Wendel Dietterlin’s Architectura

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While looking through my bookshelves recently for examples of Baroque architecture I was reminded of the eccentric designs of Wendel Dietterlin (c. 1550–1599), a German painter and engraver whose Architectura (1598) is less a guide to architectural form than an excuse to indulge the artist’s fervid imagination. This wasn’t really the reference material I was after—Dietterlin is pre-Baroque—but I’d not seen so much of his work in one place before. Dover Publications have reprinted all of these plates for many years as The Fantastic Engravings Of Wendel Dietterlin but it’s one Dover book I’ve never owned.

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“Fantastic” is an apt description. Where a similar study might present the reader with careful elaborations of Vitruvian principles, Dietterlin offers plate after plate of suggestions for portals, fountains, fireplaces and facades, many of which are festooned with bizarre and grotesque details. Wild animals are a persistent theme. Other artists of the period tended to favour mythological scenes for fountain sculpture; Dietterlin shows a series of large animals being attacked by smaller ones: bear versus dogs, dragon versus men, and so on. Similar groupings may be found on his designs for rustic arches. Ostensibly these are traditional hunting scenes but there’s a fury in Dietterlin’s renderings that pushes the representations away from the decorative towards the pathological.

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In other designs the wildness is transferred to the decoration itself. Examples of the traditionally sober orders of Classical architecture are shown encrusted with decorations added at the whim of the artist; Dietterlin wasn’t the only artist to do this but other artists are seldom this excessive. Strangest of all is the plate that shows a huge elephant standing before (or emerging from) a fireplace. René Passeron included a handful of engraving artists in the precursors section of his Concise Encyclopedia of Surrealism in 1975, but Dietterlin isn’t among them. I’d say that elephant alone is suitable qualification, a forerunner of Magritte’s Time Transfixed, as well as a literal (if inadvertent) representation of “the elephant in the room”.

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Metamorphose: MC Escher

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This is a Dutch documentary with narration in English, made in 1998 for the centenary of MC Escher’s birth. Unlike other films about the artist which examine the famous tessellated patterns and visual paradoxes the approach here is a strictly biographical one. Being a Dutch production, the producers had access to a large quantity of material about Escher’s life: photographs, diaries, sketches and so on, which means we learn a lot about his early years and his subsequent travels in Italy. The film seeks out some of the places that Escher drew in the 1920s, the tiny southern towns whose architecture would turn up decades later in many of his well-known prints. There’s also a visit to the Alhambra in Spain where Escher not only sketched the architecture but also made copies of the tile patterns. Best of all is footage of the artist himself in the 1960s talking about his work, together with extracts from other films that show him pulling prints from his engravings.

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What we don’t have is any indication as to how an artist who was struggling to make a living for at least half his career suddenly came to find his work featured in TIME magazine in the 1950s. Expert commentary in documentaries can sometimes seem superfluous but this is a film that would have benefited from the contribution of someone like Bruno Ernst whose Magic Mirror of MC Escher is an excellent study of the artist’s working methods and the thinking behind them. The film alludes to the growing popularity of Escher’s prints in the 1960s but there’s no mention of this being fuelled in part by illicit reprinting. While scientists and mathematicians were decorating their offices with bona fide Escher prints, their drug-taking students were doing the same in their dorm rooms with bootleg blacklight posters. Escher wasn’t impressed by the hippies, and showed little interest in the art world; there’s a brief mention of Dadaism in a reading from one of his letters but we’re not told what he thought of the Dadaists, or of the Surrealists who would seem like his natural allies, Magritte especially. (Escher’s Castle in the Air woodcut from 1928 was made 31 years before Magritte’s Castle of the Pyrenees.) Art critics reciprocated by ignoring Escher until his popularity made the avoidance unsustainable, after which the default position was to dismiss him as too “tricky” or coldly cerebral. Escher’s outsider status is almost unique in 20th-century art, and warrants a mention at least. Caveats aside, Metamorphose is still worth seeing, especially if you only know the artist from his later works. Watch it here.

Previously on { feuilleton }
More swans and robots
Suspiria details
MC Escher book covers
Relativity
Escher’s snakes
The Fantastic World of MC Escher
MC Escher album covers
Escher and Schrofer

Weekend links 615

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Tesla does the Astro. Hunter Dukes at Public Domain Review examines the promotion of Nikola Tesla’s ideas via this famous photograph.

• Coming soon from Side Real Press: Kokain—The Modern Revue, a magazine produced in Vienna that ran for five issues during 1925. “Original copies are so rare that it scarcely appears in any of the literature relating to the Weimar period and its contents have remained almost entirely ignored and certainly untranslated. Until now.”

• “Magritte had gotten this far in life by refusing to obey anyone, and in a way his disobedience proved that he understood Surrealism better than the leader of the Surrealists.” Jackson Arn reviewing Magritte: A Life by Alex Danchev.

• “Go as far into your dream as possible and find your own unique voice.” Meredith Monk (again) talking to Elizabeth Aubrey.

