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Posts Tagged ‘modernism’

Where Every Night Is Ladies’ Night, and Other News

June 17, 2015 | by

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Thomas Rowlandson, The Covent Garden Night Mare, 1784.

  • Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s 1949 Cré na Cille is a landmark work of Irish modernism, available now in a new translation called The Dirty Dust. It’s a must-read for connoisseurs of decomposition: “All the characters are dead and speaking from inside their coffins, which are interred in a graveyard in Connemara, on Ireland’s west coast. The novel has no physical action or plot, but rather some 300 pages of cascading dialogue without narration, description, stage direction, or any indication of who’s speaking when.” If there’s an afterlife, let’s hope God isn’t a modernist.
  • Of course, the God of antiquity wasn’t such a stand-up guy, either. The Bible finds Jesus promising a rich man “treasure in heaven” if only he’ll give to the poor in life. Somewhere along the line, that caveat fell by the wayside: “By the third century, however, in both Judaism and Christianity, the gesture of giving had become miniaturized, as it were. One did not have to perform feats of heroic self-sacrifice or charity to place treasure in heaven. Small gifts would do … Heaven was thus not only a place of great treasure houses, it included prime real estate in a state of continuous construction due to almsgiving performed on earth by means of common, coarse money.”
  • If you were a woman wandering the streets of eighteenth-century London at night, you were generally taken for a prostitute. A 1754 book called The Midnight-Ramble: or, The Adventures of Two Noble Females: Being a True and Impartial Account of their Late Excursion through the Streets of London and Westminsteralmost certainly written by a man, of course—supposedly aimed to rebuke young ladies for their wanton behavior. But it probably only served to encourage them—these “noble females” seem to have had a great time after dark:The two women resolve to disguise themselves as monks in order to monitor their husbands’ nocturnal activities in the city. In prosecuting this plan, they commission their milliner, Mrs Flim, whose name signals that she is adept at idle deception, to bring them ‘ordinary Silk Gowns, close Capuchins, and black Hats.’ And, having taken care ‘to exhilerate their Spirits with a Bottle of excellent Champain,’ the three of them set off in pursuit of the men.”
  • Elizabeth Taylor wrote twelve novels and several collections of stories, but her name recognition was compromised—turns out there was a certain actress who also happened to go by Elizabeth Taylor. “Another, more eventful world intrudes from time to time in the form of fan letters to the other Elizabeth Taylor,” she wrote. “Men write to me and ask for a picture of me in my bikini. My husband thinks I should send one and shake them, but I have not got a bikini.”
  • Francine Prose on Felix Moeller’s new documentary Forbidden Films, a harrowing study of the cinema of Nazi indoctrination: “One of the most fascinating and disturbing sequences in Forbidden Films deals with Ich Klage An (1941), I Accuse, a film that was used to foster public discussions of euthanasia and to persuade the German public of the necessity of the Nazi euthanasia program. In the film, a doctor’s young and beautiful wife, afflicted with multiple sclerosis, begs her husband to ‘release’ her before her sufferings increase and she degenerates into an unrecognizable version of herself … ‘Her suffering was inhumane,’ the doctor claims in his own defense. ‘That is why I released her.’ During the period that the film was being produced and shown, the Nazis had already murdered, or would subsequently murder, a total of some 70,000 people ... ”

They’re Fucking Skulls

June 3, 2015 | by

Leon Golub’s haunting “Riot” and the aloof politics of the art world.

Leon Golub, Napalm I, 1969, acrylic on linen, 117 1/4" x 213".

Wounded Warrior, 1968, acrylic on linen, 76 1/4" x 111 1/4".

In a discussion at Hauser & Wirth, Hans-Ulrich Obrist told of the time he and Leon Golub were discussing a book of the artist’s collected writings; they discovered afterward that Clement Greenberg had died during the conversation.

It’s a morbid art-world joke—but so are Golub’s canvases, which hang, as he referred to them, like “flayed skins” around the gallery. They complicate the sweet bedtime story of American postwar art, passed down for generations, in which power is an inner force wielded by artists, and art self-consciously demanded attention for its physical materials: paint and the square of the canvas. Written with Greenberg’s theory, this tale established art as an alternate reality, without mimetic or social context.

