"Urban Light" by Chris Burden, at LACMA.
"Moon" by ....
Photo by the blogger.
L'homme y passe à travers des
forêts de symboles
Qui l'observent avec des regards
Les Fleurs du Mal,
[T]here is almost no subject-matter, and what little one can disentangle is foolish....
One would call the style verbose, except that by definition verbosity is the use of words in excess of the occasion, and there seems to be no occasion.
Forms of Discovery, Ch. 7
Our theme for today is: Pianos.
Pianos, and the women who love them.
Pianos, and the abuse to which they are prone at the hands of artists.
In 1932, the first Academy Award for live action short film was presented to The Music Box, in which Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy struggled to deliver a piano up a very long flight of stairs. The stairs, all 131 steps of them, still exist in the Silverlake district just outside downtown Los Angeles.
In a somewhat similar vein, we begin with The Key, a short film by Jeff Desom created to accompany "Children," a piece from Foreign Landscapes, the newest release by Hauschka, aka composer and performer Volker Bertleman of Düsseldorf. The Key is the story of a hard working young woman and her piano—I think of the piano as having the nickname "Sparky" for reasons that will become clear—as they adventure through an Old World landscape and myriad indignities to meet at last with a reclusive musician (Bertleman) and an O. Henry-style twist of an ending.
Although "Children" is mainly a piece for strings, Hauschka's instrument of choice is the prepared piano. In live performance, he inserts and removes objects with abandon, modifying his sound palette on the fly. His method and its result can be seen and heard in a film profile by Andreas Huth: How Much Material is Contained in a Tone?
Jeff Desom, who directed The Key first drew attention with another Hauschka video, for "Morgenrot" from 2008's Ferndorf. More of a mood piece than The Key and largely plotless, "Morgenrot" features a falling, flaming piano which we follow as it falls in flames above and into early 20th century Manhattan: King Kong meets Magritte.
Meanwhile, in the Manhattan of today, the Museum of Modern Art is currently presenting a different approach to the prepared piano from the artistic team of Guillermo Calzadilla and Jennifer Allora: Stop, Repair, Prepare: Variations on Ode to Joy for a Prepared Piano (2008).
In a sort of pianistic body piercing or perhaps a tribute to the late Gordon Matta-Clark, a large circular hole has been carved through the center of a grand piano. A pianist is inserted, and from within plays an arrangement of Beethoven's setting of the "Ode to Joy," all the while wandering about the gallery space with the instrument.
Calzadilla remarks at the start of this video introduction that for he and his partner "it is very important that a work does not make sense." Success is his.
Allora and Calsadilla video via Hyperallergic.
The Turks have a homely proverb applied on such occasions: they say 'the fish stinks first at the head', meaning, that if the servant is disorderly, it is because the master is so.
—Sir James Porter, Observations on the Religion, Law,
Government, and Manners of the Turks (1768)
This post is a continuation or further update of my previous post on the near-instantaneous removal by Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) of the mural it had itself commissioned from the Italian street artist, BLU. We rejoin our story, already in progress . . . .
MOCA was initially surprisingly reticent in explaining what had occurred and why. In particular, even after the museum eventually issued a statement, there was no clear indication of the extent if any to which the decision lay with art-dealer-turned-MOCA-Director, Jeffrey Deitch, the ostensible moving force behind MOCA's upcoming exhibition devoted to street art.
The Los Angeles Times has now filled some of the gaps in an article by Jori Finkel, who interviewed Deitch by phone. Deitch is quick to claim complete credit or blame for the decision to paint over the work even before the artist's own paint had a chance to dry:
'This is 100% about my effort to be a good, responsible, respectful neighbor in this historic community,' Deitch said. 'Out of respect for someone who is suffering from lung cancer, you don't sit in front of them and start chain smoking.'
He rejects the talk of censorship. 'This doesn't compare to David Wojnarowicz. This shouldn't be blown up into something larger than it is,' he says, describing a curator's prerogative to pick and choose what goes into a show. 'Every aspect of the show involves a very considered discussion.'
