Photo by Chris Lee
This post is in tribute to the extraordinary Philadelphia Orchestra, after yet another wondrous concert. The Philadelphia Orchestra, 112 years old and among the very finest in the world, has been treated very shabbily lately by its administration - shameful for a city with such a rich past and present in the performing arts. I know I speak for many when I offer applause for all the brilliant, hard-working musicians in the Orchestra, and gratitude for their music.
Last night's concert featured Emanuel Ax as soloist - he was charming and amazing but so were the regulars, many of whom are more than solo capable. Solo performers have always gotten the glory, but while it's great to have stars, without a good back up team they don't go far. Edgar Degas was, to my knowledge, the first to honor the 'back-up teams' in art. Influenced by the new possibilities of photography and by the asymmetrical, informal compositions of Japanese print makers, Degas created scene after scene of dancers and musicians before, after and during performances, from every viewpoint except audience to direct center stage.
The spotlight is never on the star performer; in Degas' musical world, we are with the dancers backstage, in endless classes, and with the musicians, fresh from countless hours of practice, in the pit. We lean over their shoulders reading the music on the stand, we hear the bassoonist huffing gently as the music emerges, feel the power in the arm running the bow so skillfully and lightly on the strings. The dancers, delicate from a distance in their pastel tufted costumes, throw off sweat as they spin past, or sit next to us stretching their weary muscled backs and legs before the next demanding call.
Musicians of the Orchestra 1870
Please leave a comment in support of the Philadelphia Orchestra and in gratitude for all highly skilled, hard-working, under-praised performers everywhere.
(An extra shout out to the dancers of the Pennsylvania Ballet, another extraordinary group that regularly performs magic.)
Henry Ossawa Turner by Thomas Eakins
Sometimes it takes a while to catch up with the obvious. When there are obstacles like race and gender it usually takes even longer. Henry Ossawa Tanner, (African) American artist, is having one of those catch-up moments at his alma mater, The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, with the retrospective Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit. PAFA, founded in 1802 and located in the heart of Tanner's home town of Philadelphia, is this country's first art school. The school is still going strong, with a vigorous program much abetted by the Academy's important collection, housed in a landmark building by visionary architect Frank Furness. (PAFA made the news recently when the latest of Claes Oldenbug's public sculptures, Paint Torch, was installed there.)
The Thankful Poor 1894
There's a lot to say about Tanner's back story - born to a former slave, forced to spend his productive mature years abroad to escape the toxic racism that plagued - still plagues - this country - but out of respect to an artist who deserves to be seen for his work alone, I want to concentrate on the art. A little background: Tanner entered PAFA in 1879 and quickly distinguished himself. A precocious, diligent student with a gift for drawing, he enjoyed the special patronage of Thomas Eakins, the legendary teacher/artist and director during Tanner's years there.
Daniel in the Lion's Den 1916
Once out in the world he tried to make a living as an artist, with some success, but as for so many other African-American intellectuals and artists other countries offered better opportunities; Tanner moved to Paris in 1891. He made a successful, clearly satisfying life in France, establishing himself as a 'modern' painter known for religious subjects. Religion must have been a natural direction for him - his father was a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church. In fact, his best work, whether intentionally religious or not, glows with an ethereal light that conveys a transcendent spiritual aura.
The Banjo Lesson 1893
The Thankful Poor and The Banjo Lesson, two of Tanner's best known works (neither of them in the PAFA show) have that quicksilver kind of light that transforms the ordinary into something holy. I was surprised - but then not surprised - to realize on seeing the show that Tanner was in many respects a Symbolist. The late 19th century movement is a further explanation for his unearthly approach, but Tanner's work demonstrates a more grounded, sincere reason for his visions. (Picasso had a brief flirtation with Symbolism - a better known proponent was Edward Munch.)
The Arch 1914
The Arch is a beautiful example of his transforming of solid reality, through light and color, into a metaphoric journey - another is But The Boat Was Now in The Middle of The Sea, a particularly fine sample of Tanner's accomplished brushwork and composition.
But the Boat Was Now In the Middle of the Sea 1920
Young Sabot Maker 1895
His personal retellings of Bible stories can explain the 'modern' to contemporary audiences who might not recognize such an academic style as revolutionary in any way, but works like Annunciation and Young Sabot Maker put a whole new spin on old subjects. Young Sabot Maker, in fact, may or may not be seen as religious, but a son working with his father in a wood-worker's shop.....? It seems too obvious not to be meant as a young Christ with St. Joseph.
Financed by one of the Philadelphia Wanamakers, Tanner took a very important trip to Palestine, to the source of much of his inspiration. The paintings from there are supreme illustrations of an artist at the top of his form. His long experience and consummate skill with light make him an immediate master of the strong, hot sunlight on the ancient walls, and the ensuing paintings of Bible subjects seem even richer and more evocative.
The Good Shepherd 1902
Angels Appearing Before the Shepherds 1910
Back at home - in France - Tanner survived WWI, leaving some sketches and small paintings from that clearly painful time. One in the PAFA exhibit shows soldiers lined up in a mess tent; it's quickly drawn but still has an aura of something at once real and out of time. Tanner is certainly one of PAFA's most distinguished alumni - it's odd that they include David Lynch on their roster of 'famous graduates' but not Henry Ossawa Tanner. I hope they correct that. Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit is at PAFA through April 15, 2012http://www.pafa.org/tanner/
Since 1966, photographer Bill Cunningham has been roaming the streets of New York with a camera, chronicling delightful little moments of human pride and vanity - er, I mean style and fashion. I've seen the recent documentary* about him (see below) and know him to be a good-hearted, down-to-earth fellow with no malice towards his fellow travelers. Still, that keen, ever-present eye is on us; the stories he tells speak volumes about our fears and our obsessions.
