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Venice's Last Judgment

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Venice's Last Judgment

THE NEW CRITERION, September 2019

Venice’s Last Judgment

On the beginning and end of the Most Serene Republic.

The Venice Biennale, that strange pageant of contemporary fashions, offers the opportunity, if not the necessity, to explore the real art of La Serenissima. At the furthest extreme from the latest forms on display in the Biennale’s Giardini are the ancient mosaics of the Church of Santa Maria Assunta, on the distant lagoon island of Torcello. I brought my family to Torcello’s desolate piazza on what proved to be the hottest morning of a hot Italian summer. Torcello is an hour by vaporetto water bus from the Fondamente Nove, on the northern edge of Venice’s sestiere of Cannaregio. We cut the time in half by water taxi and sped past the islands of Murano, Burano, and Mazzorbo before idling up to Torcello’s Ponte del Diavolo, where the narrow canal becomes too shallow for navigation.

Since we arrived early, we had to wait for the church lady to unlock the doors of the basilica. We fed the languid fish schooling by the abandoned quay of a nearby channel. Then we huddled in what shade we could find on this barren deposit of alluvial silt. Torcello’s tiny Locanda Cipriani, the fabled retreat where Hemingway wrote Across the River and into the Trees, was closed for the day, so the negronis would have to wait. At one point, we begged someone inside the island’s archaeological museum for some shelter from the sun. Mi dispiace, he said, closing the shutters on us. Our water supply started running low, as did my party’s patience. In the Italian custom, the attendant for Torcello’s lavish municipal bathroom had overslept and missed his ferry, and no one else had the key.

The privations no doubt made the sight of Santa Maria Assunta, once we were let inside, all the more thrilling. On its western wall, the golden vision of its “Last Judgment,” which received a full cleaning and restoration in February, is as profound as any art in Venice. With six vertical registers, the mosaic is filled with an awe-inspiring amount of visual information: scenes of the crucifixion, anastasis (resurrection), deesis (Christ with Mary and John the Baptist), and psychostasis (the weighing of souls) all rest on vignettes of heaven and hell divided in the lowest registers.

The Last Judgment ,  ca.  twelfth century, Gold and glass mosaic.

The Last Judgment, ca. twelfth century, Gold and glass mosaic.

The decorative splendor of this mosaic barely holds its dynamic forces together. In the upper registers, an expressive Christ pulls the souls of the Old Testament up from limbo to heaven by their wrists. Below, a snaking line of judicial plumbing leads down to increasingly explicit visions of hell. Two demons try to tip the scales of Saint Michael with their pitchforks while pouring out sins from bottles and bags. Meanwhile the damned are subdivided among the lustful, gluttonous, wrathful, envious, avaricious, and slothful, where they endure fiery and icy torments, when not being eaten by worms.

Today Torcello is an overlooked shoal in the northern lagoon, but at one time the island nurtured the first seeds of what became the great Republic of Venice. Torcello flowered as the original center of activity in the Veneto, before its channels silted up and its inhabitants relocated to the nearby islands of Burano, Murano, and the high ground of the Rialto. A millennium ago, at its apex, there were some ten thousand inhabitants on Torcello. Today, only about a dozen remain. Torcello’s “Last Judgment” therefore offers genuine revelation. The end times here have already come.

There was a period when Torcello was the crucible of Venice’s unexpected beginnings. In the final days of the Western Roman Empire, barbarian hordes descended on the old Roman towns still clinging to the shores of the northern Adriatic. As Attila the Hun surrounded the town of Altinum in 452, its residents fled to the sandbars of the nearby lagoon. These Roman holdouts and refugees from the other Veneti towns became lagoon dwellers, incolae lacunae, just three miles south of Altinum on the shifting delta sands of the River Sile.

Today the view from Torcello’s campanile does not look all that different from what those settlers first saw fifteen hundred years ago. In The Stones of Venice, John Ruskin called the sight “one of the most notable scenes in this wide world of ours. As far as the eye can reach, a waste of wild sea moor, of a lurid ashen gray; . . . lifeless, the color of sackcloth, with corrupted sea-water soaking through the roots of its acrid weeds, and gleaming hither and thither through its snaky channels.”

A close-up of “the Envious,”  The Last Judgment ,  ca.  twelfth century, Gold and glass mosaic.

