Archive | February, 2011

Preview of ‘Impressionist and Post-Impressionist’

19 Feb

By JOHN DeMERS

The name itself was and still is something of an accident. A critic looked disdainfully at one of the earliest paintings, with its bright speckled-sunny tones, its seeming incompleteness by classical standards, its snapshot quality decades before there were snapshots – and scowled, “Impressionist!” The name stuck, and most artists who painted in the style for even a little while came to like it. A few of them never did.

Impressionism signed its name in big letters across the end of the 19th century, especially in France where it first took hold. For only three months starting tomorrow, Houston will be able to enjoy not only its own fine permanent collection of Impressionist paintings but 50 on loan from Washington, D.C. Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Masterpieces From the National Gallery of Art visits us through May 23.

I got a preview tour of the exhibit yesterday accompanied by Kimberly Jones of the National Gallery, whose love for these works seemed to lift her from the ground from time to time while describing them, and insightful MFAH curator Helga Aurisch. I sure am glad the National Gallery is renovating the space these pictures normally fill. And I sure am glad Peter Marzio, our museum’s late great director, talked the National into parking them here for a while.   

Edouard Manet was one of the earliest artists gathered under the name Impressionist – and certainly he deserved the name less than his almost-sound-alike compatriot Monet. Indeed, Monet’s portrait of his wife and son featured beneath the headline (a dazzling work titled Woman With a Parasol) comes close to being the most Impressionist thing we can imagine – certainly “more Impressionistic” than the scary Van Gogh self-portrait used in all the exhibit advertising. Still look at this Manet work, called The Railway. The what? Without any train or even a train station, the artist suggests the painting’s title in the steam swirling just beyond that iron fence. For that reason and others, the painting was controversial in its day.

Impressionists embraced the new life of leisure that was slowly taking hold in and around Paris after the pain of the Franco-Prussian War, which they lost – indeed, it seems as though every day is a weekend to these guys. When they’re not at the seashore for the season, they’ve run ten or fifteen miles out of Paris for a quick picnic with wine and a bit of rowing. Many of Auguste Renoir’s best (and most famous) paintings feature variations on the scene above. This one is titled Oarsmen at Chatou.   

Paul Cezanne was known for just about everything except portraits. His blockish paintings of Provencal mountains taught us how to look at the region (and allegedly taught Hemingway how to describe scenery), while his still-life depictions of fruit on a table wiped away centuries of earlier versions. Still, there are two terrific portraits by Cezanne in the MFAH show: one of his father reading a newspaper and this one of a Boy in a Red Waistcoat posed classically but rendered with the riot of light and color that was the Impressionist mantra.

By the time Paul Gauguin grew to be the artist we think of today, he’d left many tenets of Impressionism behind. After all,what seem those hundreds or maybe thousands of portraits of Tahitian women seemed to almost come from within himself, setting him on a path toward Expressionism (the name does say what it is, for a change) by way of the unofficial genre known as Post-Impressionism. This painting of Breton Girls Dancing predates all that exoticism, though, and seems to share his fellow Impressionists’ love affair with life outside in the sun.

Mary Cassatt is unusual for a couple seasons, so it’s great to see her Child in a Straw Hat included among the visiting National Gallery masterpieces. For one thing, she was one of only two or three women allowed into the boy’s club that was Impressionism, whatever that says about the time and place. And she was, no less strikingly, the only American. Her work is hardcore Impressionism. And while the boys clearly show fondness for their progeny in the works on display here, Cassatt outdoes them in capturing what a child looks, feels and acts like in this and another painting of a small girl sitting bored in a big chair.

