Currier and Toulouse Lautrec a Great match

Currier Museum of Art
Manchester, NH
Through January 7, 2018

Aristide Bruant
Art and the bourgeois life don't get along very well. There's something about comfort, contentment, and respectability that gets in the way of creative muses. If you think about it, some of the greatest art has been made by tortured souls: Courbet, Van Gogh, Schiele, Claudel, Kahlo, Warhol…. With the possible exception of Van Gogh, few plumbed the depths as deeply as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901). A new show at the (underappreciated) Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, New Hampshire, displays more than a hundred of Lautrec's works and it's easily one of the best shows of the year.

Lautrec was born into an aristocratic family, but was beset by problems and ill health from the beginning. He broke one leg at age 13, the other at 14, and neither healed properly. This was blamed for the fact that he stopped growing, but the congenital condition that often bears his name is the more likely culprit. His parents were first cousins from a line of inner-bred families. Although Lautrec's head and torso were normally shaped, Lautrec topped out at 4'8" and his short legs and fingers are consistent with inherited forms of dwarfism. But even had he been of normal stature, Lautrec was not temperamentally suited for conventionality. By six he showed distaste for propriety and a precocious artistic ability for the painting, drawing, ceramics, and printmaking that consumed his remaining thirty years on earth. Later came drinking, prostitution, absinthe addiction, and failed flings in the commercial art realm. He left behind more than 5,000 drawings, around 1,000 oil and watercolor paintings, some 360 prints, and a smattering of objects and sculptures. 

Jane Avril
  The hyphenated "Toulouse" was an affected part of his last name; Lautrec assumed it after an 1887 exhibition in that French city. But it was the opening of the Moulin Rouge that had the greatest impact on his art. Lautrec spent his days among gays, lesbians, whores, the sporting crowd, and addicts such as himself before dying of alcoholism and syphilis at age 36. There were few better at presenting the allure and horrors of debauchery than he. But just because Lautrec indulged in Parisian lowlife didn't make him uncaring. As the Currier exhibition shows, Lautrec's sympathies lay with the prostitutes, can-can girls, and entertainers, not their clients. His favorite models included bombastic cabaret singer Aristide Bruant, the clown Cha-U-Kao, comic actress Yvette Guilbert, and can-can dancer Jane Avril. He also adored the prostitutes and often showed them in candid moments: in the bath, lesbian lovers embracing, dressing, dancing, combing their hair…

Shadowy predator?
The term "male gaze" wasn't invented until 1975, but Lautrec understood it and his compositions suggest he was disgusted by it. He often displays female escorts and prostitutes in full color and/or detail, but reduces the older bourgeois men to silhouette shadow, or parody. Sometimes he uses salacious poses to call attention to what the male gaze is really about, not what it pretends to be. 

Eros Vanquished

Lautrec also had a sharp critique of social conventions of all sort. What else is one of make of the suggestive cover for Catalogue d'affiches artistiques (Catalog of Artistic Posters)?  Of plunging necklines and gratuitous crotch shots? Or his devastating Eros Vanquished? Or his wicked depiction of a an early automobile driver—a pursuit of the wealthy at the time of his death—in which the driver looks like as if he lifted images of a maniacal anarchist and put him in a car jacket.

His irreverence and humor partly explain why Lautrec never made much money with commercial art and most of his prints adorned small magazines or the dance halls and bars he frequented. His was a tragic life, but what a trove of treasures he bequeathed us.I highly recommend seeing these prints from the Museum of Modern Art in Manchester, as MoMA seldom has this many on display at one time.

Rob Weir


Sjostrum, Dunne, Kilgore, Strong Water and Others: New Music

Tyler Sjöström is a Chicago-based singer with umlauts in his name and desperation in his soul. He has a new album, Bones, Hold Me Up, plus a Noisetrade project called Saucy Sampler and here's your takeaway point: he really knows how to frame a song. His songs tend to deal with themes such recovery, survival, and trying to be strong—which would be standard folk fare, except that his takes are smart, honest, and robust. "Holding On" is a catchy tune ditty of the hand-clapping variety, but his strong guitar, open voice, and offbeat cadences make it more than that. "Red River" is another one that catches you slightly off guard. Sjöström doesn't have a naturally big voice, but he makes it sound that way and tosses in some whistling for something that's like Appalachia meets the Great Plains. "Straight Bourbon Whiskey" is about a sad man who I merely "half way gone," knocking himself out with things that "won't kill my body/It will kill soul." I also really liked "Ghostly," which comes off as electrified mountain music with resonant low notes and a definitive bom-bom-BOM pattern that makes for a really great arrangement. If my review doesn't entice, you gotta love a guy whose take on his own art is "music wrought by the love of the wild and the pursuit of truth, spun as cognitive word vomit with the frills of folk." Stick this guy on your one-to-watch-for list. ★★★★

