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Digitizing the National Libraries

In an article (Des milliers d'oeuvres à numériser [Thousands of works to digitize], July 16) for La Libre Belgique, Sophie Lebrun describes the very exciting plans to make digital facsimiles of vast collections in the Belgian Royal Library:

Koninklikje Bibliotheek van BelgiëFive million books, 800,000 prints and drawings, thousands of old photos, 200,000 coins and medals, 200,000 maps and plans, 50,000 sound documents, thousands of scores and letters, 40,000 manuscripts, 3,000 incunabula, 35,000 precious works, millions of newspapers...The Koninklikje Bibliotheek van België, on the Mont des Arts in Brussels, houses inestimable treasures. Now this artistic and scientific patrimony is constantly under threat of destruction. Some pieces, given their state of decay, are no longer accessible to the public. [...]

Notable projects under way concern works of art (in collaboration with universities), in order to create an image database for art history courses; historical atlases; early printed sources; manuscripts of the Library of the Dukes of Burgundy; and old photos as part of a European project. Now the Library will benefit from a serious financial boost: the Digitalization Plan of the Federal Patrimony, initiated by Charles Picqué (Socialist Party) and finalized this year by Fientje Moerman (Vlaamse Liberalen en Democraten), consecutively Ministers of Science Policy. Blessed with a budget of 147.7 million € [$177.3 million] over 10 years beginning in 2005 (43.8 million from the Ministry of Science Policy, 30.5 from the institutions, 73.8 loaned by the European Investment Bank), the plan covers the ten federal scientific establishments. The Archives générales and the Bibliothèque royale are the principal beneficiaries. [...]

Some think the reading rooms will empty out in favor of the virtual library. "We have no fear of that," says Willy Vanderpijpen [Head of Logistics at the Library]. "What matters is the service that we offer, the access to the patrimony, whether it happens within our walls or outside them." He cites the example of the British Library: "In one year, they received 466,600 visitors in their reading rooms and 15 million visits to their Web site!" Proof, as if one were needed, that "the Library does not exist only for scholarly researchers but for the whole world."
Exactly. All I can say as a researcher is Hallelujah! There will always be a need for consultation of the real documents, but to be able to browse rare documents virtually, across the ocean, at any hour of the day or night will surely transform the way we do research. The digital files coming out of the British Library (see their Digital Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, for example) in London, the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris, and (perhaps the best of all) my own beloved Library of Congress here in Washington have been thrilling to see. May the trend continue beyond Belgium.

Paris in the 20s and 40s

The Paris of the 1940s is on my mind these days, because of a book-related project, so it was serendipitous to discover Paula Fox's essay-memoir of that time, Paris: 1946, in the summer issue of The Paris Review, Issue 170. (Many thanks to The Elegant Variation and Arts & Letters Daily for the link.) What neither of those sources mentioned was that Oliver Broudy also interviewed Paula Fox in the same issue (sadly, only the first section of it is available online). Randall Curb considered Paula Fox's writing in a long review-article for the Boston Review, in the December 2001/January 2002 issue. Aida Edemariam did the same (A qualified optimist, June 21, 2003) for The Guardian.

Allen Robertson remains in Paris but goes back a few decades in his article (Serge of Power, July 9) for The Times (London) to consider the tribute this year at the Proms for the 75th anniversary of Serge Diaghilev's death. Six of the scores he commissioned for the Ballets russes in Paris have been or will be performed at Royal Albert Hall this season:

  • Stravinsky, Firebird (Prom 8, July 22 [review])
  • Stravinsky, Petrushka (Prom 11, July 24 [review])
  • Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring (Prom 42, August 16 [review])
  • Debussy, Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (Prom 60, August 30)
  • Stravinsky, Les Noces (Prom 65, September 3)
  • Stravinsky, Renard (Prom 71, September 8)
If you're like me, you read that list and think "big deal" until you get to the last work. Never heard of Renard?
Renard is the least familiar of the Stravinsky works selected for the Proms. He subtitled it "a burlesque tale in song and dance" and wrote it for two tenors, baritone, bass and a chamber ensemble. This is a cautionary barnyard fable in which a cockerel, aided by a cat and a goat, tries to protect his hens from a fox improbably disguised as a priest. Devised in 1915, Renard is a deliberately silly joke brimming with risqué implications. It disappeared after a few performances in 1922 but resurfaced in 1929, weeks before Diaghilev's death. In this new version Diaghilev insisted that the cast include acrobats. This unorthodox novelty, just one of many, echoes the single most famous proclamation of Diaghilev's artistic credo. When Jean Cocteau asked what Diaghilev wanted him to do, he replied: "Astonish me."
No word on whether acrobats will be performing at the Proms. If you are in New York, Renard will also be performed by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center at their opening night concert on September 22. (Through their Web site, you can listen to an excerpt of the work.) Sir Simon Rattle will conduct the Berlin Philharmonic in a performance on June 15, 2005.


Islamic Art at the Sackler Gallery

At the same time as the exhibit of Islamic art loaned by the Victoria and Albert Museum to the National Gallery of Art here in Washington (see my review, Islamic Art at the National Gallery, August 21), there is another Islamic art exhibit, Caliphs and Kings: The Art and Influence of Islamic Spain, at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. The Sackler is a small-scale museum, with exhibition space mostly underground, that has a good collection but is in some ways the poor cousin of the Freer, which has the superior space: both museums have eclectic collections of mostly Asian art. (If you can't get enough of Islamic art, the Freer is still showing some of its Islamic pieces in an ongoing exhibition called Arts of the Islamic World.) The Sackler exhibit consists almost exclusively of objects loaned by the Hispanic Society of America, in upper Manhattan, a collection brought together mostly by Archer Huntington.

Ivory pyxis, made by Khalaf, c. 966The focus of this exhibit is the nexus of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim cultures, the Arabic-speaking kingdom of al-Andalus, in modern-day Spain. As I noted of the exhibit at the National Gallery, I was stunned by some of the older pieces on view at the Sackler, like the ivory pyxis made by Khalaf around the year 966, covered with finely detailed Arabic script and curling patterned vines. (The inscription reads, "The sight that I offer is the fairest of sights, the still-warm breast of a lovely young woman. Beauty has bestowed upon me a robe clad with jewels, so that I am a vessel for musk and camphor and ambergris.") The only other pieces close in date to it are two composite capitals (also from the mid-10th century) in the third room, one labeled "Corinthian" for some reason, although Ionic volutes are just as prominent as acanthus leaves. An even more fanciful Islamic capital, made for the Alhambra around 1350, is composed of writhing shell and vine shapes (shown in the second room). These capitals, beautiful to study, are pointlessly shown on top of 8-foot-tall columns, which makes them hard to examine. These fake columns may put the capitals in their intended context, but why is that necessary or desirable in a museum?

Other reviews:

Eve Zibart, The Majesties Of Medieval Spain, May 14, for the Washington Post

Blake Gopnik, Islam's Spanish Eyes: Sackler Show Tracks Glory Days of Muslim Spain, May 16, for the Washington Post

Holland Cotter, Polyphony For the Eye, July 16, for the New York Times

Souren Melikian, The Arab imprint on Spanish history, July 17, for the International Herald Tribune
Although not as old, the documents in the exhibit are also remarkable, like the Privilegio Rodado in the second room, a hand-copied document in Latin, and translated into Old Spanish, of a proclamation of King Alfonso X "el Sabio." This is not a luxury document, but it has a more quotidian beauty. A map of the world, attributed to a nephew of Amerigo Vespucci and made in Seville in 1526, is spread out on a wall in the last room of this exhibit. It is thought to be a copy made in secret of the top-secret master map preserved by cartographers in Seville, and it quite naturally positions Spain at the center of the world. Paris does not even appear on the map, although "Ruan" (Rouen) does. Our hemisphere is dominated by the more-explored South America, with only some parts of Central America and what is labeled "Terra Floryda" appearing to the north. The value of such a document in preserving the state of world knowledge at one time and in one place cannot be overstated.

