Kriemhild, Attila, c. 450 A.D. by Fritz Lang

December 26, 2012


From Fritz Lang’s Nibelungen:  Siegfried is dead, murdered at the behest of Gunther, King of Burgundy.  The widow, Kriemhild, Gunther’s sister, resolves to leave the court and seek revenge.  An offer of marriage comes to her from Attila (aka the Hun), and she accepts.  See the animated GIF below.

As she rides away, her escort asks if she doesn’t want to hail her family once more.  The answer is “No.”  Her mother cries; the court poet smashes his instrument in anguish.  She arrives at the court of the Huns, taken aback by the crude barbarism of it.  Attila is transfixed by his bride to be.


Click to Animate

[Anthony Burgess wrote a great story about Attila the Hun, simply titled Hun, that describes his anxieties and preoccupations as he ravages the Roman Empire.  It was published in a collection, The Devil’s Mode.]

Fritz Lang’s Nibelungen

December 23, 2012


Before Metropolis, before M, there was the Nibelungen (1925), a five-hour Nordic-medieval-romance-fantasy like nothing I have ever seen.  The primal storytelling impulse that drives this magnificent set of moving images has petered out today in computer generated extravaganzas of ersatz mythologies dreamed up by an English university professor.

One element of the art design that struck me was that it was like watching the Vienna Succession brought to life.  The sets, costumes, and even the direction often look as if they are lifted right from Gustave Klimt (see the cropped images above) and his contemporaries.  The cinematic results are magnificent, and, strangely, it sheds new, backwards directed light on the sensibility of that fin de siècle art movement.



Appease the Drainage Gods!

July 22, 2011

The Gods of Drainage have not been happy, and they have visited their wrath on the city of New York.  A “catastrophic fire” in the pumping station that lefts raw sewage into the North River Treatment Plant, which purifies it, and discharges it into the Hudson River, has shut down the facility completely.  Raw, that’s untreated, sewage from half of Manhattan is now pouring into the river, and will continue to do so through the weekend.  And it’s in the middle of a remarkable heat wave.  That means stay away from that beautiful riverside park all along the Hudson – it’s not going to smell too nice!

This map shows the areas that are served by the city’s fourteen sewage treatment plants:  the one that is out of action is No. 6.  Number Six!?  You can read all about the system in this NYC DEP publication.

Después de la clase de español…

August 13, 2010


… fuimos al parque para el almuerzo.

The view is very pretty…

The avian pests are quiet and gracefully arrayed…

The park plays its role as rus in urbes – the city is beyond…

There is a large weeping willow nearby.  Looking at it, I think of poor Daphne pursued by Apollo.  Those corny Greeks.

At the Metropolitan

May 1, 2010

Some images from my most recent visit, all taken in ambient light, so pardon the fuzziness.  Flashes are not allowed.  Some images are linked to others if you click them.

L) My kind of interior – dizzying, isn’t it?    R) Lombard tryptich – click for more info.

Back view of a Chinese  stele with multiple images of the Buddha.

Samurai daggers and sword, objects of incredible beauty and precision.  Click to enlarge.

From an altarpiece by Lorenzo Monaco, one of my favorite artists.  Note Abraham with the flaming sword, and Isaac, in the upper right.  Click for more info.

Those northern mannerists!  They’re weird, but I love them.    Oil on copper plate, for a piece of furniture.  Click for more info.

A favorite of mine, Antoine Lavoisier and his wife, Prima della rivoluzione by that propagandist for 1789, Jacques Louis David.  Carlyle had fun with him and his revolutionary fervor.  Antoine was not so lucky.  He, a liberal, was guillotined by the radicals – dare I call them terroristes? – just leave it at Jacobins.   His wife survived.  Madison Smartt Bell has written a nice capsule biography of him, his monumental contribution to the creation of modern chemistry, and his destruction in those chaotic times, Lavoisier in the Year One.

