This is the last day of February and I’ve been trying all month to come up with a suitable submission for our Literary Year-category. And I can’t! There simply isn’t any particular work of literature that reminds me of February.
There is, however, have a literary theme that reminds me of February, so I’ve decided to make that my literary contribution this month. You see, here in Denmark, as in a number of European country, we have a tradition of celebrating Shrove-tide by dressing up, and since Shrove-tide is (almost always) a February holiday, what better way to celebrate it here on the blog than by doing a post on the tradition of Tableaux Vivants in literature?
The tradition of tableaux vivants was a particular kind of social entertainment that had its prime back in the 19th century and it consisted basically of people, usually wealthy guests at a party, dressing up and posing as a painting or etching of their own choice. Piquant and lustrous, it used to be a very popular form of entertainment, but it has more or less completely died out, probably as a result of the boom of the entertainment business in the 20th century, and the birth of cinematography – especially the rise of talkies.
It is my personal theory that the silent movie genre was a more or less direct offspring from the tableau vivant. Surely the tendency towards archtypes and the highly dramatic gesturing of silent movies have more in common with the stylized, silent tableau vivant than with the much more verbal theatre which had moved on towards the realistic by the time the first silent movies where made.
However, while the tradition of tableaux vivants has gone out of style in practise, it has lived on via another aesthetic form, namely literature, and what a life it has found for itself here! Several 19th century writers have found inspiration in this meta-artistic form of entertainment used tableaux vivant as the pivotal point of crucial scenes in novels and short stories, and I’d like to quote and discuss a few of these. While doing the research for this post it struck me as interesting that all the writers I could think of who had included tableaux vivant in their works were women writers.
Behind a Mask
The first of these, and the one to make the most significant use of the motif is Louisa May Alcott. Alcott is most famous for her celebrated novel Little Women, this very modest story about four sisters’ coming of age in the time of the Civil War, however in the 1930s literature critic Madeleine B. Stern unveiled a well-hidden secret about Alcott: She had written several gothic and almost grotesque stories under the pseudonym A.M. Barnard, the most prominent of these being the lengthy short story “Behind a Mask: or A Woman’s Power”, an eerie tale about the middle-aged failed actress Jean Muir who, by way of her charms and her skills as an actress (or simply as a woman?) makes a noble household employ her as their governess in the belief that she is a quaint and virtuous 19-year-old, and three of the men in the household fall in love with her. At the centre of her scheme stands the chapter five: “How the girl did it”. I should like to quote a passage from this chapter:
“At home he [Gerald Coventry, the eldest son of the household] found a party of young friends, who hailed with delight the prospect of a revel at the Hall. An hour later, the blithe company trooped into the great saloon, where preparations had already been made for a dramatic evening. Good Sir John was in his element, for he was never so happy as when his house was full of young people. Several persons were chosen, and in a few moments the curtains were withdrawn from the first of theseimpromptu tableaux. A swarthy, darkly bearded man lay asleep on a tiger skin, in the shadow of a tent. Oriental arms and drapery surrounded him; an antique silver lamp burned dimly on a table where fruit lay heaped in costly dishes, and wine shone redly in half-emptied goblets. Bending over the sleeper was a woman robed with barbaric splendor. One hand turned back the embroidered sleeve from the arm which held a scimitar; one slender foot in a scarlet sandal was visible under the white tunic; her purple mantle swept down from snowy shoulders; fillets of gold bound her hair, and jewels shone on neck and arms. She was looking over her shoulder toward the entrance of the tent, with a steady yet stealthy look, so effective that for a moment the spectators held their breath, as if they also heard a passing footstep. “Who is it?” whispered Lucia, for the face was new to her. “Jean Muir,” answered Coventry, with an absorbed look. “Impossible! She is small and fair,” began Lucia, but a hasty “Hush, let me look!” from her cousin silenced her. Impossible as it seemed, he was right nevertheless; for Jean Muir itwas. She had darkened her skin, painted her eyebrows, disposed some wild black locks over her fair hair, and thrown such an intensity ofexpression into her eyes that they darkened and dilated till they wereas fierce as any southern eyes that ever flashed. Hatred, the deepestand bitterest, was written on her sternly beautiful face, courage glowed in her glance, power spoke in the nervous grip of the slender hand that held the weapon, and the indomitable will of the woman was expressed–even the firm pressure of the little foot half hidden in the tiger skin. “Oh, isn’t she splendid?” cried Bella under her breath. “She looks as if she’d use her sword well when the time comes,” saidsomeone admiringly. “Good night to Holofernes; his fate is certain,” added another. “He is the image of Sydney, with that beard on.” “Doesn’t she look as if she really hated him?” “Perhaps she does.” Coventry uttered the last exclamation, for the two which preceded it suggested an explanation of the marvelous change in Jean. It was not all art: the intense detestation mingled with a savage joy that the object of her hatred was in her power was too perfect to be feigned; and having the key to a part of her story, Coventry felt as if he caught a glimpse of the truth. It was but a glimpse, however, for the curtain dropped before he had half analyzed the significance of that strange face.”
