following last week’s article on the “art scene” at Princeton High School (PHS), Town Topics received photographs of Numina Gallery’s end-of-year show, and curator Veronika Bychkova responded to a series of questions. Ms. Bychkova, who is currently a junior, explained that she assumed the title of “curator” from her predecessor, graduating senior Gabriella Shypula, in an annual “rite of passage.”

“I would just like to mention that I don’t think our community knows about Numina enough,” began Ms. Bychkova. “Each year we make a maximum of eight shows of various topics and try to encourage anyone to come and join us on the opening nights, through posting posters, making blurbs, and sending them to nearby newspapers, as well as announcements. Next year, we have amazing shows planned. The first is a community show where we will display art work that anyone living in Princeton would like to submit. It might be a fundraiser and have an entrance fee, but it won’t be more than $10.”

Plans for next February include a collaboration between PHS and area elementary school students for a combined art show. “As you can see, we really want to engage the community next year, and hopefully get more people to know that there is a student run gallery that is definitely not at a student level,” said Ms. Bychkova.

“I would like to thank all the art teachers in our school for inspiring all of us to express ourselves through art,” she added.

 


June 6, 2012

STUDENTS AND ART: Posing in front of a collaborative drawing project at a recent PHS art show were (top row, from left): Veronika Bychkova, professional artist Sara Schneckloth, Jane Robertson, Gabriella Shypula, Allegra Dobson, and teacher-supervisor Scott Cameron; (bottom row, from left): Arts Council curator, Marsha Levin-Rojer, Jade Levine, and Emily Hunt. (Photo by Alex Levine.)

Art projects by students are currently on display in several venues at Princeton High School, and today, Wednesday, June 6, is, in fact, the only day the public can view upperclassmen’s larger installations in Room 172, where students in Studio Art 3 and 4 were asked to produce multi-media works that reflect the concept of “place as portrait.”

Room 172 is presided over by John Kavalos, who teaches painting, drawing, and advanced placement (AP) art history at PHS. He also teaches at Cooper Union, and the combination is important to him; frequent changes in college and university art curricula, he said, demand corresponding adjustments in the curricula that prepare high school students to move on.

In addition to a dense wall of flowers and greenery produced by several students, others responded to the notion of “place as portrait” with their own cubicle-filled environments.

“They’re talented kids,” said Mr. Kavalos. “The challenges are met.” In addition to proving their mettle in this large exhibit, students‘ talents have been recognized this year by senior acceptances at schools like Cooper Union and Rhode Island School of Design.

Those who miss the Wednesday show, which continues throughout the day, can watch for a student-produced documentary about the project that will appear soon on the studio’s blog and PRS website.

Next door, more traditional portraits were the focus of students in Mollie Murphy’s art class one morning this week. Ms. Murphy had tweaked tradition, though, by having students create a “fantasy” self on one-half of the photographs she took of each student.

Students at PHS attend art classes every day and, like Mr. Kavalos, Ms. Murphy speaks of them appreciatively. Gazing around a room of approximately 25 students, she quietly reported that there were “at least five brilliant, gifted” students who will probably go on to careers in art. Noting that “artists are problem-solvers,” Ms. Murphy, who is an artist herself, cited the compelling need of artists to create.

Numina

In Numina, PHS’s own art gallery, the fruits of assignments given to students throughout the year are currently on display.

“There are no themes at this show,” said advisor Scott Cameron, and that is apparent in the varied array of creations that fill the space. Along with Nick Fulginitis’s wire profile, there are pencil sketches of musicians by Tiffany H. Tang, and what looks like prehistoric wall painting by Lynn DiFerdinando. A black and white collage depicting a flying superhero comes from the imagination of Anthony Teng, and Nora Schultz pays tribute to Escher with an intricate, eye-twisting design. A skirt made out of candy wrappers by Eugenie Hossain is recycling at its most whimsical. Some “altered books” represent a “unique genre” this year, reported Mr. Cameron.

In the back of the room, visitors are welcomed to the Numina Gallery Zoo, where papier-mâché animals populate an aquarium, an aviary, and a jungle.

The Numina show was mounted by gallery co-directors Gaby Shypula and Veronika Bychkova, along with other students putting in after-school hours. “They do everything,” Mr. Cameron said, from identifying the focus of a new show, to arranging and hanging the art, to providing refreshments for opening receptions.

Numina Gallery will also be open on Wednesday, June 6, from 2 to 5 p.m. Those interested in visiting at other times are asked to contact Mr. Cameron at Scott_Cameron@monet.prs.k12.nj.us.


May 30, 2012

“TO STIR, INFORM AND INFLAME”: Cartoons by Philadelphia Inquirer editorial cartoonist Tony Auth will be on view at the Michener Museum from June 2 through September 23. Above, “The Trojan Elephant.” (From the collection of the artist.)

“I read widely and comment on things that rise to some sort of level where my alarms go off,” said political cartoonist Tony Auth in a recent interview. The fruits of many of those alarms will be on view in the exhibit “To Stir, Inform, and Inflame: The Art of Tony Auth,” from June 2 through September 23, in the Michener Art Museum’s Fred Beans Gallery.

This retrospective exhibition gathers together the full range of Mr. Auth’s art, including drawings, paintings, sketches, and newspaper pages, as well as a selection of his award-winning children’s book illustrations.

The impetus for the retrospective occurred when Mr. Auth recently retired after 40 years as editorial cartoonist at The Philadelphia Inquirer. A curator who was appraising Mr. Auth’s archive suggested it, and the Michener was “all for it.”

During his time at The Inquirer, Mr. Auth won one of the paper’s first Pulitzer Prizes in 1975, the Thomas Nast Prize in 2002, and the Herblock Prize in 2005. Auth fans needn’t worry that they’ve seen the last of his cartoons, though; he’s now the first-ever digital artist in residence at WHYY’s NewsWorks.

“Tony Auth is a no-nonsense, New Dealish, Frank Capra kind of cartoonist,” Jules Feiffer has observed. “Cartooning is basically a critical medium,” noted Mr. Auth. “You support someone by criticizing their enemies.” Mr. Auth’s criticism can come in many forms. “Political cartoons are so wide-ranging in what they attempt to do,” he commented. “Sometimes I’m ironic, sometimes whimsical, sometimes nostalgic.”

Asked whether, after so many years of observing local, national, and international politics, he ever feels discouraged, Mr. Auth was quick to say no. “I don’t think you can do this kind of work and have it ring true unless you’re optimistic on some fundamental level. If you become cynical, I think it becomes quickly visible in the work — and it certainly wouldn’t be any fun to do if you were cynical.”

“Tony Auth and his work is for anyone interested in politics, culture, cartoons, newspaper work, and the life of an illustrator in late 20th century and early 21st century in America,” commented guest curator David Leopold, who has organized exhibitions for a wide range of museums including the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library in America; and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London; and Berlin’s Filmmuseum in Europe. “His seemingly unflappable optimism and unwillingness to bow to power give us all a voice on the issues of the day. He might not show us or our leaders at our best, but there is always his hope that we will all be better.”

Mr. Auth found newspaper comic strips (“so wonderfully drawn”) a particular influence as he was growing up. His influences today, some of whom show up in the Michener exhibit, include Jules Feiffer, David Lowe, and Pat Oliphant. Other influences include children’s book illustrators like Maurice Sendak and Quentin Blake. “There’s a whole list of artists I admired and still admire,” he observed.

Mr. Auth named Barack Obama as a current favorite among public figures. He is impatient with those who say that the president hasn’t made good on his promises. “I think a lot of people confuse the role of president with the role of advocate,” he pointed out. “Look at his list of accomplishments; it’s pretty amazing considering what he’s been up against.

“I recently read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book on Lincoln, and it became very clear to me that the role of president is not to be ahead of the people on certain issues,” Mr. Auth continued. “The whole art of leadership is so complex; it doesn’t do Obama or his causes any good to be defeated at the polls.

“Disagreement is a given,” said Mr. Auth of his profession. There is “always a little cluster of issues at that particular moment that are very hot to handle, whatever you say.” He cites the Middle East, the role of religion, the Catholic Church, Israel, Islam, and abortions as current hot-button issues, noting that he responds “to criticism that doesn’t seem dripping with hatred. There’s nothing to be gained from getting into that kind of dialog.”

