The above images are reproductions of two (undated) promotional brochures produced by The Gryphon Group as sales material for, respectively, Willard Maas' Image in the Snow (1946-51) and Marie Menken's Visual Variations on Noguchi (1945). I reproduce them here as part of a series of follow-ups to last years An Arabaesque for Marie Menken event at Tate Modern, seeking to create a broader context for Menken's work, and again the outcome of my dialogue with Douglas Crase.
What do we learn from the brochures? Firstly, it shows that The Gryphon Group - here referred to as GRYPHON PRODUCTIONS - had a strong brand identity when it came to promoting itself, one which perhaps challenges or at least alters somewhat our sense of the films.
At Tate Modern, for example, Melissa Ragona was keen to distinguish Menken's affinities with what became pop, structuralism and conceptualism, from the Cocteau-derived romantic poetry of Maas. Ragona mentioned several times that Menken had contempt for Maas work. If we take the design and content of this promotional material seriously, then it suggests that all of these styles and ideas were swirling around in The Gryphon Group's idea of itself, suggesting these different styles and influences were all much more related to each other than conventional art-historical takes on the period often allow.
I don't know how extensively these brochures were distributed or how they were perceived. But there are many suggestive elements contained within them. Given the criticism directed at Jonas Mekas for his description - in a video tribute played at Tate - of Menken's "little films" it's curious to find the phrase recurring in the Noguchi brochure, which notes "Miss Menken, in asking the young composer, Lucille Dlugoszewski, to do the music for her little film..." It's also a phrase consistent with the tone of Menken's own description of her film:
MY CAMERA AND I TOOK A TURN ABOUT NOGUCHI'S STUDIO AND THE CAMERA-EYE RECORDED THE HAPPY JOURNEY AND WHEN LUCILLE [Dlugoszewski, the films composer] SAW WHAT THE CAMERA HAD SEEN SHE TOO TOOK A HAPPY JOURNEY AND TOGETHER IT IS ALL HAPPINESS.
Menken's film, according to Norman McClaren's endorsement here, "has successfully transformed Noguchi's sculpture into her own medium." The brochure also focusses strongly on the relationship to music, publishing the following note from Dlugoszewski and promising to send anyone renting or buying the film the full text from which it is extracted:
EVERY SOUND IN THE SCORE IS THE MAGIC OF ITS BEWILDERMENT AND EXISTS ONLY AS ITS TIMBRE AND SO THE EAR WILL BE SHOCKED INTO LISTENING TO PAPER BECAUSE IT HAS PROBABLY NEVER HEARD IT BEFORE. IF THE LISTENING IS INNOCENT ENOUGH IT WILL SEE THAT BEWILDERMENT IS GLORIOUS BECAUSE IT ALONE IS TRUE. AND THIS LISTENING WILL MAYBE ALMOST SEE
Finally, as Tate's abundance of anecdotes testified, any attempt to understand Menken's films has to take account of the entwined personal and professional relationships within which her filmmaking took place. It's worth noting that the credits for Image in the Snow read "A FILM POEM BY WILLARD MAAS. Assisted by Marie Menken."
Menken's relationship to Maya Deren would also be fascinating to explore further (Deren's husband Teijo Ito created soundtracks for both Maas and Menken). In trying to connect and differentiate the various styles and influences in both Menken and Maas, note the terms of Deren's endorsement for Image in the Snow:
...IMAGE IN THE SNOW makes us aware of how meekly we have accepted the poverty of specialized attention, and we perceive the great tradition of major theatre -- in which dance, drama, music, poetry, design, and even architecture were integrated into a single statement of moral import -- may re-emerge once more, as a film form, refreshed and refurbished by all the vast technical potential of this medium.