Monday, February 19, 2018

Another Evening with John McCutcheon

McCutcheon with his auto harp
A John McCutcheon concert is about a lot more than music. Sure, John is an extraordinary folk singer and songwriter. And he plays a multitude of instruments, including the hammered dulcimer.

But the glue that holds it all together is his storytelling. John can weave a tale like nobody's business. By the time he gets started singing, you have a sense of time and place and people that gives the song context and meaning.  

His recent concert at Riverwood began with a story about the annual third of July party and potluck supper in Avondale States, GA. John reported that the food people bring to this event is not your typical picnic potluck fare. "And I'm a folk singer," he said with a laugh. "I know potlucks."

One year John looked down at his plate and found an exceptional assortment of cuisines. His description of the combination made the audience laugh. There was a burrito and an egg roll alongside more traditional BBQ and fried chicken. And with that image in our minds, he launched into his song "Immigrant," which goes, in part:

"She said, 'Give me your tired'
Lord you know I'm weary
When she said 'Give me your poor'
She's talking to me
One of your huddled masses
Yearning to breathe free
And I have never lost sight of
What this journey has been for
See how she lifts her lamp
Beside that golden door....."

To hear John perform "Immigrant," click here.

Then there's the song "The Machine," included on his album Ghost Light that was hot off the presses the night of the concert. A transplanted Wisconsin boy, John lived in Charlottesville for a fair portion of his adult life. He raised his family there. And so the Ku Klux Klan rally held there last summer felt particularly personal.

John commented the day of the rally was the first time he was glad his father, a proud WWII veteran, was no longer alive. The song is written from the perspective of a veteran watching the marchers stride down the street in front of his home. The lyrics go, in part, "I didn't fight the Nazis to allow them in this place."

The refrain is an homage to Woody Guthrie's belief, clearly shared by John, that we all can use our own talents and skills to fight injustice. It goes, "Woody Guthrie had this guitar with the best sign that I've seen. 'This machine kills fascists.' We must be the Machine." John went on to say the Machine might be a musical instrument or a diploma or, even simpler, an outstretched hand.

To hear John sing "The Machine" with an accompanying video, click here.

You might be getting the sense that a John McCutcheon is only about politics. Au contraire. He also writes songs that will make you laugh out loud.

A lifelong baseball fan, John's Sermon on the Mound is an entire album devoted to America's favorite pastime. His "Talking Yogi Talk" is, you guessed it, a song that borrows liberally from Yogi Berra's classic statements. The audience was practically doubled over as he sang. Click here to hear it.

And then there's "The Red Corvette" -- a song John wrote about a woman selling a '94 Corvette for a mere $65. Click here to listen -- the punch line is more classic than the car. (Sadly, we didn't hear about the genesis of this song.)

With John
You've probably figured out that I've become a huge John McCutcheon fan. I've had the pleasure of talking with John twice for articles for Florida Weekly, and he is just a delight. In our recent conversation, I picked up where we'd left off last year.

John had been on his way to his grandson's pre-school to perform a gig there. "How'd it go?" I asked. I could hear a smile in his voice as he recalled his two year old grandson pulling up a stool next to him, strumming his banjo and singing along. Stiff competition.

John said his daughter is thinking of bringing his grandson to one of his concerts this year. Whoa. What will that be like for him to realize that his grandfather is famous and doesn't just sing around the house and at nursery school? 

I suggested it might be like a kid seeing their actor parent on the big screen for the first time. More modestly, John likened it more to running into a teacher in a grocery store and realizing they have a life outside of school. Or perhaps it will be like the thunderbolt that hit John when he saw a few strands of hair peeking out from a nun's wimple.

If you ever get a chance to see John perform, don't miss it. In the meantime, pick up one--or more--of his CDs. Ghost Light is a great place to start.

