30 June 2012

Leonid Andreyev, Photographer

"Everyone talks about their love of nature.  Any dacha-dweller in white trousers will maintain that there is nothing in the world to compete with nature.  I remember seeing someone like that sitting on the sea-shore reading a book.  It was sunset, one of the most beautiful sunsets that you could get on the shores of the Gulf of Finland - and he was reading,  In the sky the clouds were engaged in a monumental battle, crashing into one another, changing their shapes and colors every minute, dying and coming back to life again, lit by a sunray which would unexpectedly break through them - and he carried on reading."

There is nothing idyllic in the writings of the Russian Leonid Andreyev (1871-1919). Censorship and the absence of civil liberties that we take for granted was pervasive under the Czars. By default the arts provided the only conduit for moral and intellectual impulses. political activity being foreclosed by a repressive regime.  What is especially characteristic of Andreyev's works is the oscillation between exuberance and depression, the corrosive wit and sense of the superiority of his vision, and not just applied to himself.  "He wished to be enormous - not for his own sake: he wished to reflect in his transitory tread as a writer - the march of the Century.." - Andrei Bielyi.  To that end, Andreyev wrote not only the stories and plays he is remembered for, but painted and sketched and photographed.

Andreyev's temperament led him to predict the disasters of world war, revolution, and even something akin to nuclear weapons.  Born in the country, Andreyev moved to Moscow to study law, becoming instead a court reporter for a Moscow newspaper.  His first collection of stories was published to great effect in 1901, attracting the attention of Maxim Gorki.  He careened through women and vodka until his marriage to Alexksandra provided him with as much stability as he could tolerate

Two sons were born, Vadim and Daniil, before Aleksandra died of puerperal fever in 1906.  Andreyev married Anna Denisevich in 1908, and made the quixotic decision to separate his two little boys, keeping Vadim with him and sending Daniil to live with Aleksandra's sister.  Vadim has written about the boys'  alienation from their father, visible in photographs.

 The picture of Daniil with his father and step-father,  taken  on a rare visit to his father's home in Vammasluu, is far removed from the idyllic images of Heinrich Kuhn (see below).

Andreyev, whose connections with the revolutionaries of 1905, led to his exile after he published The Seven Who Were Hanged in 1909, built a large wooden house on the Gulf of Finland at Vammasluu.  The house was impractical from the start, in need of constant repair, and after Andreyev's death Anna sold it for demolition.  But it was only forty miles from St. Petersburg. 

The Seven That Were Hanged (1909) was Andreyev's protest against the executions the Russian government used to destroy  the 1905 revolution.   Through harrowing interior monologues we  follow five revolutionaries and two ordinary criminals as they come to terms with their fates.  He turned away from the expansiveness of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky in depictions of confusion, distortion and hallucination are something we recognize as distinctly modern.

In exile from Russia, Andreyev turned his prodigious energies to photography.  Never inclined to hold back intensity on any project, he brought his fierce energy to bear documenting his new life and surroundings.

"It was as if he himself were a whole factory, working ceaselessly in shifts, preparing all those masses of large and small photographs which were stacked up in his study, contained in special boxes and chests, overflwoing on every table, mounted on the window panes.  There was no cnroner in his house which he had not photographed several tiems over.  Some photographs were extremely successful, for instance spring landscapes.  It was jard to believe that they were photographs at all, they were suffused with success elegiac musicality, reminding one of Levitan." - Kornei Chukovsky, scholar and children's author, was a frequent visitor to Vammasluu.  He refers here to the painter Isaac Levitan. 

Leonid and Anna made the first of many trips  to the Mediterranean in 1910, attracted by the  sun and warmth of the south.  
Andreyev died in 1919 as he was preparing for a speaking tour of the United States, to warn about the dangers of the Bolshevism.  At age forty-eight. he was dead of a brain hemorrhage.
Andreyev's American connection came in 1924 when MGM's first feature film was He Who Gets Slapped based one of his plays.  The film starred Lon Chaney and Norma Shearer and was produced by Lous B. Mayer himself.

