Fire Hazard

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The Getty Center posted this on their social media today. I might quibble about their abbreviating “Weds,” but it seems unfair; their attention is doubtless elsewhere.

The J. Paul Getty Museum, part of the Getty Center  is closed for the second straight day today, due to the wildfires raging in the area east and northeast of Los Angeles. While the museum is not in imminent danger of burning (yet the flames are getting closer) the museum is closed due to the smoke. Museum officials are concerned about the heavy smoke getting into the buildings and compromising the climate controls. It’s one of those problems museums hope they never have to face.

The Getty museum has a vast collection ranging from antiquities to European paintings and drawings up to the early 20th Century, and photography up to the present. Currently they have shows open on Bellini and Caravaggio, two shows relating to Argentina (one on photography, one on painting/sculpture), as well as a long-term exhibit of Greek and Roman sculptures borrowed from the Santa Barbara Museum of Art while that museum is being renovated. It’s an amazing place, and the art world is holding its collective breath while the fires burn on.

Wildfires have been increasing (but climate change is a myth, says our President), and this year has been particularly bad. Here’s hoping the firefighters will turn the tide before any art is damaged.

Note: The Hammer Museum at UCLA has also closed its galleries today, though its shop and theater are still functioning.

UPDATE: The Getty Museum remains closed on Thursday.

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Morning commute through the Skirball fire, December 6. I got the photo off social media; I’ll credit the photographer when I find out who took it.

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In the stars?

I had a birthday this week, and was amused/intrigued by the more famous people who share that day with me. Astrology suggests we ought to share some traits, but I listen to astrology’s suggestions almost as rarely as I listen to my least favorite politicians. As the holidays are messing with my schedule, here’s a little stopgap post looking at classic works by two of those artists:

William Blake is considerably older than I am, and also dead. His unique blend of mysticism and skill make him one of the most distinctive talents of his time. (Can I list a random selection of others who might qualify for that description? Albert Pinkham Ryder, Edvard Munch, Hilma af Klint, Pipilotti Rist – for a start.) Blake’s Ancient of Days (below) is a prime example of the physicality of his compositions and his fine draughtsmanship.

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William Blake, Ancient of Days, 1794, Collection of the British Museum (Copy D)

Morris Louis (1912-1962) is one of the pioneers of Color Field painting, and an iconic painter of the late twentieth century. His working method – thinning acrylic paint and letting it run down the canvas – is worlds away from Blake, but riveting in its own right.

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Morris Louis, Alpha-Pi, 1960. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

What do these two have in common? Both work on flat surfaces with pigments. That’s a pretty basic commonality, and says nothing about either of them. Sorry, astrology, but these two Sagittarius’s seem different to me.

My two cents about a hundred million dollars (Updated)

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Today Salvator Mundi (above) attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, goes up for auction at Christies, as part of their Post-War & Contemporary Sale (they have their reasons for selling it there, but I won’t go into them). It could sell for $100 million or more. But what everyone wants to know is, who really painted this?

Christies produced a catalog devoted to the painting, so their case is clear. Between Christie’s catalog and the Wikipedia page (linked above) you can see a lot of copies, some dating back to Leonardo’s time, for comparison. One dominant naysayer in the attribution discussion is Jerry Saltz, who made his case in this article on Vulture. I’m not the biggest Saltz fan, but his arguments are very close to my own.

Let me add my two cents: I think there is too much awkwardness in the position of the arms for Leonardo at his height, which is when Christies claims Salvator Mundi was painted. Jesus’ arms do not fit comfortably into the space of the painting. The orb, as has been noted elsewhere (example: this article on art net) doesn’t distort space properly. The “flatness” Saltz complains of is more likely, to my mind, to be a result of the degradation of the surface from years of bad cleanings and overpainting. The hand raised in benediction is pretty darn Leonardo-esque, and the spirals in the hair are at least by someone who was paying attention to Leonardo.

On the plus side, of all the versions of Salvator Mundi around (at least those accessible online) this has the most Leonardo flavor of any. Could I, as Jerry Saltz suggests, be generous and attribute it to a student with (possibly) some corrections/additions by Leonardo himself? Yes, I think we could.