Golub, who died in 2004, was a staunch and consistent critic of Abstract Expressionism, calling it “bad for the artist. These painters were essentially turning away from the world in their work,” he said, “giving up on the idea that an artist might have a social role.” As Pollock’s last drips dried on his studio floor, the country was pounding the pavement and bodies were hitting the ground. For the artists of that era, as of this one, the realities beyond canvas were merciless. Friends were being shipped off to shoot guns in Vietnam, police batons and dogs brutalized black protesters in bright, American daylight, and the dark of black-and-white newscasts too often signified blood. Read More »

She Would Buy the Flowers Herself

May 14, 2015 | by

Today marks the anniversary of the 1925 publication of Mrs. Dalloway. The stream-of-consciousness novel has long been considered a modernist classic, perhaps the most accomplished work in Woolf's oeuvre—and though its elliptical prose and complex themes render Mrs. Dalloway a particular challenge for adaptation, this has naturally not stopped people from attempting to do so, with varying degrees of success. 

The above is either the worst or the best such adaptation, depending upon how highly you value things like coherence, tone, and style. It has none of Marleen Gorris’s respectful fidelity, none of Philip Glass’s aggressive atmosphere. Indeed, Natalia Povalyaeva’s animated short, Mrs. Dalloway and the Flowers, has almost nothing to do with the novel at all. Unless, that is, we are talking about the line, “It might be possible that the world itself is without meaning.”

Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.

The Making of an American

January 1, 2015 | by

We’re out until January 5, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2014 while we’re away. We hope you enjoy—and have a happy New Year!

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Carl Van Vechten shaped and burnished the legend of Gertrude Stein.

G Stein Van Vechten

Carl Van Vechten’s iconic 1935 portrait of Gertrude Stein

This year marks the centenary of the publication of Tender Buttons, Gertrude Stein’s collection of experimental still-life word portraits split into the categories of objects, food, and rooms, and which—excluding a vanity publication in 1909, which she paid for herself—was the first of Stein’s work to be published in the United States. Stein had hoped that this enigmatic little book would be her big break, the thing to convince the American people of her genius. That was not to be. Tender Buttons left critics bemused and made barely a dent on the consciousness of the wider reading public. There was no great clamor for more of her writing; Stein would have to wait another twenty years to become a household name. Nevertheless, the publication of Tender Buttons is now widely regarded as a landmark in American literary modernism, the moment when one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century first unfurled her avant-garde sensibilities before the American public.

That moment would never have arrived had it not been for the work of Stein’s most important champion, Carl Van Vechten, the man who arranged for the book’s publication. Little remembered today, Van Vechten was a pioneering arts critic, a popular author of tart, brittle novels about Manhattan’s Jazz-Age excesses, an acclaimed photographer, and a flamboyant socialite whose daring interracial cocktail parties were a defining part of Prohibition-era New York’s social scene. But his greatest legacy is as a promoter of many underappreciated American writers, artists, and performers who went on to gain canonical status. Names as diverse as Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, and Herman Melville all felt the effects of Van Vechten’s boost. His first great cause was Gertrude Stein. He did more than anyone else to carve her legend into the edifice of the American Century, arranging publishing deals for her, photographing her, and publicizing her work, a task he continued long after her death.

Stein knew how crucial Van Vechten was to her career—not merely in the practical aspects of getting her work into print, read, and discussed, but in helping create and disseminate the mythology that surrounds her name. “I always wanted to be historical, almost from a baby on,” Stein freely admitted toward the end of her life. “Carl was one of the earliest ones that made me be certain that I was going to be.” Van Vechten and Stein were strikingly different, led wildly different lives. Hers was rooted in the domestic stability she enjoyed with her partner Alice B. Toklas; his was an exhausting whirl of binges, parties, and pansexual escapades. But they had two crucial things in common: the conviction that Gertrude Stein was an irrefutable genius and a love of mythmaking, an obsession with re-scripting reality until they became the central actors in the fantastical scenes that unfolded in their heads. When Stein played fast and loose with the facts in her memoirs, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, many were furious over her distortions. But Van Vechten understood that telling the literal truth about her life—or anybody else’s—was never Stein’s concern. Read More >>

Shep and Dorothy

November 15, 2014 | by

A husband-and-wife team and their influential midcentury designs.

Page 34-35

From Dorothy and Otis: Designing the American Dream.

