Catch Arabesque at the Clark before March 22

Clark Art Institute, Williamstown MA
Closes March 22
[Click on any image for large view]

If you know the slightest thing about ballet, you will recognize the term arabesque. It refers to a common pose in which a dancer stands on point on one leg with the opposite leg stretched out behind her in a horizontal plane. It is often the case that when a word comes into common use for whatever reason, we cease to think about its origins. In this instance, though, is it is obvious that it derives from “Arab.”

Arabesque is not solely a dance term. In the broader art world, it also applies to design, graphics, painting, carving and many other expressions. That which is arabesque is marked by curving, lacy, and interlocking lines–often based upon vegetation–that draw upon our senses. As design, it also comes to the West via Islamic societies. Depending upon the context, representations of humans or animals can be construed as idolatry, which is why many Muslim calligraphers and painters avoided them. Instead Islamic artists featured geometric shapes, repeated patterns, and impressions drawn from the non-animal natural realm.

A soon-to-close show at the Clark Art Institute shows how the arabesque affected Western design.It’s a small exhibit, but one that demonstrates the power of cultural diffusion. Few Western artists shared objections to representing humans or animals, but they were certainly inspired by the twisting, sinuous forms of the arabesque. “Inspired” is the correct word. In Muslim societies the arabesque showed up in mosques and on pages of the Qur’an; in the West, it was more likely to be a floor tile or wallpaper pattern! Sculptors, illustrators, china manufacturers, potters, and poster artists were among those who found it irresistible, especially during its heyday in the 19th and early 20th century. 

Little Briar Rose
Battle of Lenore
Fairy tales lent themselves to mood-enhancing illustrations. Eugen Napoleon Neureuther’s 1836 etching for “Little Brian Rose” is an example of this. If that tale doesn’t sound familiar, it’s because you know it is its expurgated and Disneyfied form as “Sleeping Beauty.” You’d need the accompanying text; Neureuther was so enamored with detail that it’s hard to find Little Briar Rose amidst all the foliage and Gothic tracery. Coincidentally, his “The Battle of Lenore” etching of Lenore heaved over her lover’s grave as his ghost materializes sometimes gets conflated with the Scottish folktale of Tamlin. (Fairport Convention’s 1969 telling of it in song was a redefining moment in folk rock music. Just for fun, click on the link

I never saw Neureuther’s designs in my childhood books, but I certainly visually devoured illustrations from Walter Crane (1845-1915), who was such a giant among children’s book illustrators that his work is still used. His engraving for the story of “Prince Charming” is perhaps a familiar example. Paul Elie Ranson’s 1890 take on doomed lovers “Abélard and Héloïse” still surfaces in books as well. Aubrey Beardsley (1872-96) had a short but influential career, but t’is a rare staging of Salome that does not at least give him a wink and a nod. 

Perhaps the most instantly recognizable use of the arabesque is in the form known as Art Nouveau. Poster designers loved its knots, twists, and snaking lines. The Czech graphic designer Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939) created theatrical works on paper that have become such staples of popular culture that people today recognize the images even if they couldn’t come up with the name of the artist. His “La Plume” is a mash of the Pre-Raphaelite–the romanticized faintly medieval female figure–and the arabesque: her swirling hair and the riot of foliage, stars, zodiac signs, and playful lines.

One inclusion at the Clark first gave me pause. It is Henri Matisse’s 1924 painting Pianist and Checker Players. At first, I thought it a force-fit, but the more I contemplated it, the more it seemed an inspired choice. Its flatness and skewed perspective are classic Matisse, but what we really want to gaze upon in this case is everything except the three figures. Matisse shows us how deeply the arabesque insinuated itself into bourgeois French society. Today we might be tempted to call the room over-decorated, if not garish. Note the oversized floral wallpaper, the diamond-shaped floor covering, and the even bolder wool rug that sits upon it. A corkscrewing sculpture sits upon a dotted base on a nearby dresser. Everything in this room clashes in hue, shape, and pattern, yet everything in it bespeaks the prosperity of its owners and their cultivated taste. 

