Art

Enough Already

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Acclaimed English actress Sarah Siddons made her Dublin debut in May 1784. Evidently some Irish theatergoers felt the hype was excessive — here’s one sardonic review, quoted in English as She Is Wrote, 1883:

“On Sunday, Mrs. Siddons, about whom all the world has been talking, exposed her beautiful, adamantine, soft, and lovely person, for the first time at Smock Alley Theatre in the bewitching, melting, and all tearful character of Isabella. From the repeated panegyrics of the impartial London newspapers, we were taught to expect the sight of a heavenly angel, but how were we supernaturally surprised into almost awful joy at beholding a mortal goddess! … When she came to the scene of parting with her wedding ring, ah! what a sight was there! the very fiddlers in the orchestra, albeit unused to melting mood, blubbered like hungry children crying for their bread and butter! and when the bell rang for music between the acts the tears ran from the bassoon players’ eyes in such plentiful showers that they choked the finger stops, and making a spout of the instrument poured in such torrents on the first fiddler’s book that not seeing the overture was in two sharps, the leader of the band played it in one flat. But the sobs and sighs of the groaning audience and the noise of corks drawn from smelling bottles prevented the mistakes between sharps and flats being heard. One hundred and nine ladies fainted! forty-six went into fits! and ninety-five had strong hysterics. The world will scarcely credit the truth when they are told that fourteen children, five old men, one hundred tailors, and six common councilmen were actually drowned in the inundation of tears that flowed from the galleries, the slips, and the boxes, to increase the briny pond in the pit. The water was three feet deep. An Act of Parliament will certainly be passed against her playing any more!”

Performance Note

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This is bar 66 of Chopin’s Étude Op. 10, No. 5. The red F is noteworthy because it’s the only point in the whole composition where the right hand touches a white key — apart from that, it plays black keys exclusively.

Jascha Heifetz once asked Ayke Agus to close her eyes while he played the piece for her. “It sounded strange,” she wrote, “and when I peeked I saw that he was playing it with an orange.”

Domestic Harmony

The Musical World of London, Nov. 28, 1874, reports a surprising project — apparently a Massachusetts composer set the entire American constitution to music:

The authors of the Constitution of the Union thought more of reason than of rhyme, and their prose is not too well adapted to harmony, but the patriotic inspiration of Mr. Greeler, the Boston composer, overcomes every difficulty. He has made his score a genuine musical epopœia, and had it performed before a numerous public. The performance did not last less than six hours. The preamble of the Constitution forms a broad and majestic recitative, well sustained by altos and double basses. The first clause is written for a tenor; the other choruses are given to the bass, soprano, and baritone. The music of the clause treating of state’s rights is written in a minor key for bass and tenor. At the end of every clause, the recitative of the preamble is re-introduced and then repeated by the chorus. The constitutional amendments are treated as fugues and serve to introduce a formidable finale, in which the big drum and the gong play an important part. The general instrumentation is very scholarly, and the harmony surprising.

The music has been lost, but it would be out of date now anyway — we’ve added 12 amendments since then.

Rigor Mortis

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Image: Flickr

When Victor Noir died in a Paris duel in 1870, sculptor Jules Dalou reproduced the fallen journalist in bronze — a bronze that seems unusually hard in the trousers, if you see what I mean.

That feature has made the statue a sort of fertility shrine for Parisian women. It’s said that kissing Noir’s lips, leaving flowers in his hat, or rubbing his, um, press credentials will bring a husband, enhance one’s sex life, or ensure fertility.

Whether that’s true is open to question, of course — but when the cemetery installed a fence around the statue in 2004, local women reportedly protested until it was removed again.

The Treachery of Images

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Picasso’s Guernica depicts the suffering wrought by a German bombing in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War.

Three years later, when the artist was living in Nazi-occupied Paris, a Gestapo officer saw a photo of the painting in his apartment. “Did you do that?” he asked.

“No,” Picasso said. “You did.”

You Are What You Eat

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This 1590 painting by Giuseppe Arcimboldo is both a still life and a portrait — when it’s inverted, the bowl of vegetables becomes the greengrocer who sold it.

Black and White

Marcel Duchamp, the French surrealist, was an accomplished chessplayer — in 1929 he defeated Belgian master George Koltanowski in 15 moves:

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 d6 4.e4 b6 5.f4 Bb7 6.Bd3 Nbd7 7.Nf3 e5 8.d5 g6 9.O-O exf4 10.Bxf4 Bg7 11.e5 dxe5 12.Nxe5 O-O 13.Qd2 Nxd5 14.Nxd7 Nxf4 15.Nxf8 Bd4+ 0-1

http://www.chessgames.com/perl/chessgame?gid=1080563

Koltanowski resigned in light of 16. Rf2 Qg5 17. Kf1 Bxf2 18. Qxf2 Bxg2+ 19. Ke1 Nxd3+.

