Softly as the Morning Sunrise

Yes, I am ignoring Furguson, the border crisis (children being returned from asylum), Gaza, and many more.

There comes a time, however, when it is necessary to figure out what makes us human, among those who deny it.

My current answer is Sonny Rollins. Occasionally,  it’s worth contemplating the sunrise:

 

 

St. James Infirm’ry

Red Allen says all the boys were there: King Oliver, Bunk Johnson, Buddy Bolden, Wiggy Manone, Louis Armstrong, and of course Allen himself:

 

Wolverines are the latest oppressed group to be abandoned by this Administration

Remember when Candidate Obama promised to protect science and even base policy on scientific evidence?

Scientists—especially those in the government’s employ—can look forward to an administration that will not be beset by recurrent scandals over political meddling with research. In fact, Obama has specifically pledged to protect scientist whistleblowers and make sure his administration avoids political interference with scientific reports released to the public.

North American wolverine: Gulo gulo luscus. (Photo by Steve Kroschel. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.)

North American wolverine: Gulo gulo luscus. (Photo by Steve Kroschel. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.)

That statement was made when change was the touchstone. We are now well into the why bother stage. Let’s see how well that change has worked out for the North American wolverine.

The North American wolverine is the largest land-dwelling mustelid (i.e., member of the family that includes weasels, badgers, martens and otters). The are the size of a medium dog, weighing up to 50 pounds, and therefore smaller than many apex predators. But they are solidly muscular and ferocious, although they specialize in carrion and immobilized prey. Their fur is oily and highly hydrophilic so it is waterproof and impervious to the snow and frost. This allows them to survive subarctic climates in the Northern Hemisphere. It  also made their hides valuable to fur traders, which accounted for their decline since the 19th century.

There are fewer than 300 wolverines in the contiguous United States. Conservationists had have long urged that they be added to the Endangered Species List. Of course the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service during the Bush Administration fended off the requests, and the Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife sued. In 2010 the Service concluded that the species deserved the Act’s protection but made the determination that given limited resources higher priorities precluded the listing. Litigation again ensued. Finally, in January 2013 the Service concluded that “[e]xtensive climate modeling indicates that the wolverine’s snowpack habitat will be greatly reduced and fragmented in the coming years due to climate warming, thereby threatening the species with extinction.” It proposed a rule that included the wolverine in the Endangered Species List but provided for only specific regulations like the prohibition against intentional trapping. Logging and recreation would not be impaired by the proposed rule.

The proposed listing was then subjected to the ordinary two-stage review of scientists. (The Endangered Species Act specifically requires the Service to make its determination only on the basis of the best available science and commercial data.) In the first review, in February 2013, 5 of the 7 scientists agreed that listing was consistent with the best available science. In April 2013 a panel of 9 scientists unanimously agreed with the conclusion. Accordingly the assistant regional manager of the Pacific-Prairie region of the Fish & Wildlife Service ordered the wolverine to be added to the List. On May 30, 2014, the Regional Manager overrule the determination, not on the basis of any new science, but on his opinion that the prediction of the impact of climate change was “speculative.” Despite protests by the American Society of Mammalogists and the Society for Conservation Biologists, among many other eminent biologists, after the public comment period had expired, the Service this week withdrew the proposed Rule. So in the face of the Service’s own biologists’ conclusion, the review of two independent panels and the opinion of the most respected mammal biologists in the country, the Agency, without any new scientific input, failed to comply with the mandate of the endangered Species Act and violated the President’s own directive that science not be scrubbed for political reasons. Putting a happy face on this craven political decision the Services director, Dan Ashe, mirroring the now familiar say-one-thing-do-the-reverse of this Administration, said: “If new information emerges that suggests we should take another look at listing, we will not hesitate to do that.”

But what could that new information be? Certainly it couldn’t be science because that did not enter into it. Perhaps, if the wolverines had the decency to move to a more politically secure place, it might make a difference. They are now concentrated in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, states that staunchly oppose the President and all things environmental. And reflecting the lack of any taste for a fight (or even the pretense of standing up) the Fish & Wildlife Service, like the Chief Executive, decided to keep their head down. This is bad news for the wolverine, but they are just another in a long line of casualties of an Administration that simply wants everyone to get along (despite the evidence).

Hillary shows her hand

For those who believe that Hillary Clinton represents anything other than a continuation of the rightward march of the Democratic Party (and a continuation of the Bush-Obama doctrine), please read the interview published today in Atlantic: “Hillary Clinton: ‘Failure’ to Help Syrian Rebels Led to the Rise of ISIS.” Faux populist Clinton is back in storage, replaced by realpolitik Washington insider “serious” Hillary.

Evidently believing that whoever remains who considers himself part of the “left” of the Democratic Party has no where to go, Hillary Clinton is doubling down on appeasing the “right.” This has been the hallmark of those “centrists” of the Democratic Leadership Council who hijacked the party. Despite the fact that the public overwhelmingly objected to our interference in the Syrian civil war, Hillary Clinton has thrown in with the crowd that believes that the clear decline in American influence around the world is not caused by hair-trigger adventurism, but by using power too sparingly and in consulting with other countries too frequently. How long will it be before she joins in the chorus of those who claim we should never have left Iraq?

Washington insiders will rejoice that after this administration it looks like there will no longer be partisanship in foreign policy. It will all be dictated by the hardliners. War industrialists will rejoice for a return to cold war mentality (with more enemies, however!). Civilians in third-world countries should cringe.

Buckle your seat belts. We are about to witness a ratcheting up of the war whoops as the Republicans and Hillary try to show who will become the trigger-happiest.

Italian Futurism: From Cubism in Motion to Fascism’s Official Style

Speeding Car (Velocità d'automobile) by Giacomo Balla. (Oil and ink on paper mounted on board. 1913. Private Coolection.) The movement was born when a speeding car crashed. The artists propelled it heedlessly toward a greater crash. (All pieces illustrated are exhibited by the Guggenheim unless otherwise noted.)

Speeding Car by Giacomo Balla. (Oil and ink on paper mounted on board. 1913. Private collection.) The movement was born when a speeding car crashed. The artists would  propel it heedlessly toward a greater crash, one with tragic real world consequences. (All pieces illustrated are exhibited by the Guggenheim unless otherwise noted. For the Italian names of the pieces, see the page “Index to Art.” Clicking on the image will bring up a larger version.)

The Guggenheim Museum in New York is hosting the largest exhibition of Italian Futurist Art ever assembled in the United States. The show is, literally, a dizzying display of the movement designed to embrace modern technology and urbanism, to throw over Romanticism and to envelop the audience, literally and figuratively, by “remaking the universe.” The meticulous setting of the works, the attention to authentic re-creation of the movement’s aspirations and the intelligent curation seem at odds with a movement that arose from a hyped desire to “Burn the museums!” but the contradiction inherent in a museum show of Futurism is no greater than the inherent contradictions of a group of self-promoting artists using traditional art forms to proclaim their fundamental rejection of all art forms. Perhaps more ironic is how a movement, intellectually incorporating all the salient features of proto-Fascism, would eventually betray its own revolutionary aesthetics by slavishly following the flesh-and-blood Fascists. Even art history abounds in irony.

The Originator, F.T. Marinetti

Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. (ca. 1910. Photographer unknown.)

The Founder of Futurism: Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. (ca. 1910. Photographer unknown.) (Not part of Guggenheim exhibition.)

Futurism was birthed by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, poet, editor and most importantly provocateur. Used to bombast, he proposed to revitalize Italian letters with a manifesto. It appeared, in French,  on the front page of the February 20, 1909 issue of Le Figaro (“The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism”). In it he cavalierly tells the story of the events that led him to the insight that changed his life: “Art, in fact, can be nothing but violence, cruelty, and injustice.” And it became his duty, as an artist, to spread these plagues widely.

The conclusion came to him thus: Marinetti had spent the night with his literary colleagues “arguing up to the last confines of logic” until they found themselves early in the morning alone in a quiet flat keenly aware of their solitude at that time. Then suddenly their peace was broken by the sudden rumble of a double-decker trams outside. Soon it was quiet again but on closer listen their could hear distant automobiles roar.

“Let’s go!” I said. “Friends, away! Let’s go! Mythology and the Mystic Ideal are defeated at last. We’re about to see the Centaur’s birth and, soon after, the first flight of Angels!… We must shake at the gates of life, test the bolts and hinges. Let’s go! Look there, on the earth, the very first dawn! There’s nothing to match the splendor of the sun’s red sword, slashing for the first time through our millennial gloom!”

