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 the exaggeration of reality. 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 of how he achieves his mesmerizing effects. It is both a film and a “making of” exposé 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, one of many amusing trick shots

My wife and I spent a year in Berlin. I was fascinated by their public transport. No swiping of tickets, no turnstiles. The famous Ring line and U systems carry 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.

That’s one appeal of these early city films. The other is how they add humour to whimsically 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.

The predicament of the angels, who are able to observe without intervening, reminds me of a scene in James Joyce’s novel Ulysses. In the “Wandering Rocks” chapter, a priest wanders the Dublin streets, saying a friendly word to all he encounters. Everyone seems to know this affable priest and he, in turn, knows many of their secrets. He is like a novelist, with insight into the darkest reaches of the human heart, but unlike a novelist, he can never reveal what he knows. The priest’s story ends, as he passes lovers emerging sheepishly from a forest glade. The priest opens his Bible and reads the words: ‘Insulted by princes for no reason, I take comfort in …” In the novel, the sentence ends in a predictable fashion, but I’d rather leave it open, and allow the reader to fill in the blank.

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.

Death in the News

Interview with Death, cartoon by Ed McKean, 2016

Interview with Death, cartoon by Ed McKean, 2016

Death is in the news, but refuses to give any answers. This is my take on recent terrorist attacks and the attention given to these tragic and senseless incidents on news outlets.

Fashion and Art

Natalie Goncharova. Costume designs: Liturgie, 1915; Spanish woman with a fan, 1920

Natalie Goncharova. Costume designs: Liturgie, 1915; Spanish woman with a fan, 1920

What can we learn about art from fashion? At their worst, fashion and art are regarded as superficial, driven by money, vanity and social pressures. Both are elitist, excessive and subject to continual change. On the other hand, both can be fun and creative, adding pleasure and meaning to everyday things.

Fashion may be easier to define than art. Fashion has a practical side and a psychological side. People wear clothes appropriate to changing seasons, weather, social rituals and other conditions. People also wear clothes for show. If you want to attract attention, imagination counts. Clothes are not fixed items. They express personality, social conformity, daring, and individuality. Clothes can be appropriate or inappropriate for the time and place in which they appear. Make a mistake and you might appear ridiculous. Or inspired.

From Mondrian to Michael Jackson, designers take inspiration from art, pop culture changes the meaning of military wear

From Mondrian to Rihanna, designers take inspiration from abstract art, pop culture changes the meaning of military wear

Clothes that stand still too long can make those who wear them seem hopelessly dated, out of touch with the changing times. Clothes are subject to trends, as are people. There can be no question about this: clothes get people talking. People are judged, fairly or not, on what they wear and how they wear it.

Woman with Jackson Pollock Painting

A model poses before a Jackson Pollock painting for a 1951 Vogue story.

Fashion is all about context and so is art. Jackson Pollock’s paintings made marvellous backdrops for models in the 1950s. The model above looks like she’s entered the dream world of the painting. Today’s art is all about immersion and altering environments.

Artist James Turrell uses colour to transform our experience of space. 'Virtuality squared' 2014

Artist James Turrell uses colour to transform experience. ‘Virtuality squared’ 2014

We connect clothes with concepts of style, taste and coolness. These are things we admire and want to emulate. Being comfortable in your own skin. Feeling at home wherever you go, operating easily with the world around you, knowing what you can get away with.

Evening Wear, study for a painting by Ed McKean

Evening Wear, study for a painting by Ed McKean

I draw and paint pictures to relieve tension, to amuse myself, to try to make sense of the world. The tension around clothes and social events can be disconcerting at times. My wife and I discuss wardrobes for an upcoming wedding. Should we spend hundreds of dollars on a suit or dress that will only be worn once? I dig out old clothes, try on new clothes, send pants to the tailor for adjustments. Then I paint a picture of Kathleen and myself in evening wear, bodies fused together, glamorous mannequins, more than a little absurd.

Fashion demands consensus, as does art. Some styles are too outrageous or too impractical for mainstream tastes. Street fashions fight back with unpredictable results.

The one thing artists cannot control is what people will connect with, talk about and share with others. Through art and clothes we participate in a world of change and, by participating, we influence the direction of that change.

Fashion by Alexander McQueen; sculpture by Antony Gormley

Fashion by Alexander McQueen; sculpture by Antony Gormley

 

If you’re interested in theories of fashion, the site “love to know” offers a nice overview.

