Exploring MALBA – Buenos Aires

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Sitting in England, staring at an atlas, if people still have those, Buenos Aires looks like it’s sitting at the end of the earth, but get there and you feel at home very quickly. Wandering around the cobbled streets of San Telmo, soaking up every cliche coming true, in a good way, you swagger around like a local, forgetting the fact you’re lost, as a man in a muted post horn tee shirt sells you prog tango records, while a woman in a kaftan, next door, stuffs blood sausages and slaps veal cutlets into breadcrumbs. All this in a market hall where Eva Peron playing cards sit next to mangoes, in season, or out and bottles of wine and wooden cups crafted every which way to sip Yerba mate tea out of. If you’re willing to brave the never ending plane flight to get there, then Buenos Aires presents itself to you on a plate. You don’t have to scratch too far beneath the surface to get a gob full of Argentinian culture, be it viewing the bear pit down at La Boca where Maradona used to spirit dance his way around La Bombonera, or admiring the tango dancers down on Caminito, while the River Plate sits, like a millpond, at the end of the street.

Up in Palermo, amid the wide Park Avenue style boulevards, where stylish bars mingle with craft bakeries and coffee houses on streets named after near neighbours like Costa Rica and Uruguay, you will find the excellent MALBA museum. Devoted exclusively to twentieth century Latin American art, the museum is something of a revelation, not least because of the riot of colour you will find upon its walls, Latin American art it seems rarely does drab and when it does the passion bowls you over and kicks you in the knackers anyhow.

Created by Argentine moneybags Eduardo Constantini and designed by AFT architects, the sleek halls take visitors on an artistic journey from the modernism of the early twentieth century when South American artists took their cues from European Expressionism, Cubism and Futurism to the surrealist twenties when artists began to look to South America’s own ancient stories of magic and fantasy for inspiration. The exhibition culminates with the turbulent 1960s when art became a weapon against a brutal dictatorship. Here are some highlights from the collection.

Oscar Bony – El triunfo de la muerte

Oscar Bony was one of the most influential of all Argentinian artists, becoming a key figure in the Instituto Di Tella scene, an art school in Buenos Aries, which was an artistic hotbed. Bony emerged and flourished in Buenos Aires in the early 1960s in the brief period of unfettered artistic freedom between the fall of Juan Peron and the arrival of the military dictatorship of Juan Carlos Onganía in 1966. The rise of Ongania would prompt an intensifying of artistic power in Argentina starting when Eduardo Ruano famously smashed a photograph of John F Kennedy as a protest against American action in Vietnam, but this would ultimately give way to censorship, with the police shutting down anything that carried even a hint of an anti establishment message. This prompted Bony to flee to Milan, where he became a music photographer for a while. El triunfo de la muerte (The Triumph of Death) features a number of images of a man being shot in different theatrical poses, the bullet holes are actually visible in the glass to add to the dramatic effect. The piece offers no real continuity, it is not a comic strip despite appearances, instead it offers the message that there is no escape from death, this is not a picture of a process, rather it is a visualising of finality. There is though a political element, the bullet holes match those fired by a Walther PPK handgun, the same weapon that was used to kill Rodolpho Walsh, an Argentine investigative reporter who was murdered in Buenos Aires in 1977 as he was about to file his famous ‘Open Letter from a Writer to the Military Junta’ which exposed the damage the regime’s economic policies were having on the Argentine people. This work offers an image of a man reaching the peak of his expression right at the very moment of his death.

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Maria Freire – Sudamerica No.10

An example of how South American artists, despite their own rich tapestry of culture, were sometimes inspired by European history. Maria Freire, an artist from Uruguay, was often inspired, when creating her Sudamerica series, by Medieval imagery, which is surprising given the utterly modern feel of her work. Created in 1958, the Sudamerica series features a relatively reserved colour palette, something that she would go on to expand in her later work. Rhythmic patterns and chains of symbols are featured throughout her portfolio.

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Oscar Bony – La familia obrera

This piece prompted something of a controversy when it was first shown in 1968, a time when Argentina was in the grip of military dictatorship. The work was originally live action, with Bony ‘hiring’ a mother, father and son to sit on a platform at the Instituto Di Tella, while sounds from their everyday life played behind them, creating a kind of staged voyeurism. MALBA honours the work’s original power by displaying a six foot still of the instillation. La familia obrera was of course a mould breaker, blurring the lines between performance, art and sculpture, but it was more than that, it was a particularly bright spark, in a year full of bright sparks, 1968, which further spread the flames of political tumult already raging around the globe. It was also a piece about the exploitation of the working classes of Argentina. They were Evita’s power base, she called them the descamisados, the shirtless ones, pouring money into charity programmes to help, while docking their pay checks to fund them. The people presented in this picture are representations of the working classes of Buenos Aires at the time, the working classes of wider Argentina must surely have not looked nearly as well healed, but perceptions are everything. The original work proved so controversial that it was shut down by police.

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José Pedro Costigliolo – Forma

Costigliolo was one of the most important artists in Uruguayan Modernism. He dipped his toe into Cubism, Purism and Russian Suprematism, producing both figurative and non-figurative works. In 1952 he co-founded the “Non-Figurative Art Group” in Uruguay with his artist wife Maria Freire. He is considered to be a pioneer in his home country and his work is never dull, but always a sharp explosion of pop colour.

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Lilliana Porter – Wrinkle

Wrinkle is all about perceptions, it presents pictures of crumpled up pieces of paper next to some typed dialogue, which suggests that the viewer reconsider the beauty of wrinkled paper. Born in Argentina in 1941, Lilliana Porter’s work has a sense of aesthetic austerity running throughout it, sometimes she uses little to say a lot and sometimes she uses little to say nothing at all. The printed conversation between ‘emm’ and ‘ett’ kicks off with:

“emm: so are they wrinkled pictures or pictures of wrinkles?

ett: well to begin with, they’re not pictures.

emm: and what would you call them?

ett: i’d call them still-lifes of action paintings.”

Before concluding:

“emm: who needs wrinkles?

ett: you may not need them, but you’ve got them.

emm: that’s what I mean, wrinkles aren’t very nice. Wrinkling things up is messy….destructive.

ett: don’t moralise. So is god……”

Before going onto describe all the majestic things that are wrinkled, ripples of water, your pants, the surface of the moon, oh and this article, when you rip it up and go, ‘that’s enough of all that!’ But, it will still be beautiful and there’s nothing you can do about that, sorry!

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The Cloth Nixon

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I was on one of those sightseeing trips out to the caves in Arizona with the Native American paintings on the walls, with Alison Gordon, a friend from LA. Well, I think we got on the wrong bus, because it was full of Second World War veterans each offering hurried salutes, as they filed past us in their garish yellow zoot suits.

We could have made it right there and then, in the semi-darkness of the cave, but I found myself pulling away and making my excuses.

“Something about this cave seems to creep me out,” I said, gazing around open mouthed and I held out my bare arm so she could feel my goose pimples.

Of course we missed the bus back, the veterans waving their sarcastic goodbyes, rubbing mock tears out of their eyes and wah-wah-ing through the open windows as the bus disappeared into a cloud of dust.

