26 April 2012

Renoir at the Frick

"Dance at Bougival" Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1883) 

A recent Sunday morning found me at the Frick Collection surrounded by Belle Époque beauties.

"Renoir, Impressionism, and Full-Length Painting” features nine works by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. The paintings are unusual not just because of their large size but because Renoir was the only Impressionist to work in the full-length format (the others thought it was too traditional). Looking at these paintings is like looking at French fashion plates; Renoir paid attention to every intricate detail of the subjects’ clothes, a topic that he was very interested in (his father was a tailor and his mother a seamstress).

Of the nine paintings in the exhibit only one, “La Promenade,” is from the Frick Collection. The rest are on loan from various museums. Three of the paintings feature a dancing couple. Grouped together, it’s hard not to compare them. While there are differences among the three men, it’s the three women who win the viewer’s attention: two wear red hats, one is without gloves while another bares her arms. All show varying degrees of closeness in their partner’s embrace. “Dance at Bougival” from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston was the one that I liked best (I have fond memories of it from my days in Boston).

Photo: Michele.

After a quick tour to visit some paintings in the permanent collection, I stepped outside and was blown away by the burst of colour coming from the Frick’s garden. A glorious bed of purple pansies with red tulips waving above was an incredible sight to see and made me wish I could paint them (unfortunately, I can just about manage stick figures).

Photo: Michele.

The Renoir exhibit is at the Frick through May 13, 2012. For more information, visit here.

23 April 2012

The Letter

Sometimes you love a film for its script or a particular character. In the case of William Wyler’s The Letter (1940), it’s the opening sequence.

The Letter is set in British Malaya where Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis) lives with her rubber plantation administrator husband Robert Crosbie (Herbert Marshall). One evening Leslie shoots to death an acquaintance of theirs, Jeff Hammond (David Newell), and is charged with his murder. At first it looks like an open and shut case: Leslie claims it was self-defense—she shot him after he tried to make love to her. But soon a damning letter that Leslie wrote to Hammond surfaces. Her attorney, Howard Joyce (James Stephenson), convinces Robert that he must purchase the letter for $10,000 from Hammond’s widow (Gale Sondergaard) who insists that Leslie deliver the money in person. With the letter finally suppressed, the trial ends with an acquittal. Afterwards, Leslie's husband offers her a second chance but she confesses "With all my heart, I still love the man I killed." Leslie later wanders out into the garden where she finally receives  punishment for her crime.

The Letter is based on a play by W. Somerset Maugham that was first made into a film in 1929 (interestingly Herbert Marshall appeared in both films; he played the role of Hammond in the 1929 version). The Letter may be melodramatic at times (especially toward the end) and some of the scenes drag in the middle yet all of this can be overlooked because of its opening sequence.

Bette Davis and Herbert Marshall in The Letter.

The film opens with a shot of the moon and then a sign that reads "L Rubber Co., Singapore, Plantation No. 1." The camera pans down a rubber tree that drips latex into a bucket before moving over to a nearby open-air worker’s compound where men listen to music, play Mahjong, and sleep. Suddenly, a shot rings out from a nearby house. A white cockatoo flies off and a man stumbles out of the door followed by Bette Davis with gun in hand. She shoots him. Dogs begin barking and workers stir while Davis proceeds down the steps, emptying the rest of the rounds into the man lying on the ground. Staring at him, she slowly lowers her arm before letting the gun drop from her hand. The camera zooms in on Davis’ face, which is hidden in the shadows. Meanwhile the workers are talking loudly and the head boy (Tetsu Komai) stares up at the moon, which moves behind some clouds, casting the people below in darkness. When the moon reappears, it casts a light on both the body and Davis who turns and looks up as if surprised. Workers runs to the body, and the head boy declares “That’s Mr. Hammond.” Davis tells him to come inside where, keeping her back to him, she asks if he knows where the new district officer lives and orders that someone send for him. “Tell him there's been an accident, and Mr. Hammond's dead.” She also asks him to send a boy to get her husband who’s out on one of the plantations. Turning around, she notices the workers jammed in the doorway and shouts at them to go away. Leaving the head boy, she enters another room and shuts the door. He walks into the living room and picks up her needlework from the ground as Davis can be heard sobbing. Now that’s how you open a film.

Cinematographer Gaetano Gaudio’s work here is brilliant. His use of light and darkness, especially the incorporation of moonlight, creates just the right mood. Bars are cast on faces, symbolizing the figurative prisons that characters find themselves in while shadows inevitably hide secrets.

But ultimately the opening sequence works because of Davis. As much as I like Jeanne Eagels (Leslie Crosbie in the 1929 version) I am convinced that no other actress could have played the scene as well as Davis. There is something about her eyes, the set of her mouth, her calculating attitude that is perfect. Her delivery, calm and steady (as if she's plotted everything out in advance), immediately puts you on guard, makes you feel uneasy. In another actress’ hands, the character may have come across as hysterical, someone to sympathize with. But Davis knew exactly how Leslie should act and in her hands it becomes a classic performance in an amazing opening sequence.

22 April 2012

Chelsea in Bloom

On a quick jaunt around the neighbourhood yesterday I noticed flowers everywhere amongst all the brick and concrete.

