Monday, 8 January 2018

Van Gogh and the Seasons



Ironically, after returning from Europe and seeing the Van Gogh collection in Paris and Amsterdam, the National Gallery of Victoria decided that their next winter exhibition would be on Van Gogh. Well, I guess you can't get too much of Van Gogh (even though I have already written two posts on the guy). So, even though I had seem a number of his works (though I have yet to see Starry Night, which I believe is in New York), I decided that it wouldn't hurt to go and see another exhibition.

Well, it turned out that I wasn't the only one who had that idea, though I probably shouldn't be all that surprised when it comes to Van Gogh. Also, since it was on a weekend it was also going to be quite problematic. Unfortunately the short amount of time that I have for lunch wouldn't accommodate the tram ride to the museum, a quiet flutter through the exhibition, and back to work (and I suspect that the quick flutter would have been something like five or ten minutes). So, I suspect I spent something like an hour in line, and when we actually got into the exhibition we were jostling through hundreds of people. Still, I was able to experience the exhibition.

Basically, as the name suggests, the exhibition is about the seasons. However, the concept of the season is more than simply the seasons of the year - it can also reflect the seasons of one's life. When he was in the Hague, Van Goth explored the idea of the seasons of life through a series of works, particularly looking at the common man. This was something that he would take through his own life, and develop as his art developed.

The Engravings

I would say that the exhibition opened with the engravings, but with most of these exhibitions it opened with Van Gogh's life. Well, I have already written on his life, and his madness, so I won't repeat myself here. Anyway, the exhibition basically breezed through that as well, though most of the people who came to the exhibition probably know little about Van Gogh's life other than the fact that he was a painter, he cut off his ear, and that he wore a straw hat (oh, and had a beard).


However, once I had passed that brief introduction (and basically skipped the introduction video), I came to the first part of the exhibition - the engravings. During his time in the Hague, and earlier, Van Gogh would collect images and engravings that inspired him, and hang them on the walls of his studio. These he would reflect upon as he developed his art. In fact his art tended to move with his own mental state at the time, meaning that during his religious youth his art would have a distinct religious flavour.

Anyway, a number of these engravings were on display - it should be noted that that these are actually prints, and not the original engraving. Engravings were a method of mass producing art, and these were only copies as opposed to the original. Sticking with the theme of the seasons, each of these engravings represented one of the seasons (though there were quite a few of these engravings on display).


This is The Sower by Clement Bellenger. The sowing season begins around April, at a time when the weather conditions are ripe for crops. During winter it is obviously not a good time to have seeds in the ground as it tends to be covered in snow, so this was set during the spring, after the frost has finally dried and the rains are started to appear. No doubt the seasons are different in other places where it doesn't snow (such as Southern Europe and Australia).

This engraving is called 'A Winter's Morning' by Edward Duncan. While the image is black and white, it still portrays the bleak and dreary nature of a European winter. The sheep are huddled together for warmth, and the trees are bare. The sky is also quite bleak and cloudy, and smoke plumes rise from the huts in the distance. This is the life of those who are on the land.


Another engraving by Edward Bellenger, this one is called The Potato Harvest. Notice how we aren't looking at the aristocracy or the wealthy middle class, but peasant women performing backbreaking work. The artists of this time are reminding us of the people who work hours on end simply to put food on our table - their roles are just as important as those of us who sit behind desks, and in a way more so, yet they don't seem to be appreciated as much. It makes me think of some of our prayers where we thank God for the food on our table as if it magically appeared there, and pay little head to the farmers to spend their lives making sure that we are fed.


This is called Thrashing by Charles Emile Jacque. Like the others we once again see peasants hard a work creating the bread that will sooner or later appear on our tables. Okay, things aren't done this way anymore, but this is something that many of the modern artists were exploring - the hidden people that exist behind our comfortable lives. In many ways this type of work is viewed as being unskilled, manual labour that anybody can do, yet it is work that is back breaking and incredibly tiring. The artist no doubt were paying homage to these ordinary people.

Japanese Prints

When Van Gogh arrived in Antwerp he discovered the beauty of Japanese art. In fact the docks of Antwerp were swarming with examples of Japanese woodblock prints. Japanism, as it was called, was very popular among the artist world at the time, and it was something that would influence Van Gogh for the rest of his life. When he moved to Paris he began to look around him through the eyes of the Japanese artists, and upon leaving Paris for the country, he began to view colour differently. In a way, it was the works of the Japanese artists that had the greatest influence on Van Gogh' work, and he even collected up to 500 Japanese engravings, which are now on display in the museum in Amsterdam.


This piece is by the Japanese artist Hiroshige and is called Mount Fuji from the Fields. The following pieces are examples of the Japanese art that inspired Van Gogh, and are all on display at the National Gallery of Victoria. Notice the vivid colours of this piece, and the flowers almost taking our eyes off Mount Fuji in the distance.


This work is called Washing by the River which is also by Hiroshige. Since the exhibition was about the seasons, the Japanese collection was also divided into seasons. This artwork was painted during the autumn, and like the engravings, shows ordinary people going about their daily business. Once again it also shows the difficulties of the period since they did not have modern conveniences such as washing machines.


Another work by Hiroshige, this one called Gion Shrine in the Snow. No doubt this work represents winter, and here we have the women scurrying about as the snow falls and the cold begins to bite. While I'm not all that knowledgeable with Japanese culture, it certainly seems as if these women are not dressed for the snow. However, even though the snow covers everything, the colours still stand out, particularly of the woman's clothes. Even in the heart of winter is colour still noticeable.


Well, I probably shouldn't be surprised that even in Japan during the heat of summer we will find people down at the beach, and even swimming in the ocean, as this work by Hiroshige called Seven Mile Beach shows. Actually, I assumed (quite wrongly obviously) that the tradition of going to the beach and going for a swim was only something that us moderns did, but it seems that people have been looking for ways to cool off for centuries. However, it is noticeable that the people in this work do seem to be of the upper classes.