I flagged down a fleet side half ton 1973 Chevrolet pick-up truck and asked the driver, Chardeene, a long haired fellow wearing a West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band t-shirt, if he’d be able to take us back to Phoenix. He accepted and told us, as we clambered in, to mind the electric jug that
was deposited in the passenger side footwell.

The seats were covered with old beach towels and the air within the cab was thick with marijuana smoke. Chardeene said he was on his way to see The Morris Majors, an underground West Coast pop sensation, who were appearing in Phoenix that night.

Alison was transfixed by the thought of seeing the Major’s bassist, Declan de Ver-a-Tay, in person, he was something of a dreamboat by all reports, who would furl tiny coloured fairy lights over his Hofner Ignition during gigs to add to his appeal, the natty bastard. Alison declared that we had to go.

“Are you crazy,” I remember saying to her, “have you lost your mind?”

Chardeene snapped, sneering some rubbish about the Supreme Court, leering around the cab with his swimming eyes, pegging me, with just one look, as one of those ya-hoo-ing ‘let’s keep shipping the lads off to Indochina,types.

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Realising I had little choice, I quarter-heartedly assented to the trip. It was one of the stages in my life were everyone appeared to be spineless and I put my foot through his electric jug in retribution.

The car hit the kerb in front of the Kino Club as it came to a full stop, and the jolt knocked the radio into life, a jazzy saxophone part and a lyric about Mexico City forcing its way through the crackly static. We got out and I eyed the club’s neon sign, a geisha girl with a parasol doing a Charleston on the wing of a Sopwith Camel and I blushed, my mouth gaping at the freewheeling mix of cultures there.

Alison walked ahead with Chardeene who shepherded her deep into the Kino. The first room appeared to be some kind of boxing club, an oblong shape with four rings crammed in sideways. I broke away to watch the sparing, an older, balding man and a younger man, both jumping from side to side in black plimsolls and yellow shorts with a white stripe down each leg. The younger man had gag squeakers in his gloves, which let out a comedic eek every time he took a punch.

The air conditioner units thudded overhead (squeak) and a man wearing harem pants, sandals and a tie-dyed turtle neck jumper with the words ‘Dress British, Think Yiddish’ stenciled across the front, approached me. He introduced himself as A. Newton Taylor (squeak), “I’m the owner of the joint,” he announced, leaning on the ropes, taking puffs on his stogie (squeak).

“Do you know that broad who came in with Chardeene, just then? “

“Sure do compadre,” (squeak), I answered.

“You ever get over to Chavez Ravine when you’re in LA,” he asked me, motioning towards the boxers, sprinkling fag ash all over the ring side, “because that’s were all the prize fighters are.”

“Don’t you mean Dodger Stadium?” I said.

And he was struck dumb (squeak), these small town folks sure don’t have a clue.

A. Newton Taylor liked to introduce his acts onto the stage in a verbal torrent of old British music hall slang and he introduced The Morris Majors amid a shower of ‘without further ados’ and ‘ladies and jelly spoons’. The crowd lapped it up, someone even threw a negligée. photo(3)

I wandered into the main room and Alison was idling by an amp, smoking a cigarette as The Majors chugged through a twangy version of Slip Inside my Gilded Octopus House and I thought about the couple of times we’d been out back home, put on our real good looking clothes and taken on the town.

The music got duller, but the drugs were plentiful and the coloured festoons were soon glinting, their multicoloured beams smearing into the wooden ceiling. Alison looked beautiful in the quarter-light, swaying gently to The Morris Major’s pitiful blend of bland muzak.

I considered the side of her face, while she made dreamy eyes at Declan and I wondered what had made me shy away from her earlier. I turned, distracted by a phrase, unusual to these parts, Hudson-Mohawk Dutch slang by the sound of it, I thought that had died out, but hey-ho, and by the time I’d turned back, A. Newton Taylor, the greasy old rooster, was all over her, a trail of black feathers leading from his wilting gilet.

“Hey Django shit-face,” I shouted, “get off my girl!”

That was pushing it a bit, I know, and Alison seemed to be enjoying being with him, but I bet she was thinking about Declan, or maybe me, yeah perhaps she was thinking about me.

“I didn’t even know you two were together,” A. Newton Taylor said, shamelessly, clicking his fingers as he spoke, as if he were auditioning for West Side Story.

“We’re not brother, we’re not, but she clearly wasn’t in to you.” 

He was all ‘yeah, yeah,’ and he was married anyway, to the kind of girl who liked to wear an inordinate amount of woolens and I told him to fuck off back to Chavez Ravine.

A shout went up over the shoddy stoner musak, followed by a chorus of kazoos and slide whistles, which everyone carried around on their person in those days just in case a slapstick situation should develop.

Everyone started to dash outside and Alison followed and grabbed my hand so she wouldn’t leave me behind and we moved with the people, all gabbling away in their Hudson-Mohawk Dutch, until we reached the parking lot and Alison lit a cigarette, and offered me one, can you believe, and I said no thank you very much.

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Out of the low hanging desert fog came a military helicopter dangling a cloth Richard Nixon from its left landing skid.

“They’re taking it to Pope Paul in Rome for exorcism,” said some stoner in a Bud Cort t-shirt standing next to me, motioning toward the effigy and I nodded ‘yeahhh’, real solemn like, you know, like I gave a shit.

Stitches, the Morris Major’s drummer, had brought his snare drum outside and performed a drum roll as the copter landed on the lot, overturning Chardeene’s truck in the process. A. Newton Taylor approached the door as the rotors slowed, bowing and curtseying, bowing and curtseying and the crowd, several deep in places, performed an impromptu Mexican wave.

I held Alison close and she had her arm around me, but that didn’t mean anything, and then out of the copter appeared a man wearing some fly duds, priestly garb, his purple and gold vestments covered in brass buttons and crumpled up magazine pictures of pin up girls from the 1950s, I could clearly pick out Lili St. Cyr, Bernie Dexter, even poor old Dotty Dandridge. With an inflatable crucifix in one hand, he made the sign of the vinyl record with the other, just a mid-air circle and a finger jab, and then he led us all in this reverent prayer for musical resurrection: ‘We don’t want Jim Morrison, we want The Electric Prunes, we don’t want Jim Morrison, we want the Electric Prunes.” 

Once the holy man and his retinue had processed inside, with A. Newton Taylor at the head of the group, the helicopter was up for grabs and I motioned towards Alison that she jump in and we take it for a spin.

“I don’t like the idea of stealing from a consecrated reverend,” Alison yelled over the whirling rotors as they started up.

“He’s not a consecrated reverend,” I said, maniacally flicking switches, “well, he is, but of his own church, recognised by a few bus stop dwelling crackpots, downtown.”

“You don’t understand, you’re an atheist,” Alison said, clicking her seatbelt in place and adjusting her seat.

I clapped the headphones on, pulled the collective and the helicopter began to rise, the cloth Nixon springing into life beneath us.

“I don’t think I’m taking advantage of my life enough to be able to say I’m an atheist,” I shouted over the noise as I began to bank over the low rise rooftops. “I’m the kind of guy who needs the reassurance that he’s got a shot at a second chance,” we took a dramatic dive as I spilled a can of beer on my crotch, “you know, it just takes the pressure out of everything.”

