Turner in Venice
Two incandescent works from one of my favorite artists, J.M.W. Turner [1775-1851]. The English-born Turner was drawn to the fabled Italian city of Venice in late career, his three journeys there producing pieces that mystically capture its sublime alchemy of water, light, and sky. The paintings are among those featured at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts in the exhibition, Turner’s Modern World, through July 10.
This resplendent image of a rare Philippine eagle, taken by British photographer Tim Flack, is from his latest collection, Birds, featuring a stunning assemblage of many little-known feathered creatures from around the world. “For many of us,” Flack told London’s Daily Mail, “the global pandemic has heightened our awareness of nature, and specifically birds, which have with their very presence awakened our senses and elevated our spirits… I hope this book will further reveal just how extraordinary they really are, while inspiring empathy and encouraging conservation and support.”
Of his latest book, Flack (an honorary fellow of the Royal Photographic Society who has traversed the globe in his exploration of the animal kingdom), says: “Connecting people to the natural world has never been more important.”
Side By Side By Sondheim
[This short piece that I posted several years ago captures only an iota of the awe and admiration in which I held composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, who passed away on November 26 at the age of 91. I have been immersed in his words and music since hearing the news, and can’t help but be saddened at the thought that American musical theatre as we know it will never again be the same.]
Just one of the unexpected bits to be gleaned from Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) With Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes is that Stephen Sondheim describes himself as a “lazy reader.” The hyperliterate master of the rhyme and musical reason, intrepid juggler of the vowel and consonant, doesn’t particularly enjoy reading books. Would never have imagined it.
Perhaps those who have struggled with poetry (which he is quick to distinguish from lyric writing) would most enjoy the chapter “Rhyme and Its Reasons,” an analytically fascinating examination of perfect rhymes and near rhymes and why, for example, “weary” and “bleary” are a less effective pair than “weary” and “eerie.” In this compendium, ranging from his first show, Saturday Night (1954), to 1981’s Merrily We Roll Along — we’ll have to wait for the next installment for an overview of more greatness that followed, such as 1984’s Sunday in the Park with George — one sees the lyrics for A Little Night Music charm off the page; and yet, interestingly, those for West Side Story seem lonely without Bernstein’s soaring score.
A recurring “”grudge” is Sondheim’s disdain for critics: “The sad truth is that musicals are the only public art form reviewed mostly by ignoramuses.” Remembering how for years Sondheim’s music was skewered as being somehow beneath his lyrics — nothing could be more mistaken — you might have to largely concur with the composer’s assessment.
Other surprises: Sondheim’s choice of “Someone in a Tree” from Pacific Overtures as his personal favorite among his vast catalog of songs. His bafflement at the popularity of “Send in the Clowns.” And a wonderful Oscar Hammerstein anecdote in the section on Sweeney Todd that may well have been part inspiration for Sondheim’s “Finishing the Hat” lyric. And on and on in this trove of musical treasure.
Cover of The Economist, January 23, 2021 edition.
Graphic: Benedetto Cristofani
[A repost of my piece from 2016 on the artist Christo, who passed away 5/31/20 at the age of 84. Christo’s imagination — and indefatigability — were limitless, as seen in the scope of the spectacular installations he designed in cities around the world over the decades. Always buzzworthy, always surprising, he was a true creative original.]
Way back in 1983 (when I was just a toddler of course), the excitement was palpable in the summery Florida air when the wildly creative conceptual artist, Christo, unveiled his and wife Jeanne-Claude’s now-iconic “Surrounded Islands.” Eleven small oases skirted in glistening pink polypropylene along Miami’s Biscayne Bay, they gave the impression of a “trail of giant flowers on the water’s surface,” as the New York Times then described it, and the event put the city, just beginning its own flowering into a cultural mecca, very much in the arts spotlight.
I remember venturing out with my dad in our tiny speedboat to see the “installations” up close, feeling it was all a bit of history, which it was. But the spectacle wasn’t designed to be viewed at eye level; the scope of the project could only be appreciated, of course, from the sky.
