member of:Observers of the Interdependence of Domestic Objects and Their Influence on Everyday Life

This group has been active for a long time and has already made some remarkable assertions which render life simpler from the practical point of view. For example, I move a pot of green color five centimeters to the right, I push in the thumbtack beside the comb and if Mr. A (another adherent like me) at this moment puts his volume about bee-keeping beside a pattern for cutting out vests, I am sure to meet on the sidewalk of the avenida Madero a woman who intrigues me and whose origin and address I never could have known...
--Remedios Varo

(Slideshow is of Artwork by Remedios Varo)
By believing passionately in something that still does not exist, we create it. The nonexistent is whatever we have not sufficiently desired.
--Franz Kafka

Monday, September 27, 2010

A Touch of Humor with your Study, Please

A Brief Romp through the Zoos and Gardens of the Renaissance.

"Winter" 15 feet tall, fiberglass
by Philip Haas
photo "Beauty and the Beast" by Dennis Roth

The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. is currently presenting the works of Guiseppe Arcimboldo, a painter who served as the court painter and portraitist to both Maximilian II and, later, his son and successor, Rudolf II, in the Vienna of the Holy Roman Empire. He was born in Milan, the capital of Lombardy, in 1526, and did not leave the city until he was 36 years old-- a fact which clearly influenced his painting style, as "Lombardy is considered the cradle of naturalism, a mode of artistic expression based on the direct observation of nature and shaped by Leonardo da Vinci" (source: exhibition brochure of this show, by by Sylvia Ferino-Pagden). The 1500s were filled with exotic flora and fauna brought home from the travels of traders and explorers to Asia, Africa, and the New World, and the simultaneous rise of the new sciences of the Renaissance focused the interest of artists throughout Europe on careful study and depiction of the natural world.

Dürer's Rhinoceros, 1515
By Albrecht Dürer

The above print was created based on the sketch and notes of someone who had briefly seen the first such a creature to make it to Europe, in 1515. Unfortunately, the rhino died in a shipwreck before Dürer himself could see it, and it was 1577 before another rhinoceros made it that far. For that reason, the people of Europe thought--well into the 18th century-- that a rhino actually had scaly legs, rivets, and a horn on its back, though it does not. Later, the print would also serve to influence the surrealist Salvador Dali, who produced a sculptural version, shown below:

Rinoceronte vestido con puntillas (Rhinoceros dressed in lace)
1956, Salvador Dalí

As for da Vinci's influence on the era, and especially on Arcimboldo, his "grotesque" head of an old woman:

and old man:

have a clear structural similarity to the heads Arcimboldo would later create using fruits and vegetables, as well as various creatures. The exaggerated hooked nose, obscenely bulging forehead or extremely recessed chin all found their way into his odd portraits:

by Arcimboldo
(Part of his series on the Four Elements, this painting is made up of mainly Mediterranean fish. According to the gallery notes, there are more than 60 different aquatic creatures here, the scale of which is inaccurate. Notice that the mouth is formed from a shark's jaw, and the eye is that of an ocean sunfish.)

by Arcimboldo
(The above is the painting from which Haas based his sculpture, shown at the top of this post.)

As a painter for Emperor Ferdinand I in Prague, he discovered the paintings of Peter Bruegel the Elder and Hieronymus Bosch, with their mixture of the bizarre and grotesque and their flawless attention to detail.

It is thought that his early studies of the natural world in the style of da Vinci were what attracted the attention of Maximilian II, who was an avid collector of animals and botanical studies, having created sensational zoological and botanical gardens at his court in Vienna. Arcimboldo would travel to Germany to buy both exotic creatures and man-made objects for his Kunstkammer, a precursor to modern museums, which under Maximilian's son, Rudolf, would come to be called the "Art and Wonder Chambers" (Source). The year after Arcimboldo arrived at the Viennese court, he created his allegorical paintings of the Four Seasons, including "Winter," shown above, which "appear to be an encyclopedia of the plants and animals that Maximilian acquired for his botanical garden and menagerie, all of which were studied by court scientists" (Source: exhibition notes). Replicas of the paintings and the accompanying poem by Giovanni Battist Fonteo which described them as allegories of the eternal rule of the Habsburg empire, were made and sent out as "propaganda" to other rulers.

