Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Louise Brooks, William Kentridge and the Making of Lulu

There is an old saying. Chance favors the prepared mind. There is another saying about being in the right place at the right time.

I love books. And have long been involved in various aspects of publishing. For two-and-a-half years I worked at Arion Press in San Francisco as its Director of Marketing and Sales. Arion Press, if you're not familiar, is one of the last letterpress publishers in the world. Started more than 40 years ago, Arion makes extraordinary, limited edition, handmade books. Their Moby-Dick, with 100 wood engravings by Barry Moser, and their Ulysses, with 40 etchings by Robert Motherwell, are each legendary and sought after.

One day in 2013 at an Arion Press staff meeting, we were discussing upcoming projects. At the time, the press was looking for a new book to publish; the press was also wanting to work with artist William Kentridge -- a proposed Flaubert project with Kentridge had stalled out. At the time, Kentridge was deep into his production of Alban Berg's opera Lulu, which was based on two plays by the German playwright Frank Wedekind.

I have always been an idea guy, and it was at that meeting that I suggested to Arion publisher Andrew Hoyem that the press pair Kentridge with Wedekind's two Lulu plays, Earth Spirit and Pandora's Box. I made the suggestion not long after having read in the New York Times that Kentridge himself was inspired by Brooks -- actress who played Lulu in the 1929 silent film, Pandora's Box. It seemed like a good fit.

Speaking to the New York Times in 2013, Kentridge explained "that his Lulu was being inspired by German Expressionism, Weimar cinema (including, of course, Pandora’s Box, the G. W. Pabst version of the Lulu story starring Louise Brooks), Max Beckmann drypoints depicting brothels and the like...."

Not long after the staff meeting where I made my suggestion, Hoyem approached Kentridge with the idea of publishing the Lulu plays accompanied by artwork by Kentridge. After some back and forth, the project was a go.

Fast forward to 2015. Arion Press has just released its edition of Wedekind's The Lulu Plays, featuring 67 Kentridge drawings (printed by four-color offset lithography) bound into the book. The images are derived from brush and ink drawings for projections included in the artist's new production of Berg's opera, which opens at the Metropolitan Opera in New York on November 5. It looks to be a terrific production.

The role of Lulu is sung by the German coloratura soprano Marlis Peterson (a dirty blonde who wears her hair shoulder length); she is famed for the role, and in this production sports a dark bob a la Louise Brooks.

Those seeking a sneak peak of the visuals behind the opera should head over to the Marion Goodman Gallery in New York, where "William Kentridge: Drawings for Lulu" is on display through December 19th. The exhibit presents the original 67 drawings by Kentridge used in the opera and the book, as well as a suite of four related linocut prints. The Arion Press edition of The Lulu Plays is also on display at the gallery, as well as at the IFPDA Print Fair in New York from November 4 through November 8.

The Arion Press edition of The Lulu Plays is a fine achievement. It's both handsome and sexy. Four-hundred copies were printed, each signed by the artist and numbered. The book is quarto format, measuring 13-1/2" x 10", and is printed by letterpress on luxurious creamy paper utilizing period type in fittingly black and red inks. The book is hand bound, and comes in a slipcase. Louise Brooks and her role in Pandora's Box is mentioned in the introduction.

To learn more about the new edition of The Lulu Plays, check out this video from the Metropolitan Museum of Art on-stage conversation between Kentridge and Arion Press publisher Hoyem.

The Met's production of William Kentridge's staging of Alban Berg's opera will be streamed live into theater's across the country on Saturday, November 21st. More info HERE.

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