Thursday, August 13, 2015

Aida: Torn Between Loyalties

On the large scale, the opera "Aida" is about a series of battles between Egypt and Ethiopia. The action takes place in Memphis, which is then the capital of Egypt. In one of these battles, the Princess of Ethiopia—that's Aida—has been captured, and she now lives as a slave, with no apparent duties, in the household of the pharaoh.

On the personal scale, the opera is about conflicted loyalties. Aida's problem is that she has fallen in love with the Egyptian general who will lead the army on its next invasion of her country. She sings touchingly of her love for her homeland and her father; she longs to return there. But her passion for the general overwhelms her, and she also longs for a peaceful life with him. She worries that he might be killed in battle, and fears that he might kill her father and brothers. Her conflicting emotions are so painful that she longs to escape in death; death is her only solace.

The general, Radamès, is not so conflicted. He has it worked out that if he can capture Ethiopia, he can win Aida for his wife, as a sort of reward. Radamès problem is that the Pharoah's daughter, Amneris, has a crush on him, and expects him to marry her. His passion for Aida is so great that he would rather be dead than live without her; for him too, death is the only solace.

It's a good thing that these folks are so eager for death, because that is the way it turns out. In the next battle, Aida's father, the King of Ethiopia, is captured and brought to the Egyptian court, where he observes the enemy general's love for his daughter. He pressures Aida to trick Radamès into telling her the route that the Egyptian army would use for its next invasion of his country. Naturally, he is overheard by Amneris, who betrays him to the priests. The priests condemn him to be entombed alive. But who should turn up in the tomb but Aida, who wants to share his fate. So the last, rather lengthy, portion of the opera shows them expiring in each other's arms, singing a poignant duet.

So the plot has a dismal trajectory, but many 19th century operas did. It's not unusual for the protagonists to end up dead, and it's not unusual for them to sing beautifully with their dying breath. The connection between love and death was taken for granted in those days, representing perfect forms of peacefulness. For the composer, the game was to see who could express passion, longing, struggle, suffering, and despair most beautifully. On that score, it's pretty hard to beat the composer of "Aida," Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901). Certain passages of the music popped out from the dense and somewhat comical background with a sound that was sublime, as beautiful as a blooming rose or dawn-tinged clouds.

The intensely personal arias and duets of Aida, Radamès, and Amneris are mixed with grand scenes of public ceremonies and rituals. There's one for the choosing of the general, one for sending the army off to battle, and a grand triumphal parade when they return, bringing with them prisoners of war. The set and the costumes for the the Pharaoh's court are elaborate and grand. Entertainers please the court and the audience with clever songs and dances. The triumphal parade even features live horses. "Aida" is known for its spectacle.

This particular performance, from the Metropolitan Opera in HD broadcast to local cinemas, had some drawbacks. Most importantly, Roberto Alagna, the French tenor who sang the part of the general, Radamès, is a small man, shorter than average and fairly trim; he always seems to be straining to fit a part that is too big for him. He was wearing clunky boots with inch-thick bases, but he was still shorter than the two women who adored him, who were both taller than average and quite chunky as well. The role of Aida was sung by Liudmyla Monastyrska, a Ukrainian soprano, and Amneris was sung by Olga Borodina, a Russian mezzo-soprano. Singers are cast for their voices, not for their looks. At his best, Alagna's voice is ringing and clear, noble and true. Monastyrska is capable of going from sweetly rippling high notes to growling depths with no air of strain. Borodina has a big rich voice, too commanding for the dreamy, self-involved character she was playing. The king of Ethiopia, Amonasro, was sung by baritone George Gagnidze, who tended to dominate the scene with his hammy acting.

Monday, July 6, 2015

J.M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free

It seems rather rude to have three first initials. They stand for Joseph Mallord William. I wonder if his friends called him Joe. He was born in 1775, so his career extends into the early 19th century. This was a period of romanticism and spiritualism in painting. He liked to quote the poetry of Lord Byron, and sometimes wrote poetry of his own to complement his paintings.

