Posts Tagged ‘ Pablo Picasso ’

Looking for the future without a plot

L’Inhumaine (1924)
directed by Marcel L’Herbier

Trinity College’s Cinestudio opened its seventeenth annual April in Paris retrospective of Francophone cinema from around the world. This year’s theme is Portrait de l’Artiste, and each film examines the character or body of work of a fictional or real artist. The festival concludes next Saturday evening with a screening of the Sengalese film Sambène! with director Samba Gadjigo in attendance.

The treacherous Djorah de Mopur (Philippe Hériat) visits Clair alone in L'Humaine.

The treacherous Djorah de Mopur (Philippe Hériat) waits in the garden for Clair in L’Humaine.

Today a new 4K restoration of Marcel L’Herbier’s 1924 silent film L’Inhumaine (first seen in the United States under the title New Enchantment in 1926) was screened. Supposedly many of the screenings which took place in France after its premiere in December 1924 ended in fracases or physical dustups, but ever since the example of The Rite of Spring in 1913 riotous audiences have been used as badges of approval for avant-garde works, so I would take that assertion with a grain of salt; it is perhaps more metaphorically than factually true. Either that or Parisian audiences exercise a more pugilistic approach to arts criticism than I have ever personally experienced. (I did back in the 1970s see a well-heeled New Yorker stand on his seat in the orchestra section of the New York Philharmonic to loudly boo Pierre Boulez for having the temerity to conduct a Ligeti piece. The gentleman, however, was polite enough to wait until the conclusion of the piece to voice his opinion and didn’t seem to engage anyone else in fisticuffs, but perhaps that’s because everyone in the orchestra section agreed with him.)

Clair's modernist mansion.

Claire’s modernist mansion.

Leaving the theater after L’Inhumaine, I didn’t want to punch anyone but I did wrestle with myself. But before getting into the weeds with this film, there is one thing that I don’t think anyone will disagree about. The 4K restoration of the film (supervised by Lobster Films with the support of a number of French cinema preservation organizations) is absolutely superb, and I suspect the film now looks better than it did when first theatrically shown, for it is entirely free of scratches, particles and (except for one time that I could notice) skips. It even restores at least some of the experimental color washes and tints that, surprisingly, audiences of the day saw. It now is possible to appreciate the beautiful sets of Fernand Léger and the architectural designs of Robert Mallet-Stevens as well as the elegant costumes and intricate garden design of Claude Autant-Laran. The restoration also makes some of the experimental techniques like the double exposures more clear (even if it does nothing to explain their significance). It also makes plain why some of the things must have been stunning to see on screen for the first time, such as the view of the forest with streaking sunlight as seen from a speeding car or the aerial view of the car on the serpentine roadway. The art direction and cinematography (by Georges Specht in one of his last efforts) produce stunning still photos. In fact, in light of the problem I am about to highlight, it might have been better if the film had actually been a series of stills, something like La Jetée, nearly forty years later.

The problem with the film is that the story is utterly jejune. This of course is a matter of taste and degree. And yes silent films make intricate plot nearly impossible  and character development quite difficult. The absence of sound and the film technology of the 1920s simply would not allow for anything that remotely approached naturalism. That is why the better silent films of the era tended either to be expressionistic (where the exaggerated actions of the characters was consistent with the style of the film) or historical epics (where “what happens” is already known and the film just furnishes the visuals). The problems of the story in L’Inhumaine are of an entirely different level. Above all, it seems that no one was concerned to make a story that was even within the realm of plausibility, whatever narrative assumptions it asked the audience to make. One expects to suspend disbelief when approaching any form of fiction. But once a story establishes a framework one expects everyone to act within those rules and not have the rules change just to get to the end.

Claire (Georgettte Leblanc) entertains her bizarre collectiono f gentlemen callers at the dining table set within an artificial duck pool.

Claire (Georgettte Leblanc) entertains her bizarre collectiono f gentlemen callers at the dining table set within an artificial duck pool.

In this case the story is about a wealthy and famous diva, Claire Lescot (Georgettte Leblanc), who gives performances of modern music (the “modern” is written in one of the notices for a concert, just so we know she doesn’t sing Bizet or some other tripe—as if her house doesn’t make that clear enough for us) and who attracts a large number of diverse and ardent admirers. She, however, is jaded to the point of disinterest in everything, especially common humanity (hence the title; she says she is interested only in “superior beings”). She entertains the group of men in her house, a monument to post- or neo-cubism, dining at a table in a wading pool with ducks swimming around, at the same time a French version of a jazz quintet frantically plays. They are served by uniformed servants wearing masks with permanent smiles (so affected by ennui Claire requires that everyone constantly smile; she herself smiles to avoid having a genuine feeling about anything). One young man, Einar Norsen (Jaque Catelain), a Swedish scientist, is late for her fete, and although he is the most ardent, she treats him unkindly for his tardiness. He tells her that he will kill himself if she refuses him. (There really is no time in this film to develop emotions, they appear full blown the first time we learn of them, and then they drastically change when the plot or moral requires it.) She replies that his life must be worth little if he can so easily dispose of it. (This quotation is considered by the director so significant that there is a flashback to it later on.) After she walks away, she has a servant deliver him a small pocket knife to taunt him. He leaves in great distress, drives away at high speed in his road car and for all we know drives off a cliff into the river.  (Einar’s apparent suicide coincides quite cleverly with the climax of a performance Claire gives back at the party.) When the guests discover that he drove off the cliff, the party breaks up, and Claire tortures herself and after what seems a more than sufficient time, faints.

