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.


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!)


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…


January 5, 2009


I learned of Alfred Kubin from,  where else? Phillipe Julien’s Dreamers of Decadence. There is an exhibit of his work at the Neue Gallery now.  You can see more of his weird images at the gallery site and this review in the NYTimes.  He is not well known in America, and there is hardly anything on him in English I think.  I was surprised to find that he had written a novel as well.  I don’t know how he managed to survive the Nazi regime – how could he not be on their list as decadents to be expunged?

Romantic Agony

March 9, 2008


Mario Praz’s book, The Romantic Agony was published in 1933. I happen to think that my psychedelic Jagger image is just as appropriate to a discussion of it as the 16th century paintings that grace the cover of my Oxford paperpack edition. Probably more so, though Mario would have probably vomited at the thought of Jagger on the cover of his book.

The book, is discussed in this article at a “wiki site” (something I don’t understand too well) that seems to be presided over by the blogger Jahsonic, an affable fellow who shares many interests of anyone interested in this post.

In the text, Praz delves in great detail into the morbid sexual imagery that infuses much of romantic literature during the 19th century. The book contains lengthy excerpts – often in French – has a fantastic index, and a table of contents worth browsing in its own right. Starting pre-romance, with the Shadow of the Divine Marquis, he sets the stage for what will come in his discussion of authors down to the time of the Symbolists and Decadents, and D’Annunzio.

I learned of this book from another, Dreamers of Decadence, by Phillipe Julien, a study of the art of the late 19th century Symbolists. At the time I read these books, I was about sixteen years old, which tells you something about where my head was at. I later kicked myself for not developing a syndicate to buy up art of this period, considered kitsch and dreck in the early 70s, but which I, in a rare bit of financial acuity, knew would soar in value soon. And so it did! Every style has its day, and a second day, and another…With the hippies of the 60s growing up, abstract expressionism and modernism was bound to go out and the overheated sensibilities of the decadents would find buyers again. Thus, we come to Mick Jagger again, the watered down Satan of rock ‘n’ roll.

Praz’s book is of a type that doesn’t get written much these days, I think. I loved the scholarly apparatus of the notes, the clear sense that a scholar was at work here, one who knew his field, and could show the evidence for his point of view. So much love for the texts – he is not a critical vivisectionist, though he has his opinions!

Yes, I spent many happy hours searching for the juicy parts, reading them over and over, imagining their effect on certain attractive young women I fancied. I even read passages to one of them, during a romantic evening a deux. I think it was the passage in which Swineburne compared his passion to rats gnawing on a corpse…you never know what will grab a girl, do you?

Finally, I must quote Praz on the Divine Marquis:

Let us give Sade his due, as having been the first to expose, in all its crudity, the mechanism of homo sensualis, let us even assign him a place of honour as a psychopathologist and admit his influence on a whole century of literature; but courage (to give a nobler name to what most people would call shamelessness) does not suffice to give originality to a thought, nor does the hurried jotting down of all the cruel fantasies which obsess the mind suffice to give a work mastery of style…The most elementary qualities of a writer – let us not say, of a writer of genius – are lacking in Sade.

Such wonderful good sense! Such a sure grasp of values! Much as I love the surrealists, I always found their championing of Sade a little tiresome. The fact is, Sade is boring! He is not a fine writer. People who regard any discussion of sex or perversion as thrilling may find him congenial, but he really only has three or four things to say, and he says them at length, over and over. (Philosophy in the Bedroom is his only piece that I can recall as having a sustained and interesting argument. And he is arguing, always…) Would that this quotation by Praz were repeated everytime a new book, film, or play comes out with Sade as the misunderstood poete maudit.

They say that if you will sup with the devil, bring a long spoon. Praz could have broken bread with Satan himself, with no fear for his soul.