Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Beginner's Goodbye: An Irresistible Treat

 The Beginner's Goodbye, a novel by Anne Tyler, has everything going for it. The plot is sufficiently quirky to grab and hold your attention, and yet entirely plausible. The characters are eccentric enough to be funny, but somehow familiar, like folks you have known. Tyler's writing style is clear and easy to read. The sentences are short and conversational because the story is written in the voice of the protagonist, Aaron. Aaron is mad at the world, and his grimly mocking point of view is the source of the book's gentle humor. The story's development reveals a level of psychological insight that makes you feel at home with a trusted friend.

Not a word is wasted; every sentence is neatly crafted to move the plot along, reveal the characters, or suggest the theme. A mere 234 pages long, it quickly comes to a satisfying resolution.

Anne Tyler, b. 1941
Author of The Beginner's Goodbye
Internet grab
One critic complained about the novel's lack of naturalism. Though it was published in 2012, there are very few references to the equipment of the digital life. And maybe, the same critic quibbled, things come out a little too neatly in the end. These complaints come from the wrong point of view. This novel must be seen as a parable about love and relationships. To bulk it up with virtual reality would dull the point. Like a parable, the novel gives you just enough detail that in the end you feel you have learned something, something subtle and valuable.

The novel is so compact that I hesitate to say more, for fear of spoiling some discovery. The premise is stated in the first sentence: “The strangest thing about my wife’s return from the dead was how other people reacted.” The matter-of-fact tone for this outlandish statement is irresistible; I had to see what the speaker meant by that.

Anne Tyler was born the same year as I was, and her career has been enviable. She has published 19 novels, of which I have read about half. The Accidental Tourist was made into a movie. Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant was very popular, and Breathing Lessons won a Pulitzer Prize in 1989. Most of the time I try to work my way through the classic novels, like a perpetual grad student. Now and then I take a break for a novel by Anne Tyler, always a treat.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

National Gallery: The Joke Is On Me

Scene from National Gallery, a documentary by Frederick Wiseman
Internet grab
From an English teacher's point of view, the documentary movie 'National Gallery' is a disaster. It needs to be reduced from three hours to one; it needs to be reorganized; it needs a catchier opening; it needs a certain amount of narration to bring home the main points; it desperately needs identifying labels on the many beautiful paintings.

From an art lover's point of view, 'National Gallery' is a huge disappointment. The National Gallery in London is one of the greatest museums of art in the western world. Silly me, I assumed a documentary about the museum would be mainly about its art. Not at all. The movie is about the role of the museum in British society, and in particular how it relates to the economy. Instead of art, we have lots of photos of people looking at art, or waiting in line to look at art, or sleeping on a padded bench instead of looking at art. Instead of art, we have photos of Trafalgar Square, the site of the museum, at every time of day and various public events; instead of art, we have a Greenpeace demonstration; instead of art, we have several board meetings that reminded me of what I hated about my job; we have images of blind people feeling specially tactile versions of famous paintings; we have a guy waxing the floor at the museum; we have a craftsman chiseling a new frame. Every aspect of museum life is covered. Discussions of actual paintings, their meaning and their techniques, occupied a total of 30 minutes out of three hours. Uff, what a blow to an art lover.

The fact that my criticism was so comprehensive clued me that I might be missing something, I might be measuring by the wrong standards. So I belatedly consulted the review in the New York TimesNational Gallery, New York Times review.

Sure enough. According to the Times review, Frederick Wiseman, who directed and edited the movie, has invented his own style of documentaries. "As is customary for a Wiseman documentary, “National Gallery” lacks voice-over, talking-head interviews or explanatory text, including identifiers. Mr. Wiseman tends to make you work more than documentarians who spell everything out, which is a problem only if you demand that images reveal themselves completely in the moment you first see them. " It turns out that instead of explaining straight out what he means, Wiseman "builds meaning, scene by scene, creating complexity and building density associatively, so that sound and image become motifs." This is an immersive style of storytelling that requires the viewer to make his own interpretation of the filmmaker's intention.

So the joke in on me. In the first place, I must remember to read the review before I see the movie. If I'd known that the movie was not about art, I wouldn't have been so disappointed. In the second place, here is a whole new style of documentary that I was unaware of.

I got value out of the movie. I learned stuff. I was sufficiently entertained to sit there for three hours, though I did have to phase out now and then, as I used to at department meetings. I really liked hearing all those English intellectuals with their strange voices, though I was surprised by how much time and effort they put into stating fairly obvious things. When the movie was over, my husband and I discussed Wiseman's main points, drawing out his unstated conclusions, just as we were meant to do.

But, personally, I could have a lot of fun editing this incoherent mess into a snappy, A+ documentary.

Friday, December 19, 2014

'Player Piano' Could be a Very Funny Movie

1885 Player Piano
Internet Grab
Kurt Vonnegut's novel Player Piano could be made into a very comical movie.

You know how a player piano works? The notes to a song are coded into a punched tape that operates the keyboard, thus creating music, of a sort, without a pianist.

The premise of this novel is that almost every job has been replicated by a punched tape that operates an elaborate mechanical contraption. Vonnegut didn't know a lot about science or technology, but he extrapolated from the player piano, plus electricity, vacuum tubes, and a few other technologies common in the 1950s, to imagine a world in which there is nothing much for human beings to do.

The author had great fun imagining how different automated systems might work, and a set designer or an animator would have great fun trying to replicate the machines, systems, and environments that he describes. In a word, they are all clunky when compared to modern technologies—complicated and rigid, and rather endearing,  like a player piano.

The novel is organized around one serious plot, exploring philosophical themes, and a comical subplot, for the sake of satirical comment. The rather transparent premise of the subplot is that a spiritual leader of a major Asian country, the Shah of Bratpuhr, is touring the highly automated United States as a potential customer for American technologies. The Shah's nephew, Khashdrahr Miasma (Cash Drawer Miasma?) serves as his interpreter. Here's how Vonnegut describes the Shah: “wizened and wise and dark as cocoa, encrusted with gold brocade and constellations of twinkling gems.” For total contrast, Vonnegut presents Khashdrahr as “nervous, grinning, young, and forever apologetic for his own lack of éclat or power.” Can't you just see these two guys on a movie screen?

From the point of view of the Shah and his nephew, every aspect of American life is baffling and bizarre, filling this subplot with satire and sarcasm. One stop on their tour is Carlsbad Caverns, which is the home of a vast computer, described by the author as a “subterranean jungle of steel, wire, and glass that filled the chamber in which they stood, and thirty larger ones beyond.” Vonnegut's primitive vision of the progress of computer technology is inadvertently comical, but the Shah's reaction to this machine is broadly sarcastic. Khashdrahr explains that “people in his land sleep with smart women and make good brains cheap. Save enough wire to go to moon a thousand times.”

Even the main plot has a way of dissolving into a humorous scene. The protagonist, Paul, has been expecting a big promotion. The division manager who tells him he got the job, spends the whole interview cleaning a rifle, and pretending to shoot phantom birds in his den, and at the end he takes Paul back into his living room where they join their wives to enjoy a recording of a rousing march called "Stout Hearted Men." An actor like John Goodman could have a lot of fun with this caricature, especially if playing off some nebbishy actor like William H. Macy as Paul.

One long section is a cheeky portrayal of the hollowness of organized recreation. Anyone who's ever been on a company morale-building outing will alternately wince and laugh at the rules for getting to know one another, the team sports, and the skits extolling the group's value system. Vonnegut exaggerates the company retreat into a surreal comedy.

Despite it's antiquated feel, all of this satire, irony, and hilarity is in service of a theme that is very relevant to contemporary life: what is the value of labor? What are humans for? Do humans have any value other than as workers? What do time-saving devices save time for? How does a person shape his life without a job? These issues are much more relevant now than when Vonnegut imagined this problem. With the advent of computerization, more and more jobs are actually being eliminated. Just the other day, an article in the New York Times noted that the number of men in the work force has gone down significantly, and questioned what are these guys doing with their lives. And the next day, there was an article about the reduced number of women who are working, and how they were shaping their lives. At an even more basic level, the question is, should we just follow every technology wherever it takes us? Or should managers and decision-makers spare a thought for human needs and values when they plan the uses of new technologies?

