Today’s Wordless Wednesday … a 1913 sketch by Valentine Hugo describing Vaslav Nijinsky’s original choreography of the Danse sacrale (Sacrificial Dance) from Igor Stravinsky’s ballet Le Sacre du printemps.
When one thinks about the earliest woman composers in history, the name most commonly thought of is Saint Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179). There are other earlier names, including Enheduanna, one of the daughters of Sargon of Akkad, who was writing music and hymns in the twenty-third century BCE and is perhaps the first composer, male or female, that can be identified. But in terms of those whose music still exists, Hildegard is among the earliest. Along with the great beauty of her music, her reputation for learning – she wrote nine books on subjects ranging from natural history, medicine, and cosmology to music, poetry, and theology – make her an important figure in the artistic and intellectual history of the Middle Ages.
But she is not the earliest female composer whose music can still be heard today. That distinction is held by Kassiani (810-865). Like Hildegard, Kassiani was an abbess at a convent. Also like Hildegard, she wrote her own poetry as well as music. Around fifty of Kassiani’s hymns have come down to us, and twenty-three are still part of the liturgy of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Kassiani, sometimes known as Kassia, was born in Constantinople into a wealthy family. She was said to be very beautiful, and supposedly had a chance to marry the young Emperor Theophilos and become the Byzantine Empress. According to chroniclers, when Theophilos suggested to Kassiani that “Through a woman came forth the baser things,” she replied, “And through a woman came forth the better things.” In any event, the marriage didn’t happen, and a few years later, she returns to documented history in 843 as the founder and abbess of a convent just outside Constantinople. Later she settled on the Greek island of Kasos, near Crete, where she died and where her tomb and reliquary can still be seen. The feast day of Saint Kassiani is celebrated by the Eastern Orthodox Church on September 7.
Probably the best-known of her compositions is the beautiful Hymn (or Troparion) of Kassiani, which is sung every Holy Wednesday. According to legend, the Emperor Theophilos, who was still in love with Kassiani, went to visit her at her convent as she was writing this hymn. He wanted to see her one more time before he died. When she realized who it was that was arriving, she hid in a closet in her cell, not wanting to reawaken old feelings on either her or his part. Theophilos came into her cell and saw the unfinished hymn on her table. As he cried over having rejected her years before, he added a line to her hymn: “those feet whose sound Eve heard at dusk in Paradise and hid herself for fear.” Then he left, and Kassiani finished the hymn. Its music is slow and sad, and is demanding for the singers who perform it. People apparently still go to services on Holy Wednesday specifically “to listen to Kassiani.”
Very few recordings have been made of her music, unfortunately, although it has been taken up by groups like the Kronos Quartet. It would seem that the only CD of Kassiani’s music is by the ensemble VocaMe on the Christophorus label. That entire album is happily available on YouTube.
Reading: Along with continuing in the novel Headlong by Michael Frayn, which I should finish in the next day or two, I read one self-help book this week, Susan J. Elliott’s Getting Past Your Breakup, which I indeed hope will prove to be self-helpful.
Viewing: My coolness toward film watching continued this week, as I only watched a couple of documentaries: InnSaei, a somewhat muddled exploration of intuition and mindfulness, and 10 Questions for the Dalai Lama. It’s never a bad idea to spend some time listening to the Dalai Lama.
Listening: It has once again been a listening week dedicated to the music I needed to write about for my program note projects. This time, it was the contents of the concluding concerts of the Reno Chamber Orchestra’s current season: Beethoven’s concert aria Ah! perfido and Antonín Dvořák’s Stabat Mater.
Blogging: My blogging goals seem to have settled into the idea of doing two extended pieces per week, along with a Wordless Wednesday and a Sunday Salon. I usually feel fairly good if I can manage that much. And this week, I succeeded, producing:
Pondering: This has been another of those weeks where pondering, thinking, anticipating, remembering, dreaming … they’ve all turned out to be more harmful than helpful. Living in the present moment, which is all we’ve got after all, without judging and evaluating and comparing seems to be a more beneficial way to go.
Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks is, for me and for many, many others, a particularly important and resonant painting. It encapsulates a mood, an aspect of life that few other paintings have addressed so well. On a personal level, at my Facebook page, you’ll see that the painting serves as my cover photo, and my profile photo is the man facing away from the viewer (I hope that isn’t too revealing of my personality, or neuroses).
Now on display at the Art Institute of Chicago, Nighthawks is a moderately large painting at 33 1⁄8 × 60 inches. Hopper finished it on January 21, 1942, after about a month and a half of work. He put it on display at Rehn’s, a gallery that often sold his works. Daniel Catton Rich, then the director of the Art Institute of Chicago, liked it, and arranged for the Art Institute to purchase it for $3,000. Nighthawks has been displayed at the Art Institute ever since.
In the notebook about Hopper’s work that he and his wife Josephine, or Jo, kept for years, Jo described the painting this way: “Night + brilliant interior of cheap restaurant. Bright items: cherry wood counter + tops of surrounding stools; light on metal tanks at rear right; brilliant streak of jade green tiles 3/4 across canvas–at base of glass of window curving at corner. Light walls, dull yellow ocre [sic] door into kitchen right … Very good looking blond boy in white (coat, cap) inside counter. Girl in red blouse, brown hair eating sandwich. Man night hawk (beak) in dark suit, steel grey hat, black band, blue shirt (clean) holding cigarette. Other figure dark sinister back–at left. Light side walk outside pale greenish. Darkish red brick houses opposite. Sign across top of restaurant, dark–Phillies 5c cigar. Picture of cigar. Outside of shop dark, green. Note: bit of bright ceiling inside shop against dark of outside street–at edge of stretch of top of window.”
Hopper said that Nighthawks was inspired by “a restaurant on New York’s Greenwich Avenue where two streets meet.” But no one has been able to track down the exact restaurant, although many have tried. One Hopper expert, Gail Levin, identified the spot as the “empty triangular lot” at Mulry Square, where Greenwich meets Eleventh Street and Seventh Avenue. During Hopper’s time and long thereafter, a gas station was located on one side of the lot there, and apparently a diner on the other side.
In Nighthawks, the diner seems to represent the only activity in the neighborhood. Based on the signage at the top of the building, we might call it the Phillies Five-Cent Cigar Diner (although I believe that Phillies is meant to be the name of the cigar, not the diner). The space the building inhabits seems a bit strange, out-of-kilter. This would seem to be a corner-side diner, but the angle is too sharp. The streets clearly aren’t at right-angles (Hopper painted this sort of space a couple of other times), and so the diner must be wedge-shaped. Hopper had a great fascination with how man-made light illuminates night scenes. Nighthawks is one of his finest examinations of this. Notice how the light from within the building spills out onto the sidewalk in multiple streams, from the several light sources within, that intersect in fascinating ways.
We view the scene within the diner through one large pane of glass, with another behind it both serving as a backdrop for three of the four people in the painting, and revealing a bit of the street scene on the other side of the building. Across the street, all the buildings seem abandoned, even uninhabited, although one can see an old-fashioned cash register in the window of one of them.
How does one enter the diner? There is a wooden door at the back, which looks more like a bathroom door than anything else. But in the front part of the diner, there is no apparent entrance – and thereby, of course, no exit. The clerk seems trapped, too – how exactly does he exit his spot behind the counter? Its triangular shape seems to surround him.
Inside of the diner, the light is bright, almost antiseptic, and impossible to hide from. Fluorescent lights were just at that time becoming commonplace, and one commentator described the lighting here as “clinical,” “intimidating, alienating, and dehumanizing.” While the light is cold, there is some warmth within the diner in the cherry wood color of the counter. Empty stools help emphasize the loneliness of the scene.
