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Kathy Griffin and Caravaggio: Decapitation and Atonement

It’s hardly difficult, amidst the bewildering swirl of news, rumours, disinformation and perpetual scandal and outrage that has been the still-young presidency of Donald J. Trump, to lose track of specific details of note, for occurrences of interest to be buried in avalanches of drama and rhetoric. One such instance fired outrage machines for an extended news cycle and is already sinking from view, but deserves to be held up for a measure of visual analysis before we lose complete sight of it.

In late May, comedian, actress, television personality, and sometimes political commentator Kathy Griffin posted a photo of herself on Instagram and Twitter holding up what was meant to appear to be the blood-soaked severed head of Donald Trump. Whatever satirical commentary Griffin and collaborating photographer Tyler Shields intended to make with the visual statement, the image sparked a firestorm of protest from online conservatives, Trump supporters, and liberals, too. Basically nobody liked it and most agreed that it crossed the line (wherever that line is considered to be located in the era of an admitted serial sexual-harasser President of the United States). Trump himself, as well as one of his idiot sons, even stoked the outrage on Twitter by claiming that the President’s 11-year-old son Barron saw the photo, thought it was real and believed that Daddy (who loves him nearly as much as he loves golf) was dead.

Griffin’s carefully-curated personal celebrity brand as an under-talented D-list semi-famous personality suffered definite consequences from the furour over the stunt, losing endorsements, appearances, and a high-profile New Year’s Eve CNN hosting gig due to the negative response to the photo. Rightly or wrongly, her image and career faces a serious setback for a decision that, whatever else might be said about it, was creative in nature. Stripping that creative decision of as much media hype and outrage culture baggage as we can, can we judge Griffin’s photo as an aesthetic image, as an artistic statement? If so, what can we learn from it?

My feeling in critiquing the image (above on the left) is that it leans into the tempting frisson of shock and partisan dark-wish-fulfillment when it might have endeavoured to foster more nuanced associations and implications. A productive point of comparison, and one which Griffin and Shields’ work falls well short of, might be to a superficially similar image by the Italian Baroque artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, David with the Head of Goliath (seen to the right in the superior of two versions the artist produced, from the Galleria Borghese in Rome). It’s not inconceivable that in composing the photo of Griffin holding up the head of “Trump” almost as a grotesque offering to the viewer, Tyler Shields had in his mind’s eye Caravaggio’s image of the Israelite boy king holding up the viscera-dripping head of the vanquished Philistine giant. Placed side by side, they might constitute a diptych of strange symmetry, Griffin gripping her foe’s skull with her right hand while David grips his foe’s skull with his left.

Homage-drenched referentiality aside, the weaknesses of Griffin and Shields’ image-making are laid bare by such a contrast. Three stark differences are immediately obvious: the colour of the bare background, the expression on the face of the figure holding the decapitated head, and the head of the hated, defeated enemy himself.

Caravaggio’s famed tenebrism, an extreme take on chiaroscuro shading which drastically contrasts light and dark and lends dramatic three-dimensional illusions to modeled forms, is on full display. A dark background contrasts with the central focus of light, David’s half-bare torso, muscles taut but skin boyishly soft. The shadows appear to be half-devouring his sword arm, like the penumbra of plague. Griffin, meanwhile, stands out harshly, glaring and almost unreal, against a white backdrop that is every bit a self-identifying trapping of a photographic studio. The red of her hair and the lapis lazuli blue of her outfit combine with the field of white to form the blatant American tricolour, couching her implied revolutionary violence in terms of patriotic defence of the republic. She might as well have a flag pin on her lapel.

And look at Griffin’s face, with its fixed mannequinesque impassiveness. What does she think or feel about what it’s implied she’s done to the leader of the free world, removing his head from his body, ending his life of lies and swindles and the bumbling tyranny of his rule? It’s hard to say that she’s telling us that she thinks or feels anything; her tightened neck, seemingly in mid-hard-swallow, is the most communicative feature of the weight of her act. She seems to be aiming for an expression of defiance (and some of that dwells in her blue eyes), but instead looks mildly aghast. Stunned. It is not a mask of righteous resistance, as it most likely ought to be.

Consider, alternately, David’s expression in the Caravaggio painting. He’s pensive, mournful, lamenting what he’s done. He’s remorseful about what’s happened to Goliath at his hand, and perhaps faintly ashamed at what his opponent’s fate has revealed about his own character. Goliath’s face, too, is rich in expression, evincing the slack-jawed, helpless final agony of his moment of death. But what is Griffin’s “Trump” but a paint-smeared dummy’s head with stage hair, communicating nothing of import and actually barely even resembling the President? Griffin might as well have defended herself from her detractors by claiming it wasn’t Trump after all. Were he not currently the most famous person in the world, would we even recognize that it was supposed to be him? Griffin might as well be holding a pineapple.

Is it absurd to compare an Old Master, an all-time great painter who constructs his images with painstaking skill and conscious, informed deliberation, to a modern provocateur photographer and second-rate comedienne, grasping at easy gasps? Caravaggio is lent a key edge by his aesthetic medium, which allows him complete freedom of creation and representation, while Shields can but capture what he places before his camera lens. This serves to explain, to some extent, the clumsy amateurishness of the “Trump head”, but not the gaping gulf of comparative empathy between the images.

