John Lennon wasn’t the pacifist we’ve turned him into

Of all the honorifics John Lennon amassed during his lifetime, he probably didn’t expect that he’d have a crater on the moon named after him. But last year, the International Lunar Geographic Society announced that a large depression in the moon’s landscape (almost four miles in diameter) would henceforth be known as the “John Lennon Peace Crater.”

Meanwhile, for two hours each night between Oct. 9 (John Lennon’s birthday) and Dec. 8 (the date he was killed), the Imagine Peace Tower, near Reykjavik, Iceland, beams a sharp blue light high into the sky in Lennon’s honor. And celebrations of Lennon’s utopian vision are hardly limited to the celestial realm. In Belfast, a man is currently crusading to make Lennon’s song “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” a worldwide number one hit before the new year. On the Web, fans have kept up a long-running petition supporting an international holiday for Lennon and his commitment to world peace. And last Oct. 9, when Lennon would have turned 70, Yoko Ono called upon his admirers to “Tweet a million wishes for peace for John’s birthday!”

Surely we’ll be hearing even more about Lennon as we approach the 30th anniversary of his assassination on Wednesday. At Strawberry Field, the landscaped memorial at Central Park situated across the street from the Dakota apartment building where he was shot, fans will gather around a mosaic of inlaid stones that spell the world “Imagine.” They’ll set up makeshift displays of candles, photos, and flowers, and they’ll sing anthems like “All You Need Is Love” and “Give Peace a Chance.” Lennon will be celebrated as a man who boldly proclaimed for peace in a world gone mad.

No doubt the tendency to remember Lennon in this way arises, at least in part, from a desire to underscore the tragedy and senselessness of his death. The idea that John Lennon, a man who stood for peace, was gunned down by a lunatic certainly makes for a powerful narrative. For many baby boomers, his assassination was a generation-shattering event (all the more so because it came about a month after Ronald Reagan was elected president). There is also no denying that in some of its iterations, the pacifism that Lennon championed can seem truly beautiful. So long as the world is plagued by hate and war, people are going to look fondly upon those who proselytize for peace and love.

Nevertheless, all of these well-intended tributes and vigils are off the mark. It isn’t just that they extol a naive style of pacifism (though there is that). They also ask us to genuflect before a highly idealized and simplified version of the slain Beatle. During his lifetime, Lennon was ambivalent about pacifism, and his public enthusiasm for the peace movement was fleeting and capricious.

Though he lived for 40 years, Lennon’s reputation as a peacenik derives from just a brief period in the very late ’60s and early ’70s, when antiwar attitudes were practically de rigueur among the hip cognoscenti. Until then, he had largely kept quiet about politics. The Beatles had originally fashioned themselves as bohemian, leather-clad rockers, but in early 1962, under the supervision of their savvy manager, Brian Epstein, they began styling themselves as teen idols. From then until Epstein’s death in August 1967, the group was under strict orders to avoid controversial statements of any kind, for fear of alienating part of their audience. Lennon may have been annoyed by this restriction, but for the most part, he acquiesced. In 1966, he provoked a minor controversy by letting it slip that the Beatles opposed the Vietnam War, but even then, he hardly sounded like an activist. “We don’t agree with it. But there’s not much we can do about it,” he said. “All we can say is we don’t like it.”

The peace protests that Lennon is best known for probably were not even his own ideas; more likely, they were Ono’s. In 1969, the couple staged their famous “Bed-Ins” for peace, sent “acorns for peace” to various world leaders, lobbied for peace while cloaked in a white canvas bag, and commissioned billboards in major cities across the globe, announcing “War Is Over — If You Want It.” Lennon lent a bit of his impish humor to these stunts, but (let’s face it), all of this was much more in keeping with the whimsically flavored avant-gardism for which Ono was already well known.

Then in 1972, Lennon abruptly terminated the activist phase of his career while under pressure from the Nixon administration. At the time, he and Ono were fending off a deportation order from the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Lennon’s lawyer, Leon Wildes, advised that under the circumstances, it might be wise for him to clam up about his political views, and that is precisely what he did. Plainly put, the couple decided they’d rather live in New York than continue speaking out against the Vietnam War. After Lennon got his green card in 1975, he could easily have returned to politics, but he retreated instead into quiet domesticity.

Finally, even during the era when Lennon was politically outspoken, his thoughts about pacifism were inconsistent. In May 1969, when the cartoonist Al Capp interviewed Lennon and Ono during their famous Montreal Bed-In, the couple seemed committed to an absolutist position.

“Tell me how you would stop [Hitler],” Capp demanded.

“If I was a Jewish girl in Hitler’s day,” Ono replied, “I would approach him and become his girlfriend. After 10 days in bed, he would come to my way of thinking. This world needs communication. And making love is a great way of communicating.”

When Capp fumed that this sounded like “stark raving madness,” Lennon shot back “What’s mad about it?”

In the spring of 1968, however, Lennon was much less settled in his views about political violence. That is when he recorded “Revolution,” a song that was widely interpreted as a celebration of the hippie counterculture, and a toxic put-down of the confrontational politics championed by some New Leftists, who had recently clashed with authorities in the streets of London and Paris (and would soon be causing a ruckus at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago). Most people are familiar with the version of the song that was released as a 45 rpm — the one that begins with Lennon screaming abrasively over heavily distorted guitars.

But in another, slower version of “Revolution,” which appeared on the White Album, Lennon added a word to the lyrics: “When you talk about destruction/ don’t you know that you can count me out — in.” He added the “in,” he explained, because he “wasn’t sure” where he stood on the crucial question of political violence — hardly the position of a pacifist.

In the same song, Lennon delivered a famous zinger against Mao Zedong, the ruthless Chinese leader who was being celebrated by a few ultra-militant factions in the youth rebellion. Though some saw Mao as a potent symbol of revolutionary culture, Lennon seemed unimpressed. “If you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao/ You ain’t gonna make it with anyone anyhow.”

But by December 1970, Lennon was backpedaling again. Now he seemed highly skeptical of peaceful remedies for social change. “I really thought that love would save us all,” he told Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner. “But now I’m wearing a Chairman Mao badge….I’m just beginning to think he’s doing a good job.” In retrospect, this sounds like the purest expression of radical chic. Lennon could not have known at this point that Mao was one of history’s greatest mass murderers. But nor could he possibly have believed that Mao was in any way a peaceful man. (“Revolution is not a dinner party,” Mao had famously said. “A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.”) In the same interview, when asked about the possibility of a “violent revolution,” Lennon announced, “If I were black, I’d be all for it.”

Finally, it bears remembering that despite briefly campaigning for peace, and writing exuberantly about love, Lennon’s inner life was stormy and tumultuous. On this point, the historical record is so unequivocal that it is almost unseemly to delve into the details. Growing up, he is remembered as a garden variety, fist-fighting delinquent, and he continued in this vein until the first flush of Beatlemania. Armed with a caustic wit, he could be spectacularly cruel (particularly if he sensed weakness in any of his targets). With women, he was a notorious cad. By his own admission he was a lousy and distant father to his first son, Julian, and biographers agree that some of the storybook elements of his relationship with Ono are greatly exaggerated in the public’s mind.

None of this rests comfortably alongside Lennon’s reputation as a spokesman for nonviolence. But if people could bring themselves to delve a little deeper into Lennon’s life and thought, and stop dwelling on his soapiest platitudes from the Vietnam War era, they might still find his example instructive. One of the big themes of his career, after all, was his hostility to orthodoxies. This is a man who expressed cynicism about Jesus and his apostles, denounced the Maharishi as a fraud, and then, at age 31, turned his back on the Beatles.

Similarly, he never seems to have settled on a single viewpoint concerning pacifism, and at various other times, he found it personally necessary to mute some of his beliefs. But few of those who lived through the vertiginous ’60s are likely to judge him harshly on either count. His experience may even help us to understand just how harrowing and uncertain that decade was.

It’s harder to arrive at these insights, though, so long as Lennon’s admirers continue to freeze him in a brief moment of time when he was at his most gauzily idealistic. His stint as a carnival barker for the peace movement represents only a small fraction of his career. Everyone remembers one of Lennon’s most famous compositions, “Give Peace a Chance.” Another very good, but less heralded, song that he wrote, was called “Gimme Some Truth.”

John McMillian is an assistant professor of history at Georgia State University. His book ”Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America” is being published in January by Oxford University Press. Currently he is writing a joint biography of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones for the Free Press.


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Who Can Resist a Man Who Sings Like a Woman?

The countertenor Philippe Jaroussky performing in New York in 2007.

One afternoon last July, a small, anxious crowd gathered in the lobby of Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, hoping for a glimpse of Philippe Jaroussky, the young French countertenor who was to give a Baroque recital later that night. Among them were a Japanese woman in a black-and-white houndstooth coat, carrying a candy-pink shopping-bag with a DVD of a Kurosawa film that she intended to present to him, and a Russian violin teacher from Bremen wearing a sapphire ball gown. This was the kernel of die-hard Jaroussky admirers who follow the singer around the world, posting live videos of his concerts on YouTube and commiserating on his fan sites with fellow devotees who’d been unable to get to Sydney or Basel.

Jaroussky made his professional debut singing Scarlatti at a French summer festival in 1999, when he was 21. He was fortunate in his timing. In the last few decades, much of the Baroque repertory — the operas and sacred music of composers like Monteverdi, Purcell and Gluck, as well as that of lesser-known masters — has enjoyed a widespread revival. And with it, that most startling of voices, the countertenor — a grown man who sings like a turbo-charged choirboy, performing the roles of heroes or saints that were originally written for a castrato and that are often sung by a female mezzo-soprano.

CASTRATI PINUPS In their day (the 18th century), castrati were worshiped like rock stars. 1. Francesco Bernardi (known as Senesino). 2. Giovanni Carestini. 3. Carlo Farinelli.4. Gaetano Majorano (known as Caffarelli).

Forty years ago, there were perhaps half a dozen countertenors on the world stage. Today the South Carolinian David Daniels or the German Andreas Scholl fill concert halls and opera houses, and every season brings a new wonder boy from Croatia or the Ukraine. The 32-year-old Jaroussky’s exceptionally pure voice, combined with his cherubic good looks, have won him a passionate following.

“When I heard Philippe Jaroussky for the first time, I was struck by his musicality and sensibility,” Cecilia Bartoli, who sang with him in Handel’s “Giulio Cesare,” wrote in an e-mail. “There is a beauty in his phrasing and a delicacy, if not fragility in his soul, that touches the listener profoundly.” The legendary English countertenor James Bowman says that “Jaroussky sounds like the boy Bach would have loved to write for.”

The countertenorial voice — a high girlish tone produced by using the outer edges of the vocal cords — is something of an acquired taste, continually teetering on the knife edge between creepy and sublime. Jaroussky himself is well aware of what he describes as its “element of repulsion.”

“It’s true that there is something potentially ridiculous about this voice coming out of a man’s body,” Jaroussky told me when we first met. “People talk about the countertenor being a third sex, or something quasi female, but I think for me it’s more a way of staying a child.”

Indeed, throughout history, male sopranos, whether in sacred music, opera or pop, have been prized as much for an ideal of angelic purity as for romantic heroism. The voice does not, as some might have it, appeal chiefly to gay men: much of pre-19th-century opera — or for that matter, Shakespearean comedy — is based on the understanding that what drives a woman wild is a boy who may or may not be a girl.

At 8:30 p.m., Jaroussky, tall and slim in a black suit with a pleated white dress shirt unbuttoned at the collar, ran down the steps leading to the Concertgebouw’s stage with the buoyancy of a kid who prefers sliding down banisters.

Jaroussky specializes in reviving the works of now-forgotten Baroque composers. Tonight, accompanied by the Concerto Köln, he was singing a sequence of opera arias by the early-18th-century composer Antonio Caldara, which he has since recorded and will release as an album in the United States next month. Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw is one of the world’s most acoustically perfect concert halls. Even in the topmost row of this 2,000-seat auditorium, you could hear Jaroussky’s luscious tones sail up from the stage below with heartrending precision, his often-naked voice rippling, diving and soaring, in improvised ornamentations that were by turns jitterbug fast and perturbingly slow.

By the time he reached his encore of Porpora’s “Alto Giove,” an aria composed for the great Italian castrato Farinelli, the audience was on its feet, stamping and cheering.

The countertenor is a 20th-century phenomenon, the approximation of an art that has luckily been lost to us. Much of the sacred music and opera roles sung today by Jaroussky or by mezzo-sopranos like Cecilia Bartoli were originally composed for Farinelli and his peers — male singers who were castrated before they reached puberty in order to preserve their high, pure voices. This act of oversophisticated barbarism, supposedly a response to St. Paul’s edict in the Corinthians (mulier taceat in ecclesia, “women should be silent in church”), kept the papal choirs and ducal courts of Europe supplied with sopranos for their Vivaldi oratorios. By the 17th-century, when public decency laws forbade women to appear onstage in the papal states, castrati were moving into the recently invented art of opera, playing male and occasionally female roles, much as boys did on the Elizabethan stage. By the 18th century, a large percentage of male opera singers were castrati.

Today most countertenors regard castrati as a gold standard that cannot be matched. For a start, their hormonal peculiarities gave castrati an unbeatable advantage. “Their rib cages were absolutely enormous, like battery chickens, and they never needed to breathe,” the opera historian Rupert Christiansen told me. This lung capacity made their voices more powerful than a woman’s or a boy’s, while their child-size vocal cords enabled them to zip up and down registers with dizzying speed and agility. The 18th-century musicologist Charles Burney describes a (possibly apocryphal) lung-power contest between the young Farinelli and a German trumpeter, in which Farinelli, having finally exhausted his rival, “not only swelled and shook the note, but ran the most rapid and difficult divisions, and was at last silenced only by the acclamations of the audience.”

The leading castrati were the pop stars of the 18th century. When Farinelli — whose voice spanned almost three octaves — appeared onstage, an Englishwoman supposedly cried, “One God, one Farinelli!” and others fainted. His salary for one London season was 2,000 guineas, with as much again earned in “tips” from noble admirers, about $1 million in today’s money. Jaroussky, who has recorded an album of arias sung by the castrato Carestini, confesses to “a great tenderness for castrati,” who mostly came from very poor families and were sold by their parents like slaves. “There was a form of hysteria: they were gods onstage, nonexistent in society. They were forbidden to marry, although women prized them as lovers because there was no danger of having children. Once their voices were gone, they were finished. And of course, thousands of children were sacrificed to find one beautiful voice.” By the early 19th century, the new style of romantic opera perfected by composers like Rossini — not to mention more muscular ideas of masculine sex appeal — was putting them out of business, although it was not till 1903 that the Vatican officially outlawed the use of castrati. Yet these maimed idols, these eunuchs to the kingdom of art, continued to haunt our collective psyche. In his tale “Sarrasine” (1830), Balzac recounts the hero’s fatal obsession with La Zambinella, a ravishing diva who he refuses to accept is actually a man. The Danish writer Isak Dinesen, in her short story “The Cardinal’s First Tale,” portrays the supernatural love between a young castrato and a girl trapped in an arranged marriage. To Dinesen, castrati, like women, were tragic chattel in a world defined by male power.

Sometimes you get the impression that Jaroussky regards the great castrati as ghostly forebears. “When I imagine the color of their voices,” he reflects, “it seems to me they must have always carried with them the drama of their woundedness, as Callas does.”

The first time I heard Jaroussky sing was at the Teatro Real in Madrid last May. He was playing the role of Nerone in Monteverdi’s “Incoronazione di Poppea,” in a performance by William Christie and his Baroque orchestra Les Arts Florissants. Christie, a harpsichordist who is largely responsible for the latest revival of Baroque, insists on the music’s “otherness.” His approach — training musicians to play period instruments; teaching singers an archaic style of diction in which first the words are declaimed and only afterward the note is sung — has paradoxically made the music more attractive.

Clad in a floor-length robe of black rooster plumes and wearing white pancake makeup and black lipstick, Jaroussky portrayed the Roman emperor as a kind of androgynous dreamer, persuasively conveying the sexual ambiguity that can make Baroque opera seem so contemporary.

The next afternoon, we met at a sunlit cafe in downtown Madrid. In person, Jaroussky resembles an overgrown schoolboy. Rosy-cheeked, with wavy black hair, sparkling green eyes and full lips, he has a mobile, vivid face that continually flushes and lights up with the emotions and ideas he is expressing.

Jaroussky (the Russian surname comes from a grandfather who fled the Bolshevik Revolution) is a child of the upper-middle-class Parisian suburbs. The milieu in which he grew up was serious-minded, professional. At age 11, he took up the violin with a passion, winning first prize at the Conservatory of Versailles, but he was told he started too late to make it a career. Same with piano. His musical epiphany came at 18, when he went to a Baroque concert, at which Fabrice di Falco, a sopranist from Martinique, happened to be singing.

Di Falco is an intriguingly offbeat choice of role model. With a voice that glides eerily from baritone to soprano, he is equally at home singing Bach or performing with the African jazz saxophonist Manu Dibango. “I was shocked by the disjunction between his physique and that high crystalline voice,” Jaroussky recalled. “He had this beautifully androgynous face, and a voice like Barbara Hendricks. As soon as I heard him, I had the strangest feeling that I could do that, too. I knew right away that this was what I wanted to do with my life.”

Singing had an added charm: as an instrumentalist, he spent his life being told, What a pity you began too late. Suddenly people were saying, You’re only 18? Don’t rush things. He approached Di Falco’s voice coach, Nicole Fallien, who is still Jaroussky’s teacher and whom he described to me as “my second mother.”

When I visited Fallien in Paris, she recalled their first meeting. “Philippe came to me and asked me to teach him how to sing,” she said. “He had a lovely voice, but tiny. I said, ‘Maybe you should stick with the violin.’ He said: ‘I want to sing. And what’s more, I want to sing in a head voice ’ ” — the falsetto used by countertenors — “which means even smaller. I said, ‘I’m not sure you’ll succeed.’ He said, ‘Don’t worry; I’m sure’ — not to be arrogant, but to encourage me. Well, he wasn’t wrong.”

Fallien enrolled him in a summer course taught by the celebrated French countertenor Gerard Lesne, who immediately invited Jaroussky to sing in the Scarlatti oratorio “Sedecia.” Music critics were struck by what one reviewer referred to as Jaroussky’s “liquid” and “ethereal” tone.

“That same week,” he recalled, “Jean-Claude Malgoire” — a French conductor specializing in Baroque music — “asked me to do a Monteverdi cycle. Two engagements in my first week — it was a bit crazy! Now when I hear recordings from that period, my voice sounds so tight and childish, and yet there was something touching about it too.”

Three years later, he founded his own group, the Artaserse Ensemble, to explore the works of lesser-known Baroque composers, taking advantage of the fact that most scores of operas popular in the 18th century now lie moldering in library archives. “I take pleasure in rediscovering things that have been forgotten,” he said. “There’s a sly side to it too: when you are the first to record a song, you aren’t under the same pressure as if you were performing Bach’s ‘Magnificat.’ It’s virgin territory.”

Jaroussky may see himself as the successor to the Italian singers of the 18th century, but in fact, the modern-day countertenor movement was born in England, where historically castrati were a high-priced import and composers like Handel were obliged to be fairly flexible about whether their Thracian princes were sung by female mezzos or castrati.

Last June, I met James Bowman at his club on London’s Pall Mall. Bowman is a tall, florid-faced gentleman who might be mistaken for a retired university lecturer. In fact, he was one of the most influential countertenors of the 20th century. (He still gives public recitals at age 69, much to the consternation of those who assume that the fragility of the voice means it packs it in early.) The countertenor revival, according to Bowman, began with Alfred Deller, a Canterbury Cathedral chorister. “Countertenors have been around for years: every church choir in England had them,” Bowman told me. “But Deller was the first countertenor people wanted to hear on his own. He brought the voice out of the choir and onto the concert platform. And Deller was the first to record commercially: he was huge in America,” where his late-’50s recordings of traditional English songs coincided with a growing folk-music revival. In 1960 he sang the role of Oberon in Benjamin Britten’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Alfred Deller’s voice was lovely, but as the critic Rupert Christiansen explained to me, he had a very narrow range. “Today recordings of Deller’s voice sound genteel and teeny-weeny,” he said. “And he had no interest in acting. It is James Bowman who is venerated as being the one who broke the mold, opening up the opera repertory for countertenors.” Profiting from Bowman’s example, a younger generation of countertenors arose, with voices powerful enough to hold their own with mezzo-sopranos. In 1988, the American Jeffrey Gall (who was Marilyn Horne’s understudy in Handel’s “Orlando”) became the first countertenor to sing a major role at the Met. Today, according to Christiansen, the new battleground is the early-19th-century repertory, with younger singers taking on Rossini and Bellini roles written for contraltos.

The countertenor voice is suddenly money. Last year, Virgin released a recording of Handel’s “Faramondo.” When the opera opened in 1738, Handel could afford only one castrato; many of the remaining male roles were assumed by women. In the 2009 recording, all the male roles are sung by men. “Each week, I discover a new countertenor on the Internet,” Jaroussky told me. “It’s very challenging, all these young ones coming up behind me. It’s exciting too.” Jaroussky’s rendition of Vivaldi’s “Vedro con mio diletto” has received more than 1.3 million hits on YouTube. Thirty years ago, he would have been lucky to fill half a church on a Saturday afternoon.

“The Baroque repertory appeals to us today because of its audacity, its combination of rationality and freedom,” William Christie told me when I met him after his “Incoronazione di Poppea” in Madrid. “A Venetian composer in the early 18th century behaved the same way as a New Orleans jazzman in the early 20th century. There was a spirit of improvisation, a horror of sameness. Baroque composers pushed to the limit the idea of spontaneity.”

Jaroussky, who performs a “jazz” version of Monteverdi with the Austrian lutenist Christina Pluhar’s chamber orchestra “L’Arpeggiata,” agrees. “Who are we to know that Monteverdi wasn’t playing blue notes?”

The morning after his Amsterdam recital, Jaroussky sat in his hotel garden, talking about future projects, including a contemporary opera about the painter Caravaggio.

He spoke the night before of the recent shift in attitudes toward gender that has given his métier political resonance. “Finally, after three centuries, we are getting closer to the more open sexual codes of the Baroque, where no one found it in the least surprising that Farinelli was singing the part of Cleopatra and that a woman was singing Julius Caesar!”

When he first began, Jaroussky told me, he was obsessed by the idea of what’s natural. “I always ask myself, Does this seem natural? We countertenors are in perpetual search for sincerity. We lie a bit, we fudge, we are in a constant state of doubt and conflict, searching for a grace that escapes us. What’s especially difficult for a light, airy voice like mine is to find solid ground — to anchor the voice in my body.”

Fernanda Eberstadt is the author, most recently, of “Rat: A Novel.” Her last article for the magazine was about the band CocoRosie.


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The Three Amigos

This is the seventh in a series.

There is something particularly satisfying about setting up objects for a still life painting. It’s like a little world that you control. First you get to choose the inhabitants — maybe a vase, some flowers, a weird gourd, a plastic Mickey Mouse, your baby shoes — and then you get to move them around like a potentate.

Of course, this opportunity to combine a mélange of objects can lead to a too-complicated visual mess. There are a few fundamental decisions to make before you start a still life: deciding on how many elements to include, how to arrange them so that they overlap in a good way and how to position the objects to create not only a satisfying aggregate shape, but also ensure that the negative space is interesting.

Alice Neel’s “Symbols (Doll and Apple),” c.1933
Paul Cézanne

We have many models in the history of art to help us think about still lifes. Cezanne and his apples immediately leaps to mind. His art, like the painting I include here, demonstrates how to build a complex but harmonious arrangement. Thinking of still lifes that are a bit more quirky, I show an early painting by Alice Neel that is full of strange psychological emanations. Some contemporary artists, like Wayne Thiebaud, arrange their objects in grid-like patterns. This style of echoing modern mass production dispenses with the old idea of compositional charm altogether.

Many artists have chosen to paint still lifes simply to represent some idea of beauty rather than to make any particular narrative point, yet even the most “neutral” painting of apples or roses tends to suggest the abundance of life or its transitory nature. Too, the relationship of objects in a still life almost inevitably brings to mind the relative status or kind of connection that the objects have with one another.

The doll at the center of Neel’s painting dominates the apples and the glove, whereas the three apples in the bowl in the Cezanne seem protected by both the bowl and the drapery, and guarded by the two outlying apples. I may be making more of a point about the implications that arise out of still lifes than perhaps Cezanne or the other artists ever intended, but I do it to show that the choice and arrangement of objects in a still life is less neutral and more interesting than you might have expected.

Although I am specifically dealing with the idea of a simple still life here, the issues of the relative scale of elements, what goes in the foreground or the background, the rhythm of shapes and the effect of light and shade would be as pertinent to a composition of figures in an interior or a landscape, in fact any kind of complex image you can imagine.

I have chosen three objects: a dark glass vase, a bowl with apples and a cream pitcher. I will paint these objects in five different arrangements to show how the objects can overlap each other gracefully and how each arrangement affects the proportions of the picture, the negative space and the character of the objects’ relationships.

