Archive for the VISUAL ART Category

The Perennial Mystique of Bettie Page

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Burlesk, Hollywood (History), Movies (Contemporary), VISUAL ART, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 22, 2017 by travsd

Bettie Page and sister, Coney Island. Parachute Jump in background

April 22 is the birthday of Bettie Page (1923-2008). I feel sort of Bettie Page cult-adjacent, near but not of the intense widespread worship of this iconic pin-up girl of the 1950s. So many people of my generation are so crazy about her that it fascinates me. I feel I get it even if (for some reason) she doesn’t obsess and beguile me as she does so many other people. It’s almost like she’s the Mona Lisa or something to certain people. Without exaggerating, I must know dozens of women who pattern or have patterned their appearance after her, not just burlesque dancers, but artists of various kinds, painters, musicians, stage directors, and women who are simply into vintage culture. My wife has owned this fridge magnet ever since I’ve known her:

Is it something about the period? Is it the clash between the wholesome and the illicit? There is something about Bettie Page that reminds me of actresses in noir films of the 40s, like Veronica Lake. It’s like she’s the girl next door who is game enough to dabble at being daring without being swallowed up in some sinkhole of ruin. She was literally a secretary who posed for naughty pictures for a decade, then stopped doing that. Interestingly, her life didn’t fall apart (mental illness, several divorces) until AFTER she retired from modelling and became a born again Christian.

There are several points of overlap and interest for me about her life and short career. The first is that she is from the great town of Nashville, home of my ancestors. A lot of classic burlesque girls and pin-ups were of my stock: poor Southern white folk. It’s one of the strong connections I feel to classic burlesque culture — a subject for a planned future post.

The second is that she was discovered at Coney Island! She’d come to NYC to be an actress in 1949. A few months later an amateur photographer named Jerry Tibbs saw her on the beach at Coney and asked her to model for him. Ironically, Tibbs was an NYPD officer and Page’s work would eventually take her into illegal territory. But photos like the one at the top of this post, and this one, are illustrations of her connection to the beach and amusement park at Coney Island:

Betty Page is in several burlesque films of the mid ’50s: Striporama (1953), Varietease (1954), and Teaserama (1955). I became acquainted with these about five years ago in preparation for directing a couple of editions of Angie Pontani’s Burlesque-a-pades. With the passing of 60 years these films have acquired much charm they probably didn’t seem to possess when they were first released, full of theatrical values and efforts that fell by the wayside in such films as the late ’60s gave way to straight up porn.

Also, as we wrote here, in the 1950s, Bettie posed — Believe it or NOT — for Harold Lloyd! The former silent film comedian experimented with taking art shots of sexy girls with a 3-D camera during his retirement. Some are published in the 2004 book Harold Lloyd’s Hollywood Nudes in 3-D. 

Bettie Page photo by Harold Lloyd

In 2004, Gretchen Mol starred in/ as The Notorious Bettie Page. Ironically, I discovered this film backwards. Mol had appeared in the film adapted from my friend Jeff Nichols’ book Trainwreck, American Loser (2007). The Mad Marchioness then referred me back to the Page bio-pic, for which Mol is obviously much better known.

In 2012 the definitive documentary, Bettie Page Reveals All was released. Access it here at the official site.

The mania continues unabated!

Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies, VISUAL ART with tags , , , , , on April 15, 2017 by travsd

Today is the birthday of the great American painter Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975).

Benton was the namesake and great grand-nephew of the five term Missouri Senator who was one of America’s prominent 19th century politicians, a Jacksonian Democrat and advocate for Manifest Destiny. The younger Benton was also the son of Colonel Maecenas Benton, a four term Missouri Congressman. Pressure must have been on follow a certain course in life (politics) but in spite of his name, Thomas Hart Benton followed his artistic bent with the encouragement of his mother, and studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Académie Julian. In the spirit of his namesake, Benton’s vision was populist and patriotic, but in the spirit of his own times it also took a leftist turn and expressed a deep sympathy with the underdog. His visions were epic and heroic, but also questioning and thought-provoking. Rural America and history were frequent themes, but today we thought it especially fitting to share word about an exhibition we caught a couple of years ago at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, which we thought would be of especial interest to our readers. It was called American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood. 

The jumping off point for this study is Benton’s painting “Hollywood” painted in 1937 and 1938, initially on a commission for Life magazine. It depicts the shooting of the John Ford movie The Long Voyage Home based on O’Neil’s Sea Plays. He chose to concentrate on the apparatus behind the film.

As part of the project, he did this sketch entitled “Member of the Chorus” on the soundstage of a musical:

Benton also illustrated an edition of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939). His image “The Departure of the Joads” was used on posters for John Ford’s 1940 film version:

The exhibition also covered the entirety of Benton’s career, relating his lifelong penchant for mythology to that of Hollywood. But there is much room for overlap. For example there’s his eponymous painting inspired by the 1954 film The Kentuckian, starring Burt Lancaster. If you didn’t know the backstory, it would simply seem a typical Benton scene:

Benton’s 1948 painting “Poker Night (From  A Streetcar Named Desire)” may well be one of his best known images. It was inspired by the Broadway version (the film didn’t come out until 1951), but movie producer David O. Selznick liked it so much he bought it for his wife.

