Alice Guy-Blaché (Painting #7 of 13) “Influential Women”

•July 6, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Alice GuyBlanche'

Alice Guy-Blaché
1873 – 1968

“Be Natural”

Surely, Léon Gaumont could not have foreseen the typist he hired to do clerical work would turn out to be one of the most inventive and influential filmmakers in the fledging years of the motion picture industry in France. In 1896, after two years with Gaumont Films, Alice Guy was head of production for the company. Under her direction, the first narrative films were developed, a shift from the street scenes vignettes heretofore popular subjects for audiences around the turn of the century. By 1906 Alice was writing, directing and producing several short films a week at Gaumont. A decade before D. W. Griffith’s seminal Birth of a Nation in the US, Alice made The Life of Christ, one of the largest budget productions anywhere in its day. She has not been properly credited for such cinematic first as: split screen, double exposure, reversing shots, and for overseeing the development of “Chronophone”, the first sound recordings synced with picture. In 1930, Léon Gaumont published the history of his company with no mention of Alice or any productions prior to 1907. Understandably upset, Alice, wrote a letter to Gaumont, and he agreed to change the text to include her contributions leading to the success of his company. These promised changes never made it into print and were never published.

In 1907, Alice Guy became Mrs. Alice Guy-Blaché, when she married the scoundrel, Herbert Blaché, another Gaumont employee who worked as a production manger. The newly weds set sail for America to head the Gaumont company’s expansion into the US market. By 1910, the couple in partnership with moneyman George A. Magie, felt secure enough in their abilities to sever ties with Gaumont and form the largest pre-Hollywood film company, Solax. First located in Flushing New York, the success of their partnership soon saw them relocating to Fort Lee N.J., the epicenter at the time for motion picture production. With Alice as artistic director, and Herbert as production manager and cinematographer, the company flourish under a large sign Alice had place in the facility quoting her motto: “Be Natural.” Despite the complications of being the mother of two young daughters, Alice, as head of Solax, continued to write, direct and produce as many as three films a week. In order to focus more on writing and directing, Alice put the presidency of their company solely in Herbert’s hands. The exodus of many of the Fort Lee film companies to the warmer, less expensive climes of the West Coast, where they could escape the Edison patent thugs, meant a decline in East Coast production and a decline in Solax’s fortunes – as well as Alice and Herbert’s marriage. After starting another company, Herbert deserted Alice and their two children and ran off to Hollywood with one of his actresses.

Alice briefly made films for William Randolf Hearst, but the loss of her husband and the transplanting of the film industry to the West coast, soon found Alice in bankruptcy. She returned to France with her daughters and although for the next 30 years lectured and wrote about film, Alice never made another movie. Alice Guy-Blaché’s twenty four years in the industry and nearly one thousand films, were virtually forgotten by the film community until she received the Légion d’honneur (1953) in her native France. Barely a third of her work still exist (mainly the films she directed featuring Charlie Chaplin), her legacy has been revived by the New Jersey Film Commision with a monument in her honor in Fort Lee, NJ, the site of her Solax studio. Her contrabutions to the art of filmmaking have influenced and are evident in every film that is made to this day.

(Painting photo: Mark Serman)

© Laurence Revene, 2014



Harriet Tubman (Painting #6 of 13) “Influential Women”

•July 5, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Harriet Tubman - no frame
Harriet Tubman
1820 -1913

“There was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death;
if I could not have one, I would have the other.”

Defined by her deeds, Harriet Tubman distinguished herself as a arch abolitionist, leading hundreds of slaves out of the South to freedom in the northern United States and Canada. Life threating missions into the pre-civil war South and during that fierce struggle, she guided countless indigent serfs to a safe haven in the North. Harriet risk her own freedom and well being, to save others.

Despite the affects of a life long serious head wound suffered at an early age, inflicted while protecting a fellow slave, Harriet labored her entire life in the service of God, to right the social wrongs of her people. Endlessly plagued with her own poor physical condition, undeterred, Harriet traveled untold miles, mostly on foot, to deliver family, friends, and strangers to a just existence out of the bonds of slavery. She affected her own freedom and that of others by nocturnal journeys, guided by the North Star, through woodland and swamps, utilizing the informal connections of the “underground railroad” and its network of safe houses and supporters, to free her brethren.

Harriet Tubman, in her 93 years: championed her people, served as a Union scout and spy, led a armed assault during the Combahee River raid, founded a home for elderly blacks and worked for the rights of women voters. Much lauded for her selfless service for others, Harriet died as she was born, bereft of worldly goods and money but with a grand legacy as her final earthly reward.

