Thursday, November 29, 2007

Salome: The Aschcan School and the American School

Alex Ross, the New Yorker's classical music critic has published a marvelous first book, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (New York, 2007), which begins with the premier of Richard Strauss's opera Salome on May 16, 1906 in Graz, Austria. Ross implicitly marks this performance with the simultaneous overlap between an old world and the birth of a new world. Following Ross, I started listening to the opera (Karajan/Vienna Philharmonic, EMI recording). Indeed, the complicated story of modernist aesthetics may be situated at the termination of the grand operatic tradition, at the erotic dance of Salome, where orientalism intersects dissonance.

At the same time, I have been reading about the Ashcan Group that includes George Bellows, William Glackens, Robert Henri, George Luks, Everett Shinn, and John Sloan (Edward Hopper was connected, as well). Started in Philadelphia as the Eight Group, these American painters flourished in New York between 1897 and 1917 . The discovery of this group, I owe to my research on Charles H. Morgan II, director of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (1936-1938) and important excavator of Corinth. He is best known for the landmark
Corinth XI: The Byzantine Pottery (Cambridge, Mass., 1942) and for his activities in Amherst College, whose faculty he joined in 1930. Morgan essentially built Amherst's art history department and oversaw the collection and construction of the Mead Art Museum. So what does this all have to do with the Ashcan Group? Although I have not fully figured out the direct intellectual motivations, Morgan wrote Bellows' biography (George Bellows: Painter of America, New York, 1965), which is a little striking considering that Bellows was a radical Leftist from Ohio with little connections to either the world of archaeology, or Massachusetts high society. The class politics between the Ashcan School and rick patrons, I suspect, did not limit their intersection. After all, in 1916, Gertrude Whitney Vanderbilt commissioned Henri for a portrait.

It just so happens that I was making these historiograhic discoveries while also teaching a course on Medieval Art at the Art History Department of SUNY New Paltz (Fall 2005), where I spent some time with Bellows'
Roumanian Girl (1921) at the Samuel Dorsky Museum (left image). The painting resonates with the exoticizing and promiscuous lens that the Ashcan artists used to depict some of its immigrant subject matter. For me, the Roumanian girl is caught between a status of the Madonna and a working girl.

While reading Rebecca Zurier, Robert W. Snyder, and Virginia M. Mecklenburg's
Metropolitan Lives: The Ashcan Artists and Their New York (New York, 1995), I learned about the painting of Salome (see beginning of post) by Robert Henri ca. 1909. Strauss's opera premiered at the Metropolitan in 1907; it was canceled after a single performance "on purely moral grounds" but was revived in 1909 at the Hammerstein's Manhattan Opera House. When Henri submitted Salome to the National Academy of Design the same year, however, it was rejected. As Zurier and Snyder argue, what was "too much" about Henri's painting was not the naked legs or the blatant eroticism, but rather the saturation of such images in contemporary popular culture. By 1909, New York was swarming with performances of Salome. Henri's painting simply emulated the commercial "Salomania" of popular culture evident in dozens of performances and exotic dancers. Irving Berlin immortalized "Salomania" in his song "Sadie Salome Go Home." The first verse gives you the idea: "Sadie Cohen left her happy home/To become an actress lady/On the stage she soon became the rage/As the only real Salomy baby."

Another indication of American "Salomania" can be found in the Metropolitan Museum. In 1912, an American dealer managed to outbid a French collector in the purchase of Henri Regnault's
Salome (1870). A trustee of the Metropolitan eventually bought the painting and donated it to the Museum in 1916. New York's new Salome acquisition depicts a Mediterranean peasant girl; to get a flavor of the sensual language, especially in describing the unruly black hair, see Bryson Burroughs acquisition article in The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 11 (1916), pp. 163-166. The authors of Metropolitan Lives do a wonderful job arguing how Salome's orientalism had a new significance in the context of New York's immigrants (like the Roumanian girl) that the Ashcan Group painted with fervor.

In reading
Metropolitan Lives, I discovered an intriguing detail. Henri's Salome is in the Mead Art Museum, the institution that Morgan built at Amherst. The painting seems to have been acquired in 1973 and it was probably purchased by Charles Morgan himself. Although Morgan was only nine years old when Henri completed Salome, I wonder whether "Salomania" might have influenced the aesthetics of Morgan. I suspect that the oriental immigrant fantasy may have influenced Byzantium's heterosexual imagination and might help us explain why Morgan, a classically trained art historian, so quickly fell in love with Byzantium in Corinth.

On a totally unrelated note, the most recent Ashcan painting that I have seen is George Bellow's portrait of his daughter,
Lady Jean (1924) at the Yale University Art Gallery (left). Isn't she sweet but eerie? I'm also very very eager to make it to Washington, D.C. over the Holidays to catch the Edward Hopper exhibition at the National Gallery (till January 21, 2008). See:

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States