Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Engravings of Raphael's Designs for the Vatican Loggia

This should quicken the pulse of at least a few ornament nerds out there. I know I'm not completely alone. Yeah, you know who you are. This is my second post on the subject of the extremely rare full color set of engravings, hand-painted in gouache, of Raphael's incredible designs for the Vatican Loggia.

I posted an enormous set with 277 large format details, taken directly from the original engravings, on my Flickr page. You won't find these anywhere else, you lucky lucky bastards. Except if you happen to own one of the only three full surviving color sets, of course. In which case I hate you.

For information on the engravings themselves, and background to the Vatican loggia, see this earlier post on my blog.


Wearing black ski masks, and suspended from the ceiling so as not to trip the alarms
Here's an oblique detail showing the beautiful gilding on the Noah's Ark panel

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Irish Folk Furniture

I could have just posted the link on Facebook, but I'm dedicating a blogpost to it instead. You won't regret it. Sometimes it's nice to be reminded that there is an inherent human desire to build and decorate, simply.

This Irish short film by Tony O Donoghue (which just won the prize for Best Animated Short at Sundance 2013) is totally charming, and though as an Irishman I find subtitles of the brogue a little distracting, it's a lovely reminder that since we crawled out from the muck humans have made aesthetic choices about everyday objects, and that the roots of art are in gnarled knuckles and mindful living,

Sunday, January 20, 2013

I Brake For Fake: Tourists Flock to Replicas of Reality

The real (in case it wasn't obvious) Halstatt, in Austria [image]

China's unveiling of it's $9 Billion fake Alpine village was in the news recently, when it was "revealed" that "spies from a Chinese developer [Minmetals Land Inc.] had been secretly preparing detailed blueprints on furtive European trips, posing as tourists." According to Breaking Travel News, "the plan was discovered when a Chinese guest at one of the village hotels left blueprints behind."

The real Halstatt is an idyllic lakeside hamlet in Austria nestled in the mountains of the Alps, which are incidentally quite difficult to fake owing to their being humongous. China wisely avoided papier-maché mountains, and instead opted for plopping their version in an industrial park.

Mary Tudor in America anyone? Sefton Manor, at Mill Neck New York [source]
Visit blogger Gary Lawrance's Mansion's of the Gilded Age
It's easy to scoff, but remember that America was, and continues to be, just as infatuated with buying the credibility that Old Europe affords. The Vanderbilts and Astors built towering "cottages" in the European style, appropriating ready-made culture to offset the shiny newness of all that money. The Breakers is no different in it's intent than the Alpine replica of newly minted China.

The Venetian Casino, Las Vegas
In fairness to the Chinese, they did a pretty good job copying Halstatt. Interestingly, if not ironically, more Chinese tourists now travel all the way to Austria to visit the original than their homegrown replica. I doubt if the same can be said of Americans visiting Venice, since the vast majority don't even have passports.

Brrrr; creepy mustachioed man in a trench coat

From Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) to The Truman Show (1998), Hollywood reflects our simultaneous fascination and revulsion with the fake environment. In The Experts (1989), John Travolta and Kelly Preston are "two young hipsters" drugged and kidnapped by the KGB and shipped unknowingly to Russia. They awake thinking they're in Nebraska, open a nightclub and teach the Russian townies to dance. But what happens when the townsfolk taste freedom and the KGB want to kill them? Will our heroes awake from their nightmare in time to escape? It's xenophobia and paranoia wrapped up in bad hairdos and worse comedy.

What could be more grim than this Chinese replica of an E German town?

The Chinese Halstatt announcement caused a mixture of "astonishment, amusement and ... outrage" among Europeans. They may have forgotten that the very European idea of the Grand Tour was exactly the same in nature. In the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, young "cultural ambassadors" (basically spies) were encouraged to venture forth by a government greedy to keep it's cultural advantage in a dangerously unstable Europe. Young men came home with armfuls of drawings of monuments, studies of the classics, and copies of Italian paintings. They weren't seen as grave-robbers. On the contrary, they were seen as the advance guard in a very serious war.

You could argue that even the "real" Halstatt is faked for the tourists [Getty Images]

British historian E.P. Thompson explains that if the British were to maintain control of their Empire they must be seen to be at the forefront culturally, and that meant studying the classics at their source. According to Thompson, "ruling-class control in the 18th century was located primarily in a cultural hegemony, and only secondarily in an expression of economic or physical (military) power."

The Chinese Dorchester
This isn't the first time it's happened in China. "Chengdu British Town is modeled after Dorchester. Shanghai has xeroxed sections of Barcelona, Venice and Germany (the latter, a 2005 generic modernist village designed by Albert Speer Jr., remains a ghost town)." [source]
"In Pujiang, another Shanghai suburb, 100,000 citizens will soon occupy an Italian dreamscape complete with languid canals. In all, at least 500,000 people are expected to live in Shanghai's seven new satellite towns, each designed in the style of a different Western nation." [Der Spiegel]

What all this appropriation signifies, at least in part, is the belief that Knowledge is there for the taking. Just as European and American ruling elites believed that might makes right, and stole or destroyed everything they could get their hands on during their initial Empirical expansionist phases, so too does China. It's the cultural equivalent of the land-grab.

