The New York Philharmonic had a guest soloist on Saturday night: Alisa Weilerstein, the American cellist. Readers of The New Criterion are well familiar with her. I have, for many years, called her one of the greatest instrumentalists in the world. Indeed, one of the greatest musicians.
Her concerto on Saturday night was the Dvorak. Some years ago, I did a public interview at the Salzburg Festival with a famous cellist. I asked him whether he ever got a little tired of playing the Dvorak concerto. He seemed shocked and scandalized by this question. Indeed, offended by it. Well, then.
Dvorak wrote his concerto in the 1890s. I wonder whether he knew he was writing the No. 1 concerto in the entire cello-concerto repertory. Let’s see, what’s his competition?
Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms—they wrote no cello concerto. So that’s them out of the way. Schubert didn’t write a concerto for anybody. Mendelssohn, no. Wagner, Bruckner, Mahler, no.
Haydn, yes, of course—two cello concertos. Schumann wrote one. Not nearly his best piece. The best that can be said for it is that it’s better than his violin concerto. Some twenty-five years after Dvorak, Elgar wrote his own cello concerto. Shostakovich would write two. And then there’s Prokofiev’s marvelous “symphony-concerto.”
But I believe Dvorak remains champeen.
The scheduled conductor with the New York Philharmonic was Christoph von Dohnanyi, the veteran German. He was indisposed, however, and replaced by a young Pole, Krzysztof Urbanski. He is the reigning maestro in two different cities: Indianapolis and Trondheim (Norway). He has kind of spiky, kind of punk hair. He holds his baton in an unusual position: high and straight. More about him later.
Let’s talk about Weilerstein’s playing of the concerto. It was very good, of course. But I will pick on it, for a movement or two. Much of her playing in the opening Allegro was sloppy and unfocused. She used too much portamento too early, in my judgment. She was turning the concerto into a slidefest. Who does she think she is, a trombonist?
In the early part of the middle movement, there was too much rubato, as Weilerstein was stretching, stretching. The music did not sparkle or move, from either the soloist or the orchestra. But then we got to the unaccompanied bit for cello—and here Weilerstein was marvelous. She rendered this portion like the slow movement of a Bach suite, Romanticized.
For the Finale, Urbanski chose one tempo. And, when she came in, Weilerstein set another—a faster one. And she played this movement superbly. Her musical judgment—her musicality, her je ne sais quoi—came to the fore. Her technique was on display, too. She played one of the tightest trills you’ll ever hear. And she played some of Dvorak’s phrases so poignantly, you almost winced.
Bear with me on this one: Near the end of the piece, there’s one of the most interesting, most ingenious, most effective notes in music—a D natural, after many D sharps. (I’m talking about concert pitch.) Weilerstein played it just right. She didn’t highlight it. She didn’t need to. It highlights itself, just by being. At the same time, she wasn’t too matter-of-fact. As I said, just right.
Maestro Urbanski did a creditable job. He used no score, by the way, which is fairly unusual for a conductor in a concerto. And I should single out some players.
Anthony McGill, the clarinet, came through. He is new to the Philharmonic. He has been in the opera pit for a long time. Does he appreciate playing these Dvorak licks, after so many years of Barbers and whatnot? (But I shouldn’t guffaw: There is plenty of good clarinet music, and great clarinet music, in opera.)
Sherry Sylar, the oboe, was outstanding, too. She made her beautiful sound and demonstrated her pliancy. She is one of the most stylish players in the orchestra, I think. When Joseph Robinson left the orchestra, in 2005, I was rooting for Sylar to become principal. Didn’t happen. But you can still hear her, now and then.
Also, the principal horn, Philip Myers, had a very good Dvorak concerto.
Alisa Weilerstein played an encore—the slow movement of a Bach suite. What can I tell you? It was slow, Romantic, inward, impassioned, prayerful, holy, intense. It was sublime. Perfect. Just about the best thing I have heard all season.
Weilerstein is very well educated. To begin with, both of her parents are renowned music teachers. But believe me, you can’t teach what she has.
After intermission, Urbanski led the orchestra in more Dvorak, the Symphony No. 7. I will make just a few remarks about it. Urbanski used no score, of course. (If you don’t use one in the concerto, you don’t use one in the symphony.) His reading was sensible. Urbanski was very relaxed on the podium. Self-assured.
Here is a criticism of his reading: It was a little undifferentiated. By that I mean, it was generally loud and blowsy. More variation in dynamics, for example, would have been welcome.
Here is a tip o’ the hat: Urbanski took very little time between movements, preserving the momentum and sense of the symphony, which was wonderful. Too few conductors do this. There is too much time between movements.
