16 July 2019

Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy - brave heroine or oppressed wife?

Rose Elizabeth Fitzgerald was born in Boston (1890-1995), oldest child of John "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald, prominent figure in Boston politics. Rose was first introduced to politics by her congressman father. By the time she turned 15, Honey Fitz was one of the most popular mayors Boston ever had! He once took Rose and her sister to vis­it President William McKinley in the White House.

Rose had been accepted at prestigious Wellesley College during her junior year in high school, but her father insisted on the very Catholic Convent of the Sacred Heart in Boston instead. Rose reluctantly obeyed her father’s instructions but luckily she grew fond of the convent school, saying the relig­ious training she received there became her foundation for life.

In her teens Rose met Joseph P Kennedy (1888-1969) at Old Orchard Beach Maine where their families were holidaying. Despite her father not being happy with the Kennedys, the young couple were married in 1914 by Cardinal O'Connell.

First married home, in Brookline

The couple's first home was a beautiful, 7 bedoom, three-storey grey building on Beals St in Brookline. Rose had learned fluent French and German when she went to a Dutch boarding school, and was an accomplished pianist. It doesn’t surprise me in the least that Rose was named the best-dressed public woman by a poll of fashion designers.

Joseph Kennedy was already making a small fortune each year as a businessman. When the family left Brookline and moved to New York 10 years later, he was already a multi-millionaire financier and in­vestor. His business dealings were often dodgy, especially his involvement with organised crime and bootlegging. And the long­­est of all his adulterous affairs was with Hollywood star Glor­ia Swan­son, an affair that took him away from home during Rose’s last preg­nancies.

Joseph Snr and Rose in the centre back 
and eight of their children, 1931

In just 18 years of marriage, Rose gave birth to 9 children. Joseph Jr was born in 1915, John 1917, Rosemary 1918, Kath­leen 1920, Eunice 1921, Patricia 1924, Robert 1925, Jean 1928 and Edward 1932. [I was exhausted from two babies in two years; Rose was pregnant every 18 months!]. 

In the late 1930s, her husband was named US ambassador to Britain. During their time in Europe, the Kennedy family was invit­ed to attend Pope Pius XII’s coronation in March 1939 and enjoyed a priv­ate audience with him. Only as WW2 broke out did Rose and the children go back to the USA.

In 1938-9, while Fascist persecutions in Germany intensified, Joe Kennedy was strengthening his faith in Nazism. Joseph Kenn­edy had a solution to The Jewish Problem; he said he had worked out with Chamber­lain a plan to ship all German Jews to Africa. In Sept 1940, Kenn­edy again sought a personal meeting with Hitler because he believed he could bring about closeness between the USA and Ger­m­any. When the White House read Kennedy’s nasty pro-Nazi beliefs, I am not sure if a] Roosevelt insisted that Kennedy return home or b] the new British PM Church­ill dem­and­­ed that Kennedy leave the UK.

Despite his father nasty political views, Rose’s eldest son Joseph Jr still fought for the Allies in the Navy. Tragically Joseph Jr was killed in action in Aug 1944, when he was flying on a mission over the Eng­lish Channel. Rose's first daughter Rosemary was lobotomised at 22 (at Jos­eph’s in­sis­tence) and spent most of her adult life in a care home.

And Rose showed some religious nastiness of her own. Daughter Kath­leen was a Red Cross nurse in London and wanted to marry Protestant William Cavendish, Marquess of Hartington. Rose was very upset, and felt it was divine intervention when, just months after their marr­iage, Cavendish died fighting in WW2. And Rose was even madder when she heard that Kathleen later wanted to marry the still-married Prot­es­t­ant 8th Earl Fitzwilliam in 1948; again Rose said it was divine in­terv­ent­ion when her daughter Kathleen died in a plane crash in May 1948. I think not.

When son John stood in 1946 for the Massach­us­etts Cong­ress­ional District seat, previously held by her father Honey Fitzgerald, Rose was excited. She loved politics, especially behind-the-scenes dealing. After John's victory in 1946, his next big battle was for the US Senate. In the 1952 campaign to unseat Henry Cabot Lodge, Rose was the hostess at many Kennedy Teas sponsored by the Democratic Party.

