audrey-munson-2

So much depends on the guide.

Last summer we took two of our grandsons on the Circle Line cruise around Manhattan Island. Although they are siblings–all right, maybe because they are siblings–we took them one at a time.

On the first cruise, the guide was wonderful. Like a lot of guides in New York, he wasn’t really a guide — he was an actor. And his acting skill served him well as he regaled us with a stream of colorful stories and quirky facts, some of which probably were true. On the second cruise, the guide didn’t even come out on the deck. He recited his monotonous narrative over a p.a. system from some air-conditioned sanctuary.

I’m especially grateful to that first guide for talking at great length about a woman I had never heard of, Audrey Munson. Rather than being the face that launched a thousand ships, Audrey was the woman of a thousand faces (I’m exaggerating for effect), most of them in oil, bronze, or stone. The principal reason the guide was talking about Audrey was that her face has been preserved on more than a dozen statues in New York City, including the woman dominating the group below, which is on the Manhattan Bridge.

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Audrey was born upstate in 1891 and arrived in New York City with her divorced mother in 1909 aiming to become an entertainer, and in that same she year actually got her first role on Broadway in a turkey that ran for about twenty days.

But a chance meeting on Fifth Avenue with a professional photographer led to a career for Audrey as an artists’ model. One of those artists was sculptor Isidore Konti who was the first to have her pose nude and who used her as the model for the figures in “Three Graces,” which he executed for the new ballroom at the Hotel Astor. In 1915, she posed for the majority of the sculptures created for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, a world’s fair held in San Francisco.

Around that same time, Audrey got into the new film industry, starring in four silent films. In the first one, Inspiration, she became the first woman to appear nude in an American film. She didn’t really act in that film, she posed in various scenes. An actress who resembled her did the dramatic work. None of these films did much for Audrey’s career; one of them evidently was never released.

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The Straus Memorial to the sinking of the Titanic

 

In 1919, Audrey and her mother, apparently down on their luck, were living in a boarding house on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The owner of the place, Dr. Walter Wilkins, fell in love with Audrey and murdered his wife so that he could marry Audrey. Audrey and mom fled to Canada where they were pursued and questioned by private detectives. Nothing came of that, and Wilkins was convicted of murder and sentenced to death, but he took his own life while in prison.

By 1920, no one seemed to want Audrey, and she was reduced to living off her mother, who supported herself and her daughter by peddling kitchen wares door to door. In 1922, Audrey attempted suicide, and in 1931 her mother had her committed to a hospital for the insane in Ogdensburg, New York, where the unfortunate woman lived for 65 years until she died in 1996 at 104 years of age.

Audrey, who has been characterized as America’s first supermodel once wrote in a magazine article:

“What becomes of the artists’ models? I am wondering if many of my readers have not stood before a masterpiece of lovely sculpture or a remarkable painting of a young girl, her very abandonment of draperies accentuating rather than diminishing her modesty and purity, and asked themselves the question, ‘Where is she now, this model who was so beautiful?’ ”

For a video by Robert Serrini exploring images of Audrey Munson, click HERE.

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NAST'S SANTA CLAUS

NAST’S SANTA CLAUS

It’s one of the ironies of 19th century history that the same man who gave us the roly-poly image of Santa Claus that warms our hearts every year was also one of the most damaging political cartoonists of his era. But that’s the way it was with Thomas  Nast, one of the artists Victor N. Navasky  discusses in The Art of Controversy, a meditation on the art and implications of the caricature.

Nast famously set his sights on Tammany Hall, as the Democratic Party machine in New York City was known, and particularly on William M. “Boss” Tweed, a businessman and politician who dominated the affairs of the city largely through his control of patronage in the form of both contracts and jobs.

As Navasky relates, Nast’s work in Harper’s Weekly during the 1871 election campaign is credited with purging city government of the Tammany gang. Tweed and others in his circle were subsequently charged with enormous thefts of public funds and sentenced to prison. Tweed tried to flee, but a Spanish customs official arrested him after recognizing him from Nast’s caricatures.

VICTOR S. NAVASKY

VICTOR S. NAVASKY

Tweed was no stranger to criticism, but he famously remarked about Nast’s assaults on him: “Stop them damn pictures! I don’t care a straw for your newspaper articles. My constituents can’t read. But they can’t help seeing them damn pictures!”

The story of Nast and Tweed illustrates many of the points made by Navasky, who is the former editor and publisher of The Nation and a former editor at The New York Times Magazine. One of those points is the power of caricature, which is a form of cartooning that emphasizes or exaggerates distinctive physical characteristics of the subject: Richard Nixon’s ski nose and widow’s peak, for example, or Lyndon Johnson’s ears.

"Characters and Caricatures" by William Hogarth

“Characters and Caricatures” by William Hogarth

This is neither a technical analysis nor a history, although Navasky reaches back a few centuries in discussing the origins of caricature, noting that Leonardo da Vinci may have originated the form in the 16th century and William Hogarth was one of those who had perfected it in the 18th. This book is more a matter of Navasky thinking through the subject of political cartoons and not necessarily answering all of his own questions about the topic.