Mr. Auth’s colleagues at the Philadelphia Inquirer have described him as a “very, very serious journalist” who attended every editorial meeting (see http://vimeo.com/41168044). His move to WHYY reflects an interest in continuing to be part of a news-gathering operation, albeit one that is evolving rapidly. “It’s hard to imagine a viable democracy without a serious and robust free press,” he observed.

The James A. Michener Art Museum is located at 138 South Pine Street in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Museum hours are Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; and Sunday noon to 5 p.m. For more information, visit www.michenerartmuseum.org or call (215) 340-9800.

 


May 9, 2012

“ANNUNCIATION”: This oil on canvas by Livio Mehus (Oudenaarde 1627-Florence 1691), is from the seventh decade of the seventeenth century and is among the works on view in “­Offering of the Angels: Treasures from the Uffizi, which will be on view through August 10. The museum is located at 138 South Pine St., Doylestown, Pa. For more information, visit www.michenerartmuseum.org or call (215) 340-9800.

One evening I was walking along a path, the city was on one side and the fjord below. I  felt tired and ill. I stopped and looked out over the fjord — the sun was setting, and the clouds turning blood red. I sensed a scream passing through nature; it seemed to me that I heard the scream. I painted this picture, painted the clouds as actual blood. The color shrieked. This became The Scream.

from Edvard Munch’s Diary, Jan. 1892

Just when you think it’s safe to do an art review about the new “Treasures from the Uffizi” exhibit at the Michener Museum, along comes the $119 million sale of Edvard Munch’s The Scream.

Once upon a time a long time ago in Oslo, one week into the Golden Bear Student Tour, I watched our Oxford-educated, bipolar tour leader being hauled off, screaming, by the Oslo police. The first time I saw him scream was in Stockholm. He didn’t make a sound but he was looking right at me and he was screaming.

It was as Munch put it in his diary, a silent scream “passing through nature.”

What a time to see that strange painting, knowing that we were, all 36 of us, going to have to get back to Hamburg and a new tour conductor on our own. Everyone made the obvious connection between the tortured soul in The Scream and the man who had managed, but barely, to guide us from Amsterdam to Oslo.

We saw a lot of museums that summer. The Golden Bear had three other tour leaders, all of them English, all slightly bonkers, but likably so, as had been their predecessor. We saw art in Munich, Vienna, Venice, Florence, Paris, London, and Rome, but nothing, including The Scream, could match what I’d seen in Amsterdam on the first full day of the tour. We’d been staying at the Museum Hotel, so named because of the big building across the street, which I walked into that day “because it was there” and found Vincent Van Gogh. Wall-to-wall Van Gogh, miles of Van Gogh. I was 19. Art had never happened to me before. I’d always “looked at it.” These paintings were coming to life right before my eyes and some of them were screaming.

On to the Uffizi

There were tours within tours that summer, and one of them was at the Uffizi. If nothing I saw came close to wall-to-wall Van Gogh in intensity, it was due in part to the fact that almost all the art we saw was as a group with a tour guide droning on, sometimes brilliantly, sometimes obnoxiously in the style of the pompous ass showing off about Rodin in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. It’s usually best to see art on your own, which is how I saw it last week when I visited “Offering of the Angels: Treasures from the Uffizi,” which will be at the Michener Art Museum, through August 10.

The Uffizi show represents an unprecedented opportunity for the handsome, user-friendly, if expensive, Doylestown venue whose exhibits I have been covering since the Alan Magee show in January 2004. Because the artists represented in “Offering of the Angels” are, aside from Botticelli, of lesser renown, like Il Parmigianino, Lorenzo Monaco, Livio Mehus, Pietro Liberi, Il Guercino, and Cristofano Allori, among others, the curators have emphasized arrangement over name recognition; thus, “the path to redemption is illustrated, from the Old Testament to the New Testament, from the creation of Adam and the Original Sin to the passion and death of Christ, as a prelude to resurrection.”

Botticelli’s Mary

Every time you stand in front of a painting, it’s a moment of truth, minor or major. There it is: what do you make of it? Would you rather have someone tell you how to see it or what it’s all about like the groups of seniors and kids I saw being led through the Michener exhibit? This is my long and winding approach to what I saw in Botticelli’s oil on panel, Madonna della Loggia. I wonder what Walter Pater (1839-1894), one of the best writers ever about art, would have made of this tender, pensive Mary, her eyes downcast, as if she were listening to music or perhaps contemplating everything from the nativity to the last supper to the passion to the resurrection and beyond.

About Botticelli, Pater wrote, “His morality is all sympathy; and it is this sympathy, conveying into his work somewhat more than is usual of the true complexion of humanity, which makes him, visionary as he is, so forcible a realist. It is this which gives to his Madonnas their unique expression and charm.”

But what if the complexion of this particular Madonna has been altered? According to the Ufizzi’s “unedited catalogue,” the work has been “almost irremediably compromised by a disastrous ‘cleaning’ carried out in the past, followed by a reconstructive restoration based on the complete repainting of the faces of the Madonna and Child as well as many other parts.” Recent investigations have determined that only a few parts, such as “the red gown of the Virgin and the distant landscape which can be glimpsed in the background from the loggia,” have “proved to be in a slightly better state of conservation.”

The Plot Thickens

So, is the feature attraction of “Offering of Angels” to be marred by an asterisk? Not for me. Does the idea that the work of hands other than those of Alessandro Di Mariano Filipepi, called Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) make the piece any less compelling or less sympathetic? Is she less a Madonna, more a down-to-earth Mary because she’s the offspring of a mixed marriage between Botticelli and “a restorer from the 19th century”? Look around the room at all the paintings with a less tarnished provenance and this Madonna is still pre-eminent. For me, the best thing about the proviso lamenting the wages of restoration is the information that the painting “represents a further, precious testimony” to the youthful Botticelli’s “close stylistic adherence … to the manner of his maestro, Filippo Lippi.”

Here, the plot thickens. A few weeks ago, celebrating Robert Browning’s bicentenary, I neglected to comment on one of his most famously exercised dramatic monologues, “Fra Lippo Lippi,” in which Botticelli’s mentor complains,

What, ‘tis past midnight, and you go the rounds,
And here you catch me at an alley’s end
Where sportive ladies leave their doors ajar?

Read the back story in Vasari and you learn that the gorgeous young woman named Lucrezia Buti who posed for Lippi’s Madonna was his lover, and that he kept her in his own house in spite of the nuns’ efforts to reclaim her (Filippino, the child eventually born to the artist and his model, also became a painter). Moreover, Lippi’s Madonna is said to have influenced Botticelli’s, and if you do some searching online, you’ll see that both Marys appear to be listening to similar music. The striking thing about Lippi’s Madonna is that she might have been painted yesterday, the work seems that fresh, that bright, her rosy lips and elaborately stylish headwear revealing the worldly element, not to mention the Puckish grin on the face of the angel bearing the weight of the Christ child (it’s said that Filippino may have posed for the angel).

Browning’s Fra Lippo Lippi delighted in the paradox of the flesh and the spirit:

Make them forget there’s such a thing as flesh.
Your business is to paint the souls of men —
Man’s soul, and it’s a fire, smoke … no, it’s not …
It’s vapor done up like a new-born babe —
(In that shape when you die it leaves your mouth)
It’s … well, what matters talking, it’s the soul!

An Earthy Angel

According to the Uffizi catalogue, the Flemish painter Livio Mehus’s (1627-1691) beautifully, if oddly, lit Annunciation (late 17th century) was part of a series of four canvases portraying scenes from the life of the Virgin painted for a tailor friend. I’d like to think that the tailor’s rosy-cheeked, auburn-haired teen-age daughter posed for the angel. More bemused than musing, this Mary is clearly younger and less knowing than Botticelli’s Madonna. But it’s the tailor’s daughter who steals the painter’s show, the way she’s sprawled forward, stretching, only half-kneeling, putting her whole body into the moment, her bare right foot arched, her weight on the toes, a very physical Florentine school girl sort of an angel who probably giggled (“it’s ticklish”) when Mehus attached the wonderful wings and no doubt occasionally complained about the difficulty of the pose. One of the most prominent focal points in the painting is in foreground, where the girl’s bare foot is lit in a way that brings out its sturdy physicality; both of this earthy angel’s peasant feet are poised and ready, either to sprint forward or to push off into flight.

