Is Advertising Art?

Michael Kors Spring 2017 ad featuring Romee Strijd and Taylor Hill

Ads use sophisticated design and clever campaigns to sway human behaviour. But does this cleverness and influence make them art? Legendary copywriter Bill Bernbach, the Bach of advertising, famously said: “Advertising is persuasion, and persuasion is not a science, but an art. Advertising is the art of persuasion.” If we call advertising art, does the designation lower our standards, and demean other forms of expression? Is the debate the same for every generation that grows up with ads or has our relationship with ads changed over time?

Consider the Michael Kors ad above. Buy this purse to go globe-trotting with your celebrity pals, while flunkies hold off the press. It’s an image of travel and adventure, friendship and freedom. The out of focus gate, left foreground, suggests these people live in another world, just out of reach of the paparazzi. It’s a fairy tale and yet it’s real–a news shot, a document of our times. But wait, it isn’t news, it’s a fabrication, all staged. These aren’t rich, famous celebrities, they’re models impersonating celebrities. However, as models, they’ve become rich and famous. Fiction imitates life imitates fiction. It’s all very meta … and isn’t that’s the point?

Matt Miller, president of the body that oversees the production of ads in the USA, defines art as “a reflection and expression of what is happening in society.” Society is too complex to understand at any given moment, but perhaps we can understand an ad.

The image below is from artist, Coco Capitán. Born in Seville, Spain, the London Royal College of Art graduate works in a variety of media, moving effortlessly between Fine Art and commercial assignments. Fashion giants Vogue and Gucci are regular clients. The 25-year-old artist likens the fashion house Gucci to the Medici family, famous patrons of Leonardo and Michelangelo in the Italian Renaissance. Her framed prayer is a tongue-in-cheek mission statement for the post-millennials (gen z).

Coco Capitán. Framed prayer, 2017

Commercialism is part of Western culture. Ads reflect this. This is what art does, only ads do it in a language that the average person can understand. This argument is countered by Mary Warlick, art historian and executive director of The One Club, a New York trade organization. “Art is visual imagery that is meant to elevate thinking in an aesthetic context. [In contrast] what advertising does is give a visual record of our cultural ambiance and history, our tastes, our trends, our wants, our needs, our buying. It is never meant to elevate us to that higher plane.” Ads may reflect popular currents, but that isn’t the purpose of art, Warlick argues. Art helps us become more self-aware. Art urges us to think more critically and to empathize more with other people. Advertising corrupts thinking and makes us selfish and short-sighted. It makes material things more important than relationships and always suggests there is a shortcut to happiness through the purchase of a product.

Calvin Klein ad featuring artwork by Andy Warhol, 2017. The campaign was called “American classics,” photo by Willy van der Perre

There is common ground in these two arguments. Artists like Andy Warhol, whose artwork appears in the ad above, are not so pure; advertisers are not so impure. To the question, “is advertising art,” author Jonathan Glancey answers: “is art advertising? The simple answer to these questions is that art feeds advertising and vice versa.” (The Independent, July 1995) Artists work on ads, ads feature artwork. Beyond this, there is an enormous gray area where ads and content overlap, such as a beautifully crafted music video that advertises a song. Film trailers are obviously ads, but they need to be clever, fun, exciting, provocative—they need to be artistic—or no one would watch them and share them.

Moncler ad, fall winter 2017, featuring the Chinese conceptual artist Liu Bolin, photo by Annie Leibovitz

The above ad for Moncler’s sporty outdoor wear features Chinese artist Liu Bolan. Bolan is famous for painting his body to match the scene in which he poses, producing an “invisible man” effect. He acts as ghost and silent witness to threatened landscapes and over-looked places–a strange frontman for a fashionable clothing line. What is Bolan’s appeal? He is international, mysterious, a performance artist whose “performance” is a mimicry of his surroundings. Wherever he goes, he fits in. He is a living and breathing work of art. He takes art out of the museum and onto the streets.

Western culture is moving in the direction where everyone is an artist, as Joseph Beuys predicted in the 1960s. Technology is key to these new citizen-artists. The trend began one hundred years ago when people purchased low-cost Brownie cameras to record their own lives. Cell phones and social media have taken this home recording to another level of speed and accessibility. Global news is increasingly captured by roving amateurs who capture the latest earthquake, protest, rock concert, tsunami or teenage stunt. We continually revise, update and share family pictures, and use images to carefully craft our own public personas, selectively posting selfies and snapshots that promote our most popular and adventurous selves. These are advertisements for ourselves.

This ad for Soth African newspaper, Cape Times, reimagines historic figures taking selfies. Lowe advertising agency, 2013.

The above ad campaign for the South African newspaper, Cape Times, alters famous historic images as if they were selfies rather than documentary photos. Here the reimagined image is of a sailor kissing a nurse during the victory celebration in Times square that marked the end of WW II, published on the cover of Life magazine in August 1945.