So we now return to autumn with Eisen's Plum Garden in Edo. The seasons change, but in a way they always go in a cycle. The heat of the summer has gone, and people are now preparing for the winter. The trees have lost their leaves, and everybody is hurrying about making sure they are stocked up. The wind is beginning to bite, and once again we are back to where we started.

Autumn

Van Gogh's favourite season was said to have been autumn, no doubt because of all the bright colours in the trees and the that leaves slowly fall in preparation for winter. However, even though he may have preferred autumn, he found beauty in all of the seasons. Yet, whenever autumn approached, Van Gogh would get excited at the arrival of the vivid colours. He noted that while the old masters seemed to ignore autumn, many of his contemporaries indulged in its beauty. During this time Van Gogh would wander through the tree lined streets, and many of his paintings, particularly the still lifes, would reflect the fruit of the harvest. As such the NGV decided to begin their exhibition of Van Gogh's art during the autumn.


This is one of Van Gogh's earlier works called 'A Shepherd and his Flock'. He would spend time wandering through the country and took particular interest in the people around there. Once again we have the forgotten people being brought to life through the art of Van Gogh. The painting not only represents the Autumn, but also the hard working tendency of the Dutch people. Yet the darker and gloomier nature of this work is in contrast to many of Van Gogh's later works. Van Gogh has intended to send a batch of these paintings to Paris, yet his brother Theo believed that due to their dark colours they would be hard to sell.


As we are aware, Van Gogh first traveled to Antwerp to study art but the lure of Paris soon caught him (as it does many of us) and he found himself down in the artist's colony of Montmatre. Well, despite it's bohemian nature even back then it was still a drawcard for the tourists. The above painting is called 'Terrace Cafe on Montmatre' and is reflective of his changing style, but at a time where he had resisted the lure of taking on the mantle of the impressionists


Thus we now come to some classic Van Gogh with a painting called 'Pine Trees at Sunset'. This was painted during his time at the asylum in St Remy, and was painted six months before his death. Van Gogh had a special fascination with pine trees, seeking to capture their spiritual and anthropomorphic nature. The trees that had been battered by the Autumn winds, no doubt a reflective of his state at the time, a man who had also been battered by the harsh winds of life, and looking as if winter was closing in ever more.

Winter

Winter is generally considered to be harsh and inhospitable, and in many cases is portrayed as such (though not always, as was the case of the painting where Schedlt froze over and children were skating on the ice). Yet Van Gogh never saw such things as cut and dry - there were layers to the seasons, even seasons as harsh as the winter. In a way the winter represented a world asleep, blanketed by snow, with the promise of a new dawn, and new life just around the corner. In a way it is a part of the cycle, a cycle that constantly renews itself.


This is called 'Snow Covered Field' and is actually a copy of a painting by Millett and was done when Van Gogh was in St Remy. The thing with this copy that is Van Gogh sought to add some colour. Many artists simply saw the snow, and the winter in general, as a blanket of white with skeletal trees and frozen paddocks. However Van Gogh looked beneath this illusion to see life, and colour in this dreary landscape. Notice how the farming tools have been left buried under the snow - there is more to this winter landscape than snow and frost.


I just noticed that there wasn't a huge collection under the winter section, though that may have had something to do with the paintings the NGV was able to get their hands on. However, they did talk about a painting similar to the above, called 'Miners in the Snow'. Once again we see Van Gogh looking at the working class, and the harsh life that they live. Mining has never been an easy job (though these days is quite profitable), and the harsh nature of the profession is exacerbated by the harsh climate that we see in the winter.

Spring

The winter is over and the new life that is the spring time is beginning to show itself. In a way the spring is a symbol of a new beginning and of a new life. Yet in the early years Van Gogh still used his dark hues to create his spring time works. It could be suggested that while the new life was coming about, the darkness of the winter months had yet to be banished. However, when Van Gogh moved down to Arles, this was just before the beginning of the spring, and it was a time when some of his more famous works were produced. He also wanted to experiment with the trypich, a three panel work which was reflective of his religious influences from his younger days (and there is something that you do see in quite a number of museums and churches around Europe).


The above is another one of Van Gogh's peasant paintings from his earlier years. He preferred to wander around the fields and use real peasants as his inspiration as opposed to models from other areas. Then again Van Gogh was never one for painting from his imagination. During his earlier years, when he was exploring the world of art, he would wonder around the fields, and studied the life cycle of the far. When he took Antoon Hermans, a wealthy amateur painter, on as an apprentice, he was commissioned to decorate his house, and Van Gogh's suggestion was to have a painting representing different seasons on each of the four walls of the dining room. However, these paintings went missing after Herman's death.


The above is called 'Tree Trunks in the Grass' and was the first painting that he painted after coming out of isolation from the asylum in Arles. Basically he had locked himself away due to his inability to deal with the outside world, and I have to admit that I do sympathise with him - the outside world, and other people, can be very difficult to deal with at the best of times, and while there are some people who thrive upon human contact, there are others, like Van Gogh (and myself) who at times want to keep it to a minimum. The interesting thing about this painting is that it is a close up of the group, and much of the scene is actually cut away so as to only focus on this part of the view.


While in Arles, Van Gogh went for a trek south to Saint Marie de la mer (Saint Marie on the Sea). While he was only here for a short time, he used this time to reinforce the beauty of the Japanese wood carvings that he so loved, as well as capturing the vivid colours of the region. In a way this trip inspired him somewhat, and that is what I've noticed that travel can do - inspire us - since it takes us out of our dreary day to day live and into another world.

