Le Dossier B by Schuiten and Peeters

db01.jpg

Almost ten years have elapsed since I devoted a week of blog posts to one of my favourite fantastic creations, the Obscure World/Obscure Cities of Belgian artist-and-writer team François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters. Schuiten and Peeters’ mythos is a multi-media project with a series of bande desinée albums as its core, a cycle of stories which introduce the reader to some of the cities in the Obscure World (a “counter-Earth” on the opposite side of our Sun), and which are connected by recurrent characters and motifs. Since the completion of the core series, Schuiten, with occasional help from Peeters, has expanded the mythos to encompass other books that flesh out some of the world’s invented history and its connections to our own world, together with other manifestations such as art exhibitions and music releases. Le Dossier B (1995) is a peripheral Obscure World production, a 54-minute TV documentary which entangles the genuine history of 20th-century Brussels with an invented secret society who believe in the existence of a twin city, Bruzel, that intersects with the Belgian capital.

db02.jpg

Le Dossier B was directed by Wilbur Leguebe from a script by Leguebe with Schuiten and Peeters. Valérie Lemaître plays the on-camera investigator, “Claire Devillers”, while artist and writer appear in roles that match their personalities. Schuiten is seen in silent footage as “Robert de la Barque”, an artist whose obsession with Brussels’ vast Palace of Justice provides clues to the Bruzel mystery via the eccentricities of its architect, Joseph Poelaert. Peeters appears later in the investigation as “Pierre Lidiaux” the author in 1960 of Le Dossier B (a book which has since vanished), his own study of the connections between Brussels and Bruzel. We first see Lidiaux being interviwed on a TV arts show, then later as the presenter of his own eccentric and unfinished film about Antoine Wiertz, the real-life Belgian painter of vast canvasses on morbid subjects whose museum Lidiaux explores. Aside from the well-realised historical fakery, one of the pleasures of Leguebe’s witty and imaginative documentary is the spotlight it throws on the history and culture of Brussels and Belgium. I hadn’t realised, for example, that the Wiertz Museum is so close to the European Parliament building which was still under construction when the film was being made. Elsewhere there are references to Magritte, Delvaux and Art Nouveau architect Victor Horta, and we catch a glimpse of work by another great Belgian painter, Jean Delville.

db03.jpg

The last third of the film is based around the researches of one James Welles (Adrian Brine), a British historian whose book-length study, Shadows in the Night: A Secret Society in Belgium, explores the connections of yet more historical figures with the Bruzel mystery, including the aforementioned Horta and chemist Ernest Solvay. The historian’s surname may be taken as a deliberate choice: Orson Welles was the director of another documentary mixing fact and fiction, F for Fake, while Welles’ appearance as Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight provided Schuiten with the model for the central character in La Tour, one of the albums in Schuiten and Peeters’ Obscure Cities series.

db04.jpg

Some of this territory is explored in another of the Obscure Cities albums, Brüsel, especially the building of the Palace of Justice and the concept of “Brusselisation”, a pejorative French term for the rapid demolition of historical quarters of a city to make way for new construction. Where Brüsel has the freedom of the comics medium to refashion the capital in a fantastic manner, Le Dossier B uses the material of our world to suggest another city (possibly the one depicted in the album) whose existence we never see. Apart, that is, for the suggestion near the end of the film that the Bruzel of the secret society is the Brussels of today, a city which has overwritten the Brussels of a century ago, just as the invented encyclopedia in Borges’s Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius gradually changes the world at large to match its contents.

Le Dossier B is available on DVD but seems to be sold out for now. Alternatively, it may be watched at YouTube in an unsubtitled copy that’s been uploaded in the wrong aspect ratio. The really determined may wish to do what I did: download the video, grab some English subtitles, then watch it in VLC with the aspect ratio set to 16:10. A lot of messing around but it works.

(My thanks to Brussels resident Anne Billson for the YT link!)