This state of citizen-artists continually talking and sharing with one another through media makes us all very art-smart, media-savvy. Ads reflect this desire to be as in-the-know, as mobile, as self-crafting of public image as possible. Everyone is an artist and all images are art because there is no alternative. There is no media innocence in the age of total connectivity.

Clown Philosopher

René Magritte. Son of Man, 1964, with lego spin off.

I have a friend who fancies himself a bit of a class clown, only he’s middle-aged and there’s no class. Truth be told, he’s a self-made millionaire, retired, loves sports, travels the world and has as much fun as humanly possible. But he also likes to stir up trouble. When he’s alone with me, he poses tricky philosophical questions: what is happiness? What do we do with people who spread hateful ideas? My friend reasons like this: if you hate hateful people, aren’t you yourself being hateful? Sometimes I take my clown philosopher seriously and engage in a discussion with him, examining the pros and cons of different positions. Just when I think the discussion is coming to a close, my friend returns to the beginning and tries to restart the entire argument again. What began as an amusing exercise quickly becomes tedious because there is no way out.

At this point, I realize my friend is not a philosopher. Philosophers attempt to free our minds from falling into circular traps, repeating the same arguments over and over.

We are all a bit like the clown philosopher. Every analyst on TV is a clown philosopher, offering critiques and advice that no one is ever likely to adopt. These experts and analysts are armchair critics who are neither methodical, nor do they invest their own time and money in solutions. As my high school principle, Colin Purdy, used to say, “In the absence of rigor, young people will be motivated to do absolutely nothing.” I would add “in the absence of method and a personal stake, there can be no solution for any problem.” A tool kit is required to lend direction out of the maze.

Keyhole. Painting by Doug Pope, 2010

For example, a tool kit might involve some familiarity with similar arguments from the past. Asking yourself: has anyone else ever asked this question? Has anyone else tried to solve this problem or a parallel problem? Are there any useful models of intervention that can be adopted? Problems have symptoms and root causes. Solutions that treat symptoms tend to be superficial and inadequate. Treating root causes requires big picture thinking. Everyone will have different ideas about this. So consensus-building exercises are required. One may need some guided thinking. Budgeting is required. A method of accountability is required.

Taking action is preferable to armchair solutions so a flawed initiative is preferable to a rarefied proposal. The solutions that appeal to me are ones that start small and offer the potential to scale up. In this way, real-life tests can be carried out that don’t exhaust all of one’s resources.

The Clown Philosopher opens another question: Why should anyone take you seriously? No one will take you seriously if you’re not willing to make an investment. The investment comes in many ways, starting with background research, educating yourself about an issue. On the other extreme, you might want to financially contribute to a cause or become a spokesperson for a cause. These are proofs of commitment. There is a danger in committing to one side or another too soon, before you have worked through a problem, articulating different approaches, different stakeholders and different contexts in which the problem can be understood.

These kind of commitments get you to the table. Also you have friends and connections, so you bring partners with you. The whole thing is about relationship building. As I see it, everyone sits at one table or another, while dreaming of getting to a bigger table. We all have some small influence over our families or friends. We fantasize about having more influence in our jobs and communities. Everyone is in this position–janitors, presidents and CEOs. The premier of the province sits at a big table on a local level, but has no seat on a worldwide table. He needs partners and investors. He needs a problem and a method. And maybe a clown.

All About Baths

Bathers: Degas and Boucher (study by Giovanni Civardi)

This week’s subject is bathtubs and baths and how artists treat and transform them. In the top right sketch, a study by Giovanni Civardi after François Boucher, we see two bathing goddesses looking ever so elegant even without clothes. Every limb tilts to form a triangle; the overlapping shapes create a fascinating rhythm. Top left, Degas captures a working-class woman bending awkwardly in a shallow basin. It’s an everyday ritual, the raw minutiae of life poured through the finest aesthetic filter.

In the novel, Ulysses by James Joyce, a middle-aged ad salesman daydreams about taking a bath in the middle of the day. These are his thoughts: “Enjoy a bath now: clean trough of water, cool enamel, the gentle tepid stream. This is my body.” The man sees the world in physical terms; he’s comfortable with his body, which he imagines in water: “He foresaw his pale body reclined in it at full, naked, in a womb of warmth, oiled by scented melting soap, softly laved. He saw his trunk and limbs riprippled over and sustained, buoyed lightly upward, lemonyellow: his navel, bud of flesh: and saw the dark tangled curls of his bush floating, floating hair of the stream around the limp father of thousands, a languid floating flower.” The character’s name is Leopold Bloom and, in this passage, he compares his penis to a floating flower.