Summer

Van Gogh wasn't the first to see the idea of the cycle in wheat, and that summer, the time for harvesting the wheat, as being a high point of the year. This idea of the cycle has been with us since ancient times, and even appears in Christianity, which Christ comparing his death and resurrection to the wheat having to die to produce seeds to bring about a new crop of wheat, and the bread forming the centre piece of Holy Communion. However, Van Gogh also saw the world in terms of colours, and saw the summer as being a contrast of deep blues with the gold and orange of the swaying wheat fields. As for the workers in the fields, he saw something unique, and vivid, about them - they are performing an essential function in harvesting the wheat so that it may be turned into bread. This no doubt continued to impress upon him as he moved into regional France to areas such as Arles, where he continued to witness the cycles of the seasons culminating in the harvests of the summer.
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The above painting has an almost religious significance. It is the culmination of the labourer's work - the production of the wheat that has been collected and brought together, ready to be taken back to the mill for processing. However, it is not just the results of the fruits of one's labour, but also a blessing from God, the fruit of the Earth, which will eventually become food that sits upon everybody's table. That simple loaf of bread that is handed out at restaurants is actually the product of days, weeks, and even months of work.


The interesting thing about the above painting, which was painted in Arles, is that almost half of the painting is taken up by Earth and stubble. This is one of Van Gogh's major themes, that of the wheat field, but not just that but also the harvested wheat, which is the end product of the cycle, where the land has been fruitful and have brought forth its crops. Here the wheat is wrapped up and ready to be shipped off.


For the final painting, what best to look at Wheatfields and Cypress, which was the main piece advertised by the exhibition. This was painted in 1889, after Van Gogh had been released from the asylum for a short time. Here he discovered a new focus of his art, the evergreen cypress. These trees were planted to protect the fields from the elements, however Van Gogh saw them as imposing figures, almost like an Egyptian obelisk. These trees subsequently appear in many of his other works, including Starry Night.

Yet notice the beauty of this work, the contrasting colours, and the waves of the clouds and the fields. This work captures an image that is truly only Van Gogh's view of the world, an almost romanticised world of colour and beauty, where the ordinary takes on a much more prominant role, and has an almost religious significance.

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Van Gogh and the Seasons by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me

Monday, 1 January 2018

Anthony and Cleopatra - The Old vs the New



It seems that I have been seeing quite a few Shakesperian plays of late, namely because not only have I moved to Melbourne where there happens to be more in the way of theatre (though Adelaide does have the occasional play come through, and they also do have the odd productions during the Fringe as well as their own version of Shakespeare in the park), but also because the Stage to Screen productions, and the National Theatre Live productions, have meant that I have had much more of an opportunity than I have had in the past. Mind you, that doesn't include the various DVDs that I have, which includes a box set that I picked up in London from The Globe (which I have yet to get around to watching any of them).

The problem is that Shakespeare can be incredibly draining at times, namely because the language is not just incredibly flowery and poetic, but also because it is somewhat archaic. In a sense it seems that you feel that parts of the play are simply dragging on way too long, and really want the characters to either hurry up or get to the point. Mind you, Shakespeare isn't about getting to the point though, if you want something that gets to the point you might as well go and watch a random action movie starring Vin Diesel. No, Shakespeare isn't about getting to the point, it is about the various characters pouring out their hearts and their emotions, and for the tragedy of the circumstance to hit us (if the play is a tragedy of course).


Thus so we come to Anthony and Cleapatra, a play that until recently I have only had the chance to read, though at the beginning of this production we were taken through the various productions by the Royal Shakespeare Company going back to at least the 1970s. At first I thought that maybe this wasn't all that popular a play, but I suspect it may have something to do with where one happens to live (an in Australia you generally only get productions of Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo & Juliet, and if you are lucky, King Lear). Yet the story seems to stick in my mind in the same way that Julius Caeser does, and as I was watching the play unfold I couldn't help but think back to when I was a child having the knowledge that Cleopatra was the most beautiful woman in the world.

I guess we have William Shakespeare to thank for that, though of course Cleopatra is only one in a long line of Egyptian Queens who have that name. Yet like the knowledge of Julius Caesar's assassination, and the betrayal by his friend Brutus, even if we haven't seen the play, the knowledge of it sits with out collective conscious. Mind you, a lot of my early knowledge of Cleopatra, and Ancient Rome, actually comes from the Asterix comics (and as a kid we loved our Asterix and Tintin comics). Of course, Cleopatra does make an appearance in the comics in one where Asterix and Obelix travel to Egypt to help Cleopatra win a bet against Caeser as to who are the better builders - Egypt or Rome. The one thing that I took away from that story was that she happened to have had an enchanting nose.


An Ancient Scandal

Well, I'm not sure if one could consider the affair between Anthony and Cleopatra to be all that scandalous, though in a way it was in the eyes of Octavian Caesar who was trying to implement a system of family values among Rome's upper classes. Anyway, the story begins after the second-triumvirate succeed in their war against the conspirators and opens in Egypt with Anthony and Cleopatra engaged in a steamy love affair. While one may wonder how it is that he ended up here, the reason is not really addressed in the confines of the play (though we can always go to Plutarch for the answers). While there he receives news of his wife's death and must hurry back to Rome, much to Cleopatra's distress. The thing that struck me here, as Cleopatra sat on her throne pining for Mark Anthony, was that this wasn't a simply two week trip and he would be back - the journey to Rome from Egypt was a long, and treacherous, journey, and a round trip could take months. In this world patience really needed to be a virtue.

However, while there Anthony marries' Octavian's sister so that they become brothers, but there is always a desire to return to Egypt to be with Cleopatra. However, news eventually reaches Alexandria and Cleopatra is shattered, believing that all is lost. Yet it is not so because Mark Anthony eventually leaves Rome and returns to Cleopatra's embrace. This is where the scandal arises because it is not any woman that Anthony is cheating on, it is Octavian's sister, and this he takes with a huge offence. It is clear by this time that the Triumvirate is starting to fracture, and once again we find ourselves in the midst of a civil war, one that results in both Anthony and Cleopatra's death, and Octavian assuming the role of Imperator of Rome.


