New York in History and Anecdote
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Category — Art & Music

The Persistence of Memory

Salvador Dalí came to New York for the first time in 1934. In a symptom of the Civil War to come, the provincial government of Catalonia had unilaterally declared independence from Spain. The subsequent street fighting terrified him and he would not return to Spain for many years.

He was Catalonian himself. Catalonians consider themselves a people of seny, common sense or wisdom, and rauxa. Robert Hughes, in Barcelona, defines rauxa as “any kind of irrational or Dionysiac or (sometimes) just plain dumb activity—getting drunk, screwing around, burning churches, and disrupting the social consensus.” He suggests “the most pervasive form of rauxa is an abiding taste for…obscene humor.”

In this, as in many things, Dalí was truly Catalonian. Other surrealists had shocked the French bourgeoisie; Dalí had shocked the surrealists with his excremental and onanist obsessions. Hughes once asked Dalí who was the great unknown modernist artist (aside from Dalí, of course). “Joseph Pujol,” Dalí replied. Hughes had never heard of Pujol.

He was a turn-of-the-century Parisian music hall artist who performed under the stage name “Le Petomane” (frequently translated “Fartiste”). Hughes notes that “Pujol had a vast gas capacity and perfect control over his bowels and anal sphincter. Not only could he fart tunefully, but he could absorb a whole bowl of water on stage by sitting in it and drawing it up, like an India yogi.”

Dalí insisted these were not simply natural endowments, but achievements of incessant practice and relentless discipline. With them, Pujol would keep packed houses rolling in the aisles with renditions of popular airs, “La Marseillaise,’ even snatches of Verdi and Offenbach. He would also imitate the posterior sounds of animals—the deep bass elephant, the gibbon, the mouse—and do character sketches, such as the imperious fart of the President of the Republic or the nervous squeak of the “petite postulante de quatorze ans.”

So much for Picasso.

Dalí was not a feminist. He proclaimed, “Talent is in the balls…. Have you ever heard of a great female painter? One as great as Velasquez or Michelangelo? Only men. Talent, creative genius, is in the testicles. Without them, one can create nothing. For women, creation is procreation; they can bear children, but they will never decorate the Sistine Chapel.”

In youth he had been admired by Garcia Lorca. Dalí later said, “He was homosexual, as everyone knows, and madly in love with me. He tried to screw me twice…. I was extremely annoyed, because I wasn’t homosexual, and I wasn’t interested in giving in. Besides, it hurts. So nothing came of it…. Deep down, I felt that he was a great poet and that I did owe him a bit of the Divine Dalí’s asshole.”

Perhaps his perversion was most openly expressed through his aversion to physical contact, reflected in his novel Hidden Faces. Its protagonist tells his mistress that they must reach orgasm without ever touching. Thus it was, apparently, in his marriage. His wife, Gala, would he his business manager, his companion, and for most of their life together his best friend. But apparently ordinary sexual relations didn’t enter into it. Certainly he was impotent: he may have lacked the common courage to drop his mask and his guard, to be simply, nakedly himself.

But he did not lack the courage to conquer the world. In art school, he demanded that his teachers show him how to mix his oils, spread the colors, and blend the tones.  He wanted rigor, method, and objective training. To his disappointment and rage, his teachers espoused a slovenly post-impressionist anarchy: Their students should paint what they saw. In response, when assigned to paint a Gothic statue of the Virgin, he carefully produced a pair of scales. His teacher stopped in frozen silence. “Perhaps you see a Virgin like everyone else,” the professor finally said, “but I see a pair of scales.”

Eventually, like any artist, he trained himself, developing, as one critic observed in the mid-50s, “an absolute mastery of the craft that is equaled by no other artist alive today.”  His approach was strictly formal, as classical as the most hidebound Academician, and however bizarre the subject matter, his paintings always had geometric rigor and detachment. And he usually worked a fourteen-hour day.

He combined intellectual strength with a pose of utter helplessness. When first in Paris, he claimed inability to use the Métro until a friend took him there and then left him on the train, instructing him to get off at the next stop. “You’ll see ‘Exit’ in large letters. Then you go up a few steps and you go out.”

Dalí later wrote of this ordeal, “Reaching the surface, I stood haggard for a long time. I felt I had been spewed out of some monstrous anus… And, O miracle! My lucidity, my pride, my strength returned instantly…with increased power. I understood I had been through a great initiation.”

