Unlikely homes: Jing Jin City & Miracle Village

Andi Schmied, "Glass House", 2014 | Sofia Valiente, "Paul", 2013

Andi Schmied, “Glass House”, 2014 | Sofia Valiente, “Paul”, 2013

The Jing Jin City and Miracle Village exhibition, which opens at Daniel Blau gallery in January 2015, is likely to arouse discussions. Very important, and quite possibly very heated discussions. The gallery has invited two very ambitious and courageous artists. Andi Schmied and Sofia Valiente, who were among the winners of 5 Under 30 competition in 2013 and 2014 respectively, are more than just photographers seeking interesting shots. They’re passionate adventurers who collect stories in remote parts of the world and bring them to an audience in the form of skilfully presented photo essays and books.

The exhibition revolves around the idea of home: people who found an unlikely home and houses that are not likely to become homes.

Jing Jin City, which Andi Schmied unofficially inhabited for several weeks, is a satellite city an hour outside of Beijing. The development covers more than 54 square kilometres and boasts 3,000 villas, a five-star hotel, hot springs resort, golf course, museum, temple, two colleges, and entertainment facilities. What it lacks is people—most of the villas are empty.

Miracle Village, on the other hand, lacks any architectural sophistication; the priority here lies in its inhabitants, the majority of which are sex offenders. If it wasn’t for 52 bungalows, set amid vast sugar cane, bean and corn fields in south Florida, these people would have been homeless. According to the Florida legislation, sex offenders are required to live a minimum of 1,000 ft. from any school, bus stop or place where children congregate. In reality, this distance gets increased to 2,500 ft. which makes it extremely hard, if not impossible, to find a place to live. As a result, many of those people end up on the streets, with little chance to re-integrate into society. The village, founded in 2009 by a Christian minister Dick Witherow, seeks to help offenders that have no place to go.

Andi Schmied, “Tile House”, 2014 | © Andi Schmied, Courtesy Daniel Blau

Andi Schmied, “Tile House”, 2014 | © Andi Schmied, Courtesy Daniel Blau

Sofia Valiente, "Paul House", 2013 | © Sofia Valiente, Courtesy Daniel Blau

Sofia Valiente, “Paul’s House”, 2013 | © Sofia Valiente, Courtesy Daniel Blau

Among the Miracle Village residents there are no medically diagnosed paedophiles or convicted child rapists, according to Lisa F. Jackson and David Feige, authors of Sex Offender Village documentary. The range of their crimes varies from serious offenses to consensual teenage relationships with an age gap. Yet to many people, those residents are monsters who should not be provided with a home, and Witherow’s community project is constantly a subject of criticism. The problem lies in the extremely broad definition of the term “sex offence”. Jackson and Feige think that “in the past 25 years, the laws governing sex offences have gone from punitive to draconian to senseless,” and that “our entire approach to dealing with sex offenders has gone tragically off the rails.” Among 747,408 people on the US sex registry (55,000 in Florida alone), there are people who had consensual sex with a younger partner when they were both minors, people convicted of inappropriately touching their siblings, people charged with the possession of child pornography, sometimes accidentally downloaded from the internet like in the case of Ben, No. 405.

Ben aka No. 405, Miracle Village

The Miracle Village book consists of a series of photographic portraits of the community, which are followed by diary-like notes, hand-written by a few inhabitants, all of which have been allocated a number. These intimate confessions, often a little difficult to decipher, bring an even greater human element to these painful stories. | Ben aka No. 405

On Valentine’s Day weekend, I had plans to get together with my girlfriend, however that’s when my life changed forever instead, and not in a good way. On the way to our date, I got pulled over. The cop said there was a warrant out for my arrest, on charges of child pornography possession. (…) It turns out that while I spent a weekend at my girlfriend’s in December, a thunderstorm was overheard outside my house. My roommate, according to his statement to the police, went in my room to turn off the computer. Instead of shutting it down, he was curious to see what I had on there. Apparently, he came across the folder where my porn was downloading to, saw some files which had people in it that were under 18, and called the cops on me, himself. Had my computer been password protected, he would have just shut my computer down, and none of this would have happened. As I’m pretty partial to large breasted porn stars anyway, I’d probably just have deleted the child porn along with the rest of the files I’d have deleted, and never given it a second thought… But I didn’t have my computer password protected, and now I’m a sex offender. Such is life. If the Buddhists are right, and we get reincarnated after we die, maybe in my next life, I’ll have better luck…

The aim of Sofia Valiente’s project was, in her own words, to portray the community’s residents in a way most people have never seen. For her book, published this year by Fabrica, she chose 12 stories of people who ended up sharing the same label as a result of very different circumstances. She doesn’t judge, condemn or defend any of these people. Instead, she invites the viewers to make their own judgement. Her portraits of the offenders and their personal, painful, and brutally honest stories bring back the human element that is missing from the public registry.

