Arts & Culture
February 24, 2014 | by Sadie Stein
As John Updike wrote in a 2008 New Yorker piece, Max Factor was “the inventor of modern makeup.” Not only did this former beautician to the czars concoct the first movie makeup (it held up under hot lights) and bring commercial cosmetics to the average American drugstore, he also invented lipstick, mascara, lip gloss, false eyelashes, and foundation. Most original of all, in its way, was his invention of “Color Harmony”—i.e., the concept that your makeup should match your hair and complexion. In the early days of one-size-fits-all beauty, this was a paradigm shift, and it is memorialized in his office building at 1660 North Highland, now the Hollywood Museum, where you can still visit his original four rooms: for blondes (blue-hued; the ribbon was cut by Jean Harlow), redheads (green, Ginger Rogers), brunettes (pink, Claudette Colbert), and brownettes (peach, Rochelle Hudson).
For this was the idea: when a starlet walked into one of these rooms, she could look in the mirror and tell immediately whether she was meant to go blonde (as both Harlow and Marilyn did, in the blue room), or perhaps red, like Lucy. “For Redheads Only,” reads the sign on the door of the room off the museum lobby, and while I had always privately fancied that I might look ravishing with russet locks, it cannot be denied that the green-hued walls gave me a distinctly bilious cast. Color Harmony confirmed that, as nature intended, I was an unglamorous brownette. Read More »
February 24, 2014 | by Alexander Aciman
Canto 18 is perhaps the unsung workhorse of the Inferno—at only 136 lines, it is filled to the brim with political commentary, mythology, personal attacks, and feces. There’s a distinct energy in the way this canto is written; even the obligatory geographical descriptions feel alive, and Dante, when he sets the scene, uses the word new: new suffering, “new torments,” “new scourgers.” In short, this is a sort of broad-spectrum dis track that deals with two different kinds of sinners: the panderers/seducers and the flatterers.
After Dante and Virgil get off Geryon’s back, they end up in the eighth circle of hell. (The seventh really dragged on, didn’t it?) This is Malebolge, where sinners are made to run through a series of ditches; if they slow down, demons descend to flog them. As grim as this might sound—running naked through a ditch in hell, being whipped by demons—Dante uses the occasion to showcase his wit. “How they made them pick their heels up / at the first stroke! You may be certain no one waited for a second or a third.”
Dante meets Venedico of Bologna—a sinner, and as such, not exactly a model human being. (He sold off his sister.) Venedico identifies himself and his fellow Bolognese as those who use the word sipa to mean yes in their dialect. (Dante frequently uses this sort of indirect revelation, especially when it comes to hometowns. Francesca, for example, doesn’t say she is from Rimini, but she says she is from where the river Po slows down. Using a linguistic idiosyncrasy as a form of ID is classic Dante.) Venedico’s words suggest this is precisely the sort of thing one can expect from a Bolognese: “I’m not the only Bolognese here … this place is so crammed with them,” he says. Read More »
February 21, 2014 | by Sadie Stein
The Hammer Museum, in LA, is currently showing an exhibition titled “Tea and Morphine: Women in Paris, 1880 to 1914.” The juxtaposition of the two substances is deliberate; the show aims to present what the curators call “a multidimensional portrait of the Parisian woman at the turn of the century, spanning from the frilly collars of the upper class to the dirty syringes of the desperately poor.” All of this is represented by some of the great artists of the day in a series of arresting engravings, paintings, and lithographs. (Occasional bits of ephemera—and books like Les morphinées—round out the show.)
By definition, the portrayals run the gamut from civilized—George Bottini’s graceful fin de siècle women shopping or walking down Parisian boulevards—to depraved. But even the most abject addict is glossed with romance. The renderings, whether they be stylized art nouveau commercial work or a Bonnard etching, are so achingly beautiful as to provide a sense of continuity. All these women, whatever they were drinking, were muses.
And the show is at pains, via notes and curation, to make it clear that one substance was not synonymous with only one group of subjects; monied women frequently resorted to morphine in the nineteenth century, to the point where their widespread drug use became a problem. Meanwhile, even when yielding acid, or injecting morphine, the demimondaine is rendered with the same beauty and care, avenging goddesses and righteous furies. (Which is all very well, if you were a Parisian prostitute.) As Proust—no stranger to morphine himself—would have it, “The paradoxes of today are the prejudices of tomorrow, since the most benighted and the most deplorable prejudices have had their moment of novelty when fashion lent them its fragile grace.” That women numbing themselves was so pervasive a theme is both scary and illuminating.
But here is the thing. Shortly after studying the images in this exhibition, I took a walk and saw this: Read More »
February 20, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
If you’re like me, the Olympics have borne in you one mighty, overriding desire: to become a strapping world-class professional figure-skater. Well, we’re in luck, every one of us. Thanks to the glut of teaching materials available in the public domain, dazzling one’s peers in the rink and taking home the gold has never been easier.
