Monday, 30 October 2017

Dreaming of Sheep - Blade Runner

When I first saw the teaser trailer for Blade Runner 2049 I was intrigued. At first I thought it was just another remake with Ryan Gosling playing Deckard, however when Harrison Ford made an appearance in that same trailer I realised that it was actually a sequel. As such, upon discovering that after almost forty years we would be revisiting the world of Blade Runner I decided that I wanted to revisit the original story, starting off with the book (which, until recently, I have never read), and also watching one of the eight versions of the film. Originally I was planning on simply watching it at home, but I then discovered that my local cinema was screening 'Blade Runner: The Final Cut', so I decided that I would go and watch it on the big screen (which I don't believe I have actually done until recently).

There the film and the book are actually quite similar, but in a way the story is a little different (for instance in the film we don't have Deckard being arrested and taken to a 'fake' police station). However, the major theme, that of identity, is generally the same. Also, there is a difference in terminology - for instance in the book the replicants are referred to as andy's (short for androids), and the term Blade Runner isn't used either. However, the main theme about how four Nexus 6 androids escape to Earth and the Blade Runner Deckard has to hunt the down is the same.

Dick's Version

A friend of mine, who happens to be a pretty huge fan of Phillip K Dick, suggests that novels aren't really Dick's strong point. Personally, I'm probably inclined to agree in that I have found that his short stories tend to be of a much higher quality (though the only novels that I have read so far are Man in the High Castle and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep). Yet while the film and the book are similar, there is also some rather distinct differences. First of all Deckard is married, so while in both the film and the book he sleeps with Rachel, in the book the question is raised as to whether he is actually having an affair.

Another thing about the book is that the Earth is actually pretty much uninhabited. Sure, there is a suggestion in the film that only those who are fit enough are eligible to live in the off world colonies, leaving only the sick, lame, and those who are simply not interested back on Earth. However, while in both the film and the book, most of the animals are become extinct, in the book owning a real animal is actually a status symbol - a symbol which requires you to put it on display outside your apartment for everybody to see.

Also, the book is set after a rather devastating war, so much of Earth has not only become depopulated, but is also uninhabitable. The image you get is of deserted buildings and apartments inhabited by loners, with nobody else around. However, rather interestingly is that having now read the book, and watching the film again, I have noticed that there are some elements that seem to pop up in the film - yet in a way they seem to a series of disconnected scenes, created by a film maker that had an idea as to what he wanted, but wasn't really all that sure on how to but it together.

Scott's Vision

One of the major differences between the book and the film is the setting. Where as Dick's vision seemed to be of a world that had been devastated by war, in Scott's vision we have are taken into this cyberpunk world that is dark, wet, and incredibly crowded. In fact Ridley Scott's film is reminiscent of the old film Noir detective stories such as The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep. Actually, the one thing that Blade Runner isn't is an action film, which is in part why I am starting to feel a little disenchanted with the upcoming sequel. From the teasers it seems to be about a replicant who is building an army, and that is a lot more action orientated that the original.

The thing is that Scott's film is a detective film set in a cyberpunk like world. It is a world that has been ravaged by industrialisation, to the point that all of the animals have died off and are only in possession of those who have enough money. As for the world, it is a crowded world that is forever raining, and it wracked by pollution. In a sense it seems to build on the idea that was first espoused in Neuromancer, except that it gives us a visualisation of this world, and almost serves as a warning of one of the potential futures which we face. It is a harsh and barren world, one that is covered by city, and in which the sun never shines.

However, maybe that has something to the with the rather Film Noir aspect to it. It takes the form of a detective film, which follows on with the tradition of the old noir films of the fifties. Yet while it is dark, it is not a dark look at the present, but a dark look at the future. Whereas the noir films seemed to part to look at the dark underbelly of what some considered to be a perfect society, this vision shows us that the future isn't all that bright and rosy, and in fact could be quite terrifying.

An Issue of Identity

This is one of the key themes that not only permeates the book and the film, but also quite a lot of Dick's writings. For instance the question is raised as to whether the replicants are human or not, and the closer they come to becoming human, the more difficult it becomes to being able to detect what they are. This is why in the film they are constructed with four year life spans, namely because they are so much more powerful that your average human that there needs to be a failsafe built in case they escape (as they have done). The other thing is that they are so life like that there is actually difficulty in being able to tell them apart.

This is why a test was created to read their emotion. It is interesting that at the opening to the film we have one of the replicants being given the test, and he is so put off by the questions that he ends up snapping and killing the person giving the test. However, we then have Rachel being given the test and are told that even after a hundred questions Deckard is still not quite certain whether she is human or not. However, we are told that she is in fact a replicant, even though she doesn't even know it herself.

Interestingly we also have the issue of the animals in the book (which doesn't make it into the film). The whole point behind the title is that Deckard actually has an electric sheep on display, though nobody actually realises that it is a fake. The funny this is that these animals actually serve no purpose whatsoever other than as a status symbol - the rarer the animal you have on display, the greater the status you have because it is a symbol of wealth - and this is despite the fact that they actually serve no purpose whatsoever.

This idea of owning a useless item as a status symbol is something that seems to resonate in our society quite a lot. Cars are one thing, as are houses. Well, suggesting that cars are useless is sort of devaluing them more than they probably deserve, but in reality they are a symbol not so much of individualism but also of isolation, two things that are not necessarily the best traits of our modern Anglo-American world. However, while the latest BMW might have all the fancy bells and whistles that you would expect a top of the line and state of the art vehicle to have, in the end you are still paying a premium for the name, and also in a way you are paying money for a status symbol.

