Friday, August 26, 2016

Guggenheim: Moholy-Nagy: Future Present

Now that the heat has finally subsided here in New York City, I had a chance to walk across the Park to view the Guggenheim's huge exhibit, Moholy-Nagy: Future Present.  It turned out to be a comprehensive retrospective devoted to a major twentieth century artist who rarely receives the recognition he deserves.  It was well worth seeing.

László Moholy-Nagy, who died in 1946 at only age 51, was remarkable for all he managed to achieve in so abbreviated a career.  The Guggenheim exhibit is praiseworthy for so attentively tracing his progress from his earliest days as an art student in Budapest when he attended the private school run by Róbert Berény.  On display from this earliest period is a monochromatic drawing covered by thick interweaving curved lines; the work is visually interesting but contains little hint of the innovations in style that were to come.

The exhibit could very broadly be broken down into three distinct categories: abstract painting, photograms and photocollages; and conventional photography.

The abstract paintings were almost entirely combinations of circles and lines intersecting one another against a empty background.  What to me was most noteworthy about these were the brilliant colors used in them.  This may have been due to the lingering influence of his first teacher, Berény, one of the most prominent of the Hungarian Fauve artists.  As his career progressed, Moholy-Nagy experimented with different surfaces on which to paint.  On display were his "enamel paintings" which created a sensation when displayed in Berlin in 1924.  Toward the end of his career, Moholy-Nagy began to apply color to incised sheets of plexiglass.  There was even one where the plexiglass sheet had been deliberately warped.  Light passing through the painted plexiglass created eerie shadows and endowed the work with a three dimensional quality that could never have been achieved on painted canvas.

In viewing the photograms shown at this exhibit the viewer is immediately reminded of those completed by the surrealist photographer Man Ray during roughly the same period.  In general, I found Moholy-Nagy's to be the more sophisticated and thought provoking.  He was not so much interested in creating in his work the surrealist effects Man Ray achieved in his Rayographs and yet, though their end purposes may have been different, the works of the two artists often bear a striking similarity.  It would be interesting to someday see a dual exhibit featuring these two artists that explored the influence they exerted upon one another.  Certainly, Man Ray's drawing Rencontre dans la porte tournante, featured on the cover of Der Sturm in 1922, displays close affinities to Moholy-Nagy's visual designs.

As for traditional photography, what most distinguishes Moholy-Nagy's images is the perspective from which they were taken.  Very often the artist would seek out a high vantage point and shoot straight down so that the ground beneath took on the form of an abstract design.  Also shown at the exhibit was the artist's 1930's portrait of Solomon Guggenheim himself.  This was perhaps the closest Moholy-Nagy ever came to commercial portraiture.

One of the highlights of the exhibit was the installation in the High Gallery of Moholy-Nagy's Raum der Gegenwart ("Room of the Present") whose modernistic design only becomes more evident through the inclusion of a 1920's silent film.  On the Guggenheim's website this installation  is described as follows:
"On view for the first time in the United States, the large-scale work contains photographic reproductions and design replicas as well as his kinetic Light Prop for an Electric Stage (Lichtrequisit einer elektrischen Bühne, 1930; recreated 2006). Room of the Present illustrates Moholy-Nagy’s belief in the power of images and the significance of the various means with which to view and disseminate them..."
Although Moholy-Nagy is remembered today primarily for his association with the Bauhaus, the present show at the Guggenheim displays convincingly exactly how multi-faceted and influential was this artist and how far reaching his imagination.

The exhibit continues through September 7, 2016.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Carnegie Hall Opens Ticket Exchange for Subscribers

Ticket exchanges began yesterday for those with subscriptions to the coming season at Carnegie Hall. There's always a huge crush of people on the first day, so I put off going until this afternoon when there were virtually no lines at all.  The staff was very accommodating, and I was luckily able to get tickets for each of the performances I want to attend.  Since my subscriptions are for orchestral concerts, the tickets I picked up today were almost all for solo recitals.  These included upcoming performances by Mitsuko Uchida, Richard Goode, Yefim Bronfman and András Schiff, four of the most highly acclaimed pianists now active.

Those interested should refer to Carnegie Hall's website for more information.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Met Museum: Masterpieces of Chinese Painting from the Metropolitan Collection, Rotation 2

I had gone to the Met Museum in December to view the first rotation of the mammoth centennial exhibit, Masterpieces of Chinese Painting; I recently returned to see what was on display in the second rotation.  Once again a huge number of works from all periods of Chinese art had been hung, but somehow the effect was not quite as impressive as it had been the first time around.  Still, the extent of the Met's collection of Chinese painting only becomes evident when viewing a show this size, and the effect of seeing so many works together is ultimately overwhelming.

Surprisingly, the painting that most attracted my interest was not from the Sung Dynasty, when landscape painting reached its apogee in China, but from the much later Ming Dynasty.  This was Zhong Li's Scholar looking at a waterfall, a huge hanging scroll (approx. 126" x 53" mounted) in the style of Ma Yuan, the Sung painter who originated the famous "one corner" style.  Strangely, the museum's website states that Zhong Li painted in an "almost contemptuous manner" but I didn't see any evidence of that myself.  Instead, the painting was filled with a sense of serenity as it depicted the scholar's reverence for nature as shown in the waterfall tumbling majestically from stylized mountains to the twisted pines below.

A more modest work, at least in format, was Old Trees, Level Distance, a handscroll painted by Guo Xi in the eleventh century.  What was most interesting was the tortured shape of the trees that reminded this viewer of the artist's more famous Early Spring (not part of this exhibit).  Ink washes were expertly used to give a sense of a distant perspective fading away in the mist.

