Great Landscapes: Grant Wood

Everyone knows American Gothic, which, great though it is, is in some ways slightly unrepresentative of Wood’s work, although it absolutely captures a certain Midwest ambience – Wood was basically an Iowan to the end of his days (1942, aged 51, pancreatic cancer), although he had a most eclectic approach to art – visiting Europe and soaking up Northern Renaissance masterpieces, amongst others.

In landscape terms though I present three. Two had the ‘wow’ factor when I first saw them, but the first is a deceptively simple pastorale which is almost abstract in what it depicts, Spring Turning:

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Spring Turning, 1936. Reynolda House Museum of American Art, North Carolina

Completely original and in its own way, very influential.

The next is a dark fable neatly trapped in the confines of a rectangular frame, Death on the Ridge Road. You could view this simply as an almost cartoonish reflection on the burgeoning spate of motor vehicle deaths as America industrialised and became richer, or just as easily you can turn it in on itself, like this author did: To deepen and nuance the scholarly understanding of this painting, depictions of automobiles and nature within the image are closely considered, focusing on the metaphorical content they express.  This analysis regards questions about what cars and nature meant to Americans at this time.  How might cars represent manhood in Wood’s painting?  If they are a vehicle for gender identity, might their placement and movement in the image suggest the struggle for acceptance that homosexuals faced generally, and Wood may have faced specifically?

You decide. It is a brilliant composition, delivered with great technical assurance.

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Death on the Ridge Road, 1935. Williams College Museum of Art, Massachusetts

Lastly, the earliest of the three, an epic, cinematic snapshot of a key moment in American history – Wood is one of the most instinctively American of painters. I still marvel at the perspective – a precursor of drone photography – the New England neatness, the perfect evocation of night, and the arcadian landscape disappearing behind the buildings, those perfect trees. Paul Revere himself is almost incidental – shades there of Bruegel’s Icarus, a feature not lost on WH Auden.

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The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, 1931. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
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Great hacks of our time (8): Conrad Black

Private Eye used to refer to him as the ‘sinister Canadian’, and in truth Lord Black’s life is a riot of intrigue, money, business, politics, religion, prison, history, women, enemies and quite a few other things. But it’s his writing that I’m here to praise (start here, and here).

Black has written numerous books, the latest of which is a unique take – we are assured – on the Trump phenomenon. Unique in part because Black has also been extremely wealthy, and has known and liked Trump for years. He understandably doesn’t buy into the ‘reality TV/idiot/monster’ meme beloved by the majority of the media. He knows whereof he writes.

And boy does he write well, with instantly recognisable prose, and a penchant for extreme and obscure vocabulary in the manner of Bruce “The Brute” Anderson (1, 2) and the dean of  this sort of thing, the pleasingly enduring R Emmett Tyrrell jr.

Conrad on religion:

I am not touting religious practice (though I am a practitioner, having long ago lost faith in the non-existence of God, but respect all even semi-rational religious views, including atheism). It need hardly be said that horrible acts have been committed in the name of religion. That is the problem when mere people interpose themselves between the terrestrial life we all know and the spiritual life which is elusive, personal, largely inexpressible, and the subject of much doubt, some of it informed and intellectually respectable doubt. Yet, in Marxist parlance, the commanding heights of society have been seized and occupied by militant atheists, with the complicity of the usual sodden camp-following of those who have no convictions and are easily moved by a tide of fashionable unquestioned wisdom, no matter how mindless and unrigorous. The inheritors of the crusade for reason have largely become crusaders for intolerance and for the repudiation of the Judeo-Christian roots of our civilization. This force which inspired Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, and illuminated the works of Shakespeare and even Descartes, much of it subsidized by the Christian Church, is now effectively led by those who despise Christianity as superstitious and shaming bunk.