Finally, I feel a little guilty about Philip Myers and the rest of the horns. In my “New York Chronicle” for the next issue of the magazine, I have a paragraph of lamentation about the horns—at least about their performance in one (recent) concert. In the Dvorak Seventh, they played like angels. Crossed me up.
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Jessica Grové and Matt Dengler in The Underclassman; photo by Richard Termine via playbill.com
Not everybody’s sophomore year would make for a compelling drama. But don’t tell that to F. Scott Fitzgerald—miraculously, he managed to turn his own sophomore slump at Princeton into This Side of Paradise, the novel that would launch one of the most celebrated literary careers that America has ever seen.
The Underclassman, a presentation of the Prospect Theater Company which finished its run at the Duke on 42nd Street last Friday, draws on the spirit of Fitzgerald’s breakout work, only with the redacted autobiographical material restored. Gone are many memorable scenes, including the unforgettable exchange that forever cast “all Harvard men as sissies...and all Yale men as wearing big blue sweaters and smoking pipes.” But Fitzgerald’s crisp wit, and the dull, nostalgic glow of Princeton in the 'teens remain in this entertaining—if not entirely coherent—new musical.
The characters, by and large, are capably written, and convincingly played: Matt Dengler as a benignly self-interested Scott Fitzgerald, Piper Goodeve as his old flame Marie, and Billy Hepfinger as campus lit mag editor (and future literary critic) Edmund Wilson. Jessica Grové in particular was impossibly charming as the recalcitrant debutante Ginevra King, the young Fitzgerald’s would-be romance (and, in later life, recurring muse).
The musical is at its absolute best when its composer and lyricist, Peter Mills, allows it simply to be what it is—a period piece. Most of the work’s numbers lie musically somewhere between Cole Porter and Frank Loesser, and the rhetorical fireworks of the lyrics are riotously funny, filled with playful internal rhymes, first-rate wordplay, and gentle satire. “Improvising,” a flirtatious duet between Scott and Ginevra, modulates from G to A to B-flat, all the way back to G, each line beginning with an excellent pun on the new key (..."we'll be flat broke"...).
Things unravel a bit in the second act, which tries to inject more drama into the plot than it can take. Moreover, several of the numbers here sink into generic Broadway-modernism in a way that is entirely at odds with the spirit of the rest of the piece (the whole production, in fact, began with that same tinkling chord that has started seemingly every musical to go up in New York in the past decade). And if I can have one last stuffy music-critic gripe: All of the performers were miked. It’s standard practice, sure, but the Duke is a 200-seat theater; why use an intimate black box space if you’re just going to throw away the intimate experience of hearing real, live voices?
Still, there was so much to enjoy in this quirky piece that it makes one excited to see what else Mills will come up with if he can resist the urge to imitate his contemporaries. According to his bio, he’s currently working on a musical called The Honeymooners—it’s unclear whether that’s a tip of the cap to the classic Jackie Gleason sketch, but that would certainly seem like a worthy subject for someone with a talent for period comedy.
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Installation view: Blue Times, Kunsthalle Wien (2014)
It's a risky business to stage an exhibition dedicated to the concept of color. It would seem simple: presumably, colors are little more than the range of frequency at which we see light. But individual colors, and whole movements dedicated to their permutations, have occupied the interiors of institutions for the better half of the past sixty years. In Blue Times, at the Kunsthalle Wien in Vienna, Austria, the color blue is the primary topic of discussion: as a mood, a pigment, a status symbol, and even a sentient being.
Though the works exhibited spanned a range of periods and disciplines, two individual pieces stood out. The first and inarguably most powerful work is Derek Jarman's Blue (1993), his last film before succumbing to AIDS in 1994. It is a defiant gesture, a 75-minute cinematic masterpiece with nothing visible onscreen except a dense field of blue. Ambient sounds and soundtracks (including contributions from Erik Satie, Brian Eno, Tilda Swinton, and Nigel Terry) are interwoven with a tragic narrative told by Jarman himself: of the onset of AIDS, the gradual disappearance of his friends due to the virus, the panic of isolation, and the beautiful dreams of inner peace that would never be realized.
The second piece, Jonathan Monk's The World in Workwear (2011) is a collection of fabrics worn by the global workforce. The color blue is present both in the pre-fabricated uniforms of the working class and in the myriad high-fashion items produced by developing economies, mainly in Southeast Asia and India. Blue, for Monk, represents uniformity and compliance; it is the color of labor and anonymity for millions around the world. Walking past vitrines containing blue squares of fabric marked by their country of origin, it is nearly impossible not to feel saddened ("blue," in this case) by the staggering level of invisibility that the color imposes on those whose work invariably supports only a minute fraction of the socio-economic elite.