Yet there seems to be a lot of pressure on people to confirm to these status symbols, as was indicated by a German that I spoke to who worked for Audi. His position was that if you lived in Germany then you were expected to purchase, and drive, a German made vehicle - anything else was basically a symbol that you were either poor, or a cheapskate. In fact we live in a society where a person who is frugal with their money is actually viewed with suspicion and scorn - words such as stingy and cheapskate regularly apply to them, though ironically not so much the word prudent.

End of the Cycle

Years ago I remember a Christian industrial metal band named Circle of Dust released a song named Course of Ruin. This song had selective samples from the film, and generally focused on the concept of death. While we are all faced with the inevitableness of death, this is much more so when it comes to the replicants, who have a mere four years in which to experience life. Of course, as is the nature of robots, they technically should not be aware of the span of their life, and its inevitable conclusion, yet it seems that the more advanced the robots become the more self aware they become.

One wonders whether it is possible to program a computer to fully understand the nature of death, or is it something that sets us humans apart from machines. Okay, animals also have an understanding of death, which is why they tend to be timid, and also display self preservation survival techniques. However, it seems as if an understanding, and appreciation, not just of the finality of death, but also its mysteriousness, is something that not just makes us human, but also makes us self aware.

Yet it is clear that these replicants are self aware because they are aware of their mortality. In fact the whole purpose of the trip to Earth is so that they can meet their maker and somehow reverse this mortal aspect of their lives. Interestingly enough, the whole invocation of deity comes about with the phrase 'it is not everyday that you get to meet your maker', and also when asked about whether he can reverse this process, the reply is simply 'I'm sorry, but that is a little out of my jurisdiction'.

This is another part of the film that confronts our modern lives - that of our endless quest to stave off death. Yes, it is true that death of final, and heart wrenching, but it seems that many of us go to extraordinary lengths to stop it. Simply walk past the local gym and you will see rows and rows of people on the equipment keeping fit so that they might live longer. However, as I look at them I sometimes wonder whether their lives are actually all that fulfilling. In some cases, like other aspects of our society, working out at the gym can actually be a very solitary exercise.

The other thing that I notice is the extraordinary amount of money that is being poured into the medical fraternity. In fact I have seen here in Australia the government fund two cancer centres in two cities - these two buildings focused on attempting to combat a single disease, though it is one that is incredibly devastating. Yet sometimes I wonder whether there is some selectiveness in the way these diseases are being combated. AIDS for instance, because it is a disease that attacks people that live certain alternate lifestyles then it was pushed lower down the list of important diseases to combat. However, I still remember back in the days when having aids was a stigma that literally outed you as being a member of an undesirable underclass. Fortunately this has changed somewhat, though the destructive nature of the disease is still being felt world wide.

Looking to the Future

This version of the future is rather bleak - both in Dick's novel and in Scott's film. However, not every picture of the future is all that rosy and beautiful, and sometimes this can serve as a warning to us all. Mind you, Dick wasn't necessarily interested in painting bleak pictures of the future, but rather addressing the nature of the human identity in an increasingly post-modern world. In fact the rise of individualism has almost created a fluidity in our identity, and I am not necessarily talking about gender identity here, though this is one aspect of it (and while I could discuss some ideas regarding Gender identity I think I'll leave it for another time).

Yet the question of the barrier between an android and a human is an interesting one. Sure, these days it is pretty obvious what the difference between a construct and a human is, but as we head into the future, and such technology increases, this line slowly but surely becomes ever more blurred. Is a genetically engineered human that is implanted into a womb through IVF treatment and born naturally an android or a human - how about a normal human featus that is grown in an artificial womb, and brought into the world through artificial processes in which the human body is no longer needed (in my mind they would both be human, but they were examples of how far we have moved away from the biological processes that we have relied upon for millenia).

One interesting thing is the idea of robots being used as, well, sex toys. Okay, this isn't necessarily flagged in some of the more purer sci-fi shows, but it is out there, and is also something that is suggested in both the film and in the book (namely because Deckard sleeps with Rachel in both). The question is whether Rachel is a human in this regard, and since she is an artificial construct, can a true relationship really exist. I guess the end point is will it be possible for a human to marry a robot. This may sound absurd, but consider that fifty years or more ago the idea of two males (or two females) getting married as not so much considered absurd, but was actually impossible.

Another idea that has been floated is whether Deckard is actually a replicant. This is something that comes about every so often, and there is even a significant segment on Wikipedia about it. Mind you, this is something that never really crossed my mind much, and my initial thoughts is 'no, he is not'. However, there is the origami unicorn at the end, that he picks up when he leaves the apartment with Rachel. Gaff has indicated that he knows about Rachel, and the suggestion is that he also knows about Deckard. However, Dick never intended there to be any ambiguity, nor did Ford, Scott, or the screenwriter. Yet, this is something that is thrown in at a later date for some ambiguity.


There is some rather interesting religious imagery in the film, some of which I have touched above. Of course there is this idea of one meeting their maker, though that is also a phrase that is referred to people dying. Yet the wikipedia article also equates the replicants with fallen angels in that they have come from offworld in an attempt to locate the person responsible for their life span. Yet interestingly, the Bible also mentions that one of the reason that humanity's lifespan was shortened significantly was due to the immense amount of destruction that could be wrought if we were allowed to live hundreds, or even thousands, of years.

One of the striking images though is the scene at the end where Roy holds a dove to his chest, and also stretches out his arms in a form of crucifixion. Many action movies would have the protagonist kill the antagonist at this point, but not only does Roy hold off from killing Deckard, but Deckard doesn't kill Roy either. In once sense it could be seen as lazy writing, until we note that the striking thing about the film is that Roy dies of old age. This is something that has stuck me since I first watched it as it sets it apart from many of the other films out there. The dove is also an interesting image, because it symbolises the ascension of a spirit to heaven.

