29 July 2015

The It Girl

Clara Bow


Today is the birthday of the original “It Girl”—Clara Bow.

Born in Brooklyn on July 29, 1905, Bow’s childhood was one straight out of a nightmare. Raised in poverty with a mentally unstable mother who threatened to kill her and a father who sexually abused her, the seventh-grade drop out’s one avenue of escape was the movies.

In 1921, Motion Picture magazine announced the Fame and Fortune Contest. First prize was a part in a movie. Bow’s father paid $1.00 for her to have two photos taken at a Coney Island studio, which she delivered in person to the publishers. The manager of the contest noted on her photos, “Called in person—very pretty.” Bow ended up beating out the other contestants and won. 

She was given a part in Beyond the Rainbow (1922) but her scenes ended up on the cutting room floor. Her next role as a tomboy in Elmer Clifton’s Down to the Sea in Ships (1922) proved more fruitful, earning her praise from the critics. Hollywood soon beckoned, and Bow would go on to become the biggest star of the 1920s with films that included The Plastic Age (1925), Mantrap (1926), Wings (1927), and It (1927), in which she played her most famous role—Betty Lou, a shop girl with plenty of “it” who sets her sights on her wealthy boss. 

With her bobbed red hair, expressive brown eyes, and sex appeal that seemed to radiate off the screen, Bow epitomized the fun-loving flapper of the Roaring Twenties. In fact, F. Scott Fitzgerald said, "Clara Bow is the quintessence of what the term 'flapper' signifies as a definite description: pretty, impudent, superbly assured, as worldly-wise, briefly-clad and 'hard-berled' as possible."

By the 1930s though Bow's flame had burned out. Overworked, mistreated by the studio, and suffering from scandals and ill health, she made her final film, Hoop-La in 1933 before retiring from acting. She moved to Nevada with her husband, Rex Bell, and raised two boys. As she got older, Bow suffered from schizophrenia and ended up living alone, separated from her family. She died on September 27, 1965 while watching a film from the 1920s.

If you've never seen a Clara Bow film, do so, now. She is brilliant on the screen—funny, adorable, heartbreaking, and well deserving of the title of "It Girl." Happy Birthday, Clara.

28 July 2015

Joan of Arc at the Stake


Marion Cotillard and Eric Génovèse in Joan of Arc at the Stake. Photo: Patrick Berger

Marion Cotillard often portrays characters who are a mix of fragility and strength. Last month, I was fortunate to see her play one of these roles when she appeared with the New York Philharmonic in Arthur Honegger’s oratorio Joan of Arc at the Stake. Composed in 1935 with a libretto by Paul Claudel, the piece was performed in French by Cotillard (in one of the few speaking parts) along with the New York Choral Artists and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus.

Joan of Arc at the Stake opens with a dramatic prologue sung by the chorus about darkness having fallen on France. Added in 1943, it served to establish the situation of the country during Joan of Arc's life while simultaneously condemning the Nazi-occupation of France.

A seemingly dazed Joan appears. Having been found guilty of heresy, she is about to be burned at the stake. She conjures up an imaginary sympathetic friar, Brother Dominic, who has with him a book that tells the story of Joan's life. He reads to her, and we see flashbacks of Joan’s life, starting with her trial, which is represented as some sort of surreal circus with a jury comprised of sheep and a pig for a judge. When Joan asks Brother Dominic why she’s been condemned, he explains that she was a pawn in a card game, which is then shown being played by foolish royals. Joan recalls hearing the voices of her beloved St. Catherine and St. Marguerite, how she helped the King to claim his throne, and of happy moments during her childhood in Lorraine. Brother Dominic leaves, and Joan goes to her death with the Virgin Mary and a choir of angels watching over her.

While some of the farcical scenes like the animal trial were entertaining (if not a bit jarring), the piece was at its strongest when focused on Joan, who was portrayed perfectly by Cotillard. In one memorable scene, Joan shouts out the words that were thrown at her by her accusers—heretic, sorceress, apostate—as they are repeated back to her by the chorus. And the scenes between her and Brother Dominic, played by the excellent Eric Génovèse, were poignant and deeply moving. 

At times defiant, at other times scared, Cotillard's Joan was mesmerizing to watch. Often offering up childlike responses, she reminded the audience that while she may have led troops into battle, Joan of Arc was, after all, a young girl.