The fourth room has some other beautiful documents, including a Hebrew translation (Sefer Musre Hafilosofim) made by a Jewish scholar in Toledo, of a work in Greek that he knew from an Arabic copy made in Baghdad. Alongside some other late medieval and Renaissance Koran pages and Hebrew Bibles, there is a 15th-century antiphoner from Belalcázar (Córdoba). On the day I saw the exhibit, this hand-copied book was open to the Magnificat antiphon ("Dixit dominus ad Adam") for Vespers on Septuagesima Sunday. This manuscript, although richly illuminated, is notated in late medieval nota quadrata, easy to transcribe but not all that interesting from a paleographical perspective. The antiphon's text—The Lord said to Adam, from the creation narrative in Genesis—seemed to underscore the hope of this sort of exhibit: that the adherents of three faiths will see beyond their differences and, in the interest of humankind, find a way to exist without conflict.

Caliphs and Kings: The Art and Influence of Islamic Spain will be on view at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, in Washington, D.C., until October 17.

Konrad Loder Sculptures

Abbey of Notre-Dame-de-Quincy, CommisseyHere is another one of those "old combined with new" exhibits I missed in my recent post on that theme (Past Meets Future, August 13). In an article (L'abbaye ne fait pas le moine [The abbey doesn't make the monk], August 6) for Libération, Hervé Gauville reviews 1344, an exhibit of sculptures by Munich-born artist Konrad Loder, who has been living in Paris since 1988, when he was 31. The exhibit space is another Cistercian monastery I had never heard of, the Abbey of Notre-Dame-de-Quincy, in Commissey (a town in the Yonne region of Burgundy), built in the 12th century. The title of the exhibit, 1344, is the date of a charter created by Jeanne de Chalon, which demarcated the abbey's boundaries.

After passing a golf course and the forest, the road becomes a path going into a property lightly protected by a chain hanging at the gate. You have to ring the bell to open it or leap over the obstactle if you are impatient. That's when a charming view is revealed that promises something great. A gravel alley, a grassy plain demarcated by a stone marker, a façade pierced by high, empty windows, and huge chestnut trees encircled by countless centuries. Further along, the vehicle entrance has forgotten the carriages and carts that used to cross it. Loder has enveloped one of the side-doors of the gate with candy wrapping paper that reflects the sunlight and shakes up your assumptions. A hostelry, the abbot's residence, and a few cloister buildings are left of the monastic community. These Benedictine remains are so beautiful that the gamble of introducing some artworks into them seems above all somewhat risky. However, this is not the first time that the Centre d'art de l'Yonne has attempted this experiment. Last year, another sculptor, Vincent Barré, fixed himself on the site.
The pieces are not only designed for the abbey, as Loder has also installed some sculptures outdoors. The principal sculpture is called Cheval de Troie (Trojan Horse), a sort of skeletal scaffold that is positioned so that it appears to be holding up a vaulted ceiling that looks like it might be ready to collapse. Personally, I liked the pictures of Scolopendre (not mentioned in Gauville's article), installed in the bedroom of the Prior's residence, which Loder describes as an "aleatory network" made of 2,000 pieces of iron wire, twisted together like a sort of creeping vine that climbs from the floor and curls around the wall. There is more information and a nice selection of images at Loder's Web site.

1344, an exhibit of sculptures by Konrad Loder, will be at the Abbey of Notre-Dame-de-Quincy, in Commissey, until October 18.

Zoom Zoom

This is not really an art subject, but it is somewhat related to design and function. Color also plays a big role. Namely, choosing a car.

I have for some time driven a gas-guzzling SUV. I admit it, several of them, and I'm not proud, although I am proud that we never missed a payment. Once you get used to driving the big monsters it's difficult to go back to a small car. For one it's mean out there on the road, and the laws of physics side on bigger being safer in a crash. My second reason is cargo room for delivering paintings and supplies. For many years we did the craft show circuit with my wife Sandy's ceramics, and a big car worked great.

I like cars, new cars, and even the dealership experience can be a fun challenge, although time-consuming. With the hundreds of choices out there, the pickings are slim. The more car makers that get bought up by big corporate makers (especially American, Ford, GM), the more cars tend to look generic and uninspiring. Not a lot of innovation going on with styling or efficiency. So many cars look alike. My needs are mostly practical: simple, unique design and reasonable cost to maintain. It most importantly has to have access and space to hold several mid-sized paintings. If a large work or a whole show needs to be delivered, a rental van works best. With that in mind I'm always looking for the perfect fit, a dreamer.

The dream car of choice unfortunately is still a concept, the forthcoming VW Microbus. It's a beauty. Retro design, spacious, unique. It's now schedualed for a 2007 production, light years away, and there is already talk of design changes to satisfy a larger market (in other words, think boring).

Well, to tide me over I went for my best choice available: the Honda Element. It's a very cool car. Totally functional, you can hose out the interior after a play day. Mine is all-wheel drive, for those landscape painting, surf-fishing adventures, or city curb hopping. I had a real pleasant surprise at the gas pump, too. For now it's my dream car.


Landscapes by Gottfried Helnwein

Cristin Leach, in a lengthy article (Gottfried Helnwein - a long way to Tipperary, August 15) for The Times (London), reviews the Irish and Other Landscapes show by photo-realist painter Gottfried Helnwein at the Crawford Art Gallery (Cork, Ireland) until September 4:

The sun is never physically present in Gottfried Helnwein's landscapes [images here and here], but its effect on the land is everywhere to be seen. His panoramic views, of nature at its majestic best, fill entire walls at the Crawford, ranging from 9ft to 21ft in length. Bereft of human figures, the paintings are nonetheless fraught with tension, drama and a painterly skill so realist they look like photographs. Indeed some of them are, in places.

Helnwein is no stranger to controversy but while debate has usually focused on his subject matter rather than his technique, this time round the question on everyone's lips is: how did he do it? How has he created photo-realist landscapes of such magnificent scale? The answer is that he uses digital photographs as the starting point, manipulating and magnifying them into a montage, which he then prints onto the canvas before he paints. This flawless melding of old-master skills with modern reproduction techniques has resulted in a series of highly seductive, ambitiously large landscape works. Debate among visitors to the Crawford has been fuelled by the gallery's labelling of works as "oil and acrylic on canvas" when they would be more properly described as mixed media on canvas. This misleading captioning aside, it is easy to see why the question of technique is foremost in viewers' minds.
The Landscape 1 (Nire Valley, Ireland), from 2001, measures 60 cm (2 feet tall) by 299 cm (9.8 feet long). Just looking at an online image of Irish Landscape III (Nire Valley), from 2003, is enough to blow my mind.

Helnwein has his first individual show, The Child: Works by Gottfried Helnwein, at the Legion of Honor, Fine Arts Museums, San Francisco, open right now, until November 28, but it's not the landscapes of the Cork show, but the often Nazi-related imagery also found in his work. (That show was blogged beautifully, with pictures, by Anna L. Conti in her Working Artist's Journal, on August 25: "After all the build-up and warnings about the darkness of his work, I was surprised at the beauty and humor I found there.") Helnwein was born in Vienna in 1948 and now lives in County Tipperary, in Ireland, and Los Angeles.