I decided to make for our hotel and then, given that we now had the means, head for home. When Frank, the doorman, appeared running across the car park with our cases, he didn’t even bat an eyelid at the helicopter with the cloth Nixon bobbing about beneath it, he just politely informed me, knowing me to be a New Yorker, born and bred, that Hank Arron had hit the home run that night, which brilliantly rescued a haphazard day.

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As we approached the Sierra Nevada, I reached over and started caressing Alison’s thigh, then I thought fuck it and switched on the radio, Quick Silver Messenger Service, fucking primo. I looked down as Los Angeles began to twinkle into view and the cloth Nixon appeared to have its arms wide, with a big grin on its face, like it was embracing the entire city. I was the man who was bringing Richard Nixon back to Los Angeles and he was hugging the city and the city was hugging back.

In LA we landed on top of Don Pedro’s all night delicatessen. I realised too late that the Don had converted his roof into a garden to grow watermelons for his fruit terrine and great big watermelon explosions were soon sending fleshy pink fruit innards shooting upwards in geezers at either side of the copter. The cloth Nixon was covered in an unpleasant fruity gunk and I smiled sheepishly at Alison as slimy pips and assorted bits of goo squeaked down the widescreen.

We went into the shop and Don Pedro offered us spongecake, the coloured icing a papery mixture made from confetti he’d scooped up from outside the registrar’s office in Beverly Hills and then mixed with milk.

“None of that stuff for us, sweetheart,” I told him, “but we’ll have a couple of pieces of your strawberry cheesecake, if there’s any left, ” I said, pointing at the counter, “I know it’s late?” 

We ate the cheesecake on Hermosa Beach golf course, as a cold shower of sprinkled water returned us to our senses and then Alison said that she didn’t want to see me anymore. As the sun came up, the golden beams eviscerated, for a moment, the flapping red flag that marked out the ninth hole in front of us. We really exist at the behest of the universe, I thought, and then I thought of Don Pedro failing to put two and two together when he saw the watermelon footprints we’d left behind us. What a sucker, I thought, just wait until he goes up stairs.

(Short Fiction by Robert Leeming)

Pickup Brass

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I saw several characters dressed in black, law enforcement ninjas, freshly dispatched from the governor’s office in Sacramento, shuffling Jeff Goldblum down some steps in a sedan chair at MGM studios.

“Where are you taking Jeff-san?” I asked the lead ninja, spying Goldblum’s obviously drugged and sleeping frame behind the red curtains.

Goldblum started to stir as I made my inquiries, the ninja’s beady eyes darting about behind his black balaclava, like two guttering candles in a jack o’ lantern, as Goldblum gurgled and thrashed his arms about behind us.

“Look over there,” one of them said to me, and I did, falling for that old trick, as another slapped Jeff across the chops with a black slipper.

“Hey, that’s really not on,” I said, and I punched the lead ninja in the nose, prompting the attendant ninjas to draw their nunchucks. I was greatly out numbered and bound for defeat, had Clint Eastwood not been passing, and, seeing a fellow American threatened by foreigners, broke into some dialogue he’d had with Bernadette Peters in Pink Cadillac, the ninjas edging away from the confrontation, hypnotised by the Eastwood aura, collectively taking the role of Peters, singing her responses, as if they were in a barber shop quartet.

While all this bollocks was going on I was easing Jeff out of the sedan chair and he was slobbering all over my shoulder, slurring out some anecdote about Geena Davis tripping over an inflatable purple dragon and into the deep end of a public swimming pool.

I bungled him into Robert Redford’s car. I had been Redford’s driver ever since the days when he and Jane Fonda would perform abridged versions of their films on Santa Monica pier to pick up bucks.

Jane Fonda: Come on Paul, all I want to do is go walking barefoot in the park.

Robert Redford: (Doing his best Milton Bearle impression, chewing on a stogie) What are you, crazy?

Redford came barrelling down the steps, in his Scarlet Pimpernel gear, and into the back seat as I strapped Jeff in.

“Good day at the studio, Mr Redford?” I asked.

“What’s wrong with him?” Redford answered, gruffly, gesturing towards Goldblum, who had his right cheek up against the passenger side window, snoring, loudly.

“Ninja kidnappers,” I said.

“Again,” Redford answered, “better watch myself.”

Redford soon got down to business barking street names and directions while peering through the sun roof checking the wind speed with a handheld anemometer, its egg spoon fins flipping about in the Hollywood breeze.

I drove off and Goldblum announced that he needed to vomit, and did so, after spending a good ten minutes trying to roll the window down, only to realise he was rolling it the wrong way, after much ratcheting back and forth of the handle.

Meanwhile, Robert Redford began to tear open several industrial sized sacks of seeds that I had loaded into the back seat, each marked Eschscholzia californica in a folksy county jail kind of font. He slipped on a pair of antique magnifying goggles in order to inspect the grainy mix.

“Good mixture today,” Redford affirmed, “from Constanza, I shouldn’t wonder?”

“From Constanza,” I said, “working even on his wedding day.”

We arrived at our destination in good time, a bland bit of road near Hermosa, bordered on either side by grass verges, leading to a large white warehouse, which appeared to be some kind of recording studio, as we could overhear someone vigorously rehearsing a pickup brass section, hollering “more, more” over an out of tune, yet funky, doo-wop melody.

I produced a silver shovel from the glove compartment, which I passed to Redford. My role now was simply to maintain a steady speed as he tossed the seeds out of the window onto the grass.

A great percentage of the yellow flowers that appear every spring on roadsides across California were planted by Robert Redford and Jeff Goldblum as part of their long running commitment to guerrilla environmentalism. The administration, up there in Sacramento, comically tripping over wastepaper baskets and so forth, wanted to put a stop to it, wanted to weed-kill them all off with pesticides and chemicals, none of them much beneficial to Mother Earth and her wisecracking sass.

There was a screeching behind us, those law enforcement ninjas, their black jumpsuits now Nancy Reagan red, all crammed into an advancing Ford Maverick, yelling obscenities out of the open windows.

“Hit the gas!” Redford shouted, throwing his arms up into the air, seeds flying everywhere, the commotion waking Goldblum, who rumbled into life, coughing up a couple of pennies in the process, before looking behind him, yelling yikes and then pulling a small wooden accordion out from underneath his hat.

“Turn the radio down,” Goldblum yelled, so I turned the radio down as the speedometer trembled over a hundred and he broke into some French folk song he told us was about a girl who lost her clothes to a gust of wind as she splashed about in a fountain.

Robert Redford looked over his shoulder as the car began to clatter its way towards being a write off.

“Nice fucking song,” Redford said, curly blonde bangs falling over his forehead, preparing to bail out of the moving car, “now, let’s get ourselves together.”

Curlew River

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Out of the woods they come, crunching their way across the shale in newspaper shoes, him wearing a Japanese kimono and her, all bones and marzipan, spitting out orange pits at right angles as she walks.

Our Girl stands in the Curlew River while the great grid of power station metal hums in front of her. Shivering, she stares at the grid, the cooling towers and that whole ring-a-ding-ding rhinestone scene they’ve got cooking over there.

The grid, that buzzing electric grid, that’s her life, see? Look, that’s Stevie, up there. She loved Stevie.