Jonathan Monk, The World In Workwear, 2011, Courtesy der Künstler und Galleri Nicolai Wallner, Kopenhagen
Artist Yves Klein's patented shade “International Klein Blue” was an inevitable presence. His small, simmering canvas coated in the customized pigment (Monochrome Bleu, 1961) is set against Renovation Filter Lobby (2000) an intense maze of blue, Greco-style lines laid out in vinyl against a white wall, a map created by conceptual artist Liam Gillick. The piece’s sense of grandeur is given a jab of underhanded humor by its juxtaposition with Walter Swennen's Super blaue Reiter (1998), a play on Der Blaue Reiter, the avant-garde movement begun by Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc.
Installation view: Blue Times, Kunsthalle Wien (2014)
Realized in the form of a triumphant rider in blue garb, the piece feels like a teenager's ultra-machismo rock n' roll poster compared to the intensity of Gillick’s piece. This vignette is one of the show's most successful elements. A mashup of historical gravitas (Klein) and modern irreverence (Gillick and Swennen), the wall sprawls out over sixty-five feet, an immersive trifecta that calls on the color blue's associative qualities of aristocracy, power, and strength.
Walter Swennen, Super blaue Reiter, 1998, Courtesy Collection Mu.Zee, Oostende
Other segments of the exhibition were less effective at supporting the show's purported curatorial aim, "to chart an associative social history of the color blue that not only focuses on its psychological, metaphorical and associative power, but also on its instrumentalization for ideological, political, and economic purposes." Gitarre (2014), by Berlin-based artist duo Prinz Gholam, is an acoustic guitar mounted on a plinth. Inside the instrument, a video can be seen of two men (presumably the artists) in repose: one strums a guitar, the other moves in deliberate gestures vacillating between affectionate and erotic. There may be a far-flung association with "playing the blues" or having the guitar act as a combatant to "the blues," but it is extremely difficult to extract it in this guise. The music possesses no connection to American jazz, the actions of the two men do not appear particularly melancholy, nor does the color appear prominently in the film or its protective guitar shell.
Prinz Gholam,Gitarre, 2014, Courtesy Galerie Jocelyn Wolff, Paris
Another artist duo, De Rijke / De Rooij, presents a series of eighty-one monochrome slides, collectively entitled Orange (2004). The title represents the spectral opposite of blue, and the piece’s presence in the museum space takes the form of single-color slides projected in succession against a white wall, with texts appearing periodically. Only a viewer familiar with color theory would immediately pick up on the opposing quality of orange to blue, and the texts (referencing the wall texts scripted for use in institutional and commercial visual art spaces) would be of no help to those searching for even a hint of the color they came to see. While institutional critique and text-based artwork often valuable, this work is the odd square peg in the proverbial round hole. Intellectual exercises in color association are entirely permissible and, in this exhibition, could be wholly commendable, but when the exercises surpass the reach of a public audience (even one, in Vienna, that is considerably better informed on matters of arts and philosophy than many of its European or American counterparts), they contribute little more than academic posturing.
Still, Blue Times is a challenging and enjoyable experience. The exhibition is laden with treasures and objects that recall the color blue for all of its history, its quirkiness, and its enduring power to jump-start the imagination.
Blue Times opened at the Kunsthalle Wien in Vienna, Austria, on October 1, 2014 and runs through January 11, 2015.
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Jacob Collins. Orange, 2007. Oil on panel
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This week: Dickens is fictionalized, a poet writes prose, and artists paint from life.
