Modern Venus # 10

 

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The one thing I remember about doing this painting is the zipper. I thought I could do some sort of visual shorthand. But, at some point, I realized that if I wanted the painting to work, the only thing I could do was paint each and every tooth. It was painful at first, but after I settled into it, It became sort of meditative.

Modern Venus #10 by Edward Weiss, Gouache and Acrylic on watercolor paper, 16″ X 22”, 1999 
To see a portfolio  from the series click here.

Cezanne Gets the Last Laugh and “Maria Maria”

Cezanne Gets the Last Laugh

Very few works of fiction are convincing at depicting a painter. Usually things go wonky as soon as the fictional artist starts talks about painting.  These guys read like they’ve never seen a real painting up close,  much less done one. I get the impression that most writers, are  incapable of understanding painters.  Most famously, Emille Zola wrote a novel (“L’Oeuvre,”) based on his lifelong (up to that point) friend, Paul Cezanne.  In the book, the Cezanne character devotes his life to painting, tragically never realizing his own lack of talent.  In Zola’s defense, it could be argued that “L’Oeuvre” reflected Cezanne’s lack of success up to that point. But of course it also reflected the fact that Zola didn’t recognize that his (soon to be ex-)friend was a genius.

Off-hand, the only book I can think of where the painter seemed truly believable was The Horse’s Mouth, by Joyce Carey. As a young man, Carey had seriously studied art and intended a career as a painter, so perhaps that helped. But the madman/ genius/drunken bum that is Gulley Jimson  (the book’s main character) is not the sort of artist that any art student would dream up.  Regardless, It’s a wonderful creation. The Horse’s Mouth was once considered a small masterpiece and now (as far as I can tell) it’s virtually forgotten. I would certainly recommend it, along with Carey’s Second Trilogy, which is even more obscure. But, getting back to the matter at hand. My poor opinion of the way painters have fared in novels, made me a little apprehensive when I set out to write about Maria Maria, the young artist in my all-ages book, Peter Pigeon of Snug HarborEspecially, since I had some avenues of description cut off that wouldn’t be suitable for young readers.

But I comforted myself with the fact that I never thought of myself as a writer (it was just something I stumbled into and made a living from through hack work). And sure enough, as soon as I started writing about Maria Maria, we felt like old friends. I don’t know if I defied the writer/painter hex, but I had a lot of fun writing about Maria Maria. And that’s unusual for me,   writing’s usually  a misery.

Gradually the strains of ambition, disappointment, and fear, drive Maria Maria to point of madness. (Even if  kids were going to read the book, she’s still an artist.) But in the post below, Maria Maria is  at her sunny, optimistic, (if already a bit nutty), best.

Excerpt From Chapter 8 “Maria Maria”

Now all the artists were moving in with their paints and canvases, sculptures and blowtorches, stuffed armadillos, phosphorescent snowshoes and all sorts of peculiar things. Peter hadn’t seen this much activity since the Snugs finished the Captain’s South Sea grog at his last party.

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Hannah, the groundskeeper, was running all over the place trying to help the artists find their studios — which were to be set up in the rooms where the Snugs had lived.

Maria Maria charged over to Hannah and begged her for a different studio. “Please,” she said, “I can’t share a studio with Roger. He’s just too creepy to share a studio with!”

Hannah didn’t really think Roger was all that creepy. But she did remember that when she was Maria Maria’s age, certain guys really did seem pretty irritating. And she wanted everyone to be happy.

“Well,” said Hannah, “Everything is taken except for Captain Hardtack’s room. It’s much smaller than the others because, being a captain, he had it all to himself. Well, except for Peter. You would have to share it with Peter.”

“That’s all right,” Maria Maria said. “I don’t mind if he doesn’t. Can I talk to him?”

“Well, I guess you could talk to him. Captain Hardtack certainly did. He thought that Peter understood every word he was saying.”

“Why wouldn’t, Peter understand?” Maria Maria, asked. “Does Peter have a hearing problem? I know sign language, I’m sure he could understand me.”

“Peter’s a pigeon,” Hannah explained.

“Oh, wow, that is so cool!” said Maria Maria. “I would so love to talk to Peter and see if I could be his roommate.”

After being introduced to Peter, Maria Maria proceeded to tell him the story of her life. She felt he should have this type of information if they were going to be roommates. And anyway she enjoyed talking about herself. Maria Maria’s original name was Maria Colacco, but she thought that this name sounded very ordinary.