“I know you,” Our Girl whispers, breaking her trance when the two arrive. “You’re from the Mystery Plays at the Hornerby Assizes, I saw your tents being packed into rickshaws this morning.”

“Rickshaws, dearie?” Lady Marzipan says, her voice all reedy and rattly from her smokes.

“Never seen a rickshaw in all me life, despite me breeding,” KimonoMan cuts in, boasting a hoity-toity accent now, a put on, long yellow nails tapping the bark of the riverside oak tree he slithered towards.

“There was lots of confetti swirling about,” adds KimonoMan, “a right ribald scene if ever there was one, I doubt you could have picked us out.”

A slap for KimonoMan, right across the chops, for giving the game away.

“Remember hitching a ride on the sails of the Montefiore Windmill, Dora, in the snow?” KimonoMan says, edging the subject away from his increasingly haphazard memory.

“You’ve got to keep the sail tight between your legs,” he demonstrates, with an imaginary windmill sail, suddenly real, it’s cream canvas material rippling in the Middle Eastern breeze, sun glinting off the top of the Dome of the Rock, catching Our Girl right in the eye, blinding her momentarily.

“Relax and let your arms dangle when you reach the lower portion of the swing, your fingers might graze the ground, but don’t worry, you’ve just got to move with the mill.”

Drumroll, he performs a somersault, vaudeville style, to much applause. Confetti. Flowers. Curtain.

KimonoMan pops his head around the red velvet. Lordy, Lordy, an encore, tonight of all nights!

The pit band break into After You’ve Gone and KimonoMan waddles, Chaplin style, bamboo cane a-swinging, towards a revolving Billy Brownie Garden blackboard and bows.

“Vault forwards on the upward curve if you want to make it to the top again,” he says, as he slaps the blackboard with the bamboo cane, like Monty outlining the conclusion of a mission. “It’s worth it, if you want to see all Jerusalem in an eyeful.”

Lady Marzipan interrupts, hectoring Our Girl now, meanly, clearing the still-confetti-laden air with a waft of her hand. “Our lives are made of natural light not electricity,” she says. “Your man made power is doing you down,” lurching a hunched shoulder in the direction of the river facing station.

“You need to step out of your river and look a little to the left.”

To the left, well, to the left, we all look to the left. Even Herself gets out of the Curlew River to take a look to her left.

My God, an illusion! These people can do that. Just cover your eyes, Lady, look away, and they’ll be sneaky pete-ing along before you even know it.

“De dum-de-dum-de-diddly-dum,” KimonoMan sings, making out a melody for his song on a Den-den daiko.

“The trees were chewing peppermint gum,” Lady Marzipan answers, vamping.

“Down by the towers and down on the shale, they hung him up on two penny nails!”

On the tree trunk bark Our Girl taps out a rhythm to accompany their song, but she’s wearing silver thimbles on every finger, golden rings on every toe. Her rhythm, you see, only counts if she’s connected and she’s not a part of their ecosystem, she’s not even close.

 

Bite-sized Reykjavik

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imageIceland had never really been on my radar. I had a vague knowledge of the place; I knew that it was where Bjork came from. I knew that they had taken a terrible hit during the financial meltdown of 2009 and that one of their temperamental volcanoes had brought European airspace to a standstill in 2010. But that was just about it.

All Europe-ed out after a few months of back to back visits to the continent and with a long week-end to spare and a stash of disposable pennies, that little flake of land, mid-Atlantic, began to look more and more attractive. An exciting in-reach wilderness, that wasn’t continental, but offered an independent culture and a thriving music scene.

Iceland, the very word conjures up thoughts of adventure, sliding down bloody great big glaciers, wandering down ravines cut into the earth thousands of years ago, bubbling springs and those grand, chilly, empty vistas of nothing. And Reykjavik too, the world’s northernmost capital of a sovereign state, with it cafe culture and it’s downright cosmopolitan nature, all amid, if you’re lucky, the ethereal shimmer of the Northern Lights. Yes, my initial disinclination gave way to inexplicable enthusiasm when I gave the idea some thought.

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The first thing that you realise as the airplane nose nudges into Icelandic airspace is the sheer emptiness of the space and the blackness of the volcanic land. The slightly melancholy introduction is quickly overcome by the friendliness of the airport, with its odd living room feel, a line of hardy out-doors-types reclining in arm-chairs amid the surprisingly, for an airport, relaxed atmosphere. It was like deplaning into an outlet of the Edinburgh Woolen Mill, a sensation that would be often repeated.

The bus to Reykjavik was buzzed by what appeared to be an American Air Force style B52, suddenly appearing over the brow of a grassy hill while I was gazing out across the flat landscape that comprises Keflavik. It was either taking off or landing behind me, I wasn’t quite sure, either way, its roar was such a surprise that I banged my nose on the coach window.

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Despite Reykjavik being home to over 200,000 people, the majority of the Icelandic populace, I was surprised at the village feel of Reykjavik central. Many, many coffee shops, enough record stores to satisfy even the most frenzied vinyl junkie and a surprising number of noodle bars make up the narrow, bicycle strewn streets.

My first meal in the Icelandic capital was in one of these eponymous noodle bars, but one recommended by a friend who had been before. The bowl was enormous, brimming with chicken noodle soup and I sat in the window slurping away, staring at the Hallgrímskirkja church, the city’s most bewitching building.

imageThe pristinely white structure sits at the end of the long and straight principle shopping street, Skólavörðustígur, towering over the city, it resembles an ice sculpture, the building’s curved and rippling sides bringing to mind the perfect fossilised shapes sometimes found on a volcano field. The church inside is refreshingly plain, all whites and creams, very calming, for a church, even the traditionally uncomfortable pews are upholstered.

I took a wander to the beautiful lighthouse at Seltjarnarnes, about a half an hours walk from the city centre, still within striking distance of town, but utterly deserted. Miles and miles of empty beach followed miles and miles of empty beach.  It was so quiet that the noiselessness seemed to pressure my ears, as if they were straining to hear something, but couldn’t and the strain to do so was making them ache. It was like the world had gone quiet. It was all right for a while, a different experience, but after a couple of hours I was yearning for a return to civilization and people. It wasn’t the true Icelandic wilderness, but it was interesting to experience the edge of emptiness.

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My visit happened, by chance, to coincide with what would have been John Lennon’s 73rd birthday. My temporary landlady told me that Yoko Ono always visited town on that day to light the ‘Imagine Peace Tower’ a light sculpture Ono had built on Videy, a small windswept island about five minutes sail from the harbor. I wasn’t entirely sure if it would be my kind of thing, but I went along anyway, sailing across the freezing water on a rickety boat while “The Ballad of John and Yoko” blared from speakers wedged in the wheelhouse. We all sang “Give Peace a Chance,” and I kind of thought it might be nice if we actually gave it a try, after all I’d been awarded peace in great big chunks during my visit to Iceland and I’d found it roundly enjoyable, so why shouldn’t the rest of the world get a fair crack at it too?

Amid the candlelit emptiness, someone strummed an acoustic guitar, Yoko Ono danced all in black, top hat strangely resistant to the blowing gale. It still wasn’t really my thing, but because of that, I was enjoying it.

