Stories by Machado de Assis

Machado de Assis. (Photograph by Marc Ferrez. 1890.)

Machado de Assis. (Photograph by Marc Ferrez. ca. 1880.)

Dalkey Archive Press has just released a collection of newly translated stories written by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis. The collection is a good occasion for noting that Modernism in fiction was not the exclusive province of Europe and did not have to wait for Joyce. The stories in this collection were published in various Brazilian journals between the mid-1870s to the mid-1880s. This is the period that Machado made a radical shift in style, transforming himself from an amusing teller of parlor romances to a clear-sighted social critic who experimented with a variety of narrative techniques and plot structures.

Machado wrote approximately 200 short stores (in addition to his acclaimed novels) and before this publication only 33 had been translated into English. So the addition of these  13 stories is certainly a boon for that reason alone. But the translation, by Rhett McNeil, is so skillful in following the subtleties in the different narrative voices Macho employs that the volume is both enjoyable and instructive.

What makes the late Machado stories starkly unique is the combination of; (1) blurring the line between naturalism and the fantastic; (2) subtly ironic commentary, which acts as counterpoint to deep psychological insight into the characters and their predicaments; and (3) narrative structures that usually involve at least one significant misdirection and often coil back on themselves to make an ironic or unexpected comment on the nature of the narrative itself.

Other writers around the time were injecting stories with elements of the fantastic. Mark Twain, for example, published Connecticut Yankee in 1889. Maeterlinck would begin his symbolist plays at the end of Machado’s career. Both, however, used fantasy as an effect unto itself. For Twain, it was mainly to produce humorous (or dark humorous) effects. For Maeterlinck the fairy tale structures advertised the symbolism of the themes. Machado, by contrast, admitted fantastic elements as accepted facts, much like a naturalist would use social structures as a given. There is never any mugging over the unreal; when the narrator comments at all it is ordinarily about the characters’ reactions in the given situation, not about the situation. Couples can exchange souls, a psychiatrist is given carte blanche to commit any resident of a town to his asylum, a man drinks an Indian potion that allows him to live forever, Alcibiades returns to life by means of spiritualism. Are these things actually true? In some cases the narrator may have reason to dissemble. But Machado makes no attempt to explain or justify these extravagances. In this way, he was something of a pioneer for later Spanish-speaking Latin American story-tellers, such as Borges (who took this technique to its absurdist conclusions) and the later realismo mágico writers (who employed the fantastic more freely and for other purposes).

As for the narrative point of view, Machado is unflinching in how he reveals the characters’ inner workings and is unsparing in showing the causes and often tragic consequences of the characters’ limited awareness. In this respect, his “psychological” approach was similar to approaches developing in France and Russia. Machado allows the reader to see the inner workings but does not concentrate on the tragedy (as would, for example, Flaubert), preferring instead to allow the character some privacy. Moreover, while Machado was willing to show flaws, some which lead to murder, he never dissects a character to his humiliating core the way Dostoevsky would do. Machado’s view of human nature was no more sanguine than Dostoevsky’s, but his gently sardonic pose made it unnecessary to detail all the attributes of a character’s shortcomings. There is a lightness of touch to his critiques and a willingness to allow the reader to exercise his own judgment. In this respect he reminds one of Jorge Amado, who would be selected to the same Brazilian Academy of Letters 66 years after Machado was chosen its first President.

The last aspect I highlighted, Machado’s plotting technique, is one that I find most interesting. Machado could write a compact short story with an initial premise which picks up momentum before delivering a directly flowing conclusion. A good example is “The Fortune-Teller,” which you can read in a collection of Brazilian tales translated by Isaac Goldberg, Brazilian Tales (Boson: The Four Seas Co.: 1921), found at Project Gutenberg (here). (That book also has two other stories by Machado and is the earliest English version of any of Machado’s short stories.) But Machado’s best short fiction involves narratives which meander as if under their own logic and land in places that are entirely unexpected. Occasionally, the stories do not even land, but just trail off. The effect is something like one has at the conclusion of certain of Chekhov’s tales, when an abrupt or unexpected results induces more reflection than they would if they were inherent in the story’s beginning.

I hesitate to discuss the plot structure of these essentially brand new stories (to English readers) for fear of depriving the reader of the discovery of novelties. Let me simply refer to the story “The Academies of Siam,” which subscribers to Harper’s Monthly can read in the March 2014 issue (here). The story begins with a provocative narration:

Do you know about the academies of Siam? I am well aware that there have never been any academies in Siam, but suppose that there were, and that there were four of them, and just listen to my tale.

The tale begins with a dispute among these academies over a theological point, the gender of the soul. This dispute, as most academic disputes do, becomes intense well beyond its importance. But it soon provides the pretext for one of the concubines in the King’s harem to engineer an intrigue, which will involve the exchanging of souls. The planting of a different soul into an existing person has consequences in the outlook of the new transplant. This in turn requires consultation with the surviving academy, and so the story continues, back and forth, between the concubines’ plottings and the plottings of the academics, neither of which determine the ultimate outcome, which resolves from a different source and yet manages to place in doubt her reliance on the academy in the first place. But of course, as we were told at the outset, that academy never existed. The final sentence is as wry as the opening.

I should note that the stories are both highly imaginative and gracefully told. Beautiful images and flourishes appear unexpectedly, but do not detract from the narrative voice. It is as thought, like the author we are in on some grand joke. “Comedy” exactly as Dante used the term. And while the tales are steeped in learning (classical and Arabic), none of it is flaunted, as it is in too much of European modernism. All of this causes me to wonder why more of these tales are not made available in English.

Fatuous fringe Congressman carries on curious “freedom fight”

Stutzman, the face of the needy Right. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images_

Stutzman, freedom fighter. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images_

Regular readers will remember our friend Marlin Stutzman, the unremarkable, low information Tea Party hack who is paid by the U.S. taxpayers because he won the last election in the 3rd Congressional District of Indiana. Although there is nothing particularly memorable about his service (to himself and friends), you may recall that his brand of mean-spirited, self-satisfied reactionary politics was so extreme that he was booted from the House Leadership byJohn Boehner (no socialist himself).

Well, Stutzman is in the news again. This time it’s not to make poor children hungrier while stuffing his own and friends’ pockets with more government subsidies. No, this time it’s for “religious freedom.”

Ah, religious freedom! The newest scam of the American right. They cherish religion so much that they have been scurrying about trying to preserve in legislation the right of the truly devout to discriminate against other people they don’t approve of. Isn’t that why all that tea was dumped in Boston Harbor that they celebrate so much? Because after all, nothing says Pious like booting someone from your store because he is gay or banning someone from your lunch counter because he is an “untouchable” or contains a “drop of the blood of Cain” or keeping someone out of your country club because he is an infidel. The holy right-wingers have also been professing their love of God by trying to deny health coverage they believe would allow their employees to do perfectly legal things that the modern Sadducees wished they didn’t. Because what is religion if it can’t be used to regulate someone else’s body, especially a woman’s, right? Then Bishop Leonard P. Blair taught us nothing, if he didn’t teach us that.

But Stutzman has not weighed in on those things. All available vapid arguments had already been urged for those religious freedoms, so there was nothing for Stutzman to add.  No, Stutzman’s new fight is for the right to be free from education. This is an important right to those of the particular form of Christian belief that Stutzman subscribes to. For you see science, math, history and literature all tend to contradict the tenets of their faith. So public education is seen as inimical to their right to inflict their ignorance on their children. Not that Indiana has infringed that right. Stutzman was acting not on behalf of a constituent, or even an American citizen. Rather he was asking for asylum for a family that had escaped Germany so that they could prevent their children (as best they could) from learning anything that might make them doubt their old-time religion. Stutzman was not alone in this. He joined 26 other House Republicans in a letter to Eric Holder, requesting asylum for the family, even though the Supreme Court (that den of secular humanism) denied their right to claim asylum for religious persecution.

Although he was merely acting in lockstep with the others, Stuztman’s office gave a particular personal touch to the appeal. According to the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette he requesting the Obama Administration to “reject the European belief that children belong to the state ….”  It must have been well known in the home school that Stutzman was educated in that “Europeans” (Monacans?, the Swiss?, the Danes?) routinely rip children from their parents to be used in whatever godless socialistic endeavors “Europeans” use them for. This probably was not the best argument (unless it was simply rhetorical), because all wingnuts know that this Administration is dangerously close to being European. (Or anti-colonial as Newt Gingrich once quaintly put it when he was struggling to become the darling of the non-thinking right. But then that seems to be the exact opposite of being European, doesn’t it? No matter. We’re talking about a group not known for critical tinkling.)

What seems to have added positive weight to this political machine rolling with holy inertia was the personal touch. Stutzman announced, to great public interest no doubt, that he and his (female) wife “made the decision to homeschool their sons for a time.” This may have been what turned the tide in favor of the beleaguered family seeking refuge from the dictatorial Teutonic state, because not long after this announcement (or even before, God works in mysterious ways for his faithful), the Justice Department decided to put this case into “deferred action” status, which means there will be no attempt to deport these aliens whose visas have expired. Surely if it’s good enough for Stuzman, it ought to be universally practiced, even if we have to make the opportunity available to aliens who have overstayed their visas. But at least they won’t be burdening our overworked public school systems, so that’s a relief.

Although all the faithful will undoubtedly be grateful to Stutzman for his brave pioneering for religious liberty, I’m still left with two nagging questions. First, why didn’t Stutzman use his own homeschooling as an example of the virtues of religious freedom? Could it have been that since it failed to provide him with the minimal schooling necessary to obtain a degree either Glen Oaks Community College or Tri-State University, where he toiled without success, it wasn’t considered a “successful home schooling” among his party who see the promotion of entrepreneurial accomplishments as the sole criterion for education? The u I’m sure hope for better education for their sons. (If they are under Mr. Stutzman’s tutelage for long, however, I wouldn’t expect to see them in any “learned profession.”)  Yet surely Stutzman’s defective education was compensated by his religious instruction, right? Even the poorly educated can benefit from instruction in charity and compassion. But, alas, for Stutzman that education seems to have not taken hold either. For when the National Evangelical Association (the group which lobbies on behalf of the doctrines subscribed to by Stutzman’s professed faith) urged him to refrain from a vote that would drastically cut food stamps to the nation’s hungry, for Jesus’ sake, Stutzman denied his lord and sided with Mammon. I guess part of religious liberty, for the publican, is the freedom to profess one thing and practice another.