This lack of empathy in the image of Griffin, I think, gets at the almost-uniform negative reaction to it. There’s a detached ugliness to it, an ironic lack of irony. Kathy Griffin, for all her political outspokenness, has no compelling visual relationship to Trump in this image. It’s flat as a postcard, with the grim self-righteousness of propaganda.

Caravaggio’s painting is less superficially shocking but more psychologically unsettling. This is not only because he includes the instrument of decapitation, the cold, groin-pointing phallic steel of David’s sword (how did Griffin remove “Trump”‘s head? Pruning shears?). More fundamentally, there is roiling emotion (often read as homoerotic tension) between David and Goliath. Art historical insight tells us that this emotion was, to a not-insignificant extent, internal to the artist: it has often been pointed out (by Simon Schama in his Power of Art BBC documentary on the painting, but by other scholars as well) that the head of Goliath is a self-portrait of Caravaggio near the end of his tumultuous life, on the run from the law for his part in a back-alley murder and thus fallen from his status as the golden boy of Italian Counter-Reformation painting; but the boy king David, with his sympathetic but disappointed ambivalence to his later self, is likely also a self-portrait of a younger Caravaggio.

This implied, emotionally complex self-criticism might be the key missing characteristic of the image of Kathy Griffin and “Trump”, and by extension American discourse both in favour and against the controversial President. The young David/Caravaggio offers the severed head of the older Goliath/Caravaggio as atonement for his sins, a brutal penance for his moral conduct falling short of the pious (but psychologically realistic) ideals represented in his religious art. Both Kathy Griffin and Donald Trump have benefitted from American privilege and plenty to rise beyond their merit. Some recognition of their spiritual kinship might have improved this image, as well as some measure of desired atonement for sin and moral shortcomings: Personal? Collective? National? Something would do. Anything that would make it mean much more, as art and as satire.

Documentary Quickshots #2

My Kid Could Paint That (2007; Directed by Amir Bar-Lev)

What is the Truth? Is there such a thing? What does it mean to us if there is, and what does it mean to us if there isn’t? And can storytelling, be it painting or documentary film, brings us closer to it, or simply make it more distant, more obscure?

Amir Bar-Lev’s My Kid Could Paint That asks all of these questions, openly or obliquely, and doesn’t really answer any of them. It also asks, in much the same manner though not nearly as pointedly as Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop, if contemporary art isn’t inherently a scam to separate pretentiously naive rich people from the money they don’t really deserve to have in the first place. The subject through which these big, unresolved interrogatories are filtered is Marla Olmstead, a 4-year-old girl from Binghampton, New York who became a global celebrity in the early 2000s when her abstract paintings began selling for thousands, and eventually hundreds of thousands, of dollars. Almost as soon as her fame exploded via an eager American media, skepticism reared its head, the focal point of which was a 60 Minutes II report that documented and speculated about whether Marla made the paintings entirely herself, or if she had secret polishing help from her publicity-hungry father Mark, whose interest in painting apparently sparked her own.

Bar-Lev had unprecedented access to the Olmsteads during Marla’s notoreity, which Marla’s parents seem to have given him primarily because they believed that his film would be favourable to their daughter’s practically impossible story. There’s certainly never a hint that the Olmstead household is anything but a happy one, whether or not it’s ground zero for a serious art fraud operation. Bar-Lev’s doubts become open by the film’s conclusion, which show a painful admission of his skepticism of Marla’s sole artistship to her parents, as well as Marla specifically asking for her father’s help in painting her latest work. Treated as a smoking gun of Mark’s guilt in stage-managing his small daughter’s career, it is far from definitive, though the father’s desperately insistent attempt to minimize its meaning on a phone call afterwards gives immediate pause.

But Bar-Lev more subtly and effectively mines My Kid Could Paint That with notes of creeping suspicion prior to that point. There’s the 60 Minutes II exposé, yes, but also Marla’s inability to explain her artistic choices when asked (I mean, she is 4 years old, but a Mozart-esque child prodigy would be able to express some idea, no?), the frustrating lack of definitive filmed proof of her painting a work start to finish (at least that wasn’t produced as marketing material by her family), and her art dealer’s brazen meta-admission of his opinion that modern art is an obtuse scam that he, as a semi-successful photorealist painter and outsider, was glad to exploit to the advantage of his finances and reputation. The film leads you skillfully to its agnostic conclusions before it lays them out openly (and, honestly, a bit clumsily).

One idea My Kid Could Paint That circles around but doesn’t key in on is how the story of Marla the 4-year-old painting prodigy preconditions reactions to her art, as well as sets its value. Exit Through the Gift Shop posited that the art world was so wrapped up in narrative and image, so disconnected from basic considerations of aesthetic quality or creative process, so awash in the irresponsibly-spent money of wealthy collectors with little clue about what makes art art, that a satirical ironist could lay bare its acquisitive hypocrisy by not only faking great art but indeed by faking the artist himself. My Kid Could Paint That posits something more profound and challenging, namely that it is not possible to tell real from fake in art, or even to begin to quantify or fathom what such a distinction might mean. Are the paintings of Marla Olmstead (now 16 years old!) great or interesting or valuable simply because they are painted by a preschooler, or despite of that (disputed) fact? How can we begin to answer either question, let alone sort one answer from the other?

