Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Grace Kelly Exhibit and Rear Window with talk by Piers Handling

The Grace Kelly Exhibit at the Bell Lightbox presents a  retrospective of the actress turned real life princess of Monaco.  Photos are not allowed in the exhibit but luckily there are lots of images of Kelly available on line that give a good representation of what was on display.

The first image seen as you walk through the doors is the striking stylized rendition by Andy Warhol which accentuates her fair skin, blond hair and beautiful eyes.

Home movies show Grace and her siblings as children at the home and at the beach.  Even at a young age, she seemed at ease in front of the camera.

Magazine covers of her early days as a model include a stint selling Old Gold Cigarettes.  Memorabilia such as playbill covers from her theatre days, telegraphs and letters including ones from Alfred Hitchcock, Yul Brynner, Bing Crosby, all give insight into Kelly's short acting career.  One particularly interesting telegram from former agent John Christian Foreman warns Kelly that "Jack Nicolson "wants a closer than fan relationship" but assures her that he would  "monitor the situation and give him a sharp crack across the knuckles" if Nicholson tried anything. 

Although Grace Kelly only made movies for a brief 6 years, several of them are still well known today including "High Noon",  a remake of "High Society" originally starring Katharine Hepburn, and multiple Alfred Hitchcock classics such as "To Catch a Thief" and  "Dial M for Murder".  In "The Country Girl", the movie for which she won an Oscar, she downplayed her good looks to portray the dowdy bitter wife to an alcoholic down and out actor.  Television screens at the exhibit played the trailers from a selection of these movies and the one for "The Country Girl" also showed her accepting the Oscar at the Academy Awards.

Grace Kelly's style and fashion sense provide the main reason to see this exhibit.  Displayed chronologically, the dresses convey her real life fairy tale story spanning from her time in Hollywood through to her reign as "Her Serene Highness Princess Grace of Monaco".    The beautiful silk aquamarine gown with matching full length coat designed by Edith Head which she wore to the Oscars, and the beige bathing suit coverup by Helen Rose which she lounged in for the movie High Society were the early highlights of the exhibit.

The next section focuses on her meeting of Prince Ranier, their engagement and wedding.  A delightful story is told about the floral print dress that she wore when she first met her Prince.  Due to a power outage at her hotel, the dress she planned to wear could not be ironed so she ended up wearing a simple unwrinkled dress that had been made from a McCall's sewing pattern.  I guess this proves that beautiful people can wear a burlap sack and still look good.  The dresses she wore for her engagement and civil ceremony were displayed, as well as the iconic "Kelly bag" which is named for her.

An entire room is devoted to the royal wedding, featuring Kelly's wedding gown which has inspired many future brides including Kate Middleton.  A video of the church ceremony played in the background.  In a display cabinet lay her white beaded shoes (with her name printed on the insoles), a bible and pillow, both also beaded.

The next set of dresses documents Kelly's life as a princess.  She attended many galas and public events, meeting and mingling with political dignitaries including John and Jackie Kennedy, Lester Pearson, Prince Charles and Lady Diana. She was a trend setter, wearing all the latest designers including Chanel, Christian Dior, Yves St. Laurent, Madame Grès.

 Also on display were accessories such as her hats of many colours and styles, large sunglasses and pieces of jewelry including broaches shaped as a poodle, lion and duck.

Accompanying this exhibit, TIFF is showing a series of Grace Kelly movies including the Alfred Hitchcock classic "Rear Window" costarring Jimmy Stewart as the voyeur who thinks he witnesses a murder.  Watching this movie, one is again reminded of Kelly's beauty, grace (pun intended) and style as she parades around in one gorgeous dress after another.

Prior to screening the movie, Piers Handling (CEO of TIFF) gave a talk on the movie, the director and his close friendship with his "cool icy blond" leading lady.  I originally thought it was strange to hold the talk before the movie rather than after.  But since the movie is so iconic and most people would have already seen it before so no plot points were being spoiled, hearing Handling's observations allowed us to watch the movie again with a new perspective.

Handling discussed Hitchcock's strange obsession with blonds and his conflicted feelings for his female stars.  He talks of speculation that Hitchcock was in love or at least obsessed with many of his actresses and acted out his fantasies through his brutalization of them in his films.  Grace Kelly was an exception, since in the movies at least 2 of her 3 movies made with Hitchcock - Rear Window and To Catch a Thief, she escaped unscathed and was portrayed as a strong, self sufficient, intelligent woman.  After she left the Hollywood scene, subsequent Hitchcock movies portrayed his blonds as duplicitous, aloof femme fetales who withhold love and need to be punished (possibly in reaction to her leaving him).

