Jul 192018
 

Today is the birthday (1834) of Edgar Degas, born Hilaire-Germain-Edgar De Gas, a French artist who is now mostly remembered for his paintings of dancers. He is regarded as one of the founders of Impressionism, although he rejected the term, preferring to be called a realist. I will begin by saying that Degas was, by contemporary accounts of him, a thoroughly unpleasant man. I’ll get into details in the body of the post.  For now, I will content myself with saying that if I rejected posts on all famous creative people who led hideous personal lives, my writing would be a great deal slimmer.

Degas was born in Paris, France, into a moderately wealthy family. He was the oldest of five children of Célestine Musson De Gas, a Creole from New Orleans, Louisiana, and Augustin De Gas, a banker. His maternal grandfather Germain Musson, was born in Port-au-Prince in Haiti of French descent and had settled in New Orleans in 1810. Degas (he adopted this less grandiose spelling of his family name when he became an adult) began his schooling at age 11, enrolling in the Lycée Louis-le-Grand. His mother died when he was 13, and his father and grandfather became the main influences on him for the remainder of his youth.

Degas began to paint early in life. By the time he graduated from the Lycée with a baccalauréat in 1853, at age 18, he had turned a room in his home into an artist’s studio. Upon graduating, he registered as a copyist in The Louvre Museum, but his father expected him to go to law school. Degas duly enrolled at the Faculty of Law of the University of Paris in November 1853, but put little effort to his studies. In 1855 he met Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, whom Degas revered and whose advice he never forgot: “Draw lines, young man, and still more lines, both from life and from memory, and you will become a good artist.” In April of that year Degas was admitted to the École des Beaux-Arts. He studied drawing there with Louis Lamothe, under whose guidance he flourished, following the style of Ingres. In July 1856, Degas traveled to Italy, where he remained for the next three years. In 1858, while staying with his aunt’s family in Naples, he made the first studies for his early masterpiece The Bellelli Family. He also drew and painted numerous copies of works by Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, and other Renaissance artists, but—contrary to conventional practice—he usually selected from an altarpiece a detail that had caught his attention: a secondary figure, or a head which he treated as a portrait.

Upon his return to France in 1859, Degas moved into a Paris studio large enough to permit him to begin painting The Bellelli Family—an imposing canvas he intended for exhibition in the Salon, although it remained unfinished until 1867. He also began work on several history paintings: Alexander and Bucephalus and The Daughter of Jephthah in 1859–60; Sémiramis Building Babylon in 1860; and Young Spartans around 1860. In 1861 Degas visited his childhood friend Paul Valpinçon in Normandy, and made the earliest of his many studies of horses. He exhibited at the Salon for the first time in 1865, when the jury accepted his painting Scene of War in the Middle Ages, which attracted little attention. Although he exhibited annually in the Salon during the next five years, he submitted no more history paintings, and his Steeplechase—The Fallen Jockey (Salon of 1866) signaled his growing commitment to contemporary subject matter. The change in his art was influenced primarily by the example of Édouard Manet, whom Degas had met in 1864 (while both were copying the same Velázquez portrait in the Louvre, according to a story that may be apocryphal).

Upon the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, Degas enlisted in the National Guard, where his defense of Paris left him little time for painting. During rifle training his eyesight was found to be defective, and for the rest of his life his eye problems were a constant worry to him. After the war, Degas began (in 1872) an extended stay in New Orleans, Louisiana, where his brother René and a number of other relatives lived. Staying at the home of his Creole uncle, Michel Musson, on Esplanade Avenue, Degas produced a number of works, many depicting family members. One of Degas’s New Orleans works, A Cotton Office in New Orleans, garnered favorable attention back in France, and was his only work purchased by a museum (the Pau) during his lifetime.

