Weekend links 626

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Czech poster for Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist. Art and design by Miroslav Pechánek, 1972.

• “Acknowledgements are not part of the novel; in fact, they break the spell the author has spent 200 or more pages weaving. We should take a book on its merits, knowing as little about the author as possible. As one reader put it to me, ‘the end of a book is time for thinking about the book, not for an acceptance speech’.” John Self on dedications and acknowledgements.

• Mixes of the week: a Power Ambient mix by A Strangely Isolated Place, and a mix for The Wire by Nexcyia.

• At Spoon & Tamago: 3D-scanned stones create vessel for human-made interventions.

Weeks turned into months. Slowly it dawned on me that I was performing the role of Boswell for a man who might be: a) a put-on maestro or arcane troll; b) a fiction writer slash performance artist; or c) a lunatic. But by his own admission King had tagged me with a familiar spirit. Whether or not he was telling the truth was irrelevant at this point. I could feel something squatting on my soul. I needed to see what it was.

Kent Russell on looking for demons in a disenchanted world

• A trailer for Mad God, Phil Tippett’s 30-years-in-the-making animated feature.

• New music: Vesta by Azu Tiwaline, and Right, Right, Right by Nils Frahm.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Max Hattler Day.

• “Marcel Duchamp was not a thief.”

• RIP Jean-Louis Trintignant.

Demons Of Rage (1972) by Nik Raicevic | Shall Come Forth The Demons (1991?) by Yuri Morozov | Angels Of Darkness, Demons Of Light (2011) by Earth

Men and Wild Horses: Théodore Géricault

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Yes, I’ve been watching a lot of films about art recently, and here’s another one. Artists and Models was the series title for three 80-minute drama-documentaries broadcast by the BBC in 1986: The Passing Show, Slaves of Fashion, and Men and Wild Horses. The writer and director of all three productions was Leslie Megahey, a name I always looked out for in TV listings throughout the 1980s, and still do in the case of films such as these. I watched the series at the time, and taped the episode about Géricault but the tape went astray many years ago so it’s great to find again.

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Art, especially painting, was a recurrent theme in Megahey’s work going back to the 1960s. In his later films he combined this interest with careful period recreations, the most celebrated example of which is his superb supernatural drama, Schalcken the Painter, an adaptation of the Sheridan Le Fanu ghost story. Artists and Models favours art history over drama, being an examination of the connected careers of three French painters of the late-18th and early-19th centuries: Jacques-Louis David, the Neoclassicist who was probably the only artist in history to sign the execution warrants of his own king and queen; Jean-Auguste Ingres, the Academician and painter of sensual nudes; and Théodore Géricault, the gloomiest of all the French Romantic artists. Being partial to the Romantics, especially the gloomy ones, I was always going to be more interested in the Géricault film. But all three films are worth seeing, each depicting an aspect of French art during a time of great historical upheaval: state propaganda (David), meticulous Orientalism (Ingres), and tormented realism (Géricault).

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The Raft of the Medusa (1819). All photo reproductions of this painting are compromised by the bitumen that Géricault painted into the shadows, a substance that degrades badly over time.

Men and Wild Horses uses the researches of Géricault’s first biographer, Charles Clément, to investigate the life of an artist whose bouts of depression and early death cut short a career that promised much but delivered less than the artist hoped. Clément, portrayed by Alan Dobie, informs us that Géricault only exhibited three paintings in the Paris Salon, none of which sold while the artist was alive. The largest of the three, The Raft of the Medusa, is recognised now as one of the great paintings of its age, but the Paris art world didn’t think so at the time. The story of the shipwreck survivors, and Géricault’s obsession with depicting their plight, forms the centrepiece of Megahey’s film which avoids too much awkward historical recreation. Géricault himself is only present via Clément’s account of his life, the memories of the artist’s friends, and the voiceover by Martin Jarvis which provides detail that the biographer was unable to find. The camerman for all three films in this series was Megahey’s regular collaborator, John Hooper, a real artist himself in his manipulation of light and shade. Men and Wild Horses is filled with many beautiful chiaroscuro compositions, so it’s a shame that the copy at YouTube isn’t better quality. The same account also has a copy of the Ingres film, Slaves of Fashion, while the David film, The Passing Show, may be seen here.

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One of the “interviewees” in the film is Antoine Étex, the creator of Géricault’s monument in Père Lachaise cemetery. I took a few photos of this when I was there in 2006; it’s easier to stumble across than some of the other famous tombs, and includes among its details bronze reliefs of Géricault’s three major paintings. British readers will know that “gee-gee” is a colloquial term for a horse so there’s some wry amusement for les rosbifs in the sight of the letters surrounding the monument of a horse-obsessed painter. Despite snapping a close-up of the bronze Raft of the Medusa I was more interested in chasing Symbolist paintings in the Musée d’Orsay and the Gustave Moreau Museum so I didn’t go to look at the original in the Louvre. Maybe next time.