Anish Kapoor, Cloudgate

John Russell Taylor's article (Anish Kapoor - a reflection of Henry Moore, August 10) for The Times (London) discusses the sculpture ("140 tons of stainless steel") created by Anish Kapoor for the new Millennium Park, Chicago ("just uptown from the Art Institute"). Since he compares these new works to those of Henry Moore, I sat up and paid attention (especially since the American coverage of this story occurred mostly in July, while I was in Europe):

Kapoor was to do the garden sculpture, and Jeff Koons the one at the entrance. But no one liked the design Koons submitted. Kapoor's planned piece was deemed too grand for the garden, so it was moved early in the planning stage to the entrance site and became in Kapoor's mind what is now called Cloudgate. It is, strictly speaking, the only sculpture in the park. A necessary qualification: according to the regulations governing Grant Park, out of which this park is carved, no building is permitted. So Frank Gehry's new open-air concert hall becomes legally a sculpture, as does Jaume Plensa's electronic fountain, both of which are clearly works of architecture. [...]

Kapoor triumphantly holds its place amid the assertive architectural competition. It stands about five storeys high, but it appears to be as light as a helium balloon, hovering close to the earth but not really on it. (It is supported on two tiny points at either end.) In shape it is like a gigantic inverted kidney, under the central curve of which the public is invited to walk. In Kapoor's conception it is meant to be interactive: as visitors enter the park beneath its gleaming mass they are able to see themselves reflected in its perfect mirror surface. From the Michigan Avenue side, as you approach, it gives back a phantasmagoric reflection of the highrises opposite in the Loop financial area. From the park side you see instead the relatively empty landscape of Grant Park running down towards the lake, but all reflected bending up and away according to the sculpture’s curvature. Hence its name, Cloudgate, implying at once that it is an entrance and exit. [...]

Many people in Chicago have compared Cloudgate with something that at first glance seems totally unlike it, the Henry Moore bronze Nuclear Energy. This enormous skull-like shape, brooding on what looks like a rock, was commissioned for the site in the University of Chicago where the first controlled nuclear chain reaction occurred in 1942. The comparison sounds weird, though both give the impression of deep creative thought, and manage to be imposing without striking any heroic poses. But the more one thinks about it, the more one can see Kapoor as a potential Henry Moore for the new century, with sculptures on every campus and in front of every city hall in the known world.
(I've added the links, so you can put some images to Taylor's words.) I love the weighted curviness of Moore's sculpture, based on his careful study of shapes he collected from nature. (I remember lingering in front of a glass case of such rocks and other objects in this exhibit on Moore at the National Gallery of Art in 2001.) I understand why Taylor made the comparison, but for me Cloudgate has something machine-produced about it that is completely foreign to Henry Moore. The sculpture was blogged by on August 16 and by The Machine's Still On on August 6. (Note the unique and vaguely disturbing view of the sculpture from inside it in the latter post.)

Recent Archeological Finds in Egypt (and Peru)

Is it possible that the discovery of an ancient tomb near Cairo went laregly unnoticed? I happened upon this article (Un tombeau antique découvert au Caire, August 2) from Le Nouvel Observateur, which I had missed when it was published (my translation):

During digging to lay the foundations for a new mosque in a northwestern suburb of Cairo, Egyptian workers discovered the remains of a tomb dating from the 26th dynasty of pharaohs. According to Sabri Abdel Aziz, General Director of Pharaonic Antiquities at the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities (ESCA), the tomb apparently belongs to a supervisor of the silver mines who lived between 663 and 525 B.C. Thanks to the cartouches and inscriptions on the tomb walls, Egyptologists have been able to identify the deceased.

Accompanied by golden amulets representing the goddess Isis and her son Horus, the skeleton was discovered in poor condition inside a black basalt sarcophagus. Workers also unearthed marble canopic jars, containing the deceased's vital organs, and more than 365 statuettes. The latter, also called ushebti, were buried near the sarcophagus to ensure success in the different trials that the dead person had to undertake in the afterlife. In order to permit the conservation of the site and the continuation of excavation, the ESCA has already alloted a budget to the archeologists in charge of studying the site.
The story was carried in English by Reuters on August 1. A more recent report (Ancient tomb uncovered in Cairo suburb, August 25) reports a second discovery in the same area, a domed Pharaonic tomb that likely belonged to a priest, discovered during the construction of a house in the Matariya neighborhood, which is built over the location of the Egyptian city that the Romans called Heliopolis. The tomb walls are covered with hieroglyphs, but flooding of the site has caused a temporary work stoppage. A large statue of Ramses II was also discovered in the town of Akhmim, 474 kilometers (294.5 miles) south of Cairo.

According to an article (Découverte d'une métropole préhispanique dans la jungle amazonienne du Pérou, August 20) from Agence France-Presse, a Peruvian-American team led by Sean Savoy has just uncovered the remains of a city in the Amazon jungle, thought to have been part of the Chachapoyas pre-Columbian culture, which predates the Incas. The excavation of five citadels on a ridge near Saposoa in the San Martin region of Peru is taking place at an altitude of 2,800 meters (1.7 miles). There are good images in the English-language press coverage of the find.


What Duncan Phillips Built

In an article (Les choix éclairés de la Phillips Collection [The enlightened choices of the Phillips Collection], August 6) in Le Monde, Philippe Dagen has a look at the exhibit Chefs-d'œuvre de la Phillips Collection at the Fondation Pierre Gianadda, in Martigny, Switzerland, until September 27. The Phillips Collection here in Washington has been building a larger exhibition space, and it has sent 55 of its most precious paintings around the world. The little Web page from the the Gianadda has images that made me realize how much I miss some of those paintings. (There are better images, but of fewer works, here and from when the show was at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.)

There are at least two ways of visiting this exhibit in Martigny, the only European stop on the tour these works are making during the renovation of the facilities in Washington. The first is epicurean: of the 55 paintings presented, most of them are the best of what their creators made. They were chosen according to two criteria, their excellence and the desire to put together significant groups. Cézanne can hold up with three works: a self-portrait, a View of Mont Sainte-Victoire [1887], and a still life. The same treatment for Degas: dancers, a woman combing her hair, and a portrait. For Van Gogh, too: a painting of Arles, one of Saint-Rémy, and one of Auvers.

In each case, the works are first-rate. Some are historic: the Sainte-Victoire, the Dancers at the Barre, and of course Renoir's celebrated Luncheon of the Boating Party [1881], which Duncan had the presence of mind to buy in Paris in 1923 at Durand-Ruel, without a single French museum raising a complaint. Visitors are crowding in to see it in Martigny. Gauguin's Le Jambon [1889], Bonnard's Le Palmier [1926], Courbet's The Mediterranean could all excite the same fervor. Phillips knew how to buy. That's how he put together his gallery of modern and Impressionist French painters, perfecting it tirelessly through the 1950s.

Thus we come to the other way of looking: wasn't that a little bit late? To acquire Cézanne or Degas around 1930, fine. But the risk of error was low. At first, Phillips was happy to follow the teaching of accepted art history. His oldest major purchases were Monet, Sisley, and Renoir. At the time, he hardly cared for the art of his contemporaries. In 1913, he wrote a nasty article against the Armory Show in New York, which he thought "astounding in its vulgarity," having understood nothing about Cubism, Futurism, or Duchamp, which were being shown for the first time in the United States.
It's a valid point. As I wrote over a year ago, Gertrude Stein was a much more daring collector: while Duncan Phillips was spending large sums of money on the previous century's best painters, Stein had bought Matisse—La Femme au Chapeau (1905) and Le Bonheur de Vivre (1906, now at the Barnes) and Picasso (whose portrait of Stein is shown hanging above the first Matisse she bought in this photograph of her gallery). I wish that Gertrude Stein's collection had been kept together at her famous apartment at 27, rue de Fleurus, in Paris. That would be something to see.

