The work that stood out most to me while on the LACMA trip was the painting “The Orator” by Magnus Zeller, c. 1920. The work was displayed in the room dedicated to German Expressionism in the Ahmanson Building. It is an oil painting on canvas with dimensions of 65 in. tall and 83 in. wide.
Seeing the work in person is a very different experience from looking at its picture in LACMA’s digital collections gallery. This largely has to do with the size of the painting; looking at a reproduction that is less than a square foot in size on a laptop screen does little to impart the sense of grandeur and drama that seeing it in full size does. Additionally, the colors in the online version are slightly different than I remember them to be. They seem a hair too bright in hue – the painting appeared to me to be quite dark and gloomy in real life, with the exception of the hint of light shining on its titular central figure. The contrast in the hues is one of the more notable features of the painting, and it was lost in the online photo.
The work relates to our class in obvious ways; it is considered an example of Expressionism, one of the movements we studied. It was displayed in a room alongside many other works that are considered Expressionist. What I liked about that presentation was that there was a huge variance in style amongst all the works, even though they are all part of the same movement. “The Orator” is representational and depicts figures drawn with sharp lines and angles in dim color, while “Cows in the Lowland” by Emil Nolde, on the opposite end of the room, is characterized by blurry outlines of figures accentuated by vibrant color, and “Sign” by Wassily Kandinsky is brightly colored, sharply defined and abstract. Having all of these works in one room emphasizes the exciting and fluid character of Expressionist art.
The experimental, boundary-breaking nature of Schoenberg’s works does fit in with other artistic works of the time, particularly James Joyce’s Ulysses, which had been published in a serialized format starting a few years prior to Pierrot Lunaire. The parallel between Schoenberg and Joyce is strong – Joyce smashed rules of sentence composition and plot in his works and took pride in the inscrutability of his writing, while Schoenberg abandoned all traditional musical structure with his shift to atonality and thought of himself as a pioneer of a new, greater form of music for the future.
I don’t think Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire relates very well to the original text that Giraud wrote. The original feeling behind “The Moonfleck” and “Serenade” was humorous and tongue-in-cheek, and Schoenberg’s adaptations take the mood in the opposite direction, making it seem gloomy and suspenseful. This to me creates a disconnect between Giraud’s writing and Schoenberg’s scoring. Of course, it seems Schoenberg was perfectly aware of this disconnect, as he wrote the instructions for the singer to dissuade them from trying to express a feeling based on the lyrics and to instead stick with the mood of his own composition.
I would hesitate to classify Schoenberg’s music as Expressionist based on Pierrot Lunaire. This is because I didn’t get the impression that Schoenberg was actually trying to express a darkness in his own mood or psyche – it seemed like what he really cared about was experimenting and showing off his own compositional genius, and the mood of the music was more due to the atonality which was an aspect of that experimentation. Essentially, I don’t think Schoenberg should be considered an Expressionist because the feeling behind his work doesn’t come from a place of sincerity.
The poem that I have chosen to respond to is Preludes, which can be found in T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock and Other Observations on pages 12-13. The poem has elements which are common in Eliot’s works: the use of some kind of rhyme scheme, which is somewhat unusual for modernist poetry, as well as abundant imagery which is lyrical and emotionally profound, though it describes the tedium of everyday middle-class life. What I like about Eliot’s poetry is that even though he is heavy-handed with intertextual allusions, and I’m sure they’re present in Preludes as well, one can appreciate his poetry without any of the necessary background knowledge because of how adeptly he crafts his imagery and produces pathos. Some of the most compelling lines in this poem to me were “And the light crept up between the shutters / And you heard the sparrows in the gutters,” and “His soul stretched tight across the skies / That fade behind a city block.” The first to me conveys a sense of menace and despair about the things that we try to push away and hide, while the second speaks of the expansiveness of a man’s longing for something more, but he can’t overcome his own emotional distance and ennui.
The object from Special Collections that I have chosen to analyze is the copy of Gertrude Stein’s most famous book, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Much of what interested me about the artifact lies with its design and presentation. I was intrigued to see that the design of the cover was Stein’s famous poetic line, “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose,” embossed onto the front in a circle to emphasize its circular reasoning. However, that line is not from this book, but one of Stein’s previous poetic collections. I would theorize that the designers chose that famous line in order to inspire name recognition among readers. The photographs interspersed with the text were another facet of the design that i found enjoyable. They certainly reflected the time period of the book; they were all obviously in black and white, and the dress worn by the people depicted made clear the era as well. Additionally, there were photos emphasizing Stein’s connection to Pablo Picasso. One photo shows a wall in her apartment that was hung with various works of his, and another shows Picasso himself standing with another of Gertrude and Alice’s friends. Another aspect of the times shown in the photos is the lack of noticeable affection between Gertrude and Alice in the photos; had the book been released today, the photos selected might make clearer the romantic status of their relationship. All of these things give strong support to details of Gertrude and Alice’s lives as represented in the text, and complement the text in a way that enriches the experience of reading it as opposed to viewing it as a more condensed and impersonal PDF.
Guernica was painted in 1937, after the official periods of Picasso’s style had transpired. It seems to blend elements of Analytic and Synthetic Cubism: the variety of painted and drawn textures speaks of Synthetic Cubism, while the dark tonal scheme is more like Analytic Cubism. The painting is based on the bombing of the Basque town Guernica during the Spanish Civil War, and is thus very political in nature, reflecting Picasso’s ethos and attitude towards art.
The first thing I noticed about Guernica is that unlike the vast majority of Picasso’s artwork, even the Analytic works, it is solely black and white. This lack of color is probably meant to convey the bleakness of the subject matter, and the emphasis on black speaks of loss of hope and the presence of fear. The next thing I noticed was the anguished expression of every character in the painting. Given that it is a wartime scene depicting a horrific act of violence against defenseless civilians, one of the first of its kind, this anguish is understandable. It is a representation of how not just Picasso felt about the bombing, but the rest of the world as well.
Other things about Guernica began to jump out at me as I looked at it more. For one thing, I realized that the bull towards the left of the painting is a subtle nod by Picasso to Spanish culture and heritage, as the bull is an iconic symbol of Spain. I also noticed more gruesome details of the painting: that the woman crying on the left is holding a limp child in her arms, that the horse in the center has a large gash in its side and is impaled on a spear, and that the man lying at the bottom of the painting appears to have been decapitated in the effort of fighting (he is holding a broken sword). All of these details serve to reinforce the horror of the image and bring attention to the very real injustice that they represent.
In Claude Monet’s 1891 painting, Haystacks (Sunset), the subject matter is as simple and pedestrian as the title: a single haystack in an empty field, backlit by the sunset. What makes the work appealing is Monet’s colorful, hazy rendering of the scene. The aspect of the painting that impresses me most is Monet’s use of a wide spectrum of colors and hues. Every color of the rainbow from red all the way through to indigo is utilized in some way. The predominance of floral shades of indigo, lavender, vermilion, and pale yellow inspires a feeling of serenity and bliss. Monet’s decision to compose the body of the haystack with darker hues of red-orange and khaki, and then to outline it with the soft yellows and pinks of the surrounding air creates a glowing effect around the haystack, a kind of halo of light. The haziness of the picture is another very effective element; the dim outlines of buildings and hills in the background, along with the blurry edges of the haystack, the amorphous sea of lavender flowers, and the glowing quality of the light combine to give an impression that the air is full of dust after a long summer day of farming. The haziness could also convey the tiredness one might feel after that long day of working the fields. All of these elements come together to create an immersive and enchanting picture that very accurately portrays the dreamlike feeling of a glorious summer sunset in the country.