Valentino’s Voisin et al

1932 Pierce-Arrow V12 Model 52 Sedan

On this cool and cloudy Saturday, Martine and I paid another visit to the Nethercutt Collection in Sylmar. We saw many of the same cars as on previous visits, but were newly impressed with the variety and beauty of automobiles manufactured in the 1920s and 1930s. The 1932 Pierce-Arrow practically called me by name as I walked by it. Like all the cars at the Nethercutt, it shone like a jewel. Even the tires look bran new. And yes, that is an old fire engine in the left background.

When I compare today’s cars with what was available a hundred years ago, we have lost individuality. (It looks like all the car bodies today were tested in the same wind tunnel, whether from Mercedes, Range Rover, or BMW.) Do you think the Toyota Prius is a new concept? Not so, there were hybrids a hundred years ago—and they looked better, too.

Rudolph Valentino’s 1923 Voisin

Many of the automobiles on display have fascinating histories. For instance, there were only eighteen Rolls-Royce Silver Phantom IVs manufactured, and they were all sold tom heads of state. The Nethercutt has one of the two that belonged to the Sheikh of Kuwait. At the time he owned them, there were only twenty miles of paved road in the whole country.

And then there is the gray 1923 Voisin that belonged to Rudolph Valentino. He purchased three of them, and brought one of them back with him to Hollywood. The hood ornament is a custom-made cobra head which was given him by fellow actor Douglas Fairbanks Sr.

There is even a Duesenberg Twenty Grand that cost … twenty grand. It was the only one manufactured, a special order made for the 1933-34 Century of Progress World’s Fair in Chicago.

Will I ever get tired of seeing these beauties? Not bloody likely.

 

The City in Woodcuts

The Early 20th Century City in All Its Glory

For some reason, I had always thought that Frans Masereel (1889-1972) was German, because his subject matter seemed to coincide so exactly with German Expressionism’s view of the city, usually Berlin. Actually, he was Flemish, and although he spent time in Germany, he also spent time in France and Belgium. I know him primarily for two wordless graphic novels composed entirely of woodcuts: Passionate Journey (1919) and The City (1925). I have both in my book collection.

I wonder if these woodcut books were created to appeal to those who couldn’t read. In any case, I admire them for their view of life in the city circa 1920.

Symbolic Image of Loneliness in the City

Both wordless novels are (or at least have been) available in reasonably priced paperback editions from Dover Publications.

I have always liked woodcuts as a medium of artistic expression. Masereel is able to convey a story and an overwhelming feeling of being crushed by the multitudes in modern urban life.

Busy Restaurant

After Masereel, the American Lynd Ward (1905-1985) carried on the medium of the wordless novel. There is a two-volume collection of his graphic novels available from Library of America.

 

Dürer’s Melancholia I

Albrecht Dürer’s Engraving “Melancholia I”

I have written before of my admiration for Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), probably Germany’s greatest artist. Now I am even more certain of my admiration, since I discovered that he is of Hungarian descent—his father was a goldsmith named Albrecht Ajtósi.

Slowly poring through Will Durant’s The Reformation: A History of European Civilization from Wyclif to Calvin 1300-1564, I hunted up Dürer’s engraving after reading what the author had to say about it:

Finally the engraving that Dürer entitled Melancholia I reveals an angel seated amid the chaos of an unfinished building, with a medley of tools and scientific instruments at her feet; a purse and keys attached to her girdle as emblems of wealth and power; her head resting pensively on one hand, her eyes gazing half in wonder, half in terror, about her. Is she asking to what end all this labor, this building and demolition and building, this pursuit of wealth and power and the mirage called truth, this glory of science and Babel of intellect vainly fighting inevitable death? Can it be that Dürer, at the very outset of the modern age, understood the problem faced by triumphant science, of progressive means abused by unchanging ends?

It is by far the greatest work of art on the theme of being stumped. I find it interesting that the angel is female, no doubt wondering what men have come up with this time.

 

 

 

“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.