Lucky is the designer who can see in both two and three dimensions. Luckier still is she or he to be married to someone with equal gifts—especially if that mate is a collaborator and not a competitor. So appears to have been the case with Dorothy and Otis Shepard, whose enviable creative lives have been captured in the absorbing, moving, and lushly illustrated new book Dorothy and Otis: Designing the American Dream, by Norman Hathaway and Dan Nadel.

Both Dorothy and Shep (his nickname since childhood) got their start as commercial artists during San Francisco’s billboard boom of the 1920s. The Federal Highway Act, signed in 1921, helped fund the expansion of U.S. roadways, and advertisers took the opportunity to reach audiences beyond the traditional black-and-white pages of mail catalogs by posting colorful advertisements along America’s highways. Shep, a veteran of World War I, was a man of great adventure, with a strong and lasting interest in the theater. He was well regarded as a commercial painter while employed as an art director at Foster & Kleiser Outdoor Advertising Company, a top Bay Area agency of the period. In 1927, he wisely hired the gifted and highly praised Dorothy Van Gorder straight out of the California School of Arts and Crafts, from which she had graduated in only three years, as valedictorian. According to family lore, Dorothy was unabashedly outspoken (and just plain unabashed—she was once evicted from an apartment for sunbathing nude on the roof), and it cost her the Foster & Kleiser job, but almost as soon as she was let go, she was rehired for her prized skills. Hathaway and Nadel write that either in spite of or because of Dorothy’s brashness, Shep, the “raconteur,” soon began courting the “young bon vivant.”

And so their joint artistic adventure began—most markedly with a honeymoon in 1929 to Paris, Venice, Zurich, and Vienna. While there, they purchased Bauhaus furniture and had the good fortune to meet the great modernist Joseph Binder, who was a leader in the European abstract graphic style. “Shep and Dorothy already wanted their work to convey meaning through compositional structure—instead of realism,” write Hathaway and Nadel, but Binder’s reduction of “an image to a series of shapes and forms and [integration of] typography into his pictures” helped refine their approach to design and illustration. Both Dorothy and Otis had been following the modernist movement with great interest back home, but seeing this work and the new techniques in person and to scale had a profound and lasting effect on them. Read More »

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In Which André Malraux Kills Death

November 3, 2014 | by

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An engraving by Fernand Léger.

André Malraux was born today in 1901, and his first novel, Paper Moons (Lunes en papier), was published when he was only twenty. If that provokes pangs of jealousy, bear in mind that the print run was limited to 112 copies. The National Library of the Netherlands has a terrific post about the first edition, which was published by Éditions de la Galerie Simon, one of the most forward-thinking publishers of its day.

As that small print-run indicates, Simon wasn’t a major operation. Malraux’s publisher, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, had a shrewd and prescient eye for writers and artists. He was also an art dealer, one of the first to find merit in the work of the Cubists, who were largely written off as pretentious pranksters at the time. As a publisher, he sought work that “accomplished in words what the Cubists did with paint”; accordingly, he published early work by Apollinaire, Max Jacob, Raymond Radiguet, Pierre Reverdy, and Antonin Artaud, among others, often with artwork from his friends. In the case of Lunes en papier he called on Fernand Léger to contribute several wood engravings. This was not, it must be said, a popular or canny decision at the time:

Léger [had] caused a sensation at the Salon des Indépendants in 1911 with his Nude in the Woods (Nus dans la forêt). Kahnweiler was immediately intrigued and attempted to contact its creator, who had previously made a living as a draughtsman for an architectural firm. Léger was mockingly called “tubiste” because of his tube-like presentations: he felt isolated and unappreciated.

As for the novel itself:

Lunes en papier continually subverts the reader’s expectations, starting with the cryptic subtitle and the warning in the front of the book: “There is nothing symbolical in this book.” The three stories are absurdist in nature, with strange plot turns and metaphors, airy, sometimes humorous in tone, while still dealing with seemingly serious matters, and ending with the death of Death … Malraux would later qualify his first effort as a “gloire de café.” But it suited the Surrealist and Dadaist ideas of its time extremely well.

There’s a translated excerpt from Cipher Journal that includes the bit where Death dies. More specifically, Death—a woman in a dinner jacket that makes her look like an insect—receives a visit from a dubious physician, who informs her that she may be going bald. He prepares her a bath of nitric acid. She slides on in and begins to corrode; by the time her servant intervenes, it’s too late, and Death has resigned herself to dying. Read More »

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