Black Dogs, Storms & Rhapsodies

Virginia Woolf by George Charles Beresford (public domain)

Virginia Woolf by George Charles Beresford (public domain)

“(…) How very trying I was—all agog, all aquiver; and so full of storms and rhapsodies…” wrote Virginia Woolf in 1936 in a letter to Violet Dickinson, her older friend and correspondent. This and many other letters can be found at an exhibition devoted to the life of Woolf which is currently on at the National Portrait Gallery.

“Storms and rhapsodies” is a beautiful metaphor for the demon of bipolar depression that Woolf had struggled with all her life—until her suicide in 1941. It’s hard to walk around the gallery space and look at all the photographic and painted portraits of Woolf without a tremendous sense of loss. On March 28, 1941, Virginia filled the pockets of her coat with stones and drowned herself near Monk’s House at Rodmell… A great mind and a beautiful spirit lost in the depths of the Ouse River.

In a heart-breaking letter to her beloved husband Leonard, Virginia wrote:


I feel certain I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that – everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer.

I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.

A few weeks ago Robin Williams, the famous comedian and the star of numerous wonderful movies, was found dead in his home in Tiburon, Calif. The cause of his death was suicide by asphyxiation.

Upon the tragic news of his death, social media were instantly buzzing with comments. A lot of people were expressing sadness and understanding but there were also voices of shocking ignorance. Comments such as “What the hell did he have to be depressed about. He had more money than I could ever earn in my lifetime. The 1% are so out of touch with the real world.” demonstrated how little understanding there is towards mental illness and how important it is to fight against the stigma surrounding it. For depression is an illness like anything else. From a medical point of view, it is the unbalance of brain chemicals, notably serotonin and norepinephrine. Severe depression can take control of the brain just like cancer can take control over the body. The amount of money in one’s bank account isn’t likely to make any difference to a person whose brain isn’t functioning properly.

Robin Williams, 2011 | Image by Eva Rinaldi (CC)

Robin Williams, 2011 | Image by Eva Rinaldi (CC)

In one of my favourite films, The Fisher King by Terry Gilliam, Robin played the role of Henry Sagan—a college professor whose wife gets shot by a psychopath. After a few years of being in coma, Sagan emerges as “Parry” and becomes a homeless outcast who often has visions of a demonic, fire-and-smoke-spewing Red Knight, who chases him with a sword. The apparition is a result of the deep trauma he experienced when the killer entered a restaurant where Henry was eating dinner with his wife, and blew her brain out with a shotgun.

Terry Gilliam recently spoke to Vulture about the challenge of shooting the final chase scene: “This scene (…) was very hard from an acting point of view, because Robin was tearing his guts out emotionally. The interesting thing about Robin in all of those scenes was that he always wanted to do another take. He felt he had even more anguish and pain to spill out of the character. And I had to really stop him. I had to say, ‘Robin, you’ve reached a point here, way beyond what we expected. We’ve got what we needed. Now you’re just hurting yourself.(…) What we have here is very good. And if we look at the rushes and it isn’t, I promise you I will reshoot it.’ And I had to hug him basically, and hold him.”

The scene is truly poignant. Not only is it a beautiful piece of cinematography (you can read about the design, creation and shooting of it on David Morgan’s website) but also a frightening visualisation of what goes on in a malfunctioning mind.

For the Red Knight isn’t just a phantom of the killer. It is a striking metaphor for an outbreak of mental illness. Just like the Knight would appear unexpectedly in front of Parry, in the middle of a busy street, depression can creep up unnoticed and attack in the full light of the day. Andrew Solomon, writer and lecturer on psychology, politics, and the arts, who also suffers from depression, called it “Noonday Demon” in his bestselling account of the disease which won several literary prizes. Solomon was hit by the demon at a time when everything was going well: he was publishing his first novel, getting along with his family, he had bought a beautiful new house and peacefully ended a two-year relationship. “It was when life was finally in order that depression came slinking in and spoiled everything,” he wrote in 1998 in the New Yorker article. The World Health Organisation predicts that by 2030 depression will be the world’s most disabling condition. According to Beyond Blue, one in six people (one in five women and one in eight men) will experience it at some point in their life, and it underscores most mental illness. The demon is very real.

The Red Knight from the Fisher King, movie still

The Red Knight from the Fisher King, movie still

I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate…

“Voices” were one the main themes in Virginia Woolf’s writing as well as life. Her books focused very much on the inner life, inner monologues and thoughts voiced by many different characters. Her twenty-four volume diary, on the other hand, is an account of the struggle to silence the other, unwanted voices in her head. “Sometimes these were identifiable,” says Steve King in his essay; “the birds she heard singing to her in Greek, King Edward swearing in the azaleas. Sometimes they were the common noise of anxiety, though loud and frightening enough to convince her that to step over the puddle in her path would be to step into unreality.”

Virginia Woolf was only 13 when she experienced the first outbreak of depression, which happened shortly after her mother passed away. The next major mental breakdown happened nine years later, in 1905. After her father Leslie Stephen died of stomach cancer, she attempted a suicide by jumping out of a window, and was briefly institutionalized as a result.

This was the beginning of a painful hide-and-seek game with the Red Knight who would regularly haunt her. When she was 31, depression became much more severe and led her to another serious suicide attempt. Luckily, she got rescued by a physician who happened to be in the neighbourhood and managed to pump out 100 grains of Veronal she took from the case that Leonard, her husband, usually kept locked.

Throughout the decades, she was observing and recording her illness, in an attempt to open “the dark cupboard.” In 1921, Virginia randomly took to her bed for next eight weeks, following a night when she stayed up after a concert. Two months later she recorded in her journal: “What a gap! How it would have astounded me to be told when I wrote the last word here, on June 7th, that within a week I [should] be in bed, and not entirely out of it till the 6th of August – two whole months rubbed out ..” A note from 1926 was more dramatic: “Woke up perhaps at 3. Oh it’s beginning it’s coming… physically like a painful wave about the heart—tossing me up…. Down—God I wish I were dead.”

In the 59 years of her life, Virginia had written nine novels, fourteen non-fiction books, numerous shorts stories, as well as diaries, letters and autobiographical writings. The voices were debilitating and painful but she withstood them for as long as she could.

What Virginia referred to as voices, Winston Churchill called  “the black dog,” which followed him like in Bly’s poem.

A light seen suddenly in the storm, snow
Coming from all sides, like flakes
Of sleep, and myself
On the road to the dark barn,
Halfway there, a black dog near me.

– Robert Bly, from “Melancholia” in The Light Around the Body (1967)

Sir Winston Churchill (public domain)

Sir Winston Churchill (public domain)

Churchill’s mental illness, which began in his youth, was haunting him throughout his long and remarkable life. According to his close friend Lord Beaverbrook, Winston was always either “at the top of the wheel of confidence or at the bottom of an intense depression.” Still, not only had he managed to push through the bad, but he was using highs of the mania to his and other people’s benefit. Psychiatrist and historian Anthony Storr goes as far as attributing Churchill’s success to the bipolar disorder, and in one the essays in his Black Dog, Kafka’s Mice, and Other Phenomena of the Human Mind book, he says that: “Had he been a stable and equable man, he could never have inspired the nation. In 1940, when all the odds were against Britain, a leader of sober judgement might well have concluded that we were finished.” Churchill was not only one of the greatest wartime leaders, but also a prolific writer. He had written a novel, two biographies, three volumes of memoirs, and several histories as well as numerous newspaper articles. He is the only British Prime Minister who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1953 “for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values.”

Churchill is famous for the “black dog” metaphor, although its origins are in fact much older, and its associations with depression can be found in the poetry of the Roman poet Horace (c. 40BC) and Appollonius (c. 1st century AD), as we can read in Paul Foley’s in-depth analysis of the history of the term. Still, it was  the famous politician who popularised the image, which has become a symbol of mental health illness. Two years ago, the mental health charity SANE, celebrated the 25th anniversary, and they named 2012 the Year of the Black Dog. As part of that, they launched the Black Dog Campaign to raise awareness of depression and mental illness. Sculptures of black dogs were placed in various locations across London and the UK and later sold at an auction to raise funds for the charity. Several people, including artists and celebrities, were designing a decorative coat for the dog sculpture. Among them was a 52-year-old British artist Anthony Cleyndert, who had suffered with recurring mental illness for 30 years.

Black Dog Campaign by SANE | Image from Black Dog Tribe (CC)

Black Dog Campaign by SANE | Image from Black Dog Tribe (CC)

It seems that depression is slowly becoming less of a taboo topic, and there is an infinite number of articles about it on the internet. But it’s a tricky subject, and not all advice on how to deal with is good and helpful. Following Robin William’s death, Tom Hawking wrote an article in which he condemns using the word “battle” to describe the illness. He criticizes the narrative which implies depression is something you can fight, “that you can maybe even vanquish if you fight hard enough.” Without any training in the medical or psychological field, he advocates passiveness and enduring rather than actively trying to do something about the illness. Hawking’s message is wrong and unnecessary. This is a battle (or rather, a series of battles) that can be won—not in the sense that depression disappears forever, but in the sense that it doesn’t send someone to an early grave.

One of the people who have been successfully fighting with depression, made a very good observation under Hawking’s article: the “fight” happens outside of depression. “In the same way you wouldn’t strap on armour or sharpen your blade while in the MIDDLE of a sword fight, depression is never fought while you’re inside of it. When you’re in that pit, no amount of willpower of your own will pull you out. It’s only through everything outside of that moment that any hope can be found,” he said. Healthy lifestyle, CBT, self-development, friendships, relationships, reading other people’s accounts of their fight (i.e. Marcus Aurelius who lived and dealt with depression all his life), nurturing soul and mind, cherishing good memories, etc. are all tools to increase the chances of survival when depression strikes.

Surviving the storm and chasing away the Red Knight, however hard and painful, is a noble battle and one worth pursuing. Not only because life is worth living but also because while being on the mountaintop is easy and doesn’t teach us much, getting through the darkness and pain is a character-building experience, inspiration for other people, and in the case of artists—an inspiration to create some beautiful work.

Jean Paul Gaultier & Different Kinds of Beauty

The Fashion World Of Jean Paul Gaultier: From The Sidewalk To The Catwalk

I am not a fashion buff. I don’t watch catwalk shows, adjust the length of my skirts to what’s in this season, nor buy Vogue. But I love fashion. I grew up surrounded by women’s magazines and the smell of Givenchy perfume, and developed an appreciation for quality and uniqueness (thanks, Mum!). I avoid shopping on the high street, as I’m not keen on the idea of cheap and disposable mass-produced clothes, and instead I prefer hunting for good labels in vintage shops or on eBay. Despite being mostly indifferent to current trends, I have always taken a great interest in fashion creators. So when I read that the Barbican were hosting a retrospective exhibition celebrating the 40-year career of Jean Paul Gaultier, one of my favourite designers whose Classique perfume I wear, I knew I had to go.