A glimpse, yes, but as a talented actress – or tableau vivantess for that matter – Jean Muir manages to keep her audience guessing, by choosing a much completely different attire and character for her next performance, and enchanting her most attentive audience, young Coventry, who’s been most sceptical about her thus far in the story, by inviting him to join her in a tableau:
“With a smile, Coventry obeyed her; for the picture was of two lovers, the young cavalier kneeling, with his arm around the waist of the girl, who tries to hide him with her little mantle, and presses his head to her bosom in an ecstasy of fear, as she glances back at the approaching pursuers. Jean hesitated an instant and shrank a little as his hand touched her; she blushed deeply, and her eyes fell before his. Then, as the bell rang, she threw herself into her part with sudden spirit. One arm half covered him with her cloak, the other pillowed his head on the muslin kerchief folded over her bosom, and she looked backward with such terror in her eyes that more than one chivalrous young spectator longed to hurry to the rescue. It lasted but a moment; yet in that moment Coventry experienced another new sensation. Many women had smiled on him, but he had remained heart-whole, cool, and careless, quite unconscious of the power which a woman possesses and knows how to use, for the weal or woe of man. Now, as he knelt there with a soft arm about him, a slender waist yielding to his touch, and a maiden heart throbbing against his cheek, for the first time in his life he felt the indescribable spell of womanhood, and looked the ardent lover toperfection. Just as his face assumed this new and most becoming aspect, the curtain dropped, and clamorous encores recalled him to the fact that Miss Muir was trying to escape from his hold, which had grown painful in its unconscious pressure. He sprang up, half bewildered, and looking as he had never looked before.”
A protective, loving quaker maiden – she could hardly have chosen of part more different from the one of the Judith the hateful avenger, and of course this is a premeditated move on Alcott’s morally dubious heroine’s part. What Jean has grasped is the fact that she – like all women – must essentially become a living paradox in order to survive and pave the way for herself. You could say it’s the classic whore-Madonna complex put into action: Coventry will not fall in love with the dangerous Judith, and he will get bored of the quaint, innocent maiden, but the woman who can be both at the same time wins his heart. The tableau vivant is in Alcott’s story used as a way of emphasising her main character’s hiding behind a variety masks, and the unspoken pressure put upon her by her surroundings – by society, one might say – to do so.
Unmasking through the Tableau Vivant
It’s a very different use of the tableaux vivant that we find in the novel by another woman writer, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. Opera director Kasper Bech Holten recently did a staging of Carl Nielsen’s Masquerade in which the characters wore masks all the time, except when they were at the masquerade that marks the climax of the opera. A reversal similar to this is what we find in the chapter in Wharton’s tragic story that deals with the unfortunate main character Lily Bart’s participation in a tableau vivant at a party:
“…there could be no mistaking the predominance of personality–the unanimous “Oh!” of the spectators was a tribute, not to the brush-work of Reynolds’s “Mrs. Lloyd” but to the fleshand blood loveliness of Lily Bart. She had shown her artistic intelligence in selecting a type so like her own that she could embody the person represented without ceasing to beherself. It was as though she had stepped, not out of, but into, Reynolds’s canvas, banishing the phantom of his dead beauty bythe beams of her living grace. The impulse to show herself in a splendid setting–she had thought for a moment of representing Tiepolo’s Cleopatra–had yielded to the truer instinct oftrusting to her unassisted beauty, and she had purposely chosen apicture without distracting accessories of dress or surroundings. Her pale draperies, and the background of foliage against which she stood, served only to relieve the long dryad-like curves that swept upward from her poised foot to her lifted arm. The noble buoyancy of her attitude, its suggestion of soaring grace, revealed the touch of poetry in her beauty that Selden always felt in her presence, yet lost the sense of when he was not with her. Its expression was now so vivid that for the first time he seemed to see before him the real Lily Bart, divested of the trivialities of her little world, and catching for a moment anote of that eternal harmony of which her beauty was a part.
“Deuced bold thing to show herself in that get-up; but, gad, there isn’t a break in the lines anywhere, and I suppose she wanted us to know it!” These words, uttered by that experienced connoisseur, Mr. Ned Van Alstyne, whose scented white moustache had brushed Selden’s shoulder whenever the parting of the curtains presented any exceptional opportunity for the study of the female outline, affected their hearer in an unexpected way. It was not the first time that Selden had heard Lily’s beauty lightly remarked on, and hitherto the tone of the comments had imperceptibly coloured hisview of her. But now it woke only a motion of indignant contempt. This was the world she lived in, these were the standards by which she was fated to be measured! Does one go to Caliban for a judgment on Miranda? In the long moment before the curtain fell, he had time to feel the whole tragedy of her life. It was as though her beauty, thus detached from all that cheapened and vulgarized it, had held out suppliant hands to him from the world in which he and she had once met for a moment, and where he felt an overmastering longing to be with her again. He was roused by the pressure of ecstatic fingers. “Wasn’t she too beautiful, Lawrence? Don’t you like her best in that simple dress? It makes her look like the real Lily–the Lily I know.” He met Gerty Farish’s brimming gaze. “The Lily we know,” he corrected…”
Lily Bart is the opposite of Jean Muir; while Jean Muir manages to play the parts society wants her to play, Lily Bart fails to do so, their success and failure at this become their source of happiness and eventual downfall respectively, and the two very different tableaux vivants-scenes emphasise this. Lily is an extremely beautiful and accomplished young lady and as such she should have been married – the success criteria for a woman of her time – a hundred times to a wealthy gentleman, except, as one of the characters in the novel notes: it’s as if she always consciously ruins her chances for such fortune-bringing unions, as if she doesn’t really want to give up herself for sale this way. We are told in the story that Lily has put much thought into it when picking her character for the tableau, and that she has estimated that Joshua Reynolds’s “Mrs. Lloyd” (which may be seen here) would show off her beauty most efficiently, but as Lawrence Selden and his cousin Gertie note, it’s hard not to see Lily’s choosing Reynolds’s study of pure and unspoiled sensuality as a way of stripping herself publicly of the demands of striving for success that clings to her like dirt in the life she’s leading, and thus setting herself momentarily free.
