Friday, March 28, 2014

The Mystery of Matisse

Baltimore was recently ranked among the ten most dangerous cities in the United States—along with Detroit, Newark, Camden, Cleveland, and Memphis. It’s our good luck, then, that a magnificent collection of artworks by Henri Matisse owned by the Baltimore Museum of Fine Art is currently on exhibit here at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

Everyone loves Matisse, I suspect, in the same way that everyone loves Monet, but for the sake of different effects. Matisse’s color schemes and decorative patterns are inordinately pleasing—so much so that they have influenced several generations of department store decorators. We’re more likely to be dumbfounded by the simplicity of his works than by their complexity. Anodyne rather than challenging, placid rather than angst-ridden, they subvert every value held dear by modernists, post-modernists, conceptual artists—and the critics who write about them. The same clichés may creep in here and there—pushing the boundaries, exploring new worlds. But Matisse, like Bach, filled a world rather than merely discovering one.

It seems that commentators often can find nothing better to do in describing Matisse’s work than cite the master himself, at those places in his letters and books where he speaks about harmony and line and sincerity. Such remarks could be applied to many artists in one way or another. And yet, they take on added meaning in the context of the specific lines and colors we're standing in the midst of.

"In speaking of a melon one uses both hands to express it by a gesture, and so both lines defining a form must determine it. Drawing is like an expressive gesture, but it has the advantage of permanency."

Reading these lines, we feel that Matisse is concerned about form and expression...but also that he likes melons.

And how about this one: "For me, the subject of a picture and its background have the same value, or, to put it more clearly, there is no principle feature, only the pattern is important. The picture is formed by the combination of surfaces, differently colored."

Paintings from every stage of Matisse's career are included in the show. This in itself makes it interesting. Looking at a given canvas, we're likely to be pleased. Then we ask ourselves: How can it be so simple? Then we begin to notice that the colors and patterns involved are actually a horrible mishmash. We notice that colors on different parts of a given canvas have been selected with less regard to what a window frame or an apple actually looks like than to how the color works within the ensemble. But then the opposite notion enters our head. The pages of that book there on the table are exactly the right color. That gauze curtain shielding the rainy day outside the window looks exactly like a gauze curtain letting in a little light.

An exhibit as large as the one on display here in Minneapolis gives us ample opportunity to compare and contrast. Some of the painting are overworked, and a few of the drawings epitomize “bad drawing,” with every line heavily over-sketched and every pattern laboriously complete.  

One entire wall of the exhibit is devoted to a series of photographs documenting the many iterations Matisse devised and rejected before at last completing the famous pink-and-blue “Large Reclining Nude”—an awkward, unsubtle painting that he might just as well have scuppered early on. 

But such evidence of laborious work over many months reminds us that even the drawings Matisse executed with unparalleled freshness and lyric grace were the result of years of training, practice, dissatisfaction, and repetition.  

And such work isn’t merely a matter of addressing a given subject arranged in front of him.

“I take from nature what I need,” Matisse once wrote, “an expression sufficiently eloquent to suggest my thoughts. I painstakingly combine all effects, balancing them in rendering and in color, and I don’t attain this condensation, to which everything contributes, even the size of the canvas, at the first shot. It is a long process of reflection and amalgamation."

I might also observe that Matisse took from nature what he liked--women, flowers, fabric.

The show currently at the Institute gives us ample opportunity to spend some time in the midst of canvases and drawing, lithographs and sculptures, that exude the beauty and feeling that Matisse found in life and succeeded in capturing time and again on paper and canvas. Nor is the beauty merely in the colors and forms involved. It runs much deeper than that. It extends to the sensibilities of the individual who developed such a profound rapport with these things, and to the wider world we all share with him. 

The last room of the show is devoted to the illustrations Matisse made for books--especially that well-known paper-cut creation, Jazz. The colors are bright, the forms are direct. My heart leapt as I looked around--and not just because I love books. Quite a bit of text has been translated and put on display, too. Matisse's musings on art, color, God, work. A fitting conclusion to a remarkable show. 

In the gift shop next door,  it struck me immediately how much grayer the posters on sale were than the originals we'd just been looking at.

Later, having lunch at Gandhi Mahal on Lake Street, I noticed that the plate of food I'd assembled from the buffet looked a lot like a Matisse painting. Well, maybe a little...

