Encounter Picasso at the Clark

Clark Institute of Art
Through August 27, 2017

Think you know Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)? You do and you don't. It's hardly your fault; Picasso began producing works when barely in his teens and continued unabated until his death in 1973. A visit to the Picasso Museum in Paris can be mind-boggling as it holds more than 5,000 works. There are another 4,000 in Barcelona, and you'd still have at least 41,000 left to view if you wanted to exhaust his output.

Dora Maar
If you're dizzy from even contemplating such a brush with Picasso, you can regain your bearings with a visit to the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts. There are just 38 Picasso works on display and these have been chosen to make a point, not to provide any sort of Pablo's Greatest Hits retrospective. Artists as prolific as Picasso draw inspiration from everywhere and the Clark's exhibit, "Picasso Encounters," is meant to be doubly evocative—we encounter Picasso through the eyes of some of the encounters that influenced him, among them: the Old Masters, cubists, printmakers, the stage, and women. Especially women. Picasso was, by today's standards, a serial womanizer, but les femmes were more than sexual conquests for Picasso; they were his muses. In fact, he had trouble working unless there was a woman (or two or three) in his life, whether they were kin, friends, wives, or mistresses. If you think that his modernist/cubist/surrealist mash-ups are merely eye-catching and strange, look hard at his 1937 Portrait of Dora Maar, the photographer and artist with whom Picasso had a brief affair. This painting is so lovingly rendered that the only adjective that really fits is 'beautiful.'

Picasso had many women in his life, the most important of whom were Maar, Fernande Olivier, Marie-Thérèse Walter, François Gilot, Olga Khokhlova, and Jacqueline Roque. He only wedded the last two, which means his domestic life was often chaotic. We see this in Minotauromachia, outwardly an amalgamation of modernism, a medieval woodcut, and the Greek story of the Minotaur etched onto paper. But it's also an allegory of Picasso's complicated home life, with the partially nude body of his mistress (Walter) lying across a horse fleeing the horned beast, while unfeeling Picasso's wife (Khokhlova) looks down from above and a figure that is probably Pablo hightailing it up a ladder to safety.    
The Italian Woman

We see different kinds of encounters in this exhibit as well, among them: an early self-portrait that owes much to Velasquez; a Cranach-inspired Venus and Cupid; and his 1953 The Italian Woman, which was influenced by the work of a relatively obscure 18th century painter named Victor Orsel. The last is a graceful front-facing portrait that would be suggestive of Mexican portraits tinged with Georges Rouault were it not for the impish figures etched above the model. For me the most surprising works were Picasso's linoleum cuts, not because they are necessarily his strongest images, but because they highlight the ways in which he kept his vision clearly imagined through several layers—like a chess player strategizing five moves ahead. Portrait of a Young Girl, after Cranach the Younger II looks at first glance like it an offbeat rendering of a red queen from a pack of playing cards until you think of what it took to produce this one print. Among other things, Picasso had to think through how every dot of red and scratch of black (of which there are many) would look like when the final version was inked and pressed. 

This is a thoughtfully curated exhibit that gives weight to the credo less is more. Is there more to say about Picasso? Of course, but the beauty of the Clark exhibit is that we can begin to hear some of those things without the cacophony of all that could be said about him.

Rob Weir     



Beatriz at Dinner is Thin Fare

Directed by Miguel Arteta
Roadside Attractions, 83 minutes, R (language)

There's a line from an old Don McLean song that goes: The world was never meant for one as beautiful as you. He was singing about Vincent Van Gogh, but the lyrics could have been written for the titular character of the new Miguel Arteta film Beatriz at Dinner, though I'm glad McLean didn't waste his words on the biggest dud I've experienced over the July Fourth holiday.

Beatriz (Selma Hayek) is a middle-aged woman with an old soul. She works as a holistic healer at a Los Angeles cancer clinic where she's part massage therapist, part yoga instructor, and part New Age practitioner. Because she's, you know, Mexican, she also has gig as freelance masseuse to the rich, pampered, and clueless. How else can she afford to live in San Jose and put kibbles in the dog dishes and greens in the pen of her pet goat?

