May 29, 2013
Listen carefully for a distant rumble: 100 years ago, on May 29, 1913, the shock of the new exploded in a Paris theater when Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes performed Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The bedecked and bejeweled audience at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees erupted at the folk-ish dancing and discordant music that confronted them. Instead of the grace and tradition of such ballets as Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, Spring’s disjointed choreography and Russian pagan setting launched a chorus of boos that turned into brawls: What was all that foot stomping about? Where were the tutus of tradition? To the audience’s surprise and consternation, “Modernism” had just arrived with a giant cymbal crash.
Serge Diaghilev and Igor Stravinsky intended to use this performance as a proclamation of Modernism—a spectacle aimed at bursting through traditional boundaries in art, music and dance to present something totally new and innovative. The idea of dance-as-spectacle is something that has intrigued me, as I’ve organized a Portrait Gallery exhibition on dance in America, opening October 4. Without fomenting riots, spectacle has played a defining role in dance from Ziegfeld’s Follies to Beyonce’s stage shows; audiences are always riveted by feathers, sequins and beautiful movement. As composer-lyricists Kander and Ebb wrote in Chicago’s “Razzle Dazzle” theme song, “Give ‘em an act with lots of flash in it/And the reaction will be passionate.”
I like to be dazzled. And as an inveterate cultural explorer, I am always on the prowl for the “wow” factor—that magical thing that makes your eyes pop. In the performing arts, it can be a show-stopping moment on stage or screen, a dancer’s magnificent leap into the ozone, or a thrilling voice that leaves you breathless. These are crystalline moments that brand your psyche forever.
Lately, I have been wowed by a couple of extraordinary performances—a concert by the Philadelphia Orchestra under their electrifying new conductor, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, and a Kennedy Center Gala performance of My Fair Lady in which Jonathan Pryce and Laura Michelle Kelly made you think they were creating the roles of Professor Higgins and Eliza for the first time.
But I have also been dazzled by a mega-exhibition that has just opened at the National Gallery of Art: “Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, 1909-1929: When Art Danced with Music.” Baz Luhrmann may have used a lot of glamour and glitz in his new 3-D version of The Great Gatsby, but the Gallery has created Diaghilev’s glittering world in a sumptuous display of the real thing—the art, music, dance and costuming that expressed the “search for the new” a century ago. As the exhibition co-curator Sarah Kennel explains, Diaghilev “never wanted to rest on his laurels. He was always innovating and redesigning.”
A collaboration between the National Gallery of Art and the Victoria and Albert Museum, the exhibition first opened in London in 2010. The Gallery’s exhibition is a hybrid of that show, incorporating 80 works from the V & A collection and adding about 50 new objects. “Diaghilev” showcases the astonishing artistic partnerships forged by the Russian impresario, and spotlights such composers as Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Satie, and artists like Bakst, Picasso and Matisse. Two major Diaghilev choreographers—Michel Fokine, who worked with him in the early years, and George Balanchine, who worked with the Ballets Russes at the end of Diaghilev’s life—would immigrate to the U.S.; Fokine established a ballet school in New York, and Balanchine would have an iconic impact on American dance, both on Broadway and in ballet.
Organized chronologically, the five major exhibition sections tell the story of Diaghilev’s career: “The First Seasons,” “Vaslav Nijinsky—Dancer and Choreographer,” “The Russian Avant-Garde,” “The International Avant-Garde,” and “Modernism, Neoclassicism, and Surrealism.” There is also a fascinating audio-visual component that includes rare footage of the Ballets Russes and Nijinsky, Rudolf Nureyev performing in Afternoon of a Faun, and Mikhail Baryshnikov dancing The Prodigal Son.
Thirty years ago, this fabulous exhibition would have been called a “blockbuster.” In contemporary museum parlance, that word is out of favor: blockbusters fell into the crosshairs of critical harrumphing at some point, and today’s museum world often favors a reductionist reliance on gray walls and gray carpeting rather than more flamboyant approaches. As someone who began in the blockbuster era, I find the lack of dazzle today a troubling comment on how far museums have distanced themselves from a public hungering for inspiration.
But the Diaghilev exhibition had me smiling the moment I walked into its embrace: from the beaded Boris Godunov costume Chaliapin wore in 1908 to the giant stage curtain from The Blue Train (1924), the Diaghilev show is a reminder of what exhibitions can be.
