Monday, March 31, 2014

Homeric Turns


What if they got it wrong, the tribe of singers,
And none of it was true: she never sailed
In the benched ships, she never went to Troy,
And there had been no bed befouled, no god-bound
Slaughterhouse of honor to be sung about?
What if the unsung were the only song,
The simile reversed, the rank and file
Massed for a sleep walk into corpse fires just
A figure now for storm clouds out at sea,
The storm itself a storm and nothing else,
Whipping great breakers onto breakers till
Even miles inland from his mountain top
The goatherd sees it turning day to midnight,
Summer to winter, sees it and shivers, driving
The flock before him to a cave where, safe
And dry now, he can watch the fabulous black
Sky crazed with lightning till the storm has passed.

– from Homeric Turns in Reel to Reel by Alan Shapiro (University of Chicago Press)

 painting (top)  Stormy Sea with Blazing Wreck by J.M.W. Turner (oil, c.1835)
– painting (bottom) Heavy Dark Clouds by J.M.W. Turner (gouache, c.1822)

Ten Doors

Ten surviving doors designed during the century-long heyday of public architecture in the United States. This period extended from 1850 to 1950, as documented in the Carol M. Highsmith archive at the Library of Congress.

Sunday, March 30, 2014


The recent Chanel extravaganza in Paris showed what will be on sale (for colossal prices, ça va sans dire) in the little shiny black-and-white boutiques in expensive sections of expensive cities all over the world this coming autumn. To promote his fantasy plumages this year, Karl Lagerfeld transformed the Grand Palais into a sarcastic pastiche of the monster-stores where "real" shoppers now do "real" shopping demonstrating once again that the world of ordinary people easily can be made to look like an absurd joke when set against the world of Chanel People.

Saturday, March 29, 2014


Knut Hamsun, the Norwegian winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920, supported the Nazis in their occupation of Norway during World War II. After the war, he and his wife Marie were separately put on trial as collaborators. Marie Hamsun served nearly three years in prison. Knut Hamsun was confined to rest homes and mental hospitals for long periods of "examination" and ultimately paid a large cash fine in lieu of further confinement.

In 1996 Swedish director Jan Troell made Hamsun, a movie in Norwegian starring Max von Sydow and Danish actress Ghita Nørby. It was based on a 1978 book by Thorkild Hansen published in English as The Hamsun Trial. Swedish novelist Per Olov Enquist collaborated with Jan Troell in transforming Hansen's journalistic book into a screenplay. When I saw Enquist's name in the credits I remembered his admirable novel, The Royal Physician's Visit.

The main action of the film covers ten years, from the mid-1930s (when Hamsun was in his mid-70s) through the mid-1940s (with Hamsun in his mid-80s). Max von Sydow stresses Hamsun's continuity with a traditional non-modern culture of fixed values and moral hierarchies. The Norwegian author was born in 1859, the same year Darwin's theory was first published. It was over the course of Hamsun's own lifetime that Darwin's revelations played out their annihilating meaning for traditional European belief-structures. The anti-modern tenor of fascism fit all too well with the anti-modern tenor of Hamsun's art. For many decades he had enjoyed the world's admiration and deference, like a survivor from another age. Then at the end of his life he became a figure of scorn.

Friday, March 28, 2014


Gerard Depardieu and Patrick Dewaere made a French road movie in 1974 with director Bertrand Blier. It was called Les Valseuses. "Uneven" is one of the kinder words I have seen in print to describe the deliberately disorganized narrative, with its occasional amazing outbursts of misogyny scattered among scenes of seemingly genuine hippie idealism. Production values high as well, even lofty  with music by Stephane Grappelli, cinematography by Bruno Nyutten.

Isabell Huppert (below) appeared in this movie at the age of 21. She played a 16-year-old schoolgirl vacationing unhappily in the Midi with her parents. She abandoned them in order to join up briefly with the roving petty criminals, but remained an outlaw only long enough to accomplish the joyful task of losing her virginity.

However, the true female lead was the actress Miou-Miou, partner in crime and partner in bed  an embodiment of the old-fashioned fantasy-girl conjured up by male imagination.

Jeanne Moreau (below) also anchored an isolated, disconnected episode  with the distant manner of a character on the wrong set.

Both Depardieu and Dewaere became stars with this movie (though Patrick Dewaere would commit suicide a few years later). Moreau and Miou-Miou were, in their own ways, each already consigned to the permanent status of legend. And Isabelle Huppert was beginning her steep and rapid ascent to the success-peak she continues to inhabit now, 40 years later.

Thursday, March 27, 2014


Woodland Pool

Yesterday's views of Stonehenge included one by the English painter William James Müller (1812-1845). This artist was routinely spoken of in his own lifetime as "the young genius" but died prematurely at the age of 33 and subsequently slipped from cultural memory.



The Avon

Waterside Houses

On the Nile



Eel Pots

I have read three conflicting explanations of Müller's early death, none of which sounds very convincing. Without much elaboration, different writers assert that he died 1) of melancholia  due to inadequate fame; 2) of lead poisoning  from pigments; or 3) of some vague contagion  brought home from a final Middle Eastern painting trip.

All compositions above are watercolors and all  from collections at the Tate.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014


The drawing at top in red chalk is inscribed along its lower right-hand edge  Stonehenge by Mr. Henry Gyles. It was created on the spot in Wiltshire about 1680  according to the Tate, where it is reverently preserved (along with other works on paper seen here).

Above, another rendering (in watercolor) of a distant Stonehenge – from a sketchbook kept by J.M.W. Turner between 1799 and 1802. Below, ink and chalk on blue paper a nearer view of the same subject from a Turner sketchbook dated 1827.

Later in 1827, back in his studio, Turner produced a more elaborate Stonehenge watercolor. This picture became the basis for an engraving by R. Wallis (below) published in 1829. Turner's Stonehenge  in all its versions  looks magical and beautiful but weightless.

A decade later the "young genius" William James Müller (English-born son of an immigrant father) made his own watercolor of Stonehenge (above). Critics of the day said that Müller "could suggest more, with fewer touches" than any of his older established colleagues (a group that would have included Turner). And Müller's Stonehenge is successfully heavy, that much is definite. He died in 1845, at the shocking age of 33.

In 1973 English artist Henry Moore (1898-1986) created a portfolio of intaglios/lithographs called Stonehenge. On the heaviness spectrum, Moore's interests appear nearer to Müller's than to Turner's.