Saturday, June 28, 2008

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Siegfried Woldhek: The true face of Leonardo Da Vinci?

Despite being famous for his work and art the face of Leonard da Vinci is still a mystery to us all. It has always been speculated but never proven what exactly Leonardo had looked like because of the multitude of pictures, portraits, and drawings of faces that he had drawn and sketched of himself and others. However, Siegfried Woldhek - an illustrator of up to 1,100 faces - believes that he may have found the true face of Leonardo. By using his experience as an artist and image analysis methods Siegfried believes that he has found out of all the drawings the actual self portraits of Leonardo. Here you’ll see him presenting this at a TED Talks Conference.

There is something that puzzles me and that is the math for Leonardo’s age…as you’ll see in the video for yourself. Between 1490 and 1513 Leonardo should have been 61 not 63 years of age! Other than this fact Siegfried does make a strong argument and presents some solid looking evidence to back up his claims. Even if he ends up being proven wrong the famous picture of an old bearded man will always be the face I think of when I hear the name Leonardo da Vinci.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

She Lived in and Painted the Past

The modern world held few charms for Tasha Tudor, the eccentric and adored children's book illustrator who died last week at the age of 92. In both her life and her work, Tudor exuded an unabashed nostalgia for a vanished time that she never knew first hand. She was born in 1915, but was so intensely fond of the 1830s that she sought almost her whole life to pursue the rural manners of that era.

Decades before it was fashionable to go "back to the land," for instance, Tudor was raising four children in a New England farmhouse with no electricity or running water. She cooked on a wood-burning stove, wove her own fabrics, and dressed in the style of the early 19th century in long home-sewn calico dresses and starched white bonnets. She played the dulcimer, made dolls and marionettes, and liked to go about barefoot.

All the while she produced elegant, delicate drawings for children's books, such as her own "Pumpkin Moonshine" (1938), "Mother Goose" (1944) and "Corgiville Fair" (1971). She also illumined numerous classics, such as Robert Louis Stevenson's "A Child's Garden of Verses," Clement Moore's "The Night Before Christmas," and Frances Hodgson Burnett's "A Secret Garden" and "A Little Princess."

In old age, Tudor resembled a kindly granny from her own illustrations, down to her gray bun, gentle smile, and rumpled linen apron. And indeed, she appeared to have none of fastidious modernity's terror of death. She told an interviewer in 1996 that she believed in Albert Einstein's theory of time as a kind of river. If we could get around the river's bends, Einstein (and Tudor) thought, we could travel in either direction. "When I die," she concluded, "I'm going right back to the 1830s."

You are likely to know Tudor's style, even if her name is only faintly familiar and her lifestyle utterly unknown. A person who illustrates more than 80 books infiltrates a lot of lives, and even those who avoid children's literature may easily have encountered her work on a card or a calendar.

Hers was a distinctive, delicately watercolored evocation of all that was tender and lovely in the lives of children of yore. Think of a nursemaid cuddling a small boy in breeches in a rocking chair before a crackling fire, or girls in pinafores and sunhats romping past flowering foxgloves, or a corgi panting contentedly beside a boy playing at tin soldiers, and the images you conjure are likely to be Tudor's.

She commonly enclosed her drawings with intricate borders of entwined violets or roses or scampering bunnies, or maybe just a long twist of gold. The effect was to create a lovely protected world, a walled garden of the imagination where bands of little children might spend the afternoon playing fairies or pretending to be pirates.

Does this sound cloying? Mawkish? If so, it's only a measure of how adult tastes have changed.

The vogue now in children's illustration is for harsh lines, garish colors, and almost violently impressionistic figures. It is perhaps an open question whether children really enjoy this trend. They endure it, for sure; children will look at almost any picture book if an adult can be bothered to read it aloud to them.

With Tasha Tudor's work, there was no doubt that children responded. The idyll she set before them was irresistible. In her depictions of an idealized early industrial world, a child might catch an exciting glimpse of a steam locomotive but there was never any whiff of the workhouse -- or, in contrast to the ubiquitous lavatory humor of today, the outhouse. Even when she drew street urchins, as in "A Little Princess," she invested them with quiet, tidy dignity.

Only occasionally did Tudor's illustrations stray toward the saccharine, most obviously when she depicted innocent, round-cheeked youngsters at prayer. But this was rare. Almost always she got the balance exactly right. And she did it serenely for decade after decade, even as the rest of the country was lurching from one hysterical pop fad to another and evolving from a culture of patriotic prewar earnestness to the widespread snarkiness we enjoy today.

Tasha Tudor was born Starling Burgess, in Boston, but acquired the nickname Natasha from her father, a fan of Tolstoy. Eventually she took her mother's maiden name, Tudor, as her surname. When Tasha was 9, her parents divorced and she was sent to live with family friends in Connecticut. It was there that her affection for the 19th century became manifest: She began collecting antique children's clothing and, at the age of 15, bought a cow.

Subsequent years brought marriage to Thomas L. McCready, with whom she had four children and from whom she was divorced after 23 years. A second marriage lasted only briefly. During these decades, Tudor lived first in New Hampshire, on a 450-acre farm bought with the proceeds of her early success, and later in Vermont in a self-designed replica of an early 19th century house that was hand-built by her son Seth.

Tudor seems sometimes to have found the world's acclaim faintly exasperating. "Everyone who likes my illustrations says, 'Oh, you must be so enthralled with your creativity,'" she once remarked. "That's nonsense. I'm a commercial artist, and I've done my books because I needed to earn my living."