(Painting photo: Mark Serman)

© Laurence Revene, 2014

Frida Kahlo (Painting #5 of 13) “Influential Women”

•July 4, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Frida Kalo

Frida Kahlo
1907 – 1954

“I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best.”

Sage advise for all new literary students: “write about what you know.” Mexican painter Frida Kahlo spent a great deal of time alone convalescing in bed, due to life long injuries sustained in her teens. Frida’s self-portraints were her way of depicting the pain and suffering she endured throughout her life, not with a sense of self pity, but with a mystical optimism that separated her physical being and projected her spiritual core. Originally she wanted to be a doctor but found solace in the brush and the expressive ability that painting afforded her. First mentored and encouraged by Diego Rivera, the Mexican muralist, they married 1929. Their union was a tumultuous one, often due to infidelities on both of their parts. Diego had an affair with Frida’s sister, and Frida bedded Leon Trotsy shortly before his assassination in Mexico by Russian agents. The couple were enamored of the Soviet ideology, as were many liberal thinking people of the time.

Always in the shadow of Diego as a painter, her own work was not recognized until after her death. Her paintings are somewhere between Surrealism and Folk Art, but distinctly her own. Her use of color is in the tradition of  Mexican artifacts, and mythology – with the unique symbols of Central America. Frida painted her pain and found her biggest admirers amongst women, who identify with her suffering. Because of her unibrow eyelids, her self- portraits revel in her anomaly rather than try and hide it. Perhaps this is one endearing quality that most appeals to women.

Frida suffered greatly during her life, and towards the end, endured the amputation of her left leg to the knee due to gangrene. A few days before her death, she wrote in her diary: “I hope the exit is joyful – and I hope never to return. Frida”

(Painting photo: Mark Serman)

© Laurence Revene, 2014

Anna Akhmatovia (Painting #4 of 13) “Influential Women”

•July 3, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Anna Akhmatovia 1889 -1966

Anna Akhmatovia

1886 – 1966

“Though my fingers are thin, still her thimble did not fit me.”

Known as the “Soul of the Silver Age,” Anna Akhmatovia was queen of that so-called period in the history of Russian poetry. Born, Anna Andreyevna Gorenko, at the turn of the century in Odessa, Ukraine, a bustling seaport with the inhabitants enjoying the last prosperous years before the revolution. Anna adopted her pen name, Akhmatovia, early in her writing career. Initially it was to not embarrass her family with her poetry, but later the pseudo-name became an important device to avoid the political wrath during the Stalin years.

Anna enjoyed fame early in her career, her style, characterized by its economy and emotional restraint, was strikingly original and distinctive to her contemporaries. Her strong and clear leading female voice struck a new chord in Russian poetry. During and after the Russian Revolution, life in the Soviet Union became increasingly harder for the people. War and political persecution beat the people of eastern Europe to their knees, but even with this incredible pressure, Anna continued to write poetry. Her husband was executed, as an enemy of the state, and her son was imprisoned for merely being the child of intellectuals, but Anna continued to write. Even during the two and half year siege of Leningrad by German forces during World War II (which was Anna’s home at the time) she saw starvation as the tool of the Third Reich in order to subjugate the citizens of the city, but still, Anna wrote. Her poems were increasingly darker with anti-Soviet themes. She loved her country and would not leave, as many of her friends did, but she hated the brutal and oppressive Communist system.

Although banned in 1925, Akhmatova’s work continued to circulate in secret, passed and read in the gulags. A small trusted circle would memorize each other’s works and circulate them orally. Akhmatova wrote out poems for visitors to her flat, which was constantly under surveillance, on a scrap of paper to be read in a moment, then burned. The poems were carefully disseminated in this manner but many were lost. “It was like a ritual,” Chukovskaya, her biographer, wrote. “Hands, matches, an ashtray. A ritual beautiful and bitter.”

Anna Akhmatovia, had that certain jen ne sais quoi, which only highly educated and intelligent women have, and even if her tall slender form and angular face, might not have been standard beauty fare, her inner sprit acted as a loadstone for some of the most prominent intellectuals men and artist of her generation. Writer Boris Paternack, painter Amedeo Modigliani, mosaic artist and poet Boris Anrep, writer Alexander Blok, and others were taken by her charms. But for Anna, life was full of tragedy from which she gathered material for her inspirational poetry.