Mavis Smith

The moment I saw the Botticelli Madonna I knew I had to go next door for another look at Mavis Smith’s “Hidden Realities,” which I wrote about a few months ago (Town Topics Feb. 22). If you have come specifically to see “Offering of Angels,” you’ll be missing something special if you don’t make a point of looking in on the subtle, deep, thoroughly accomplished 21st century counterparts of Botticelli and Mehus in the adjoining exhibit, which will be on view until May 20.

Mavis Smith will be at the Michener for a lecture and demonstration, “Egg Tempera Then and Now,” on Thursday, May 17, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. To register, call 215 340-9800.

 


April 18, 2012

Whitman’s Washington consisted of an unfinished Capital dome with blocks of marble and granite strewn about its grounds. The Washington monument was not yet half of its present height of 555 feet. The Treasury, Post-office, and Interior Department buildings were unfinished as well. There were few sidewalks and only one theatre. 

—from Washington During War Time

Among a multitude of other things, bad and good, Washington D.C. is a city of statements on the Grand Scale. Right now one of the dominant statements is Construction, with Jobs as a positive subtext. The cranes are everywhere. Waiting in line for a cab at Union Station, you’re surrounded by a construction zone, with the dome of the capitol in the near distance looking a bit embattled. The cab must have skirted half a dozen such sites before it reached our destination, the Tabard Inn on N Street, one of the oldest continuously operating hotels in Washington. It’s also a survivor. According to the brochure at the front desk, efforts to demolish the property in the early 1970s “were halted when its neighbors rose up in protest.” If you happen to enter the lounge and restaurant during the dinner hour, as we did, you feel that you’ve walked into the busiest, most convivial gathering place in the city. There may be some other tourists here and there, but it soon becomes clear that the brochure is not stretching the truth when it claims that the spot “is a favorite haunt for journalists, publishers, and those involved in the arts and congressional intrigue.”

If “congressional intrigue” sounds like a line from a political thriller, no wonder, for it turns out that the Tabard Inn Hotel is a setting in numerous novels, including John Grisham’s Pelican Brief; Jerry Doolittle’s stories about Tom Bethany, “a Boston self-styled detective and wrestling buff who frequently visits his mistress in D.C.” Then there’s Les Whitten’s character “Frederick Tabard,” the senior partner of a prestigious law firm whose family founded the Tabard. It’s said that there was also a failed screenplay about a president “who hides in the Tabard’s secret Chrome Room to foil his pursuers.”

On the Mall

Construction is the story even on the National Mall, where visitors to the war memorials — World War II, Korea, and Vietnam — will find themselves navigating around the resurfacing of the walks and installation of sidewalks adjacent to the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool. Under construction in the other direction is the Museum of African American History and Culture. Other projects include memorials to President Eisenhower and American Veterans Disabled for Life, which the optimists among us can assume is so titled to include suicidal victims of post-traumatic stress disorder like the one mentioned in Nicholas Kristof’s column in this Sunday’s Times.

Numbers

Last Thursday we joined the crowd streaming toward the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It seemed that all the kids from all the malls in America had been turned loose on the National Mall with the same objective: Maya Lin’s haunted and haunting black wall bearing the 58,000-plus names of the dead. The kids sustained a sort of easygoing decorum when they encountered the somber, stirring reality of the names. Not that they were quiet or even consciously respectful; it was as if the sheer power of the place created a hush in which they were submerged. I had no names to look for, but Richard Stuart Patterson caught my eye, my middle name being Patterson, which was my mother’s maiden name and the name on my uncle’s dog tag (Robert E. Lee Patterson, Jr.), which I keep close at hand; he was a bombardier, killed in a freak accident in February 1942. There are lots of Pattersons on the wall. Richard Patterson was born in Toledo, Ohio, spring of 1950, joined army September 1970, killed in action July 1971, one of the 58,000-plus.

Like the scale of the Mall, the numbers are extreme. Rounded off, World War I: 52,000, World War II: 415,000. Korean War: 34,000.

The staggering numbers of Civil War dead have recently been revised upward from 618,222 (360,222 from the North, 258,000 from the South) to 750,000, according to an April 2 story in the New York Times. Based on “newly digitized census data from the 19th century,” the death toll increased by more than 20 percent. You’d need another Mall, maybe ten Malls, to even begin to acknowledge the numerical no-man’s-land of the War Between the States. Against that unfathomable carnage, the National Mall exalts one leader above all others.

Follow the path from the Vietnam wall to the Lincoln Memorial and it’s like entering American history’s sacred ground. You feel you’re a pilgrim approaching some goal or concept beyond your power to comprehend. You seem to be looking at the summit of scale, above and beyond any horizon. One minute you’re admiring the way the magnitude of the monument overwhelms the tiny figures climbing the steps. Then you’re one of them, part of the scene, as you move slowly to the top, and there he is.

My favorite statue in the world is probably Rodin’s Balzac, not the one in the Museum of Modern Art’s sculpture garden, nor the one in the Rodin Museum, but the one occupying a polluted square in Montparnasse. But this white marble rendering of one infinitely human individual seated in a chair, less like a monarch on a throne than a tired father with a world of grief on his shoulders, warms me, chills me, fills me with love and hope, foolish though such thoughts may seem in view of what’s going on and will always be going on in the world, not to mention in this forever conflicted, problematic, scene-shifting, wheeler dealer dream of a city. Everywhere, on all sides, people are lifting an array of photographic devices, held high toward the massive presence, with the fond hope of taking home a portion of Lincoln.

Whitman’s Escalator

Washington’s grandeur is all the more impressive when you aren’t expecting it. In the DuPont Circle metro station the dizzyingly steep straight-up escalator tempts photographers to stand at the bottom taking aim to catch the uncanny effect of people gliding into view at the pinnacle of the mechanism, or else ascending like figures in some parable of heavenly ascension.

When the DuPont Circle escalator finally reaches the top and deposits you on firm ground, you may notice words engraved in capital letters along a sort of rotunda, THUS IN SILENCE IN DREAMS’ PROJECTIONS …. What’s that all about? Not exactly your run of the mill ceremonial platitude. Think how those six unlikely words might strike someone with an easily inflamed imagination who is perhaps already slightly drunk from the ascent. Imagine Camus or Coleridge or Emerson or DeQuincey, or any of their faithful readers, or any soul with a predilection for the unknown, rising from the subterranean depths to find that unfinished sentence waiting to be followed around to its completion on the other end of the rotunda. RETURNING, RESUMING, I THREAD MY WAY THROUGH THE… Unless you’re a student of the poet whose words you are now following, walking beside, as near as you can get to them without tumbling into the depths of the escalator pit, you will be wondering what dreams? returning from what? resuming what? threading your way where? Only when you arrive at the word HOSPITALS does the identity of the author become clear, and when it does, it makes perfect sense because of the thousands and thousands whose names were on that long black Vietnam wall, THE HURT AND WOUNDED I PACIFY WITH SOOTHING HAND which Walt Whitman did in one or the other of Washington’s 56 makeshift hospitals when he was living in Washington between 1862 and 1865. I SIT BY THE RESTLESS ALL THE DARK NIGHT SOME ARE SO YOUNG If you look at the online information about each of the soldiers named on Maya Lin’s wall, you’ll find that the majority were between 18 and 20. SOME SUFFER SO MUCH. It’s hard to make out the words on the far side: you practically have to tiptoe along the edge of the abyss (no one can put as much feeling into a simple “so” as Whitman, who nursed the wounded, wrote to their families, held their hands). I RECALL THE EXPERIENCE, SWEET AND SAD.

The last two lines of the stanza, from “The Wound Dresser,” have been left off, perhaps not because Walt crossed the line with references to soldier’s “loving arms” about his neck and “soldier’s kiss on these bearded lips” but because there simply was no room.

Reading Walt Whitman’s account of his time in Washington in Specimen Days and in his journals and letters, you begin to think that if Lincoln had not existed, Whitman would have invented him. Admiring the president on horseback, “dress’d in plain black, somewhat rusty and dusty, wears a black stiff hat,” Whitman approvingly observes that he “looks about as ordinary in attire, &c., as the commonest man.” In a letter written shortly after Lincoln took office, the Good Grey Poet sees a face “like a Hoosier Michelangelo, so awful ugly it becomes beautiful.”

