Hokusai’s Mountain

Katsushika Hokusai’s series of travel prints, 36 Views of Mt. Fuji, 1830-32, was so popular, so critically acclaimed, there was demand for a sequel. But not so fast, the younger artist Utagawa Hiroshige published his dazzling series of travel images, 56 Stations of the Tokaido, 1833-34, putting pressure on his rival to do more than just repeat himself.

Hokusai responded with his most ambitious project, 100 Views of Mt. Fuji, 1834-35. It was a book of woodblock prints, published in three volumes, using only black and one or two shades of grey ink. Whereas the 36 Views, printed in full colour, represented real places, with recognizable landmarks and features, the 100 Views largely dispensed with place names. These landscapes of the imagination, meticulously rendered, made use of closely observed details gathered over a lifetime of travel and study.

Two prints by Hokusai of a dragon ornament, a finial or shachihoko on the roof of a castle, with Mt. Fuji in the distance. Left, from Hokusai’s Manga. Right, from 100 Views of Mt. Fuji.

In a great many cases, the details come from Hokusai’s sketchbooks, his Manga, which he published in 15 volumes from 1814-32. The Manga contain drawings of every imaginable subject. Compare the two drawings above. In the initial drawing it is much clearer that the dragon figure is an ornament attached to a roof. We are shown roof tiles and a ladder, which takes us high above the ground. The dragon is conceived as a sea monster, with fish tail, scales and fins. It is an absurd fish out of water, monstrous and humorous at the same time, but exquisitely balanced with a beautiful curve to its body. In the drawing this body opposes the curve of Fuji and hangs in the air free of the mountain’s mass. In the print, the dragon’s body is encased by the mountain (as if the dragon receives its life energy from the mountain) and the curving shapes align. The dragon is larger in the print and the humour is heightened with the addition of a bird perched on the dragon’s tail, making him seem not quite so frightful after all.

A sea storm from Hokusai’s Manga.

Here is another example from the Manga. Was this scene of storm waves and water crashing on rocks something that Hokusai observed or is he making it all up out of his head? I suspect both are true: Hokusai observed actual storms, but he used his imagination to create the feeling of a storm. Changing seasons and shifts in the weather help give the 100 Views a sense of time passing and epic journey.

Katsushika Hokusai. One Hundred Views of Mt. Fuji, plates 87 and 83.

In the image above left, the mountain is barely suggested through sheets of rain, as a procession of travellers recede from view. The image is anticipated earlier in the series when we meet a man selling umbrellas. His display creates a wonderful pattern of overlapping round shapes. As the viewer seeks out Fuji, the collapsed umbrellas in the foreground mimic the mountain’s cone shape and camouflage its presence.

Hokusai. Fall and Winter from One Hundred Views, plates 72 and 43.

The spider has caught a stray leaf in his web–but it looks as though he’s also caught the mountain. By placing tiny and large together, Hokusai suggests unity to all of nature. Japanese scholar Henry Smith calls this image “visual haiku,” quoting lines from the poet Basho:

Hey spider! How do you sing?

In what key?

Wind of autumn.

I’ve paired this fall scene with a winter scene of a heron perched on the snowy branch of a pine tree. Neither image has a human presence. In the winter picture, Hokusai modified an exercise from Chinese painting: to paint three things all coloured white: usually bird, flower and snow. Hokusai has substituted Fuji for the flower.

Pinhole effect: Plates 99 and 100 from One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji.

In the image right above, Mt. Fuji projects upside down on a screen inside a house (through a tiny hole in the closed window shutters). This is the camera obscura effect. According to Henry Smith, the Japanese were aware of this effect, but didn’t make use of it as a drawing aid as Western artists did before the invention of photography. On the facing page, Hokusai’s shoreline, strewn with seaweed and waves, shows Fuji through a keyhole-shaped opening in a protruding rock.

Hokusai. Well and Banners, Plates 32 and 38, 100 Views of Mt. Fuji

To add variety to his views, Hokusai included a wide array of human activities. Above left, a man cleans out his well. Right, banners that have been freshly dyed, hang to dry in the open air. One fabric is lifted by a stick to its place on the rack. While no person is shown, human activity is evident. The strips of cloth make the picture seem especially tall like the mountain beyond.

Hokusai. Priests cross a pine tree bridge. Plate 63 from 100 Views of Mt. Fuji

A spreading pine–a dense meandering tree–was said to cover a large area on Mt. Nantai. So large was the tree that priests walked along its branches as part of their spiritual practice. Hokusai has turned this legendary pine tree into a fantastic bridge. A shrine is perched along the way, so high it breaks out of the top border of the picture. In an earlier series of travel pictures, Hokusai had featured famous bridges in Japan, but none as whimsical as this. If Fuji appears small at the bottom, it is because Mt. Nantai was 100 miles distant, the furthest vantage point of all the views.

