Friday, October 2, 2015

The Black Paintings of Goya

"In 1814 Ferdinand VII posed for Francisco de Goya. There was nothing unusual in that. Goya, court painter for the Spanish Crown, was doing a portrait of the new monarch. But artist and king detested each other. 

The king suspected, and with good reason, that Goya's court paintings were disingenuously kind. The artist had no choice but to do the job that earned him his daily bread and provided an effective shield against the enmity of the Holy Inquisition. There was no lack of desire on God's tribunal to burn alive the creator of La Maja Desnuda and numerous other works that mocked the virtue of priests and the bravery of warriors. 

La Maja Desnuda, Francisco de Goya y Lucientes

The king had power and the artist had nothing. It was to reestablish the Inquisition and the privileges of nobility that Ferdinand came to the throne borne on the shoulders of a crowd cheering: "Long live chains! 

Sooner rather than later, Goya lost his job as the king's painter and was replaced by Vicente Lopez, an obedient bureaucrat with a brush. 

The unemployed artist then took refuge in a country home on the banks of the Manzanares River, and on the walls he created the masterpieces known as the Black Paintings. 

Goya painted them for himself, for his own pleasure or displeasure, in nights of solitude and despair. By the light of candles bristling on his hat, this utterly deaf man managed to hear the broken voices of his times and give them shape and color."

- Excerpted from Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone, by Eduardo Galeano

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

On Fragments

"Phidias, the most envied sculptor of all time, died of a broken heart after his insufferable talent landed him a jail sentence. 

Many centuries later, Phidias was punished again, this time by usurpation. 

His best works, the sculptures of the Parthenon, are no longer in Athens but in London. And they are called not the Phidias Marbles, but the Elgin Marbles.

Lord Elgin was not exactly an artist. As British ambassador a couple of centuries ago, he shipped these marvels home and sold them to his government. Since then, they sit in the British Museum. 

When Lord Elgin filched what he filched, the Parthenon had already been devastated by weather and war. Erected to the eternal glory of the goddess Athena, it endured the invasion of the Virgin Mary and her priests, who eliminated several figures, rubbed out many faces, and mutilated every penis. Many years later came the Venetian invasion and the temple, used as a powder house, got blown to pieces. 

The Parthenon was left in ruins. While the sculptures that Lord Elgin took were broken and remain so, they speak to us about what they once were: 

that tunic is just a piece of marble, but in its folds sways the body of a woman or a goddess, 

that knee walks on in the absent leg, 

that torso, decapitated, bears an invisible head, 

that bristling mane conveys the missing horse in full whinny, and those galloping legs how it thunders on. 

In the little there is, lies all that was."

- Excerpted from Mirrors, by Eduardo Galeano

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Life, The Matrix and Everything Part II

Orientalism and cultural appropriation at its best;
T. E. Lawrence striking a suitably romantic pose.
I've been prattling on about outsiders and the role they play in our conception of self and reality. For anyone who's still with me, here is the second story that illustrates my point. It's a fascinating example of how we manufacture reality and create our idea of what is normal.
It's recounted by T. E. Lawrence ("Lawrence of Arabia") in his classic book, Seven Pillars of Wisdom. While planning his next foray into what were the outer fringes of civilization from a Western standpoint, Lawrence was canny enough to know that he'd need to bring back a visual record of his travels among the wildmen who inhabited the uninhabitable desert.

Abd el Rahm, by Eric Kennington (1920)
One day, he came across an artist called Eric Kennington at an exhibition of paintings created during World War I, when the young artist had enlisted with the 13th Battalion London Regiment and been sent to fight on the Western Front. Kennington was a member of the Royal Academy and an official artist commissioned by the British Government in both World Wars, and was by all accounts a solid portraitist. Lawrence was so impressed by his work that he invited Kennington on his next campaign into the desert in 1920, where he painted numerous sensitive pastel and watercolor portraits of the characters they ran into. 

