Category Archives: Art

Dave McKean: MIRRORMASK, Art And Reality

I spoke to Dave McKean in March 2006 when he came to Manchester to the premiere of his film MirrorMask at the Cornerhouse. The film that received awards at the Locarno and Sarasota Film Festivals in 2005 is about Helena, a girl who lives and tours with her family’s circus but wishes – like all teenagers – that she could be able to break free into the ‘real’ world. What happens instead is that she finds herself on the journey into the Dark Lands, in quest for a powerful object, the MirrorMask, to save the Queen of Light. On her way she encounters sphinxes, monkeybirds, strange objects a-la Henry Moore sculptures, and the omnipotent and dangerous Queen of Darkness. As the film progresses, Helena’s task becomes not only to find the MirrorMask, but also to escape the Dark Lands.              

MirrorMask is yet another fruit of a long-lasting collaboration between McKean and Neil Gaiman. The duo has been working together since the 1980s, enriching the world with one of the best-loved and original comic books, Sandman. McKean, a distinguished artist, has produced numerous works, among which are book illustrations, tarot cards and posters, promotional campaigns for brands, like Smirnoff and Sony, and films, like Sleepy Hollow (dir. Tim Burton). Although MirrorMask is his first feature, he made several shorts in the past, and, on top, he owns a jazz record label together with saxophonist Iain Ballamy.        

dave-mckean-mirrormask

MirrorMask may be one of the most original films of the recent years and at the very least is a compelling achievement on the part of McKean who wanted to transfer the surreal images, so often found in his drawings, on screen. There are several reasons for his opting for surrealist stylistics in the film’s cinematography. On the one hand, his own artwork has been influenced by this art movement; on the other, surrealist artists were dedicated explorers of the realm of dreams, and Helena’s journey, as we eventually find out, was also a dream.          

The dream-like, phantasmagorical type of story was in part dictated by the Jim Hanson Company, who provided the budget for the film. But you wouldn’t expect anything too realistic from Gaiman&McKean.

“We ended up with a long email conversation and a kitchen table full of books, and CDs, and sketches, and bits of dialogue, and notes…I really wanted to build a city and wander round it, and Neil fancied doing something that was basically ‘The Prince and the Pauper’”.    

In Dave’s words, he didn’t want to settle a film in one place, and, to add subtlety to the theme of dreamy peregrinations, a wandering circus thus became a metaphor for his vision. He does love circuses, both lavish performances of the Cirque du Soleil and little odd family troupes, travelling along the South Coast of England, where the artist lives. Some circuses or acts are the true gems, and finding them may be quite fascinating in itself. But whether big or small, these troupes of artists are always changing place, and their constant drifting in space and time was an inspiration for McKean.            

The same sense of unsettledness is conveyed through the score composed by Iain Ballamy that intertwines Indian and Middle European music with tango, folk, and jazz. Fellini’s cinematic wanderings and Bunuel’s imagery also influenced the film to some extent. Ultimately, McKean’s goal was

‘to try and do some things that did not look literal. Most fantasy stories are sort of very realistic, and it’s great and extraordinary technical achievement, but… I wanted to do something that was non-literal and a bit more abstract’. It wasn’t difficult in some way, as McKean had a clear vision of what he wanted to achieve: ‘Basically a lot of my work is collage, and making the film is a kind of collage as well… so in that respect it was easy’.                    

What was not easy was, in particular, dealing with computers. The four Mackintoshes that the crew used for editing were named after the Beatles.

‘I was John’, says Dave, ‘and that was OK… But then we needed a fifth one, and our technical manager called it Yoko. And they all just refused to get on from then on. The Beatles broke up!’  

From start till the end, MirrorMask is about connections and contradictions between ‘reality’ and ‘image’. The prevalence of one over another is frequently debated and never ceases to attract interest. For McKean, known for his darkish ethereal images, which he lavishly brought to screen in MirrorMask, this question must have been particularly intriguing. So, ‘what is more certain: reality or image?’ I ask Dave.      

