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One Hundred Days of Ionarts

Eye of the Sun, rock formation in Navajo lands of Monument Valley in southern UtahYou read that correctly: today is the 100th day of this blog, which seems like as good an occasion as any to take a look back at some of the topics that have appeared here. It's remarkable in the world of blogging how things end up working out as they do, in the freeform way that is the hallmark of this new medium. (If you can't stand this sort of retrospective because it's repetitive, just hang in there for another day, because more posts are on the way. Maybe something about the theme of eyes in art, like the Eye of the Sun, shown at right, a rock formation in Monument Valley in southern Utah.) As I see it, here is an assortment of some of the big posts and ideas that have been worked out here:

• July 24, Marsden Hartley at the Phillips Collection and Gertrude Stein (as an art collector)
• July 26, Latest Reading, was the first appearance of the Paris Reading List, which has evolved into a separate part of this site
• July 28, A Whole New Perspective on Realism, about a controversial painting by Gustave Courbet
• August 1, Field Trip!, about the church of Notre-Dame-de-Toute-Grâce
• August 3, Glaring at Cardinal Law, one of several posts about seeing Cardinal Law, former archbishop of Boston, at Mass at the National Shrine
• August 4, We've Been Googled, first discovered that you could find Ionarts with a Google search
• August 5, Das Ring at Bayreuth Festival, first post about Wagner
• August 6, The Idea of a National Patrimony, about Prosper Mérimée
• August 7, Mel Gibson, about seeing Mel Gibson introduce a viewing of clips from his controversial movie The Passion
• August 8, More Renoirs Than You Can Shake a Stick At, about a visit to the Barnes Collection
• August 11, Changes Planned for the Château de Chambord?, about the plans for the future of that castle
• August 13, More Artistic Strikes Planned in France, about the summer strikes by the intermittents du spectacle
• August 14, What Would Mozart Think?, about a controversial sculpture in Salzburg
• August 18, The Popularity of Impressionism, about an exhibit in Auvers-sur-Oise
• August 19, Wagner Festival in Washington?, first notice of an article in Die Welt on the Millennium Wagner Opera Company
• August 21, Eugène Atget Photographs for Sale, about the sale from the collection of the Modern Museum of Art
• August 23, One Month of Ionarts, about the recovery of lost 18th-century marble reliefs by the Louvre
• August 25, Albéniz the Opera Composer
• August 27, Centenary of the Prix Goncourt, about the anniversary of the prestigious literary award
• September 10, REVIEW: The Rivals at the Shakespeare Theatre
• September 11, Now How Much Would You Pay?, about determining the authenticity and value of a recently stolen Leonardo painting
• September 12, American Cultural Imperialism, about the battle over American interests in the new Jeunet film
• September 14, Translation of Interview with Don DeLillo, which provoked some strong reactions both positive and negative
• September 19, European Patrimony Days, about an annual event in France
• September 20, INTERVIEW: Wagner in Washington, first installment of six-part interview with Carol Berger, founder of Millennium Wagner Project
• September 24, The Marquesas, about Paul Gauguin and Jacques Brel and their time there
• October 1, Botticelli at the Palais du Luxembourg, about the Botticelli exhibit and the concept of the profile portrait
• October 2, Tomb of St. Peter on the Vatican Hill, about the excavations under St. Peter's
• October 3, András Schiff on the Goldberg Variations
• October 7, Your Weekly Proust, about Botticelli and the character of Swann in Proust
• October 8, Botticelli Exhibit, Ionarts in Paris begins
• October 10, Conference on the Air de Cour in Versailles, Ionarts in Versailles on early Baroque music
• October 14, Concerts at Versailles, Ionarts in Versailles continues
• October 16, Photographs at the Musée d'Orsay, Ionarts in Paris continues
• October 17, Gauguin—Tahiti at the Grand Palais (in four parts), end of Ionarts in Paris
• October 20, Verdi Requiem at the Kennedy Center, Ionarts back in Washington
• October 22, Juilliard Quartet at the Library of Congress (and October 24)
• October 26, "The Texas Chainsaw" Massacred, guest blogger Todd Babcock weighs in with his first posting on cinema
• October 27, Picasso at the National Gallery, Picasso and Fernande Olivier
• October 28, Chilingirian Quartet at the Library of Congress


Update on Festival d'Automne in Paris

On September 27, I wrote a short post (Autumn Festival in Paris) about the plans for this year's edition of the annual Festival d'Automne in Paris. I have just learned that Le Monde has created a Web page with more information and links to other sites about the festival. You can also read and print out a copy of the newspaper's special Supplément (.pdf) about the festival, and read several articles about Chinese artists and musicians in France, who are featured prominently in this year's festival (Dominique Frétard, Un bataillon rouge mène les artistes chinois en France, October 15; Frédéric Edelmann, A Pingyao, l'architecture et la photo en trompe l'oeil, October 15; links to other articles can be found on the latter page). This is also the occasion of the year-long celebration of L'année de la Chine in France, which will be bringing a large number of Chinese artists, musicians, dancers, and so on to France in an important cultural exchange.


Chilingirian Quartet at the Library of Congress

I was once again in the Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress tonight, to see the latest in the 2003-2004 season of the annual series of free concerts. The Chilingirian String Quartet presented a program of three quartets by Mozart, Bartók, and Dvořák. This was my first time hearing this group perform, and I discovered that their reputation, particularly as interpreters of Bartók and Dvořák, is well merited. The quartet was formed by four graduates of London's Royal College of Music in 1971, and two of its founding members are still performing, Levon Chilingirian on first violin and Philip DeGroote on cello. Charles Sewart has been playing second violin since 1992, and violist Susie Mészáros is playing her first season with them this year. The Chilingirian Quartet is now in residence at the Royal College of Music, where Mr. Chilingirian is a professor. They have also partnered with the remarkable vocal ensemble Anonymous 4, for which collaboration John Tavener composed an octet for string quartet and four voices. (This piece, titled "The Bridegroom," was just performed by them in a concert called "Darkness into Light" on October 23 at the World Financial Center Winter Garden in New York City. There is also a CD of the program available.)

The concert began with Mozart's String Quartet in C Major, K. 465 ("Dissonance"), which was beautifully played but not the best part of the concert. (Mozart is not one of the quartet's areas of specialization, according to the biography included for them in the program.) This is the last quartet in the set of six "Haydn" quartets that Mozart dedicated to Haydn, and it owes many of its characteristics to that composer's influence. The nickname "Dissonance" was attached to the quartet after Mozart's death, and it refers to the strange harmonies in the brief Adagio introduction to the first movement, the only such slow introductory movement among Mozart's final string quartets. The piece has troubled many listeners since it was composed: Mozart's wife Constanze related a story about one Prince Grassalkovich, who got angry because he thought his string players were making mistakes when they played the Dissonance quartet. When they assured him the notes they played were on the page, he tore up the score. The Chilingirian Quartet chose a very fast tempo for the first movement, which was perhaps just a hair too allegro for the extremely agile second theme. The movement came to a soft and charming conclusion, in spite of Mr. Chilingirian's mishap with his music: it fell from the stand as he turned a page, but he quickly recovered without missing too much. The variations of the rather slow rendition of the Andante movement were dark and lovely. The happy Menuetto of the third movement is contrasted with a Trio of an almost Sturm und Drang feel. There were occasional minor inaccuracies in the first violin spiccatos in this movement, but a soaring and pure E string sound that was quite beautiful. The strongest influence of Haydn, I think, is the humor of his Rondo movements, with their quirky starts and stops, which is lovingly imitated by Mozart in the final movement here. Again the Chilingirian chose a very fast tempo, which required the first violin especially to be extremely adroit.John Singer Sargent, Portrait of Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, Library of Congress

