lecture

I used to lecture for a living, teaching art and film. I have given it up for now, focusing on writng and creative work but periodically I do give lectures. I did one yesterday at Central St Martins and it was really fun! Really stimulating discussion too.

I did not record the lecture but here is a short 15 min podcast recording of a lecture I did at the IF Project, a kind of ‘free university’ in London, on ‘how to interpret visual art’

http://podacademy.org/podcasts/how-to-interpret-visual-art/

me90s

[me giving a lecture – actually no, its a Halloween event a few years back]

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cinema of the Dutch Golden Age

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[Jan Vermeer Girl with a Pearl Earring,  WIKIMEDIA COMMONS]

I’m writing a chapter on realism and Golden Age Dutch art, and the films Girl with a Pearl Earring (Peter Webber), Nightwatching (Peter Greenaway) and Admiral (Roel Reiné). All 3 films are interesting represntations of the Dutch “Golden Age”, yet are totally different in subject and style. I recommend all of them! Girl with a Pearl Earring is about Jan Vermeer making the famous painting (above); Nightwatching is about Rembrandt making the eponymous painting and the consequences of that, and Admiral is about the life of Dutch admiral Michiel de Ruyter.

To my mind, the main thrust of Girl with a Pearl Earring is to achive heightened realism by the total recreation of 17thC Delft life; Nightwatching‘s thrust is to explore Rembrandt’s painterly techniques transposed onto film; Admiral uses tropes of Dutch painting (from Vermeer to van der Velde) to cement the story’s time and place, give it gravitas and affirm its significance. It’s interesting to see how each film does this and how the paintings they refer to resonate in different ways. Also the totality of Dutch painting as a precursor to cinema is always present in the back of the mind of any who sees these works.

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the ‘POW!’ power of Colour: Abstract Expressionism at the Royal Academy

A few weeks ago I managed to have a free day to go down to the Royal Academy on Piccadilly to see the Abstract Expressionism exhibition. This is an absolute massive exhibition, and apparently it’s the first time all of the major abstract expressionists of been brought together in one place in London since the 1950s

Information about the exhibition:
https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibition/abstract-expressionism

The show was huge, and it was honestly too much take in at any one time and the only thing I really came away with in any important sense was an extremely overwhelming sense of colour. Yet that’s enough for me. I’d never really thought about the abstract expressionists as revolutionists of colour but indeed that’s exactly what they were. In their hands colour, that includes the monochrome of black and white, takes on a completely new aspect, completely new from the whole history of painting. Yet their sense of colour is also deeply embedded in the ancient history and tradition of painting. It was so exciting; I really wasn’t expecting this.

Okay I’ll own up, actually never liked abstract expressionism. Thing is, I never saw any of it. There’s very little of it in Britain, where I had my creative education and certainly there wasn’t any of it in Vancouver where I grew up (NOT an art city, tbh). I saw glimpses here and there: the occasional Jackson Pollock in the (excellent) Seattle Art Museum and a Motherwell at the Tate Modern, but I had never seen them brought together in any meaningful way and I’d certainly never seen a sufficient number of them to really get strong sense of what these artists accomplished.

Instead, like many people, what I really saw was a whole lot of derivations and simulacra of copies that vaguely remembered resembled abstract expressionism at a level far below pastiche – adorning the walls of banks and institutions. That is, washes of bland colour designed to create a soporific and unchallenging atmosphere away from the intellectual/emotional engagement invited by figuration. How lame; how horrible, who on earth would like abstract expressionism if this is what they think it is?

Luckily I grew up and started to engage more meaningfully with it. It was an interesting trajectory, Rauschenberg led me to an interest in the earlier abstract painters which led me to an interest in Motherwell which led me to bit by bit more than appreciation for abstraction, although (until the RA show) I still completely rejected people like Barnett Newman.

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Mark Rothko, no name, 1969, at Museum of the University of Navarra
[By Mika58 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44153557%5D

Simon Schama’s Power of Art opened my mind up to Mark Rothko. Yes I admit, before Simon I actually thought Rothko was boring. Pretty, but boring. I’m not sure I necessarily agree with Schama’s emotive take on Rothko but it certainly engaged me to look at the paintings differently and spend a lot more time with them at the Tate. I grew to love them. I think it’s not necessary for art critic or an art historian to necessarily be “correct” (boring!) but to engage and inspire and then I can just make up my own mind. (Thanks Simon Schama and Waldemar Januszczak!)

So, the exhibition: as I said, the thing that I came away with was this sense of being completely assaulted by colour. The way in which the colour appears and doesn’t appear in these paintings is completely fascinating and absolutely absorbing. The greatest experience for me was understanding finally, something I’ve never been able to understand from looking at any reproduction or matter how high quality. Which is that Jackson Pollock was an incredible, delicate, sensitive colourist. His colouring is on a level with the greatest Renaissance painters, and with my personal favourite colourist John Singer Sargent. Okay how can I compare Jackson Pollock to Fra Angelico or John Singer Sargent or Titian for example? Because of the way in which he lays the colours on the canvas, the combinations, the way moves the colour into shapes, the way the eye follows the colour across the canvas. See, amazing. I’m really hoping to find some kind of book or article on Jackson Pollock as a master colourist and his relationship to the tradition of colouring.