Fiction: The Final Recollections of Charles Dickens, by Thomas Hauser (Counterpoint): In this new historical novel, Thomas Hauser takes Charles Dickens and his vibrant nineteenth-century English world as his subject. The Final Recollections is a fictional autobiography of Charles Dickens. Writing as an old and sickly Dickens reflecting back on his life, Hauser brings the culture and vibrant personalities of Dickens’s world back to life, lingering for the greater part of the book on 1836, the year in which Dickens’s editor introduces him to Geoffrey Wingate, a wealthy businessman who may have been involved in a violent murder. Exposed to Wingate’s corrupt world, Dickens finds plenty of drama, crime, and beautiful women to keep him busy. –RH
Nonfiction: Thomas Cromwell: The Untold Story of Henry VIII’s Most Faithful Servant, by Tracy Borman (Atlantic Monthly Press): Best known for engineering the fall of Anne Boleyn and easing the way for the Protestant Reformation in England, Thomas Cromwell has long been reviled as a Machiavellian schemer who received his just desserts. But Borman makes a strong argument that Cromwell’s fall from power was actually engineered by elites who despised him for being a commoner upstart, especially when she points out an incident often overlooked by historians: Cromwell arranged for his son to marry Queen Jane Seymour’s sister. —CE
Poetry: Essays after Eighty, by Donald Hall (Houghton Mifflin): The former U. S. poet laureate and National Medal of Arts winner writes that “poetry abandoned him” after he turned eighty-five, but his prose remains masterful. The topics of Hall’s essays tend to be autobiographical, and serve as a springboard to explore the human condition from the rarer vantage point of old age. —CE
Art: Grand Central Atelier Inaugural Group Show (December 5): The Grand Central Atelier is a collaborative workspace for artists who draw, paint, and sculpt from life, in line with the methodology of historic ateliers. Over fifty works showcasing contemporary realism will be on display during this first show in their new gallery space, and additional works from Resident Artists will also be for sale. —JP
Music: Dvorak’s Seventh Symphony and Weilerstein (December 6–9): This weekend, Alisa Weilerstein joins the New York Philharmonic for Dvorak's Cello Concerto in B minor. Any chance to hear this passionate young cellist is one worth taking, but she is one of those rare performers whose interpretations of the core repertoire amount to major additions to an already rich performance history. To hear her play a towering piece like this one is a can't-miss opportunity. Another Dvorak warhorse, his rich and stormy Seventh Symphony, rounds out the program. Krzysztof Urbanski conducts. —ECS
Other: The December issue is online and in print! For more than a decade, December has been the month of our special Art Issue. This year we again present a wide array of features and reviews focused on the visual arts, from Brutalist architecture to Matisse’s cut-outs to discussions of museum culture. We hope you read and enjoy. —CE
From the archive: “A conversation with William Bailey,” by William Bailey & Mark Strand: The poet Mark Strand interviewed the figurative painter William Bailey about the genesis and direction of his art.
From our latest issue: How Brooklyn missed Brooklyn, by James Panero: For years, the Brooklyn Museum has overlooked the art happening in its own backyard.
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I begin my latest “New York Chronicle”—out today in the magazine—with some comments about Elza van den Heever, a South African soprano. She gave a recital in Weill Hall. Here on the blog, I’d like to add a dollop to what I say in the chronicle.
Van den Heever sang two encores, ending with a song from her native land. Her first encore was an American song—a nod to her audience, I feel sure. And a kind gesture.
She sang a Charles Ives song, “Memories.” This is a popular song and a frequent encore. It is also a novelty. Everyone loves it. I love it too, sort of—but I don’t love it as much as I want to. As much as I think I should.
And this leads me to make a broad point about Ives. I like the idea of Ives, very much—probably more than I like the music itself. He is right up my alley: American, iconoclastic, visionary, traditional, modern—an original and a genius. But I like him more in mind than I do in life, if you know what I mean.
I’m working on it, though. I think I’m gaining a greater appreciation of Ives, year by year . . .
In my chronicle, I also discuss a concert performance of Alcina, the opera by Handel. It featured three mezzo-sopranos: Joyce DiDonato, Alice Coote, and Christine Rice. I comment on all of them. And I really go to town on Joyce D.
But there were other singers in the cast, and I’d like to touch on them here—in addition to making some other points.
A soprano named Anna Christy, an American, was in the mix. She was light, high, pure, and flexible (among other good things). With that kind of instrument, you can do a lot, musically. You can do some things theatrically, too.
There was another soprano named Anna: Anna Devin, an Irishwoman. (Yes, they make more than tenors in Ireland.) (I don’t mean that sopranos make more money than tenors do—although they may.) She was solid and secure. She proved the kind of singer about whom you can rest easy: She won’t stumble.
Amid the women was a bass, Wojtek Gierlach (a Pole, sure). He sang richly and beautifully. But his notes and words were often indistinct, lost in a bath of sound. Can you kind of picture it? Hear it? Still, though, what a voice!
Also singing with the women was an English tenor, Ben Johnson—no, not Ben Jonson, which is how you want to spell it. He has no doubt had better outings than he did on this afternoon.
But the singing in general was superb, almost uniformly so—which leads me to this point: We are in a very good age for singing. James Levine has often pointed this out. (As the music director of the Metropolitan Opera for about forty years, he should know.) We may not have the great Italianate singers we have had in the past, especially the great Verdi singers. (I am echoing Levine here.) But in Baroque, Classical, and other music—we are doing really well. Standards are very high.
Finally, before leaving Alcina, a note about its composer, Handel. His stream of melody was endless. He seems never to have struggled, never to have labored and agonized, in his long, productive, and magnificent life.
Regular readers know that my admiration for Yefim Bronfman is great. He is not just a pianist for today, but a pianist for all time. He is pantheonic. But even Homer nods, and, boy, did Bronfman nod with the New York Philharmonic. He played a nothingburger of a Bartók Third.