Whether in planters outside a favourite restaurant (Tipsy Parson) or covering a whole house (so much more impressive in person), flowers are a plus in my books so bring them on. Let's have more flowers in Chelsea.

 by Michele.

20 April 2012

Fenway Turns 100

Fenway Park in 1912. Photo: Library of Congress.

On April 20, 1912, the Boston Red Sox played their first official game at their new home—Fenway Park. The opposing team that day was the New York Highlanders (later renamed the Yankees), and Boston won, 7-6. One hundred years later, Fenway Park is going strong.

The 1912 Red Sox team. Photo: Library of Congress.

I may live in New York but I will always be a Red Sox fan. And one of the things I miss most about Boston is Fenway Park. Yes it’s old  and cramped and doesn’t have all the modern amenities that newer parks have but when you walk inside you immediately feel the history of the place and there’s no better park to see a game.

Fenway Park April 20, 2012. Photo: Elsa/Getty Images.

The Red Sox are playing the Yankees at Fenway again today and in honour of the park’s anniversary both teams are wearing retro 1912 uniforms and the game is set to start at 3:05, the same time as the 1912 game. Past team members will be on hand for the celebrations and the Boston Pops will perform the national anthem. I wish I was there. Go Sox!

18 April 2012

Documents Pour Artistes

"Cour de Rouen" Eugène Atget (1915). See the cats?

A few days after I got home from my vacation, I revisited Paris by seeing the Eugène Atget exhibit, "Documents Pour Artistes," at MoMA.

Atget was a great documentarian of Paris. Day after day, he would set up his view camera on a tripod and capture the city's buildings, streets, and people; no detail was overlooked from a stairwell to a statue in an abandoned garden. Largely ignored during his lifetime, Atget once said about his work, "I have done little justice to the Great City of Paris." Yet his more than 10,000 photographs remain one of the greatest documents of a city, giving us an incredible insiders view of Paris at the turn of the century.

"Rue de la Montagne-Sainte-Geneviève" Eugène Atget (1925)

Lucky for us, some other photographers did recognize his gift. Admired by the Surrealists, Man Ray bought 42 images from Atget before his death (they were neighbours). Berenice Abbott published the first overview on Atget— Atget, Photographe de Paris—in 1930 and with the help of Julien Levy, bought more than 8,500 of his photographs, which were later donated to MoMA.

The title of the exhibit, “Documents Pour Artistes,” comes from a sign that hung outside Atget's studio; he hoped his photographs could serve as source material for other artists. In the exhibit, more than 100 of these photographs were broken into six sections—People of Paris, Courtyards, Parc du Sceaux, Jardin de Luxembourg, Fifth Arrondissement, and Surrogates and the Surreal—a representation of Atget’s areas of interest.

"Romanichels, groupe
" Eugène Atget (1912)

In the exhibit, there were no images of the Eiffel Tower or other standard Parisian symbols. Instead there were Romanies outside their caravan, starring at the camera except for one barefoot young man who probably got bored, which I found mesmerising. Photos of courtyards reminded you of the surprises that can be found inside (look, there's a cat over in the corner) while images of the Fifth Arrondissement like "Balcon, 17 rue du Petit-Pont" with its ropes of shoes show how common items can become works of art. The Jardin de Luxembourg is my favourite Parisian park and so naturally I loved the photos of its hollyhocks and other flowers. And the shop windows filled with bizarre mannequins explain why the Surrealists embraced Atget early on.

"Parc de Sceaux, mars, 8 h. matin
" Eugène Atget (1925)

Yet perhaps the images of Parc du Sceaux were the most moving. A deserted park on the outskirts of Paris, Atget rushed to capture its decrepit beauty between March and June 1925 before its scheduled clean-up and reopening as a public park. He made 66 photographs, both haunting and beautiful, which ilustrate what Atget worked so hard to capture—the pure essence of a place, including all its cracks and imperfections. 

The exhibit is over but MoMA has published a lovely book that can be purchased here. As for visiting MoMA, a word of advice. There never seems to be a good time to visit. It's almost always packed to the gills, overheated, and everyone forgets their manners, especially on the weekends. I That said, it has some amazing works of art on permanent display so maybe going first thing in the morning during the week is best. Anyone else have some good tips on how to avoid the madness?

17 April 2012

Faded Stones

Sandwiched between two large buildings on West 21st Street can be found a tiny slice of New York history—the Third Cemetery of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue. Founded in 1829 by Shearith Israel, the oldest Jewish congregation in America, the cemetery was in operation until 1851 (a law the next year forbade burials in Manhattan below 86th Street). Today its 250 tombstones and markers are faded and many broken. Yet there is a certain tenacity about these stones, the fact that they continue to stand regardless of the passing of time, that you can't help but be moved by them.

by Michele.

15 April 2012

European Vacation: Paris

Paris—one of my favourite cities in the world. During my recent vacation, we left Belgium and drove to Paris where we spent a couple of days exploring the City of Lights.