“I am still a victim of chess,” wrote Duchamp. “It has all the beauty of art — and much more.”

See Screen King.

Comedy and Tragedy

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Edmund Kean was accounted the greatest actor of his generation, but not everyone shared that opinion. Violette Garrick wrote to him:

You don’t know how to play Abel Drugger.

He wrote back:

I know it.

Error on the G String

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Fritz Kreisler had already gained immortality as a violin virtuoso when in 1935 he revealed that he was also a composer — for 30 years he had been performing his own compositions in concert but attributing them to Vivaldi, Couperin, Porpora, and Pugnani.

In the uproar that followed, Kreisler argued that as a young man he’d had no reputation; audiences would not have paid to hear the compositions of an unknown violinist. That was just the point, opined the Philadelphia Record: Fans had bought the pieces, and indeed other violinists had performed them, thinking them the work of established composers.

The Portland Oregonian agreed: “What if Fritz Kreisler had died without making confession that over a period of thirty years he had been composing music and signing to it the names of half-forgotten composers of former times? What if he had left no list of his works?”

Which raises an interesting question: How many such hoaxes have succeeded? How many of our great works of art are undiscovered forgeries?

Keeping Score

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That’s a caricature of Arturo Toscanini by Enrico Caruso.

There are many tales of the conductor’s astonishing musical memory. A clarinetist once approached him just before a performance and said that he would be unable to play because the E-natural key on his instrument was broken.

Toscanini concentrated for a short time and said, “It’s all right. You don’t have an E natural tonight.”

Less Is More

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As part of a modern dance program, Paul Taylor once stood motionless on stage for four minutes.

For its review, Dance Observer magazine ran four inches of white space.

Music Appreciation

“Debussy’s music is the dreariest kind of rubbish. Does anybody for a moment doubt that Debussy would write such chaotic, meaningless, cacophonous, ungrammatical stuff, if he could invent a melody?” — New York Post, 1907

“It is probable that much, if not most, of Stravinsky’s music will enjoy brief existence.” — New York Sun, Jan. 16, 1937

“Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, like the first pancake, is a flop.” — Nicolai Soloviev, Novoye Vremya, St. Petersburg, Nov. 13, 1875

Rigoletto is the weakest work of Verdi. It lacks melody.” — Gazette Musicale de Paris, May 22, 1853

“Sure-fire rubbish.” — New York Herald Tribune on Porgy and Bess, Oct. 11, 1935

Nice Kitty

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French sculptor Louis Vidal was blind since youth, but he produced startlingly faithful renderings of animals: a bull, a wounded stag, a horse, a cow, a dog.

With domestic creatures he could do this by feeling their anatomy directly, or by referring to skeletons or to stuffed specimens. But how did he create The Roaring Lion, the masterpiece first shown at the Salon in 1868?

Legend has it that he did it the hard way: by running his hands over a live lion at the Jardin des Plantes.

“Convinced he would not succeed without having recourse to the living ‘king of beasts,'” reported The English Illustrated Magazine in 1900, “he entered the cage without the least hesitation, accompanied by the lion-tamer. The animal allowed itself to be caressed for some time, and Vidal was thus enabled to study its anatomy. As a result, he produced that most wonderful example of his art, ‘The Roaring Lion.'”

If that’s just a story … then how did he manage it?

Music Appreciation

Excerpts from concert reviews in London’s Harmonicon:

June 1823:

Opinions are much divided concerning the merits of the Pastoral symphony of Beethoven, though very few venture to deny that it is much too long.

July 1825:

[Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony] is a composition in which the author has indulged a great deal of disagreeable eccentricity. Often as we now have heard it performed, we cannot yet discover any design in it, neither can we trace any connexion in its parts. Altogether it seems to have been intended as a kind of enigma — we had almost said a hoax.

June 1827:

[Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony] depends wholly on its last movement for what applause it obtains; the rest is eccentric without being amusing, and laborious without effect.

April 1825:

We now find [the length of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony] to be precisely one hour and five minutes; a fearful period indeed, which puts the muscles and lungs of the band, and the patience of the audience to a severe trial.

“But how did you get to understand Beethoven?” wrote John Ruskin to John Brown in 1881. “He always sounds to me like the upsetting of bags of nails, with here and there an also dropped hammer.”

Good Girl

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Here’s some pretty abstract expressionism — it was painted by a dog. Tillamook Cheddar is a Jack Russell terrier who works with her claws and teeth, spending hours on each canvas and biting anyone who interferes.