However, I think I'll leave it at that, and refer to the Wikipedia page for any further ideas regarding the themes in Blade Runner. Instead, I'll now jump over to the more recent film.

Years Later

As it turned out, the sequel was nothing what I expected, which is probably a good thing. While at first I didn't want to say anything about it, for fear of spoiling anything for anybody, this post has been deliberately published at a time when one can assume that most people who have wanted to see it have already seen it, so I guess I can openly speak about the film. However, before I touch on some of the themes, I should say that the film does retain the film noir style of the original, though we do switch between a world of endless rain and blistering desert. It is also a detective mystery, and unlike the original, we aren't given all that much to go on, with bits and pieces slowly released to us, and also a curve ball that leads us thinking one way only to realise that we were misled all along.

Like the original film, the sequel continues to raise the question of identity, though we are given another thing to think about. Our new hero, who is a replicant himself, discovers a box buried under a dead tree (though the existence of trees, even dead ones, are almost non-existent) which contains the bones of a replicent. Well, that shouldn't be too much of a concern, except that it comes about that this particular replicant was pregant. This is the game changer because it raises the possibility that not only are they human, but they actually have souls.

As I have mentioned about, there is this ongoing exploration as to the nature of humanity, and this continues in this film with the existence of the child. In fact, the whole film is about attempting to locate the child. Obviously there are elements that want the child dead, and erased from history, because its existence may mean that replicants actually have rights. Then there is the question as to the identity of the child - is it natural or artificial. In a way it is both, particularly when we discover who the father is, though the nature of the father is also pretty much up in the air.

However the film brings in something new - slavery. Replicants are slaves, and have always been slaves. They are a disposible workforce, and are able to do things, and work in places, that humans aren't able to. Since they are considered artificial constructs then their nature is considered set - because humans made the replicants, the replicants are possessions of humans and can be bought and sold, and owned. There is no question of whether a replicant can go free because they aren't human, and they don't have a soul.

Then there is the question of dreams, and whether they are real or not. The thing is that in Blade Runner, at least where the replicants are concerned, dreams are implants. However, what if we start implanting dreams into humans - what does that do about the nature of our identity, and does that change our basic nature. Are we defined by the sum of our memories, and what happens to us when our memories change. However, this issue is probably something that best be left for another film at another time - and I'm sure we all know which one that is.

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Dreaming of Sheep - Blade Runner 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, 23 October 2017

The Draftsman Degas

As I have mentioned a number of times across both of my blogs, there are a number of exhibitions, and museums, that I have been to that I simply haven't got around to writing about, and with the list of things that I could write about forever growing I feel that I'm not going to be struggling for topics any time soon (though I note that one of the things that I haven't been writing about is computers, but then again they were sort of a filler between other things, such as plays and exhibitions, which isn't really needed all that much any more). Anyway, after traveling halfway across the world to visit some of Europe's greatest museums I arrive back in Australia to discover that they have an exhibition on at the NGV of none other than another impressionist - Degas. A friend of mine who worked at the gallery pointed out that the reason that I didn't see any Degas in Paris was because they were all here, but honestly, I had never heard of Degas until this exhibition, and even then I was more frustrated at the lack of Renoir at the Musee D'Orsay than the lack of Degas.

So, Degas is basically an impressionist, and from what I gathered from the exhibition, he was probably one of the first (beating Manet to the punch). Like many of the impressionists that came after him, Degas was basically interested in painting the ordinary and the everyday, and also painting them in their 'natural habit'. He particular favourites were dancers and the horse racers, and the ever popular prostitute (though he was hardly the only impressionist painter that liked painting prostitutes, though for some reason I can't imagine being able to wander into a brothel these days and be allowed to paint anybody in there, particularly if you want to take some photos beforehand). However, unlike the other impressionists, who tended to paint out of doors (or en plein air as the French would put it), Degas preferred to paint indoors.

Okay, while the exhibition was entitled A New Vision, as is typical of me, I prefer to use my own title, and I was originally going to call it 'The First Impressionist', but I'm not entirely sure if he is actually the world's first impressionist painter. However, what did stand out with regards to his works was that, unlike the other impressionists, he preferred to use pastels, and also preferred drawing as opposed to painting. In fact much of the exhibition involved drawings he did of not just complete people, but of parts of the body such as the arm - no doubt practicing things such as capturing movement, and exploring the nature of the body. In a way Degas was more a draftsman than he was a painter, and with that in mind we will now dive in to the world, and art, of Edgar Degas.

The Early Days

Degas was born in Paris to a mix of nationalities - his mother was Creole (French-American) while his father was Italian. His father was somewhat an artist and a musician, and during his childhood spent his time mingling with the artists and the collectors of the upper echelons of French society. His mother died when he was a child, and he had two younger brothers and two younger sisters (which, obviously, makes him the eldest). As with a lot of children of the upper classes, he was enrolled into an exclusive school where his father expected him to pursue the study of law. However Degas was an artist, and much to his father's disappointment, ended up at the Ecole des Beaux Arts (the School of Fine Arts). Mind you, art isn't necessarily something you learn, it is something that you are born with, and one of the best ways to become an artist is basically to practice (it is, in my mind, the same with writing - it isn't something that can necessarily be taught, but you develop your writing skills by writing). As such he never completed his education.