The next day the news of the suicide is published in the newspaper. We see men throughout the city in great emotion over how “inhuman” the diva was (although the article does not really explain what she supposedly did to drive him to suicide). She must decide whether to appear at her scheduled concert that night. Wladimir Kranine (Léonid Walter de Malte), the Polish “humanitarian” who tried to convince her to join his movement to enlighten members of his cult in Mongolia (you see how it gets harder and harder to suspend disbelief?), decides to show the world how inhuman she is and engages a group to disrupt the performance. She decides she owes it to her audience to go on. She sings. The performance is disrupted, but she holds her head up with dignity, finishes the performance, and as the card says: her triumph is complete. (We nevertheless wonder what is she triumphing over? Common humanity? Ordinary emotions? Parisian audiences who seem to break out into fights any time something “modern” is performed?)

Now, let me stop here to remark on the concert scene because it is another one around which legends have grown. The episode is filmed in the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. The story goes that L’Hebier invited fashionable Parisian society to attend, and the following actually were part of the audience (although of course not discernible on viewing): Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, Erik Satie, René Clair, Léon Blum, James Joyce and Ezra Pound. I must say I am dubious about the claim. I should also say that this might be a good point for those who worry about “spoilers” to opt out of reading, although even if you read my summary, when you see the film you will still be surprised that I am not joking.

Einar, now shown not to be dead, shows Claire that there is nothing under the sheet. It was all her (and our) imagination.

Einar, now shown not to be dead, shows Claire that there is nothing under the sheet. It was all her (and our) imagination.

Claire is told that she must look at the “mutilated” body, because the law requires two witnesses. That will take place the next night. (Throughout the film, many things are scheduled for the next day, and then a title card immediately announces that the time has come.) The body is not in a morgue (where an unidentified body would be kept; it doesn’t seem that the requirement of two witnesses to identify a body was strictly enforced or else Parisian custom with unknown dead bodies was extremely lax) but for some reason was taken to a table in his home/laboratory. It turns out, after much emoting by Claire, however, that he really isn’t dead. He just wanted to test her feelings. (She is not offended by this. Perhaps it shows that he is a “superior person.”)  Then he shows her his laboratory and tells her that tomorrow night (again a day’s delay) he will show her something that will cause her to give up her planned round-the-world journey. The next night she arrives and is shown a machine that allows her to sing and her voice is carried “wirelessly” around the world (although listeners must use very bulky speakers to hear, and one is left to wonder how the aboriginal woman shown listening to one acquired it). But the amazing part of the machine is that a screen allows her to see the people listening to her. She is so engrossed she loses track of time (depicted by the rapidly hands of a clock) and nearly misses her concert performance scheduled for that very night. After the performance (which Einar did not accompany her to) she leaves the theater and gets into a cab. But her treacherous suitor, Djorah de Mopur (Philippe Hériat), who would rather see her dead that give her up to the rival from Sweden, tricks the driver, puts an Asian snake (!) into the back seat, then drives her off. The snake bites her. He continues driving as she pounds on the window separating them, weakens and then dies. He drops her body off at Einar’s lab, and then drives off (without so much as giving his name or license number).

With Claire’s dead body, Einar now has the opportunity to use one of the two devises he showed her earlier: one a machine labeled Machine de mort (although why he was using a death machine is not explained) and the other a machine that brings things back to life. As for the second machine, he told her he had been afraid to use it before. Now he must. There is a series of rapidly cut shots, including something like the “It’s alive!” exclamation of Frankenstein, and then she revives. The movie concludes with her exclamation that she has come back to serve humanity. (There is no follow up about Djorah de Mopu. Possibly because in these pre-Code days, there was no concern that a criminal might escape justice. Or maybe the snake, which seems to have be left in the car, got him.)

Einar brings the dead body of Clair into his laboratory.

Einar brings the dead body of Clair into his laboratory.

Under ordinary circumstances it is often difficult to discriminate between an avant-garde work destined to point the way to the future and a ridiculous failure. (This must be the question which inspires so many Parisian fist fights.) The brief highlight above makes a pretty good case for the ridiculous. That case is bolstered by the actors, who emote so excessively that one winces to avoid laughing. The musical accompaniment could decide the case one way or other other. If a score by Raymond Scott, for example, accompanied the film, I have no doubt that the audience would be rolling in the aisles, as they say. As it was L’Herbier commissioned Darius Milhaud to write the score, and he used mainly percussion instruments. Unfortunately that score was lost. The movie really needs music, however. It is after all about a singer, includes scenes of a jazz band playing furiously, has a concert episode, and features a futuristic machine that allows Claire’s voice to be heard around the world. In the screening today, there was a piano accompaniment by Professor Patrick Miller of the Hartt School. While Professor Miller’s version kept the action moving and provided the necessary “seriousness” to the movie, I suspect that Milhaud’s version probably revealed something of what L’Herbier was driving at. For instance, it might provide some insight into why some of the shots seem to go beyond the time that even the slowest witted viewer needed to digest them. Perhaps these lingering shots were designed to allow musical commentary.