One of the most delightful, and unexpected, subjects in Chinese art is that of fish frolicking in the water.  In this regard, Fish at play, attributed to Sung artist Zhao Kexiong, was noteworthy for the naturalism with which the fish were portrayed.  Another excellent example was the much later Flowers, fish and crabs by Ming artist Liu Jie in which the transition from land to water was never clearly defined so that the flowers and fish appeared to exist together in the same dreamlike environment.

Most often in Chinese paintings travelers in a landscape are shown as tiny figures dwarfed by the mountains about them.  In such paintings as Travelers in a Wintry Forest, though, attributed to Li Cheng of the Song era, the figure becomes central to the painting.  Figure painting also features prominently in Buddhist art as shown in an anonymous monk's imaginary portrait from the Yuan Dynasty of a Luohan, one of those assigned by the Buddha to be a Keeper of the Law.

The pine tree is one of the most fundamental elements of Chinese landscape painting but nowhere is it depicted in such monumental fashion as in Dragon Pine by Ming artist Wu Boli, another large hanging scroll (approx. 100" x 18.5" mounted).  The museum's website notes of this piece: 
"This animated pine recalls an account by the tenth-century hermit-painter Jing Hao that describes 'a gigantic pine tree, its aged bark overgrown with lichen, its winged scales seeming to ride in the air. Its stature is like that of a coiling dragon trying to reach the Milky Way.' For Jing Hao, as for later artists, the pine signified 'the moral character of the virtuous man.' Here, the tree may also represent the Daoist sage, or 'perfected being.'" 
The exhibit continues through October 11, 2016.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph

I've never heard any of Jan Swafford's compositions, though I go quite often to concerts and recitals here in Manhattan, but I can say unequivocally that he's a truly excellent biographer.  I'd previously read his Charles Ives: A Life with Music in which he treated a difficult subject with sympathy and honesty.  The same can be said of his more recent opus, Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph, an exhaustive study of the man who, along with Haydn and Mozart, was one of the greatest composers of the Classical period and, for that matter, of all time.  If anything, the level of scholarship and writing is even higher than in the previous work.

The narrative begins in Bonn where Beethoven was born in 1770, the grandson of another Ludwig van Beethoven.  The elder Ludwig served as Kapellmeister in the court of the imperial elector Maximilian Friedrich for a dozen years and was a highly respected bass singer.  His position and talents made it inevitable that his grandson should take up a career in music.  Swafford duly notes the lessons given the younger Ludwig by his alcoholic father Johann, the child's early display of virtuosity at the keyboard and his first attempts at composition, all of which eventually led to his appointment as violist in the Bonn court orchestra.  But Swafford goes far beyond a mere recital of the youth's accomplishments.  The author goes to great pains to fully detail the intellectual life of Bonn at a time when Europe was caught up in a wave of intellectual awakening and consequent social unrest.  This was the famous Age of Enlightenment, referred to in German speaking countries as Aufklärung, and liberal Bonn was at its epicenter during Beethoven's adolescence.  He was first exposed to its principles by his tutor, the composer Christian Neefe, a Freemason (as was Mozart) and a member of the Order of Illuminati.  The importance that Aufklärung ideals held for the young Beethoven cannot be overstated.  They influenced him all through his years in Vienna and continually found expression in his musical works even so late as his Ninth Symphony, the Op. 125.  Swafford convincingly demonstrates that it is impossible to fully understand the composer without taking these humanistic principles into account.

Beethoven left Bonn for Vienna in 1792.  Though he spent the greater part of his life in this city with which he was always to be associated, he had no great love for it.  Nor for its inhabitants.  He was always at odds, sometimes violently so, with his aristocratic patrons, with his publishers, with his friends and admirers, with in fact just about everyone with whom he ever associated.  Though he could be generous and warm-hearted, Beethoven possessed a violent temper which he was never able to keep in check.  Like many artists, he was a tortured soul who could never really feel at home in the world into which he'd been born.  Part of his misery was due to ill health.  Aside from his encroaching deafness, he was tormented by pains and sickness that Swafford suggests may have been caused by lead poisoning.  He also was afflicted in his youth by typhus, and though he recovered this may have been one of the causes of his loss of hearing.

Beyond his physical ailments, Beethoven suffered from a failure to find someone to love and to share his life.  If this sounds trite to better adjusted individuals, it was devastating to the composer.  When finally, after the break with his Immortal Beloved (who was almost certainly not, whatever Swafford's claims to the contrary, Bettina Brentano), he realized that he would never marry and have children of his own he engaged in lengthy and ill advised litigation to gain sole custody of his late brother's son Karl.  The legal proceedings were ruinous to whatever peace of mind he still possessed.

In spite of all his trials, many of them self-inflicted, Beethoven triumphed over adversity to become one of the great creative geniuses of all time.  Swafford's analysis of practically all the composer's major works is detailed and authoritative without ever becoming pedantic.  The author's own thorough knowledge of music allows him to describe the works in a manner that, while erudite, is thoroughly understandable to the layman and brings the pieces vividly to life.  He also quotes from the scores themselves for the benefit of his readers who are also musicians.  For those who are not there is a useful appendix that offers a synopsis of the various musical forms with which Beethoven worked.

By the end of the book the reader has an in-depth appreciation of Beethoven both as an artist and a man.  Surprisingly, it is in the latter role that he most commands our attention and respect.  He emerges as a Job-like figure who struggled valiantly to overcome handicaps that would have driven lesser souls to despair and suicide.  And in the end Beethoven, borne up by his humanist ideals, succeeded beyond expectation by not only surviving but by creating a body of musical works that will most likely never be surpassed.