Wednesday, June 29, 2016

A Slanted Glimpse at Two 20th Century Women

      I read the biography of Diane Arbus after seeing that extensive review in the New Yorker and subsequently came across Francine Prose’s book about Peggy Guggenheim in a recent ad. So I also conjured it into my Kindle and just finished reading it. So it is sheer coincidence that I read these two books consecutively. And while there are huge differences between the two women—starting with the generations to which they belong: Arbus, 1923–1971; Guggenheim, 1893–1979. The similarity between them is nonetheless quite striking.
  Start with externals: both women were the children of upper crust Jewish-American families. While Peggy’s belongs to the higher layer, Diane’s family were no slouches either. Her father, after establishing and running a prestigious clothing store, retired to become a successful painter of flowers. Diane’s brother, Howard, was a poet, writer, and teacher, who served as poet laureate of the United States. Diane had a much more problematic a career as a photographer, whose unique style produced prints that came to be sold for six-figure dollars—though only after her death, so that she never benefited from that financial success.
   Peggy’s life-time pursuit was to create a collection of contemporary art, works which at the time she was active were not in the repertory of what more conventional collectors were up to. This was by no means just a matter of rich person supporting what was fashionable; perhaps the best way to make that clear is the fact that Peggy provided a subvention to Jackson Pollock, long before he became well known.
   Those are the “professional” similarities between the two. What they had in common, as well, is the fact that they were both obsessed by sex, though that may not at all be the right word.  Each of the biographers reports the women’s moves from bed to bed, with affairs lasting longer or hardly at all, barely interrupted by marriages. Arbus has a cheerfully incestuous relationship with her poet brother Howard and surely the only reason Peggy did not have a similar attachment is the fact that she was an only child.
   What is remarkable, at least in my bourgeois view, is the way the biographers present these escapades by either of those women, also bourgeoises, after all, as the way life is lived, without  further explicit reflection, not to mention moralizing. Peggy Guggenheim is several times reported to have “fallen in love” with this or that man, while Diane Arbus’s biographer makes no report of that sort.
   Were such lives normal in their upper crust world or were Peggy and Diane unusual? Am I surrounded by similar shenanigans? I never thought of myself as such an innocent.   


Saturday, June 25, 2016


From the Blog Too

   Yesterday, Friday, June 24, Ramon drove Ellie and the Salazar kids and me to Queretaro, where we checked in at a hacienda we had already been familiar with. The purpose of the trip, however, was to hear a concert by the Orquesta Filarmonica of Queretaro, of which Miguel Salazar is the principal oboe. That evening, however, Miguel was going beyond his usual role and was the soloist in a performance of Mozart’s Oboe concerto.
   Miguel was splendid and was well supported by the Mozart-sized orchestra, conducted by the Queretaro's music director, Jose Guadalupe Flores. The response of a very decent audience was enthusiastic.
   After the intermission, Flores conducted a fine performance of what is probably Shostakovich’s most popular symphony, his Fifth. That it is popular is no accident. Shostakovich deliberately wrote this “accessible” work to get back into Stalin’s the good graces.
   Sunday, June 26, back to Mexico City, ending vacationtime.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016


When it's News, What's Depicted?

