7/21/17

Sabra Field at Middlebury College Museum of Art

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SABRA FIELD, THEN AND NOW: A RETROSPECTIVE

Middlebury College Museum of Art

Through August 13, 2017


If you don’t live in Vermont, perhaps the name Sabra Field doesn’t ring immediate bells. But you know her art. With the possible exception of Woody Jackson—he of the black and white Holsteins that grace Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream products—no recent artist has done more to evoke Vermont’s rural heritage than Ms. Field. Not many artists can claim that 60 million people have seen her work. In 1991, she pulled out nostalgic stops for a red barn, verdant fields, green hills, and blue skies ensemble that graced U.S. postage stamps. If that sounds more commercial than artistic, read on.



Although she is now 82, has lived in East Barnard since 1967, and has been producing art since her undergraduate days in the 1950s, her Middlebury College retrospective is aptly titled “Then and Now.” It includes old favorites among the 100 works on display, but also more recent work like a sixteen-panel assemblage titled “Cosmic Geometry,” which on the surface appears to a collection of spirals, angles, architectural details, shapes, and natural objects, but which might also be viewed as metaphors for life and passages. Even more stunning is her “Pandora Suite,” a powerful exploration of the human experience from the exaltations of love to the ugliness of racism and the insanity of war. There’s much more to Sabra Field than barns and farms.



Still, there’s no escaping the fact that Field is first and foremost associated with tranquil wood block prints that capture the solitude of the Vermont countryside. And if you wonder about the postage stamp thing, consider that for many years Field grappled the same challenge that most artists face: how to parlay the creative spirit into something that resembles making a living. She raised a family, taught art to supplement the family budget, flogged her work at craft fairs, and did small shows. Emily and I first saw her work in the 1970s at the Montshire Museum in Norwich, and the fact that it’s science museum gives you a clue that Field's impact was more modest back then. Here’s another tip-off; we own a few of her prints—things we bought for much less than they’d go for now! 





 If you look hard at Field’s prints, you begin to realize that she’s doing more than romanticizing rural vistas or seeking to fossilize fading ways of life. There is a Zen-like quality to a lot of her work. In some cases, Japanese aesthetics are pretty obvious, but there are others in which it’s subtler. You stand before scenes of waving grass, puffy clouds, undulating fields, and lumpy mountains that are bisected by fence lines, silos, shadows, of contrasting patches of color and, without realizing it is happening, you sink into a meditative state. Others, like “Fox in Winter” or any of a number of deep frost scenes force you to think upon the dance of life, struggle, survival, and mortality. Or, if you wish, you could just see her work as appealing to the eye. If you can make it to the show, though, you’ll learn from the captions and a video that Field had more in mind than simply making pretty pictures. My personal take is that we ought to take regional artists such as she much more seriously than we do. But I suspect that Sabra Field would be happy that people like what they see—no matter what they make of it.
 

If you can’t get to Middlebury before August 13, don’t despair. Ms. Field is an alum and the college is a repository for her work, so there’s likely to be something on display next time you’re passing through. And there are always Vermont galleries to consider. Field is now such an icon that it’s a rare independent gallery than doesn’t have something of hers on offer. You’ll know her work when you see it. First the color will grab you, then the composition, and then…?



Rob Weir










7/19/17

More Bad Ideas



It's nice to know in our age of limits that there's never a shortage of bad ideas out there. Here's the latest bountiful crop.

Worst.Fashion.Ever.
Men's rompers take the already ridiculous fashion industry to depths I couldn't have even imagined. I am actually at a loss for words to describe how appalling I find these. Simple message to anyone who thinks donning a pair of rompers makes you a hipster: No! They make you look like a bigger rube than a Bernie Madoff investor. Take a good look. I wouldn't wear one of these to bed for fear of mattress rejection. Wait. I take it back. I did wear these to bed—when I was two. I'm stupefied that any guy would wear one of these.





A dubious hero.
Alex Honnold is an amazing physical specimen and a brave guy. He's also incredibly lucky. Honnold is the first person to scale Half Dome at Yosemite National Park solo without the use of any ropes or safety equipment. He did it four hours, often hanging over sheer drops that would have sent him to a quick but terrifying death. I get it. Mountain climbers know that what they do is dangerous, thrive on the adrenaline, and accept that risks. I don't mean to belittle Honnold's achievement in any way, but making him into a media hero is a very and idea. About a dozen people per year already die in Yosemite and valorizing acts such as this serves only tempt those with less skill and common sense to try to top Honnold's feat. If you think I exaggerate, check out the numbers of injuries and deaths associated with trying to top stunts in the Dumb and Dumber movies. We should not give such exposure to acts such as Honnold's. What he does with his life is his business, but it should a private act, not a media circus.