In her son's 1960 presidential campaign, Rose again did her utmost, going to meetings every night. Her greatest thrill was in 1961 when her son John became the 35th American President. Since John's wife Jacqueline had just given birth, Rose and her daughters and daughters-in-law helped host the White House events.

John was as­s­assinated in Dallas in Nov 1963, in his first term as president. Her next son Robert, Attorney General and later a Demo­cr­atic senator from New York, was assass­inated in 1968 in Los Angeles, while campaigning for presid­ent. 

As Rose's family grew older, they began to look toward polit­ics, and she encouraged them. She had learned from her father how to manage public functions and how to con­duct political campaigns on behalf of her sons. In the aftermath of the terrible Chappaquiddick accident in July 1969, Rose rallied to son Edward's aid and helped to rejuvenate his political career by campaigning for his re-election to the US Senate. He kept his Senate seat for the next three decades.
Back: Joseph Sr and John Kennedy in the White House
Front: Rose and Jackie, 1961

Much of her time in later years was devoted to securing public sup­port for the cam­paign to enlighten the public about mental re­tard­at­ion and its causes. Her Joseph Kennedy Foundation donated mill­ions to hospitals, ins­tit­utions and day-care centres ac­ross the nation. She was an effective campaigner and a dedicated fund-raiser; she remained a symbol of progressive Democratic politics. 

After widowhood in 1969, Rose loved to walk village streets alone, largely unrecog­nis­ed. Rose wrote her autobiography in 1974 and spent the rest of her life in relative peace. But a stroke in 1984 left her in a wheelchair. Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy died in her Hyannis Port Mass home in 1995, at 104.

13 July 2019

Alma Schindler Mahler - musical talent, sexual pleasure, Vienna's cultural elite

If I thought there was a lot of sex going on in the late 1960s, those of us interested in turn of the century Vienna had to do some rethinking. Here is my old post republished, now with a greater look at contemporary anti-Semitism.

Alma Schindler (1879-1964) was born in Vienna to famous landscape artist Emil Schind­ler and singer Anna von Bergen. Emil Schindler was known as an anti-Semite while Alma herself became an anti-Semite herself, even after her father died when she was only 12. This was strange, since two of Alma's three husbands were Jews, as were three of her favourite lovers.

After her father's death in 1892, Alma's mother married her late husb­and's former pupil Carl Moll (1861–1945), painter and co-founder of the Vienna Seces­sion. Moll’s Secessionist connections were important for young Alma; her lively social life expanded as she met the other Vienna Secession artists, including the very attractive Gustav Klimt (1862–1918). Klimt adored her but I am not sure her considerable musical talents were being supported by her cultivated colleagues.

Alma played the piano from childhood and loved composing. She met Jewish composer Alexander von Zemlinsky (1871—1942) in 1897, and learned composition with him until 1901. Zemlinsky had been a great teach­er for the very Jewish Arnold Schönberg (1874–1951) and a great contact for Alma. Zemlinsky and Alma fell in love, although Alma teased her lover about his ugly Jewish features. The relationship failed.

Alma and Gustav Mahler, 1902

In 1901 Alma attended Bertha Zucker­kandl’s literary salon, famous in cultured Jewish Vienna, where she began an affair with Austrian Jewish composer Gustav Mahler (1860-1911). Note that Gustav Mahler could only become the director of the prestigious Imperial Vienna State Opera if he converted to Catholicism. So he did.

While still in a relat­ion­ship with Zem­lin­sky, Alma started an aff­air with Mahler, and became engaged. In March 1902 they married and moved into a home near the Opera House where two daught­ers were born. With her own career nipped in the bud, Alma became the chief supporter of Gust­av's music. Probably Mahler had never liked Alma and Zemlinksy being lovers. But it was only when Gustav finally realised his wife had comp­os­ing talent that he helped her prepare her songs for public­ation in 1910. Good grief.

Mahler and Alma trav­elled together to New York, where Gustav work­ed as a conductor. In 1911 he tragically died, soon after their return to Vienna.

In 1910, Alma met and became very close with the young archit­ect Walter Gro­p­ius (1883–1969), my fav­ourite Austrian architect and event­ual­ly director of the world’s best art school, Bauhaus School of Art and Design.

