The Process of Perfection

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Etant Donnes: 1 La Chute D’Eau 2 Le Gaz  D’Eclairage-Marcel Duchamp (1946-1966)
After WWII the enigmatic Marcel Duchamp, arch avant-gardist and art world provocateur was widely have believed to have turned his back on art to dedicate himself to competitive chess. However for the next twenty years  Duchamp would work in secret on his tableau Etant Donnes: 1 La Chute D’Eau 2 Le Gaz D’Eclairage (Given: 1 The Waterfall 2 The Illuminating Gas), it was to be his final work. The tableau was only installed after Duchamp’s death in 1968 in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

It immediately caused a sensation. The tableau is only visible through two tiny peep holes which presents a mysterious scene whose meaning remains elusive. In the foreground against the painted sylvan landscape is a naked female (comprised of parchment, hair, glass, paint, cloths-pegs, and lights). Her head is hidden, all that is visible above the torso is strands of blonde hair. The posture of the body is extremely disturbing, the immediate impression is of violence against the supine figure. The model for most of the figure was Duchamp’s lover from 1946 to 1951, the Brazilian sculptor Maria Martins. After meeting Martins Duchamp increasingly introduced the erotic into his previously cerebral art and he would obsessively draw her voluptuous figure. Duchamp’s second wife Alexina (Teeny) was the model for the arm. Duchamp consulted extensively with both women during the artistic process.

A work as opaque as Etant Donnes invites all manner of interpretations. For me several features are highly suggestive of alchemy and Hermeticism. The oil lamp could be alluding to the alchemical fire that accelerates the process of perfection in the Great Work. The headless women was a frequent symbol of Mother Nature in early cultures and her position could be taken as someone ready for either childbirth or sexual intercourse. If this is the case then the spring would refer to the womb where new life is formed and nourished. Is Etant Donnes an alchemical allegory on artistic creation?

Bring On The Night

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Bring on the Night
For the Night is the time
The only time there is
For the likes of you and me
Only in the Night
With its compulsions
And its repetitions
Of obsessive desires
Can we be truly ourselves
Because in the vulgar glare
Of the censorious daylight
We are exposed to the
Prying eyes of simulacra
Of cold unfeeling automata
Bring on the Night
Let the black Sun
That absorbs all radiance
Stay high in the sky
And never set again
So that I can play
My bizarre childish games
While you work away
At your women’s work
For during the night
Magic and Alchemy
Are living realities
First the Alchemy
Of the holy word,
Word into deed,
Deed into actuality
Then the Alchemy of
Our bodies as we turn
Each other inside
Out to transmute
Our base natures into
The stuff of spiritual gold
With the admixture
Of saliva and blood
We will greedily swallow
Each other’s essence
The elixir necessary
To achieve the intensity
Required to slow
This shit right down
So that the sacred
Unholy night never ends.

Proverbs of Hell

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William Blake-The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun 1805-1810
William Blake was possessed by a strange genius. A combination of painter, poet and prophet, no other artist manages to convey such visionary intensity as Blake. All his life Blake experienced visions of angels and apparitions, one of which, The Ghost of a Flea (see below), he was persuaded to paint by his friend the painter-astrologer John Hayley. He also claimed that his writing was directly inspired by outside agencies as the following quote illustrates, Thirteen years ago I lost a brother, and with his spirit I converse daily and hourly in the spirit, and see him in my remembrance, in the region of my imagination. I hear his advice, and even now write from his dictate.

Central to Blake’s work is The Marriage of Heaven & Hell, which contains a distillation of his revolutionary philosophy in the Proverbs of Hell. This work has been subject to numerous studies with many theories advanced as to what exactly its meaning is, however like all truly great works it eludes a final, concrete definition, operating as it does on many different levels, that include. but are not limited to: the alchemical, satirical, religious, artistic, mystical and revolutionary. I have included below the incendiary and paradoxical Proverbs of Hell in full to illustrate the importance that Blake placed upon desire and sexuality

As well as The Ghost of a Flea, I have selected the astonishing, hallucinatory  The Great Red Dragon series of watercolours that Blake painted from 1805-1810 based on the Book of Revelations and Blake’s death mask that adorned the painter Francis Bacon’s study. For more information please refer to my previous post The Marriage of Heaven & Hell.