Is this the best way?
Last Saturday I was strolling toward my local farmers' market and was approached by religious pamphleteers standing by a sign that read: "What Does the Bible Really Teach About Homosexuality?" I politely walked on by as I've (finally!) learned that there is no point in debating those whose minds are already made up. I will say, though, that in my life no gay person has ever tried to convert me to anything. Nor have they ever accosted me on the streets, rang my doorbell, or stuffed a pamphlet under my door. Mostly, though, I have come to think that on-the-spot proselytizing is a bad idea. I think the same thing when Jehovah's Witnesses or Mormons come calling. Does anyone ever open the door, take a pamphlet, fall to their knees, scream "Hallelujah," and give all their assets to The Watchtower? Or don a white shirt, tie, and black pants for Brigham Young's sake? I am not anti-religion, but it seems to me that this sort of raises ire, not followers, which is what happened at the farmers' market in decidedly gay-friendly Northampton, Massachusetts. Plus, I happen to think that Christian conversion efforts rely too heavily on the Paul on the road to Damascus narrative. Conversion to anything—faith, sobriety, or political ideology—is almost always a process not an instance.

Imagine a world...
Pulling out of the Paris Accords is beyond a bad idea—it's an act that moves the hand on the Doomsday Clock. Most of the Climate Change deniers aren't actually anti-science; they are just so pro-greed that they refuse to contemplate the future beyond the next investment quarter. They are perfectly willing to parry your concern for your grand kids with a middle digit thrust upward. The sad part, though, and the really, really bad part is that they are allowed to get away with this. That is to say that we give forums to such craven people and allow them to spread falsehood among the gullible and/or less informed. I'm generally not a fan of censorship, but I would favor laws to prosecute climate change denial along the lines in which Germany has outlawed Holocaust denial. Let me put it this starkly. If you are a climate change denier, you must ask yourself this question: "What if I'm wrong?" It's lunacy to gamble on being right. Far better that a future generation should laugh at alarmists than there be no one left to laugh. It's a very bad idea not to oppose withdrawal from the Paris Accords with all your might.

 

7/17/17

Things to Come: Seriously Compromised

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THINGS TO COME (2016)
Directed by Mia Hansen-Løve
Les Films de Losange, 102 minutes, PG-13. In French with subtitles.

Things to Come has captured quite a few film awards. Mia Hensen-Løve won the Best Director award at the Berlin International Film Festival, and critics in both New York and London chose Isabelle Huppert as Best Actress for her work in this film. I am at a complete loss to understand why. My only guess is that critics somehow believe that the film's anachronistic messages are still relevant, not decades past their sell-by date.

Nathalie Chazeaux (Huppert) teaches philosophy at a Paris high school and, in her spare time, dotes on a former protégé, Fabien (Roman Kolinka). She is intellectually satisfied, has a thriving career as a textbook writer/editor, is the mother of two adult children, and dwells in a tidy Paris home with her husband Heinz (André Marcon), a university philosophy professor. The two share an abiding love in all things deep and academic. The only seeming complication is that Nathalie has a needy, elderly mother, whom she treats as more of an annoyance than as a concerned daughter/caregiver.

As such films go, things fall apart. Heinz leaves Nathalie for a younger woman, her mother dies, and she inherits a cat named Pandora to whom she is allergic (or so says the script, though Nathalie shows no outward signs of being so). Allegorically speaking, we are about to open Pandora's box. Nathalie even loses her job with the publishing house, which suddenly discovers there really isn't much of a market for a firm that only sells philosophy books. Hello! This has been the case since the 1970s. Sorry, but I can't believe that anyone in the 21st century is making big royalties from publishing cheap paperback philosophy tracts. Nor do I believe that it took France 40 years to discover that academic presses aren't goldmines. But for now, let's assume that any of this is remotely plausible. Nathalie's reaction to her snowballing misfortunes? "The future seems compromised."

If only this were the singular thing in this film that was compromised. It plays like Woody Allen at his worst. As in Allen's films, no one in Things to Come speaks like a normal human being. This is certainly the case of Nathalie's high school students, all of whom seem to be like Jean-Paul Sartre in teen garb. Moreover, Natalie's laconic acceptance for her new reality strikes all of the wrong notes, even though we are supposed to imagine that she has been freed to pursue an authentic existential self. I have lived an academic life and I have seen intellectuals dissolve their relationships. Can I just say that most of these partings are more Nietzsche than Sartre?

