31 December 2014

New Year's Eve

I don't know about you but I'm happy to say good-bye to 2014. It wasn't the worst year but it wasn't great either. So let's all raise our glasses and make a toast for a better and brighter new year. And whether you're going out or staying in tonight, I hope you all have a fabulous time. 

America Today

"America Today: City Activities with Dance Hall" Thomas Hart Benton (1930–31)

In 1930, painter Thomas Hart Benton was commissioned by Alvin Johnson, the director of the New School for Social Research in New York, to create a mural for the school’s boardroom. The result, “America Today,” is a sweeping portrait of American life in the 1920s.

The New School displayed the mural for 50 years before selling it to AXA Equitable Life Insurance for their New York headquarters (the school's provision when selling was that the mural could not leave the country nor be broken up). In 2012 AXA had to remove the work from their lobby for building renovations; they ended up donating it to the Metropolitan Museum of the Art where it is currently on display in the exhibit “Thomas Hart Benton’s ‘America Today’ Mural Rediscovered.”

Comprised of ten panels, “America Today” is epic in scope and quite stunning. The colours are rich and varied with aluminum leaf moldings created by Ziegfeld’s designer, Joseph Urban, framing the panels and defining individual scenes. The majority of the panels represent life in different parts of the country: New York, the South, the Midwest, and the West. The largest, “Instruments of Power,” showcases modern technological advances in power and transport while the smallest “Outreaching Hands,” symbolizes the Great Crash with hands holding money across from those reaching out for coffee and bread.

Included are multiple characters—flappers and mothers, farmers and steel workers, preachers and jazz musicians. I particularly liked the panel, “City Activities with Dance Hall,” which shows New Yorkers dancing, going to the movies, and drinking (illegally) while high above them a man on Wall Street watches the ticker tape.

In two nearby rooms, visitors can view Benton's studies for the mural including photographs of people who modelled for some of the figures (interesting note: Jackson Pollock, who was a student of Benton's, posed for his teacher). There are also related works by other artists including photographs by Berenice Abbott and Lewis Hines. Yet nothing compares to sitting in the room with the mural, surrounded by so much colour and life.

“America Today” is on display at the Met through April 19, 2015. For more information, visit here.

21 December 2014

Santa Baby

“Santa Baby” is one of my favourite Christmas songs. Written in 1953 by Joan Javis and Philip Springer, it’s a slightly naughty (in a 1950s way), humorous take on the traditional list for Santa. This one asks for things like a sable; a ’54 convertible, light blue; a yacht; the deed to a platinum mine; and decorations bought at Tiffany’s.

Eartha Kitt with Henri René and his Orchestra recorded it that same year for RCA Victor Records with Kitt putting her particular stamp on the song. Many people have recorded the song since including Madonna, Kylie Minogue, and Mariah Carey yet no one can top Kitt who herself would go on to re-record the song a couple of times. (Side note, I saw Kitt perform many years ago in San Francisco. She must have been in her 70s, and she was absolutely amazing. And she sang this song).

So if you somehow haven't heard it yet this season, here's the song with lyrics. Enjoy.

15 December 2014

Art Roundup

"Woman Viewed from Behind" Edgar Degas (ca. 1879-1885)

This fall has been filled with loads of art from exhibits to performances to screenings. As much as I tried, I fell behind in trying to write reviews of everything so before the season is officially over, here’s a short wrap-up of some of the things I saw.

In the summer of 1937, an art exhibit was held in Munich comprised of 650 pieces of art deemed degenerate by the Nazi Party because it “insulted German feeling” among other things. At the same time another show, “The Great German Art Exhibition,” showcased Nazi-approved art. You can guess which one had the highest attendance: more than 1 million people saw the degenerate show in its first six weeks. In September, I caught the last day of a fascinating exhibit at the Neue Galerie, “Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937,” which compared 80 works from both exhibits. Seen side by side, there’s no argument that the “degenerate” art was far superior; including works by Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, it was a collection of some of the masters of modern art. Perhaps most striking of all in the exhibit was a room with empty frames symbolizing the art that was lost, most likely destroyed by the Nazis. The exhibition catalogue can be found here.

The Conformist (1970)

Film Forum showed a restored, director-approved version of Bernardo Bertolucci’s masterpiece The Conformist (1970). Based on Alberto Moravia’s novel, the story takes place in 1930s France and Italy where Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant) joins the Italian Fascist party and finds himself tasked with the assassination of one of his old college professors. The film cuts between the present and the past, showing how an attempted sexual assault and presumed murder during Marcello's isolated childhood caused him to grow up craving a normal life. There are numerous great scenes including the climatic encounter in the woods, which would later influence The Godfather, beautifully shot by Vittorio Storaro who incorporated Art Deco design and Fascist-era architecture with stunning effect. Available here.
For the 75th anniversary of the book about the little girl who lived in "an old house in Paris that was covered with vines,” the New York Historical Society celebrated with “Madeline in New York: The Art of Ludwig Bemelmans,” which showcased the Madeline books and their creator, Ludwig Bemelmans, whose own story seems invented. Abandoned by his father as a child, Bemelmans grew up in Germany and Austria, and worked at his uncle’s hotel before an incident involving a shooting led to his being sent to America. It was here in New York that he began to write the tale of Madeline. The exhibit was wonderful, filled with drawings from the Madeline books as well as ones from the Ritz Hotel (where he once worked) and panels from the Paris restaurant he owned. A selection of books and nearby sofa where one was encouraged to sit and read was an added bonus. The exhibit can currently be seen at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts through February 22, 2015. For more info, visit here.

