Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Van Gogh - The Madness

I'll open this post by indicating that I am not a psychologist, however when I was at the Van Gogh Museum they had a special exhibition on the paintings that he did at the end of his life, and also an exploration of the artist's descent into madness that ultimately ended with him taking his own life. As a couple said as they were exiting the exhibition while we were walking it, that it was quite dark and depressing - something that seems to be at incredibly odds with the work that he produced.

In a sense Van Gogh is not alone when it comes to artists suffering from mental illness, nor is he alone in regards to artists whose lives end rather tragically, or even in suicide. I believe that Virgina Wolfe also took her own life, and she is among one of many. I remember watching a video produced by the Youtube Channel School of Life (which is actually quite interesting) but unfortunately I'm unable to find it again so I won't be able to reproduce it here. However, it opened with the story of an English boy who wanted to be a poet, however his parents disapproved and he ended up killing himself. They they went on to list a number of artists who had also had some rather tragic ends. In a way the film Dead Poet's Society captures this idea brilliantly.

The idea is that the artist in a way has no place in the modern world. Sure, we like colour, and we like images that are pleasing to the eye. There are even artists who were incredibly successful in their life time, such as the numerous anecdotes in relation to Picasso and his doodles and hordes of people looking on hoping that they might be the one to grab themselves a free drawing. However, while there may be a handful of artists who are successful during their life, there are many, many more who aren't, and don't even experience even a small amount of fame. In fact, if it wasn't for the tireless efforts of his sister-in-law, and nephew, Van Gogh might have vanished from this world without us ever being able to experience the beauty of his sunflowers.

From what I gathered, Van Gogh wasn't the type of person that was all that easy to get along with, and this wasn't something at eventuated when he was sharing a house with Gaugin (and I'm sure many of us who have experienced the joys of share housing have also experienced the joys of when that arrangement comes to an abrupt end). The thing is that Van Gogh seemed to be the type of person that had to do things his own way, and was also a bit of a loner. In a sense he seemed to drift from city to city and town to town, never really staying settled for too long. Also, it seemed as if during his lifetime he was never really viewed with all that much admiration - I get the impression many in the artistic community simply saw him as 'that guy'.

Anyway, I'll begin by exploring the last few years of life in the asylum, and at Auvers-sur-Oise, and then explore the exhibition that we visited at the museum. I will then finish off with a few final thoughts. Of course, this won't be the last Van Gogh post either, namely because there is also one from the recent NGV exhibition.

The Asylum

After the unfortunate incident with Gaugan, and his ear, he was hospitalised. The thing is that while we might claim that Van Gogh suffered from depression, mental illness is actually quite a complicated beast, and depression simply does not just exhibit symptoms of 'being sad'. In fact there are incidents where he was not fully aware of his surroundings, and even at one stage he consumed paint, at which point he was restricted to drawing. However, the doctors were happy to allow him to continue to practice is art, and over the period he painted around 150 pieces.

He was actually given quite a bit of freedom in the hospital, and over the time painted scenes not only inside the hospital, but also outside. Some of his most well known works were also produced during this time, including one that happens to be sitting in my storage room waiting for a time that I get around to not only purchasing a frame, but also getting some hooks so I can hang it on the wall somewhere (and I probably should also throw up a couple of Iron Maiden posters, just to keep people on their toes, not that I actually have all that many visitors).

During this time, as well as also producing some drawings (due to the paint eating incident), he also copied prints from the likes of Rembrandt (the Netherland's other great painter). However, during this time Van Gogh's work was actually starting to gain some traction. His brother, always supportive of him, have been submitting his works to the independent exhibitions (he was an art dealer), and some of his works even appeared at an exhibition in Brussels, where one of them was even sold. In fact it was at this exhibition that Monet saw some of his works and commented on how impressed he was with them, though there was also some rather harsh criticism from other quarters. Also during this time his brother had a son, whom he named Vincent. Even though Vincent was an excentric, and a bit of a lone, his brother certainly seemed to think quite highly of him, and was also incredibly supportive.

The End of Days

Vincent was eventually discharged and he travelled north of Auvers-sur-Oise (Auvers on the Oise) so he could be close to his brother, but not have to put up with the frantic pace of a city like Paris. There were also a number of artists setting themselves up here, and some even began to be inspired by his works. It was during this time, thanks to the encouragement of his doctor, Paul Gachet, who was also a artist, to focus on his work. In a sense they believed that this was the key to helping him overcome his illness. During this time he literally produced one work of art a day, which basically meant that his output was extraordinary.

However things were going to take a turn for the worse. Due to his condition, Van Gogh needed certainty, however his brother was feeling somewhat restricted in being an employee and wanted to strike out on his own by setting up his own dealership. However, the problem was that money was going to be a little tight until he managed to actually gain some traction in the industry. Since Theo was an experienced art dealer, this no doubt was going to eventuate, however he had to cut back on some of his expenditures, with starting up a new business with a young family and all that. This meant that he wasn't in the position to continue to support Vincent.

This was the proverbial straw that broke the straw that broke the camel's back, but as I have mentioned, uncertainly is the bane of somebody that suffers from mental illness. With the belief that he had been cut adrift and had to now look after himself was too much for Vincent. This is actually quite sad because it was at this time that his work had started to gain some traction (and is probably why his sister in law was so successful in creating the artist that he has become). However, for somebody suffering from depression, the uncertainty was too much, and get went outside and shot himself.

The Edge of Madness

Mental illness is a beast that can be very difficult to understand and a part of me feels that professional psychologists and psychiatrists still have very little understanding of what actually is going on. Sure, there is some belief that it arises from some form of chemical imbalance in the brain, but that is not always the case. In another way it could simply be personality, in the end we really don't know and professionals work by developing strategies to assist people in being able to cope with these problems and to try and live a normal life. Van Gogh even spoke of his illness by suggesting that whereas physical injuries can heal, he saw no end point, or cure, to his mental illnesses.

There are probably lots of theories as to what he was suffering from - we can really only go by anecdotal evidence, though even in our modern society we simply cannot easily categorise such problems - sometimes depression and anxiety go hand in hand, other times they don't. Just because somebody suffers from anxiety doesn't necessarily mean they will suffer from depression.  Then there are other conditions - sure, people might have a fear of heights, but what about a fear of open spaces, closed spaces, or even other people. In these instances a perfectly healthy and normal person may suddenly exhibit uncharacteristic behaviours when put in certain situations.