So… It’s a safe bet Van Gogh sells tickets – especially since producing this self-portrait while confined in an asylum shortly before killing himself earned him bragging rights forever as a suffering artist. It is undeniably an incredible and incredibly painful vision of self. Stark, gaunt, empty and frightened – words like that come to mind as  you stand before it at the very end of Impressionist and Impressionist, as though a journey with art is somehow finished. Yet think of those descriptions and look into this man’s eyes, then picture all we know that would follow. You’ll see those eyes again, in the trenches of All Quiet on the Western Front, and especially in paintings of “The Thousand-Yard Stare” of World War II GIs dying on islands Gauguin would have loved. What has come to an end is the 19th century. The 20th is about to arrive.

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Our Review of the Alley’s New ‘Picasso’

18 Feb

By JOHN DeMERS

The success, or at least the persuasiveness, of any one-person show hinges on how well its creator addresses one question at the start: Who is this guy and why is he talking to us?

The father of the modern genre, Hal Holbrook in Mark Twain Tonight, found the simplest and most perfect point of entry in Twain’s real-life speaking tours. Just be that Twain, talking to yet another full house in yet another town, thinking, reacting, reading from famous stories, and of course smoking lots of cigars. The ever-changing play was pretty much infallible, and Holbrook was able to take up the role between other projects for something like 40 years.

I know all about answering that initial question, if about little else, since I wrote and performed two one-man shows of my own – one about the apostle Paul, the other about Thomas Jefferson. I often joked that I’d like to play them at the same time, but that was only a joke. I also wrote a show about Henriette de Lille, an African-American woman. To my credit as a white male, I found an actual African-American woman to play her.

Memories of all those evenings of magic (and not-so-magic) flooded over me last night watching Herbert Siguenza become the most tumultuous artist of the 20th century in the Alley’s A Weekend With Pablo Picasso. And while Siguenza’s answer to that initial question is less than convincing – we in the audience are “spies” sent by his agent to make sure he gets a last-minute, big-bucks commission done at his home in the South of France – much that happens in between the bookends is immensely satisfying.

There isn’t much drama in this no-intermission visit, and even less true suspense. What there is is Picasso at his most bombastic, discoursing on art, love, sex, art, politics, and art and art and art, meaning the meaning of it all. Constructed of Picasso’s actual words, and convincingly true to his ideas, the result is a tangled, non-linear wander through the artist’s past and present. Bringing that interior to the exterior is helped mightily by the scenic and costume design by Giulio Cesare Perrone, the lighting by Clint Allen and especially by the orgiastic projections by Victoria Petrovich.

Details of Picasso’s life as a reclusive celebrity on the Riviera are particularly endearing – the virtual barnyard of pets that surrounds him, the fresh bread delivered to his back door, the telephone that interrupts always, the coffee, cigarettes and what appears to be pastisse. Siguenza, a longtime member of the Culture Clash Hispanic theater/comedy troupe who brought the Mexican film star Cantinflas to life at the Alley some years ago, is masterful with every one of those little things.

Not so masterful are what appear to be the master’s dreams: nightmares of wartime along the lines of his famous painting Guernica, plus a wildly sexualized vision of himself strutting and thrusting about the stage as a bull. Picasso’s rendered thoughts on the need to paint people with genitalia are not only discomforting but, oddly, not very interesting. Far more successful is a kind of fantasy near the end in which Picasso faces a blank canvas in the style of a matador in the bullring, complete with bits of that costume and loud cheering. This was a metaphor that worked entirely, whether we’re pondering Picasso as the living soul of Spain or as the artist who feels life only by facing something of death each time he picks up a brush.

Siguenza is, finally, one of the few performers who could handle this role – a nifty version of job security. He has filled the script with Picasso actually painting, and happily this actor and playwright is more trained in that than in anything else. With brilliant sleights of hand that allow canvases to be flipped and instantly appear finished – or in one case, a lowered clear glass that he paints before our eyes in reverse – the actor and his art make believers of us all. Long stretches passed during this “weekend,” in fact, when I forgot Picasso died in 1973.