‘I think most of my work, and this film is as well’, he replies, ‘it’s about that connection between what is the present, what is right now. We’re now talking here, we actually know this… But everything else – what we just did, walking in through the door, and an hour ago, and five hours ago, this now doesn’t exist anymore. It only exists in our memories, and so as far as I’m concerned it’s already up for debate, and it’s already a fantasy. And what will happen in a few hours time is also a fantasy. And we’re surrounded by it, and we have dreams, we have thoughts, and you have interpretation of what is going on right now, and I have a different interpretation. So, we’re sort of surrounded by this ball of fantasy, and it’s basically a fantasy, or dream, or imagination, or interpretation, any of those things. And so, that’s interesting to me, exploring the link between this tiny little nucleus of reality in the centre, and this great ball of imagination around it’.  

Nevertheless, McKean’s work has always been about real life, as we normally understand it. I asked him to describe the imaginary world that he has been creating as an artist.

‘My own world is just trying to make sense of the real world’, he says. ‘I don’t like the sort of science-fiction art and fantasy art that is just about goblins and fairies and spaceships. I don’t really see the point of that. It’s entertaining and it’s fine, but I couldn’t do it. I needed to be about people, people who I have to deal with every day, and that’s what I’m interested in, I’m interested in what people think and how they think, and the things that they believe in, and desire, and are frightened of. So I’m interested in that side of life, really. And then I’m trying to sort of look at those things from a different point of view, or from metaphor, or from dreams, or from these other angles, because I think these are just interesting ways of seeing things’.          

The continuous evolution and change have been McKean’s stimuli throughout his career, and he utters that his favourite project is always the one that comes next:

‘I love learning new things, so trying to make a film is an immense learning curve. And I don’t think you ever stop learning… I love the differences between things. If I haven’t drawn for a while, and I’ve instead made some music, or written something, or done some filming, when I go back to drawing, it always seems to be stronger and informed by all those other things’.              

As expected, taking a rest is not in McKean’s plans, and he has already been planning several other projects, because ‘they just take so long to set up’. In his turn, Neil Gaiman has been working on the script for a Hollywood adaptation of Beowulf, the Anglo-Saxon epic poem, which will be released in 2007. It only remains to wait to see what this fruitful collaboration brings in future. One thing is certain – it will, as always, be surreal.    

©  Julia Shuvalova 2006

Other posts on Cinema.

An Interview with Dave McKean (10 March, 2006, by Julia Shuvalova, Manchester, UK)

The Mystery of William Turner’s Dinefwr Castle

As I’m reading through Art History books of my English-language library, I’ve immersed myself into a book on Turner’s trails in North and South Wales. I bought it on my visit to Valle Crucis Abbey in Denbighshire in 2009.

My visit to Dinefwr

I visited Dinefwr Castle two years earlier, in the summer of 2007. I was accompanying my husband to Carmarthen, and on a free day we decided to travel to see one of the castles. Dinefwr in Llandeilo turned out to be the closest, we didn’t have to change buses, and we thoroughly enjoyed it. I wrote about the trip in my Carmarthen Cameos and even received a long comment from a once citizen of Llandeilo, in whom my post awakened lovely childhood memories.

William Turner, Llandeilo Bridge and Dinevor Castle (1796, National Museum of Wales)

Turner’s Dinefwr Castle

Dinefwr Castle, in its turn, inspired Turner: he visited it in 1795, and in 1796 he exhibited the watercolour painting, Llandeilo Bridge and Dinevor Castle. It can now be seen at the National Museum of Wales. Just like in his other paintings, he juxtaposes different viewpoints, making both castle and hill more magnificent and closer to the viewer than they really are. The bridge, as we can see, used to be insecure: in the watercolour Turner depicts it being supported by an uprooted tree. Following his intention to combine the past with the present, Turner concentrates entirely on the foreground, which is ridden in misery, whilst the silhouette of the glorious past glows in the light of the setting sun. The eye of the viewer may travel from top to bottom or the other way round, but in any case, one is moved to consider the fate of Wales and its people.