The theme is reinforced by a host of minor characters: a guy who can fix anything, a guy who makes a living by betting on a TV show about music, a guy who is gaga over different uniforms, a frustrated laborer who has an extra-marital relationship, and his defeated wife who forgives him; a stay-at-home mom who is glad her dishwasher broke down because it gives her something to do; a real estate salesman who tries hard not to sell an old-fashioned farm that has been on the market for a long time.

Surprisingly, mixed in with all this humor and philosophizing are several scenes with penetrating character analysis. For instance, Paul feels guilty about his position as a manager in an automated society because so many people feel left out, useless, and under-valued. But when he tries to show his wife, Anita, the problem that is bothering him, she takes the point personally, being somewhat self-conscious about her own background, and they get into a big row. Later, after Paul has inadvertently become the leader of a rebellion against the system, he is captured and put on trial. He takes the opportunity to speak eloquently for the value of human labor, but a lie detector and a skillful questioner, reveal that the real motive behind his fervor is hatred of his own father, who was considered the founder of the automated system. It's amazing that Vonnegut would throw this bit of Freudian analysis into the midst of a defense of human values.

I found it challenging to rock back and forth between broad humor and penetrating character analysis.  Good acting and directing could portray this change of tone.

The theme of this book is so important that it could be required reading for an MBA program: not just how to manage the economic engine, but how to put human values above the self-enhancing values of science and technology. If you could put it on the screen, making a joke of the clunky machines and bringing out the pathos of the quirky characters, Player Piano could be a very relevant, and very funny, movie.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Die Meistersinger: A Musical Lecture

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is a hard sell. There's no way I'm ever going to make you wish you had been with me at the 'Met Live in HD' performance at our local theater recently. All I can do is explain why it held my interest from one word to the next, from one note to the next, almost every moment.

The hardest aspect for me to get around concerns the HD broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera house in New York: the amount of light adequate for the stage presentation is not adequate for the video cameras. As a result, all the costumes appear to be some shade of gray, especially for the long night scene. I found myself starving for color.  I thought at first that the costume designer was on some crazy modernist tangent, but the still photos of the opera I found online seem to show warm, natural colors, so we have to blame a technological weakness of the HD broadcast medium.

The next most serious problem was that the tenor is comically obese. The tenor is supposed to be a dashing knight who can win the heart of a woman merely by ogling her in church, and who can win an elite singing and poetry contest without any training or practice. Johan Botha, the tenor who sings the role, is so fat that his jowls jiggle distractingly.

Johan Botha as a singing knight in Die Meistersinger
My shot from the movie screen of the curtain call.

On the right, Botha as the knight and  Annette Dasch as the fair maiden, Magdalene;
On the Left, Karen Cargill as Magdalene's attendant and Paul Appleby,
as the apprentice shoemaker; in the center, Martin Gantner as the town baker
and chairman of the singers' guild. Internet grab.
Opera singers tend to be overweight; most of the cast could stand to lose a little weight, but you accept the singer on the far right as a beautiful maiden, and even her attendant on the far left manages to be coquettish, but Botha is so heavy that he has lost mobility, especially in his face. No matter how hard he tries to project emotion, he always wears the same eager, fatuous grin. I'm sorry, but that's a problem.

And how does Botha keep his place in one of the most demanding opera companies in the world? He has a damn good tenor voice. In the finale, when he performs the winning song, it is truly a winner; you seriously believe that he could win any singing contest. But the heart of a beautiful maiden?

Next comes the plot, which is as familiar as the plot of a teen movie: it is merely a singing contest, with the hand of a beautiful maiden (and all the worldly goods of her father) as the prize. Not surprisingly, the dark horse contestant (Botha) is from out of town, and he has new ideas about singing and poetry, ideas that are rubbished by the committee of judges. After a crash course, he sings with such passion and verve that he wins everyone over and gets the girl. Ho hum. There is no suspense or surprise to draw us along.

While the plot is familiar, the music is so fresh and innovative that it's a little disorienting. Most of the time, the singers seem to be talking; they exchange a few lines at a time as if in conversation. The characters spend much of their time explaining things or arguing, instead of expressing their emotions. I was quite involved with what they were saying, and the poetic way they were saying it. The music seemed entirely subordinate to the the words and ideas. By the way, Wagner wrote both together, just like the contestants in the story.

With ideas dominating, the music flows on and on, like a river. There are no songs with beginnings and ends. There are no detachable melodies. The music is very melodic, but for much of the opera, it is one long continuous melody. It takes you into a sort of dream state, like Indian raga music. Musical figures or themes appear and disappear, and blend together. It's as though beneath life's conflicts and confusion, there is always a stream of beautiful music. Lucky Wagner.

The most amazing thing about this opera is that it's subject is the theory of composition: How to compose a song; what makes a good song; the relationship of convention to innovation; the role of the critic; the experience of the composer. Wagner is stunningly systematic. He starts out by comparing composition to the craft of shoemaking. The delightful concept behind the plot is a village where the craftsmen are also poets who sing the songs they write; in the mid-1500s the town of Nürnberg actually had a guild of craftsmen who were singers. So Wagner starts out by looking at musical composition as a craft. Next he takes up the question of who gets to be the ultimate judge of quality. Should it be fellow performers, like the Academy Awards? Or should it be "the people," like a popularity contest? Next question: does a performer need a teacher or can he get his inspiration from life experience?

An excellent comedy sub-plot is built around the process of judging a song. When the knight first tries out for the singing contest, his performance is "marked" harshly according to some obscure set of rules by the town clerk, who is an expert judge, as well as the knight's potential rival. The clerk even stops the performance, and the knight must assert himself over a hubbub to deliver the final verse. Later when the clerk attempts to serenade the fair young maiden the night before the contest, the cobbler drowns out his efforts with a rain of hammer blows on the sole of a shoe he is making, getting revenge on the pompous ass. In the contest itself, the clerk is tricked into singing a song written by someone else, a song he doesn't understand, and he makes a hilarious mess of it. The baritone Johannes Martin Kranzle does a great job on this tricky role.

Since the story is about how to write a song, it's true hero is the town's music teacher. Based on a real-life shoemaker-poet who also wrote music and plays, the character of Hans Sachs is one of the most complex and fully developed parts in any opera. Sachs has been the custodian of the guild's high standards for many years, yet he is open to innovation. He can be spiteful, as when he wrecks the clerk's serenade; he can be open-minded, as when he listens sincerely to the knight's first song at the try-outs. He has tender feelings for the fair young maiden, but he is realistic enough to know that he is too old for her, and noble enough to promote her romance with the knight of her dreams. In the third act he has a pensive solo about man's foolishness, yet he rises out of this depression to make everything come out right for the lovers and for his village. Fortunately, Michael Volle was magnetic in the role. His stage presence was vital and confident, and his bass-baritone voice ranged from powerful and authoritative to mellifluous and shaded. He made the 'teacher as hero' very believable.

Michael Volle as Hans Sach, the shoemaker and music master;
Annette Dasch as Eva, the fair maiden.
Internet grab.
Wagner's creativity was comprehensive. The lyrics sung by the contestants are beautiful nature poetry, quite typical of German literature in the mid-19th century when he wrote it. In addition to poetry, the opera has a pretty romance, a lecture on composition theory, comic scenes of great hilarity, a soul-searching solo, pageantry and songs for a huge chorus, and spiteful satire targeting Wagner's own critics. It's no wonder it took him four and a half hours to say it all (he could have been a teensy bit more concise in a few places); with two 45-minute intermissions, the entire performance clocked in at six hours. It was a challenge: viewers really needed to get a bite to eat and walk around a bit while the complicated sets are being changed out. But it's not as hard as you would imagine. It's kind of swell to be in Wagner's world, hypnotically musical. I was in no hurry to leave.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

George Gently: Character Development

A wave of disappointment swept over me when I realized I had finished George Gently, a British detective series I had been watching straight through from the beginning on Netflix. For several weeks, the cases of Chief Detective Inspector George Gently and Sergeant John Bacchus were a regular part of my life and gave me a lot to think about. The show ran for six seasons, with two to five 90-minute shows per season.

