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

Weekend links 574

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Poster for Beauty and the Beast (1978) by Josef Vyletal.

• Next month, Second Run release Juraj Herz’s 1978 adaptation of Beauty and the Beast on region-free blu-ray. I watched this last year on a Czech DVD so it’s good to hear it’s being given an upgrade. Herz’s film is a distinctly sinister take on the familiar tale, with a bird-headed Beast that’s closer to Max Ernst than anything you’ll find in illustrations for Perrault’s stories.

• “In a coincidence so unlikely it almost seems, well, magical, the girls traced illustrations from a book of folklore that also contained a short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself, a reflection of a reflection of a reflection.” Audrey Wollen on the Cottingley fairy photographs. Related: The Coming of the Fairies by Arthur Conan Doyle.

• “[Mark E. Smith], with his love of Stockhausen, HP Lovecraft, and (bizarrely) the sitcom Keeping Up Appearances, becomes a reverse coder, an apostle of avant pulp, a ‘paperback shaman’.” Sukhdev Sandhu reviews Excavate! The Wonderful and Frightening World of the Fall, edited by Tessa Norton and Bob Stanley.

• “Found photos of men in love from 1850–1950“. Maybe. As before, I’m always cautious about imposing a narrative on old photographs.

• Mixes of the week: A mix for The Wire by Pamela Z, and a dose of post-punk esoterica by Moin for XLR8R.

DJ Food takes another dive into back issues of International Times in search of ads for London’s Middle Earth club.

• At The Smart Set: Colin Fleming watches John Bowen’s drama of pastoral horror, Robin Redbreast.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Heavily plotted non-linear structures whose velocity lacks narrative drive.

Ryan Gilbey attempts to rank Robert Altman’s features into a list of 20 best.

• Still Farther South: Poe and Pym’s Suggestive Symmetries by John Tresch.

• New music: At One Point by Scorn.

Visionist‘s favourite albums.

The Beast (1956) by Milt Buckner | Leggo Beast (1978) by Gregory Isaac’s All Stars | This Beast (1983) by Tuxedomoon

Weekend links 573

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The Greendale Oak, Welbeck, Nottinghamshire, from Joseph George Strutt’s Sylva Britannica (1822/1830).

• “…a single page from Max Ernst’s collage novel Une semaine de bonté (A Week of Kindness, 1934) uncovers the weird brooding threat in Tenniel’s image of Alice in the railway carriage.” Mark Sinker reviewing the Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. I don’t know what Ernst page Sinker is referring to but I made the connection between an Ernst collage and Tenniel’s drawing here in 2010.

• At Wormwoodiana: “Calum Storrie’s 36 Elevations is a book of drawings of imaginary architecture, with the emphasis on towers, stairs, ladders, globes, oblique angles, gantries, finials etc.”

• At The Quietus: Jennifer Lucy Allen on The Strange World of…Don Cherry, and Dustin Krcatovich on Don and Moki Cherry’s Organic Music Theatre.

Call it the new orthodoxy of the digital middlebrow, “the rise of safely empowering stories with likeable protagonists who move through short sentence after short sentence towards uplifting conclusions in which virtue is rewarded.” The laudable goal of increasing the diversity of literary voices has somehow morphed into a series of purity tests designed to ensure that any artistic representation ticks the same boxes as its ostensible author. “On this,” Tyree writes, “conservative religious evangelicals secretly agree with their puritanical secularist enemies on a censorious attitude and checklist approach to art as either ‘acceptable’ or ‘offensive’ to whatever program one happens to prefer for cleansing all vileness from the world.” The result?

[A]rt is increasingly viewed by both the right and the left as a sub-branch of medicine, therapy, hygiene, or good manners. Art is no longer that which tells us the truth but rather that which makes us feel better—a deflated ideology that is spawning a sort of unofficial school of palatability.

And this, I fear, is what’s afflicting many of my students…

Justin St. Clair reviewing The Counterforce: Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice by JM Tyree. Since I’m currently in the midst of a Pynchon reading binge this is all very timely

• “Researchers create self-sustaining, intelligent, electronic microsystems from green material“.

• From 2018: Ryuichi Sakamoto and David Toop live at The Silver Building.

