Thursday, January 27, 2011

Menuhin plays Delius

It is not enough just to have the concert favorites of Delius, Suites,  and A Village Romeo and Juliet.  I saw this one on line.  Of several, it was the last to come, because it had to come from Europe.  The recordings are not very old (1980 and 1981), late analog originally and very fine.
When I was little, my grandfather had an acoustical recording of Master Yehudi Menuhin, age 12,** and I always have liked his recordings in each successive format; his violin is more introspective than most, though, certainly, he possessed virtuosity; he didn't flaunt it.
When I saw the listing of the Delius sonatas, which I didn't know anyhow, I thought how much I'd like to hear Menuhin on Delius.  I've had the CD (actually a pair of CDs) for ten hours now and have been listening to them ever since.
After half a lifetime not paying serious attention to Delius, I finally decided to pay him the same attention as I do Britten, which he certainly repays.  And yes, I think that Menuhin is perfect for the violin sonatas.
It is a lifetime habit, to immerse myself in one composer, or genre, or painter at a time.  Probably everyone does that.
** The dates don't jibe.  I'll see if I can find the disk.  He was born in 1916, and for EMI recorded first at age 13.  The record, as I remember it, was a Victrola red-seal.   My grandfather may have told me that he was only 12.  But I may be wrong that it was one-sided.  So call it a typical problem of early memory.

P.S. Not too bad; he not only was still "Master" but was still with Louis Persinger.  Judging from that Maestronet.pdf (link on Persinger) a likely date would be 1925-1927, so even younger than 12.  The Victrola record is electric (VE; 'Orthophonic') and two-sided, but that label looks rather early to me, and the repertoire is not that of an adult musician.  I'll ask a friend how to look up the numbers, which will give a precise date.  For recording experts, here, below, is the label (A and B).  click on image to zoom.

P.S. again: I have corrected the spelling of 'Menuhin'.  To my surprise, I did not find a matrix number list for the red-seal issues (though I found one for the pop black-seal of the same period).  There is an excellent list for Stokowski and the Philadelphia orchestra; comparing the numbers for 10" releases suggests 1927-8.  The "Scroll"-design labels with the VE and 'Orthophonic' and 'Victrola' date between 1925 (but initially without the scroll design) and 1928 (when the name changed to RCA Victor—bought out).  The numbers don't jibe with those shared with HMV.  The authors of the Stokowski and G&S sites remark that Victor was sometimes cavalier about matrix numbers.  Therefore, that Master Yehudi Menuhin, as I suppose the man at the record store told my grandfather, was 12 years old is possible, but he was not older.  I found exactly my record in an online auction list, but without any documentary value beyond the contents of the label.  Comparison with the John McCormack discography suggests that the recording was not long after January 1928 and this pressing before the change to RCA Victor.
Label of early Menhuin 78rpm, cited above

