Art on film: The Beast

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The Beast: Lisbeth Hummel, Elisabeth Kaza and Marcel Dalio.

In which Polish director Walerian Borowczyk places a little-known Symbolist painting in the background of The Beast, his strange sex film (or should that be strange-sex film?) from 1975. I’ve spent the past week or so working my way through Arrow’s box of Borowczyk films, of which The Beast is the last in the collection. It’s also the one film by the director that many people may be aware of even if they’ve never seen it, thanks to a historical reverie in which an 18th-century woman has a very graphic sexual encounter with the beast of the title, a bear-like creature with a fully-functioning phallus. This episode is framed by a somewhat farcical modern-day story set in a French chateau, with the bestiality flashback being the culmination of a parade of sexual antics that include equally graphic scenes of horse-breeding, female masturbation, and thwarted attempts by the daughter of the house to have sex with one of the servants.

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Frenzy aka Frenzy of Exultations (1893).

And this is the painting that Borowczyk shows. I said that it’s little-known but it happens to be the most visible of all the paintings by Polish artist Wladyslaw Podkowinski (1866–1895), with a popularity in Poland that extends to reproduction on postcards and jigsaw puzzles. (That huge area of shadow must cause puzzle-solvers some headaches.) I only recognised the picture because Michael Gibson includes it in his wide-ranging study of Symbolist art, although he doesn’t have much to say about it apart from its having caused a minor scandal when it was first exhibited. This isn’t too surprising; prior to the 20th century there were few Western artworks that were so overt in their depiction of erotic delirium without tipping into outright pornography. Given this you’d expect Borowczyk to make more of the reference but he keeps the picture in the background, a reward for the small percentage of the audience who can identify the thing at a distance.

Frenzy is dramatically different to Podkowinski’s other paintings, most of which are Impressionist studies, and is further distinguished by having been attacked by its creator when the artist slashed the canvas with a knife while it was still being exhibited. Paintings and sculptures have been subject to attacks by members of the public for many years but this is the first I’ve heard of an artist attacking their own work while it was on display. The scandalous history suits the film as much as the salacious subject matter; The Beast was almost subject to an obscenity prosecution when an uncensored print was shown in London in the 1970s. For a long time it was one of those troublesome features that you’d be more likely to read about than to see.

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Led Zeppelin IV: Jimmy Page versus Little Bo-Peep

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Background graphics by Aubrey Beardsley, 1893.

You’d think by now that everything would be known about an album with a Godzilla-sized cultural footprint like Led Zeppelin IV. I certainly thought so until last week when I turned up the source of something that the more obsessive Zepp-heads have been pondering for years. If this puts a bustle in your hedgerow then read on.

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Led Zeppelin’s fourth album has been around now for half a century which means there really is a lot known about every detail of its production. Mysteries that used to confound friends of mine when we were teenagers have long been solved, questions such as what the hell the four symbols assigned to each member of the group actually signified; not only do we know the origin and meaning of those symbols, the enigmatic “Zoso” sigil chosen by Jimmy Page has an entire website dedicated to its various manifestations. We know where the photo on the cover was taken (Birmingham), and why the sleeve is devoid of identification (Page was annoyed with the press reaction to the previous album); we know that the hermit painting inside the gatefold is based on the Tarot card by Pamela Colman Smith, and we also know a great deal about the writing and recording of Stairway To Heaven. Erik Davis logged much of this in his 33 1/3 study of the album, and while he examines the band symbols in some detail he doesn’t say much about the rest of the hand-written inner sleeve beyond this comment:

Is there a meaning to the nifty Arts and Crafts typeface that Page lifted for the Stairway To Heaven lyrics on the other side of the sleeve? Or just a vibe?

The source, if not the meaning, of this script has been intriguing Zeppelin fans for many years, but I wasn’t aware of this until I happened to be reading the Wikipedia entry about the album and found myself equally intrigued. The game was afoot, Watson.

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It makes them wonder: the hand-lettered lyrics.

A persistent question you see in fan circles is “What font was used to create X?” People will ask this question even when the design is a one-off, like Syd Mead’s logo for Tron, or something that’s obviously been lettered by hand. Led Zeppelin IV is an album guaranteed to raise the “What font?” question because the lyrics of the group’s most famous song, Stairway To Heaven, cover an entire side of the inner sleeve. On one of the fan forums I was reading someone was eager to identify “the font” because they wanted to apply the words to a bedroom wall. Many more people must have copied out those lyrics since 1971; I once had to do this myself for a female friend who was so besotted with Jimmy Page that she wanted the lyrics in a frame on her own bedroom wall.