Photos by Jann Whaley: Herbert Siguenza as Pablo Picasso

Alfred Jacob Miller Exhibit at the MFAH

17 Feb

If you love the Old West – and if you love the mythology of Texas, then you do love the Old West – then you’ll love the new exhibition taking up a single large room at our own Museum of Fine Arts. In fact, this will be your chance to visit an Even Older West.

After all, those wonderful Hollywood westerns that gave us so many of our favorite visuals, directed by the likes of Howard Hawks and John Ford and starring the likes of John Wayne, drew many of their scenes from the paintings of Frederic Remington and Charles Russell. Yet there was an artist who “went west, young man” decades before they did, seeing things that were gone before those guys got there.  

A six-month journey to the Rocky Mountains in 1837 provided artist Alfred Jacob Miller (1810–1874) with a lifetime of subjects to paint: mountain men in the fur trade, Native American life and traditions, panoramic landscapes and wilderness scenes. These subjects are revealed in an exhibition of 30 works on paper by the artist not seen in public since 1964: Romancing the West: Alfred Jacob Miller in the Bank of America Collection. The exhibition at MFAH eventually travels to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. 

Baltimore native Alfred Jacob Miller was one of the first American artists to paint the Far West, still considered exotic, distant, and unfamiliar at the time by people living in the eastern United States and in Europe. Miller moved his Baltimore art studio to New Orleans, where a chance encounter with the Scotsman adventurer Sir William Drummond Stewart determined the course of his future career as a painter of the American West. 

Stewart invited Miller to accompany him on a journey from Missouri to the Rocky Mountains of present-day Wyoming. In 1837, they departed St. Louis and joined with the American Fur Company caravan to travel west by way of the North Fork of the Platte River, then along the Sweetwater River and west up into the South Pass and thence to Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains. They witnessed the annual gathering of the fur trade, where goods would be exchanged for pelts. Miller’s job was to record the trip on behalf of Stewart.

This journey profoundly impressed the artist, who produced more than 100 sketches during the trip, many of which he later reworked as watercolors or paintings for Stewart. These works depict the early days of westward expansion in lyrical and spirited watercolors that capture the rough terrain, the majestic Rockies, abundant wildlife, and the mixed cultures that populated the West. 

For nearly three decades, Miller received commissions for albums of watercolors and full-sized oil paintings that he produced in his studio based on these original 1837 sketches. The works from the Bank of America Collection are watercolors based on his field sketches and appear in various stages of completion. The works are undated but span more than 30 years and demonstrate the variety of unorthodox techniques that Miller employed in portraying the subject at hand. The exhibition has given curators and conservators an opportunity to study Miller’s technique, his romanticized perspective on the West, and his broader connection to European and American art.

A Membership Brunch for Divas World

14 Feb

I was invited to a membership brunch yesterday for Divas World, a fascinating Houston nonprofit that has crafted some big plans from what began as extremely small concerts. While classical music started out as coin of the realm at Divas World,  the organization clearly also now traffics in jazz, pop, folk, country and a little bit of rock, with a special fascination for “singer-songwriters” working in any genre. In the photo above, Divas artistic director Sonja Bruzauskas (who also offered a wicked “Habanera” from Carmen) performs with Aaron Kaufman. 

In addition to arias from Carmen and Rigoletto (the ever-catchy “La Donna e mobile,” sung with enthususiasm by tenor Kennth Gayle, accompanied on the piano by Rodney Waters), classical music fans got some of their best stuff from Divas World violinist Sophia Silivose. She knocked out two lovely pieces that called fin de siecle Vienna to mind.

Not to be outdone, most of the music to brunch by was supplied by Horace Grigsby and the Just Jazz Ensemble. This music included many nifty background numbers throughout the event at Rockefeller Hall on Washington Avenue, as well as various accompaniments to various vocal numbers.