Hokusai. Details of Plate 27, “Fuji with a Hat” from 100 Views of Mt. Fuji

The above image, called “Fuji with a Hat,” reflects the way weather systems gather at the summit of the mountain. In Hokusai’s mind, it’s as though the mountain supports a burden, just as people and domestic animals carry loads on their backs while fording a river. In the distance, oxen carry lumber, a woman with a hoe carries a baby, the woman behind balances a spinning wheel and bundle. In the foreground, a performer supports his dragon costume.

The 100 Views stretch our notions of what is a landscape. Some of the images illustrate stories and legends. Others make humorous analogies or display a kind of visual haiku. Throughout the series, the terrain changes, the weather changes, occupations change, and our views and perceptions change. It would be foolhardy to resist this change. The way the artist hides his mountain from one image to another feels like a game. Hokusai suggests we are all participants in this game and it’s ours to enjoy.

Viewing Hokusai

Katsushika Hokusai, Japan’s greatest artist, was born in 1760. This was the year Suzuki Harunobu introduced the “brocade print,” multi-coloured woodblock printing, setting off a boom of high-quality mass produced ukiyo-e. Hokusai apprenticed at a lucky intersection of new craft, receptive audience, and high standards among competing artists. The capital Edo, with its million inhabitants, was the world’s largest city. Townfolk and visitors sought out images of famous actors, sumo wrestlers and courtesans. Hokusai introduced two new subjects: books of manga–quick sketches of all manner of subjects, often humorous, caught unawares in daily tasks– and landscapes.

Katsushika Hokusai. “Picture Book Hokusai Manga, Volume 12″

Hokusai’s manga may have served as drawing manuals for student artists, but they are as entertaining as instructive. Take the example above. Ghosts interact with a musician and salesman. The salesman hopes to sell a pair of glasses with three lenses to the spectre with three eyes. The long-necked beings waft through the air like smoke from their pipes.

Katsushika Hokusai. Various ways of drawing rocks and mountains. Hokusai’s Manga. These exercises generated ideas which the artist later worked into his 36 Views.

Hokusai worked in the Edo period, which lasted from 1603 to 1868. This was a time of stability and prosperity for Japan. The ruling shogun introduced a unique bit of nation building–foreigners were not admitted into Japan and Japanese were not allowed to travel abroad. With their new wealth and free time, people looked to travel within Japan, taking advantage of improved roads and increased safety. Travel books were popular, none more so than Hokusai’s Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, 1832, begun when the artist was 71 years old.

How is a kite like a mountain?

Katsushika Hokusai. Flying Kites in Edo, from Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji, 1832

The string of the kite echoes the shape of the mountain’s slope, as do the cluster of city rooftops. But how ephemeral a bending string in the wind is compared to a centuries old mountain! In the foreground, a worker repairing the roof of a fashionable clothing store tosses a bundle of tiles to his companion.

Here is another string that mimics the mountain emerging from the mist. Hokusai is famous for his ingenuity in evoking the motion of waves. He is no less experimental in his concern for sky, cloud and mist effects and how they change with altitude and time of day.

Hokusai. Fisherman with his son in Kai Province, from 36 Views, 1830–33.

How does this mountain differ from its reflection in the lake?

Katsushika Hokusai. Fuji reflects in Lake Kawaguchi, seen from the Misaka pass in the Kai province, from Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji, 1832

The mountain is imperfect with its competing peaks and jagged crumbling surface. It’s a dull brown in the summer light. The reflection has a single resplendent peak, the winter’s snow hides all rough edges.

Katsushika Hokusai. Woman Looking at Herself in a Mirror, detail c. 1805

Hokusai’s father was a mirror craftsman, a trade to which Hokusai was exposed at an early age, before chosing art and print-making. Reflections and optical effects often find their way into his images.

What time of day is this?

Katsushika Hokusai. Red Fuji, from Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, 1831

The mountain glows with first light of morning, as the peak ascends through an opening in the clouds. The design is daring and kinetic: the asymmetry of the slope and mass of its red-hot body balanced by the scuttling motion of the blue-tinged clouds.

Imitation is the sincerest form of robbery. This modern take by Seattle- based artist Yumiko Kayukawa uses creatures from the natural world to suggest an unnatural world of hyper-reality. The appealing design returns ukiyo-e to its origins in pop culture.

