Saturday, 14 February 2015

Velásquez's Venus: the portrait of a lady who’s always playing hard to get


It was a hatchet job like no other. The woman was attacked from behind, the efficient jabbing of a meat cleaver hacking six deep cuts into her exposed, pearlescent flesh. When the butchery had climaxed, the wounds stretched from the nape of the neck, down the smooth elegance of the back and finished at the curvaceous ridge of the left hip.

The victim was Venus, the Roman Goddess of Love. In seconds, the sexual deity was brought savagely to earth, in what must have seemed to onlookers like the senseless violence of a madman. Yet the attack wasn’t senseless, and the culprit wasn’t even a man. On the morning of March 10 1914, suffragette Mary Richardson carved her own notorious signature on the history of art by vandalising the most desirable female of all.



The lady was the Rokeby Venus, Diego Velásquez's only surviving female nude. The scene of the crime was London’s National Gallery. The previous day, suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst had been arrested in Glasgow while escalating her campaign to secure women the vote. In response, her loyal lieutenant marched into the grey, statuesque building overlooking Trafalgar Square and launched a calculated cultural missile against the patriarchal establishment by knifing, in her words, 'the most beautiful woman in mythological history, as a protest against the Government for destroying Mrs Pankhurst, the most beautiful woman in modern history'.

In Mary’s eyes, Velásquez's seventeenth century flesh show visualised all that was wrong with society. Women had been stripped of their innate rights, she believed, in the way Velásquez had artfully deprived Venus of her clothes. Females were subjugated to second class status, mere vessels of servitude existing solely for the gratification of men. The figure of Venus was the ultimate example of this oppression: a fictitious incarnation of masculine desire embodying all that women should be.

The Rokeby Venus by Diego Velásquez (1647-1651)

From a heterosexual male perspective, the 122cm by 177cm oil painting is pretty much perfect, as alluring and intoxicating as rich perfume drifting amorously through the air. Velásquez depicts Venus from the rear, lazily reclining amid an opulent boudoir of white, grey and crimson, absorbed in a looking-glass propped up by her son, Cupid. The visual field drinks in her entire body, from the big toe of the left foot to the right elbow supporting her lovely head. The spectacle is crowned by a bob of soft chestnut hair, just a few deft flicks away from draping seductively across her shoulders, like the pink ribbons which gracefully decorate her vanity mirror.

These details are mere supporting players to the main attraction: the exquisitely-defined backside sitting below the dead centre of the picture. A work of art in its own right, Venus’s bottom is a masterpiece of svelte shapeliness, the white, grey and blue pigments blending to create a pale, supple playground of soft, yielding flesh. It’s a visual gratification that soon gives way to mental anticipation, as your mind races ahead to imagine what delights may await when she turns over.

Such provocation is part of the picture’s problem though. Despite its aura of intimacy, the Rokeby Venus feels strangely remote and depersonalised. Venus’s face, that most expressive part of any person’s body, is obscured and muddied in the mirror, rendering her mood beyond scrutiny. She is distant from the viewer, less a real person and more a sexual object. Physicality is foregrounded, personality is traduced, and the picture feels emblematic of a sexism that makes Mary Richardson’s vandalism almost understandable given the political inequalities of her time.

Mary led away by policemen after the attack

If you were to intellectualise it further, you could say the painting predates and embodies what 20th century French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan called ‘gaze’: the theory that once people become conscious of themselves as objects, they begin to comprehend themselves through the viewpoint of the watcher, and consequently lose their sense of autonomy.

In feminist terms, the male gaze strips the opposite sex of its identity, exerting a pernicious power that arguably still persists in the fashion and celebrity magazines of today. Through Velásquez’s placement of the mirror, Venus is in effect watching herself being watched by the heterosexual male for whom the picture was no doubt intended, the epitome of womanhood appreciating her ‘self’ through the prism of a male-oriented aesthetic. But Velásquez is not your ordinary artist, and this isn’t your ordinary slice of upper-class erotica. The more you look at the Rokeby Venus, the more you realise the painter’s mission isn’t to insidiously crush female self-esteem, but something far more ambiguous.

Consider the unorthodox pose in which Venus lies. Many depictions of the Goddess in art – Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, Giorgone’s Sleeping Venus, Titian’s Venus with a Mirror – are painted from the front. In the Rokeby version, Velásquez reverses the decision, leaving more to the imagination, yet undercutting your sense of voyeuristic authority. With her back turned dismissively and face inscrutable, the scene feels like a highly-charged game of sexual poker – a playful prick-tease in which the aloof, enigmatic Venus holds all the cards. She is a goddess after all, beyond the reach of ordinary men, and the fact we can’t read her emotions only adds to the viewer’s disempowerment.

Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus (1510)

Moreover, Velásquez’s brushwork reinforces the feeling of our gaze being manipulated and controlled. At the centre, where those glorious buttocks sit resplendent, the technique is pin-sharp, while the face in the mirror – a messy, poorly-defined blur which x-ray tests prove was an intentional artistic effect – remains out of focus. You can only look at one thing at a time, implies Velásquez, and Venus knows exactly which part of her body your eye is being drawn to. The male gaze is essentially hypnotised and subjugated, and although the suffragettes may have disagreed, you do begin to wonder which gender is actually chained to the railings.