And I loved it. The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From Sidewalk to Catwalk exhibition is absolutely stunning—very well designed, arranged and balanced. It is divided into eight themes, and the upper floor consists of luxury boutique-style booths where the garments are beautifully displayed with theatrical lighting. The mannequins are custom-made, and some of them are animated: they chat, hum, and recite poetry. Needless to say, I spent four hours in an aggressively air-conditioned space and found it hard to leave.

The Fashion World Of Jean Paul Gaultier: From The Sidewalk To The Catwalk

The section where I spent a lot of time, for it stroke a particular chord with me, is dedicated to the artist’s muses. One of the (many) things that early on differentiated Gaultier from other fashion designers, was his rejection of the standard “tall, blonde and ethereal” look. “Non-conformist designer seeks unusual models—the conventionally pretty need not apply,” he wrote in an ad in the French newspaper Libération. And so he began his long-term work relationships with people of non-standard body type and non-specific gender, including models, musicians, and actresses. Erin O’Connor is flat-chested with a nose “the size of Concorde,” to use her own words. The nose of famous Spanish actress and his other muse, Rossy de Palma, is even bigger. Beth Ditto and Velvet d’Amour are both obese, Lily Cole has very widely set eyes and a small mouth, and Andrej Pejić and Terry Toy are both androgynous.

“Perfection is relative and beauty is subjective,” says Gaultier. “I wanted to make imperfection admirable… Sometimes a different energy and bearing, or an unusual type of body catches my eyes and makes me want to invent something. With both haute couture and prêt-à-porter, I’ve always tried to create collections that could speak to all kinds of men and women of different ages and styles.” He’s not interested in trying to make people “different from what they really are, but only bring out their personality.”

Rossy de Palma | screenshot from "Christian Louboutin: 20 Ans" film

Rossy de Palma | screenshot from “Christian Louboutin: 20 Ans” film

Stacey McKenzie, Canadian fashion model of Jamaican origin, owes her success to Gaultier’s support. “To this day, I cry when reminiscing on meeting Mr. Gaultier—a man who changed my life,” she wrote in an article for the Huffington Post. “At this point, I was very close to reaching my breaking point. The bullying, teasing, criticisms, hate, and NOs were beginning to take their toll on me. Jean Paul was the first designer to tell me I was beautiful. Jean was also the first to encourage me to stay true to myself and pay no mind to what anyone thought,” she confessed.

Stacey McKenzie in conversation with Tracy Moore on Cityline

Stacey McKenzie in conversation with Tracy Moore on Cityline

Gaultier’s work is a celebration of unconventional beauty and personality. His message is clear—embrace your body with its oddities and imperfections and have fun with your look! With his Wardrobe for Two collection (1985), he introduced clothes that escaped gender conventions. But he doesn’t push for the androgenic look and allows men and women to be as masculine or feminine as they wish to be. A woman can wear an impossibly glamorous dress made out of pearl buttons and sequins (Mermaids collection: Haute couture spring/summer 2008), or a masculine Jewish-inspired tailored black overcoat and curly side locks (Chic Rabbis collection: Women’s pret-a-porter autumn/winter 1993-1994.) A man can wear a “macho” sailor’s outfit and tattoos, PVC trousers and a top with embroidered skulls, a tulle and lace bodysuit or frilled flares. It is thanks to Gaultier that men have reclaimed a skirt and a corset—two items of clothing that, as Nathalie Bondil (Director and Chief Curator The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts), points out, “have antecedents in sarongs, kilts and aprons, and old military and cavalry corsets.” Gaultier empowers both sexes. His corsets aren’t the 19th century cage crinolines which imprisoned female body. They’re a symbol of sexual freedom and strength, beautifully illustrated by Dita Von Teese stripping off her underwear to reveal a skeletal bustier encrusted with black and red crystals at the end of Women’s Haute Couture autumn/winter 2010-11 show. Bondil says: “During the ancient régime, for a man to show his legs was a sign of phallic power; for Madonna to expose her breasts in a Gaultier‐designed cone bra proclaims feminine power.” For Gaultier, there is no weakness that women should conceal. In his Bad Girls—G Spot collection (spring/summer 2010) the artist showed a corset that emphasised the abdomen of an expecting mother.

 Gaultier's Baby Bump Corset from Bad Girls-G Spot collection (spring/summer 2010)

Gaultier’s Baby Bump Corset from Bad Girls-G Spot collection (spring/summer 2010)

And no-one else (apart from perhaps Vivienne Westwood) has been so successful at bringing together completely opposite aesthetic worlds: the grotty street (Mohawk haircuts, torn stockings, studded biker jackets) and Paris boulevard (trench coats, berets, baguettes); the fetishist dungeon and Virgin Mary robes and halos; the east and west, north and south. A lot of his collections are tributes to different countries and cultures: Africa, Greece, Ukraine and Russia. “The skin, its different types and various tones, has always appealed to me: from white to caramel, red, black that’s almost blue, ebony. Complexions have an influence on the garments, set them off, like when I showed the Paris neon embroidered dress on Alek Wek, a model with very black skin. It was extremely beautiful.” One of his favourite models is Farida Khelfa who became the first model with North African background when she appeared on Gaultier’s catwalk in 1979.

The Fashion World Of Jean Paul Gaultier: From The Sidewalk To The Catwalk

As a white middle-class woman size 8, perhaps I have no reason to be so concerned with women on the catwalk. But I am, for in the culture striving for the ultimate look devised through Photoshop retouching and plastic surgery, it is extremely easy to feel outcast, outsized and out of everyone’s league. And while everyone’s digitally removing freckles and blemishes, Gaultier celebrates them. When every woman is turning to Botox and laser to go back 20 years in time, Gaultier puts spotlight on older women: 89-year old Polly Mellen and 83-year old Carmen Dell’Orefice.

Carmen Dell'Orefice, Red Dress Collection 2005 | Photo by The Heart Truth (CC)

Carmen Dell’Orefice, Red Dress Collection 2005 | Photo by The Heart Truth (CC)

I must confess that I have a problem with cultural homogeneity. It is not just fashion with the same looking smooth, slim and tall Scandinavian beauties. In interior design, it’s shiny white tops in the kitchen, a concrete wall in the living room and free standing sink units in the bathroom. It’s the omnipresence of Helvetica in advertising—when designers default to something that works and everyone likes instead of using their design skills to experiment. It’s keeping up with the Joneses, getting a lifelong mortgage, buying bestsellers and choosing popular holiday destinations.

For me, the Gaultier exhibition is not just about admiring the beauty of his clothes. (Though, admittedly, their craftsmanship is breathtaking—some of the garments take a few hundred hours to make.) The focal point of the show lies elsewhere—in an invitation to admire the beauty of our own uniqueness and to find ways to express it. “It’s the Fashion Superman side of me, who wants to make people see beauty where seemingly there is none,” said Gaultier in an interview with Thierry‐Maxime Loriot, the show’s curator. And for that I will always love him.

Man and Machine

Man and Machine at Vienna Museum of Technology | Image by Mirko Tobias Schaefer (CC)

Man & Machine, Vienna Museum of Technology | Image by Mirko Tobias Schaefer (CC)

What inspired me to write this post are two seemingly unrelated things I saw recently: a friend’s website and a documentary film. The website was created using Adobe Muse. The documentary film was about sign painters, released through the Creative Bundle.

These two completely different discoveries both led me to ask the same question: a question about the role of technologies in our present and future lives, and the ongoing competition between man-made and machine-made. Why? Let me elaborate.

Adobe Muse CC is a tool for designing websites without having to write any code. It is aimed at the huge market of designers who had to make the transition from print to web production, but haven’t learned coding. After Flash and Dreamweaver, this is the very first program by Adobe that takes away the need for a skill that generations of programmers have been developing. As a matter of fact, the program provides no access to the code it generates on behalf of the designer. So the knowledge of coding is of no extra benefit to creating a website in Muse.

Sign Painters, directed by Faythe Levine and Sam Macon, is a fantastic film exploring this unacknowledged art form and underground trade. Hand-painted signs have a long tradition; historically the craft was acquired through apprenticeship, though in the early days many sign painters were self-taught. According to one of the artists featured in the film, mastering the craft normally takes about 5-7 years. In the age of digital immediacy, this seems like a serious approach to learning a trade but that’s precisely what the interviewed painters value: a Renaissance-style mastery. All of the painters demonstrate the same level of dedication and passion for their job. They believe in solid knowledge of materials, techniques, and process; in quality, beauty, artistic vision, and durability. They came to the trade from different backgrounds and in different ways, but once they picked up a brush, they were reluctant to let go. For quite a long time, sign painting was “the” job, which brought money and a fair amount of freedom. Ira Coyne, one of the interviewed painters, mentions a book he once read, “Sign painters don’t read signs,” which is an autobiography of a sign painter from Portland written in the late 1950s who believed that the hand-painted sign industry would last forever. Unfortunately, that was not the case.

In the 80s, when first computers were introduced, and vinyl cutting machines were invented, the art of sign painting began to fade. Sean Starr from Starr Studios says: “That was a true nightmare, when that movement came, when all those little franchise things opened up. Any area that those guys came into just wiped out little guys who were doing really neat work.” The software became extremely popular among people who had no background or any knowledge of design, layout or technique but could produce signs a lot quicker and cheaper. Just like designers who don’t know the slightest thing about HTML and CSS reach for Adobe Muse to make quick, attractive and cheap websites for clients who don’t want to pay for “the real thing”—which is hand-coding. As a result, “hundreds of sign painters just threw in the towel,” and turned to a plotter, as Norma Jeanne Maloney recalls. They had to respond to customers who, according to Mack Benek, quickly developed expectations that if they order a sign now they will get it overnight. “But if it’s hand-done, it’s not going to be instant,” he says.

Adobe Muse

Adobe Muse screenshot from

Thirty years after vinyl machines disturbed the peaceful existence of sign-painters, Adobe’s new release became a thorn in the side of website developers. On various computer and design-related forums, they’ve been ripping the software apart at the seams and criticizing Adobe for allowing dabblers to create websites. Many developers claim that web design should be left to somebody who understands the concept, and as such should be coded up by hand. They point at the flaws of Muse—the messy code it generates, lack of responsiveness, clunkiness, and various other bugs. Some say that it can only be used as a tool for making good-looking prototypes, and therefore its marketing is misleading. “Well written code that is efficient, powerful, and clean is an art form in and of itself,” someone said on a forum. And no-one can disagree with that, just like no-one would undermine the quality of hand-painted signs. But will people be willing to pay and wait extra for a higher quality website if presented with a cheap and fast solution? Code-savvy designers have developed the same fear that sign painters had—that the new software will put them out of business.