The unfortunate thing, he acknowledges, was the timing, as the artist began the mural while Deitch was out of town earlier this month for the art fair in Miami. . . .
When he returned from Miami and saw the mural, then more than halfway completed, Deitch said he made the decision to remove it very quickly, unprompted by complaints. 'There were zero complaints, because I took care of it right away.' He asked Blu to finish the work so it could be documented as part of the exhibition and appear in the accompanying catalog.
So, unlike Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough who crumbled precipitously when Republican lawmakers looked meaningfully in his general direction, Jeffrey Deitch proudly declares himself the sort of visionary cultural leader who succumbs to pressure even when none is applied. That he had the artist finish the work so that it might be "documented" at the moment of its destruction is almost too much.
Deitch is right about one thing: this is not censorship in the usual sense. Censorship at least has the courage of the censor's misguided authoritarian convictions. This is merely unprincipled cowardice, with a soupçon of vandalism.
Deitch's apologia confirms that for him market forces and the concomitant desire to be popular and well-liked trump any other concern. Sad, particularly for the museum he is tasked to lead.
The artist's blog for today (14 December) features a new photo of the whitewashed wall, and this comment:
this time news are going faster than my blog
i will make a short resume:
1. Moca asks me to paint a mural
2. I go to L.A. to paint the piece and I almost finish it
3. the Moca director decides to erase the wall
4. on the next day the mural is erased by Moca workers
5. journalists are still not sure if this can be called censorship
so they start asking my opinion about that
more photos and updates soon…
Still unanswered: What rights does the artist have, or will the artist choose to assert, under California's Art Preservation Act? Did the unfinished mural qualify as "fine art" under the statutory definition?
“Fine art” means an original painting, sculpture, or drawing, or an original work of art in glass, of recognized quality, but shall not include work prepared under contract for commercial use by its purchaser.
Can MOCA assert that it had "purchased" the uncompleted work "for commercial use" rather than gratia artis (for art's sake), so that the mural is not to be deemed "fine art"? And if not, how do Deitch and MOCA avoid culpability under the statute's broad prohibitory language?
No person, except an artist who owns and possesses a work of fine art which the artist has created, shall intentionally commit, or authorize the intentional commission of, any physical defacement, mutilation, alteration, or destruction of a work of fine art.
Let the lawyering-up begin.
UPDATEs 1129 & 1156 PST: The Los Angeles Times did not have a direct response from the artist when it published Jori Finkel's piece linked above. Now they do:
It is censorship that almost turned into self-censorship when they asked me to openly agree with their decision to erase the wall. In Soviet Union they were calling it 'self-criticism.'
Deitch invited me to paint another mural over the one he erased, and I will not do that.
The new LAT post also includes the best photo I have yet seen of Blu's mural in its most-completed state. The photo is credited to MOCA, so it is presumably a part of the Director's promised "documentation" of the work.
And Christopher Knight has more to say, including a retrospective look at the last time a wall of the same building caused a kerfuffle.
UPDATE 121610: Apparently, "curatorial choice" is the flag being flown by Jeffrey Deitch and those who would justify his mishandling of this case. As Hrag Vartanian reports at Hyperallergic the artist, in a further update to his own blog, begs to differ.
Hyperallergic has also posted a very good overview of the artist and the context of this mural within his work to date.
Photo: "Life and Death in a Parking Lot" by Flickr user laszlo-photo, used under Creative Commons license.
Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) will present a large-scale exhibition devoted to Street Art in April, 2011. Ostensibly in connection with that show, the Museum invited the Italian street artist known as BLU to apply his talents to a large exterior wall at MOCA's downtown Geffen Contemporary building. This the artist did, two days ago. And today his work is gone, whitewashed clean away.
Here, from BLU's blog entry for today—where he describes it as "a really nice, big wall, in downtown L.A."—is his photo of what exists* now:
And here, via UNURTH, is a view of BLU's work in the process of being effaced:
More photos, all by Casey Caplowe, can be viewed at the UNURTH link above. The Los Angeles Downtown News has a story with an accompanying slideshow of the mural in context and in the process of removal.