A closer look reveals another, more significant, optical illusion. The reflection in the mirror, tonally out of sync with the rest of the picture, is a flagrant breach of perspective. In spatial terms, it would be impossible for Venus to be looking at herself in the mirror. If she was, we wouldn’t be able to see her face because her head would be in the way. This is what’s known as the ‘Venus effect’, a piece of visual trickery commonplace in depictions of the Goddess since the Renaissance. By breaking the laws of physics and transposing the face onto the vanity mirror, the picture implies Venus is in fact staring directly at us, and that we, not the Goddess, are the self-conscious objects of the Lacanian gaze.



That’s not the only sleight-of-hand, especially for the dirty-minded. Contemporary art historians have found that if you were to recreate the Rokeby Venus exactly with a real-life model, the mirror would in fact reflect not Venus’s face but her crotch. So maybe the rough, murky expression staring out from that dark mirror-world represents something else entirely, and is coded visual language for that shadowy recess which for many men is the ultimate Venus flytrap.  Is there something not to be trusted about that place, we wonder, and are we in fact being warned about the dangers of carnal pleasure? After all, the word Venus derives from ‘venenum’, the Latin word for poison, which would make men nothing more than feeble drones being drawn to their doom, like the sailors who perish before the Sirens in Homer’s Odyssey.



Such a reading is woefully sexist though, succumbing to the depressing binary pattern that occurs in so much male art, which sees women as angels or whores, sweet innocents or femme fatales. Another interpretation does suggest itself, one which feels more in tune with the picture’s sheer romantic sensuality. Velásquez painted his Venus in the latter half of his career during a sojourn to Italy, which in those days was a more permissive, easy-going society that the puritanical solemnity of the Spanish Royal court. Biographers argue that, in the throes of a mid-life crisis, Velásquez entered into a steamy affair with an Italian courtesan, and it’s that woman and that fling – ecstatic, bewitching, life-affirming – which he glorified so spectacularly in paint.

The artist returned to Spain taking his memento with him, perhaps wondering whether he would ever see the real thing again. In that context, the fading, greyed-out face is more poignant than provocative, symbolising a transitory passion that’s slipping away, the nuances of a lost love’s beautiful face dissolving sadly into Velásquez’s rear view mirror. It’s therefore not a hunger for sexual domination, but a yearning for an untouchable romantic love, the thing of which Venus is the highest spiritual incarnation, that’s the picture’s raison d’être.



Self-portrait of Diego Velásquez, Las Meninas (1656)

Maybe, maybe not. Like Velásquez’s most famous picture Las Meninas, the Rokeby Venus will always be a perplexing enigma. Perhaps the safest conclusion to draw is that the painting is one gigantic mirror, propped up not by a compliant Cupid but by the force of our own preoccupations. Like all art, you get from the picture what you bring to it. In the end, it’s up to you whether you think it’s a chauvinistic assault on women, an ode to the eternal struggle of sexual politics, shrewd psychoanalysis before its time, an achingly sad love letter to a paramour from the past or just the finest piece of ass in Western art.

Much like a failed relationship or an imagined fantasy, great art has a habit of leaving you with more questions than answers. To me, conflicting emotions of fear and desire, longing and loss, anxiety and anticipation, are what Velásquez’s picture is really all about. There’s something both attractive and repellent about this fragrant, ineffable goddess, who draws you in with her raw sexuality and pushes you away with her inscrutability. So close you can almost touch her, so faraway as to be unknowable, she’s a quintessential vision of the pleasure and pain inherent in sexual love.

No matter how intimate you are with another person, Velásquez says, do you ever really know the person gazing back at you? And how much power can you hope to have, when you’re in the throes of an emotion that’s based on naked surrender and blind, ecstatic loss of control? Absorbing the Rokeby Venus is like taking a magisterial step into the art of the unknown, an image that beckons you seductively across its threshold to meet Love itself, the single greatest experience life has to offer, and leaves you wondering what on heaven and earth you’re letting yourself in for.

The Rokeby Venus in situ at London's National Gallery



Saturday, 3 January 2015

My blue heaven: a brief f***ing history of the F-word in cinema


Saying it may be wrong on occasion, but sometimes it feels so right. The jaw retracts, the bottom lip curls in, the teeth spring forward, and the fricative consonant gives way to a guttural vowel sound finishing with a firm, resounding ‘ck’. With it can come all manner of emotions, from joy to rage, pleasure to pain, passion to desperation, plus a lacerating blast of good old-fashioned offence.

The F-word blossomed in cinema in the early 1970s. Since then it’s been deployed with gratuity and ingenuity by filmmakers searching for shock, realism, comedy and irony. Coarse it may be, but this four-letter intensifier (and its myriad derivatives) is a wonderfully versatile linguistic tool: a noun, verb, adjective and compound that paints a rich palette of colourful meanings and, if used skilfully, never fails to deliver dramatic bite.

Art of the obscene: The demon Pazuzu in The Exorcist (1973)
The Exorcist was one of the first films to make hay from the F-word. Four decades on, William Friedkin’s horror show feels like a shallow, preposterous construction as soulless as the evil spirit lurking within Regan. But it’s also one of the great sound films: the taut musical score, grinding sound effects and increasing profanities building a cold, excruciating atmosphere of nastiness.