Strangely, Arcimboldo's works were pretty much forgotten after his early death of kidney failure in 1593, but were rediscovered by Alfred H. Barr, a director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, who included his paintings in an exhibition he put together in the 1930s called Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism. There, the mixture of serious study (for example, of botany) and humor, along with the obvious talent for invention and perceptual tricks, could be fully appreciated; he was soon dubbed "the arch-father of surrealism" by Dalí (Source), who would also go on to make heads out of pieces of the landscape, other body parts, and even magnified atoms.

The Librarian
by Arcimboldo

Still Life...

Flip the above still-life of a bowl of vegetables over, and you get this:

The Vegetable Gardener

But Arcimboldo's influence extends even further than that, right up to the modern day, as can be seen in the sculpture at the top of this post of his painting "Winter," created by Philip Haas for the National Gallery's current Arcimboldo show.

Philip Haas has an incredible talent for studying what's in front of him until he can re-create it, completely anew. In a 2009 show at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth Texas, he created 5 short films based on 5 paintings on display at that museum which took the viewer inside the world of the painting, or in the case below, inside the world of the painter's skull.

Skull Cinema for the moving Ensor painting by Philip Haas

"Skeletons Warming Themselves"
by James Ensor (1860-1949)

The film he made around the James Ensor painting "Skeletons Warming Themselves," (above) was shown via four screens inside a giant skull, and is described in the exhibition notes of the museum:

"In this piece Haas takes us inside the experiences, memories, and obsessive imagination of the Belgian painter James Ensor, author of the Kimbell’s macabre painting of the same title. The scene shifts from the artist lying dead in his studio to episodes in which he appears as an old man, as a young man, as a boy, and as a baby in the care of his heavy-drinking father. In a memory that stayed with him throughout his life, Ensor recalled an ominous bird flying into his room when he was still in the cradle. The family lived in the bleak seaside town of Ostend, where they ran a shop selling curios, bric-a-brac, and carnival masks. Haas shows Ensor at the carnival as a boy––with his grandmother—then later as a young man, each time encountering his father in a drunken state. In tableau vivant fashion, the carnival revelers enact scenes familiar from his paintings, with their grim repertoire of masks, skulls, and skeletons––all captured vividly thanks to the theatrical designer Julian Crouch, with whom Haas worked on the masks and sets. We also see the young Ensor setting up and painting Skeletons Warming Themselves in his studio. The film features some distinguished veterans of the British acting world, Bernard Horsfall as the old Ensor, Clive Russell as the father, and Paola Dionisotti as the grandmother."

Self-Portrait with Masks, Ensor

Recreation of Ensor's Self-Portrait with Masks for the film by Philip Haas

You can see a brief clip from the film here.

"Young James Ensor at Mardi Gras Court"
by Philip Haas

The D.C. Arcimboldo show will run through January 9, 2011. Thanks to Dennis Roth for the heads-up.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Jenna's Tattoo

(This is one of a series of stories I am working on that center around a certain, as-yet-unnamed luxury hotel and its inhabitants, both living and haunting.)

NOTE: All artwork in this post by painter Steve Cieslawski.

Derrick’s pythons developed early in his life, in the elevator shaft of his parents' hotel.

The elevator shafts--there were two--stretched up the sides of the skyscraper like two glass thermometers measuring the wealth of their passengers in degrees. Perfect in every other way, the hotel often had a problem with the elevator on the right, which those outside of the hotel could provide the cause of--if only asked--as they were often offered a clear view of the pale blonde boy scrambling up in the steely morning light. His parents, however, turned a blind eye to this bizarre activity, as almost anything that occupied him at a distance pleased them to no end.

What they didn’t know about were his resultant regular visits to the thirteenth floor.

Unreachable by elevator, the thirteenth floor had been built at only three-quarters height, but in a hotel like this, that still left space to hang from a trapeze. And that was where Derrick had met Jenna’s soul, hanging from a trapeze.

Theater of Memory
(Notice the characters in their performance in her belly...)