What exactly has happened here is unexplained at this writing. No statements have been forthcoming from either MOCA or the artist thus far. The Downtown News observes:
A MOCA spokeswoman would not comment on the whitewashing, but the piece may have struck a delicate nerve center that sits just steps from the wall. The piece faces the Veterans Administration healthcare building on Temple Street. The dollar bills draped on Blu’s caskets seem to be an overt replacement of the customary American flags that cover the coffins of soldiers killed in wartime.
Some are speculating that what might first seem to be censorship is actually some variety of stunt, implying that the artist is a willing "victim" of some marketing team.
Whilst we wait for someone to put on their Crack Investigative Art Journalist hat and to explain it all, the fleeting presence of BLU's work in our fair city is all the excuse I need to repost his most recent and sensational work of wall-painted animation, BIG BANG BIG BOOM:
The closing remark in that earlier post of mine is seeming almost prophetic. I wrote:
Had this project been attempted in Los Angeles, odds are that the World would end not with a bang, but a restraining order.
A thick coat of paint is, after all, a restraining order by other means.
UPDATE 1455 PST: Time-lapse video of the mural as its new winter coat was applied.
* It has been suggested to me in comments elsewhere that the photo may actually be a pre-mural version of the Geffen Contemporary exterior, taken by the artist some days ago in anticipation of putting up the mural, but only posted belatedly to his blog. Certainly possible, since the "Geffen Contemporary" signage is likely preexisting.
UPDATE II 0840 PST 121110: Vandalog has published an emailed response from MOCA explaining the effacement of the mural. It confirms the leading, most plausible theory: the MOCA was concerned that the image equating military deaths with the pursuit of mere cash could be deemed inappropriate or offensive to the community when juxtaposed with the Geffen Contemporary's immediate neighbors, particularly the Veterans Administration hospital facility across the street and the "Go For Broke" monument to Japanese-American soldiers of World War II adjacent to the MOCA parking lot. (The Geffen Contemporary is located in Los Angeles' "Little Tokyo" district; the "Go For Broke" monument appears in the Downtown News slideshow, above.)
MOCA's email also represents that BLU has been invited to return in the near future to use the same wall for a new and different mural. In a fresh email update received and published by Hyperallergic, the artist does not address whether he will or will not return.
It would be interesting to know when and how MOCA's administration learned of the content of BLU's piece. If it was actually approved by MOCA prior to its execution, the museum's sudden case of cold feet after the fact becomes harder to explain. If MOCA was caught by surprise by the artist's seeming insensitivity to the neighbors, its decision to paint over the work is somewhat easier to explain, although not necessarily more justifiable. (MOCA has never been an institution to shun potential offense to viewers inside its galleries. Reasonable minds can differ whether a less aggressive stance is required for the more public statements on an exterior wall.) There have been no reports of actual complaints about the mural from the community.
Bonus Fun Fact: Also across the street from the Geffen Contemporary, next to the VA hospital, is the Edward R. Roybal Federal Building, which serves in part as a courthouse for the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. Two elements of a larger sculptural installation by Tom Otterness, "The New World" were removed (but later restored) in 1991 because of complaints from judges and from the building's Congressional namesake. This is a touchy neighborhood for art.
UPDATE III : The story continues today in a new post, "A Museum is Like a Fish".
Art writer Christopher Knight is on the very short list of reasons I still read the Los Angeles Times. He has recently been in the forefront—alongside Modern Art Notes' Tyler Green and the Washington Post's Blake Gopnik—in covering the National Portrait Gallery's Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture and the questionable decision, driven by Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough, to remove the late David Wojnarowicz's video work "A Fire in My Belly" from that show in the face of self-righteous snarling by the Catholic League and certain powerful Republican legislators. (I commented on the story last week, here.)