The devil certainly has the best tunes in The Exorcist, which delights in dropping F-bombs on its audience through the cherubic lips of a sweet and innocent 12-year-old. Because although it’s ostensibly about demonic possession, much of the film’s power derives from the way it taps into parental anxiety about losing children to the fog of adolescence, where they’ll soon discover the pleasures of the F-word in all its forms.


Fast forward ten years to 1983 and by then, the F-word was rattling across the movie landscape like machine-gun fire, short-hand for strutting machismo in an era when action cinema was blooming. That was the year of Scarface, in which swaggering Cuban upstart Tony Montana (Al Pacino) swills the word around his mouth with the boundless confidence of a Reaganite capitalist, before spitting it out so you almost feel the hot saliva spraying your face.

Movies became ever more creative in their use of the expletive as the decade continued. The Terminator systematically selects it from his programmed drop-down menu to threaten a nosey janitor, mild-mannered executive Steve Martin unleashes it with great comic gusto on an incompetent car hire clerk in Planes, Trains and Automobiles, and Die Hard’s Bruce Willis bastardises the famous lyric of singing cowboy Roy Rogers to taunt his adversaries.

What do you mean I'm funny? Joe Pesci in Goodfellas (1990)
The F-word reached blistering new heights in 1990, when Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas broke the record for the number of times it was used in one movie (300 in total). Here, it didn’t so much add spice to the sauce, but become a base ingredient for the meal. For Goodfellas is a feast of a film: the incessant use of the F-word – delivered most memorably and with lip-smacking relish by pint-sized potty mouth Joe Pesci – serving up a sumptuous combo of naturalism and menace.

The gangster genre turned postmodern four years later in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, where scripture-reciting assassin Jules Winfield (Samuel L Jackson) strolls through the LA underworld wielding the F-word as poetically as his 9mm handgun. Preferring to use the prefix ‘mother’ wherever possible (he even has it branded on his wallet), Jackson and partner-in-crime John Travolta curse with an easy gravitas that made the F-word seem profound and effortlessly cool. You’d cross the street to avoid Joe Pesci’s character, whereas you’d probably ask Jackson to join you for a beer.

That's my bad motherfucker: Pulp Fiction (1994)
More recently (and on the smaller screen), the equally-lovable double act of Bunk and McNulty in HBO’s The Wire decipher a complex crime scene by only ever saying the F-word. It’s a brilliant setpiece, every profanity bringing a fresh nuance as the booze-loving cops methodically uncover the truth. And in many ways, the truth is what really lies behind the F-word’s enduring appeal.
   
Take Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, which sees cult leader and awe-inspiring bullshitter Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) crack under the tenacious grilling of a journalist, exploding the F-word (sublimely prefaced with the word ‘pig’) into the laps of his quaint middle-class companions. The word comes out of nowhere, yet feels like a flash of authenticity in a film where the truth feels forever guarded and elusive.

Master of words: Philip Seymour Hoffman
Like a coiled spring, The Master creaks with inner tension as its pent-up protagonists struggle to cope with trauma, emptiness and, above all, carnal desire. In a way, the F-word is omnipresent throughout the story, so much so that when sex-obsessed World War II veteran Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) enjoys a playful tumble with a young lady in the final scenes, it feels like sorely-needed catharsis.

Much like the act it so bluntly describes, the F-word is hugely pleasurable when done well: delivering an explosion of energy, a satisfying emotional release and a mutually beneficial way for human beings to communicate with each other and say what’s in their hearts. Like a good friend (with benefits), the F-word is frank, freeing, and fabulously to the point. So thanks very much F-word – and fuck you too.
 
Bosom buddy: Joaquin Phoenix in The Master (2012)
This article originally appeared in the Jan-Feb 2015 edition of Electrolyte, the magazine by and for fans of Birmingham’s Electric Cinema

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void


That was the year that was. Apple launched the iPod, scientists published their map of the complete human genome and, in the defining moment of our generation, religious extremists slammed commercial airliners into New York and Washington DC. The world felt smaller, more inward-looking and more interdependent than ever before in 2001, and the playful thrill of space exploration and astral harmony conjured up by the film of the same name seemed light years away.


Sci-fi buffs will tell you the best examples of the genre are not those films which accurately predict the future, but those which reveal most about the times in which they were made. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was released in 1968, at the height of the space race. The first moon landing was a year away, monolithic computers were arriving in corporate America, cult phenomenon Star Trek was entering its third season on NBC and futurology, which in 2001’s case envisioned a world of sexy space hostesses and suit-and-tie stratospheric travel, was definitely in fashion. 

Progress is one of 2001’s signature themes. Shifting operatically from apes to astronauts, it’s a hugely ambitious narrative journey, powered by revolutionary special effects and the prodigious talents of a single-minded maverick director who had broken the movie-making mould, acquiring both creative independence and the financial largesse of a major Hollywood studio.


In many ways, 2001 is a film from the Sixties and for the Sixties. Marketed with the strapline ‘The Ultimate Trip’, its inspired blend of psychedelic light show and philosophical meditation entranced broad-minded hippies seeking a higher plane of consciousness, while those of a more conservative bent will have been chilled to the marrow by computer HAL 9000, a cold, red, authoritarian machine slowly taking over, at a time when Communism was engulfing south-east Asia.

