Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Japanese Screens

We recently attended an exhibit of Japanese screens that was jointly presented by the St. Louis Art Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago. There is something so ethereal and delicate about these screens, which were meant to be both utilitarian and works of fine art. The fragile paper, the subtle colors, the brush calligraphy that freezes words as if they were birds hanging on air -- it evokes a peaceful feeling in me that I can't quite name or define.

I don't know much about Japanese screens, but I'm eager to learn more. The image below, a detail from a six-panel screen called Pheasant and Pine by Kano Koi, adorns the cover of the catalog, which is available at both museums. We bought it because it not only has all of the screens in the exhibit, but seems thorough in its discussion of this art form.

On the surface, my two favorite works in the show are quite different from one another. The first is by Tosa Mitsuoki (Japanese, 1617-1691) and is called Flowering Cherry and Autumn Maple with Poem Slips. The poems appear to be painted on little strips of paper that seem to flutter in the breeze. This picture, from the Art Institute, hardly does it justice. But if you go to their website, there is a better copy, one that you can zoom in on to see details. Both trees are simply gorgeous.

This screen has another image on the back, which was not visible in the display. I wish it had been reflected in a mirror or something, since it is a grove of bamboo, one of my favorite plants.

My second favorite work was a twentieth-century take on the centuries-old screen tradition. These two screens are part of 1990 work called Mountain Lake Screen Tachi by Okura Jiro.
The original work spanned more than 120 feet on 16 screens, creating a wall or mountain effect, or possibly a golden city. The gold leaf is applied on rough-hewn walnut boards, sometimes quite loosely, so that pieces of it sparkle and blow in the air. It's really quite lovely and impressive, both for its size and beauty, and for showing that this ancient art still lives and continues to grow.

I found this picture of the screens in their outdoor setting, but even this photo does not capture the impressive size of the screens, which seem to tower over you like golden mountains.

The Mountain Lake website says, "The focus of Okura’s workshops developed out of his own deep respect for natural materials, especially wood. This respect is based on an understanding of the relationship between nature as an environment of material substance with physical location, and as a concept of pure space. For Okura, substance and space acquire a sense of plenitude when the self grasps this relationship, which wood (or any other natural material) can symbolize if treated properly. Okura’s ideas, which are expressed by his treatment of wood, are manifested in Eastern belief systems through ritual practices that allow for chance and indeterminacy in the processing of materials."

The exhibit also made note of my architectural hero, Frank Lloyd Wright, crediting him with shaping "Americans’ visions of the screen format." The show had a large-scale photograph of his bedroom in his home and studio, Taliesin, circa 1909, with a Japanese screen embedded in the wall. This room no longer exists in this form, having been destroyed in one of the two fires that consumed much of Taliesin earlier in the century. So, it was fun and surprising to come across this image in the exhibit.

Read more!

Addams Family Musical -- A Review (Plus Tee Shirts)

UPDATE 12/30/09: The Producers must have read my review! The Addams Family Musical is undergoing substantial revisions. Here's a link to the story in the New York Times:

They're creepy and they're kooky
Mysterious and spooky
They're all together ooky
The Addams Family

Frink and I went to Chicago last weekend. On Saturday night, we saw The Addams Family Musical,a new show in pre-Broadway tryouts. Before even seeing the play, I went straight to the goodie counter where a cadre of busy clerks were selling over-priced souvenirs, from posters to mugs to note pads to tee-shirts, all branded with the show's logo and catch phrases, or with reproductions of the original Charles Addams cartoons.

I wasn't shopping for myself: My niece is wild about theater and was Elphaba-green with envy that I got to see this show. So, I bought her this shirt for Christmas. Now, you can't buy one kid a souvenir and not get anything for her siblings. So I also got shirts for her brother and sister. The theater had a HUGE array of merchandise. If only they had put as much thought into the musical!

The Addams Family has some of the most inspired casting imaginable. Bebe Neuwirth as Morticia. Nathan Lane as Gomez. It should have been a hoot. Unfortunately, it was dreadful. And not in the mysterious and spooky sense of the word. Now, I’m the first to admit that what I want from a Broadway musical may differ from the average theater-goer’s expectations. I’m not a big fan of huge, razzle-dazzle sets and million-dollar spectacles (I may be the only person in America who didn’t like Wicked.)

What I do expect is at least one of the following: an involving story, characters I care about (or at least enjoy watching), some memorable tunes, or some zippy dance numbers that are fun to watch. The Addams Family didn't live up on any front. The story was trite, the songs so-so, and the characters flatter than their images on the tee shirts. The sets, however, were very nice.

In interviews, the producers have said that they ignored the television series and movies, drawing their inspiration from the original New Yorker cartoons. They didn't quite follow through on that approach, but even if they had, I’m not sure it was a wise choice. According to Wikipedia, "Addams' original cartoons were one-panel gags, and he never developed any of the characters or even gave them names until the sitcom was being developed.”

If Pixar has taught me anything, it’s that the story has to come first. With a good story, everything else is gravy. But this story had no main course. It was simplistic and sit-commish, without the sly sophistication of the original cartoons or the winking humor of the TV show. In the play, Wednesday has been aged from 7 to 18. She has met a “normal” boy, and guess whose family is coming to dinner? The Normals (aka Beinecke's) are just what you would expect – staid, uptight, needing to be shaken up. On cue, Pugsley inadvertently gives one of Grandmama's potions to Mrs. Normal and chaos ensues. Or at least it's supposed to.

A good story also needs memorable characters. I don’t care how you get me involved in the characters—make me identify or empathize with them, envy them, hate them, laugh at the them, or fear them. Just make me care enough to spend two hours in their company. Wednesday is written as any stock rebellious teen (although she keeps stridently reminding us that she is wild and crazy.) Fester, who sounds and acts just like the TV actor, serves the unenviable role of a Greek chorus explaining the all-too-obvious plot, although he does have a few inspired moments. (His love song to the moon was a high point.) The actress playing Mrs. Normal/Beineke was affecting, even in a clichéd part, and her voice was terrific. Terrance Mann as Mr. Normal/Beineke was also memorabe. But the principals are given such a poor story line that a few strong performances aren’t enough to salvage the evening.