Brian Dunne is a Brooklyn-based singer songwriter with a voice that's what a folkier version of Ryan Adams might sound like. Dunne's Bug Fixes and Performance Improvements is a confessional album and the sins for which he wishes forgiveness is that he has a tendency to screw up a lot. His single "Don't Give Up On Me" is typical. It's a gorgeous little song—made all the more so with Liz Longley singing backup—rendered in high sweet voice. In it he admits he's not perfect and that he's looking for perseverance more than redemption. Another really great song is "Taxi," which about the search for something unknown and unnamed.: He said kid are you going?/I said that's a good question/He laughed and said you'll figure it out/But I'm riding in the backseat?in this old taxi/Heading through a tunnel downtown. Many of Dunne's songs are stripped down, which gives the LP the feel of a live performance. I really liked his honest emotions and the way in which he tosses off lines that capture them. "We Don't Talk About It" is about a relationship in which the lights have gone out: We don't talk about it anymore/Your silence is your way of war. There's just enough electric guitar in this one to add to the desperation. "Here I Go Again" has a nice riff, the first part of which is evocative of Richard Thompson's "Vincent Black Lightning." The scattered and quick notes mirror lyrics that express the fear that another screw-up looms. "Chelsea Hotel" is also terrific. It's famed for the fact quite a few angst-ridden people have dwelt there and Dunne uses it as a metaphor for ghosts and psychological crutches. Yet it, like most of the material, is so musically pleasing that it takes a moment to get that. Terrific album from still another talented alum of the Berklee School of Music. ★★★★

Little Reader is a Nashville-based pop duo consisting of Kate Tucker and Russ Flournoy. Their debut release, The Big Score, draws inspiration from bands such as Depeche Mode by way of The Bangles. Featured track "Speed of Light" is typical of Little Reader's approach. It's filled with oscillating electronic pulses and guitar that's made fresh through hints of musical retrofitting. It's danceable and catchy. The downside is that this is also the formula for other songs I sampled: "Running Toward the Sun," "Burn Eternal," and "Best Regret." Overall the instrumentation dazzles more than the vocals. Flournoy has the power to punch through the thick mix, but Tucker's is better suited for quieter material. More variety would guard against becoming a now-but-not-tomorrow phenomenon. ★★ ½

You never know what will happen when you leave a town like Bellingham, Washington and land in Austin. It worked well for Shawnee Kilgore, who you might know for doing some music for director Joss Whedon. Now the two of them have an EP, Back to Eden, a six-song project for which Whedon wrote most of the lyrics and Kilgore the music. Kilgore has the kind of voice you'll either love or think odd; it's small and a bit nasal, but I like the fact that like all good singers, she knows how to bend, inflect, and color it. My favorite track is "Unforgiven," with its wonderful line, I was told I came out crooked/So I walked a crooked line. The fiddle and backing vocals come from Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek. The title track is also superb. It has a lonesome feel that's enhanced by Janeen Rae Heller's musical saw and deepened by Vanessa Freebairn's cello. I also liked how Kilgore's voice contrasted to Eric Holden's bass on "Three Legged Dog," and slid between Peter Adams' quiet piano in "Love Song." ★★★★

Strong Water is a Harrisonburg, Virginia-centered trio plus friends whose take on Americana is influenced by Noah Gunderson and Mumford and Sons. I'd call it muscular bluegrass sifted through rock and folk rock. Their debut LP, titled Strong Water, makes them a band to watch. Lead vocalist Greg Brennan, also the band's guitarist, has a whiskey-soaked voice that is so powerful that he over-sings on occasion—more like he's playing arena rock than bluegrass—but he performs with such earnestness that it's easy to forgive him. But you will certainly not find flaws with the amazing fiddling of J.J. Hosteller, or the fine harmonies she lays down behind Brennan. Check out the cool slow-run-run-run-slow patterning of "Tippie Canoe," the lead/echo vocal formula of "Remember July," the desperation of "Derailed," and the atmospheric moodiness of "Evergreen." These are all fine songs but what will linger in the end are the superb arrangements. There's the breakdown fiddle of "Streets of Gold," the back-beat of "Dinobones," the fiddle/cello opening of "Golden Days," and the as-advertised "Jam in G." If these don't spin your head, "Whiskey Sour" will. Its electric power is shot through with rock and R& B, but it's the strings that sound more dangerous still. Here's a young band that knows how to build drama. ★★★★