I get the fact that Nathalie is stuck in 1968, the year France was in rebellion, students like she were at the barricades, and the French Fifth Republic nearly tumbled. I also know that the ideas were taken very seriously back that. Keywords: back then. Nathalie isn't a Marxist gamine anymore; she lives the bourgeois life she loves to critique. In like manner, Fabien fancies himself an anarchist but he's really, as Heinz points out, an impolite leech. Nathalie later visits him at a self-styled anarchist commune tucked among the Rhône-Alpes peaks that replicates some of the worst 60s-style chauvinism. Other than that, it seems more like a ski chalet than a commune.

A scene that makes even less sense takes place in the Paris movie theater, where a man gropes Nathalie. Who the hell is he? A former lover? A pervert? We never find out. When Nathalie storms out of the movie, the man follows her, but never says a word before sulking off when Nathalie yells, "I'm not in the mood." This is a creepy scene with a distressingly trite resolution.

You don't need to be a philosophy major to figure out this film's themes. Natalie is an aging 50s-something woman on the cusp of losing her desirability. (She's actually 64.) Her daughter and her child represent the continuation of her physical life and Fabien and his circle are symbolic of her intellectual legacy. Natalie needs to reinvent herself for the final phase of her life, lest she end up like her whiny mother. All of this is so heavy-handed that this film can be said to be seriously compromised.

Rob Weir

7/14/17

MassMoCA Always a Showcase of New Delights

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In the last post I spotlighted the Clark Institute of Art. If you're headed for Williamstown,  be sure to pop over to the adjacent town of North Adams to visit the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, better known as Mass MoCA. I visit the Clark to see old favorites, but I go to Mass MoCA see things I've never seen before. #massmoca



A word on the campus and the town of North Adams: Mass MoCA is located on the 24-acre site of what was previously Sprague Electric. At one time, Sprague employed more than 4,100 people and its 1985 closure ripped the guts out of a town that was already on the downward slope. In the first four decades of the 20th century, North Adams was home to about 22,000; today there are fewer than 14,000. Mass MoCA opened its doors in 1999, a gutsy move in a fading blue-collar town where locals much prefer lager to LeWitt. Naysayers predicted that Mass MoCA would be a taxpayer-subsidized flop. They were wrong. Mass MoCA will never replace all those lost Sprague jobs—not with a staff that's more in the order of 50, not thousands. North Adams is still pocked by empty red brick factories and substandard housing, but Mass MoCA does generate around $10 million each year for the local economy. Score one for art.

Here's the deal: You won't like everything you see there, but the stuff that does grab you is likely to be stuff you've seldom before encountered. Contemporary art differs radically from classical art in that it's more speculative. Collectors may spend a lot of money on pieces, but it's as big a gamble as Mass MoCA itself whether the investment will pay off.  Curators, critics, and collectors think they have discriminating tastes, but they are often spectacularly wrong—as evidenced by the kind of art that today hangs in conventional museums, much of which was denounced in its day as rubbish. If you see things at Mass MoCA that strike you as landfill, you might end up being right, but maybe not! 

To show my own cards, I'm not a big fan of visual word art; that is, pieces that are supposed to blow me away with the juxtaposition of words—often too small to read when on the wall—with other media. I find such works too personal to resonate broadly and, frankly, I find a lot of it nonsense dressed in pretentious explanations. I also lose patience with most video installations—mostly because I don't want to waste my time and energy on them. (I also see film as a different form of mental stimulation.) My final admission is that I can't stand the aforementioned (Sol) LeWitt. I think he' was the P.T. Barnum of art. Others love him; thereby proving art is, in the end, subjective.  





When Mass MoCA scores, it scores big. Two exhibits playing this summer fit that bill. The first, Radical Small by Elizabeth King, borrows from Walt Whitman the idea of the eidolon—projecting human likenesses onto inanimate objects. The monster in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is a form of this; ditto Pinocchio. Eidolons show up elsewhere: carnival automatons, androids, the golem of Jewish folktales, homunculi, shape-shifters, the folkloric fetch, wraiths, the White Walkers of Game of Thrones…. King serves them to us visually, through uses of film, poppets, masks, small machines, photographs, and representations of body parts like floating heads that are stripped from the overall human physique. It's at once fascinating, disturbing, visually stunning, and creepy.   



Even more fascinating is an installation by Nick Cave, an African American artist not to be confused with the Australian musician of the same name, though the two share morbid fixations. His Until appears at first a riot of pleasure: thousands of dangling glittering objects that look like a forest of scored CDs with cut-outs. Then you walk among them and revelation dawns. Those beautiful 'sunbursts' aren't at all what you thought; they are the flashes from gun muzzles, which we see in the profiles of weapons and bullets that appear when we 'see' instead of merely 'look.' Cave is also interested in representations of race and what these mean in society. His video installation is one of the few for which I did sit still. (Admittedly, the projected wave pattern upon the floor is so hypnotic and vertigo inducing that I needed to sit!)  This smart, provocative exhibit is biting social satire.