But still how can these sacred libertarians be happy with the resolution they sought? Is it not the exact same thing that they rail against when talking of immigrants over our southern border? Isn’t this German family living in the United States illegally? And isn’t the action of the Administration to refrain from deportation the very same illegal tyranny that the right wing railed against when the Justice Department used it to allow children who had grown up in America, had actually done well at a real school and had either given service in the military or done well in secondary education to remain in the only country they knew? Surely it could not be skin color that accounts for the difference. That wouldn’t be Christian, would it? But then again, we are talking about Marlin Stutzman and the “religious” right.

Bierstadt comes back East—to Waterbury

Albert Bierstadt photographed by Bierstadt Brothers, ca. 1875. (Carte de Visite. Smithsonian Museum of Art.)

Albert Bierstadt photographed by Bierstadt Brothers, ca. 1875. (Carte de Visite. Smithsonian Museum of Art.)

The reputation of Nineteenth Century American painter Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) differs depending which camp you belong to. Art critics and art-for-art’s-sake connoisseurs generally find his work derivative, lacking a personal artistic vision and even in compositional and technical fundamentals. Painter John F. Weir, for example, described his large canvases as “vast illustrations of scenery … carelessly and crudely executed … .” Contemporary English critics (when Bierstadt showed his works in London) found his bright colors in bad taste. Later in the century, as art became mrs of a calling than a profession, Bierstadt’s reputation as an aesthete was harmed because he had quite intentionally, and astonishingly successfully, sought after popular acclaim and pecuniary fortune.

On the other hand, historians of American culture (particularly those who incline towards American exceptionalism) as well as collectors (wealthy patrons then, mostly museums now) hail Bierstadt as something of  visual discoverer of the American West and as something of a second generation seer of Romantic American Transcendentalist—one of those who saw in Nature America’s promise and, as Robert Hughes claimed, who produced the “paintings that did the most to promote the image of the Manifest Destiny … .” Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser (curator of the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum) puts it a bit more prosaically: “Bierstadt’s depictions of the little-known scenery of the American West appealed to the new industrial upper middle class, who valued their great size and virtuoso workmanship as well as their celebration of America’s seemingly limitless natural resources.”

Among the Sierra Nevada, California by Albert Bierstadt (Oil on canvas. 1868. Smithsonian American Art Museum)

Among the Sierra Nevada, California by Albert Bierstadt (Oil on canvas. 1868. Smithsonian American Art Museum)

If you know Bierstadt at all, you probably know him from these oversized landscapes of the west, such as Among the Sierra Nevada, California at the Smithsonian, which is representative of his dramatic (and sometimes flamboyant) landscapes. This one is actually better than representative. E.P. Richardson (the late director of the Detroit Institute of Art) noted that “When his big dramatic pictures do not come off, they are dreadful. when they do, they have an excitement for us still after one hundred years: what must they have meant when all this was really new, to the eyes of his own time!” The Sierra Navada canvas at the Smithsonian is one of the very best, but when seen in small reproductions today, it has a commercial, even kitsch quality to it, like something in a chain hotel hallway. But on first encountering it, its massive size (it measures 72 x 120 1/8 in. (183 x 305 cm)) makes the apparent burst of light from the center top of the image appear transcendent. If it had been made 300 years earlier, the Lord of Hosts would have appeared in the middle of it. That light, just over the shoulder of a snow-capped peak in the center background, dramatically illuminates the cliffs on one side and the trees on the other, both of which tower over a line of deer in the foreground. The first impression is of coming over a hill as the sun is breaking from behind cloud cover to reveal a pristine valley of unsurpassed beauty. You can imagine this painting’s appeal to wealthy Eastern industrialists who wanted to make a dramatic statement about  their own importance (and wealth), by having such a work  grace the wall of their estate. And so, in this case, it did. This particular Bierstadt was acquired by William Brown Dinsmore in 1873 and installed in “The Locusts,” the family estate in Duchess County, New York, before it ended up a national treasure.

Rocky Mountains, Lander's Peak by Albert Bierstadt. (Oil on canvas. 1863. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.)

Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak by Albert Bierstadt. (Oil on canvas. 1863. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.)

On seeing more of these works, it’s hard to shake the conclusion that Bierstadt had stumbled upon a lucrative and methodical way of prying loot from the overlords of the Gilded Age. The pictures seem more and more alike the more one sees. Take an earlier painting at the Met, Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak. The picture is slightly larger than the last one (73 1/2 x 120 3/4 in. (186.7 x 306.7 cm) and the sky lacks the dramatic cloud cover. But otherwise, there is still the same burst of light in the center, and there is a row of ungulates in the foreground. (This picture, however, is not of pristine countryside; there are structures by Native Americans behind the animals.) There is no obvious source of the spotlight in the center. It can’t be the sun, since the shadows of the figures are not consistent with light in that space. But the light, however unexplainable, serves the same function as the sun in Among the Sierra Nevada: It opens up and spotlights the most physically dramatic aspect of the landscape, in this case a waterfall. And once again, it is perfectly suitable for sale to those most likely to pay the highest price.

Mount Corcoran by Albert Bierstadt. (Oil on canvass. ca. 1876-77. Corcoran Museum of Art, Washington, D.C.

Mount Corcoran by Albert Bierstadt. (Oil on canvass. ca. 1876-77. Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.)

Let’s look at one more example, Mount Corcoran, which hangs at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. As with the other two, there is a central body of water, in front of a mountain range. In this case there is only one animal, a bear (?) apparently seeking a drink. Once again the light peaks through the clouds, although this time, the shadows show the source of the sunlight. The picture, like the other two has geological uplifts and trees to cradle the central focus, the lake. And as with the other two, that lake is fed by a waterfall from the mountains in the central background.

The odd thing about Bierstadt’s marketing of the paintings was that despite the fairly uniform overall composition of the landscapes, he insisted that the paintings were not works of artistic imagination, but rather accurate renderings of specific places.  This evidently mattered to his customers, who believed they were purchasing views of nature rather than works of genius. The desire for verisimilitude was so strong that it even deceived sophisticated collectors. Mount Corcoran was sold to William Wilson Corcoran with a War Department map showing the location of the purported mount. When the gallery’s curator several days later discovered that the mountain was a fiction, Bierstadt was unapologetic, claiming that he named the peak.

It’s one thing for an artist to hit on a formula and stick with it for money. Picasso, after all, spent most of his last three decades amassing a fortune that way. Of course, Picasso had a substantial body of work and innovation (among the greatest in the history of art) before 1940. What was Bierstadt’s body of work before the Western Canvasses? The exhibition entitled “Albert Bierstadt in New York & New England” at the Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury, Connecticut (through March 2) gives a good sample of his early, and Eastern work. In fact, to my knowledge it is the only show that has every tried to examine his non-Western works in any systematic way. Before looking at the works in this exhibition, however, it’s probably best to give some biographical context.

Albert Bierstadt in trick double photograph by Charles Bierstadt. (From Carte de visite album of Edward Anthony. Photograph dated 1861. Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

Albert Bierstadt in trick double photograph by Charles Bierstadt. (From Carte de visite album of Edward Anthony. Photograph dated 1861. Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

Bierstadt spent his early life in New Bedford, Massachusetts, after his family emigrated in 1831 from Solingen, a city in the Rhenish provide of the Prussian Kingdom, especially know for its blacksmith (and whitesmith) industries. Albert’s father took up the trade of cooper in the new city, a hub of maritime activity. Albert’s two brother became successful photographers, although they first had to escape their apprenticeships to useful trades. Charles (the oldest) set up shop at the Niagara Falls and Edward (two years younger than Charles and 6 years older than Albert) had a studio in New York City and also took photographs during the Civil War, based from a tavern in Virginia. Edward and Charles would later form the firm of Bierstadt Brothers, which, holding a patent on a new form of stereoscope, had considerable publishing success. (One exhibit at the Mattatuck show shows a book of the Biernstadts’ stereoscopic prints with a viewer cleverly built into a flap on the book’s cover. Both brothers would Both these brothers would play a role in Albert’s career, by providing photographs form which Albert could paint landscapes in his studio and also by producing engravings of Albert’s paintings.

The cooperage business must have become relatively prosperous, because there is no evidence that Albert was ever shunted off to an apprenticeship. He was allowed to develop (almost certainly alone) his talent for making crayon drawings, and in his early 20s for oil painting. He gave drawing lessons for his support. His advertisements promised to show pupils how to make creditable drawings after the first lesson (“good pictures at their first attempt, far superior to their own expectations”). That is perhaps the first clue to the entrepreneurial inclination that guided his (and his brothers’) art.

Captain William G. Blakler by Chester Hardin (?) (Oil on canvas. ca. 18-5. The Whaling Museum, New Bedford, Massachusetts.)

Captain William G. Blackler by Chester Hardin (?) (Oil on canvas. ca. 1830-35. The Whaling Museum, New Bedford, Massachusetts.)

Bierstadt’s pictures evidently impressed locals enough to sponsor his trip to Germany for intensive art education. Bierstadt had exhibited several times, had sold paintings to locals and even produced exhibitions for others, he twice produced George Harvey’s watercolor show using a magic lantern, which dissolved pictures into one. (None of his work before traveling to Europe seems to have survived, however.) As a result of Bierstadt’s local fame and probably to enhance his own reputation as a leading citizen and wealthy patron of the arts, Captain William G. Blackler provided the funds for Albert to travel to the Rhenish province to study in Düsseldorf with Johann Peter Hasenclever, an artist of some modest renown. The choice of master was probably not based on any familiarity with his works. In fact, an artist less sympathetic to the what would become Bierstadt’s signature style would have been hard to find.

Evening Society by Johann Peter Hasenclever. (Oil on canvas. 1859. Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne, Germany.)

Evening Society by Johann Peter Hasenclever. (Oil on canvas. 1859. Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne, Germany.)

Hasenclever specialized in the intricacies of human relations and his gaze was always fixed on small social groups. He was not particularly interested in the beauty of nature, whether delicate or grandiose. Light was used to model the human form, not cause the heart to flutter at the first gaze at a dramatic landscape.

Bierstadt sought out Hasenclever mainly because he had a connection—Hasenclever was Bierstadt’s mother’s cousin. But when Bierstadt arrived in Düsseldorf, he learned that Hasenclever was dead. Not daunted, Bierstadt applied to American painters Emanuel Leutze (recently famous in America for exhibition of his Washington Crossing the Delaware Fame) and Worthington Whittredge (who would later return to American to be part of the Hudson River school of painters), asking their recommendation for him to study with the landscape painter Andreas Achenbach. They reviewed the work he had brought as audition pieces from America and concluded he had no talent. To preserve his self-respect, they told him Achenbach did not take students.

Study for Sunlight and Shadows by Albert Bierstadt. (Oil on canvas. 1855. Newark Museum, Newark, N.j.)

Study for Sunlight and Shadows by Albert Bierstadt. (Oil on paper mounted on canvas. 1855. Newark Museum, Newark, N.j.)