As it is, I cannot convince myself that the plot has anything that should speak to us, either directly or symbolically. And this faillure really dooms the work as art. The story has so many plot solutions provided by the scientist (machina ex deo rather than deus ex machina) or things that are introduced by convenience (how did Djorah de Mopu happen to have a lethal Asian snake? Didn’t they require those things to be declared at customs in those days?) that the plot fixes including the big science fiction laboratory seem designed explicitly simply to allow modernist imagery. Perhaps L’Herbier was saying that the art of our age (or his age, modernism is a century old after all) doesn’t need to rely on stories of humans interacting in some sort of psychologically believable way. And it certainly may be true that a film can be about things that aren’t driven by human psychology, such as films about animals, or alien creatures, or non-living things, or even random visual stimuli. I think, however, that it is not just me, perhaps it is the result of the evolutionary construction of our brain, but when we see a story of humans, we expect it to comport with our understanding of how humans behave. This is not how L’Inhumaine proceeds.

Yet with the absence of the musical score commissioned for the work and even given (or perhaps because of) a thoroughly hokey plot, many of the images stay with you long after leaving the theater. I’m not sure that it’s enough to expect from a film (although Hollywood has decided that is the most one is going to get these days). And do we really get anything more when we visit an art exhibition? So maybe in a very specific category of films, say those that stimulate our visual cortex in ways that serious visual art movements do, this might be considered a very successful movie. Otherwise this film is of historical interest only.


America’s Greatest Composer

In a few days it will be 40 years since Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington passed. (He died on May 24, 1974. He didn’t get to live to see Nixon resign.)

There is nothing magical about these anniversaries, of course. It only occurred to me because I have been thinking about the state of American music for a couple of days. I won’t reveal my thoughts here, for fear of being dismissed as an old crank. But I can suggest that it would be difficult for anyone to make the case that someone other than the Duke can claim the title of America’s greatest composer.

There’s no doubt that Carter, Wuorinen, Babbit, Varese and Ives made important music that we will study for years to come. But America has never produced art music, in the European tradition, as a natural matter. In terms of vital, organic and innovative music, America has only produced jazz and blue grass. Blue grass, however, has never been written in a wide enough variety of forms to be considered a serious art form. Jazz, however, has had quite a number of original composers, something of a perceived anomaly for a music mostly known for improvisation covering pop music. It is true that it is difficult to isolate a jazz “composer” (such as, for example, Monk, Gillespie, Mingus and Coltrane) from an “arranger” (such as Henderson, Basie and Evans). But there is no doubt where Duke Ellington stands on that divide. For more than forty years he produced one marvel after another, which he not only wrote, but arranged and conducted.

It’s difficult to pick a period that best displays his genius. But “periods” he certainly has, as assuredly as Picasso did. From the “Jungle Music” of his Cotton Club days, to the “classicist” of the 30s and 40s (with the Carnegie Hall music), during which time he had the outstanding performers Ben Webster on sax and Jimmy Blanton on bass, which RCA Victor used to sell its compilation of Ellington recordings. The ’50s were a difficult time for Big Bands but Ellington used it to write one of his most startling pieces, “Satin Doll,” which was never better interpreted than by his own quirky original piano treatment. The 60s saw him attempt “serious” compositions/arrangements with suites (including a version of the “Nutcracker”) that did not stack up to his earlier efforts. But at the same time he was exploring the avant-garde. Possibly the best of these efforts was Money Jungle with Coltrane and Mingus. The efforts of the 60s paid off with a renaissance in the 70s, when he himself was in his 70s. And it was listening to an album from that period that got me thinking in this vein. The album was Afro-Eurasian Eclipse.

That album ostensibly offers a “fusion” with what Ellington calls “oriental” music. You can safely ignore the Duke’s explanation; in fact it’s somewhat embarrassing to listen to. I have never understood the thinking of the A&R flacks at Columbia Records, who seemed to relish self-indulgent and often patronizing blather. But once you get past the first 10 seconds or so of this album, you will find the music undeniably superb. Admittedly, the effects are largely owing to block orchestral forces and the open voicings of the brass at climaxes. But pitting block forces was the mainstay of someone as orthodox in Germanic art music as Bruckner. And if you object to open voicings, then you probably have no interest in big band jazz anyway.

That said, if you have a half hour, it could be spent in many worse ways than listening to Afro-Eurasian Eclipse:

Bierstadt Comes Back East

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.


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).

Pierre Reverdy’s New Year Thoughts

Pierre Reverdy by Amedeo Modigliani. (Oil on canvas. ca. 1915. Private collection.) Click to enlarge.

Pierre Reverdy by Amedeo Modigliani. (Oil on canvas. ca. 1915. Private collection.) Click to enlarge.

The great French Cubist poet Pierre Reverdy (1889-1960) is enjoying something of a small revival owing to the publication last October of the NYRB Classics anthology edited by Mary Ann Caws. The poems are translated by some fourteen different translators. Their approaches to the work (diction, structure, emphasis) are widely different, but all emphasize the conceptual meaning of the words. Those meanings seem discordant, somewhat arbitrarily associated. In fact, the translations often give the impression of sterile lists artlessly assembled by a dispirited cataloger. Fortunately the collection contains the original poems facing each rendering, so you can see for yourself how the poems hang together through sound. Unlike casual musings that they might resemble, the poems have intimate and patterned phonemic relations, rhymes, near rhymes, phonic similarities and dissonance, that make the poems something of sound-webs. Of course, it is that aspect of poetry that only rarely is amenable to translation.