An exhibit of the paintings from the last few decades of his life, currently at the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park, is called "Painting Set Free" because he upended painting as it was known in his time, opening up new approaches that have influenced painters ever since.

What he really loved was landscape painting, but he was a little self-conscious about this because in his time it was ranked below history painting, so most of his landscapes and seascapes are associated with well-known stories from Roman or British history, especially in the early part of his career. Later he began depicting current events and contemporary interests.

No matter what the subject, all his paintings are dominated by atmospheric light effects, sometimes driven to imaginary heights. He developed skill at accurate rendering of a scene early on, but as he aged, his work became less detailed, more vague, approaching abstraction; sometimes light in itself becomes the subject. Seeking for atmospheric effects, his brushwork became loose and free, imitating the movements of wind and waves. This bravura brushwork was mind-blowing to his contemporaries and freed his successors to brush the paint expressively, to let the hand's movement support the painting's meaning.

My favorite paintings were from the 1830s when he was still using a lot of realism. One of his greatest works depicts a horrible fire that consumed the British Parliament in 1834. Turner actually witnessed this conflagration himself and made sketches at the time. It's ironic that horrible disasters like fire, volcanic eruptions, and atomic explosions can be quite beautiful when depicted in art, and the great fire is beautifully done. By contrast, the bridge across the Thames is an accurate architectural rendering. The dark streaks in the water, when examined closely, become various types of boats, and the muddy cloud around the bottom resolves into a crowd of onlookers on the opposite shore.

The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 1834
I shot all the photos in this post on my iPad.

Below is a very traditional work. It's ostensible subject, the god Mercury talking to the monster Argus, is just an excuse. What do you actually see? The mellow sun of the late afternoon lights up a distant port, a hovering castle, a lone tree, a babbling creek, a few cows in the foreground—and a couple of guys talking. They could be fishing or drinking beer. You may not have been any place quite this beautiful in reality, but you have been in settings that gave you the same rich, peaceful feeling. Who needs mythology?

Mercury and Argus, 1836

Two of his dreamiest paintings depict Rome. One imagines ancient Rome at the height of its power. To make it more interesting, he adds a story. In his day, all the educated men—the academics, art collectors, and critics who formed his audience—would know the story of Agrippina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus, but does it really matter? First we see a sunset with the moon rising; we see the grandeur that is Rome, with its great forums and towers and the mighty bridge across a river. We see people on both shores of the river. One boat crosses the river, where a small group of women await it. It is of minor interest to know that Agrippina, the woman in the small boat, is transporting back to Rome the ashes of her husband, Germanicus, who was killed in Antioch as a result of rivalries in the Imperial family. Her act had long been seen as a symbol of wifely devotion, but Turner  also thought the murder heralded the decline of Imperial Rome. The light expresses fading glory.

Ancient Rome: Agrippina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus, 1839

Its companion piece depicts Modern Rome, modern to the artist in the early 1800s. It shows Rome in picturesque ruins, occupied by cattle. The painting is constructed in three bands. The top section, almost half the picture, is limpid blue sky, perhaps in the early morning. Across the middle is a pink and yellow atmosphere that resolves into highly detailed renderings of well-known buildings, including modern churches as well as the ancient coliseum and the forum. Across the bottom, so muddy it seems insignificant, people are camping and goats are grazing; the rise and fall of the Roman Empire was an important subject in British education.

Modern Rome—Campo Vaccino, 1939
What fascinates me about Turner is that the closer you look, the more detail you see. He doesn't throw his whole meaning on the surface; he drags you closer and forces you to keep looking.

Venice is one of the most atmospheric cities in the world, and Turner loved it there, returning frequently to paint picturesque vistas. Notice that his palette is becoming more restrained; shades of white dominate this image.

The Dogano, San Giorgio, & Citella, 1842

During the 1840s, some of his paintings come close to ditching subject matter altogether. In this depiction of a snow storm at sea, the steam-boat is little more that a dark blob in a swirl of dark and light; in fact, the whole image reminds me of a black hole sucking in everything around it, even the light.