It has been suggested that the condition came about when he was in Arles, and it was when his relationship with Gaugun began to deteriorate that things really started to get bad. Van Gogh remained in Arles for a little while after Gaugun left, but the locals became ever more concerned about him, and their own welfare. Not only was it said that he cut off his own ear, but he would also go outside brandishing a knife.
As we have discussed, he ended up at the Hospital in Arles where he was diagnosed by Dr Felix Rey as having a form of epilepsy that had been brought on by consuming too much coffee and alcohol (though this diagnosis wasn't official). However, it became clear that Vincent was no longer welcome in Arles, especially when the locals signed a petition. The doctor agreed and believed that it would be best for him to go into an institution, particularly since the breakdowns became ever more frequent, and every breakdown required more hospitalisation.

The period in the asylum did him good and he was eventually allowed to go outside, however it wasn't long because he would have further breakdowns. Moreso the asylum really began to get to him, and he eventually discharged himself and moved back closer to Paris. The problem was that with the knowledge of these breakdowns meant that Vincent became ever more depressed, and eventually took his own life.

Unlucky in Love

In a sense Van Gogh was a lot like me, especially when it came to women. Well, maybe not, but the thing was that he never married, and he never seemed to really have a huge amount of success when it came to the fairer sex. He was raised in a middle class household which meant that he was taught that there were two types of women - the respectable ones and the rest. The thing is that artists seem to be attracted to those who fall into the category of 'the rest'. Well, not quite, if you consider some of Monet's works, but then other artists, such as Degas, were well known for painting prostitutes.

I mentioned in the previous post how he met a woman when he was in The Hague - Sien - who was a prostitute and was pregnant. He moved in with her and it seemed that maybe things would work out for the better. The problem was that his family didn't particularly appreciate him mixing with such people and the relationship eventually broke off. However Vincent liked the idea of painting prostitutes, not just because of the urban feel about them, but also because they were real people. Mind you, back then it was quite acceptable for men to visit brothels since it was seen as promoting sexual health.

The other thing was that middle class women simply were not interested in him painting their portraits, where as prostitutes (usually for a fee) were more than happy to do so. However there was one catch - they didn't want to be painting in the nude. There was also the problem of a woman falling pregnant back in Holland, and the gossip was that Vincent was responsible. However it was later proven not the be the case, but the local parish Priest eventually convinced the locals to have nothing to do with Vincent.

He did have a brief affair with one of his neighbours back home, but being ten years his senior, and the fact that her sisters really didn't like Vincent, meant that the relationship ended (and almost quite tragically as well). However, things changed somewhat when he moved to Antwerp, and then to Paris. Here one of his friends introduced him to the nightlife, whether it be the cafes or the brothels. He met an Italian cafe owner who was said to have given him free meals in exchange for paintings. However it eventually became too much and Vincent eventually concluded that he was destined to live his life as a bachelor.

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Van Gogh - The Madness 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, 18 September 2017

Hedda Gablar - Life Beyond the Wedding Day

All I can say after watching this play is that I have seriously under-estimated Henrik Ibsen. Okay, I have given him a second chance after my first encounter with him in high school, but half the reason that I didn't like him was that the subject of 'A Dolls House' made me decidedly uncomfortable. The thing with being young, and a Christian, is that you tend to be pretty dogmatic in your beliefs (though being old, and a Christian tends to have a similar effect), so when we read a play which was basically about how a woman walked out on her husband I basically threw the book down in disgust and pretty much considered Ibsen a heretic that I vowed I would never touch again. In fact I even gave the play a shockingly low rating on Goodreads.

Then I discovered Peer Gynt, and then I reread A Dolls House (along with the other plays in the book), and now I have seen Hedda Gabler performed, while not live, but at least on stage. No, Ibsen is no heretic that is seeking the destruction of the family unit, but rather a playwright that sees, and understands, the dark side of humanity. Yet it seems that while both Ibsen and Shakespeare seem to be able to explore the human condition, the settings of the plays seem to reflect the times in which it was written - in Shakespeare were were looking into the lives of Kings and Queens, Dukes and Princes, however in Ibsen we are being given a look into the lives of the middle class, which is interesting because in Shakespeare's day it was a world that many of the theatre goers, who tended to be lower classes, normally didn't get to see, whereas in Ibsen's day most of the theatre goers would have been middle class.

Home from the Honeymoon

The play is set entirely in an apartment in a nameless city (most likely Christiana, which is now Oslo) and takes place over the course of two days. Like a lot of Ibsen's other plays the play is set in two acts, with the first act setting everything up, and then the second act having everything begin to unravel. As for the play itself, while it has a lot of tragic elements about it, and Hedda is most definitely a tragic figure, I feel that I can't go as far as calling it a tragedy - rather the term more appropriate to me would be a domestic drama. What Ibsen is doing is opening up the curtains to enable us to look into the world of the middle class and to remind us that this life isn't as flowery as it appears.

The play begins when Hedda and her new husband George return home from their honeymoon to begin a life together as a married couple. Hedda is basically a socialite from a well to do background (and the suggestion is that she is aristocratic), while George is an academic who is waiting to hear back about a posting as a professor, which means that they will then have enough money to be able to live the life that Hedda wants. They have already bought an apartment (though in the play it is a villa), and they are significantly in debt, but everything seems to be okay because the job appears to be there, it is just they have to wait for the official letter.

However, they suddenly turns out to be a problem because one of George's friend, a woman who found herself being tormented by Hedda when they were young, tells them that one of George's old colleagues, Lovburg, has just written a book that is also in George's academic field, and is also putting his name down for the position. All of a sudden there is a competition where at first there was none. The problem is that George is a reformed alcoholic, which is why nobody actually considered him to be a contender at first, but it appears that he has not only managed to turn his life around, but has shown his full potential. Sure, Lovburg has suggested that he doesn't want to go into competition with George, and he will be holding off publishing his masterpiece until after the position is confirmed, but Hedda just doesn't seem to trust him.