None daunted, Bierstadt bucked down to a life of an anti-social hermit (to avoid the expense that sociability would entail) and studied for several months at Whittredge’s studio. He then went off on his own to be among the Westphalian peasants to draw. When he returned in the fall, Whittredge marveled at his accomplishments, particularly admired “one very remarkable study of sunlight on the steps of an old church which some years afterwards was turned into a picture that gave him more fame than anything he had painted.” Wittredge was as impressed by the amount of work Bierstadt had produced as by its quality, especially given that he was essentially untutored.

Whittredge was right to single out the study for Sunlight and Shadows; it represents the peak of a style that Bierstadt would abandon when he fixed on his popular style. It examines the effect of sunlight, filtered through the leaves of a tree (not seen). The light and shadows model the statues and columns and gives a sense of real place, a solidness that isn’t conveyed in his gigantic western landscapes, even though those paintings deal largely with views of massive rock structures. It has a visual intricacy to it that his later works would shun in favor of flamboyance.

Sunlight and Shadow by Albert Bierstadt. (Oil on canvas. 1862. de Young Museum, San Fransisco, California.)

Sunlight and Shadow by Albert Bierstadt. (Oil on canvas. 1862. de Young Museum, San Fransisco, California.)

The study was not improved upon by his principal painting on the subject, which he completed seven years later. The principal difference is that he added the tree that produced the shadows to the composition. The tree, however, has an unreal quality to it, stylized, like the trees in many of his epic canvases. The second painting also has a peasant woman sitting on the stairs leaning on the pedestal of the foremost statue cradling a sleeping child. The figures were undoubtedly added for a touch of sentimentality, but as in almost all Bierstadt’s work, the face is obscured and the people play essentially an ornamental role. The romanticism that the figures injected into the study of light, however, is what attracted its first acclamation. Reviewing an exhibition of the work submitted to the annual April show at the National Academy of Design in New York in 1862, the critic of the New-York Evening Post (at the time a respectable newspaper) called the work “probably the most perfectly satisfactory pairing the artist has ever produced.” He especially pointed out the “old woman sated on the step of the church, which a sleeping child on her lap” which made the “whole work” “one of the happiest delineations of noonday repose which we have ever seen.” Bierstadt by this time had finger on the commercial pulse and used that knowledge to his advantage.

Bierstadt remained in Europe for four years, including extended stays in the Bernese Alps and in Italy. He return din the late summer of 1857 and set about establishing himself. He set up a studio in New Bedford and advertised for students to learn monochromatic painting. (He got four.) He converted his European studies to oils and showed them in his hometown, Boston and made his first submission to the National Academy of Design. (It was a picture then called Lake Luzerne, which now cannot be identified.) The New York papers gave his work missed reviews, and one, The Crayon, though commending his “command of landscapes,” remarked on his tendency shown from this beginning to use large canvasses: “The same ability on a smaller scale would be more roundly appreciated.” That painting was one of the centerpieces of a show he mounted in New Bedford he called “An Exhibition in Painting,” which in addition to 14 of his own works, included paintings of Frederick E. Church, Thomas Cole, J.F. Cropsey, Emanuel Leutze, and Andreas Achenbach.

His interest in visual devices (like the Magic Lantern) led him to tinkering with the stereograph camera.  He conceived the idea that its use in the American West would allow him to create landscapes that would be commercial valuable in the East. So he decided by the end of 1858 to join Colonel Frederick West Landler’s annual survey of western routes and native relations for the Overland Trail. He intended to specialize in wild scenes and “picturesque facts of Indian life.” His trip lasted through most of 1859. He met the party in St. Louis and travelled through the territories as far away as to what is now Wyoming. When he returned he took up residence at the new (and soon to be famous) artist Studio Building on West 10th Street in New York City. He was also able on his return to reduce his brothers from their failed work working business. (During his trip the valuable wood inventory in their shop had been destroyed by fire.) They became photographers and stenographers thereafter.

Beirstad worked on his Western canvases in his New York studio, but me with only moderate success over the next few years. His contributions to the National Academy Exhibitions went unnoticed. His first found no buyers and he gave it away. He tried his hand a war photography. In the fall of 1861 under pass from General Winfield Scott he and Leutze and his brother Edward visited the area around Washington, D.C. Back in New York he converted his sketches and photos into paintings. He even did a sprawling landscape showing the bombardment of Fort Sumter (in a distance from the Charleston harbor, as he imagined it perhaps from Harper’s Weekly illustrations of it).

The Bombardment of Fort Sumter by Albert Bierstadt. (Oil on canvas. 1963? Union League of Philadelphia.)

The Bombardment of Fort Sumter by Albert Bierstadt. (Oil on canvas. 1963? Union League of Philadelphia.)

Not having mastered how to render the human form, much less a figure in motion, Bierstadt’s combat pictures were unconvincing and his landscape approach was unable to capture the drama, horror or tragedy of the conflict. In any event, Bierstadt was not interested in the Union cause. In 1862 he was beginning to receive critical attention (with his Sunshine and Shadow), and proposed another trip West. In 1862 he was beginning to receive critical attention (with his Sunshine and Shadow), and proposed another trip West. Evidently he was planning to go with Harvard paleontologist Alpheus Hyatt, when the latter graduated the following Spring of 1862. Bierstadt went to Washington to obtain a letter of recommendation to present to U.S. Army forts in the West. He prevailed on Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner to write a letter to the Secretary of War requesting that the U.S. “Govt. should do every thing possible to promote” Bierstadt’s expedition. It did not produce a result from the War Department. Bierstadt blamed Sumner. He expressed his contempt for the government’s excessive preoccupation with the war (which was not yet being fought for emancipation) and for Sumner in an outpouring of self-pity and racist bile to Hyatt: “I think if  Sumner had taken a little more interest int h matter in the outset we should have got what we wanted, but he seems to be so much absorbed in the Paleontology of the nigger that he forgets there are other fossils in other parts of the U.S. …” He cancelled his plans, and instead travelled to New Hampshire’s White Mountains to paint.

The next year Bierstadt was drafted in the call up of 1863. He paid the bounty to provide a proxy and thus avoided military duty. (Hyatt enlisted.  He would later become an eminent naturalist.) He decided that his fortune lie in another Western trip. This trip, which took place in 1863, was designed only for sketches and studies, no stereography. This expedition to him to Denver, Salt Lake City, Lake Tahoe, San Francisco, Yosemite, Portland and the Cascade Mountains. It was the landscapes that emerged from this trip that ensured his fame and fortune. These were the ones where he married his personal “luminism” to dramatic scenery. Over time it would become cliché, but before then he earned an astonishing amount of money. In 1965, he married and went on a 2-year honeymoon. When he returned he and his bride moved into the mansion he had constructed, Malkasten, in Irving-on-Hudson in Westchester County, New York. The estate had 35 rooms with a studio 60 feet long and with 35 foot tall windows overlooking the Hudson River. His father-in-law would build him another house in Waterville in Oneida County, New York, and Bierstadt would take temporary lodgings and studios in San Francisco, Paris and elsewhere. More than secure financially, Bierstadt would spend the rest of his life attempting to outdo the critical acclaim that Frederick E. Church had achieved. He would not succeed at this.

That is enough biography to put the Mattatuck exhibition in context. The show is a fairly small one, consisting of 17 paintings (and some stereographs in a glass case). The exhibition was organized by the Thomas Cole National Historic Site in Catskill New York, and curated by Annette Blaugrund (former director of the National Academy Museum). It consists of a representative grouping of Bierstadt’s works depicting scenes in New England and New York. The paintings range from shortly after his return from Europe in 1858 to 1886, when he had established his reputation (and his style had become ossified).  It focuses on landscapes that were not central to his ambition or his reputation, and thus show what his underlying craft was composed of. And when we no longer confront the intentional dramatic and the idiosyncratic uses of light, we can draw some conclusions about the art of Bierstadt.

The first thing that strikes one looking into Bierstadt’s early work is that there is no painting about the place he came from. New Bedford was the center of the New England whaling industry, the industry that his family depended on as was growing up. He never completed a painting about whaling vessels or the men involved in them, or the trades that supported them. In fact, there is no work about New Bedford at all. Bierstadt was always looking for the exotic, as those the place were the thing of interest, not the artists’ view of it.  When one looks carefully at what he finds interesting in his early pictures, one finds that he is harkening back to something, not in the landscape but in some image which looks similar to the vista he is painting.

Autumn in the Conway Meadows Looking toward Mount Washington by Albert Bierstadt.* (Oil on canvas. 1858. Estate of Price Family.) * indicates that the work is being shown at the Mattatuck exhibition.

Autumn in the Conway Meadows Looking toward Mount Washington by Albert Bierstadt.* (Oil on canvas. 1858. Estate of Price Family.) * indicates that the work is being shown at the Mattatuck exhibition.

The earliest paining in the exhibit is a good example. Autumn in the Conway Meadows is ostensibly about a specific place in New Hampshire. But on close inspection, things are out of place. First, the deer do not appear to be the white-tailed deer that inhabit the area. The buck’s antlers are too large and not branching. Rather they look more like deer common in Europe. Bierstadt’s inattentiveness to animal form is common. Around the same time he painted a historical painting he entitled Gosnald at Cuttyhunk, 1602, which can be seen at the Whaling Museum in New Bedford. The same deer are there, closer to the viewer, and it is even more obvious that they are not North American animals. Not only does the buck have the same non-native antlers, the doe does not have the characteristic white tail. Even in his Western pictures which were supposed to illustrate the “wild,’ his portrayal of animals is odd. The antelope are too long and the bear (for example, in Mount Corcoran, above) are too rounded, pig-like. Is this because he added the animals from some sketch he took of other work? That conclusion is strengthened when we look at the nearest mountain in the background of Autumn in Conway Meadows. There we see a distinctly looking European castle, one that doesn’t exist in New Hampshire. What was it doing there? Did Bierstadt not think the scene as it existed was interesting enough? Or was the castle simply part of what Bierstadt thought when with a distant mountain in a painting?

View near Newport by Albert Bierstadt.* (Oil on canvas. 185. Currier Museum of Art, Manchester, N.H.)

View near Newport by Albert Bierstadt.* (Oil on canvas. 1859. Currier Museum of Art, Manchester, N.H.)

The curiousness of his compositional sameness can be seen in the exhibit’s View Near Newport. Much as that painting evokes a particular place at a particular time, so much is it odd to compare it to an earlier work said to depict Capri, Fishing Boats at Capri, which hangs t the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Not only is the point of view the same, with rising landmass to the (viewer’s) left and an ocean to the right, but also the ocean cuts the same kind of semi-circle into the land and holds the same sail-boats off in the distance. And the overcast sky is almost identical. The earlier painting in Boston, completed in 1857, presumably was based on sketches from his time in Italy. It also has many figures on shore, something that he eliminated over time. But how could such different places have such similarities to a supposedly realistic landscaper? It is of course not a crime to paint a landscape that really doesn’t exist, but why assign specific locations to them? Why purport to be showing what really can be seen? Was it simply because art consumers did not accept the artist as a creator? Or was it that Bierstadt was more comfortable repeating compositions and elements?

