18 September 2018

Neil Simon: a very special American playwright, screenwriter and author.

I have two important reasons for focusing on Neil Simon. Firstly my family life seemed to replicate his: Russian parents, Jewish, Yiddish-speaking, impoverished in the Great Depression and very keen on tertiary education. Secondly I saw every American play and musical in the 1950s and early 60s, but didn’t enjoy the experience until Neil Simon’s works started arriving in Australia.

Neil Simon (1927–2018) was born and grew up in Manhattan, where he lived with his Russian parents and his older brother Danny. His parents were not happy together, made worse by financial hardship caused by the Great Depression. The two boys were sometimes forced to live with various aunts and uncles, instead of in the family home. Needless to say, Danny and Neil took refuge at the cinema as children, finding particular delight in comedies.

Neil studied for a short time before signing up for the Army Air Force Reserve, then served as a sports editor for the Lowry Field Base newspaper. He studied at the University of Denver, until he was demobilised in 1946.

After returning home, Neil started work at Warner Bros, Manhattan. His career-starter came when he and Danny created a sketch for radio producer Ace Goodman (son of Latvian Jews), launching them as a comedy-writing team. The brothers soon began writing material for stars like Milton Berle (son of Russian Jews) and Jackie Gleason.

In the early 1950s, Neil and Danny Simon joined an all-star writing cast, along with the other Jewish lads in America who were involved in comedy eg comedian Sid Caesar (son of Polish Jews) in his television series. It also included Mel Brooks (son of German and Russian Jews), Woody Allen (grandson of Russian and Austrian Jews) and Carl Reiner (son of Austrian and Romanian Jews). 

Used to be Alvin Theatre and is now Neil Simon Theatre, New York
Mayor Ed Koch, Neil Simon and actor Matthew Broderick, 1983
Credit: National Post

Here is something I did not know. Neil’s brother Danny wrote for many television shows including Phil Silvers Show, My Three Sons and The Carol Burnett Show.

Neil was a prolific writer, whipping out successful plays and screenplays at a rapid rate. Mostly his audiences were precisely the sort of people he wrote about: upwardly mobile, urbane New York Jews. These were people still close enough to their humble immigrant roots to appreciate having them sifted for earthy humour, but comfortably assimilated into the New World.

And note Walter Mathau (son of Ukrainian Jews) who starred in 3 brilliant Simon comedies. The Odd Couple 1968 written by Neil Simon, was based on his play of the same name. The screenplay for Plaza Suite 1971 was based on Neil Simon’s 1968 play of the same title. The Sunshine Boys was a 1975 film based on the play by Neil Simon, about two old cranky comics brought together for a reunion.

In 1966 and into 1967, Simon had four shows playing at Broadway theatres simultaneously: Odd Couple, Sweet Charity, Star-Spangled Girl and Barefoot in the Park. How did he expend that much energy?

Simon also adapted material written by others for his plays eg the musical Little Me 1962 from a novel, Sweet Charity 1966 from a screenplay and Promises Promises  1968 from a book. The film version of The Prisoner of Second Avenue 1975 was produced & directed by Melvin Frank (Jewish parents) from a Simon screenplay.

Wisely Simon focused on his own life experiences in later stories, with settings in working-class New York homes that he grew up in. In 1983, he began writing autobiographical plays: Brighton Beach Memoirs 1983, Biloxi Blues 1985, Broadway Bound 1986 and Lost in Yonkers 1991. Jewish family life became more explicitly visible in these autobiographical works!

Simon may not have been the most fashionable playwright, nor was he a political or experimental writer, as he stated; he didn't write social and political plays because he always thought the family was the microcosm of what happened in the world. But his work was warm, personal, comical and brilliantly crafted.

Without The Odd Couple or The Goodbye Girl, or other stories about mismatched people being thrown in flats and bars together, there would have been no sitcoms. No Friends, no Seinfeld, no Golden Girls, no Cheers, and no New Girl! Neil Simon invented the dominant form of American comedy! His own list of credits was amazing and his impact on other shows was amazing.

Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs, 
Nederlander Theatre NY, 2009

Simon was awarded four Tony awards, Pulitzer Prize, Kennedy Centre honours 1995 and Writers Guild of America awards. In 1983, an old established Broadway theatre was renamed after him.

Note the connection between Simon’s wives and the industry. His first wife, Joan Baim, died of cancer in 1973 after 20 years of marriage. Simon dealt with her death in Chapter Two 1977, telling the story of a widower who started anew. He also married actress Marsha Mason, who had appeared in his stage comedy The Good Doctor and who went on to star in several films written by Simon.

The playwright died from pneumonia and Alzheimer’s at New York Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan in 2018. I recommend and thank Susan Fehrenbacher Koprince’s book Understanding Neil Simon, 2002, South Carolina Press.

