Beauty

You need to watch this German masterpiece

Deal W. Hudson

February 28, 2019

Never Look Away tells kind of the story that invites superlatives and deserves them. Based upon the life of painter Gerhard Richter, it tells the story of an artist who lives through the Nazi horror and the communist stranglehold, then escapes to West Berlin where, after much trial and error, he earns success and recognition.

This narrative could have descended into kitsch, but Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck makes it entirely convincing. Max Richter’s score is so beautiful in places it nearly overwhelms the visuals, but that is offset by deft touches of Morricone-like dissonance and playfulness.

Never Look Away was released last year in Germany and has just opened in US theatres. At 3 hours and 9 mins, it should feel epic, but it doesn’t: World War II and the Cold War serve as background to a story which becomes more and more personal as it unfolds.

It begins with a teenager, Elizabeth May (Saskia Rosendahl), being taken away by the Nazis because the family doctor reported an episode when Elizabeth sat at the piano at home, completely naked, playing Bach. When asked why, she answered: “Playing a concert for the Führer.” Her younger brother, Curt (Tom Schilling, pictured with Paula Beer), is a young child when he witnesses his beautiful and charismatic sister taken away. Her last words to him are “Never look away”, a dictum which takes him 20 years to understand.

Curt marries Ellie Scheeben (played by Beer), the daughter of a respected doctor who is played by Sebastian Koch. Koch, who starred in Donnersmarck’s 2006 The Lives of Others, convinces as Dr Carl Scheeben, a gynecologist tapped by the Nazis to head the Court of Hereditary Health, making him responsible for choosing who is to be incarcerated, sterilised or killed. Very subtly, Koch allows a crack in his soul to be seen in his reaction to the order – he’s shocked but takes a deep breath and carries it out.

Tom Schilling makes the character of Curt intriguing: this is not just another confused artist, but one who seeks the “truth” in an era of lies. Donnersmarck includes a send-up of performance art that had the audience laughing out loud.

Curt endures much (spoiler alert), including the sight of his father, reduced to serving as a janitor, hanging from a rope. Curt’s talent is supported as long as he sticks to the “Timeless values of the people”, whether Nazi or communist. After escaping to West Germany, he meets an eccentric art professor, skilfully underplayed by Oliver Masucci, who recognises a bottled-up talent in need of some rough handling. Looking at Curt’s initial efforts, he says with near-bluntness: “This is not you.” Stung by the comment, Curt remembers what his sister Elizabeth said – “Never look away” – and then his true talent begins to emerge.

A painter of pure, radiant happiness

Deal W. Hudson

February 14, 2019

Ali Cavanaugh’s figurative art has deep spiritual roots, discovers Deal Hudson

Ali Cavanaugh is a painter in pursuit of the miracle of human existence. A Catholic convert who was received in 2002, she says this of her faith: “The Blessed Mother is my constant and helps me with every step of my journey as a wife, mother and artist.” With that in mind, we should not be surprised that young people, mostly female, inhabit her work, perhaps reflecting the life she leads with her husband and four children in a small town, Ste Genevieve, outside St Louis.

Her orientation towards the visual world began early: Cavanaugh was only two when she contracted spinal meningitis and lost most of her hearing. She calls the loss “a blessing in disguise as I learned to depend on body language and reading lips to communicate”.

Cavanaugh’s reputation has grown rapidly over the last decade. In 2018 she was listed by BuzzFeed at 26 in the “The Top 100 Figurative Painters Working Right Now”. The first collection of her paintings, Ali Cavanaugh: Modern Fresco Paintings, will be released on March 15, following a showing at the Strand Book Store in New York City on the 13th.

Cavanaugh’s medium is a modern version of fresco. Prompted by her delight in the “mirror finish” after laying plaster on walls, she discovered kaolin clay, a soft, absorbent surface that lasts a long time. After some experimentation, she exhibited her first group of paintings at a NYC gallery in January 2007. They sold out immediately and her career took off after that. By 2014, Cavanaugh was being exhibited by 10 galleries in the US and abroad, and she had been commissioned by Time magazine to paint Taylor Swift.

Modern Fresco Paintings is arranged chronologically from 2007 to 2018. At the front of the book, Cavanaugh relates her life as a person and an artist. A marvellous essay by Daniel Maidman follows. He describes Cavanaugh’s paintings in terms of happiness: “The elements in her work support her depiction of pure, uncorrupted happiness: sunlight – wind – female youths – contour lines – luminous colour – translucency – symmetry – language – and focus.” I agree. The pictures start with wonder, what she calls “the unique presence of the human person”, and portray those moments when “presence” is made manifest. Cavanaugh’s happiness, frankly, took me by surprise: her depictions of playfulness, innocence and joy are moving and contain no feigned naiveté or self-conscious effort to market herself to an audience weary of a topsy-turvy world.