And so the group went off in Marinetti’s car, manically running “after Death,” as he put it. The speeding car travelled through mixed literary allusion until Marinetti cried: “Let’s break out of the horrible shell of wisdom and throw ourselves like pride-ripened fruit into the wide, contorted mouth of the wind! Let’s give ourselves utterly to the Unknown, not in desperation but only to replenish the deep wells of the Absurd!” With that Marinetti spun his car around and lo before his speeding car were two cyclists arguing with each other, unaware of danger in front of them. Marinetti swerved and crashed the car upside down in the ditch. When he was fished out of the muck unharmed, and even his car, his beautiful shark, revived, Futurism was born, when “I felt the white-hot iron of joy deliciously pass through my heart!” In this rebirth was the metaphor that would guide Futurism.

"Fascism Futurism" by Giovanni Acquaviva, one of serving set of twelve entitled Life of Marinetti (Glazed ceramic, manufactured by Casa Giuseppi Mazzotti, Albisola Marina. Wolfsonian-Florida International University, Miami Beach, Florida).

“Fascism Futurism” by Giovanni Acquaviva, one of serving set of twelve entitled Life of Marinetti (Glazed ceramic, manufactured by Casa Giuseppi Mazzotti, Albisola Marina. 1939. Wolfsonian-Florida International University, Miami Beach, Florida).

But there was more than metaphor. Futurism was full of energy, desire to tear down the past and above all rules. And Marinetti’s manifesto had 11 of them, among which “1. We intend to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and fearlessness” and “3. Up to now literature has exalted a pensive immobility, ecstasy, and sleep. We intend to exalt aggressive action, a feverish insomnia, the racer’s stride, the mortal leap, the punch and the slap.” And like many of the other movements taking place in Europe Futurism would glorify violence: “9. We will glorify war—the world’s only hygiene—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman.” Just so there would be no mistake that he was advocating any sort of acknowledged decency: “10. We will destroy the museums, libraries, academies of every kind, will fight moralism, feminism, every opportunistic or utilitarian cowardice.” How could this movement not become Fascist?

Painters and Others Join the Ranks

Paths of Movement + Dynamic Sequences by Giacomo Balla (Tempura on paper mounted on canvas. 1913. Gianni Mattiolli Collection on long-term loan to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice).

Paths of Movement + Dynamic Sequences by Giacomo Balla (Tempura on paper mounted on canvas. 1913. Gianni Mattiolli Collection on long-term loan to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice).

At first Futurism was an obscure literary movement. Marinetti had spent some time on the agenda, picked the name “Futurism,” after some deliberation (rejecting “Electricism” and “Dynamism”), and bruted it about with his uniquely confrontational style. He published something of an ideology in a 1908 issue of Poesìa, a “revolution” purely in literary terms. His cause went nowhere until he hyped his roadside revelation a year later. The reboot, filled with youthful energy and contempt for convention, had a better effect.

Leaving the Theater by Carlo Carrà. (Oil on canvas. ca. 1910. Estorick Collection, London.)

Leaving the Theater by Carlo Carrà. (Oil on canvas. ca. 1910. Estorick Collection, London.) Before the Manifesto, Carrà began as an advanced Post-Impressionist.

Three painters, Carlo Carrà, Umberto Boccioni and Luigi Russolo, were enticed enough by the manifesto that they came to him offering to become another battalion in his Futuristic army. Marinetti, who would prove to be a master promoter and movement builder, enthusiastically accepted their offer.  And they issued their own manifesto. In somewhat more straightforward prose, the document exuded the same impatience with convention and bristled with self-assurance. When it was published by Poesìa on February 11, 1910, two more painters added their name to the “Manifesto of the Futurist Painters”—Gino Severini as well as Severini’s and Boccioni’s teacher, Giacomo Balla.  These five painters became known as the Futurist Painters. Their Manifesto was as inflammatory as Marinetti’s, and, if anything, it had even less self-awareness:

The cry of rebellion which we utter associates our ideals with those of the Futurist poets. These ideals were not invented by some aesthetic clique. They are an expression of a violent desire which boils in the veins of every creative artist today.

We will fight with all our might the fanatical, senseless and snobbish religion of the past, a religion encouraged by the vicious existence of museums. We rebel against that spineless worshipping of old canvases, old statues and old bric-a-brac, against everything which is filthy and worm-ridden and corroded by time. We consider the habitual contempt for everything which is young, new and burning with life to be unjust and even criminal.

Sun of Idiocy (8 Types of Idiotic Criticism) by Carlo Carrà. (Ink on paper. 1914. Private collection.)

Sun of Idiocy (8 Types of Idiotic Criticism) by Carlo Carrà. (Ink on paper. 1914. Private collection.)

More explicitly than Marietta (although as it turned out, they would prove to less ardent in practice) the painters tethered the movement to a pervading, nationalist resentment of the then current disrespected, dispirited condition of the Italian people, who had fallen considerably from their ancient greatness. Brimming with the radically reactionary programme that Marinetti preached, their manifesto overflows with the arrogant and violent assurance of the later Fascists:

We are sickened by the foul laziness of artists, who, ever since the sixteenth century, have endlessly exploited the glories of the ancient Romans.

In the eyes of other countries, Italy is still a land of the dead, a vast Pompeii, white with sepulchres. But Italy is being reborn. Its political resurgence will be followed by a cultural resurgence. In the land inhabited by the illiterate peasant, schools will be set up; in the land where doing nothing in the sun was the only available profession, millions of machines are already roaring; in the land where traditional aesthetics reigned supreme, new flights of artistic inspiration are emerging and dazzling the world with their brilliance.

Reaction to the serata at the Politeanma Chiarella, Turin, 1910. Cartoon by Umberto Boccioni (Archivio giovanni Lista). Onstae from left to right: Carrà, Mazza, Marinetti and Boccioni.

Reaction to the serata at the Politeanma Chiarella, Turin, 1910. Cartoon by Umberto Boccioni (Archivio Giovanni Lista). Onstage from left to right: Carrà, Mazza, Marinetti and Boccioni.

The painters not only joined but enthusiastically built on Marinetti’s publicity strategy of holding public events (serenas) where they baited the audience with inflammatory positions and insulted their taste and intelligence. The painters made the events multi-media, which only turned audience reaction more violent. The serenas became highly publicized events where the audience knowingly participated with ridicule, derision and hostility. But the hostility generated more publicity and stimulated others to attend the next event to participate in the outrage and increase the profile of the artists. The strategy made the movement world-famous at a time when the world was chockfull of movements. Promotion was a singular talent of the Futurists, which some later turned into advertising.

It would not take long before the other arts would take their place within the Futurist scheme. Manifestos were their announcements. Boccioni issued the manifesto for sculpture in 1912. Music, cinema, “noises,” architecture, lust and even war (“the world’s only hygiene” according to Marinetti himself) had their own Futurist manifestos. Finally, and inevitably, in 1915 Balla and Fortunato Depero incorporated everything into Futurism with their manifesto “Futurist Reconstruction of the Universe.” It is that ambition that the Guggenheim exhibit tries to trace chronologically from 1909 to 1944, when the movement, together with Fascism itself, expired in Italy.

 A Movement in Search of a Visual Language

Street Light by Giacomo Balla (Oil on Canvas. ca. 1910 (dated 1909 by artist). Museum of Modern Art.)

Street Light by Giacomo Balla (Oil on Canvas. ca. 1910 (dated 1909 by artist). Museum of Modern Art.) Balla would begin his search for the future and urbanism from the oldest school of the Five: Late Impressionism, which celebrate light and static scenes mainly in the country.

At first, there was nothing particularly redolent of Fascism in what the artists (as opposed to Marinetti himself) were attempting. In fact, their initial work had very little to do with the manifestos they issued. In 1911 the Five had issued a “Technical Manifesto of Futurist Painting,” to supplement the initial generalized “Manifesto of Futurist Painters.” The Technical Manifesto was only slightly more specific with respect to how the painters were to go about the business of making Futuristic paintings. The new manifesto contained sentiments such as “The gesture which we would reproduce on canvas shall no longer be a fixed moment in universal dynamism. It shall simply be the dynamic sensation itself” and “Our growing need of truth is no longer satisfied with Form and Color as they have been understood hitherto.” They were more concrete about several things they fought against. One was “the bituminous tints by which it is attempted to obtain the patina of time upon modern pictures.” Another was the nude; not, however, because representation of nakedness or sexuality was immoral: “Nothing is immoral in our eyes; it is the monotony of the nude against which we fight.” The desire of artists to display their mistresses, they said, had transformed “Salons into arrays of unwholesome flesh!” They therefore issued a remarkable decree: “We demand, for ten years, the total suppression of the nude in painting.”