15 September 2018

Vermeer, Delft and the new globalisation of the 17th century

No nation was as interested in domestic genre scenes as the post-Reform­ation Dut­ch. The Dutch middle class wan­ted small, realistic im­ages of their own life, im­ag­es where ed­uc­at­ion, explor­at­ion, science, busin­ess and Prot­es­tant vir­tues were honour­ed.

In the book Vermeer’s Hat (2009), Timothy Brook focused on these small, domestic interiors of Delft as shown in eight paintings by Dutch master Johannes Vermeer (1632–75). His work suggested that a study of globalisation should start in the C17th; this would improve our understanding of the complex exchanges that brought the world together in a more integrated economic unit back then.

Vermeer, Officer and Laughing Girl, 1655–60 
50 cm x 46 cm, The Frick Collection

Starting with the household objects and activities found in Vermeer’s paintings, Brook was interested in viewing trade markets across the world, perhaps parts of the world that C17th Europeans didn’t know much about. He thus uncovered something of the economic and social context in Vermeer’s time, the impact it had on how people viewed their world and the unfamiliar objects from abroad that became familiar consumption goods in the Netherlands.

The author did acknowledge that earlier contacts had forged among different civil­isations, as I would have done regarding the Silk Road etc. But Brook underestimated the importance of the earlier contacts. And he overestimated how important European-directed interconnectedness was.

Vermeer, Girl reading a letter at an open window, 1657–59
‎83 cm × 65 cm, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister

By the C17th the drive to set up distant markets lay in the European desire to reach China and obtain its porcelain and silk. It was under this powerful impetus that European ships sailed the globe to find a shorter route to the country. Once in China, Europeans would obtain direct access to its goods by settling in coastal outposts.

Brook discussed French fur traders in Canada and their relationship with local tribes; a shipwrecked Portuguese vessel whose crew also included Chinese and Indians; riots and massacres in Manila and Peru; and men sadly separated from their native lands. All to get hold of the objects that would rock up in Delft’s homes!

I am a silver fanatic, but I hadn’t understood that Europeans had lacked products of their own to sell for competitive prices. So Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch traders hunted for the one item that would allow them to buy into the vast China mark­et – silver! Nor had I understood that silver was desperately needed by the Ming Dynasty due to domestic shortage of the bullion amongst rapid commercial­is­ation. I assumed silver was exclusively a European passion.

So silver, which now had global life, was a new commodity that obsessed the era. Woman Holding a Balance weighed silver, standing in front of a painting that showed God's control in The Last Judgment. Note the viewer was invited to view the economic allegories, not religious the ones.

Vermeer’s Soldier and Laughing Girl showed an officer in a Dutch sitting room with a young woman. The soldier showed his wealth and rank, wearing a red coat, an officer’s black sash and an expensive beaver pelt hat. The pelts for a hat like the soldier's were imported from the New World, in this case by the Dutch East India Co, founded in 1602.

 In Vermeer's View of Delft 1660–1, Brook showed the headquarters of the Dutch East India Co and the boats of the local fishermen. Lis­bon had been conquered by the Spanish, so the Dutch had to find their own way to the East for spices – thus the Co. created a monop­oly on all prof­its from trade east of the Cape of Good Hope. Ev­ent­ual­ly the Dutch East India Co. ran a powerful commercial empire for 200 years, helping to make the Dutch Republic a cul­turally and eco­n­om­ically successful country. 

Before the discovery of the Northwest Passage, the French had to find a route to China and the beaver fur, skinned to make felt in eastern Canada, helped them cover their costs. Samuel de Champlain (died 1635 in Quebec), who roamed across Quebec crushing tribal men and trapping beavers, was also searching for an overland route to China and its wealth.

Vermeer, View of Delft, 1660–1661
98 cm x 1.18 m, Mauritshuis

Note the other goods that had been readily traded in the New World, especially tobacco. Perhaps the Canadian beaver trade supplied the felt hats in exchange for the porcelains seen in C17th Dutch art.

Young Woman Reading a Letter at an Open Window c1658 showed a large Chinese porcelain bowl lying atop a rich Turk­ish carpet. Chinese porcelain was just becoming more wide­ly avail­able, at least to wealthier famil­ies, and started to feature in C17th Dutch art. Fruit could be piled up in a blue-and-white porcelain bowl, and even as simple an image as this gave a clear view of an expand­ing world. The porcelain itself reflected a rare art object that could ONLY be created in China. Plus it spoke of an incident that took place in 1613 between Portuguese and Anglo-Dutch merchant ships at St Helena. With growing global trade AND the arrival of international trade struggles, globalisation was blossoming!