This is basically where everything begins to go down hill because when it is revealed that George isn't a shoe-in for the job, she suddenly realises that this life of socialising and parties may not actually turn out the way that she expected. In a sense George may not end up being the man that she thought he was going to be, but because she has married him she is now stuck with him - it seems as if all of a sudden the life that she thought she was going to have is all of a sudden starting to unravel. So she decides to take matters into her own hands, but in doing so actually begins to make things much, much worse to the point that by the end everything has begun to collapse around her.

Modern Times

There is an ongoing debate among some people as to whether we should leave the plays in their original settings or attempt to bring them into a modern era. It seems that most (not all, but most) theatre companies prefer to use a contemporary setting. This isn't so much a problem, particularly if we are just looking at the costumes and maybe a bit of the stage, however this does turn into a problem when, like a version of Saint Joan that I saw recently, the directors go completely over board. While I can understand that the director may want to try and create a timeless aspect of the play, and remind us that while the play was written, and set, in the past, what the play is exploring is still very much pertinant to us today.
The the question really comes down to whether it is possible to modernise Hedda Gabler. The setting is clearly Norway in the late 19th century, but ns some cases there is very little difference to 19th Century Norway and modern Australia - Hedda Gabler looks at the life of the middle class, in a middle class society, that wants to live the middle class dream. Well, maybe I am pushing the whole middle class aspect of it a little too much, but the thing is that George is an academic, and while he is looking to gain a chair at the university, he generally isn't a member of the upper class, or at least the upper class that we know of today - rather he would be a member of the intelligentsia.

The thing about the middle class is that they seem to exist in this bubbled utopia. The reason I say this is because we are given so many images of the tranquillity of the middle class - the nice house in the suburbs with the white picket fence, socialising with the neighbours, the good job and the great retirement, we don't see the reality behind what is in effect a stage show. In fact there are many middle class families out there that have effectively become masters of putting on a stage show - for instance there was once when I wandered into a church to see a young couple holding a baby, what was in effect a symbol of their success, and I literally cringed at what in my mind was little more than a farce.

Okay, maybe, actually quite possibly, there is jealousy in my cringing in the sense that I never got the opportunity to experience this middle class dream of being happily married with lovely children and a good job, but then as I sit down in my chair five years later writing this after scrolling through my Facebook feed I notice that I'm not the only one who has been denied this dream. The friend's weddings who I went to who are now divorced, and the broken families remind me that the dream that I desired so much when I was young was basically that - a dream. Even if I did get married, and had children, there was no guarantee that that dream was going to come to fruition, and while that couple stood there, their faces beaming with the joy of holding a human life that they created in their hands, I just pray that they don't come anywhere near the pain and heartache that some of my friends have experienced.

Shattering the Middle Class Utopia

I don't think that Ibsen is necessarily saying that there is anything inherently bad in this idea of the middle class, but what he does seem to be saying is that we hold it in such a high regard that when things don't end up working out the way that we want them to it can be absolutely shattering. The impression that I got was that Hedda was a pretty wild woman, having flings and making friends, until such a time came about that she realised that she wasn't getting any younger, so she grabbed the first guy that she saw that she believed would continue that lifestyle. However, it is in many cases maintaining that lifestyle that was at the forefront of Hedda's eyes.

In the modern industrialised world life seems to move in a specific fashion, were we begin as children, move through highschool, enter the adult world through college, get our first fulltime job, get married, have children, watch our children grow up, and then once they have left home, we then go on to live our golden years enjoying everything that we have saved up. In fact this is the dream that seemed to have been propagated during the fifties, and in any ways people look on the fifties as the golden age of Western society - we had finally overcome tyranny, and we now had years of prosperity to look forward to.

Yet this dream was shattered, namely because the next generation, tasting the freedom that their parents had won, sought to push those freedoms further and further out. As such we had the swinging sixties, and then the seventies and eighties where the baby boomers settled down and started to marry. Now the baby boomers are entering their retirement and this dream of their parents (and my grandparents - I'm an X'er) has been shattered. Sure, there are many who have retired, but Global Financial Crisis of 2008 has effectively destroyed the savings of many. Then we look at the millennials, who are seeing a dream of being able to own a piece of property to call their own going up in smoke.

In a way, this dream of living a comfortable middle class life is suddenly becoming less and less achievable as time moves on, but maybe this has something to do with a lot of things, such as a world of limited resources, of stagnating wages, and of the older quickly pricing the younger out of any opportunity available. I'm not necessarily talking about a stagnating minimum wage, but rather even those in professional jobs, or even management positions, finding themselves in a situation where the dreams of their parents have up and vanished.

The Dream is Over

I have to admit that Hedda is one selfish individual - everything she says and does is for her own comfort. It is interesting when she wakes up after the honeymoon only to make a comment that she doesn't actually love George - he is an academic, but she is a socialite - in a way they simply aren't meant for each other. However, when George joins Thea in attempting to recreate that which Hedda has destroyed (I am being deliberately vague here because I don't want to give to much away), it becomes apparent that she simply cannot return to where she was before. Sure, George is more than happy for Judge Brack to keep her company, but it seems as if the relationship that she once had simply cannot be reinstated.

The thing is that Hedda has brought the world down around her in an attempt to advance her husband's potential. In a sense this is a clear case of 'behind every great man is an equally great woman', however the difference is that Hedda is more than willing to destroy people in order to advance her husband, and in turn her own lifestyle. Sure, the idea of the cut-throat and aspirational employee that tries to get to the top by any means possible is a cliched reality in our world, but what we have here is Hedda not so much pushing her husband forward, but preventing anybody else from getting in the way - which is why she puts so much pressure on Lovborg to have a drink. The problem is that since he is a recovering alcoholic, that one drink pretty much sets him off and everything goes downhill from there.

When we first come into this particular play, we find ourselves in an apartment, and by inference it is a pretty large apartment. However it is yet to be furnished, and decorated. As they mention, the reason for the apartment is so that they can entertain guests, namely because Hedda is a socialite (and even though George is an intellectual, in a way he would find himself moving around the intelligentsia of late 19th Century Norway). However, that sudden discovery that George's job is not assured, means that there is a chance that the dream that Hedda has will not come to pass, and the fact that they are laden down with debt simply isn't going to help.

