May 15th, 2011 by Rebecca Nemser

In 2004, I suffered a sudden and dramatic loss of vision, which left me with diminishing eyesight, extreme light sensitivity, constant headaches, and fatigue. In time, I adapted to my new way of life, and turned my attention to Opera, Gardens, Yoga, and the Greek myths I had always loved. But my days as an art critic were over.

I had a great run. I saw many marvelous works of art, met many wonderful artists and friends, and wrote hundreds of Stories about Art. Some stories were lost, and others existed only in tattered Xeroxes, obscure computer files, or obsolete radio tapes. Now I am finally posting my archive on the Web, here at

I hope you will enjoy reading my Stories about Art as much as I enjoyed writing them.

Thanks to all the Artists and Friends who inspired me along the Way.

by Rebecca Nemser for

Meryl at the Rose

April 28th, 2009 by Rebecca Nemser

(I wrote this as a letter to Brandeis University to protest the closing of the Rose Art Museum and posted it on Facebook on April 28, 2009.)

Many of the works of art at the Rose Art Museum are gifts – gifts from artists and gifts from those who love them. Every one of these gifts has a story to tell. This is the one that means the most to me.

Meryl Brater, my dear departed friend, was a wonderful artist who made amazing, inventive prints and artist’s books, using all kinds of materials and techniques. Meryl delighted in the transfiguration of a vast assortment of shapes and objects – birds, flowers, vases, mummified fishes from ancient Egypt, Persian miniatures, Japanese candies, punctuation marks, palm trees — everything that caught her bright, discerning eye. She ground and mixed her own special colors, and made her own paper, often working with Joe Zina at the old Rugg Road. She even made large-scale prints of plants using a steamroller as a printing press – a birthday gift from her husband, the light artist John Powell!

Meryl was in several group shows at the Rose, including the Lois Foster Exhibition of Boston area artists in 1989. Curators Carl Belz and Susan Stoops visited her studio many times.

Meryl’s work was an expression of her spirit. She was a vibrant part of the Boston art scene, involved with Massachsetts College of Art and Experimental Etching Studio, showing up at openings looking fabulous, with her long curly hair and some fascinating outfit she had sewn together from hand-me-downs, handmade and antique jewelry, lucky finds, and the perfect little scarf or hat. If you came to her with any problem, she would always say,

“Just do your work.”

After Meryl’s tragic early death in 1996, John Powell gave the Rose first choice of her work, in accordance with her wishes, and the museum bought a generous selection. Meryl was very much a “process person” as she liked to say, so John also gave the Rose many of her notebooks and sketches. Afterwards, other curators and collectors, including Joan Sonnabend, bought most of the rest of Meryl’s work, and it is now dispersed in collections and homes all over the world, including the Museum of Fine Arts, Harvard University, the Museum of Modern Art, the National Museum of Women in the Arts, and the Sonesta Hotels in Egypt.

In the Spring, Susan Stoops organized a Memorial Exhibition for Meryl at the Rose. That evening, the museum was a place to celebrate and a place to grieve – a sacred space — a place of memory and loss and transformation.

Hundreds of  people came to the museum – artists, writers, dancers, musicians, friends. We all stood in a circle, spoke about Meryl, and cried. We all believed that Meryl would live on, here at the Rose, and that many generations to come would have the chance to know her through her art.

Meryl will never be forgotten. But to close the museum now would be a terrible blow to everyone who loved her – to everyone who loves art and artists – to everyone who trusted their treasure to the Rose.

Hans Wegner/ The Bear Chair

October 20th, 2008 by Rebecca Nemser

Exit, Pursued by a Bear

Hans Wegner, the legendary Danish furniture-maker, designed more than five hundred chairs during his long and illustrious career. One of them belongs to me.

In the 1950’s, Wegner was one of a small group of Danish designers who created a new look that came to be known as Danish Modern. He always worked with natural materials like wood and wool, and his furniture reflects both the natural world and abstract art; you can see traces of Brancusi and Picasso in it, as well as animals and trees.

Wegner’s furniture is neither fussy and antique, nor pop and plastic. It has won countless prizes and is now in the collections of many museums, including New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which also chose Wegner’s furniture for many of its new restaurants and public spaces. It is practical, yet profound. Wegner once described his work as a process of purification and simplification. “A chair is only finished when someone sits in it,” he said.

My parents bought a houseful of Hans Wegner furniture in Copenhagen in 1957. We had been living in London, and were on our way back to Boston, where my father, the meteorologist and astrophysicist Lewis Kaplan, had a job at MIT. We stopped in Sweden to visit Carl-Gustaf Rossby, the great Swedish scientist who had been his teacher at the University of Chicago. “Most leaders of modern meteorology are friends or past pupils of Dr. Rossby’s,” declared Time magazine in a 1956 cover story on Rossby, whose International Meteorological Institute in Stockholm was described by Time as “a place of pilgrimage for meteorologists.” On the cover, Rossby is shown smiling, surrounded by weather-maps, his head in the clouds, smoking a pipe.

I remember a long, late dinner, and then dancing to records, alone in the dark, candle-lit living room while the grown-ups stayed at the table, drinking wine, and talking about the atmosphere, the ozone layer, and the environment. Even then, Rossby was worried about the “CO² Menace,” and the effect of carbon dioxide and other pollutants on the atmosphere. He told Time, “We should have a great deal of respect for the planet on which we live.”

The next day, we went to Denmark. After gloomy London, Copenhagen seemed lovely and light, with clear skies and everywhere, a view of the sea.  “Wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen,” we sang, all holding hands, dancing down the tree lined boulevards.

I was thrilled by the statue of the Little Mermaid in the harbor; I was six years old and had just learned to read, and was devouring the fairy tales of Hans Christian Anderson in a big, beautifully illustrated edition, which I carried with me everywhere. My parents were thrilled by Hans Wegner, whose work was displayed at Den Permanente, the crafts cooperative and showcase for Danish modern furniture.

Den Permanents looked more like a museum than a store. It was all glass and light, and the furniture was displayed like sculpture, surrounded by space and light. On the walls were photographs of the designers and craftsmen at work. I sat on one of the chairs and read my book, and I was pleased to learn that Hans Wegner was the son of a cobbler – just like Hans Christian Anderson!

After much discussion and calculations on napkins and other little pieces of paper where my father wrote down most of his ideas, my parents decided to spend all the money they had in the world — 3000 dollars – one thousand duty free dollars for each of us — on Hans Wegner furniture. They bought a teak dining room table and a set of “Wishbone” chairs with curved backs, inspired by portraits of Danish merchants sitting in Ming chairs; a coffee table, a tea trolley, a set of six tacking side-tables, a piano bench, and the Bear Chair.

It all came back to Boston on the boat with us, the SS Rotterdam, packed in huge wooden boxes with the words DEN PERMANENTE printed on them in big red block letters. Den Permanente:  the name means permanence, and Hans Wegner’s furniture was indeed a constant in our constantly changing life.

My parents had no furniture to replace; they had proudly spent their wedding money on classical records, not china and chairs. We had lived in a series of graduate student and Post-Doc residences in Chicago, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton (where we met Albert Einstein), and the dark, gloomy furnished flat in London. We were free to re-invent ourselves, and we did. Our Hans Wegner furniture was part of our identity and our family mythology. So much so that when, a few years later, a Walt Disney made a movie of the children’s classic, “Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates,” I innocently referred to it as “Hans Wegner and the Silver Skates.” Amazingly, Carl Rossby’s daughter Carin Rossby starred in the movie, playing Hans’ spunky little sister Gretel, who actually wins the prize. In the book, Hans wants to be a doctor; in the movie, he is an artist, always sketching, and there are constant references to Rembrandt and Vermeer, and lines like “The old masters used to work in black and white.”

The Bear Chair’s first home was a big Greek Revival house near Boston, which my mother, Lillian, lovingly restored and decorated with posters from our years abroad. Calm and contemplative, the Bear Chair dominated the living room with its large, sculptural presence, surveying the teak coffee table, the piano bench, the piano I never learned to play, the record player with the piles of classical records, the lithographs by Frederick O’Hara, my parents’ artist friend from Albuquerque, and books, and books, and books.

This was the model for all the living rooms in all the houses and apartments my parents lived in. Later additions included “Oriental” carpets, Japanese woodblock prints, an O’Hara oil painting of a rooster, heavily influenced by Picasso, an antique rooster weathervane, an abstract Expressionist painting my father once brought home from Finland, which grew darker every year, and books, and books, and books.

So it was in Boston, then in Pasadena, where we moved when my father moved from earth to planetary atmospheres, and landed a job at NASA’s new Jet Propulsion Lab. When everything was unpacked, the Bear Chair said, “Home.”

Looking back, I realize how much Wegner’s furniture embodied my parents’ ideals: nature, science, and art.  Even the language was the same: abstract, model, design, experimentation, and especially elegance were all words used by my father and his scientist friends, and echoed in descriptions of Wegner’s own work.

Elegance and experimentation prevailed in the dining room, too. My mother was a wonderful cook, and shared recipes with the European wives of famous scientists, like Laura Fermi and Clari Von Neumann.

She served a fancy, sit-down, home-made dinner almost every night; we sat down to table as soon as my father came home from work.. When it was just the three of us, we ate “family-style”, with all the food brought to the table on platters, bowls, and trays. Pots and pans and containers stayed in the kitchen; milk and juice were poured into pitchers in the kitchen before being brought into the dining room; water in an iced carafe. The only exception to this rule was Grey Poupon mustard, which was brought to the table in its elegant little jar, placed on a silver tray and served with a special mustard spoon. We always had fresh flowers on the table, and wine, which my father served from a French wicker wine basket they had bought at a market in Provence. Dessert was fruit or ice-cream.

Our Hans Wegner dining room table was a perfect circle at its smallest, but opened up into a large oval with a set of leaves. We always kept the table in its largest form, surrounded by all the Wegner curved-back chairs, for the constant flow of guests – mostly scientists, but also artists and other interesting people from all over the world.

Company dinners began with cocktails in the living room, and ended with a fancy dessert: cakes, pies, mousses or meringues. On special occasions, my father would open a bottle of champagne, and we would all sing, “The Night They Invented Champagne.” We celebrated everything – birthdays, anniversaries, Thanksgiving, Passover, Christmas, Russian Easter – around that dining room table.

After dinner, my mother washed the huge piles of dishes; usually I helped, but in the teenage years, I often scampered upstairs to do homework, sulk, or listen to Bob Dylan and the Beatles, very softly, on the radio. My father retired to the Bear Chair to smoke his pipe, listen to Mozart, contemplate the atmosphere, and dream of finding life on Mars.

My father was a dreamer, his head in the clouds. He loved all the classics: Mozart, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, the Greeks, Vermeer. He loved the Bear Chair because it was a classic, too. He used to sit, wrapped up in the Bear Chair, in great contentment, surrounded by a cloud of smoke from his beloved pipe.

My father loved his work. He was always drawing on napkins, making models, inventing, exploring, and taking joy in the process.

He loved solving problems, and he was able to fix anything, usually by taking it apart and putting it back together. Sometimes, after hours of scowling and pacing around in his study, he would emerge triumphant, exclaiming, “I figured it out!”

His outlook on life was not just international – it was interplanetary. In 1963, he designed a small infrared radiometer that flew on Mariner II to measure the clouds surrounding Venus; he had experiments on all the missions to Mars, and worked with a team of French astronomers making spectrograms from an observatory in Haute-Provence, to analyze the Martian atmosphere. Eventually he returned to Earth, studying the atmosphere of the little green planet he loved so well. He was a watcher of the skies.

When I was a child, we never went on vacations; instead, we accompanied my father on excursions to scientific conferences or visiting professorships in various fabulous places like Paris, Oxford, Norway, Moscow, Athens, an ancient monastery in Wales.

After I went to college, my parents continued orbiting the planet, touching down in Paris, Portugal, Estonia, China. Their beloved Hans Wegner furniture criss-crossed the country, waiting for them in various apartments in Pasadena, Chicago, and Washington, DC. Whenever I visited them, the Bear Chair was always the first thing I saw, and it always said, “Home.”

They landed in Boston just before my son was born. My father gave up his beloved pipe when his even more beloved grandson was born; and they spent many happy hours together, reading and putting together ever more elaborate sets of Lego — castles, ships, and space stations.

But my father, who had always been able to fix anything, began to lose his grip. His hands trembled; he forgot things. He was no longer surrounded by a cloud of smoke; but gradually we lost him to another kind of cloud, a cloud of confusion brought on by his Parkinson’s disease and worsened by the medications that were intended to help; a dark cloud of confusion that dragged him, slowly, inexorably down into dementia and finally death. The Bear Chair was empty.

After my father died, my mother moved to a much smaller apartment, and brought most of her Hans Wegner furniture with her: the “Chinese” chairs, the coffee table, the tea trolley, the piano bench. The teak dining room table was now, for the first time, a small, perfect circle. Her apartment room looks like a period room at the museum: 50’s intellectuals, with Danish Modern.

The Bear Chair came to me. I couldn’t sit in it; I could hardly even look at it. And so it was that, as the years went by, I hardly noticed how sad and shabby, stained and scratched it had become. I was proud of the chair, and occasionally told incredulous children, “This chair is in the Museum of Modern Art.”

But for me, it was purely an emblem of loss. Stage directions from Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale:  “Exit, pursued by a bear.”

When I read in the New York Times that Hans Wegner had died this January at the age of 92, I knew it was time to restore the Bear Chair. A friend from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts recommended Machine Age, Normand Mainville’s showroom for vintage mid-century furniture in South Boston. One snowy winter day, I brought the Bear Chair to a huge warehouse on the waterfront.  “This chair is so well-made it has another fifty years of life in it,” said Normand.

While the chair was gone, I began to realize how much Wegner’s furniture represented my family’s ideals: nature, science, and art.  The ingenious invention; the elegant proof; a love of nature; respect for the environment.  “We should have a great deal of respect for the planet on which we live,” Rossby declared fifty years ago. We all believe that, too.

I cleared a good space for the chair in my living room, among all the classical CDs, the piano I never learned to play, the works of art, the books, and books, and books. The cloud of grief that had surrounded me since my father’s death began to lift, and I remembered the sunny days when we danced down the boulevard singing “Wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen!” — when the future seemed limitless, with a view of the sea.

In Spring, season of rebirth, the bulbs I planted in the earth began to rise, little green leaves appeared on the trees, and the Bear Chair was returned to me, restored, bringing with it something of my childhood, and my father’s dreams.

Older and darker now, the Bear Chair looks more than ever like a bear – not a toy bear or a bear in a cage at the zoo, but a real bear, a bear in the woods, waking up after a long winter’s sleep. Its big curved frame is made of teak, Wegner’s favorite wood — an oily wood often used in boatbuilding, with a natural oil finish that lets it breathe. It exudes something of freedom of the forest, and the spaciousness of the sea. Hidden harmonies. The music of the spheres.

I finally sat in the Bear Chair, listening to Mozart, enveloped in its big bear hug. And the Bear Chair said, “Home.”

Tony Harrison/Fram

September 30th, 2008 by Rebecca Nemser


Tony Harrison, Fram Directed by Tony Harrison and Bob Crowley. National Theatre, London; 10 April–22 May 2008.

Tony Harrison, Fram (London: Faber and Faber, 2008), 94 pages, £8.99.)

(Originally published in Arion, A Journal of Humanities and the Classics, 16.2, Fall 2008)

I was lucky to be in London in May and catch Fram, Tony Harrison’s latest play, in its short but spectacular run at the Olivier Theatre at London’s National Theatre. The play, all in rhyming verse, begins in Westminster Abbey, with moonlight shining through the stained glass of the great Rose Window, casting a reflection of Aeschylus on the coldstone floor. In walks the ghost of Gilbert Murray (Jeff Rawle), rising up from his grave and carrying a tragic mask.

Murray, the early-twentieth-century Oxford professor and classicist, was also a humanitarian, deeply involved in the League of Nations and the United Nations and co-founder of Oxfam. But since his death fifty years ago, his once-admired verse translations of Aeschylus and Euripides have been scorned, and the world he tried to save has been ravaged byeven more unimaginable horrors. So instead of decomposing in his urn, he has spent his afterlife composing this play.

He calls up the spirit of Sybil Thorndike (Sian Thomas, as splendid as the character she plays), the actress who triumphed on the London stage as Clytemnestra, Hecuba, and Medea in Murray’s once wildly popular versions, and whisksher off to the Olivier stalls of the National Theatre—for Fram is not just a play within a play, but a theater within a theater. Most of all, it is a poem about poetry.

The hero of the play is Fridtjof Nansen (Jasper Britton), Murray’s long-ago friend (and admirer of his translations)— the dashing Norwegian scientist, artist, and Arctic explorer who went “Farthest North” in the Arctic in the 1890s:

You’d think a man of his kind, when he headed for the Pole,
would think about the body’s needs and not about the soul,
but Nansen’s shelves of poetry were packed inside his head
when only absolute necessities could be loaded on a sled.

The name of the play is Fram, the ship Nansen designed for his journey north:

Fram (“forward” in Norwegian), what Nansen called the craft
he had specially constructed with round hull fore and aft,
so that, when the pack-ice crushed it, it didn’t crack, but rose
and stayed unshattered on top of the ice floes.

Nansen appears, giving a slide show at the Royal Geographical Society. He brought with him on the Fram a set ofart supplies to capture the magnificent colors of the Aurora Borealis and a phonogram of his wife, Eva, singing a song by Edvard Grieg. When he left the frozen Fram to complete his journey on foot, he had to leave the phonogram behind; itsits, forlorn, on the ice-covered stage, playing the sad, scratchy song again and again:

This is my wife’s voice pouring out her soul
fainter and fainter as I struck out for the Pole,
all art, all music, indeed anything refined
left, and maybe left for ever, far, far, far behind,
except for the poems I’d stored up in my mind.

Nansen’s companion on the journey is Hjalmar Johansen (Mark Addy)—“the dark side of his soul.” Johansen glee-fully grinds up Nansen’s pastels to fill the kayaks’ holes and constantly reminds him of the dirt, the smells, the claustrophobic cooped-up closeness summed up by the repeated image of the smelly bear-fur blanket they had to share to survive the freezing Arctic nights. Even after his death—by suicide a few years later—Johansen’s ghost continues to pursue and torment Nansen. Throughout the play, he befouls the stage and drags everything down.

Nansen appears again, years later, showing slides; now his slide show is about the Russian famine of 1922. His wife has died and his record for “Farthest North” has long been broken, but he has re-invented himself as a celebrity humanitarian, working for the League of Nations:

My spirit was almost crushed but like the Fram in frozen floes,
gripped by despair and darkness, withstood their force, and rose.

As Commissioner for Refugees, he devised a “Nansen passport” for stateless Russian artist émigrés, including Stravinsky, Anna Pavlova, and Chagall. Now the stage becomes a theater, with part of a performance of a ballet with imaginary music, sets, and dance (choreographed by Wayne McGregor and danced ecstatically by Viviana Durante). Next, the stage becomes a meeting in London to discuss the Russian famine, attended by Murray (who raised money for the League of Nations with performances of his translation of The Trojan Women, with Sybil in the lead) and Nansen, now the League’s High Commissioner. Also in attendance are Sybil herself, Eglantyne Jebb (Carolyn Pickles) from Save the Children, Ruth Fry (Clare Lawrence) from American Friends, and Sheldon (Patrick Drury), the Chief of Herbert Hoover’s American Relief Administration—who is not impressed:

And this Professor Murray so I’m told’s a drama freak.
Drama would be bad enough but his kind’s ancient Greek!

Murray’s escorting, as his special lady guest,
some broad called Sybil Thorndike, said to be the best
actress of her generation. God! We’re gonna have to sit
and listen to her declaiming ancient tragic shit.

Murray and Sybil still believe in theater, but the others are all skeptical. They think that only the new media of photography and film will move the public to care about the famine and the war. As Sheldon, one of the Americans, says, “Once you’ve seen the famine you wonder about art!” Murray, holding the tragic mask, insists that poetry is still the best way to move the world to end the famine:

The tragic mask for me has come to symbolise
the art of facing horror with always-open eyes.
No eyelids on a tragic mask. It has no choice but see
and its mouth is always open to utter poetry.

But when Nansen puts on the mask he lets out a terrible scream:

It reminds me of my countryman Edvard Munch’s The Scream.

There’s a boat in the background and I think there I am
at the start of my adventure in the departing Fram.
It looks like Christiania, but the earth, the sea, the sky
are all vibrating with the violence of the cry.
And since being in the Volga, I have terrifying dreams
of the open mouths of hunger and the open mouths of screams.
In the Volga there are millions of open mouths like these
who need substantial sustenance, not your Euripides.

Suddenly, Sybil steals the show with a stunning solo performance as a starving woman, desperate and driven to eat horse-dung bread and human flesh. It’s all language and gesture—all theater—and yet she is absolutely convincing. Thehorror and the pity are real. She makes her point. And then, just as suddenly, she breaks the spell and sweeps offstage, exclaiming,

I’m starving!

I’d enjoy
a little champagne supper across at the Savoy.

At intermission, the audience drank wine and talked about the play on the terrace of the National Theatre on London’s South Bank. London’s monuments were all illuminated, reflected in the dark waters of the Thames. “It’s in verse,” one woman hissed, outraged. Some drifted away into the lovely Spring night and did not return. And indeed Fram is not for the squeamish; it is full of evocations of foul smells, buzzing flies, rotted flesh, cannibalism, horse-dung bread, the horrors of war, famine, despair, and doubt.

Especially doubt. Later, when I read the play (with a photo of one of Nansen’s pastels on the cover), I realized that “I don’t believe it” is one of its very first lines. All the characters, except Sybil, express doubt. Doubt about the value of art in the face of horror and evil and loss, about the power of language to change the world, about the theater, and about the value of humanism—humanitarianism as well as the humanities—in the face of man’s inhumanity to man. As Bertolt Brecht wrote in To Posterity:

Ah, what an age it is
When to speak of trees is almost a crime
For it is a kind of silence about injustice!

And yet the splendid spectacle of the production, directed by Harrison and Bob Crowley, serenely affirms the value of art,even as the characters furiously deny it. Crowley’s magnificent sets—the glorious Aurora Borealis over the frozen ice, theRose Window casting colored light on the Gothic columns of Westminster Abbey—the music (by Richard Blackford), the sound design (Gareth Fry), the video design (Jon Driscoll), the costumes (Fotini Dimou), the lighting (Mark Henderson)—all work together as great theater.

And, always, Harrison’s way with words (“It’s in verse!”) carries the play forward—the wonderfully inventive rhymes, rocking back and forth between parody and poetry, and the recurring images, interconnected like pieces of a puzzle: the laurel wreath, the frozen globe, the mask, the song, the scream.

In Part Two, The Scream becomes the central metaphor. Nansen, dogged by Johansen’s mocking and cynicism, sinks into despair. He is convinced that the horrors of the modern age have destroyed poetry, and the world will end, all covered in ice:

Listen, listen, all these multiplying shrieks
which started at the Volga turn into screaming Greeks.
I thought my spirit, like the Fram, could not be sunk
till it multiplied to millions the Scream of Edvard Munch.

He walks offstage, alone, into the endless Arctic night, to the sound of screams alternating with Eva singing Grieg. As Nansen disappears in the ice, Eva’s song—sad and scratchy and sublime—turns into an orchestra playing a vast and sonorous symphony. The scream—the play’s central symbol of inexpressible horror—and the song—the longing for transcendence and beauty that is also part of being human—come together here, for a beautiful moment, as tragedy.

Then a vision of the National Theatre reflected in the Thames appears—a frozen world, all covered with ice. Gilbert Murray and Sybil find themselves back in Westminster Abbey, where they hear a terrible hum. “It sounds like the Furies from the Oresteia.” In Poets’ Corner, they see a Kurdish Poet (Aykut Hilmi) who has sewn up his own mouth and eyes in protest against the horrors of his world. Murray has had a moment of recognition:

I’m convinced now that Greek tragedy had screams
to show the poetry that followed dealt with great extremes

a scream from the heart that broke the metric flow,
not to be pathetically translated into English as “Oh woe!”

But now he is finally overcome by his own incomprehension, petty jealousy, and doubt. Furious that a laurel wreathhas been placed on the grave of T. S. Eliot, his cruelest critic, Gilbert Murray—classicist, humanitarian—stamps on Eliot’s memorial, smashes the tragic mask, screams, and walks out of his own play.

Earlier, Sybil asked Murray who the only woman in the circle of the Rose Window was, and he answered, “You won’t believe this, Sybil, it’s the Sibyl.” But Sybil does believe it. She has never lost her faith in humanity—or in art.

And just as she stole the show at the end of Part One, so she saves it in Part Two, graciously placing the crumpled laurel wreath on the Kurdish Poet’s deliberately disfigured head:

Sing the future like the Sibyl. Sing of what’s to come.
If it can communicate, your mutilated hum .

We, all the Abbey represents. It’s had its day.
Wear the laurel wreath. Make poems. Make a play .
And if you do, please, write a part for me.
Nothing too big. Anything. I’m always free.

Sybil, like her namesake, can gaze forward at the future, with its even more unimaginable horrors to come, and stillimagine poetry—even in languages she cannot understand— even in the hums and buzzes of a damaged world. She be- lieves that art will always go on saying what can’t be said and doing what can’t be done. As an artist, she is “always free.”

The Kurdish Poet hums—ice covers Westminster Abbey— the Rose Window shatters. The theater is covered in dark-ness and ice. The Arctic wilderness now covers the world; Fram is frozen in the ice.

Two African boys (Ronald Chabvuka, Joel Davis, Verelle Roberts, Keanu Taylor) enter, surrounded by millions ofbuzzing bluebottle flies. They are stowaways who froze to death, enfolded in each other’s arms, trying to get to London in the wheelbay of a jumbo jet. Nansen enters.

These boys have been my inspiration, also my despair,
for their doomed expedition to the Artic of the air.

He gives the boys the flag of the United Nations to plant on the now frozen Earth.

A world past all redemption where no one needs to mark
boundaries round nations all frozen in the dark.

Moved by the story of the frozen wheelbay boys, Nansen and Johansen’s ghosts come to a kind of reconciliation. Theyrealize that the bearskin rug they reluctantly shared kept them alive on their long-ago journey Farthest North. They accept each other’s “human heat”—the sometimes banal demands of the body and the sometimes sublime ascents of the soul. Back on the Fram at the end of the world, they have learned, finally, despite their difference,”to embrace or die.”

Fram turns and sails away, and London’s South Bank, reflected in the frozen Thames, is projected on the stage. As the light fades to blackout, all that remains is the National Theatre, covered in ice.

Fram is full of echoes of the Oresteia—Harrison’s own translation played at this very theater—especially of Cassandra tearing off the laurel wreath and haunted by the screams of murdered children. There are also echoes of Samuel Beckett (also buried in Westminster Abbey), especially when Nansen and Johansen are alone again on the Fram. At the end of this play, when so much is about the unspeakable, they seem to be anticipating the last lines of Beckett’s The Unnamable:

You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.