Degas returned to Paris in 1873 and his father died the following year, whereupon Degas learned that his brother René had amassed enormous business debts. To preserve his family’s reputation, Degas sold his house and an art collection he had inherited, and used the money to pay off his brother’s debts. Dependent for the first time in his life on sales of his artwork for income, he produced much of his greatest work during the decade beginning in 1874. Disenchanted by now with the Salon, he instead joined a group of young artists who were organizing an independent exhibiting society. The group soon became known as the Impressionists. Between 1874 and 1886 they mounted eight art shows, known as the Impressionist Exhibitions. Degas took a leading role in organizing the exhibitions, and showed his work in all but one of them, despite his persistent conflicts with others in the group. He had little in common with Monet and the other landscape painters in the group, whom he mocked for painting outdoors. He abhorred the scandal created by the exhibitions, as well as the publicity and advertising that his colleagues sought. He also deeply disliked being associated with the term “Impressionist”, which the press had coined and popularized, and insisted on including non-Impressionist artists such as Jean-Louis Forain and Jean-François Raffaëlli in the group’s exhibitions. The resulting rancor within the group contributed to its disbanding in 1886.

Technically, Degas differs from the Impressionists in that he continually belittled their practice of painting “en plein air.” He wrote:

You know what I think of people who work out in the open. If I were the government I would have a special brigade of gendarmes to keep an eye on artists who paint landscapes from nature. Oh, I don’t mean to kill anyone; just a little dose of bird-shot now and then as a warning.

Mlle. Fiocre in the Ballet La Source, exhibited in the Salon of 1868, was his first major work to introduce dancers as a subject with which he would become especially identified. In many subsequent paintings dancers were shown backstage or in rehearsal, emphasizing their status as professionals doing a job. From 1870 Degas increasingly painted ballet subjects, partly because they sold well and provided him with needed income after his brother’s debts had left the family bankrupt.

As his financial situation improved through sales of his own work, he was able to indulge his passion for collecting works by artists he admired: old masters such as El Greco and contemporaries such as Manet, Pissarro, Cézanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, and Édouard Brandon. Three artists he idolized, Ingres, Delacroix, and Daumier, were especially well represented in his collection. In the late 1880s, Degas also developed a passion for photography. He photographed many of his friends, often by lamplight, as in his double portrait of Renoir and Mallarmé.

Renoir and Mallarmé

Other photographs, depicting dancers and nudes, were used for reference in some of Degas’s drawings and paintings. He also photographed individuals and family groupings.

Over the years Degas became more and more isolated, due in part to his belief that a painter should have no personal life.  He wrote, “the artist must live alone, and his private life must remain unknown.” In company he was known for his wit, which could often be cruel. He was characterized as an “old curmudgeon” by the novelist George Moore, and he deliberately cultivated his reputation as a misanthropic bachelor. His argumentative nature was deplored by Renoir, who said of him: “What a creature he was, that Degas! All his friends had to leave him; I was one of the last to go, but even I couldn’t stay till the end.”

Self Portrait

Degas was profoundly conservative in his political opinions. He opposed all social reforms and found little to admire in such technological advances as the telephone. He fired a model upon learning she was Protestant. Although Degas painted a number of Jewish subjects from 1865 to 1870, his anti-Semitism became apparent by the mid-1870s. His 1879 painting Portraits at the Stock Exchange is widely regarded as anti-Semitic, with the facial features of the banker taken directly from the anti-Semitic cartoons rampant in Paris at the time. The Dreyfus Affair, which divided Paris from the 1890s to the early 1900s, further intensified his anti-Semitism. By the mid-1890s, he had broken off relations with all of his Jewish friends, publicly disavowed his previous friendships with Jewish artists, and refused to use models who he believed might be Jewish. He remained an outspoken anti-Semite and member of the anti-Semitic “Anti-Dreyfusards” until his death.

Although he is known to have been working in pastel as late as the end of 1907, and is believed to have continued making sculptures as late as 1910, he apparently ceased working in 1912, when the impending demolition of his longtime residence on the rue Victor Massé forced him to move to quarters on Boulevard de Clichy. He never married and spent the last years of his life, nearly blind, restlessly wandering the streets of Paris before dying in September 1917. He was buried in the family vault in Montmartre cemetery.

Degas’s only showing of sculpture during his life took place in 1881 when he exhibited The Little Dancer of Fourteen Years. A nearly life-size wax figure with real hair and dressed in a cloth tutu, it provoked a strong reaction from critics, most of whom found its realism extraordinary but denounced the dancer as ugly. In a review, J.-K. Huysmans wrote: “The terrible reality of this statuette evidently produces uneasiness in the spectators; all their notions about sculpture, about those cold inanimate whitenesses … are here overturned. The fact is that with his first attempt Monsieur Degas has revolutionized the traditions of sculpture as he has long since shaken the conventions of painting.”