Another of Kennington's indecipherable scrawlings,
this time of Muttar Il Hamoud min Beni Hassan (1920)

To the Western eye, they're beautiful and naturalistic renditions, but when Lawrence showed the Arabs their portraits, most of them failed to recognize that they were images of men - let alone paintings of them! They blinked and stared blankly, spun them around, flipped them upside down and handed them back. One of them even hazarded a guess that it was a camel because the line of the jaw looked like a hump. Lawrence and Kennington were gobsmacked. The two dusty, sun-burned white men were utterly alien to their Arab hosts because the cultural signs of Western art were completely unintelligible, and therefore had no value whatsoever. 

The peripatetic DH and Frieda Lawrence, mid exile.

Outsiders may enable us to see ourselves, but our desire to experience alien-ness in the World is always conditioned by an instinct for self-preservation that keeps us within our comfort zone. It’s not really the void we’re after, but a safe approximation. It’s like standing on the edge of a cliff during a storm and watching the smashing of the waves against the black wall. All we really want is a quick selfie and a nice dry car to jump back into. Only a madman would throw himself off the edge. 

When the poet DH Lawrence went on his “savage pilgrimage” - a self-imposed exile from 1919 to the end of his short life at the age of 44 in 1930 - he was in search of fulfillment from a life outside industrial western civilization. His wanderlust took him to Sicily, Ceylon, Australia and eventually New Mexico. He found bits of what he wanted among the peasants of Germany, Italy Mexico and India, but towards the end he grew disenchanted with his “savages.” He even seemed genuinely surprised when it turned out that “their consciousness is so different from ours that there’s scarcely any possibility of communication.” [i]

          If the outsider cannot render nature tame in our eyes, cannot “soothe our imagination,” then she must at least be able to speak of its strangeness in a language we can comprehend. Van Gogh spent years vacillating between desiring acceptance from the Salon and railing against it. His search for a style meant tiptoeing the line between being originality and commerce.* He couldn’t know that the actual myth he was creating around himself centered on his tense temperamental dis-ease with the world, that the key to his fame in the public's eye was the fact that he could never fit in. Van Gogh would never be allowed to fit in because we need our outsiders to stay strange so that we can feel less so. He could never paint nature in a way that satisfied him, because being true to his vision would mean being incomprehensible to others, while seeking recognition from others would mean faking his art. When William Styron wrote DarknessVisible, his deeply personal memoir of madness, he said, “never let it be doubted that depression, in its extreme form, is madness.”[i]

Van Gogh's Starry Night, the quintessential image of a world on the edge of falling apart.
Attempts to fully describe the madness of depression necessarily fail to grasp its true nature because they rely on words, and words fall miserably short. It’s like trying to describe the color blue to a blind person. The madness of depression is “so mysteriously painful and elusive in the way it becomes known to the self – to the mediating intellect – as to verge close to being beyond description.”[ii] Any transcendent experience percolates down through the civilized consciousness before it’s capable of being communicated, but something gets lost in translation. People who experience profound states of being often find it difficult to locate words that accurately convey the intensity of what happened to them. It’s as if the words reduce the experience. The outsider who is capable of mediating between both worlds does not fully live in either one; she’s suspended in Dante’s purgatorio. Anyone communicating the depths of insanity cannot doing so from within its dungeon. Communication is only possible if we’ve stepped back from the void, otherwise its language is utterly incomprehensible.

Skrik, or The Scream, by Edvard Munch

Edvard Munch’s iconic painting known as The Scream, instantly recognizable to any highschooler, was originally titled The Scream of Nature (Der Schrei der Natur) and holds a special place of fascination, revulsion and horror in the minds of the public. Skrik is its Norwegian name; it describes more of a screeching banshee wail than a scream. But the title is unimportant; it’s a visual language of alienation that we can all understand. This is what it looks like when you cannot control your place in the world, we think. The sky bleeds and nature melts. 