On Monday, Knight published a "Critic's Notebook" piece drawing a connection between the hostility toward Hide/Seek and the broader issue of anti-gay bullying. That piece drew an anonymous email response from the Catholic League, characterizing the exhibition as being devoted entirely to "homoerotic . . . pornography." Knight responds today, publishing the email in full and offering examples of work included in Hide/Seek "that the Catholic League apparently thinks will scare the horses." (Tyler Green has a number of other examples in an interview today with the exhibition's curators.)
Quite apart from the point actually being made, Knight's latest piece may have revealed the real scandal concealed within Hide/Seek: a hitherto unsuspected bit of, ahem, shared artistic lineage?
Judge for yourselves. Compare and contrast Georgia O'Keeffe's 1945 painting, "Goat's Horn with Red"
. . . and the more recently crafted logo of the Firefox Web browser:
Somewhere, a team of intellectual property litigators is sharpening their knives, I just know it.
I look to the day when Everyone is at last Offended by Everything and we all can live in unity, agreement and harmony.
A few evenings ago, I finished reading Patti Smith's National Book Award-winning Just Kids, her memoir of her abiding bond with the late Robert Mapplethorpe. Those who do not already know of or care about Smith or Mapplethorpe or both are not likely to be converted simply by reading Just Kids, but for those of us who do already know and care, and particularly for those who lived though their own respective personal versions of the late 1970s and the 1980s, it is assuredly worthwhile.
Patti and Robert—the intimacy of the book feels like an invitation to speak of them on a first-name basis—had a remarkable personal and artistic relationship, and they lived with, worked with, crossed paths with a seemingly endless parade of the famous, the brilliant, the talented, and the notorious in the cultural fermenting vat that was pre-Giuliani/Bloomberg New York City. Robert's own death from complications of AIDS in 1989 is the inevitable terminus of the story, but Just Kids as a whole is something of a Catalog of the Honored Dead. Name after name passes by, perhaps mentioned only once, with the unspoken realization that he or she once blazed brightly but now is gone.
Within a few months of his death, Robert Mapplethorpe achieved a certain political infamy—and undoubtedly, through no fault/effort of his own, achieved a more lasting fame—when an exhibition of his photographs, "Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment," was singled out by the late then-Sen. Jesse Helms as an example of the horrors of public funding of the arts through the National Endowment for the Arts. The exhibition's principal "crime," and the catalyst for Helms's righteous horror, was its inclusion of photographs from Mapplethorpe's self-styled "X Portfolio" of vivid photos of hard-core, violent gay sex acts. (Two exemplars of those photographs are reproduced in one of the best explications of Mapplethorpe I know, which is Dave Hickey's essay "Nothing Like the Son - on Robert Mapplethorpe's X Portfolio" [caution: the exemplars in question are included at that link and are not, in truth, for the squeamish], included in Hickey's splendid and indispensible short collection, The Invisible Dragon: Essays on Beauty.) Helms's agita over Mapplethorpe, among others, was the "Culture War" equivalent of the firing on Fort Sumter.
Twenty-plus years later . . . .
Mapplethorpe himself is not the target, but several of his photos—although none, I believe, from the X Portfolio—are included in "HIDE/SEEK: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture," an exhibition that opened a month ago and runs through mid-February 2011 at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, and that has now drawn the ire of religious conservatives and of the leadership of the incoming Republican Congress.
Hide/Seek, per the Gallery's description,
considers such themes as the role of sexual difference in depicting modern America; how artists explored the fluidity of sexuality and gender; how major themes in modern art—especially abstraction—were influenced by social marginalization; and how art reflected society’s evolving and changing attitudes toward sexuality, desire, and romantic attachment.
Which is to say that it traces the history of implicit and explicit depictions of gay love in art in the United States.