Degas created a substantial number of other sculptures during a span of four decades, but they remained unseen by the public until a posthumous exhibition in 1918. Neither The Little Dancer of Fourteen Years nor any of Degas’s other sculptures were cast in bronze during his lifetime. Degas scholars have agreed that the sculptures were not created as aids to painting, although the artist habitually explored ways of linking graphic art and oil painting, drawing and pastel, sculpture and photography. Degas assigned the same significance to sculpture as to drawing: “Drawing is a way of thinking, modelling another”.

After Degas’s death, his heirs found 150 wax sculptures in his studio, many in disrepair. They consulted foundry owner Adrien Hébrard, who concluded that 74 of the waxes could be cast in bronze. It is assumed that, except for the Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, all Degas bronzes worldwide are cast from surmoulages (i.e., cast from bronze masters). A surmoulage bronze is a bit smaller, and shows less surface detail, than its original bronze mold. The Hébrard Foundry cast the bronzes from 1919 until 1936, and closed down in 1937, shortly before Hébrard’s death.

Parisian café food in general would work to celebrate the life of Degas because he is known to have frequented both cheap and expensive cafés in Paris, although what he ate is not recorded. One of my favorites is steak tartare, so I will maunder on about that delicacy for a bit. First a STERN WARNING. Classic steak tartare uses raw beef and raw egg, both of which can be vectors for crippling, even lethal, diseases. You must be fully confident in your sources before eating either, and I cannot recommend them publicly. Chefs in France use hand chopped beef, not ground, so that they are sure that the meat does not pick up contaminants from the meat grinder. They also have to be scrupulous about the sources of both their beef and eggs.

I have eaten steak tartare in numerous restaurants in France (and elsewhere), and have made it myself. It is one of my favorite dishes. I had it first at a cast party in Australia for a play I was in at age 11, and have enjoyed it ever since. The two photos below give you the basic idea.

You will be served with the hand cut beef on a platter with a raw egg yolk on top, and in addition will be given a choice of things to add. Standard are chopped cornichons, chopped green onion, and capers, plus sauces of one sort or another, as well as salt and pepper. You might also get freshly chopped onions or shallots, anchovies, lemon, and Dijon mustard. Your job is to mix in what you prefer, stir it all together really well, and then heap the mixture on toasted bread slices. Yum. It is remarkably filling.

Sep 132016
 

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Today is the birthday (1874) of Arnold Schoenberg (or Schönberg), an Austrian composer, music theorist, and painter. He was associated with the expressionist movement in German poetry and art, and a leader in what is known as the Second Viennese School. By 1938, with the rise of the Nazi Party, Schoenberg’s works were labeled degenerate music, because he was Jewish. He moved to the United States in 1934. Schoenberg’s approach, both in terms of harmony and development, has been one of the most influential in 20th-century music. Many composers from at least three generations have consciously extended his thinking, whereas others have passionately reacted against it. I’m pretty much in the latter camp, not because I am opposed to the ideas in general – I like them – but there’s too much angst in his work for my tastes.

Schoenberg was born into a lower middle-class Jewish family in the Leopoldstadt district (once a Jewish ghetto) of Vienna. His father Samuel, a native of Bratislava, was a shopkeeper, and his mother Pauline was native of Prague. Schoenberg was largely self-taught musically, but he did take counterpoint lessons with the composer and conductor Alexander Zemlinsky (whose sister he later married). In his twenties, Schoenberg earned a living by orchestrating operettas, while composing his own works, such as the string sextet Verklärte Nacht (“Transfigured Night”) (1899). He later made an orchestral version of this, which became one of his most popular pieces.

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Both Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler recognized Schoenberg’s significance as a composer and nurtured him. When Strauss turned to a more conservative idiom in his own work after 1909 he dismissed Schoenberg, but Mahler adopted him as a protégé and continued to support him, even after Schoenberg’s style reached a point Mahler could no longer relate to. Schoenberg, who had initially despised and mocked Mahler’s music, was converted by the “thunderbolt” of Mahler’s Third Symphony, which he considered a work of genius. Afterward he called Mahler “a saint.”