I spent the afternoon thumbing through an old copy of Matisse: Rhythm and Line by Jaqueline and Maurice Guillaud, a 650-page, full-color tome that weights five pounds. Ah, bliss! 

Friday, March 21, 2014

Werther at the Met

The planet is full of bad news—jumbo jets disappearing, sovereign states getting nibbled away at, vanishing aquifers, rumbling earthquakes. We turn from these cataclysmic happenings, about which we can do nothing, and observe that modern technology has made it possible for us to jump in the car at dinner-time, drive for fifteen minutes, and watch a “live” performance by some of the world’s greatest musicians, beamed via satellite from the world’s greatest opera house, of a French opera written in the late nineteenth century based on a slim German book written in the late eighteenth century.

This, too, is the world we live in. A world of continuity, amplification, refinement, as experience is transformed into art and the art is subsequently recast, rethought, modified to suit a new sensibility.

The plot of Werther could hardly be simpler—unlike Il Travatore or Simon Boccenegra, for example. Charlotte’s mother has died, and she, along with her kid sister Sophie, is responsible for raising their four or five younger siblings. Her mother had expressed the wish that Charlotte marry the dependable and agreeable Albert, and Charlotte acquiesces, more to honor her mother than out of any deep-rooted affection. In fact, Charlotte is so deeply invested in her family life, which also includes her father, that the claims of personal passion don’t figure very prominently in her emotional landscape.

Then Werther shows up. He falls for Charlotte immediately, of course. He’s a handsome dreamer, a poet, a scribbler, rather than a Don Juan or a cad. Albert is away, perhaps fulfilling some military obligation, and Werther and Charlotte even go to a ball together! Sparks fly. Charlotte almost forgets herself in the darkness of the garden after the ball. But when push comes to shove, she makes her position very clear to the overly attentive Werther: she’s engaged. And she has no problem demanding that her tormented suitor leave town immediately, and stay away until Christmas.

The opera is now half over. Ninety minutes have gone by. (One of the great things about opera is that everything happens so slowly!) I didn’t mention the two local boozers—always looking for the next party—or how charming Charlotte’s sister Sophie (Lissette Oropesa) is.

But the performances of tenor Johann Kauffman (as Werther) and soprano Sophie Koch (as Charlotte) stand out. They maintain, in their features, bearing, and gestures, a confused erotic tension that comes through loud and clear in big screen HD close-ups.

The singing is also very good.

And in the second act it gets better, as Charlotte begins to realize how much she misses Werther, and begins to wonder, rereading his letters, whether he’s contemplating suicide. She sings the celebrated aria "Werther! Qui m'aurait dit /Ces lettres!" and a cadaverous Werther, appearing at her door that same evening, cuts loose with the empassioned "Pourquoi me réveiller?"

Some critics have found fault with aspects of the staging, and I would have to agree that the pantomime of the mother’s death and burial at the start of the opera—not in the original libretto—was a little obvious and unnecessary. But the back projections used during the scene at the ball—also not in the original—struck me as dreamily effective, and the tiny room where the opera’s final scene is played out, weirdly lit in blue, evoked the loneliness bordering on madness that Werther was in the grip of.

A critic for the Financial Times described Massenet’s opera as “a precarious fusion of flashy prose and perfumed poetry,” but very little of either quality made it through the subtitles. What we were left with was a soaring romantic drama, sustained by rich orchestral color and two or three of the best voices on stage today.  

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Treme All the Way

I’m not much of a TV-watcher, but I made a big pot of gumbo to eat while we watched the two concluding episodes of the HBO series Treme. The show is set in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and it follows seven or eight story-lines that cut across lines of race and class with ease. Among the themes it explores are police corruption, restaurant management, the survival of traditional music in New Orleans, drug use, teen violence, and the incompetence of various level of government in dealing with the housing issues raised by the hurricane.

In the course of following these strands of narrative, we get to know a large ensemble of remarkable characters, so that by the time we reach episode 38, many of them have become far more than mere acquaintances. And the time devoted to the music and rituals of several subcultures within the city gives the series an almost anthropological caste.

And that’s good.          