What sets this series apart is that the theme of character development is established in the first episode and continued in a subtle way throughout. The Chief Inspector is into righteousness: policemen must follow the law while investigating crime, and endeavor to be courteous and respectful as well. The Sergeant is the classic "callow youth." He's a smart aleck. He jumps to conclusions. He resorts to trickery and violence to get the bad guys, assuming he knows who the bad guys are. He indulges every sort of prejudice. In the first episode, Gently takes it on himself to teach Bacchus how to be a good copper, and a good man. For instance, one crime involves some gay men: Gently is tolerant and open-minded; Bacchus is scornful and spiteful. In the course of solving the case, their views are tested, and the callow youth gets his comeuppance. He matures, a rare thing to observe both in fiction and in real life.

All this requires terrific acting, and no one is more convincing than Lee Ingleby as Sergeant Bacchus. A slender man, with a sunken chest and an eager gait, Ingleby is well-cast in the role of reluctant student. His expressive face plays out the theme of each show, as he makes the transition from callowness to enhanced understanding, from lazy copper to passionate truth seeker. Martin Shaw has the assets of a gruff voice and martial bearing to help him convey the attitude of righteousness. His role is easier because it is consistent, but in every show the Chief Inspector's loyalty to his principles is tested, and he has to show ability to control his emotions and impulses, with an older man's stiff, pouchy face. These guys are so good I can hardly believe they are actors with personalities of their own.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

1st Night: Così Fan Tutte with Sizzle

Scene from 1st Night
grabbed from The New York Times
Who knew there was a genre of opera movies set on grand British estates? After I happened across Quartet on Netflix, the service suggested 1st Night, another movie about romance among opera singers who are preparing for a performance on a lavish estate; its spacious grounds include a charming forest, just perfect for secret rendezvous.

This movie came out in 2013, and American critics panned it. In fact, they were quite condescending about how insipid and unrealistic it is. I think they missed the point. The issue is spelled out in a bar scene in the movie. A youthful director explains that he wants to mount a production of Mozart's ever-popular comic opera Così Fan Tutte that is meaningful, that shows how the emotions of the lovers are universal and how the play is relevant to modern life. A more experienced tenor says no, this opera is all about style, not substance—and he's right. Così was Mozart's idea of a delightful confection, not written to bring insight or emotional release, but to create an excuse for great singers to deliver bright and pleasant music. So, in order to enjoy this movie, you first have to be able to accept the idea of romantic farce, and not expect too much.

Secondly, you need to like music. What got my attention was the quality of the voices, along with the quality of lip-synching. You may never have heard of Richard E. Grant (who plays a wealthy British industrialist and frustrated opera singer) or Julian Ovenden (who plays an aspiring opera singer who has a way with women), but if you watch much British TV, you'll recognize their faces. You know they are not really singers, but they, and the other actors, belt out the songs in such a convincing manner that the music takes on new life. Full disclosure: I've never liked this opera—it's frivolous and stylized—but the movie made me realize what wonderful and joyous music it presents. It made me realize I was taking the opera too seriously. The story is just an excuse to show off beautiful singing, and the intention of the movie is to refresh your enjoyment of music you may already know well. The only thing that disappointed me was that the unseen singers were not given more recognition; their names don't appear until far into the credits, and their faces are not shown at all. It was their recorded performances that really made this movie attractive, as well as rich and lively orchestral music.

The problem with opera is that it is static. Whether sumptuous or spare, the sets are clunky and confining. Modern opera singers are skillful actors, but they are principally concerned with the technical difficulties of rendering the music, and they have a tendency to stand in a line across the stage like kids at a recital. Any movie director who loves opera is bound to think, "If only I could inject space, movement, and emotion" into their favorite opera.

In 1st Night, Mozart's music is enhanced by being staged in a real garden, a real wood, a real ballroom. Since the actors don't have to worry about their voices, they move around in their environments, and actors are better at acting that even the best singers. They are able to portray what singers can only express.

Which brings us to Sarah Brightman. I hate to admit I've been living under a rock, but I didn't know about this multi-faceted entertainer and have never seen one of her shows. In this movie, she is absolutely convincing as the opera's music conductor; her only singing is with a chorus she is supposed to be directing during the set up scenes, but it is quite beautiful. Her acting is energetic and sexy, but not over the top.

The music of Così is refreshed by being remixed to fit a new plot, one that mirrors the opera in some ways. For instance, a fight between lovers in the movie precedes the rehearsal of an angry duet in the opera; a chase scene in the woods reflects the energy of a vigorous orchestral interlude.

I listened to this whole movie twice because the music is so beautiful, but it took a sumptuous production, a lively script, subtle direction, and convincing acting to make me realize just how beautiful it is. The director (and writer) who loves opera resoundingly is Christopher Menaul. I wish I could thank him for this little gift of Mozart.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Quartet: Fantasy without Special Effects

Imagine this, if you can: A retirement home set in spacious, green grounds with magnificent old trees. A retirement home where the residents—former professional musicians—are all intelligent, talented, and eager to sing and dance, despite their infirmities. A home where the staff is small, but caring and dedicated. Imagine a retirement home full of music, as groups rehearse and individuals practice, where lessons and lectures are given to youthful visitors. Now imagine all these wrinkled old has-been performers with their shaky voices and their stiff fingers contriving to put on a gala benefit performance, with all the conflicts and angst of their careers arising again. Okay, now, if you've watched a lot of British mysteries, you might be able to conjure up a highly reserved romance among the aged set. All this is major fantasy, irresistible fantasy to a certain age group, and it is realized without the benefit of any special effects in a movie called Quartet, that I happened to notice on Netflix.

You have to wonder how a movie like this gets made; who finances it? Do they make a profit? It has none of the features that are supposed to be required to make movies attractive—sex, violence, glamour, etc.—except one really big star, Maggie Smith. And did you ever hear of this movie? Maybe I missed it, but I don't think it was promoted in this country. This shows the power of the niche audience, which shouldn't be overlooked when you consider what kind of movie can turn a profit.

Quartet is based on a play by Ronald Harwood that was performed on the London stage in 1999, and the movie came out in 2012. It was Dustin Hoffman's first film as director. To his credit, the movie does not look like a play, though it could easily have been stagey. Financing was British, with help from BBC films. In Britain, the other stars are big names: Michael Gambon, Tom Courtney,  Billy Connelly. The supporting cast is made up of actual retired singers and musicians with fascinating faces.

The problem with this movie is that it is predictable, formulaic. A formulaic fantasy is going to seem lame for the wider audience, but consider this, doesn't every age group have its fantasy movies? To an oldie like me, the formulas for kids' movies are really lame and obvious, as are the formulas for teen movies, and for most of the major market movies.

The question is, how well do they work the formula? The answer is that for a certain large niche, this movie is completely engaging, and very satisfying as escapism. The characters have charming eccentricities and the acting is flawless. Almost all screen time is given to conversation, interaction, and revealing behavior. Very little time is given to the mechanics of reality: getting food on the table, getting pianos tuned, dealing with illness. People are always talking or making music. Leave the nitty-gritty of the aging process, familiar enough, to serious, edgy, innovative films. This is a sweet little piece of enchantment for those who have a lot to forget.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Interstellar: Special Effects Extravaganza

Scene from Interstellar
Internet grab

I wish I could say that I was thrilled by the onslaught of special effects in Interstellar, a hit movie currently showing in local theaters. About 70% of screen time is occupied by displays of technical wizardry: giant winds, giant waves, space travel, space docking, transit through a worm-hole, hitching a ride around the rim of a black hole, withdrawing into a cryogenic chamber and being awakened from same—one spectacle after another. Of the scenes of human interaction, about 20% are pseudo-scientific plot exposition, and about 10% are pseudo-philosophical or pseudo-religious argument. Well, there are a few meaningful emotional scenes thrown in, complete with big music and famous poetry, so you don't miss the point. It wasn't long before I was so detached that I could make analyses such as these.