Fram does rise up from the frozen world, uncrushed. The ship, the play, the “craft,” which is both the ship and poetry, sails on, forward, into the sacred space, where inspiration and despair—the song and the scream—can come together, and embrace.

by Rebecca Nemser for

Vanity Fair

May 18th, 2004 by Rebecca Nemser

Vanity Fair, Universal Studios 2004

Vanity Fair, Willaim Makepeace Thackeray, 1848


William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair is a savage critique of a corrupt, greedy, and hypocritical society hidebound by its prides and prejudices. He writes with bitter irony, exposing illusions and delusions, and showing the ceaseless striving after power, wealth and love as a “vanity of vanities, and a striving after wind,” as the Bible says – hence the title. And yet the book is wonderfully funny, witty, even romantic. This apparent paradox is embodied in the character of that “artful little minx” Rebecca Sharp.

Thackeray (1811-1863) endows Rebecca with all the qualities which make his own writing so delightful. He flatters and charms his characters to their faces, and then laughs and mimics them mercilessly behind their backs – just Becky’s style! Furthermore, he portrays Rebecca as an artist —  the lost, brilliant child of a singer and a painter, singing and dancing, scheming and dreaming her way though life.

It is as an artist that Thackeray appreciates Becky Sharp, and it is an artist that director Mira Nair approaches Vanity Fair. Nair has certainly chosen to accentuate the positive in her movie, and even to add a fanciful ending; but her interpretation, vividly colored by her own experiences, is amply supported by the text.

Making a movie from a book is a very elaborate form of reading, and Nair’s movie is an inspired and exceptionally well-researched reading of Vanity Fair. Alas, a cannonade of negative reviews chased it out of the theaters after a short run.

What sharp and stinging barbs Thackeray would have cast at those vain and foolish critics who panned Vanity Fair after praising a movie like Possession — such a shallow reading and pointless evisceration of A.S. Byatt’s book that it seemed as if the director had barely read the synopsis, much less the book.

Critics who condemned the movie because they considered Reese Witherspoon’s Becky Sharp too charming reminded me of the first time I read Vanity Fair, in high school a long, long time ago. Some other girls, whom I secretly suspected of skimming the 900-page book, all agreed that Amelia was good and Rebecca was bad. I considered Amelia a pale, insipid, silly little drip, and wrote a passionate defense of the sublime literary creation whose name I happen to share. Once again, I lift my pen to defend the honor of my namesake, played to perfection by lovely Witherspoon in Nair’s delightful film.

Those critics didn’t seem to realize that while Thackeray repeatedly tells us that Rebecca is wicked and Amelia is good, what he shows us is something quite different indeed.  Left with no money, no noble name, no prospects in life, Becky Sharp determines to make her own way in the world. It is the early nineteenth century; law, medicine, business, the church, and even the arts  are all closed to her. She is wonderfully musical, but an amateur without proper training; the theater was not considered respectable. She could have spent her life as a governess or lady’s companion – and Thackerary paints a pathetic portrait of  poor, simpering sycophants in that line of work. Rebecca’s talent is for life, and her only hope is marriage. She does marry a man, Rawdon Crawley, a younger son of a fine old family gone to seed. She is genuinely fond of him, but he is disinherited for marrying a lowly governess, and then nobly refuses to demean himself by working for a living. They sink into poverty. After sighing that she could be good if she had an income of a few thousand pounds a year, Rebecca tries to establish herself in society by using her charms on a decadent rich old Marquis who supports their household for years, until her her husband belatedly does the math and leaves her alone and penniless once again.

Thackeray draws many subtle parallels between “bad” Becky and “good” Amelia and even better Jane, Becky’s pious sister-in-law.  “Bad” Becky marries above her station and then flirts with, and accepts money from, another man. How dreadful! But wait —  “good” Amelia, who is constantly praised for being sweet, submissive, and a little stupid, also marries above her station and, after her husband’s death, ever so chastely flirts with another man, Major Dobbin, and ever so sweetly allows him to support her for years. Wicked Becky tries to persuade Rawdon’s rich aunt, old Miss Crawley, to leave Rawdon her money – but wait! Virtuous Jane (nee Lady Jane Sheepshanks – is Thackeray, such a master of funny names, trying to tell us something here?) marries Rawdon’s boring brother Pitt, and then actually moves in with the old lady and virtuously cajoles her into leaving all her money to Pitt. Bewitching little Becky is a heartless flirt, no doubt about it, but she only flirts heartlessly with other heartless flirts; Amelia breaks the heart of her genuinely devoted admirer, exploits and torments the love-sick man for years, and then only marries him when he is no longer quite so much in love with her, and she has long since lost her youthful charms.

One really wicked thing about Becky: she is a terrible mother, who neglects her only son and eventually allows him to be given away and brought up by his rich relations. But good Amelia terribly spoils her only son, and eventually gives him away to be brought up by his rich relations. At least Becky’s son receives a good education, paid for by the Marquis, while Amelia’s son is tutored by foolish flattering toadies. And in the end, Becky’s son inherits the wealth and rank of the Crawley house, while Amelia’s son shows every sign of turning into a vain and foolish fop, just like his father. Furthermore, Thackeray darkly hints that pious Jane hastens the death of her own son by treating his fatal illness with prayers and ridiculous patent medicines.

It is true that in the last hundred pages of Vanity Fair, Thackeray briefly changes his tone and turns against Rebecca in some particularly unkind passages; he then adds insult to injury by giving Amelia a sudden deep appreciation of the music of Mozart. But he can’t sustain his attack of righteousness, and comes back to Rebecca. It is she who performs the single most noble, selfless, and romantic act in the whole book, when she reveals to Amelia poor Dobbin’s true worth in the end.

Thackeray was born in India, and India is everywhere in the novel. Several of the men go there and make their fortunes; there are curries, cashmere shawls, and references to elephants in nearly every chapter. The Indian-born director Nair magnifies the Indian element, and fills the screen with peacock feathers, pink silk, and premonitions of the evils of colonialism yet to come. Rebecca, like India, is brilliant, seductive, exotic, and dangerous. Her worst crime is that she is not “one of us,” as a later critic of colonialism, Joseph Conrad, put it so well, and her fatal flaw is her longing to be accepted by a society which will always see her as an outsider.

Thackeray hated hypocrisy more than anything, and he would have had some harsh words to say about film critics who thrashed Nair’s Vanity Fair after smiling blandly when poor Henry James was butchered and tarted up beyond all recognition in several recent films. They all complained about the silly dance scene in Vanity Fair, although there are countless examples of such  Orientalisms in the art of the era in which Vanity Fair takes place; the scene is pretty racy in the book, too. None of them minded the silly dance scene in The Golden Bowl, which was not in the book, and had no historical justification at all.

Thackeray’s book is full of sly, mischevious asides and Becky-esque winks at the reader. He would probably have relished the movie and had a good laugh at Nair’s sending Becky off to India, triumphantly, on the back of an elephant at the end. This fanciful flourish, this little  touch of Bollywood, is a profoundly Thackerayan wink, which Nair has earned precisely because she was so faithful, in her fashion, to the text.

See for yourself: there’s just enough time to read or reread the book (all 900 pages!) before Vanity Fair comes out on DVD.

by Rebecca Nemser for

John Singer Sargent

June 29th, 1999 by Rebecca Nemser

(Originally published in Boston Magazine, June 1999)

John Singer Sargent (1865-1925), the great American artist, was born in Italy, studied in Paris, and lived most of his life in London. Conservative in what he chose to paint, he was daring and profoundly modern in how he painted it.

The preeminent portrait painter of his day, he gave it all up at the height of his career to paint landscapes. His private life is a mystery. His brushwork is still dazzling.

This summer, Boston will have an unparalleled opportunity to experience his art during a citywide celebration that includes a major retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts, related exhibitions at the Fogg Art Museum, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and the Boston Public Library, and the unveiling of a thrilling restoration of his long-neglected murals at the MFA and the Boston Public Library.

Sargent was born in Florence in 1856 to a family of cultured Americans living abroad in spas and rented villas. His mother was an amateur watercolorist who took him to museums and taught him to paint; he has an amazing facility with the brush.

In 1874, the family moved to Paris so he could study in the studio of the fashionable painter Carolus Duran, who told all his students to “search for the half-tone, put down some accents, and then the lights…Velasquez, Velasquez, Velasquez, ceaselessly study Velasquez.”

Sargent took his advice. He made his name with The Daughters of Edward Boit, 1882, a remarkable reworking of Diego Velasquez’s 1656 Las Meninas at the Prado — a masterpiece which Picasso also worked and reworked in his own art.

He also painted a  New Orleans-born beauty known as Madame X. Paris audiences were shocked by his depiction of her pale, violet-powdered skin and revealing gown, but Sargent considered it “the best thing I have done” and brought it with him when he moved to London in 1886.

In London, Henry James introduced him to the Boston collector Isabella Stewart Gardner, and when Sargent came to Boston in 1887, he painted her portrait, which James described as a “Byzantine Madonna with a halo.”

He had his first solo show here, at the Saint Botolph Club, and met the architects Stanford White and Charles McKim, who were creating neo-Renaissance palazzos as mansions and public buildings for the Gilded Age in Boston, Newport, and New York. They invited him to paint a series of murals for their then new Boston Public Library, which soon led to a commission for more murals for Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

After a triumphal visit to America, Sargent returned to London, and spent the next two decades painting portraits of wealthy clients from both sides of the Atlantic: women dreamy and delicious, draped in silk and jewels: men somber and serious in bespoke shirts, Savile Row suits, and old masterish poses.

In the studio, Sargent was a perfectionist; the result is art that seems effortless, like that of a great dancer who spends months rehearsing to create a few perfect moments onstage. Richard Ormond, his great-nephew, recalls:

“There are stories of Sargent wearing out the carpet as he dashed backward and forward from his easel; of sudden expletives as he wrestled with the problems of representation: ‘Demons, demons!’ he would cry out in frustration; of scraping-downs and rubbings-out as he abandoned what he had begun and started again,”

His studio was filled with Oriental rugs, William Morris wallpaper, a Bechstein piano, architectural fragments, fabric, and beautiful objects, may of them studio props he used over and over again. These evocative objects, often shown in shadows or in fragments, give the portraits an aura, a glow, of glamour and grace.

The portraits brought Sargent fame and fortune, but in 1907 he gave them up, except for occasional pictures of personal friends and offers he could not refuse, like a commission from John D. Rockefeller, whom he painted in Florida so he could do some watercolors of the palm trees there. He told a friend, “I have vowed to do no more portraits… it is to me a positive bliss to think that I shall soon be a free man.

Sargent had spent his idyllic first summer in England staying in country houses, carrying his easel outdoors and painting such masterpieces as Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, a soft and dreamlike twilight scene shimmering with pale, incandescent moonlight.

He had always, since childhood, loved traveling and painting outdoors. He took his portable watercolor set to Italy, Spain, the Alps, and even the American Rockies and Glacier National Park, and painted hundreds of landscapes, capturing the light and water and exhilarating air.

The late landscapes display Sargent’s painterliness, the flash and flourish of his brush, the sheer gorgeous virtuosity of his art.

He also turned his attention to the murals for the Museum of Fine Arts. Sargent spent years working on the murals, making hundreds of studies in charcoal, oil, and plaster, and traveling to Egypt, Greece, and the Holy Land to seek inspiration. In 1916, he came to Boston, rented a studio on Columbus Avenue, and made studies of local models—including three Ziegfield Follies dancers. Back in London, he painted the giant canvases, depicting themes from Greek mythology—Apollo, Athena, the Muses—and oversaw their installation in 1921. But after his death, in 1925, the murals were allowed to fall in disrepair. Now at last The Sargent Murals are being restored. Stonework and skylights are being cleaned and repaired, and all the allegorical paintings, sculptures, and sculptural surfaces that Sargent colored, painted, and glazed are being revived.

Sargent was a master of adapting the art of the past to serve the needs of the present. Too modern, at times, for his own era; not modern enough for the one that followed, he may be just right for these retro times, when everything seems to be homage, copy, or remake, “inspired by,” “based on,” or neo.

Sargent seems to have walked out of the pages of a novel by Henry James, who wrote of him:

“Yes, I have always thought of Sargent as a great painter. He would be greater still if he had done one or two little things he hasn’t—but he will do.”

by Rebecca Nemser for

Paula Josa-Jones

August 1st, 1998 by Rebecca Nemser

(Originally published in Boston Magazine,  1998)

Six dancers, wearing animal masks and carrying white paper flowers and big bleached bones, stretch out on the shiny black floor of the Green Street Studio in Central Square while Paula Josa-Jones — the Boston-based dancer, choreographer and director of Paula Josa-Jones/Performance Works — takes a break from rehearsals to talk about her newest dance project, Ghostdance.  “The dancers will be dressed in layers and layers of white fabric — I’ve been buying up old tuxedos and bridal gowns,” says Josa-Jones, a thin, intense, bird-like woman with beautiful, strong hands and feet. “The dance is about ghosts, and the voices of our ancestors — animal ancestors, earth ancestors, and the voices of the earth as well.”  Josa-Jones created Ghostdance, which was inspired by the imagery of the Mexican Day of the Dead — Dia de los Muertes, during a  US/Mexico Cultural Exchange Fellowship funded by an Natonal Endowment for the Arts. Ten dancers from Monterrey, Mexico, will be travelling here to perform with Josa-Jones’s company in August, when Ghostdance will premiere at Lincoln Center Out-of-doors before coming back to Boston.  The music was composed by Pauline Oliveros. “It’s powerful magic,” says Josa-Jones. She flips on the tape, and the music begins: eerie and melodic, like the sound of wind and water, with strange, unearthly voices.

“The dancers will be carrying white flowers and bones and and brilliantly colored objects — orange of marigold,  magenta of coxcomb,” she says. “They are carrying the objects as offerings. I made all the flowers myself; they came from a poem by Jeffner Allen called Cascades. Moonflowers. Flores lunares. I play the chanracter of a bride of death.”

The dancers assemble in the corner of the room. Josa-Jones calls out instructions: “Greetings. Then Decay. Then Ghosting with Relationships. Then it goes into Swirls, then it goes into Fragmentos, then it goes back into Swirls, then I walk through and you do Body Stories, then Obsessions, then Chango.” The dancers start to dance across the room, in a slow, wavelike motion, rising and sinking, falling and rising; their masks and flowers trembling as they dance. “At the basis of the movements is a raggedy, disintegrating quality,” says Josa-Jones. “It’s as if they were taking a journey through a landscape and their eyes were caught by something — a memory, or the fragment of a memory, or the memory of a past life — and that pulls them into the movement.”  She chants aloud from Cascades as the dancers dance:

“Reverberaciones. Falling stars. Thousands of stars. Oceans of worlds.  Moonflowers. Flores lunares. Has vivido un gran amor? Have you lived a great love?”

The dance is ghostlike, dreamlike — hypnotic, frightening, but also strangely beautiful.

“It’s an offering,” says Josa-Jones. “To all our ancestors, ghosts, spirits of the earth…”

by Rebecca Nemser for

Boston Baroque: Abduction from the Seraglio

May 21st, 1998 by Rebecca Nemser

(Originally published in  Boston Magazine, May 1998)

One my most treasured music experiences was the Boston Baroque‘s concert production of The Marriage of Figaro a few years ago. It was a very hot night at Jordan Hall — before renovations and air-conditioning — and everyone was sweating and uncomfortable. But the music — oh, the music! As the orchestra pulled Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart‘s marvelous, unamplified music out of the hot night air, the singers stood on stage, without sets, without costumes, without make-up or wigs, and sang to each other, and to us.

As Figaro and Susanna sang of their longing for their wedding day, everyone in that hot, still room could feel the energy between them; they sang as if their lives depended on it. The Countess’s first song was good but not great; but her final aria was amazing; it reached a great circle of forgiveness over the audience, and brought Mozart’s harmonies home, to the heart. I’ve heard many more lavish productions of Figaro, but this was the one that moved me the most.

In May, Boston Baroque will produce a concert performance of Mozart’s early opera, Abduction from the Seraglio. Anyone who saw Amadeus will remember this as the opera that takes places in a Turkish harem, with a great role for a virtuoso soprano, played in the movie by a big, beautiful blonde wearing an enormous white wig.  Here, she will be sung by Sally Wolf, who is currently hitting the high notes as the Queen of the Night in the Met’s production of The Magic Flute. “The singers are fantastic,” says Martin Pearlman, conductor and director of this renowned early music ensemble, who has been based in Boston since the early 1970’s, when he came here as  young harpsichordist, because Boston was the center of harpsichord-making — and therefore harpsichord-playing — in the United States.

The ensemble began as Banchetta Musicale, with eight people. “Everybody who could play Baroque instruments in town,” says Pearlman. “Finally I found some oboes, then some singers. I like a natural sound. I like to hear them sing out. I hire people whose voices I like, and then let them sing.”

Eventually the group grew much larger, and changed its name to Boston Baroque.

Mozart wrote Abduction in 1781, at the age of 25, as a “Singspiel” — a traditonal German singing play, closer to a musical than an opera, at a time when Turkish music was in vogue in Vienna; hence all the cymbals, drums, and triangles — far more percussion than is usual for Boston Baroque. The story involves a beautiful woman who is captured by pirates, sold into a Sultan’s harem, and rescued by her lover. It starts out light and comic, gradually grows deeper, more melodic, more profound, and ends in perfect harmony. Pearlman compares Abduction to Leonard Bernstein‘s West Side Story, which also  brings together elements of both high art — opera — and low art — the musical — into a new form that transcends them both. “It was a breakthough for Mozart,” says Pearlman. “It was a big success, and suddenly the singspiel was a work of art.”

Boston Baroque’s production will be sung in German, but the long spoken passages will be in English, in a new translation by Laurence Senulik.

Helen Pond and Herbert Senn

December 1st, 1996 by Rebecca Nemser

(Originally published in Boston Magazine, December 1996.)

Boston Ballet’s new Nutcracker sets are the work of a designing couple, Helen Pond and Herbert Senn, who live in Yarmouthport and have created hundreds of stage sets for everything from grand opera to Broadway shows to cruise ships to the Cape Playhouse in Dennis.

“Helen and Herbert are great model makers,” says Boston Ballet’s production designer Philip Jordan. “They also paint all their own scenery. Everything is hand-painted and hand-carved.” Indeed, the toy theater that the magician Drosselmayer brings as a gift to the Christmas party in the first act is the model for the enchanting theater in Fairyland in the second act, where Clara and the Nutcracker watch the dancers. (The dancer’s costumes in the second act are grown-up versions of the dolls under the Christmas tree.)

Helen and Herbert (their friends call them H&H) met while studying Dramatic Arts at Columbia University. “We were not ever easel artists,” says Herbert. “But we took the artists’ perogative and did it our own way. We feel it represents us. We build the model, we enlarge it, we paint it.”  They got involved with the ballet when they were designing sets for Sarah Caldwell at Boston Lyric Opera, and Virigina Williams, then the head of the Boston Ballet, was directing the dance section of a Rameau opera there.  “We did the scenery for her Rameau operas and we did a little Gisele for her, and finally the Nutcracker,” says Helen. “German Expressionism was all the rage, but Viriginia said: “Just make it pretty, for God’s sake!’” says Herbert, who had never seen the Nutcracker when they first began designing the sets. “I saw the City Ballet’s Nutcracker in the 50’s,” says Helen. “The tree went to pieces, that’s the only thing I remember. The tree short-shortcircuited; it was all made of Fuller brushes.”

Herbert and Helen’s first Nutcracker sets were made by refurbishing existing ballet sets, borrowing from other theatre companies, and hand-hemming hundreds of yards of cloth. Fifteen years later, one of the beautiful but well-worn curtains ripped during a performance. “Herbert and Helen were called in to do the repairs and Bruce Marks (artistic director of the Boston Ballet) got to know them, and a decision was made to completely redesign the Nutcracker’s sets,” says Philip Jordan. “We needed to capture the imagination of people who knew it and loved it, to enliven it and make it attractive in other ways. People bring more expectations into the theater now. Nutcracker is almost a Broadway show. We don’t have a state subsidy. This is the company that Nutcracker has built.”

Herbert is fascinated with Russian art,  especially the great sets designed by Leon Bakst for Diaghilev, and the Palekh art of painted lacquer boxes.  The ceilings of the new Nutcracker set all have Palekh clouds in the sky. Every set conveys a sense of exotic enchantment, and hidden delights. A domed mosque is in the background of the Arabic-inspired “Coffee” dances, and the gold leaf and black lacquer chinoiserie for the Asian-flavored “Tea.”

Helen and Herbert have an apartment “200 steps from the Gershwins’ Stage Door,” but they spend most of their time in Yarmouthport, in a Gothic house called Strawberry Hill –– a former Universalist church which they have fully restored with Gothic carving, painted ceilings and “lots and lots of quadrifoils,” says Herbert. “We designed the house and the Nutcracker at the same time. Nutcracker is my life.

by Rebecca Nemser for

Christopher Hogwood

December 1st, 1996 by Rebecca Nemser

(Originally published in Boston Magazine, December 1996)

By 10 AM on Sunday morning, the gale force winds that had kept supermodels and movie stars from attending the Herb Ritts opening at the Museum of Fine Arts the night before had turned to driving rain. Emmanuel Church was still almost empty; only a handful of the faithful gathered, shivering, in the 19th century Gothic church on Newbury Street. But the church chorus was beaming as they marched towards the altar, singing.

The traditional Episcopal mass proceeded with prayers, parish news, a sermon about the AIDS quilt, communion, and requests for donations. Then the chorus rose up to sing a Bach cantata, and the musicians of Emmanuel Music carried their chairs and set up their instruments — bass, viola, flute — next to the small chamber organ on the altar.

Standing among them, leading their song, was Christopher Hogwood — international recording star for L’Oiseau-Lyre, founding director of London’s Academy of Ancient Music, Commander of the British Empire (the same rank as James Bond), and for the last ten years artistic director of Boston’s venerable Handel & Haydn Society. Two days earlier, he had bowed to a standing ovation in a packed Symphony Hall, received a medal from H &H, and heard the Governor proclaim October 18, 1996 Christopher Hogwood Day. But on that rainy Sunday morning, he seemed perfectly content to make music in a damp and dusty church, without remuneration or applause.

Since Hogwood came to Handel & Haydn ten years ago, the Society has been transformed from a small, privately funded orchestra with an illustrious history and a shaky future into a world-renowned early music group with an international reputation. H&H has devoted supporters and a dedicated staff, but Christopher Hogwood’s presence has brought it national attention and new life.

He came to H&H on condition that they play what he likes to call “historically informed performances” — whose initials, he hastens to inform you, spell “hip”. His preference for original instruments seems to be a matter of personal taste, a liking for the look and sound of the harpsichord, and a curiosity about what the music sounded like when it was written. “You have a stronger sense of the sound of the music as what the composer had in his mental ear,” he says. “It’s a more pure sound.” When pressed to describe the essence of the ‘historically informed performance’, he says, “It’s like trying to describe the scent of a rose.

Hogwood, who is English and was educated at Cambridge, England, is fascinated with history. He loves to collect “antique cookery books” and give garden parties at his house in England, complete with music, food, flowers, and even clothes of the period. (In addition to his house and garden in Cambridge, he has “flats” in Boston, London, and Sydney, Australia, where he conducts opera in the summer.) “He has tremendous respect for history,” says his personal assistant Heather Jarman. “He likes to compare doing early music to doing early recipes. They don’t say ‘a quarter teaspoon of sage.’ They make a list of herbs and you’ve got to decide what you want it to be. Christopher reads lots and lots of music, and lots and lots of recipes.”

Rehearsing a Mozart motet with the H&H chorus and orchestra in Symphony Hall, Hogwood hardly speaks. He hums, he sings, he makes precise, lyrical gestures with his hands, he taps his foot, he sways, he nods, he walks backwards and stands, still and alert, watching and listening from the back of the concert hall in an intense, almost Zen-like state on concentration. “One needs to know the tensions within,” he says. “Mozart works within a frame and pushes right up to the limits of the frame, and it’s the pressures on the frame, without breaking it, that’s exciting.” As he pulls the music out of the air, adjusting its scale and shape and sound, he seems to be playing the orchestra like a single musical instrument, mastering the music; you can see why they call him Maestro.

But it’s all very subtle — too subtle for some critics, who have interpreted Hogwood’s restrained style and English reserve as a lack of passion for the music he plays so well. Hogwood’s style is not the showmanship of Keith Lockhart or the gymnastics of Seiji Ozawa; he seems, above all, to be playing the music because he wants to hear it. “It’s difficult for Americans to understand that the emotion is there, but it doesn’t express itself in body language or tears,” says Jarman. “It’s not Hogwood that he wants to express. He wants the composer to speak through him.”

“Authentic doesn’t mean anything any longer,” says Hogwood. “One of the problems facing music, artistically speaking, is that it was written for a smaller, more refined arena, but financially people are finding it hard to survive even in large arenas. Only amateurs can indulge in music at that scale. My sister, in London, is a doctor and has string quartets at home and quite rightly points out that she is much more authentic than I am. We have to stretch the rules.”

“What seems to be the interesting arena now is recording, video, and television,” says Hogwood. “It carries with it something like intimacy, that doesn’t exist at the Hollywood Bowl. It’s like carrying postcards of great paintings. The people on rollerblades and walkmen, with the opera in their ears — it’s alternative and new, but it’s there as an access point. It’s clearly it’s not the original. On the other hand, it’s the only version you can carry around.”

Last Spring, H&H presented Orfeo ed Euridice, the opera by Christoph Willibald Ritter von Gluck (1714  –  1787), in collaboration with Mark Morris Dance Group, in Boston and New York; Hogwood won the Edinburgh Festival Critics Award for Music when the opera travelled to the Edinburgh International Festival in August. “Everyone thought Mark Morris was wild,” he says, “And suddenly they see a classical interpretation — standing back and not going over. There’s wildness and there’s restraint, and they have to bond together.”

Since Orfeo, Hogwood has stopped wearing the traditional “stuffed shirt” tails and white tie; he now conducts in a simple high-neck black silk shirt, which he says he bought because the designer label is Vivaldi. It suits him; it gives him the air of an artist — or a monk. The Maestro’s new clothes are a metaphor for his approach to music: for Hogwood, music is not a dusty, lifeless tradition, but  something authentic, full of meaning, and alive. Musicians esteem him, from the young diva Cecelia Bartoli, with whom he is recording Haydn’s Orfeo to the H& H chorus to rising star soprano Dominque Labelle.

