‘Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey’ at Columbia University

From Romare Bearden’s A Black Odyssey. (Photo by Suzanne Loebl)

While thousands traipsed to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) to view Henri Matisse’s epoch-making Cut-Outs, fewer made it to Morningside Heights to enjoy the equally charming collages of Romare Bearden. There are similarities and differences, though the works of both artists gladden the heart. Matisse’s work simply celebrates color and shape and sresses the pleasure of surrounding oneself with beauty. Bearden chose the story of Homer’s Odyssey to illustrate African-Americans’ struggle to become respected U.S. citizens.

During my Jewish childhood in anti-Semitic Germany there was no TV, highly visible sports teams, or other distractions. Homer’s Greek hero tales were a crucial part of my life. I knew that it took Odysseus ten years to return from vanquished Troy, located in what is now Turkey, to Ithaca, his hometown. I was very familiar with the sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis, Poseidon, the ruler of the oceans, Circe, a seductress, and the other trials he underwent as he and his faithful crew voyaged home.

From Romare Bearden's A Black Odyssey. (Photo by Suzanne Loebl)

From Romare Bearden’s A Black Odyssey. (Photo by Suzanne Loebl)

Romare Bearden’s series faithfully adheres to Homer’s story. His collages are small and detailed. Bearden is a master colorist. Specific colors dominate each work. White is used sparingly. Figures and animals, cut out of black paper, are silhouetted against vivid primary colors that impart a joyous Mediterranean or Caribbean air to his collages, even though the depicted events might be scary. Compositions vary. Sometimes a large battling group fills the canvas; sometimes it is occupied by a single figure. Poseidon awes the viewer with his black face, slit eye, protruding teeth; his famous trident bisecting the entire image. Circe too, seductively dressed in multicolored robes, and accompanied by a lion, a snake, and two birds is alluring and scary. Odysseus, however, manages to survive the ordeals and returns home chastened but unvanquished.

Like his near contemporary Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden is a powerful storyteller, narrating tales of African-American life in delicious small images. Both artists dispensed with details. During their formative years both lived in Harlem. Lawrence became famous early in his life when MoMA and the Phillips Collection in Washington bought and divided his 60-picture migration series. To celebrate the one hundredth anniversary of the Great Migration, MoMA will exhibit the entire reunited series from April 3 to September 7, 2015.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Every So Often, You Fall in Love With a Painting: Jamie Wyeth’s ‘Iris at Sea’

Iris at Sea by Jamie WyethEvery so often I fall in love with a painting. Most often the object of my desire is in a museum, on someone else’s wall, or too expensive, but once in a while it is within reach. So it was with Jamie Wyeth’s Iris At Sea, a single flower silhouetted against a white Maine lighthouse. I saw it in a gallery on Monhegan Island, Maine, half an hour before I was to catch the ferry that was to carry me back to the mainland. The 1999 print cost $2500, too much money for me to spend on a whim. I never forgot the painting. I toyed with the idea of calling the gallery, but didn’t. The print became very popular and my heart bled each time I saw it or its reproduction. Then, one day the print, beautifully framed in gold, appeared for sale in a tiny frame shop near my home in Brooklyn Heights. This time I did not let it get away. My husband gave it to me for my birthday. The big picture, measuring three by five feet, dominates my small office, but somehow it unites my two worlds: through my window I see a tower of the Brooklyn Bridge; when I swing my chair around by 180 degrees I am in Maine.

It is thus with great pleasure that last September I visited Jamie Wyeth’s first comprehensive retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It was a marvelous show, filled with realistic, unconventional pictures lacking the angst that fill so many contemporary canvases. Jamie Wyeth and I share a passion for Monhegan, Maine, a two by one mile island that sports the East Coast’s highest cliffs. He also is passionate about animals. Gulls, crows, ponies, geese, a wild ram, a yellow lab with an natural eye patch, and Scotties share the museum’s walls with rocks, cliffs, floating pumpkins, and a handful of famous and not so famous humans.