And since all good things must come to an end, the Divas World brunch did so with a fairly grand finale. In this photo, Kenneth Gayle sings “Seasons of Love” from Rent with Aaron Kaufman, David LaDuca (who’s collaborating with Divas patron Marie Bosarge in an ongoing evening devoted to Marilyn Monroe, no doubt coming to a splashy charity gala near you) and singer-songwriter Ray Younkin.

Our Review of Catastrophic’s ‘Paradise Hotel’

13 Feb

By JOHN DeMERS

Watching a well-crafted movie about anarchy in the streets can be exciting. But watching the actual anarchy, hour after hour and night after night, can end up being boring. The main question about Richard Foreman’s dazzlingly anarchic play about – hmm, sex? –  is: Which is it?

Certainly, anarchy rules in this single over-the-top stretch of talking, shouting, crying, screaming, lusting, leering and shooting oneself in the head – more than once, in most cases. And it’s tempting to credit that to (or blame that on) the fact that this production has two directors, Catastrophic mainstays Greg Dean and Troy Schulze, as though maybe the two guys were working at cross purposes with each other. But no, the script gives every indication that Foreman was working at cross purposes with himself.

There’s approximately as much jumping, running and falling down here as in one of the great Marx Brothers comedies – Duck Soup comes to mind, though possibly for no good reason. Yet the three main Marx Brothers were playing characters in that; no matter what their names in the movie, they were playing Groucho, Chico and Harpo, and we knew and loved those characters. We understood them. In Paradise Hotel, despite the fact that characters have names (mostly suggestive and pliable monikers like Drake Van Dyke, Jessica Juggs and Professor Percy Kittens), they in no instance are real characters. We don’t know them one from the other except by hair or costume, and we certainly don’t understand them. The boredom of watching real anarchy on the streets comes to mind.

This play does have a theme, or at least a conceit. A series of unconnected people are somehow going or supposed to go to a hotel, maybe by bus except that never comes, except that the place they’re heading is not in any way called Paradise Hotel – so therefore the play isn’t really titled that either. Where they’re going is the Hotel Fuck, so that’s the real name of this play, except that this play and its characters are in danger of being taken over by a prettied-up “rival play,” titled Hotel Beautiful Roses. Theater lovers may (or may not, I suppose) see a loose-fitting metaphor here for all that’s happened to Broadway. Foreman’s plays are performed mostly in New York, but they are definitely not on Broadway. Still, if this vague notion is the closest thing to a theme on this stage, it becomes little more than a suggestion, a challenge, more or less an affront by the evening’s end.   

The single set is the aforementioned hotel, one supposes. Yet the colors and lighting suggest more of a circus, complete with a grinning, fez-wearing ringmaster and strategically placed microphones for brief speeches. Even the bellboys (a bellboy and a bellgirl, actually) are garish and theatricalized enough to serve as the evening’s clowns. And if this is a circus with a ringmaster and clowns, exactly who is that deep, powerful voice who keeps interrupting things and asking that they be done over, always making sure to say please. Is that God? Well, if this play were by Samuel Becket, it probably would be God. And more importantly, we’d know.

The Catastrophic cast seems to be having a great time making us laugh, serving up one long night of mugging for our eventual applause. Drake Simpson’s smile must get tired as Van Dyke the ringmaster, while Matt Carter as Frankie Teardrop, Jessica Janes as Ms. Juggs, George Parker as the inexplicably gown-wearing Martin X and especially Kyle Sturdivant as Professor Kittens must get tired of looking shocked and frightened, like Pee-Wee Herman starring in some new, straight-to-DVD Home Alone.

So there you have it: a lost Marx Brothers classic gone awry, mixed with an unwelcome sequel to an overdone franchise, mixed with the joy of being super-naughty that the cast of The Rocky Horror Show must have felt their first night on any stage. That’s a lot of anarchy in these streets, a heapin’ helpin’ of sound and fury. I wish I could shake the suspicion that it all signifies nothing.

Paradise Hotel, Catastrophic Theatre at Diverse Works. Through February 26. Photos by Anthony Rathbun.