BUT, you have to go see the paintings in the flesh to get any of this. NO reproductions can offer a real sense of the colour. Sadly.

Colour is the most interesting subject in painting, although relatively not that much written about it.

Now of course in terms of my own research, this brings me to think about what was going on in cinema at exactly the same time as the Abstract Expressionists were doing these incredible things with colour; of course! colour cinema in the 1950s! the successes of Technicolor and so forth! the development of blazing new film stocks and the evocation of a whole brightly coloured world, fantastical and seductive! Haven’t got any conclusions about this now … it’s all going on in my head but it’s really interesting … stay tuned.


Mark Hudson’s review in the Telegraph

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/art/what-to-see/abstract-expressionism-royal-academy-review/

Januszczak’s review in the Times
http://www.waldemar.tv/2016/10/abstract-expressionism-the-show-of-the-year/

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TATSUKO STORYBOARD — SMOKINGBRUSH

the Tatsuko Storyboard: A graphic novel version of the 44 minute long, silent feature shot in black and white. Consisting of one continuous watercolour [with mixed media additions] on a sheet of paper 8 metres long, and concertinered into an A4 sized portrait format book. Ribbon ties and bookmark. This unique book features as an […]

via TATSUKO STORYBOARD — SMOKINGBRUSH

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thoughts on Caravaggism

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Tavern Scene with a Lute Player by Bartolomeo Manfredi. prob early 1600s

One of my favourite artists in the National Gallery’s Beyond Caravagio show – Bartolomeo Manfredi was a real find for me.

To my mind, Bartolomeo Manfredi is one of the most interesting of the characters just painters, the direct followers of Caravaggio who either studied with him or knew him or had opportunities to see his work at first hand in the period immediately following his death. Like Caravaggio, Bartolomeo Manfredi did not live long, he seems to have died around the age of 40 and sadly there do not seem to be any books about him, although he does appear in various books about Caravaggio (of which there are many). Many if not all of Manfredi’s picutres seem to have been attributed to Caravaggio at some time or other. But he has his own style and interests.

It seems clear to me, from this and other of his paintings, that like Caravaggio, Manfredi was deeply involved in urban life, painting not only “from life,” (that is, from a model), but from observation of the life around him.

This is the great strength of Caravaggio and his immediate followers. Although they did paint from models, they also were exceptionally observant of the world around them and wanted to paint or incorporate into the world their paintings, to incorporate people and scenes from everyday life. This is true even in the greatest religious paintings. They rejected “classicizing naturalism” that is, painting things realistically but in the classical manner (according to the rules laid down by classical aesthetics and classical statuary). They were after the ‘here and now’. Whether it’s found in the detail of a table’s still life, a hand gesture, the tailing of a garment or facial expression, these things really bring the pictures to life and they don’t feel posed or modelled at all. The absolute lack of idealization in Manfredi’s work, like Caravaggio’s, is I think what makes these paintings reach out across the centuries and appeal to us.

Frenchman Valentin de Boulogne was another  Caravaggist of the era, and his work is equally fine – “naturalistic emotional drama.” Both Valentin and Manfredi bring realism and comprehensibility to religious painting, and drama to genre painting.

http://www.wga.hu/art/v/valentin/lastsupp.jpg

above, Last Supper by Valentin de Boulogne 1625. Each person in the shot is an individual, having his own personal feelings/reaction to the situation.

Of course there are deeper layers in the Caravaggist work. They appear quite easy and communicable on the surface, but like many paintings they can be read for much more complex symbolism and allusion, should you want to. The beauty of them is that you don’t have to. Like a great film, these great Caravaggist paintings have both text and subtext; this is what makes Caravaggist painting so close to cinema.

 

[here is a review of a show I wish I had seen]

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a white poppy for today

I wrote this a few years ago and I haven’t changed my mind.

gillianmciver

half-wreath-rToday is Armistice Day, also known as Remembrance Day, and it is the day which was set aside on the memory of those who died in the first world war. It is also used to honor those who died in the second world war and subsequent wars, because unfortunately, WW1 led fairly directly to these other wars. The first world war was a dreadful imperialist war that not only that ravaged the northern European landscape, and destroyed hundreds of thousands of lives, but also dragged huge numbers of people from around the colonial empires into the fray where they lost their lives. If we can concede that the Europeans who fought in the war perhaps did so to defend their home soil, which is understandable, we cannot see the sacrifice of the lives of the colonized is anything but a dreadful, pointless, meaningless and utterly cruel waste.

When we think…

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The first ever horror movie?

Art History for Film Makers

The first ever horror movie?