Illustration by Georges Braque for Reverdy's Les Adoises du Toit

Illustration by Georges Braque for Reverdy’s Les Adoises du Toit

Ever since the Impressionists, European poets had taken cues from new movements in the visual arts to define styles of poetry (and often to form self-proclaimed literary movements). At the beginning of the twentieth century the profusion of visual schools produced a corresponding number of poetry or other literary trends. Many of the literary movements had only notional relation to the visual schools they named themselves after. And while it is often difficult to see much differences in principle between literary Dadaists and Surrealists, Vorticists and Imagists, among many other movements, Cubism, at least as practiced by Reverdy, seems to have had a well-conceived conceptual basis. This is how Kenneth Roxwell (an American Cubist poet himself) describes it:


Gris’s portrait of Reverdy accompanying the poet’s reproduced script

Juan Gris was Pierre Reverdy’s favorite illustrator, as he in turn was the painter’s favorite poet. No one today would deny that they share the distinction of being the most Cubist of the Cubists. This is apparent to all in Juan Gris. But why is Cubism in poetry? It is the conscious, deliberate dissociation and recombination of elements into a new artistic entity made self-sufficient by its rigorous architecture. This is quite different from the free association of the Surrelaists and the combination of the unconscious utterance and political nihilism of Dada. (Pierre Reverdy, Selected Poems, ed. by Kenneth Rexroth (NY: New Directions: 1955), pp. v-vi.)

Reverdy was more than just an imitator of painters, however. He remained life-long friends with the leading French painters through his life.

Photograph taken by  Brassaï after a performance of Picasso's play El deseo pillado por la cola. Standing from,left to right: Jacques Lacan, Cecile Eluard, Pierre Reverdy, Luoise Leiris, Pablo Picasso, Zanie de Campan, Valentine Hugo, Simone de Beauvoir, Brassaï. Sitting from left to right: Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Michel Leiris, Jean Aubier.

Photograph taken by Brassaï in 1944 after a performance of Picasso’s play El deseo pillado por la cola. Standing from,left to right: Jacques Lacan, Cecile Eluard, Pierre Reverdy, Luoise Leiris, Pablo Picasso, Zanie de Campan, Valentine Hugo, Simone de Beauvoir, Brassaï. Sitting from left to right: Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Michel Leiris, Jean Aubier.

Numerous painters repaid the attention bestowed on them by Reverdy by painting his portrait.

Reverdy was not simply a poet of abstracted images. Nor did he arrange disembodied fragments into a narrative. Rexroth argues that Reverdy’s approach was distinct from other collectors of fragments, such as Eliot, who, for all his fragmentation, proceeds linearly, much in the tradition of Apollinaire.

[In “Apollinairian” poems] the elements, the primary data of the poetic construction, are narrative or at least informative wholes. In verse such as Reverdy’s, they are simple, sensory, emotional or primary informative objects capable of little or no further reduction. Eliot works in The Waste Land with fragmented and recombined arguments; Pierre Reverdy with dismembered propositions from which subject, operator and object have been wrenched free and restructured into an invisible or subliminal discourse which owes its cogency to its own stric, complex and secret logic.

Poetry such as this attempts not just a new syntax of the word. Its revolution is aimed at the syntax of the mind itself. Its restructuring of experience is purposive, not dreamlike and hence it possesses and uncanniness fundamentally different in kind from the most haunted utterances of the Surrealists or Symbolist unconscious. (pp. vi-vii.)

Rexroth’s critical edifice is probably a bit too elaborate to support the poems themselves, but it is true that you can almost feel an underlying non-verbal, and decidedly non-linear, logic to the verses (particularly if you revert to the French).

So we come to the day. The poem below suggests the various mixed thoughts we seem to entertain when we for some reason continue to celebrate the changing of the calendar as though it signifies some new chance (despite our own repeated experiences). Here’s to a decidedly Cubist New Year.

Tard dans la nuit . . .

from Les Ardoises du Toit (Paris: [for Pierre Reverdy]: 1918)

by Pierre Reverdy

La couleur que décompose la nuit
La table où ils se sont assis
La verre en cheminée
La lampe est un cœur qui se vide
C’est une autre année
Une nouvelle ride
Y aviez-vous déjà pensé
La fenêtre déverse un carré blue
La porte est plus intime
Une séparation
Le remords et le crime
Adieu je tombe
Et cest un coin
Des bras qui me reçoivent
Du coin de l’œil je vois tous ceux qui boivent
Je n’ose pas bouger
Ils sont assis
La table est ronde
Et ma mémoire aussi
Je me souviens de tout le monde
Même de ceux qui sont partis

Late at Night

[translation by Kenneth Rexroth]

The color which night decomposes
The table where they sit
In its glass chimney
The lamp is a heart emptying itself
It is another year
A new wrinkle
Would you have thought of it
The window throws a blue square
The door is more familiar
A separation
Remorse and crime
Goodbye I am falling
Gently bending arms take me
Out of the corner of my eye I can see them all drinking
I don’t dare move
They sit there
The table is round
And so is my memory
I remember everybody
Even those who are gone

[Text note: I followed the text and the irregular indentations of the 1918 edition. Reverdy, after all, was employed for a while as a typeset proofreader, so I presume he knew what he wanted with respect to page layout. The French text above is different from the version Rexworth uses in this respect: Instead of Adieu je tomb / Et chest un coin / Des bras qui me reçcoivent as in the original text, Rexroth has it: Adieu je tomb / Dans l’angle roux des bras qui me reçcoivent.]