Harmontown (2014; Directed by Neil Berkeley)

Far removed from the visual arts in practice, process, reception, and prestige, television comedy writing nonetheless has accrued a claim to direct access to Truth of serious, if not equivalent, dimensions. Dan Harmon, head writer and showrunner of the cult NBC sitcom Community and later co-creator of Adult Swim cult cartoon Rick and Morty, has received particular praise for not only his shows’ sharp, conceptually complex humour but also their beating heart, their use of laughter to forge a tentative but unifying sense of belonging among misfits. harmontown

Still, the praise given to a writer of a TV show with a cult following (and the middling ratings and perennial threats of cancellation that go with that double-edge term of endearment) may not be entirely satisfying to the ravenous ego of a comedy genius. So it seems to be with Harmon, who was fired from Community after its third season due to conflicts, both creative and personal, with executives, fellow creative staff, and most infamously with one of the show’s stars, Chevy Chase. Although Harmon returned to shepherd the show through the end of its run of six seasons (and, as one of the show’s cherished catchphrases predicted, apparently a movie as well), the firing (although not his first; he was also canned by Sarah Silverman from his key position with her eponymous show, despite her admiration of his work) seems to have sparked an existential crisis for Harmon.

Harmontown depicts how he chose to work through those issues: first, with a weekly cult comedy podcast, and second, by taking that podcast on tour across the U.S. in the dead of winter. Harmontown doesn’t sugar-coat its subject or depict him as any sort of brilliant or exceptional artist: Harmon procrastinates dangerously in delivering (unmade) pilot scripts to the CBS and Fox networks, drinks too much and is viciously critical of his live performances, and listens as his girlfriend discusses his rude behaviour. He’s even consistently outshone onstage by the deadpan unpredictability of Spencer Crittenden, an anti-social fan who was worked into Harmontown as Dungeon Master to the Dungeons & Dragons games that end each episode/performance.

But the film is often hilarious and even moving when showing moments from his shows and meetings with fans afterwards. Like the NBC sitcom that never had enough viewers and seemed to kind of like it that way, the Harmontown podcast and tour offers a feeling of community to people who don’t fit into the monolithic mainstream culture. In an American popular culture more niche-driven than ever before, Harmon has built for himself an intensely loyal niche audience, and Harmontown is a document of how he reaches out and touches that audience as well as how it recharges his creative batteries. This symbiosis – embodied by Spencer, the shy, solitary fan brought into Harmon’s modest spotlight – is good for both parties, and aims for some modest form of the Truth.

Categories: Art, Film, Hilarity, Reviews

Rome According to Robert Hughes: A Piecemeal History

October 13, 2015 Leave a comment

Summarizing the history, culture, art, and politics of 3000+ years of the “Eternal City” of Rome in a single 500-page volume ought to be considered a folly worthy of an excessive hedonistic Roman emperor. As it happens, the folly belongs to the highly-regarded art critic, popular historian, and cultural critic Robert Hughes, and it is no complete folly by any stretch of the imagination. But it is uneven and episodic, its segues often awkward, with different periods of Roman history (especially the millennium-long stretch of the Middle Ages) accorded less emphatic perspective than others. This is to say nothing of the persistent accusations of mistakes and inaccuracies in the section on classical Rome, first noted by Mary Beard in her Guardian review of the UK release of the book but left troublingly uncorrected in the subsequently-published US edition.

Maintaining a consistent quality of observation and insight on a city with such a varied and deep legacy would be a task beyond even a scholar in his prime. Hughes, hughesromehobbled by a serious car accident in his native Australia years before and fighting a long illness that would claim his life about a year after Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History was published, was at the end of a notable career as a critic of art, history, culture, and politics and cannot be counted on to muster his peak powers in the service of his civic subject. It does not help, perhaps, that Hughes has only been a visitor to Rome and not a resident, a shortfall which he acknowledges at the onset but never quite overcomes. Far be it for me to question a revered scholar’s understanding of an extremely complex world capital when I could never claim even a sliver of his expertise on the matter, but at many times Rome seems to be missing the irresistible force of scholarly prowess combined with penetrating, fabulously-written insight that defined Hughes’ remarkable account of Australia’s system of penal transportation in The Fatal Shore.

But there’s much good to Rome, and ought to be noted. As Beard notes in her Guardian review, it’s difficult to fault Hughes’ portraits of the heavy hitters of the Italian Renaissance and Baroque in the city. Summoned from the dusty annals of history and the fading works that they produced are the driven, powerhouse anatomical genius of Michelangelo, the sublimly gifted social butterfly Raphael, the quarrelsome but uncompromising champion of the Counter-Reformation Caravaggio, the impossibly talented giant of public design Bernini, his innovative but difficult architectural rival Borromini, and the mighty, ambitious Popes Sixtus IV, Julius II, and Clement VII, who between commissioned so many enduring works of public religious art.

