Drive-In Saturday: Ernst Enough For Us

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 - musee dorsay

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.


Tableaux Vivants? "Art!"
Tableaux Vivants It? "Now!"

Artaud tableau 

This is the first weekend of the annual Pageant of the Masters in Laguna Beach, California.  First staged in 1933, the Pageant is an institution unique, I think, to Southern California: a nighttime spectacle in which performers stand very very still pretending to be more or less Famous Works of Art.  The official Pageant trailer gives some idea of the elaborate, volunteer-driven process:

As with the Tournament of Roses parade to its north in Pasadena, the Pageant of the Masters adopts a new theme each year.  I am annually disappointed when the Tournament of Roses selects another of its resolutely upbeat themes.  Must we always begin the year with "Joyful Childhood," or "Candy-Coated Memories," or "Entertainment is Nifty"? Just once, of a New Year's morning, I would like to see a flower-bedecked flotilla depicting something a bit more bracing: "Man's Fate", perhaps, or "Guilt and Revenge."

With the full range of World Art History to draw upon, the Pageant of the Masters can at least glance in the general direction of the Dark and Somewhat Difficult from time to time.  As seen in the trailer above, the Pageant has incorporated Modern and Contemporary art, including Picasso's Demoiselles D'Avignon.  Still, the Pageant like the Tournament tends to accentuate the positive in selecting its themes.  This year's theme is "Eat, Drink and Be Merry," and the nearest the selected works get to the dark side of those pursuits is in a sequence of three images drawn from the Great Depression and the public art projects of the WPA.


In the Pageant of the Masters each work of art is translated from its original medium -- paint, marble, fabric, gold -- into that most curious genre, the tableau vivant, the "living picture" in which the inert are replaced by the vivid doing their best to appear to be inert.  Let us pause now to think some random thoughts about les tableaux vivants.


Ceci n'est pas un tableau vivant:


As with Magritte's pipe-that-isn't, this is merely a picture of a tableau vivant.  An actual tableau vivant requires actual people pretending not to be such, depicting scenes that are not actually occurring before you -- or occurring at all, since they are standing still.  A film or photo of such a tableau is at least two moves removed from reality.  Writing about or describing tableaux vivants in words takes us even further away, wandering the forest of signs or, at the very least, lost in the metaphysical weeds.  Cf., on tableaux in literature, the blog entry linked in the photo credit at the end of this post.


If a tableau vivant involves people pretending to be arts and crafts, I suppose the opposite would be arts and crafts pretending to be, or becoming, people.  The sculpture Galatea -- of whom the painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme is currently on display at the Getty -- is a famous example, as is Pinocchio.  Medusa, in the Heroic Age of Greece, turned her beholders into tableaux, albeit not precisely vivants.  It's complicated once you start pondering the variations.


Regardless of theme, the Pageant of the Masters always ends with an enactment of the Last Supper of Leonardo da Vinci.  The one exception to the rule, apparently, was a year themed around the work of Salvador Dali, in which Dali's version of the Supper provided the final tableau.  

While Leonardo's Supper is presented in Laguna Beach with all due reverence for the work and its subject, it has also been favored by certain film directors as a target or vehicle for more satirical or subversive tableaux.  Luis Buñuel infamously restaged it with beggars and thieves in the climax of Viridiana, earning himself official Vatican condemnation as a blasphemer.  Only slightly less well known: Robert Altman incorporated the image in to M*A*S*H, during the farewell meal prior to the intended suicide of the company dentist, Capt. Walter "Painless" Waldowski.  That scene also features the film's theme song, Johnny Mandel's "Suicide is Painless."  Perhaps because of his associations with blasphemy, suicide and particularly tableaux vivants, Painless is one of the few principal characters in the film who did not later appear in the long-running television version of M*A*S*H.