Mount Ascutney from Claremont, New Hampshire by Albert Biertstadt.* (Oil on canvas. 1862. Fruitlands Museum, Harvard, Massachusetts.)

Mount Ascutney from Claremont, New Hampshire by Albert Biertstadt.* (Oil on canvas. 1862. Fruitlands Museum, Harvard, Massachusetts.)

The show’s selections are all thoughtfully made and all produce questions to those who thought they knew Bierstadt. Even when easy truisms are presented, the show has enough context to shower doubt on them. At the center (temporally) of the exhibition are two views of Claremont, New Hampshire. One was pointed in 1862 (owned by the Fruitlands Museum) and another in 1868 (owned by the Berkshire Museum). That segment of Bierstadt critical opinion which holds that his work reflected some debt felt understanding of the country urged that the earlier one presented the Norther, Union cause as the one of peace and harmony and the later one reflected on the riven condition of our national fabric as evidenced by the broken trunks in the foreground. Even if one were ignorant of Bierstadt’s cavalier attitude toward the war to suppress the slaveholders’ rebellion, the juxtaposition of the two paintings demonstrates the absurdity of the distinction.

Connectiuct River Valley, Claremont, New Hampshire by Albert Bierstadt.* (Oil on canvas as 1868. Berkshire Museum, Pittsfield, Massachusetts.)

Connectiuct River Valley, Claremont, New Hampshire by Albert Bierstadt.* (Oil on canvas as 1868. Berkshire Museum, Pittsfield, Massachusetts.)

The two views, six years apart, were not meant as a comparison. Bierstardt makes no reference to the earlier work either run composition or title. The fact that there are broken branches in the foreground of the later picture no more signifies a social comment than the broken tree in the (viewer’s) left mid ground in the earlier landscape. In any event, the cattle seem not less concerned, even if the grass is higher in the second painting.

Among the other works at the exhibit are four of the 200 or so studies for the large painting Emerald Pond, perhaps the only significant omission of an exhibition of Bierstadt’s Eastern paintings (which is now held in the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Virgina). Bierstadt painted this one monumental work of the East once he intuited the nostalgic appeal of a view of the pond to the wealthy vacationers at this White Mountain resort. The care he lavished on composing the work with its intricate studies , shows that despite the fact that Bierstadt’s primary goal was popular and financial rewards he was nonetheless a consummate craftsman in attaining his goals.

Autumn Woods by Albert Bierstadt.* (Oil on linen. 1886. New York Historical Society.)

Autumn Woods by Albert Bierstadt.* (Oil on linen. 1886. New York Historical Society.)

The last (chronologically) painting of the exhibit is his Autumn Woods (1886), normally seen in the New York Historical Society. The work shows a central lake surrounded by trees of flaming bright-colored foliage. It is the stylized ending of his mechanical production of landscapes. When the painting was shown in London, critics carped at the bright colors as though it were an offense against taste. The London Post‘s correspondent assured everyone that North American trees turned brilliant colors in the Fall. Like most journalistic critics, the Post‘s correspondent had not given enough reflection to the subject—verisimilitude was not something Bierstadt value (or even should have valued). The real question was whether the departure from verisimilitude was motivated by aesthetic or commercial considerations. The Mattatuck exhibit will give a good basis for making an informed decision.

The Mattatuck show runs until March 2. For those unfamiliar with the museum, rest assured that it is a serious, although small, one. If you Bierstadt is not enough to bring you to Waterbury (a city plagued by both de-industrialization and more than its share of political corruption), consider that the museum has an extensive selection of the Whitney’s Alex Katz works. There is no catalog of the works in the Bierstadt exhibit, so you must see them in person, if at all.

In addition, the area (which includes Hartford and the Five College towns of Western Massachusetts) has an extensive collection of the Hudson River School (of which Bierstadt is lumped, for reasons that involve collectors’ and curators’ preferences). If (as I suspect) you will not board Metro North to experience this footnote to art history, I hope to give shortly a summary of the art to be found there.

Sources

Nancy K. Anderson, Albert Bierstadt: Art and Enterprise (New York: Brooklyn Museum/Hudson Hills: 1990).

Sarah Cash (ed.), Corcoran Gallery of Art: American Paintings to 1945 (Manchester, Vt: Hudson Hills Press: 2011).

James Thomas Flexner, The Wilder Image: The Painting of America’s Native School from Thomas Cole to Winslow Homer (Boston: Little, Brown: [1962]).

Gordon Hendricks, Albert Bierstadt: Painter of the American West (New York: Harrison House with Harry N. Abrams, Inc: 1975).

Robert Hughes, American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America. (London: The Harvill Press: 1998).

Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser & Amy Ellis, Maureen Miesmer (eds.), Hudson River School: Masterworks from the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art (New Haven: Yale University Press: 2003).

Peter E. Palmquist, Pioneer Photographers from the Mississippi to the Continental Divide: A Biographical Dictionary, 1839-1865 (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, ©2005).

 Edward P. Richardson, Painting in America (New York: T.Y. Crowell: 1956).

Why Evolution Matters: The Case against Benign Tolerance

Trading on the publicity generated by the so-called “debate” between Bill Nye and creationist Ken Ham which took place at the Creation Museum in Kentucky on February 4, William Saletan has written a piece for Slate, urging that it doesn’t matter that Ham or any of his followers believe in “creationism,” because it has no real world consequences. (If you have not heard of either Ken Ham or this farcical “debate,” you are probably better off. But if you are to read Saletan’s piece or this post, you might want to see bits of the debate itself, which is posted in its entirety on Youtube.) He argues that Nye overstates the case that Ham is anti-science and claims that such a belief can be compartmentalized in a way that allows the believer to otherwise participate fully in modernism, including all parts of science and technology.

The piece is not rank idiocy as is much of the “defense” of the supposed thought-system of creationism. Saletan freely admits that creationism is an absurd and logically inconsistent view of the world, unsupported by shred of evidence. It requires suspension of disbelief in favor of a particular version of a single ancient religious source, and there is no principal based on anything other than solipcism that would allow one to select that particular text and that particular interpretation of the text to the exclusion of others. Nevertheless, Salaten claims that if the belief can be compartmentalized, in the way he says Ham has done, it allows the believer to participate fully in every science, technology and other modern reason-dictated endeavor, only permitting him a peculiar notion of history, which has no real bearing on what we are about today.

First, I have to acknowledge that Slate has a well-deserved reputation for advancing contrarian pieces as mere click-baits, and Saletan is one of the more regular practitioners of this form of hucksterism. But, notwithstanding the first point, Saletan’s argument is plausible sounding and not odiously provocative as most pandering pieces trolling for advertisement hits are. Moreover, Saletan’s general perspective draws on a long line of respect or tolerance of diversity in opinion, most notably expressed by Thomas Jefferson’s quip: “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are 20 gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” But Saletan’s suggestion that Ham’s belief is simply quirky misconceives the nature of the creationist enterprise. And while we all have quirky superstitions (except perhaps the self-deluded or the excessively prissy rationalists), it is not the same thing to hit the dirt around the batter’s box before taking a swing and actually believing that those actions are required for one to hit the ball (and to collect money for paying people to disseminate such a belief and proselytize others). With these caveats in mind, let’s see if there is a way that Mr. Answers in Genesis ought to be invited into the conversation of 21th humanism.

Debunking creationism is a full-time endeavor done much better by others (for instance, Talk Origins). I generally avoid thinking about the creationist empire of thought, because it reduces me to a kind of despair over the educatability of a large segment of the population. “Debating” creationists is a largely self-defeating endeavor, because they defend no particular position, their position cannot be falsified (because it uses increasing abstractions to avoid any sort of empirical examination), and the debater confronts a mind-set so fundamentally anti-modern and anti-rational that it saps strength better employed in learning from and teaching those who are willing to engage in non-dogmatic discourse.

It would be one thing if Saletan’s piece were simply an updated rebuke (first uttered by one who the creationists claim to respect) to the effect: “Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.” But it is more. It claims that the belief itself is harmless and that “scientists” can fully function in every respect that is important to modern humanity while still carving out a space for this odd falsehood. I here briefly list the reasons why this argument is ultimately wrong.

1. It is not possible to compartmentalize a belief in a falsehood. Saletan claims that once Ham has subscribed to a notion that everything was personally created 6,000 years ago (and that a short time later life on earth was destroyed except for what was saved by Noah on a wooden barque), he is able to believe everything else that we believe thereafter. He even believes in a sort of evolution, because everything we know much have come from the Ark by some natural process (the Bible does not say otherwise) from the time of Noah. He can believe in plate tectonics, mutation, evolution of viruses (and therefore the theory behind vaccines), seeming relatedness of organisms (genetically and phenotypically), and so forth. He is able to do this because he can posit that God gave everything a “backstory.” He created stars hundreds of millions of light years away already with seeming ancient light already streaming the whole way to Earth. He created sediment layers with a seeming history that goes back before creation. He allows seeming survival of the fittest on multiple layers, in the wild, in our bodies, among our cells, between parasites, hosts, symbionts, etc. — well, we don’t know why he does that, but it doesn’t necessary show a history, according to Ham.

The problem is that this theory bleeds around the edges. It sets up barriers to inquiry which can only be overcome by appeal to a non-rational trick (one not supported by any text in the Bible): that God intended us to believe, given the overwhelming evidence, in something historically untrue; namely, that the universe, the earth, life and our ancestry go back untold millions of years before they did.

To believe that God played this trick is to inform one’s view of the “personality” of God. Is he a deceiver? Does he want us to not believe in him? Is this all a game? Answers to these questions must inform the world-view of people like Ham, who have to do intellectual gymnastics (and failing to land the jump) to maintain a belief that is not really required by the religious text.

2. Young creationist beliefs make much of science unreliable. Evolution, the descent of all Earth-based living things from one (or as Darwin backtracked “a few forms,” see the last sentence of On the Origin of Species), is the central organizing principle of modern biology. This endeavor involves much more than simply a view of ancient, irrelevant history. The principles of evolution, the relatedness of all living things, the mechanisms by which living things differentiate themselves over time, is central to all aspects of biology, including medicine. It involves a view of the operation of genes, the relation of parts of an ecosystem, the reliability of testing on organisms for technologies that are designed for use on humans, and so forth. Saletan dismisses this by saying that Ham believes that all of that started the day after creation. But such a belief is nonsense.