In an age where an ever increasing number of people don't pay for movies or music, they just grab them for free from the internet, it's hardly surprising that this is simply being met with a shrug of the shoulders. Old news is no news, it seems.

Kijong Dong, or "Peace Town" in the North Korean DMZ

Sometimes it's not the buildings themselves that are designed to deceive, but the intentions behind them. So called "Potemkin villages," fake Hollywood-style facades built by secretive governments intent on waging a propaganda war, are fascinating relics of political paranoia and xenophobia. Perhaps the most infamous is Kijong-dong, in North Korea with its 323 foot flagpole. Supposedly a 200-family collective farm built by "the illustrious leader" in the 1950s on the South Korean border, it has been exposed as an elaborate fake to fool the world into thinking North Korea is anything other than a complete disaster. The only "residents" are skeleton crews of street-sweepers hired to keep up the ruse. Keeping the streets nice and tidy, they wear earmuffs to block out the blasting anti-Western propaganda speeches emanating from speakers all over town.

In many ways, Europhilia and Euroscepticism inform each other. As one group is wearing pastel sweaters tied around their necks and fawning over French cheese, another is battoning the hatches against foreign cultural "invasion." In "What are we doing to stop our beloved Britain being taken over?" journalist Peter Hitchens argues for a British bulwark against cultural dilution, just as the French have argued for the removal of anglicized French words from le dictionnaire.

Source for a slideshow of renderings of the interior

Religion, not surprisingly, is no stranger to these bold statements of culture and empire, usually reserving their most bombastic architecture for either frontier outposts or GHQ. Scientology built it's so-called Superpower building in Clearwater, Florida, to "expand on technology developed by NASA to train astronauts." Despite antigravity simulators said to "speed the release of Super Power," it has been lying empty and unused for years. In reality, the building was conceived and thrown up as a propaganda backlash against the media storm surrounding the Lisa McPherson trial.

Occasionally, fake towns become real over time. Take the case of Agloe, New York. A fictitious map entry, designed as a copyright trap, Agloe was a "paper town" that existed in name only. Initially just a dirt-road intersection in the 1930s, until along came some pioneering entrepreneur who staked his claim and opened the Agloe General Store and suddenly the "town" started appearing on the Rand McNally Atlas. Not surprisingly, the store went out of business before long proving that not all small businesses are a good idea.

The West Texas movie set town of Alamo Village [image source]
Now over 50 years old, a fake movie facade of the Alamo is beginning to take on the real patina of age. Despite the historical re-enactors, this copy of 1836 San Antonio is surprisingly convincing and blurs the line between fake and real.

"It's like a real old-west town - difficult to tell the difference most of the time between what are essentially movie props (although built as real, functional buildings, not just facades) compared to real century-old buildings in western ghost towns."

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck

G. Trignac

“I have always looked upon decay as being just as wonderful
and rich an expression of life as growth.”
Henry Miller

The Empire in a state of dissipation, portrayed as a post-industrial nightmare on the brink of total ruin, is a theme common to art since, well, the Industrial Age. [I'm doing my best Robert Hughes impression here]. The theme has many artistic commentators working in various media, but there's something about engraving that lends itself best to burned-out apocalyptic landscapes.

 Piranesi (1720-1778) was above all an architect who loved recording ancient ruins in his etchings, but it's his Carceri (1745), or Prison Views, that are called to mind in the works of French engravers Charles Meryon (1821-1868) and Gérard Trignac (1955-). Supposedly conceived as "visions during the delirium of a fever," it's Piranesi's surrealist side that is his most enduring legacy, and it's illustrators like these who've carried the torch.

G. Trignac

Why do we love dead things? From "live fast, die young," to Shakespeare, to furniture with a fake patina, we have a double-edged relationship to physical decay. We like to surround ourselves with stuff that looks old. Edgar Allen Poe said that "the death of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world." Besides it's morbidity and sexism, he touches on a powerful subject.

G. Trignac

The Freudian preoccupation with Eros and Thanatos, sex and ruin, is all around us. This fascination with memento mori lies partly in the puritanical reminder that while everything dies we are here now, hanging on to life. That ruin lies just around the corner for all of us is something we enjoy being reminded of now and then, if only from a distance. "But far from nihilism, tragedy is a storyteller laying the cards on the table and asserting that even though the journey ends in a cliff, the miles are worth it for their own sake." [S. L. Wilson]

[image source]
All that death and decay making you feel frisky? You can even book your wedding at the neon boneyard in Las Vegas. This acreage in downtown Vegas is off the tourist trail, but has been a steady spot for nuptials amid the detritus of old casinos and storefronts slowly falling to dust in the desert sun.