An updated version of Frankenstein’s monster, HAL 9000 turns on its creator with cool, efficient menace, yet remains the film’s most sympathetic character. The panic and fear in its robotic voice during shutdown elicit far more gravitas than those two-dimensional planks of space debris, Bowman and Poole. Add to that the graceful, balletic movements of anthropomorphic spacecraft set to Johann Strauss’s The Blue Danube – which provide some of the film’s most stirring moments and a disproportionate amount of screen time – and it’s easy to see why many people think 2001 is the work of someone more fascinated by technology than by the moral quandaries of man.


Cold, clinical and controlling have all been descriptions levelled at Stanley Kubrick. Responsible for helming the longest shoot in cinematic history (Eyes Wide Shut), and notorious for subjecting actors to hundreds of takes for seemingly minor inconsequential scenes, the director’s obsession with minutiae and his blissful disregard for the conventions of time finds full expression in 2001, his first and only science-fiction film.


The narrative pace is slowed to near-tedium, technology is fetishized, humans are reduced to banal ciphers and time and perspective are blown apart. The symphonic shift from prehistory to interplanetary exploration - breathlessly articulated by that jump-cut - coupled with the mirroring micro-dramas of the apes’ territorial face-off and the Bowman-HAL showdown, creates a dramatic tension that sees time both elongated and condensed, or, in the case of the film’s cheeky intermission, ceasing to exist altogether.

Spatially, Kubrick pulls us in opposite directions too. He delights in going large (the planets, the spacecraft, the grand historical sweep) and then small (the bone, the floating pen, Bowman’s bedroom), a bold combination of portentous philosophising and light satire which relishes the triviality of man within an inconceivable cosmos. Monumental significance is counterpointed by trite insignificance, and the cumulative emotional effect is one of vulnerability and wonder.


Like Bowman surging at interstellar overdrive through the Stargate, we’re passengers rather than explorers in 2001, ignorant species hurtling into the great unknown. We feel like we’ve come full circle when the film ends, having spent more than two hours orbiting something we never truly understand. In that sense, 2001 is more about revolution than evolution, a motif underscored by the recurrent circular patterns, from the spaceships and HAL’s Sauron-style eye to the interplanetary alignment and the Starchild himself, who floats serenely within a spherical womb, a not-so-subtle allusion to the continual cycle of existence.


The mystery of that existence, and of the movie itself, is visually embodied in the monolith, that eerie, implacable presence which unites the film’s disparate elements, triggers change (without changing itself) and leaves apes and astronauts equally perplexed. To some it’s the work of extra-terrestrials. To others, it represents the fingerprint of the Almighty. To this writer, this huge slab of black symbolises so much of what fascinates us about the inscrutable void of space.

In 2001’s closing moments, we’re swept along in the monolith’s trajectory for the final time and see that same void spectacularly illuminated by an image of birth. Then the screen fades to black, and we’re left with the exhilarating feeling that things have only just begun, and that we’re in the infancy of a cosmic journey that’s wonderful, baffling and pregnant with limitless possibility.


This article originally appeared in the Nov-Dec 2014 edition of Electrolyte, the magazine for and by fans of Birmingham's Electric Cinema.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Once upon a time, a dad and his daughter were bewitched by a Magic Kingdom called Disney...


The fresh-faced young maiden is easily disarmed. Still, the juicy red apple does look very enticing. And the face behind it, creaking with old age, bubbles with experience and wisdom. Little wonder the angelic brunette accepts the gift. She’s been through hell, and has clearly missed the parental lecture about never trusting strangers. Naivety proves an unforgiving mistress though. For the fruit Snow White takes from the old woman is laced with poison, and she is trapped in a coma from which she’s not supposed to wake.


Did the world of children’s entertainment fall under a similarly insidious spell back in 1937, when Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs became a box office smash? In the 77 years since Disney’s first animated feature, the brand has become an insatiable cultural phenomenon. Yet to many it is cinema’s wicked stepmother, a power-hungry, money-making ogre anaesthetising innocent children with its ersatz blend of superficial magic and questionable values.

The case for the prosecution is that Disney has limited children’s imaginations, garnered a formidable track record for stereotyping races and genders, promoted sexualised, passive and impossibly perfect images of females, portrayed marriage as the ultimate end-game in happiness, and followed through on its corrupting agenda with an aggressively sophisticated one-two of make-believe theme parks and merchandise. Truly, it is the contaminated apple which every innocent yearns to bite.


As father to a five-year-old girl, I used to wrestle with the Disney dilemma whenever the iconic castle sparkled onto my TV screen. Was her tender mind being subtly brainwashed into believing in a non-existent world of happily ever afters? A place where heroines can only find true completeness by landing a man? Where such characters are always hourglass beautiful? And where there’s a Fairy Godmother who’ll magically dissolve your troubles when times are hard?

After much deliberation, I’ve decided such worries are misplaced, more projections of natural parental anxiety than any sinister plot by The Walt Disney Company to repress half the world’s population. Truth be told, the Magic Kingdom is simply doing what grown-ups have done for centuries, taking aeons-old fairy tales and revitalising them for the audiences and appetites of the day.

Illustration for Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales by Walter Crane (1899)

To many this over-simplified view of good and evil is part of the problem: we all know the world doesn’t really work like that. Yet what fairy tale doesn’t polarise its heroes from its villains, aware of how young minds aren’t ready to chew over too much moral ambiguity? Narratives like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty are allegories more than anything else, bildungsroman alerting children to the world’s viciousness and reminding them they don’t have to succumb to vanity or temptation. Such a traditional approach doesn’t make them old-fashioned either. Indeed, you could argue such tales slyly subvert conservative values. If stable families are the source of all wellbeing, it’s truly miraculous children of broken homes like Cinderella and Tangled’s Rapunzel are so well-adjusted.


