Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Friday, October 25, 2019

Tod und Verklärung

Robert Boyd

Today I went to a lunch lecture put on by the Houston Symphony for the education of those of us who work for Symphony. Calvin Dotsey, the editor of our program magazine, InTune, gives talks over lunch about upcoming classical concerts. (He is perfect for these talks because his knowledge of classical music is staggering and his passion for it is unmistakable.) Today he spoke of Trifonov Plays Tchaikovsky, three concerts happening in late November, and A Musical Feast: All-Strauss Thanksgiving, which is happening the three days after Thanksgiving. As he spoke, I found myself thinking of Michael Galbreth, who died last Saturday, October 19.

The first concert includes Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (composed for piano in 1874, and orchestrated by Maurice Ravel in 1922). The story of its origin is well-known. Mussorgsky was friends with a painter/architect named Viktor Hartmann, who like Mussorgsky was kind of a Russian nationalist when it came to art. They both advocated for an authentically Russian art. (Such artistic nationalism was common in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, especially in music.) Hartmann died quite young of an aneurysm and after his death, his friends put on a memorial exhibition at the Imperial Academy of Arts in Saint Petersburg. It was while walking through this exhibit that Mussorgsky was moved to write a tribute to his dead friend. Each section of the piece refers to specific Hartmann paintings or drawings. By now, of course, the music is much better known than the artwork.

I was moved by the idea of a composer paying tribute to his dead friend. I hope that someone organizes a memorial exhibit of Michael Galbreth's work. Because so much of it was in the form of performance, such an exhibit would necessarily contain a lot of video and other documentation.

I know Galbreth knew composers--in 1986 he helped organize and stage the New Music America festival in Houston, a festival of experimental music. He wrote about it:
We received 719 proposals for New Music America 1986. In the end, the 10-day festival comprised of more than 200 participants spread out over 50 events at almost as many venues and locations. In numerical terms alone, there was nothing like it before in Houston, and there hasn't been anything like it since.
This festival was right up Michael's alley. He wrote:
At that time, most of my work was devoted to experimental music. I had presented work at Lawndale, DiverseWorks, various other alternative spaces, and on KPFT radio. I was among a tiny handful of Houston practitioners of this esoteric form of music. To work with some of the world's greatest composers, many of whose work I revered, would be the chance of a lifetime.
Imagine one of those composers dedicating a work of experimental music to Michael. I think of Morton Feldman composing a 4 hour tribute to his friend Philip Guston.

Michael Galbreth deserves his own Mussorgsky or Feldman.

Then Dotsey spoke of our upcoming all-Richard Strauss program, which includes Tod und Verklärung (aka Death and Transfiguration) from 1890 as well as Strauss's Four Last Songs. Dotsey narrated excerpts from Tod und Verklärung. An artist lays dying, has a vision of transfiguration, dreams about his life, experiences pain then ends with a glimpse of transfiguration. Strauss was agnostic and completely secular, so I wonder what he imagined transfiguration would be.

Then fast-forward to 1948, and the elderly Strauss embarks on his last musical journey with songs based on poems by Joseph von Eichendorff and Hermann Hesse. Dotsey, who has heard everything and has an encyclopedic knowledge of orchestral music, called them the most beautiful pieces of music ever composed. Strauss died before they could be performed, but they seem to describe the autumn and winter of life.

I couldn't hear these two pieces (and Dotsey's erudite descriptions of them) without thinking of Michael. May your transfiguration be glorious.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Michael Galbreth, RIP

Michael Galbreth, the tall half of the Art Guys, died yesterday. I'm staggering under this news. There is much to say about this man and his work. Perhaps once I have collected my thoughts, I will write something. For now, I thought I'd publish some of the photos I've taken of Michael over the years, usually while he and fellow Art Guy Jack Massing were doing a performance.

These were all taken at a performance the Art Guys did at Notsuoh in July, 2013.


A month later, they did this performance in front of City Hall.

This is from a performance they did in November, 2013. 

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Dispossession by Simon Grennan

Dispossession by Simon Grennan (Jonathan Cape, 2014)

Adaptations of classic literature into comics form are almost universally terrible, so one would be forgiven for imagining that this adaptation of Anthony Trollope's novel John Caldigate would be similarly bad. But I was very pleasantly surprised. Grennan (best known for his collaborations with Christopher Sperandio) manages to take this 600-page Victorian novel and condense it convincingly into 93 pages. How does he manage it? He does it by a careful elliptical construction. He lets the pictures tell the story and skips anything unnecessary to the telling. (It helps if you know the outline of the novel before you read it.)

