June 4, 2013
One of the great modern American literary friendships was between the poets Robert Lowell (1917-1977) and Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979). They met in the late 1940s and remained friends, despite some turmoil, until Lowell’s death in 1977. Bishop only survived him by two years, passing away suddenly on the day she was to give a rare public reading at Harvard University. Rare, because Bishop was very shy, especially when it came to crowds, unlike Lowell who was voluble, more than a little manic, and quite the great man of American letters.
Despite, or perhaps because of, their contrasting temperaments they bonded over poetry. It was a literary friendship in two senses: they were both fiercely committed to their craft and it was a relationship that was conducted almost entirely by mail. They were rarely in the same part of the world at the same time, not least because Bishop spent almost two decades in Brazil, living with her partner Lota de Macedo Soares. So the friends grew close by writing letters to bridge the physical distance between them.
Both Lowell and Bishop were extraordinary correspondents. Does anyone write letters anymore? But Lowell and Bishop were among the last of the generations that considered letter writing an art form. Composing experiences and thoughts in a way that was coherent and reflective, Lowell and Bishop viewed letters as minor works of art, as well as a way to keep the mind alert to writing poetry. In the lives of strong writers, one is always struck by the sheer quantity of writing that they do, and letters form the bulk of this writing. Both Lowell and Bishop were remarkable correspondents both with each other and with others. But their correspondence is sufficiently important that it has been collected in the 2008 volume Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, edited by Thomas Trevisano and Saskia Hamilton.
The title is taken from an affectionate poem that Lowell wrote (and rewrote. .. and then rewrote again!) for Bishop in which he characterized her methods of composing poems. And this is the other great thing about Bishop and Lowell: they wrote poems in response to each other. Their letters were private communications but the poems were a public dialogue carried out in counterpoint. For instance, from Brazil Bishop dedicated a poem to Lowell called it “The Armadillo.” It begins with a beautiful image of a popular religious celebration, a mingling of the secular and the sacred:
This is the time of year
when almost every night
the frail, illegal fire balloons appear.
Climbing the mountain height,
rising toward a saint
still honored in these parts,
the paper chambers flush and fill with light
that comes and goes, like hearts.
It’s impossible not to imagine that in that image of the paper filling with light, “like hearts,” Bishop was referring to letter-writing. But the fire balloons can be dangerous, and when they fall to earth they flare into brushfires that disturb the animals: “Hastily, all alone,/a glistening armadillo left the scene/rose flecked, head down. . . “ Are these fires a warning not to get too close? Bishop and Lowell had quarreled in their letters about Lowell’s use of quotations and personal details in his poems without having asked for permission. Exposed to the public, private correspondence could detonate, injuring innocent bystanders Bishop could be saying.
Lowell responded to Bishop’s armadillo with a poem called “Skunk Hour” set in Castine, Maine, where he summered. Society is all unstable: “The season’s ill—we’ve lost our summer millionaire. . .” Half way through Lowell turns on himself. Watching the cars in Lover’s Lane: “My mind’s not right. . . .I myself am hell;/nobody’s here—//only skunks, that search in the moonlight for a bite to eat.” Lowell was frequently hospitalized throughout his life with mental illness and you can hear the desperate sense of holding on as everything seems to be falling apart in this verse. “Skunk Hour” ends with an image of obdurate resistance that the poet fears he cannot share: the mother skunk, foraging in a garbage can, “drops her ostrich tail,/and will not scare.”
The title for their collected correspondence comes from Lowell’s poem for Bishop that includes the lines: “Do/you still hang your words in the air, ten years/unfinished, glued to your notice board, with gaps or empties for the unimaginable phrase—unerring Muse who makes the casual perfect?”
Unlike the voluble Lowell, Bishop was a very deliberate writer and Lowell is referring to her habit of pinning up the sheets of a work in progress and making it, essentially, part of the furniture of her life. She mulled over the work, considering and reworking the poem until she was finally satisfied with it; reportedly she worked on her well known poem “The Moose” for nearly two decades before publishing it.
Lowell was just the opposite, not least because he revised and rewrote poems even after he had published them, causing a great deal of trouble and confusion for his editors in establishing an accurate final text. Indeed, he fiddled continually with his poem to Bishop, turning it into something rather more formal and monumental in the final version.
Lowell never read Bishop’s response: it came in a memorial poem called “North Haven,” a poem like “Skunk Hour” about the seacoast. It’s a lovely tribute, full of rueful knowledge of Lowell’s character: “(‘Fun’—it always seemed leave you at a loss. . .)” and ends with
You left North Haven, anchored in its rock,
afloat in mystic blue. . .And now – you’ve left
for good. You can’t derange, or rearrange,
your poems again. (But the sparrows can their song.)
The words won’t change again. Sad friend, you cannot change.