   In the course of reading a major biography of the photographer Diane Arbus (about which I will write another time), a comment was made—twice, once about Arbus and the second time in a discussion of the photographer Weegee—about the nature of news photography. What was said was perfectly obvious. But even so, I had never noted it before.
   What’s news photography? It consists of photographs of the situation that has just happened. The news: Joe Smith has just been shot dead, killed by the thief whom he surprised sneaking into his house. Another example: a large tree was split, hit by lightening. A third: three-year old Jenifer fell down a six-foot deep well, fortunately dry.
   These are versions of the captions one might read in next morning’s paper, but they don’t really characterize the picture you will there see. The first of these will most likely depict poor Joe Smith ling on the floor of what is most likely his living room. The second may be a picture of a tree with one side of it hanging down at a sharp angle, while the third shows little Jenifer sitting at the bottom of the well, scared and crying.     
   What is the point of these remarks? That the pictures that are presented as the news are really pictures of a steady state, more or less, that is the result, most probably, of the event that is actually the news that, in the first place merited inclusion in the paper.
   For many years, this delayed association of news-event to reported depiction was the norm. Before modern photography, that relationship was even less immediate in various ways not to be taken up here. Infrequently, very infrequently, someone with a camera might actually get a shot of the event as it actually happens—much more likely, to be sure, of lightening striking that tree than of a thief shooting Joe Smith. Changes that have occurred when these comments were made have surely increased the occasions when the depiction is of the actual event, but even when a large fraction of the population owns photographing cell phones and at least a significant number of those fiddle with them while walking along—not an attractive habit in the view of this old-fashioned observer—not that many will either try or succeed in getting a picture of what happens just when it happens.
   I don’t believe that significant conclusions are to be drawn from this somewhat closer look at an every-day phenomenon.  But it is worth pointing out.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Louis Kahn and His Bangladesh Creation

I submitted this piece to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. They didn't print it, because there was no 'hook" (my term), such as a Louis Kahn birthday. Daily papers may need such a hook. My blog doesn't. Follow up on the suggested illustrations. As I say here, Louis Kahn was a great architect.

Louis Kahn’s National Assembly Building in Bangladesh in Context
File:National Assembly 2.jpg

            My topic is the Jatiyo Sangshad Bhaban in Dhaka; for those of us who are not one of 300 million speakers of Bangla, this is the National Assembly Building of Bangladesh. I want to look at this monumental complex in relation to its creator, note some of its salient features, and see it in the context of a few other capital buildings around the world.
            I write about this Assembly Building because it is incomparably beautiful; a good picture alone can take your breath away. D Its creator is Itze-Leib Schmuilowsky, who, with his parents, came to the U.S. in 1906 as a five-year-old from an island in the Baltic, then part of Russia.  Once here, his father changed their names, so that the youngster became the architect we know as Louis I. Kahn.
              Based in Philadelphia, Kahn developed slowly, arriving at a distinctive style only after the second World War.  Yes, modern—no ornamental curlicues—but not in the pared down international manner, that features glass walls with ribs of steel.  Concrete and brick are Kahn’s chief materials, giving his buildings a massive presence that evoke but don’t resemble monumental structures of ancient Rome.
            Natural light was a ruling passion of his, making it unsurprising that he was commissioned to design museums—early on the Yale University Art Center D and somewhat later, the beautiful Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth D.  Kahn’s largest American project was the Salk Institute in La Jolla, D noted for the serviceability of its laboratories flooded with daylight and for its stunning vistas.
            Then there is the Bangladesh National Assembly!  Paradoxically, our American architect’s greatest achievement stands far away from home, on the other side of the planet. The commission itself—it came when the region was still Pakistan, just before Bangladesh emerged out of turmoil and war—led to the creation of a great capitol complex for a country that was, by all odds, one of the very poorest in the world.  The cost of design and construction came to 32 million dollars; and while today that seems like an implausible bargain, that was real money half a century ago and was indeed criticized as exorbitant.  Construction began in 1961 and was interrupted by war. The building was finally ready to be inaugurated in 1982, almost eight years after Kahn’s death.
            The Assembly complex is immense: well over six million square feet; and just to give you a flavor, there are 50 staircases, 340 bathrooms, 1635 doors, 335 windows—but not a single column to be found holding up a ceiling.  Pictorially an aerial view conveys some of that immensity; it is said by some to be the largest capitol building anywhere. D
            But even if it is only one of the biggest, such seats of government are meant to be grand.  Look at our Capitol in Washington D or the Assembly Building in Paris: D both strut rows of immense columns and our own is topped by an impressive cupola—a model for many of the states.  And because the dome of the Reichstag D in Berlin was destroyed in the war, the British architect Sir Norman Foster was commissioned to add a new dome. In deference to modernity, however, that dome is made of glass, with an inside walk curling upward, affording views of the city. D The German capital can once again compete with its brethren. 
            These capitol structures are all of them grand, for sure;  some of them grandiose, one is tempted to add.  So is the Dhaka complex grand, though that grandeur is conveyed neither with columns evoking the Parthenon nor by means of a commanding dome that brings to mind the Vatican.  Instead, different weighty solid shapes are juxtaposed with shapely cut-outs, so to speak, that together perform a kind of geometric dance.  Enormous, yes, but light-footed, like an elephant showing off in the circus.  There is true thereness there that is both stressed and attenuated by the white marble stripes that are set into the concrete. D D
            Beyond grand, the Dhaka complex is beautiful, as I said at the outset.  It may also be pleasant, attractive, handsome or pleasing, but that is not what I have in mind.  I mean it is beautiful, that is, endowed with beauty in the sense that the Mona Lisa is beautiful or a Matisse Dance.  It is not surprising that the Globe and Mail includes this Assembly Building among its seven—just seven!—architectural wonders of the world, together with the Great Pyramid at Giza and Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.
            For me, this achievement hammers in the view that Louis Kahn was the greatest American architect of the second half of the last century—and perhaps, pace Frank Lloyd Wright, of all of it.
             I cannot resist reporting a rather strange occurrence, by way of a personal coda. As I looked again and again at numerous photographs of this last and greatest work of Louis Kahn, what kept popping into my head, strangely, was Johann Sebastian Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D-minor.  To be sure, I have always been quite dubious about analogies across different art forms, but this insistent experience made me question my skepticism, in spite of the fact (or because of it?) that from the work of architecture back to that work for organ there is a leap of more than two centuries.  Look at the Dhaka pictures, listen to the Bach ( and see and hear for yourself.