It suddenly occurred to me this week, as I was preparing for the theme 'Daily Life' with my Drexel University Art History class this week, that Cunningham is our Bruegel, an update of the 16th century Flemish artist whose paintings spread such a wide, richly furnished table of human foibles, follies, and joys. While we go about our business there he is, watching, making connections, putting it all down for the world to see.
Netherlandish Proverbs 1559 (click to enlarge)
Pieter Breugel (the Elder) was a down-to-earth kind of guy too, nicknamed 'Peasant Breugel,' not because he was a peasant, but because he used to dress up like one in order to mingle with the folks he wanted to paint. His was a time when the classes were separated eternally and as a matter of course - your parents were peasants, you were a peasant, your children would be peasants - or you were a lord, your parents were lords .... etc. Few if any artists painted the lower classes - there was no money in it - but Breugel, spurning the rich and over-mannered as subjects, created one masterpiece after another by using peasants to represent the crazy colorful range of human nature. One of my favorites is Netherlandish Proverbs (1559), a riotous delight chock-full of the fun and foolishness of life. See if you can spot 'Casting pearls before swine, Belling the cat, The blind leading the blind' among hundreds of other pithy sayings rooted in the gritty stuff of daily peasant life. (See below for a handy reference guide.)
Bill Cunningham is hardly such a blatant moralizer; our current moment doesn't support the concept. Instead he's a Bruegel for our time. In true contemporary art style he makes us participate, tossing out his weekly hurricane of bits and pieces and letting us stitch them together into our own patchwork quilt of meaning. Where one sees chic, another may see pompous... where one sees retro, another may see trying too hard. And where do we fit into the picture? Surely they asked the same in Bruegel's day.
Bill Cunningham is in his 80's now - he lives simply in the center of over-the-top Manhattan, spurns cars and cabs in favor of his faithful bike. He's our version of an intentional peasant, and still going strong in his 80's. It's fun to think what Pieter Bruegel would have done with a camera, but thanks to Bill Cunningham, we don't have to imagine. He's painted a clear picture. *See a trailer for the film Bill Cunningham New Yorkhttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NYqiLJBXbssCheat sheet for Netherlandish Proverbs - thanks to Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Netherlandish_Proverbs
Mike Kelley died this week at 57, an age that's old for some and just getting going for others. Mike still had a long way to go with his complicated, playful, demanding art - he's a big loss. Christopher Knight’s obituary in the LA Times gave me the name for this post and made me think about artists who go away when we've only begun to understand how they've been changing the game. I can't claim to have known Mike Kelley's work well. I saw it a couple of times in person, at the Whitney and a couple of New York galleries, but the impact didn't fully hit until I started thinking about it this week.
Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites 1991-99
Huge clumps of stuffed animals hanging from the ceiling in furry overgrown pods like some kind of colorful fungus? It's a compelling image, rife with associations of childhood - warm, fuzzy, sentimental ... and eerily precarious. In his segment of Art21/PBS Kelley talks about the initial response to these stuffed animal pieces. 'They all thought it was about child abuse - my child abuse.' The reaction surprised him, but it spurred him to accept 'abuse' - of himself, of 'all of us' as a central subject. Nothing literal though - he takes a crazy, joyous, dizzying path to meaning - installations, performances, painting, photos - all of it at the same time accessible and out-of-reach. We have to run along to try to catch up and figure it out, especially now that he won't be around to explain.
Keith Haring with 'Hearts'
Keith Haring and Jean-Michael Basquiat - shouldn't we still have them around too? With Kelley's, a trio of sad early deaths - suicide, AIDS, drugs - but worlds of inspiring breathtaking creativity - it shouldn't cost that much to be an artist, should it? We all know Keith Haring's bright jumpy creatures, including 'radiant baby' (now available on baby bibs and wall decals) but do we remember that he worked to create peace and health with cooperative projects and a foundation in his name to support AIDS organizations and children?
Radiant Baby by Haring 1990
Notary by Basquiat 1983
Basquiat's work is so rich, visceral, and immediate, so freely combining color, drawing, and lettering into stunningly coherent image/messages. I see his influence everywhere in contemporary art. Andy Warhol was a mentor for him; another early death, I suppose, but Warhol had pretty much said what he needed to say. Basquiat, at 28, was just beginning to communicate everything he had.
Raphael self portrait 1506
And further back? Art History offers Raphael and Masaccio among others. Raphael, dead at 31 of some mysterious cause, (Vasari says too much rollicking sex with his mistress!) had accomplished a great deal and reached the pinnacle of worldly success. He changed the game for artists for centuries, but with his eye and sense of color it would be wonderful to have seen him develop further past the heavy influences of Michelangelo and Leonardo.
The School of Athens by Raphael 1510-11
The Tribute Money by Masaccio 1420s
Masaccio, finally, is the poster child for artists dying too young but leaving an indelible legacy. Dead at only 28, Masaccio is considered one of the three founders of the Italian Renaissance along with Donatello and Brunelleschi. His celebrated frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel in Florence give us HUMANITY in the full glory of life on earth, after all those centuries of medieval ethereal spirituality. St. Peter, his halo a bit unsteady on his head, stands firm and flat-footed on the dirt of the world, scowling at the Romans demanding payment, while Christ, another man of the world, sends him back to get the money out of fish. We're there too - humans along for the ride of innovation and progress, led by a visionary who moves on too soon.Mike Kelley on PBS Art21 http://www.pbs.org/art21/artists/mike-kelley