Inside “Inside Llewyn Davis”

Inside Llewyn Davis reviewed by David Famularo at Mazzola Jewellery & Gallery www.mazzolajewellery.co.nz

By David Famularo April 2014

It’s interesting to see reviewers struggle with the point behind Inside Llewyn Davis when the biggest clue is in the title itself ie “inside”.

All the reviews and articles I have read, have been distracted by the setting – New York’s folk music scene in 1962. Inevitably, Llewyn Davis’ character has been compared to real life players in the music scene, most notably Dave Van Ronk – “the mayor of MacDougal Street” upon whose autobiography the script is said to draw heavily (I’ve never read the book myself).

The January issue of Uncut music magazine quotes two of Van Ronk’s friends who enjoyed the film but remembered the time as being much more fun. That would be undoubtedly true, but the character of Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a cipher for the everyman musician/artist who has existed in the shadows just outside the limelight of fame.

In Shakespearian times, I recall from school, plays were classified as either a “tragedy” or a “comedy”, although the comedies could be pretty dark by our standards. Inside Llewyn Davis is a comedy, but a black one, which ironically makes it all the funnier, because the cards dealt to Llewyn Davis by fate and his own thoughts and actions are so familiar.

Comparisons have also been made between Inside Llewyn Davis and directors Joel and  Ethan Coen’s 2000 film “Oh Brother Where Art Thou” which likewise chooses a moment in American cultural and musical history (1930s, country/folk) and touches upon the whims of fate as played out in an updated version of Homer’s tale of the ancient Greek traveller Ulysses.

But they are quite different films. While the characters in Oh Brother are exaggerated and quirky, Llewyn Davis is played more or less straight. But his character and dilemma is just as universal – the artist who fails to be appreciated.

There is never any question that Llewyn Davis has a talent, but this is unrecognised, misunderstood, and metaphorically and physically crapped on by his family, friends, audience, and fate itself.

Llewyn Davis doesn’t help his cause when his frustration expresses itself as anger. But his is also sensitive, intelligent, poetic and analytical, his psyche beautifully expressed in non-verbal moments within the film – most notably his relationship with the stray cat he picks up.

At times the film reminds me of Fellini’s Roma with its impressionistic moments full of meaning such as when Llewyn Davis hits an animal late at night, invoking a moment of sympathy and empathy.

Because he is always having to deal with the lack of appreciation of his talent, especially as he witness others he feels are lacking the same depth get ahead, Llewyn Davis is constantly having to battle his own cynicism, the very antithesis of the optimistic idealism we associate with the folk scene.

And here-in lies one of the difficult balancing acts that the directors had to walk. The late 1950s/early 1960s folk movement has been so piteously lampooned that even the Coens struggle to bring the needed amount of gravitas to the music. But by coming close spoofing the music themselves, they risk undermining Llewyn Davis’ own belief in the music, and hence the value and meaning of his own psychological journey.

Many reviewers have seen Llewyn Davis character as disparaging the folk music scene. But Llewyn Davis believes in the music and is a competent musician in that genre. Otherwise he would not be frustrated by the calibre of the musicians who enjoy success.

The soundtrack to Inside Llewyn Davis will never enjoy the success of Oh Brother. Roots music was ripe for rediscovery. Oh Brother lit the match, and helped trigger the current explosion of “Americana”.

Folk music, in contrast, is something of an anomaly. In the 1950s it offered a mostly white alternative to mainstream white society, highly regarding the black and white roots music of America. But folk music itself, is a relatively new musical genre that hardly predates Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger.

Which is not to underestimate its importance. Many of America’s most significant rock figures of the 1960s grew up listening to rock & roll but finished their musical training in the folk music scene. It was there that they fine tuned their story telling though the importance that folk music has always placed on lyrics.

Inside Llewyn Davis is a beautifully painted canvas of life in America in 1962, inhabited by exquisitely portrayed lost souls of the American landscape. If there is any painter the Coen brothers have an empathy with (and I would be surprised if they have borrowed from) is Edward Hopper, films like Inside Llewyn Davis and 2001’s The Man Who Wasn’t There containing much of the same spiritual alienation from the American Dream.