Artificiality and Charade
Thus, presented in literature, the tableau vivant may serve to emphasise certain sides of characters. As one will observe, the frozen, immobile state of the tableau tends to function in the story that’s told as a means of stopping time momentarily – the air in both “Behind a Mask” and The House of Mirth seems to stand still as the audience literally holds its breath in admiration of the witnessed scene – and creating a condensed space within which the character performing the tableau may reveal to the reader something crucial about herself. I did a university paper on “Behind a Mask” last year with a somewhat feminist angle, exploring the character of Jean Muir as the epitome of woman in society, and her masquerade as a result of her being restricted to a gray area by the contradicting demands she meets from her surroundings (i.e. the innocence and worldliness that were expected, all at once, from a governess), and I’d like to extend this theory now onto the tableau vivant-theme: Might one not say that these women writers were fond of the tableau vivant as a literary theme, because if reflected in an extreme sense the kind of masquerade that women were expected to perform daily? That would, in any case, also explain the use Charlotte Brontë (undoubtedly a significant source of inspiration for Alcott) made of the tableau vivant in her most famous novel Jane Eyre: “…A considerable interval elapsed before it again rose. Its second rising displayed a more elaborately prepared scene than the last. The drawing-room, as I have before observed, was raised two steps above the dining-room, and on the top of the upper step, placed a yard or two back within the room, appeared a large marble basin—which I recognised as an ornament of the conservatory—where it usually stood, surrounded by exotics, and tenanted by gold fish—and whence it must have been transported with some trouble, on account of its size and weight. Seated on the carpet, by the side of this basin, was seen Mr. Rochester, costumed in shawls, with a turban on his head. His dark eyes and swarthy skin and Paynim features suited the costume exactly: he looked the very model of an Eastern emir, an agent or a victim of the bowstring. Presently advanced into view Miss Ingram. She, too, was attired in oriental fashion: a crimson scarf tied sash-like round the waist: an embroidered handkerchief knotted about her temples; her beautifully-moulded arms bare, one of them upraised in the act of supporting a pitcher, poised gracefully on her head. Both her cast of form and feature, her complexion and her general air, suggested the idea of some Israelitish princess of the patriarchal days; and such was doubtless the character she intended to represent. She approached the basin, and bent over it as if to fill her pitcher; she again lifted it to her head. The personage on the well-brink now seemed to accost her; to make some request:- “She hasted, let down her pitcher on her hand, and gave him to drink.” From the bosom of his robe he then produced a casket, opened it and showed magnificent bracelets and earrings; she acted astonishment and admiration; kneeling, he laid the treasure at her feet; incredulity and delight were expressed by her looks and gestures; the stranger fastened the bracelets on her arms and the rings in her ears. It was Eliezer and Rebecca: the camels only were wanting. The divining party again laid their heads together: apparently they could not agree about the word or syllable the scene illustrated. Colonel Dent, their spokesman, demanded “the tableau of the whole;” whereupon the curtain again descended. On its third rising only a portion of the drawing-room was disclosed; the rest being concealed by a screen, hung with some sort of dark and coarse drapery. The marble basin was removed; in its place, stood a deal table and a kitchen chair: these objects were visible by a very dim light proceeding from a horn lantern, the wax candles being all extinguished. Amidst this sordid scene, sat a man with his clenched hands resting on his knees, and his eyes bent on the ground. I knew Mr. Rochester; though the begrimed face, the disordered dress (his coat hanging loose from one arm, as if it had been almost torn from his back in a scuffle), the desperate and scowling countenance, the rough, bristling hair might well have disguised him. As he moved, a chain clanked; to his wrists were attached fetters. “Bridewell!” exclaimed Colonel Dent, and the charade was solved.” In Brontë’s controversial novel about an independent woman, who, true to her own feelings and ideals, achieves what she wants without stooping to play the game that Jean Muir masters and Lily Bart loses, the tableau becomes the symbol of the vanity and artificiality that Jane despises. What the audience perceives as a lovely confirmation of a mutual affection rising between Mr. Rochester and Blanche Ingram, Jane recognises as “acting”, “disguise”, and “attire”, she “knows” Rochester in spite of his costume, and she sees the tableau as well as the supposed mutual affection for what it is, a charade on Rochester’s part. The subtle point made about tableaux vivants by Alcott and Wharton is emphasised by Brontë: the tableau vivant is, in all it’s meta-artisticness, a reflection of the artificiality of our lives.