A close-up of “the Envious,” The Last Judgment, ca. twelfth century, Gold and glass mosaic.

The Venetian lagoon has always been an alien landscape, but its separation from the mainland provided essential protection from Italy’s drawn-out period of Germanic incursions and the collapse of the Byzantine Empire. In their exodus, the settlers built houses on pilings of hardwood driven into the mud flats. All of Venice was built this way. It is said that the baroque church of Santa Maria della Salute, the towering domed memorial to the devastating plague of 1630 by the Punta della Dogana, rests on a million wooden piles. The Venetians also organized their new community along Roman republican lines. Rather than be ruled by an emperor or king, they elected their leader—dux in Latin, duke in English, doge in Italian. In this way the Veneti of the lagoon formed their mighty maritime republic that endured for over a thousand years. In the Republic’s final days, before its destruction by Napoleon, the Venetians even counseled the architects of the United States on the secrets of their Republic’s endurance.

The foundation stone of the Torcello basilica was laid in 639, a year after the town’s bishop had a vision that his flock should abandon what remained of Altinum. As Torcello rose in importance, its basilica became a prominent cathedral. The nearby channel, now little more than a shoaled-up estuary that harbors those languid fish, was once Torcello’s bustling Grand Canal. The relics of Saint Heliodorus, the Altinum bishop who accompanied Saint Jerome and was martyred in 390, were carried off from his Roman town and laid to rest beneath the basilica’s altar. His golden reliquary can still be seen there today. Since the Torcello basilica predates the construction of even the first cathedral of San Marco in Venice by some two centuries, one legend maintains that the body of Saint Mark was first interred here, perhaps in the crypt’s Roman sarcophagus, after two Venetian merchants alighted with the Evangelist’s remains from Alexandria, Egypt, which was then under the dominion of the Abbasid Caliphate.

About the time of the height of Torcello’s predominance in 1100, the interior of the basilica received its cycle of golden mosaics, which includes a sorrow-filled image of the Virgin and Child in the main apse above a swirling, tessellated marble floor. Byzantine in form, the selection of a Last Judgment scene for the opposite towering western wall, through which congregants once entered and exited, is said to have been a particularly Venetian touch.

Torcello reveals Venice in its true provisional strangeness, where art gives vision to immanence and relics buoy the faithful to the final days. The great works of Venice have always conveyed these contingent qualities—as a world between worlds. Rather than gaze up to some idealized beyond, the art of Venice looks out to proximate, felt, rough-and-tumble revelation.

A close-up of “the Gluttonous and Avaricious,”  The Last Judgment ,  ca.  twelfth century, Gold and glass mosaic.

A close-up of “the Gluttonous and Avaricious,” The Last Judgment, ca. twelfth century, Gold and glass mosaic.

Art has always played a central role in connecting the Venetian experience to the cosmic story. The particular hardships endured by the disease-prone city can be seen through its adoration of the “plague saints”: San Rocco, in whose scuola and church, in the sestiere of San Polo, Tintoretto painted one of the world’s greatest cycles of Christian image-making; and San Sebastiano, in whose church, on the site of a medieval hospice in the sestiere of Dorsoduro, Veronese painted some of his own masterpieces. For the Scuola Grande di San Marco, which now serves as the entrance to Venice’s hospital, in the sestiere of Castello, Tintoretto painted his breakthrough Miracle of the Slave (1548), along with his famous depictions of how the body of Mark came to Venice (and its miraculous rediscovery after the Evangelist was, for a time, temporarily misplaced).

Art holds a particular power over the city, just as the city conveys a particular power to art. Undoubtedly this is the reason why many contemporary artists come to congest Venice’s art-filled walls: to claim the city’s revelations, even if what they themselves purport to reveal may be facile and false. Of course, the science-fiction didacticism of the group show in this year’s Biennale, full of blinking lights and spinning whirligigs, speaks little to the art of Venice’s resonant past. In our secular age, so enraptured with the present moment, how could it? Yet sometimes connections can still be made: in the United States Pavilion, the sculptures of Martin Puryear, which draw together the classicism of many sculptural traditions, are fraught with memory; an exhibition on “The Nature of Arp” at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection speaks to the aquatic forms of the lagoon; “Pittura/Panorama: Paintings by Helen Frankenthaler, 1952–1992,” at the Palazzo Grimani, returns the great modernist to Venice some fifty years after she dazzled in the United States Pavilion with her aqueous compositions; and at Ca’ Pesaro, “Arshile Gorky, 1904–1948” reveals the tragic vision of the American abstractionist who lost his family in the Armenian genocide.