For further reading:
Stories And Photographs by Leonid Andreyev, translated from the Russian by Olga Andreyev Carlisle, San Diego, Harcourt Brace & Jovanoich: 1987.
Photographs of a Russian Writer by Richard Davies, London, Thames & Hudson: 1989.

Images: Autochreme photographs by Leonid Andreyev are in the collection of the Leeds Russian Archive, UK.
1. Sunset at Vammasluu - Finland.
2. Leonid and the Devils - Andreyev in front of copies he made of Goya sketches in his study at Vammasluu.
3. Vadim Andreyev, c. 1909.
4. Daniil Andreyev, c. 1912.
5  Anna Andreyeva - Leonid Andreyev, Filip Dobrov & Daniil Andreyev at Vammasluu, c. 1912.
6. A Road near Vammasluu. 
7. Anna Andreyeva in Marseilles, 1910.

26 June 2012

The Violet Hour

The French call the hour between sunset and darkness l'heure bleue (the blue hour). An evanescent  state when the sky is illuminated by reflected light from the upper atmosphere. Jules Garvais-Courtellemeont underlined the poetic intent of this photograph when he named it L'heure violette.  We can almost imagine the air over Damascus scented with almonds, jasmine and Bulgarian rose, the components of  L'Heure Bleue, the perfume introduced by the House of Guerlain  in 1912, around the time when Gervais-Courtellemont was in Syria.
The tranquility seems  a far cry from current travails.  But, as with all photographs, it tells the story of one moment.  We cannot see the fighting between supporters and opponents of the Ottoman Revolution or the intellectuals who were hanged in the streets. Damascus,  mentioned in both Old and New testaments of the Christian Bible, is of such ancient origin that its age  is best measured by carbon-dating, not written history.  The city and its inhabitants have experienced much.


I chose these images from among the 1,500  glass plates made by the French photographer Jules Gervais-Courtellemont who worked for the weekly magazine L'Illustration from 1893 to 1924. He was an immediate convert to color when the autochrome was introduced in 1907.   Gervais-Courtellemont made his first trip to Istanbul and the Middle East for the magazine in 1893.  An early war photographer, he publsihed  two books of color photographs on the battles of the Marne and Verdun.  He worked for National Geographic from 1924 until his death in 1931.
Jules Gervais-Courtellemont (1866-1931) was born near Paris but grew up in Algeria.   He attributed his fascination with  Islamic and Byzantine cultures to his peripatetic childhood. His friendship with the globe-trotting Orientalist Pierre Loti inspired an interest art photography, but Gervais-Courtellemont attempted to move beyond the exoticism of the imaginary east to portray ordinary reality in his extremely successful Visions of the East.  He had a  "A head full of dreams and two feet on the ground" according to a friend.

His ability to fix fleeting atmospherics with grains of starch looks like alchemy but was grounded in  the rigors of classical  composition.   I can imagine his delight at discovering the blue cloths drying on the rooftops, like remnants of the blue sky of midday left at twilight.  The same spirit that led Gervais-Courtellemont to scale hills and ladders of new places impelled him through the blasted fields and towns of war.

Autochrome photographs  by Jules Gervais-Courtellemont are in the collection of Musee de la Ville de Paris.
Dates are likely circa 1907-1920.
1.  Crepuscule in Damascus (L'Heure violette).
2. Terrace in Damascus.
3. Mausoleum of the Whirling Dervishes.  Konya  (Turkey).

16 June 2012

Play Theory & Parc Monceau

“The green Parc Monceau, with its soft lawns veiled in misty curtains of spray from the sprinkler, attracted me, like something good to eat.   There were fewer children there than in the Luxembourg.   It was better altogether.  But those lawns that are swept like floors!    Never mind, the trees enchanted me and the warm dampness I breathed in relaxed me….that sound of leaves, how sweet it was!” - Sidonie-Grabreille Colette, excerpt from Claudine In Paris, 1901.
 The naughty Claudine - and her creator - were preceded at the site by Joan of Arc who encamped at Monceau during the summer of 1429 in her audacious attack on Paris, thus assuring its continuing fame even if it had remained an empty field.  But in 1769 Louis Philippe II,  Duc de Chartres (1747-1793) purchased the plot on the Right Bank after marrying the richest woman in France.  Four years later he commissioned the engineer/architect Louis Carrogis (Carmontelle) to create a garden for his new home.