As far as painters go, Jamie Wyeth was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Not only did he bask in the reflected glory of the laurels America had bestowed on the heads of N. C. Wyeth, his grandfather, and Andrew Wyeth, his father, but he also inherited their talent. He painted at his father’s side from the time he was a small child.

Wyeth had other mentors. As a young man he entered Andy Warhol’s famous Factory, befriended Lincoln Kirstein, the dance impresario, and Rudolf Nureyev, the fugitive Russian star dancer. These sensitive images, which hung in the MFA show’s first gallery, earned Wyeth a commission to paint a posthumous portrait of John F. Kennedy. The portrait, painted in 1967 when Jamie was twenty-one, remained in his possession until he partially donated it to the MFA.

My heart beat faster as I entered the next gallery filled with images of Monhegan: peaceful gulls assembled in front of the island’s small schoolhouse, gulls fighting with one another, gulls devouring a lobster, painter Rockwell Kent’s house, now owned by Wyeth, perched on a field of rocks, near the sea. A canvas filled with a black-faced sheep with white eyes pierced by rectangular yellow pupils mesmerized me. It is also reminiscent of American Folk Art. Elsewhere I saw another version of “my” lighthouse dwarfed by “my” single blue iris. The image of an oversized pumpkin suspended midair between Monhegan’s cliffs over a wildly churning blue and green sea was almost surrealistic.

There was also some ephemera: sketches for a White House Christmas card showing Ronald Reagan’s two Scotties, and doll-house like models of La Côte Basque a fashionable New York restaurant frequented by Lincoln Kirstein, Truman Capote and the like and another of Warhol’s famous Factory. I left with the show with a smile on my face, happy to have indulged my whim.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Golden Gate Park and My Son’s Birthday

David's bench

David’s bench in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. (Photo by Niles Dolbeare)

This week a San Francisco friend sent me a picture of a visit he paid to the bench my husband and I donated to Golden Gate Park in memory of our child. The inscription reads:

David Albert Loebl

2-19-56 to 5-24-93

Your love of life is with us always

The spot, near a small lake, is magic. A month before he died of AIDS, David and I picnicked near the future bench. I remember the gusto with which he bit into his pastrami sandwich and devoured the ketchup-drowned fries!

Even though I lost him, for me February 19th remains a joyous day of remembrance. See my blog, The Gay World As Navigated By a Straight Mom, for this year’s memories.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

On the Measles Outbreak: Does the ‘Modern’ Anti-Vaccination Movement Remember Smallpox?

The Cow-Pock by James Gillray

The Cow-Pock, by British satirical cartoonist James Gillray.

I wonder whether the parents of the unvaccinated would consider doing away with traffic regulations or traveling by horse and buggy? Societal living needs written and unwritten rules and regulations.

It was humanity’s good fortune that Edward Jenner (1749-1823), an English country doctor, listened to a milkmaid who told him that she could not catch smallpox because she had had cowpox. Smallpox is a very ancient disease that killed Ramses V more than three thousand years ago. It has a mortality rate of 30% and, because it is airborne, it is infinitely more infectious than Ebola. Toward the end of the eighteenth century it killed 30,000 Englishmen annually. Many of those who survived were permanently disfigured.

Jenner tested the milkmaid’s folk remedy, and proved its veracity. In people cowpox is a mild disease. Dairy farmers whose scratched hands came in contact with the serum that oozed from a sick cow’s pox, caught cowpox and thereafter proved immune to smallpox. In 1796 Jenner harvested a bit of matter (serum) from a human pox that had formed on the hand of another dairymaid. He rubbed it in a scratch he had made on the arm of eight-year-old James Phipps. The boy developed a big pox, but remained fit. Six weeks later Jenner tried his very best to infect James with smallpox. But the boy was immune. Jenner called the process vaccination, a term derived from vacca, the Latin name for cow.

