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Cubism & Music: Sound Murals at the National Gallery

No. 9, Nature morte espagnole (No. 9, Spanish Still Life), 1915
oil on canvas (detail, modified)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, gift of Katharine Graham

This is a review of the 2492nd concert at the National Gallery of Art, by the Cuarteto de Cuerdas de Bellas Artes, on April 4.

The ambassador didn't show up. Since the new Mexican Ambassador, Carlos de Icaza, has been in town only three weeks, it could well be that he had problems finding the way in time. Daylight saving time saw His Excellency's empty chair in a bright West Garden Court at a concert presented in honor of the exhibitions Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya and The Cubist Paintings of Diego Rivera: Memory, Politics, Place (at the National Gallery until July 25). More than a concert "in honor," it was a "part of" the exhibition. What the ambassador missed was a presentation of three 20th-century string quartets—repertoire off the beaten path—plus the always reasonably delightful Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

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J.Haydn, The Six 'Haydn' String Quartets,
Salomon String Quartet

Speaking of the latter, his String Quartet in D minor, K. 421 (1783), was fluid and lucid, especially from first violinist Balbi Cotter. He and his colleagues—Viktoria Horti (violin), Matthew Schubring (viola), and Adolfo Ramos (cello)—moved Mozart along without pondering or attempting to make a musical statement beyond the sound itself. This also means that this second of Mozart's six "Haydn String Quartets," considered the most tragic of the half-dozen, didn't really come across as very tragic in the first movement (Allegro moderato). The somber second movement (Andante), too, might have been sad, but not tragic in the hands of the Mexican guest performers. Their light and airy tone suited Mozart quite well, even if it was quite different from the full, lush sound that many American string quartets prefer to elicit from Mozart or Haydn.

The whole affair, despite slight uncleanliness here and there, was so popular with the audience that they could not help clapping after each of those movements. That incident, which in Vienna, Austria, for example, would be punishable by death through piercingly cold, disdainful, and snobby looks alone, was—if anything—indicative of the different and fresh make-up of the crowd at the National Gallery that night, which, in turn, was—all clapper-happiness aside—a wonderful thing.

While the connection of the Mozart to the theme of the evening (if there was supposed to be one) continued to elude me, the first of the three 20th-century composers who followed had his moment. Manuel Enríquez (1926–1994) with his String Quartet no. 1 and especially a first movement titled Enérgico just had to be welcomed. And right into it they went. A wake-me-up introduction courtesy of this neoclassical one-time student of William Primrose, whom Stephen Ackert and the cellist of the night, Mr. Schubring (looking like the quintessential 70s intellectual musician), related to the Diego Rivera exhibition in the wonderfully informative program notes. Either, we are told, are "important mediations on self-identity and nationalism."

From his string quartet, however, I would not have guessed Manuel Enríquez to be a committed or distinctly neoclassical composer. His work—in the traditional, classical style of the sonata form—is so in structure, but not overtly so in its music. Two shifting musical plains in the opening gave the impression of extreme resonance and sound-blurring, which I, given the acoustics of the West Garden Court, erroneously attributed to the venue for a moment. Mme. Horti got to show her plentiful skill in this piece, in which all four members seemed significantly more comfortable than in the Mozart.

Two squeaky-shoed and heavy-footed audience members demonstrated their passion for 20th-century classical music by stomping out in the break after the first movement. The Cuarteto de Bellas Artes politely waited out this interruption and continued with the wispy second movement, Tranquilo. Whether the soft pizzicatos made it to the audience all the way in the back is doubtful. If not, the third movement (Festivo) surely did. The Cuarteto played with gusto and for a moment, I thought someone was tapping along with the fast dotted rhythms. I would have taken that as a positive sign of enthusiasm among what seemed a bit apathetic crowd, but I had erred anyway. So I focused on enjoying pizzicato runs among all four instruments instead. A rousing last burst led to notable applause.

With two 20th-century pieces still lurking in the second half of the concert, it was not entirely surprising that a good part of the crowd left. The rest, possibly including the arriving Mr. de Icaza (though I may have confused him with the Mexican Cultural Attaché, Aurelio Asiain, who has all too similar hair, lack thereof, and beard), were left with the very pleasing, waving El cenote sagrado (The Sacred Pool, 1984) by contemporary autodidact composer Hilario Sánchez de Carpio. This one-movement work, the notes told us, was his response to a visit to Chinucultic in Chiapas and thus represents the link to the second part of the exhibition, the East Building's Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya, also running until July 25. Though El cenote sagrado is quite different from the 27-year-older Enríquez piece, both works seemed to employ a musical vernacular familiar to me, without reminding me of any other particular composer's work. At times I thought to hear piano-like reflections from behind me, fitting the music perfectly and fittingly eerie.