D = a picture
 The following are preliminary suggestions for illustrations. 

Salk Institute:

Selection of others of National Assembly:

Reichstag—two of these: the whole building and inside the dome alone:
 Capital buildings.  Use Washington.
Paris, National Assembly Building:

Friday, June 10, 2016

The Kindle Solution

Reading in a Land that Doesn’t Speak My Language

   A few days ago the mail brought The New Yorker dated June 6 &13, surprisingly fast given Mexico’s usually sluggish mail service. It turned out to be The Fiction Issue. Not my interest; I have hardly read any fiction in many years, not to mention short pieces such as are to be found in the magazine. Am I bragging or complaining? Neither; just stating the facts: I’m a very slow reader, my time is limited, and my interests lie elsewhere.
   But in that issue there was a piece I was really interested in: an extensive review of Arthur Lubow’s biography of Diane Arbus. The review, by Anthony Lane, who had slowed down his usual subject—movies—to the still photography of Diane Arbus. It seemed to be a good account of the book, but the signal effect it had on me, was to want to read Lubow’s extensive volume.
   Of course it would not exactly turn out to be a “volume.” If the couple of stores I know of in Mexico City that sell current books in English were to stock the likes of the Arbus biography they would soon be out of business. The magic solution is Kindle!
   Don’t laugh: yes, magic. On June 6, the Kindle store, accessed via what they call Wireless, listed the book as not available until the 7th—that is, the next day. So I “pre-ordered” it.  When I checked  on that next day to see whether there was something I had to do, the book turned out to be already there; ministrations on my part were de trop.
   “Kindle” is the operative word here. Think of it, my best—quasi-native—language is English; that’s the language I want to read for entertainment and edification, with an occasional side-trip into German. Kindle, if that’s not already clear, is my salvation. By now, I’ve read at least a couple of dozen books this way. Most of them to be found right “within” that small device, when you press the button for “Home.” Included there are a few “volumes” that I hauled in with the intention of maybe reading them at some point, which may or may not happen. Another bunch is “archived,” ready to be made available whenever I want to call them in.
   I have no idea how many books are available in this way (and I am inclined to think that even the Kindle management doesn’t know), but the number is huge—from classics to the latest. And while I have not explored their store of books in German, the few that I have wanted were  promptly available. For me, an expat surrounded by a language not my own, the only alternative to Kindle is to purchase books from Amazon and have them mailed to me, an expensive and precarious process. For me, Kindle is a life-saving—or at least sanity-saving blessing.
   Some might find the cost of some of the books a bit steep, though in my view, the more expensive texts—never as costly as the printed books themselves—are offset by many others that are downright cheap or cost nothing at all; so I don’t have complaints about pricing.
  But there are some disadvantages, compared to having the book on good old fashioned paper. The biggest of these is the fact that you are not given any information as to what page you are on in the printed version of the book. Accordingly, you cannot tell people where they can find a passage you want them to read. This fact alone prevents the Kindle version of a book from serving a scholarly function. While that fact affects only a minority of potential readers, it is an important and influential one.
   That lack is too bad and could be rectified over time by inserting bracketed page numbers of the printed version into the Kindle text, thus: blah blah blah [174]. The Kindle management has no doubt thought of this and perhaps the cost is too great to add this feature; but it would be a valuable addition.
   The indication of where you are in a book that is actually given is only marginally useful. You are “told”—in imprecise and approximate terms what percentage of the book you have read so far—and that without knowing what percentage yet to be read is text and how much consists of endnotes, appendices, and index. Another minus are the reproductions of pictures: dubious. But perhaps that has been improved since my version of the Kindle, bought quite a few years ago.