Then as now, some people were skeptical. In 1802 James Gillray published the above cartoon that illustrated the “cowyfying” effects of this vaccine. Nevertheless the vaccine has saved billions of lives.

The world quickly adopted vaccination. Within a few years Napoleon had his entire army vaccinated. In 1799, 23-year-old Thomas Jefferson traveled to Philadelphia to have himself vaccinated; soon thereafter he saw to it that his entire household was similarly protected. The discussion of whether or not to make vaccination compulsory has waxed and waned ever since. There was however enough worldwide legislation to force compliance, and in 1980 WHO declared smallpox an extinct disease.

It took many decades to understand the nature of infectious diseases, how diseases were transmitted and why Jenner’s vaccine worked. It took even longer to develop drugs and vaccines to treat these.

Most of the vaccines to treat common diseases—chicken pox, mumps, polio, yellow fever, influenza, some forms of pneumonias—date from the twentieth century. The discovery of each took gifted, hard-working scientists. They had to identify the causative agent, most often a virus, grow it, and then weaken it so that it could be administered to patients without causing the full blown disease. The measles virus was particularly difficult to grow and tame. The task fell to John Enders and his team at Harvard. It needed live cells to grow in and it took Enders years to develop the so-called tissue culture technique required to grow certain picky viruses. Enders’s technique was so world-shaking it earned him a Nobel Prize in 1954. Jonas Salk and Sabin used Enders’s technique to develop the polio vaccine in 1952. It would take Enders another six years to develop the measles vaccine. In its heyday measles was an especially bad disease, killing some of its victims, frequently causing blindness, encephalitis, heart disease in others. Even in 2011 it caused 158,000 deaths in underdeveloped countries. It had practically vanished in the United States. The reason that it is important to vaccinate the great majority of the population is that infectious agents survive by infecting susceptible hosts. When they can’t find a susceptible host they vanish, as the smallpox virus did.

Yes, I believe that the government or other agencies have the right and the duty to require its citizens to be vaccinated. We do need certain laws to keep functioning. Like most everybody else, I hate too much government interference, yet I expect those I elect and pay, to see to it that my water is clean, that they see to it that my neighbor and I dispose of our garbage, and that they do what they can to keep my children and me healthy. I also hope that scientists discover more vaccines. Who would not love one against cancer, AIDS or Ebola?

Suzanne Loebl’s first book, Fighting the Unseen: The Story of Viruses, was published in 1968.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Claude Frank: Pianist & Childhood Friend

Claude Frank

The last time I saw Claude Frank was after his performance at a Schneider concert at the New School. Though we rarely saw each other, we were always extremely happy when we met accidentally. These encounters were never planned, yet occurred every few years.

Claude and I shared a long distant past. My mother, born in 1902, Claude’s mother Irma, and her sister Ella grew up together in Nuremberg, Germany. They went to the same high school and dance classes where Irma met Lutz Frank, a future lawyer. They married and had two sons. Claude, the younger, obviously was a musical prodigy. His mother reported that he hummed music while being wheeled about in his baby carriage. Even though my mother left Nuremberg when she was twenty-two, she remained good friends with Frankfurt-based Ella who married a Mr. Heinzheimer, a very early victim of Hitler’s Dachau concentration camp.

Fast forward to 1938. Hitler took over Germany and fortunate Jews left their birth land. Claude’s parents had gotten divorced in Nuremberg but remained lifelong friends. Irma and Ella and their children relocated to Paris, where 12-year-old Claude went to school and studied piano at the Paris Conservatory. My nuclear family moved to Brussels, as did Lutz Frank, now an insurance agent. He visited us frequently as did Claude whenever he visited his father since he could not take care of him during the daytime. Claude and I became real good friends, mostly exploring a sand quarry near our house.

Brussels’s displaced German Jews formed a tight bond trying to take care of one another. One of their activities was to collect money for refugees in need. So it was that my mother organized a benefit piano recital that featured Claude. I remember addressing envelopes. The concert, perhaps Claude’s first, was a success. When the “phony” war started in 1939, Lutz packed up his insurance business, moved to France and volunteered for the French army, only to be interned as an enemy alien. So much for heroism!

