Tuesday, 22 January 2019

The Naked Self Portrait: Women (1 and 2).

The Naked Self Portrait: Women.

(1) Subjectivity.

Illustration 1: 'Interior Scroll;' two photographs on one print; beet juice, urine and coffee on screenprint on paper; Tate Modern, London, UK; Carolee Schneeman (b. 1939).

A record of a 1975 performance (New York) in which Carolee Schneeman, controversially, removed a scroll from her vagina and read the text out loud. It describes a conversation with a male film-maker; Schneeman seems to use her own body as an important component of the female 'voice' in this dialogue.

The concept of an 'Interior scroll' suggests, to me, a specialised awareness which the individual alone is privy to (Susan Greenfield, neuroscientist, referred to the elusive 'feel' of consciousness in her book 'The Private Life of the Brain,' 2000). Our mirror image signifies an object we have an intimate recognition of, but which can be the hardest thing to see objectively. If art is primarily a subjective process, its thread of subjectivity is most tightly wound around the artist's sense of self. To represent oneself naked is to intensify this conflict: issues of ego, gender, age, corporeality and sexuality inevitably obtrude. Although seeming counter-intuitive, this theme has actually stimulated artists - female and male - to search for an unidealized version of their own body.

(2) Objectivity.

Illustration 2: 'Self Portrait,' 1991; Jenny Saville (b. 1970).

Jenny Saville makes little effort to portray herself as an artist in this work. Maintaining eye contact with the viewer, she is reduced - provocatively - to a bodily, animal function that we all perform daily, but which is generally considered 'unaesthetic' and beyond the bounds of acceptable representation. Art and beauty, particularly female beauty, can easily become mutually inclusive terms. Realism, on the other hand, tends to transgress conventional belief regarding what is appropriately 'feminine.' The realist claims a right to depict that which may seem 'ugly,' because such a thing exists and is a fact:

"The 'what should be' never did exist, but people keep trying to live up to it. There is no 'what should be,' there is only what is" - Lenny Bruce.

Monday, 14 January 2019

Mothers, Fathers and Dead Children.

Art and Film.

Mothers, Fathers and Dead Children.

Illustration 1: 'Mother Weeping For Her Dead Child' ('Moeder Beweent Haar Dood Kind'), 1886, sculpture; George Minne; Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent.

'Mother Weeping For Her Dead Child', by the Belgian sculptor George Minne, powerfully predicts the nineteenth century, fin-de-siècle obsession with 'Eros and Thanatos' ('Death' being very much in the foreground here). There is also an older, Gothic influence which can be felt in the emotive manipulation of limbs and bodily contortion. This points forward to Expressionism, with its emphasis upon violent emotion emerging from psychological anguish. Minne displays great sympathy, I think, for the suffering individual.

In his sculpture, we can sense the dead boy's inert weight, and a life-force which still moves in the grieving parent. Life and pain have become synonymous. Two bodies seem to merge, and yet are separate - wrenched apart (a corpse no longer being of the same substance as a vital, living being). This conflict is expressed through the mother's extreme pose and counter-pose, as she moves forward and into her child; but also backwards and away from it (in the twisting of upper-body, neck and head) [Illustration 2]:

Illustration 2: the child is held close but the mother twists away.

Illustration 3: 'Don't Look Now', 1973, film: Nicolas Roeg, director; Anthony B. Richmond, cinematographer.

I feel that this sequence from 'Don't Look Now' (Illustration 3) is comparable in effect - partly because of its viewpoint. A father, 'John Baxter' (Donald Sutherland, actor), embraces his drowned daughter, 'Christine'. An aerial perspective emphasises both the weight-of-water and a body's mass, as well as the physical effort required to hold or lift someone. (The stable base of Minne's sculpture, which is bottom-heavy, likewise conveys this feeling of dead matter being pulled down.) A cry of pain is intensified by being directed upward and away from the source of grief (Illustration 4):

Illustration 4: a body is drawn in and a cry of pain is directed outwards.

Minne seems to be searching for an essential, symbolic pose in which bodily movement acquires a metaphysical character. There's a sensation of pure pain that has been suspended or paralysed. 'Don't Look Now' is a movie which explores temporal ambiguity, using a technique of 'parallel editing' (or 'cross cutting'). Its belief in precognition implies a deeper layer of time, or timelessness, in which death and fate are intertwined. Roeg inserts the 'drowning scene' (with slow motion, artificial lighting and overhead view) into an equally harrowing, but literal, representation of the father entering, then emerging from, a lake (Illustration 5):

Illustration 5: emerging.