The author writes a lot about what makes caricature so effective. How effective? He points out one case in which an artist’s work landed him on Adolf Hitler’s “death list” and another case in which a cartoonist for Arab daily newspapers in Europe and the Near East was assassinated. In a far different vein, he devotes a chapter to the Nazi periodical Die Stürmer, which conducted a relentless campaign to ridicule and demean Jews, with caricature as a principal method. The editor, Julius Streicher, was hanged after the Nuremberg trials, and the cover cartoonist, Philipp Rupprecht, was sentenced to six years in prison, a sentence Navasky thinks was too light.

This potency raises in Navasky’s mind the question of whether political cartooning should enjoy exactly the free-speech protection that the written word has in the United States. He isn’t arguing that it shouldn’t, but he explores significant ways in which the two forms of expression are not identical — including the lasting (and frequently negative) impression a caricature makes and the fact that one can answer words with words (as in a letter to the editor), but can hardly make an effective response to a cartoon.

Navasky writes about editorial decisions (to publish or not to publish) such as the “Danish Muhammads” and a case of his own in which practically his whole staff opposed his choice to print a cartoon that portrayed Henry Kissinger “screwing the world.” This is a provocative book from Alfred A. Knopf about the use of caricature at various times in history and in various parts of the world. I screened editorial cartoons for my newspapers for the better part of four decades, but Navasky’s musings have given me new insights and raised questions that I had never considered.

Self portrait

By coincidence, I have read biographical works over the past several months about Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, and Leonardo Da Vinci. In all three cases, the authors emphasized that these men were motivated by insatiable curiosities to question established “knowledge” and see beneath and beyond it.

The most recent of these books is “Leonardo’s Legacy” by European science writer Stefan Klein.

Although, Dan Brown aside, the mention of Leonardo may evoke in most people’s minds images of paintings and sculptures, Klein covers the broad range of Leonardo’s interests, from human anatomy to hydrodynamics.

Statue of Leonardo, Uffizi, Florence

Klein doesn’t neglect the arts. In fact, I found his discussion of the Mona Lisa enlightening. I am a duffer when it comes to art, and I have never thought seriously about that painting – which appears in so many contexts that it has become a cliche. But Klein’s explanation, for instance, of Leonardo’s use of chiaroscuro to create a lifelike image helped me to look at the portrait with a new perspective. The same is true of the author’s explanation of the painter’s use of light and of the landscape that appears in the background.

Klein also pointed out that Leonardo, who had made careful studies of the muscles and nerves that control facial expressions, created the woman in the “Mona Lisa” with an asymmetrical face in which the emotions expressed on each side are not identical. Here, Leonardo seemed to be anticipating what is now understood about the left and right hemispheres of the brain controlling the right and left sides of the body, respectively. It was one of many examples of how Leonardo applied what he learned in one field to his work in another.

Portrait by Swedish artist Evald Hansen

Leonardo associated with some interesting Renaissance characters, including the  philosopher Nicolo Machiavelli and the warlord Cesare Borgia. Leonardo hired himself out to men like Borgia in order to make a living, and he  earned his keep by providing entertainment and by designing practical devices, including weapons. Klein makes a point of the apparent contradiction between Leonardo’s abhorrence of war and avowed respect for life and his willingness to imagine and at least design on paper the most horrible mechanisms for maiming and killing human beings.

On the other hand, Leonardo’s employment by Borgia was the occasion for creating an astounding map of the Central Italian city of Imola. By Klein’s reckoning, Leonardo and an assistant paced off very street and building in the city, using instruments that Leonardo had invented for that purpose. Leonardo then prepared a realistic view of Imola that appeared as if it were viewed from overhead – an unheard-of concept at that time.

Flying machine design

Among Leonardo’s fixations was the behavior of water, and he spent incalculable hours pursuing it – simply by observing water in nature and also by sketching it alone and including it in his paintings. He studied surface tension and the manner in which water moved through wider and narrower channels. He put to use the knowledge he gained when he designed a lock for a canal in Milan and, in a more remote way, when he studied the manner in which blood flows through the vessels of the body. Klein suggests  that Leonardo may have actually built a model of a heart to reach his conclusions about the movement of blood in the cardiac ventricles –  something that wasn’t scientifically observed until hundreds of years later.

Anatomical drawings

Leonardo was also determined to provide man with the freedom of flight, but Klein explains that this enterprise was doomed to failure because of Leonardo’s incorrect assumption that birds could fly because they flapped their wings. Although Leonardo understood the concept of gliding, he did not deduce that birds kept themselves afloat because of the difference in the speed and pressure of air passing above and below their wings. Given the era in which he was working, however, Leonardo’s conceptual achievements in this area are still remarkable. In fact, Klein describes an experiment in which modern hobbyists built a machine based on one of Leonardo’s designs, but provided it with a rigid wing, and the device was able to fly.

A great deal of Leonardo’s insight – literally and figuratively – came from his work in dissecting cadavers, something that he found repugnant but pursued for the sake of knowledge. Study of anatomy was not unusual among artists at that time, but Leonardo’s desire to understand the component parts of any organism – natural or artificial – took his studies far beyond those of his contemporaries. His study of the body of a centenarian with whom he had been acquainted led him to the conclusion that the man had died because hardened and constricted vessels had retarded the flow of blood, a finding that foreshadowed diagnoses of arteriosclerosis. So thorough were Leonardo’s examinations of the human body that Klein says some of the artist’s anatomical drawings could have been made in the 21st century.

The author  argues that Leonardo’s expansive work was possible because the manner in which he lived gave him a great deal of  freedom to observe and ponder and sketch and tinker. Klein speculates that minds like Leonardo’s still exist but wonders if they can thrive under our highly structured educational systems.

In any event, this very readable book challenges us all by reminding us of the capacity of the human mind, even ours.

Leonardo's "overhead" map of Imola. The roof of each individual house was painted in water colors.

JOE PINCKNEY

JOE PINCKNEY

We’re heading for Hilton Head tomorrow which means that sometime in the mid-afternoon, I’ll be thinking about Joe Pinckney. He’s always on my mind when we head down there, but even if he weren’t, the sign that calls attention to the Pinckney Colony would remind me.

Pinckney Colony is on the mainland in Beaufort County. The name always intrigued me, but intrigue became lively curiosity about 25 years ago when my son, Christian, and I were sitting around in Port Royal Plantation leafing through the local telephone book. We might have been looking for people named Paolino — unlikely in those parts, or people who share Pat’s family name — Kamieniecki — perhaps more unlikely. What caught our attention, though, was the list of folks named Pinckney. So we picked one out — Joe Pinckney — jotted down his address and set out to find him.

PAINTING BY JOE PINCKNEY

PAINTING BY JOE PINCKNEY

He was in his studio, and when we told him why we were interrupting his work, he greeted us as though there were nothing peculiar about two strangers from Jersey picking his name out of a phone book and dropping in unannounced. He spent a long time with us, showing us his work and telling us his personal history.

He was born in New York, but during World War II he moved as a boy to the Low Country of South Carolina, where his parents were born. The stories I have read about him don’t go into this, but he told us the move back south was motivated by his family’s fear — a fear shared by many in those days — that Nazi Germany would attack the Northeast Coast from the sea. It was quite an adjustment for Joe. He was dazzled by the sight of the night sky, unobstructed by the artifical light of the city. He also had to get accustomed to an unfamiliar cuisine, and he absorbed some of the local dialect.

PAINTING BY JOE PINCKNEY

PAINTING BY JOE PINCKNEY

Joe Pinckney studied art in New York and received a scholarship from the Norman Rockwell Foundation, but he became a permanent resident of South Carolina and spent several decades  creating a body of work that depicts the culture of the Gullah people who have lived and farmed in the Low Country since the 19th century. He died in November 2005.

I have my son’s inquisitive nature to thank for the fact that we visited Joe Pinckney. Our whole family loves Hilton Head and we have vacationed there often, but in a way every vacation was like every other one, except for the one blessed by that gracious and gifted man.

The Pinckney Colony was founded by a family of white farmers, and I don’t think Joe explained whether his forbears had adopted that name or if the names were coincidental. After spending time in his company, maybe it didn’t matter to us any more.

There is a story about Joe Pinckney at this link: http://www.blufftontoday.com/node/3053

Four of Joe’s paintings, including the two I have included in this journal, are at the web site of the J. Costello Gallery in Hilton Head: http://www.jcostellogallery.com/artists/joe-pinckney

JOE PINCKNEY

JOE PINCKNEY

The Statue of Liberty in a needle's eye

The Statue of Liberty in a needle's eye

The BBC World News broadcast this morning included a report on Willard Wigan, a British sculptor whose works are so small that they can be seen only through a microscope.

Wigan traced this vocation to the fact that he is dyslexic. When he was a child, he said, dyslexia was not well understood, and he was accordingly treated as a cipher. He retreated into a fantasy world in which he built minature houses and other articles for use by the ants he found on the grounds outside his home.

It was one thing to hear the BBC radio reporter describing Wigan’s work; it was another thing to see photos of his creations for myself. They put me to mind of what I have recently read about the sizes of some circuits now in use and the prospects for such devices to become even smaller.

What are we more fascinated with, I wonder, the very large or the very small? In nature, the answer may be the very large; the Blue Whale still leaves us breathless. But where the man-made is concerned, my money is on the very small. The debacle at Babel aside — I think we are all convinced that man can build as large as he cares to, and so we aren’t so impressed when he outdoes himself. The Sears Tower? The Empire State Building? Yeah, yeah. Where should we have lunch?

Match head and boxing match

Match head and boxing match

The compelling thing about small, is that our imaginations don’t contain smallness as easily as they contain bigness. We could visualize a building tall enough to reach the moon — even if it’s a physical impossibility — but we can’t visualize things so small that we cannot see them. There is nothing in our everyday experience to give us a frame of reference — those of us who aren’t physicists or bacteriologists, that is.

At any rate, you can read all about Mr. Wigan and see more of his work at this link:

http://www.willard-wigan.com/default.aspx

Girl on an eyelash

Girl on an eyelash