Category Archives: art

The Vanishing Velázquez 

l54j4lkjWhen Laura Cumming described seeing Velázquez’s famous Las Meninas in the Prada museum in Madrid in The Vanishing Velázquez, I immediately connected with her epiphany.  Copies of the famous scene do not compare to seeing the life-sized scene in person. As I listened to the docent’s information about the seventeenth century picture when I visited, I experienced those same feelings as Cumming of being in the room with the infanta and imagining she was staring back at me.

9781476762180_p0_v3_s192x300 Cumming, the art critic for The Observer, follows nineteenth century bookseller John Snare’s obsession with a long lost portrait of King Charles I by renowned Spanish artist Velázquez.  As she documents the bookseller’s journey from discovery to disgrace, she includes short lectures on Velázquez, and carefully analyzes not only the characters in Las Meninas but  also many of Velázquez’s other paintings. With a storytelling style making the facts seem like fiction, she inserts historical anecdotes taking the reader inside the portraits’ lives.

Cumming cleverly inserts her lessons on Spanish history and on Velázquez’s art, painlessly informing the reader in alternate chapters while maintaining the motivation to know more about the one particular painting discovered by the bookseller.  Although I impatiently kept looking for the next chapter about John Snare, I never skipped Cumming’s chapters about art history.  If anything, she has motivated me to return to the Prada to see the art again in the light of her review.

As much an analysis of the artist’s work as a quest for finding the missing portrait, the book draws the reader into a fascinating glimpse of the seventeenth century with tales of King Philip’s Baroque court and the characters who became the focus of Velázquez’s art.  Under commission from the king, Velázquez painted at the king’s request and his art adorned the walls of the Alcázar  palace before it burned down. Most of his work remains in Spain today at the Prada museum.

As I read the intervening chapters digressing from the hunt for the missing Velázquez, Cumming’s descriptions of the Spanish court had me stopping to investigate the royal Spanish family.  Just like the royal line of Britain, Spain’s order of succession was full of wars, intermarriage, and heirless kings.  Philip IV,  Velázquez’s patron, had a difficult reign and was succeeded by the last of the Hapsburgs.  With careful attention to many of Velázquez’s portraits and scenes, Cumming notes how he recorded the lives and interactions at court – almost the way a photographer would do today. Through Velázquez, the era comes alive, and unlike his contemporaries who sketched drafts before the final production, his paintings capture the moment in one take with no preliminaries or revisions.  His paintings captured the moments – revealing and sustaining the history through his genius.

The search for the missing portrait of Charles remains the focal point of the book.  Cumming sustains the suspense about the missing portrait as she follows Snare from respected bookseller in Reading, England to his court battles in Scotland, and his final journey with the painting to New York City.  Despite the cost he pays, both personal and financial, Snare never sells the painting.  The big mystery, however, is never solved.  Where is the painting today?

Sadly, no copy of the missing portrait exists and no recent  descendants of Snare can be found.  Nevertheless, Cumming ends on a hopeful note with a tribute – and a graceful unspoken nod to her father, whose death inspired her to research and write the story:

“The figures of the past keep looking into our moment. Everything in Las Meninas is designed to keep this connection alive forever.  The dead are with us, and so are the living consoled. We live in each other’s eyes and our stories need not end.”

Although reading The Vanishing Velázquez requires patience and a slow and careful read, the reward is a better appreciation of art history and an exciting adventure into the art world rivaling any fictional tale.

Related ReviewThe Art Forger

At Home With Monsters

  Do you like scary stories? I still remember the thrill of reading my first Edgar Allen Poe tale and wanting more. When I viewed the special exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) on director Guillermo del Toro’s collection, I found a number of familiar macabre literary references,  including life-size statues of authors H.P. Lovecraft, dubbed “The King of Weird” by the New York Review of Books, and Edgar Allan Poe.

And the seven foot face of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein peering down at me from a balcony.   
 The exhibit – At Home With Monsters – includes over five hundred sculptures, paintings, costumes and books from the filmmaker’s private collection and offers an unusual look inside the creative process that converts stories into film.