———

Washington During War Time is an anthology published in 1902 by the Tribune Company.


March 21, 2012
art rev

“HAMPSTEAD HEATH, BRANCH HILL POND”: This oil on canvas painted in 1828 by John Constable, British, 1776–1837, will be on view in “John Constable: Oil Sketches from the Victoria and Albert Museum” through June 10. (The Victoria and Albert Museum. © Victoria and Albert Museum/V&A images)

“Painting is but another word for feeling.” —John Constable (1776-1837)

Say you only slept an hour on the plane, the bus from Heathrow has dropped you in the heart of London on a sunny day in June, and as happy as you are to have escaped from a summer in the armpit of New Jersey (for instance, a second-floor apartment in downtown New Brunswick), you’re feeling dazed and confused after sorting out the Bed and Breakfast situation, and your great escape is being thwarted by the summer mob scene that is London. The sidewalks of Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street are so crowded you can barely move. Not to worry. All you have to do is jump on a big red Number 24 doubledecker, stagger to the second story front, and after maybe a 15-minute ride, you’re right where you need to be. A brief hike later you’re lying on your back on Hampstead Heath where Keats and Coleridge once walked and dreamed and Constable painted. Such are the elements that go into making a tried and true Anglophile.

The Princeton University Art Museum’s must-see new exhibit, “John Constable: Oil Sketches from the Victoria and Albert Museum,” has arrived conveniently in accord with this Anglophile’s ongoing Charles Dickens bicentenary tribute to England featuring, so far, P.J. Harvey’s Let England Shake, Cary Grant’s Bristol, Virginia Woolf’s Dorothy Wordsworth, and George Gissing’s Dickens. Anyone with a weakness for English landscapes and English weather will find everything their rainy heart desires in this show, and it doesn’t cost a cent, unless you want to buy the V & A’s handsome catalogue.

So vivid is Constable’s England, you might need to bring along a slicker, some Wellington boots, and an umbrella. If you ever wondered what light looks like before it’s been tamed, you can see it in its wild state here, in the quick of the moment Constable went after it and captured it. Stand in front of the immense oil “sketch” for The Hay Wain and it’s not an umbrella you need but a thesaurus. What can be said? Run of the mill superlatives won’t do. To appreciate the sheer presence and painterly volatility of the work, all you need is to compare it to the brighter, more contained, arranged, and ordered images of the finished painting reproduced on the web. The exhibition-ready version of The Hay Wain hanging in The National Gallery looks to have been toned down, the fireworks of the original act dispersed for the sake of a sunnier, prettier, more balanced and clearly defined piece of work that nonetheless contained scope and power enough to amaze Delacroix. The image at the center, the hay wagon of the title, looks ramshackle-raw and broken in the sketch, whole and functional in the finished painting. In the sketch, it’s as if the moment is in flux, like the aftershock of an explosion, white flecks of light in free fall, not yet intact, not yet adhering to the forms and surfaces as does the stable, flat, relatively domesticated sunlight of the final version.

As the various critics quoted in the exhibition catalogue make abundantly clear, “sketches” is a misnomer, except of course in that these creations were not thought of as “finished” works. Otherwise, you might as well say the same of Coleridge’s fragment “Kubla Khan” or Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. Writing in 1908, Julius Meier-Graefe suggests that Constable “is never greater than here” where “the particles of paint are much more roughly treated than in the pictures.” By 1921, Charles John Holmes is noting “that Constable’s greatness will be seen to rest far more on his brilliant sketches and studies.” Clive Bell considered the sketches “perhaps, the most brilliant and characteristic part of his output,” while Roger Fry found “the real Constable” in the (that unworthy word again) sketches. On the centenary of Constable’s death in 1937, John Piper observed that his first drafts “mean more to us today than his big paintings” because “they are so complete, vivid and timeless.” Kenneth Clark considered “those so-called ‘full-size sketches’ … Constable’s supreme achievement” because “the force of sensation is always strong enough to lift them above the commonplace.”

Hampstead Heath

For an artist with a gift for “the force of sensation,” painting outdoors, “in plein air,” makes existential sense, especially considering the wildly fluctuating phenomena of English weather and English skies. When Constable gazed from the top of Hampstead Heath at the view that he frequently confronted between 1819 and 1828 and tagged with a slew of titles, such as Branch Hill Pond, Hampstead; Hampstead Heath: Sand Pits: Storm Approaching; or Hampstead Heath: Stormy Noon, he was looking for, in the words of G.K. Chesterton, “the strictly romantic thing called Weather; beautiful and changing as a woman.” In his essay, “The Glory of Grey,” Chesterton finds in “the great English landscape painters … this salient distinction: that the Weather is not the atmosphere of their pictures; it is the subject of their pictures. They paint portraits of the Weather. The Weather sat to Constable.”

More likely, the weather reared up and came at the painter, heaving toward him like some vision of fate. Anyway, why else was he out there if not to go head to head with nature, casting his lot with the elements? The confines of the studio are just that: confining; there’s no action, no plot beyond what the painter can generate. The weather offers an ever-changing narrative. Constable’s mission was not only to read it but to study it as a scientist would, to learn its moods and movements so well that he could channel them. He had a word for his adventures among the clouds; he called it “skying.” In the Study of Cirrus Clouds (c. 1821/22), Chesterton’s “beautiful and changing as a woman” metaphor is on the money; those seductive pastel shades of blue and soft creamy white have had their way with the painter addicted to the dark and brooding side of nature, the man who said, “I live by shadows, to me shadows are realities.”

With Keats

Given the literary associations haunting Hampstead Heath, along with Constable’s eye for cirrus-capped narratives, it’s no wonder you find yourself thinking of “huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,” a line Keats may have gleaned from one of his evening walks on the Heath the year before Constable became his Hampstead neighbor.

Constable’s first oil sketch of the Heath was painted in 1819 when he and his wife were living practically next door to the house Keats and his brothers had inhabited only the year before. It’s likely that the two men walked the Heath at the same time on one of those evenings Constable painted. Keats may even have stopped to peer over the artist’s shoulder, though I haven’t been able to find a reference to an actual meeting between the two. Keats was 23, in love with Fanny Brawne, walking and musing on the Heath, and writing the poems that would ensure his “place among the English poets” — The Odes, the Eves of St Agnes and St Mark, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” the fragments from “Hyperion” and “Lamia,” among, amazingly, others. In the summer of 1819, John Constable was 44 and in the third year of his marriage, and the Heath was his backyard, as it was for Keats.

The wonder is that in the same year two such visionaries walked the same paths, shared the same landscape, viewed the same sunsets, and had similar if not actually identical thoughts. It’s possible to imagine Keats trying out his concept of the “Vale of Soul-Making” on the artist who once wondered “Why, then, may not landscape be considered as a branch of natural philosophy, of which pictures are but experiments?” With barely a year and a half to live, Keats might then have responded with the thought he expressed in a letter that same year, comparing “Clouds continually gathering and bursting” to “Circumstances,” so that “While we are laughing, the seed of some trouble is put into the wide arable land of events” where it “sprouts … grows, and suddenly bears a poison fruit which we must pluck.”

Plumly’s Gift

A contemporary poet has imagined this fantasy relationship into poetry. In “Constable’s Clouds for Keats,” Stanley Plumly, who once taught at Princeton, pictures clouds as “peaceable masters” coming in off the sea” and, addressing Constable, says “you write them down in oils because of their brilliance.” It being 1822, the year after Keats’s death, Plumly imagines “it would be right” to think of those clouds “domed above the Heath in their isolated chronicle — as elegies of the spirit.” After wishing Keats had never gone to “the artist’s paradise in Rome,” he fancies how it might have been had he stayed in Hampstead.

He could be

crossing on Christchurch Hill Road now, then

over to the Elm Row and down Old Admiral’s Walk.

He could be looking at the clouds blooming between

buildings, watching the phantoms levitating stone.

He was there your first Heath summer writing odes,

feeling the weather change from warm to chill,

focused, no less than you, on daylight’s last detail,

wondering what our feelings are without us.

———

“John Constable: Oil Sketches from the Victoria and Albert Museum” will be on view through June 10. The University Art Museum is the first of only two North American venues for this exhibition.