As we all know, those with a penchant for mythologizing frequently also have an unfortunate bent for stereotype and demonization. When World War II arrived, Benton began depicting the Japanese enemy in less-than-human terms, exaggerating and misrepresenting their features, and doing the same with his depictions of African Americans, a tendency which paralleled Hollywood’s depictions of minorities on film. (While this section of the exhibition was certainly germane, it had less to do directly with Benton’s relationship to Hollywood. His problematic relationship to race is a topic for another day.) At any rate, those images are certainly available to look at online; no need to perpetuate them here today.

Show business was a subject Benton returned to throughout his life. In fact, he died while working on this mural, “The Sources of Country Music”, in 1975:

Hirschfeld, Cats, Algonquin

Posted in Broadway, SOCIAL EVENTS, VISUAL ART with tags , , , , , , , on March 7, 2017 by travsd

The three words in the title of this post may SOUND like Speakeasy passwords, but they all came together in a semblance of sense yesterday. The fabled Algonquin Hotel acquired a couple of Al Hirschfeld caricatures of the original production of Cats, and there was a brief unveiling ceremony yesterday afternoon in the Blue Room (thus the impression you’ll get in some of the photos below that we are in an aquarium tank).

Your correspondent and David Leopold, director of the Al Hirschfeld Foundation, posing for the cover of our new record album

 

Jessica Hendy of the current “Cats” revival, with Hirschfeld’s caricature of Betty Buckley from the original production

Afterwards, colleagues and I repaired to the adjacent dining room to hatch plans regarding long-overdue memorials for deceased showfolk. With me were author Kevin Fitzpatrick of the Dorothy Parker Society and Michele Gouveia of the blog Tales of a Madcap Heiress. Every afternoon should be so pleasant!

KFitz and Cocktail

Howard Pyle: Boys, Battles, Buccaneers

Posted in VISUAL ART with tags , , , on March 5, 2017 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of the influential illustrator Howard Pyle (1853-1911).

A mutual love of illustration was one of the first things that brought my wife and I together — our second date (our first official one) was a lecture on Charles Addams. Naturally she, whose entire life is illustration, has a much vaster knowledge and grasp of the form. But that it’s important to me at all, you must admit, is a genuine point of overlap in this world of American men who love nothing other than football, duck hunting, and chain restaurants that serve hamburgers with pizzas for buns.

"Ar! No you must walk the plank, me hearty!"

“Ar! Now you must walk the plank, me hearty!”

Anyway, books with Pyle illustrations were important to me in my childhood, chiefly The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood (1883) and Otto of the Silver Hand (1888). Pyle was a man very much in tune with his times: his subject matter is almost all bellicose, patriotic, adventurous, imperialistic and male, mostly stuff about knights and pirates and battles. He was from a Delaware Quaker family — he seems to have rebelled not only by being an artist, but by letting his imagination roam to romantic, often violent, places. The Arthurian Legend was a major thread of his work, and he also collaborated on some books about American history with Woodrow Wilson (when he was still a professor) and Henry Cabot Lodge. His sister Katharine Pyle (1863-1938) was also an illustrator and children’s author; the pair collaborated on an 1888 book called The Wonder Clock, which had a tale for each hour of the day:

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One of the myriad pleasures of fatherhood was getting to share Otto with my boys. Otto’s hand is a silver prosthetic because an enemy of his father’s chopped it off. The world is cruel, but Otto is good because he was raised by gentle monks. I always wanted a monkish haircut as depicted in Pyle’s illustration, which was also used on the books’ cover:

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I was thrilled to see some Pyle originals at the National Museum of American Illutstration in our recent trip to Newport. Here’s one we saw on view there, from Tales of Pirates and Buccaneers:

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Celebrations of America’s Diversity by that Famous “Cuck” Norman Rockwell

Posted in CULTURE & POLITICS, VISUAL ART with tags , , , , , on February 3, 2017 by travsd

Today is the birthday of the great American illustrator Norman Rockwell (1894-1978). It couldn’t be better timed, for his late work says forcefully what I firmly believe: American patriotism is deeply intertwined with the celebration of American diversity. And that’s a message that particularly needs circulating just now.

There is no greater indication to me of how stupid and boorish these alt-right thugs are than something like the recent Budweiser Brew-Ha-Ha. Everyone in America is an immigrant, and things like this Annheuser-Busch tribute, if anything, used to be the stomping grounds of the right, at least as much as the left. That was America’s brand of PATRIOTISM. It’s the kind of thing that used to get Bob Hope and Ronald Reagan and Georgie Jessel and Frank Sinatra misty-eyed. Every Hollywood movie’s World War 2 or Vietnam troop is always almost hilariously diverse, as though it were a study group from Model U.N.: “Roll call: Petrocelli! Bernstein! Robinson! Gonzalez! O’Rourke!” I mean, what the hell? It seems to me these alt-right people don’t want America, they want Idaho, so they oughtta just move there, build their feckin’ wall around themselves and leave the real Americans — the ones who have some understanding of American freedoms embodied by the U.S. Constitution and the Statue of Liberty — to flourish without them. The alt-right is a millstone around America’s neck.