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Previously on { feuilleton }
The Complete Citizen Kane
Schalcken the Painter revisited
Leslie Megahey’s Bluebeard

Rebel Ready-Made

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I think I spotted across this one while searching for more Robert Hughes, in which case I offer grudging thanks to the algorithms of the Great Panopticon. If you’ve ever seen Marcel Duchamp talking about his work in an arts documentary then it’s probable that the clip will have been taken from this film. (The Shock of the New is no exception.) Rebel Ready-Made was directed by Tristram Powell for a short-lived BBC arts series, New Release, and broadcast in June 1966 to coincide with a major Duchamp retrospective at the Tate Gallery, London. It’s fascinating for number of reasons, mostly the way that Duchamp is happy to talk about his sporadic art career, an occupation that in its mature phase consisted of spasms of invention followed by increasing boredom and a wandering off to do something else. The ease with which he did all this—the inventions which in other hands would have fuelled entire careers, and then the eventual abandonment of the whole art game—always made a sly mockery of the self-importance that sustained the art world in the 20th century.

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Elsewhere in the film you get praise for Duchamp from Robert Rauschenberg and John Cage, plus the artist’s friend Richard Hamilton, seen briefly painting the replica of The Large Glass that appeared in the Tate exhibition as a substitute for the fragile original. This has been my favourite of Duchamp’s works since I saw the replica in the Tate a decade later. Having a duplicate stand in for the original isn’t such an unusual thing for Duchamp when most of his ready-made sculptures are also copies, the “originals” having been lost or destroyed shortly after their first exhibitions. From the 1930s on, Duchamp had also been making multiple copies of all his works in miniature for the various iterations of the Boîte-en-valise, or portable museum.

Tristram Powell was lucky to capture the artist being so talkative at such a late date. Two years after this Duchamp was dead, although there was one last surprise in store. Jasper Johns referred to Étant donné as “the strangest work of art in any museum”. Duchamp never acknowledged the existence of this life-size peepshow while he was alive, preferring it to be announced to the public only after his death, which is what happened in 1969. There are no replicas of this one; if you want to see it (or the parts of it the artist allows you to see) you have to go to Philadelphia and peer through the holes in the door.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Televisual art
Chance encounters on the dissecting table
The Witch’s Cradle by Maya Deren
Audio Arts
8 x 8: A Chess Sonata in 8 Movements
Anémic Cinéma
Dreams That Money Can Buy
Entr’acte by René Clair
View: The Modern Magazine

Weekend links 616

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Illustration by Virgil Finlay for The Face in the Abyss by A. Merritt; Famous Fantastic Mysteries, October 1940.

• “The pier was completely outside of the gallery system, which David loved of course. People were just working on the walls, nothing was for sale, nothing could really be bought, although people were coming in and trying to chip things off the walls.” Cynthia Carr on the love letters and legacy of David Wojnarowicz.

• “In pursuit of Pure Form, the Polish artist known as “Witkacy” would consume peyote, cocaine, and other intoxicants before creating pastel portraits.” Juliette Bretan on the artful intoxications of Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz.

• Kino Kyiv: Christopher Silvester compiles a list of notable Ukrainian films. I’ve not seen all of these but Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors is a great favourite.

Onscreen for nearly the entire runtime, [Laura Dern] pulls off the remarkable feat of being in total control of a scenario organized by undermining her identity, obliterating her characterization, and so scrambling the distinction between Nikki and Susan that one eventually comes to view Inland Empire not as a maze to exit, a puzzle to solve, an ouroboros to gawk at, but rather as both a generalized treatise on the enigma of acting and a very specific, exquisitely perverse mash note to one of Lynch’s most formidable collaborators.

Nathan Lee on Laura Dern, David Lynch and Inland Empire. I’ve always thought Dern’s exceptional performance might have been recognised more widely if Lynch hadn’t filmed most of it on low-grade video.

• New music: Golden Air by Sun’s Signature, a new project from Elizabeth Fraser and Damon Reece.

• Miranda Remington explores The Strange World of…Stomu Yamash’ta.

• Steven Heller’s font of the month is Boucan.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Labyrinthine.

Labyrinth (2010) by Chrome Hoof | Labyrinths (2018) by Jonathan Fitoussi / Clemens Hourrière | The Seventh Labyrinth (2019) by Pye Corner Audio

Televisual art

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A few words of praise for The Shock of the New, Robert Hughes’ eight-part TV series about art in the 20th century. Not that it’s ever been lacking in praise—it was lauded from the outset back in 1980—but, having read the book of the series twice, then dipped back into it on regular occasions, it occurred to me recently that I’d not seen the series itself for a very long time.