• Coming soon from Strange Attractor: City of the Beast: The London of Aleister Crowley by Phil Baker.

• At Spoon & Tamago: The natural world springs to life in kirie paintings by Tamami Kubota.

Antonia Mufarech on why sunflowers are Ukraine’s national flower.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Etienne-Louis Boullée’s unbuildable tombs.

• Mix of the week: I Can’t Go For That by The Ephemeral Man.

• New music: Triumph Of The Oak by The Lord.

• RIP Philip Jeck.

Tesla (1997) by Jimi Tenor | Tesla (2011) by They Might Be Giants | Tesla Coil (2016) by Xhei

Short films by Gérald Frydman

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Scarabus.

After writing about Gérald Frydman’s animated short Scarabus (1971) last year it’s taken me all this time to get round to watching the other films on his Vimeo channel, most of which are also animations. Scarabus was of interest for its deftly-crafted Surrealism, and there’s more of the same in some of these later films, especially Agulana. As with another Belgian director, Raoul Servais, Frydman directs all his films but doesn’t always animate them himself, hence the variety of art styles.

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Agulana (1976) is a kind of sequel to Scarabus with human figures being menaced and oppressed in a transforming environment. The Magritte quotient in films such as this raises the question of whether Magritte-ness (for want of a better term) is a quality unique to René Magritte or a component of the general Belgian character. Jonathan Meades insists on the latter in an excellent film of his own about Belgium.

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Alepha (1980) is more Surrealism, which in this case brings to mind the animated films of Piotr Kamler. Naked figures drift over landscapes filled with ambulatory spheres, vast spikes and other structures. Where Kamler favoured electronic soundtracks by Luc Ferrari and Bernard Parmegiani, Frydman has regular collaborator Alain Pierre provide a score of electronic drones.

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La Photographie (1983) is the first of two short films set in the 19th century. This one is little more than an anecdote, with a bored family forced to remain motionless while their photograph is taken, a process that lasts for the entire duration of the film. Outside the studio we see a Jules Verne wonderland of new inventions—dirigibles, rapid transport, electric light, typewriters and so on—where the frenetic activity contrasts with the inertia of the photographic process.

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Le Cheval de Fer (1984) is another photographic anecdote, this time concerning the wager prompted by an argument about whether a horse’s legs left the ground when it was galloping (and if so, at what point). The argument was famously settled by Eadweard Muybridge who invented a system to photographically record animal locomotion, thus paving the way for cinema, and for film animation.

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Les Effaceurs (1991) is Surrealism of a dark and disturbing kind with people urgently trying to scrub away their facial features.

Also on Frydman’s channel is La Sequence Silverstein (2000), a short science-fiction scenario which he wrote but didn’t direct. This one is live action and with dialogue in unsubtitled French. It not bad but I prefer the animations.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Raoul Servais: Courts-Métrages
Scarabus, a film by Gérald Frydman
L’Araignéléphant
Le labyrinthe and Coeur de secours
Chronopolis by Piotr Kamler

More Isles of the Dead

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Die Toteninsel by Georg Janny.

Arnold Böcklin’s masterpiece, The Isle of the Dead, is a perennial source of fascination here, in part for the way the picture has fascinated other artists, writers, film-makers, etc, for the past 140 years. Something about the image compels people to rework it according to their own predilections, or to incorporate it into a narrative. Böcklin began this process himself, painting five different versions from 1880 to 1886, one of which was lost during the Second World War. The final version, which is now at the Museum der bildenden Künste in Leipzig, seems to be the favourite among the copyists. Toteninsel.net is a site devoted to cataloguing the influence of the picture but despite considerable thoroughness they don’t seem to have added this watercolour homage by Georg Janny (1864–1935), an Austrian artist and scenic designer.

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Toteninsel (c. 1905) by Karl Wilhelm Diefenbach.

They do have an entry for Karl Wilhelm Diefenbach’s painting but not the painting itself which is a surprising reworking of the Leipzig version. An ostensibly Greek island has gained a domineering portico in an Egyptian style. Böcklin was Swiss but his paintings made a huge impression on the younger generation of German and Austrian artists.

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Toteninsel (nach Böcklin) (1975) by HR Giger.

Diefenbach’s picture reminds me of a favourite variation by another Swiss artist, HR Giger, who painted two homages to the Leipzig version in the 1970s. One of these is a fairly close copy, albeit without the funeral boat, and with the addition of Giger’s usual biomechanical details. The other version adds an industrial structure to the stand of cypresses. This is a hatch from the rear of a German refuse vehicle which had provided Giger with a subject for several paintings in his Passagen series. The Surrealist juxtaposition is worthy of Magritte (who also alluded to Böcklin in The Annunciation), drawing a parallel with bodily interment and waste disposal.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Isles of the Dead
A Picture to Dream Over: The Isle of the Dead
The Isle of the Dead in detail
Arnold Böcklin and The Isle of the Dead