Bebe Neuwirth is one of my favorite actresses. Best known for the deadpan monotone of Lilith on Fraser she is a terrifically talented and renowned Broadway star. I've always wanted to see her in a musical. I was thrilled when I heard that she was cast as Morticia. She has the figure, the dancing chops, and the dry wit to suit the part. But she is constrained, literally and figuratively, in this show. For most of the play she is strait-jacketed by the tight gown she has to wear to carry off Morticia’s nipping walk. When the gown does come off, in a tango with Gomez, I was momentarily aroused, thinking that finally we would get to see Neuwirth do her stuff. But even the tango was a let-down. It should have been the climax of the show, the sizzling, passionate reunion of lovers temporarily parted by misunderstanding. Instead, the choreography was woefully clichéd, with Morticia at one point even playing the bull goring Gomez’s red cape. It also doesn't help that her character's big story line is a mid-life fear that she has lost her mojo.

Lane’s Gomez has a bit more to work with, including a few zingy one-liners. But the story is so slight and the music and lyrics so lackluster that even this talented star goes to waste.

The lack of story or characters wouldn't matter if the songs had been memorable. Many successful muscials have thin stories. Spamalot doesn’t have much of a plot or characters, but the music is fabulously hum-worthy. And hilarious. The Addams Family had a few okay numbers--Act One's "Full Disclosure" was memorable, and Morticia's "Second Banana" was ok, but several verged on being tedious, and at least one made me wince.

One reason Spamalot is successful is that it smacks you across the face like a wet perch with reminders of the movie. By deliberately avoiding callbacks to a beloved show, The Addams Family loses much of its appeal. (And in fact, despite the producer’s stated intentions, the musical did refer to the TV series and movies. Lane’s Spanish accent is patterned on the movies’ Raul Julia. Lurch grunts just like the original actor. Gomez and Morticia duel with swords and he swoons when she speaks French. And so on.)

At one point a snippet of the TV theme song plays as the cast gathers around a Victorian sofa in a tableau patterned on the TV show’s opening montage. It was telling that this was one of the most well-received bits in the show. When those few bars of music started playing,the audience broke into applause, and the energy in the theater soared. Unfortunately, it soon died down again.

The Addams Family is in previews in Chicago before heading to New York. I hope they will find a way to retool the show before moving it to Broadway.

And I hope the kids like the tee shirts! Read more!

Sunday, December 27, 2009

A Tiny Christmas Miracle

About three weeks or so ago, Frink's mom lost her wedding ring, along with her engagement ring, to which it was connected. Frink's mom is very thin, and it's been cold out. She thought she lost it while Christmas shopping. She had been trying on gloves at J.C. Penney, so she thought maybe it had come off in one of the gloves. She went back to the store and looked in all of the gloves, not once but twice, and called them a couple of times. She tore her house apart, and her purse, and the car. All to no avail. The ring was gone. Her husband, Frink's dad, made funny "jokes" about how much it was going to cost to replace it. Repeatedly.

Anyway, on Christmas morning, after the breakfast had been eaten, the stockings unpacked, and all the gifts unwrapped, a couple of us were cleaning up all the gift wrap. I saw something sparkling on the carpet. I thought someone had lost an earring. I picked it up. And miracle of miracles, it was the ring! Frink's mom had vacuumed that rug many times since she had lost the ring, including just the day before. So we surmised that it must have come off when she was wrapping presents.

She burst into tears when I gave it to her, and she had to sit down because we were afraid she was going to pass out, she was shaking so hard.

It was the best Christmas present ever!
Read more!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Christmas Ornaments -- Share your favorites

Most families who celebrate Christmas have a veritable smorgasbord of ornaments. Mine is no exception. Heirloom ornaments handed down for generations. Ornaments given to me when I was a child. Ornaments that are wacky and fun. Ornaments bought to match a particular decor. Almost all of them have a story. I thought I'd share a few of my favorite this Christmas season.

And, I'd like to invite you to do the same! Share a story (and a link, if you'd like) about one of your favorite holiday ornaments... whatever holiday you celebrate and cherish.

These two ornaments are years apart in time, distance, and style, but they do share a certain kitsch factor.

The little tree made of wrapped boxes stands about a foot high. It's from the 1950s and belonged to my Great Aunt Fern. It reminds me of photos of her from that era, when she favored cat's eye glasses with rhinestones, and dresses with nipped waists and swingy skirts.

The other ornament is so deliberately bizarre it makes me laugh. An alligator (or crocodile?) in red high heels is charming enough, but the Christmas trees on his back put him quite over the top.

A couple of years ago, when I was in Vienna for a semester, I bought several of these weird little designs at one of the Christmas markets. The irony is that these ornaments are made in America, so I traveled all the way to Vienna only to bring them back to the U.S. (I wish I could remember the name of the company that makes them. If anyone recognizes them, let me know!)

I spent a few months alone in Vienna. At
Christmas, Frink was going to join me. It's a rather lonely feeling wandering by yourself around a city festively decorated for Christmas, especially Vienna, which must have the most beautiful Christmas in the world. The markets are thronged with people standing under sparkling lights in the streets or at outdoor stalls, laughing, eating delicious cookies, hot potatoes, sausages, and mulled wines.

After Frink joined me for Christmas, we planned to stay in Vienna only a few days, before doing some
traveling, so I didn't want to get a tree. But my little apartment seemed so bare and sad. So, I bought some pine boughs at a flower shop, stuck them in a large vase on a table, draped it with a "skirt" and hung 10 or 12 ornaments from it. I got most of the ornaments at Christmas Markets to give as gifts when I returned home, but I didn't think my friends and family would mind if I hung them for a few days on my makeshift tree.

This well-heeled alligator had a prominent spot, and I grew so attached to him that I had to keep him.

Tomorrow: More on Vienna's Christmas markets, and some ornaments acquired there.
Read more!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

More on Mrs. Dr. Seuss

After I discovered who the author of one of my favorite children's books was, I did a little research on her.