It is not simply biology that is implicated. Young earth creationism denies the entire endeavor of geology, which is based on the fundamental principle of uniformitarianism. It makes unreliable all inquiry in astronomy, astrophysics, cosmology.

Let’s just look at geology. The assumptions that sediment layers reveal history has been accepted since the days of James Hutton. It is the basis of much of the reconstruction of geological history. That history in turn is used for making inferences about things like atmospheric gas content in particular ages. Those inferences can be compared to evidence of consequences of particular atmospheric conditions, including climate, conditions of life, large scale cycles like carbon cycles, volcanism, ocean currents, ocean chemical and mineral content. In turn a reconstruction of the geological conditions of the past can lead to modeling of climate and other conditions under similar circumstances in the future. Much of the modeling of climate change is confirmed by conditions described by historical geology. This, of course, is why many people choose to disbelieve it.

In short, belief in unscientific history has real world consequences, and in the case of climate change, potentially existential consequences.

3. Creationism is a sectarian belief promulgated by a particular type of fundamentalism. It should be apparent from the name of the organization behind Ham’s Creation Museum (“Answers in Genesis”) that the enterprise doesn’t even purport to be one seeking new knowledge. The answers are already there! It is in fact simply a peculiar form of cultish belief. Not all Christians believe in special Deistic creation. In fact, not all fundamentalists believe in young earth creationism (as this odd clip of the notorious Pat Robertson, no shrinking flower when it comes to confronting modernism shows). The enterprise seeks followers (not scholars).

4. The enterprise obtains money from the public and uses it to waste more public money. Ham’s organization collects money, not just from gullible followers, but also from the taxpayer. Ham succeeded in having Governor Steve Beshear (a Democrat!) propose a $43 million tax break for the construction of an “ark” like in Genesis during a time when the state budget called for a 6.4 percent cut to education. This is real money not being spent on the hungry, the unemployed, real science, research or education. Moreover, Ham is not alone. Creationists at the Discovery Institute and related entities solicit funds, based on the same “quirk” that Ham believes in, and then use the money not only to proselytize, but also to litigate in favor a filling schools with this “quirky” belief. Moreover, the Discovery Institute not only promotes creationism, it sponsors a wide variety of conservative and reactionary thought on public policy including taxes and spending. Fundamentalism has fellow travelers among the right wing. In fact it is one ideological, and fund-raising arm. of modern American, anti-intellectual reaction.

4. Belief in a falsehood has consequences. Would you want your child taught by someone who openly professes that there is a conspiracy among Jewish bankers to control the world? Is the obvious answer because you know that such a belief carries with it other beliefs and programs that are antithetical to modern life? What if your child’s history teacher believed that Illuminism was a driving force in modern thought since the Enlightenment and is a secret worship of the devil?

The fact is that people who hold “quirky” beliefs do so because they have an agenda. The agenda is usually anti-modern and it appeals to the hidden prejudices and irrational hatreds of people who are otherwise disillusioned. How could it be that nearly every single scientist who studied the matter in depth for at least the last 90 years subscribes to the framework of evolution principally driven by natural selection and the fact of evolution by other mechanisms by nearly all scientists for 50 years before that? The answer has to be stunning ignorance or a conspiracy. Of course, the delusional, magical thinking of creationists is ripe among those most willing to believe in conspiracies. But if a belief requires the positing of a sinister, fraudulent agreement by elites, then that belief has consequences on its followers’ world view well beyond this particular “quirk.” It is not a surprise that most creationists (especially young earth creationists) also believe that anthropocentric climate change is a fraudulent program foisted on us by a cabal of sinister elites. And as we move out from the epicenter of this particular cultish belief, we see how liberalism, activist government, humanism in all forms and even charity itself becomes, to many, conspiratorial frauds.

The belief in this so-called conspiracy leads fundamentalists to promote the argument that Darwin was the predecessor of Hitler and Stalin. The belief in this cultish “quirk” therefore engenders an unhealthy demonization of free thinkers and scientists in general. It is no accident that it does, because the cult itself is designed to promote group-think, group-ritual, and group-politics.

Ignorance among scientists, the other alternative, is hardly a healthier attitude among Ham’s followers. I remember years ago being forced to read a magazine designed for young adults, promoting fundamentalism by debunking evolution. One thing sticks in my mind: Someone wrote the Darwinian thought had an obvious flaw; namely, that it only accounted for the descent of man, not women! Therefore, how did women get here? (Only cultish followers of a charismatic authoritarian would assume that the most vacuous impulse of a semi-thought in favor of a predetermined conclusion is worth expressing.)

This kind of sloppy thinking, in which the objections are generated before even examining the evidence, or even the nature of the theoretical framework, is not healthy. It is not something that taxpayers should support or school teach (under the nonsensical notion that they ought to “teach the debate”). It is really the flaw that will (I am afraid) bring down humanity long before “Nature, red in tooth and claw” otherwise would.

In short, there is no substantial basis for believing that Ham’s “view of life” (in Darwin’s memorable phrase) is benign. It cannot be compartmentalized. It has real world consequences. And it is not healthy for a thinking person to shut off a part of his mind. But you all knew that.

And all the congregation said, Amen, and praised the LORD.

Images of War in Brooklyn

Mankind has conceived history as a series of battles; hitherto it has considered
fighting as the main thing in life.—Chekhov, Notebook (1892-1904).

Captured Building, Stalingrad (Gelatin silver print. 1942. Clllection of William Broyles.) All the images here are in the exhibition.

Captured Building, Stalingrad by Georgi Zelma (Gelatin silver print. 1942. Collection of William Broyles.) All the images here are in the exhibition.

The Brooklyn Museum of Art is currently exhibiting a massive show of war photographs called “War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath.” The show was organized by the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and has already travelled to the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles and the Corchoran Gallery of Art in Washitngton, D.C. The show runs through February 2 at the Brooklyn, which appears to be the last stop of the tour. So if you want to see it, you have to take the A Train (or the C or E or the 2 or 3) in the dead of winter. (My last trek to Eastern Parkway took place during heat so stifling that I would have welcomed the cold, windy, wetness that seeps into your soul as well as your soles. Well, it’s here.) Allot yourself several hours to view this installation, and be prepared for many images you have once seen, some surprises, many pictures that confirm things you suspected were true, some blatant propaganda, much that is plainly disturbing, but most of all, sensory overload.

Roger Fentons Photographic Van (Salted Paper Print. ca. 1855. Royal Photographic Society Collection.) Fenton was sponsored and equipped by the British Government to document the Crimean War. That war was exceedingly unpopular among the public and Fenton, as a result, avoided scenes of death, which would shortly become a staple of independent war photojournalists. Click to enlarge.

Roger Fenton’s Photographic Van (Salted paper print. ca. 1855. Royal Photographic Society Collection.) Fenton was sponsored and equipped by the British Government to document the Crimean War. That war was exceedingly unpopular among the public and Fenton, as a result, avoided scenes of death, which would shortly become a staple of independent war photojournalists.

The scope of the project is mind boggling. I counted 69 conflicts represented, from the Mexican-American War in 1846 to the Libyan civil war in 2012. Among the many violent conflicts that won’t immediately spring to mind as ones from which war photos can be seen are the Second Opium War (1856-60), the Moro Rebillion (1899-1913), the Sierra Leone Civil War (1991-2003), the Tuareg Rebellion (2007-09) and the South Ossetia War (2008). It seems that wherever there are groups intent on destroying other humans, there is the urge to document it visually. That urge is probably the most noble (although not sole) motivation of the great war journalists, and most of the ones who readily come to mind are represented here. From the very beginning of war photography (which coincided with the beginnings of modern total war) people like Alexander Gardner and Matthew Brady visited battlefields to bring the raw reality of carnage to an unsuspecting public. But also from the beginning some journalists and photographers, like Roger Fenton, were sponsored by the government to provide an official document of war or to shore up flagging popular support. Many of those are represented here as well. There are others with different motives: spies, souvenir-takers, relatives and profit-seekers. There is such a variety of images that throughout the exhibition, the question recurs, What was the motive behind this picture? And in a few cases: Was it really necessary for us to see this?

Coffee for the Exhausted Conquerers of Engebi Island--the United States Maric Corps by Ray R. Platnick, USCGR (Gelatin silver print. 1944. Museum of Fine Art, Houston.)

Coffee for the Exhausted Conquerers of Engebi Island–the United States Marine Corps by Ray R. Platnick, USCGR (Gelatin silver print. 1944. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.)

There are nearly 500 photos exhibited, and all of them are, at a minimum, thought-provoking, many of them gut-wrenching. But the sheer size of the show makes it impossible to confer adequate reflection on more than a few items. And given the variety of subjects and sources of the photos a recurring question keeps surfacing: What were the organizers’ intentions? What are we supposed to get from these emotional images of grim events? Clearly, this is not a history of modern warfare. It is not organized chronologically (or in any other way that would allow for historical analysis), and it gives insufficient attention to aspects that would explain wars in historical terms (politics, economics, technology, and so forth). Plus photographs by themselves do not lend themselves to analysis; at best, they are only a piece of evidence.

Valley of the Shadow of Death by Roger Fenton. (April 24, 1855. Salted paper print from negative. Museum of Modern Art, NYC.)

Valley of the Shadow of Death by Roger Fenton. (April 24, 1855. Salted paper print from negative. Museum of Modern Art, NYC.)

The exhibition does not portray itself as a retrospective or study of the techniques of photojournalism in war. There are more than 280 photographers (not all technically “journalists,” however), so necessarily there are too few examples from any particular photographer to get much of a sense of a body of work. Moreover, although there are some examples of camera equipment (from early boxes to the iPhone), not much is made of the technology of the photographs.

The Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania by Alexander Gardner (1863. Albumen print. LoC.)

The Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania by Alexander Gardner (1863. Albumen print. LoC.) Gardner moved the corpse into position to stage the composition.

You might, therefore, wonder (as I did): What is the purpose of assembling such an immense number of photographs of and about war since the invention of the camera? There is no overt ideology behind the organization, as far as I could tell. There is a selectional bias of course. The dramatic is selected over merely informative. And until relatively recently, only advanced technological societies had access to photography equipment and and a class of journalists dedicated to visual record-keeping. But the bias inherent in a photographic record aside, the overarching points made about war in the exhibit is mainly by organization. The show is arranged into a typology of sorts, each category representing a phase in how societies prepare for, fight, celebrate and remember war and how war impacts segments of society, both the conquerers and the losers. But as some of the later photographs show, even on the “winning” side there are large classes of losers.

Congolese women fleeing to Goma by Walter Astrada. (Chromogenic print. 2010. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.)

