Tuesday, May 21, 2019

The End

Now that the current classical music season has ended, at least for me, I've decided that this as good a time as any to stop blogging and devote more time to my other interests, particularly photography and creative writing.  Although I'll be leaving my published posts online, at least for the time being, I won't be adding any new ones.

I want to express my sincere appreciation to all those who've so faithfully followed my posts.  I'm extremely grateful for your loyalty and wish you all the best of luck in whatever you choose to do.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Carnegie Hall: Met Orchestra Performs Schumann and Schubert

On Saturday evening I went to Carnegie Hall to hear the first of the Met Orchestra's annual end-of-season series.  The guest conductor was the inimatable Valery Gergiev leading the ensemble in a program tht featured works by two great Romantic composers, Schumann and Schubert.

The program opened with Schumann's Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54 (1845) with Daniil Trifonov as soloist.  Although Schumann waited four years before adding the final two movements, the piece was actually begun in 1841 as a one-movement fantasie for piano and orchestra.  It was at his wife Clara's urging that he eventually expanded the piece into a full three-movement concerto.  That and the fact that Breitkopf & Härtel refused to publish the piece without the concluding two movements that Schumann himself viewed primarily as a means of balancing the first. What is unusual is that although Schumann was married to one of Europe's foremost pianists, the work was one of the few concerti written during this period that was not intended as a virtuoso showcase in the manner of those composed by Chopin and Liszt.  Indeed, Liszt condemned the work as "a concerto without piano."  The concerto instead hearkened back to those of Mozart and Beethoven in its integration of the solo and orchestral parts.  Schumann was more successful in accomplishing this feat than one might have expected.  Though he was already experiencing severe psychological problems, as evidenced in his Symphony in C completed at roughly the same time, he was able to fully overcome these obstacles in both the concerto and the symphony.  Of the two, the concerto is by far the more successful work and has since deservedly become one of the most popular in the repertoire.  Certainly Schumann was one of the nineteenth century's greatest composers for piano, and in this work he was able to meld that talent with his formidable ability in symphonic writing, albeit in sparer form, to achieve a remarkable triumph.  Mr. Trifonov was extremely impressive on Saturday evening; after having seen him display his virtuoso fireworks on other occasions, I was honestly surprised that he was able to work so well with the orchestra as he did here.  Even though this concerto lacks any flashy virtuoso turns, the pianist still had ample opportunities to demonstrate his considerable skill at the keyboard.  Of all the performances at which I've seen Mr. Trifonov perform this was definitely the most satisfying.

After intermission, the orchestra returned to perform the second and final work on the program, Schubert's Symphony No. 9 in C major, D. 944 (1825-1826), justifiably known as the "Great," in part to distinguish it from the composer's Symphony No. 6 in the same key and in part to acknowledge its own magnificence.  Perhaps there exists no more poignant testament to the relative anonymity in which Schubert lived his life than the confusion surrounding the numbering and dating of his symphonies.  Unpublished during his lifetime and even for several decades thereafter, the symphonies' chronologies had to be painstakingly reconstructed after the composer's death.  What a contrast to Beethoven whose works were published and assigned opus numbers almost as soon as he had written them.   It's now generally accepted that the No. 9 is the missing Gmunden-Gastein symphony  from 1824 and that it should therefore more correctly be listed as No.8.  The D. 944 might, in fact, never have come down to us at all if Schumann, during a visit to Vienna, had not fortuitously paid a visit to Schubert's brother Ferdinand who had kept the manuscripts in safekeeping and had even arranged for a performance of the symphony's last movement.  Fortunately, Schumann was as perspicacious a critic as one could hope to find in that period.  Immediately recognizing the symphony's importance, he sent a copy of the manuscript to Mendelssohn who successfully premiered the work with the Leipzig Gewandhaus in 1839.  But even then the work was misunderstood by audiences and musicians alike.  The audiences found it far too long and the musicians, particularly in London, thought it unplayable.  It was only in the twentieth century, after Mahler and others had redefined the entire concept of the symphony, that the work finally achieved the popularity and understanding it had deserved all along.

One of the paradoxes of the No. 9 is that although the work is as carefully constructed as any of Beethoven's and scrupulously follows the traditional structure of the Classical symphony in that all four movements are in sonata form, it often strikes the listener as a much more personal statement than the works of Schubert's predecessors to the extent that melody is given greater weight than thematic development.  The orchestration also differs from earlier symphonies in the importance given to the brass section.  This is the first major symphony to make use of trombones as a standard part of the instrumentation rather than merely as a means of adding emphasis.  The writing for the horns especially stands out - the symphony opens with a solo by that instrument - so much so that it's difficult to describe its effect without resorting to the rapturous effusions of Schumann who wrote:
"A horn is heard from a distance.  It seems to come from another sphere. Here everything listens, as if a heavenly spirit were wandering through the orchestra."
In short, the work really is, as Schumann again pointed out, the first true Romantic symphony.  Listening to it, it's difficult at times to believe it was actually written during Beethoven's lifetime.  It seems to belong to another era altogether.