Still, what a way to live. It's fair to say that, like Oscar Wilde, Tasha Tudor put her talent into her work and her genius into her life.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Jazzing Up the Big Screen

Singer Norah Jones
Makes Her Acting Debut
In an Arthouse Movie

As her latest project got under way, Norah Jones realized she couldn't stand the sound of her own voice. The problem wasn't her honeyed singing style, which has helped sell about 36 million albums world-wide. Instead, she was mortified by the speaking voice she heard in the daily footage from her first film role. "It's like hearing yourself on the answering machine," she says. "That was the hardest part of the movie."

Six years after a set of jazzy pop songs made her a household name in music, Ms. Jones is moving into unfamiliar territory in the movies. In keeping with her other professional choices, she didn't choose a Hollywood vehicle for her debut. Instead, Ms. Jones plays the lead in the first English-language film from Wong Kar Wai, the acclaimed Chinese director of arthouse favorites such as "Chungking Express" and "In the Mood for Love." Mr. Wong created the movie, "My Blueberry Nights," around Ms. Jones, who found herself trading lines with formidable actors like Jude Law, Natalie Portman, David Strathairn and Rachel Weisz.

While countless musicians have crossed over into film -- with mixed results -- Ms. Jones's decision to make her screen debut stands out. Her ability to strike a chord with a diverse audience has made her one of the most successful recording artists of the past decade. "My Blueberry Nights" represents the first test of whether Ms. Jones has drawing power beyond music. The movie is also the latest demonstration of how Ms. Jones is steering a career that has largely defied industry trends. By diving into film with an avant-garde director, and forming scrappy bands with names like the Little Willies, Ms. Jones has been acting like the hustling indie artist she was before fame swept her up at age 22. "I've been trying to recreate that life for six years," she says.

Norah Jones discusses the attention her film debut has drawn, and her favorite karaoke songs, in a Q&A with the Journal's John Jurgensen.

"My Blueberry Nights" tells the story of Elizabeth, a New Yorker who tries to cure her broken heart with a peripatetic journey. Working her way around the country as a waitress (and a patient listener), Elizabeth strikes up illuminating friendships. In Reno, Nev., for instance, she falls in with a sly but haunted gambler played by Ms. Portman. Often the camera focuses on the open face of Ms. Jones, whose Elizabeth is a foil for the wounded characters she encounters.

Not that Ms. Jones knew any of these plot details when she signed up for the job. She agreed to meet Mr. Wong in New York in 2005, assuming the director wanted to use her music. Instead he asked her to act. His idea had taken root about a year before their meeting when Mr. Wong heard a half-hour radio program about Ms. Jones while stuck in traffic in Taipei. "At the time, I wasn't very familiar with Norah and her work; however, her voice intrigued me. It was so visual that it gave me a very specific image of her. It was a cinematic experience," he says.

Though it took her about two weeks and discussions with her management, family and friends to say yes to Mr. Wong's offer, she had already been mulling a move into film and had recently enrolled in acting lessons. Mr. Wong told her to quit the classes, and though she had misgivings, she complied. But she wouldn't receive a script for another year -- a week-and-a-half before filming was to commence -- and only gradually learned who her co-stars would be. That is because Mr. Wong, who co-wrote the screenplay, continued to develop the script and characters as the shoot progressed, allowing his actors' performances to guide the story.

Norah Jones is one of the decade's best-selling singers.

"Most directors cast actors to fit into roles, but that's not necessarily true in my case. I never worried about Norah's ability to play her character because her character was mostly inspired by Norah's personality and spirit," he says.

Ms. Jones says she had a "terrifying" first week of shooting in New York. Her initiation included some of the most challenging scenes she'd face, such as a crying jag and a tricky kissing scene with Jude Law, which took three days of choreographed camera work to complete, she says. Mr. Wong did little coaching beyond a piece of early advice. "He said, 'All these actors are professional. Don't try to follow them. They'll follow you. That's their job.' It made me feel better," she says.

At that stage Mr. Wong "wanted me to be awkward," she says. But as the shoot moved on to Reno and Memphis (the movie was largely filmed in sequence), Ms. Jones warmed to her role. And her growing confidence in front of the camera matched the evolution of her character, Elizabeth, who returns to New York a changed woman. "This trip was a parallel for me," Ms. Jones says.

The final scenes of "My Blueberry Nights" were shot in March 2007, just in time for the film to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival that May. It received mixed response there, with critics' descriptions ranging from "sumptuous" to a "never-ending spigot of syrup." After Cannes, the movie was edited again. A long opening voiceover by Elizabeth that delved into her faltering romance was cut back significantly. Other portions were tightened, too, reducing the film's total running time to 90 minutes, down from about two hours.

Since then the film has opened in Europe and Asia, where critics in general seemed to root for Ms. Jones. The Daily Telegraph of London, for instance, called her "surprisingly effective," giving her character "a coltish innocence." Distributed by the Weinstein Co., "My Blueberry Nights" will open in New York and the Los Angeles area on April 4. Two weeks later, it will expand to the top 10 or 20 movie markets.

The movie kicks off with vivid shots of vanilla ice cream melting on blueberry pie to the tune of "The Story," a laconic blues that Ms. Jones wrote at her piano at dawn after a night of shooting. Other songs came from Cat Power, the stage name for singer-songwriter Chan Marshall, who also has a small role in the film. The soundtrack album is being released Tuesday by Blue Note Records, Ms. Jones's label. Blue Note is a division of EMI, the British music company that was purchased last summer by a private-equity company, Terra Firma, leading to recently announced plans for layoffs and cost cuts.