One thing that stood out particularly was the choice of actor for the character of Cleopatra. No doubt most of the previous productions basically had an Anglo-American actress, however here the producers have cast Josette Simon in the role, which gives the play a much more realistic, and exotic, flavour. A part of me doubts that Cleopatra would have been fair skinned, though we must remember also that she was a Ptolemy, which meant that she was Greek. Yet the Ptolemy's, while being Greek, were also very Egyptian in character. Yet by giving the Egyptian characters a more Middle Eastern/African feel to them adds an element of realism to the production.

Okay, while I do have a version of Anthony & Cleopatra on DVD, as performed at The Globe, the other thing that stood out about this particular play is that every version is different, and while I might watch a version performed by The Globe, the version performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company is going to be vastly different to the one at the Globe (which I haven't had the opportunity to see yet). One thing that was impressive was how they did the Battle of Actium, probably the last great sea battle of the Ancient World. Basically they had a number of model ships on the stage, and the various actors who then picked them up and run around with them while music played in the background. Like other plays that I have seen, such as a depiction of the battle of Agincourt in Henry V, the way that such huge battles are staged also adds a lot to the play.

An Ancient Land

The play is set in both Egypt and Rome, and in a way what we see is a conflict between the old and the new. Rome represents the new power that is sweeping the land, while Egypt is an Ancient Land whose history dates back eons. Even then, Egypt has fallen, risen, fallen, and risen over the centuries so that there really isn't one specific kingdom that one could call Egypt. While in our mind the Egypt of the Pyramids and the Egypt of the Valley of the Kings is one and the same, they reality is that they are not. The Egypt that was ruled by Rameses II is not the same Egypt that was ruled by Cheops (the builder of the Pyramids). Further, the Egypt of the Lighthouse and the Great Library is another Egypt entirely - Ptolemaic Egypt - which as I have mentioned about, is actually Greek with an Egyptian flavour to it.

In one way the world used to be centered around the Egytian Empire, but the world back then was an incredibly small world. Sure, Google Maps may suggest that the time it takes to walk from Egypt to Israel is nowhere near the Forty years that the Bible claims that the Hebrews took to cross the desert, the people who made that connection either haven't read their Bible, or are simply looking for any old excuse to debunk the text without actually critically considering what they are saying (for instance, wandering in the desert does not indicate a straight line; also, Google Maps claims that it will take me 24 days to travel from Adelaide to Darwin by foot, but does not take into account that I am wandering through a desert, and the 24 days is basically walking non-stop - if I broke it down to 8 hour days, then it blows out to something like 72).


It seems like I have gone off on a bit of a tangent here, though going back to the play, if we don't go as far back to the Egypt of the Pharoahs, and simply consider the Egypt of the Ptolemy's in one way we are still looking at an empire in decline. Egypt was probably the last frontier on the Mediterranean, though at that time it was a Roman protectorate. However Ptolemaic Egypt was for a time the centre of arts and culture around the world - this was the result of the creation of the Great Library - all the scholars and philosophers of the day made their way to Alexandria as this was pretty much where they could learn the best. In that sense Alexandria had replaced Athens. However, Rome was very much on the rise, and in the preceding century had pretty much conquered the entire Mediterranean coast. The glory days of Ptolemaic Egypt were behind them, and the Great Library had already been destroyed in a fire. This was now a time for them to step aside an allow a new empire to take hold.

Passing of the Old Guard

Okay, while Mark Athony was still one of the rulers of Rome, it also seemed that it was time for him to step aside for some of the younger blood. While Octavian was around during Caesar's assassination, he was not one of the major players. It was Mark Anthony who took the centre stage, and who formed the second triumvirate to fight and defeat the conspirators. However, come now we discover an older Mark Anthony, one who has fought his wars, and is wanting to take it easy and relax. Yet the play opens with a suggestion of a debaucherous party - this isn't a question of love, this is a question of lust. In one sense, as the old that is the queen of Egypt comes to the new, the Triumvirate of Rome, we also have the old guard sitting down to spend his golden years in ease.

Yet we must remember that Cleopatra is still a queen, and in taking Anthony as her lover, he becomes a king - this is an insult in the face of Octavian because it comes across as if Anthony is setting himself up to be a rival to his power, and we are also in Egypt, which is sufficiently far away - if he wanted to launch a takeover, building up an army in Egypt would be the sensible, and a most strategic thing to do. In fact I believe that Pompey established a base in Egypt during the Civil War. In one sense Octavian is on the rise (and Lepidus, the third leg of the Triumvirate, is fading further and further to the back), and conflict with Mark Anthony is inevitable.



This is the problem of the political situation of Rome - in one sense they want stability, but in another sense they do not want an entrenched autocrat. This is why they went down the road of the Triumvirates, but the problem with them was that both times they ended in Civil War, as is the case here. The second Triumvirate falls apart and both Anthony and Octavian come to blows at Actium. Here Octavian wins, but Anthony wins the second battle, but it is a hollow victory as by the third battle Anthony's troops had deserted him, leaving his stranded and alone.

A More Mature Love

The director, in an interview before the play, suggested that Anthony & Cleopatra was a more mature love as opposed to that of Romeo and Juliet. In a way I would say yes, but I would also say no. One of the reasons is that young love tends to be a lot more pure, and a lot more innocent, where as the older one gets, the more jaded one gets. Yet there is also an essence of debauchery here - when one is young it seems that one is a lot more innocent, and in a way the love is much more pure, yet here it seems to be driven by sensual desire - both Anthony and Cleopatra are much older than our other heroes, which gives it a much different aspect.