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According to the Wikipedia entry, Page revealed the source of the lettering to be an issue of The Studio, the British art and design magazine which helped launch Aubrey Beardsley’s career and did much to develop and promote the Art Nouveau style in the 1890s. I’m very familiar with The Studio, many posts here refer to it, and I happen to have a complete collection of issues downloaded from the journal archive at Heidelberg University. Seeing the magazine mentioned in this context immediately made me want to find the design that Page had adopted, but before I started flicking through thousands of pages I looked around to see if any of the Zepp-heads had tried searching for the magazine themselves. Evidently not; all the discussion I’ve seen about the inner sleeve tends to recycle the Wikipedia entry, nobody seems to have bothered looking for copies of the magazine. Okay then…

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Covers for The Double-Dealer

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The Double-Dealer was a literary magazine “published at New Orleans” from 1921 to 1926 whose covers for the first two years of its run wouldn’t have been out of place twenty years earlier. In its written content the magazine wasn’t a throwback to the fin de siècle but was flying the flag for Modernism, an editorial stance that might seem at odds with the Beardsley-like cover art, at least until you notice the names of some of the contributors. Essayist and poet Arthur Symons had been a friend of Aubrey Beardsley’s in the 1890s, and the pair worked together on their own magazine, The Savoy, as editor and art editor respectively. Another contributor, Djuna Barnes, was a thoroughgoing Modernist in her writing but she was also an occasional artist who produced a number of drawings in a Beardsley-like style.

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The covers of The Double-Dealer up to June 1922 were the work of Olive Leonhardt who doesn’t seem to have produced anything else in this manner. The magazine is notable today for having published early writings by William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway but the first few issues also include contributions from Lafcadio Hearn, Lord Dunsany and James Branch Cabell. A press ad declared that “rebels and reactionaries rub shoulders” in the pages of the magazine, so maybe Leonhardt’s covers were a further example of editorial equanimity. Or maybe this type of art was more suited to New Orleans than New York City. The cover for July 1922 by Gordon Ertz continues in the Leonhardt manner, after which the magazine adopted the sober presentation common to literary magazines of the period, with a simple design based on a Janus-headed Roman coin.

Update: Added a credit for Gordon Ertz.

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Music for people with three ears

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Cherry Red Records this month reissues the first three albums by the unique and wonderful Third Ear Band. I like CDs, and I especially like having them collected into boxes with Japanese-style facsimile sleeves, so this collection is irresistible. The group’s first two albums, Alchemy (1969) and Third Ear Band (1970), still sound timeless despite being products of their time, with the track you’d most expect to sound dated, Ghetto Raga, being free of sitars or Indian pastiche. Third Ear Band music is a kind of improvised folk, predominantly the product of oboe, violin and percussion, which sounds like something the group might have tuned into when they were playing for Druids at ancient sites (Stone Circle and Druid One are further track titles). The first two albums also have the additional attraction for this listener of a heavy emphasis on medieval mysticism, from the Atalanta Fugiens illustration by Matthäus Merian on the cover of Alchemy, and the symbols and astrological diagrams that fill out the inside cover of the second album, to the titles of that album which continue the alchemical theme: Air, Earth, Fire and Water. The group also borrowed some graphics from Aubrey Beardsley when they issued their musical manifesto in 1969.

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Music From Macbeth (1972) is constrained in comparison to the albums that precede it, being subservient to Roman Polanski’s feature film, although there’s more music here than was used in the film. It’s also closer to rock music in places, with occasional fuzzed guitar, a Mellotron, and rumbles from a VCS 3 synthesizer played by a future member of Hawkwind, Simon House. The cover painting by Roger Dean isn’t one of his best. In Views Dean complains that Polanski “got the imagery wrong” for the scenes with the witches, a comment I’ve never understood. Polanski’s film is a naturalistic interpretation of the play which is well-served by the Third Ear Band’s drones and medievalisms. Incidentally, I’m sure the phrase “music for people with three ears” was used on a Harvest records press ad but if it was I’ve been unable to find any evidence of it. Anyone out there know the source?

Previously on { feuilleton }
Night’s black agents
Atalanta Fugiens

Dessinateurs et humoristes: George Barbier

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The haute couture of the 1920s has been the subject of my latest work-related research so I’ve been going through back issues of Gazette du Bon Ton, an expensive French fashion magazine which used pochoir prints of drawings by a variety of illustrators to depict the latest dress designs from Paris. One of the regular Bon Ton contributors was George Barbier (1882–1932), an artist whose work has appeared in several posts here, and who I look for now and then when browsing library archives. Searching for new Barbier may be at an end, however, since the more recent uploads at Gallica include almost all of the books that he illustrated. It’s no surprise that these have turned up eventually—it was only a matter of time—but among the cache there’s a unique item that I’d never have expected to see.

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Dessinateurs et humoristes is a scrapbook of odds and ends covering Barbier’s career from 1912 to 1924, mostly humorous illustrations for magazines such as La Vie Parisienne, but the collection also includes handwritten material together with many sketches and drafts for unfinished drawings. This is part of Gallica’s “Collection Jaquet”, 113 scrapbooks collecting magazine work by French illustrators. I’ve not had the time to go through the rest of the collection but there are many familiar names in the list, each with books of their own: Albert Robida, Théophile Steinlen, two volumes dedicated to the prolific Gustave Doré, etc. Gallica’s information about these items is minimal so for now the identity of “Jaquet” remains a mystery. As for the Barbier scrapbook, if you like the artist’s drawings this is a delight to look through, a cornucopia of camp frivolity replete with all the usual crinolined ladies, powdered wigs, mischievous Cupids, tiny dogs, and almost as many nude males as there are females. There’s also a picture bearing the title “The Great God Pan” although as a representation of the deity it’s closer to Aubrey Beardsley than anything from Arthur Machen.

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