Congolese women fleeing to Goma by Walter Astrada. (Chromogenic print. 2010. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.)

The show’s categories include, for example, Recruitment, Training and Embarkation; Patrol and Troop Movement; Support; Refugees; Children, and so forth. Arranging the show in this way allows the organizers to go beyond traditional combat photojournalism, sometimes with striking results. One particularly effective image was taken by Kadir van Lohuizen in 2004 and entitled, “Diamond Matter, Democratic Republic of Congo.”* In it a diamond dealer wearing a vest and tie as well as a fashionable wide-brimmed fedora sits at a table with an electronic calculator, a scale and a few small rocks. He holds with a forceps a blood diamond for us to see. Behind him stands a slope-shouldered assistant. The wall is stenciled with “NO SMOKING!” and hold several pictures, including an open sacred text and a portrait of an open-armed Jesus. The portrait crystalizes why thousands are killed, mutilated and raped, and how a select few can hypocritically profit from wholesale butchery. Just as war against an entire people has become a late innovation to modern warfare, contemporary combat photojournalists put a faces on the new victims of total war. Walter Astrada is represented by a work from his series Violence Against Women in Congo, Rape as Weapon of War in DRC (taken in 2008), and such images are rightly considered images of war, although earlier photographers concentrated almost exclusively on the combatants.

 A US Marine Drill Sergeant Delivers a Severe Reprimand to a Recruit, Parris Island, South Carolina by Thomas Hoepkner (Inkjet print. 1970. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.)

A US Marine Drill Sergeant Delivers a Severe Reprimand to a Recruit, Parris Island, South Carolina by Thomas Hoepkner (Inkjet print. 1970. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.)

The manner of organization allows for the inclusion of a few marginally relevant photos, such as Matthew Brady’s Major Joseph Hooker. Yes, Hooker commanded the Army of the Potomac for a while and yes Brady was one of the founders of combat photojournalism. But what does a formal studio portrait add to this show other than simply another item? Fortunately, there are few of these missteps, and the broad definition of war photographs permits views of war that suggest how ability to fight full-scale modern war requires the harnessing of entire society. A photograph of an American transport plane with hundreds of troops in full combat gear holding weapons, jammed together like eggs in a carton, each one in his own fabric covered chair (not the benches of World War II or the Korean War) shows how we have come to master the commodification of troops and industrialized ourselves efficiently to begin combat anywhere. It is no wonder that we so often do. We no longer have many industrial factories, but we have created armed forces organized with the philosophy and brutality of any 19th century factory exploiting the proletariat. Thomas Heopkner’s photo of a drill sergeant at a Parris Island Marine Corps boot camp shows how training is a mixture of sadism and authoritarianism and how the sheer force of hierarchy permits someone who for all appearances would be a warehouse clerk outside the army to act the role of cock of the walk inside the militaristic cocoon.

Called “Little Tiger” for killing two “Vietcong women cadre” by Philip Jones Griffiths. (1968. Magnum Photos.)

Called “Little Tiger” for killing
two “Vietcong women cadre”
by Philip Jones Griffiths. (1968. Magnum Photos.)

When all these visual aspects are seen in turn, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that war is a central feature in our lives. And maybe the goal of the exhibition was to present the converse (obverse?) of Edward Steichen’s pahbreaking The Family of Man exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1955. That show celebrated how we are all human, how all our joys are shared, and how much we have a stake in each other. The War/Photography exhibition also shows how alike we are, how war makes us all assume similar roles, how we react to trauma and grief and desolation the same. But war is a different teacher than the family of man. Children likewise can be trained, but in this exhibition they are not trained in the arts of play and music, but rather in the brutal art of hatred, blind loyalty and irrationality. A photo shows Russian children viewing the hanged bodies of other children executed as Nazi collaborators. Another shows a young Vietnamese “tiger” who killed two Vietcong (reputedly his mother and schoolteacher). And a third shows a disturbed young blond girl, drawing endless confused circles on a blackboard, describing Poland, her home. These and many other kinds of barbarities, repeated over and over, are eventually forgotten or explained away and life goes on, and memory only prompts us next time to inflict more destruction so that we do not suffer as much. If you go into this exhibition thinking war is “inhuman,” the images convince you that, quite the contrary, war is a quintessentially human activity, perhaps the quintessential human activity.

Death of a Loyalist Militiaman, Córdoba Front by Robert Capa. (Gelatin silver print. Late August-Early September 1936. Museum of Modern Art, NY.)

Death of a Loyalist Militiaman, Córdoba Front by Robert Capa. (Gelatin silver print. Late August-Early September 1936. Museum of Modern Art, NY.)

The photos in this collection of actual combat and the immediate aftermath have a dramatic urgency to them. They are startling because they all breath j’accuse. But since they don’t tell the complete story, it’s not usually evident who is to blame. Is it the enemy? Incompetent commanders? Our own government? Traitors? We sympathize so completely with the victims that it is dangerous for the accused to be confronted with such powerful evidence. And often the response is to claim that the evidence is faked. And there is enough instances of it, to make the claim colorable. Gardner moved the corps in his Sharpshooter (above left) to make the composition more dramatic. Fenton’s picture of the Crimean field that had been extensively shelled (above right) is followed by another taken shortly thereafter with the cannonballs moved. John Filo (or his editors at Life) removed the fencepost above Mary Ann Vecchio’s head in the photo of her kneeling over the body of Jeffrey Miller at Kent State  when it was first published (see here). These liberties did not change the facts (the sharpshooter was in fact dead in Devil’s Den, as was Miller at the hands of the National Guard; the Ukranian field had been extensively shelled in 1855), it softens the accusation to make the debate about the photo rather than the underlying facts. When Robert Capa misremembered where he took the photo of the Republican soldier falling from a Falangist bullet, claims of staging were made (and continue), because otherwise it equates the Loyalist with the patriot in Goya’s famous Third Day of May 1808. Such an identification would undermine the myth that Franco represented the “real” Spain, and instead put him in the position of the foreign forces of Napoleon who imposed their will on Spain. Governments who rely on the military for authority cannot afford to have any doubt about their legitimacy.

Ut, Napalm Girl

Fleeing down a road near Trang Bang after a South Vietnamese Air Force napalm attack by Nick Ut. (June 8, 1972. Associated Press.)

The US government would find how its authority could be eroded most dramatically during the Vietnam War. Having enjoyed immensely favorable war coverage during the Second World War (the show is filled with journalists who identified with the mission and even photographers sponsored by the government; there is even a series of photos showing the different flag raisings on Iwo Jima, taken until the iconic photo was eventually framed), the military in Vietnam was completely unprepared for the photojournalists who would report from there. It is difficult to think of any group of reporters, on the whole, who so extensively documented a conflict, with such independence, thoroughness and courage as the ones who photographed that tragedy. Taking advantage of unrestricted access to the troops and battlefields and hospitals, they made a scathing record of Americans actions there. Their valor and integrity made that record as impeccable as it was self-evident. So when the incessant images from that war all pointed in the same direction—that there was no strategy, that our client had no real popular support, that our foes were willing to die longer than we were willing to kill, and that, most crucially, our policies were in fact destroying the very people we claimed to be protecting, and doing so in spectacular, immoral and insidious ways—our government’s insipid pleas that progress was being made were simply not credible. Loss of public support for a costly foreign misadventure was serious enough, but there would be much more to concern those who ran our war-making apparatus. Years of pictures of Buddhist monks immolating themselves, police chiefs shooting prisoners point blank, thousands of acres of forests burning, innumerable bombs dropping, hideous wounds in god-forsaken places, and shockingly in 1968 close-range fighting in urban areas including at the very door of the US Embassy all conspired to disabuse the American public of their belief in the competence and integrity of our National Security Machine. Then in 1972 we saw Nick Ut’s stunning photo of the naked girl running from the napalm attack on her village. There was now widespread consensus that we, our allies and our mission were evil. This threatened to make warfare as a usual method of policy untenable in the future.

Marine Wdding by Nina Berman. ((2006. Inkjet print. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.)

Marine Wdding by Nina Berman. ((2006. Inkjet print. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.)

War photography was not the only reason that it took policy makers nearly two decades to coax the public back to war as politics. But the Neo-Cons who most ardently desired to flex military muscle to achieve policy goals thought long and hard about restricting visual records of our war mongering. They would never again allow a news corps like the one that covered Vietnam to influence the public again. So a combination of policies, including co-opting the press, was put in place when we eventually returned to the role of corrupt policemen. Although our invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan covered many more years than did our involvement in Vietnam, they did not produce a comparable visual account as intimate and detailed and objective and honest. Real combat photojournalism seems relegated to conflicts in those parts of the developing world in which our leaders have no interest. But this is not to say that contemporary photojournalists are entirely unable to produce images that convey some of the realities of wars we participate in. Often, however, that involves composed photographs, some of which, nevertheless, have considerable power. Nina Berman’s work with disabled veterans on return home, produced an extraordinarily expressive and disturbing image, entitled Marine Wdding. The impact is especially powerful given how large the print shown was. The photograph is simply a wedding picture of a marine and the school girlfriend who waited for him to return from duty. He is dressed in a Marine Dress Uniform, but his face and skull is severely disfigured. (His skull had been crushed and his flesh severely burned while trapped inside a truck after a suicide attack. His ears, nose and chin were missing.) He looks tenderly at his bride from above. She does not look at him, but rather stares straight out with an expression that betrays emotions other than pure joy. They both, in their own ways, show their attachment to selfless Duty: he had already received his reward for it, she was about to.

Partisan Girl by ArkadyShainkhet (Gelatin silver print. 192. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.)

Partisan Girl by Arkady Shaikhet (Gelatin silver print. 1942. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.)

As for photographic insight into the wars now fought in our name, and especially those that set up a narrative in opposition to the official one, they now largely, and ironically, come from our own soldiers. The photographs that exposed the crimes at Abu Ghraib are one example. The July 12, 200y, air assault by two AH-64 Apache helicopters in Baghdad, published by Wikileaks as Collateral Murder is another. The desire to document war and especially one’s role in it must be extremely seductive. It probably has to do with the belief that Chekhov wrote of: that warfare is thought of as the main thing in life. From the soldiers who posed for portraits by Matthew Brady before heading off to extreme risk to the Japanese pilot who recorded the attack on Pearl Harbor, there must be a near universal belief that participating in war is the most important thing one will ever do and that it is well worth recording one’s role in it. It is visual proof that one was significant.

Photographs, as I said, are not history. They require analysis and must be placed in context. And despite their power, they are selective. Wars are not caused solely by attacks, despite the images of the World Trade Center, the USS Maine or a rally at the Nürenberg Stadium (all in the “Advent of War” section of the show). But politicians are careful not to photograph themselves concocting attacks in the Gulf of Tonkin or fabricating evidence of weapons of mass destruction. War photographs, like any other museum quality souvenir, are suggestive, and in this case, there are enough good souvenirs to provoke considerable thought for quite a while.