Proverbs of Hell

In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.
Drive your cart and your plough over the bones of the dead.
The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.
Prudence is a rich, ugly old maid courted by Incapacity.
He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence.
The cut worm forgives the plough.
Dip him in the river who loves water.
A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.
He whose face gives no light, shall never become a star.
Eternity is in love with the productions of time.
The busy bee has no time for sorrow.
The hours of folly are measur’d by the clock; but of wisdom, no clock can measure.
All wholesome food is caught without a net or a trap.
Bring out number, weight, and measure in a year of dearth.
No bird soars too high, if he soars with his own wings.
A dead body revenges not injuries.
The most sublime act is to set another before you.
If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.
Folly is the cloak of knavery.
Shame is Pride’s cloak.
Prisons are built with stones of Law, brothels with bricks of Religion.
The pride of the peacock is the glory of God.
The lust of the goat is the bounty of God.
The wrath of the lion is the wisdom of God.
The nakedness of woman is the work of God.
Excess of sorrow laughs. Excess of joy weeps.
The roaring of lions, the howling of wolves, the raging of the stormy sea, and the destructive sword are portions of eternity too great for the eye of man.
The fox condemns the trap, not himself. 53
Joys impregnate. Sorrows bring forth.
Let man wear the fell of the lion, woman the fleece of the sheep.
The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.
The selfish, smiling fool, and the sullen, frowning fool shall be both thought wise, that they may be a rod.
What is now proved was once only imagin’d.
The rat, the mouse, the fox, the rabbit watch the roots; the lion, the tiger, the horse, the elephant watch the fruits.
The cistern contains: the fountain overflows.
One thought fills immensity.
Always be ready to speak your mind, and a base man will avoid you.
Everything possible to be believ’d is an image of truth.
The eagle never lost so much time as when he submitted to learn of the crow.
The fox provides for himself; but God provides for the lion.
Think in the morning. Act in the noon. Eat in the evening. Sleep in the night.
He who has suffer’d you to impose on him, knows you.
As the plough follows words, so God rewards prayers.
The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.
Expect poison from the standing water.
You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.
Listen to the fool’s reproach! it is a kingly title!
The eyes of fire, the nostrils of air, the mouth of water, the beard of earth.
The weak in courage is strong in cunning.
The apple tree never asks the beech how he shall grow; nor the lion, the horse, how he shall take his prey.
The thankful receiver bears a plentiful harvest.
If others had not been foolish, we should be so.
The soul of sweet delight can never be defil’d.
When thou seest an eagle, thou seest a portion of Genius; lift up thy head!
As the caterpillar chooses the fairest leaves to lay her eggs on, so the priest lays his curse on the fairest joys.
To create a little flower is the labour of ages.
Damn braces. Bless relaxes.
The best wine is the oldest, the best water the newest.
Prayers plough not! Praises reap not!
Joys laugh not! Sorrows weep not!
The head Sublime, the heart Pathos, the genitals Beauty, the hands and feet Proportion.
As the air to a bird or the sea to a fish, so is contempt to the contemptible.
The crow wish’d everything was black, the owl that everything was white.
Exuberance is Beauty.
If the lion was advised by the fox, he would be cunning.
Improvement makes straight roads; but the crooked roads without improvement are roads of Genius.
Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.
Where man is not, nature is barren.
Truth can never be told so as to be understood, and not be believ’d.
Enough! or Too much.

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William Blake-The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun 1805-1810
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William Blake-The Great Red Dragon and the Beast from the Sea 1805-1810
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William Blake-The Number of the Beast is 666-1805-1810

The Ghost of a Flea c.1819-20 by William Blake 1757-1827
William Blake-The Ghost of a Flea 1819-1820
NPG 1809; William Blake by James Deville
William Blake’s Death Mask

 

Tempting Fate: Part One

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Andre Masson-Card Trick  1923

I

There inevitably comes a point in every gambler’s career when he is compelled to call upon the aid of unseen powers. Because they instinctively follow the smart money, which these days is laid heavily against God, a gambler need only make dubious entreaties to these shadowy entities. But then a true gambler will do anything to win, consequences be damned.

So it was with Max Chasm, who in the early hours of June 23rd of an ill-starred year, was seated at the roulette table in the casino on the 33rd floor of The Very Heaven Heavenly Hotel by Hilton-Tetragrammaton™ in Paradise, Nevada.  At 1 am, when his young wife Catherine —always a Cinderella— had left him for their suite and their bed, he found himself ahead and on a streak which he was determined to pursue.