The imminence of the divine, by an artist in Verrochio’s worshop [full image], a teacher of Leonardo.  From here to 2001 is not such a stretch – click to see why.  And to the right, the floor, mundane, just for balance…

Sublunary Druggist

February 7, 2009


On a crowded subway trip, I looked over the shoulder of the hefty gentlemen next to me who was reading the first page of the introduction to the letters of T. E. Lawrence.  A nice, older edition.  It began

“I say art for my sake…  When I feel like writing, I write, when I don’t, I don’t”

Oscar Wilde could hardly have put it better.  And what is the “purpose” of art, after all?  Art for art’s sake?  I don’t think so.  No, T. E. had it right:  art for our sake.

But not all of us are artists.  Well there’s this:

The artist is not a special sort of man:  Each man is a special sort of artist.  – Jean Gimpel

That is, we all create our worlds in various ways.  For many, religion is part of this.  For an atheist, that’s not a viable path.   Often, religion tries to take science’s role, and makes itself ridiculous, but there is one thing that religion can do that science cannot.  Science can explain to us our place in the universe, but religion reconciles us to it.

People we love die, and we never see them again.  Earthquakes kill thousands without warning, old, young, good, bad alike.  Brutal, vulgar people enjoy riches while good people live lives of hunger and want.  Evil exists…and often appears to stalk triumphant!  What does science have to offer to calm us, to show us a path through this so that we don’t go out of our minds?  Nothing.

But for those who just can’t stomach that God-thing, there’s art, philosophy, poetry, and myth.  And since we are all artists after a fashion, personal mythologies are perfectly on-point.  As an example of personal mythology, one of the earliest that I cherished, and one that is still a favorite, I cite Thomas De Quincey, telling of his first purchase of opium.

I feel a mystic importance attached to the minutest circumstances connected with the place and the time and the man (if man he was) that first laid open to me the Paradise of Opium-eaters. It was a Sunday afternoon, wet and cheerless:


and a duller spectacle this earth of ours has not to show than a rainy Sunday in London. My road homewards lay through Oxford Street; and near “the stately Pantheon” (as Mr. Wordsworth has obligingly called it) I saw a druggist’s shop. The druggist — unconscious minister of celestial pleasures! — as if in sympathy with the rainy Sunday, looked dull and stupid, just as any mortal druggist might be expected to look on a Sunday; and when I asked for the tincture of opium, he gave it to me as any other man might do, and furthermore, out of my shilling returned me what seemed to be real copper halfpence, taken out of a real wooden drawer. Nevertheless, in spite of such indications of humanity, he has ever since existed in my mind as the beatific vision of an immortal druggist, sent down to earth on a special mission to myself. And it confirms me in this way of considering him, that when I next came up to London I sought him near the stately Pantheon, and found him not; and thus to me, who knew not his name (if indeed he had one), he seemed rather to have vanished from Oxford Street than to have removed in any bodily fashion. The reader may choose to think of him as possibly no more than a sublunary druggist; it may be so, but my faith is better — I believe him to have evanesced, or evaporated. So unwillingly would I connect any mortal remembrances with that hour, and place, and creature, that first brought me acquainted with the celestial drug.

from The Confessions of an English Opium Eater, chapter 3.

Cult Site

December 21, 2008


This summer, I visited the Greek island of Naxos, where I came upon this wonderful temple dedicated to the goddess Demeter.  The information panels at the site spoke of it as having evolved over centuries from a simple open-air cult site, to a fixed temple serving the surrounding villages and towns.  This made me stop and think, taking a look at the surrounding terrain and scenery


It was built in the 6th century B.C.  That’s a few centuries after the ‘events’ of The Illiad, or contemporary with them according to a few scholars.  A site where local people would gather to slaughter animals, cook them over an open fire, pour wine on the ground, and direct entreaties to the goddess for a good harvest.  Does the view look much different now than it did 2500 years or more ago?  What a different relationship to the landscape those people had, compared to me, who flew into the country, flew to the island, and tooled about in an automobile.  Those ancients never left the sight of the temple, most of them!  Perched on a little bit of a rise, giving a view of the nurturing plains around.  Just them, the land, and the all-seeing eyes of the goddess, whom they hoped to please with their offerings.