Sadly, the sculptures of Fererico Uribe are now gone, as his Here Comes the Sun was a perfect companion to Cave. Amidst his whimsical assemblages of animals are some that stop you in your tracks: a porcupine made of hypodermic needles, a sheep constructed of sharp scissors, rabbits and fawns fashioned from bullet cartridges….




But that's how it is at Mass MoCA. It's a place where you can wander in old factory corridors and then into a multi-colored tube. There are some permanent displays, such as  Michael Oatman's stunning all utopias fall, but mostly we go there to see what's new, hip, and perhaps a classic sometime in the future. A new building has just opened, nearly doubling the gallery space and featuring works by a few names you might recognize: Laurie Anderson, Louise Bourgeois, and Don Gummer (Mr. Meryl Streep). I can't wait to return to see what's new. 



 Rob Weir

7/12/17

Clark Art Institute: My Favorites

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Among the many joys of living in Western Massachusetts is that the Clark Institute of Art is only an hour from my home. It is, simply, one of the most important repositories in the country—especially for 19th century art.  #@the_clark

New Yorkers Robert Sterling and Francine Clark were so shaken by the devastation of World War Two and the ensuing Cold War that they placed their considerable collection in a locale unlikely to be ravaged by a nuclear attack: Williamstown, in the far northwestern corner of Massachusetts, where it joins New York and Vermont. The Clark opened its doors in 1955. The next time you go, here's a baker's dozen of my favorites.

My favorite is Smoke of Ambergris from John Singer Sargent. Admittedly, it exoticizes Moroccan culture. The figure is of a woman lifting her veil to take in the scent of ambergris, incense made from whale oil (which is also non-PC). But my goodness, what a picture! Nobody does white on white (or black on black) as well as Sargent. This one transfixes me every time I see it. There are just enough splashes of other colors to make the whites pop out. I marvel at the skill of someone who can get so much depth out of white, nature's most neutral pigment. I had a poster of this for decades, but it's not even close to the experience of seeing it.

A close runner-up is Nymphs and Satyr by William-Adolphe Bouguereau. This is a "Why don't I ever get invited to parties like this?" painting. Three naked lasses dance around a randy satyr and a fourth beckons him into the woods for what we can be pretty sure is not PG-13 fun and games. The funny thing is that, even though no one in the gallery can take their eyes off of this, everybody pretends to be looking elsewhere—as if they're naughty little boys sneaking a look at a Playboy magazine. Go ahead; stare.

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema was a Dutch-born British academic painter that some people loathe, but I like him, especially his The Women of Amphissa. You've probably never over indulged like these women, who are sleeping off a night of drinking and dancing in honor of Bacchus, the Greek god of wine. It looks like he was well praised! But the real fun of this picture is counting how many times you see the same model represented in slightly different ways. She's Laura, the artist's second wife. Look for the schnoz! 

 
I've seen so much Impressionist art that I occasionally forget why I love it. The Clark reminds me. One of my all time favorites is Monet's Street in Sainte-Adresse. It evokes the memory of the first time I walked down a European village lane such as this. All I have to do is change the clothes and it's all there: the walled path, the stone buildings, the smoke rising from a hearth, the shade trees, and the church dominating the town. Monet is an instant time warp.

Bouguereau isn't really one of my favorite painters, but his Seated Nude is glorious. It perfectly illustrates the difference between naked and nude. Although the young model wears nothing but an enigmatic expression and a lush blue cloth tumbling down her back, the adjective that springs to mind is "innocent."

If you ever need a visual spirit-lifter, Monet and Tulip Fields at Sassenheim will do the trick. The countryside, a rustic cottage, and a riot of pink, yellow, green, lavender, and red that looks like earthbound fireworks. Works for me!

I admit, though, that sometimes I OD on 'pretty' Impressionist works. That's why Camille Pissarro is probably my favorite within that august genre. Despite the shambolic lifestyles of most Impressionists, few were what you'd call working-class heroes. As Port of Rouen, Unloading Wood indicates, Pissarro was different. He actually painted working people, grit, and grime. And he made it look good.

Winslow Homer is a New England favorite, but his endless paintings of churning seas and barren rocks just don't do it for me. My favorite Homer is Sleigh Ride, a rare winter scene. What is more New England than winter? I love the way Homer used light, a reminder that our "dark" season exists more in imagined gloom than how Mother Nature actually illumines.     

