Ruins…ruined…beautiful

November 3, 2010

 The Renaissance humanists found beauty in ruins.   They took what they could dig up.  They thought the best was behind them, and they sought to live up to the ancient ideals.  Was this the first example of stylistic revivalism?

 

Later on, archaeologists got to work on those beautiful ruins.  Enlightenment artists like Piranesi took a methodical interest in the remnants of Classical Civilization, and produced views of it that were part postcard, part scientific document, and part aesthetic reverie.

Finally, the Romantics found ruins beautiful, but only certain kinds of ruins.

Today, the aesthetic back and forth between beauty and ugliness, the sordid and the sublime, the natural and the artificial continues, as always.

Now, there are a bunch of photographers who love to take pictures of industrial decay.  Some call it industrial decay pornHaving spent lots of time in Detroit, I can understand the frustration of the person in this link.  Others are clearly entranced by the aesthetic possibilities of magnificent abandoned sites, as in these pictures on Flickr.  Not sure how they would feel about their subjects if they were simply unemployed with no propsects, after working on the factory line…

This color image is almost over the top, but it looks very much like factories I visited on Doremus Avenue, NJ, which is shown in the B&W image at the top.  Doremus was the center of the chemical industry in the USA during the late 19th and early 20th century. (More images here.)

Is it the romance of industry that draws them?  The Ozymandias outlook?  Fascination with decadence?  Purely aesthetic possibilities of texture, space, tone?  The image at the bottom left looks positively Piranesian, while the one on the right is simply depressing in its presentation of utter decreptitude.  Would these subjects be interesting to anyone but engineers if they were functioning and in good repair?  (I know there are photographers of contemporary industry too…)

Plowden was making a statement, a plea, with his photographs of American wastelands, but these images seem contemplative and a bit voyeuristic.  At least on the Web, I find very little interest in what the subjects actually are, what they were for,  only how they look.

 

Coming full circle, sort of, we have the image below which shows not ruins, but a functioning geothermal plant in Iceland.  No ice to be seen; bathers and boaters frolic in this Edenic scene from Dante’s Inferno.  An absolutely mind-bending union of thematic opposites.


Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

June 16, 2010

While the mariners were landing in the New World (see previous post), the Renaissance intellectual literati were carrying on with their pagan wet dream in a dream.  Published in 1499, and a bestseller for centuries, I just finished Hypnerotomachia Poliphili [other posts] and I can confidently say that it is the weirdest book I have read.  Here are a few samples of the text which, as the translator tells us in his forward, has been considerably pruned of invented words and bizarre phrases to make it flow better for the modern reader.

One of the many architectural wonders Poliphilio dreams, and describes at tremendous length:

The threshold of the doorway was made from an immense leek-green stone, whose tough surface was marred with a scattering of white, black, and grey spots and various other indistinct stains.  The straight antis-columns rested on this, standing one pace form the edge of the threshold with their inner sides smooth and lustrous but their outer faces notably carved.  There was not sight of hinges either on the threshold, or above, nor any indications of iron hooks retaining the half-capitals which were of the same stone.  Above this there curved the arched beam or semicircle, with the requisite lineaments and measured fascias of the beam, namely balls or berries and spindles, arranged by tens as if threaded on a string; dog’s ears; sinuous or lapped rinceaux in antique style, with their stalks.  The spine, wedge, or keystone of the arch was worthy of admiration for its bold and subtle design and its elegant finish, which make it a splendid sight to see.

In his dream, Poliphilio meets an enticing nymph:

The white breasts were left voluptuously open as far as to reveal the round nipples,  The little virginal body rested on straight legs, and little feet, some of the bare within antique sandals what were held on by golden thongs that passed between the bi and the middle toes, near the little toe, and right around the heel, to join neatly above the instep in an artistic bow.  Some were in shoes, tightly fastened with golden hooks: others wore boots with soles of crimson and other gay colors, such as were never seen on Gaius Caligula, the first to wear them.  Some had high boots slit around their with and fleshy calves; others, slippers with masterly fasteners of gold and silk. Many wore antique Sicyonian shoes, and a few had fine silken socks, with golden laces decorated with gems.

Still in his dream, he finds Polia, and is invited into a pagan love-fest:

Does Mars dream?

