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31.7.03

Alone against Everyone

The article in Le Monde that got me started on Courbet and realism (see post on July 28) was number 8 in a 12-part series called "Seuls contre Tous," which started with Diogenes on July 19. Other articles in the series include Rabelais (July 21), Galileo (July 22), Spinoza (July 23), Olympe de Gouges (July 24), Schopenhauer (July 25), and Oscar Wilde (July 30). Today's installment is Wittgenstein, and the series will conclude with the next article. I will admit that I am an unrepentant francophile and here's one reason why: the cultural part of French society is broad enough for a newspaper to publish a series like this, which is not unusual.

One thing I admire about the French educational system is their focus on the study of philosophy (or philo, as they say slangily). It is still a major part of the baccalauréat, the monstrous exam French graduating seniors take every June. (This is yet another area of French life that was almost completely disrupted by strikes this year, not by the intermittents this time but the teachers' unions.) Le bac is such a ritual of French life that it is usually covered on the national news broadcasts in June, including interviews with students as they come out of the exam and discussion of the fairness and difficulty of the questions. This is probably why writers like Spinoza, Schopenhauer, and Wittgenstein make it into a series like the one in Le Monde. Allez, France!

For an opposing view, see today's post from the bilingual blog Merde in France, which describes the French intelligentsia as (I will leave this untranslated, for politeness's sake) "les milieux français artistico-culturels-foutage-de-gueule-en-tout-genres."

30.7.03

Performance Art in the Streets of Toulouse?

The author of the bilingual blog Blogorrhée has a post (June 30, 2003) with a photo of a mysterious demonstration at the Place du Capitole in Toulouse, where he lives. He has a theory that they may have been demonstrators from the union of the intermittents du spectacle, who have been causing trouble all over France this summer. These are people who meet a minimum requirement for part-time employment in the performing arts, which qualifies them for a sort of welfare benefit from the French government. They are worried that proposed budget cuts, particularly in the area of retirement and pensions, are going to affect their livelihood. So far this summer, they have shut down the prestigious arts festivals in Avignon, Aix-en-Provence, and La Rochelle, as well as blocking the route of the Tour de France and generally making a nuisance of themselves.

While this may well be the intermittents du spectacle, it also sounds like it may have been a flash mob or smart mob kinda thing. Cheesebikini? reported the first such flash mob in Europe that occurred in Rome on July 24 and another in Vienna on July 26. Apparently one is in the works for London. Was Toulouse next on the list? I would be interested to know more. By the way, Blogorrhée has included a link to Ionarts on his blog, so let me say, Mille fois merci de Washington!

UPDATE
SmartMobs has reported that this gathering was indeed the first flash mob in France.

Jacques Brel with Teenagers

The Source Theatre is hosting the 23rd Annual Washington Theatre Festival this August. One of the events on the Festival's schedule is the musical "Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris." In the 1960s, Eric Blau and Mort Schuman translated some of their favorite Jacques Brel songs into English and produced a sort of revue. Purists may complain that this show doesn't have the same power as Brel's own performances, but it has been a vehicle to bring his work to English speakers. It certainly made a big impression on me when I saw the show for the first time as an undergraduate music major. At that point I had already been to France as an exchange student, and on the next trip I made to France, I bought every Brel recording I could find. Everyone was quick to point out that Brel was Belgian, so don't make that mistake as I did. In any case, French friends were very happy to take my interest in Brel's music and lead me to Edith Piaf, Juliette Gréco, Charles Aznavour, Michel Legrand, and Serge Gainsbourg. If you want to read about Jacques Brel (1929-1978) and look at some phenomenal pictures of him, go to the Fondation Jacques Brel Web site from Brussels. Also, Brussels is hosting a Brel festival this summer.

The show will be performed by the Musical Theatre Institute for Teens, under the auspices of Source Theatre's Theatre Lab. This is a group of talented high school students under the direction of Jane Pesci-Townsend, with the musical leadership of Frank Pesci and yours truly at the keyboard. Performances are at 8 pm from July 31 to August 2.