David and Matt: "David and I are like two peas in a pod." | © Andi Schmied, Courtesy Daniel Blau

David and Matt: “David and I are like two peas in a pod.” | © Andi Schmied, Courtesy Daniel Blau

Matt aka No. 611, Miracle Village

Matt aka No.611, Miracle Village

It takes a lot of work to adapt to a life with the stigma of the “sex offender” label. It’s a highly restrained life with very specific rules. On top of the distance restriction and publicly visible data, there is curfew, monthly home inspections and reports, prohibition of smartphones and computers, censorship of one’s books and films, random drug tests, GPS monitoring, weekly sex therapy. Gene, No. 404, says: “As a sex offender I cannot trust anyone because maybe someday they could be in a bad mood, tired of dealing with me or just mad. All they have to do is call 911 and say that a sex offender has bothered them and Bang! I am in jail. No questions asked.”

But despite having to carry this punishment throughout their lives, there is surprisingly little resentment and a strong sense of gratitude among the Miracle Village residents. “Honestly I’m the one who says thank you ‘cause being sentenced to prison saved my life from drugs. And I was blessed with a safe place to live and a place where I fit in at,” says David, No. 209. Doug, “The Kid”, No.401, is actually happy in the community: “I like living here. I have a home and a key and real friends that care about me.” Ben, No.405, a food enthusiast, is grateful for sharing his room with an unemployed Italian chef: “I actually eat so good now that I needed to buy all new pants, as my old ones became too tight!”.

Patti Aupperlee, pastor of the First United Methodist Church, talks about the perplexing irrationality of the legislation that makes it impossible for sex offenders to make a new start after having done their prison sentence: “There is no other crime that follows you for the rest of your life. You can kill a person and you get out of prison and you’re done. Our laws are not rational or even meaningful.”

There is a broader problem here, and the paranoia around sex crimes is only the tip of the iceberg. The real problem is the rejection of logical analysis and hypothetical contemplation on difficult and uncomfortable topics. In an article published a few months ago, Are There Emotional No-Go Areas Where Logic Dare Not Show Its Face?, Richard Dawkins described the problem very aptly: “When a show-business personality is convicted of paedophilia, is it right that you actually need courage to say something like this: ‘Did he penetratively rape children or did he just touch them with his hands? The latter is bad but I think the former is worse’? How dare you rank different kinds of paedophilia? They are all equally bad, equally terrible. What are you, some kind of closet paedophile yourself?”

Only last month, the best-selling author John Grisham stirred up a hornet’s nest, when he spoke of the US justice system and over-incarceration in an interview with The Telegraph. “We have prisons now filled with guys my age. Sixty-year-old white men in prison who’ve never harmed anybody, would never touch a child. (…) But they got online one night and started surfing around, probably had too much to drink or whatever, and pushed the wrong buttons, went too far and got into child porn.” Grisham, who has spent a lot of time and money advocating for criminal justice reform and often criticized racially biased drug sentencing laws, became an immediate source of harsh attacks (“Dear FBI,  please visit John Grisham and check his hard drive and brain while you are at it,” wrote M.C Reynolds on Twitter). Again, he didn’t say that child pornography is ok, quite the opposite: “I have no sympathy for real paedophiles. God, please lock those people up.” He merely questioned the disproportionate punishment, given the degree of the crime: “So many of these guys do not deserve harsh prison sentences, and that’s what they’re getting.” Even his later apology did little to calm down the aggravated public. As Richard Dawkins says, “rape and paedophilia had moved out of the discussion zone into a no-go taboo area.” A mere attempt to discuss whether the penalties are justified is unforgivable. Dawkins advocates the freedom to discuss all “spectrums of nastiness, even if only to reject them.” The hypothetical comparison between forms and degrees of a crime is neither its endorsement nor an insult towards the victims.

Contrary to what sceptics say about the Miracle Village, it does not victimise the offenders. Pat Powers, the executive director of Matthew 25 Ministries, who was convicted of sexual contact with 11 minors in the early 1990s, doesn’t deny anyone’s crime. In an interview with Linda Pressly for the BBC he says: “I can see through these guys’ stories. So if we get someone here and they say, ‘I’m not guilty, all I did was look at a picture. I say, no. You’re guilty, period.’ Because the only way you’re going to change is to admit you are wrong.”

In this light, Sofia Valiente’s project has a tremendous value in the sense that it invites us all to brave the taboo areas and talk about these sex offenders as individuals who made bad choices in the past, as opposed to some mass evil. “They would be lepers in society. Here, they’re not lepers,” she told Josh Sanburn from Time magazine. The assumption that someone who hasn’t been medically diagnosed as a paedophile or a psychopath will most certainly harm others again, if only given a chance, and therefore should carry the “sex offender” stigma until the end of his life, does nobody any good. Especially when you look at the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s statistics which demonstrate that no sex crime has been reported in Miracle Village since it was founded.

Thanks to Matthew 25 Ministries initiative, 107 sex offenders have a place where they can feel human. There is hope that thanks to Sofia’s project people will begin regarding them as humans too.