Nature morte from Gino Severini’s study on cubism, Du cubisme au classicisme (Esthétique du compas et du nombre) (Paris: J. Povolozky & Cie: © 1921). Both his composition and his exposition show Severini’s deep grounding in Cubism. This work is not part of the Guggenheim exhibition.

While the manifesto was short on technical rules, it did explain the group’s views on pictorial representation. Those views were similar to Bergson’s treatment of perception and memory. Bergson’s mix of quasi-psychology and metaphysics had considerable following among New Art movements in Western Europe. For instance, Bergson was the guiding light behind at least some of the proponents of Imagism in England. For Futurists the mind does not register objects separate from its surroundings, just as for Bergson memory does not separate things from their context. The Futurist painters, of course, put the position with as much controversy-seeking assertiveness as possible.

How often have we not seen upon the cheek of the person with whom we are talking the horse which passes at the end of the street?

Our bodies penetrate the sofas upon which we sit, and the sofas penetrate our bodies. The motor bus rushes into the houses which it passes, and in their turn the houses throw themselves upon the motor bus and are blended with it.

Study of a Bottle and Building Blocks (Table + Bottle + Bulin Block) by Umberto Boccioni. Pencil on paper. 1911. Civico Gabinetto die Disegni-Caello sforzesco, Milan.)

Study of a Bottle and Building Blocks (Table + Bottle + Building Block) by Umberto Boccioni. Pencil on paper. 1911. Civico Gabinetto die Disegni-Caello sforzesco, Milan.)

Unlike Cubism, which focuses on one or more particular objects, divides them into their component geometrical shapes and reassembles them abstractly, Futurism intended to treat all objects as an interconnecting whole by emphasizing the evident contiguity of all things seen. “To paint a human figure you must not paint it; you must render the whole of its surrounding atmosphere.” The modality of an object did not exist. Indeed space itself was an unreal abstraction. Only the flux resulting from the constant interaction of things existed. Motion was the reality, and its portrayal would be the goal of Futurists.

Stating such an ambitious goal was one thing; demonstrating it visually (in static representations) depended on the creation of tools that could begin to create the grammar of a visual language. Yet this group had very little in common in terms of basic approach to physical creation. They did not even belong to the same schools of art. Giacomo Balla was still working in Divisionism, a late form a Impressionism still examining light itself. Gino Severini was a devoted Cubist. Carlo Carrà was the only one with a foundation in Cézanne’s experiments. The other two seemed to have no strong mooring. The manifesto on technique seems a means to find the way forward, without much specificity.

Head + House + Light by Umberto Boccioni. (Charcoal and watercolor on paper. 1913. Civico Gabinetto die Disegni-Castello Sforzesco, Milan.) Boccioni worked out his approach to Antigraceful (below) in a conventional manner in this sketch, but he had difficulty making the building "contiguous."

Head + House + Light by Umberto Boccioni. (Charcoal and watercolor on paper. 1913. Civico Gabinetto die Disegni-Castello Sforzesco, Milan.) Boccioni worked out his approach to Antigraceful (below) in a conventional manner in this sketch, but he had difficulty making the building “contiguous.”

So at the same time the Futurists proclaimed to need to shunt aside all previous methods of representation as hopelessly misguided and indolently dependent on outdated concepts, they began in practice to cobble together techniques from schools with which they were familiar and methods they employed before their radical proclamations.

Boccioni, perhaps the most dedicated to the aspirations of Futurism, began by re-working cubist techniques in drawings and in three-dimensional renderings in attempts to show the contiguity and flux of things. In his 1911 oil triptych States of Mind, held by the Museum of Modern Art, Boccioni represented motion by a series of static snapshots, each one analyzed by a cubist-like reassembling of objects. The scenes are three states at a rail station: The Farewells, Those Who Go and Those Who Stay. The first scene divides the “permanent” station from the travelers by representing the “fixed” station with a fixed upright rectangle and the departing travelers with tumbling polygons. The second scene shows movement by diagonal straight lines, while the final one emphasizes the non movement of those staying with vertical straight lines in which forms emerge and by which they are hidden.

I Want to Fix Human Forms in Movement, Dynamic Scomposizione by Umberto Boccioni. (Charcoal and watercolor on paper. 1913. Civico Gabinetto die Disegni-Catello Sforzesco, Milan.)

I Want to Fix Human Forms in Movement, Dynamic Scomposizione by Umberto Boccioni. (Charcoal and watercolor on paper. 1913. Civico Gabinetto die Disegni-Catello Sforzesco, Milan.)

When he tried to work out a more organic way to represent motion Boccioni kept reverting to lines indicating direction of motion or, perhaps, ripples in the medium in which the motion is taking place. The lines of movement are evident from photographic exposures of movement (which Futurist Bragaglia was experimenting with at the time, see below), but that is an artifact of the way film captures light exposure. It is not convincing in synthetic representation. In his famous bronze Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, part of the Met’s permanent collection, wind trails behind the form of an advancing figure much like wings appeared in classical versions of Hermes. The heaviness of the bronze, however, makes the trails much too prominent and the effect is not so much a representation of movement as a stylization of a form in a modified Cubist manner.

Antigraceful by Giacomo Boccioni (Bronze. 1913 (cast 1950-51). Metropolitan Museum of Art.) One of many representations of Boccioni's mother. Although he uses cubistic application of planes, Boccioni attempts to incorporate the Futurist theory on perception by having a building merge with the back of her head.

Antigraceful by Umberto Boccioni (Bronze. 1913 (cast 1950-51). Metropolitan Museum of Art.) One of many representations of Boccioni’s mother. Although he uses cubistic application of planes, Boccioni attempts to incorporate the Futurist theory on perception by having a building merge with the back of her head.

A different problem arose from Boccioni’s attempt to show the Futurist’s view of the continuity of perceived objects. Boccioni clearly attempted to merge Cubism with the idea that objects participated with each other, the most provocative of the claims of the Technical Manifesto, in his 1913 bronze Antigraceful. Boccioni analyzed the problem from with strict Cubist principles, as is shown by his study Head + House + Light. And the bronze indeed would pass for typical Cubism in its reassembly of the form with geometric forms. The difference, and an odd one, is that Boccioni adds a bit of Futuristic contiguity notions by having a building arise from the back of the figure’s head. The effect of the Cubist re-assembling and the Futurist contiguity notion is not particularly successful, not the least of which comes from the three-dimensional nature of the figure. Futurist notions of contiguity of objects results from the perception of a fixed observer. When one walks around the Antigraceful work, the contiguity of the building with the head seems an affectation, because we are no longer seeing the objects in relation to each other from the same position.

Dynamism of a Cyclist by Umberto Boccioni. (Oil on canvas. 913. Gianni Mattioli Collection, on long-term loan to the eggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice.)

Dynamism of a Cyclist by Umberto Boccioni. (Oil on canvas. 1913. Gianni Mattioli Collection, on long-term loan to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice.)

It was not until Boccioni relented on a literal representation of motion and a mechanical approach to contiguity that he was able to show natural motion in less than an artificial way. His drawing I Want to Fix Human Forms in Motion, though it still retains traces of lines suggestion the direction of movement, begins to portray movement organically by the nature of the composition. Cubism still dominates the technique but Boccioni shows a tendency toward a more abstract rendering of objects overall and the demonstration of movement specifically. When we reach his Dynamism of a Cyclist, we see a decisive step towards abstract depiction of motion. No longer does Boccioni rely on drawn indications of direction. In fact it is the position of the figure itself which suggests motion. The arrangement of color provide the modeling of the figure so that Boccioni no longer has to rely on explicit Cubist techniques. The result is why at first sight appears to be a flat abstraction, and becomes a moving figure when the viewer is able to put together in his mind the relation of all the parts. Boccioni would continue to push toward more abstraction in his depiction of the dinamismo at the heart of the original Futurist programme.

Memories of a Trip by Gino Severini. (Oil on canvas. 1911. Private collection.)

Memories of a Trip by Gino Severini. (Oil on canvas. 1911. Private collection.)

