In a Downtowner issue largely dedicated to the city’s contemporary art scene, it can be instructive to look back at historical influences on Trenton’s arts scene. In the 1920s a young composer and pianist from Trenton arrived in Paris and played a part in shaping the modernist movement — including an influence on James Joyce and Ezra Pound. Then in the 1960s artists and writers from Paris arrived in Trenton and helped shape the capital city’s heritage.
Trenton-born composer George Antheil, born in 1900, was an accomplished young pianist when he began studying music composition in Philadelphia in the early 1920s. Fired up by some new ideas in art and youthfully confident, Antheil headed to Europe in 1922, where he produced a series of well received concerts in London, Budapest, and Vienna and began interacting with European composers such as Stravinsky.
In 1923 Antheil arrived in Paris, where he rented an apartment from fellow New Jerseyan Sylvia Beach. She had moved from Princeton to Paris and ran the English-language bookshop Shakespeare and Company, a gathering place for English-speaking artists and writers. In 1922 Beach had published Joyce’s monumental novel “Ulysses” and introduced Antheil to the famed Irish writer.
At the same time Antheil continued to perform his new works, including the “Airplane Sonata” and “Sonata Savage.” One concert erupted in an audience riot where traditionalists jeered and contemporary composers Erik Satie and Darius Milhaud applauded.
It was at this time that influential American poet and critic Ezra Pound expressed his enthusiasm on Antheil by writing the book “Antheil and the Treatise on Harmony.” In addition to being a fan of Antheil’s music, Pound would sometimes play a conga drum during an Antheil concert. Joyce had also started to attend and had become interested in Antheil’s music.
Also at this time, late 1923, Antheil started composing his most famous work, “Ballet Mecanique,” originally devised as a score for cubist/futurist painter Fernand Leger’s silent film of the same name.
The film and score were paeans to machines with Antheil’s composition being recognized as the work scored for several automated instruments and mechanical devices: player pianos, an airplane propeller, electric bells, and sirens
The “Ballet” premiered at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees in 1925 and again caused a riot and made the composer even more famous.
Joyce had attended, and he and Antheil began collaborating. They published a preliminary section of an opera based on the Cyclops section of Joyce’s “Ulysses,” and Antheil later set Joyce’s “Night Piece.” Meanwhile Pound introduced Antheil to influential poet and playwright William Butler Yeats, and Antheil created a score for the play “Fighting the Waves.”
Antheil traveled between Europe and the United States for several years and would stop in Trenton to visit family and friends and perform new works by contemporary European composers. He died in 1959. His music continues to grow in public awareness and his “Ballet Mecanique” has been the subject of several new recordings, including one overseen by Capital Philharmonic of New Jersey musical director Daniel Spalding.
Meanwhile back in late 1920s Paris, a handful of artists who were part of the scene that Antheil helped create were unaware of the impact they would make on Trenton.
That included novelist Glenway Wescott, his longtime lover and partner, curator Monroe Wheeler, and their colleague and occasional lover, New Jersey-born art photographer George Platt Lynes.
There was also Barbara Harrison, who with Wheeler established the arts press Harrison of Paris, creating special editions that involved cutting-edge artists (such as American sculptor Alexander Calder).
In Paris Harrison met her future husband, Glenway’s brother, Lloyd, who had parlayed the family’s Wisconsin dairy farming background into a series of successful ventures, including artificial breeding of livestock.
After Paris and a stay in New York, Harrison and Wescott moved to a farm in lower Hunterdon County, New Jersey.
Then in the mid-1930s Wheeler became the first director of exhibitions at the new Museum of Modern Art and he, Glenway, and Lynes returned to America — eventually moving to the Hunterdon farm.
An internet search will produce paintings and photographs by prominent artists of the farm and its occupants, including a pastoral of Lloyd and Barbara.
In the 1960s the Paris-influenced New Jerseyans began to influence Trenton.
Lloyd Wescott — who was named chair of the New Jersey State Board of Control of Institutions and Agencies — and Harrison became active with the New Jersey State Museum when the institution was redefining itself, creating an art collection and moving into a modern new building.
In addition to being part of an influential circle of artists who would advise and sometimes attend Trenton functions, Wescott and Harrison were known art collectors, and their involvement, along with Wheeler’s role as an informal advisor, helped the museum establish the foundation of the important collection that can be seen there today. It was also during that time that the state purchased several pieces of public art, including the Calder sculpture that stands in front of the State Museum.
Harrison continued her museum involvement until her death in 1977, when a publication noting influential Hunterdon County women made the following assessment: “A noted collector of fine works of art, Barbara Harrison Wescott’s appointment to the advisory council of the New Jersey State Museum proved to be the turning point in the museum’s existence. Prior to her influence, the museum was largely ‘a collection of arrowheads.’ It was her knowledge, taste, and love of fine art that propelled the museum forward in its quest for a collection that would distinguish the state museum.”
After Harrison’s death, Lloyd Wescott continued his involvement with the museum’s collection for over two decades more. However, his death in 1990 — a few years after the deaths of Glenway and Wheeler — ended the physical link between Trenton and avant-garde Paris — one that still exists and is part of the city’s cultural memory.