An excerpt from my chronicle: “In the first movement, Bronfman was stiff, careful, logical—and dull. In the slow movement, that beautiful, ineffable thing, he was plodding, vertical, and square. His fingers came down on the notes like unthinking sausages. The final movement had no fire, no thrill, no impishness, no jazz, no charm, no spark, no electricity. It was so much pianistic clock-punching.”
So, why am I dredging this up now? Just to rub it in? No, no—to tell you this: After the concert, I went home and listened to Bronfman play the Bartók Third on YouTube. The performance in question occurred last year, in Helsinki. On YouTube, it is broken up into two videos: here and here.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is Bronfmanesque. And Bartókian. This is a first-rate Bartók Third, full of music (to borrow a phrase from Artur Rubinstein). Music, like sports, is such a mystery. Weird alchemy is involved. Sometimes even greats get up on the wrong side of the bed. Too bad for the ticket-holders on that particular night . . .
Let me end on the subject of the flute. In my chronicle, I write about Christopher Rouse’s flute concerto, played at the Philharmonic by Robert Langevin, the orchestra’s principal. He is a Quebecker. And I have to ask, here on the blog, what is it about the flute and Frenchmen, or French-speakers? (Emmanuel Pahud is Swiss.) What is the special connection? And how did Sir James Galway—Jimmy from Belfast—break through? Some Frenchman, way back, mixing with the shamrock?
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Dana Gordon, "Endless Painting 1" (2014). Oil on canvas.
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This week: Beethoven, Shakespeare, and letters as sacred texts.
Fiction: Ticket to Childhood, by Nguyen Nhat Anh, Will Naythons, trans. (Overlook): The story of a man looking back on his life, this charming short work recalls The Little Prince in its depiction of childhood sensibilities pitted against an often illogical and absurd adult world. As we learn of the small miracles and tragedies that made up the narrator’s life—the misadventures and the misdeeds—we also meet his long-lost friends, none of whom can forget how rich their lives once were. The best-selling book in the history of modern Vietnam, this first English translation of Ticket to Childhood marks the arrival of a hugely appealing and engaging author. —CE
Nonfiction: America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder, by Bret Stephens (Sentinel HC): Bret Stephens is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for The Wall Street Journal. He should win another prize for this incisive and timely book about America’s turn inward from the world stage. On the campaign trail in 2008, Barack Obama promised to engage in “nation-building at home.” What we have seen over the last six years, however, is a deliberate abdication of our responsibilities as a great power. The results have been as predictable as they are dismaying: a newly militant Russia, an expansionist China, a near-nuclear Iran, chaos on our southern border, a withdrawal of confidence on the part of our traditional allies. Charles Krauthammer once said that decline was a choice, not an inevitability. But as Stephens shows, what we have seen in American under Barack Obama is not so much decline as retreat, i.e., the willful withdrawal from our foreign policy commitments. The stakes could not be higher, and Stephens’s announced ambition for this book—to serve as a foreign policy primer for the next Republican President—makes it essential reading. Look for the review by Keith Windschuttle in our December issue. –RK
Poetry: Ideas of Order: A Close Reading of Shakespeare's Sonnets by Neil Rudenstine (FSG): For those looking to continue their Shakespearean education (a wonderfully endless pursuit), Neil Rudenstine’s newest book Ideas of Order: A Close Reading of Shakespeare’s Sonnets is the perfect guide for both scholar and novice. Organizing Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets thematically, the former president of Harvard is able to dissect each sonnet for its individual poetic techniques, while also linking entire clusters of poems together by their broader narratives. Though some may disagree with Rudenstein’s interpretations, his book is an excellent way to jump into some of the best lyric poetry ever written. –RH
Art: Dana Gordon at Andre Zarre Gallery (Through December 6): While many artists paint widely, Dana Gordon paints deeply. For over a decade, Gordon has been dedicated to understanding the possibilities of embedding a surrealist-like form within a colorful grid. His kaleidoscopic work recalls stained glass and Orphic Cubism. Following up on a breakout exhibition at Williamsburg's Sideshow Gallery in 2013, Gordon has now landed at Chelsea's Andre Zarre. In one chapel-like room, white sheets of smoke billow up over his grids, just as Gordon's keen painterly touch cuts against the digital sense of the compositions. —JP
Music: Hilary Hahn and Beethoven’s Seventh (November 26-29): New York's musical offerings this week are on the thin side thanks to the Thanksgiving holiday (and will only get thinner with the advent of holiday pops season), but one set of concerts does stand out. For three nights, starting Wednesday, Hilary Hahn joins the New York Philharmonic for performances of Korngold's shining Violin Concerto. The Philharmonic, under the baton of Jaap van Zweden, will present Beethoven's brilliant Seventh, as well as the Cyrano de Bergerac Overture by Johann Wagenaar. —ECS
Other: Will Barnet: A Tribute (Through January 10, 2015): Will Barnet had a lasting connection to the New York art scene, exploring both abstraction and representation in depth. In 2011 he was awarded the National Medal of Arts, in part for his “nuanced and graceful depictions of family and personal scenes.” The Alexandre Gallery, which specializes in twentieth-century and contemporary American art, will exhibit a survey of nine paintings and related works on paper spanning Barnet’s career. —JP
From the archive: The rites of editing: letters as sacred texts, by Gloria G. Fromm: How should we construe the value of authors’ letters, especially when collections are so often incomplete?