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Art for Art; Art for Ideas

Fort Worth, TX.  Maillol's l'Air, my photo taken there in 1988
In Modern art schools sixty years ago, teachers impressed on us that art and illustration were two things.  In post-Modern schools they dismissed the ‘merely formal’ and the ‘mere design’ and work that wanted ‘meaning’.
But it is not a dichotomy of the higher from the lower, the more beautiful from the less so, but a question, I think, of the use of visual (or musical) means for different ends.  Of course, nothing is pure, quite; crossover is the rule.  And there are many different ways to cut the cake.  Still, I think one dichotomy is worth thinking about.  As an art historian I am comfortable with esteeming what I like best of both kinds.
The very term, Art for Art’s sake is sometimes used in derision.  But considering what it must mean, art that does not exist for some other end than itself, it is easy to think of examples.  Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue comes to mind and most of Cézanne’s paintings.  That is not to exclude figural art, including nudes and madonnas.  My first recognition of a painting that was wonderful for what it was, more than for what it said, came when the Sunday School rewarded my perfect attendance with a good reproduction of Raphael’s “Madonna della Sedia” ; I was only five years old, and only knew that I looked at it differently.  On the other hand, in the balance, the image on the Sistine ceiling of God the Father about to touch fingers with Adam, even considering that it is Michelangelo, is so powerfully a spiritual statement that the persons to whom it is most important as such do not, for once, object to Adam’s being nude, and the most fervent worshipper of art expressing only itself can hardly object that the Pope got what the chapel demanded--and then some.  By the way, the dichotomy holds equally for art works promoting secular ideals: in some the promotional intent is dominant and in others the aesthetically  conveyed content of the artist’s creative effort (here the literal Greek meaning of the verb aisthanomai must be remembered, since we mean the mental consequences of sensing itself).
On the other hand, whether in the work of Gustave Moreau or that of Odilon Redon (in other words, whether explicitly illustrative or inexplicable), let alone that of Salvador Dali or Ferdinand Knopff or the Isenheim Altarpiece or Bastien-Lepage’s beloved picture of Joan of Arc hearing the angels’ voices, either remarkable taste and skill or very great art (surely in the Isenheim Altarpiece) are subordinated to personal and institutional goals.  Irrespective of the effects of visual talent or of any media and techniques, poiêsis in these is devoted to psychologies, faiths, personal fantasies that coexist with the art of painting as such.
A symbol is literally, in Greek, a token or sign of something greater.  Not only all schools of Symbolism but all Surrealism is symbolic, but so are totem poles—I suspect that most human art is fundamentally symbolic, standing for something else, way back to the “Venus” of Willendorff.
Some works, especially in European architectural sculpture of the Middle Ages, are so great that they equally and truly serve the great churches that they adorn (and inspire the faithful), yet if somehow known only out of context by persons who had no idea of what they stood for, they exist as art for art’s sake, too.  That they do can only be due to the artists' striving to make them be such as they are.  Not the whole category, but the greatest.  And similarly Bach’s B-minor Mass (not quite suitable for church use, anyway) would be no less great without a Mass.
In the mid-20th century some Marxist writers on art regarded art esteemed for its realism as characteristically bourgeois, which is obvious in the case of Netherlandish still life and landscapes with cows but becomes confusing with Davidian neo-Classical.  Obviously, too, folk art was exalted (and why not?), but much that has always been popular, such as calendar art, wasn’t considered at all.  A generation later, in the last quarter of the 20th century, the industrial and mundane content of Impressionism (Manet and train stations, for instance) and Post-Impressionism (Seurat, Pissarro and Signac) was privileged in print.  The fact is certain, but the subject matter and the pointillist interest in color theory do not make these paintings studies in either social science or physical science (the latter add nothing to Chevreul’s color theory).  Rather, like all the early Modernist movements, to break with the academy they avail themselves of whatever they are attracted to that is current (including anthropology and modern transportation and photography, which are critical to most of the primitivist impulses: lifestyle doubtless drew Gauguin to Tahiti, but most of the religious iconography in the paintings came from publications, even of Buddhist art) and also is grist for their mills.  I would assert that all the Modernist movements are essentially ‘art for art’s sake’, and they gave birth to forms of criticism to go with them.  Reduced to its simplest journalese, this criticism often made abstraction its criterion for intellectual respectability.
But there is a body of work contemporary with the Modernists that differs from it in much the same way (not to push the analogy very far, though!) as Macs differ from PCs, if you can allow that Macs are chosen for delight as much as for work (though performing most tasks more easily).  That body of work includes almost all Surrealism (remember that it was hatched by poets) and at least half of Futurism (all of di Chirico, but only part of Boccioni), and most of Russian Constructivism: both of these last movements take most of their formal principles from synthetic Cubism but put them in the service of anti-authoritarian ideas.  And, as another excellent blog has pointed out, Vassily Kandinsky’s transition to his own kind of non-objective art has its roots in his beginning in Russian Symbolism.
If I were to pursue these ideas and expand their scope, I’d have a load of work to do.  For example, I'd like to reconsider what formal choices are typical of symbolic work.  And, of course, other dichotomies are interesting to explore, provided only that they aren’t either specious or trivial.

