In the week after Thanksgiving I returned to the Guggenheim Museum in New York to see for a third time the glorious Vasily Kandinsky retrospective. My own awareness of just how seminal this artist’s work is to the entire modernist movement has only been strengthened after also seeing the current Bauhaus exhibition farther down Fifth Avenue at MOMA. When Kandinsky returned to Germany from Russia after the end of World War I, he joined the faculty of the Weimar art and design school at the invitation of its founder, Walter Gropius. As a result, his work underwent one of its major stylistic evolutions. When speaking of Kandinsky one has to emphasize “evolution” rather than “change” because the movement from one artistic phase to another throughout his life is so organic and derives so deeply from his thoughtful deliberation, that it never represents a modish or ephemeral choice. In an earlier piece “Subway to Synesthesia” I wrote about the importance of Kandinsky’s work to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum design:
This is from the museum’s Kandinsky exhibition statement:
Frank Lloyd Wright was commissioned in 1943 to design what has become one of the architect’s greatest masterpieces, which opened in 1959 as the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Though Kandinsky is known for an abstraction that expressed his inner nature and Wright for his advancement of an organic architecture connected to the natural world, both advocated a spiritual, aesthetic experience of life. During the museum’s fiftieth-anniversary year, the landmark building is filled with the canvases that encouraged its inception.
There is a video on the museum website that offers a brief interview with curator Tracey Bashkoff talking about the evolution of Kandinsky’s style. There is also an insightful analysis by Gillian McMillan from the Conservation Department illustrating how X-ray examination reveals outlines and color notations the artist made on the canvas before beginning to paint. She also shows pinpricks where Kandinsky employed a compass to define circles:
This is reminiscent of how Johannes Vermeer outlined his paintings’ perspective lines as shown in a National Gallery video. You can access the video by clicking on the “Music Lesson” link in the Part Two Vermeer essay here:
On the Guggenheim video there are also a number of brief but beautiful shots showing how perfectly Kandinsky’s brilliant paintings are sited along the curving and sloped walls of the museum. Because the video was made after the public hours, when the ramps are free of the crowds that have swamped this exhibition, you can more easily appreciate the interplay between the paintings and the architecture.
On the website of MOMA’s current Bauhaus show there is a simple “questionnaire” that Kandinsky gave his incoming students regarding the correspondence of colors to shape, a kind of geometric synesthesia. After you take it, you can compare your choices with the response curve:
Here is a photo of the dining room of Kandinsky’s personal quarters at the Bauhaus. It was designed by Gropius, the table and chairs by Marcel Breuer; the photo is by Lucia Moholy, and the painting on the wall is Kandinsky’s own, “Auf Weiss II.” All four artists were on the Bauhaus faculty and this photo demonstrates their close personal and work collaboration. Paul Klee’s attached quarters were next to the Kandinskys and the two abstract artists spent much non-teaching time together.
In an earlier essay I wrote about the composer Olivier Messiaen’s synesthesia and its correspondence to Kandinsky’s paintings, whose own synesthesia was reflected in his love of Arnold Schönberg’s music:
The website of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center recently posted two videos which are also on YouTube, of the last two movements of Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time,” as reflected in the “action painting” of artist Zack Smithey. The first video is an interpretation of movement seven of the quartet. The photography is by Zac Nicholson:
And the second video is of movement eight:
I was very pleased to see that the Chamber Music Society is introducing “music videos” into their website. May they do more.
On Thanksgiving Day, Orville “Hoppy” Ray, the focus of my essay on the sad legacy of the town of Picher, Oklahoma, suffered a massive stroke and was confined to hospital in Springfield, Missouri.
After the Thanksgiving holiday I had driven up to Picher with my sister-in-law, Charlene, to see and listen to the regular Monday evening live music at Hoppy’s Museum. The place was locked up. We inquired at a still open pharmacy a hundred yards away and were given the sad news by his son David’s wife. Here are a few photos I took afterwards, especially the photo display of movie cowboys on Hoppy’s storefront:
I received and posted a comment on Dec. 16 that Hoppy had died the previous Monday. Here is a nostalgic video tribute to the old westerns and their stars. This is for you, Hoppy.