In a way it is foolishness on their part because no doubt George extended himself to this extent to attract Hedda, who was clearly a desirable woman. Yet it is interesting to note that they don't necessarily seem to be meant for each other. However, this is possibly the nature of the intelligentsia of the late 19th Century - they are intellectuals, but they also move amongst the upper classes, and marry women who are socialites. In a way the intellectuals of today are seen just as out of touch as many of our leaders - in fact many of the middle class seem to be out of touch with the realities of the world in which we live, and the struggles facing the poor, the disadvantaged, and the young.

The Demonic Debt

The thing with debt is that it is toxic. Okay, not all debt is toxic, and unfortunately companies do need to go into debt to either meet their day to day expenses, or to be able to expand. In fact it is common practice not only for major companies to be in debt, but also for governments. The thing is that technically this debt isn't actually ever paid back. What is interesting is that as I follow the stock market I notice how companies in Australia, who are sitting on bucket loads of cash, are more interested in buying back shares than paying down debt. It seems as if this debt is never meant to be paid off, but rather exists in perpetuity.

However we aren't talking about investment, or commercial, debt, which is used to generate an income, but rather consumer debt, which is designed to encourage somebody to get something sooner rather than later. While there are some instances where going into debt is necessary, such as buying a house, or a car (though theoretically you don't need to go into debt to buy a car), much of the time consumers go into debt not because they need something, but rather because they want something. What is more concerning is that people go into debt for one off experiences such as weddings and holidays - in a sense it is like buying drugs on credit because you need the hit now.

The reason that I raise this issue is because we are reminded through the play that Hedda and George are burdened down with debt because they are basically buying a lifestyle. This seems to be the case these days where while we might work, we also want a lifestyle, and we will borrow, and banks will lend, to us to experience that lifestyle. The catch was that it became clear that the job wasn't 'in the bag' as they say. Hedda wanted the lifestyle, and she wasn't going to let anything get in the way of that lifestyle, to the point that she had no problems completely destroying somebody's life to get that lifestyle, with the expected tragic consequences.

As I mentioned to somebody at church the day after I saw the play - Ibsen is brutal. When I first read him I was really, really uncomfortable to the point that I literally threw the play out of the room and claimed that I never wanted to see, or read it, again. In a way it is like A Street Car Named Desire, another play that I read in High School and another play that I hate - however what the plays aren't is that they aren't fairy tales - in a way they are tragedies, but moreso they are domestic dramas that rips apart the veil that our middle class society hides behind and exposes the dark underbelly for all to see. If you feel uncomfortable watching, or even reading, the play then that is because Ibsen wanted to you feel uncomfortable.

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Hedda Gablar - Life Beyond the Wedding Day 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, 12 September 2017

Staedel - The Modern, the Contemporary, and Georg Baselitz

One thing that I noticed is that I didn't make any mention on the background to the Staedel in my previous post, except in mentioning that it was established by a banker. As it turned out he died without leaving any heirs, that is if you don't consider this museum as an heir. When he died he left five hundred works of art, mostly Flemish and Dutch works, for the public to enjoy, initially in his house but later in a much larger building. Unfortunately, a lot of those original paintings were sold off during the nineteenth century, but since that time a lot more have been collected. The original composition was mostly landscapes, but then again that can be quite a broad term.

The original layout was the St Petersberg model, after the Hermitage in St Petersburg (a museum I would love to visit one day). Unlike modern galleries, paintings were kept together and there wasn't anywhere near as much space as you have in modern galleries. Also, paintings were arranged thematically, and if the paintings were of a similar type they would be grouped together, which suggest that there was probably an entire room dedicated to Madonna and Childs.  

Sort of like this

Georg Baselitz's Heroes

While I didn't actually find this exhibition until sometime after I had been wandering through the gallery, it is probably worth noting at the beginning of this post considering that it is a temporary exhibition. The thing with Baselitz is that he is a contemporary have been to some exhibitions of contemporary art where you are allowed to take photographs). In fact Baselitz is still alive, which adds further complications to this. In a way his works are similar to Picasso's in that many of them are still under copyright, which is not surprising since, as I have previously mentioned, he is still alive.

The exhibition focused on a series of his paintings which he has called his hero paintings. Basically these are paintings of people, but not in the sense that I would refer to them as portraits, namely because in my mind a portrait is a painting of a living (for formerly living) person - Baselitz's paintings are what what you would call expressionist in that they are paintings of people that are designed to capture an emotion from the viewer. In a way it is art that does take some getting used to, and is certainly not of a style that one could attribute to the old masters. Then again these days art seems to have drifted so far away from the skill of the masters that one wonders whether there is actually any skill in it anymore, or at least the creation of it.

While it is suggested that Baselitz is an expressionist, I could probably also classify him as an existentialist namely because his initial paintings dealt with Germany's existential crisis that came about after the defeat that came from World War II. In fact it almost seemed as if the German State had not only woken up from a really bad dream, but had woken up with a huge hangover and suddenly realised that the the night before was horrendous. Honestly, the whole horrid episode, and Germany's reaction to it, could easily take up a post in and of itself, and it is something that I'm not willing to do since I am neither German, nor had I lived through the sorrid episode.

However, Baselitz did - he was born in 1938. As such he not only grew up under Hitler, but he grew up during the war. Thus Baselitz not only had known no over government than Hitler's, he had known no other world than a world in which his nation was at war with the rest of the world. It is into this reality that this existential crisis arises - one has grown up knowing only this world, only to discover that not only had this reality been shattered, but that they were also the 'bad guys'.

This is was this exhibition was about, Baselitz, and in turn his generation, coming to terms with the reality that everything that had grown up believing was a lie, and that the heroes that they worshiped were little more than monsters. Mind you, this is a change that had been happened throughout Western Europe for a while - the idea of the honourable and noble soldier going out to bravely die for king and country came to a bloody end on the fields of Flanders. In another sense the true horrors of 'my country right or wrong' was revealed in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

I have to be honest here now - when I initially saw Baselitz's works, they didn't make sense. In a way they simply seemed to be nothing more than scribbles that vaguely resembled a human - usually male. However, looking at his background, and thinking about his style, and his themes, these paintings are starting to make a lot more sense. This is one of the beauties of modern art - it has ceased to represent, and reflect, objects, and instead is moving to reflect ideas and emotions.