The Met Orchestra is one of the world's great ensembles and under the expert direction of Valery Gergiev it had a chance to shine on Saturday evening, particularly in the second half of the program.  One couldn't have asked for a better performance of Schubert's monumental symphony.  One curious point I noted was that Mr. Gergiev eschewed the use of a podium in the second half of the program and instead stood on the stage floor on the same level as the orchestra.  I'd be very interested to learn why he did that.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Art Book Review: Swing Time: Reginald Marsh and Thirties New York

There have been many attempts to neatly tie Reginald Marsh to various movements of American painting from the Fourteenth Street School to the Regionalist and yet that with which he was really most closely aligned, in spirit if not always in style, was the Ashcan School whose influence had peaked a decade or more before Marsh created his most significant work.  Like John Sloan and George Bellows before him, Marsh was mesmerized by the teeming life that filled the streets of New York City.  Though himself of upper class origins (born in Paris to an upper middle class family and educated at Yale), Marsh was always attracted to the lower classes - subway riders, burlesque strippers, Bowery bums, and Coney Island musclemen.  These were his subjects of choice in a city suffering through the worst years of the Depression.

Several years ago, I saw an excellent retrospective at the New York Historical Society entitled Swing Time: Reginald Marsh and Thirties New York that had been curated by Barbara Haskell of the Whitney Museum.  It was one of the few major exhibits that had been devoted to the artist following his death in 1954.  On view were many of his best known works as well as those of other artists who were active during the Depression.  The exhibit was accompanied by a catalog which I recently purchased at the Strand Bookstore on 12th Street, very near the Union Square location where Marsh once had his studio.

In developing his distinctive style, Marsh did not slavishly follow the Ashcan artists or other American realist painters such as Thomas Eakins but instead looked to old masters whose works he had seen and copied on his travels through Europe.  His great breakthrough came when he was introduced, by his friend Thomas Hart Benton, to the egg tempera process.  Used extensively by medieval and early Renaissance artists for panel painting, tempera had the great advantage of drying quickly, thus allowing Marsh to continuously apply brushstrokes to a given work without the necessity of first allowing the layers beneath to stand and dry.  As for content, Marsh's work was distinguished by crowding figures into the foreground against cityscape backgrounds.  With this technique, Marsh was able to convey the frenzied rush that filled the streets and sidewalks of New York.

The catalog contains several short but highly relevant essays.  The first of these, by Barbara Haskell herself, provides an overview of the artist's work and places him securely in the period of his greatest productivity.  It also furnishes the biographical details needed to understand his highly complex personality.  Even though Marsh's upper class background gave him entry to high society - his first wife was the daughter of Bryson Burroughs, at the time curator of painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art - he was never at home in such a milieu and resolutely refused to paint those who were.  Taking the position that "well-bred people are no fun to paint," Marsh was repelled by the artificial manners of the rich if for no other reason than that "People of wealth spend money to disguise themselves."  One has to assume that this was, at least to an extent, a reaction against his father's career as a society painter.

The most interesting essay in the catalog is "Keeping the Carnival in Town" by Jackson Lears who details the manner in which the "anything goes" license traditionally granted revelers during Europe's carnival season became a permanent fixture in New York City during the Depression years.  Another essay by Sasha Nicholas investigates Marsh's use of photography to capture detail for his paintings while still another by Lance Mayer and Gay Myers provides and in-depth analysis of the materials and processes used by Marsh to create his works.

One unfortunate omission from both the exhibit and catalog are almost any examples of Marsh's graphic work. Marsh was extremely accomplished at etching and explored in his graphic work the same themes, and very often the same subjects, as in his paintings. It could be argued that certain scenes seeking to convey a sense of stark realism actually work better in graphic form, for example the 1932 Bread Line - No One Has Starved, the only graphic work that is reproduced in the catalog. To see more of Marsh's etchings, as well as engravings and linocuts, the interested reader should turn to the 1976 study The Prints of Reginald Marsh by Norman Sasowsky.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Art Book Review: Surrealism in Exile

Surrealism in Exile and the Beginning of the New York School by Martica Sawin is quite simply one of the best art histories I've come across.  Not only is it well written but it's obvious that it's also been exhaustively researched to provide the wealth of detail contained within it.  Dealing with the period from 1938 to 1945, it traces the emigration to the United States and Mexico of European Surrealist artists fleeing the Nazis and their subsequent encounter with the young American artists who were later to form the nucleus of the New York School.  While this might seem a simple enough matter to chronicle, the huge number of artists involved, both European and American, and the complex personal and artistic interrelationships that existed among them actually make any attempt at a comprehensive survey extremely daunting.  Moreover, such a task requires an in-depth knowledge of modern art in the first half of the twentieth century and an ability to analyze and correctly evaluate individual paintings and sculptures.