In 1931, Dalí created The Persistence of Memory, which remains his most famous painting. His biographer, Meryle Secrest, writes that he had eaten a strong Camembert that evening. He sat at the dinner table meditating on the notion of super-softness that the cheese seemed to exemplify. Then he went to his work-in-progress, a landscape, “deserted, forlorn, lit by a fading sun and with a leafless olive tree in the foreground. He knew it was the setting for an idea, but he didn’t know what, and besides, he had a headache. Suddenly, in a flash, he saw the solution. Two hours later he had added his famous soft watches.”

Times critic John Canaday later called The Persistence of Memory a jewel “in its brilliant colour, its small size, its immaculate precision. It is in the technical tradition of early Flemish and Venetian painting; also, it is parasitic in its forms. The deep distance with its sea and its rocky promontories picked out in golden light is all but a steal from the early Venetian Giovanni Bellini, whose allegories would be Surrealist if their symbolism were morbid instead of poetic.”

His first New York show in 1933 had been mildly successful. A year later, Dalí traveled to New York with Gala (as his business manager, she was described as having “a gaze that could penetrate bank vaults”) in a third-class cabin. He said, “I am next to the engine so that I’ll get there quicker.” During his rare walks on deck, he wore a life jacket.

Upon landing, during the inevitable press conference, he was asked which was his favorite picture. He responded, “The Portrait of My Wife,” which represented Gala with lamb chops on her shoulders. “I used to balance two broiled chops on my wife’s shoulders,” Dalí said, “and then by observing the movement of tiny shadows produced by the accident of the meat on the flesh of the woman I love while the sun was setting, I was finally able to attain images sufficiently lucid and appetizing for exhibition in New York.”

During this first visit, he uttered his immortal observation: “The only difference between a madman and myself is that I am not mad.” Most of the time, his English was nearly unintelligible. He used an exaggerated French accent, threw in a few extra Catalan vowels as he saw fit, and rolled his r’s as in Spanish. Thus, “butterfly” came out “bouterrrrflaaaaaeeee.” Usually, no American audience understood a word, but if they did the result was deafening applause.

The reporters loved him; so did Society; so did the collectors, who swarmed his new show at the gallery of Julian Levy. By the end of his 1934 visit, he would be far richer in several senses for his stay in New York.  On the night before his departure for Europe, he gave a Bal Onirique, inviting guests to come as their dream and be wined and dined from ten in the evening until ? for only $10 a couple. He dressed as a rotting corpse with a bandage around his head. He had cut a square hole in his white formal shirt, which framed, as Meryle Secrest wrote, “a shadow box for a pair of tiny breasts, decorously enclosed inside a bra.” The ball was a tremendous success: The New York Mirror blared “Mad Dream Betrayal of New York Society at the Astounding Party to its Newest Idol.”

He returned in 1939. He had been hired to design shop windows for Bonwit Teller. The central Feature of the window he called Day was a bathtub lined with black astrakhan and filled with water, beside which stood an old-fashioned mannequin, decorated only with red hair and green feathers. In Night, another mannequin appeared to be asleep on a black satin bed, the canopy of which was composed of a buffalo’s head with a bloody pigeon in its mouth. She lay on a pillow of apparently live coals.

Several complaints were received by the management that the windows were obscene. They changed the mannequins. Dalí was outraged. He protested, demanding that the store either take his name off the windows or restore the work. Bonwit Teller refused to do either. He stepped into the window and overturned the bathtub, which crashed through the plate glass.  He was booked on malicious mischief, later reduced to disorderly conduct with sentence suspended.

On August 16, 1940, Dalí returned for an exile that would last eight years. Unlike most exiles from World War II, he set himself up at the St. Regis, where he painted society portraits for fees reportedly running as high as $25,000.  He diversified into ballet, opera, the novel, and film. He also began to emphasize commercial art.

Dalí believed his serious painting was the standard by which he would be judged. Everything else was for sale. He would take on any kind of advertising project if it paid well enough. By 1947, he was being paid up to $2,500 for an ad and $5,000 for book illustrations. His dismembered arms, limp watches, ruined columns, pieces of driftwood, tables with women’s legs, crutches, and ants were advertising Gunther’s furs, Ford cars, Wrigley’s chewing gum, Schiaparelli perfume, and Gruen watches, as well as the products of Abbott Laboratories and the Container Corporation of America. His waxed mustaches, rolling eyes, and walking sticks became trademarks, thanks largely to photographer Philippe Halsman, who over thirty years contributed as much to the Dalinian image as anyone save Dalí himself.