From our latest issue: The compensations of Michael Oakeshott, by Timothy Fuller: Revisiting the philosopher through his personal notebooks.
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by Nola Tully
White Fence, Port Kent, New York. (1915). Platinum Print.
Though it feels like serendipity, “Paul Strand: Master of Modern Photography” was five years in the making. In 2009 the opportunity arose for the Philadelphia Museum of Art to acquire 3,000 prints from the Paul Strand Archive at Aperture, making it the world's largest and most comprehensive repository of the artist’s work. In 2010 the museum began cataloging Strand’s prints. From what is now a collection of over 4,000 works, the museum’s Brodsky Curator of Photography, Peter Barberie, has culled 250 for this critical reassessment of the artist’s evolution, and the result is worth the wait.
As a key figure in modernist photography, Strand is best known for his work from the early 1920’s. Yet in a career that spanned seven decades, he breezed through pictorialism, osmosed Cubism, fused abstraction and social documentation, printed books, made motion pictures, and often cannibalized his own earlier ideas and images in portraits of life across the globe. In projects he often referred to as “experiments” the inquiry of each informs the next. As the PMA’s show unfolds, it is staggering to consider how one artist could coherently navigate so many terrains, while allowing humanism to remain the driving force and connection betweeen sometimes disparate methods.
Strand mythologized his career as one of life’s accidents. Born in NYC in 1890 to first generation Americans of German-Jewish descent, he recounts that his father gave him his first camera, a Kodak Brownie, in 1902. From 1904 to 1908 he attended the Ethical Culture School in Manhattan, where the photographer Lewis Hine was assistant professor of biology and teacher of an extracurricular course in photography. Hine was not yet famous for his documentary photos of Ellis Island immigrants and child laborers, but he did introduce his students to Alfred Stieglitz and the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession at 291 Fifth Avenue, later known simply as “291.” This was, in Strand’s words, a “decisive day.” Less than a decade later, Strand had his first solo show, Photographs of New York and Other Places at 291.
The Armory Show of 1913 marked the migration of Modernism to America, and Steiglitz and his group were concurrently campaigning for the recognition of photography as a legitimate art form. Among Strand’s photos from his 291 show is River Neckar, Germany (1911), a vertical framing of the telescoping river with barren trees in the foreground that aligns more with the soft-focus style of the pictorialists, the early fine art photographers whose techniques imitated painting. But it marked a turning point for Strand.
By this time, he had abandoned what he alluded to as “Whistlering with a soft-focus lens.” Wall Street (1915), is a somber portrait of the city in morning light that marks a shift to the urban landscape. Here Strand sought to organize movement in a way that was abstract and yet “controlled.” A crowd of miniature men and women move along the bottom of the horizontal frame, figures casting elongated shadows onto the pavement and against the monolithic columns and shadows of the Morgan Trust building.
Wall Street, New York (1915). Platinum Print.
The exhibition continues chronologically, documenting the further evolution of Strand’s photographic style. White Fence, Port Kent, New York (1916), perhaps one of his most famous images, is a pivotal moment exemplifiying his brief foray into abstraction: the familiar shapes of a farmhouse, barn, and white fence flatten out and dominate the composition. Abstraction Bowls, Twin Lakes, Connecticut (1916) is a close-up of quotidian objects during Strand’s foray into Cubism. In an adjacent gallery, five emotional studies of Strand’s first wife, Rebecca, made over course of two years, are juxtaposed with elegantly composed photographs of his movie camera. Akeley Motion Picture Camera, New York (1923), is an homage to his trade and the hard muscular language of precision. Using the new medium of film, Strand revisited his depictions of the urban movement in Manhatta (1920), a short silent film inspired by Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, depicting a day in lower Manhattan. The gallery runs continuous loops of this film and excerpts from two of his others, Redes and Native Land.