And there was so much more to follow from Christo in the coming years, including the “Wrapped Reichstag,” Berlin’s parliament building enveloped in aluminum and described at the time (1995) as a “symbol of the new Germany”; as well as “The Gates” in New York City (all 7,500 of them) along the walkways of Central Park, which four years after 9/11 “reminded the world that our city’s artistic spirit was alive and well,” in the words of then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Fast forward now to 2016, and this weekend specifically, when the legendary artist, now 81, debuts his latest adventure — again aquatically themed — “The Floating Piers” in the northern lake region of Italy. This time (sans collaborator Jeanne-Claude, who passed away in 2009), he picked the tranquil waters of Lake Iseo for his 23rd large-scale installation. It will connect the town of Sulzano to the small island of Monte Isola via a two-mile oscillating runway, created with nearly a quarter of a million floating cubes covered in sunshine yellow fabric, whose hue will adjust depending on the time of day.
Numerous volunteers, including lifeguards, have been engaged to ensure safety for the 16 days the installation is in place. Coinciding with the conclusion of Art Basel (a couple of hundred miles away), the event is expected to draw about half a million visitors. “They will feel the movement of the water under foot,” Christo told the Times last year. “It will be very sexy, a bit like walking on a water bed.”
It also “creates an incredible urgency,” Christo said, “because it will never take place again.”
In a tradition begun with Jeanne-Claude early in his career, he also plans to provide visitors with mementoes of sorts, even possibly actual pieces of fabric from the installation. “Normally it’s a postcard you bring home,” said Germano Celant, project director for “Floating Piers.” “A bit of fabric becomes a part of history.”
Oh for a little piece of pink from one of those islands so many years ago…
Photos: Wolfgang Volz
Dear and Beloved
Photo: Franck Fife/ AFP/ Getty Images
The Music of Miró
From the exhibit Joan Miró: Birth of the World, on view at New York’s Museum of Modern Art through June 15, the painting Hirondelle Amour (1933) features all the hallmarks of the master Surrealist, and is a boisterous blend of color and abstraction. (Also fascinating is how the work manages to evoke that of his contemporary and colleague Pablo Picasso, whom Miró often clashed with.) “For me, a painting must give off sparks,” Miró once said. “It must dazzle like the beauty of a woman or a poem.” Or, one may add, a symphony.
Pop Culture Musing for a Friday 2/22/19
Leading Ladies: A Queen, a housekeeper, a forger, a long-suffering wife – and a rock star thrown in for good measure. Such are the characters depicted by the actresses singled out for lead roles at this Sunday’s Academy Awards presentation. And what a diverse group of performances they represent. Though one may quibble (and I will) about a couple of the nominees, there’s no doubt that in their own way each left their mark on this year’s Oscars in ways big and small.
Perhaps the biggest revelation for me was Melissa McCarthy playing the real-life part of writer Lee Israel in the film adaptation of her memoir, Can You Ever Forgive Me? (The title comes from a sign-off often used by Dorothy Parker, one of the literary luminaries whose letters Israel forged for profit.) Known for her comedic roles, McCarthy plumbs the depths of pathos in this astonishing performance, aided by her also remarkable co-star Richard Grant. (It should be noted that the misfits-come-together theme is reminiscent of last year’s Shape of Water, in the relationship between the characters played by Sally Hawkins and Richard Jenkins.) McCarthy, in the performance of a lifetime, pulls the curtain on a deeply unlikable woman – eventually convicted for her crimes – as someone whose desperation ultimately sprung from the creative vacuum that economic circumstances had placed her in. The scene toward the end of the film, where she explains what propelled her transgressions, is one of the finest I’ve seen in recent memory.
Olivia Colman, as the royally messy British Queen Anne in the jaunty romp, The Favourite, is notable for being able to keep her performance from veering off into camp, though coming close to it on occasion. Supported by Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone in key roles, Colman presents the monarch, who ruled England from 1707-1714, as a daffy, spoiled, but ultimately sympathetic figure. The screenplay’s questionable historical bona fides allow the actress to roam free in her idiosyncratic interpretation of a sovereign whose personal life still remains somewhat of a mystery to this day.