If you missed the New York performances, there's a DVD of an earlier production with Cotillard that can be purchased here.

12 July 2015

Bastille Day in New York




Allons enfants de la patrie,
Le jour de gloire est arrivé!

East 60th Street was in full swing today celebrating Bastille Day two days early. Presented by the French Institute Alliance Française, the street fair had dancing and singing, drinking of wine and eating of fine foods, face painting and balloon animals for the kids, and loads of booths with raffle prizes and French products for sale. It even had a very sassy mime. (All photos below by Michele).

Did I mention food? Loads of items to choose from including fruit tarts, brioche, crepes, tri-colour macarons, canneles, and more. It was a fun day and a perfect excuse to celebrate everything French.

06 July 2015

Van Gogh Irises and Roses


The downside of viewing a large exhibit is that the volume can be overwhelming and works can get overlooked. Sometimes less is best, which is the case with “Van Gogh: Irises and Roses” at the Met—just four paintings to ponder and admire.

The paintings, two of irises and two of roses, were completed during Van Gogh’s last month at the Saint-Paul Asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in 1890 where he had admitted himself the year before. Brought together for the first time in 125 years, they are beautiful and striking. The paintings can be viewed as symbols of the optimism that Van Gogh felt, which he conveyed in letters to his family as he readied himself for leaving the asylum. Sadly, it didn't last; the artist would commit suicide just a few months later.

Known for his bold colours, Van Gogh was very particular about his paints. One in particular that he insisted on using was geranium lake, a scarlet pigment that was highly unstable, resulting in fading. Van Gogh used the colour in multiple works including these paintings. 

"Roses" Vincent Van Gogh (1890)

As a result, the colours in the paintings have changed over time. Using x-ray fluorescence mapping to examine the canvases, curators were able to discover the remains of geranium lake and digitally reconstruct what the paintings may have originally looked liked.

Monitors set up across from the paintings in the exhibit show these reconstructions for comparison. While the now blue irises would have been more violet, the white roses and white backdrops were originally pink—creating a more dramatic look. The vertical roses in the reconstruction are set against a complimentary green and pink backdrop with pale pink roses while the horizontal irises set against pink as opposed to a white seem to be more “Van Gogh.”

While we cannot know for certain exactly how they looked when Van Gogh painted them, it’s fascinating to think about. Whether pink or white, violet or blue, Van Gogh’s irises and roses are gorgeous.

“Van Gogh: Irises and Roses” is at the Met through August 16, 2015. For more information, visit here.

04 July 2015

Fourth of July

Ava Gardner 

Happy Fourth of July! Unfortunately I'm not at the beach like Ava but am spending the day looking at art and wandering through Central Park. Whether you're in the states or abroad, I hope everyone has a lovely day.

01 July 2015

Jumping July


I'm not going to lie—June was one stinker of a month (the lack of posts on this blog can attest to that). Therefore I'm placing my bets on July being a vast improvement. How can it not? There are two revolutionary holidays to celebrate—the Fourth of July and Bastille Day. In honour of the latter and the fact that I'm currently studying French (trying would be more accurate), look for some French-flavoured posts over the next few weeks. À bientôt!

30 June 2015

Flaming June


"Flaming June" Frederic Leighton (ca. 1895)

New York recently saw the arrival of a lovely lady, one who hasn’t been here in more than 35 years.

Frederic Leighton’s “Flaming June” (1895) is currently at the Frick Collection, on loan from the Museo de Arte de Ponce in Puerto Rico. I saw her a few weeks ago at a special preview, and she is gorgeous. A sleeping beauty in an orange gown that seems to glow, “Flaming June” was one of Leighton’s final works and his masterpiece.

The figure in the painting epitomizes the classic Pre-Raphaelite woman—auburn hair, oversized features, and large, strong body. Drowsing in the warm Mediterranean air, she exudes an air of sensuality while the appearance of red oleander, a poisonous flower, in the upper right corner draws connections between sleep and death.

Also on display is a small oil sketch of the painting (1894-95). Both are a stark contrast to the more subdued tones of the Whistler portraits from the Frick’s permanent collection that share the room.

Even if you've seen the painting reproduced a million times in art books, she's worth seeing in person. “Flaming June” is at the Frick Collection through September 6, 2015. For more information, visit here.

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