That doesn't mean Interstellar is a bad movie. What it means is that it is not my kind of movie, and you might say I'm not even qualified to comment on it. I mean, there are a lot of movies like this, aren't there? I'm sure there must be an audience who gets all excited about comparing special effects in various science fiction movies. There are no doubt people who are thrilled by the roaring sounds of passing through a wormhole, roaring that vibrates through your body like the shudder of a spacecraft buffeted by implacable forces.

I thought I would love any movie starring Mathew McConahey—I really liked some of his previous characters—but he seems miscast to me. His taut, tiger-like style of acting doesn't convey the idea of a bold adventurer, and his guttural speech frequently gets lost in the roaring sound track. Well, yes, he is handsome, but he isn't quite convincing. Does it matter? No. He is sort of a place-holder, a big name to attract an audience. I mean, he only has lines for possibly 20 minutes in almost 3 hours, so the subtleties of his acting are not really critical to the success of the film. There are lots of other big names also: Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, Matt Damon, etc. It's a Hollywood trick: bring out the stars to attract a big audience to a big-budget film. But it hardly matters who plays what role because the dialog is just a set-up for the next special effects demonstration.

The plot of Interstellar is mush, but you have to give the writers credit for making the themes clear. The basic conflict is about whether to try to save the entire human race from extinction or to attempt the rescue of one's own family. Science fiction doesn't mess around with any mundane issues, only problems of cosmic proportions. There is a subordinate theme about the power of love, which I believe was the one power stronger that gravity, but I might have that wrong. It was very cute the way the movie starts with documentary video running at the hero's home after it had been turned into a memorial site, and ended with him touring this memorial as a time traveler after his harrowing adventures on other planets. And it was terribly literary the way they kept quoting from Dylan Thomas' famous poem, "Do not go gentle into that good night." It would be rude and irrelevant to point out that the quoting showed little understanding of the poem, which is quite a bit more interesting than the movie, to a person like me. (You might try reading it. In fact, you can download a free recording of Dylan Thomas reading the poem aloud, if you want some genuine entertainment.)

If I ever had any youthful readers, I'm sure I've lost them now. I wish I could have written a rave review, but what's the fun in faking it. I wandered into the wrong movie; now I know about that.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Barber of Seville: Tricks and Games To Sing About

In the center is Doctor Bartolo and his ward, Rosina, whom he hopes to marry.
At the harpsichord on the left is Count Almaviva, disguised as a music teacher.
On the right, dressed in barber-pole stripes, is Figaro, the Barber of Seville.
This photo is an internet grab.
What's to like about Rossini's comic opera, Il Barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville), as performed by the Metropolitan Opera in New York on November 22, and broadcast Live in HD at our local theater?

The soprano at the center of the action, Isabel Leonard, is strikingly beautiful, slim and feisty—well worth fighting for. And her voice is a wonder; she executes her role's dazzling runs and ornaments precisely while seeming as relaxed as if she were in her own home. Her character, Rosina, has been forced to learn duplicity because she is the ward, and reluctant love object, of a despotic 'doctor'; on the surface she is demure, but she declares herself ready to play any trick to get her way, and proves it in the course of the action.

The character of the barber, Figaro, is a marvelous invention. The idea is that as an itinerant barber, pulling his shop around town on a wagon, he has developed a secondary career as a "factotem,"  or handyman of the city, meaning that he delivers messages, arranges meetings, and facilitates affairs, for a price. He presents himself as supremely successful and self-confident in his famous opening aria, which is a rhythmic, tongue-twisting patter., and he proclaims himself an expert at trickery. Christopher Maltman, who sang the role, was genuinely charismatic, and his voice was rich and joyful.

But the story is not about Figaro; it's about the romance between the lovely Rosina and Count Almaviva, which is complicated by the fact the Count doesn't want his aristocratic station known, and frustrated by the fact that Bartolo keeps his ward confined to the house. The Count hires Figaro to facilitate their meetings.

Doctor Bartolo has his own facilitator, in the character of Don Basilio, Rosina's music teacher. He sings an aria that is an amazing analysis of the way rumor, scandal, and innuendo can ruin an innocent man's reputation; this could stand alone as a warning about power and politics.

In fact, several of the opera's best "songs" have only indirect bearing on the romantic story. For instance, in order to gain access to Rosina, Count Almaviva disguises himself as a drunken soldier. He causes a whole lot of chaos in the doctor's household, which brings the Night Watch in to restore order. When they go to arrest the soldier, he reveals his true identity, and they release him immediately. Except for Figaro, everyone on stage, which is quite a large group by now, is shocked, and they sing a sort of round about being immobilized by surprise; the whole group claims their heads are banging like anvils, in music that recreates that ear-ringing sensation.

What's not to like about The Barber of Seville?

The tenor who played Count Almaviva, Lawrence Brownlee, is an expert in frilly, 'coloratura' singing, and when he gets the chance to belt out an aria, he puts his all into it. However, he was working under the twin disadvantages of being black and being short. This is the first time I've ever seen a black singer in a lead role; that was refreshing, and I quickly accepted it. But the fact that he had to look up at his fair maiden, and she had to look down adoringly at him, never felt right to me, and Brownlee seemed to be straining to hide his embarrassment. His disguises made him look smaller, and he had a hard time projecting witty dialog.

One of the characters has a non-singing role that is supposed to add a bit of comic business to almost every scene: Ambrogio, Doctor Bartolo's butler, spends most of his time sleeping ostentatiously, waking only rarely to carry out orders. I don't know whether this is tradition or the interpretation of the current director, Bartlett Sher, but the effect of seeing a character in grotesquely drooping postures is to bring down the energy of what is supposed to be a zany farce.

In general there was too much comic "business" going on—gestures and winks and such; it was a three-ring circus in which everyone was hamming it up at the same time.

Likewise the staging wasn't helpful. An innovation was a walkway around the orchestra pit that served as a fore-stage, occasionally putting the singers very close to the first row, but its narrowness worried both the singers and the audience. And the way the director used this innovation didn't especially enhance the plot or the mood. In general, the staging was stiff. When a big group sang together, they made no pretense at a natural arrangement; they just lined up in a row and sang.

The middle seemed muddled. The first few scenes of the two-act opera were show-stoppers, ringing and clear; the set-up for the story is engaging. The opening scenes of the second act—when the conflict and deceit play out in witty dialogs—felt a little flat and confusing to me. It's hard to know whether the fault was in the performance, the story, or my unsophisticated listening. When romance finally triumphed, the cast pulled off a rousing finale, and left us feeling satisfied.

Do these flaws matter? Not so much. This opera has been popular for 200 years; it's good to share this piece of musical history. The plot is light-hearted fun, showing a pompous ass being outwitted by youthful romance. Composed to show off beautiful voices and florid singing, the score flows like the laughter at a good party. This is big-time entertainment. At a small-time price, at local theaters. My favorite way to spend a Saturday morning.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Art in California: The Crocker Collection

As the coolest state, California has the coolest art. Many of America's most famous artists are from California, because this is where the future is happening.

The way art in California developed from Gold Rush days to the present is a fascinating story. The early artists came from Europe and applied European styles to Western subjects. But they also established art schools here, and their students began to paint like Californians. For a long time, the state itself—it's scenery and typical activities—was the main subject of painting, but by the middle of the 20th century, artists were applying the California attitude to a wide range of subjects and ideas. The California attitude is experimental, inclusive, and exuberant, and that shows in the state's vibrant art trends.

The Crocker Museum of Art in Sacramento has a very large collection of works by California artists, representing all the major periods and most of the important artists in the state's history, especially for Northern California. Considered in order, the collection presents a survey of how art developed in this state.

Gold Rush Days

Charles Christian Nahl (1818-1878)
California's first significant artist was Charles Christian Nahl, a native of Germany, where he attended the art academy in his hometown.  In 1846, when he was 28, he and fellow artist Frederick Wenderoth moved to Paris. There he continued his studies, and exhibited in the prestigious Paris Salon. In 1849, Nahl, with his family, and their friend, August Wenderoth, sailed for New York and settled in Brooklyn. Lured by the prospect of gold, the group left for California in 1851. After failing to strike it rich, Nahl returned to making art. He and Wenderoth established a studio in San Francisco in 1851, and became part of the core art community there. The Crocker has a dozen or more of his works; the Crocker family commissioned five major works in the 1860s and 1870s. The art museums in Oakland and San Francisco also have important examples of his work.