So just last year, Illo#11AMariaSmalleron her 21st birthday, she changed her first name to Otto-Von-Bismarck. This made her parents very unhappy, because they thought Maria was a lovely name. Which, of course, it is. So to make them feel better, she changed her first name back to Maria. And to make herself feel better, she changed her last name to Maria. From that point on she was known as Maria Maria and everyone was very happy. Or at least, Maria Maria was very happy, and her parents figured they could live with it. Because once you’ve had a daughter named Otto-Von-Bismarck Colacco, Maria Maria sounds pretty good.

Unfortunately, however, not everyone was as understanding as her parents. In fact, no one at the Slurpee counter at the 7-11 where she worked could get her name right. But Maria Maria was convinced that before long, everyone on Staten island would know and understand the correct way to say her name — even the people at the Slurpee counter. That’s because Maria Maria planned to enter the annual art contest held by the Staten Island Advance and win the cash first prize. It was not only the money she was interested in, though. Maria Maria felt that the world was a pretty dreary place and it was her duty to brighten it up with her art.

Modern Venus # 20

Modern Venus #20 by Edward Weiss, Gouache and Acrylic 22″ X30”, 1999, all rights reserved

As I said in yesterday’s post ,  the Portrait of Coco and Josephine was a continuation of the way I was painting Modern Venus series. So here’s  Modern Venus # 20. And if you want to compare the two it you can click here.

The Most Reviled Form of Art

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Portrait of Coco and Josephine, gouache and acrylic on watercolor paper, 16″ X 20″

There’s probably no more reviled form of art than the pet portrait. I’m not sure why, exactly. Even velvet Elvis paintings have a certain amount of kitsch cache. You never really know what will be looked down on in the art world. I worked as a drawing class model for awhile and there’s a lot of stigma in that too. Sometimes, the same people that are drawing you, are also looking down on you. Even though the nude is an honored tradition in art, there’s an assumption that somebody who takes their clothes off for money must have some kind of problem. Or, if not, they are probably trying to create one. In reality, the opposite is true when you’re working for a drawing class. Figure modeling is one long effort to prevent problems: in your back, your neck, your knees, or whatever.

I did the above portrait of Coco and Josephine for Kate Westray, a friend who gave me a set of flat files. Those are the kind of cabinets made for large works of paper (drawings, watercolors, etc.). It wasn’t a trade. She just offered to give me the flat files and I wanted to do something in return. Flat files are expensive. Even if you want to get rid of them, they’re worth quite a few bucks second hand. So I wanted to repay what I felt was a great act of generosity. I was doing the Modern Venus paintings at the time, but I didn’t offer her one of those, as I had a feeling  (speaking of stigma) that the Venus’s weren’t the sort of thing that she would want to hang on the wall. As it turned out, neither was my portrait of Coco and Josephine. Although Kate said she liked it, she ended up giving it back to me.

Even though it does belong to most despised form of art (as I mentioned), I like it too, though I admit it’s an odd creation. I set about to do the painting exactly the same way I approached  my Venus’s — with solid blocks of intense pin-up color, composed  in the manner of  modernist abstraction. But being a portrait, I had to include their faces. Faces (at least to me) remove the ambiguity between abstraction and representation, that I was playing with in the Modern Venus series.

As soon as you’re looking straight at a face, the identity of the sitter overrides any perception of shapes and colors. Coco and Josephine were rescue cats and they didn’t like strangers. Whenever I saw them, they looked at me in the querulous (slightly berzerk) way that I showed in the painting,  then quickly took off for a safe place.  So, in retrospect,  it’s really no wonder Kate didn’t want this on the wall,  as Coco and Josephine were a lot happier looking when she was alone with them. Happy is the way you want to remember the things you love, not berzerk.

This part of the weekly Post Week of April 15 – 21 Complete. The Most Reviled Form of Art, Cezanne Gets the Last Laugh, Maria Maria, & More Modern Venus. If you want to read it click here.

HighLights From Last week April 7th, 2013 through April 14th, 2013, in My Fabulous Career

Welcome to my fabulous career. On every day between Easter and Winter Solstice in the year 2013, I will post something from my fabulous career. To see a post just click one of the pages on your right. If you’re not sure what  you’re looking for, try the search feature on the upper right hand side of this page.

To see some highlights from the past week click the headline above.

Portrait of Myself as a Young man with Eyeliner and Shimmer Lights

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This was sort of a strange exercise. I’ve been thinking of doing a series of paintings of the East Village of the 1980s (mainly street scenes) and I’m not quite sure how I want things to look. So Just to get started,  I did a portrait of myself the way I looked back in those days,  using  a  number of different sources for reference. It’s gouache on a 16″ X 20″ surface called watercolor board (made by Arches). It’s cheaper than the 300 pound watercolor paper I usually use for gouache, but I didn’t really care for it.