Technophobia—the fear or dislike of advanced technology or complex devices, especially computers—is nothing new under the sun. It started during the Industrial Revolution which brought on new machines able to do the work of skilled craftsmen using unskilled, underpaid men, women, and children. In the workers’ eyes, the machines were a threat and in 1675 got destroyed by a group of weavers who feared of the changes taking place.

Dustin Walsh, the author of “Fear not the ‘bot? As robots take jobs, experts ask if humans will keep up” article, reminds us that “robots have brought fear and paranoia to the American worker since the first robot entered the factory floor.” That first robot, a 4000 pound Unimate with a “six-axis arm attached magnetically to a steel drum, welded and moved parts weighing up to 500 pounds,” a job considered too dangerous to workers. “In March 1964, President Lyndon Johnson received a memorandum from a group of professors, technologists and activists, warning him that computers and automation would cause unemployment. However, the U.S. has added more than 74 million jobs since 1964. For their part, computers and robots have changed the skills and wages of the workforce.”

When vinyl machines became omnipresent, hand-painting became the luxurious craft that no-one was willing to pay for. It looked like the industry would die. But it didn’t. And those who remained in it despite the financial difficulties, got rewarded.

Sign Painters

Sign Painters film still | © The Sign Painter Documentary

For twenty years later things began to shift. Sean Starr, the founder of Starr Studios, talks about a massive project his company got commissioned to do by GAP. He was puzzled, wondering why the company would want to invest extra money in hand-painted store and truck signage. Surely, all companies were doing everything they could to save money? Not necessarily. GAP’s new business strategy was to try to go back to the roots and passion that launched them in 1969, and incorporating craftsmanship was part of that campaign. People were slowly becoming tired of the polished and homogenised look. They began to crave “the real thing.” And as Doc Guthrie, owner of “Doc Guthrie Signs” and a teacher, says, “there is always a demand for hand-crafter WHATEVER.” In the 80s and 90s the brush might have been going away but it’s coming back.

A hand-painted sign fades and becomes a work of art. Vinyl, on the other hand, shrinks and cracks, and has to be thrown away. It isn’t surprising then that many young people are willing to spend weeks learning to paint horizontal, vertical and diagonal strokes at Doc Guthrie’s school of sign painting. “They’re bored out of their skulls but it’s a challenge,” he says. The sign in one of his workshops says: “Through these doors pass America’s potential sign graphics designers and lettering craftsmen.” Anyone can punch letters using a vinyl machine. But the art of lettering is reserved for the hard-working, skilled, and dedicated ones.

Still from Sign Painters |

Sign Painters film still | © The Sign Painter Documentary

Keith Knecht, one of the sign painters featured in the film, is absolutely right when he says that “the problem with technology is that it never stands still.” Technology is indeed constantly changing, and those changes can be problematic. But they needn’t spread panic. Computers are increasingly more and more powerful, but we’re still very far from reaching true artificial intelligence. According to Frank Levy, professor emeritus at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “robots don’t respond quickly to change, and computers are strongest when there is a repetition of a single action, so humans still have roles in the workplace; they just may be a little different in the future.” And it is true that computers have taken some jobs, but they have created jobs too. And, most importantly, they’ve given us instant access to knowledge, communication tools and shortcuts that have made a vast number of previously laborious tasks incredibly easy.

When asked whether technological change is a threat to the livelihood of humans, Dustin Walsh remains optimistic remains optimistic. In his view, the focus should be on embracing the robot and shifting human jobs “to the right parts of the manufacturing or service-providing process: programming the robots, repairing and maintaining them, and adapting work processes as the economy continues to evolve.” Given the speed at which computing power increases, and areas where that power is used (self-driving cars being a good example), people will have no choice but to use computers in the future. But they do and will “remain in control of the discovery,” to use Walsh’s words. As for hand-coding and hand-painting, I believe that while some people might be satisfied with a soulless, generic and non-durable product, there will always be people who value the skill and soul behind the hand-made.

Making Colours & “Noncolours”

Edouard Manet: Blue Venice (1875)

Edouard Manet: Blue Venice (1875)

Last weekend I went to the National Gallery to see the Making Colour exhibition. It’s one of those exhibitions I could easily have missed, had it not been recommended to me by a friend, since its advertising is not especially enticing. But I’m very glad I went for it’s a really good show: inspiring, informative and joyful. Everyone who marvels at the colour exuberance of Matisse’s cut-outs at Tate’s best-selling exhibition (which I’ve reviewed in one of my recent posts), should enjoy the National Gallery’s journey through the history of pigments, dyes and their use in paintings.

Colour is something we take for granted, and its widespread use in contemporary art and media results from the easiness of colour making and its availability. It is no longer the case of risky and laborious mining and transportation of stones used for making pigments, like the lapis lazuli. This precious and incredibly expensive Afghani stone, excavated from the mountain valley of Kokcha (hence the name ultramarine, meaning “beyond the sea”), was used by the Renaissance artists to paint the blue robes of the Virgin Mary. It was only in 1826 when a synthetic called “French Ultramarine” was invented. Before that, artists who couldn’t afford ultramarine had to choose between cheap and unreliable smalt (made from ground blue potassium glass containing cobalt) and greenish azurite (composed of mineral basic carbonate of copper). The third source of blue, which was also the first synthetic pigment called “Egyptian blue” and used extensively from the early dynasties in Egypt until the end of the Roman period, was no longer an option since its recipe was forgotten in the Middle Ages.

Lapis lazuli

Lapis lazuli | Image by James Petts via Flickr (CC)

The Blue room, where minerals and pigments are displayed next to paintings, is the second one at the National Gallery exhibition. The show begins with an introductory room where Moses Harris’s The Natural System of Colours chart from the late 18th century is juxtaposed with Michel Eugène Chevreul’s idea of complementary colours (i.e. blue and orange) which enhance each other when placed side by side. The subsequent rooms are each devoted to one colour: green, yellow, red, purple, gold and silver, and show us how these colours have been created, used and how they have aged. Thanks to the cutting-edge laboratory equipment, it is now relatively easy to establish exactly what went onto canvas several centuries ago in terms of the colour composition, hue and saturation, before the ageing of pigments, exposure to light and oxygen completely changed the colours, giving for example the 15th century landscape painting the “burnt effect.”

Modern painters not only have the luxury of choosing from hundreds of ready-made secondary colours which come in a variety of tube sizes, but they also don’t run the risk of poisoning themselves in the process of mixing pigments with oil. Realgar, which for centuries was the only available pure orange pigment used by artists such as Titian and Dutch masters, is a highly toxic arsenic. It was used to poison rats in medieval Spain and in 16th century England. Verdigris, another toxic pigment and the most vibrant green available until the 19th century, was made by scraping the oxidation off copper and bronze. Copper resinate, introduced in European 15th century easel panting, was formed by dissolving copper salts in Venice turpentine. Artists would often combine glazing verdigris over lead white with a layer of copper resinate to form a deep saturation of green. It wasn’t until late 18th century when a new generation of greens was formed: cobalt green, emerald green, and viridian. As for reds, Vermilion, originally made from the powdered mineral cinnabar, was used scarcely, as mining cinnabar was difficult, expensive and dangerous due to its toxicity. When in the 9th century people discovered a safer process of making the pigment, it became the principle red pigment until the manufacture of its synthetic equivalent, cadmium red, in 1907. This was a welcome discovery, for despite the new and improved methods of obtaining vermilion, it remained toxic.

Michael Pacher: The Virgin and Child Enthroned with Angels and Saints (1475)

Michael Pacher: The Virgin and Child Enthroned with Angels and Saints (1475)

The strongest point of the exhibition is its technical approach to the subject: showing sources of red dyes (brazilwood, madder, stick lac, kermes, cochineal), x-raying old paintings, juxtaposing hidden edges of the canvas containing the original colour with the decoloured rest; or describing the process of applying gold leaf in Botticelli’s Saint Francis of Assisi with Angels (1475-80). There are also quite a few gems: David Contemplating the Head of Goliath (approx. 1612), a painting by Orazio Gentileschi executed directly on a panel of lapis lazuli, with the sky area uncovered with paint; The Virgin and Child Enthroned with Angels and Saints (1475), quite a stunning painting by Michael Pacher, and Turner’s paintbox, found in his studio after his death in 1851.

The curators also wanted to draw our attention to the subjectivity of colour perception – something that is explored in the last room, where the audience can participate in a series of visual experiments. One of them is particularly impressive: after staring for a while at a black dot placed in the middle of a bright infrared-like image of a castle, we will see a completely natural-looking colour photograph of it, despite the fact that the image we’re shown is black and white. It is our mind that makes up the colours.

There are indeed a few different angles to the exhibition, which makes it particularly interesting. However, this is by no means an exhaustive exploration of the topic. With only a few examples from the 20th century, the show fails to demonstrate the tremendous difference in the use of colour between old and modern paintings. Some colour rooms are more informative than others (why is there so little information about Prussian blue?), but what struck me most is that the exhibition doesn’t include two other colours that are fundamental to painting – white and black.

Rembrandt: Portrait of a Man Wearing a Black Hat (1634)

Rembrandt: Portrait of a Man Wearing a Black Hat (1634) | from WikiArt

I am aware that these two colours can easily inspire heated debates, with speculations around their existence. According to Michel Pastoureau, the author of Black: The History of a Color, published by Princeton University Press, for a few centuries after Isaac Newton’s discovery of the colour spectrum, “black and white were considered and experienced as ‘noncolors.’” This notion still affects the way students are taught at art schools. Painters are expected to create black by mixing other colours, since they have a greater ability to suspend colour constancy (the process in which the perceived colour of objects remains relatively constant under varying illumination conditions). In other words, they are not only able of capturing the way a different light alters the colour of an object, but of seeing crimson and ultramarine in a tarmac, and therefore should refrain from using ready-made black. I must say that I never really understood that dismissal. After a few years of following my tutors’ directive to avoid black, I eventually went back to it.