Gino Severini, one of the last two of the original Five (along with Giocomo Balla), was also the one more deeply entrenched in Cubism. Severini had known Boccioni from the beginning of the century and both visited Balla’s studio to see his concept of Divisionism. Both would formally study with him. In 1906 Severini moved to Paris where he became absorbed with Cubism but also other forms of French New Art including Fauvism, as can be seen by his 1911 painting Memories of a Trip. When others of the group visited him there he enthusiastically explained to them the tenets of Cubism and also taught them about Parisian nightlife. The latter lessons never interested the other Futurists who were much too intent on anticipating the future and more intrigued with technology to waste thought on human debauchery.

Blue Dancer by Gino Severini. (Oil on canvas with sequins. 1912. Gianni Martioli Collection, on long-term loan to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice.)

Blue Dancer by Gino Severini. (Oil on canvas with sequins. 1912. Gianni Martioli Collection, on long-term loan to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice.)

Nevertheless, it was Severini, using Cubist techniques and depicting an oddly (for a Futurist) joyous human celebration, who produced the first successful merging of Cubism and the aspirations of the dynamics of Futurism. Severini’s Blue Dancer is the first brightly colored work in the exhibit and also the first of very few representing pure physical gaiety. Although Boccioni and Carrà both had begun using swirls and bolder colors in representations of crowd scenes, Severini’s Blue Dancer is the first work of any of the Futurists that looks like a fully realized Futurist artwork and not an experiment or study in search of a realized aesthetic. Much of the effect is through the use of arcs and cylindrical shapes at discordant angles. This effect creates a three-dimensional look at the bottom while the dancer’s head merges (contiguously) with the other dancers, the crowd and the background.

Simultaneous Visions by Umberto Boccioni. (Oil on canvas. 1911. Von der Heydt-Museum, Wuppertal, Germany.)

Simultaneous Visions by Umberto Boccioni. (Oil on canvas. 1911. Von der Heydt-Museum, Wuppertal, Germany.)

Boccioni was much influenced by Severini as can be seen by comparing his Simultaneous Visions with Severini’s Memories of a Trip. In fact Simultaneous Visions in concept, overall subject matter and effect seems to be a precursor to his famous The City Rises (1910) (part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art). The latter painting is a large canvas, which essentially begs to be considered a manifesto in its own terms. And although the workers float into the city (much like the viewing heads in Simultaneous Vision), evidently to labor at the factory in the background around the corner of which the sun beams, the city itself is rendered in more-or-less conventional perspective and there is really no sense that the perception principles of the Futurist Technique Manifesto were applied.

Suburb-Work by Luigi Russolo. (Oil on caves. 1910. Collection Leoni, Erba, Italy.)

Suburb-Work by Luigi Russolo. (Oil on caves. 1910. Collection Leoni, Erba, Italy.)

Carlo Carrà’s 1910-11 Funeral of the Anarchist Galli, also at the MoMA, is more aligned with the goals of presenting a moving scene as part of a whole, with objects absorbed into each other. Carrà also, like Severini, uses circling lines to show movement. But again, it is a fairly conventional approach, the “merging” of the figures coming about by reason of chaotic movement and shadows. This piece does, however, show that Futurism need not have become a politically reactionary movement. The painting depicts the funeral of an anarchist killed in 1904 during a labor strike. The police fearing that the occasion would provide leftists and anarchists the opportunity to demonstrate barred the public from the cemetery. When the protestors balked, the police came down in force. Carrà, a leftist himself, painted the scene from personal experience. But Carrà’s politics never penetrated Futurism, which would be steered by Marinetti to the end. In any event, Italian progressives, including Carrà diverged from other European leftist, by clamoring to join the Great War (see below). That fundamental break with prevailing Western radicals, allowed the Italian left to Italian left to carry on a dalliance with Fascism which preached a mangled form of socialism.

Solidity of Fog by Luigi Russolo. (Oil on canvas. 1912. Gianni Mattioli Collection on longterm loan to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice.)

Solidity of Fog by Luigi Russolo. (Oil on canvas. 1912. Gianni Mattioli Collection on longterm loan to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice.)

The other two members of the Five began from a more conservative starting point. Balla, the oldest of the group, was already established as a Divisionist, a neoimpressionist technique which separated light into separate swathes of color which, when placed in appropriate proximity, produced, they thought, the most faithful representation of light possible. Balla taught the technique to both Boccherini and Severini at the beginning of the century. Balla’s Street Light (above) was a late example of the school. The circularity of the v-shaped swathes surrounding the lamp (and blocking by greater luminosity the light of the moon) simulates motion. Russolo was influence by this depiction of light, and while Russolo was probably the least innovative of the Five, once he learned his lessons he was able to use techniques to create inviting compositions. (Perhaps it is because Russolo retained all those things that the Futurists claimed to want to throw out (composition, harmony, balance, proportion, etc.), that make his works are pleasing. “Pleasing,” however was never a state aspiration of Futurists.) In Suburb-Work, there is no movement visible at all. But the light diffused through flecks of smoke are the result of the human activity in the factory buildings. This is not Futurism according to the manifests. Nor is Solidity of Fog. But the effect is near: Here it is light that pulsates, enough to actually affect the “figures” before the light. The light is traveling on something like ether: the fog.

Waving by Anton Giulio Bragaglia. (Gelatin Silver Print. 1911. Galleria Civica i Modena, Italy.)

Waving by Anton Giulio Bragaglia. (Gelatin Silver Print. 1911. Galleria Civica i Modena, Italy.)

It is the depiction of motion as a pure abstract that Balla and, through his influence, Russolo were after. While Boccioni was experimenting on how a horse or a cyclist interacted with their surroundings during motion, Balla was reducing speed to lines and waves. Speeding cars (above left) were successively reduced until they became paths of movement (above right). He would eventually produce paintings simply of abstract speed with other abstractions (such as noise).

The Hand of the Violinist (The Thythms of the Bow) by Giacomo Balla. (Oil on canvas. 1912. Eastorick Collection, London.)

The Hand of the Violinist (The Rhythms of the Bow) by Giacomo Balla. (Oil on canvas. 1912. Eastorick Collection, London.)

Thus Boccioni and Bella had nearly opposite technical approaches to motion. But both approaches were informed by photography. Anton Giulio Bragaglia joined the movement taking exposures common motions, such as hands typing on typewriters and a man striking a cigarette. The exposure of the film seemed to deform the figures (Boccioni’s approach), while they also created abstract lines (Balla’s approach). Bragaglia formally declared his unity with the Futurists in the usual way, with a manifesto on Fotodinamismo. Bragaglia would go on to make Futurist theater and cinema. Balla believed that Bragaglia’s work validated his own question for the representation of pure motion, and he even tried to imitate the photographic view in his oil The Hand of the Violinist. 

Spherical Expansion of Light (Centripetal and Centrifugal) by Gino Severini. (Oil on canvas. ca. 1914. Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, Utica, New York.)

Spherical Expansion of Light (Centripetal and Centrifugal) by Gino Severini. (Oil on canvas. ca. 1914. Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, Utica, New York.)

The two approaches to motion of Balla and Boccioni never produced a breach among the original Five. In the end both approaches tended towards a form of abstraction very much identical to each other’s. In the new emerging abstraction around 1914 Severini was able to reach back to Divisionism to color his Cubist abstract depiction of the movement (in both directions) of light.

Polemics did not disturb the original Five, who had relations before their Manifesto. There was hesitation, however, to admit new artists into the group, especially because most other Italian artists had taken position against the movement. There were the usual objections raised competing groups of self-styled revolutionary artists have with each other for deviating from revolutionary dogma. I will not trace the literary battles for and against the Futurist arts (which even involved Carrà and Boccioni physically assaulting a hostile critic named Ardngo Soffici, a polemicist and one-time Cubist, except to note that in  February 1913, the Futurist exhibition in Rome (a new venue at the insistence of Marinetti) included nine works by the very same Ardengo Soffici, who produced works of what was then orthodox Futurism. He would create a new critical journal Lacerba, where he explained how Futurism has reconciled itself to both Cubism and Impressionism and that explained his own acceptance of the Italian movement. Soffici would much later prove to be an unreliable convert, even by Fascist standards, when he tried to persuade Mussolini to ban modernism (as Hitler had in Germany) and include Futurism in the list of degenerate art. Mussolini refused because by the late 1930s Futurism had deeply imbibed Fascism and had become, if not the official art form, at least its usual style.

The Great War and New Blood

Cannons in Action by Gino Severini. (Oil on canvas. 1915. MART. Museo di arte moderna e contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto, Italy.)

Cannons in Action by Gino Severini. (Oil on canvas. 1915. MART. Museo di arte moderna e contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto, Italy.)

