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January 2006

NOTES & COMMENTS

The Aristos Awards
Objective commentary on bogus art in all its forms is not much in evidence these days. Rare as it is, it merits public acknowledgment, wherever and whenever it may be found. We have therefore inaugurated The Aristos Awards, beginning with a retroactive list of winners (the earliest from 1912) announced in this issue. Accompanying annotations include quotations from the relevant texts, and links to texts online, where available. Suggestions from readers for future awards are invited.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Franklin!
Three hundred years and counting! You've aged well, sir, continuing to inspire. How fortunate that in 1779 you sat for this portrait bust [more] by your friend the estimable M. Houdon of France--lately installed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art--and for this excellent sketch by him in 1785.

Hidden Treasure: A Theatrical Pearl
Savvy New York theatergoers more concerned with substance than with show have long known that a regular subscription to the off-Broadway Pearl Theatre Company is one of their best cultural investments. Housed in a tiny erstwhile movie theater at 80 St. Marks Place in the East Village, this outstanding repertory group, now in its twenty-second season, devotes itself to classic works (five each year), ranging from ancient Greek tragedy to Shakespeare, Molière, Ibsen, and Shaw.

The secret of the Pearl's artistic success is its commitment to interpreting each work "on the playwright's terms"--which requires an informed consideration of its original context--rather than to exploiting it as a vehicle for directorial "concepts" or the vanity of actors. Dedicated to the principle that "the play's the thing," both the directors and the resident actors are as proficient a troupe as you are likely to find on this side of the Atlantic, though their names are probably unknown to you. This season's first production, Ibsen's The Master Builder, rightly drew praise from the New York Times, for example, for the fine performance of one of the resident actors, Dan Daily, in the title role, as well as for the sensitive direction of Shepard Sobel, the company's founding Artistic Director. Equally successful, in an entirely different vein, was a sparkling revival of William Wycherly's rarely performed Restoration comedy The Gentleman Dancing-Master. It is not too late to subscribe for the balance of the season, which offers Euripides' Hecuba, Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, and Schiller's Mary Stuart.

A 3-play subscription can be had for as little as $102, and subscribers receive an informative newsletter on each production. Tickets may also be purchased for individual performances. For full information, see the Pearl's website.

The Nerve of It
Contemporary critics are ever watchful for signs of a kinship between avant-garde work and the great art of the past. Since there are never any of consequence, they merely invent them out of whole cloth. We find particularly imaginative a gloss that New York Sun critic Lance Esplund offered some months ago on Alexander Calder's "stabile" The Arch. Characterizing the 50-foot-high abstract piece as "a sweeping winged angel or warrior, shield in hand," he went on to weave this poetic fancy:

Buoyant, calm, full of majesty and grace--The Arch resembles Piero [della Francesca]'s Madonna of Mercy in the Misericordia altarpiece in Sansepolcro--the sculpture is as grand and welcoming as a triumphant [sic] arch and as menacing as a praying mantis. Light as passing clouds, bowed like branches, and as seemingly pliant as (and veined like) leaves, The Arch merges industry and flora into a strange hybrid that feels completely natural, and it sets a standard for every other sculpture in the park. ["Muscle-Bound, Earthbound," New York Sun, June 9, 2005].

Can you make any sense of that? We sure can't. As for the purported resemblance to Piero's Madonna of Mercy--we don't think so.

Operatic Enchantment for Children at Heart
Transposing a much-loved book to the stage or screen is always a challenge. And when the project largely succeeds, it deserves a grateful public. Rachel Portman's opera based on The Little Prince--the now-classic children's fable by the French aviator, writer, and war hero Antoine de Saint-Exupéry--therefore warrants celebration. (Commissioned by the Houston Grand Opera, the work premiered there in 2003 and had its New York premiere during the New York City Opera's 2005 fall season.) Only the jaded could fail to be delighted. Portman, who was previously acclaimed for her film scores for Emma, Chocolat, and The Cider House Rules, has created a lyrical, evocative score that goes straight to the heart in its unpretentious simplicity. Nicholas Wright's libretto moves the story along effectively, with a gentle touch of the poet. And the sets and costumes--ingeniously designed by Maria Björnson, who sadly died before the work's premiere--bring charmingly and vividly to life the motley cast of characters, ranging from the prince's beloved Rose to his nemesis the Snake and a clump of dancing baobab trees. If you know any children over the age of five or six (and even if you don't), don't miss a chance to see and hear this captivating piece of theatrical magic. It will be aired by the Houston opera on NPR's World of Opera on February 11, and is scheduled for various performances around the country. Though nothing is likely to match a live performance, you may also catch it on the small screen, in a BBC 2 adaptation released on DVD by Sony.

A PREVIEW: "No One, That's Who!"
That's our short answer to the question posed by a new documentary--Who Gets to Call It Art?--about Henry Geldzahler, the first curator of "contemporary art" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as about the New York art scene over which he presided in the 1960s. In our view, no one gets to call the work featured in this film art because none of it is. Besides Geldzahler, the cast of characters includes many of the usual suspects, from Frank Stella and Jasper Johns to Andy Warhol and David Hockney. Geldzahler (shown in a photo with Warhol and Hockney) later became the first director of the Visual Art Program of the National Endowment for the Arts--an agency which to this day has difficulty distinguishing between art and nonart. (At the Film Forum in New York City, February 1-14, and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, February 12. Reviewed in Variety.)

EXHIBITION: Painter of Character
Memling's Portraits (The Frick Collection, New York City, closed December 31, 2005). This intimate exhibition of remarkably compelling portraits by the Flemish (Netherlandish) Renaissance master Hans Memling (d. 1494) was ideally installed at the Frick. Among those on view were Portrait of a Man (c.1470-75; Frick Collection); Portrait of a Man with an Arrow (c.1475-80); Portrait of an Old Woman (c.1475-80); and Portrait of a Young Woman ('Sibyl') [click to enlarge] (dated 1480); Portrait of a Man with a Coin of the Emperor Nero (Bernardo Bembo) (c.1473/4); and Portrait of a Man with a Letter (c. 1475). Images of the entire exhibition may be viewed, several at a time (they cannot be enlarged), in a pdf document from the Frick.

AT THE MET: Two by Memling
Tommaso di Folco Portinari [more] (1428-1501) and Maria Portinari (Maria Maddalena Baroncelli, 1456-?), probably 1470. These two splendid Memling portraits--which can stand their own among those by any painter--were not included in the recent exhibition at the Frick (see note above), but are on permanent view a few blocks north on Fifth Avenue, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (second floor, European painting galleries). The subjects are familiar to lovers of Northern Renaissance art as the donors depicted in the right and left panels of Hugo van der Goes' wondrous Portinari Altarpiece.

MUSEUMS: A Marble Relief--by Houdon
The Dead Thrush (1782), at the Frick Collection, New York City--on long-term loan from the Horvitz Collection, Boston. We found ourselves irresistibly drawn to this poignant life-size representation in marble of a song thrush, which seems just moments removed from the breath of life. Best known for his incomparable marble portrait busts of many great figures of the Enlightenment (among others, Voltaire and Benjamin Franklin--see birthday note above), Houdon here set out to prove that sculpture could equal and, in some respects, outshine the art of painting. As Frick Associate Curator Denise Allen observes, in a brief informative essay in the Members' Magazine (Winter 2006): "Houdon deliberately evoked conventions associated with trompe l'oeil painting," transforming "painted illusion into salient reality by carving the thrush's wings completely in the round and showing one actually extending over the marble's gilt wood frame," and "exploit[ing] marble's substantive palpability by differentiating subtle textures: rendering the springing softness of down on the bird's breast and the bladlelike lightness of its long wing feathers." Allen relates a charming anecdote from a contemporary review of a lost earlier version of the work. As the critic noted, a six-year-old boy had reacted to the piece by naively asking where the dead bird had been wounded. When told that the bird was marble, the child replied, "'How then are feathers made from marble?'"

(Note: To protect the many fragile objects and artworks in the Frick's collection, and "to preserve the ambience of Mr. Frick's private house," children under ten are not admitted, and those under sixteen must be accompanied by an adult.)

Query
Why does this man have a headache? Could having made these and these and these have done it?

Other Sites
Our latest website recommendation is for an online dictionary. You may already know that at Google, one can look up the definition of a word terms simply by entering "define" followed by the word or phrase (no quotation marks or other punctuation needed). The new site we recommend takes looking up words online to a different level. The feature we most value is the access to entries from the 1913 Webster's Unabridged. There is much more. Look for "Indictionary" in "Other Sites."

A, B, C, and D
These are the designations of four appendices in which we document the blatant absurdity and irresponsibility of today's arts criticism, journalism, and scholarship, and provide links to representative articles and reviews.

(A): Items in our ever-expanding list of purported new forms of art are often laughable, but we take them seriously. Examples added this month range from "driftwood art" and "recycled plastic bag art" to "sound collage."
(B): While artworld buzzwords in context can also have their comical effect, we take them quite seriously, as their ubiquity reflects a copycat mindlessness rampant in writing about the arts today. New examples include the terms "cerebral," "challenge," "emerging artist," "examine," "explore," and "question." In most instances, one can safely infer that when such terms are used in criticism, the work in question is not art.
(C): The New York Times "Arts" section prominently features articles on subjects that have nothing to do with the arts--ranging from the holocaust and the Iraq war to sports, business, and network news. The list is endless. Why should this matter? Well, we're old-fashioned enough to cling to the notion that the meaning of words matters, and that newspapers have an ethical obligation not to engage in such blatant abuse of language. Our latest examples include articles on memoir, terrorism, and TV game shows.
(D) More of the same in "Arts, Briefly," the Times's column on page two of the "Arts" section.

Aristos Archives
The contents of all online issues--of interest to old and new readers alike.

Letters to the Editors
We invite readers to comment on matters related to items published in the current or past issues (see Archives).

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