We stayed in the Marais at the Hôtel Jeanne d’Arc (website here), which is perfectly situated for a base camp. Except for one Metro ride we walked everywhere, and the Marais was in the middle of everything. The neighbourhood is also filled with loads of good shops and food, and we took advantage of both. 

Best falafel ever.

We had what must be the best falafel I’ve ever eaten at L’As du Fallafel, which is located on rue des Rosiers, the main thoroughfare of the historic Jewish quarter.


As for shopping, we went into all types of stores including the tiny Au Petit Bonheur la Chance, filled with everything vintage from latte bowls to metal letters, À Chacun son Image, where you can purchase wonderful old black and white photographs of anonymous Parisians (I could have stayed there for hours), and Repetto whose rainbow circle of ballets had my heart skipping a beat but I somehow resisted making a purchase (the reminder of how many pairs of ballets I already own helped).

Notre Dame

Leaving the Marais, we walked over to Île Saint-Louis (or Ice Cream Island as we dubbed it; everyone seemed to have a cone in their hand) and followed along the Seine with Notre Dame looming in the distance. Heading over to the 5th arrondissement we stopped by Shakespeare and Company where I once slept upstairs many, many years ago on my first visit to Paris. The place had been on my mind recently with the passing in December of its owner, George Whitman, at the age of 98. He was a truly unique individual who had been kind to me when I stayed there (he made me dinner one night and let me feed his cat).


In grad school my field of study was the Lost Generation and so I cannot help but see Paris through 1920s eyes. For that reason, we headed over to the rue de l'Odéon to see the site of the original Shakespeare and Company run by Sylvia Beach who was the first to publish James Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922 and had dinner at Les Deux Magots where I purchased a small cendrier (ashtray) to take home before walking up the hill to the Saint-Étienne-du-Mont, the church featured in Midnight in Paris (alas no car stopped to pick us up and take us to a party with Hemingway).

Montmartre Cemetery

Sacré-Cœur Basilica

The next day we walked to Montmartre, stopping on the way to have breakfast at Rose Bakery before tackling the walk up to Sacré-Cœur. We visited Montmartre Cemetery and wandered along the streets, picking out apartment buildings where we would like to live (a girl can dream) and peaked into some small gardens. Everything was so charming. Until you got up to the church and then it was tourist chaos but still, Sacré-Cœur is beautiful and the view is amazing even on a smoggy day.

We ended our visit with a boat ride on the Seine (boats seemed to be a theme of this trip), which I had never done before. It was a nice way to relax after walking all day and to see the city from a different angle.

No matter how many times I visit Paris, I always find it fascinating. I guess it's the details—rooftops, flowers in a bucket, bookstands on the quay, a bright red car, a partial face that looks like Charlie Chaplin peeping out from a wall. All these small parts that together make Paris the city it is.

Two days later I was on a plane back to New York. I can't wait to return.

Photos by Michele.

09 April 2012

European Vacation: Bruges

One day during my vacation, we made a trip to Bruges. Located in the West Flanders province of the country where Dutch is the official language (there are three official languages in Belgium), Bruges is beautiful and extremely charming.  

With its quaint bridges and the houses built on the canal, it's understandable why Bruges is often referred to as the Venice of the North. Walking alongside the canal on a sunny day was a great way to explore the city.There were tiny houses juxtaposed next to larger ones and small side streets that opened onto hidden courtyards. We even saw a Gothic house that was black and gold (we, of course, came up with a fairy tale worthy story of who had built the house).

Even small details on the houses like doorknobs were interesting. These are just a few examples of what I came across. Don't you love the donkey?

A very lucky dog in the window of one of my favourite houses.

The wild swans of Bruges.We also visited the Church of Our Lady, which has the Michelangelo sculpture the "Bruges Madonna and Child" and took a boat ride on the canal, which I definitely recommend. Not only do you get a close up look at some of the houses that you can't get from the street but the swans come right up to the boat!

With all the sightseeing, we built up an appetite and had a typical Belgium meal of mussels and fries at an outdoor restaurant. We also did a bit of shopping at Dille & Kamille, a wonderful home store where I purchased a pretty pink and white latte bowl (visit their site here).

All in all it was a wonderful outing in a city that I would enjoy visiting again one day.

Next up: Paris!

Photos by Michele.

08 April 2012

Easter Parade

                                   On the Avenue, Fifth Avenue,
                                   the photographers will snap us                                  
                                   and you'll find that you're 
                                   in the rotogravure.—Irving Berlin

Since the 1870s, Easter in New York has meant the donning of ones finest hats and clothes and strolling up and down Fifth Avenue near St. Patrick's Cathedral. 

This year the crowds were out in force, enjoying the sunny weather. Women wore their prettiest and sometimes most inventive hats, including some ladies from the Ziegfeld Society (second photo).

Dashing couples were to be found, many of whom were dressed in vintage attire—perhaps a nod to Easter Parades of the past.

Clothing aside, it was really all about the hats. In the past, women strove to display the most fashionable hats of the moment. Today, many of the hats were over the top or whimsical in their design.

And many were worn by men, including one who had a Tardis on his head (alas there was no doctor in sight).

At the end of the parade, people wandered off to their next destinations, their hats or bunny ears to be put away until next year.

Photos by Michele.


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