Hughes also conjures the freewheeling 18th-century heyday of privileged tourism known as the Grand Tour in all of its heady admixture of highfalutin, demonstrative refinement and grubby, greedy exploitation. Even the late sections covering Italy under Mussolini and his Fascists and his neoliberal contemporary heir Silvio Berlusconi are trenchant and magnificently detailed, not to mention almost needlessly fair (Mussolini is frequently lumped in historically with his fellow Axis leader Adolf Hitler but his Fascist regime boasted both better art and public works patronage and less restrictions on minority ethnic rights in relation to Nazi Germany, at least until its closing years).

Even the opening pages on republican and imperial Rome, despite their evident errors, are rich with details from this profoundly alien past world whose cultural and political output was romanticized by Britain’s elite for so long. Magnificent villas and palaces rise alongside squalid tenement housing and brigand-ridden nocturnal streets, incredible engineering and architectural feats coexist with sickening self-indulgence and violent power seizures. Public baths, rowing ships, garum factories, imperial wars, and the upheaval of the rise of Christianity drift from the mists of time. Can you trust the truth of every word of it? Not really, if Beard is right, but even if this is the case, then what a compelling fantasy Hughes makes of this history.

Hughes has a talent for deploying fantastic (and maybe not strictly historical) anecdotes that illustrate the character of a time, a place, an important historical personage. He could detail the psychopathic excesses of Emperor Caligula (and does, at least a little), but he instead relates a bizarre (and possibly apocryphal) story of the Emperor ordering his legions to collect seashells as war booty as opposed to invading the British Isles. For all of his moderation as concerns the nature of Mussolini’s regime, he deposits a depth charge of terror in the form of the Fascist torture practice of forcing prisoners to eat a live toad (“The poor toad!” he mentions an Aussie actress reacting upon hearing the tale). And his riveting narrative of the moving of a towering stone obelisk during the Early Renaissance is both tense and dense with examples of superior engineering acumen.

But these anecdotes add up to more of a piecemeal history than a full, rounded view of what Rome means in historical or cultural terms over the centuries. This approach goes especially off the rails in his section on medieval Rome, which is rushed and betrays not merely a lack of expertise in the city of the period but a lack of interest in obtaining that expertise. This section becomes more of a history of the Catholic Church than a panorama of a thousand years of civic history. Hughes expends his efforts on discussing the 13th-century Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars in France, a vital and under-recognized episode in the Church’s highly ambiguous legacy but not really, ultimately, a Roman story at all. He also drops in the compelling story of 14th-century popular leader and self-proclaimed Roman tribune Cola di Rienzo without drawing out the social and political forces of the period that contributed to his rise. It’s as if Hughes can’t wait to hurry on to the safe ground of the Renaissance, where his blows of insight land more truly.

It’s undeniable that Robert Hughes gave himself too much to do with Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal Memoir. His panorama of Roman history never rises back up to the level of his initial metaphor: the menacing bronze statue of Giordano Bruno glowering down at the lively flower market in Campo de’ Fiori, the piazza in which he was burnt at the stake for heresy against the Church in 1600. This contrast of beauty and horror, historical portent and quotidian delights, religious rigidity and belated guilt, is somehow understood by Hughes as quintessentially Roman. Does the rest of his book on Rome, at once overlong and not nearly lengthy enough to do the city’s ages proper justice, fully illustrate this quintessential character, whatever one might choose to call it? It’s hard to say that it does. But what a ride nonetheless.

Film Review: Mr. Turner

January 1, 2015 1 comment

Mr. Turner (2014; Directed by Mike Leigh)

The cinema in 2014 gave us several fascinating perspectives on the nature and source of artistic genius and inspiration. It was defined alternately as an innate gift divorced from experience and formative circumstances (Frank), a collaborative hybrid of pure creative outpouring and regimented organization (The Lego Movie), and a product of technical ingenuity and dedicated work ethic (Tim’s Vermeer). Its ossified and fragile patrimony was worth protecting from the violent upheaval of history at the cost of human lives (The Monuments Men) and its blistering self-expression was worth wringing out of willing vessels at the cost of human kindness (jazz-school drama Whiplash).

In Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner, artistic genius is simply a fact of everyday existence. The sublime cannot be summoned, captured, or marshalled; it simply is, and those with the right kind of eyes and the proper technical training can occasionally craft a slight reflection of it. Suffering or pain do not motivate or inspire an artist to greater work any more than these common bedfellows of human existence motivate a baker, a tailor, or a factory worker. Art is an object that many people can craft but some can craft better than others, and profound treatises considering the reasons for this discrepancy are unproductive, wrongheaded follies.