 I love shows that make me think and see differently. Arabesque certainly fits the bill. But hurry if you want to see it; Arabesque closes on March 22.

Rob Weir

The Red Lotus Eerily Timely

The Red Lotus (2020)
By Chris Bohjalian
Doubleday, 400 pages
★★★ ½

He could not have timed it this way, but Chris Bojhalian’s new novel, The Red Lotus, will certainly resonate with current fears (obsession?) with the Covid-19 virus. The Red Lotus is a thriller in the spirit of The Andromeda Strain, The Year of the Flood, The Last One, or a Ken Follett novel.

It begins innocently enough. Alexis Remnick, a former cutter, has slowly rebuilt her life as a stoic doctor who gets her adrenaline rush by working in the emergency room of a large New York hospital instead of the razor’s edge. It’s just what she needs, a sprawling and anonymous place that’s so large she’s never even been to the fifth floor, where all things administrative occur. Ironically, her recently steady boyfriend, Austin Harper, is both a former patient she once treated for a gunshot wound sustained at a bar and an administrator on that very floor she’s never visited.

Workplace romances are generally a lousy idea, but this one is working so well that Alexis jumps at the chance to accompany Austin on a group cycling tour of Vietnam. He has done it before and assures her it’s fabulous, hence Alexis’ biggest worry is that he is a serious competitive biker and she’s the do-a-loop-around-the-park gal. Vietnam is all that Austin promised until–in thrillers there’s always an “until”–one cyclist hurts his knee, the guide decides everyone needs a rest day, and he cancels a leg of journey. Everyone except Austin is content to luxuriate by the hotel pool. He actually wanted to do that day’s grueling uphill ride to challenge himself and to pay homage to the spot where his father was wounded and his uncle was killed during the Vietnam War. Because he has done the tour before, the guide agrees to let Austin get his adrenaline rush and pedal on his own.

The next time Alexis sees Austin, it’s on a slab at the morgue–the victim of a hit-and-run accident. Being a dispassionate scientist, Alexis both identifies and briefly examines Austin’s body. There’s something vaguely unsettling about it, but she can’t quite determine why. In the meantime, Captain Nguyen and a detective named Quang, are investigating the unrelated death of a cab driver and Pham, a female lab technician. In thrillers, of course, this is more than random background detail.

I give away nothing when I tell you that Austin was not entirely whom he seemed to be. That’s clear early on. At each step of her way through shock, grief, and being sucked into the mystery, Alexis finds inconsistency and fabrication in everything about Austin. The Red Lotus evolves from romance and tragedy into a who-do-you-trust tale that involves rats, darts, a potential global pandemic, and a surprise interlocutor. As in such novels, Alexis is a latter-day Pandora who keeps opening doors she shouldn’t. Give Bojhalian credit, though; Alexis’ actions are consistent with a person used to trusting her reason and now trying to sort out what is logical and what is grief. After all, Alexis knows way more about patching up gunshot victims than in dealing with her own emotions.

She’s so torn that she hires an ex-cop detective, Ken Serafin, who is a friend of the father of Sally Gleason, one of Austin’s supervisors.  In thrillers, no one ever hires a detective and fades into the woodwork. Alexis conducts a parallel investigation by talking with more of Austin’s coworkers–even his replacement and the hospital’s administrative head. Nothing adds up. Did Austin know Pham? Who is Douglas Webber, a name that keeps popping up? What can she tell Austin’s parents and how much can she raise questions about him? It’s enough to make a bad night in the ER seem relaxing. And so it might, were it not that some kind of pandemic might be at the root of a lot of things. Or not.

Chris Bojhalian isn’t a high-toned novelist, but few rival him for embedding suspense within domestic relations. He’s also very good at puzzles, as in punching out small pieces that seem insignificant until you realize each is necessary for the picture to cohere. This makes Bojhalian eminently more readable than paint-by-the-numbers thriller writers even though, truth be told, he uses most of the same devices and resolutions.

The Red Lotus releases on St. Patrick’s Day, though were it not for the Covid-19 virus, that release date would otherwise seem premature. It is the sort of novel that has “beach read” written all over it. Here’s hoping, though, that by summer we will have a handle on the virus and you can shade yourself under a seaside umbrella and enjoy The Red Lotus as speculative, not a crystal ball.