Nahl painted wall-filling canvases, usually with figures and an implied narrative. Some of them are very attractive, but sometimes his style is comically theatrical and obvious. It is worth noting that similarly over-the-top narrative paintings were popular in Germany and Russia in the 19th century.

Charles Christian Nahl, 1818-1878
The Love Chase, 1869
Charles Christian Nahl, 1818-1878
The Indian Camp, 1874

William Hahn (1829-1887)
Another German immigrant to become popular for California subjects was William Hahn. He was already a versatile and successful painter of the "Düsseldorf" style when he met California artist William Keith, who was visiting Germany with his wife. On the eve of the Franco-Prussian War, he accompanied the Keiths to the U.S. In 1872, the two artists set up a studio in San Francisco.

Hahn spent his first 6 months documenting this street scene, which made his career when it was purchased by Judge Edwin Crocker, who was building an art collection in Sacramento. Although it is a beautifully detailed document of the period, it is a large canvas and it is difficult to photograph because of the deep shadow around the cart being loaded on the left.

William Hahn, 1829-1887
Market Scene, Sansome Street, San Francisco, 1872
For the next decade, Hahn became known for such genre scenes, and he was an active participant in the San Francisco art community. In 1882, at the age of 53, he got married and returned to Europe with his wife, artist Adelaide Rising. The couple traveled extensively in Europe with the plan to return to California, but he died unexpectedly in 1887, at the age of 58. Adelaide Rising relocated to Oakland and resumed her painting career.

Thomas Hill (1829-1908)
Thomas Hill was born in England but he emigrated to the U.S. with his family at the age of 15, and received his art training at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. He was loosely associated with the Hudson River School, though he was a generation younger. The Hudson River School of painting tended toward grand scale landscapes with exquisite lighting effects and spiritual overtones. It may be fairly said that Hill brought that style to the Yosemite Valley, his signature subject.

Hill had financial problems and ill health when he brought his large family to San Francisco in 1861 (Wikipedia cites the date as 1856, but other sites agree on 1861, when he was age 32, which is more consistent with his life story). He established himself as an artist but his career didn't really take off until he discovered the Yosemite Valley; sources disagree, but the Crocker Museum asserts that his first sketching trip to Yosemite was in 1865, in the company of photographer Carleton Watkins and another painter, Virgil Williams. In any case, he exhibited Sugar Loaf Peak, El Dorado County in San Francisco that same year, and it was the first major work that Edwin and Margaret Crocker purchased from a contemporary Californian artist.

Thomas Hill, 1829-1908
Sugar Loaf Peak, El Dorado County, 1865
Within a year, Hill was secure enough financially to travel to the East Coast and study in Europe for 6 months. When he returned to the U.S, he divided his time between the East and West coasts for a few years before settling in San Francisco in 1871.  By the mid-1870s, he was well established in regional and national art circles, exhibiting his landscapes at venues on both coasts and selling them to affluent California collectors. He painted Yosemite over 5,000 times, but he was also was well known for paintings of  the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and landscapes of Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, Yellowstone National Park, and the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Edwin Deakin (1838-1923)
Although he was largely self-taught, except for a stint of decorating furniture, Edwin Deakin had a magical way with an academic type of detailed realism. He occasionally strayed into sentimentality, but some of his paintings are irresistible.

At the time he emigrated to the U.S. in 1856, he was already a notable landscape artist in his native England, though he was only 18. His family settled in Chicago, where his father opened a hardware store and Deakin began work as a portrait and landscape painter. After the family business and most of his art were destroyed by the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, Deakin moved to San Francisco and opened a studio. He was an active part of the art community and his work soon became popular. He traveled extensively in the U.S. and Europe looking for romantic subjects. In 1890 he settled in Berkeley, building a home and studio there. Though he was highly successful, he is now considered a minor artist, known mainly for his many paintings of the California missions.

As a painter Deakin had an incredible range. Although the style is traditional, this floral still life is wonderfully vibrant.
Edwin Deakin, 1838-1923
Roses, 1912
It's hard to believe this earthy, atmospheric landscape could be by the same painter.

Edwin Deakin, 1838-1923
Cattle Drive near the Mission, 1876

Many of Deakin's works illustrate works of literature, such as the scene below. You don't need to know the story to see a lonely old man taking solace in a venerable building.

Edwin Deakin, 1838-1923
She Will Come Tomorrow, 1888
I haven't found any explanation for the Crocker's large collection of Deakin's work, other than the fact that Deakin was very prolific and very popular. The reason I am including so many examples is that I can't get enough of his work. I meant to move on to the next artist, but the delicate light in this woodland clearing is so delightful.

Edwin Deakin, 1838-1923
Strawberry Creek, 1893
In this painting of the Palace of Fine Arts when it was new, Deakin's style connects San Francisco with Greek and Roman culture.

Edwin Deakin, 1838-1923
Palace of Fine Arts and the Lagoon, c. 1915
Here's another view of the palace by an artist of the next generation; it is more trendy and atmospheric.

Colin Campbell Cooper, 1856-1937
Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco, 1916

Turn of the Century

California School of Design
In 1871, Charles Christian Nahl, Thomas Hill, and a couple dozen other artists formed the San Francisco Art Association for the purpose of promoting art and art education. That organization founded the California School of Design in 1873, making it the first significant art school in California. It welcomed both women and men as both students and faculty; out of sixty students in the first class of the School of Design, forty-six were women. Arthur Mathews was its director from 1890 to 1906.

The school has been through many transformations and several name changes. Many of the California artists at the Crocker received some training here, but their biographies may name various art schools that are later incarnations of the California School of Design.

Mark Hopkins Institute: In 1893 the Mark Hopkins mansion was donated to the school, and it became known as the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art, until it was burned down by the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906.

San Francisco Institute of Art: A new building was erected on the same site, and the school was renamed San Francisco Institute of Art.

California School of Fine Arts: In 1916 the Institute was renamed the California School of Fine Arts. In 1926 it moved to its current location at 800 Chestnut Street.

San Francisco Art Institute:  In 1961 the school was renamed the San Francisco Art Institute. It is considered one of the most prestigious colleges of art in the United States.

Theodore Wores (1859-1939)
The first major artist to be born in San Francisco was Theodore Wores; his parents were immigrants from Hungary. When the California School of Design opened in 1874, Wores was one of its first students. After a year he moved to Munich, where he spent six years studying under Frank Duveneck, a successful American painter. Later he set up a studio near Chinatown in San Francisco and began specializing in genre scenes of the area. In the mid-1880s he spent 3 years in Japan, and his paintings of Japanese subjects were well-received. This example is from his second trip, in 1892.

Theodore Wores, 1859-1939
The Iris Flowers of Hori Kiri, Tokio, c. 1893

Arthur Mathews (1860-1945)
One of the earliest artist/educators in California was Arthur Mathews. He was born in Wisconsin, but his architect father moved the family to the East Bay when he was six. He studied painting at the California School of Design, but he augmented that with 4 years of study in Paris, at the Académie Julian. When Matthews returned in 1889, he began teaching at the California School of Design. He became its director the next year and continued until 1906. In 1894 he married one of his students, Lucia Kleinhaus. In the late 1890s they lived in Paris, enabling Lucia to study under American artist James McNeill Whistler.

When they returned to California, the pair developed a unified approach to painting, mural decorations, the graphic arts, and the design of frames, furniture and decorative objects. For more than two decades they were the most influential artists in Northern California. Arthur Mathews' students included Granville Redmond, Armin Hansen, and Maynard Dixon. Works by both Arthur and Lucia are shown by all the big California art museums, as well as major national museums.

Below is a 8-foot wide mural by Arthur Mathews that is hard to like and was even harder to photograph in the museum's dim lighting. The muted colors are a style called Tonalism, showing Whistler's influence; this style makes it difficult to distinguish the figures and determine their role in the story. The subject is Saint Francis, here dressed as a padre, gazing toward what would one day be the city of San Francisco; I take it that the white-robed female is a sort of Victory figure.