The first image you see, Listening without hearing (2011), across from the title page, is of a teenage girl with shimmering red hair in profile looking to the right. Her arms, bent at the elbow, have raised her hands palms-outward in front of the left side of the head as if to look away from the viewer. She wears white sock arms: socks starting from above the elbow over her hands, the stripes matching the red of her hair. She wears a modest sleeveless shirt with a slight hint of budding adulthood. She’s a classic beauty, lovely red lips, upturned nose and lashed eyes that look even further away from the viewer. The hair as it falls over her chest has a deeper, sensual, luxuriant red of the woman-to-be. The entire effect is one of innocent modesty, of a young woman comfortable in herself but wanting the freedom of being left alone.

Maidmain again is on target: “She summons happiness not from her figures but from us.” This not the happiness of teenage self-indulgence. Cavanaugh found happiness the hard way: dealing with the burden of childhood deafness and a father who abandoned her and her mother.

Unlike many who are hurt early in life, she does not turn from suffering. After moving to Ste Genevieve, Cavanaugh met Milly, a teenage girl who had “a compelling presence”, in spite of the hair loss and scarring from treatments for severe cancer. After photographing Milly, she waited a year before painting her. These are my favourite paintings in the book regardless of the backstory. This sequence maps the life of a teenage girl. As a father of a 30-year daughter, I recognise the teenager wrestling with the onset of the adult world – the shyness and insecurity, the perk and charm, the creativity and fantasy, the determination to make it through.

Not until the final chapter, “chroma”, do boys enter Cavanaugh’s visual world. This makes me wonder what lies ahead for this brilliant painter, only in her late 40s: what other lives will she explore, what ages and genders? I’m confident that whatever subjects she turns to will be revealed in a way that recognises the good that lies deeply within all of us.

Ali Cavanaugh’s paintings will be shown at the Strand Book Store in New York City on March 13 at 7.30 pm. For more information, visit alicavanaugh.com.

Deal Hudson is the Catholic Herald’s US Arts Editor

Prof. Francis O’Gorman talks about John Ruskin’s life, writings, and devotion to beauty, July 14, 2018, hour 1

Prof. Francis O’Gorman, chairmen of the Ruskin Society, talks about John Ruskin, the Evangelical art critic who considered the art of the Italian Renaissance, and Venice in particular, as the idea of beauty. Ruskin, as O’Gorman explains, didn’t remain in Evangelical in later life. Prof. O’Gorman teaches at the University of Edinburgh.

https://avemariaradio.net/audio-archive/church-and-culture-july-14-2018-hour-1/

Review of ‘Surprised by Beauty: A Listener’s Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music’ by Robert Reilly and Jens Laurson

The Claremont Review asked me for a review of Surprised by Beauty: A Listener’s Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music by Robert R. Reilly and Jens F. Laurson (Ignatius Press, 2016).

A  Baedeker to Beauty

Deal W. Hudson

January 8, 2018

As a Baedeker for the musically literate, Robert Reilly’s Surprised by Beauty: A Listeners Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music reveals vast, previously unknown territories. It demolishes the long-accepted narrative of how composers embraced Arnold Schoenberg’s rejection of tonality without considering what in music was previously found pleasing. And it introduces us to some of the most beautiful music ever written.

The 1960’s symphony audiences were frequently treated to variations on a three-piece program: two great pieces from the standard repertory—Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Strauss—and a third, by a “contemporary” composer, which would be nothing less than cacophonous ugliness. New listeners might have wondered, “Is this really music?” and “Why is anybody listening to this?”, yet even prestigious magazines like Gramophone or (the now-defunct) Musical America always found something to praise. At the time, it seemed senseless that composers no longer wrote beautiful music, or that we somehow already knew the names of all great composers.

Many complained, but Robert Reilly, a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, did something. Starting in 1995, his Crisis Magazine monthly columns reviewed hundreds of recordings featuring ignored or forgotten composers, past and present, and included the occasional interview, such as with composers David Diamond and Gian Carlo Menotti. Surprised by Beauty, a selection of these columns, first appeared in 2002. The present “revised and expanded” edition, co-written with journalist Jens F. Laurson, far exceeds the earlier book’s achievement. Doubled in size, the new book updates previous entries and adds chapters on 40 additional composers. 

In Alban Berg’s Piano Sonata, op. 1, Laurson finds a key to beautiful music:

What makes the difference between perceiving Berg’s Sonata as an early exercise in pantonalism and perceiving it as an achingly beautiful, wistful romantic statement saturated with the fleeting airs of Viennese coffeehouse atmosphere is the ability to keep the notes “in the air” and recall them when the notes that give them their proper context finally arrive.