Through plague and pestilence, rising sea waters and sinking salt marshes, in Venice the end has never seemed all that far off. Today the flood that troubles Venetians most is the tourists pouring out of grandi navi, the massive cruise ships that wreak havoc on the Giudecca Canal and may soon be banned, not the city’s frequent inundations of acqua alta, which locals take in watery stride. Last November, when I was previously in Venice for the Tintoretto exhibitions at the Palazzo Ducale and Accademia museums, the high-water siren sounded at daybreak. The sirene allertamento acqua altanow broadcast from twenty-two points across the historical center and islands of Venice. From my window overlooking the Accademia, I listened as the signal broke the morning spell from the alarm atop San Trovaso. As my water taxi motored up the Grand Canal, the flood waters compounded with the morning rain and washed over the calliaround the Ponte di Rialto.

Thirty-five years ago Venice installed its first flood alarm on the campanile of San Marco. A new alarm developed by the Centro Previsioni e Segnalazioni Maree now uses a wireless network and digital signals of various tones to indicate the height of the rising tide. Venetians also sign up for emergency notices by text message, giving them a few extra minutes to slide in the low metal barriers at the bottom of their doorways to hold back the headwaters. In the months of fall, as the sirocco southern wind, the full moon, and other hydrological effects converge on the Adriatic to push water into the lagoon, many Venetians now simply leave the barriers in place.

The waters of the lagoon have always offered protection and destruction in equal measure. With its canals framing an architecture of exquisite lace, the city’s liquid light gives evanescent form to the miraculous story of survival that began, and ended, on humble Torcello. “Without making this excursion you can hardly pretend to know Venice,” Henry James said of his own visit to that island. “It is impossible to imagine a more penetrating case of unheeded collapse. Torcello was the mother-city of Venice, and she lies there now, a mere mouldering vestige, like a group of weather-bleached parental bones left impiously unburied.”

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People Persons

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People Persons

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, May 29, 2019

People Persons

A review of “The Story Box: Franz Boas, George Hunt and the Making of Anthropology” at the Bard Graduate Center Gallery , Through July 7

New York

Cultural anthropology has lately been buried in politics. Critics have blasted its study of non-Western societies as patronizing if not far worse. But anthropology’s record of cross-cultural exchange deserves to be dusted off and put on display. Its history can be deeply humanizing, offering groundbreaking ways of understanding a people’s art and customs on their own terms.

This point is vividly made in “The Story Box: Franz Boas, George Hunt and the Making of Anthropology,” an exhibition now at the Bard Graduate Center Gallery. George Hunt and Franz Boas were the odd couple of American anthropology. Hunt (1854-1933) was an English-Tlingit guide who married into the Kwakwaka’wakw (pronounced KWOK-wok-ya-wokw) people of British Columbia. Boas (1858-1942) was a German-Jewish scholar living among the university people of New York. Over 40 years their collaboration and friendship faced down Canadian injustice toward the Kwakwaka’wakw to lay the foundations of a modern anthropology, one that truly valued the richness of indigenous cultures and societies.

Before founding the anthropology department at Columbia University, Boas headed field studies among the peoples of the Pacific Northwest that not only collected objects but also recorded intricate social customs. This research went on to advance a new understanding of indigenous cultures. While the reigning theory of social evolution mistook non-Western cultures as mere examples of primitive development, Boas argued for the equality of indigenous art and practice. This novel approach informed the creation of the American Museum of Natural History’s Northwest Coast Hall, which Boas opened in 1899. The institution’s oldest surviving gallery, now closed for renovation, was radical for first considering tribal art on its own terms.

Franz Boas and George Hunt holding a cloth background while a Kwakiutl woman is photographed.

Franz Boas and George Hunt holding a cloth background while a Kwakiutl woman is photographed.

Known as the father of American anthropology, Boas went on to shape his discipline the world over. The structural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss credited an early visit to Boas’s hall with inspiring his own methodology. Zora Neale Hurston was a disciple of Boas whose groundbreaking work preserved key figures and folkways of the black South.