February 29, 2012

UNSUNG HERO: During his residency at the Arts Council of Princeton, studio artist and educator Thaddeus Erdahl created this bust of Archibald Campbell Seruby, a.k.a. Spader, the Peanut Man.

“I just showed up at Communiversity and said I wanted to help out with something,” said Thaddeus Erdahl recounting his introduction to the Princeton Arts Council (PAC) over a year ago. “So they put me to work making cotton candy, a truly enlightening moment in my life.”

Although Mr. Erdahl, who describes himself as an “independent studio artist and educator,” was “covered from head to toe with sugary webs of pink and blue” by the end of the day, he had also gotten to know Arts Council Executive Director Jeff Nathanson and staffers Mark Germond and Maria Evans, among others. A job as a ceramics instructor at PAC soon followed and, encouraged by ceramics manager Kathleen Preziosi, Mr. Erdahl put together a residency application; he then was approved.

The Iowa-born artist’s stint at the Arts Council has been based largely on his interest in using ceramic sculpture and portraiture “for documenting what I see in human nature.” Another important element in his approach to art, he says, is humor; “one of the most attractive qualities of human behavior.

“Some things in life are so serious, you have to laugh at them,” Mr. Erdahl added. “Working with concepts that are personal and sometimes with narcissistic perceptions of the gloomy side of life, humor is my buffer.”

Mr. Erdahl incorporated Princeton into his work at the Arts Council by creating a sculpture of Archibald Campbell Seruby, a.k.a. “Spader, the Peanut Man,” whom he described as “unsung, but noteworthy.” A June 15, 1929 article in the Daily Princetonian reported that “Spader, the old Negro peanut man” who has “taken on the aspect of a landmark,” would be on hand at the game against Yale that afternoon, “for his peddling license has been renewed.”

“My intention was to express, teach, and preserve the memory of Archibald Seruby,” said. Mr. Erdahl. “Every community, perhaps most especially Princeton, has been influenced by the lives of colorful characters who have yet to be formally recognized. I portrayed not only the outward appearance, but also a more intimate or hidden aspect of his persona. Instead of the traditional, stoic, portrait bust, this sculpture is a humanized, personalized representation of Mr. Seruby, the peanut man.”

In addition to producing art, Mr. Erdahl’s residency included the chance to work with members of the community, and, he reported, “like all good plans,” some “unexpected opportunities” came along.

Several weeks into his residency Ms. Evans, who is the Arts Council of Princeton’s Community Programs Manager, asked Mr. Erdahl to participate in their annual Day of the Dead Exhibition. “I was honored to be asked, so I changed gears for a few weeks to work on several sculptures for the exhibition,” Mr. Erdahl reported. One result was a group ceramic project titled Mariposa. “Together with a mixed age group of teens, tweens, and children we created a wall sculpture consisting of over 100 press-moulded ceramic skulls that, when assembled in a specific grid configuration, created an image of a monarch butterfly,” reported Mr. Erdahl. “I was really proud of the dedication and support that I received from such a young demographic. The children were so excited to know that they were responsible for part of the sculpture.”

Indeed, the whole Arts Council of Princeton experience has been a positive one for Mr. Erdahl. “They are a wonderful group who gave me a sense of place in a new community,” he observed.

At the moment, Mr. Erdahl is at the University of Northern Iowa, filling in for his undergraduate professor, Jo Ann Schnable, who is on sabbatical this semester. After that, he said, he’ll “be heading back to Princeton, picking up where things left off.”

To learn more about the Princeton Arts Council visit www.artscouncilofprinceton.org.


February 22, 2012

“WALLPAPER”: (20” x 24,” egg tempera on panel.) This is one of the most striking of a series of works in Mavis Smith’s “Hidden Realities.” The hypnotic intensity reflects the artist’s account of how she works: “Your mind is open and you go into a trance and the ideas come in.” The exhibit will be at the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown through May 20.

When you wander into an art show called “Hidden Realities” by an artist you don’t know, free of preconceived notions and critical agendas, you may think that you’re merely passing time until you discover that you and time have parted company. If anything, it’s time that’s passing you, not the other way around, since the first painting you see holds you for maybe three or four minutes, and even then, it’s not easy to walk away. The woman in Mavis Smith’s subtly surreal painting, Solace, is looking at you as if you and she have a history. She’s got your number; she’s looking right through you.

It’s the other way around in Night Gown. By all rights a beauty in a silky, darkly lustrous dream of fabric should be seductive, not dazed and vulnerable. Far from putting you in your place, she seems to be saying, “Understand me, tell me who I am, tell me where I am.”

By the time you come to Small Sacrifices, whether you know it yet or not, you’re in Mavis Smith’s movie. While you may feel no particular compulsion to figure out what the “sacrifices” are, you can’t help wondering what it is this wise, wounded, endearing girl has given up. Like the subject in Night Gown, she seems lost, new to the world. Before you start feeling protective, you remind yourself that she’s a work of art like the others, “egg tempera on panel,” and the artist’s love for her is protection enough. She’s safe in there forever, as timeless as the elaborately detailed storybook tapestry passing as wallpaper behind her.

Sensuous Surfaces

In Mavis Smith’s edgy mystery movie disguised as an art exhibit, which will be at the James A. Michener Art Museum through May 20, a great deal of seriously expressive power is communicated through gaze and gesture, flesh tones, fabrics, garments (or their absence), and the sensuous lustre of the surface created by the artist’s meticulous employment of the medium she discusses in the catalogue under “The Fine Art of Tempera Painting”:

“It may seem strange to make pictures by mixing pigments into egg yolks, but people have been doing it for a long, long time …. The process can be tedious — or mesmerizing — depending on how you look at it. Once the pose is sketched in, I start building up layers of paint. Alternating between dry feathery brush strokes and sheer washes of color — back and forth, back and forth. This stage can take days or even weeks, but that’s when the direction and mood of the painting gradually reveal themselves.”

Smith describes being “in a very relaxed, almost hypnotic state” as mood and direction come together. In another statement, she says that the “build up” can require “hundreds of layers,” before it achieves “a luminous, ethereal quality.”

The terms Smith uses in describing herself at work are reflected in the hypnotic mood she creates, although “ethereal” doesn’t really fit the solid, smoothly formed physical presence of the seated woman in Solace, yes, it’s her again, I came back for another look, trying to figure out which movie actress she reminds me of; perhaps an older, wiser, earthier Scarlett Johansson.

It’s no accident that thoughts of movies keep surfacing, what with the Academy Awards looming next Sunday. More to the point, Smith has said that she’s “probably as much influenced by film directors” as by other painters. She likes the way certain older films (think Hitchcock and Kubrick) are shot “with especially tightly cropped frames and from unusual angles, with looming ceilings and odd shadows.” She is equally intrigued by “the idea of the beautiful, pristine surface with the subtle suggestion of a darker side hovering just below” or “around the corner, or in the next frame.” The gallery walls feature quotes from David Lynch’s Wild at Heart and Sam Mendes’s American Beauty, which she considers “a perfect example of smooth on the surface suburban life with a dark undercurrent.”

I began feeling the presence of David Lynch long before I came to the posted quote from Wild at Heart (“This whole world is wild at heart and weird on top,” says Laura Dern’s Lula). Having already picked up flashes of Lynch in the tranced-looking females with outsized jaws and equine faces in flatter, broader, closer-to-caricature works like Specks of Dust, Exile, Somnambulist, and The Key, I knew I was in Twin Peaks country when I saw the blonde girl in rust-colored top and worn-shiny jeans stretched out on a bed in Night Pool. I could almost hear the yearning, angst-saturated music of Angelo Badalamenti, a subtle “the-owls-are-not-what-they-seem” tingle running up the back of my neck at the thought of the surreal off-the-wall ABC series that captivated the nation in the first years of the nineties. Somehow Smith has endowed her females with something like the haunted and haunting aura that could make ominous presences of slowly revolving ceiling fans while network audiences obsessed on “Who killed Laura Palmer?” It all began when a plastic sheet was pulled back to reveal Laura’s face, scary beautiful in death, like a drowned sister to Botticelli’s Venus.

Best Picture Nominee

In an email exchange about films and Oscar night, Mavis Smith made special mention of The Descendants. When she pointed out what appealed to her in the Best Picture nominee — “serene on the surface but subtly disturbing around the edges” — she was obviously describing elements of her own work.