Rob Weir


March 2020 DYI Sounds: Joseph Arthur, That 1 Guy, Suitcase Junket

This column is a technology-to-the rescue piece. It is enormously expensive to keep a band on the road these days. That’s partly due to the high costs of food, lodging, and transportation, but another culprit is bad technology: downloads and file sharing. Independently made CDs can alleviate the first problem; artists pocket 100% of the revenue rather than the 10 percent they get from sites such as Napster or Apple Music. But there’s little they can do about informal file sharing. An increasing number of musicians have come to view their music as de facto giveaways. For many, concerts, TV and film scores, and merchandise (t-shirts, posters, etc.) are more of a revenue stream than recording sales.

Good technology can help keep road costs down. Looping, sampling, delays, drum machines, and the use of specialty pedals allow the ambidextrous and extraordinarily nimble to become virtual (in numerous ways!) bands. (We used to call them “one-man bands,” but Ingrid Michaelson changed that.)

Joseph Arthur has been around long enough to have numerous TV and film credits. Although he’s best known as a solo rock and roller, he has also appeared in Fistful of Mercy (with Ben Harper and George Harrison’s son, Dhani) and with REM’s Peter Buck. Lately he has used high tech to solo his particular brand of neo-psychedelia. Check out his Paste Studio one-man band performance. His best recent song–one also recorded with Peter Buck–is “Pale Fire.” It’s a real attention-grabber that stokes its namesake flames. You’ll see him really working the pedals on this one. “Seek and Find” uses looped sounds and vocal delays to create a more meditative feel; “Make ItTrue” is a sweet song with bluesy electric guitar–You’re one in a million/You save me/I’ll save you– in which the percussion is a combination of drum tracks and thumps on his guitar. If you’d prefer vocals with more grit, listen to “Mayor of the Lower East Side.”

That 1 Guy is as billed. He is Mike Silverman, who is based in Las Vegas but has been a perennial favorite at the Edinburgh Fringe in Scotland. He trained as a double bass player and for a time immersed himself in progressive jazz ensembles before hitting the trail with his “Magic Pipe.” It’s over 7-feet tall and looks like vacuum cleaner handles joined by maniacal plumbing. It has strings, is filled with electronics, and can be plucked, bowed, or banged. Silverman plays it on his 4th album, Poseidon’s Deep Water Adventure Friends. Odd title? Not for a guy who counts Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, and Rush among his influences. Silverman also plays musical saw and a “Magic Boot,” which is wired to evoke percussive sounds, and he uses scratches and all manner of electronica. His music is a contortionist’s blend of jazz, funk, experimental rock, and lord knows what else. Check out his performance at Paste Studio in Atlanta. The song titles don’t matter; this is music as an immersive experience. And, no, I’ve no idea how he keeps all this stuff in his head. You can also see him do a song called “Whale Race” on stage in case you wonder if he can do this music outside of a studio.  

All of this leads me to a local guy, Matt Lorenz whose stage name is The Suitcase Junket. I’ve been watching Matt for a few years now. He is truly an heir to the old one-man band performers that were once a staple of the vaudeville stage. He has a beat-up guitar that he claims he actually found in a trash hopper and has fashioned other found objects into accompanying instruments: an old cheese box filled with shaken tableware, circular saw blades for cymbals, an actual suitcase serving as a bass drum, and pretty much anything that could make a sound. His voice has been described as Tom Waits mixed with… well, you name it. Matt’s show used to be mostly a weird novelty act, but the man has music in his soul and each album has become progressively more sophisticated without sacrificing any of his quirkiness. (He’s been known to slide a tutu over his ripped jeans!) Mean Dog, Tramboline is his latest and it embodies his artistic evolution. He works out with an electric guitar on “Heart of a Dog,” with a bass groove evocative of Eric Clapton’s classic cover of “Spoonful.” He bangs it with a drum stick, wails on vox, and his whistling evokes Tuvan throat singing. He’s more subdued on “Dandelion Crown,” a guitar and foot-powered folk-influenced selection, and hazards something approaching slick pop on “High Beams.” But it doesn’t matter into which genre Lorenz wades, his energy and musicianship shine. Plus, the dude has one of the greatest handlebar mustaches in the biz.