Though Ms. Jones consulted Blue Note before taking the role, she had no contractual obligation to do so. Blue Note general manager Zach Hochkeppel says the label's only worry was that the production would eat into Ms. Jones's obligations to promote her most recent album, "Not Too Late." Now, however, with no firm plans in place for Ms. Jones's next album, Blue Note is looking forward to the film's U.S. release as a way to put her back in the public eye. "To her credit -- and to our consternation -- she is not interested in maintaining her profile or ballasting her brand. She very much recoils when things like that come up," Mr. Hochkeppel says.

The home studio in the East Village where Ms. Jones recorded her last album helps her stay in the downtown orbit she carved out before signing to Blue Note in 2001 and collecting five Grammys in 2003. Nearby is the Living Room, a bar where Ms. Jones cut her teeth as a singer-songwriter and, as recently as last month, performed with her low-key country band, the Little Willies. Elsewhere, she has taken the stage with two girlfriends as the Sloppy Joannes. And, with a punchy rock group calling itself El Madmo, she has played electric guitar in fishnet stockings, a platinum wig and a bandit mask of makeup. "It's really important to hold on to that musical life of playing with my friends, playing at a bar," she says.

Ms. Jones broke into the music industry "before it imploded," she says. Her debut album, "Come Away With Me," has sold 10.3 million copies in the U.S., according to Nielsen SoundScan. Her second and third albums sold about half and a fifth as much, respectively, as her first. "I got really lucky. That's not lost on me," she says, adding, "I've made enough money to not have to pimp myself out."

She says she's trying to balance public expectations with creative goals as she maps out a long-term career. "Do you want to stay in the mainstream consciousness? Or do you want to just play music?" she says. By steering toward the latter, she says, "You can still have a great career. And you might be a little saner for it."

For now, with her film finished and her next album a ways off, one ambition is more immediate: "I just want to be home enough this year to get a dog."

Q&A: Norah Jones
Singer-songwriter Norah Jones makes her Hollywood debut in Wong Kar Wai's "My Blueberry Nights," a romantic journey co-starring Jude Law and Natalie Portman. Ms. Jones spoke with the Journal's John Jurgensen near her New York City home about her debut role, coping with awkwardness on stage and going to karaoke.

WSJ: When Wong Kar Wai asked you to make a movie with him, did he say why he chose you?

Ms. Jones: He did not tell me why he wanted me to act in the film. Nor did he tell me anything about the film or the character. He just said, "Let's just do it. Are you in or are you out?" For some reason I was in. It's not really like me. I like to be in control of things. And for me to sort of surrender myself to someone who didn't have a script or tell me much about the story, I guess it just showed the faith I had in him as a director. How often do you get an opportunity like that?

WSJ: Your film debut -- and "My Blueberry Nights" -- has attracted a lot of attention. Is this what you wanted and expected?

Ms. Jones: I didn't think it would be that big of a deal. I thought the film would be far less noticed than it has been already. I certainly didn't think movie stars like Jude Law and Natalie Portman were going to be in the film. So it kind of built up more than I thought it would. I'm glad I didn't know [Mr. Law and Ms. Portman would be cast] or I would've been too scared to do it!

WSJ: Have you read any of your reviews?

Ms. Jones: No. Never have, never will. This acting thing has been fun and if I never do it again, I had a great experience. If I do do it again, I hope I get better at it. But I don't have ambitions to conquer Hollywood or anything.

WSJ: Did you learn anything on set that you'll apply when you perform on stage?

Ms. Jones: I just think it boosted my self confidence. I wasn't a trained Mickey Mouse club performer. I played in jazz clubs and restaurants. Nobody was listening when I learned how to play music. But there's something about being on stage, talking to the audience, looking at them and smiling, that's always been difficult for me. I'm a lot more comfortable now, but there are still moments of awkwardness. For me, there's a fine line between being a cheeseball and being a good performer.

WSJ: "My Blueberry Nights" opens with a song of yours, "The Story." Tell me about that.

Ms. Jones: I got home from shooting at dawn one day in New York. My piano room faces the sunrise. I wasn't tired yet so I played piano and I wrote that song. It just came out. I was half asleep. It was in my head -- not the story line of the film, but my story in making the film.

WSJ: Singer-songwriter Cat Power is also in the movie. Did you know her before?

Ms. Jones: I karaoked with her, actually -- a long time ago. How dorky is that: two singers hanging out at a karaoke bar? Kar Wai had asked for some music suggestions and I thought of her. He ended up playing her songs from "The Greatest" during the shoot. I wasn't there on the day she shot her scene, but I think she's amazing in it. There's something about her that's just so compelling.

WSJ: Do you have a favorite karaoke song that you always sing?

Ms. Jones: I can sing Guns 'n' Roses. I usually do "Whip It" by Devo. It's more about imitation for me. I do Shakira, too. She's got a unique voice. I usually do "Underneath Your Clothes." It's the funniest song.

Sondheim Here, Sondheim There

Stephen Sondheim turned 78 last Saturday. I expect he's feeling pretty good about it, too, considering that the current season has seen the first Broadway revival of "Sunday in the Park With George" and the release of Tim Burton's extraordinary film version of "Sweeney Todd." A birthday boy can never get enough shiny toys, though, so I'm happy to report that Mr. Sondheim is spending the week unwrapping superb stagings of two of his very best shows.