While Miracle Village remains the desired home for many more sex offenders than it can accommodate, Jing Jin City, explored in Andi Schmied’s project, attracts a very small number of people. According to Guo Huaxu, one of the few residents at Jing Jin City, at any given time less than 20 out of 400 villas are occupied. The 800-room Hyatt Regency hotel has no more than 100-200 guests and a dozen or so staff. Most of the villas have been bought as an investment, for retirement or holiday use. But with very few amenities, and a long commute to Beijing and Tianjin, Jing Jin City isn’t an attractive place to live for anyone regardless of their age.

Jing Jing City catalogue

“In the super garden with the area of thousand square meters, I can live up to my ideal life” (from Jing Jin City catalogue)

The project was built by Hopson Development, the Hong Kong-listed developer, in collaboration with Tianjin’s Baodi district government for a sum of 20 billion yuan (over 2 billion pounds), according to Time Weekly. Zhao Yuting, Hopson’s regional general manager, says that it was much more than just a housing project: “We are not just building houses, but a city instead. It’s not that we can create a city within 10 years”.

Just like Sofia’s documentation of the Miracle Village remains impartial, Andi Schmied’s project isn’t criticising the Hopson Development’s unsuccessful endeavour either. Her interventions are merely a “response to the current state of these empty buildings that populate this utopian resort. (…) Constructing Nothing emphasizes the Sisyphean nature of their labours.” The “strange stillness” of the city is most visible in the winter time, “when temperatures plunge, transforming the river moats surrounding the gated communities into frozen roads – giving us access to the empty properties.”

Jing Jin City (Volume I), a  publication which accompanies the exhibition, consists of five space interventions into the emptiness of the Jing Jin City buildings. Andi inhabited the place and created installations with materials she found lying around in the houses, abandoned and unused. The Wall House, located on one of the most luxurious parts of the island, was full of concrete blocks. The Tile House had four stacks of concrete tiles waiting to be assembled into a floor. In the Glass House, empty window frames were waiting for the glass to be put in, and the Grass House had an overgrowing garden which had just been cut and was waiting to be cleared. The fifth space, Curtain House, got decorated with curtains of a different colour for each room.

Andi Schmied, "Glass House, 2014 | © Andi Schmied, Courtesy Daniel Blau

Andi Schmied, “Glass House”, 2014 | © Andi Schmied, Courtesy Daniel Blau

There isn’t a defined purpose to these constructions. As Andi says, they are “a trace that may or may not be legible to future visitors. A guard, a gardener, an estate agent, or an investor might enter the interior. To them, we will be anonymous and our role as authors will be unknown. For them, the construction will be a manifestation of a place whose reason for existence is unclear.”

Perhaps the absurdity and futility of ghost cities like Jing Jin, where guards go to sleep in the empty houses they are meant to guard and sheep graze corn on the balconies of luxurious bedrooms, mirrors the futility of heated debates between people who condemn the project. It is easy to juxtapose 400 empty villas with the problem of homelessness and shortage of housing in overpopulated areas, and chastise the existence of Jing Jin City since there are people with no place to live. But one should not forget that a building, no matter how big and fancy, won’t be inhabitable for a vast majority of people unless is surrounded by good infrastructure. “Compared with thriving districts in China’s great cities, these lifeless urban areas had no established industries, and people were unwilling to move there given the lack of job opportunities and poor infrastructure,” says Many Zuo in an article for South China Morning Post. In that light, the only upsetting element is that the development was partially subsidised by the district government, so effectively Chinese citizens helped fund a project that doesn’t benefit them. If this involved private money only, then aside from a general waste of resources, it would be the investor’s loss.

But then again, if one digs deeper, more questions and dilemmas arise. Questions about the disproportions in wealth between different society groups, which manifest themselves in the fact that while one family can barely afford a small suburban flat, another will own a villa in the city centre and three summer houses. A quick read through internet forums shows that a great number of people would want the wealthy owners to pay extra high taxes or have their houses repossessed if it’s not used for more than 6 months. But without a deep understanding of economics, one should be careful in these speculations, as we can see by looking at examples from other countries. A large portion of older properties in Portugal are derelict, and therefore unoccupied, because rent controls prevented the landlords from ever increasing their charges. Trevor Abrahmsohn, an estate agent specialising in the famous Bishops Avenue aka “Billionaires Row” in London with several empty mansions, says that the way to tackle housing shortage is by making changes to the planning system, not by imposing control over private properties: “One of the things people love about this country is its freedom and liberal views. You can’t start affecting what people do with their assets.”

Both Sofia’s and Andi’s projects are likely to inspire difficult debates. Although the Miracle Village happens to expose very specific problems of current legislations, both projects are successful at addressing a very important issue: humans as individuals and humans as communities. Sex offenders suffer from being treated as a group of identical elements. Jing Jin City, created with wealthy individuals in mind, suffers from lack of understanding about developing communities: a city won’t be built around a few individuals. Understanding the mechanism behind the unsuccessful development in China and a faulty legislation in Florida is a step towards a greater understanding of humanity.