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The Dandy Lion

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imageI told her I’d meet her on Dandelion Fields where the lion who wears the tatty jackets and the purple polka dot neckerchief lives.

It rained probabilities over there, actual numbers, ones and twos, decimal points and fractions. You can stand up there and hold out your tongue and feel the figures drop into your mouth and then dissolve into a particular kind of liqueur, not sure which one, perhaps, Drambuie?

To get there I had to cut past the fairground with the three interconnecting Ferris wheels, all lashed together with ropes and wooden wedges, so when you set one going it automatically powers the interlocking next one and so on.

I walked through the pines until I came to a circular clearing, with a wind sock dead centre. The sock was multicoloured, red, vanilla and peach. I think the colours were these, or maybe sprout green instead of red, or instead of peach, I can’t remember.

Hammered into the grass, about five meters or so away from the sock, but exactly parallel with it, was a little wooden sign that read, in a graceful Prunella Trieste font, “Don’t shout obscenities at the wind sock.”

Of course there was a fella there doing just that and I ran up to him, wildly flailing my arms about and yelling, “Hey, didn’t you read the sign man, I mean, can’t you read?”

The guy pleaded ignorance and scarpered and I could hear his hobnail boots clip-clapping as he hit the Roman Road that ran directly to the left of the clearing. I stared up at the sock, as it hung limp against the white metal pole, a breeze brought it to life a moment and it fluttered to its full length, before settling back down.

“Don’t shout obscenities at the wind sock,” I chuckled to myself, as I walked on.

When I got to Dandelion Fields Polly Lillianlion was there.

Gee, Polly Lillianlion, how can you not fall in love with a girl with six ls in her name?

Polly was sat on the ground, cradling the Dandy Lion’s head in her lap. It looked like he was dying.

Two crows scattered from the tree behind me.

I got over to them and he was all torn up, his jacket was in tatters, the boutonnière in his top button hole had wilted and was all brown and his pinstripe trousers were ragged at the bottoms. It was raining so both of our macs were covered in multi-coloured numbers, but he was covered mainly in blue nines.

The Dandy Lion’s paws were full of cuts and the white tape, from boxing I suppose, wrapped around them was bloodstained and unravelling. His top hat lay to his left looking like it had been punched straight through and someone had snapped the metal stretchers out of his umbrella.

I waved my hand in front of his face, tugged at his whiskers and peered into his eyes but registered no response. Polly shook her head. He seemed to come to for a moment and he breathed out and said, “I’ve seen some things in our world, but this really takes the cake.” Then he turned over on his side to face away from Polly, brought his knees up towards his chest and died.

Polly looked at me and said, “Let’s bury him and then go home.” So we buried him and started home.

Tantra Song – The Mystical Modernity of Paintings from Rajasthan

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Energy fizzing about a turquoise sea - From Tantra Song: Tantric Painting from Rajasthan, selected and with writings by Franck André Jamme. Published by Siglio

Energy fizzing about a turquoise sea – From Tantra Song: Tantric Painting from Rajasthan, selected and with writings by Franck André Jamme. Published by Siglio

With our modern eloquence, our technology and our brash and inventive culture, contemporary artists have developed individual ways of expressing hopes, beliefs, doubts and fears through art. Yet magically, when arts and crafts are brought together from across the world — from cultures and nations completely separate from one-another — unlikely bonds emerge, suggesting a common human struggle for expression.

An excellent example of this can be seen in Tantra Song, a new book compiled by one of France’s leading contemporary poets, Franck André Jamme. The book features a collection of rare Tantric paintings from Rajasthan, India, used to awaken heightened states of consciousness through meditation. Collated by Jamme during many trips to his beloved India, the paintings bear an uncanny resemblance to 20th century abstract art, Bauhaus and Russian Constructivism, despite the fact that they are articles of the 17th century, replicated by generations ever since.

Having spent more than two decades in conversation with the private communities of Rajasthani tantrikas, Jamme—like other poet-ethnographers before him, Michaux, Leiris, and Bataille, was moved to highlight the paintings’ subtle magic.

The pictures presented are often joyful: filled with colour, they are both hypnotic and sensual, their simple geometry elegant yet immediate. Produced upon recycled paper, the paintings feature divine and religious diagrams and representations of deities and mystic forces, which are used to help believers visualise the deity they portray.

White arrows dance and fizz across a deep turquoise square representing energy, whilst colour filled wheels contain all the shades of the Earth. There are fiery triangles atop a tropical shade of blue — the tongue of the goddess Kali in duplicate — the repetition supposedly inducing true intoxication.

All the colours of the world - From Tantra Song: Tantric Painting from Rajasthan, selected and with writings by Franck André Jamme. Published by Siglio

All the colours of the world – From Tantra Song: Tantric Painting from Rajasthan, selected and with writings by Franck André Jamme. Published by Siglio

Jamme quickly recognised the simple logic of the Tantrika craftsmen: “They see time and day and night very naturally, they think of two stripes, black and white.”

“There are a lot of small rules with this kind of Tantric painting,” Jamme adds, “but [ultimately] they respect colour: if they want to express consciousness, they are going to use light blue; they are not going to use red.”

This favouring of colour over stipulation is indicative of Tantra, which is often looked upon with scorn by traditional Hindus who’s own religion is comprised of complicated rules and regulation. In comparison, Tantrism embraces freedom, personal liberty, and gender equality. “Traditional Hindus are skeptical and a bit afraid of this,” explains Jamme, “because Tantrism can sound a little bit devilish to them — there is so much freedom. They’re afraid of freedom. — [fear] is the standard for humanity.”

Returning to France from India with the artwork and a better understanding of its meaning, Jamme exhibited the paintings as part of Magiciens de la Terre (Magicians of the Earth) an exhibition held at the Pompidou Centre in 1989. The display brought together contemporary art from across the world in an attempt to answer the question: “Is there such a thing as a common world art?”

Jamme considers the answer to that question to be yes; the evidence lying not only in the distinct similarities between Tantric painting and our own contemporary art but in the art and culture of eras past.

“In Orissa, India,” Jamme says, “[they’ve] found a particular form of poetry from the Medieval times which is extremely close in form to Haiku poetry from Japan — very short pieces with the very same number of syllables. That’s fascinating! I think there is [universally] a collective, hidden human search for expression,” Jamme explains, “just think of yodelers in Switzerland — you have exactly the same thing in the North of Vietnam.”

The principal force driving this search is freedom of expression, something embodied by the Tantrika craftsmen who harbour a “mad and pure desire for mental elevation. They’ll think of any way, any manner, any practice to reach that goal, beyond many of the rules and regulations of their rite.”

These Tantric paintings are the colourful, disciplined result of concentration combining with freedom, beautiful to look at, yet also — to those who believe — an attempt to “assemble almost everything, out of almost nothing.”

Tantra Song, collected and with writing by Franck André Jamme is available through Siglio Press.

I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter – The Leonard Bernstein Letters

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Leonard Bernstein

It is always a wonder, when doorstop volumes of letters belonging to dead icons are released, that people who led such gargantuan lives in scope and depth, found the time to achieve so much and still be such conscientious correspondents to so many people. But we are talking about a different time here, when you had to write to stay in touch. One of the considerable losses the social networking age will inflict on the generations it has hoodwinked will be to deny them a physical stash of handwritten letters. Thankfully though we can enjoy the archives of past notables who were not so deprived.