If I were to attempt a two-paragraph synopsis of the plot, I would begin by observing that  LaDonna Batiste-Williams (Khandi Alexander) has enlisted the aid of liberal-minded lawyer Toni Bernette (Melissa Leo) to find her brother, who went missing in the hurricane. Bernette’s husband Creighton (John Goodman), an English professor at Tulane, hosts a video blog on which he spares no explicative in excoriating the powers that be on their incompetency, though he’s troubled by the fact that he can’t finish his “flood” novel, begun decades ago but now suddenly relevant again. LaDonna’s ex-husband Antoine (Wendell Pierce) seems to be happy gigging around the city on his trombone, though his new wife Desiree (Phyllis Montana LeBlanc) wants him to quit tomcatting around and get a real job so they can qualify for a housing loan.

On the other side of the tracks, Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn) is working hard to escape his patrician roots and promote the musical traditions of the city as a D.J. and through a variety of independent projects. His erstwhile girlfriend Janette (Kim Dickens) is having an equally hard time keeping her restaurant afloat in a city that no longer seems attractive to tourists. Occasional influxes of cash from her parents can only take her so far. 

Out on the street, French-American violinist Annie (Lucia Micarelli) performs with her Dutch boyfriend  Sonny (Michiel Huisman), who’s in danger of becoming a crack-head. Meanwhile, Indian “chief” Albert  Lambreaux (Clarke Peters) has been among the first to move back into the damaged Treme neighborhood, where he works to fix up his house and continues sewing beaded garments for the next Mardi Gras parade. Albert’s son Delmond (Rob Brown) has made a name for himself as a modern jazz trumpeter, and he’s torn throughout the series by conflicting desires to further his career in New York and keep the family traditions alive in New Orleans.   

I know I’ve missed a few of the principle characters—the cop Terry Colson (David Morse), the sous chef  Jacques Jhoni (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine), LaDonna’s current husband Larry (Lance Nichols), the Texan contractor David Hidalgo (Jon Seda). In any case, a lot is going to happen in thirty-eight hours of drama. But really there’s only about twenty-four hours of such stuff, because a good deal of Treme consists of music and parties and parades.

This may be one of those shows where it helps if you’ve actually been there. Fans of trad jazz, grind, Cajun music, blues, etc. are probably going to like it. Among the performers that appear in extended numbers are Dr. John, Allen Toussaint, Kermit Ruffins, John Boutte, Steve Earl, Cassandra Wilson, Elvis Costello, Donald Harrison, Nicholas Peyton, Trombone Shorty, Shawn Colvin, Juvenile, Terence Blanchard, Fats Domino, and Lucinda Williams.

Treme takes us to many places tourists would never find, and would be reluctant to seek out in any case. There are elements of drama and danger, and a few people do get killed. But such events are the exception, not the rule.

The strength of Treme lies in the fact that it flows like life, not like melodrama. There are so many stories intertwined that we're often allowed to suspend our interest in the drama and enjoy the passing scene.

Wendell Piece, who plays the trombonist Antoine Batiste, the show’s central figure, may have captured it's appeal best when he remarks:

“…what's so different about Treme is that it's trying really hard to capture culture, and show the impact culture has on people's lives. Culture is the intersection of people and life itself. It's how we deal with life, love, death, birth, disappointment... all of that is expressed in culture. And we've lost that understanding in America. We don't understand the role of culture. The role of culture is that it's the form through which we as a society reflect on who we are, where we've been, where we hope to be. It's like the way thoughts are to the individual, but on a bigger scale. We only see the residual of it, the entertainment. "All right, perform, and entertain me." Entertainment is just a residual of culture. It is not the sole purpose of it. The sole purpose is that we kind of reflect on what the hell we're doing here, and how this thing of ours is going.”    

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Minnesota-California Connection

It’s been quite a while since we’ve had a good old-fashioned Minnesota winter—the kind we can be proud of, with vast heaps of snow, three-hour commutes, ice dams, leaky roofs, and neighborly conclaves in the dark around the snow-blowers. Temperatures remained below freezing, and often below zero, for weeks on end, and the skies were often brilliant both day and night as a result. Meanwhile, Packed ice created ruts on the freeways reminiscent of the patchwork of lakes and woods on Isle Royale.

In was so nice in these parts, in fact, that the snowy owls dropped down from the arctic in droves, though I never saw one. The closest I got was a snapshot taken by a client in Bloomington of one such bird perched on her front door railing.