Hilliar De Gas
One of the major subjects of his early years was his family, which honestly isn't all that surprising. However, after dropping out of school his father kindly funded a three year sojourn in Italy, which sounds very much like the modern gap year that many of our younger ones take between highschool and university, or even just after university. There was an academy in Rome where he could have spent his time, particularly since it was state sponsored, and those who succeeded here tended to go on to bigger and better things. However, instead Degas spent his time wandering the galleries practicing his style by copying the works of the great masters, which is something that I still see happen today - it is quite common to wander through a museum and see people sitting in front of a painting sketching it (where as I simply take a photo - though I am surprised that with the number of photos that I take nobody has thrown me out).

One story that is told is that his grandfather, Hilliar Degas, summoned the young Edgar to his villa in Naples where he was basically commission to paint a portrait of him. It is notable that his grandfather was actually a pretty wealthy individual, being a retired stockbroker and banker, who also loved art. Degas painted an image of him and his children based on Titian's painting of one of the popes, and it is interesting to note that even though Degas did copy a lot of the works that he saw down in Italy, he also added his own styles to it, creating something of his own unique work aspect.

Painting the Past

In around 1859 Degas returned to Paris where he continued to paint, this time spending his days in the Louvre (as many a budding artist seems to do these days - there were plenty of them sitting in front of their favourite paintings) once again copying the works of the old masters. As a side note I wonder whether one of those paintings happened to be the Mona Lisa because back in Degas' day nobody actually thought all that much about it - in fact it was basically just another painting among many, and not a particularly impressive one at that. However, when it was stolen around the turn of the century (or fin-de-siecle as the French say), people suddenly started to take notice, but then again I digress.

Anyway, he spent his time creating works of art that focused on history, namely stories from the Bible, Ancient Greece, and the medieval period. In a way this was simply going with the flow since the popular subjects of the time were either portraits, still lifes, or historical paintings. However the times were changing, and Degas was putting his own style into his works, and when one of his medieval works went on display at the Paris Salon, it was basically ignored. In a way this was probably the turning point in Degas' career when he realised that even though he was infusing his own personality into these works, in the end they were simply more of the same.

Yet let us consider his painting of some Spartan youths training. While this painting represents a scene from classical Greece, it differs from many of the paintings of this style in that it doesn't explore the extra-ordinary, or the mythical, but rather the ordinary. Here we have a collection of Spartan youths, being watched over by Lycurgus, the Spartan Lawgiver, as they train. However, there is also the suggestion that this is reflective of a Spartan mating ritual, where the males seek out worthy females so that they might be able to produce offspring worthy of the name Spartan. Sure, this might be historical, but instead of exploring the mythological, Degas is exploring the ordinary, the key theme that would develop throughout the impressionist movement.

Here we have another of the historical paintings, and similar to the previous one, this is also set in ancient Sparta, a subject that seemed popular with Degas. The interesting thing is that Sparta, unlike Athens, was not a centre or art and culture, but rather state that focused entirely on military prowess and creating the strongest, and most formidable army (despite the fact that two of the times when they had the opportunity to actually fight an invading army, they conveniently had a religious ceremony on). In a way, this is once again a focus on the ordinary, something that many of the painters of the day shunned. In a sense portraits were of popular, and noble, people, not of the ordinary worker, which why painting historical paintings of ordinary people as opposed to the myths and the legends was so confronting.

Meeting Manet

In 1862 Degas made a friend that was to have a serious impact upon his artistic journey - Eduard Manet. The thing with Manet was despite the fact that his paintings would regularly appear in the Paris Salon, he was one of those artists that would also flipped the birdie to the traditional styles of painting. Manet embraced a style that he called il faut etre de son temps, or to put it in rather vulgar English - get with the times dude. Manet knew that the artistic world was changing, and he wasn't going to be left behind, and it is clear that Degas also wanted to join him on this journey. It is this introduction that Degas found himself acquainted with the artists that were to be known as the impressionists - Renoir, Monet, Cezzane, et al.

Henri Rouart was another acquaintance of Degas', and an old school buddy. However, where Degas became an artist, Rouart became an engineer and made significant advances in the art of refrigeration. They met again during the Franco-Prussian war where as chance would have it, Degas found himself under Rouart's command. From this relationship a friendship developed and Rouart became a patron not only of the arts, but of the impressionists in particular. This was obviously a boon for these artists, particularly since the establishment wasn't all that keen on their work.

This is the first of Degas' Ballet paintings, of Mademoiselle Eugene Fioce. This is a painting of her appearing in the ballet The Source (a ballet that I'm not all that familiar with, but then again I'm not a huge fan of the ballet). The thing about this production was that live horses appeared on the stage. Emile Zola noted that the painting has a strange quality in that it appeared that it was of a horse drinking at a spring rather than of a ballet, and also that it appeared to be a Japanese print.

Day at the Races

Horses were one of Degas' passions, though not in the sense that he spent every waking hour down at the track trying his luck on the latest tip and spending his time hanging around with the bookies. Rather he had a fascination with the horses and being able to capture their movement on canvas. In fact being able to capture movement was one of Degas' goals in painting, particularly since up until this time paintings tended to be static - in a way a moment captured in time and placed on canvas. However Degas wanted to go beyond that and explore the nature of movement and whether it is possible to capture it on canvas.

In Degas' time horses were ubiquitous in the sense that cars are ubiquitous in our day and age (despite the fact that I don't actually own one - car or horse). This animal was everywhere, and it fascinated Degas. In the way that he developed his style by mimicking the old masters, he also practiced painting horses through copying the animeliers, who specialised in capturing horses and other animals. In a way these works would lead him onto his more famous works, and that is of the ballet dances.