Black Dogs, Storms & Rhapsodies

Virginia Woolf by George Charles Beresford (public domain)

Virginia Woolf by George Charles Beresford (public domain)

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

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

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

Dearest,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Red Knight from the Fisher King, movie still

The Red Knight from the Fisher King, movie still

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sir Winston Churchill (public domain)

Sir Winston Churchill (public domain)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jean Paul Gaultier & Different Kinds of Beauty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rossy de Palma | screenshot from “Christian Louboutin: 20 Ans” film www.christianlouboutin.com

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

Stacey McKenzie in conversation with Tracy Moore on Cityline

Stacey McKenzie in conversation with Tracy Moore on Cityline

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making Colours & “Noncolours”

Edouard Manet: Blue Venice (1875)

Edouard Manet: Blue Venice (1875)

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

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

Lapis lazuli

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pierre Soulages: Peinture (2011)

Pierre Soulages: Peinture (2011)
Image from www.pierre-soulages.com (Fair Use) © Archives Soulages

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

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

Robert Ryman: Ledger (1982)

Robert Ryman: Ledger (1982) © Robert Ryman
Image from www.tate.org.uk (Fair Use)

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

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

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.

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

Photo of a diary from The Great Diary Project exhibition

Photo of a diary from The Great Diary Project exhibition

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

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

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

Facebook status

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

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

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

Anais in Paris by Mardou

Anais in Paris by Mardou

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

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

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

The Diary of Frida Kahlo

The Diary of Frida Kahlo | Image from Limitless Mindgames

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

From my diary

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

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

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

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

Daily log

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

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

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

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

Photo of a diary from The Great Diary Project exhibition

Photo of a diary from The Great Diary Project exhibition

Painting with Scissors: Matisse at the Tate

Henri Matisse Cut-Outs at Tate Modern

On Easter Sunday, my boyfriend and I decided to brave the atrocious weather and go to Tate Modern to see the newly opened Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs exhibition. On this particularly cold, grey, and gloomy Sunday afternoon, we looked forward to seeing the late works of an artist known as the “wild beast” of colour.

I’ve seen Matisse’s paintings at various exhibition but I wasn’t familiar with that chapter of his life, begun in the late 30s, not long before the artist got diagnosed with bowel cancer at the age of 71 and was unable to paint. During those 17 years, he devoted himself to creating work with gouache-painted paper and scissors, and a significant help from his model-assistants, notably the strikingly beautiful Lydia Delectorskaya. There is a charming video, showing Matisse on a wheelchair who, like a conductor directing the orchestra with his baton, used a long pole to direct his assistants where to position the sheets and hammer them onto the walls with panel pins. His works, initially developed as a working method for exploring alternative compositions and colour arrangements, became artworks in their own right. They would gradually become larger and larger, going beyond the limitations of the page or other surface they were mounted on, into the space, both in his house (during the early 1950s, they covered most available walls of his home) and in public buildings. An example of the latter was the Dominican Chapel of the Rosary in Vence, where Matisse designed stained glass windows and chasuble robes for the priest.

Henri Matisse: Chasuble 1950-52

Henri Matisse: Chasuble 1950-52 | Image from Centre Pompidou © Succession H. Matisse

In the booklet accompanying the exhibition, we can read that: “In order to understand the relationship between the different elements he was designing, he turned his entire studio – and later his bedroom – into a kind of replica chapel so he was immersed in it all the time.” He was very clearly incredibly dedicated to the process, altering the pinned compositions several times before he was satisfied with the result. In one of the pieces, conservation scientists have discovered 1000 pin pricks, which shows how obsessed the artist was with the right arrangement.

Apart from the Dominican Chapel designs, there were a few things I really liked at the exhibition. One of them was Matisse’s designs for an artist’s book called Jazz – a title which wasn’t really related to the subject but which emphasised the improvisational character of the works. His role was initially to illustrate the poems, but the publisher chose the hand-written notes Matisse was making as he was developing the cut-outs, written in oversized cursive script, “full of the arabesques Matisse so loved,” as we can read in an excellent essay from the Greg Kucera Gallery. According to the essay, Matisse viewed jazz as “chromatic and rhythmic improvisation” and later described it as “Jazz is rhythm and meaning.” It is a shame that although all the text is displayed at the exhibition, it is not translated into English. I managed to find the artist’s introduction to the book, together with some photos on the Cargo Collective website, but no individual notes.

After having written “he who wants to devote himself to painting must begin by cutting out his tongue,” why do I feel the need to use other media than my usual ones? This time I’d like to introduce my color prints under the most favorable of conditions. For this reason I must separate them by intervals of a different character. I decided that handwriting was best suited for this purpose. The exceptional size of the writing seems necessary to me in order to be in a decorative relationship with the character of the color prints. These pages, therefore, will serve only to accompany my colors, just as asters help in the composition of a bouquet of more important flowers. Thus, their role is purely visual. What can I write? I cannot very well fill these pages with the fables of La Fontaine, as I used to do as a law clerk when writing “engrossed decisions” which no one reads, not even the judge, and which are only made to use up a certain amount of official paper in accordance with the importance of the trial. All that I really have to recount are observations and notes made during the course of my life as a painter. I ask of those who will have the patience to read these notes the indulgence usually granted to the writings of painters.