I was drawn to exhibits showcasing the connection between books and film.  A short film brought Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” to life, with storyboards and illustrated  notebooks, and Lovecraft’s stories of vampires and the pale man emerged in del Toro’s depictions in the films Blade II and Pan’s Labyrinth. 

One of the most touching exhibits focused on a freak show at Venice Beach where del Toro notes “normal people are capable of monstrous behavior toward those who are different.”

Although the dimmed lighting in some rooms and sound effects in others added to the atmosphere, the monsters on show were not so scary.  Del Toro says, “The real monsters in our lives are in fancy tailored suits. There’s nothing more scary than people that are profoundly ignorant and profoundly certain. They always go together.”

Hamilton – The Script

17-lin-manuel-miranda.w529.h529 Since my chance of seeing the Tony award winning play Hamilton on Broadway with the original cast are impossible (key players leave the cast in July), Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter’s book – Hamilton: The Revolution was the next best option.  Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton uses hip-hop and rap to tell the story of Alexander Hamilton, the poor man who fought the British, defended the Constitution, and helped to found the United States. Full of page-sized pictures from the play, the book itself is large-sized, with the actual script, margin notes, and background information.

As I flipped through the pictures and then slowed down to read, Shakespeare came to mind.  Charles Lamb wrote Tales from Shakespeare, with the Bard’s words “translated” to make the stories of Shakespeare’s plays more understandable to young readers (and anyone else needing notes); Miranda and McCarter did the same with their book Hamilton.  The script includes margin notes deciphering the action and sometimes explaining the inspiration.  The words follow the hip-hop beat, reading like poetry most of the time, creating its own silent music.9781455539741_p0_v1_s192x300

With chapters interspersed throughout the script, the authors follow the play’s progress as it developed in the writer’s mind, including tryouts for some of the scenes and songs over the six years before playing Broadway.   Miranda’s inspiration for lyrics easily adds to the drama, and the tour behind the scenes on costuming and tryouts provides better understanding of the the play’s construction.  At times, the prose gets heavy with modern political asides, teaching moral lessons along with the history lessons.

More than once I found myself researching Hamilton’s role in the Federalist Papers and the Constitution, in the creation of the banking system,  in his relationship to George Washington. His famous duel with Vice President Aaron Burr is well-known, but I did not recall studying the Reynolds Pamphlet when I was in school, or the scandal of his three year affair. Miranda shows it to be the beginning of Hamilton’s decline.  Amazing how history repeats itself – affairs and scandals and payoffs.

Miranda admits to poetic license in creating a few characters who did not really exist, and in romanticizing some aspects of Hamilton’s life, but for the most part, he got it as right as the history books (which are constantly being rewritten) allow.

I still want to see the play someday – must be amazing to hear those words and feel the beat of history.


The Noise of Time

9781101947241_p0_v1_s192x300    To grasp Julian Barnes’ stream of consciousness rambling in The Noise of Time, background information on the narrator, famous Russian composer Shostakovich, is necessary, as is listening to his music.

With fleeting references to Dmitry Shostakovich’s youth as a musical prodigy, Barnes focuses the first part of his book on Shostakovich’s early success with his orchestrated Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Listening to the discordant and sharp tones can be both other worldly and agonizing. Despite world-wide acclaim, the opera irritated Stalin and the dictator left in the last act before the opera ends. As a result, Shostakovich was attacked in the Soviet press – usually a harbinger to miserable consequences in Stalin Russia. Fearing imprisonment – Barnes has him waiting every night by his elevator, expecting to be arrested.

Barnes successfully gets inside the composer’s head as he recounts the beginning of the Great Terror, in which many of the composer’s friends and relatives were imprisoned or killed, including his patron Marshal Tukhachevsky. Fearing for himself and his family, Shostakovich withdrew his next symphony and managed to write a conservative and non experimental Fifth Symphony in 1937 – conveniently title by the press as “A Soviet Artist’s Reply to Just Criticism.” Suddenly, he was back in favor. The seesaw continued through World War II in 1948 when a government decree accused him of perversion for his modernist music.

