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From Moby Dick to King Kong

13 January, 2015

On High Seas


The Magazine Antiques just published (January/February 2015) a short article I wrote about Jack London’s voyages in the South Pacific. It comes out of research I’ve been doing about photographers, artists, writers and filmmakers who travelled in the late 1800s / early 1900s and is the focus of a project I’m currently working on about Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa.

The article was cut down slightly to make word length, which often happens with newspapers and magazines. But in this case they cut one of the parts I thought was the most interesting, which is the connection between King Kong and Moby Dick.

Herman Melville, the writer of Moby Dick, came to fame for his South Seas island adventures: Typee and Omoo. Melville inspired many adventurers to travel to the Marquesas Islands (where Melville was once imprisoned), including Stevenson and later Jack London. Jack London traveled all over Polynesia and to parts of Melanesia in 1907 on a boat of his own design, the Snark. The cook on the Snark voyage was a young volunteer from Kansas called Martin Johnson. Martin became good friends with the Londons and was a key part of the crew. When Johnson returned from the voyage with London he launched a Vaudeville-style show about the voyage featuring some of the objects (spears, tikis etc) that he and London collected on the voyage. Back in Kansas, he met a woman called Osa Leighty—the two fell in love and married. Together, emboldened by the Snark voyage and encouraged by the response to the show, Martin and Osa decided to continue to travel and make movies about the experience. They became famous for sensational titles like Simba: King of the Beasts (1928), Congorilla (1932), and Baboona (1935). The idea of a pith-helmeted filmmaker accompanied by a beautiful woman as he tramped through the jungle in search of rare apes became lodged in the public imagination and was ripe for satire—hence the original King Kong film of 1933.

Martin died in a mysterious plane crash in California in 1937. Osa, who was onboard the same plane, was injured but survived. The duo continues to inspire: from 2006-10 American Eagle stores offered a range of Martin + Osa clothing (there were also M+O shops) and Disney opened a Martin and Osa Johnson inspired lodge at their Animal Kingdom resort in 2001.


David Lynch’s Subterranean Paris Funland

3 January, 2013

David Lynch's Silencio Club

David Lynch was practically everywhere at the recent Paris Photo art fair. Or rather, the idea of him—the man himself was thin on the ground. It began with the advertising, which featured posters of Nadav Kander’s portrait of Lynch at bus stops and on the Métro. Then there was the <<vu par David Lynch>> promotion in the fair itself, on the grounds of the extravagant Victorian Grand Palais. As visitors walked around, they saw little black labels positioned below certain works, with shiny silver lettering to signal that Lynch had viewed  them. There was also a mobile phone app so that stalwarts could tour all 96 photographs anointed by the great goth/surrealist Hollywood director. It’s hard to know just how involved Lynch was in all this. Behind the scenes, individual galleries were only allowed to nominate a few of their pictures for Lynch’s consideration, which were sent in the form of jpegs to his office. Not all galleries bothered to enter. But for those who did, it’s anyone’s guess whether Lynch vetted the images himself, or instead entrusted the project to “his people.” Either way, the idea of Lynch strolling the fair, spying something especially juicy, and giving it his vote of confidence was purely an illusion. Somebody made the decisions on a screen somewhere without seeing the originals.

What was a little disappointing, and in retrospect one of the reasons why I wonder if Lynch really did the selecting himself, was how predictable most of the choices were. It was all rather dark and creepy. A Joel Peter Witkin photograph of a nude woman with a skeleton. An eerie Trent Parke picture of a bare Christmas tree with all its needles fallen to the ground. A Lise Sarfati retro-cool image of a woman wearing a stylized wig—it might have been a still from a Lynch movie itself. Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s picture of a society lunch at Windows on the World in 2000. And so on. If you were looking for rainbows and ponies in the choices (as I was), you were in for a letdown. All things considered, a little brightness here and there might have made the selection a little more provocative.

For me and a handful of others, the Lynchstravaganza continued with a visit to Lynch’s private club, Silencio, in the second arondissement. The place is self-consciously weird, which in a funny way, makes it kind of not—like the noirish photo choices, it’s more or less what you would expect from the Lynch brand. That didn’t stop me from being fascinated just the same. The club has something of the feeling of Mulholland Drive about it, with a dash of Blue Velvet for good measure (the name of the club comes straight out of Mulholland; “Club Silencio” was a key location in the film). I was there to see the debut of a documentary in Lynch’s private screening room.

