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.

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.

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.

 

 

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

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

Fountains

Bernini. Fountain of the Four Rivers, Rome, 1651

We often encounter fountains in public places. Baroque structures with elaborate river gods and assorted monsters, placed in the heart of a city, attract attention and wonder. In his blog Quadralectic Architecture, Marten Kuilman comments: “The fountain is the messenger of the universe. Water acts as a mirror with an endless reflection and its movement prevents any type of stagnant contemplation.”

Kuilman describes four kinds of fountains: 1) the Arcadian, use of a water feature in garden design to inspire a spirit of tranquility and holiness, 2) monumental: grandiose structures that mark a place of community, as well as referencing gods and other figures of power and influence, 3) practical, many fountains served to provide drinking water for town dwellers, 4) playful, the fountain as a place to stimulate and refresh, disrupting the usual business-oriented attitude of many city dwellers. In Fellini’s film, La Dolce Vita, Sylvia played by Anita Edberg is a mesmerizing enchantress, wild for spontaneous adventure and full of unquenchable energy that the adoring and world-weary Marcello is dumbfounded by, even as she leads him into the waters of the Trevi Fountain, a moment of great romantic possibility and absurd deviance that ends in frustration and exhaustion.

Streams by Athena TachaThe playfulness of fountains could have a disruptive quality, as when in 1917 Marcel Duchamp submitted a urinal for inclusion in an art exhibition under the title, “Fountain.” Duchamp’s work was famously rejected; sparking a controversy with lingering questions about originality and context in the world of art. In her work Streams, 1975, contemporary Greek artist Athena Tacha, noted for her environmental sculpture, creates a delightful sense of cascading water simply by placing boulders at irregular points on a steep incline of public stairs in Oberlin, Ohio. A similar set of dancing stairs, without the rocks, and arranged as an amphitheatre, was designed by Tacha for the Muhammad Ali Centre in Louisville, KY in 2008.

Flipbook Fun

Here’s a great resource for teachers or anyone interested in making quick animations. Flip book! The short animations you make on this site can be saved as GIF files. Many successful gifs are designed so that the end returns to the beginning, making the sequence appear to run in a continuous loop.

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