When notes are heard in “their proper context,” music communicates through the ear to the mind and heart. I lost count of the times Reilly quoted composers emphasizing their desire to communicate with listeners rather than write to an established theoretical formula.

American George Rochberg was the first major composer to break with the subsidized serialism demanded by the academy, foundations, and orchestra leaders. A painful personal experience—the death of his son to cancer—elicited Rochberg’s decision to re-appropriate tonality: “It was a shock of a kind that necessitated a new sense of how I had to live the rest of my life…. It’s like taking on some sort of spiritual or moral obligation to perform at a level which is outside the bounds of the normal human. So, in a way…the Third [String] Quartet [1972] is really a declaration of that idea in music.”

Rochberg serves as a kind of touchstone for Reilly, because of the courage it took for the leading US composer of serial music to emerge from Schoenberg’s shadow. Rochberg wasn’t timid: “Modernism has done little to satisfy the hunger for the experience of the marvelous…. Whatever the art of this new epoch may be capable of, we can ask nothing better of it than to reveal once again, in new ways and images, the realm of the marvelous.”

Wonder is central to Surprised by Beauty’s purpose. Reilly helps us “recover the sacred in music.” The two essays that bookend the work, and six included interviews make this explicit. “Music is sacred,” he writes; its beauty “makes the transcendent perceptible.”

Most discussions of Surprised by Beauty have focused on these themes, and on Reilly’s claim that tonality’s rejection was intimately linked to artists and intellectuals’ loss of faith in the post-World War I world. Reilly substantiates this thesis with numerous quotations linking belief and art. Do Reilly’s unearthed correlations demonstrate causality? The reader’s own predisposition towards matters of faith will likely inform his answer to this question. But I congratulate Reilly for letting composers speak for themselves and letting his readers determine his argument’s truth.

Take, for example, composer John Adams, one of Reilly’s compositional heroes.  Adams learned in college that “tonality died somewhere around the time Nietzsche’s God died.” As with Rochberg, a powerful experience—the birth of his daughter in 1984—changed Adams’ view of tonality: “There were four people in the room, and then there were five.” Reilly modestly calls this a “metaphysical jolt,” but he could have gone further along philosophical and theological lines. Instead, he lets Adams, who emphasizes his music’s communicative aspect, speak for him: “The most important thing is the humanity of the message, the depth of the emotional experience.”

Reilly’s simple act of rescuing composers from obscurity is as valuable as his argument. It is only through their music’s beauty, after all, that we can determine whether “transcendence” or “wonder” are useful modern categories. When it comes to obscure composers, I’m no slouch—I was listening to Delius, Finzi, Korngold, Rubbra, and Braunfels long before their recordings began to multiply. But Surprised by Beauty could easily deplete my bank account.

Reilly reintroduces the musically literate to composers they likely already know—Argento, Arnold, Barber, Britten, Cage, Corigliano, Durufle, Elgar, Finzi, Górecki, Gould, Harris, Herrmann, Holmboe, Janacek, Korngold, Lajtha, Lauridsen, Malipiero, Martinu, Mathias, Martin, Nielsen, Pärt, Poulenc, Roussel, Rota, Sallinen, Sæverud, Schickele, Shostakovich, Sibelius, Schmidt, Schoeck, Simpson, Taneyev, Tippett, Tubin, Vaughn Williams, and Villa-Lobos.

But then there are the composers whose names are either unknown, vaguely recognizable, or slightly familiar—James Aikman, Stephen Albert, George Antheil, Richard Arnell, Charles Roland Berry, Walter Braunfels, Alfredo Casella, Einar Englund, Paul Fetler, Arthur Foote, Kenneth Fuchs, Hans Gal, Jack Gallagher, Stephen Gerber, Vittorio Giannini, Daniel Godfrey, Daron Hagen, Stephen Hartke, Jennifer Higdon, Stephen Jaffe, John Kinsella, Ian Krouse, Libby Larsen, Benjamin Lees, Jonathan Leshnoff, Lowell Liebermann, David Matthews, Franz Mittler, Ahmed Saygun, Alexander Tcherepnin, George Tsontakis, Geirr Tveitt, Gunther Raphael, Einojuhani Rautavaara, Peteris Vasks, Karl Weigl, Mieczyslaw Weinberg, Eric Zeisl, and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich.

For those composers who are unfamiliar, Surprised by Beauty provides starting points for listening and recommended recordings. The descriptions had me annotating page after page, to remind myself of the compositions I had to hear.

Imagine if half of the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or the National Gallery’s modern art disappeared into a deep cellar where it could be seen by only a privileged few. For most of us, this was the musical landscape before Surprised by Beauty: half of the greatest music written since 1900 was virtually unknown. Serious musical literacy depends on this book receiving the largest possible circulation.