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December 11, 2006

'The Fantastic Heads of Franz Xaver Messerschmidt'


Above, the title of a show of sculptures by the 18th century Austrian sculptor, up at Liebieghaus in Frankfurt, Germany until March 11, 2007.

Four pieces from the exhibition appear above and below.

I'd never heard of this artist until I read Michael Glover's review of the show, which appeared in the December 8, 2006 Financial Times and follows.

    Heads that turn towards the future

    Some artists seem wholly out of key with their times. The 18th-century Austrian sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (1736-83) had been out of the public eye for 200 years, and then, in the past decade or so, began to emerge from obscurity. Two years ago he was in a group show at the Grand Palais in Paris, which was an extended examination of the artist as clown; this year, some of the works in the exhibition of his work in Frankfurt were displayed beside paintings by Francis Bacon at Compton Verney in the UK to demonstrate how much the two artists had in common. Works by Messerschmidt that come up for sale command millions of dollars.


    The Frankfurt show is the first monographic exhibition of his extraordinary "character heads", a series of grotesque portrait busts, made in lead or pewter, and based in part on representations of himself. There are nearly 60 of these in existence, of which almost half are on display here. Most were created during the last decade of Messerschmidt's life, and they were made not for official patrons, but to please himself. By this time he was living in Bratislava, miles from the circles of aristocratic influence in which he had moved as a young man.

    His youth had seemed gilded. He was the nephew of Johannes Baptist Straub, a sculptor to the court in Munich, and Messerschmidt's early works include a representation of the Austrian Empress Maria Theresa, dated 1765, a photograph of which we can see in this show. It is in full-blown Baroque style — majestic, confident, idealised. Messerschmidt was clearly a master at the art of doing what people in power wanted him to do.

    With advancing age came problems. Messerschmidt was passed over for academic posts. There were whisperings that he might be a little mad. His patrons either died or took an apologetic step or two back. He retired to Bratislava, where legend suggests that he lived a life of heroic indigence, although in fact he seems to have kept a servant or two, and to have welcomed a good many influential visitors.


    The busts are displayed in four intimate rooms of Frankfurt's sculpture museum. But thanks to a series of alcoves and arches, these rooms open into others — which underlines just how far apart Messerschmidt and his Baroque contemporaries were. One room of heads is peered into, for example, by a smoothly idealised portrait bust of Mademoiselle Servat by Jean-Antoine Houdon, dated 1777, serene and beautiful on her marble plinth. When we stare at what she is gazing at, we understand why her eyes are slightly averted.

    It is a spectacle of near-buffoonish horror. Everything Messerschmidt is doing in his character heads seems to fly in the face of the conventions of the time. The faces are twisted and screwed into the most alarming grimaces. There are almost no clues to place them within a definable social context. They are wildly adrift in the world.


    What is so exciting about this show is the way this shocking and delightful work seems to reach far into the future, and to be hardly of its own time at all. It is about the troubled relationship between soul and body. Charles Baudelaire would have loved it. It seems in touch with the mood of Sartre's existentialism, in which man creates who or what he chooses to be. It is vertiginous and, at the same time, familiar.

December 11, 2006 at 04:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Experts' Expert: Tim Page picks the best recording of the complete Beethoven symphonies


Page is the very knowledgeable classical music critic of the Washington Post.

In yesterday's Arts section he reviewed a new Bernard Haitink recording with the London Symphony Orchestra of the nine symphonies, then started considering alternatives.

Long story short: He wrote, "Still, all in all, I think I'd opt for the second of Karajan's recordings, with the Berlin Philharmonic on Deutsche Gramaphon, which dates from the early 1960s but still sounds spectacular."

That recording's cover is pictured above.

Page's article follows.

    Haitink & Beethoven: A Brisk, Bright Match

    When he wasn't out storming the heavens, Ludwig van Beethoven was among our most playful and beguiling composers. Just think of the last movement of the First Symphony — a marvelous subversion of our expectations that begins as Olympian proclamation but grows less sure of its own importance with each passing note and finally erupts into a gleeful romp, exactly the opposite of what the composer had seemed to promise.