In the photograph of the objects the vase is in the center, and even though the effect is of a school lineup, the vase is definitely the tall student in the class, and, despite the curves, possibly a bully or a mean girl. The arrangement is satisfyingly symmetrical and the rectangle of the picture is spacious enough to hold the three elements comfortably. In the painting just above, I have moved the vase to the left, possibly the head of the school line, and made some adjustments to the picture. I moved the white cloth that the objects sit on so that it cuts the foreground at an angle, roughly echoing the angle of the slant of light in the background. This balances the optical heaviness of the vase on the left, and enlivens the negative space in the picture. In these exercises I am making these paintings in very limited, almost monochromatic color, to keep the emphasis on the composition.

I now move the pitcher slightly forward. The group starts to feel more integrated — as though they have started some kind of dialogue. I include the line drawing that was scanned at an early stage of the art to show both my adjustments to the drawing and to the rectangle of the picture. I have also highlighted the significant intersection of this composition — the place where the pitcher overlaps with the fruit bowl. It was important to move the pitcher enough in front of the bowl so that the curve at the bottom of the bowl didn’t start to ride up the front edge of the jug. I also made sure that the spout of the pitcher was above the rim of the bowl to make a visually satisfying relationship between the ellipse of the bowl and the hooked shape of the spout.

The general rule about overlaps is that they should clearly move one shape in front of the other and should avoid two shapes, particularly curves, just touching each other. In the painting’s background, I darken the area at the right to help balance vase on the left, and I adjust the white cloth to allow a little of the table edge to show along the bottom. That dark bar visually stabilizes the composition. The shadows cast by the objects help to connect them and to bring a sense of light atmosphere into the image.

I scanned the line drawing at a moment when I was using the space relationship between the spout of the pitcher and the curve of the vase to judge the position of the pitcher. This was a clearer point to me than using the base of the pitcher to figure out where it sits in the field. I adjusted the rectangle after I realized that I needed more space on the left to match the space on the right. In the painting, the shadow cast by the vase on the back wall becomes a significant factor in the feeling of the whole picture. It both dramatizes the top lip of the jug and it further separates the jug from its companions. Now the jug poses a question and one apple leans forward skeptically. The vase is mute.

Uh, oh! Poor juggy had too much heavy cream at the party last night and he’s not feeling tip-top. Artist James is also having a little trouble with the proportions of the rectangle, but after four tries he gets it right.

In the intersection of the jug and vase it was important that the curve of the spout clear the base of the vase. It creates a little negative shape that is more interesting than having the two ellipses pile on top of one another as they would have been if the jug had been higher in the composition. Comparing the drawing with the painting you can see how much the tone of the back wall and the cast shadows help to pull the elements together.

Another reasonable alternative to this formation would have been to have the jug lower down, clearing the shape of the vase altogether.

I hope this will encourage you to choose three relatively simple objects and try some different compositions. It will give you practice in drawing objects and getting a feel for how one particular relationship of shapes can feel wrong, and yet one that’s only slightly different can feel right, right, right!

The fact that the rectangles I drew in these exercises were not accurate, or that I had to change them as I proceeded, does not take away from their usefulness in my mental process. Drawing the rectangle free-hand as a first step makes it come alive in my thinking in a way that simply accepting the edges of a drawing pad as my “field” would not. That first movement of my pencil or brush to choose those four edges as the space in which I will make my future choices is as much a part of my drawing as all the other lines I will make.

I suggest that in making compositional sketches you draw a rectangle on your pad as a beginning step, rather than always planning your composition using the full area of the pad. You might want to consider a bigger pad than you usually use to give you more possibilities in the shapes that you can draw.

In the next column I will investigate how to analyze the forms in drawing heads.

James McMullan, New York Times


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The Chain of Energy

This is the tenth in a series.

In the preceding columns I have introduced you to ways of seeing the particular structural logic of different kinds of subjects — the ellipses within round objects, the strength and/or flexibility built into manufactured objects like shoes or chairs, perspective as a key in seeing space relationships in complex scenes, growing patterns in subjects like flowers and trees, and the cubistic understructure of the human head. Now we are ready to move on to considering how to see and draw the whole human figure. It is the most subtle, challenging and rewarding subject for us as artists.

In order to observe the nuances of movement in musculature, we will study the nude body. It will give you the foundation for better understanding the clothed figure.

(Note: Because the approach I am introducing you to entails a big change of thinking — a reach for the life force rather than just the surface shadows in drawing the figure — I will present the subject in two columns. In this, the first column, I will explain and demonstrate what one could call the goal of drawing the figure, and in the next I will give you strategies for approaching the goal from different directions. This may seem counter-intuitive, since I am giving you the “steps” last, but because the central idea of this approach is so necessary to all practice of it, the leading-up exercises would mean nothing if you didn’t know where you were headed.)

The body, as we know, is a miraculous system of bones, muscles, blood and nerves, and it is possible to study it in purely anatomical terms. We can follow Da Vinci’s example and learn as much about the body as any medical student, and it might serve us well as artists, but most of us don’t have the inclination for this scientific kind of study nor the stomach for dissection.

We should, of course, have a general grasp of the major bones in the skeleton and the big muscle groups as a basis for drawing the figure. But knowledge of anatomy can take us artists only so far, because studying anatomical illustrations gives us a static view of the body that is difficult to impose on the actual gesture of any model we see before us.

Fortunately, the body, moving as it does in life, tells us a story that we can learn to read. Because the body is a cooperative totality — every part is engaged, to one degree or another, with any movement that is initiated — we can read this rhythmic dialogue that courses through from the feet to the head and out to the fingertips. It is a chain of energy. We learn to read it by looking at the figure in a more total and empathic way.

Instead of concentrating on details and accumulating our drawing bit by bit, measuring each part as though it were an equal component to every other part, we see in each particular pose that the energy is being used and controlled in a way that is specific to that pose. We can find points of pressure or relationships that make the model’s movement come alive for us; each of those points or relationships can become a “big idea” that helps us find a place to start and a theme to pursue as we continue to draw.

Once you tune into this story that the body tells, it will seem like one of those Aha! moments where you say to yourself, “Why didn’t I see this before?” Yet getting to that moment is often difficult. Most people have to discard an approach to the figure where they make a “picture” of the model that depends mostly on setting up edges and shading in the interior forms.

The change in thinking that achieves liveliness in drawing involves recognizing that the forces that animate the body are widespread. We have to be prepared to see the pressure in a hip, for instance, being echoed and continued in the pressure on the opposite side of the rib cage and on to the pressure in the opposite side of the neck. It is a much more spatial way of seeing the body than the “containment” method that many artists use. Instead of locking down the forms of the body, the approach I am introducing celebrates how much the forms are moving back and forth in space, and implying, in the moment after our drawing is finished, that the model will move again.

I include here some drawings I have done using color in a non-naturalistic way to intuitively register my response to the changes of pressure and direction of forms in the poses I am observing. I hope they will help you to see the possibilities of concentrating on the energy of the figure as the objective of drawing.

In the next column, I will give you exercises that will help you achieve more vitality in your drawings of the figure.
James McMullan, New York Times

Plumbing the Head

This is the eighth in a series.

The human head is potentially the most emotional subject an artist can choose. We spend our lives scanning other people’s faces to assess their relationship to us and our feelings towards them. Among the myriad expressions a face can produce we can see friendliness, attractiveness, intelligence, wariness, hostility or aggression, and we tend to credit this expressiveness mostly to the eyes and the mouth. As artists, however, we can draw the head to reveal that its personality comes not just from the features but from the character of all its forms, and from how the eyes, the nose and the mouth are sculpturally embedded in the terrain of the whole head.

To help us get past the idea of the face as a kind of flattish mask sitting in front of a vague bulbous form with ears, we need first to accentuate its spatial ins and outs in a diagrammatic drawing. This gives us a chance to really enjoy how much each of us has a particular nose jutting out at a particular angle, a particular setback from our brow to our eyes, a particular mound of muscles surrounding our mouths, particular rolling fields in our cheeks, a particular thrust to our chin and a particular mass in the shape of the back of our head.

I show here a diagrammatic drawing and a more realistic drawing of a model to demonstrate, in a two-step procedure, the possibility of simplifying the forms in a study to prepare us for doing a more naturalistic portrait.

In the first drawing, I have emphasized the steep projection of the sides of the nose from the plane of the cheek and the nose’s angle relative to the slope of the forehead, the deep setback of the eyes from the brow, the angular planes of the cheek moving down to the forward-projecting muscles around the mouth and the strong, jutting chin. Another important aspect of the drawing is that it describes the narrow depth of the back of the head and thus determines the overall proportion of this man’s skull.

As you can see by comparing the two drawings, much of the personality of the man’s head was captured in the basic shapes of the diagrammatic version, even before the more subtle details of the eyes and mouth were added in the second drawing.

Below are four more examples of diagrammatic and realistic head drawings.


The analysis of John’s head became an instinctive part of my observation as I did this oil portrait of him.

For next week’s post I have invited Edward Sorel, Robert Grossman and Tom Bachtell to lead us into another kind of head drawing: the caricature.
James McMullan, New York Times


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The Splendid Spoils of Standard Oil

The Rockefeller family’s vast cultural legacy resulted from a sense of civic duty and a love of beautiful things

In the fanciful 1953 film “Bienvenido Mister Marshall,” director Luis Berlanga envisioned America’s aid to Spain as Santa Claus dropping bags of presents from a gleaming silver airplane. Within the realm of institutional arts funding, the Rockefeller family might be imagined along similar lines, showering untold bounty on the fields of culture. In 2005, for instance, David Rockefeller pledged $100 million to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the largest cash gift in the museum’s history.

Fernand Léger’s ‘Woman With a Book’ (1923), given by Nelson Rockefeller to the Museum of Modern Art; John D. Rockefeller Sr. with his son, John Jr., in 1932.

But as Suzanne Loebl rightly emphasizes in “America’s Medicis,” the Rockefellers’ patronage has been notable not only for its generosity but also for its deliberativeness. By founding such diverse institutions as MoMA, Colonial Williamsburg, the Cloisters, Riverside Church and the Asia Society—as well as by commissioning the distinguished artworks that enliven the office complex at Rockefeller Center—various members of the family have been guided by a perception that a moral responsibility comes with the possession of great wealth.

John D. Rockefeller, Sr. (1839-1937), the founder and chairman of Standard Oil, was routinely vilified in the press as a ruthless monopolist who crushed competition the way a giant might crush a bug. This harsh portrayal was not wholly inaccurate. Senior, as he is called in Ms. Loebl’s book, aggressively maintained an overwhelming market share in most aspects of the petroleum industry. And yet he was not the cold-hearted miser that some supposed. A devout Baptist, he donated substantial sums every year to one or more of the congregations he attended, as well as to associated causes, such as the American Baptist Education Society, which founded the University of Chicago with his support in 1890.

Although Senior was not a significant patron of the arts and generally regarded high culture as a frivolous distraction, he was fond of gardening and garden design, activities that he believed brought him closer, in a small way, to his creator. He personally supervised the plantings at his various residences and took great satisfaction in tending his gardens with his own hands, remarking that this simple pleasure was “unembittered by the recollection of pain or injury inflicted on others, or the loss of moral rectitude.”

In 1911, the U. S. Supreme Court found Standard Oil to be in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act and ordered the breakup of the company. The resulting stock sales and divestitures presented Senior with a cash windfall of unprecedented magnitude. One of his partners, Frederick T. Gates, advised him to formulate a plan for the charitable distribution of this idle capital. “If you do not,” Gates cautioned, “it will crush you and your children and your children’s children.”

This formidable mission of philanthropy was to be the life’s work of John D. Rockefeller Jr. (1874-1960), known in Ms. Loebl’s book as Junior, an earnest man who was prone, especially in his youth, to pangs of self-doubt. During the early years of the 20th century, while he struggled to find his niche in the family business, Junior dutifully taught a weekly Bible class at the Fifth Avenue Baptist Church; in connection with these duties, he penned a speech titled “The Difficulty Inherent in Being the Only Son of a Very Rich Man.”

A contemplative person, Junior enjoyed studying objects of intense craftsmanship and collected polonaise rugs, medieval tapestries and Chinese porcelain. When the porcelain owned by the late J.P. Morgan came up at auction in 1915, Junior was eager to acquire it and sent a letter to his father requesting financial assistance. “I have never squandered money on horses, yachts, automobiles, and other foolish extravagances,” he wrote, acutely aware that his proposal might meet with scorn. “Is it unwise for me to gratify a desire for beautiful things, which will be a constant joy to my friends and my children as they grow to appreciate them, as well as to myself, when it is done in so quiet and unostentatious a manner?”

Whether due to his arguments or the earnest way in which they were stated, Junior received the funds. He would later give most of his porcelain collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which was also the beneficiary of his largess when it created the Cloisters, a reconstructed medieval abbey overlooking the Hudson River where his “Unicorn Tapestries” and other medieval treasures now reside. Riverside Church (1930), although primarily an expression of support for the interfaith movement, stands as a significant architectural achievement in its own right and reflects Junior’s abiding fondness for the Gothic.

Unfortunately, not everyone behaved well in the face of Rockefeller munificence. The Mexican painter Diego Rivera, commissioned to create a sprawling mural for the lobby of Rockefeller Center, chose to deviate from his preparatory drawings and place an enormous portrait of Lenin at the center of the finished composition. Refusing to amend this egregious provocation, Rivera was paid in full for his work, which was then duly destroyed. A predictable uproar ensued, garnering the artist abundant publicity, which may have been his objective all along.

Modern art and Junior were never a good fit. But he raised no objections to his wife, Abby, collecting Modernist pictures, so long as he did not have to look at them. MoMA was her project, founded with two friends, Lillie P. Bliss and Mary Quinn Sullivan. As a daughter of the Rhode Island millionaire Nelson Aldrich, Abby possessed significant funds of her own with which to support the fledgling institution, but it also received direct help from Junior through a lenient lease on Rockefeller real estate.

Two of the couple’s sons, Nelson and David, took a passionate interest in MoMA. The brothers formed their own collections of modern art, most of which have since been given to the museum. Ms. Loebl, although generous, for the most part, in her assessment of personalities, draws a mixed picture of Nelson Rockefeller, whom she portrays as rather narcissistic. His grandiose effort, as governor of New York, to remake Albany with the Empire State Mall (a financial boon doggle) confirms this assessment to some degree. But his decision to endow the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s primitive-art wing in memory of his son Michael, who died on an archaeological expedition to Africa, was a poignant and creditable gesture.

Ms. Loebl’s account is well grounded both in the existing literature and in original archival research. She has striven to be comprehensive and done a good job of incorporating lesser-known Rockefeller projects, for example the charming Wendell Gilley Museum of carved birds, in Maine, funded by Nelson’s son Steven. But several worthy undertakings, such as Junior’s restoration of the châteaux of Versailles and Fontainebleau, receive scant attention—as do Laurance Rockefeller’s extensive gifts for the purpose of creating and expanding our national parks. Organizationally, the book proceeds more by topics and subtopics than by thematic development, leaving the narrative at times somewhat dry. Still, this is an illuminating and impressive portrait of the Rockefellers’ vast cultural legacy, and it is perhaps simply the case that the family’s gifts are too great to be easily assessed.

Mr. Lopez is editor-at-large of Art & Antiques and the author of “The Man Who Made Vermeers: Unvarnishing the Legend of Master Forger Han van Meegeren.”

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More Than Moodiness

It was an ordeal that helped shape the dominant view of one of the richest periods in cinema. In 1933 Siegfried Kracauer and his wife fled Germany, and in 1941, after harrowing efforts to escape France, they arrived in New York. That’s where the Museum of Modern Art’s first film curator, Iris Barry, found Kracauer a position at the museum. There, working from memory and films Barry had collected, he wrote “From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film” (1947), an urgent text that built on work he had done as a critic in Berlin, examining the madmen, ghouls, evil masterminds and other dark visions in certain Weimar-era films as harbingers of Nazi brutality. Kracauer’s compelling thesis neglected more effervescent and popular fare, but recent scholarship and newly restored films are painting a more nuanced picture.

A scene from ‘Viktor und Viktoria’ (1933), source for the 1982 Hollywood remake, ‘Victor Victoria’.

Beginning Wednesday, MoMA’s “Weimar Cinema, 1919–1933: Daydreams and Nightmares”—a four-month-long series including 75 feature films and six shorts, accompanied by an exhibition of posters, stills and studio presentation books—will unspool a wealth of little-seen material. It is being presented in cooperation with the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung in Wiesbaden, Germany, and Berlin’s Deutsche Kinemathek. Laurence Kardish, senior curator in MoMA’s film department, who organized the film portion with Eva Orbanz of the Deutsche Kinemathek, began thinking about it at least a decade ago. “There were about 3,000 films made during this period in Germany, many of which were deeply influential on American cinema,” he says, “and I realized that we only knew a small number of these films.” Although it includes a sampling of moodily expressive canonical works, such as Robert Wiene’s “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (“Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari,” 1920), F. W. Murnau’s “Nosferatu. Eine Symphonie des Grauens” (Nosferatu the Vampire, 1922) and Fritz Lang’s “M” (1931), the retrospective emphasizes Weimar cinema’s forgotten history.

“I thought that I would like to give a more comprehensive view of Weimar cinema than Kracauer’s,” Mr. Kardish says. “As good and as strong as his view is, it’s not comprehensive. But I had to wait.” Like the many film professionals who went into exile after the rise of Nazism, Weimar films themselves were scattered by the turmoil that swept Germany. After the Nazis came to power, they banned or censored movies, and at the end of World War II the Soviets plundered many German films for their own archives. Later, some were returned to East Germany, but Mr. Kardish says it wasn’t until reunification that they “represented an undivided nation.”

Some works have taken a more mysterious path. One highlight, “Into the Blue” (“Ins Blaue hinein,” 1931), an exuberant short with avant-garde camerawork thought to be the only film directed by the cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan (who developed a groundbreaking special-effects process and shot films for Robert Siodmak, Marcel Carné and others), recently surfaced in France.

Others probably still await rediscovery, but the retrospective promises plenty of revelations. “Looking for His Murderer” (“Der Mann, der seinen Mörder sucht,” 1931), for example, is a Siodmak film featuring a script co-written by Billy (then Billie) Wilder, who penned screenplays in Germany but didn’t direct until he arrived in Hollywood. Although it’s screening in the only extant version, which has been shortened, Mr. Kardish describes it as “really quite a marvelous, crazy comedy that opens with an attempted suicide, and apparently in 1931 it didn’t have to be explained to a German audience why someone would be committing suicide.” Kurt Bernhardt’s “Three Loves” (“Die Frau, nach der man sich sehnt,” 1929) stars a fresh-faced, coolly erotic Marlene Dietrich before her appearance in Josef von Sternberg’s “The Blue Angel” (“Der blaue Engel,” 1930), long thought to be her first lead role.

‘Three Loves’ (‘Die Frau, nach der man sich sehnt,’ 1929).

Some directors are virtually unknown today. Alexis Granowsky, the founder of the Moscow State Jewish Theater, made the poetic and experimental, but heavily censored, “The Song of Life” (“Das Lied vom Leben,” 1931) and the more conventional fable “The Trunks of Mr. O.F.” (“Die Koffer des Herrn O.F. Ein Märchen für Erwachsene,” 1931). Marie Harder, one of the rare female filmmakers of the period, directed “Lohnbuchhalter Kremke” (1930), a realistic story about economic hardship and unemployment.

Kracauer was especially contemptuous of the frothy comedies and musicals that ignored the looming disaster of fascism. These sometimes featured characters facing financial strain, as in “A Blonde Dream” (“Ein blonder Traum,” 1932), in which two window washers pursue a girl who fantasizes about becoming a Hollywood actress. In Ludwig Berger’s winsome “Early to Bed” (“Ich bei Tag und Du bei Nacht,” 1932), a young man and woman working different shifts share a bed in a rooming house, and eventually a romance that is cleverly contrasted with the unattainable dreams of the cinema.

Numerous comedies also incorporated cross-dressing as a lively theme. Mr. Kardish cites as personal favorites the work of two once-popular comedians: Reinhold Schünzel, who acted in, produced and co-wrote the screenplay for “Heaven on Earth” (“Der Himmel auf Erden,” 1927), about drag, nightclubs and Prohibition, and later directed “Viktor und Viktoria” (1933), which was remade in Hollywood; and Curt Bois, who appeared in “The Masked Mannequin” (“Der Fürst von Pappenheim,” 1927).

The series also traces the effects of a dramatic shift midway through this fertile period. Mr. Kardish says, “Sound came in and for a while circumscribed the visual expressiveness of film—only to a certain extent, because there are some early musicals that are absolutely astonishing in their fluidity—so this show is also an investigation of how sound came to cinema, and the strategies various filmmakers used.” Because the films have been restored in their original German-language versions, the museum will be presenting them with simultaneous translation or electronic subtitles.

Yet another fascinating aspect of Weimar cinema the series sheds light on is the close relationship between the U.S. and German film industries during the period. A surprising number opened stateside and were even reviewed in American newspapers. German talent, of course, also worked in Hollywood before and after 1933. MoMA played a significant role by collecting Weimar cinema early on and supporting Kracauer’s research. From the dark stylization of noir to elegant musicals and sophisticated comedies, Hollywood cinema was incalculably enriched by the exchange.

Ms. Jones is an arts writer living in New York.


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The All-American Confidence Man

The gifted grifter who inspired Damon Runyon’s Sky Masterson was a fake from start to finish

Nearly everythingabout Titanic Thompson was fake. The bottlecap that he would bet you he could toss the length of a city block had a quarter nestled inside, which he’d put there while you weren’t looking. The caddie with whom he reckoned he could beat you and your partner was actually a regular on the PGA tour. Even his name was fake: The “Titanic” moniker earned in a bet, the surname a botch by reporters after he was connected to the murder of the man who fixed the 1919 World Series.

Here are the facts. Alvin Thomas was born in 1892 in the Arkansas backwoods, son of an alcoholic card cheat who abandoned him in the cradle. By the time he died, 82 years later, he had won and lost many millions of dollars as a gambler, bedded Myrna Loy and Jean Harlow, conned Al Capone, killed five men, spent years hustling pool with Minnesota Fats, and become the inspiration for the gambler hero of “Guys and Dolls.”

Master of the proposition bet—an art in which a hustler wagers that he can do something impossible, then does it—Thompson would as soon try you on for a dollar as for a hundred thousand. This was a man who would bet that he could throw a watermelon onto the roof of a building, then take an elevator to the top of a neighboring one and pitch it across, so satisfying his terms. His line—a variant on the classic grifter’s explanation that you can’t work an honest man—was simple: “Nobody ever got hustled who didn’t ask for it one way or another.”

What separated Thompson from his rivals was that he was a pure athlete as well as a pure con. Kevin Cook, a former Sports Illustrated editor, argues that Thompson was the equal of any golfer of his day—the last of the greats for whom tournament pay was just too low to be worth the effort. Thompson was also an expert marksman and world-class in horseshoes, coin-pitching, and card-flipping. He was just a cut below that at pool and poker. Thompson had the athlete’s capacity for learning by repetition, which served him well as he learned odds by dealing himself an untold number of hands of cards in hotel rooms.

Curiously, though—and Mr. Cook’s failure to really account for this is the main flaw in his highly enjoyable biography of the man—Thompson wasn’t a very interesting personality. A sort of elemental force, he seems to have cared about nothing other than rooking marks and keeping the company of teenage girls. This makes it difficult, in the end, to care about Thompson’s life quite the way Mr. Cook would like us to.

Soon after Thompson left home, at 16, he joined a traveling medicine show and began to amass the limitless arsenal of tricks with which he would later bilk suckers. The young grifter’s early travels took him all over the resort towns and bustling cities of the South and Midwest, where he earned his nickname. (“He sinks everybody,” one of his marks explained.) Thompson met his second wife and true love in Pittsburgh; she picked his pocket as he got off the train.

Eventually Thompson made his way to Chicago, where he traded secrets with Harry Houdini and took Al Capone for $500 by tossing a lemon weighted with buckshot onto the roof of a hotel. He then did a brief stint in California, learning the fine points of golf and winning the modern equivalent of millions playing poker. Along the way Thompson learned, several times over, that shooting a man who tried to rob your takings was surprisingly unlikely to rouse the ire of local law enforcement.

The only stage truly worthy of a man willing to make a chump of Scarface was, of course, New York City. Thompson was in his glory there in the 1920s, winning bets on anything you could put a dollar to and losing the takings at the track. A regular at the Times Square hangout Lindy’s, he ingratiated himself into the inner circle of Arnold Rothstein, the gambling kingpin who had bought the Black Sox.

This was the Thompson who inspired Runyon to write the story of Sky Masterson, his great and enduring fraud. And there you have the essential arc of an American life: An act of self-invention carrying an illiterate teenager out of the old, weird Ozarks to become famous on Broadway.

For a hustler, though, obscurity can be a good thing, and Thompson gained unfortunate notoriety after he rigged a card game so that Rothstein lost a half-million dollars he didn’t have. Not long after, Rothstein was shot, apparently by a goon in the employ of the gambler who had hosted the game. Thompson was called as a witness at the trial, and the ensuing newspaper coverage earned him both his new last name and an infamy he was never quite able to shake.