Here's her Wikipedia entry "Helen Palmer Geisel was born in 1899 and died in 1967, 24 years before her husband died." They met at Oxford, and apparently she persuaded him not to become a professor, but to be an artist instead.
She published several other books in addition to A Fish Out of Water, and worked as an actress. And, she committed suicide. Wikipedia attributes her suicide to “a series of illnesses (including cancer) spanning 13 years.”

But a story in
The New York Times
offers a different, somewhat seedier version. Geisel, it seems, remarried. His second wife was a woman named Audrey Diamond.

To let the Times pick up the tale:

Were you thinking the widow of the country's most beloved children's writer must have been a sentimental and devoted mom, admitting only the most traditional family values?


Audrey Dimond was married with two children when she fell in love with Ted Geisel. Mr. Geisel, 18 years her senior, was also married. In the wake of their affair, Mr. Geisel's wife, Helen, committed suicide, causing, as Mrs. Geisel puts it, ''a rather large ripple in the community of La Jolla.'' Mrs. Dimond divorced her husband to marry Mr. Geisel, 64, and when she did, her daughters, 9 and 14, were sent away to school.

''They wouldn't have been happy with Ted, and Ted wouldn't have been happy with them. He's the man who said of children, 'You have 'em and I'll entertain 'em.' ''

''Ted's a hard man to break down, but this is who he was. He lived his whole life without children and he was very happy without children. I've never been very maternal. There were too many other things I wanted to do. My life with him was what I wanted my life to be.'' ….

Oh, ok.

Might be nice to have some of Helen Palmer's words as well. Here's the first Mrs. Geisel's suicide note to her husband:

As one Dear Ted, What has happened to us? I don't know. I feel myself in a spiral, going down down down, into a black hole from which there is no escape, no brightness. And loud in my ears from every side I hear, 'failure, failure, failure... I love you so much ... I am too old and enmeshed in everything you do and are, that I cannot conceive of life without you ... My going will leave quite a rumor but you can say I was overworked and overwrought. Your reputation with your friends and fans will not be harmed ... Sometimes think of the fun we had all thru the years ..." Source: Judith and Neil Morgan. Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel: A Biography. pg. 195.

I wonder if I will ever be able to look at that picture book -- or any book by Dr. Seuss -- the same way?

I suppose that's a straw man of a question, though. Can we ever look at things we knew as children in the same way, once we've grown up and our innocence is lost? Adult lives are complicated and often messy. It appears that Seuss's life was just messier than average.

It is possible to be both charmed by the work and disturbed by the life. No different from Tiger Woods, really. Have to love the man's inimitable ability as an athlete. His personal life, not so much.

Read more!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A Fish Out of Water -- A Beloved Children's Book

One of my favorite books when I was a child was “A Fish Out of Water.” It’s one of the few books I kept, and it’s obvious from looking at the tattered spine that it was much read. (The photo is of a nice new copy.) It was published in 1961, when I was 4 or 5.

I loved everything about the book: The shiny hard cover, the size, the illustrations, and the story itself.

It tells the tale of a little boy who gets a new goldfish. Mr. Carp, the pet store owner, cautions him not to feed the fish too much:

When you feed a fish, never feed him a lot.
So much and no more! Never more than a spot,
or something may happen. You never know what.

Of course, the boy disobeys these instructions, and his tiny fish, named Otto, begins to grow and grow. He grows so large that the boy has to put him in a vase. But Otto soon outgrows the vase, too! The boy rushes around putting Otto in a series of larger and larger pans, the bathtub, and finally the neighborhood swimming pool.

My younger self found this endlessly amusing, and the many times that I have culled my books over the years, I simply haven’t been able to get rid of this battered old book. I ran across it the other day, and for some reason I got curious about the author, Helen Palmer, whose name I had really never noticed before. (Isn’t that the way of children? They can read a book a hundred times, but not even consider the idea that the book had a real live author, and an illustrator to boot!)

So, I looked her up on online. I was floored by what I learned. First, it turns out that Helen Palmer was married to Theodor Geisel, otherwise known as Dr. Seuss.

What’s more, she was not the original author. She revised and adapted the story from one Dr. Seuss had published in Redbook in 1950. In fact, it was his first poem published in Redbook.

I learned this on Collecting Children’s Picturebooks which shows the two stories side-by-side. Here’s a sample:

I like the Seuss drawings even better than the ones in my book. The fish and boy both have that wild, wacky, messy-hair look Seuss was so good at. And even though he’s wearing a tie, the little boy looks a bit demented. In the Palmer version, they both have a more sanitized, we-live-in-a-tract-home,1950’s Dick and Jane appearance. The Seuss version is also better at conveying the frenzied pace as the boy races around trying to keep his growing fish in water.

Collecting Children’s Picturebooks goes into some detail about how the new version came about: “There is little question that Helen Palmer wrote A Fish Out Of Water. In 1950, it is very likely she helped Geisel with the story and composition of Gustav The Goldfish, just as she helped him with many of his stories....Palmer was more an advisor, reviewer, or contributor than a collaborator.”

For some reason, he gave her permission to revise the poem for a new easy reader book, designed for readers just like me. Here's the jacket copy:

“Like all BEGINNER BOOKS, this one will prove helpful in developing reading skill. It is written with ONLY 175 DIFFERENT WORDS – the majority of which a child learns in first grade. The theme is skillfully evolved to ensure the word repetition necessary in building a “sight” vocabulary. Yet these word repetitions never become drills – they are basic to the plot so that a child will feel he is reading only for fun."

Well, that certainly worked for me!

The Picturebook website quotes from the dustjacket: “Helen Palmer, graduate of Wellesley College and Oxford University, was a teacher of English before she became involved in the creation of books for children. She has since edited literally dozens of successful juveniles and written an even dozen of her own. Married to an eccentric writer, Theo LeSeig (himself a Beginner Book author), Miss Palmer lives in California […].”