The last composer of the night was Miklós Rósza, a native Hungarian who moved to Hollywood via Germany and France. His 1950 String Quartet, op. 22, was on the menu and tasted a little bit like Bartók, without the paprika. Structurally more interesting than the two younger pieces, it does not impress with uniqueness so much as the master-craftsmanship of modern classical music, from a time in which musical styles could hardly have differed more all at once.

Between Hans Pfitzner (Richard Strauss had just died) and Olivier Messiaen (just back from a Nazi POW camp), Igor Stravinsky (happily in America, composing), Aaron Copland, Arnold Schoenberg, Elliot Carter and Michael Tippet's first string quartets, or the sugary post-Romanticism of Ernst von Dohnányi's second piano concerto, Miklós Rósza may not have had the room or time to shine brightly. Knowing nothing about the composer's body of work, I can only say so much: his op. 22 string quartet very much deserves to be heard, especially in as lovely and dedicated a performance as given by the Cuarteto de Cuerdas de Bellas Artes.

A few exotica thrown into the second movement (probably the "Hungarian flavor" of the Scherzo in modo ungarese) and a Lento that is too long for its own good cumulate in the Allegro Feroce, which has notes of Shostakovich, even if it isn't as ferocious as either the name promises or the Russian composer would have had it. The program notes, read afterwards, go some way in explaining why Rósza and his work are unknown to me: he had been, after composing the film scores for epics like Ben-Hur, El Cid, and Quo Vadis, ignored as a serious composer. This delightful concert should have convinced the audience that we have ignored Mr. Rósza unjustly and at our own peril.

Art Commentary by Charles T. Downey
Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya (at the National Gallery of Art until July 25)

The only real deficiency in the art experiences available in the nation's capital is the absence of a major collection of antiquities and some areas of non-Western art, with the notable exceptions of the Freer and Sackler Galleries of Asian Art, the Museum of African Art, the new National Museum of the American Indian, and the Pre-Columbian collection at the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library. The latter museum has joined with several of the best collections of Mesoamerican art around the world to lend works for this remarkable new exhibit at the National Gallery of Art. I am not allowed to reproduce any images of the works shown in the exhibit, but you can see small images of many of them in this press list. (This exhibit and that dedicated to Diego Rivera are part of the festival ¡Viva Mexico!: Washington, D.C. Celebrates, which includes the concert reviewed here by Jens Laurson.)

What is immediately striking when you examine the excellent examples of Mayan figurines, carved panels, throne backs, and other sculpture in this exhibit, all dating from the most advanced period of the ancient Maya civilization from 600 to 800 AD, is how these artists created works of much greater delicacy and realism than the best surviving examples from Europe in the same period. The most famous of these sculptures is shown in the exhibit's first room: the Portrait Head of Pakal, ruler of the city-state of Palenque (in present-day Mexico), a stunningly beautiful representation of Pakal as the youthful maize god, with a headdress of corn leaves (from the Museo Nacional de Antropología—INAH, in Mexico City). The exhibit is worth attending for this piece alone, in my opinion. Related sculptures are also quite beautiful, including the Maize God (from Temple 22 at Copan), the gorgeous jade mask in the likeness of the maize god from Calakmul (an object usually placed over the face of a king's corpse for the afterlife), and the striking Head of an Old Man from Toniná.

Art, more than anything else, gives us a glimpse of cultures and people from the past. In this exhibit, you can see examples of the polished stone mosaic mirrors used by Maya rulers; a painted cylinder vessel showing a Maya ruler admiring himself in such a mirror, seemingly held by a dwarf; and a sculpted dwarf holding up such a mirror. You can see depictions of the Maya ballgame, which was a recreation of the game that the maize god fought with the gods of death each harvest season. When he lost, he was decapitated or harvested, and so the stakes of the earthly ballgame were often life or death. There are two figurines showing ballplayers (one and two, both from Jaina Island), showing men with the typical protective around the midsection and in a characteristic one-kneed pose, as well as a ballcourt marker (from Chiapas) that shows a ballplayer in that pose, apparently providing the best leverage to move the large ball of heavy rubber (the use of the hands was forbidden).

