Featuring my published non-fiction: books on Claude Monet and Antonín Dvořák and a chapter on how theatre contributed to the Velvet Revolution
This artistic biography begins with the drawings and caricatures Monet did as an adolescent, encouraged by a maternal aunt who was a painter. It follows his creative path to the final achievement of the water lily series, and analyses representative paintings at major points in his development.
The expanse of sky characteristic of Normandy, where he lived from the age of five, shaped Monet’s vision all his life, even in figure studies and intimate garden scenes.
He was an uncompromising artist who had an absolute respect for the conditions of weather and nature which he wanted to express. When the subject was light, he would not even pick up a brush unless the sun was out. When it was the movement and reflection of water, he built boat ateliers at Argenteuil and Giverny. If the painting did not meet his exacting standards, he burned it. Because his vision of painting was radically different from that of the artistic establishment, he suffered rejection for years. He lived in tremendous poverty through his early adult years and was often in flight from creditors.
Monet’s vision of painting evolved dynamically. By his late twenties, he was already flattening surfaces and breaking down form into colour, an approach which would characterise Impressionism. At Argenteuil, he finally enjoyed a settled existence for the first time and continued to experiment with colour. He sometimes blurred form and developed different types of brush strokes for clouds, waves or reflections to evoke atmosphere rather than depict subject matter.
Monet’s work began radicalising other painters, Bazille, Sisley and Renoir. By the time he was in his thirties, what we now call Impressionism had developed as a movement with Monet himself as informal leader. The group, which included Pissaro, Degas, Cezanne and Berthe Morisot too, organised the first of eight independent exhibitions in 1874.
At the end of that decade, Monet lost his beloved wife Camille to tuberculosis. She had been his model for almost fifteen years, and he painted her on her deathbed. But for a time afterwards, he did snowscapes with sombre colours rather than figures. He also had to leave Argenteuil. Both of these changes deeply affected his work.
He gradually built a new life with the aid of Alice Hoschedé, the wife of one of his clients, whose family had shared a house with the Monet’s. It was during the next decade that his interest in freezing the individual moment led him to begin to paint series, the Haystacks, Rouen Cathedral and others, renditions of a particular scene done under different conditions of light and atmosphere.
In 1893 Monet acquired the house and property at Giverny. An entire chapter is devoted to the work there that filled the last thirty years of his life: creating the water garden and painting the Water Lilies (Nymphéas). In this profound exploration Monet moved from showing the garden and its footbridge to radical cropping which focused on the surface of the water itself and its reflections.
He used his eyes intensively all this life, and that had caused periodic difficulties with sight since his late twenties. Now, at the age of eighty-three, cataracts halted his work on the project – he feared, for good. Georges Clemenceau persuaded him to undergo a risky operation to remove them, and fortunately, it was successful. He was able to complete the canvases, and eight were installed as a mural in the Orangérie in Paris which was specially built to receive them. The mural and many of the later water lily paintings create a unique effect by presenting water surfaces, which are horizontal, hung in vertical planes. The result is a kind of paradox which simultaneously evokes a vast expanse and sense of intimacy.
Tamazunchale Press, 1986, leather bound, marbled endpapers, gilt edges, 62 pp. 250 numbered copies.
Theatre’s Contributions to the Czechoslovak Revolution of 1989
Chapter 10, Historical Reflections on Central Europe, Macmillan, 1999
When people think of “the Velvet Revolution”, what most likely springs to mind is Václav Havel addressing huge crowds from a balcony in the centre of Prague and being sworn in as the nation’s president at the year’s end. Havel founded Civic Forum Sunday evening, 19 November and spoke at a mass demonstration for the first time two days later.
What galvanized him and others was a brutal police attack on a peaceful student-organized demonstration the previous Friday evening the 17th. In the two and a half days between that attack and the following Monday when Civic Forum and Public Against Violence, Slovakia’s civic initiative, began to act, two groups built a momentum that was crucial in a country where the state and the Party had control of the media and almost complete control of public assembly. They were university students and theatre professionals, especially those from small stages. My chapter explains how this second group leapt into action sixteen hours after the attack and contributed decisively in other ways to the Velvet Revolution.