Handling parallels the relationship of Jeff and Lisa (the characters played by Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly) with that of the murderer and his wife.  Lisa wants Jeff to settle down and marry her while he wants to "get rid of her" or elude her clutches.  Handling showed short clips from the movie to illustrate his themes, pointing out camera angles or dialogue or visual effects of significance.  He talked about voyeurism as a central theme and how this topic is all the more relevant in today's age of reality TV, internet and social media where everyone is a photojournalist and news travels around the word in an instant.

Visiting the Grace Kelly exhibit and then watching her in action in a movie provided good insight into her life.  Kelly was actually quite a good actress and it was a shame that her career was so short and even more so that she died so young (from a car crash at age 53).

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Take a photo of a snowman for charity!

I spotted the first one at Roy Thompson Hall but didn't think much about it.. I just took the photo of it because i liked cute sculptures.  But when I saw the second snowman sculpture at Campbell House Museum and a third at City Hall, I realized there was more to this.

It turns out that these are charity snowmen sculptures.  Each snowman photo that is emailed to or texted to 647TagSnow will result in $2 to be donated to Starlight Children's Foundation whose mandate is to improve "the quality of life for children with chronic and life-threatening illnesses and life-altering injuries by providing entertainment, education and family activities that help them cope with the pain, fear and isolation of prolonged illness."

Now I'm on a quest to capture more snowmen sculptures.  I'll try to catch all the ones downtown at least but they seem to be all over the GTA:
  1. Roy Thompson Hall - King & Simcoe
  2. Campbell House - Queen & University
  3. City Hall - Queen & Bay
  4. St Lawrence Market - Berczy Park (Wellington & Scott)
  5. CN Tower (Bremmer Rd & Rees St)
  6. Greektown - Danforth & Logan
  7. Church & Wellesley
  8. Yorkville - Cumberland & Bellair
  9. Distillery District
  10. York St & Queens Quay
  11. Delta Chelsea Inn - Yonge & Gerrard
  12. Eglinton East of Dufferin
  13. Science Centre
  14. Toronto Zoo
  15. Mississauga - Celebration Square
  16. Brampton - Gage Park
  17. Airport
  18. Port Credit - Elmwood & Lakeshore
Like the moose, this is great for tourism and a win for children's charity.

COC Free Concert - Ricker Choi

The Canadian Opera Company continues to sponsor free lunch time concerts at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre in the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.  Recently featured pianist Ricker Choi had a back story that is as interesting as his performance was impressive. 

Despite being gifted with musical talent, Ricker chose instead to pursue a business career by getting an MBA and working full time as a financial risk consultant.  Yet he still finds enough time to hone his piano skills to place second in the Boston and Berlin International Amateur Piano Competitions and play with the Berlin Philharmonica Orchestra.

Showing up in a suit and tie, on a lunch break from his day job at TD Securities, Choi proceeded to wow the audience with 3 classical selections which he played solo, without sheet music.  Prior to each composition, he gave a brief description of the composer, the music and his own personal interpretation of how this piece made him feel or what it meant to him.  This added to the audience's appreciation as we could now try to relate to his interpretations.

For Alexander Scriabin's Sonota #5, he paints the imagery of one floating in space.  In contrast, for Johann Brahm's Opus 118, of which he played 4 out of 6 pieces, Ricker explains how this was written at the end of Brahm's life.  The music is somber, lyrical and contemplative as if the composer is reflecting on his life and foreshadowing his death.  Choi proposes that La Valse by Maurice Ravel is a metaphor for the destruction of Europe during WWI.  It begins with light frothy Venise Waltz music that was popular before the war but eventually morphs into something darker as the waltz melody becomes intermixed with deep thundering notes reflecting the trauma and chaos that war brings to Europe.

Through the hour of skillful playing, Ricker Choi's fingers  would gently float across the keyboard, and then pound forcefully in the climatic moments, terminating one piece with a glissando that ended with his arm raised in the air in a triumphant flourish.  The performance was breathtaking.  If this is what he can accomplish with his "hobby", it is inconceivable what the results could be if he devoted all his time to this. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Costume Exhibit at Bell Lightbox

 The Film Reference Library on the fourth floor of the Bell Lightbox holds rotating free exhibits including the recently completed one on Mary Pickford.  The current exhibit is called "Otherworldly - The Art of Canadian Costume Design" and features the work of Canadian wardrobe designers from various science fiction, fantasy or horror movies.

