Marie Laurencin 1885-1956

I have just discovered from a friend the lovely paintings of Marie Laurencin and think they deserve wider acclaim. Ceramicist, painter and printmaker, she also became  the mistress of Apollinaire. They have a soft and appealing, lyrical and delicate quality that can be seen in the pastel above which is called “Le Chant”. Many of her drawings are in the keeping of The Art Institute of Chicago like this one below right, executed in graphite and coloured pencils.

According to one easily accessible website on her,”Marie Laurencin was a French painter and printmaker. Laurencin was born in Paris, where she was raised by her mother and lived much of her life. At 18, she studied porcelain painting in Sevres. She then returned to Paris and continued her art education at the Academie Humbert, where she changed her focus to oil painting. During the early years of the 20th century, Laurencin was an important figure in the Parisian avant-garde and a member of the circle of Pablo Picasso. She became romantically involved with Picasso’s friend, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, and has often been identified as his muse. In addition, Laurencin had important connections to the salon of the American expatriate and famed lesbian writer Natalie Clifford Barney. During the First World War, Laurencin left France for exile in Spain with her German-born husband, Baron Otto von Waetjen, since through her marriage she had automatically lost her French citizenship. The couple subsequently lived together briefly in Dusseldorf. After they divorced in 1920, she returned to Paris, where she lived for the rest of her life and where she achieved great success as an artist.”

Her portraits have a hieratic quality; an adjective which derives from the Greek ἱερατεία (hierateia meaning “priesthood”). By hieratic in relation to art one means very stylised, formal or restrained. The term is used particularly of figurative art with” piquantly tipped heads and mask-like faces”-as Peter Schjeldahl referred to the work of Amedeo Mondigliani.

This is a wonderful clip at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1CDT5whWuGM

Here is a poem from Appolonaire to Marie

Vous y dansiez petite fille
Y danserez-vous mère-grand
C’est la maclotte qui sautille
Toute les cloches sonneront
Quand donc reviendrez-vous Marie

Les masques sont silencieux
Et la musique est si lointaine
Qu’elle semble venir des cieux
Oui je veux vous aimer mais vous aimer à peine
Et mon mal est délicieux

Les brebis s’en vont dans la neige
Flocons de laine et ceux d’argent
Des soldats passent et que n’ai-je
Un cœur à moi ce coeur changeant
Changeant et puis encor que sais-je

Sais-je où s’en iront tes cheveux
Crépus comme mer qui moutonne
Sais-je où s’en iront tes cheveux
Et tes mains feuilles de l’automne
Que jonchent aussi nos aveux

Je passais au bord de la Seine
Un livre ancien sous le bras
Le fleuve est pareil à ma peine
Il s’écoule et ne tarit pas
Quand donc finira la semaine

(La maclotte est une danse ardennaise )

Marie Laurencin, c.1924 (b/w photo) by Man Ray
Marie Laurencin, c.1924 (b/w photo) by Man Ray

Peretz Hirschbein, Yiddish Theatre and possible parallels with the History Plays

Hirschbein, actor and dramatist founded the first Art Theatre in Odessa in 1908 which produced plays in Yiddish. His first play, having been written in Hebrew, was Miriam. His most important plays; the Blacksmith’s Daughter (1915) and Green Fields (1919) are idylls of Jewish country life and according to the Oxford Companion to the Theatre, the second was considered to be one of the greatest works of Yiddish drama. It was translated into English by Joseph C. Landis in 1966 as The Dybbuk and other Great Yiddish plays. (In Jewish folklore, a dybbuk (Hebrew: דיבוק‎) is a malicious or benevolent possessing spirit believed to be the dislocated soul of a dead person.)

The culture of the Eastern European Jews was permeated with music, song, and dance. These latter features commonly in the Yiddish theatre, and emerged at its earliest point in Warsaw in the 1830s. During Purim, a religious holiday, plays told the story from the Book of Esther and were known as Purimspiels. Purim, is when Hamantaschen are made with many different fillings, including prunes, nut, poppy seeddateapricotapple, fruit preservescherrychocolatedulce de lechehalva, or even caramel or cheese. There was a song called, Mein Hut der hat drei Ecken, which in Hebrew school related to Hamen’s three cornered hat; the shape of the pastry.