When she said “Give me your poor”
She's talking to me
One of your huddled masses
Yearning to breathe free
And I never have lost sight of
What this journey has been for
See how she lifts her lamp
Beside that golden door

Monday, February 12, 2018

11th Biennial National Art Exhibition at the Visual Arts Center

There are many things I'm going to miss about living in Punta Gorda. Of course the friends I've made are at the top of the list. My involvement with the Visual Arts Center runs a close second, though. Chairing the 11th Biennial National Art Exhibition has been the perfect swan song before I head up the road to Sarasota.
"Yvonne" by Sandra Kuck
First, some quick statistics. We received 574 digital entries from 218 artists in 38 states, Austria, Canada, Hong Kong, Japan and the UK. (Each artist could enter up to three works.) Our juror, Steven J. Levin, selected the 137 works on display for inclusion in the show. Steven then came down to Punta Gorda from Minneapolis and selected the 16 winners of the $7900 in prize money. All judging was done on a blind basis. His criteria were concept, color, composition, drawing and emotion.

Best of Show (with a check for $2000) went to "Yvonne" by Sandra Kuck of Boca Raton.  I've been involved with four national shows, and this is the first time I've agreed with the judge. In fact, I picked "Yvonne" as the award winner the second I saw it online.

But while "Yvonne" is stunning--Steven called the work a tour de force--it's not my favorite in the show. In fact, par for the course, the works that speak loudest to me didn't win awards. But that doesn't mean I can't share them here.

"Who's Next (#whosnext)"
by Dan Simoneau
"Who's Next (#whosnext)" is getting my vote for the People's Choice Award. (So much for the sanctity of the ballot box!) What initially drew me to Dan Simoneau's work was his use of light and shadow and the depiction of his model's musculature. Simoneau's intentions behind the painting put it over the top.

Simoneau lives near Chicago and frequently uses African-American youth from the city as his models. The painting shows Prince, one of his favorites. Prince came into the studio and, as he's wont to do, put on some music. On this occasion, it was heartbreaking blues. Simoneau's mind was immediately drawn to the high rate of shootings, arrests, stops and interrogations of African-American men. The striped shirt reminded him of prison bars. The position of his hands on his head evoked both the fetal position and the universal sign for "I don't have a gun." The vein pulsing in Prince's forehead indicates stress. It's a remarkable commentary on our times as well as an amazing work of art.

"Exodus 2:22" by Shirley Fachilla

Then there's "Exodus 2:22" by Shirley Fachilla. I was drawn immediately to the gorgeous colors of this painting. Perhaps I also sensed that the artist took the photograph used as her reference point in New York's Central Park. Again, the intention behind the painting gives it more meaning.

Fachilla says the painting is about how it feels to be alone in a new country. Her inspiration statement goes on to say, "In Exodus 2:22, Moses gave expression to every immigrant's feeling whether an immigrant now or in the second millennium B.C. 'For I am a stranger in a strange land,' said Moses."

"Happy Drinking Bird" by Kyle Surges

But don't worry -- I haven't gone totally political on you (nor has the exhibit). "Happy Drinking Bird" by Kyle Surges took Second Place in the show. It made me laugh in surprise and amazement the moment I saw the image of this work online.

Surges' artistic statement says this work was inspired by an episode of "Mad Men" in which the guys are standing around trying to figure out how one of these things works. This bird's drink of choice is an old-fashioned, another nod to our advertising execs. Kyle said that, like the bird, "I found that once you start drinking these, you really don't want to stop, which pairs nicely with the slogan on the box that the bird is packaged in."  My favorite part of the painting is the tiny drop of liquid on the bird's nose.

"The Reading Chair" by Ginny Lasco
Ginny Lasco's "The Reading Chair" is also high on my list of faves -- for obvious reasons. Her chair is so inviting that you want to just sit down and enjoy the view. (Our installation committee cleverly positioned the woman in "Exodus 2:22" so the chair appears to be her destination.) While Lasco's image is striking from across the room, it's only when you get up close that you truly appreciate the work. You can see the detail of every screw and pebble. The tiny cracks in the chair from sitting outside in all kinds of weather are another nice touch. We couldn't resist using this work as our primary image for marketing materials.