The critical response to the exhibition has been very enthusiastic—see, e.g., Blake Gopnik for the Washington Post and Stanley Meisler for the Los Angeles Times—and it is a pity that what seems to be such a smart and thoughtful show will not travel outside the Beltway. Tyler Green of Modern Art Notes provided an extended three-part view of Hide/Seek and how it presents its themes here, here, and here, and he asserts that it
effectively argues that queerness — or 'difference' to use their word — has been a part of American art history almost since our art matured into something distinctly American. 'Hide/Seek' demonstrates that to segregate ‘gay’ from ‘American’ is to willfully obscure a thorough understanding of our nation and its art.
The politikerfuffle over Hide/Seek launched a few days ago via an article posted to CNSNews.com featuring the loaded accusation that
Smithsonian Christmas-Season Exhibit Features Ant-Covered Jesus . . .
"Ant-covered Jesus," beyond being a pretty good name for a punk band, somewhat describes an image—lovingly reproduced in three grainy, copyright-infringing phonecam shots, so that you may fully share the writer's voluptuously righteous shock at the thing—that appears for some eleven seconds in the course of a four-minute excerpt from "A Fire in My Belly," a longer 1987 video work by David Wojnarowicz, created as a response to the AIDS pandemic.
The Washington Post has helpfully included a video excerpt from the video excerpt with a Nov. 30 story, here. While the material is confrontational and intentionally unpleasant to view—the piece is one colossal howl of rage, after all—it is really no more outrageous than any number of other works. The obvious comparison, particularly given those ants, is Buñuel's and Dalí's Un Chien Andalou.
The CNSNews piece loathes Hide/Seek in its entirety, but "ant-covered Jesus" is its particular chosen lightning rod. The Catholic League launched its own tirade, declaring the video "hate speech." The noise peaked yesterday when Reps. John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the two principal leaders of the incoming Republican House majority, raised the prospect that a failure on the part of the Smithsonian to "acknowledge the mistake" may result in "tough scrutiny" and other unpleasantness come budget review time. Although a Boehner spokesman stated a desire to see the entirety of Hide/Seek shuttered, nothing that drastic seems to be in the offing. The National Portrait Gallery did, however, permit its resolve to crumble to the extent of removing "A Fire in My Belly" from display, with the traditional feeble protestation that "It was not the museum's intention to offend."
[It is now being reported by Tyler Green that the decision to pull the video was made at the top, by Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough, whose role should more properly be to defend the inclusion of the work as a legitimate exercise of curatorial discretion. For shame, Mr. Secretary.]
The spectacle is a baffling one. Consider: what is now constantly referred to as "ant-covered Jesus"—or, in the Catholic League's overheated version, "large ants eating away at Jesus on a crucifix"—is nothing of the kind. It is a video image of a mass-produced porcelain or plastic depiction of the accepted visual version of a bloodied man hanging from a cross. It is an image of an image of an image, a moving picture of ants wandering about on the surface of a piece of crockery that is lying on the ground, at least triply removed from the actual crucifixion of the actual Jesus of Nazareth—an event that was almost certainly accompanied by ants, flies and worse. The belief that feels itself threatened by such an object, to such an extent that it feels compelled to lash out at it and to call for its destruction, is not so much Faith as it is a form of Idolatry, exalting the image of a thing above the thing itself.
While their chosen weapon is the budget pen rather than the gun, the bomb, or the sledgehammer, the Congressmen's reaction to a picture is essentially indistinguishable from the reaction of certain radicalized fringes of the Muslim faith to the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons, and is no more rational or defensible. Their offense neither privileges nor ennobles them.
Of course, there are those who would suggest that these protests are driven not by sincere piety but by cynical political calculation, ginning up a "scandal" in which the real target is not museums or artists but the very idea that the existence of gay Americans might be acknowledged or condoned. I leave the penetration of complainants' true motivations as an exercise for my readers, who are always right.
In the end, this may be no more than a 48-hour wonder, driven by opportunism and the news cycle and then as quickly forgotten. Perhaps "A Fire in My Belly" will be quietly, or not so quietly, slipped back in to the exhibition, possibly accompanied by a warning lest the delicate might inadvertently look upon it. Whatever, between the self-righteous thuggery on the one side and the craven bowing and scraping on the other, a few fleeting seconds of ant-ridden holy tchotchkes may ultimately prove the least offensive element in this story.