On May 2 2012, it went to the auction block at Sotheby’s. Bidding started at $40 million and quickly shot up from there. At the 12 minute mark, a phone bid came in that brought down the auctioneer’s hammer and caused dumbfounded gasps around the room: Leon Black had given the final offer of $119,922,500.[i] Otherness is something we’re evidently willing to pay very good money to possess, or perhaps more correctly, to circumscribe.

With The Scream, Munch gave us a world that coincided with what our vision of strangeness is. If it was truly strange, we wouldn’t have been able to understand it at all. That Munch’s painting had an audience at all was a good sign on two fronts, not least for the man himself. Whereas many inmates in the asylums of France cowered incommunicably in darkened corners, Munch, fortunately, was still functional on some level. It also meant that society had progressed to the point where it was willing to at least imagine what a “madman” like him had to say, if only because his work subscribed to the stereotype of the Disturbed to a society that was newly and romantically inclined to want to investigate such extremes of character. That The Scream exists in no less than four versions – two pastels and two paintings – should suggest to us that Munch had enough wits about him to know he was on to a good thing. A few years previously and he’d have been discarded and left to rot in an asylum, and so-called inspired lunacy bedamned. Meanwhile, for the liberated societies of Paris and Berlin, wildmen, savages and the mad were being dragged along for the ride as contemporary representatives of our evolving conception of wildness, and as mute witnesses to the changing whims of Western fashion.

The Scream is a stunning painting to be sure, but is it really worth all that money? I believe its popularity derives at least in part from the same mechanism that was at play in the contemporary popularity of Medieval accounts of monsters at the outer edge of the map. The Scream is a first-hand account from the outer fringes, which lends it the weight of authenticity, but at the same time it is a madness that we can all understand.  Looking at the painting, we can see straight away that it conforms to standard Western notions of the landscape. There’s a clearly defined background, middle distance and foreground, containing the screamer in a paroxysm of emotion that verges on cartoonish. The sky is primary red, immediately recognizable in the West as the customary color of distress. Even Munch's choice of medium and standard portrait format are all signs that are utterly ordinary. In fact, the painting is striking precisely because it is so instantly readable. 

It conforms to a stereotype of the outer frontier of consciousness that we created to define us, the viewer gawping from the outside, as not mad. That’s not to question Munch’s motivation as anything but a genuine quest to express the anguish he was feeling at the time, but the stratospheric sum paid for his painting should alert us that there’s something deeper at play.

...and The Scream becomes a meme

In the end, Munch’s painting is never so different that it’s incomprehensible – as Kennington’s portraits had been to the alien society he'd found himself in. If Munch had been a true outsider, as Kennington had been to his Arab hosts, it would never have caused such a circus at Sotheby's. 

Munch’s colors might be inverted but his forms are still recognizable to us because The Scream is a visual idiom with which we are familiar. Its nightmarishness signifies this side of the boundary between reality and dreams, between order and chaos. Through it, we define the edge of normality by witnessing its transgression. But disturbing as it is, Munch’s world has failed to completely fall apart. It's popularity lies in its power to uphold our manufactured, pre-conceived stereotype of what is normal, what is real.

* Van Gogh's letters to his brother Theo are filled with the anguish it caused him to sit between two stools.

[i] Lawrence, DH, “Apocalypse,” from the foreword by Richard Aldington, Penguin (1976) Pxvii
[i] Styron, William, “Darkness Visible,” Vintage (1990), P47
[ii] Styron, ibid. P7
[i] Crow, Kelly "Munch's "The Scream" Sold to Financier Leon Black". The Wall Street Journal, (11 July 2012).