In his own fieldwork, Boas was never alone. Hunt was an equal partner in both writing and research. Their work culminated in “The Social Organization and the Secret Societies of the Kwakiutl Indians,” their extensive 1897 monograph of Kwakwaka’wakw culture that remains a case study in its thorough documentation of ceremonies, songs, language, stories and artifacts.

The Kwakwaka’wakw, meaning those who speak the language of Kwak’wala, comprise 18 independent village groups residing on the central coast of British Columbia, one among several nations that developed along the resource-rich coastline of the Pacific Northwest. “The Story Box” takes its title from a letter that Boas wrote to Kwakwaka’wakw chiefs in 1897. “It is good that you should have a box in which your laws and stories are kept,” he said of the cedar boxes used to store ceremonial regalia, which he considered akin to his book. “My friend, George Hunt, will show you a box in which some of your stories will be kept…. Now they will not be forgotten.”

Lion-type mask by an unknown Kwakwaka’wakw (1820) PHOTO: ©TRUSTEES OF THE BRITISH MUSEUM

Lion-type mask by an unknown Kwakwaka’wakw (1820) PHOTO: ©TRUSTEES OF THE BRITISH MUSEUM

Several examples of the artifacts, notes, recordings and photographs the two used in their research are gathered in this exhibition, enhanced with superb descriptions and digital displays. These include Hunt’s personally annotated edition of “The Social Organization,” comparisons of book illustrations with Boas’s own source photography of initiation dances, artifacts such as the serpent-decorated settee that Boas first documented in the field, and digitized sound recordings originally created on wax cylinders that feature the voice of Hunt himself.

The importance of such remembering is more than just academic. The Kwakwaka’wakw practices that Boas and Hunt recorded were already illegal at the time of their fieldwork under Canada’s 1884 “potlatch ban,” which sought to force assimilation by depriving indigenous peoples of their ritual artifacts and cultural legacy. This infamous law wasn’t overturned until 1951.

As a consequence of the potlatch ban, much of Boas’s fieldwork actually took place during the seven months in 1893 that Hunt and his extended family lived in an ethnographic display organized by Boas as part of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. This unusual stateside residency allowed Hunt to perform his rituals in safety outside of Canadian jurisdiction.

Among the Kwakwaka’wakw of today, Hunt is a revered ancestor. His work with Boas preserved objects and customs that would otherwise have been lost to the potlatch ban. Their research has allowed contemporary Kwakwaka’wakw to reclaim cultural practices and artistic forms by reconnecting heraldic symbols with ancestral lines. This task of reconstruction began under Hunt and Boas themselves. The two spent decades after the publication of “The Social Organization” correcting and updating their field observations. The work continues today, as Aaron Glass, the curator of “The Story Box,” is developing an annotated digital edition of the book that will bring its documentation up to the present day.

On a morning I visited the show, the multimedia artist Corrine Hunt, a great-granddaughter of George Hunt and an exhibition consultant, was on hand to put the finishing touches on her re-creation of a “Transformation Mask,” a ritual headdress in the form of a killer whale that she made with Kwakwaka’wakw carver David Mungo Knox based on Hunt and Boas’s research. Such contemporary connections to Hunt, Boas and the people they documented over a century ago add poignancy to this small but compelling show, which will next go on view at the U’mista Cultural Centre in Alert Bay, British Columbia. “The Story Box” tells a story across time and cultures that is out of the box and urgent.

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Mit Schlag

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Mit Schlag

Mit schlag

On Whipped Cream at American Ballet Theatre.

The story is almost too sweet to be savored. In the early 1920s, Richard Strauss wrote an extravagant ballet to mark his sixtieth birthday. Engaging the full resources of the Vienna State Opera, this “billionaire’s ballet,” called Schlagobers or “whipped cream,” was meant to reverse the fortunes of the opera house, where he was the co-director, and offer a sumptuous escape from the austerity measures of post-war Vienna. But faced with such abundance, the hungry audiences of Austro-Hungary did not bite. Another confection famously went on to take its place on the plate as the beloved ballet of the hungry billions.

There are more than a few sweet similarities between Schlagobers and The Nutcracker. Both have Divertissements of dancing chocolates, coffees, and teas. Even though The Nutcracker, with its endless delights beginning with its sublime score, cracked the nut of a ballet for children, it was not performed in the West until some five years after the Vienna premiere of Schlagobers on May 9, 1924.