   I’ve never been a perfectionist, often ready to settle for what was available in the real world, rather than striving for the perhaps unattainable best. So, by me,as they say in Brooklyn, Kindle is Good.     

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Two Splendid Concerts

   Last Friday and Saturday I went to two outstanding concerts that could not have been different from each other. The first was by the Sinfonica Nacional in its home of Bellas Artes, the second was a recital for clarinet and piano in the Capilla Gótica of the Teatro Helénico.
   The Sinfonica’s was an all-Mozart concert, performed by a much-reduced orchestra (of course) that had taken its place in front of the great Tiffany curtain of the hall. The recital took place in a space I speculate as having been created as a monastery, with both architectural features and paintings on the walls testifying to that effect. The audience in both houses was very respectable in size, even if it did not fill the space to capacity.
     The only often-played Mozart work was the Symphony Number 39 in E-flat major, after the intermission. Symphony Number 27 opened the concert, a quite early one, followed by the 27th piano concerto, a fairly late work. The pianist and conductor was the Israeli-born, David Greilsammer who, some years earlier, had demonstrated his mastery of Mozart by performing all of his piano concerti in an incredible marathon and all of his piano sonatas on another such occasion.
   Listeners could not have doubted that this conductor-pianist knew what Mozart was all about, because he felicitously refrained from “interpretations” (those are what are called scare quotes) and let Wolfgang Amadeus speak for himself. That sounds much easier than it is: when playing Mozart, there is no place to hide; you hear everything all the time, whether well performed or, as is often the case, just so-so. Greilsammer succeeded, both as conductor and pianist.
   And as conductor he got his Mozart-sized orchestra to play really well. It was a pleasure to hear such clean and musical performing; I surmise that they were masterfully drilled by their guest leader.
   As an encore, the bunch played what I surmised was the middle movement of an earlier piano concerto that turned out to be of the not-so-early 21st.
  All and all, a very satisfying concert. Nor was I the only one who thought that. The applause was enthusiastic and was accompanied by shouts of approval. It was gratifying to hear that for a composer who died in 1791 and not just for Romantic giants like Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninoff.
   The next day, in that quasi-Romanesque hall, I heard very different music, in a recital for clarinet and piano. The opening after the intermission was the only item born in the same universe more or less as Mozart: transcriptions for clarinet of three Schubert songs, concluding with the moving “Meine Ruh ist hin, mein Herz ist schwer . . . .” from Goethe’s Faust.
   All the other works on the program were written in the 20th century, with the opening a duo concertante by Milhaud and the major piece before the intermission a significant and quite wonderful sonata for the two instruments by Francis Poulenc.
   The venue after the intermission (and its Schubert opening) was further East: a multi-movement suite by the Polish composer, Witold Lutoslawski and four Hungarian dances by Kokai Rezso. A (you guessed it) Hungarian composer of the first half of the 20th century. I suspect, though I most certainly don’t know this, that both these composers wrote for clarinetist acquaintances of theirs, since both works are very virtuosic. That suggests that both had some guidance from clarinet pros as to what that instrument was capable of and had some assurance that their pieces would get some exposure. Mind you all that is speculation on my part.
     The concert was very well received, here also with shouts of approval and a call for an encore. A really good evening! The pianist was a splendid pianist and friend from way back, Alberto Cruzprieto and the clarinetist was Eleanor Weingartner, my daughter. I much enjoyed listening to them from the first row.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Presidential Rhetoric