Yet one cannot escape the similarities between the end of both plays - we have one pretend to be dead, so the other kills themselves, only for us to learn that they aren't really dead, but when they find out that their lover is dead they end up killing themselves - and the play ends. In both plays there is poison, Cleopatra kills herself with an asp, while poison is used in Romeo and Juliet (though since I haven't seen the play for a very long time, thanks to Baz Luhrman and Leonardo Di Caprio, I can't say for sure).



Also, there is this question of forbidden love - Romeo & Juliet come from houses who are at war with each other, while Mark Anthony is married, not just to any woman but to Octavian's sister. Then there is the question of them establishing themselves as King and Queen of Egypt. This isn't so much an aspect of the forbidden love, but rather an inevitable consequence of the affair. While one might look at them and say, they are having an affair - who cares. Well, we do, and so does Octavian. Remember, there was this desire to rid Rome of its vice and debauchery, and reintroduce some family values into the middle and upper classes, and having Anthony, one of the rulers, run off and do this really doesn't help with this.

Yet I am not so sure whether I can really consider this to be debauchery. In a way I don't necessarily think it is. Maybe at first it is - Mark Anthony is just taking it easy - but he is called back to Rome, and is married to Octavian's sister. In a way Cleopatra should be gone and forgotten - sure she is pining for him, but the fact the Anthony returns to Egypt to embrace his love shows that he actually does rather than it simply being some debaucherous night out. No, this is serious, serious enough for Anthony to not only betray his friend, but also run the risk of earning the enmity of the empire - which he eventually does.

A Brutal Death


The one final thing I wish to touch upon is how long it actually takes for somebody to die in Shakespeare. In one sense they talk, and talk, and talk, and stab themselves, and then continue to talk. A part of me wanted to scream out 'die already - enough with this waffling'. Yet, I think we forget how serious Shakespeare takes the death of a major character. Sure, in our post-modern cinematic culture, people die left right and centre on the screens, yet even in Hollywood the death of a major character is significant. In reality, when a major character dies, there is an entire scene devoted to the character's death. It made me think of a series that I just finished watching (the Sarah Conner Chronicles), and how half way through the second to last episode one of the major characters is suddenly shot in the head - that's it, nothing more, he's dead. To be honest with you, it sucked, and sucked big time.

This is why Mark Anthony, and Cleopatra (and many of Shakespeare's other characters) take so long to die, and that is because not only is the character significant, but death is significant. Death is final, and permanent - it is the end. To cheapen it the way we have done in modern films really doesn't do it justice. This is the nature of what is termed a mook - a character that exists in a film, or show, simply to get shot and to die. This is not what death is about, and it is why characters in plays beat and moan, and wail, when they are dying, because they aren't mooks - they are significant. In fact every human being is significant, though to attach a depth of personality to every single character that is killed in your typical action movie does have the potential to really do your head in.



Yet this is the problem with the modern world - we some how cheapen the death of certain segments of society, or even the world. If somebody where to die in our home town then it is a travesty, yet hundreds of thousands of people die daily around the world, and we basically shut it out of our minds. However, this is something that is beginning to change - the opponents of the Iraq War went to great pains to document each and every civilian death that occurred because of the invasion. It is not just soldier's, but civilians as well. Yet, in many cases we still go about our daily lives, as if the problems on the other side of the world are either too far away, or just too difficult for one person to fix.

Creative Commons License

Anthony and Cleopatra - The Old vs the New by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

Leviathan - The Politics of Thomas Hobbes



I'm not really sure why it is that I was attracted to this book. Maybe it was it's title, but ever since I was in University the cover attracted me somewhat. Now I have read it twice, and it is an incredibly chunky book to read. This latest time has taken me three whole weeks, and I have to admit that it isn't one of those books that you can casually read. In fact, a part of me, as I was getting to the end, was kicking myself for not taking notes. However, if I was taking notes, it would have taken me a lot longer, and I probably would have filled an exercise books with scribble that afterwards I wouldn't be able to read (it actually makes me wonder if the art of writing is soon going to become a lost art, though I did have a teacher that refused to mark assignments printed out on a printer).

Normally I would have just written a book review on Goodreads and left it at that, but a part of me felt that there is a lot that has come out of this book that I probably should write a blog post as well. However, before I continue, I'll share a little bit of background with regards to me and this book. When I was younger, back in the days when I wanted to get married, have a family, and become a hot shot lawyer, I wanted to have a baby just so that I could read this book to him (or her) when they were young. One reason for this is that a friend of my told me how he read his children the classics when they were kids, and since I'm one of those people who are a little different, I wanted to read them a book that people generally wouldn't read their children. Then again, I probably would have ended up reading them Machiavelli as well. However, when I suggested this to a friend at church she had a heart attack, claiming that it was a humanist text. Mind you, she now teaches English Literature at Harvard so I'm not entirely sure how that worked.

Hobbes' Era

I feel that a bit of background is pretty important when it comes to this text. Actually, background is probably important when it comes to any text, though if you happen to be one of those post-modernists that claim that context is pretty irrelevant then that is another story. Okay, I can be one of those post-modernists at times, but in the end I am one of those people that have grown up with the understanding that context actually adds a lot more to a text and in a way I don't think post-modernism can change that. The thing is that when we come to Leviathian, context is pretty important and does help us understand where Hobbes is coming from.

The problem that England was facing was with the King. You see, King Charles was a tried and true Catholic, and also a tried and true monarchist, and there happened to be this institution, full of protestants, and pretty extreme ones at that (they closed all of the theatres because they were of the devil) objecting to the way that he was doing things. This eventually ended in parliament revolting against the king, and is also the reason why the Queen is no longer allowed to step foot in the House of Commons. Anyway, push came to shove, they went to war, and ended up removing Charles' head. Well, there was also this issue of Guy Fawkes who also tried blowing up parliament, and this has come down to a tradition where fire works are let off and mannequins are burnt on bonfires.