The poem reminds me (in some non-rational way) of a Gris painting soon to become part of the permanent collection of the Met. And even if it doesn’t remind you of the poem, perhaps it’s festive enough in its own right for the occasion.

Figure Seated in a Café by Juan Gris. (Oil on canvas. 1914. Part of a donation of a Cubist collection from Leonard Lauder to be installed in 2014 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.) (1914)

Figure Seated in a Café by Juan Gris. (Oil on canvas. 1914. Part of the vast and recent donation of Cubist paintings from Leonard Lauder to be installed in 2014 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

100 Years Ago Today: The Russians Claim Ballet for Modernism

Posed photgraph of original dancers from Le Sacre du printemps (Wikipedia, from a 1913 issue of the English weekly The Sketch).

Posed photgraph of original dancers from Le Sacre du printemps (Wikipedia, from a 1913 issue of the English weekly The Sketch).

One hundred years ago today, on May 29, 1913, occurred one of the defining moments of modernism: the premiere of The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du printemps) at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. The riot that took place to greet Stravinsky’s score and Nijinsky’s choreography is often used to show how violently New Music or Modernity in general was an offensive shock to an unsuspecting public. The fact is the “riot” was almost certainly staged by a faction with a preconceived agenda, and it likely represented nothing other than the expression of self-satisfied “patrons” who were offended that the theater was not catering to their narrow views on entertainment. I saw something of the same thing back in the early 1970s when Pierre Boulez was routinely heckled in New York for daring to introduce pieces that were not at least 75 years old. On one occasion a gentlemen in a dinner jacket stood up on his folding seat to better offer up boos at the premiere of a Ligety piece. He undoubtedly felt that he belonged to the honorable tradition that goes back now 100 years, a tradition where wealthy arts patrons act like children in the name of preserving artistic traditions. (Or perhaps he simply hadn’t yet learned that Leonard Bernstein was no longer the musical director of the New York Philharmonic.)


Nicholas K. Roerich, ethnographer, mystic, philosopher, lawyer and artist, designed the sets of Rite of Spring from his research into Russian folk history. This painting shows the first scene, “The Kissing of the Earth,” which depicts a sacred Slavic guessing game with dancing in the Valley at the sacred hill. In the score this part is titled “L’Adoration de la Terre (Adoration of the Earth).” (

The actual “riot” in Paris in 1913 was shabby enough, according to the New York Times cable report (which translated the title of the work as “Consecration of Spring”).  It apparently amounted to hissing and some shoving. The affair was summarized by Alfred Capus (who would go on the defend the “purity” of French culture as one of the “immortels” ) in Le Figaro. Capus claimed that the production itself was nothing more than an attempt by the Russians to flatter the “idle rich” of Paris into paying double ticket prices and then insult them with “the last degree of stupidity.” He was referring to the stupidity of the ballet, not the Parisian idle rich. The Times correspondent noted that since “M. Capus’s article there have been disorderly scenes at the Champs-Élysées Théâtre …” (The writer also noted that management learned to quell the disorders by turning on the lights; Parisian upper crust, unlike those of 1970s New York, were not willing to be seen acting the boor and settled down.)

Roelrich's design for the second part, "The Great Sacrifice." which takes place on top of a hill in the stone maze, where the girls are playing a secret games. They end with the choice of the sacrifice, who dances her last dance and then falls dead.

Roelrich’s design for the second part, “The Sacrifice on High.” which takes place on top of a hill in the stone maze, where the girls are playing a secret games. They end with the choice of the sacrifice, who dances her last dance and then falls dead. In the score the part is called “Le Sacrifice (The Sacrifice).” (

The vulgarity of the riots notwithstanding (their intensity and significance undoubtedly increased as the memory of the witnesses grew older), there was no better place or time for Modernity to throw down the gauntlet. If anywhere, Paris had for decades been the center of advanced ideas. In fact, the taproot of Modernism goes back to the Paris of the 1860s and 70s with Baudelaire and the Impressionists. And poetry and art had made significant leaps in those areas since then. 1913 was also the year that the first installment of Proust’s great experiment in memory, autobiography and art, À la recherche du temps perdu (Remembrance of Things Past), would be published. Even in music Debussy was working his way out of the prevailing Romanticism. Nowhere else were there such combustible elements waiting for an ignition to explode.

The Woolworth Building in Manhattan at night in 1913. (Library of Congress; from Wiki Commons.)

The Woolworth Building in Manhattan at night in 1913. (Library of Congress; from Wiki Commons.)