Such was the bountiful nature of Leonard Bernstein’s musical output and such was his influence as a conductor and a teacher internationally, that it is unsurprising to see that his correspondence, newly compiled by Nigel Simeone, takes up a whopping 600 pages. Bernstein’s letters are conversational and informal, surprising, given that he was an excellent writer. Strangely though many of the stand out letters in this collection are actually ones that Bernstein received, rather than the ones he wrote.

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Of particular note is the letter Jacqueline Kennedy wrote to Lennie in the early hours of June 9th 1968, the night after Robert Kennedy’s funeral. Bernstein had conducted an excerpt of Mahler’s 5th Symphony during the funeral mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York and Jackie, moved by the performance, wrote to Bernstein to thank him. Jacqueline, who would of course go on to become a literary editor herself, reveals an elegant turn of phrase in her writing, describing her late brother-in law as ‘kaleidoscopic’, before going on to note that Bobby’s wife, Ethel, loved him ‘mystically’.

The Kennedy link is a strong one throughout the book, a childishly excitable Frank Sinatra writes on the 12th of January 1961 of the rehearsals for a gala performance he is organising for the Inauguration of President Kennedy in which Bernstein is to participate. The description of the social element of the Inaugural brouhaha is quintessential Sinatra: “Now for the social side of this hoedown,” he writes. “Exhibit A will be a supper party that Ambassador (Joe) Kennedy is giving in honour of the entire cast. This will be black tie for the fellows and something dazzling for the girls.” He goes on to sign off with a charmingly menacing “Love and kisses and I’ll be waiting for you.”

The correspondence between Jerome Robbins and Bernstein is of particular interest. Robbins was one of the co-creators of West Side Story and was a major influence on Bernstein, cajoling him to work, in often brutal terms, while striving for a punchy, exciting show. “In general,” Jerome writes, “suddenness of action is something we should strive for.”

His letter after receiving one of the first drafts of the show is the politely written equivalent of tearing up the score and shouting ‘no, no, no, take it back and start again!’ He disdains the downbeat nature of the early drafts, “We’re dead unless the audience feels that all the tragedy can and could be averted, that there’s hope and a wish for escape from tragedy and a tension built on that desire.”

Bernstein onstage at the kennedy Inaguration Ball, organised by Frank Sinatra.

Bernstein onstage at the kennedy Inaguration Ball, organised by Frank Sinatra.

Stephen Sondheim, another co-conspirator on West Side Story, also comes across as a sparkling letter writer. “You have the distinct privilege,” he writes to Lennie, “of being the first person in these Continental United States to receive correspondence typed on my new and not completely paid for IBM Electric Typewriter. How about these margins?”

Berstein’s exchanges with his contemparys in the composing world are also illuminating. There are a number of letters to and from Aaron Copland, the composer of the famous Fanfare for the Common Man and the better, but lesser known Appalachian Spring. Bernstein is an affectionate, informal corespondent in his letters to Copland. “I’m a dawg, a dawg, a dawg not to have done this before,” starts one letter dated 28th of September 1944. He goes on to talk about how his work on what would go on to become On the Town is dominating his life and reveals a shaky confidence in the piece: “The show is a wild monster now which doesn’t let me sleep or eat or anything, maybe it will lay the great egg of all time. It’s an enormous gamble.”

His marriage to his wife Felicia Montealegre was not always a happy one, although they were naturally in tune musically, collaborating on performances of Bernstein’s own Kaddish Symphony and Debussy’s Le Martyre de Saint-Sébastien. Her letters, written during long periods of separation when he was off on foreign tours, are often the more fragile, but his don’t want for longing either. He writes from the Grand Hotel Duomo in Milan in February 1955: “I miss you terribly and love your letters. They carry a whiff of something warm and familiar and joyful.”

Leonard and Felicia Bernstein

Leonard and Felicia Bernstein

These letters matter because Bernstein matters. He understood and articulated the power of music better that anyone, not just classical music, but any kind of music and that, among many other things, makes him extremely important. “I am very happy tonight for music,” he said, on collecting a Grammy lifetime achievement award in 1995 “And I’ll be even happier and maybe even ecstatic if tonight can be a step toward the ultimate marriage of all kinds of music, because they are all one.”

The breadth of his musical creation, which stretched from musical theatre to boundary breaking classical music, was awe inspiring, but much of it is often overlooked. The collection features a letter from President Reagan, sent to the composer on the day of his seventieth birthday, celebrating his achievements from “West Side Story to Wonderful Town” two valedictory bookends Bernstein would have found dubious. Despite the greatness of his theatre work, he wanted to be remembered for so much more.

Leonard Bernstein died on October 14th 1990 at the age of seventy one and was outlived by his mother, Jennie. One of the last letters in the book is from her, dated 5th of September 1990, “I have confidence in you,” she writes, simply a mother worried about her son’s health, “I think you’re on the right track.”

The Leonard Bernstein Letters – Edited by Nigel Simeone – Is available from Yale University Press now.

F For Fake – Orson says: ‘Never Trust an Expert’

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Orson Welles and Elmyr de Hory – Picture courtesy of Mark Forgy

I am not an expert. I say that with all due consideration to you, the reader, who may well have found this page expecting expertise, thinned and straightened into horizontal lines, ready for you to take up your collective noses like Victorian snuff. We live in the era of the expert. The twenty four hour news media, to borrow an increasingly dreary phrase, screams for, day in day out, and thusly teems with, expertise, battalions of experts eager to validate any newspaper, any news network, any website with their considered meanderings into the anointed topics of the day.

Every statement needs validation. Every argument needs both sides. Two statements of fact. But with more and more statements being made, through countless platforms, mouthpieces and mediums, the clamour for authentication is prompting the bar for expertise to be lowered further and further.

Expertise is overrated. An expert can’t be trusted. Overarching statements and both subjects of Orson Welles’s recently re-released late-period film ‘F for Fake’. The film focuses on two notorious swindlers: Elmyr de Hory and Clifford Irving, one notorious recluse: Howard Hughes and a whole host of dubious experts.

“In the late 1960s Elmyr de Hory was the world’s most talented and most successful art forger ever,” says Mark Forgy, a writer from Minneapolis and one time assistant to Elmyr. Forgy is, you could say, one of the leading Elmyr experts still living, the holder of the deceased painter’s personal papers, he acted as de Hory’s confidant and bodyguard. When the painter committed suicide in 1976, with the law closing in, it was Forgy who found Elmyr dying from an overdose of sleeping pills.

Forgy certainly boasts all the trappings of the expert, he’s written a book (The Forger’s Apprentice – A True Story) that’s one peg up in the expertise stakes. The book has been turned into a play (directed by Sara Pillatzki-Warzeha, co written and co-produced by Mark Forgy and Kevin Bowen, first performed at the Minnesota Fringe in August 2013). Mark Forgy is even available for lectures. In fact at this juncture you might think it best for me to hand over to Mark Forgy to complete this brief lecture on Elmyr de Hory and the falling stock of expertise in our century, but, to paraphrase Orson Welles: “This isn’t that kind of article.”