This grounded, realist approach is symptomatic of Leigh’s filmmaking, but it is not an impediment to aesthetic beauty or sympathetic insight. Indeed, Mr. Turner is one of the year’s most gorgeously photographed films, and will surely earn cinematographer Dick Pope an Oscar nomination (if not a win) if enough Academy members have the right kind of eyes. Portraying the key adult creative years of Britain’s greatest painter, Joseph Mallord William Turner (played with grunting, Falstaffian, bearish reality by the ever-excellent character actor Timothy Spall, who might also get an Oscar call this year), Leigh’s film is chocked full of the stuff of a complicated but earthbound life with little of the romantic bohemianism of the myth of the genius. But in exquisitely-shot landscapes that often directly recreate Turner’s grand canvasses in the motion picture frame (including a breathtaking Low Countries field with sunlit windmill as well as the full panorama of The Fighting Temeraire), Leigh and Pope demonstrate the occasionally-glimpsed sublimity that Turner was able to muster out of his mostly mundane daily life.

That daily life included the loss of his proud ex-barber father (Paul Jesson) after years of the elder Turner assisting the younger in his work, his refusal to acknowledge a mistress (Ruth Sheen) who bore him two also unacknowledged daughters, his blithe disregard and occasional sexual exploitation of his psoriasis-afflicted housekeeper (Dorothy Atkinson), and his eventual quasi-marital bliss with widow Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey). He meets with wealthy patrons and fellow Royal Academy artists (there’s an amusing episode at the annual salon between Turner and his landscape rival, John Constable), learns of the scientific nature of light and colour from a natural philosopher and foresees the fundamental shift that the embryonic practice of photography will herald in painting, and endures and then wittily mocks the insufferable erudition of influential art critic (and hagiographer of his future reputation) John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire). He lives long enough to sees major shifts in fashions in art and to witness the increasingly abstract works of his later years dismissed by early Victorian society (and even by the aesthetically particular Queen Victoria herself).

The constant through it all is Spall as Turner, swaying his trunkish form with observant determination. There seems to be little corporeal distinction in the man’s body from hips to shoulders, but he has the interesting face to end all interesting faces, to borrow a Hollywood casting director term. Spall’s Turner is consistently unlovable in his behaviour and especially in his relationships to others. He often speaks abruptly and directly, grumbling frequently, vocalizing his reactions in ursine grunts and groans of an astonishing variety and expressive breadth. Leigh’s script is peppered with understated humour, but the film’s truest chuckles (and Turner’s ultimately winning personality) stem inevitably from Spall’s communicative croaks.

Strokes of painterly beauty aside, Mr. Turner is a deeply realist biographical portrait of an artist who could pull the sublime out of the natural (and the unnatural) world. A different filmmaker might have elevated Turner as his work elevates what it depicts, but Leigh keeps things stubbornly grounded. A good exemplification of his approach can be descried in a famous episode in which Turner had himself lashed to the mast of a sailing ship to observe (and later to paint) a maritime snowstorm. It’s a wonderful image of borderline-insane artistic commitment, and another filmmaker might have used the full technological toolbox of modern moviemaking to make an epic, sweeping sequence in long shots approximating the grandeur of a Turner canvas. They might not have even been wrong to do so.

But Mike Leigh shows Spall being tied to the mast in medium close-up, cuts wide briefly to demonstrate his crow’s nest elevation, and then goes back in close, showing Turner splashed by clumps of snow, hooting in exhiliration at the experience. Then he shows him coughing and breathing heavily, his doctor fretting that he’s given himself bronchitis. It’s a choice of mundane reality over the mythically grandiose that is highly representative of Leigh and, if we share his view of the great artist and not-quite-so-great man, ultimately of J.M.W. Turner as well.

Categories: Art, Film, Reviews

Alex Colville: Unambiguous Representations, Ambiguous Anxieties

September 3, 2014 2 comments

I must confess to a lack of familiarity with the paintings of renowned Canadian artist Alex Colville before venturing into the Art Gallery of Ontario’s solid retrospective of his life and work, which runs until the end of the year. Such gaps in the continuity of knowledge are surely the consequence of the essentially autodidactic instruction in art history that I’ve managed to give myself in a piecemeal manner in recent years, but I was glad to add Colville’s eerie paintings to my personal annals.

My memory has already been marked by particular memorable images of his making, certainly. To Prince Edward Island, which customarily hangs in the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, is definitely familiar; it’s likely his most famous work, a sort of Canuck Las Meninas, even if it is not really his best. But it typifies the most notable features of Colville’s art: a sense of mundane realism raised to the level of the uncanny and the mythic, witty play with planes, juxtaposition, and perspective, and a core of unsettling mystery. The woman in To Prince Edward Island stares directly at us, the viewer of the painting, but the binoculars hide her eyes: her view of us is magnified even as our view of her (and the lounging man behind her) is obscured (the exhibit notes a shot in Wes Anderson’s nostalgic time-capsule Moonrise Kingdom that seems to be a direct homage to the picture). The arrangement of this quotidian scene makes it vaguely unnerving; Colville is masterly at taking moments of everyday humanity and transforming them subtly into something superhuman, inhuman, non-human.

Born in Toronto in 1920, Colville learned art at Mount Allison University in Nova Scotia, where he later taught and then lived and painted until his death just last year. His formative creative experience, as the AGO’s exhibition presents almost right off the bat, was as a War Artist near the conclusion of World War II. He painted Europe’s war-torn landscapes and the bowed soldiers that made up the armies trying to restore order, but he also, vitally, witnesses the horrors of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, producing at least one fine painting inspired directly by what he saw there.