As the hours passed, the tide had slowly but perceptibly turned against him. Where once there had been mountains of chips, there was now a vast plateau of green baize dotted with scattered, eroding hills. How on earth could he explain to Catherine, in the unforgiving morning light, that he had lost all that money in such a short period of time? And once he started, he would have to reveal the true state of affairs, something which he was loath to contemplate. Max had refused to acknowledge, even in passing, the utter, absolute mess he had created.

Of late, his gambling had become all-consuming, he had lost his job two weeks ago and still hadn’t dropped that bomb on Catherine, and the debts…. oh yes, the debts for which he had borrowed £15,000 from his Grannie. And bless her, the dear soul thought it was a bridging loan to help him start-up a restaurant. Of course, once he had the wad in his hot hands, the idea of turning it over to Harry Diamond and all the rest of the piranhas seemed a lot less attractive than going to Vegas and winning a pile. Besides, it would be a nice treat for Catherine —it hadn’t been easy for her lately and she deserved a little spoiling.

“What was I thinking?” Max reproached himself. All his callow dreams were rapidly evaporating and soon he would be forced to confront the unavoidable reality. If Harry didn’t get his money upon Max’s return then Harry would not be best pleased…and you always wanted to stay on the right side of Harry. His experiences growing up a Jew in Belfast during the Troubles, had taught Harry the importance of making examples. This knowledge had served him well in his various careers as landlord, nightclub owner, bookmaker, debt collector and other assorted enterprises that you couldn’t put down on paper. Max knew that Harry would never abandon the tried and true methods that served him so well. Mr Diamond was the perfect embodiment of his name: flashy and very, very hard.

As he watched the croupier rack up yet more of his money, Max toyed with the idea of never returning to England. That would be, at best, a temporary solution inevitably leading to more problems, since Harry had his tentacles everywhere and undoubtedly had enough information about him —like the names and addresses of his friends and family— to make life even more difficult and dangerous than it already was.

It would also mean having to persuade Cathy to stay out here, which actually wasn’t that far outside the realm of possibility, since he’d already convinced her to marry him against her beloved father’s strong objections. Nevertheless, it wouldn’t be an easily won argument. For a start, what would they do for money? For a moment he considered that if worst came to worst, he could put her on the game. Cathy would definitely make a killing looking the way she did. Now that was a thought, if it came to the last resort.

Max decided to sit the next few turns out to give himself time to think. He had to hit upon a strategy to come back from underneath. He ordered a gin and tonic from the kimono-clad cocktail waitress and resolved that he wouldn’t bet again until she returned.

All the while, as Max waited nervously, he fingered the lucky dice in his jacket pocket as he ran through a half-crazed litany of desperation and desire addressed to vaguely remembered deities.

“O Fortuna,” he muttered, “do not desert your loyal servant in the hour of his greatest need. Eris, give me one last chance to make my life right, and I’ll give you anything you want in return. Lady Luck, please look down upon me with your blessed smile. And Kali, use your immutable power to change my destiny, I beg of you.”

He vowed everlasting allegiance to Chymerica and the Secret Illuminati Sisters for a taste, just a whiff of success. Hell, he was prepared to strike a bargain with the Devil Himself, if that’s what it would take.

When the waitress appeared with his drink, he tipped her with a precious chip from his diminished pile. Lighting up yet another cigarette and sipping slowly on the syrupy gin and tonic, he looked across the roulette table and studied the assortment of late night revellers, searching for some sort of omen.

“My God, what a crew,” thought Max. Shrill-voiced working girls draped themselves over the bloated bodies of middle-aged businessmen and egged them on to ever greater excesses with their childish shrieks and giggles. And that was just the winners. More numerous by far, were the sullen-faced losers —chancers with their all-nighter flesh tones illuminated by the sickly, unchanging, artificial light, who wouldn’t have been out-of-place in some nightmarish canvas by Grosz or Bacon or even Bosch.

Who was he to judge, though? Deep down, he knew this was where he belonged; these were his kind of people. Max briefly returned to staring into the depths of the glass before downing the rest of the viscous liquid. As he set about looking for the waitress again, he noticed that a newcomer had taken a seat at the table directly opposite him. Max blinked and looked again. Max wondered how it was possible to look so fresh at this ungodly hour, as he watched the serene figure accept chips from the croupier. No one else at the table, absorbed as they were in play, paid her the slightest bit of attention. Max, however, was entranced.