Snow Storm—Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth, 1842

In the next painting, supposedly of a sea monster at sunrise, what you see is weak sun irradiating a hazy fog; the ocean is barely indicated and the monster is a slightly darker blob with eyes. The subject is the thinnest excuse to paint foggy morning light; your eye is drawn toward a yellow pool like your soul being drawn toward spiritual depths.

Sunrise with Sea Monsters, c. 1845

The story goes that Turner's dying words were, "The sun is god." You could certainly believe that he felt this way. Here's his version of the Apocalypse, the last days of the world; an angel in the middle of a golden aura announced the end. If you study the vague swirl around the figure you can see scenes of violence from the Old Testament, but from a distance it looks a lot like a close-up of the sun with its solar flares.

The Angel Standing in the Sun, 1846

For the last three paintings of his life, he returned to a mythical interpretation of the history of Rome. The story of Aeneas and Dido is complicated to explain, though well-known at the time, and the figures in the paintings are unpleasantly muddy to view. The following example shows that what Turner really wanted to render in paint was a radiant shaft of light pouring through the middle of a darkish landscape, dividing it in half. For what? Perhaps to represent the gap between good intentions and action? Perhaps to show the force of destiny infusing the situation? He just wanted to focus on that light, like the light at the end of the tunnel when you pass into the afterlife.

Mercury Sent to Admonish Aeneas, 1850

I'm not saying Turner is my favorite painter—haziness and muddiness can be hard to take—but he was an important influence on the history of painting because he was a great talent and he had a great mind. I was happy to have paid him a visit.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

San Francisco's Museum District: Center of Diversity

It started with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, on Third Street, near the Convention Center, and by now there are five museums in that district around Third and Mission, and another is planned. SFMOMA is a major institution with a national reputation for its great collection. Currently it is closed because it is undergoing a huge expansion; the new wing towers above the old. But the smaller museums all around it are humming. The first arts institution to nestle in nearby was the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, right across Third street. This is not a museum, but a center that offers a program of art exhibits and theater presentations of the most avant-garde type. On Mission Street, between Third and Fourth, is the Contemporary Jewish Museum, located in a re-purposed PG&E power station. Tucked into a slot in the St. Regis Hotel Tower, with an entrance on Mission Street, is the Museum of the African Diaspora. Directly across the street is a storefront housing the California Historical Society, and moving up Mission toward New Montgomery Street you will find a Cartoon Art Museum and the GLBT Historical Society. It would be easy to fill a day museum-hopping. All of these places are small—a half-hour or an hour is plenty for a visit—but taken together they provide an experience of the city's cultural diversity and vitality.

On a recent afternoon, we managed to fit in two of these venues.

The Museum of the African Diaspora attracted us with an exhibit called "Portraits and other Likenesses," a selection of work by African-American artists drawn from SFMOMA. The most interesting aspect was a tableau of a living room designed by Mickalene Thomas. Thomas is best known for her colorful portraits of Black women looking bold and sassy. Often the setting for the portrait is a cluttered room that expresses the sitter's personality. This tableau appeared to be the setting for one of her portraits, but I now wonder if the tableau was in itself the work of art. It is upholstered and decorated in a manic, mismatching style that embraces what is cheap and ordinary. It was so real that I tried to walk into it, to take a photo of a painting inside the room, but so strange that it was surreal. Photos were not allowed but I found this photo on the internet that looks very much like what we saw.

Tableau by Mickalene Thomas, born 1971
Internet Grab
There was also a movie that Thomas made about her mother, a classy and resilient person. There were some prints of her paintings, but none of her wildly patterned paintings themselves, which was a disappointment. 

Mickalene Thomas' male counterpart is Kehinde Wiley, who became famous for painting Black men in the manner of the Old Masters. 