In 1898 Schoenberg converted to Christianity in the Lutheran church. This may have been more of a defense against rising anti-Semitism in Europe than a genuine conversion. In 1933 he returned to Judaism, partly because he felt that his cultural roots were inescapable, and partly to take an unmistakable stance in opposition Nazism.

In October 1901, Schoenberg married Mathilde Zemlinsky and they had two children, Gertrud (1902–1947) and Georg (1906–1974). During the summer of 1908, Mathilde left him for several months for a young Austrian painter, Richard Gerstl. This period marked a distinct change in Schoenberg’s work. It was during the absence of his wife that he composed “You lean against a silver-willow” (German: Du lehnest wider eine Silberweide), the 13th song in the cycle Das Buch der Hängenden Gärten, Op. 15, based on the collection of the same name by the German mystical poet Stefan George. This was the first composition without any reference at all to a key. Also in this year, he completed one of his most revolutionary compositions, the String Quartet No. 2, whose first two movements, though chromatic in color, use traditional key signatures, yet whose final two movements, also settings of George, weaken the links with traditional tonality. Both movements end on tonic chords, and the work is not fully outside tonality. During the summer of 1910, Schoenberg wrote his Harmonielehre (Theory of Harmony), which remains one of the most influential analyses of music theory.

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World War I brought a crisis in Schoenberg’s musical development. Military service disrupted his life when at the age of 42 he was forced into the army. He was never able to work uninterrupted or over an extended period of time, and as a result he left many unfinished works and undeveloped “beginnings”. On one occasion, a superior officer demanded to know if he was “this notorious Schoenberg, then?” Schoenberg replied: “Beg to report, sir, yes. Nobody wanted to be, someone had to be, so I let it be me.”  This is apparently an oblique reference to Schoenberg’s supposed “destiny” as the “Emancipator of Dissonance”.

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In the early 1920s, he worked at evolving a radical departure from classical tonality  that would, nonetheless, have an underlying order that would make his musical texture simple and clear. This resulted in the “method of composing with twelve tones which are related only with one another.” In this method, sometimes called twelve-tone music, sometimes serialism,  the twelve pitches of the octave  are regarded as equal, and no individual note or tonality is given the emphasis it occupied in classical harmony. He regarded it as the equivalent in music of Albert Einstein’s discoveries in physics – a kind of musical relativity. Schoenberg announced it characteristically, during a walk with his friend Josef Rufer, when he said, “I have made a discovery which will ensure the supremacy of German music for the next hundred years.” This period included the Variations for Orchestra, Op. 31 (1928); Piano Pieces, Opp. 33a & b (1931), and the Piano Concerto, Op. 42 (1942). Contrary to his reputation for strictness, Schoenberg’s use of the technique varied widely according to the demands of each individual composition.

Here’s his piano concerto, op 42:

You might well agree with the often repeated sentiment, “Schoenberg’s music is better than it sounds.” The point is well taken. Classic tonality, when done well, is easy to love. You can whistle Mozart or Beethoven while you walk. Schoenberg requires intense listening and concentration. I’m not saying that classical tonality doesn’t, but a surface appreciation is possible; whereas with Schoenberg it is not. I find his work to be an acquired taste, and the pieces that are not laden with angst and depression engage me from time to time. Dissonance and lack of tonality do not have to be morbid.

Schoenberg’s serial technique of composition with twelve notes became one of the most important and polemical issues among U.S. and European musicians during the mid- to late-20th century. Beginning in the 1940s and continuing to the present day, composers such as Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luigi Nono and Milton Babbitt have extended Schoenberg’s legacy in increasingly radical directions. Major cities in the United States  have had historically significant performances of Schoenberg’s music, with advocates such as Babbitt in New York and the Franco-American conductor-pianist Jacques-Louis Monod. Schoenberg’s students have been influential teachers at major U.S. universities: Leonard Stein at USC, UCLA and CalArts; Richard Hoffmann at Oberlin; Patricia Carpenter at Columbia; and Leon Kirchner and Earl Kim at Harvard, and musicians associated with Schoenberg have had a profound influence upon contemporary music performance practice in the U.S.