Arthur Mathews, 1860-1945
Vision of Saint Francis, 1911
Granville Redmond (1871-1935)
One of Arthur Mathews students was Granville Redmond, who was born in Philadelphia, but raised in San Jose, California. Like many other students at the California School of Design, he went on to study at the Académie Julian in Paris. When he returned to California in 1898, he settled in Los Angeles. He is particularly known for fields of poppies.

Granville Redmond, 1871-1935
Patch of Poppies, 1912

M. Evelyn McCormick (1862-1948)
One of the earliest women artists to manifest the "free spirit" ethos of California was Evelyn McCormick, who made her name less gender-specific with the first initial M. She was born in the mining community of Placerville, but raised and educated in San Francisco. She attended the California School of Design in the late 1880s, and followed her lover, Guy Rose, to Paris in 1889. She and a handful of other women from California studied at the Academie Julian under some of the finest Salon painters of the day. McCormick was the first American woman to be admitted to the Salon's annual exhibition.

During one of their summer vacations, McCormick, Rose, and a few other artists drifted into the orbit of Impressionism, and lived in Giverny where they could study the work of Monet. Although McCormick was highly influenced by Monet, and she is generally called a California Impressionist, she was not part of the Impressionist in-group because she was the following generation, and because her style tends toward traditional, academic realism, with a sort of patina of Impressionist style.
The painting below is one of the first she produced after returning from Europe in 1891; it is too detailed for Impressionism, but isn't it lovely?

M. Evelyn McCormick, 1862-1948
Cactus Garden, Del Monte, c. 1893
McCormick settled in the Monterey area and specialized in the local scenery and history. She cultivated a group of women artist friends, but she never married. She continued to live a "Bohemian" lifestyle, and bore two children out of wedlock; both were adopted.

This painting is typical of her later output; the influence of Impressionism shows in the loosely dappled sky.

M. Evelyn McCormick, 1862-1948
Monterey Bay, c. 1907
Her painting ambitions were limited by her need to support herself. She tended to stick to small canvases and pleasant scenes that would look nice over the fireplace. She was a leader of the Monterey art community, and her canvases hang in several California museums. The next painting I photographed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

M. Evelyn McCormick, 1869-1948
Carmel Valley Pumpkins, c. 1907
Guy Rose (1867-1925)
Guy Rose was born in San Gabriel California to a prominent family; his father was a California senator. He moved to San Francisco and trained at the California School of Design at the same time that Evelyn McCormick was there, though he was 5 years younger. Although he figures prominently in McCormick's bio, it is interesting to note that no mention of her is made in his.  He also studied at Academie Julian and had his work accepted by the Paris Salon. After his return from Europe, he lived in New York City for several years, doing illustrations for various prominent publications. He married, and returned to Giverny, where the couple bought a cottage. Monet became his friend and mentor. The Roses returned to the US in 1912, first settling in Rhode Island, and moving to Pasadena a couple of years later, where he taught at an art school. In 1917 the Roses began to summer on the Monterey Peninsula, and he painted scenes typical of the area.

Monet's guidance is evident in Rose's work, and much of Rose's work has a European look, such as this portrait, which is very like that of the Impressionists of the previous generation.

Guy Rose, 1867-1925
Jade Beads, 1907-1912
Even though he was the most famous California artist of his generation, he only worked in California the last ten years of his life, when he applied the techniques of Impressionism to scenes of the California coast.
Guy Rose, 1867-1925
Off Mission Point (Point Lobos), n.d.
The painting below might be the way Monet would have depicted the Sierras.

Guy Rose, 1867-1925
In the High Sierra, n.d.

Grace Carpenter Hudson (1865-1937)
Another of the women students at the California School of Design to achieve moderate success was Grace Carpenter Hudson. She was raised near Ukiah, and spent most of her career there painting the Pomo Indians. She achieved a national reputation, and her small, modest paintings may be found in many California museums. In the example below, the woman is holding sticks for a gambling game called Kai-Dai.

Grace Carpenter Hudson, 1865-1937
Kai-Dai, 1913

Franz Bischoff (1864-1929)
One of the earliest successful artists in Southern California was Franz Bischoff, who immigrated from Austria in his teens. In Austria he was trained in ceramic decoration, and he gained success in decorating ceramics while he was living and working in Michigan.

Franz Bischoff, 1864-1929
Vases, 1900-1908

He settled in Los Angeles in 1906, when he was 42. He began to paint on canvas and to specialize in the California landscape.

Franz Bischoff, 1864-1929
The Arroyo Seco, Pasadena, c. 1918

Maurice Braun (1877-1941)
Another immigrant from Eastern Europe who ended up in Southern California was Maurice Braun. His family moved to New York City when he was age 4. He began his training at the National Academy of Design, and finished by visiting the museums in central Europe. He settled in San Diego in 1909. In 1912 he founded the San Diego Academy of Art and became its director.

Maurice Braun, 1877-1941
Foothills, 1934

I especially like this atmospheric night scene.

Maurice Braun, 1877-1941
Early Evening, California, c. 1920

Maynard Dixon (1875-1946)
Born in Fresno, Maynard Dixon was another artist who trained at the California School of Design under Arthur Mathews. Here's a switch: he is known for being married to Dorothea Lange, a nationally famous photographer. They married in 1921, when he was 46 and she was 26; they divorced in 1935. It is said that her influence prompted Dixon to produce paintings that were more spare, stylized, and defined.

He is especially known for bold, simple Western landscapes, frequently featuring horses.

Maynard Dixon, 1875-1946
Wild Horses of Nevada, 1927

Yet he could also deal with wetlands. In the painting below, the simplification of style flirts with total abstraction.
Maynard Dixon, 1875-1946
Glacial Meadow (Tuolumne Meadows), 1921

Helena Dunlap (1876-1955)
Helena Dunlap was born in my home town, Whittier, California. She studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art. She traveled extensively and lived in Paris for many years. Returning to Los Angeles in 1911, when she was 35, Dunlap exhibited her paintings, earning awards throughout California. She died in Whittier, California, in 1955, where she kept a studio on her orange ranch.

Helena Dunlap, 1876-1955
Young Danish Girl with Flowers, c. 1917

Armin Hansen (1886-1957)
A San Franciso native, Armin Hansin studied art at the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art, which was briefly the successor to the California School of Design. After 3 years, he went to Germany and studied in Stuttgart. He returned to San Francisco in 1912, but then moved to Monterey, where he became one of the region's premier painters. I especially like this foggy scene.

Armin Hansen, 1886-1957
Drifting Fog, late 1920s

20th Century Modernism

Otis Oldfield (1880-1969)
One of the earliest modernists in California was Otis Oldfield, whose work has an incisive and rigorous edge entirely new to the placid and traditional art scene. He was born in Sacramento to a working class family; he had to earn his own way to art training. He started at a modest school in San Francisco, but he continued working, and within a few years he had saved enough to go to Paris, to study at the Académie Julian, the favorite of California artists at this time. He stayed in Paris from 1911 to 1924, eventually setting up his own studio. He returned to California in 1924, and settled in San Francisco. He became a well-known professor at the California School of Fine Arts, which had started as the California School of Design. In 1934 he was one of 26 artists selected by the federal government to paint murals in the newly erected Coit Tower. The subject of his fresco is Shipping Activities Inside the Golden Gate.

Otis Oldfield, 1890-1969
Self-Portrait—Shorn, 1929
In 1926 he married one of his students, Helen Clark. Some of his best work is figure studies of Helen wearing modest but revealing lingerie. Unfortunately, there was a lot of glare of this one.

Otis Oldfield, 1890-1969
White Dress, 1936

Helen Clark Oldfield (1902-1981)
Helen Clark Oldfield, wife of much-more-famous Otis Oldfield, was a talented artist, but her work is not shown much in museums. She was born in Santa Rosa, and attended the College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland. After her marriage she practiced various crafts, painted, and taught art. Here's an example of her work.