Alexander McQueen: Fashion Rebel

Model Natalia Vodianova in the Oyster dress from Alexander McQueen's 2003 Spring:Summer collection 'Irere.' Photo by Peter Lindbergh

Model Natalia Vodianova poses in the Oyster dress from Alexander McQueen’s 2003 Spring:Summer collection ‘Irere.’ Photo by Peter Lindbergh

I recently came across the excellent bio, Alexander McQueen: The Life and Legacy by Judith Watt, Harper 2012. McQueen (1969-2010) was a fashion god who jettisoned clothing into an age of everyday spectacle and jarring culture clash. McQueen’s runway shows were multi-media extravaganzas that dumbfounded critics and electrified the fashion world. Watt’s biography succinctly overviews the designer’s various collections, interspersed with memories from colleagues and friends. I was struck by the range of McQueen’s inspirations, from punk rock to science fiction, from London’s gay club culture to Scottish history, from the popular mythology of Jack the Ripper to the heroics of Joan of Arc, from the horror films of Kubrick to the romantic films of Hitchcock, from installation art to the paintings of Goya, Bosch and Van Eyck, from modern materials to the natural forms and patterns of birds, butterflies, flowers, snakes, seaweed, moss and ice.

Plastic and LED. On the left, plastic and mud dress from Nihilism show, Spring/ Summer 1994. On the right: LED cyborg look, AW 1999-2000.

Low tech, high tech. On the left, plastic and mud dress from Nihilism show, Spring/ Summer 1994. On the right: LED cyborg look, AW 1999-2000.

In his early shows, when McQueen had little money for materials, he cut clothes out of clear plastic bags, sewing the pieces in layers and placing red mud and water between the layers to give a look of splattered blood and flesh. While the plastic revealed the models’ bodies, the mud obscured areas, adding a sense of trauma and mysterious inner life. In his rebellion from the norm, McQueen combined ripped clothes and tailored suits, elongated the torso and created strange cocoon-shaped silhouettes. He experimented with unusual materials such as cigarette butts in place of sequins, and had princess dresses splattered on stage with robotic paint machines. Later works featured stuffed birds in head-dresses, parachute capes billowing behind models in elevated wind tunnels, plaster-coated corsets, body armour and Armadillo shoes. Even the Alexander McQueen label attached to clothes was unusual, featuring a lock of hair encased in plastic.

Model Kate Moss strikes a dramatic pose in the glassed-in runway for the VOSS collection, Spring Summer 2001

Model Kate Moss strikes a dramatic pose in the glassed-in runway for the VOSS collection, Spring Summer 2001

His collections often had a narrative element. He turned runways into winter landscapes, dance marathons and glassed-in mental asylums. “Irene,” Spring/ Summer 2003, started with a film clip of a shipwrecked woman. She washes ashore in a spectacular oyster dress, setting off encounters with natives of South America, models adorned with red and white face paint, gold-seeking Spanish conquistadors in tight fitting leather body suits, and clothes saturated with the colours of the Amazon rain forest. “Plato’s Atlantis” imagines the aftermath of global warming, with humans evolving into semi-aquatic creatures to adopt to a new water-based world.

Jellyfish and fairy-tale. On the left, McQueen's "jellyfish dress" from Plato's Atlantis, S/S 2010. On the right, Daphne Guiness wearing a red silk coat pleated at the cuff from :The Girl who Lived in the Tree" collection, F/ W, 2008-09, photo by Michael Roberts for Vanity Fair.

Jellyfish and fairy-tale. On the left, McQueen’s “jellyfish dress” from Plato’s Atlantis, S/S 2010. On the right, Daphne Guiness wears a red silk coat pleated at the cuff from “The Girl who Lived in the Tree” collection, F/ W, 2008-09, photo by Michael Roberts for Vanity Fair.

 

The site AnOther posts an interview with Andrew Bolton, curator of “Savage Beauty” at the Met, 2011. Bolton explains the title of his McQueen retrospective: “Originally the idea came from a book called The Savage Mind by Claude Levi-Strauss, in which he describes two different types of people: ‘the bricoleur’ who is a jack-of-all-trades and ‘the engineer’ who is an artist. I thought both identities tally with McQueen. He looked everywhere for his inspirations and in that sense he was a bricoleur; but he was also a wonderful artist who had a great sense of virtuosity and incredible conceptual complexity, which was shown through his runway presentations. McQueen merged those two identities and that is where the title comes from. Also, in most of McQueen’s collections there were these dichotomies, whether it was to do with beauty and terror, lightness and darkness or life and death. The title is also a play on these contrasts.”

I also recommend the film McQueen and I. Though it’s a rather sad story of the friendship between McQueen and fashion editor Isabella Blow, the documentary offers insights from collaborators and features clips of several shows that hint at McQueen’s unique vision and compelling sense of theatre.

Collar and color. On the left: funnel necked dress, "Bellmer la Poupée," SS 1997. On the right: detail, silk chiffon rainbow dress, "Irere," SS 2003

Collar and color. On the left: funnel necked dress, “Bellmer la Poupée,” SS 1997. On the right: detail, silk chiffon rainbow dress, “Irere,” SS 2003