The Dancers

Degas' friendships with a number of musicians at the time brought him into contact with the world of the ballet. However, it has been suggested that Degas' paintings were crafted in the studio as opposed to behind the scenes at the various venues, including the opera house that was destroyed by fire. However, since Degas was connected, he no doubt had access to these behind the scene venues, and I suspect probably spent his time here watching the dancer's practice, and also practicing his skills by sketching what he saw. Yet Degas didn't consider himself an artist that worked in nature, but rather an artist that worked in a studio - in a way he was really only able to create his works in the comfort of his own home as opposed to out amongst the population. Also, the first paintings that Degas sold were the ballet dancers, and one of the reasons that they were so popular was because the bucked the trend in exploring the realism as opposed to the romantic ideal of the time (and also the way we view his paintings today).

Degas actually petitioned the Paris Opera to give him a backstage pass, but they were quite reluctant to do so and he only managed to get it in 1885. When he did receive it he was basically a regular, though this started to taper off when the musical style began to change. Mind you, by the time he received his pass he had already created his monotype, which was based on a best selling book Le Familie Cardinal, which was written by one of his high school friends. The concept behind this book was that it examined the illicit liasons between the young and poorly paid dancers at the opera and many of the gentlemen that would frequent the area. In fact Degas even incorporated them into some of his paintings as dark figures who lurked out the back.

The House in New Orleans

In 1872 Degas went on a trip to New Orleans where he stayed for five months with his mother's brother. He was running a wine export business which was being funded by the Degas Bank back in Paris. It was here that he painted a couple of pictures, one of a house and one of a cotton export business. The interesting thing is that New Orleans still has an incredibly strong French influence, and is actually considered to be more Cajun than American. This makes it stand out a lot since it is surrounded by the deep south.

The painting that landed up in the exhibition was a pretty complicated one as it involves fourteen men all working and demonstrates Degas' passion for the works of the Dutch masters and in particular their guild paintings which had a similar theme and style. However, we must remember that Degas was an impressionist, and one that focused on capturing movement as opposed to capturing a moment in time on canvas. While it isn't necessarily one of his most complex, it does demonstrate much of his skill.

The Final Years

In 1875 Degas returned to etching, something that he had let slip for a while, and for the next five years basically focused all his attention on these works. One of the major focuses during this time was the female nude. By 1876 he had fully developed the style, and had become one of the best etchers at the time. Instead of using the term of a drawing made with thick ink, he instead referred to it as a monotype, and had the dark background, where there would be ink on the back, and the light background where the etchings would be made directly onto the plate.

Around this time Degas also returned to working with pastels, which was something that he had original picked up in Italy. This is one of the reasons why much of his art actually appears the way that it does - unlike many of his contemporaries Degas shied away from paints and experimented with other mediums. One of the topics he worked one were not just female nudes, but nudes in the act of washing. This raised quite a few eyebrows as it would have been near impossible for Degas to have had access to women in the bath, unless of course they happened to be in a brothel. This, no doubt, gave rise to quite a number of rumours.

Near the end of his life Degas began to work with landscapes, though many of them were created from memory. Like his other works, he used pastals, but in creating them from memory he would also add quite a lot more vibrancy to them. His statement was that he would stand at the door of the coach and look around, however also referred to these landscapes as imaginary landscapes. In 1898 he made a further attempt into a landscape, and proved that one did not need to travel half way around the world but could also create such scenes from their own backyard.

In 1857 emperor Napoleon III opened the Longchamp Racecourse to the West of Paris and over the years the popularity of racing grew, especially among the middle classes. In fact at one time the noise of the crowds were so loud it was suggested that it could be heard all the way from the Eiffel tower. In one sense the popularity of the races here was comparable to the Melbourne Cup where many people who care little about the races through most of the year suddenly make themselves known. In a sense it is more a question of fashion and being seen than actually having any interested in the horses. While I did have a pastel work based on this, it was actually from a private collection so I have since deleted the photo (because I wasn't supposed to take a photo of it). Instead I will finish off this post with a pastel of a woman arranging her hair.

Creative Commons License

The Draftsman Degas 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, 16 October 2017

Julius Caeser - A Question of Tyranny

It was a pretty big weekend with Book of Mormon on Friday, and then Julius Caesar on Saturday. Mind you, since Julius Caesar is one of my favourite Shakespearian plays I was going to go and see it, but then again it is also a Shakespearian play, and one that isn't performed all that often, so it was going to be a no brainer that I was going to see it. Fortunately Monday was a public holiday, so I also had some time to sit down and write some thoughts about it (as I am prone to do).

The play was performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company and is one of four Roman plays, the other three being Coriolanus, Antony and Cleopatra, and Titus Andronicus. While I didn't get to see their version of Coriolanus, I have seen a film version (which was nothing short of awesome), and also another minimalist version of the play about a year ago. As for Julius Caesar, other than reading the play multiple times, the only version I have seen is a really bad American version where Brutus has an American accent that basically put me off the entire movie. Mind you, in this version the actors all had English accents, but a part of me is able to tolerate that.

In one sense you could say that Julius Caeser is simply an historical play that lives in the Roman past and one may wonder what it has to say to our times, however Shakespeare never did things by halves, and he certainly never did anything simply because he had a good idea at the time - there was a purpose behind the production of this play, one that not only spoke to the audiences of his time, but one that can even speak to us today, particularly in the era in which we live.

My favourite Painting of Caesar

A Little Bit of Background

I probably don't need to go into too much detail with regards to the story because, I'm hoping, that we all know who Julius Caesar is, and what it was that made him famous. Okay, I should be honest and admit that until I went to university the only thing that I knew about Julius Caesar was that he was a Roman, that he was an emperor (which was incorrect, as I discovered), he was murdered by his best friend Brutus, and that he had a big nose (thanks in part to the Asterix comics). However, beyond him being the regular antagonist in the Asterix comics, and making some statement along the lines of Veni Vidi Vici, that was pretty much about it.