Maybe I have a thing for bad-boy artists. Henri Toulouse-Lautrec is nobody's idea of a saint. He hung out in whorehouses, absinthe bars, and sketchy clubs. Yet, this portrait of Carmen intrigues because of its ambiguity. Is Carmen a harlot, or an unfortunate gypsy girl caught up in cycles of robbery, betrayal, and perhaps a dash of the occult? Lautrec's portrait is a face that is, at once, defiant but sallow. Is this Carmen beautiful, or on the downward slide to haggardness?   

I don't know much about Émile Bernard, but I really love the stolidity of Portrait of Madame Lemasson. She's a Breton woman, but she evokes my grandmother, who similarly attended to the tasks at hand with down-turned eyes. She also exuded a silent no-nonsense countenance.

The Clark's 1524 Portrait of a Man by Jan Gossaert is everything a Reformation era painting should be, and not just because it evokes the work of Hans Holbein (the Younger). It's those dark tones, the elaborate frame, the burgher's chain of authority, the handful of rings, the velvet bonete, the whiff of prosperity inherent in the figure's double chinned gaze, and the vibrant blue surrounding him like a secular halo. 


I like Perseus Rescuing Andromeda because this picture from Cavaliere d'Arpino is at once dramatic and silly. In Greek mythology, Andromeda is punished because she's more beautiful than many of the goddesses, so they chain to a rock, where she's menaced by Cetus, a sea monster. Well you would, wouldn't you? Along comes our hero, Perseus, astride his flying horse, Pegasus. He rescues Andromeda so he can go forth and do other hero stuff—like slice off Medusa's head. In this painting, though, our sea monster looks a dog plagued with reptile skin, Andromeda—her lipstick never mussed—looks more bemused than threatened, and Perseus seems to have left an Arctic lair. It's like a Terry Gilliam cartoon with a Wagnerian score.

Finally, I like Pére Fournaise by Renoir because it's jolly. I like the figure's sparkling blue eyes, his easy-going manner, and the glasses of beer on the table. I think there's one calling me right now.

7/10/17

The Beguiled Entertains, But Be wary of the Hyperbole

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THE BEGUILED (2017)
Directed by Sofia Coppola
Focus Features, 94 minutes, R (sexual situations—should be PG-13)
★★★ ½

One reviewer called The Beguiled "a sexually charged feminist psychodrama." That, my friends, is what is known as hyperbole. The Beguiled is actually an easy-on-the-eye film that sports lovely tableaux and mannered performances punctuated by harrowing pivots, but it's only feminist if you define that term as females forced by circumstance to live without the company of men. It's best not to make this film more than it is: a diverting way to spend an hour and a half—nothing less and nothing more.

The Beguiled is based upon A Painted Devil, a 1966 novel by Thomas Culllin an, previously adapted to film in 1971 with Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page in the lead roles. Sofia Coppola's remake is subtler, perhaps the reason why she recently took away the Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival. The year is 1863, and the Civil War rages with unrelenting fury in Virginia, where Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) struggles to keep open an academy for young women. In those days, a female academy was a glorified finishing school in which boarding students learned French and music alongside needlework, proper posture, religion, and manners. The overall goal was refinement and mastery of domestic skills, not training for wage earning professions. The war has disrupted normal routines, but Miss Farnsworth valiantly maintains high moral standards, even though her six remaining residents must till their own gardens, forage, and get by the best they can. Farnsworth continues to act as headmistress, supervisor of in-house teacher Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst), and role model to an ill-matched group of students: maturing teen Alicia (Elle Fanning), the slightly younger Jane (Angourie Rice), and three youths: 13-year-old Marie (Addison Reicke), round-faced Emily (Emma Howard), and spunky 11-year-old Amy (Ooma Laurence).

Farnsworth succeeds in keep the war outside the academy's iron gates until Amy stumbles upon a badly wounded Union solider, Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) while collecting mushrooms in the woods. Against her better judgment, Farnsworth allows McBurney to recuperate inside the school. It is here that Coppola shows a more deft hand than either Cullinan or Don Siegel, who directed the 1971 film. Instead of making a fox-in-the-henhouse antebellum horror film, Coppola allows her Beguiled to be more ambiguous.