Woody Harrelson's Defendor costume was created with every day items such as a black turtleneck, duct tape, a fanny pack and a car seat belt, since this was supposed to be a "home-made" super hero uniform.  The actress playing the the alien in the creepy science fiction flick Splice wore a prop tail so that the dress would take the correct shape for digital tail to be added later.  Many costumes came from the horror movies including Orphan (blue dress of the demon child), Gingersnaps (wolf fur headdress) and Survival of the Dead (gory body parts and weapons of torture).

Costumes from fantasies such as The Imaginarium of Doctor Parness or Hank & Mike (two men dressed in pink bunny suits) were more whimsical in nature.  Accompanying the costumes were also movie posters and photographs, and sketches that illustrated the thought process behind the designs.

Several videos demonstrated the techniques of creating the costumes. For Saw VI, multiple shirts are covered  with "blood stains" as red blood-like paint is  smeared on with the hand or splattered from a spray bottle.  For the remake of "The Thing" which is set in Antarctica, a hooded parka is progressively coated with more and more "frost" and is made to look worn and weathered as the movie progresses.

This was an interesting exhibit that is well worth a trip to the fourth floor, all the more so since its free.  Too bad it isn't as well advertised as the blockbuster fee based exhibits on the ground floor (currently showing Grace Kelly, but that's a topic for the next blog entry.)

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Bata Shoe Museum

When you visit a specialty museum that concentrates on a very specific topic like the Bata Shoe Museum does, you wonder how they can sustain enough different content to be interesting.  Based on what we saw on this current visit, another "free day" courtesy of our AGO membership, they don't seem to have much a problem.

Viewing the exhibit called "Roaring Twenties, Heels, Hemlines and High Spirits", I'm struck by how dainty and narrow all the styles were.  Women with short wide feet like mine would not do well in those days.  On that note, I guess the sleek slim-fitting flapper dresses weren't made with height-challenged women in mind either.

The styles of the 1920's were influenced by the Suffragette movement, so the shoes needed to strike a balance between fashion and functionality for the "modern working woman on the go".   Most of the shoes had heels of moderate width and length that looked stylish while still providing stability and balance, an inset strap across the top to hold the foot in place, and sported beautiful designs and patterns.  The navy blue and beige striped shoes have an Art Deco design with scalloped toe and triangular chevrons on the sides that were inspired by the lines of skyscrapers of the time.

The next exhibit of note was called "Shoes in Art", consisting of various paintings, etchings, drawings and sculptures that depicted images of shoes or the craft of shoe-making throughout history.  Examples of the tools being used in the pictures accompanied them, such as this foot measuring device.  Cartoons spoofed the tradesmen and their customers as in this image of two men trying to sneak by the shoemaker to whom they owe money.

Various creative sculptures were made of or based on shoes. A caricature of a French officer is created using a man's casual leather shoe as a base, with facial features painted or glued on to create a surprised expression.  Another sculpture depicts a woman's exaggeratedly high heeled shoe (that pays homage to  Salvador Dali's Persistence of Memory melted clock painting), joined by laces to a man's Oxford shoe.  A pair of quaint sculptures turn boots into a duck and a beer dispenser.

An exhibit on Native North American footwear show an assortment of deer skin moccasins with intricate beading made of died porcupine quills strung together with sinew string.  The term moccasin means "to be gathered".

A selection of celebrity shoes was "highlighted" by the recent addition of a pair of purple sneakers owned by Justin Bieber.  Apparently the Bata Shoe Museum was swarmed by teenaged girls on March break who wanted a glimpse of their idol's footwear.  Kreesha Turner's death defying stilettos and Fred Penner's whimsically decorated canvas runners were amongst others on display.

Finally, the permanent collection "All About Shoes - Footwear through the Ages" is always worth another visit for its fascinating historical and cultural insights into the evolution of footwear.  We saw everything from shoes of the Renaissance age, to French chestnut crushing clog, to Chinese children's booties shaped like dragons to a recuperating boot for an injured cow's hoof

In the stories and fairy tales selection, the shoe featured in the classic "Cinderella" story is shown from the various cultural perspectives.  In each case, the heroine loses her shoe, which is retrieved by a handsome wealthy nobleman who falls in love with her.  But the nature of the slipper varies from the traditionally known clear glass (French) to decorative porcelain (Holland) to straw (Korean) to gilded leather (Egyptian).

