Tuesday, December 30, 2008

"You Must Remember This"

Some nights ago I was out in my capacity as Volunteer Luminaria-lighter for my block, finally getting the knack of lighting the tips of little candlewicks ensconced in the sand at the bottom of the white paper bags. As I glanced back at the neat rows of light trailing off into the distance I recalled reading from Jeff Kisseloff's marvelous oral history of Manhattan, "You Must Remember This" an old woman's childhood recollection of watching the lamplighter come down her street to illuminate the evening on the Upper West Side of Manhattan circa 1899.
Olga Marx was born in 1894 and would have been roundabout 90 when Kisseloff interviewed her in the mid-1980's:

"When the lamplighter came in the summer, that usually meant it was bedtime. I loved to wait for him on the stoop (of her home on 77th St. and Columbus Ave.) On mild evenings you'd bring down a chair and sit out there, although my mother thought it a little vulgar to visit back and forth between neighbors.
One mild evening she said to me, 'Instead of just sitting on the stoop before you go to bed, I want to show you something.' She told me to look up and there was a sky full of stars. It was the first time I had consciously seen just a lot of wonderful stars."

An oral history of Manhattan is going to be singular because so much change would have been witnessed by those around long enough to have seen it and yet enough of the old buildings, streets, parks and so forth remain to aid the imagination in transporting us back in time.

Following the "sky" thread somewhat, here another recollection from Olga:

"We also loved to play on the meteors which were then out in front of the Museum of Natural History (on the edge of Central Park)
I remember saying to my fraulein, (her German nanny) 'Look, I'm standing on a star.' But she was so prissy, and she said, 'Get down immediately. I can see your panties.'"

Olga Marx, who later graduated from Barnard and became a poet and writer, was obviously from the "better-offs" but Kisseloff also interviewed Bullets Brennan who, though he also lived on the Upper West Side not too far off from Olga, came from from a poorer Italian immigrant family and lived out much of his childhood on the streets.
"In the summertime, we never wore shoes, Most times we went barefoot. We'd be jumpin' around the rocks near the river in bare feet. When there wasn't any work (school not being an option), so many kids just hung around the corners or in the park, or went swimming off the dock at 75th Street, Bare-Ass Beach."
Like many kids on the street Bullets became adept at stickball - baseball's street-worthy cousin.
"A guy like Howard Cook, who was a big gambler, he'd buy the balls, and he'd watch. They all went for that. Sometimes they'd bet cash on the games. They might play for a barrel of beer."

Kisseloff (the full title of his book is "You Must Remember This: An oral history of Manhattan from the 1890's to World War II") covers all of the major neighborhoods of Manhattan in his interviews from the Lower East Side and Chelsea up to Harlem and points north.
He manages to find surviving witnesses to the Triangle Fire, sheep meadows in Central Park, the old New York Giant baseball games at the Polo Grounds, and Fats Waller at the piano in Harlem.
I found the reminiscences of the Dakota Apartments on the West Side intriguing. Bullets Brennan recalls his ragamuffin pals serenading the high class occupants at Thanksgiving. The Dakota was home to well-to-do music publishers like the Schirmers and parties were held there with literary guests like Mark Twain, and Stephen Crane as well as musical luminaries from Tchaikovsky, to -later on-
Gershwin gazing out at Central Park.
By the way, my friend Steve Hinders notifies me that our modern-day luminary, John Lennon, chose residence at the Dakota because the architecture reminded him of places in Liverpool.

Skating in Central Park with the Dakota as background circa 1890's

Anyway, I highly recommend "You Must Remember This" by Jeff Kisseloff for those who admire oral histories. It is on a par with Lawrence Ritter's "The Glory of Their Times" and any number of the Studs Terkel books.

* a note on the meteors Olga Marx played on in front of the Museum of Natural History.
Quite possibly, one of these was the famous 15.5 ton Willamette meteor (from the Willamette Valley in Oregon) purchased by heiress Mrs. William Dodge for a tidy sum around 1904 from it's owners and turned over to the Museum. The meteor was held to be sacred by the Clackamas Indians of Oregon who referred to the meteor as a "being" called Tomanowos who arrived from the moon. I'm sure that little Olga would've loved to know that.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Davy Graham: Nov. 22, 1940 - Dec. 15, 2008

"A traveling man who made the journey down to Tangiers when the rest of us had our sights on Brighton Pier" - John Renbourn

Guitarist Davy Graham grew up in an immigrant section of London, with a Scottish father and a Guyanese mother. His skin-tone had a tinge of color from his mother which reminded him of his "otherness", and he was blind in one eye...