Mark Leithauser is the chief of design and senior curator at the National Gallery of Art, and here, he has created an enormous world of wow. Responsible for designing many of that museum’s landmark shows, he talked to me about how the notion of “blockbuster” is really not about size: it’s about a phenomenon. The first blockbuster, “King Tut,” had only 52 objects. When it opened at the Gallery in 1976, people stood in line for hours. Director J. Carter Brown said the show was popular because of the “sheer visual quality” and “breathtaking age” of the objects, along with the titallating sense of being on a treasure hunt. On the other hand, “Treasure Houses of Britain” in 1985 had over a thousand objects and helped connect “bigness” to the popular idea of blockbuster.
Leithauser firmly believes that an exhibition should be rooted in storytelling. In “Treasure Houses,” the story was about 500 years of collecting in Britain, but it was also about 500 years of architectural transformation in the British country house—a transformation evoked in the architectural scenes and environment created in the exhibition.
For the Diaghilev show, Leithauser said the design had to be as theatrical as the story—the installation had to create a theatrical experience that encompassed Diaghilev’s world. The truth, according to Leithauser, is that exhibitions “need to be what they are.”
The designer’s ability to set the stage so brilliantly allows visitors to understand Diaghilev’s artistic collaborations both intellectually and viscerally. Leithauser is a showman who appreciates spectacle: thumbs up for razzle dazzle!
May 10, 2013
As someone who adores sequins and feathers, I am buzzing with anticipation over what the New York Times has dubbed “an eminently enjoyable movie,” Baz Lurhmann’s new film version of The Great Gatsby. Will I like Leo DiCaprio as Gatsby? Will Jay-Z’s music convey the fancy-free spirit of High Flapperdom?
F. Scott Fitzgerald is credited with coining the phrase “The Jazz Age” in the title of his 1922 collection of short stories, Tales of the Jazz Age. He also became its effervescent chronicler in his early novels This Side of Paradise (1920) and The Beautiful and the Damned (1922), along with another short story collection, Flappers and Philosophers (1920). Published in 1925, The Great Gatsby was the quintessence of this period of his work, and evoked the romanticism and surface allure of his “Jazz Age”—years that began with the end of World War I, the advent of woman’s suffrage, and Prohibition, and collapsed with the Great Crash of 1929—years awash in bathtub gin and roars of generational rebellion. As Cole Porter wrote, “In olden days a glimpse of stocking/Was looked on as something shocking,/But now God knows,/Anything Goes.” The Twenties’ beat was urban and staccato: out went genteel social dancing; in came the Charleston. Everything moved: cars, planes, even moving pictures. Hair was bobbed, and cigarettes were the new diet fad.
According to his biographer Arthur Mizener, Fitzgerald wrote his agent Maxwell Perkins in 1922: “I want to write something new. . .something extraordinary and beautiful and simple.” Like today, newness was fueled by innovation, and technology was transforming everyday life. Similar to the way social media and the iPhone shape our culture now, the Twenties burst with the revolutionary impact of silent movies, radio and recordings. New stars filled the mediascape, from Rudolph Valentino and Gloria Swanson, to Paul Whiteman and the Gershwins. Celebrity culture was flourishing, and glamour was in.
Accompanied in a champagne-life style by his wife Zelda, the embodiment of his ideal flapper, Fitzgerald was entranced by the era’s glitz and glamour. His story “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” he admitted, was designed “in the familiar mood characterized by a perfect craving for luxury.” By the time he wrote Gatsby, his money revels were positively lyrical: when he describes Daisy’s charm, Gatsby says: “Her voice is full of money,” and the narrator Nick explains, “That was it. I’d never understood before. It was full of money—that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jungle of it, the cymbals’ song of it.”
Fitzgerald acknowledges the presence of money’s dark side when Nick describes Tom and Daisy: “They were careless people—they smashed things up. . .and then retreated back into their money. . .and let other people clean up the mess they had made.” But his hero Gatsby is a romantic. He was a self-made man (his money came from bootlegging), and illusions were vital to his world view. Fitzgerald once described Gatsby’s ability to dream as “the whole burden of this novel—the loss of those illusions that give such color to the world so that you don’t care whether things are true or false as long as they partake of the magical glory.”
Gatsby sees money as the means to fulfilling his “incorruptible dream.” When Nick tells him, “You can’t repeat the past,” Gatsby is incredulous: “Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can.” (Cue green light at the end of the dock: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into time.”) As critic David Denby recently wrote in his New Yorker review of the Luhrmann film: “Jay Gatsby ‘sprang from his Platonic conception of himself,’ and his exuberant ambitions and his abrupt tragedy have merged with the story of America, in its self-creation and its failures.”