Conrad on Mueller and associated matters:

If this all sounds like the Hound of the Baskervilles chasing its tail, that is because it is that and more: The hound has caught its own tail and devoured itself from behind to the point that it has become a deformed biped. In résumé, original Obama appointees Mueller and Rosenstein (the latter of whom named Mueller to his present post as special counsel — at the improper behest of Mueller’s friend and protégé Comey, after Comey leaked an improperly removed and self-addressed document — and recommended Comey’s firing as FBI director) are examining whether Trump-Russian collusion occurred, based on allegations in a dossier that Comey has testified did not implicate Trump, and that was composed and paid for by the Clinton campaign. Reduced to its simplest terms, the Trump-haters who control the media are asking the nation and the world to believe that the continuation in office of the constitutionally chosen president of the United States depends on a file prepared by unanswerable Kremlin sources incentivized to defame the president who were retained and paid by the president’s election opponent — a file that the person Trump fired as head of the FBI (Comey) on the recommendation of the sidekick of the special counsel in not investigating the Clinton side of the uranium controversy in 2014 has testified does not implicate the president now being investigated by Comey’s mentor Mueller

Conrad on the justice system:

I fear we are losing the capacity for proportionate response to misbehaviour, to temper justice with mercy, to forgive the penitent, and to remember that we are all sinners, living to some degree in moral glass houses. We are slipping into the practice of consigning moral, ethical, and even legal questions to a sort of Manichaean lottery, where those who are not legally convicted of egregious offences, but are tripped up, caught out in naughty or tawdry behaviour, however sincerely the misconduct is regretted for moral as well as tactical reasons, don’t make the cut, are ruthlessly reclassified as bad and cast out like Old Testament lepers…..In treating those who seriously misbehave but are not criminals in this arbitrary and severe way, the majority is dispensing with the system of moral gradations that is inherent to all serious religious and moral and penal theory. We are all good and bad to varying extents at different times. If we draw a line before which all is permitted and after which everything leads to chastisement and damnation, we unjustly divide people into the good and the bad. This is not only unjust to the losers; it is an unearned psychic enrichment to the winners. Instead of striving to behave ourselves generally as well as we can, people are effectively encouraged to game the system; to get away with what they can and to join in the group self-delusion that in throwing the book at those who cross the double line, we are dispensing condign punishment to them and affirming the virtue of the unpunished.

A classic Conrad footnote:

Note: Thanks to my friend Ron Radosh for pointing out that the comparison between Steve Bannon and King Henry VIII’s chancellor Thomas Cromwell, which I mentioned last week, was made by Bannon himself. But this was in an article by Michael Wolff, who is completely unreliable and knows nothing of Tudor history. I do not believe Bannon really compared himself to someone who undermined his predecessor (Cardinal Wolsey), supported the false conviction and execution of the queen (Anne Boleyn), and was then executed himself for proposing another failed marriage (to Anne of Cleves). None of it makes any sense and I say it is piffle.

I should leave the last word to another great – and highly prolific – contemporary commentator and historian, Victor Davis Hanson. In previewing Black’s new book, he summarises the point I wish to make, rather brilliantly:

Finally, Black is a singular prose stylist of what in the ancient world would be called the Asiatic, or florid and decorative, style—multisyllabic and sometime near archaic vocabulary, ornate imagery, melodic prose rhythms, diverse syntax, and classical tropes of deliberate understatement, juxtapositions of Latinate and Anglo-Saxon words, and plentiful metaphors and similes. In the modern world, few in English write (or can write) any more like Edward Gibbon or Winston Churchill, but Black does so effortlessly and with precision. So it is often a treat to read an Isocrates or Cicero in modern English.

Conrad Black
Conrad’n’Barbara

Great landscapes: Albrecht Dürer

I’d always thought of Dürer** as more of a portraitist, miniaturist and woodcut person – yet here he is with a landscape in watercolours. Dürer’s career was astonishingly early on in the development of technically advanced and accurate art – he died in 1528, so 78 years before a fellow Northern master, Rembrandt was born. One gets the impression that he was pretty confident in his skills, and probably a touch egotistical – his self consciously Christ-like and brilliantly executed self portrait tends to hint at that. Fame and riches came rapidly.