“We come into contact with dozens of people on a daily basis, catch their eyes for a brief moment and move on,” Smith observes in the Artist Statement, “never knowing the intricate accumulation of experience that forms their reality. My work is about that moment — hinting at a narrative, yet remaining intentionally elusive.”

A Mavis Smith moment in The Descendants occurs when George Clooney, in the course of tracking down the real estate agent his comatose wife was having an affair with, finds himself standing on a beach, at the water’s edge, conversing with the man’s wife (played by Judy Greer, who could have stepped right out of one of Mavis Smith’s paintings). Since we know that Clooney has been shaken half out of his wits by a trainwreck of converging crises, we’re intensely aware of the forces building up to a moment that for the friendly, unknowing woman is nothing more than a few casual words about her kids and Clooney’s. For Clooney, the meeting is a stunningly significant event, and he makes the audience feel every one of its, to use Smith’s words, “subtly disturbing” possibilities. We know he must be tempted to blow his cover and make her suffer the knowledge that’s tormenting him (misery loves company and vengeance is sweet). What makes Clooney’s performance Oscar-worthy is the way he’s able to communicate his character’s struggle to contain, contend with, and somehow express a storm of conflicting possibilities (something comparable to Smith’s “intricate accumulation”). Here’s a reasonably rational, centered human being doing his best to cope with (for a start) death, love, infidelity, outrage, guilt, property, and fatherhood.

Mavis Smith’s art, like the art of movie acting, is about expressing the virtually inexpressible, those “hidden realities” cited in the exhibit’s title. One of the show’s most haunting images is staring out at you from Wallpaper, which contains, slyly ignored by the title, the most riveting close-up in the exhibit, a Laura Palmeresque face that holds the mixture of “mystery” and “elegance” Smith has identified as one of her goals. “I was interested in the close cropping of the face,” she writes, “and the proximity of the intense, repetitive wallpaper pattern.” To which she adds, “At one time, women were encouraged to ‘blend into the wallpaper’ but in light of today’s social hierarchy, the wallpaper might take over the room.”

Obviously “wallpaper” is a loaded phrase for a female artist dedicated to presenting female mystery, beauty, strength, and presence. Smith recalls meeting a “very tiny older couple” at the exhibit’s opening reception. “At one point the woman pulled me aside and whispered ‘your paintings give a woman confidence’” — which made the director of “Hidden Realities,” the movie, “feel as good as anything I have ever heard about my work.”

If you can’t get to the museum, be sure to take a tour of Mavis Smith’s work at http://mavissmithart.com/Exhibition%20HR%20page.htm.

February 15, 2012

GOTHIC IMAGE: Francis Lathrop’s “Jonathan” (1889), a model for a window in the old Marquand Chapel, which burned in 1920, will be on view in the Princeton Art Museum’s new show, “Princeton and the Gothic Revival.” The model is a gift of the Museum for the Arts of Decoration, Cooper Union, for the Advancement of Science and Art, New York. (Photo by Bruce M. White.)

The Princeton University Art Museum will present “Princeton and the Gothic Revival: 1870–1930” from February 25 through June 24, 2012.

The exhibition of 40 works explores America’s changing attitudes toward the art and architecture of the Middle Ages around the turn of the 20th century. Organized by Johanna G. Seasonwein, the Museum’s Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial Fellow for Academic Programs, “Princeton and the Gothic Revival” investigates the adoption of the Gothic Revival as a style appropriate for American universities, as seen through the lens of Princeton University’s campus and collections.

“Princeton and the Gothic Revival” covers the years between the dedication of the first High Victorian Gothic building on the Princeton campus, Chancellor Green Library, and the completion of the extraordinary University Chapel. The exhibition draws from the Art Museum’s collections and resources of Princeton’s Firestone Library and University Archives, along with those of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and other institutions, to highlight Princeton University’s role as a major patron of Gothic Revival art and architecture and the role of this style — of England’s “ancient universities” — in shaping the identity of modern-day Princeton.

“Princeton’s campus and collections provide a unique opportunity to explore the transformation of the Gothic Revival into a symbol of the American academy. Princeton moved forward into the 20th century by essentially looking back at the architectural style of Oxford and Cambridge,” said Ms. Seasonwein, a historian of the art of the Middle Ages. “Ultimately, “Princeton and the Gothic Revival” examines how the language of medieval forms was used to articulate a new model of American higher education, both in campus design and in the classroom.”

“Princeton and the Gothic Revival: 1870–1930” is organized into four sections. The first, the Gothic Revival prior to 1870, introduces the Gothic Revival movement in America and its English roots. Wealthy Americans visiting medieval sites or modern “Gothick” estates such as Fonthill Abbey often were inspired to design their own Gothic Revival homes that were a mix of the authentic and the fantastic. This section features a design for a stained-glass window for Fonthill Abbey by painter Benjamin West and a design for the first American Gothic Revival estate by noted architect Alexander Jackson Davis (on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art).

The Gothic Revival in the Gilded Age presents the first High Victorian Gothic buildings constructed on the Princeton campus with a mix of medieval and other styles that reflected the donors’ interest in the Aesthetic movement, and its eclectic approach to design. This section highlights the former Marquand Chapel, designed by renowned architect Richard Morris Hunt. The chapel was later lost to fire. Featured works include Hunt’s original architectural plans and artist Francis Lathrop’s models for one of the stained-glass windows.

The Middle Ages and the Modern University investigates the connection between architectural style and academic identity and use. This section presents works relating to the first Biological Laboratory and Art Museum buildings, both of which were constructed in the Romanesque Revival style. Also on view are some of the earliest works of medieval art purchased by the Museum (one of the great repositories for medieval art in the United States), including one of the first English medieval alabaster reliefs to enter an American collection.

The final section, The Collegiate Gothic Campus explores, the development of Princeton’s campus in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The new buildings, which simulated those of Oxford and Cambridge, conferred an instant pedigree on the University and communicated the school’s desired stature to the student body (at that time all male and almost exclusively white and Christian). This section includes images related to many of the Gothic Revival buildings on campus, most notably a set of never-before exhibited watercolors of the original designs for the University Chapel.

“‘Princeton and the Gothic Revival’ continues the Museum’s interest in understanding the ways in which Princeton University’s buildings and its design choices have shaped its identity as one of the world’s great research universities and vice versa, while offering a lens through which we can reconsider one of the 19th century’s most significant design movements,” said Princeton University Art Museum Director James Steward.

In conjunction with Princeton and the Gothic Revival, a mobile web application will take the exhibition out of the Museum and onto the campus for visitors. The tour will provide a multimedia exploration of nine campus buildings that are featured in the exhibition and related catalogue. Drawing from the special collections of the Firestone Library and Archives and the Museum Collections, the experience will emphasize existing and historic sites presented in the exhibition, highlighting the recently digitized Historical Photograph Collection, Grounds and Buildings Series from the University Archives, as well as historic photographs and audio that features experts from across the campus.

A reception for “Princeton and the Gothic Revival: 1870–1930” begins at 5:30 p.m. on Sunday, February 26 at the Art Museum. A concert by the Princeton Singers follows in the University Chapel at 7 p.m.. The group will take a look back at music of the Victorian age, from sacred to sentimental, and at the British traditions that took root in America. Tim Harrell, guest organist, will play the Chapel’s 1928 Aeolian-Skinner organ. Both events are free and open to the public.

Admission to the Princeton University Art Museum is free. Hours are Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. through 5 p.m.; Thursday, 10 a.m. through 10 p.m. and Sunday, 1 to 5 p.m. Free highlight tours of the collections are given every Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. The Museum is closed Mondays and major holidays. For information, call (609) 258-3788 or visit the Museum’s website at http://artmuseum.princeton.edu.

February 1, 2012

 

On Monday, February 6 at 7 p.m., Princeton University English professor Jeff Nunokawa will commemorate Dickens’s 200th birthday with a talk in the Princeton Public Library’s Community Room. At 7 p.m. on Tuesday, February 7, the author’s actual birthday, a discussion of David Copperfield will take place in the Fireplace Area on the library’s second floor, and a screening of the 1935 film version of the novel is set for Wednesday, February 8, at 7 p.m. in the Community Room.

