Renoir and Ida O'Keeffe at the Clark

Renoir: The Body, The Senses (through September 22, 2019)
Ida O'Keeffe: Escaping Georgia's Shadow (through October 6, 2019)
Clark Institute of Art
Williamstown, MA 

This summer's blockbuster exhibit at the Clark is devoted to Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919). In Renoir's lifetime he was heralded but his star faded to the point that, in 1986, one critic proclaimed him the "worst artist to ever achieve canonical status." I wouldn't go that far, but I confess that I'm more in second camp than the first. He's not my least favorite Impressionist–a category I reserve for Mary Cassatt–but I generally spend my time in Impressionist galleries gazing at the work of those I find more interesting (Pissarro, Monet, Manet, Morisot, Sisley).

The Clark's core collection features a lot of Impressionist works, so you go with what you've got and build on it. It's Renoir show dwells upon his nudes and how his attention to color, form, and texture impacted subsequent artists. His admirers were many and varied, among them Picasso, Maillol, Léger, and Matisse. Selections of their work are displayed as well so that one can make comparisons. Did this change my mind about Renoir?    

Not really. I get what art historians have said about Renoir's cheerful palette, one that's heavy on pastels and soft lines. At the end of the day, though, there's a reason why his work found favor with the tastemakers of his day when critics savaged many of his contemporaries. Renoir simply didn't spill much bathwater, even when painting nudes. His fleshy puffball bodies stand solidly within a canon forged by past masters such as Titian, Ruben, and Tintoretto. Some have called Renoir's work innocent in a prelapsarian fashion, though today some of the bodies he painted look pretty young and might ruffle contemporary feathers. I'm not going there other than to say that it's usually unfair to pass ex post facto judgment on cultural value systems. For me, Renoir's faces are more problematic than his bodies; they often appear vacant and/or insipid.

Mostly The Body, The Senses underwhelmed me because I found the work of Renoir's admirers far more interesting than his own. There is a telling remark is one of the panels in which Renoir is quoted as saying that he did not see his work as a radical departure as it was always his intent to fit within the sweep of Western European painting. He largely succeeded, which begs the question of whom do we find more appealing, those who long to conform (Renoir) or those who spit in the eye of convention (Manet, Picasso, Lautrec). My vote goes to the rebels. 

Ida and Georgia at Peace

For me, the Clark's best current exhibit is one devoted to Ida Ten Eyck O'Keeffe (1889-1961). If that last name tempts you to wonder if she was related to Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986), the answer is yes; she was one of Georgia's sisters and to say that there was family drama involved would be an understatement.

Let's start with why we know Georgia's name, but not Ida's. It's not because Ida was trying to piggyback on her older sister. She was a serious artist in her own right who apprenticed with a printmaker before obtaining an MFA at Columbia. Another sister, Anita, also trained as an artist. Here's where it gets ugly. Georgia was fiercely protective of her own artistic reputation and didn't like family competition. Anita faithfully gave up her art career at Georgia's insistence, but Ida did not. Georgia at first supported Ida, but things eventually soured and Georgia did little to help and quite a lot to discourage. (It probably didn't help matters that Georgia's husband, photographer Alfred Stieglitz, tried to seduce Ida. She rebuffed him, but one wonders if this got back to Georgia.)

The real question is how Ida's work stacks up. She's not another Georgia and her work is best approached on its own merits. The Clark showcases several aspects of her work. She was assuredly an observant modernist with an eye for reducing objects to geometric forms and sharp angles. I particularly liked her series of paintings depicting the solidity of Highland Light in North Truro (Cape Cod). Note how the lighthouse beam captures a fish as if it is being beamed aboard. She captures similar abstracted magic of a harbor scene in which bridge, sails, and cables are reduced to straight lines and bathed in somber light.  