The war would completely transform Futurism from an avant-garde coterie to a political-art movement with ambitions to represent the material national culture of Italy. Marinetti, of course, had pined for war since the beginning, claiming it would be a “red vacation.” When the Great War broke out, the Futurists were at the vanguard of those urging Italy to join the Triple Entente. Their nationalist reason for intervention was the desire to recover Trieste from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This was a political aim of Marinetti’s for a long time, and one for which he spent time in jail. The Futurists unleashed provocative public “theater” in support of intervention, much like their earlier seratas, which brought them to the fore in the first place. Marinetti met Mussolini, a fellow war-monger, during this intervention campaign. One demonstration netted Boccioni, Carrà. Marinetti and Russolo six days in jail. But in the end they could claim success because Italy joined the war in 1915. A number of Futurists, including Boccioni, joined with Marinetti in the Lombard Battalion of Volunteer Cyclists and Automobilists.

Cangiullo Marinetti Injured

Marinetti Injured by Francesco and Pasqualino Cangiullo. (Colored ink on paper. 1917. Collection of Luce Marinetti, Rome.)

In the summer of 1916 Boccioni died, not heroically, but accidentally in a fall from his horse. The following spring Marinetti was wounded by grenade shrapnel. He was able to rejoin his unit later that summer. He was even able to participate in the final Italian victory at Vittorio in October 1918. In all, the war was just the holiday he supposed, and he left everyone know that. His insouciant attitude toward his service as well as his wartime injury greatly enhanced his reputation among Futurists. He was now firmly in control of all of the Futurism, not just an adviser. Marinetti joined the Fascist Party shortly after the war. For the painters this point was something of a sea change, for Futurism stopped being an art movement and became a broad multi-media socio-politico-cultural movement. With its popularity came a simplification of the approach, a more crowd-pleasing aesthetic. The use of the movement to shock and awaken the nation was over, perhaps because Marinetti had the war he desired. In any event humor emerged and the movement began to enter areas that it had never explored before.

Stormy Patriot Marinetti: Psychological Portrait by Fortunato Depero (Oil on canvas. 1924. Private Collection.) In the exhibition this piece is show in the artist's frame.)

Stormy Patriot Marinetti: Psychological Portrait by Fortunato Depero (Oil on canvas. 1924. Private Collection.) In the exhibition this piece is show in the artist’s frame.

Chief among the artists who accomplished the transformation was Fortunato Depero. Depero was originally destined to be a minor craftsman in the Tretino provide of Northern Italy. His fine arts career having been thwarted by his rejection by the Akademie der bildenden Künste Wien, he returned to Rovereto where he was serving his apprenticeship as a marble worker in the studio of the sculptor Pietro Canonica, when in 1913 he read a polemic by Marinetti (in Lacerba, the journal published by Soffici). It was literally a life-changing event. He moved to Rome to take up the call to cultural arms, and there he met Balla and became active in Futurist circles. He quickly was invited to participate in Futurist art exhibitions. Depero became so central to the movement by 1915 that he and Balla authored The Futurist Reconstruction of the Universe in March. They cataloged the Futurist manifestos in painting, sculpture, polemic poetry (Marinetti’s words-in-freedom) and noises and vowed “to realize this total fusion in order to reconstruct the universe making it more joyful, in other words by a complete re-creation.”

We will give skeleton and flesh to the invisible, the impalpable, the imponderable and the imperceptible. We will find abstract equivalents for every form and element in the universe, and then we will combine them according to the caprice of our inspiration, creating plastic complexes which we will set in motion.

They promised to infuse everything with the principles of Futurism and to create new objects solely from combining elements of Futurism. Toys, for example, would be designed to produce spontaneous laughter, to encourage creativity, to elicit continual exercise and to accustom the child “to physical courage, to fighting and to war.”

From a series of 8 Rhinoceros. (Painted wood. Remade 1923. MART, Museo di rate modern e contemporaranea di Trento e Rovereto, Italy.)

From a series of 8 Rhinoceros. (Painted wood. Remade 1923. MART, Museo di arte modern e contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto, Italy.)

Mystical Silence by Fortunato Depero. (Charcoal on paper. 1917. MART, Museo di rate modern e contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto, Italy.)

Mystical Silence by Fortunato Depero. (Charcoal on paper. 1917. MART, Museo di rate modern e contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto, Italy.) One of a series of drawings for Gilbert Clavel’s An Institute for Suicides.

Depero’s exploration of set design for ballet further expanded his range. In 1916 Diaghilev (who was living in Rome at the time) commissioned Depero to design the sets for Stravinskys ballet The Song of the Nightingale. Although the sets were never used, the connection drew Swiss-born Egyptologist, writer and eccentric Gilbert Clavel (a hanger-on among Diaghilev’s circle) to Depero. Clavel was attracted to Futurism because it was composed of vague metaphysics tinged with science and technology, much like his own thinking. He asked Depero to illustrate his quirky book of black humor, An Institute for Suicides. Holed up in a villa on the island of Capri, Depero imbibed Clavel’s genuine knowledge of ancient mysteries and his dilettante’s accumulation of modern ones, and Depero dashed off numerous sketches for Clavel. The combination of heady metaphysical discussion and the luxurious isolation of the island proved not only a goad for work but also an impetus for a new synthesis of influences for Depero. It was as a result of this extended work-holiday that Depero again reintegrated Cubism into the dynamic-plasticity which was the summary of Futurism proclaimed by Balla and him.

Portrait of Gilbert Clavel by Fortunato Depero. (Oil on canvas. 1918. Museo civico d’Arte contemporanea, Milan.) This work is not shown in the Guggenheim exhibit.

Depero’s oils during this period (which are not among the works at the Guggenheim exhibit) show these elements as well as the older Futurist attraction to bold color. Portrait of Gilbert Clavel represents a simplification of both Futurism and Cubism and moves away from pure art to the realm of design. His numerous portraits of Clavel shows his admiration for the man. Depero collaborated with Clavel in one final project: a new form of theater.

Depero had been influenced by Clavel’s understanding of myth and of course all Futurists had an innate propensity for theatre harking back to the original seratas and the agit-prop of the Futurist pro-interventionist publicly stage demonstrations. In addition, the teachings of Sorel on crowd response to performance of myth had considerable effect on the thinking of the Futurists, just as Sorel had on other right-leaning avant-garde movements in England and France. Depero, however, was responsible for the playfulness of the effort.

My Balli Plastici by Fortunado Depero. (Oil on Canvas. 1918. Private collection.)

My Balli Plastici by Fortunado Depero. (Oil on Canvas. 1918. Private collection.)

The production Depero and Clavel created was multi-media but it had no actors or dancers. Instead Depero created wooden marionettes. It was set to  the music of a number of composers, possibly even Bartók (although that attribution is uncertain). There were no spoken words and the pantomime and dance were presented in five short scenes. The puppets were not especially prominent, given Futurist theory; instead, lights, scenery, music, and story were to receive equal emphasis. The 11 performances of My Balli Plastici in Rome’s Teatro del Piccoli in April 1918 received little critical acclaim, but Marinetti was more than pleased. Futurism had conquered another form of expression. There seemed no limit to his manifesto. Futurism would even conquer Diaghilev, but it would be Balla who designed the elements for Stravinsky’s five-minute piece Fireworks. The Guggenheim exhibition contains sketches of the set an a video realization of the light show (again no actors or dancers) produced by the Carnegie Mellon University Entertainment Technology Center.

Toward a Fascist Future

Numbers in Love by Giacomo Balla. (Oil on canvas. 1920-23. MART, Museo d'art modern e contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto, Italy.)

Numbers in Love by Giacomo Balla. (Oil on canvas. 1920-23. MART, Museo d’art modern e contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto, Italy.)

Alone among the participants in the Great War, Italy emerged almost triumphant. Italy achieved its territorial goal of Trieste and suffered relatively little bloodshed to obtain it. The fledgling nation-state had acquitted itself respectably in the war, and there was no great national introspection afterwards. The 1920s would prove a time of unaccustomed well-being for the Italians, and the nationalist good feeling was reflected in Futurism which became essentially the national culture, reflecting and promoting popular cultural themes. As Italy became a Fascist State, Futurism became its unstinting promoter. Futurism was everywhere. Decorations, middle brow entertainment, toys, flat ware, coffee settings, tea sets, sports wear (for women!), vests and suits. In 1919 Depero founded a Futurist manufactory of sorts in Rovereto, which produced toys, tapestries and furniture. Balla also continued to make Futurism bourgeois-friendly, and soon the entire project looked very much like product design.