It’s an odd experience to look at your past self from a distance of decades. Much odder than looking back at other people (who seem more comprehensible with the passage of time). When you look back at yourself, you realize how much you’ll never really understand.

Portrait of Myself as a Middle-Aged man With a Backache

Hampden #1webAfter I did the previously posted portrait of my younger self  back in the East Village, I felt an urge to bring things up to date.  So I did this drawing. It’s pen, brush and Ink on bristol board. Like the piece posted yesterday it’s 16″ X 20″. It’s full title is “Hampden #1: Portrait of Myself as a Middle-Aged man With a Backache.”  I’ve got some herniated discs and when my back’s acting up it affects my expression. It affects a lot of things actually. Both self-portraits were done this year.

The Most Famous Face in the World

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This is the other story that I did for Brooklyn Bridge Magazine that I’m still fond of.Same editor as the  previous story. Usually editors are a blessing, but not this guy. So once again, I did a  revised version at a reading and that’s the one pasted below. There the similarity ends. I discovered the John Bunny story myself and it was a remarkable story, regardless of embellishments. By contrast , the Brooklyn Bridge Chewing Gum story  falls into the category of much of my work-for-hire writing. It was a desperate struggle to make something interesting out of  something that I couldn’t care less about. Really, who cares why people in Italy and Greece like Brooklyn Bridge chewing gum and no one else does?  Well, If you’re writing about it, you have to come up with something that will make yourself care and that’s a lot of extra work.

It didn’t take any effort to be fascinated by John Bunny’s story. It still fascinates me. He was called  ”the most famous face in the world.” And that was accurate. He was the world’s most famous movie star prior to Chaplin and he is now completely forgotten. That’s a good enough hook, but it was the startling prescience of his statement at the end of the piece that continues to haunt me. Even the editor remarked on that. “Great ending,” he said. Then he preceded to move it to a different part of the story where it had no impact. Of course I put it back when I revised the piece.

Another thing that haunted me was the guy sitting to my left, at the Brooklyn Public Library, one day when I was researching the story.  He was also  looking at a microfilm version of  a pre-WW1 Brooklyn Eagle. Except for light blue eyes that had the reflective power of an LED, and a thick 5 O’clock shadow, my fellow researcher was a dead ringer for John Bunny. I fought back the urge to ask him if he was related. ‘He won’t know what I’m talking about,’ I thought. ‘No one’s heard of John Bunny. Even though he was once the most famous face in the world.‘

The Most Famous Face In The World

On a cool October day in 1910, a stranger, with the unlikely name of John Bunny, appeared on the lot of Vitagraph Studios in Flatbush. He was a, short, overweight, middle-aged Brooklynite, who had the annoying habit of falling asleep when people were talking to him. But that day he was as wide awake as he had ever been in his life.

When Bunny spotted the two managing partners of the studio, J Stuart BIackton and Albert E. Smith, he leaped into the air, and shouted “Look, can either of you gentleman do this?”  Then Bunny gracefully clicked his heels together three times before returning to earth. “I want a chance at the pictures!” he implored the surprised partners, “just a chance!”

They were not impressed. But, as luck would have it, they needed a new comedy man. And Bunny insisted he could do the job. “He had no fears,” Smith recalled, in his autobiography Two Reels and a Crank,“ he said he would do a picture for us for free, but we said he would be given the regular pay, 5 dollars a day.”

It seemed a generous enough offer for a newcomer who had caught the movie bug. But as shooting commenced, it became obvious to Smith that “this 300 pound mimic of human feelings was not new to acting.” Inquiries revealed that the intruder on the lot was a veteran character actor who had starred on Broadway.

“Do I get the job?” Bunny asked the embarrassed partners, after a screening of his debut film Dr. Cupid.

“Mr. Bunny, anything we could afford to pay you would be an insult to a man of your talents,” Smith replied.

“Make me an offer.”

“It’s no use, the most we can pay is $40 a week.”

“I’ll take it,” Bunny said.

The partners knew they were getting a bargain, but they didn’t realize the extent. John Bunny was about to become the most famous movie star in the world. That may sound like an exaggeration, but it’s the simple truth. During his brief film career (1910-1915), Motion Picture Magazine pronounced Bunny: “The Most Famous Face In The World!” The Detroit News described him as the “World’s Funniest Man.” The New York Times credited him with reviving “Silent Comedy After A Lapse Of Centuries.” And the New York Dramatic Mirror declared:”Bunny’s world-wide fame has never been equaled.” The list of superlatives goes on and on. An estimated 7 million people per day viewed John Bunny films during the peak of his popularity.