I’m not really interested in how much money it makes. I’d rather see it sell for a lot less and end up in a museum, where people can look at it and think about it for centuries to come. It’s likely, at that price, that it will end up in the hand of some billionaire somewhere, out of sight. That’d be a shame.

While you wait for the hammer to fall, watch this video Christie’s made to hype the sale, of people looking at the painting. Besides the celebrity cameos (Patti Smith and Leonardo di Caprio are there) it’s a great collection of human faces that would have fascinated Leonardo himself. And, after all, this is the last Leonardo da Vinci painting in private hands…unless another one turns up.

UPDATE: Four hundred and fifty million dollars. Holy cow.

It never works [updated]

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Alexander Woollcott, in the 1920s

Let’s go back to 1915. Theatrical impresarios (I so want to Latin-ize the plural into impresarii) Lee and Jake Shubert opened a new show in New York, entitled Taking Chances, adapted from a French farce. The Shuberts seemed to anticipate a poor response from critics; before he show opened they prepared an ad that began “Do not believe everything you see in the notices today…” The ad was prophetic. Reviews in the New York newspapers ran from mildly neutral to negative.

You didn’t get to be a theatrical impresario in that day and age by being all sweetness and light. But how to best express their displeasure with the press? They picked a rising star in the theater critic field, who was making a name for himself at the foremost of New York’s many papers, The New York Times, named Alexander Woollcott. Woollcott would go on to be a curious sort of celebrity, known better for his bon mots than his writing, and as being the inspiration for the character Sheridan Whiteside in the hit play and movie The Man Who Came To Dinner, by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. At this point he was, at least in the Shubert’s eyes, vulnerable.

The Shuberts let it be known that any other Times critic would be welcome at their shows, but not Woollcott. New York Time editor Carr Van Anda wasn’t about to send a second-string critic to review major Broadway productions. Woollcott went to review the next Shubert show, and was turned away at the door.

Van Anda and the paper’s publisher, Adolph Ochs, conferred on what to do. They decided on seeking an injunction against the Shuberts in court, and stopped running Shubert advertising until further notice. This was a big deal for the press and the theatrical world. The Times had given up a lucrative source of revenue in the Shubert’s ads, and the Shuberts were losing publicity from the “paper of record,” as the Times was known. The injunction was granted, just to stack the deck a little in the Times’ favor, and was then reversed in an appellate court. Suddenly theater criticism was a much more important job, and Woollcott was more important in that role. For the first time, Woollcott got a by-line on his reviews. He told a friend, “Yes, they threw me out, and I’m basking in the fierce white light that beats upon the thrown.*”

The Shuberts realized they were fighting a lost cause. They reached out to the Times, and agreed that any critic the paper sent would be admitted. The next Shubert show to open was reviewed (favorably) by Woollcott. The Shuberts had lost, and had made Woollcott a star in his field in the process.

Why am I writing this, aside from the chance to write about Woollcott, whose life and writings I studied a number of years ago?

In September, the Los Angeles Times published this story about the Walt Disney Company’s business dealings with the city of Anaheim, California. The story relates how Disney benefits from deals with the city, and the amount of revenue the city loses through these deals. In response, Disney has announced that L.A. Times writers and editors are banned from advance screenings of Disney films. Striking at film critics about a business article is a strange sort of quid pro quo, but Disney moves in mysterious ways its wonders to perform.

This action is vindictive and immature, and unworthy of Disney. Let’s be clear: Disney is like any other corporation. It’s job has nothing to do with entertainment, and everything to do with making money to enrich shareholders. The product is secondary. Disney has objected to the L.A. Times report, but they have as yet not demanded retraction or clarification. Like the Shuberts, they are fighting a losing battle they should not have started in the first place. Countless corporations benefit from incentives and other business deals, at times to the detriment of the communities they are connected with. But there must be no blot on the escutcheon of the House of Mouse.

Because of the strange nature of Disney’s retaliation, it seems unlikely that any of the L.A. Times’ critics will rise to fame through it. If I were a bigwig at the Times, or at the Times’ parent company, Tronc, I would consider following the lead of Messrs. Van Anda and Ochs. Advertising dollars have dwindled so much in recent decades that it probably wouldn’t work out for the papers, but it would send a message, and have precedent behind it. In any event, Disney is wrong and should act to rectify this childish slap-fight at once.