The production of "Gypsy" that opened on Broadway last night is the same one that I reviewed when it ran for three weeks last July at City Center, so I needn't say much beyond this: No matter how long you live, you'll never see a more exciting or effective revival of a golden-age musical. Everything you've heard about Patti LuPone's performance as Mama Rose, the stage mother from hell, is true -- she's so ferociously compelling that you'll have to remind yourself to breathe between songs -- but part of what makes this production so special is that the rest of the cast is just as memorable. I doubt there's been a better Louise than Laura Benanti, who starts out as Rose's mousy little daughter, then turns herself before your astonished eyes into Gypsy Rose Lee, the world's most glamorous stripper. Boyd Gaines is no less fine in the ungratefully self-effacing role of Herbie, Mama Rose's lover, while Leigh Ann Larkin brings off the even more challenging task of making a strong impression as June, Louise's sister.

The show itself is a miracle, one of the top contenders for the title of Best Musical Ever. The songs, with lyrics by Mr. Sondheim and music by Jule Styne, are classics one and all, as are Jerome Robbins's impeccably theatrical dances. Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book of "Gypsy," has staged this revival, and his knowing hand is everywhere in evidence: Thanks in large part to his guidance, each member of the cast finds the emotional heart of each scene.

"This is as good as it gets," I overheard someone say as the audience filed out of the St. James Theatre on Tuesday. He got that right.
* * *


Mark Lamos has done almost as well by CenterStage's revival of "A Little Night Music" as Mr. Laurents has by "Gypsy," in part for one of the same reasons: His cast is all but unimprovable. Led by Barbara Walsh, one of the stars of John Doyle's much-admired Broadway revival of "Company," Mr. Lamos's ensemble of singing actors strips away the mirrored surfaces of Mr. Sondheim's lyrics and shows us the hard kernels of honesty that lie within. "A Little Night Music" may sound like a frothy waltz-time operetta, but its real subject is romantic disillusion, and in song after song we are invited to contemplate unpalatable truths about the "dirty business" of love: Men are stupid, men are vain/Love's disgusting, love's insane. Only through the stoic acceptance that comes with maturity do the characters find their way to more or less happy endings, and even then you go home wondering what the future holds in store for them.

Mr. Lamos makes the most of the pointed ironies of Mr. Sondheim's brilliant songs and Hugh Wheeler's wry book. Everyone in the cast is on the director's acerbic wavelength, starting with Ms. Walsh, who is mouth-puckeringly tart (think Eve Arden) as Desirée Armfeldt, the glamorous actress-of-a-certain-age who now longs for the comforts of a husband-equipped home. She turns "Send in the Clowns" into a throat-catching lament for the lost hopes of youth, just as Kate Baldwin finds the tonic bitterness at the heart of "Every Day a Little Death" and Sarah Uriarte Berry sings "The Miller's Son" with a sawtooth edge of rage. But Mr. Lamos takes care not to let things get too sour: I've never seen a sexier production of "A Little Night Music," or a funnier one.

I was much taken with Riccardo Hernández's set, which suggests a near-empty house whose occupants are in the process of moving on to other things. Wayne Barker has arranged Mr. Sondheim's complex score for an eight-piece orchestra, which is cutting a bit too close to the bone: I wish CenterStage had found room in its tiny pit for a second violin and a viola. That, however, is my only quarrel with this exemplary, deeply satisfying production.
* * *

New York

Is there a more promising playwright in America than Itamar Moses? "The Four of Us," his latest play, delighted me when I saw it in San Diego last season, and now Off Broadway audiences can revel in this crisply witty study of a pair of up-and-coming young writers (Gideon Banner and Michael Esper) whose friendship is threatened when one of them hits the celebrity jackpot while the other is still struggling to find himself. Pam MacKinnon, who directed the in-the-round staging that the Old Globe presented in 2007, has done a nice job of reworking that production for the Manhattan Theatre Club's three-quarter-round performance space: David Zinn's simple set consists of four doors and an open stage that gives Mr. Banner and Mr. Esper plenty of room to play out their elaborate dance of envy and affection. If only Broadway were still a hospitable place for new plays as good as this one!

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Twice Stolen, Now Returned: A Princely Collection in Prague

Among the impressive items on display are 'Haymaking,' one of only five surviving paintings by Pieter Brueghel the Elder.

The story seems almost a fairy tale -- that someone who grew up in America, spoke only what he calls "survival Czech" at home, and was working in Boston real estate should become an acknowledged Czech prince and chatelain of one of Europe's most glorious private art collections. But it happens to be true! His name is William Lobkowicz, and today he lives with his wife, Alexandra, and three children in an apartment in Prague.

Had a friend not tipped me off before I left on a recent visit to that city, I would never have known either about Mr. Lobkowicz or about his family's art collection, which opened to the public only last year. Housed in a 16th-century family palace on the grounds of Prague Castle, the Lobkowicz Princely Collections are a treasure trove of paintings, drawings, furnishings, and priceless musical manuscripts, all collected by successive generations of one of the oldest and most illustrious families in Bohemia. This astonishing collection, however, is still something of a well-kept secret; guidebooks tend to be updated only every three or four years, so many visitors to Prague leave having never known of its existence, let alone that it is open every day from 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.

The masterpiece of the collection is one of only five surviving paintings made by Pieter Brueghel the Elder in 1565, which depict the seasons of the year. (There are thought to have originally been six. One is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, three others are in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, and the other is lost.) This harvest scene presents an amazingly rich panorama of peasant life: Hay is being loaded onto a cart; baskets laden with fruit and vegetables are transported in procession on the heads of their pickers; a group of haymakers, carrying rakes and wearing broad-rimmed straw hats, are heading off to the fields, while others are already hard at work scything corn and bringing in the harvest. In the distance is a village and stretching far beyond are mountains and sky.