"Bleat" by Stephen Bufter

I'll leave you with a painting that makes me laugh every time I see it -- "Bleat" by Stephen Bufter. The story behind this painting was a bit of a surprise. Bufter got the idea for this work after helping birth lambs at a 15th century working farm B&B outside of Manchester, England. What really makes this painting for me is the fact the sheep is sticking out its tongue at the viewer. It makes me wonder if Bufter was taunted by his charges for taking a "City Slickers"-like vacation. What I can say with certainty is that it's the way I feel about anyone who misses the opportunity to see this fabulous show.

The 11th Biennial National Art Exhibition runs through March 20 at the Visual Arts Center in Punta Gorda, FL.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

"Goodbye, Vitamin" by Rachel Khong

A book about a 30 year old woman who takes a year out of her life to help care for her father--who's suffering from dementia--sounds pretty depressing. And if your own father bears some resemblance to Ruth's dad, well....  But I trusted Wendi's judgment that the book wouldn't put me in a funk. And I'm so glad I did -- "Goodbye, Vitamin" by Rachel Khong is a real treat.

Khong's debut novel is written in diary form and had me reaching for my post-its by the second entry, dated December 26. As part of her Christmas present, Ruth's father began sharing pages from a notebook he'd kept about her since she was a small child. The first page he showed her read:

"Today you asked me where metal comes from.  You asked me what flavor are germs. You were distressed because your pair of gloves had gone missing. When I asked for a description, you said: they are sort of shaped like my hands."  

Each entry from her father's notebook -- doled out over the year -- is a gem.

In another early entry, Ruth talks about a family photo that caught her attention -- a picture of her father and uncle with her just hours after she was born. Her father is wearing a black and white patterned t-shirt. The waistband of a pair of red pants just peeks into the photo. Inexplicably, her uncle is shirtless and, because of the angle, it seems he might be naked.

The story behind the photo had become part of their family lore. Uncle John had arrived at the hospital wearing a red shirt. Ruth's father was outraged. He had learned his newborn baby might be able to see red, black and white (hence, his outfit). What if baby Ruth got confused and bonded with her uncle instead of him? He insisted his brother strip off his shirt for the visit and -- good brother that he was -- he complied. 

As the book progressed, I realized it was not about her father losing his memory, but about memories more generally. As Ruth settles back into her childhood home, she runs into all kinds of characters from her childhood days. Memories of her younger years abound as she forges new relationships with old friends.

We learn her brother Linus' family memories are quite a bit different from Ruth's own. The five years he remained at home after Ruth went to college were filled with conflict. While Ruth knew what was happening, hearing about it was completely different than living through it. Linus' anger makes him reluctant to spend time with his father, even during his decline. 

Rachel Khong
Ruth's mother, of course, has her own perspective on her marriage and their family. And she's tired from struggling with her husband and his failing brain. But she's doing her best to help her husband at least maintain his mental status quo.

In one passage, Ruth says, "Mom's quit cooking, like a person might quit smoking or gambling." Not because putting food on the table has become too overwhelming a task, but because she's concerned that the "years of cooking in aluminum pots, cooking with canned good, led to the dementia."  

And then there's Ruth's father -- a once brilliant professor who's just been put out to pasture due to his declining health. You see the struggle of this proud man every day, and your heart breaks just a little. In a wonderful storyline, his students come up with an elaborate scheme for him to teach a semester-long course unsanctioned by the college. They use classrooms whose professors are out sick and offsite locations with loose ties to the historical subject matter being covered. But no good deed goes unpunished.

Towards the end of the book, Ruth's diary mimics the notebook her father kept when she was a child. 

August 1:  "Today you washed your shoelaces. Today you spoon-fed the neighbor's cat tuna from a can.... Today you disappeared again, and scared the shit out of us." 

The book jacket cites a review calling "Goodby, Vitamin""equal parts clever and tender." I agree, but would add funny and thought-provoking to the description. Not thought-provoking in the sense of making you consider big issues in today's complicated world, but in the sense of making you think about your own life and family.