Is McBurney the fox, or the hunted? It's clear that he encourages the growing affections of the school's three oldest women, but is he a silver-tongued devil or just an impulsive lad with poor impulse control? Kidman is terrific as Farnsworth, whom she plays with outward ice, but with hints of a mushy core. Dunst is also impressive as Edwina, a woman torn between respectability, desire, and the realization that, by 19th century standards, she's already an Old Maid. Farrell, whose past work has been uneven and occasionally prone to pretty boy preening, does a credible job of portraying McBurney with the right balance of charm, recklessness, and smarm. It's a good thing these three performances are topnotch, or Oona Laurence would have stolen the show; though she's just 11, she's already a force of nature. Oddly, Ms. Fanning—who usually dazzles—is the weak link in the ensemble. She is alluring and flirtatious, but altogether too modern in look, attitude, and even speech. (At one point she actually asks McBurney, "How's it going?")

Strong acting carries the film because, when it's all said and done, this is actually a very slight film. Even at just 94 minutes it feels stretched out. That's because it's an interior film in which personalities and circumstances will either mesh or not, and there are really only a few ways in which matters could be resolved. Coppola engages in a little padding. It is suggested that the war is winding down, though in the summer of 1863 it has nearly two years to go. There are discussions of shortages but, though the academy table lacks meat, there's plenty of food on the fine china, and a nicely apportioned wine cabinet to accompany it. And if you want to know why Virginia looks like it's in the Deep South, it's because it was filmed in Louisiana. Still, I'm glad Coppola avoided the excesses of her Marie Antoinette (2006) or the tedium of Somewhere (2010). The Beguiled is assuredly watchable, though it looks deeper and prettier than it actually is. Best Director? That seems as hyperbolic as calling The Beguiled a feminist film. At its best, a strong ensemble cast takes over; when it lags, it's like having all that Spanish moss hanging from trees in what is supposed to be Virginia—more atmospheric than convincing.

Rob Weir 

#thebeguiled         

7/7/17

Encounter Picasso at the Clark

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PICASSO ENCOUNTERS
Clark Institute of Art
Through August 27, 2017

Think you know Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)? You do and you don't. It's hardly your fault; Picasso began producing works when barely in his teens and continued unabated until his death in 1973. A visit to the Picasso Museum in Paris can be mind-boggling as it holds more than 5,000 works. There are another 4,000 in Barcelona, and you'd still have at least 41,000 left to view if you wanted to exhaust his output.

Dora Maar
If you're dizzy from even contemplating such a brush with Picasso, you can regain your bearings with a visit to the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts. There are just 38 Picasso works on display and these have been chosen to make a point, not to provide any sort of Pablo's Greatest Hits retrospective. Artists as prolific as Picasso draw inspiration from everywhere and the Clark's exhibit, "Picasso Encounters," is meant to be doubly evocative—we encounter Picasso through the eyes of some of the encounters that influenced him, among them: the Old Masters, cubists, printmakers, the stage, and women. Especially women. Picasso was, by today's standards, a serial womanizer, but les femmes were more than sexual conquests for Picasso; they were his muses. In fact, he had trouble working unless there was a woman (or two or three) in his life, whether they were kin, friends, wives, or mistresses. If you think that his modernist/cubist/surrealist mash-ups are merely eye-catching and strange, look hard at his 1937 Portrait of Dora Maar, the photographer and artist with whom Picasso had a brief affair. This painting is so lovingly rendered that the only adjective that really fits is 'beautiful.'

Minotauromachia
Picasso had many women in his life, the most important of whom were Maar, Fernande Olivier, Marie-Thérèse Walter, François Gilot, Olga Khokhlova, and Jacqueline Roque. He only wedded the last two, which means his domestic life was often chaotic. We see this in Minotauromachia, outwardly an amalgamation of modernism, a medieval woodcut, and the Greek story of the Minotaur etched onto paper. But it's also an allegory of Picasso's complicated home life, with the partially nude body of his mistress (Walter) lying across a horse fleeing the horned beast, while unfeeling Picasso's wife (Khokhlova) looks down from above and a figure that is probably Pablo hightailing it up a ladder to safety.    
The Italian Woman

We see different kinds of encounters in this exhibit as well, among them: an early self-portrait that owes much to Velasquez; a Cranach-inspired Venus and Cupid; and his 1953 The Italian Woman, which was influenced by the work of a relatively obscure 18th century painter named Victor Orsel. The last is a graceful front-facing portrait that would be suggestive of Mexican portraits tinged with Georges Rouault were it not for the impish figures etched above the model. For me the most surprising works were Picasso's linoleum cuts, not because they are necessarily his strongest images, but because they highlight the ways in which he kept his vision clearly imagined through several layers—like a chess player strategizing five moves ahead. Portrait of a Young Girl, after Cranach the Younger II looks at first glance like it an offbeat rendering of a red queen from a pack of playing cards until you think of what it took to produce this one print. Among other things, Picasso had to think through how every dot of red and scratch of black (of which there are many) would look like when the final version was inked and pressed. 