*      *      *

For those unable to make this exhibition or who would otherwise like a more permanent copy of the images, there is a large, hard cover, 600+ page catalog produced by Anne Wilkes Tucker and other organizers from the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The reproductions are excellent, and the book provides extensive commentary and historical context not provided in the exhibition.

Notes

*The particular image appears to be an untitled photograph which is part of a series by that name. The NOOR Foundation asserts copyright protection for the image, so I don’t reproduce it here. You may, however, see a black and white version of it at the NOOR Foundation website here. [Return to text.]

†Anne Wilkes Tucker, Will Michels, Natalie Zelt, et al.,War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath (2012: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston). [Return to text.]

Sheib adds grunge to Chekhov

Jay Scheib in a 2011 MIT media shot. (Photo by Naomi White.)

Jay Scheib in a 2011 MIT publicity shot. (Photo by Naomi White.)

Having seen the remake of Checkhov’s Platonov by director Jay Scheib yesterday at the Kitchen, I now have an understanding of why Chekhov never finished the play: he was waiting for hand-held cameras and electrical guitars.

Platanov (also called Fatherless in English, although Chekhov never titled it) was an early theatrical attempt by Anton Chekhov that went nowhere. Chekhov wrote the piece (his first full-length play) to be produced at Moscow’s foremost theater, the Maly, in 1878, creating the major female role (Anna) specifically for Maria Yermolova, who refused the part, evidently thereby ending Chekhov’s interest in the matter. (Chekhov was quite perceptive in recognizing Yermolova’s talent and potential. Years later Stanislavisky himself said she was the greatest actress he had ever watched. Yermolova was able to navigate the treacherous politics of Russia during her half century of acting, even becoming a symbol of the Revolution early on.) Chekhov’s sprawling text has been taken up several times, once in a relatively faithful adaptation a century after its composition by the Maly in Moscow in 1997. Before that (in 1984) English playwright  Michael Frayn adapted the test for London’s National Theatre (calling the play Wild Honey). That performance put Ian McKellen in the title role and won several Olivier Awards. McKellen repeated the role in the New York run of the play in 1986 and also reprised the role for the BBC radio (actually BBC7) in 2010, the 150th anniversary of Chekhov’s birth. Other productions have been made, cutting down the text (which provides for some 20 characters which lasts over 4 hours and is still “unfinished”) and diverging considerably

Those remakes, however, lacked what Scheib evidently saw a glaring need: technological pizzazz. This he was able to provide in a production that was spawned at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego for the 2013 Without Walls Festival. This week it came to the Kitchen, a city-supported experimental theatrical, dance and performance space in Manhattan’s Chelsea district. Scheib has developed a proficiency for pairing technology with traditional performance arts, having added simulcasts to performances at the Metropolitan Opera and London’s National Theatre. He uses this skill possibly because it is second nature for him (he is a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and technology must be in his blood) or possibly because he finds Old Art to be too confining for his vision. I have to believe that he genuinely feels the latter, because he himself was on-stage holding one of the hand-held cameras he introduced into Chekhov’s work.

But first let’s dispense with Chekhov altogether, because the play is billed as “Jay Scheib: Platanov, or The Disinherited,” and only notes inside the playbill (after the title page) acknowledge some indebtedness to the “fragment” by Chekhov. Chekhov might himself be somewhat relieved that the Kitchen does not attach this production to his reputation, because its occasional flashes of Chekhov’s sensibilities are fleeting and perhaps even reflected. (I had the strong impression throughout that Scheib was more familiar with Andre Gregory’s take on Chekhov than on Chekhov himself. But once again, I doubt that Gregory would like this production tied to his influence, although some of the charming ticks of Vanya on 42nd Street, can be seen in the performances, although overdone with considerably less subtlety.)  There are numerous ways to present Chekhov’s nuanced, tragic comedies, but generally there is an emphasis (even when done broadly) on nuance. Scheib has instead gone for frenetic, in many places slapstick.

Chekhov’s untitled play is not The Cherry Orchard, although it does involve the bankruptcy of a landed estate. It is decidedly not Three Sisters, because instead of one off-stage shot that the audience learns is the fatal outcome of a duel, this play has enough on-stage rifle and pistol action (not to mention a knifing and another unknown slaying) to satisfy audiences of Victorian melodrama. But Scheib has rendered the play in such a way that if you had never heard of Chekhov, you would wonder why anyone would have bothered producing him.

It's a bloody play. Laine Rettmer, Mikéah Ernst Jennings and Jon Morris (back to camera). From MIT's Music and Theater New and Events Page.

It’s a bloody comedy. Laine Rettmer, Mikéah Ernst Jennings and Jon Morris (back to camera). From MIT’s Music and Theater New and Events Page.

The play centers on Platanov (played by Mikéah Ernst Jennings, a Kitchen regular), a 35 year-old schoolteacher who, for reasons that are assumed to be part of the necessary audience suspension of disbelief, is a highly successful lothario, so good at his seductions that he can practice them in front of the eyes of his trusting and beautiful young wife Sasha (played by Ayesha Ngaupah, the sole member of the cast not driven to over-the-top melodrama). Plus, Platonov is a lout. He fondles and licks the help (variously referred to a the “maid” and the “caterer,” Jacob, played by Laine Rettmer). The newly-married Platonov couple are the late arrivals at a typical Russian vodka-fest being thrown by Anna Voynitsev (Sandra Choudhury), who is about to be dispossessed from her estate owing to the debts of her late husband, and her step-son Sergey (played by Jon Morris), an exuberant, loud, cowed husband of Sonya (Virginia Newcomb), who is, like everyone else except the caterer, in love with Platonov, although she had not seen him for some time and was unaware he was married. (How this happened is not readily apparent because it seems the other Voynitsev’s are quite familiar with Platonov, and indeed mother Anna goes to great lengths to bed him.) The matron Anna is pursued by Porfiry, a wealthy businessman (played by Tony Torn), who admits in a sauna scene (!) that he is “unlucky in love” but quite successful in business. He hopes to use his wealth to buy Anna. He has already offered to buy the estate at auction, so that the Voynitsevs would not have to deal with the bank. Porfiry tells Anna that, as her husband, he will make her happy, acceding to her every wish, even renouncing conjugal rights, just to be near her. His suit becomes more ardent as vodka is liberally downed, until she rejects him. Before the ultimate ending a farce of sort takes place in which Anna tries to bed Platonov (their ardor at least once interrupted by the devoted wife, who has, incidentally, just learned she is pregnant, having on-screen (see below) performed an instant pregnancy test with a kit), who is more interested in bedding Sonya, who after first announcing her disgust with him, wants to ditch Sergey so decides to run away with Platonov, who agrees after sleeping with her, but then has second thoughts. Sergey comes to challenge Platonov to a duel, and, even though Platonov is in no shape for the encounter (having been plied with more vodka by Anna who came to find out why he did not fulfill their rendezvous and because he was stabbed int he abdomen by a somewhat loopy, crazed (?), criminal (?), backwoodsman, played in this version by a woman), Sergey takes dead aim at him, shooting five times and missing. The backwoodsman eventually is killed (or not, it gets confused at the end) and Porfiry decides he is not going to buy the estate, allowing the caterer (!) to buy it at auction. But that isn’t even the surprising ending.

I guarantee that the above description does not even approximately convey what a mess the plot is in this production. I did not mention the village doctor who romps pants dropped with Sergey in an early frenetic scene (the doctor is another role given to an actress by Scheib, Rosalie Lowe, who also plays the backwoodsman), who appears to be after Sasha (as is the backwoodsman herself), but eventually after much additional vodka is persuaded to report to a call (on her beeper) to perform surgery on a shopkeeper. I also omit the circumstances of how the backwoodsman was killed (or not) because, frankly I couldn’t follow it.

Pratfalls and slapsticks, although I missed the drum major in this photo. From HowlRound's Cinema Commons,

Pratfalls and slapsticks, although I missed the drum major seen in this photo. Perhaps I was too busy reading the subtitles. From HowlRound’s Cinema Commons,

Of course plot details of an unfinished 4+ hour play condensed into a mere 2 hours (without intermission) have to be dropped or summarily dealt with. But Scheib finds at least one time saver: staging. The stage is made up of an outdoor scene, and several indoor scenes, which the audience cannot see directly. Instead there are two cameramen, one of them Scheib, who not only follow the actors to the hidden scenes, but onto the stage. The cameramen (and woman, Rettmer also holds a camera occasionally) put the cameras directly in the faces of the actors, get down on the ground to provide upshots and down shots (many characters are on the ground; lots of vodka has been consumed after all), scan in detail the body of a showering Sasha (front and back), give a close-up of the doctor’s bare behind after she drops her pants, get between characters, providing reaction shots, simulating craning shots, and in general allowing the live audience to watch what is happening on an overhead screen—with subtitles, in English, just like at the Met, I guess. It was like being present for the taping of a two-camera sit-com, except with subtitles.

In fairness to Scheib (but why?), the proceedings were being simulcast so cameras were arguably necessary (the argument is over whether it was necessary to simulcast it at all). And if it must be simulcast, we have to have close-ups and reaction shots just as on TV, because, who wants to see a play? Different performances of this event are being shown at the AMC Empire (in Times Square), the Roxie Theater in San Francisco, the BAM Rose Cinemas in Brooklyn. Last night’s performance was simulcast on HowlRound TV Webcast. (Had I known I could have stayed home and drunk vodka with the characters. You get a craving about a half-hour into it.) If you would like to verify anything I have said here, you can actually see future performances streaming on the very computer you read this on January 17 and 24 at http://www.livestream.com/newplay/.

On last thing. There is also music. It’s mostly grunge, because evidently that’s the genre that Chekhov puts Scheib in mind of. If you are going to turn a play into a simulcast, with close-ups and reaction shots, you might as well provide a soundtrack. (There’s another difference from a sit-com. But then again many sit-coms have laugh-tracks.) Some of the grunge is exceptionally loud. Even louder than the numerous rifle and pistol shots. And a bit louder than some of the pratfalls. But Scheib doesn’t leave the grunge as subtle background. (Scheib left nothing to subtlety in any respect.) He gives you his take at the very beginning when an up-to-date Laine Rettmer tells all these same party-goers, this time in contemporary clothes, about her past. This is done in one of the back rooms so we see this mostly on screen, in close-ups by Scheib himself that are rather too close. This modern prologue tells the story of a girl who was cool enough to see Kurt Cobain and Nirvana before they were known (in Nebraska with 10 in the audience) and thus was inspired enough to go for the gusto and become a webzine/90s dot com literary success (the financing and actual business are somewhat sketchy). At her height she had a perfect woman life partner with whom she had a surrogate child (her brother the donor), all the while drinking (just like Chekhov’s characters!) She hit rock bottom, having lost her business, lover and child. But after attempting suicide, she changed core. Now she is sober and reviews art for a “real” newspaper. (In a play filled with intentional anachronisms, the newspaper reference was a superannuated device, which I happen to believe was an intention choice for in-you-face irony, given the other choices made in this production.) But she retained a string that Cobain ripped from his guitar in that very first Nebraska performance. That sting is used once more as a plot device, to bring about the “amusingly wry” ending.