Mourning the National Hockey League

I was on the verge of writing something about my dread and angst over the future of this year's NHL season, when I got called out by Our Girl in Chicago, she who reigns over About Last Night for the next ten days while her co-blogger, His Arts Blogging Eminence, is on vacation. (If Terry makes it to Washington on this trip, maybe he will call me to discuss his plans for his all but assured nomination as U.S. Secretary of Culture and the Arts. When we get it set up, that is.) All I can say is that, if there is a lockout, which seems inevitable at this point, I will not be spending hours each week following my favorite hockey team. (For anyone groaning, I am allowed to like Detroit. I grew up in Michigan, and you can take the boy out of Michigan, but you can't take the Michigan out of the boy.)

What will I do with all of that extra time? No, I will not be watching that bullshit the league is calling the Original Stars Hockey League, which someone thinks is going to assuage my grief if there is—can I even bring myself to type the words? it makes the whole nightmare seem real—no hockey season. For now, I read articles and look at pictures of Pavel Datsyuk, Brett Hull (even if he is playing in Phoenix), CuJo, Shanny, Jiri Fischer, Derian Hatcher, Mathieu Dandenault, Kris Draper, Henrik Zetterberg, and Steve Yzerman, and I try to imagine that it will all be OK. But I know it won't. The newspaper analysis is piling up, but I don't see any way out of this impasse.

By the way, one of the things that I really miss about not living in Michigan anymore (besides being able to see the Red Wings play only once a year in Washington), is not getting CBC on the television. Is there any chance that this hockey-based reality TV show (featuring Ionarts idol Scotty Bowman in the Donald Trump role) from the CBC will make it to the general American market? How about if we just ritually sacrifice Todd Bertuzzi as a scapegoat for all of the players? Then, could we have an NHL season?

Pleyel Lives Again

Pleyel PianoThe French Minister of the Economy and Finances, Nicolas Sarkozy, is the subject of press speculation as a leading Presidential candidate. These rumors have hardly been discouraged by Sarkozy, admired by some for his hardline crackdown on crime and juvenile delinquency, who has been making trips and public appearances that could be called "presidential." An interesting one, from the cultural point of view, was recounted in an article (Sarkozy visite les ateliers d'Alès, August 23) in Le Figaro, a visit on August 24 to the town of Alès (my translation):

to visit the renovated piano manufacturing center of the Maison Pleyel. This producer of traditional French instruments, which had lost steam, has been bought and relaunched by Hubert Martigny, owner of the building housing the famous Salle Pleyel [252, rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré] in Paris. On this occasion, the production heads presented a new concert piano prototype as well as a new line of luxury pianos intended to demonstrate the "revival of Pleyel." Spanish by birth, Cecilia Sarkozy is the descendant of the celebrated Catalan composer and virtuoso Isaac Albeniz, who was a great admirer of these French pianos during his studies in Paris and then his long and frequent stays in France, where he even taught piano at the Schola Cantorum in Paris.

Perhaps they will get beyond the instrument to the concert hall. For, although the construction permit was indeed approved by the Minister of Culture last July 29, in order to allow the owner to undertake the renovation work in the auditorium immediately, not even the terms of the 20-year rental agreement of the hall by the government have been discussed by the Finance Department: that will be something to talk about!
Not that I really care much about M. Sarkozy's daily itinerary, but this does have some interesting information about the plans for manufacturing new Pleyel pianos and for some sort of government-sponsored concert series in the Salle Pleyel. (A now-archived article, La salle Pleyel rouvrira fin 2006, from Le Parisien on July 27, announced the plans to reopen the Salle Pleyel in late 2006.) The historic piano company was founded in 1807 by composer Ignace Pleyel (1757–1831), a student and friend of Haydn's in Vienna, who settled in Paris in 1795. His instruments became the favorites of the Imperial Family and the rest of high society. Ignace's son Camille carried on the family business by sponsoring the greatest pianists of the 19th century, beginning with a 22-year-old Polish unknown named Chopin, who gave private concerts in the Pleyel "Salons" from his debut in Paris in 1832 to his death. The Maison Pleyel designed a little Pianino for Chopin to take on his travels, and the piano that was sent to Majorca when Chopin stayed there with George Sand was a Pleyel.

Other pianists who favored the Pleyel piano include Liszt, Franck, Debussy, Grieg, Ravel, de Falla, Saint-Saëns, Massenet, Gounod, Honegger, and Stravinsky (who helped the company design a player piano called the Pleyela, on which Stravinsky made several roll recordings). The Pleyel descendants opened the Salle Pleyel (pictures here and here) in 1927. The opening concert featured the Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire, with Robert Casadesus as piano soloist. The program included Debussy's Deux Nocturnes, de Falla's Nuits dans un jardin d'Espagne (de Falla was in the audience), Stravinsky's Firebird Suite (conducted by Stravinsky), Dukas's L'Apprenti Sorcier (Dukas was in the audience), and Ravel's La Valse (conducted by Ravel). Until 1998, when the hall was closed (when the new owner took possession), the Salle Pleyel hosted a remarkable list of musicians in concert there. Seriously, take a look at the list, which includes jazz and popular musicians as well as classical ones. Here is the official information page on the government's plans for the Salle Pleyel, maintained by the Ministry of Culture. Yes, we need one; no, we don't have one.


The Proust of Newark

Philip Roth, The Dying Animal (Vintage Books, 2002)
La bête qui meurt, Gallimard, 2004
Philip Roth, La bête qui meurt (Gallimard, 2004)
Because from time to time it's interesting to see what foreign book critics think about American book literature, here's a translated excerpt from an article (L'été indien de Philip Roth, August 19) by Jean-Paul Enthoven for Le Point, on Philip Roth's novel The Dying Animal. Although it came out in 2002, it has just been translated into French: "after the success of The Human Stain in 2002, The Dying Animal is the most anticipated book of the Rentrée littéraire" (see my post on August 14). Can we draw any conclusions from a comparison of the French and American covers (shown at right)?
Every time that Philip Roth publishes a new novel, it's the same ritual: pilgrims (from every part of the world, but especially French) rush to Connecticut, lose themselves a little in the charming countryside where the "Proust of Newark" has taken refuge for some thirty years, and end up knocking on this affable hermit's door, at which point they are entitled to a few hours of conversation. The man who welcomes them is a sly genius: tall, dry, somewhat stubborn, friendly, barricaded behind very thick eyebrows. Every time, he shows his visitor his pool, his exercise room, the double desk ("Ah, Flaubert...") where he writes his best-sellers, before brilliantly juggling his paradoxes and pessimism. [...]

In spite of all his laurels, Roth has not stopped being fecond or rejuvenating himself. It even seems as if Roth, under the influence of some literary Viagra, has gone into an unending Indian summer and that with each new book he creates a stick of dynamite to be thrown in the face of his contemporaries, as if he were a rotten kid trashing his parents' house on the weekend. His most recent explosive is The Dying Animal, a book published in the United States just before September 11 and whose title comes from a book of poems by Yeats called (I'm not making this up) The Tower. It is a sublime novel, bilious, despairing, and comical, a variation on "the delicious imbecility of desire," on love ("the only obsession that everyone wants to have"), on our suffering. But the one who suffers in this novel is not necessarily its hero, David Kepesh—Roth's double, whom we haven't seen again since The Breast (1972) and The Professor of Desire (1977). [...]

First, the story: in his surroundings, Professor Kepesh (age 65) is a star, like Philip Roth. He is also, like him, a "Jewish Don Juan" who feels that his various organs (kidneys, prostate, heart...), silent until now, are beginning to plot against him. He monitors his erections, does what he can, exasperates his son—who would dearly love to see him, at last, as a mummified patriarch—and, almost by accident, he seduces a splendid Cuban shiksa, Consuelo (age 22), whose beauty promises him a final season of pleasure.
Calling Philip Roth the "Proust of Newark" was enough to make me read the whole thing.