And this is the extract from the aforementioned Cadw book that sheds light on the variety of techniques an artist could use to enhance the desired effect:

Whilst this picture was undergoing conservation in 1993 an unexpected discovery was made that shed new light on Turner’s experimentation with watercolour technique at this time. Bonded onto the back of the paper was another sheet painted with the same scene, though in a different technique and seemingly unfinished. At first this was thought to be a preparatory sketch that Turner had abandoned, but further investigation revealed that it was almost certainly a deliberate attempt to imitate in watercolour an effect that he had found possible with oil by superimposing layers of pigment. Here he seems to have tried to exploit the translucency of the watercolour paper and enrich the level of reflected light from the surface of the finished picture by placing additional painted work underneath the paper (from: On the Trail of Turner in North and South Wales, p. 30. Cardiff, 2008 (3rd ed.)

More secrets?

To summarise, Turner made another painting of the similar scene on the back on the final picture in order to enhance the light and expressivity of the watercolour. Given his secrecy about his working methods, I’m very intrigued to find out what other methods and techniques he deployed to obtain a previously unknown artistic effect.

My English Library Returns to Moscow

My library is finally back home. After I had moved and posted everything that needed to go before anything else, there only remained hardbacks and photocopies to be transported from Manchester to Moscow. That was the end of December, 2013.

In 2014, my grandma died, then the anti-Crimean sanctions struck, a little later, in the aftermath of the flood, we were faced with a complete makeover of the flat… The prospect of bringing the books and papers to Moscow was delaying with every passing month and year.

Then I made a resolution to have them all back to Moscow by the end of 2019. And when that didn’t work, I didn’t back down but instead adjusted the deadline. I suppose I was as determined as Cato the Elder when he professed the imminent destruction of Carthage. None of us knew exactly when this would happen but both of us were determined to live to the day. Well, I certainly was.

So, the books are finally here, and I have also been able to appreciate the long-term friendly ties that remain despite the boundaries and time. One friend helped to pack the boxes, another arranged the posting. Here in Moscow I had some books delivered by the courier; a few I picked up from my local post office; and one I had to collect from a remote post office in a taxi.

This weekend was spent putting the books on the shelves. The papers are still to be accommodated in their new abode. One thing I have already done was to look through my treasured Unseen Vogue and People in Vogue editions. In one of the pictures you can see Wallis Simpson and the former king Edward VIII, photographed by Cecil Beaton.

Van Gogh Goes Hipster: What Messages Photoshopped Art Sends Us

Mona Lisa used to be a makeover darling for many an artist. I was caught off guard by postcards of La Gioconda in sunglasses, with punk make-up on a stand opposite the Louvres in Paris. They looked weird because a stone-throw away was the real Gioconda. However, the image and all surrounding mysteries were so well-known that have become a commonplace, a household name, so some kind of rebellion against such omnipresence was almost welcome, also giving a fresh perspective.

Recently I’ve rediscovered Pinterest, and there I came across a few images that suggest that Vincent Van Gogh, the troubled Impressionist painter known for his haunting Sunflowers and self-mutilation, is the new Mona Lisa. In one photo he’s partying with Frida Kahlo and the famous Girl with the Pearl Earring. In another, La Gioconda consoles him. And in others he’s paired with the mentioned Vermeer’s model. Admittedly, they make a good couple: one cannot help remembering paparazzi images of Johnny Depp and Kate Moss.

Mona Lisa and Vincent
Vincent Van Gogh partying with Vermeer’s Girl and Frida Cahlo

What I always wonder about, thinking of these images, is their purpose. With Mona Lisa it was quite obvious: she was SO famous one couldn’t help trying to bring her down. Different, especially satirical takes on La Gioconda were the acts of rebellion against classical art, the Old Masters, as well as against the popular fascination thereof. It was so easy to love and copy the classics without ever asking what makes them good, important, etc. So, the funny images of Mona Lisa served the purpose of shaking the pedestal beneath the Old Masters. In this, they continued the tradition of revolts against classical art that started in the 19th century.