But Colville’s war experience, and his brush with the Holocaust in particular, seems to have infused an uneasy anxiety into his paint-on-canvas enigmas. Seemingly innocuous compositions of his peacetime experience in Nova Scotia college towns would unexpectedly contain seeds of the 20th Century’s dominant horror. Witness Professor of Romance Languages, a portrait of a neighbour of Colville’s who frequently walked alone, set in front of an industrial edifice whose smokestack inadvertently raised painful memories of the professor’s family past in the death camps. The supercharged resonance of Colville’s captured moments turns every detail into a potential symbol. Church and Horse, for example, gains some current affairs applicability when one learns, as the AGO exhibit makes clear, that the horse was based on Black Jack, the riderless steed being lead at the tail end of John F. Kennedy’s funeral procession (the picture is dated to 1964). But the image sounds deep wells of meaning whether or not one considers this particular source.

The AGO show finds Colville’s influence not only in Wes Anderson’s films but also in those of David Fincher, Stanley Kubrick (the notoriously exacting auteur used several Colvilles in the background of The Shining, including the resonantly symbolic Horse and Train to mark the Torrances’ fateful decision to winter at the Overlook Hotel) and the Coen Brothers, whose work Colville greatly admired. A painting like Pacific, with its calm menace and anticipatory stillness, seems to suggest a definite aesthetic affinity with the Coens’ patiently-crafted crime-noir Americana in Blood Simple, Fargo, or No Country For Old Men (the latter association is made explicitly in the AGO retrospective). The coldly superb composition of the picture amplifies the promise of violence just as the Coens’ visual poise and narrative acumen brings the inevitable bursts of hot blood out in sharper relief when they do arrive. The space is bissected by horizontal and vertical lines (cleverly referenced by the ruled table) which serve to frame the restive, casually shirtless and faceless man. But the muted colour palette is key as well, especially as the eye is caught and the mind is disturbed by the stark, intrusive black of the handgun’s barrel.

The AGO’s Alex Colville exhibition comes highly recommended by yours truly, even if it has its unfortunate omissions. Like many contemporarily-mounted big-ticket exhibitions, this examination of Colville’s paintings reads their symbols and extrapolates their sources in his personal life but has less to instruct concerning the technical features of his work. A close physical examination of the original canvases (or as close as the public is allowed to get) reveals that Colville’s vaunted vivid realism is stylistically the result of a painting method resembling a subtler pointillism, with many dot-like dabs of paint forming the entire image. None of the textual accompaniment to the pictures discusses this, nor is Colville’s clear representational approach properly situated in contrast to the increasing abstraction of modern and contemporary art advanced by his peers elsewhere in the art world. In many ways, Colville’s paintings evoke an earlier age in art, one of unambiguous representations with ambiguous significance. The earlier comparison to Velázquez was not a facetious one; Colville has more in common with such an Old Master than with a New Master like Rothko or Pollock. Alex Colville’s addition to the established profile of clear representational painting is the infusion of a very modern anxiety, that ever-present aura of an unstable present, a haunted past, and an uncertain future.

Categories: Art, Culture

Film Review: The Monuments Men

July 23, 2014 3 comments

The Monuments Men (2014; Directed by George Clooney)

The contemporary World War Two film finds itself in a tough spot. The grand stories of the 20th Century’s defining conflict have been told onscreen, and they are among Hollywood’s canonical texts: Patton, The Great Escape, The Best Years of Our Lives, Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List. The big narratives of the Big War have all been told and often retold; POW films, Pacific theatre films, and Holocaust films are all bursting subgenres in the larger war film megagenre. Even the war’s margins have produced classics like The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia; post-modernist deconstructions (Inglourious Basterds) and art film digressions (The Thin Red Line) have predominated in recent years, though some traditionalists (Clint Eastwood with his Janus projects Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima) have reached into the cynically discarded themes of honour and duty for inspiration. Fundamentally, though WWII films are still made, it seems like a largely spent mine narratively speaking; the precious metals have mostly been extracted.

George Clooney’s The Monuments Men typifies this problem: as interesting as it may be, it seems (painfully at times) like a less-vital side-story to the central drama of World War Two. It doesn’t present an unappealing story, though it does present that story with uneven earnestness, stiffness, and the dull middlebrow self-regard of a prestige film that isn’t ever good enough to earn the sobriquet. Though my own familiarity with the efforts of the titular agents of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program stems more from The Rape of Europa by Lynn H. Nicholas than from the account by Robert M. Edsel that was the source for Clooney and Grant Heslov’s screenplay, I was pre-invested in the story told by The Monuments Men to a greater extent than much of its audience. And if even I found the film unengaging and inconsequential, there were clearly some issues in its execution.