Also, there is a fairly well known production of quite another film which is also called The Dybbuk which has been translated into Yiddish, Hebrew, German, Polish, English, Ukranian, Swedish, Bulgarian, Czech, Serbian, French and Japanese. There are several significant or interesting points about the film. Firstly, produced in 1937, it features Gerschon Sirota, whose voice was considered heavenly by Caruso. Some of Sirota’s pieces (including ‘Ata Nigleita’) are compared in quality to Traviata and Madam Butterfly. The plot involves an arranged marriage and deals with intergenerational strife interwoven with mystical themes and experiences of possession. It was written by Shloyme Zanvl Rappoport who was known as S.Ansky who also came from Odessa, was interested in folklore and ethnography, and wrote the oath or song which became the anthem of the Jewish Socialist Bund party. Ansky also was a Socialist representative in the 1917 Russian Assembly. Odessa was clearly a lively centre for the discussion of theatre, history and politics particularly in the Jewish community which also included Simon Dubnow, another person worthy of further research.

My interest in these issues was sparked by starting to read (and in the process turning to the Oxford Theatre Companion) Shakespeare’s King John and its relation to the genre described as the ‘History Play’. It occurred to me that one obvious way of thinking about the question is to compare and contrast the genre in other, mostly European, cultures. Not at all an easy task! Clearly there are links with issues such as ideology, religious practice and belief, creating a tradition and reflecting back upon its cultural memories and so developing or reinforcing earlier myths. We have also just seen the gory preview scenes from Ironclad, based on the historical King John, and reviewed in yesterday’s Daily Mail, by Chris Tookey, “Ironclad desperately wants to be a historical blockbuster along the lines of Braveheart. Sadly, it has more in common with Monty Python and the Holy Grail” Some historical facts about King John are given at http://www.middle-ages.org.uk/king-john.htm

It is striking reading in The New Cambridge Edition (L.A.Beaurline) of King John, how the play influenced what has been called the archaeology of staging. Apparently, before Charles Kemble took over Covent Garden there was little interest in getting costumes historically correct. This matter was of great importance to Kemble and with James Robinson Planché (27 February 1796 – 30 May 1880) consequently attention to scenery being historically authentic developed commenced with productions of King John.

I wonder how Yiddish plays were originally performed and with what scenery. It is very well known that Yiddish Theatre was a great influence upon Kafka. Their comparatively recent development perhaps illustrates their cosmopolitan narratives of identity, including of course, Zionism. Possibly Shakespeare’s History plays are virtually sui generis. Early History plays in Germany evolved written by men like Andreas Gryphius (1616 – 1664) a lyric poet and dramatist. A notably significant figure is Schiller who wrote historical plays with support from Goethe. For instance, he wrote an interesting and sympathetic play about Mary Stewart in which Elizabeth appears thoroughly ruthless.

To conclude with two provoking essays from the Guardian, the first written by Jonathan Bate about Shakespeare’s history plays, “As history, the plays paint a panorama of England, embracing a wider social range than any previous historical drama, as the action moves from court to tavern, council-chamber to battlefield, city to country, archbishop and lord chief justice to whore and thief.” Still more can be read and enjoyed at:-http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2010/may/29/shakespeare-jonathan-bate-simon-callow Of course, when it comes to knowledge of drama, languages and cultures there is the redoubtable George Steiner who gave a characteristically ironic interview at http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2008/apr/19/society

What became of Hirschbein? Well in the early 1940s Hirschbein moved to Los Angeles, here he wrote a feature film, “Hitler’s Hangman” (1943) and generally worked on propaganda. Now what did Olivier produce in the following year? “A colourful and highly stylised version which begins in the Globe Theatre and then gradually shifts to a realistic evocation of the Battle of Agincourt”, oh yes, Henry the Fifth!

The intellectuals of Odessa

Norman Levine –the view from an ethereal distance

 

Auden’s lines are well-known:-

As the hawk sees it or the helmeted airman:
The clouds rift suddenly –

Watching recently a video of the Canadian writer and poet, Norman Levine who lived in St Ives during the creative upsurge of painters and sculptors, the quality of observation from a distance in this man’s work became more apparent to me. It is perhaps not dissimilar to what has become known as the Martian effect as exhibited in the works of Craig Raine. In Canada Made Me”, Levine writes of his experience as an airman during the war. It is this viewpoint, from the vertical dimension, which is intriguing. That is to say, from a position of detatchment during the engagement.

He writes in the chapter entitled Ottowa, “Distance was the buffer, a way of looking that separated our action and its consequences that allowed us to repeat this performance without having any doubts, or pity, or feeling in any way involved.”