The same day the New York Times runs yet another gloom and doom story about the book business (“The Bookstore’s Last Stand”), I’m taking New Jersey Transit into Manhattan to see the Morgan Library’s “Dickens at 200” exhibit, which will continue through February 12. The book I’m reading is a 1929 edition of George Gissing’s study, Charles Dickens (1898). The woman sitting in front of me is also reading an actual hardcover book (can’t see the title) like the “actual books” the Times article discovers sharing the same room with “a virtual wallpaper of Nook color devices” in the facility where Barnes and Noble “finds itself locked in the fight of its life.” I’m trying to get my mind around the idea that the Nook, “a relative e-reader latecomer” is “the great e-hope” that, along with Barnes & Noble, is the only thing “standing between traditional book publishers and oblivion.”

The advent of Nook, e-readers, and e-hope, seems no more plausible than the phenomenon described by Gissing, who supposes that for at least 25 years of Dickens’s life “there was not an English-speaking household in the world, above the class which knows nothing of books, where his name was not as familiar as that of any personal acquaintance.”

The Serial Solution

At the Morgan, which is an easy walk from Penn Station, there’s a glass case displaying a stack of faded gray green booklets comprising the original serial-form appearance of Dickens’s first work of fiction, The Pickwick Papers. These slender, unprepossessing 32-page pamphlets were the medium through which Dickens became a household name (and the founder and editor of a journal he called Household Words). Every novel he wrote made its appearance not as a completed entity but piecemeal. According to Joel J.Brattin’s “Dickens and Serial Publication” (www.pbs.org/wnet/dickens), the publishing of fiction in parts “grew dramatically in the 1830s” due to “the wild success” of Pickwick. Among the advantages of serial publication was that a novel in monthly installments cost “only one shilling a month, instead of a guinea (21 shillings) or more for an entire novel.” It not only expanded the market for fiction, “as more people could afford to buy on the installment plan,” but also offered “the opportunity to advertise, as ads could easily be incorporated into the little booklets.” It also “created a greater intimacy with the audience, something Dickens always relished.”

Dickens also must have relished knowing that these little booklets were being passionately consumed by all levels of his readership, from the upstairs lords and ladies in Victorian incarnations of Downton Abbey to the footmen and scullery maids downstairs in the kitchen. While poor folks would have nothing but a stack of read-to-rags fragments at the conclusion of each novel, the well-to-do could take the monthly numbers to a bookbinder and have them bound into a single volume.

Could it be that, given the Nooking, Kindling, and e-virtualizing of the bound book, the serial form (reading “on the installment plan”) might be revived as a possible antidote to the shifting, drifting reality of bookland? A dangerous idea no doubt. Imagine the mayhem had the Harry Potter books appeared in monthly issues. The rub is, no living writer could do what Dickens did. Given his drive, his energy, and his unflinching pursuit of each of his many goals, Dickens could probably save the book business all by himself — if we could just conjure him up again.

His Handwriting

While I was at the Morgan a tour was in progress, vividly led by a woman whose delivery would have warmed the cockles of Elaine May’s heart, although Dickens may have been fuming in his grave to hear himself referred to as a dandified control freak with terrible handwriting who hypnotized his wife, lorded it over his home for fallen women, badmouthed America, walked 30 miles and wrote 30 pages every day, and looked better without a beard.

Anyway, it’s Dickens the writer who should be celebrated above and beyond the mesmerist, the philanthropist, the tourist, or the actor, though those sides of him were active and necessary elements in the chemistry of his genius. The essence of “Dickens at 200,” however, is his “wretched” handwriting (as the woman keeps reminding us), enlarged and legible samples of which adorn the gallery walls: “I am a reformer heart and soul” is above the display of letters related to “Philanthropy,” while the letters written during his first visit to America are on view under the heading, “They flock about me as if I were an idol.” The area devoted to the notes he made when plotting his last completed novel, Our Mutual Friend (1862-65), is headed “The story weaver at his loom.” These jottings roughly outlining the first three chapters of a book that grew to 959 pages can be discerned in the background of the caricature of Dickens occupying the exhibit’s poster image, shown here. It’s as if the author were leaning on his walking stick against a coded landscape of his pen’s own making, a free-form force field of words, the DNA of one of his darkest novels. Look closely and you can make out the roman numerals above a scattering of notes for each chapter of the vast work he was composing 150 years ago while the Union and the Confederacy fought the Civil War. Gazing down at the various manuscript pages in the year 2012, you can almost see the movement of his hand and hear the rapid scratch-scratch of the pen scoring the surface of the page.

When you think of the quantity of ink Dickens lavished on these documents, the rivers of prose flowing from his pen, it makes sense that his portable ink well is one of the two personal objects on display, along with a brass seal given him by his friend and eventual biographer, John Forster. The ink well is disarmingly small, about the size of a cigarette lighter, but it has a powerful presence.

His Illustrators

Dickens illustrators George Cruikshank, Phiz (Hablot K. Browne), and John Leech, all on display in “Dickens at 200,” are as indispensable to the fabric woven by the “story weaver” as the characters they sketched, such as Cruikshank’s inimitable caricatures of Fagin and Bill Sikes from Oliver Twist, Phiz’s Mr. Micawber from David Copperfield, and Leech’s rendering of Scrooge’s phantasmagoric voyage through Christmas past, present, and future. Cruikshank once claimed that he’d given Dickens the plot and characters for Oliver Twist. Nonsense, of course, and yet Cruikshank’s creations, like those of Phiz and Leech, come so uncannily close to matching the style and spirit of scene and character that one can’t imagine the novels without them.

It’s appropriate that William -Hogarth’s Gin Lane is displayed in proximity to Cruikshank’s illustrations for Oliver Twist. That novel’s subtitle, The Parish Boy’s Progress, reflects Dickens’s admiration for Hogarth and series like The Harlot’s Progress and The Rake’s Progress. According to the commentary, Dickens owned 48 of Hogarth’s engravings.

The day before my trip to the Morgan, I’d paid a visit to the main gallery at Firestone to see Hogarth’s vision of 18th century London in “Sin and the City.” My interest had been roused by George Gissing’s observation that Dickens had “assuredly learnt” from Hogarth, for “it was inevitable that such profound studies of life and character should attract, even fascinate, a mind absorbed in contemplation of poverty and all its concomitants.” It’s impossible to view “The Harlot’s Progress” without thinking of the fate of Nancy in Oliver Twist and the ruin of Little Emily in David Copperfield. Certainly one of the essential connotations of “Dickensian” is based on the author’s commitment to social welfare, whether it involved workhouses for the poor, prisons, public sanitation in London, or, in this case, his support for a home for the redemption of prostitutes (featured under “Philanthrophy” in “Dickens at 200”). The density of detail and Hogarth’s imagery in “The Rake’s Progress” and “Five Stages of Cruelty,” not to mention “Gin Lane,” have the boldness and descriptive density Dickens brought to his depictions of London squalor a hundred years later.

Dickens at Penn Station

An hour shared with Dickens and his illustrators in a relatively small gallery after skipping lunch can put a certain charge into the look of Manhattan street life on an unusually fine day in late January. A walk down 36th Street through the prolonged zig-zag pedestrian walkway around a construction site, evoked something wayward, crooked, and, well, Dickensian. All the dogs I saw were Dickens dogs, or, if you like, Hogarth dogs. The common denominator was England.

In the crowded Jersey Transit waiting area I found what seemed to be the only empty seat. The tension of anticipation before the frantic rush down to the train was all-encompassing. I saw nary a Kindle nor a Nook (as if I knew the difference) and few actual books. With a 20-minute wait ahead of me, I took out my copy of Gissing’s Charles Dickens and started reading at random:

“I had but to lean, at night, over one of the City bridges, and the broad flood spoke to me in the very tones of the master. The very atmosphere declared him; if I gasped in a fog, was it not Mr. Guppy’s “London particular”? — if the wind pierced me under a black sky, did I not see Scrooge’s clerk trotting off to his Christmas Eve in Somers Town? We bookish people have our consolations for the life we do not live. In time I came to see London with my own eyes, but how much better when I saw it with those of Dickens!”

The Morgan Library and Museum is located at the corner of Madison Avenue and East 36th Street. The undated caricature of Dickens is by Alfred Bryan (1852–1899). Gift of Miss Caroline Newton, 1974. The autograph manuscript page from Our Mutual Friend (1862–65) was purchased by the Morgan in 1944; MA 1202–3. 