This is a thoughtfully curated exhibit that gives weight to the credo less is more. Is there more to say about Picasso? Of course, but the beauty of the Clark exhibit is that we can begin to hear some of those things without the cacophony of all that could be said about him.

Rob Weir     

@the_clark

7/5/17

Beatriz at Dinner is Thin Fare

BEATRIZ AT DINNER (2017)
Directed by Miguel Arteta
Roadside Attractions, 83 minutes, R (language)
½

There's a line from an old Don McLean song that goes: The world was never meant for one as beautiful as you. He was singing about Vincent Van Gogh, but the lyrics could have been written for the titular character of the new Miguel Arteta film Beatriz at Dinner, though I'm glad McLean didn't waste his words on the biggest dud I've experienced over the July Fourth holiday.

Beatriz (Selma Hayek) is a middle-aged woman with an old soul. She works as a holistic healer at a Los Angeles cancer clinic where she's part massage therapist, part yoga instructor, and part New Age practitioner. Because she's, you know, Mexican, she also has gig as freelance masseuse to the rich, pampered, and clueless. How else can she afford to live in San Jose and put kibbles in the dog dishes and greens in the pen of her pet goat?

Aside from a few establishing shots, this film covers a single day in Beatriz's life—one in which she leaves her day job, battles rush hour traffic, and wends her way to the gated hillside estate of a regular client, Kathy (Connie Britton), who simply must have a massage before her husband Grant (David Warshofsky) entertains a few very exclusive business associates: Yuppie hotel builder Alex (Jay Duplass), his pampered wife, Shannon (Chloë Sevigny); and the big fish: Doug Strutt (John Lithgow) and his third wife, Jeana (Amy Landecker). Strutt is one of the world's wealthiest people, a rapacious real estate mogul without a PC bone in his body or a hint of social conscience in his soul. He's accustomed to getting what he wants, which gives him free rein to be a loud-mouthed bigot who seems to have been fashioned out of equal parts Rush Limbaugh, Donald Trump, and Walter Palmer (the moneyed dentist who killed Cecil the lion).  When Beatriz's car won't start and she becomes the unwanted seventh dinner guest, the stage is set for a clash between her humanistic, Gaia-centered values and the cultures of arrogance and greed.

Beatriz at Dinner has been called a Trump-era morality tale. By all rights, I should have loved this film and its messages. The bling-and-brag crowd couldn't be more awful in their money-grubbing inhumanity, materialistic shallowness, and soul-crushing smugness. They represent the puppet masters that make the Make America Great Again lumpenproletariat dance like limp marionettes. And yet, I disliked this film pretty much from its onset.    

It could have been a dark and frank look at social class, ethnocentrism, and avarice. To have been so, though, would have required an ingredient fully missing from the menu: nuance. By tarring Strutt (get it?) and his circle with such a broad brush, director Arteta reduces evil to cartoon-like caricatures. And by continuing to slather layer upon layer of that tar, the Strutts of the planet become unbelievable rather than indefensible.

Perhaps this would have made a searing play. It is clearly a vehicle for Lithgow, who does his best to convey amoral creepiness. His is a superb performance and he should not be blamed for the weaknesses in Mike White's screenplay. Lithgow, alas, is the only one with much to do in this film.

The rest of the ensemble is competent, but underutilized—especially Britton, Sevigny, and Landecker, who spend most of the film either being catty or shrugging their shoulders in "Whatcha gonna do?" apologies for the outlandishly jerk-like behaviors of their respective alpha males.  Though she is the co-star, Hayek doesn't sparkle either. She spends some of the film interrupting conversation, getting unattractively drunk, and committing social faux pas. Call them characteristics out of character for her character, though very few people would behave this aggressively, even before the most deplorable of hosts. The rest of the time, Hayek doesn't speak much at all; she hovers around the film's edges and looks sad. Pan to Hayek's sad face. Move in on her even sadder eyes. Feel the weight on her sad shoulders…. And if you haven't gotten the fact that Beatriz is, like really sad, overlay her disconsolance with hints of homesickness glimpsed via flashbacks of a gauzy youthful idyll.  

I do not wish to defend the lifestyles of the opulent and boorish, but this film fails to take them down. It's far too trite to do that.

Rob Weir

7/3/17

Young Radicals a Portrait of Shattered Socialist Dreams

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YOUNG RADICALS: IN THE WAR FOR AMERICAN IDEALS (2017)
Jeremy McCarter
Random House, 340 pages.
★★★★★

(This review originally posted on http:NEPCA.blogpost.com) 
 
 
I didn’t like this book; I adored it! It is so well written that it reads like novel. Among the unorthodox things Jeremy McCarter has done is pen it in the present tense. Another is to make its major theme the death of idealism. Or perhaps I should say its betrayal.