The best performance of the concert was Bartók's String Quartet no. 5, a piece that was commissioned by and dedicated to Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge (the great music patron for whom Coolidge Auditorium is named, shown at right in a charcoal drawing by John Singer Sargent) and first performed in Coolidge Auditorium by the Kolisch Quartet in 1935. (If you want to learn more about Mrs. Coolidge and her incredible work supporting the cause of new music in the 20th century, you should read Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge: American Patron of Music, a book by my former professor at Catholic University, Cyrilla Barr.) Although it is usually considered to be less harshly dissonant than the third and fourth quartets, Bartók's fifth string quartet begins with a strident and marked opening that was played with great force this evening. Since this piece includes many examples of Bartók's fascination with the mirror form or chiasmus, those striking harmonies from the beginning of the first movement return toward the end of the last movement. What Bartók began with folk music in his first quartet (see my review of the Juilliard String Quartet's performance of that piece on October 24), he develops fully in this piece, with its Bulgarian and other folk rhythms and sounds. The many effects called for in the piece (muting, tremulos, percussive off-string bowing, glissandi, and even glissandi in pizzicato) were used by the Chilingirian to create marvelous sound worlds. I don't know their recording of all six Bartók quartets (made before the present second violin and viola were members), but on the basis of this performance, I would be willing to buy it. The famous moment near the end of the last movement, where the music breaks into a sort of Viennese serenade gone insane, is marked by the composer "Allegretto, con indifferenza" when a theme is restated absurdly and then given a satirical twist harmonically. This was performed tonight with the perfect mixture of humor and banality.

The concert concluded with Antonín Dvořák's String Quartet in G Major, op. 106. This performance was also excellent, especially the deep-throated folk song of the second movement and tragic folk lament that begins and returns throughout the fourth movement. This was the first time that I had ever heard this quartet performed, and the more I get to know Dvořák's music, the more I like it. His harmonic vocabulary and folk-derived melodic construction have had, I think, a significant influence on American film composers especially, something which I appreciated even more hearing this piece. It was a night of many discoveries, for which I again thank the Library of Congress.


Picasso at the National Gallery

On Sunday I went to the National Gallery of Art here in Washington, D.C. In the East Building is one of the current exhibits, Picasso: The Cubist Portraits of Fernande Olivier (through January 18, 2004). I like the idea of this exhibit, to bring together a large number of portraits of the same subject. As it turns out, in Picasso the curators had an apparently rare example of a single artist drawing, painting, and sculpting the same woman intensely in a large number of works. What got the ball rolling was the National Gallery's acquisition this year of a version of the sculpted Head of a Woman (Fernande), modeled in 1909 and cast before 1932. Three versions of this sculpture are the centerpiece of the exhibit, placed in the central of the three rooms devoted to it in the East Building. Surrounding it are an array of paintings and drawings that the curators believe are Fernande Olivier or Picasso's idealization or deconstruction of her. (You can consult a list of works in the exhibit, with no images, online.)

Fernande OlivierPablo Picasso, Portrait of Fernande Olivier, 1906, Worcester Art MuseumPablo Picasso, Bust of a Woman, Spring 1909, from a private collection
The curators have placed a single photograph of Fernande (not the one shown above) in the show, at the entrance next to a photograph of Picasso, and I made more than one trip back out of the exhibit to refresh my mental image of the actual woman's attributes, for comparison with Picasso's renderings. (You can see many more photographs and images of Fernande, thanks to the On-Line Picasso Project.) Picasso met Fernande Olivier in 1905, soon after he had settled in Paris. They were born in the same year and were in their mid-20s at this time. Some time before she met Picasso, Fernande had left her abusive husband and found refuge among the art students of Paris. Over several months in 1909 to 1910, in Paris and over that summer in a rented house in the mountain village of Horta de Ebro, Spain, Picasso worked out his understanding of the female form inspired by Fernande's attributes. Within a couple of years, in 1912, Fernande's relationship with Picasso was finished. Gertrude Stein, writing in the persona of her companion in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, wrote about Alice's position, which was to speak to the wives and girlfriends of Ms. Stein's visitors:

Fernande, who was then living with Picasso and had been with him a long time that is to say they were all twenty-four years old at that time but they had been together a long time, Fernande was the first wife of a genius I sat with and she was not the least amusing. We talked hats. Fernande had two subjects hats and perfumes. This first day we talked hats. She liked hats, she had the true french feeling about a hat, if a hat did not provoke some witticism from a man on the street the hat was not a success. Later on once in Montmartre she and I were walking together. She had on a large yellow hat and I had on a much smaller blue one. As we were walking along a workman stopped and called out, there go the sun and the moon shining together. Ah, said Fernande to me with a radiant smile, you see our hats are a success.
(You can find out more about Fernande in the published translation of her journal and some of her letters, Loving Picasso: The Private Journal of Fernande Olivier, or her book Picasso et ses amis, available in French.) Fernande had appeared in Picasso's work before 1909, in a sketch owned by the Worcester Art Museum (shown above), and in a non-Cubist sculpted head (clay model in the Musée Picasso and bronze cast in the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris). She has also appeared in works by Kees Van Dongen: Fernande Olivier (1905, collection Samir Traboulsi, Paris) and Portrait de Fernande Olivier (1906), for example.

The National Gallery has published a selection of 16 images from the exhibit on its Web site. I suspect that some paintings not in the show may also be representations of Fernande: for example, Woman with Fan (After the Dance) (Summer 1908, State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg), or from Gertrude Stein's description of her love for hats, maybe the Woman with Fan (Spring 1909, Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow). To get a broader look at Picasso's work at this time, as well as to find other images from the Fernande show, look at the detailed pages on 1909 from the On-Line Picasso Project. This exhibit at the National Gallery is well worth the short visit required to view it; from here it will travel to the Nasher Sculpture Center (Dallas, Texas), from February 15 to May 9, 2004.


"The Texas Chainsaw" Massacred

Hollywood SignIonarts is proud to host the cinematic musings of a friend in Hollywood: beginning today, guest blogger Todd Babcock will be contributing movie reviews and other posts related to the world of cinema, that quintessential American art form.

The new "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" plays out as a 90-minute cinematic equivalent of a 'dead baby joke'. It's jarring and offensive and leaves one with nothing but repulsive images that linger on afterwards. While both had a series of endless revamps and evolutions during the seventies and eighties (i.e., "a truckload of dead babies" or "unloading them with a pitchfork" with "Texas Chainsaw Massacre II" and "TCM: The Next Generation") it seems a bit pointless to rehash them twenty years later. It's akin to someone telling Lenny Bruce jokes thirty years after the obscenity trials. Without the temporal setting of its origin it gets lost in the wash of "just another foul-mouthed comedian/slasher film." Which it is.

The hope of anyone going in with title recognition here is that somehow this 'new' director (Marcus Nispel, who has spent upwards of twenty years on commercials and music videos) has found some innovative way to reinvent a dusty classic. The original's appeal was not in its realistic effects or its Oscar-caliber cast but, rather, in its very bargain-basement approach. For some reason the horror genre seems to be the only one that benefits from low film quality. It's as if moviegoers have been coddled by the comforting filters and film stock of major motion pictures over the years. They have been slowly taught that if a film has an immense budget and major stars no one up high is going to present anything too nasty to rock the boat. This point is evidenced by the recent hit "28 Days Later" and, like it or not, "The Blair Witch Project" that even under the recent decade mark seems to have stolen this film's possible thunder.