Though its historic importance is largely forgotten today, Surrealism was the major cultural movement to arise in Western Europe, particularly in France, as a response to the carnage wrought by World War I.  At its most basic level, it was an attempt to replace traditional subject matter, now discredited by the insanity of total war, with a new approach to the arts, one linked closely to the expressions of the unconscious mind, already mapped by Freud at the beginning of the century, in the form of automatism.  This focus on the unconscious in turn greatly influenced the young American artists with whom the Surrealists came in contact and eventually led them to the breakthrough that became Abstract Expressionism, originally referred to as Abstract Surrealism.

The contribution of the Surrealists to their American counterparts was not, however, limited to the purely philosophical but also involved actual technique.  In the chapter "New York, 1941" there is a fascinating reproduction of a collaborative painting, the only surviving example of a series, in which the painters William Baziotes, Gerome Kamrowski and Jackson Pollock experimented in jointly dripping fast drying enamel paint on a canvas surface.  This obviously anticipated by more than a decade Pollock's famous drip paintings that were to become the the very avatars of American post-war art.  The idea did not, however, originate with these Americans.  Already in 1939 Gordon Onslow Ford, while working in his Paris studio with Victor Brauner, had tried his hand at the same technique, which he called coulage, using Ripolin enamel and had brought with him when he emigrated to New York the paintings he had created while using it.

At the center of the story (which, if he were alive today, he would consider his proper place) is André Breton.  Even if he were thoroughly irascible and a petty tyrant, Breton still deserves credit for holding together a band of temperamental artists in a cohesive school and for having the insight to understand intuitively their strengths and weaknesses.  This is all the more remarkable in that Breton and the other cofounders of Surrealism were not visual artists themselves but poets and writers.  There are also many other artists, such as Gordon Onslow Ford himself (as one of the last surviving Surrealists at the time the book was written he was able to give his account directly to the author and so secure for himself a more prominent position than he might otherwise have been allotted), who are little remembered today but who are here given their due in this book.  In addition, Sawin sheds new light on the development of such famous artists as Max Ernst, Leonora CarringtonYves TanguyAndré Masson, Roberto Matta and Arshile Gorky while convincingly demonstrating the manner in which their distinctive styles evolved.

The passing of the torch from Surrealism to Abstract Expressionism was also emblematic of the larger cultural shift that occurred after the end of World War II when the United States became not only the earth's greatest superpower but also its acknowledged leader in the arts.  Paris was replaced by New York City as the new world capital, a position it still holds today.  This transformation could not have been possible without the resources the transplanted Surrealists brought with them from Europe.  It was they who inspired the opening of many of New York's most prominent galleries, Peggy Guggenheim's Art of this Century foremost among them, that were later to be the first to showcase the works of the New York School.  

The one fault of this book is the quality of the reproductions.  These are rarely full page but more often in smaller format.  Worse, they are all monochromatic and have a murky appearance.  The absence of color makes it difficult for the reader to appreciate the quality of the original artworks and it's sometimes even difficult to decipher the content of the images shown.  There are, however, extensive notes and a voluminous bibliography.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Art Book Review: From Drawing to Painting

Pierre Rosenberg is an extremely accomplished scholar and art historian.  When it comes to the five artists - Nicolas Poussin, Jean-Antoine Watteau, Jacques-Louis DavidJean-Honoré Fragonard, and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres - who are the subject of From Drawing to Painting, few others are as competent to discuss their merits and faults.  As co-author of the catalogues raisonné of all five artists, whom Rosenberg considers "among the greatest of French draftsmen," he possesses an exhaustive knowledge of their lives and works.

The book itself is an adaptation of a series of A.W. Mellon Lectures given at Washington's National Gallery of Art in1996.  As such, the tone is informal and thankfully much less dry than one would expect of so erudite a scholar.  Moreover, both the book's excellent design and the inclusion of some 230 reproductions illustrating the author's arguments make the work fully accessible to laymen, even those possessing only a rudiementary knowledge of French art.