McCarter, a Chicago-based writer and critic, turns his gaze to the first two centuries of the 20th century, a time in which American socialism sprouted, blossomed, and was pulled up by the roots—its dreams of a global cooperative community sacrificed upon World War One’s altar of militarism, nationalism, greed. Rather than tell this tale through the usual channels of analyzing historical forces, material conditions, and mounting tensions, McCarter shows how larger dramas played out in the lives of five fascinating characters: Max Eastman (1883-1969), John Reed (1887-1920), Alice Paul (1885-1977), Walter Lippmann (1889-1974), and Randolph Bourne (1886-1918). He chose well, as between them, they moved in circles that represented the numerous strains within American culture.

The book’s title is apt, for the five radicals were indeed young and were, in their own ways, warriors within the “war for American ideals.” If you associate socialism with glum Russian apparatchiks, think again. Max Eastman was the editor of The Masses, a publication that was as much bohemian as socialist. Its pages supported labor unions, social equality, and pacifism, but also sported graphic art, poetry, and fiction that ranged from agit-prop to whimsical. It survived on a hope, serendipitous donations, and Eastman's dogged determination to keep it afloat.

Journalist “Jack” Reed was an energetic swashbuckler crossed with a frat boy.  He seduced and exasperated, pontificated at one moment and betrayed his half-baked views the next, pissed off his friends as he exhaled and charmed them on the inhale. He was the very scarred embodiment of a fast, hard, full, short life.  He needed to be where the action was, which is why he didn’t allow a lost kidney to keep him out of Europe as war clouds gathered and why he was a firsthand witness to the Russian Revolution.

Alice Paul wasn't good at moderation either. Like a reckless campus radical, she put her body on the line for the cause of suffrage and wore out others in the process, including Inez Milholland Boissevain who died from taking part in Paul-orchestrated non-stop agitation. Paul’s was a world of picketing, workhouse internments, force-feedings, and embarrassing President Wilson. One of the book’s many revelations is the depth of mutual contempt between Paul and Carrie Chapman Catt. Catt saw Paul as an impetuous troublemaker who threatened her careful one-state-at-a-time strategy and nearly cost Wilson the White House; Paul saw Catt as a self-aggrandizer willing to tolerate the status quo to be an insider player in the Wilson administration.

The latter charge was also leveled at Lippmann, with some justification. Lippmann, who co-founded the New Republic, was an intellectual who had trouble reconciling idealism and pragmatism. As war loomed, he jettisoned socialism for liberalism and joined Wilson’s team in the vain hope the war would "make the world safe for democracy.” Lippmann actually wrote most of Wilson’s famed 14-Points, but their abandonment led him to leak an internal document that doomed Wilson's nationwide campaign for the League of Nations.

A good tale requires a tragic figure and few were more so than Randolph Bourne. His was one of the most inventive minds of his day. Bourne dreamt of transnational identities, cosmopolitanism, and universal citizenship decades before Greenwich Villagers imagined themselves global villagers. His capacious mind was housed in a sickly hunchbacked body that he felt was doomed to be unloved. He was wrong; the beautiful free spirited actress Esther Cornell seems to have accepted his marriage proposal, only for Bourne to perish in the postwar influenza epidemic.

The postwar fallout took more than Bourne with it. Socialism’s promise also faded—not just because of wartime repression and the postwar Red Scare—but because idealists often battled with each other, and bitterly so over the war. It has been said that World War One was the only war wished into being by the left. Though somewhat hyperbolic, roughly half of U.S. socialists—including Lippmann and John Dewey—supported the conflict. Pro-war socialists were mistaken. History would soon judge the Great War a disaster in nearly every way one can measure such things. Ideals such as transnationalism gave way to cynicism and insularity. Paul would hold fast to her principles, but Eastman and Lippman would embark on several journeys between left, center, and right before settling into contrarianism. 

McCarter’s book is a masterpiece of forgotten and overlooked detail. It is also an examination of how dream worlds and officialdom overlapped and separated. The book is so compellingly written that I shall refrain from quoting so you can make your own discoveries and savor the richness of its prose. Kudos to McCarver for restoring the “story” in history and making tales come alive in real time. One can dispute whether the hopes of McCarter's five young radicals were admirable or misguided, but there is something tragic in the observation that we now live in a world too parochial to conceive of globalism in non-economic terms. #jxmccarter

Rob Weir