Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Peaceful Places: New York City

Peaceful Places: New York City: 129 Tranquil Sites in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island, by Evelyn Kanter

New York City is noted for its hustle and bustle, its hurly-burly, its crazy energy.  But sometimes, be you tourist or resident, you need a break, and Kanter will help you find it, wherever you are in the city. 

I love the way this book is organized.  The basic organization is alphabetical, from the African Burial Ground National Monument to the Yeshiva University Museum, but there is also a listing by area (the bulk are in Manhattan, but the other boroughs are well-represented) and another by category (such as "Enchanting Walks", "Quiet Tables" and "Spiritual Enclaves").   Kanter provides a short description of each place, accompanied by information about directions and hours, admission cost (if any, most of these places are free, though, when it comes to the shops she suggests, they are free, "but of course you are also free to purchase"!), websites, etc.   She rates them on a "peacefulness" scale, and notes for some that they are not always serene, but tells you the best times to go.  The High Line, a new park built on an abandoned elevated rail line, is a good example.  I visited it on a weekday afternoon, and it was relatively tranquil, but at other times it can get quite crowded. 

Kanter's narratives tell you why she recommends each place, what she likes about them herself, but also often include very personal memories.  Knowing that the textiles of the Metropolitan Museum's Asian galleries remind her of her milliner mother's "pride in her precise stitching" or reading how a visit to Green-Wood cemetery and the grave of Charles Ebbetts brings back memories of listening to baseball games from her grandparents' home, makes this more than an ordinary guidebook.

Anyone who has spent time in New York will doubtless have her own special "peaceful places".  Had I written this book, I would have included the Gubbio Studiolo at the Metropolitan Museum and the lovely little garden outside the Japan Society's galleries.
Japan Society garden

But I also found myself nodding in agreement with many of Kanter's choices, and making mental notes to visit others when I am next in New York.

I wish I'd had this book before I went to New York earlier this year!  I'll definitely bring it next time I go.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Henry Walters and Bernard Berenson: Collector and Connoisseur

Henry Walters and Bernard Berenson: Collector and Connoisseur, by Stanley Mazaroff

What are you going to do when you retire?  When Mazaroff retired from the practice of law, he went to Johns Hopkins to study art history, wrote and article about Henry Walters' acquisition of the Massarenti Collection of Renaissance art, which became the foundation of Baltimore's Walters Art Museum, and conducted research at I Tatti, Berenson's villa in the Tuscan hills, reading a "treasure trove" of documents illuminating the relationship between Walters and Berenson.  Then he wrote this book.  So much better than golf!

Henry Walters was the son of William T. Walters, banker and railway magnate, and inherited from him, in addition to wealth and business acumen, a passion for collecting art in the service of the public.  Whereas the elder Walters concentrated on contemporary American and European art, his son, like many other Gilded Age millionaires, was particularly drawn to art of the Italian Renaissance.

And you couldn't be a collector of Italian Renaissance art at that time without crossing paths with Bernard Berenson.  Berenson was a most intriguing character, a self-made connoisseur and art expert, whose opinion was pretty much the final word on a work of art. If he said your painting was by Titian, it was, and if he said it wasn't, well,you sheepishly put it away.  If in Casablanca everyone went to Rick's, in the world of late 19th and early 20th-century art collecting, everybody went to I Tatti.

When Walters bought, basically sight unseen, the collection of Don Marcello Massarenti, he knew that the attributions were likely not all accurate.  He was buying the whole to get some of its parts, and he hired Berenson to vet the collection, write a catalog, and help him acquire additional works.

The relationship between the two was fraught.  Walters was oddly uninterested in seeing his own collection, much of it remaining in its shipping crates for months.  Berenson had lots of other fish to fry in addition to his work for Walters,   When financial constraints began to limit Walters' buying, Berenson did something which damaged the relationship beyond repair.

Dealer Joseph Duveen was known in the art world to be unscrupulous.  Walters disliked him, as did Berenson.  Nevertheless, driven by the need and desire to be on a firm financial footing, in 1912 Berenson entered into an agreement with him, under which Duveen had the right of first refusal of any "first class Italian paintings" Berenson found, and Berenson would provide him with an appraisal and certificates of authenticity.  This, in and of itself, is not so bad.  But the agreement further provided that Berenson would get a 25% commission on any sales Duveen made of the paintings that Berenson found for him, and, on top of this, Berenson's identity was concealed under the use of a fictitious name.  The conflict of interest is obvious.

We know now that Berenson's attributions, of Walters' acquisitions as well as those of other clients, were not always accurate.  Many people have assumed that seemingly inflated attributions of Berenson's were due to venality, but Mazaroff makes the case that they were simply due to the manner in which attributions were made. Artists of the Italian Renaissance did not always sign their names.  Contemporary copies, by the artists themselves, their assistants, and others, were common.  What is known about an artist changes and affects attributions.  Today, cconservators and appraisers have an arsenal of technical tools to assist them, chemical analysis of paints, X-rays to find underpaintings, etc.  Berenson had his experience and his eye.  It is noteworthy that his attributions wer not challenged at the time, despite the competition amongst collectors and dealers.  And Mazaroff points out that the extent of Berenson's misattributions did not differ from that of other experts. 

Altogether, this is an instructive book about art collecting and connoisseurship in the Gilded Age, and a fasinating account of the relationship between two men, each powerful in his own field.