Previously on { feuilleton }
Urbatecture
Echoes of the Cities
Further tales from the Obscure World
Brüsel by Schuiten & Peeters
La route d’Armilia by Schuiten & Peeters
La Tour by Schuiten & Peeters
La fièvre d’Urbicande by Schuiten & Peeters
Les Murailles de Samaris by Schuiten & Peeters
The art of François Schuiten
Taxandria, or Raoul Servais meets Paul Delvaux

Orphic Egg album covers

orphic12.jpg

This is one record label I’d not come across before. According to this page Orphic Egg “was a subsidiary label for London Records which was formed in 1972 and lasted about a year. The label was formed to try to capture classical music for the counterculture youth of the time (often called “heads”). Liner notes were written by hip rock critics respected by the youth.” According to Discogs the first release, The Baroque Head, was 1971. The covers below follow in chronological order through to 1973. With the exception of the Edgard Varèse album all the releases are compilations of older recordings grouped by composer or theme.

orphic01.jpg

Discogs doesn’t give credits for all the cover art but the series was the work of several different illustrators with George McGinnis being responsible for the design. Jason Roberts’ cover for the Mussorgsky album is a suitably wild piece of late psychedelia for a collection that includes Night On Bald Mountain. There’s a nod there to the Chernobog from Disney’s Fantasia, while the Scriabin cover is an overt swipe from an original piece by Jean Delville. The Mussorgsky album is also notable for the bizarre and unique conjunction of music conducted by Herbert Von Karajan and liner notes by Lester Bangs. I have to wonder what the haughty maestro of the Berlin Philharmonic would have made of the sleeve if he ever saw it.

orphic03.jpg

Continue reading “Orphic Egg album covers”

New Life for the Decadents by Philippe Jullian

jullian1.jpg

This essay by cult writer Philippe Jullian appeared in an edition of the Observer colour supplement in 1971, shortly after Jullian’s chef d’oeuvre, Dreamers of Decadence, had been published in Britain. Esthètes et Magiciens (1969), as Jullian’s study was titled in France, was instrumental in raising the profile of the many Symbolist artists whose work had been either disparaged or ignored since the First World War. A year after the Observer piece, the Hayward Gallery in London staged a major exhibition of Symbolist art with an emphasis on the paintings of Gustave Moreau; Jullian alludes to the exhibition in his article, and also wrote the foreword to the catalogue. His Observer article is necessarily shorter and less detailed than his introductory essay, emphasising the reader-friendly “Decadence” over the more evasive “Symbolist”. But as a primer to a mysterious and neglected area of art the piece would have served its purpose for a general reader.

Many thanks to Nick for the recommendation, and to Alistair who went to the trouble of providing high-res scans that I could run through the OCR. The translators of the article, Francis King and John Haylock, had previously translated Jullian’s biography of Robert de Montesquiou.

*

New Life for the Decadents

The end of the nineteenth century was the Age of Decadence in the arts. The painters of that time (who have since influenced Pop art) and poets (echoed in pop songs) are back in favour: Philippe Jullian, chronicler of the Decadent period, explains why.

AS THE nineteenth century drew to a close, a number of the finer spirits of the time wondered if progress, increasing mechanisation and democratic aspirations were fulfilling their promises. Horrified by the direction in which Western civilisation was moving, they called themselves “The Decadents” in protest against a society that was too organised, an art that was too academic and a literature that was too realistic.

The Decadents produced some delightful symbolist poets, particularly Belgian and Austrian; at least one musician of genius, Debussy; and a number of painters who, having been despised for many years, are now at last beginning to be admired by a generation surfeited with Impressionists in museums and abstract paintings in galleries.

The genius of these Decadent painters, like that of the Decadent poets, only came to full bloom in the 1890s, when they themselves were in their twenties. Never were painting, music and poetry so close to one another. The gods of the Decadents were primarily Wagner and Baudelaire, then Swinburne and Poe. The Decadent movement, so active all over Europe, turned towards two great sources of inspiration: the Pre-Raphaelites, and a French painter whose glory was for a while eclipsed by the Impressionists but who is now once again accorded his place among the great—Gustave Moreau.

The women whom the Decadents loved and of whom they dreamt resembled the women created 30 years previously by Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Moreau.

Nothing could be more naturalistic than the artistic style elaborated by the Pre-Raphaelites in the middle of the nineteenth century. Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s model, inspiration, mistress and finally wife was the sweet and sad Elizabeth Siddal, on whom so many fin-de-siècle ladies had to model themselves on the Continent as did all the aesthetic ladies of England in the 1880s. She posed for Rossetti as Beatrix and as the Belle Dame sans Merci.

She was a rare spirit, about whom everything was nebulous and evanescent: the thick, wild hair; the tunic of a simplicity to challenge the elaboration of the crinolines then in vogue; the frail hands burdened with lilies; the gaze turned towards eternity. She also posed, fully dressed and lying in a bath, her hair outspread around her bloodless face, as Ophelia for another Pre-Raphaelite, Millais. Elizabeth died of pulmonary tuberculosis in 1862.