This was a pretty chaotic period in English history, and if we look back a few decades we come to Shakespeare who actually warned us in numerous plays of the dangers that are faced when legitimate rulers are deposed. Well, it probably shouldn't surprise us how quickly people forget things because they pretty quickly forgot the horrors of the Wars of the Roses and decided that because the King didn't want to do things the way that they wanted, they might as well get rid of him. Even with Oliver Cromwell at the helm, things didn't turn out all that well - especially after he died, and the country eventually ended up asking Charles' son to come back and take the throne - and they also promised that they wouldn't remove his head. Mind you, that didn't last all that long before they got sick of next king (James II) and invited the William of Orange to come and take over which has come down to us as the Glorious Revolution (which probably wasn't all that glorious).

So, it is into this turmoil that Hobbes has written his book, and in a sense it is a book that is designed to address the turmoil that England was facing at the time. It is a pretty chunky book, and it did take me three weeks to read, however it is also considered the progenitor of Political Science (which I still wonder whether it actually is a science). So, let us take a look at this book, and question whether it actually has any meaning for us today.

Political Science

Honestly, I'm not entirely sure whether you can actually call politics a science, but then again anthropology is also considered a science. However, at university both departments were a part of the faculty of arts, or as it has later been referred to, the faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences. According to Wikipedia, Political Science is the study of governments, and political actions, thoughts, and behaviors. Initially I was under the impression that political science only dealt with democracies since they tend to eb and flow based upon the population as a whole - yet it is clear that it similarly applies to dictatorships and cults of personalities.

As it was suggested, Leviathan was the first book to explore the concept of political science. Sure, there have been lots of books on how a government should run, and concepts of the perfect form of government, but while that could be considered a part of political science, the subject goes much further than theorising on how governments should run. However, I'm not entirely sure whether you could consider Leviathan to encapsulate the science since Hobbes spends a lot of time arguing that the best form of government is a Christian commonwealth. In fact he is more concerned with stability than anything else, which is not surprising considering the era in which is was writing.

The Arrest of Guy Fawkes.


One aspect of stability is being able to have a peaceful, and effective, change of government. This has been something that humanity has been struggling with for ages, but the reality is that it isn't really possible, particularly in a time of majority rules. What happens when we have an effective government that people universally dislike? Well, in a democracy they get tossed out and replaced with somebody that may be nowhere near as good (or downright terrible). We live in a world of political capital, opinion polls, and decisions based upon whether people will like you or not.

I remember studying politics in High School. One reason was because politics is one of those areas that a lot of people, especially young people, want to become involved in. The problem is that the subject is not so much about how to become a politician, but how the system of governments are supposed to operate. Further, when you are studying the subject, one simply cannot bash a political party based upon personal opinions or personalities. Mind you, our teacher then proceeded to label a number of politicians as cretins. I also remember when we were talking about communism he proceeded to hang a picture of Karl Marx on the classroom wall, only to take it down at the end of the lesson because at the time Australia had welcomed a lot of Vietnamese refugees into the country, and many of them were studying English at the school.

However, we did learn about how the Australian government functioned, how decisions are made and laws are changed, and also the branches of the government. We studied the political parties, and their differences (and, according to our teacher, the difference was that one sold off assets faster than the other), as well as how they are influenced. As such journalism and the lobby industry were explored. Finally, we also looked at two other systems of government, namely the American model and the Chinese model. The interesting thing is that the one party states can be just as complex as our democratic models, and just because the country is ruled by a single party does not mean that there aren't factions within the party - it is just that party control is much more strict.

Church and State

This is a topic that has been dominating Western Civilisation since the time the Roman Empire officially become a Christian country. The emperor Theodosius attempted to nominate 'his man' as patriarch of Constantinople. He was then promptly rebuked and told that there was a line that the secular authority did not cross, and that line was the line that he was standing in front of. The bishops then presented him with a short list of their preferred candidates and made it clear that it was from this list that the choice was to be made. Since that time there was a limit of the secular powers over that of the church. However, this wasn't a two way street, and while the Emperor was prohibited from interfering with the operation of the church, the opposite wasn't the case. In fact, this event effectively established the church as a power that sits over the state.

This was the way things worked for the next millenia, that is until the kings began to rebel against the decrees of the Pope, which led to the great schism and the Avingnon Captivity. Up to that time the Pope held a huge amount of power over the kings, with threats of excommunication forcing them to bow to his will (though in one case the Pope was female). Since it was believed that the Pope was Christ's representative on Earth, and that when speaking from his throne, the decree of the Pope was considered scripture, it was believed that the Pope could effectively deny somebody a place in heaven. However, this collapse in Papal authority led to the reformation, and in turn the English civil war.

The original cover for Leviathan is quite interesting in how this dual sovereignty is illustrated. Here is an image of the original (though the edition that I read only had a part of the cover).


The interesting thing about England is that it's reformation went in completely the opposite position - the King broke away from the Catholic church and made himself the head of the church. This isn't what happened elsewhere, such as Germany and Switzerland. Then again these countries were pretty decentralised which is why it didn't happen that way. However, the thousand odd year tradition had been turned on its head, and instead of the popes controlling the kings, the king now appointed the bishops and archbishops (though these days the Queen pretty much rubberstamps everything).

This is what we see in the cover - here we have the sovereign, holding the sceptre in one hand, and the religious staff (or crossier) in the other. Note that the body of the sovereign (and it looks as if it could be King Charles), is made up of hundreds of people, which represents the citizenry. This symbolises the social contract, in that the king agrees to rule fairly and justly, and to provide peace and security, and the citizenry agree to accept the sovereign and to pay their dues. Below the main image with have 10 panels, on the left symbols of secular authority (the castle, the crown, the cannon, weapons, and the battle), while to the right we have symbols of religious authority (the church, the mitre, excommunication, logic, and prayer). This gives us two images - one of conflict, and another of a balancing act.