Olivia Laing, in her book The Lonely City (which I discuss here), writes generally about Hopper that “…his paintings tend to be populated by people alone, or in uneasy, uncommunicative groupings of twos and threes, fastened into poses that seem indicative of distress,” combined with a particular sense of space, “the way a feeling of separation, of being walled off or penned in, combines with a sense of near-unbearable exposure.”
At the counter we see a couple sitting next to one another. Their hands may almost be touching on the counter, but other than that, they seem very cold, almost oblivious to one another. The man stares blankly ahead, and the woman abstractedly examines her nails. Even with their seeming isolation, the postures of the couple compliment one another. It may be that the title of the painting came from the hawk nose of the man. The red-haired woman was apparently modeled by Hopper’s wife Jo.
The clerk behind the counter looks engaging enough and seems to be trying to make small talk, but doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere. On the counter, there are a couple of coffee dispensers, but, aside from salt and pepper shakers and napkins and such, no other indications of food or drink, not even a kitchen, at least from our vantage point. Perhaps all his establishment offers is coffee for its late-night denizens.
What about the most intriguing, figuratively and literally the central, figure in the painting, the man facing away from us? We have no clue as to what he’s looking at or thinking about. There’s a slight indication that he’s holding something in his right hand, but we can’t make out what it is. There is an almost existential quality to the man’s isolation. Hopper’s wife Jo described him as “dark sinister.”
Hopper biographer Gail Levin suggests that Hopper may have taken some inspiration for Nighthawks from Vincent Van Gogh’s famous Night Café, which was on exhibit in New York in early 1942, as well as Ernest Hemingway’s 1927 short story, The Killers. Those who have seen the marvelous 1946 Robert Siodmak-directed film of The Killers will remember a very Hopper-like cafe early in the movie, entered by the two hitmen who are seeking out Burt Lancaster’s “the Swede” in order to kill him. Indeed, one can’t help but connect Nighthawks with The Killers and other examples of film noir, “black film,” that distinctive style of existential urban crime drama that thrived in the 1940s and 1950s.
Nighthawks doesn’t seem to have any obvious specific narrative, although it’s suggestive enough that we might want to speculate on one. While he always hesitated to interpret his own work, Hopper did say that in Nighthawks, “unconsciously, probably, I was painting the loneliness of a large city.” The scene feels static, but at the same time tense with expectation. Why does the couple seem so aloof? Does the figure with his back to us have some kind of ill intent? Hawks in general, including nighthawks, would normally be thought of as predatory – but who, if anyone, is preying on whom here?
Recall, too, that this painting was being created right at the time of the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the entry by the United States into World War II. While the people within the diner seem exposed to the world, vulnerable in the bright light, they are also protected in the cocoon of the diner. Perhaps that’s another subconscious way in which Hopper created a feeling of alienation – all the figures seem entirely isolated from their surroundings.
By the same token, this scene could be interpreted is as a respite. Presumably the three figures have lives outside the diner, jobs and relationships and bills to pay. Perhaps they derive some comfort from the isolation of the diner, some protection from the ravages of the world outside. They don’t need to be self-conscious here, and are free to inhabit their own thoughts.
There seems to be a general consensus that loneliness is at the heart of Nighthawks, perhaps the most famous of Hopper’s paintings. Joyce Carol Oates has called it “our most poignant, ceaselessly replicated romantic image of American loneliness.” Yet, as Olivia Laing writes about Hopper’s work in The Lonely City, it is “as if looking itself was an antidote, a way to defeat loneliness’s strange, estranging spell.”
Carrying on from yesterday’s blog post on Frank Stella, today’s Wordless Wednesday is Stella’s Harran II (1967).