“He’s a perfectionist, and he really loves music,” says Labelle. “He has done so much for the early music world. He has made a big, big difference. He loves what he does, and so you have fun.”

by Rebecca Nemser for

The Eliminator

November 1st, 1996 by Rebecca Nemser

(Originally published in Boston Magazine, November 1996)

And if you see vague traces of skipping reels of rhyme…

The Boston Film Festival has left town, but the words “The Eliminator” can still be seen, spray-painted and stencilled in bright green paint on the sidewalks of Newbury Street. These are the mysterious traces left by three brilliant young Irishmen, who came to Boston for a few days in September with their first film: the 22-year old director, Enda Hughes; the star, Michael Hughes; and their publicist, Peter Johnson. “Street marketing, street theater,” says Peter, who is wearing a Druid Theater T-shirt when we all meet for dinner at the Cottonwood Cafe after the screening of The Eliminator, their first film. “It’s a participation sport.”

The movie, which was a big hit this summer at the Galway Film Fleadh and is now making the rounds of international film festivals, seems well on its way to becoming a cult classic. It begins as a cop thriller, then turns into a spy movie, then a horror movie with flesh-eating zombies, then a mythical epic, and finally achieves transcendence with an ironic evocation of William Butler Yeats‘ great line of poetry, “A terrible beauty is born.”

And all this on a budget of 8,000 pounds (about 12,000 dollars)!

Indeed, one of the charms of The Eliminator is watching it achieve the effects of multi-million dollar Hollywood movies on a shoestring. “If you don’t have the budget, you have to be very creative,” says director Enda Hughes, who worked as a nightclub DJ to raise his half of the 8,000 pounds. “The movie was shot in ten weeks, but it took two years to make because we had no money. We came back and edited it for ten weeks during down-time in the Windmill Lane studios in Dublin. It’s U2’s post-production studio, so there’s fan graffiti all over it, and they let us use it during down-time.”

The Hughes brothers come from Keady, in South Armagh. “It was a rough area in the troubles,” says Enda. “It was called Bandit Country. We got into movies to escape. In Galway, the movie theater is called the Cameo; the design is very 1950’s. It’s my own little La Scala. I think about movies from the minute I wake up until the minute I sleep.”

The movie was a family affair. The star is Enda’s brother, Michael, and the production design, visual effects, and stunts were all done by their cousin Dennis O’Hare, who couldn’t come to Boston for the event. “My first movie was a super-8 half-hour remake of Indiana Jones,” says Enda. “Dennis and Michael and I — there were three of us involved, and there’d be two of us in any given shot, and one behind the camera.” It was Michael, who acted in Shakespearean dramas while he was a student at Oxford and studied theater in Paris, who came up with the idea of reading from Leabharna Marbhwith, the Celtic Book of Necromancy, to raise the ghosts of Finn MacCuhal, St. Patrick, and the legendary Cuchullain at the end of the movie. “In Northern Ireland, everything is referenced to the past,” says Michael. “We consider ourselves art terrorists,” says Enda. “Because Northern Ireland is a pretty crazy place.”

One name that appears often in the closing credits is Rosemary Hughes.

“Our Mom,” says Enda proudly. “She’s lovely. She’s great. She’s very supportive of our movie-making. And she helped with the catering. The special effects. She made all the gory stuff that the zombies are eating. She made it from strings of red licorice, and bananas mushed up with cream and yogurt and red food coloring. And I understand from the zombies that it was very tasty.”

by Rebecca Nemser for

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

September 12th, 1996 by Rebecca Nemser

(Originally published in Boston Magazine, in support of Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s dream to bring free outdoor Shakspeare to Boston.)

Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is about a royal wedding, lovers lost in an enchanted forest, magic spells, and fairy sprites. But mostly it is about imagination. In the course of the play, as the characters move in and out of the world of dreams, certain words repeat over and over again:

Fancy.  Imagination.  Dream.
Vision.  Transported.
Transfigured. Transformed.

It seemed to me that everyone who watched the play performed for free this summer, outdoors in Copley Square — against the spectacular  backdrop of  Trinity Church, the Boston Public Library, and the neo-classical urns on the top of the building across the street on Boylston, silhouetted against the darkening sky — felt transfigured, transformed, transported  by the Dream.

Commonwealth Shakespeare Company made a dramatic entrance on the local theater scene this summer with its dreamy production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Director Steven Maler brought the play to life with a  minimum of props, a simple stage, lots of imagination, a little help from many friends, and a talented, multi-racial cast. Especially fine were Faran Tahir and Siobhan Brown. Arching their backs, extending their arms, and fluttering their hands in lyrical curves, they were majestic and magical in double roles: Athenian king Theseus and his conquered bride Hippolyta, and Oberon and Titania, King and Queen of the Fairies. Many scenes included improvisational dances, graceful gestures, and extravagent body language, which emphasized the underlying musicality of the play’s extraordinary poetry.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a very auspicious beginning for Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s dream of outdoor Shakespeare every summer in Boston. At the end of the play, Theseus declaims:

“And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and give to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.”

by Rebecca Nemser for

(In 1996, A Midsummer Night’s Dream won an Eliot Norton Prize, and every since then, with the help of many friends, Commonwealth Shakespeare Company has staged a free outdoors Shakespeare play in Boston.)

Aretha Franklin/ Diana Ross

August 2nd, 1996 by Rebecca Nemser

(Originally published in Boston Magazine, Summer 1996)

Two great stars of rock and roll are converging near Boston this summer, rising up near the sea, as Goddesses so often do: Diana Ross and Aretha Franklin.

When I was young, they represented the two poles of women’s experience.  Diana’s sweet, lyrical voice celebrated a woman’s capacity to abandon herself completely to love. Aretha’s “Respect” was the ultimate expression of a woman’s righteous anger: knowing when to stop, when to say no, when to move on, Diana was love and longing; Aretha—Lady Soul—was power and pride.

Over time, I came to realize that there’s pride and power in Diana Ross—in her pose and polish and supreme self-confidence—and tenderness and yearning in Aretha. Even in her angriest songs, there are moments of embracing, spiritual softness.

Love and self-respect, far from being opposites, have to come together to get it right.

Over the years, the music of Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross has played continuously on the inner soundtrack of my life, encouraging and inspiring me.

I sang “Baby Love” as a lullaby when my son was little; stormed out of a bad work situation humming “R-E-S-P-E-C-T”; quoted from “I Hear a Symphony” (“Pulling me closer and closer”) to describe the experience of looking at a painting by Monet; set a romantic mood by playing “(You Make Me Feel like a) Natural Woman.

When I was learning to love opera, I recognized Diana’s and Aretha’s magical ability to transform feelings of loneliness, outrage, and pain into beautiful music, like the arias of classical divas.

When I was studying Greek mythology, I saw them as present-day embodiments of ancient goddesses, projecting dazzling images of beauty, power, glamour, self-possession, and grace.

And when my soul was in the Lost and Found, their voices helped me claim it.

by Rebecca Nemser for

Brain Opera

July 2nd, 1996 by Rebecca Nemser

(Originally published in Boston Magazine, July 1996)

Tod Machover, Professor of Music and Media at MIT’s Media Lab, is the creator of Brain Opera — an interactive on-line music event which will premiere  this summer at the Lincoln Center and simultaneously on computer screens all over the world.

Machover, a charming and lively man, credits his parents for his inspiration to create interactive technology for music. “My Mom teaches creative music to kids and my father worked in computer graphics, so there was always a lot of avant-garde technology in the house. I went to Julliard and got into comuputers there, and then went to Paris and worked with Pierre Boulez. I knew that computers had enormous potential for the arts, and I wanted to make an interactive technology for music. I’m a cellist, so I started by building a hypercello for Yo Yo Ma. Strings are so sensitive, subtle, rich and complex — and I needed to be able to catch every nuance, every gesture, every way the color changes — so I knew I had to have a very clever technology.”

Yo Yo’s hypercello was the first of series of hyperinstruments which Machover designed by recording and observing tradition instruments  — keyboard, percussion, guitar — and virtuosos performers like Yo Yo Ma, the fabulous mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt, and the artist formerly known as Prince.  “But I wanted to make musical experiences for everyone,” says Machover. “Brain Opera is the culminating point of the idea of letting audiences become part of the performance.” In the final performance, the Lincoln Center audience and the internet players all influence the final sound. “On a T3 bandwidth provided by NYNEX, we’ll be able to broadcast for free onto our web sites, multicasting sounds, so the audience can click on and interact,” says Machover.

The overture is a musical arcade (designed by architect Ray Kinoshita), featuring “harmonic driving“, where the player drives through a piece of music as if it were an obstacle course in a video game. “It’s fast and loud, and it tests your reflexes — like a piece of music by Paganini, or heavy metal guitar, that kind of dexterity,” says Machover.

The hyperinstruments are a Singing Tree that responds to the sound of your voice (“hypersensitive, like an Italian sports car“) a Rhythm Tree that creates an interactive  percussive  beat, a Melody Easel that allows you to draw a melody with an electronic baton, a gesture wall that makes sounds from the movements of your body.

“The body sends out electricity and this machine takes that information and turns it into music,” says Machover.

Machover showed me the workshop — a huge black room at the Media Lab known as the Cube, which is filled with computers and prototypes for the hyperinstruments. Then he demonstrated the melody easel for me, waving a digital baton in the air as three different speakers responded with sound. As he waved his hands in the air, making music, I remembered the scene at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, where Francois Truffaut, playing the space scientist, communicates with alien spaceships through music, and everyone watching feels transported and filled with light.

The beautiful, beloved voice of Lorraine Hunt began to rise and spread out through the room, in sweet, sad layers of sound, accompanied by a visual chorus of flashing colored lights, magically transforming the empty, mechanical space into a few moments of unearthly beauty.

by Rebecca Nemser for

Larissa Ponomarenko

July 1st, 1996 by Rebecca Nemser

(Originally published in Boston Magazine, July 1996)

It’s a few weeks before Nutcracker and all through the Boston Ballet building on Clarendon Street, dancers are leaping and prancing and pirouetting to Tchaikovsky‘s lovely melodies, repeated over and over on pianos pushed to the far corners of the rooms.

In one of the sunlit, pink-floored, mirror-walled rehearsal studios, Larissa Ponomarenko leans against the barre, gazing out the big arched window at the picturesque old brick buildings next door, waiting to rehearse for her role as the Snow Queen. The music begins, and she walks across the floor, her white tutu skirt fluttering like a white bird’s wings; she lifts herself up on her toes as if smoothly shifting gears in an elegant foreign sports car; and starts to dance. Ballet is all artifice; nobody moves like that in ordinary life. But the 26-year-old rising star of the Boston Ballet makes even the Snow Queen’s dazzling, delicate swirls seem easy and natural. Between rehearsals, we sit and talk.

From a distance, Larissa Ponomarkenko seems fragile, ethereal. But up close, you can see the muscles in her slender limbs, her graceful neck, her flexible spine. The years of dedication and discipline are sculpted onto her slender frame.

She comes from Odessa, in the Ukraine. At the age of 10, she was sent to Saint Petersburg (then Leningrad) to study at the Vaganova Ballet. “It was hard for my Mom to let me go,” she sighs. After eight years of study, she returned to the Ukraine and joined the Donetsk Ballet Company, where she met another dancer, Viktor Plotnikov. “We danced together there . . . ,” she says with a sweet, wistful smile, her voice trailing off. They were married in 1992 and came to the Boston Ballet as principal dancers for the 1993-94 season.

Last spring, in The Sleeping Beauty, Larissa danced Aurora as a fairy-tale princess—exquisite as a tiny china doll, twirling around on an old-fashioned wind-up music box. This fall, in the Rum and Coca-Cola number in Paul Taylor‘s Company B, she was a thoroughly modern minx, driving the boys mad as she lifted up her skirt in a curving, mincing tease of a dance, tormenting them with her indifference as they rolled and writhed on the floor. She smiles.

“I really love to dance. I like to surprise people with what I can do. I work a lot in front of the mirror, to see if I have the same feeling on my face that I have in my heart.”

Her ability to modulate her dancing so completely is part of what makes her so perfect as Tatiana, in Onegin; her character is an innocent, romantic young girl who is transformed by love and suffering into an “inaccessible goddess.” The ballet was inspired by “Yevgeny  Onegin,” a poem written in 1831 by Alexander Pushkin. She says,

“I love Pushkin. I love poetry. I’ve read the poem a hundred times but I’m going to read it again.”

Pushkin’s poem, which was translated into English by Vladimir Nabokov in 1964, tells the story of Onegin, a bored, moody, melancholy, aristocrat with a “sharp, chilled mind,” and Tatiana, a poetic, pensive country girl who falls in love with him. He rejects her innocent love and she is heartbroken. Soon afterward, Onegin kills his best friend in a frivolous duel and goes into exile. Three years later, at a ball in Moscow in a palace on the banks of the Neva River, he encounters a dazzlingly elegant woman, the wife of a high-ranking general:

“the indifferent,
the inaccessible goddess of the luxurious, queenly Neva.”

It is Tatiana. Onegin now falls in love with her, but it is too late; and she tells him that she has given her hand to another. “To him I shall be faithful all my life.” Larissa sighs:

“When I read his poetry, I think of a nightingale. When you read it aloud, it’s so light, it sounds like a love song. But at the same time it’s so strong in describing things, and feelings, and relationships between people, and all the nuances and details of Russian life, and the spirit of the people, and the passion of the people.”

She says she feels a strong sense of identification with Tatiana. “She loves to dream, and I also love to dream,” says Larissa. “She loves to read French romances, and I love romances.” And they both loved the winter, too.

Nutcracker music wafting from one of the rehearsal studios reminds us that she’ll soon be dancing the Snow Queen, in a flurry of snowflakes, to the singing of angelic voices. When I ask her how she prepares for such a role, she closes her eyes, leans back, and conjures up images in a dreamy voice, as if imagining herself into the role right in front of me.

“There’s no story. All I have to imagine in a nice, beautiful forest, a forest of magic, and I am the queen of the magic in that forest, and I’m trying to show the magic and the grace and the beauty of nature in the winter.”

The Snow Queen opens her eyes and smiles.

Larissa Ponomarenko and Viktor Plotnikov live in the South End, so they can walk to the ballet studios. They often drive up to Maine to look at the sea.

I love water, I love the sea and the ocean,” she sighs,

“We go out to the ocean, just to hear waves coming to the shore. So beautiful. Like another style of music.”

by Rebecca Nemser for

Florence Ladd

June 13th, 1996 by Rebecca Nemser

Sarah’s Psalm

(Originally published in Boston Magazine, June 1996)

Florence Ladd, director of the Bunting Institute, Radcliffe College’s multidisciplinary center for advanced study for women, has written a surprisingly romantic first novel. Sarah’s Psalm tells the story of Sarah, a woman who leaves behind her family’s aspirations to a proper marriage and academic success to follow her dream — to Senegal.

“I had been thinking about women in my circumstances,” says Ladd, a dignified, elegant, soft-spoken woman of a certain age, with pale brown skin and sparkling brown eyes. “Educated, privileged African-American women—with a measure of privilege, that is—living productive, well-supported lives.

“At first I thought of doing a case study of some women I know. Then, on an academic mission, I met a woman in Dakar, an American woman in Africa, and my first sketch was a sketch of her. When I went back to Senegal, I wanted to interview her, but she didn’t wish to be interviewed. She told me that what I imagined about her life was more interesting than her life—that it was not her story, but my story. So she pushed me toward fiction, and she freed me to incorporate some of myself.

Like Sarah, Ladd grew up in a well-educated, upper-middle-class family in Washington, D.C., and pursued an academic career. Ladd’s first husband was the inspiration for Sarah’s first husband, a civil-rights activist.  In the early sixties they lives in Istanbul, where James Baldwin, who also lived there, was a frequent visitor to their home. “But the book is fiction, fabricated and imagined,” says Ladd, who pursued a distinguished academic career—she was dean of students at Wellesley College before becoming director of the Bunting. In the novel, Sarah leaves that life behind when she falls in love with a great African poet, Ibrahim Mangane, and moves to Africa to share his life.

Ladd is a true storyteller, and Sarah’s story has the making of a modern myth. Sarah’s independent spirit and strong sense of herself is repeatedly revealed in the book through color—the turquoise dresses she wears as a student, the coral color she paints the walls of her apartment in Boston, the brilliant tones of the boubous that she sees and wears in Africa. Water is another recurring reflection of Sarah’s inner life; her romance with Mangane begins by the sea.

“The sea is a metaphor for transformation, the possibility of crossing over, for becoming someone else, for change. Every time Sarah crosses the sea, it changes her. I believe in the unconscious and the way the unconscious enriches our interpretations of life.”

Sarah’s Psalm has a cinematic feel: Years flow by, backlit by real historical events, heightened by moments of intense emotion. “The story was there—the core of the story was something I understood from the beginning. I had only my one month in the summer to work on it; it took six or seven Julys.” says Ladd, gesturing with her large, strong hands; the big opal ring on her right hand looks like pale green fragment of the sea.

“I cried when I was writing the book—the power of some of those moments made me cry.”

by Rebecca Nemser for

Object as Insight: Japanese Buddhist Art and Ritual

June 1st, 1996 by Rebecca Nemser

(Originally published in Boston Magazine, June 1996)

Object as InsightCrystals, chants, meditation — all the elements of New Age are present in  “Object as Insight,” an exquisite little show of age-old Japanese Buddhist art at  Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. The center of the show is a simple raised cherrywood altar, with a statue of a golden Buddha in swirling robes, seated in full lotus position on a lotus flower.

The altar is adorned with a few beautiful objects that enhance the Buddha’s presence: a pair of candlesticks, a golden bowl for flowers, brocade banners, sacred texts. The room has room a hushed and heightened feeling of a shrine. “We are setting aside a space, demarcating the world of the Buddha,” says Anne Nishimura Morse, the MFA’s Associate Curator of Asiatic Art, who co-curated “Object as Insight” with her husband Samuel Crowell Morse, a Professor of Fine Arts at Amherst College.

Most museum shows, by necessity, pull works of art out of the context for which they were originally made. But the Morses have tried to recreate the physical context — and spiritual experience — of a Buddhist temple, gently guiding  viewers  towards the Ah of enlightenment and the Om of inner peace..  “Everything here is of the highest degree of elegance and aesthetic beauty,” says Anne Morse, who spent five years gathering different objects from thousands of different temples and museums.

“Each article is incredibly beautiful, but it’s only when all the articles come together, evoking the presence of the Buddha, that you can understand Buddhist art.”

The Morses chose seventy exquisite objects from the sixth century to the present: temple banners of silk, bronze, and gold, dangling with beads and mounted on the tongues of fierce dragons; bodhisattvas with serene, all-embracing smiles; golden flower baskets for carrying lotus petals to strew on the floor to purify a sacred space; ritual bronze chimes adorned with peacocks and floral arabesques; and gorgeous monks’ robes woven in rich brocades in patterns of butterflies, lotus flowers, and irises rising from swirling pools of water. “In India, the Buddhist monks wore robes made from tattered  pieces of fabric recycled and sewn together, but in Japan, where many of the monks were members of the aristocracy, and they wore robes of the most sumptuous brocades,” says Anne Morse. “Tattered in name only, they are an incredibly elaborate patterned patchwork, finely woven of silk and golden papers.”

Many of the objects are inscribed with sacred texts: mandalas, sutras and scrolls with lovely lyrical calligraphy splashed with gold; tiny books of the Lotus Sutra hidden inside a portable shrine; a poem written in gold ink on indigo paper, so the letters look  like little stars, twinkling in the dark night sky. Others have the aura of magical objects: devotional images, like a rock crystal reliquary filled with tiny sparkling stones, and a “flaming jewel” — a clear, transparent “wish-granting” crystal ball resting on a golden lotus, surrounded by tiny golden flames. Most amazing is the 74 foot long “Rosary for One Million Recitations,” with hundreds of beads all strung together. Some of the beads are very large, and if you look closely, you can see tiny sculptures of meditating Buddhas floating inside.

Six Buddhist monks came from Japan to celebrate the opening of  “Object and Insight”. They arrived chanting, wearing gorgeous gold brocade robes like the ones on the walls, and the deep, resonant sound of their chants still seems to reverberate through this illuminating show — serene, intense, and deep.

by Rebecca Nemser for

The Fire of Hephaistos

May 1st, 1996 by Rebecca Nemser

At the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Harvard University,

(Originally published in Boston Magazine, June 1996.)

The first thing you see in “The Fire of Hephaistos” is a vase painted with a picture of a headless man lying on the ground. A grisly scene of decapitation and ritual murder from ancient Greece? No.

“It’s a statue in the process of being made,” says Amy Brauer,  Curator of Ancient Art, pointing to a head lying on one side of the body. “There’s his head on the floor, and a foot, and a hammer, and other tools. This painting proves that large bronzes were made by casting separate pieces, and then putting them together. And that’s what this show is really about — the technology of ancient bronzes.” She shows me another part of the vase. “Look at that large figure — it’s a colossal standing warrior, and the smaller figures are workers who are rasping the surface, finishing him off. There’s the furnace, for melting the bronze. And on the other side is an image of Hephaistos, the divine smith,  making the armor of Achilles.”

The show was organized by Carol Mattusch, an expert in ancient bronzes, and Henry Lie of Harvard’s Conservation department, to illustrate the process by which the bronzes were made.

There are many wonderful things to see here — a gilded bronze horse’s head with a wide clear eye; several free-standing statues of athletes, gods, and heroes, their curly heads wreathed with leaves and twisted vines; splendid goddesses with silver eyes; and many body parts, some of which are startlingly realistic — hollow hands, parts of feet, a single wide-open eye made of stone, glass, and bronze, with long dark bronze eyelashes, and a finger with a silver fingernail. “There were thousands and thousands of ancient bronzes,” says Brauer, “but very few of them have survived, because the bronze was often melted down and used for something else.”

The curators insist that the show is primarily educational, and have made every effort to demystify the works of art. But myth, like murder, will out. These ancient bronzes, which have long since lost their golden gleam, are still numinous fragments of a vanished world. Many of them spent hundreds of years lost at the bottom of the sea, or buried deep in fields. One statue of young man was recently pulled out of a river in Syria, and found all in pieces, wrapped in fabric which left corrosing patterns all over his bronze skin. His pale sea-green body is scratched, patched, and scarred; his silver eyes are all disintegrated — they look like crumpled tinfoil — but he is still a lovely apparition, reminding me of some lines from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”:

“Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea change
Into something rich and strange.”

by Rebecca Nemser for

Beth Soll / Richard Cornell

April 29th, 1996 by Rebecca Nemser

(Originally published in Boston Magazine, circa 1996)

Dancer Beth Soll and Composer Richard Cornell are working together on a dance inspired by a book by West African poet Amadou Hampate Ba (1900-1991). “It’s a long tale, an initiatory allegory, a triumph of knowledge over fortune and power,” says Cornell. “A quest for God and wisdom,” says Soll. “We’re not imitating it, but inspired by it, using it as a point of departure,” says Cornell.

Beth Soll and Richard Cornell have worked together several times before, on Sanddance and Trove, inspired by the idea of aboriginal songlines, dance and music. Soll begins choreographing before the music is written.

“I never work with the music. The dance has its own life,” says Soll. “It begins with a solo, the hero hesitating–awestruck, enchanted by the beauty of the sunrise. Then there’s a sacrifice, involving an anteater, and lots of animal imagery, then the Howl–animals, snakelike, monsterlike animals trek through the muddy murky spirit, howling all the way.”

“And earthquake, wind, and fire,” says Cornell. “And flight of the bird.” “That’s based on some geese I saw on an utterly peaceful crystal lake,” says Soll. “That leads to a dance called Reading the Stars.”

Soll often mixes together formal dance techniques movement seen in paintings, photographs, books,  television, and things she sees in nature or just walking down a city street. Cornell’s music is a composition, literally put together (via computer) from recordings of all kinds of different sounds. “I take found sound objects and transform them in a computer or other signal-processing techniques,” says Cornell.

“Field recordings of geese and some other animal sounds — I think I used frogs — and the other primary source is water. I make a sound palette out of them, and transform them with digital means, transmute them into other kinds of sounds. I never use synthetic sounds; natural sounds are more complex. Oh — and the vocal utterances of the dancers, subjected to similar transformations.”

Both combine a classical discipline and formal rigor in the practice of their art with an openness to ordinary movement and sounds; their collaboarations convey the sense of strange and wonderful moments wrought from the ordinary stuff of daily life. “It’s alchemy. No, it’s not alchemy. It only seems like alchemy,” says Cornell.

by Rebecca Nemser for

Mark Morris/Orfeo

April 11th, 1996 by Rebecca Nemser

Orfeo ed Eurydice by Christoph Willibald Ritter von Gluck. Performed by the Handel & Haydn Society Orchestra, conducted by Christopher Hogwood. Choreography by Mark Morris. At the Wang Center, April 1996.

(Originally published in Boston Magazine April 1996)

For many Bostonians, Mark Morris‘s yearly appearances here have had the aura of the apparition of a god.

I’m more recognized in Boston than anywhere in the world,” says dancer/choreographer Morris, when I meet him a few days before the first rehearsals  of  his new production of Gluck’s opera Orfeo ed Euridice.

He has spent the last few months listening to the opera, studying the score, looking at images of Orpheus from antiquity, and reading Ovid’s Metamorphosis. With his long, curly hair, he looks wonderfully like portraits of bewigged Baroque musicians. His  eyes are light, luminous, sky-blue. Waving his beautiful hands in the air, he exclaims,

If you’re expecting a scary horror-show display of the most vulgar post-modern theatricals, you’re going to be very disappointed.

All I can tell you is that it’s going to be fabulous.

The opera is being produced in conjunction with the Handel & Hayden Society, and will travel to New York and then the Edinburgh Dance Festival after its Boston run. H&H conductor Christopher Hogwood says,

“It’s a  meeting of two like minds. An ancient music person collaborating with a slightly scandalous modern choreographer. The danger in traditional productions is that the opera can be static — statuesque — classic in a frozen sense. But Mark sees it as fluid. He understands that opera is a process. Mark’s an individual. His body is not polished marble. He’s alive. And that’s what the classics are. They’re not still there because they’re dead. They’re there because they’re alive.”

Mark Morris’s story is the stuff of myth. “The world’s greatest choreographer” — who has been featured in Vanity Fair, photographed by Annie Liebowitz, winner of a MacArthur Foundation five year “genius” grant, cameoed in Unzipped, on the cover of New York Magazine — was born in Seattle in 1956. His father was a high-school teacher; his mother a housewife whose own father had had a theatrical streak, which she recognized and encouraged in Mark.

“Maxine Morris, a woman of completely conventional appearance and manners, was absolutely unswerving in her support of this unconventional child,”  writes Joan Acocella in her book Mark Morris. {“Such a good book,” sighs Morris. “Most dancer bios are just cocaine and sex with Baryshnikov.“) By the age of nine, he knew he wanted to be a dancer. His mother found the perfect teacher for him: Verla Flowers, who had studied ballet, jazz, ballroom, and flamenco; she taught him everything she knew. At thirteen, he joined the Koleda Dance Ensemble, a sixties communal dance group which studied and performed Balkan dances.