Tableaux Vivantes today
What, then, of the tableau vivant in our time and day? Have we come so completely to terms with our own self-staging that we don’t need the tableau vivant to let off the steam anymore? Well, one might say the tableau vivant is still around, in some form. Interestingly, in the – excellent – movie adaptation of House of Mirth from 2000, director Terence Davies had chosen a different painting for Lily’s tableau vivant, namely Watteau’s Ceres, supposedly thinking that this painting would show off his Lily’s, the ginger-haired Gillian Andersons’, beauty most efficiently. As such one might say he revived the tableau vivant-tradition momentarily – by consciously creating a new tableau and, thus, lingering consciously on the delicious subject of the staging of a woman’s beuaty, instead of staging the tableau that had been thought out a century earlier by Wharton. The tableu vivant is still a piquant occupation, and I’ll venture to say that there is still a need for it: As equalisation has run its course within the battle of the sexes, the gray area is more gray than ever, and the sex roles have become even more complex. Perhaps it’s time to let the artificial into our lives and to let ourselves start posing again? I think that photography, made so easy by the invention of the flexible digital camera, would be an obvious media for this. In the childhood of photography the tableau vivant was a popular way of going about portraiture. 19th century photographers such as Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll of Alice in Wonderland fame) were partial towards having his subjects posing as mythological or fictional characters when portraying them, but somewhere along the line that tradition was lost, too, and instead followed decades and decades of awkward holiday photographs, with the subjects smiling stiffly, trying to look natural while pointing half-heartedly towards the Colloseum, the Eiffel Tower, or the Statue of Liberty, refusing to embrace the fact that as soon as we stand in front of a camera we are adding to Life a phrame and thus stepping into the realm of art, or, at least, artificiality, and no utterance of the word “Cheese” is ever going to change that. We, the Confidential Attachées, have acknowledged as much, which is why we swear by the Staged Photo, and we highly recommend this form of photography! I couldn’t say whether the masquerade is bringing us closer to an understanding of our true selves or our sex roles, but hey, if it is that’s not too bad a side-effect, is it? And in the meantime we have a lot more fun taking pictures. Because it really is piquant to be allowed to pose as a Tosca or a Anita Ekberg. 🙂We are currently planning a field trip to Danish museum of art Louisiana, to see the current exhibit there of Cindy Sherman’s works, a highly estimated staging photographer, who’s definitely aware of the (sex-) roles she presents through her photography. We’ll make sure to make a report of our experience later on./marie
I really need to stop post-poning my posting of entries for the Musical/Literary Year category until the last day of the month! In all fairness the end of February does tend to creep up on one unexpectedly, since the month is a few days short of usual month-lenght.
Tannhäuser and Venus by Liezen-Mayer Sándor
I had difficulties picking out a piece for this month, because I tend to think of February as a very complex month. There is something solemnly hopeful about February, I always thought: While January tends to loom under the thick darkness of December, it’s in February that we start to really feel that the days are getting longer again, and the snow that usually covers the ground throughout much of February looks so breathtakingly beautiful under the light of the sun which is a little higher in the sky every day. However, February is also the month of Shrove-tide, and there is that great tradition for going a little crazy during that particular holiday. I believe it was originally away of celebrating one last time before the fast that would last until Easter would begin, but we’ve hanged on to it, even after we stopped fasting (By now I think Shrove-tide may have the opposite function: It probably marks the end of many a diet that was idealistically started as a New Year resolution). Shrove-tide is carnevalesque in the original sense of the word, and there’s a strong-lived tradition for wild-partying, feasting, and dressing-up around this time.
So I wanted to find a piece of music that contained these two extremities: A solemnly hopeful promise of better times, and something carnevalesque – and the Tannhäuser ouverture has both these elements! The opera revolves around maincharacter Heinrich Tannhäuser’s being torn between two women and two worlds: The enticing heathen world ruled by his mistress Venus, the goddess of love, offering never-ending pleasure and a chance to, well, go at it like rabbits 24-7, and the courtly, Christian world, in the shape of the Wartburg halls where his virtuous, Madonna-like beloved Elizabeth resides. These two extremities are both struck upon as early as in the ouverture, which consists of variations of two of the operas most important themes: The choir of the salvaged pilgrims returning from Rome from the third act, and Tannhäuser’s swelling, lascivious ode to Venus. These two themes battle against- and take turns to overpower each other throughout the ouverture, it’s a beautiful, grandious piece of music, and, one might say, it’s quite the programme piece for opera ouvertures in general, in as much as it contains a concentrate-version of the opera and sets the audience’s mood for the story they’re about to be told.