She was slender and even seated, Max could tell that she was very tall, possibly as tall or even taller than he was, measuring in at a good 6’1. Her shoulder-length, raven-black hair was the same colour as her satiny dress —a striking contrast with the lustrous porcelain of her skin. Most mesmerizing of all though, were her green, shining cat’s eyes, which matched the emerald necklace around her exquisite neck. Max guessed that she was around his own age, 35 or so, but really it was impossible to tell —she was simultaneously youthful and mature.

Max managed to attract the waitress’s attention and he ordered two gin and tonics. He needed to fortify himself for the following few moments. Because this was definitely it. His life could go one of two ways and he had to be prepared for whatever fate threw at him.

The waitress brought over the drinks. Max glanced over the top of his glass at the woman again. Never before had he seen the like. She was an angel in human form: a perfect ten. For Max, that was as good a sign as any. So, after a quick calculation of his remaining chips which amounted to a little over a thousand dollars, he thought, “fuck it,” and placed the whole lot on black ten.

As the croupier placed the ball in the wheel and told the punters that no more bets were allowed, Max raised his glass and silently toasted the newcomer, hoping she was the harbinger of some much needed luck. Then, of course, he watched the wheel.

This was definitely it now —his last chance. It was now or never, do or die. With this crazy bet, it really had come to that. As the ball did its usual mad dance, he asked himself why? Why had he just risked it all with odds of exactly 37 to 1, stacked in the house’s favour?

He could barely watch, yet there was no question of turning away or closing his eyes. No way. The ball continued to bounce. Max just wanted it to land so it would be over and he could start reconciling himself to his drastically straitened circumstances. One more bounce and then it settled.

“That’s it then, I’m finished,” Max thought, not registering the fact that the ball had landed in the slot numbered ten. Ten? Ten. Yes, it was definitely ten!

“Yessssssssss, thank you, thank you Sweet Lord above or whoever controls such matters!” Max prayed, as the knowledge sank in and became a reality. It was nothing less than a miracle. He’d been saved at the eleventh hour and fifty-ninth minute.

As the croupier pushed over pile after pile of chips, Max calculated that he over $40,000 dollars and with the current rate of exchange, it worked out to between 24,000 and 25,000 pounds. With that money, he could pay off Harry Diamond and the other loan sharks, and still have some change left over. Of course, it wouldn’t be enough to pay off Gran, which was a shame, but she was hardly likely to take a baseball bat to his kneecaps or a meat cleaver to his little finger.

All things considered, this was a result and he decided to cash the chips in right then and there. But when he looked over at the blessed newcomer who had been the inspiration for his life changing win and saw a faintly ironic smile play on her deep red lips, it occurred to him that he should stay a little longer to see how everything played out. After all, why not? Why leave when the luck was starting to go his way? Who knows where it could all end? Yes, why not indeed?

Max went for the maximum of ten grand on red. That would still leave him with enough to clear his major debts. Twenty three red came up. Another result. He glanced again at the woman. She reached out with her immaculate hand, manicured nails painted the same shade of red as her lipstick, to grasp her drink. Max took his winnings and left his original bet to ride.

The ball landed in lucky number nine. Red again. “How long could this streak last?” Max thought, anxiously. With a deep breath, he decided that as long as she was there he would just roll with it. He was surprised she hadn’t noticed him staring at her. Then again, she probably had and wasn’t letting on. Elegant ladies always played it cool. When she ran her fingers though her glossy hair, he switched his bet to black. Black thirteen.

Surely morning had broken by now, but Max didn’t care as his run showed no sign of ending. Before every turn, he would watch the raven-haired angel, taking her every movement as an augury that infallibly came true.

Max’s success was generating excitement at the table as the other players, including the enigmatic stranger, who was the source of this good fortune, followed his bets. After the string of chances on red and black paid off, Max changed tack and started playing the odds and evens, taking his cues from the positioning of her hands on the baize.

As she began dreamily stroking the emerald necklace circling her throat —a throat worthy of a Mannerist masterpiece— Max didn’t hesitate and put ten thousand on zero. And after everything that had gone before, he wasn’t the least surprised when the ball nestled cosily in the green slot.

Max realised that if he carried on at this rate, it was entirely possible that he could break the bank. With his 24th consecutive win, he had amassed over $600,000 and his fellow gamblers were raking it in, too. Heady with this prospect, Max ordered half a dozen bottles of champagne for the table from the chatty, flirtatious waitress just starting her shift.