Anyway, as you’ll all agree there is no one more “American” than Norman Rockwell, he was kind of the official artist of Americana for a good hunk of the 20th century. The derogatory click-bait term I used in the headline is obviously used sarcastically. A few inspirational images from his hand:

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He leaves this one open to interpretation. To my eyes, it’s clear these innocent children are going to be friends in about five minutes

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It’s hard to make out the words, but they are the Golden Rule of Christianity, “Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You.” Pretty simple, huh? One might think.

Inventing Downtown: Artist-Run Galleries in NYC 1952-1965

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, VISUAL ART with tags , , , , , , on January 30, 2017 by travsd
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John Cohen, “Red Grooms Transporting Artwork to Reuben Gallery, New York, 1960”

I found everything to love about the Grey Art Gallery’s current exhibition Inventing Downtown: Artist-Run Galleries in New York City 1952-1965. It’s not the world’s most exciting title for an exhibition, but on the other hand, it doesn’t lie. A moment’s contemplation will conjure the excitement: those were years of enormous ferment in New York, artistic, political and social. This exhibition curated by Melissa Rachleff,  clinical associate professor in NYU’s Steinhardt School, samples work from 14 different artist-run galleries, including works by Robert Rauschenberg, Red Grooms, Romare Bearden, Aldo Tambellini, et al.

For me the show is just as engaging as history as it is art. It’s a period in time I’ve always envied, when the ice was beginning to melt, and some refreshing anarchy was being unleashed across all disciplines. Abstract Expressionism was still ascendant; Pop Art had yet to explode. A political consciousness was emerging. The struggle for civil rights and third world liberation are alluded to here and there; and my over-arching takeaway from the show was a feeling of Cold War terror, although my own heightened anxiety level at the moment might have made me especially sensitive to the jitters informing a lot of the work. A feeling of “Fuck it, we’re all going to die.” But it’s also interesting because it is not yet “the Sixties”. The escalation of the Vietnam War and the youth-driven opposition to it were in the future. The Black Panthers had yet to come into existence. Be bop and Lou Reed are overlapping. That’s the New York I always wanted to move to. Dark and cold and gritty and cynical but bursting with creativity and still working toward building a future of some kind. I bet they were hoping for a better one than this.

A poster for Sam Goodman’s Doom Show evoked that energy. My favorite work in the show is probably Stanley Fisher’s “Untitled (Help)”, 1959-1964. A collage with cut-out advertising photos, pin-up girls and swimsuit models, covered with paint and graffiti, spelling the words “peace” and love” and — most prominently — “HELP”. Hints at Pop Art, commercialism, being overwhelmed by darkness and fear. Any wonder it spoke to me this week?

It’s open through April 1. More info is here. 

Stars of Slapstick #225: Elise Cavanna

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, VISUAL ART, W.C. Fields with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 30, 2017 by travsd

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AN ARTIST OF DIVERSE CANVASES. 

Today is the birthday of Elise Cavanna (Elise Seeds, 1902-1963).

Originally from Philadelphia, Cavanna took art classes at the Pennsylvania Academy before studying dance with Isadora Duncan. She performed in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1925 where she befriended both W.C. Fields and Louise Brooks, fortuitous connections in both cases. After appearing in her second and last Broadway show Morals (1925-26) with Mischa Auer, Wheeler Dryden, and Edward Van Sloan, she got a part in the Louise Brooks film Love ’em and Leave ’em (1926), and It’s the Old Army Game (1926) with both Fields and Brooks.

Fields relished Cavanna’s comic physicality. She was tall and thin, with crazy, long limbs, not worlds away from Charlotte Greenwood. He put her to great use in his classic shorts The Dentist (1932), The Pharmacist (1933) and The Barber Shop (1933), and she also has a bit part in You’re Telling Me (1934). Her appearances in the Fields comedies is what she is best remembered for today.

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Cavanna worked steadily throughout the 1930s, sometimes with minor speaking parts, more usually in bit roles. She is in short subjects with great comic stars like Ned Sparks and Walter Catlett, she has a small role in Wheeler and Woolsey’s Hips, Hips Hooray (1934), and she has a fairly decent part in I Met My Love Again (1938) with Joan Bennett and Henry Fonda. In 1939 she parted ways with the film business, although she did return on one occasion to take a walk-on in the movie Ziegfeld Follies (1945) for old times sake.

By then, she was deep into a completely different life. In 1932 Cavanna married Merle Armitage, a man who was at the center of the arts scene in Los Angeles. Armitage was a collector, arts patron, book designer, writer, publisher, and administrator with the WPA. From the time of her marriage, Cavanna’s social set became artists as opposed to the movie colony. She began to paint again, and exhibited her work professionally. This is what she looked like in her other life:

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For more on slapstick comedy don’t miss my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc. For more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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