Newcomer Yalitza Aparicio, the salt of the earth at the heart of Alfonso Cuaron’s transcendent Roma, presents a quandary – and an unusual quibble alert. Her performance, if it can be called such, is so organic that I would hesitate to call it acting. Unlike her famous fellow nominees, her anonymity allows a total immersion in what is not so much a role but a life experience. Aparicio, who was studying to be a teacher when Cuaron offered her the role after a casting call, says that she would like to continue acting after her breakout performance. I’ll predict that she’ll find it difficult to match the perfection with which she helped elevate Roma to masterpiece status.
I generally love myself some Lady Gaga, but I’m afraid I wasn’t head over heels about her stint as Ally in the latest iteration of A Star is Born. I refer to acting-wise; her musical scenes were fantastic and carried all the charisma and talent that have made her the superstar she is. But her co-star, Bradley Cooper, had far more emotional resonance it seems to me, and she comes up a bit short with this foray into the thespian arts. We’ll have to wait and see what the future holds in this department, but for now she has bested her counterpart from a previous generation, Madonna, with an Oscar nomination!
As for the expected winner this year, Glenn Close, what can one say? It’s about time, after six nominations, that this treasure of American film, stage (and television) adds the Big One to her extensive CV. In The Wife, she provides an absolutely masterful exhibit of steely control over seething tension and such is her magnetism that you really can’t take your eyes off her in any scene.
In the end, no quibbles about the fact that it’s been an especially satisfying year of excellence for women in film.
Two images by photographer Alan Burles, winner of this year’s Leica/Street Photography International photographer of the year award. The British-born Burles, who began his career as an advertising art director at Saatchi & Saatchi, says of his prize-winning work, “I love ideas, I love humour, I love photos that are what I call ‘never ending photos.’ They reward you every time you look at them.”
Art of an Election
Along the highways and byways of rural America, some fortunate drivers are encountering eye-catching billboards (one is shown above) designed with the midterm elections in mind and sure to provoke thoughtful reflection. Described as possibly the country’s most ambitious public-art project, they form part of the “50 State Initiative,” a crowdfunded project sponsored by the New York-based For Freedoms organization, and are intended to encourage “civic participation,” according to For Freedom’s co-founder Eric Gottesman.
“It’s not just voting, it’s about using our voices to speak up about the things we feel strongly about,” Gottesman recently told The Guardian newspaper, which reports that more than 200 institutions and 400 artists will be hosting, talks, projects, and exhibits related to political art in partnership with For Freedoms. The more than 50 billboards created for the endeavor (whose locations include Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico) will remain up through the month of November.
Says Gottesman: “Often the response to the billboards is a question: ‘What does this mean?’” We say: ‘What do you think it means? We don’t know, help us figure out what this means together.’”
And, of course, being a part of the conversation is one of the essential foundations of a shared democracy. (So VOTE!)
Artwork: Christopher Myer
Marina In Murals
Looming large in the neighborhood of Milan’s Largo la Foppa, in the Italian city’s Corso Garibaldi district, is a massive likeness of legendary performance artist Marina Abramovic, whose 2010 project The Artist is Present is the inspiration for one of several Gucci-sponsored “ArtWalls” that currently appear in cities around the globe, promoting an upcoming exhibit curated by the artist Maurizio Cattelan. The reimagined Artist is Present exhibition was conceived as a means of “highlighting the practice of appropriation in the many forms it takes in contemporary culture.” Featuring site-specific and existing artworks from more than 30 Chinese and foreign artists including Damon Zucconi, Christopher Williams, Ma Jun, Aleksandra Mir, and Sayre Gomez, the event is scheduled to run from October through December at the Yuz Museum in Shanghai.