Exhibits in Europe

This year is the Year of George Sand in France (see my post on July 7). On August 19, Le Point briefly mentioned an exhibit, George Sand, Félix Nadar, portraits photographiques—a collection of Nadar's photographs of Sand and members of her family—at the Palais Jacques Cœur in Bourges until September 5. (A press announcement on the exhibit is available as a .pdf file.) The exhibit was blogged (with images) by Leary Calls.

Another little article from Le Point, also from August 19, mentioned a special event at the Château de La Roche-Guyon in France, "an unguided nocturnal visit through history from the 12th to the 20th century." I lived not far from this castle, when I was doing the research for my dissertation, and it has fascinated artists and other people for centuries (see the Cubist rendition of Georges Braque from 1909, for example). It was a fortified castle on the border between Normandy and the Île de France, which became the home of the descendants of the famous writer La Rochefoucauld (author of the Maximes, which you can read online in French and in English). General Rommel used it as his general headquarters in France during World War II, which caused it to be bombed by the Allies in 1944.

Grad Dubrovnik, CroatiaIn another article (Au bord de l'Adriatique, la mémoire des images des guerres de notre temps, August 22) in Le Monde, Rémy Ourdan wrote about a new museum called War Photo Limited, in Dubrovnik, Croatia. The medieval jewel of the former Yugoslavia (which sadly I have never been able to visit), Dubrovnik was one of the most devastating cultural casualties of the wars that broke out as that country splintered into fractious republics (my translation):

In a house on Antuninska, a narrow alley in the heart of the fortress of Dubrovnik, a museum has opened its doors, with one goal: to tell the story of war in images. War Photo Limited was born from the meeting of two men, both in love with Croatia and with photography: a Belgian millionaire art lover, Frédéric Hanrez, age 40, and a photographer from New Zealand, Wade Goddard, age 34, now the museum's owner and director.
There are two exhibition rooms, both opened as of June 1. The museum's purview is not limited to the Balkan civil wars, however, since one current exhibition deals with American military action in Afghanistan and Iraq. The museum's Web site is full of images, so you know that I'm happy, since I don't think I will be making it to Dubrovnik anytime soon (although it is definitely on my list).

Pompidou Center in Berlin

Volkspalast, BerlinYou may remember my post on July 2, about the plans to open an extension of the Centre Pompidou, in Metz. Now, in an article (Le palais de la République reprend du service à Berlin, August 23) for Libération, Odile Benyahia-Kouider reports on a group of German artists who want to transform the Volkspalast, the seat of the Communist government in (formerly East) Berlin, into a "second Centre Pompidou." It's a fairly recent building (constructed in 1976) on the Spree River, which was the symbol of old East Germany. The federal government of the reunited Germany, in 2002, had decided to tear down the building, to reconstruct the Hohenzollern Palace (destroyed by the East German government in 1950). The group of artists, led by film directors Volker Schlöndorff and Frank Castorf, has taken over the building, which has been closed since 1990 when asbestos was detected inside:

Only in Berlin could one witness such a thing, a mixture of East German nostalgia buffs, hip young people, neocommunists, over 2,500 of them on Friday evening [August 20], to celebrate the reopening of the Volkspalast. Sigrun Zill, a native of Frankfurt/Oder, seemed disoriented in this ruin of concrete and twisted steel. "I remember the large staircase that led to the entrance hall," she recalls emotionally. "There were immense paintings on the walls, thousands of lamps. We used to call it 'Erich's lamp shop' (after Erich Honecker, First Secretary of the Communist Party). But I can't manage to find the restaurant where I was married in 1988." And for a good reason: only the palace's skeleton has survived.
Artist Marcella Gruß has some pictures of the Palast der Republik, and this is what it looked like in 1980. The group is hosting an exhibit of her works in the now-open Volkspalast, until September 11. Historische Mitte Berlin, Schlossplatz, Ideen und Entwürfe, 1991–2001 is a beautifully constructed site, in German only, with a history of the buildings that have stood in this part of Berlin, with lots of pictures. Der Spiegel also has some nice pictures. Heather Mathews at hem|mungen and Tom Schulz at Ostblog have covered this story and will continue to do so, I'm sure.


Art You Can Swim In

An article (A Pool with a View, August 21) from Deutsche Welle (in English) covers a crazy art project on a section of the Spree River in Berlin, a swimming pool anchored in the middle of the river:

Designed by Berlin artist Susanne Lorenz, the Spree swimming pool was fashioned out of a shallow river cargo container. It's a rectangle, 32.5 meters (106.6 feet) long by 8.2 meters (26.9 feet) wide and just over two meters (6.6 feet) deep.

The ship's filled with 400,000 liters (105,668 gallons) of fresh water that's been slightly chlorinated. The water is heated to a comfortable 24 degrees Celsius (75.2 degrees Fahrenheit). The pool has been filled so that its water level is almost even with the pool's edge, which itself is 70 centimeters (28 inches) above the surface of the river. "We wanted swimmers to be as close to the Spree as possible," Laurenz told DW-WORLD. "It allows swimmers to have views of the surrounding city while they swim."
Here are some great pictures of the Spreebrücke/Badeschiff. All I can say is that the latest example of Berlin's Stadtkunstprojekte beats panda or cow sculptures any day.


More Opera Notes

A little article (Authentic sound for Wagner's Ring, August 20) from BBC News describes the new "authentic instruments" production of Wagner's Das Rheingold, at The Proms (The Guardian is reviewing the whole series) in the Royal Albert Hall in London (opened on August 19):

Conductor Sir Simon Rattle has led the first-ever modern performance of Wagner's Ring cycle, featuring the instruments the piece was written for. The German composer wrote the piece with specific instruments in mind - including oboes with fewer keys and tubas made specially for The Ring. [...]

Some of the instruments were built specially for Thursday evening's performance. Oboe player Dick Earle, of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, had to make his instrument himself. The tubas were specially made for Wagner's music. "It's difficult to find instruments from that time which are good enough to play on," he explained. Tuba player Roger Montgomery found getting to know his instrument was a challenge. "It takes a little bit of getting used to, and when there are four of you - because we play as a quartet - it can take a little bit more getting used to," he said.

To the untrained ear, the Wagnerian clarinet sounds almost identical to its more modern cousin. But clarinettist Anthony Pay said: "It contains a sort of intimacy which is very suitable for the things that we have to we play in the Ring." [...] As for Sir Simon Rattle, he is convinced using Wagner's choice of instruments adds something special to the performance. "The sound reminds me of the forest floor a lot more, of wood and pine needles and those types of aromas," he explained. "It's much more lyrical and flexible, and it has a different smell to it and a wonderful type of dampness."
I hope they make a recording, since I would love to hear it. (Read the review of the performance, by Andrew Clements in The Guardian.)

If you want to prepare yourself for the new opera season, check out Alex Ross's Fall Opera Preview (and, off topic, a Fall Concert Review) at The Rest Is Noise. We also remind readers of the Ionarts preview of the Opera Season, 2004–2005.