At street level, the entrance was nondescript, although the two bouncers and the red velvet rope suggested something was afoot. My name checked out on the guest list, so I was invited to proceed down a seemingly endless spiral of stairs—six flights, it turned out. Each level was decorated with spot-lit Todd Hido photographs of houses at night. At the bottom of the stairs there was a coat check, and a series of gold filigree tunnels like the one in the picture above. The whole thing is gold and black and smoky mirrors with low ceilings, like a hip Fabergé coal mine, or King Tut’s depressive chill out space. There are a couple of bars, a lounge area with a stage, a smoking room, and several sitting areas. The idea is to inspire creativity, but it’s all so programed there’s not much room to exercise the imagination. There were only a few people there when I arrived. The environment is so alienating in fact, striking up a conversation was out of the question.

One dark corridor dead-ended in a door—that was the screening room. Eventually we were led in to sit on big marshmallowy benches with spongy arms velcroed to the seats. When the film started (a Duane Michals biopic) my attention wandered and I leaned on an arm. Big mistake—the arm detached and rolled to the floor, and I bucked and rolled to recover like a kid in a bouncy castle. But the film was good, and Duane was on hand to add a dose of levity. We had a little time to talk after the show. “What does it feel like to be famous?” I asked him. “Better ask David Lynch,” he replied.

Pantalooned Twerps and Nincompoops?

5 July, 2012

Rococo art is an acquired taste. But for people like me, who can’t resist a little full-bore Marie Antoinette-inspired hedonism now and then, check out Don Paterson’s description of the Fragonard Room at New York’s Frick Collection in this month’s Intelligent Life: (Is there a better magazine, BTW?)

“Against the backdrop of an impossibly rococo arcadia, an assortment of beribboned, bewigged, pomaded and pantalooned twerps and nincompoops spoon and sport. Below a statue of Cupid, a woman swoons in dégagé reverie, her eyes rolled up to the whites. Banksy would have added a hypodermic needle dangling from her arm. You feel deeply protective of these figures. They depict a heaven, of sorts, though not one to which we should aspire.”

It puts me in mind of Diderot’s famous criticism of Fragonard’s Swarm of Putti, c.1767 (now at the Louvre): “an insipid giant omelette of babies… painted like cotton wool…”

But what a tasty omelette it is!

Interview with Tony Penrose on Weekend Edition Saturday

19 August, 2011

This last Wednesday I went to Boston’s NPR affiliate WBUR radio to tape an interview with Tony Penrose, director of the Lee Miller Archive and Roland Penrose Collection housed at Farley Farmhouse in Chiddingly, Sussex. The taping was for NPR’s popular show, Weekend Edition Saturday, which this week is being hosted by Jacki Lyden. I didn’t find out until after we finished that the usual listening audience is around 4 million.

To record the show we linked up studios in Washington DC, New York, Boston, and Brighton (UK, where Tony was), which was a completely new experience for me. Even in our technologically advanced times it’s pretty surreal to sit alone in a dark recording booth with headsets on, having a virtual conversation with interviewers hundreds of miles away. Originally, the interview was supposed to include the lovely Stephanie Browner, Administrator of the Man Ray Trust, but the logistics did not work out. I find it pretty interesting that the female artist in the Man Ray, Lee Miller relationship is today represented by a man (Tony is Lee’s son), while the man is represented by a woman (Stephanie is Man Ray’s niece).

We taped for about 50 minutes, which will be edited down to a short piece for Saturday’s show. I’m grateful for the opportunity but I can’t help but think there is so much we didn’t say; I just hope people who are interested will check out the book and the exhibition. We could have talked more about their creative partnership, and Man Ray’s attitude toward women, and there was much more to discuss about Lee’s powerful brand of feminism, her life in the fashion industry, and her refusal to be controlled by any man. There was also more we could have said too about the anguish Man Ray suffered when Lee left him, and the torment she experienced (on a completely different scale of course) as a war correspondent. Jacki asked a great question that I fumbled a little bit, about the amazing photograph of Man Ray and Lee Miller together at an opening at the Institute for Contemporary Art in London in 1975, the year before Man Ray died, shown above. (Lee died the year after that.) What I should have said, if I’d been quick on my feet, was that this picture is one of those incredible things that’s hard to explain in words – somehow, magically, I swear you can see the spark between them, still visible more than 40 years after they ended their romance.

The truth is, if you’d given us a two-hour program we still wouldn’t have covered all the bases. Between them Ray and Miller created so much great art, and lived such incredible lives. As Jacki said, it has all the makings of a great Hollywood screenplay!

Why no War in Man Ray Lee Miller?

