Among those born on this date are three prominent figures in the Arts. They represent three very different positions on the spectrum of artistic expression and yet all three are memorable.
Michelangelo began work on his statue of David on this date in 1501. One could argue that this is actually the anniversary of the statue’s conception rather than its birth but I choose to see it otherwise. While several sources noted this as the date work began; it was a Monday; I was able to learn only that the statue was completed sometime between late January and June of 1504.
The statue is 17 feet tall and weighs more than 6 tons. The original commission for a statue of David was awarded to Agostino di Duccio who began work on it in 1464. He ceased work on 1466. Ten years later, in 1476, a commission was granted to Antonio Rossellino to complete the statue but he does not appear to have done any work on the project. The stone sat untouched for 25 years before a commission was granted to Michelangelo in 1501 for the statue’s completion.
The statue is considered unusual for a number of reasons. Due to the dimensions of the Carrara marble stone provided to the original artist , the statue is thinner when seen in profile than was typical for male figures of the time.
The hands and head are disproportionately large. It is assumed that this was done because the statue was originally was to have been placed at the top of the Cathedral in Florence and these features would be seen from a distance and from below. The completed weight was prohibitive, however, for such a placement.
It is an unusual depiction of the character of David. Art of the time invariably showed David after his defeat of Goliath; the giant’s severed heard included in the image created. In this case, the statue represents David before the battle.
The statue shows David as having been uncircumcised. This is, presumably, historically inaccurate but was, apparently. in keeping with the customs for the sculpture of male forms in the Renaissance.
In a related note, the plaster-cast of the statue in the Victoria & Albert Museum includes a fig leaf created in response to Queen Victoria’s offended sensibilities after she saw the statue. The leaf was attached to the figure before royal visits, using two strategically placed hooks.
Born on this date in 1894, J.B. Priestly was an English novelist, playwright and broadcaster. He first became known as a novelist in the late 1920’s. He is known for his ‘Time Plays’; a series of dramas written in the 1930’s and 1940’s. The plays use varying concepts of time as a central metaphor or theatrical device. The best known of these is An Inspector Calls; written in 1945.
I knew little about Priestley when I sat down to write this post. I first became aware of him when I saw a production of An Inspector Calls in 2008. The play is fascinating. The plot is actually quite linear; in many ways a standard ‘who-done-it’ detective story. The telling of the story, however, is anything but linear. Add some existential ambiguity and a strong dose of left-wing politics and the resulting drama is a wonderful evening of theater. I see similarities to two of my favorite plays; both written about the same time; Sartre’s No Exit (1944) and Beckett’s Waiting For Godot (1948).
Priestley was a life-long socialist. He was a broadcaster for the BBC during World War II. His radio program was cancelled, however, when members of Churchill’s Cabinet felt it was too left-leaning. In 1949 his name was included in “Orwell’s List”; a list that writer George Orwell prepared that year for the Information Research Department (IRD), a propaganda unit set up at the Foreign Office by the Labour government. Orwell considered these people to have pro-communist leanings and therefore to be inappropriate to write for the IRD. It was apparently a somewhat milder form of the ‘Blacklist’ in the United States in the years that followed.
[Is there irony in the fact that Orwell prepared his list the same year he wrote 1984? Perhaps Mr. Orwell thought the perception of ‘pro-communist leanings’ fell within the definition of “thoughtcrime”…. but that’s a topic for another post.]
Nell Carter was born on this day in 1948. In a career spanning more than 30 years, she was a talented and award-winning actress and comedienne with an instantly recognizable singing voice. She won a Tony Award in 1978 for her role in Ain’t Misbehavin’ singing the music of Fats Waller. She won an Emmy in 1982 for reprising the role on television. She made many appearances on television and starred in the situation comedy Gimme a Break from 1981-1987.
She had been cast in the role of Effie in the original production of Dreamgirls but gave up the role before the show opened to take a part in the soap-opera Ryan’s Hope. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a recording of her singing “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going”?
She struggled in her personal life. Raped at age 16, she gave birth to a daughter as a result of the attack. Later she adopted 2 sons. Efforts to adopt two more children were unsuccessful. One of her adopted sons later became a transgendered woman. A brother died of complication of AIDS.
She was born Catholic, raised Presbyterian and converted to Judaism as an adult.
She married and divorced twice.
There was a suicide attempt, two brain aneurysms, three miscarriages and a well-publicized struggled with cocaine addiction. She was declared bankrupt twice.
She began a lesbian relationship in the 1990’s but this was not disclosed until after her death. Her partner was named as the heir to her property and guardian of her children.
She died in 2003 from heart disease complicated by diabetes. She was 54.