Monday, July 30, 2012

Agatha Bas

Rembrandt Van Rijn (1606-1669)
Agatha Bas
The Royal Collection, London

Oil On Canvas
42 3/16 Inches By 33 9/16 Inches


One of the greatest of all Rembrandt portraits, “Agatha Bas” is another of my favorite Rembrandt works. It, too, is owned by Queen Elizabeth. The painting is generally on display in the Picture Gallery during summer openings at Buckingham Palace; I have seen it there twice.

Not one of the paintings in the Minneapolis Rembrandt exhibition was of the quality of “Agatha Bas”.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Major Artist, Minor Works

Two weeks ago today, we attended the exhibition, “Rembrandt In America”, at the Minneapolis Institute Of Arts.

Everyone in the family went to the exhibition. Even my nephew and niece were in attendance, although the exhibition was of limited interest to them. (My niece was carried by her father, and she fell asleep in his arms halfway through the display rooms; my nephew listened to my mother as she talked to him about the paintings, but only a couple of the paintings truly engaged him.)

“Rembrandt In America” presents the story of American individuals and American institutions collecting Rembrandt artworks. The largest assemblage of Rembrandt paintings ever gathered in North America, “Rembrandt In America” is unquestionably an exhibition of some importance—yet I remain unconvinced that the exhibition is good, or even insightful.

From the date of his death (1669), Rembrandt always retained his fame in the Low Countries and in Germany. In Britain, France, Italy and Spain, however, the name of Rembrandt disappeared from art history books for more than two centuries. His rediscovery in those latter countries was to occur only in the late 18th Century (Joshua Reynolds was instrumental in the rebirth of Rembrandt in Britain). Rembrandt has not fallen from view since.

By 1800, when Rembrandt’s works were once again in demand throughout the continent and in Britain, collectors encountered an obstacle: Rembrandt owners in the Low Countries and Germany were unwilling to part with their Rembrandt works. In fact, by the late 18th Century, most Rembrandt artworks—and almost all key Rembrandt artworks—had long since been deposited into royal, church and civic collections in Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany, never again to change ownership. The result was that, from 1800 onward, the great demand for Rembrandt paintings was met by a supply of relative insignificance in terms of both quantity and quality.

American collectors were at an especial disadvantage. The great period of American collecting occurred between the end of The American Civil War and The Stock Market Crash Of 1929. Few Rembrandt artworks were on the market during this period—and those that were were small and mid-sized paintings of relative unimportance. (Most that were on the market came from Britain; the heirs of British Rembrandt buyers, finding themselves strapped for cash two and three generations after their ancestors’ purchases early in the 19th Century, sold their Rembrandt paintings to American buyers late in the 19th Century.)

Many of the so-called Rembrandt paintings purchased by American collectors between 1866 and 1929 turned out to be not by Rembrandt. Over the course of the last several decades, countless Rembrandt paintings in the U.S. and elsewhere have been “downgraded” by Rembrandt scholars from “Rembrandt” to “Workshop Of Rembrandt”, “School Of Rembrandt”, “Circle Of Rembrandt”, “Follower Of Rembrandt”, “After Rembrandt” or “Formerly Attributed To Rembrandt”.

Indeed, New York’s Metropolitan Museum Of Art presented an exhibition a few years ago displaying its Rembrandt paintings currently deemed authentic alongside paintings owned by the museum formerly thought to be authentic Rembrandts. The latter category far outnumbered the former in an exhibition aptly titled “Rembrandt/Not Rembrandt”.

Most of the Rembrandt paintings on display in Minneapolis, like most Rembrandt paintings in America, were small and mid-sized individual portraits. There were only a couple of religious paintings included in the exhibition, and no group portraits at all. The paintings in Minneapolis, entirely representative of Rembrandt holdings in the U.S., were in no way representative of Rembrandt’s total output.

Until roughly 1640, Rembrandt’s most important paintings were religious paintings. Many of the religious paintings were giant paintings inspired by and in competition with the giant religious paintings produced by Peter Paul Rubens. After 1640, Rembrandt’s most important paintings were group portraits. Many of the group portraits were giant portraits inspired by and in competition with the giant group portraits produced by Frans Hals. Rembrandt’s large-scale religious paintings and group portraits are bold, commanding, colorful works, sweeping in their majesty and drama.

Rembrandt’s individual portraits, in contrast, are small, intimate, muted works, painted for an audience that wanted to see itself portrayed, above all, as bearing gravitas, dignity, piety and restraint. The individual portraits represent only one facet of Rembrandt’s work—yet, in the U.S., that facet is the only one that may be seen, simply because that facet was the only one on the marketplace between 1866 and 1929.