It looks like the responses to my question about Opera in the Twentieth Century have stopped. Here are the operas not already mentioned in my previous list:
  • Richard Rodney Bennett, The Mines of Sulphur
  • Stewart Wallace, Harvey Milk
  • Virgil Thomson, Four Saints in Three Acts and The Mother of Us All
  • Kurt Weill, Threepenny Opera and Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny ("absolutely essential," according to Alex Ross)
  • Prokofiev, War and Peace
  • Harry Partch, The Bewitched and Revelation in the Courthouse Park
  • B. A. Zimmermann, Die Soldaten
  • Lukas Foss, Griffelkin
  • Any opera by Werner Egk
  • Errki Melartin, Aino
  • Frank Martin, Monsieur de Pourceaugnac
  • Lars Klit, The Last Virtuoso
  • Hindemith, Die Harmonie der Welt
  • Bernstein, Candide
  • John Cage, any of the Europeras
  • Hans Werner Henze, Elegy for Young Lovers and The Bassarids
  • Luigi Nono, Intollerenza or Prometeo
  • New operas in Finland
Thanks to everyone who contributed thoughts on this question. All of your comments were helpful, even if there is no way to incorporate all of these great suggestions into the course. (One major problem is that I am limited to those operas for which there are recordings in the university's music library.) There were lots of operas suggested by readers that I had not considered, but there were still a few that are in my syllabus that were not suggested by you:
  • Gustave Charpentier, Louise (Opéra-Comique, 1900), the last major opera in the old French tradition before Pelléas
  • Maurice Ravel, L'Heure espagnole (Opéra-Comique, 1911): incredibly, poor Ravel was not mentioned by anyone!
  • Hans Pfitzner, Palestrina (1917)
  • Maurice Ravel, L'Enfant et les sortilèges (Opéra de Monte-Carlo, March 21, 1925, with ballet sequences by young Balanchine), which used jazz sounds earlier than Krenek, Weill, and Gershwin
  • Ernst Krenek, Jonny Spielt Auf (Leipzig Stadtheater, 1927)
  • Michael Nyman, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (1986) (see my post on August 9)
Other Americana:
  • Victor Herbert, Natoma (Philadelphia, 1911)
  • Kurt Weill, Street Scene (Adelphi Theatre, January 9, 1947), a later manifestation of the jazz-opera
  • Gian Carlo Menotti, The Saint of Bleecker Street (Broadway Theatre, NYC, 1954), who must be considered of major importance, if by nothing else than the number of productions his works receive
  • Samuel Barber, Vanessa (Metropolitan Opera, New York City, 1958)
  • Bernard Herrmann, Wuthering Heights (completed in 1951; premiered by Portland Opera, 1982), a superb opera by the film composer who collaborated with Hitchcock
  • John Cage, Theater Piece (Square Theater, NYC, 1960), which may be the work that finally smashed what was left of operatic conventions after Wozzeck
  • The Who (Pete Townshend), Tommy (rock opera, 1969), which I ultimately decided I can't really use, since it wasn't staged
  • Thea Musgrave, Mary, Queen of Scots (Scottish Opera, Edinburgh, 1977)
  • Libby Larsen, Ghosts of an Old Ceremony (A Tribute to American Pioneer Women)
  • Jake Heggie, Dead Man Walking (San Francisco Opera, 2000), which may technically belong to the 21st century
The real trick is to make a selection of what was most important, what really shaped the century, and leave the rest of this magisterial list for side commentary. I will probably still be making last-minute changes to the syllabus the night before the first class meeting. I am planning a blogging project for the course, so you'll be able to follow what the class discusses, but I'll have more to say about that later.

That's Good Reading: Fully Credited Links

Le Figaro has been running a cool series of twelve articles—called "De la plume à l'écran" (From the pen to the screen)—by Philippe d'Hugues, dedicated to great (mostly) French authors whose books have been made into movies. This is interesting to me not only from the perspective of what French books are still out there for me to read (not surprisingly, a lot), but also as a survey of (mostly) French film:

Fortunately, these articles are still available at the newspaper's Web site at the time of writing.

We have yet to mention the new ArtsBlogging project inaugurated by George Hunka and friends. I have the perfect excuse to do so now, by linking to George's recent post on the positions of American presidential candidates Bush and Kerry on the issue of government funding for the arts. Read the Ionarts Proposal to see what the candidate who will be assured of my vote should propose on this issue.

Lisa Simpson's ScreamThe story of the audacious theft of two of Edvard Munch's most famous paintings was very well covered this weekend. In case you missed it, two armed men removed The Scream and Madonna from the Munch-Museet in Oslo on Sunday, in broad daylight. After the first frenzied news reports, Marie-Douce Albert has published a more thorough consideration (L'incroyable vol du «Cri» de Munch, August 23) in Le Figaro. (I will also mention my post from December 9, 2003, Volcanic Atmosphere, Not Existential Angst?, on one scientist's theory why the colors in The Scream are so strange. As the image reproduced to the right makes clear, Munch's work has become iconic, which is probably one main reason it was stolen.)

An article (Paris: des projos gratuites aux Buttes Chaumont, August 21) from France 2 informs us of another outdoor cinema festival in Paris this summer, the Festival Silhouette, now in its third season in the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont.

Finally, we note with sadness the passing, on August 17, of the renowned French mélodie singer Gérard Souzay, eulogized in this article (Le baryton Gérard Souzay est décédé, August 21) from Le Nouvel Observateur. In addition to his pioneering work in the interpretation of the marvelous songs of his friend Francis Poulenc, he was an authority on the performance of German and French song.


Disappearing Patrimony

As someone who works regularly in national libraries and research institutions, this story had me wincing. An article (Les oeuvres «perdues» de la République, August 13) by Léopold Sanchez for Le Figaro Magazine states that a 14th-century manuscript Hebrew Bible, sold at Christie's in 2003, was traced to the collection of the Bibliothèque nationale de France. (A man named Michel Garel admitted the crime, as well as the mutilation of numerous manuscripts, to sell off precious illuminations by individual page.) That led the French government to appoint the Bady Commission, to investigate the scandalous thefts from national collections in France. They have completed an inventory of about 100,000 works, of which the incredible number of 12,500 appear to have been stolen. According to the head of the commission, Jean-Pierre Bady:

It's the first inventory of this size, and it means a line-by-line comparison of the collection catalogues with the actual presence of the works. Our mandate was supposed to extend for two years, but in the view of the amount of material and the complications we have encountered on site, we do not see finishing before 2007.
I am afraid to learn of all the horrors they will discover. Most of the time, they discover that a work has been shelved incorrectly or moved somewhere without the appropriate paper trail. Sometimes, they uncover incredible stories:
That's how they recently recovered a painting by Le Dominiquin Domenichino [Domenico Zampieri (1581-1641)] that had disappeared from the national collection twenty years ago. It had been held in the Musée de Toul, where the inventory had confirmed its absence from the reserve section. The mayor's office had concluded that the painting was destroyed during the fire that ravaged the museum in 1939. Nevertheless, an English expert claimed to have seen it since then. They ended up learning, thanks to a loose tongue, that the painting had been kept in a private collection. At the commission's insistence, the Musée de Toul sued and an investigation was begun, which indeed confirmed that the painting was in the home of a collector, who claimed to have bought it at a flea market. Furthermore, the police were surprised to discover, hanging on the wall, another canvas that had disappeared from the municipal museum. Because the facts of the case are so long past, no charges have been filed.
There are plenty of other horrifying stories in the article. Myself, I have been impressed with the availability of precious documents to serious researchers in France. This story demonstrates that perhaps the greatest danger comes not from the public in the reading rooms (although there are plenty of stories of that sort of theft, too), but from the people who have access behind the doors because they work there.

Whither the Venice Biennale?