It was the American Dream on a spree. Fitzgerald ends Gatsby intoning his dreamlike vision of the Jazz Age: “the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . .And one fine morning—”
April 23, 2013
When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone on January 7, 2007, he said, “Every once in a while a revolutionary product comes along that…changes everything….Today, Apple is going to reinvent the phone.”
The iPhone has proved even more revolutionary than Jobs understood, as its role in the remarkable capture of the Boston Marathon bombers illustrated. In the wake of the bombing, the FBI asked for crowdsourcing assistance to identify suspects. The digital sites Reddit and 4chan were instantly swamped by a “general cybervibe” of shared digital information sent from iPhones and video surveillance cameras. It was a stunning interaction between citizens and law enforcement.
This interaction is currently very high on the media radar screen. In the Washington Post, Craig Timberg recently wrote about the technologies that can produce “access to unprecedented troves of video imagery” and information about location data emitted by cellphones. In their recent book The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business, Google executive chairman Jared Cohen and Google director of ideas Eric Schmidt describe how a camera will “zoom in on an individual’s eye, mouth and nose, and extract a ‘feature vector’” that creates a biometric signature. This signature is what law enforcement focused on following the Boston bombing, according to Schmidt and Cohen, in an excerpt from their book, published last week in the Wall Street Journal.
A media appeal from law enforcement is not new. John Walsh’s television program, “America’s Most Wanted,” is credited with capturing 1,149 fugitives between 1988 and 2011. But the stakes have sky-rocketed in the digital age, and the issue of unfiltered social media information has proved problematic. In the midst of the Boston manhunt, Alexis Madigal wrote for the Atlantic that the crowdsourcing flood revealed “well-meaning people who have not considered the moral weight” of their rush to judgment: “This is vigilantism, and it’s only the illusion that what we do online is not as significant as what we do offline. . .”
In a story on April 20th, the Associated Press reported that “Fueled by Twitter, online forums like Reddit and 4chan, smartphones, and relays of police scanners, thousands of people played armchair detectives. . . . .” The problem of inevitable mistakes, the AP noted, illustrated the unintended consequences of law enforcement “deputizing the public for help.” Reddit is a giant message board divided into subsections similar to local newspapers, except that users are the content providers. In the Boston case, users viewed their assistance as “a citizen responsibility” and engulfed the digital sites with every possible piece of “evidence.”
On the PBS News Hour April 19th, Will Oremus of Slate said that Reddit is unmediated democracy in action—a site where everyone gets to vote on what rises to the top of the page as the headlined feature. The lack of a filter means mistakes will be made, but Oremus argued that the potential for good superseded the bad. He also suggested that the Boston experience, where innocent people were momentarily tagged as suspects, illustrated how complex the learning curve is going to be.
It has certainly been a learning curve for me. I was intending to write here about a fascinating new book, Ernest Freeberg’s The Age of Edison, when I found myself scurrying around exploring “Reddit” and “4chan.” But as it happens, there are intriguing parallels between the advent of revolutionary technology a century ago and today’s media metamorphosis.
In the Gilded Age, Freeberg writes, society “witnessed mind-bending changes in communication. . .hardly imagined beforehand.” Their generation was the first “to live in a world shaped by perpetual invention,” and Edison personified the age with his contributions to the light bulb, the phonograph, and moving pictures.
As in the digital age today, the greatest impact then was not simply the invention itself but the invention’s consequences. There were no rules: For example, how should street lighting be constructed–should there be one giant arc light, or a series of lights lining the streets? Freeberg also explains how standards were developed for the use of electricity, and how professions evolved to implement those standards.
One of my favorite stories in The Age of Edison describes how electricity affected public behavior: people accustomed to lurching home from saloons in gaslight’s forgiving darkness were now exposed to public opprobrium by electricity’s illumination. Electricity, Freeberg suggests, was “a subtle form of social control.” Neighbors peering from behind curtains were the cultural antecedents of today’s surveillance cameras.
Like Steve Jobs did in the 21st century, Freeburg writes that “Edison invented a new style of invention.” But in both cases, what became important were the ramifications—the unintended consequences.
April 5, 2013
How better to celebrate April Fool’s Day among scholars than to parse, deconstruct, reconsider and otherwise dismantle a subject rarely considered. This year Smithsonian curators, historians and researchers assembled at the National Museum of American History to take part in the annual (well, sometimes) “Conference on Stuff.” In the past, we’ve considered the marshmallow, Jell-O, corn, crackers, peanut butter and pie. This year, our subject was grease.