A macabre episode, which might have been imagined by Poe, was the exhumation of a sheaf of Rossetti’s poems that had been buried in Elizabeth Siddal’s coffin. When this symbol of the New Woman died, the grief-stricken poet had insisted on placing the poems inspired by her under her long hair before the coffin was sealed.

jullian4.jpg

Beata Beatrix (1864–1870) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Continue reading “New Life for the Decadents by Philippe Jullian”

The art of Carlos Schwabe, 1866–1926

schwabe01.jpg

Le Faune (1923).

Yesterday’s Pan prompted me to repost Carlos Schwabe’s wonderful painting of a faun, one of my favourite faun/satyr depictions, and easily one of the best in the entire Symbolist corpus. Other satyr aficionados of the period such as Arnold Böcklin and Franz Stuck had an unfortunate knack for making their goat gods look rather foolish.

Schwabe was a German artist, and one of the more mystical of the Symbolists, with a fondness for winged figures and a preoccupation with death. The mystical end of the Symbolist spectrum is the one I enjoy the most so I often point to Schwabe or Jean Delville as exemplars of this type of art. Both Schwabe and Delville were connected briefly by Joséphin Péladan’s very mystical Salon de la Rose + Croix although Delville later gravitated to Theosophy. Schwabe produced illustrations for an edition of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, and would have featured in the Baudelaire posts last week if some of those drawings hadn’t appeared here already. The title page was a new find, however, so it’s included below.

schwabe09.jpg

Jour de morts (1890).

schwabe04.jpg

La mort du fossoyeur (1895).

Continue reading “The art of Carlos Schwabe, 1866–1926”

Intertextuality

cthulhu17.jpg

The Call of Cthulhu (1988): in the upper half there’s the big sun from Bob Peak’s poster for Apocalypse Now, in the lower half a radical reworking of Arnold Böcklin’s The Isle of the Dead.

In 1990, shortly after the first season of Twin Peaks had finished showing in the US, Video Watchdog magazine ran a feature by Tim Lucas which attempted to trace all the various cultural allusions in the character names and dialogue: references to old TV shows, song lyrics and the like. This was done in a spirit of celebration with Lucas and other contributors welcoming the opportunity to dig deeper into something they’d already enjoyed. This week we’ve had a similar unravelling of textual borrowings in a TV series, only now we have the internet which, with its boundless appetite for accusing and shaming, can often seem like something from the grand old days of the Cultural Revolution.

cthulhu01.jpg

The Call of Cthulhu (1988): a more subtle allusion to Apocalypse Now.

The latest culprit ushered to the front of the assembly for the Great Internet Struggle Session is Nic Pizzolatto whose script for True Detective has indeed been celebrated for its nods to Robert Chambers and The King in Yellow. It’s also in the process of being condemned for having borrowed phrases or aphorisms from Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against the Human Race (2011). See this post for chapter and verse.

cthulhu02.jpg

The Call of Cthulhu (1988): It’s not very clear but that’s a boat from The Creature from the Black Lagoon.

If I find it difficult to get worked up over all this pearl-clutching it’s because a) it shows a misunderstanding of art and the way many artists work, b) True Detective was an outstanding series, and I’d love to see more from Pizzolatto and co, and c) I’ve done more than enough borrowing of my own in a variety of media, as these samples from my adaptation of The Call of Cthulhu demonstrate, a 33-page comic strip where there’s a reference to a painting, artist or film on almost all the pages, sometimes several on the same page.

cthulhu03.jpg

The Call of Cthulhu (1988): Ophelia by Millais.

Cthulhu is a good choice here since Pizzolatto’s story edged towards Lovecraft via the repeated “Carcosa” references. You’d think a Lovecraft zine of all things would know better than to haul someone over the coals for borrowing from another writer when Lovecraft himself borrowed from Robert Chambers (and Arthur Machen and others), while “Carcosa” isn’t even original to Chambers’ The King in Yellow but a borrowing from an Ambrose Bierce story, An Inhabitant of Carcosa (1886). Furthermore, Lovecraft famously complained about his own tendencies to pastiche other writers in a 1929 letter to Elizabeth Toldridge: “There are my ‘Poe’ pieces and my ‘Dunsany pieces’—but alas—where are any Lovecraft pieces?”

Continue reading “Intertextuality”