The problem here lies in the fact there is no thunder to steal. While the film pays homage to the original in its opening with its faux-documentary presentation (even here we see the tell-tale post-production grain effect added to a too-clean image), it quickly fades to our 'cosmetically dirtied' teens playfully awaiting a headlong run-in with everyone's worst notion of what exists in the darkest recesses of our country. This Calvin Klein cum Scooby-Doo clan of oversexed tokers look more retro-chic than period (the bumper sticker on the van reads "Hippie Chicks Rule") and far too attractive for our eye to accept them as everyday unfortunates. The risk here was that with all these supposed upgrades in quality (the actors are actually quite competent) one is presented with a new set of challenges. Mainly, after removing the home-cooked quality of the original, what quality are you replacing it with?

The answer lies in the question which, one assumes, was never asked upon incubation. The horror genre has always had a history of making its money back. The Raimi brothers grabbed a camera and ran around the woods chasing their friends and turned it into the "Evil Dead" franchise. Video shelves are filled with endless titles evoking suspicious renters looking for authentic thrills ("They Come Back," "Never Dead," "Please Stop Killing My Daughter"). In this way the horror genre shares much of its appeal with the porn industry. No one cares if the acting's good, if it's shot well, or if there's a story. The question is, Does it get the job done? Which is mainly the documentation of body parts and what we do with them. Referring back to Mr. Bruce, it has been endlessly commented on that one must enter a private booth for renting erotic exploitation and simply have HBO for the other (not his actual words).

The difference is that, with mayhem being a socially acceptable form of 'getting off', that genre has suddenly taken center stage. Horror has been put in the spotlight and has a new generation of cinematic savants in its charge. Ever since Kubrick made a masterpiece of a Stephen King book one must ask oneself truly what a horror film is. Is it fair to categorize "The Sixth Sense" alongside such titles as "I'll Kill You, Bitch," "Still Killing You," and "Killing You III: The Final Chapter in the Kill Trilogy"? Every genre has a way of reinventing itself over time. It's a natural progression of any art form that it gets referential of other forms and periods and yet breaks new ground and asks more of the viewer. With the advent of Wes Craven's "Scream" trilogy, the horrror genre had finally taken a large step forward. The incorporation of protagonists who are aware of what type of movie they're in and address its clichés would seem to put an end to horror-by-rote filmmaking. Which is why it seemed like such a misstep when the previous pedestrian outing of "Freddie vs. Jason" seemed to go backward instead of forward. Wes Craven had already pushed that franchise and genre to the limits when he had Freddie Krueger stalking the very actor who portrays him. Once, it seems, these steps are taken there is no going back. Yet here we have our marquee heroes (not villains, heroes) slashing open teens during drunken bouts and premarital sex. But even more shocking than its formulaic sensibility was our inability to believe that any of these kids hadn't heard of Freddie Krueger. Guys, he's on lunchboxes. Perhaps these kids were from the same 1973 that the "Massacre" club were from and weren't quite aware that in small, inbred towns you don't meet the sheriff at the deserted 'old mill'.

What has suddenly emerged from these name-brand horror franchises is a comfort level. The very comfort that these films are meant to shed with their low-budget, anything-goes tactics. Now we have a relationship with Freddy, Jason, Michael, and the backwoods clan of "Massacre." Like its outlaw cousin, the porn industry, we all are just waiting for an ever-changing hero/heroine to get fucked. Which really draws into question the nature of horror and the pathos of violence. It's easier now for audiences to relate to these one-time villains because they have spent more time with them. These baddies have personality, goals, and irreverence, unlike their victims whom we resent for their stupidity and comfort ourselves in our superiority. What began as possibly a horrific concept has now devolved into a cuddly monster flick with as little or no shock value as a Saturday afternoon with "Godzilla." The litmus test being the post-screening chat heard in the theater lobby where fright-hopeful lines stare expectantly at the reaction of the departees. The standard query of "Was it scary?" is responded to with "No, but there were some good killings." While standard porn/horror will always recycle the same stories with different faces and box covers it reveals a desperation in the moviegoers, that they are constantly willing to shell out the now outrageous $10 asking price.

The conundrum this film presents is that it has an all-around 'quality' and polish like that of one of Nispel's Nike ads. Yet one has to wonder if there was a director present at all. Couldn't a competent director of photography and technicians grab the same glossy footage and have a talented editor assemble it? While one is transfixed in its commercial glaze and by repeated opportunities to dampen Ms. Biel's white tank-top one can actually lose sight of the fact there is really no craft going on. Certainly there are jumps and starts here and there but I'd challenge even the most pedantic filmaker not to get a rise from his audience by simply having a chainsaw buzzing near pretty young things. Once again, if we actually just filmed a truckload of dead babies...

Of course it follows that many a peer has cited the common charge, "It's 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre': what did you expect?" Well, quite honestly, a good movie. Which is exactly what does this film in...expectation. Had this title not existed previously and was simply a 'concept' slasher film starring Jessica Biel it wouild probably go under the radar with marginal profits like this year's "Wrong Turn" with its inbred baddies, simmering TV stars (Eliza Dushku, Jeremy Sisto) and mayhem. "Massacre" carries with it a history, and one assumed from the slick, enticing trailer and the fact there wasn't a numerical tag on the title's end that something new was going to be done. Otherwise, why do it? The answer, once again, lies in the question. Audiences keep showing up in droves in vain hopes of seeing something 'great' or, perhaps, even just 'good', and it's a testament to that hunger that these films open so well. The promise of this over-hyped "retelling" is that it had something to say other than simply glamming a previous concept (the inbred boy looks like he should be modelling Gap Jr. wear without the fake wax teeth; great skin, really), and one wonders how many times Hollywood can go to that well before it runs dry. Most likely, a lot.

The loss here is not simply that another mediocre film has found its way to a big opening. I think the audiences are inured to that possibility at every sitting. It's in the missed opportunity. "Massacre" finds its suspence and anxiety not simply by possible chainsaw execution but by its juxtaposition of sensibilities. Peckinpah's "Straw Dogs" and Boorman's "Deliverance" truly horrified us with the notion there are 'lost' people and places in every society who aren't sitting around watching Nispel's commercials and music videos and consuming his products and fitting into targeting demographics. Perhaps that's a notion too horrifying for Nispel and Michael Bay to consider.

Cost of making the movie? Millions.
Cost of marketing the movie? Tens of millions.
Cost of making a movie that will last beyond its three-week opening money clutching push? Priceless.


Gauguin—Tahiti at the Grand Palais (Follow-up)

These are some afterthoughts about the exhibit Gauguin—Tahiti: l'atelier des tropiques at the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais in Paris, where it will be until January 4, 2004. From there it will travel to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where it will show from February 29 to June 20, 2004; be aware that the museum has forecast attendance at over 300,000 people. (My observations on a visit to the show in Paris on October 13 are here: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.)

