“An Instant of Artistic Grace”

Van Cliburn on the Cover of Time Magazine on May 19, 1958

Some artistic careers blaze brightly like meteors before being snuffed out, leaving nothing behind but a crater. Such was the short but brilliant musical career of Van Cliburn who went to Russia at the height of the Cold War, and performed in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory during the first Tchaikovsky International Competition, which he won handily. After getting an eight-minute standing ovation, Van Cliburn reminded Russian pianist Andrei Gavrilov o “som kind of angel.” In The Ivory Trade (1990), Joseph Horowitz wrote:

His lanky six feet four inches, his blue eyes and mop of frizzy blond hair, were recognized everywhere. People hugged and kissed him on the street, calling him “Vanya” and “Vanyushka.” He was showered with flowers and personal mementos. Women wept when he played, and students shouted “First prize!” Outside the conservatory, militiamen were used to maintain order. His pandemonious victory, announced April 14, confirmed the popular verdict of days before. The Cliburn furor was of unprecedented, unrepeatable, incomprehensible proportions.

Van Cliburn in Moscow. Note the Roses Strewn Across the Stage.

And then what? Cliburn went back to Texas to live with his mother, performing occasionally—but with considerably less éclat. After the ticker-tape parade through Manhattan, and a few concerts with diminishing returns, that was just about it.

What his fans did not, could not know at that time, was that Cliburn was gay. Had that become publicly known, he would have been reviled by the same public that seemingly adored him. It is such a pity. Today, his sexual preference would be met with a shrug (though perhaps not in Russia). In 1998, he suffered the indignity of being sued by his long-time domestic partner, mortician Thomas Zaremba, for palimony. The case was thrown out of court as palimony is not recognized by the State of Texas, He died in 2013 in Texas at the age of 78, years after his last successful concert.

Stuart Isacoff, in his book When the World Stopped to Listen: Van Cliburn’s Cold War Triumph and Its Aftermath calls his Moscow concert “perhaps the best concert of his life … an instant of artistic grace.”

Facing South

Skeletoid Academics?

Dartmouth College was the beginning of many things in my life. One of the most influential was the Reserve Room on the ground floor of Dartmouth’s Baker Library. On three sides was a magnificent sequence of frescoes by José Clemente Orozco (1883-1949) which began with the invasion of Mexico by the Conquistadores and ended up with the mess that Mexico was in during the 1930s. One of the most shocking images was the one above of the skeletoid academics giving birth to a baby skeleton.

These frescoes influenced me so much that I would study or even just hang out in the Reserve Room just to imbibe the atmosphere of Orozco’s powerful political murals. It was no accident that the first vacation I took on my own, nine years after my graduation, was a visit to Mayan ruins in Yucatán. Over the next seventeen years, I was to go to Mexico eight times, spending as much as a month on each visit.

José Clemente Orozco

During those visits, my eyes turned further south. I would have loved to go from Yucatán to Belize and on to the Mayan ruins at Tikal in the Petén region of Guatemala. At that time, however, the man in charge was Efraín Ríos Montt, a murderous dog who was responsible for the massacre, rape, and torture of thousands of indigenous people; and the U.S. State Department did not recommend that Americans vacation in Guatemala during his presidency.

Around then, Paul Theroux published The Old Patagonian Express (1979), about taking trains from Boston as far south in the Americas as one could go. I vowed that I would eventually make it to South America, and I did. Since 2006, I visited Argentina (three times!), Uruguay, Chile, Peru, and Ecuador. An despite Mexico’s continuing problem with narcotraficantes, I would not mind going to Yucatán and Chiapas again.

 

 

Of Billionaires and Fashion Models

Orazio Gentileschi (Italian, 1563 – 1639)
Danaë and the Shower of Gold, 1621 to 1623, Oil on canvas
161.5 × 227.1 cm (63 9/16 × 89 7/16 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

You may have heard about how Zeus would fall in love with mortal women and transform himself into various disguises to have his way with them. In all, there were approximately twenty, ranging from Alcmene to Thyia. The one I found most interesting was Danaë, daughter and onlyc hild of the King of Argos, Acrisius. The story is as follows, according to Wikipedia:

Disappointed by his lack of male heirs, King Acrisius asked the oracle of Delphi if this would change. The oracle announced to him that he would never have a son, but his daughter would, and that he would be killed by his daughter’s son. At the time, Danae was childless and, meaning to keep her so, King Acrisius shut her up in a bronze chamber to be constructed under the court of his palace (other versions say she was imprisoned in a tall brass tower with a single richly adorned chamber, but with no doors or windows, just a sky-light as the source of light and air). She was buried in this tomb, never to see the light again. However, Zeus, the king of the gods, desired her, and came to her in the form of golden rain which streamed in through the roof of the subterranean chamber and down into her womb. Soon after, their child Perseus was born.

But then, isn’t that the way that all ugly billionaires woo fashion models (including our current President)?

The painting by Orazio Gentileschi is a recent acquisition of the Getty Center which I saw a couple of weeks ago. I like the way that the gold is shown as a shower of gold coins, which appears to be quite acceptable to the young lady.