An article (La Biennale de Venise a présenté sa nouvelle direction, August 14) by Harry Bellet for Le Monde relates the news that two Spaniards will direct the next Venice Biennale, in June 2005: Maria de Corral (from Madrid, former director of the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía) and Rosa Martinez (from Barcelona, organizer of the Spanish pavilion at the 2003 Biennale). (Jason Edward Kaufman reported the story, Spanish duo to direct Venice Biennale 2005; First American to organise 2007 edition, for The Art Newspaper.) The 2007 Biennale will be directed by American critic Robert Storr, formerly a curator at the Museum of Modern Art. Storr will also organize a special symposium, in Fall 2005, "to analyze and study the state of contemporary art." The French pavilion in 2005 will be organized by Annette Messager (see Ionarts post on July 10). Should we be worried about the American pavilion at Venice in 2005?

However, the United States are in danger of exhibiting an empty pavilion: the National Endowment for the Arts has pulled out of the selection committee, as well as two of the principal sponsors, the Pew Charitable Trust and the Rockefeller Foundation. Constructed in 1930, the American pavilion is the only one of Giardini that is private property: the Guggenheim Foundation bought it in 1986 for $30,000. But the Guggenheim is not responsible for the selection and, according to the New York Times, does not seem inclined to absorb the costs of an exhibit that it did not organize. That leaves only ten months for the State Department, which coordinates the American participation, to find $1 million and to choose an artist. The development is irritating enough that the New York Times devoted an editorial to it on August 9.
The date is not correct, but here's the article (Venice without America, August 7), reprinted in the International Herald Tribune. The State Department is making decisions about American representation at the Venice Biennale? Does anyone else think this is crazy? Doesn't the State Department have other things to worry about? I've said it before, but the United States needs a Department of Culture (see the Ionarts Proposal).


Pissing off the Parisians

Heileen at La Muselivre recently "fulminated" against this story from Yahoo! France, which describes the fallout from Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code in Paris: guided tours through the Louvre for American tourists (110€ [$135.55] a pop).

On the theme of "Decoding the Da Vinci Code," Ellen McBreen of Paris Muse has already shown more than 300 visitors through the museum, under the direction of six guides. Others have organized, from the United States at a cost of $2,299, a package trip through Europe in the footsteps of Robert Langdon, one of the book's characters. Some people want to name a room in the Ritz in Paris after him, but the hotel has not responded.

Every day, Vincimaniacs exchange their opinions on the truth or fiction of the story. "Was there really a harrow in the Louvre's Grande Galerie?" (the answer is no). "Could the Madonna of the Rocks really be disemboweled by a knee kick?" (the answer is also no, because it's a wood panel and not a canvas).
I have so far managed to avoid reading what I have been told is a terrible insult to trees. A friend who lives in Paris, who recently described the book as facile, superficial, and error-ridden, says that the author's poor knowledge of the geography of the French capital is another drawback. Another friend has loaned me the book, but it has so far lay untouched in my office. As you know, I am interested in books about Paris (see the Paris Reading Project in the right column), but I can't see wasting any time on a bad book just because it has something to do with Paris, when there are so many good ones out there.

See also Ingrid D. Rowland's article (Pop Esoterica!, August 16) for The New Republic (thanks to Arts & Letters Daily for the link).

An Ode To Summer's End Ramble

As summer comes to a close my focus is awash in all the rain we've had in the Baltimore area. So here begins my ramble.

As mentioned in many blogs, Newsgrist most recently, Leon Golub died. Back in '91, I curated a show entitled News As Muse (at School 33 Art Center). The theme was the influence of the newspaper on an artist's process. I asked several artists, Red Grooms, Sue Coe, Kay Rosen, and others; everyone accepted, including Mr. Golub, a perfect fit. I got to visit his studio and talk about a suitable painting; he even had the original newspaper clipping which was his influence, to be shown with the canvas. Much of our time was spent talking about the art world and a little advice, too. Very nice man and a great artist.

Another loss, Julia Child: she was a one-of-a-kind lady. I first realized I could also cook by watching her show. A matter-of-fact, no-nonsense, no-pretense approach to her work, kind of like my goal in painting.

After weeks of blog chatter, the story of the Clyfford Still collection going to Denver just made it to the New York Times this past Thursday. Read it while it's news! Online.

Spent several days in New York this week. For the most part, the only painting I saw was being applied to the gallery walls in preparation for the September shows. There were more galleries open than I had expected. Robert Miller Gallery had a mid-sized Lee Krasner for a mere $700,000; that's a nice number to sell a painting for, and JG Contemporary is showing drawings by Oscar Bluemner. Just snooping through the window at Pace Wildenstein and I'm already excited about the coming Alex Katz show. He keeps getting better, the fine wine of paint.

My wife Sandy and I finally made it to the Jewish Museum to see the Modigliani exhibit. He's always been a favorite, but seeing so many portraits in a row they all tend to look simillar, with not much individuallity. There were some beauties in this group, though, a selection of drawings and watercolors and of course his nudes. A few of the portraits I thought exceptional are unfortuately not on the Web site.

David Hess, Bird's Nest, American Visionary Art Museum, BaltimoreWith time limitations we made a quick tour of the Andrew Goldsworthy installations in the roof garden at the Metropolitan Museum. We also made a pass through the Childe Hassam exhibition. With a few exceptions it's an easy-on-the-eyes show to cruise. I've got to admit a sentimental spot for his flag paintings. The red and white stripes make a strong design, a real anchor. A room full of these made a great attraction for many of the visitors. This will be a draw for Republican sightseers.

If you should get to Baltimore, my favorite place is the American Visionary Art Museum. Now showing, through September 5, is Golden Blessings of Old Age. Next door, under construction, is the James Rouse Center for Visionary Thought. This will be a great addition to the museum, adding exhibition space for permanent installations and an auditorium. Slowly taking shape on the north side of the building is a balcony in the form of a big bronze beautiful bird's nest (a few other images), which will also have its own eggs. The creator is the just-turned-40-year-old sculptor David Hess. Hess also made the fantastic three-story bronze bannister in the original building and many of the fixtures in the museum's restaurant. So come on down to Bawlmer: there are special hotel/restaurant discounts for subversives.

Islamic Art at the National Gallery

I have already noted the interest in Islamic art this year, particularly in western museums (see post on April 1). There are two exhibits in Washington right now, both of which I have been to see recently. Going into the East Building of the National Galley of Art, however, the first thing that I noticed was a conspicuous absence. The enormous mobile by Alexander Calder (Untitled, 1976), created specifically to hang in I. M. Pei's atrium, was removed for cleaning on April 19, not to return until next summer. If I had any doubt about how much that sculpture, rotating meditatively, dominates the room, I don't anymore.

Palace and Mosque: Islamic Art from the Victoria and Albert Museum is on the building's upper level, spread through six rooms. There is no major collection of Islamic art in the nation's capital—although there is the beautiful Islamic Center on Massachusetts Avenue (here are some pictures), which has some artworks on display—so you should jump at the chance to see this assortment of pieces on loan from the extraordinary collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (their Islamic gallery will be closed for renovation until summer 2006). The show was underwritten by the Ambassador of Saudi Arabia, Prince Bandar bin Sultan (who was profiled in The New Yorker on March 24, 2003, and who is discussed prominently in Fahrenheit 9/11) and Saudi businessman Mohammed Jameel, who is the major donor responsible for the new Islamic gallery at the V & A. Prince Bandar is quoted in a press release from the museum (dated February 19, 2004) as saying the following:

Now, more than ever, we need to work to build bridges of understanding between our societies and cultures. This important collection of Islamic art provides a historical perspective and cultural context for one of the world's greatest religions.
Yeah, exactly. As I wrote recently (New Museums in Qatar, June 9), I would much rather have the Saudis spending their money on art, and Americans desperately need the chance to learn something about the cultural heritage of Islam. (Holland Cotter's double review of this exhibit and the Islamic exhibit at the Sackler—Polyphony For the Eye, July 16, for the New York Times—has some interesting ideas on this point.)