New York, of course, was a backwater at the time, looking to Europe for all its cultural instruction. It generally did not criticize its betters. The New York Armory Show, which opened in February 1913 and put together the largest collection of Post-Impressionists, Fauvists and Cubists ever seen outside of Europe, offended mainly cranks and was embraced, as these kinds of things usually are in New York, by self-satisfied financial and business elites as a sign of their enlightenment, particularly inasmuch as more than 160 pieces were purchased. This was much the reaction when Mahler conducted in New York a few years before, although he remained in safe territory by not straying far from Mozart and Beethoven. Perhaps because it married business, finance and industrial enterprise with design, architecture, in the form of office skyscrapers, would become the first quintessentially American art form. If so, 1913 was a signal year in New York arts, because the newly completed Woolworth Building became the world’s tallest structure.

London’s musical scene, at least as far as English composers went, was barren at the time. In art it had never really assimilated Impressionism, much less Post-Impressionist advances, dominated as the London art scene was by Whistler’s legacy. Theater appeared ready for a change, but the only real avant-garde was taking place in poetry and fiction. Yet the various proclamations of Ezra Pound, including the introduction of the Vortex (which would take place in 1914), seemed to spark debate mainly in high-brow literary and cultural journals. D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers was published in 1913 to mainly indifferent reviews. Joyce would begin writing Ulysses the following year and it only later dribbled out in a small literary journal in the United States, but when it finally attracted notice, it was more as an example of modern smut rather than modern sensibilities.

First fights end the debut of the masters of the Second Viennese School at the Konzertskandal on

First fights end the debut of the masters of the Second Viennese School at the Konzertskandal on March 31, 1913. (Die Zeit, April 5, 1913 from Wikipedia.)

Visual expression in Berlin and Vienna was still primarily in the design phase; Expressionism was only in its tentative beginnings. Much of music there was exploring the end of chromatic Romantic music and (still) the implications of Tristan (which fittingly enough had its premiere in Vienna rather than Paris, because of the ridiculous antics of the Jockey Club in Paris at the perforance of Tannhäuser in 1861). It is true that Schoenberg (Schönberg then) had broken more or less completely from diatonic tonality with his second string quartet (of 1907/08), Das Buch der Hängenden Gärten, op. 15 (1908/09), his Five Orchestral Pieces, op. 16 (1909), Erwartung (1909) and most dramatically in Pierrot Lunaire, op. 12 (1912). But these pieces were not well known in the big capitals, although Sir Henry Wood performed the Five Orchestral Pieces (the most conservative of these works) to disapproving audiences in London in September 1912. Just weeks before the Rite of Spring premiere, Schoenberg himself reprised his Chamber Symphony No. 1, op. 9 (1906) and debuted two pieces by his students, Webern’s Six Pieces for Orchestra, op. 6 (1909/10) and Berg’s Altenberg Lieder, op. 4 (1911/12), as well as a more conventional new piece by his father-in-law, Zemlinsky’s Six Songs after poems by Maeterlinck, op. 13 (1913). Webern’s work produced taunting laughter and Berg’s both taunts and fist fights. The disorder was so great that Schoenberg did not attempt to finish Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder. The outbreaks were greater and the violence more genuine (the concert produced one more lawsuit than the affair in Pairs), but the event (now known as the Konzertskandal) never became The Case in Point of the clash of the New with the Old, possibly because much worse would befall Schoenberg and his students in the future (and not just humiliation), or because Austrian thuggery, more than a little tinged with virulent anti-semitism, would become much more the rule than the exception not too much longer in the future, or maybe because then as now the music of the Second Viennese School was not considered “serious” in the way that upper class consumers of classical entertainment demand.

Non-representational painting and sculpture was bubbling out of many other corners of Europe, but it would take a while to fully comprehend how radical and permanent a departure this would signal.

Boulevard Raspail, Paris, 1913 (Bibliothèque national de France).

Boulevard Raspail, Paris, 1913 (Bibliothèque national de France).

So if a Modernist bomb was going to be ignited, Paris was the perfect place to light the fuse. It seems likely, however, that neither Stravinsky nor Nijinsky intended to light a fuse (at least in the way that Ezra Pound kept trying to do in London), and Stravinsky seemed genuinely hurt that the work was not appreciated on the merits. And much of the fireworks had to do, not with the merits of the music, but rather with French xenophobia. Capus was plain in his contempt for the Russians (the Russians, he wrote, “are not entirely acquainted with the manners and customs of the countries they visit …”). But it also had to do with the French belief that they defined ballet. (The Times piece noted that Parisians admitted that Nijinsky was “a wonderful dancer,” but “they add that he knows little about stage setting.” The reporter from this observation labelled the Rite of Spring performance a “failure.”)

Jardin du Lexuembourg, 1913 (Bibliothèque national de France).

Jardin du Lexuembourg, 1913 (Bibliothèque national de France).

The French believed that they invented and perfected the art form. And even if they didn’t invent it, ballet was certainly central to French art music and performance from the beginning. Jean-Baptiste Lully, himself a dancer, had organized one of the oldest ballet schools, and the choreographer for Lully’s operas, Pierre Beauchamps, established the standard positions for classical dance and  invented the written notation for recording choreography. And while the Russians had a ballet company in the mid-eighteenth century, that was still nearly a century after Lully had founded the Paris Opera Ballet. (Diaghilev himself produced his first French performances of the Ballets Russes at the Paris Opera Ballet.)

So all of this was enough to offend French hauteur, but was the event really revolutionary?

First, the company.

Russisches Ballett (I), oil on canvas by  August Macke (1912) (Kunsthalle, Bremen).