It’s uneasy to cite sadness or depression as a cause of artistic creativity; most depressives aren’t great poets. Both Lowell and Bishop were sad in their various ways. Poetry, Robert Frost wrote, provides a “momentary stay against confusion.” But that’s not all it does. Indeed, in the case of Bishop and Lowell it could be argued that it was the letters that provided a structure of meaning and feeling for both poets that helped them make sense and order their experience. The poems themselves are something else entirely: expressions of feeling and self-knowledge that appear as art.
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 28, 2013
Tuesday, May 28: “Sylvan Sounds: Freer, Dewing and Japan”
In 1923, Charles Lang Freer founded the Freer Gallery, one of Smithsonian’s two Asian art Museums. His taste for Japanese art in particular grew out of a love for the enigmatic tonalist landscapes by American painter Thomas Dewing, who was himself influenced by Japanese pastoral paintings. Today, a new exhibition opens entitled “Sylvan Sounds: Freer, Dewing and Japan.” It juxtaposes Dewing’s works with the Edo period prints Freer acquired in the 1890s, including hanging scrolls and screens. Check it out! Free. 10 a.m. to 5.30 p.m. Freer Gallery.
Wednesday, May 29: Pop quiz: Hometown Heroes
What do Samuel L. Jackson, Bill Nye the Science Guy and J.C. from ‘N SYNC have in common? They were all born in Washington, DC, of course! If you think you’re an expert on DC’s famous sons and daughters—or, you know, if you just want to have a good time with your friends—drop by the National Portrait Gallery after work this evening for a trivia night dedicated to the city’s hometown heroes. Free (drinks and snacks available for purchase). 6:30 p.m. National Portrait Gallery, Kogod Courtyard.
Thursday, May 30: Historic Theater: Meet Joseph Henry
Just how did the Smithsonian Institution begin, anyway? Joseph Henry, the first secretary, is cruising the American History Museum’s halls today (actually, he’s a historical reenactor) to talk about the Smithsonian during the Civil War and Henry’s great influence on the Institution from during the years 1846 to 1878. Ask him about electromagnets! Free. 10:30 a.m., 12:00 p.m., 2:00 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. American History Museum.
Also, check out our Visitors Guide App. Get the most out of your trip to Washington, D.C. and the National Mall with this selection of custom-built tours, based on your available time and passions. From the editors of Smithsonian magazine, the app is packed with handy navigational tools, maps, museum floor plans and museum information including ‘Greatest Hits’ for each Smithsonian museum.
For a complete listing of Smithsonian events and exhibitions visit the goSmithsonian Visitors Guide. Additional reporting by Michelle Strange.
May 17, 2013
Fifty years ago on May 17, 1963, TIME magazine put James Baldwin on the cover with the story “Birmingham and Beyond: The Negro’s Push for Equality.” And to create his portrait, the weekly called on artist Boris Chaliapin. Baldwin’s intense eyes and pensive expression stared out from newsstands across the country.
“Chaliapin,” explains National Portrait Gallery curator Jim Barber, “tried to capture the essence of a person and their personality.” Though the magazine had contracts with a dozen or so other cover artists, Chaliapin was part of the prominent threesome dubbed the “ABC’s” with artists Boris Artzybasheff and Ernest Hamlin Baker. Known for his spot-on likenesses, Chaliapin could also be counted on for a quick turnaround. “Unlike the other cover artists that needed a week or two, Chaliapin…if pressed, he could crank out covers in two or three days,” says Barber.
Over his nearly 30 year career with TIME, Chaliapin produced more than 400 covers and earned the nickname “Mr. TIME.” He portrayed the day’s biggest stars and helped illustrate each week’s cover story with a fresh portrait.
Born in Russia, Chaliapin trained as an artist there before journeying to Paris, France to continue his education. Eventually making his way to the United States, he found work with TIME magazine and in 1942 produced his first cover for them of a WWII general. Chaliapin often worked from photographs to create his covers, made with watercolors, tempera, pencil and other materials. Other than his speed and technical skill, Chaliapin was known for his portraits of beguiling starlets like Marilyn Monroe and Grace Kelly.
From the National Portrait Gallery’s more than 300 Chaliapin covers, Barber selected 26 for a new exhibit, “Mr. TIME: Portraits by Boris Chaliapin,” opening Friday, May 17. “I wanted to show Chaliapin’s entire career,” says Barber.
By the end of that career, painted portraits were on their way out for magazine covers. Photographs and more thematic illustrations were being used more frequently. Chaliapin’s covers capture a snapshot of the news from days gone by, but also of the news industry itself. His final cover was of President Nixon in 1970.
“Mr. TIME: Portraits by Boris Chaliapin” is on view at the National Portrait Gallery through January 5, 2014.
UPDATE 7/1/2013: The name Boris Chaliapin was misspelled in a previous version. We regret the error.
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—”