*Quoted in Samuel Hopkins Adams’ biography of Woollcott, entitled “A. Woollcott; His Life and His World.”

UPDATE: A mere six hours after I posted this, Disney lifted its ban on L.A. Times film critics. It took the Shuberts longer, but Disney was receiving backlash in multiple fronts, including The New York Times, which planned to boycott advance screenings of Disney films in solidarity with the L.A. Times. Multiple critics associations threatened to disqualify Disney films from consideration for awards. I could go on.

Disney cast it in the most positive light they could, saying that they expressed their concerns to L.A. Times management and are now moving forward – but who believes Disney was in control from the moment the ban became public?

A Vote of No Confidence (updated)

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I blogged here about the Berkshire Museum’s plan for re-envisioning, and the sale of its finest paintings at Sotheby’s next month. (Sotheby’s has posted the catalog for the sale, which is scheduled for November 13) Even more than the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s reinvention as “Newfields” (my blog here) this is a poor plan, incompetently executed by the Museum’s Board and the Museum’s Director, Van Shields. A statement by the Museum’s President of the Board, Elizabeth “Buzz” McGraw, does not fully address ongoing issues. This post serves as a little summary of the consequences to date of that proposed sale.

I am in agreement with the Museum’s management that something must be done. As Lee Rosenbaum’s video tour shows, this museum looks more like 1917 than 2017. Pittsfield is a city in sad financial shape and, although the numbers are a bit vague, so is the museum itself. But to essentially remove art as a component of the museum in the hopes that some sort of whiz-bang science museum can salvage its ailing finances (for more on the new vision go here) is a pipe dream – and even in Massachusetts there are limits to what you can put in the pipe.

For thorough coverage of the situation, it’s wise to go through Felix Salmon’s blog, Lee Rosenbaum’s blog, and The Berkshire Eagle, all of which contain enough answers and opinions the reader could ask for.

Let’s recap some of the voices against this sale:

In July, in a rare, possibly unique, statement, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) and the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) both condemned the sale.

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey has been reviewing the Museum’s plans, and the legality of the sale.

The Massachusetts Cultural Council condemned the sale in September; a planned meeting between Council members and Van Shields was cancelled by the Museum.

The Berkshire Museum’s connection to the Smithsonian Institution has been severed; the two were connected through the Smithsonian Affiliates Program, which allowed access to Smithsonian collections, scholars, and more. Though described as a mutual decision, the process was initiated by Van Shields, as he expected the sale to violate the standards of the affiliation.

Just a few days ago, Norman Rockwell’s heirs and several others filed a lawsuit to stop the sale. Rockwell’s painting, Shuffleton Barber Shop, is considered the prize work of the Berkshire Museum’s deaccessioning. It could make $20 million at auction.

And – in the real of the as-yet unquantifiable – public confidence in the museum is eroding. When museum Boards and Directors are not straight with the public, they send up a warning flag to investors, potential members, and donors. Look at the summary above, a pretty bare-bones listing at that, and say you would feel good about the museum’s future.

Perhaps their plans are the way forward, but bungling the execution doesn’t exactly breed confidence. Violating industry standards, losing professional affiliations, and lack of transparency are damning. Whatever the road ahead for the Berkshire Museum, there is already an unofficial vote of No Confidence in its management. To move forward:

Van Shields should resign, win or lose.

The sale of art should be postponed if not stopped, to allow time for a re-assessment, with full transparency, of the museum’s future.

New Trustees should be recruited, especially from the community, to be sure all voices are represented and heard.

UPDATE, Oct. 24. Hardly had the ink dried, so to speak, on the post above, than more developments occurred. Berkshire Museum Director Van Shields has gone on medical leave as he prepares for surgery. He is expected to be out through the end of the year. Meanwhile, 21 of the 40 paintings consigned by the museum to Sotheby’s have been withdrawn. The Norman Rockwell paintings, subjects of a lawsuit, are not among those removed from the sale.