Oskar Kokos­ch­ka, 
The Bride of the Wind, 1913
Kunst­museum Basel 

Oskar Kokos­ch­ka, 
Lovers with Cat, 1917
Kunsthaus Zürich

After Mahler's 1911 death, Alma also had a passionate affair with young Czech Christian artist Oskar Kokos­ch­ka (1886–1980). Alth­ough they later broke up, Kokoschka continued an unrequited love for Alma and paint­ed The Bride of the Wind 1913 and Lovers With Cat 1917 in her honour.

Kokoschka enlisted in the Austrian Army, so Alma resumed contact with Gropius who was a soldier himself. She and Grop­ius married in 1915 and had a child together, Manon Grop­ius, who died tragically at 18. Brilliant composer Alban Berg wrote a violin work in Manon’s honour.

With Gropius still in the army, Alma began a very public affair with Jewish Czech poet and writer Franz Werfel (1890–1945) in 1917. Within a year, Gropius and Alma agreed to a divorce which became final in 1920. However Alma and Werfel did not marry until 1929. Gropius, on the other hand, married Ilse Frank in late 1923 and they remained happily together until his death.

In 1938, Werfel’s Jewishness became critical. Soon after the Aust­rian Ansch­luss, Werfel was forced to flee to France; so Alma joined him in Southern France from 1938 until 1940. With the German occup­at­ion of France, Werfel faced Nazism directly and needed to imm­ig­rate to the USA urgently. Luckily Varian Fry, organiser of a priv­ate Am­erican relief and rescue organisation, was saving intellect­uals from Mars­eilles. Fry arranged for the Werfels to walk across the Pyrenees into Spain and Portugal, and by ship to New York.

I do not understand why Alma went into exile with her Jewish husband since a] she had never liked the Jewish community, b] she was not opposed to Nazism and c] she actively supported Franco in Spain. Perhaps love and sex were more powerful than anti-Semitism.

Mahler and Werfel

In the USA Werfel had great suc­c­ess with his novel which was made into a film in 1943. But sadly Werfel died in the USA in 1945. None­­theless Alma soon became a USA citizen and remained a major cultural figure in New York where she wrote her two Mahler biog­raphies. It is interesting that when Alma died in 1964 in New York, she chose to be buried back in Vienna, along­side her first husband Gustav Mahler. She had been a core member of Vienna’s cultural elite AND the main authority on Mahler's life and works.

Early in life Alma und­erstood that in male-dominated cultural Vienna, her role was to be a muse for brilliant men, in bed and out. But I wonder if being a famous socialite and active supporter of Alexander Zemlinsky, Gustav Mahler, Walter Gropius, Oskar Kokoschka, Franz Werfel and others was enough for her. Her own musical talents were never given the same professional support that the men received. Bride of the Wind: life and times of Al­ma Mahler-Werfel was written by Susanne Keegan

09 July 2019

Vincent van Gogh "At Eternity's Gate" (film review)

At Eternity’s Gate (2018) is the latest film about Vincent van Gogh 1853–90 (Willem Dafoe), one of the western world’s most famous or infamous art­ists. Ac­ad­emy Award-nominated direct­or Julian Schnabel, himself a painter, made a film opening the last few years in the world of the artist for modern viewers.

From undergraduate lectures, I remember that Vincent van Gogh was seen as a disturbed person and his art was not loved. Yes the artist was erratic and eccentric, and no idea what­soever about how to approach a woman to converse. But by the time van Gogh moved to Auvers-sur-Oise in May 1890, the world was becoming a bit more aware of his artistic talents.

Self portrait with bandaged ear
by Vincent van Gogh, 1889

As an undergraduate I didn’t like French painter Paul Gauguin (Os­car Isaac) eit­her, but for a different reason. He deserted his wife and children, was rudely insensitive to van Gogh and later mar­r­ied very young girls in Tahiti. Although Paul Gauguin was ­de­picted as more supportive than he was, Vincent really did not understand that Gau­guin was also his rival and crit­ic. Gauguin had been forceful in his debates with ALL his fellow artist about their art skills and persp­ectives. But Gauguin had been blindly adored by Van Gogh, so when Gau­­guin said he was deserting Arles, Van Gogh was beyond consolat­ion. [The two never saw each other again, though they continued to correspond via mail].

The Yellow House (1888) in Arles was where Van Gogh rented four rooms in May 1888. He occupied two large ones on the ground floor (atelier and kitchen), and two small rooms above. van Gogh's guest room was where Gauguin lived for nine weeks from late Oct 1888.