When I didn’t know what colour to put down, I put down black. Black is a force: I used black as a ballast to simplify the construction. – Henri Matisse

After all, black was one of the first colours used by artists in Neolithic cave paintings. The first type of black was Carbon black, made by heating wood, or other plant material, with a very restricted air supply. It was quite dull but the easiness of its made it incredibly popular among artists of all periods. The name carbon black is a generic name for different blacks made from the partial burning or carbonizing of natural gas, oil, wood, vegetables and other organic matter. Besides carbon black, there is vine black, produced by charring desiccated grape vines and stems, and lamp black, made by collecting soot. Bone black, with a slight blue hint, and fairly smooth texture, is made from charring of bones or waste ivory. It is the deepest available black. In the Portrait of Phillips Lucasz, Rembrandt used bone black to paint the black clothing of the man in order to distinguish him from the already dark night surroundings. As Pastoureau says, the painter “often practices a kind of colour asceticism, relying on dark tones, restrained and limited in number . . . to give precedence to the powerful effects of light.” Mars Black , the most recent in origin (early 20th century), is the only major black pigment that is considered non-toxic and the only one that is a good drier (the other blacks are among the most slow-drying pigments.)

(…) White, although often considered as no color (a theory largely due to the Impressionists, who saw no white in nature), is a symbol of a world from which all color as a definite attribute has disappeared. This world is too far above us for its harmony to touch our souls. A great silence, like an impenetrable wall, shrouds its life from our understanding. White, therefore, has its harmony of silence, which works upon us negatively, like many pauses in music that break temporarily the melody. It is not a dead silence, but one pregnant with possibilities. White has the appeal of the nothingness that is before birth, of the world in the ice age. – Wassil Kandinsky

Along with charcoal and red and yellow, white was one of the first colours cave artists painted with. They used calcite or chalk – a kind of limestone, made of the mineral calcite, or calcium carbonate. The Renaissance brought a new pigment similar to chalk, called “Bianco di San Giovanni,” made of calcium carbonate with calcium hydroxide. It was essentially lime powder, soaked in water, formed into cakes and dried in the sun. Lead white was being produced from the 4th century BC until the late 20th century when it was finally banned due to its toxicity. “Pieces of lead were put into clay pots which had a separate compartment filled with vinegar. The pots in turn were piled on shelves close to cow dung. The combined fumes of the vinegar and the cow dung caused the lead to corrode into lead carbonate,” we can read on the Wikipedia. Today, the two most widely used whites are zinc white and Titanium white (made with titanium dioxide); the latter was discovered in 1921 and turned out to be an excellent replacement for the toxic lead, with twice its opacity.

Despite the non-colour stigma, white and black have been used for artists across centuries. Black, which also had various negative cultural associations, can be found not only in Rembrandt’s portraits and Matisse’s works, but in the work of many great painters: Diego Velázquez, Francisco Goya, Jean Miro, Pierre Soulages, Kasimir Malevich, Robert Motherwell, Franz Kline, Ad Reinhardt, Frank Stella, Louise Nevelson, Barnett Newman to name a few.

Pierre Soulages: Peinture (2011)

Pierre Soulages: Peinture (2011)
Image from (Fair Use) © Archives Soulages

The artistic mission of Pierre Soulages, often referred to as the “Master of Black”, has been the search for a particular onyx gleam which he calls “outrenoir,” or beyond black. In his teenage years, the artist was fascinated by prehistoric art such as the 3,000-year-old monoliths near his home in the Aveyron region, and the reproductions of the cave paintings at Lascaux, Altamira or Chauvet from 30,000 years ago. This idea that prehistoric people painted in the dark and with the dark, inspired his lifelong fascination with black.

The majority of works by the minimalist/abstract artist Robert Ryman feature white or off-white paint on square canvas or metal surfaces, referred to as “white-on-white” paintings. White was also the love of Piet Mondrian, who used it to cover large sections in his Compositions and later made white the focus on his paintings. Another striking example of the use of white are the five works in Robert Rauschenberg’s White Paintings (1951) which have been painted completely white. The artist’s goal was to “create a painting that looked untouched by human hands, as though it had simply arrived in the world fully formed and absolutely pure. (…) Rauschenberg once referred to the works as clocks, saying that if one were sensitive enough to the subtle changes on their surfaces one could tell what time it was and what the weather was like outside,” we can read on the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art website.

Robert Ryman: Ledger (1982)

Robert Ryman: Ledger (1982) © Robert Ryman
Image from (Fair Use)

After seeing the National Gallery exhibition, which successfully demonstrates the amount of effort and dedication that went into obtaining pigments and creating colours in the history of art, I can’t help but wonder about the works of artists such as Pierre Soulages or Robert Rauschenberg. I find it interesting that the 20th century painters who suddenly had access to so many different colours, would often limit their palette to black or white. Perhaps the clichéd saying that the more available something is, the less desirable it becomes, is accurate. Artists need challenges and with the abundance of materials and techniques they can choose from, they might be more inclined to create work with some obscure tools than with the top quality painting and glazing mediums from art shops. The exhibition makes us more aware of the limitations painters had to embrace in the past and more appreciative of the works created at a time when certain pigments were only available to the rich, mixing pigment was a potentially deadly task and the behaviour of the paint was entirely unpredictable.

When writing this blog post, I was referring to the Pigments Through the Ages guide, which I highly recommend for further reading.

Creative DNA: Deconstruction/Reconstruction

I was giving a lecture to students at Vassar not long ago. Working with the students’ autobiographies, I invited a dance student, a music student who brought his saxophone, and an art student to join me on stage. I asked the dancer to improvise some movement from a tuck position on the floor. I asked the saxophone player to accompany the dancer. And I asked the art student to assign colors to what they were doing. I admit I was constructing a three-ring circus in the lecture hall. But my goal was to bring the three students together by forcing them to work off the same page, and also to free them up to discover how far they could go improvising on this simple assignment.

When I asked the art student to read out his color impressions, everyone in the hall was taken aback. He droned on and on about himself, feelings he’d had, stories about friends. Not a word about color. Finally I heard “limpid blue” come out of his mouth. I waved my arms, signaling him to stop reading.

“Do you realize,” I said, “that you’ve just recited about five hundred words in an assignment about color. You’ve covered everything under the sun, and ‘limpid blue’ is the first time you’ve mentioned a color? I’m not convinced you want to be a painter.”

As far as I was concerned, this young man was in “DNA denial.”

The above quote comes from Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit. Learn It And Use It For Life. In the second chapter of the book, she introduces the concept of “Creative DNA,” which she defines as a type of code which determines our creative needs and explorations: “the forms we work in, the stories we tell, and how we tell them.” Twyla believes that certain choices, i.e. choosing to paint miniatures rather than epic battle scenes, or to write short stories as opposed to multi-volume historical sagas, are made on a subconscious level. This doesn’t limit us to one discipline; Twyla sees it more as a specific structure of work and a set of patterns we are drawn to. Of course, there are artists devoted to one form of expression but the inner creative code applies to everyone, and even in the case of a multi-disciplinary artist, there are definite strands to their work, some topics and problems they keep investigating regardless of the medium.

And Twyla is right – understanding those strands of our creative DNA can help us learn about why we do things in a certain way and learn the difference between venturing out of our comfort zone and going against our nature. The former is a necessary part of any artistic endeavour, while the latter is a recipe for becoming mediocre at something many other people will excel at because it is their real vocation.

Identifying our Creative DNA requires self-knowledge, intuition and honesty. Sometimes we want to do certain things because they seem more attractive than the ones we’re actually good at. One of the most famous contemporary Polish writers, Andrzej Stasiuk, always wanted to be a drummer. Surely, for a teenage boy, the vision of being onstage with a band, in front of an ecstatic audience, is indefinitely more appealing than sitting alone at a desk and writing. But for whatever reason, Stasiuk was able to recognize the writing skills he had and develop those instead of jamming his evenings away with friends. Which turned out to be a good choice.

I’ve met people who claim they work in a certain discipline but they either don’t seem to do much work or the work they do is preceded by hours of pain and stress. It’s as if they were consciously identifying themselves with a goal that is not part of any of their DNA strands. Somebody said to me once that if you want to do something, you will find a way. If you’re not working towards your goal that you proclaim, and you keep coming up with excuses (time, money, deadlines for other things, personal life etc.) then it’s likely that what you’ve chosen (and struggle) to do has little in common with your true creative mission. But it’s very difficult to be honest with ourselves about our goals, as we tend to emotionally cling to ideas without questioning them. A painter in “DNA denial” who doesn’t paint because of a daily job will remain upset and convinced that his lack of work is due to the lack of time, whereas another person for whom painting is the foundation of their Creative DNA will happily stay up until 3am painting, regardless of other jobs and responsibilities they have.

On the other hand, just like the biological DNA changes, so can the Creative DNA. DNA’s mutations are the raw material of genetic variation and they’re essential to evolution, while transformations of the Creative DNA are an integral part of our emotional, intellectual and cultural development. As John Updike, quoted by Twyla, said: “Each day, we wake up slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead.” So it is entirely possible to alter or develop new strands of creative identity. This doesn’t mean replacing the existing DNA with something completely different, but perhaps modifying elements of the “form-story-style” structure.

I see many examples of both deconstructing and reconstructing the Creative DNA. Sometimes we succeed at identifying the way we want to tell our stories (make feature comedy films) but we realize that, as a career choice, this particular way doesn’t suit our character (we’re introverts and enjoy being alone), temper (we like working slowly) or lifestyle (we want to work from home). So we might want to explore other ways, such as making animated films. The (comic) stories might stay the same, as can style (i.e. black humour) but the form will be different.

It is easier to identify our artistic calling as well as construct/reconstruct its structure if we have one obvious talent. Things become more difficult if we excel at more than one medium, and the difficulty lies both in choosing the talent(s) we want to pursue, and constructing the frame that responds to our Creative DNA and to our life. This often happens through the process of trial and error, when by experimenting with telling our stories in different forms, we discover which ones we should most certainly abandon. I have a friend who studied theatre design with me at CSM, and all the time she was at the college she drew: people, places, urban scenes. As far as I know, she’s done some theatre and film design work but above everything else, she is now an illustrator. While Ula drew little people in her notebook, I wrote and drew storyboards. Whenever a project involved either writing or storyboarding, I would give it my full attention, sometimes neglecting other elements. When I was assisting designer Paweł Dobrzycki on the Polish première of Shrek the Musical in 2011, I was incredibly glad that my role was to create the storyboard. I’m sure that a lot of people would have wanted to assist by helping the storyboard vision come to life onstage, but I had very little interest in that. This is why I stopped acting against my Creative DNA and abandoned theatre design.

That was one of the first steps of deconstructing what my vocation is. The next one was identifying the role of writing in my life. From school cabaret plays, poems, ancient Latin poetry adaptations to BA and MA thesis, scripts, short stories, journal, blog, children’s books and most recently, a comic, I’ve been writing all my life. But it was relatively recently when I realized that I write more than paint. Painting for me is not the final product, it comes as part of a story, a book, an animation. Just like that art student from Twyla’s anecdote, I wouldn’t be able to limit myself to describing a colour, for feelings, memories, opinions and all sorts of ideas are constantly buzzing in my head and keep coming out in words.