With a name like “John Bunny” it might seem that he was destined for comedy. But heredity indicated otherwise. The Bunnys were an English seafaring family working on their ninth generation of sailors when John was born in New York in 1863. Growing up in Brooklyn, he attended public and parochial school there, clerked in a general store and then ran off to join a minstrel show.

Calling Brooklyn home, but looking for acting work wherever he could find it in touring companies and regional theater, Bunny finally reached star status on Broadway in 1903 with his appearance as ‘The Squire’ in Way Down East.

But he never found good parts that easy to come by. So, in 1910, after completing a role as the principal comedian in Fluffy Ruffles, Bunny took the unprecedented step of looking for work in films — a new medium despised by virtually all stage actors. He did it because movies “were cutting into the legitimate [theater] so much I was afraid I’d starve to death if I didn’t.” And unlike his fellow thespians, he believed in the future of the new art. But if Bunny was expecting a warm reception based on his theatrical achievements, he was rudely surprised. The actor would later recall, “I applied to different picture concerns only to be repulsed in every case except the last.” So he took Vitagraph’s $40 a week.

Starve, he did not. Bunny was an instant sensation whose weekly salary rose to $1000 within a few years. Bums Mantle, the era’s pre-eminent theater critic described the phenomenon this way; “He was a good actor [on stage], but never did he set fire to rivers of imagination… Then he went in for motion pictures and the face and frame that held him to a restricted number of parts in the spoken drama, became his biggest asset before the camera. He was one of the funniest things at which anyone pointed a lens”

Bunny’s great contribution to film comedy was his focus on characterization.  As Motion Picture magazine explained in 1916: “Previously to his advent into Screenland, film comedies were either ‘chases’ or grotesque trick photography.” But Bunny sent audiences reeling just by reacting to his perennial costar, the angular Flora Finch. Way before Lon Chancy earned a similar accolade for his make-up skills, Photoplay called Bunny “The man of 1,000,000 faces” because of his endless variety of expressions.

More than just a comedian, Bunny was also keenly aware of the potential of the new medium. In 1912, when most westerns were shot in New Jersey and European settings were created on back lots, Bunny took a Vitagraph crew to England to shoot a series of films based on the Pickwick Papers. It was on this trip that the Brooklynite realized just how far his fame had spread. He was recognized everywhere. Striking dockworkers actually interrupted a riot to congratulate the comedian when he inadvertently passed by. Side trips to Paris and Berlin induced similar, if less raucous, responses. It was as if he had never left Brooklyn where fans flocked to see Bunny honored as King of the Coney Island Mardi Gras and ate up publicity photos of him tending his tomato patch in Flatbush.

Late in 1914, Bunny took time off from Vitagraph to tour in Bunny In Funnyland, a lavish musical revue created to capitalize on his fame. It received good notices in Baltimore, where it opened. But, due to shoddy financing, the show went belly up after two weeks. At first it seemed the whole troupe would be sent home without a pay check. But then, as Albert Smith put it: “John Bunny’s compassion struck hard at the misfortune. He rallied their courage, told them he would keep the show going… with his own money.” And so he did for 8 more weeks. But the strain of reorganizing the tour proved too much for Bunny. Physically and mentally exhausted, he was living every actors’ nightmare — unraveling onstage. A Chicago review compared his performance to a funeral.

He returned to Brooklyn and spent a month in bed with a nervous breakdown. Then he sprang back to work, full of ambitious plans. But before long, he was bed-ridden again. This time he was diagnosed with Bright’s disease, a kidney illness. A few days later, on Monday, April 26, 1915, John Bunny died in his home at 1416 Glenwood Road in Flatbush

The next day The Chicago Tribune summed up the sentiments of the world : “John Bunny lives; he is to be continued; he has achieved immortality.” But, as we now know, the Tribune was wrong. Only a handful of the approximately 200 films Bunny made for Vitagraph exist. These shorts display a capable character actor, but they do little to explain Bunny’s phenomenal ability to amuse earlier audiences. “The most famous face in the world” is forgotten.

This fate would not have surprised John Bunny. At the height of his fame he reflected:

“If I should break my leg and be sent to the dustpile they would forget about me tomorrow. The popularity of an actor is short-lived. They enjoy themselves while living, because they’ll be a long time dead.”

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The Most Famous Face In The World is a non-fiction essay that was part of a collection of stories, titled Peter Pigeon of Snug Harbor and Other Tales of New York, that won the 2006 COAHSI  Award for Literary Excellence sponsored by JP Morgan Chase and Poets & Writers. It was presented at a Junefest reading at the NYPL’s St. George Library Center that year. The essay is based on an article that appeared in BROOKLYN BRIDGE MAGAZINE, 11/97, titled Why Bunny Isn’t Funny Anymore.