It is only in Europe that art lovers may observe the full range of Rembrandt’s art.

Amsterdam and Munich are the chief repositories of Rembrandt’s large-scale masterworks. One cannot begin to understand Rembrandt without visiting the vast Rembrandt collections on display in those two cities.

The paintings we examined two weeks ago presented a narrow, constricted, even misleading view of the great artist. Rembrandt was much, much more than a small-scale domestic portraitist.

Moreover, the portraits on display in Minneapolis were not among Rembrandt’s finest. The most select of Rembrandt’s individual portraits have always been in European collections.

American holdings of Rembrandt, bluntly put, are not particularly impressive—and the very thinness of America’s Rembrandt holdings was the unintended theme that overpowered the “Rembrandt In America” exhibition.

Many Rembrandt experts believe that the finest Rembrandt painting in the U.S. is “Lucretia”, a painting owned by the Minneapolis Institute Of Arts. “Lucretia”, quite naturally, was included in the exhibition. With respect to Rembrandt’s complete work list, “Lucretia”, whatever its merits, is nowise a work of great significance.

Therein resided the problem with the exhibition: major artist, minor works. The exhibition was important yet unsatisfying—and perhaps even disappointing.

We may go a second time, during a weekday, when crowds should be smaller, to have another look.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Lake Chiemsee

On August 3, 2009, we visited Lake Chiemsee.

We visited the town of Prien am Chiemsee, we took a boat out on Lake Chiemsee, and we visited the island of Herrenchiemsee (also known as Herreninsel). On the island, we visited the grand palace built by Ludwig II and we visited the monastery.

We did not visit the island of Frauenchiemsee (also known as Fraueninsel), shown here from the boat on Lake Chiemsee. Frauenchiemsee is the site of an abbey, seen in the photograph.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Cheddar Gorge

On the same day we drove through Exmoor, we also drove through Cheddar Gorge, England’s largest gorge.

It takes only thirty or so minutes to drive the full length of Cheddar Gorge.

By American scenic standards, Cheddar Gorge was a non-event.

The great bluffs of the Upper Mississippi are far more beautiful and far more dramatic than Cheddar Gorge—and, of course, the great gorges of the American West are incomparable, on an entirely different scale of beauty and wonder than Cheddar Gorge.


On August 13, 2008, five days after our drive through Dartmoor, we drove through a second moorland, Exmoor.

Exmoor abuts the Bristol Coast. A good portion of coastal Exmoor resides on giant cliffs overlooking the sea.

Much of the main road through Exmoor tracks the coast. The drive is a very beautiful one.

We found Exmoor much more rewarding than Dartmoor.

Sunday, July 15, 2012


On August 8, 2008, we spent much of the day driving through Dartmoor—or, as Joshua called it, “Deeply Disappointing Dartmoor”.

Dartmoor is the sparsely-populated giant moorland that covers much of Devon. It is a warren of narrow roads, hills, streams, bogs, farms and villages.

For some reason, Dartmoor is a popular vacation destination with the British.

I can say, with some confidence, that we are unlikely to return.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

In Preparation For “Rembrandt In America”

Rembrandt Van Rijn (1606-1669)
The Shipbuilder Jan Rijcksen And His Wife Griet Jans
The Royal Collection, London

Oil On Canvas
45 Inches By 66 3/8 Inches


This painting is one of my favorite Rembrandt paintings.

My brother and I saw this painting in 2005, when we toured Buckingham Palace during that year’s summer opening. The painting made a great impression on both of us.

When we returned for the summer opening in 2007, with my parents and Joshua in tow, the painting was no longer on display. Queen Elizabeth’s painting collection is so vast that the paintings in the Buckingham Palace Picture Gallery are changed from year-to-year; each summer opening features a new and different array of Old Master paintings. We were disappointed in 2007 that my mother was unable to see this great painting, as we had described it to her in great detail two years earlier, with the result that my mother had been most eager to see this masterwork herself.

Tomorrow we shall view the exhibition, “Rembrandt In America”, at the Minneapolis Institute Of Arts. Of course, “The Shipbuilder Jan Rijcksen And His Wife Griet Jans” is not part of the exhibition, as the exhibition displays only Rembrandt paintings from American public and private collections. “Rembrandt In America” is the largest Rembrandt exhibition ever organized in North America.