I didn't think he actually lived to be this old!
However, when I went to university I decided to study classical studies, in part because I loved Dungeons and Dragons, and classical studies dealt with Ancient Empires (and magic, and monsters). While at first I did it to fuel my imagination, the more I studied it the more I came to realise the complete lack of imagination that went into the various worlds, and novels, that the creators of Dungeons and Dragons came up with. Furthermore, I came to realise that history was a lot bloodier, and much more exciting, than my high school history classes painted.

The thing is that Rome of the Republican period was anything but stable. Sure, the Republic had survived since Brutus murdered Tarquin, but it was always going in and out of turmoil. When Brutus removed the king and established the Republic, it was a question of Freedom for the upper classes, but the problem was that there was always a further push for freedom from those from below (with the exception of the slaves - any revolt would be brutally crushed, as Sparticus discovered). As such Rome stumbled from crisis to crisis, attempting to put in place measures to restrict the power of one man, but to also give as many people the ability to voice their opinion. What eventually happened was a series of checks and balances that simply went nowhere.

The play opens with Caesar entering Rome, triumphant. Just previously he had been at war with Pompey, another Roman figure, and the republic had split along these lines. Caesar was victorious, however he refused to deal with the enemies that had survived - a few decades earlier there was another dictator, Sulla, who had systematically killed all of his enemies and Caesar simply didn't want to follow in his footsteps. However, that was a big mistake as his enemies eventually conspired against him and murdered him, which plunged Rome back into Civil War and emerged as an empire.

A Question of Power

Like the Greeks before them, and like the modern democracies in which we live today, the Romans did not like the prospect of one man having too much power. The thing is that the maxium of power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely holds true then as it does now. The problem was that in attempting to blunt the power of any single man, very little was able to be done. Further more, the further down the chain you go, the less power the people had, and there was always an agitation for the lower classes to have just as much power as did the upper classes - in fact whole wars were fought over this one issue.

These days we still have memory of the horrors of what a totalitarian regime can do - Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot come to mind. However, this wasn't necessarily the problem that the Romans faced. This wasn't an issue of protecting minorities, because the minorities didn't matter - you were either a citizen or you weren't (though this aspect of nationalism is starting to raise its ugly head again). No, the question really came down to how much power does the citizen have - is it defined by one's citizenship, by one's wealth, or by one's ability to persuade the crowds.

Yet this wasn't an issue in Shakespeare's mind, and in fact this is the wrong question if we look at the play through modern eyes. The thing is that Shakespeare lived in a Monarchy. Okay, it wasn't a totalitarian state, but it still had the power concentrated in the hands of one person, in the case of this period it was Queen Elizabeth. In a sense Shakespeare was not too concerned about this power corrupting those who held it, but rather what would happen if the people decided to remove the person holding the power.

A Question of Stability

While it wasn't in living memory, a lot of Shakespeare's plays are written with one eye looking back on the War of the Roses. In fact a whole slew of plays were written about this chaotic time, culminating with Richard III. In a sense what concerned Shakespeare was not so much one person having too much power, but rather what would happen if this person were to be violently removed. In one aspect he points back to the chaos of the War of the Roses, but in this play he points us back to Ancient Rome, and an incident that no doubt would be known by many of the educated in the audience.

The problem with most revolutions is that they generally do not have an eye on to what comes after. This is probably why Rome experienced such a degree of instability - Brutus murdered Caesar, but that left a vacuum, and it was a vacuum that simply wasn't able to be filled. Shakespeare is also pointing at this incredibly turbulent time in Roman history, that the fear of one man having too much power lead to another period of bloodshed and instability, and this is the message that he is trying to get people in his time to hear. The thing was that there were people that didn't particularly like Queen Elizabeth, in the same way that there were people that didn't like James, however in Shakespeare's mind, it is better to have a tyrant on the throne, and to have a country in chaos.

This becomes much more evident as we look at history from our perspective, particularly with regards to France and Germany. The French Revolution got rid of the monarchy, but let to a period of turmoil that lasted for twenty five years, only to find itself with a king back on the throne. Germany lost World War I, and removed the Kaiser, only to find itself with an even worse government down the track. Okay, in Germany's case, there was also problems arising from the victors demanding their pound of flesh, but the thing was that there was no plan in place to deal with what comes after.

This is why when young people, socialists mostly, cry for a revolution, I cringe. You see, what they don't understand is that revolutions never turn out the way that they want them to. Sure, what we have may not be prefect, but they ignore the reality of past revolutions. Lenin managed to overthrow the fledging constitutional monarchy only to discover that the people actually didn't want his brand of extreme communism, so basically did away with elections and banished anybody who opposed the Bolsheviks. We all know what eventually happened in that scenario.

So, we have a rather bloodless way of removing governments that we don't particularly like, and a way to keep tyrants out of power - these things are called Constitutions. However, that doesn't necessarily mean that we are out of the water, because even if democracies have a way to keeping tyrants out of power, and removing governments we don't particularly like, we should remember than Shakespeare actually wasn't a big fan of democracies.

A Question of Populism

This is where I come to my final point, the reason why both Plato and Shakespeare didn't like democracies, and that is the problem of populism. The thing is that people will say anything and everything simply to get themselves elected - we have seen this time and time again in our period of late stage capitalism. Further, if we look into the past we see that this was one of the major reasons that the Athenian democracy collapsed, and that was because demagogues (or populists) managed to sway the people to their will and that allowed their rather idiotic plans to succeed where the ones based upon reason and fact were to fail.