I recently found out that a couple of friends have decided to significantly change their careers. Juliette, another friend from CSM who for the past few years has been painting, dancing, performing, writing poetry, healing and leading creative workshops, has recently announced on social media that she is going to pursue a career in acting, and has cleared her painting studio. Another friend is leaving acting for environment studies and work. Both seem happy with their choices. Being honest about what we are going and not going to do is very liberating. True dedication to our mission is the only weapon against the enemies awaiting us on our journey: fear, failure, being in a rut, the project going wrong. If we are pursuing something we seriously want to do, we will persevere and get through the dip. If not, all of these will be handy excuses not to do the work.

Re-examining what we’re built for and how much effort we’re prepared to put into it is the key to a fulfilling creative career. Procrastinating is incredibly frustrating – but it can sometimes offer some valuable information about a wrong goal choice, and an incentive to make a change. Life is a process, and there is no limit to the number of career and lifestyle changes we can make. What matters is that we’re in tune with what we’re like and where we want to get.

Sex fantasies in comics

Oh Wicked Wanda!

Oh Wicked Wanda! | Image from

When the curators of the Comic Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK exhibition decorated the entrance hall with a mix of quotes which included Julie Burchill’s boldly negative statement “Comic books for adults is a complete contradiction in terms, as anyone who reads comics is not an adult and should have their voting rights removed ASAP,” they knew how varied the audience’s reaction would be. The latest exhibition at the British Museum which opened in May, seems to be inciting extreme reactions: from unrequited devotion to repulsion and offence. In his devastating review, the famous art critic Waldemar Januszczak accuses the exhibition of being “overly fond of the creepy, the gory, the deluded and the ignorant.” I would not try to argue with him, for it is clear from his introduction – “I went (…) prepared to accept that comics are worthy of serious museum investigation.” – that he doesn’t think especially highly of the genre and should perhaps read Scott McCLoud’s Understanding Comics before entering the British Library exhibition. Personally, as much as I love painting (I’m a painter after all), I confess that I regard comics higher than paintings, for they require more skills, imagination and ability to create something that works on the visual and intellectual level. In the comics I read, such as Lorenzo Mattotti’s books, every single frame is so exquisite that I’d gladly have it on a wall. But that’s just my opinion.

No, I wouldn’t try to convince Januszczak or anyone else to fall in love with comics. What I find very interesting though, is the level of disgust towards the aspects of comics which this exhibition highlights: their subversiveness and explicitness. Januszczak is bothered by “lots of mutilation, lots of violence, lots of horror and a horrible ‘sex’ section featuring grim sadomasochism and tied-up girls,” and would like to see Mickey Mouse instead. This is interesting because I actually found the sex section the most interesting one, and if there was one thing I would wish for, it would be the inclusion of Japanese comics – but of course, the exhibition is strictly limited to the British art.

“Horrible sex and grim S&M.” Despite all the years that have passed since the writings of Marquis de Sade, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, since the liberty of the roaring twenties, and the sexual revolution in the 50s and 60s, many people still perceive depictions of alternative sex and sexual fantasies as sick and wrong. I remember a series of lectures I attended as a Central Saint Martins student, which were based around the theme of “shock and controversy.” The lecturer, Mark Harwood, told us that while he was preparing for a talk on Japanese manga, his computer broke down, and had to be repaired. When the service technicians discovered his research material, including Ero guro images of boys and girls with disembowelled genitals, Harwood was sweating in the fear of having to justify their presence on his hard disc.

I don’t intend to start a “Fall in love with dirty comics!”crusade. Ultimately, this is a matter of taste and everyone has their own understanding of what is erotic and what is pornographic. But I can’t help thinking that rejecting imagery of subversive sex is not always an informed choice but often a result of prejudice, self-imposed censorship and fear.

Aubrey Beardsley: Lysistrata

Aubrey Beardsley: Lysistrata | Images from

The Let’s Talk About Sex section of the British Library exhibition presents quite a varied selection of erotica: From 18th century pre-comics illustrated books such as William Hogarth’s A Harlot’s Progress and Aubrey Beardsley’s Lysistrata, to 1970s and 80s works which sparked a series of obscenity trials, such as the Oz Schoolkids issue, Nasty Tales and Knockabout who published Lady Chatterley’s Lover!, Hunt Emerson’s rework of the infamous novel which was banned for 30 years. (After the court lifted the ban on the book, Foyles sold out of 3,000 copies in a single day.) Needless to say, it is thanks to these battles over censorship that modern comic artists can enjoy an increased creative leeway.

One of the books I’ve found most interesting are Lost Girls, a fruit of a long-term collaboration between Alan Moore, the author of Watchmen and V for Vendetta, and Melinda Gebbie, an expat San Franciscan underground artist. The book is a visual tribute to Gerde Wagner, Aubrey Beardsley and Edwardian erotic magazines like The Pearl, A Magazine of Facetiae and Voluptuous Reading or The Oyster, but what distinguishes it from other erotic comics is the realism of Gebbie’s characters and her soft crayon lines. The narrative of Lost Girls revolves around three female characters from cult children’s stories –  Alice from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Dorothy Gale from The Wizard of Oz and Wendy Darling from Peter Pan – who meet as adults in 1913 and share erotic adventures. In an interview with Science Fiction Weekly in 2006, Moore said: “Certainly it seemed to us that sex, as a genre, was woefully under-represented in literature. Every other field of human experience—even rarefied ones like detective, spaceman or cowboy—have got whole genres dedicated to them. Whereas the only genre in which sex can be discussed is a disreputable, seamy, under-the-counter genre with absolutely no standards: [the pornography industry]—which is a kind of Bollywood for hip, sleazy ugliness.”  But there aren’t many who are brave enough and capable of present erotica as a reputable art form, and even Neil Gaiman in his review of the book expressed gratitude that “someone of Moore’s ability actually has written that sort of comics for adults.”

Melinda Gebbie: Lost Girls at the Opera

Melinda Gebbie: Lost Girls at the Opera | Image © Melinda Gebbie

A similar to Gebbie’s painterly style of illustration can also be found in Erich von Götha de la Rosière’s explicit illustrations in the Torrid Magazine. Interestingly, Erich von Götha, who gained popularity for his S&M imagery, worked during the day as an advertising executive, and his real name was Robin Ray. In those post-war days, it wasn’t uncommon for authors of such subversive works to shield their privacy. Reina M. Bull, who also signed her work as RMB and Janine (and whose real name remained unknown for a long time), was another artist with an air of mystery surrounding her. She worked in the erotic publishing underground during the 1940s and 50s, and contributed to a number of titles from Utopia Press, notably Fads & Fancies, a relatively tame S&M magazine. The magazine published readers’ sexual exploits next to comics and drawings of women in fetish gear. Even though the fetish scene wasn’t yet defined at the time, the publication found its audience. Reina excelled at drawing kinky characters, but she was also quite versatile, working on numerous illustrations for British pulp books, science fiction and mystery covers, and she did some serial work such as The Adventures of Delia.

Aubrey Lamonte & Reina Bull: The Adventures of Delia

Aubrey Lamonte & Reina Bull: The Adventures of Delia | Image from

A very different example of an erotic comic is Oh Wicked Wanda!, a strip that appeared at the back of Penthouse magazine in the 1970s, written by a respected British journalist and novelist, Frederic Mullaly and illustrated by Ron Embleton. Wanda Von Kreesus, an attractive lesbian, is a heiress to a multi-million-dollar-fortune, and travels in time with an army of butch-dikes, the Puss International Force (the commander of which is called General German Grrrr – an allusion to the feminist Germaine Greer). Wanda is a dominatrix, though despite in engaging with S&M play with men, she maintains her preference for women. This stylishly drawn satirical adult comic, with caricatures of politicians and numerous in-jokes, is a celebration of post-sexual revolution libertarianism. It also invites us to approach sexuality with a sense of humour, which is a common theme among the comics presented at the exhibition. In Varoomshka, a strip by John Kent which ran in the Guardian between 1969 and 1979, a scantily-clad young woman would ridicule some prominent British politicians. In Oh Boy by Bob Monkhouse from 1949 , the superhero Tornado is fighting with monsters that resemble giant penises. In Captain Kremmen and the Krelis from 1977, Kenny Everett is having sex with a cross-dressing green alien. You name it.

Oh Wicked Wanda!

Oh Wicked Wanda! | Image from

Some people argue that pornography is always degrading towards women, and even feminists’ views in this matter differ enormously. Despite the strong female lead, Oh Wicked Wanda isn’t free from misogyny. But comics are not just a male territory reserved for fulfilling only masculine fantasies. In a very good article, Jude Roberts, an Associate Lecturer at Birkbeck College who specialises in gender and sexuality in popular culture, talks about comics that represent women’s sexual desires and experiences. Wet Satin and Tits and Clits, Smut Peddler, the works of Jess Fink and Coleen Coover – are all attempts at breaking from the notion of obscenity surrounding erotica for women.

So we’ve got sex, but what about gore, the other subject of audience’s criticism? Well, one of the major theme in comics are superheroes – but not necessarily the good ones. The interest in anti-heroes dates back to earlier centuries – even Victorians took great pleasure in following the adventures of criminals in “penny dreadfuls.” There is something profoundly attractive in fictional disobedience, particularly when we lead an orderly and obedient life. It is the same sort of attraction that makes high-powered businessmen pay astronomical amounts of money to be dominated by cruel and ruthless dominatrices, of whom there is no shortage in London. The violence and blood have their place in adult comics, though just like with sex, it’s a question of personal taste.

Personally, I’m not a big fan of the anti- (or super-, for that matter) hero comics, and their goriness is not what I lust after. But blood can be shed for different reasons, and one of the most remarkable things I found at the exhibition was a book by John Hicklenton aka Deadstock who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. 100 Months, which can be described as something in between a graphic novel and an illustrated blood-stained poem, describes the author’s agonising experience of the disease which was slowly destroying his body. Hicklenton wrote the book for a year, and took his life the day after he had finished. His work somehow makes me think of Bob Flanagan aka Supermasochist, the American performance artist whose often brutally painful masochistic performance acts were a (very successful) way of dealing with cystic fibrosis.*

John Hicklenton - 100 Months

John Hicklenton: 100 Months | Image from

Reading comics featuring incest or the Joker’s sophisticated cruelty doesn’t mean accepting incest or violence in real life. Several independent studies conducted over the last thirty years demonstrated that the fantasy of a forced sexual encounter ranks among the most common ones, but it doesn’t mean that people would enjoy acting it out in their lives. The comics are not an instruction on how to turn into a whore, pimp or a psychopath. They’re merely an invitation to go on a journey into an alternative world of uncensored fantasies. One can argue that books do that too. Yes, but since the visual side of novel-incited fantasies are a question of one’s ability fantasise, people are likely to tame themselves out of guilt and culturally imposed sense of morality. Explicit graphic images from comics can take them further on that journey.