To start, consult an invaluable volume from 1897: T. Maxwell Witham’s A System of Figure-Skating: Being the Theory and Practice of the Art as Developed in England, with a Glance at its Origin and History. In sporting matters, Witham was no slouch—the title page notes that he was a “Member of The Skating Club.” Which skating club, you ask? Well, let me answer your question with a question: How many skating clubs do you belong to?
With verve and good humor, A System of Figure-Skating will teach you such cherished and essential maneuvers as “the Jagendorf dance,” “the Mercury scud,” “the spread-eagle grape vine,” “the sideways attitude of edges,” and—of course—the “United Shamrock.” Confused? You needn’t be. The System offers detailed instructions every step of the way. Here’s an edifying bit about how to conduct the “outside edge forwards”: “We have also to bring into the more important action the hitherto unemployed leg, which must be gently and evenly swung round the employed one in such a manner that it arrives exactly at the proper time and angle to be put down, and so become the traveling one.”
See? You’ll be getting the hang of things in no time!
If all else fails, the System is meticulously illustrated—its dozens of diagrams and charts make even complicated performances seem rudimentary. Even a trained dog could follow these instructions: Read More »
February 20, 2014 | by Tara Isabella Burton
For the origins of the selfie, look to the dandy.
When selfie was crowned the Word of 2013 by the Oxford Dictionaries, the media reaction ranged from apocalyptic to cautiously optimistic. For the Calgary Herald’s Andrew Cohen, “selfie culture” represents the “critical mass” of selfish entitlement; for Navneet Alang in the Globe and Mail, selfies are inextricable from the need for self-expression, a “reminder of what it means to be human.” For the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland, the selfie is both: at once “the ultimate emblem of the age of narcissism” and a function of the “timeless human need to connect.”
With a few exceptions, commentators tended to converge on one point: the selfie, and the unencumbered act of self-creation it represents, is unmistakably of our time, shorthand for a whole host of cultural tropes wedded to the era of the smartphone. As Jennifer O’Connell, writing for the Irish Times, puts it: “It’s hard to think of a more appropriate—or more depressing—symbol of the kind of society we have become. We are living in an age of narcissism, an age in which only our best, most attractive, most carefully constructed selves are presented to the world.”
But our obsession with the power of self-creation—and its symbiotic relationship with the technology that makes it possible—is hardly new. Even the “selfie artist” is hardly a creation of 2013. Its genesis isn’t in the iPhone, but in the painted portrait: not among the Twitterati, but among the silk-waistcoated dandies of nineteenth-century Paris. Read More »
February 18, 2014 | by Sadie Stein
“Gilded New York,” an exhibition up at the Museum of the City of New York right now, showcases the ostentatious visual culture of late-nineteenth-century elites. A friend and I went last weekend, in the midst of a heavy snow. There are impossibly elaborate Worth gowns, impossibly ornate Tiffany jewels. There are idealized portraits and embellished vases. There are the McKim, Mead & and White mansions that dotted Fifth Avenue, and photo after photo of jam-packed (but highly exclusive) balls. If you’ve been reading any Wharton or James lately, I highly recommend it.
One portion of the exhibition features a slideshow of party-goers, many of them costumed, at the landmark balls of the era. Mrs. W. K. Vanderbilt’s 1883 fancy dress ball was one such: a game-changer that established the nouveau-riche Vanderbilts—and their brand-new Fifth Avenue mansion—as social forces to be reckoned with. There doesn’t seem to have been a theme, as such, to the costumes, other than general lavishness. As the New York Times reported, in the months leading up to the ball “amid the rush and excitement of business, men have found their minds haunted by uncontrollable thoughts as to whether they should appear as Robert Le Diable, Cardinal Richelieu, Otho the Barbarian, or the Count of Monte Cristo, while the ladies have been driven to the verge of distraction in the effort to settle the comparative advantages of ancient, medieval, and modern costumes.”
In the end, people seem to have gone for all of the above: while royalty and nobility of all eras and nations were well represented, the ball also featured Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt II as “Electric Light” (interpreted by Worth/Mainbocher), and a King Lear “in his right mind,” while Miss Kate “Puss” Fearing Strong sported a taxidermied cat’s head as a hairpiece, and had seven real cat tails sewn to the skirt of her gown. Most of the costumes seem to have been recognizable enough, but one can’t help thinking that all evening long Ward McAllister must have had to go around saying, “No, I’m Comte de la Mole! You know, the Huguenot lover of Margaret of Anjou? Whose embalmed head she carried around?” (On the other hand, perhaps Gilded Age society was really up on their Stendhal. Or even their Dumas.) Read More »