Exactly what prompted Carrogis to design one of the early great landscape gardens in France, the ability to draw on the duke's royal purse encouraged him to design a theatrical extravaganza that would, in Carrogis's words. "unite in one garden all places and all times."   The duke, a cousin of Louis XVI, and no stranger to Versailles had high standards in these matters. 
Carrogis would draw on all of world history to create the Jardin de Monceau.  Among many points of interest, the garden included an Egyptian pyramid, a Turkish minaret, and a Roman naumacchia, an artificial lake for the staging of mock naval battles, whose decaying columns still stand. A model farm that included a water wheel and a windmill demonstrated the duke's interest in scientific experiments.  This mixture of frivolity and earnest effort has a hallmark of the French Enlightenment.  If play is the essential human activity, as the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga claimed, then history itself played at the Parc Monceau.

"...it was not my object to define the place of play among all other manifestations of culture, but rather to ascertain how far culture itself bears the character of play."  - Johan Huizinga, from the forward to Homo Ludens, 1938.

Louis Philippe, by then Duke of Orleans, was executed during the French Revolution and his garden was confiscated by the state.   It went untended until Napoleon III hired Baron Haussmann to make modern city out of Paris.  Another engineer, Adolphe Alphand (1817-1891) was put in charge of promenades and he laid out a refurbished Parc Monceau that opened in 1861 . Some of the old follies were kept, and new features added, including a stream crossed by a bridge, a cascade and a grotto. Moving water was used to evoke cleanliness and modernity, two qualities that had been sorely lacking in the dark, dirty streets of old Paris.  The public was enchanted, including the many artist who flocked there to paint:  Raffaele Ragione, Claude Monet, Gustave Caillebotte,  Henri Lebasque and the American Childe Hassam.

Today people walk their dogs and children play among the decaying pre-Revolutionary relics just as they did in Colette's day.  Only their clothes have changed. The modern world may impinge on the edges of the park more than it used to but this fantastic little world is a monument to the primacy of play in human life.  The children playing with hoops and pails and shovels in Jean-Emile Laboureur's decorative screen could be the forerunners of wheels and steam shovels.
1. Jean-Emile Laboureur -  a screen with four panels, 1899, Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
2. Gustave Caillebotte, Le Parc Monceau, 1878,private collection, from the Atheneum.
3. Claude Monet - Le Parc Monceau, 1878, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.
Charles Marville -  Crystal Globe and Iron Gates - Parc Monceau, c. 1865-1869, Louvre Museum, Paris.

08 June 2012

Vittorio Zecchin & Stile Liberty

Looking at Vittorio Zecchin'a work the obvious reference point is Gustav Klimt.  We've been prepared to see an affinity between the two artists by legions of art historians who present a linear narrative that tells us Zecchin was a lesser artist influenced by the famous Viennese Secessionist.  But is that all there is to the story?

Looking closer at Zecchin,  we see a Venetian artist using  the art history of Venice as his textbook.  The arrangement of human figures  in procession he saw in the churches of Venice and  the elaboration of abstract designs was familiar from the Byzantine architecture of the Doge's Palace.  He combined design elements typical of Murano glass: corollas, stars, and flowers  with geometrical forms. 

What makes Zecchin different from Klimt is what makes Venice different from ViennaKlimt's patterns also draw on historical sources but what scandalized his contemporaries was the sex in the mosaics as much as in the naked human figures.  Ovoid shapes intermingled with spermatozoa circulating on a sea of avid  eyes could hardly go unnoticed by a public that greeted each new monograph from Sigmund Freud with shocked fascination.  Everything seemed to be reducible to the sexual impulse in Freud's interpretations and in Klimt's art sexuality had even penetrated  the shell of abstraction.