As you can probably tell, I've fallen a bit in love with this book. Thanks to the Tournament of Books for bringing it to my attention. For more about the Tournament of Books and the selections in this year's competition, click here.  

Sunday, January 28, 2018

War and Pieced at The American Folk Art Museum

Samuel Atwood, Army tailor
I thought I was just killing time when I wandered into The American Folk Art Museum before a performance of Ayad Aktar's "Junk" at Lincoln Center. But I had stumbled into a fascinating exhibit about quilts made by soldiers, sailors and regimental tailors entitled "War and Pieced."

Most of the quilts in the show come from the collection of quilt historian Annette Gero. These quilts, made during conflicts in Crimea, South Africa, India, Prussia, Austria and France, were intended to be hung on walls as art or used as table coverings rather than bedding. The wall card went on to explain, "The end use was less critical than the act of creation itself, either during a campaign or upon return to the safe harbor of home."

Many of the quilts were made from fabrics used in regular military and dress uniforms. Some were actually taken from the uniforms of fallen soldiers.

Soldier's Quilt , probably India 1850-1880
In the eyes of the curator (and, presumably, Ms. Gero), "The uniforms, associated with the best and the worst of humanity, are thus rehabilitated as an act of redemption for those darker human impulses. The uniforms are metamorphosed into testaments of ordered sanity and beauty, even as the highly organized geometry grants the solder an illusion of control over the predations of war in which he has both witnessed and participated."

The quilt shown here was likely made during the British occupation of India during the mid-19th century. There apparently was not much going on militarily, so the soldiers had to find ways to productively spend their time. In an effort to keep the soldiers occupied, the British government offered industrial exhibitions and professional workshops at which the soldiers could learn skills like needlework.

Detail from Soldier's quilt
The detail in the Indian quilts in particular is a bit mind-boggling. Once again, I'll quote from the wall card, "[Quilts made in India] are often constructed in the inlaid technique, whereby the pieces are joined with little or no seam allowance so they are virtually identical on the front and back...But what really sets quilts made in India apart are the masterful technique, embellishment and attention to detail. ...each seam is expertly covered with rickrack, braid or embroidery. Surface embellishments might include glass beads and spangles or...the tiny discs of fabric ejected as buttonholes were pierced into woolens during the tailoring process."  Due to the complexity of these quilts, it is thought that most are the work of professional regimental or Indian tailors.

Detail from a Crimean War Signature Quilt 

I was touched by the example of a Crimean War Signature Quilt. You can see how much simpler this quilt is than its Indian counterpart. But the thought of a soldier--far from home and risking his life for his country-- taking up a needle and some fabric to make a quilt for his sister just kind of gets to me.

The idea of passing time by making quilts didn't only come from the British government. The popular press during the era romanticized the practice of military quiltmaking with the sentimental image of the drummer boy.Temperance periodicals also played a role, as they promoted the idea of quiltmaking as a masculine activity in hopes of providing soldiers (and other men) with an alternative to the evils of drink.

Intarsia Quilt with Soldiers and Musicians, 
Prussia, 1760-1780
Just when I thought the exhibit couldn't get more impressive, I walked up a few steps to an additional display area. The centerpiece of the room was a table displaying this 55' x 43' Intarsia quilt. (Intarsia is a specific type of inlaying often associated with woodworking.)

I learned that Intarsia quilts often rely on copy prints as sources for their design. (Another quilt depicted the members of the House of Commons from 1860 and was displayed next to a photograph from which the quiltmaker worked. It was a truly amazing replica of the lawmakers.)  It is believed this quilt was a tribute to King Frederick William III of Prussia with its centerpiece crest of the Prussian coat of arms.

Detail from King George III Intarsia Quilt
And speaking of coats of arms, I'll leave you with a detail from a King George III Intarsia quilt that makes me laugh. The image shown here is the centerpiece of the quilt. It depicts Queen Charlotte and King George standing above the royal coat of arms, which includes a guardian lion wearing St. Edward's crown and a Scottish unicorn. First of all, what's the deal with this lion, who more closely resembles the Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz than the ferocious king of the jungle? Second, why is the unicorn Scottish? According to Wikipedia's description of the coat of arms, the unicorn is considered a dangerous beast when allowed to run free and is thus typically depicted as chained. The characterization of the unicorn as Scottish, then, calls to mind the country's failed vote for independence. This royal coat of arms continue to be used today.