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On the other hand, in the 1920s, Ernst Krenek criticized a certain unnamed brand of contemporary music (presumably Schoenberg and his disciples) as “the self-gratification of an individual who sits in his studio and invents rules according to which he then writes down his notes.” I’m not sure I see what’s wrong with that. Surely the test is in the results not the method. Allen Shawn remarks that Schoenberg’s work is usually defended rather than listened to, and that it is difficult to experience it apart from the ideology that surrounds it. Richard Taruskin asserts that Schoenberg committed what he terms a “poietic fallacy”, the conviction that what matters most (or all that matters) in a work of art is the making of it, the maker’s input, and that the listener’s pleasure must not be the composer’s primary objective. Taruskin also criticizes the ideas of measuring Schoenberg’s value as a composer in terms of his influence on other artists, the overrating of technical innovation, and the restriction of criticism to matters of structure and craft while derogating other approaches as vulgarian. Personally I feel that listening to the critics, whether they are right or wrong, is an idle hobby when you could be listening to music.

Schoenberg was a painter of considerable ability, whose pictures were considered good enough to exhibit alongside those of Franz Marc and Wassily Kandinsky (Stuckenschmidt 1977, 142) as fellow members of the expressionist Blue Rider group. Here’s a little gallery:

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Schoenberg had what pedants call by the Greek triskaidekaphobia (the fear of the number 13), which possibly began in 1908 with the composition of the thirteenth song of the song cycle Das Buch der Hängenden Gärten Op. 15, (but may also reflect the fact that he was born on the 13th). Moses und Aron was originally spelled Moses und Aaron, but when he realized that this contained 13 letters, he changed it. According to friend Katia Mann, he feared he would die during a year that was a multiple of 13. He dreaded his 65th birthday (5 x 13) in 1939 so much that a friend asked the composer and astrologer Dane Rudhyar to prepare Schoenberg’s horoscope. Rudhyar did this and told Schoenberg that the year was dangerous, but not fatal.

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However, in 1950, on his 76th birthday, an astrologer wrote Schoenberg a note warning him that the year was a critical one: 7 + 6 = 13. This stunned and depressed him because up to that point he had only been wary of multiples of 13 and never considered adding the digits of his age. He died on Friday, 13 July 1951, shortly before midnight.

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The blog violinist.com — http://www.violinist.com/blog/HilaryHahn/200812/9496/  — held a competition in 2008 for a recipe to celebrate Shoenberg’s birthday. This was the winner:

In honor of Arnold Schoenberg’s 134th birthday on September 13th, my Schoenburger is a sweet and delectable “birthday burger.” My recipe follows:

Bun- sponge cake, frosted with maple brown sugar icing, topped with Rice Krispies in place of sesame seeds

Burger patty- chocolate cake coated with Oreo crumbs

Lettuce- green gummy worms

Pickles- kiwi

Cheese- a slab of the sponge cake, slathered with yellow sprinkles

Ketchup- strawberry sauce

Mustard- yellow apricot sauce

Seems all right, although I’m not going to make it. The creator had this to say:

So, why use the ingredients I chose? Here are some of my reasons:

Gummy worms are hard to chew, which reminds me of Schoenberg’s Fantasy for Violin and Piano- it has unusual chords and fingering in the violin part

Rice Krispies are my favorite cereal, and I eat them most every day- just like I “digest” Schoenberg’s music on a daily basis

Chocolate cake is a favorite “food” of Americans, similar to Schoenberg’s “Weihnachtmusik” is a traditional Christmas song

Kiwi skins are tough on the outside, like a first impression of Schoenberg. But once you get past that and learn about his past, you will find his reasoning for his style of composure, and really start to enjoy his music- just like you enjoy the sweet meat of the kiwi after you get past the skin

The dark Oreo crumbs represent a badly cooked patty, which aligns with one of Schoenberg’s famous quotes: “My music is not modern, it is merely badly played.”

Finally, my burger was overcooked for exactly 13 minutes- representing Schoenberg’s triskaidekaphobia, or fear of the number 13, which may have been the root of his death.

Contestants were required to justify their ingredient choices in this manner. An honorable mention was given to this entry:

When you have finished creating your Schoenburger, don’t be disappointed if it tastes disgusting. This is absolutely normal. There are two ways to deal with that problem:

First, you can try the burger again and again. Perhaps one day you might like it. Perhaps you aren’t mature enough for it yet.

Second, you can just tell other people you like it very much. Probably they will admire your intelligent and progressive taste.

Hilarious, but spot on.