29.7.03

The Connection between Cities and Their Artists

A new series from BBC News called "Sense of the City" will explore this topic by inviting novelists who know the cities where they live well to write commentaries about fiction written and set there. Bapsi Sidhwa has published what I think is the first installment, a commentary on her home, Lahore, India. Once again, it appears that I am hardwired to the Zeitgeist, since I have been engaged in my reading project on Paris, where I lived, for over a year now. I don't know what the odds are, but I am guessing that Paris will appear in the BBC News series? Somehow, I don't think Washington, D.C., will. Hmm.

UPDATE
The first installment of "Sense of the City" was Barcelona by Matthew Tree (July 28). (By the way, if you want to see a fun movie set in Barcelona, I recommend L'auberge espagnole by Cédric Klapisch, which should still be in cinemas now, or Whit Stillman's Barcelona from 1994.) Since the article on Lahore cited above, there have also been Manila by F. Sionil Jose (July 30) and Lagos by Helon Habila (July 31). The online pages are transcripts of radio articles on the program "The World Today," which you can hear on BBC World Service. It will continue until August 8.

28.7.03

A Whole New Perspective on Realism

The example of a daring Realist painting by Gustave Courbet that I usually teach in my Humanities course is the famous Enterrement à Ornans (shown at the Salon in Paris in 1850). Because the students in this class are 10th graders, I obviously could not teach this much more daring Courbet painting, L'Origine du Monde (1866), which is not for the faint of heart, so be warned! As I learned in a fascinating article by Véronique Maurus (Courbet le peintre, in Le Monde's print edition of July 29, 2003), Courbet's fame around the world after his succès de scandale in Paris in the 1850s brought him a number of foreign commissions of landscapes, genre scenes, and nudes. The most provocative of these nude paintings was ordered by an Ottoman diplomat, Khalil Bey (1831-1879), who was an avid collector of erotic art. He also owned Ingres's Bain turc (1862, now in the Louvre) and Courbet's Les dormeuses (1866, now in the Musée du Petit Palais).

L'Origine du Monde was kept in private collections, most notably that of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, who displayed it at his country home in Guitrancourt, behind a wooden cover with a sketch done by André Masson in 1955 that suggested the painting beneath it. The painting is now in the collection of the Musée d'Orsay in Paris. Apparently, although new to me, this painting is not a secret: Christine Orban has written a novel called J'étais l'origine du monde (Paris: Albin Michel, 2000), narrated by the woman who was possibly the model for this painting, Joanna Hiffernan (b. 1842/43), the Irish woman who left James Whistler to become Courbet's mistress. She is definitely shown, clothed, in Whistler's Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl (painted in Paris in 1861-62, shown here with a study he did; this painting is now in the collection of The National Gallery here in Washington) and Courbet's Jo, la Belle Irlandaise (1866, one of the four versions at the Met) and Les dormeuses (see link above).

When a Goya is no longer a Goya

What will happen to the teaching of art history if Goya did not actually paint the Black Paintings on the walls of his estate Quinta del Sordo? This is exactly what an archival historian in Madrid, Juan Jose Junquera, believes (see the article by Arthur Lubow in Sunday's New York Times Magazine but note that Junquera did not state his theory about the misattribution in his book The Black Paintings of Goya, which will be released in the United States in November). I have been showing Goya's Saturn and The Dog to my Humanities class every year since I began teaching it. Junquera believes that these paintings are not examples of how Goya, in his deaf old age, seemed to paint with an uncannily "modern" eye but may actually have been painted later in the 19th century after Goya was dead. The same thing happens when musicologists question the attribution of a favorite piece of music, but this mostly occurs with Renaissance composers, whose biographies often have more questions than answers. I am amazed that no one has challenged the documentation of these paintings until now. How many other misattributed great works are out there?

27.7.03

At the National Shrine Today

I realize that I should have posted this yesterday, in case anyone wanted to hear these pieces. If the choir is going to sing something of particular interest, I will try to post it here, in advance of the performance. Here was today's program: Giovanni da Palestrina, Missa Aeterna Christi Munera (Kyrie, Gloria, and Agnus); Palestrina, Sicut cervus; Jean Berger, The Eyes of All. I just learned that Jean Berger died in May of last year. He was a musicologist (doctoral education under musicological legend Heinrich Besseler at the University of Heidelberg) who worked on Baroque music as well as a composer.