Anna May Wong's Certificate of Identity, August 18, 1924, National Archives at San Francisco.

Another, more serious exhibit I saw at the Historical Society was “Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion,” which looks at the history of trade between the US and China, and the plight of Chinese immigrants who, thanks to the Chinese Exclusion Act, were not legally allowed to immigrate to the US until 1943. From the beginning of the tea trade in the 18th century to the building of the railroads in the 19th to their successful fight to become citizens in the 20th, Chinese Americans have had an impact on this country. The exhibit includes items from the gold rush (a large reason for Chinese immigration in the 19th century), multiple oral histories, and a recreation of barracks at Angel Island near San Francisco where Chinese immigrants were held while their immigration status was confirmed or denied. Also included is screen star Anna May Wong’s Certificate of Identity, a card that all Chinese, no matter how famous, were required to carry at all times. The exhibit runs through April 19, 2015. For more info, visit here.

I will do almost anything to see a performance by the M
ark Morris Dance Group (MMDG) and so I made sure to attend the opening night of the Fall for Dance Festival at New York City Center where Morris debuted a new work, Words, set to the music of Mendelssohn and specially commissioned for the event. One of four groups performing that evening, the MMDG was the last and best. With all 16 dancers dressed in simple outfits by Maile Okamura, their movements, as with so many of Morris’ work, led you down one path only to surprise you with a sudden twist or turn. A plain cloth carried by two dancers acted as a screen behind which dancers could enter and exit. It was in short, a complete joy to watch. For more about the MMDG, visit their site here.

Rossy de la Palma and Rossy de la Palma in Traveling Lady

Journalist Nellie Bly set out in 1889 to beat the around the world in 80 days record of Jules Verne’s novel; she came in at 72 and was a worldwide news sensation. Jessica Mitrani’s new multimedia piece, Traveling Lady, which premiered at the FIAF Fall Festival, is inspired by Bly and looks at feminine stereotypes via music, film, and well, dancing dresses. At the center of the piece is Pedro Almodovar muse Rossy de la Palma whose larger-than-life presence on stage and in some of the film clips made the show worth seeing.

Powerhouse, a play by Josh Luxenberg and the Sinking Ship Ensemble, tells the story of the eccentric composer Raymond Scott who in the 1930s attempted to reinvent Swing music with his band the Raymond Scott Quintette and who spent his life inventing countless electronic musical gadgets. Scott would likely be forgotten today if it were not for his music catalogue that he sold to Warner Brothers who in turn used many of the pieces for their Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons including the highly recognized “Powerhouse,” which is often used for assembly line scenes. The play, which includes musical performances, dance, and puppetry (some of the funniest scenes in the show), is more than just your run-of-the-mill story of a famous person's life—it shows the madness that is at the heart of creativity. 

05 December 2014

Make 'Em Laugh

A little lightness at the end of a dark week—Donald O'Connor giving a splendid performance of "Make 'Em Laugh" in Singing in the Rain (1952). Enjoy.

04 December 2014

All Men Are Created Equal

It seems like we could do with some words from Atticus Finch this week.

“Thomas Jefferson once said that all men are created equal, a phrase that the Yankees and the distaff side of the Executive branch in Washington are fond of hurling at us. ...We know all men are not created equal in the sense some people would have us believe—some people are smarter than others, some people have more opportunity because they're born with it, some men make more money than others, some ladies make better cake than others—some people are born gifted beyond the normal scope of men.

"But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal—there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein, and the ignorant man the equal of any college president. That institution gentlemen, is a court. It can be the Supreme Court of the United States or the humblest JP court in the land, or this honourable court which you serve. Our courts have their faults as does any human institution, but in this country our courts are the great levelers, and in our courts all men are created equal.” (Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird).

03 December 2014

Return of the Vicious Circle

"Algonquin Round Table" Al Hirschfeld

Caricaturist Al Hirschfeld was famous for his spot on black and white drawings of noted actors, writers, and other celebrities of the 20th century. “Return of the Vicious Circle,” a new installation at the Algonquin Hotel, brings together 25 Hirschfeld portraits of members of the renowned Algonquin Round Table and their friends.