Halsmann photographed Dalí in every conceivable position and juxtaposition: nude in the womb; his face melting like one of his watches; his mustache on the Mona Lisa, or its pointed ends piercing a newspaper that he was reading, eyes crossed. His “Dalí Atomicus”—with Dalí, cats, water, canvas, and chair suspended in midair—was only one of their many collaborations for Life magazine; they even created a book about Dalí’s mustache (one hair of which Dalí sold to the Beatles for $5,000).

He usually wintered in New York, believing it to be “the most stimulating town in all the world…It’s the only place where I can do my deals.” In 1970, one writer observed that “forty years after his soft watches dropping over a barren landscape made him famous, Dalí is still Everyman’s idea of the mad genius of modern art, and mad genius sells like nothing else.” He was earning half a million dollars a year after taxes, and was worth around $10 million. He was designing shirts, fabrics, ties, cognac bottles, calendars, ash trays for Air India, stamps for Guyana, bathing suits, and gilded oyster knives. The only proposition he was known to have refused was that of the American who proposed opening a chain of “Dalícatessens.”

Until the 1960s, Dalí had produced few prints. Now he made up for lost time. His prints became a happy hunting ground for fraud. There were reprints of supposedly limited editions; unlimited artist’s proofs; plain outright counterfeits. Worse, he began signing blank pages. Then, a forger might merely use sheets with authentic signatures to produce completely fraudulent prints—neither drawn nor overseen in any way by Dalí.

As Secrest wrote, “Why bother to create an image? All he had to do was sign a sheet of paper to receive $40. An eyewitness described the way it was done. One aide slid the paper under his pencil and another pulled it away, for the greatest possible efficiency, meaning that the artist could sign one every two seconds. Assuming he could keep it up for an hour, Dalí was $72,000 richer—the easiest way to make money.” It was very Catalonian: the transformation of merde into gold.

No one knows how many he signed. His American lawyer doubted it was more than 40,000. His former agent once claimed as many as 350,000. The market in Dalí prints has never recovered. New York’s fiscal crisis of the 1970s affected even Dalí, who complained that city life had become, “Total decadence!  Even the St. Regis is not what it used to be…they have cut out the cherry on the breakfast grapefruit!”

In 1980, he left New York never to return. After Gala’s death in 1982, Dalí was devastated.  He lived in solitude, increasingly aware of his own mortality. During one of his last trips outside, a friend pointed out an orange tree laden with fruit. Dalí shook his head. “Do not show me things that I have loved so much and that hurt me now because I know that I must leave them.”

He died on January 23, 1989, listening to his favorite scratched record of Tristan und Isolde, which reminded him of sardines frying in oil. The Marques de Dalí de Pubol (King Juan Carlos had ennobled him in 1982) now rests above the women’s room in the museum that he founded in his home town.

For many, Dalí remains a genius and prophet. I think of a friend’s father, a tough, cynical, and supremely unillusioned journalist. In 1955, he covered the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s opening of Dalí’s Corpus Hypercubus. He entered the gallery, gazed at the painting of Christ crucified, and wept.

The gaudy old fraud had shown him a truth, perhaps the Truth.

New York Press, March 21, 1999

March 21, 2015   No Comments

Wild Rose MacDowell

On December 14, 1894 Edward MacDowell performed his Piano Concerto No. 2 in D Minor with the New York Philharmonic under the direction of Anton Seidl. Although it had been first performed in Boston some five years before, the concerto had not previously been performed here. After all, before the advent of the phonograph and the radio, orchestral music could be heard only in live performance.

Thus, the piece was in a very real sense new to New Yorkers—and MacDowell himself was a magnificent pianist at the top of his form. He triumphed, and in the hour of performance, his work seemed to stand on the edge of immortality. W. J. Henderson of the New York Times found the concerto impossible to speak of “in terms of judicial calmness, for it is made of the stuff that calls for enthusiasm…here is one young man who has placed himself on a level with the men owned by the world.”

