Weekly musings on the arts and current events.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Another World

Around the turn of the century, the last century that is, the Cornish art colony in upper New Hampshire thrived. About eighty artists and notables were associated with this retreat, which was more or less organized by the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens and the painter Thomas Wilmer Dewing. First artists and architects, next writers, and then other talented and accomplished people, along with the merely wealthy, took up residence in and around Cornish and Plainfield, New Hampshire, for either the summers or year round. The list of colonists include Maxfield Parrish, Ethel Barrymore, Marie Dressler, Isadora Duncan, Frederic Remington, Daniel Chester French (sculptor of the Lincoln Memorial), legendary editor Maxwell Perkins, Judge Learned Hand, and President Woodrow Wilson.

These were not starving artists. Their presence revived the economy of this formerly hardscrabble farming area. Many built stunning residences with formal gardens, including ten designed by colonist Charles A. Platt that show Georgian and Italian Renaissance influences. Others remodeled existing farmhouses in high style.

I'm curious about how active and inclusive their social gatherings were. It was never a teaching colony, but they must have held parties and picnics, gallery openings, lectures, concerts, and the like. Was Jewish sculptor William Zorach always invited? I'm sure there were also intrigues, liaisons, fallings-out, rivalries, and many drinking bouts. Perhaps there's a historical novel lying in wait for a writer willing to do the research.

This painting, Symphony in Green and Gold by Thomas Wilmer Dewing, 1900, was inspired by one of the colony's amateur theatricals, staged in a garden and illuminated by Chinese lanterns. If I have any fantasy about living in such a colony, it is of being culturally self-sufficient, participating in do-it-yourself entertainments alongside creative people. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Late Summer

There's something defeatist in the prompt drydocking of the speedboats on my mountain lake. Labor Day has passed, but we have one final weekend of summer, and besides, it won't get cold for many more weeks, barring a precipitous snowfall. Can't we pretend it's summer for just a bit longer?

But the fireplaces are already ablaze, and while the mornings may not bite the earlobes just yet, there is a new insistence to the breeze that it be respected with a sweater. For the first time in many months, I am craving a bowl of soup.

Never mind. Everyone says they like autumn best, if for no other reason than because it's the time when they can layer their apparel with soft fabrics and earthy colors.

John Singer Sargent painted his friends Paul and Alice Helleu while visiting an artists' colony in the Cotswolds, a range of hills in England. I like this scene very much, with the top of Paul's straw hat as a surrogate for the sun--see how the light seems to radiate from it in the grass above--even though her straw bonnet is actually a bit brighter. Alice's evident boredom with her husband's absorption in his work, on what surely should have been an afternoon of fishing and recreation, gives a comic cast to a very intricate composition.

I can't help imagining the full scene, with Sargent positioned at our vantage, working on this painting. What must the sounds have been like, the birds, breeze and water mixed with the scrape of the brushes against the two canvases, and perhaps Alice humming softly to herself?

An Out-of-Doors Study by John Singer Sargent, 1889. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Nine Eleven

Everywhere people are remembering where they were on this day ten years ago. It's easy to recall how we first heard the news, but harder to think of where we were as a nation before the Twin Towers, before the second Iraq war, before the Afghanistan adventure, before our crushing budget deficits, before a six fold increase in the price of gold, before the Tsunami, before the near sinking of New Orleans, before the ascendency of Barack Obama, before the Tea Party, before this year's unprecedented string of weather related emergencies and disasters, and most of all, before the rise and fall of America's good name in the hearts of our allies all over the world.

Some things only seem new. Our disgust with Congress may be peaking, but I found kindred skepticism the other night when I watched the 1939 film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Worry over the national debt has been with us ever since "that man", Franklin Delano Roosevelt, sought to combat joblessness with public works projects. And wars of choice didn't begin with George W. Bush--"Remember the Maine!"

We have felt despair before; is it worse now? What would combat it? I see three potential sources of hope. The first is dialogue. Yes, TV pundits are abrasive, and many people believe harebrained conspiracy theories rather than reputable news sources, but as we approach the next election, I think we can expect a greater audience for the exchange of political ideas and information than ever before. What will result? I have no idea, but my hope is that we will reach a consensus, or as politicians like to call it, a mandate that will enable us to effect changes.

The second is an economic rebound. The financial markets have been fluctuating by as much as 3% in a day, which is distressing. However, the fact that good news causes rallies, however short lived, is evidence of dormant faith in our economic potential. The capital is there, looking for opportunity, and the demand for our goods and services, both here and abroad, is enormous. Our economic downturn is not born of want. This gives me hope.

My third wellspring is more reflective. Our continent is truly blessed, our values are the world's highest, and our society is the most admired. We don't always respect our environment as we should, or live up to what we profess, but I place my hope in our desire to retain our leadership role. In other words, I place my hope in the fact that Americans are not given to despair.

Map, by Jasper Johns, 1961. Johns is a much heralded artist and a gray eminence among the New York art scene. Barack Obama awarded him the Medal of Freedom earlier this year. His most famous works are of the American Flag. I find his work coy, patriotic in one context and ironic in the next. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Labor Day

It's happened again. I got into a conversation with a conservative friend and found myself defending labor unions. To his credit, my friend conceded that unions were necessary in the last century to defend workers from oppressive corporations. But today, he says, they only seek to coddle the lazy and prevent social and economic progress.

Gently, I tried to remind him that unions were a partner during America's most robust growth years. Today, they're a shadow of what they were while growth has all but stopped. Of course, the unions my friend has in mind are of public servants, and specifically the teachers' unions. In fairness, conservatives don't wish to see robust growth in this sector.

My friend has seen On the Waterfront and a host of other accounts, factual and fictional, of labor racketeering. I suggested that those days are gone and that the big time corruption nowadays is to be found on Wall Street and among its D.C. enablers.

This weekend is called Labor Day, but who remembers why? Certainly not the governor of Texas who has questioned the constitutionality of child labor restrictions. Nor the average worker, 88% of whom are not unionized. Most school children could not recall organized labor's contributions to American history which are all but omitted from today's textbooks.

Perhaps unions can only thrive in a growing economy. When job creation is at zero, as in the U.S. today, there can be no leverage for collective bargaining. So Labor Day is now a relic from a bygone era, a souvenir of America's faded industrial glory.

Lee J. Cobb, Marlon Brando, and Rod Steiger in On the Waterfront, 1954. Arthur Miller wrote the original screenplay and gave it to Elia Kazan, who had directed Death of a Salesman on Broadway. But Columbia's Harry Cohen thought Miller was a communist and replaced him with Budd Schulberg. Kazan, Schulberg, and Cobb (the original Willy Loman) were all friendly witnesses before the House Unamerican Activities Committee and the film is widely seen as a defense of their naming names. Cobb's testimony all but ruined the acting career of my beloved friend and teacher, Jeff Corey, who nevertheless attended Cobb's funeral and made peace with his daughter. Click on the picture for a closer look.