As for who Llewyn Davis bears the most similarity to, two obvious examples would be British early 1970s singer/songwriter Nick Drake who died young and unrecognised, and Mexican American Sixto Rodriguez who has only recently been rediscovered. I’m more inclined to relate him to Phil Ochs who while a leading figure in the Greenwich Village folk scene, was always too worldly, political and cynical to enjoy the success of the more other worldly Bob Dylan.

But really, Llewyn Davis meets himself most directly in another character in the film, ailing, loud and over-the-hill jazz saxophonist Roland Turner, who had had only the briefest encounter with success, a road sign for his own likely future as a musician.

Dylan does make an appearance in the last moments of Inside Llewyn Davis, to underline that essential mystery – why fate anoints one talent but passes another by.

NB Since writing this review, I’ve been notified of this excellent review on the meaning of the cat here

Some thoughts on 500 years of American painting

Anne Pollard, unknown limner Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston

Anne Pollard, unknown limner Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston

A couple of months ago I bought five or six books on art from the Salvation Army op shop in Masterton. Nearly all of them were on American art and most had been published in the 1940s and 1950s. I’m pretty certain they all came from the same estate. I like to keep collections together when I find a group of objects together like this.

People with an interest in American art are few and far between in the Wairarapa, even now, so assuming that this is where the former owner lived, he or she must have felt a bit isolated in their particular interest, especially if they bought the books some time near to when they were actually published.

Being mostly histories, naturally there is some repeating of the same artists and works, but overall the variety gives some idea of the richness of American art over the past 500 years, particularly in portraiture and folk art.

There is a continuing sense of a dialogue between America and Europe from the 1600s onwards. But inevitably, also a sense of living in a different world, and a view to the west. Even where the artist is well versed in European painting, there is something different about the works, sometimes subtle and at other times quirky and even odd.

Inevitably, the most serious artists travelled to Europe for training and work, returning home to paint for Eurocentric patrons in the eastern cities. Some of them like John Singleton Copley and Gilbert Stuart produced portraits as great as any European painter.

The Runaway Horse, anonymous, c1830, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

The Runaway Horse, anonymous, c1830, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Meditation by the Sea, anonymous, c1880 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Meditation by the Sea, anonymous, c1880 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

But what I find most interesting are the naïve, amateur, and folk artist who were essentially stranded permanently on the western side of the Atlantic, and out of which grew a distinct American art – the naïve portraits of the 1600s, Sunday painters of the nineteenth century, and social realism of early twentieth century artists like George Bellows. These artists seem to be driven primarily by the urge to observe and capture life around them as they saw it, using whatever talents and training they possessed.

Baptism in Kansas, John S Curry, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Baptism in Kansas, John S Curry, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

 

Oak Street Platform, Aaron Bohrod, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Oak Street Platform, Aaron Bohrod, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The artists of the American Regionalist movement between the two world wars, such as John S Curry and Thomas H Benton, inherited this tradition but to a certain degree their interest in American life is a more self conscious statement.

James McNeil Whistler and Mary Cassatt both made their reputation in Europe and firmly belong in the European art movements of the latter half of the nineteenth century. I’ve always found them both a bit lacking in interest when compared to the key Impressionists and Post Impressionists they associated with.

In this regard, Edward Hopper is interesting in that he too studied in Europe, only a few years later, and you can see in his early work while in Paris much of the same flavour. But when he returns to the United States Hopper keeps only the barest bones of this training and develops a style more like the regionalist and folk artists who never left home. And his existentialism has parallels in the works of many of his more naïve compatriots.

By the beginning of the 1950s American artists are amongst the leaders of the internationalist Modern movement, with New York the new art centre of the world. But that story begins where these books end. And that is one of the things that makes them such a pleasure to read.

There is no doubt that American art and its painters over the centuries suffered from a lack of recognition in their own country and a sizeable inferiority complex. But the notion that American art only caught up with the world 50 years ago is quite obviously untrue from these books. As much as one can appreciate the great European artists of the twentieth century, it’s refreshing to find an entirely new world of art, especially one that has been so under-appreciated.

NB It’s interesting to see that there seems to be a trend back to revaluing American art as this article on George Bellows suggests, and the value put on one of his works, Men on the Docks, being US$25.5 million.