(Painting photo: Mark Serman)

© Laurence Revene, 2014

Female Samurai (Painting #3 of 13) “Influential Women”

•July 2, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Female Samauri

Female Samurai
(circa 1900)
After 12th century Hangaku Gozen.

There are many theories surrounding the Meiji era (1868-1912) source material for this painting. The original black and white photo depicts a female member of the Taira clan, one of the most influential families during the Heian period in Japan (794-1185). This is distinguishable by the butterfly emblem displayed on the chest plate of her armor.

During Heian rule, the emperor bestowed the family name of Taira to ex-members of the imperial family. The Taira were eventually members of the clan forming the first samurai government in Japan. The Taira clan lost much of its influence after the Genpei War. This is not likely an image of an actual female samurai; some experts say it is a male kabuki actor dressed in costume, perhaps depicting Hangaku Gozen, a female warrior (onna-bugeisha) who was allied with the Taira clan. The style of armor she wears was popular during the Ninth century (designed to combat arrows, not bullets) and would have been worn for costume or ceremonial purposes at the turn of the twentieth century.

A defeat in battle, and the subsequent loss of her reputation, Hangaku Gozen was saved from committing seppuku (suicide), when a retainer of the shogun fell in love with her and persuaded her not to kill herself. Alternate stories declare she renounced waring and became a nun. One can not help but be struck by the similarities to sainted French combatant Joan of Arc.

The possibility also exist this was simply a female model posing for a souvenir photograph. These were common keepsakes for Western travelers visiting Japan for the first time when the shogun, Meiji, opened Japan to the west after the Portuguese missionaries had been expelled from its shores two hundred and fifty years prior. Photographs like this were included in volumes depicting historic characters from Japanese history.

Female Samurais were not an anomaly, on the contrary, there is a long tradition of Japanese women wielding the sword or naginata (wooden shaft with a curved blade on the end) to protect their family and property from rival clans while their male counterparts were absent from home during battles. Hangaku Gozen is legendary for her fierce courage, and skill in battle and noted for the many formidable opponents she slew during conflicts.

Much thanks and appreciation is in order to Emily Barnes, museum coordinator for the Ann & Gabriel Barbier Samurai Armor Collection in Dallas Texas, for information about this obscure historic character.

(painting photo: Mark Serman)

© Laurence Revene, 2014.


Nellie Bly (#2 painting of 13) “Influential Women”

•July 1, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Nellie Bly 1864-1922

Nellie Bly

1864 -1922

“Lonely Orphan Girl”

Born Elizabeth Jane Cochran, the moniker “Nellie Bly” was assigned Cochran by George Madden, editor of the Pittsburg Dispatch, as her pen name based on the Stephen Foster’s popular song Nelly Bly.

Due to a fierce retort to a misogynist newspaper column What Girls Are Good For, Nellie, at age 18, was hired by Madden to pen her own column Lonely Orphan Girl, which focused on the plight of working women, especially female factory laborers. Her investigating reporting (she was a pioneer of personally researching facts for articles) raised hackles and the ire of conservatives opposed to women voting or giving voice in any public forums. The pressures exerted on Madden soon had Nellie relegated to the gardening, society and fashion desk – the traditional subjects ordained suitable for a female journalist.

Undeterred, Nellie at 21 years of age, initiated a trip to Mexico as a foreign correspondent. Her outspoken reports almost landed her in prison there for criticizing dictator Porfirio Diaz and she returned stateside after only six months.

Returning to the Pittsburgh Dispatch meant theatre and arts reporting for Nellie; rather than suffer that indignity, she headed east to New York City. She managed to secure a job on Joseph Pulitzer‘s newspaper the New York World. An undercover assignment for the paper saw her feigning insanity to report on alleged brutality and neglect at the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell Island. This was the same institution where “Typhoid Mary” was committed for spreading that deadly disease.

In order to establish herself as a mental case, Nellie took a room in a working class boarding house and would not go to bed, claiming she was afraid of the other borders. The police were summoned and she was taken to court pretending to have amnesia. Several prominent doctors examined her and concluded she was: “a hopeless case”, “positively demented” and needed to be institutionalized “where someone will take care of her.” The New York Times and New York Sun wrote articles asking who is the “mysterious waif with a wild, hunted look in her eyes, desperately crying, ‘I can’t remember, I can’t remember’.” After ten days of being exposed to the abject conditions of the asylum, Nellie was rescued by her paper the New York World. She created a huge scandal for the NY Department of Public Charities and Correction with exposés about the institution’s: inedible food, unclean water, rat infested kitchens, squalid conditions, verbal and physical abuse by workers and patients being shackled to wooden benches 14 hours a day and not being permitted to talk or move. She related her own torture by being doused with ice cold water during the winter and having buckets of filthy waste water splashed in her eyes, mouth and nose. Nellie’s articles shamed the medical establishment that allowed such conditions to exist and forced the convening of a grand jury by the attorney general, with Nellie’s help, to add substantial funding for the state’s mental institutions budget.

