May 29, 2011

Intimate Impressions.

‘Could we ever know each other without the arts?'
"Nous connaitrions-nous seulement un peu nous-memes, sans les arts?" - Gabrielle Roy

There are artists who lead public lives – Rubens the diplomat, Picasso the showman – and others who keep themselves to themselves. Pierre Bonnard, whose paintings I came to see at the Musée d'Orsay, led an intensely private life in which we can only begin to participate through his art. His diaries give little away – shopping lists, observations on the weather, the odd aphorism. He lived simply in Paris and the country. His family did not even know until after his death in 1947 that he had been married to his companion Marthe de Meligny for twenty-two-years. His more wide-ranging subject matter was commissioned by patrons and publishers. When he painted for himself, he stuck close to home.
He was born in 1867 on the out outskirts of Paris, the young Bonnard trained as a lawyer but also enrolled in the Academie Julian and the painting section of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. After he failed his civil service exam, he became involved with a small group called the Nabis (the Hebrew words for prophets), led by Paul Serusier, and inspired by Gauguin.

The Croquet Game with its carefully composed patchwork of flat patterns is clearly derived from Japanese prints. The title Crepuscule, under which it was first exhibited, suggests an affinity with the symbolic poems of Mallarmé. Its decorative appeal confirmed the ambitions of the group not to be confined to easel painting but to branch out into producing panels for interiors, book illustrations, posters and theatre designs. Sharing studios, exhibition spaces and commissions from small magazine – notably La Revue Blanche – the Nabis thrived in the artistic climate of belle-époque Paris.

Despite waspish comments on his work from some of the older generation of Impressionists, Bonnard never really had to struggle to succeed. By the turn of the last century he was working with the playwright Alfred Jarry and receiving commissions for sets of lithographs from Ambroise Vollard. He visited museums in Spain, and the Low Countries, accompanied by Edouard Vuillard. He made trips to the South of France, staying at first with Maillol, then Manguin. In 1911, perhaps flush from the commissions of the great Moscow industrialist collector Ivan Morozov, he bought an 11 CV Renault. The next year, he declined the offer of the Légion d'Honneur.
What interested Bonnard was not the representation of life itself but the representation of how we perceive life. The depiction of objects in blurred and sharp focus, in thin and thick paint, and the shimmering representation of light, combined to recreate the sense of flux we experience on first scanning a scene. At his best, Bonnard could achieve an overall visual rhythm and unity, while at the same time leaving parts of the canvas mysteriously unresolved.

Significantly, he himself did not always know when paintings were finished, working on some for years and touching up others even after they were hanging in houses and galleries.

His art did not depend on direct observations but on contemplation. ‘I have all my subjects to hand,’ he said. ‘I go and look at them. I take notes. Then I go home. And before I start painting, I reflect, I dream.’ There is an elegiac feeling to many of his works, a Proustian savouring of sensations recalled. He lived with Marthe for nearly fifty years and her likeness appears in over 300 paintings., but there is no precise physical description and little sense of the her growing old. Sometimes she is peripheral to the main subject; sometimes her face is turned away. She is always self-absorbed, not engaged with the artist or viewer. Perhaps this was a reflection of the reclusive personality, exacerbated by chronic ill health – her prone immersion in the bath, which inspired some of Bonnard’s most haunting images, may have been a form of hydrotherapy.

But it also suited the artist to be separate, freed of the responsibilities of relationships to explore the ever-challenging gap between life and art.

May 27, 2011

Steal Away.

Willie Ruff took his French horn to Venice to record -solo -some of his favorite music, European classics, and Southern spirituals.

Willie Ruff? We are, most of us, sheltered from music that is off the well-worn commercial track, so we are forgiven for not knowing about this extraordinary musician and teacher. Now that you are here, please come to full attention, because this is one American treasure you really do not want to miss.

In 1947, Willie Ruff, born in northern Alabama, found himself stationed at Lockbourne Air Force Base near Columbus, Ohio. This elite base for black officers was quite the happening place - it had a full orchestra and two jazz bands. Happily, for the 16-year-old Ruff, one of those musicians was a jazz pianist, Dwike Mitchell. They started performing as a duo in 1955. They have celebrated a half century of playing together -a record for jazz collaborators.

Jazz probably offers more opportunity for personal expression than any American music, but it was too narrow for Willie Ruff. He went to Yale to study with composer Paul Hindemith and later became a Professor of Music there. He has traveled widely - he went to Africa to study the Pygmies' drum language -and has learned eight languages (before a trip to China, he taught himself Mandarin Chinese).

A few years ago, he got the idea of recording in the Venice cathedral that has been home to almost a thousand years of legendary music. (It now is a favored destination of more than 25,000 tourists a day, and its plaza is a must-visit for all romantics, which is perhaps why we see it regularly in commercials for diamonds.) Ruff and Venice were an ideal marriage of musician and setting.

The purity of Ruff's playing knocks you to your knees. It is not the technical mastery that is so powerful, it is the spiritual sincerity. This is not music: its prayer echoing in a stone chamber, a collaboration involving Ruff, the composers and the anonymous believers who built this cathedral.

There are a dozen short classical pieces, and then the CD takes a turn to the America South. "Were You There" seems almost spoken, and not because we happen to be familiar with the words. "Steal Away" starts with an extended, full-bodied note and then jumps an octave; who knew so few notes could have such great effect? "Go Down Moses" touches every emotion -sweet and shockingly sassy, almost as if Ruff were playing trombone, and then powerful and direct. This, you imagine, is how God told Moses what He wanted from him. Moreover, finally, "Give Me Jesus," which ends, fittingly, as the bells of St. Mark's begin to toll.

This is quiet, contemplative music -and, at the same time, it is incredibly exciting. It calms you and sharpens you at the same time. It makes you cry and brings you joy. Like ancient medicine, it works on you in ways you do not understand, but which you trust will heal you. Then it does.

Compliments of a fellow traveller, sweet sounds, and thoughts from the road.

I am reading...

  • scribble, scribble, scribble, Simon Schama
  • Julia's Cats, Patricia Barey and Therese Burson
  • London, Edward Rutherfurd
  • I'll Drink to That, Betty Halbreich