Two artists picture Leopold Bloom in the bath. Right, looking down by Richard Hamilton. Left, cartoon of a tub in a lily pond by Robert E. Lee

The illustrations above show two artist’s rendition of this text. On the left, British Pop artist Richard Hamilton, most famous for designing the cover of The White Album by the Beatles, plays it surprisingly straight. It strikes me how Bloom, everyman hero of Ulysses, with his get-rich-quick schemes, curious mind, attraction to advertising and things of the moment, makes a fitting subject for Pop Art. Here is Hamilton’s definition in 1957 (five years before Andy Warhol’s soup cans): “Pop Art is popular, transient, expendable, low-cost, mass-produced, young, witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous and Big Business.” In Robert E. Lee’s delightful cartoon, right, the flowers in and around Bloom’s tub are waterlilies, with one strategically placed between the bathing man’s legs. The flower that hides private parts recalls the well-placed fig leaf in Renaissance paintings.

Two Baptisms: Piero della Francesca, Baptism of Christ, 1448, and  The Bible, miniseries, 2013. Produced by Roma Downey and Mark Burnett. John the Baptist (Daniel Percival) lowers Jesus (Diogo Morgaldo) in the waters of the River Jordan.

During the Renaissance, the bathing theme merged with Christian subject matter. In images depicting the Baptism of Christ, water takes on transformative properties. The baptism represents a new beginning, spiritual life. I like how, in this modern Biblical epic, the witnesses are in the water, in the thick of the action. An interesting aside, The Bible miniseries was produced by Mark Burnett. Burnett is one of the inventors of Reality TV with hit shows The Survivor, 2000, The Apprentice, 2004 (featuring Donald Trump) and Shark Tank, 2009.

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. The River, 1864

Bathing can have a spiritual or otherworldly aspect. Mythological scenes often represent bathing nymphs or goddesses and their attendants–a pretext for painting beautiful naked bodies. In Puvis de Chavannes’ dream-like image, the scene recalls a golden age in the distant past, when harmony with nature was the norm. Puvis was much admired by the surrealists of the 1920s.

Georges Seurat. Bathers at Asnières, 1884

In contrast, George Seurat painted bathers not as idealized ethereal types but as contemporary working-class people getting away from the inner city of Paris (note the belching smokestacks in the distance) for a moment’s leisure in outlying parks. There are faint hints here of Seurat’s later experiments with light and colour.

Tramps and Cowboys: Charlie Chaplin and Clint Eastwood in the bath.

Baths can have a civilizing effect. In many cowboy movies, there’s a scene where a dusty traveller comes in from the frontier and must acclimatize to town life, which starts with a bath and a shave. Iconic film stars Charlie Chaplin (Pay Day, 1922) and Clint Eastwood (High Plains Drifter, 1973), have their moments in the suds. I sense this tramp and cowboy are irredeemable, free spirits to the core–no scrubbing off their inner wild. Baths are sublime but open to kidding. See Jessi Klein’s humorous polemic on the over-ratedness of baths. (The New Yorker, May 2016)

Photographer Lee Miller in Adolf Hitler’s bathtub, Munich, 1945

The photographer and collaborator with Paris surrealists, Lee Miller, travelled with the American troops who fought their way into Germany toward the end of World War II. Here Miller saucily and sardonically photographs herself  in Hitler’s private bath. She frames herself between a photograph of Hitler and a classical nude statue. Miller’s discarded army boots suggest the wartime setting and give a hint that she has worked hard for this moment–it’s the revolution of ordinary citizens invading the palace.

Death and Dreams: David, Death of Marat, 1793. Left: Frida Kahlo. What the Water Gave Me, 1938

Speaking of revolutions, in 1793, French artist Jacques-Louis David painted a touching tribute to slain revolutionary leader Jean-Paul Marat. Marat was murdered in his bath, where he worked most days because of his debilitating skin disease. This was a real life tragedy. In Alfred Hitchcock’s fictional film, Psycho (1960), a woman on the run is killed in a motel shower. Both painting and film feature violations of private moments when people are unsuspecting and vulnerable. The artist David, who had a skill for surviving violent political upheavals (he was simply too useful a propagandist for tyrants to kill) would go on to paint stirring portraits of the great anti-revolutionary leader Napoleon.

Frida Kahlo imagines her bath water harbouring private and collective memories. For most of her adult life, Kahlo suffered terribly from leg and lower body injuries incurred in a bus accident when she was 18-years-old. Her pain and sense of isolation is represented by the bleeding right foot. The skyscraper emerging from a volcano, besides the obvious sexual connotations, captures the duality of living briefly in New York but coming from Mexico where land and nature captured her imagination. Kahlo makes reference to her dual European and Mexican ancestry, heterosexual and lesbian encounters, and traditional and modern ways. The waters suggests the unconscious material from which artists like Frida draw their inspiration.

Gods and nymphs, salesmen, tramps and cowboys, surrealist photographers, revolutionaries, wounded artists and daydreamers–what do they all have in common? They all take baths, make fun of baths, use baths for seduction, paint baths, glorify baths, daydream of baths or die in them. Warm waters stir human imagination even in small-sized tubs.

 

 

Films about Cities

Fernand Léger. Animated Landscape, 1924. Cubist painters like Léger were fascinated by the geometric signs and competing signals of the modern city.