Take your pleasure of me for a all days to come, and you will feel comfort and contentment that make you forget your former torments and past misfortunes:  they will dissolve under my caresses and kindnesses just as the mists, rising and thickening from the all-ruling earth are dispersed by forceful winds, as dust-motes float and vanish in the air.  Now take this amorous kiss’ (here he embraced me in virginal fashion) as the gauge of my inflamed heart, conceived from my excessive love.”  And as he hugged me tightly, my little round purple mouth mingled its moisture with his , savoring sucking, and giving the sweetest little bites as our tongues entwined around each other.

There is much sighing, some dying, some reviving, then dying more, then sighing, and loving and entwining.  But in the end, Poliphilio awakes, and it’s all over.  He curses the jealous sun that rose and ended his nightime bliss.


Belles Heures

March 27, 2010

Yesterday evening, I took a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see the new exhibit of the Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry.

I find it hard not to confuse this manuscript with the perhaps more famous, Très Riches Heures, which is known for its beautiful scenes illustrating the progression of the seasons on a medieval estate.  This manuscript, also a prayer book, features illuminations of The Passion, St. Jerome, and St. Catherine, who refused to be broken, on the wheel or otherwise.

The manuscript has been disassembled for restoration, and before putting it back together, it is being exhibited as individual pages, so you can see both sides in upright glass holders – magnifying glasses are available!  Soon, it will return to its bound state, and visitors will be able to view only two pages, chosen by the curator, at time.

Aside from the dazzling ornamentation of the pages, the pictures are alternately dramatic, poignant, and even humorous.  Viewing them all is totally exhausting, and of course, they were not meant to be viewed this way at all.  The books were meditative/prayer aids, intended to be read one page at a time, a few each day, year after year.

Among my favorite images, with links:

A lovely image showing a crescent moon, and an almost 3-D effect of some angels in reddish hues.

St. Jerome tempted by some dancing girls.

A fanatical Christian, accosted by a loose woman who fondles his thigh.  Rather than be seduced, he bites off his tongue so that the pain will drive away temptation.

St. Jerome listening to a scholar discourse on the classics.  Jerome was torn by his love of Greek and Latin literature and its conflicts with his Christian faith.

St. Jerome is tricked by his colleagues into wearing a woman’s dress.  He is so absorbed in meditation, he puts it on without realizing that his fellow monks have switched his clothing.

There is also a current exhibit of a series of small statues in alabaster depicting a procession of mourners at the funerals of two Burgundian noblemen, the same ones who commissioned the books of hours, I believe.  This figures are placed around the base of two elaborate raised platforms, inside a series of ornately carved gothic niches.

They are displayed in two parallel rows on a simple base in the Metropolitan while their home museum in France is restored.  This means that they are visible completely in the round.  They display a wide variety of costumes and physical manifestations of their grief, all with great realism.  You can view each figure at this link.  The figures have been digitally scanned in the round, so you can actually rotate each virtual figure in your web brower – fantastic!

After leaving the museum, I took a bus downtown to Penn Station, and stopped to look at the new pedestrian mall that has taken over Broadway around 34th street.  Even on a cold night, it is wonderful.  To stand in the middle of a street in Manhattan, with the view that affords, and not have to dodge traffic!

A view of a mysterious moon near the Deco spire of the Empire State Building from the Broadway mall.

Nowadays, we have our own form of illuminations, as followers of Walter Benjamin might say.  A store window advertisement got a felicitous double effect from the reflection in the back of a chromium chair.  And a snap of a hard working artist, creating the dazzling festivals of desire along the street scape.

T0urists doing what they do, recording their ephemeral presence in my phenomenal world.


Les Biches – Chabrol (1968)

March 4, 2010

Got to hand it to Chabrol, he knew how to keep politics and art separate when he wanted to.  1968, and what does he make, a jewel-like exercise in psychological storytelling.

Les Biches means, the does, or fawns, and also the girls, or chicks, with connotations of bad girls.  One is a street artist who draws fawns on the sidewalk, and is picked up by Stéphane Audran, a rich, bored, bi-sexual ice queen.  The other girl is a bit of cipher, and she becomes absorbed by, and obsessed with the identity of her keeper.  There’s a bit of Hitchcock’s Vertigo here - one woman being transformed into another, albeit from very different motives.  There’s not much suspense – the end is clearly foreshadowed early on – and the male character in this dysfunctional ménage is rather ambiguous:  what will he do at the end when he arrives to find that the double has killed his lover…accept her as a replacement?