Mona Lisa takes to the streets with Vincent

Hence, the hipster images of Van Gogh seemingly run in the same vein. Except for one thing: it’s not the modernity that alters the portrait of the artist. We see something different: an artist’s head leaves the body and takes to the modern-day streets. Whereas we instantly recognise Mona Lisa, whatever the makeover, the gingerhaired dude is likely to be familiar only to those who know his art. To others, he’s a guy-next-door, evidently a regular at all the city bars, sporting the fashionable five-o-clock beard and wearing an ethereal girlfriend on his arm.

I’m prompted to see these images as an attempt of contemporary artists to show how difficult it’s become to embed oneself in history. Perhaps, they don’t regard their work as such, but their opinion doesn’t change the fact: if you do something publicly, you want it to be noticed. And there’s a lot to be noticed and contemplated. For instance, why precisely it is Van Gogh who’s become the new Raphael and his art is both famous and yet common. Monet’s Waterlilies are too simple yet pretentious for today’s interiors, Degas is too complex, Picasso and Dali are too famous, and Vincent’s contemporary, the ravishing Gauguin, is probably too daring for the otherwise tolerant society.

Or, why it is Van Gogh who’s been chosen by the new generation of “creative people” who’ve got the misfortune of living in the shadow of both the classics and the better known contemporaries, when self-mutilation suddenly becomes a publicity act to illustrate the artist’s impotence. Not to mention his mental state, the work of Van Gogh lacked the languid tenderness of Monet or Gauguin’s exotic vitality. Van Gogh is halfway between these two emotions, and again this may be what makes him so popular today. Artists and the public want to enjoy the steady bourgeois life but the thirst for change and the ennui (as a by-product of that very steadiness) push them far and wide. They settle on Van Gogh as a troubled soul with peculiar landscape paintings, starry skies, potato-eaters, sunflowers and irises, who’s quite exotic and simple and thus doesn’t challenge the status quo. So contemporary art doesn’t challenge the capitalist status quo. There seems to be a truce between capitalism and art today: art can criticise capitalism as long as it doesn’t attempt to erode its basis. Van Gogh serves better purpose here, as he’s never left the capitalist, bourgeois setting, unlike Gauguin.

Finally, as a society we’re still fascinated with the troubled genii who didn’t live to see the fame that befell their work. And this is again where Van Gogh fits so well. This fame and success thing belongs to the same class of unattainable values, as, say, money. It is argued that money is everywhere, yet why so few people get comfortably well-off? There are many reasons, from poor thinking to some objective factors, like the time and place of living, yet ultimately they all serve the purpose to explain why you’ve not got money now AND give you hope that one day you may be a rich man, too. Today artists are subjected to such fierce competition that you’ve got to be inspired by someone who remained faithful to his path and eventually received his delayed gratification. Van Gogh is an excellent example: not too notorious, not too political, a typical shy genius.

So when Vincent takes to the streets in those images there are several messages we receive. This may be a homage the contemporary art and indeed life itself pay the bygone times by bringing them into the 21st century. I mean, do you see similar takes on the work of David, Ingres, Degas, Gauguin? Nothing instantly springs to mind, which means that incorporating Van Gogh into modern-day discourse is a sign that he belongs here and now.

This may be an attempt of contemporary art to trace itself back to some period in Art History with which it’d like to be associated. Regardless of artistic value of Van Gogh’s work (which I don’t dispute), the reason contemporary artists may wish to be close to Van Gogh is a peculiar combination of avant-garde and mainstream in his work, which is neither too challenging, nor boring.

Finally, contemporary life itself wants to find a historical setting to which it belongs — or, alternatively, to destroy the value of any historical tradition. Lost in between capitalism and socialism, today’s “young adults” are very much like the troubled Vincent. They need to know that there’s hope, that the past has preserved the images of people both similar and familiar to them. Van Gogh lived at the time when the notion of art was only beginning to undergo revision. I guess he’d be completely lost today when your local graffiti, a dead shark and Leonardo are all considered “art”. So his hipster images are a link between the fin-de-siecle and the first half of the 21st century. And it’s kind of good, except for the sinister side. Van Gogh serves to justify the artistic impotence, the second-hand artistic practice and spending life in a fleeting hope for fame and success. Nobody cares for his mental state nor views on art. His distorted face is placed in all sorts of settings, from bars to film posters, to make him as common as Mona Lisa has become. This devaluation works very cleverly, equalling a great artist to his unfortunate paragons and further distorting the notion of art, which in the end isn’t about Beauty but about Labour of Love for Beauty.