In fact I see this as an issue with climate change, particularly with a survey released by the Australian government - what would you prefer, clean energy or cheap energy, and of course everybody is going to say cheap energy. What this survey failed to do was suggest that clean energy was also cheap energy. It seemed to sway the debate by suggesting that you can't have both, you can only have one or the other. Further, the question of facts always takes a back seat. For instance, do you want welfare or do you want to be wealthy, suggesting that welfare means that you won't be wealthy. How is it that people always vote against their interests - because the demagogues change the narrative to make it appear that their interests are with the demagogues.

Shakespeare regularly shows the problems with fine sounding speakers, and none is more clear than the oratory scene in Julius Caesar. Here we have Brutus take the stage and convince the people that it was right to call Caesar a tyrant, and thus remove him from power, and the people are swayed. However, Brutus makes a big mistake, and allows Mark Antony to also speak, and with fine sounding words, he completely changes the narrative, and it is an incredibly clever way he does it as well. The thing is though that at the start the people had been swayed one way, and all of a sudden they are now of the opposite opinion.

In fact the speech is so well done, I probably should include a video of Charlton Heston delivering it.

A Question of Loyalty

I want to finish off with a few words on Brutus, because I feel that he is the central character in the play. Sure, Caesar straddles the play like a colossus, and the focus, from beginning it end, is him, but Brutus plays an equally important part. The reason I say that is because the play is not a tragedy of Caesar, but a tragedy of Brutus.

The thing is that throughout the play Brutus is torn between his friendship with Caesar, his loyalty to his country, and his honour to his ancestor. Brutus was the direct ancestor of the Brutus that slew Tarquin, and he is painted as having the responsibility of preventing a tyrant from taking the throne. Yet, he is always unsure, knowing that not only is Caesar a friend, but also has the potential of becoming a tyrant and undoing everything that his ancestor had established.

It is his ancestor that Caesar's enemies play on, suggesting that the Rome they know will be come if Caesar has his way. Sure, he rejected the crown three times, but that is the way that tyrants work - they gain power by refusing to take power. Yet Brutus is truly a tragic figure because he knows the direction that Rome is heading, and knows that Caesar is the one that can bring stability. However, his lineage says otherwise because he cannot step back and do nothing.

However, I'll bring it to a close here with the final lines spoken by Mark Antony:
This was the noblest Roman of them all:
All the conspirators save only he
Did that they did in envy of great Caesar;
He only, in a general honest thought
And common good to all, made one of them.
His life was gentle, and the elements
So mix'd in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world 'This was a man!'

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Julius Caeser - A Question of Tyranny 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, 9 October 2017

The Staedel - Even More Art

Since this is the third post on the Staedel, I probably do not need to have an introduction. However, if you have landed up here and haven't read my previous posts, I'll refer you back to the post on the Old Masters, and the Modern and Contemporary. Anyway, we'll jump straight into looking at various works of art that the Staedel has to offer.

The first painting is by Valkenborch and is called 'Winter Landscape near Antwerp'. It is actually a painting of the Scheldt frozen over, which for a river that is 400 meters wide, is something that doesn't happen all that often. However, during the Little Ice Age it did that quite often. In a way this is like when we see something odd and whip out our mobile phone and take a picture of it, and then post it on Facebook - when we woke up one morning in Melbourne to discover the city covered in mist we did just that. However, this was in the days before photography, so the work of the artist was much more time consuming. However, despite all that, it is still quite a beautiful scene.

As I have explored previously, religious art was quite popular, and Bosch's Ecco Homo, while being a popular subject, was given a new dimension. Here we have Pilate presenting Jesus to the crowd - behold the man. The question that is raised is how can this wretched individual being the 'Son of God'. In fact let us consider the phrase 'the man' - it is as if Pilate is telling that crowd that this individual before them is no god, just another human. However, consider also the crowd - these are not beautiful humans, but wretched individuals. Bosch is confronting us with our sinfulness, and the reality that we have rejected God for our own selfish desires.

Let us now head to Italy and look at a work of one of the great masters - Botticelli. This painting is of Simonetta Vespucchi, who at the time was considered to be one of the most beautiful women in Florence. Here she is painted as if she were a nymph - a Greco-roman nature spirit. She was said to be the ladylove of Guiliano di Medici (though they said that they were only ever friends). However, she died young, at the age of 23, childless. Such seems to be the fate of beauty in this fallen world.

The following comes from the wings of an altarpiece, and is a work by a German artist Lochner. While I could go into details of each of the frames, I won't and instead let the images sink in. Basically what we are seeing are the martyrdoms of the twelve apostles. These were the founding fathers of Christianity and they went to their deaths, some of them quite hideously, over their belief that not only was Jesus the son of God, but that he also rose from the dead. One of the arguments of the apologists is that people would not have gone through such tortures and deaths for something that was based on a lie. While I disagree to an extent, it is still something to ponder.

Art is much more than just pretty pictures - it is also a means of creating a legacy, and also cementing one's place in the world, not just for the artist but also for the subject. This is the case with our next work by Tieppo. Here the Crotto family had moved from provincial Italy to Venice and were attempting to establish themselves. As such they had Tieppo paint this scene depicting an ancestor from a thousand years ago. The story has St Gratta calling upon her parents to convert to Christianity. She is flanked by the martyrs Fermus and Rustica, and in her hands holds the head of St Alexander. Notice that instead of blood coming from his neck, we have flowers - evidence of his approval from God.

