Friday, 21 December 2012

Our Inventive Avant-garde

It was a grim weekend, losing both David Brubeck (91) and Oscar Niemeyer (104!). Good obits tell you what you should have known: that Brubeck’s father was a stockman and Dave’s first college was to learn ranching. Indeed when he finally got to music school he was almost bounced because he couldn’t read music! (A couple of more broad-minded profs defending him because his self taught talent.) 

Oscar was from a rich family, but he chafed at the way his family treated the help, and he had begun his transition to Communism. In a Brazil where the gap between a few rich and hordes of peons, he always fought for the littlest guys! But his contribution to modern architecture was his love of curves—rejecting the narrow-minded rectalinearities of the early Bauhaus.

But I was most impressed by the way he supported Jose Zanine Caldas (1918-2001). Connoiseuer sent me to Paris to write an essay on his first exhibition, to celebrate his 70thbirthday. (Although he never earned an architectural degree, he became professor of landscape design and architect ural modeling in plywooid at the University of Sao Paulo.)

The traditional profs were nervous about the freewheeling way Jose worked. Niemeyer was different. He greeted Zanine with joy on his 70th birthday. “Jose,” he addressed him as an equal, “you began making the macquettes for Brasilia, proceeded to make great furniture, and finally devised ways of reusing lumber to build houses for the poor.” Oscar hated that this autodidact had to go to Paris for his first exhibition.

I expected to do a two hour interview after looking at the exhibition. He upstaged me. We spent the entire day studying his creations and discussing his unique architectural career. When he returned to his hometown in Bahia he admired the way untutored fishermen carved their boats out of whole trees. He vowed to plant a tree for every one he used in his architecture. 

Towards the end of our encounter. (The help had already gone home!), he excused himself and reappeared with the humungous roots of a rainbow tree, so called because of the deep indentations that held rainwater. Puzzled, I looked at him speechless. 

The mosquitoes that breed there discouraged poachers from stealing “his” trees. He moved to France because he couldn’t stand the way the Brazilians were sorry they were losing their trees. (If you think I was amazed, you should have seen how the Pan Am stewards looked at my strange luggage as I flew back to Philly. For years I had to explain their honorific position in my Greenbelt Knoll fireplace.)

My rue at losing two artistic heroes on one weekend was controlled by the astonishing news that my college idol, Jonas Mekas, the so-called godfather of of American avant-garde film was alive and kicking at 90. And all his followers were gathering at no fewer than three venues to honor his innovative film culture: London’s Serpentine Gallery until January 27, 2013, the British Film Institute through December 16, and the Pompidou Centre until January 2.

I had forgotten that he was just a farmer’s son in Lithuania, and that when he first used his new camera snapping the arrival of the Soviet Army, “An officer, some lieutenant runs to me, grabs the camera, rips out the film, trails it on the ground, before rubbing it in the dust with his boot. That’s how the first photo I took ended up. That symbolizes my times.” (Cinema’s accidental Witness,” Financial Times (December 8-9, p. 23.) Everyone who tried to take the cinema seriously is indebted to this pioneer. You can get the hang of these celebratory exhibitions here. He earned our attention—and gratitude.

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