A Modern Movement

Sometimes I get a little confused with the term Modern Art - usually what comes to mind are those artists, and works of art, that tend to push the boundaries and sometimes simply leave you standing there, scratching your head, and wondering what it is that you actually saw - or experienced. That, however, is more precisely contemporary art, and while some people have a love/hate relation to it, it is something that I will get to shortly since that is the subject of the works in the Staedel's basement. Instead, what we are looking at here are the works of the artists from the 19th and early 20th century.

Yet it can still be a bit of a misnomer because the art that appeared during this period took many different forms, and the first we will look at are those from the Romantic movement. Romanticism can be characterised as focusing on individuality and emotion, as well as looking to the beauty of the past as opposed to the present. The interesting thing is that the term has been somewhat corrupted these days to refer to the act of courting (which interestingly arose from the play Romeo and Juliet). However, the true origin of the word is that it pertains to the Roman Empire - hence why we refer to the languages that evolved from Latin as being Romantic Languages.

The first work we will consider is called Hamlet and Horatio in the Graveyard by Eugene Delacroix. Delacriox was a French painter and was considered to be at forefront of the movement, at least where paintings were concerned. The focus of this painting, no doubt, is on the fleeting nature of life - which is what the scene in Hamlet is about. Here we have the famous scene where Hamlet looks at the skull of the jester Yorik, and reflects on the past where he was a living, breathing human. In a way not only is life fleeting, but time is fleeting as well. In some cases we will wake up one morning, look around us, and wonder where everything as gone.

It turns out that the next work that I'll be looking at is actually a statue. I have to be honest and say that it is difficult doing statues because they tend to be in three dimensions whereas paintings are generally in two dimensions. However, this sculpture grabbed my attention as I was looking through my photos from the Staedel so I might as well write a couple of things about it.

It is called 'Esmeralda and the Goat, Daji' by Antonnio Rosetti, and once again falls into the Romantic category. One of the reasons is that it is based on a character from The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Esmeralda is a gypsy (or more precisely Romani) woman who has mastered the art of seduction. However, she is rarely, if ever, seen without her faithful goat. However, since I haven't read the book I can't say much more beyond that - other than the fact that I quite liked the sculpture. The interesting thing though is that most sculptures that I know of are either of mythical heroes (and villains), or real people - Rosetti has broken with that mould and has created a sculpture from a fictional character.

Rosetti - Esmeralda and her Goat Daji

The next painting is of the poet Goethe (who I have written a post on previously). This painting, which is a life sized portrait, was done while he was down in Rome, and it is said that when he saw the painting he made a comment as to how it was simply too big to fit into the average house in Germany. As it turns out, it ended up in the possession of the Rothschilds, who in the late 19th century, gifted it to the Staedel. This painting now hangs in pride of place at the gallery at the entrance to the modern collection. I have to admit that it is actually a pretty impressive painting, and it strikes you as soon as you step into the room. As soon as I saw it I took a photo, and then cropped it and turned it into my Goodreads profile picture.

Tischbein - Goethe in the Roman Campagna

When it comes to art you simply cannot go past Monet. Well, okay, you can, but he is certainly up there with the masters of the impressionist movement. In fact, it was one of his paintings from which the movement got its name, though that was used with scorn as opposed to delight since this movement began to challenge what it meant to be an artist, and what constituted art. However, this painting, Le dejeuner (Lunch), has a similar impressive back story, since it was the painting that was rejected by the Paris Salon, and in turn gave rise to an alternate, underground, artistic movement.

The painting is a simple painting, but then again the impressionists liked to paint ordinary scenes of ordinary people. Okay, I'd hardly consider Monet to be an ordinary person - he is a titan of the artistic world - but I am looking back at his works from over a hundred years. It is similar with Van Gogh, who appeared to have never amounted to much in his life, but has become an artist that is adored my many. This painting, however, is a simple painting of Monet's family sitting down and eating lunch. In a sense it is simply catching an image of normal people doing normal things, but in doing so it enables us normal people to connect much better with the painting than to the paintings of great and noble heroes.

Monet - Le dejeuner
Uhde was a German impressionist who is said to have introduced the style of en plein air into the country. This is a style where the artists works visually as instead of from imagination. It was a style that characterised the works of Van Gogh and other impressionists. Actually, Uhde sat somewhere between realism and impressionism, though a lot of his works, like the great French painters, were of ordinary people doing ordinary things. This painting, called 'A Portrait of a Lady' is actually of Therese Karl.

Actually, Uhde wasn't strictly an impressionist, and a painter of real and ordinary things since he also painted religious paintings, such as The Last Supper and The Road to Eumaus. Interestingly, like a lot of other religious artists, Uhde's paintings were painted in a German setting as opposed to a traditional Middle Eastern setting. Like Da Vinci's Last Supper, the fact that they are sitting on chairs is clearly out of place in those paintings.

Uhde - Portrait of a Lady
Expressionism is actually a German style of art that arose at the beginning of the 20th Century. The style warped reality to create an emotional impact, usually one related to angst. The style isn't just limited to painting as it also came about in the poetry, and also architecture, literature, theatre, cinema, and dance. Probably the most famous of expressionist painting is Edvard Murch's The Scream.

While I could start writing about The Scream, it isn't located in The Staedel but rather in the National Gallery of Norway, so I'll just leave it at that and move onto a couple of the expressionist works in The Staedel. The first that I will look at is a work by Matisse called Flowers and Ceramic Vase. This is a still life, but obviously it isn't anything like the realistic still lifes that many of us are familiar with. This one has some flowers and a vase sitting before an open blue curtain with what looks like a green moon. However, the interesting thing is that the moon is not behind the curtain but before it. Also, while the name of the painting refers to the vase and the flowers, it is interesting that we (or myself at least) seem to be drawn towards the moon - it is out of place, as if invading the scene. While it doesn't necessarily put us out, it certainly seems to be in a place that it shouldn't be. I guess that is the nature of expressionist works.