Elmyr de Hory - Picture courtesy of Mark Forgy

Elmyr de Hory – Picture courtesy of Mark Forgy

Mark Forgy is not the only expert on the life and times of Elmyr de Hory, and he certainly isn’t the most famous, and fame counts for a lot these days. Clifford Irving (whose name you might have heard most often mentioned in regards to Howard Hughes – more on him later) was the first to publish a book on the great Elmyr after spending some time together with him on the island of Ibiza, where Elmyr planned to settle after spending years running from city to city avoiding the police. The book was Fake! and it told the story of how some of Elmyr’s fake Picassos, Modiglianis, Reichenbachs and Renoirs made their way, un-rumbled, into the most prestigious art collections in the world, where some of them may remain to this very day.

But Irving, the writer and momentary expert on Elmyr, had his sights set on becoming the authoritative source on a man even more fleeting and mysterious than the Hungarian born painter.

Howard Hughes was the great mystery man of his age, the Saran wrapped enigma, the man who engineered the uplifting brassiere and the grounded Spruce Goose, made movies and wooed Katharine Hepburn, before disappearing, to some top floor penthouse suite in Las Vegas where he kept bottles of his own urine, padded about with Kleenex boxes on his feet and saw no one. So the stories go. So the experts tell us. Sequestered in the Desert Inn, surrounded by a ‘band of mystery Mormons’, bemoaning that dago bastard Frank Sinatra who had stolen his girl, the world waited for the Hughes comeback, after all, nobody turns their back on celebrity, not in America, everybody comes back to the lights, eventually.

Cliff Irving erroneously believed Hughes had gone for good and should he, Irving, produce a book, an autobiography, a fake autobiography featuring fraudulent contributions from Hughes himself, then the missing billionaire would surely not stir from his rooftop hideout disturbing the desert sands covering his lair, in order to refute Irving’s fantasy. He’d been gone for fifteen years by then, could be dead for all Irving knew, or at the very least the Kleenex stories could be true and the old man would be too crackers to notice.

Hughes was a man desperate for his story to be told, said Irving, they had met in various locations around the world for interviews, including incredulously, on top of a Mexican pyramid, like a scene from a fake de Chirico painting. And why not a Mexican pyramid? Hughes was gaga, so the more outrageous the better. After all if there is one thing people hate more than anything it’s an unfinished story, think Kennedy in Dallas, Princess Grace in the hills above Monaco and Diana in the Alma Tunnel. An unfinished story leaves a void ready to be filled with bunk, scurrilous sculch, which people believe, if it gives meaning to a meaningless end, or in this case, something even more ethereal and infuriating (for the gossip hound) than death, an unexplained disappearance.

Howard Hughes

Howard Hughes

The world bought it. Time Magazine bought it to the tune of $250,000 for serial rights to the manuscript while Dell Publishing Company offered a further $400,000 for the paperback rights. But before money exchanged hands, Irving’s big book of lies had to pass muster with the experts. Hughes’s signature on the documents agreeing to the publication of the book had to be authenticated. The best handwriting experts in the whole-wide-world were summoned and pored over the documents like pigs over a trough of satsumas. They huffed and puffed and wiped their sweaty brows and concluded, after much study, that yes, this was the signature of the real Howard Hughes and with the approbation of the sainted experts given, Irving had his scoop, the scoop, bar the (phoney) Hitler diaries, of the century.

Hughes should never have had to stir from his stupor to dismiss the story, there should have been countless experts on hand to do that for him, people in possession of the plain facts. And yet that is exactly was he was forced to do, not physically though, instead his disembodied voice appeared over a phone line to a room full of invited journalists.

“I don’t remember any script as wild or as stretching of the imagination as this yarn has turned out to be,” said the supposed voice of Hughes. “I don’t know Irving. I never saw him. I never even heard of him until a matter of days ago when this thing first came to my attention.”

Despite the fact that it was known that Howard Hughes had used voice doubles in the past, the journalists, who were all supporters of Hughes, concluded that the voice did indeed belong to the dyspeptic billionaire, just as the handwriting experts had identified the hand of a Hughes in Irving’s phoney web.

When the flush of a newborn sun fell first on Eden’s green and gold,
Our father Adam sat under the Tree and scratched with a stick in the mold;
And the first rude sketch that the world had seen was joy to his mighty heart,
Till the Devil whispered behind the leaves: “It’s pretty, but is it Art?”

Mark Forgy (left) and Elmyr de Hory (right). Picture courtesy of Mark Forgy

Mark Forgy (left) and Elmyr de Hory (right). Picture courtesy of Mark Forgy

When Adam scratched Eve’s name onto the Eden tree, its my guess he didn’t initial it, but for as long as that tree stood, way back in the BC’s I bet there was some knowing character on hand to point out the landmark, and I’m sure that when that etching was weathered off the bark, or the tree was felled, that someone was quick enough to whittle a replacement, so as not to loose the tourist trade.

“It’s pretty, but is it art” wrote Ruddy Kipling, a verse quoted by Welles in F for Fake. You could say that Elmyr’s fakes are pretty, but certainly not art, because of their carbon copy nature. But then again, can’t deception be artful? Irving’s bogus autobiography was certainly artful in its circumvention of the truth. Expertise is easy to fake if you are able to say something well enough.

Speak delicate untruths in an authoritative voice and you will most likely be believed in the heat of the moment. Anything jump out at you when you read earlier: “Fake! told the story of how some of Elmyr’s fake Picassos, Modiglianis, Reichenbachs and Renoirs made their way, undiscovered, into some of the most prestigious art collections in the world.”? Reichenbach? An artist who ranks with the greats? No such person. Francois Reichenbach, the producer of F for Fake, the more likely candidate here. But did you briefly believe in this new artistic master as you skimmed these paragraphs? Were you willing to give me the benefit of the doubt, just for a moment?

Howard Hughes

Howard Hughes

Perhaps the more pertinent question, in an age where news and celebrity have become intertwined is should we be more realistic about the outlets we turn to for truth? Anyone who looks towards a blog say, or a tabloid newspaper, the Daily Mail, for example, for hard, provable fact and then screams bloody murder when they are left disappointed is misguided. It is blatantly obvious that the purpose of the Mail, in its current form, is not to inform, but to entertain, in the same way as a Beano comic will.

A character assassination here, a sexing up of the facts there, from the ‘fascist den’ at the Daily Mail to the supposed ‘nest of Marxists’ that comprises the BBC, these aren’t sins against the public, but are the well-meaning acts of a new and fine breed of storytellers, currently residing in the one time impenetrable fortresses of truth and justice that once made up the media in the UK and the US. Ranks of Clifford Irvings, willing to put fiction before the truth for the sake of entertainment, backed by cherry picked experts frothing at the mouth to contribute. And what of it? Why not enjoy the hapless flinging of cream pies that constitutes our national discourse. Just don’t start believing everything you hear, the recorded voice of Howard Hughes appearing out of the ether won’t always be there to dismiss the inexactitudes of the experts. Today, that job is up to us.

And with that the writer drops his authoritative voice, takes off his mask and returns to civilian life.