Yumiko Kayukawa. Red Fuji, c. 2010

French Impressionists loved Hokusai. They copied his subjects and flat colours. They may also have been influenced by his working methods, that is, painting a favourite landmark or object over and over in a series of clever variations. Monet painted cathedrals, haystacks and his garden pond in just this obsessive way. The post-impressionist Paul Cezanne, like Hokusai, choose a mountain as his central subject. In Cezanne’s case, it was Mont Sainte-Victoire, which he depicted a total of 87 times (44 oil paintings, 43 water colours). In a letter to his friend Solari (from Talloires, 23 July 1896), Cezanne wrote: “For a long time I have remained without power, without knowing how to paint the Sainte-Victoire, because I imagined a static shadow, like others who do not look, while, look, the shadow moves, it flees from its centre. Instead of being compressed, it evaporates, becomes fluid, and participates in the air’s breathing.”

Paul Cezanne. Mountains in Provence, 1886

Journey to the East

Herman Hesse in 1930 on a hike through the Ticino region of Switzerland

In line with Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, Yeats’s Sailing to Byzantium, Delacroix’s Women of Algiers, is Hermann Hesse’s gem-like novella, Journey to the East (1932). The story begins with a troubled narrator hinting at a glorious adventure that he is not at liberty to disclose fully. Nor could he if he tried because his memory has been impaired over time due to illness and suffering. The narrator, HH, also hints that this life-altering adventure has incurred ridicule by skeptics and by those who have not been exposed to the true story. Thus begins this allegory of a search for meaning and unattainable truth.

My first surprise as a reader was to discover that the journey is not made by an individual but by a group, the mysterious League with its many secrets and ceremonies. Within this group, individuals are encouraged to identify their own specific goals. The narrator comments: “Many members of the League set themselves goals which, although I respected, I could not fully understand. For example, one of them was a treasure-seeker and he thought of nothing else but of winning a great treasure which he called Tao. Still another had conceived the idea of capturing a certain snake to which he attributed magical powers and which he called Kundalini. My own journey and life goal, which had coloured my dreams since my late boyhood, was to see the beautiful Princess Fatima and, if possible, to win her love.”

These are the treasure of the East: Chinese philosophy, Indian medicine, and Arabian fable. The journey is fantastic, the language ecstatic and playful:

Honoré Daumier. Don Quixote in the Mountains, 1850

“One of the most beautiful experiences was the League’s celebrations in Bremgarten; the magic circle surrounded us closely there. Received by Max and Tilli, the lords of the castle, we heard Othmar play Mozart on the grand piano in the lofty hall. We found the grounds occupied by parrots and other talking birds … I shall always remember how Don Quixote stood alone under the chestnut tree by the fountain and held his first night watch while the last Roman candles of the firework display fell so softly over the castle’s turrets in the moonlight, and my colleague Pablo, adorned with roses, played the Persian reed-pipe to the girls.” (p 52)

Euphoria quickly turns to despair. “There was nothing else left for me to do but to satisfy my last desire: to let myself fall from the edge of the world into the void – to death.” The quest is not as easy or straightforward as it seemed. As HH loses his way, he starts to doubt himself and loses the ability to communicate with others. He seeks help, but ends up being accused (in a trial) of betraying the League and its values.

Detail of the Mantes Carpet, Safavid, Northern Iran, second half of the 16th century, Louvre Museum
Women in modern day Iran weave a carpet. The image illustrates a Persian proverb: “Little by little the wool becomes a carpet.”

From initial champion of the League and its most grateful adherent, the hero fails the first test he encounters. However he is given a second chance. HH is ordered to search the archive for his own file. “A shudder went through me at the thought of what I should still learn in this hour. How awry, altered and distorted everything and everyone was in these mirrors, how mockingly and unattainably did the face of truth hide itself behind all these reports, counter-reports and legends! What was still truth? What was still credible? And what would remain when I also learned about myself, about my own character and history from the knowledge stored in these archives? (p. 106)

In a Goodreads review, Ben Winch describes Hesse’s subject: “The crux of it is, it’s the story of a failure. An inevitable failure, I would say, but as Hesse himself says early in the piece, “the seemingly impossible must continually be attempted”. What, then, is the seemingly impossible attempt made here? It’s twofold: the telling of an untellable story, the making of an impossible journey … but in showing an awakening from the inside out it achieves something difficult and valuable and profound. And besides, it’s beautiful. Unique. Magical.”