Photo: Mapplethorpe exhibition, Ljubljana, 2009, by Flickr user Robert Marin, used under Creative Commons license.
Brutalism: it's the 20th Century architectural style so many Love to Hate. Marked by harsh, unfinished concrete surfaces, windowless or admitting light from Caligarian angles, the style has become associated with cold authority and faceless bureaucracy, perhaps best exemplified by the much loathed City Hall in Boston.
Brutalist buildings have come in handy to suit the needs of a certain sort of filmmaker. While they tend to be seen now as relics from an unfortunate past, locked into the era of the late 1950s to mid-1960s, Brutalist structures have served well in film as shorthand for The Dystopic Future.
CFCF is the nom sonique for Montreal-based producer/synthesist Michael Silver, whose most recent release,The River, is reported to have been inspired by Werner Herzog's cautionary tale for opera lovers, Fitzcarraldo. While Herzog is the progenitor of the music on the River, this video for an alternate version of the track "It Was Never Meant to Be This Way" looks to a different film maker: David Cronenberg. The moody pulse of the piece is accompanied by radically reedited sequences from Stereo, one of Cronenberg's earliest films, made in 1969 and shot in and around the University of Toronto's Scarborough College, then about two years old. Brutalist unease is on display in abundance.
Stereo in its original form moves much more slowly than the edited music video version. It lacks the explicitly nasty physical violence for which Cronenberg is known, but it touches on many of the themes that have marked Cronenberg's work for the rest of his career: mental telepathy, radical sexual tension shading into violent expression, science as at best untrustworthy and often actively malevolent, and so on.
The film purports to document a series of experiments conducted by a Dr. Stringfellow of the Canadian Academy of Erotic Enquiry (CAEE), in which a group of subjects have been surgically and chemically altered to render them telepaths and placed together for observation. The experiment is not, as you will have guessed, a complete success. Several subjects commit suicide. One is reported to have eased his mental tension by drilling a hole in his own skull—an incident that is described but never shown, as it necessarily would have been in any later Cronenberg film. Erotic tension, expressed and otherwise, abounds. Breasts—healthy, natural, Canadian—are occasionally exposed. There is a great deal of ambiguity concerning what is actually happening at any given moment, whether events are playing out in chronological sequence, et cetera. It has its charms, but is ultimately not so interesting to watch as this description may be making it seem.
Cronenberg filmed Stereo without sound, reportedly because his equipment was too noisy to make live recording of dialog practicable. The film's soundtrack instead consists of a series of voiceovers, purportedly by CAEE scientists, punctuating long silent sequences that often move at the truly glacial pace so beloved of self-consciously serious film makers of the late 1960s. The black and white cinematography—Cronenberg shot and edited the film himself—effectively heightens the off-putting architecture: large physically empty spaces become spiritually empty and more than somewhat threatening in themselves. Personally, I find the architecture more interesting than anything that is happening in it.
Here, for those who have an hour available, is the complete original version of Stereo:
I have a personal favorite Brutalist building: the University Art Museum [now the Berkeley Art Museum] and Pacific Film Archive at UC Berkeley. Constructed between 1967 and 1970—and therefore still relatively new when I got there in 1974—the Museum is structured internally as a series of descending terraces, arcing around nautilus-like from top to bottom. The topmost gallery was (and presumably stil is) devoted to displaying the Museum's substantial holdings of the work of abstractionist Hans Hoffman. The exposed concrete works remarkably well as a display environment, particularly but not exclusively for modern and contemporary work. Natural light penetrates the space well, making it a surprisingly airy pile o' slabs on a sunny day.
Regrettably, the Museum building has been found to be seismically deficient—something of a concern when a branch of the San Andreas Fault is literally only a few blocks away. Additional support structures have been added, keeping the place open but somewhat compromising the original design. The current building will, however, be closed in the next few years and the Museum and Film Archive moved to a new location in downtown Berkeley, still to be constructed.