Aside from a few establishing shots, this film covers a single day in Beatriz's life—one in which she leaves her day job, battles rush hour traffic, and wends her way to the gated hillside estate of a regular client, Kathy (Connie Britton), who simply must have a massage before her husband Grant (David Warshofsky) entertains a few very exclusive business associates: Yuppie hotel builder Alex (Jay Duplass), his pampered wife, Shannon (Chloë Sevigny); and the big fish: Doug Strutt (John Lithgow) and his third wife, Jeana (Amy Landecker). Strutt is one of the world's wealthiest people, a rapacious real estate mogul without a PC bone in his body or a hint of social conscience in his soul. He's accustomed to getting what he wants, which gives him free rein to be a loud-mouthed bigot who seems to have been fashioned out of equal parts Rush Limbaugh, Donald Trump, and Walter Palmer (the moneyed dentist who killed Cecil the lion).  When Beatriz's car won't start and she becomes the unwanted seventh dinner guest, the stage is set for a clash between her humanistic, Gaia-centered values and the cultures of arrogance and greed.

Beatriz at Dinner has been called a Trump-era morality tale. By all rights, I should have loved this film and its messages. The bling-and-brag crowd couldn't be more awful in their money-grubbing inhumanity, materialistic shallowness, and soul-crushing smugness. They represent the puppet masters that make the Make America Great Again lumpenproletariat dance like limp marionettes. And yet, I disliked this film pretty much from its onset.    

It could have been a dark and frank look at social class, ethnocentrism, and avarice. To have been so, though, would have required an ingredient fully missing from the menu: nuance. By tarring Strutt (get it?) and his circle with such a broad brush, director Arteta reduces evil to cartoon-like caricatures. And by continuing to slather layer upon layer of that tar, the Strutts of the planet become unbelievable rather than indefensible.

Perhaps this would have made a searing play. It is clearly a vehicle for Lithgow, who does his best to convey amoral creepiness. His is a superb performance and he should not be blamed for the weaknesses in Mike White's screenplay. Lithgow, alas, is the only one with much to do in this film.

The rest of the ensemble is competent, but underutilized—especially Britton, Sevigny, and Landecker, who spend most of the film either being catty or shrugging their shoulders in "Whatcha gonna do?" apologies for the outlandishly jerk-like behaviors of their respective alpha males.  Though she is the co-star, Hayek doesn't sparkle either. She spends some of the film interrupting conversation, getting unattractively drunk, and committing social faux pas. Call them characteristics out of character for her character, though very few people would behave this aggressively, even before the most deplorable of hosts. The rest of the time, Hayek doesn't speak much at all; she hovers around the film's edges and looks sad. Pan to Hayek's sad face. Move in on her even sadder eyes. Feel the weight on her sad shoulders…. And if you haven't gotten the fact that Beatriz is, like really sad, overlay her disconsolance with hints of homesickness glimpsed via flashbacks of a gauzy youthful idyll.  

I do not wish to defend the lifestyles of the opulent and boorish, but this film fails to take them down. It's far too trite to do that.

Rob Weir


Young Radicals a Portrait of Shattered Socialist Dreams

Jeremy McCarter
Random House, 340 pages.

(This review originally posted on http:NEPCA.blogpost.com) 
I didn’t like this book; I adored it! It is so well written that it reads like novel. Among the unorthodox things Jeremy McCarter has done is pen it in the present tense. Another is to make its major theme the death of idealism. Or perhaps I should say its betrayal.

McCarter, a Chicago-based writer and critic, turns his gaze to the first two centuries of the 20th century, a time in which American socialism sprouted, blossomed, and was pulled up by the roots—its dreams of a global cooperative community sacrificed upon World War One’s altar of militarism, nationalism, greed. Rather than tell this tale through the usual channels of analyzing historical forces, material conditions, and mounting tensions, McCarter shows how larger dramas played out in the lives of five fascinating characters: Max Eastman (1883-1969), John Reed (1887-1920), Alice Paul (1885-1977), Walter Lippmann (1889-1974), and Randolph Bourne (1886-1918). He chose well, as between them, they moved in circles that represented the numerous strains within American culture.