Susan Budd comments (also on Goodreads): “Rereading this book now, at the same age Hesse was when he published it, I must acknowledge my own desertion of the journey, my own forgetfulness and unfaithfulness to the league. I even sold my violin ~ figuratively speaking. And now I long to return.”

Rain gutter at the Gaudi Museum, Barcelona. Photo by Doug Pope

In my response to this story, I decided to choose three art objects: a painting of Don Quixote, the mad knight whose own quest is ridiculous and impossible, yet endearing. The historic Mantes carpet features a mesmerizing design where figures of animals and birds emerge and disappear among tangles of flowers and geometric vines. I also show a modern-day carpet in the process of construction. Unlike works of fiction or paintings where the artist roughs in a draft, then goes back and adds detail, the rug emerges fully formed from one end to the other. I end with a photo of my own, taken at the Gaudi Museum in Barcelona. The artist’s use of broken ceramic pieces to form a twisting rain gutter demonstrates his playful spirit, and a merging of everyday materials and beautiful design for a useful end product. The pigeon in the picture reinforces how effortlessly Gaudi’s work blends with nature.

All of these art elements figure in Hesse’s conception of the Journey: the madness inherent in chivalry, the mesmerizing loss of self, craftsmanship of a high order, playfulness, beauty, and utility.

How to write a quick essay

Snoopy began his stormy writing career in July 1965 with a memorable first line lifted from 19th century novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton. (Charles Schulz Museum)

There are probably a hundred ways to write a good essay, but this is my default for when panic stations start ringing.

  1. Select a topic (5 min.)
  2. Find 3 articles on this topic (5 min.)
  3. Select 1 quote from each article. It is important to introduce voices and ideas other than your own. (5 min.)
  4. In one sentence provide some context for the quote or simply paraphrase the quote (put it in your own words). This sentence is placed either before or after the quote. (5 min.)
  5. Write a sentence that puts two of the quotes in opposition to each other (opposing views). (5 min.)
  6. Write a sentence that sets up 3rd quote as the resolution (the way out) of these opposing views. (5 min.)
  7. Add a sentence that adds your own thought to this resolution. (5 min.)
  8. Write a concluding sentence that sums up what you learned about the topic while writing the paper, and also suggest future questions. (5 min.)
  9. Write the introduction, which mentions the topic, the debate around it, and why the reader should care about this. Though you write this sentence last, it is the first and most important sentence of your essay. (5 min.)
  10. This will give you the nuts and bolts of a reasonably decent essay. You could stop here, reread, and polish a second draft. (15 min)

Total: 1 hour

To create a slightly better essay, here is an additional step:

  1. Insert 2 or 3 examples or literary quotes (if you are writing about Shakespeare, for instance, this is where you insert quotes from Shakespeare’s plays), which relate in some way to your topic. If your topic is not Shakespeare, but say, advertising, this is where you insert images of ads and comment in your own words on these images. Here’s the trick: forget for a minute the arguments in your text and just write in your own words what most intrigues you about the image or the quote. This will give your essay a little sparkle and keep it from being too robotic. (15 min.)

Sample Exercise: Is Advertising Art?

Intro: Ads use sophisticated design and clever campaigns to sway human behaviour. But does this cleverness and influence make them art? The critics who answer yes point out how ads reflect current cultural values. The critics who answer no think art has a higher purpose. There is a third view that states art and ads often benefit from each other and in fact feed off of one another. To understand this, we need to consider the changing role of media in contemporary society.

  1. Yes, ads reflects culture (commercialism is part of culture), the time period, technology and values of the day. Insert quote 1: Matt Miller, president of the body that oversees ads in the USA, defines art as “a reflection and expression of what is happening in society.” Using this broad definition, Miller notes how we live in an era of mass media, global trade and instant messaging: ads finance the media, encourage trade and adopt to the latest technology at lightning speed.
  2. This argument is countered by Mary Warlick, art historian and executive director of The One Club, a New York trade organization. Quote 2: “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.” (AdWeek, Nov. 12, 2001) Ads may be a reflection of contemporary culture and current trends, but that isn’t the purpose of art. Art helps us become more self-aware, to think critically and 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.
  3. There is common ground: Quote 3: 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.

  1. My own thought: Western culture is moving in the direction where everyone is an artist, as Joseph Beuys predicted in the 1960s. The technology of smart phones and social media are the keys to these new citizen-artists. The trend started a hundred years ago when people started buying low-cost Brownie cameras and began recording their own lives. But smartphones and social media have taken it to another level of speed and accessibility. 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.

Conclusion: 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.