Brand arts and tyrosemiophilia

At the intersection of advertising and the arts. According to a very funny post (July 22, 2003) in the French blog Blogorrhée, someone in Camembert, France, collects rare Camembert cheese boxes, makes special deluxe Camembert boxes, and even made a Camembert house of which part of the exterior looks like two huge Camembert wheels. This man happens to be the mayor of Camembert and he has spent a lot of time legally harassing an English woman in the town, who also wants to sell cheese. Someone has probably already thought of using stinky and sometimes colorful French cheeses as an artistic medium.

26.7.03

Tyler Green on Friday

Friday's post on Modern Art Notes was a hilarious account of a lecture at the Hirshhorn by Fred Tomaselli. Known for his use of pharmaceuticals as an artistic medium, Tomaselli also apparently samples his materials to get those wild and colorful patterns. Psychedelic. Wish I had been there.

As I read about this, I was reminded of some of Damien Hirst's drug cabinet installations from the drug-crazed 80s and 90s, like God (1989), Nothing Is a Problem for Me (1992), and We're Afraid of Nothing (1992). Ah, those were the days, although Hirst has still been working with this medium (see The Void, from 2000). Now I am also reminded of a drug sequence in the 1993 film Thirty-Two Short Films about Glenn Gould, showing pictures of the many drugs the hypochondriac pianist used regularly to quell his anxieties, complete with voiceover of their possible side effects and interactions.

Oh, yeah: Tyler also made what I think was the very first link to this little blog. It's scary how fast that was. I like reading Tyler's blog and his work for Artnet and others, so lots of thanks to him.

Latest reading

For about a year now, I have been reading all the novels I can find with storylines set in Paris. The most recent book in this unordered series is Alexandre Dumas's The Man in the Iron Mask. I am reading it in the old codex technology, but it is one of so many old books you can read online for free (alternate link for e-text). This book is a great read, and I am going to move on to Dumas's other historical novels relating to Paris after it. It's fascinating because other than the Middle Ages, the other period I study in music history is the 17th century, so this fictionalization of the ancien régime is quite interesting. Where history and fiction cross each other and all that.

The book that I read immediately before this was Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities. This got me interested in the history of prisons in the city of Paris (Charles Darnay is imprisoned at La Force, a very interesting place historically). It's an entirely different view of the French monarchy from that in Dumas, too. In his preface, Dickens recommends Thomas Carlyle's The French Revolution, and that's how that book also made it onto my list. More about my Paris reading project later.

25.7.03

Vincenzo Ugolini

The National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception here in Washington has a professional choir, of which I am a member. (In one of the pictures on the Web site, you can see me, directly over the oboe player but very out of focus.) We perform at the high Mass on Sundays at noon, as well as for various special celebrations and concerts throughout the year, and we sing a lot of music. One piece that stands out among those we are rehearsing right now is a motet by Vincenzo Ugolini (d. 1638) titled Beata es virgo Maria. It is in 12 parts (3 choirs), one of several pieces in that arrangement of voices published by this composer, and it is quite enjoyable to sing.

Ugolini was choirmaster at the French church in Rome (S. Luigi dei Francesi) and had a brief stint directing the choir of the Cappella Giulia, one of the big musical organizations in the Vatican, during which he composed the 12-part pieces. Financial records indicate that three organs were used to perform them, with the regular choir augmented by a score of temporarily hired singers and separated into three groups. Take that, San Marco! For anyone who is interested, we will be performing this piece at the Shrine at noon Mass on Assumption (August 15), the same feast for which it was composed.

It is particularly thrilling for a musicologist who is also a singer to perform historical music in a way that recalls its origins. We are not going to use three organs in our performance, although there are three available at the Shrine, but the parallels are often striking. The Shrine is an immense place, with no fixed congregation, and the choir is accomplished and led by extremely talented people, which is about as close to San Pietro in the early 17th century as one could hope to get. There are other big churches in the same situation around the world. However, nothing was as close to touching history as the tour that the Shrine Choir made of Rome in 1993, including singing Palestrina's motet Tu es Petrus at the tomb of St. Peter and works by Giovanni Anerio (d. 1630) in the Lateran Basilica where he was choirmaster. I think musicians alone among artists enjoy this chance to relive and be involved in the creative gestures of the past in such an intimate way.