Note: I have tried to use very well known examples, as if in a public lecture; besides, the simplest Googling will produce ample pictorial and verbal documentation.  But the statue of Air, aesthetically luxuriating in a bath of Texas sunshine in her court at the Kimbell Museum, is my own photo, and most of the others are, or may be, copyright.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

As footnote to recent post on Constructivist, etc., poster and stage art

YouTube proved to be a great resource, since optical effects and expression by abstraction continue to be  (are always) fascinating.
See especially Marcel Duchamp's famous and influential Anemic Cinema of 1926.
(Some of the comments left by viewers show much less responsiveness to this material today than when I was young—or John Cage)
This stuff (perhaps what Stalin's USSR objected most to) was both serious and fun, and by 'serious' is not meant any specific message (except in early post-Revolution Russia) beyond a cheekily anarchic stance and free association, at the same level as Duchamp's puns, such as the 'screen name' 'Rrose Sélavy (i.e., Eros, c'est la vie) and all those spiral texts: innocent youthful fun, surely.  But the free association is indeed intentional.  Richter, later, does not trust the viewer to make his own associations and so limits us by giving his own.  The same is true of most of the dissertations written on Man Ray (in my opinion).  And first hand diaries and letters make it plain that the students of the Bauhaus had a lot of fun.  Depriving art of its play is  depriving it of its soul.

Searching for these brings up also the YouTube postings for Leger's Ballet Méchanique and for the later plain OpArt that is part of the succession to Dada and Constructivism.  Notice how much of the 1920s work is a mixture of traits from all the movements current in the wake of World War I.   It is the enchanting effervescence of 1920s movements that made me admire Kentridge's work, too.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Patti Smith's National Book Award answers questions

At first I thought it might be comparable to Charis Wilson's memoir of her life with Edward Weston (itself by no means despicable)  or some account of Stieglitz and O'Keeffe (from one side or the other, both defensible) and attributed its high Amazon ratings to the fascination of Robert Mapplethorpe.  I knew nothing of Patti Smith, her rise to fame coinciding with my convent years and my knowledge of rock outside of the popular major labels being negligible: I have already reported collecting posters without knowing the bands themselves.  But her winning the National Book Award for non-fiction, 2010,, with very stiff competition, suggested something different.  And last Thursday she was across his famous table with Charlie Rose, who is never more delighted than when his guest is a truly remarkable woman.  Natalie Dessay, for example, was unforgettable.  Patti Smith, as most of you will know, is a multi-faceted artist and at least as unforgettable.
I had to read her book, and what with Kindle I had it in 30 seconds and now have read it.  Would it fill in much of what I'd missed during the 1970s and even in the late 1960s?  I had been called upon in the late 1980s to teach History of Photography (when a colleague was wooed away) and I had never had time to consider Robert Mapplethorpe apart from the photographs, biographically.  For photography after c. 1965 I had to cram every major photographer and technical change, besides continuing to teach Greek and Roman art, as well as Bronze Age Egypt and Near and Middle East.  And the Mapplethorpe photographs were not, per se, very puzzling: technically brilliant, tending to the iconic, formally timid, often sadomasochistic, occasionally better than that per se but, even before the famous terminal series of self-portraits, narcissistic.*  I didn't know that his upbringing had been Roman Catholic.  When he used Classical sculpture it was for what it stood for in his own terms, not considering (so far as I could see) either what Greek art meant or choosing the best examples.  He lacked Irving Penn's joy in the medium.  And, without objecting to sadomasochism on principle, I found his oddly academic in style; it takes a lot of joy in the medium to compensate for the plain physical pain of viewing sadomasochistic images empathetically.  I forget his name, but one of the New Orleans photographers of his generation did understand that to make art of frank sadomasochism demands, somehow, preserving their sexual humanity; iconic freezing is not the essence, usually, of art.  That portrait of Louise Bourgeois, on the other hand, is enlivened by the subject herself,.
Therefore, I had not been drawn to Patti Smith's book, knowing nothing of either her visual or performing work.  But, for once, even the Comments on the interview (on Jan 13) are relevant and fairly adequate.  I was astonished that at about 65 she sings wonderfully and her guitar, though without pretentious virtuosity, is well worth listening to for its own sake, no emphasis without meaning.  Alas, I always have trouble following all the words, and I don't know which CD to go to for the song she sang.  Her performance seemed to me to be just what she is, and I'd be grateful if someone can identify the song and tell me which album it's in.
The book really is a masterpiece.  She says what others don't.  She states everyone's problems and failings without cringing, without excusing, without blaming.  Her self-knowledge is just plain humbling.
Nothing is reduced to a formula or an 'explanation'.  She actually understands that sexuality is not a matter of labels.  No one and nothing is pigeonholed.  Well, go read it for yourselves.
But why do I like it so much?  She and Mapplethorpe, after all, are half a generation younger than me.  We saw things not only in our early 20s in a different decade but came from opposite sides of a huge continent.  That only makes the shared life of the young in love more believable and poignant.  A passing remark about the film Les Enfants terribles (based on Cocteau but not directed by him) about the fantasy life they share in it, its depiction, obviously entranced Patti Smith just as it had me, though I saw it much earlier (I think in 1953) and picked up in a secondhand store the 78rpm recording of the Bach Concerto for 4 Pianos, three sides, the fourth being the original Vivaldi for 4 Violins.  I shall always think of that film (1950) as fairly new, when she was a toddler, but Nicole Stephane's Elisabeth remained memorable for us both.  Never mind that it's as old as shellac 78rpm records.  The film stayed with me because it depicted more than I yet knew.
Spending one's youth really in urban bohemia, meaning the intensity and exhilaration of being wholly on one's own in a world one as yet hardly knows, and having the sanity to remember honestly and to make it art really is as universal as it is rare.
* I found an image, a Bronzino St. Sebastian, to support my impression that Mapplethorpe's work is fundamentally akin to some of the most egregious Florentine Mannerists.  Bravo, ArtProject!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Stage and Graphic design of the 1920s