Extra Step: Examples of a Calvin Klein ad featuring an Andy Warhol artwork, a Moncler ad featuring Chinese artist Liu Bolan.

Here is the final essay. Good luck to all you midnight crammers.

Sylvia’s Halo

A Halo shampoo ad, 1958, and a portrait of young Sylvia Plath

Allow me to skip the definition of dinner because I just ate it. That’s how I feel writing a blog about another blog. However I can’t resist. Here goes:

Title: The Cypress Scent of Halo Shampoo

Illustration: a Halo shampoo ad from the 1950s

Intro: The book-loving blogger (Katherine Sedgwick) describes her latest acquisition, a breezy bio relating the youthful adventures of misunderstood poet, Sylvia Plath. The book is set in 1953, when Sylvia worked at Mademoiselle magazine in New York City.

A quote from the breezy bio’s inside flap informs us: “Sylvia lived at the Barbizon hotel … danced at the West Side Tennis Club, typed rejection letters to writers from The New Yorker and ate an entire bowl of caviar at an advertising luncheon. She stalked Dylan Thomas and fought off an aggressive diamond-wielding delegate from the United Nations. She took hot baths, had her hair done, and discovered her signature drink (vodka, no ice).”

Sedgwick confesses she’s reviewing a book she hasn’t yet read (well done!) However she did flip the book open and discovered this: “Mademoiselle’s rooms were mirrored, dark green and pink – fragrant with the cypress scent of Halo shampoo.”

Sedgwick, who also used Halo Shampoo when she was a girl, notes: “Who knew on those 1960s bath nights in tiny Queensborough, Ont., that I had something in common–shampoo–with the glamorous before-she-was-famous poet who worked at a glossy fashion magazine in New York City?”

Postscript: a TV commercial of Halo Shampoo from the 1960s.

What I like here is how three threads at first seem disconnected (the blogger, an ad for shampoo and the biography of a famous writer). When we learn that the blogger and famous writer both use the same shampoo, it sets off a marvelous nostalgia for youth, ambition and shiny hair. In a few words, we learn quite a lot. Sylvia Plath lives in snob city (she stalks Dylan Thomas, rejects New Yorker writers) while fending off a few stalkers of her own. She works in fashion, but is not defined by it–she may be happy (the signature vodkas) or unhappy (the signature vodkas). We don’t know. I like the name dropping, the hotels, the advertising luncheons, though the entire bowl of caviar (how big was the bowl?) sounds uncomfortable. The overall impression is greatness awaits– portrait of the artist as a young woman, but in the meantime, it’s Halo Shampoo.

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 cleverness and influence make them art? Legendary copywriter Bill Bernbach 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 that lower standards? 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. Two young women carry Michael Kors purses as they disembark from their private jet while their security man holds off the press. It’s an image of travel and adventure, friendship and freedom. Half fairy tale and half news shot, a document of our times. But wait, it isn’t news, it’s a fabrication that uses models to impersonate celebrities. However, as models, they’ve become rich and famous celebrities in their own right. 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. Moncler jackets are refined like a work of art, but rugged to suit any environment and, when you wear them, you’ll never be out of place.

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 increasingly make use of roving amateurs who capture the latest earthquake, protest, rock concert, tsunami or teenage stunt. The smart phone is the on-spot eye-witness to history. On a personal level, we continually revise, update and share family pictures. Ordinary people selectively post selfies and snapshots to promote their most popular and adventurous selves. These are advertisements for ourselves.

Famous 1940s Life magazine photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt and altered version, 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–a sailor kissing a nurse during the victory celebration that marked the end of WW II, published on the cover of Life magazine in August 1945. The selfie alteration is a funny spin on history. The sailor now kisses the girl for the sake of the camera. Of course selfies did not exist in the 1940s so it creates a magical sense of time travel complete with present-day technology.

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.

Prankster Philosopher

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

I have a friend who everyone loves. When he enters a room, he cannot be ignored. He talks to everyone whether he knows them or not. He is always talking, teasing, pulling someone’s leg. You might call him the 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 interrogator 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.

At this point, I realize my friend is more prankster than philosopher. Philosophers attempt to free our minds from falling into circular traps, repeating the same arguments over and over. Yet when I say I haven’t time, my prankster friend says I’m too serious for my own good. Why so serious? he asks. Why is your time more important than my time? Can you answer without squandering precious moments? If you can’t answer, won’t answer, then how do you know your time is worth anything at all?

The prankster becomes philosopher. But only for a moment because there’s too much fun to be had, too many games to play, too many places to go, to lose time losing it.

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