Equally, to take Disney to task for cultural imperialism is to attack the symptom rather than the cause. Like many global success stories, Disney is just shrewdly following the logic of modern capitalism which inevitably concentrates power in the hands of those who have the knack of giving consumers what they want. And to its credit, Disney has done that for decades. When I revel in the brilliance and wit of Toy Story 3, I’m reminded how and why I came to love movies in the first place. The Magic Kingdom proved a gateway that’s taken me from Spielberg to Hitchcock to Lang. And what sane film fan would deny their daughter that?

As parents our job is not to let films educate our children, but to educate our children about films. When you look past the abundant opportunities for subtext in any Disney film (and any fairy tale for that matter), their central message is usually the same. Through loyalty and friendship, you can overcome adversity, take personal responsibility and use it for the collective good.


Besides, things have come a long way since the poisoned apple. Disney’s latest snow queen is Elsa, the socially-withdrawn anti-heroine of Frozen. An independent woman in a land of ineffectual, judgmental men, she learns how to turn her curse into a blessing, taking part in the world rather than running away from it. True to herself (and happily unmarried), she ends the film with a greater sense of duty towards her citizens.

Disney has a similar duty towards its customers, just like parents have a duty towards their children. The lesson of Walt’s world is that magic powers must be managed, not misused or misunderstood. To denounce the brand is to make it a forbidden fruit, to give it more power than it actually deserves and ultimately to forget that the art of parenting is one of moderation rather than control.

So when my daughter twirls across the lounge in full-blown Elsa-mode – confident, empowered, expressing herself, happy in the moment – I remember that good cinema is good cinema no matter who made it. And that as a Dad, sometimes the wisest thing you can do is just Let It Go. 


This article originally appeared in the September-October 2014 edition Electrolyte, the magazine for and by fans of Birmingham's Electric Cinema.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

This painting is the rightful property of Johannes Vermeer


This story is about a man and a woman, alone together. The master’s servants had left his private quarters, leaving him to enjoy his beautiful new conquest in solitude. Night was falling across the bedroom, a crepuscular gloom which only served to intensify the rich palette of the canvas. Europe’s most powerful man closed in on his prize, running his fingers across the three-hundred year old pigment, weaving flirtatious circles around the pretty face at the picture’s centre.

She was dressed up as history, and was now in the iron possession of a man making history. Power was his life’s pursuit. He loved to subjugate things, bend them to his will. And this latest trophy was another sure-footed step on his mission to control the world’s finest culture. Together they would reside in a grandiose museum near his hometown, the artistic heartbeat of an empire that would rule the globe for a thousand years.

Adolf Hitler discusses plans for the
Fürhermuseum with architect Albert Speer

Art had always been a cherished project. In his younger days, before he’d stamped arrogantly onto the world stage, he’d yearned to be a painter. And it was in part the cruel rejection of his work by the arbiters of taste in Vienna which had triggered his new career path, one which now saw him bestride Europe like a colossus, the figurehead of a remorseless chariot turned by the wheels of rage and injustice. Painting would play a different role now. No longer a livelihood but more a glorification of his supremacy, a reminder of what he could have been before destiny forced him to seize greater glories. 

The date was November 1940. The location was the Berghof, a palatial retreat near Berchtesgarden in the Bavarian Alps. The man was Adolf Hitler. And the picture in his clutches was Johannes Vermeer’s The Art of Painting, which the Führer had purchased for 1.82 million reichmarks. Those are the facts. But it’s worth noting at this point that I’ve completely invented the scene of the dictator caressing the image. The choice is both an aesthetic and symbolic one. Because this is a painting about how audiences participate creatively in the interpretation of art. And it’s also a picture about ownership, about privacy, the role art plays in history and vice versa, and the mysteries of a seductive craft which forever eludes definition and control.

The Art of Painting by Johannes Vermeer (1665-8)

The first thing to say about this 17th century Dutch masterwork is that it’s classic Vermeer. All his stylistic hallmarks are there: the stillness, the domestic setting, the sense of peeking in on privacy, the milky daylight flooding in from the left. Yet it’s very unique among his work too: the only one in which he turns the lens onto his own livelihood. Complex symbolism and iconography make it more of an intellectual experience than an emotional one like The Lacemaker or Officer and Laughing Girl. And even when facing destitution at the end of his life, it’s the one picture Vermeer steadfastly refused to sell.

From a distance, we see a well-dressed man sitting at his easel painting a young lady’s portrait. Dominating the left side of the canvas is a curtain, pulled back by an unseen hand. The emotional atmosphere is voyeuristic, as if we’re enjoying a privileged eavesdrop of a maestro at work. The curtain has another insinuation too, imbuing the scene with a sense of theatricality, a tone underscored by the contrived positioning of the props. The largest of these is the political map on the far wall, which shows the seventeen provinces of the Netherlands as they were thirty years before the picture was painted. The model is dressed in blue, awkwardly bearing a trumpet, laurel wreath and book, the signature accessories of Clio, the muse of history in Greek mythology. On the table is a death mask. But this is a picture that pulsates with life, Vermeer’s exceptionally vivid colours making the image feel more real than real itself.