Frank Stella (b. 1936), Harran II, 1967. Polymer and fluorescent polymer paint on canvas. 120 × 240 in. (304.8 × 609.6 cm). Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; gift, Mr. Irving Blum, 1982 © 2015 Frank Stella/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Frank Stella’s career has been so varied and unpredictable that summarizing it in a single exhibition would be a challenge to anyone. But an excellent attempt has been made in Frank Stella: A Retrospective. Currently on exhibit at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, it is the first comprehensive exhibition of the influential artist’s work in the United States since the 1987 retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art in New York. Works in many of the media Stella has worked in are included, including painting, sculpture, photography, and printmaking.
Born in Massachusetts in 1936, Stella studied history, art history, and painting at both Phillips Academy in Andover and Princeton University. On graduating in 1958, he moved to New York, where he attracted attention with the Black series of paintings (1958-60). His first one-person show took place in 1962 at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York. The Museum of Modern Art presented his first retrospective in 1970; another followed, as mentioned above, in 1987. “It’s not merely the length of his career, it is the intensity of his work and his ability to reinvent himself as an artist over and over again over six decades that make his contribution so important,” says Adam D. Weinberg, one of the current exhibition’s co-curators.
In the Black series, the bands of black, slightly outlined by strips of blank canvas, seem completely opposed to pictorialism, as well as direct or even metaphorical meaning. Stella more or less confirms this when he calls these works “a flat surface with paint on it.” They straddle both American Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism. From around the same time is East Broadway (1958), which evokes the space of lower Manhattan, where Stella lived at the time. Along with the doorway-like space, the painting’s yellow calls to mind New York taxicabs, and the black is like that of asphalt.
There is some illusion of depth, but strictly within bands of stark color, in works like the two-part Jasper’s Dilemma (1962), which actually offers the viewer a choice between austere black and white and brilliant color. The title and color schemes refer to a statement of Jasper Johns, who once said that the more he worked in color, the more he saw gray. Stella used a simple 2.5” painters brush and inexpensive commercial house paint in works like Marrakech (1964). These works have moved into pure abstraction.
In the 1960s, Stella started exploring all sorts of irregularly shaped canvases, combining color fields offset by painted bands, creating a sense of energetic flow and rhythm he called “spring-loaded.” Despite Stella’s own protestations, paintings like those of the Irregular Polygon series (1965-6), with their slight irregularities of color within fields, create a feeling of depth and movement between dimensions.
Shapes not only become more complex and irregular, but actually start emerging from the flat canvas, in the late 1960s and 1970s. Planes of color are offset and graded, giving both depth and dynamism, a three-dimensional quality. Around this time, he starts talking about “building,” rather than “painting,” his works. During his time in the early 1980s as Charles Eliot Norton Professor in Poetry at Harvard University, Stella said that “what painting wants more than anything else is working space – space to grow with and expand into, pictorial space that is capable of direction and movement, pictorial space that encourages unlimited orientation and extension. Painting does not want to be confined by boundaries of edge and surface.”
Overwhelming size combines with a stained glass window quality in Damascus Gate (Stretch Variation III) (1970), part of the Protractor series (1967-71). In Eskimo Curlew (1976) from the Exotic Bird Series (1976-80), shapes curl and fly above a painted aluminum surface. Forms go from moderately regular to wild and dynamic, and colors from constricted fields to wild and abstract, in pieces from the Circuit series (1980-4) like Talladega (1980). Named after the super speedway in that city, the work’s shapes, made of painted sheets of metal, imitate the curves of a race track.
Stella once stated that “Painting does not want to be confined by boundaries of edge and surface.” He has wanted to explore how paintings exist in space. Shapes start emerging dramatically in sheets of cut metal, extending many feet from the wall. Some regular shapes, like circles and cones and cylinders, are still present, but have exploded, so to speak. The physical presence and materials of these works influenced many younger painters in the 1980s.