Rob Weir


A Muderous Relation is too Schmaltzy

A Murderous Relation (releases March 20)
By Deanna Raybourn
Berkley/Penguin Random House, 320 pages

Gardeners know that veronica–also known as speedwell or gypsyweed–is a splashy, spiky perennial. Deanna Raybourn’s Veronica Speedwell is also colorful and spiky, if by the second term we mean opinionated, edgy, and unconventional. Those who have followed the adventures of Miss Speedwell also know that she is the half-sister of Prince Albert Victor, heir to the English throne. A Murderous Relation is Book Five of the Veronica Speedwell series and two more are in the works. Alas, if the current book is any indication, that will make three too many. Perhaps it’s time for Raybourn to tuck this franchise into a featherbed, take a cold shower, and move on to new things before her characters steer her more deeply into the realms of contrivance and soft porn.

First, a short overview. Veronica Speedwell is far too independent to want anything to do with the restrictions of royalty, plus she bears a deep grudge against the Royal family for its treatment of her mother. She is more focused on finding the right time to consummate a mutually agreed upon toss in the sack with “Stoker”–Revelstoke Templeton-Vane–her longtime collaborator in crime-solving and evolving object of desire. He too is of noble blood–though his older brother holds both the title of lord and the family estate–but he shares Veronica’s outward contempt for aristocratic airs. (Both, however, move comfortably in upper-class circles and enjoy wealth and fine things.) It comes as little surprise, that neither is enthused when “Wellies,” (Lady Wellingtonia Beauclerk) calls upon them to save “Eddy” (Prince Albert) from a potential scandal. As far as Victoria is concerned, she’d rather work on her butterfly collection and admire Stoker’s “flanks” and bare chest. For his part, Stoker is content to pursue his latest taxidermy project.

As you might expect, though, Veronica and Stoker will eventually agree to postpone the old in-and-out and tackle the task of saving Eddy. The gist of the matter is that the impetuous and randy prince has given a very rare jewel to Madame Aurore, the proprietress of his favorite upper-class knocking shop. If that scandal were to become public, it would sandbag plans for the 23-year-old heir to marry a 16-year-old princess whom his parents (the future King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra) have picked out. Veronica and Stoker are charged with getting Aurore to relinquish the jewel–by hook or crook.

This task will take readers to absurd places. It begins with assembling outlandish costumes to attend a masked ball at Madame Aurore’s house of ill repute. The best that can be said about this is that Raybourn dressed them in ways to maximize the use of purple prose calling attention to body parts. I suppose it’s somewhat refreshing that we get much more of the female gaze than the customary male ogling, but it’s problematic no matter how we shift the focus.

The problems don’t end there. The setting is 1888, the year in which Jack the Ripper is leaving corpses strewn across the section of East London known as Whitechapel. The Ripper makes several anonymous visits to the novel and before we are done, there are grisly murders, a dangerous flight through Whitechapel, a kidnapping, a contrived plot involving Irish nationalism, a reconciliation (of sorts) between Veronica and Eddy, and some serious fender and bumper damage inflicted upon Stoker’s body. But rest assured, delayed carnality is all the sweeter. I wish the same were true of our stretched credulity.

Deanna Rayburn is exceedingly well-versed in Victoriana, including its phrases, fashions, and politics. In A Murderous Relation, however, most of her background seems like showing off. It’s as if she put all her effort into polishing the background baubles while using a paint-by-the-numbers template for the narrative. This Victoria Speedwell perennial is definitely out of season. Call it Jack the Ripper meets bodice ripper.

Rob Weir

* One of the many theories regarding the identity of Jack the Ripper is that he was Prince Albert Victor, though evidence shows that he was not in London at the time. Eddy was nevertheless a controversial rumored to part of a homosexual prostitution ring. This too is widely dismissed, though he had numerous dalliances and failed failed engagements before dying of influenza in 1892 at age 28.