In fact, at the beginning of the 20th century, the New York–born MacDowell was world-renowned as America’s greatest living composer. His concerti, sonatas, tone poems, and song cycles were being performed throughout Europe, in Japan, even in South Africa. Some contemporaries—Seidl in particular—declared him superior to Brahms. Yet today, he is nearly forgotten.

He was born Edward Alexander MacDowell, at 220 Clinton Street in Manhattan, on December 18, 1860. His father was a prosperous wholesale milk dealer who loved the arts; his mother, having seen to it that he knew French, Spanish, German, Latin, and Greek, arranged his first piano lessons. In 1876 he was sent to the Paris Conservatoire, then as now one of the world’s leading conservatories.

At sixteen MacDowell was the youngest applicant in a pool of 300, and his performance in the entrance examinations won him one of the two scholarships awarded that year to foreign students. Yet he found the Conservatoire’s method of teaching piano—which relied heavily on sight-reading skills—to be pointless and absurd. His instructors wanted him to play music with the score turned upside down or to transpose it into a different key, and directed him to correct the work of earlier composers, such as Bach, so as to make it conform to the Conservatoire’s notions of what constituted proper composition. MacDowell wanted to work and felt he was being taught to play games.

After hearing the Russian virtuoso Anton Rubenstein burn up the piano in a bravura performance of Tchaikovsky’s Concerto in B-Flat Minor at the Paris Exposition of 1878, he resolved to leave Paris, where he would never learn to play like that. Despite his youth (he was now eighteen), he won a place at the Frankfurt Conservatory, where most of his classmates were closer to 30. There he found instructors who, as McDowell wrote, dared to teach and play the classics “as if they had actually been written by men with blood in their veins.”

One day, one of MacDowell’s teachers, Joachim Raff, a composer, interrupted MacDowell while he was supposed to be practicing. He was actually just fooling around at the keyboard. Raff asked about the piece MacDowell was working on. Embarrassed at being caught idling, MacDowell, though usually candid, said he was working on a composition. Raff asked to see it when it was done. Feeling trapped (and liking Raff, as well), MacDowell chose to deliver. He wrote his first piano concerto over the next two weeks. Raff glanced at it. Then he scribbled a letter and said, “Take it to Liszt.”

Franz Liszt had created the stereotype of the great Romantic pianist and lived the rock star’s life, groupies and all. Now, in the fall of 1881, he lived in semi-retirement in Weimar. MacDowell arrived at Liszt’s home with Raff’s letter and the concerto’s manuscript. Shyness overcame him; he could not raise his hand to the doorbell, and so he sat in Liszt’s garden for an hour. Then the old man himself came outside and escorted MacDowell into his house. After MacDowell had warmed himself, he played the concerto. Liszt knew a good thing when he heard it and used his influence to have MacDowell’s work placed on concert programs. He also persuaded his own publishers to take the piano concerto.

MacDowell remained in Germany for the next decade, teaching, composing, and performing. He married one of his students, a young American woman named Marian Nevins, in 1884. The marriage was a wonderful success: Marian later wrote, “There was an extraordinary camaraderie between us which we never lost… Until he died, he gave me what few women ever have [from a man], his absolutely undivided affection…”

The first concerto premiered in 1885 and made MacDowell famous overnight. Stirring in mood, dazzling in technique, it provided him with a splendid vehicle for concert performances. So did his fiendishly difficult Witches’ Dance, a bit of showmanship that knocked their socks off across Europe. Critics hailed MacDowell’s mastery of the keyboard, his supreme power and control, as well as his striking stage presence. Tall, slender and broad-shouldered, with muscular arms and hands, he had jet-black hair and flashing blue eyes. All this, along with a flamboyantly waxed dark red mustache, must have made him irresistible.

In 1888, the MacDowells came home. They settled in Boston, then the center of American musical life. There MacDowell taught and went on national concert tours. His piano miniatures Woodland Sketches and New England Idylls, his settings of “To a Wild Rose” and “To a Water Lily” were on drawing room pianos throughout the country even as his larger works were being performed from Portland to San Francisco. During his Boston years, he wrote four massive piano sonatas, the Tragica, Eroica, Norse. and Keltic, each investing (or warping, as MacDowell self-deprecatingly said) the sonata form with symphonic grandeur.