Marinetti by Růžena Zátková. (Tempera on canvas. ca. 1921. Private collection.) In the exhibition this work is shown in the artist's original metal frame.

Marinetti by Růžena Zátková. (Tempera on canvas. ca. 1921. Private collection.) In the exhibition this work is shown in the artist’s original metal frame.

In the meantime Marinetti kept his thumb on all aspects of the movement, deciding what was and what was not orthodox Futurism. He also was pumping his Fascist colleagues for promotion. But Mussolini had no interest in art and allowed all comers to occupy whatever field they chose. It mattered little to him—he did not consider himself an artist as Hitler did, and in any event all Italian art schools promoted Fascism with equal ardor.

Skyscrapers and Tunnels by Fortunato Deperto. (Tempera on paper. 1930. MART, Museo di rate moderna e contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto, Italy.)

Skyscrapers and Tunnels by Fortunato Deperto. (Tempera on paper. 1930. MART, Museo di arte moderna e contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto, Italy.)

Depero would move to New York City in 1928. There he must have imbibed the reductio ad commercio of the place. In any event he was thoroughly successful at stage design and consumes and he took up graphic design, creating covers for such magazines as The New Yorker and Vogue. He also did interior design work for two restaurants and even worked for Macy’s. On his return to Italy in 1930 his paintings lacked the original dinamismo sought out by the founders and instead replaced it with a patterned representation of commerce as movement. Depero eventually settled for advertisement as art, and he lives on today in his graphic work for his client Campari.,

The Perfect Bourgeois by Tato (Buglielmo Sansoni). (Gelatin silver print. 1930. Rovereto, MART.)

The Perfect Bourgeois, Camouflage of Objects by Tato (Buglielmo Sansoni). (Gelatin silver print. 1930. Rovereto, MART.)

The new Futurists of the late 1920 and 1930s were dedicated Fascists, believing in Mussolini as the “new man,” and Marinetti as his John the Baptist. The art they offered glorified the work of the Italian nation, and machines in particular. Among the unique offerings of this new set was aerodinamismo, which consisted of photographs from airplanes in motion, particularly swirling motion. Architecture became a large part of Futurism, particularly as the Fascist state conferred its benefit on the adoring Futurist artists. All the while, the human was squeezed out of the picture. Human achievements were celebrated, but the humans themselves were not. Futurism remained a revolutionary art form of sorts, flogging the bourgeoisie while catering to it, but it was not the same movement that began with the manifesto decrying artists who “endlessly exploited the glories of the ancient Romans.” For in their glorification of the Fascists, who saw themselves as the modern imperial Romans in every way, they became the very thing that they rebelled again. Futurism died in 1944 with its Fascists models.

Central panel of triptych Fascist Sythesis by Aleessandro Bruschetti. (Oil on plywood. 1935. Wolfsonian–Florida International University, Miami Beach, Florida.)

Central panel of triptych Fascist Sythesis by Alessandro Bruschetti. (Oil on plywood. 1935. Wolfsonian–Florida International University, Miami Beach, Florida.)

*     *     *

Before the Parachute Opens by Tullio Crali. (Oil on panel. 1939. Casa Cavazzini, Museo d'Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Udine, Italy.)

Before the Parachute Opens by Tullio Crali. (Oil on panel. 1939. Casa Cavazzini, Museo d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Udine, Italy.)

The Guggenheim exhibit of these works is about as exhaustive a presentation as could be made, and probably more than most would want. It aims to represent the original motivations, to “recreate the universe” and to put the viewer in the center of the art. The exhibition not only has the usual paintings, drawings, photographs and three-dimensional works (including furniture, ceramics, clothing, and the like), but it also exhibits videos of rarely seen Futurist cinema and film of Futurist declaimers, including Marinetti. The walls are covered with original manifestos and the graffiti-like words-in-freedom. Even in the most serene parts of the exhibit, it is hard to get away from the political, confrontational impulses of Marinetti and his closest admirers. It is difficult to view many objects before you encounter something that proclaims its Fascist sympathies, particularly as time goes on in this chronological exhibition.

Synthesis of Radio Communications by Benedetta (Benedetta Cappa Marinetti). (Tempera and encaustic on canvas. 1933-34. Palazzo dell Poste di Palermo, Sicily.)

Synthesis of Radio Communications by Benedetta (Benedetta Cappa Marinetti). (Tempera and encaustic on canvas. 1933-34. Palazzo dell Poste di Palermo, Sicily.)

Would this movement have been less strident and less anti-humanist if there has been no Fascism in Italy?  Would it have sputtered out into commercial self-parodoy as Depero seemed to be driving it? It’s hard to tell. Whatever demons drove Marinetti and the founders to adopt war-mongering as an ideal and caused their violent distaste for women and humanism also produced the Fascists themselves. So there is probably no way to separate the two. Nonetheless, despite the political content of other works, many of the earlier pieces show an interesting and novel way of looking at the world. The innovations of the early Futurists probably had no political content. The glorification of the machine and of Fascist order of the later Futurists probably would have happened had there been no Futurist movement at all. This is not to excuse the part they played in bringing misery to Italy and the world, it is simply to avoid overstating the responsibility of these artists for the work of those with greater power and greater cruelty. Art and society are woven of the same cloth and often, as here, art gives insight into how societies bring things upon themselves for good or evil.

The exhibit runs until September 1, 2014. The accompanying catalog, Italian Futurism 1909-1944: Reconstructing the Universe edited by Vivien Green contains a wide variety of discussion on the range of activities of Futurists, not just in the visual arts but in music, cinema, crafts and designs as well as politics. It is a book well worth pursuing, even if you are not deeply interested in the movement, because it treats the thorny question of how art and justice interact and provokes questions about who ought to be responsible for what.

Demme’s “A Master Builder”

“A Master Builder,” Jonathan Demme’s film adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s play is the last of three great theatrical projects of Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn that have been made into movies. The film opened this week at the New York Film Forum.

Master Builder Halvard Solness confronts the object of his final desire and the agent of his punishment Hilda Wangel (Lisa Joyce).

Master Builder Halvard Solness (Wallace Shawn) confronts the object of his final desire and the agent of his punishment, Hilda Wangel (Lisa Joyce).

Normally filmed stage productions, no matter how talented the actors or how brilliant the playwright, end up being stilted affairs, so much so that the general feeling is that a play cannot be successfully filmed other than as a method of archiving the stage production.

Much younger Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory discuss the meaning of life over an elegant dinner in "My Dinner with Andre."

Much younger Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory discuss the meaning of life over an elegant dinner in “My Dinner with Andre.”

This truism is disproved by the collaborations of the experimental stage director Gregory and the performer-writer-collaborator Shawn. The first, “My Dinner with Andre,” came out more than 30 years ago (in 1981) and proved to be a quirky and engaging experiment in both theatre and film in which Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory are filmed doing nothing more than talking during dinner, albeit, eventually, the meaning of life and more important things.. A decade later Gregory and Shawn collaborated in bringing the rehearsal of David Mamet’s version of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya” to the screen as “Vanya on 42nd Street.” Both of those projects were filmed by Louis Malle. Malle died not long after the latter movie (his last), and so this latest collaboration by Gregory and Wallace was filmed by Demme, who is perhaps best known for “Swimming to Cambodia” (a theatrical performance film) and “Silence of the Lambs” (a highly successful commercial crime drama/horror film).

Solness's marriage to Aline (Julia Haggerty) is an empty set of bonds of mutual recriminations. Halvard tells Wangel that Aline is "dead," that all the blood has been drained out of her. And yet they both have a tenderness for the other when it looks like they are about to be thrown over. Or is that Halvard's illusion as well?

Solness’s marriage to Aline (Julie Hagerty) is an empty set of bonds of mutual recriminations. Halvard tells Wangel that Aline is “dead,” that all the blood has been drained out of her. And yet they both have a tenderness for the other when it looks like they are about to be thrown over. Or is that Halvard’s illusion as well?

I’ll return in a bit to the differences between the filming by Malle and Demme, but for the moment it’s worth noting that the surprising immediacy of all three of these films has very little to do with the film direction. All three movies have something that is almost completely absent in modern American film—intellectually challenging dialogue exchanged by actors who actually appear to be engaging in conversations with each other. This may seem like something that ought to be inherent in any drama, whether staged or filmed, but when you see a production by Gregory, you realize that the essence of theatricality, done right, is the ability to draw the viewer into the drama, solely based on the words and how they are delivered, and that the trick is seldom seen anymore. In each of these three films, the power of words exchanged by actors totally guided by a particular view of the playwright’s script is astonishing. In each of the three, there are moments when you simply lose yourself in the exchanges of ideas and emotions that are so deeply personal that you forget that you are watching a production and become a spectator of a genuine human interaction. In “Vanya on 42 Street,” in which the actors arrive in street clothes to rehearse the Chekhov play in a condemned theatre in Manhattan’s Time Square district, the interaction is so absorbing and the pace of the drama so compellingly managed that when intermission is announced the viewer is shocked into realizing that it is a play he is watching.