Early in his career he did the obligatory travels, including Italy, though much of his itinerary is surmise and shrouded in uncertainty. Prior to that he did quite a few watercolours, including the justly celebrated Willow Mill. The latter is a good example of the difficulty in reproducing art both in books and online. Here are two online versions of the same painting. Pretty different:

 

For what it’s worth, I think the second is the right one, though the first one is maybe more appealing.

In any event, the subject of this blog is Dürer’s simple landscape of the river Pegnitz, by Nuremberg, his hometown. He was about 20 when he did it. In fact, although it’s a pretty accomplished piece, it isn’t necessarily anything special in terms of technique or subject, but it has, to my subjective eye, something. Which is a hallmark of art which you actually like, rather than art which you’re virtually obliged to praise (numerous examples, from the Mona Lisa downwards). I particularly like its evocation of a sort of prelapsarian rural age of tranquility and bucolic comfort – a far cry from the Jeremy Kyle peasants of Bruegel, 60 years later.

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Albrecht Dürer, Wire drawing mill on the Pegnitz, near Nuremberg. Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett SMPK, 1490-1494

In fact the closest works that create a similar ambience for me are, perhaps bizarrely, the Nutwood landscapes created by the great Alfred Bestall for the endpapers of the long series of Rupert the Bear annuals (seriously). See what I mean?

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Four hundred years after Dürer’s  youthful gem, here’s what the Pegnitz looked like in Nuremberg itself. Also vaguely prelapsarian and idyllic, given the intrinsic joys of Bavaria, and the fact that World War 1 was still 15 years off:

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…that’s a large synagogue on the skyline. A different Germany then

 

** if you’re interested in Dürer, then this monograph by Norbert Wolff is one of the best art books that I’ve read. Outstanding.

Ash Wednesday

I usually blog on this with a painting – Goya, Bruegel, Spitzweg (genius) and more. I was prompted today to look at Rembrandt’s** late work, The Return of the Prodigal Son, which, if you know the parable, is highly apposite for Lent. Wikipedia is good on this. Kenneth Clark called it “a picture which those who have seen the original in St. Petersburg may be forgiven for claiming as the greatest picture ever painted” –  a fairly high bar, I’d say.

Henri Nouwen had a more overtly human and religious take on it, expressed very poetically: “Rembrandt is as much the elder son of the parable as he is the younger. When, during the last years of his life, he painted both sons in Return of the Prodigal Son, he had lived a life in which neither the lostness of the younger son nor the lostness of the elder son was alien to him. Both needed healing and forgiveness. Both needed to come home. Both needed the embrace of a forgiving father. But from the story itself, as well as from Rembrandt’s painting, it is clear that the hardest conversion to go through is the conversion of the one who stayed home”

We’ve all been there, and we will be again.

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Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodigal Son, 1668. The Hermitage, St Petersburg

 

**The Knife is in awe of a few painters, Rembrandt is one of them: 1, 2, 3, 4

Random Lists (4): possibly underappreciated piano concertos

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…it’s got out of hand

When I first heard Beethoven’s 5th (Emperor) piano concerto, I was completely bowled over. I played it umpteen times. That was a radio recording of Julius Katchen with Pierino Gamba conducting a Swiss orchestra. It was awesome rhythmically, the timing, the joie de vivre in the big tunes, the interplay etc etc. Pretty much perfect, it seemed.

Now I can hear it straight through without noticing any of that, whoever is playing. I would love to rediscover that feeling, but I’ve heard it too often. Not many pieces can survive that sort of exposure (though Alkan’s Concerto for Solo Piano and Gene Clark’s No Other, as well as a few more, do it for me).