Don’t be fooled by the luscious appearance of these mouth-watering ice cream cones…alas, they’re not quite ready to be consumed. Born of the imagination of artist Jourdan Joly, they are actually plastic sculptures, originally cast in urethane in silicon molds. Joly, who began his ice-cream creations in 2012, says, “I like the slight surreal aspect to it – it always makes people wonder how it was done. For me as an artist this feels like success.” Designated in 1984, July is National Ice Cream Month, with the 15th set aside as the confection’s special day. As good a reason as any to (over) indulge — in the real thing, of course.
An atmospheric shot of Court Two on the hallowed grounds of tennis’ grandest event, taken with an infrared camera by photographer Tom Jenkins for the English newspaper, The Guardian, in 2017. All eyes this week are on the veteran champions Roger Federer and Serena Williams (back from maternity break) as they seek to further cement their places as the greatest players of all time.
Sliding into Florence
Art meets science in a most intriguing fashion this summer, as a Renaissance palace doubles as a science lab in the Italian city synonymous with magnificent art.
“The Florence Experiment,” an interactive installation at the famous Palazzo Strozzi, was conceived by German artist Carsten Höller and plant biologist Stefano Mancuso as a way to analyze the impact of human emotions on plants — in this case, wisterias. Participants are invited to slide down the two stories from terrace to courtyard with a plant sample strapped to their chests; as they travel down the spiral slides that span 30 meters, their real-time reactions — fear, elation, etc. — are recorded for “live analysis” by on-site scientists immediately thereafter, in order to determine the effect of those emotions on the growth trajectory of the plant.
It all has to with things like “volatile molecules” and “photosynthetic parameters” and for the biologist Mancuso, further evidence in his quest to prove that plants harbor intelligence. Adventurous visitors to Florence this season will play a part in advancing that knowledge.
The Florence Experiment is at the Palazzo Strozzi through August 26.
Pop Culture Musing for a Thursday 3/1/18
If there’s anything that can be said with almost near certainty, it’s that there will be no surprises in the acting categories at the Academy Awards this Sunday. And that’s not a bad thing; all of the actors are more than deserving. To wit: Gary Oldman, for his masterful mix of bravura and benevolence as Winston Churchill in The Darkest Hour; Frances McDormand’s steely determination as a mother robbed of her violently murdered daughter in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; Sam Rockwell as the racist cop turned unlikely comrade-in-arms to McDormand in the same film; and finally, Allison Janney as figure-skating’s mother from hell in the Tonya Harding biopic, I, Tonya.
Though there may be no mystery in who’ll be receiving the top acting accolades, I did find some surprises amongst the other nominees (and one shockingly overlooked performance) featured in the most acclaimed movies of the year.
Luxembourg-born Vicky Krieps was an actress previously unbeknownst to me – and to most, it’s safe to assume – yet what a revelation she is as partner to Daniel Day-Lewis, who plays the tyrannical fashion designer in the moody and evocative period piece, Phantom Thread. Just the fact that she more than holds her own with the titanic talent that is the three-time Oscar winning British thespian (in possibly his final film performance) is sheer marvel. To crib from an Eminem lyric, he’s the tornado meeting the volcano at the heart of Kriep’s character, both patching into each other’s less-than-healthy neuroses in a way that (hey!) works for them.
Krieps’ co-star Lesley Manville, in the role of Day-Lewis’ sister (and crisp as a Scarlatti sonata) grabbed the nomination for supporting actress, but it’s grand theft that she and Krieps could not have at least shared the glory.
Timothée Chalamet (Call Me By Your Name) and Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) will also come away empty-handed, but both left their indelible impact in vastly contrasting fashion — Chalamet’s by way of his soft and wondrous exploration of a young man’s coming to terms with his newly found and ambivalent sexuality; Kaluuya in a riveting turn that’s captured in an image as iconic as Macaulay Culkin’s “scream” visage from Home Alone.
In the male supporting category, I was most moved by the magnificent veteran actor Richard Jenkins, whose lovely effort as the lonely best friend to Sally Jenkins in The Shape of Water was just one of the highlights of what I’m hoping will come away with the Best Picture honors. Director Guillermo del Toro’s exquisite panoply of fantasy and pathos reminds us of the unbounded geography of love, in stunningly visual and emotional terms.