A Roman Bath Morning

Encircled by four-legged friends, it’s so tempting to stay in bed longer. But you still have to get up. Now, just about every visitor to this hall in the Louvre stops at this bath to admire it. I and a few tourists from Australia decided that we would happily accommodate this one at our houses. And so, the question: if indeed this bath were yours and you knew it was waiting for you, would it make you more eager to get up in the morning?

A Roman Hall at the Louvre Museum, Paris, France

Reiner Maria Rilke – Verkundigung

Sandro Botticelli – Annunciation

Die Worte des Engels

Du bist nicht näher an Gott als wir;

wir sind ihm alle weit.

Aber wunderbar sind dir

die Hände benedeit.

So reifen sie bei keiner Frau,

so schimmernd aus dem Saum:

ich bin der Tag, ich bin der Tau,

du aber bist der Baum.

Ich bin jetzt matt, mein Weg war weit,

vergieb mir, ich vergaß,

was Er, der groß in Goldgeschmeid

wie in der Sonne saß,

dir künden ließ, du Sinnende,

(verwirrt hat mich der Raum).

Sieh: ich bin das Beginnende,

du aber bist der Baum.

Ich spannte meine Schwingen aus

und wurde seltsam weit;

jetzt überfließt dein kleines Haus

von meinem großen Kleid.

Und dennoch bist du so allein

wie nie und schaust mich kaum;

das macht: ich bin ein Hauch im Hain,

du aber bist der Baum.

Die Engel alle bangen so,

lassen einander los:

noch nie war das Verlangen so,

so ungewiß und groß.

Vielleicht, daß Etwas bald geschieht,

das du im Traum begreifst.

Gegrüßt sei, meine Seele sieht:

du bist bereit und reifst.

Du bist ein großes, hohes Tor,

und aufgehn wirst du bald.

Du, meines Liedes liebstes Ohr,

jetzt fühle ich: mein Wort verlor

sich in dir wie im Wald.

So kam ich und vollendete

dir tausendeinen Traum.

Gott sah mich an; er blendete…

Du aber bist der Baum.

2018 Xmas: Getting Into the Festive Mood


As the festive season is on its way, the Xmas label returns to the blog. In previous years I used to strive to post daily during December. Back then few people seriously tried to earn money with their websites, so December was an off-season time. Nowadays it is completely the opposite, methinks, so my daily blogging is unlikely to surprise anyone. And still, content is king, so I’ll do my best to bring you just that.

Maya Plisetskaya, 1925-2015

Maya Plisetskaya hasn’t lived a few months until her 90th birthday – just like my grandma a year ago. Here in these photos the prima ballerina’s grace and humour are commemorated by Richard Avedon. She dedicated her entire life to music and ballet and is survived by dozens of grateful students who drew inspiration from her brilliant, if sometimes difficult, character. She is mourned by her husband, composer Rodion Schedrin, and thousands of fans throughout the world. Yet we shall continue finding inspiration in the life and work of this truly unique, inimitable woman. Ave, Maya!

In Defense of Noah’s Arch

I recently had to comment in a discussion on one of socnets about the plausibility of the story of Noah’s Arch. The argument was that the story was never questioned, then the person took interest in science, and before long the story of the most ancient sea journey amidst the deluge became a myth.

Regular readers know that I’m not a religious person, however I do have faith. It’s neither Christian, nor some other, but a set of what I hold to be true of the world where I live. However, being a historian I realise that these “myths” are not the mere old woman’s tales but the examples of how our ancestors made sense of this world. They may appear exaggerated to us today but at the very core they are not at all contradictory to the event as it was. 
 