There aren’t many things more violent than Ero guro images – even I am too embarrassed to share examples here – yet crime in Japan is lower than in all other industrialized countries. Fantasies are a healthy vent for tension and stress, and a way to inject some excitement into our lives (Dr Logan Levkoff insists that they’re crucial for women’s well-being.) When they emerge from well written stories and wonderfully executed artwork as opposed to a sleazy and tacky porn magazine, all the better.

*I wrote about Flanagan in my MA thesis on masochism, which I hope to translate in the future from Polish into English, and publish here on this blog.

Dear Modern Diary. E-journals & life-logging.

Photo of a diary from The Great Diary Project exhibition

Photo of a diary from The Great Diary Project exhibition

“I find it difficult  to write each day, but if I don’t I’m swamped with guilt. Where does the compunction come from?,” wrote Derek Jarman in a diary he started after moving to the Prospect Cottage on the bleak coast of industrial Dungeness. The diary, called Modern Nature: The Journals of Derek Jarman, was first published by Century in 1991, three years before his death. I can certainly relate to Jarman’s sentiment, having been writing a journal for well over a decade. I don’t write every day but keeping a journal is a necessity I don’t question. It’s an integral part of my life. I believe that once you’ve started writing a journal, it’s hard to stop. The famous French-American writer Anaïs Nin, whose several volumes of published journals span more than 60 years, was at a time believed to have an addiction to the diary, which various people, including her mother, therapists and friends tried to cure her from. Fortunately, for all Nin’s readers, they didn’t succeed.

Apart from my own writing, I have always been interested in the diaries of other people. And there’s a lot of reading material to choose from, for people have had the urge to take notes of things that happen to them and how they feel about it for centuries. Marcus Aurelius, the famous Greek philosopher and the head of the Roman Empire (161–180 CE), used his journal not only to keep track of events but to analyse his emotional responses to all the daily challenges he had to face and to exercise his ability to defeat bouts of depression. Earlier this week I went to the V&A Museum of Childhood to see a very interesting display of diaries dating from 1813 to 1996, borrowed from The Great Diary Project archive at Bishopsgate Institute. The Project was initiated by historian Irving Finkel who has been rescuing and storing found and unwanted diaries in his British Museum office. The idea of the project, as we can read on the website, is to “collect as many diaries as possible from now on for long-term preservation. In the future these diaries will be a precious indication of what life, in our own time, was really like.”

It will be indeed interesting in 100 years’ time to see the records of everyday life in the 21st century. But Finkel’s successors will have an infinitely more complicated job processing the diaries of our time because today, unlike the Victorian era, we have far more mediums and tools for documenting our lives than a notebook.

Facebook status

Thanks to a whole variety of software and apps, we are witnessing a growing interest in recording personal data, our thoughts and the environment in a digital form. Written journals have a long history and they still exist, though a hard-bound notebook with a padlock and a key has been largely replaced by a Word document and a blog with a password. I have written a little bit about Facebook and its TV-like obsession to share the most mundane things from one’s life with friends and strangers in a recent post, but what I have been thinking more about recently is not merely the sharing but the act of recording. One of the major changes that have been taking place the last decade, is that people have become more visual-oriented when documenting life. After the expansion of blogosphere, we were introduced to sites such as Flickr, Tumblr, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and many more, where photos, statuses, “checking in” are all part of the modern visual documentation. Even a photo-less status (“Enjoying a latte in Hyde Park”) works more as an infographic which enables people to immediately translate it into an image in their heads. And indeed, sometimes it’s not even words but a smiley face. The type of recording that goes on social media is by its nature dictated by potential viewer’s response; it’s less about an intimate account of our experiences and more about carving a mark in a cybertree. The kind of photos most people take and upload are usually non-ambiguous statements which everyone can relate to, whereas textual information remains simplified enough to conceal the complexity of the experience that goes within.

Still, there are people who escape the modern standards of online visual journals, recording things which reveal more about their personality. Needless to say, I find those a lot more interesting. But obscure and ambiguous photos and statements requiring people to engage with and process the information don’t gain popularity exactly for the same reason as Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations will never have as many readers as celebrity ghost-written autobiographies.

“Take Notice: All persons who look at this diary without my leave, are Beastly Sneaks,” wrote on January 25th 1886 Godfrey Williams, whose diary is presented as part of The Great Diary Project at the V&A Museum of Childhood exhibition. The archivist tells us though, that the Godfrey’s further diary entries suggest that he was hoping for the Beastly Sneaks to eventually look into his diary. People who write blogs often prefer to preserve anonymity, hiding under nicknames, but there are plenty of those who are happy to share facts from their lives with strangers, just like a lot of people do on Facebook and Twitter. Written diaries, though traditionally equipped with padlocks, which implies strict privacy, are often given to the next generations or published – or happily donated to Irving Finkel’s project. So is a diary ever meant to be private or isn’t there always a potential reader in mind?

Anais in Paris by Mardou

Anais in Paris by Mardou

The tension between revealing and concealing when recording one’s life is a fascinating topic and people approach this in various ways. Anaïs Nin, mentioned earlier, who wrote a journal from the age of 11 until her death, kept two different versions of journals, the expurgated (i.e. self-censored) version and one that was much more explicit. What was discovered later by one her biographers, was that she fantasised and lied in both. But it doesn’t change the fact that both versions are a fascinating read and a great insight into the writer’s character and life, which, despite the made-up adornments, remains mostly undistorted.

I can’t remember whether I had already discovered Anaïs Nin when I started writing my own journal at the age of 13, but throughout my teenage years until mid-20s, she was a major inspiration for my writing. My journals have so far been kept private but if I ever have grand-children, they will be the first readers and guardians of all the notes I’ve gathered.

In the past, my journals used to be scrap-book-like, with doodles and bits and pieces stuck on the pages, but in the past six years I’ve limited myself to words, perhaps as a counterbalance to the visual quality of my art work. However, on a few occasions I did keep visual diaries too, alongside the written journals. They were hand-drawn, cartoon-like attempts at capturing the essence of a day or the feel of it. Here, the inspiration came from Frida Kahlo, whose very expressive painted journals I read with fascination.

The Diary of Frida Kahlo

The Diary of Frida Kahlo | Image from Limitless Mindgames

But drawing takes time, and at some point I abandoned those. Yet the need for visual documentation has remained. These days, when I write not more than once or twice a week, I feel I want to record each day somehow. And while my journal entries are long and descriptive (often around a thousand words in length), I want the every-day journal to be a collection of selected moments, more or less obscure but memorable and meaningful to me. After wondering about the medium for it (I decided against a notebook for fear of abandoning it), I have finally decided to set up a Tumblr page.

From my diary

What is the point of keeping a journal? For a long time, when I restricted myself to written diaries, the agenda was clear: self-analysis. Journals help me arrange thoughts and feelings, and avoid the mistake of romanticising about the past. I don’t always remember accurately how I felt about a particular situation or experience, and going back to its record is the perfect way to check the facts against my distorted memories.

But the visual journal is something different. It’s almost like adding a significance to the day. Recently, someone I knew passed away: A lovely, cheerful and incredibly kind girl, only a year older than me, lost her battle with cancer. She had a heart-breaking goodbye on Facebook where she was describing how 18 years ago she nearly died of leukaemia and so she always felt she had been given a second life, which she tried to live as fully as she could. It is not the first young person I have known personally who have departed much too soon from this life. Experiences of this kind bring up the clichéd, yet very true memento mori/carpe diem reminders. Tomorrow hasn’t arrived yet. And there is no guarantee that it will.

While in my in-depth written entries I often travel between the past and the future,  in the visual journal I want to focus on today, recording something about it without the slightest need to be descriptive.

That said, my written journals aren’t exactly detailed and exhaustive in their descriptions either, for they often focus on a particular problem. The matter-of-fact documentation of my life happens in the second time of journal – a daily log.

Daily log

This one is the most dry collection of data and figures, such as the time I got up and went to bed, activities during the day, vitamins or painkillers I took, my menstrual cycle, my mood. While written journals are quite philosophical and auto-analytical, the log is factual. This kind of recording is part of a trend called The Quantified Self that is currently gaining more and more popularity.

QS is a movement which incorporates technology into data acquisition on aspects of our daily life such as the food we eat, the medication we take, the amount of sleep we have, the emotional state we’re in, and our performance (mental and physical). Self-mentoring can include wearable sensors and computers and is known as life-logging. The aim of QS is to get to know ourselves better and improve the quality of our life through self-tracking. The process consists of two elements: collection and analysis of data.

The only issue here is that while people can be quite meticulous about recording data, they are often casual about analysing them. At Quantified Self meet-up groups I go to, I often come across people whose goal is to find or invent apps that will do the analysing for them. While that is a reasonable quest when one is tracking insulin and cortisol levels, the subjective type of data (mood, efficiency, even sleep – for there is no objective value of optimal sleep for everyone) most certainly requires manual analysis and reflection.

All the different types of modern diaries: written, visual and data-based all serve different purposes. Perhaps that’s why I recognised the need to keep them all. But everyone is different and has their own approach to recording life moments, thoughts, feelings, and facts. Notebooks, blogs, Tumblr and Instagram pages, Excel spreadsheets, smartphone apps are only tools that can be shaped into our needs. It is worth remembering though, that if we care about the ability to understand past notes, photos, and experiences, it might not be enough to just take a snapshot or write a generic one-line status. Without a more personal description and analysis, we might end up with enigmatic records such as the one from a diary at the V&A Museum of Childhood exhibition, where under 27th May 1950, a girl wrote “My unluckiest day.” Why? That we will never find out.

Photo of a diary from The Great Diary Project exhibition

Photo of a diary from The Great Diary Project exhibition

The Good Fight


One of the most difficult relationship in our life is the one we have with ourselves. The difficulty of it lies in the ability to accept the things about ourselves which we cannot change, whilst making the effort to change the things we can. The balance of maintaining discipline without beating ourselves up for the smallest failure is the hardest thing to get right. And so, a lot of the time, this tricky relationship oscillates between two extremes: self-deprecation/hatred and an overestimated sense of one’s own value and perpetual innocence. Both are harmful.