Kehinde Wiley, born 1977
Alexander the Great
Jan's iPad
Thomas and Wiley are contemporary, living African American artists. Historical precedent for their approach was set by Robert Colescott. His work is still very powerful. Across the bottom of this painting is the legend, "Wishing on a Prime Time Star." 

Robert Colescott, 1925-2009
Colored TV
Jan's iPad
Another contemporary painter, Chris Ofili, is best known for his paintings that incorporate elephant dung and sparkles. The exhibit had a good example, but it was in terrible light. I'm including it here because of the similarities in style and attitude with the previous examples. The painting rests on two balls of elephant dung, and a similar ball is used as a pendant in a necklace. He created quite an uproar when he titled a similar painting featuring elephant dung, The Holy Virgin Mary.

Chris Ofili, born 1968
Princess of the Posse, 1999
iPad photo
Many other artists were represented, for a total of fifty works of art; about six or eight were important. If you are interested in contemporary African American art, Thomas, Wiley, and Ofili are the artists to watch for.

After a pleasant stroll through Yerba Buena Gardens, we came to the Contemporary Jewish Museum, a venue for exhibits of both art and history. The most striking thing about this museum is its architecture. Originally, the PG&E power station was in a handsome brick building with traditional decoration. Internationally famous architect Daniel Libeskind was brought in to expand it and turn it into a museum. His addition looks like an irregular shipping container dropped on one corner. Since it is a dark mass in the shade of taller buildings, it's impossible to get a good photo of it.

Contemporary Jewish Museum
by Daniel Libeskind
iPad photo
No photography is allowed within, except for the foyer where a 90-foot long work of art composed of geographical globes is suspended from the ceiling.

David Lane
Lamp of the Covenant
iPad photo
The main exhibit was called "Night Begins the Day." This contained quite a range of artworks that were loosely united by the nebulous theme. Most of the works were interesting, and well-displayed, but only a few artists were famous, such as Josiah McElheny and Fred Tomaselli.

It's not like these museums are about "them"—some group of "others" that we don't have to care about. In principle, all of us derive from the African Diaspora, since Africa was the home of the first humans, who then migrated to different regions and mutated into different types. As far as Jewish culture is concerned, their historical role in creating and conserving American culture can hardly be overstated. Remember that "God Bless America" was composed by Irving Berlin, who meant it with an immigrant's passion. Museums expand our perspective.

The museum district will be enhanced by the addition of the Mexican Museum. Currently located in Fort Mason it is destined to occupy a fine old building on the corner of Mission and Third. The Mexican Museum has a good collection, but its location is out of the way and not good for art. A museum of Latino art would be a perfect complement to the Mission Street cultural corridor.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Death of a Salesman: Still Relevant after all these Years

Death of a Salesman is a beautifully written play by Arthur Miller, one of the foremost dramatists of the first half of the 20th century. It concerns day-dreaming versus realistic thinking as realized in the life of a traveling salesman. Toward the end of the play, one of the minor characters sums up the theme: A salesman's gotta dream; it comes with the territory.

The San Jose Stage Company recently revived this classic. Yesterday was the final show of the run, and it was a terrific performance. All the actors conveyed their lines with just the right attitude, just the right tone, just the right pacing. We have seen this play in movies and on TV with big-time actors and big-time emoting, but Miller's lines are even more convincing when delivered by more regular people in a more normal way.

The San Jose Stage Company has a very nice playhouse, just the right size, about 250 seats on three sides of a projecting stage, with no curtains. Even at the back of the house, we were only 10 rows from the action, and the seats are tiered so we could see fine.

During the intermission we happened to meet a traveling sales woman. She was quite excited because a play written long ago related to her current concerns.

But everyone has the problem of what to do about dreams. Somehow you gotta have dreams, but they can get you into a lot of trouble, and keep you from finding yourself. Your real self has to be grounded in reality, as well as you can figure it out.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

LA County Arboretum: Glamorous Garden

What makes a public arboretum glamorous? Peacocks, for one thing. The Arboretum boasts a resident flock of wild peacocks, strutting and posing like starlets.