"The 'eccentric writer' LeSeig, Geisel spelled backwards, of course is Dr. Seuss. A bit odd, this concerted effort to distance Palmer’s connection to the leading best selling author/illustrator of children’s books....The result, for some forty years, is the public’s perception that A Fish Out Of Water was an original story authored solely by Helen Palmer. The cleverness of the story, the ‘preposterous-ness’, obviously, is due to Dr. Seuss." (Collecting Children's Picturebooks)

Well! The things you learn when you start to do a little research. I decided to delve into the story a bit more. Alas, what I found was a lot more disturbing.

Tune in this weekend for more… Read more!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Applauding at Auctions

As much as I dislike shopping, I love browsing at garage sales and junky "antique malls," and going to auctions. We have quite a few auction companies in town, including one "high end" house that alternates between really expensive stuff and regular monthly auctions featuring things that normal people might buy. A month or so ago, we went one of the chi-chi auctions.

We observed a ritual that never ceases to baffle me: applauding when something goes for a high price. There was a cool mid-century coffee table by some designer I have never heard of that inspired a sedate bidding frenzy, both from people in the audience and bidders on the phone. The table started at something like $10,000 and by the time it was all over, it went for an amazing $40,000. As soon as the final gavel fell, the crowd broke out in spontaneous applause. Now, this wasn't some sophisticated Paris or New York audience dressed in haute couture. There wasn't a lovely spy lurking in the background, like in the movies. It was a rather frumpy looking mid-western crowd, with lots of jeans, sweat shirts, and baseball caps. Few of them looked like they could spend $40,000 on a table (although looks can be deceiving, I know.) Nonetheless, they all applauded.

Exactly what, I wonder, are people applauding in such a situation? The object itself, which has achieved such a high value? The designer or artist, probably long dead, whose work has inspired such a frenzy of desire? The auction house, for its foresight in attracting the right crowd? Or are they applauding Mr. or Ms. Deep Pockets, that wealthy person who can afford to spend $40,000 on a table, as if to say "Bravo! Way to go for earning so much money that you can afford to spend so much! We admire you! We envy you!"

Maybe its a combination of all of these things. I don't know.

But I do know that we didn't get any applause for our little purchases, which totaled $150. Even so, I was pretty happy with them.

First, we bought four mid-century dining chairs that look great with our 50's dining table. I found the table and original chairs about 15 years ago at a garage sale for $90. The chairs, never the sturdiest, have gotten rickety, and one broke when a 300-pound friend sat in it. (I felt so bad for her! She wasn't hurt, but it must have been humiliating.) The new chairs more or less match the table and are very heavy and sturdy. I love the interesting lines they have ... you can't tell from this photo, but the wood on the sides creates a little triangle shape, and the back is all wood. At $12.50 apiece, I think they were a steal, even though I'll need to recover them.

And, I could not resist buying a set of Russel Wright Modern American dinnerware. My mother had these dishes in this exact color when I was growing up. They are sleek, cool, and incredibly mod. Plus, they remind me of mom. She never had much money to spend on herself or home decor, but she managed to decorate our tiny house with style. These dishes will remind me of her every time we use them. I plan to use them as our every day dishes. I was pleased to get the set for an amazing $100. It's not a full set-- there are 8 dinner and bread plates, and 12 cups and saucers. To have a complete set, I'll need to find the serving bowls and a few other pieces. But that will be a fun endeavor -- something to look for at junk sales! Read more!

Friday, November 27, 2009

After a Long Hiatus, I'm Back

I am surprised to see that I still have any followers at all, after taking a long, unannounced and unplanned hiatus from the world of blogs. I didn't really plan to stop blogging, or to stop reading blogs, and no great trauma or drama has occurred in my life. It seems that I went a week without writing, and then that stretched into two, and before I knew it, I was out of the habit altogether. Because I wasn't visiting my blog, I got behind on reading all the blogs I followed. But I miss reading everyone's blogs, so now I'm back. I'm going to read as much as I can, and resume posting as well. I'm looking forward to catching up! Read more!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Sunday Book Notes -- The Sinister Pig, by Tony Hillerman

The desert southwest is a primary character in many of Tony Hillerman's mysteries, which is one reason I generally enjoy them. I grew up on the Western slope of Colorado, where the red soil is dotted with scrubby green trees, and snow peaks tower all around. It was truly a paradise. And yet the country that speaks to my soul is a little further west and south: Canyon country, the area around the Navajo and Hopi reservations, and south, on into the Sonoran desert. This area, the Four Corners region, where Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico meet, is the locale for most of Hillerman's novels, including The Sinister Pig.

Like Hillerman's other mysteries, this novel features Navajo Tribal Police detective Jim Chee and his now retired boss, Joe Leaphorn. The plot involves old, abandoned oil and gas lines in the New Mexico desert, which are being used for sinister purposes. The story also continues the developing relationship between Chee and Border Patrol agent Bernie Manuelito.

This was one of my least favorite Hillerman mysteries. I'm not going to give away the plot here, even though it is quite obvious from the beginning who the bad guys are and what their game is. Revealing the evil characters early is a deliberate tactic on Hillerman's part, but it makes the plot seem a little too rote and obvious as the events play out.

But that isn't the biggest problem with the book. Hillerman seems to have an ax to grind, which gets in the way of the novel. As he writes on the acknowledgments page, billions of dollars owed to the Tribal Trust Funds are unaccounted for. Chee, Leaphorn, and half a dozen other characters dutifully recite the fact that this money has been mismanaged or stolen by the Federal government. And yet, despite Hillerman's efforts to make this part of the story, the missing funds do not really play a role in the novel. Thus, all the references to the missing money seem more like a diatribe than an intrinsic and fluid part of a novel. More effective are Hillerman's underlying arguments about the futility and injustice of a drug war that targets small -time drug users rather than the big money smugglers, and his characterization of illegal aliens as hard-working people simply searching for a better life.

Even the landscape failed to move me as much as it usually does in a Chee/Leaphorn novel. Although Chee's travels take him from Window Rock to Gallup, Lordsburg, Deming and on down to the Mexican border -- drives I've made many times myself -- I suspect that I visualized the shimmering landscape more from my own experience than from the power of his description.