 Beauty in Decay: The Art of Urban Exploration [Image source]

The exhibition and Book, "Beauty in Decay" showcases the photographs of "urban explorers", anonymous artists who risk police records and safety by busting into "overgrown industrial complexes, disused lunatic asylums, abandoned palaces and forgotten monasteries," recording what they see and then leaving with no trace but their footprints. 

Flickr group Abandoned Urban Decay is a pool of hundreds of great shots taken by these intrepid explorers the world over.

"There is no true Beauty without Decay"
-Uncle Monty from Withnail and I

Vicissitudes series, Jason deCaires Taylor

Jason deCaires Taylor's work wrests life from decay. His "eco-sculptures" are essentially lifeless, but they take on the living and morph into magnificent coral gardens. Ignoring the morbid preoccupation with death as an endpoint (but perhaps referencing it), deCaires Taylor emphasizes the cyclical nature of life while reminding us that 40% of the world's reefs have disappeared in recent years. But, rather than disappear in Poe's adolescent funk and hug gravestones all day, deCaires Taylor does something about it, and in the meantime creates art of the most sublime beauty.

Vicissitudes series, Jason deCaires Taylor

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Artists and their Muses

Olympia, by Edouard Manet, 1863

"O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention!"
William Shakespeare

The whole idea of the human-being-as-clothes-horse artist "muse" thing bugs me. It usually dismisses the humanity of the person and reduces them to a subordinate possession to be tapped for selfish ends. Or maybe that's just me. 

Germaine Greer disagrees, and waxing hyperbolic as usual says, "a muse is anything but a paid model. The muse in her purest aspect is the feminine part of the male artist, with which he must have intercourse if he is to bring into being a new work. She is the anima to his animus, the yin to his yang, except that, in a reversal of gender roles, she penetrates or inspires him and he gestates and brings forth, from the womb of the mind."

Repose, byPablo Picasso

I think it's Greer who wishes to do the penetrating, personally. Looking at Picasso's work you could pretty much conclude that the only person inspiring Picasso is Picasso, regardless of how many women lined up for the chance to be his muse. Repose is supposedly inspired by Marie-Thérese Walter, but you could have fooled me.

George Dyer in Bacon's reece mews studio, 1964

Especially with the passing of time, certain people become simply so-and-so's "muse" and disappear. Victorine Meurent, Manet's infamous muse (and the subject of his Olympia), always has the dismissive qualifier of "also an artist in her own right" tagged after her name, but we all suspect that deep down she was really just an artist groupie. Francis Bacon's muse, George Dyer - who he is said to have met as he broke into Bacon's house - was a relentless hanger-on and renowned boor who, despite killing himself on the eve of Bacon's retrospective, disappeared into the obscurity he probably deserved.

Alba Clemente; Francesco Clemente's "soul mate"

Nevertheless, there are muses who's fame exists outside - even despite -  their association with an artist. It would be a mistake to assume that Claudel's reputation has survived simply because of her once notorious association with Rodin. The novelist and art critic Octave Mirbeau described her as "A revolt against nature: a woman genius". The sexism of his comment no doubt escaped him, but the point is understood.

Francesco Clemente's muse also happens to be his wife. Having met almost forty years ago, there's no dismissing their relationship as a flight of artistic fancy. She travels the world by his side, and is often portrayed in his paintings as his double or soul mate.

Claudel in Rodin's studio

And of course there are Andrew Wyeth's wonderfully intimate paintings of Helga Testorf, known as The Helga Pictures. Wyeth made some 240 drawings and paintings of Helga, hiding them at the home of his student and neighbor and making them a secret even to their respective spouses in the small community of Chadds Ford.

"The difference between me and a lot of painters is that I have to have a personal contact with my models.... I have to become enamored. Smitten. That's what happened when I saw Helga." [A. Wyeth]

Not all muses fade, and not all of them are women either. True, Kurt Russell's oily pecs and luxurious mane are more than a little fem, but there's nothing girly about Bill Murray or Klaus Kinski. Take a look at this gallery of some of my personal favorites, and feel free to comment or add.

Wes Anderson and Bill Murray
Jean-Michel Basquiat and Suzanne Mallouk
John Carpenter and Kurt Russell
Godard and Ana Karina

Hitchcock and Grace Kelly

DeNiro and Scorsese

Tarantino and Thurman

Diane Keaton and Woody Allen

Kinski and Werner Herzog

Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe
Cindy Sherman and eh...

Dali and Gala

Tina Modotti, by Edward Weston
Frida Kahlo
Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas

Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner

Karl Lagerfeld and Baptiste Giabiconi

John and Yoko
Jagger and Marianne Faithful

Picasso, and one of many

Michelangelo and Tommaso Cavalieri

Warhol and Edie Sedgwick

Jeanne Hébuterne, Artist and Muse to Modigliani