Halloween recommendations

Another in my lead-ups to Halloween, so that when the day itself comes I won’t be just another blogger putting up photos of cute jack-o-lanterns or railing against the horrors of candy corn. Do you need some seasonal entertainment? Four suggestions are humbly proffered below:

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Roger Zelazny’s final novel, A Night in the Lonesome October, is a perfect choice for the season, especially if you’re a fan of old movies, and in particular Universal’s horror films of the 1930s-40s. The story brings together many familiar monsters, under the thinnest of disguises (“The Count,” “The Experiment Man”) along with an also unnamed but instantly recognizable detective and his assistant. Oddly enough, one of the central characters, and not hidden by any alias, is Lawrence Talbot, title character of Universal’s 1941 film, The Wolf Man, and its sequels. Gahan Wilson, who deftly illustrates the book, clearly bases Talbot’s appearance on Lon Chaney Jr., the only actor to play the role in Universal’s classic horrors. The story gradually incorporates elements of H. P. Lovecraft, while remaining light-hearted and clever. You might think of this book as an unofficial sequel to Universal’s 1945 film, House of Dracula, the final entry in the classic horror series. (Yes, I am omitting Abbot & Costello Meet Frankenstein, and I always will. Ick.)

And did I mention that the main character is a dog?

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Japanese Death Poems is exactly what it sounds like. There is a tradition among Japanese haiku poets and Zen monks to write a final poem when they are close to death. This book collects a large sampling of them, with anecdotes about the deaths of the authors where available, plus an introduction covering the history of Japanese poetry and death poems in particular. It begins with the tanka form or poetry, longer and usually self-referential, which was over time superseded by the well-known haiku form. There are many lovely, and naturally brief, poems inside.

People don’t read enough poetry (I know that’s a generalization, but I’m sticking to it) and we avoid thinking about death (also a generalization). This book allows you to do both without becoming depressing or morbid. The equanimity with which so many poets met death is reassuring, even uplifting. Halloween is about fun and bringing a little joy into a seemingly dying season, but it should have its serious side as well.

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Valerie and her Week of Wonders is a surrealist film from the Czech Republic, made in 1970. It’s based on the novel of the same name by Vítězslav Nezval. (I’m writing up the film as I have not yet read the book, a poor position for a writer to be in.) Without spoiling too much, the plot is this: Valerie is a girl just coming into womanhood. The world suddenly seems strange to her. Vampires appear in her town, and she is troubled by possible connections between them and the boy she likes and her own grandmother. The film has the typical attraction/repulsion the surrealists felt toward sex, which is the center of the whole story. Sex is scary and alien to Valerie, and the thought that even people she loves could be involved in it troubles her.

The film is well-made, even charming at times. Making the vampires resemble Count Orlok from the classic horror film Nosferatu was a good touch. If you’ve ever wanted to see a vampire preach in a church, this is definitely the film for you. It is not a horror film, but more a strange dream – Lewis Carroll’s Alice books were another inspiration.

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Take a walk in a cemetery.

Let’s face it: most cemeteries are dull. The average gravestone is an unremarkable square block of stone with some stranger’s name and dates on it. Perhaps the top of the stone is shaped; there might be some treacly sentiment in the inscription. But if you are lucky enough to live near a cemetery with interesting graves, October is the time to visit. The air is cold but not frigid (at least where I live) and the reminders of mortality are leavened by the artistry of memorial sculpture. Sometimes sheer age lends an atmosphere to a cemetery. The photo above is of the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague, Czech Republic. It is there that the tomb of Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, who in legend created the Golem. There are various books and movies dealing with the Golem myth, most famous of which is the 1920 German film Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (The Golem: How He came into the World), starring Paul Wegener.

October is my favorite month of the year. The air turns cool but not icy (most years, anyway), the turning leaves make the woods a kaleidoscope of color. After the lowering skies of summer, autumn skies are bright and infinite. New England, where I live, is especially lovely. And it is this month of all months when darkness creeps in with the lengthening nights to add a little frisson of fright to signify the end of summer’s playfulness.

Off with his head

In light of recent headlines involving powerful men forcing their attentions on women (to put it mildly) I thought we’d look at the story of Judith and Holofernes, from the Book of Judith, in which things most definitely did not go the man’s way. The Book of Judith is included in Christian scripture, either in the Old Testament or the Apocrypha.