In case with Noah’s Arch the problem is that, rather than acknowledging the limited worldview of our predecessors we let our own erudition run wild. We come to imagine an arch the size of the Titanic, and a pair of every species grows to the size of an average zoo. The purpose of saving Noah was to rebuild the mankind; naturally, Noah would have to eat and to grow crops, and he needed animals to do so – domestic animals, that is. In his time these would most likely be sheep, and it was absolutely possible to take a couple of “baahs” on board. 
I mentioned the story of St. Ursula that I wrote about previously. It’s one of the best-known Christian myths that sprang from the misreading of an abbreviation and inspired a popular theme in medieval painting. Yes, today we know there had not been 11,000 virgin martyrs, and the iconography appears a good subject for mockery. Instead, why cannot we appreciate the art of composition, the colours, the studies of a dress?
 
On to my socnet argument. 
 
“The Noah story as I knew it had it that he was allowed to take a pair of every species. Given the time we are talking about, it would not be a zoo, so generally he would be able to take some creatures in a boat with him. Scientists, historians, archaeologists have long established that the story of Noah’s Arc is one of many reverberations of the story of the Great Flood, references to which we can find not only in the Bible but also in American Indian myths, and in The Epic of Gilgamesh, the first ever epic song. As much as I am not religious myself, I’m an historian, and the biggest problem we have with these “fables” is that they are taken at face value and taught in the same vein, then later we discover our critical faculties and begin to refute the story altogether. We need to realise that it is through fables, parables and extensive iconography that our ancestors made sense of this world. It would be a shame if, by discarding these stories as old woman’s tales, we also threw away the ability for rich, imaginative thinking. We should believe the story of Noah’s Arc, as it is depicted in the Bible, no more than we believe today the story of St. Ursula and 11000 virgin martyrs, but it doesn’t mean nothing similar had ever happened. I felt I had to say this because in Russia in the late 1990s an academic “school” appeared that claimed that all history, as we know it, especially starting from our era, was a creation of a limited number of European scholars from 17th c. onwards. If we say that those myths are just myths, we merely give strength to this theory that would happily refute Darwin with all his apes, if it could”.

Exhibitions Expected At the State Hermitage Museum In 2013

Perhaps there is no better way to eventually visit a city than to start learning about upcoming events. So, in a hope to finally visit St. Petersburg I’d like to post here provisional list of exhibitions I found interesting that are currently listed on the State Hermitage Museum’s website. As the museum authorities note, the titles and dates of the exhibitions may change, but we shall hope my choice will remain more or less the same.

Paul Cezanne, Card Players. From the Courtauld Institute collection, as part of the series “Masterpieces of world museums at the Hermitage
When: Feb 27 – May 26, 2013.

The Legacy of German Expressionism. From the George Economou collection
When: May 13, 2013 – Jan 20, 2014.

The Corporate Unity. The Dutch group portrait of the Golden Age from the collection of the Museum of History of Amsterdam
When: June 8 – Sept 1, 2013.

The White City. The Bauhaus architecture in Tel-Aviv
When: June 12 – Sept 15, 2013.

El Lisitsky and Ilya Kabakov
When: July 17 – Sept 15, 2013.

Wilhelm II and Anna Pavlovna. The royal luxury of the Dutch court
When: Sept 25, 2013 – Jan 12, 2014.

Fluxus. Jurgis Maciunas. Russia Atlases
When: Oct 5 – Nov 3, 2013.

Britannia silver from Queen Victoria’s time
Oct 23, 2013 – Jan 19, 2014.

Contemporary Japanese Art
Nov 9, 2013 – Feb 9, 2014

Salvador Dali and his Spanish contemporaries
Nov 23, 2013 – Feb 16, 2014

More events.

And if you are based in Australia or plan to travel there before May 2013, bear in mind that you can visit a unique exhibition of ancient artifacts from the Hermitage collection that date back to the time of Alexander the Great. “Alexander the Great: 2000 Years of Treasures” is exhibited at the Museum of Australia in Sydney until May 10, 2013. The exhibition is sponsored by The Daily Telegraph, JCDecaux, Etihad Airways, and National Geographic Channel among others.

Alexander the Great’s exhibition displays (courtesy of The Hermitage)