There are a few more works in this show that I did not list before, including one painting in the sixth room of the exhibit, the Self-Portrait (1893-1894, Musée d'Orsay) in which an inverted image of Spirit of the Dead Watching is hanging on the wall behind him. There are also a number of sculptures that represent Gauguin's sincere if perhaps naive attempt to recover, save, or recreate the culture and religion of his adopted home, most of which you can see in the article Gauguin and Tahiti by Philippe Peltier in the most recent issue of Art Tribal (along with images of many of the Tahitian and Marquesan artifacts in the show):

• Tehura (Tahitian head of wood, 1891-1893, Musée d'Orsay)
• Tua (Idol made of wood, fish teeth, mother-of-pearl, 1892, Musée d'Orsay); the female version of this idol, in a private collection in Toulouse, is not in the show
• Tamanu (Idol with pearl, 1892, Musée d'Orsay)
• Oviri (ceramic sculpture, 1894, Musée d'Orsay); a version in bronze is in a private collection and is not in the show; the body type presented in this work and others like it had an influence on Picasso (see La toilette from 1906)
• Saint Orang (wood sculpture, 1902-1903, Musée d'Orsay)

Paul Gauguin, Self-portrait with Portrait of Bernard (Les Misérables), 1888, Van Gogh Museum, AmsterdamTo try to encapsulate my various reactions to the show, I go back to what Gauguin wrote to the government minister (quoted in Part 1 of these posts) about his plans for a trip to Tahiti, "whose character and light I aim to capture." Seeing so much of the Tahiti period works in one place shows how Gauguin proceeded in that plan and how he succeeded. (For a dissenting view to this idea of success, see an article by Keith Morrison, Perspectives on the Art of Gauguin: For Nonwhites, It's Racist Propaganda, published in The Washington Post in 1988.) On one level, Gauguin's Tahiti works are intensely self-absorbed and may express more about his own fantasies, sexual (for example, Aita Tamari vahina Judith te Parari, or Annah the Javanese, from 1893 and now in a private collection) and otherwise, about the identity the artist created for himself there. On another level, seeing the paintings and especially the sculptures side by side with actual Tahitian artifacts and Gauguin's notebooks and engravings made clear in my mind how sincere he was in his devotion to the islands' culture, at a time when even its native residents believed it was lost.

I would have liked to see more of the self-portraits in the show, but there is such a surfeit of important paintings that it seems ridiculous to complain of a lacuna. Still, the self-portraits could have been placed strategically throughout the show, to represent the intense self-inspection Gauguin was making alongside that of his exterior. Self-portraits from the Tahiti and Marquises periods, not in the exhibit, include:

Self-Portrait (1890s, Puskin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow)
Self-Portrait with Idol (c. 1893, Marion Koogler McNay Art Museum, San Antonio, Texas)
Self-Portrait with Palette (c. 1894, private collection)
Self-Portrait (1896, Museo de Arte, São Paolo, Brazil)
Self-Portrait (1896, Musée d'Orsay)

I also really like the humorous Self-Portrait (1889, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), which although it predates his first stay in Tahiti is from the same year as the Self-Portrait with Yellow Christ which begins the exhibit. The most beautiful of the self-portraits is that shown above to the right, Self-portrait with Portrait of Bernard (Les Misérables) (1888, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam). For many more images of Gauguin's works, not necessarily in the exhibit, see this Gauguin Expo and collection of Gauguin images from Olga's Gallery and Orazio Centaro's Art Images on the Web.


Juilliard Quartet at the Library of Congress

This evening the Juilliard String Quartet was again in the Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress (see my post on their last performance on October 22). This is part of the 2003-2004 season of the annual series of free concerts hosted by the Library of Congress here in Washington, D.C. There were no special, oversized violas for tonight's program, so I think that the quartet was once again performing on the matched set of Stradivari instruments, donated to the Library in 1934 by Mrs. Gertrude Clarke Whittall.

Béla BartókThe program began with an absolutely stellar performance of Béla Bartók's String Quartet no. 1 (op. 7). The Juilliard Quartet was the first group in the United States to play all six of the Bartók string quartets, in 1949, and the various members have made three recordings of the these important works, starting with the first recording in 1950. Not only can a listener trace the progress of Bartók's musical style over the course of the six quartets, but you get a chance to hear some of the best music the 20th century had to offer. In fact, it is really not an exaggeration to say that, by composing them, Bartók did a lot to preserve the string quartet as a modern genre. I expected the Juilliard to give a fine performance of Bartók, given the group's history, but I was truly astounded by the beauty of this performance. At this point in his life (1907-1910), Bartók was still composing in a surprisingly tonal, or post-Romantic, style. However, there are moments of tension and dissonance in the piece that already were becoming part of his vocabulary. Furthermore, the influence of Hungarian folk music is felt strongly in this quartet for the first time, as Bartók's friend Zóltan Kódaly noted. Bartók and Kódaly at this point were preparing their study and collection of Hungarian folk melodies, eventually a total of over 100,000 of them (see the introduction to Hungarian Folk Songs). If you want to learn more about Hungarian folk song, take a look at Zoltán Bodolai's The Timeless Nation: The History, Literature, Music, Art and Folklore of the Hungarian Nation (1978), available online among the incredible collection of resources from the Corvinus Library of Hungarian History.

This was followed by another piece by Milton Babbitt, the Clarinet Quintet, featuring guest clarinettist Charles Neidich. This piece was premiered by the Juilliard Quartet and Mr. Neidich, to whom the composer dedicated it, for the quartet's 50th anniversary in 1996. It's a slightly more melodic piece than what was on Wednesday's program, but the effect of discombobulation was basically the same. Between the wild bobbing of Mr. Neidich's head and the obvious foot tapping of members of the quartet, it was obvious that the shifting rhythm of the piece is difficult to coordinate. It is one long movement, which is rather disconcertingly monochromatic. (For an older assessment of Babbitt's work, Greg Sandow has made available online his article The Fine Madness of Milton Babbitt, from The Village Voice, in 1982.)

The second half of the concert was the next installment of the Juilliard String Quartet's performance of the entire cycle of Ludwig van Beethoven's string quartets, in celebration of its 40th anniversary at the Library of Congress: the String Quartet no. 14 in C# Minor, op. 131. The quartet's performance was excellent, but the Bartók had already been the high point of the concert. Op. 131 was completed in 1826, just a year before Beethoven's death, and is one of the longest string quartets he wrote: it is divided into seven movements and takes about 40 minutes to perform. Beethoven's study of counterpoint, which I discussed in relation to Wednesday's performance of op. 130 with the Grosse Fuge, is also in evidence. The opening of the first movement features the fugal entrance of the four parts on a solemn, tragic melodic subject. This learned style is in contrast to a sort of graceful folk sound featured in the third movement (Allegro moderato) and the Haydnesque humor of the fifth movement(Presto). In the fourth movement (Andante ma non troppo e molto cantabile) the pizzicato sforzandos were very accurate, loud, and pleasing to hear, as was the high playing of the first violin in the Presto. All in all, this was again a most pleasing concert at the Library of Congress.


Ned Rorem

There's a lot of attention on American composer Ned Rorem right now. In honor of Rorem's 80th birthday (today, October 23), Alex Ross has published an appreciation of his life and music (The Gentleman Composer: Eighty Years of Ned Rorem, issue of October 20) in The New Yorker, and other tributes have followed in other places, including on National Public Radio this morning (commentary by Joel Rose). (There is also a nice feature from Minnesota Public Radio, Eighty Years of Ned Rorem.)

I have always been a fan of Rorem's music, maybe partially because of his own obsession with the city of Paris (see the sometimes too detailed account of his years in France in The Paris Diary). He has been composing all this time in one of the most durable styles of the past century, in a sort of harmonically enriched tonality. This is in spite of the overwhelming academic authority behind serial music, which has been taught and sustained by some as the only style for serious contemporary music. In spite of the derision of some serial composers (whom Rorem labeled this morning on NPR as "the serial killers") toward his music, Rorem has survived. I know mostly his songs and his choral music, a few examples of which we have performed at the National Shrine. The choir just performed, at this past Sunday's noon Mass, the first of his Three Motets (1973), "O Deus, Ego Amo Te," and we have been rehearsing the other two. The beautiful text of this motet (O God, I love thee) is a prayer of the Jesuit missionary St. Francis Xavier, translated by Gerard Manley Hopkins.


Juilliard Quartet at the Library of Congress

As I wrote in a post on August 31 (Free Concerts in Washington), the Library of Congress here in Washington, D.C., has begun the 2003-2004 season of its annual series of free concerts. I was in the Coolidge Auditorium this evening for the first of their concerts I have been able to attend, the first performance this season by the Juilliard String Quartet. The members of this group, in its 41st year of residence at the Library of Congress, are Joel Smirnoff (violin), Ronald Copes (violin), Samuel Rhodes (viola), and Joel Krosnick (cello).