For those unfamiliar with the Allies’ wartime program to safeguard, preserve, and recover the unprecedented number of works of art, architecture, and furniture either looted, threatened, or displaced by the war in Europe, Clooney provides a useful summation at the movie’s opening in the form of a pitch to the U.S. authorities that are his project’s potential patrons. As Allied forces press inexorably towards Berlin post-D-Day, Frank Stokes (Clooney) highlights the existential threat to many of the continent’s greatest masterpieces. Military types would sooner blow up a medieval monastery than risk losing a man to capture it with its historic treasures intact (as happened at Montecassino in Italy), and the Nazis under failed artist Adolf Hitler and avid collector Hermann Göring were taking truckloads of paintings, sculptures, and other objets d’art from conquered territories (and from well-off Jewish families shipped to concentration camps, concerning which the film offers only a soft-focus symbolic gesture) for either their own villas or for a massive museum planned in the Führer’s Austria hometown of Linz. The cultural patrimony, Stokes insists, must be saved for the sake of future generations.

Stokes’ unseen audience (implied to be the President) expresses some pointed doubts about the relative value of art to soldier’s lives that neither Stokes nor the movie ever answers satisfactorily. Still, Stokes gets the green light and assembles a team of mostly middle-aged white men from the country’s top cultural institutions to be shipped to the front to do the job. There’s a young curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Matt Damon), an architect (Bill Murray), an overweight sculptor and professor (John Goodman), a sharp-tongued art critic (Bob Balaban), even British and French academics (Hugh Bonneville and Jean Dujardin) for some international colour.

Even if the war is turning rapidly in the Allies’ favour, the front remains an active war zone and is not without its dangers. The unit is shot at and shoots back (not everyone lives to see VE-Day), and must not only pursue dissembling German agents of the Reich’s systematic art looting infrastructure but also must locate the missing masterpieces before the Soviet Red Army does, lest they fall forever behind the expanding Iron Curtain that was the main cost of Churchill and Roosevelt’s Faustian bargain with the Mephistopheles that was Stalin to win the war.

There’s plenty of narrative, dramatic, and comedic meat here, but Clooney doesn’t seem to know how to grind it down into anything tastier than a street hot dog. The getting-the-team-together montage is perfunctory, as the fish-out-of-water element of high-culture types going to war is played for a laugh or two in basic training. The caper genre potential is badly squandered thereafter. The squad is quickly split up to hunt down specific artworks and the ensemble impact is diminished (one feels that Clooney was working around busy schedules and limited availability windows with his cast). Murray and Balaban are great together (they have a nice exchange with a German scout that they happen across at night in a forest), Goodman and Dujardin less so, and the paternal Clooney floats about with his mustache and smile of indulgent self-possession.

Damon’s James Granger, meanwhile, is saddled with a stop-start sort-of romance subplot in repatriated Paris with Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett). Based on the remarkable Rose Valland, who worked with the French Resistance and secretly catalogued thousands of displaced works of art while working at a gallery under the noses of the German occupiers, Simone is reduced to glaring at Nazis and alternately dismissing and flirting with Granger, with whom she has little chemistry (blame the generally befuddled Damon, who seems to mainly be here to help sell the movie as a species of WWII Ocean’s Eleven prequel). Valland deserves a film of her own, and Blanchett would have been a fine choice to play a more fleshed-out version of her, but she’s just another anecdote in a film that consists entirely of them.

This attempt to shoehorn every notable story from the Monuments Men epic into this one square, inert film is central to its failure. It’s too busy getting to all of these art world anecdotes (the Ghent Altarpiece being found in a salt mine, Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna rushed out ahead of the Russian advance, the loss of masterpieces taken by the Nazis) to craft an overarching narrative of intelligence, pathos, or dramatic heft. It never earns its grandiloquent closing thesis statement about the preservation of cultural heritage (much of what they’re saving is just rich people’s stuff, lest we forget), thus making it seem like the frivolity that the army brass felt cultural protection in a war zone to be. The Monuments Men attempts to tell a compelling and resonant story from the margins of World War Two, but becomes lost in those very margins. The great tales of the conflict have been told, but that need not mean that there are no stories left that could be great. There was plenty of reasons to expect that The Monuments Men could have been one of those stories, and a marked disappointment that Clooney wasn’t able to tell it in the way it deserved.

Categories: Art, Film, History, Reviews

Film Review: Tim’s Vermeer

July 20, 2014 2 comments

Tim’s Vermeer (2014; Directed by Teller)

Tim Jenison is an inventor, which means to say that he solves problems by using technology. This description might seem to be considerably removed from, if not diametrically opposed to, that of the artist, who doesn’t solve problems so much as diagnose and represent them aesthetically, or else imagine and conjure up a vision of an idealized absence of those problems. This last description in particular would seem to be an apt description of the artworks of Johannes Vermeer, the 17th-century Dutch painter of delicately composed, timelessly poised, exquisitely lighted interior scenes of contemporary quotidian life.

Vermeer’s paintings achieve a vivid serenity that feels practically impossible. But Tim Jenison thinks them all the more possible because they’re so practical. Having made a comfortable living developing and manufacturing high-tech video technology, Jenison has examined Vermeer’s paintings and his expert eye has recognized a photorealism that can only have been achieved with the aid of some more primitive form of visual projection technology. The prevailing theory is that the human eye and the artistic imagination are simply, technically not sufficient to produce the effects seen on Vermeer’s canvases.