In James Joyce’s great modernist novel Ulysses, the city of Dublin emerges as a complex multi-storied universe. Fifty years earlier, Dickens and Balzac created similar effects with London and Paris. In these great city novels, fiction mixes with reality, satire and social issues. Joyce departs from the 19th century model by unfolding his story in a single day and by using a variety of experimental prose techniques that draw attention to the act of writing. Influenced by Cubist collage, Ulysses resembles a modernist work of art.

Modernism takes root in cities, where artists pushed for new ways of seeing. Cinema was at the forefront of this development. No film stretches the limits of perception more forcefully or imaginatively than Dziga Vertov’s The Man With a Movie Camera, 1929. The film bursts with the energy of tram cars, large machines, and crowds eager to get somewhere, do things, and be entertained. What’s more, Vertov’s film uses odd angles, quick cuts, and visual tricks. The filmmaker is only too pleased to reveal the secrets behind his mesmerizing effects by including “making of” shots of how the film was made.

When critics and reviewers first saw Vertov’s film, they thought he was making impossible demands on the viewer. The editing was simply too fast, the variety of camera angles too bewildering, the leaps from one scene to another too disorienting. The film uses no titles to explain anything. No narrator describes the action. No voice-over makes an argument. No expert teaches a lesson. The city’s pace is unrelenting: people and their machines are shown as a dynamic network at work and play.

Man with a Movie Camera, 1929. Director: Dziga Vertov

In his review of this groundbreaking classic, Roger Ebert commented: “There had been ‘city documentaries’ earlier, showing a day in the life of a metropolis; one of the most famous was Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, 1927. By filming in three cities [Moscow, Kiev and Odessa] and not naming any of them , Vertov had a wider focus. His film was about The City, and The Cinema, and The Man with a Movie Camera. It was about the act of seeing, being seen, preparing to see, processing what had been seen, and finally seeing it. It made explicit and poetic the astonishing gift the cinema made possible, of arranging what we see, ordering it, imposing a rhythm and language on it, and transcending it.” (rogerebert.com, July 1, 2009)

And now all these tricks, jumps, speed editing and behind-the-scenes “how to” revelations have been fully absorbed into mainstream media. Just about any music video contains several of these “disorientations.” It is impossible to imagine a thriller, spy movie, or summer blockbuster without scenes of a bustling metropolis, without a bevy of multiple converging storylines, without information transmitting at dizzying speeds, without information networks seeming all-encompassing and inescapable. This is Vertov’s world.

The Man with A Movie Camera shows how the film is made. Here cameraman Mikhail Kaufman perches on the side of a moving car to get an exciting shot.

In 2008, my wife and I spent a year in Berlin. Europe was vastly different from Canada: its food, housing, schools and public transport. No swiping of tickets, no turnstiles. The famous Ring line and U systems carried trains above and below ground to all corners of the city. My short film, Scratch Peck Fly, included some fun train shots, but its focus was on birds in the city. Like Vertov’s film, my short was equal parts documentary, travelog, and art film. It used no narrator, no voice-over. As far as I was concerned, Vertov was ground zero for the independent filmmaker who ventures into the world without script or budget. Gags, stunts, shooting from the hip in foreign cities, personal film diaries–it’s the very stuff of YouTube videos.

The Man with a Movie Camera, one of many trick shots that adds humour to the film

Another appeal of these early city films is the use of humour to offset the aggrandizement of cities and machines. In The Man With a Movie Camera, a cameraman is shrunk to tiny size to set up a camera inside a glass of beer. Later in the film, a camera and tripod assemble themselves and walk out of the frame. Can a film make itself with no human intervention? In a Russian avant-garde film, they can. In Jean Vigo’s surrealist city film, À Propos de Nice, 1930, tourists are shown (candid-camera style) reading newspapers at outdoor cafés. Before long, a man drops his paper and falls asleep. An older gentleman nods off. A lady in furs is next to slip away. The whole city seems to have fallen asleep, all in public, in the middle of a day. These scenes are amusing, but also carry an undercurrent of social criticism: the idle rich are so idle they can barely stay awake.

Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance, 1982, a two hour long American art film, follows in the great city film tradition. The filmmakers use no narration, just dazzling camera work and the sort of optical effects you might see at a pavilion in a world’s fair to convey a sense of industry and urbanization overtaking the planet. A social critique is intended. But as vlogger Kyle Kallgren argues in his essay on the film, every shot of Koyaanisqatsi has either been used before or since to underscore the very opposite position, namely that cities are fast, fun and impossible to resist.

One cannot get too righteous or indignant over the pace of progress, the disasters of progress, the uncontrollable excitement of living in an environment that changes more rapidly than we can possibly comprehend.

In Wings of Desire, 1987, an angel (Bruno Gatz) falls in love with a trapeze artist (Solveig Dommartin). She cannot see or hear him, but can only sense his presence.