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Life, the Matrix and Everything

"What you know you can't explain, but you feel it. You've felt it your entire life, 
that there's something wrong with the world. You don't know what it is, but it's there, 
like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad."
- Morpheus, The Matrix

Most of us will agree that there's probably more to reality than meets the eye. Many will even go so far as to say it's all just an illusion. It's the lingering suspicion that fuels our disparate fascinations from sci-fi movies and the scientific quest to pull back Nature's veil, to mass skepticism of the government, UFO junkies, white middle-class shamans, or even our eternal artistic quest for "authenticity." It's the belief that there's something out there that's more real

DiCaprio in Inception used a 'totem' to determine whether he was dreaming or not. [image source]

But when our vision is so obscured by the veil we drape over the world, how can we ever know what's "real"? Every now and then, the unconscious fabrications we use to navigate space in our day to day lives can be glimpsed through cracks exposed by those on the outside peering in. Outsiders reveal our version of reality for the cultural invention that it is. It's outsiders who enable us to see ourselves. There are two stories that have always illustrated this perfectly for me. Here they are - and don't worry, they both relate to art in their own way.

Piercing the Veil

The first comes via Colin Turnbull, from his classic book Forest People, where the young anthropologist introduces Kenge, his rainforest-born Pygmy friend, to wide open space for the very first time. 

"When Kenge topped the rise, he stopped dead. Every smallest sign of mirth suddenly left his face. He opened his mouth but could say nothing. He moved his head and eyes slowly and unbelievingly.  
Down below us, on the far side of the hill, stretched mile after mile of rolling grasslands, a lush, fresh green, with an occasional shrub or tree standing out like a sentinel into a sky that had suddenly become brilliantly clear. It was like nothing Kenge had ever seen before. On the plains, animals were grazing everywhere—a small herd of elephant to the left, about twenty antelopes staring curiously at us from straight ahead, and down to the right a gigantic herd of about a hundred and fifty buffalo. But Kenge did not seem to see them."  
Then he saw the buffalo, still grazing lazily several miles away, far down below. He turned to me and said, "What insects are those?" At first I hardly understood; then I realized that in the forest the range of vision is so limited that there is no great need to make an automatic allowance for distance when judging size. Out here in the plains, however, Kenge was looking for the first time over apparently unending miles of unfamiliar grasslands, with not a tree worth the name to give him any basis for comparison.  
When I told Kenge that the insects were buffalo, he roared with laughter and told me not to tell such stupid lies. When Henri, who was thoroughly puzzled, told him the same thing and explained that visitors to the park had to have a guide with them at all times because there were so many dangerous animals, Kenge still did not believe, but he strained his eyes to see more clearly and asked what kind of buffalo were so small. I told him they were sometimes nearly twice the size of a forest buffalo, and he shrugged his shoulders and said we would not be standing out there in the open if they were. I tried telling him they were possibly as far away as from Epulu to the village of Kopu, beyond Eboyo. He began scraping the mud off his arms and legs, no longer interested in such fantasies.  
The road led on down to within about half a mile of where the herd was grazing, and as we got closer, the "insects" must have seemed to get bigger and bigger. Kenge kept his face glued to the window. I was never able to discover just what he thought was happening—whether he thought that the insects were changing into buffalo, or that they were miniature buffalo growing rapidly as we approached. His comment was that they were not real buffalo, and he was not going to get out of the car again until we left the park." [Turnbull, Colin, The Forest People, Pages 251-3]

Some people who've been born blind but had their sight return later in life need induction into the same "small = far" rule that had so baffled Kenge. When Brunelleschi and Alberti quantified it all mathematically for artists and named it Linear Perspective back in the 15th Century, they were simply formulating the same handy guidelines for getting around that every Western child is taught from day one. Thomas Eakins later reduced the rule to, "twice as far = half as big," but it didn't make it any less of a culturally specific and learned fiction just by turning it into a simple equation.

Home, for Kenge, is for us a unoriented and indistinguishable mass of green.

For example, elderly people and war veterans suffering from PTSD occasionally lose their grip on the world. I'm not talking about amnesia or Alzheimer's. I'm talking about an utter disorientation that comes when they don't know where they are, what day or time it is, or the difference between reality and dreams - what are known clinically as "self-directed behavioral disturbances." 