In 1976, Morris moved to New York, danced with several choreographers, and auditioned for Twyla Tharp and Paul Taylor, who turned him down. In 1980, with a group of friends, he formed the Mark Morris Dance Group. Acocella writes,

“Morris by this time was an extraordinary dancer. He was physically impressive — handsome and large (5′ 11″) — and possessed of a brilliant technique. He could balance, he could jump, he could turn forever and end in the position he wanted…You couldn’t take your eyes off him, whether you wanted to or not.”

Amazingly inventive, Morris choreographed dances to music by Vivaldi, Schoenberg, Yoko Ono, texts by Roland Barthes, as well as dance numbers for operas directeby Peter Sellars. In 1987, Sellars invited Gerard Mortier, then director of the Theatre Royale de la Monnaie, the national opera house of Belgium, to see Mark Morris dance. For Mortier, it was “un coup de foudre,” and he invited Morris to become dance director of La Monnaie. For the first time, Morris was able to work in a real theatre, with sets, costumes, a chorus of well-paid dancers, and most importantly, live music, which he adores. ”

Mikhail Baryshnikov came to Brussels to dance with Morris, and they later toured together in the White Oaks Dance Project. “His dances are very soulful, extremely personal, and outrageously honest — very much like him,”  says Baryshnikov.

Morris’s choreography mixes moves from many different forms of dance: ballet, modern dance classics like Balanchine and Graham, folk dancing, ancient dances, and ordinary movement. “There’s a fine line between dancing and not dancing and I have no idea what that is,” Morris told the South Bank Show. Many of Morris’s original dancers are still with the group. More athletic than balletic, their movement is full of gravity as well as grace. They are often older, heavier  — more real — than most dancers (the Belgian press complained that some of the women had cellulite). But they convey a sense of genuine physical and personal presence.  “I want my dancers to look like people when they dance.” says Morris.

In Brussels, Morris matured as a choreographer; his work became more classical and more profound. In his 1988 L’Allegro, Il Penseroso ed Il Moderato, with music by Handel, he seemed to find the “hidden soul of harmony” — lines from the music’s text, a poem by John Milton, which became an emblem for his way of dance. The next year, in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, Mark danced two female roles — Dido, Queen of Carthage, and the evil Sorceress who plots her doom. Shocking to conservatives, thrilling to the gender theory crowd, it was for Morris a natural decision. “It was the best role,” he shrugs. As Dido, he entered the stage with a shudder of horror — a large man, with big hairy arms, in a sleeveless black dress — embodying all the pain of love, all the anguished, hopeless, unrequited longing, all the cruelty of loss and leaving. Morris’s Dido was a truly tragic vision — dark and wounded, full of passion and pain.

Orfeo is even darker and more tragic than Dido. It is a secular requiem — a tragedy of yearning — a cry of mourning for a lost love.

I talked about the opera with Thomas Forrest Kelly, professor of music at Harvard, who said, “It begins with a funereal chorus in the antique style, with cornetto and trombones. And then Orpheus comes in, lamenting his lost love, and sings one single word. Eurydice. He sings it three times. He doesn’t say much, but he says everything he needs to say, and the third time he sings it, it sends chills up your spine.“”

In his letters, Gluck warned against singing those lines too beautifully,” says Christopher Hogwood. “He said that the singer should scream it, not sing it, that it should sound like a cry of pain.

The composer,  Christoph Willibald Ritter von Gluck (1714 – 1787) was born in 1714 in Bohemia; his father was a huntsman, who discouraged the boy’s love of music, so, as a teenager, he ran away from home, supporting himself by singing, all the way to Prague, where he studied music, played the organ in church, and listened to opera for the first time. Ten years in Italy refined his style. He wrote quite a few long-forgotten operas, married a wealthy and adoring wife, became a court composer in Vienna and a Chevalier. In 1762, when he was almost fifty years old, he wrote the opera that was to put him on the map: Orfeo.

The libretto was by the poet Calzabigi, a friend of Casanova, whose austere neo-classical poetry was perfectly suited to Gluck’s music. The role of Orfeo was written for the famous castrato singer Gaetano Guadagni, for whom Handel wrote the “For he is like a refiner’s fire” aria in Messiah. Nowadays, Orfeo is usually taken by a woman — Shirley Verrett, Marilyn Horne, and Janet Baker have all sung the role — but here it will be sung by the countertenor Michael Chance. “He’s fabulous,” says Morris.

In Orfeo, Gluck refined away the frills and trills of conventional Italian opera, making the music pure poetry. “It’s a miracle of orchestration and balance and color,” says Morris. “It’s desparate and modern. Very, very modern. There’s not a wasted breath.”

In the myth, Orpheus finds his Eurydice, but just as they are on the threshold of return, he looks back, and she disappears forever. Orpheus comes back to earth  alone and in despair. Wild women dancing in a forest tear him to pieces and throw his head into the river; it drifts out to sea, still singin, and the lovers are reunited only in death. But Gluck’s opera has a happy ending — the gods relent, Euryidice lives, and they all sing a hymn of praise. “That cheap ending!” exclaims Mark, waving his hands. “The king demanded a happy ending because it was his birthday. It’s the wrong ending, but ultimately it works, because it’s a celebration of Love.  It’s fabulous.

Gluck’s Orfeo was a huge success. In Paris, it was the favorite opera of Marie-Antoinette and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who said that hearing Orfeo made him feel that life was worth living. The opera unlocked something in Gluck; it was the beginning of a late, great flowering of his style. Morris, too, comes to Orfeo in the middle of his life. As a dancer, he’s an older artist, who has lived and suffered, and polished the intensity of his youthful energy to a clear, gemlike flame.

Orpheus is the perfect subject for Mark Morris — a mythical musician of extraordinary beauty and talent who came to embody the spirit of art. For the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, whose Sonnets to Orpheus, in a fabulous new, Zen-inspired translation by Stephen Mitchell is undergoing a major revival, Orpheus was the moment of inspiration — the divine spark:

“We do not need to look
for other names. It is Orpheus once for all
whenever there is song. He comes and goes.
Isn’t it enough if sometimes he can dwell
with us a few days longer than a rose?”

by Rebecca Nemser for

Herman Melville

April 1st, 1996 by Rebecca Nemser

(Originally published in Boston Magazine, April 1996)

Until now, Herman Melville has been read as the ultimate macho writer, with his harpoons and his great white whale. But that view is being challenged by three Boston-area Melville scholars who have published books on the great nineteenth-century American novelist in recent months: Laurie Roberston-Lorant, whose Melville: A Biography re-examines his life in light of 500 newly discovered family letters; Wyn Kelley, whose Melville’s City re-defines the great glorifier of seafaring life as an urban writer; and Sheila Post-Lauria, whose Correspondent Colorings places his Moby-Dick and his other books the context of the best-sellers of his era. Her title comes from a poem by Melville:

Whereas great geniuses are parts of the times,
they themselves are the times,
and possess a correspondent coloring.

The three authors are good friends — a rarity in the cut-throat publish-or-perish world of academic publishing. We all got together over lunch and talked about the road to Melville.

Wyn Kelley: The men in my family were all into Melville. My father was an English professor, and there was an uncle who painted the sea. They saw him as tragic and isolated — the whole 50’s New Criticism view. For years I thought there was something wrong with me for liking Melville. Then I met Laurie and Sheila.

Sheila Post-Lauria: I saw Ishmael as this guy who celebrates multicultural bonds with people from all over the world: native Americans and Africans. Moby Dick is a book against patriarchy and against patriarchal modes of action. It’s full of the sky and the water, images of male and female blending together.

Laurie Roberston-Lorant: Women are ready to see in Melville a man who was sensitive to masculine roles in the nineteenth century. Women respond to the wounded side of Melville — his experience in the Navy, the floggings, the abuse of men by men. Women respond to the feminine and almost maternal undercurrent in his writing about the sea, in the wonderful language of passion and inclusiveness.

Wyn Kelley: Just call us Women Who Run With The Whales.

by Rebecca Nemser for

Winslow Homer

March 2nd, 1996 by Rebecca Nemser

Stormy Weather
A Retrospective of Winslow Homer at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1996

(Originally published in Boston Magazine. March 1996)

Many American artists painted seascapes; Winslow Homer (1836–1910) painted the sea. Much of his life was spent near the water, fishing and painting on Prout’s Neck, — a rocky promontory on the Maine coast, about ten miles South of Portland — reeling in the deep, unfathomable mystery of the sea. The coast of Maine was for Homer what the gardens at Giverny were for his French contemporary Claude Monet: an endless source of inspiration.

“Like Thoreau, Winslow Homer is a recluse,” wrote a Boston art critic in 1896, “for the reason that art of the sort he lives for is incompatible with the amenities of society. He lives in a lonesome spot on the coast of Maine…No artificial refinements, no etiquette of the drawing-room, no afternoon tea chatter, no club gossip, for this hermit of the brush.”

He liked stormy weather, not placid seas. A Prout’s Neck neighbor recalled,

“When I knew him he was comparatively indifferent to the ordinary and peaceful aspects of the ocean…But when the lowering clouds gathered above the horizon, and tumultuous waves ran along the rock-bound coast and up the shelving, precipitous rocks, his interest became intense.”

Another friend remembered, “It is a very familiar sight to see Winslow out on the rocks painting, especially after a big storm.” As Emily Dickinson wrote — another solitary New England artist —

“Wild Nights — Wild Nights!

Ah, the Sea!
Might I but moor — Tonight –In Thee!”

Homer’s paintings of the Maine coast made him famous. (Many consider him the greatest American painter of the nineteenth century; I put him in the Top Five, along with Thomas Eakins, John Singer Sargent, Mary Cassatt, and Whistler.) But he began and ended as a Bostonian. He was born here in 1836, and grew up in Cambridge and Belmont. His paintings were exhibited in Boston and bought by Bostonians; even after he moved up to Maine, he came down to Boston to buy clothes and paint and wine; and when he died in 1910, he was buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery.

He was largely self-educated; from the very beginning he was “determined to be an artist.” His mother painted in watercolors and both parents encouraged his “leaning towards art.” In 1855, he was apprenticed to a lithography studio for two years; it felt like “slavery,” but it taught him how to make a picture, and by 1857, he was working as a freelance illustrator for a variety of publications, including Harper’s Weekly. When the Civil War broke out, Harper’s sent him to the front as a “special artist to go with the skirmishes in the next battle.” For several years, he covered the war, much as a photojournalist might do today, in a series of wood engravings of battle scenes and images of soldiers and prisoners, pensive and yearning for home. After the war, he took a studio in New York City and transformed his war sketches into a series of oil paintings, which established his reputation as a major American artist.

He spent a few years finding himself, painting sunny meadows, boys in a field, girls in a garden, little red schoolhouses, and strong, active women riding their horses to the top of Mount Washington, teaching school, walking on the rocks, gazing out to sea. During those years, he developed what one contemporary critic called “the power of looking at objects as if they had never been painted before.” In 1881, perhaps after some disappointment in love, he took a trip to England, and painted in Cullercoats, a small fishing village on the North Sea. Homer was notoriously reticent about his life and art (“If a man wants to be an artist, he must never look at pictures,” he said), but while in London, he must have seen the Elgin Marbles — the Greek sculptures that were once on the Parthenon Frieze, showing great, massive Goddesses carved in marble. They seem to echo in Homer’s paintings of the fisherwomen of Cullercoats, draped in scarves, carrying baskets of fish or their babies slung on their backs, tromping in wooden clogs through the wet sand.

At Cullercoats, Homer went through some kind of sea-change; when he returned to America, both his life and his art were transformed. “Homer is two different painters,” says Theodore E. Stebbins, John Moors Cabot Curator of American Paintings at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. In the first half of his career, “he’s a great genre painter, recording the lost dreams of the American rural countryside,” with a studio on 10th Street in New York and a sociable life. After Cullercoats,

“He becomes a better painter, both technically and morally — he’s seeking a more authentic experience and his metaphor becomes the sea. He’s a realist, but a realistic romantic, full of symbolism and passion, filtered through the facade of Yankee reticence. His last paintings are magical and passionate, really profound meditations on the meaning of life and death and the sea.”

In 1883, the Homer family bought most of Prout’s Neck, and built houses there, drawn by the untamed beauty of the landscape, the clear, clean air, and the wild, elemental nature of the sea. Winslow built himself a studio, and settled there for life.. “This secluded country home on the coast of Maine is a locality excellently adapted to the practice of his art,” observed a reporter for the Boston Advertiser.

Snugly settled in at Prout’s Neck, Homer painted his way to greatness. His pictures often show somebody gazing out to sea, concentrating on something no one else can see. Maybe it’s the light on the water, or the wind in the sails, or a boat coming home to shore, or just the flicker of a dream; and they are lost in a moment of stillness and clarity and exhilarating aloneness. But in the late paintings of the Maine coast, other people all but disappear, and the image is almost abstract — just water crashing up against the rocky shore in thick swirls of paint — just the old man and the sea.

Homer spent the worst of the Maine winters in Florida, the Bahamas, or Bermuda, fishing and painting watercolors, which he called “goods“. (“As I shall go up for the spring fishing I will take my sketch block so & will give you a full line of goods for the next season,” he wrote to his dealer Knoedler). His watercolors are swift, spontaneous flashes of inspiration–like the split-second flash of silvery light on the back of a trout leaping up in the river. They sold very well to Boston collectors and provided him a steady source of income. (Some writers attribute their popularity to Yankee thrift; his oil paintings were much more expensive — at least $2500, a considerable sum in those days–and often found a market in New York and Philadelphia).

“He liked to fish, and fishing means spending a lot of time on the water. Like many pent-up New England men, he found his release in the sight of the ocean,” says Sue Reed, an expert on Homer watercolors at the MFA. “Certainly he’s interested in the abstract. It’s naturalism, but with a very controlled formal composition. He manipulates the areas of light and shapes and shade to make it come out right.” Or as a contemporary critic put it, “There is something ‘more than meets the eye,’ but the eye is none the less satisfied.”

Cranky, plain-spoken, reclusive, the “hermit of the brush” did not reveal himself much through letters or conversation or self-portraits. “Strong, clear-eyed, and simple of speech,” wrote a friend. At Prout’s Neck, he lived alone, with a flower garden, provisions sent from the best Boston markets, and a view of the sea. He seems to have been happy there. In a rare letter, he wrote,

“The life that I have chosen give me full hours of enjoyment for the balance of my life. The Sun will not rise, or set, without my notice, and thanks.”

by Rebecca Nemser for

Stephen McCauley

February 2nd, 1996 by Rebecca Nemser

The Man of the House (Simon & Schuster, 1996)

(Originally published in Boston Magazine, March 1996)

Stephen McCauley has written another delightful comedy of manners. This one is set in Cambridge, and stars a charming, rueful, funny, sad, gay man called Clyde, who, at thirty-five, is drifting through life, spending his days visiting friends, obsessing about his unresolved relationship with his father, reading celebrity bios, and hoping that his ex-lover, Gordon, will come back to him so he can finally forget about him and move on. He teaches literature at The Learning Place, a center for adult education in Cambridge, where the students are far more interested in discussing their own lives than the books they are supposed to be reading. Even the names of the novels Clyde is trying to teach — Wuthering Heights, Vanity Fair, Great Expectations — reflect the restless, unresolved quality of his life.

His mother has died, and his father has retreated to furious silence in the basement of the New Hampshire condo home of Clyde’s divorced sister, who is compiling a cookbook based on their mother’s favorite recipes — Tuna Cookies, No-Bake Meatloaf and Wondercake. The novel glides along on the flow of Clyde’s thought, punctuated by devastatingly funny portraits of local people and places, and occasional moments of real, rending moments of sadness and truth.

“I suppose I read so many biographies because I was trying to understand how people stumbled through their days and their failures and spun their miseries and despair into great art or pathbreaking science or profound enlightenment.”

His life — “becalmed in the waters of waiting” —  begins to change when an old friend, Louise, arrives to spend a year on a grant from a unnamed women’s college that sounds very much like Radcliffe. Louise is a writer with a twelve year old son of mysterious paternity, and an adorable dog named Otis. To say any more would be unkind, because the plot unravels in such graceful curves, like the perfect peel of a bright yellow lemon curling down the table of a Dutch still life painting, with the light just right. Nor will I speculate on the identities of the Cambridge writers and other personalities so brilliantly and bitingly portrayed; for Bostonians, some of the fun of the book will be trying to figure out who they really are. But in the hope of being included in his next novel, I invited Stephen McCauley to a delicious lunch at my house in Cambridge, to talk about The Man of the House.

Rebecca Nemser: The narrator of the book is so insecure — so charming, but so insecure. But you — you’ve written three books. Both The Object of My Affections (1987) and The Easy Way Out (1992) were bestsellers, and The Man of the House seems destined for success; you’ve already gotten great reviews. You’re handsome and healthy, you have lots of friends, a wonderful boyfriend, and even an adorable little lapdog like the one in the book. So is shy, helpless, low self-esteem Clyde a totally made-up person, or can that possibly be the way you really feel?

Stephen McCauley: That’s me. It’s exaggerated, but it’s me. Except that, however deep my insecurities are, I do write.

R: How do you begin?

SM: I try to figure out what the ending is. I start with some sense of where I want to end up, psychologically and emotionally, and try to get there. There’s no real story, and no real plot, so knowing when to end it poses difficulties for me. In the end, Clyde has decided to move on and accept whatever’s been holding him back — his relationship with his father.

R: You always call him “…Dad.”  Dot dot dot Dad.

SM: The book came out of powerful feelings about an unresolved relationship with my own father, but it’s not autobiographical.

R: All the characters seem to be waiting for something to happen.

SM: Except Louise.  She’s living her life, and she has been all along. She has that core of passion for her writing. Everything else circles around it. She has something at the center of her life, and it’s guiding her.

R: Is writing the center for you?

SM: I something worry that my life is too centered around writing. Ultimately everything I do is about writing — either agonizing about writing or about not writing. I agonize over my books. It sounds conversational and easy, but it really takes a lot of struggle.

R: I loved the ending, on a beach in Provincetown — it was like a Nan Goldin photograph.

SM: Open space and light, after all those cramped attic rooms.

R: And Louise makes up a happy ending. She turns it into a story.

SM: Redemption through some of kind of transformation of one’s own experience! That’s  why we all write — to make it all right in the end. (Pause, then, with a charming, sad, tender, rueful smile) If we only could…

Some of my favorite passages from Stephen McCauley’s new novel, The Man of the House:

On Cambridge: “The university owned mind-boggling amounts of real estate and was slowly but surely turning the city into Harvard World, a beautifully tended theme park designed around an academic motif…It was only a matter of time before they installed a monorail and a water slide.”

On New Hampshire: “This was a world of vast parking lots connected to one another by roads that, due to congestion, often looked like vast parking lots. Every motel, restaurant, pet shop, and cinema was part of a national chain, giving the whole area a surreal atmosphere of being everywhere in general and nowhere in particular. Once in a great while, you’d come upon a shabby luncheonette or a dimly lit variety store, establishments that might as well have been archaelogoical finds from some ancient lost culture.”

On the Hyatt Regency Hotel: “Architecturally, the lobby of the Hyatt was an amalgam of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and Las Vegas: a brick atrium lush with exotic plants and flowering trees and coruscating with fountains, glass elevators, lasers, and, for good measure, a rotating cocktail lounge pasted on the top floor. I loved stepping iinto the bustle of the place with its extravagently costumed employees and grotesquely overdone floral arrangements and that peculairly flattering lighting that made everyone from chambermaids to the alchohol-flushed guests look like extras in a credit card commerical.”

On Clyde’s mother: “She was Italian, second-generation but still with a flair for grand gestures and big, emotional outbursts that I saw as a confused blend of opera, papal edicts, and devotion to those gorgeous Italian saints, bloodied and beatific. More or less everything made her weep: commericials, greeting cards, thunderstorms, all music — from the most sacred to the most insipidly profane…A few minutes after every phone conversation I’d ever had with her, she’d called back to add some irrelevant bit of news, as if she just couldn’t stand the finality of hanging up. It plagued me to think how miserable she must be with the finality of death.”

by Rebecca Nemser for

Richard Linklater

February 1st, 1996 by Rebecca Nemser

(Originally published in Boston Magazine,  1996)

I talked about movies, music, and becoming an artist with Richard Linklater, the writer-director of Slacker (1991, Detour Filmproduction), Dazed and Confused (1993, Alphaville Films), and Before Sunrise (1995, Castle Rock Entertainment), who was in town recently to talk about his new movie, SubUrbia (Castle Rock Entertainment). Based on a play by Eric Bogosian, SubUrbia shows a long night in the life of a group of twenty year olds in suburban Burnfield.

Rebecca Nemser: Your last movie, Before Sunrise, was light and romantic, so I was surprised at how dark and alienated SubUrbia is. The characters aren’t just dazed and confused anymore. They’re wounded and damaged.

Richard Linklater: Yeah, the characters are more poignantly tragic, and it’s confrontational too. I was glad to find my way into that. I felt a real need to  do something to grow as a filmmaker.

R: I just saw Rent, where all the characters want to be artists. Everyone in your movie wants to be an artist too; there’s a musician, an aspiring video artist, a performance artist a la Laurie Anderson. Is this a trend?

RL: It’s unfulfilled longing. It’s being young. Meet me at 20. I don’t know what I want to do. I kind of want to write. You want to be a artist, to express what’s going on in your life. It’s a way to lose yourself in your discontent. Otherwise you’d just go out and shoot and vandalize. Art is more internal. And there is a Rent connection. One of the characters from Dazed and Confused was the New York Mark.

R: How did you get started making films?

RL: I was an English major, and I bought a camera and started shooting,  and realized that’s what I’m going to do: film. I’d always been writing, and suddenly I saw everything cinematically. I dedicated my life to cinema. I started watching three films a day, editing, writing, filming with my super 8 camera. Six years later, Slacker.

R: Eric Bogosian came from Woburn and there are some Boston references in the movie — the Orpheum Theater, for example. But Burnfield could be anywhere — it’s a real  nowhere landscape.

RL: That’s what America is — a big strip mall. Most places look like that now.

R: I loved the song at the beginning of the movie, Town Without Pity.

RL: Going into a movie, there are several scenes that stand out emotionally — a shot or a musical combination. Otherwise I figure it out as I go along. That song was in my mind from the beginning.  I’m a Gene Pitney fan. I’ve always liked that song.

R: The endings of your films are always ambiguous.

RL: It’s hard to get away with ambiguous endings in films today, but that’s life. A really major element of life is mixed feelings.

by Rebecca Nemser for

Julian Schnabel

January 10th, 1996 by Rebecca Nemser

(Originally published in Boston Magazine,  1996)

It’s harder to paint than to direct a movie,” says painter/director Julian Schnabel, whose first film, Basquiat, mythologizes the life of fellow artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Schnabel, who was played by Gary Oldman in the movie, is now preparing for an exhibition of his own paintings, due to open in Bologna this month. The catalogue for that show is being written by Rene Ricard, the poetic art critic who “discovered” Basquiat and who is also a  character in the movie (“Everybody wants to get on the  Van Gogh boat…”). We had a brief, intense conversation about painting and making movies, and the overlapping, intertwining boundaries  between life and art.

Rebecca Nemser: Your  paintings are characterized by grand gestures, grand scale, and also found objects, like the broken plates you’re famous for affixing to  enormous canvasses.  How did you translate those qualities into film?

Julian Schnabel: After shooting for 32 days, and shifting with the ebb and flow of making a movie, I created it like a found object. I made the situation so I could specifically give myself the time to fiddle with it until I found it was perfect.

R: And working with actors?

JS: It’s a wonderful luxury to work with actors. They hit these really idiosyncratic notes. They are like some unnameable color.

R: My favorite scene in the movie is when Basquiat is painting, alone, in the basement.

JS: That’s my favorite, too. Success is when you’re making the work of art. The moment of perfect sonorous bliss. It’s his space. Then the friends come down, and the dealer, and the collectors, and the girlfriend, and after a while there’s no more room down there, and he has to leave. No one is to blame, but they’re blindly pushing him into the next world.

R: Is that a metaphor for why Basquait died — the whole fame thing? Is that what drove him to his early death, from a heroin overdose, at twenty-seven?

JS: He didn’t have a place to get out of the rain. He felt like people were using him. He got  paranoid and suspsicious,  and a lot of that’s the drugs. Somebody doesn’t always get to grow up. Most of the artists I know — they stay children. They’re big babies. They play in the sandbox. He didn’t grow up. He died. He was very much a child.

R: How did you survive?

JS: I was lucky. I was married. I had two kids. I had a place to retreat, there was some kind of cushion. That was something Jean-Michel didn’t have. It’s very hard to take somebody along on that trip.

R: How autobiographical is Basquiat?

JS: It’s like 400 Blows. It’s about Truffaut, but it isn’t Truffaut’s biography. It’s about watching a kid in peril, and what formed him.

R: The music —

JS: Sound has a way of coloring everything. And some of those songs — he was with me at an opening of mine in Switzerland, and I took off his earphones, and he was listening to Kind of Blue, Flamingo Sketches. He had such a sophisticated and eclectic taste.

The scene when he’s painting — the Charlie Parker and Max Roach riff is from his record collection. It’s very heady at that moment. And the time when he’s stoned, the tire scene, that music was something  I heard  in a taxi cab, and a Persian taxi driver was playing that tape. And the hibiscus plant was in front of a flower shop. It’s very much like painting, in a sense. When you’re painting, you do something and respond to it. I behave the same way no matter what I do.

by Rebecca Nemser for


January 2nd, 1996 by Rebecca Nemser

Miramax Films

(Originally published in Boston Magazine, circa 1996.)

Basquiat, a moving movie elegy for the beautiful, tormented, brilliant painter Jean-Michel Basquiat — who died from drug-related causes in 1988 at the age of twenty-seven after scaling the heights of the art world — was written and directed by Basquiat’s friend and fellow-artist Julian Schnabel, the pajama-clad painter whose immense broken-plate specials epitomized the over-the-top art scene of the eighties. That scene is caught, skewered, and eulogized in the movie by a Fellini-like cast of art world monsters: the curators, critics, collectors (one played by Dennis Hopper), dealers, groupies (one played by Courtney Love), and hangers-on in Basquiat’s orbit. David Bowie is eerily brilliant as Andy Warhol, with his unearthly pallor and shock of white hair (the Andy Warhol Museum let Bowie borrow Andy’s actual wigs and clothes).

Basquait begins with a woman dressed in blue, holding the hand of her little son, alone in a stark blue room, gazing with rapture at Picasso‘s Guernica at the Museum of Modern Art, then flashes forward to 1981, when Basquiat, now a graffiti artist, is spray painting scraps of poetry all over New York. Soon he is “discovered” first by art critic Rene Ricard, then by Andy Warhol, then by Mary Boone, and then by everybody else. Jeffrey Wright is absolutely amazing as Basquiat. He captures the yearning and anguish of the artist, and also the flashes of true bliss, as in a scene where Basquiat, graceful and confident, paints a huge picture on a canvas on the floor, getting high on the sheer physical pleasure of making art.