Five years later a German film appeared, Wings of Desire, (Der Himmel uber Berlin)1987, directed by Wim Wenders, written by playwright Peter Handke, and starring, alongside a brilliant cast, America’s favourite detective, Peter Falk and Australian rocker Nick Cave. The film features a group of mind reading angels who wander the streets of Berlin eavesdropping on everyday scenes, but powerless to avert human tragedy. The angels are simply there to observe, to comfort, to record and empathize. Like the human characters, the angels are engulfed by the city and merge into its multitude of overlapping stories. After years of observation, some of these city-dwelling angels choose to become human. By choosing earth over heaven, human problems over divine equanimity, human love over spiritual compassion, the angels cross a line from observer to participant that many of us would do well to follow.

Caliban’s Mirror

Djimon Hounsou as Caliban. The Tempest, 2010, directed by Julie Taymor

In his preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), Irish humorist Oscar Wilde defines two kinds of literature by the hostile reactions of readers: “The nineteenth century dislike of Realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass. / The nineteenth century dislike of Romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass.”
Professor John Hunt comments: “Wilde’s meaning seems clear enough: the self-absorbed bourgeois are like Caliban, the anti-hero of Shakespeare’s The Tempest— resistant to all civilizing influences. When realistic art accurately imitates the bourgeois, they are outraged to see themselves represented so unflatteringly. But when romantic art offers an alternative, expressing the avant-garde genius of the artist, the bourgeois howl in protest at not seeing anything like themselves.” (Ulysses Project)
The opening chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses, (published 1922), the subject of my blog last week, makes reference to Caliban’s mirror. In Joyce’s novel, two roommates verbally spar before they start their day, both trying to outshine the other. Mulligan, shaving, scolds his friend Stephen Dedalus for looking unkempt.
— Look at yourself, he said, you dreadful bard! Stephen bent forward and peered at the mirror held out to him, cleft by a crooked crack, hair on end. As he and others see me. Who chose this face for me?

— The rage of Caliban at not seeing his face in a mirror, he said. If Wilde were only alive to see you!

Drawing back and pointing, Stephen said with bitterness:

— It is a symbol of Irish art. The cracked lookingglass of a servant.

The Stephen Dedalus character, Joyce’s youthful alter-ego, adds a new dimension to Wilde’s metaphor. By focusing on the condition of the looking glass, Joyce suggests the artist does not start his work with a clean slate. Rather there is considerable baggage he or she must overcome. This baggage might include colonial conditions or biased assumptions. Form and context influence content.

Joyce’s “cracked mirror” reminds me of Flaubert’s “cracked drum.” Joyce was influenced by French novelist Gustave Flaubert, inventor of Madame Bovary. Flaubert is famous for his nuanced style and cool distance from characters, whose flaws play out without pity or remark. However Flaubert once broke this glacier demeanour by commenting abruptly in the midst of a story: “Language is a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity.”

Oscar Wilde cartoon by Raine Szramski

Streams of Consciousness: James Joyce’s Ulysses

Cartoon of Joyce from Sam Slote’s animated lecture Why should you read James Joyce’s Ulysses

People love it or hate it. It’s either ridiculously hard, almost impenetrable, or saucy, smart and wildly amusing. It is epic, long, full of words. All books contain words, but not quite these words: “O! Weeshwashtkissima pooishthnapoohuck!” (a woman having sex).

Then there are the one liners. Great quotes. “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” 

“I fear those big words, Stephen said, which make us so unhappy.” (referring to words like patriotism, religion and freedom)

“Our father who art not in heaven.” (Stephen’s reprobate father spends time in bars rather than providing for his needy family.)

The book abounds in poetic descriptions: A raindrop spat on his hat. He drew back and saw an instant of shower spray dots over the grey flags. Apart. Curious. Like through a colander.

Why am I writing about Joyce today? I grew up in a bookish family. My parents were book publishers. My older brother and sister were avid readers, checking off the classics in record time in their early teens. I tried to imitate them, snail-paced reader that I was. Hopeless. When I was sixteen, I discovered Joyce’s Ulysses. And became hooked. How can I explain this? I loved the book’s audacity and invention. I could barely understand what I was reading, but no one else could either. I learned to read without fretting. The whole enterprise felt like a game.

But I also learned to trust other sources, other writers and scholars to help me understand this strange treasure. Today the Internet is full of useful sites such as the Joyce Project conceived by Professor John Hunt of the University of Montana. This site has full text of the novel, with informative hyper-linked illustrated notes. It’s superb and indispensable.

James Joyce’s Dublin. Photos by JJ Clarke, c. 1900 and Lee Miller, 1946

Two outstanding traits leap out at me from Joyce’s Ulysses: its world-building ambitions and its interior streams of consciousness. One is physical, the other psychological. The novel is set in Dublin in 1904 and it recreates the city in such convincing detail that the reader comes away with an intimate sense of Dublin’s harbours, fortresses, streets, pubs, newspaper offices, theatres, and residential areas, as well as having a sense of the many personalities who interact within the city: the gossips, wits, bullies, bigots, educators, school children, rebels, flirts, drunks, artists and outsiders. The city is alive with activity and its portrayal is kaleidoscopic and encyclopedic.