November 30, 2011

timthumbReaders of Raymond Carver may recognize the variation on the title story from one of his most famous collections, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Roberta Smith used a version of the same title for a discussion of “the fashionably obtuse language of the art world” four years ago (New York Times December 23, 2007).

In terms of scale, “The Painterly Voice: Bucks County’s Fertile Ground,” which will be at the James A Michener Art Museum through April 1, 2012, is epic, with 200 works by more than 40 artists in three galleries. Curator Brian Peterson’s stated wish is to avoid “stuffy and obscure exhibit labels,” and his casual, person-to-person presentation of this massive exhibit is a refreshing departure from artspeak and the standard curatorial rhetoric, even though he sometimes risks a dumbing down of his subject. After confiding, for example, that from the beginning of his 20 years at the Michener, he’s “dreamed of doing this exhibit,” he ends by reducing “something special” to “a whole heckuva lot of really good paintings.” In his well-meaning attempt at down-to-earth diction, the curator inadvertently brings to mind George W. Bush’s notorious backslap to the incompetent FEMA chief after the debacle of Katrina (“Heckuva job, Brownie”).

The Show Online

Doing anything like full justice to a show of this scope is impossible. That’s why the Michener has put a large portion of the exhibit online, complete with commentaries and a world of information and imagery (http://www.michenermuseum.org/catalogue/painterly-voice). At the museum, QR codes are available for scanning.

The online format makes possible another look at some of the works that held me when I was there in person, including highlights from previous shows, such as Robert Spencer’s cityscapes, and Harry Leith-Ross’s Nightfall on Union Street and The Fair. One piece that kept me gazing beyond a minute was Goldie Peacock’s House, an oil on canvas from 1935 by Charles Ward (1900-1962). In its free-form feeling and sense of fun, it stands apart. There’s no reason why talking about this work shouldn’t be fun as well, and Mr. Peterson catches the spirit of the piece by citing George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” (“those buildings are dancing, the trees are dancing, with each other, with themselves”).

Garber’s Light

If any single artist is the star of this show, it’s Daniel Garber (1880-1958), who was born in Indiana and studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of The Fine Arts and in Europe before settling down a few miles north of New Hope in Lumberville. The work that opens the exhibit is Garber’s 1935 painting of his mentor and colleague, Bucks County artist William Langson Lathrop (1859-1938). Also given a prominent place and featured on the cover of the museum’s Guide to Events and Programs is Garber’s 1915 portrait of his nine-year-old daughter Tanis.

“Light is the first of painters. There is no object so foul that intense light will not make it beautiful.” Although these lines from Emerson are in the commentary accompanying Garber’s landscape, Willows – Noonday (1955), they are even more applicable to what the painter does with the interiors featuring his wife and daughter. Works like Tanis (1915) test the notion of “what we talk about when we talk about art.” How do you react to the blatant beauty of this image of a lovely child wrapped in a sort of diaphanous cloud while spring explodes around her with a brilliance that is almost painful to contemplate? The curator chooses to talk in vivid extremes, “her hair and blouse are lit up like fiery spotlights, as if their very molecules are on fire,” as if “a fairy has touched them with a magic wand …. This is the morning of the day the world was born [Peterson’s italics].”

The curator’s enthusiasm is understandable. It’s a stunning painting. Keeping the notion of talking about art in mind, I emailed the image, along with the other Garbers, to a friend I thought might enjoy seeing them. I made my own feelings abundantly clear (“The way he uses light is amazing!”), assuming she would feel the same way. Not a chance. “It’s a little twee for me, if you know what I mean” was her response to Tanis. If we’d been standing together in front of the painting, I might have tried to downgrade or justify my use of “amazing” by admitting that I felt sympathetic to the idea of the painter’s child, who was born in Paris, died a resident of Bucks County in 1990, and can be seen as a 17-year-old beauty in Garber’s serenely lovely Morning Light, Interior (1923). I might also have admitted that while “twee” wasn’t the word I’d have used, I could see a commercial touch in the soft, smooth, cleanly lighted image that gave it the overtones of a Maxfield Parrish illustration in a story book.

When we talk about art, we’re often talking outside or beyond or beneath it. How important is what we say? What difference does it make? And in the face of great art, what can be said that doesn’t sound either simplistic (“Wow, that’s amazing!”) or pompous? People conversing in the presence of the work will often temper their opinions for the sake of being agreeable, however much they may disagree. Or they may have other things on their mind. The day I was at the Michener most of the talk was not about the art but the effects of the previous weekend’s freak October snow storm. As I admired Garber’s The Studio Wall (1914), which my friend liked, too, someone was talking about the power outage. They were still without electricity and I was thinking, “Here’s power! Here’s electricity!” The Studio Wall is pure enchantment: the sunny day delicately reflected in muted tones of lilac and yellow, the classic beauty of the pose struck by Garber’s wife as she holds a small vase while wearing a vision in the guise of a kimono. Voice or no voice, the painting speaks in colors and images and effects, a form of communication that bypasses language, goes straight to the senses, and stops the conversation cold.

The Human Touch

In Daniel Garber’s painting of his mentor and colleague William Langson Lathrop, completed three years before Lathrop’s death in 1938, Lathrop is shown standing at close range, holding a pipe, his other hand thrust in the pocket of a comfortably lived-in looking jacket burnished in shades of brown and reddish gold somewhat like the hues in the forest floor of Lathrop’s work, The Forest (1918). In fact, the elderly painter might be dressed in one of his own land- or sky-scapes, his vest a field of flowers touched with the pearly pastel light of the sky in Evening Before the Storm (ca. 1898), his trousers showing the mottled pastel shades of the sky in Burning Fields, Bucks County (1898). Blazing behind the handsome, white-bearded man with the faraway look in his eyes is a wild, dark, free-form background, streaked and shot with vivid skeins of purple, orange, and red as intense as a nocturnal psychodrama out of Van Gogh.

Garber’s mastery of light, so brilliantly expressed in the paintings centered on his daughter and wife, becomes a subtle secondary presence in the portrait of Lathrop, touching the hand holding the pipe, the sleeve, the pocket of the coat, and as if attracted by the quiet thoughtful intensity of Lathrop’s gaze, the face, the white beard, the hair, and, the deepest, most telling touch, the faint semblance of light on his forehead. Stand in front of this work long enough and it’s possible to imagine that the man’s spirit, his thought, his art, his humanity, his vulnerability, everything he is, has been serenely, definitively illuminated. But then, as if to counter all that lofty verbiage, you have Lathrop’s nose, which appears to be inflamed, irritated, perhaps from a cold, a rash, the rubbing of a pair of spectacles. That suggestion of inflamed flesh is a deterrent to aesthetic overstatement. It says, “Keep things real, on the human level, where noses are blown, eyes get rheumy, and knuckles chapped, and where a pipe, like a paintbrush, can be an old friend.”

A Note on the Curator

Brian Peterson makes his priorities clear at the outset by invoking artist Marianne Werefkin’s observation as the epigraph for “The Painterly Voice,” (“There is no history of art — there is the history of artists”) and by placing Garbers’s painting of Lathrop at the entrance of the show. Curious to know a bit more about the chief curator at the James A. Michener Art Museum, I came upon some information I think is worth sharing. Four years ago, Mr. Peterson was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. In addition to putting together this magnum opus of Bucks County art, and coming to terms with a devastating illness, he’s published a memoir, The Blossoming of the World: Essays and Images, illustrated with his own photographs.

Note: I’ve never dedicated a column to anyone until now. In one sense, every piece I write is dedicated to an ideal reader or readers, and one of my ideal readers was Everett Dale Gross, the contractor who for all purposes rebuilt the interior of the house we’ve been living in since 1986. Though he was known to most of his longtime customers and friends as Dale, we have always called him Everett. Of all the people I know, writers, poets and academics, doctors, lawyers, and librarians, this rugged Vermonter came closest to actually speaking in the direct, down to earth, no-nonsense voice Curator Brian Peterson seems to be striving for in his commentary. Everett died last week at 80, and I know we aren’t the only homeowners in Mercer County who are living in and appreciating every day of our lives the interior he built. All the moldings, doors, bookcases, closets, from the frames on the windows to the tiles on the kitchen floor are due to his handiwork, works of his straightforward art.