‘You can’t say Dallas doesn’t love you!’ Hotel Texas – An Art Exhibition for the President and Mrs John F. Kennedy

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Skyway, 1964 Robert Rauschenberg - Oil and silkscreen on canvas Dallas Museum of Art, The Roberta Coke Camp Fund, The 500, Inc., Mr. and Mrs. Mark Shepherd, Jr., and General Acquisitions Fund © Rauschenberg Estate/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

Skyway, 1964 Robert Rauschenberg – Oil and silkscreen on canvas Dallas Museum of Art, The Roberta Coke Camp Fund, The 500, Inc., Mr. and Mrs. Mark Shepherd, Jr., and General Acquisitions Fund © Rauschenberg Estate/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

There are many iconic images of the 22nd of November,1963, the day President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Amid all the poignant pictures the relevance of a small collection of artwork by Picasso, Franz Kline, Thomas Eakins, van Gogh and Charles Marion Russell has become lost. Nearly fifty years on from the tragedy in Dallas, ‘Hotel Texas – An Art Exhibition for the President and Mrs John F. Kennedy’ offers a different perspective on those infamous events.

The Kennedy’s three day trip to Texas, an early salvo in the president’s 1964 re-election campaign, had already seen the first couple visit San Antonio and Houston, before they arrived, exhausted, at the Hotel Texas in Fort Worth, in preparation for visits to Dallas and Austin the next day. In their hotel suite the pair were met by a treasure trove of art hanging from the room’s walls and went to bed assuming the pictures to be replicas. On closer inspection, the next morning, they discovered that the artworks were authenticated originals.

This unprecedented exhibition was the work of Owen Day, a Texan art critic. Day learned that the seventy-five dollar a night suite reserved for the president was not the most luxurious in the hotel, the ritziest room had instead been reserved for the Texas-born Vice President Lyndon Johnson and his wife Lady Bird. The Johnson’s suite had hand-me-down items from the Ritz Carlton in New York, while the Kennedys had to make do with views of a bus station and some underwhelming furnishings.

Spirit Bird, c. 1956, Morris Graves, Tempera on paper, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Gift of the William E. Scott Foundation.

Spirit Bird, c. 1956, Morris Graves, Tempera on paper, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Gift of the William E. Scott Foundation.

Knowing the first couple were art lovers, Day began to organise a ‘customised art experience,’ in an attempt to brighten the suite where John and Jackie would, ultimately, spend their last night together. After a flurry of telephone calls it was arranged that the rooms would be decorated with a selection of art and sculpture assembled from the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and the Amon Carter Museum of American Art. Private collectors also offered work, all expertly negotiated by Ruth Carter Johnson, a civic force in Fort Worth, who didn’t vote for Kennedy but still wanted to contribute to the effort.

President Kennedy spent his last night sleeping beneath van Gogh’s ‘Road with Peasant Shouldering a Spade’, while Jackie slept below ‘Swimming’ by Thomas Eakins. It was supposed to have been the other way around, but the couple changed beds unexpectedly.

Traditional American art was represented with the inclusion of Charles Marion Russell’s ‘Lost in a Snowstorm – We Are Friends’, while modernist works, more tailored to Mrs Kennedy’s art tastes than to her husbands, were also featured, such as Franz Kline’s ‘Study for Accent Grave’ and ‘Spirit Bird’ by Morris Graves. There was even a Picasso sculpture, the charming ‘Angry Owl’, which sat in the suite’s entrance hall, running the risk of courting controversy given the artist’s flirtations with Communism.

Lost in a Snowstorm – We Are Friends, 1888, Charles M. Russell, Oil on canvas, Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas.

Lost in a Snowstorm – We Are Friends, 1888, Charles M. Russell, Oil on canvas, Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas.

Of the twelve artworks displayed in Suite 850, Eakins’s ‘Swimming’, is given the most consideration in the book, which features an essay on the painting by Alexander Nemerov. The picture depicts several swimmers lounging upon an eighteenth century sawmill platform by a newly created lake. The ruined platform remains the same, for now, but the water is slowly eroding it and changing its environment. A new world is coming while another is leaving and the figures swimming seem trapped somewhere between the coming and the going. Nemerov notes that when Father Oscar Huber gave Kennedy Extreme Unction, the Last Rights of the Catholic Church, at Parkland Memorial Hospital after the shooting, his words like Eakins’s painting ‘marked Kennedy’s passage from one world to the next’.

Thomas Eakins himself, in a self portrait, breaststrokes in the lower right of the picture, echoing, writes Nemerov, a Professor of Art and Art History at Stanford University, JFK’s famous four hour swim to Plumb Pudding Island, with a severely injured man on his back, after his PT boat was sank by the Japanese during WWII.

Swimming, 1885, Thomas Eakins, Oil on canvas - Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, Purchased by the Friends of Art, Fort Worth Art Association, 1925; acquired by the Amon Carter Museum, 1990, from the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth through grants and donations from the Amon G. Carter Foundation, the Sid W. Richardson Foundation, the Anne Burnett and Charles Tandy Foundation, Capital Cities/ABC Foundation, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, The R. D. and Joan Dale Hubbard Foundation and the people of Fort Worth. 1990.19.1.

Swimming, 1885, Thomas Eakins, Oil on canvas – Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, Purchased by the Friends of Art, Fort Worth Art Association, 1925; acquired by the Amon Carter Museum, 1990, from the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth through grants and donations from the Amon G. Carter Foundation, the Sid W. Richardson Foundation, the Anne Burnett and Charles Tandy Foundation, Capital Cities/ABC Foundation, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, The R. D. and Joan Dale Hubbard Foundation and the people of Fort Worth. 1990.19.1.

The picture, like the president, is rooted in Catholicism, the figures in the painting with their perfectly sculpted bodies and proud postures are reminiscent of Caravaggio’s religious depictions of martyrs, John the Baptist and David. Yet these characters are simply larking about by the water’s edge, they aren’t saints or apostles, they look like heroes, but they lack a story.

Jackie Kennedy loved the display and remarked that she wished she could have stayed longer to admire the pictures, while Jack Kennedy rang Ruth Carter Johnson to thank her for organising the surprise; it was the last phone call he ever made. After breakfast Kennedy was presented with a ten-gallon cowboy hat by the civic leaders of Fort Worth, he refused to try it on, but promised to wear it on his return to the Oval Office.

Respect and good intentions evidently supported the First Lady of Texas, Nellie Connally, when she turned to President Kennedy, as their open top car moved slowly into Dealey Plaza, and said: “Mr President, you can’t say Dallas doesn’t love you!”

“No, you certainly can’t!” Kennedy answered. A second later, history took its shocking course.

President Kennedy speaks to the crowd outside the Hotel Texas in Fort Worth, Texas, November 22, 1963. William Allen, photographer/Dallas Times Herald Collection - Courtesy of The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza.

President Kennedy speaks to the crowd outside the Hotel Texas in Fort Worth, Texas, November 22, 1963. William Allen, photographer/Dallas Times Herald Collection – Courtesy of The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza.

Hotel Texas – An Art Exhibition for the President and Mrs John F. Kennedy is available now from Yale University Press.
One of the most shocking moments of radio ever recorded: Erich Leinsdorf breaks the news of President Kennedy’s death to a packed Boston symphony hall: