The Art & Science of Kissing

Lorenzo Mattotti, cover for René Aubry's Refuges album

Lorenzo Mattotti, cover for René Aubry’s Refuges album

“A kiss is a lovely trick designed by nature to stop speech when words become superfluous.” ― Ingrid Bergman

The first kiss, like a job interview, can be a thoroughly nerve-racking experience. This curious way of passing approx. 80 million bacteria from our lips to someone else’s generates so many anxieties and uncertainties that the internet is flooded with articles dedicated to dispelling fears surrounding it. A blogger, calling himself Dr Nerdlove, writes that  “Outside of “How do I meet girls?”, “when should you kiss her” is easily the most common dating question I get.” But when you’re in a relationship, kissing quickly becomes one of the elements of your everyday physical connection with your partner. Enjoyable, for sure, but no longer as weird, exciting and terrifying as it was before we crossed that physical barrier with someone. Having recently experienced the excitement of a first kiss with a new romantic partner (who is sadly no longer my partner), I had a chance to take a fresh look at kissing, and examine the phenomenon through the eyes of an alien visitor to our planet Earth. A visitor who, as Alain de Botton points out in a great essay on his Book of Life blog, would most likely have a hard time understanding it:

Mutual desire is normally signalled by a pretty weird act; two organs otherwise used for eating and speaking are rubbed and pressed against one another with increasing force, accompanied by the secretion of saliva. A tongue normally precisely manipulated to articulate vowel sounds, or to push mashed potato or broccoli to the rear of the palate now moves forward to meet its counterpart, whose tip it might touch in repeated staccato movements. One would have to carefully explain to an alien visitor from Kepler 9b what is going on.

Why do we kiss? From the biological point of view, the activity stems from our need to identify whether someone might be a good mate for us or not. Contrary to animals, which can detect smell at a distance, our sense of smell is exceptionally poor, so for us kissing is a “culturally acceptable way to get close enough to another person to detect their pheromones.” But not all humans adhere to these methods of analysing chemicals. A recent study which examined 168 cultures from around the world, discovered that as little as 46% of them practice the romantic–sexual kiss, and its frequency is correlated to the society’s relative social complexity. According to anthropologists from the University of Nevada, certain hunter-gatherer groups, such as the Brazilian Mehinaku tribe, consider kissing deeply revolting, while the Oceanic inhabitants pass open mouths over each other, without having actual contact. In order to learn more about each other, they might, instead of kissing, smell their partner’s face, which they are likely to consider more sexual. The Pacific Islanders and The Maori of New Zealand also practice “Eskimo kisses”, i.e. rubbing noses together. And some cultures don’t kiss at all—like Somalis, the Lepcha of Sikkim or the Sirono of Bolivia.

Max Ernst, 'The Kiss' (1927)

Max Ernst, ‘The Kiss’ (1927)

In many countries, especially Muslim ones, kissing in public is considered offensive and often illegal. It is ironic that India, a country where the Kama Sutra originated, is so opposed to kissing and Indian conservatives go as far as charging couples kissing in secluded seaside spots with obscene behaviour, and attacking shops which sell Valentine’s Day cards, as Emily Wax reports for The Washington Post. In the ancient Hindu Vedic Sanskrit texts dating back to 3,500 years ago, kissing was described as “inhaling each other’s soul”, while now it is perceived as a symbol of Western invasion, posing a threat to Indian values. But half of the world does kiss. And we do it for several reasons. Aside of being a way of detecting pheromones, kissing lowers the levels of the stress hormone cortisol. According to Helen Fisher, an anthropologist at Rutgers University, New Jersey, kissing can access any one of three primary brain systems used for mating and reproduction: the sex drive, romantic love and long-term attachment. Also, as Alain de Botton points out, it has other important psychological merits: showing acceptance and willingness to take a risk with someone.

The huge meaning of kissing is something we’ve built up by social agreement and its fundamental definition is: I accept you – accept you so much that I will take a big risk with you. (…) Ordinarily it would be utterly nauseating to have a stranger poke their tongue into your face; the idea of their saliva lubricating your lips is horrendous. So to allow someone to do these things signals a huge level of acceptance.

Reinier Lucassen 'De Kus'

Reinier Lucassen ‘De Kus’

There are also other merits. A 10-year study conducted in Germany in the 1980s found that men who kiss their wives before leaving for work live approx. 5 years longer, earn 20-30% more and get into fewer car accidents than married men who don’t. Aside of still being a perplexing phenomenon (why, for example, kissing increases the level of oxytocin in men, but decreases it in women?!) and a subject of continuous study, kissing has also been a subject of numerous paintings, drawings, sculptures, installations and all sorts of art works. I have gathered a number of kissing-depicting images, some by my favourite artists, and some by artists I have only just discovered, which I have scattered around this post. I do not intend to analyse them, for I believe they should be left to interpretation and contemplation by a reader. If I can say one thing, it would be that what makes these works so strong is their ability to escape the clichéd, the kitsch and the obvious. Having researched imagery for this post, I have seen an infinite number of realistic depictions of kissing, which were devoid of any sort of magic, atmosphere and emotion. The paintings I’m showing here are very different.

Obviously, kissing is not only depicted in masterfully executed oil paintings, but it seems to appear absolutely everywhere, from telecom ads, such as Vodafone’s The Kiss, to cigarette ads (see the infamous Don’t Be a Maybe campaign by Marlboro), to giant Benetton billboards, presenting world leaders in passionate lip-locks with their enemies. “What’s more personal than a kiss?”, asks Mark Glaser (Marketing at Google) when explaining the inspiration behind the Mulberry Kisses campaign, aimed at bringing the romantic view of the brand into the internet. So kissing is everywhere and yet we don’t seem to tire of it. An example of just how much excitement kissing can evoke, is First Kiss, a 2014 video directed by   Tatia Pilieva, which had 3 times more traffic than President Obama’s appearance on the popular online comedy show, Between Two Ferns, posted online the same day. The low-budget video was commissioned by fashion label Wren to showcase their clothing line’s fall collection for Style.com’s Video Fashion Week. It featured several couples, straight and gay, kissing in front of the camera, and proved an instant hit on the internet—it was viewed about 42 million times on YouTube. John Koblin in his article for the New York Times quotes Pilieva, who attributes the popularity to the sincerity of the video: “They shed all these layers in front of our eyes and in front of the cameras and that sweetness and kindness resonated with people.”

Another example of is Kiss Me Now, Meet Me Later, a social experiment, in which Toronto-based cinematographer Jordan Oram asked 8 blindfolded strangers to kiss each other after a brief introduction. Unlike similar videos, which focus on merely presenting the act of kissing, Oram’s film is trying to make us ask some questions. The film-maker said: “there had been nothing that really showed the reason why people were kissing… The reason behind the kiss: what if you meet the person you fell in love with from the first kiss? What if it was like your first kiss? What if you met someone, you kissed them, and then you introduced yourself? And then you built chemistry from that.”

Kissing can be truly magical. And it’s worth waiting for the right person to come along to share the magic with.

Marc Chagall, 'Birthday' (1915)

Marc Chagall, ‘The Birthday’ (1915)

Sex fantasies in comics

Oh Wicked Wanda!

Oh Wicked Wanda! | Image from www.moundsandcircles.blogspot.co.uk

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 www.ebooks.adelaide.edu.au

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 www.melindagebbie.com

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 www.bl.uk

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 www.comicartfans.com

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 www.forbiddenplanet.co.uk

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.

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.

Nine warriors of art who conquered their age

I have been meaning to write about time and ageing for a while now. What prompted me to do so is the autobiography of Dorothea Tanning, Between Lives: An Artist and Her World (2001), which I am currently reading. I discovered Tanning a few weeks ago, when I was writing a blog post on “artwives” and instantly became fascinated with this extraordinary woman who, after a few decades of painting and sculpture work, embarked on the second career as a writer, declaring that she preferred to be known as the “oldest living emerging poet.” After her first novel, Clasm was published, one reviewer made an observation that “with the best will in the world, her future potential is unlikely to manifest itself in a lengthy writing career,” as we read in The Telegraph obituary. The second novel, Coming to That, came out only a few months before she died at the age of 101. Dorothea Tanning started her career relatively late, but her dedication to work, never-ending passion and curiosity resulted in an exquisite body of versatile work. Christopher Masters says in the Guardian obituary: “As they gradually outlived many of the first generation of surrealists, Tanning and the British painter Leonora Carrington (a former lover of Ernst’s) faced similar challenges. Instead of becoming avant-garde monuments, they worked into their 80s and continued to exhibit. If anything, in her mid-70s Tanning became more productive than ever.

Dorothea Tanning: Some roses and their phantoms, 1952

Image from http://www.dorotheatanning.org | © The Estate of Dorothea Tanning

Ever since my teenage years, I’ve had something that my old French teacher used to call “the psyche of an old lady.” I’ve been looking at life through the eyes of a 90 year-old, devoid of the illusion typical among young people that there is plenty of time, and aware of how quickly the time goes and how important it is to value the time one has. An near-epiphany I experienced a few years ago only strengthened my view. I was in my 3rd year of BA at Central Saint Martins, on my way to an assessment. As I was holding onto the pole of the tube carriage with my one hand, with a bag of drawings, sketchbooks, model parts etc. in the other hand, I was thinking intensively about all the things I wished I had completed for that project but failed to do so because of time running out. It was a 4-month project and like everyone else, I spent the first month brainstorming, researching, casually gathering ideas but also talking to my college friends and socializing in the evenings. As the time was passing, and the project was taking its shape, I was beginning to realise the scale of it, and started working faster and faster. The last weeks were insane – I was working until 2am, getting up at 6am and setting down to work at 6.30am. And still, on the memorable tube journey, I felt that I had the lost in the battle with time. And then a thought occurred – a realisation that life is exactly like an art project where one thinks there’s a lot of time ahead, before realising that there isn’t and that a lot of the things that might have happened simply won’t.

This year I will be turning 30 which certainly intensifies the “old lady” syndrome of mine. I have been reassured by various older and wiser women that they found the 30th birthday far more daunting than any subsequent ones but in a society obsessed with the cult of youth, leaving the 20s is a little scary. It is, however, inevitable, and so rather than look for the first wrinkles, I try to think about the significance of time passing by. While the twenties are a great time for experimenting, stepping onto the next decade is the moment when one becomes even more aware of the importance of choice, and of narrowing down life goals. Of course, I am a firm believer than one can (and should, if they have a desire for it) change their life at any point, for it is a journey which can be altered, and an adventure which can take unexpected turns. But from the point of view of an artist, it is an important time to make sure we’re on the right path leading us to realise our plans and dreams before “the assessment” time.

Inspired by Dorothea Tanning, I decided to look for other female artists who not only did not get defeated by the time, but actually bloomed in their older age.

Carmen Herrera: Pasado, 2010

Image from http://www.fredericosevegallery.com | © Carmen Herrera

Carmen Herrera, “a quiet warrior of her art,” as described by Julián Zugazagoitia, the director of El Museo del Barrio in East Harlem, is a 98-year old Cuban painter living in New York. She gained recognition relatively recently – she was 89 years old when she sold her first artwork, after six decades of painting for herself. Inspired by the Salon of New Realities which she discovered on her trip to Paris in the late 40s, she began pursuing her obsession with ascetic geometry. She remained immune to the influences of abstract expressionism, and other fashionable trends at the time, and as a result was overlooked by the art society. But she persevered. Deborah Sontag from The New York Times quotes Herrera: “I do it because I have to do it; it’s a compulsion that also gives me pleasure, I never in my life had any idea of money and I thought fame was a very vulgar thing. So I just worked and waited. And at the end of my life, I’m getting a lot of recognition, to my amazement and my pleasure, actually. Only my love of the straight line keeps me going.” In an interview for the Guardian in 2011 she said that every time she’s painting, it is a fight between her and the piece, but she’s even more dedicated to her art now and more watchful.

Louise Bourgeois: Untitled, 1986

Image from http://www.tate.org.uk | Photo: Christopher Burke | © Louise Bourgeois

Herrera isn’t the only example of an artist who worked with a tremendous strength and dedication before gaining a proper recognition. Louise Bourgeois (a.k.a. Spiderwoman), one of the most important artists in modern and contemporary art, famous for large-scale spider structures, had her first retrospective exhibition in 1982 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Before that, she had been “a peripheral figure in art whose work was more admired than acclaimed,” as we can read on the Wikipedia. Jerry Gorovoy, the artist’s long-time assistant, commented on the long wait in his beautiful obituary: “It took the art world a long time to digest her output, with its lack of a signature style.” In 2010, in the last year of her life, Bourgeois was engaged in the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) equality movement. A piece she created, I Do, was donated to a nonprofit organization Freedom to Marry. She kept working right until her death, and finished the last the week before she passed awayAccording to Gorovoy, Bourgeois, however shy and vulnerable in real life, was “utterly fearless in her art.

In an article on the Guardian website, Age shall not wither her, Emine Saner presents several other successful women who are working with a similar passion to Herrera’s and are not considering retiring: Paula Rego, Bridget Riley, Maria Pacheco, Gillian Ayres, and Maria Lassnig.

Paula Rego: Mist IV, 1996

Image from http://www.tate.org.uk | © Paula Rego

Paula Rego, a 78 year old British painter of Portuguese origins, like Herrera and Bourgeois had to wait years before she got recognised. In an in-depth article for the Guardian, You punish people with drawings, Simon Hattenstone explains that she lived in the shadow of her husband, Victor Willing, speaking of her own work self-deprecatingly: “He was a great artist. Not me. Oh no. I don’t do paintings in oil paint, and proper artists do oil paint.” It wasn’t until 1987 that she had her first major exhibition in Britain. A year after her husband’s death in 1988, Rego was shortlisted for the Turner prize which marked a change in her career. After years of financial problems (she and Willing relied on Rego’s support) she was extremely glad to be able to sell her work. But the major thing was the recognition: “I felt good because it’s worth something. They’re taking me seriously. They’re taking me seriously.” She was signed by the London based gallery Marlborough Fine Art in 1987, and the following year, she had a retrospective exhibition at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon and the Serpentine Gallery in London, which led to being invited to become the first Associate Artist at the National Gallery. Five years ago, at the age of 73, she was telling Hattenstone: “I work harder now than ever. But you also have more desire to do it. You do it because that is what you do. I feel better when I draw. I haven’t even begun to learn how to draw — I practise and practise. Eventually, I will be able to draw.” Rego hopes that when her time comes, she will die at the easel: “just fall down sideways.”

Ana Maria Pacheco: Domestic Scenes 1-10, 2000

Image from http://www.prattcontemporaryart.co.uk | © Ana Maria Pacheco

Maria Pacheco (71) is a Brazilian artist based in the UK,  whose work ranges from painting and sculpture to printmaking, and takes inspiration from Brazilian folklore, classical myth, mystical Catholicism and medieval satire. She is famous for her multi-figure groups of polychrome sculptures carved from wood. She was 30 years old when she moved to London in 1973 to study at the Slade School of Art, and 24 years later she became the first non-European painter and sculptor to become the Associate Artist at the National Gallery (1997 – 2000). As a result of this residency, she was given a major exhibition of her work which toured on to further venues in the UK. Saner quotes Pacheco’s view of ageing: “Notions of mortality come to us all, but when you are so engaged in creating something, you tend not to think about that.”

Maria Lassnig (94), an Austrian painter preoccupied with the exploration of body in painting and drawing, had dedicated her whole life to art, pursuing a solitary existence without neither a partner nor a family. The passion of creating kept her too busy to worry about ageing. In an interview with Brigitte Werneburg for Deutsche Bank she said: “You know, I’ve never celebrated my birthday. Then you don’t notice it. Hans-Ulrich Obrist recently congratulated me on my 90th birthday. But people told me that’s not true, you’re only 89! But I don’t give a hoot. People have such prejudices, they probably think I’m like a dead stone. But in reality you’re very lively. Not even your libido stops. And the ambitions and dreams continue: “I still want to do something new, even if it’s something very small.

Gillian Ayres (84), one of the most acclaimed British abstract painters, like Herrera and Rego carried on working regardless of fashion trends. She told Emine Saner: “One can never have enough. Your art does change over the years — you’re still trying to find out things. I know that I won’t be here in another 78 years. I think that does come with a slight pressure, but I just carry on. I’ve always just wanted to paint and work.

Bridget Riley: Fall, 1963

Image from http://www.tate.org.uk | © Bridget Riley

What is the force driving the creativity that manages to conquer the obstacles? According to Bridget Riley, it is a quest for deciphering a text within. Riley, an 82-year old English painter famous for Op art-style black and white geometric patterns which disorientate the viewer’s eye, lives and works between London, Cornwall, and France. Michael Bracewell from Frieze Magazine describes how in 1997 he attended the artist’s William Townsend Memorial Lecture entitled Painting Now at Slade School of Fine Art. Riley was discussing the nature of artistic work and Proust’s artistic credo as declared in Time Regained – “the task and duty of a writer are those of a translator.” Riley said then: “This could also be said of a composer, a painter or anyone practising an artistic métier. An artist is someone with a text which he or she wants to decipher (…) However, as can be seen from the practice of the great artists, although the text may be strong and durable and able to support a lifetime’s work, it cannot be taken for granted and there is no guarantee of permanent possession. It may be mislaid or even lost, and retrieval is very difficult. It may lie dormant, and be discovered late in life after a long struggle, as with Mondrian or Proust himself.”

“She’s taught everyone from Martin Creed to Rachel Whiteread, but it’s only now, at 70, that Barlow is getting her dues as an artist,” Kira Cochrane begins her article on Phyllida Barlow, the British artist who primarily creates sculptures and large installation pieces. Her latest commission for Tate Britain’s Duveen Galleries is Dock 2014: a vast installation consisting of seven giant structures and sculptures, inspired by the view from Tate Britain’s Millbank entrance of shipping containers carried by boat along the river. I saw the installation when it was in progress, during one of my trips to Tate Britain, and now I look forward to seeing it completed. I wasn’t familiar with the artist’s work and so was quite thrilled when I discovered it. Barlow, whose first major exhibition at a public gallery was a joint show with fellow sculptor Nairy Baghramian at the Serpentine gallery in 2010, is yet another living testimony to the value of perseverance.

Time goes fast and life is short. But I believe that a lot of the text can be deciphered when one carries on trying, and doesn’t let time corrode the passion.

Phyllida Barlow:Untitled heap 4, 2010

Image from http://www.hauserwirth.com | © Phyllida Barlow

The Art of Collage: Paper & Scissors Rock!

Hannah Höch - Mrs To and Daughter

Max Ernst, the author of a collage graphic novel, Une Semaine de Bonté (1934), once said: “Collage is the noble conquest of the irrational, the coupling of two realities, irreconcilable in appearance, upon a plane which apparently does not suit them.”

Max Ernst collage

Last Sunday, I had the pleasure of seeing an exhibition devoted to the work of Hannah Höch, a German Dada artist, at the Whitechapel Gallery. Höch is one of the major figures in the history of collage, yet the Wikipedia only credits her for photomontage. The exhibition presents approx. 100 works, including collages, montages, and watercolour drawings which were created over six decades. Höch, a bisexual “degenerate artist,” spent the years of the Third Reich living in the outskirts of Berlin, in a tiny suburban cottage, where she stayed for the rest of her life. She was a bold, anarchic, politically engaged woman, a contributor to 1920’s First International Dada Fair but it didn’t take long before she got written out of the movement’s history and labelled a “bob-haired muse of the men’s club in one of obituaries. In her earlier work, such as her Ethnographic Museum series, she used collage to comment on inflation, political tyranny, Nazi ideals of racial purity, and general perceptions of beauty. Later on, she turned to abstraction. Her artistic practice also incorporated graphic design and embroidery – some of those works, like the Rohrfeder Collage (below), I personally find most interesting. With her collage work, I particularly enjoy those complex and carefully arranged compositions of architectural motifs and patterns. But in my opinion some of the cutouts lack precision and appear a little random. I am also not keen on her late semi-abstract work which somehow loses the spirit of her early work.

Hannah Höch - Rohrfeder Collage (fragment), 1922

Hannah Höch, Fremde Schönheit (Strange Beauty), 1929

Having seen the Hannah Höch exhibition, I thought that I’d use this opportunity to write about some other collage artist that I like. The first name that comes to mind, and immediately fills it with sorrow, is the name of a brilliant Polish artist who died tragically in the Tatras Mountains three years ago – Jan Dziaczkowski. He was one of those rare artists with an absolute coherence to his work, regardless of what mediums he used. His paintings, collages and photographs were of equal quality, and really complemented each other. In his first series of collages, Greetings from vacation Dziaczkowski used archival postcards from various places in Europe. In another series, Polish Art of the Twentieth Century, he was altering the reproductions of famous works of art to create a completely new work where those sacred museum pieces got a voice of their own. In the Keine Grenze series, Dziaczkowski created an alternative history of Europe after World War II using postcards from European metropolis: Paris, London, Barcelona. His fantastic cityscapes of famous tourist spots incorporated silhouettes of socialist architecture taken from Russian periodicals. He also did a series inspired by Japanese horror films (Japanese Monster Movies) and a series on the life of Nigeria inhabitants, Black Market of Art (2009).

Jan Dziaczkowski from series Polish Art of the Twentieth Century

Jan Dziaczkowski from series Keine Grenze

Jan Dziaczkowski from series Japanese Monster Movies

Another fantastic collage artist is Terry Gilliam, famous for his work as a member of the Monty Python comedy troupe, and for several films he directed after the break-up of the group. Gilliam began his career as animator and cartoonist. In the beginning of his Monty Python period, he was credited as an animator and it was only later when he was considered a full member. His surreal cartoons provided an important link between the show’s sketches, and defined  Monty Python’s overall visual language and aesthetic. In the collages, he would create backgrounds and moving cutouts from antique photographs, mostly from the Victorian era, and mix them with his own work.

Terry Gilliam collage

Another artist who incorporates collage into her own work is a London-based painter Kirsten Glass whom I discovered many years ago. While studying foundation at the Camberwell College of Arts, I went to see her solo exhibition at One In the Other Gallery which really blew me away. Her large scale collages are a mixture of oil paintings with a range of materials and objects like rabbit skin glue, sand, mannequins and dripping paint. Those complex and striking compositions make one think of film noir, Gothic imagery, fairy tales, as well as pop art, and mass media. From what I have gathered looking at her recent work, she now limits herself to oil paints, though the subjects are still very similar.

Kirsten Glass - Snakeskin (love's a 2 way dream) 2006

Collage is an interesting form, for it lends itself to creative people who have no practical drawing or painting skills such as writers who either create collages alongside their work, or use collage in the actual process of writing.

I’ll begin with Wisława Szymborska – a Polish poet, essayist, translator and recipient of the 1996 Nobel Prize in Literature. This incredibly talented poet with a great sense of humour created a relatively small body of work, explaining that the reason she hadn’t published more was because she had a bin at home. Described as a “Mozart of Poetry,” Szymborska identified three areas of interest: serious poetry, light-hearted poetry and collages. The thousands of collages she created in her lifetime, were postcard-size minimalist compositions, juxtaposing images with words which resulted in ultra-economical visual poems. She also used to send very humorous collage greeting cards, cutting out letters of words expressing what she was wishing the recipient. (In Poland, unlike the UK, it is considered rude to limit yourself to writing “Happy Birthday” or “Merry Christmas” on a card. Both verbal and written greetings are usually a list of things we are wishing the other person to receive, such as good health, love, joy, success etc. The closer we are to the person, the more detailed and personalized the wishes ought to be.) For those unfamiliar with Szymborska’s literary work, here’s one of her poems:

The Three Oddest Words
 
When I pronounce the word Future,
the first syllable already belongs to the past.
 
When I pronounce the word Silence,
I destroy it.
 
When I pronounce the word Nothing,
I make something no non-being can hold.

Translated by S. Baranczak & C. Cavanagh

Wisława Szymborska collage ("Thinks too much")

Wisława Szymborska collage

Another writer and Nobel Prize winner (2009) who used collage in her work, albeit in a different way than Szymborska, was Herta Müller. This German-Romanian novelist, poet, and essayist used cut out letters to “write” the poems with and since the subject of her work, like in the case of Hannah Höch, was the political regime, her poems resembled ransom letters addressed at the communist government. According to an article in the Guardian, during Ceausescu’s totalitarian regime in Romania, Herta received death threats after she refused cooperate with the secret police.

Herta Müller

Jiri Kolář, a Czech poet, writer, painter and translator, was another poet who incorporated collage and visual art into his literary work which was very much influenced by the political situation in former Czechoslovakia. In Robert B Pynsent’s obituary in The Guardian (2002), we can read that even though Kolář never learned to draw or paint, he “claimed that his training as a carpenter enabled him to cut the straight lines he needed for his collages, or ‘picture-poems’, as in his 1969 montage Birds For Hans Sachs.” His collages were created by superimposing images over one another using grids, using some elements as windows into other elements, crumpling paper or by placing elements side-by-side to create a narrative. He first exhibited his collages in a theatre corridor in Prague in 1938 and during the war, he was the leader of an avant-garde art and literature society called Group 42. He later exhibited in London (1963), Canada, South America and Japan, and his retrospective exhibition took place at the Guggenheim in New York in 1975. In his poems he expressed disintegration and unhappiness of individuals; in his collages he manifested “both ironic wit (for example, his one-eyed self portrait of 1980), but also his horror at cultural and political disintegration – the best-known examples being his scenes of a distorted Prague.”

Jiri Kolář - Homage to stars of the silver screen

Jiri Kolář - Crumplage newsprint collage, 1971

The great thing about collage is not just the variation of its forms (photomontage, confrontage, froissage, rollage, etc.) but also of the tone and message. The same letters or images cut out from magazine can be put together in a way that makes us laugh, like in the case of Szymborska’s cards, or cry – like Herta Müller’s poems. And there are plenty of shades of grey in between.

Artwives: Eva Švankmajerová, Dorothea Tanning & Lee Krasner

As I’ve been working on the new paintings for last few weeks, I have been reminded of what it is like to be a stereotypical artist – the one whose mood swings, bursts of anger and despair are barely sufferable for anyone in the vicinity. Somehow painting is a much more intense type of work for me than drawing or writing, and I often feel emotionally and physically exhausted at the end of the day. I repeatedly say to myself though how lucky I am to be with a man who not only tolerates the spectrum of my emotional states but also genuinely supports me and offers invaluable feedback which helps if I get stuck. He himself makes music but that seems to be happening in a much saner and peaceful way than anything I do. And then I wonder – what about couples where both people are full-time artists?  A scary vision of piles of unwashed plates and escalating tantrums comes to mind. But those couples do exist and as a matter of fact, there have been quite a few famous duos.

Having recently watched for the second time a superb film by the Czech surrealist master, Jan Švankmajer, The Conspirators of Pleasure, I then went on to reading fragments of his journal from 1999. The following bit made me smile:

Eva [the director’s late wife] spends whole days painting. She is finishing a large series of alchemistical paintings Mutus liber. I consider it to be one of her pivotal works. She doesn’t go out, and her whole time is divided between creative euphoria which she experiences next to her ladder and falling into despair in which everything around her, including herself, is repudiated and condemned. In her “lighter” moments, she yearns for revenge.

I didn’t know much about Eva, apart from the fact that I always saw her name in the end credits. All I knew was that she was a set designer and often worked on her husband’s films. I decided to find out more, and also to look up some other wives of famous artists, whom I’ve labelled artwives.

Eva Švankmajerová (née Dvorakova) was a painter, ceramic and puppetry artist, and a writer, author of Baradla Cave which recently got translated into English. Having grown up in a socialist Czechoslovakia plastered with images of female tractor drivers and other symbols of communism, from early on Eva tackled the issue of gender stereotypes in her art. In Christopher Masters’ obituary in 2005, we can read that her “Emancipation Cycle parodied such paintings as Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe by replacing the female characters with men;” later in the 1980s “she constructed a grotesque head from propaganda photographs of female labourers.” She was part of the Czech Surrealist group (one critic later said that she was one of the most widely known Surrealist painters of our time) and many of her paintings and sculptures were laden with eroticism and Freudian symbolism. She and Jan met in 1961 at the experimental Semafor Theatre, where they had their first joint exhibition. Three years later Eva became an art director in his first film, The Last Trick of Mr Schwarzewalde and Mr Edgar. In 1981 the couple bought a derelict château in Horní Stankov, Bohemia, which became home to various puppets from their films, and got turned into a Surrealist palace.

Eva’s input in Svankmajer’s films was invaluable. She was responsible for art direction and created animation and puppets for films like The Lesson of Faust (1994), Conspirators of Pleasure (1996) and Little Otik (2000). In an interview with Jason Wood for the Kamera, Svankmajer emphasized how much he relied on her work: “Eva provides an authentic touch; this was very much in evidence with the puppets she helped create in Conspirators of Pleasure.” She confessed that she wouldn’t want to work with any other director despite the fact that he “made her slog.”

I can very much relate to what she also said in that interview: “The only downside of our working together of course is that Jan gets to see things when I am still in the process of making them and not strictly speaking when they are ready for his inspection.” Working from home (currently in a living room) means that I cannot hide my paintings before they’re finished. It was initially quite a challenge for me, as I don’t usually present unfinished work to people but I’ve learned that engaging Colin in the process helps me evaluate things better. Painting is often like trying different fragrances. After a while your nose is no longer able to assess whether it likes a particular smell or not, and likewise, after a few hours of staring at a painting, I often cannot tell whether I’m pleased with the progress of whether I want to tear the canvas apart.

Another formidable artist-wife was Dorothea Tanning, whose striking paintings from her “prism” period were once called “the Sistine Chapel painted over by Francis Bacon” and whose sculptures were labelled ”some of the creepiest of the 20th century.” Tanning was a painter, sculptor, memoirist, novelist and poet, and – the fourth wife of Max Ernst whom she outlived (she died at the age of 101). The couple met in the late 1942 when Max Ernst was asked to find work for a forthcoming show called Thirty Women, curated by his wife Peggy Guggenheim at her Art of this Century gallery. Having seen Tanning’s unfinished and untitled self-portrait, he named it Birthday and asked her to include in the show, whose name got changed into Thirty One Women. Shortly afterwards, Ernst split up with Guggenheim and moved in with Tanning.

Despite her impressive work, in the eyes of the public Dorothea was always in the shadow of the husband. In The Telegraph obituary, we read that she was

understandably irritated that many interviewers seemed to be interested only in her relationship with Ernst. She once wrote (referring to herself in the third person): “Her existence as an artist was dramatically compromised by her existence as Max’s wife” — though as an afterthought she added: “love triumphs over all”. In a later poem she recalled how “Many years ago today/ I took a husband tenderly/ This simple human gentle act/ Seen as a hard decisive fact/ By all who dote on category/ Did stain my work indelibly/ I don’t know why that is/ For it has not stained his.”

After the death of Ernst in 1976, Dorothea moved from art to writing. She published two volumes of autobiography, two volumes of poetry and her first novel, Chasm, which got described by one critic as “the story of a little girl, a lion and a mysterious fetishistic stash of body parts.”

According to the same obituary, Tanning and Ernst didn’t talk about art, and instead “just had fun. Unlike some critics, Ernst always allowed her independence, never referring to her as ‘my wife’ but always as Dorothea Tanning.” It seems to me that throughout their marriage she managed to preserve her sovereignty and because the couple worked separately, her work didn’t get swept into his.

The third artwife I’m presenting here, Lee Krasner, is probably more well-known than both Švankmajerova and Tanning thanks to Ed Harris’ excellent biographical film Pollock (2000). I am personally not especially fond of either his or her paintings, but I find the couple to be an interesting example of “two artists under one roof”. During her marriage to Pollock, who died tragically in 1956, Krasner was more dedicated to her role as his manager, PR specialist, his “facilitator in the world,” as biographer Gail Levin puts it, than to her own work. Despite the fact that she was far more established in the avant-garde circle when she met Pollock, critics were giving him a lot more attention. Krasner was invisible as a female artist and often treated with ignorance or hostility. The couple’s close friend, Clement Greenberg, would have long intellectual debates with her as opposed to her diffident husband but he always wrote about Pollock’s work, completely ignoring Krasner. After her husband’s death, Krasner started creating large-scale paintings which later finally brought her widespread acclaim. Although closely connected to the Abstract Expressionism movement which Pollock became a champion of, she experimented with a number of different styles and scales, and developed her own style. In the New York Times obituary from 1984, we read that the curator Barbara who organized Krasner’s retrospective exhibition (1983) and the Krasner/Pollock: A Working Relationship exhibition (1981), praised Lee’s work massively: “She was a fabulous draftsman and had an incredible color sense. She did not follow any color rules, and she is one of the very few women who has really expressed violence and aggression in her work.” John Bernard Myers, author of the book Tracking the Marvelous, which includes a section about Krasner, said that “she had a brain like a laser.

So there we have, three different artistic relationships: An intense and successful collaboration in the chateau des Švankmajers with the spotlight shining on Jan; two independent artists having fun in the case of Tanning/Ernst, and a devoted painter wife nurturing a dysfunctional painter husband in the Krasner/Pollock marriage.

There are no rules of what might work and what might not. A relationship between two artists is most certainly a challenge, while a relationship between an artist and a civilian can work only if the latter is prepared for a roller-coaster of emotions and occasional stacks of dirty plates in the sink. Which I do my best to avoid.

Strange Little Girls

One day you see a strange little girl look at you
One day you see a strange little girl feeling blue
She’d run to the town one day
Leaving home and the country fair
Just beware when you’re there, strange little girl
She didn’t know how to live in a town that was rough
It didn’t take long before she knew she had enough
Walking home in her wrapped up world
She survived but she’s feeling old
‘Cos she found all things cold

Strange little girl where are you going?

This wonderful song by The Stranglers from 1982 came to my head the other day as I was working on a painting for an upcoming exhibition and for a comic I am creating. The story is loosely based on my childhood memories of me and my grandmother and so the main character, who is also the narrator, is a little girl.

The Stranglers’ song has always touched me deeply, probably because I can very much relate to the lyrics. I was a strange little girl myself, often locked in the world of weird dreams and fantasies, and finding it difficult to make friends. From early on, I was mostly interested in things that were inappropriate for my age; I repeatedly stole my over-a-decade-older sister’s books and I found her friends far more interesting to talk to than children my age, who often perceived me as nerdy and uncool. Therefore, I have a lot of sympathy for strange little girls and whilst I’m on the trip down the memory lane, I thought I might present here some of my favourite characters from books, film and art which certainly fall into the “strange girls” category.

I’ll begin with Jeliza-Rose from Terry Gilliam’s film Tideland (2005), which I had the pleasure of watching again a couple of weeks ago. In an introduction to the film, Gilliam says: “Many of you are not going to like this film (…) I shall explain: This film is seen through the eyes of a child. If it’s shocking, it’s because it’s innocent.(…) I was 64 years old when I made this film. I think I finally discovered the child within me. It turned out to be a little girl.”

Tideland is an adaptation of a cult novel by American author Mitch Cullin, which is a nightmarish story about a little girl living with two entirely useless parents who are both heroin addicts. As part of a daily routine, Jeliza-Rose assists her father in his  frequent “vacation” trips by heating up the drug intake in a spoon, and later removing the hypodermic once he’s “departed”. When her mother overdoses, Jeliza-Rose is taken by her father to her grandma’s ruined farmhouse in the middle of a cornfield. Here she is left to her own devices with no company but a copy of Alice in Wonderland and four dismembered Barbie doll heads which she often wears on her fingertips: Mystique, Sateen Lips, Baby Blonde and Glitter Gal. Acting as a ventriloquist, the girl uses each of the heads to communicate her own often contradictory desires and fears, and to translate the perplexing world she is witnessing. She is not mad, like some film reviewers say. She is merely escaping the hunger, loneliness, and lack of security by transforming herself into a character from an adventure story. Imagination is the only place to escape to in the absence of love, warmth and security. Gilliam says: “Remember, children are strong, they’re resilient, they’re designed to survive. When you drop them, they tend to bounce.” Jeliza-Rose bounces in the most fascinating, often hilarious and frightening but enviably powerful way.

She conquers her fears and often acts arrogantly, just like her favourite book character, Alice. Jan Svankmajer’s vision of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, which combines very surreal stop motion animation with live action, brings out the sense of menace and aggression that is present in the book but omitted in many adaptations. In an interview for The Electric Sheep Magazine, Svankmajer says that his film keeps the original idea of a dream which, as opposed to a good-overcomes-evil fairy-tale, “as an expression of our unconscious, uncompromisingly pursues the realisation of our most secret wishes without considering rational and moral inhibitions, because it is driven by the principle of pleasure.” Strange little girls can have very strange dreams, and I like authors who embrace that fact and are not trying to tame children by turning their minds towards infantile stimuli.

A girl who is by no means an innocent and ignorant child is Mathilda Lando from Luc Besson’s Léon: The Professional (1994). This twelve-year-old girl from a dysfunctional family returns one day from shopping to find all members of the family murdered by a corrupt DEA agents. Mathilda finds shelter in the home of Leone “Léon” Montana, a professional hitman, and the two outcasts quickly develop a deep friendship. Mathilda smokes, learns to use a gun, and sets herself a goal of avenging the murder of her four-year-old brother. Quirky, vulnerable and brave, she is adorable.

Less adorable, yet very moving, is Mary Lennox from The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. “Mistress Mary quite contrary” is a 10-year old girl who, like Mathilda Lando, becomes an orphan when her wealthy British parents die of cholera in India, where the family are living. Mary is then sent to Yorkshire, England to live with her uncle Archibald Craven at his home called Misselthwaite Manor, which is located in the middle of heather fields. There she undergoes a magical transformation. Initially lonely, apathetic and “disagreeable”, she becomes enthusiastic and passionate – about an abandoned garden which she finds amidst the many gardens of Misselthwaite Manor, and about helping her frail cousin whom she finds locked in one of the rooms. Mary is a very unique girl who preserves her quirkiness all throughout the book. She is not unhappy about her solitude, for what she actually misses is having something to care about. “I like you,” she says to a peasant boy Dickon whom she shares the garden secret with, “and you make the fifth person. I never thought I should like five people.” When I was a child, Mary’s calm attitude and focus on her own hobby would reinforce my scepticism towards wanting to be popular, which most children derive self-esteem from.

Moving away from film and literature into the world of oil and digital painting, there are two fantastic artists who have been keen portrayers of strange little girls – contemporary artist Ray Caesar and one of major 20th century painters, Balthasar Klossowski de Rola, a.k.a. Balthus.

Balthus, known for rejecting art trends and conventions, and for a telegram he sent to the Tate Gallery before the 1968 retrospective exhibition of his works (“NO BIOGRAPHICAL DETAILS. BEGIN: BALTHUS IS A PAINTER OF WHOM NOTHING IS KNOWN. NOW LET US LOOK AT THE PICTURES. REGARDS. B.”), was, like Svankamajer and Gilliam, a big Lewis Carroll fan. Many of his paintings, described as “disturbing”, featured young girls with their nascent sexuality and quirkiness. A young girl looking into a hand mirror in The Golden Days painting reminds me of the characters described earlier in this post. There is a great sense of ease and confidence she emulates, and while she is perfectly lovely and charming, she is not exactly a nice girl who sits modestly and speaks only when asked. Another painting, Salon I, depicts two nubile girls, one reading and one reclining. The Digital Journal website we read that  the painting offers “a vision of children at ease, comfortable with themselves and their environments, daring the viewer to impose something else — desire, discomfort, derision — on their benign activities.”

Ray Caesar is a visual surreal artist and digital painter residing in Toronto, who creates surreal landscapes and models with detailed photographic textures, using a 3D modeling software called Maya. Many of the characters in his paintings are little girls, though he says that: “People think I paint pictures of children… I don’t! I paint pictures of the human soul… that alluring image of the hidden part of ourselves… some call them ghosts or spirits but I see them as the image of who we truly are, made manifest with all the objects and bruises that filled the story of each life.” Caesar spent 17 years working in the Art and Photography department of the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, where he documented various child afflictions in sketches. In an interview for Arrested Motion, he says that those years helped him revisit his own childhood and embrace the traumas he went through then. As a child, he used pictures “as a way of hiding feelings and emotions I wanted to protect in situations that were extremely dangerous. If I experienced something that overwhelmed me, that I couldn’t deal with, or had emotions I wasn’t allowed to display, I used to draw it into a picture. Those pictures became a doorway to a happier, safer place – and sometimes a dangerous place for others because it was MY place.” Caesar’s girls are like Jeliza-Rose’s Barbie heads, which on one hand work as a medium for the artist to come to terms with his sub-consciousness and the way he experiences the world around him, and on the other – they resurrect the image of a strange little girl in the eyes of a viewer.

Let the girls be what they like, for that strangeness, when embraced, can be a wonderful creative force – or a shameful burden to carry when suppressed.

Me, Myself & I. Self-portraits.

Last weekend, I registered for the BP Portrait Award, which is an annual portraiture competition held at the National Portrait Gallery in London. It was started in 1979 and was initially sponsored by John Player & Sons, a tobacco company, but British Petroleum took over sponsorship of the competition in 1989 – hence the name. The exhibition opens in June each year and runs until September. For many years it was restricted to UK residents only, but now it is unrestricted, which results in an extraordinary number of entries – last year there were approx. 1,969 entries and only 55 got selected for exhibition. Given how strong many of the unselected works are (which you can see at the Dazed & Refused exhibition, running in parallel to the BP one), the competition is a sheer lottery. Still, it is quite tempting to try, for the first prize is typically £30,000 and last year it attracted over 285,000 viewers.

My friend Andris Wood, with whom I am having a joint exhibition in April this year, is submitting a painting for the 14th time. As for me, it’s my 4th entry (above is my entry from this year, and below from 2013 and 2012.) I’m not sure what exactly makes me persevere and enter the competition again and again, for every year when I go to see those 55 works, I am quite often disappointed. A vast majority of the paintings are hyper-realistic, and, in my opinion, soulless copies of photographs. And I’m not alone in this view – the competition has been receiving criticism from mainstream press in the recent years precisely for this reason. It seems odd that there is such a strong preference for photo-like works, even though the gallery holds a photography portrait exhibition – the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize – where some of these paintings might be more appropriate.

Last year’s winner, though, a very good portrait of her son Pieter by a South African-born artist Susanne du Toit, which picked up the £30,000 first prize, was acclaimed a departure for an award that had been championing the photorealist art. Here’s hoping. In the age of Instagram, Tumblr, Facebook etc., seeing a personal expression and arrangement of paint on canvas is very desirable.

But, like Andris, I feel strangely compelled to keep entering the competition, given that portraiture is one of my top subjects. And if Andris gets in, I might regain my faith in the judges’ view.

The portrait I am submitting was painted last spring, and is a representation of me at the time. It’s quite sad and I have been told that I look older on the painting than I do in real life. This doesn’t surprise me, as over the last year or so I had been giving a lot of thought to the notion of “age”, its perception, implications, presumptions and time passing-related anxieties. If I were to do a self-portrait now (which I have no time for now, as I’m working on a cycle of works for the upcoming exhibition), it would be very different. Perhaps it will be the next year’s entry.

Some of the greatest paintings have been self-portraits – Rembrandt, Dürer, or Vincent van Gogh being the obvious examples, and so I would like to share some of my personal favourites. Needless to say, this is only a selected list as there are plenty more that I praise and love.

When I was a teenager, I went through a phase of absolute devotion to an avant-garde Polish artist who committed suicide the day after the Soviets invaded Poland on 17 September 1939, Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz a.k.a Witkacy. He was not just a keen painter but a real multi-disciplinary artist: a phenomenal poet, playwright, novelist, photographer and philosopher. As a painter, he had opened the S.I. Witkiewicz Portrait Painting Firm, which offered several grades of portrait from the merely representational (A), to the more expressionistic (B), those for friends created under the influence of drugs (C), ditto but without the drugs (D) and totally freestyle, “pure form” portraits (E). Many of his paintings had annotations in terms of what drugs and substances (tobacco, coffee, peyote) he had been taking whilst painting, and those also fell into various categories. He used almost solemnly dry pastels and charcoal.

All his portraits are extremely powerful, and his self-portraits are no exception.

Francis Bacon’s biggest eruption of self-portraits happened in the 1970s, when he was also commemorating his late lover, George Dyer in large triptychs. His response to questions about this flow of self-portraits was naturally quite sarcastic. In Michael Peppiatt’s The Anatomy of Enigma we can read that Bacon would say: “I loathe this old pudding face of mine (…) But it’s all I’ve got left to paint now.” Self-portraits remained a dominant feature in this work for the rest of his career. The emotional isolation those images convey is palpable, and, however distorted and obscured, his face is always recognisable.

Lucien Freud used to say that “Everything is autobiographical and everything is a portrait, even if it’s a chair.” Sarah Howgate, the curator of the Lucian Freud Portraits exhibition that took place in 2011 at the National Portrait Gallery in London, said that Freud’s agenda behind painting self-portraits was an “obligation to understand the rigors of his process his sitters had to endure.” In the 1960s, and then in the 1980s and 1990s, he came up with a series of “brutally honest” depictions of the self, including the famous painting from 1993 – Painter Working, where the 71-year-old artist is wearing nothing but a pair of boots. The one below is from 1963.

Some of my favourite self-portraits are by Egon Schiele. This gorgeous Self-Portrait with Chinese Lantern Lamp is unusually calm and gentle, though still very powerful and striking. Shortly before his death, Schiele exhibited at the Secession’s 49th exhibition, held in Vienna in 1918, which was extremely successful and as a result, prices for his drawings increased and he received many portrait commissions.

A couple of artists associated with symbolism and German expressionism, whose self-portraits I very much like, are a German painter Otto Dix and a Norwegian painter Edvard Munch. Both paintings, presented below, have a great sense of tension and anxiety. Dix’s work was extremely critical of contemporary German society and the painter focused his attention on the bleaker side of life, depicting prostitution, violence, old age and death. Munch, on the other hand, wrote: “My father was temperamentally nervous and obsessively religious—to the point of psychoneurosis. From him I inherited the seeds of madness. The angels of fear, sorrow, and death stood by my side since the day I was born.”