Russisches Ballett (I), oil on canvas by
August Macke (1912) (Kunsthalle, Bremen). Click to enlarge.

The Ballets Russes, as a money-making enterprise, was not revolutionary, although it would increasingly look to the future. Its founder and impressario, Serge Diaghilev, a Russian critic turned performance producer, was educated, urbane, forward looking and a risk taker. He had ideas how ballet should be presented, and it involved using the latest in art, choreography and music. More important, he was willing to raise and spend money to realize his vision. The Ballets Russes would soon number among its set and costume designers giants in the world of art (including Picasso,  Matisse, Braque and Rouault). Its choreographers would become the definers of Modernity in dance (including Nijinsky, Massine and Balanchine). And of course Diaghilev championed the composers of modern music, at least programmatic music. The company not only employed avant-garde artists, it influenced the arts outside of ballet.

The pairing of Nijinsky and Stravinsky was the ignition for the bomb. Nijinksky was an incendiary dancer. His performance in the Ballets Russes production of L’après-midi d’un faune (Afternoon of a Faun), choreographed by Nijinksy himself in 1912, was expressly erotic and, as a dance, was itself controversial. Diaghilev had commissioned Stravinsky to orchestrate a Chopin piece for the Ballets Russes in 1910. After that came Firebird and the more conventional Petrushka. Nijinsky would choreograph Debussy’s score Jeux, an eccentric ballet about tennis and (possibly) homosexuality, and that odd piece would immediately precede Rite of Spring, which would be the first time Nijinsky choreographed Stravinsky. The combination of the two Russians proved too much for the French audience.

The ballet was based on the great Russian political belief that there was a golden peasant past, before serfdom, before Peter the Great, where the people lived in an idyllic comunal harmony with nature. (

The ballet was based on the great Russian political-religious mythos that there was a golden peasant past, before serfdom, before Peter the Great, where the people lived in an idyllic communal harmony with nature. (

But there was a third Russian involved. Nicholas Roerich, a polymath whose tastes ran to mysticism and Russian folk history, designed the sets and costumes. His settings were based on his own scholarly recreation of Russian folk past, which was undoubtedly influenced by the great Russian politico-religious mythos first championed by Pan-Slavists of the middle of the previous century, whose central tenet was eventually adopted (to a greater or lesser extent) by thinkers as diverse as the Socialist Alexander Herzen and the reactionary Dostoevsky: The myth held that in some remote past, before the rot of Western Europe corrupted Russia, and even before Orthodox Christianity, the Russian folk lived in a kind of blissful communal state whose economy was governed by principles of common ownership as radical as anything proposed in 19th century Europe and that Russia’s “salvation” would come from that past, separate from all outside influences.

The hidden ideological motif of the performance was therefore a look to the future in the ancient. (In Russia’s case the myth system was a surrogate political language arising from the fact that political repression prevented any real political discussion.) This would not be the only modern work with that subtext, but the particular mythos embedded in the Rite of Spring may have been the one with the longest pedigree of promotion by one country’s intellectuals.

The music.

To recreate the ancient, Stravinsky stripped his score of everything that could be considered modern sophistication. There was no irony, no subtlety and no self-reference. Rhythms were strictly defined and metric. In parts rhythmic patterns were so clearly defined by accented notes that it carried through the section even against loudly articulated counter-rhythms. In other parts the march-like rhythm is so strongly felt that it gives an impression of  exultant euphoria. The forward-driving propulsive effect is achieved through steady crescendos. Climaxes come with rapid crescendos and often with instruments filling a larger and more densely packed range.

All of these things, far from being “new,” are many steps back from the prevailing overly refined Romanticism and Post-Romanticism of both Paris and Vienna. The instrumental tonal color was somewhat novel. In many places it is the strings that act as the time-keepers and the woodwinds and brass convey the melody. The introduction is played by a solo bassoon in an extremely high register creating a odd and ethereal mood, much like the beginnings of spring, arising from the melting snows. Other unconventional instrumentations occur, but this hardly placed the piece out of the mainstream of European art music.

Stravinskys attention to detail is shown by the score to one bar (!) of the work. The tonal balance and rhythmic interrelations tend to be overlooked when concentrating on the dissonant "harmonizations." Click to enlarge.

Stravinskys attention to detail is shown by the score to one bar (!) of the work. The tonal balance and rhythmic interrelations tend to be overlooked when concentrating on the dissonant “harmonizations.” Click to enlarge.

The stripping down and simplification was necessary for Stravinsky to undertake and highlight what was in fact his true achievement: dispensing with traditional harmonization. The first critics recognized this experimentation as the most radical. When the ballet premiered on Drury Lane in London on July 11, 1913, the New York Times correspondent sent a cable summarizing the overnight responses of the critics. The consensus was that the music “apparently has no relations whatever to the ordinary rules of harmony and leaves Strauss and even Schönberg behind …” In fact, Stravinsky was not trying to develop new rules for harmonization, but rather dispensing with the ordinary concept that harmony arises out of the melody and instead radically extended the concept he first tried out in Firebird of a sort of ditonality: using unrelated harmonies, or even different keys, against a melody. The melodies were simple enough. They were both “catchy” (Schoenberg’s unachieved desire that cab drivers would hum the tunes of modern music in the future) and grounded in folk music. The “harmonies” were not simply, or even at all, chromatic, they were unrelated to the melody, except through some intuitive (and evidently not rule-based) concept of Stravinsky. (Stravinsky’s instinct in this piece proved true, because many works thereafter, for many years, contain quotes and snatches of the melodies or angular “harmonies.”)