Early historians of the Maya believed that they were a peaceful culture of sages and mathematicians, but more recently discovered art and other archeological evidence has contradicted that image. While the Maya were not as bloodthirsty as the Aztecs, who carried out a stunning number of human sacrifices, the art on exhibit here shows the bellicose side of the Maya city-states, as in the figurines of warriors (one and two, from Jaina Island); the terrifying blood-centered rituals and religious vision, as in the remarkable matched set of three carved panels, reunited in this exhibit, showing a Maya queen (Lady Xok) perforating her tongue with a barbed rope in a bloodletting ceremony (first panel), burning the paper that has caught the blood to conjure a vision of a terrifying serpent spirit (panel two), and wearing her court regalia (panel three); and their almost fetishistic way of torturing prisoners in their ritualized reenactments of battle victories, as in the recreation of the tomb paintings at Bonampak, made for the Bonampak Documentation Project at Yale, and the figurines of bound prisoners, which have a disturbing sadomasochistic side to them.

Art Commentary by Charles T. Downey: The Cubist Paintings of Diego Rivera: Memory, Politics, Place (until July 25)

The other example of Mexican art on exhibit at the National Gallery is a small set of paintings by Diego Rivera. Most readers are probably familiar with Rivera's later work, especially the great murals involving socialist and Mexican folk symbolism. The most famous examples are Marriage of the Artistic Expression of the North and of the South (sometimes called Pan-American Unity) at the City College of San Francisco; the mural he began but was not allowed to finish, Man at the Crossroads, for the RCA Building at Rockefeller Center in New York; the murals for the New Workers School in New York, including Mussolini and Modern Industry; and something that I remember seeing first as a boy growing up in Michigan, the mural called Detroit Industry, or Man and Machine, 27 panels in a garden court at the Detroit Institute of Arts; but there are many others.

What came as a surprise to me were Rivera's early experiments with Cubism, during the time he was studying art in the cities of Europe, thanks to a stipend from the Mexican government that he received after graduating from the national school of fine arts. The impetus for this exhibit was the National Gallery's acquisition of one of them, No. 9, Nature morte espagnole (No. 9, Spanish still life, from 1915), bequeathed by Katharine Graham, former owner of the Washington Post. In a single room on the top floor of the East Building, which happens to be at the exit from the Maya exhibit, about 20 of Rivera's other early paintings, many of them in the Cubist style, are on display. You can view images of all of them in this well-produced online version of the exhibit brochure. This time, the NGA has apparently heeded the Ionarts guidelines for exhibit Web sites, by making available this comprehensive set of images of the paintings in the show.

Rivera studied in Madrid for two years, copying paintings in the Prado, and then he spent time studying art in Paris, London, and Belgium. After a short trip back to Mexico, he returned to Europe from 1912 to 1921, living most of that time in Paris. The big painting in the exhibit, shown prominently on the wall opposite the entrance, is the Retrato de Adolfo Best Maugard (Portrait of Adolfo Best Maugard, from 1913), loaned by the Museo Nacional de Arte in Mexico City. In style it is similar to the other large painting, En la fuente de Toledo (At the Fountain of Toledo, 1913) from the Museo Dolores Olmedo Patiño in Xochimilco, which is hanging on the wall just before you go into the exhibit. Before painting these works, Rivera had visited the city of Toledo with the subject of the portrait, who wrote later that the paintings of El Greco they had seen in Toledo were an influence on Rivera, which you can see in the colorful dramatic landscapes and the elongated, stylized figures.

Other works show Rivera sketching in an analytic Cubist style (Naturaleza muerta española, or Spanish Still Life, 1914, from the Collection Museo Casa Diego Rivera), working in synthetic Cubist collage (Naturaleza muerta con botella, or Still Life with Carafe, 1914, owned by the Government of Veracruz), and borrowing the French props of Picasso's still lifes (Still Life with Balalaika, 1913, from the Bergen Kunstmuseum) and scenes of Paris (the beautiful Tour Eiffel, or Eiffel Tower, 1914, from a private collection in New York). What is more interesting is to see Rivera incorporate more individual elements into this adopted Cubist style, such as bright colors (La mujer del pozo, or The Woman at the Well, 1913, from the Museo Nacional de Arte in Mexico City) and revolutionary emblems (Portrait of Martín Luis Guzmán, 1915, owned by the Fundación Televisa in Mexico City). If you cannot make it to the National Gallery, take a look at this exhibit online.

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