But the piano concerto is a unique invention, there is no better orchestra/solo construct, and there are lots of them about. The usual lists (1, 2) contain the usual suspects though (though here’s an alternative), so here are some that may not have grabbed your attention. They should

1. Mozart no 23 (K488)

It might seem a bit of a cheat for this list, but numbers 20, 21, 27 all get more publicity, and yet this piece is just about perfect. I particularly commend the two DG recordings from Pollini and Horowitz. Just wonderful. And I think that a lot of Mozart is just excessively sweet elevator music that rots your teeth.

2. Busoni

This sat unplayed on my shelves for years, then I tried John Ogdon’s typically human recording in the car, and I was hooked. The famed Alex Ross summarises it perfectly, and also offers the ne plus ultra of this stuff, Marc-Andre Hamelin, giving his views on it. The All’Italia theme keeps cropping up with Busoni, and it is fantastic in the concerto, both the piano part and the wild orchestra (from 46 to 57 minutes in the film below). If you want a genuine bargain, try this, but the best all rounder – as Alex Ross says – is probably staid-looking firebrand Peter Donohoe and Mark Elder, live (though it’s hard to get).

3. Beethoven no 1 

Actually, I now find Beethoven’s first three piano concertos more appealing to listen to than the last two, which is the inverse of most opinions. There are lots of CD’s about with numbers 1 and 2 paired up, and they are just beautiful. They are both very linear, relatively simple and very catchy – particularly in the finales. They’re still genre-busters though, this is nothing like Haydn. My ‘go to’ recording is, no surprise, Pollini with Abbado, but Ashkenazy conducting and playing with the Cleveland Orchestra is just as good really. I hate the overuse of the word genius, but Beethoven was one. No tooth decay here.

 

Short list though. They don’t all have to be 5, 10 whatever. Probably should’ve added Medtner no 2

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Great Landscapes: Hopper

I guess I’m displaying a degree of ignorance in admitting that I’d always associated Edward Hopper – a real American original – only with  airless city scenes, isolated buildings, lonely people and so on. Like this, in fact:

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Office in a small city, 1953. Metropolitan Museum, Manhattan

..and it is a work of genius, completely original. Hopper spent a lot of time In Cape Cod though, and he did produce terrific seascapes that are highly evocative of that frankly blessed portion of the planet. So, landscapes of a sort.

However, it was only a random spot on Twitter that alerted me to his other work in New England, and here it is. Lush, verdant magnificence, totally different in feel to his more famous stuff, but quite marvellous.  This was nearly 20 years before the painting above.

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First branch of the White River, Vermont. 1938. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

It turns out that there is a book on this period in Hopper’s life, with this watercolour masterpiece on the cover. More weirdly, in a good way, is this blogger’s realisation that he lives in a Hopper painting. The picture above is the view from his driveway.

How cool is that?

Ayrton Senna: The W126 Mercedes SEC ~ men of taste and distinction (a continuing series)

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…terrible number plate

This is the 6th post I’ve done on this topic, slightly to my surprise (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). They always get regular hits, presumably from people googling Mercedes W126/SEC/coupe. I do it myself.

I previously noted that racing drivers liked to drive SEC’s in their civilian lives, and if you’ve seen the remarkable movie documentary Senna, you’ll know that he was in some ways the greatest of them all, a true archetype.

One of my patients knew him from back in his Formula 3 days, and has nothing but praise for him as a driver, naturally, but also as a man.

Well, the excellent Mercedes Enthusiast magazine has done some detective work and unearthed Senna’s original 500SEC, which clearly has had a harder life than some. It’s been somewhat transformed, but this car has real pedigree, something not very common in the used vehicle market.

As before, here are expandable .jpeg files (just click) and a pdf…

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AS7

AS5

…and…

French election special ~ The W126 Mercedes SEC: men of taste and distinction

It’s always nice to have an excuse to go on about the awesome and beautiful SEC series of Mercedes coupes from the 1980’s. In fact the two previous posts on the topic (here and here) have been among the most popular things on this blog in the last 7 years. It’s partly the aesthetics, courtesy of the genius of Bruno Sacco (1, 2), and partly the sheer joy of zooming around in one, although they’re almost primitive by today’s standards. Such simplicity is is appealing in itself – and easier to fix when there’s a problem. I had a well used 560 SEC as a taster, I now have a 500 SEC, and it’s a keeper.