• New weirdness: Catwalk Of The Phantom Baroque by Moon Wiring Club.

• Mix of the week:Episode #391 of Curved Radio by radioShirley & mr.K.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Illegible autographs.

Elevation (1974) by Pharoah Sanders | Elevation II (1997) by Vainqueur | Elevations And Depths (2010) by Locrian

Max Ernst by Peter Schamoni

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The English version of Peter Schamoni’s feature-length documentary from 1991 has finally reached YouTube. I think copyright reasons may have prevented it from doing so in the past in which case the usual caveats apply: if it’s of interest then watch it while you have the opportunity, it may not be there for long. The German version of the film has a longer title, Max Ernst: Mein Vagabundieren—Meine Unruhe, which auto-translates to “my vagabondingmy restlessness”, a reference to Ernst’s peripatetic life as well as to his artistic wanderings.

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I mentioned in the previous post my having spent some time last year watching a number of documentaries about Surrealism. This was one of them, and it’s the film about Max Ernst. Films about Salvador Dalí are plentiful but other Surrealist artists are lucky if they receive a single worthwhile appraisal. Peter Schamoni had filmed Ernst in 1966 for a short, Maximiliana oder die widerrechtliche Ausübung der Astronomie, so was already sympathetic to the artist’s work. Max Ernst resembles one of the BBC’s classic Arena documentaries in being a biographical account threaded with documentary material and pictures of significant artworks. Detail is supplied by actors reading from writings by Ernst, Dorothea Tanning and others.

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There’s a lot of interview footage here, mostly from TV appearances in later life, in which Ernst’s intelligent conversation makes a striking contrast to Dalí’s bluster and evasions. Schamoni interleaves the historical footage with shots of the various locations of Ernst’s wanderings: the south of France, New York City, California, Arizona, Paris. Several of the Dalí documentaries note the degree to which the coastal landscape of Cadaqués informed Dalí’s painting; Schamoni makes a similar comparison between Ernst’s American paintings and the desert landscapes of Arizona. It’s good to see some of the Microbes that he painted while he was there, a series of tiny landscape pictures that books about Ernst don’t always mention, let alone depict.

Previously on { feuilleton }
The nightingale echo
Max Ernst’s favourites
Viewing View
Max Ernst album covers
Maximiliana oder die widerrechtliche Ausübung der Astronomie
Max and Dorothea
Dreams That Money Can Buy
La femme 100 têtes by Eric Duvivier

Weekend links 562

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Teenage Lightning (Les Éclairs au-dessous de quatorze ans) (c. 1925) by Max Ernst.

• “There has never been another director who has lain in wait for us with the same wrath or disgust. He is so complicated that finally he became the very thing he was nervous of admitting, a true artist best measured in the company of Patrick Hamilton, Francis Bacon, or Harold Pinter. He saw no reason to like us or himself.” David Thomson on why Alfred Hitchcock’s films still feel dangerous.

• New music: “Habitat, an environmental music collaboration by Berlin based composer Niklas Kramer and percussionist Joda Foerster, is inspired by the drawings of Italian architect Ettore Sottsass. Each of the eight tracks represents a room in an imaginary building.”

• “You could describe Lambkin’s work as a rich sort of ambient music, but largely without the synthetic textures that ambient music often possesses.” Geeta Dayal reviews Solos, a collection of recordings by Graham Lambkin.

Tom of Finland: Pen and Ink, 1965–1989 is an exhibition at the David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, which runs to 1st May. The website includes a virtual tour.

• More revenant gay art: Bibliothèque Gay reviews a new Spanish translation of Baiser de Narcisse by Jacques d’Adelswärd-Fersen.

• Introducing Ark Surreal: “Surreal collages by Allan Randolph Kausch. Some cute and sweet, others dark and intriguing.”

• At Artforum: Albert Mobilio on Extra Ordinary: Magic, Mystery, and Imagination in American Realism.

• At Spoon & Tamago: Shizuoka is installing monuments inspired by their plastic model industry.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Jordan Belson Day.

Museum of Everything Else

• RIP Bertrand Tavernier.

Teenage Lightning 2 (1991) by Coil | Teenage Lightning (1992) by Skullflower | Teenage Lightning (Surgeon Remix) (2001) by Coil