Among the demonstrators that Friday were theatre students who had already become radicalised over the past year and more. As the last demonstrators were violently dispersed around 9:30 p.m., they and some of their peers went to near-by theatres where performances were just ending and told sympathetic actors and directors of their intention to strike. Shocked by the descriptions of the police attacks, these professionals immediately decided to actively support the students. Because there was already considerable solidarity among the small theatres, they were able to mobilize actors, directors and technicians from all over the Czech Republic for a meeting in one of their venues the following afternoon. There they decided to support the student strike with their own. On Sunday, Slovak theatre professionals made a similar decision.
These strikes suspended performances but were not exactly work stoppages. They were an occupational strike of sorts, transforming the theatres into forums which were open for public discussion and debate. In Prague, they began Saturday evening, twenty-four hours after the attack. They provided space for the public to assemble, space where there was little threat of police harassment in the beginning, and none after the first few days. The forums circumvented the propaganda of the Communist-controlled media with accurate up-to-the-minute information on the development of the democratic movement. Actors and directors, whose professions made public speaking a natural activity, led discussions and helped citizens overcome long-held fear of speaking openly. In some cases, the discussions evolved into strategies for resisting Communist threats at workplaces and for mobilising fellow employees.
The programmes also included testimonials and black-listed and marginal songs, readings and recitations. They made the meetings cathartic, a reclamation of public space, of individual and public voice and of indigenous culture in a society which had been atomized and culturally suppressed.
During their meeting 18 November, theatre professionals voted a nationwide two-hour work stoppage for the 27th in addition to the strike. It was soon presented as a no-confidence vote in the Communist leadership. However, the support of the proletariat for the work stoppage and the burgeoning democratic movement was anything but certain. The Communists had courted this class through perks and propaganda for forty years. They were now calling the movement the work of outside agitators and inside conspirators and claiming that it would lead to political and financial disorder. Their democratic opponents had just nine days to counteract these charges.
Together with university students, actors visited mines, factories and collective farms, often ferried gratis by taxi drivers. Sometimes they were turned away by angry workers or armed members of the People’s Militia. Sometimes they were warmly welcomed, at others, admitted with wariness. When they could get a hearing, their messages were generally well-received. They circumvented the propaganda of Communist-controlled media with factual information, just as they did during the theatre forums, and explained the aims of the work stoppage and the democratic opposition. Many of the actors were well known from television specials and serials which had been primary forms of entertainment, programmed to keep people off the streets and in front of their screens during twenty years of normalisation. The actors’ familiar faces and ease in public speaking inspired confidence in their listeners and made their message convincing.
As the mass demonstrations swelled in Prague, Bratislava and regional cities and towns, and the movement took root, chapters of Civic Forum and Public Against Violence were founded in workplaces. At this point, actors took on the role of messengers from the civic initiative headquarters in the capital cities. They delivered and explained documents giving legal advice and outlining procedures for personnel changes. That information was vital, because the local Communist nomenclature often put up fierce resistance.
After the success of the work stoppage had strengthened its hand, the democratic movement mobilised anew. President Gustav Husák had resigned under popular pressure, and the movement’s candidate for the presidency was Václav Havel. Getting one of Eastern Europe’s most tenacious dissidents elected by the Communist-dominated Federal Assembly was an enormous challenge, and everyone knew it.
In the second week of December, university and high school students began an intensive campaign, and actors resumed their roles as emissaries. They travelled to mines, factories and other Communist strongholds where resistance to Havel, and to intellectuals in general, was often stiff. The Communist press printed stories of the Havel family’s capitalist real estate projects and supposed Nazi connections under the Occupation. As actors and students presented excerpts from Václav Havel’s writings, and documented his five prison terms for acting in the interest of human rights, public sentiment began to change. New mass demonstrations increased public pressure on the legislature.