Matusse - Flowers and Ceramic Vase

The second expressionist work I wish to consider is a painting called Trumpeters in the Village by Lyonel Feninger. Feninger actually started his artistic career as a cartoonist and worked on comic books. While the Staedel suggested that this background showed in this work, I'm actually not all that convinced. Actually, a part of me wonders why I even picked this painting because now that I have looked at it it certainly doesn't appeal to me all that much. Once again, I guess that is the nature of expressionist works because its rather crude nature suggests a rural atmosphere. Yet the yellow seems to swallow out all of the details, except the faces, which appear to have been drafted in pen. Still, it is a good example of an expressionist work.

Feninger - Trumpeters in the Village

Art of Today

The basement of the Staedel is dedicated to Contemporary works of art, and they can be a little confusing. However, while contemporary art can be challenging, or simply ignored by people who don't fully appreciate it, by spending a bit of time studying some of these works can be quite rewarding. As such I will look at some of the works in this post (and my next one), and attempt to wrap my head around the oddity of this style (if there actually is one).

The first is by the artist Neo Rauch and is called 'You are Losing All This Time of Yours'. The painting is rather odd, and unfortunately I am only going off the photo that I took with my phone since I can't find a duplicate on the internet. However, it is a picture of a train - no doubt a high speed train - with a cut away in the corner where there are two people, one of them who appears to be weeping. I guess this is the nature of our society, but also the human condition - life is fleeting and time flies. Even though we are able to travel at extra-ordinary speeds these days, time never seems to be enough. In a way it can be quite depressing, with so many demands on our time. In a way it can cause us to break down as the character in the painting has done. No matter what we do, we simply do not seem to be able to slow down the rate time moves.

Louvre 3 by Thomas Struth challenges the way that art is viewed. Traditionally we have the artwork and us, the viewer, however Struth takes a step back and has us viewing the viewers, as well as viewing the art, and the artwork itself. The work is photographic and is of one of the rooms in the Louvre. Here we have a group of people, all sitting on seats, looking at the various works of art around them. People have always taken photos of art (where allowed), as long as there has been cameras, but this is different - not only are we photographing art we are also photographing those who are looking at the art. In a way, viewing and admiring art has become an artistic expression in itself.

Next we move to another photograph, this time at an airport - Charles de Gaulle to be precise. Now, despite having been to France, I haven't been through Charles de Gaulle so I cannot really comment on it. However, what we have here is a photograph, and a rather simple one at that, becoming artistic. In another way it is celebrating architecture. Architecture is a form of art, and many of us don't actually take the opportunity to appreciate it. What Gursky is doing is forcing us to step back and have a look around us, and appreciate the art that is not only on the walls, but are the walls.

The next work is called The Mountain King, and is classic contemporary art. Actually, if it wasn't for the explanation on the Staedel website I probably would have dismissed it as simply being pretentious. However, it is an example of how contemporary artists use seemingly innocuous objects to create a meaning. This looks like a couple of rocks, but Beuys is causing us to think of the ancient German tradition of the mountain king. These were ancient kings who live on in the mountains. However, it is also reflective of Plato's cave, of a human who has reached a higher state of consciousness. Mind you, I'm probably not one of those humans because I will simply look at this and think that it is just a couple of rocks.

I'll finish of this post with a work from one of my favourite contemporary artists - Andy Warhol. While I have already written a post on an exhibition that I visited here in Melbourne, this was on display at the Staedel. This is not surprising because it is of one of the museums most well known works, which is of one of Germany's greatest writers - Goethe. However, what Warhol is doing here is rejecting the traditional method of creating unique works of art by turning them into silk screen prints, and then mass producing them. In fact he referred to his workshop as his factory, and had staff mass producing his art. Also, by using silk screen techniques, and the bright colours, he is also transforming not only the way we see art, but the way art is produced.

However, this isn't the end of my post on The Staedel, since due to there being so many great works of art for me to explore, I have decided to also write a third, and final, post, as well as a post on my travel blog.

Creative Commons License

Staedel - The Modern, the Contemporary, and Georg Baselitz 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, 5 September 2017

The Good Old Church Camp

I was originally planning on posting this on my travel blog, until i realised that this post really has little to actually do with travel, and more to do with my general miscellaneous writings that appear on this blog. Okay, a church camp can be considered, to an extent, a holiday of sorts, and you do tend to go away somewhere - usually one of the many campsites around the city, but not too far away so that people who basically hate sleeping at campsites, and people who have to work, can get there at a reasonable time. You then tend to spend the weekend just hanging out with people, as well have having a couple of talks, and generally fellowshipping in the way that you would on a Sunday, but in a much larger capacity.

Honestly, I'm not sure if the camp is a tradition of many churches, especially the smaller ones, but with some of the churches that I have been too there is generally one a year. Okay, when I was in University we actually had quite a lot more camps: commencement camp, midyear conference, and a mens/woman retreat. We also had a national training event that came about after end of year exams, and of course we had our youth camp (and then there was the congregational camp on top of that, but I didn't go to that one because, well, by that time I was pretty camped out).

Actually, I have had a long history of camps, and it wasn't just the school camps that I would go on (though I believe we would have one of them a year, though in year 11 they decided to cancel the camp because the previous year 11s had caused at lot of trouble, which meant that we got punished for what they did, while they went on to year twelve and, not surprisingly, had a camp). I had also been in scouts, which also meant lots and lots of camps, though while some of those camps were at camp sites, a lot of them happened to be out in the bush in tents.

Four Player Ping Pong

Anyway, the main reason I am now writing this post is because I have just returned from my church camp and I feel like sharing some thoughts on my experience (though I'm not going to be posting it to my social media accounts because, well, as I have discovered people can be a little touchy). Mind you, I have now moved cities so these camps are a whole new experience, but in some cases the more things change, the more they say the same. However, what it also means is that I also get to explore, and experience, church camping here in Melbourne.

How Things Change

I have to admit that things have changed an awful lot since I was going to church camps in my youth. Back then when you went away you were basically cut off from the outside world - no radio, no television, and certainly no traveling down to the local coffee shop (or pub) for some coffee. Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating a little, but it did feel as if when we went away we would basically leave our everyday life behind, and while we may have listened to music (though music is one of those touchy subjects where if one person objects to a song then the song isn't played) we didn't watch television, we didn't watch sport, and we certainly didn't have our computers or access to the internet. However, these days, not only do the campsites have wifi, we also have our laptops which we can pull out and much around on if we choose to.