Images from:

 Art and Life in America by Oliver W. Larkin 1957

 American Painting: History and Interpretation by Virgil Barker 1950

 American Painting by Denys Sutton 1948

Virgil Barker devoted 20 years of research to the writing of American Painting

Virgil Barker devoted 20 years of research to the writing of American Painting

 

Moments in Time: Ralph Miller – Artist 1918-1956

Moments in Time is a book full of small but interesting surprises. The first is that Ralph Miller  even existed. His name is probably well-known in art circles in Otago, especially given he has enjoyed a retrospective exhibition at the Hocken Collections Gallery at Otago University in 2006 which lead to 10 reproductions now hanging in the Mayor’s Lounge at Dunedin Town Hall.

But this book, written by his son Brian Miller (Lifelogs Ltd) introduces Miller’s work to a wider audience, which would otherwise be impossible given nearly all his work have only ever been owned by family members. Brian Miller is more than just an enthusiastic amateur keen to promote his father to the general public, being a professional writer, publisher and photographer. He does an excellent job of not only presenting and explaining Ralph Miller’s work, but putting it within the context of the times and experiences the artist lived through, particularly daily life in Dunedin, and New Zealand’s military involvement in the Pacific during World War II.

Ralph Miller came from a family of craftsmen and began working for his father Oswell Miller’s sign writing business after leaving school. However, Ralph always found sign writing artistically limiting and studied oil painting privately under A H O’Keeffe, not enjoying this medium, and then water colour with Kathleen Salmond who was a far greater influence.

Much of Ralph’s training though, came through the sketches he made during World War II when he played brass in the Third Divisional Band in the New Zealand army.

In this capacity Ralph became an unofficial New Zealand war artist. Interestingly, Russell Clark, one of the official war artists, was “surprised by the number of men he saw drawing sketches. ‘It was an astonishing experience. Instead of a man here or there, there were hundreds doing such things.’

Ralph’s commitment to his art during this period is impressive, writing to his wife Nan that he had “a constant job keeping the paper from getting damp and mildewed while living in tents with tropical rain, mud and dust.”

Ralph never drew the more military aspects of war, “instead he captured his soldier friends in everyday life, sitting around playing cards and darts, drinking, smoking or just relaxing in tents and barracks.” He also drew the environment they were a part of – buildings, jungle and wildlife. It is this interest in and observation of people that sets Ralph apart from so many other artists of his era and which gives his work a unique value.

By the time Ralph returned to Dunedin and was raising a young family, both his observational skills and drawing technique were highly developed, so we are able to enjoy vignettes of life in Dunedin in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Many of the most outstanding examples are street scenes, Ralph leaving to posterity a rare pictorial glimpse of daily life at the time, with an intimacy that photographs can’t convey. Ralph had a particular finesse for street fashion, both men’s and women’s.

It is quite clear that at this time Ralph’s technique was still evolving both in his drawing and commercial work, having return to the family business after the war. The author importantly points out that Ralph was an avid student of the American Regionalist School, but just as significantly loved Walt Disney books and movies. There’s always a sense of currency about his work.

Ralph used a small range of mediums – pencil, pen, wash, watercolour, conte etc. The foundation of all his work is his draughtsmanship, my favourite drawings being those where the thick lines of conte define the figures and buildings, while the colours in the wash have a very nice subdued palette but with enough bright accents to escape the impression we have of the 1950s in New Zealand as being grey and dour.

While Ralph’s dominant drawing style is typical of many New Zealand artists of his generation, a quite different drawing style appears regularly throughout the book which is almost Rococo in character with its restless curves. I find these less appealing and effective in describing his subjects such as the crowd at a Ranfurly Shield rugby match at Carisbrook Stadium.

It is interesting to note that for his street scenes, Ralph didn’t draw exactly what he saw on any a single occasion, but would combine elements of different scenes he had observed and sketched previously. Ultimately with Ralph’s best works, you don’t just see what life looked like in the early 1950s but you feel what it was like. Ralph was a part and product of his time and place, but he also had the ability to observe it with a certain detachment.

Sadly, Ralph died suddenly at the age of 37, leaving about 1000 sketches, 50 finished paintings, and the feeling he could have achieved so much more. I like the final paragraph Brian Miller ends with. “Hopefully this book will give inspiration for other artists to draw people in groups and in their communities, and to gain as much enjoyment from the act of drawing as Ralph did.”