This painting alone is worth the price of admission, but it's only the start of what's on view. There are two very fine Canalettos, a curious Rubens painting of Hygieia clutching an ominous looking serpent, a superb Velásquez portrait, an exquisite Cranach, a room of Tiepolo drawings, and the largest collection of 16th-century Spanish portraits, many of them by Coello, outside of Spain. The sitters, not surprisingly, were some of the most important personages throughout Europe and related to the Lobkowiczes.

A reliquary head and bust of St. Ursula from 1340 is just one of the other treasures on display -- lost for centuries, but finally found in the 1930s in a box of amateur theatrical props.

Successive generations of the Lobkowiczes were known for their love of music, and beginning in the 17th century the family even employed its own orchestra. (Gluck, the son of a forester on one of their estates, played in it.) Joseph Frantisek Maximilian, the seventh Prince Lobkowicz, was probably the most notable patron. He collected early instruments and assembled a huge number of manuscripts and printed scores. The original performing manuscripts of Beethoven's Fourth and Fifth symphonies, showing the composer's own autographed alterations, are on display in the palace, as well as the first printed edition of the Third Symphony. Visitors can also see a letter from Beethoven thanking the prince for his annuity, as well as a manuscript score of Handel's Messiah filled with annotations made in Mozart's own hand.

To walk through this collection is to begin to understand the wealth and the power of patronage of the Lobkowicz family and its connections to royalty all over Europe. Lobkowiczes have lived in this palace in Prague since 1603, but it was only one of 15 that they once owned -- and hardly one of the grandest. (Roudnice Castle, built in the 17th century, has more than 250 rooms.)

That their collection has survived at all is something of a miracle, since it was stolen twice in the 20th century. The first theft was by the Nazis in 1939, when William's grandfather, Prince Max Lobkowicz, and his wife and children fled the country. After the war, during which he represented the Czech government in exile in England, Prince Max returned to Czechoslovakia and reclaimed his property, only to have it taken away again in 1948, when the Communists came into power and confiscated his palaces, lands, business holdings, and even a brewery. Again, the prince fled and rejoined his wife and children, who by this time were living in America.

William Lobkowicz, now in his mid-40s, grew up in Massachusetts and was educated at the Milton School and Harvard. After graduating, he was working in commercial real estate in Boston and tells of watching television in 1989 and seeing images of East German refugees seeking asylum in Prague. Days later the Berlin Wall crumbled, and Mr. Lobkowicz decided that he would go to Prague and try to reclaim his family's patrimony; he moved there in 1990.

The task was daunting, especially because he didn't have complete records of everything his grandfather had owned and his possessions had been dispersed throughout the country. The process of reclamation involved traveling to more than 100 locations for different objects, never knowing what would be there and what condition they would be in. The palace in Prague was returned in 2003 and required an almost total renovation. There was also the challenge of where to store objects before they could be moved to the palace. The reclamation effort has required the labor of four lawyers working full time for seven years. Claims had to be filed and required byzantine procedures and endless negotiations. "Things staggered back," he says. "We never knew when we would get something, so we had to be flexible in our planning. One day, the brewery was returned with 150 employees. I knew how to drink beer, but that was about all!"

One might suppose that after all this legal wrangling, Mr. Lobkowicz and his wife might want a life of gentle leisure. But the couple have chosen instead to be at the forefront of this family enterprise. In addition to their palace in Prague, they have also opened Nelahozeves Castle outside of Prague to the public. Their aim is to make their collections self-supporting. She is primarily concerned with matters of conservation and display; he takes care of the business side of running a museum. Two nonprofit foundations have been established, one in the States and one in the Czech Republic. A museum shop has been opened and a Friends group established. A cafeteria is up and running. There are concerts every day at noon, and certain rooms in the palace can be rented for events. It's surely more hectic than Boston real estate ever was. But for this energetic couple, who now speak perfect Czech, it's exactly where they want to be.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Constantin Brancusi

Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957), requested by reader Hypatia, was a Romanian sculptor whose works were often categorized as abstract… a categorization that Brancusi refuted, with the argument: “The people who call my work ‘abstract’ are imbeciles; what they call ‘abstract’ is in fact the purest realism…” Decide for yourself as we take a look at Constantin Brancusi’s life and his 1938 sculpture, “The Endless Column.”

1. You could say Brancusi had a hard life. He was born to poor peasants, was bullied by his father and older brothers so much that he often ran away, began herding his family’s sheep at age 7, and traveled to the closest large town at age 9 to work menial jobs. Yet to Brancusi, his life was “a succession of marvelous events.”

2. Brancusi received formal training, thanks to funding from an employer, and then set out for Munich in 1903. From there, he traveled onward to Paris, supposedly traveling most of the journey on foot. While in Paris, he was invited to enter Auguste Rodin’s workshop, after working two years in Antonin Mercié’s workshop. But, although he admired Rodin, he left after only two months, because “nothing can grow under big trees.”

3. Like many artists of the time, Brancusi lived a bohemian life with the likes of Ezra Pound, Guillaume Apollinaire, Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, and Henri Rousseau. Described as “short and lively,” he enjoyed cigarettes, good wine, and the company of women, though he never acknowledged the child he had by one of those women.

4. “The Endless Column” is part of an ensemble in Targu Jiu, Romania, that commemorates the courage and sacrifice of young Romanians who fought off a German invasion in 1916. The column, 17 rhomboidal cast-iron modules stacked almost 100 feet high, is inspired by the symbolism of axis mundi and the funerary pillars of southern Romania. In the 1950s, the piece was declared a bourgeois sculpture by the communist government, but their plan to demolish it was never executed. Today, it’s depicted on Targu Jiu’s coat of arms.