I also wasn't terribly thrilled that the female characters in the book are so darned stupid. Bernie the Border Patrol agent seems naive and incapable, blundering around like the girl who goes in the closet in the stereotypical horror movie. A woman like this wouldn't last a month on the border. And she is one of two young women who need rescuing in the book.

For me, the most successful part of The Sinister Pig was Hillerman's handling of multiple viewpoints. The most memorable and chilling scenes involve the murder of a young woman that takes place early in the book, seen first through the eyes of the assassin and then by the man who ordered her death. Unfortunately, the rest of the book doesn't live up to those chapters.

I'm the first to admit that I'm not a die-hard Hillerman fan. This is the sixteenth book in this series, and I've probably read only four or five of them. Someone who has followed the series from the beginning and has grown accustomed to the characters, landscape, and Navajo customs may be more enamored of this book than I was.

It was a quick, generally enjoyable read, great for the beach or poolside, but not my favorite Hillerman work.

Rating: 2 Kachinas. Read more!

Monday, July 6, 2009

Frank Lloyd Wright at the Guggenheim Museum

The main reason we went to New York a couple of weeks ago was to see the first exhibition ever hel
d at the Guggenheim museum featuring its architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. The exhibit commemorated the 50th anniversary of the building, which was completed 6 months after Wright died in 1959, at age 91. Original drawings, models (too few of these) and documents spiraled up the museum’s ramps.

A New Yorker article about the exhibit notes t
hat "staff at the Guggenheim like to refer to the building as the most important object in the museum’s collection...." That is so true. We certainly go there to enjoy the building itself as much as the artwork it contains.

And if you believe the story told by the tour guides at Talesin, Wright's home in Wisconsin, the building was inspired by another obj
ect, this conch shell, which to this day sits on a shelf in his home. (I photographed it a few weeks ago through a window, since you're not allowed to take interior photos.)

It was strange and exciting to see Wright’s own drawings of the Guggenheim displayed in that very building itself. It was like walking into an M.C. Escher drawing. (Frink always says he wants to put an LCD TV with a video of a crackling fire in a fireplace over the real fireplace. Or one of those videos of fish swimming next to the fishtank. He's a clever lad, that Frink.)

It was also interesting to compare how the design evolved and changed – how the site selection, the other projects Wright was working on, and the negotiations with the client (who in the case of the Guggenheim, had a mind of her own) changed the artistic vision. Wright, for example, wanted the building’s exterior to be red. In another version, the widest part of the spiral was at ground level.

For architecture buffs and FLW groupies, the actual drawings, often larger than those in books, provided a lot more detail about
the plans for buildings, both those that were built, those that were outrageously and brutally demolished (like Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel), and those that were never built (like a huge, spacey Jetsons-mod theater complex and park Wright designed for Bagdad.) Some of the drawings had never been reproduced or displayed before.

Speaking of the Imperial Hotel, here's a photo (from
Wikipedia Commons.)

(My Aunt Fern and Uncle Edmond actually stayed there in the 60s, and when I get a scanner, I'll upl
oad Uncle E's slides of this magnificent building.) Ahead of its time (built 1923), it was designed to withstand an earthquake. In a weird twist of fate, at the opening ceremony, one of the worst earthquakes in Tokyo's history struck. While buildings throughout the city crumbled and burned, Wright's hotel was unscathed.

I bet the Japanese are kicking themselves for their short-sightedness in
tearing it down. Today, a single plate from the cafe sells for hundreds of dollars and chairs for thousands apiece. People would pay a premium to stay in one of the world's greatest structures. Tourists flock to the bit that remains in a museum. Until we can afford to fly to Japan, the closest Frink and I will ever come is this urn from the hotel, now in the Metropolitan Museum. It stands more than 5 feet tall. And our reproduction Cabaret china from the hotel's less formal cafe. But I digress.

The exhibit also included some computer animations, walking you visually through building. There was a cool "exploded" modle hung on wires of the Jacobs I, one of the most important Usonian houses. (Basically Usonian houses were built for regular folks, whom Wright felt deserved art and beauty as much as the wealthy. They featured a lot of wood and windows, great open spaces (Wright invented the "great room" concept), space-saving built-in furniture, and heated Cherokee red concrete floors.)

I'm getting a little better at looking at blueprints and such, but I am the kind of person who can't imagine spaces very well. (When some people want to rearrange the furniture, they can map it out or even imagine how it will look in their heads. I have to actually move the furniture and see it to decide if it looks good. Usually it doesn't. So then I have to move it back.) More models and animations would have made the exhibit even more enjoyable. Also, I wish they had included more photos of the finished buildings. Because FLW is our hobby, I've seen many of the actual buildings, but a lot of the visitors to the exhibit may not have.

In terms of collecting more objects to clutter our home, we were really restrained. We bought only two books, including the exhibit catalog. And of course I saved the free exhibit pamphlet. It featured this curtain, from the Hillside Theater at Taliesen, Wright’s home in Spring Green, Wisconsin. Seeing the curtain out of context, hung web.

Read more!

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Exit the King

The third play we saw on our recent weekend in New York has now closed:
Exit the King, starring Susan Sarandon and Geoffrey Rush (who won a Tony for Best Actor.) In fact, we saw it on the last day. I've never been to a closing performance, and I sort of wondered if we would get the full effort. But, aside from Sarandon discreetly cracking up once when the actor who played the guard had some fun repeating a line, nothing seemed amiss.

I have never read this play, by Eugene Ionesco, but it offered an interesting counter-point to
Waiting for Godot. The central dilemma in Godot is trying to find some meaning in life, some reason to keep on going in the face of a futile, often brutal existence. The central dilemma in Exit the King is coming to terms with the loss of that life, however meaningless and painful it might be.

Rush gave a stunning, clownish, scenery chewing performance, one full of bluster and pathos. His King clung to life with every ounce of his rapidly diminishing strength. The world is literally dying along with this solipcistic king -- the kingdom itself torn apart by volcanoes and earthquakes, the population rendered helpless and infertile as he dies.This is one man who refuses to go gently into that good night. The king is the walking embodiment of the id. The world and everyone in it exists for his pleasure. When he ceases to exist, the world will, too.