Incidentally, I first came upon this piece in February, more specifically on February 26 1995, when I was a 12-year-old ballet-dancing child and first appeared in Tannhäuser (in Francesca Zambello’s staging) along with 29 other little dancers. I played a new-born child (complete with a fleshcoloured leotard and likewise swimcap) of Venus in the first act, dancing to the orchestral version of Tannhäuser’s Venus-ode that follows directly after the ouverture, and then a young salvaged pilgrim returning with her salvaged pilgrim-parents from Rome, so one might say that I got the best of both the worlds that Tannhäuser is torn between. Maybe that’s why the event made me fall in love with opera, I don’t know, but fact remains that I did fall in love with opera on that occasion, and more than anything I remember the glorious sensation of listening to the ouverture behind the drawn house tabs, and thinking that it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard. The smallest of us child-dancers were to lie Die Blechtrommel-ishly underneath the heavy, red fabric that was Venus’s enormous skirt, and then to swarm out from under the skirt as the curtain rose, as if we’d just been born (thus presenting, of course, the rabbitness of Venus and Tannhäuser’s relationship and also a preternatural and almost nauseating abundance). So there I was, during the entire ouverture, with butterflies fluttering in my stomach, surrounded by theatre-red, listening to my own agitated breathing and that of the other children underneath the fabric, and above it the sound of Catherine Keen, the American soprano who portrayed a buxom Venus in the staging, practising scales in order to warm up her voice. And then to take in the beauty of the ouverture, the solemn, pure joy of the pilgrim’s choir and the lushness of the Venus-ode, and trying to save up all of that energy to add it to my dance.
Stig Fogh Andersen as he looked in the part of Tannhäuser back in 1995 – I’m proud to say that he became my very first celebrity crush!
Solemn, pure joy and lushness – surely the ouverture is perfect for a musical February entry? I recommend the Franz Konwitschny-recording of the opera for anyone who would like to check it out for themselves.
Happy February! J
…but don’t Jussi and Anna-Lisa Björling bear a slight resemblance to characters from a Botero painting in this video?
What a sweet little clip though. The two of them have such an endearing, unpretentious air to them. If they were alive today they could totally kick Alagna and Gheorghiu’s pompous asses. Except they would be too nice to do that, so they would just invite Alagna and Georghiu over for dill and new potatoes and cowberry jam, and then give them a subtle talking-to about how to and how not to behave at an opera house.
I used to be a hardcore Jussi Björling-fan when I was younger, but I’ve sort of forgotten about him since, and that’s a shame really, because he was an amazing tenor. His range was incredible, and he had such a fresh, soft sound that made him perfect for operatic tenor parts, a lot of which present a pure-of-heart, heroic character. I’ve yet to encounter a tenor who has a similar sound, but perhaps I haven’t looked closely enough. Does anyone have any suggestions?
A while ago I mentioned the box-set Unearthed in the comments for my review of Johnny Cash’s fourth American Recordings-album The Man Comes Around, and I think it’s about time that I review this outstanding edition – and it seems right to be reviewing Unearthed today of all days, since Johnny Cash would have turned 75 on this day, February 26 2007.
The album consists of all of five CDs; the first three containing songs that Johnny Cash recorded and produced with Rick Rubin but which were not included on the American Recordings, the fourth contains a collection of Cash’s recordings of songs from his mother’s old Heavenly Highway Hymnbook, the fifth is a highlights-CD with Rick Rubin’s estimate of the best of the first four American Recordings (number 5, A Hundred Highways, was only released after Unearthed), and in the box-set is included a booklet containing interviews with Johnny Cash and Rick Rubin and commentary for the tracks on the first three CDs.
I am completely floored by the album, and particularly the first three albums are a source of immense awe on my part. The American Recordings are in and of themselves incredible: Five whole CDs of covers and original songs, and hardly with one dull track among them, but then to be able to fill three full CDs with almost as big a repertoire of covers and originals…! Unbelievable. I hardly even know whether to laugh or cry about it. Surely this collection of discarded tracks, if nothing had before, bears witness to the fact that Johnny Cash and producer Rick Rubin were a match made in heaven, and, even more, to the fact that Johnny Cash was a larger-than-life artist of whom this world was robbed much too early. It’s almost unbearable to consider the works of art that could have flown from Johnny’s vocals and guitar-strings and Heavenly Highway Records.
But I won’t think of that. Instead I’ll rejoice at this evidence of incredible productivity on Cash’s part while he was still alive, and enjoy the numerous wonderful tracks on these three CDs of initially discarded American recordings. Because they are indeed enjoyable. Cash’s cover version of Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman” is my favourite of the tracks. A melancholy, solemn tune which lends strength from Cash’s sensitivity as a singer, and, I’ll venture, from the vulnerability that crept into his singing voice during his last years, it easily competes with equally beautiful cover versions from the actual American Recordings, such as “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” from The Man Comes Around. There are quite a few of these solemn songs included on Unearthed that seem to relate in someway to America as native soil. In the case of “Wichita Lineman” the theme is touched upon lightly, yet with some insistence through the specific-geographical proper name in the title, and the solemnity in the tune that adds to the lyrics an air of mythology: “I am a lineman for the county./And I drive the mainroad./Lookin’ in the sun for another overload./I hear you singing in the wire./I can hear you thru the whine./And the Wichita Lineman,/is still on the line.” As if the lineman here is a kind of latter-day, bureaucratized lone rider, standing as he does between two states and reaching out and longing to belong in either of them, to love unconditionally and to be loved. Beautiful.