Another striking image is Tamara de Lempicka’s Self-portrait in the Green Bugatti, which has become a signature of art deco. It was commissioned for the cover of the German magazine Die Dame, which apparently acclaimed the artist “a symbol of women’s liberation.” The over-powering sense of self-confidence and sex-appeal which emanates from the painting makes me think of Samantha Jones, the unforgettable character from the Sex and the City television series. Tamara had a relatively short-career, for she never evolved past the polished, glamorous and geometric style but I find her art deco works incredibly strong.

Finally, another female painter – Olga Boznańska. I began with Witkacy, I shall end with a Polish artist. From 1898 until her death in 1940, Boznańska lived in Paris, where she was a member of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts as well as the Polish Society of Literature and Art. Nowhere near as cutting-edge as Lempicka, she was a very fine painter nevertheless, and I love the palette of many of the self-portraits.

Magic in the gutter. A few words on comics and sequential art.

Until very recently, I had been making a conscious effort to separate writing, one of my favourite and most natural ways of expressions, from other areas of my artistic practice. I somehow felt that it was interfering with visual art, my official career path, and that it didn’t have a place in it, besides the “hobby” drawer.

But I have always been writing. When I was about 11 years old, I wrote poems and songs. Not long after that, I started keeping my journal (which I still do) and writing “novels”. I would spend summer afternoons with an old typewriter (alas, a 60s beige one, not the gorgeous black Continental machine) and type away, drinking coffee with a drop of sherry nicked from my parent’s cabinet, which I thought was terribly decadent. A few years later, when I was in high school, I wrote plays, monodramas, and adaptations of works by ancient Roman poets like Lucretius, Virgil and Ovid (mostly to avoid taking grammar exams in ancient Latin.) I wrote for a small cabaret I formed, and “on commission” for school events accompanying national holidays. I did some writing during my academic degrees. I adapted Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye into a script, and wrote BA and MA thesis. But even then I was very much discouraged from writing, not because of its quality (my pieces were usually chosen as exemplary ones) but because it was apparently distracting me from focusing on creating physical narratives.

It took a long time to find a place where my writing and drawing could not merely coexist but work together. It was only when I started exploring the territory of comics and graphic novels, I realised that this is an art form that could help me re-embrace my abandoned passion.

Obviously, it’s not that I only discovered comics at the age of 28. I knew they existed when I was a child, but my parents adopted the attitude which Scott McCloud is arguing against on 215 pages of his masterpiece, Understanding Comics. Apart from a couple of issues of Alf, which was based on an animated sitcom, and Tytus, Romek i A’Tomek by Henryk Jerzy Chmielewski a.k.a. Papcio Chmiel, I didn’t read any comics because my parents thought that they were aimed at lazy children who couldn’t be bothered to read. I associated the term with cheaply printed images in saturated colours of superheroes making hideous sound effects in speech balloons. Scott McCloud’s experience was similar: “Comics were those bright colourful magazines filled with bad art, stupid stories and guys in tights.” I learned to look down on that.

It was the discovery of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman in my mid-twenties which made me realise that comic art can be beautiful, and now, having read both McCloud’s book as well as 99 Ways to Tell a Story by Matt Madden, I fell in love with the genre.

99 Ways to Tell a Story is a fascinating insight into the creative mind of a storyteller – the same “template” comic, as Madden calls it, is retold in many different forms and styles. Some are very humorous, some are quite abstract, and many are references to other artists (such as Duane Michals or Kenneth Koch), or genres (such as manga, anthropomorphic comics, or ligne claire.) One of my favourites is a duo Happy Couple and Unhappy Couple where Madden managed to completely change the tone and punch line of the comic with a few subtle lines on characters’ faces. Below is the “template” (on the left) and Things are queer (after Dunae Michals) (on the right.) The book astounds with the number of ways of, excuse the cliché, thinking (and inking) outside the box, and I will surely be coming back to it for inspiration.

Understanding Comics is visually and intellectually captivating analysis of the phenomenon of comics, and their unquestionable historic roots. The first chapter begins with what its title suggests, “setting the record straight.” One of the pre-millennium examples of comic art, which McCloud defines (with great difficulty, for definitions can be limiting) as “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate consequence,” are the Egyptian hieroglyphics. A scene from 32 centuries ago, painted for the tomb of Menna, an Ancient Egyptian tribe, is nothing but a comic read zig-zag, starting at the bottom left. (Image borrowed from A History of Graphic Design blog.)

There are many more. The 230-foot long Bayeux Tapestry, detailing the Norman conquest of England in 1066 (below; more images here); The Tortures of Saint Erasmus from 1460 (“Popular tastes haven’t changed much in five centuries,” as McCloud quite rightly points out); or a pre-Columbian 36-foot long picture manuscript discovered by Cortés around 1519, which depicts the great military and political hero 8-deer “Tiger’s-Claw”. An example of a sophisticated picture story are the works of William Hogarth: Harlot’s Progress and Rake’s Progress from 1731.Both his paintings and engravings were designed to be viewed side-by-side, i.e. in sequence. “Hogarth’s works (…) proved so popular that new copyright laws were created this new form,” says McCloud.

The father of modern comics was a Swiss cartoonist Rodolphe Töpffer (1799-1846) who incorporated panel borders into his work, making the words and pictures interdependent for the first time in the 19th century Europe. A very interesting artist was Lynd Ward, American wood engraver and illustrator (1905-85), and author of six lengthy woodcut novels with one image per right-hand page. These dark woodcut novels, influenced by German Expressionism, weren’t recognised as comics, since the definition of the term was until very recently extremely narrow. (Image borrowed from Mike Culpepper’s blog.)

Same with Max Ernst – his collage novel, Une Semaine de bonté, is one of my most cherished books, though when I bought it, I didn’t think I was buying something from the same shelf as the 80’s Alf magazine. The book, published in 1934, is divided into seven sections named after the days of the week, beginning with Sunday, and it comprises 182 images created by cutting up and re-organizing illustrations from Victorian encyclopaedias and novels.

And what about my dear Edward Gorey and his books? They may not have speech balloons but they’re a wonderful example of a form where words and images go hand in hand to convey Gorey’s ideas which wouldn’t happen if it was either of the two. Below are the first couple of panels from The Object-Lesson.

Chapter Six of Understanding Comics analyses the historical process of separating words from pictures. Pictures predate the written word, an example of which are the prehistoric cave paintings, and the earliest words were stylized pictures. But with time, they started to lose resemblance of the visible world, and began to represent the sound. “The written word was becoming more specialized, more abstract, more elaborate – and less and less like pictures,” says McCloud, whilst pictures were becoming more representational and realistic. It is the early 19th century where the two forms became as apart as it could be possible (McCloud illustrates this using an ingenious iconic abstraction chart with 3 vertices: reality, language and picture plane.) But by the end of that century the impressionists, and later expressionists, futurists, Dadaists, etc. were moving towards abstraction and symbolic meanings, while at the same time, the written language was becoming a lot more direct. This led to the meeting of the two forms, and its exploration in the world of comics. Sadly, in the flux of changes in modern art, comics didn’t get a chance to establish themselves as a reputable form, in which text and images wouldn’t be judged separately.

“The art form of comics is many centuries old, but it’s perceived as a recent invention and suffers the curse of all new media,” with many comic creators viewing an opportunity to work in other media as a step-up, McCloud acknowledges. However, the book was first published in 1994, and a lot has been happening since then. Many people like me get hooked on the magic that happens in the gutter between the panels, which more than any other medium fires my imagination and engages me in the story. A comic artist is a very talented magician whose ability to conjure up wonders rests on very solid skills: drawing in proportions and perspective, excellent composition, understanding of colours, building up narratives, and engaging the reader.

Now, when I am experimenting with comics myself, and discovering how difficult and complex they are, I know that I will never again frown at Spiderman.