If you like big music, as in B-I-G, try The Weeks and their ironically named Easy Does It. This is bop and hop dance music—not always profound, but good loud rock n' roll. "Bobby" feels like a souped-up 50s throwback and even has a switchblade reference to give a whiff of dangerous nostalgia. Check out the structure of "Wishin' My Week Away," but put away all the technical analysis—it's basically noise, a few guitar runs, noise, more runs, and lots of noise. And that's kind of their point. There are occasional lead guitar breakouts, but these Jackson, Mississippi lads are more into rock as attitude and amplitude. "Lawman's Daughter," for instance, is a classic bad boy/good girl song and the fact that he's a wanted man complicates things, to say the least. A personal favorite was "Talk Like That." Not much poetry in this one either—it's just robust and loud for those times when that's all I want from a song. ★★★


American Pastoral: Video Review

Directed by Ewan McGregor
Lionsgate, 108 minutes, R (language, violent images, sexual content)
★★ 1/2   

American Pastoral was one of the biggest box offices bombs of all of 2016. In most places it closed before the theater popcorn filled the hopper and it took in a mere $541,000. It's not that terrible, but being merely mediocre isn't good enough for an adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Philip Roth (1998).

To repeat a point I've made in other reviews, there simply haven't been many decent films about the 1960s counterculture. Most are either embarrassingly romantic or conservative screeds. American Pastoral gets credit for at least attempting to interject nuance, but ultimately it's as flat a bowling alley. The blame for this rests squarely on the shoulders of director Ewan McGregor, who simply hasn't mastered that role at this stage of his career. The film opens in 1995, with Roth's frequent alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn), in Newark to attend his 45th high school reunion. There he runs into an old friend, Jerry Levov and right away we have problems. For old friends, Nathan and Jerry are icier than freezer pops in Greenland. The scene is a hackneyed device for one of the most shopworn of all filmmaking techniques: the voice over narrative that sets up a flashback.

American Pastoral centers on Jerry's brother, Seymour ("Swede"), who was the high school/college Golden Boy who married the Golden Girl and former Miss Jersey, Dawn Dwyer (Jennifer Connelly). After amusing but overly sweet overtures to convince Swede's father, Lou (Peter Reigert) that a nice Jewish boy and a nice Roman Catholic girl are meant for each other, Swede (McGregor) and Dawn proceed to build a Golden Life in the Golden 1950s: a tidy home, Swede's takeover of Lou's glove factory, a happy interracial workforce, and the birth of a flaxen-haired daughter upon whom her parents dote. But we all know what Shakespeare said about the glister of gold. The Vietnam War radicalizes daughter Meredith (Dakota Fanning), mom and pop are at a loss to know what to do with foul-mouthed angry as a hornet "Merry," and are too inept to prevent her from trudging over to New York City to hang out with other radicals. The Levovs vainly try to stay above the turmoil of the 1960s—rather turgidly told through stitched-together news clips—and to maintain the historic alliance between blacks and Jews in the wake of the Newark race riot. The latter gets a stagey treatment, by which I mean it truly looks more like a theater set than an urban riot. Piece by piece, Merry is slipping away. When a bombing kills an innocent shopkeeper the Levovs have known forever, Merry is the prime suspect and disappears within a group that's the Weather Underground thinly veiled. Every new bombing makes the Levovs wonder if Merry is involved.

Roth readers will recognize another common trope: the erosion of the American Dream. (How meta—a trope about a trope!) Dawn is metaphorically and then physically transformed by all of this, while Swede grows obsessed with trying to find his daughter and wonders what has happened to basic human decency when his only connection to her is Rita Cohen (Valerie Curry), a vulgar slogan-chanting taunt-the-Establishment punk. The deeper Swede goes, the more his American pastoral turns to parched earth.
McGregor departs from the novel at various places as the film winds to a clunky conclusion—none of which are improvements.

There's a lesson here: Don't try to upgrade a book that carries off literature's top prize. Here's another: Ewan McGregor is much better in front of the camera than behind it. It's an interesting idea to play off the liberalism of his central family. We seldom see the clash between liberals and radicals in films about the 1960s, though the two did indeed despise each other with as much fervor as they battled conservatives. There's also an enticing theme of liberals betraying each other. Sadly, McGregor lacks the panache to flesh out these moments or to bring to life much of the detail from Roth's novel (some of which was drawn from actual people he knew).

Maybe it's not so surprising that it took nearly twenty years for anyone to make American Pastoral into a film. Perhaps it's simply too sprawling in scope to lend itself to a good adaptation. Should you watch McGregor's effort? There's certainly no harm in downloading it. Like I said; it's neither terribly good not terribly bad. It just made me sigh. If we can make so many great films about Vietnam, why haven't we made at least one about the war at home?

Rob Weir