Brooke Smith, Wallace Shawn, Julianne Moore and George Gaynes bring the audience from Midtown to Czarist Russia by sheer theatre magic.

Brooke Smith, Wallace Shawn, Julianne Moore and George Gaynes bring the audience from Midtown to Czarist Russia by sheer theatre magic.

The effect is not merely owing the Gregory’s genius as a stage director. It is because of the immense amount of work and attention to detail that the director and willing actors lavish on these projects. “Vanya on 42nd Street” was in rehearsal for several years and in the end never saw the stage. “A Master Builder” was rehearsed by Gregory for over a decade. This kind of dedication and meticulousness has no analog among spoken performances. Movie productions are hailed for their preparation when actors spend several weeks together. The economics of theater require that projects are rehearsed largely during out-of-town productions. But by the time Gregory’s plays (and all three were only movies) are seen by the public, all artifice has been wrung out of them. The acting has reached a point that it is no longer “acting.” There should be another word for it. It has reached the point that you do not need to suspend your disbelief—the characters are actually delivering their words from deep within their actual beings and they are saying them to people who they know will react in the unpredictable ways that humans react to each other. It is a method of acting that no other director, stage or film, can elicit.

The avenging angel discovers the wreckage Halvard has caused.

The avenging angel discovers the wreckage Halvard has strewn about himself. Their tragedy is having come to accept the lot assigned them.

In some ways “A Master Builder” is the most challenging of the three projects. The first one, “My Dinner with Andre,” is an exploration of wonder and imagination by two intellectuals who respect each other and are grappling to explain their souls to each other. This was remarkable enough, but it only involved the exchanges between Shawn and Gregory who have an extraordinary degree of mutual stage empathy. The Chekhov project involved a large ensemble, and therefore was many times harder to elicit genuine interpersonal interactions in Gregory’s way, but the gorup acted a play that, though tragic, was shot through with humor, absurdity, flamboyance and pathos so that audience reactions took a ride that was unpredictable, but not uniformly intense.

They want little enough. Solness's employe (Jeff Biehl) wants out from under the master's thumb and to marry the bookkeeper; his father (Andre Gregory), who was ruined by Solness, wants only to see his son succeed before his own death. Solness considers only his own fears in crushing them both.

They want little enough. Solness’s employee (Jeff Biehl) wants out from under the master’s thumb and to marry the bookkeeper; his father (Andre Gregory), who was ruined by Solness, wants only to see his son succeed before his own death. Solness considers only his own fears in crushing them both.

“Master Builder,” on the other hand, is (at least to me) an almost impossibly difficult work to perform. It is uniformly grim. The relations among the characters have been frozen over time into unrelieved misery. The cause of this is the central character, Halvard Solness (Wallace Shawn), a man who dominates those around him so imperiously that his desires are all met: sexual, material, social, professional. And yet Solness is sick of life and too craven to even consider ending it. He has climbed the bourgeois ladder, accepting all the requirements that such a life exacts and adopted all the beliefs that such a life depends on. To Solness everything is a negotiated bargain. For everything received, one must pay. He is obsessed with the knowledge that his professional success is an asset that must have a corresponding liability. He also knows that it is not only he, but also all those around, that must pay. The obligations he has imposed on others, his wife, his employee, the man whose business he ruined for his own career and his personal assistant, all pay for his success. He acknowledges, however, only a debt to his wife. But she is beyond willing to accept anything from Halvard. Bourgeois herself, she has been reduced to considering only her “obligations” and “duty,” to her husband and to everyone else. She fits in the bourgeois scale as servant to Halvard’s master.

Henrik Ibsen. (Photograph by Gustav Borgen. 1898. Norsk Folkemuseum.)

Henrik Ibsen. (Photograph by Gustav Borgen. 1898. Norsk Folkemuseum.)

The story, therefore, is a kind of social realist melodrama from a century ago that is unlikely to appeal to a contemporary audience, whose attention span as well as their empathy has been reduced by our own narrowness. But the difficulty is greater than that. The play is not one of the earlier works like “Doll House” or “Ghosts,” which sensationalized the Western theater with their brutal political-social critique. (Perhaps only Strindberg could flog the bourgeoise like Ibsen.) At the point in his career he wrote “The Master Builder,” Ibsen took as a given the relentless criticism of social convention. This play, however, began a new phase, one where he would add psychological insight and (necessarily) expand his theatrical palette by adding approaches that would stretch the stage’s power to represent. “The Master Builder” can plausibly be presented as a performance of Halvard Solness’s internal thoughts. And that is the approach taken by Wallace Shawn who produced the screenplay. The liberty he takes with the play makes the point. Solness is first seen hooked up to modern hospital monitoring devices. The point is that the main character is approach an end-of-life crisis and that everything that takes place must be seen in that context. If you miss that point, there are several added “dream-like” sequences which suggest that Solness is slipping from consciousness. This particular contrivance, it seems to me, is unnecessary. Those who cannot pick this point of view from the dialog or direction are probably not going to be watching this film anyway; the rest (including all who watch it) are likely to be offended by the condescension. But the device is not long employed and is not a great distraction.

Solness tells a “strange story” to Doctor Herdal (Larry Pine) who is unable to grasp the essence of Solness’s self-deception.

With this solipsistic psychological approach, one can understand the perspective of Solness without having to accept each of the details. Solness often comes across as the more long-suffering of the greatly suffering characters, but the fact is the suffering is all engendered by Solness himself. He claims to Doctor Herdal that he allows his wife to believe a slander against him because he owes her a great debt. “Debt” is a bourgeois concept. Solness committed a crime against her, but believes he can buy off his guilt, even though the coin he offers itself turns out to be false.

The equilibrium of suffering is upset by the unexpected introduction of the young Hilda Wangel, who soon reminds Solness that 10 years ago to the day, he had forced himself on her when she was 12 (or 13 the play says, making it somewhat more clear her unreality), when he promised to come back in 10 years to take her away and make her a princess. She has now come to claim her right. Solness remembers none of this, but soon accepts it because she seems not to incriminate him for the violation. And she is the only person who has not become irredeemably broken by his callous selfishness. She prods him on to act less selfishly, and does so by also bringing life back into his empty soul. Solness was more than willing to accept her dreams for herself and him, even though, at every turn, she with good nature reminds him of his own short-sided meanness and how much of a cad he was to her and everyone else. Their exchanges make up the central intellectual debate of the play. The audience is never quite sure where Wangel stands, but watching Solness pour out his withered soul to her is gut-wrenching.

In the end Solness desires his own destruction, even if he only vaguely realizes it.

In the end Solness desires his own destruction. Perhaps even he vaguely realizes it.

It is difficult to imagine a more perfectly realized production of this play. It is true that its point of view is not necessarily the definitive one, but it follows that choice with relentless logic. The acting is impeccable. Those, like me, who watch almost no television will be shocked to see Julie Hagerty (Aline Solness), who was last seen in Airplane in 1980. Her appearance not only shows that tempus fugit, but also that she has acting chops that Hollywood inexplicably failed to employ for over three decades. Her interactions with Solness are achingly icy, but she has so thoroughly internalized the damage done her that she in the end does not want to see his destruction. Larry Pine plays the perfectly good-natured Doctor Herdal, the only character who has not been manipulated by Solness and the only one who fails to comprehend the strength of the web that has trapped the rest of the characters. Andre Gregory’s small role as the dying and ruined mentor of Solness is powerful. The relationship between Wallace Shawn and Lisa Joyce (Hilda Wangel) form the central pivot of the play. She is perfectly ambiguous. Is she seducing him or teasing him? This depends on whether she believed his promises to a small girl he took advantage of or came for revenge. Solness denies vigorously that he acted the monster, but soon accepts it because he thinks she provides his last hope for a relationship unspoiled by his fear, his manipulation and his self-centeredness. But he is such a narrow character that he can do nothing but offer unrealistic acts of bravado, after much coaxing. Where this will lead becomes as inevitable as his own unrelenting wretchedness to those around him had proved.