When you find out that it’s the favoured car of Clint Eastwood and the late Ayrton Senna amongst others – who could buy any car they liked – then you realise it must have a special allure, or pace the female readers, a certain manliness. It’s the antithesis of a highly capable yet boring and ugly modern car – the Nissan Juke, say.

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L’homme lui-même

Which brings me to today’s post. It takes a gallic sang froid to walk into the nearest Mercedes dealership to your appartement on the Champs-Élysées and order the absolute top of the range 560 SEC, with pretty much all the extras. The buyer in question, back in 1988, was Pierre de Bénouville, a prewar  literary critic who became a general and a hero of the French Resistance. Here’s a sample of his New York Times obituary:

…like many French rightists, he was a patriotic nationalist and a bitter foe of the Germans,” and he rejected the occupied government’s call to capitulation and collaboration and went into the underground. An ardent supporter of Charles de Gaulle, to whom he was close in his later political career, he was also a member of the Free French Forces during the war and organized French forces in Algeria. In 1944 he was promoted to brigadier general in the French Army because of his achievements as the commander of a unit of Moroccan sharpshooters on the Italian front. He went on to be a major general. A high-ranking member of the Legion of Honor, he received other decorations, including the Croix de Guerre and the Medal of the Resistance.

Impressive n’est-ce pas? Although he was a ‘rightist’, whatever that is, he was a long term pal of Mitterand (not necessarily a recommendation) and his post-war career was of a fiercely patriotic and successful establishment fixture. His views on the EU are not known to me, but as a Gaullist he was probably for it, as long as the French were in charge, and against the Brits. A couple of other obituaries make interesting reading (Guardian and Telegraph).

Tomorrow is the highly consequential French general election. What a patriotic and brave high achiever like de Bénouville would make of the lightweight effete Blair manqué Emmanuel Macron is a tricky one. His own career path has some similarities to that of Marine Le Pen’s dodgy father. My guess is he would emotionally sympathise with Le Pen but pragmatically vote for Macron, to keep le projet Union européenne alive.

So here, from the outstanding Mercedes Enthusiast magazine, is the full feature on de Bénouville’s exceptional W126 coupe. I’ve provided it as a jpeg and a pdf for any SEC geeks out there.

Vive la France, mais vive la différence!

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C’est magnifique

and….

Genius and despair: John Donne and Christopher Falzone

Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide, says article 2282 of the Catechism.

The story of Christopher Falzone is a tragic one, and it’s  wrapped in claim and counterclaim. It is probably unwise to take sides in the wrangling during his short adult life between his parents and his apparent wife, Lily, though one senses his parents’ pain. He killed himself by jumping from the 10th floor rooftop of a Geneva hospital on 21st October, 2014.This may have been his fourth suicide attempt. In a previous one he’d been badly injured, and ended up in a wheelchair in a care home, still playing the piano miraculously.

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Falzone & Argerich in happier times

His tale is that of a child prodigy in Richmond, Virginia, going on to the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and commencing a sparkling concert career. He won prestigious awards, toured successfully, and came to the notice of Martha Argerich, who when she’s not making slightly boring chamber music (a subjective opinion, I know) with her pals, can be one of the fieriest pianists on the planet. Argerich is good at promoting young pianists, but at some point, Falzone’s life and career began to unravel. Whether it was primarily a mental health problem, which seems likely, or money, family and relationship difficulties he ended up in a pretty bad way. By February 2014 he’d twice jumped off the Walnut St bridge in Pennsylvania, getting injured in the process. His parents applied for and received a court ordered guardianship, and by May 2014 his wife broke this and took him off to Switzerland. This  disturbing GoFundMe request ostensibly written by Falzone, to obtain funding for a new life in Europe, was possibly penned by his wife. It certainly doesn’t read like an intelligent English speaking American wrote it.