Part Two focuses on Shostakovich’s famous trip to the United States, as an emissary for Soviet Russia. The composer struggles with his inner convictions about music, and Barnes offers the theme of this tortuous tale, reflected in his title:

“Art belongs to those who create it and those who savor it. Art no more belongs to the People and the Party than it once belonged to the aristocracy and the patron. Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time.”
As Shostakovich unconvincingly parroted the the voice of Power in Russia – “what he was supposed to think” – his renunciation of Stravinsky, the composer he revered, seem to affirm the American view that he was only trying to be safe. For years Shostakovich’s wrote works glorifying Soviet life or history, quietly endured a tutor to indoctrinate him in Marxist beliefs, even joining the Communist Party in 1960, under duress. Barnes offers Shostakovich’s inner turmoil as absolution for his betrayal of fellow artists in the name of the government.

Throughout, Barnes identifies the constant struggle of the artist – “When a composer is bitter, or in despair, or pessimistic…{his} music…strong and true and pure {is} enough to drown out the noise of time…” His life continued to be a balancing act between being true to his music and satisfying his government.

Not an easy read, The Noise of Time opens the history of Russian politics and the music of Shostakovich in his fearful and oppressive world.

I found Shostakovich’s banned opera – Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk – on the internet, and the library had a CD of his Seventh Symphony, which I played in my car whenever I was out and about.  Together, listening to his music and reading Barnes’ treatise, gave Shostakovich’s life  substance – but I doubt I will ever really understand either.

Related Review:  The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos

9780374106683_p0_v1_s192x300  Dominic Smith adds to the list of stories about famous art thefts with his book about an obscure Dutch painter in The Last Painting of Sara de Vos.  Crossing through three time periods, Smith follows the creation, forgery, and final resolution of a fictional Dutch masterpiece.

Like Barbara Shapiro’s The Art Forger, Smith creates drama around the lives of the artists and those involved in the art world while educating the reader in art history.  Although Smith seems more intent on the minute details and history of Dutch painters lives and technique, the plight of his main character, Australian Ellie Shipley, holds the story together.  When I found myself nodding off through the heavy descriptions of preparing a canvas or muddling through the politics of old Dutch guilds, I read on to find out if Ellie, the forger art student who became renowned as an art historian, could survive her minor indiscretion and her major crime.

Smith flips disconcertedly from Sara de Vos, an early seventeenth century painter – one of the few women admitted to the art Guild – to Ellie Shipley in the 1950s when she forges the only painting by Sara de Vos, and then to Ellie’s life as a professor and curator in the twenty-first century when she faces the possibility of her past secret crime ruining her life.  Although the dates are clearly identified at the beginning of chapters, the jumping through time zones becomes somewhat frenetic and I often wanted to skip through the lecture on past lives to get to the present.

The author in his note before the story states that he  “fuses biographical details from several women’s lives of the Dutch Golden Age  {to create a story around} Sarah van Baalbergen, the first woman to be admitted to the Haarlem Guild of St. Luke.  Smith’s understanding of the era is notable as he deftly describes life and hardship for the struggling artists who were contemporaries of Rembrandt.  After being banned by the Guild and deserted by her husband, a fellow artist, Smith’s  fictional Sara de Vos stands with the well-known Dutch painter Judith Leyster as a leader in her time.

Ellie Shipley’s only masterpiece was her forgery of the de Vos painting for a shady art dealer.  As a starving graduate student working on her dissertation, Shipley eventually finds herself involved with Marty de Groot, a wealthy Manhattan lawyer and the owner of the original which has been in his family for 300 years.  When their paths cross again fifty years later, Ellie is in the awkward position of curating an art exhibit with two identical paintings for a show of women painters of the Dutch Golden Age at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. One is the original Sara de Vos painting, “At the Edge of a Wood,” stolen from de Groot; the other is the forgery, painted by Shipley. 

The story was a long slow slog, missing the excitement of a Shapiro book, but this is not a crime novel.  The yearning and romance of the two key characters – Sara de Vos and Ellie Shipley – are enmeshed in a well-researched treatise on the art world and Dutch women painters. The story is educational to a fault, and perhaps an improvement over a stuffy lecture hall on learning about the Dutch and their art.  

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