Additionally, in a Polish Jewish family living in a French district of Ottowa, gave him the perspective of being an outsider. He lived overseas from Canada and so again was imbued with the modernist condition of being an exile. Displacement and migration have impacted on populations and reinforced feelings of estrangement.(See for instance Catherine Wilson’s review http://www.a-n.co.uk/interface/reviews/single/464686 ) The sense of isolation in St Ives was perhaps relieved by the inspiration of being among artists, from whose sparse technique in sketching he sought to learn. Although, Alison Oldham who has written interestingly about Norman Levine in her Tate monograph “Everyone was working”, states in her Guardian obituary rather bleakly that “Frustration was at the centre of Levine’s art, according to the Nobel laureate Heinrich Böll, who translated the book for an enthusiastic German readership”.

It is perhaps interesting to compare Auden and Levine as transatlantic literati. Auden’s poem from 1930 was written when he was just 23 and has the assumed and assured voice, partly for effect and partly because Auden already held considerable influence over his contemporaries. This was at a stage when most of his knowledge might have been derived from the CCF at Gresham’s. Subject mattersimilar in atmosphere to that shared between Isherwood and that intriguing novelist Edward Upward in their surrealist fantasies about the English village of Mortmere. Auden was to get a closer look at the realities of conlict when he and Isherwood visited the Sino-Japanese War, working on their book Journey to a War (1939). For an analysis of Auden’s poem see http://www.saintbonaventure.com/faculty/mcelvogue/documents/Auden1Radford.pdf

At the age of 23 Norman Levine had just left service as a Lancaster pilot at an air base in North Yorkshire. He was busy making up for his time after service in the R.C.A.F. studying at McGill in Montreal and back to King’s College London having just won a scholarship there. By now with poetry published and a novel in preparation, he arrived in St Ives in the summer of 1949. Although an outsider he obviously found the experimental zeitgeist as well as the working methods of the painters of interest in his own work. He became renowned for his sparse, lean prose and an examination of his personal library discloses his deep interest in Checkhov. He came to evolve a literary technique which he writes about as being the written equivalent of the quick sketch. Stimulated by the landscape, conversation in his short stories start to show affection for the colourful characters whom he was now meeting; Lanyon, Frost, Weschke and a few years later, Francis Bacon.

In a poem,While Waiting for the Birth of a Child, written for his daughter Rachel in late March 1957 he writes:-

I sat there and listened to the suffering in a human voice

And watched the sky become a lighter blue

Until the houses stopped being black and I could see the windows.

And then, suddenly, out of nowhere, a small black toy thing,

A bird, fell against the blue sky, caught the telephone wire

Outside my window, balanced itself, and burst into song.

Musings about the Comedy Form

Ancient forays into Comedy Relief

Ricky Gervais has effectively realised how amusing creatures can appear in his show Animals and with his book Flanimals. The exhibition currently at the Natural History Museum is entitled “Sexual Nature” and John Walsh in today’s Independent (11th Feb 2011) has penned a wry article entitled, “The male snail who likes to give his lady a prod”. This does not refer to some electronic gesture on some sort of zoological Facebook but must have evolved over a very long period of time. Although farce may be swiftly delivered Walsh ponders what he refers to as the “…tenacious Venezuelan Weevil which can maintain the same sexual position for 35 years; and the humble Roman snail, which, in its protracted 20-hour courtship ritual produces little love darts…” The process is aimed at his female partner who must find little opportunity, unfortunately, for comic relief.

‘Comic relief’ appears to have first been used to refer to the cheerful break in a serious work like the Porter’s speech in Macbeth. Dr Johnson praised Shakespeare for such contrasts. This is expounded in the rather jolly, “Exit, pursued by a bear” by Louise Mc Connell who pronounces that Comedy is “amusing and has a happy resolution…. and…. includes words of satire and burlesque”

Originating in Ancient Greece from amongst the revels of wine, fruit and music the production of comedy was later taken forward by the Latin dramatists. The first major figure was Titus Maccus Plautus (254-184 BC) who was born in Sarsina in Umbria. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_Umbria) He worked as a stage-carpenter and later wrote plays in the breaks between the heavy labours in a flour mill. Some 130 plays were attributed to Plautus of which some 20 have survived. They were adapted from Athenian comedies of the C4th and C3rd BC. They concern knavish slaves, gullible fathers and licentious captains. Interestingly, the dialogue (diverbium) occupied only about a third of Plautus’ plays; two-thirds were the musical pieces (cantica), thus making them early precursors of the modern musical. The iambics notably contained much local dialect which was less varied in the verse form than in the portions that were sung.

The less prolific but more stylish dramatist Terence (195-159 BC) was born in Carthage and hauled as a slave into Rome. He lacked Plautus’s taste for burlesque and rough brutishness. Only one writer of tragedy, Seneca the Younger (4bc-65AD) whose works drew on the Greeks, had much influence on later drama. More information, if you have time is of course at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_comedy.