For decades to come, Thompson continued to make and lose stakes, marry teenagers and divorce them as soon as he impregnated them, and refine a dizzying number of scams. As Mr. Cook would have it, these were years in which a great hustler settled into a well-earned status as a legend. He was paid to lend prestige, for instance, to the inaugural World Series of Poker in 1970. As the years passed, though, he was reduced to openly cheating legendary card sharps like Texas Dolly Brunson. They let him get away with it—he was, after all, Titanic Thompson.

Early on, Mr. Cook draws a link between his subject and another fabled American grifter, William Thompson, who inspired Herman Melville’s “The Confidence Man.” More than anything else, Titanic Thompson seems a figure out of that book, a Satanic void in whom a pure love of the grift destroyed any trace of human feeling. In this way, too, he resembles a high-performing athlete—Michael Jordan, say, or Tiger Woods—for whom the need for victory by any means is so consuming that he can fail to enjoy or even notice an extraordinary life happening around him.

Mr. Cook argues that Titanic Thompson’s decline came about because “America changed and there was no more room for such a man.” This isn’t strictly true, as the NBA, Las Vegas and certain brokerage firms remind us. To the extent that it is true, though, it is not necessarily cause for nostalgia. An America that could produce a man like Titanic Thompson had nothing to be proud of.

Tim Marchman, Wall Street Journal


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Why I Mourn the Decline of Whistling

On the one hand it was a declaration of liberty, on the other it was a kind of mating call.

One night during World War II, on leave in London, I penetrated the blackout to see a show at the London Hippodrome called “The Lisbon Story.” I forget what it was about, I forget who was in it, but I still have at the back of my mind its theme tune, which was called “Pedro the Fisherman.”

This is because I have always been fond of whistling, and “Pedro the Fisherman” is the quintessential whistling song—jaunty, catchy, with a touch of the sentimental and an un-obliteratable melody. I like to think that it also expresses the generic character of people who like to whistle, and although I know it can sometimes be intolerable to have a habitual siffleur in the family, forever performing “Pedro the Fisherman,” I still mourn the decline of the whistlers.

For they are almost a vanished breed these days, and with them has gone a manner of public thought and conduct. Something cocky has left society. The whistling errand boy, the whistling postman, the whistling housewife in her flowered apron, Pedro himself, all were expressing in their often discordant music something at once communal and defiant.

On the one hand it was a declaration of liberty, on the other it was a kind of mating call, inviting anybody of like mind to share in its attitudes. By and large whistlers didn’t give a damn, and if whistling was a cock of the snook at respectability, decorum, and frequently musical good taste, it was also fundamentally honest. You might be maddened by the sound of it, but at least you knew you could trust a whistler.

I don’t know when whistling started, primevally I imagine, but all down the generations the practice has helped to ease the passage of the nations. Think of the marching armies, whistling their way to war; the illicit lovers, whistling home the morning after; the errant schoolboys, whistling up their bravado as they make for the headmaster’s study.

Whistling not only cheers up the whistler, it invites the world at large to cheer up too. One of the great whistling songs of all times, employed by multitudes during World War I, had the lyric “Pack up your troubles in your old kit-bag and smile, smile, smile!” In our own troubled times the tune is worth whistling again.

Sometimes the practice of whistling is indeed resuscitated. For a few months after the release of “Bridge Over the River Kwai” in 1957, half the world was whistling the British Army’s “Colonel Bogey” song (minus its merrily obscene lyrics), and in 2006 the Swedish trio Peter Bjorn and John did the same with their “Young Folks” melody, which brought whistling high into the charts.

But it was not the same. It was whistling, so to speak, to order. It did not spring from the public heart. It contained neither the fine careless rapture, nor the spirit of independence, that comes from random whistlings in the street, like roosters’ bold calls in the morning.

Perhaps it takes either joyous success or optimism in adversity, to set the nations whistling again. Our world today is in limbo-time, injury-time maybe. Popular music has mostly abandoned the melodic line, and when I myself need a shot of the old exhilaration I often return to the end of Pedro’s song (music by Harry Parr Davies, lyrics by Harold Purcell), which has the fisherman merrily whistling his way to sea with his love in his arms.

The tune goes like this—but no, dear friends, even in the present state of technology you must imagine my lyrical whistle for yourselves.

Ms. Morris is a writer in Wales.


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Mysteries Carved in Stone

The name “Olmec” (or “rubber people”) was given to the oldest-known culture in the Americas almost 2,000 years after that culture had disappeared, and was accepted by scholars only in 1932. We have no idea what these people of what is now eastern Mexico, just inland from the Gulf at its southernmost point, called themselves. In fact, we know almost nothing about them, except that they seem to have endured from about 2,000 to 400 B.C.

What we do know, or think we know, comes almost entirely from the carved stone monuments and other artifacts that outlived them underground, because stone does not rot. The first—one of those colossal heads for which the Olmec are famous—was found by a Mexican farmer in 1850 and made known to the world in 1869. Not until 1942 was it publicly asserted that the Olmec was the “mother culture” of Mesoamerica (i.e., Mexico plus Central America).

Seventeen huge heads (c. 1400-1000 B.C.) have been discovered so far, in four sites within a 90-mile range, measuring from just under five feet to just over 11 feet tall and weighing (it is estimated) as much as 50 tons. One archaeologist has figured that it took 1,500 people three or four months to move an apppropriate boulder from its source in the mountains to its designated location. With presumably less effort, two of the smaller heads were hauled up from their homeland to Los Angeles, where they are the stars of the first major museum exhibition outside of Mexico devoted to the “people of Olman” and their art.

Olmec head, 1200-900 B.C

The two great heads are set up at the front and the back of the light-filled central space of the new Resnick Pavilion at LACMA, atop brown cubistic concrete platforms designed by Michael Heizer—who knows something about colossal sculpture. Although the curators claim to discern individual features in each of the heads, suggesting that each represents a different ruler, I see an obsessive urge in the Olmec sculptors to make each one alike—a bullet-shaped mound, topped by a tight cap, beneath which flaring brows; huge popping, lidded eyes; a squashed nose; and fat, down-drooping lips convey an image at once all-powerful and either snarling or sad. All sorts of things (including jaguars and African origins) have been read into these features. But they may represent nothing more than a simple way to create a human face by grinding stone against stone, creating features related to those of Mexican Indians today.

Large, deeply carved rectangular basalt blocks, long thought to be altars, are now regarded as thrones. Another impressive set of stone carvings represents creatures sitting cross-legged, resting their hands before them. Some wear loincloths, some elaborate headdresses. What they represent, I have no idea—but I find myself staring at them as they stare back at me, across 3,000 years. You will find the same loincloths (along with leather helmets and the shoulder, hip and knee pads of modern football players) on figures representing ball players as well. For some reason, a kind of hip-hit volleyball (without a net) became an important ritual entertainment throughout Mexico in ancient times. The exhibition includes one of a number of solid rubber balls found in a swamp. They could be the size of a volleyball but 15 times heavier—hence the protective pads.

Glass cases are filled with carved stone masks and small figurines (usually tomb finds), carefully carved in minerals like jadeite and greenstone, as well as dozens of elongated ovoid polished ritual axes called “celts” (bloodletting was practiced, but not with these), as meticulously positioned in the cases as they were in the tombs.

This sunwashed show—which leaves welcome space between exhibits and extends into two side wings at the north—is enhanced by two colorful wall murals, in which contemporary artists have tried to reconstruct, in bright colors and enlarged dimensions, two long-faded cave paintings with Olmec motifs from elsewhere in Mexico.

If I had to chose a single exhibit to convey the mystery and power of this exhibition, it would be a group of 15 bald, high-headed jadeite and serpentine male figurines seven inches tall, all facing a leader-spokesman made of granite—one thinks of Christ and his apostles—who stands against a fence made of six 10-inch-long celts carved of serpentine. The wonder is that, once created and positioned, this whole group was carefully buried beneath many layers of multicolored sand at La Venta, sometime between 900 and 400 B.C. Sometime later, it was uncovered and covered up again. In 1955, it was once again unearthed, and put on display in Mexico City. As with almost all Olmec art, no one has any idea what it means. But the 15 disciples still surround and attend to their leader, after 2,500 or 3,000 years.

Mr. Littlejohn writes about West Coast events for the Journal.


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Gossart’s Journey

The Metropolitan Museum’s magisterial retrospective of Jan Gossart is the sort of exhibition that, one often hears, will surely be the last of its kind. Insurance has become too expensive (the theory goes), transport too perilous, and major institutions too leery of lending their wares. I first heard this claim with regard to MoMA’s great Cézanne exhibition back in the late 1970s, and quite possibly it was old even then. Today it is received wisdom everywhere except, it seems, at the Met, whose curators continue to mount definitive, large-scale exhibitions, with little evidence that they intend to stop.

As good as Gossart is—and he can be extremely good—this Flemish painter is rather an odd choice for the full-dress treatment he has now received. Usually, when an old master is anointed with an exhibition, either he is a household name, like Caravaggio or Poussin, or the show itself is a smaller affair that accords with the more moderated interest—to put it politely—that the general public is apt to bring to a less- renowned artist of a bygone age. But although Gossart (c. 1478-1532) is highly regarded by people with a professional interest in the field, he is largely unknown beyond their restricted circle. So it is remarkable that the organizer of the show, Maryan W. Ainsworth, curator of European paintings, has succeeded in rustling up 50 of Gossart’s 63 surviving panel paintings, not to mention dozens of his drawings and engravings, as well as several dozen more works by such forebears and contemporaries as Jan van Eyck, Gerard David and Hans Baldung Grien. In addition, many of the paintings have been freshly cleaned and restored for this exhibition, thus unearthing layers of refinement that have not been visible in centuries.

Often known as Jan Mabuse, from the French spelling of the town (Maubeuge) where he was born, Gossart began as an Early Netherlandish painter and ended as a Flemish Mannerist. That is to say that his earliest works, produced under the tutelage of the great Bruges master Gerard David, reach back deep into the 15th century in their stiffly ceremonious religiosity. But when Gossart departed for Rome in 1508 in the retinue of his patron, Philip of Burgundy, his art underwent a radical transformation: It would revolutionize painting in Northern Europe by introducing into those parts the exuberantly corporeal classicism of Italy.

‘Hercules and Deianira’ (1517) by Jan Gossart.

Therein lies the general thrust of Gossart’s career: But in fact there is no tidy arc of development in his work. A half-dozen styles constantly jostle one another, sometimes within the same painting. The late medievalism of his earliest panels, created in the workshop of Gerard David, recurs in one of his latest, the van Eyck- inspired Prado “Deësis” of about 1530. At the same time, he can be seduced at any moment by the sinuous lines and vibrant hues of the Antwerp Mannerists. Though his portraiture exhibits the unflinching realism of Hans Holbein, certain mythological pieces are as idealized as any Italian painting of his day. Corresponding to Gossart’s shifting styles are shifting moods, by turns pious and profane, sober and very nearly pornographic.

For, of all the lessons that Gossart learned in Italy and transmitted to his Northern contemporaries, one of the most important was the artistic exploitation of nudity. Surely there had been depictions of naked figures in earlier Netherlandish art, but they tended to look distinctly uncomfortable, perhaps because, more often than not, they were burning in hell as emblems of lust and lasciviousness. Gossart does not always conquer that older sense of alienation and awkwardness in his often life-size depictions of Adam and Eve and of Hercules and Deianira: There is an oddly improvised quality to these depictions of the human form, as though the artist were painting from memory or from theory, rather than from observing actual humans. At least one of his paintings, however, the “Danae” from Munich’s Altepinacotek (unfortunately not in the Met exhibition) is among the most effectively erotic works to come out of Northern Europe in the 16th century.

Perhaps there is no province of painting in which Gossart displayed more conspicuous mastery than portraiture. Here, without doubt, he achieved the grand manner. In depictions of Anna van Bergen, of a sitter who may be Charles of Burgundy, and of Jean Carondolet and his wife, Gossart’s mastery and variety of surface detail are rivaled only by the skill with which he combines the dignities of rank with a piercing psychological penetration. But there is also chromatic cunning at work here, in the turquoise sky behind van Bergen, or the pale cape that dominates the depiction of Charles of Burgundy.

Not the least of Gossart’s excellences is his inventiveness in contriving the fanciful architectural backdrops for both his Christian subjects and his pagan mythologies. As with his nude figures, these architectural vistas are Italianate in inspiration and can often be directly linked to what he saw in Rome. And like the nudes, it should be said, they often miss the point of their Italian sources: Impossibly spindly columns and pilasters atop richly carved architraves read like the fever dream of a Mannerist architect.

But, then, at the defining moment, their essence changes before our eyes. At their most flamboyantly classical, they seem to be most flamboyantly Gothic in spirit if not in formal vocabulary. Like all the other Northern artists of his time who were allured by the spirit of the South, Gossart had little real understanding of the pure classicism of the Florentine Renaissance, whether in architecture or in painting. But Mannerism was a different thing. Coming after classicism, it was able to conquer the North because, in its extravagant elasticities of form, it recalled something essential in the late Gothic style that had preceded classicism. And Jan Gossart was one of the critical links by which those two great, trans-European movements were destined to be joined.

Mr. Gardner is a critic based in New York.


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‘The Fighter’: Why Movies and Boxing Go Together

It’s a little surprising that Mark Wahlberg hasn’t made a boxing movie until now. He’s one of those celebrities you always see at ringside during the big TV boxing matches. His forte is playing humble, gutsy tough guys. As a former bodybuilder and underwear model, he’s never been shy about displaying his physique on camera. Now, at last, he’s moved from briefs to boxers.

Mark Wahlberg as boxer Micky Ward lands a right on Alfonso Sanchez (Miguel Espino) in ‘The Fighter.

“I’ve always wanted to be a fighter,” he admits. “I’ve always wanted to pretend that I was the champ. I got to play a football player in a movie, all these childhood fantasies….” He could add: rock star, soldier, cop, hit man and porn star.

It’s a little surprising, actually, that every filmmaker hasn’t made a boxing movie. As a subject, the sport delivers everything: It’s a shadowy world of heroes, losers and crooks. It’s a metaphor for life (as Rocky Balboa once said, “It ain’t how hard you hit, it’s how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward”). And when the characters are done talking, you don’t need to contrive a reason to show bloody fight scenes.

“The Fighter,” in which David O. Russell directs Mr. Wahlberg and Christian Bale, is generous with the ingredients that have made fight flicks such a staple: sidetracked dreams, loyalty and betrayal, blood and guts, blue-collar humor and a dramatic shot at redemption (in this case a double shot).

Mr. Wahlberg and Mr. Bale play real-life half-brothers “Irish” Micky Ward and Dicky Eklund in the mill town of Lowell, Mass. Mr. Eklund, older and more skilled, peaked in 1978 when, in his biggest fight, he appeared to have knocked down superstar Sugar Ray Leonard (but Mr. Leonard actually tripped).

As the film begins, Mr. Eklund is a crack addict, still boasting of how he floored Sugar Ray. Micky Ward (Mr. Wahlberg) is working for a road paving company. His own boxing career, built on guts more than virtuoso talent, is fizzling. His idol Dicky supposedly is training him but instead starts a brawl with cops that gets them both arrested. With Dicky in prison, Micky begins winning under a new trainer. After much turmoil, a climactic underdog fight ensues.

Mr. Wahlberg was determined to make a boxing movie, and getting this one done became a personal crusade. He kept the project alive for years as different collaborators drifted in and out. He’d been all set in 1997 to co-star with Robert De Niro in a biopic about a different New England fighter, Vinnie Curto, but financing fell through. He’d tried for years to get the rights to Micky and Dicky’s story, but the brothers has already sold the rights, possibly multiple times, he says, “to whoever would give them some money.” Finally a Paramount producer sent Mr. Wahlberg a script with the rights cleared, and a new journey began.

Convinced he needed to look like a boxer who legitimately could fight for a welterweight title, he built a boxing ring in his yard and never stopped training. “I started training on October 13, 2005,” Mr. Wahlberg says. “You wouldn’t have thought it would be that difficult to get this movie made.”

Darren Aronofsky, the director originally attached to the film, went off to make “The Wrestler” instead. Both Brad Pitt and Matt Damon were lined up at different times to play Mr. Eklund, but moved on.

“Everybody else was just, like, ‘Whatever.’ And I was, like, ‘No, not whatever. We gotta get this movie made.’ I figured the only way to get it done was to take it on myself.”

He took the project to production company Relativity Media, which agreed to make the film for a low budget of about $25 million. Now he needed someone to play his brother. “We were literally going down the line of who’s going to have a hot movie…. At one point they were gonna hire the guy from Harry Potter to play Dicky Eklund,” Mr. Wahlberg says. “And then I’m sitting there in my daughter’s school and I see Christian Bale [whose daughter was at the same school], and I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God, this could be the guy.’ ”

As Micky Ward, Mr. Wahlberg takes a role that’s a bit of a straight man to the wired, wiry Mr. Eklund, whom Mr. Bale lost 30 pounds to portray. Mr. Wahlberg says his own life story, actually, is closer to Dicky’s. He began using drugs as a teenager in Boston, assaulted people and was incarcerated.

“I had more fights than I had boxing experience,” Mr. Wahlberg says.

He bonded with the real Mr. Ward, though, and not just because the perseverance he summoned to produce the film reminded him of Mr. Ward’s ring career. Both men had older brothers who had become successful (Mark’s brother Donnie sang in the boy group New Kids on the Block). Both went on to surpass their brothers’ fame.

“Me and Micky have this unspoken thing, this connection,” Mr. Wahlberg says.

The filmmakers filmed on location in Lowell, using local residents and the same boxing gym where Micky and Dicky trained. They gave the fight scenes a verité look by making them TV-style. Mr. Wahlberg has a bit of pull at HBO: He was the inspiration for the show “Entourage” and is an executive producer. The film’s crew was able to shoot fight scenes using the same video cameras HBO used to telecast boxing in 1990. Mr. Wahlberg is proud of how he looks in the ring. His training included time with Mr. Ward, mastering Micky’s signature, gut-busting left hook to the body.

“Mark throws that hook very well,” says Mr. Russell. “It’s a very particular punch that Micky was always doing to him, and he was always doing to Micky. They were always trying to get each other with that punch.”

Mr. Wahlberg says he’s managed to get his licks in: “Last time I saw him, we were at an event, on the red carpet, and he was just messing around, he threw a little punch at me. So I threw the same punch at him, and I could tell I got him in the sweet spot.”

Don Steinberg’s latest book is “America Bowl: 44 Presidents vs. 44 Super Bowls in the Ultimate Matchup!”


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No You Can’t

Is genius a simple matter of hard work? Not a chance

What do you think of when you hear the word “genius”? Most of us, I suspect, picture a fellow in a white coat who squints into a microscope, twiddles a knob, and says, “Eureka! I’ve found the cure for cancer!” More often than not, though, scientific and creative discoveries are the result not of bolts of mental lightning but of long stretches of painfully hard slogging. This unromantic reality is the subject of “Sudden Genius?: The Gradual Path to Creative Breakthroughs,” a new book in which the British biographer Andrew Robinson examines key moments in the lives of such giants as Marie Curie, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein and Leonardo da Vinci. The conclusion that he draws from their experience is that creative genius is “the work of human grit, not the product of superhuman grace.” Along the way, Mr. Robinson also takes time out to consider one of the most fashionable modern-day theories of genius—and finds it wanting.

A painting of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart at age 13.

The theory is known in England as “the 10-year rule” and in the U.S., where it has been popularized by Malcolm Gladwell, the author of “Outliers,” as “the 10,000-hour rule.” The premise is the same: To become successful at anything, you must spend 10 years working at it for 20 hours each week. Do so, however, and success is all but inevitable. You don’t have to be a genius—in fact, there’s no such thing.

K. Anders Ericsson, the psychologist who is widely credited with having formulated the 10,000-hour rule, says in “The Making of an Expert,” a 2007 article summarizing his research, that “experts are always made, not born.” He discounts the role played by innate talent, citing Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as an example: “Nobody questions that Mozart’s achievements were extraordinary. . . . What’s often forgotten, however, is that his development was equally exceptional for his time. His musical tutelage started before he was four years old, and his father, also a skilled composer, was a famous music teacher and had written one of the first books on violin instruction. Like other world-class performers, Mozart was not born an expert—he became one.”

An undated photo of Charlie Parker

It’s easy to see why the Ericsson-Gladwell view of genius as a form of skill-based expertise has become so popular, for it meshes neatly with today’s egalitarian notions of human potential. Moreover, there is much evidence for the validity—up to a point—of the 10,000-hour rule. My own favorite example is that of Charlie Parker, the father of bebop. As a teenager, he embarrassed himself by sitting in at Kansas City jam sessions before he had fully mastered the alto saxophone, thereby acquiring a citywide reputation for incompetence. In 1937 the humiliation overwhelmed him, and he took a summer job at a Missouri resort and began practicing in earnest for the first time in his life. Eight years later, he had metamorphosed into the glittering virtuoso who teamed up with Dizzy Gillespie to record “Ko-Ko,” “Groovin’ High” and “Salt Peanuts,” thereby writing himself into the history of jazz.

The problem with the 10,000-hour rule is that many of its most ardent proponents are political ideologues who see the existence of genius as an affront to their vision of human equality, and will do anything to explain it away. They have a lot of explaining to do, starting with the case of Mozart. As Mr. Robinson points out, Nannerl, Mozart’s older sister, was a gifted pianist who received the same intensive training as her better-known brother, yet she failed to develop as a composer. What stopped her? The simplest explanation is also the most persuasive one: He had something to say and she didn’t. Or, to put it even more bluntly, he was a genius and she wasn’t.

13-year-old Bobby Fischer in 1956.

To his credit, Mr. Robinson unequivocally rejects what he calls “the anti-elitist Zeitgeist.” At the same time, he believes that while “genius is not a myth,” it is merely an enabling condition that can be brought to fruition only through hard and focused work. This seems to me to strike the right balance—yet it still fails to account for the impenetrable mystery that enshrouds such birds of paradise as Bobby Fischer, who started playing chess at the age of 6. Nine years later, he became the U.S. chess champion. His explanation? “All of a sudden I got good.”

Anyone who thinks himself capable of similar achievements would do well to heed the tart counsel of H.L. Mencken: “Is it hot in the rolling-mill? Are the hours long? Is $1.15 a day not enough? Then escape is very easy. Simply throw up your job, spit on your hands, and write another ‘Rosenkavalier.'” Even if you don’t care for Richard Strauss’s most popular opera, you get the idea. Disbelievers in genius are hereby invited to prove their point by sitting down and creating an equally great work of art. You have until 2020 to comply. Any takers?

Mr. Teachout, the Journal’s drama critic, writes “Sightings” every other Friday.


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One Writer’s Impassioned Journey

The work stands between the heyday of prose poetry in late 19th-century France and the form’s resurgence in the 1980s.

The term “sui generis” is used so often that its impact has been diminished. But some artworks truly are in a class of their own, towering over other examples of the same form even as they seem to have been created in a vacuum, without regard for past precedents.

One that truly deserves this designation is “By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept,” Elizabeth Smart’s 1945 prose poem account of her 18-year-long—but doomed—love affair with fellow poet George Barker. In little more than 100 pages, through deeply poetic language, Ms. Smart describes her ecstatic feelings with the religious fervor of one having been reborn. Images of hearts “eaten by doves,” birds who “rebuild their continually violated nests” and redwoods as playground for clandestine trysts abound in the narrative, their metaphorical nature ringing true because Ms. Smart set these phrases down in the midst of passion’s heights, not the cool calm of one looking back. Her words tremble with true, timeless longing and the humdrum details of contemporary life, a tone established in the opening sentence, which describes her anticipation at meeting Mr. Barker for the first time—”I am standing on a corner in Monterey, waiting for the bus to come in, and all the muscles of my will are holding my terror to face the moment I most desire”—and carried through to the poem’s final line.

Ms. Smart first fell in love not with her beloved’s corporeal form, but with his work, which she first stumbled across in a London bookshop. For years Ms. Smart declared to any willing listener that she meant to marry Mr. Barker, a once-renowned, now largely forgotten T.S. Eliot protégé. In 1941 she made good on her vow, flying Mr. Barker and his wife to California from Japan on her own dime so she could meet him and begin the affair. She had posed as a manuscript collector, struck up a correspondence, and Mr. Barker, working as an English teacher and worried he might be conscripted if he returned to Britain, saw the possibility of adventure.

Their affair began immediately, neither of them caring about his marital status. To call their union, which produced four illegitimate children, tempestuous, is an understatement. But as Ms. Smart’s second son, Christopher, wrote in 2006, “through all [Mr. Barker’s] other affairs, his outrageous behaviour, their spectacular rows, he remained a Christ-like figure to her.” Ms. Smart had molded her romantic life according to literary obsession and was prepared to live by it.