The cool, precise aesthetic that is the draw of this film struck me forcibly during this brief sequence showing Frédéric rising from her bed, dressed in immaculate white pyjamas, in her rather spartan bedroom.  Look at how she gets up – she doesn’t bend her back at all!  Her posture is ramrod straight.  It looks as if she is sliding off the bed quite naturally, but every element of her movement is controlled and thought out, like a model, an actress, a creation.

This blogger gives an extended treatment in the same vein to the climactic murder scene, focusing on the precise camera work and editing of Chabrol.

 


Antidote

November 5, 2009

free styleIs this the way out of that mess of phantastic dreams I fall into so often?  I am taking a class in Ikebana, Japanese flower arranging.  The allure of its simplicity and focus on natural beauty is very powerful.  These lines from Wikipedia sum it up well:

More than simply putting flowers in a container, ikebana is a disciplined art form in which nature and humanity are brought together. Contrary to the idea of floral arrangement as a collection of particolored or multicolored arrangement of blooms, ikebana often emphasizes other areas of the plant, such as its stems and leaves, and draws emphasis towards shape, line, and form.

The artist’s intention behind each arrangement is shown through a piece’s color combinations, natural shapes, graceful lines, and the usually implied meaning of the arrangement.

Another aspect present in ikebana is its employment of minimalism. That is, an arrangement may consist of only a minimal number of blooms interspersed among stalks and leaves.


Everywhere at home??

October 31, 2009

The entrance to hell?

One of these days, I’m going to visit the strange Park of the Monsters at Bomarzo, Italy. If I go, will I be greeted and led to the Hell’s Mouth by a sultry nymph with delightful long legs like this one?  Will my wife, and all my family obligations and history melt away, my middle age fly off to leave me youthful and desirable, my heightened emotions and vigor to be quenched in a unique, bizarre, erotic embrace within some weird grotto?

Not likely…This renaissance (Mannerist) oddity is nicely photographed and discussed in this fine book which I own.  I’ve known about the park for a very long time, but it seems that it was forgotten by Europe for centuries, until being rediscovered and somewhat restored by the efforts of Salvidor Dali and Mario Praz.  Popularity followed, and now it’s a “family destination” for tourists.

The image is from a catalog for Schneider’s of Austria, a clothing manufacturer, that was all shot in the garden.  What is going on here?  Their slogan is “Everywhere at home.”  This reminds me of the classic formulations of kitsch consciousness, i.e., that everywhere kitsch-man goes, everywhere he looks, he seems himself.  Thus, he is never open to new, genuine, experience.  Do I believe this?  Ich bin ein kitschmensch!

Fashion advertisement, and in this case, a pretty high-end, classy example of it, trades on all sorts of moods, half-understood cultural allusions, snobbisms, innovations, cultural quotes, etc. to endow the product, the look, with a feeling, a cachet.  Moody, hip, sophisticated, mannered, mysterious, cultured, refined and esoteric, sooo European…These are a few of the things this catalog has to say about Schneider’s clothes.  And you know what?  I buy it, all of it!  I want that raincoat I saw in Century 21!!  I’m a pretty unremarkable dresser, and I don’t think my appearance turns any heads, but I look at other people’s looks a lot.  Sometimes I become fixated on a woman’s coat, a man’s shoes, a purse, a pair of glasses…okay, it’s probably 80/20 when it comes to the time I spend on women/men – it’s not just fashion that catches my eye.

I’ve never been able to figure out or come to terms with exactly what is going on here.  It feels dreadfully superficial, even childish or stupid in a way.  On the other hand, it feels totally human and natural.  Does there have to be a moral evaluation involved?

I told my wife once about an incident when I was twenty years old, and I saw a Panama hat in a window of a shop in Europe during my summer travels there.  The “vision” of that hat stayed with me for days.  On the long train ride, I imagined myself wearing it in all sorts of situations – how it would make me feel all sorts of ways just by being on my head.  (Hats – the mediator of the man-sky interface.) She rolled her eyes.  That’s one reason I married her.  She keeps me somewhat tethered to reality.

Bring on La Maniera. Hail to La dolce vita!

bomarzo_turtle


Surprise!

October 10, 2009

bard

It’s common now to come across the phrase “caution – spoilers ahead” in discussions of books and movies.  People want to avoid having their experience ruined  by reading a review that reveals the end, the surprise, the mystery, etc.  Personally, I don’t care.

