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"Lincoln Kirstein at Eighty"

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Yesterday in a new thread, Bart recommended Michael Popkin's excellent article on Lincoln Kirstein, in the latest DanceView. Michael mentions the 100 commemorative photos that were recently on exhibit at the State Theater. For me the most fascinating of those photos were shots of the interior of Kirstein's country home in Weston, Connecticut, taken by Jerry L. Thompson for a proposed follow-up volume to "Quarry: A Collection in Lieu of Memoirs." That earlier book featured Thompson's photos of Kirstein's, art-filled, East 19th Street NYC townhouse along with a Kirstein essay that, as Thompson says, starts from the pictures but goes on to make connections and "kindred associations" (Kant's phrase) in all directions.

In the current, July issue of The Yale Review, Thompson has a 16-page article entitled "Lincoln Kirstein at Eighty," a tribute to the man and a description of what it was like to work with and for him in his final years. Kirstein's country home was crammed full of books, as could be seen in Thompson's photos at the State Theater. The range of subjects is remarkable, everything from, for example, Edward Lear to number symbolism, from traditional prayer books to cabalistic studies and treatises on Satan, from Pascal, Wittgenstein and Marcus Aurelius to dinosaurs, gardening and natural history. What Thompson doesn't say and perhaps didn't ask Kirstein about is which of these books and interests might have belonged to his Kirstein's wife, Fidelma, then confined to a nearby nursing home.

Thompson marvels not just at Kirstein's range of interests and accomplishments, but also at the "power of association" evident in his writing and his conversation. He links this with Kirstein's belief in artistic "apostolic succession," the inheriting and bequeathing of technique ("digital mastery," a phrase that will be familiar to many of Kirstein's readers). For Kirstein this was as religious as it sounds. "The word religion,' Kirstein explained, comes from a root meaning 'to connect.'" What this meant was that Kirstein opposed the then fashionable emphasis on artistic genius, on an individualism that in his view elevated personality at the expense of referenced, acknowledged tradition. (This, of course, is a main element is his quarrel with modern dance).

Thompson speculates that Kirstein's instinct for assimilation and connection aided him in his lifelong dealings with artists, not only to facilitate but to inspire, to serve as a catalyst, for example, to Walker Evans, broadening and enriching the photographer's understanding of his subject matter.

It was also this emphasis on connection that made Kirstein dissatisfied with Thompson's initial shots of the 19 Street paintings, sculpture, and bric-a-brac in isolation. The object of both photographs and essay became, in Thompson's words, "to find, through the contemplation of these chosen, familiar things, an objectified representation of the whirling mental activity, the storm of thought that was his habitual state of mind."

I shouldn't summarize everything here, but a subscription to The Yale Review costs $29 online, and the printed journal is hard to find in many places (I found the article online at a university library). So I'll permit myself one more quote, one of the touching vignettes with which Thompson honors his friend and collaborator: The great man is "standing over the poet Gavin Ewart," in from London and his guest for dinner. "As his huge form looms over Ewart, who is sitting on the sofa talking to the ballerina seated next to him, Ewart looks up questioningly: What is it, Lincoln? Kirstein answers, I'm trying to think what might please you."

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