“Grand Central” stands between the heyday of prose poetry in late 19th-century France and the form’s resurgence in the 1980s. Thanks in part to descriptions such as “Under the waterfall he surprised me bathing and gave me what I could no more refuse than the earth can refuse the rain” and declamations such as “My darling, my darling, lie down with us now for you also are earth whom nothing but love can sow,” its title and imagery evoke biblical texts such as the 137th Psalm and the Song of Songs.

Amid Ms. Smart’s otherworldly, religiously tinged inhabitation of newfound romantic love, “Grand Central” stays rooted in the real. (“But what can the woodsorrel and the mourning-dove, who deal only with eternals, know of the thorny sociabilities of human living?”) This attitude comes across with considerable dark humor when Ms. Smart juxtaposes her consuming thoughts of Mr. Barker against the clinical questions asked of them by customs agents: “When did intercourse first take place? (The king hath brought me to the banqueting house and his banner over me was love.)”

Ms. Smart (1913-1986) is an unlikely author of one of the 20th century’s greatest examinations of love in all its impossible, unconditional glory. She was born to a privileged family in Ottawa, spent her twenties traveling the world on behalf of a women’s group, and in middle age worked as an editor and an advertising copywriter.

Despite social status and parental connections, Ms. Smart never came to terms with her advantages, alternately conforming to authority and disdaining it. She raised her four children by Mr. Barker as a single mother, never settling into a long-term monogamous relationship. (Mr. Barker, who remained married throughout the affair, eventually fathered a total of 15 children with several women.)

Like her life, Ms. Smart’s literary output was prone to fits and starts. More than three decades passed before she produced her next work, “The Assumption of the Rogues & Rascals,” a 1977 novel. It spurred a late-in-life burst of published work, from poetry (“A Bonus,” also 1977) to essays (“In the Meantime,” 1984) to journals (“Necessary Secrets” in 1986 and “On the Side of the Angels” in 1994).

Perhaps it was the early fate of “Grand Central” that accounted for Ms. Smart’s fractured career. Its first edition numbered just 2,000 copies, many of them bought up and burned by Ms. Smart’s mother, who pulled strings to have the book banned in Canada. As a result, it and its author remained obscure. Ms. Smart would not receive proper recognition until 1966, when the British publisher Panther Books reissued it. In the introduction, novelist Brigid Brophy states her conviction that “Grand Central” stands as one of the no “more than half a dozen masterpieces of poetic prose in the world.”

Its reputation as a paragon of poetic prose is a delicious irony. T.S. Eliot, her lover’s patron, decried the form in a 1917 essay “Reflections on Vers Libre,” citing its “absence of pattern, absence of rhyme, absence of metre.” Without rhyme, Mr. Eliot argued, “the poet is held up to the standards of prose.”

“Grand Central,” however, reveals how wrong Mr. Eliot was. The book’s fusion of images done proper justice only through poetry, the suspenseful narrative of an illicit affair, and the musicality and rhythm harkening to ancient religious texts remains as startling and marvelous now as it must have been to those lucky enough to have read the book at its genesis.

Ms. Weinman writes “Dark Passages,” a monthly mystery and suspense column for the Los Angeles Times.


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Investigators Zero in on Massive Art Forgery Scandal

The Hippy and the Expressionists

Beltracchi briefly tried to make a go of it as an artist before turning to forgery. This piece is called “Durchdringung, Melatenerstr. Nr. 4” (Penetration, Melatener Street, No. 4). Investigators estimate total damages at more than €15 million.

Over the past 15 years, the art world has been amazed at the number of lost expressionist masterpieces from the early 20th century that have found their way to auction. Investigators now believe that many of them could be forgeries. An ex-hippy, his wife and an art fan from Krefeld may be behind the scandal.

Flickering torches lit the path up to the villa. The guests were led through a modernistic gate, past a glass-covered swimming pool and on to a series of minimalist bungalows, the facades of which were freshly clad in Siberian larch. Champagne was served out of Magnum bottles. A Flamenco band had been brought in from Spain. Wolfgang Beltracchi, the owner of the property, stood in front of his studio welcoming the guests as they arrived, long blond hair hanging down to his shoulders.

Beltracchi’s villa is situated in the hills above Freiburg among the city’s high society: professors, lawyers and managing directors. Beltracchi and his wife Helene paid €1.1 million for their property and are said to have invested another €4 million remodeling it. The Beltracchis appeared in Freiburg seemingly out of nowhere, without a past or a present. But the money had to have come from somewhere — and there was gossip. Some said Beltracchi was an artist who only painted for millionaires who regularly commissioned his services. Some thought he was a successful art dealer or the owner of a valuable collection. Others, like a relatively famous plastic surgeon in Freiburg, insisted Beltracchi toured flea markets, where he had found a number of undiscovered masterpieces.

Such was the mood at the party held at the Beltracchis’ new house on September 22, 2007.

Just three years later, at 7:35 p.m. on Aug. 27, 2010, police officers detained the Beltracchis not far from their villa as the couple was going out to dinner. The officers had been sent by the district attorney’s office in Cologne, which also had a theory about how Wolfgang and Helene Beltracchi had amassed their fortune. It can be found in file number 117 Js 407/10, and if they are confirmed in a court of law, the Beltracchis will officially become the main characters in one of Germany’s greatest ever art-forgery scandals.

Alleged Forgeries of 35 Paintings

Since their arrest, the couple has been held in pre-trial detention. They stand accused of organized professional fraud. Prosecutors are also investigating Jeanette S., the sister of Helene Beltracchi, who is also currently in pre-trial detention, as well as the two women’s mother and an art dealer from Krefeld identified only as Otto. Lawyers representing the defendants are refusing to comment on the allegations.

The case centers on the alleged forgery of at least 35 paintings dating back to the first decades of the 20th century. The defendants are accused of systematically supplying the art market with paintings they claimed were undiscovered works by famous painters, and this over a period of more than 14 years. These pictures were sold not only through auction houses in Germany, but also ended up in the art world via traders in London and Paris. The investigators estimate the total damage at more than €15 million. Gallery owners, auctioneers and art historians alike now worry the case could become what the fake so-called “Hitler diaries” were for Stern magazine: A fiasco.

The market for 20th century classics is booming at the moment. In May a second painting was sold for more than $100 million at auction. An anonymous bidder paid the equivalent of €81 million for a Picasso nude at Christie’s in New York. There’s plenty of money to be earned on art, and the competition to find new goods in a limited market is extremely tough. It could be that auction houses are asking too few questions out of fear the would-be seller will take his business elsewhere. Likewise, experts naturally prefer to attest that a picture is genuine rather than voicing suspicions of forgery and thereby potentially ruining their clients’ business. Added to this, the art market has always been a somewhat shady operation in which money is passed under the table and art-loving rich people often seek to keep their identities hidden. All this plays into the forgers’ hands.

Two Mysterious Art Collections

In the present case, only one of the paintings has been confirmed beyond a doubt by two analyses as being fake. But the investigators are also considering at least 34 others, all of which have a number of similarities: They are all in similar frames and have yellowed stickers from famous galleries on their backs. No photographs exist of any of them. Many had been considered lost. And all allegedly come from two mysterious art collections.

One of these collections is said to have belonged to a businessman from Cologne called Werner Jägers, the grandfather of the two sisters awaiting trial. According to a letter Helene Beltracchi sent to an art historian, Jägers had acquired a number of paintings in the “late 1920s and early 1930s,” particularly works by Rhenish expressionists artists “like Campendonk, Pechstein, Nauen, Mense, Ernst” as well as French painters “like Braque, Derain, Dufy, Marcoussis.” She claimed several “important works in his collection” had been bought from the Jewish art dealer Alfred Flechtheim, “who owned display rooms near one of her grandfather’s business premises” and had been a “good friend” of Werner Jägers. When the Nazis came to power, Jägers was allegedly loath to give up his precious artworks — officially derided as “degenerate” during the Third Reich — so he hid the pictures at a property in the Eiffel region of Germany. “A few years before his death,” Beltracchi claims, he had passed on “a part of his collection” to her and her sister.

One aspect of her story is certainly correct: Her grandfather really existed.

Werner Jägers was born in Belgium in 1912. He married four times and lived mainly in Cologne, where he subsequently died in 1992. But the entrepreneur who made most of his money with industrial construction had relatively little interest in art. Both a close business associate and Jägers’ last wife have confirmed he did no more than paint in his spare time — and only originals like small calendar pictures and fruit baskets.

Hardly a Collection

Neither the man’s widow nor his business partner have any memory of an art collection. Although Jägers purchased a few paintings, these were definitely not valuable and certainly did not constitute a collection. Nor are there any records that suggest Jägers, a member of the German Nazi Party, ever knew the Jewish art dealer Alfred Flechtheim.

There is, however, ample evidence that the key to the mystery of the artworks lies with his granddaughter from his first marriage. When Jägers died, in 1992, Helene Beltracchi was 34 years old and had recently started dealing in antiques. The young, attractive blonde ran an antiques store in Cologne. As the daughter of a Belgian trucker, she and her four sisters grew up in a public housing apartment in Bergisch Gladbach. Helene studied business before diving into the world of junkshop owners, collectors and antique-lovers.

It was probably here that Helene Beltracchi’s world intersected with that of her future husband, Wolfgang. At the time, his surname was still Fischer, and he was trying his hand as an artist. In 1978, the Haus der Kunst museum in Munich exhibited three of his acrylic-on-canvas works. They were entitled “Zu Hause” (At Home), “Durchdringung bei Geilenkirchen” (Penetration Near Geilenkirchen) and “Durchdringung, Melatenerstr. Nr. 4” (Penetration, Melatener Street, No. 4). Perhaps the young artist had already realized how difficult it was to earn his keep with conventional art.

The First Sale

Acquaintances remember him as a hippy who dreamt of the good life in southern climes and claimed to have driven around on his motorbike delivering illegal psychedelic drugs to US soldiers on their military bases in his youth, a show-off who said he’d learned about art from his father, a church muralist and restorer who had taken him up on the scaffolding from an early age. In actual fact, his father appears to have been a normal house painter in Geilenkirchen, a town near Aix-la-Chapelle on the border with Belgium and Holland. At least, that’s how relatives remember him.In the 1980s Wolfgang “disappeared for longer periods,” and spent time living in Morocco and in a commune. After that he is said to have returned to Germany “on foot.” Back home, he was seen as a “luxury hippy.” He organized theme parties, including a baroque fete at a castle in the Dutch town of Renesse, where guests paid a few hundred German marks for the privilege of dressing up in period costume and re-enacting 18th-century life.

Eventually he decided to go into the movies and wrote the screenplay for a road movie set in the Moroccan desert. The working title was “Die Himmelsleiter” (The Ladder to Heaven). Next he wanted to shoot a documentary about pirates in the South China Sea. But after the three-mast ship with built-in video studio had cast off from Majorca and sailed to Gomera, the adventurers fell out and the plan was never realized. In October 1990 Wolfgang and a friend paid 305,000 deutschmarks (€156,400) at a bank auction for an old farm in Viersen in the Lower Rhine region of Germany. By now the drifter was calling himself a “director,” and began renovating the place at great expense. Neighbors remember a “first-floor warehouse converted into an artist’s studio,” where “easels, painting utensils and pictures lay strewn about.”

More Success with Christie’s

In June 1992 a woman moved into the artist’s farm: Helene Beltracchi. She and Wolfgang married a year later. The painter took his wife’s name, and together — as the neighbors recall — they started a thriving art dealership. While Wolfgang constantly walked around in slippers looking “organic,” Helene apparently took on the “serious role” and looked after the business side of things.

In February 1995, the couple owed several hundred thousand marks on their property. Helene contacted the Lempertz art dealership in Cologne and offered the long-established auction house a painting by Hans Purrmann, a friend and student of the great French painter Henri Matisse. She said the work belonged to her maternal grandfather, the aforementioned Werner Jägers. But a Purrmann expert doubted the authenticity of the painting, entitled “Southern Landscape,” whereupon Lempertz declined to put the work up for auction.

Eight months later, Beltracchi had more success with Christie’s, the world’s largest auction house. As part of its “German and Austrian Art” sale in October 1995, Christie’s offered a painting by Heinrich Campendonk entitled “Girl with Swan.” It sold for £67,500.

In the auction catalog, art historian Andrea Firmenich waxed lyrical about the “intense, shining, expressive colorfulness” of the pictures of the Krefeld-born expressionist painter. “Dr. Andrea Firmenich,” Christie’s informed its customers, “has been kind enough to confirm the authenticity of this work.” The origin of the painting was stated by Christie’s as “Alfred Flechtheim, Dusseldorf; Werner Jägers, Cologne.”

A sticker on the back of the picture, which bore the inscription “Flechtheim Collection” and a crude portrait of the legendary art dealer, was also shown in the catalog. Nobody appeared to be too bothered by the fact that the sticker, which looked like a potato print, simply didn’t match the style of the elegant gallerist. Such stickers have only appeared on the paintings that are now suspected of having been forged. Most of these stem from the “Werner Jägers collection.”

Famous for its Light

The Beltracchis soon turned their backs on the provincial Lower Rhine. Acquaintances recount that Wolfgang bought himself an old Winnebago motor home, restored the interior in rosé and turquoise, and sold his farm in Viersen to a firm of realtors for 2.6 million deutschmarks (€1.3 million) in July 1996.

He and Helene rented a vacation home with studio in Marseillan, 50 kilometers (30 miles) from Montpellier in the south of France. The Languedoc region is famous for its light, and it’s quite possible that this inspired Beltracchi’s creativity. Visitors to his studio speak of a “large piece on a mythological theme” onto which he copied faces with the aid of a projector. The fake Purrmann that Lempertz had refused to auction off hung in the Beltracchis’ living room. When he wasn’t painting, Wolfgang and Helene researched the local art scene, visited antique stores, art trade fairs and galleries.

In June 1998 Lempertz in Cologne auctioned off a picture ostensibly from the “Werner Jägers collection”: “Le Havre Beach” by the French painter Raoul Dufy. “For once, it was a real one,” Lempertz Managing Director Henrik Hanstein says today. Hanstein says the couple had been particularly devious by selling a genuine picture in addition to the fakes. A Lempertz spokesman is similarly shocked about the ruse. He says the auction house had been “the victim of an extraordinarily clever and mean gang of forgers.”

More than a Million

If the allegations prove to be true, the modus operandi was indeed remarkably shrewd: The alleged forgers didn’t fabricate Picassos, but Pechsteins, not Beckmanns, but Campendonks. They kept well away from the truly great artists, whose works had been researched in minute detail. Instead they concentrated on second-tier painters, whose paintings can still fetch more than a million euros.

It appears they began by studying old catalogs of exhibitions by artists in whose names they wanted to create pictures, preferably catalogs of the gallery of Alfred Flechtheim, one of the most important art dealers of the Weimar Republic, the period from the end of World War I to the Nazis’ ascent to power. Flechtheim fled the Nazis in 1933, moved first to Paris, and then died in London in 1937. Large parts of his collection have been lost to this day, and documents from his gallery have never been recovered.

The list of pictures from the Flechtheim catalogs was compared to the lists of paintings by the relevant artists. Were any of the paintings listed as missing, ones that had not been photographed?

Such pictures have been traded in increasing numbers since the late 1990s, and it is assumed that some of the profits from the sales landed in the bank account the Beltracchis held with the discrete Credit Andorra in the tax-shelter principality of the same name, where Wolfgang Beltracchi was also registered as having a residence.

The Fraud Is Discovered

Soon the Beltracchis bought the “Domaine des Rivettes” near the port town of Mèze in the Languedoc region of France on the Mediterranean. Built in 1858, the country estate had its own private river and vineyards. The property underwent luxurious restoration, and was furnished with palm trees and a 170-square-meter (1,700 square foot) studio.The reconstruction must have cost millions. An artist and former friend of the Beltracchis remembers the “many paintings” that hung in the house, works he was told were “heirlooms from an uncle of Helene’s.” The Beltracchis said they were the pieces by Campendonk, Pechstein and Max Ernst, and that they would be selling them at auction.

A neighbor said he “never dreamed they could have been forgeries.” Nevertheless, he did suspect that something was awry, although he attributed the wealth of pictures to “a collection amassed during the Third Reich.”

Valuable paintings were now being offered at ever shorter intervals, sometimes by Helene Beltracchi, sometimes by her sister Jeanette, a sophisticated officer’s wife, and sometimes by an old acquaintance from the Lower Rhine: The art-lover Otto from Krefeld.

An artist living near the Baltracchis’ French residence recalls Wolfgang once inquiring about “how valuable pictures could be transported to Germany” and “how the insurance worked.” In the end the painter had allegedly found a shipping company that didn’t ask too many questions and was willing to take the canvasses on one of its trips rolled up and packed into cardboard tubes.

A Minor Sensation

In 2001 Helene Beltracchi’s sister Jeanette presented the Lempertz auction house in Cologne with a new picture from the “Werner Jägers collection.” This oil painting, entitled “Seine Bridge with Freight Barges” and allegedly painted by the expressionist Max Pechstein, was sold to a collector in Montevideo. Two years later, she delivered another supposed Pechstein for auction. “Reclining Nude with Cat” (1909) was sold to the Bern-based art dealer Wolfgang Henze for €498,000. The nude was considered a minor sensation in the art world. After all, hadn’t Pechstein mentioned precisely this motif in his memoirs? And didn’t the find exactly match a small Pechstein aquarelle in the Brücke Museum in Berlin?

Indeed it did — though a little too well. As art historian Aya Soika has since discovered, key details of the aquarelle were copied “almost one-to-one” onto the later auctioned canvas, apparently with the aid of a projector. Soika found other astonishing similarities when comparing the picture of the barges with another of Pechstein’s drawings.

After the two supposed masterpieces had been sold, the Beltracchis expanded their family estate. In mid-October 2005 the couple bought the exclusive villa in Freiburg for €1.1 million. Wolfgang Beltracchi paid part of the purchase price using money from his account in Andorra.

The reconstruction of the villa took 19 months to complete, by which time the builders were furious about the special wishes of the property’s rich owner, whose demands included a countertop in the kitchen shaped like angels’ wings.

During his visits to Freiburg, Beltracchi always stayed at the Colombi, a prime location on the main square, and a “leading hotel of the world.” And while his luxury villa was gradually taking shape, with builders installing olive doors, panorama windows and casements made from zebrano wood, the “Werner Jägers collection” was gradually converted into cash. In February 2006 Christie’s auctioned off the next Campendonk. A few months later the auction house offered a list price of £3.5 million on the supposed Max Ernst painting “La Horde.” It was purchased by a German collector.

Scientific Testing

In late November 2006 Lempertz was sent a painting that would put an end to the suspected massive fraud. The painting was ostensibly “Red Picture with Horses.”

Once again the painting had been brought in by Helene’s sister. The picture graced the front cover of the auction catalog, and eventually changed hands for €2.9 million — more than had ever been paid for a work by a Rhenish expressionist artist. The painting was bought by a company in Malta called Trasteco Ltd.

Because the Maltese didn’t want to take any risks, they sought the advice of a gallery in Geneva, Switzerland. Experts there found it strange that the authenticity of the painting had not been certified before the auction, and they asked Lempertz for the relevant paperwork.

However the auction house in Cologne replied that Campendonk’s son had verbally declared the picture to be authentic. Trasteco also hired art historian Andrea Firmenich, who had written her Ph.D. thesis on Campendonk. This time, however, the art critic recommended the work undergo scientific testing.

In October 2008, Firmenich contacted Flechtheim expert Ralph Jentsch and asked him to assess the strange gallery sticker on the frame of “Red Picture with Horses.” Jentsch said he laughed out loud when he saw Flechtheim’s face on the sticker. The art historian also knew what the gallery’s stickers really looked like — and confirmed that they did not bear the owner’s portrait. More damning still, when Firmenich inquired about the “art collector Werner Jägers,” Jentsch said he had never heard of him.

Trasteco thereupon commissioned Friederike Gräfin von Brühl, a lawyer in Berlin, to sue Lempertz for an annulment of the sale. Extensive research was also initiated. Investigators discovered that “Red Picture with Horses” contained a color that had not been invented yet in 1914, the year in which the picture had allegedly been painted.

An Art Lover from Krefeld

Suddently, after his name had been circulating for more than a decade, people started wondering about the identity of the mysterious Werner Jägers. The man tasked with attesting to the ominous collector’s passion for art in Trasteco’s civil suit against Lempertz was an old acquaintance of Beltracchi: Otto, an art-lover from Krefeld, whom state prosecutors also began investigating after several forged paintings from his “family collection” apparently made their way onto the market.

Otto is actually in advertising, though he once tried to set up an artists’ collective à la Joseph Beuys. The legend he wove around the origins of his paintings is strikingly similar to that which Helene Beltracchi told about Werner Jägers: In a letter to a friend Otto wrote that his “maternal grandfather” had had “Jewish acquaintances” and bought “many pictures through Flechtheim.” Likewise, the collection of tailor Knops — the grandfather’s name — primarily consisted of the works of Rhenish or French expressionists. Otto claims he received “packages containing the pictures” after his parents’ death.

In the civil case, he backed the Beltracchis up. He said his grandfather knew Jägers well, and that the two families had even wanted to exchange two Campendonks in the 1950s. He said he distinctly recalled the pictures, which hung on the wall at the time.

Knops’ collection also contained several paintings supposedly by the surrealist Max Ernst, all of which were authenticated by art historian Werner Spies, a long-standing features writer for the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper and Germany’s leading authority on Max Ernst.

‘The Work of a Brilliant Forger’

Otto and Spies exchanged letters about one Max Ernst painting the art-lover was particularly proud to possess. Spies took a look at the piece, entitled “The Forest,” at an art gallery in Berlin. Later it was even exhibited at a major Max Ernst retrospective held at the New York Metropolitan Museum.Werner Spies certified a total of seven alleged Max Ernst pictures from the collections of Knops and Jägers. “From a stylistic point of view I still believe the pictures given to me to authenticate were the works of Max Ernst,” Spies says.

Most of the suspicious paintings weren’t auctioned off, but rather sold to private collectors — in some cases with Spies’ assistance. They apparently fetched up to €4.6 million. “If the pieces are forgeries,” Spies says, “they can only be described as the work of a brilliant forger.”

An old friend of Beltracchi’s says the itinerant artist was “touched by God,” adding: “He is extremely talented, and can paint everything from memory.”

In June, after the lawyer von Brühl had pressed charges, officers at the art crime division of the regional criminal investigation bureau in Berlin began looking into the case. At the same time, private investigators from the Munich-based ADS detective agency started researching Werner Jägers’ life. Within a matter of days, they discovered what the art world had refused to see for 15 years: Werner Jägers may have been a businessman, but he was never an art collector.

‘That Bastard Wolfgang’

On August 25 detectives searched several apartments. The same day, investigators recorded a telephone call Helene Beltracchi’s sister received in France from her son in Cologne, who had nothing to do with the art trading. “I just wanted to say that we had eight police officers in the apartment five minutes ago,” the son explained excitedly. “What?!” his mother asked, perplexed. “Eight cops!” he explained. “And they had a search warrant because of that bastard Wolfgang.”

The son assured her that he hadn’t told the officers anything about her, his mother, taking pictures to Lempertz for auction. When Wolfgang Beltracchi, whose phone was also tapped, called his son and urged him to hide his laptop immediately, the investigators knew the time had come to act.

Work is now underway to determine whether Wolfgang Beltracchi did indeed forge the pictures, who he may have been assisted by, and how many paintings really are fakes. It also remains to be seen whether he can still be punished for acts beyond the decade laid down in the statute of limitations. One thing is sure: The case will rob art dealers of any shred of credibility that they still possess. The civil cases brought by the alleged victims of the fraud will probably drag on for years.

The public attorney’s office recently entered two debt-securing mortgages on the renovated villa in Freiburg that Wolfgang Beltracchi had unveiled so lavishly. The total value of the mortgages: €2,545,577.20.


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The Heart of ‘Darkness’

Under an early autumn sky here in central New Jersey, Bruce Springsteen pointed north toward nearby Holmdel, where 33 years ago he began recording “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” likely the most important album of his notable career. Then, turning east, he said, “And I recorded ‘Nebraska’ five miles that way.” His birthplace, Long Branch, he added, is about a dozen miles from where he stood. On their first date, Mr. Springsteen said, he took Patti Scialfa, his wife of 19 years, on a drive down the nearby back roads to show her a home for retired circus animals.

Now 61 years old, Mr. Springsteen may have been alluding to his loyalty to the Garden State, but he also was relating how once he’s determined that something’s right, he stays with it.

He’s kept the core of his E Street Band together since 1974—the band that stood by him when, coming off his 1975 breakthrough album, “Born to Run,” he was embroiled in a lengthy legal dispute: In essence, he couldn’t release new music until a lawsuit with a former manager was settled. Incurring a huge debt, Mr. Springsteen and the band kept touring, then hunkered down in Holmdel to work on his new compositions. The battle, and Mr. Springsteen’s ultimate triumph, is depicted in the Thom Zimny documentary “The Promise: The Making of ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town,'” which has been presented at film festivals and on HBO. It’s part of a new six-disc “Darkness” boxed set that includes the original 1978 album, early drafts of what evolved into the album’s songs, previously unreleased tracks and two performance DVDs.