First, a summary of the story: Assyrian General Holofernes is outside the city of Bethulia, intending to destroy it. A beautiful Bethulian widow named Judith goes to Holofernes’ camp and spends several days beguiling him. Because of this she is able to be alone with him in his tent, with a servant nearby. She gets Holofernes drunk and, while he is unconscious, beheads him, saving Bethulia. She takes his head back to the city with her.

The story, and specifically the beheading, has a long history of representation in fine art. Let’s look at some of the notable ones:

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Michelangelo, Judith and Holofernes, 1508-12. Sistine Chapel, Vatican City

Michelangelo’s transcendently beautiful Sistine Chapel frescoes cover a great many Biblical stories, and it’s a testament to the importance of the Judith story that he included it, albeit tucked into aa awkward triangular space. This shows the tradition of portraying the scene immediately post-execution, with Holofernes’ headless body still writhing on the bed while Judith and her servant carry his head away. It’s far from the best of the frescoes, but notable for its inclusion.

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Lucas Cranach the Elder, Judith with the head of Holofernes, 1530 Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

I love Cranach the Elder’s clarity and eye for detail. His colors, still bright almost 500 years later, astound. This version is notable for the great self-confidence and quiet sense of triumph in Judith’s face. And the lavish costume and jewelry are quintessentially Cranach.

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Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1598-99 Collection of the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome

Caravaggio, given the dramatic emphasis on lighting and composition his work is famous for, gives us a suitably grisly scene, yet with considerable depth. Judith is not bloodthirsty or vicious; she stands back and does the deed at arm’s length, perhaps to keep blood off her clothes, but more likely because this is the first great act of violence she has ever committed. Her face is determined yet with an undertone of reluctance. Her servant, though, peers at the act with reserve and an even clinical scrutiny. You might almost think this is not the first beheading the servant has seen.

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Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith and Holofernes, 1614-18 Collection of the Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples

You might expect the most visceral version to come from someone like Caravaggio, but Artemisia Gentileschi outdoes him easily. Here is the killing at its worst, with Judith and her servant grimly determined to see it through. The spurting and dripping blood is worthy of a modern-day horror movie. Interestingly, the Book of Judith says that she killed Holofernes by chopping twice at his neck, but artists show more of a slicing or sawing act.

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Aubrey Beardsley, illustration for Salome by Oscar Wilde, 1893

I had to throw in a ringer to provide a bit of context. This Aubrey Beardsley drawing captures the ending of Oscar Wilde’s play, Salome, derived from the Old Testament story of the death of John the Baptist. Aside from the fact that it’s a great drawing, it helps signify a change as the twentieth century approaches. Literal depiction of the act gives way to artistic stylization; it is no longer the scene shown that is paramount, but how it is shown.

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Gustav Klimt, Judith 1, 1901 Collection of the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna

Gustav Klimt uses the scene as a pretense for a portrait of a beautiful woman, perhaps Klimt’s friend (or lover) Adele Bloch-Bauer. Holofernes’ head is almost out of the picture, with the body of the image taken up with Judith’s calm, voluptuous pose. The frame, made by Klimt’s brother Georg, was designed to make it clear that this is Judith, and not Salome.

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Kehinde Wiley, Judith and Holofernes, 2012 Collection of the North Carolina Art Museum

And the image still fascinates: Kehinde Wiley is a master at combining traditional elements of European painting with his own vivid color palette and African-American figures. His Judith holds the severed head at arm’s length, with an expression of distaste on her face. The flowered pattern, both reminiscent of wallpaper and the patterned backdrops found in some medieval art, threatens to dominate the scene, but Judith’s strong pose and Givenchy dress hold their own. Curiously, Wiley painted the head of a woman as Holofernes, though I have found no explanation given for this.

Though religious scenes have been less common in the last century or so, they still appear, often in re-imaginings and new styles. The story of Judith tells us not to underestimate a woman; she can be a hero, she can lead the attack, she can succeed where men would fail. Perhaps its time for some enterprising curator to put together a show of strong women. And, yes, there will be blood.