You can find out more about Ralph Miller and view more of his works at www.ralphmiller.co.nz

Dragon’s Egg Necklace

This necklace has been about ten years in the making, which is how long I’ve had the sterling silver wire necklace which I bought about six years ago, to which I’ve added a multi-faceted yellow to green (depending on which area of it you are seeing) agart stone which I just bought, with two brown to black sawdust fired ceramic beads on either side which were fired about ten years ago. You can see a close up image below. The photos aren’t half as nice as the real thing though with lots of subtlety and variation in the colours. The necklace got its name from the young woman in the shop where I purchased the agate who calls them “dragon’s eggs because that’s what they remind me of.”

On the passing of Ian Scott (1945-2013)

ian scott

 On the Passing of Ian Scott (1945-2013)

It was sad to note the passing of Ian Scott as I discovered in a recent copy of Art New Zealand with an excellent obituary by Edward Hanfling.

While artists may consistently produce a body of art throughout their working lives, if one was to be honest, few artists hold your attention all that time, and often it may be just one or two of their paintings that you find memorable.

But even this is no small achievement. Like in pop music, where to have one hit song that millions listen to and buy is more than most musicians ever achieve.

For me, that would be Scott’s painting Jump Over Girl, above (or was it the similar Leapaway Girl) which I saw with my brother  in the national art gallery as a teenagers on a visit to Wellington in the mid-1970s

What made it immediately striking to a 16 or 17 year old with no art history background was first the fact that it was figurative (so easier to digest), but more significantly, an example of pop art (although a purist and Scott might disagree) which was the one genre of contemporary high art that had a close affinity with pop and rock music which we were into (in fact, one only has to note the importance of record cover art to show how close the two were).

The second time Scott made an impact was when I interviewed him for my bi-weekly Visual Arts feature page that ran in the Dominion Post for around 8 years. Scott was extremely pleasant and forthcoming on the phone and even posted me a book of his paintings out of the blue with a nice note written on the inside cover. One might see this as simply a form of promotion and maybe he had lots of copies to give away. But I appreciated it as a simple act of generosity.

As one can see in the Art New Zealand article, Scott was a photogenic artist in the 1970s when art and counter-culture co-habited (New Zealand seemed to produce a lot of photogenic younger artists in that era. We don’t seem to have that anymore). While in later life he became a pleasant slightly portly looking man with little of the Romanticism surrounding the “artist” about him (if judged by the second photo), there seems to be something soft and sweet about his character that makes him immediately likeable.

I have yet to be excited by his “lattice” work. And wasn’t certain his series of soft porn nudes with famous art works was convincing. But nevertheless, he produced a number of art works in the early years that captured the spirit of the times in New Zealand perfectly, and as in music, how many artists can convincingly make that claim that their work has impressed upon, as well as captured the collective spirit of their day.

David Famularo, January 2014

Who was G Quantrill?

A Portrait

Woman in Blue

I have this theory that when you are meant to meet up with an object or person, something in you already knows they exist and vice versa.

All that remains to do is to be drawn towards each other, where intuition or following a whim can play an important part.

That intuition took me into a charity second hand store for the purpose of buying some cheap records. Instead I left with four paintings by G Quaintrell.

I only almost by accident saw one of these oil paintings sitting in a cardboard box along with the usual assortment of visual bric-a-brac.

Once the other three paintings were discovered it became obvious they were all by the same artist and most likely from the estate of a deceased person. However, the deceased was not necessarily the artist.

My suspicion is that the paintings had been inherited by another family member who had now passed away.

I’m not sure if the (unattractive) frames are original as they look like they belong to the early 1980s whereas the paintings were completed some time before 1967. I know this because they have a price on the back in pounds.

It says on the back they were framed by McGregor Wright Gallery in Wellington, but it may be possible that the backing board was original while the frames were not.

Which poses another question, were they exhibit by McGregor Wright Gallery. I suspect not as they sit outside the typical bounds of that gallery.

McGregor Wright Gallery has been going since 1879. It was at one stage one of the leading galleries in Wellington, New Zealand, with Frances Hodgkins exhibiting paintings there before she left New Zealand for England for good in 1906.

Any avant garde tendencies evaporated half a century or more ago, to the point where today the gallery, which is now located on the Kapiti Coast, north of Wellington, shows works by competent contemporary artists painting in a “traditional” style.

