Thomas Bodkin on Harry Clarke

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Harry Clarke’s work appeared in the pages of The Studio magazine on several occasions, either in review or as here, a subject of a special feature. I linked to a later piece a few years ago but until this week I hadn’t seen this earlier entry from November 1919. (I keep intending to download all the issues at the University of Heidelberg and go through them properly. One day…)

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Thomas Bodkin was a barrister and director of Ireland’s National Gallery who became a great champion of Harry Clarke’s work. Like many of the artist’s Irish enthusiasts, Bodkin was familiar with Clarke’s stained-glass designs which he highlights here. Clarke’s stained-glass art is as important a part of his career as his illustration—it was the family business, for which he created over 160 windows and panel designs—but the fruits of this work were seldom seen in print. The Studio was in the vanguard of print reproduction at the time, especially where colour was concerned, so the reproductions of the glass designs are especially good, much better than some of the colour plates in Clarke’s illustrated books. The ever-popular illustration for Poe’s Morella also benefits from reproduction on a large page where the minuscule faces hiding in the decoration become more apparent.

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A few pages before the Clarke feature there are two works by John Hancock that I hadn’t seen before. Hancock and Clarke were both featured in The Golden Hind, the arts magazine edited by Clifford Bax and Austin Spare, but Hancock lapsed into almost total obscurity following his death at the age of 22. For years all I knew of either him or his work was a book reproduction of the Golden Hind piece together with a note saying that he was dismayed by his declining health, and that his body was found floating in Regent’s Canal. (See this page for more.) Harry Clarke also suffered from poor health for much of his life, and died at the age of 41 in Chur, Switzerland, a town best known today for being the birthplace of HR Giger. Some of the phallic monstrosities lurking at the margins of Clarke’s Faust drawings might be precursors of Giger’s airbrushed abominations. I wonder if Giger knew of this connection? Answers on a biomechanical postcard.

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Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The illustrators archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
Harry Clarke: His Graphic Art
Harry Clarke and others in The Studio
Harry Clarke’s Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault
Harry Clarke in colour
The Tinderbox
Harry Clarke and the Elixir of Life
Cardwell Higgins versus Harry Clarke
Modern book illustrators, 1914
Illustrating Poe #3: Harry Clarke
Strangest Genius: The Stained Glass of Harry Clarke
Harry Clarke’s stained glass
Harry Clarke’s The Year’s at the Spring
The art of Harry Clarke, 1889–1931

Cosmic music and cosmic horror

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Track titles by Tangerine Dream (again) if they were stories or chapters in a book of weird fiction:

– Alpha Centauri
– Ultima Thule
– Origin Of Supernatural Probabilities
– Mysterious Semblance At The Strand Of Nightmares
– Sorcerer
– Abyss
– Stratosfear
– Choronzon
– Remote Viewing
– Hyperborea

Clark Ashton Smith’s tales of the northern continent of Hyperborea were Cthulhu Mythos fantasies with a sardonic CAS twist. The connection with Tangerine Dream is most likely coincidental, the name being one that Smith borrowed rather than invented, but I enjoy the intersection all the same. The title of TD’s first single, Ultima Thule, refers to another remote northern realm. If you’re reaching for associations, as I invariably am, then it’s also worth mentioning Haunted Island by an affiliated group, Agitation Free. The last track on their 2nd album features a partial recitation of Dream-Land by Edgar Allan Poe that includes the words “from some ultimate dim Thule”; the keyboard player in Agitation Free was Michael Hoenig who was briefly a member of Tangerine Dream in 1975. As for Choronzon, this was a demon that Aleister Crowley claimed to have tangled with in the Algerian desert in 1909. The malevolent and chaotic nature of the entity, together with its unavoidably Lovecraftian epithet of “the Dweller in the Abyss”, places it close to the Mythos god of “nuclear chaos”, Azathoth, although the music that bears the Dweller’s name doesn’t convey any of these qualities. Tangerine Dream’s Choronzon is an uptempo piece of electro-pop that Virgin optimistically released as a single in 1981. For a group with a long history of eccentric title choices this maybe isn’t so surprising.

