not that old
One of us is dying
We suffer the humiliation
of “Hello ladies”
not that old
One of us is dying
We suffer the humiliation
of “Hello ladies”
Someone told me
that of course my poems
will not change the world.
I answer that yes of course
will not change the world.
My family and I dressed all in white and welcomed in the New Year of 2016 on the Copacabana Beach together with thousands of Rio citizens. We watched a fireworks display like no other I have ever seen, so spectacular and relentless, the overwhelming visual pleasure of it recalibrated for me the word awe. There was much to admire in Rio–the range, number, and quality of their neighborhoods, museums, bookstores (they even sell books in vending machines in the subway),
and restaurants was beyond impressive; and much to regret–the pollution, the crime, the political morass–shared by too many global cities. But the best part of our short stay in Rio was getting to know just a little bit the neighborhood where we were staying. We had made a house exchange with friends of friends who had a place at the lower edge of Vidigal, a favela located at the base of Morro Dois Irmãos, or Two Brothers Hill, in the South Zone of Rio near Leblon overlooking Ipanema Beach. The favela had been through rough times in 2011 and the “Pacifying Police” still maintain a robust presence, but the much stronger presence was the spirit of art, the power of visual culture to unify, challenge, heal, protest, and celebrate community. I wish for the residents of Vidigal and for all of Rio’s citizens a happy Olympics.
In her memoirs, Leni Riefenstahl—the German actress and filmmaker famous for her association with Hitler—describes her first and only meeting with her compatriot and colleague Marlene Dietrich:
I was struck by her deep, husky voice, which sounded a bit vulgar and suggestive. Maybe she was a little tipsy. I heard her saying loudly, “Why does a woman have to have beautiful breasts? They can sag a little, can’t they?” Then she lifted her left breast slightly and enjoyed the startled faces of the young girls sitting around her.
Riefenstahl, who lived a long, robust, and adventurous life, was an artist who learned early on how to play fast and loose with the truth, a technique that served both her craft and her survival. Her life-long animosity for Dietrich, tinged, as this passage reveals, with awe, most likely began when the young Hollywood director Joseph von Sternberg passed her over to cast Dietrich as Lola Lola in The Blue Angel, launching one of the great film careers of all time. We will never know if Riefenstahl’s anecdote about Dietrich is true. Riefenstahl, especially after World War II when most of the Nazi leadership was dead, spent a great deal of concerted effort reinventing her past in exquisite detail. “The silence of the famous dead offers an enormous temptation to the self-promoting living,” critic Janet Malcolm has written. For Riefenstahl, it was more a question of opportunity than temptation. Truth aside, her brief story about Dietrich has the seductive authenticity of art.
Karen Wieland’s new book Dietrich & Riefenstahl: Hollywood, Berlin, and a Century in Two Lives is so compelling yet obvious, I found myself wondering how this book hadn’t already been written. Born within spitting distance of each other in Berlin in the first two years of the twentieth century, Riefenstahl and Dietrich had similar trajectories well into young adulthood. They were both more defiant than compliant in their family life, both ambitious, both inexorably drawn towards careers as performers; one in front of, the other eventually behind, the camera. And both women came of age just after WWI when, as Robert Musil noted, “Woman is tired of being the ideal of the man who no longer has sufficient energy to idealize, and she has taken over the task of thinking herself through as her own ideal image.”
The Nazis’ rise to power would dramatically change each of their lives and forever divide their paths. Dietrich left for America with von Sternberg and never lived again in Germany; Riefenstahl, with her celebrated films Triumph of the Will and Olympiad—the latter still considered one of the finest sports films ever made despite its overt and questionable politics—became a leading figure in the Nazi propaganda machine. Though Wieland’s dislike for Riefenstahl is sometimes needlessly blatant, and her treatment of Dietrich teeters on hagiography, her study of these parallel lives is on the whole terrifically nuanced. Her investigation, via two iconic women, of fate and self-determination, of good and evil, of democracy and despotism, brings the reader a grand, female-centered vista of twentieth-century Western history and morality that is traditionally glossed over.
When we read biographies of famous men, only sometimes do the women they sleep with, or ally themselves to, figure into the narratives of these men’s lives. Thanks to third wave feminism, this omission has been redressed in countless biographies of wives, daughters, lovers, and patrons of famous men. As for women famous in their own right, Wieland’s dual biography makes it abundantly clear that due to patriarchal power structures, a woman’s choice in men in her private life is directly related to her public success. Both Dietrich and Riefenstahl had reputations for being femmes fatales, using men relentlessly to get where they needed to go. (Men who do the same thing with women are simply taking advantage of patriarchal expectations and norms.) The alternative was to remain silent and offstage–an option neither woman was willing to accept.