The contrast leaves a lingering vision of endless, infinite grief existing in a spatio-temporal realm that goes beyond the natural or 'real'.

Wednesday, 26 December 2018

Cézanne, Cubism and Giacometti (1).

Cézanne, Cubism and Giacometti (1): Objects.

Illustration 1: 'Still Life With Water Jug', c. 1892-3, Paul Cézanne; National Gallery, London.

Illustration 2: 'Still Life With Fruit Basket' c. 1890, Paul Cézanne; Musée d'Orsay, Paris.

As a high-school student, I was taught to view Cézanne as a gateway to something more important: Cubism. It was only as an art undergraduate, when I visited London, that I recognised his greater significance (and this was reaffirmed much later on a trip to Paris). At that point I felt my own work was too formless. Besides the lucidity of his colouring and paint application, which I hadn't expected, it was the vivid sense of the presence of the objects he represents that most overwhelmed me:

'Painting from nature is not copying the object, it is realising sensations' - Paul Cézanne.

That statement is often interpreted as a manifesto for abstraction, and is borne out by the impetus Cézanne's innovations gave to succeeding painters:

Illustration 3: 'Fruit Dish, Bottle and Violin', 1914, Pablo Picasso; National Gallery, London.

I believe there is another way, requiring a greater leap of imagination, to interpret Cézanne's method, that was largely ignored by Modernism. Each mature canvas (after he meets Pissarro) can be viewed as an experimental attempt at making contact with the model in a new, and wholly unanticipated, manner. In a triadic relationship of eye (perception), hand (mark making) and object (intuition), Cubists and 'post-Cubists' paid lip-service to the first principle, gave primary focus to the second and made redundant the latter. Yet, I would argue, it is the third factor which is most fundamental. D. H. Lawrence grasped this, brilliantly, in his tendentious essay 'Introduction To His Paintings' (1929):

'Cézanne's great effort was, as it were, to shove the apple away from him, and let it live of itself ... he wished to displace our present mode of mental-visual consciousnessthe consciousness of mental conceptsand substitute a mode of consciousness that was predominantly intuitive, the awareness of  touch'.

The artist who most forcefully comprehended and penetrated this problem was not, in my opinion, Picasso but Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966):

Illustration 4: 'Still Life With Apple', 1937, Alberto Giacometti.

Cézanne, it seems to me, is concerned with an anti-Western, non-photographic examination of objects: how they are bound in a relationship with the visual-field, which in itself is merely a product of perception; and how the intuitive core of things, the feel and presence of reality, must somehow be apprehended from the centre outwards (and not simply be 'frozen', or conceptualised, as in a machine-like way of seeing/representing). When Giacometti returned to painting from life (after a successful career making semi-abstract, Surrealist objects), his 'Still Life With Apple', 1937, became a key point of entry - through Cézanne - to a reinvention of figuration.

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

Edouard Manet.

Edouard Manet: A Dynamic Viewpoint.

'Music in the Tuileries Gardens:' 1862; National Gallery, London.

Illustration 1: 'Music in the Tuileries Gardens.'

This open-concert scene shows an audience of friends, family and public figures, and even includes a self-portrait. On the surface, it adheres to a notion of the 'casual' impression: a sweeping view, controlled from a detached perspective. The artist, however, makes the centre of the composition - a man, probably Manet's brother 'Eugène,' standing next to a veiled woman - an area of great painterly ambiguity. Textures reminiscent of an 'ébauche' (or 'study') are left as finished, and directly contiguous to 'worked-up,' detailed passages of paint; elements on the periphery are brought into unexpected focus; and there are discontinuities of scale, which all combine to produce a sense of tension and fragmentation, not unity.

Illustration 2: The centre of focus is unclear (detail).

Illustration 3: Peripheral elements are brought into focus - see portrait, left (detail).

Illustration 4: Discontinuities of scale - compare the size of these children to e.g. chairs in the foreground, right (detail).