    It is this lighter Beethoven that Bernard Haitink brings to brilliant life in his new recording of the complete symphonies, recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra and issued on the ensemble's own LSO Live label. Haitink's Beethoven is generally swift, streamlined, objective, elemental; he phrases in broad strokes, without elaborate italicizing, and one is always aware of the music's pulse. In general his conceptions are based on dance rhythms and folk song rather than metaphysical rumination, and he gives the percussion such a hyper-prominent importance that some of the movements come perilously close to sounding like timpani concertos.

    Still, those in search of the "cosmic" Beethoven may be disappointed. Fortunately there are many other choices. Indeed, time was when a recording of the Beethoven symphonies was a rite of passage for conductors. Felix Weingartner made the first cycle in the 1930s, to be followed within a little more than a decade by Willem Mengelberg, Arturo Toscanini and Wilhelm Furtwangler — all versions that remain in print to this day. Over the course of his long career, Herbert von Karajan made four complete recordings, Leonard Bernstein made two, and there have been admirable renditions by Otto Klemperer, Bruno Walter, George Szell, Roger Norrington and dozens of others — the best of which offer distinctly personal perspectives on these masterpieces.

    And "masterpiece" is the word, for there can be no doubt that these symphonies represent the very center of the classical music canon. Setting aside the ensembles that concentrate only on early music or the 20th-century repertory, there is hardly an orchestra in the United States or Europe that fails to include at least one Beethoven symphony in its yearly program; most of our major ensembles run through a complete cycle of the symphonies every few years. No other composer has such standing.

    Returning to the set at hand, which is also available on six separate discs, I find Haitink most satisfying in the more modest symphonies — the First, Second, Fourth and Eighth. His Symphony No. 5 is brusque but often very exciting, with one of the fastest final movements ever recorded. I wish that Haitink took it a little easier with the "Pastorale" Symphony, which can seem an infusion of purest musical serotonin when done perfectly, and I find his performance of the Symphony No. 7 exhilaratingly brisk one moment and a little forced the next. But it is the Symphony No. 9 that really strikes me as a misfire.

    Perhaps some of this may be generational, for I am incapable of listening to this as just another piece of music. Indeed, in general company, if you talk of a "Ninth Symphony," it will be immediately assumed that you are referring to Beethoven's (despite the fact that Schubert, Dvorak, Bruckner and Mahler, among others, also wrote estimable "Ninths" to close out their careers). After the end of World War II, for example, Furtwangler chose this to reopen the Bayreuth Festival in Germany; the recording of this event, which has been available continuously for half a century, is extraordinarily moving, the choral finale proudly reaffirming the brotherhood of man at the close of the most destructive war in history. More recently, Bernstein elected to conduct the Symphony No. 9 to celebrate the collapse of the Berlin Wall in the amazing autumn of 1989.

    In short, no matter what our personal religious convictions may be, the Beethoven Ninth has taken on the status of secular holy music for the world. But Haitink is startlingly literalist — no great gasp of terror at the end of the first movement, no melting into eternity in the timeless adagio. The finale is spirited (with adept soloists Twyla Robinson, Karen Cargill, John Mac Master and Gerald Finley) but there are many more ecstatic exaltations out there.

    One thing is clear from these discs: The London Symphony Orchestra is now probably not only the best orchestra England has ever had but one of the finest in the world — marvelously blended, top to bottom, with lush and reflexive playing. (For further evidence, look into Colin Davis's amazing LSO recording of the Bruckner Ninth Symphony, the finale of which often sounds as much like the late Renaissance music of Palestrina as it does like something by Bruckner's hero and model, Richard Wagner.)

    What set of the Beethoven symphonies should you buy? Bernstein's performances all have their moments (his "Pastorale" with the Vienna Philharmonic is especially spacious and appreciative). Mengelberg, on Music and Arts, is eccentric but fascinating; Szell, on Sony Classical, is immaculately polished but a little cold; Furtwangler, on EMI, brings a searching intensity to this music that many listeners find unmatched (although I still find him somewhat humor-challenged in the lighter moments; if you could cross him with Haitink, you'd have a sale).