Often key to a brilliant career, especially if, as in the case of Dietrich, a child is involved, is having a “wife” or a “Véra,” in the Nabokovian sense: someone to look after the domestic sphere, someone to be devoted to one’s success at any cost to themselves. Though this helpmeet phenomenon has been historically associated with the female gender, it isn’t exclusively so. Defying social norms as usual, Dietrich found herself a husband who would provide the much-needed support on her path to fame and fortune. Rudolf Sieber, a Czech actor who worked in film production became Dietrich’s “helpmeet,” a man all too willing to place his wife’s needs—practical, sexual, professional—ahead of all else.
“They were a production team, with the product being Marlene Dietrich,” writes Wieland. Although for most of their lives they did not live under the same roof or share a bed—Sieber took up with the nanny and Dietrich had a series of illustrious lovers after von Sternberg, including Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Erich Maria Remarque, Jean Gabin, Mercedes de Acosta, Yul Brynner, and Burt Bacharach—the couple raised their daughter, Maria Riva, together, never divorced, and remained deeply connected to one another, emotionally as well as financially.
By contrast, Riefenstahl didn’t have the luxury of such steady, comprehensive domestic support until her sunset years but along the way she built up a network of lovers and admirers–most notably Adolph Hitler–all carefully chosen to further her career. She maintained her erotic connection to many men throughout her lifetime on the correct assumption that this bond would enhance a continued artistic collaboration. In other words, she could get them to do what she wanted most of the time. While Wieland shows us how societal constraints made it necessary for both women to use their sex to further their professional careers at no small cost to their own well being and sense of self, she unfortunately too often reverts, especially in the case of Riefenstahl, to such reductive clichés as “Riefenstahl was an attractive woman who made the most of her feminine wiles.”
The film producer Harry Sokal underwrote Riefenstahl’s early career and financed the director Arnold Fanck’s films–he specialized in mountain melodramas where the scenery was the ultimate diva–on the condition that Riefenstahl star in them. She hated Fanck, who had a sadomasochistic obsession with her, but she knew he was her best chance to make it on screen and that he could–and did–teach her much about how to make and direct a film. Though her greatest desire was to be a world-famous actress, and she never truly gave up hope of becoming one, Riefenstahl recognized early on that, “I can’t change the fact that I see everything with the eyes of a filmmaker.” She proved singularly adept at gaining an expert knowledge of cameras, lenses, footage, and filters; she was a wunderkind when it came to editing and achieving new and special effects. And if she lacked the technical ability to achieve exactly what she wanted herself, she knew how to find someone who could do it for her.
As is well known and documented, both women went on to have exceptionally brilliant careers, one in Hollywood, the other under Hitler with his support and blessing. Both women knew at any moment in their professional lives, for better and for worse, how to make the most of what they had. (“They can sag a little, can’t they?”) Dietrich exploited to the hilt her genderless, ironic eroticism while Riefenstahl, known as “the Reich’s glacial crevasse,” went against National Socialist type, flaunting her good looks, glamour, and penchant for a party, doing whatever it took to pursue her art and become a star.
Read the rest of the review at 3:AM Magazine
BRING IT ON, WHATEVER IT MAY BE!
October 29 – December 12, 2015
Benrubi Gallery is pleased to announce Laura McPhee’s The Home and the World: A View of Calcutta, the artist’s fifth solo show with the gallery, and her first since the gallery relocated to Chelsea in January of this year.
McPhee’s images are less an overview of this city of 15 million than glimpses into its complex, often conflicted soul. The photographs gauge both the history of personal spaces and impart a sense of intimacy and calm that often belies the maelstrom that can be found in the external world. This tension permeates the show: in the war of attrition between nature and the built environment, vines shroud statues and columns, stones sieve rusty earth, clouds are saturated with smoke and exhaust. There is the eclectic mix of culture and class: Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Jewish; Asian and European; palace and tenement; antique and modern, Behind the inordinate attention to surface, to vivid pigments and extravagant display, something more profound is seeking revelation.