After his death was announced, the internet helpfully chimed in with statements attacking his parents such as this one by ‘road rage’ virtuoso pianist Leslie Howard: “He was a very nice man, and an extremely good player and transcriber. His parents’ treatment of him was, to put it mildly, bizarre, and they have much to answer for. Poor dear chap“, or off the wall ‘psychiatry is evil’ schtick from an unusual Swiss lawyer,  Edmund Schönenberger, with Scientology links. Sad, desperate, controversial and painful stuff.

Why, you might ask, am I writing this? One reason is to note, unoriginally, that some of the most talented artistes have been cursed with mental health problems. Creative genius and mental fragility often go hand in hand. Another is to pay tribute to a truly extraordinary gift. As far as I know, all we have are individual memories and YouTube, and thankfully the latter is a rich deposit.

There are lots (and lots) of technically perfect pianists about, with what seems like an endless supply from the former Eastern Bloc, and the Far East. All perfectly listenable, but one suspects that the ultimate value of many of them will be to provide ‘standard’ recordings of repertoire – safe bets, not earth shattering.

There is a much smaller number of truly special musicians, many of them now dead. My own living piano hit list would include Hamelin, Pollini, Zimerman.  Amongst the dead there’s more, such as Rubinstein (Artur), Gould, Richter. No surprises there, in either group. Plenty of the big names are actually just a bit dull, though: Goode, Lewis, Aimard etc. Some of the best recordings are by people who never made it big, such as Latimer or Nicolosi.

Then along comes a guy like Falzone. His playing is brilliant – technically, rhythmically (often neglected), dramatically and emotionally. Not only that, he has charisma and flair. He’s not just a pianist. He is a terrific exponent of the almost dead 19th century art of piano transcription. He doesn’t just play Busoni’s enormous Piano Concerto, he transcribes it for solo piano, along with lots of other similar feats. Dull pianists don’t major in transcriptions, thrilling masters like Marc Andre Hamelin and Earl Wild do, and now Christopher Falzone. He’s just as good in venerable classics such as the Liszt Sonata or Beethoven’s awesome Appassionata

I used to dislike John Donne’s phrase “Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind”, as taken on its own it seems a trite observation regarding the one inevitability in all our lives (the whole poem is a different story). It is probably not to my credit that it takes a life like that of Christopher Falzone  to make me realise that Donne had a point.

 

Rembrandt: I have nothing new to say, I just love this painting

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The man with the golden helmet, 1650, Gemaldegalerie, Berlin, by Rembrandt, OK?

Art appreciation is a subjective business, art history shouldn’t really be. However, great though Rembrandt is in so many of his paintings, I think that this portrait is one of his finest works, an out and out masterpiece, in a field where that word is routinely abused.

Except, it’s not by Rembrandt, after all. That’s the conclusion reached by various experts around 1985, on what you might call fairly trivial grounds. Not everyone agreed, implied in this fine article from the New York Times back then. Indeed, with a painting so wonderful, does the attribution actually matter?

It went on and on, with Rembrandt as the primary victim of warring art ‘experts’ with some pretty odd theories. This great piece in the FT from last year makes the point well:

..we might ask who are all these mysterious, supremely talented “followers of Rembrandt”? Who are the artists able to paint works as fascinating as “The Man with the Golden Helmet” in Rembrandt’s studio, but who have left no trace of any independent practice? I doubt many exist – they are a spectre of modern Rembrandt scholarship.

Funnily enough, this seems to be one of the most popular Rembrandts out there, judged by web hits, despite the claims about authenticity. The Knife loves most of his stuff (see here and here), and in these days of atavistic violence posturing as a challenge to Western cultural values, there is no better cultural riposte than this endlessly fascinating meisterwerk.