Jenna’s soul had occupied the hotel’s 13th floor, along with the souls of several other people, since the explosive street riots of the previous century which had developed soon after a Very Important Politician, in the heady arrogance of new love and imagined moral superiority, had publicly discarded his old Mistress--who had, unfortunately for him and many others, by this time already become a cultural icon. Jenna had the entire story of the city’s rise and fall tattooed on her body. It began on her pinky toe. This is how Derrick would first recognize Jenna’s body later, as an adult and in the outside world: he had spent so long staring at her toes as a boy, toes which would later be enticingly exposed in the expensive pumps she favored. Also, there was her slavish fascination with fashion, which was really just her worldly body’s confused attempt to grasp the color, meaning, and artistic fullness of the tattoos hidden just underneath her skin, on her soul. Her fashion, of course, was always falling short, being the story-less version.

Jenna’s soul’s pinkie-toe was a snow-petal, from the Jissen flower native to the First Mistress’ region. Jissen was also the stage-name of that Mistress, so named for the pale white veils she removed, slowly, over the course of several hours, in an ancient art of dance designed to remove men’s inhibitions in flesh and in pocket. The flower grew only on the highest, snowcapped mountaintop of her family’s region, a mountain whose jealous spirit more often than not burned trespassers with flames of ice and blinding light. Only the poorest of the poor, and only those poor who had been trained since birth to face the difficulties of the search, dared to cross the first skirts of the mountain in search of her flower. And only those chosen by some higher being survived the journey.

Thus the blossoms brought prices higher than any jewel on the market. One blossom, kept planted in its original clay and dampened daily, would live forever. The tears it shed after that daily misting ceremony were collected in small glass jars painted with the likeness of the bloom and sold as perfume to the most elite ladies across the world. If a single petal were to be extracted from the bloom, the rest immediately died, but that one petal, stroked across the skin before it, too, wilted, would remove all wrinkles or other scars of living from the flesh.

Every decade had its claims of Jissen-hunting success.

Jissen the dancer’s flawless, pearly flesh, costly beyond the dreams even of those who were permitted to see her dance, promised life everlasting, but did not belong to her. It belonged to the man who had discovered her. That man, unfortunately for her and many others, was The Politician.

But back to Jenna's soul, and her tattoo.

Flight of the Architect

The petal was hooked by one claw from one long, twiggy leg attached to a long, thin, white bird. The leg was long, but the neck was longer, and the bird twisted and stretched far up the inside of Jenna’s soul’s leg, curling its head down coquettishly at almost the very last minute. It didn’t take up much space, horizontally speaking, but it held its own, attention-wise. Jenna called it Laa Fuba, the Guardian of Long Futures.

“Long, long ago,” she began the tale gravely, turning Derrick’s chin with one light finger to guide his gaze to her eyes, “during previous Dark Times, the End of the World was signaled by the Plague of the Angry Bees.” The bees, looking quite angry indeed, swarmed thickly around her ankle.

“The bees came slowly,” she continued. “The debilitating effects following stings here and there were first thought to be a virus, to which the children especially were susceptible. The children began staying in, which brought hard times for the people, as every hand was needed in most farming tasks.”

She lifted his chin again.

“And then the adults began to fall. They fell in the fields, they fell in the streets, they fell from their chairs at the dinner table. And soon everywhere there was the sound of angry bees, and the streets became filled with the whipping swarms.” She held his eyes with hers. “They heard that sound for many generations in their sleep. For them, the bogey man was a swarm, drawing up from the dust in the darkness.”

“And then the rumors began of the Land of Lakes, the Flatlands, where nothingness stretched forever and ever, interrupted only by nothingness that was reflective and wet. Strange breeds and outlaws lived there, and they were not areas visited much by the people of the farming and town communities. Who even knew how those strange breeds survived, or what threats they might pose?” Jenna paused, looking away, stretching one arm thinly into the air and wrapping it behind her shoulder. She pulled gently on it with her other hand and exhaled, then lifted her body into a backbend and continued with her story, Laa Fuba now flirting with the other side of the hallway:

“The rumors said that in the Land of Lakes, the bees had come and gone and no one had been harmed. Contingencies of men, wrapped in monstrosities concocted of branches and leaves and reeking, bee-repellant saps and animal skins, began journeying into the Flatlands to find the secret that would save their families and their lives. And after many, many weeks and many, many months, long after the ones they’d left behind were certain of their demise along the way, they returned. Carrying eggs.”

Jenna began to crawl, in her backbend, around the hallway. Backwards and forwards, and all around Derrick. Derrick felt his face growing pink. Derrick felt everything growing and pink. After his last visit, he thought he’d never be able to think of anything but toes ever again, yet here he was, developing a fetish for feathers.