In the music video below -- "70 Million" by Hold Your Horses! -- the Last Supper is the jumping off point for a witty series of PotM-style tableaux of famous paintings:

Now I will confess it: in the more than three decades I have lived in Southern California, I have never attended the Pageant of the Masters and I do not expect that I ever will.  My principal excuse for bringing up the Pageant at all was as a roundabout way to drop some non sequiturs on tableaux vivants, and as an excuse to share that video, which tickles me more than somewhat.


Photo (top): "La Séduction Intéressée", one of six tableaux vivants created by Antonin Artaud to illustrate incidents in The Monk by Matthew Lewis.  Via A Journey Round My Skull.

Photo (lower): A tableau depicting Jeanne d'Arc, found on the blog At the Lighthouse accompanying quite an interesting post on "The Tableau Vivant in Literature".


Drive-In Saturday:
The Revolving Doors of Perception

Man ray revolving doors VI (carafe) 

Sound: "Passport Control" by Norwegian producer-sampler-Punkt Festival cofounder Jan Bang, from his album . . . and the Poppies from Kandahar on David Sylvian's Samadhisound label.  The influence of Jon Hassell is freely acknowledged, and Hassell appears on the album, albeit not on this track.  

Vision: Now Then, a film by Russell Mills.

Illustration: Revolving Door VI [Decanter/Carafe] by Man Ray, via the Smithsonian American Art Museum.


Mellow Out or You Will Pay


Primary Election Day 2010 in California brings with it only one certainty: the official return of Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. to big-time California politics as the Democratic nominee for, and early favorite in the race to become, California's next Governor.

Jerry Brown's return comes 27 years after he last served as Governor, from 1975 to 1983.  Term limits on state officers had not be instituted when he last Governed, so they pose no impediment to his return. 

When Brown last occupied the Governor's office, he famously refused to occupy the recently constructed and reasonably palatial Governor's Mansion in Sacramento, preferring a modest apartment and (so it was said) a futon on the floor.  He dated singer Linda Ronstadt.  He used the National Guard and launched helicopters to spray the citizenry with pesticide from on high in his battle against the Medfly.  He earned the "intractable sobriquet" of Governor Moonbeam from columnist Mike Royko, and a reputation for flakiness fanned by recurrent jokes in Doonesbury.  

When Brown later ran credibly but unsuccessfully for President, Doonesbury featured a week of strips -- pulled by most California papers -- alleging his receipt of favors from noted organized crime figures.  Also implicated was Brown's chief of staff, Gray Davis, who would himself go on to become Governor only to be recalled by voters and replaced with the now-departing Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In 1979, in the heady rush of California Punk, Jerry Brown inspired Bay Area band the Dead Kennedys and frontman Jello Biafra* to pen "California Über Alles", a screed linking cheerful NewAgery with National Socialism, all of it via the Governor.  For a flavor of the thing, here are the first two largely incoherent verses:

I am Governor Jerry Brown
My aura smiles and never frowns
Soon I will be president…
Carter power will soon go away
I will be Führer one day
I will command all of you
Your kids will meditate in school
    California Uber Alles
    Uber Alles California
Zen fascists will control you
100% natural
You will jog for the master race
And always wear the happy face
Close your eyes, can’t happen here
Big Bro’ on white horse is near
The hippies won’t come back you say
Mellow out or you will pay

alifornia Uber Alles
    Uber Alles California

Unrelated to Jerry Brown's return, but perfectly timed for it nonetheless, video artist Kota Ezawa, whose specialty is using low end animation software to super-simplify existing film footage, has combined "California Über Alles" with the Beatles' premier appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, to give us "Beatles Über California".  It's just the thing to get Californians marching straight to the ballot box: 


*  Given that the secessionist nation of Biafra has not existed for some 40 years, and that few now recall the civil war, blockades and resulting famine that made that sad place so notable at the time, I am left to wonder: does anyone still consider Jello Biafra's chosen moniker scandalous?

Illustration:  The official portrait of Governor Jerry Brown (version 1.0), by Don Bachardy, via the California State Capitol Museum.

More Kota Ezawa -- John & Yoko!  O.J. Simpson!  Susan Sontag! -- is viewable via UBUWeb.