5. Though he lived in France for more than 50 years, Brancusi only became a citizen in 1952, so that he could make his caregivers, a Romanian refugee couple, his heirs, as well as bequeath his studio to the Musée National d’Art Moderne. Part of his collection was only bequeathed on the condition that his workshop be rebuilt as it was on the day he died; the workshop was demolished shortly after his death but wasn’t rebuilt for nearly 20 years.

6. Brancusi enjoyed fame during his lifetime, but it was post-mortem that he really hit the big time. First, he was elected to the Romanian Academy in 1990. Then, he set an auction price record for sculpture when his “Danaide” was sold for $18.1 million in 2002. Just three years later, though, he broke his own record when a piece from his “Bird in Space” series sold for $27.5 million on auction at Christie’s.

Opera at the movies is transforming the experience of culture, diffusing high art into the heartland in new ways.

When I was a little girl of six and seven, my older sister and I often stayed with the family of a man who was the house doctor for the Grand Ole Opry, back when the Opry was still located in downtown Nashville at the Ryman Auditorium. This was 1969, 1970. On Friday and Saturday nights he would take us along with his two youngest daughters to sit backstage while he tended to whatever star that needed tending. We sat in the dark wings and watched the high-haired men and women go back and forth in their spangles and fringe. We all liked Roy Acuff best because he had a yo-yo.

This should have been the moment of my musical birth. I was a child with the best seat in the house, but even in those early days country music and I were a poor fit. I can remember the hats and the boots, the rose-colored lights and the snake-like electrical cables, but I don't remember a single song. Opry is what I was born to. It would take me another 25 years to figure out that my heart belonged to that from which Opry was derived.

My friend Erica Goldberg lives on Manhattan's Upper East Side. She has hauled her boys to the Metropolitan Opera the way we were taken to the Ryman, as little kids. She got them in the children's chorus so that they could walk onto the stage and sing. I wonder how my life might have turned out differently had I been lucky enough to be Alex Goldberg. I was past 30 before I started research for a novel in which the heroine, an opera singer, is kidnapped in a South America embassy. While studying to write "Bel Canto" I heard my first opera. That was when the lights went on. Everything in me leaned forward. This was my music, my destiny: coloratura instead of twang, "Dove sono" instead of "Stand by Your Man."

The problem was I still lived in Nashville. I started buying opera tickets in other cities, and plane tickets to get me there, and when I added on hotel rooms and cab fares and a snack I quickly found myself with a habit that would make most drug addictions look manageable. I couldn't get enough of the stuff. Metaphorically speaking, I had come to the theater well after intermission. What chance did I have for proficiency when there was so much I hadn't seen? Listening was satisfying -- yes, I was grateful for those Saturday broadcasts from Texaco, and yes, I bought CDs -- but opera is a dramatic art, and in many ways a visual art. It is sidelong glances as well as the E natural. I wanted to be in the room while it was happening. I wanted to watch Violetta grow pale.

And then Peter Gelb got the job of general manager at the Met. He understood that people like me couldn't always come to the opera and therefore created a system by which the opera could come to us. The Met began to broadcast live high-definition performances into movie theaters across the country. I didn't catch on until the second show of the first season, which means I missed Julie Taymor's production of "The Magic Flute." I still haven't gotten over that. Instead, on Jan. 6, 2007, I wandered into the Regal Green Hills 16 theater and put down $20 for a ticket to "I Puritani." I had read about this theater thing, but I still didn't really understand what would happen. There, in a comfortable fold-down seat with a slight smell of popcorn in the air, I watched Anna Netrebko lie on her back, dangle her head down into the orchestra pit, and sing Bellini like her heart was on fire.

Are there words for this? I was in Nashville watching the Metropolitan Opera. I was seeing it on a screen so large that the smallest gesture of a hand, the delicate embroidery on a skirt, was clearly visible. I could see Ms. Netrebko's tongue inside her mouth and see how it shaped the air that made the note. I could see the conductor, yes, the crisp gesture of his wrist, but my God, I could see the French horn player as well. I could look into the eyes of the chorus one by one, every man and woman focused in their part. It was Opera Enormous, every note utterly human, simultaneously imperfect and flawless. It was opera from Alex Goldberg's eye view, which is to say I was right there on the stage.

If the opera itself wasn't enough there were perks besides: not having to wait in the ridiculous lines at the Met to get a drink and use the facilities. While patrons killed time between acts, rereading the program or staring aimlessly at the heavy velvet curtain, those of us in the Regal Green Hills 16 got to go behind the curtain where Renée Fleming, armed with a microphone, stopped the soprano and tenor as they came off the stage and asked them why they liked Bellini and how hard it was to sing bel canto. Imagine getting to see Cézanne interviewing Pissarro over a half-finished canvas, getting to see them talk casually, intelligently, about technique. Imagine then Cézanne pointing to a small smear of light on a pear and saying, "I love how you did that! I always struggle with the light on a pear!"

My obsession with the Met broadcasts was immediate and deep. I bought my tickets in advance and came to the theater early. Everyone came to the theater early. The place was packed but we all felt compelled to pretend we were season ticket holders. We tried to sit in either the same seat we had sat in for the last showing or the seat that came as close as possible. I am in the second to the back row on the left hand side, five seats down from John Bridges, five rows back from Eugenia Moore. We all know each other now and chatter about what's coming next while we wait for the giant countdown clock on the screen to hit zero. We watch the patrons in New York, people who have paid 10 times as much (possibly more) for their tickets as they make their way to their seats. Like us, the audience on the screen stops to greet the people around them, and like the audience in New York we clap for both arias and curtain calls. Unlike them, we are mostly shy about calling out Brava! and Bravo! The rational mind understands they can't hear us, and yet we are living so completely in our high-definition moment it is easy to forget.