Hurt and embittered, a determined Mr. Springsteen used the three-year period between albums to re-examine his purpose as a songwriter and bandleader. He decided there’d be no big, brash “Born to Run II.”

“I tend to think that by the time we finished ‘Born to Run’ my thought process was moving forward—you know, ‘How do I not do that again?'” Mr. Springsteen said.

“I probably did start out trying to remake a Brill Building-influenced album,” he said, referring to the New York City home to many ’60s R&B and pop composers, some of whom provided songs for the Phil Spector productions that influenced “Born to Run.” “I hadn’t moved into my passion for country music or political or social music.” But, he added, “I didn’t want to be mistaken for a genre artist or neo-soul. I didn’t want to be neo- anything.”

“The lawsuit gave me a lot more time to reflect,” he said, sitting in his guesthouse, a crackling fire at his back. “By nature, I’m cautious in many ways. I knew I was playing with dynamite. I was suspicious of success and its potential to derail your inner life. It’s a huge distorting mirror. I had a pretty good self- preservation streak, but I had lots of fears.”

Though he’d been on the cover of Time and Newsweek in 1975, one of those fears was the possibility that he might soon be forgotten. “There was no cable TV, no electronic media, no newsstands filled with entertainment magazines,” he said of the mid-’70s. “The tyranny of the pop-culture media didn’t exist. You were a young kid and nobody gave a damn.”

He continued, “At that time, I didn’t feel I had the room to play around. I couldn’t be too casual. I felt like an adult doing my job. I was in pursuit of an adult voice and I was interested in an adult-type rebellion. It hadn’t been addressed.”

Mr. Springsteen leaned on what would become his greatest strength—narrative songwriting—and funneled his anxieties and concurrent willfulness into songs and performances so lean, harsh and direct that they remain startling more than three decades later. “Darkness” is an album in which its characters are angry, aggrieved and alienated, and yet when faced with a hopeless situation they hold on to hope. Though they doubt, they still want to believe, as did Mr. Springsteen way back then.

“It was like pulling a rubber band really, really tight, then leaving it tight,” he said.

Mr. Springsteen set aside the boyish tales and derivative sounds of “Born to Run.” Instead, he focused on supporting the complex emotions in his songs, which were built on simple unembellished chords and delivered with bite and innate power. On “Darkness,” the E Street Band is restrained until it must explode, and when it does Mr. Springsteen’s voice is a raw yowl. So is his guitar playing. I proposed that the album’s most affecting moments rise from Mr. Springsteen’s searing, whip-crack guitar solos. He’d have none of it.

“Look, I was the fastest gun in central New Jersey,” he said. “When I was a kid I made my living as a guitar player frying brains and making 20 bucks from the club owner. But I set out to become a songwriter and a bandleader. I was much more interested in canvases of sound—painting the big picture lyrically and developing the sound of the band.”

The new “Darkness on the Edge of Town” box includes a video, recorded last December, of Mr. Springsteen and the E Street Band playing the original album’s 10 songs. His guitar playing on those tunes still expresses defiance and rage.

Risking his career, Mr. Springsteen became who he remains: a distinctive songwriter with the ability to represent the aspirations and frustrations of working men and women who hold tight to the American dream—John Steinbeck with a Fender Telecaster. In subsequent years, he created “Nebraska,” “The Ghost of Tom Joad” and the underappreciated “Lucky Town,” all of which stem in their ways from “Darkness,” an album in which a grown man who had experienced success and stood on the precipice of elimination dug in to say what he wanted to, all else be damned.

“‘Darkness,'” Mr. Springsteen said, “made very clear what we were after: music built strong enough to be about sustaining things—family, your job. Things that are always relevant.”

As for changing his voice and sound after having achieved success, he said, “You don’t risk, you don’t get.”

Mr. Fusilli is the Journal’s rock and pop music critic.


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He Paints the Past

‘Most of America’s greatest moments occurred in war,” said James Dietz, a Seattle artist who primarily paints scenes of World War II, Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s a terrible thought—but for history painters, who look in their art to capture the past, a battle scene makes a better picture dramatically and compositionally than a view of a group of men debating what should be included in the U.S. Constitution.

‘The Autograph Seekers of Bel Air’ (2009), an example of a meticulously researched and depicted historical artwork.

The travels of Lewis and Clark have had their painters, as has the transcontinental railroad and President George Washington doing this and that, but military images tend to dominate American history painting, in large measure because wars represent critical moments when a shift in politics and culture takes place: We throw off the yoke of foreign domination (Revolutionary War); we unite the nation and rid ourselves of slavery (Civil War); we become a world power (World War II); we pay a price for preserving the freedom of others (Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan). John Paul Strain, a painter in Fort Worth, Texas, who specializes in Civil War images, noted that “people find their values in these historical subjects—being brave in the face of danger, giving all for one’s beliefs.”

Messrs. Dietz and Strain are among the top artists in the field of history painting, a realm that few followers of art know exists. Can you name an art gallery (or modern art museum) in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York or some other major city that has a single work in this genre?

Here’s an opportunity to see this kind of artwork. Titled “For Us the Living,” an exhibition of 60-plus paintings by Mort Künstler (b. 1931)—perhaps the dean of history painting—featuring the leading figures and battles of the Civil War is now on display at the Nassau County Museum of Art.

On view, for instance, is a portrait of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee on horseback, letting his horse drink from a stream while two Southern belles on a bridge ask for his autograph (“The Autograph Seekers of Bel Air”). Another work shows Union Brig. Gen. Joshua Chamberlain directing soldiers to Little Round Top during the Battle of Gettysburg (“Rush to the Summit, Chamberlain at Gettysburg”). Lots of small and large moments from the War Between the States are depicted in these paintings: nurse Clara Barton tending to wounded soldiers; Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson hugging his wife before heading into battle; Gen. Jackson killed at Chancellorsville; Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln at the Inaugural Ball; Lincoln reading the Emancipation Proclamation; the fighting at Lookout Mountain; the fighting at Spotsylvania; Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman calmly riding alongside his soldiers while Atlanta burns in the background.

“Children learn about the Civil War in school, and these paintings make the events real to them,” said Constance Schwartz, former director of the Nassau County Museum, who curated this exhibition.

Being unknown by the larger art public doesn’t mean going unrewarded. Mr. Künstler’s paintings normally range in price from $50,000 to $100,000 each, and at least one has reached $250,000. Limited- edition reproduction prints of these images sell for $225 to $1,000. His art has been exhibited by New York’s Hammer Galleries, and many other collectors (history buffs, historians and ex-soldiers) purchase his works through his website.

Mr. Künstler is widely admired for bringing the past to life and for being a stickler for detail, never putting the wrong button on a uniform or including the wrong regimental flag. “Mort is a terrific researcher and a great draftsman,” said Harold Holzer, the author of numerous books on the Civil War. And James I. Robertson Jr., executive director of the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies at Virginia Tech, noted that “Mort will call me up and say he’s doing an 1862 scene in Winchester [Virginia]: ‘Was there any day in that year that it snowed?’ I have all that information, and I’ll tell him, ‘Yeah, it snowed on Oct. 4, and on Oct. 5 there was still snow on the ground.'” Mr. Künstler has that kind of relationship with a number of historians. (Mr. Robertson noted that he gets paid for his service in artist’s proofs.) Every detail in every painting gets that kind of treatment. Those two autograph seekers on the bridge really were there, because Mr. Künstler read the published account by Lucy Buck, one of the two daughters of William Buck, who named his Virginia home “Bel Air.”

In addition to the paintings, “For Us the Living” includes props (clothing, hats, saddles, uniforms, weapons) that Mr. Künstler used when painting, as well as photographs he or others shot at a particular site, notes he took for specific paintings, and preliminary sketches. “We know he is a great researcher, but I also wanted to show him as an artist and how he works,” Ms. Schwartz said.

Like many other history painters, Mr. Künstler started out as an illustrator and began to specialize in certain subjects. Back in the 1950s and ’60s, “I was doing book jackets and movie posters and illustrations for men’s adventure magazines,” Mr. Künstler said, “and I gained a knack for realism and action and complexity.” He painted a lot of Western scenes—Custer’s Last Stand, for instance—but “the West had been done to death, even if your Custer was the best anyone had ever done. I saw that the Civil War was a subject that hadn’t been done so much, and it was really exciting to me.”

Mr. Grant is the author of “The Business of Being an Artist” (Allworth).


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Does Her Face Foretell Her Fate?

Nothing holds our attention like a human face. So necessary is it for us to “read” faces that our brains evolved two separate neural systems specialized to help—one to recognize whose face it is, and the other to interpret its expression. It is therefore not surprising that when Stephen Pinson, the New York Public Library’s curator of photography, set about organizing “Recollection,” an exhibition up through Jan. 2 celebrating the 30th anniversary of the library’s photography collection, he picked 95 portraits. Among them is Walker Evans’s “Lucille Burroughs, Daughter of a Cotton Sharecropper. Hale County, Alabama” (1936).

Walker Evans was assigned to document the effects of the Depression down South when he captured this photograph.

Lucille was 10 years old when Evans took her picture. He was down South because he was being paid to document the effects of the Depression by the Farm Security Administration, a New Deal agency intent on helping farmers. Several FSA photographers, most notably Dorothea Lange, were true evangels for the agency, but producing what was, after all, propaganda was constitutionally uncongenial to Evans: He did the work for the pay. And he photographed what interested him. He was in Alabama because the writer James Agee, his good friend, had gotten a commission from Fortune magazine for an article about the area to be written by him and illustrated by Evans. The collaboration eventually resulted in “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” (1941); the Burroughs family, under assumed names, are central figures in that book of classic reportage. Lucille’s pseudonym is Maggie Louise.

Evans’s portrait of Lucille is elegant in its simplicity. She is shown from the shoulders up, her face framed by a straw hat, standing against the wooden planking of one of the outbuildings of the farm the Burroughs family worked as tenants. There is nothing superfluous, and the 8-by-10 negative of Evans’s view camera captures the textures of the included elements with great specificity. The rust bleeding from the nails in the untreated wood is a clue to the family’s economic condition, but poverty is not evident elsewhere in the picture. The straw hat is a woven halo, with strong suggestions of pastoral innocence. Likewise, the neat collar of the white print dress, a dress much too nice for every day, and put on just for the picture.

But it is Lucille Burroughs’s face, the center of the image, that holds our attention. Our face-recognition apparatus sees she is young, white, of apparent Anglo-Saxon heritage, and although her features are regular, and even attractive, there is something in her face—in the picture of her face—that lets us know she was not born to wealth. More difficult than culling that sociological information is trying to suss out her expression. Her eyes are focused intently on Evans, the photographer who commands the black box with its bellows and dials and its one great all-seeing eye, a city man, a New Yorker, who came to their farm looking for what? In their book Agee notes Lucille’s “temperatureless, keen, serene and wise and pure gray eyes.” Part of our seeing her is trying to figure out what she sees, what is going on behind those eyes, greedy to understand the world.

Lucille’s freckles present no difficulties, but her mouth is another challenge. It is similar to her mother Allie Mae Burroughs’s mouth in the famous picture Evans took of her. They are both thin-lipped; but, more importantly, they both seem to be exercising the many muscles we know control the mouth to keep from revealing what they want to remain private. Lucille’s mouth neither smiles nor frowns; it is straight-line flat, in a way as emotionally neutral as the mechanical device on the tripod that she faces.

In the section of “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” about the Burroughses, Agee addresses a rhapsodic apostrophe to Lucille, going on about “the animal litheness of your country body…your clear 10-year-old mouth resolute and unquestioning of personal desire…. We have begun this looking-at-each-other of which I am later to become so conscious I am liable to trembling when I am in the same room with you. It is scary: Scary as hell, and even more mysterious than frightening…. Suddenly yet very quietly I realize a little more clearly that I am probably going to be in love with you…” Evans was not given to this sort of gushing.

A portrait is a collaborative effort, a joint venture of two wills. The amateur tells his subject to smile or “say, cheese,” and gets a picture of calculated insincerity. Walker Evans seems to have paid young Lucille Burroughs the grand courtesy of letting her determine how she would present herself to the world. Of the many portraits Evans took of the Burroughses and their extended family, Evans’s recent biographer James R. Mellow considers the portrait of Lucille the most fascinating.

Mr. Pinson says he selected the pictures for “Recollection” by going through boxes of photographs (the collection has 500,000) and picking the ones that struck him individually. He chose the Evans portrait because he thought “in and of itself it was a powerful object,” one that viewers would “take something away from.” What we take away from a portrait is affected by what we bring to it, and part of what Mr. Pinson brought to the portrait was knowledge of what happened to Lucille Burroughs subsequent to her encounter with Walker Evans.

In “And Their Children After Them: The Legacy of ‘Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,'” Dale Maharidge traces the later histories of the sharecropper families in Agee and Evans’s book. Lucille Burroughs was married when she was 15. She divorced, married again and had four children. Her husband died young. She never became a teacher or a nurse, as she once dreamed, but picked cotton and then waited tables. She was poor. In 1971, at age 45, she committed suicide by drinking rat poison. You go back to look again at the picture of the 10-year-old, to see if any of that awful story was foretold, to see if there wasn’t a way to make it come out better.

Mr. Meyers writes on photography for The Wall Street Journal.


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Nazi Degenerate Art Rediscovered in Berlin

Buried in a Bombed-Out Cellar

The works were thought to have been lost forever. Eleven sculptures, all of them shunned by the Nazis for being un-German, have been found during subway construction work in the heart of Berlin. But how did they get there?

Digging new subway lines in Europe is no easy task. It’s not the excavating itself that is so problematic; modern machinery can bore through the earth with surprising speed these days. Rather, in places that have been inhabited for centuries, if not millennia, no one really knows what one will find. The delays for archeological research can be significant.

In Berlin, that hasn’t often been a problem. Aside from significant numbers of unexploded bombs dropped on the city during World War II and a few long-forgotten building foundations, construction tends to be relatively straightforward. The city, after all, spent the vast majority of its 770 year history as a regional backwater.

This autumn, however, an extension to Berlin’s U-5 subway line means the city can gloat over a world-class delay of its own. Workers in the initial phases of building a subway stop in front of the Berlin city hall stumbled across remains of the city’s original city hall, built in 1290. Archeologists were ecstatic.


The works were thought to have been lost forever. During construction work on a new subway line through the heart of Berlin, archeologists discovered 11 sculptures that were once part of the Nazis’ Degenerate Art exhibition, pieces that the regime found too “un-German.” This piece, “The Dancer” by Marg Moll from 1930, was among them. The face and arm have been polished to show its original condition.

The pieces are thought to have been in an apartment in a building on Königstrasse (King Street) when it was bombed in the late summer of 1944. All the works show fire damage. This piece is called “A Likeness of the Actress Anni Mewes” by Edwin Scharff.

Just how the pieces got to the Königstrasse building remain unclear. Historians think they may have been purchased by a tenant in the building named Erhard Oewerdieck, a government official who was honored after World War II for helping Jews escape the Holocaust. The taller piece in the foreground has not yet been identified. Behind it stands a piece by Gustaf Heinrich Wolff. The smaller sculpture on the right is “Female Bust,” by Naum Slutzky.

Degenerate Art was the term the Nazis applied to most early 20th century art that was considered to be too “Jewish” or “un-German.” Many of the works thus branded were included in a travelling exhibition in 1937. The pieces were displayed in cramped, poorly lit rooms and were surrounded by insulting graffiti.

“Pregnant Woman” (1918) by Emy Roeders. While the pieces have been largely cleaned up, most have been left unpolished to indicate the damage done by the fire that destroyed the building on Königstrasse where they were found. “One can see the fate they have lived through and the dignity which they still have,” said archeologist Wemhoff on Monday.

All of the newly discovered sculptures can be seen in the New Museum as of Tuesday. Here, a piece which has not yet been identified.

“Head,” made in 1925 by Otto Freundlich. The lower part of the face was intact when it was found, but some fragments have since been replaced.

“Standing Girl” by Otto Braun. Many of the works of art on the Nazis’ list of degenerate art have never been found.


On Monday, however, Berlin’s Mayor Klaus Wowereit announced a new series of finds that has generated even greater enthusiasm. In digs carried out throughout this year, archeologists have unearthed 11 sculptures thought to have been lost forever — valuable works of art that disappeared during World War II after having been included on the Nazis’ list of degenerate art. Most of them have now been identified and have been put on display in Berlin’s Neues Museum.

‘A Minor Miracle’

“We hadn’t expected this confrontation with this period of time, with these samples of degenerate art — it is a minor miracle,” Wowereit said at a press conference on Monday. “It is unique.”

The finds were made among the ruins of Königstrasse (King Street), a formerly bustling street in the heart of prewar Berlin. Allied bombs decimated the quarter, however, and much of the rubble was simply buried after the war to make room for reconstruction. Much of the archeological work currently under way consists of sifting through the rubble that remains in the intact cellars of the structures that once lined the street.

In early January, workers discovered a small bronze bust in the shovel of a front loader that was cleaning out one of those cellars.

“We thought it was a one-off,” said Matthias Wemhoff, director of the Museum of Prehistory and Early History in Berlin and a member of the archeology team looking into the finds. “It wasn’t immediately clear that it was linked to degenerate art.”

Soon, however, more artworks were discovered — all sculptures, all from early 20th century artists and all bearing clear indications of having been fire-damaged. Only at the end of September did it become clear that all of the art pieces — by such artists as Otto Freundlich, Naom Slutzky and Marg Moll, among others — were on the list of artworks branded as undesirable by the Nazis. All were thought to have been lost forever.

Simply Destroyed

The list of works shunned by the Nazis for being “Jewish” or “un-German” is long, and encompasses primarily early 20th century modern art including pieces by such luminaries as Emil Nolde, Max Ernst, Paul Klee, Pablo Picasso and many others. Some 20,000 such works were confiscated by the party and those that weren’t sold for hard currency or stolen by cynical party officials were simply destroyed. In 1937, a travelling exhibition of such “degenerate art,” as it was called, made its way through Germany.

Many of the works now discovered in Berlin were part of that travelling show. Historians working on identifying the provenance of the pieces now unearthed have found documents indicating that some of them were returned to the Nazi Propaganda Ministry in 1941. After that, though, the paper trail goes cold.

Wemhoff believes that the works may have been purchased by a resident of Königstrasse 50, beneath which the finds were made, to save them from destruction. Initial speculation has centered around Erhard Oewerdieck, a government official who was awarded the title “Righteous among the Nations” by the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Israel for helping Jews escape the Holocaust during World War II. He rented several office rooms on the fourth floor of the building in 1941. He is also considered to the be only one in the building by then — all of the Jewish tenants had been evicted and many deported by then — to have had the wherewithal to collect the works.

Other Works?

Archeologists said on Monday that any pieces of art he might have kept in his offices would have ended up in a pile of rubble following the bombing run which destroyed the building in the late summer of 1944. City officials have initiated contact with Oewerdieck’s family in an effort to learn if he did in fact seek to protect some degenerate artworks from destruction.

They are also interested in learning what other works he might have held. Archeologists have found some bits of wood and other indications that more destructible pieces might also have been present. “It is possible that there were wood sculptures or even oil paintings,” said Wemhoff.

But if there were, they would have been completely incinerated.


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Five Best Books on Movies


By Lillian Ross (1952)

It never had been done before: a small, 30-ish journalist asked if she could watch a movie being made—”The Red Badge of Courage,” by John Huston, out of Stephen Crane, with Audie Murphy as the boy tested on the Civil War battlefield. Apparently no one noticed her. So Lillian Ross sat in a corner, or under a tree, and wrote down all she heard. The result is a record not just of the easy-come, easy-go Huston, yarning his way through mishaps, but also of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer about to crumble. So we hear how Louis B. Mayer talked (“I need money the way you need a headache!”), and we see the paranoia in a studio undermining a brave venture while the executives try to sound like Medici gangsters crossed with philosopher kings. More than 50 years later Ross’s “Picture” remains the model for observing the movie business and letting its people convict themselves with their own melodramatic talk. “The Red Badge of Courage” was not a good film, but the book sings.

The Citizen Kane Book

By Pauline Kael (1971)

It’s clear in “The Citizen Kane Book” that Pauline Kael meant to put the knife into Orson Welles and deflate what she regarded as an overrated film. So she set out to show how screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz had been cheated of proper praise and credit. Kael printed a draft script and the movie’s final cutting-continuity instructions—both revelatory of Mankiewicz’s vital role in forming the movie—along with an extended essay on the importance of smart, cynical writers in the 1930s and on the jazzy élan of America’s best talking pictures. The book is unfair but riveting, and it had the effect of drawing attention to the uncanny genius of Welles and his movie, helping to establish it as the all-time champion in critics’ polls. Scripts don’t often read well, but “Citizen Kane” is an exception. The book, in addition to showing us how unkind Kael could be in her exhilaration, was the closest she came to publishing a full-length study, as opposed to her collected reviews.

Final Cut

By Steven Bach (1985)

In 1981, Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate” opened in theaters—and closed down its studio, United Artists. This was a tragedy, but traditional Hollywood studios were doomed anyway. The picture cost too much, it went too far into the wilds of Wyoming, it cast a French actress no one had heard of (Isabelle Huppert!), and it was the Waterloo of the auteur theory—Cimino had been permitted to do nearly anything he could think of. What makes “Final Cut” so rueful and readable is that Steven Bach was at the time a top executive at United Artists—one who was fired in the “Heaven’s Gate” aftermath. In the book he is also a dry, funny, very smart writer who pulls no punches and gives a controlled portrait of how things spun out of control. “Final Cut” is also a book about professional vulnerability in status-obsessed Hollywood, where Cimino (the “genius” from “The Deer Hunter”) has long been consigned to oblivion. Here’s the kicker: More and more viewers now realize that “Heaven’s Gate” is pretty good!


By Antonia Quirke (2002)


This short book is one in a series of British Film Institute publications on particular films written by Antonia Quirke, one of the sharpest young film writers in Britain. Her “Jaws” essay omits some valuable detail (like the way Lew Wasserman changed the business in his marketing of the movie). But Quirke loves the dottiness of the film and, as she describes the strenuous ordeal of its making, she comes to the luminous conclusion that “Jaws” has “sheer exhilaration at lacking an agenda or a subject in any classical dramatic sense. The film is sometimes nothing more than a dance to music. Steven Spielberg never meant anything really. But neither did Fred Astaire.”

Round Up the Usual Suspects

By Aljean Harmetz (1992)

Aljean Harmetz is one of the best Hollywood reporters we have ever had, a good writer and someone who knows how pictures are made. So she set out in “Round Up the Usual Suspects” to describe the history of “Casablanca”—how it was written and cast, what it cost, how it opened—and why it survived. Everyone has heard stories about “Casablanca,” and as Harmetz shows, most of them are half-true. Above all, the book is a tribute to the Warner Bros. studio, working at the top of its game, at a time—during World War II—when Hollywood had total confidence. That’s how a piece of fluff and cigarette smoke turned into the world’s favorite picture and left us feeling we must remember this. Harmetz’s “suspects” include not just Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman but also a crazy director, Michael Curtiz, a supporting cast of Peter Lorre, Claude Rains and Sydney Greenstreet, writers who worked like spies on the ever-evolving script, and a superb boss, Hal Wallis.

Mr. Thomson is the author of “The New Biographical Dictionary of Film,” recently published in its fifth edition.


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Fairy Tale Comes True for Germany’s ‘Dragon Castle’

A Rhineland Legend Reborn

Schloss Drachenburg castle overlooking the Rhine River at Königswinter, opposite the former West German capital, Bonn. It was built in just three years between 1881 and 1884 by a wealthy stockbroker, Stephan Sarter. Dubbed the “Neuschwanstein of the Rhine,” it is regarded as a prime example of historicism, a 19th century trend that replicated various architectural styles to create idealized historical buildings.

Schloss Drachenburg, a fairy tale castle built in the 1880s, is an architectural mishmash that contains a fake organ, a reproduction of a Louis XIV throne and tacky murals. But it has been faithfully restored in honor of its startling history — and because it represents a romantic yearning for a past that never was.

With its dreamy spires, mock battlements and square clock tower, Schloss Drachenburg palace, which stands on a wooded hill high above the Rhine River near the sleepy town of Königswinter, looks like a cross between a medieval castle, a Gothic cathedral and Big Ben.

According to German folklore, Siegfried slayed a dragon just a little further up the mountain. But the story of this spectacular building, a jumble of architectural styles erected in less than three years in the late 19th century by a wealthy stockbroker, is strange enough to become legend in itself.

The state of North Rhine-Westphalia has just completed a €31.5 million ($44 million), 15-year restoration, part of a broad investment drive to attract visitors to the Rhine region, one of Europe’s most beautiful areas, by sprucing up its sights. Drachenburg means “Dragon’s Castle,” and its fairy tale appearance would make it a worthy location for a Harry Potter film.

Over the years, eccentrics have used the building as a canvas for their grand visions. In 1910, one entrepreneur planned to convert it into a tourist resort complete with a landing area for Zeppelin airships and a concert hall to rival the Bayreuth Wagner opera festival.