Ida also painted buildings differently. Compare, for instance, how Ida rendered a Missouri limekiln as if it were a Spanish cathedral. It evokes the rooted-earth and reduce-to-basic shapes style of someone such as Charles Sheeler or Charles Demuth. If you know Georgia O'Keeffe's paintings of New Mexico adobe churches you can see how Ida tracked differently. There is also Star Gazing in Texas, which shows Ida at home with the proletarian art of the Great Depression. She's more Grant Wood than Georgia O'Keeffe in this iteration.

 Is Ida O'Keeffe an underappreciated great artist? That might be a bit much to claim, but she's intriguing and one wonders what her reputation would have been without all the family sturm und drang. She once proclaimed that she too would have been famous if she had a Stieglitz backing her. Was this a passive aggressive backslap at her headstrong and ego-fragile sister? Perhaps. Georgia invested a lot of energy is creating a Stieglitz-free niche for herself once she began spending more time in New Mexico than in New York, but it was her New York reputation that gave her the space and money to break out. Could she have done so without Stieglitz? As they say, families are complicated!

Rob Weir  


Number One? Who We Trying to Kid?

Downtown Elsewhere

It happens regularly about this time of the year. I wean myself from politics, ignore the talking heads, plug my ears to nostrums, and take a road trip. For several weeks I avoid TV, cancel the newspapers, and ban my index finger from tapping my AP Mobile app. I just try to observe what I see without filtering it through any third party.

As it often does, this year’s summer vacation tour detoured me through parts of Elsewhere USA. It’s an alien land to me because I live in Bubbleville. Mine is a place where democratic socialists do rhetorical battle with liberals, though both agree that Republicans are troglodytes. Not many people in Bubbleville care about a person’s race, sexuality, gender identification, immigration status, or religion. We tend to think reproductive rights are sacred, that gun ownership isn’t, and that healthcare should be free for all. Elsewhere USA generally believes the opposite. Another way of saying this is that Bubbleville USA is more like Canada than like Elsewhere USA.

For years I’ve simply shrugged when those from Elsewhere tell me that the residents of Bubbleville are unrealistic. No more. It’s time for Elsewhere to face the truth: you can don your MAGA hat, strap your gun to the truck rack, and wave as many flags as you want but you still reside in what a White House placeholder calls a “shithole country.”  

Eating Moss?
If that sounds harsh, open your eyes before you shoot off your mouth. Where is the vaunted American wealth? Oh it’s there all right­, in greenswards and McMansions screened from the sight of trailer parks, crumbling roads, Dollar General stores, fast food joints, gutted out downtowns, rust, desperation, and dilapidation. Visit some famous site and park among the BMWs, Volvos, and Teslas. Enjoy the view because once you leave you won’t see those vehicles in any Elsewhere towns within a 40-mile radius of that site. It’s back to screened-in security for those with means and it’s a dinner of magical thinking for Elsewhere USA. Raise the roof and chant “USA Number One!” even though you couldn’t come up with the scratch to repair that roof. Keep on chanting though there is little objective evidence to justify the wear and tear on your tonsils.

Elsewhere USA is a place where 40% of the population couldn’t scrape together $400 to cover an emergency. Even if you can, so what? Buying piles of plastic crap made in China doesn’t make you Number One. A gas-guzzler in the driveway, a 60-inch TV in the den, an iPhone in your hand, and tossing $10 in the church collection plate won’t make you Number One either. Look around. There just aren’t that many nice Elsewheres. Maybe that’s why so many flag wavers take solace in believing America is the strongest nation in the world. That might not be true either–America hasn’t actually won a war since 1945–but the ability to defeat someone militarily doesn’t make you Number One.  It just makes you the national equivalent of the 4th grade playground bully with big muscles and a pea-sized brain. Queue John Prine singing, “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You into Heaven Anymore.” 