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Tangerine Dream feature on another cosmic-horror music list that I suggested as soundtracks for The Haunter of the Dark in 1999. (The Lustmord somehow lost a couple of words from its title.) Most of these are drone works, and several were released after I’d drawn most of the pages, but I was listening to Zeit and Rubycon during many late-night work sessions, the latter especially while drawing The Call of Cthulhu. Discovering weird fiction and spacey electronica simultaneously caused the two things to become inextricably connected, and besides which there wasn’t much else to be found in the music world of the late 1970s that complemented such stories to the same degree. Rubycon offered satisfying associations, from the liquid green of the cover art (Cthulhu always suggests the colour green), to the predominantly sinister, minor-key music within. When the sequencers in Rubycon: Part 2 give way to the sounds of waves breaking on a shoreline this only reinforces the suitability of the album as a Cthulhoid soundtrack.

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The dedication from Alpha Centauri as printed in the Virgin double-disc reissue with the Atem album. It’s never been clear whether the “space” referred to is a noun or a verb.

If you’re looking for cosmic-horror soundtracks today then you’re spoiled for choice, there are numerous examples, from the general—the occulted universe of Dark Ambience—to the very specific. I enjoy the drones, obviously, but the Berlin School still has something to offer so long as the key remains a minor one and the titles avoid New Age vapidity. See this mix for further examples.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Tangerine Dream in concert
Drone month
Pilots Of Purple Twilight
Synapse: The Electronic Music Magazine, 1976–1979
A mix for Halloween: Analogue Spectres
Edgar Froese, 1944–2015
Synthesizing
Tangerine Dream in Poland
Hodgsonian vibrations
White Noise: Electric Storms, Radiophonics and the Delian Mode

Weekend links 537

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“The dagger dropped gleaming upon the sable carpet.” The Masque of the Red Death illustrated by Harry Clarke, 1919.

• 2020 is the year of enormous pink lady faces on book covers, apparently. As someone who spends little time following cover trends, the identification of a new variety of herd behaviour among designers or their art directors is always fascinating and bizarre.

Tomoko Sauvage plays her porcelain and glass instruments inside a disused water tank in Berlin for a new album, Fischgeist. The Wire has previews.

• At The Paris Review: Craig Morgan Teicher on the later work of Dorothea Tanning, and Daniel Mendelsohn on the rings of Sebald.

Unlike many of the rapidly forgotten [Nobel] “winners”, and despite the occasional sniffy critic wondering “who still reads it?” Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet has never been out of print since he published it in 1957. The centenary of his birth in 2012 raised a flurry of revived interest in Durrell. Indeed the whole Durrell family has been popping up regularly in reprints of Lawrence’s novels and poetry, in his brother Gerald’s popular tales of his “family and other animals,” and in several TV series about their life in Greece on Corfu island in the late 1930s. A BBC interviewer once asked Lawrence about the difference between his writing and brother Gerald’s. He replied: “I write literature. My brother writes books that people read.”

I’ve read Gerald and I’ve read Lawrence; I prefer Lawrence, thank you. Thomas O’Dwyer examines the chef d’oeuvre of the elder Durrell, The Alexandria Quartet

• Dark Entries shares Patrick Cowley’s cover of Chameleon by Herbie Hancock. The original is here.

• Saunas, sex clubs and street fights: how Sunil Gupta captured global gay life.

• Inside the Grace Jones exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary.

Rob Walker on how dub reggae’s beats conquered 70s Britain.

• Who invented the newspaper? John Boardley reports.

Spread The Virus (1981) by Cabaret Voltaire | Cut Virus (2003) by Bill Laswell | The Unexclusive Virus ~even our invincible religion “Technology” cannnot~ (2006) by Kashiwa Daisuke

Demons by rail-light: Stefan Grabinski’s weird fiction

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Thanks to the demons of distraction it’s taken me a long time to find my way to these books by Polish author Stefan Grabinski (1887–1936) but I’m very pleased to have done so at last. Grabinski was one of several writers first drawn to my attention by Franz Rottensteiner’s The Fantasy Book: The Ghostly, the Gothic, the Magical, the Unreal (1978), a lavishly illustrated popular study that charted the history of fantasy and horror fiction. The book is inevitably dominated by Anglophone authors but Rottensteiner was looking at the genres from a global perspective, to an extent that some of the writers in the sections devoted to Continental Europe were either difficult to find or, as with Grabinski, hadn’t yet been translated into English. Robert Hadji’s Grabinski entry in the Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural (1986) further stoked my curiosity. Neither Rottensteiner nor Hadji mention how they came to read these obscure tales but I’d guess it was in the two collections published in Germany under the Bibliothek des Hauses Usher imprint, Das Abstellgleis (1971) and Dunst und andere unheimliche Geschichten (1974); several covers from the imprint appear in Rottensteiner’s book. Wherever it was that they read the stories, both writers praised Grabinski as an overlooked master of weird fiction. Rottensteiner notes that he was a contemporary of HP Lovecraft, and with a similar biography—briefly married and suffering artistic neglect during his lifetime—but neither Rottensteiner nor Hadji use the common shorthand descriptions of Grabinski as “the Polish Poe” or “the Polish Lovecraft”. These labels are intriguing but misapplied.