The second season was for me a breakthrough in the language I so desperately wanted to speak. I was seeing enough opera to develop a sense of Ramón Vargas. I had seen him live several years ago in a production of "La Traviata," but there he was again in last year's broadcast of "Eugene Onegin" and this year's "La Bohème." I thought that Maria Guleghina had been the highlight of last year's "Il Trittico" and when she came back as Lady Macbeth my pleasure felt almost like ownership, as if I had been the one to discover her in the first place. The same was true with Juan Diego Flórez, who had been so dazzling in "Il Barbiere di Siviglia." Three days before the broadcast of "La Fille du Régiment," the New York Times ran an article about Mr. Flórez hitting the nine high C's of his aria and then repeating the feat in an encore, the first Met solo encore in almost 15 years! Two years ago I would have read the article with a certain numb of acceptance, knowing that this was the sort of thing a country girl was never going to see, but instead I came even earlier to the next Saturday broadcast where we as an audience speculated in the aisles as to whether or not he would do the encore again or if it would seem, well, too obvious on a broadcast day. (I guess it was. No encore of the encore.) But still, even to hear it once was brilliant. We got to see the powerhouse performance of Natalie Dessay who is in herself proof that it isn't enough just to listen. We did a lot of grumbling over the fact that her "Lucia di Lammermoor" wasn't broadcast. How quickly we turn from grateful to greedy.

A real opera fan, the easy kind who was born into it, revels in obscurity. They are choking on "Carmen." At 13, Alex Goldberg is more interested in a production of Janacek's "Jenufa." Remedial fans like myself who have long lived with the burden of limited access are always playing catch-up. So in the past when I was out of town and had the chance to see an opera I would choose, say, "Madame Butterfly" over Prokofiev's "The Love for Three Oranges" because I was trying to lay down the bedrock of my education. I still haven't seen "Rigoletto" for heaven's sake! But the broadcasts have run the gamut from warhorses to world premieres. I didn't love "The First Emperor," Chinese composer Tan Dun's 2006 world premiere, but it made me feel cutting edge to have seen it. I have never felt even remotely cutting edge where opera is concerned. If I lived in New York and had all the time and money in the world, I doubt I would have gone to see "Hansel and Gretel," but I live in Nashville and so I went. I have to say those giant fish in tuxedos will stay with me until the end of my days. The music was as haunting as the sets, and I will be so glad the next time I see the marvelous Christine Schäfer on the screen and can say, "Gretel! It's Gretel!"

As time goes on the Met has dug down deep to keep the intermissions interesting. Joe Clark, the indefatigable technical director, explains how snow is made while 50 teamsters roll giant sets around him. Renée Fleming interviews not only the soprano and the conductor but the people who handle the horse in "Manon Lescaut." The horse was placid but Karita Mattila dropped into the splits in the middle of her intermission interview, and then, to keep things even, came up and slid down on the other side.

That we are so well entertained between acts is a benefit but not a necessity. The necessity is opera itself. The way I cried at the end of "La Bohème" was expected, and when my friend Beverly in Texas called later that night to tell me how she had cried we both said, "Mimi! Mimi!" over the phone and started to cry again. The crying I did in "Suor Angelica," the second act of "Il Trittico," took me completely by surprise, that final image of the luminous child coming in through the doors at the top of the stage forced the audience into a great, collective sob. But nothing really touched "Eugene Onegin," the staging, the music, the glory that Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Renée Fleming made together. As wonderful as Ms. Fleming is as a guest host, the sight of her anywhere on the Met stage makes one feel she should go put on a dress and sing.

On the last day of the season in April (I changed a plane ticket to come back from L.A. a day early so as not to miss it) the Met put a list up on the big screen of fall's coming attractions. Ten operas plus the opening night gala! We broke out in a cheer, I swear to you, a cheer, when we heard that news. There were only eight operas this year, only six the year before that. We wanted more and more and more.

Sometimes I worry that culture is like vegetables and that I'd be better off eating that which is locally grown. Could I have learned to embrace the Opry the way I have managed to come to peace with okra? I doubt it, but these broadcasts have given me the best of big-city life. I have modern technology to thank for that, and in fact I have it to thank for more than just opera. I can also take a first-rate Kundalini yoga class with the podcasts I download through Sitting in front of my computer at home I flex my spine with the best teacher in L.A. Nashville isn't exactly small-town living, but there are certain ways in which we still lag behind. Technology has helped me fill in the holes, whether that's renting "Fitzcarraldo" from Netflix or getting an overnighted copy of "The Leopard" by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. Implicit in my love for Tennessee has always been the understanding that certain needs were going to have to be met out of town. These days I find there are fewer and fewer reasons to fly.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Sir Edward Burne-Jones

Tuesday was the 110th anniversary of his death, so let’s take a look at the life of Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898), the English pre-Raphaelite who often wished that he could have been the contemporary of Botticelli.

1. Attending Exeter College (at Oxford) in 1853, Edward Jones met William Morris and the two instantly became friends, referring to each other as Ned and Topsy. The two remained friends for more than 43 years, until Morris’ death. The best friends even brought their families together in 1874 for a joint-family portrait by Frederick Hollyer.