In 1888, Nellie suggested a concept to her editor at the New York World. Her idea was to trump Jules Verne‘s fictional book, Around the World in Eighty Days, beating in real time the transversal in fewer days than the fictional eighty. A year later her assignment was approved and with two days notice, the dress she was wearing, an overcoat and changes of underwear, she set sail alone on the Agusta Victoria steaming eastward to Europe. From there she continued to the middle and far east. Seventy-two days after departure she returned to Hoboken NJ having not only beaten the eighty day Jules Verne fictional record, but also Elizabeth Bisland who challenged Nellie for the newspaper Cosmopolitan by circumnavigating the globe traveling westward.

In 1895, Nellie married an industrial millionaire 40 years her senior, and retired from her journalist career. She became president of the Iron Clad Manufacturing Company, which made steel containers. She received three US patents for her innovation of the 55 gallon oil drum (still in use today) and an improved “stacking” garbage can, in addition to these she is credited for the ubiquitous metal milk can that farmers relied on for years to get their product to market. Her husband died after nine years of marriage and left Nellie one of the leading female industrialist in the US. Embezzlement by employees led to bankruptcy and Nellie returned to her journalistic roots covering the Eastern front during World War I and was instrumental in reporting on the 1913 Woman Suffrage Parade.

In her last years Nellie oversaw the care of several orphaned children in Church For All Nations home in Manhattan.

She died of pneumonia in 1922, at the age of 57, and is buried in a simple grave in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.

(Painting photo: Mark Serman)

© Laurence Revene, 2014.


Bessie Coleman (painting #1 of 13) “Influential Women”

•June 30, 2014 • 5 Comments

Bessy Coleman

Bessie Coleman
1892 – 1926

“Don’t take no for an answer.”

Tragedy stuck Bessie Coleman down at the young age of 34, but not before she left her indelible mark as the first black aviatrix in the world.

Born on a cotton farm in Atlanta, Texas, Bessie was part of the great migration north with her family – settling in Chicago in 1915. Motivated not to suffer the menial jobs available to Negroes in those days, she set her sights on higher goals, just what the goals were, she did not know at first. She had seen movie footage of airplanes soaring through the sky and fantasized about being the captain of such a craft. Her brother, John, returning from World War I, spoke of the “superiority of French women” who were learning to fly. The kernel of possibilities was planted and sparked the imagination of Bessie to become a aviator. Not deterred by the rejection of all of the flight school in the US, Bessie took the advise of Robert Abbot, publisher of the Chicago Defender, and set sail for France with what little money she had saved as a manicurist in a local barber shop. Mr. Abbot and a friend supplemented Bessie’s meager funds so she could attend the Caudron Brothers’ School of Aviation in Le Croytoy, France. Bessie Coleman was awarded her pilots licenses in 1921 by the Federation Aeronautiqe International. She did not let her color or gender diminish her dream and she accomplished her goal in a remarkable seven months after enrollment.

Returning to the US, Bessie made her living “barnstorming” (traveling around giving exhibitions of flying and performing aeronautical stunts). Her goal, additionally, was to establish a school for African American pilots. Coleman was limited in the finer skills of stunt flying, so she returned to France (after once again being refused entry into US flight schools) to learn the advanced methods of daredevil flying.

In 1922 Bessie performed in an air show at Glen Curtiss Field, Garden City, NY. She became an instant success with the crowds christening her “Queen Bess.” Her celebrity status gave her a platform from which she could encourage others, especially women, to learn to fly. Bessie also used her fame to challenge the segregated status quo, refusing on one occasion to perform in her home town in Texas if blacks and whites were not allowed to use the same entrance to the air stadium, instead of the separate entrances that were standard.

Her short six year career ended while her mechanic was piloting her “Jenny” plane (Bessie was not strapped in), she was leaning over the cockpit’s edge trying to spot a potential parachute landing site. An erratic nose dive occurred, due to a wrench left accidently by the mechanic, and the plane flipped over, plummeting young Bessie to her death.

(painting photo: Mark Serman)

© Laurence Revene, 2014




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