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Bearing in mind that these stories are translated works, one of the surprises of finally reading them is how fresh they seem compared to so many British ghost stories from the same period. Grabinski was writing during the birth of Modernism but the stories of his Anglophone contemporaries can often read like the products of an earlier epoch. His economical prose lacks the ornamentation of Poe and Lovecraft, just as it lacks Poe’s morbid Romanticism and has nothing of Lovecraft’s cosmic scale. But there are recurrent themes, particularly that of possession, whether by the spirits of the dead, by inhuman elementals, or by idée fixe. The latter provides the subject of The Glance, a story that also demonstrates Grabinski’s knack of finding horror in the most mundane situations: a man whose wife died prematurely is troubled by the sight of an open door, the same door through which she walked out of his life, and subsequently, out of her own. The man’s obsession with the door grows into a fear of closed doors and the implicit tragedies they may conceal, an obsession that soon extends itself to anything that hides too much of the world: curtains, rugs, the sharp corners of city streets… Edgar Allan Poe was fond of cataloguing madness in this manner but Grabinski’s stories go beyond glib formulations of insanity. “Metaphysical” is a word often used in discussion of the Grabinski oeuvre; the fixations of his protagonists reveal truths about the world to which others are blind.

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Continue reading “Demons by rail-light: Stefan Grabinski’s weird fiction”

Svankmajer’s cats

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Down to the Cellar.

“Black cats are our unconscious,” says Jan Svankmajer in an interview with Sarah Metcalf for Phosphor, the journal of the Leeds Surrealist Group. I’ve spent the past few weeks working my way through Svankmajer’s cinematic oeuvre where black cats were very much in evidence, although for a director who describes himself as a “militant Surrealist” there are fewer than you might imagine.

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Jabberwocky.

The first feline appearance is in Jabberwocky (1973), a difficult film for animal-lovers when almost all the cat’s appearances seem to have involved throwing the unwilling animal into a wall of building blocks. Each “leap” that the cat makes through the wall interrupts the progress of an animated line being drawn through a maze; when the line finally escapes the maze, childhood is over. Our final view of the cat is of it struggling to escape the confines of a small cage: the unconscious tamed by adulthood.

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Down to the Cellar.

The black cat in Down to the Cellar is not only the most prominent feline in all of Svankmajer’s films, it’s also carries the most symbolic weight in a drama replete with Freudian anxiety. The cat guards the entrance to the subterranean dark where its growth in size corresponds to the mounting fears of a small girl sent by a parent to collect potatoes.

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Faust.

The cat seen at the beginning of Faust (1994) appears very briefly but nothing is accidental in Svankmajer’s cinema. Two separate shots show the cat in the window watching Faust on his way to meet Mephistopheles. As with Down to the Cellar, the cat oversees the threshold to another world, in this case the doorway to a labyrinthine building filled with malevolent puppets and the temptations they offer. The cat may also be the traditional symbol of ill fortune. Faust at this point in the story still has the option to turn back but he goes on to meet his fate. (I think there may also be another cat later in the film but I was too lazy to go searching for it. Sorry.)

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Little Otik.

The cat that appears in the early scenes of Little Otik (2000) is a child substitute for a childless couple, its status reinforced by the scene of Bozena holding the animal like a baby. The arrival of the monstrous Otik usurps the cat’s position as the family favourite. Consequences ensue.

Svankmajer’s later features are catless. Insects (2018) is more concerned with arthropods and their human equivalents, while Surviving Life (2010) spends so much time inside the unconscious of its protagonist it doesn’t require a symbol. Lunacy (2005), on the other hand, is a combination of a story by Edgar Allan Poe—The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether—and the philosophical views of the Marquis de Sade. Svankmajer had already adapted two of Poe’s stories prior to this but The Black Cat wasn’t among them. Given the cruelties in Poe’s story and many of Svankmajer’s films, Lunacy in particular, this may be just as well.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Jan Svankmajer: The Animator of Prague
Lynch dogs
Jan Svankmajer, Director
Don Juan, a film by Jan Svankmajer
The Pendulum, the Pit and Hope
Two sides of Liska