In a 1923 essay, The Art Motive in Photography, Strand identifies the photograph as an organism with a life of its own that could hang beside a Durer, a Rubens, or a Corot without “falling to pieces.” His valuation is not based on beauty or artistic appearance but on something intrinsic, which he called “livingness.” As Peter Barbarie identifies in the catalogue essay, “For Strand realism could be woven out of fact or fiction, or both, but it had to say something tangible about the world. It left little room for cool detachment.” Eventually, Strand fcame to find Steiglitz’s work to be remote, and, by the end of the 1920’s, Strand had split from the 291 group and his marriage to Rebecca had ended. In the 1930’s he traveled to Mexico at the invitation of the Mexican composer Carlos Chávez. An exploration of leftist politics marked this next chapter of Strand’s work, which included realist filmmaking and the eventual founding of Frontier Films, Strand’s own film company.
Intellectually, Strand was fascinated by the ways in which time and history had shaped the people and places he photographed. He sought to show what was modern, vital, and present, and never ceased to question what the mechanical medium of photography could contribute as an art form. From Mexico, Strand wrote to a friend, Ted Stevenson,
Time in New England was Strand’s collaboration with Nancy Newhall on the first of his six books, and his attempt to reorient his work towards the traditional American subjects with which he had begun. Here, Strand assembled a lexicon of ordinary but quintessentially American objects that become what the exhibition curator Amanda Bock calls in her catalogue essay “the visual equivalents of democratic struggle,” conveying the labor of America’s founding without resorting to clichéd images. Just as the book was published in 1950, however, Strand moved to France. The goal of this move was to photograph a single village, but what resulted was a portrait series of French life.
In the following decades, Strand also documented life in Ghana and Egypt. But it was with his book Un Paese: Portrait of an Italian Village, published in 1955, that Strand at last achieved his goal of portraying a single community. In the early 1950s he focused on Luzzara in the Po River Valley, an area still recovering from WWII. Valentino Lusetti, Strand’s guide and translator, arranged to have his mother and five brothers to pose for The Family, Luzzara, Italy (The Lusettis) (1953). With two figures framed in a dark opening and more sitting and standing in front of a house, the image invokes a neorealist aesthetic and is as modern as any photograph today.
The Family, Luzzara (The Lusettis), 1953 (negative); Mid-late 1960s (print). Gelatin silver print.
Although his works were neither radical nor revolutionary, Strand, facing increased scrutiny for his political views, chose voluntary exile in France. Though he returned to the United States for short visits, he maintained residence in France from 1951 until his death in 1976.
The show closes with a series of photographs taken during Strand’s last years, which he spent in Orgeval, outside of Paris—depictions of domestic life, primarily the gardens around his house. The artist who made art out of other people’s everyday subjects, in the end turned his camera on his own everyday life—his gardens and near surroundings. The PMA’s retrospective cuts a wide swath, but the aggregate is intimate.
“Paul Strand: Master of Modern Photography” is on view in the Dorrance Galleries at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. from Oct. 21 through Jan. 4, 2015.
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What’s that saying? “The Scotsman is one who keeps the Sabbath and anything else he can lay his hands on.” Parsimonious? Sure, maybe a little. But we’re also… well, fissiparous. Last October, support for Scottish independence had flat-lined at twenty-five percent. Who could have guessed, back then, that a whopping 45.7 percent (that’s 1.6 million) of the (equally whopping) 84.6 percent of Scots who turned out to vote on September 18th would back a campaign which couldn’t tell us, post independence, if we would go back to hoarding pounds or groats? It’s time—so everyone keeps saying—that the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland “take a long, hard look at herself.”
Maybe so. “There can be no disputes, no reruns,” crowed a visibly rattled David Cameron the morning after. “We have heard the settled will of the Scottish people.” Decisive, yes, but settled? A 10.6-point margin of defeat—though wider than expected—is surely something of a Pyrrhic victory for us Unionists. So what went wrong?
For those unfamiliar with Caledonia’s constitutional arrangements (hardly a sin), here’s the abridged script: Scotland has enjoyed—some might say endured—a devolved, unicameral legislature since 1998, responsible for health and social services, education, law and order, housing, and local government. The Scottish National Party (SNP), headed by Alex Salmond (raison d'être: “independence”), has called the shots on these “devolved matters” since 2007. “Reserved matters,” i.e., everything else, remain issues for Westminster. This federal(ish) arrangement makes good sense. As David Hume (a great Scot) rightly observed, “truth springs from argument amongst friends.” Britannia, granted, no longer rules the waves. But 300 years of kinship, and a big single market, have left all four partners in pretty good shape.
Or so we thought. Listening to “Yes Scotland,” an unholy alliance between the SNP, The Scottish Green Party and (gasp) the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP), you’d think the Land of Hope and Glory was two clicks north of Sodom. The U.K., we learned—that voracious, sclerotic, cold-blooded drunken warlord on the edge of rosy Europe—is “broken”.