If the acting winners look to be set in stone, the main prize is totally up for grabs, and with any luck, the artistic achievements of Water will come out on top in the end (though Three Billboards is giving it a mighty race for the money).
Here’s rooting for the Fish Man!
Hole in One
George by George
With the one-year anniversary of the passing of George Michael coming up on Christmas Day, I came across an illuminating documentary on Showtime that the pop superstar was working on up until the time of his death at the untimely age of 53. What an irony that he joined two other colleagues in the musical stratosphere of his time — Michael Jackson and Prince — in leaving us at the half-century mark. (And with Whitney Houston also gone, that leaves Madonna as basically the sole survivor of that golden age of pop gods and goddesses.)
In the film, entitled Freedom (after one of his top hits and an epic video— more on that later), Michael is unflinching as he assesses his meteoric career, which began with the boy band Wham! before launching his solo phase with the album Faith in the late eighties. As a boomer who remembers the era quite clearly, I recall Michael as the always upbeat, always sexy performer who seemed to have more hits than anyone at the time. (In fact, Faith ended up selling more than 20 million copies).
But you come away with a very different impression after this film. An introspective and melancholy musical genius, Michael struggled with the loneliness very much at his core (one reason for the ever-present sunglasses) and only experienced real happiness with first love Anselmo Feleppa, whom he met in 1991 and who would succumb to AIDS in 1993, leaving the singer devastated. (Michael did not actually come out until 1998.) The event was followed by the death of his mother a year later, which threw the singer into an emotional tailspin from which only music could save him.
I discovered the album Older (released in 1994) as a result of this doc, being mostly familiar with the Michael masterpieces Faith and of course, the transcendent Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1. Considered by Michael as his finest work, Older is very much a “healing” album, with many allusions to his relationship with Feleppa, especially on the amazing track “Like Jesus to a Child.” (I’ve had it on repeat for a few days now. It’s that good.)
So back to that Freedom! ‘90 video. It’s really a magical moment in pop culture, capturing the zeitgeist of an irreplicable epoch, anchored by Cindy and Christy and Linda and Naomi, the supermodels who needed no last names, recruited by Michael for a once-in-a-lifetime music video directed by David Fincher (The Social Network). Explosive, sensual and giddily glamorous, it’s also remarkable for its notably absent star. That’s save for one of his bomber jackets, which literally goes up in smoke — symbolic, of course, of Michael letting go of one stage of his career before embarking on the next. And shall we say, with a bang.
There are also prescient words from him as regards his legacy. How did he want to be remembered? “As a great singer/songwriter…from a period of time which I don’t think we’ll be seeing again. I don’t think youth culture will produce someone like myself or Madonna or Prince. I think it’s too fragmented now.
“So I’d like to be remembered as one of those last kind of big stars in the sense that there was a certain glamour to it.”
And that, by George, is certainly the case.
Color in the Darkness
Street art takes on a poignant significance in the war-ravaged neighborhoods of Syria, by way of Australian artist Luke Cornish, whose spirited stencil depictions provide children with a creative refuge from the horrors of a conflict that seems to have no end in sight. Cornish, who first visited the country in 2016, immediately saw an opportunity to use art as a means for kids to escape, however briefly, from the harsh day-to-day of a region mired in violence.
“I went to a primary school and did some stencil demonstrations,” Cornish told Australia’s The Age. “I then went to another place and we gave them some spray paint to paint on the walls. They had so much fun. I’ve been using art as a tool for them to open up and escape some of the trauma.”
Cornish has since formed the not-for-profit ‘For Syria’s Children’ (FSC), a fundraising endeavor that hopes to provide financial help to Syrian youth impacted by the country’s civil war. At the end of the day, the artist says, “These kids I have been working with…they don’t question if you’re Christian or Muslim.”
Remembering Sylvia Plath, that most brilliant and radical of poets, on the occasion of what would have been her 85th birthday.
She died, age 30, in 1963.
--From The Bell Jar (1963)