Rather than devoting a single chapter to each artist, the author has wisely chosen in each of the six chapters to address a specific problem by discussing the work of all five artists in relation to it. Thus, while the first chapter serves as an introduction to all five, the second, entitled "The Drawings: Their Histories, Techniques, and Themes," compares the five's drawings to one another, noting the similarities and differences in styles among them.  In this respect, it should be noted that the later artists were influenced, sometimes heavily, by their predecessors.  At times they even made copies of one another's works.  David, for example, was not only the teacher of Ingres but even found Fragonard employment at the Louvre when that artist found himself in dire straits.

Many of the issues addressed in the various chapters have applicability beyond the works of the five artists, and indeed of French art in general.  One particularly fascinating essay, "On the Attribution and Dating of the Drawings," has relevance to anyone interested in the process by which works of uncertain provenance are assigned to particular artists.  Forgeries, though rampant, are not the only problems faced by an author attempting a catalogue raisonné or a gallery owner preparing an exhibit.  In one instance, Rosenberg goes into a great deal of detail in explaing why in compiling the catalogue raisonné of Poussin's oeuvre, he and his co-author disallowed a large number of drawings formerly attributed to that artist, most notably a series of highly admired works that once formed part of the Crozat estate.

While the book is in general remarkably successful in educating its audience - I for one greatly enjoyed reading it - there remain a few quibbles.  For one thing, the title is somewhat misleading in its reference to painting.  Although several paintings by the five artists are discussed, it is almost always in relation to drawings that served as prepatory studies for the final works.  Throughout the book, emphasis is placed almost exclusively on the artists' drawings.  This is in itself not so great a drawback as long as the unwary reader does not anticipate any in-depth analysis of the painted works. 

The second problem has to do with the choice of artists.  After having only last year seen the two major exhibits of Delacroix's works at the Met Museum, I find it unforgiveable that so great an artist should have been entirely omitted from consideration here.  His absence seriously skews the study of the remaining five.  The famous rivalry between Delacroix and Ingres, for example, was representative of the conflict between Romanticism and neo-Classicism for ascendancy in nineteenth century French art.  Rosenberg himself is aware of the problem.  In the introduction he writes:
"Delacroix, I confess, does not inspire me.  I acknowledge his genius but it holds no attraction for me, and I do not understand him well (can we understand what we do not really appreciate?)."
An art historian, of course, is as entitled to his likes and dislikes as any layman.  Such a blatant disregard for one of the greatest French artists, however, cannot help but call into question the author's objectivity.

A final concern is the quality of the reproductions,  Though as noted above there are copious illustrations in every chapter, they are unfortunately all in monochrome.  Any consideration of the artists' use of color is thereby rendered moot.  This is hardly a minor point. 

Friday, May 10, 2019

Art Book Review: Arcadia and Metropolis

Whenever modern art is mentioned, one invariably thinks first of France in the early part of the twentieth century.  Cubism, Fauvism, and Surrealism - these are the stuff of legend.  Rarely does anyone pause long enough to give a thought to Germany, even though two vitally important schools, Expressionism and the Neue Sachlichkeit, both originated there.  It is only when one makes this comparison that one realizes how successful were Hitler and his Nazis in their campaign to eradicate all traces of modernism from German heritage.

Few institutions bore the brunt of this cultural vandalism more directly than the Nationalgalerie Berlin's annex, the Kronprinzenpalais, which the Nationalgalerie had acquired following the fall of the monarchy at the end of World War I and which, under the directorship of Ludwig Justi, it had given over to the display of modern art, including a gallery of living artists (the Galerie der Lebenden).  On July 7, 1937, a commission led by Adolf Ziegler, the official in charge of the Reich Association of Fine Art, arrived at the Kronprinzenpalais and confiscated sixty-eight paintings, seven sculptures and a number of works on paper, all by Germany's most prominent modern artists.  Not content with these spoils, the commission next went to the Nationalgalerie's main building on August 12 and this time removed seventy-two paintings, twenty-four sculptures and hundreds of drawings.  When the museum's new director Eberhard Hanfstaengl refused to meet with the commission he was immediately replaced.  The works taken were then displayed at the infamous Entartete Kunst exhibit held soon thereafter in Munich.  Many of these were subsequently lost, as was the case with Franz Marc's masterpiece Turm der blauen Pferde ("Tower of Blue Horses"), or else destroyed outright.