    Still, all in all, I think I'd opt for the second of Karajan's recordings, with the Berlin Philharmonic on Deutsche Grammophon, which dates from the early 1960s but still sounds spectacular. It is, if you like, a set of interpretations that sticks fairly close to the proverbial 50-yard line, with few eccentricities or surprises. But Beethoven's spirit comes through unfettered, and that is surprise enough to keep one listening, again and again.

December 11, 2006 at 03:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

KaionWAVE Waterless Washing Machine


Did you get it?

It's the home appliance of the future, with one limitation: it's only capable of cleaning nano-coated fabrics.

So best bring your wardrobe with you if you're time travelling.

[via Nicholas Spencer and The Financial Times]

December 11, 2006 at 02:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

BehindTheMedspeak: Ear3 Personal Sonic Threat Indicator


Long story short: it's a handheld device (above) invented by the Hollins Communications Research Institute which measures ambient noise or the sound from an earbud.

The lighted indicator is green when the noise level is safe, alternates between green and red when it's dangerously loud, shows steady red when there's high danger and flashing red when you're in immediate danger, with a sound level of 100 decibels or more.

The website has a quite informative page replete with hearing facts.


"Because once your hearing is damaged, there is no getting it back."


December 11, 2006 at 01:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Leaves — by C.K. Williams

A pair of red leaves spinning on one another
in such wildly erratic patterns over a frozen field
it's hard to tell one from another and whether
if they were creatures they'd be in combat or courting
or just exalting in the tremendous of their being.

Humans can be like that, capricious, aswirl,
not often enough in exalting, but courting, yes,
and combat; so often in combat, in rancor, in rage,
we rarely even remember what error or lie
set off this phase of our seeming to have to slaughter.

Not leaves, then, which after all in their season
give themselves to the hammer of winter,
become sludge, become muck, become mulch,
while we, still seething, broiling, stay as we are,
vexation and violence, ax, atom, despair.

December 11, 2006 at 12:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

The silhouette artist at work


Above, a photo from yesterday's (December 10, 2006) Washington Post magazine story about Annandale, Virginia-based Marie Hartshorn Cheek, a practitioner of the lost art of silhouette cutting, last in vogue "when Pierre L'"Enfant was still drawing up plans for Washington."

[via Brendan Coffey]

December 11, 2006 at 11:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

AddictingGames.com — 'Because work is boring'


Instead, while away the day here.

December 11, 2006 at 10:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Printing Toaster


That's right: in goes the bread and out comes your toast with a smiley face or birthday cake or other picture baked right into the surface.

I can't help but be reminded of the legendary Video Toaster from back in the day that did far more amazing things.

From the website:

    Breakfast-Art Image Toaster

    Bring the fun back into the most important meal of the day with the breakfast-art image bread toaster.

    Turn your toast into a fun, festive work of art in just minutes!

    This breakfast-art picture-making electric toaster allows the kids, or the kid in all of us, to actually have fun with breakfast!

    Using fun image plates, this bread toaster leaves one of four playful heat imprints — a smiley face, birthday cake, sunshine or coffee cup — right on your piece of toast!

    Chrome breakfast-art image bread and bagel toaster is fully functional.

    This revolutionary toaster comes complete with 7 different heat settings; reheat, defrost and cancel options; and a slide-out crumb tray for quick and easy clean-up!

    Toast image plates can also be removed to make room for any sandwich bread, waffles or bagels!

    Additional electric toaster holiday image plates are also available — add a festive flare to any holiday get-together or just a casual breakfast with the family with additional holiday bread toaster image plates.

    These special holiday designs include a snowman, Santa, a snowflake and a Christmas tree!


Of course, the real killer app would be to let you create your own designs... what fun that would be, eh?


December 11, 2006 at 09:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

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