I suppose Vincent was super fortunate to have a caring supp­ortive brother Theo (Rupert Friend) in the same country. Theo was in the right industry (art-dealing) to assist, plus he had enough mon­ey to keep the impoverished Vincent alive with a monthly allowance. The most difficult part of Theo’s life was when he had to race to Vin­cent’s side to save him eg whenever Vincent was in hosp­it­al.

Mental disturbances are always difficult to watch, even if the viewers knew in advance about van Gogh’s mental life. One thing the viewers could NOT know before the film was the way Vincent per­ceived the nat­ural world. Whenever he went into the open country to paint en plein air, there was a transfixed, almost ecstatic image on his face. The same was true after being released from a year at the St Remy asylum , with Dr Gachet (Mattieu Almaric) in Auvers.

Yellow house in Arles
by Vincent van Gogh, 1888

But without the mental disturbance, how would the film explain Vincent’s emotionally sad & socially isolated life? His self-mutilation or death? It was probably always going to be quite easy for the director to show how certain the Dutchman was of his artistic vision. But it was the actor who had to show Van Gogh’s tortured life. It was an art-driven life, but the steering wheel was chaotically emotional.

I wasn’t going to discuss Dr Gachet, but now it seems that van Gogh could talk to the doctor in a way that he could not talk to ot­hers. Why did he paint, even though he never sold any works? Why did cut off his ear? Why did he want Dr Gachet to pose for a port­rait?

Nor was I going to discuss the priest. Vincent’s father had been a Protestant minister in the Netherlands and the children were of course brought up in religion. Young Vincent started his theology studies, but instead he moved missionary work in a poor mining reg­ion in Belgium. I men­tion this for two reasons. Firstly Van Gogh was so seduced by nat­ure that the film suggested nature was where he saw God. He had long shown a strong attraction to religious images. For a non-Christian art historian, I didn’t know what to make of Van Gogh’s near-mystic visions. The film left it to the viewer to decide if the visions were the source of his artistic genius, symptoms of illness, or religious faith. Secondly in the film van Gogh’s had a crystal clear conver­s­ation with a priest who was in charge of van Gogh’s mental asylum. Yet van Gogh replied with surprisingly fluent theological ­answers.

van Gogh painting sunflowers
by Paul Gauguin, 1888

There were some imagined thoughts in the film. Van Gogh said of the villagers in Arles, “I just want to be one of them. I would like to sit down with them and have a drink.” But that seemed a very unlikely thought for the most sociably unskilled person in the world. Similarly Vincent stopped a shepherdess on the road and ordered her to lie down so that he could quickly get her image onto his canvas. Vincent thought it was art; the viewer thought it was assault and battery. His death too seemed imagined - the film showed that Van Gogh did not take his own life, but was shot instead by local hood­lums. And I wonder where the final scene came from - the artist in his coffin surrounded by his paintings!

Re the camera work, I liked Caryn James review: the film took an impressionist approach, freely inventing scenes and swerving from history when it suits him. Van Gogh was usually considered post-Impressionist, but the metaphor worked well. For example the camera flowed over a field of dead sunflowers and not much later, a well-known Van Gogh painting of bright sunflower appeared on his bedroom wall without any fuss. Peter Bradshaw wrote that wordless passages showed van Gogh striding through the landscape, transfixed and almost stupefied by what it offered. Note the piano chords on the soundtrack, maybe the secular equivalent of organ music.

In and out of asylums, Vincent van Gogh died at the tragically young age of 37 in Auvers-sur-Oise. Since leaving his homeland in 1886, he never saw the Netherlands again.

06 July 2019

Jorn Utzon and Sydney Opera House

Sydney Opera House sits on Bennelong Point, a space first developed as a fort named after Governor Macquarie. It was later used as a tram shed which was demolished in 1958. The project of the Syd­ney Opera House began in 1954 when NSW state premier Joe Cahill brought together a comm­it­tee to begin work on procuring an edifice that would be a credit to the state not only today but also for hundreds of years. An internat­ion­­al design com­p­etition was launched in 1957, attracting 233 entries from around the globe.