I was drawn instantly by the spirit of “dedicated hilarity” and volunteered to make a presentation on “greasepaint”—a pig fat concoction originally invented as a makeup base for actors, but one that has since morphed into a cosmetic industry that grosses an estimated $170 billion dollars annually.
For those of you who missed my talk “Greasepaint Glamour,” providing both intellectual gravitas and an excuse to fluff up and wear my boa, I will share now with my adoring online fans.
The tradition of face-painting extends as far back as the advent of image creation. Ancient Egyptians rimmed their eyes with kohl—a mixture of lead, copper, burned almonds, and soot—to ward off evil spirits; they also used a type of rouge to stain their lips and cheeks—a stain made from a deadly combination of iodine and bromine that gave us the phrase, “kiss of death.”
Historically, pale skin was a status symbol of upper class fashion, meant to distinguish women who spent their lives indoors rather than out in the fields. Elizabeth I coated her face with white lead and vinegar, optimistically intending to evoke a “Mask of Youth.” In the 19th century, Queen Victoria went bare-faced and declared makeup was something only worn by loose women or actors, neither of which category included Her Royal Highness. Leading actors of the American stage such as Joseph Jefferson—known for his role as Rip Van Winkle—and singer Lillian Russell wore makeup composed of an unappetizing mixture of zinc oxide, lead, mercury, and nitrate of silver.
At the turn of the 20th Century, a theatrical cosmetic based on pig fat (lard) was invented in Germany: known as “grease paint,” it was a flesh-colored paste that combined lard with zinc and ochre and gave actors a less garish, more natural appearance onstage.
With the advent of moving pictures, the demand for makeup burgeoned with the rise of the “close-up” as actors scrambled to cover flaws and enhance their most attractive facial features. Makeup also had to stand up to the powerful new lighting technology invented for filmmaking, and because black and white film stock didn’t register all colors accurately (red looked black on screen, for example), actors had to wear a green-tinged arsenic makeup that looked “natural” once projected onscreen.
Arsenic makeup’s side-effects were dangerous, but Polish immigrant Max Factor soon came to the rescue. Factor arrived in Los Angeles with his family in 1904, and by the time the movie industry began its migration from New York to “Hollywood” in the early teens, he had set up shop as a wig-maker and a makeup artist. In 1914, Factor invented “flexible greasepaint”—a makeup in a tube that revolutionized movie cosmetics because it reflected well under movie lighting. Happily, it also didn’t contain anything that could poison actors.
Flexible greasepaint was applied with a wet sponge and then “set” with powder; Factor went on to devise a “color harmony” palette that individualized makeup for such stars as Rudolph Valentino and Mary Pickford. He also coined the noun “makeup” from the verb phrase “to makeup one’s face.”
As Hollywood moved into its glamorous heyday in the 1930s, movie makeup had an enormous impact on everyday life. Women followed such fads as bleaching their hair to imitate Jean Harlow’s platinum locks, or painting their nails “Jungle Red” as Joan Crawford did in the 1939 film The Women. In 1937, Max Factor patented his “pancake makeup,” and it became so wildly successful that one-third of all American women wore it by 1940.
Cosmetics had become big business, and Factor was joined in this increasingly competitive trade by Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden. Like Factor, Rubenstein was born in Poland: she first immigrated to Australia and set up beauty salons marketing pots of her special “Krakow face cream.” Enormously successful, she soon opened salons in London, Paris, and in 1914, New York City.
Rubenstein’s Fifth Avenue salon was mere blocks from Elizabeth Arden’s, another pioneering figure in cosmetics who came to New York from rural Canada in 1907. Arden worked at a beauty salon at Fifth Avenue before opening her own salon on Fifth Avenue and 42d Street. Fiercely competitive, the two would battle royally over what a PBS documentary termed “The Powder & The Glory” for the next half century.
As I wrapped up my contribution to the Stuff Conference, I gave the final words on makeup to one of my oracles—Miss Piggy. Curator of entertainment Dwight Blocker Bowers, himself, is a fan of the grand dame of pork and before the conference we had mused together on what Miss Piggy might offer on the subject of pig-fat makeup. No fool is that pig. “If you’re going to slap lipstick on a pig,” she would likely intone, “make very sure it’s not a relative.”
March 13, 2013
For Downton Abbey fans wondering how to spend their time until season four begins next year, PBS is offering a little something to dull the pain. Starting March 31st, we’ll be able to indulge our frothy fantasies with “Mr. Selfridge,” a new series replete with Edwardian finery, intricate plots and engaging actors.