A much more direct approach to the theme of America is found on Unearthed in songs like the cover versions of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” (sung as a duet with Joe Strummer) and Neil Young’s “Pocahontas”. The two are, each in their own way, surprising tracks in as much as they are quite far from being typical Cash-style songs; the former being decidedly reggae, right down to the lyrics (“Old pirates, yes, they rob I;/Sold I to the merchant ships,/Minutes after they took I/From the bottomless pit.”, and the latter being unusually psychedelic for Cash. But they both work really well. Cash has plenty enough revolutionary spirit (as proven at his prison concerts earlier in his career) to match Bob Marley, and plenty enough visionary imagination to pull off the spaced-out Neil Young-lyrics, and, as Rick Rubin notes in the written commentary for the song; it adds something really wonderful to the Pocahontas-Marlon Brando-meeting motif when Johnny Cash, himself an American icon, is the one singing it: “And maybe Marlon Brando/Will be there by the fire/We’ll sit and talk of Hollywood/And the good things there for hire/And the Astrodome/and the first tepee/Marlon Brando, Pocahontas and me.”
Equally successful tracks are the Kris Kristoffersen cover versions featured on the album, “Casey’s Last Ride” and “Just the Other Side of Nowhere”. Both of these melodic, subtly tragic little epics seem to revolve around the theme of the corruption and coldness of the city as opposed, supposedly, to the genuineness and friendliness of the rural. Such a distinction tends towards the contrived, and it seems somewhat out of place for Cash who I think had plenty of urban energy in his rock’n roll sound, but Kristoffersen’s musicality and sense of rhythm is undeniable, and Cash does a great job of depicting in his interprestation a resigned frustration on behalf of Kristoffersen’s protagonists, recalling his sympathetic approach towards outlaws as seen in songs like “San Quentin”. However, Cash’s best homage to his own country background is of course found in his folk ballads and the album has some very good songs of that genre. The best of these is the first track of the first CD “Long Black Veil”. Cash has recorded it before, but this is one of those songs that wins something by getting repeated by the older Cash – his aged, slightly shaky voice with its significant vibrato makes the sinister, ghostly retrospective all the more effective. In another featured folk-song, Cash is every bit as cheerful and humorous-harking as he was sinister and ghostly in the before-mentioned, namely “Cindy” in which we are also treated to another duet between Cash and Nick Cave (their first duet being “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” which was included on The Man Comes Around). It’s a completely bizarre lovesong (“Cindy is my honey/the sweetest in the South/when we kissed the bees would always/swarm around her mouth”!) and Nick Cave’s strange, sneering vocal compliments both Cash’s fatherly baritone and this bizarreness beautifully, in a way that doesn’t allow you to forget that these are respectively the murderers of Eliza Day and Delia joining each other in a serenade…! As much as Unearthed is a rock album it is, however, a kind of museal artefact, a documentation of the work-in-progress of an American legend, and there are tracks on the album where this aspect is particularly evident. There is a track on the first CD titled “Book Review” on the first CD that features John’s voice, incidentally caught by a microphone, as he shares with Rick Rubin his thoughts on a Kahlil Gibran novel he’d just read, and on the third CD, even more interesting, an early and somewhat bland version of “The Man Comes Around” before Cash and Rick Rubin had worked out the lustrous, explosive orchestration that we find in the brilliant final version on American Recordings IV. These are marvellous little pieces of insider-knowledge for any fan of Cash – but of course, being, as they are essentially, curiosities, they do end up being the tracks one is most likely to skip past when listening to the album.
I am sad to admit that this is how I tend to feel about the entire fourth CD, My Mother’s Hymnbook, as well. The CD features John doing simple versions of his childhood hymns (vocal and guitar), and while I am touched by this simplicity and by the faithful sincerity that I don’t doubt that he put into the recording of the hymns, (I fondly imagine the young JR humming them along with his mother while working himself to the bone in the cotton fields), fact remains that the hymns don’t really touch me, and I tend to skip the CD altogether. I think Cash always expressed his passion as a devout Christian much more efficiently when he combining it with the rawness and complexity of rock songs rather than when adding to it the sweetness of hymns. “Old Chunk of Coal” with its rough imagery, and “Bird on a Wire” with its painful portrait of a Christian like an adolescent child, struggling to be obedient and to break free at the same time, are much more successful musical testimonies of Cash’s religious beliefs in my opinion, and both are to be found Unearthed (on CDs 1 and 2, respectively).
I’ve borrowed Unearthed from the public library, but I’m so in love with it that I’ll have to purchase it somehow. I advise every Cash-fan out there to do the same. The album is fantastic, and the accompanying booklet of interviews and commentaries are as informative as any lengthy biography. Unearthed, this glorious American Recordings-flea market is a wonderful celebration of an over-brimming, inspired artist.