You can hardly read a current book that doesn’t contain some form of stream of consciousness. What’s unique about Joyce’s method is how he differentiates one character’s thoughts from another’s and how these unique streams of consciousness evolve and change under the influence of others and under the influence of the city around them. Internal monologues pop disconcertingly and uncontrollably out of the descriptive text that embeds them. The book is a fascinating give and take of action and reflection, past and present, spoken and unspoken.

The plot takes place in a single day as multiple characters roam and crisscross paths in the city of Dublin. There is the super sensitive Stephen Dedalus, budding novelist and teacher who finds himself homeless after an altercation with an egotistical roommate, stately plump Buck Mulligan. Mulligan is a medical student who fancies himself a patron of literary talents such as Stephen, but has a tendency to ungraciously upstage others with mocking jibes and snobbish quotes.

There is Leopold Bloom, half-Jewish advertising salesman for a local newspaper. Bloom is introduced to the reader: Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.

Bloom has a curious mind, which often gets him in trouble. At a funeral, Bloom thinks of the horror of being buried alive and how telephones in coffins could prevent this. He imagines the dead conversing with the living through telephones and gramophone records, every house could have one. Bloom thinks of a record playing at the wrong speed, this is how the dead might sound, like a bad connection. At another moment in the novel, Bloom wonders if sculptors include full anatomical details in their classical statues. Do the marble gods and goddess have anuses, for example? He determines the only way to answer this question is to visit the National Museum and get down on his hands and knees.

Lovely forms of woman sculped Junonian. Immortal lovely. And we stuffing food in one hole and out behind: food, chyle, blood, dung,  earth, food: have to feed it like stoking an engine. They have no. Never looked. I’ll look today. Keeper won’t see. Bend down let something fall see if she.

This Saul Steinberg cartoon of a man overwhelmed by questions reminds me of Leopold Bloom, an ordinary man with a curious mind.

Joyce’s biographer, Richard Ellman described Bloom as a “divine nobody” who has little influence on the life around him. Professor Morton P. Levitt however regards Bloom as outsider, survivor, searcher, and comic foil to our age’s heightened notions of self. Levitt argues:

“In Bloom, Joyce created the archetypal Modernist figure. No character in modern literature so delight us through their comic diminishment, so powerfully engage our sense of our own humanity through the tragedy and dignity which underscore that comedy, so perfectly in the process represent and yet supercede their times.”

Bloom’s wife, Molly who is a singer of popular songs, and about to embark on an affair with her manager, while ruminating on her life with Leopold with its many drawbacks and occasional delights and surprises. She is described as a woman with an independent streak: The terribility of her isolated dominant implacable resplendent propinquity, her omens of tempest and calm …

Music Hall performers, 1920

Ulysses abounds in references to poems and songs. Lily of the Killarney. Fun on the Bristol. “I am the boy/ That can enjoy/ Invisibility.” “Those lovely seaside girls/ All dimples, smiles and curls …”  Lyrics from Mozart’s operas, snatches of children’s rhythms, newspaper headlines, advertisements, and popular ditties all make their way into character’s speeches and thoughts. These sources are quoted, misquoted, bowlderized and parodied depending on the speaker and his or her state of mind.

Joyce has two alter-egos: Dedalus and Bloom. One is a youthful intellectual, the other a middle-aged extrovert. One has grand thoughts of philosophy and the soul, and the other has absurd daydreams pervaded by all the sticky messy things of life. Throughout the novel, the two characters are on a collision course with one another, though they have no idea of it until it happens. The novel starts with intellectuals and their acts of unkindness and ends with the generous Bloom rescuing Dedalus from trouble. Bloom, the nobody who everybody overlooks, emerges as a hero. Kindness over unkindness.

The book alternates viewpoints of high and low. For example, the novel opens with characters on the roof of a demilitarized Martello Tower overlooking Dublin Bay where two bachelor friends live.  “God! he said quietly. Isn’t the sea what Algy calls it: a great sweet mother? The snotgreen sea … Epi oinopa ponton.”

The first quote references Algernon Swinburne poem’s The Triumph of Time: I will go back to the great sweet motherMother and lover of men, the sea. This is followed by a reference to “snotgreen sea,” which is a parody of Homer’s oinopa ponton, or wine-dark sea. A loving reference to literature sets up a more jeering school-boy expression. This high-low duality (the Dedalus-Bloom duality) repeats throughout the novel.