Many of the methods are familiar from 'Old Master' paintings. 'Music in the Tuileries Gardens,' however, adapts them to a contemporary, urban theme. In cinema, a wide-shot can contain potential, successive camera movements, each revealing further details unfolding in time. Manet seems to compress such sequencing within one composed frame, producing an effect that I would describe as a 'dynamic' viewpoint: a type of optical 'scanning' that is active, not passive. 'Snapshot' views are juxtaposed within a contingent form, that momentarily holds fractured images together before they dissolve into chaos (signified, here, by the crowd).

'Corner of a Café-Concert,' c. 1878-80 (National Gallery, London); 'The Waitress,' c. 1879 (Musée d'Orsay, Paris).

Illustration 5: 'Corner of a Café-Concert.'

Illustration 6: 'The Waitress.'

'Corner of a Café-Concert' is probably the truncated, right-hand section of a larger work (see Illustration 7). Manet establishes a push-pull dynamic of viewing across, and into, the composition (from right to left), whilst including a figure who gazes out of the pictorial 'window' towards an indefinite point. It has the unexpected effect of making what is central (the café-concert) peripheral, and what seems peripheral (the woman/waitress) central (Illustration 5 and 6). The artist expands this approach, infinitely, in his late masterpiece 'A Bar at the Folies-Bergère.'

Illustration 7: 'Brasserie de Reichshoffen' - the left hand section of a bigger work?

'A Bar at the Folies-Bergère,' 1882 (Courtauld Institute Galleries, London).

Illustration 8: 'A Bar at the Folies-Bergère.' 

Critics disagree about the employment of a mirror in this painting. At some point, Manet made a conscious decision to shift the reflection of two figures further to the right-side of his composition:

Illustration 9:  The barmaid is slightly less central in this preliminary sketch, and her reflection - along with that of a customer - is positioned more parallel to the viewer's line-of-sight i.e. closer to the middle.

Logical attempts have been made to describe the perspectival arrangement of 'A Bar at the Folies-Bergère' in terms of conventional geometry:

Illustration 10: A rationalization of the space in 'A Bar at the Folies-Bergère.'

In this model, 'we,' as observers, are 'at the shoulder' of a male customer, without also being visible as a reflection. It makes the viewer a semi-ghostly, invisible presence, simultaneously conscious of the needs and desires of a male client, but suspended somewhere inbetween; privy, also, to an intimate, withheld feminine space. An alternative possibility is that Manet simply introduced irrational readjustments - distortions even - for aesthetic and/or dramatic purposes. This could suggest a further, more radical interpretation: that the relationship between model and reflection is meant to imply a sense of spatio-temporal displacement and separation. Two distinct states-of-being existing in different moments.

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

'Wonderland', film 1999.

'Wonderland', 1999, Film and Soundtrack: Michael Winterbottom, director; Michael Nyman, composer.


Michael Nyman's soundtrack digs deep into a core of aching sadness at the heart of British urban life. Nadia (Gina Mckee, actress) wanders the streets of London, after another doomed, anxiety-ridden blind date. Cold, objectified images are sped-up, merging with the music, to suggest (despite her bleak environment) a universe of possibility inside this woman.

Illustration 1: Wandering the streets ...

One innovation of the score is the naming of each section ('Nadia', 'Franklyn', 'Molly' ... ) after a different person in the story. An 'Unnamed' movement presumably represents a yet-to-be-born child, a new entry into the harsh surroundings that the film depicts.

Illustration 2: 'Wonderland'; film poster and soundtrack cover.

The soundtrack also provides a second narrative 'voice', or perspective, describing the inner-life of each character; and the movie is strongly evocative of my own memories as a twenty-something in the nineties. In an important scene, Nadia takes an undignified bus journey home, having been used for easy sex on what she'd thought was an ideal date. There's an identifiable cruelty to this situation: as it contrasts the hopes and dreams of one thwarted individual with the vagaries of city life, in all its indifference.

Illustration 3: An undignified bus journey ...

What's striking is the tenderness of the music, which seems to be set against abrasive imagery (shot in a 'vérité' style on lightweight cameras, in real locations). Combined with the sensitive use of close-up, and Gina Mckee's face/performance, Nadia's pain is made transparent, as she struggles to control her breakdown in a public space. It's a moment of beauty that the film retrieves from a desperate world.

Illustration 4: Nadia's pain ...

Friday, 9 November 2018

Egon Schiele: 'The Family'.

Egon Schiele's 'The Family', 1918 (Belvedere Gallery, Vienna).

Illustration 1: 'The Family'.