However, there is a limit to the separation of church and state. The church is not a law unto itself. If the government makes a law then the church is expected to abide (within reason) to these laws. Okay, we do have times when the churches refuse to acknowledge unjust laws, and we have instances of them offering sanctuary to refugees. However, there are also other laws which seem to be obsolete - such as being tax exempt. Yet the tax question is an incredibly tricky one, since there are a lot of good churches that would go under if they were suddenly forced to pay taxes. On the other hand we have churches abusing their tax exempt status.

Hobbes' Government

To put it simply, Hobbes doesn't particularly like democracy, but then again neither did Shakespeare - however I deal with that below. At first Hobbes explores the types of government, and also explores the idea of the social contract. This, as mentioned above, is a contract between the citizenry and the sovereign to fulfil their mutual obligations. Mind you, the idea of mutual obligations are bandied about here, such as the concept of working for unemployment benefits. This is something that I technically don't have a problem with, as long as the work is fairly rewarded (which it isn't). You see, unemployment benefits aren't free money, it is money to tie you over while you are between jobs.

Hobbes, in a sense, is a traditionalist. The only effective form of government is the government by a monarch. However, he does recognise that the monarch theoretically has unlimited power - basically he can do what he wants. This was one of the reasons that the United States broke away from England, and why the French revolted. Yet, in a purest sense, this is the case. This is solved these days through the use of constitutions - these documents restrict the power of government, and are designed to prevent one person from being entrenched.

In Australia, the Federal legislative body only has power to make laws in areas that section 51 of the Constitution gives it the power to do so. If parliament attempts to make laws outside of those areas they can be struck down by the High Court. Mind you, for that to happen, somebody needs to challenge the law in the High Court. So, the theory is that parliament can do anything, unless it is outside the scope of the powers granted in section 51, and somebody challenges them (and the High Court agrees).


Hobbes spends half the book exploring what he terms the Christian Commonwealth. This section basically looks at how the church is construction, and also how the Bible demonstrates the sovereign authority of God. In a sense, because God is the perfect king, then the only true form of government is that where there is a king. The problem is that humans aren't perfect - far from it. Yet, Hobbes does not believe that it is our right to remove a king, for to remove a king is to rebel against God. Actually, the Bible is pretty clear on that, particularly when Paul points out that the government is instituted by God.

But, I might hear some say, surely Paul, and Hobbes, couldn't be talking about somebody like the Trumpet. Surely we can #Resist him. Well, first of all, remember that Paul actually lived under Emperor Nero, and he was pretty atrocious. As much as we may not like the Trumpet (and I'm not particularly impressed with him), I'm not sure if we can say he is in the same league as Nero. As for Hobbes, well he had to deal with Charles I, and look at what happened when the parliament attempted to #Resist king Charles - war broke out.

Now, I'm not saying that we shouldn't hold governments accountable, and speak out when they do things that do things that we do not agree with. Yet, there is a line between speaking out against a government, and actually rebelling against a lawfully appointed government. Hobbes' point is that stability is the key, and sure, there are debates as to what rights we give up for stability, but sometimes this is necessary. The fact that we have police roaming the streets means that our streets are safe to walk down - take away the police and I can assure you that all hell will break loose.

The Problem with Democracy

Believe it or not, Plato wasn't a particularly big fan of democracy, and neither was Shakespeare (who compared it to mob rule). Okay, the Bible doesn't mention democracy, namely because there was no need to (though there is little reference to Greece in the Old Testament, and the New Testament starts after the collapse of the Republic). Democracy has been seen as the method of government of the civilised state, yet there are limitations, as we shall see.

First of all democracy, meaning rule by the people, changes with the attitudes of the people. Notice how when Egypt tossed out Mubarrack and went to elections, the Islamic Brotherhood was swept into power. A similar thing happened in Palestine with the election of numerous members of Hamas. South America has also had situations where pro-Russian governments were elected during the Eighties, and this change in the balance of power led to some rather bloody coups (such as with Pinocet in Argentina).


Another problem is what is known as the demogogues. This was the problem that Athens faced, and we also face today. The rulers that may actually be quite competent are resoundingly defeated by those who will pretty much say anything to get elected. This brings up the issues of the 'core' and 'non-core' promises that were used effectively by the Liberal government here in Australia. The core promises are the ones that the candidates plan on sticking too, while the non-core promises are those that can be discarded at will. The problem is that we don't actually know what the core and non-core promises are until after the government has been elected.

Democracies are also governments by the majority, which basically means that minorities end up getting left out in the cold. As such, something that might actually be beneficial for a society routinely get tossed out in favour for things that make the majority happy - what do you want, a clean Earth or cheap electricity. Jobs and growth is also a big mantra, and companies regularly use this as an excuse to resist change. They also use it as a way of blackmailing governments to their will - do this or we will have to shed jobs (and the companies end up shedding jobs anyway).

Is There a Better Way?

I guess that is the million dollar question. The problem is that in the modern state, governments are beholden to the people, so in the end do only what the majority of the people what them to do. It is basically a numbers game - if doing something will upset a few, but make a lot more happy, then do it. Voting trends also are a key factor, so a government is more likely to do something in swing seats, while the regions that regularly vote against them are either ignored, or even punished. As for those in safe government seats, then they tend to be ignored as well (namely because they will always vote for the government).

The rise of the minor parties, at least in Australia, is changing this somewhat. Suddenly seats that were originally considered to be safe, are now becoming contested, forcing governments to start paying attention. Yet the problem is also our attitudes - we want the government to do things, but we won't actually do them ourselves. The cult of personality that has arisen turns party leaders into messiahs, and when they fail that leaves us disappointed. We blame all of our problems on the government, and look forward to the time when the current lot is kicked out, and the other lot are voted in - times should then be better. In a way it is a form of idolatry.