Cartoon of Molly Bloom from Sam Slote’s animated lecture Why should you read James Joyce’s Ulysses

A second example concerns Molly Bloom, unfaithful wife and concert performer. When her husband asks what she’ll be singing in an upcoming show, she answers, “Là ci darem with J. C. Doyle, and Love’s Old Sweet Song.” The first is a cynical seduction song from Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, (a woman is tempted to betray her fiancé) and the second is a sentimental ballad that affirms the constancy of love. The scene between Molly and Bloom proceeds. The wife asks the meaning of a word in a book she’s been reading. The word is “metempsychosis.” Bloom first describes it as the transmigration of souls. Blank look. He tries again with something about life after death, when Molly interrupts. She wants a new book to read. “Get another of Paul de Kock’s. Nice name he has.” The conversation turns from high to low. This sparks Bloom’s memory and he thinks of the word “reincarnation.” Searching for an example of the concept, Bloom remembers a picture that once hung over their bed. The picture showed seaside nymphs: a mythological subject featuring naked bodies. It is not just Molly who turns from high to low. Every character. Joyce seems to be saying this is the way all our minds work, with dichotomous ideas and sensations bursting upon us at every turn.

John Reinhard Weguelin. Bacchus and the Choir of Nymphs, 1888

Similar thoughts strike different characters. Bloom muses on reincarnation, so does Dedalus. He spots a dog on the beach and whimsically imagines the dog nosing about the sand and seaweed “Looking for something lost in a past life.” Wandering souls. The characters in Ulysses wander through the city of Dublin; they also wander through the history of ideas and the idioms of language.

Montage of two posters:  Joyce caricature from the James Joyce Centre, Dublin. The woman with flowers designed by Brooke Fischer for the Women’s March on Washington 2017. I could not resist replacing the words in the original “Let equality bloom” with “Molly Bloom.”

Ulysses ends with literature’s most famous stream of consciousness passage. Molly Bloom wakes beside her husband and muses on her day spent with Blazes Boylan, her new lover who satisfies her sexually, but who doesn’t measure up to her husband in other ways. Molly muses over her childhood, courtship, children, career, but keeps returning to Bloom, the man sleeping beside her. She thinks about his love letters. Though Bloom’s letters to her are peculiar and erotic, passionate and incomprehensible, deeply flawed like the man himself, they are flattering signs of devotion and she realizes that’s no small thing. Her epiphany about her love for Bloom strikes herself and the reader at the same moment in one of the most fantastic happy endings ever imagined as she reiterates her marriage vows.

Comedian and actor Stephen Fry declared: “It is a book associated with difficulty when in fact it should be a book associated with joy … it’s comic. I think all great art is comic because comic art is about joining. The last word of Ullysses is ‘yes.” In fact the last three words are ‘yes, yes, yes.’ It’s the most affirmative book. As you may know, it’s the retelling of Homer’s Odyssey, the greatest story ever told. And it’s told in one day, in Dublin, the 16th of June, 1904. Instead of Ulysses, this great Greek hero, there’s this little Jewish man called Leopold Bloom … Read it and you’ll be astonished at how beautiful it is.” Stephen Frye on Ulysses, “Why I love this Book, 2011

 

Life Drawing Class

Life Class. Sketch by Doug Pope

Recently a friend invited me to join him for an informal life drawing session held in the back room of a used furniture store in Halifax. The store doubles as a prop warehouse for movie companies so the background comprised a jumble of miscellaneous items. Because the room was small the dozen aspiring artists sat close to one another and almost on top of the unfortunate model, who remained remarkably poised and professional throughout.

It’s a humbling exercise. You want to draw well, you want your drawing to have a spark of personality, but you also want some semblance of reality, some faint hint of proportion. No pressure. There’s a naked person in front of you, you know a digital timer will buzz at any second, while everyone in the room scribbles away as fast as possible.

Salvador Dali. Drawing, 1936

I came home and had the following thought experiment. Imagine the young artists in the room were Picasso, Dali, Magritte, Matisse, Klimt, Schiele, Frida Kahlo, Tom Wesselmann and a few others. Dali does an impeccable drawing, neat, detailed, beautifully shaded and full of showy surrealist touches. Magritte draws with complete indifference to his subject and surroundings. He proceeds like an artist in a courtroom. His drawing is accurate and perfunctory and yet, despite himself, there is a undeniable element of poetry to the figure. Frida is the only artist in the room to capture any sense of the model as a personality. The face is lovely, though it suggests suffering and endurance and bears a striking resemblance to Frida herself.

Frida Kahlo, Self-portrait, 1937, Tom Wesselmann, Nude with Mirrow, 1990 and Egon Schiele, Torso, 1914

Arriving with no drawing materials, Picasso borrows pencils and pad from his neighbour. The room is stifling hot and Picasso is the first to strip off. Others follow and soon discarded clothes are piled on every available surface. Picasso draws with lightning speed. He finishes well before the buzzer sounds and steps out into the corridor to join Schiele for a smoke. Schiele is a nervous wreck. Painstakingly slow, he barely draws a single line before the buzzer sounds. When Matisse arrives, he sits so close to the model that he blocks the view of those behind him. Music plays in the background and Matisse hums along. The others in the room pretend not to hear this. Soon Picasso is singing out loud. Loudly. The room joins in.

