All About Baths

Bathers: Degas and Boucher (study by Giovanni Civardi)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. The River, 1864

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

Georges Seurat. Bathers at Asnières, 1884

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Films about Cities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Caliban’s Mirror

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

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

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

Drawing back and pointing, Stephen said with bitterness:

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

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

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

Oscar Wilde cartoon by Raine Szramski

Streams of Consciousness: James Joyce’s Ulysses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Music Hall performers, 1920

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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