Vermeer, Women Holding a Balance, 1662–3
42 cm x 38 cm, National Gallery of Art East Building

Note the maps of the world seen on walls in paintings, showing a patriotic pride which went along with the emergence of the Dutch from Spanish occupation. Perhaps the painting’s map was also used to examine trade between Europe and North America.

Conclusion By analysing a few of the paintings of Johannes Vermeer, and by examining whatever documents he could find about him, Brook developed a picture of Delft’s C17th world. The growth in trade and exploration was facilitated, in part, by advances in navigation  & ship building technology. Thus Brook found evidence of socio-economic events and interconnectedness. Globalisation, usually thought to be a modern phenomenon, actually had its roots back then.

11 September 2018

The Woman in Gold: battle for Klimt's art

The film Woman in Gold, directed by Simon Curtis, was about the recovery of Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I 1907.

Gustav Klimt 1862-1918 (Moritz Bleibtreu)’s finished portrait painting, made of gorgeous oil, silver and gold, took three years to complete. His 1907 painting, commission by the husband, had originally been titled Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I. It was the first of 2 port­raits that Klimt painted of Adele; then Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II in 1912.

When Adele died in 1925, her 6 paintings by Klimt were not left to Austria. She spec­if­ied in her will that the paintings were to be left to her husband and asked that he donate them to the Austrian State Gallery upon his death, to be put on display in the prest­ig­ious Belvedere Palace. However Adele's husband, wealthy sugar magnate Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer's own will stated that his estate, including the Klimt paintings, was to go to his heirs.

But Ferdinand did not die until WW2, and by that time the paintings had already been stolen by the Nazis. A German lawyer administered their sale, and in 1941, the Austrian State Gallery won the Klimt works. The Nazi curator at the Austrian Gall­ery first changed the paint­ing’s name to hide the fact that the model was Jewish.

Dame Helen Mirren played the late Maria Altmann (nee Bloch Bauer 1916-2011), niece of Adele, very well. I don’t like docu-dramas, especially when English-speaking actors have to put on fake German accents while speaking in English. But I love Vienna’s early C20th Golden Era, its art, music and cultural salons, and was keen to see the film.

The story was seen through two streams, the first located recently, and the second via flashbacks to the 1930s. We saw the cultiv­ated life of the Bloch-Bauer family, a Jewish business family in Vienna. Adele (1881-1924) hosted a chic cult­ural sal­on where Klimt and other artists met their patrons and bonded with them. Maria Altmann recalled the arrival of Nazi forces in Vienna, oppression of the Jewish com­munity and Nazi looting of art treasures. Nazis raided the family-home and took jewel­lery, her father's Stradivarius and paintings.

Anne-Marie O'Connor's book Lady in Gold: Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt's Masterpiece said Ferdinand Altmann had been arrested by the Nazis and held at Dachau concentration camp for two months. Later the couple tried to escape 3 times before the country was completely shut off; eventually they succeeded, boarding a plane to Cologne. While Altmann and her brand new husband were successful in escaping, she was forced to abandon her parents in Vienna. From the UK, the young couple made their way across Holland and then to Liv­erpool. But as the British were growing more suspicious of Axis citizens living in Britain, they travelled to America.

Then the film jumped to the 1990s when an elderly and widowed Altmann was attending her sister’s funeral in Los Angeles. She discovered her sister’s late 1940s letters which wanted to recover fam­ily artwork that had been stolen by the Nazis.

Altmann hired lawyer Randol Sch­oenberg (Ryan Reynolds) to get her art back via the Restitution Board in Austria. Note that grandpa Arnold Schoenberg’s music had been defined as Degenerate by the Nazi Party's cultural auth­orities. After being warned to get out, Arnold fled via Paris to America in 1933, teaching at the University of Southern California.

 Woman in Gold, by Klimt. 1907 (top photo)
 Adele Bloch-Bauer (lower photo)
The film showed how Maria Altmann first tried to reclaim some of her family's art in 1998, aged 82! Restitution across Europe was improving; Swiss banks had agreed to a $1.25 billion settlement after being sued by Holocaust surviv­ors, to return assets deposited during the war. The Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art was signed in Dec 1998 by 44 countries, including Austria. And the Austrian Parliament passed its own law requiring museums to allow researchers to explore their stolen items archives. 

By opening the Ministry of Culture archives for the first time, the new law enabled Austrian lawyer and investigative journ­alist Hubertus Czernin (Daniel Bruhl) to discover that Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer had NEVER donated the paintings to the state museum. [Czernin eventually traced thousands of Nazi-looted works of art to Austria’s national museums] . 