Matisse tells funny stories to the model. She laughs, her position shifts and objects sail through the air in Matisse’s direction. Picasso dances with Frida, oblivious of the fact that she can barely stand. Dali takes advantage of this opportunity to cut one of Picasso’s drawings from his sketchbook. Picasso, of course, signs everything. Dali will take the drawing home, draw on top of it, sign it himself and claim it as a collaboration with his close friend and fellow Spaniard. Magritte alters some of the paintings on the wall. Klimt is busy selling one of his drawings to a fellow student. The drawing has an erotic allure and the buyer feels thrilled and embarrassed at the same time.

Loui Jover. Reclining nude after klimt, 2009

Posted in Art

Mountains of the Moon

Macmillan Collector’s Library edition

Last week I posted about the children’s classic, Wind in the Willows. What struck me about this delightful book were the characters and their adventures. Today, I’d like to explore the implications of one particular phrase used in the book, “Mountains of the Moon.”

The phrase appears in the first sentence of Chapter 9: “Restlessly the Rat wandered off once more, climbed the slope that rose gently from the north bank of the river, and lay looking out towards the great ring of Downs that barred his vision further–his simple horizon, his Mountains of the Moon, his limit behind which lay nothing he had cared to see or to know.”

In this instance, “mountains of the moon” refers to the limits to a person’s curiosity. There’s only so much room in your brain. We like to learn new things, but there are some things we’d rather skip. They’re boring, they’re irrelevant, they’re noisy distractions, they’re too far away.

What intrigues me is how these limits can be challenged. For some people I suspect the limits never change. For others, there might be interesting exceptions. For example, I like most forms of music, but don’t particularly care for country music. However, I like Willy Nelson, I like Johnny Cash, I like Patsy Cline. When I met my wife and she also liked Patsy Cline, we started walking after midnight together.

The opposite can also happen. We’ve all probably had this experience. There’s a piece of music, a painting or film that you just don’t care for. You don’t get it. It’s meaningless and annoying. And then you meet a special person. Maybe the person is a teacher or mentor, a friend or lover. The important thing is you value the way this person sees the world. One day, to your shock and dismay, you learn that the one piece of music that you so detest is one of your friend’s favourite pieces of music. Now it may be that the two of you agree to disagree. Or it may happen that you begin to revise your strongly held opinion. Your resistance to the music begins to fade. Your friend’s enthusiasm persuades you to give it a chance. And once you do that, you begin to like the music just a little at first, then more and more. You realize you’ve had a transformative experience.

Art requires an audience. However there is never just one listener who forms a single impression. A whole galaxy of listeners form many different impressions and their conversations around what they’ve seen and heard are vital to the art experience. The mountains of the moon shift depending on who we’re with and the conversations that arise.

Wind in the Willows

EH Shepard’s illustration of Ratty and Mole on the river.

My wife and I recently read Wind in the Willows together. We found the book more charming than we remembered from childhood and marvelled at how many points of connection we were able to make to our own present-day lives.

It’s a story of friendship and small adventures, life along a river, having fun, having too much fun, lessons learned, sharing and gratitude. The characters include Mole, Ratty, Mr. Badger and the flamboyant thrill-seeking Mr. Toad. I particularly identified with Mole, who starts things off by emerging from his underground burrow to be born into the world (the opposite of Alice who tumbles down a rabbit hole to experience the topsy-turvy Wonderland).

Mole is an innocent character, yet shrewd enough to evade dim-witted rabbits who want to tax him for no good reason. Mole dismisses them with the phrase, “onion sauce!” and continues on his way. He discovers a friend on the riverbank, Ratty, who introduces Mole to the delights of boating. Ratty’s philosophy is: “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” Mole insists on learning how to handle a boat himself. Ratty is the ideal teacher and the two learn to depend on one another.

However there is much talk of the wealthy Mr. Toad, who flits from one whim to another with enthusiasm but with little regard for safety or the needs of others. Toad and Mole are opposites. Toad is lovable, but egotistical and mischievous. He ignores his friends’ advice and doesn’t learn from his mistakes as he drifts ever farther afield. Mole gets homesick and has to choose between spending time with his friends and living like a hermit by himself. Ratty suggests a solution. Mole can visit his home whenever he likes, and still see his friends. In other words, his spirit of adventure doesn’t have to end because he wants to go home from time to time.

The book encourages adventures, but also suggests that one can easily go too far. Good adventures cement friendships and lead to shared experiences. Bad adventures disrupt friendships and lead to distrust and misfortune. The river is the perfect symbol of the good adventure. It offers variety and novelty, yet connects all the friends in a lively and delightful environment.

Talking about Art

leaftalkposter-copy

A group of friends recently met at my sister’s house in Hantsport for an experimental event. We billed the evening as Talking about Art. On a large blank wall, we projected images of artworks, illustrations, ads and movie clips. With each image, we invited the assembled guests to contribute any impressions or ideas the images evoked. There were common themes and two moderators helped stir the group in useful directions. The evening was sponsored by the Robert Pope Foundation.