It is one of two large, high-profile exhibitions at the Minneapolis Institute Of Arts in 2012. The other: the Chinese terra-cotta warriors, scheduled to make a visit in the fall and winter.


Farce is very, very difficult to perform.

The primary requirement of successful performance of farce is pacing. Farce must be played very, very quickly—but not too quickly.

The audience must not be given time to analyze the farce—if so, the farce falls apart—and yet farce must be played at a pace that allows the audience time to take in the necessary information.

It must be virtually impossible to find the ideal equilibrium, because I have never seen a satisfactory—let alone successful—performance of farce.

My parents say they have seen but one successful farce performance in almost forty years of theater-going: the original London production of Alan Ayckbourn’s “Bedroom Farce”, which they saw at The National Theatre in 1978, when the production was still new and fresh (and when The National Theatre building was still new and fresh). According to my parents, the first London “Bedroom Farce” was stunningly well-cast (Joan Hickson, Michael Gough, Stephen Moore and Michael Kitchen were among the eight players), stunningly well-played, and stunningly well-directed. They say that the 1978 “Bedroom Farce” was one of director Peter Hall’s greatest triumphs, fully representative of Hall’s glorious work in the 1970s, the decade in which Hall achieved his finest results. (However, the playwright has claimed, over the years, that he—and not Hall—did most of the directing for that acclaimed National Theatre production.)

My middle brother and Joshua and I made the mistake of attending a farce last night—we saw Michael Frayn’s “Noises Off” at Jungle Theater—and we found it tedious to sit through the thing. When the performance had concluded, we were overjoyed at our release from the theater.

Either “Noises Off” is not a good play, or I have managed to see nothing but poor productions of the work. Last night was my third “Noises Off”, and the Jungle Theater production was the worst of my three exposures to the play. The pacing was too slow at the outset, the pacing did not pick up as it must in the second and third acts, and the actors played the material far too broadly. I don’t think we laughed once last night.

My parents saw the original Broadway production of “Noises Off”. They caught a performance in April 1984, four months into the run, and they recall that performance as “terrible”. After all these years, my parents remain puzzled that the original Broadway production of “Noises Off” managed to run for sixteen months. They say it should have closed on opening night.

We last saw “Noises Off” in November 2006, when we had attended a performance in Hamburg. The performance had been in English, using professional actors imported from London, and had been a presentation of Hamburg’s English-language theater. (Hamburg is home to over 100,000 persons whose native tongue is English; the city has maintained a professional English-language theater for decades.)

That Hamburg “Noises Off” had not been particularly good, but it was a model of farce presentation compared to what we suffered through last evening.

In the summer months, Twin Cities theater companies tend to mount comedies, mysteries and musicals. The Guthrie Theater, for instance, is offering a manufactured Cole Porter musical this summer as well as a Neil Simon comedy. We shall avoid both.

Theater In The Round recently opened a production of Ayckbourn’s “Round And Round The Garden”. It is possible we may give that production a shot, but not for a couple of weeks. The Jungle Theater “Noises Off” has soured us on comedy at present.

Otherwise, we shall ignore the local repertory companies for the remainder of the summer.

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Final Photograph

Soprano Josephine Barstow, director John Schlesinger and conductor Herbert Von Karajan at Salzburg in July 1989.

All were gathered for rehearsals of Verdi’s “Un Ballo In Maschera”.

The photograph captured the final rehearsal Karajan ever attended. He died two days later.

The photograph was the last ever taken of the great Austrian conductor.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Gift That Keeps On Giving

As I have written before, the internet is the greatest tool ever invented for public and profligate display of idiocy.

One of the great imbeciles of the worldwide web, William Eddins, whom I have had to take apart before, is at it again. Recently decrying the music of Arnold Schoenberg (spelled “Shoenberg” in the alternate universe in which Eddins resides), Eddins claimed that Schoenberg’s music was a principle cause of the decline in concert attendance in recent decades.

Eddins specifically invoked the music of Schoenberg to explain declining attendance in recent seasons at the Minnesota Orchestra and Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. Eddins, alas, neglected to mention that the Minnesota Orchestra and Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra do not often program the music of Schoenberg, which is especially the case with the former ensemble.

Eddins’s statements about Schoenberg were the statements of a moron. He was, quite naturally, obliged to change his argument once challenged, and claim that in fact he had been preaching not against Schoenberg but against “orthodoxy”—whatever that is in Eddins’s muddled mind.

