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…


Recollected in tranquility

July 31, 2009

poetry

Over at Troutsky’s blog, I ran into a blogger named KulturCritic who is concerned that we, human beings, that is, have lost something valuable from our paleolitithic kin-relationship days and are the slaves of our own creation, the time-production-history schtick.  I like to make fun of him for being a wild-eyed utopian, but I share a bit of his sensibility, as any reader of my posts on the “International Work Machine” can tell.  Well, I found myself feeling more sympatico with his posts as I walked home from work on the sidewalks of lower Manhattan yesterday.

Wordsworth thought of  poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of emotion recollected in tranquility.”  I am no poet, so what can I do to communicate my occasional epiphanies?  Should I bother, or will I simply produce some tired, trite prose?  Brace yourself…

Why does anyone do anything, I often ask myself.  All the effort people expend, physical and emotional, on stuff, things I just can’t invest in.  People want to build something, or accumulate something, which is a sort of building, building a pile.  Money, power, sex, a string of lovers, an organization at your beck and call, an enormous portfolio of funds?  In the end…

What do they do with it?  How does it make them feel?  How would it make me feel?  You can only buy so much, and one thing at a time.  Eat one dinner, drink one wine, make love to one woman at a time.  (Even a menage requires attention to one at each separate moment.) When all is available to you, is there any thrill in acquisition?  When we grow old and feeble, do we look back on our glory days as manager-honcho and think, “Those were great days, they made me..,” what???  It just passes away.  It’s as if it never happened.

So, as Pascal might have pointed out, everything we do to accumulate is based on the illusion that things, in our lives, do accumulate, that there is more than the fleeting moment.  Really, everything we do is just motion and action to pass the time of day, divertissement, to make the trip from birth to death more pleasant.  Just as we might, if we care, try to make the lives of our pet dogs and cats pleasant.

This is no cause for despair or sadness – it’s just how it is.  Things like culture, art, literature, philosophy, which some see as having transcendent value are simply more “entertainments.” Most people live without them.  That is, everyone has culture, but not high culture, and what is culture in the general sense, other than a framework for helping us get through the day?

We might as well recognize this, and when we do, most things in our world seem pretty shallow and stupid, and what’s left to hang onto is the other people around us, the similarly lost souls, drifting on the sea of time, mindless of its true nature.  So we might as well be nice to one another.  We might as well expend our mental energy on fathoming the minds around us, instead of planning ahead, scheming, working, and building silly intellectual systems that pretend that there is some ultimate meaning to any of our ideas.  The future does not matter, in most essentials, it’s like the past.  The basic structure of life never changes.  Progress, or history in that sense, is a mistaken idea.

Is it easy to think these thoughts when I am comfortable and well fed?  Easier than being poor in this world, certainly.  But long ago, those ancient humans for whom acquiring food, clothing and shelter was not so simple…Maybe these thoughts came more easily to them since it was so obvious what was important.  Maybe the complexity we have created for ourselves has made it harder, globally, to think these thoughts.

Well, that’s what I thought, anyway, although it seemed more important at the time.  And below, you will find links to some related posts of mine, if you have more time to waste:


Madame Deep Time

February 28, 2009

m_worth

When I was a boy, I read a sci-fi story about space travelers who arrived on a planet populated by giant reptilian creatures that lived for tens of thousands of years.  The creatures moved so slowly that the earthlings thought that they were inanimate rocks.  For their part, the reptilians were only dimly aware of the spacemen, perceiving them as transitory flicks of light moving throughout their world.

Something of the same eerie sensation applies to my dipping into the Mary Worth comic.  Nothing seems to happen.  Or rather, things happen, but in some other sort of time.  Comic-glacial, comic-geological time.  It seems that this is part, maybe all of her appeal.  Dropping in for the long haul.  La durée or la temps profond as the French sociologists and historians call it.  Perhaps it is real time.

I knew about Mary Worth when I was a boy reading the Sunday comics, but after a glance or two, I consigned her to the realm of entertainments reserved for people from planets different from the one I lived on.  I guess that’s the point – that space travel theme again.  Which brings us inevitably to time and time travel.