“It was the Laa Fuba that saved them. Those long, white, graceful birds of the Flatlands ate the infected bees. They seemed uninterested in regular, every day bees. They ate the sick bees, and the sick bees turned them pink.”

Derrick, thinking she was teasing him, blushed a deeper red.

“And that was all. They turned pink and that was all.” She kicked her legs over, flipping back onto her feet, then sliding her arms between her legs on the ground and squatting to tuck her neck under and curve her back the other way. He stared at the gaping orange lips of a carp gasping at him from the base of her neck.

Jenna reached up for the trapeze and began to twist slowly from a hang. “From then on, in all of the villages, they had breeding farms for the long white bird. And the times of health were called the “Fluttering of Great White Wings,” and they had festivals to honor the bird every year, and the villages and towns were filled with the fluttering of white wings, and one, central float was dedicated to the miraculous pink of their savior.”

Her feet curled and slowly slid up the rope on the right side of the bar. She twisted to a handstand, then let go with her hands, her ankles gripping the rope.

“The float was a giant fuschia boa, its feathers made of silks and cashmeres, panties and socks, everything soft that could be dyed and tied to long and tangled ropes, and they would push the float up the great hill in the center of the village, everyone struggling behind it, and then with one great heave, they pushed it over the top, and the little man-made feathers would flutter wildly in the wind as it sailed back down the other side.” She twisted some more, grasping the opposite rope with her hands then stretching her hands and feet away from each other, curving back, her belly out.

“But even after all that, they still forgot. They still ended up in the Next Dark Times.”

And then she had to quit talking, from exertion.

"Fateful Meeting"

On an older post in this blog, author Marly Youmans recommended the art of Steve Cieslawski, and I instantly fell in love. I chose his work for this post because of the plethora of liminal spaces like the thirteenth floor in the tale, where one world's arches and floors form the strange sky of another, where a full-color, living head tells stories from a distant, black and white past, and where, incredibly, you can see the flames of the past resolve and settle into the red hair of certain lovely souls gliding through a Sea of Tranquility...the story of the past marking us in very particular, very individual ways, beneath the skin, in the marrow, even changing our DNA...

Philsopher's Twin


Sea of Tranquility

"Civilized Discourse"

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Your Purpose in Life

Patience Worth was meant to be an author, and not even death would stand in her way. Though killed in an Indian raid in the late 1600s, she would become an astonishingly talented author between 1913 and 1938, through the mediumship of a "restless homemaker plagued by nervous ailments" with a "limited" education named Pearl Lenore Curran. Poet Edgar Lee Masters went to hear Mrs. Curran take Worth's dictation and called her work "remarkable." In 1917, five of her poems were printed in the Braithwaite anthology of the nation's best, and her first novel was praised by the New York Times as "a feat of literary composition."

In a September 2010 article in Smithsonian Magazine, Gioia Diliberto writes:

"Patience appeared on the scene just when spiritualism, enjoying its last great American revival, collided with the age of science, and a brigade of investigators, including magician Harry Houdini, prowled the nation to expose bogus mediums. Since most mediums were women—the spiritualist movement accorded women social status they rarely attained elsewhere—this crusade turned into an epic battle of the sexes: supposed hard-nosed men of science against swooning female seers."

Though a seemingly endless stream of skeptics and scientists arrived at Pearl's door to prove her a fraud, no one ever succeeded, and even if they had, the fluidity with which Pearl/ Patience could switch from poem to play to novel in a single night and the recognizable talent that flowed forth from the medium, who also studded her dictations with "sparkling conversation" with her audience were feats on their own.

And there was the incredible shift in her language:

“Well I remember a certain church,” she once dictated, “with its wee windows and its prim walls, with its sanctity and meekness, with its aloofness and chilling godliness. Well I remember the Sabbath and its quietude of uneasiness, wherein the creaking of the wood was an infernalism, the droning and scuffing of the menfolk’s shoes and the rustle of the clothes of the dames and maids, the squeaking of the benches, and the drowsy humming of some busy bee who broke the Sabbath’s law. Aye, well I remember the heat that foretold the wrath of God, making the Good Man [the parson] sweat. Aye, and Heaven seemed far, far.”

I recommend the article, which you can read here.