In the 1970s, one owner used it for sumptuous parties during which he dressed in an admiral’s costume and treated guests to concerts he gave on a fake organ, with music played from a hidden tape recorder. He would impress tourists by filling the palace with historical artefacts of questionable authenticity, including a sculpture he claimed was by Michelangelo and a garish chair he said was the throne of French king Louis XIV.

Growing Respect for 19th Century ‘Historicism’

“Those items were all fake. We have kept some of the more entertaining ones. It’s all part of the charm of this place,” Joachim Odenthal, the castle’s manager, told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

Not much about Schloss Drachenburg is genuine. But Odenthal said the government decided to purchase and save it because of mounting appreciation for “historicism,” a 19th century trend that replicated various architectural styles to create idealized historical buildings.

Across Europe, castles were refurbished or newly built to satisfy a yearning for a medieval idyll of nature, romance and knights in shining armor to counter the grey reality of a rapidly industrializing world.

“People wanted to return to the good old days and it’s no different today,” said Odenthal, who expects the Drachenburg will attract 120,000 visitors a year starting in 2011. The entire interior of the castle was reopened in July.

A world-famous example of historicism in Germany is Neuschwanstein Palace in the Bavarian Alps, built in the 1870s by “mad” King Ludwig II. It is said to have inspired Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle, although Odenthal is not so sure.

“Sometimes I think one should ask whether Disney copied from us,” he said with a grin. “Besides, our castle is far more interesting than Neuschwanstein. That one just has the one view. Ours changes as you walk around it. From seven different perspectives you’ve got seven different buildings.”

‘Adolf Hitler’ School

By the time North Rhine-Westphalia bought the palace in 1989, the vagaries of German history had left it in ruins. Completed in 1884, it started out as a private villa but soon became a museum, then a Catholic boarding school, an “Adolf Hitler” college for boys, a US army base, a home for war refugees, a railway college, an illicit squat for homeless people and a tacky museum.

Its facade is still scarred by shrapnel holes from US artillery fire that smashed all the stained glass windows in the final weeks of the war, before the Nazi schoolboys inside wisely decided to stop resisting.

Historians had been wrong to dismiss the palace as devoid of artistic or architectural merit, said Odenthal. “This is a trove of German art and craftsmanship. We were really excited by the skill that went into building it in just three years at a time when all the material had to be hauled up the hill on wagons and donkeys.”

Odenthal’s team brought in artisans from all over Germany to recreate the original tapestries, wall paintings and windows, often using vintage postcards from 1903 as a guide. “We scoured auctions for furniture from the turn of the 20th century,” said Odenthal. “Luckily, many items from that era aren’t particularly expensive.”

The financier who had the castle built, Stephan Sarter, the son of a pub landlord from Bonn across the river, made his fortune helping to arrange the financing for the Suez Canal. One of the wall paintings features him as a medieval knight on horseback.

Local Tycoon Rides to the Rescue

The Drachenburg stood empty during the 1960s and became so dilapidated that the regional government planned to tear it down. It was saved by fierce protests from local people and by the intervention of a textile merchant named Paul Spinat, who bought the Drachenburg in 1971 and decided to restore it.Spinat, the son of a postman from the town of Bad Godesberg just across the river, opened the castle as a museum and venue for glittering pseudo-aristocratic balls. He made some questionable stylistic changes such as fitting the fake organ, adding plastic balustrades painted to look like marble and building a large swimming pool in front of the palace.

“Paul Spinat would drive around in his golden Rolls Royce collecting curiosities for his palace,” said Odenthal. “He hired anyone who could hold a brush to help restore the wall paintings, and some of them have a faintly comic book style as a result.” The work of one local art student, Peter Tutzauer, can still be admired in the Great Hall. He seems to have been at the very start of his training.

Among the “original” exhibits Spinat procured were masterpieces he insisted were by Velasquez, van Dyck and Titian. A grand wooden bed which probably came from an auction of second-hand theater props was said by tour guides to be “the bed where Marie-Antoinette is believed to have slept.”

A Visit by Andy Warhol

The more gullible visitors believed the claims and went away satisfied that they had just seen an impressive exhibition. The canny businessman helped to fund the upkeep with schemes such as collecting donations for an organ repair fund. “There is no denying he was often on the make,” said Odenthal.

Among Spinat’s more bizarre acquisitions was a set of cast iron steps he fitted in the middle of the Great Hall. “It led nowhere but during receptions he would stand at the top of them behind a curtain and make his grand entrance when everyone had arrived. That meant he would sometimes spend half an hour or more up there waiting,” said Odenthal. Andy Warhol, the American artist, came to one of Spinat’s parties.

The Drachenburg’s restoration is an ode to the skill of its original builders and artisans but also to a romantic fascination with the past, and not least to the fakery of Spinat, who died in 1989.

“We’re going to buy his Rolls-Royce and place it in front of the castle,” Odenthal said. “We’ve already got his death mask. But I’d rather have his toupee.”


Full article and photo:,1518,725306,00.html

Reasons to Be Nervous

Recipe for a commodity musical: (1) Take an ultrafamiliar piece of source material, preferably a hit movie; (2) adapt it for the stage in the most literal and obvious way imaginable, adding only extra jokes; (3) stir in a dozen or so innocuous songs that won’t divert the audience’s attention from how closely the stage version resembles its source. If you’re lucky, you get “The Addams Family”; if not, “9 to 5.” Either way, you get the kind of been-there-seen-that musical that has been blighting Broadway for the past decade and more.

Laura Benanti, Justin Guarini and Sherie Rene Scott in ‘Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

So what does this formula have to do with “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” Lincoln Center Theater’s big-budget musical version of Pedro Almodóvar’s 1988 screen comedy about three women whom love has driven to the brink of madness? The answer is that Jeffrey Lane and David Yazbek, last seen on the Great White Way as the creators of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” have now sought to commoditize not an off-the-rack Hollywood comedy but one of the most individual and significant Spanish-language films of the postwar era. It’s as if they’d tried to turn “Shoot the Piano Player” or “Wings of Desire” into a Big Mac musical—and the results, not at all surprisingly, are a flavorless mess.

Anyone who’s seen the film will recall the exhilarating zaniness with which Mr. Almodóvar told the story of Pepa (played here by Sherie Rene Scott), a TV actress-of-a-certain-age whose affair with Iván (Brian Stokes Mitchell), an older married man, blows up in her face when he dumps her for a younger woman (de’Adre Aziza), much to the disgust of his estranged wife (Patti LuPone). I’ve crammed all these details into a single sentence in order to suggest something of the film’s hectic charm (Mr. Almodóvar has said that he was trying to create the cinematic equivalent of a door-slamming stage farce). That said, I haven’t even gotten around to the concurrent dilemma of Candela (Laura Benanti), Pepa’s best friend, who is having a fling with a Shiite terrorist but would rather be playing house with Carlos (Justin Guarini), Iván’s shy son, even though he’s engaged to a chilly young woman (Nikka Graff Lanzarone) who won’t sleep with him.

For all its seeming lunacy, “Women on the Verge” is in fact a wholly serious comedy about a macho culture that encourages men to be faithless to the women who love them. The fact that Mr. Almodóvar is gay made it easier for him to portray that culture with a sharp-eyed detachment that did nothing to diminish his sympathy for his female characters. That’s part of what makes “Women on the Verge” more than a dizzy sex comedy: You always know whose side it’s on.

To turn so fully realized a work of cinematic art into an equally successful musical demands that it be subjected to a complete and thoroughgoing imaginative transformation. Otherwise, the new version will seem superfluous—which is what’s wrong with the stage version of “Women on the Verge.” Instead of breaking new creative ground, Mr. Lane’s book tracks Mr. Almodóvar’s setting and plot slavishly, salting his script with unfunny one- and two-liners that serve only to dilute the crisp, elliptical dialogue of the screenplay. As for Mr. Yazbek’s songs, they’re as forgettable as Muzak in a noisy restaurant, with dull music and even duller lyrics (“Tell me when did the wires get crossed / Tell me where the connection was lost”).

Given a high-powered cast like this one, everything might have come up roses anyway, but Ms. Scott, who is about as Spanish as I am, turns in a chirpy, lightweight performance that conveys nothing of Pepa’s sensuality. (Carmen Maura, who played the same character in the film, was the very embodiment of that savory quality.) Ms. Benanti, by contrast, makes a bold and energetic impression as Candela, galloping away with the best-in-show ribbon. Mr. Mitchell’s part, however, borders on outright invisibility, while Ms. LuPone’s spectacular gifts are wasted in a supporting role that allows her to do little but sing two forgettable songs and run around tearing her hair.

Bartlett Sher, Lincoln Center Theater’s resident director, has done his best to make interesting things happen onstage, but the results are scatty and unfocused from start to finish. Michael Yeargan’s sets and Catherine Zuber’s costumes do little more than mirror the candy-colored Madrid of the film, and Sven Ortel’s digital projections, which are evidently intended to evoke urban hubbub, merely add to the overall air of clutter. Except during Ms. LuPone’s big second-act number, nothing ever stops moving long enough for you to figure out which way to look.

I admired the original screen version of “Women on the Verge” so much that I feared I might be unfair in reviewing the musical, so I made a point of bringing along a friend who’d never seen the movie. Not only did she find the show dramatically pointless and musically tedious, but she said something that stayed with me long after I left the theater: “I don’t get it—why should I care about any of these crazy people?” When you’re watching the film, you never think of asking such a question. Mr. Almodóvar’s women are creatures of flesh and blood who effortlessly engage your emotions, whereas the women of the Lane-Yazbek version of “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” are stick figures set up onstage for the sole purpose of selling tickets. That’s how commodity musicals work—and why this one doesn’t.

Mr. Teachout, the Journal’s drama critic, blogs about theater and the other arts at


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Wedded With Wit

Mary Dunleavy and Nicholas Pallesen in ‘Intermezzo’

New York City Opera’s fall-season exploration of modern-family dysfunction continues with Strauss’s autobiographical “Intermezzo” (1924), a revival of City Opera’s 1999 Leon Major production, starring soprano Mary Dunleavy as the wacky wife. Billed as “a domestic comedy with symphonic interludes,” “Intermezzo” is a risky repertoire choice: It’s not a toe-tapper, and it requires great orchestral playing. Under conductor George Manahan, the City Opera Orchestra sounded scrappy and sloppy last Friday, rising only occasionally to the beauties of this score. Still, Ms. Dunleavy made it worth a trip, and so did designer Andrew Jackness’s mouthwatering early-20th-century Austrian furniture.

Strauss, who wrote his own libretto for “Intermezzo,” based the opera on his own marriage to the tempestuous Pauline. Christine Storch, the wife in the opera, cannot help quarreling with her composer-conductor husband, Robert, and complaining about her hard lot—abandoned at home as he travels for work. Yet she clearly adores him and brags about him to others. She takes up with a callow young admirer, but quickly recognizes that he is insubstantial compared to Robert. Even the plot’s central misunderstanding—after receiving a note that convinces her that Robert has a mistress, Christine sends him a telegram demanding an immediate divorce—is a demonstration of her love for him. Strauss’s depiction of the long-suffering Robert gives the male point of view the upper hand, yet the opera’s gracious and witty music tells us that for all its tumult, this is a marriage that works.

Ms. Dunleavy’s penetrating, silvery soprano and slight dizzy demeanor brought out Christine’s exasperating unreasonableness, yet the warmth in her portrayal demonstrated the character’s deeper feelings as she deftly balanced the comedy with a more nuanced psychological undercurrent. Baritone Nicholas Pallesen, who sang a strong Falstaff at Juilliard last year, brought authority and tonal beauty to Robert, his gravity belying his relative youth. Tenor Andrew Bidlack was entertaining as the lightweight and mercenary Baron Lummer, who loses Christine when he asks her for money. All three principals dealt ably with Strauss’s extremely wordy libretto, successfully putting across the English translation.

Mr. Jackness’s streamlined sets included a working toboggan slope and skating rink (with the principals on in-line skates) in addition to the handsome Vienna Secession furniture in the Storch home; four men, variously costumed as butlers and skating waiters, extended the director’s light-hearted touch to the scene changes. Martha Mann’s good-looking period costumes completed Mr. Major’s cleverly devised portrait of a termagant who, in the end, the audience can love as much as the composer obviously did.


City Opera filled out its fall program with a Leonard Bernstein concert last Saturday and Sunday titled “Lucky to Be Me.” Like the company’s illuminating production of “A Quiet Place,” it was further proof that Bernstein was a major composer in several genres, not simply a brilliant creator of musical-theater works who dabbled in the classical realm. The first half, with selections from “Songfest” (1977), Kaddish Symphony (1963) and “Mass” (1971), was nominally in the classical realm; some of the singers are currently performing in “A Quiet Place.” Baritone Christopher Feigum and mezzo Patricia Risley each brought haunting, restrained intensity to a song of lost love from “Songfest”: respectively, “To What You Said,” a Whitman setting, and “What Lips My Lips Have Kissed” by Edna St. Vincent Millay. George Steel, the company’s general manager and artistic director, took over the conductor’s baton from its music director, Mr. Manahan, and delivered an expansive, serene performance of Kaddish 2 from Kaddish Symphony, with soprano Talise Trevigne singing the Hebrew text, which showed orchestral capabilities that were absent in the “Intermezzo.”

The selections from “Mass” were tantalizing. “Mass” is an enormous work, an exploration—actually, an explosion—of the Catholic Mass that juxtaposes popular song and theater styles with some of Bernstein’s most sublime choral and orchestral writing. City Opera showcased some of its tamer sections: the exquisite “Simple Song,” beautifully sung by baritone Joshua Jeremiah; “Thank You,” given soaring innocence by soprano Sara Jakubiak; and the choral numbers “Gloria Tibi” and “Sanctus,” featuring the lively Brooklyn Youth Chorus as well as the company’s own adult and children’s choruses. It would have been fun, and more representative of the piece, to hear the company tackle some of the work’s wilder parts.

For the second half, City Opera brought on the Broadway experts for a romp through Bernstein’s musical-theater career. Highlights were Donna Murphy’s satirical venom in “One Hundred Easy Ways to Lose a Man” from “Wonderful Town”; Cheyenne Jackson’s suave “Lucky to Be Me” from “On the Town”; a passionate “Tonight” Quintet from “West Side Story” with Michael Cerveris, Mr. Jackson, Ms. Murphy, Kelli O’Hara and Sidney Outlaw; and the lovely, regretful “Some Other Time” from “On the Town” with Mr. Cerveris, Christine Ebersole, Mr. Jackson and Ms. Murphy.

It was also a treat to hear some lesser-known selections: “We Are Women,” a London addition to “Candide,” rendered with hilarious operatic brio by Victoria Clark and Ms. O’Hara, as well as Ms. Clark’s maniacal portrayal of two first ladies in “Duet for One” and a sumptuous performance of “Seena” by Mr. Outlaw (a young opera singer from whom I’d like to hear more), both from “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.” Written with Alan Jay Lerner, “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue” closed after seven performances in 1976, and these two numbers suggest that it, like “A Quiet Place,” is due for another look. City Opera has a respectable track record with classic musicals, and who could be more appropriate for it than Bernstein?

Ms. Waleson writes about opera for the Journal.


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Staring Into Darkness, in Search of a Rhyme

Composer Stephen Sondheim

When Stephen Sondheim writes, he looks at a blank wall.

Lying on the couch where he has created some of his best-known Broadway musical scores, he tunes out the world beyond his New York brownstone. With his back to a stained-glass window featuring an image of a ship at sea, he trains his gaze across the room onto an empty alcove painted black. He occasionally walks a few steps to the Baldwin piano that Leonard Bernstein helped him to get at a discount decades ago.

The composer-lyricist then picks up one of his yellow legal pads. On such pads he’s written the lyrics, or the entire score, for the street gangs in “West Side Story,” a grasping stage mother in “Gypsy,” a blood-thirsty barber in “Sweeney Todd,” and many others.

On a recent afternoon, Mr. Sondheim, 80, sat upright on that couch, his feet tucked into black slippers and propped on a table. Two black standard poodles, Willie and Addie, named for the brothers in his musical “Road Show,” slept on the floor nearby. The walls of his second-floor study held a Franz Liszt manuscript, framed drawings and “some stuff Lenny sent me”—piano pieces Mr. Bernstein wrote for Mr. Sondheim on special occasions. He spoke in a mellow bass-baritone, often pressing a finger between his eyebrows and closing his eyes as he talked.

Stephen Sondheim during the recording of “Into the Woods,” New York, 1987.

Recently, Mr. Sondheim has been at work on a book, “Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes,” an annotated compilation of lyrics that was released this week. The second volume is expected next October.

When he was younger he felt a great hunger to communicate and be recognized. Now he’s pickier about what he chooses to write. Though he works better with a deadline—”If I owe you the song Tuesday, Monday night I really get to work on it”—he’s never been fast. He said part of that slowdown has come with success and the burden of knowing how much people expect of him.


Musical Notes

  • Musical score writer Stephen Sondheim writes lyrics on one side of yellow legal pads with 28 to 32 blue lines per page, leaving him room to revise as he goes
  • Years ago, he ordered a lifetime supply of now-discontinued Blackwing pencils, which have soft lead and flat erasers that can be removed and flipped to a clean side.
  • To keep his ideas fresh, he purchases CDs through a catalog that features newly recorded classical music. He will listen to each recording two or three times before changing the set.
  • In his book, he writes that words that are spelled differently but sound the same (rougher/suffer) engage the ear more than rhyming words that are spelled similarly (rougher/tougher). He also says words such as “off” are dangerous to rhyme because their pronunciation differs depending on the regional accent. Rhymes using hard consonants such as “k” and “p” are useful for underscoring rage or resolve.
  • Mr. Sondheim said he has a strong internal critic that comments on his work as he’s writing—a voice he’s learned to silence at least until the next day. He tells young writers even if they scribble nothing more than “cat” 60 times in a row, that’s better than writing nothing. “The worst thing is just throwing your pencil down,” he said.


But the writing has always been painstaking. “A lyric doesn’t have very many words in it, so every line is like a scene in a play,” he said, “and that means every word is like a passage of dialogue.” For instance, when crafting the opening number for “Sunday in the Park with George,” he phoned the show’s librettist to discuss a reference to a “dribble” of sweat on his heroine’s neck as opposed to a “trickle.” He went with “trickle” because it seemed less comic and better fit the moment.

On rare occasions, knowing who would sing the song helped inform how he wrote it. In “A Little Night Music,” for instance, many lines of “Send in the Clowns” end with short sounds, like “rich” or “bliss,” because the show’s star, Glynis Johns, was a breathy singer not known for holding long notes.

Mr. Sondheim has occasionally drawn ideas from a woman he dubs his “Muse,” someone he refuses to identify who has offered him advice as well as phrases and words that have found their way into his music. When he lost faith at the start of “A Little Night Music,” calling the musical too frothy, the Muse convinced him to do it.

But much of his inspiration has nothing to do with muses and other romantic notions. He relies on a 1936 edition of the Clement Wood rhyming dictionary that he has rebound at least twice and filled with his notes, as well as a 1946 edition of Roget’s Thesaurus.

At home in New York or at his country house in Roxbury, Conn., concert CDs are often on. He believes that chord progressions or melodic ideas he hears today can influence songs he’ll write years from now. The music plays as he drinks a cup of coffee at breakfast, reads the paper on the couch, skips lunch to work and sips a dirty martini on the rocks while writing in the late afternoon.

He can work for 14 hours a day if he’s on deadline, but if the writing comes too easily, he’ll mistrust it. “If I’m humming ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ in the shower, I say, ‘Uh oh.'” Sure enough, he said, “what I’ve written is ‘Da da da da da DUM.'” But he’s more concerned about stealing melodies from himself, not others. As a result, whenever he composes a song, he tries to put it in a key that he hasn’t written in recently, forcing him to feel his way around new sounds.

The past year has marked many high-profile celebrations of Mr. Sondheim’s 80th birthday. The writer knows the implication is that his work—not just his best work, but all his work—is behind him. As soon as the second book is done, he said, he’ll return to music. “I’m going to have to take a hard look in the mirror and start writing.”

Ellen Gamerman, Wall Street Journal


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The Most Beautiful Language

For four centuries, ballet has presented human anatomy at its most aspiring and celestial

The first ten years of this new millennium witnessed a stately rollout of big books on ballet. Margot Fonteyn (2004) and Rudolf Nureyev (2007) each received definitive studies that were far more ruminative and raw than the numerous previous biographies. Between 2001 and 2006, the great American choreographer Jerome Robbins was the subject of not one, not two, but three huge works. And in 2007, we got the first book—with at least one more announced—on the protean intellect and impresario Lincoln Kirstein. While ballet onstage is desperately trying to find a place in our inattentive and increasingly lowbrow culture, writers have been happily taking the measure of the last century, letting the longer view bring light to subjects on which we seemingly can’t get enough. Or perhaps it’s that we can’t bear to let them go, can’t bear to move from the past to the present, where even the most talented classical dancers, choreographers and impresarios seem to be working in a void.

Into this climate of uncertainty and assessment, Jennifer Homans has delivered another big book—one that pulls itself up, drops its shoulders, and lifts its chin to get the longest view of all. “Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet” takes the measure of the last four centuries, showing us exactly when and why the unlikely art of ballet came into being, and how, growing more unlikely with every century, it evolved and survived.

Those who “get” ballet at first glance—an event that typically happens in childhood and usually at a matinee of “The Sleeping Beauty”—would never use the word “unlikely” to describe this art. For us dreamers, ballet needs no context or explanation; it is at once and forever the most bewitchingly beautiful language in the world, the human anatomy at its most aspiring, celestial and “likely.” For all the rest, ballet can look artificial, archaic or absurd.

How to explain this art form to them? Ms. Homans, a former dancer turned academic, has focused on answering the question: “How had the art come to embody ideas, or a people, or a time?” For while the story she tells begins very specifically in France, in the 16th century, it crosses continents and plays politics. “Ballet,” she writes, “was shaped by the Renaissance and French Classicism, by revolutions and Romanticism, by Expressionism and Bolshevism, modernism and the Cold War.” “Apollo’s Angels,” then, is the intellectual history of a deeply physical form. Ms. Homans lays the stress on ideas—and, by extension, idealism.

Her very first sentence reads like the beginning of a fairy tale: “When the French king Henri II wedded the Florentine Catherine de Medici in 1533, French and Italian culture came into close and formal alliance, and it is here that the history of ballet begins.” This chapter, “Kings of Dance,” is a tour de force, with Ms. Homans unleashing passages of description as if they were Olympian thunderbolts. Speaking of the Académie de Poésie et de Musique, which was established in 1570 by Charles IX and whose purpose was to bring an inclusive, pacific spirituality to theater and art, she writes, “these poets believed that hidden beneath the shattered and chaotic surface of political life lay a divine harmony and order—a web of rational and mathematical relations that demonstrated the natural laws of the universe and the mystical power of God.” Here were the theoretical foundations of ballet, which needed only to be codified into a technique—”the length, duration, measure, and geometry of a step”—and would then “elevate man . . . and bring him closer to the angels and God.” Court etiquette, state strategy, the vanity of kings, the evolution of stagecraft, the shift toward illusion, the use of the instep, the symbolism of “The Sleeping Beauty,” the move from court to theater and from performers who were courtiers to trained dancers—Ms. Homans takes the reins of all these developments and drives them to a breathtaking culmination: classical dance. “It was a vision and defense of nobility,” she writes, “not as a social class but as an aesthetic and way of life.”

In the chapters that follow, Ms. Homans proves adept at guiding the converging aspects of history into powerful punctuations. “The idea that dance could tell a story better than words, that it could express some essential human truth with a moral force that words simply could not convey: this was an idea that came directly out of the French Enlightenment. And it was this idea that changed ballet from a decorative ornament to the independent narrative art form that we think of today as the story ballet.” She makes clear the genesis of the new form’s conventions and metaphors. Why, for example, the corps de ballet is invariably dressed in white. During the French Revolution, Ms. Homans explains, women who wore “simple white tunics became powerful symbols of a nation cleansed of corruption and greed. . . . The corps de ballet as a group of women (never men) in white thus took its cue from the Revolution: they represented the claims of the community (and the nation) over those of the individual.” She continually shows us that, while ballet may be wordless, it is an art that carries meanings and subtexts, which can be explicated and analyzed. It is just as serious as painting, sculpture and music, and in some ways more so, because it is born of all three.

A book of this breadth is going to have its own biorhythms—chapters that engage the author’s mind and heart wholly, where everything clicks and the thinking is virtually kinetic, and chapters that don’t come as easily. Ms. Homans is at her best when the ideological agenda at hand aspires to discipline, precision and refinement. Her French section is masterful, as are the chapters on the rise of the ballerina, the Danish style, Imperial Russian classicism, and British ballet. When she characterizes Margot Fonteyn’s dancing—”Her line was pure and unornamented. . . . It was as if she had removed the jewelry from the Russian aristocratic tradition”—she could be describing her own writing. The chapters on Italian and Soviet ballet, however, though no less erudite, are less keen and somewhat airless. “Lacking the security and raison d’être of a court,” Ms. Homans writes, “Italian ballet became an unthinking and gymnastic art.” And under Stalin classical dance was often a mindgame, dramas that lauded “life in a socialist paradise.” The wrong ideas do not lead Ms. Homans into flight.

