Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Miscellaneous: The Lesson of Violence?

The war on terrorism, they tell us, has done nothing but breed new terrorists--terrorists that would not have emerged had we not waged war. Terrorists attack and kill at Charlie Hebdo in Paris. The result is a new cartoon of the muslim prophet in an issue published in vastly greater numbers than usual, bought and seen by far more people than would have otherwise seen it. Maybe there is a lesson here for both sides?

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Art I'm Looking At: Arnold Newman: Masterclass at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco

While some of Arnold Newman's images are very well known--including a few of the most recognizable photographic portraits of the 20th Century--my guess is the vast majority of people would be unable to tell you the name of the photographer behind that famous portrait of Stravinsky at the piano, the famous Picasso portrait with the sitter's hand on his face, the famous Salvatore Dali portrait with the hanging wire, the famous portrait of Yasser Arafat.... The images are instantly familiar, the name of the man who created them less so. It's therefore a treat to see so many of Newman's photographs--most but not all portraits--on display at one time, nearly 200 prints in all, in the first posthumous retrospective of his work. Even those who think themselves very familiar with Arnold Newman are likely to find a lot to look at here.

"Masterclass" is an apt subtitle for the show now on at San Francisco's Contemporary Jewish Museum: with only a few exceptions, each of the images on display is an object lesson in the art of photography--more specifically, in the art of composition. Newman had an uncanny ability to capture what was essential about the sitter and his or her environment and to see physical manifestations of the connections between the two. There is something wonderfully abstract existing simultaneously with the projected presence of the sitter in the portraits and the abstract images seem to project something alive beyond their formal elements.

Go. Drink the photographs in one by one. Learn from the placement of compositional elements in space--the collage-like effect of some of the images (notably the Greorge Grosz portrait, above left), the shapes and their echoes so carefully arranged in others (Jean Arp, Yasuo Kuniyoshi--Kuniyoshi at the top of the page), the careful attention to cropping in all. Almost no one did it better. Arnold Newman: Masterclass is on view through February 1, 2015 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, at 736 Mission Street, San Francisco, CA 94103 (415-655-7800).

Art I'm Looking At: J. Otto Seibold and Mr. Lunch at the Contemporary Jewish Museum

I visited the Contemporary Jewish Museum last week to see the extraordinary show of photographs by Arnold Newman on view there through February 1, 2015 but along the way stopped in to see J. Otto Seibold and Mr. Lunch at the same museum, the current show in a series that has focused on Jewish book illustrators. I'm so glad to have seen this small, imaginatively installed tribute to the ground-breaking illustrations of J. Otto Seibold for his Mr. Lunch series with Vivian Walsh. Mr. Lunch is a small white terrier who had charming adventures in a series of books from the 1990s that, unfortunately, are now out of print. Mr. Lunch Takes a Plane Ride (1993), Mr. Lunch Borrows a Canoe (1994), and Free Lunch (1996) deserve to find a new audience.

Seibold was among the first children's book illustrators to use a computer to execute his drawings, working on a Macintosh with Illustrator. I bought my first computer (a Macintosh Centris 650) in February 1994. It had a 25 MHz processor. Photoshop at the time was black and white only. I imagine Illustrator was equally crude compared with its current iteration. This is the period the books come from. Seibold was a pioneer. What is extraordinary about his style, however, is the way he achieves a warmth not usually associated with computer-generated imagery. His drawings maintain a very human quality. They don't have a distracting digital look. Despite the early software, they don't look at all crude. They require no apologies whatsoever. His illustrations are distinctive and simply delightful--immediately appealing but also peppered with funny, quirky details that make them a pleasure to pore over. Mr. Lunch and his surroundings owe a greater debt visually to the work of Miroslav Sasek, best known for his series of books about great cities of the world, such as This is San Francisco--a debt Seibold freely acknowledges. Margaret and H. A. Rey (creators of Curious George) are another apparent and freely acknowledged influence. Yet, Mr. Seibold looks like Mr. Seibold.

The installation recreates scenes from some of the books. The entrance to the room is through airport customs, taken from Mr. Lunch Takes a Plane Ride. A plane from the book sits in the middle of the space. On one side of the room is the prison cell Mr. Lunch finds himself in in another adventure (echoing Curious George's incarceration for having inadvertently called out the fire department to quell a non-existent fire). On a back wall, facing outside windows, Mr. Seibold has painted a mural referring to the installation of the show--a new and unique work. The walls otherwise are adorned with prints of illustrations from the books, some paired with original sketches that preceded the digital renderings. Well worth a visit. J. Otto Seibold and Mr. Lunch is on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, at 736 Mission Street, San Francisco, CA 94103 (415-655-7800) through March 8, 2015.

Books I'm Reading: The Black Count

It's always a pleasure to read a book that lifts a deserving subject out of undeserved obscurity. Tom Reiss's The Black Count (I read the paperback edition, Broadway Books, 2012) paints such a vivid picture of General Alex Dumas that you wonder why his name was not better known before Reiss's book appeared (the general was quite famous in his day, but had been largely forgotten). Perhaps it's simply my own ignorance that's been lifted here, but, prompted by reading the story of the black count, I'm now reading a thick, recent biography of Napoleon.  Surprisingly, that book mentions Dumas only in passing, although Dumas became General-in-Chief of the Army of the Alps, distinguishing himself during the French campaigns against Austria in the 1790s, and acted as Napoleon's General-in-Chief of the Cavalry during the later Egyptian campaign. It seems history--or historians anyway--have slighted Dumas as deeply as Napoleon, who quickly grew jealous of the tall, strikingly handsome count, despite his having been one of the Emperor's most loyal and successful generals, treating him rather shabbily. Reiss's book is interesting not only for the details of General Dumas's life it presents but also for the background the book offers illuminating early life in the French colonies (specifically Saint-Domingue), the history of race-related legislation in France (which was remarkably forward-looking just before and during the French Revolution, although Napoleon rolled back much of the progress), and the connections between the life story of General Alex Dumas (who was imprisoned for years in a tower and poisoned) and the work of his writer son, Alexandre Dumas, who drew heavily on his father's experiences for his novel The Count of Monte Cristo. Meticulously researched, going back to original sources; half the fun of reading this book is following the first-person sub-narrative of Reiss's detective work.
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