We are surrounded by slogans such “Be good to yourself,” “Be yourself, everyone else is already taken,” and hipster motivation posters, currently very popular on social media, which are meant to make us feel better about ourselves. Paradoxically, these messages won’t do much for a person whose inner critic is in full rage. The reason for it is that, as David Wong, the author of 6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person, says: “you don’t hate yourself because you have low self-esteem, or because other people were mean to you. You hate yourself because you don’t do anything.” If “being good to yourself” means being kind, gentle and understanding towards our own weaknesses and comforting us in our state of inertia, then it can only reinforce the dissatisfaction we have with ourselves.

I’m currently devouring an excellent book by Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit: Learn it and use if for life. In a chapter dedicated to “scratching,” a term she uses to describe the first phase of every project, i.e. looking for ideas, she talks about maintaining the “White Hot Pitch”. This phrase, borrowed from office jargon, refers to the kind of temper tantrum a boss is likely to throw at a meeting to wake his employees up when a project is going badly. Interestingly, Wong’s article quotes the famous speech given by Blake (played by Alec Baldwin) in James Foley’s adaptation of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glenn Ross. Blake tells a group of lousy salesmen them that they’re about to be fired unless they “close” the sales they’ve been assigned. While some people might welcome this harsh wake-up call and be grateful for a lesson, the more common reaction is resistance and bitterness. “What an a*hole!,” many would say, and begin to look for anything about the boss they can criticize.

Baldwin’s tantrum isn’t nice. He’s loud, offensive and vulgar. But that’s the sort of emotion Twyla is referring to when she says: “Throw a tantrum at yourself.” Get angry. Do something!


As someone, who used to struggle to control anger in their teenage years, and spent the years following puberty learning from the stoics how to approach life in a calm manner, this sort of advice was, until very recently, quite shocking to me. I used to perceive anger as a destructive force I had to break from, not something to initiate. In that process, however, I had gone one step too far because I failed to recognize and use the constructive potential of getting angry.

There are different types of anger. Getting wound-up in a situation which we have no influence over is a waste of energy. It’s the sort of anger people manifest when stuck on a bus or faced with bad weather on a long awaited holiday. But feeling angry in a situation we can change can be very beneficial. Not only does is provide an insight into how we’re actually feeling about the situation, but it gives us a motivating force to change it, despite existing and potential problems and barriers.

Artistic work and creativity are the areas which on one hand offer a great potential of action, and on the other — breed stupendous amounts of frustration. One of the reasons is that a creative self-directed job requires a lot of discipline and hard work, and involves going through failures and getting lost. When faced with stagnation, lack of progress and ideas, Twyla’s advice comes in very handy. “Art is competitive with yourself, with the past, with the future. It is a special war zone where first you make the rules, and then you test the consequences. (…) So, pick a fight – with the system, the rules, your rituals, even your everyday routines,” she says. She suggests a few exercises to generate anger, emotion, combustion, and heat, such as doing exactly the opposite of what the very first impulse tells us to or changing our workout routine to something that feels uncomfortable.

The same angry energy she recommends for waking up our brains to think creatively, can be used to push ourselves to act in other areas of our life. It’s easy to suppress the thoughts of dissatisfaction and hold onto the status quo, with a layer of bitterness underlying everything we do. Bottling up negative emotions is a bad strategy, for the bottle will explode sooner or later, possibly injuring someone. Therefore, provoking ourselves to admit that we’re angry about something, and that we should act on it, can save us a lot of time and energy. The change might be daunting, if it’s something as serious as changing a career or a relationship, but living in a state of perpetual frustration, hidden under a layer of (badly faked) calm, is destructive.

So we burst out. We admit that we’re procrastinating with the book we’re meant to be writing, that we hate our job, that we’re sick of not having enough money. And then what? The main challenge here is to make sure that action follows anger. And we need to act fast. “Remember, though, that emotions are short lived — they come and go. So, it’s imperative that you strike while the iron is (literally) hot and use the angry energy to your benefit before it evaporates,” says W. Doyle Gentry from Anger Management For Dummies. If it’s not followed by some action, the expression of anger is merely a fruitless vent.


The other important aspect of using anger to our own benefit is that we pick the fight with ourselves before starting a battle with the world. Unfortunately, many angry artists often address their emotion at the wrong recipient, which doesn’t lead to any constructive action. Artists get tense about lack of money, clients, attention, commissions, funding – and blame other people for it. “The world only cares about what it can get from you,” says Wong, and suggests that instead of asking “How can I get this job?”, one should ask themselves: “How can I become the type of person employers want?”. Getting frustrated because a bunch of publishers don’t want to publish my book is silly; instead of cursing the competition, I’m much better off thinking about ways to find the right readers, or self-publish, or crowd-fund the publication. We spend a lot of time concentrating on others, on what the world should be doing for us, as opposed to thinking about how we could contribute to the world and find our own place in it. People notoriously complain about the funding cuts. How about creating a project that doesn’t require a substantial budget? Or if it does, crowd-fund it or take a loan? If it’s any good and benefits people, then you’ll eventually get the money back. If you’re not sure about its value but just want money because you think that the world owes you money, perhaps it’s worth rethinking the project. And your attitude.

“The human mind is a miracle, and you will never see it spring more beautifully into action than when it is fighting against evidence that it needs to change. Your psyche is equipped with layer after layer of defence mechanisms designed to shoot down anything that might keep things from staying exactly where they are — ask any addict,” says Wong. The most powerful force of anger is stripping off those layers of self-delusion, question our own actions, and demand honest answers from our gut. It’s a strong weapon against impotence, which, as W. Doyle Gentry points out, reaches far beyond the sexual kind. It’s a weapon not only in the fight with inertia, but for general self-defence. Gentry says, “Anger is the fight component — the part that moves you to take offensive measures to defend yourself against actual or perceived threats.”

So – be good to yourself, get angry! Maybe anger is “a cheap adrenaline rush,” as Twyla says in her book, but “when you’re going nowhere and can’t get started, it will do.”

Avant-garde Animation from Artist/Composer Duos

Walerian Borowczyk: still from Les Astronautes (1959)

Last Friday I went to the Kinoteka Closing Night Gala at the Union Chapel to see one of my favourite nu-jazz duos, Skalpel, who were reinterpreting the music of Witold Lutosławski and Andrzej Panufnik, two major names in Polish contemporary classical music. The concert was magical, and the venue’s unique character only enhanced the beauty of the music. But Skalpel’s performance was merely an introduction to the main event, which was a screening of two films by Brothers Quay: the UK première of Kwartet Smyczkovy and In Absentia. The former was accompanied by Arditti Quartet, while In Absentia was created in response to the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen, one of pioneers of the twentieth-century musical avant-garde. The animation was based on the film-makers’ response to a 21 minute long fragment adapted from the composer’s electronic music for Freitag aus Licht, which Stockhausen called Zwei Paare (Two Couples). Coincidentally, the narrative Brothers Quay devised for their film, inspired by a collection of artworks and artefacts created by the inhabitants of mental institutions, resonated with the composer to the point of making him cry at the film’s première. The main character in In Absentia is based on Emma Hauck, a deranged woman who wrote letters to her husband, in which she scribbled over the original text again and again until it became indecipherable. At the same time, Stockhausen’s mother was imprisoned in a Nazi asylum, where she died.

Brothers Quay: still from In Absentia (2000)

Brothers Quay have gained the cult status among stop-motion animators, even though their work is not exactly accessible. Most of it lacks a definite narrative, and the quirky, partially disassembled puppets they use, together with an atmosphere of nightmarish hallucinations, are likely to take the audience on an unsettling journey.

Stockhausen’s music isn’t easy either. This acclaimed and controversial champion of electronic music, aleatory (controlled chance) in serial composition, and musical spatialization, is not likely to please inexperienced ears. Even Stravinsky thought of him as challenging: “I find the alternation of note-clumps and silences of which it consists more monotonous than the foursquares of the dullest eighteenth-century music.”

The result of the artists’ collaboration with the composer is a piece of work which on one hand offers beautiful images of exquisite misty landscapes, and on the other – requires the viewer to invest their energy into processing and synthesizing the numerous abstract elements of the film and its score. And this is what I like about it. These days, when we are surrounded by direct, non-ambiguous visual messages, and when Google search engines finish our thoughts the moment we start typing words in the browser, an invitation to make an intellectual effort is a welcome change. Especially when we know that we’re not dealing with a piece of cheap, conceptual art, whose author doesn’t really know what he’s communicating either but with the work of brave imagination and intellect.

Brothers Quay: still from In Absentia (2000)

In an interview for Offscreen, Brothers Quay talk about the process of creating In Absentia and the challenge of matching the grandeur of Stockhausen’s music and expressing its character through appropriate lighting. They felt the music was “saturated in electricity,” so they decided to shoot the film with natural sunlight, “coming from the window in our studio, then utilizing mirrors and reflecting panels to sculpt the light according to the exigency of each scene. (…) Additionally we simulated the lighting phenomenon of the so-called ‘heat lamp,’ which was in frequent use in many regions, to represent the mental landscape of the suffering protagonist.”

Brothers Quay are known to have been influenced by the champions of Polish avant-garde animation, notably Walerian Borowczyk and Jan Lenica. These two and several other animators have created a high number of similarly challenging and fascinating films in collaboration with experimental composers. All of those names are certainly worth bringing up here.

Walerian Borowczyk, once described by film critics as a “genius who also happened to be a pornographer,” was an extremely versatile artist and film-maker, who would not only script, direct, and design, but sometimes shoot his films. Derek Malcolm from the Guardian said: “Borowczyk’s art, which often looks like a carefully animated painting, and has the pessimistic urge one associates with Franz Kafka, is invariably about sex, love and death.” He often collaborated with Bernard Parmegiani, French composer with background in mime. One of the founding fathers of musique concrète, Parmegiani produced soundtracks for numerous film directors including Jacques Baratier, Peter Kassovitz and emigrés such as Borowczyk, Jan Lenica, Piotr Kamler, and Peter Foldes. Borowczyk’s association with Parmegiani began in 1964 with Les Jeux des Anges, which included some elements from the composer’s first major work for violin and tape, Violostries (1962). They later created Le dictionnaire de Joachim and the full feature film, Docteur Jekyll et les femmes (1981). For this, Parmegiani reworked passages from his 1972 composition, Pour en finir avec le pouvoir d’Orphée.

Les Jeux des Anges, a dark and foreboding 12-minute animation, which is incidentally one of Terry Gilliam’s top ten animated films, is often interpreted as a metaphor for concentration camps. For me, however, the industrial shapes and body mutilations depict a more universal portrait of pain, similar to the one in Francis Bacon’s paintings.