On January 23, 1896 MacDowell gave a return performance of his Concerto with the Boston Symphony at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House. Seth Low, president of Columbia University, was in the audience. Earlier that year, Columbia had received a grant to establish its first professorship of music. In April 1896, Low offered MacDowell the job. He was thirty-five years old.

MacDowell was the music department. He taught seven year-long courses, each meeting two to three hours weekly, and—without teaching assistant or secretary—dealt with everything from purchasing desks, pianos, and library books to hiring outside lecturers, ordering chalk, and keeping the instruments in tune. (He often retuned them himself—it was easier than fighting with the university’s business managers, who refused to understand that pianos do go out of tune.) MacDowell slaved over the organization and content of his lectures to have them appear spontaneous, and also provided substantial individual instruction and individual examinations.

In 1901, Seth Low was elected mayor of New York and resigned from Columbia’s presidency. His successor, Nicholas Murray Butler, was a very different kind of man—a power seeker, far more interested in administration and in the idea of the educator than in ideas themselves, though he had taught philosophy. A mere five years in the classroom had convinced Butler that education was a science. He had founded Teachers College, successfully lobbied for compulsory state licensing of teachers (all of whom were required to have a degree in education, thus promoting the interests of the education industry), and advocated the centralization of the New York City schools, all reflecting Butler’s faith that centralized authority in the hands of men such as himself inevitably led to improvement.

Unfortunately, MacDowell chose this moment to propose restructuring Columbia’s curriculum, passionately arguing that some education in at least one of the fine arts was as essential as in science or history. Butler opposed the idea, largely because the mainstream faculty felt threatened and it seemed more politic to soothe their feelings. But MacDowell persisted. Butler saw this as a challenge to his own authority and vision for Columbia. He was not above spreading sly, personal speculations about MacDowell’s character, temperament, and intelligence among colleagues—all behind the composer’s back. MacDowell’s proposal was definitively turned down in September 1903. He resigned the following February.

In March 1905, MacDowell was knocked down by a hansom cab at Broadway and 21st Street. One wheel rolled over his spine: the injuries were physically and emotionally debilitating. He had been depressed since his resignation; now his depression darkened. Over the summer, his hair turned white. By November, his gait had become unsteady. His physicians never quite diagnosed his illness: Alan H. Levy, his most recent biographer, speculates that his depression, deepened by his physical injuries, led to a progressive aphasia. By the winter of 1905–06, he was dying. Friends raised funds to defray his medical expenses. Seth Low privately gave $2,000 to Marian MacDowell and lent the MacDowells his car. Butler didn’t even send a get-well card.

Now he was attended by a full-time nurse and a servant who carried him about. By the summer of 1907, he no longer recognized his parents. On January 23, 1908 his wife said to him, “Won’t you give me a kiss?” He managed to pucker his lips. He looked at her for the first time in days with something like recognition. Then he stopped breathing. He was forty-six years old.

His reputation was as the wild rose that fades. By the 30s, Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson, who should have known better, dismissed MacDowell and his contemporaries as genteel, over-gentlemanly, and bourgeois. Copland claimed that none of them wrote with fire in the eye: “There were no Dostoyevskys, no Rimbauds among them; no one expired in the gutter like Edgar Allan Poe.”

Alan H. Levy has called this phenomenon “the great erasure.” He suggests that the Copland generation wanted to believe itself the first American composers in whom the nation could take pride. They weren’t, of course, but the eclipse of MacDowell and the composers of his generation reflects how the Depression-era seizure of the nation’s musical establishment by the left sent much of America’s musical culture down the memory hole. Thomson finally admitted, shortly before his death, that MacDowell’s reputation might supplant that of MacDowell’s contemporary Charles Ives, whose cantankerous personality and freakish originality long charmed the critics. Only in the last few years have people begun quietly admitting that most of Ives’s so-called major works are unlistenable.

Nicholas Murray Butler remained president of Columbia until 1945. During World War I, he purged the faculty of antiwar professors and did the same to leftists during the 1930s and 1940s. The Republicans nominated him for vice president in 1912; he sought their presidential nomination in 1920. His support for the Kellogg-Briand pact of 1928, one of many attempts between the wars to achieve peace without creating a means to enforce it, won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931. He, too, is almost forgotten.

New York Press, April 30, 2003

April 30, 2003   Comments Off on Wild Rose MacDowell