This digital reconstruction is pretty nice.  The temple is of an unusual design, having a square plan, rather than the rectangular one used in the Parthenon and Greek temples the world over.

Diana is very…beautiful

December 12, 2004

John Keats said, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” but the truth of this beautiful formulation is that we don’t seem to get what beauty is, or can be at times. I admit that it may seem odd that this picture of Diana appears on my web pages and other productions with great regularity, but I’ve never been able to get it out of my mind. A slight erotic confection by F. Boucher and nothing more you say? Well, its rococo frivolity is all the more fascinating given the story behind it, as rendered here in an 18th century translation from the Metamorphoses by Ovid:

Now all undrest the shining Goddess stood,
When young Actaeon, wilder’d in the wood,
To the cool grott by his hard fate betray’d
The fountains fill’d with naked nymphs survey’d.
The frighted virgins shriek’d at the surprize
(The forest echo’d with their piercing cries).
Then in a huddle round their Goddess prest:
She, proudly eminent above the rest,
With blushes glow’d: such blushes as adorn
The ruddy welkin, or the purple morn;
And tho’ the crowding nymphs her body hide,
Half backward shrunk, and view’d him from a side.
Surpriz’d at first she would have snatch’d her bow,
But sees the circling waters round her flow;
These in the hollow of her hand she took,
And dash’d em in his face, while thus she spoke:
“Tell, if thou can’st, the wond’rous sight disclos’d,
A Goddess naked to thy view expos’d.”

Thus said, the man begun to disappear
By slow degrees, and ended in a

Actaeon was simply out hunting, his passion, with his best companions, his dogs, when he happens upon the beautiful goddes Diana, the virgin huntress, bathing with her entourage after a hot sweaty day at the chase. She punishes Actaeon for his unwitting invasion of her privacy by splashing water in his face, which has the effect of immediately starting his transformation (metamorphosis) into a a stag, which his own dogs then proceed to run down and devour. He did nothing wrong but cast his eyes upon the beauty of a goddess, a terrible beauty. Which brings me to my point, at last.

Our notion of the universe, and of beauty in it, tends to be sentimentalized. Huxley wrote an essay some years ago called “Wordsworth in the Tropics.” Would he have written so lovingly of nature if he’d grown up amongst enormous termites and voracious leeches that appeared in every burbling brook? No, the Greeks understood that beauty, in women, in nature, in the world, can be terrible, and they frequently describe the piercing flash of a goddess’s terrible eyes. Beauty, terrible to behold. Lookout Hallmark Greeting cards! Meteors crash and destroy eons of evolution’s work, galaxies collapse into peanut sized kernels of energy, taking whatever was in them there too, stars become engorged with physics and turn into red giants that destroy whole solar systems, and…from the viewpoint of our back porch, it’s such a wondrous site, those heavens up there!

So, that terrible beauty is everywhere, serving as some sort of a portal to the terribly violent and indifferent reality that is the world. Look into Hera’s eyes, and glimpse the seething ground of being. The universe is a cold and hostile, or rather, cosmically and crushingly indifferent place. A place to be fearful and feel alone. Rush back to the beauty of flowers, smiling children, the warmth of hearth and home, until you feel the need to get another shot of the great unknowing reality. Or go to the museum…

Now here’s an image that captures the terrible, the true, and the beautiful all at once – Judith severing the head of Holofernes, by Caravaggio. Look at her posture, that determined…and beautiful face…as she goes about the nasty business of saving her people while the old crone looks on. It’s a dirty job, but some fair maiden’s got to do it. As far as I know, Carravaggio didn’t do subjects from Greek mythology – what a shame.  And finally, the folds. Folds of cloth in a Renaissance Flemish masterpiece, the Merode Altarpiece at the NYC Metropolitan Museum. Huxley, in his mescaline induced euphorias rhapsodized about the “dharma in the hedge,” the Buddhist apprehension of the ultimate reality and beauty in a simple green, garden hedge. He identified it here too, in the crinkled gothic folds of a garment in oil paint. Why did they paint fabric endlessly, after all? They must have seen something there.