While his attention was diverted, Max failed to notice that his charm had collected her winnings and had left the table, disappearing into the recesses leading to the massed banks of slot machines. He would have liked to thank her and maybe gotten to know her better —a lot better, actually— but it was already too late. She was lost to the casino and by the time he cashed in, he knew she could be anywhere.

He gave a tip of a thousand dollars to the croupier, ignored the pleas of his fellow gamblers (for once, he was going to quit while still ahead) and headed for the elevator to take him up to his suite. He was going to wake Catherine. She would be furious that he had stayed out all night long, but at least he felt sure he could sweeten her mood.

II

That night marked the start of a new beginning for Max and Catherine. With the money Max had won, he paid off the loan sharks and cleared all his other debts. With that unpleasant task behind him, he vowed never gamble again and to do something worthwhile with his life. Most importantly of all though, he vowed to start treating Catherine right.

Max lived up to his promises admirably. They put a large deposit down on an inter-bellum, three-story, semi-detached in an up-and-coming borough. Then, after a few months of drawing up a business plan and searching for the ideal location, they opened a restaurant which Max, in an homage and a farewell gesture to the game that had made their dream a reality, named Noir Et Rouge.

With Max working the front of the house and Catherine crafting her unique creations in the kitchen, the restaurant was such a success that Max gave no thought to having an occasional flutter or buying a lottery ticket on a Saturday night.

As the present was just so and the future looked exceedingly bright, Max chose not to dwell on the past. Whenever a stray memory from his gambling days did surface, he instantly suppressed it. He was no longer that person — the degenerate gambler, staring ruination in the face, yet still only thinking of the next bet. What possible connection could exist between that man and the successful businessman with a beautiful, talented and loving wife?

This is the revised, edited and improved version of a story/start of a novel that I have previously posted. Dr Meg Sorick  (https://drmegsorick.com/)has once  again kindly taken the time to review the material and has waved her magician’s wand and pulled a rabbit of the hat. Please visit her site. The next instalment will be next Saturday May 20th.

My Evil Is Stronger

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That look on your face:
Take it off, wipe it away.
I know you,
You and your kind
Always taking advantage
Of every situation
With a dubious charm,
An uncertain smile
A cheeky grin
But when nobody’s watching
The smile instantly fades
From your too full
Sensual lips licking,
Cat-like in anticipation
Of a kill tonight,
Fresh meat indeed;
Your eyes glazing over
Thousand yard lasered
Hypnotic death stare
Causing electro-magnetic
Disturbances in the immediate
Field of vision and effect;
In the unnerving darkness
Echoes your stoned
Satanic laughter
Yes your evil is strong
You know a thing or two
Read between the lines
Of Faust,
Hold Prometheus
As the burning example,
A dollar store De Sade
With a stable of
Justines and Juliettes
But my evil is stronger
You could never begin
To comprehend the ways
Of me and my kind:
Contractors for the Apocalypse,
Annihilating Angels.
Our ways are
Elemental and pan-universal.
Your evil is strong
No love lost
Within your small black heart
But I am darkness incarnate
The isolate of terror,
My evil is stronger
As you will find out
Right quick,
Unless you take
That damnable look
Off your face.

Visions from the Other Side

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Alfred Kubin-Le Saut de la Mort (The Jump of Death) 1902
One of the most important of the Austrian Symbolists, Alfred Kubin was the master of macabre art and the morbid image, who in his insistence upon portraying all the horrors lurking just beneath the surface in the unconscious mind can be said to have anticipated the Surrealists.

His life reads like a cross between a Freudian case study and a decadent fiction. He didn’t meet his father until he was two and afterwards he only felt, ‘hate, hate, hate’ towards him. His beloved mother died when he was ten and the following year he lost his virginity to a pregnant friend. This unhappy childhood led to his abortive suicide attempt on his mother’s grave when he was nineteen. He joined the army but that resulted in a nervous breakdown.

After discovering the works of Odilon Redon (Visionary Noir), Edvard Munch (Madonna and Self-Portraits), James Ensor (The Entry),  and Felicien Rops (Les Diaboliques) Kubin decided to devote his life to art. Other major influences were the works of Max Klinger and Goya (The Sleep of Reason), especially in their use of aquatint.