Helen Clark Oldfield, 1902-1981
Green Pears, 1941
Stanton Macdonald-Wright (1890-1973)
The first California artist to achieve international stature was Stanton Macdonald-Wright, one of America’s leading Modernist painters and an early pioneer of abstract art. Born in Virginia and raised in southern California, he settled in Paris in 1907, studying at the Sorbonne and exhibiting at the Salons. Together with fellow American expatriate Morgan Russell, he co-founded the avant-garde painting movement Synchromism, whose first exhibition was held in Munich in 1913. Synchromism combined color with Cubism, producing luminous and rhythmic compositions of swirling and serpentine forms infused with a rich chromatic palette. After a period in New York, Macdonald-Wright resettled in Santa Monica in 1919 and entered a period of teaching at the local universities. He also worked as the director of the WPA Art Project in Santa Monica for about ten years. In the mid-1950s he returned to nonobjective painting, producing some of his finest canvases.

Stanton Macdonald-Wright (1890-1973)
Subjective Time, 1958

Henry Sugimoto (1900-1990)
For most of his career, Henry Sugimoto lived in New York City. Born in Japan, he immigrated to Hanford, California when he was 19 following his parents. He got his art training at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland and the California School of Fine Arts. He then spent 4 years studying and painting in France. He returned to California in 1932, and married his long-time sweetheart in 1934.

In 1945, when he was 45 years, Sugimoto and his family were interned in a relocation camp in Arkansas. When released in 1945, Sugimoto and his family moved to New York City. His is not a big name, but this painting is charming, in a way that combines Japanese, Californian, and American influences.

Henry Sugimoto, 1900-1990
New York Wind Blow Everything, c. 1964

Charles Griffin Farr (1908-1997)
Charles Griffin Farr was a long-time resident of Potrero Hill in San Francisco. He was raised in Tennessee and studied art in New York. During World War II he served as an artist-correspondent. After the war, he studied on the GI Bill at the California School of Fine Arts, where he later taught. He referred to himself as the school's "token realist." He bequeathed many of his paintings to the University of California at Santa Cruz.
Charles Griffin Farr, 1908-1977
Still Life with Cabbage, 1939

The Post-War Art Scene

Elmer Bischoff (1916-1991)
The California School of Fine Arts was at the hub of avant-garde expressionism when Elmer Bischoff became an instructor there after World War II. His colleges included Mark Rothko, Clifford Still, and Ad Reinhardt. There he met Richard Diebenkorn and David Park, and with them developed a style that  uses free brushwork and thickly painted surfaces of abstract expressionism to create works with recognizable imagery. This approach became known as Bay Area Figurative Art, when it received its first major show at the Oakland Museum of Art in 1957.

Bischoff grew up in Berkeley, and earned a Master of Arts at the University of California there. In the 1960s he became a professor at U. C. Berkeley, and taught there the rest of his career.

Elmer Bischoff, 1916-1991
Green Lampshade, 1969

Wayne Thiebaud (b. 1920)
Californian Wayne Thiebaud is one of the most important living American painters. The richness, variety, and sincerity of his work can hardly be over-praised. His work is prized by California museums, and I've been following his progress for decades. The Crocker's collection represents most of his phases. The artist is still active at 94; recently a reporter for The New Yorker said he "looked like a high-school athletic coach a week or two into retirement." That is great news.

Thiebaud had a basic California education, having studied at San Jose State University before transferring to the state college in Sacramento where he earned a master's degree. In 1960, he became a professor at the Davis branch of the University of California and remained there through the 1970s. He retired at age 70.

In the beginning of his career, the first subject that had impetus for him was cakes and pies and similar treats. This was a time when Pop art was rising up against abstract expressionism. In this painting he uses the juicy brushwork associated with expressionism to depict a Pop art subject. The painting is so rich and satisfying that you don't actually need to eat the food. The artist recently told a reporter for The New Yorker "there are still days that start with the thought: This morning, I’d like to paint a pie."

Wayne Thiebaud, b. 1920
Boston Cremes, 1962
In the 1960s he dwelt on nearly photo-realistic portraits with flat brushwork and fine edges.

Wayne Thiebaud, b. 1920
Betty Jean Thiebaud and Book, 1965-69
I loved the period when he was pre-occupied with the vertiginous streetscapes of San Francisco. When you stand at the bottom of one of those hilly streets, knowing you have to walk up it, possibly into a headwind, this view does not seem exaggerated.

Wayne Thiebaud, b. 1920
Title unknown
One of his most beautiful subjects is his fantasy of the Sacramento Valley. For this flat scene, he used a bird's-eye view, and applied an array of colors that exists only in his heart. This painting was painted only 4 years ago.

Wayne Thiebaud, b. 1920
River Intersection, 2010

Robert Colescott (1925-2009)
Oakland-born Robert Colescott is another of America's premier painters. Though his parents were trained musicians, his father supported the family by working as a railway porter. Thus, Colescott didn't have much formal training before he was drafted in 1942. After the war he earned a Master of Art degree at Berkeley; he also spent a year in Paris studying with Fernand Léger.

Colescott taught in Portland, and worked on projects in Cairo and Paris, before settling in California. He spent 15 years teaching at various California art schools, before becoming a professor at the University of Tucson. The San Jose Museum of Art organized the first major retrospective of his work.

Colescott is known for satirical paintings that convey his exuberant, comical, or critical reflections of being African American. His paintings are always enigmatic. The title of this painting proclaims that "Blondes have more Fun," as the saying goes, but the Black couples surrounding the blonde are going at it in ways that are supposed to be fun, and she's looking smug, just because she is blonde, or just because she is white.

Robert Colescott, 1925-2009
Blondes Have More Fun, 1990

Ralph Goings (b. 1928)
Like Thiebaud and Colescott, Ralph Goings came from a working-class California family. He studied at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland before earning an MFA from Sacramento State College. He presently lives in Santa Cruz, CA, and Charlottesville, New York.

Goings was a major player in the rise of the Photorealist movement, in which the artists uses photographs as the basis for their paintings. In the beginning, he projected the slide on the canvas and painted with a seamless surface that shows no trace of the human touch. The subjects are generally commonplace scenes and objects. This is a very early example.

Ralph Goings, b. 1928
Sacramento Airport, 1970

Robert Bechtle (b. 1932)
Robert Bechtle was studying at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland at the same time as Ralph Goings, and with him developed photorealism, a popular style in California that begins by tracing the artist's photo projected onto the canvas. He taught at San Francisco State University from 1969 until 1999 and now lives in San Francisco's Potrero Hill neighborhood.

Robert Bechtle, b. 1932
French Doors II, 1966

Joan Brown (1938-1990)
The first woman artist from California to have national fame was Joan Brown. She studied with Elmer Bischoff at the California School of Fine Arts, and is considered part of the second generation of the Bay Area Figurative movement.

However, instead of occupying herself with the landscapes and objects that characterized California art, Brown relentlessly painted her everyday life, family relationships, and dreams. Her pioneering use of domestic imagery, autobiographical narrative, patterning, color, and revealing emotional scenarios anticipates the preoccupations of women artists in the 1960s and 1970s.

The following work uses thick, expressionistic brushwork to depict herself when she was pregnant. Here she identifies with the goddess Flora, who epitomizes springtime and fecundity. Brown also introduced another element that was new to California art—references to masterpieces of European art, in this case a famous painting by Rembrandt.

Joan Brown, 1938-1990
Flora, 1961

Rembrandt van Rijn, 1606-69
Flora, 1634
Hermitage Museum; St. Petersburg, Russia
Photo by Dan L. Smith
Over time, Brown's attitude became more detached and her style became flatter and more decorative. She continued to use art to depict her personal world, like a diary.

Joan Brown, 1938-1990
Wolf in Studio, 1972

Like her own painting, Brown's biographers tend to focus on Brown's turbulent private life rather than her career. Born Joan Beatty, she came from a troubled family and was herself married 4 times. She taught at the California School of Fine Arts from 1961-68, and at UC Berkeley from 1974 until her death in 1990. She died while installing a sculpture in India, when the building collapsed on her and an assistant. She was 52 at the time of her death. Her work is featured prominently in Bay Area museums.