Henri Matisse: Notes from the illustrated book "Jazz"

Henri Matisse: Notes from the illustrated book “Jazz” | Image from Cargo Collective

I thought that these lovely cut-outs really benefited from being printed using a stencil method, where the Linel gouache was painted through stencils cut by hand from thin sheets of metal, which nicely smoothed them out, disguising the imperfections and drawing attention to the composition and colours. I must say that like with Hannah Höch’s works, I find the stains, charcoal marks, and rough edges distracting, though I am aware of the limited capabilities of the painter at that stage to be accurate and I believe it was never his intention. Matisse was actually quite disappointed with the printing, claiming that it removed the sensitivity of the surfaces.

Henri Matisse: The Horse, the Rider, and the Clown 1943-4 from the illustrated book “Jazz”

Henri Matisse: The Horse, the Rider, and the Clown 1943-4 from the illustrated book “Jazz” | Image by Centre Pompidou © Succession Henri Matisse

Another thing I quite liked were the Blue Nudes, outlines of female figures with contours carved into them, for I am generally more interested in figuration than flowery shapes. For the same reason I enjoyed Zulma, an image of a figure leaning on a table, which was apparently “widely praised for its radical approach,” as the booklet says.

Henri Matisse: Blue Nude II 1952

Henri Matisse: Blue Nude II 1952 | Image from Centre Pompidou © Succession H. Matisse

But in general, I cannot say that I found the exhibition as fascinating as most of the reviewers (Richard Dorment from The Telegraph claims it will be among the most popular ever staged in this country.) Colourful and pleasant to look at – yes. The explosions of vivid yellows, pinks, blues, violets, magentas, and greens were certainly enjoyable to look at on a bleak day like yesterday. But I must say that the ever-present sea-plant shapes became at some point repetitive and boring. I like Matisse’s paintings and I can definitely see the decorative value of his cut-outs as well as their innovate character at the time. But personally, I can see neither progression in their development, nor depth. For me, the most touching element of the exhibition was the documentation of the process – a testimony to passion and ambition which conquer the frailty and limitations of the body, and give an artist a raison d’être. In 1942, after a serious operation related to the intestinal cancer, Matisse said to to his friend Albert Marquet: “Truly, I’m not joking when I thank my lucky stars for the awful operation I had, since it has made me young again and philosophical which means that I don’t want to fritter away the new lease on life I’ve been given.” Despite gallstones, liver problems, deteriorating vision and insomnia, he retained his desire to create. Unable to leave his house, Matisse turned it into a three-dimensional canvas for anything he wanted to see: “Space has the boundaries of my imagination,” he said. I salute that optimism.

Ruin Lust or Ruin Lost Opportunity

Derelict building in Crimea, private collection

I was very thrilled when a few weeks ago I saw the announcement of the Ruin Lust exhibition at Tate Britain for I do have a penchant for images of decay and destruction. The exhibition, which includes over 100 works by both past and present artists, was promising a journey through “mournful, thrilling, comic and perverse uses of ruins in art from the seventeenth century to the present day.” An ambitious promise, and, as it turned out, unfulfilled.

Gustave Doré - The New Zealander, 1872

The exhibition opens with The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum, a fantastic painting by John Martin (who I am particularly sentimental about, as it was at the John Martin: Apocalypse exhibition at the very same gallery a few years ago that I met my boyfriend.) But besides that one, there are only a handful of images I found myself engaged with: a couple of Piranesi’s engravings of Rome, one outstanding Doré – The New Zealander (above), James Boswell’s beautiful lithographs from 1933 describing The Fall of London; Muirhead Bone’s Torpedoed Oil Tanker (below), and Graham Sutherland’s Devastation, 1941: East End, Burnt Paper Warehouse 1. A very interesting image is An imagined view of the Bank of England in ruins by Joseph Michael Gandy (architect Sir John Soane’s draughtsman, called “the English Piranesi”.) A few years ago at Sir John Soane’s Museum (one of my favourite places in London, by the way) there was an exhibition dedicated to the works of “Soane’s Magician” and the fascinating relationship between those two idealists. As we read on the website, Gandy “understood Soane’s dreams – and demons – better than any contemporary. He juxtaposed the fantasies of his master’s youth with the realities of his later life; he compared the greatness of Rome with the littleness of modern London; understanding Soane’s preoccupation with posterity he showed him how his masterpieces would look as ruins of the future. But despite the enormous talent, his uncompromising attitude prevented Gandy from establishing his own career as an architect and he ended up in a lunatic asylum in 1843. As for the Bank of England, it got demolished in what famous scholar of the history of art, Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, described as “the greatest architectural crime, in the City of London, of the twentieth century.

Sir Muirhead Bone - Torpedoed Oil Tanker 1940, 1876-1953 (Photograph: Tate)

Joseph Michael Gandy - An imagined view of the Bank of England in ruins, 1830

My main criticism of the exhibition is precisely the choice of the works. I would love to have seen more of Gandy’s works, as well as more of John Martin, more of Piranesi, and more of Doré. Or, as a matter of fact, more paintings, drawings, sculptures and other forms and media. Yet, the majority of the exhibited works are photographs, and while some of them are strong and thought-provoking (notably works by Jane and Louise Wilson and Rachel Whiteread), there are quite a few images which are neither particularly related to the theme, nor representing a significant quality. Paul Graham’s Troubled series consists of large scale uninteresting photographic depictions of roads with a bit of graffiti on them which could easily be part of the Boring Postcards book published by Phaidon in 2000. The same goes for Paul Nash’s black-and-white, “pseudo-Surreal as Cooke calls them, photographs of Swanage in Dorset. Considering how many amazing photographs of decaying industrial landscapes I have seen, not only in books and galleries but on personal blogs and Flickr sites, these works seem to me completely out of place. An equally disappointing exhibit are Tacita Dean’s works – stunning found images totally ruined by the artist’s nonsense notes scribbled on top of them.

I left the exhibition rather unimpressed, if a little sad, and I agree with how Alaistair Sooke from the Telegraph described it: “more of an essay than an exhibition, let down by the quality of the works of art chosen to illustrate its argument.  I usually find Tate Britain exhibitions interesting and inspiring whereas on this occasion I felt let down by the three curators responsible for his show. I am coming to a conclusion that this is often the case with themed exhibitions as opposed to, for example, retrospectives. You really can’t go wrong if you put on a Francis Bacon show as the works themselves are incredibly strong and won’t fail to impress even if shown in a questionable arrangement. But what often happens with themes is that some works which fit into the theme very well are actually not very interesting, while those loosely related to the theme are being artificially linked with the others. As a result, the viewer feels confused and unsatisfied. A couple of paragraphs of clever writing with sophisticated words on the wall doesn’t help to make the exhibition more coherent. At the Ruin Lust exhibition, Room 6 is dedicated to the concept of “ruins in reverse”, conjured by artist Robert Smithson in 1967, according to which “modern architecture and infrastructure seemed not to fall into disuse but to rise into ruin.” To illustrate this concept they have used Gerard Byrne’s photographs which appear to have been taken in the 1960s. For the life of me, I cannot understand Smithson’s concept and how Byrne falls into that.

And yet ruins is a wonderful theme, which could be explored and presented in a much more engaging way. Instead of showing building surfaces “ruined” by graffiti, why not investigate the ruins of the 20th century? The subject of world war I and II is only briefly touched on here – “the conflicts of the 20th century brought destruction on such a scale that it seemed the picturesque idea of ruin might prove inadequate to describe the resulting wreckage,” we can read in the little booklet. Being Polish, I can’t help thinking of Warsaw, 80% of which got completely destroyed during the Second World War and so my parents’ generation grew up on its ruins.

There are two very interesting films that have been made in the recent years about Warsaw from that time. The City of Ruins (2010) created by Damian Nenow in 3ds Max depicts a flyover of the Liberator airplane over the razed and depopulated city of Warsaw. This very first digital stereoscopic reconstruction of a city destroyed during WWII is a tragic portrait of the enormous destruction which followed after the 1944 Warsaw Uprising.

The second film, Warsaw 1935 (2013), by Tomasz Gomoła, is a 3D reconstruction of the historical, original architecture of pre-war Warsaw which at the time was one of the most modern cities in Europe, called “Paris of the North”. Due to the dramatic events during the Second World War the city almost ceased to exist. The new Warsaw, which many Poles find ugly, was erected on the ruins under the socialist government, amidst conflicts, poverty, and tragic memories. “Today nobody is able to imagine what an impressive and inspirational city it used to be,” we can read on the Warsaw 1935 website, which is why this short film (the production of which took four years), is so valuable.

When I visit some of the areas in Warsaw where buildings look as if the time had stopped in 1945, the ruin lust turns into ruin lamentation. As much as I admire ruins on John Martin’s paintings of epic biblical disasters, seeing Warsaw tenements with staircases perforated by Nazi bullets, I cannot separate the aesthetics, however enticing, from their roots. After all, this is my country, and I’ve been affected by its history.

Praga district in Warsaw, private collection

Praga district in Warsaw, photo by Michael Jardine

I feel similarly nostalgic whenever I pass the Battersea Power Station, built in the 1930s, which ceased to work in 1983, and has remained unused ever since. Various redevelopment plans have been made and failed, and the building, whose condition has been described as “very bad” by English Heritage, kept being passed from one owner to another until 2011, when a new redevelopment plan to build residential apartments gained planning consent from Wandsworth Council. This poses a question about the place of ruins in a modern city – should this stunning Art Deco industrial building be permitted to decay, or to be changed into something that will inevitably – pun unintended – ruin its character?