The entire Frank and Heinzheimer family escaped to America illegally, climbing the Pyrenees and taking a boat from Lisbon to New York. My mother resumed a somewhat distant friendship with Irma and Ella. When Mom turned eighty I invited the sisters, as well as another 81-year-old “child” from their school, to lunch. I always thought that this was an amazing event, illustrating the vagaries of fate and firmness of human bonds. At this lunch the women bragged about the achievements of their offspring. There was Claude and his career, Ella’s daughter Ruth, an accomplished mathematician, and me, the writer. (Not bad, given that all of us were immigrants!)

By then Claude could look back on a fabulous career. He studied with Artur Schnabel, Maria Curcio and Serge Koussevitzky. At the height of his career he gave 70 concerts a year. He loved to play Mozart, Brahms, Schubert and especially Beethoven, recording his entire thirty-two piano sonatas in 1970 as part of the composer’s bicentenary. He was a member of the Boston Symphony Chamber Music Players. Claude taught at the Curtis Institute of Music, presented master classes at Yale and many other venerable institutions. Towards the end of his life, he concertized with his daughter Pamela Frank, a gifted violinist.

I have always regretted that time and other constraints prevent maintaining contact with many wonderful people one encounters in one’s life.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Henri Matisse, MoMA, America, and the Rockefellers

In 1930, when the Museum of Modern Art was not even a year old, Henri Matisse came to America. The main purpose of his voyage was to visit Albert Barnes and to view the future site of the Dance Mural he had commissioned for his museum in Merion, PA. American collectors, including the four Steins, the Cone sisters of Baltimore, and Barnes, played a crucial role in Matisse’s early career. Indeed American museums own many of the painter’s iconic works.

Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs at MoMA (October 12, 2014-February 10, 2015) will be a long-remembered exhibition. The works on view include the restored Swimming Pool, which the artist created for his dining room when age and disease limited his ability to get about. Indeed this joyous show includes several of such environments the artists created for himself. I particularly liked The Parakeet and the Mermaid filled with leaves, fruit and a small bird with which the painter identified.

Taken as a whole, the show is a tour de force of Matisse’s sense of color, design and technical skill. It all looks so simple! It is also particularly nice to experience these marvels during the darkest days of the year.

Henri Matisse's Dance mural, created for Albert Barnes.

Henri Matisse’s Dance mural, created for Albert Barnes.

One of Matisse’s earliest uses of his cut-out technique was for the Dance murals commissioned by Barnes for $30,000. The work gave the artist much trouble. Because of an original mistake in measurement, Matisse had to redo the entire work from scratch. Nevertheless, once it was finished and installed, Matisse wrote to his son Pierre: “When I see the mural before me, I find it superb.”

During his 1930 visit to New York, Matisse dined at the Rockefeller house on 54th Street. Though she was only one of three founders, to a large extent Abby Rockefeller founded MoMA. “Mother’s Museum” was a constant source of irritation between her and husband John D. Rockefeller Jr, who abhorred modern art. During that famous dinner Matisse tried to change his host’s opinion about art. Admiring Junior’s green, yellow, red, and black Chinese porcelains and his oriental rugs Matisse pointed out that these artists had relied on abstraction and vivid color, concepts that now influenced his work as well as that of Braque, Picasso and Juan Gris. Rockefeller refused to be convinced. (Abbreviated from Frank Crowninshield, Art and Mr. Rockefeller.)

One of the delights of the Cut-Out exhibition are Matisse’s stained glass windows. In 1952 he created The Christmas Window for Life magazine. It is now owned by MoMA. Its bright yellow star, colored leaves and background translate the magnificence of this world-wide holiday.

Rose window

Matisse’s rose window at Pocantico Hills, NY.