Tim’s Vermeer documents Jenison’s thorough multi-year effort to first devise a mechanism allowing him (a total novice as a painter) to replicate Vermeer’s artwork and then to set about the time-consuming task of actually replicating it. Stage magicians and spokesmen for rational empiricism Penn and Teller produce and direct, respectively; Jenison is an old friend of theirs, and has dedicated his life to a more practical magic. His methods and practices are quite wondrous, all the more so for their tinkerer’s ingenuity, and the film’s greater message is that this mix of qualities was more than likely Vermeer’s as well.

Investigating and designing the type of mirrors-and-lenses optical device that Jenison believes Vermeer likely used (documentary evidence on the painter’s life is scant, and little or nothing is known or can ever be known for certain about his techniques), our hero rejigs the reflective apparatus of a room-sized camera obscura to craft a simple but fiendishly clever device that places an inverted reflection of any given object in a small shaving mirror rigged at eye level above a desk and canvas. All one needs to do is take up a paintbrush (which Jenison has never done before, but he’s a quick study) and painstakingly transfer the image that the eye sees in the glass to the canvas directly below it. It’s a visually intuitive process, albeit one requiring a high level of concentration. If you’re doing it right, the edge of the image in the mirror should blend into the one on the painting surface.

It might sound like a complex and confusing process in description but Jenison’s demonstrations for the camera as well as for artist guests like Martin Mull and David Hockney (who has written extensively about the potential use of optical aids like Jenison’s in achieving the Renaissance’s great leap forward in realistic artistic representation) are revelatory (see it demonstrated in the excerpted clip embedded below). “It’s not subjective,” Jenison says of his method, “It’s objective.” Once he’s shown that the device can produce virtual verisimilitude with a variety of simple objects, Jenison decides to undertake the odyssean task of applying its operation to the work of the master himself. He elects to use his device to produce a painstaking copy of Vermeer’s The Music Lesson.

The practical logistics that this project requires would surely daunt a less meticulous and determined person, not to mention a person lacking Jenison’s financial resources, technical manufacturing know-how, and apparent vast reserves of free time. To accurately create a painted copy of the The Music Lesson using his optical device, Jenison must construct, stage, and light the entire interior scene that it depicts in a warehouse studio, then sit in front of it for the better part of a year, diligently painting the mirror image in all of its considerable and minute detail. This designing and building process, though only a prelude to the grueling task of painting that exhausts and even begins to depress the seemingly unflappable Jenison, is impressive in itself. Jenison makes or tracks down the specific windows panes, tablecloth, mirror, chair, virginal (the period keyboard instrument played by the pupil) flooring, and clothing. At one point, he chops an expensive electric lathe in two because it isn’t long enough to make the virginal legs he requires.

Jenison pursues and executes the project of producing a Vermeer to call his own with an admirable but slightly frightening scientific obsessiveness. Tim’s Vermeer can feel like an extended Mythbusters episode with greater sophistication, more of a wry sense of humour and no explosions or production deadlines. The Guardian‘s art critic Jonathan Jones ripped into the film’s total lack of mystified awe at the rare power of artistic genius, accusing it of reducing The Music Lesson‘s creation to a mere “trick”. Jones is far from fair concerning Jenison’s investment in Vermeer’s art. If the tremendous investment of time and resources and mental exertion required to produce “a copy of a poster” isn’t proof enough of Jenison’s admiration of the original, his quietly moved reaction after being allowed to see the painting at Buckingham Palace should appeal more to the sort of mesmerized worshipfulness that the critic seems to feel appropriate when faced with Vermeer.

But my own reaction is that Tim’s Vermeer makes the master’s achievement seem grander and more ingenious even while systematically demystifying the amorphous cult of the genius. Nothing can ever be proved beyond doubt concerning Vermeer’s use of optical aids in the production of his masterpieces, but Jenison collects data to support the hypothesis in the course of the experiment: many almost imperceptible visual details in the original painting that are familiar to his trained techie eye suggest the use of image projection, including a very slight curve in the supposedly straight horizontal lines of the virginal that would not be reproduced if painted from life through the human eye alone. Obviously a working artist like Vermeer had to be quicker in producing his work than Jenison was, although a longer production period would serve to explain the relatively small number of known works by the master.

But the technical ingenuity and problem-solving acumen that Tim Jenison demonstrates and implicitly attributes to Johannes Vermeer need not preclude the evolved creative instincts and aesthetic vision that are breathlessly (and lazily) imparted to ineffable “genius”. Jenison’s device and painstaking model scene-setting allows him to merely (if convincingly) replicate The Music Lesson. Vermeer had to conceive of this transcendent tableau of light, air, and stillness and then apply whatever ingenious methods he formulated to execute its making. The Jonathan Joneses of the world acknowledge amazing technical acumen but seek to segregate it from the sublime ephemerality of artistic genius like high priests mediating between supernatural mystery and the empirical reality of their dull mud-splattered congregants. Tim’s Vermeer suggests more open-mindedly that sophisticated technical achievement is its own form of genius, and can tessellate seamlessly with loftier visions to form the genesis of a most memorable art. And even better, it shows us how. A most practical magic, indeed.

Categories: Art, Film, Reviews