His later descent into drugs, loneliness, confusion and despair is truly tragic — you feel him pursued by the Furies of greed, racism, and disease, tracking him inexorably down.

The movie is propelled by a fantastic soundtrack (on Island), mostly from Basquiat’s own record collection: the great Rolling Stones song “Waiting on a Friend”; an out-of-tune, depressive “The Nearness of You” sung solo by Keith Richards; and songs by Iggy Pop, Leonard Cohen, Psychedelic Furs, and Tom Waits.

by Rebecca Nemser for


January 1st, 1996 by Rebecca Nemser

Miramax Films

(Originally published in Boston Magazine,  1996)

No wonder Hollywood has fallen in love with Jane Austen! Her scripts feature snappy dialogue; her plots follow the classic Hollywood formula of girl meets boy; girl loses boy; girl gets boy; her story lines move deliciously from chaos and confusion to harmony and delight, like the great madcap romantic comedies of the thirties — Bringing Up Baby, The Palm Beach Story, It Happened One Night. Furthermore, as costume dramas, they provide a fascinating glimpse at an imagined past. In each made-from-Austen movie, the look of the early nineteenth century achieves new heights of verisimilitude. But their real charm lies not in their realism — entertaining as that is — but their dream-like perfection. No real world was ever as perfect as Jane Austen’s prose.

In Emma, the latest and most delightful Austen offering (directed by Douglas McGrath, who co-wrote the screenplay for “Bullets Over Broadway” with Woody Allen), the sets are Neo-classical: Wedgwood colors and Graeco urns; delicate, attenuated flowerpots; Empire dresses and pearl-drop earrings. The movie begins with close-ups of little papier-mache globes, hand-painted with pictures of Highbury, the small town where Emma lives and amuses herself by making up stories about the people around her. (In the book, Austen writes of “That very dear part of Emma, her fancy…”) Eventually, Emma’s fancy gets her in trouble; she gets carried away, then learns her lesson, grows up, and resolves to live real life and stop making up stories.

Emma is played to perfection by Gwyneth Paltrow, who has the grace of a young Grace Kelly (especially as Kelly appeared in High Society, that lovely musical remake of Philadelphia Story, as an adorable princess who needs only to suffer  — just a little — in order to become even more adorable.) And the hero, Mr. Knightly, is played by Jeremy Northam, who played the devastatingly handsome Englishman who seduced and then tried to kill Sandra Bullock in The Net.

Jane Austen’s leading men are always reserved and often rather dull; the dashing ones usually out to be rakes or cads who break a poor romantic girl’s heart. Except for Darcy, in Pride and Prejudice, who’s handsome, mysterious, and lives in a castle, (and was memorably played by Lawrence Olivier), Austen’s heroes are rather dry: reserved, unobjectionable country squires or country churchmen. And none of them is drier, more unremarkable, more reserved than Mr. Knightly. When I first read Emma, in high school in Pasadena, California, I was shocked and revolted when Emma married Mr. Knightly at the end of the book. He is calm, rational, and old — practically ancient at thirty-eight! All, to my schoolgirl imagination, insuperable obstactles to romance. But Northam brings warmth and intensity to the role. Without changing a word of Austen’s delightful script, he enhances Knightly, in every scene, with a look, a gaze, a smile.

“We shot the scenes in medium and wide, so it was the perfect opportunity to throw little glances,” says Northam when we meet to talk about Emma. Lounging in blue jeans and a T-shirt in the lounge of the Four Seasons Hotel, he is even more devastatingly handsome in person than he is on film, with dark, deep eyes. “At one point Knightly says, ‘The truest friend does not doubt, but hopes,’ and he kisses her hand. In the book, he doesn’t kiss her hand. But the film is not the book. The character needs warmth, the story needs sustaining.”

Northam grew up in an intellectual family; his father was a Fellow of Clare College in Cambridge. “I went to that Choir school that you hear on the radio at Christmas. Later we moved to Bristol, and some colleagues of my Dad’s — Oliver Neville and Pat Heywood — were theatre people, and they were so passionate about literature and the theater and acting in general. They encouraged and quizzed me. Still, it was quite a long throw to starting at 24.”

He did a stint at the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he once took over as Hamlet when Daniel Day-Lewis stepped out of the role. Emma is his second film, and he clearly spent a lot of time thinking about the character; he quoted many passages from the book by heart. “The stories are nonsensical — privileged people worrying about inconsequential things — but behind it all, there’s a moral urge,” he says, with a serious smile. “I don’t want to sound academic and old-fashioned, but it’s a fantastic moral perception of the universe, a sense of duty and responsibility. Austen’s books are deeply romantic and they hold a deal of fantasy about adult life and hope about the future. How does one tame this untamable spirit? The aloof man, the dangerous man. What would the future be like with him? At the same time, it’s recognizable and comforting. Austen’s wit is based on profound knowledge of human nature; the acidity about the foibles and failings of human nature makes the sweetness of the romance all the more appealing.”

Not much happens in Emma. All the action takes place in Highbury; there are no great melodramas, not much excitement, no real surprises. But everything Emma needs is to be found there; like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, she learns to find happiness in her own backyard. Like all Austen’s stories, Emma depicts a world where strong emotions are held in check; where English hearts — like English horses and English gardens — are wild, luxuriant parts of nature that need to be tempered and tamed. And the reward of that taming is a happy ending — a wedding, and the feeling that all’s right with the world. At Emma’s wedding, one of the neighbors complains that there is “Very little white satin, very few lace veils…

This is, of course, a perfect description of the book — and the movie. But to the discerning viewer, Emma has just the right mixture of romance and realism, sentiment and sense — just enough satin, and just enough lace.

Judy Kensley McKie

December 2nd, 1995 by Rebecca Nemser

Fabulous Bestiary

(Originally published in Boston Magazine, December 1995)

For Judy Kensley McKie, making furniture has always been a way of staying connected to the flow of life.  Her first furniture was very plain —  hand made tables to fill a bare apartment when she and her husband, Todd were both students at Rhode Island School of Design in the mid-sixties.  Then one day she impulsively carved a pair of elegant animals into the armrests of a butcherblock couch.

Since then, she has been inspired to carve leopards, lizards, turtles, panthers, horses, and snakes into tables, couches, chests, and chairs.  Her pieces are useful and functional objects as well as graceful vehicles of beauty and meaning.

“The animals have always helped to animate the work and make it come alive,”

she tells me when I visit her in her studio in the Powderhouse Woodworkers building, in Medford.

McKie’s animals are mythical creatures- dream images crystallized into animal forms. They are not like any actual living creatures, but they have seriousness and silence- the mystery- of real animals.

“I believe in Judy McKie.  She’s one of the greats in the new American furniture,”

says Jonathan L. Fairbanks, curator of American Decorative Arts and Sculpture at the Museum of Fine Arts, who wrote the catalog essay for McKie’s show at Gallery Naga, on Newbury Street.  He compares McKie’s furniture to William Blake’s poem “The Tiger”:

Tyger!  Tyger! Burning bright
In the forest of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

“Blake was a romantic mystic poet but he kept to essential truths like Judy does,” says Fairbanks.  “You can stand and admire and gasp and wonder, but there isn’t an explanation.”

McKie’s career as a furniture maker coincided with a movement of artists who felt disillusioned with abstraction, conceptualism, and cynicism of the contemporary art world, and began a revival of traditional crafts as a way to make art with a sense of connection to real people’s real lives.

In 1979, Fairbanks purchased a mahogany-and-leather bench that McKie had decorated with carved horses’ heads for the Museum of Fine Arts, through a program called “Please Be Seated.”  That same year, her work was exhibited in the American Craft Museum, now the Museum of Arts and Design, in New York City.  She went on to win an NEA Craftsman Fellowship and quickly became a major player in the artists’ furniture movement.  In 1989, she was chosen to show her work in the Museum of Fine Arts’ exhibition “New American Furniture: The Second Generation of Studio Furnituremakers,” which traveled to the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution.

That show was curated by Ned Cooke, now associate professor of American Decorative Art at Yale.  He defined the first generation of studio furnituremakers as woodworkers like the legendary George Nakashima, who celebrated the “woodiness of the wood.”

The second generation, like McKie, are art-school trained- many of them at RISD or Boston University’s Program in Artisanry- and more interested in mixing media and exploring new techniques and color.

“Judy’s furniture is joyful, in a strong and positive sense,” says Cooke.   “She has a clarity of vision that makes it work.”

The show at Gallery NAGA, reveals a deepening of that vision.  Table with Pattern is a large walnut table whose surface is completely covered with tiny cuts and dapples carved in the grain wood.  It has ceremonial quality, like a magical shield modeled on a turtle’s shell.  The carvings have all been rubbed with pigment in dark earth colors, or night colors, that seem to flow out of the darkness of the wood. She tells me,

“I don’t like bright, shiny things. I like to make things look as if they’ve existed for hundreds of years- like they’ve been underground or underwater and just got discovered.”

After more then 20 years of working in wood, McKie began casting in bronze eight years ago when an artist friend working with a foundry in Berkeley, California, suggested bronze as a new medium for her imagery. She says,

“I can do things in metal I couldn’t do in wood. Metal gives a sense of permanence and age.”

In Snake Shelves, the continuous curve of a snake’s body- bronze with a patina of pale, luminous turquoise- supports a transparent green glass shelf; it has an eerie, lyrical, underwater feeling.

In Monkey Settee, a pair of sphinxlike monkeys serve as armrests for a walnut bench:. Their tails curl up to form the bench’s back.

In Swan Sconce, the swans hold the lightbulbs in their mouths, so that the light emerging from the lamps becomes the voice or the breath or the spirit of the birds.

Bird Fountain is a bronze fountain in the shape of an ascending bird with a heart-shaped body and wide, outstretched wings; a stream of water pours out of its mouth into a pool filled with rocks and shells.  McKie envisions the fountain as furniture for a garden, surrounded by flowers and trees.

“The water makes you feel calm and peaceful,” she says.  “It’s nourishing.  A life force.”

Part bird, part angel, Bird Fountain has a dark green verdigris, like the bronze of a Chinese burial vessel, and the silent, soaring presence of great mourning monuments like Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s bronze sculpture of woman bent over in grief.  McKie created Bird Fountain as a memorial to her son Jesse, a beautiful and promising young man who died in Cambridge six years ago.

Standing with McKie in her studio, listening to the soft, soothing sound of the fountain, I remembered the song “Many Rivers to Cross,” which was played at the memorial service for Jesse at the Friends Meeting House in Longfellow Park.

As an artist, working in bronze — that most ancient and enduring of materials — Judy McKie has crossed many rivers. She is a true artist, whose work reveals the power of art to console and heal. And the words of the song, and the sound of the water, and the bronze bird’s bright wings, transform sorrow into a fountain of life.

by Rebecca Nemser for

Dialogue: John Wilson/ Joseph Norman

September 1st, 1995 by Rebecca Nemser

At the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston through December 3.

(Originally published in Boston Magazine, September 1995)

Can visual art come unplugged and still be heard above the roar of electronic media and virtual reality? A wonderful new exhibition of works on paper and sculpture by two local African-American artists, now on view at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, answers that questions with a resounding Yes.

John Wilson, now in his 70’s, is a classically trained artist with a strong African influence, whose life’s work has been a search for enduring,  spiritually charged images of African-Americans. Joseph Norman is not yet forty, but he has created a very strong body of work, combining influences from a variety of sources — Picasso, Max Beckmann, Jasper Johns — and well as things seen on his travels — the lush tropical vegetation of the rain forests in Costa Rico, the Moorish doorways and enclosed gardens in Spain. He weaves together all these strands into elaborate compositions that are elegant, yet full of feeling. If this were music, Wilson would be a great, deep solo voice, singing of Spirit.  Norman would be a jazzy instrumental with a rich melodic mix, underwoven with the blues.

The two artists have very different styles, but seen together — in concert, as it were — it’s clear that they share a mastery of their materials — paint, ink, charcoal, bronze — and a commitment to making art that is not afraid to take on the most fundamental things. Art that is neither cynical nor calculating nor “politically correct.”  Art with Soul.

“For both of these artists,” said Barry Gaither, the Director of the Boston’s Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists who organized the show and accompanying catalogue jointly with MFA curators Clifford Ackley and Shelley Langdale, “art remains an important way to think about what it means to be human and to have an inner life.”

Wilson was born in Roxbury in 1922. As a young man, he won a scholarship to the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. After graduating with highests honors, he travelled to Paris, studied painting with Fernand Leger, and immersed himself, as did Picasso, in the great African collection at the Musee de L’Homme. After working with modern Mexican muralists, he returned to Boston in the 1960’s, to teach art at Boston University and forge his own true style.

Wilson’s early work was an art of protest, confronting issues of racism and injustice in moving graphic images, but he gradually began to concentrate on creating strong, beautiful images of African-Americans — images lacking from museums and textbooks of Western art. Many of his drawing show his family and friends — realistic portraits, but abstracted and idealized into icons of tremendous power and presence. This process of transformation culminated in a series of monumental bronze sculptures, including a monument to Martin Luther King at the Capitol Building in Washington D.C., and Eternal Presence, a massive bronze head which was installed on the grounds of the Museum of the NCAAA in 1987.

A smaller version, still almost four feet high, of Eternal Presence stands at the entrance to this show. Cast in deep, brown bronze, touched with flecks of green, it is the head of a  young man with African features and the proud, free eyes of a dreamer or a king. The statue is surrounded by black and white drawings, which seem to gaze at the statue like a freize of guardian gods in a temple tomb.

Tutankhamun, 1336, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Wilson’s sculpture truly has the presence of ancient art. By a lucky coincidence, a wonderful small Egyptian head is now visiting the MFA (in the nearby Rotunda) from New York Metropolitan Museum. It shows the boy-king Tutankhamun at the moment when he restored the traditional gods to Egypt  after a period of decadence and decline. His enormous crown sits lightly on his regal head, touched by the hand of a god. Like Wilson’s Eternal Presence, Tut’s features are neither wholly male nor female, black nor white; his eyes are ancient and timeless, dreamy and divine.

Joseph Norman, Western Carolina University

Joseph Norman grew up in the slums of Chicago, went to college on a football scholarship, and travelled extensively before settling in Providence, where he teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design. One of his first major works was a group of black and white drawings, called Strange Fruit.

Fish and fruit hang from trees, dark shapes on a dark ground. The shadowed shapes of these “strange fruit” are almost abstract, yet so emotionally charged that they recall the crucifications and martyrdoms in paintings by artists like Rembrandt, Caravaggio, or El Greco — dark icons of suffering and sacrifice. The title comes from a song by  Billie Holiday — a ballad about lynching:

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood on the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fuit hanging from the poplar trees.

Patty’s Little White Lies is a devastating series of five lithographs about the emotional cost of racism — painful memories of a time in Norman’s life when he was falsely accused of a crime. The first print in the series, Shame,  shows the artist in a mug shot, splattered by ink, numbered and framed. The last print, Redemption,  shows him emerging from the ordeal a few years later, having gone through a refiner’s fire burned but not bitter, strengthened in his purpose and sense of himself.

Many of Norman’s drawings show the blighted urban landscape of his Chicago childhood — harsh, hazardous places with burned-out buildings and broken sidewalks, but with leaves pushing through the fences, and flowers growing up through the concrete. In his earliest work, these city plants are small and struggling, but gradually they grow into lavish, exuberant foliage with strong, lyrical stems and leaves.

These tropical plants are signs of life, symbols of hope and possibility, reverence and renewal. Transplanted, neglected, fenced in, and abused; yet they are somehow still thriving, and bearing glorious flowers as well as strange fruit.

by Rebecca Nemser for

The Inferno of Dante

January 1st, 1995 by Rebecca Nemser

A new verse translation by Robert Pinsky.
Illustrated by Michael Mazur.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994.

(Originally published in Boston Magazine, 1995)

“Midway on our life’s journey,  I found myself
In dark woods,  the right road lost.  To tell
About those woods is hard — so tangled and rough
And savage that thinking of it now,  I feel
The old fear stirring;  death is hardly more bitter.
And yet,  to treat the good I found there as well
I’ll tell what I saw…”

So begins Robert Pinsky‘s visionary new translation of Dante’s Inferno, the great fourteenth century Italian poem that traces the passage of a lost soul’s journey into Hell.

In the poem, Dante travels through the Underworld, guided by the ghost of Virgil and inspired by the angelic soul of his beloved Beatrice. He rushes past horror after horror, describing thousands of tormented souls being burned, scorched, charred, boiled, beaten by demons, drowning in rivers of blood and lakes of tears.

This is an artist’s book as well as a poet’s, illustrated by Michael Mazur with a series of monotypes which heighten the immediacy of Pinsky’s intense, dynamic translation. Pictures and poetry work together to make this Inferno a genuine spiritual experience — a dark, painful passage from loss and doubt to belief in the possibility of a new life.

The Inferno is an intensely visual poem; it begins and ends with seeing. Since it was written, artists have been drawn to its fantastic yet vivid descriptions. Monotype seems the ideal medium for illustrating it, with its repertoire of fluidity and flash, and even its vocabulary of “ghosts” — images from past printings that cling to the plate and reappear on the next print in a pale or partial form.

Mazur’s monotypes condense the narrative into a search for light within the “darkening air” of Hell. Each print pulls a different kind of light out of the dark ground: “flakes of fire,” cold glassy glitter of ice, fiery flames, the Moon’s dim, distant glow, and the final celestial shimmering of stars.

The Inferno is a religious poem and also a profoundly psychological one, in the true sense of the word — psyche is the Greek word for soul. Centuries after its obscure Florentine villains and medieval hierarchies have been forgotten, the poem still rings true as a drama of the inner life.

Dante’s vision of Hell is filled with strange and terrifying images of transformation, yet its ultimate horror is its changelessness — the unrepentant sinners whose punishment is to embody, forever, the sins that led them down to Hell. But the heart of the poem is the hope that Dante — and the reader — can still be moved, saved, and changed.  At the end of the poem, Dante climbs over the frozen body of Lucifer, and finds himself turned upside down.

When he looks up and once more sees the stars, the reader, too, emerges from the darkness of Inferno with a sigh of release, grateful for the light.

by Rebecca Nemser for

Goddesses, Empresses, and Femmes Fatales

October 31st, 1993 by Rebecca Nemser

Istanbul and Turkey’s Aegean Coast

(Originally published in The Boston Globe, October 31, 1993)

In late May, I spent two weeks visiting Istanbul and the classical sites of Turkey’s Aegean Coast, looking for traces of goddesses, empresses, Amazons, and other mythical women of the ancient past.

I saw temples to the Grecian goddesses Aphrodite, Artemis, and Athena, and their later Roman incarnations Venus, Diana, and Minerva.

I visited the tomb of Roxelana, a Frenchwoman who rose from the Harem to be a queen of the Ottoman Empire —

and the Christian church built by Theodora, a circus dancer who became Empress of the Holy Roman Empire; and Troy, where Helen‘s legendary beauty launched a thousand ships. And I saw the remains of an even older religion: the cult of the Earth Goddess Cybele.

I travelled to Turkey to look at ancient art, but I found a country whose mythical past and vibrant present are richly intertwined. In Istanbul, near Ayasofya, the great Byzantine Church built in 563 by Justinian and Theodora, I drank a cup of tea in a garden, surrounded by broken columns and fragments of antique sculpture. My table was the huge weathered capital of an ancient column. And the tea was delicious ‑‑ hot and sweet.

And the roses! I saw roses everywhere ‑‑ roses in bud, roses in bloom, roses climbing the old stone walls of the garden around Roxelana’s tomb. I bought a tiny bottle of rose oil from an old man in front the Sultan Suleyman Mosque, which was built in 1550 by the great Ottoman architect Sinan. The mosque is beautiful ‑‑ a vision of paradise in light and stone. And the fragrance of roses surrounded me all day.

Many different cultures created this fabulous city whose winding streets and visual complexities are truly byzantine. Istanbul was Byzantium before it became Constantinople, Eastern Capital of the Holy Roman Empire, and then Istanbul, center of the Ottoman Empire.

From the 15th to 19th centuries, the Ottoman sultans lived at Topkapi Palace, a royal residence as large and luxurious as Versailles, but with a light, fairy‑tale feeling, like a Persian miniature painting. And as in every good fairy‑tale, there was a dark side, too. The sultans’ wives were sequestered in a labyrinthine series of exquisitely decorated and securely locked rooms called the Harem.

Inside the Harem, everything is hidden and veiled, like an elaborate architectural strip‑tease ‑‑ Victoria’s Secret carved in stone.  The walls and ceilings are covered with luminous turquoise and dark blue tiles glazed in designs based on trees and flowers that still grow in the palace gardens ‑‑ the lyrical cypress and the lavish rose. It’s a beautiful prison, silent and cold.

From Topkapi’s gardens, you can see the Bosphorous, the narrow sea that divides the city in two. In the evening, I took a ferry down the Bosphorous, past villas and mosques and old wooden houses, to the village of Arnavutkoy. Using my Turkish phrase book and lots of sign language, I found a charming small restaurant with fresh fish displayed in a cool glass case, white linen tablecloths, and a view of the sea.

There was no menu. I ordered by pointing to little dishes of roast eggplant and yogurt with garlic and cucumber. Then the waiters brought out several kinds of raw fresh fish, with glistening eyes and gills. I chose a small sea bass, and soon it came to back to me, grilled and garnished with a sprig of fresh arugala. For dessert, fresh raspberries and cream. The Turkish wine was a nice, light accompaniment to a lovely meal of fresh ingredients prepared with simplicity and grace. After dinner, the restaurant owner invited me to come back again the next day. When I told him I was leaving Istanbul, he smiled and said, “We will wait for you.”

Turkey’s hundreds of miles of Aegean coastline are dotted with Grecian temples, Roman baths, Selcuk mosques, Ottoman castles and Byzantine churches. The light is different near the Aegean. It’s warmer and softer, and the hills are covered with olive trees.

This land has undergone many transformations. It belonged to Greece in ancient times, then Rome, then the Holy Roman Empire, then the Ottomans. The Selcuks lived here, and the Amazons, and the Trojans whose war with Greece was immortalized in Homer‘s Iliad. After the long drive from Istanbul to a beach near Troy, I stretched out with a late‑afternoon run beside the sea. The air smelled of roses and jasmine, olive, oleander, and pine ‑‑ a true aromatherapy session.

Troy! I saw a pile of stones that once had been the Temple of Apollo where Cassandra prophesied the fall of Troy. I stood where once had stood the walls where Helen waited and Andromache wept; the rooftop where Paris aimed his fatal arrow into Achilles‘s heel. Anemones grow among the fallen stones of Troy ‑‑ bright, blood‑red flowers among the pale, clay‑colored stones.

Troy is all rubble and poetry. Pergamon, further South along the coast, is a splendid classical site, with the ruins of several temples and a magnificent amphitheater. For the ancient Greeks, theater was a Dionysian ritual, and in Pergamon’s amphitheater, you can still feel that mythical intensity. The steep incline of the stone seats creates a tremendous focus of energy on the stage. When I stood at the center and sang, I felt my voice amplified, sound waves vibrating in the air.

The Temple of Athena is high up on a hill; marble columns reaching to the sky. Nearby, I saw a bush with bits of white cloth tied to its branches. Later, I learned that it was a wishing tree. Women climb up here and tie cloth to its branches to wish for a baby, a lover, a husband, a job. Athena’s Temple was once the site of a temple to the ancient Earth Goddess Cybele, and something about this windy hilltop seems sacred still.

Ephesus is even more spectacular than Pergamon: the marble ruins of an entire city, with thousands of columns and fragments of sculpture from Greek and Roman times. Ephesus was the center of the worship of Artemis; several ancient scultures of the Goddess are in Ephesus’s Museum. The Ephesian Artemis was not the elegant Diana of later mythology, but a powerful ancient Earth Mother. She is massive as a column, with a hundred breasts and hypnotic eyes, surrounded by her animals ‑‑ lions, tigers, cows, and birds. Just outside the museum, I saw hundreds of wishes tied to a wishing tree.

The amphitheater at Ephesus was once used for Greek tragedies and Roman circuses; Saint Paul spoke here to the Ephesians. But on the day I visited, there was an international rock music festival going on. The two thousand year old marble seats were filled with Turkish families settled in for the day with paper bags full of plums and pistachio nuts. On the stage, four young men were rapping in bright blue jumpsuits.

In Izmir, which was once Smyrna, an ancient city founded by Amazons ‑‑ the legendary women warriors and riders of horses ‑‑ I dined on fried mussels, grilled fish, and the famous Smyrna figs, stuffed with walnuts and soaked in honey at a waterfront restaurant called Deniz, which means “the sea.” By day, the Aegean is soft and grey, but when the sun goes down, it turns turqoise for about an hour before turning black. Turquoise: the word means Turkish blue.

My last classical site was Aphrodisias, a city dedicated to Aphrodite. It was an ancient center of art and sculpture ‑‑ appropriate for a goddess who presides over both love and beauty. Aphrodisias is set in a fragrant valley, surrounded by dark blue mountains. Dark pink roses grow among the fragments of pale blue marble columns of Aphrodite’s Temple, which was built on the site of a temple to Cybele. In the Museum, two marble Aphrodites trace the transformations of the goddess from Earth Mother to serene, sensual goddess of love. The older image is rigid and iconic, with great staring eyes. The other is just a fragment showing a woman’s crossed legs. But it hints at a divine vision of beauty embodied in a woman who’s fully alive.

Back in Istanbul, my first stop was the Cagaloglu Hamam, where I had a Turkish bath in a 14th century bathhouse. I lay upon a cool marble slab, surrounded by pale grey marble columns, while an old woman poured buckets of cool water over me, then washed me with rose soap, scrubbed me with loofahs, and washed me again. When I walked out, light and clean, I heard the long, lyrical sound of the call to prayer that sings out from the minarets five times a day.

I dined at Daruzziyafe, in a domed arcade near the Sultan Suleyman Mosque: grape leaves stuffed with rice, pinenuts and currants, roast chicken with pale yellow saffron, and pistachio baklava. Instead of wine, I drank fresh strawberry juice. When I left, the owner asked me to come back soon. I told him I was leaving Istanbul, and he said, “We will wait for you.” Above the dark blue silhouettes of the domes and minarets of Sinan’s mosque, I saw Venus shining in the sky.

On my last day in Istanbul, I had planned to go back to the Archaeological Museum to look at Greek sculpture, but instead I took a walk through the city. I strolled down winding streets, past domes and doorways hung with copper and rich red rugs, and climbed the hill to Topkapi.

The roses that had been in bud a week before were now in bloom, and, to my surprise, they weren’t red or pink, as they had been on the Aegean, but white. Big white roses clung to the rosebushes, and in the early morning light, they looked to me like wishes tied to a wishing tree.