Beauty & terror

A few days ago I watched a film which affected me in a way only a handful of films did (recent ones include Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, Lukas Moodysson’s Lilja 4-ever or Jan Komasa’s Suicide Room.) From Inside is an animated movie created by John Bergin (credited as writer, producer, director, and animator), based on his graphic novel about a young woman’s surreal train journey across a nightmarish post-apocalyptic wasteland. It is a journey through blood, corpses, pain and fear, with no happy ending. The film is on one hand impossibly bleak and depressing, but on the other – impossibly beautiful. Combining CGI and simple drawing animation, it is filled with frames which could go on a wall at Tate Britain right next to Francis Bacon’s works.

I admit that the film made me feel very upset, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what exactly it was that distressed me so much. I am quite fond of exploring the dark side of human psyche, I like graphic imagery, I draw skulls and blood myself — my Crow paintings are the best example of it. But I felt a strange tension and it was only today that I realized where it comes from: the combination of beauty and terror is what creates such an emotional whirl in me. A few years ago, when I studied post-modern philosophy and aesthetics, I got interested in the concept of the “sublime” and its interpretation by various philosophers, notably Kant and Jean-Francois Lyotard.  The 18th century philosopher Edmund Burke was the first to emphasise the dichotomy between the beautiful and the sublime: he compares beauty to the light, and the sublime to the darkness, for it possesses a dual emotional quality of fear and attraction. “The sublime may inspire horror, but one receives pleasure in knowing that the perception is a fiction,” we can read on the Wikipedia page.

I had a long discussion about the meaning of film with my partner Colin, who interprets it as a meditation on depression. Personally, I saw it more as a dark fantasy of the inevitable end of the world, just like in Melancholia. I also thought that this sort of Apocalypse for many people was the Nazi occupation across Europe in World War II. Sadly, I haven’t actually found any more in-depth analysis of the concept by Bergin himself (other than that he jokingly calls it “the most depressing film ever made”); in a very interesting interview with Bergin in Make Magazine, he explains it very briefly. The review of John Bergin’s film on the Quiet Earth website is very nicely written, but is also someone else’s interpretation of the film.

I was digesting From Inside for a day or so, when I proceeded to work on my current painting-book project, based on childhood memories of my grandmother. I must say that there are times when I curse the internet for its tremendous ability to properly distract me from whatever I am doing. There are also times when, impulsively clicking, I come across something amazing. Like I did yesterday.

I was looking at architectural photographs of Kielce, a city in Poland where I grew up and where my grandmother lived, when I stumbled upon Gershon Iskowitz, a Polish-Canadian painter, who was born in… Kielce. One link followed another, and I found myself reading about the Second World War.

Iskowitz planned to study at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts (where I did my MA) and would have probably ended up staying in Poland, if it hadn’t been for the Nazis who invaded Poland in 1939. Being a Jew, Iskowitz ended up at Auschwitz, Dachau, Majdanek and Buchenwald concentration camp, and he was the only one from his family who survived. His parents, one brother and a sister were gassed to death at Treblinka; his other brother was killed in Auschwitz. Iskowitz’s story is remarkable. He managed not only to survive four years of torture, but also to draw. When cleaning rubble from allied bombing attacks, he looked for any materials he could work with, then sketched at night and hid the drawings in the morning. According to Colin S. MacDonald, he escaped from Buchenwald and hid in a nearby bush but was shot in the leg by a guard and left for dead. He fractured a hip but later that day was brought back to the camp by his fellow prisoners, and not longer after that, the US troops arrived. On the National Gallery in Canada website, we read that:

After the liberation on April 11, 1945 Iskowitz was sent to recuperate at a hospital near Munich. Two years later he began formal art studies at the Munich Academy of Art, as well as private studies with the Austrian artist Oskar Kokoschka.  In 1949 Iskowitz would immigrate to Canada, settling in Toronto.

Iskowitz’ both war time and early post-war paintings were heavily influenced by the horror he had witnessed and gone through. Below is Selection, Auschwitz (1944-45) with small, naked, almost ghostly figures of the prisoners, a giant Nazi officer and a barbed wire fence in the distance.

In later years, he became fascinated with Canadian landscape which he depicted in a much more abstract way (I am not a big fan of abstract art, therefore I am much more interested in his earlier, more expressive and at times surreal, paintings.) He continued working until his death in 1988. Some of his paintings, like Escape from 1948 (below) somehow fit into Bergin’s bloody landscapes.

It has been a while since I revisited the subject of Nazi and Soviet Union occupation in Poland during the Second World War. When I was at school, a good chunk of one year’s Polish and History class was dedicated to this historical period. I cried whilst reading various excruciatingly painful diaries by ex-slaves, such as Zofia Nałkowska’s Medallions, Seweryna Szmaglewska’s Smoke Over Birkenau or Gustaw Herling-Grudziński’s account of his life in the Soviet Gulag, A World Apart. I learned that approx. 6.7 million Poles and Jews were killed in the German camps. Given how little chance of surviving the prisoners had, it is absolutely remarkable that Iskowitz managed to stay alive, keep his faith and passion for art. As soon as he recovered from being hospitalized after the war, he got into the Munich Academy of Fine Arts where he won a scholarship in 1948. MacDonald quotes Kildare Dobbs who said that:

This painter had none of that self-defeating pride that answers evil with silence, as the minstrel boy in the song tore out the strings of his harp that they might not sound in slavery. Iskowitz made himself a witness.

Another remarkable “witness” I discovered through researching Iskowitz was Felix Nussbaum. This talented German Jew from an upper-class family was becoming a rising star in the Berlin art world in the mid 1920s.

In 1933, he was studying under a scholarship in Rome at the Berlin Academy of the Arts when the Nazi Minister of Propaganda came to Rome in April to explain a Nazi artist’s duty to promote heroism and the Aryan race. Nussbaum got expelled from the academy soon after that, and together with his newly married wife Felka Platek (also a painter), spent a decade in exile in Belgium. After Nazi invasion of Belgium in 1940, Nussbaum was arrested by Belgian police as a “hostile alien” German. He was sent to the Saint-Cyprien camp in France where he pleaded to the French camp authorities to be returned to Germany and managed to escape on the train journey from Saint Cyprien to Germany, and join his wife in Brussels. That marked the beginning of  hiding in a shelter and living in fear, a feeling so stunningly captured on his Angst painting (below).

On June 20th 1944, a few months after his parents got killed in Auschwitz, and less than three months before Brussels got liberated, a building where Felix and Felka were hiding got raided. They were found at an attic, sent on a last train to a transition camp and finally to Auschwitz. They were murdered a week after arrival and not long after that, the rest of Nussbaums got executed or died from exhaustion. If the building in Brussels hadn’t been raided, they would have survived the war. Where Iskowitz was lucky to have survived both the camp and being shot, Felix lacked the good fortune — after years of hiding, he got caught. The body of work he produced in these terrifying conditions, existing outside of the society as “blacklisted,”  dependent on friends who risked their life helping him and Felka, is truly astounding, both in terms of their volume and quality. His dedication to the art is impressive too. Every time he went to his studio, which was located in the basement of another building, he risked his life. Finally, his paintings were left with a friend with the following note: “If I disappear, don’t let my paintings die. Show them.”

Looking at his work in relation to his tragic fate is of similar experience like watching John Bergin’s From Inside. I am mesmerized by the beauty of the paintings, disturbed by the foreboding tension and palpable pain they evoke, and deeply distressed that Nussbaum’s life ended so early, in such a tragic way. Looking at them, I can’t help thinking about Bergin’s film and the main character who says: “When the end of the world has come, it’s too late to wonder why.”

Below is an exquisite biographical slideshow of Nussbaum’s works, which provided inspiration and information for my post. It was created and posted on YouTube by someone with a nickname IAMALLOUTOFBUBBLEGUM, featuring soundtrack by Nine Inch Nails and Trent Reznor.

* Images of Nussbaum’s paintings are from the Felix Nussbaum Foundation website.