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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