In 1999, Schoenberg and Maria sought to sue the Austrian government in an Austrian court. But under Austrian law, the filing fee for lawsuits was determined as a percentage of the recoverable amount. The five paintings were then estimated at cUS$135 million, making the filing fee $1.5+ million - too much for Altmann, so she dropped her case. In any case, Altmann heard that the country's minister was unwilling to part with the iconic painting, which they felt had be­come part of Austria’s national identity.Randol then filed in Aug 2000 in the Californian District Court, using a nar­row rule of law in which an art restitution law was retro­act­ively applied. A Republic of Austria v Altmann appeal went to the American Supreme Court where the court ruled in Altmann's fav­our.

The American Supreme Court cleared the way to sue the Austrian government. In order to avoid a lengthy and expensive court battle, she agreed to binding arbitration in Austria, given her advanced age.

In front of three arbiters, the panel heard the case over four months. Schoenberg asked the arbitration panel to see the injustice to the families who were deported or forcibly separated from their treasures by the Nazis. The arbitration panel ruled in favour of Altmann, returning 5 of her 6 works!

Yes the Bloch-Bauer art collection was looted by Nazi authorities in Vienna, and yes Austria fought aggressively to avoid returning it, given that the iconic paintings were seen as part of Austria’s identity. So of course the painting's departure was a significant loss to Austria. But hey.. after 8 years of struggle to reclaim the paintings (1998-2006), Maria grabbed the works and took them back to the USA!

The film didn’t discuss the heirs' decision to sell off the family paintings, valued at $325 million, but I personally found it prob­lematic. Were the Bloch-Bauer heirs simply cashing in on a booming art market, rather than pursuing justice? What other memories would they have of their parents and grandparents? The main painting was sold to cosmetics magnate Ronald Lauder (son of Estée Lauder) in 2006 for a record $135 million.

Lauder promised to display the painting at his Neue Galerie New York permanently. Plus he planned a fine exhibition called Klimt and the Women of Vienna's Golden Age 1900-18, held at the Neue Galleries New York until Jan 2017. Naturally the two Bloch-Bauer portraits were the star presentations.

Gustav Klimt
All photos from Beauty Will Save

07 September 2018

William Hogarth and Trump

I can recognise and love every one of William Hogarth's (1697-1764) works of art. What I did NOT realise that one of his dogs, Trump (c1730–1745), appeared in a number of his engavings and paintings. Apart from looking ugly, it has been suggested by Hogarth's biographer Ronald Paulson that this dog appeared as an emblem of the artist's own pug-nacious and dog-matic character.

Hogarth was clever and famous for blasting whatever he con­sid­ered to be politically corrupt, vulgar, criminal, charitable and patriotic. The artist was disparagingly nicknamed the Painter Pugg.  But Hogarth continued to use the dog as his trademark in a sat­ir­ic­al 1763 engraving The Bruiser. The image was based on his 1745 self-portrait with Trump, replacing art critic Charles Churchill who was lampooned as a drunken bear. Note the rude dog, urinating on a copy of the “Epistle to William Hogarth”, published by Charles Churchill, archenemy of the painter.

How prescient William Hogarth was!!

William Hogarth and Trump, 1745
Tate Museum, London

William Hogarth, The Bruiser, 1763

Friedrich Drumpf and Fred Trump left their grandson and son a handsome legacy in business and building. Yet since the beginning of his career, Donald Trump has been, at best, apathetic to the arts in New York and elsewhere. His first media spectacle, in 1980, focused on the then-33-year-old developer destroying a pair of Art Deco reliefs that were part of the facade of the Bonwit Teller Building in midtown Manhattan, which Trump tore down to build his Trump Tower. The Metropolitan Museum of Art wanted the reliefs for its collection and Trump agreed to donate them, if the cost of their removal wasn’t prohibitive. It wasn’t, but Donald Trump’s construction crew destroyed the works anyway. He later told the New York Times that he was concerned for “the safety of people on the street below”.

Later Donald Trump fashioned himself as a philistine par excellence. In 1999 Trump made a public call for censorship and claimed that his hypothetical presidency would cut federal funding for the arts. That was the year that Mayor Rudolph Giuliani embarked on a crusade against the Brooklyn Museum for its exhibition of Chris Ofili’s The Holy Mary Virgin (1996), which depicted the Madonna in ugly materials. Giuliani went so far as to try to cancel the institution’s lease with the city, evicting it from its home of more than 100 years. Only Trump supported the mayor's criticism, releasing a statement to the Daily News that said “As president, I would ensure that the National Endowment of the Arts stops funding of this sort. It’s not art. It’s absolutely gross, degenerate stuff.” Note the word degenerate.

But as a citizen, Donald Trump has had a more tangible effect on the NEA beyond his mere endorsement of slashing government funding for the arts. In 2013, Trump took over the lease of the Old Post Office on Pennsylvania Ave in Washington DC, in order to build a private 270-room hotel. Among the occupants that were forced to vacate were the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.