Battersea Power Station, private collection

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.

In awe of flesh & bone

Some time ago, my partner Colin asked me why I hadn’t yet written a post about Francis Bacon. Not only is he my favourite painter, but I know quite a lot about him thanks to spending a year and half of my Masters degree studying his life and work, and devoting my MA project to him. I said to Colin that writing about Bacon would be like writing another biography, and that would most certainly make me give up everything else that I am doing. Where would I start? His upbringing in Ireland by an ex-military father Captain Bacon and a quiet housewife Winnie? Relationships with his father, mother, friends, three long-term partners two of whom died tragically; gallery agents, and his nanny with whom he lived until the age of 42 and who slept during the day on the kitchen table? Exhibitions in the UK and abroad? Travelling to Africa to paint and ending up slashing all of the paintings? Visits to the Colony Room, French House, Wheeler’s, Gargoyle, Ritz, casinos, as well as seedy East End pubs? Moving houses, buying houses (Reece Mews, Narrow Street, Marais in Paris); short periods of living in the country? His one-of-a-kind flat with a cooker in the bathroom and an incredible studio which in 1998 got removed  from 7 Reece Mews and recreated at the Dublin City Gallery The High Lane? Six days of intensive care at the Clinica Rubber in Madrid where he died at 8.30am on April 28th 1992?

No, I wouldn’t know where to start and how to do it. But here came an opportunity to write something about Bacon without burying myself in books and articles for a year. An opportunity to write about a few paintings, juxtaposed with the work of another giant, Henry Moore, thanks to a fantastic exhibition at The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archeology in Oxford.

What did the two artists have in common? Henry Moore drew while Bacon was highly keen on sculpture and adding three dimensionality to his paintings. He once approached Moore to ask about sculpting lessons, and he was very much interested in Giacometti, whom he met in person at a cafe in Paris in the 50s. He admired Giacometti’s obsession with the figure and his “monklike devotion to the demands of his artistic vision,” as Michael Peppiatt (the author of Francis Bacon: Anatomy of the Enigma) beautifully phrased it, when the whole world turned into abstract art and only a few pursued the path of figuration. Bacon was deeply inspired by the Swiss sculptor, from whom he borrowed the cage-like structures which he incorporated into many of his paintings. An example of this is the Three Studies of Lucien Freud from 1969, which recently sold for $142.4 million—the highest price attained at auction for a work of art when not factoring in inflation, according to Wikipedia.

There are other similarities between Bacon and Moore, and many reviewers tend to emphasise the fact that both of them experienced the war which influenced the subject of their post-war art. I dare say that Bacon’s dissections of the body have more to do with his passion for the flesh and the gruesome, and his interest in pain in general rather than with specifically portraying the tragedy of the war (like Picasso did in Guernica) but surely the proximity of death must have fuelled both artists’ imagery. Moore experienced both wars: he was the youngest man in the Prince of Wales’s Own Civil Service Rifles regiment, and was injured in 1917 in a gas attack during the Battle of Cambrai. During the Second World War, he was working as a war artist, drawing Londoners sleeping in the London Underground while sheltering from the Blitz. As for Bacon, he was pronounced unfit for active service due to asthma and instead did voluntary work in Air Raid Precautions, which included fire-fighting, civilian rescue and the recovery of the dead. After his death, one of the obituaries mentioned his contribution to Civil Defence also as an ambulance driver (!), as Daniel Farson recalls in his fantastic book The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon. He resigned in 1942 though, as the asthma worsened rapidly. It is interesting that asthma not only spared him the danger of active service but also influenced him as an artist. “If I hadn’t been asthmatic, I might have never gone on painting at all”, he once said; the morphine he took as a child to treat the allergy resulted in intense images in his dreams, which he had for the rest of his life.

Bacon and Moore were both represented by the Marlborough Gallery and exhibited there together in 1963. Bacon signed a contract with the gallery in October 1958 after its director, Frank Lloyd, had offered to pay the debt of £1,242 which he owed to the Hanover Gallery, and so the artist began a 34-year long professional relationship with Valerie Beston, referred to as “Miss B”. However, at various points he seriously considered breaking out and switching to another gallery, notably to the Pace Gallery in New York. Michael Peppiatt says in his book Francis Bacon: Anatomy of the Enigma that Bacon was very valuable to the Marlborough as he accepted relatively modest amounts for paintings which would sell for far higher prices. Peppiatt quotes Frank Lloyd who said: “I collect money, not art and Bacon himself who believed that all art dealers are dishonest and so “You might as well have a successful crook representing you than an unsuccessful one.”