However, Stella started to feel that abstraction, reliance on the materiality of painting, was an expressive dead end. In the 1980s, inspired by a trip to the New York Aquarium, Stella read Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. This led to a monumental series of three-dimensional works, one for each of the book’s 135 chapters. Combining found, cast, and fabricated parts as well as freestanding sculpture, these works are still largely abstract but have some narrative qualities, including references to whales, waves, and the color of the sea.
From the aluminum of the Moby Dick works, Stella has explored other materials, even embracing computers and 3D printers. The ongoing Scarlatti Kirkpatrick series (2006-present) is inspired by Ralph Kirkpatrick’s famous performances of the keyboard sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti. Musical shapes and playfully swirling forms evoke the interweaving polyphonic lines of Scarlatti’s music. K. 459 (2012), for instance, is all gray and clear plastic, wild and free yet with an industrial feeling as the regular shapes seem to unfurl.
The works of the Scarlatti Kirkpatrick series are quite large, at odds in a sense with the miniature quality of Scarlatti’s sonatas, yet in sync with the dynamic, virtuoso qualities of the music. Oddly enough, more evocative of the world of Scarlatti’s music for me is Circus of Pure Feeling for Malevich, 4 Square Circus, 16 parts (2009) – sixteen metallic forms displayed on four wooden tables. Stella certainly hasn’t lost a sense of whimsy in these lovely, curious, abstract works.
Also on display in the main foyer at the de Young is Stella’s Das Erdbeben in Chili (1999), a vast, colorful explosion of activity depicting, or evoking, the 1647 earthquake that destroyed Santiago, Chile. With a title borrowed from the violent, melodramatic novella by Heinrich von Kleist, the work is a cataclysm of abstract, geometric, organic, and architectural forms.
A joint exhibition presented by the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and the Whitney Museum of American Art, Frank Stella: A Retrospective is on exhibit through February 26, 2017 at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. Read more at the de Young Museum’s website.
Reading: While I didn’t complete any books this week, I did start a new novel, Headlong by Michael Frayn, which details a plot to secure a long-lost and extremely valuable painting by Pieter Bruegel from an unknowing couple. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but the comedic tone and the amount of historical and Bruegel scholarship included in Headlong has surprised and delighted me.
Viewing: As I’ve mentioned before here, I’ve been enduring a cold spell with regards to film viewing. For some reason, the time and attention required has seemed more than I could manage. I’ve tried to counteract that by choosing to watch a film that I already knew I loved. I wanted to watch something with poetry and wonder and heart, with vivid characters and setting, something that reminded me why films are made in the first place. Pondering this for a moment, what came pretty quickly to my mind was Jean Renoir’s The River. I watched it last night, and was not disappointed. It may not get me back on track with film, but The River is certainly a beautiful work of art.
Listening: Aside from Mike Oldfield’s new album Return to Ommadawn, which I’ve been enjoying greatly, my music listening has unfortunately followed the same path as my film viewing. Fortunately, I am “forced” to listen to music for the sake of the program notes I write. But a renaissance of interest is needed here as well.
Blogging: Unlike the previous week, when I did basically nothing on the blogging front, the week just past was remarkably productive. My posts included:
* a little free fantasy on the nature of consciousness, to be as pretentious about it as possible, based on a quotation from Virginia Woolf
* a beautiful quotation from Pirandello
* an old woodcut by Moritz von Schwind, The Hunter’s Funeral, that is said to have provided inspiration for the third movement of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 (about which I recently wrote a program note)
* my impressions of the recent volume of conversations on music between Haruki Murakami and Seiji Ozawa, Absolutely on Music
On top of that, I’ve also just about completed a review of Frank Stella: A Retrospective, which I saw recently and is currently on exhibit at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. This should appear at the blog in the next day or two.
Pondering: It’s an age-old question, but how could I have been so unmotivated to write two weeks ago, and yet so remarkably productive this past week? Although I did write some in that down week, the process consistently felt like trudging through mud. This past week, everything flowed easily, and what I wrote needed little revision. Which is it going to be in the coming week?