And isn't this, really, what all of us believe in our heart of hearts, in the secret hidey holes of our souls? I am the center of the universe. I cannot imagine a world without me. Death is the great void. The death of everything. I fear it. This incredible performance gave me the chance to recognize and give voice to those feelings. Actually, it rather insisted upon it.

The script and the play's direction forced us to recognize ourselves in the King, constantly breaking the 4th wall by making direct references to how many minutes his life (and the play) had left, placing the palace's Doritos-munching trumpeter in a balcony box, even sending Rush at one point up and down the aisles of the theater, where he stood right next to us, looking us in the eye as he railed against his inevitable end. (Incidentally, Rush is one skinny dude.)

Sarandon was good as the put-upon first wife, whose eye-rolling, cynical exterior masks a gentle side. In a long soliloquy at the end of the play, her almost maternal love shines as she tries to persuade the king to loosen his clenched fist and let go. Lauren Ambrose could have devolved into caricature as the king's beautiful second wife, Queen Marie. Like Rush, she's over-the-top in her arm-flinging, mascara-running distress. But her palpable love for the king and her blissfully youthful naivitee are compelling and real.

All-in-all, a memorable play and a great weekend on Broadway.

Read more!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

God of Carnage

In our weekend Broadway splurge, we saw three plays. The second was God of Carnage. I'll be honest -- I don't quite get the 3 Tonys this play won (Best Play, Best Direction, Best Actress.) The play was laugh-out-loud funny, but after it was over, we found that there just wasn't that much to chew over or digest or argue about. And isn't arguing over a play half the fun?

God of Carnage is about two couples who meet in one couple's ultra chic living room to discuss a bullying incident between their children. They begin with polite niceties, but it isn't long before the shoes and jackets come off and the invective and vomit flies.

There's a certain pleasure in seeing actors you know only from the screen up close and personal on the stage. But I feel like I have seen these characters before: the self-important lawyer glued to his cell-phone (Jeff Daniels), the raging-within blue-collar type made good (James Gandolfini--aka Tony Soprano), the mousy, dutiful wife who loosens up after a little alcohol (Hope Davis), and the barely-keeping it together alcoholic who doesn't so much loosen up as fall apart after a few drinks (Marcia Gay Harden, who took home the Best Actress Tony.)

Not being a theater critic, and not having seen Harden's competition for the Tony (except for Davis, who was also nominated), I can't really comment on how well deserved the award was. Harden, though, was fantastic -- brittle, acerbic, and very funny. She was one of the best things about the play.

The set was also wonderful, evoking a tony apartment with a sleek mid-century modern aesthetic -- deep red walls and carpets, a huge rock-lined room divider and an enormous coffee table covered with art books, which play a role in one of the most amusing and shocking bits of action in the play.

But when it was over, it all felt a bit like
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf light or like a stagy and shrill sit-com. The central metaphor -- we're all animals at heart -- is rather obvious. And I didn't find any of the characters sympathetic. Unlike Waiting for Godot, I can't imagine reading this play over and over or breathlessly awaiting new productions to see how a different director or cast interpret the play. It was, to paraphrase Godot, a good way to pass the time.

Here's a link to the theater and more information.

Next up: Exit the King, starring Susan Sarandon and Geoffrey Rush.
Read more!

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Playbills from Broadway--Waiting for Godot

A lot of people collect the Playbills from the theater, so much so that there are even special bindings you can buy to preserve them. And opening night Playbills come with a little sticker attesting to that.

I totally understand the urge to keep the program; I always bring mine home, especially from plays I've enjoyed. But mine are never crisp, neat, and well-preserved. Somehow they end up all rumpled and bent from being rolled up, dropped on the floor,
stuffed in a bag. But I keep them nonetheless. They are free souvenirs, easy to pack, and a good way to spark my notoriously bad memory for details long after I think I've forgotten the play.

On our recent trip to New York, we saw three plays, all coincidentally featuring well-known screen celebrities and all featuring a rather bleak outlook on life, although that's not necessarily why we chose the plays. The most memorable was
Waiting for Godot, starring Bill Irwin, John Glover, Nathan Lane, and John Goodman.

I've seen Godot before and have read the play several times.
Waiting for Godot can seem quite despairing, especially on the written page. Full of existential angst and brutality, it's an odd choice for someone like me who trends toward depression. But this production was a revelation -- I had never realized how funny Godot is, in the right hands. Comedy truly is in the timing.The actors in this production hit every note. It was by turns hilarious, profoundly moving, and -- again somewhat unexpectedly-- optimistic. We may not know why we are on this earth or what our lives mean. There may be nothing to do. But we are alive and that is reason enough to keep on living. Or so this production implied.

Lane (Estragon) and Irwin (Vladimir) are excellent, two satellites that circle each other at safe removes, seemingly independent, and yet tethered by the gravity of companionship and need. Glover's Lucky, literally tethered to his master Pozzo by a thick rope around his neck, was an interesting blend of Tim Burton's Jack Skellington from
The Nightmare Before Christmas and the loose-limbed, pontificating Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz (although certainly less cheerful than the latter.)

All the actors were superb, but John Goodman's performance
just blew me away. I've often been impressed and surprised by the depths Goodman reveals in some of his films. It's a mistake to consider him only as the funny fat man he played in Roseanne or movies like the Flintstones. He can tap into something very dark, as evidenced in his scary performances in Barton Fink and O Brother Where Art Thou. Here, he plays Pozzo, a cruel, selfish, aristocrat with a vaguely British, uppercrust accent and an imperious, threatening demeanor. Goodman's immense size and power contributes to his threatening posture and makes the scene when Pozzo falls to the ground and can't get up all the more moving. His Pozzo is at once full of aggrandizing self-assurance, unquestioned privilege, barely contained rage, pathetic neediness, and, at the end, wisdom and insight, if only for a brief moment. It's a stunning performance.