Further suggested reading:
Being Bernard Berenson, by Meryl Secrest
An Illuminated Life: Belle da Costa Green's Journey from Prejudice to Privilege, by Heidi Ardizzone

E.M. Forster, by Richard Canning

E.M. Forster, by Richard Canning

This short biography of E.M. Forster, part of Hesperus Press' "Brief Lives" series, is an excellent one. It is not, nor is it intended to be, an authoritative work on Forster's life and work. It is, however, a good introduction. In a strictly chronological way, Canning hits the high points, and in so doing, he provides insight into Forster's life, his relationships, public and private.

There's very little discussion of Forster's works, except insofar as they fit within the biographical story. Indeed, if there is any part of the book that could have been elimnated, it is the short last chapter, Afterlife, which is as close as Cannign comes to literary criticism. It seems oddly out of place.

While those who have read Forster will naturally find more in this book than those who have not, it can be read with appreciation by anyone, and any reader will find it informative. Definitely recommended.

A Prayer for the City

A Prayer for the City, by Buzz Bissinger

" . . . he understood exactly what a city was about -- sounds and sights and smells, all the different senses, held together by the spontaneity of choreography, each day, each hour, each minute different from the previous one."

Oh, the city, the city!  I am an urban person.  I lived in the suburbs for years and it was hell.  You couldn't walk anywhere because there were no sidewalks.  There was too much "new".  There was too much alike.  Your neighbors were just like you.  When I drove into the city, the moment I saw the skyline, the outline of the Sears Tower and the John Hancock Center reaching for the clouds, my heart would lift and I would begin to feel alive again.  If I have any regret about moving back, it's that I waited too long to do so.

Ed Rendell loves Philadelphia.  The two-term mayor took a dying city and tried desperately to resuscitate it.  And Bissinger was there.  In an extraordinary act of transparency, the Rendell administration gave the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist nearly unfettered access to the mayor and his staff.  He was present at meetings public and private, he read documents and correspondence, he interviewed everyone.  Mingled with the story of City Hall are the stories of four city residents: a shipyard worker, a grandmother raising her children's children and their children, a policy wonk and a "true believer" prosecutor.  They, too, all love the city, and each is subjected to its traumas.  Prosecutor McGovern and policy analyst Morrison had options.  They could leave for the suburbs, not worry about crime in their neighborhoods or bad schools for their kids.  Unemployed welders and inner city moms don't have the same options, and sometimes your love of place makes you want to stay.  After all, "there may be lovelier lovelies, but never a lovely so real."

When he was sworn in, Rendell had a fight on his hands.  The city was losing population, jobs, and industry.  Nobody cared.  Not the feds.  Not the state.  He had to make them care.   There is the story of the Navy Shipyard, one of the biggest employers in the city for, literally, centuries.  For years, it was threatened with being shut down, and, finally, the shutdown came.  But a German shipbuilder had a vision, a vision to take the shipyard and turn it into a place that served the burgeoning cruise ship industry.  Rendell fought to make that happen.  He worked on financing and tax incentives.  He went to the State House and he went to the White House.  He called in favors and friends.  Even when the Governor killed the deal, insulting and humiliating the potential buyer until he said "to hell with you", Rendell kept trying.  This is one roller-coaster of a chapter!

This is no whitewash of Rendell.  Bissinger doesn't shirk from describing the mayor's temper tantrums, his inappropriate behavior towards women reporters, his failures to connect with the African-American community, his egotism.  But the picture we have of Rendell as his first term draws to a close is that of a lover who takes his beloved to shows and buys her pretty things, but knows that that, like flowers on an expressway berm, is merely window dressing.  It is her heart and soul that matter most, and he will do anything to save her.

This page-turner of a book will uplift you, and it will break your heart.

Further suggested reading:
The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs
Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago, by Mike Royko

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Dante's Divine Comedy: A Graphic Adaptation

Dante's Divine Comedy: A Graphic Adaptation, by Seymour Chwast

Dante's Divine Comedy has, from its earliest days, attracted illustrators ranging from an anonymous 14th-century illuminator, to Botticelli and Blake and DorĂ©.  In our day, it has inspired the likes of Leonard Baskin, Salvador Dali and Barry Moser.  So why shouldn't Chwast, of Pushpin Studios, try his hand?  No reason.

But here's the thing.  He didn't illustrate Dante's Divine Comedy.  Instead, he summarized it and illustrated the summary.   It's 127 pages, mostly illustrations.  My copies of the Divine Comedy range from approximately 600 pages to more than 900, depending on the type size and the length of the notes/commentaries.  You just can't do it in the space here allotted, and have it make any semblance of sense to anyone not already familiar with the work.  Even then, most modern readers will need notes or commentary.

However, the drawings are fantastic!  Picture Dante in a trench coat and fedora, meeting a bowler-hatted Virgil in the dark wood.  Charon's ferry is a speedboat, Francesca's husband wears a wife-beater and carries a can of beer.   On to Purgatory in a rowboat, where Nino Visconti lies in his coffin holding a machine gun and the wanton women of Florence are flappers sipping martinis.  Up to Heaven we go, to find Emperor Justinian is a lounge singer and the crusaders ride in tanks.

I just wish that, rather than compress the text, Chwast had created these illustrations to accompany it.