Were people upset that they knew the ending of the Illiad when they heard it for the 100th time?  Everyone has favorite films or books that they see or read again and again.  The best works don’t depend on surprise.  That is, the suspense depends on the characters’ not knowing what’s ahead.  Some of them, Greek tragedies for example, assume that we already know the whole story.

I know it may be snobbish, but this is why I have no interest in reading mysteries – I can’t abide a book that depends for its appeal on hiding an aspect of the plot.  In a movie, it can be fun, and if it’s a good one, knowing the secret really doesn’t matter, but in a book, it’s just tedious for me.


Pre-Raphaelite flash

August 29, 2009

drop of milk

In an earlier post, I commented on Art Spiegelman’s remark that comics are time turned into space. Different moments in time are disposed across the page in separate units, or panels.  This idea popped up again in my head as I read what John Ruskin had to say about the painters of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, an independent self-styled group of painters who were not “recognized” by the Academy.  Ruskin was very sympathetic to their aims.

William_Holman_Hunt_-_Valentine_Rescuing_Sylvia_from_Proteus

In a letter to the London Times in 1854, Ruskin praises the PRB by saying, “…[it] has but one principle, that of absolute, uncompromising truth in all that it does..,” and he discusses William Holman Hunt’s painting, Valentine Rescuing Sylvia in detail.  Looking at the picture, it’s attention to detail is obvious and remarkable, but it struck me as somehow stiff and unrealistically staged.  That’s when Spiegelman’s comment came to mind.

The Hunt painting shows us what we can never see because the elements of the world are always in motion.  Not until the development of the strobe light was it possible to “freeze” motion completely, or nearly so, in a photographic image to show us the “reality” behind the blur.  Anyone who has been in a disco with a strobe can testify to how bizarre and unreal the dancers look in the light, yet it is their real movement one sees.

Well, what is the real?  For the medieval thinker, and those were the ones the PRB would favor, the real, the essence of something was outside of time.  A Platonic ideal, not the mere appearance one percieved in everyday life.  For an artist, the decision is always, shall I show how things are, or how they appear?  In medieval art, the choice was for the former.  For the Impressionists and Futurists, to name two, it was the latter.  (Of course, each group thought it was depicting the real…)

eat_the_bookSo, in medieval art, the Idea is the real, and that’s what is shown.  Figures are often not to scale – important subjects are bigger, the better to represent what they are. Perspective was not unknown, but not used much, because that was mere appearance.  (The renaissance was preoccupied with mathematically precise perspective.)  Different moments in time are shown in the same picture, as in my favorite from the apocalypse where we see John both receiving and eating the same book, two chronologically sequential events, in one frame. (To us moderns, it seems he’s eating one book and greedily grabbing for another!)

Fabriano_Magi_Uffizi_4764Magi_detail

In later art, the juxtaposition of multi-times is often less explicit.  In this famous painting of the Adoration of the Magi by Gentile de Fabriano, the (earlier) procession to seek Jesus is seen in the back of the picture, while the Magi, at their goal, are shown in front.  Here, in the detail, we see the three Magi in different stages of adoration:  standing, bending to the knee; and on the knees in front of the infant Saviour.  It is almost like a sequence of animation frames, and the juxtaposition is intended to refer to motion and the reality of time.

Hunt’s painting shows us one moment, and one moment only. The figures are frozen as if they had been captured in movement by a strobe flash, and the artist achieves this revelation of the reality by his fidelity to truth, and his shunning of mere appearances.

Do comics, with their straightforward acceptance that the artist must depict the idea, and their more realistic way of representing time, direct us to higher truths?  Does the matrix of time degrade all ideas to falsity?  Is the preoccupation of The Decadents with “the moment” not a decadence, but an aspiration?  What do we see?

I think that practically every thought in my muddled head since I was ten years old has been a variation on this merry-go-round of ideas…


Balzac pre-Benjamin

August 14, 2009

oil painting factory in China

Add to my list of overrated thinkers, Mr. Walter Benjamin.  Much is made of his arcane and metaphysical piece, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Mass Production.”  In fact, my college senior thesis borrowed most of the title – “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Mass Reproduction.”  Clever, eh?

Well, here is the gist of that esoteric work, en avance, in a sentence, from Balzac’s Beatrix, one hundred years before:

While working for the masses, modern industry progressively destroys works of art that had been as personal for the buyer as for the creator.  Nowadays, we have products; we no longer have works.


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