I attended a preview reception and it was quite nice to walk in and see those familiar faces looking down on the people in the lobby. The whole gang's there: Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, Irving Berlin, Alexander Woollcott, Harpo Marx, James Thurber, and Tallulah Bankhead (to name a few). And hanging proudly above the round table itself is Hirschfeld’s group portrait. Cocktails and treats were served, there were sightings of various theatre and literary folk, and the hotel was decorated for the holidays including a large gingerbread village.

"Dorothy Parker" Al Hirschfeld

The installation is up through January 9, 2015. So stop by the Algonquin to see the portraits and have a drink (or two). 

02 December 2014

Death Becomes Her

This year I spent Halloween at a favourite place, the Met (you thought I was going to say a cemetery, didn't you?), where there were a series of activities including performances by a magician, drawing by candlelight at the Temple of Dendur, and readings of Edgar Allan Poe. The biggest attraction was a very fitting exhibit, "Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire,” featuring American and British mourning wear from 1815 to 1915.

The exhibit was crowded with visitors dressed up in all manner of costumes, including some very impressive Victorian outfits, and everyone’s favourite street photographer, Bill Cunningham, was there, snapping away while people took photos of him. It was all a bit too much so I went back another day to view the exhibit properly.

In the 19th-century, people had a different relationship with death than we do now. The high infant mortality rate and shorter life expectancy for adults meant that death was a constant reality for most people. The living chose to remember their dead in various ways: jewelry was fashioned out of the hair of the departed, photos were taken with the actual dead (creepy), and specific clothing was worn.

The Victorians, with their strict code of conduct, naturally created a whole industry around mourning wear with rules on what to wear and for how long based on the mourner and the deceased. The death of a parent or child called for one year whereas the death of a sibling was just six months. The longest time was reserved for husbands with widows expected to mourn for two years. 

Mourning itself was broken into four stages. Full mourning, which was what widows were expected to do for a year and a day, involved wearing all black including loads of dull crepe (no shiny materials allowed). Then came second mourning, which was less severe than full with some of the heavy crepe removed from outfits. Widows would observe this stage for nine months. Ordinary mourning saw the removal of crepe all together although clothes remained black. For a mourner like a sister, attending a ball was allowed. And finally the fourth stage, half mourning, which allowed mourners to forgo black in lieu of mauve, purple, and gray. Men had it much easier, often getting away with just adding a black tie and gloves to their usual dark suits. They were also only required to observe mourning for three months.

For widows, the donning of mourning wear could send out mixed messages. While a widow's black garb signified a loyal wife showing respect for her departed husband it also said to men that here was a sexually experienced woman who might have a huge fortune at her disposal. Included in the exhibit is an amusing series of illustrations by Charles Dana Gibson called “A Widow and Her Friends” from 1900 in which a young, attractive widow is hounded by interested suitors and finally winds up joining a nunnery to get away from them.

British evening dress of black moiré silk, lace, and jet, circa 1861.

There are 30 ensembles on display (including a few for men and children) and a selection of accessories and jewelry. The gowns run the gamut from demur and plain to downright glamorous. The French designed ones (surprise, surprise) seem the most fashionable like a silk gown by Charlotte Duclos (1910-12) that features glass beading while a British evening dress circa 1861 made of moiré silk has the most exquisite pattern woven into what appears at first to be solid black. Another gown of note is an American wedding gown from 1868 done in gray to acknowledge those who had died in the Civil War.

For the wealthy, mourning clothes for the most part followed the latest trends save for the colour. It’s easy to see how a pretty woman with means might have looked fetching in an off-the-shoulder black evening gown. Consuelo Vanderbilt’s husband, the Duke of Marlborough, upon seeing her in mourning wear for Queen Victoria, remarked, “If I die, I see you will not remain a widow for long” (their unhappy marriage ended in divorce before that could happen).

And speaking of Victoria, included in the exhibit are gowns worn by two very different queens. Queen Victoria famously wore mourning wear for the rest of her life after the death of her beloved Prince Albert. A gown from 1894-5, some 30 years after Albert’s death, shows the Queen still wearing solid black. Nearby are two half-mourning gowns owned by Queen Alexandra, Victoria’s daughter-in-law. Designed in 1902 by Henriette Favre (again, the French) in two shades of purple, they are light and sparkly, a far cry from Victoria's heavy black. 

World War I put an end to mourning wear. With so many men and boys dying, it was seen as self-serving to put on such a public show of grief. While people still wear black to funerals today, the age of mourning wear ended with the arrival of the modern age.

“Death Becomes Her” is at the Met through February 1, 2015. For more information, visit here. Photos: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

01 December 2014

Hello, December!

Here we are at the last month of the year. The month that is a constant rush of wrapping up projects and presents, attending parties and events, and finding time to spend with family and friends before the new year arrives. I am going to try to do my best and finish as many posts as I can before then so check back often for some reviews and photos and other bits of news. In the meantime, follow me on Instagram and Twitter to see what's going on. December is guaranteed to be one busy month.


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