His entire life was guided by the same impulses. And though he should have seen the result, he is impelled by those same impulses to the very end.

His entire life was guided by the same impulses. And though he should have seen the result, he is impelled by those same impulses to the very end.

Of course the entire project revolves around Wallace Shawn. I must admit that it seemed implausible to me that Shawn could pull off the role. After all, Solness is sought after by all the women he encounters. Those reading the play without sufficient imagination (like me) would probably think that a “leading man” actor was necessary to make the role plausible. Shawn, however, is such a talented actor that he can use the audience’s initial discomfort with the dissonance between his appearance and his effect on women to dramatize the fact that the narrative is a non-naturalistic story told from his own perspective petrified by years of unchecked self-indulgence. His attempts to seduce Wangel become exercises in self-delusion. That delusion has an inevitable price, which is obvious to all who watch the unpleasant behavior of one who is so used to acting the lecher that he cannot see his own ridiculousness.

While the stage direction and acting are top-flight, I will offer a quibble here. The film direction of the other two projects by Malle was essentially unobtrusive. It was not static—there were close-ups and cross-curing—but it did not draw attention to itself. Demme’s filming, however, relied much less on the sure-handedness of the stage direction. At the beginning, for some reason, some of the scenes were filmed by hand-held cameras. Moreover, the use of cross-cutting during dialogs became so pronounced that it diluted the in-the-moment magic of the stage directions. The use of music, although not as excessive as most movies make it, was nonetheless  unnecessary. The acting itself was quite enough to produce the desired audience reactions. In fact, the music tended to draw attention to itself by overemphasizing what the production is trying to convey. The use of the music of Sibelius (a Finn) evidently to provide suitable Scandinavian flavor to a play by Ibsen (a Norwegian) came across as a typically pretentious Hollywood affectation. That said, the film direction was fluid and for the most part stayed out of the way of Gregory’s staging.

For those unfamiliar with Ibsen, be warned that this is not an “uplifting” experience. It is, however, a nearly perfectly realized work of art. And great art, which is hard as granite, is seldom “uplifting.”

 

 

 

Lindsey Graham: God’s Warrior

 

Colonel Lindsey Graham receives Meritorious Service Medal from Air Force judge advocate general  on April 28, 2009.

Colonel Lindsey Graham receives Meritorious Service Medal from Air Force judge advocate general on April 28, 2009.

War hero and humble patriot* Lindsey Olin Graham, United States Senator who holds the Strom Thurmond seat from South Carolina (a seat which, I believe, Thurmond himself received from General Beauregard, the original liberator of South Carolina and another* American war hero), is one of the wise men of American foreign policy, as you will have gathered if you spend time receiving you information about our wise men from Sunday morning television news shows or if you happen to see a television report on any violence taking place anywhere on the planet. Graham’s well-earned fame as a foreign policy and military guru comes, not just from his own extensive combat experience, but also* from being a member of that well-known trio of foreign policy experts, whose other members included Senator John McCain and one-time Senator Joe Lieberman. The members of this trio have been and are (except for Lieberman who for some reason chose not to stand for re-election in Connecticut, after forming his own, one-man party, Connecticut for Lieberman) routinely called upon by the broadcast networks to offer their advice to guide our Republic in every international crisis or brewing crisis. John McCain, of course, had combat experience during the Vietnam War. Although Joe Lieberman had no actual combat experience, because he was unfortunately forced (like Dick Cheney by the imperative of “other priorities”) to accept an education deferment from the Vietnam draft and when his education was completed a “family exemption,” his credentials as an expert are unassailable by virtue of hanging out with two* American War heroes*. The advice they offer ranges from massive U.S. military force, usually air force (the combat experience of both* John McCain and Lindsey Graham*) to the more subdued response, when restraint is called for, of arming untrained and unknown “freedom fighters” with state of the art firepower to deal with our, and therefore the world’s, enemies. When there is not a crisis brewing, they have always maintained that our Chief Executive should continuously threaten to use American force, more-or-less randomly throughout the world, purely for its benign effects. It is a modification of Theodore Roosevelt’s adage and can be called the Big Missile/Bigger Mouth approach. For example, the now-reduced-to-two experts jointly criticized the President for the capture by Sunni insurgents this past January of the Iraqi city of Fallujah (a city whose “Americanization” took so much blood, sweat and tears by McCain, Graham and Lieberman) for failing to either use massive American force, arm massively the Iraqi government or talk loud enough about doing one of the former. It doesn’t matter which one of these was the failure, because the President did none of them, and clearly one of three things would have “saved” Fallujah.

With Israel’s increasingly bloody incursion into Gaza, and the brutal slaying of civilians, including children, the destruction of homes, and the massive use of firepower in densely populated cities, it is of course natural to want to know what Graham suggests here. After all, we have armed Israel to the teeth (and that seems to be at least part of the reason they have no incentive to negotiate a peaceful outcome of hostilities that have so far lasted longer than the Thirty Years War), and we constantly claim that we support Israel, no matter what. As far as I can tell, the brutality of American military would be superfluous in this situation. So it would be instructive to hear from someone with extensive policy experience and down-to-earth, practical combat experience.*

[*Update: It has come to my attention that Lindsey Graham never actually participated in combat. He served only as a lawyer, principally drafting wills and the like for soldiers who went to combat. My only excuse for this egregious mistake, although it hardly justifies it, is that Graham himself called himself "Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm veteran" in his own website while running for Senate (the website you can see here). This site was not changed even after it was shown to be false. He also, according to The Hill, which broke the fact that he didn't actually serve in combat, went about calling himself a "Gulf War Veteran" in hundreds of appearances. And even his official congressional biography, now since taken down, said the same thing. As a result Who's Who and The Political Almanac included the claim. Now when The Hill brought to light the fact that as a National Guardsman he never left the shores of South Carolina, where he was evidently defending Fort Sumner from any possible sedition, he explained that he should have said "Gulf era veteran" and that he was not responsible for the fact that various publications erroneously claimed he had combat experience. He did admit that he was responsible for his own campaign website and the official congress ion biography, but insisted that he did not intend to mislead anyone. I guess I have to confess I did not pick up that nuance. Mea culpa.]

So what is Patriot Graham’s take on the crisis in Gaza? Well, this time you won’t find his most trenchant analysis on Sunday morning network TV. You would have to go to the latest convocation of Christians United for Israel. Since, dear reader, you probably don’t have sufficient credentials of orthodox faith to be admitted, you will have to take David Weigel’s word for what transpired. Christians United for Israel, for those who are not well versed in end-of-times think tanks, is the organization created by John Hagee, a minister of Jesus Christ who specializes in explaining how the end of the world will shortly come about and what Christians can do to hasten that event in which most of the inhabitants of earth will be plunged into cosmic war after which they will be thrown in the fiery pit. You can easily order one of his books on the subject to learn the details, but suffice it here to say that it will make Israel’s incursion into the Gaza appear like our historical benevolence to Latin America. Speaking of which, one of the panelists at the Christians United conference was Elliot Abrams, who own contribution to our benevolence to the strongmen in Argentina’s Dirty War and the death squads of Central America (not to mention his conviction, since pardoned, for lying to Congress on these subjects) we noted some time back. It must have seemed like Old Home Week to Abrams when he heard the thrilling words of speaker Sgt. Benjamin Anthony, an Israel Defense Forces veteran: “Hamas started this war. The soldiers of Israel must smash their skulls and break their spines.”

Thrilling as such call to genocide is, and touching as the undeniable pathos and humility of Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, who were honored by Pastor Hagee for some reason, perhaps for nearly derailing Governor Chris Christie’s nascent run for President for his faux pas calling Palestinian terrifies occupied by Israel’s occupying forces “occupied territories,” in telling the audience of war whoopers that they would have prevented the holocaust (if they were, say, 80 years younger and weren’t right-wing Republicans then), I bring this up merely to see what Senator Graham said. And after this long introduction, here it is:

 Here’s a message for America: Don’t ever turn your back on Israel, because God will turn his back on us. More Germans died in World War II than American soldiers. That didn’t make the Germans right.

Graham had deftly picked up on the suggestion that Pastor Hagee opened the conference with: To disregard the casualty reports. And how better than to compare some and children to Nazi soldiers? And what could be more compelling proof of God’s will for America than the relentless carnage of our client? In a few words the Senator showed how he has been able to hold on to the Beauregard-Thurmond seat in the Senate and why our finest broadcast journalists seek his advice. Rarely is the valor of a tested combat veteran combined with the integrity of a man who doesn’t lie about his past in the form of an incisive intellect as is show in this senator.

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