19 August, 2011

It’s pretty normal for us to have visitor comment books in exhibitions, and like most curators I check in now and then during the run of a show and read through the comments with great interest. If you ever wondered what happens when you leave comments at a museum, you can be pretty sure they are taken seriously. Here at PEM, when a visitor book is full, the contents are transcribed in full and circulated between departments in the museum. The hope is that these comments can help us do things better.

Of course we always hope to see nice comments, but we also want to find out if there are any errors or omissions that need to be addressed during the run of the show. The comment book for Man Ray Lee Miller is like nothing I’ve ever seen before, because lots of folks felt inspired to draw little eyes and lips, and the comments are more positive and heartfelt than for any other exhibition I’ve worked on. We even had a couple write to say that they had come all the way from Argentina to see the show and were not disappointed! But there is one issue that left several visitors puzzled. Why are none of Lee Miller’s photographs of the Second World War in Man Ray | Lee Miller, Partners in Surrealism?

The first answer is, as powerful and important as those pictures are, they are beyond the scope of the exhibition. Both Man Ray and Lee Miller had long careers, but in our exhibition we only focussed on works directly related to their time together – things they did as a team, or in response to one another. Man Ray, for example, was well established by the time Lee met him – there’s nothing in our show about his time with Kiki of Montparnasse, his work as a Dadaist in New York and Philadelphia, or the time he spent in Los Angeles. Likewise, we didn’t put in any pictures from Lee’s New York studio period, wonderful as they are. They just didn’t fit the show, the same way the war pictures don’t. Lee did them independently, with no real connection to Man Ray.

But there’s another reason, that’s more personal. To me, to do the pictures justice, you really have to spend time with them. The things Lee saw and recorded are among the most brutal and repugnant acts ever recorded on camera. She photographed piles of dead corpses in the concentration camps at Buchenwald and Dachau, emaciated prisoners condemned to starve in railway cars, and the bloody retribution visited on Nazi guards when concentration camps were liberated (as in the picture above). These are not trivial, throwaway things. We have all become a little inured to the unbearable pain and injustice represented by certain photographs, from war scenes to images of natural disasters and famine. And part of the reason for that is how common these pictures have become. It would not be enough, in my opinion, to simply show a few of Lee’s war pictures in an exhibition and say, “oh, by the way, she had a terrible time during the war, look at these pictures.” The human suffering each picture represents cannot be dismissed so easily. Each demands explanation. The victims and perpetrators need to be understood, the messages digested.

So no, there are no war pictures in Man Ray Lee Miller. It’s not that the pictures aren’t incredible, amazing, and important. Instead, I’d say they’re too important to be made into mere footnotes in an exhibition about the relationship between two artists. Many of them can be seen online, if you care to look. But the best way to view them I think is in the extraordinary book, Lee Miller’s War, by Antony Penrose. It’s still in print. But if you get your hands on a copy, please be prepared to give it your attention.

from George Bernard Shaw’s Diary

13 July, 2011

I was just going through old notes and found some entries from George Bernard Shaw’s engagement diary, which I transcribed during a visit to the Shaw papers in the Archives of the London School of Economics some time ago. Below isn’t a complete copy of the diary, just a few things that I wrote down. At the time they just seemed interesting, but now they seem poignant to me.

Engagements Diary of 1922 26/21

Feb 6            Headache

16             “”

25            Press photograph

3/18            Headache

8/5            “”

9/26            “”

10/20            “”

12/20            “”

Diary 1923 26/22

1/17            Headache

2/5            “”

4/15            “”

6/22            Msr. David Low, Cartoonist, Sitting at 18:00

6/29            Headache

8/31            “” (shows)

10/26            Bath unveil Sheridan Tablet and speak in Pump Room

11/29            Headache

I also took note that he wrote down train times in his diary every time he had to travel (very organized), as well as all the meetings of RADA, the Stage Society, the Fabian Society, and the Society of Authors. Also listed were various lecture engagements and performances.

There was a fairly large collection of brochures and ads in his papers too; I suppose some of them were collected in a hope of curing the migraines. They included ads for nature cures, electrical cures, household electrification and plumbing, air conditioning, and “automatic ventilation systems.”

Surreal commute

7 June, 2011

My exhibition, Man Ray | Lee Miller, Partners in Surrealism opens at the Peabody Essex Museum on Saturday. In anticipation, WGBH television put a selection of images up on their famous digital mural, which hovers over the Mass Pike west of central Boston. Tens of thousands of people saw it this morning on their way to work.