The program began with an unusual performance of the first four contrapunctus movements of J. S. Bach's Die Kunst der Fuge (The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080), an interesting choice intended to highlight the influence of this work on Beethoven's late quartets, one of which concluded the program. In a short program note on the piece, violist Samuel Rhodes writes:

Why isn't the Art of Fugue a standard fixture of the string quartet repertoire? Written in open score for four abstract voices—soprano, alto, tenor, and bass—the Art of Fugue, transcribed for every possible combination ranging from keyboard instrument to full orchestra and concert band, seems perfectly suited to the combination of two violins, viola, and cello. I believe the principal reason is a purely practical one, the fact that the alto and tenor lines go below the range of the violin and viola a significant number of times throughout the work.
What makes this performance tonight unusual is that the Juilliard Quartet did not alter a single note of Bach's score, which is the usual solution to the problem. The second violinist played viola "in places that are too low," and Mr. Rhodes played the tenor part on a slightly larger version of the viola, built for him by Marten Cornelissen "so that it can extend the normal viola range down by a fourth." Cornelissen is known as a most talented instrument builder, and this large viola, according to Mr. Rhodes, "not only functions wonderfully in this altered way but, when normally strung, is also one of the finest violas my colleagues and I have ever heard!"

The first four movements are fairly straightforward fugues, in which the subject is presented clearly, without the more complex transformations Bach uses later in the piece. What he seems to be showing first is how to write clear fugal expositions and episodes, how to transform your subject with rhythmic variation, and how to write a subject that inverts well. Contrapunctus I, which exposes the subject in its original form (do-sol-me-do-ti-do-re-me-fa-me-re-do), was played in a slow tempo, with an almost dry separation of the initial four half notes each time the subject or answer appeared. Contrapunctus II uses the noninverted form of the subject as well, with slight rhythmic changes, including a syncopated version of the answer, and the quartet played this movement at a much faster tempo, giving it almost the feel of a variation on Contrapunctus I. Contrapuncti III and IV were paired in a similar way, because both these movements present the inverted form of the subject. The piece's next movement, a canon at the octave, frames the first four movements together, but the quartet chose not to play it tonight. This performance belied the characterization often unjustly applied to Die Kunst der Fuge, that of a cerebral piece, written more for study than performance. As recent research has shown, many of Bach's pieces and especially his monumental collections had a didactic or encyclopedic purpose, but that does not make this piece academic or unmoving any more than the Brandenburg Concerti. Sadly, one spectator forgot to turn off his cell phone and received a call with a ridiculous ring precisely at a dramatic pause near the end of Contrapunctus I. (To learn more about Die Kunst der Fuge, see this Introduction to the Art of Fugue by Timothy A. Smith at the University of Northern Arizona; On Johann Sebastian Bach's Art of the Fugue by John Stone; and J.S. Bach's The Art of the Fugue: An Enigma Resolved by David Peat.)

The first half of the program concluded with a piece called The Joy of More Sextets by Milton Babbitt, performed by Joel Smirnoff and guest pianist Christopher Oldfather. This piece was commissioned by the Library of Congress and first performed in Coolidge Auditorium in 1987, to celebrate Babbitt's 70th birthday. The title is in reference to Babbitt's earlier piece Sextets (1966), but neither it nor this piece is a sextet; both are for violin and piano. I have done some reading about this piece after the concert, because the program notes did not include information about it, leading to an unusual way of experiencing it for me. I usually think of twelve-tone music as primarily intellectual because I tend to listen to it armed with an understanding informed by theorists and historians who study it. From a purely auditory experience, I cannot say that I was able to perceive anything about its form or structure, but I don't know if that is good or bad. What I can say is that the generally sparse texture of poking and scratching on both instruments, with very little of what can really be called melody, has much in common with the music of Webern. What struck me for the first time was the relationship of this style with the style of jazz known as bebop, spurts of dissonant, jagged sound. Although many in the audience seemed to appreciate the piece, there were also the expected murmurs of discontent. Some people slept, and many refused to applaud.

Ludwig van Beethoven, 1770-1827What most people probably came to hear was the concert's second half, Ludwig van Beethoven's String Quartet in B-flat, op. 130. The Juilliard Quartet performed this piece with, as its final movement, the Grosse Fuge, op. 133, as it was originally conceived by Beethoven, who later substituted a lighter final movement in response to criticism. (See this analysis of the Grosse Fuge for more information.) To celebrate its 40th anniversary at the Library of Congress, almost a year ago now, the Juilliard String Quartet began one of its performances of the entire cycle of the Beethoven string quartets. (It was the first quartet in the United States to do this, at a series of concerts in New York in 1948 to 1949, the first to perform it on television, and the first to make a complete digital recording. They have since performed the cycle again in New York, Boston, Pasadena, at my alma mater Michigan State University in East Lansing, and now in Washington.) The cycle will be completed at the quartet's four remaining concerts at the Library of Congress between now and December.

This was a truly beautiful performance that was thrilling to hear. The second movement (Presto) was played sotto voce and blindingly fast. It's quite short and, when it was over, an audible murmur of surprised contentment was heard from the audience. Also of particular beauty was the fifth movement (Cavatina), a lyric aria of aching, Romantic beauty which was played superbly. The theme of the whole concert seems to be the idea and practice of counterpoint, which is integral to all three pieces on the program. As Norman Middleton, Jr., pointed out in his program note, Beethoven copied sections of Contrapunctus IV from Bach's Die Kunst der Fuge into his sketches of both the Piano Sonata, op. 106 (Hammerklavier), and the Ninth Symphony, and the main subject of the Grosse Fuge is "a retrograde version of the name 'Bach' (B-flat, A, C, B-natural)." It is a program that has intellectual interest and was most pleasing to the ear.


Thanks for reading

It's time again to say a quick thank you to some bloggers out there for reading and linking to Ionarts:

Travelers Diagram for his Roundup of Eight New Blogs on October 20, identifying Ionarts as "In-depth on art and music. Especially pre-20th Century art."
• Blogger TPB, Esq. of Unbillable Hours for featuring Ionarts posts on Tomb of St. Peter on the Vatican Hill and Andras Schiff on the Goldberg Variations.
• Blogger Nathalie Chicha of Cup of Chicha for a mention of the Painting the Weather exhibit I referenced during Hurricane Isabel.
• Tyler Green at Modern Art Notes (October 21) and blogger a. c. douglas for mentions of the Paris-related postings on Ionarts.

In case you missed it, a. c. douglas had the last word, on October 5, in our exchange about whether in a Wagner opera the orchestra provides an "accompaniment" to the singers on the stage, which a. c. says "betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the essential nature of the music-drama, and of what it consists." When someone uses these sorts of words (I or what I said is also "in error," "totally wrong," and "completely inapt"), there is obviously no access for any opposing opinion and therefore no cause for further dialogue. I guess that I have only to follow this line of thinking to conclude that it was actually the singers whom Wagner intended to have hidden below the stage in the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, while the stage was reserved for "the orchestra wherein resides the very core of the drama itself." I may never understand and appreciate Wagner in the way a. c. does, that is, with a lot of passion and reverence. I like Wagner's operas and I find them interesting, but if I had to make a choice, I would much rather see and hear Verdi's Otello or Falstaff (what a. c. somewhat pointedly calls Verdi's "Wagner-influenced two last operas") than any work by Wagner.

In an update on October 23, a. c. again had the last word, by comparing my views on Wagner to those of the Flat Earth Society. That, dear readers, is the sort of conviction that perfectly illustrates my point that any future dialogue is impossible. As Bertrand Russell put it, "I think we ought always to entertain our opinions with some measure of doubt." But perhaps he was wrong. I'm willing to consider it.


Verdi Requiem at the Kennedy Center

Giuseppe VerdiGiuseppe Verdi's Requiem Mass is a favorite piece of mine, and I leapt at the chance to hear it performed yesterday at the Kennedy Center. The concert featured The Washington Chorus and Orchestra and the Shenandoah Conservatory Choir, under the direction of Robert Shafer. The vocal soloists were Alessandra Marc (soprano), Elizabeth Bishop (mezzo soprano), and Eric Owens (bass). Tenor Steven Tharp stepped in at the last minute to replace the fourth soloist, absent due to an illness. The piece was originally performed at the funeral ceremony for Verdi's hero Alessandro Manzoni in 1873, in Milan Cathedral, but it was also performed shortly afterward in the theater of La Scala and it really belongs in the concert hall rather than a liturgical setting. (Any Mass that takes about half of the total time just for its sequence is liturgically out of proportion.)

The performances were all fine, with some intonation problems among the winds in the Confutatis movement and between the strings and the soprano soloist in the Recordare and Offertorio movements. The amassed chorus was immense in size, spilling over from its stands into the box seats above the stage in the Concert Hall. This kind of large choral work is the bread and butter of the Washington Chorus, a volunteer organization with a big reputation that is well deserved. Their performance was accurate and moving, with a well-considered range of volume and texture. (While I appreciate what this group is able to accomplish, I am philosophically opposed to the idea of volunteer choruses, only because they perpetuate the institutional bias against professional choral singers. If we can even find a paying job, it is almost always for significantly less pay than an instrumental musician can expect at the same level.) Their orchestra (which, I suspect, is a paid group) was also up to the task, with only a moment of intonation trouble in the introduction by the celli in the Offertorio. Verdi's piccolo part in the piece is quite dramatic, shrieking rabidly in the evocation of the Apocalypse in the opening of the Dies Irae (with echoes, at moments, of the music for the witches in his opera Macbeth) and bursting like the eternal fire in the Confutatis. I am sorry that the piccolo player is not listed in the program, because I would like to congratulate her here for a job well done.

The problem with going to the Kennedy Center is that it is so expensive, which is ultimately why I go so infrequently. My ticket for the Verdi Requiem cost $45, which was a gift from a friend. Parking at the garage now costs $15. This is to hear a large group of musicians that receives no pay, remember, which seems out of proportion.


Gauguin—Tahiti at the Grand Palais (Part 3 of 3)

This is the conclusion of my observations on the exhibit Gauguin—Tahiti: l'atelier des tropiques at the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais in Paris, where it will be until January 4, 2004. From there it will travel to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where it will show from February 29 to June 20, 2004.

Paul Gauguin, Nave nave mahana, 1896, Musée des Beaux Arts, LyonThe remaining rooms of the exhibit are on the lower floor of the Grand Palais, reached by a spiral staircase. These rooms contain artwork made during Gauguin's return to France in 1893 to 1895, as well as in the final rooms his second stay back in Tahiti from 1895 to 1901 and the final years in Atuona, one of the Marquesas, from 1901 to his death in 1903. (See my comments on his years in the Marquesas in a post on September 24, The Marquesas.) The paintings in the exhibit from this period include:

Mahana no atua (God's day, 1894, Art Institute of Chicago)
Tarari maruru (Landscape with two goats, 1897, State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg)
The Harvest (Man picking fruit from a tree, 1897, State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg)
• Te bourao II (Large tree, 1897, from a private collection)
Vairumati (1897, Musée d'Orsay)
• Baigneuses à Tahiti (1897-1898, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham)
• Femme tahitienne I (1898, Ny Carlsberg-Glyptotek, Copenhagen)
Deux tahitiennes (1889, Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Faa iheihe (Tahitian Pastoral, 1898, Tate Gallery of Art, London)
Rare te hiti aaruu (The idol, 1898, State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg)
Te pape nave nave (Delicious water, 1898, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.)
D'où venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Où allons-nous? (1897-1898, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Te vaa (The Canoe, 1896, State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg)
No teaha oe riri (Why are you angry?, 1896, Art Institute of Chicago)
Nave nave mahana (Delicious Day, 1896, Musée des Beaux Arts, Lyon)
Te rerioa (The Dream, 1897, Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London)
Ea haere ia oe (Where are you going?, 1892, Staatsgalerie Stuttgart)
Le cheval blanc (1898, Musée d'Orsay)
Marquisien à la cape rouge (1902, Musée d'Art Moderne, Liège)
Et l'or de leur corps (1901, Musée d'Orsay)
Rupe rupe (Basket of fruit, 1898, Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow)
Fleurs de tournesol dans un fauteuil (Sunflowers in an armchair, 1901, State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg)
• Wood panels for Maison du Jouir (1901-1902, Musée d'Orsay) (another set in Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Contes barbares (1902, Museum Folkwang, Essen)

After gorging myself on Gauguin's Tahiti paintings, I crossed the Seine to take the RER back out to Versailles one last time. The bridge that crosses from the Grand Palais to Les Invalides is the Pont Alexandre III, a 19th-century academic confection built from 1897 to 1900 and probably representative of precisely the sort of art that Gauguin fled when he returned to Tahiti for good.


Gauguin—Tahiti at the Grand Palais (Part 2 of 3)

This is the continuation of my observations on the exhibit Gauguin—Tahiti: l'atelier des tropiques at the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais in Paris, where it will be until January 4, 2004. From there it will travel to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where it will show from February 29 to June 20, 2004.

In the third and fourth rooms of the exhibit are many of the paintings from Gauguin's first stay in Tahiti (1891-1893):

Ia Orana Maria (Hail Mary, 1891, Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Vahine note tiare (Woman with flower, 1891, Ny Carlsberg-Glypotek, Copenhagen)
Femmes de Tahiti (Sur la plage, 1891, Musée d'Orsay)
Le Repas (Les bananes, 1891, Musée d'Orsay)
Arearea (Joyeusetés I, 1892, Musée d'Orsay)
Merahi metua no Tehamana (Ancestors of Tehamana, 1893, Art Institute of Chicago)
Hina te fatou (Moon and Earth, 1893, Museum of Modern Art)
Parahi te marae (There is the Temple, 1892, Philadelphia Museum of Art)
Matamua (Autrefois, 1892, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid)
Parau na te varua ino (Words of the Devil, 1892, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.)
Va hine note vi (Woman with Mango, 1892, Baltimore Museum of Art)
Aha oe feii? (What? You're Jealous?, 1892, Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow)
Matamoe (Landscape with Peacocks, 1892, Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow)
Pastorales tahitiennes (1893, State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg)
Manaò tupapaú (Spirit of the Dead Watching, 1892, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo)

Paul Gauguin, Te nave nave fenua (Terre délicieuse), 1892, Ohara Museum of Art, Karashaki, JapanThere is also a set of photographs that Gauguin may have used as models for his paintings, with comparison to reproductions of the works. Another photograph of the reliefs from the Buddhist temple of Borobodur, which inspired the composition of Ia Orana Maria (see above), hangs next to that painting. Gauguin's Fan with Motifs of Ta matete (from a private collection, 1892) shows the use of the Egyptian mixed profile in his treatment of Tahitian figures, and it hangs next to a reproduction of a piece of Egyptian relief that may have inspired Gauguin. The Tahua Tablet, a piece of wood from Easter Island covered with writing and symbols, is next to the photograph of the Tahua Tablet that Gauguin owned. Tahitian ear ornaments are in a case across from a gourd cup carved by Gauguin with tiki images and Tahitian symbols. A cane, a dish, and some cylindrical sculptures of carved wood, all made by Gauguin in a Tahitian style, are shown together.

The effect of seeing so many of the Tahiti paintings and carvings, which have not been shown together in a long time, along with the Tahitian artifacts is remarkable. The show was put together to honor the 100th anniversary of Gauguin's death, and we are told that it took four years to put together, to receive permission to bring works of art from many continents into one show. Is Gauguin worth all of this? I don't think you can stand in front of even just one of the paintings in these rooms for a short time without feeling that it is. The Gauguin Tahiti paintings represents incarnate one of the last moments of innocent European exoticisme; he truly believed that a culture that was so different from his own had to be perfectly pure and real, even though he found in reality a culture that had already been nearly destroyed by visitors like himself. The colors, when you see the paintings in person, are often startling but ultimately beautiful and pleasing to the eye. How, working with oil paint, did he achieve a texture that is like pastel or crayon at times? I think that the evocation and intermingling of so many different myths (Christian, Oceanic, Buddhist, Egyptian) gives Gauguin's work a universal quality, even if it is Eurocentric. What does the flying lizard with red wings signify in Te nave nave fenua (Delicious Land, 1892, Ohara Museum of Art, image shown at left)? What about the hand gestures of Gauguin's Tahitian figures, or the flute-playing girls who seem to fill several of the paintings with the sounds of Tahitian music? Gauguin makes me think about these things.


Gauguin—Tahiti at the Grand Palais (Part 1 of 3)

In my post on September 24 (The Marquesas), I mentioned the exhibit Gauguin—Tahiti: l'atelier des tropiques at the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais in Paris, where it will be until January 4, 2004. From there it will travel to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where it will show from February 29 to June 20, 2004. On my trip to Paris, I had only one more morning to see the show. If you are going to Paris and you want to see this exhibit, do not do what I did and wait until the last moment to think about going to see it. It is extremely crowded: in the mornings, you can only get in if you have a reservation paid in advance, and the lines in the afternoon, when you don't need a reservation, are very long. I managed to get into the show on the morning of October 13 by using a press pass, and it was well worth the headache.

Gauguin's fascination with Tahiti and the role of the place in his later paintings are one of those things that are just assumed. I did not spend much time thinking about this whole concept beyond explaining it to students once a year and showing a few slides. This exhibit brings together an incredible number of paintings, sketches, and engravings, as well as photographs and actual artifacts from the islands where Gauguin stayed, to try to answer the question, "So what about Gauguin and Tahiti?" I don't know if this show will draw the crowds that the Impressionists or Van Gogh attract, but the crowds in the Grand Palais seem to indicate that it can. There were so many people, even in the hours restricted to reservations, that you literally had to work your way through a line of sorts to stand in front of almost every painting. (The French don't really understand the very orderly, Anglo-Saxon concept of "forming a line": in France, pretty much every situation where we would naturally form into a line in the United States becomes a shoving match where the person with the most pronounced sense of "culot" (assertiveness, pushiness) and the sharpest elbows will work his way to the front.)

The little guide to the exhibit that I purchased upon entering is Issue No. 357 (3 octobre 2003-19 janvier 2004) of Le Petit Journal des grandes expositions. On its cover is a quotation from the letter Paul Gauguin wrote to the Ministry of Public Instruction and Fine Arts in 1891, asking the Minister for help:

Dear Sir,
I desire to go to Tahiti to pursue there a series of paintings on the country, whose character and light I aim to capture. I have the honor of asking you thus to agree, as was done for Mr. Dumoulin, to entrust me with a government mission which, at no cost to you, would nevertheless facilitate my studies and travel by the advantages it would bring. Please accept the assurance of my high regards,
Paul Gauguin.
Paul Gauguin, Self-Portrait with Yellow Christ, 1890-1891In the exhibit's first small room, there is only one painting, the Self-Portrait with Yellow Christ (1890-1891, recently acquired by the Musée d'Orsay, image shown at right). In this painting, Gauguin is seated in front of his own painting, Yellow Christ (1889, Albright-Knox Art Gallery), made in remembrance of a crucifix he saw during one of his stays in Brittany and which we see over his right shoulder. Over his left shoulder on a table we also see the Pot en forme d'une tête grotesque (Musée d'Orsay), a piece of glazed earthenware made by Gauguin around the same time. This self-portrait was completed around the time that Gauguin made his first trip to Tahiti, where he arrived on June 9, 1891, and decided to live in a small village south of Papeete. The other image of the painter at the start of the show is a photograph of Gauguin in a Breton suit (from a private collection, 1891). The languorous expression in both of these images, Gauguin with his long face and moustache, is the same one that stares out at us from most of his self-portraits. It's hard not to read his expression as a smirk. The first room also contains two wood panels by Gauguin, Soyez mystérieuses (1890, Musée d'Orsay) and Soyez amoreuses, vous serez heureuses (1889, Boston Museum of Fine Arts). These later became part of Gauguin's decoration for his home in the Marquesas, although there is no mention of it in the exhibit until later.

The second room is dedicated to an understanding of Maori art from New Zealand and Oceania as Gauguin may have understood it, even before he left France for Tahiti. As the Petit Journal puts it, "When Gauguin arrived in Papeete in June 1891, almost all remains of the ancient civilization had been wiped out. He encountered a society in transformation in which he was the only one, it seemed, to care about the island's past." Most of the artifacts displayed here are from the 19th century and are now in the collections of the Musée de l'Homme and other ethnological museums: two small wooden figures (Moai Kavakava) from Easter Island; five stone tikis with large eyes and distorted, stylized mouths; two hunting spears (tupaves) and a shield. There are also 18 photographs of Tahitian and Marquesan people and scenes, including one of a traditional Tahitian chorus (himene) from 1896 and two photographs of Atuona, where Gauguin settled in 1901 and where he died in 1903.


Photographs at the Musée d'Orsay

In my post on August 21 (Eugène Atget Photographs for Sale), I mentioned an exhibit called La photographie au tournant du siècle du Pictorialisme à Eugène Atget [Photography at the Turn of the Century from Pictorialism to Eugène Atget] at the Musée d'Orsay. I finally saw the exhibit on October 12, and although it is fairly modest (three rooms of sparsely arranged photographs) I was really taken in by the concept, involving as it did Eugène Atget, whose photographs I admire. (Anyone in a mood to buy Ionarts a really nice gift, Atget's photograph of the Bibliothèque nationale entrance is for sale: you can see it in my post on August 21.)

The main idea of the exhibit is to show the division in photography that occurred in the time that Atget was working. One theory of photography, behind the style called pictorialism, was to use the medium in ways parallel to other pictorial arts like painting and engraving, in the hope of making photography acceptable as art. This was in some ways the topic of Blake Gopnik's article (Pictures at an Exhibition: Do Vuillard's photographs belong on the walls of the National Gallery?, March 24, in Slate) on the photographs in the Vuillard exhibit at the National Gallery here in Washington. There are a few photographs signed by well-known artists like Édouard Vuillard (photo 1 and photo 2), Pierre Bonnard, Edgar Degas (see his portrait of Hortense Howland), Edward Steichen, and Alfred Stieglitz. There are also works by more obscure names, at least to me, such as Henri Rivière, Alphonse Mucha, François-Rupert Carabin, Emmanuel Bibesco (he and his brother Antoine were friends with Marcel Proust and may be in part the inspiration for the character of Saint-Loup in his novel), Henri Lemoine, Peter Henry Emerson, Adolphe de Meyer, Paul Haviland (see his photo Nude Woman Opening a Door), Robert Demachy, and George Seeley are shown in the exhibit. (For some of these photographers, it's hard to find any images available online.)Clarence Hudson White, Young Girl Lying in Her Bedroom, c. 1900

The images that most interested me included two portraits of Cézanne by Emile Bernard, one showing him in his atelier in Aix-en-Provence seated before one of his paintings of Les Baigneuses, and the other showing him seated in the countryside; some photographs by Paul Geniaux of people throwing confetti on Mardi Gras at the Place de l'Opéra in Paris around 1900; Constant Puyo's photograph showing a statue being moved through the streets of Florence; a shadowy photograph showing a young girl in her bedroom by Clarence Hudson White (shown at left); and a heavily manipulated photograph by Heinrich Kühn of a still life of fruit, made to look like an Impressionist oil painting. The most beautiful images in the rooms dedicated to pictorialism were Zolaesque landscapes of a mine at Saint-Chamond and the pollution it creates, taken by Félix Thiollier.