Kubin worked primarily as a book illustrator, mainly of Gothic and fantastic fiction, notably Edgar Allen Poe, E.T.A Hoffman and Gustav Meyrick. In 1906 he married the half-Jewish heiress Hedwig Grundler and they moved to an isolated 12th century castle in Upper Austria, where he was to remain to his death. The marriage was a success, much to everyone’s surprise as Hedwig had a heavy morphine dependency that required frequent hospitalizations.

Kubin was a friend of both Paul Klee and Vasily Kandinsky and did show with their Blauer Riter group, however his avant-garde involvement ended by the time of the WWI.

Kubin was also a talented writer and his brilliant proto-surrealist novel The Other Side  of 1909 (which I intend to write about in detail at some point) was much admired by his friend Franz Kafka and also by that troubling genius of German letters, Ernst Junger.

Visionary Noir

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Haunted-Odilon Redon 1896
From 1870 to the turn of the century the French Symbolist artist Odilon Redon worked almost exclusively in the medium of charcoal drawing and lithographs. Redon called this extraordinary body of work his noirs. Throughout his career Redon’s expressed intent was to place ‘the logic of the visible at the service of the invisible’,  an aesthetic doctrine that strongly resonated with the Surrealists. Straddling that perilous hinterland between dream, hallucination and otherworldly visions, the noirs present a haunting, nocturnal world that is forever sliding into nightmare.

It was the publication of the bible of Decadence A Rebours by JK Huysmans  in 1884 that Redon found fame. The archetypal world-weary Decadent Des Esseintes collects and describes in great detail Redon’s lithographs. After 1900 Redon turned to pastels and oils in paintings that reflected his interest in Buddhism and Japanese art and that became increasingly abstract in his latter years.

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The Sleep of Reason

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Francisco Goya-The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters 1799
The Spanish artist Francisco Goya (1746-1828), along with the English poet and artist William Blake (1757-1827) and the French pornographer and philosopher the Marquis De Sade (1740-1816) completed the Enlightenment by showing its reverse. These very different figures with very different opinions and beliefs instinctively realised that humanity cannot bear the harsh glare of reason for too long, and that you ignore the dark irrational impulses residing within the mind at your peril.

The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters is No 43 of the 80 etchings that comprise the satirical series Los Caprichos. Showing the artist asleep at his work desk, he is surrounded by the creatures of the night, including owls, which from the Middle Ages symbolised folly, and bats.The full epigraph for this etching states, ‘Fantasy abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters: united with her, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of their marvels.’

Goya however was fascinated by these monsters produced by the sleep of reason. From 1790 onward Goya produced one searing work after another on the subjects of the Witches Sabbath, the disasters of war, the continued presence of superstition and the horrors of the Inquisition. In his home outside Madrid in the last years of his life he produced the brilliant yet extremely  disturbing murals known as the Pinturas Negras (see Painting It Black and The Dog).

The last thirty years has seen an excess of rationality, a supposed end of history as the globe embraced free markets and liberal democracy and we all bowed to the logic that quantity would bring quality of life. As Goya, De Sade and Blake showed us at the end of the eighteenth century, examples that Nietzsche and Freud followed and expanded, reason only satisfies so much before it becomes too much. At the moment we are drifting off into sleep, waiting for the monsters produced to be unleashed.

The Red Shoes

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The Red Shoes-Powell & Pressburger 1948
The British directorial team Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, known collectively as The Archers had spent WWII producing odd, idiosyncratic propaganda movies for the British war effort, mainly in black and white (a notable exception was The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp of 1942, which Winston Churchill had hated for its civilised, sympathetic portrayal of the German best friend of the Colonel).

With the end of the war The Archers changed direction and produced a series of sensuous fantasies filmed in the most glorious Technicolor by Jack Cardiff, intuiting that the British public, still in the midst of wartime rationing and austerity, longed for something more than the standard dourly realistic fare then be served. This led to the hallucinatory Black Narcissus in 1947, a melodrama full of simmering tension and repressed eroticism, followed by their most famous film a year later, the ballet movie The Red Shoes. As Michael Powell noted , ‘For ten years we had all been told to go out and die for freedom and democracy; but now the war was over. “The Red Shoes” told us to go out and die for art.’