Havel was unanimously elected president by the Federal Assembly 29 December, just six weeks after the police attack that set off the entire civic movement. Actors and directors returned to their theatres to prepare for one-hundred-eighty-degree changes: stagings of his plays and those of other previously banned playwrights, domestic and foreign. It was an appropriate beginning to the New Year which opened a new era of freedom.
Tags: Velvet Revolution, Vaclav Havel, Civic Forum, Public Against Violence, Communists, Prague, Czech, Slovakia, theatre, actors
This volume explores Antonín Dvořák’s creative life and work beginning with his move to Prague to study music when he was sixteen years old. The focus is on his instrumental music, and there the .
I devoted special attention to the nineteenth century nationalist strains in Bohemian classical music and to the folk melodies and rhythms of both Bohemia and Moravia, which first inspired Dvořák’s style and are still associated with it. He returned to them after experimenting with Wagnerian leitmotifs in his early thirties. At about that time, Brahms, who was a member of the jury awarding grants to poor and talented musicians, recognized Dvořák’s genius when he submitted an application for financial aid. He was still an impoverished musician and composer, who, the jury noted, ‘has never yet been able to acquire a piano of his own’. Dvořák received the award, and shortly thereafter, Brahms recommended him to his Berlin publisher. A commission for the first set of Slavonic Dances followed, and it became an overnight success. The two composers enjoyed a lifelong friendship.
As Dvořák’s international reputation grew, his work was especially appreciated in Anglo-Saxon cultures. He received numerous commissions from England and travelled there to conduct premiers of the compositions that resulted, many of them choral works. He also spent two periods in the United States in the 1890s as a teacher and conductor at the National Conservatory in New York, founded by the philanthropist Jeannette Thurber who hoped to establish a tradition of American music. He and his family spent the summer of 1893 in the small Czech community of Spillville, Iowa. He found the conditions there more conducive to composing than the bustle of New York.
In addition, he made a tour of Russia where he conducted his works in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. The was arranged by Tchaikovsky, whom he met when the Russian composer conducted his works in Prague and with whom Dvořák enjoyed a warm friendship.
From 1990 Dvořák was a member of the faculty at the Prague Conservatory. After he came back from the United States, he resumed instruction in advanced composition and orchestration, where he was known for unorthodox teaching methods and his insistence on originality. Several of his students become respected composers and musicians, among them, Josef Suk, who was also his son-in-law, Franz Lehar and Vitežslav Novák.
Upon his return to his homeland, Dvořák spent more and more time at his country retreat in Vysoká, where he could be close to the natural world, spend time with his family and compose in peace. He worked especially on opera at which he longed to excel and succeeded with Rusalka. But his musical imagination seems to have been nurtured on the shorter forms of folk music, and this is probably why he wrote so much remarkable chamber music. His rich melodic invention, rhythmic sense and skill in orchestration enabled him to adapt these forms to the larger span of the symphony, but he lacked the dramatic instinct necessary to opera.
The book discusses a number of Dvořák’s works but focuses on three of his best-known classics. The Slavonic Dances, which were commissioned by Simrock, Brahms’s publisher, cast Dvořák’s exceptional melodic gifts in Bohemian dance forms and established his international reputation. The Second Piano Quintet makes original use of major and minor shifts, especially in the slow movement, the dumka, a pensive form whose possibilities Dvořák developed further than any other composer. The quintet and is considered among the finest of his works and of the chamber music repertoire. The Symphony from the New World was written during the composer’s tenure at the National Conservatory in New York in what he called the spirit of native American music. It was an immediate sensation and remains one of the most popular in the symphonic repertoire.
The concluding pages describe the unusually elaborate funeral, organized by cultural institutions, together with the family, which celebrated his music and expressed the affection and respect his country felt for him as a composer, a musician and a human being. He was buried in the national pantheon on Vyšehrad.
Tamazunchale Press, 1988, leather bound, marbled endpapers, gilt edges, 50 pp. 250 numbered copies.