   As we near the end of Obama’s presidency, I want to say a word about him that is not concerned with the policies and measures that he espoused and, within real world constraints, implemented.
I am in agreement with most of those, but that is only background to the remarks I want to make.
   Obama speaks to the public in the way a president should. He is always clear, always grammatical, quite eloquent, without rhetorical gimmicks, with a flourish now and then. Truly a good speaker.
   You might think that’s what it takes to be president; but that is not so. Of course we “accept” a president’s speech in whatever form it is rendered because it’s the president; we don’t really have a choice. But if you  to Obama’s forebears looking for eloquence, you gingerly reach Carter and Kennedy, then you go back until you get to FDR, long ago. He most certainly knew how to talk to the public; he could be eloquent and was the creator of memorable phrases. Bill Clinton is certainly in the same league as a communicator, but did not produce formal disquisitions as did FDR and Obama. It is worth mentioning a candidate for the presidency, Adelai Stevenson, who was a truly outstanding speaker, but who ran twice against Eisenhower, but had no chance against the not very articulate victorious general (who, a propos of nothing, signed my bachelor degree—or some surrogate did—when he was briefly president of Columbia University.)
 The others who occupied the White House since Franklin Roosevelt could be considered to have been competent speakers, though a couple of them just barely so. The moral of that story is that eloquence, in the sense of FDR and Obama, is not at all a requirement for the highest office of the land on the Western side of the Atlantic. While it is quite unreliable for me to asses the eloquence or lack of it of President Hollande of France or Chancellor Merkel of Germany, I’m fairly confident that  neither of them has made speeches of noteworthy eloquence.
   It is probably the case rhetorical quality plays a larger role in the effort to acquire a high office such as a presidency than to carry out the office gained. Herbert Hoover’s mundane speech was no match for Roosevelt’s witty way with words and Obama’s expressiveness no doubt contributed notably to his victory against Hillary Clinton in the hard-fought 2008 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.
   In any discussion of rhetorical effectiveness one must not ignore a ruler who came into office in the same month as FDR—and that is Adolf Hitler. His speeches played a significant role in his being designated the last Chancellor of the Weimar Republic—the lat because he promptly turned into a dictatorship and served as its Führer until he committed suicide when the allies overran Berlin. His addresses, of which there were many, were heard by all who could get into earshot of a radio. These speeches were not eloquent in the normal sense of the word. Hitler had a voice that could only be called screechy, his pronunciation was that of a lower-class Austrian, not at all the German equivalent of the well-spoken language of a Roosevelt or Obama. He mostly spoke at the top of his voice; you might call it screaming. But it conveyed a tremendous passion and his messages were seductive. It is amazing that he retained the loyalty of a large fraction of the German population even when it was clear that the war was lost.

   Da capo al fine. Obama eloquence will be in the past after January 2017. Trump has given no sign of wanting to produce an extensive and coherent speech, while Hillary speaks well in short remarks and longer disquisitions, but she is not truly eloquent; she may persuade, but not really inspire. For the foreseeable future, at this juncture, Obama will be the rhetorical high point for the next decade or so.