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.

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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!
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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.
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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.

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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!