The Current Era: Late 20th-early 21st century
The artists currently living and working in California tend to prefer art with rich subjects and dramatic narratives. In addition to social commentary, there is often a surreal or magical element.

Stephen J. Kaltenbach (b. 1940)
Stephen Kaltenbach studied at the University of California at Davis, where he was mentored by Robert Arneson. In the 1960s he was at the center of New York's avant-garde, where he became known for conceptual work, such as bronze time capsules. In the 1970s he returned to California and focused on painting, but since the 1980s he has created sculpture and media installations. No mention of a teaching career is made in online biographies.

This tribute to his father was painted in a barn in California and required 7 years. It is very large and very moving.

Stephen J. Kaltenbach, b. 1940
Portrait of My Father, 1972-79

Guy Colwell (b. 1945)
Guy Colwell differs from this whole line of artists. Born in Oakland, he received only two years of training at the College of Arts and Crafts before starting work full-time, and after that he is basically self-taught. Instead of teaching, he supported himself as an underground cartoonist. In the 1970s, he worked for an underground paper. He has done several comic book series. He is famous for having spent a couple of years in prison for resisting the draft. He has focused on painting since the 1990's. He is married and currently lives in Oakland.

Colwell also brings a new subject to painting: social commentary. He considers himself a reporter and observer of the social scene, and in his youth he would attend peace marches and other demonstrations in order to bring authenticity to his work. In the painting below, the healthy people are on the left and the sick ones are on the right.

Guy Colwell, b. 1945
Epidemic, 2009

Hung Liu (b. 1948)
One of the most prominent Chinese painters in the United States is Hung Liu. She immigrated from China in 1984, to attend the University of California, San Diego, where she received her MFA. She moved to northern California to become a faculty member at Mills College in 1990, and still lives in the area. Her work is frequently exhibited in Bay area museums, but she is well-known nationally as well. Most of the work I've seen shows some scene of everyday life in old China, and the scenes are blurred, like her memories, by drips of paint and streaks of linseed oil.

Hung Liu, b. 1948
Shoemakers, 1999

Chester Arnold (b. 1952)
Chester Arnold was born in Santa Monica, California, but he was raised in post-war Germany and studied art there in his youth. He returned to California and earned an MFA from the San Francisco Institute of Art in 1988. No second career is mentioned in his biographies. Popular in Bay area museums, his work tends to be large-scaled, richly detailed, and wryly humorous. It frequently features accumulations of similar objects.

Chester Arnold, b. 1952
After the Fact, 2007

Sandow Birk (b. 1962)
Los Angeles-based painter Sandow Birk is a graduate of Otis Art Institute, now known at Otis College of Art and Design, in Los Angeles. Working on a large-scale, he does contemporary history paintings; his subjects are current events, but his compositions frequently refer to well-known masterpieces of historical painting. He has a very large body of work that treats a wide-variety of subjects, from California's prisons to Dante's Inferno. He has also developed some of his subjects into   films.

Sandow Birk, b. 1962
Stonewall, 1863

Jamie Vasta (b. 1980)
Only 34 years old, as of 2014, Jamie Vasta is creating a stir in the Bay area art scene. Born in upstate New York, she got her BFA from the School of the Museum of Fine Art Boston, but she earned her MFA from California College of the Arts in Oakland and has lived in Oakland since then. Her subject tends to be feminist but enigmatic narratives. What distinguishes her work—and it hardly shows up in photos—is the use of glitter and glue as her basic medium. It is amazing that she can achieve rich color, vibrant light, and detailed "brushwork" by spreading glitter on canvas. It makes her work literally dazzling.

Jamie Vasta, b. 1980
Voyeur, 2007

Sculpture in California
The Crocker has a cute collection of California sculpture, but it is limited.

Robert Arneson (1930-1992)

Nowadays we take non-functional clay art objects for granted because they are familiar, but when Robert Arneson started working with ceramics, they were associated strictly with bowls, vases, and other objects with ostensible functions, even though they might sit on a shelf as collector's items.

Born in Benicia, Arneson became an apt cartoonist in his teens. He studied art education at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, and earned an MFA from Mills College. He taught at a high school and a community college, and then went on the staff of the University of California at Davis in 1962. The founder of the art department there assembled a faculty that would come to be celebrated as one of the most prestigious in the nation. In addition to Arneson, there were Manuel Neri, Wayne Thiebaud and William T. Wiley, who all became internationally recognized. Arneson taught at Davis for 30 years, and his teaching and high-spirited persona inspired entire generations of young ceramists.

It was in the 1960s when Arneson and other young artists began to use everyday objects to create biting satire, a movement dubbed Funk Art. Arneson might be considered the father of the ceramic Funk movement. He fused offbeat humor and irreverence with Pop-inspired subject matter, and helped make irreverence and wit acceptable in art.

Robert Arneson, 1930-1992
Overcooked, 1973

Viola Frey (1933-2004)
Raised on a vineyard in Lodi, California, Viola Frey attended the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland at the same time as Robert Arneson, and was part of the Funk art movement in ceramics. After receiving her degree, she went to New York to study at an art center geared toward artists exploring ceramics as a fine art medium without the functional constraints of craft. She began teaching at the California College of Arts and Crafts (now the California College of the Arts) in 1965 and continued there her entire life. She became an internationally respected artist and leading figure in contemporary ceramics, despite working in a field often dominated by men.

Frey is known for her large, colorfully glazed clay sculptures of men and women, which expanded the traditional boundaries of ceramic sculpture. The example below is not typical, and it is too detailed to photograph well. It appears to be a portrait composed of symbolic objects; I can see an odd hat, a hand with a fan, a pipe, and a picture frame on top of a wooden stand, like a parody of a portrait bust. Bricolage (tinkering, in French) is the construction of a work from a bunch of stuff that happens to be available.

Viola Frey, 1933-2004
Bricolage Sculpture, 1981

Bricolage Sculpture, 1981

Though the lives of women artists are typically fodder for reporters and biographers, Frey's personal life is generally ignored. I found a note that her life partner was Charles Fiske, who had been her teacher, and who placed her career before his own, but I can't find any confirmation of this..

Robert Hudson (b. 1938)
An archetypical Bay-Area artist, Robert Hudson has been a primary force in the West Coast Funk art assemblage movement. Born in Salt Lake City in 1938 and raised in Richland, Washington, Hudson moved to San Francisco in the late 1950s and trained at the San Francisco Art Institute, the current incarnation of the influential California School of Design.

Robert Hudson, b. 1938
Outrigger, 1983-84

Clayton Bailey (b. 1939)
Although he earned a master's degree in art and education from the University of Wisconsin—Madison, and spent 28 years teaching at California State University, Hayward (now known as California State University East Bay), Clayton Bailey affects the persona of an outsider artist, as if he were an inspired but untrained bumpkin making art spontaneously out of whatever comes to hand. He wears a long handle-bar mustache, waxed and curled, and in Port Costa he has a yard full of spaceships, and pots with faces, toilets with spouts and handles, and similar jokey junk like any nutter. And, in fact, his style is sometimes known at 'nut art,' but generally he is the logical conclusion of the California Funk art movement.

This figure is assembled from parts from a restaurant supply store, with other hardware.

Clayton Bailey, b. 1939
Buns Robot, 2003

Rik Ritchey (b. 1953)
Rik Ritchey is a Bay Area artist who is best known for his series of otherworldly scenes painted on polyurethane foam, but he has created sculpture in various media.

This glass piece is made of thin slices of glass buttressed with steel. Gold beads placed between glass slices create a line through the center of the sculpture.
Rik Ritchey, b. 1953
Mechanical Drawing: Heartbreak, 2011


This is not the complete story of art in California—far from it. Where are Nathan Oliveira, Richard Diebenkorn, and Ruth Asawa, just to name a few obvious omissions? Full disclosure: the Crocker collection is not totally comprehensive, and I don't photograph works of art that I don't like. But this overview is a good starting place, a good framework for understanding the flow of art history in our state. It's something to be proud of—another reason why California is the coolest state.