A Portrait

In Pensive Mood

So what do we know about G Quaintrell.

She was probably a woman as there seems to be a very faint “Mrs” before the name on the back of one of the paintings. She lived in Wadestown, Wellington when these works were painted.

The subjects are most likely family members or friends. Most likely she was an amateur artist who possibly belonged to an art clique.

Interestingly “Lady in Blue” has NFS (Not For Sale) on the back which suggests the works were exhibited. The other three were for sale for between five and six pounds, but none of them would have sold, otherwise they would not all be still together. I would guess they were exhibited at some sort of art club exhibition.

On the subject of art clubs, in those days they did harbour some very talented amateur artists, at a time when art clubs still played an important role in the artistic landscape of New Zealand.

G Quaintrell was probably largely self-taught although she may have attended art classes of some sort.

It feels like she spent a lot of time studying art works but it is unclear who her primary influences were. They are traditional portraits in a sense, but they don’t have much in common with pre-twentieth century European portraiture.

They almost have an Art Deco portrait style. Art Deco portraiture was a revision to more traditional styles following the rush of “isms” but was inevitably influenced by them nevertheless.

I suspect ultimately G Quaintrell simply had a unique style, which innately reflected the contemporary tastes of her time. She wasn’t quite a “colourist” but certainly had a talent with colour, with a fresh and original palette that would probably have been outside the conservative artistic milieu she would have inhabited, but which feels quite fresh and modern today, right down to the colour combinations of the artist’s signature.

Her drawing and perspective skills are her weakness. The painting of the man in particular suffers from a slightly irregular jaw line, and the pipe he is holding is quite oddly drawn. The physical proportions seem to be “incorrect” as well. The man’s head is too small for his body.

However, by accident or design, she mostly seems to make the odd proportions work, for instance, note the tiny feet of the sitter in “A Pensive Mood.” (A title typical of art club fare of the 1950s and 1960s). Incidently, anatomically odd paintings don’t necessarily preclude them from being good works. You only have to look at some of Picasso’s portraits from his Blue Period or Johann Tischbein’s painting of Goethe with two left feet – undoubtedly done this way on purpose.

The painting of the young woman is the best work and is reminiscent of some of the more naïve fayum Greco-Egyptian mummy portraits.

Her works are naïve but painted by someone with a genuine and original talent for colour. They brim with life. It didn’t seem right that they should end up being separated from each other.

Genuinely talented, genuinely naive artists are a rare combination. While G Quaintrell isn’t an undiscovered Henri Rousseau, finding someone who could paint as well as she did for a few dollars is not something that happens every day.

Gladys Quaintrell Rediscovered!

Photo: Wairarapa Archives

After posting this story, Wairarapa history enthusiast Adele Pentony-Graham of Carterton came forward with the following information:

Gladys Quaintrell (1892 -1987) was the daughter of Carterton settler family Frank William Dundee Quaintrell and Clara Quaintrell (nee Francis).

Adele contacted one of Gladys’ relatives, Sue Macdonald, who had this to say about Gladys:

[Gladys] was my mother’s cousin (although much older), and very well known to me from when I was a young child. Her mother was Clara Francis .. the Francis family farmed out of Carterton in the late 1800s and Francis Line is named after the family.

Gladys initially lived at a farm called Brookfield which was on Francis Line but the family moved to Wellington in about 1910ish.

She lived all the rest of her life at 17 Rankin Street, Wadestown, taught at Marsden College and played the piano accompaniment for a ballet school in Wadestown for many years.

 I have a few little diaries and in 1935 and 1940 she seemed to go to Choral Society on Tuesdays and ‘Art Club’ on Wednesdays! I guess it would have been either Hutt Valley or Wellington. Her father was a keen photographer and dabbled with painting. I have one of his.. the Tararuas from Upper Plains Road Masterton,.. taken from one of his photos.

Gladys was an only child and never married as she was required to care for her parents! She was very artistic.. very musical and loved painting. She belonged to the Art Society most of her able life, always had a canvas on the easel and painted many portraits.. including mine as a child. She may have had lessons but I have no idea.

 She was a rather interesting person who had she lived in today’s world would have enjoyed very different opportunities in life.

David Famularo December 2012