February 27th, 2019

Milwaukee Art Museum: Bouguereau & America

On Friday, February 22nd, we went to see the current exhibition at the Milwaukee Art Museum, Bouguereau & America. This exhibit explores the exceptional popularity of the French artist William-Adolphe Bouguereau with American patrons during the last half of the 19th century.

Bouguereau was one of the last great “classical” artists. As a member of the French Academy, he made his name creating “historical” paintings (which could include Biblical or mythological subjects), which was what the Academy approved. As he noted, his “frantic” paintings did not sell as well as “Venuses and Cupids,” so he painted a lot of pretty subjects that were very popular with purchasers who wanted works of art of obvious quality that would nevertheless not disturb their guests. I can somewhat understand this: Bouguereau’s Orestes,* which shows the title character being tormented by the Furies, is a great painting, but I wouldn’t want it in my dining room.

There’s no question that Bouguereau was a great painter. His composition, draughtsmanship, anatomy, polish, and color sense are all exceptional. He was a skillful portraitist. It’s really only in his subject matter that he falls at all short. Besides “Venuses and Cupids,” which, due the frequently nude subjects, did well with male collectors, being religious, he also painted many attractive Virgins with Child, and similar subjects. He also had an interesting line in what are referred to as “Little Beggars,” which feature pretty, well-fed, unlikelily well-dressed, and impossibly clean “poor” children as beggars or peasants. These were popular with female buyers who were interested in pieces showing compassion or sentiment.  (In fairness to Bougereau, can you recall ever seeing a painting where the subject’s feet were not clean? I mean, not even dusty, let alone muddy? I can’t--.) I had the impression that these were the 19th century equivalent of the “big-eyed children” of Margaret Keane in the mid-20th century.

By 1900, the end of the show’s period, new styles of painting, such as Impressionism and Realism, were making inroads with critics and collectors. However, Bougereau continued his impressive output until his death in 1905 at age 79. It is estimated that he finished more than 800 paintings in his lifetime. The notes at the exhibition show that his works were the foundation of many important private art collections, which went on to become public or academic gallery collections.

We were very glad to see this interesting exhibit. The exhibit continues through May 12th.

*Orestes, son of Agamemnon, gets one of the rawest deals in classical myth. Filial duty requires him to avenge his father’s murder. However, his mother, Clytemnestra, is guilty of it, and, when he kills her, he is punished by the Furies for the sin of matricide.

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Alita: Battle Angel

On Sunday, February 24th, we went to see Alita: Battle Angel, the latest CGI-enhanced live action movie to be adapted from a popular manga.

The world is a cyberpunk dystopia. Alita is a “total-replacement” cyborg, a human brain in an otherwise robotic body. Her comatose head and still-functioning life-support core are found in a junk pile by cybersurgeon Dr. Ido (Christoph Waltz) and reactivated after he attaches them to a new body—the body he had built for his young daughter who died before she could use it. The cyborg is amnesic, not remembering her name or background, so Ido calls her by his daughter’s name, Alita. If nothing else, Alita (Rosa Salazar) proves to have exceptional combat reflexes, and ingrained knowledge of a long-lost martial arts form. She establishes a friendship with Hugo (Keean Johnson) a cheerful hustler doing anything he can to get along in the post-apocalyptic slum that Earth has become three hundred years after an apparently mutually destructive war with its breakaway Martian colony.  Alita runs afoul of cyborg criminals, develops a rivalry with ruthless bounty hunters, and becomes targeted for what remains of her advanced technology.

Although there’s a lot of “battle” in the story, I was impressed by the complexity of the plot and the characterization. None of the main characters are only what they seem at first meeting, with hidden, usually, but not exclusively, darker sides.  I was also impressed with the visualization of the ruined world, and with the realization of cyborg combat, with its inhuman speed and power.  I had wondered if the CGI enlargement of Salazar’s eyes (what I call “anime eyes”) would make the movie too “uncanny valley”, but I got used to it quite rapidly, and I thought the effect worked well.

I enjoyed the movie, and with its obvious sequel-hook ending, would go see a second installment, if there is one. It seems to have done better than Ghost in the Shell, interesting considering that the same “whitewashing” complaints leveled at Ghost could apply to this one: in manga, Alita sometimes has an Asian skin tone, and Asiatic eye-shapes, but not a peep about this film that I saw. (Although apparently there was some criticism to that effect.)

Of course, a lot of criticism needs to be taken with a grain of salt, and with context. Some of the early criticism I’ve seen poked at the scene in which, after Alita’s first, girlish, cyborg body is wrecked (the one built by Ido), and she is hooked into a salvaged higher-tech Martian chassis, its nanotech reconfigures itself into a more mature body shape. People who critique this are missing that the youthful body was not her body, and, when we finally see her in flashbacks, she looks then as she does later: so, you really have to know the full story to critique sensibly.

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Royal Shakespeare Company: Troilus and Cressida

On Tuesday evening, February 26th, we went to see the movie theater presentation of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, in a new presentation by the Royal Shakespeare Company. We were interested since this is a rare Shakespeare. (We saw it when American Players Theater did it in 2012, but haven’t seen it go by since--.) Upon seeing it again, I was reminded that this is a really talky script—lots of great lines, but there are lots and LOTS of lines overall. The RSC production was another post-apocalyptic setting (“Mad Max” specifically referenced in the pre-show talks), which worked pretty well, and gave the producers the opportunity to cast women in a number of traditionally male roles, for example Agamemnon (Suzanne Bertish), Ulysses (Adjoa Andoh), Aeneas (Amanda Harris), and Thersites (Sheila Reid). In one of the most interesting bits of casting, the role of Cassandra, the prophetess cursed by Apollo so that no one believes her, was played by Charlotte Arrowsmith, an actress who is deaf and does not speak. The scenes in which she is frantically trying to warn the Trojans by signs and non-verbal sounds, were amazingly effective and affecting as they totally fail to appreciate what she is trying to tell them.

There were some interesting emphases in this production that I hadn’t recalled as much from prior shows, notably the scheming between Nestor (Jim Hooper) and Ulysses to get Achilles back in the fight. In the Illiad, and in the version of the play I am familiar with, Hector kills Patroclus believing him to be Achilles, which motivates Achilles to revenge. In this show, her plot to move Achilles to action by rigging a lottery so that the chance to duel Hector falls to his rival, Ajax, doesn’t work, and in the next day’s battle, Ulysses assassinates Patroclus, and blames his death on Hector. This takes Ulysses’ cunning and cynicism rather farther than I thought justified. Also, she kills him with a pistol, which was jarring since no other guns are used in the show.

The title characters, played by Gavin Fowler and Amber James, are fun to watch and carry their parts well, although the characters’ motivations are mercurial. Oliver Ford Davies as the voluble Pandarus, was almost too effective, as I got tired of listening to him almost immediately. In this case, the fault is with Shakespeare, not the actor. Every major character seems to have at least one notable rant, and those by Ulysses, Agamemnon, and Troilus are particularly wordy.

That said, this was an interesting production, and we were glad to have seen it. The play was further enlivened by a musical score by percussionist Evelyn Glennie, which helped develop a nicely barbarous atmosphere.

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