The Lacemaker by Johannes Vermeer (1669-70)

Despite its painstaking naturalism, we only ever get part of this picture though, and it’s this sense of omission that makes it all the more powerful. On one level, The Art of Painting can be read as a sophisticated celebration of painting itself. Vermeer positions the artist as a well-to-do man (his luxury doublet), political commentator (the map), illustrator of history (Clio) and portrayer of the human condition (death mask).

Yet its true masterstroke lies in Vermeer’s subtle articulation of the limits of making, seeing and understanding works of art. The Art of Painting is true to its title in the way it deliberately draws attention to its own artifice. All the props in the picture are representations, synthetic recreations of actual things. The map, crinkled, worn and already out of date, reminds us power is temporal. The death mask is another variation on the same theme, as is the chandelier which shows the crest of the Habsburg Empire, a political entity in decline at the time the picture was painted.

The lady is a fiction too: we feel the pretence and discomfort of her unnatural pose. Only part of her will make it on to the artist’s portrait too, a picture within a picture that tells us art is only ever an edited, subjective view of reality, a subtext reinforced by the fact that we only glimpse part of the studio. Both painter and poser are wonderfully inscrutable too. We can’t see their eyes and must guess at what the man may have said to elicit that tantalising, coquettish look from his subject.


In The Art of Painting, as in any painting for that matter, the onus is placed on the viewer to look, interpret and imagine. Absorbing the picture is a quintessential exercise in art appreciation, and a lesson in how we as audiences are coaxed into piecing symbols and images together, filling in the blanks to craft our own satisfying narrative. Maybe that’s why an empty chair is pulled up in the foreground, as Vermeer invites us to sit down and become part of the scene, an offer made all the more poignant by the fact that he kept it in his studio as his own enjoyment. For all its sense of disclosure, the ultimate meaning is remote, the domain of the artist, and we feel on the cusp of something we’ll never truly understand.

So it’s sweetly ironic The Art of Painting was eventually owned by a man who failed at art and tried to compensate by conquering. He would ultimately lose control of both picture and empire, transporting Vermeer’s work to the German salt mines of Altaussee as the net closed in on the Third Reich. There, it was recovered by the Monuments Men of the US Army and returned to the Austrian Government. Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum is its home today.Yet there is still a tussle over its ownership, with members of the Czernin family (which relinquished the picture to the Nazis) issuing legal requests for its return.

US soldiers exhibit the spoils of war

A futile dispute, perhaps. To me, The Art of Painting will only ever be owned by one man. No other picture says so much about the open-endedness and dead ends of art, and no other picture quite has that sense of its creator being both present and absent, his back turned so he gives nothing away. Maybe that’s what Vermeer intended all along. His family may have been forced to sell the property after his death, but he is still the only man in possession of its secrets. And my interpretation is just another subjective and mutable reading that will be displaced by time. As great art gets bigger we get smaller: a lesson every human eventually learns, even Hitler.

In that spirit, let me start where I began, with a retreat into the realm of personal invention. The man and woman are alone together, and always will be. I imagine the artist is sharing a joke with the lady at our expense, subtly mocking all the people who queue up to gawp at their private chemistry. The model lowers her gaze to the floor and can’t look us in the eye, even though she knows we wouldn’t have heard. 

This tender exchange is immortalised on the canvas – a singular moment between two people never to be repeated or forgotten – and which serves as a gentle reminder that some secrets are best left unshared. And that we as voyeurs will forever be on the fringes, spellbound witnesses to an unspoken magic that reveals nothing except its own sublime sense of wonder.

Johannes Vermeer (1632 - 1675)


Saturday, 19 July 2014

Welcome to the house party from hell. Bring your own snacks, won't you...


All things are good when taken to excess,” concludes the creepy, officious bishop when signing off a masterplan proposing the capture and torture of eighteen innocent teenagers. Sharing the table in his shadowy lair are three sinister co-signatories, a duke, a magistrate and a president. Together the quartet govern the Republic of Salò, the last bastion of Italian Fascism in the final days of the Second World War. They have decided to enjoy some seriously depraved fun, kicking things off by marrying each other’s daughters.

Princes of Darkness: (From left) Giorgio Cataldi, Paolo Bonacelli,
Umberto Quintavalle and Aldo Valett
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This is the dark prelude to Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1975 film Salò: 120 Days of Sodom, a viciously pessimistic look at how sexual perversion is the ultimate expression of power. The opening scene is a cold and economical one, an apt overture to the repulsive events that follow. For Salo is a Marxist intellectual’s vision of evil as a sociological force, inflicted with calculating, sadistic extreme on an oppressed minority.

The plot is based on the book by notorious 18th century French libertine the Marquis de Sade and structured around the four parts of Dante’s Inferno: the Anteinferno, the Circle of Manias, the Circle of Shit and the Circle of Blood. The four debauched caricatures (‘characters’ would be far too kind) begin their spiral into hell by rounding up nine young men and nine young women with the clinical efficiency of concentration camp capos, before subjugating them to an impeccably regimented ordeal of defilement in a plush Italian villa.

Groomed for gratuity: Salò's selection process begins 
  
Over the course of two long cinematic hours, the youngsters are degraded, sodomised, forced to bathe in and eat shit, then tortured to death. If this sounds gratuitous, that’s because it is. And it’s why some critics have dismissed Pasolini’s last film as a perverted work of gay pornography and not the sincere, artful and only partially successful polemic it actually is.