Mostly, though, it is the attitude of the people. Okay, I'd also rest some of the blame on the media as well: they have the power to set the agenda. The pro-refugee movement may spend time and money on attempts to help people understand that refugees aren't evil, and that the unemployed aren't lazy, but all it takes is for one 'shock jock' to say something to pretty much undermine all of that work. This thus raises a question of freedom of speech, but that is another topic for another time.



Creative Commons License

Leviathan - The Politics of Thomas Hobbes by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

David Hockney - iPad Art



One night I was out with my friends and we happened to find ourselves at the National Gallery of Victoria. Actually, it was a festival in Melbourne called White Night, where the city is basically open all night, as are a lot of the galleries and museums, however this isn't post about White Night (you can read it here, and here - I've been twice) but rather about one of the exhibitions at the gallery. We didn't go into the gallery to see the exhibition though, but rather to check out one of the paintings (the one by Rembrandt, of himself). At the time the major exhibition was of a fashion designer (the NGV seems to have fashion designer exhibitions over the summer period) so I almost missed the one tucked away in the corner, that was of Hockney's latest works.

Hockney is a living artist who was born in Britain to Laura and Kenneth Hockney (who happened to be a conscientious objector to World War II). He studied at the Royal College of Arts in London where his work was featured in an exhibition, alongside Peter Blake, bringing pop art to England. He then visited California where he began to experiment using acrylic. Many of these paintings are of swimming pools, such as the one below called 'A Bigger Splash'.


This experimentation is something that would characterise Hockney's approach to art. He would always look at using new methods and technologies to explore ways of creating his works. In this exhibition many of his works that he created between 2009 and 2015 were on display. Interestingly these works were created using iPads and iPhones. In fact a lot of them were on display using the device, while others had been printed out and simply stuck to the wall. Mind you, this raises the question of whether it actually is art, since the one thing about art is that it tends to be unique - computers change all of that. When the image is digital, it can easily be copied without any decrease in quality. There is only one Mona Lisa, but there can potentially be millions, or even billions, of Hockney's works.

Many of these works are unnamed and unlabeled - we simply see them as is. So, without further ado, let us delve into some of Hockney's works.


This is a flower in a glass. In a way these images seem to be pretty rushed, yet it raises the question as to whether it is art or whether it is just some scribbling on an iPad.


Another flower. I'm sort of wondering where the image has somehow been degraded due to the fact that I am taking a photo of a iPhone with my own phone (which uses the Android system). Yet it also makes me wonder whether it is the name that adds the value to the image as opposed to the image itself. Anybody can take a photo of an old man on the street, but if it is Andy Warhol who is taking the photo then suddenly it is art.


I'll call this 'It's Amazing What You Can Do On An Iphone' namely because that is what he has scribbled in the corner. Mind you, such art has been around for quite a while with programs like, well, Windows Paint. I even remember the days of the Commodore 64 where we had demos which included both graphics and sound. Yet, unlike a computer, iPhones are portable, which gives the artist much more flexibility.


Hockney seems to create a lot of still lifes, and portraits. The difference with the iPhone though is the touch screen. At first Hockney would simply manipulate photos, but later moved to creating the works from scratch. The two pictures of cars on the road also show how one can now create art while sitting in the front (hopefully passenger) seat of the car. Okay, one could have used a sketch pad, but this is the iPhone we are talking about.


Some of these sort of remind me of the paintings of Van Gogh. Another still life, of a chair, this time with clothes thrown over it. This one, and the next few, were done using an iPad, which is much bigger than the iPhone. Personally, I find the pads easier to use due to the size, and reading stuff on them is much better as well. I still find it odd that the pads came out after the phones.


The thing about this exhibition was that it had more to do with completeness, and also showed the development of Hockney's ability to draw using these new devices. The first lot obviously demonstrate an artist using a new medium, but the more he uses the medium, the more skilled he becomes. Here are some more still lifes.


His output was certainly quite large, and these are some more examples. However, note how he is exploring different periods of the day and how colours change over the day. Artist do similar things with regards to the seasons of the years.


This is called 'Bigger Trees near Water' which was created in collaboration with French artist Jean-Pierre Gonclaves. Interestingly Gonclaves calls this 'Peinture sur le motif pour le nouvel age post-photographique' which basically means a painting in the new, post-photographic age. This is an interesting concept because the suggestion is now that art has entered in digital age. If you look at this image closely you will note that it is made out of lots of individual sheets. Not only does art cease to be unique, but the original size no longer matters.


In 2011 Hockney moved to Yorkshire where he created a number of works called 'Yorkshire in Spring'. Here, like a lot of artists on the modern era, the focus was mainly upon colour.


This is another of the drawings, though I'm not sure how they would be describe. A painting is a specific type because it is created using paint, and a drawing is technically created using pencils. Yet using the word 'image' doesn't really create the artistic merit. Notice the difference is skill level compared to those at the beginning.

The next room contained a series of portraits that Hockney had created. However, unlike the previous images these were created on Acrylic.


These are paintings of Douglas Baxter, President of the Pace Gallery, and Lord Jacob Rothschild (and investment banker, but I suspect that we already knew that).


This is Avner Chaim, an artist from Tel Aviv, and Kate Pyrnoos, an immigration lawyer in California.


Finally we have Chloe McHugh, who was an intern with Hockney, and Kevin Durez.


The next couple of drawings came from the next room which was focused on drawings done in Yosemite. This was in contrast to the 'Coming of Spring' drawings, which were done in a Yorkshire forest. Here the landscapes are much vaster, and the colours also quite different.


And so this brings us to an end of another post on an exhibition that I saw, though it was a while back now. There were a couple of more galleries, but the thing is that the main focus of this exhibition was his experiments with the iPad, a new medium. As we have seen he has developed quite a lot over the years since he first decided to play around with it. Whether this is art in the traditional sense is debatable, but he certainly can use it much better than I can.


Creative Commons License

David Hockney - iPad Art by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me