Walerian Borowczyk: still from Les Jeux des Anges (1964)

Walerian Borowczyk often worked with Jan Lenica, another Polish illustrator, writer and film-maker. The two became known for collaborating on cutout and stop-motion animated films, such as their final project, Dom (The House, 1958), which combines those techniques with live action. The soundtrack for the film was composed by Włodzimierz Kotoński, internationally acclaimed Polish avant-garde composer. His Etiuda na jedno uderzenie w talerz (Study on One Cymbal Stroke) was the first Polish piece of electronic music, created at Polish Radio’s Experimental Studio. The house in Dom provides a vague framing device for otherwise disconnected surreal images, punctuated by a woman’s face shown en face. Inspired by Étienne Jules Marey’s photograms, Fernand Léger’s Mechanical Ballet, and the works of Georges Méliès from the earliest days of the cinema, Borowczyk and Lenica’s animation was an important work that inspired independent thinking and expression among film-makers. For me, Dom is a puzzle — I watch it wondering whether the woman is an impartial witness to events which symbolize life in her own house, or whether she escapes from the dullness of existence imagining things and anthropomorphising house objects.

Another composer Borowczyk worked with was Andrzej Markowski who provided soundtracks for Był sobie raz (Once Upon a Time 1957) and Les Astronautes (Astronauts, 1959). The latter was the artist’s international debut, created in collaboration with a science-fiction film-maker Chris Marker. This collaboration had a financial agenda, and except for the astronaut’s pet owl, the French artist didn’t have a significant contribution to the film. Borowczyk created a grotesque and poetic character of an astronaut-wannabe/voyeurist, who constructs a spacecraft on the roof of his house and launches it to the moon. It’s a real visual treat, featuring a series of fantastically crafted images of the astronaut’s adventures in space, which at times resemble video games.

And speaking of computer games-resembling imagery, another science-fiction masterpiece is Chronopolis, created by artist Piotr Kamler and composer Luc Ferrari, with narration by Michael Lonsdale. Made with a 1920′s 35mm Debrie Parvo camera over a five year period, it was Kamler’s first and only full length film. Visually stunning, it shows a bizarre geometrical world, with forms borrowed from archaeological artefacts, Art Deco, and Egyptian mythology symbols. Its inhabitants, monolith figures, are trying to break the monotony of their immortal state by fabricating and destroying balls of time. “It’s as if H.R. Giger made Disney’s Tron without all the bio-horror and Mickey Mouse,” one blogger described it, very aptly, in his review for the Odeon website.

There are plenty more artist/composer duos (many of them happen to be Polish), whose cutting-edge work doesn’t cease to puzzle and provoke today. Oskar Fischinger, the German father of  abstract musical animations from the pre-computer graphics and music videos era, created An Optical Poem (1938). Made entirely from paper, this abstract stop-motion animation was composed to Franz Liszt’s 2nd Hungarian Rhapsody. Jerzy Kucia, another brilliant Polish animator, is the author of Krąg (The Ring, 1978), with soundtrack by Marek Wilczynski. One of the most controversial films at the time — something a little hard to imagine these days — was Daniel Szczechura’s Podróż (The Journey) made in 1970, with music composed by Eugeniusz Rudnik. What was so controversial about it? Perhaps the fact that nothing actually happens in the film — all we see is a man travelling on a train, with a rather monotonous landscape passing in the background. Another great bizarre short film, Tam i Tu (Here and There, 1957) by Polish painter, sculptor and designer, Andrzej Pawłowski, was made by projecting moving objects onto a screen, using a self-constructed magic lantern. The music, composed by Adam Walaciński, enhances the surrealism of the animation. Moving away from Poland to Soviet Russia, a very interesting collaboration took place between director Andrei Khrzhanovsky and composer Alfred Schnittke who created an animation to Ivan Krylov’s In the world of fables (1973). Sadly, both Khrzhanovsky and Schnittke’s works were blacklisted in their country.

When Terry Gilliam spoke about Borowczyk and his Les Jeux des Anges, he said: “It didn’t show me anything specific, just sound and movement from which you create a world of your own.” That’s what avant-garde animation offers: an invitation to go on a journey into the land of one’s dreams, memories and emotions.

Is the grass greener across the English Channel?

MChabocka Europe map

I have recently returned from a really good holiday in Poland. So good, in fact, that I discarded the original return ticket and stayed for another week and a half.

My definition of a great holiday is one that allows me to recharge physically, emotionally and intellectually so that I come back home with new energy and ideas. This trip provided more than enough food for thought and the fact that I was in another country enabled me to get some distance and re-evaluate my UK life.

Now, Poland isn’t exactly “abroad” – it’s my second home. I feel equally connected to people there as I am to my UK friends and colleagues. After several years of travelling between the two countries (I did my foundation and BA in London, and my MA in Warsaw), I can honestly say that I feel at ease in both. There are certain cultural differences, but fundamentally people here and elsewhere really aren’t that much different. In today’s world of ever-growing technologies which allow for effortless connectivity with the rest of the world and easiness of travelling, people’s mentality, dreams, plans, interests etc. are less and less anchored in the geographical location. And similarly, location no longer dictates whether an artist can reach an audience or find a career opportunity. With Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, Flickr, Behance, Tumblr, and many other online platforms, one can showcase their work, present their personality and opinions to people around the globe without having to leave the house.

Of course, the process of being discovered on the internet is entirely random, and there are no guarantees it will happen (best to assume it won’t). But at the same time, the same randomness is taking place in the physical world of job-hunting and self-promotion. If the supply of services offered by creative and talented people seriously exceeds the demand, and there are often no objective criteria to use when choosing someone, the process of finding a job, commission, getting an agent, gallery, publisher is completely subjective and unpredictable. And this randomization is likely to affect artists’ careers more and more.

This is why there are lots of extremely talented people working in fields unrelated to their background, and doing creative work in the privacy of their room, in the little spare time they have. This is one strategy. Another option is juggling several different freelance jobs, an example of which you can see here. Some people spend their time writing applications to the Arts Council, determined to obtain public money, despite increasing cuts in art funding. Nothing wrong with that, except that it often results in their work being driven by the needs of ACE criteria. Another option might be looking for a place with a smaller supply of artistic services, i.e. smaller competition, though this is something people tend to rule out. Artists (myself included) remain attracted to cities which on one hand provide cultural fuel, excitement and inspiration, but on the other – have the highest rents and the highest number of fellow artists. David Bowden covered the topic nicely in a recent Ideas Tap column, wondering whether London might simply be overrated as a place for artists. At the same time, in her article about living in the country, Hazel Davis quotes writer Heidi Scrimgeour, who lives in rural Northern Ireland and says: “I’m the only freelance writer I know of for miles around and word travels fast in small towns so people come to me when they need something I can help with. It’s effortless. That would never have happened in London.”

Yet the notion of London’s superiority over life elsewhere, including other European capitals, is strongly embedded in people’s minds. As someone who grew up in Kielce, a mid-size city in the south of Poland, then spent 5 years in London and 2.5 years in Warsaw before returning to the Big Smoke in 2012, I feel lucky to be free from romanticizing about the greenness of the grass on the other side of the English Channel. ­The trip I’ve just come back from only helped me gain a more objective perspective.

CSM, King’s Cross London | Photo by Francisco Huguenin Uhlfelder

There are nearly 40 art schools in London, all of which offer numerous foundation, undergraduate, postgraduate and short courses with often hundreds of students on each one. At the same time, in Warsaw there are 3 art academies. The most reputable one is the Academy of Fine Arts, which has similarly demanding entry exams as the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art at the University of Oxford, and takes approximately 10-20 people on each full-time course. Warsaw has 1.724404 million people, while London has approx. 4.7 times more. You can do the maths.

Among my London friends and acquaintances, there are people who do interesting things, are getting some recognition or at least a foot in the right door. But unfortunately, I know many more who are struggling to find any work and are gradually losing enthusiasm to keep swimming against the stream. This is why my trip to Poland was so interesting – over there, both in Kielce and Warsaw, I talked to various people who are, by London standards, quite successful. They are interior designers, graphic designers, art directors in agencies, architects, copywriters, media and PR people; they are employed, they are freelancers, or they run their own businesses. Some are more and some are less successful but none of them work at a call-centre or Tesco. They might worry that they’re not doing exactly what they want to or feel most passionate about, and that they’re most certainly not getting enough money, but the mere fact of working creatively and getting paid for that work is a success. The trouble is, until you have tried living and working elsewhere, especially in a city as aggressively competitive as London or New York, you might always feel like an underachiever when visualizing the scintillating career one could have in that dream foreign city. I would like to say to people: the grass is exactly the same over there, and if anything, it’s more trodden on. I would like them to enjoy the fact that they have jobs, time to see friends and family, go out, spend a weekend away. These things shouldn’t be taken for granted. It is also worth stressing that working in a small city equals smaller income but also smaller expenses, something to keep in mind when comparing your income to those from a Big City who have to pay proportionally (or often disproportionally) larger rents.

Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts

Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts | Photo by Marek & Ewa Wojciechowscy

“Let’s fill this town with artists!,” says a banner outside Cass Art, one of London’s largest art shops. Every time I shop there and see that sign, I feel the bitterness of its seemingly cheerful slogan. London is already filled with artists – many of them being unemployed and unhappy. When I was studying at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, I loved their methods of teaching, with an emphasis on developing one’s creativity and originality, exchanging ideas with other people, collaborating and experimenting. I used to be critical of the Polish system of Academies of Fine Arts (there are seven of them in the country), due to its harsh attitude towards both applicants and students, an insane amount of lectures, workshops, classes etc., and simultaneous project deadlines with practical and theoretical exams. But now I think that perhaps there is something to an art institution which takes on very few students and puts them through an ordeal. The stubbornness and determination they need to demonstrate in order to complete the course are what they will need once they’re out of school, in order to stay in the industry. London art schools are these wonderfully friendly places where hundreds of students from all over the world are encouraged and inspired to do what they care so much about, and made to believe that others care about it too. The truth is closer to what Hugh MacLeod says in his book Ignore Everybody: “Nobody cares. Do it for yourself.” (He then adds: “Making a big deal over your creative shtick to other people is the kiss of death.” As harsh as it sounds, it is probably true.)

Don’t get me wrong, I love London and I won’t deny that this city has given me a lot, and that I enjoy living here. I’ve met some truly wonderful people and done really interesting jobs and projects. To paraphrase a song by a late 90s British indie band, Black Box Recorder, London made me. But I strongly agree with David Bowden who says that: “In an increasingly global age London cannot afford to rest on its laurels as a centre of the artistic universe. Maybe artists should look on this as an opportunity to embrace the shock of the new, rather than trudge desolately back to their parents’ doors.” The quality of life one can lead and satisfaction from one’s own work are far more important than being in a place which millions of people consider most desirable.