To learn more about this exhibit and see more (and better) images of these amazing quilts, click here to read a great article from a site called "Hypoallergic."

Friday, January 19, 2018

The Poetry Project's Poetry Marathon

Poetry. Marathon. These are not two words you typically pair. And yet I found myself on a cold New Year's Day in New York at the 44th Annual Poetry Marathon sponsored by the Poetry Project. 

The curated event runs from 2 p.m. until midnight or so, depending upon how close they run to schedule. Wendi and I headed to St. Mark's Church mid-afternoon and settled in. I was eager to see what the marathon was like, having heard about it for years from Wendi. While I'm not a poetry buff by any means, I'm intrigued by the genre. It's a true art to pack so much meaning into so few words. And besides, how bad could it be? If I really hated a poet, she'd be off the stage in two or three minutes, with the promise of someone great just around the corner.

It wasn't long before Nicole Sealey's reading of "The First Person Who Will Live to Be One Hundred and Fifty Years Old Has Already Been Born" grabbed me. It began:

"Scientists say the average human
life gets three months longer every year.
By this math, death will be optional. Like a tie
or dessert or suffering...." 

I loved her language and sought out the young poet during a break to tell her so. (To read the entire poem, click here.)

The Washington Squares reunited for the marathon
with a beatnik look. 
The straight up poets were interspersed with musicians, some of whom played avant garde work, some of whom played beautiful music, and some of whom sang. I was taken aback by how, well, bad the Double Yews were. (Wendi and I later decided it was intentional.) But then I listened to the words they were singing -- "Pity the Nation" by Lawrence Fehrlengetti set to the tune of "My Darling Clementine." It began:

"Pity the nation whose people are sheep
   And whose shepherds mislead them
 Pity the nation whose leaders are liars
            Whose sages are silenced
  And whose bigots haunt the airwaves..."

It hit me where I live. To read the poem, written in 2007, click here.  And to see the Double Yews' performance, click here.

Joseph Keckler
There was plenty of humor as well. I laughed out loud at Joseph Keckler's "The 2012 Mayan Apolcalypse," which he partially spoke and partially sang in a truly incredible operatic voice. To see his performance, click here.

While I enjoyed the seven+ hours of performances we attended, what I was most struck by was the sense of community in the room. Some of the poets were clearly legends in their milieu -- the 90+ year old Jonas Micas, for instance, and John Giorno, who was the subject of Andy Warhol's 1963 movie "Sleep." Some were downtown personalities, like Tammy Faye Starlite, Penny Arcade and Edgar Oliver (whose faux Transylvanian accent threw me for a loop). And some were poets more or less getting their start. Their performances were universally listened to attentively by an appreciative crowd.  Even the woman who dressed up as a peanut, danced around and eventually ate some of the debris off the tarp that had been wisely laid down got a positive response. (Click here to see that performance, which I guess was some sort of take on the Peanuts' dance????)

Steve Earle and Tammy Faye Starlite
I'll leave you with one of my favorite performances of the day. I was a bit baffled at the beginning -- was Tammy Faye Starlite actually exhorting this audience to be more supportive of he-who-shall-not-be-named? But then Starlite, backed by musician/writer Steve Earle, broke into a rousing rendition of The Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil." It was brilliant. Click here to see their performance.

After one taste of the marathon, I can see why Wendi has made it an annual tradition.

To read more about the marathon, click here

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

"Shakespeare in Love" at Asolo Rep -- the Costumes

Costume Designer Susan Mickey
"Shakespeare in Love" is the first of Asolo Rep's repertory productions to hit the stage this season. Like "Evita," its story will be familiar to many audience members. After all, the star-studded movie by the same name won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

The film practically cried out for a theatrical adaptation. Lo and behold -- the play premiered in London in 2014. The show has now made its way to Sarasota with director Rachel Rockwell and costume designer Susan E. Mickey. Both women were part of the show's production at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre last year.