Me and Anne Thistlewaite, Countess of Chesterfield

Thomas Gainsborough’s “Portrait of Anne, Countess of Chesterfield” (1777-1778)

First, leave the portrait subject out of the painting and notice the quick brush strokes that form the tree, the stone wall, the landscape to the right, and the dark background. Now put in their midst this serene, quite beautiful, long-necked beauty that is Anne Thistlewaite, Countess of Chesterfield. It always amazes me to see women in paintings from other times that make my heart flutter. And it is most particularly the English protraitists of the 18th century that succeed the most in making me feel this way.

When I go to the Huntington Museum in San Marino, there is a large two-story gallery devoted solely to English paintings. So many of the women portrayed are so ethereal that I am in transports of admiration. I can almost begin to understand the way the French were in awe of English milords and miladies.

 

The Italian Comedians

Antoine Watteau’s “The Italian Comedians” at the Getty Center

I have always loved the paintings of Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), especially his “The Embarkation for Cythera” (1717) at the Louvre in Paris, which says everything one can say about young love. At the Getty Center, there are two other Watteaus that I rather like. The one illustrated above is called “The Italian Comedians.” It shows a troupe of commedia dell’arte that have just given a performance. I keep thinking of Shakespeare’s couplet from Act V of The Tempest:

As you from crimes would pardoned be
Let your indulgence set me free.

According to the description provided by the Getty Center:

Five comedians have just finished their performance in a verdant park on the outskirts of Paris and look expectantly at their audience. Pierrot, the clown in a baggy white suit, is already holding his hat in his hand, hoping that a few coins might be thrown into it.

Flanking Pierrot are four other performers dressed as characters from the Italian commedia dell’arte, which enjoyed great popularity in 18th-century Paris. Brighella wears a splendid greenish-gold suit and shoulder cape trimmed with black stripes. Mezzetin strums a few chords on his guitar, while Harlequin in a black mask with its horsehair eyebrows and moustache peers over his shoulder. A mock Spanish costume of black velvet with a white ruff identifies the figure on the far right as Scaramouche.

The actors penetrate our world with an intense humanity and vivid reality, far removed from the theatrical artifice and caprice of the stage they have just left.

There is that momentary feeling of. “Well, what do you think of it, guys?” It lasts but an instant. Either the audience will cheer and toss coins and huzzahs in appreciation—or not! The key thing is that Watteau has shown us an instant in time, as if we were the audience privileged to view the comedy.

My Favorite Watteau: “The Embarkation for Cythera”

There is a lot to be said for going back to the same museum a couple times a year and seeing what has changed in my own perception of the paintings. Yesterday, I still loved Dosso Dossi’s portrait of Saint George after he has killed the dragon and Antonio da Correggio’s head of Christ—about both of which I have written in the past. “The Italian Comedians” is relatively new to the Getty, having been purchased in 2011-2012 from Hazlett, Gooden & Fox Ltd in London.

 

 

Pearblossom Hwy., 11 – 18th April 1986, #2

David Hockney’s Image of the Pearblossom Highway in L.A.’s Antelope Valley

One of my favorite parts of Los Angeles County is the remote Antelope Valley, which hugs the north edge of the San Gabriel Mountains. The Pearblossom Highway (California Route 138) connects the Antelope Valley Freeway to Victorville, enroute to Las Vegas or Northern Arizona. I may not be known as a devotee of modern art, but I love David Hockney’s photo collage, described as “Pearblossom Hwy., 11 – 18th April 1986, #2,” which actually does capture the elusive light of the desert and the eerie Joshua Tree cacti (Yucca brevifolia) lining the highway.

One of my favorite L.A. parks is in this area, the Devil’s Punchbowl County Park, which sits at the junction of several earthquake faults, most notably the San Andreas. In fact, many of the more interesting geological features were sculpted by the 1857 Fort Tejon earthquake’s Richter 7.9 forces.

The Getty Museum South Pavilion


Martine and I had lunch at the museum’s café and split up as we pursued our separate interests, coming together at 4:30 pm in the bookstore. Every time I visit an art museum like the Getty, I get ideas for several posts; so you may hear more about my visit in the coming week.

The Apocalypse of Pop Culture?

Game Boy

Lately, I have seen a number of paintings by Filip Hodas, a self-proclaimed 3-D artist from the Czech Republic. The illustrations shown here can be described under the heading of the Apocalypse of Pop Culture. Not all his work is on this theme, but the images that startled me definitely were. (You can see more of his work by clicking here.)

It is somewhat appropriate that the images of much-loved pop icons in the process of falling into disrepair and ruin comes from a resident of Prague. The Czechs, like the Hungarians and other Eastern Europeans were essentially trashed under the postwar Russian occupation. So now, as the West begins its own decline, why should our icons escape the wrecking ball of history?

McDonald’s Happy Meal

I particularly love the McDonald’s Happy Meal box, turned into a kind of rural slum dwelling. One can almost expect to see an American Hansel and Gretel wending their way to this sagging ruin.

Allow me to leave you with one final Hodas image, that of a wrecked and graffiti-covered Pac Man:

Pac Man

Notice the THX graffiti.