This approach allows him to add a subplot not present in the Trollope novel--a story of an aboriginal second wife who leaves her husband as they interact with the European city dwellers and miners of the story. Their dialogue is in the Wiradjuri language. The Wiradjuri are an ethnic group of Aboriginal people who lived in New South Wales. This subplot seems kind of tacked on, as if Grennan thought it necessary to remind readers that John Caldgate and his companions were all extracting wealth from Australia as colonizers, but it has parallels to the story in Trollope's novel. Caldigate essentially has two wives, which causes him much trouble, as does Gulpilil, the Aboriginal man in the Wiradjuri subplot.

If you had seen Grennan's photo-based comics done with Sperandio, you will be surprised by the artwork here. He has a very loose style, that recalls Blutch's comics. He tells the story in a rigid 9-panel grid on the page, and the work is uncinematic. There are no close ups and the angles are usually straight-on. Most of the characters are shown in full-figure, which reminds me of Gabrielle Bell's work.

The format is quite lovely. 9" x 11" trim-size with glossy, full-color pages. The edition I have is a hard-cover, but Amazon has a Kindle version available as well.

Monday, August 12, 2019

The Texas Connection to the George Washington High Mural Controversy

Robert Boyd

Over the past few months, there has been a simmering controversy over a series of murals at George Washington High School in San Francisco. The murals, painted as frescos in 1936 by Victor Arnautoff for the WPA, depict the life of George Washington. The controversy stems from scenes depicting Washington as a slave owner and a scene where Washington is pointing to the West where ghostly grey settlers are migrating--stepping over the dead body of a native American.

Victor Arnautoff, fresco panel, 1936

These images have been controversial since the 60s. The San Francisco school board convened a panel to decide what to do about the murals and in February, they issued the following statement:
“We come to these recommendations due to the continued historical and current trauma of Native Americans and African Americans with these depictions in the mural that glorifies slavery, genocide, colonization, manifest destiny, white supremacy, oppression, etc. This mural doesn’t represent SFUSD values of social justice, diversity, united, student-centered. It’s not student-centered if it’s focused on the legacy of artists, rather than the experience of the students. If we consider the SFUSD equity definition, the “low” mural glorifies oppression instead of eliminating it. It also perpetuates bias through stereotypes rather than ending bias. It has nothing to do with equity or inclusion at all. The impact of this mural is greater than its intent ever was. It’s not a counter-narrative if [the mural] traumatizes students and community members.”
The school district budgeted $600.000 to paint over it. (It sounds extremely expensive, but apparently part of that was to cover the cost of anticipated lawsuits.) Not surprisingly, this has caused an uproar. As of two days ago, the SFISD board had reversed itself, planning instead to cover the murals (in some way that doesn't permanently destroy them) after digitizing them so that scholars could still study them.

The artist who created the murals, Victor Arnautoff (1896-1979), is an interesting figure. He was born in the Ukraine and fought with the Whites during the Russian Civil War. After the Whites lost, he fled to China where he lived for several years. In 1925, he arrived in San Francisco to study art. After his student visa expired, he and his family moved to Mexico where he worked as an assistant to Diego Rivera. He moved back to San Francisco in the early 30s, and was just in time to participate in Works Progress Administration art projects. As an experienced muralist, he was just what the WPA was looking for. Despite his background as a White soldier in Russia, he was a left-winger in the USA, and his murals often sided with the working class. Diego Rivera apparently influenced him in this regard, and he eventually joined the Communist Party.

He became an art professor and taught at Stanford for the rest of his career in the U.S. After the death of his wife in 1961, he retired from Stanford and returned to Ukraine. He worked as an artist in the Soviet Union and died in Leningrad in 1979.

One can guess that the reason he depicted slaves and a dead native was not to glorify slavery or genocide, but to depict these facts that were often overlooked in American history. In this way, the mural seems the opposite of, say, Confederate monuments. The latter were designed to glorify, whereas I would interpret the dead native American as critical. But now these images are quite painful to many people.

And because they are frescos, they can't be easily moved. Hence the solution proposed--to cover them up.

Arnautoff did two murals in Texas for the WPA. They were post office murals. One was in College Station and one was in Linden. The College Station mural is presumed destroyed during building renovations in 1962.

Victor Arnautoff, College Station post office mural, oil on canvas, 1938 (presumed destroyed)

Victor Arnautoff, Linden post office mural, oil on canvas, 1939

As far as I can tell, the Linden mural is still there and in good condition. And by showing the back-breaking labor of African Americans, I think Arnautoff is siding with them.  (When I saw these two images by Arnautoff, I thought of the work of Kaneem Smith, whose work often features references to and depictions of those long cotton bags used by sharecroppers to pick cotton.)