Instead of audio guides, more and more museums and galleries now use the smart phone to provide further information.  The exhibits at the Bata Shoe Museum offered QR bar code readers as well as a 1-800 number to call for more detailed descriptions of selected displays.  Now if I could only remember to carry my cell phone with me, this would be useful.  I ended up writing down the 1-800 number and listening to the commentaries once I got home.

Thinking back to my original ponderance about whether a museum just about shoes could sustain my interest, based on what we saw on this visit, the answer is a resounding yes.

Bata Shoe Museum
327 Bloor St West

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Herge's Tintin vs Rubens' Massacre of the Innocents

You may ask what 17th century Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens could possibly have in common with 20th century cartoonist Hergé, responsible for the Tintin comic book series?  We recently attended two separate lectures on each of these artists that shared a surprisingly common theme.

The Art Gallery of Ontario sponsored a talk by National Gallery of London curator David Jaffé that focused Rubens' masterpiece "Massacre of the Innocents", the highlight of the Ken Thomson donations to the AGO.

 Jaffé described how Rubens carried around a copybook throughout his career and amassed an inventory of sketches from images in other paintings or drawings that appealed to him.  Jaffé was able to isolate individual characters within the Massacre painting (from babies to despairing women to raging soliders) and trace back to the original works that were the possible inspirations.

For example, he traced the central figure of the executioner with a baby raised about his head to a similar image in Michaelangelo's Resurrection.  Other sources included paintings on the same topic by Raphael, Frans Floris and Tintoretto.

Rubens studied anatomy and écorché (drawings of muscular tissue under the skin) and was especially influenced by the sculptures of Willem van Tetrode.  Jaffé noted that the neck muscles of the woman in the red dress and the torso muscles of the main soldier were attributed to various Tetrode bronzes.  He talked about how Rubens had the knack to find a reference image and could rotate it in his mind, moving limbs or muscles to meet the compositional needs of his own painting.  Basically Rubens' techniques were the precursor of Photoshop.

While Jaffé's main topic was interesting and his research impressive, I found his one-note talk to be a bit dry and academic.  He showed picture after picture of the referenced art without showing the corresponding images within the Massacre painting to accentuate his points.  He provided very few other details about the painting that would have been interesting - like why this version of Massacre of the Innocents stood out above the many others that came before or after, or how Ken Thomson came to acquire it.

One anecdote he did convey was to describe how the original owner, Carenna of Antwerp, hung the painting up high above a fireplace, as a "chimney piece".  Although the Massacre of the Innocence is a huge painting that spans floor to ceiling at the AGO, in its first home, it was apparently dwarfed by massive tapestries that hung beside it.  Imagine what tall ceilings this mansion must have had!

The second talk we attended was  held at the Lilian H Smith public library which houses the notable Osborne collection of early children's books.  An annual lecture is held in memory of librarian Sybille Pantazzi. This year the featured topic was Hergé and Tintin, in anticipation of the new Steven Spielberg movie "Adventures of Tintin" about to hit the theatres.   The lecture was given by "Tintinologist" Michael Farr who has written multiple books on Tintin, met Hergé and was given access to his personal files and materials.

Like Rubens, Hergé used people and places that he knew of or had seen as inspiration for his comics and kept photos, newspaper clippings and other materials that detailed these sources.  Farr's talk and main theme paralleled Jaffé's as he showed many examples of Tintin cartoons side by side with the images that influenced them.  Unlike Jaffé, Farr peppered these comparisons with amusing and illuminating stories that kept the audience entertained.

It was sad to see the low tech ancient overhead foil projector that was used to display these pictures (an indication of budgetary deficiencies in the library system?).  I felt sorry for the poor little woman who's job it was to squat in front of the projector and place the next foil as Farr spoke.

Tintin was modeled after Hergé's brother Paul both in facial structure and haircut. Paul was a soldier, and after being teased and called "Major Tintin", he tried to shed this image by getting a radical crewcut.  Hergé countered by creating a new villainous character Colonel Sponz with the same haircut.  Tintin's fox terrier Mileu (translated to Snowy in English) was a tribute to his first girlfriend Mary Louise (Malou).