24.7.03

Gertrude Stein

Actually, what Duncan Phillips did in Washington in the 1920s (see preceding post) is what Gertrude Stein had been doing in Paris for the two decades prior. Interestingly, Stein's life and works are a hot topic this summer. For example, Janet Malcolm's article in The New Yorker (June 6, 2003) dealt with Stein's life in WWII France and how, as an avant-garde writer and a woman of Jewish descent, she managed to escape deportation. Matt Dellinger has also put together a guide to online materials about Gertrude Stein. The apartment where Stein lived with her companion, Alice Toklas, at 27, rue de Fleurus was never really opened to the public in the way the Phillips family opened their house. Even so, a lot of people viewed modern art in Paris in Stein's atelier when there was no other place for it to be shown.

I must be hardwired into the Zeitgeist because this spring I finally got around to reading the Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, which is actually by Gertrude Stein and principally about Gertrude Stein. This is a fascinating book, but I was reminded by Janet Malcolm's article that it is not necessarily a "historical" book, since Stein's approach and style can hardly be called objective. In addition to a lot of talk about Picasso and Matisse and other artists and writers she knew, Stein does mention meeting Marsden Hartley, who came to Europe in 1912 after two successful shows at Alfred Stieglitz's gallery 291. He fell in with a group of German artists in Paris and eventually went to Berlin, where he met Kandinsky. World War I drove him back to the United States, where he was one of the first painters to bring the abstract style and the bright color approach of Kandinsky here. An excellent selection of these colorful and primitive-style paintings are in the Phillips show.

23.7.03

Marsden Hartley at the Phillips

On June 7, my wife and I took our young son to see the Marsden Hartley retrospective at The Phillips Collection. Because it was the weekend of the Dupont-Kalorama Museum Walk Weekend, admission was free. The baby cooperated beautifully and slept in his stroller for a couple hours while we enjoyed this extraordinary exhibit in the jewel of Washington museums. If you will be anywhere near downtown Washington, you should not miss this show, which will close on September 7. After that, you will have to go the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, where it will be shown from October 11 to January 4.

If you don't know the history of the museum, Duncan and Marjorie Phillips gave over part and then all of their magnificent home at 21st and Q Streets NW to what is now recognized as a first-rate collection of modern art and some of its historical influences. That may not sound all that incredible except that this happened in 1921, a date that leads the staff of the Phillips to acclaim it as "America's first museum of modern art." What I love about this museum is that its interior is like so many other old houses in the District of Columbia, just much more spacious and luxurious and with absolutely incredible art hung on the walls. I almost wish that it was still a private house and that a butler would bring you another cigar as you sit and look at the Picasso.

Very little of the permanent collection can be shown at the moment because the Hartley exhibit is taking up most of the rooms, so you won't see what is perhaps the most famous painting at the Phillips, Renoir's Déjeuner des Canotiers [Luncheon of the Boating Party]. Duncan Phillips purchased it from a French collector in 1923 for the then-astronomical sum of $125,000. This painting is lovingly copied by a character in Jean-Pierre Jeunet's film Le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain, one of the most beautiful cinematic evocations of Paris ever made. This is an interesting point because the character in the movie almost certainly has never seen the actual painting, although it is not important to the story.

A curator with whom I spoke about the Hartley exhibit assured me that the next major show at the Phillips will be even more spectacular. "Surrealism and Modernism from the Collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art" will be on view from October 4 to January 18. Since I have never been to Hartford, I am looking forward to it.

My Latest Publication

An article that I wrote, "Ad imaginem suam: Regional Chant Variants and the Origins of the Jeu d'Adam,” has just been published [Comparative Drama 36 (2003): 359–90]. The Jeu d'Adam is the first known play in French, and it was probably created in the 12th century. The first part of this play is an interesting retelling of the story of the creation of Adam and Eve and their fall from grace. It featured the choral singing of seven Gregorian chants, responsories with Latin texts from the same story taken from the Divine Office. Based on a study of these seven responsories, I tried to prove something new about the possible origins of this play. Frighteningly enough, a friend has told me that musicological legend Joseph Kerman has mentioned reading my article and liking it. Of course, I know that you publish something to bring it under the eyes of those who would be interested, but it's still scary.

Ionarts Is Born

This was where it all began at Ionarts, on July 23, 2003. The post that was originally found in this spot has been relegated to the virtual ether.