I knew what my wish was: to come back. And the roses seemed to whisper:

“We will wait for you.”

by Rebecca Nemser for

Working Proof: Experimental Etching Studio

November 21st, 1992 by Rebecca Nemser

(Originally published in the book Working Proof: Experimental Etching Studio by David Acton, Deborah Cornell, and Rebecca Nemser, Boston Public Library, 1992)

Ten years ago, I spent a very happy summer working at Experimental Etching Studio, so I was delighted when The Boston Public Library invited me to help shape a conversation among a group of artists who are or were long-term members of this extraordinary printmaking cooperative.

My memory of EES as a creative and peaceable community of artists with just the right balance of independence and support was confirmed during a lively afternoon of reminiscences from Meryl Brater, Constance Jacobson, Deborah CornellElsbeth Deser, Shlomith Haber-SchaimLeslie Roitman, and Judy Bergman Hochberg, and  about what the Studio meant to them.

All spoke warmly of the value of the daily rhythms, the freedom to experiment, the nurturing of independence, and the sense of belonging. Several felt that the studio had been most important to them in their formative years, when they were learning techniques, working out their personal imagery, and finding themselves as artists. They all gratefully acknowledged that their time in the Studio had played a major role in their development as artists.

Elsbeth Deser: We came because we wanted to learn about the medium. And we stayed because it was a very good atmosphere. You always knew when you came here that there were conversations you wanted to continue, and work you wanted to continue.

Shlomith Haber-Schaim: One of my first impressions was how hard everybody worked. Each of us brought something completely fresh and new. We learned from each other. I remember when we all tried soft ground. Sugar lift. We tried everything. But each in our own ways

Judy Bergman Hochberg: I remember Shlomith used to crank out 20 prints a day. She was the most prolific printmaker I’d ever seen

Constance Jacobson: I came from a litho background and I was doing monotypes with three plexi plates of identical size, with my key drawing on the back. And then Shlomith came in with her big rollers, and solvent all over her rollers, and she was going in for her tenth pass on her plate! That was really exciting to see. She really stretched.

Shlomith Haber-Schaim: Maybe 10 percent of those prints are worth something, but I needed to do it.

Meryl Brater: If you want to do printmaking, you need a place to work. Printmaking should happen in a workshop. If you had to pay a couple of hundred dollars a day to be able to work in a print studio, you would never experiment, and your printmaking would never develop. Whereas, the way we work, we keep the costs down by pooling our resources, so we can develop our vocabulary using this equipment.

Elsbeth Deser: I felt free to try everything. I felt I had to get to know the techniques and also find my own images.

Deborah Cornell: Elsbeth would come in and something would happen because of something that happened to her on the way to the studio. I remember in particular the time she heard on the radio driving in that Saul Bellow had won the Nobel Prize. And within a couple of days there was a series of beautiful prints about that.

Elsbeth Deser: All with writing. That was the first time I worked with writing, and that’s continued in my work.

Leslie Roitman: I was looking for a place to find out where printmaking fit into my artmaking. Judy was the first person I saw who really reworked her prints, and I started to rework my prints, too. My exposure here gave me lots of new ideas and techniques. Techniques rather than imagery. But it clearly changed the way my work looked.

Elsbeth Deser: You may look at something that someone did and not even think about it. But then it will come back to you, maybe in a dream, and you’ll want to use it, and it will widen your horizons.

Meryl Brater:  You see things through different eyes.

Constance Jacobson: Meryl used to use this pink rose color that I hated. And now I’m using it! Ten years later it’s metamorphosed into a beautiful color. But it’s the same color Meryl always used.

Meryl Brater: And I don’t use it much anymore. My colors have gotten more intense, like Jake’s used to be.

Constance Jacobson: The social aspect is important, too. Not while you’re working, but afterwards.

Meryl Brater: It’s not so much that they influence your work as it is that they influence the way you approach your work. That’s one of the advantages of being in this group. It’s like a family. Some people drive you nuts and some people you really are close to.

Leslie Roitman: Even when 20 people belong to the studio I can still come in here and have privacy.

Meryl Brater: It’s also that everything is here. Technically. If you want to try something, we are pretty much fully equipped and there is somebody here who knows how to do it. So you can try things, and you never know how fruitful it’s going to be.

Shlomith Haber-Schaim: The availability of so many materials allowed us to try so many different things. Techniques. Textures. Lines.

Deborah Cornell: Different kinds of metal. Different kinds of paper.

Shlomith Haber-Schaim: The sharing of expertise and of tools.

Meryl Brater: The feeling that you could learn what you needed to learn because it was all here.

Judy Bergman Hochberg: I had the sense of discovery for many years. I was learning so much and developing myself as an artist. Now, I don’t really need this group as much, but it’s still great to have a group here.

Meryl Brater: I came in without a lot of formal training. In the early days, I was really teaching myself printmaking. Now, I view printmaking as a way of making a mark. It’s in the service of what I want to do as an artist.

Constance Jacobson: Now it’s not a total surprise when it comes off the press.

Judy Bergman Hochberg: It’s still a surprise sometimes.

Meryl Brater: And they’re different when they dry!

Constance Jacobson: That’s the biggest thing that Meryl taught me. I’d be furiously ripping the paper off the press and she’d say, “Don’t hurt your print. Put it in the blotters. Wait until tomorrow. You can rework it. Trust me.”

Elsbeth Deser: Now the hard part is finding something that does surprise you.

Meryl Brater: I still feel a certain mystery to the process, even though I’m so much more dextrous.

Constance Jacobson: Me too

Meryl Brater: It’s still very exciting to pull the print off the press.

Shlomith Haber-Schaim: That’s what makes it worth it. You can play with it. There are no limits and no rules.

Meryl Brater: There are rules. We just don’t do printmaking that way.

Elsbeth Deser: But we all know the rules. That’s what makes the difference. The excitement comes precisely because you have the knowledge and you are working away from it.

Constance Jacobson: It was a sanctuary.

Deborah Cornell: A workspace.

Constance Jacobson: A very serious workspace.

Shlomith Haber-Schaim: I really loved coming here. It seemed that everything I needed was here.

Deborah Cornell: Looking back, it was just completely nuts and bolts.

by Rebecca Nemser for

Camille Paglia

May 4th, 1992 by Rebecca Nemser

Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson
Vintage Books, 1990

(Originally published in The Boston Review, 1992)

Like Ovid in his  Metamorphoses, Camille Paglia sets out to tell the history of the world from its earliest beginnings to the present day — from cave art to the Rolling Stones — and envisions it all as a series of transformations.

Sexual  Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, is ostensibly a book of literary criticism, but Paglia transforms the genre into a spectacular entertainment. She blazes through western literature: 700 pages of sex and violence in living color and wraparound sound, with a cast of thousands, including Coleridge (“Coleridge’s  Christabel contains one of the greatest transsexual self-transformations in literature…a pornographic parable of western sex and power.”), William Blake (“Blake’s poetry is sexual grand opera of instability, anguish, and resentment.”), the Marquis de Sade (“For Sade, sex is violence…Sade makes sex a theater of pagan action. He drives a wedge between sex and emotion.”), Emily Dickinson (“Voyeurism, vampirism, necrophilia, lesbianism, sadomasochism, sexual surrealism: Amherst’s Madame de Sade still waits for her readers to know her.“), Shakespeare (“The sea, Dionysian liquid nature, is the master image in Shakespeare’s plays. It is the wave-motion within Shakespearean speech which transfixes the audience even when we don’t understand a word of it.”)

For Paglia, culture is a struggle between Apollo and Dionysus — between Apollonian clarity and Dionysian fluidity, culture and nature, reason and emotion, mind and body, man and woman, and between the male and female aspects of each individual. Sex is central to culture because sex is a return to nature — a surrender to nature’s dark chtonian power.

“Moment by moment, night flickers in the imagination, in eroticism, subverting our strivings for virtue and order, giving an uncanny aura to objects and persons, revealed to us by artists.”

Paglia claims that mythology’s identification of woman with nature is still true.

“Woman’s body is a secret, sacred space…Her sexual maturity means marriage to the moon, waxing and waning in lunar phases…Every woman is a priestess guarding the temenos of daemonic mysteries.”

Culture is a man-made thing, a male defense against female nature. “The male projection of erection and ejaculation is the paradigm for all cultural projection and conceptualization…The Apollonian is a male line drawn against the dehumanizing magnitude of female nature…A man must do battle with that enormity, which resides in woman and nature.” Art combats the formlessness of nature by creating forms. And the central form of western art is the creation of sexual personae — eroticized embodiments of culture’s conflicts and ideals. Paglia presents the history of art as a parade of glamorous sexual personae — Amazons,  androgynes, ephebes, male mothers, beautiful boys, vampires and viragos.

In her book, Paglia inveighs against contemporary feminism (“polarized, neurotic, repressive, reactionary, puritanical and phobic”), Ivy League academics (“Ninnies!” “Pedants!” “Tyrants!” “Phonies!” “Sickening opportunists!”), Derrida, Foucault and Lacan (“French rot! Gibberish!”) and identifies with the 60’s (“I am the sixties come back to haunt the present!”),”  Emily Dickinson (“She never swerved from her vision of her own voice”), and Madonna (“a real feminist, a poet of sexual personae”).

Moving freely across time — she makes connections between Artemis and Katherine Hepburn, William Blake and the Doors, Byron and Elvis Presley — Paglia sees art as a battlefield where ancient wars are fought, a theater where archaic rituals are re-enacted. “Poetry is the connecting link between body and mind. Every idea in poetry is grounded in emotion. Every word is a palpation of the body.”

Paglia makes you feel that art and literature are alive. Her language is rapid, rhythmic, lucid, lyrical, sensational, lurid, punchy, poetic, hypnotic, and bold. Even her most outrageous statements are grounded in the passionate but disciplined energy of her prose. As she says of Shakespeare, its wave-motions transfix you, even when you don’t understand it.

That’s just the point. Paglia makes you understand that you can’t understand everything. She respects the ancient, undiminished mysteries of sex and art, and her book is a heroic, impassioned striving for the full complexity of human life. No one could possibly agree (or disagree) with every single thing in  Sexual Personae. It’s a book to experience — a vivid and imaginative work of art.

My Interview with Camille Paglia

I imagined Camille Paglia as a Wagnerian Valkyrie crashing through the stately groves of academe. When I interviewed her at  in Herbert Golder‘s office at Arion, the classics journal at Boston University where she recently published an article calling for sweeping reforms of the American educational system, including mandatory teaching of Black music and dance (“that ancient sacred ritual”), I was not disappointed.

She is small and wiry, strong-boned, sedately dressed, with big, luminous, sea-green eyes. Her voice is like the ocean: wave upon wave of words, words, words. In our interview, I would suggest a topic, and she would respond, instantly, with a barrage of images, ideas, and words, talking, talking, talking, loud, and clear, in her own inimitable voice, issuing pronouncements in a unique personal style that’s a combination of Delphic Oracle and stand-up comic, Laurie Anderson and Lenny Bruce, Joan Rivers and Joan of Arc, Oprah and Opera.

For once in my life, I couldn’t get a word in edgewise. I just sat there, spellbound, in the Arion office, surrounded by posters of ancient Greek gods, scribbling madly in my Reporter’s Notebook, writing it all down.

“I’m a knight errant wandering alone through the landscape, finding evil-doers and dragons to slay, storming the castle, rescuing the damsel in distress, surviving tests of the spirit as well as of strength. I’m a spiritual quester, like a samurai or a ninja.  I’m always perfecting myself, physically and spiritually — preparing and preparing and preparing.”

“I want to save feminism from the feminists!  Feminists deny the power of woman — her full sensual vitality. It is so wrong to teach young women that they are victims and that their whole history is one of victimization. Women are the center of the universe! Women are seductive, alien, and inconquerable! They inspire men with fear and awe of their mystic command of the universe.”

” You have to read to expand your imagination! To open up brain cells you didn’t even know you had! World consciousness! The life of the mind! Ideas are alive! Ideas are the embodied consciousness of the human race!”

“I am in love with beauty! I’m a pagan Italian Catholic! My responsiveness to beauty comes from the art gene in Italians! Helen of Troy — what an image of the power of beauty! Beauty is an eternal human value!”

“My number one priority in my life is the constant recording of my flashes. I never let anything go. If I have an idea, I get it down immediately. I never let it go. It’s an attitude of total observation, sensory observation of the world without any attempt to form it. I try to keep my mind totally free, absolutely blank, like in Zen the mind as a still pond open to the messages of the universe. Later, I transfer my flashes onto note cards. Eventually I have thousands of notes. I sort and read, sort and read, take notes on the notes, and go over it again and again until I discover the connections, find the order. I prepare and prepare and prepare. Then, I write.”

“To me, writing is muscular. It’s physical. My paragraphs are like blocks — the blocks of Egypt. I’m an aesthete! My writing is musical! It will be sweet and lyrical and seductive, then harsh, then go back to being lyrical. General readers are able to read the book because they let it wash over them like music. You must hear it! You can’t agree or disagree — — you have to feel the flow of thought!”

“My total solitude — my celibacy — my ability to be alone. My space is my imaginative space. I feel like in a starship, monitoring the universe. I watch TV. I listen to the radio, talk shows. I fell like I’m very tuned in to what’s going on everywhere. I’m an Aries, so I have always had this bounding self-confidence. I’ve survived all the efforts of society to train me into a civilized human being! From the very beginning, my only aim was the full development of my full creative potential as a woman! Most women have failed at this. Most women get distracted when their husbands or their lovers or their children or their parents say: You should be there for me. My sense of vocation. My ability to say no — NO! — to everyone. NO! To every human person. I’m not good at relationships. But hey — I’m living with the most interesting woman in the world!”

by Rebecca Nemser for

Bernd and Hilla Becher

December 21st, 1991 by Rebecca Nemser

At the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Harvard University.

(Originally published in The Boston Phoenix, December 1991)

Bernd and Hilla Becher have worked together for more than 30 years, photographing blast furnaces, water towers, power stations, and other industrial structures, which they call “anonymous sculpture.

Peter Nisbet, curator of Harvard’s Busch-Reisinger Museum, commented:

It’s the Industrial Picturesque. No—it’s the Industrial Sublime.

The Bechers’ clear, cool, black-and-white pictures do indeed make these industrial structures look like found modernist sculpture.

And last year, their photographs finally won First Prize in the Sculpture category at the Venice Biennale.

(Postscript: I thought of this show again when I first read W.G. Sebald‘s books — mysterious, elusive, and strangely moving.)

by Rebecca Nemser for

Paper Prayers/In the Spirit

December 19th, 1991 by Rebecca Nemser

At the Howard Yezerski Gallery

(Originally published in The Boston Phoenix, December 1991)

Paper Prayers began last year in a small room at Howard Yezerski’s gallery on South Street. Inspired by a Japanese tradition of making paper prayers and tying them to a tree as good wishes for healing the sick, the artist Tom Grabosky put out a call to artists to donate small works of art — within an inch of  4″ x 12″ — to be given away in exchange for a donation to the Boston Pediatric AIDS Project on Visual AIDS Day — a national day of mourning and action in response to the AIDS crisis. In an amazing outpouring of creativity and generosity, hundreds of prayers were donated, thousands of dollars were raised, and a tradition was born.

This year, more than 200 Boston artists contributed over 2,000 prayers made from handmade paper, newsprint, birch bark, gold leaf, dried flowers, old photographs, cyanotypes, personals ads, menus, and sheets of music. Grabosky created a serene and meditative installation for the prayers, with a sound environment of soft and soothing New Age music composed by Karl Lundeberg. The rest of the gallery is filled with In the Spirit — a show of larger works of art made in the spirit of Paper Prayers. They are for sale, but 20% of the price will be donated to the Pediatric AIDS Project.

“A number of artists told me that last year’s Paper Prayers was a springboard into other work, in terms of format, content, and the experience of giving — the creative spirit of giving,” said Grabosky, who guest-curated In The Spirit.

Domingo Barreres, a painter whose work is usually big and dark,  was captivated by the small scale of paper prayers. He continued to make luminous, richly textured drawings of spirals and organic forms that look like something you might see under a microscope — or a vision in a dream. Ellen Banks, an artist whose work is inspired by music, created a painting in dark, burnished tones of silver and bronze, based on Lundeberg’s music for Paper Prayers. Mark Pevsner composed Elegy — an elegy for solo violin — and wrote the music out as a long, thin paper prayer. In the notes for the musician, I saw the words sempre (always) and fine (end).

Jesseca Ferguson made a collage from an old postcard showing a Gothic crypt and a bleached white bone, on an old, sea-washed piece of wood. “My work is about memory and loss, decay, the passage of time, travelling from one realm to another. In short, I deal with mortality. In an age haunted by AIDS, my work becomes political,” she said.

Many of the pieces have words you can’t quite read — as if the artists felt a need to reach beyond language to express their feelings of sorrow, fear, and hope. Cheryl Warrick‘s wonderful charcoal drawings are larger, horizontal versions of the paper prayers. They show curled-up babies floating through a river of crosses, scratches, and marks — like souls travelling towards the light, waiting to be born.

Anne Neely, a landscape painter, makes small oil pastel drawings as healing rituals to give to friends who are ill. The one here is called Healing Trees. It shows trees reaching for the sky — a healing glimpse of the living earth. “They represent to me the human spirit — stripped down, revealed, vulnerable and yet strong,” said Neely.

Some of the work focusses specifically on losses from AIDS; some expresses a more abstract sense of loss. Paul Shakespear‘s small paintings on lead look like pale, ghostly figures dancing on a deep, dark ground. Carolyn Boriss-Krimsky combined fragments of monotypes into a linear grid containing lyrical moments of darkness and color. Lorie Hammermesh created a small arched shrine and decorated it with roses and tears and the words To My Love, for her brother, who died of AIDS last year. Her friend Steven Muller penciled the words I didn’t know Lori had a brother onto an abstract painting. Elaine Spatz-Rabinowitz made a collage with a small picture of an open window looking out at the sea and a rose-covered pillow, mounted on what looks like pages from an old, unreadable book. She told me that the background was actually the reverse side of some of her old work, which had included pictures of rooms taken from old House and Garden magazines. “Now, seeing the emptiness is more evocative than the actual images,” she said.

Three generations of Southworth women made collages. June Southworth‘s AIDS Bike-A-Thon shows skeletons and dolls riding on rusty motorcycles and stark white, skeletal trees, all inside a rusty metal frame. Her daughter Dawn Southworth made Marker — a collage with a cross, a heart, old photographs, and dried roses mounted on  worm-eaten wood and framed by rusty bottle-tops. Dawn’s six-year-old daughter Jahna Salvo made a collage on wormwood painted bright pink and decorated with golden diamonds, hearts, and stars. It’s called I Hope You Get Well Soon.

The feeling at the opening was more like the feeling of a big family gathering — a wedding or a funeral — than the usual art event — a place to share wordless feelings of loss and grief, pain and fear.

Many of the artists here are of a generation who by and large rejected the conventional comforts of organized religion — and now they find themselves facing the inevitable mystery of death alone. Some have returned to their roots; others are re-inventing rituals that feel authentic to them and finding new ways to satisfy their spiritual needs. Paper Prayers has become one such contemporary healing ritual — a small congregation of artists gathered together in the spirit.

Some of the work here is sentimental — but it’s the season when a little sentimentality is not out of place, especially when it comes from the heart.

by Rebecca Nemser for

El Corazon Sangrante/The Bleeding Heart

November 1st, 1991 by Rebecca Nemser

Organized by the Institute of Contemporary Art.

(Originally published in The Boston Phoenix, January, 1992)

The first thing you see in El Corazon Sangrante/The Bleeding Heart is a large 17th century altarpiece by Juan Correa called Alegoria del Sacramento/Allegory of the Sacrament. It shows Christ pierced by a grape vine, squeezing blood from a bunch of grapes clustered on a vine that is growing out of his bleeding heart.

A few steps further, and you see Frida Kahlo‘s 1940 Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, which shows Frida in a jungle, with a black monkey and a black cat perched on her shoulders and a black hummingbird dangling from a thorn necklace that pierces her neck, drawing small red drops of blood. Her face is beautiful and strong; her eyebrows arch like the hummingbird’s wings; there are flowers and butterflies in her hair; her big black eyes are deep and clear. On the next wall is an installation by Silvia Gruner, called Los Caracoles Mas Bellos/The Most Beautiful Shells, which includes a series of large photocopies of medical illustrations of a human heart, painted over with a mixture of wax and blood, and attached to tiny amplifiers playing sad Mexican love songs — boleros sung by a blind street singer on the streets of Mexico City. All three works of art are powerful images of transformation: blood into wine, body into symbol, pain into art.

Every image in the show refers in some way to the bleeding heart. For Cuban-born Ana Mendieta (1948 – 1985), the heart’s blood is the source of life, the vital connection between earth and spirit, body and soul. Her work, always centered around her own body, has the intensity of ancient sacrifice and mythic transformation. Videos and photographs document of her extraordinary outdoor sculptures and performance pieces, where she worked with sand, clay, water, mud, rock, blood, fire, and air to create symbols of her body in the living earth. Body Tracks are paintings she made by kneeling on a piece of paper, her arms covered with blood and paint. One of her treetrunk sculptures has the shape of woman’s body carved and burned into the wood. It stands near a tiny 15th century figure carved in stone: an Aztec priest wearing the flayed skin of a sacrificed man.

In David Avalos‘s Hubcaps Milagros, the bleeding heart is as one of a dozen of visual cliches about Mexican culture — the stuff that Tex-Mex restaurant decor and racist stereotypes is made of. His Combination Platters are ironic shrines composed of things like paper flowers, cactuses, hubcaps, red chile peppers, candles in bottles of Thunderbird wine, and cans of Juanita’s Mexican Style Meatball Soup, decorated with a picture of a Mexican Style woman with sultry eyes, big breasts, a low-cut blouse, and bright red lips.

El Corazon Sangrante/The Bleeding Heart traces the passage of the bleeding heart from Aztec ritual sacrifice to the Catholic icon of the Sacred Heart to contemporary Mexican, Cuban, and Chicano art.  An 18th century icon Mater Dolorosa/Lady of Sorrows hangs near Adolfo Patino’s Reliquias de artistas, Ano 33 Cana/Artist’s relics, which was made in collaboration with the artist after his death this year — a shrine made in the shape of a cross from sheets of handmade paper with gold paint, skulls cut from maps, purple cloth, tiny braids of hair, bramble bush, images of skulls and burning hearts, a Frida postcard, and Polaroids of a young man with a sad, beautiful face. Two mothers grieving for their lost sons; seeing them together enriches both the old and the new.

Juan Francisco Elso‘s Corzazon de America is made from branches, wax, volcanic sand, and jute thread; it looks like a bramblebush or a piece of tumbleweed in the shape of a giant heart. His three small clay hearts have the intensity of votive offerings; intense, vulnerable, piercingly beautiful little forms, pulled from the clay heart of the earth.

The heart of The Bleeding Heart are three small paintings and one lithograph by the legendary Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (1907-1954). She began to paint at the age of 17, when she had to spend a year in bed recovering from a terrible streetcar accident where a steel handrail pierced her body and broke her collarbone, her ribs, her spinal column and her pelvis. As a result of the accident, she spent her entire life in physical pain. “My painting carries within it the message of pain,” she wrote. She underwent numerous operations, spinal fusions, long periods of wearing metal corsets or body casts, and suffered several agonizing miscarriages. Yet she lived a full, rich, passionate life as a woman and as an artist.  She said,

“My eyes are as ancient as the pyramids of Mexico.”

Frida’s persona was one of her greatest creations; her life was a form of performance art. She loved to dress up in elaborate Mexican dresses (Tehuanas) and heavy gold jewelry, with flowers in her hair. She was married to the great Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. (He was a big, brilliant brute of a man; she was tiny and delicate. Their friends called them the Elephant and the Dove.) She suffered from his infidelities, and then had love affairs of her own, with both women and men. And she painted. She was a great artist; her hundreds of self-portraits are an extraordinary record of a woman’s inner life.

The lithograph El Aborto/The Miscarriage shows Frida naked, divided in half, blood flowing from her womb, tears falling down her cheeks. A full moon hovers in the sky; a fetus floats in the air; she hold an easel in one pale, ghostly hand. (The print was actually begun in America. Frida suffered a miscarriage while she and Diego were living in Detroit so he could paint a mural on the theme of modern industry; she began to work on the print while she was recovering at the Henry Ford Hospital.)

Another small painted self-portrait shows Frida sitting on a chair, wearing one of her husband’s big man’s suits, holding a scissors in her hand, locks of her hair strewn all around the floor. (She painted this one after learning of one of Diego’s infidelities.) Shorn of her long black hair, stripped of her beautiful clothes, Frida is still supremely herself. She looks out of this little picture with a challenging, seductive that gaze that meets your eye and pierces your heart.

Above the image are words from a Mexican folk song: “I used to love you for your beautiful hair. Now that you are bald I don’t love you anymore.” The image is even more intense when you realize that the bald one — La Pelona — is slang for death — for the dancing skeletons that decorate festivities in the traditional Mexican Day of the Dead.  She said,

“I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.”

Frida’s self-portraits always show her wounded and suffering, in heart, body, and soul.  But she is never merely a victim. Her pain is her passion and her passion is her art. Her heart’s blood is a gift to the world.

by Rebecca Nemser for

Lazlo Moholy-Nagy’s Light-Space Modulator

October 4th, 1991 by Rebecca Nemser

Busch-Reisinger Museum, Harvard University

(Originally published in The Boston Phoenix, October 4, 1991

Lazlo Moholy-Nagy‘s Light-Space Modulator is an abstract construction of geometric forms cut from sheets of shiny metal and transparent plastic, mounted on a small electric motor.  When it is set in motion, circles, rectangles, spirals and curves perform a slow and graceful dance that casts light shadows on the walls and floor.

This kinetic sculpture embodies one of the ideals of early modern art:  the creation of new forms of art with the power and elegant simplicity of machines.  It is a beautiful machine for making art.

The Light-Space Modulator was made to move, but for many years it has been silent and still. Its delicate mechanism is easily jammed, and it has broken down and been repaired many times since it was completed in 1930.  But a few weeks ago, the curatorial and conservation staff of the Harvard University Art Museums decided to run the sculpture for very limited periods of time.   For five minutes every Wednesday afternoon, beginning at 2:00, the statue moves.

The Light-Space Modulator is made of three parts, each with its own set of movements.  Seeing it in motion is like watching a performance.   A circle rises, a sphere falls, a spiral turns, and three rectangles pirouette.  “It’s about grace,” says Peter Nisbet, the present curator of the Busch-Reisinger Museum, who made the decision to turn on the Light-Space Modulator for a few minutes once a week.

Lazlo Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946) was a painter, photographer, and sculptor, and he did  innovative work in typography, advertising, and set design.  He was born in Hungary in 1895, and began to draw while he was recovering from shell shock after being wounded on the Russian front in World War I.  After the war, he worked his way across Eastern Germany by painting signs.  In Berlin, he fell in love with abstract art and became a Constructivist.