Oh, Maman, Can this Really Be the End?

Bourgeois maman webcam

As reported widely, artist Louise Bourgeois has died at age 98.

Because she had such a long career and because she explored so many directions and media in the course of it, Bourgeois' work is difficult to sum up.  Some idea of her range and interests can be gleaned from  online exhibition at the Guggenheim's website, left over from the 2008-2009 Bourgeois retrospective that also visited us here at MOCA.  If Bourgeois has a single, best-known, "signature" work, it must surely be the various versions of Maman, the enormous spider.

Bourgeois maintained that her spiders were essentially benevolent, embodying the protective and nurturing attributes of motherhood.  The figure of spider as weaver is in part a reference to Bourgeois' own mother, who worked in the tapestry restoration trade.  Bourgeois' father haunts much of her work in a rather less favorable light.

The National Gallery of Canada, in Ottawa, keeps a webcam focused on its version of Maman.  (It's a colossal spider, folks: of course it gets its own webcam, har har.)  The photo atop this post is a capture from that camera this morning.  

Maman loves the camera, and an array of Mamancentric videos are accessible via YouTube.  Here, for example, is the arachnid materfamilias in residence at Tate Modern in London:

And here, with a more upbeat if irrelevant soundtrack, is a collection of Mamans from around the world.  "Tout le monde aime 'Maman.'"

For more views of spiders, and of a quantity of spider-free Bourgeoisiana, see the (non-embeddable) trailer for the 2008 documentary feature, Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, The Mistress and The Tangerine.


Noggin Bloggin'





    -- Rosencrantz (to Guildenstern)

Look around the streets tonight:
Everything's in ruins.
You look good by siren light.
Baby, what are you doin', 

    -- Fol Chen, "In Ruins"

Bangkok head
Earlier this week Tyler Green's recently relocated Modern Art Notes featured the above photo (via the Washington Post and later the front page of the New York Times) by Adrees Latif for Reuters, showing this seemingly unharmed colossal head standing in front of the blazing remnant's of Bangkok's colossal shopping mall, CentralWorld Plaza.  More complete details on the work, The Head (2009) by Indian sculptor Ravinder Reddy, are in Green's post and its follow up, in which he proposes

When I see a picture of widespread damage with an art object in the midst of it all left mostly untouched, I think art must have a certain authority. Why else was it spared?

He may be right.  I cannot find it again now that I want it -- I will provide a link if I can turn it up again --  but I have seen at least one photo indicating that the bronze elephants of CentralWorld also survived the mayhem.  Something tells me that representational sculpture is more likely to pull through than more abstract work. 

One thing that struck me most about Reddy's Head was its kinship to other large sculptures of heads.  With its Asian origin and location, and its obvious allusion to a long Asian sculptural tradition, one is immediately put in mind of the many enormous heads of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom:


But the enormous head knows few cultural or geographic boundaries. Think, for example, of the Roman emperors' fondness for giant-sized depictions of themselves:

Nor should we slight our own hemisphere, and the perplexing giant heads of the Olmecs (coming soon to LACMA):

Olmec head
What triggered these musings, however, was the combination of Tyler Green's posts and a Friday trip to the San Francisco courthouse, which provided the opportunity to get a look at Zhang Huan's imposing Three Heads Six Arms, now on extended display on the plaza fronting City Hall.

Three heads six arms 1 

As the Los Angeles Times reported, Zhang began as a self-debasing performance artist,  but has changed his focus to sculpture more recently.  This work is intended in part as an allusion to the many works of Buddhist sculpture now lost as a result of their destruction in China's Cultural Revolution.  Madame Mao would surely disapprove of Three Heads Six Arms

The East-facing face is in traditional Buddhist style.  It wears a jaunty chapeau in tribute to the City Hall dome behind it.

Three heads six arms 2 

The six long arms sport five long fingers each, and tasteful accessories.  I suspect the absorbent booms are for the statue's protection from water, and are not part of the artist's vision.

Three heads six arms 3 

Heads #2 and #3 are self-portraits of the artist.