We lucked into a brief after-show discussion featuring Irwin, Glover, and Goodman. They talked about the choice of pronunciation (GOD-oh rather than Go-doh), which I at first found disconcerting. Apparently, it's closer to Beckett's original French, and it resonates better with Pozzo. But the most amusing and interesting exchange was John Goodman's answer to the inevitable question about whether Godot is God and what in the heck it all means. "I don't know or care," said Goodman. "I just try to tell a good story." In this, he seems to be echoing Beckett, who once said, "all I knew about Pozzo was in the text...if I had known more I would have put it in the text, and that was true also of the other characters.” Beckett also once said that "if by Godot I had meant God I would have said God, and not Godot.”

When asked, "how do you handle the humor in such an incessantly pessimistic play," Goodman deadpanned, "with a trowel." He paused, then went on, "What are you going to do? It's an inherently funny play. Samuel Beckett wrote it for Sid Caesar."

I wish I had thought to ask about the obvious blood and bruises on Lane's face. My recollection, reinforced by a quick look at the very interesting
Wikipedia entry on the play, is that there was never any evidence to support Estragon's claim that he is beaten every night. This production erases that ambiguity. It might thus also subtly erase the ambiguity about whether the child who purports to be a messenger from Godot actually has met and talked to the never-seen title character, although, as Frink points out, the child is not exactly a reliable witness, as he cannot remember having met Didi and Gogo the day before. This production also encourages a more hopeful ending by having E and V grasp the other's hand in the final scene.

Here's a link to the
theatre, where Godot is playing through July 12.

I'll post thoughts on the other two plays,
God of Carnage and Exit the King, in the next few days. Read more!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Exposing Art to Our Selves

Human nature baffles and amuses me. This past weekend, we were in New York for a quick vacation. During our visit to the Metropolitan Museum, we noticed signs leading to "Michelangelo's First Work." We followed them, only to find a huge crowd gathered in front of this tiny painting like the monsters clinging to poor Saint Anthony. Now, don't get me wrong: The Tormenting of St. Anthony, attributed to a 12 or 13-year-old Michelangelo, is intriguing and historically significant. But it was interesting that the Renoirs, Vermeers, Monets, and Van Goghs were, in comparison, almost ignored by tourists intent on crowding around this small canvas.

Was it the "first"--that drew in the crowds? The novelty? The sense of seeing something that others haven't seen (despite the fact that the painting is owned by another American museum)? I've experienced the same thing myself -- I had to see the REAL David in Florence, the actual object, not a copy, despite the fact the the cast outside the Palazzo Vecchio is almost identical and is in the exact location where the original once stood. There's something incredibly moving and transformative about seeing the real thing.

And, like the typical American tourist, I, too, bought the souvenir mug. (Mine is of a work I didn't even get to see -- Hokusai's "Great Wave." The Japanese wing was closed the day we were at the Met. Nevertheless, I love this print and will enjoy drinking my coffee out of the mug.)

I also observed another phenomenon that was equally baffling but less amusing than the desire to see the real thing: Drive-by art snapping. At least half the people in the museum seemed to be trotting through the galleries with cameras glued to their faces. They raced up to paintings, especially those by famous artists, snapped a quick photo, checked the photo in the screen of the camera, then quickly moved on, spending virtually no time looking at, much less seeing the actual work of art in front of their eyes.

The drive-by photographers reminded me of a man I once saw at Cape Canaveral videotaping his wife as she bought souvenirs in the gift shop. At what point do these tourists stop framing everything through the lens of their camera and start living the actual experience? Do they need the photo to confirm they were there? Isn't the t-shirt (or mug--mea culpa) confirmation enough? That couple at Cape Canaveral actually led me to stop carrying a camera on my trips, a vow I kept until I visited Iceland and couldn't resist taking pictures of that glorious landscape. Now, too often, I find myself lapsing back into the mindset of seeing something beautiful or remarkable and instantly framing it as a photo, in my mind or in my viewfinder. I do take photos when I travel, but far fewer than I used to.

Watching and thinking about the drive-by art snappers reminded of "The Loss of the Creature," an essay by Walker Percy in which he writes about the difficulty of living an authentic experience in modern society. As summarized on Wikipedia:

"The more or less objective reality of the individual is obscured in and ultimately lost to systems of education and classification. Percy begins by discussing the Grand Canyon--he says that, whereas Garcia Lopez de Cardenas, who discovered the canyon, was amazed and awed by it, the modern-day sightseer can see it only through the lens of "the symbolic complex which has already been formed in the sightseer's mind" (47). Because of this, the sightseer does not appreciate the Grand Canyon on its own merits; he appreciates it based on how well or poorly it conforms to his preexisting image of the Grand Canyon, formed by the mythology surrounding it. What is more, instead of approaching the site directly, he approaches it by taking photographs, which, Percy says, is not approaching it at all. By these two processes--judging the site on postcards and taking his own pictures of it instead of confronting it himself--the tourist subjugates the present to the past and to the future, respectively."

That describes the drive-by art snappers to a T. And me, with my mug. If I ever do see an original print of the Great Wave, I wonder, will it live up to the expectations formed by the reproductions I've seen on calendars and coffee mugs?

(Here's an article about the Michelangelo painting.) Read more!

Monday, June 22, 2009

Sunday Book Notes -- Beowulf, trans. Seamus Heaney

Note to my readers (if you are still there!): I have not blogged in a while. I've been sick with an infection that sapped all my energy. Then we took two short trips, which I'll blog on this week. But first, a day late, is an entry in my new "Sunday Book Notes" feature.

As the oldest poem in English, and as a ripping good yarn, Beowulf has been translated dozens of times. My favorite by far is Seamus Heaney's translation. Although some literature snobs complain that he sacrifices accuracy in the service of poetry, I love his version. It is lyrical, exotic, and gripping.

I first read Beowulf in high school, and again as an English major in college. I enjoyed it but didn't fully appreciate it until I was much older. Or maybe I just appreciated it on different levels than before. (I've certainly lived the truth of that old saying that you never read the same book twice.)