Moholy wanted to bring into the world of art the dynamism that he saw in modern life — in railways and bridges, speed and light.  He painted light-filled abstract pictures of transparent, overlapping geometric planes that seem suspended in a pure, clear air.   In 1923, Walter Gropius brought some of the best abstract artists in Europe to the Bauhaus with the goal of creating modern designs for modern life.  He invited Moholy to direct the Metal Workshop there.  Moholy worked on the sculpture, which he sometimes called a “light prop“, at the Bauhaus and built it there with the aid of a mechanic.  In his autobiography he wrote,

“For almost ten years I planned and battled for this realization of a mobile and I thought that I had familiarized myself with all its possibilities…But when the “light prop” was set in motion for the first time in a small mechanics shop in 1930, I felt like the sorcerer’s apprentice.  The mobile was so startling in its coordinated motions and space articulations of light and shadow sequences that I almost believed in magic.”

In 1937 a large metal frame was added to the sculpture to stabilize its structure.  It was restored in 1966 by William Wainwright.  He replaced the yellowing plastic panels with acrylic and chromed all the metal parts, which were originally varied from matte aluminum to nickel-plated brass. “The Bauhaus was not really a high-tech place,” says Wainwright, who is also a maker of kinetic sculptures.  “It must have been made with a minimum of drawing and a maximum of hand-waving and pointing .

A key element of the mechanical part of the sculpture is a bicycle chain — a stroke of luck for Wainwright, who comes from a family of bicycle chain manufacturers.  He replaced the worn-out German chain with a Diamond chain, and says that the only thing he added was a de-railer.  “If it jams, it goes k-chugg, k-chugg, k-chugg in the chain and sprocket department, but it doesn’t hurt the visual shapes.” This year, the sculpture was cleaned and repaired at the Fogg Art Museum’s Center for Conservation.  And once a week, the statue moves.

Moholy used the Light-Space Modulator as the inspiration for paintings, photographs, and even a film.   The work was so important to the artist that a Hungarian critic once compared him to the mythic Greek sculptor Pygmalion, who fell in love with his own creation.

Moholy never sold the sculpture, and it accompanied him to England and then America after the Nazis closed down the Bauhaus and declared abstract art “degenerate.” Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, the artist’s wife, said that it was

“the problem child of my household because it refused to pass custom authorities the normal way.  When it finally came to rest in Chicago it had been declared a mixing machine, a fountain, a display rack for various metal alloys, and a robot…”

Moholy moved to Chicago in 1937 and founded the New Bauhaus, later known as the Institute of Design.  He taught there until his death in 1946.  His widow gave the sculpture to the Busch-Reisinger Museum in 1956.  While a new building for the Busch-Reisinger Museum is being built, Lazlo Moholy-Nagy’s Light-Space Modulator is on display at the Fogg Art Museum.

And for five minutes every Wednesday afternoon, the statue moves.

by Rebecca Nemser for

Busch-Reisinger Museum

September 14th, 1991 by Rebecca Nemser

(Originally published in The Boston Phoenix, September 1991)

Max Beckmann‘s 1941 painting The Actors shows a crowded stage, and all the players on it. A king, wearing a crown, stabs himself in the heart with a huge silver dagger. A woman looks at her reflection in a mirror, next to a statue of a Greek god, with curly hair and contemplative gaze. Below the stage, modern men and women read the newspaper, play the saxophone, talk, flirt, and fight with real knives. It aims to encompass all of art and life in jagged, lyrical colors and shapes, all outlined in thick, sure slashes of black paint.

For many years, Beckmann’s triptych was displayed in a gloomy, shrine-like room in Adoplphus Busch Hall—a building designed in 1910 to house plaster casts of German sculpture. The old Busch-Reisinger Museum was a charming, romantic place to visit, but it was often so dark that you couldn’t see the art—you couldn’t catch the subtleties of color and line. Now, in the bright serene light of the museum’s new home in Werner Otto Hall, which opens to the public on Tuesday, you can fully experience the dazzling hot lime green of a curtain, the vibrant orange of a flower, the juicy pink of the singer’s dress, the sea-blue curve of an unmade bed, the black hole of the saxophone, dark subtle, violent, jazzy colors that thrill you with their intensity and dissonance.

The Busch-Reisinger Museum opened in 1903 as a museum dedicated to the art of Central and Northern Europe. But in the 1930’s and 40’s, when the Nazis declared modern art “degenerate,” the museum became a haven for works of art by artists from the Bauhaus and other centers of modernism. Its collection includes major paintings and drawings by Beckmann, Wassily Kandinsky, Oskar Kokoschka, Paul Klee, El Lissitzky, Edvard Munch, and Lázló Moholy-Nagy. For these artists, Modernism was much more than just a style. It was a new visual language—a revolutionary new vision of the world. For some artists, Modernism was expression—a new visual language of feeling and form.

In Franz Marc’s 1911 Red Horses, three young horses dance with the billowing clouds of trees and hills beneath a brilliant yellow sky; their manes are lyrical curves of dark purple and black; their soft blue eyes look out at the world with a rapturous gaze. Like Beethoven‘s Pastorale Symphony, it’s a beautiful dream of the Earth, from which you waken with a deep and grateful sense of connection to the flow of life.

Two paintings by Alexei von Jawlensky elucidate the pull toward abstraction in modern art. His 1911 Head of a Woman shows the face of a woman with piercing dark blue eyes; his 1927 Composition #1, Sunrise is exactly the same in size and color, but completely abstract.

The first painting evokes the woman’s physical presence—her dark, passionate eyes, and sad, spiritual face. In the second painting, her image has disappeared. Her face is an oval, her skin is a transparent plane; and the light that was shining on her brow is now a bright, luminous circle—the setting sun.

For other artists, Modernism was about the energy and dynamism of modern life—the brave new world of skyscrapers and machines. El Lissitzky’s luminous abstract paintings show overlapping geometric forms floating in infinite space. Moholy-Nagy’s kinetic sculpture, Light-Space Modulator, looks like a great city lit up at night.

Max Beckmann’s 1927 Self-Portrait in a Tuxedo shows the modern artist as a man of power and vision. Newly cleaned, unvarnished, it’s painting stripped of everything that’s not essential—representation pushed right up to the edge of abstraction — the world-transforming visionary passion of Modern Art.

by Rebecca Nemser for

Pleasures of Paris

September 6th, 1991 by Rebecca Nemser

Organized by Barbara Stern Shapiro and the Department of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs. At the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

(Originally published in The Boston Phoenix, September 1991)

In the 1860’s, the poet Charles Baudelaire identified a new Parisian type: the flaneur, whose main occupation in life was to stroll through the streets of Paris discovering the harsh new poetry of modern life. Pleasures of Paris, a generous summer show at the Museum of Fine Arts, is organized so that you too, can be a flaneur, strolling along the boulevards and promenades of City of Light as it was a hundred years ago.

An underlying theme of Pleasures of Paris is looking — and being looked at. Seeing — and being seen. Look at the eyes. Notice who’s watching and who’s being watched. Follow the gaze. You’ll see looks of longing, looks of hunger, looks of envy, looks of rapture, looks of shame. Seductions, rejections, obsessions. Admiring glances and scornful grimaces. Absinthe-drinking couples staring in opposite directions; lovers drowning in each other’s eyes.

Picture after picture shows people looking at one other, or looking away.

Some of them are even looking at you. A lady in the audience in Tissot‘s The Amateur Circus turns away from the acrobats to stare at you with a clear, cool gaze. In another Tissot painting of the circus, The Ladies of the Chariots, one of the riders, dressed like an Amazon or dominatrix with breastplate, crown, and whip, watches you watching her as her horse rounds the curve of the circus ring.

But most of these Parisians are much too self-absorbed to return your gaze. In Alphone Mucha‘s poster, Sarah Bernhardt, magnificent as La Dame aux Camelias, gazes at the stars, surrounded by a silver starry sky. The divine Sarah was one of the first modern stars, and you can see premonitions of Andy Warhol in Mucha’s poster, which glorifies and flattens her, like Warhol’s silkscreens of Marilyn Monroe. In Jules Cheret‘s poster La Loie Fuller, the American dancer dances wildly in swirls and swirls of flame-colored cloth. In Steinlen‘s Yvette Guilbert aux Ambassadeurs, the singer breathes deep as she waits in the wings. Toulouse-Lautrec‘s Woman on Trapeze, brilliantly placed between the two Tissots, seems to float, suspended in the air. Her eyes are closed and her face is pale as she leans back and surrenders herself to the gaze of the crowd. Picasso‘s sad, blue Harlequin sits alone in a cafe, lost in his sad, blue dreams.

Pleasures of Paris is arranged as a series of works of art clustered around different Parisian pleasures: boulevards, parks, racetracks, museums, brothels, cafes, concerts, cabarets, the opera, the circus.

Great paintings by great artists like Picasso and Manet mingle with posters, prints and photographs by artists who are less well-known.

This clustering of images evokes the feel of turn-of-the-century Paris: the outpouring of creativity, the sense of movement and multiplicity, the constant mingling and jostling of the crowd, the flow of life, the joie de vie.

Turn-of-the-century Paris was a spectacle, a non-stop dance on the edge where life and theater meet. In his Parisian Sketchbooks of 1876, Henry James wrote of “the brilliant picturesqueness of Paris.” Day and night, the streets were filled with people: workers, waiters, delivery boys, men step ping out in top hat and tails, and marvelous women in marvelous clothes, bedecked and beplumed like exotic birds. Everyone always seemed to be in motion — dancing, skating, riding horses, riding bikes, strolling the boulevards, eating, drinking, visiting a park, making love, making art.

Some artists recorded the details of daily life; others distilled it to abstractions. Pierre Bonnard‘s 1897 The Square at Evening is a dance of shadows in the yellow light. Some saw Paris as monumental; The Neurdein Brother‘s photographs of the Eiffel Tower and a railway station look as ancient as the pyramids and as magical as the Taj Mahal. For others, little verdant patches of nature still reigned supreme, undaunted by gaslight and concrete. Cezanne‘s On the Banks of the Pond shows some city couples sitting on the grass, just outside of town. The artist’s tiny, throbbing brushstrokes, like the smell of Spring, agitate the water and the trees, and the sweet, electric energy of green, green grass.

One the pleasures of Paris was music: concerts in cafes and dance halls like Moulin Rouge, symphony orchestras, street singers, Folies Bergere, opera.

Renoir‘s A Box at the Opera shows a woman and a young girl listening to an opera from a plush crimson loge.  The painting is amazingly sensual: the lace of the woman’s black dress looks like fur; one pink rose floats in her decolletage; her skin is soft and pink. Enraptured, she leans on one hand, abandoning herself to the music. Her other hand caresses a sheet of music; pale blue notes drift across the page like little waves. Her lips are slightly parted; her cheeks are flushed; her deep black eyes glisten with tears. The opera-lover’s daughter is a younger version of herself with long black hair that cascades down her slender back as she gazes dreamily down at a huge bouquet of voluptuous red roses.

In complete contrast, Mary Cassatt’s 1878 At the Opera shows a woman dressed all in black; a single pearl gleams in her ear. She is holding a pair of opera-glasses up to her eyes and watching something intently; her other hand clutches a fan. Her whole being is tense and alert; all her energy is focussed on her gaze. From a far balcony, a man in evening clothes watches her watching the stage.

Edouard Manet‘s 1862 painting The Street Singer shows a street singer coming out of the door of a cafe, carrying a guitar and eating cherries, which she carries in a white, cone-shaped paper bag.  One evening,  Manet — a great flaneur — was strolling with a friend, and saw a woman coming out of a cabaret, holding a guitar. The artist was immediately struck by the singer’s appearance, and asked her if she would come to his studio and model for him. She turned him down and walked away laughing, then disappeared into the night. Back in the studio, Manet posed his favorite model, Victorine Murent, as a street singer.

As the street singer, Victorine has a faraway look in her eyes — completely different from the cool, direct gaze with which, as Olympia, she shocked Manet’s contemporaries. Her mouth is hidden by a bunch of cherries which glisten lusciously, erotically red. She has just walked out of the cabaret through a swinging door. The door is still open, revealing a glimpse of the noisy, smoky room. In a moment, the door will swing back shut, and the cafe will disappear, and the street singer will vanish, into the street, into the night, never to be seen again.

Only here, in this painting, where she is forever caught in the golden net of the Paris night at the moment when she stepped out through the swinging door, onto the street, and into our dreams.

by Rebecca Nemser for

John Singer Sargent’s EL JALEO

August 28th, 1991 by Rebecca Nemser

John Singer Sargent’s EL JALEO
At the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

(Originally published in The Boston Phoenix circa 1991)

Six men dressed in black lean against a dark grey wall, hunched over their guitars, and watch a woman dance. In a dark, smoky room, the solitary dancer raises up one arm in a tense, ecstatic movement of inspiration; her other hand clutches the skirt of her dress — a flash of white light gleaming in the dark. You can almost hear the rhythmic weeping of the guitars; you can almost feel beating of the dancer’s tumultuous heart.

El Jaleo is one of the most famous paintings in Boston, but until recently, a century’s worth of candlewax, smoke, mold, varnish, dust, dirt, and brine have dulled and darkened its surface. Newly cleaned, the painting now looks the way it looked when John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) first exhibited it at the Paris Salon of 1882:  dazzling.

Sargent painted El Jaleo when he was in his early 20’s, following a visit to Spain where he immersed himself in Spanish art and culture, especially the paintings of Goya and Velasquez. The cleaning has revealed the painting’s gestural brushwork and brilliant color — Velasquez’s palette of black, grey, white, and deep, rich hues of purple and red. Restored, El Jaleo looks deeper and more voluptuous, but at the same time more aggressively modern.

“I was amazed by how perfect it was,” exclaimed Alain Goldrach, the independent conservator who spent six months cleaning the painting at the Museum of Fine Arts’ Conservation Lab. “You can now see the guitars on the wall, the Prussian blue of the dancer’s shawl, the inscriptions and the handprints on the walls. And those violet purple glazes — they were an experimental modern color only on the market in Paris for a few years. The painting has gained extraordinarily in color and depth.”

El Jaleo is an Andalusian dance of courtship, which builds slowly and moves to a climax; the audience encourages the dancer by clapping or singing. The name of the dance is related to a word which means to pull, and Sargent’s painting reveals the pull that is at the heart of the dance, like the pull of the ocean or the pull of the moon.

Sargent painted El Jaleo a few years before he met Isabella Stewart GardnerHenry James introduced them to each other in London in 1886 — but she instantly recognized the painting as an emblem of her own superb vitality. Isabella had to wait more than 30 years to bring the painting into her home; but in the meantime, she and Sargent became great friends and corresponded extensively, often writing to each other about their mutual love of Spain. (The museum’s archives includes almost 200 letters from Sargent.)

When El Jaleo finally came to her in 1914, as a gift from one of her husband’s cousins, Isabella redesigned her museum around it, tearing up her music room to build the Spanish Cloister, where it now hangs, enshrined within a Gothic arch and surrounded by mirrors and a vast golden frame. The Spanish Cloister looks like a chapel, but what’s being worshipped here is the passion of art.

“You arrive at that painting the way you arrive at the museum — you enter this dark space, and it’s like going into a cave or a nightclub, and then there’s the perfume of the flowers and the gorgeous pink light, and it’s all so voluptuous, with the sexiest flowers in the world and the pictures that were at the time the sexiest pictures in the world,” commented Trevor Fairbrother, the Boston MFA’s Curator of Contemporary Art who is also a Sargent scholar.

“It’s about dance and music and physical abandon. And for someone like Sargent, who came from a fairly uptight, Anglo-American perspective, it’s about the coming together of different kinds of passion — his love of music and sensual spectacle, which has taken him to Spain, to its true source, to the edge where it’s most abandoned and most pure and most magnificent.”

“Sargent was absolutely the realist. That place and those gaslights and those garish hot orange colors are of-the-moment. They’re 19th century colors. There’s a streak of almost bad taste in Sargent, which I enjoy. He was out to make his mark with this incredible gusto — but then the grandeur comes through, and finally there’s this incredibly grand moment of this absolutely splendid woman, the absolute center of attention, at the center of her dance, and everyone is there for her — the spotlights and the musicians — and everyone is pulling together for this moment.”

El Jaleo is the first painting you see when you enter the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and it remains an emblem for Isabella’s great creation. Because the Gardner Museum isn’t just a collection of things to look at — it’s an environment to experience, an unbelievably rich and evocative assemblage of works of art and objects, chosen and installed with an artist’s eye. Isabella Stewart Gardner was an artist and her museum is a work of art — one of the greatest works of installation art of all time. That’s why the things she chose and put in place must stay where they are, and not be scattered or re-arranged — any more than you can rearrange the elements of a great painting by Picasso or Chardin.

To celebrate its restoration, El Jaleo will travel to the National Gallery in 1992, together with other Sargent paintings and drawings for an exhibition called John Singer Sargent’s El Jaleo. But when the painting comes home, I hope it stays here, at the heart of the Gardner Museum. Because if you really look — if you really allow yourself to experience it — the picture and the place and the music and the flowers all come together and you, too, can feel the pull and the passion of art. And then, as William Butler Yeats wrote in Among School Children,

“O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,

How can we know the dancer from the dance?”

by Rebecca Nemser for

Elizabeth Vigee-Lebrun

July 19th, 1991 by Rebecca Nemser


The Boston Phoenix, July 19, 1991.

I have in my studio a poster of a self-portrait of the French 18th century painter Elizabeth Vigee-Lebrun tenderly embracing her little daughter. As far as I know, it’s the only pre-modern portrait of an artist with her own child. Like me, Vigee-Lebrun was a working Mom; she wove together many different lives. That self-portrait is in Paris, at the Louvre Museum, but right here in Boston is another wonderful painting by Vigee-Lebrun: “Portrait of a Young Woman”, in the permanent collection of the Museum of Fine Arts.

Elizabeth Vigee-Lebrun

In 1797, most respectable European women were still powdering their hair and skin and wearing corsets to mold their bodies into impossible, ideal shapes. But Vigee-Lebrun painted this lovely young woman walking outdoors, with her long, curly brown hair fluttering gently in the wind. She looks soft and dreamy, natural and alive.

Madame Vigee-Lebrun (1755-1842) revolutionized the portrait. She despised the powder and stiff clothes that women wore; she let their hair down, draped them in soft, flowing shawls and painted them au naturel, walking in nature or embracing their children. She was not especially interested in psychology; what she cared about “sensibilite” — the feeling heart. Influenced by Romantic poets and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, her paintings helped to create a new look, a new style, a new attitude to life in pre-revolutionary Paris.

At a time when there were very few independent women and even fewer women artists, Vigee-Lebrun became a successful portrait painter while she was still in her twenties. She learned to paint from her father, a minor artist who recognized her extraordinary talent. She was married, very young, to Charles Lebrun, an art dealer much older than she. It was not a happy marriage, but it provided her with an entree into the Paris art world, and her painting greatly improved when she had the opportunity to study the old master paintings that her husband bought and sold. In time, she became favorite painter of Marie-Antoinette; she painted the queen en famille, affectionate and relaxed. With Marie-Antoinette’s help, Vigee-Lebrun became one of the first women members of the Royal Academy of Painting. (At one Academy exhibition, the artist Jacques-Louis David paid her what he considered the supreme compliment: he told her that one visitor had mistaken one of her portraits for the work of his hand.)

Vigee-Lebrun was vivacious and gregarious; her salon was one of the most delightful gathering-places in Paris; her “souper a la grecque” was a memorable evening, with all the guests dressed in togas, eating figs and honey. When the French Revolution broke out, she packed her paintbrushes and her daughter into a carriage, and fled to Italy, then England, and finally Russia, where she painted hundreds of portraits — and made a small fortune. When she returned to Paris after the Revolution, the queen and most of her friends were dead. Her beloved only daughter died young. During the Terror, her husband divorced her to save their small property; when she came back, he insisted that the divorce was a formality, but she kept her freedom. At the end of her long, eventful life, Vigee-Lebrun consoled herself by writing her memoirs and teaching her nieces to paint.

She believed that she possessed “an inborn passion for the art.”

She wrote,

“Nor has that passion ever diminished; it seems to me that it has even gone on growing with time, for today I feel under the spell of it as much as ever, and shall, I hope, until the hour of death. It is, indeed, to this divine passion that I owe, not only my fortune, but my felicity.”

Whenever I visit Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, I always find and admire Elizabeth Vigee-Lebrun’s “Portrait of a Young Woman“. There’s a lot of air in this painting — a lot of life — a lot of light.

by Rebecca Nemser for

Dream Lovers

July 12th, 1991 by Rebecca Nemser


At the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, RI.

The Boston Phoenix, July 12, 1991.

When Berthe Morisot met Édouard Manet at the Louvre in 1867, he was 36 years old and married; she was ten years younger and still living with her parents at home. She was lively, intelligent, charming, talented, soon to be the first woman artist to exhibit with the Impressionists. He was brilliant, difficult, fickle, famous as the author of Olympia and Dejeuner sur l’Herbe, almost ugly, absolutely fascinating. As Emil Zola said, “He departed for the unknown every time he placed his white canvas on the easel.” She had long admired him from a distance; he immediately wanted to paint her portrait.

Manet’s 1870 painting Le Repos, permanently on view at the delightful little Museum of the Rhode Island School of Design, shows Morisot reclining on a couch, dressed in white. Elegant, exotic, and independent, Morisot always wore black or white, and soft slippers; she hated the black lace-up boots that other women wore. Above her head is a Japanese woodblock print of blue and turquoise waves that look like sea nymphs dancing in the sea — or her own restless, lyrical dreams. In Le Repos, Morisot seems almost asleep. She looks sad and dreamy; her eyes are dark and deep. Her eyes are the emotional center of the painting; everything seems spirals around the dark immensity of her gaze.

Manet signed his name to Le Repos not in the traditional lower right-hand corner but inside the Japanese print that floats above Morisot’s head like an emblem of her inner life. Although he is not in the painting, you can feel his presence in the room. She sees him, and he sees her, and their seeing each other — really seeing each other — is what makes this painting so great.

In 1872 Manet painted Morisot again, in a suite of four paintings, all in Paris, which show her wearing a veil, covering her face with a fan, standing, and finally in close-up, wearing a bunch of purple violets at her breast. In Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets, she is transformed. Now she is fully awake, fully alive; now there is passion — wisdom — freedom — love in her dark glittering eyes. He also painted a gift for her: a still life with violets, her fan, and a scrap of paper which reads A Mlle. Berthe — E. Manet.

Manet moved on to other subjects, and other dark-haired, dark-eyed beauties, but he painted Morisot one more time, in 1874, just before she married his brother Eugene Manet, who had been courting her for several years. In those last paintings, also in Paris, she is dressed in black, in mourning for her father; her hair is disshevelled; her eyes are wild; and she looks tragic and luminous behind her veil.

Manet and Morisot were friends from the day they met until the day he died in the Spring of 1883. Were they ever lovers? No one knows. Some art historians dismiss the question. “Convention, of course, kept them apart,” writes Anne Higonnet in her rather unimaginative recent biography Berthe Morisot. But others speculate that the little painting of violets was a lover’s gift — a memento of some blissful Paris afternoon.

When Manet died at 51, Morisot wrote to her sister, “These last days were very painful; poor Edouard suffered atrociously. His agony was horrible…If you add to these almost physical emotions my old bonds of friendship with Edouard, an entire past of youth and work suddenly ending, you will understand that I am crushed…I shall never forget the days of my friendship and intimacy with him, when I sat for him and when the charm of his mind kept me alert during those long hours.”

Were they lovers — or was it just a dream? Looking at Le Repos, you can feel the profound and passionate connection between the two artists. Here, at least, there is no life to constrain them — no death to part them. Here, at last, there is nothing and everything between Manet and Morisot.

Only paint.

by Rebecca Nemser for

Fragments of Antiquity

June 21st, 1991 by Rebecca Nemser

“THE COROPLAST’S ART: GREEK TERRACOTTAS OF THE HELLENISTIC WORLD.” Curated by Jaimee P. Uhlenbrock. At the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Harvard University, July, 1991.

(Originally published in The Boston Phoenix, June 21, 1991.)

“The Moon rose full, and the maidens, taking their stand around the altar…”

As I walked through this lovely show of small terracotta figurines from ancient Greece, I kept thinking about those lines from Sappho–the last remaining fragments of a lyric poem that, whole, must have been almost too beautiful for words. All that we know of Greece has come to us in ruins–armless, headless, faded, fallen, broken, battered, lost in translation. What we have are fragments, fragments that have lost almost everything–except their poetry. But, generation after generation, that poetry has never lost its thrilling, visionary gleam.

The Coroplast’s Art, now at Harvard’s Sackler Museum, is a show of 50 small works in clay from the Hellenistic world–late fourth to the first century B.C. During that time, thousands of these small figures were made, cast in molds by artists known as coroplasts–modellers in clay. The figurines were modelled in terracotta, a low‑fire clay, then bathed in white chalk and gypsum, painted, and baked to hardness in a kiln. After firing, they were decorated with color: black, rose, red and yellow ochre, Egyptian blue, and gold–pigments that have long since disappeared. Now, the figurines are once again the color of the clay–a pale but still somehow luminous pinkish muddy brown.

There are figurines of dancers, wrestlers, satyrs, dwarves, winged victories, Eros, Aphrodite, Nike, Pan. But most of the figures are standing women, draped in long flowing gowns. I was especially fascinated by four of these little women, who seemed to me to represent an archetypal human journey of tranformation and growth.

A Standing Draped Girl, ca. 300 B.C., found in Athens, looks sad, pensive, and withdrawn. She looks down, with downcast eyes, and clutches at her gown, so it’s pulled tight around her. Completely draped by heavy fold of cloth, she seems enclosed, confined. There’s just the slightest suggestion of a woman’s form within–like a moon behind the clouds.

By contrast, Standing Woman with a Fan, also ca. 300 B.C., looks up. Like the girl, she is draped. But now the contours of the cloth reveal a living, breathing body beneath the veil. She holds one hand behind her back, and in her other hand she holds a circle–a fan, or perhaps a mirror. Her gaze is inward and serene, and she clearly possesses what  William Wordsworth called

“that inward eye,
Which is the bliss of solitude.”

Next, a Standing Draped Woman from Myrina in the later 3rd century B.C. She looks out. Her body is completely draped, but her gaze is directed out, into the world. She stands up straight and strong, with one arm raised, as if about to speak. Finally, a Flying Nike from 180 B.C., also from Myrina. She once had arms and wings; they are long since broken and lost. But she has not lost her air of supreme self‑possession, and the smile of Venus still plays about her face. Like her sisters, Nike is draped, but the drapery which flows over her strong, rounded body reveals more than it conceals. You can see her breasts, her belly, her hips, her legs. One leg presses forward ‑‑ a small, sure step into the real world. She is completely, radiantly, alive.