Gary Linderman is the owner of Ole Miners Pharmacy located just a stone’s throw from Hoppy’s place and he is still there filling prescriptions to diehard locals. Linderman owns the land where his business sits though most of the polluted, surrounding land belongs the Quapaw tribe. He makes house calls delivering drugs to customers who are unable to drive to his pharmacy. Now that Hoppy is gone, that makes Linderman truly the “last man standing in toxic town.”
The small exhibition of Carl Jung’s “Red Book” currently in the lower level gallery of the Rubin Museum at 17th Street and 7th Avenue in Manhattan is emotionally transporting. Along the gallery walls are Jung’s Mandala paintings not included in the Red Book that were done by him as independent art works. He gave these as gifts to colleagues and friends. Several vitrines display his so-called Black Books, ordinary looking notebooks that represent his initial thoughts, written as diary entries in cursive script. The ideas developed and edited in these books were eventually transferred to the master text of the Red Book, which represented the final explication of Jung’s dreams and reflections.
It was a revelation to me to see how complex the evolution of this process was over time. The careful and polished entries in old Gothic script in the Red Book were made only after considerable deliberation and revision. This makes his decision to enter the final page of the Red Book, years after he had ceased regular entries, done in a simple cursive script, all the more intentional. It seems to me, at least, to affirm his choice of positioning the final noun “Möglichkeit” as the sole entry on its final page. If you haven’t read the Red Book essay, I think you will find the story of Jung’s autobiographical odyssey to be mesmerizing:
Here is a snapshot of the actual Red Book resting in a dimly lit vitrine:
The December 25 issue of the New York Times has an account of the unexpected sales numbers of The Red Book. The first printing of 5,000 copies was sold out on pre-orders alone and publisher W.W. Norton & Company has struggled to keep up with the demand. Because it is printed and partly hand-bound in Italy there has been a 6-12 week wait on filling orders. And this is for a document that languished, unread, in a Swiss bank vault for almost three decades. Here is the link to the NY Times story:
The Iris DeMent piece elicited such heartfelt response from a number of readers that it caught me totally off guard.
I thought my high regard for her music was my own private obsession. But I believe now that her fans are just quiet and private in their impassioned love for her and her music. One reader gave me a link to another YouTube video featuring Iris, the song “Pretty Saro” from the 2000 indie feature Songcatcher. Iris sings with only that single “demonic” fiddle behind her, as exposed as any singer could be. Here is the video:
The just concluded four part essay on the photography of Karl Struss has, I hope, been as revealing to you of this artist’s role in American photography and film history, as has the research and writing of it, been to me. One of the great pleasures I have is in exploring unexpected byways and connections beyond the predictable ones. I realize this is a personal and idiosyncratic approach. When I began these essays last September 14, I wrote that I would let my spirit wander into any area of the arts that intrigued me. I know the topics have been quite eclectic; this has been confusing to some readers who have suggested that I stick to material dealing only with filmmaking. To others, the very unpredictability of the essays has been intriguing. I really don’t have much to say by way of explanation beyond what I said in that introductory essay; this writing is something that I have held largely in abeyance for many years as I have worked as a cinematographer.
But I have never subscribed to the idea that being a filmmaker or a cinematographer should circumscribe our range of interests. I came to film by way of that now almost abandoned concept of a liberal arts education embodied in a study of the humanities. I went to film school because I wanted to write about film; I felt I needed to understand the camera and the physical techniques of filmmaking before I could presume to pontificate on it as an art form. But I got lost inside the magic of actual image creation. It is where I have found delight for over forty years. I believe that filmmaking uses such a total synthesis of the other arts that to be truly informed, I would have to embrace everything that interests me, that all subjects are “grist” for the cinematic mill. And so it has been.
Mid-November I was invited by Judy Doherty, Michael Zakula and Gail Duncan of Kodak to inaugurate a series of “On Film” evenings with cinematographers at the Kodak offices screening room. Their intention is to host encounters between students from local film schools and cinematographers in a non-formal environment, just talking and sharing ideas. I showed no film or clips but just talked about my own goals as a filmmaker; I also spoke about why I am writing this blog.
I screened random examples from some of the essays that were projected from my laptop—pretty low-rez quality, but effective. The responses from the students present reaffirmed for me why I am writing. I value very much all the comments that you post; I shall try to make personal responses, however brief, to as many comments as possible via return email.
Beginning with this Update Number Two, I will be posting once a week instead of twice. I anticipate that this will be necessary only for the next two months. If my workload is lighter than I anticipate I will revert to twice weekly. So, let’s continue.