What goes up must come down. Full image here.
I find business travel of any sort disorienting. Why am I here? Just what am I doing in this place with these people? Unmoored, my mind floats free of Earth’s gravitational pull and looses itself in philosophical maundering and pessimism.
I am in Carlsbad, CA, for the ESRI International Users Conference. No clue? Look here. Yes, that’s what I do for a living, sort of. And along with 1o,ooo members of the sometimes cultish fans cum users of ESRI software, I am here to try to learn something useful. I’m even making a presentation.
On the flight out, I made sure to have a window seat, and my foresight was rewarded with some views of the Missouri River that looked like these below. Floods, gotta love ’em, they’re so grand.
I passed over arid hillscapes that were pricked here and there with giant white toothpicks – wind turbines – that seemed puny in comparison to the huge urban energy-suckers I saw. I arrive in a new city, San Diego, and observe trucks, trains, planes, industrial zones, and crowds of people going to work – the human beehive. It all seems so utterly pointless. Why don’t they all just stay in their rooms, read a good book? Is what they’re doing so great?
I recall a letter by V.I. Lenin in which he deplored the unplanned, chaotic and wasteful nature of capitalism. Perhaps he and I share a similar visceral disgust with the nature of modern society. Of course, his solution wasn’t as good as mine. (Of course, I stole it from Pascal.)
On the flight, I read Freefall, an analysis of the financial debacle of 2007 by Stiglitz. Perhaps he should read my post on the thieving state. Well, he won a Nobel, but he is an economist after all… I also finished reading River of Shadows, by Rebecca Solnit, which is a biography, sort of, of Eadweard Muybridge, the man who is famous for motion studies like these of horses:
and who also did many others of people which are not so widely known, such as this one of a woman simply getting into and out of bed:Obviously, Muybridge was onto something with his instantaneous photos of moving objects, and his work was an important precursor to the development of motion pictures. Today, you can buy amusing flip-books of some of his studies that work wonderfully well. In fact, he created an early zoetrope that combined magic lanterns with his motion studies to produce projected animations, and he was involved with Edison in creating the early kinetoscopes. He was also an accomplished landscape photographer, and a bit of an eccentric.
Solnit’s book, however, indulges in much breathless metaphysical word-spinning at every possible opportunity, and is built on the conceit that Muybridge and Leland Stanford (it was his horse, and he paid for the initial work photographing it in those famous sequences) founded the modern world in the previously Wild West. After all, the basis of modern civilization is Hollywood (Muybridge’s part) and Silicone Valley ([Leland] Stanford University’s part). It’s pretty tiresome after a while, but the book rewards judicious skimming.
One of the most interesting parts to me was the connection with Ernest Meissonier, the successful French salon painter known for his large canvasses showing Napoleon in what appeared at the time to be photo-realistic detail. (He was a favorite painter of Salvador Dali.)
Meissonier exerted tremendous effort in studying the movements of horses, trying to get the legs right. Muybridge’s sequences of Stanford’s racer, Occident, laid to rest the momentous question of whether or not a horse ever had all four feet off the ground at once – they do – but it also showed how complex was the movement of the legs. Messonier was upset: he’d got them all wrong, but he was a good sport about it. In his portrait of Stanford, a photo sequence by Muybridge is just barely visible on the table at the right.
I am just beginning a new biography of Galileo by Heilbron, and what an unusual biography it is! Rather than giving us a blow-by-blow of the life of the great man in embryo, we are almost immediately tossed into the chaos and ferment of late Renaissance Italian intellectual life. Perhaps the details of Galileo’s early life are few and far between anyway. But, more surprising, the attitude of the writer towards his famous, sainted subject is frequently one of ironic detachment and humor. No hagiography here! It’s an exhilarating and fresh approach to a man who is crucial in the history of modern science, but whose own accomplishments seem relatively slender compared to Newton and some others.
One of the most entertaining and unusual elements of the biography is its focus on Galileo as an aspiring literary lion of Florence. He wrote criticism of poetry, fought in furious and futile intellectual battles over the relative merits of Tasso, Dante, and Ariosto, was instrumental in diagraming the true extent of the Inferno as described in The Divine Comedy, and was influenced by the ironic epic, Orlando Furioso, as much as he was by Aristotle. Not exactly a typical resume for a giant of early modern science. (Of course, we conveniently forget that Isaac Newton spent more time on numerology and alchemy than he did on physics.)
I have been hearing about Orlando for so many years now, it’s time to read it.
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…)
So, 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…