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[the woman holds a ‘magic’ lantern casting the drawing of the Devil onto the wall]

Giovanni Fontana “bellicorum instrumentorum liber” – showing how to create a projection of a Devil drawing, using a ‘magic’ lantern
These were used for a variety of purposes: as entertainment, in theatres, at sideshows and by those seeking to manipulate the credulous.
Fontana was a scientist trained in medicine, but he fancied him self as a bit of a magician (called himself a ‘magus’) and this was probably due to his interest in “natural magic” – a fine line between the natural sciences and alchemy.
The original “bellicorum instrumentorum liber” is in the Bavarian State Library in Munich, but the pictures are all online.
I can’t find a date for the book, but Fontana was born in 1395 and died in 1455 so it was sometime in that period.

The specific technology of the lantern is not apparent here, as the illustrated lantern seems to simply have been a glass  lamp with a candle, with the devil figure drawn on the glass to project a larger image. However, although this does work to some degree, it probably wouldn’t project the image as clearly as Fontana’s drawing suggests. But in this period  Leon Battista Alberti is thought to have possibly projected painted pictures from a small closed box with a small hole* so I am guessing that quite a few people were experimenting with projections, for different reasons – to create theatrical effects, to understand the science of light and vision and – as Fontana suggests – to scare and manipulate the credulous. Fontana seems to be saying that these were used for that purpose and did work. It could be that neither Fontana nor Alberti were quite ready to share the specifics of their own technical discoveries, hence Fontana’s sketchy drawing that does not reveal the mechanics of his lantern, and the absence of detail about Alberti’s box.

 

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Guillermo del Toro exhibition

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My main reason for going to LA (do you need a reason?) was to visit the Guillermo del Toro show AT HOME WITH MONSTERS at LACMA. I have always been a fan of his films since Cronos was first released and I went to the cinema to see it.  I love his artistic vision and strong sense of aesthetics. He is a film maker for whom the title “artist” is fully justified.

But i also went see exactly how a major museum creates an major exhibition that pulls together fine art, cinema and popular culture. And I have to say, it is a triumph. The show features all kinds of things, from fine art to historical artifacts, strange compelling things Del Toro has collected, prints by the master Mexican printmaker Jose Guadalupe Posada, comic books, film clips, props and maquettes. Glorious introduction to the stimulating cornucopia of visual elements that make up a movie! Wow!

The show travels to Toronto and Minneapolis but NOT the UK, which is a pathetic oversight on the part of our museum culture… However I think that the show could/should/must stimulate curatorial interest in mounting sjhows of this nature, that integrate cinema inot the musuem space ina  truly meaningful way.

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seen on Hermosa Beach (blast from the past)

I was in Hermosa Beach in August, and I was amused and charmed by this. Cali punk graphics used to decorate a municipal utility.

It reminded me of my mis-spent youth, and I’ve seen all the bands listed on this  carapace.

Seriously good fun.

hermosabeach

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SACRED GEOMETRY AND THE FILM FRAME

I was watching Intolerance and noticing how Griffith shot so much of the film using differently shaped frames. The normally-rectangular frame is masked and the frame becomes circular, triangular etc. Also sometimes Griffith uses dramatic lighting to create a frame. It’s quite dramatic and effective.

So I got to wondering exactly what is behind the iconic shapes that we respond to when we are composing a film frame: the rectangle, the circle, the triangle and so on. And why are diagonals “dynamic”?

Composition books don’t tell you the “why”, but I’ve been interested for a while in the idea of “sacred geometry;” this suggests some possible answers. I got interested in it when I read about the relationships between mathematics, optics and alchemy (developed well in Laura Snyder’s book “Eye of the Beholder.“)
“Sacred geometry” today sometimes seems to belong to the “New Age” tendency, and is rarely discussed in relation to art and never in relation to cinema. yet it has a long and very signficant history. It certainly goes back to ancient time, the Egyptians and the Greeks and others, and was also referred to in the Renaissance by da Vinci, Kepler and others.

Deleuze also talks about Griffith’s geometry, noting how “a very fine image in Griffith’s Intolerance cuts the screen along a vertical which corresponds to a wall of the ramparts of Babylon; whilst on the right one sees the king advancing on a higher horizontal, a high walk on the ramparts; on the left the chariots enter and leave, on the lower horizontal, through the gates of the city.” but he doesn’t offer any insight as to WHY these verticals and horizontals affect us.

Watching Intolerance the other day made me realise that perhaps it’s necessary for film studies to investigate and think about how geometry and the symbols it connotes pervade our visual culture and how they are employed in cinema without our being aware of it.
[this blog post is part of my think-process as I develop my current research proejct “Between Realism and the Sublime: History in Cinema and Painting” and follows on form my recent book Art History for Filmmakers (Bloomsbury 2016)]
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Skinner, Stephen (2009). Sacred Geometry: Deciphering the Code. Sterling.

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