 The twin detectives Thomson and Thompson were based on Hergé's father and brother, who had big moustaches and were partial to bowler hats and umbrellas.  They looked similar to the men found in this newspaper clipping found in Hergé's files.   Professor Cuthbert Calculus was modeled after Swiss physicist Auguste Piccard.  However Piccard was too tall for the comic frame so Calculus had to be shrunk down to fit the size of the printed squares.

Farr showed examples where Hergé copied entire scenes from some source, perhaps a photo or postcard and seemed to just insert Tintin in the middle of it, almost in a cut and paste fashion.  In this example of a Shanghai Street scene, the wording on the banners in the comic strip mirror the photo exactly.

As a roving reporter and adventurer, Tintin traveled to exotic locations around the world including Russia, Middle East and even the moon.   When Hergé drew images of China, he was introduced to several Chinese students who helped him add accuracy and authenticity to his renderings.

One particular student, Zhang Chongren, became a lifelong friend who Hergé turned into the character Chang Chong Chen.  Zhang helped Hergé with Chinese translations in the comics and occasionally injected his own political motivations with phrases like "Down with Imperialism" and "Down with Japanese Oppression".  One cartoon strip that showed Chang Chong Chen on the harbour waving goodbye to a ship carrying Tintin was matched to a photo containing an identical ship.

Hergé lost track of his friend Zhang during the Japanese occupation of China and then was unable to visit him in China during the cultural revolution due to the Tawainese stamp on his passport.  Towards the end of Hergé's life, he was finally reunited with his friend but it was bittersweet since Hergé was dying of cancer at that point.

Both the Rubens/Massacre of the Innocents and Hergé/Tintin lectures assumed that you knew something of the subject matter and did not delve too deeply into the basics.  The Farr presentation was much more satisfying and enlightening due to all the little stories that he told, which enhanced your understanding and appreciation of the topic.

Both lectures showed how these two disparate artists were each majorly influenced by their surroundings.  The common directive to writers is "Write what you know".  I guess this applies to artists as well.

Royal Ontario Museum

One of the perks of being a member of the AGO is the annual reciprocal visit to other galleries and museums.  Last Saturday was free ROM day.  As it turns out, it was also Korean Day so the first floor was filled with special Korean exhibits, live shows and movies.

We were most excited about seeing the gorgeous Art Deco sculptures, furniture and tea services belonging to the private collection of Bernard and Sylvia Ostry.  If we had infinite space and money, we would dedicate an entire room to Deco art.

This was part of the exhibit "The Art of Collecting".  Although we saw some interesting items, we found the curatorial quality of this exhibit to be lacking direction or focus.  A hodgepodge of European decorative arts were displayed without much description or visible organization.  Even the layout was awkward, forcing us to double back through rooms to get to the next part of the exhibit.

The "David Hockney's Fresh Flowers - Drawings on the iPhone and iPad" was a fascinating exhibit that shows a new drawing style and platform that could be a harbinger of future art movements.  Although flowers were a central theme for his drawings, he also created scenery and portraits.

Running applications made for the iPhone and iPad and using his finger or a stylus as a drawing tool, Hockney creates colourful drawings of whatever he sees before him.  The portability of the devices enables him to draw the sunrise that he spies from his bedroom window while lying in bed.

The exhibit is well laid out with actual iPhones and iPads hung on the walls showing his work, as well as larger scale images projected onto screens.  The iPad has a memory feature that recalls brush strokes which can be replayed to demonstrate stroke by stroke exactly how he created the drawing.  In his handout, he tells an amusing story about how he has always adapted his artistic techniques in line with changing technology.  He marvels at how he can now email his art to galleries around the world, but in the past, he used to fax his work.  This raises an interesting question about whether any piece of art can be considered "an original" or a "limited numbered edition" anymore when it exists in perpetually recreateable digital formats.

 Up in the World Cultures section, there is an interesting exhibit called "Proverbial Coffins" from Ghana.  Apparently the custom is to create beautifully painted wooden coffins shaped in forms that celebrate the lifetime achievements of the deceased.  On display were a Mercedes Benz (obvious status symbol of prosperity and progress) and a large fish, presumably for a fisherman.

Finally in the Fabrics section, the exhibit "Riotous Colour, Daring Patterns: Fashions + Textiles 18th to 21st Centuries" is in its last days.  Experimental dresses made of durable paper with bold prints were on display.  Also shown were fabrics with unusual designs such as 'Lil Abner cartoons, reproductions of famous tapestries and a zebra-striped suit that seemed to be designed for Starsky and Hutch's Huggy Bear.