Reality Orientation Therapy is a modality employed to treat these patients. It involves constantly reminding them of their orientation in space and time. We're talking big signs and over-sized clocks with the day and date, or repeatedly using prompts in conversation like, "I feel so full after lunch," or, "isn't it warm for April?"
"Without the information of where they are, what time it is, and who they are dealing with, a person has a feeling that they may be lost - they will lack a sense of control and understanding. Remember when you were a kid and the adults made decisions without your input? It is sort of like that." [source]

Using standardized Western fictions such as calendar dates, the 24 hour clock, gridded space and arbitrary map locations, we reconstruct for these "lost" souls the same orienting information that the rest of us were brainwashed with as children.

Alice Through the Looking Glass [source]

The second story comes from the diaries of T. E. Lawrence, of Lawrence of Arabia fame. But you'll have to wait for the next blog post to read it - this one has already gotten too long.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

It's Out! "They Drew as they Pleased," The Artists of Disney's Golden Age.

They Drew as they Pleased, by Didier Ghez. 

Anyone who's ever been a kid will want to get a copy of the new book by Didier Ghez, They Drew As They Pleased, available on September 8th 2015. If it's true that there are no straight lines in Nature, then Getz's book is artistic proof. The golden light and billowing forms of the Disney universe defined childhood and the shape of the world for generations of grown up children.

Pinocchio's theater sketch, by Albert Hurter

Concentrating on the concept art of four early Disney artists, Albert Hurter, Gustaf Tenggren, Ferdinand Horvath and Bianca Majolie, Ghez pieces together a picture of the Golden Age through rare interviews, letters, diaries and other published sources along with copious illustrations.

Tin Soldier sketches, by Bianca Majolie

Incidentally, I wonder if Ghez's inclusion of the lesser-known Majolie might be to silence criticisms of sexism in the Disney camp from the likes of Meryl Streep, whose impassioned slamming of the Disney name was roundly denounced in Animation Magazine.

Sketches for Pinocchio, by Albert Hurter
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs sketch, by Albert Hurter 

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs sketch, by Albert Hurter

Albert Hurter was born in Switzerland in 1883, but came to the U.S. in 1913. A spotty career saw him more-or-less hidden from public view until finally, at the ripe old age of 48, he caught the eye of the man himself and ended up working for Walt as one of his key concept artists (or "inspirational sketch artists" as Canemaker calls them) on projects such as Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo and Snow White.

Hurter at his desk, Disney HQ

Indeed, Hurter became so successful at embodying the spirit of the Disney universe that many of his drawings were used as inspiration for films made long after he'd passed away, including those for Peter Pan and (one of my favorite pieces of animation) Lady and the Tramp.

"Instantly they lay still, all turned to stone," by Arthur Rackham.
Early work by Gustaf Tenggren;
Sven the Wise and Svea the Kind, illustrated in 1932

Another focus of Ghez's book is the phenomenal Gustaf Tenggren. Born and raised in Sweden, Tenggren was steeped in the dark European style of Arthur Rackham and Scandinavian mythology. His twisted Rackham-esque landscapes can be spotted in the forest scenes of Snow White, and in the detailed architectural townscapes in the backgrounds of Pinocchio. Tenggren's work was very much in the winged helmets and blond damsels vein for much of his early career, until in 1936 he took a stylistic u-turn when he joined the Disney team.

Some of Tenggren's work for Disney

Little Red Riding Hood, by Gustaf Tenggren

Artist Proofs of the new book, from Didier's own blog
Ghez has written two other titles about Disney, Disney's Grand Tour and Disneyland Paris: From Sketch to Reality, and is the writer of Disney History blog.

Ferdinand Horvath, forest sketch

Horvath, The Raven

Further sources:

Michael Sporn Animation blog
Hans Christian Andersen on Disney Wiki
The Happy Undertaker