Salmond’s two main points were as follows: First off, the Scots are outnumbered ten to one, and our bigger brother’s voting habits (Conservative) are antipodal to our own. Not, by any means, a moot point, but then Glasgow and the Orkney Islands don’t vote the same way either. And an Orcadian free state? Hardly a covetable prospect. Besides, that tenth of Scots do a good job, intermittently, of ensuring that England—the only UK country without its own parliament—don’t get who they vote for, to boot. Second: “We could be a progressive beacon for those across these islands who yearn for a fairer society.” Gulp. The U.K., Salmond pointed out, is “the fourth most unequal country in the developed world”. Oh dear. Isn’t the conflation of fairness and equality a quintessentially British malady?
There’s a quip in Scotland—now a platitude—that we have fewer Conservative MPs than there are pandas at Edinburgh Zoo (two pandas). The antecedents to this appalling state of affairs—Thatcher’s deeply unpopular poll tax being the main offender—are manifold. Suffice to say, Scotland hates the Tories. Or so we’re told. 15 percent of us send our lone panda down to Westminster on a regular basis. In any case, the anti-Thatcher campfire of the late 1980s proved a convenient confluence for Scotland’s center-left parties (that’s British English for “socialist”), and they’ve been playing songs around the embers ever since. No surprise, then, that Salmond’s first job was to convince us that a “No vote” was really just a “Tory vote,” a tacit assent of a neo-liberal dystopia doomed to a succession of David Camerons brandishing croquet mallets, welfare cuts and Trident II D-5 ballistic missiles. The referendum, cooed Salmond, was “Team Scotland [the “Yes” Campaign] against Team Westminster”.
This clever, binary distinction was just one way by which Salmond averted scrutiny from the SNP’s hopeless (nay, delusional) economic and fiscal policy. As The Spectator’s Alex Massie observed, “it is not possible to spend more, borrow less and tax the same”. Quite. Even if his hugely optimistic forecast for oil revenue—some £7bn a year—were accurate, Salmond would still have to account for a £10bn fiscal black hole, which of course he couldn’t. And then there was currency. What would we be paid in? Sterling, we knew, was off the table. No answer. Perhaps Salmond, like Joseph Stiglitz, thought currency a “non-issue.” Little wonder big business was a heartbeat away from packing its bags for more auspicious climes (i.e., England). But flagging up these issues proved a challenge. Thanks to Salmond, the “No” Campaign quickly earned the appellation “Project Fear”—an absurd, but brilliant, bit of huckstering. Any grievances with Salmond’s master-plan, like The Centre for Economics and Business Research’s prediction that an independent Scotland would lose between 20,000 and 40,000 jobs, was swiftly shelved under “Tory scaremongering.” This politics of opposition proved so delectable most of us forgot to ask how well the SNP were looking after those devolved matters already within their purview. Appallingly, is the answer – particularly in education, which Massie is right to call “Scotland’s greatest national disgrace.”
So why, all things considered, did Salmond’s Panglossian narrative win so many souls? To be sure, it is much easier to be taken in by a Foucault than by a Burke. Clamor will always have the upper hand over quietude (especially for Scots). That said, the “No” campaign was, from start to finish, a botched job. The nationalists, to be fair, led a tactfully un-nationalist campaign. Scottish patriotism would throttle their multicultural predilections, and they knew it. The unionists, conversely, needed all the patriotism they could get. But they never could quite articulate why the Union mattered. “Romance,” noted Sir Walter Scott “is a revolt against the despotism of facts.” Where was the romance? For left-liberals, of course, it is unthinkable to love a country and not its government, so they love neither. For the rest of us, it would have been nice to be reminded of that vast cultural inheritance, of those values, institutions, customs, traditions and virtues which were once a beacon for humanity—of all those things which made this country “Great” in the first place. But no such luck.
What’s top of the SNP’s agenda now? Another referendum. “I believe perhaps more strongly than I ever have that we will be independent,” says Nicola Sturgeon, now party leader. These people just can’t stomach the idea of a sentient opponent. Those poor “No” voters were duped, they howled, scared-stiff, coerced, cajoled. This condescending tripe shows little sign of abatement. In any case, it’s looking far less likely now that independence, as Salmond assured us, is a “once in a generation question.”
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In the Aeneid, the Roman poet Virgil sang of "arms and a man" (Arma virumque cano). Month in and month out, The New Criterion expounds with great clarity and wit on the art, culture, and political controversies of our times. With postings of reviews, essays, links, recs, and news, Armavirumque seeks to continue this mission in accordance with the timetable of the digital age.
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