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New Year’s Blog for the End of 2012


New Year’s Blog for the End of 2012



- Several nights ago, on Sunday the 23rd, Turner Classic Movies showed as its Sunday Silent feature Carl Dreyer’s “Joan of Arc” (also called “The Passion of Joan of Arc”) made in 1928. In my Movie Notes (written for my sons Julian and Benedict and posted here under “Writings of JC”) I wrote of it:

“Silent masterwork by Danish director, starring a great actor, Renee Falconetti, who appeared only in this one film. Intensely moving, don’t watch casually. ‘Convinced the world that movies could be art,’ says the jacket blurb, and it’s right. I remember my first seeing it;  you will remember yours. (Seen again: this is of all films the most unlike any other. Some consider Falconetti’s performance to be the finest on film—it seems beyond human capacity.  The young priest sympathetic to Joan is Antonin Artaud, himself a famous actor, and promoter of a rather poisonous doctrine of a ‘theater of cruelty.’)”

Last Sunday I intended to watch only the beginning, to call back my memories of that greatest of film performances, which indeed seems more than a performance, more than acting, somehow moving into the transcendental, the sublime. But in the end I couldn’t look away, and sat there mesmerized through the whole, through the terrible scenes of her death by burning. Looking up more information on Maria Renee Falconetti I see that she did make one other film, now forgotten, and was mostly a comedienne. Dreyer reportedly meant originally to use a famous movie actress such as Lillian Gish in the role, but ended with Falconetti, and somehow drew out of her--with harsh treatment, it’s said, that made her physically uncomfortable--this mesmerizing series of close-up studies of her face, her responses to the brutal questioning of her tormenters, which make up about half the footage of the film.  Nothing like it has been done before or since, and one can’t imagine anything like it being attempted again. If you haven’t seen it, buy the best disk you can get--a recent restoration with a musical score taken from old compositions that somehow fits the images--and watch it over and over. It will enrich your life.

- From the Sublime to the Ridiculous-- but the nostalgically and enjoyably ridiculous: The next afternoon Turner Classic Movies showed, and I happened to tune in on (without having noticed it in their programming) the original “Babes in Toyland,” with Victor Herbert music and starring Laurel and Hardy. Made in 1938, it must have been shown in that or the following year at the Union Theater on Main St. in Fort Bragg, the small fishing and lumber town in Mendocino County on the Pacific coast where, on one Saturday morning, a triangular-faced little boy of eight or nine stood in line clutching his dime for admission. He loved the movie, and was impressed enough by the “March of the Wooden Soldiers” near the end to persuade his piano teacher, a Mrs. Stagner, to order the music for it so that he could try to play it--as he never quite could. But the music haunted him through many later viewings, when he showed it to his children, always in danger of turning wet-eyed when Mother Goose at the beginning sings “Toyland, Toyland, little girl and boy-land” and “Once you leave its borders you may ne’er return again.” As a teen-ager he was devoted to the light operas of Victor Herbert, Sigmund Romberg (“The Desert Song,” “The Vagabond King”--push the right button and he will still sing the song with which Francois Villon rouses his fellows in a tavern to go off to fight the troops of Burgundy) or Jerome Kern (“Music In the Air,” with John Charles Thomas and Irra Petina, at the Curran Theater in S.F.) Anyway: seeing this old movie for the umpteenth time--but the first in a decade or more--stirred the old feelings in me, and I watched it through. Two complete movies in two days (see above) sets a kind of record for my later years.

- The NYTimes Obituary section for December 19th printed an obituary for the death at age 96 of Mary Griggs Burke, the New York collector who put together a great collection of Japanese art over many years. I got to know her when I was a fellowship student at the Met in 1953-4, and in later years saw a lot of her and her husband Jackson (whom she married in 1955.) The great exhibition of Japanese art shown at the Met in the spring of 1954 included several fine works of Nanga painting, introducing that subject to me, and I later advised Mary and Jackson on expanding that side of their collection, which was new to them (and pretty much everybody else outside Japan). When I put together the first foreign exhibition of that school of painting, the 1972 “Scholar Painters of Japan: The Nanga School,” I included, in an exhibition otherwise entirely made up of works from Japanese collections, a Taiga screen they had bought on my recommendation representing “The Poetical Gathering At the Orchid Pavilion.” And in fact this exhibition would not have taken place if Mary Burke had not gone to a lot of trouble to rescue it when it seemed doomed, confronting the Bunkachô authorities in Japan and arguing for its restoration in their program after they had decided to eliminate it. (For that story, see on this website Reminiscence no. 50, “My Partly Botched Nanga Exhibition.”) I visited Mary less often in later years, but remember being shown some Chinese paintings she had bought, including a figure scroll by Wu Bin. Like another New York collector I knew well, John Crawford, she was reluctant to see her collection go to the Met because, also like Crawford, she disliked the curator (and department chair) with whom she would have to negotiate.  But in 2006, perhaps in response to the retirement of that curator and his replacement by another, she announced that her collection would be divided between the Met and the Minneapolis Museum of Art--with the Met getting, I assume,   pieces that would best supplement what they had already, notably from the Harry Packard sale and gift. (This is only an “educated guess”--I have no direct information about the matter.)

So, farewell to another old friend and supporter.

- Finally: The Big News: OUR NEW SERIES OF VIDEO-LECTURES BEGINS TO BE POSTED AT LAST. At left, under the blog section, is a new one for the new series, which is titled “Gazing Into the Past: Scenes From Later Chinese and Japanese Painting.” The detail picture on it, from Shitao’s great “Waterfall on Mt. Lu” in the Sumitomo Collection, is the same detail that appeared (more cut-down) on the title page of my Skira book “Chinese Painting”  long ago, and depicts two men: one seated and watching the other, who is standing and gazing, not upward at the waterfall, but downward into the mist. When each of the lectures is opened, another “Gazing Into the Past” image appears behind the titles: a detail from Luo Ping’s 1799 “Portrait of I-an” that is the last painting in that same Skira book. (The implications and resonances of that picture, and of the music that accompanies it and the pianist who plays the music, are all explained at some length in an insert at the beginning of GIP 2--watch and listen to that and you will understand better  my purpose in doing this new series.)


Another dozen or more GIP lectures are close to completion and will be posted before long. Each, with a few exceptions, is devoted to a single artist, and in many cases centers on a single painting, typically an album or handscroll from which we see many sections and details. And always the lectures contain large numbers of  images, wholes and close-in details, mostly made from old Kodachrome slides from my collection--disorderly, but the largest anywhere?--and feature also commentary from my old head, of which much the same can be said (more visual images of Chinese paintings than in any other still-operative head, but more and more disorderly as time passes.) That the images, and whatever wisdom the old head holds, will be lost forever when I join my ancestors, is my main motivation for working to complete as much as I can of this series.


So:  take some time, when you have the time, to watch these lectures, which offer never-before-seen visual accounts of some of the most exciting Yuan-Ming-Qing paintings of China and some   great paintings--mostly Nanga but also works by Sesshû--of Japan.


And that is my Christmas and New Year’s gift for the end of 2012, offered with the warmest wishes for the new year, to all of you from your old lecturer and blogger,

James Cahill

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