Vittorio Zecchin (1878-1947) was  sixteen years younger  than Klimt and his career got a late start due to to the conservative teachers he encountered at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Venezia.  The son of a glass maker on the island of Murano, Zecchin grew up surrounded by the stylized use of color as decoration and design.  The gold-leaf mosaics in the Basilica of San Marco  earned it the nickname Chiesa d'Oro (Church of Gold) soon after it was consecrated in 1094.  Klimt, who didn't travel much, visited Venice specifically to see the mosaics. 
As we just saw in Giacomo Balla's The Madwoman the Divisionist style of painting, popular during Zecchin's youth,  employed discrete dabs of color,  a move that created a painted surface similar to a mosaic or a glass bijoux.   He attended the Venice Biennials each year, including the large Klimt show in 1910, but exhibited his own work with  the  rejected artists  in a tent city on the beach in 1914.

The reviewers for  the daily papers were not always kind to Zecchin, but that changed in 1913 when he was commissioned to execute a series of panels based on The Thousand and One Nights for the Hotel Terminus.  The finished work is a masterpiece of  Italian art nouuveau (Stile Liberty) and, although the panels have since been dispersed to various collections, the Ca' Peraso where Zecchin himself exhibited is presenting a reunion of the eleven panels during an exhibition in 2012 dedicated to the art of Zecchin - under the guise of the "Klimtiano"  150th anniversary year.

1. Ca' Pesaro exhibition poster - Panel from The Thousand and One Nights, 1914, Musei Civici, Venice.
2. Le Stelle (The Stars), undated Wolfonsian Museum, Miami.
 3...Perle, undated, Wolfonian Museum, Miami.
4. title attributed -  and overlapping hills, Musei Civici, Venice.
5.  Deer The Three Wise Man, 1913, Musei Civici, Ve

05 June 2012

Alda Merini: There But For Fortune

"Hours wasted in vain
in the asylum gardens,
Back and forth along the walls
made fierce with flowers,
All of us lost in a fleeting
dream of reality,
Which some cleric
tossed behind our backs.
And after meeting
some patients smile
at the fake friendliness.
Time wasted in whirling thoughts,
hedged in behind the bars,
liked naked swallows.
Then we listened to the sermons,
we multiplied the fishes,
Down near the Jordan,
but Christ was not there:
He had uprooted us from the world,
Like dreadful weeds."
 - Near the Jordan by Alda Merini, tranlsated from the Italian by Stephanie H. Jed & Pasquale Verdicchio.

If you don't read Italian your chances of stumbling on the poems of Alda Merini are slight.  Merini (1931-2009) lived most of her life in her native Milan.  She showed a talent for poetry at an early age and, in spite of enormous internal turmoil, she eventually published more than one hundred volumes.  In photographs we see her wavy brown hair and the cigarette in her hand .  She had the additional misfortune - if you want to call it that - to be nominated for the Nobel Literature Prize in 1996, the same year as the Polish poet, Wislawa Szymborska, who won the prize. 
Merini's thoughts never skated over the surface of life like a water beetle.    Near the Jordan is an exemplary poem of Merini's,  holding opposing ideas in balance - or at bay -  in an unsteady state. Between the altered states of  incarceration  and freedom she lived with a double consciousness,  experienced at times as a gift,  at other times as a burden.  If this seems dark, Merini's poetry also conveys a light ouch.  I like to think of Merini's aphorisms when I think of the ponderousness of church fathers.

"I am completely
Not counting
Errors and omissions."
 - from Six Aphorisms, 1999,  Alda Merini, translated from the Italian by Douglas Basford.

 Giacomo Balla - La Folle 1905, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna, Rome.
For further reading:
The Holy Land by Alda Merini, translated from the Italian by Stepahnie H. Jed & Pasquale Verdicchio, Buffalo, Guernica Books: 2002.
I Am A Furious Little Bee by Alda Merini, translated from the Italian by Carla Billitteri, Oaklamd, Hooke Press: 2008.
Love Lessons by Alda Merini, translated from the Italian by Susan Stewart, Princeton, Princeton University Press: 2009.
 You may also be interested in:
 The War of Nerves: Peter Altenberg & Emily Holmes Coleman, posted here November 3, 2011
All the Planets in Heaven, All the Stars: Gaspara Stampa, posted here August 28, 2010.
Visit the Alda Merini website (in Italian)