I took this and all the photos in this post with my iPad.
A wide range of exotic and mature plants is attractively arranged. You can tell these plants have been here a long time because of their great size.

Artfully designed and carefully maintained gardens are part of the glamour.

The Rose Garden
And for a final glamorous touch, there's even a Hollywood set: a Queen Anne style cottage that was used in an old TV show called "Fantasy Island." Many's the time I've watched Tattoo call out "Da plane, da plane" from the tower.

Queen Anne Cottage
This cottage points us toward the history of the Arboretum. This land was originally part of Rancho Santa Anita, a large fertile area with good water resources. In 1875 it was purchased by an investor and real estate speculator known as "Lucky" Baldwin. It was he who imported the peafowl from India to adorn the estate, and it was he who built a woodwork encrusted cottage as a Guest House.

Friendly docents provide background information.

Docent and Dan
The Arboretum is located in Arcadia, but you can feel the nearness of Hollywood.

These wood relief carvings hanging in the Visitor Center express the mood.

Friday, May 22, 2015

The Norton Simon Museum: One of the Great Private Art Collections

Pasadena is the home of one of the world's greatest private art collections: The Norton Simon Museum. It's a wonderful thing when an ambitious and successful businessman turns his attention to art. He collects art with the same systematic and aggressive approach that he uses in business, and he has so much money to put into play. And then, the most wonderful part is that he feels an urge, a necessity, to share his treasure with the general public. And the result is that for a mere $12 adult admission, any ordinary person can live like royalty for an afternoon, experiencing one masterpiece after another. Norton Simon said that an art museum is like a substitute for a church, and I agree: a place to worship beauty, truth, and creativity.

As you enter the parking lot (parking is free), this dominating work by Barbara Hepworth, one of the foremost sculptors of the mid-20th century, announces that this place is about Art.

Barbara Hepworth
Four-Square (Walk-Through), 1966
I took this photo and all the photos
in this post with my iPad
You might recognize the museum's façade: it is the first building on the route of the Rose Parade down Colorado Boulevard.

The grounds of the museum features some extraordinary trees.

The front garden has several important works by Auguste Rodin, the foremost sculptor of the late 19th and early 20th century.

Auguste Rodin, 1840-1917
Saint John the Baptist, 1878-1880
Behind the museum is a glorious sculpture garden, where iconic sculptures are placed with gorgeous trees and plantings in a spectacular setting.

A serpentine waterway complements the shape of the museum.
Across the pond is a sculpture by Maillol.

Aristide Maillol, 1861-1944
The Mountain, 1937
The presence of sculptures brings out the sculptural qualities of the trees and plants.

Ancient tree trunk has a sculptural quality.
This smoke tree complements the brick facing.
The presence of trees brings out the organic qualities of the sculpture.

This sculpture by Henry Moore blends in with the tree behind it.
Here's another work by Henry Moore that is less abstract.

Henry Moore, 1898-1986
Draped Reclining Woman, 1957-58
While we're talking about Henry Moore, let's move inside for another example. You can see that he had quite a broad range stylistically.

Henry Moore, 1898-1986
Family Group #1, 1949
There is also another work by Maillol inside.

Aristide Maillol1861-1944
Three Nymphes, 1930-1937
And there is another great work by Barbara Hepworth as well.

Barbara Hepworth, 1902-1975
Assembly of Sea Forms, 1972
The day of our visit, the special exhibit, Tête-à-tête, featured three masterpieces from the Musée d'Orsay in Paris. This generation of painters, born in the 1830s and 1840s, was moving away from painting traditions that were formal and self-important toward pictures that were more intimate and casual.

James Whistler, 1834-1903
Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1
(Portrait of the Artist’s Mother), 1871
Édouard Manet, 1832-1883
Émile Zola, 1868
Paul Cézanne, 1839-1906
The Card Players, c. 1892-1896
The Museum complemented this set with other works by these artists and their contemporaries from their own collection.

