November 30, 2009

Homage to Bleriot by Robert Delauney 1914

 The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum houses some of the finest examples of Modern Art masterpieces in the world.  But it could be filled with its collection of works by Vasily Kandinsky alone.  The original director, Hilla Rebay, encouraged her patron to buy up everything Kandinsky did, and Mr. Guggenheim obliged.  In 1909, Kandinsky was living in Berlin and studying color theory.  At this point, he had painted works that would later define a group of artists, the Blue Rider Group.  But now his painting began to lose all representational aspects.  As an older student, Kandinsky also began writing his remarkable On the Spiritual in Art.  For him, a painter creates a painting to enlighten mankind, not just to touch the eyes, but to taste on the tongue, to sing into the ear, to fill the nose with memory and to vibrate the soul with an inner resonance.  

The Lamb by Paul Klee 1920

 You see, Kandinsky was a synesthete.  Synesthesia is a neurological phenomenon in which senses overlap, such as when colors provoke experiences on more than a visual level.  Like a word leaving a taste in your mouth, or a sight that makes a sound.  Some synesthetes see numbers in a specific color, etc. etc.  I can see how viewing good art as a synesthete would be as satisfying as good sex to us normal folks.  And I use the terms ‘good art’ and ‘good sex’ loosely, because we all know if neither is good, neither counts.  

 Speaking of both good art and good sex, Mr. Guggenheim’s niece, Peggy, had an eye for Modern, too.  And she had quite the modern attitude toward sex, as well.  In her autobiography, Out of the Century, she tells of her open marriage with the Dada artist and writer Lawrence Vail (she ‘gifted’  him nights with other women) and, in the days prior to World War II, of endeavoring to buy one piece of art a day until the Nazis shut Paris down.  Like her uncle, who chose an artist to choose for him, Peggy Guggenheim collected art with Marcel Duchamp.  Duchamp pointed her toward Cubism and introduced her to what Guillaume Apollinaire had dubbed Surrealism almost twenty years earlier.  She brought to New York works by Picasso and Kandinsky and Ray, as well as pieces by Giorgio de Chirico, Salvador Dali and Max Ernst (whom she later married).  Her legacy in Venice now holds the finest selection of Surrealist masterpieces in the world. 

Skyscraper costume for Parade by Picasso (1964 reconstruction)

  Between Cubism and Surrealism, there existed Dada.  Defying definitive medium- from pen to canvas to screen to stage to scissors to store boughts- Dada launched many hard-to-define artists.  Perhaps two standout Dada-esque performances can offer the similar sensational responses of the synesthete:  the ballet Parade and the film Entr’acte.    

 Erik Satie wrote the music for both, but both were a collaborative effort by a host of talent.  Parade was performed by Serge Diagheliv’s Ballets Russes, choreographed by Leonide Massine, boasted sets and costumes designed by Picasso, and was written by Jean Cocteau, the title referring to the procession of prostitutes before the customer.  And it was in the program notes for the first performance in 1917 that Apollinaire coined the phrase Surrealism.

Entr’acte (1924) was directed by Rene Clair to be shown during the intermission (or entr’acte) of Francis Picabia’s play Relache (French for ‘postponed’, a Dada joke in the highest regard, especially since the first performance was indeed postponed due to an ‘injury’- imagine the poster:  Postponement/Intermission/Postponement).  An experimental masterpiece, it also features a procession- this one of a slow motion/high speed funeral march in which the participants hop.  Satie and Picabia make cameo appearances to light a cannon backwards.  Duchamp  and Man Ray play chess.  Perhaps the most notable scene:  an extended slo-mo upshot of a stocking clad dancer on glass, her petal-like trousseau blooming like a flower as she jumps and splits.  At one point, she literally sits on your face, from the camera man’s point of view.  I may have made a similar film in the late ‘80’s, sans the bloomers…  

Josephine Baker at the Folies Bergere 1927


THE BELLS  (Alcools: Les Cloches)  

My gipsy beau my lover  

Hear the bells above us  

We loved passionately  

Thinking none could see us  

But we so badly hidden  

All the bells in their song  

Saw from heights of heaven  

And told it everyone  

Tomorrow Cyprien Henry  

Marie Ursule Catherine  

The baker’s wife her husband  

and Gertrude that’s my cousin  

Will smile when I go by them  

I won’t know where to hide  

You far and I’ll be crying  

Perhaps I shall be dying  

-Guilluame Apollinaire  


SUGGESTED VIEWING:  Un Chien Andalou, a Surrealist film by Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel, 1929  




November 15, 2009


Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2 by Marcel Duchamp 1912

In 1909, with the first Cubist show in the works, the Futurist Manifesto in the papers, Three Lives self-published and The Waste Land being penned, what Pablo Picasso, Juan Gris, F.T. Marinetti, Gertrude Stein and T.S. Eliot were doing was ‘Making the New’.  Ezra Pound moved to Europe to become the chief cheerleader for this, the Modern Movement.  Hard to pinpoint exactly, Modern stared primitively from canvases, ran multi-footed from printing presses, danced heavily to strange bassoon notes.  Max Jacob and Guilliame Apollonaire wrote Cubist poetry inspired by the art and Wyndam Lewis used Vorticist writing as a muse for his painting.  Tristan Tzara headed to Switzerland to take nothing to a whole other level, and James Joyce dictated endless sentences to the most patient of ears, streaming thoughts Freud himself couldn’t codify.

Lee Miller's Neck by Man Ray

Speaking of Freud, I guess you want me to get to the sex part, huh?  I mean, it does come first in my tagline, doesn’t it?  One hundred years ago, Freud was developing his manly Pleasure Principles, noting “…the vulva is a void while the phallus is a presence….”

Well, here I am, one hundred years later, finding myself in bitter agreement.  In man, Freud saw two things- the drive for life and the drive toward death.  The life drive – survival, propagation, hunger, thirst, sex- he called the libido.  Notice my blog isn’t called Modern Soup or Ego?

In 2009, with my marriage ended, my business bankrupt, my father’s cancer finally cashed in and my fortieth birthday a distant memory, what I am doing is ‘making the new’ out of my new disillusionment.  Much like my compatriots of the previous fin de siecle, I seek meaning in this meaningless world.  But what if there isn’t any?  That was really the question a century ago.

I like art that touches my emptiness.   I like poetry that surprises me mid-sentence.  I like literature that speaks to me when it knows I’m hard to reach.  But I like sex more than any of those things.  I think that was really the point a century ago, too.

Lee Miller by Man Ray


We were very tired, we were very merry-

We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.

It was bare and bright, and smelled like a stable,

But we looked into a fire, we leaned across the table,

We lay on a hill-top underneath the moon;

And the whistles kept blowing, and the dawn came soon.

We were very tired, we were very merry-

We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry;

And you ate an apple, and I ate a pear,

From a dozen of each we had bought somewhere;

And the sky went wan, and the wind came cold,

And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold.

We were very tired, we were very merry,

We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry,

We hailed “Good morrow, mother!” to a shawl-covered head,

And bought a morning paper, which neither of us read;

And she wept, “God bless you!” for the apples and the pears, 

And we gave her all our money but our subway fares.

                                         -Edna St. Vincent Millay


SUGGESTED READING:  Makers of the New: The Revolution in Literature, 1912-1939, Julian Symons (1987)