Sydney Opera House,
Bennelong Point

 Sails and glass walls

19th century sailing boat on Sydney Harbour

Under the influence of Judge Eero Saarinen, the jury were emboldened into reaching for an ambitious concept of an opera house which was capable of becoming one of the great buildings of the world. They selected 38-year-old Danish Architect Jørn Utzon as the winner, writing "because of its very original­ity, Utzon's scheme is clearly a controversial design. We are however, absol­utely convinced of its merits." Utzon won ₤5000 for his submission.

In August 1958 the construction process began with the demol­ition of the Fort Macquarie Tram sheds, which stood on Bennel­ong point.

Utzon began work, assuming that it would take 18 months to develop the design documents for the project, which would be completed 15 years later. But by the time the building was opened in Oct 1973, the fervour of the project had taken several turns which marred the otherwise spectacular design and technical ac­h­ieve­­ments: the unexpected death of Cahill, a change in state government, concerns about time delays and the political football of the budget, all amplified by the constant savage media swirl around the project.

By 1966, disputes erupted between Utzon and the state govern­ment over progress, leading ultimately to Utzon's public and diff­icult resignation. Utzon's popular and professional support in Sydney and internationally was passionate. Rallies in support of Utzon's re­turn to the project marched on Parliament house.

However a state government keen to show progress quickly appointed a panel lead by Peter Hall. Hall's most clear contribution was com­ing up with the solution to the large glass walls on the Northern Kirribilli façade.

The sails sat on top of a heavy podium, which was believed to be the biggest column free chamber in the world. The highest roof shell was 67 metres above sea-level, the equivalent of a 22 storey building. Note that the sails were built with 3 tower cranes made in France for this job, costing $100,000 each. 

Utzon, 1965
In front of the Opera House being constructed

After Utzon's departure in 1966, or as a consequence of it, another major decision was made that would haunt the project. At the requ­est of the ABC, the use of the two main halls were changed to make the main hall, originally intended for Opera, into a symphony con­cert hall of 2,800 seats. The smaller venue was converted from the originally intended drama theatre to the primary opera venue. This compromise in the middle of construction added complexity to the project, as installation of the last precast shell unit of the famous sails had already been completed. The change forever plagued opera performances in the smaller space, which remained too cramped for their productions.

After leaving the difficult and very public experience of the Opera House project, Utzon amazingly got back to new work and continued to apply his approach to designs. The best projects included his own Mallorcan house, Can Lis, in 1966; an Australian family retreat originally intended as a holiday house; the Bagsværd Church outside Copenhagen, designed in 1968 and completed in 1976; and the Kuwait National Assembly Building, completed in 1982. They all demonst­rated Utzon's organic approach to design, and a highly attuned sensitivity to culture.

10,000 construction workers were engaged in the Sydney Opera House which was opened by Queen Elizabeth II in Oct 1973. Its final cost was $102 million, largely paid for by a State Lottery.

Jørn Utzon never returned to Australian although many reconciliat­ion attempts were made. But in 2004 he accepted an invitation to collaborate on the redesign of the building’s in­ter­iors, resulting in the dedication of the Utzon Room. In addition there are another 6 performance venues at Sydney Opera House: Opera Theatre, Concert Hall, Playhouse, Drama Theatre, Studio and Fore­court.

The Opera House has evolved to meet the demands of cont­emp­orary aud­iences and performance. The last completed major work on the Opera House was the extension of the western foyer areas and the opening of a drama theatre, playhouse and studio theatre. This el­egant extension by architect Rich­ard Johnson was completed with close attention to Utzon's original design approach, and has great­ly added to the capacity of the Opera House. The house remains one of the busiest performance venues in the world, hosting 1,500 events a year and receiving 8.2 million visitors annually. In 2007, the Sydney Opera House received UNESCO World Heritage listing.

Concert hall

2013 marked the 40th anniversary of the Sydney Opera House. Thank you to Anthony Burke, UTS Professor of Architecture, used the ann­iversary to explore the above story for Australia's most recog­nis­able icon.

On Ut­zon's death at 90 in 2008, Frank Gehry memorialised the Dane saying: "Ut­zon made a building well ahead of its time, far ahead of available technology, and he persevered through extra­ord­inarily malicious publicity and negative criticism to build a building that changed the image of an entire country." Four generations of the Utzon family have been architects –Jørn’s father Aage, Jørn, his son Jan, plus Jan’s son Jeppe and daughter Kickan.