Happy Birthday, John.
Marie and I were in Rome a year and a half ago. You have already seen some of our staged photos from that trip. But you haven’t seen my personal favourite: Marie posing as Anita Ekberg in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita.
Now as Marie was not allowed neither by our tight schedule (we were off to the airport) nor by the Italian authorities to step into the pool of the Trevi Fountain she did a combination of Anita Ekberg with the kitten and the Trevi scene. No kitten was available at that exact moment since there were quite a lot of Japanese at the site that day and they had scared away all the kittens. But you can imagine it I’m sure. And the black dress and the blond hair. Hey…maybe I should have done it…well. Here it is:
And just to remind you, la Ekberg:
This is unfortunately not a review. I wish. But, no, I have not been to Zürich to see Cecilia Bartoli as Semele. I wish I had since I love la Bartoli and since I know this wonderful production which I saw some years ago in Cologne.
It was my first experience of baroque opera on stage and I must admit I only went because my friend Carsten dragged me there. And I was completely swept away by director Robert Carsen’s inventions and the wonderful music.
Semele was one of Jupiter’s lovers (mother to his son Dionysos), who was tricked by the jealous Juno (Jupiter’s wife) into asking the supreme god to see him in all his glory. Which kills her since she is only human.
In this staging Juno is a most true copy of Queen Elizabeth II both when she is dressed up with the crown jewels and when she is wearing her Mackintosh and out with her pocket torch to wake Somnus.
It’s a very humourous portrayal and that goes for the whole cast.
The Opernhaus Zürich has been generous enough to put some video and audio clips on their web page.
I put a little bit here to let you see what it’s like. Semele sings about Endless pleasure, endless joy and it certainly looks like it is fun being in Jupiter’s hands. And then Juno (Birgit Remmer) sending away her secretary Iris, the rainbow(!), (Isabel Rey) in Iris, hence away.
I can really recommend seeing the whole video by going here. Especially the clip from the aria Myself I shall adore is hilarious. Juno visits Semele disguised as her sister Ino. She paints her future bright by letting her try on the crown jewels. Semele seems very content when she looks in the mirror.
I remember a marvellous remark Carsten made back in Cologne – that her reflection as she adores herself in the mirror is also in the music as echoes. I love that idea.
I think it’s interesting that Cecilia Bartoli is taking on soprano roles. She was always more a soprano than a mezzo to me.
My other friend Francisco is going to love all this, so here is one last picture for him:
Just a note for our Scandinavian readers: I am writing another blog on how the European Opera Days in Paris went. It’s in Danish – but there are pictures too!
I will write an English excerpt later on.
Paris! Today I went to Paris in order to attend a conference on opera celebrating the 400th anniversary of the art form. You can see more about that here.
But the conference doesn’t begin until tomorrow so having arrived a day early I decided to walk my feet to bleeding stumps in pursuit of the visual arts.
First I went to l’Orangerie, that I hadn’t seen for years since it has been closed for refurbishing. With my magic wonder card (also known as the ICOM card) provided by my workplace I jumped an enormous queue and got in for free. Love that card. Love it.
First I went to see the famous Nymphéas by Monet and they were beautiful, of course, but not something that really excites me. However the rooms have the best karma and if it wasn’t because I was busy walking my feet to bleeding stumps I could have just stayed there for hours writing postcards, looking at the Japanese, and relaxing. But on I went to the see the rest of the Guillaume-Walter collection which included some very nice Derain’s (masterpieces they don’t want to lend out, grrr…), a lot of juicy Renoirs that made me remember an old professor of mine who kept referring to him as the porcelain painter – sure thing. I guess you could say the rest of the collection was everything in between Renoir and Derain (such as more Monet, Cézanne, Picasso etc.). Plus a dolls house reconstruction of one of Paul Guillaume’s homes with the collection on the walls. Very cute and instructive.
I really liked that place. Small and top quality. Hereby recommended.
Then I walked through the Tuilleries towards the Louvre having a sandwich in the park on my way. The weather was wonderful. Arriving at the Louvre I kept the magic card at the ready, but to no use. The ticket sellers were on strike. They seemed to be there all of them, just not working. Something about salaries. So I just walked in like the rest of the hordes.
Being there not working…
Since I have done this museum thoroughly on several occasions I felt quite relaxed and just strolled around. The rooms weren’t too crowded so no fuss. Said hello to Monna Lisa and her Italian friends and colleagues, went for a tea and a lemon meringue pie (pie!) and added the large French canvasses to my list (Géricault, Delacroix, David, Ingres – love those guys).
There are several ways of coping with tired feet. This couple kept it simple and…slept.
Then I walked to the opposite wing to see my favourite room: Rubens’s large celebration of Marie de Médicis, queen of France.
I find the paintings so amusing, starting with the Fates spinning the golden thread of Marie’s life supervised by Jove himself, moving on to her education with teachers such as Minerva, Mercury, the three Graces and Orfeus, etc.etc. throughout her glorious life. It ends with some kind of apotheosis where she and her son reconcile on earth as well as in heaven. I just love it – that lady knew how to promote herself. Besides, the room in which the works hang is beautiful.