By comparison, the photographs of Eugène Atget, featured in one half of the third room devoted to this exhibition, are simple, clear, crisp, and documentary in design. I find his photographs of Paris interesting because I am obsessed with that city, but I also admire photography for photography's sake, that is, when a photographer does not appear to be worried about making his photographs look like another form of art. The images presented included views of the Marché des Patriarches and about 16 photographs of the 5th arrondissement, the area around Rue de la Parcheminerie, Rue Saint-Jacques, and the churches of Saint Severin and Saint Julien le Pauvre. (You can browse through images of lots of Atget's photographs here.)


Concerts at Versailles (Part 2 of 2)

This is the conclusion of a report (see Part 1) on the October 11 opening concerts of the Automne Musical, a series of concerts organized by the Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles, in the Château de Versailles. The theme this year is Louis XIII musicien et les musiciens de Louis XIII.

François Lemoyne, Apotheosis of Hercules, 1733-36The second concert of the evening was given under the title of La Chambre du Roy [The King's Bedroom]. The Ensemble Doulce Mémoire, under the direction of Denis Raisin-Dadre, performed a program of airs de cour by Pierre Guédron (c. 1575-1620) and instrumental dance pieces by Michael Praetorius and others. This concert took place in another area of the Château, the newly renovated Salon d'Hercule (part of the King's Grand Apartment), added to the palace in 1710, where the large painting Christ at Supper with Simon by Veronese covers almost the entire back wall. (This work was a gift from the Republic of Venice to Louis XIV in 1664.) Later, just as in the Opéra royal, the ceiling was adorned with an exceedingly large painting, The Apotheosis of Hercules, by François Lemoyne, completed from 1733 to 1736 (image shown at left).

At the end of the chamber opposite the Veronese painting is an enormous sculpted fireplace. A platform was set up in front of it for the performers: 5 singers, 2 lutists, Denis Raisin-Dadre on the recorder, and four players on viola da gambe. Again, the program was slightly altered to allow the group to insert a performance of the air de cour composed by Louis XIII, "Tu crois ô beau Soleil" (see previous post). The overall effect of this concert was magnificent, combining voices of great beauty with skilled players and a thorough understanding of the multimetric (i.e., nonmetric) style of the period. In particular, Axelle Bernage on the dessus (soprano) part displayed absolute purity of tone that set her apart. However, the only singer who seemed to have moments of weakness was the haute-contre, Marc Pontus. One of the encores that was demanded by the appreciative audience was a charming Italian air, with a pleasing pastoral ritornello. Each time that the instruments sounded that idyllic tune, some of the singers made noises like sheep baa-ing, to the amusement of the spectators. I would have insisted on another encore or two, but the late hour drove me to find my way back to the station to catch the RER back to Paris.


Concerts at Versailles (Part 1 of 2)

The Automne Musical is a series of concerts organized by the Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles. The colloquium on which I have been reporting (L'air de cour au temps d'Henry IV et de Louis XIII) was meant to introduce the theme of this year's concerts for the Grandes Journées in the Château de Versailles, on the them of Louis XIII musicien et les musiciens de Louis XIII. You can purchase the book-size program of the concert series (Louis XIII musicien et les musiciens de Louis XIII, edited by Georgie Durosoir and Thomas Leconte, with contributions from a team of excellent scholars) for 10 euros. Through the generosity of the scholars of the CMBV (M. Pierre Pellerin, in particular), I was able to attend the first two concerts on the evening of October 11.

The first concert featured The Parley of Instruments, an English group directed by Peter Holman, playing a program of dance music composed for Louis XIII's instrumental group, the Vingt-Quatre Violons du Roy. This concert took place in the Opéra royal du château de Versailles, which is an unusual choice, historically, but practical. The connection betweem the music of Louis XIII's court and Versailles is tenuous, joined only by the fact that it was Louis XIII who first had the hunting lodge at Versailles enlarged to be a suitable dwelling place. Along with music and dance, this king's greatest passion was hunting, and Versailles's location gave him comfortable proximity to his game. Technically, any location in the Château would have been artificial, so the golden Baroque neoclassical surroundings of the opera theater (not even constructed until the time of Louis XV in 1770) were as appropriate as any. (The unusual ceiling space is filled with this illusionistic painting.) The theater was in its stage formation (the floor can be mechanically raised to join with the stage to create a great hall), and we were seated in the amphitheatre area, the large balcony where the king and queen were normally seated, in full view of the entire house. In a sense the spectacle of royal life was just as important as the staged spectacle.

There was a slight change in the program, because it began with an air de cour composed by Louis XIII ("Tu crois ô beau Soleil"), with an accompaniment in épinette tablature by de la Barre, which was published in Marin Mersenne's book Harmonie universelle (1636). This tune was already in our ears, since Sophie Landy had sung it unaccompanied on the radio program Cordes Sensibles earlier in the afternoon (see post on October 13), but Holman's group played an arrangement in four parts. At the end of the concert, Louis XIII's air de cour was played again as an encore. The program featured dance pieces by Pierre-Francisque Caroubel, Michael Praetorius, Jehan Henry "Le Jeune," and Étienne Nau, but the central focus of the concert was the performance of the complete suite of dance music for the Ballet de la Merlaison (1635), the composition of which is also attributed to Louis XIII.

The Ballet de la Merlaison was danced by Louis XIII and his court gentlemen on March 15, 1635, at the Château de Chantilly, and again on March 17, at the Abbey of Royaumont. An extraordinaire [supplementary report], published in the Gazette on March 22, states:

Everything about the ballet was admired, but especially the rapidity with which the King spent hardly a few hours, instead of the days normally required, to compose a Ballet (whose subject was the blackbird hunt, which His Majesty greatly enjoys in the winter), and to create the choreography, songs, and the costume designs, because all was the work of His Majesty.
The Gazette also describes each of the dances, who performed them and what they represented, which in the program from the CMBV have been connected to the piece of music in the Philidor manuscript. (A fictionalized version of this event appears in Chapter 22 of Alexandre Dumas's The Three Musketeers.)

One of the highlights of the evening for the mostly French audience was the short presentation given, in French, by one of the English players. Contrary to the perception some have of French attitudes, I think it is generally true that the typical French person is quite forgiving of a foreigner's accent and mistakes of grammar. The laughter that was heard seemed to imply both amusement and the sense of charm that you can feel when a foreigner makes a worthy attempt to speak your language. The surroundings for this concert were magnificent, but I found the style of playing to be somewhat monochromatic. Perhaps this is the fault of the repertory, because the style of music was intentionally simple, with a melody worked out typically on a tiny hand violin by a dancing master with the steps in mind and then filled out by an apprentice composer. It may be that the element of excitement that seemed to be missing from the performance was the movement of magnificently costumed dancers, playing out the actions of Flemish cage-carriers, farmers, and pistol-hunters, with the King dancing the role of a net-seller's wife, as the Gazette put it, "for the pleasure of mingling with his subjects in this nice entertainment shows that the most august Majesties can be quite comfortable in something other than supercilious severity."