I saw a reproduction of this painting when I was a teenager, and immediately became obsessed with Schiele's use of line. He evokes, in the viewer, a hypersensitive awareness of touch. In describing the contours of the human form, the body is represented as an exposed object; its presence seems to make an incision in pictorial space. Schiele's mastery of contour-line, however, also transmits enormous emotion and pathos:

Illustration 2: 'Self Portrait', 1914.

Having since viewed 'The Family' in a gallery space, I was struck by its compositional authority. I see it as Egon Schiele's great attempt to resolve the problem of alienation, and of human separateness, that is pervasive in his earlier work.

His family group are joined, like Russian-dolls, in a sequence of interlocking forms: but he positions them within a cradle of darkness; each face is pointing in a different direction. The self-examining gaze of the father can be read as a self-portrait, and as a complex comment on masculine or parental uncertainty:

Illustration 3: 'The Family' (detail).

However, Schiele shifts the emotional centre elsewhere, toward the representation of a mother's face (with her expression of profound sadness and ambivalence):

Illustration 4: 'The Family (detail).

This marks an unexpected transition. By focusing attention away from 'the self', Schiele sacrifices his isolating sense of anxiety to a higher unifying principle: that of shared intimacy.

Saturday, 23 June 2018

'A Streetcar Named Desire'.

TENNESSEE WILLIAMS (1911-1983): 'A Streetcar Named Desire'.

(2) Madness; Sounds; Poe.

Illustration 1: Tennessee Williams.

In the opening scene of 'A Streetcar Named Desire' (1947), Blanche DuBois describes her sister's ramshackle New Orleans' apartment as follows: 'Only Poe! Only Mr Edgar Allan Poe! - could do it justice!'. Unconsciously, she invokes a spectre of Gothic fiction, which may be a subtle background presence in this play.

Illustration 2: Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49).

The acknowledgement of Poe - Williams's great nineteenth-century literary precursor - feels more than cosmetic; in particular for that author's correlation of insanity with aural disturbance. Roderick Usher (in 'The Fall of the House of Usher', 1839), morbidly sensitive towards noise, becomes cursed by the scratchings of his sister - buried alive - attempting to claw a way out of her tomb. In another story, an unnamed murderer is driven mad by the beating of his victim's heart, long past the point of that individual's death: 'The disease [madness] had sharpened my senses - not destroyed - not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute' ('The Tell-Tale Heart', 1843).

Illustration 3: 'The Fall of the House of Usher'; Harry Clarke, illustrator.

Illustration 4: 'The Tell-Tale Heart'; Harry Clarke, illustrator.

In 'A Streetcar Named Desire', the suicide of Blanche DuBois's young husband reoccurs as a series of sense memories - shock waves and sound waves - that convey her palpable nervous disorder and descent into mental chaos. She describes a sound 'that goes relentlessly on and on in your head' (Scene Nine), a mixture of gunshot and a polka tune, the 'Varsouviana', both heard at the location of her lover's death. Later, background songs combine with 'inhuman voices' (Scene Ten) and the cry of a train, all 'echoing' and 'reverberating' (Scene Eleven) the fragmentation of her personality.

Illustration 5: Vivien Leigh as Blanche DuBois (1951, film version).

Central to the Gothic tradition is a concept of decay. For a male author, Williams creates an astonishingly perceptive and empathetic representation of female sexuality on the downturn. 'Miss DuBois' is conscious she is older and her looks are fading. A sense of imminent death emerges, pathologically, as its obverse - desire (from Thanatos to Eros), manifested in her promiscuity and abnormal attraction to young men.

Poe writes (in 'The Tell-Tale Heart'): 'True! - nervous - very, very dreadfully nervous, I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?'. This positive view of mental illness, as a gateway to acute insight and heightened sensory experience, seems to resound throughout 'A Streetcar Named Desire', particularly its final scene (Scene Eleven). Blanche DuBois had sought refuge in her sister's home, situated (ironically) at 'Elysian Fields', which becomes, instead, a place of abjection as she begins to psychologically unravel. Religious references abound: a Madonna in a painting; a soul taken to heaven; and cathedral chimes. Caught between the dangerous carnality of her physical surroundings and the 'cynical detachment' of institutionalised psychiatric care, Williams presents his character's doomed romanticism (and retreat into insanity) almost beatifically - like a rite of purification.