And of course our cars to get us to the coffee shop

Yet maybe this also had something to do with the church that I am now attending. My previous church, which these days seems like eons ago, would expect most of us to be there by at least 8:30 pm on the Friday, and then have a Friday night talk. Saturday would start with a talk, then small groups, then lunch. In the afternoon would you have an elective, a couple of hours of free time, a leaders meeting (which meant that a bunch of people would be denied part of their free time), dinner, the evening talk, and then the evening activity. Finally, on Sunday, there would be a final talk, more small groups, and then we would head home while being told that it didn't matter how exhausted we were, we were still expected to be at church for the evening service.

Maybe it was because this particular church was a bigger church that there was still an evening service, but in another sense it was one of those churches that basically had a certain expectation of commitment when it came to being a Christian, and if you were not willing to meet that standard, then you mustn't be all that committed, and in the end are probably damned to hell (though they would never actually say that - they would just insinuate that you wouldn't get as many brownie points as a more committed person would).

There was still the singalong, but some things don't change
Yet these last couple of camps that I have been on in Melbourne have been much more relaxed. First of all there is no talk on Friday night (though one of them did have a get to know you session, though that was because the camp covered all of the church's services as opposed to just one congregation). The other aspect was that there was no expectation that you would then come to the service that night (and in fact all services were canceled, but then again I was so exhausted that I simply went to sleep as soon as I got home).

The other thing that seems to have come out of this church is that the previous churches that I have been to I have basically been around friends and peers, yet for some reason this church seems to feel much more like family. The reason for this though probably has a lot to do with me being such a distance from my natural family, where as back in Adelaide my parents and siblings were either just around the corner, or even in the next room. I guess moving away has the potential of creating much stronger bonds.

Human, All too Human

I have to admit that there has always been a misconception when in comes to Christians, and not even in my mind. Okay, I have been guilty of somehow expecting them to actually be better than the world at large, and was in a way shattered when I discovered that while they weren't necessarily worse, they were simply bad in another way. For instance when I was back in school I was an unfortunately target for bullies. My early schooling was at a state school, which meant the bullying was to some extent physical, but in another sense simply teasing. So, when my parents asked me if I wanted to go to a Christian high school I jumped at the opportunity, expecting that the problems that I faced at primary school wouldn't be there. Well, it turned out that the bullying at the Christian school basically took another form.

My primary school

Working in the industry that I do the one thing that comes to the fore is that nobody is ever satisfied, and even if they pay for one thing they basically expect a lot more. Okay, in one sense that is simply the way to do business - haggling and negotiation so that we reach a point where both parties are happy. However, this takes another form where the 'customer' starts throwing tantrums when they simply don't get their own way. There is haggling and negotiation, and then there is demanding privileges and options that they are not entitled to because they either failed to do their due diligence or simply wanted to save a few pennies. As a lawyer friend of mine told me - it is imperative to always get your money up front.

Which in turn leads me to the church. Honestly, when I was younger a part of me felt that I was just a spoilt brat complaining because I simply wasn't getting my own way. I complained because I was never made a small group leader, and because I was never made a small group leader I somehow wasn't as good a Christian as the small group leaders. It didn't help that there were subtle, though unspoken suggestions, that small group leaders were better, and more mature Christians, than those who weren't, and the fact that I kept on getting passed over for the roles made me feel as if I was somehow lacking in my faith. That is until recently when a friend pretty much gave me free reign to lead her group, only to discover that I actually hated being a small group leader.

Yet despite the fact that I was disappointed at being passed over for such roles, and that things didn't seem to go the way that I wanted them to go, I have since discovered that my complaints were only a drop in the ocean compared to what Church leaders actually have to face. Our congregation is currently in a transition between pastors and our current administrator has suddenly discovered what it is like to face the wrath of the congregation. It is even suggested that one of the roles of the administrators is to filter the emails that members of the congregation send.

Bible Study Group

Okay, while I understand that as Christians we will no doubt face opposition from the world, whether it be from the secular authorities, or whether it be from Christian elements outside of the particular congregation, but a part of me was surprised that a lot of opposition comes from within as well. This was somehow surprising, particularly since in this day and age if somebody doesn't like the church, or the way it is being run, they can simply pack their bags and walk to the one just down the road - except that it isn't as easy as that. Sure, the leadership and the congregational members may not necessarily see eye to eye, but when you have a community like that of a church, especially one where friendships have been formed over years, then simply packing up and leaving isn't always the easiest option.

Mind you, there is community, and there is community, and sometimes I wonder whether the modern Western church is capable of creating a community that exists beyond our individualistic mindset that makes us little more than a weekly gathering that has little to do with each other during the rest of the week, and is certainly not willing to step out and help those who are struggling.

No One is Good ...

Another change that I have noticed over the years is how Bibles, and note taking, has all become electronic. Okay, I use my phone to read my Bible, at least on the train in the morning, but I am still a lover of paper books. As for taking notes, well, once again I still use my notepad, which generally collects notes from sermons but are never looked at afterwards. Mind you, it isn't as if we are studying for an exam, though the general suggestion is that taking sermon notes helps one retain what is said, yet I'm not sure if that is entirely correct - I have this feeling that the only reason I take notes is because I have been doing it for so long that it has simply become a habit. As I have suggested, it isn't as if I look at my notes afterwards.

Anyway, the talks at the camp, and there were only three (unlike the other camps that I have been to), were exploring the nature of what it means to be good. As I think about it the definition of good is one of those definitions that one can really struggle to come up with something clear and concise. Well, definitions of any work, especially in this relativistic age, could effectively be anything, but in this sense we are trying to determine what it means to be good. Mind you, it is similar to the definition of love, in that while we might through the word around quite a lot, when asked to actually define it we will probably all struggle.