The cross-country skiing was superb. We hit a few new trails in the course of the winter—the Minnesota landscape arboretum, the system at Itasca State Park (twice), Town and Country golf course, and Hiram ski trails south of Walker. And we visited long-standing favorites, too, such as William O’Brien State Park, Highland Park Reserve, and the Theo Wirth trails near our house in their myriad permutations. 

No one can accuse us of ignoring winter, or of hiding out. But in the end, we had a hankering to get away, and that’s what we did. (Nor were we alone. In early March, for the first time in history, all the parking ramps at the Mpls/St. Paul airport were full.)

We arrived in San Francisco at sunset, picked up our rental car, and drove over the mountains on a twisty road in the dark to Half Moon Bay, a half-hour away, where the green grass, 60-degree temperatures, and smell of eucalyptus reminded us almost immediately why we’d come.

The next morning, I looked out the motel window at a large Pride of Madeira shrub (echium candicans) loaded with conical blue flowers, and my heart sank into a puddle. This lovely creature is widely planted on the coast—it’s drought tolerant and doesn’t mind sea spray. Yes, it looks like a hot-house plant. And yes, we’d be spending the next week in one of the world’s mildest hothouses.    

I’d set up an itinerary to cover only three hours of the California coast—from Half Moon Bay to Salt Point State Park. We’d spend one night in San Francisco, visit the gardens and museums in Golden Gate Park, hike the cliff trail across the Presidio the next morning, then move north across the Golden Gate Bridge to Marin County and on to the Sonoma Coast.

Much of the landscape follows a familiar pattern: long beaches below tall bluffs or cliffs, with breaks where the creeks wind down to meet the ocean. Further inland is a zone of sensuous hills covered with pastures and intermittent clumps of trees. As you rise further into the river valleys you reach the deep woods, thick with mosses and ferns, laurel and rhododendron, with redwoods and Douglas fir towering above, and California oak and alder filling in the middle story.

It had been raining for three days before we arrived, and the forest was wet. We hiked a mile or so up the Purisima Creek Redwoods Trail (starting from the Higgins Canyon Road, in case you’re interested). We observed banana slugs and a newt or two in the trail. Woodpeckers were chattering in the distance and winter wrens closer at hand. Mushrooms. Flowering shrubs we’d never seen before. This is what we’d come to do: luxuriate in the presence of growing things.

In Moss Harbor we made a stop at Fitzgerald Marine Reserve (lots of bushtits in the shrubbery, though the ocean “surge” had obliterated the tidepools).

By noon we were in Golden Gate Park, where we wandered the Tea Garden and the conservatory at some length, though we skirted the Georgia O’Keefe exhibit at the De Young Museum. I hope you'll forgive me for saying so, but it’s hard to cough up $52 to look at stale, stylized paintings of flowers after a morning wandering among genuine flowers glistening in the morning dew. But the pastrami sandwich Hilary had in the museum restaurant was seriously GOOD, and I was mesmerized by the huge David Hockney mulit-screen video montage hanging on the wall in the lobby.

The nine-story observation tower was also cool.

So this is how a trip goes. Up to Bodega Bay, back down to Point Reyes. Looking at things. Soaking it up. Meeting people on the headlands or deep in the woods. Whale-watchers, mushroom gatherers, house-painters on their day off.

We saw herds of Tule elk and fallow deer, a coyote, two bobcats, elephant seals, garter snakes, and a Pacific treefrog—the smallest amphibian on the Pacific coast.

The lupine were just barely coming into bloom. The blue-bottle likewise. The bishop pines were as statuesque as ever. The solitude on Kehoe Beach complete.

One day we hiked nine miles across Point Reyes from the trail center to Arch Rock and back, tacking on a few beach hikes later to wind up the day. On other days we may have hiked only three or four.

We saw seventy-five bird species, of which the most beautiful, I think, were the red-shouldered hawk, the cinnamon teal, the Western grebes, and the varied thrush ( a species I’d never seen before). We saw a hundred hummingbirds if we saw one. Allens or Rufus? Who can tell them apart?

There’s something cosmic about watching a huge flock of widgeons drift up Tomales Bay effortlessly with the tide in evening light. And something sublime about the quesadillas they make at Perry’s Deli in Inverness (with a quince/kale salad on the side).