Elaborate Victorian, Dutch, Roman, and Mughal architectural details and patterns, an end in themselves in other contexts, are here backdrops to the recursive iteration of object and ornament—silks, flowers, paintings, tiles, or just trash—which call to mind both handicraft and factory, human endeavor both recent and far away. The effect, like the city itself, resists reduction, but insists on being experienced in its diversity. We associate the sublime with high art, but its origins here lie not in temples and palaces but in the hands that created them.
In McPhee’s series “Driveway Portraits” (so-called because they were taken at the gatepost of the house she lived in during her time in Kolkata), pass pedicab drivers, street entertainers, domestic servants, worshippers. They participate in a photograph, then move on. The feeling is of something bigger than history or personality or class. We might call it the human condition, or civilization, but perhaps the most accurate name for it is simply time.
Laura McPhee (b. 1958) was born in Manhattan and grew up in central New Jersey. She earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Princeton University and a Master of Fine Arts degree from Rhode Island School of Design. McPhee’s work has been widely exhibited both in the United States and abroad, and she is the recipient of a number of grants and residencies, including a Fulbright Scholars Fellowship in 1998 for work in India and Sri Lanka, and in 2003-05 a residency in Idaho from Alturas Foundation. She was also awarded, in 1995, a New England Foundation for the Arts fellowship, and a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellowship in 1993. Her exhibition River of No Return was exhibited at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in 2006; a monograph of the same title was published by Yale in 2008. Her latest monograph, The Home and the World. A View of Calcutta (Yale University Press) was published in 2014. Her photographs are included in the permanent collections of many museums, including the Getty Center in Los Angeles, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. She is currently a professor at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, and lives in Brookline, MA.
BENRUBI GALLERY (FORMERLY BONNI BENRUBI GALLERY)
521 WEST 26TH STREET, 2ND FLOOR, NEW YORK, NY 10001 212.888.6007 INFO@BENRUBIGALLERY.COM
AND if you are in Boston, you can see her work in a group show SEEING THE ELEPHANT at the
Sandra and David Bakalar Gallery
Sep 28 – Dec 5, 2015
Laura Letinsky & John Paul Morabito
The Indian story of the blind men and the elephant tells of earnest, observant individuals trying to describe something. Each of them probes one part of an elephant and gives his description. The result is a wildly diverse range of properties from the ear to the legs, tail, and tusk. All are true yet they hardly coalesce and often conflict.
This is an apt parable for those documenting and drawing inspiration from India, a country that has long been a subject for artists, writers, and scholars fascinated by the nation’s colors, complexities, and contrasts. It is ancient and modern, agrarian and industrial, connected and self-contained.
Seeing the Elephant features international contemporary artists whose work explores a wide range of topics facing India today. The structure of the exhibition is to approach the region from within and without, from positions of intimacy and expertise as well as from a more aesthetic distance.
Curated by Lisa Tung, Director of Curatorial Programs.
Monday – Saturday: 12:00-6:00PM
Massachusetts College of Art and Design
621 Huntington Ave
Boston, MA 02115
And last but not least: THE BOOK
“McPhee’s book is a loving portrait of the former capital of India, its architecture that remembers its history while embracing its future, its residents that line the streets, selling goods, tailoring dresses, delivering cargo.”–Nicole Crowder, The Washington Post
“ . . . awash in colors, textures, and architectural details as it sweeps through extravagant mansions and crumbling dwellings.”–Jan Gardner, Boston Globe
Photographer Laura McPhee, noted for her stunning large-scale landscapes and portraits of the people who live and work in them, has been traveling to eastern India for over a decade. There she has devoted her perceptive vision to picturing layers of history, culture, religion, and class as they appear in private heritage homes and public markets, in lively street festivals, and in the faces of city dwellers in Calcutta (also known as Kolkata).
This exquisitely produced book features a selection of McPhee’s works made in and around India’s former capital. Here we glimpse courtyards, living spaces, temples, and altars as both vestiges of the past and elements of contemporary urban existence. McPhee’s images sensitively penetrate the surface to show the blurred boundaries between social classes, the blending of public and private life, and the resonance between India and other parts of the world. Also included are a foreword by Amitav Ghosh on the historical divisions inherent in the city’s culture and on the nature of McPhee’s work, and an essay by art historian Romita Ray on the ways McPhee captures and distills the remnants of colonial Calcutta in her photographs of the contemporary city.
And here is a wonderful piece in the exquisite journal PLACES by Alan Thomas: Across the Threshold: Laura McPhee’s Calcutta