The last two chapters of “Apollo’s Angels” cover American ballet in the 20th century—the very century we’re still in the process of assessing. Here, one has the opportunity to measure Ms. Homans’s opinions in a more immediate way. Why, I wondered, does she so underrate Eugene Loring’s “Billy the Kid”? Can it really be true that Antony Tudor’s “Echoes of Trumpets” is better than his “Undertow”? But how refreshing to read an appraisal of the ever-complicated Jerome Robbins that doesn’t take him to the woodshed for not being George Balanchine. As for Balanchine, he is very much the natural apogee of both ballet history and this book—aristocratic classicism come full circle with a twist. Reading in Ms. Homans’s first chapter about the wildly mythical and religious reaches of early ballet, I couldn’t help thinking of Balanchine’s desire to end his 1962 “Midsummer Night’s Dream” with, in his words, “a big vision of Mary standing on the sun, wrapped in the moon, with a crown of twelve stars on her head and a red dragon with seven heads and ten horns . . . the revelation of St. John.” He didn’t, he said, because “people would think I was an idiot.” The Académie’s original impulse for a surpassing spiritual synthesis—for revelations—was still coursing after four centuries!

Ms. Homans has acute observations to make about Balanchine—that his first American ballet, “Serenade,” was also the first ballet to use both third-person and first-person forms, for instance. Her writing on “Agon,” a 1957 masterpiece that is as radical as it is “rooted in classical forms,” elegantly displays the multiple levels of meaning—personal, political, poetic—that breathe within the best ballets. Balanchine may have pooh-poohed deep analysis of his work, but his achievements invite it. This section of the book doesn’t quite transcend the sum of its parts as one wants it to. But then, only 27 years since his death in 1983, Balanchine’s genius may still loom too large to be contained.

“Apollo’s Angels” ends with an epilogue that is mournful about the prospects for ballet’s survival. Ms. Homans is not alone in this feeling, but that she actually danced many of the works she writes about makes her sadness mean more. The art of ballet is indeed imperiled—undermined, as Ms. Homans writes, by cynicism, the “compartmentalization of culture,” the loss of distinct national dance styles, the politicized fear of elitism and a public that thinks ballet “the province of dead white men and society ladies in long-ago places.” Nevertheless, the publication of “Apollo’s Angels” is itself a moment in the magnificent history of classical dance. Yes, the sun is in eclipse, but as this book shows us, the art and its ideals have weathered many a void, only to shine again.

Ms. Jacobs is the dance critic of the New Criterion and the author of “Landscape With Moving Figures: A Decade on Dance” (2006).


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Why I Loathe Top 10 Film Lists

Movie rankings are all the rage—too bad that they have next to nothing to do with the quality of movies

No, I won’t be making out my list of the 10 Best Films for Halloween this year. Nor earlier this year did I make lists of the 10 Best Horror Films, the 10 Scariest Films, or the 10 Most Frightening Slashers in the Cinema. By not making my list of Halloween films, I’ll clear my desk and have plenty of time left to not make my list of the Top 10 Thanksgiving Films. It’s still a little early to consider not making a list of the 10 Best Christmas Pictures, and don’t even ask about the list I won’t be compiling of the 10 Greatest Love Stories for Valentine’s Day.

No list of films has the slightest significance, unless it involves box-office receipts. Every film critic I know loathes making lists. Most of us make an annual Year’s Best Films List, because that’s our equivalent of signing the Hippocratic Oath when you’re a doctor. One year I picked the year’s 20 best films, and the readers screamed bloody hell. Didn’t I know that the rules said I had to choose 10?

Last year I selected the 10 best mainstream films, the 10 best indie films, the 10 best foreign films and the 10 best animated films. “But that’s 40 films!” screamed Hud34, one of my readers. I had to agree. Other readers accused me of cowardice.

Is ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ the greatest film of all time? One Internet ranking says it is. ‘Citizen Kane,’ in dull black and white, rates only No. 37.

Lists inspire endless e-mails from readers asking questions like, “How could you possibly put ‘Bad Lieutenant’ above ‘The Hurt Locker’?” I shot back an instant reply: “Because my list is alphabetical.” Man, did that make them angry. The year I listed 20 films alphabetically, several people informed me they would never read me again, and one canceled a subscription. No, really.

At least my list is mine. Gene Siskel refused to vote for any awards by critics’ groups, “because why should I associate my name with choices I might not have made?” There is, however, one such list to which I grudgingly grant significance. Every 10 years for the last 60 years, Sight & Sound, the magazine of the British Film Institute, has polled the world’s directors, critics, archivists and so on. Originally all the votes were tallied together, but nooooo, that was too simple, so in 2002 the magazine separated critics and directors and made two lists, and we could ponder the significance of the directors placing “Godfather I and II” in second place, while the critics voted them No. 4. Both groups placed “Citizen Kane” first, which is fitting, because it is the Official Best Film of All Time.

This list is notoriously elitist and slow to recognize newer films. Now that the cinema is well into its second century, it is good to maintain a historical perspective. Compare the Sight & Sound list with the Top 250 at the Internet Movie Database, where “The Godfather” is in second place and “Godfather II” in third. The greatest film of all time, by the way, is “The Shawshank Redemption,” and No. 4 is “Inception” (this year’s film, so perhaps premature). “Citizen Kane” is only No. 37, and some critics suspect that’s because some online fanboys won’t watch black-and-white movies. (Anyone who will not watch black and white should be locked in a closet with mice, but that’s another subject.)

The plague of lists has grown much more fearsome in the age of the Internet. That isn’t because website owners give a damn about lists. It’s because they are obsessed with page visits. Let’s say their critic lists 10 films. They could run a little list—oh, say, films Nos. 1 through 10. Nooooo, too simple. They’ll supply a slideshow. Keep clicking on the right arrow to see all 10 titles while they get nine meaningless page visits and inflict carpal tunnel syndrome.

But the most insidious subterfuge of Best Lists is how they extract free work from free-lance critics. Here is a typical email I’ll receive: “For the World Congress of Hot Air Ballooning, we are asking experts like yourself to choose the 10 best hot-air-balloon movies of all time, and write 50 words on each one.”

I absolutely am not making this up. Here’s another that I got recently: “Dear Roger, I’m working on a really great project with [network and magazine] entitled ‘Best In Film.’ We would be honored if you would consider being an integral part of this prime time special which will celebrate the greatest films of all time and likely be hosted by [name]….

“The good news is that it requires a minimal amount of your time. What we want are your thoughts and opinions via an online ballot on what you feel are the greatest films of all time in a number of various categories.

“I look forward to hearing from you soon and as always appreciate the consideration.

“Many thanks, [signed]”

I wrote back:

“Dear [signed], Thank you for your kind request. I made a policy long ago to never do lists. They amount to soliciting unpaid labor from experts in order to lend legitimacy to a meaningless list used to support clip packages and to sell ads. Let me predict that few great silent, foreign or little-known films will be on your show, and that after the balloting, the winner will not be ‘Citizen Kane,’ ‘Rules of the Game,’ ‘Metropolis’ or anything by Buster Keaton.”

The good news is that [signed] hasn’t written back yet.

Roger Ebert has been the film critic of the Chicago-Sun-Times since 1967.


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The Proto-Surrealist

Arcimboldo’s ‘Vertumnus’ (c. 1590).

The late, legendary S. Lane Faison Jr., professor emeritus of art history at Williams College, responded to over-the-top works of art with a vigorous “Hoo boy! Whoops a daisy!” He tended to reserve this evocative phrase for High Baroque extravaganzas and the apses of 18th-century Austrian churches, but I suspect he might have applied it to “Arcimboldo, 1526-1593: Nature and Fantasy,” the small, engaging exhibition dedicated to one of the most peculiar artists of the 16th century, on view at Washington’s National Gallery of Art. At once an exploration of a side-road of Mannerist painting, a brief survey of natural history in the late Renaissance, and an inquiry into perception itself, the show brings together paintings, prints, illustrated books, ceramics and bronzes united by their devotion to the apparently mutually exclusive worlds of nature and the fantastic.

Even those unsure about the pronunciation of “Arcimboldo” (are-cheem-BOLD-oh) will probably recognize his extraordinary “composite heads”—a genre that he apparently invented—in which sometimes comical, sometimes sinister likenesses are conjured up with clusters of fruits, vegetables and gourds, with flowers, twigs and sea creatures, and even, memorably, with books. The exhibition brings together 16 of these puzzling pictures, ranging from allegorical personifications of the elements and the seasons to portraits and witty images in which seemingly straightforward, if tightly packed, still lifes turn into heads when inverted. (Strategically placed mirrors at the National Gallery allow us to participate in the joke.) The selection includes many of Arcimboldo’s most characteristic, best-known heads, painted between 1563 and 1590—from about the time he left his native Milan for Vienna, seat of the Holy Roman Empire, to become court painter to Maximilian II, until a few years after the homesick Italian was allowed to return to Milan while remaining in the service of Maximilian’s successor, Rudolph II.

Little is known about how Arcimboldo attracted the attention of the Hapsburg court. He was, like his artist father, associated with the workshop of Milan’s vast cathedral, designing frescoes, banners, stained glass and the like. Of this early work, only a few unexceptional windows have survived, nothing that suggests extraordinary talent. He may have been known for illustrations of the natural world—a few have emerged—or else, then as now, connections helped in obtaining prestigious appointments.

Certainly the paintings Arcimboldo made for his Hapsburg patrons announce his mastery of the high realism for which Lombardy became known, a tradition based on close observation of nature, thought to be influenced by Leonardo da Vinci during his 17 years in the service of Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan. The flora and fauna that make up Arcimboldo’s weird profiles are exquisitely and accurately rendered, their details and textures meticulously accounted for. It is believed, too, that Arcimboldo had first-hand acquaintance with Leonardo’s drawings of grotesque heads, many of which belonged to a family friend; the irregular profiles of the composite heads often have remarkable cognates in Leonardo’s distorted profiles.

Scholars find allegorical allusions to Hapsburg power in Arcimboldo’s “portraits” of the elements and the seasons, deciphering coded references to dominion over the world. Most of us concentrate on the obsessive virtuosity of the depictions of individual elements—a diagram identifies more than 60 sea creatures and a seal in the personification of water—on the shifting scale among these elements, and on the sheer strangeness of the images. (Not surprisingly, it was the Surrealists, with their taste for dislocation, who rescued Arcimboldo from centuries of obscurity.)

We struggle to see these playful, slightly disturbing images; our interpretation constantly changes. Drawn to the particulars, we try to amalgamate them into an illusionistic head, then get seduced by details again, unable to reconcile the two readings. We recognize the wonderfully painted peaches and pear suggesting the fleshy cheeks and nose of “Vertumnus” (c. 1590), note his peapod eyelids and cardoon moustache, then fleetingly manage to see this paean to abundance as a portrait of the robust Rudolph II, before losing ourselves in cabbage leaves, olives, a blackberry eye, and the glistening cherries of his protruding Hapsburg lip. Least appetizing? “The Jurist” (1566), thought to represent a famously ugly legal scholar’s scarred face by means of plucked chickens and a fish. Most improbable? “The Librarian” (c. 1566), a superb three-quarter portrait constructed with stacked and tipped books; only the picture’s impeccable provenance convinces us that it isn’t a Cubist effort.

At the National Gallery, Arcimboldo’s extravagant composites are illuminated by the presence of some of Leonardo’s bestial grotesque heads, along with drawings and illustrated books documenting the cinquecento’s burgeoning interest in the natural history of both the New and Old World, recorded with scientific accuracy. An enchanting marmot by Jacopo Ligozzi competes with Albrecht Dürer’s cowslips and the charming red squirrel of a Dürer contemporary, Hans Hofmann. Polychrome ceramic plates with high-relief amphibians and bronzes of real and invented creatures remind us that Arcimboldo’s composite heads were once displayed in kunstkammers, along with miscellanies of man-made and natural curiosities. Suddenly, the chicken/fish portrait of “The Jurist” doesn’t seem so odd.

Ms. Wilkin writes about art for the Journal.


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The Sound of Spirit

Emigrating from the Soviet Union to the West in January 1980 with his wife, Nora, and their two small sons, the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt was stopped by border police at the Brest railroad station for a luggage search. “We had only seven suitcases, full of my scores, records and tapes,” he recalled recently. “They said, ‘Let’s listen.’ It was a big station. No one else was there. We took my record player and played ‘Cantus.’ It was like liturgy. Then they played another record, ‘Missa Syllabica.’ They were so friendly to us. I think it is the first time in the history of the Soviet Union that the police are friendly.” He was joking, but not entirely. Later, when I asked Nora about that strange scene at the border, she said, “I saw the power of music to transform people.”

Most contemporary composers aim to ravish the ear or to tickle (or boggle) the mind. Pärt is playing for higher stakes. He wants to touch something that he would call the soul, and to a remarkable extent, he is succeeding. When I would mention to friends or acquaintances that I was writing about Pärt, I was surprised at how many responded, “Oh, I love Arvo Pärt!” It’s not something you often hear when you mention a contemporary composer. The enthusiasm for Pärt’s music extends beyond the circles of classical music (where he is sometimes derided as backward-looking and boring) to include admirers in the pop-music world, like Michael Stipe of R.E.M. and Bjork. Many of Pärt’s pieces are settings of religious texts, and even the instrumental works bear a whiff of church incense. Yet the compositions resonate profoundly for the unconverted as well as the faithful. “It’s a cleansing of all the noise that surrounds us,” says the violinist Gidon Kremer. It is music that reveals itself gradually, with a harmonic stillness that conjures up an alternative to hectic everyday existence. “I was attracted to the unbelievable calm and brilliance of his music, and a seeming simplicity,” Stipe told me. “As a musician and an artist, you realize that within its simplicity, it’s incredibly complex. It brings one to a total meditative state. It’s amazing, amazing music.”

Underlying the apparent simplicity of Pärt’s music are his compositional systems. Above, ‘‘melodical drawing’’ (1976) meant to convey a bird’s wing movements.

Pärt (pronounced PAIRT) writes in a style that is unmistakably his own. “You put on a piece and you can tell at once it is Pärt — even the early pieces,” says the Estonian-born conductor Neeme Jarvi, who has known Pärt since 1960. “You can tell that with Shostakovich or Khatchaturian, but we don’t have many composers these days who have that ability to show, ‘This is me.’ ” Although Pärt’s music is often compared to the Gregorian chant in a monastery or the early polyphonic music of the Renaissance, you could just as easily liken it to the abstract paintings of Mondrian. It is governed by very strict rules in a framework so simple and clear that any deviation — a single dissonant note or an unexpected pause — can be as galvanizing as a small, yellow rectangle in a painted grid.

Last month, Pärt marked his 75th birthday, and the event was celebrated with a festival of his music throughout Estonia, where, says the younger Estonian composer Erkki-Sven Tuur, he is “a living legend.” There were performances of recent as well as familiar pieces, a reminder that Pärt, an energetic man with a reedy voice, loping gait and erect posture, shows few signs of slowing down. ECM New Series, which was inaugurated 26 years ago with his breakthrough work “Tabula Rasa,” likewise balanced the old and new, releasing a first recording of Pärt’s Fourth Symphony (which was premiered in 2009 by the Los Angeles Philharmonic) and preparing to issue a deluxe commemorative edition of “Tabula Rasa” in December. This year, Pärt’s major new work is “Adam’s Lament,” a 25-minute piece for string orchestra and chorus, based on an old Russian text. (“Adam’s Lament” will have its first North American performance next month in New York, as part of the White Light Festival at Lincoln Center.)

In one birthday-festival concert that I attended, in an old church in the Estonian capital of Tallinn, a long-stemmed red rose was handed to each of the players and then to the composer, who bounded up to the stage, playfully bopping the heads of the musicians with his floral baton. Belying his mythologized public reputation as solemn and monklike, Pärt disarmingly blends the antic with the earnest. Before we met, I could comprehend the impulse to cast him in a religious mold (although for me, with his aquiline nose, furrowed brow and gray-flecked black beard, a different holy prototype comes to mind — one of the apostles as painted by Tintoretto). Appearance notwithstanding, he is neither an ascetic nor a recluse. “He’s a man of the world,” says Manfred Eicher, the ECM founder and record producer, who is his close friend. “He is very centered. He knows exactly what he wants and doesn’t want.”

He is also forthright on worldly matters that he deems important. He dedicated the Fourth Symphony last year to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was an oil oligarch before he ran afoul of Vladimir Putin, the former president and current premier of Russia; since 2003, Khodorkovsky has been imprisoned for fraud and tax evasion. And after the murder, in October 2006, of the outspoken investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, whose articles embarrassed both Putin and the pro-Moscow government in Chechnya, Pärt declared that all concerts of his music that season would be performed in her memory. He volunteered to me that he knew that in making such gestures he was venturing outside his recognized bailiwick. “I am not a politician; I’m a dilettante,” he said. “But this is the normal thinking of people who came through this Soviet hell.”

In 1992, once Estonian independence had been proclaimed upon the ashes of the Soviet Union, Pärt and his wife came back to see their native land. They had spent 12 years in exile, mainly in Berlin. I asked him if he found Estonia very different on his return.

“It was nearly the same as when we left,” he said. “Same functionaries have changed their color. Some people say that after being occupied by another state, you need for healing the same amount of time as you were occupied. So we need 50 years and East Germany 48 years.”

He chuckled. “There was some kind of enthusiasm,” he added.

“Like teenager,” Nora chimed in. We were in a car, with Arvo driving us from the village in the country where they spend most of their time back to Tallinn, in which they keep a spacious apartment in the Old Town.

“ ‘Now we are free,’ ” Pärt mimicked, with a tone that was both wistful and amused. “Naïve a little bit. But the real life is something different. Then comes the difficulties. New bandits.”

At this point, a different strain of his personality sounded. “There is a good rule in spiritual life, which we all forget continually,” he said, “that you must see more of your own sins than other people’s.” He remarked that the sum of human sin has been growing since Adam’s time, and we all share some of the blame. “So I think everyone must say to himself, ‘We must change our thinking.’ We cannot see what is in the heart of another person. Maybe he is a holy man, and I can see only that he is wearing a wrong jacket.”

Some weeks later, I thought back on this conversation and reflected that in its two parallel lines — one worldly and critical, the other forgiving and tolerant — Pärt was recapitulating the two musical voices of the “tintinnabuli” style of composition, which he discovered after years of painful searching in the 1970s, and which has guided his music ever since.

The Arvo Pärt Center is located near the Pärts’ country home, in a newly built nouveau riche residence that conveniently became available in a foreclosure sale when the recession hit. The house now shelters the center’s administrative offices, and the former garage has been renovated into a climate-controlled archive.

The Pärts’ younger son, Michael, who was working abroad as a film-music editor, returned to Estonia two years ago to become the director of the center. Michael, who is 32, showed me the manuscripts that are the jewel of the archive, with a special place for his father’s spiral notebooks of the ’70s, which had been reinforced in those impoverished times with whatever was available, like scraps of leather or denim from old jeans. The acid in the Soviet recycled paper is leaching away the brightly colored felt-tipped-pen ink that the composer used to try out different harmonic accompaniments to his melodies; the center’s most pressing priority, occupying the attention of three staff members, is to scan these pages into digital images.

A little later, Pärt joined us and brought photostats of a 1976 notebook to show me. Along with musical notations, there were comments — in Estonian, Russian, Latin, German and English — that recorded his thoughts as well as quotes from texts. He read a few aloud, translating them into English for me. “ ‘The collection of energy must be the ground of form,’ ” he recited, and laughed. “What it means I do not know.” Such words are embellishments to the bulk of the journals, which are filled with musical notes. “I wrote thousands and thousands of pages,” he recalled, “to think in musical language, ‘What happened here?’ Why one melody makes this impression and traces the spirit, and another not? Every day, 10 or 20 pages or more. This was my work, every day. No way out.”

Before this long ordeal, music had come easily to him. The son of a heavy-machinery operator who left when Arvo was 2, Pärt moved into a more cultured milieu once his mother remarried a few years later. His stepfather was a commercial sign painter; in the family house were a concert piano and a stash of scores. The piano was lacking many keys in the middle register — “like a 5-year-old child with teeth missing,” Pärt told me. But even with this dilapidated instrument, he demonstrated his talent. His musical ability propelled him to a position as a drummer when he was drafted into the Soviet Army, and later to a place at the musical academy in Tallinn. There he became known as someone to watch — which, in the Soviet Union, was a mixed blessing.

As a young man, Pärt composed music that was exuberantly and aggressively modern. In 1962, his first orchestral piece, “Nekrolog,” was also the first Estonian 12-tone music to be performed; as Pärt’s biographer Paul Hillier recounts, it stirred great controversy, earning a specific denunciation in Moscow as “avant-garde bourgeois music” by the formidable musical arbiter Tikhon Khrennikov, secretary of the Union of Soviet Composers. Serial music was just one of the styles that Pärt was exploring. In numerous works of musical collage, a compositional approach that was popular with Shostakovich and other Soviet composers, he incorporated passages of shrill dissonance. Some pieces were nonsensically Dadaesque: in his Second Symphony, the musicians at certain points are instructed to crinkle pieces of brown wrapping paper or to squeak children’s toys.

Other works were more politically provocative. In 1968, he caused an uproar when his choral piece “Credo” was premiered. This time, the Latin text — it proclaims, “I believe in Jesus Christ” — is what outraged the devoutly atheistic authorities. Neeme Jarvi, who conducted the sole Soviet performance, told me: “The law was that you first had to show the score to the composers’ union. I didn’t. I thought they wouldn’t let us. The Estonian Philharmonic organization said, ‘Let’s do it.’ Next morning it was a big scandal in the Politburo of Estonia. Then the pressure starts. Some people were sacked from the Philharmonic organization.” He says that he retained his position because no one was available to replace him, but that the scandal dried up Pärt’s official commissions, forcing him to rely on writing film scores to earn a living.

In retrospect, what is most important about “Credo” is that in it, Pärt described in musical terms the crisis that was afflicting him. The composition juxtaposes a lovely harmonic progression from Bach’s Prelude in C with violently discordant music. “I wanted to put together the two worlds of love and hate,” he explained. “I knew what kind of music I would write for hate, and I did it. But for love, I was not able to do it.” That was what drew him to the idea of borrowing Bach’s theme and incorporating it into a collage. Like a tone poem, “Credo” dramatizes a story, in this case a scene from the New Testament. As Pärt explained, “It was my deep conviction that the words of Christ — ‘You have heard an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, but I say to you, Do not resist evil, go with love to your enemies’ — this was a theological musical form. Love destroyed the hate. Not destroyed: the hate collapsed itself when it met the love. A convulsion.” So it is in “Credo.” Early on, the piece introduces the Bach quotation, the notes evolve into a sequence that is transformed following the rules of 12-tone music and then erupts into dissonance and clashing before subsiding once again into a gentle reprise of the Prelude.

After “Credo,” Pärt stopped composing. He no longer believed in the musical forms he had depended on. “I think if the human has conflict in his soul and with everything, then this system of 12-tone music is exactly good for this,” he told me. “But if you have no more conflict with people, with the world, with God, then it is not necessary. You have no need to have a Browning in your pocket, or a dagger.” One day, around that time, he thinks perhaps it was in a bookstore, he heard a snippet of Gregorian chant playing on a radio; it was like a window opening onto another world. “In one moment it was clear how much deeper and more pure is this world,” he continued. “Everyone has many antennae, and they catch what we cannot even register in our minds. But the feeling is clear.” In his obsessively thorough way, he began to study monody — the single line of Gregorian plainsong — and the birth of Western polyphony in medieval and early Renaissance music. He filled his notebooks with ancient melodies.

I asked if his attraction to religious music drew him into the church, but that was a distinction he didn’t recognize. “There is no border that divided,” he said. “Religion and life — it is all the same.” He was reading early Christian writings while he was immersing himself in musical study. “The old music, when it was written, the focus of this music was the Holy Scripture for composers for centuries,” he said. “It was the reality for every artist. Through one, you can understand the other. Otherwise, you are like some teachers in the Soviet Union who say, ‘Bach was a great composer but he had a defect; he was religious.’ It means this teacher cannot understand the music of Bach.”

At this time of spiritual searching, he met Nora, a musical conductor, who was embarked on a similar quest. Of Jewish origin, she was planning to immigrate to Israel with her parents, but after meeting Pärt, she chose to stay behind. In 1972, she entered the Russian Orthodox Church a few months before he did, and in that year, they married. “We had the same journey in the same direction; we had the feeling we must do it together,” he said. Ever since, they have formed a tight-knit unit, speaking in one voice to the outside world.

During the first years of their marriage, Nora watched her husband struggle to find his way out of his musical impasse. Pärt told me he felt that the tools he had were inadequate: “I cannot eat soup with a fork or meat with a spoon.” He was searching for a new system, one that would provide the kind of logical framework that 12-tone music offers but would allow him to express his evolving state of “small steps of tolerance to the world.” During this period of exploration, someone suggested that to escape his creative stalemate, he needed to disrupt his normal habits. To encourage that dislocation, the Pärts experimented with visual art; they would provide plain clay flowerpots to visiting friends, and they would all paint them. At the Arvo Pärt Center, there is one specimen of the composer’s handiwork, and it stands apart from the group. Other people daubed their pots with bright splotches. His is decorated with perfectly regular, muted color bands.

For several years, he studied old music, especially Gregorian plainsong. “Nothing changed in me, but I instinctively feel it has a life-giving power,” he said. “But where is this secret? Where is this secret?” He was following many different alleys, all of them blind. As Nora recalled, “We both don’t know in what direction to look — nature, forest, birds, bells. For Arvo, the seagull was important. He wanted the line of power of their flight. How do they have so much power? Maybe it is in these lines.” He drew patterns of notes that mimicked the motions of wings. That was not the answer.

“I hoped, of course, that I can find the way out, but also the hopeless was an everyday guest,” Pärt told me. “And I was full of energy. It was possible that I explode from all of this situation.” During that period, he wrote only one piece of music, the Third Symphony (1971), a transitional work. Mostly, he studied. “And maybe there was one point when I said, ‘Stop with this old music as a composer.’ Now in this place must be born something of mine — from everything that I have learned in old music, in religion, in life, and how much I was able to see my own sins and imperfections, and to repent it. To say, ‘Yes.’ And if you do, then it is like when you are on a computer, and you write a text and then you press something and it is empty. But it is a good thing. Begin from zero, from nothing. It’s like if there is a fresh snow and nobody has walked, and you take the first steps on this snow. And this is the beginning of new life.”

Pärt’s mature style was inaugurated in 1976 with a small piano piece, “Für Alina,” that remains one of his best-known works. It is governed by the compositional system that he called “tintinnabuli,” derived from the Latin word for “bells.” The tintinnabuli method pairs each note of the melody with a note that comes from a harmonizing chord, so they ring together with bell-like resonance. But the name of the method should not be taken too literally. “It’s a metaphor,” Pärt told me. His wife chimed in, “It’s poetical, and the sound of the word is musical.”

I wondered whom the piece was named for. “Alina is the daughter of our very good friend who visited us in Tallinn,” Pärt said. “And this day, as they visited us, the mother of Alina has a birthday. But Alina, the daughter, was not with her. She left the Soviet Union some years ago with her father and lived in London. And there was no connection, and it was hard for all. And then I decided to dedicate this small piano piece to Alina, like a small consolation.”

I replied that this suggested another metaphor, because the tintinnabuli style — especially in the simple form in which it exists in “Für Alina” — consists of two lines. The melody, which proceeds mainly in steps up and down the scale, might be compared to a child tentatively walking. The second line underpins each note of the melody with a note from a harmonizing triad (the fundamental chord of Western music) that is positioned as close as possible to the note of the melody, but always below. You could imagine this accompaniment to be a mother with her hands outstretched to ensure her toddler doesn’t fall.

Pärt grabbed my own hand with excitement. “This is the whole secret of tintinnabuli,” he exclaimed. “The two lines. One line is who we are, and the other line is who is holding and takes care of us. Sometimes I say — it is not a joke, but also it is as a joke taken — that the melodic line is our reality, our sins. But the other line is forgiving the sins.” Metaphors aside, the tintinnabuli style proved to be an ingenious and fertile system for generating compositions. From the late ’70s onward, after his long drought, Pärt has been an extremely productive composer.

While Pärt’s music is often categorized (although not by him) as minimalist, it avoids the monotony of some of the pieces that go by that label and too often sound as though they were stitched together by a sewing machine. This is primarily because the rules that bind the triadic to the melodic line produce unexpected outcomes; consequently, the music seems to move, even if, remaining in the home key, it never really goes very far. But it is also important that Pärt, a fanatic for detail, painstakingly adjusts each score to achieve the result he is after.

In the first tintinnabuli pieces, Pärt was not thinking about performances, and (as with medieval music) his notation was sparse. He stepped out publicly in 1977 with “Tabula Rasa.” His friend, the conductor Eri Klas, was looking for a work to accompany a performance of Alfred Schnittke’s First Concerto Grosso, which was written for two violins, harpsichord, prepared piano and string orchestra. He asked Pärt if he could deliver a piece in three months with the same orchestration. The composer complied (eliminating the harpsichord). When the new piece arrived, the orchestra players and the violin soloists, Gidon Kremer and Tatjana Grindenko, were bewildered. “We were all a bit surprised by the empty picture of the score,” Kremer told me. “It was all tonal and so transparent. There were so few notes.”

The night of the concert, the auditorium in Tallinn was full. Having had only two days of rehearsal, the musicians were filled with apprehension. “They came to the concert expecting a catastrophe, even Gidon Kremer and Tatjana Grindenko, who put all their talent on every note, especially the second part, the slow part,” Pärt said. “And it was a magnet for the orchestra, and they took over this articulation. And it was wonderful. It was so still that the people could not breathe or cough, it would disrupt. It was with me the same feeling. My heartbeat was so noisy that I thought everyone could hear.” The composer Tuur, who was still a teenager, was in the audience that night. “I was carried beyond,” he told me. “I had the feeling that eternity was touching me through this music.” In the score, Pärt wrote an exceptionally long four measures of rest at the end of the piece, but the silence went on even longer. “Nobody wanted to start clapping,” Tuur said.

When you listen to “Tabula Rasa,” the silence that is being broken is as palpable as the music being played; it is like the void that is shaped by a bowl. The two violins pierce with catlike delicacy and purpose. The piano (which is altered and amplified to produce the timbre of a bell or gong) streaks repeatedly like raindrops on a windshield and knells occasionally with a portentous clang. The chamber orchestra weaves a web of sustained notes that shimmer and glisten. If you were floating in space looking down on earth, this is what you would want in your headphones. Writing in The New Yorker eight years ago, Alex Ross reported that “Tabula Rasa” was often requested by terminally ill patients afflicted with AIDS or cancer.

It was “Tabula Rasa” that ECM’s Eicher heard, coming over the radio on a late-night drive he was making from Stuttgart to Zurich — and which so transfixed him that he pulled onto the side of the road to listen more closely. Eventually, he tracked down the name of the piece and the composer, and he contacted Pärt. Because his label up until then was devoted to jazz and improvised music, Eicher started the “New Series” to release composed works, with “Tabula Rasa” the first. Since that time, he has produced 11 more recordings devoted to Pärt’s music, always with the composer’s participation. It has been Pärt’s main avenue to international recognition.

Critics of Pärt’s work usually complain that it is ersatz and simple-minded. But unlike some so-called “holy minimalists” (like Henryk Gorecki and John Tavener) with whom he is unfairly grouped, Pärt composes by a process that is as rigorously systematic as anything propounded by Schoenberg. He is not an old-fashioned composer but a contemporary one. Without his having traveled through serial music, it is hard to imagine that he could have arrived at his method.

Much of what Pärt writes is choral music. Although his compositions are intended for concert performance and not religious service, in one regard he is medieval: his acute sensitivity to texts recalls the Gregorian chants he so admires. But here too, his mathematical brain is at work. He applies a set of principles to determine the phrasing of a piece: so that in “Passio,” a setting of the Passion according to St. John, which dates from 1982 and is one of his major accomplishments, he gives a different duration value to different syllables, depending on the syllables’ relationship to punctuation marks in the sentences. A similar operating system is used in instrumental works that are derived from texts, like the second movement of the Fourth Symphony; as the conductor Tonu Kaljuste observes, “Behind this string music is words — they pray between notes.”

Since he typically writes now in response to commissions, Pärt orchestrates his work with a detail that he didn’t apply in the early days, when his music was playing mainly in his own head — or, if it was performed, could be adapted to whatever musical forces were available. “It was music without colors,” Pärt explained to me. “Whatever instruments you had in Tallinn, you played at that time.” The more recent music also sounds freer than some of the older work. “Before, the algebra was most important,” Kaljuste says. “Now the algebra becomes more organic. The language he created has started to breathe.”

Over lunch with the Pärts, I asked if his music had become less confined by guidelines.

“The first period was very strict,” Nora said. “It was very important for Arvo to give himself a system, rules and discipline. And over time, Arvo had more and more freedom.”

“I believed in myself more and more,” he said. Then he added: “It can be good or bad. It is dangerous, this freedom.”

“Without discipline, freedom is very dangerous,” Nora said, with emphasis.

“In some way, we go back to the tintinnabuli,” Arvo resumed. “One line is like freedom, and the triad line is like discipline. It must work together.”

Back at the Pärt Center, shortly before this lunch, Pärt had described to me his attraction to early music and his exodus from the camp of contemporary 12-tone and atonal music.

“Actually, music is a very material thing,” he said. “When you play the dissonance between two strings — a very, very painful dissonance — then it is something very certain. And when you play a tune on the violin and the fifth is clean, then there is no other vibration. It’s like an oscilloscope when you see it goes flat.”

I said that when a medical oscilloscope went flat, the patient was dead.

He laughed. “This is a resurrection for purity from impurity.”

He walked to the piano in a corner of the room and crashed out some loud dissonant chords, a bedlam of black and white keys. Then he used two fingers to pick out two white keys and play an open fifth, an interval that is a fundamental musical consonance, a sound that soothes and resolves.

“We read it in our hearts and minds,” he said. “And you can choose. The composer can choose what he needs. This is very primitive explaining, but it is so. Who can say it is not so?”

Arthur Lubow is a contributing writer for the magazine. His last article was about the artist Tino Sehgal.


Full article and photos:

The World Turned Upside Down

The Marx Brothers’ comedy is driven and gentle and chaotic and anarchic, and somehow bawdy and wholesome at the same time. It’s also all about the American Dream.

I’m always on the lookout for DVDs for the kids and me, and it’s always old comedies. It seems every car wash in Southern California has displays at the register of Abbott and Costello, the Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges and Laurel and Hardy for $1.98. (So quintessentially American that the most prosaic places have become our libraries of Alexandria.) We take them home, pop them in and howl like maniacs. There’s plenty of fine things made today, but for plain, old head-back cackling and sofa slapping, you just cannot beat Moe hitting Larry with a shovel or Bud trying to explain something to Lou or Oliver Hardy looking straight into the camera imploring us to understand what he has to endure.

The Fantastic Four: Zeppo, Chico, Groucho and Harpo Marx

Well, all great comedians are funny (and all funny ones are great), but the ones whose humor challenges and prods as it tickles are the Marx Brothers. I have laughed a lot in my life, but most of the really big laughs, the out loud ones, came from them. One is from “A Night at the Opera” (1935), when everyone tumbles out of that stateroom in slightly sped-up motion. Another is from “A Day at the Races” (1937), when Chico successfully sells Groucho a preposterous armload of telephone book-sized racing “manuals.”

The gold-medal winner, though, just might be—no, has to be—the entire peanut scene from “Duck Soup” (1933), where Harpo and Chico torment a lemonade seller played by the wonderfully reliable Edgar Kennedy. There must be five or 10 (or 20 or a hundred; I don’t know and can’t stop laughing to count) huge laughs in that scene, on their own and together, and they build and build on each other. But get this: The entire scene and every joke in it gets me every time, start to finish. Think about that. Every laugh, every moment, every look, every line: every time.

You may tell me that certain things are very difficult to do in life, like open heart surgery or negotiating a treaty with horrible people, or trying to remember anything you’ve just seen on the History Channel. And all of these things are certainly not easy. But making people of all ages and backgrounds laugh to the bottom of their souls for 80 years with a product as fresh as the day it came out? Pretty difficult, no?

Margaret Dumont and Groucho listening for intruders just before the mirror scene.

Here’s something else that’s not so easy to do: Write about their comedy in a way that’s fresh and funny and important on its own. Well, that’s what Roy Blount Jr. has done with his new book.

But wait, you’re trying to remember the plot of the “Duck Soup”: Two countries decide to go to war . . . and it’s very funny. Now, back to our author.

I’m serious, that’s all you need to know about the movie, or at least all I can tell you. I must have seen the thing 30 times, and I still have no idea what it’s about.

This may be the greatest virtue of the Marx Brothers, that the only thing you ever need to know about them is: Just see the thing. Most of us go through life overthinking hamburgers or pretty girls or bad people; the Marx Brothers eat them, kiss them and befuddle them. (Come to think of it, that is the plot of “Duck Soup.”)

Besides, every Marx Brothers movie has essentially the same plot and theme anyway, one that I personally find very appealing: Good-looking, slender WASPs try to run the world and short, Jewish men turn it upside down.

The Marx Brothers were three (or four, or five; or six if you count Minnie, their mom) throbbing ids, and they would never have explained themselves, because they didn’t need to. But we need them to, and we want them to, and so Roy Blount has done it. For all of us.


Larry’s Five Lost Comedy Gems

Well, they’re not exactly lost, but there are five of them, and they’re gems.

The Road to Morocco (1942) Bob Hope and Bing Crosby’s “Road” movies are always fun, and this one is terrific times two. This was made when Hollywood took comedies seriously enough to nominate them for Oscars. As a team, Hope and Crosby are smooth and silly in everything they do (though it’s nearly impossible to imagine now, but these guys were hip.)

Buck Privates (1941) Abbott and Costello are a lesson in rhythm every time they open their mouths. Two naturals who found something beautiful together. “Buck Privates” was a B movie on double features made for nothing, given almost free to theater owners to toss on while people went to the bathroom. They came back and started laughing. So will you.

The Inspector General (1949) People don’t talk much about Danny Kaye these days—what a shame. One of the biggest bundles of talent ever to stroll into Hollywood, he was like a baseball player who hits .300 with 40 homers and 40 stolen bases, a 150 RBIs and a Golden Glove as well. And sings. This movie is just dandy, and sports a cast of the best supporters in town: Gene Lockhart, Elsa Lanchester, Alan Hale, Rhys Williams and the magnificent Walter Slezak.

My Little Chickadee (1940) Anyone who talks about American Comedy (and American eccentrics) without mentioning W. C. Fields is just not taking the whole thing seriously. And speaking of American originals, has anyone ever been smarter or more specific in her branding than Mae West? These two together kill me. There’s never been more preposterous acting together in one story than here.

The Quiet Man (1952) : I know, I know, I can hear brakes squealing all across America: “That’s not a comedy!” Hear me out. John Ford is the greatest storyteller in movie history—then, now and forever—and he always put humor into his pictures. A lot. If you aren’t smiling and laughing all the way through this love song to Ireland, you’re just not alive. Remember Barry Fitzgerald walking into what he thinks is John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara’s honeymoon room and seeing the bed collapsed (for a different reason)? He mutters, “Impetuous . . . Homeric . . .” It’s the smartest, wittiest joke I’ve ever heard.

A personal happy moment: I was on a flight a few years ago and saw Maureen O’Hara sitting there. I walked, kneeled down, and when she turned I said, “Mary Kate Danaher, you’re still the prettiest girl in all of Mayo.” If I live another thousand years I don’t expect to see a better smile.

-Larry Miller


I like to think I know a little about the Marx Brothers and 20th-century American comedy, but I have never thought about them the way Mr. Blount does, and this new book of his, “Hail, Hail, Euphoria: Presenting the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup, the Greatest War Movie Ever Made” (a title just slightly shorter than the book itself), is a good deal more than just an analysis of a great American movie. He guides us, like Boone through the Cumberland Gap, to our own land, already settled but brand new just the same, taking us backward to see forward. This leaves even a fan like me slightly open-mouthed with respect.

Mr. Blount mixes the story of the Marxes with the story of the movie, and it becomes the story of America. The brothers were driven and gentle and chaotic and anarchic, and somehow both bawdy and wholesome at the same time. And isn’t that exactly what we all are? Julius (Groucho) and his siblings may have had the hardest-of-scrabble youths, but the only people they ever look to tear down are the pompous, not the rich. Think about it: In all their movies they don’t want to kill the rich, they want to marry them—or at least co-opt or become them. That’s what we used to call The American Dream: Tear down the windbags of every generation until you become a windbag yourself, and the next generation tears you down.

Mr. Blount describes and analyzes the peanut scene, for instance, in exact, beat-by-beat detail, and not only doesn’t suck the wind out of it, but puts it on a pillow and wraps it in a ribbon: It made the scene better for me than it’s ever been.

The only place we part company is his disdain for the slightly knuckleheaded love stories he feels are always square-pegged into Marx Brothers movies, something he notes when his discussion ranges beyond “Duck Soup” to others in their egg. (I’m tired of saying “oeuvre,” and I just stopped now. So there.) Anyway, I love the love stories and am perfectly prepared to be called a dope for it. I adore Alan Jones and Kitty Carlisle in “A Night at the Opera,” for example, and even when she pronounces “debut” like Madame DuBarry, she can do no wrong. Love, in the end, really does make the world go ’round, even with a family of lunatics honking at it.

The Whole Gang: The brothers in a promotional shot for ‘Duck Soup.’

Little matter; Mr. Blount and I agree on everything else, and “Hail, Hail, Euphoria” is the most lyrical, insightful, scholarly, illuminating and celebratory 144 pages I’ve ever sat down with. This book is a stream of fun—there are no chapters, you just start reading, stop when the need arises to mix another restorative, and wherever you stopped was somehow . . . correct.

I never tire of great Hollywood stories. Somehow just hearing about Maureen O’Sullivan agreeing to meet a besotted Groucho for lunch and then being puzzled that he couldn’t stop cracking jokes is an insight into the man like no other. Plus, Mr. Blount periodically finds an idea so big it makes me lean back, exhale and mutter out loud, “Wow, pal. Wow.” He notes, for instance, while discussing the ways of their usual director, Leo McCarey (one of the great American storytellers), the extent of comedy’s Jewish-Irish collaboration in and around the Marx Brothers’ time in business, creativity and romance: Ted Healy and the Stooges, Abbott and Costello, Stiller and Meara, Edgar Kennedy and our boys in that peanut scene, are just a few that he brought to mind. (How ironic in our unfinished march from pluribus to unum that the greatest Irish Catholic beauties of Hollywood in those days, like O’Sullivan and Grace Kelly, affected accents exactly like the young girl who hadn’t yet become Queen Elizabeth.)

Oddly enough, the greatest moment in a book filled with great moments may just be a pun that almost knocked me off my chair. It’s so good I can’t bring myself to take the air out of it by telling you. In a just world he would get paid for that alone. (It’s on page 90, and the origin is Shakespeare.) I know he loves it, too, because he pauses to mention it again. I would’ve done the same thing.

That “Hail, Hail, Euphoria” is so good did not come to me as a surprise. I first became aware of Mr. Blount and his pen when I was in the throes of adolescent sexuality. (No, not last week, the first time around.) I don’t think he’d mind, but my first respect for him had nothing to do with his writing, at least not directly. Steve Atlas and Jimmy Kaufman and I would gather behind the garage and pore over Steve’s dad’s old Playboys, like lost soldiers poring over maps in the hedgerows after D-Day. About every other woman (or every other issue) were the words: “Roy Blount Jr., Humorist.” I was a credulous kid, or maybe just an idiot, but I clearly remember thinking, “This guy must know these women. And, they hired him to be funny.” “Roy Blount Jr., Humorist.” If the president of the United States strolled up behind us and said howdy I couldn’t have been more impressed. (Maybe if it was Andrew Jackson—I always wondered how you can have that much hair and still need to drink.) And what in the world was a humorist? Near as I could figure, it was a non-Jewish comedian.

I know what it is now: someone smart enough and funny enough to teach as he entertains. We’re all busy, but give yourself a gift: Rent or buy “Duck Soup” and watch it. Then read this book. Then watch the movie again. Lather, rinse, repeat. Roy Blount Jr. has plenty to show you about what made your country. Come on, you’re never going to get to that new Washington biography anyway, are you?

Mr. Miller is an actor, writer and comedian living in Los Angeles.


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He Captured Unfettered Illusionism

In the late morning hours of Oct. 12, 1654, a cataclysmic explosion of gunpowder magazines decimated the northeast quadrant of the peaceful Dutch city of Delft, leveling its modest houses, damaging its elegant churches and killing hundreds of its inhabitants. Among the victims was the 32-year-old painter Carel Fabritius (1622-1654). Although his art would be rediscovered and celebrated by Théophile Thoré-Bürger, the esteemed 19th-century French critic, and he is considered, along with Johannes Vermeer and Pieter de Hooch, one of the great triumvirate of the 17th-century Delft school, only a handful of works can with certainty be ascribed to Fabritius today. His tiny (about 13-by-9-inch) painted panel of “The Goldfinch” (Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague), signed and dated to the final year of his life, suggests the magnitude of what was lost when the painter perished that day along with much of his art.

The painting is an impressive record of the artist’s heralded gifts for illusionism and brilliant trompe l’oeil techniques.

His first biographers remembered Fabritius as a master of marvelous optical effects. His highly unusual “View of Delft” of 1652 (National Gallery, London), for example, situates a genre scene amid familiar urban landmarks in an anamorphic, wide-angled townscape. Painted, atypically, on a canvas instead of a wooden panel, it was probably designed to be viewed in a cylindrical perspective box, where its evident distortions, seen through a single peephole, would disappear. Though none have survived, Fabritius was widely known as a maker of perspective boxes, which were also favored by some of his Dutch contemporaries, and they constituted only one aspect of the vogue for sophisticated illusionistic effects that became a passion for elite patrons and painters in Delft. “The Goldfinch,” while not dependent on such optical implements or spatial sleights of hand, is equally impressive as a record of the painter’s heralded gifts for illusionism and brilliant trompe l’oeil techniques.

Against a luminous, whitewashed wall—a hallmark of the Delft school but here marked by crumbling plasterwork and patches of scumbled, slate-blue priming—Fabritius paints to scale a common goldfinch tethered by a delicate metal chain. The artist’s name and the date at the lower edge appear not painted but incised into the same blue-gray ground, and the color is repeated in the square feedbox at center, in cast shadows, in underpainting on the circular wooden rungs, and in the bird’s soft down. The composition is elegant in its spare simplicity: Only the goldfinch and its shadow offset the subtle balance of hard edges and swagging curves that create its perfect symmetry.

The slope of the box, the slanted shade, and the steep angle at which we see the bird suggest that Fabritius intended his small painting to be hung high and viewed at a slight distance, the vantage point at which its captured illusion of a tiny creature peering down from its perch is most convincing. The painter draws us near, however, with the dazzling virtuosity of his brushwork. Strokes of paint remain perceptible on the surface and range from veils of thin pigment and soft swirls of darkened reds to crusted threads of glistening white impasto.

As a young artist, Fabritius had worked in Rembrandt’s atelier in Amsterdam (along with Samuel van Hoogstraten, also known for his optical conceits), and his study under the aging Dutch master may be evoked here in his rapid, painterly brushwork and in the brilliant passage of lead-tin yellow at center that is marked by a long, thin scratch. Using the butt of his brush to slice into still-wet paint, Fabritius reveals dark underpainting and also his debt to a technique Rembrandt had employed in his early work. But the radiant, atmospheric tones that spill across the panel’s surface reflect not so much Rembrandt’s color range as the new, lightened palette Fabritius adopted when he moved to Delft in 1650. For all of its stunning illusionism, the diminutive painting beautifully encapsulates its maker’s tragically abbreviated career.

Yet beyond its sheer artistry, how, we might ask, was Fabritius’s depiction of a goldfinch originally meant to function? The bird had often appeared in scenes of Dutch interiors. A favored household pet, its Dutch nickname, puttertje (from putten—to draw water), referred to its trick, if trained, of drawing its own drinking water from a bowl using a thimble-sized bucket on a chain, something the painter Gerard Dou featured in his genre paintings. The goldfinch had also figured in countless devotional images as a symbol of death and resurrection, its small spot of red plumage an allusion to Christ’s passion.

Some scholars have argued that Fabritius’s panel may once have had such an emblematic purpose: Its unusual mitered corners and the nail holes on its vertical edges point to its original function as a door, perhaps with hinges attached to its frame, that could have opened to reveal an encased painting behind it. Baroque Dutch painters, including Dou, often fashioned such boxes as elegant, protective packaging for small panels hidden within, and adorned their lids with deceptively naturalistic still lifes that hinted at the imagery inside. Although nothing in Fabritius’s scant surviving oeuvre fits this description, two 17th-century inventories mention, mysteriously, a “small case” painted by the artist. In such a context, the verisimilitude of Fabritius’s goldfinch would have been matched by a symbolic meaning that we can no longer fathom.

And surely it is this, the panel’s utter freedom from the conventions of quotidian Dutch genre and from tired iconographic traditions—as well as its tour-de-force, unfettered illusionism—that has made it such a treasure to legions of later viewers, from Thoré-Bürger, who owned it until his death and cherished it above all else in his collection, to such contemporary artists as Helen Frankenthaler, herself a master of unerring displays of pure painting. Long mistakenly thought to have been merely a teacher to the far more famous Vermeer, Fabritius clearly holds his own in the illustrious history of painting in 17th-century Holland.

Ms. Lewis, who writes frequently about the arts, teaches art history at Trinity College, Hartford.


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