As the above quote illustrates this is a movie about the primacy of art over life. Indeed it could be argued that The Red Shoes is a Symbolist movie, though it is a rather late arrival to the party. Drenched in aestheticism, with a curiously timeless fairy-tale ambience and the  rarefied, hothouse ballet setting, The Red Shoes is valiant attempt at a Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art, an important concept in Symbolist aesthetics). However it also owes as much to Hollywood, especially the extravaganzas of Busby Berkeley, as it does to the various European avant-gardes.

The story is simplicity itself. Aspiring, ambitious ballet dancer Victoria Page, (unforgettably played by ballerina Moira Shearer, surely the most gorgeous red-head to ever grace the silver screen), comes under the auspices of Boris Lermontov, (an outstanding performance by Anton Walbrook) the impresario of the Ballet Lermontov who is clearly modelled on the legendary Sergei Diaghliev of the Ballet Russes. At the party where they first meet Lermontov asks Vicky, ‘Why do you want to dance?’ to which Vicky replies, ‘Why do you want to live?’ Quite.

At the same time Lermontov, who has an eye for talent, employs the young composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring). The scene is set for a particularly bizarre love triangle. For Lermontov isn’t just a Svengali, the demands he places upon his company shade into the Mephistophelian. When his current prima ballerina Irina (another ballerina Ludmilla Tcherina) decides to marry he remarks, ‘You cannot have it both ways. A dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love can never be a great dancer. Never.’ 

Irina’s leaving opens the way for Vicky to become prima ballerina in a new ballet that the company is producing, The Red Shoes:

Boris Lermontov: The Ballet of The Red Shoes” is from a fairy tale by Hans Andersen. It is the story of a young girl who is devoured with an ambition to attend a dance in a pair of Red Shoes. She gets the shoes and goes to the dance. For a time, all goes well and she is very happy. At the end of the evening she is tired and wants to go home, but the Red Shoes are not tired. In fact, the Red Shoes are never tired. They dance her out into the street, they dance her over the mountains and valleys, through fields and forests, through night and day. Time rushes by, love rushes by, life rushes by, but the Red Shoes go on.
Julian Craster: What happens in the end?
Boris Lermontov: Oh, in the end, she dies.

Craster is the composer of the score and The Red Shoes premieres in Monte Carlo, Monaco. Daringly The Archers interrupt the narrative to present the centrepiece of the movie, a stunning seventeen minute ballet sequence exactly half-way through the movie. Both expressionistic and surrealistic, with scenery (designed by Hein Heckroth) and effects that could be never replicated in any theatre anywhere at anytime,  the ballet is a phantasmagorical tour-de-force.

Vicky and Craster fall in love while working on the ballet, with dramatic and indeed tragic consequences as life grimly mimics art. During the delirious final scenes Lermontov says to the sobbing Vicky:

Vicky…Little Vicky…There, there. Sorrow will pass, believe me. Life is so unimportant. And from now onwards, you will dance like nobody ever before.

The ending is entirely appropriate for this lush fever dream of a film. For The Red Shoes isn’t just a movie you watch, it is a film to be surrendered too, and once you have surrendered, to luxuriate in.

Memento Mori I (The Ambassadors)

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The Ambassadors-Hans Holbein The Younger 1533
Memento Mori (Latin: Remember you will die) was a popular theme in Renaissance Art in the 16th and 17th Centuries. A Memento Mori would serve as a visual reminder of the brevity of life, the vanity of worldly pomp and the  emptiness of fleeting pleasures and thus an injunction to contemplate the eternal verities of the Afterlife. The richly symbolic items found in these paintings and in the overlapping still-life genre Vanitas are skulls, time-pieces, flowers, rotting fruit, musical instruments, bubbles, candles and smoke.

Hans Holbein the Younger’s brilliantly accomplished dual portrait of Jean Dinterville, French Ambassador to the court of King Henry VIII and Georges De Selve, Bishop of Lavaur and French Ambassador to the Emperor and the Holy See is surely his masterpiece. Entire books have been written about the political, religious and scientific symbolism of the various items on the table between the two men, however the most remarkable feature for the purposes of this post is the spectacular anamorphic skull that floats in the foreground. The painting is on display at the National Gallery in London and viewers have to approach from the right for the distortion to be corrected. There are several competing theories as to why Holbein gave the skull such prominence and is distorted in such a manner if seen straight on. My opinion is that the skull serves it’s traditional function as a Memento Mori, for even such supremely self assured and worldly gentleman as the Ambassadors must one day die, no matter how much you may obscure the fact.

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Detail of the Anamorphic Skull -The Ambassadors