2. Jones may today be as well-known for his long-lasting friendship with William Morris as he is for his art, but he didn’t always have loving people in his life. His mom died only 6 days after Jones was born, and his father became so upset by her death that he couldn’t even bring himself to touch his only child. Jones was raised “by a rather severe Low Church housekeeper,” a sad reality that he escaped by creating a fantastic dreamworld, later reflected in his paintings.

3. College was the pivotal point in Jones’ life. Besides meeting Morris, Jones also became an agnostic (he originally planned to take Holy Orders), began painting, developed a fascination with Arthurian legend (seen in his paintings), and met Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who became Jones’ mentor and friend. Not bad, considering Jones didn’t even complete his course of study at Exeter, though he did later receive an honorary degree (1881) and was made an Honorary Fellow (1883).

4. Like Sir Edward Poynter, Jones married “one of the remarkable MacDonald sisters.” Georgiana MacDonald was training to be a painter when she married Jones in 1860, but after the wedding she switched to woodcuts. Rumor has it that Jones’ good friend Morris also fell for Georgiana, after she was already married to Jones, but she turned him down. Her marriage to Jones was not without its problems, though: Jones had an affair with his model, Maria Zambaco, from 1868 to 1870 that supposedly ended with Zambaco attempting suicide in public. Georgiana also caused Jones to be unhappy about his baronetcy (created in 1894); he told his friends that her contempt for the honor was “withering.”

5. Jones was a highly strung, nervous man who, upon completion of a major work, would suffer a nervous collapse. Although he took the extra surname “Burne” to set himself apart from all the other painters named Jones, he was mostly unknown to the general public until the mid-1870s, since he was reluctant to exhibit in public. A Grosvenor Gallery exhibit in 1877 was his big breakthrough: he exhibited “Mirror of Venus” (above) along with two other paintings and became famous overnight. By the 1880s, he was considered one of the greatest living artists.

6. After two years of declining health, which began with the death of Morris, Jones passed away in 1898. The Prince of Wales made possible a memorial service at Westminster Abbey six days later, the first time such an honor had ever been bestowed on an artist.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Buying art can be a tricky proposition A before and after story

Be sure to read this till the very end! This is truly unbelievable!

The first part

AP-The guy who bought it at an auction house for 4.5 million, that's who! Apparently the auction house thought the painting to be a knock-off and valued the painting at a mere $3100. A British buyer took his chances paying 1500 times the valued sum! This guy may sound like a sucker until you find out that after being reevaluated, the painting was not a knock-off or painted by a student as originally though but rather a self portrait. The painting is now valued at about 40 million.

The 9 1/2-inch-by-6 1/2-inch painting will hang in the Rembrandt House Museum in Amsterdam through June 29, on loan from the anonymous Briton who bought it at the auction by Moore, Allen and Innocent in Gloucestershire and had it cleaned and examined by British experts.

Art expert Jan Six from another auction house, Sotheby's, declined to put a new value on the painting. But he said the sale itself was a rare opportunity, as Rembrandt's works come on the market only once every few years.

"A self-portrait by Rembrandt, that's absolutely unique — not in my lifetime," Six said.

Rembrandt made the self-portrait about 1628, when he was in his early 20s and still in his hometown, Leiden. Already he was earning his reputation as an artist, and experimenting with a mirror and his own face to capture expressions.

"It has an incredible presence," said Ernst van de Wetering, head of the Rembrandt Research Project and an authority on the Dutch master. "The light has the most natural quality of light you can think of. ... and I love the naturalness of the laughing."

The painting previously had been in the hands of an English family for more than 100 years, according to Moore, Allen and Innocent. Some had assumed it to be by one of Rembrandt's students or a Rembrandt imitator.

The conclusion

Rembrandt Thought Fake Worth Millions

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands (June 19) - The auction house thought the portrait was a 17th century Rembrandt knockoff, and valued it at just $3,100. But the British buyer who paid about 1,500 times more than that apparently knew what he was doing.

Experts have confirmed "Rembrandt Laughing" - bought for a bargain price of $4.5 million at an English auction house in October - is a self-portrait by the Dutch master himself, depicted with his head tilted back in easygoing laughter.
'Rembrandt Laughing,' a 1628 self-portrait by the Dutch master, was appraised at $3,100 as a knockoff for an October auction. An anonymous Brit bought it for $4.5 million. Turns out it was a good call: Now authenticated, the painting has an estimated worth of $30 million to $40 million.
William Noortman from Noortman Master Paintings, specializing in Dutch and Flemish masters, said it's worth $30 million to $40 million, adding: "I'm very surprised it didn't make more at auction."

The 9 1/2-inch-by-6 1/2-inch painting will hang in the Rembrandt House Museum in Amsterdam through June 29, on loan from the anonymous Briton who bought it at the auction by Moore, Allen and Innocent in Gloucestershire and had it cleaned and examined by British experts.

Art expert Jan Six from another auction house, Sotheby's, declined to put a new value on the painting. But he said the sale itself was a rare opportunity, as Rembrandt's works come on the market only once every few years.

"A self-portrait by Rembrandt, that's absolutely unique - not in my lifetime," Six said.

Rembrandt made the self-portrait about 1628, when he was in his early 20s and still in his hometown, Leiden. Already he was earning his reputation as an artist, and experimenting with a mirror and his own face to capture expressions.

"It has an incredible presence," said Ernst van de Wetering, head of the Rembrandt Research Project and an authority on the Dutch master. "The light has the most natural quality of light you can think of. ... and I love the naturalness of the laughing."

The painting previously had been in the hands of an English family for more than 100 years, according to Moore, Allen and Innocent. Some had assumed it to be by one of Rembrandt's students or a Rembrandt imitator.