Because it’s nearly impossible to explain music without examples, and because Anthony Newman is insightful and clear, it is useful to hear his  explaination of how Stravinsky used musical “archetypes” with “wrong note” harmonization to create his exotic effects:

The video unfortunately breaks in the middle of a musical example and continues here:

It’s a fair bet that almost everyone reading this encountered the Rite of Spring first either as an audio recording or in the concert hall without the dance. As a disembodied piece of music even today it is jarring on first hearing. But even accounting for our immensely more degraded (or enhanced, depending on your viewpoint) sensibilities, it does not strike one as something a full-scale riot would ensue from. In fact, in hide-bound, conservative London, while it was not a hit is any sense, the New York Times correspondent reported that the first reception was greeted with “a mixture of applause and hisses, although the applause won finally.”

What really offended the French, and what made the piece one of the advanced posts of Modernity, was the combination of the music with the dance.

The Choreography.

Drawing of Marie Piltz in the “Sacrificial Dance” from The Rite of Spring, Paris, 29 May 1913, in Montjoie! (magazine), Paris, June 1913 (Wikipedia).

If you have only encountered the work as a concert piece, you lose altogether its programmatic aspect. The music is clearly program music; it is not organized as a piece of “absolute” music. So a listener needs to know what the music is “about.” It undoubtedly helps to see one of the 200 or so different productions that have been mounted since the original. But modern versions tend to (wrongly) emphasize the outlandish and promote a supposed modernist take by, for example, using naked or nearly naked dancers or appealing to an erotic undertow in the music. It took Millicent Hodson’s tireless choreographic archaeology to recreate what Nijinsky designed. The Joffrey Ballet then nearly a quarter century ago put on the nearest approximation we are ever likely to see of the “intention” of the creators, and it was a stunning eye-opener.

Even today the movements of the dancers can be described, as the New York Times London correspondent did in 1913, as not involving “dancing in the ordinary sense of the word.” It is more like an architecture of movement, where geometric patterns are achieved by groups of dancers using angular movements of legs and arms and posture. The dancers introduce themselves by emphatically stomping on the stage, as though to test whether the earth has returned solid from its capture by winter. One figure, the old lady conjurer, is characterized by an extremely bent body and small shuffling steps. Groups of dancers arrange themselves as you would think ancient tribes did. Celebrations and mysteries are performed according to ancient rules, the antiquity of which provide their justification.

No attempt is made to display virtuosity. Instead, groups move as integrated units in simple and repetitive motions. The secret game to pick the sacrificial victim is repeated with small variations, just as is the music highlighted by pizzicato strings, until one is selected. She briefly shows her grim deference to custom, then her terror, and then her grief in the only solo dance of the performance. She finally succumbs to the communal rules and forfeits her life to ensure that the tribe endures for one more year.

It is extraordinarily effective and had to have come as an electric current to those looking forward to seeing divas performing en pointe. It is difficult to understate how this piece represented a decisive break with the past. You owe it to yourself to see the original:

The Effect.

All together, the piece delivers a shocking, visceral and powerful emotional jolt. And, yes, even if the riot was largely preconceived rather than spontaneous, the French had a right to see in it the revolution that would come. The Future, as the Twentieth Century would tell over and over, was in our ancient past. The New is what we originally were. And whether it came from pre-Socratic Greek philosophy, African masks, Egyptian poetry or Russian folk myths, we are forced to confront what we are by looking to our original fears and aspirations. And a large part of what we are is determined by the Irrational.

Modernity was a way of looking at things that radically departed from not only Romanticism but also the Age of Reason. At a time that science was pursuing a method that validated concepts by trying to eliminate the random, biased and irrational, art proclaimed that we could never escape the irrational, and in fact held out that by celebrating it we help excoriate it. (That, after all, is the original purpose of rites, then religion, then philosophy, then psychoanalysis, and so forth, throughout the progression of history.)

But Modernism was not an unqualified success. In politics, for example, “Modernist” movements that looked to the Aryan or Roman past produced untold suffering and sorrow. Modernism did not automatically bring with it a moral compass and it often sat precariously between progress and vicious reaction. Not all who felt uneasy in Paris that night 100 years ago were necessarily overly privileged snobs who played the connoisseur. There might have been some among the original Parisian viewers who, at least subconsciously, felt the actual (not just artistic) terror of the Modernist revolution at at hand. After all, not much more than a year later France and all of Europe would experience the first consequences of modernity’s political quest for the essence. Those sacrifices were not one at a time as in the ballet that night, and no one had time or interest in experiencing the terror and grief of each victim. It would cost more lives than anyone ever expected or, indeed, could have conceived, but it was just the beginning. That, however, is a different story.

Destroying the Old is not always the way forward. But that was not what Modernism was about. And in any event, there was no choice. The world was changing and art had to reflect that reality or become irrelevant.

It did not become irrelevant. So today we should at least acknowledge that 100 years of the modern have revealed things that the Ancient Order never could have conceived. Many of those things we can celebrate.