Paul Cézanne, 1839-1906
Vase of Flowers, 1880-81
Henri Fantin-Latour, 1836-1904
White and Pink Mallows in a Vase, 1895
Some of the painters of this time developed a style with loose brushstrokes, natural light, and vibrant color that became known as Impressionism.

Claude Monet, 1840-1926
The Artist’s Garden at Vétheuil, 1881
Camille Pissarro, 1830-1903
The Poultry Market at Pontoise, 1882
The next generation, born in the 1850s and 1860s, took these ideas even further in Post-Impressionism.

Vincent van Gogh, 1853-1890
The Mulberry Tree, 1889
Vincent van Gogh, 1853-1890
Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, 1888
Pierre Bonnard, 1867-1947
Portrait of Leila Claude Anet, 1930
The same generation was also the first to develop abstract painting. One of the earliest abstractionists, Vasily Kandinsky, was arguably the greatest. These examples show his wide range of styles.

Vasily Kandinsky, 1866-1944
Open Green, 1923
Vasily Kandinsky, 1866-1944
Heavy Circles, 1927
The foremost artists of the early part of the 20th century were Matisse and Picasso. Both were searching and experimental throughout their long careers.

Henri Matisse, 1869-1954
Nude on a Sofa, 1923
Pablo Picasso, 1881-1973
Woman with a Book, 1932
Here is a beloved image by one of their contemporaries from Mexico. Art trends are international.

Diego Rivera, 1886-1957
The Flower Vendor (Girl with Lilies),
It is not uncommon for a museum to have a collection of European painting from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Several museums in this country have works by these artists and their contemporaries. What really gives the Norton Simon depth is the number of Old Masters, meaning painters from the 18th century and earlier.

Here are a few outstanding works from the 1700s. Notice how polished they look, as though the human hand were not involved.

François Boucher, 1703-1770
The Beautiful Country Woman, c. 1732
Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, 1755-1842
Theresa, Countess Kinsky, 1793
Marie-Geneviève Bouliar, 1763-1825
Self-Portrait, 1792
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, 1780-1867
Baron Joseph-Pierre de Mortatieu, 1805
Moving backwards in time, the 1600s is the age of Rembrandt.

Rembrandt van Rijn, 1606-1669
Portrait of a Bearded Man in a Wide-Brimmed Hat, 1633
Rembrandt van Rijn, 1606-1669
Self-Portrait, c. 1636-1638
Here's a wonderful painting by an Italian contemporary of Rembrandt's.

Baciccio, 1639-1709
St. Joseph and the Infant Christ, c. 1680
During the 1600s, floral still lifes became an important type of painting.

Jan Brueghel the Younger, 1601-1678
Flowers in a Gilt Tazza, c. 1620
Rachel Ruysch, 1664-1750
Nosegay on a Marble Plinth, c. 1695
Continuing to turn the clock backwards, the generation born in the late 1500s included Frans Hals and the incomparable Peter Paul Rubens.

Peter Paul Rubens, 1577-1640
The Holy Women at the Sepulchre, c. 1611-1614
Frans Hals, 1580-1666
Portrait of a Young Man, 1650-1655
In the 1500s, art was still largely dominated by religious stories.

Jacopo Bassano, 1510-1592
The Flight into Egypt, c. 1544-1545

Jan Massys, 1509-1575
Susanna and the Elders, 1564
In the 1400s, when artists first gained the stature to be known by name, most of the art that has come down to us was commissioned by some church or religious organization. The Madonna was the most popular subject. Even if religion turns you off, you can appreciate the warmth of feeling expressed, the balanced compositions, the harmonious colors, the tender shapes and lyrical lines, and the contemplative mood.

Botticelli, 1444-1510
Madonna and Child with Adoring Angel, c. 1468
Raphael, 1483-1520
Madonna and Child with Book, c. 1502-03
All of which brings us back to the idea of museum as a place of worship. A visit to the Norton Simon is uplifting and restorative.