A scene from Whipped Cream at American Ballet Theatre. Photo: Gene Schiavone.

A scene from Whipped Cream at American Ballet Theatre. Photo: Gene Schiavone.

Yet Tchaikovsky’s creation—made even more famous through Balanchine’s New York City Ballet adaptation—is now Strauss’s inevitable comparison. Performed next door to the home of City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre’s giddy new production of Whipped Cream is both an homage to that Christmastime spectacle and a cream pie to the face of wholesome family entertainment. If NYCB'’s Nutcracker is a ballet for the ages, ABT’s Whipped Cream is a ballet for our current age of punishing extremes.

With choreography by Alexei Ratmansky, Ballet Theatre’s artist-in-residence, and sets and costumes by the painter Mark Ryden, Whipped Cream stays true to the plot of Schlagobers, in which a boy eats too much whipped cream after his First Communion. But this new production, which premiered in 2017 and has returned to Lincoln Center for the second time, slathers on the froth in a sickly coating of contemporary corn syrup.

In many ways the ballet now belongs to its new designer. A West Coast pop artist, Ryden traffics in a popsicle aesthetic that mixes furry fandom, steampunk collage, and Japanese kawaii, or “cute,” culture. In Whipped Cream, he maniacally translates this sticky palette to a ballet of overindulgence. His set design tempts the senses like a Good Humor truck on an express ride to a very bad place. Towering Furby-like creatures abound, ably danced by company members, who should get hazard pay for performing in such giant costumes. Since this is a story ostensibly featuring children, the grown-up dancers are also scaled down by being surrounded by figures with enormous costume heads (one of which nearly tipped off a dancer’s shoulders during the evening performance I attended).

A scene from Whipped Cream at American Ballet Theatre. Photo: Gene Schiavone.

A scene from Whipped Cream at American Ballet Theatre. Photo: Gene Schiavone.

Much of Ryden’s artistic iconography has been translated verbatim to the Ballet Theatre stage, with little loss of strange effect. This is why even an image of Abraham Lincoln, from Ryden’s series The Meat Show, peers out from an upper story window of what is meant to be a Viennese street. Furry yaks and oversized bees make multiple appearances, as do the single all-seeing eye and other quasi-Masonic symbols. But it’s not all children and candies dancing in the sweets shop or up in the creamy clouds. In one scene, the overserved Boy lands in the hospital bed of a drunk doctor with a bevy of sadistic nurses, each of whom injects the Boy with oversized hypodermic needles.

Paired with Ryden’s sugary costumes, Ratmansky’s choreography distinguishes its various dancing treats. An ensemble of “Whipped Cream” dancers twirl into a diaphanous airy mixture. Prince Cocoa (Joseph Gorak, in my evening) comes off as haughty and aristocratic, while Don Zucchero (Arron Scott) plays his role flat-footed and dim. Prince Coffee (Thomas Forster) displays upstanding chivalry, while Princess Tea Flower, danced in my production by the sparkling Devon Teuscher, who took the cake, displays signs of caffeinated energy mixed with occasional weariness. A whimsical trio of liquors, led by Mademoiselle Marianne Chartreuse (Katherine Williams), also deliver plenty of the adult treats, toppling over the tippling nurses as these dancing bottles saunter on to the next party.

This rich serving of Whipped Cream can both satisfy and delight. As the lights went up on the opening scene of a cartoonish priest and oversized carriage driver—not to mention a white horse danced by two performers—my nine-year-old seatmate whispered, “I would never miss this.” For those young balletomanes who have seen it all, the phantasmagoria of Whipped Cream offers something new.

Nevertheless, for all of its family fun, the two of us agreed that the juvenile characters here were the least satisfying aspects of the show. Unlike The Nutcracker, in which real children are transformed into adults onstage and then wake up in Christmas Day apotheosis, “The Boy” of Whipped Cream (Jonathan Klein) is merely adult camp. Here is a character with hairy legs in knickers who merely transforms into something like the golden star of A Chorus Line. A show all about saccharine surfaces would taste even sweeter with some genuine depth of flavor. In this adult fancy, it still wouldn’t hurt to sprinkle in some genuine childhood innocence.

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