The exhibition at the Ashmolean consists of only three rooms but the intensity of work is enormous; I spent 2.5 hours worshipping the paintings, and analysing the way the paint had been applied to the canvas, the extraordinary juxtapositions of colours, and compositions. The first room opens with a feast: on top of Bacon and Moore, we have Michelangelo’s drawings and Rodin’s sculptures. There is a wonderful portrait of Henrietta Moraes from 1963 in there, shown right next to Moore’s Falling Warrior. Henrietta was a friend (today we would call her a groupie) and a long-term model, who, as we read in Peppiatt’s book, gained Bacon’s sympathy thanks to her “vitality, her bursts of unconstrained laugher and her equally unconstrained behaviour.” She is depicted on a bed set against a shocking pink wall. Moraes had a famous photo shoot with the “horrible little man“, photographer John Deakin, whose police mug-like shots were often used by Bacon as inspirations for his paintings. Deakin insisted she kept her legs open and began taking photos “from the wrong end”, which were of no use to Bacon but brought Deakin some much needed cash when he cheekily sold them to a bunch of sailors in Soho for ten shillings each.

My favourite room was the second one, entitled “Monumental Forms” with several large paintings by Bacon, including the phenomenal Second Version of Triptych 1944 (1988), juxtaposed with Moore’s sculptural triptych: Upright Motives (1955) and three Crucifixion drawings (1982). The Upright Motives are 11ft-high, totem pole-like and built from near-toppling hard/soft forms, the central one suggesting a body merged with a cross. The darkness of their monumental form is contrasted with the vivid red of Bacon’s triptych. It is interesting that the original triptych from 1944: Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (which sadly couldn’t be lent by Tate Britain due to conservation issues) is usually given a lot more attention than its 1988 version. I personally prefer the later version — it has more misery and less anger than the orange triptych, and somehow feels more powerful to me; not to mention its very well thought-through composition, with a horizontal line going across all three pictures.

The last room contains smaller works, among which are Bacon’s portraits. One of them is Study for a Portrait III (After the Life Mask of William Blake), which is part of a series of heads. The idea came from composer Gerard Schurmann, who had created several pieces in response to Blake’s poems and asked Bacon to design a cover image for his song cycle. Admiring Blake’s poetry and detesting his paintings, Bacon was sufficiently excited about the project and happily went with Schurmann to the National Gallery to take photos of the plaster cast by J. S. Deville. All the heads he painted in 1955 are set on a black background, which emphasises the bleakness of the subject. I cannot help but admire the selectiveness of means Bacon used, and what powerful effect he has achieved.

I am aware of my bias and devotion to Bacon and I do understand people who say “I can’t look at Bacon’s paintings, they’re too dark/scary/sad for me.” I understand and respect that because yes, they are lugubrious and foreboding. But from a strictly technical point of view, Bacon was a very fine painter. Without formal art education, he used colours faultlessly, juxtaposing them so that they complemented each other, and vibrated on the unprimed canvas to the point of interfering with one’s perception. When painting portraits, he was able to contort the face mercilessly and still achieve an unmistakeable resemblance and depict the characters (Isabella Rawsthorne, Bacon’s close friend, model and, as Peppiatt calls her, “his ally”, stressed how “fabulously accurate they were.”) Even when distorting the body, he would still demonstrate his fine knowledge of anatomy.

In terms of the themes of his paintings, I can’t agree more with Michael Peppiatt who says:

For most of his life, Bacon’s art was regarded as indissolubly linked to “horror”. In retrospect that can be seen as a reaction to the powerfully transmitted struggle, so characteristic of his paintings, to convey new insights into the human condition. As we move further into another troubled century, Bacon’s vision seems less and less concerned with violence and horror, and increasingly with a passionate penetrating search for truth — about what we really are and how we feel in our modern frailty and confusion. The ‘shock’ his paintings created came as a result of their capacity to confront afresh the eternal questions about existence head on.

Ultimately, art either speaks to us or not. Prior to this exhibition, I didn’t think that Moore’s works made that much of an impression on me, despite seeing his retrospective at Tate in 2010. Seeing them here, right next to Bacon’s monstrous images, they gained a whole new dimensions for me. I am unsure why Alastair Smart from The Telegraph is marking the exhibition down on the basis that it creates a competition between the artists with Moore loosing “the shouting match emphatically.” Despite the parallels, Moore’s approach and style are very different than Bacon’s. I adore his drawings (which is something Bacon never did) and his use of mixed media (wax crayons, watercolours, charcoal, pencil and ink) to “sculpt” the flesh on paper, like in the Shelter Drawing: Three Fates from 1941.

Looking at Moore’s work, I remembered a film I saw a long time ago, The Object of Beauty by Michael Lindsay-Hogg from 1991. The narrative revolves around a theft of a small sculpture by Moore, owned by a rich couple, Jake and Tina. When the sculpture finally gets returned by a deaf housekeeper Jenny, the woman, mortified about her act, explains that she took it because the sculpture… spoke to her.

Art was for both Bacon and Moore a form of religion, which probably explains why their work can speak to the soul of people in an almost transcendental way. I don’t worship any gods — but I do worship Bacon.