Dorrit and I attended a costume designer brunch at which Mickey spoke. Hearing her insights -- and getting up close and personal with some of the show's costumes -- was a real treat.

Mickey talked about the challenge of working on a show that has a "visual history." "The audience will come into the show with certain expectations," she said. "It might be great in jeans and t-shirts, but that could create a hurdle to getting into the show." And so Mickey went full out Elizabethan with her costumes.

Sometimes, Mickey said, she actually went a bit too far. She called her vision of Queen Elizabeth's gown "extreme Shakespeare."  "Go big or go home," she said with a laugh. The lush costume includes a farthingale cage, a bum roll and lots of bling. It's an outfit truly befitting a queen.

But there was one problem. During dress rehearsal, they realized the heart-shaped ruff collar was so large it blocked out some of the actors. And so our Queen will appear onstage without this part of her wardrobe.

The men in the show will have two different silhouettes. The older, higher class characters will wear traditional pumpkin pants. It's not hard to figure out how the style got its name.

Will and the other men creating the story, however, will wear a more slimmed down look. It's all the better for the sword play in the show.

Mickey walked us through Will's costume, which will be seen in various iterations. The jacket -- made from three types of leather -- features doublets at the shoulders to tie in the sleeves. Little wings hide the ties for a finished look. In some scenes, the leather sleeves will be stripped away, leaving Will wearing a vest with a blousy shirt.

The seams in the costume are both authentic to the period and help the clothing fit and move with the actor. Both the shirt and the jacket lace up and will have to be adjusted throughout the show's run.

The costume is completed with knee-high boots. Mickey shared that the popularity of Renaissance fairs has made sourcing boots and other Elizabethan wardrobe components much easier than it used to be (not to mention more affordable).  Custom made leather boots would have run around $1500/pair. The boots the cast will wear run between $80-$100.

But they weren't good to go out of the box. The backs of the boots were split and grommets sewn in so they could be laced tight. Like the shirt and jacket, some tweaking will be required for each performance. Cushioning in the soles was also added for fit and comfort.

The best question from the audience came when someone asked, "Did men wear underwear in those days?" The answer -- not exactly.  Instead, they wore a piece of fabric external to their trousers called a codpiece. It tied in and provided some support while enhancing the man's package (for lack of a better word). Click here for a funny article about this specialized garment. Mickey noted she dispensed with this bit of authenticity for "Shakespeare in Love."

And then there's Viola. The dress shown here is the one in which she will make her first appearance onstage at the ball. Many of the female characters will wear peplum skirts, but none, Mickey said, are "as sassy" as this one. The pieced and corseted bodice accentuates the look.

The damask, brocade and velvet fabrics used in the women's costumes are downright luxurious. So perhaps Mickey's mention that fabric was often part of a woman's dowry in the day shouldn't have come as a surprise. A nice piece of linen was highly valued.

I suspect the number of layers of clothing women wore at this time pretty much eliminated any real comfort. In one scene, Viola will undress onstage so audience members get a sense of the amount of clothing involved.

All too quickly, our time with Mickey was over.  I'm looking forward to seeing "Shakespeare in Love" even more knowing a bit about what went into bringing it to the stage. The show will run at Asolo Rep through March 28 in repertory with "Morning After Grace" and "Rhinoceros."  Click here for more information and tickets.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Exhibit Hopping: Michelangelo, Munch and Modigliani

Michelangelo sketch of Libyan Sibyl

New York was bracingly cold, but the art scene this January is hot, hot, hot. Over the course of eight days, I hit seven museums – and wasn’t disappointed by any of the shows I took in. So a bit of sharing seemed in order.

Museums are rarely raucous, but the reverential tone of the galleries hosting the Michelangelo drawings exhibit at the Met was unlike any I’d experienced before. And why not? It’s not every day you get the chance to see beautifully preserved drawings created by a true master in the early 1500s.