It was appropriate then that one of the earliest exhibits to be staged at New York's Neue Galerie consisted of works of modern art on loan from the Nationalgalerie which had done its utmost over the years to rebuild its ransacked collection.  The show consisted of paintings by the very same artists whose lives and careers had been so violently disrupted by the events of 1937,  Among the works displayed were Paula Modersohn-Becker's Kniende Mutter mit Kind ("Kneeling Mother with Child"), Max Pechstein's Am Strand von Nidden ("On Hidden Beach"), Emil Nolde's Pfingsten ("Pentecost"), Max Beckmann's Adam und Eva ("Adam and Eve"), Otto Dix's Altes Liebespaar ("Old Couple") and George Grosz's Grauer Tag ("Gloomy Day").  The highlights of the exhibit were a number of paintings by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, the finest of which was unquestionably one of his studies of Berlin streetwalkers, the 1914 Potsdamer Platz.  Kirchner was an especially tragic figure.  His mental health unbalanced by the virulence directed toward him by the Nazis, he committed suicide in Switzerland in 1938.  

While we must be grateful for these works, their relatively small number are a constant reminder of the extent of the Nazis' depredations.  One can't help imagining how much more extensive this show would have been if not for their pillaging.  There were no works on view, for example, by the aforementioned Franz Marc, not only a notable artist but a war hero who had perished on the front in 1916 while fighting for his country in World War I.

Arcadia and Metropolis: Masterworks of German Expressionism is the catalog published to accompany the Neue Galerie's 2004 exhibit.  It's an excellent work that carefully presents each of the paintings accompanied by a page of insightful analysis.  In addition, there are five essays that trace the development of modern art in Germany as well as a discussion of its most important critics, the establishment of the Kronprinzenpalais as a venue for the permanent display of these works, and finally a detailed chronicle of the shameful actions of the Nazis who could only destroy what they could not understand.  There are also two appendices, one of which reproduces four full color posters advertising relevant art exhibits held between 1904 and 1912, and the other containing detailed biographies of the artists whose work is reproduced within the catalog.  The volume is valuable not only as an art book but also as a visual history of what can occur when an entire nation loses its way.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Art Book Review: The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult

The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult, published to accompany a 2005 exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum, is one of the most delightful photography books I've come across in a long while. It's the first comprehensive study of which I'm aware to devote itself to the use of photography as a tool in parapsychological research and to trace the uneasy relationship between photographic science and spiritualist belief.

The book is divided into three sections - Photographs of Spirits, Photographs of Fluids and Photographs of  Mediums - and consists of a series of scholarly essays, each followed by reproductions that illustrate the content of the text.  This system is not always strictly adhered to.  The chapter on Arthur Conan Doyle, for example, is followed not only by the relevant photographs of the Cottingley fairies but also by the "skotographs" of Madge Donohoe who is nowhere mentioned in the essay.

The book's Foreword, written by Philippe de Montebello and Jean-Luc Monterosso, sets forth the academic rigor with which the subject is to be viewed:
"While the controversies over the existence of occult forces cannot be discounted, the approach of this exhibition is resolutely historical.  The curators present the photographs on their own terms,without authoritative comment on their veracity."
While such objectivity is in many ways admirable, it sometimes leads to unintended hilarity as when curators discuss obviously faked photographs in the same pedantic manner that might be employed in evaluating genuine works of art.  In such cases, a more skeptical tone would have served better.  Then again, some of the photos belong to the Met Museum's Gilman collection and the contributors might very well have considered it indiscreet to have labeled them outright deceptions.  What is remarkable is that spiritualist believers, when confronted by these same photographs, refused to believe the evidence of their eyes and insisted the phenomena recorded were real.  Even when photographers such as Buguet admitted to trickery, his supporters refused to accept his word for it.

On a technical note, it's interesting that infrared photography is mentioned only in passing, and then solely as a means of taking pictures in total darkness.  One would have thought that that film's ability to capture wavelengths of light invisible to the human eye would have made it a great resource for those attempting to capture the paranormal.

None of the photographers whose works are displayed in this volume were masters of their craft.  Far from it.  But while there's nothing shown here that remotely approaches the artistry of Man Ray, the entire book, when taken as a whole, can alternatively be viewed as an anthology of surrealist photography that rivals anything deliberately created by that movement in its self-conscious search for dreamlike imagery.  As such, many of these photographs possess and unintended beauty.  In the Fluids section, some of the representations are reminiscent of abstract art, a genre they prefigured by several decades.  Others have the charm of antique postcards from a Victorian sanitarium.  And in the end, this unintended artistry may represent the real value of the publication.  Thomas Mann, as quoted on page 177, derisively described the photographs taken of the medium Eva C. as "grotesque, fantastic and silly."  It is exactly that aspect which makes them worth viewing.