I rediscovered the poem when I was traveling in Scandinavia. The Viking ships and treasure hoards I saw in museums sparked my curiosity about the cultures depicted in Norse sagas. Then I went to Iceland, where I visited the actual sites of some of the sagas, standing on the very ground where Burnt Njal was set on fire and touring other sites that have remained virtually unchanged since the year 1200. These journeys, in turn, led me back to the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, which I had devoured in high school and college. I didn't know then that Tolkien was a scholar of Anglo-Saxon literature, or that he was profoundly influenced by the sagas and Beowulf in creating his mythology. And thus, my circuitous reading saga led me back to Beowulf.

One of Tolkien's most influential essays, "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics," argued that
Beowulf is too often dismissed as "serious" literature because of its monsters and dragons. Tolkien argued that it is a profoundly significant work, not in spite of its monsters, but because of them. They speak to something deep, even cthonic, that springs from the ground into the very marrow of human experience. He also lamented that the poem was seen only as a repository to be mined for historic facts about 6th century Scandinavia, where it is set, or about the 8th to 11th century period in which it was first written down. (On reflection, I guess there's a bit of irony in my coming back to the book through artifacts and burial mounds.)

Tolkien drew heavily on Beowulf in creating his tales. For me, part of the fun in reading the poem is finding the correspondences to Tolkien's work -- the Riders of Rohan, Sam killing the spider Shelob, the kin-slayer Gollum, Bilbo's theft of the golden cup from Smaug's hoard, the sword that was broken -- all have origins in Beowulf.

But of course, even if you're not a Tolkien fan, Beowulf is a stunning work, a peek into a world of blood oaths and violence, of heroism and faltering humanity.

The action takes place in a Christian world still heavily influenced by Pagan belief and ritual. The poem begins with the aging king Hrothgar, impotent in the face of the murderous Grendel, who night after bloody night wreaks havoc, killing Hrothgar's men. The dashing and boastful Geat prince, Beowulf, comes to the rescue, killing first Grendel and then his distraught and vengeful mother. In seeking vengeance, Grendel's mother is in fact participating in the same moral code that defines the human society. The poem seems almost modern in its shifts in perspective, in its erasure at times of the line between "man" and "monster." We are allowed to feel the mother's loss of her son from her perspective. We sympathize with her for a moment, much as Tolkien encourages our empathy for warped and pitiful Gollum. Later, we see the world through the eyes of the dragon that ultimately kills Beowulf, just as we see through the eyes of the spider Shelob in LOTR.

The battle scenes are what get stressed in the various movie versions of Beowulf. (Probably the most laughable film is the one featuring a nude CGI avatar of Angelina Jolie as Grendel's mother. It's been larded with the full Hollywood treatment, losing the essence of story in a morass of overblown action, gratuitous nudity, and technological razzle dazzle. The epic failings of this movie can be summed up by the words of the director,Robert Zemeckis: “Frankly, nothing about the original poem appealed to me....I remember being assigned to read it in junior high school and not being able to understand it because it was in Old English.")

The battles are certainly memorable, but I prefer other sections of the tale. The action is often interrupted with extended scenes in which a singer/poet "unlocks his word-hoard" and recounts the feats of other heroes, like the legendary dragon-slayer Sigemund. The most harrowing story-in-a-story tells of a queen who loses her entire family-- father, husband, sons, -- to the violent imperative of the blood oath. This tale foreshadows what will happen to Hrothgar's sons, who will be killed by their uncle who covets the throne.

Beowulf's end is particularly moving. An aging king himself, Beowulf is beset on all sides by invading tribes. When a rampaging dragon, angered by the theft of a golden cup from his hoard, begins to pick off his people, Beowulf faces a choice. He can battle the dragon alone, risking not only his own life, but also the future of his people, who will be over-run when his enemies learn that the renowned warrior king is dead. Or, he can forego glory and take his men with him to battle the dragon.

Beowulf chooses the path of glory. Perhaps he is recalling the words of Hrothgar, who tells him early in the poem:

It is always better
To avenge dear ones
than to indu
lge in mourning.
For every one of us,
living in this world waiting for our end.
Let whoever can
Win glory before death.
When a warrior is gone,
That will be his best and only bulwark.

Beowulf dies, thus guaranteeing the extinction of his race.

On a height they kindled the hugest of all
Funeral fires; fumes of woodsmoke
Billowed darkly up, the blaze roared
And drowned out their weeping, wind died down
And flames wrought havoc in the hot bone-house,
Burning it to the core. They were disconsolate
And wailed aloud for their lord’s decease.
A Geat woman too sang out in grief;
With hair bound up, she unburdened herself
Of her worst fears, a wild litany
Of nightmare and lament: her nation invaded,
Enemies on the rampage, bodies in piles,
Slavery and abasement. Heaven swallowed the smoke.

It is a breathtaking, melancholy end-- to the hero and to his people, to the poem and to an age.

Beowulf and The Lord of the Rings are, in the end, profoundly melancholy works, lamentations for lost, idealized worlds of heroic men and deeds. As Tolkien says in his essay, "It is a poem by a learned man writing of old times, who looking back on the heroism and sorrow feels in them something permanent and something symbolical." The poet, writing of an earlier, lost time, knows that "those days were heathen--heathen, noble, and hopeless." He may as well be speaking of The Lord of the Rings, where Aragorn, the last of the heroic peoples of Numenor, ultimately dies and the elves sail into the East and diminish. Or of Tolkien's lost boyhood friends, who all died on the fields of Somme in WWI.

If you're interested in some of the background on Beowulf, I recommend the fabulous Norton Critical Edition. It includes critical commentary, genealogy charts and maps, Tolkien's essay, and loads of pictures from archelogoical sites, like the fantastic buckle from Sutton Hoo pictured below, and the helmet, which has a boar on the crest just like the one described in the poem.

I also highly recommend the CD
with Heaney himself reading the poem...or at least most of it. (The copy on the back refers to "unabridged excerpts," which is not the same thing as unabridged.) Hearing Heaney read the poem in his Irish brogue is a delicious experience. Here are some snippets to whet your appetite.

Here's an informative and fun site on all things Beowulf.

And here's a link t
o some reproductions of Lynd Ward's woodcut illustrations for an edition of Beowulf. (For a previous post of Lynd Ward, click here.)

Rating: Five buckles (out of five).

Read more!