In the laissez-faire bohemian world of beatnik moving into hippie, Davy was an immaculate dresser sporting tight-cropped short hair, who early on made a conscious decision to be a heroin addict, and originally chose to feature a large block of Moroccan hashish as the centerpiece of his "Folk, Blues, and Beyond" album cover.
His version of Good Morning Blues here
He played jazz in London supper clubs and busked on the streets of Paris, studied the Koran, the musical forms Southern India and Western Ireland. He brought the crowd to it's feet with his version of Muddy Waters' "Im Ready" when I saw him at the Cambridge Folk Festival in 1974....

His original guitar tune "Anji", has a simple lilt and swing that the more well-known, virtuosic versions by both Bert Jansch and Paul Simon do not.
I would have loved to have sat down and had tea in an English garden with him...
She Moved Through the Fair

Monday, December 15, 2008

de Nuncques: Unseen in the Seen

"What is line? It is life. A line must live at each point along its course in such a way that the artist’s presence makes itself felt above that of the model.... With the writer, line takes precedence over form and content. It runs through the words he assembles. It strikes a continuous note unperceived by ear or eye. It is, in a way, the soul’s style, and if the line ceases to have a life of its own, if it only describes an arabesque, the soul is missing and the writing dies."-Jean Cocteau

"To make a painting, all you need to do is to take some paints, draw some lines, and fill the rest up with feelings." -William Degouve DeNuncques

Being a musician who uses up any "remains of the day" at home in the creating and practicing of music, in my spare time at my day-job I am lately driven onto a differing but somehow parallel path - drawing and pastel work. Or, at the least, thinking about it! Oil painting would be my first choice but requires more set-up and a larger space to make a larger mess. So, circumstances encourage me take the path of the "smaller mess" - pastels.

Curious to know what other artists have done with pastels - particularly those who, like Degas, also worked in oils - I came across someone unknown to me, the Belgian painter-pastellist, William Degouve de Nuncques. His pastel of a city park with lanterns as pictured above is hardly distinguishable from his paintings in oil. Our man Nuncques (as i'll call him!) is thrown in with that odd sliver of turn-of-the-century-and-beyond artists, The Symbolists.
It happened that the young Nuncques married another painter, Juliette Massin, and was introduced by his wife to Symbolists - both poets and painters. My guess, based on the scarce available biographical material, is that Nuncques was more of a "natural" Symbolist, and no follower of doctrine. His scenes, to me, derive more from a feeling than conveyance of a thought or principle.

Seeing Nuncques' pastels and paintings I immediately felt a thread connecting them. His style is simple and almost book-illustrative and not so boldly individual at first glance as, say, that other noted Symbolist, Redon. However, there seems to me something very strongly "internal" about them. An unlikely light is often juxtaposed against darkness and at times even a brightly lit daytime scene glows from within. Here the internal light of the unseen worlds seap through the seen; a ghost figure lingering as if to say "well, I'm going to take you part way there, and if you're drawn inside you'll find your way to the rest." Ultimately, the witness to this art is the invisible strand of light that seals the delicate haunting by his own intimations.

I introduced my lengthy Cocteau quote at the top of the page to these slender notes, not to call attention to the linear style of Nuncques' paintings, which are not particularly linear (in the way of Ingres or Picasso) but because I'm taking Cocteau's "line' to be something closer to the sense of it as a thread - something essential woven through an individuals work that connects it all with a subtle signature; not always overtly a "style".

The painting at the right is called the "Pink House" and was an influence on another Belgian, Rene Magritte, whose "L'Empire De Lumieres" takes similar delight in lights emitting mysteriously through the darkness.

Nuncques spent a great deal of the early 1900's traveling with his wife Juliette and painting in various locales. They settled for some years in the Balearic Islands off Spain where he painted the picture at the very top as well as the grotto scene. When she died in 1919 Nuncques was devastated and lost the use of his right hand for almost a decade. When, in the last years of his life, he remarried a woman who helped through his crisis, his facility was born again and he turned out a number of snow scenes from Stavelot, Belgium where they lived. His touch of the "unseen" remained.
The photograph of William Degouve de Nuncques seems to reveal someone, perhaps with a touch of madness, who has endured much and remained steadfast in his art. Interesting that his sometime roommate and fellow-painter, Henri De Greux, used him as a model for a painting of Christ. The photo of Nuncques suggests a Dostoeyevskian take on a Christ-like character.