Even if you have some money you still must consider the question posed by the Apostle Peter: “How then shall we live?” I don’t wish to romanticize Canada, from whence I write these words. There are plenty of problems here, but it is also consistently greener, cleaner, safer, and more prosperous than Elsewhere USA. In Canada, poverty resides in screened-in vest pockets and the average Joe and Jacques live better–even when they don’t own as much stuff. I’ve seen seedy looking places north of the border, but they stick out because they are unique, not the norm. Above all, there is an ineffable quality I note each time I’m here. How to describe it? Less anger? Greater civic pride? More self-respect? Maybe it’s as simple as paying more attention to living a good life than to shouting empty slogans.
Bubbleville Values

We try to live well in Bubbleville as well. It doesn’t always work. Our roads aren’t as good as they should be, we have too many homeless folks and empty storefronts, and there are still too many Bubbleheads in Bubbleville that don’t read enough, worry too much about material things, and are too individualistic. Overall, though, we get out more and are good at putting things into a global perspective. Seldom do I walk around Bubbleville and environs and think, “Just shoot me” when I imagine living there. It’s flat out better in Bubbleville than Elsewhere. We don’t need slogans to tell us that. The evidence is before our eyes.


July 2019 Album of the Month: Real Vocal String Quartet

Real Vocal String Quartet
Culture Kin

Have you noticed how many classically trained musicians cross musical borders these days? Call it the Yo Yo Ma Effect. It's not exactly accurate to say that the San Francisco-based Real Vocal String Quartet (RVSQ) is treading new ground as well. It has always been a genre-defying group that, when the mood strikes, is a chamber music ensemble, a jazz combo, or a world music lineup. On Culture Kin, though, RVSQ outdo themselves. The basic idea is to explore connections between San Francisco and its 8 "sister" cities: Abidjan (Cote D'Ivoire), Amman (Jordan), Barcelona, Caracas, Cork, Osaka, Sao Paolo, and Seoul. This means bringing aboard international collaborators to play along with the RVSQ core: Irene Sazer (violin), David Langley (cello), Sumaia Jackson (violin), and Sam Shahan (bass).

I'd give Culture Kin an album of the month nod even had I heard just "Holding an Eye." Irish singer and bodhran artist Máirtin de Cógáin performs it and I am ready to proclaim it the song of the year. It has everything I love in music: a gorgeous melody, skillful vocals, deliberate pacing, and lyrics that will rip your heart from your chest. A lively fiddle jig bridge serves to suggest hope that will be dashed. Yeah, I'm a sucker for Celtic weepies, but listen before you judge me!

Fely Tchaco
This is an album that takes you places, though you're not always sure where. "Woul Le M'en Fe" has a cool cello bop that sets the table for violin explorations that are like a blender mix of Balkan keening, Irish verve, and Appalachian sparseness. Cote D'Ivoire's Fely Tchaco's vocals stay within this hard-to-label feel. "Seasons Song" and "Bright Sun, Shade of a Tree" both opt for a minimalist vibe. The former features Korean violinist Soo-Yeon-Lyuh, who turns an Appalachian vibe inside out and makes it cry in ways only Asian music can. "Bright Sun" is harder still to describe. It's an unusual piece, perhaps even a bit odd until you get caught up in its intrigue. "Ananta" is another in that vein. It uses percussive cello to frame bird-in-flight fiddles, shifts into a punch/counterpunch groove, and segues to moody fiddle that skirts ominous boundaries before allowing the dominant melody to sneak out for a soft landing. "For Choro" and "Aurora" take us inside Latin traditions, the first a quirky waltz that chases itself around a bit and comes off as evocative of, say, a 1940s film score. The second opens with tango bass lines and funereal-like strings. It has been said that the passion of tango burns with such fire that when it ends, it's as if life's candle has been snuffed. This tune is a bit like that. In a related fashion, "Exist"is a watery and reflective tune enhanced by the hang drums of Sicily's Laura Inserra.

If you're looking for something that's way beyond what the ordinary, this is one to check out. It made me wonder why radio play is so formulaic when explorers such as RVSQ take us to far better spaces.   
Rob Weir

Hang Drums, in case you wondered!