If you don’t know—and is anyone today really unaware of this?—Hughes was commissioned by the BBC and his employers at TIME magazine to travel the world presenting a history of modern art from the 1880s to the end of the 1970s. The series was part of a run of costly co-productions that flattered viewers with colour television sets (still a luxury item in the UK) while engaging the intellect; Kenneth Clarke’s Civilisation, Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man and David Attenborough’s Life on Earth established the template that Hughes was required to follow. If you have the time and the money, the globetrotting is the easy part of an enterprise such as this. Much more difficult is making sense of the increasingly fragmented development of art in a century of two world wars and rapid technological change. Hughes did this by selecting a single route of evolution for each episode, often missing out significant artists or entire movements, then winding back the clock in the following episode to trace a different route that included the neglected names. Some of them, anyway. In the introduction to the book he admits the difficulty of trying to summarise a century of complex aesthetic activity and philosophy in a mere eight hours. The book is inevitably much more thorough, making the TV series seem like a sketch beside it; but there are good sketches and bad ones, and this one is exceptional.

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Hughes had an enviable talent for lucid explanation, an ability to tell you what was important about an artist or an idiom or an artistic development in a few simple, memorable sentences, free of jargon or the obfuscation that bedevils art criticism. This is best seen in his collected reviews from TIME magazine, Nothing if Not Critical (1991), which offers bite-sized appraisals of individual artists or group shows, from the Renaissance to the present day. Difficult to do well when you’re limited to a few hundred words, near impossible when you have to explain something using a minimum of words while simultaneously talking to a camera and walking down a busy Paris street. Some of his statements, like the following one, have been lodged in my memory for years:

A Rodin in a parking lot is still a misplaced Rodin, but this in a parking lot is just bricks.

“This” being Carl Andre’s oblong of 120 firebricks, Equivalent VIII, a minimalist sculpture that caused a huff of outrage from the philistine British tabloids in the 1970s. Hughes’ comment occurs when he examines the way that galleries in the same decade became frames for creations such as Andre’s, works that wouldn’t be recognised as art without the building they were situated in.

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The explication is very familiar but I’d forgotten about all the foreign travel. This seems profligate at times although it’s only the same as David Attenborough flying to a remote jungle to film a lemur or a lizard. Paintings and sculptures seen in their natural habitats, as it were, together with the locations that inspired them: van Gogh’s Arles, Matisse’s Côte d’Azur, de Chirico’s Turin, and so on. One of the axioms of Hughes’ criticism, repeated here as elsewhere, was that art has to be studied in situ, not appraised via mediated representations, whether that means halftone dots in a book, 16mm film delivered by cathode ray tube, or a gallery website. It’s an attitude I sympathise with even though I don’t visit galleries very often. Sculptures have a physical presence that doesn’t reproduce at all, while paintings are more subtle or more dramatic or more detailed or more dimensioned when you’re standing in front of them. Piranesi’s prints are big; William Blake’s paintings are very small; Max Ernst’s engraving collages are not only smaller than you expect but they’re also toned by age; Picasso’s canvases reveal the direction his brush was travelling when he painted a line in a single stroke…

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Hughes and Complex One, an artwork that few people are allowed to visit.

Something else I’d forgotten about was the artist interviews in the later programmes, especially those with land artists Michael Heizer and Walter De Maria. The final episode in the series examines the collapse of the idea of the avant-garde, with land art being presented as work that can’t be bought by wealthy collectors or appropriated by mass media. Hughes treks into the Nevada desert to see Heizer’s Complex One which at the time was all that existed of the massive site known today as City; Walter De Maria is seen walking through The Lightning Field in New Mexico accompanied by synthesizer chords from Jean-Michel Jarre’s Equinoxe. Electronic music abounds in this series, from Peter Howell’s clanging Radiophonic theme, to extracts from albums by Tangerine Dream and Brian Eno, Music For Films being a popular choice with TV producers at the time. It’s notable that the phrase “the shock of the new” only occurs once, near the very end, possibly as a capitulation to the BBC who Hughes says chose the title for him. In a later book, Things I Didn’t Know: A Memoir (2006), you’ll find another of those memorable statements:

Some new works of art have values of some kind or another. Others, the majority, have little or none. But newness as such, in art, is never a value.

I’m following this with a re-viewing of Hughes’ multi-part American Visions (1996), a history of American culture that I’ve not seen since its first broadcast. The Shock of the New is all over YouTube if you require it, also at the Internet Archive. The series took three years to create and was broadcast at 8:00pm on Sunday evenings to an audience of millions. They really don’t make them like this any more.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Robert Hughes, 1938–2012
Land art