These guys certainly did.
Even though the pastor told us not look it up on Wikipedia, when he asked us to write a definition I suddenly realised that I couldn't. Well, I guess if asked off the cuff to define what it means to be good I would probably suggest that it is something that is acceptable to another person, or something that is pleasing to somebody. Mind you, goodness is actually quite relative these days because while a black coffee from McDonalds might be good to one person, it is not necessarily the case to another (who probably believes that the Starbucks Macchiato is good). However, we did eventually check out the Wikipedia entry after the talk, and sure enough the definition was quite relative.
In its most general context of the study of morality, ethics, religion and philosophy, the good often refers to and denotes that conduct which is to be preferred and prescribed by society and its social constituents as beneficial and useful to the social needs of society and its preferred conventions. The specific meaning and etiology of the meaning and use of the 'good' and its associated translations among ancient and contemporary languages has varied substantially in its inflected meaning depending of circumstances of place, history, religious context and philosophical context. Source: Wikipedia.
Mind you, that is only the opening paragraph on what is in effect a pretty long article, and the definition changes based upon whom you are referring to, yet the general consensus seems to be that it is something that is acceptable to somebody, and something that is pleasing to somebody (though that could also be the definition of beauty). Interestingly, during the creation narrative, creation is referred to as being 'good' as opposed to being 'beautiful', so I'm not entirely sure whether these words are interchangeable. Then again, I suspect that while something might be beautiful, it doesn't necessarily mean that it is good, and vice versa.

The question is also raised as to whether an atheist can be good, and the general consensus is that the answer is yes. I have heard some talks where the preacher has pretty much made the suggestion that since Stalin was an atheist and Stalin committed some horrendous crimes, then all atheists are like that. Honestly, that is a logical fallacy because that same speaker also opened his talk with an apology for the Crusades. Personally, I pretty much walked out soon afterwards, and have lost all respect for that particular Theologian.

Interestingly, there is also that quote from the Bible where some Pharisees approach Jesus and open the question with the phrase 'good teacher', to which he responds 'why do you call me good? Nobody is good but God alone'. That, honestly, sounds like somebody being incredibly picky, until you realise who he is talking to. When the Pharisees asked Jesus questions they generally didn't have anything to do with actually wanting an answer, but attempting to trap him so as to discredit him. Yet sometimes I wonder whether our attempts to discredit speakers puts us in that category as well - when we know somebody is speaking rubbish, do we challenge them on it or do we simply let it slide?

In the Middle

The final talk was a little different, namely because the original speaker had to disappear. It was on that little passage where we have a Pharisee enter the temple and start loudly praising God, thanking him for making him such a wonderful person. He then looks at the tax collector and immediately compares himself with him. I should mention that back in those days tax collectors were basically the lowest of the low - not only where they scam artists, but they were also viewed as Roman collaborators. Actually, back in those days the way taxes were collected was that the tax collector would take a certain amount, which was generally in excess of what was actually needed to pay the Romans.

The reason I raise this is because of how the church is basically become a middle class church. Okay, the churches that I have generally been to tend to be churches that are populated by university educated people - engineers, scientists, lawyers, doctors. Sure, there are some tradespeople among them, but not many. What you don't tend to find are unemployed people, and you certainly don't find drug users or prostitutes - at least not anybody openly admitting it - nor will you find any of the congregation standing out the front having a smoke. The other interesting thing is that the Clergy seem to gravitate towards these churches, and those in affluent areas, leaving the less affluent suburbs struggling for staff.

I guess it is once again part of human nature, but one thing I have noticed, particularly with one church that I was involved in, is that they would go out and plant other congregations, but their selections tended to be affluent areas - they never bothered, or even considered, planting a church in a working class neighbourhood, or even a ghetto. Okay, a lot of their members would have come from university, and also from professional work places, but it makes me wonder whether there is this attitude that maybe, just maybe, working class and unemployed people are seen as being worthy since they tend to be much cruder, and poorer, than the professional class.

Okay, I have been to some suburban churches over the past few years and they certainly do have their fair share of trades people. Actually, these days tradies tend to be reasonably wealthy, namely because with the lowering of acceptance rates, and deferred payment options, access to tertery studies is much easier. That means that people are going to uni as opposed to learning a trade, and as such the trades are struggling to find suitably qualified people.

Yet that still leaves the unemployed, the homeless, and the undesirables. The reality is that, as Jesus, he came to save the lost in the same way that Doctors seek out the sick as opposed to the healthy. John Wesley saw that, and in fact specifically went out to share the gospel with them, as did Jesus. Interestingly though, as these groups accepted the words of salvation, and as God began to change them, there was a remarkable change in their lives, and the lives of their offspring to the point that within a generation Wesley's church had suddenly become a middle class church.

Against Christianity

That sounds like a pretty dodgy title for a post on a church camp, but in reality it is related to a card game called Card's Against Humanity. The game is a lot like a game show that I remember watching as a child called Blankety Blanks in that you are given a phrase with a word (or two) missing, and you have to fill in the blanks. However, you had a set of cards with single words on it, and you would put a word that you thought would be the funniest for that phrase, and the person whose turn it is would look a everybody's cards (not knowing who the owner is of course), and then pick the winner. The original card game had some pretty crude words in this collection, so my friend decided that he would create his own, using Christian phrases, and of course concepts that only those of us who are familiar with the Christian social circles would understand.

However, before I continue, one of the good things about the modern internet is that I can actually share videos, so here is one from Blankety Blanks.

That was fun, let's do it again:

I have to admit that this game was actually really clever, and in one sense reminded me of a book that I read a while back called 'Stuff Christians Like'. It was a light hearted look at some of the quirks of Christian social groups, particularly within largish churches. I say largish because I am not necessarily referring to churches that would be considered Megachurches, but are large enough that a single congregation could conceivably have a church camp. Yet there is something that is unique about this culture, such as camp crushes, raising your hands in a spiritual fashion (because Anglicans don't raise their hands, say hallelujah, or even scream out 'praise the lord').

Yet while it is a social group like any other social group, in another sense it is what one would consider a clean social group - we know how to have fun without resorting to drugs, alcohol, or debaucherous parties. Okay, while we might not be the only group that can do this, having been about through my life I struggle to find other groups that are able to have fun outside such a context. I still remember going to a friend's farewell party and upon returning home discovered my housemates falling over each other in a drunken stupor. I looked at this, shook my head, and wondered whether this was actually all that fun.

Creative Commons License

The Good Old Church Camp 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