On one hand, the intent of the artist here was clearly not to celebrate slavery or the genocide of the native Americans. It was, I think, to point out the fact that the "Father of our Country" owned humans and that the settlement of the west was accomplished at shocking human cost--facts that weren't usually included in whitewashed versions of American History in Arnautoff's day. (Indeed, if you look at other WPA post office murals in Texas, they offer mostly an anodyne view of Texas history, as one might expect. But Arnautoff shows African Americans working under difficult conditions.) And in this, they seem the exact opposite of the Confederate statues that were erected by subsequent generations of Confederate apologists to honor the "lost cause". Nonetheless, the intent of an artist 80 years ago won't necessarily have any bearing on the way something is seen now. While the SFISD's proposed solution is not ideal, it's certainly better than whitewashing the mural.

If readers are interested in WPA-sponsored Post Office murals in Texas, there is a beautiful book about them: The Texas Post Office Murals: Art for the People by Philip Parisi. That is where I got the above two images.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

I, René Tardi, Prisoner Of War In Stalag IIB Vol. 2: My Return Home by Jacques Tardi

Robert Boyd

I, René Tardi, Prisoner Of War In Stalag IIB Vol. 2: My Return Home by Jacques Tardi (Fantagraphics Books, 2019)

 This volume is a little more expository than the first volume. As the Russians advanced from the east, René Tardi's stalag was emptied out. He and the other prisoners were marched by their captors to the West, staying out of the hands of the Russians, British and Americans. Jacques Tardi got his father to write a narrative of his imprisonment and gradual liberation some 40 years after the fact, and then researched the route to try to figure out what his father actually did. Like so many displaced persons at the end of the war, the way home was not a straight path. (In this, My Return Home resembles Primo Levi's classic memoir of his liberation from Auschwitz, known variously as The Truce or The Reawakening.)

Unlike the first volume, Jacques feels the need to keep us readers informed about what is happening in the last days of the war. René Tardi's group of POWs managed to skirt some of the major events at the end of the war, witnessing occasional aerial battles but avoiding heavy allied bombardments. But while they are slogging through the cold, scrambling to find whatever food they might, we are given a disjointed account of the last days for World War II. It feels overly expository, but it serves the purpose of reminding us readers of how little the vast hordes of wandering displaced persons and foot soldiers knew of what was actually happening all around them.

The book begins almost uniformly monochromatic--black and various shades of greenish grey, but as René gets closer to France, little splashes of color start to appear. In particular the red and blue of flags and red-crosses, which seem to symbolize liberation. Eventually fleshtones return and when René is reunited with his wife Henriette, Tardi allows himself a brilliant pink panel filled with flowers.

I want to make a note about the translation. Earlier volumes of Tardi that were published by Fantagraphics were translated by co-publisher Kim Thompson. Thompson passed away a few years ago, which suggested that maybe the Tardi volumes would stop (given that Thompson was their great champion). But thankfully they haven't and the translation is by Jenna Allen. Even though Thompson was fluent in French, I like Allen's translations better. I can't judge their faithfulness, since I can't read French. But a lot of Tardi's characters (including René Tardi) are tough guys, and Thompson's "tough guy" voice never felt authentic. But Allen pulls it off better than Thompson. (It pains me to say so because I loved the man...)

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Earl Staley

Random undated sketchbook pages.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Where are the Glasstire books?

Robert Boyd

Tuesday night I heard a talk by Rainey Knudson, the founder of and, until very recently, the publisher of Glasstire. The talk was about Glasstire, which she founded in 2001. She mentioned that there had been 37,000 stories published in Glasstire. When I heard that, the first thought that came into my mind was, where are the Glasstire books? With that much published material, one could compile a "Best of Glasstire" book that would be excellent. In fact, you could probably create separate books for every major city in Texas, using already-published articles and reviews to paint a picture of a local art scene. I would happily read a book of Christina Rees's occasional rants.

I asked about this and Knudson said that the idea had been discussed before but that they decided that it would be too expensive and difficult. And publishing is difficult. It's a good way to turn a large fortune into a small fortune. (Of course, there are ways around this--Glasstire could team up with an already established publisher like Texas A&M University Press or the University of Texas Press.)

But her response made me think about how book publishing has declined. Not that there aren't still plenty of books. (I recently moved and by far the worst part of it was moving all my books!) But the number of books published has declined. For example, it used to be that every year, tens of millions--if not hundreds of millions--of phone books were published. These books kept printers all over the country busy and profitable. When was the last time you saw a phone book?

But books still get published. A book still seems more permanent than a collection of blog posts stored electronically. (I say this acknowledging that I'm an old guy who comes from a time before the internet existed.)

With Rainey gone, the publisher of Glasstire is Brandon Zech. Christina Rees is still the editor. Between the two, they have the skills to edit a book. And working with a publisher like the two listed above (who have the expertise needed to design, manufacture, market and distribute a book), the Glasstire book series could be launched. So Glasstire, what do you say?