I assume demolition will be the ultimate fate of the original Museum building. That saddens me, because I am surprisingly sentimental about the place after spending so much time inside it in my Bright College Days. (I say "surprisingly" because Brutalism is an obvious nominee for Least Cuddly Architectural Philosophy Ever.) Perhaps, after the collections have been moved downtown and before the wrecking ball arrives, some enterprising filmmaker can put the space to use one last time, to preserve its memory. Or as a cool place in which to whack zombies.
Top Photo: "Lines and Textures," University of Toronto Scarborough, photograph by Flickr user Loozrboy, used under Creative Commons license.
Middle Photo: Postcard image, ca. 1967, of Scarborough College, via Toronto Modern.
Bottom Photo: Interior, Berkeley Art Museum, 2008, photo by Gay Swan, via C-Monster.net.
All things being [not quite] equal, this fool wishes a jolly Autumnal Equinox to you all. By all means emulate the allegorical exemplar of Fall Fashion below, and enjoy the fruits of the harvest.
Autumn (Der Herbst), Hendrik Goltzius, ca. 1589.
Seasonally appropriate musical interludes: Max Richter, Songs From Before.
I made my first visit to the Art Institute of Chicago on a blazingly humid July day some twenty-plus years ago. The Institute is possessed of an admirably effective air conditioning system. It is also possessed of one of the finest collections on the planet, and few stretches of time have had such an impact on my own mental life as have the four or five hours I spent inside the Institute that day.
It was a case of one grand discovery after another: known images seen in proper size and context for the first time (Seurat, the room full of Monet haystacks, the parade of 20th century greats), fresh/new appreciations of entire periods (mmmm, more Medieval altar pieces please), and unexpected new discoveries (Joseph Cornell boxes! Rossetti's Beata Beatrix!).
Somewhere in the middle of it all, not the high point of the day but nonetheless memorable, I had my first extended run in with the collages of Max Ernst.
Ernst was more or less Present at the Creation of the Dada and Surrealist movements. In the 1920s and 1930s, he began creating surreal collages from bits and pieces of illustrations from 19th century novels and encyclopedias. (A before and after illustration of Ernst's process can be found in this essay from the Musee D'Orsay.) The results were collected and reproduced in a series of novels-in-pictures, culminating in Une Semaine De Bonte (A Week of Kindness). China Miéville included Semaine De Bonte on his list of the top 10 weird fiction books, calling it "[t]he best comic strip of all time. The best illustrated book of all time. The best sustained work of surrealism of all time."
This video collects the Semaine collages in sequence, accompanied by the appropriately fantastical music of Krzysztof Penderecki.
Ernst's collages have been enormously influential, combining as they do the staid appearance of Victoriana with the trappings of dream and hysteria. Donald Barthelme combined Ernstian illustration with his typically gnomic text in a number of stories. (Scroll down in this article for a pair of exemplars.) The entire Steampunk genre owes Ernst an unacknowledged debt. What Ernst did with razors and glue, anyone can (and seemingly everyone does) now do with Photoshop.
Below are two recent music videos in which the aura of the Semaine is on full display. The first, for "Flush" by Loser, is animated by Tom Werber and draws on illustrations not by Ernst, but by Ernst emulator Dan Hillier. The song's not all that, but the video comes with ample quantities of tentacles and guest appearances by a heavily armed Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, which adds a certain Terry Gilliam quality to the proceedings:
More purely Ernstian is our next offering, a video by Stefan Nadelman for "I Say Fever" by Ramona Falls. (Ramona Falls is a project of Brent Knopf of the band Menomena. Previously, I embedded Ramona Falls's other video, "Russia," here.)
"I Say Fever" transports the Ernst aura from the mean streets of Paris to the American frontier. The requisite sexual hysteria, lopping of heads, and displays of hidden animal natures have all made the long journey with no loss of potency.
Apropos of nothing: Is it just me, or is that Richard Wagner lounging at left below? Whoever it is, I predict that it does not end well for him or for his saloon companions.