Abby Rockefeller died in 1948. Even though her friend Henri Matisse himself was aged and infirm, the Rockefeller family asked him to create a rose window for the small Union Chapel in Pocantico Hills, NY where they often worshipped when at Kykuit. At first Matisse refused because he was unfamiliar with the site, but he finally consented. A long exchange of letter and sketches followed between Matisse and Alfred Barr, MoMA’s director, who handled the commission. When Nelson Rockefeller read of the artist’s death on November 3, 1954, he figured that there would be no window. A few days later a letter, dated November 1, arrived. It stated that Matisse had happily concluded his work. The maquette for the rose window, created by Matisse’s cut-out technique, was found tacked to the wall of Matisse’s bedroom. The window was completed in France. Its delicately shaped glass petals, surrounded by two concentric circles of free-form yellow and blue-green glass, are part of America’s Matisse treasures.

*

For more details see Suzanne Loebl’s America’s Medicis: The Rockefellers and Their Astonishing Cultural Legacy (Harper, 2010).

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Christmas 2014: Other People’s Holidays

My mother was a Christmas junkie. I can still smell the pine aroma of the eight-foot tree that stood in our parlor in Hanover, Germany. Beeswax candles suffused the room with flickering light and a profusion of home-baked cookies weighed down the branches of the tree. Among the latter I was partial to tiny chocolate rings garnished with sprinkles and glazed cinnamon star cookies. For weeks prior to Christmas my sister and I had labored over handcrafted presents for my parents. These were now among the mounds of gifts spread out on tables adjacent to the tree. Even though they may have been reluctant about celebrating the holiday, my grandparents had sent gifts, including many characteristic German sweets. Parties of all kinds filled the week that followed, including one for my friends. During this event we prepared a meal with the cooking utensils of a good size dollhouse kitchen only set up during Christmas.

Rockefeller Christmas tree

The Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, overlooking the ice skating rink.

The trouble was—as I learned all too soon—that Christmas was not really my holiday. We were German Jews, living in Nazi-land, and this lavish celebration actually was my mother’s revolt against her own parents, in whose house a Christmas tree would never be considered. Soon I became aware of the grown-ups discussing the dilemma of whether or not Jews should have a tree, and my family never had one after we left Germany in 1938.

My husband bought a menorah the year our daughter was born, and I did my successful best to arrange a festive eight-day candle-lighting festival for my children and then for them and my grandchildren. Just last week I cooked mounds of latkes (potato pancakes) for my family. I even could explain to my grandson’s new girlfriend that the holiday celebrates freedom, the victory of the weak against the mighty, and the fact that given the right faith and attitude, oil thought to burn for just one day can last eight.

I grew up in three countries, speaking three different languages: Germany (German), Belgium (French) and America (English) and identify with each one. I belong everywhere and nowhere—quite. Their holidays are mine—but not quite. Would I have it otherwise? No. I treasure being multicultural, though I do envy people who have never to hesitate to tell others where they hail from, or question their loyalties.

Tiffany's window display

A scene from Tiffany’s holiday window display this year.

And I do enjoy Christmas. This year, like most, I went downtown to admire the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, which I own—a little—since I wrote a book (America’s Medicis: The Rockefellers and Their Astonishing Cultural Legacy) that recalls that the tradition dates back to the construction workers who built the Center from 1929-1939 and decorated a smaller tree in 1931 at the height of the Great Depression. I also walk along Fifth Avenue and immerse myself in the fantastic windows the luxury stores mount for our delight. This year, Saks Fifth Avenue illustrates five fairy-tales—Rumpelstiltskin, Rapunzel, Cinderella, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty—in luxurious Art Deco style. The main characters, glamorously dressed in sequins and silk, are silhouetted against iconic New York buildings, images of a city in which I do feel utterly at home. Tiffany too celebrates my city with miniature cartoon-like characters and objects, all shopping for magnificent jewels. I use my new camera to share my imperfect pictures with you, my readers, and wish you a happy 2015.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment