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Prepare to Repel B'arders

On my legal weblog, Declarations and Exclusions, I am once again pleased to host an edition of Blawg Review, the carnival of law-related bloggers and blogging.  Blawg Review #153 is a "themed" version, driven on this occasion by matters generally nautical and specifically piratical. 

Decs&Excs commonly concerns itself with the law surrounding insurance, and the combination of insurance and piracy inevitably leads to Terry Gilliam's stand-alone introductory piece from Monty Python's The Meaning of Life,

The Crimson Permanent Assurance!


Tomorrow, as on the last two Firsts of April, this Fool will be hosting a Blawg Review bonus edition right here.

Squirrels Without End, Amen

This Fool now continues his policy of countering Rabbitist Hegemony by the annual posting of an Easter Squirrel.

Although they have fallen far out of fashion, domesticated squirrels seem to have been common household companions of young men growing up in the years before the American Revolution.  Two years ago, I posted John Singleton Copley's 1765 portrait of his young stepbrother in the company of a chained and rather put-upon looking little squirrel.  Copley was entrenched as a Bostonian before he emigrated to pursue a thriving career as a portraitist in London, but in 1771 he made a professional jaunt to New York.  Among the commissions he received on that trip were a trio of paintings of members of the Verplanck family, one of which provided Copley the opportunity to revisit his squirrel theme:

John Singleton Copley, Daniel Crommelin Verplanck (1771), from the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

My first thought on seeing this picture was that young Daniel Verplanck was rather a small boy, or else he kept company with rather a large squirrel.  The Met's curators are suitably impressed by Daniel's fuzzy friend:

Daniel attended the city's best schools and his parents passed on to him their taste for the finest of everything; his portrait exceeds theirs in grandeur, in keeping with their high expectations for him.  He wears a stylish suit with a brocaded vest and sits on a porch amid imposing classical columns.  His remarkable pet squirrel, which Daniel has apparently civilized through careful training, holds onto his leg without inflicting pain.

As indicated by the fact that they were commissioning Copley portraits, the Verplancks were well established by 1771.  They continued in prominence at least into the mid-20th Century when they did what prominent New Yorkers do: donated their portraits to the Metropolitan Museum.  Copley's portraits of Daniel's father, Samuel Verplanck, and of his uncle, Gulian Verplanck, share a wall in the museum in their very own period room.   (The room is closed to the public until later this year, but you can still take a Virtual Reality Tour.)  After the Revolution, Uncle Gulian was a Speaker of the New York State Assembly; Daniel himself grew up to serve in Congress.  Should you find yourself up the Hudson Valley near Fishkill, you can visit the Verplanck family estate, Mount Gulian.

It may surprise you to learn that the role of Daniel Verplanck and his Remarkable Squirrel in American art history does not end in 1771. Some 188 years later, Joseph Cornell rediscovered the plucky pair and promptly did with them as he did with so many other cultural referents.

He put them in a box:

Joseph Cornell, Americana: Natural Philosophy (What Makes the Weather?) (ca. 1959), from the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

And a particularly attractive Cornell box it is; also very Easter-like, what with the dove and rainbow and such.  Happy Easter to all.


For completists, here are links to all of our prior years' Easter Squirrel posts:

  • 2007 [Hans Holbein the Younger]
  • 2006 [John Singleton Copley]
  • 2005 [Hans Hoffman]
  • 2004 [Albrecht Dürer]

Sacre Bleu! Invaders!

I know, I know: on Life's List of Petty Annoyances there is surely a place for weblog posts on the lines of "those big-time bloggers have linked to this cool thing, but I told you about it way back when and I should get some kind of credit for that."  Prepare to be pettily annoyed.

Those big-time, high-traffic bloggers Instapundit and Althouse have linked to the "Human TETRIS" video.  My regular readers, if I had any, would know full well that I posted that same clip some three months ago.  With a better joke!  There ain't no justice when hifalutin blogging law professors can keep the little guy down like this.

Oh well: here's the same merry band in their performance of the immortal "Space Invaders."

All of these human/game videos are product of the "GAME OVER Project" of Guillaume Reymond .   Bip!


Incidental Intelligence:  "Space Invaders" inspired an instrumental ("Space Invader") on the original Pretenders album, which will always be for me the First Great Record of the 1980's.  Per a 1995 Entertainment Weekly interview, that track turns out to have been an expression of technophobia:

Don't look for Chrissie Hynde lurking online.  'I've resisted the Internet and all that,' says the lead Pretender, a technophobe and proud of it.  'We named a song on our first album "Space Invader," because the guys were always on those machines at the studio, but I just noodled around the pool table and secretly regretted that the pinball machine had gone.  That's when old age started for me.  I even bought a little pocket computer to put my addresses in, but tossed it out and went back to the Filofax.  I know how to turn pages; I do it every day.''

It's a Gift

Si j'étais un homme, sans doute je ferais les choses que vous me dites, mais les pauvres bêtes qui veulent prouver leur amour ne savent que se coucher par terre et mourir.

[If I were a man, I would do the things that you say [and live], but the poor beasts who want to prove their love can only lie down on the ground and die.]

    --La Bête, La Belle et la Bête

Most men, confronted with their true selves, run away screaming!

    --Professor Engywook, The NeverEnding Story

The Infanta (Mary Dunleavy) and the Dwarf (Rodrick Dixon), amid choristers and courtiers.  (Los Angeles Opera photo by Robert Millard.)

Having no particular interest in the remaining productions -- Tosca and La Rondine -- my own Los Angeles Opera season ended this past Saturday evening, and ended well, with the double bill of Viktor Ullmann's The Broken Jug (Der zerbrochene Krug) and Alexander Zemlinsky's The Dwarf (Der Zwerg).  There is one remaining performance of these paired productions (Saturday evening, March 8), and I will offer one word of advice for anyone with a remotely serious interest in music drama: Go!

This is the first fully-staged offering in music director James Conlon's "Recovered Voices" project, a multi-year initiative to rescue from obscurity works by composers who were directly affected by the Nazi regime and the Holocaust.  (The recent Opera News article on Conlon and "Recovered Voices" is reproduced on the LA Opera site.)  Both of the composers on this bill came out of the fertile musical hothouse of Vienna.  Ullmann, living in Prague when (as Conlon put it in his pre-performance talk) "it was presented as a gift to Hitler," spent two years interned at Terezín, continuing to write, before his death at Auschwitz in 1944.  Zemlinsky -- friend and compatriot of Mahler, teacher and brother-in-law of Schoenberg, first lover of Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel (née Schindler) -- was able to emigrate with his family to New York following the German entry into Austria, but died there in 1942.

The Broken Jug is a 45-minute comic piece in which a corrupt provincial judge with a roving eye is unmasked by the testimony in his own courtroom.  Enjoyable to be sure, but ultimately no more than a lovely trifle.  The best part of the LA Opera production is probably the shadow play that goes on during the opera's overture, some of which can be seen of which can be seen at the outset of the video clip posted here.

The Dwarf is something else again, a sad and beautiful work of high musical and dramatic quality that deserves to have a place in the standard repertoire.  The opera is adapted from a story by Oscar Wilde, "The Birthday of the Infanta."  In both Wilde's story and the libretto by Georg Klaren, the Infanta of Spain is presented with a dwarf on her birthday.  The dwarf has no idea that he is misshapen or an object of mockery: he has never seen himself, and believes that the laughter that follows him everywhere is an expression of joy and pleasure at his presence, his singing and his dancing.  When he is stripped of his illusion and shown himself in a mirror by the unfeeling Infanta, he dies of heartbreak. 

Both the story and the opera are rich in themes typical of Wilde: beauty as a double-edged sword, the disjunction between appearance and inner reality, decadence and innocence.  Klaren's text takes several liberties that actually serve to heighten the Wildean quality of the piece.  The Infanta of the story is only twelve while her operatic incarnation is turning eighteen.  Wilde's dwarf is younger too, a sort of "wild child" found by shepherds in a forest; Zemlinsky and Klaren make him more of a sophisticate, a genuinely talented singer with a mature and yearning soul, captured and kept by the captain of a Spanish ship for ten years before being sold to a Sultan, whose gift to the Infanta he becomes.  In consequence, the Infanta of the opera is more knowingly cruel than her prose counterpart, especially when she spurns the sensitive dwarf's pleas for love and reassurance, to fatal effect.

Zemlinsky's music is in the lush, intelligent late Romantic idiom of Richard Strauss.  (Zemlinsky conducted the Vienna premiere of Strauss's Wilde opera, Salome.)  There is enough dissonance sprinkled about to let us know we are dealing with a 20th century piece, but color, melody and emotional punch are the orders of the day.  It is as smart, elegant and dramatically effective as the best of Strauss.

The LA Opera production is all that Zemlinsky might have wished.  The look of the production is inspired, as was Wilde's story, by Velazquez's great Las Meninas, and the action plays out in an opulent palace room lined with sliding mirrored doors, which inevitably surround the sorrowful dwarf with the truth of how others see him.  (The set's initial resemblance to a really swanky hotel elevator lobby was quickly forgotten once the drama began to unfold.)  The Spanish court is in blacks, whites and grays, with red and pink trim for the cyanide layer cake that is the Infanta.  The Dwarf is in rich orange and gold, like the blood-orange of which he sings.

The singers are all, thank goodness, strong singing actors who do not succumb to the curse of "park and bark."  As he should, Rodrick Dixon as the Dwarf dominates from the moment he emerges from his gilt gift box.  Susan B. Anthony is touching, and was enthusiastically received, as the ineffectual Ghita, the Infanta's maid who protests against the cruel trick her mistress proposes.  Called upon to glitter and be gay while calmly destroying her new "toy," Mary Dunleavy glittered gaily as the Infanta.

The Dwarf is easily one of the two finest productions LA Opera has offered this season, essentially tied in my mind with the company's tremendous, under-attended, Jenufa.  There were a number of cameras at work around the Pavilion Saturday night, which suggests this production may see release on video.  Better yet, one hopes that some old bel canto warhorse can be kept in the stable in a season or two, so that the poor Dwarf, like Tinkerbell, can return to the stage revived by well-earned applause.

Tie Goes to the Dumpster

Los Angeles is better known for tight abs and botox than it is for tuxes and bow ties -- but we were supposed to have had a truly Enormous sculptured bow tie to festoon a space in front of the Disney Hall.  To be created by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje Van Bruggen, "Collar and Bow" was to have been erected in 2004 and was to have looked something like this:


In July of 2006, when I wrote about it here, the project was well behind schedule and plagued by technical difficulties.  Today, that space in front of the Hall remains unoccupied and pedestrians can still pass without fear of being crushed by falling neckwear.  The Tie exists, but it rests in a storage yard in Irvine and looks like this:

The Tie in Exile -- Los Angeles Times photo by Don Bartletti

In the past year, as reported on the front page of today's Los Angeles Times, "Collar and Bow" has gone from highly public art work to the subject of a highly public lawsuit against the artists, designers and fabricators involved in its making and unmaking:

The damages, Music Center attorney David Lira said this week, come to more than $6 million, including payments for the sculpture, additional money for consultants and $600,000 that the Music Center plowed fruitlessly into reinforcing the sidewalk in front of the Frank Gehry-designed hall at 1st Street and Grand Avenue so the ground could support the heavy steel objects that never arrived.

Like the Tower of Babel and other unfinished works, "Collar and Bow" may simply have been Too Big, its creators' ambitions outstripping their ability to deliver it into the real world:

The sculpture was conceived a decade before Disney Hall's 2003 opening.  Oldenburg and Van Bruggen had been toying with the idea of a giant bow tie, and their friend Gehry thought that a swanky collar and tie, looking as if they had been tossed on the sidewalk by some colossus, would sound a playfully artful keynote for concertgoers and passersby.

The architect suggested increasing the sculptors' initial 35-foot-high design to 65 feet.  In May 2003, the Music Center contracted with Oldenburg and Van Bruggen's company, Storebridge, to create "Collar and Bow" for $2.2 million and deliver it by Aug. 15, 2004.  Donations of $1.85 million from Music Center patrons Richard and Geri Brawerman and $1 million from the J. Paul Getty Trust were expected to cover the cost.

The illustration at the top of this post of the sculpture in place comes from the website of one of the defendants, Westerly Marine, which provides this description of its fabrication:

The monumental artwork is made of aluminum, structural steel, stainless steel, then bonded with epoxy film, vacuum bagged and cured.  The final finish will be painted with polyurethane enamel.

Although he was instrumental in starting the project and in expanding it to its gargantuan final scale, Frank Gehry is not a party to the "Collar and Bow" litigation.  He is, however, the target of a lawsuit on the other side of the country, relating to MIT's allegedly leaky Stata Center buildings.  The Disney Hall itself has not been without practical problems: one side of the building had to be sandblasted after completion because Gehry's signature highly reflective steel cladding threatened to roast the neighbors.

Filed last February, the "Collar and Bow" case is now scheduled for trial in Los Angeles Superior Court in mid-October.

For a last look at what might have been -- for better or worse -- here is a pristine 1:16 scale model of the work that was on offer in 2007 at London's Waddington Galleries:


[Cross-posted to Declarations and Exclusions.]