All of these small figurines were humble, everday works of ritual art, mass‑produced from humble clay, made to be used as offerings to the gods and goddesses of fertility and the underworld; many of them were discovered in graves, buried, like memories, underground.

The coroplast’s art was a minor art, and these are very minor works of art; the great artists worked in marble. But The Coroplast’s Art is a rich, evocative show, because these tiny fragments of ancient Greece were once part of something glorious. And if you look closely, you can almost see it ‑‑ radiant, alive ‑‑ the way you can almost hear the ocean when you hold a seashell close up to your ear.

by Rebecca Nemser for

Rosemarie Trockel

May 25th, 1991 by Rebecca Nemser

At the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston.

(Originally published in The Boston Phoenix, May 1991.)

Rosemarie Trockel practices an art of semblance and resemblance, analysis and disillusion. She doesn’t have a style; she has an attitude — a jaded palette; a sophisticated shrug; an ironic smile. She casts a cold eye upon traditional notions of beauty, expression, and meaning in art and coolly dissects the conventions of painting.

A large beige rectangle with the words Cogito, ergo sum hangs on one wall of the Institute of Contemporary Art. The rectangle resembles a painting in shape and scale, and the words of Descartes‘ dictum — I think, therefore I am — resemble handwriting. But Trockel’s Cogito, Ergo Sum was actually knitted by a machine following a computer-generated design. It’s an ironic commentary about painting, and women’s work, and what it means to live and think and be in an age of mechanical reproduction. And it’s a good introduction to the first American exhibition of the German Feminist Conceptualist artist.

Trockel was born in 1952 and lives in Cologne; she studied at the Werkkunstschule in Koln. She was in Boston to supervise the show’s installation, but did not wish to be interviewed. (It’s no longer fashionable to be an art star; the trend now is to declare that you don’t want to be an art star.) But the two curators of the show — Sidra Stich of the University Art Museum, Berkeley, California, and the ICA’s Elizabeth Sussman — conducted a dazzling discourse about the artist’ work at the press preview this week.

“She is constantly questioning all categories and categorizations — constantly raising questions about male and female roles and zones, and about what constitutes a work of art — bringing up gender issues and art issues and raising new issues and turning them upside down and turning them inside out and then leaving them out there in a state of ambivalence, irony, or absurdity,” says Sidra Stich.

“What does women’s work consist of? What is thinking? What’s inside of us? The objects that you see here are ruminations on those questions — hermetic, mysterious ruminations,” says Elizabeth Sussman.

Painting Machine is steel printing press with 56 paintbrushes; each brush is made from a lock of hair of a different living artist — donated by Arnulf Rainer, Annette Lemieux, Sophie Calle. Sigmar Polke, Cindy Sherman, and others. Near the machine are four mechanically made “paintings” — black brushstrokes floating down a long, thin piece of white paper.

“This is a machine to pull apart the conventions of what makes a work of art,” says Stich. “The hand — the craft — the thinking. There’s the individualized, personalized paintbrushes made from the hair of different artists — but then that’s overturned by the machine which makes the work of art. It’s about difference moving into anonymity. Male/female. Animal/human. Modern/the past. You can’t tell the difference. Yet at the same time, they’re like the very primal marks that humans make — the gesture of an imprint — the signs of `I am here.’ And at the same time, they look like Japanese brushstrokes or Jackson Pollock drips. And it’s all coming out of a process which is so antithetical to making a work of art! It’s about creating a sense of order and disorder — both at once — neither one nor the other — a sense of flux, of change, of many different possibilities.”

Certain images and material recur in Trockel’s work — animals, eggs, wood, wool, hair, fur — natural things made unnatural. Creatures of Habit is an installation with three animals cast in bronze from dead animals found in a pet mortuary in Cologne, and a series of framed images that look like small, delicately painted works on paper, which are really xeroxes of drawings based on photographs of found objects.

“All these images are obliterated, defaced, lost,” says Sussman. “It’s about those marginal, mundane experiences that are for some reason significant to her. There are certain things about her work that are mysterious. They remain mysterious. And she treasures that mysteriousness.”

A series of machine-knitted balaclavas — caps invented by Baltic fishermen, adopted by skiers, and adapted by terrorists to hide their faces — are patterned with abstract designs based on swastikas, hammers and sickles, Playboy bunnies, Op art, and plus-and-minus signs.

“Rosemarie’s clothing works raise issues central to her kind of creativity,” says Stith. “It raises issues of gender and the aestheticizing of the body — covering and revealing, uncovering or hiding. And it’s a deflation of the symbols, so all of those things become equalized in the most absurd way. It’s about signs and the way we communicate in this society. There’s a mixing together of the art zone, the political zone, the commmercial zone, all mixing and merging — opposites coming together, interchanging, something plus something else, both at once — some kind of joining of opposing forces so they are no longer in oppsition. Devalue, revalue, transvalue — that’s how Rosemarie uses images. She takes them out of one zone and puts them into another zone. She takes art out of its cage.”

During installation, Trockel asked the ICA to remove a wall that for many years has been hiding four graceful high-arched windows. Now the upstairs galleries look out onto Boylston Street, and are bathed in soft, natural light.

“There’s an endlessness to Rosemarie’s work,” says Stich. “A sense of things not ending but changing and moving. The notion of resolution is foreign to her. Her work is in a state of non-resolution. It’s anti-doctrinaire. Bringing up the issue and getting at the underpinning.  Turning it upside down and turning it inside out. Taking it apart and putting it together so you see its absurdity.”

“Everything is extremely well thought-through,” says Sussman. “She has a preference for almost a lack of color — browns and greys and bronze — and she works brilliantly in a palette of non-color. Transparency is also an issue — which is probably why she opened these windows. There’s a transparent, fragile quality to her work, even when it’s heavily laden with ideas.”

by Rebecca Nemser for

12th Annual Boston Drawing Show

April 13th, 1991 by Rebecca Nemser

At the Boston Center for the Arts

(Originally published in The Boston Phoenix, Summer, 1991)

“If you want rivers and mountains, go to Nature. If you want marks on paper, come to me.”
– Tao-chi,  17th century Chinese artist

Up close, three drawings by Michael Mazur are a wild, sensual dance of charcoal lines across a great white sheet of paper. Water, wind, and light are all dissolved into a passionate explosion of marks. But from a distance, all those lines resolve themselves into images that are memorable and deep. In Copper Beech, the great trunk of a tree, solid like a man’s torso, reaches its many strong limbs up to the sky.

The 12th Annual Boston Drawing Show, juried by Clifford Ackley, the Museum of Fine Arts‘ Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs, is very much a show about marks on paper. It’s a show that celebrates the physicality of drawing — all those lovely lines and scrawls and smudges and jabs and touches of pencil, charcoal, crayon, ink. And it’s a show that values drawing as an authentic imprint of the artist’s personality — as an expression of hand and mind and soul.

All the drawings here reveal the artist’s hand, and many of them evoke a human presence. John Wilson‘s powerful portrait drawings reach deep into the inner life of the people he portrays. Candace Walters‘ small collages look like Tarot cards, rich with mystical significances. Meryl Brater‘s artist’s book Blue is a dozen sheets of handmade paper, spread out like a fan. On each page is a drawing of a rectangle, or perhaps a stage, traversed by small, lyrical dark cut-out in indigo blue. The dark blue shapes look like a dancer, dancing across the pages of the open book — bending, turning, arching, leaping.

Chuck Holtzman‘s geometrical constructions look haunted by the ghostly presence of past possibilities, floating in a pale grey mist of erasures and empty lines. Cherryl Warrick‘s dark, intense smudges of charcoal move across the paper like a musical composition, with passages of silence and vibratos of sound. Charles Kanwischer’s virtuoso Picture Window shows a window looking out at winter trees and a black lake. Every square inch of the huge piece of paper is covered with ink, except a few tiny flashes of white paper showing through, which read as light gleaming on the water and stars glistening the night sky.

Three drawings by Gerry Bergstein are brilliant metaphors for transformation — drawings into paintings, death into life, life into art. Each drawing shows pieces of paper covered with scribbles, scrawls, crossings-out, angry re-workings, markings of struggle and doubt. On each one, a wonderful small passage of painted leaves, flowers and fruit emerges from the chaos of marks on paper; but these luminous little still lives are already marked by the process of decay.

Gerry Bergstein‘s drawings remind me of the ending of Gabriel Garcia Marquez‘s One Hundred Years of Solitude, when Aureliano finally understands the book which tells the story of his life; but even as he reads, a warm wind blows and the paper begins to crumble away.

“He began to decipher the instant he was living, deciphering it as he lived it, prophesying himself in the act of deciphering the last page of the parchments, as if he were looking into a speaking mirror.”

Bergstein’s drawings, like Marquez’s magical book, are  visions of a world in flux, where everything is constantly changing, growing, living, dying, and being reborn. In the end, everything returns to the compost heap of the imagination — back to the drawing board.

by Rebecca Nemser for

Photography at the Boston Athenaeum

March 28th, 1991 by Rebecca Nemser

(Originally published in The Boston Phoenix, March, 1991)

“Photographs are perhaps the most mysterious of all the objects that make up, and thicken, the environment we recognize as modern.”

Susan Sontag, On Photography

“History writing is ever tied to the fragment. The known facts are often scattered broadcast, like stars across the firmament. It should not be assumed that they form a coherent body in the historical night.”
Siegfried Giedion, Mechanization Takes Command.

The photographers in this small group show at The Boston Athenaeum all use the camera to explore different systems of knowledge: scientific, historical, aesthetic, mystical. That’s approprriate, because the Athenaeum — a Library with gracious high-ceilinged rooms adorned with columns and all kinds of Graeco-Roman architectural details, and filled with books and pictures — was built by 19th century Bostonians as a modern temple to Athena, Goddess of Wisdom.

Rosamond Wolff Purcell took pictures in natural history museums and anatomical collections in Leiden, Leniningrad, Cambridge, England and Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Some of these photographs will appear in Finders Keepers, a study of collectors of natural history specimens, which will be published next Fall, with a text by scientist and writer Stephen Jay Gould.

In Leningrad, in the Kunstkammer Cabinet of Curiosities of Peter the Great, Purcell photographed the head of a 17th century girl, perfectly preserved in a glass jar by an apothecary named Ruysch, with cinnabar, wax, and dye. Purcell says,

“I had never seen the face of someone who lived in the 17th century except in a painting. Until now.”

Olivia Parker uses the camera like a magician, reaching out to ancient spirit worlds with state-of-the-art photographic techniques. She creates strange mystical arrangments of objects, light, and shadows that exist only in the photograph and in the imagination.

In Parker’s Sea Bowl, glistening black seals thrash and swim in a circle of bright turquoise water, around a central spiralling shell. Forever moving and forever still, this contemporary image is as luminous and hypnotic as a mandala or a stained glass window, celebrating the mystery of life on earth.

by Rebecca Nemser for


March 14th, 1991 by Rebecca Nemser

The Conversation

Guercino, Master Drafstman: Works from North American Collection At the Sackler Museum, Harvard University. (Originally published in The Boston Phoenix, March 1991)

Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, called Guercino (1591 – 1666), tried out several versions of Esther before Ahasuerus before settling on the one he painted in 1639 for the Bishop of Ferrara. One shows a voluptuous Esther fainting from emotion.

Another shows the king holding her hand to his heart. This is the moment when something about her touches him ‑‑ the moment when she moves him ‑‑ the moment when he is moved, changed, touched by her faith. It’s an intensely spiritual moment ‑‑ and also an intensely human one. And it’s pure Guercino.

Most of the drawings in “Guercino: Master Draftsman are compositional studies for religious paintings, but they feel fresh and immediate, because Guercino was an artist who thought with his pen and brush. In his drawings, he was working out not just the composition but the psychological moment ‑‑ not just the form, but the feeling. He re‑imaginined the traditional themes of Italian religious art and made them real. He was interested in what David Stone, who organized the exhibit, calls “the conversation.”

Saint Joseph and the Christ Child was a standard theme of Italian religious painting for centuries. But the scene was never portrayed as naturally and as gracefully as it is in a pair of In The Infant Christ Holding a Bird, and Saint Joseph, a baby is toddling after a bird, and an old man is holding out his strong, sheltering hands to catch him if he falls, and gazing at the child with a look of absolute love and total commitment.

In Saint Joseph and the Christ Child with a Vase of Lilies, an old man holds a sweet plump baby on his lap, steadying him with one sure, strong hand as the child reaches for the flower, inspiring an almost blissful feeling of tenderness and trust.

The title “Guercino: Master Draftsman” really doesn’t do justice to this lovely little show; “draftsman” seems too cold and dry a name for so warm and generous a man. Guercino drew like an angel—his gorgeous line curls and trills across the page; his brush forms shadows that suggest a sense of the roundness and fullness of life.

Guercino’s best drawings are more than drawings—they are blessings, exquisite expressions of those moments when human love becomes the love of God, and Art and Faith are one.

by Rebecca Nemser for

The Future of Art

March 1st, 1991 by Rebecca Nemser

Where All Ladders Start

(Originally published in a special issue of The Radcliffe Quarterly, “The Future of Art,” March, 1991.)

When I was growing up my father worked in the space program at NASA, and I always used to think that the future would take place on Venus or on Mars. I believed that, in the future, life would be more streamlined and less cluttered, more rational and less confusing, and I was sure that, in the future, ordinary human experiences and emotions would feel much less important than they felt to a scared and lonely girl who entered Radcliffe as a freshman in 1967.

Trends in art seemed to confirm my predictions. It was the era of Op and Pop. At the Fogg Art Museum, I learned that geometry and abstraction would be the art language of the future, and that formalist analysis and historical context were the true subjects of art, not the ordinary stuff of human life.

Elizabeth Vigee-Lebrun

But it was the ordinary stuff of human life that fascinated me, as I found it in the classrooms and cafes, in dining halls and demonstrations, and in endless late-night conversations. And as I found it in museums. Looking at pictures at the Fogg, the Museum of Fine Arts, and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, I saw my own feelings reflected in the faces of men and women who lived long ago and far away.

I recognized the thrill of anticipation in Rembrandt’s youthful self-portrait; the boredom and dull despair of Jean-Francois Millet’s spinning girl; the terror of Titian’s “Europa”; the cool self possession of Francois Boucher’s “Madame de Pompadour”; the romantic affinity with nature of Elizabeth Vigee-Lebrun’s portrait of a girl with windblown hair; the unexpressed emotion in Mary Cassatt’s ladies drinking tea; the seductive gaze of a voluptuous Ingres odalisque; the physical energy of Jackson Pollock; the spiritual anguish of Van Gogh.

Those pictures were my best companions, my best teachers. They were “mon semblable, mon frère” (and often, ma soeur). I learned from them that art is not mysterious and distant, but very real, and very much about those ordinary human experiences and emotions that I thought we wouldn’t care about, in the future, when we all would live on Venus or on Mars.

Looking at pictures eventually led to writing about art. I have written stories about everything from Chinese bonzes to Cindy Sherman, Persian miniatures to site-specific installations, Monet to Mapplethorpe. Preparing for each story, I read and ask questions, talk to artists, curators, and art historians, and learn as much as I can in the time allowed. But most of all, I really look. Armed with knowledge, like Athena with her shield, I open my eyes and my heart to the work of art. I listen to what it has to say. I feel what it makes me feel.

The story that emerges is part historical context and part formalist analysis, but mostly my own subjective response: my emotional, intuitive, sensual response to the work of art. Great art is called immortal because it continues to live in the present experience of generation after generation. Hundreds of years later, thousands of years later, it still speaks to us. It still thrills us. It still makes us cry.

In the past, people’s lives were very different from ours, and what they believed was different, but their hearts were very much the same. That’s why great art can move us, across vast differences of culture and vast differences of time and space. And that’s why, in the future, people will make images, tell stories, sing songs, about their feelings and their lives.

Art always has and always will express the mysteries of the human heart: our dreams, our desires, our yearning and sorrow, grief and joy, our thoughts too deep for tears. Whatever form it takes, art endures because it makes a deep connection to those ordinary human emotions and experiences that I once thought wouldn’t matter, in the future, on Venus or on Mars. Life, real life, is the stuff that dreams are made on. The art that will matter in the future is the art that matters now.

Three artists who have been very important to me in life and in art are Flora Natapoff BI ’71-’72, Rosamond Wolff Purcell BI ’87-’88, and Jesseca Ferguson ’71. Each artist’s work looks different from the others, but it shares certain qualities that I believe will be present in the art of the future.

It is art that acknowledges the struggle of its own making, and conveys a sense of life as composed of fragments, where not everything is legible, and some things are irrevocably ruined or lost. Beauty and terror, thinking and feeling, flashes of light and passages of utter darkness, the ordinary stuff of ordinary life, and the most sublime and terrible imaginings all coexist on the same picture plane. The past haunts and enriches the present. Memory and imagination are intertwined. It is a mirror of the soul.

In the last year I’ve been writing stories based on Greek myths: Medea, Phaedra, Ariadne, Eurydice, Circe. I’ve read many books and looked at classical art, but I know that the deeper source of all the stories I am writing now, and all the stories I will write in the future, is my own life, all those ordinary human emotions and experiences that I used to think we wouldn’t feel so much, on Venus or on Mars.

The future lives in the imagination of the present. We are the future. It’s happening now, close to home, close to the bone. As William Butler Yeats‘ wrote,

“where all ladders start,
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.”

I can’t predict how the art of the future will look, but I do know that whatever shape it takes, the art of the future, like the art of the past, will be about all those thrilling, tragic, terrifying, heartbreaking; breathtaking; devastating; illuminating, life-transforming human experiences and emotions that men and women live and feel, every day, right here on planet Earth.

by Rebecca Nemser for

When We Dead Awaken

February 21st, 1991 by Rebecca Nemser

By Henrik Ibsen

Directed by Robert Wilson, at the American Repertory Theater, Winter 1991.

(Originally published in The Boston Phoenix, February 1991)

The main character in When We Dead Awaken is a sculptor, and Robert Wilson‘s version of Henrik Ibsen‘s 1900 play is haunted by the image of a stone — the unformed material of the sculptor’s art. It’s the mountain that looms over the stage in the first and last act; it’s the egg-shaped rock at the center of the second act; it’s Irene, dressed in white, motionless and cool as a marble statue; it’s the gray slab of a tomb.

The play begins with a yellow chair, bathed in a yellow light. The curtain is a sheet of white paper, scrawled with crayon with the words WHEN WE DEAD AWAKEN.  Charles “Honi” Coles (1911 – 1992) sings. “She came along. Now everything is wrong.” Then the lights go out and the curtain rises. You see a great black cliff plunging down to the sea, and you hear the sound of the ocean crashing up upon a rocky shore. A man and a woman sit in stony silence in two high-back chairs.

They quarrel. Then the two Irenes enter — one dressed in black, one dressed in white. They move silently behind the grid of a metal cage, turning around and around like ideas trying to become images, like shapes trapped in the stone. The dark Irene is Sheryl Sutton, who has been walking out of Wilson’s nightmares and onto his stage for 20 years as Byrdwoman, Medea, and now Irene. She is exquisitely still — like a statue, like the mountain. Seducer and destroyer, she stalks the other Irene like a shadow, and her dark, brooding presence dominates the stage whenever she appears.

You see images, and you hear sounds, but they feel disconnected, out of joint. The actors wear microphones that project their voices to different parts of the theater, so words from the play seem to lift off from the stage and hover, in the air:

“I’m the one who’s changed.”

“No one got off and no one got on.”

“I’ve seen as much as I want.”

“There’s something mysterious lurking just beneath the surface of the stone.”

In the second act, a neon blue river of light crosses the stage on a diagonal. The black mountain looms beyond, pierced by a stark white waterfall. The sculptor sits brooding on a rocky throne; an egg-shaped stone is pierced with a spear.

Maia poses with the spear, echoing the shape of the stone. Then the two Irenes enter, and lie on the ground, like stones. “You have killed my soul,” cry the Irenes. “I am an artist!” cries the sculptor, Arnold Rubek. One Irene sits on the rock, like a statue. “I was a human being too.”

The third act begins with Coles sitting on the edge of a lead-grey bed-shaped tomb. Sadly, he sings, “Love is the cause of it all. It picks you up and then lets you fall,” while Sutton stands with her back to the audience, wearing a dressing gown and smoking a cigarette. Her shadow dances on the curtain. This was the most dramatic — the most human — moment in the play.

In the final scene, the mountain is shrouded in snow — the great rock is covered with white sheets, like a block of marble or a grave.

Now, Sutton is the substance and the other Irene is the shade. The sculptor speaks to the shadow. “You are the woman I will always dream of.” A curtain of mist floats down; sparks fly. Rubek and the two Irenes raise their arms, then sink to the ground. The curtain falls.

Robert Wilson’s Ibsen, like Robert Wilson’s Vision — the retrospective of his artwork, now at the Museum of Fine Arts — is a cry of anguish. When he expresses his tragic, lonely vision in drawings or sculpture, it’s terrifyingly beautiful. But when he imposes it on other people, it’s horrifying — it’s ugly.

In Wilson’s When We Dead Awaken, the chairs have more life in them than the people.  Sutton is the eternal Byrdwoman, and Coles is superbly himself, but all the other actors seem visibly uncomfortable in their roles. You can feel their anxiety in the dissonant sounds, the awkward gestures, the displaced voices, the shrill cries. You can feel the relentless control that Wilson exerts. His direction has crushed all the life out of Ibsen’s characters. He has squeezed the soul out of them. As Irene says of Rubek, he has turned them into objects — he has turned them into stones.

by Rebecca Nemser for

The Sound Artist: Hans Peter Kuhn

February 18th, 1991 by Rebecca Nemser

(Originally published in The Boston Phoenix)  1991

The room is dark and narrow. Tree bark covers the walls. The wind howls. I hear whispering voices, and strange, mysterious sounds — clicking and dripping and scraping and flowing — and all kinds of birds, singing and calling in the dark night air. Everywhere I stand it sounds different.

I’m in The Forest — the entrance or prologue to Robert Wilson’s Vision, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, organized by curator Trevor Fairbrother. It’s an eerie, magical landscape, and part of what makes it so magical is Hans Peter Kuhn‘s sound.

Hans Peter Kuhn, a German sound artist who has worked with Robert Wilson on more than 20 productions, created a 30-speaker sound environment for Robert Wilson’s Vision — a collage of passages of sound from Wilson’s plays and operas, brilliantly spliced and recombined to echo the different moods of each room in the exhibition. Kuhn’s “Score for Robert Wilson’s Vision,” on compact disc, comes with the hardcover version of the catalogue. Kuhn also created the sound environment for Ibsen’s When We Dead Awaken, in the winter of  1991, at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge.

Rebecca Nemser: How do you make all those amazing sounds?

Hans Peter Kuhn: I have a file of sounds, a library of sounds. I start with something I have, and check it out, then I process something which is in that mood. I collect sounds, and then I manipulate them to make them more un-real or sur-real. I have all kinds of sounds — slide projector sounds, natural sounds, like wind. I’m always trying things out. I hear something and I can pick it up and react in minutes. I’m interested in everything that makes a noise. All my sounds are all of natural origin, but then I use electronics to alter them. Computers and samplers and filters and mixers. Sure, I use high tech. If you have a piano, you do it on the piano. If you have a brush — you do it with the brush. It’s so much easier to

R: What’s it like to work with Robert Wilson?

HPK: I’ve worked with Wilson since 1978. I was on the staff of a small theater in Berlin when Death, Destruction and Detroit was being staged, and after working with Bob I couldn’t go back to the old theater. I quit my job and went freelance to work with him. He has a different style of theater to anybody else. Everything about it is different — not just the process of fabricating and engineering it.

R: How is it different?

HPK: Bob gives me the chance to invent new ideas and create pieces of my own. There’s simply space for it. Germany has a great tradition in the theater. Every city has its own theater, and it’s a socially accepted art form, and very well-funded. So theater in Germany is pretty intellectual — it’s based on texts, with the actors interpreting the texts. Bob’s work is completely different from that. Music, sound and light are much more important. The actors are not the center. The text is not the center. You don’t start with the text.

R: Where do you start?

HPK: We just start. We start bringing ideas together. It’s a collaborative process. Bob’s of course the master mind, but nothing is pre-determined at the beginning. It’s a Process.

R: How do you decide which sounds to use?

HPK: It’s completely improvisational. I watch the play, and when the actors are playing, I look for sounds which fit to my associations and fit to my mood. So, for example, When We Dead Awaken is about love and all that, and there’s a spa situation. So at the beginning, I put a big surf — a big wave. But it’s not illustration — it’s not naturalistic or realistic or anything like that. It’s just a big sound — like a big spot of light, or a big splash of paint.

R: Tell me about the sound environment you designed for Robert Wilson’s Vision.

HPK: Most of it — except for the spaceship at the end —  is made from pieces from theater productions we worked on together. The same sounds that were in the play, but arranged and connected now in a completely different set-up. There are 30 speakers, all playing different sounds, so it’s a many, many layered work. You hear a different sound depending on where you are standing. But it’s not loud. It’s soft and level. I don’t want to be loud. If I wanted to be loud, I’d make rock and roll. So you have to concentrate a little to hear.

R: What about The Forest? The water, the bird sounds?

HPK: The whispered voices and the screaming birds — it’s not really birds. It’s the very famous German actress Jutta Lampe — that’s from Orlando. And the water flowing and water dropping — that’s from Death, Destruction, and Detroit 2. The wind effect is from the Civil WarS. That far distant piano playing in the next room — that was the dance class for rehearsals for Civil WarS in Rome.  Then there’s a tinkling sound of cobblestones — that’s from Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian. It’s the sound they make when they hammer down the cobblstones in Berlin. It’s a very Berlin sound. Then there’s a wierd sound I can’t describe. Then there’s a harpsichord playing in six channels all around the space. Maria Callas singing Medea. Two different whistling sounds from King Lear. And finally, a short spaceship sound that moves over the space for about 20 seconds and every other kind of sound goes down. I tried to follow the mood of the room.

R: Is this music? Are you a musician?

HPK: No, it’s not music. Sound art is more open and much closer to life than music. Music is a filtered experience — I want to be more open to a range of possibilities. I’m not a composer. I don’t want the emotional view bound or directed in any one direction. I want to keep it open. It’s not like listening to music — it works under the skin. One of the reasons Wilson and I can work so well together is that we don’t want to be interpreting. We don’t want to be telling people what they are supposed to believe in advance. Everything is relative — maybe that’s the message. Just listen. Just pay a little attention. You cannot be wrong. I think that’s a great release. It makes me feel free. I’m always trying things out. I hear something and I can pick it up and react in minutes. I’m interested in everything that makes a noise.

From a Performance by Sasha Waltz and Hans Peter Kuhn, Costumes by Bernd Skodzig, at the MAXXI Rome Museo nazionale delle arti XXI secolo, November 21, 2009.

by Rebecca Nemser for