Three heads six arms 4 

Because the eyes are closed, the East face does not see the Asian Art Museum (at left), United Nations Plaza, the San Francisco Public Library (at right)  or, in the distance, Thom Mayne's San Francisco Federal Building.

Three heads six arms 5
The San Francisco Chronicle has a fine portfolio of photos of the statue's installation.  Three Heads Six Arms is scheduled to remain in San Francisco through 2011.  Should civil unrest break out in the city any time soon, I would venture a prediction that the statue will come through unscathed.


Photo of Angkor Thom head via Wikimedia Commons.  Photo of the Emperor Constantine by Flickr user cloudsoup, used under Creative Commons license.  Photo of Olmec head by Flickr user Xuan Rosemanios, used under Creative Commons license.  Photos of Three Heads Six Arms by the blogger.

Brian Cox recites "In Ruins," here.


L'art du l'Aventure

On our weekend gallivant into the wine country of Paso Robles, my fellow boondogglers and I paid a call to L'Aventure, where Stephan Asseo produces some of the very finest wines now emerging from California. (Oh, if only they weren't priced in proportion to their quality . . . .)

The winery/tasting room building now sports a mural by French artist Erwin Dazelle, in the graffiti-influenced street art style so beloved of contemporary sophisticates such as C-Monster (whose many photos of such things can be seen here).

Four of this fool's photos follow:






Please Don't Squish the Squirrel
Please Spare a Fish for the Swan

Squirrel stool - bowes museum

Time once again for the fool in the forest Easter Squirrel, the sixth in our recurring series.  This year, we turn from purely pleasurable paintings of squirrels to the more practical, and pianistic, purposes to which our perky pals can be put.

As decoration for an early Victorian piano stool, par example.  This squirrel-emblazoned stool, of English manufacture circa 1850, is in the collection of the Bowes Museum, located in the market town of Barnard Castle, County Durham, in the northeast of England.  

While the beadwork nut gatherer on the seat is clearly a proper English red squirrel, the institution in which this squirrel is housed has a suspicious Francophile quality to it.  The Museum was founded and built by a successful English businessman, John Bowes, with his wife Joséphine.  Mr. Bowes met the future Mrs. Bowes in Paris in 1847, where the lady was an actress, Joséphine Coffin-Chevallier.  They were wed in 1852.  Mrs. Bowes was an amateur painter and lover of the arts, and she persuaded her spouse to embark on a project to bring the benefits of the arts to the presumptively unenlightened folk of County Durham.  To that end, the two traveled and collected widely, and oversaw the design and construction of the Museum building, modeled on the style of a French chateau and claimed to be the first major British building constructed using metric rather than imperial measures.  Sinister, indeed.

The prize of the Bowes collection is a wondrous 18th century automaton, The Silver Swan.  Mark Twain mentions having seen it, at the 1867 International Exposition in Paris, in Chapter XIII of The Innocents Abroad:

I watched a silver swan, which had a living grace about his movements and a living intelligence in his eyes -- watched him swimming about as comfortably and as unconcernedly as if he had been born in a morass instead of a jeweler's shop -- watched him seize a silver fish from under the water and hold up his head and go through all the customary and elaborate motions of swallowing it -- but the moment it disappeared down his throat some tattooed South Sea Islanders approached and I yielded to their attractions.

The Swan is currently undergoing extensive conservation, as well as being studied to better understand its workings and perhaps to figure out exactly who constructed it.  Some glimpses of the Swan in action can be seen in this informative video on the conservation project:

And here is one of the Swan's complete daily performances, shot by a visitor to the Museum over the heads of numerous other visitors to the Museum:

From a squirrel to a swan, and on, and so on: a happy Easter to you all.


For completists, here are links to prior years' Easter Squirrel posts:

  • 2008 [John Singleton Copley and Joseph Cornell]
  • 2007 [Hans Holbein the Younger]
  • 2006 [John Singleton Copley]
  • 2005 [Hans Hoffman]
  • 2004 [Albrecht Dürer]