Admittedly Salò does have the stylistic hallmarks of a flesh show: the single locale, the group of attractive people, the one-dimensional plot, the elaborate sexual configurations. Yet eroticism is the last thing on your mind: the solitary moment of sexual tenderness is mercilessly ended by gunshot. Rarely does Pasolini indulge in sensual close-ups either, preferring wide panoramas, formally-composed tableaux and a cold, clinical tone that borders on the surgical.


Process and form are everything in Salò. Precious little is done to explain the motivation of the torturers, save for the fact that they are men in power, and this is what men in power will do. Equally inscrutable are the victims themselves, who rarely emote or speak, reduced to homogenous lumps of malleable flesh meekly submitting to their appalling fate.

A staunch Communist, Pasolini deplored how authentic Italian culture was being destroyed by what he saw as a pernicious mass consumerism. This new kind of Fascism was degrading spirituality and individuality, he believed, a sickness symbolised in Salò by the young captives wallowing in and re-digesting their own filth. More than a critique of Mussolini’s dictatorship, Salò is a lament for this lost generation too, and a depiction of how humanity is consuming itself through perverse appetites.

Age of defilement: The notorious shit-bathing scene

The same criticism can be levelled at the movie. Salò is so overpowered by the malignant authority at its heart that it begins to feel like the work of the very Fascists it sets out to condemn. Resignation and acceptance are the film’s signature tones. Pasolini bludgeons you with such gratuity that by the end you don’t feel anything but helplessness: a numb spectator witnessing the end of civilisation itself.

No sense of resistance or counter-argument is offered, an odd stance for such a fiercely political filmmaker. I’d swap all of Salò for that one quiet scene in Pasolini’s 1964 masterpiece The Gospel According to Matthew, where a sleeping King Herod writhes with nightmares of guilt, a haunting depiction of what power can do to people. There was resilience and belief in that film. But that was in Pasolini’s younger days, when he was more idealistic, more hopeful and less disillusioned.

Visions of sin: Pier Paolo Pasolini on set 

A few weeks before Salò’s release, the director’s corpse was found in the Italian coastal town of Ostia. The official (long-disputed) verdict is that he’d made sexual advances to a young man who, supposedly out of self-defense, ran over Pasolini several times with the director’s own Alfa Romeo. Autopsy pictures tell a different story though: one of prolonged, deliberate sadism.

Rumours (and eyewitness accounts) persist that it was meted out by a group of thugs dispatched by those dark authority figures who’d once denounced Pasolini as a ‘corrupting homosexual’. Perhaps they even planned it with the same unnatural malice as the four libertines at the start of Salò, a scene which feels more like an ending than a beginning.

“It is only at our moment of death that our life, to that point undecipherable, ambiguous, suspended, acquires a meaning,” Pasolini once said. Far from being his best film, Salò is still a profoundly unsettling one, serving as a sad yet strangely appropriate epitaph for a great filmmaker tragically engulfed by the relentless brutality around him.
 
The Pasolini memorial in Ostia, near the spot where he was murdered

This article originally appeared in the July-August 2014 edition of Electrolyte, the magazine for and by fans of Birmingham's Electric Cinema.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Staring down the barrel of a gun has never seemed so beautiful


The poor, plainly-dressed labourer has only moments to live. His arms are held aloft in a final, defiant assertion of his humanity, while his face droops downwards, more out of resignation than fear. Nothing will save him from joining the tangled heap of corpses which lies on the ground to his immediate right. Within seconds, he’ll be just another victim of the cold, efficient massacre that’s taking place on Madrid’s Principe Pio hill at 4 o’clock on an icy black morning in May.

Time is a dominant presence in Francisco de Goya’s most famous painting. Its title is a time itself  The Third of May 1808 – and the picture was intended to commemorate a specific event in Spanish history. On that date, hundreds of Madrilenians were shot dead by Napoleonic insurgents, whose usurpation of the city the previous day had provoked the populace to rebellion. Goya’s painting depicts the savage reprisals that followed: a systematic mass execution of civilians at point blank range.

The Third of May 1808, Francisco de Goya (1814)

Six years later, after the French had finally been vanquished, Goya proposed a sequence of paintings to the Spanish government that would remember the sacrifices his fellow citizens made that night. The Third of May 1808 was the second of two delivered, prefaced by its companion piece The Second of May 1808, which portrays the pandemonium of the uprising itself in the city’s Puerta del Sol, where ordinary folk set about Napoleon’s crack Mameluke troops with knives and fists.

There is a powerful journalistic feel to The Third of May 1808; such is the reportage style there was even speculation (now discredited) that Goya himself was an eyewitness. Its lack of artsy contrivance and in-the-moment dynamic gives the picture an unpolished immediacy that’s antithetical to the grand, aestheticized historical paintings of contemporaries like Jacques-Louis David.

Goya’s vision is hyper-gritty and bleak, especially for a canvas designed to invoke nationalist pride (perhaps this was one of the reasons it was discreetly placed in storage by the powers-that-be). The protagonists are neither knights or noblemen, princes or politicians. They are commoners, victims of circumstances, supporting players in history’s drama – and there is no epic grandeur or compressed narrative characteristic of early 19th century commemorative pictures like The Battle of Waterloo.