The book’s title is apt, for the five radicals were indeed young and were, in their own ways, warriors within the “war for American ideals.” If you associate socialism with glum Russian apparatchiks, think again. Max Eastman was the editor of The Masses, a publication that was as much bohemian as socialist. Its pages supported labor unions, social equality, and pacifism, but also sported graphic art, poetry, and fiction that ranged from agit-prop to whimsical. It survived on a hope, serendipitous donations, and Eastman's dogged determination to keep it afloat.

Journalist “Jack” Reed was an energetic swashbuckler crossed with a frat boy.  He seduced and exasperated, pontificated at one moment and betrayed his half-baked views the next, pissed off his friends as he exhaled and charmed them on the inhale. He was the very scarred embodiment of a fast, hard, full, short life.  He needed to be where the action was, which is why he didn’t allow a lost kidney to keep him out of Europe as war clouds gathered and why he was a firsthand witness to the Russian Revolution.

Alice Paul wasn't good at moderation either. Like a reckless campus radical, she put her body on the line for the cause of suffrage and wore out others in the process, including Inez Milholland Boissevain who died from taking part in Paul-orchestrated non-stop agitation. Paul’s was a world of picketing, workhouse internments, force-feedings, and embarrassing President Wilson. One of the book’s many revelations is the depth of mutual contempt between Paul and Carrie Chapman Catt. Catt saw Paul as an impetuous troublemaker who threatened her careful one-state-at-a-time strategy and nearly cost Wilson the White House; Paul saw Catt as a self-aggrandizer willing to tolerate the status quo to be an insider player in the Wilson administration.

The latter charge was also leveled at Lippmann, with some justification. Lippmann, who co-founded the New Republic, was an intellectual who had trouble reconciling idealism and pragmatism. As war loomed, he jettisoned socialism for liberalism and joined Wilson’s team in the vain hope the war would "make the world safe for democracy.” Lippmann actually wrote most of Wilson’s famed 14-Points, but their abandonment led him to leak an internal document that doomed Wilson's nationwide campaign for the League of Nations.

A good tale requires a tragic figure and few were more so than Randolph Bourne. His was one of the most inventive minds of his day. Bourne dreamt of transnational identities, cosmopolitanism, and universal citizenship decades before Greenwich Villagers imagined themselves global villagers. His capacious mind was housed in a sickly hunchbacked body that he felt was doomed to be unloved. He was wrong; the beautiful free spirited actress Esther Cornell seems to have accepted his marriage proposal, only for Bourne to perish in the postwar influenza epidemic.

The postwar fallout took more than Bourne with it. Socialism’s promise also faded—not just because of wartime repression and the postwar Red Scare—but because idealists often battled with each other, and bitterly so over the war. It has been said that World War One was the only war wished into being by the left. Though somewhat hyperbolic, roughly half of U.S. socialists—including Lippmann and John Dewey—supported the conflict. Pro-war socialists were mistaken. History would soon judge the Great War a disaster in nearly every way one can measure such things. Ideals such as transnationalism gave way to cynicism and insularity. Paul would hold fast to her principles, but Eastman and Lippman would embark on several journeys between left, center, and right before settling into contrarianism. 

McCarter’s book is a masterpiece of forgotten and overlooked detail. It is also an examination of how dream worlds and officialdom overlapped and separated. The book is so compellingly written that I shall refrain from quoting so you can make your own discoveries and savor the richness of its prose. Kudos to McCarver for restoring the “story” in history and making tales come alive in real time. One can dispute whether the hopes of McCarter's five young radicals were admirable or misguided, but there is something tragic in the observation that we now live in a world too parochial to conceive of globalism in non-economic terms. #jxmccarter

Rob Weir