After having shopped a little bit I walked to Centre Pompidou to get some dinner and see their new hanging of the first half of the 20th Century.
Centre Pompidou by night. The projection onto the square is by Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist. Like her a lot.
The restaurant was nice (even though the waiters were way too posh for the customers – not only me!) and the view was magnificent. These pictures were taken from one of the tubes on the facade and the view from the restaurant was the same just without the blue lights.
The new hanging of the modern collection was nice so I was happy to have included it.
Three museums in one day…too much? Of course! But then again – life is short and we can sleep when we get old. Right? Right.
Denmark is going to have new banknotes and the national bank arranged a competition among eight artists who were asked to do a draft. Last week the bank chose two proposals that will now be adapted to the specific security needs of the banknotes. When that is done they will choose which design should be the future banknotes of Denmark.
I am very happy about all this. I don’t like our present banknotes that look like monopoly money and I think we need an update. I must add that I am very surprised the national bank arranged this competition since I thought all pointed at a future with euro as our currency.
The two drafts have one thing in common – they include bridges, but besides from that they are very different.
Kasper Bonnén’s design is very contemporary both in colour, content and form.
Karin Birgitte Lund’s design is more classically beautiful and cool.
I like them both…but I think I would prefer Kasper Bonnén’s design. It’s so bold and typical of our day that it would be a strong statement. I think we need that after some years with the most boring and ugly banknotes imaginable.
But! Let’s have a vote! I have made a little poll and I ask you to cast your votes. Below you see the designs and a link for the poll. If you want to read more on the competition go here.
Karin Birgitte Lund.
I have a faible for glasses in portraits.
Perhaps because they somehow are the intellectual’s attribute, but certainly because I like portraiture in general. Portraits are often centred around the eyes and the exchange of gazes between the viewer and the portrayed. When the portrayed wears glasses this is highlighted even more.
I have shown you this self-portrait by Francisco de Goya before, but I think it’s magnificent:
Goya. Self-portrait. c. 1797-1800. Musée Goya, Castres.
Goya is playing with sight, with his eyes fixed on the viewer, or in fact his own reflection in the mirror while painting. One eye looks through the spectacles and the other looks over the rim. The glasses probably refer to an artist type – the well-read artist. Glasses are connected with reading and Goya definitely identified himself as an intellectual while at the same time having been trained outside the academy. He balanced throughout his life between his craftsmanship and his intellectual aspirations. One eye uses the glasses, the other doesn’t.
At the same time the glasses might be a very concrete reference to his work as an etcher. Etching requires minute work and a pair of glasses might very well come in handy. Goya was in this period working on some of his most famous etchings.
Victor Stoichita and Anna Maria Coderch have in their interesting book Goya. The Last Carnival written about this self-portrait and its possible meanings:
“In the case of the self-portraits (…), Goya’s fondness for bifocality, affirmed by the adoption of the double gaze, appeared to be a perpetual swinging or perfect simultaneity between observation and introspection, vision and snapshot, realism and distortion.”
I like this idea of simultaneous observation and introspection. The artist is at the same time contemplating his soul and the world.
Another example of glasses is this portrait of Henri Matisse by my current friend André Derain:
André Derain. Portrait of Henri Matisse, 1905. Tate, London.
Matisse too has his glasses a bit aslant and it is tempting to discuss the same issues as in Goya’s self-portrait. I don’t think it would be too far fetched at least to note the oblique angle and say that some meaning is in that. Not the exact same since Matisse is not an Enlightenment artist looking to be an intellectual. But bifocality – certainly. I would say it has to do with a capacity to look far and near thus encapsulating all details in the viewed. An important capacity both in an artist and in a person in general.
You don’t observe the glasses at first sight, but when you see them they enforce a feeling of sympathetic, almost paternal observation on Matisse’s part. If you are strolling the ‘father-figure-hero’ path then I can add that Matisse, somewhat older than the very young Derain, had taken him under his wing, brought him to Southern France where they spent a summer working blissfully side by side.
Moving on from such psychoanalytic crumbles one would note that the art they were making that summer was in some ways focused on sight and how you experience colour. The somewhat fragmented fauvism could perhaps also be seen as a play of lenses and kaleidoscopic crystallisations.
These were two examples of focalisation on the gaze. Here is an even more extreme example:
Francis Bacon. Portrait of Man with Glasses, III. 1963. Private Collection
I am no expert on Francis Bacon though deeply fascinated. All I can say is that it is impossible to establish any relation via sight or gaze in this portrait. The figure doesn’t seem to be looking at the viewer, but who knows, and he is definitely refusing to be looked at in return. I think the sunglasses add a creepy tone that commands the whole painting which is enhanced when you look at the title. It says nothing about sunglasses (that was my initial reading of the surface), it only mentions glasses. This gives the black hollows an even more ghostly look – they make the head seem more like a scull than the head of a living man. The scullness of the portrait is strengthened also by the teeth. But the glasses are the most active agent in my eyes. Very elegantly done.
I will continue looking for glasses in art and if you know of any please give me a hint!