Since November 2008, when I took advantage of delicious opportunity and skewered Eddins, Eddins has provided countless additional fodder for rich mirth and glee. However, I never bothered to take advantage of the fresh material and engage in further merrymaking—after all, when the target is as unintelligent as Eddins, it becomes ungenerous to point out imbecility more than once or twice. The man’s stupidity speaks for itself.

Today, however, I could not help but notice that Randol Schoenberg took Eddins on. Schoenberg was all too happy to note, repeatedly, that Eddins is not the brightest bulb in the closet or the sharpest tool in the shed.

The sad part is that what Schoenberg wrote was probably over Eddins’s head.

Monday, July 09, 2012

“The Majority Of My Symphonies Are Tombstones”

Dmitri Shostakovich, late in life, outside his dacha.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

14 April 1957: Berlin

David Oistrakh, Franz Konwitschny and Igor Oistrakh, immediately after a Leipzig Gewandhaus concert at Berlin’s Staatsoper on April 14, 1957.

Konwitschny was only 55 years old at the time of the photo, yet he looked like an 80-year-old man—no doubt, in part, because of his heavy drinking. He was to die at age 60. His son, Peter, is the notorious stage director.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Vsevolod Meyerhold and Zinaida Reich

Theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold and actress Zinaida Reich, circa 1922.

On Stalin’s orders, Meyerhold was arrested and charged with treason on June 20, 1939. He was executed by firing squad on February 2, 1940.

Reich was found stabbed to death in her apartment less than a month after Meyerhold’s arrest. It is believed that the Soviet Secret Police, the NKVD, was responsible for her murder.

It is inconceivable today that harmless and apolitical persons such as Meyerhold and Reich, both very minor figures, were victims of Stalin’s Great Purge.

The arrest of Meyerhold, a man never viewed by anyone as any kind of threat, shocked the Russian intelligentsia and struck fear into the hearts of all persons working in every branch of the fine arts—and instantly made persons such as Dmitri Shostakovich and David Oistrakh believe that they had been marked for death.

Meyerhold was exonerated two years after Stalin’s death. He was one of the first persons “rehabilitated” shortly into The Khrushchev Thaw. Such rehabilitations were to continue, without end, until the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Cattiness And Catfights

A promotional still for the motion picture, “All About Eve”.

“All About Eve” is an amusing and diverting entertainment, but its exalted reputation in the United States is undeserved, even inexplicable.

As cinema, “All About Eve” is pure junk—glossy junk, but junk entirely typical of the 20th Century-Fox film factory. Persons outside the U.S. have been mystified for over seventy years that “All About Eve” is held in high regard in North America. Quite accurately, they see the film as nothing more than a standard commercial vehicle closely tied to its time and place, crafted and delivered to meet the expectations of an unsophisticated and undemanding audience.

A small-scale backstage story characterized above all by bitchiness, “All About Eve” is perilously close to camp. Without sweep and without theme and without vision, the film offers an intimate view of the New York theater scene of the late 1940s that is pure domestic drama—and not particularly good domestic drama at that, what with its cattiness and catfights. It is precisely the sort of mass-produced item that thrived in the era of early television.

Without Bette Davis anchoring the film, “All About Eve” probably would have been a critical and box-office failure. I cannot imagine any other actress of the era that might have held the film together and given it a spark of life.

Aside from George Sanders, the men in the film are all seriously miscast. Gary Merrill, who played the theater director, was as vivid as wall plaster—and totally unconvincing as theater professional as well as love interest for Davis. Hugh Marlowe, who portrayed the playwright, seemed to have wandered into the film from a comedy short about the Ozarks.

Why have Americans canonized such an unimaginative piece of manufactured tripe?

I doubt Eisenstein would have been able to sit through the thing.

Friday, July 06, 2012

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Normandy: July 4, 1944

American nurses on a beach in Normandy, July 4, 1944.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

The Glorious Fourth

Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828)
George Washington (“The Lansdowne Portrait”)
National Portrait Gallery, Washington

Oil On Canvas
96 Inches By 60 Inches


Nothing but harmony, honesty, industry and frugality are necessary to make us a great and happy people.

George Washington, to Marquis de Lafayette, 29 January 1789

Essen 1867: Krupp

Monday, July 02, 2012


The music staff of Musiktheater-im-Revier (“Music Theater In The Ruhr”) in Gelsenkirchen.

Heiko Mathias Förster
General Music Director

Bernhard Stengel

Christian Jeub
Chorus Director

Askan Geisler

Please remind me, the next time I am in Gelsenkirchen, not to bother to attend the opera.