Napoleon Crossing the Alps, Jacques-Louis David (1805)

Instead, it feels like you’ve turned a street corner and stepped unwittingly into a crime scene. A group of civilians huddle together near a bloodied pile of bodies, cowering against a nauseatingly-coloured hill. Opposite them and exceedingly close – as if Goya deliberately squeezes the spatial field to heighten the drama – are a faceless group of Napoleonic riflemen, ready to discharge the fatal blasts. Above them all is the heaviest and deadest of nights, an implacable void oppressing the gruesome scene below.

Graphic horror was Goya’s stock-in-trade. After a successful spell as the Royal court painter, he suffered a serious illness (most likely due to poisonous vapours emanating from his pigments) and became stone deaf. Troubled, withdrawn and operating on the margins, Goya responded to his disability by producing a visual arsenal of shocking intensity. Absorbing pieces such as Yard with Lunatics, an unforgettable image of madness, and his infamous engraving The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, is like watching a mind unravelling before you.

The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, Francisco de Goya (1799)

This culminated in his illustrative series The Disasters of War, a sequence of 82 prints that together constitute an indignant scream at the stupidity of conflict. The Third of May 1808 was produced during this same period, and it marks the high point of Goya’s violent, extremist art. The painting’s emotional power lies in how it replaces the gothic surrealism of The Sleep of Reason with a kind of vivid, abrasive hyper-reality, and in its contemplation of a new kind of military terror being unleashed on humanity. In the 21st century, we’re now so desensitised to murder on an industrialised scale – the Somme, Auschwitz, Sarajevo, Rwanda – that we can’t help but watch with uneasy familiarity at the grey, sharply delineated, Napoleonic automatons, a huge compact killing machine stretching endlessly into deep space.

These tightly-focused assassins form a radical contrast to the crumbling chaos of the victims, a grisly knot of limbs accentuated by a sly shift in perspective which sees the dead man face down in the foreground almost tip out into the viewer’s space. Goya’s painting is the artistic equivalent of a thump on the nose; he grinds the scene into your consciousness in the same way he applied the wet-on-wet painting technique to cake red onto his canvas, making Spanish blood an indelible feature of the sun-scorched earth.

Portrait of Francisco de Goya, Vicente López Portana (1826)

There is darkness a-plenty in The Third of May 1808 – but there is light too. For a painting about imminent death, it pulses with a strange, life-affirming energy. Chief counterpoint to the executioners is the image’s central figure, a humble labourer bathed in the light of the soldiers’ lantern. Goya illuminates this figure with all the tools at his disposal – space, composition, colour, shape – the X pattern of his spread-eagled posture drawing your eyes towards the intense luminosity of his clothing.

Here, the artist’s deafness proves his trump card. Depriving someone of one sense tends to intensify the receptivity of the others, and there’s no question Goya makes you feel the contrasting visual effects of light and dark more than most painters. The chiaroscuro effect is not simply a visceral device though: it imbues the picture with spiritual overtones that elevate it to a whole new level of resonance.

Sporting white and yellow clothes (the heraldic colours of the papacy), the central figure is as much holy martyr as he is salt-of-the-earth. His arms are spread wide as if being crucified and his palms bear the scars of stigmata, a gesture that would be reimagined by Picasso in Guernica, where two outstretched hands reach skywards from the Fascist-inflicted cubist rubble.

Guernica, Pablo Picasso (1937)

Elsewhere, the glowing lantern recalls the Roman soldiers capturing Christ in Gethsemane, a light source so aggressively bright that it makes the victim seem almost supernatural, other-worldly, as if he is about to rise Saviour-like to a higher plane of existence. The effect is compounded by a spectacular breach of proportion. The labourer is kneeling down, but if stood up would tower over his assailants. Both Everyman and Superman, he transcends himself at the very moment of death.

In Christian doctrine, this is what’s known as transfiguration, named after the episode in the Gospels when Jesus transforms before his disciples so 'his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as light' (Matthew 17): that moment before death when we metamorphose into a more spiritual, beautiful state.

The genius of Goya’s painting lies in how it masterfully dramatises this resurgent effect, audaciously swinging the energy away from the aggressor to the sufferer; capturing a pure drop of divinity as it ripples through an ocean of depression. The ordinary turns extraordinary, the anonymous becomes the archetypal – and The Third of May 1808 transforms into a potent symbol of tragedy, a single image of iconic status similar to the scorched nakedness of Phan Thi Kim Phuc seeking refuge from napalm. 

Phan Thi Kim Phuc (centre left) fleeing a napalm attack. Photo: Nick Ut (1972)

“Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire,” says the Talmud, a sacred text of Judaism. In an era where the death toll of war victims is talked about so casually and quantitatively, Goya reminds us how much we lose when just one person is killed. That’s why whenever I look at The Third of May 1808, I feel humbled, blessed, glad to be alive – and savour how my life’s troubles fade into the background before it, like shadow being gradually extinguished by light.

For the journey of Goya’s labourer is the journey of the artist and the viewer. When faced with the penury of death, the peasant achieves true spiritual wealth and immortality. When all sound had died away, Goya channelled this emptiness into a supernova of light. And when we gaze upon this scene of squalid murder, and reflect on the competing energies raging within it, we appreciate more than anything life’s preciousness and beauty, and hope that when our time comes, we can strive to be as bold, as brilliant, as divine.