Instead of hanging the drawings on walls, the Met displayed the works on two-sided stations. Each panel contained a single page of drawings and the accompanying description. This design allowed more people to view the works, but patience was still required.

My favorite part of the show was the room featuring a one-quarter size replica of the Sistine Chapel with related preliminary drawings. The page on which the sketch of this Libyan Sibyl (prophetess) was done reveals Michelangelo’s frugality; he often drew multiple images on a single piece of paper.  Interestingly, the model was not a woman but one of Michelangelo’s male assistants. The torque in her body reveals an amazing musculature common among Michelangelo’s figures. While Renaissance art isn't really my thing, this exhibit was quite special.  
Munch's "Sick Mood
at Sunset: Despair"

From there I headed to the Met Breuer and the Munch exhibit. We all know “The Scream,” a subject Munch created on four separate occasions in different media. His “Sick Mood at Sunset: Despair” is viewed as a precursor to those works. Munch himself considered it part of the series.

The idea for the painting came to him on a walk along a road with two friends. The dramatic sky overtook him and he says he “stood there trembling with fright.” He then felt—rather than heard--“a loud unending scream piercing nature.” The resulting paintings have become some of the best known--and adapted--in popular culture. (Think Macaulay Culkin in "Home Alone.")
Munch's "Self-Portrait
with Bottles"

What I enjoyed most about the exhibit, though, was Munch’s self-portraits (or, as he called them, self-scrutinies).  I was struck by the variety of styles in his work, from naturalism to impressionism to symbolism. His “Self-Portrait with Bottles" isn't the type of artwork I associate with Munch with its bright colors and sense of happiness. But there it was, hanging along with a scream-like self-portrait in which he pictures himself in hell and a realistic portrait of himself as a 23 year old setting out to take on the world. 

And here's a tidbit for you: Munch's work was seized by the Nazis during WWII when they stripped museums of art considered "degenerate." The term lumped together nearly all modern art, which--no surprise--didn't fit the German ideal. 

"The Jewess" 

Then there was“Modigliani Unmasked” at the Jewish Museum. The show explored the intentions behind the artist's distinctive faces.

Modigliani moved from Italy to Paris in 1905 when he was in his 20s. The mood in Paris wasn’t friendly to Jews. The aftermath of the Dreyfus affair continued to imbue the city with an anti-Semitism the artist had not experienced previously. Modigliani embraced his “otherness” despite an ability to pass as a gentile due to his appearance, cosmopolitan upbringing, and perfect French. He even went so far as introducing himself by saying, “My name is Modigliani. I am Jewish."

"Head of a Woman"
In African masks and sculpture, Modigliani found another people distinguishable by their “otherness.” He was also struck by the way the works combined abstraction with individuality. I hadn't seen any of Modigliani's sculptures before, and it was pretty exciting to view them--along with his paintings--next to examples of African masks and sculptures of the type he would have seen. 

Modigliani's distinctive portrayal of his subject's noses is thought to combine his appreciation for African art and his identity as a Jew. One wall card noted plastic surgery began being used by people during Modigliani's lifetime to modify features – like noses – not considered traditionally beautiful. Modigliani would have been aware of this practice and objected to it. 

Modigliani death mask

Modigliani died at the age of 36 from tuberculosis. Quite fittingly, two of his fellow artists made a death mask before his burial. Unfortunately, they weren't skilled sculptors and removed the plaster mold prematurely and broke it. (One description of the mask attributes their haste to being rushed by a nun working in the hospital in which Modigliani had died. His bed was needed for other patients.) Sculptor Jacques Lipchitz was able to save the mask, and he eventually made several plaster replicas and an edition in bronze. To read more about the desk mask, click here.

These exhibits alone would have satisfied me, but more shows enticed me to brave the cold. Stay tuned for my report.

Another Evening with John McCutcheon

McCutcheon with his auto harp A John McCutcheon concert is about a lot more than music. Sure, John is an extraordinary folk singer and ...