Inspired by Lindy Woodhead’s 2007 biography, Shopping, Seduction & Mr. Selfridge, about department store magnate Harry Gordon Selfridge, the new Masterpiece Theater series starring Jeremy Piven in the title role, makes an important connection: “If you lived at Downton Abbey, you shopped at Selfridge’s.”
The American-born Selfridge (1856-1947) learned the retail trade in the years when dry goods outlets were being replaced by dazzling urban department stores. Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia, Marshall Field’s in Chicago and Gimbels in New York were vast “palaces of abundance” that treated shoppers like pampered pets. These stores made shopping entertaining, competing for attention with tea rooms, barber shops, fashion shows and theatrical presentations.
In a twist of irony, shopping also provided a platform for women’s empowerment and for the rising emancipation movement. The modern “new woman” rode bicycles and worked in cities and appeared in public alone without fear of scandal. To women who embraced a modern public identity, department stores became a safe haven where they could convene without guardians or escorts. Shopping was a declaration of independence. And the fun was in the details. Fashion was always changing so there was plenty of reason to load up shopping bags and come back for more.
Setting the stage with as much hoopla as possible, the art of selling had became as much a “show” as any theatrical venture. Beautifully appointed, Field’s, Gimbels and Wanamker’s were glittering showplaces, bathed in the glow of newly invented high-wattage electric lighting. And shopper’s found paradise enjoying the displays of exciting new goods in the large plate glass windows. John Wanamaker, whose Philadelphia department store reflected the newest techniques in salesmanship—smart advertising and beautifully displayed merchandise—even exhibited Titians and Manets from his personal art collection.
Harry Selfridge got his start as a stock boy at Marshall Field’s landmark Chicago store. For 25 years, he climbed rung-by-rung the proverbial corporate ladder until he became Field’s partner, amassing a considerable personal fortune along the way. But it wasn’t enough to quench an insatiable ambition and on a trip to London in 1906, he had a “Eureka” moment. Noting that London stores lacked the latest selling techniques popular in America, Selfridge took his leave from Field’s, and opened a London emporium. Always a dreamer, but quite practical as well, he chose a site ideally situated to attract thousands of people, traveling the Central Line—the London Underground that had opened just six years earlier and would become a boon to West End retailers.
Opening for business on March 15, 1909, the store became a commercial phenomenon, attracting a million people during its first week. A London columnist reported that it was second only to Big Ben as a tourist favorite. The store was a marvel of its day—five stories high with three basement levels, a roof-top terrace and more than 100 departments and visitor services, including a tea room, a barber shop, a hair salon, a library, a post office, sumptuous ladies’ and gentlemen’s cloakrooms, a rifle range, a nursing station and a concierge who could book West End show tickets or a passage to New York. The store’s massive six acres of floor space was gorgeously designed with wide open-plan vistas; brilliant lighting and trademark green carpeting throughout. Modern Otis “lifts” whisked customers quickly from floor-to-floor. “A store, which is used every day,” Selfridge said, “should be as fine a thing and, in its own way, as ennobling a thing as a church or a museum.”
The opening coincided with the burgeoning suffrage movement. The same year, Alice Paul—a young American Quaker who moved to London to work on the British suffrage movement—made headlines when she disrupted the Prime Minister’s speech by throwing her shoes and yelling, “Votes for women!” Politically awakened, women felt newly empowered in the marketplace and at the department store in particular where they could shop independently, without a chaperone and without fear of causing scandal for doing so. Selfridge himself understood this, once explaining “I came along just at the time when women wanted to step out on their own. They came to the store and realized some of their dreams.”
The act of shopping may have opened doors for turn-of-the-century women, but the dream of suffrage would require organized political engagement for ensuing generations. On her return to the United States, Paul became a leader in the National American Woman Suffrage Association. In March 1913, she organized a massive parade in Washington to demand a Constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote. The 19th Amendment was ratified seven years later on August 18, 1920; in 1923 Alice Paul drafted an Equal Rights Amendment that would guarantee women’s equality. Congress passed the ERA half a century later in 1972, but of course not enough states have yet voted for its ratification.
Meanwhile, the enticing real-life story of Mr. Selfridge and his department store will take us back to a time when women wore corsets and ankle-length dresses, and couldn’t vote. But they could shop. And perhaps unwittingly, Harry Selfridge furthered their ambitions when he said: “the customer is always right.”