I generally try to focus on good news in these bad times, but an article about how the Wuhan Virus may seriously wound one of my preferred genres of music caught my eye, since it has broader implications.
Aire Flamenco is an authoritative site for aficionados of Flamenco music and dance, and yesterday they shared the news that the association in Spain to which most of the flamenco clubs (known as “tablaos”) around the country belong has indicated that these venues are likely done for. A week or so ago when Casa Patas, my favorite flamenco joint in Madrid, announced that they would not be reopening, it was gut-wrenching. The club catered to tourists, as all of these places do (a majority of Spaniards avoid supporting their own artists for some reason), but it was also a spot where big names would perform or come to enjoy themselves. The late, great guitarist Paco de Lucía not only played there, he had a reserved table most Friday nights for the show. Legendary singer Camarón de la Isla debuted new albums there, while Barcelona-based Rosalía, who is on the cover of this month’s edition of Elle, gave her first public performance in the Spanish capital at Casa Patas, well before she became an international star selling out arenas and winning 6 Grammys.
What I didn’t realize amidst my grief was that Casa Patas was but the first to see the proverbial writing on the wall.
The problem, you see, is that the average-sized tablao only seats about 80 people. As entertainment venues start to reopen in Spain, they are being limited to 50% of their capacity, until the virus threat has been eliminated. As the association commented (forgive my rough translation),
“This moment will not arrive until possibly early 2021, and no tablao in Spain can hold on until that date. The rest of the culture will survive, as it thrives on the domestic public, and it will be able to function with a restricted capacity. The rest of the hospitality industry will survive for the same reasons, but the flamenco tablaos will fail. They will disappear. They are the flamenco industry, since they provide work 365 days a year to 95% of the flamenco artists in Spain, and only 5% of those artists work exclusively with one company. And when the tablaos disappear, the flamenco artists will disappear. And flamenco will disappear. “
I think it’s a bit hyperbolic to say that flamenco will disappear, since flamenco comes from the people, and from the soul, and existed for centuries before there were clubs to perform in. In addition, singers, musicians, and dancers will continue to practice the art form in large venues or at home with friends and family. However, in addition to the loss of a major source of income for many people, what is being lost here is one of the few places where the outsider, such as this scrivener, and those who live and breathe this art form could come together in a more intimate setting.
As tragic as this is, however, it may well be but the tip of the iceberg for music more broadly, if similar restrictions are applied and persist, whether in Spain or indeed in this country.
Remember that tiny bar that you used to go, when you wanted to hear an up-and-coming local band? Maybe you were a regular, or maybe you only went once in awhile because your neighbor played drums or your cousin was the lead singer. Well, that’s likely over and done with: no bar owner is going to reduce the number of paying, drinking patrons to less than half of what is already probably not a very large capacity, just so he can accommodate a local band.
And what about crowded little jazz joints in Chicago, Kansas City, or New Orleans? Or bowling alley-sized honky-tonks out West? Or warehouse raves along the Eastern seaboard? Or acoustic jams at coffeehouses in the Pacific Northwest? They’re all finished. George Benson isn’t going to be asked up on stage to jam at a crowded live music venue in Greenwich Village, because it won’t be there anymore.
This crisis isn’t just a serious problem for one music genre in one particular country: it’s a problem for *all* genres of music that are performed in smaller venues. It means that only the big names will continue to play to the public, since they can fill the seats in large auditoriums and the like, even if the number of those seats is halved. And it means that many revered, small venues, from Blues clubs in Memphis to Jazz clubs in Montreal, may never come back.
And so, with a heavy heart, let’s try to turn our attention to some happier news from the art world over the past week.
The update from the ongoing restoration work at Notre Dame de Paris is that workers have now begun the complicated task of taking down the scaffolding that has surrounded the cathedral-basilica since well before the devastating fire of April 2019. The building was already undergoing repairs when the blaze broke out, and it burned so hot that the steel scaffolding encasing it was warped, melted, and twisted. Work has begun to remove it, and part of this will involve workers being suspended by ropes from cranes to start sawing the jumble apart. Now there’s a visual that I certainly don’t want to see, or even think about: God bless them.
Even in the midst of turmoil, there are great works of art to be obtained by serious collectors, and very soon someone is going to obtain what you see below, a magnificent self-portrait by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669). The painting, completed sometime in 1632, depicts a handsome, dapper young artist, dressed rather more formally than his usual bohemian/artsy getup. The speculation is that his attire may have been chosen for a specific purpose:
This was the exact time when the artist was courting his future wife and greatest muse, Saskia van Uylenburgh, and it is very possible that he painted this sensitive, portable self-portrait to send to her in far off Leeuwaerden, to prove to her suspicious relatives that her smartly-dressed new suitor was a prosperous and suitable husband.
The theory makes sense when you consider the scale of the work as well, since it’s painted on an oak panel roughly the size of a sheet of paper. Not only would that size image be easier to send, it would also be easier to display than a life-sized picture.
Whatever its origin, the painting will be auctioned by Sotheby’s in London on July 28th, and the current estimate is between $15-20 million. I would not be at all surprised if it goes for the higher end of that estimate, or over it. Experts believe that the artist painted around 80 self-portraits during his career, and of these all but three, including this work, are now in museum collections.
And finally, returning to a Spanish theme for the moment, following their very popular exhibition “Sorolla: Spanish Master of Light”, the National Gallery in London has just acquired the first work by Joaquín Sorolla (1863-1923) to enter their permanent collection. “El Borracho, Zarauz” (“The Drunkard, Zarauz”) was painted in 1910 in a coastal resort town in the Basque region of Spain, while the artist and his family were there on vacation. It’s a very direct, rather intense work, and while I “get” it, I also know from experience that Sorolla’s very Spanish social realist paintings don’t sit well with everyone. Thus, it does seem rather an odd acquisition if you’re only going to own one Sorolla, since his images of the seaside, beautiful women/children, or people in sun-splashed gardens are more typical and more popular. Nevertheless, I’m glad to see it’s going into a public collection where it can be appreciated by more people.