She knows what she’s doing — to date she’s had 16 exhibitions in the United States, Bermuda, the Netherlands, and Belgium, and earned $100,000.

Low Art

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We met Erhard Schön’s anamorphic woodcuts back in 2006.

This one, Was sichst du? (What Do You See?), from 1538, seems to promise an edifying religious theme — there’s Jonah on the left being spit out of his whale. But view it edge-on and you’ll see this:

schon woodcut - compressed

So, maybe not.

Cat Snap

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Harry Whittier Frees did a booming business in novelty postcards in the early 20th century, posing animals in human situations, including props and sets.

“I take occasion to give my personal assurance that all pictures appearing in this book are photographed from life,” he wrote in 1915’s The Little Folks of Animal Land. “The difficulties encountered in posing kittens and puppies for pictures of this kind have been overcome only by the exercise of great patience and invariable kindness.”

Writing Weather

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1816 is known as “the year without a summer” — the eruption of Indonesia’s Mount Tambora flung huge amounts of volcanic dust into the atmosphere, dropping temperatures worldwide and giving the sky a sallow cast that’s visible in Turner’s landscapes of the period (above).

It was a great calamity for farmers, but a boon for horror literature — the “wet, ungenial summer” forced Mary Shelley and John Polidori indoors on their Swiss holiday, where they wrote both Frankenstein and The Vampyre.

Pan King

Excerpts from the reviews of James William Davison, music editor of the London Times from 1846 to 1878:

  • “Perhaps a more overrated man never existed than this same Schubert.”
  • “[Schumann is] the very opposite of good.”
  • “We should rather be inclined to class [Berlioz] a daring lunatic than as a sound, healthy musician.”
  • “Never was a writer of operas so destitute of real invention, so destitute in power or so wanting in the musician’s skill [as Verdi].”
  • “The entire works of Chopin present a motley surface of ranting hyperbole and excruciating cacophony.”
  • “[Wagner] is such queer stuff that criticism would be thrown away upon it.”
  • “He who imagines that, at any time within the last half century Franz Liszt was a musical composer must entertain either very odd notions of art or must be, qua music, an absolute ignoramus.”

But: “[William Sterndale Bennett] lives with us in his works. The music he created conquered, in some sense, the power of death.”

King Prong

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Image: Flickr

A gorilla made of coat hangers. David Mach’s 2007 sculpture Silver Back won him a place in the Guinness Book of Records for “largest coat hanger installation”; it’s not clear how much competition he had.

The whole piece is 7 feet tall, 9 feet long, and 5 feet wide, and it required 2,705 hours and 7,500 hangers to make.

Special Delivery

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This is the Flammarion woodcut, so named because it first appeared in Camille Flammarion’s 1888 book L’Atmosphère. No one knows who created it; it’s thought to depict a medieval pilgrim who discovers the point where earth and sky meet.

Flammarion’s book itself seemed touched by magic. As the astronomer was completing a chapter on the force of the wind, a sudden gale blew the last few pages out the window and off in a whirlwind among the trees. Then a downpour started, and Flammarion gave them up as lost.

He was astonished, then, a few days later when his printer delivered the full chapter, with no pages missing.

It seems the porter who normally brought Flammarion’s proof sheets had been returning to his office when he noticed the sodden manuscript leaves on the ground. He assumed that he himself had dropped them and so had collected them and carried them to the printer without telling anyone.

“Remember,” Flammarion writes, “it was a chapter on the strange doings of the wind.”

Unquote

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“I played over the music of that scoundrel Brahms. What a giftless bastard! It annoys me that this self-inflated mediocrity is hailed as a genius. Why, in comparison with him, Raff is a giant, not to speak of Rubinstein, who is after all a live and important human being, while Brahms is chaotic and absolutely empty dried-up stuff.” — Tchaikovsky’s diary, Oct. 9, 1886

A Generous Commission

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Shortly before Nelson left England for the last time, he found himself sitting next to Benjamin West at an honorary dinner. The admiral complimented the painter on his Death of Wolfe and asked why he had produced no more pictures like it.

“Because, my lord,” West said, “there are no more subjects.” He said he feared that Nelson’s fearless courage might produce another such scene, and “if it should, I shall certainly avail myself of it.”

“Will you, Mr. West?” Nelson said. “Then I hope I shall die in the next battle.”

He got his wish — West found himself painting The Death of Nelson the following year.

Unquote

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“He has no talent at all, that boy! You, who are his friend, tell him, please, to give up painting.”

— Manet to Monet, on Renoir