So you see Scheib views the whole thing as a commentary on the excesses of the 90s. (1990s, that is.) And maybe earlier too. (Porfiry, after all, spends some time doing lines of cocaine after his rejection.) So you really can’t blame Chekhov for this.  How, after all, could Chekhov have foreseen the aesthetics of grunge? Or specifically the metaphor of Kurt Cobain? He was too busy with theatre. Fortunately, Scheib has broken through those conventions to give us a fast-paced, multimedia experience for our times, which, I guess, we deserve. For some reason.

Probing Nature Digitally

Soho Photo Gallery, a small cooperative showcase of art photographs in Manhattan’s TriBeCa, this week opened a show by the Belgium photographers Ghislain and Marie David de Lossy entitled “Not Alone.”

The exhibition consists of seven large prints of wildlife.1 To call these nature photographs, however,  does not do them justice. They are highly rendered exercises in digital art photography which portray a large landscape containing, and  usually almost hidden, one animal. But rather than try to explain the first impression of these works, let me simply direct you to a short video prepared by the artists (evidently about another installation last year) and posted to Vimeo:

You can see the size of these works, but the video does not show their unique composition qualities. The photographs are not simply an enlarged print of a single photograph. Each one is a composition of between 100 and 150 separate photos taken in a grid-like manner and then digitally stitched together in a computer lab. The product is a file made up of literally billions of pixels. The 100-150 individual shots are all taken with the same focus and metering, based on the initial photograph of the “subject,” the animal nearly hidden in an otherwise seemingly dense array of patterns and blended colors. The effect from a distance is like a field of vision when one “spots” an interesting animal, with the rest of the surroundings not immediately a mater of attention. But because this moment is frozen, it’s possible to see the many details that would otherwise go unnoticed by our concentration on the subject.

While I was at the gallery yesterday, by chance I met Ghislain David de Lossy, a charming man who graciously took time to explain the technique he and his wife employed in these works. Led to likely locations by a guide, they would set up blinds several miles apart to await the arrival of the “game.” If a subject arrived, they would await until the animal accustomed itself to the structure which was new to its environment. Once the subject assumed a desired pose, it was photographed in sharp focus at an appropriate metering. The photographer then proceeded to swivel the camera on its mount to take the framing photographs one by one in a grid-like fashion, all the while attempting to maintain a perfect horizontal so that the individual photos could be sewn together in the lab. Mr. David de Lossy said that often this proved difficult, especially when the camera mount was set on permafrost, which sometimes slightly gave way and subtly affected the horizontal of the tripod. In those cases the grid-like pattern for the 100-150 photographs could not be maintained and when the efforts were reviewed in the lab, sometimes large segments of the total landscape was missing and the effort was for naught. In addition to the intense concentration required over long periods simply to locate the subject, the incredibly precise clarity of the portraits required state of the art equipment. The artists told Ragzine.cc that they used a 600 mm :4 super telephoto lens (at full aperture) on a 24 mpx Nikon D3X. The result is the effect of looking out of a very large picture window into a European forest or tundra.

All of this is of course background to the real interest of the works. The idea that animates all them is a sense that the natural world has hidden features that escape our notice. This is expressly demonstrated by portraying a subject that is often barely noticeable except for careful study of the large work. Natural camouflage, dense vegetation or a combination often make animals invisible in the wild. Finding the animal in these works is often the first task. Once the animal is located, one can’t help but marvel at how it remains hidden in the open. But once one discovers the “subject,” its possible to see it simply as an element of a larger composition.

The work Snipe (Ytry Tunga, Iceland. 2012) is a good example. The print is about 8 feet long and 3 feet high.2 A stream runs from mid ground, mid picture and comes into focus as to runs  to the bottom right. In the foreground there are soft white and yellow flowers which form what initially appear to be an arching band in sharp focus (surrounded by softly out of focus tall grasses). The band of flowers in focus are minutely rendered. Up close (and the pictures demand very close inspection) one can see the individual seeds on the grasses that surround the flowers. As the eye follows this band it sees a thin shape that is horizontal in contrast to the vertical orientation of the grasses and flower stems. It is the long beak of the snipe. The beak is in perfect focus as is the head of the bird (the only part visible above the grasses hiding it). The sharp focus together with the crisp color renderings molds the black eye of the bird into a three dimensional sphere. Stepping back from close inspection makes plain that the band of focus was not really an arch (which seemed to follow in the foreground the flow of the stream) but rather was an artifact of the focal depth chosen to photograph the bird’s head. But nothing about the focus or metering especially highlighted the bird. In fact, one the subject is spotted, it’s something of a marvel what a small part of the composition it is. The length of the beak is only about 6 inches on the print, which is 16 times as wide. The relative smallness of the subject allows for closer inspection of the environment of the animal, which in itself offers numerous interesting details in a vast panorama. (You can see a “zoomable” file of this work at the de Lossy website here.)

I’ll have to make use of a rendering of one or two of these works, just so you can see what I am talking about. Bear in mind, however, that a reproduction here cannot begin to show the incredible detail of prints. All they can show is how relatively small the animal subject is to the entire landscape. It is a little ironic that a digital photograph is really not best seen on a personal computer (because the screen is not large enough). I’ll give you a link at the end to the de Lossy website which allows for zooming in on several works. Even that, however, is not nearly the same as being able to walk up and see the images a point blank range. Perhaps this shows that even digital technology cannot dispense with tangible works themselves.

Sisso (Montgai, Spain. 2012) is panoramic landscape of a meadow under a light blue sky. The subject is called in English a Little Bustard (Tetrax tetrax) and is a breeding male in full dramatic neck plumage.

Sisso by Ghislain and Marie David de Lossy (2012).

Sisso by Ghislain and Marie David de Lossy (2012).

Even if you click on the photo to see the file in full size you won’t begin to feel the details of this large landscape. You can barely see the bird  on the right midground of the picture. He is along a band of in-focus read flowers. These flowers dissolve into the foreground. Behind the flowers is an out of focus field of tall grass and shrubs. When he bird is examined, it’s clear that he is at extreme attention. His neck is fully extended. The black hood feathers are apparent. But most arresting is the intricate pattern of short dark and light brown strips on his back side which contrast with the white and black feathers of his front. Aside from the white breast, the colors are perfectly harmonious with the vegetation. Once again the “subject” is only about 6 inches and in this case is set considerably off center to the right. (You can see a “zoomable” file of this photo on the de Lossy site here.)

Another example I’ll show is Palokärki (Korouoma, Finland. 2011), the subject of which is what is called the Black Woodpeck in English (Dryocopus martius).

Palokärki by Ghislain and Marie David de Lossy (2011).

Palokärki by Ghislain and Marie David de Lossy (2011).

As you can see the composition is defined by the vertical lines of the trunks of the conifers (Norway spruce?). There are few branches with sparse leaves and the background is a wintry sky. On one of the trunks to the right is the bird in its typical hunting pose. On close inspection individual barbs of the feathers can be seen as well as tufts of afterfeathers. The one visible eye is a black dot within a perfectly white orb. The beak is rendered in such perfect clarity that it seems (to me) that a recently captured insect is visible at the tip. It is impossible to overstate the precision of the focus. (The “zoomable” version is found here.)

Ghislain and Marie David de Lossy appear to have come upon this genre relatively recently. Their career seems to have largely involved (human) portraiture, and they have worked for both Corbis and Getty (and still do). (This probably accounts for the decision to focus on a single subject in the landscape.) Mr. David de Lossy tells me, however, that he has had a lifetime of birding experience in Europe behind him and that when he turned to this type of nature photography he was motivated by two considerations: to add some creative technique to the genre and to avoid doing easy shots. These considerations undoubtedly formed the basis of an unstated aesthetic. In this regard I can’t help but compare a photo from the show with an acknowledged European masterpiece.

The Little Owl by Albrecht Dürer (Watercolor on paper. 1506. Albertina, Vienna, Austria.) Click to enlarge.

The Little Owl by Albrecht Dürer (Watercolor on paper. 1506. Albertina, Vienna, Austria.) Click to enlarge.

I don’t have a file of the photo and it is not on the de Lossy website (although another shot of the same kind of bird is found here), so you will have to take my description (or better yet see the show) of  Mochuelo M (Bellmunt d’Urgell, Spain, 2013). The subject is the Little Owl (Athene noctua). The landscape is a rocky outcrop surrounded by new growth of various grasses. The spotted brown owl looks out from behind the grass, with one eye in full view, its right eye just barely. The little bird is perfectly secure in its environ. Of course, when the most famous rendering of this bird was done by Albrecht Dürer more than 600 years ago, the purpose was entirely different. Dürer’s version illustrates the time (and technique of the times) perfectly. The bird is examined in artificial surroundings, but the wild nature is emphasized by the talons, which clearly show its predatory nature. The bird looks down, almost as if in a sullen mood (perhaps for being out of its element). Dürer renders the portrait with intricate brushstrokes to simulate the texture of the feathers. It is a perfect representation of the Renaissance urge to examine nature as “types,” to separate it from the whole and to catalog it. The aesthetic of this show (and perhaps our time), however, is quite the opposite. The animals are not highlighted (except by focus). They are seen in situ, despite how difficult that makes it for the artist and the viewer. It no longer is something for our edification, but rather for our wonder. Our job is not to classify and learn but to marvel.

The show is on view until February 1 and the prints are listed for sale. If you are in the city it is well worth your effort to see for yourself. Those unable can view a considerable number of the photos at the de Lossy “Not Alone” website. But I have to warn you that while it gives a sense of the prints, only physical inspection will do.

Notes

1In this exhibit the works were printed (by inkjet (?)) on Hahnemülle photo rag over dibond. [Return to text.]

2All the prints at the Soho Photo Gallery were 96.06 inches long and ranged from 25.29 to 39.37 inches tall. de Lossy told me that the prints were constrained by the size of the exhibition space and that at the last European show the prints were twice the size, without loss of resolution or deterioration of color. (The Vimeo video shows larger prints, but not ones in the Soho exhibition.) [Return to text.]

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