Let us now jump to the 19th Century and a landscape by Karl Lessing. Actually, in the museum it is simply called landscape, but it is also called Retreating Storm. It reflects the result of the violence of nature, and the way that it can simply come down and strip civilisation bare. In a way, despite our technology, and our civilisation, we are still at the mercy of nature. Whether it be a storm, a fire, or an earthquake, no matter how we build, and what protections we erect, nature can still flatten our cities. This, sadly, is only going to get worse as the ravages of climate change take hold.

The next painting, by Angilbert Gobel, broke the boundaries of the traditions at his time. While poor people were painted, they weren't painted in such a large scale, nor so prominently. In a way poverty is something that many of us have sought to ignore or put in the too hard basket. Okay, we may toss some change to them in the street, but in many cases we either turn away, or blame them. In fact it is sad how many people simply use the statement 'they had the same opportunities that I have had and they have not used it'. What is more confronting with this painting is that they sit in front of the church, suggesting that the churches close their doors to the poor, as if only those who have succeeded in life are worthy of salvation. The reality is that the poor tend to reach out for god much further than those of us who live a rather comfortable life.

The next painting, by Joseph Anton Koch, is called Landscape with Noah Offering a Sacrifice. I guess this is sitting with the Staedel's original purpose of providing an outlet for traditional religious art in the 19th century. However, this is slightly different in that traditional religious art focused on the topic of the painting, while here we see a landscape merging with the religious. Koch here is creating the beauty of a landscape, while also drawing us to Noah's piety in sacrificing to God in thankfulness at having survived the flood. Also, remember that this was after the world had been cleansed so we are seeing a return to the ideal, but also a new beginning. Notice also how the storm clouds are retreating - God's wrath has come and gone, and we now have a new beginning in a paradise. Something to look forward to.

Edgar Ende was a surrealist, and this work is an example of the movement. While not as prominent as Dali's, it still gives us an idea of the nature of the movement. Here we have a bleak landscape, in one sense a desert, but in another sense even bleaker than that. Deserts aren't empty - they are teaming with life and natural beauty. This is a world that has been destroyed by technology, and the only shade from the blistering heat of the sun is a console. In the distance is a pillar, but it's nature and identity is a mystery. Where as at one time the console was a symbol of control, now it only exists to provide shelter from the elements and the bleak landscape.

The invention of the camera certainly caused the style and nature of art to change, some say for the good while others suggest that it is for the worse. This is an example of a new style of art, Max Bechman's Hauptbahnhof. This is the main railway station in Frankfurt, but while it looks like the building, it isn't an exact rendition of it. Instead it seems that Bechman has moved on from the post impressionist style of artists like Van Gogh. Here it has a more cartoonish and childish feel to it. In a sense it looks like something that would hang on the wall of a kindergarten. However it isn't, it is hanging on the wall of the Staedel. The painting looks like it was painted from one of the buildings across from the station. I also like the cat sitting on the windowsill to the foreground.

During the Franco-Prussian War Monet took refuge in Paris, and then he and his family moved to Amsterdam and lived just outside the city. This was a low point for the French, particularly since Paris lay in ruins. However, this gave the city the opportunity to rebuild, and to become the beautiful city that it is today (it is hard to believe that it was anything but, but I assure you that the city hasn't always been that amazing, in fact for quite a while it was a pigsty). The paintings of this period were focused more on pleasant scenes with soft colours. The house is a great example of traditional Dutch architecture.

Harbours, especially at the turn of the 20th Century, were dirty places. Actually, in many cases they still are (which is why I am surprised that Tripadvisor suggest that the harbour in Antwerp is actually a tourist attraction). Harbours have always been a haven for the rougher side of society, but then again travelling the oceans was never something for the faint of heart. This work by Kirchner depicts the western harbour of Frankfurt, but in a much more expressionist style. We have the faceless stevedores in the foreground, depicting the nature of being a member of the working class. Further, the water isn't blue, it is a sickly green. Harbours are generally places that are kept hidden, but Kirchner challenges our blindspot by presenting it to us directly.

The following is a painting by German artist Eugenie Bandell and is called Japanese Dolls with Apples. While it is a still life, like a lot of modern paintings it takes the concept of the still life in a new direction, focusing more on colour and on emotion.

I'll finish off with a couple of pieces from the contemporary art collection, the first being a 'sculpture' that has been made out of 4200 cans of condensed milk. The piece is by pop artist Thomas Bayrle and is called Gl├╝ckslee. Like the works of Andy Warhol, this sculpture (for want of a better word) is designed to capture the nature of modern culture - in particular consumer culture. The reason behind using condensed milk, to create a giant sculpture of a can of condensed milk, was to pay homage to the economic miracle that it represented, as well as the promise of happiness that filter coffee and condensed milk would bring to the German people.

The final work is by artisty Marie-Jo LaFontaine and is called liquid crystal. Basically it is a photograph, or a collection of photographs, of some young people. Well, not just any young people, young people who come across as rebels. They dress as rebels and they look like rebels, and they stand there rather disillusioned with the world around them. I guess that is the nature of youth, were we have come of age and can think for ourselves, but have people running around telling us what to do and forcing their opinions on us. The catch is that when we were young we really didn't know what was good for us - we thought we did, but in reality we didn't. However, what the work seems to do is to try to drag us back to that time and help us see the world their their eyes.

Oh, yes, it is also called Liquid Crystal, which suggests constant change. In one sense they are the same, but in another sense they are maluble and changeable. I guess that is the danger of youth - we are likely to be influenced by a lot of different areas, and our lack of wisdom means that we actually have yet to learn how to make a good choice. In fact, that lack of wisdom, and the choices that are laid before us, have the potential of having drastic, and long lasting, effects on our lives.

 (pic - Art) Lafontaine - Liquid Crystal Notes 01
Creative Commons License

The Staedel - Even More 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