Tile commemorating the pilgrimage to Mecca, 17th century, Victoria and Albert Museum, LondonThe Web materials for this exhibit are disappointing to say the least. You can see thumbnail images of most of the artworks I will mention in this set of press materials, and there is this Checklist of Objects in the Exhibit, but that's about it. That not only stinks, it also undermines the possible didactic value of the exhibit, limiting those who might learn something about Islam to the people who walk into the museum. Prince Bandar should get on the National Gallery's case about this.

The first room of the exhibit focuses strongly on the Islamic calligraphic tradition, which was so important in the mostly word-centered cultures of Islam, where, especially for sacred art, figural imagery was often banned by religious leaders. The extraordinary Qur'an pages shown here are enough of a reason by themselves to go this exhibit, including a 17th-century book from Istanbul, which flirts with imagery in its stylized, decorative flower images. Riza' 'Abbasi's The Romance of Khusraw and Shirin is shown in a 17th-century copy from Isfahan in Iran, with beautiful illuminations (allowed in secular works of literature in some places). Of greatest interest were the older examples of writing, including a 14th-century Qur'an section from Iran and a strikingly plain Iranian pair of Qur'an leaves from the 11th or 12th century. I also admired the brightly colored Ilkhamid tiles from the late 13th century, showing scenes of animal combat.Also prominent by early date are the ivories from Cordoba in Islamic Spain, most of them dating from the 10th century, including a remarkable pyxsis with a tiny carved elephant rider, in the second room.

What are typically the best examples of Islamic art, things like dishes and other vessels like this ewer, frankly are not that interesting to me, I have to admit. However, there are a handful of large decorative objects that have the stunning effect of really bringing you into the aesthetic context of Islamic art. A fritware tomb marker made for Husayn, son of 'Ali Zayn Al-'Abidin around 1300, stands about six feet tall in the third room, glowing with remarkable color and mesmerizing patterns. The same can be said of the maplike Tile Commemorating the Hajj (image shown here) in the second room, albeit on a smaller scale. The fourth room is dominated by an immense Ottoman fritware fireplace (dated 1731 and probably made in Istanbul), temporarily installed on a wall. The opening is in the shape of the mihrab, and it is covered with Arabic script and flower patterns. I stood there for a while staring at the top of this fireplace, where there are two protuberances which looked to me, for all the world, like two breasts. I have no idea what their function might be or what the artist intended. The third room is largely occupied by the 23-foot-tall wooden minbar (what is a minbar?), covered with ivory inlay, made for Sultan Qa'itbay between 1468 and 1496, probably in Cairo. The second room also features two large carpets, examples of a type of art one would expect to see in an Islamic exhibit, the Safavid "Chelsea Carpet" (woven in Iran in the early 16th century) and an Ottoman carpet with a nonfigural design (probably Ushak, also from the 16th century).

Palace and Mosque: Islamic Art from the Victoria and Albert Museum will be at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., until February 6, 2005. From here the exhibit will travel to the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas (April 3 to September 4, 2005); the Setagaya Art Museum, Tokyo, Japan (October 22 to December 11, 2005); and the Millennium Galleries, Sheffield, England (January 14 to April 16, 2006).


Music in Finland

In the comments to this post on the Glimmerglass production of The Mines of Sulphur, Marja-Leena Rathje was thoughtful enough to mention her experiences at the Savonlinna Opera Festival in her native country, Finland. This prompted me to think about what has been happening in Finland, for at least the past few decades, in terms of performance of new operas and other new music, in relation to my class on Opera in the 20th Century. This year's festival, which concluded earlier this month, saw productions of Offenbach, Wagner, Puccini, Mascagni, Verdi, and Donizetti. Big deal, right? They also performed Rubinstein's Der Dämon, and there was a recital by soprano Karita Mattila of songs by Duparc, Saariaho, and Rachmaninov. Furthermore, they premiered a new opera by Jaakko Kuusisto, called The Canine Kalevala, with a libretto by Mauri Kunnas based on the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala (you can read it in an English translation by John Martin Crawford). It took the Finns a while to create their own national opera, but in 1898 Oskar Merikanto (1868-1924) completed the first opera in Finnish, Pohjan neiti (Maiden of the North), also based on the Kalevala. Since then, opera in Finland has kept growing, especially since the 1970s, so that now Finland is probably the leading country for the production of new operas. (You can read a lot more about the history of opera in Finland in Pekka Hako's article for Virtual Finland.)

Here are some related links to show what I mean:

Most of these new operas, which are in Finnish, of course, get zero play outside of Finland. Sadly, Finnish is one of those languages that few people have any reason to learn, and if you look at just one of the pages listed above in Finnish, you will surely agree that there is very little familiar to speakers of Indo-European languages (it is one of the Magyar Finno-Ugrian languages, related to Hungarian, among others). Perhaps the fame of Finnish opera will change that some day.

Painting the Movies

Here's another one of those quirky individual things that you just hate to see perish. An article (A Last Bastion of Movie Magic, August 10, in English) by Jane Paulick for Deutsche Welle describes the devastating effects that the craze for the vanilla multiplex has had on independent cinemas in Berlin, which have been

crushed by soaring rents, weak demand and the onslaught of chain multiplex theaters. It's a fate shared by cinemas across the country. In Berlin alone, six cinemas were forced to shut in 2003, while a total of eleven cinemas have gone dark since 1998, replaced by anonymous multiplexes indistinguishable from others in London, Hong Kong or New Jersey. As the lights go out in one movie theater after another, Berlin looks set to lose one of its most unique arts. The demise of the independent movie theater also spells the end of the hand-painted movie poster. They may not have the polish of the new-era glossy posters, but they have old-fashioned charm in abundance -- and that's what Berlin's celluloid tradition is all about. Though a number of theaters are still supporting the time-honored tradition of the hand-painted movie poster, the art is clearly in its twilight years.
Hand-painted movie posters? It's a wonderful idea, worth keeping alive.


Calatrava's Buildings in Valencia

Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava has become known internationally for the strange covering he designed for the Olympic Stadium in Athens (completed in the nick of time) and for what he plans to build in the World Trade Center transportation hub. In an article (In his native Valencia, an architect sets his imagination free, August 16) for the International Herald Tribune, Dale Fuchs describes Calatrava's less-known work for the City of Arts and Sciences in his native Valencia, Spain, which is

shaping up to be the largest concentration of his work to date. It is arguably one of his most imaginative, too. "For the first time, it's not just a building solo on the landscape but a whole environment," said Terence Riley, chief curator of the department of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, now showing an exhibit on skyscrapers including Calatrava's twisting high-rise in Malmo, Sweden. "One structure builds on the other, and the space between them becomes another design."

Calatrava, 54, has been working on this futuristic array of buildings—a museum, an opera house, a planetarium and an esplanade-cum-parking lot—since 1991. The €400 million, or $490 million, complex, whose final phase will be completed in 2005, includes an aquarium with a space-age look designed by the Spanish architect Félix Candela. But the City is dominated by some of Calatrava's greatest hits: movable pieces, suggestions of sun-bleached animal skeletons and sweeping sheaths that seem to defy gravity beneath the hot, blue Valencia sky.
The Prince Felipe Science Museum features "220 meters of white concrete prongs [that] resemble the ribs of a dinosaur or the spine of a giant fish." The Hemisfèric next door resembles a floating tortoise or, from another angle, "the building also resembles a giant, free-floating eyeball. It even seems to blink as a steel-and-glass shade opens and closes. Salvador Dalí would be proud." The Palau de la Música, "a performing arts center and 1,888-seat opera house, resembles a ship with round portals, or the cracked shell of an egg in which the main auditorium itself is the yolk." Have a look at some pictures.