(Just for example and copyright, too)
At one time it seemed to me that everything new and radical was happening at once in Europe (including of course the Americans who contributed to it and were in turn affected by it).  The poster art had not yet turned into social realism, ballets in Russia were not yet full of hearty girls and boys harvesting stuff, and, at home, the bottom had not yet fallen out of the stock market.  Depressions are certainly depressing.
The Metropolitan Opera (together with Lyon and, I think it was, Marseille) mounted a new production last March of the young Shostakovich's opera based on Gogol, The Nose.  No new DVD is yet available of it, though there's a good Russian CD of the opera.  But I am very eager to see more than the dozen or so snippets that YouTube provides, and I want to see what Paulo Szot does with it, too.  Most of all, though, I am interested in the re-creation (not imitation) by William Kentridge of the wonderful intersection of Dada, Suprematist, Futurist, leftover late Cubism that prevailed in what we might regard as mixed media in the late 1920s, whether in Diaghilev's ballets with modern artists (Picasso, Leger) and subjects, such as in Jeux, or in the staging of early Hindemith operas (for example, all those where Ideas strode on stage as political demonstration placards and the like—I think even Mahagonny had some such usage).

Now, in my opinion William Kentridge, who designed The Nose for the Metropolitan Opera, has a wonderful grasp and temperamental insight into this world of pre-Stalinist (but not solely Russian) graphics.  
So, great as the Mariinsky production CD is of the opera, I believe that the Dada-Suprematist treatment must be perfect for this early Shostakovich masterpiece.  Kentridge's "Anything is Possible" was broadcast a fortnight ago on public television in the USA, and at least a third of the hour is devoted to mounting the Metropolitan Opera production, bringing the poster style and every animation technology from more than a whole century now together to bear on Gogol and Shostakovich.   
Though Gogol would have to get used to even the earliest video techniques, I think that the music and libretto themselves suggest that the composer would rejoice in this production, and I can hardly wait to get a full length dvd of it (one is grateful for YouTube, but visually it is quite distressing).  Actually, on an iPad, the PBS film should look pretty good.
But I'm quite in awe of their bringing this style successfully to the huge stage of the Met!  The experimental operas of the late 1920s were in rather small venues.