Category Archives: Philosophy

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.

Sketches to Portraits by Terentiy Travnik

sketches-to-portraits-terentiy-travnik
Terentiy Travnik and Darya Khanedany’an, Sketches to Portraits. Translated into English, Spanish and French by Julia Shuvalova and Patrick Jackson.

One of the milestone events of this year for me is a publication of a book Sketches to Portraits with the aphorisms by Terentiy Travnik and illustrations by Darya Khanedany’an.

Terentiy Travnik is a poet, artist and musician, a native Muscovite. Darya Khanedanyan was also born in Moscow into a family of artists, however her own creative career started in Spain. I took part in making the book as a literary editor, an editor of the English translation of aphorisms, and a translator into French. I also translated the opening article into English.

The pronounced Iberian facial traits is obviously a hommage to Spain; Travnik’s aphorisms retain their Russian heritage in form as in the intellectual depth. A harmonious combination of words and images is therefore all the more striking, strengthened by artistic editing by Travnik himself. The vibrant colours, ethnic rhythms and avant-garde stylisation all bring out a truly cosmic dimension in Sketches to Portraits.

The aphorisms by Terentiy Travnik deserve a special mention. One of his best-known books, A Splinter, that has seen 4 editions since it was first published in 1990s, is a collection of aphorisms that embrace practically all spheres of human life. One can note here a loyalty to the tradition of La Bruyère, Schopenhauer and other philosophers who found endless creative possibilities in the concise and succinct form of an aphorism. Ever after A Splinter Travnik’s work has been marked by the mentioned qualities (e.g. Tabulas, 49 Tabulas etc.).

Sketches to Portraits by Terentiy Travnik includes 41 aphorisms translated into English, Spanish and French languages. Great happiness matures slowly; There is a lot of grass in the field, but we can only remember the flower; Time does everything on the go; Touch the roots, and the crown will blossom; To do a foolish thing and to make a mistake are two different things; Wisdom does not take money; Education is the path from authority to truth; Treat the fatigue of the body with rest and the fatigue of the soul with work. This is but a little part of what the author invites the reader to think about. Perhaps, this openness to the dialogue is the most remarkable trait of these aphorisms. Nowadays the Internet is saturated with many an interesting and deep quote, but the most popular are those presented in a mentoring or affirmative voice. Do this; don’t do that; the meaning of that is this. Terentiy Travnik’s aphorisms, while speaking directly to the reader, don’t insist on their ultimate truth. Their deceptive simplicity disguises some really deep reflections.

Terentiy Travnik’s website

Other posts in Julia Shuvalova: Poetry and Prose archives

Putting the Past Behind You

I have mentioned Jacques Derrida’s essay “On Forgiveness” on this blog, but it recently came back into my life for a different reason: my career.

The point Derrida makes in his essay is that to forgive means to forget; to forget means to make a conscious effort not to dwell on the past. This act of forgetting does not equal amnesia; instead, it is the act of putting one’s entire faith into believing that something bad will not happen again. In family life, for instance, forgiving an adultery means to forget that adultery exists; to treat your partner as if they never cheated on you, and to treat yourself like you are not worthy of being cheated on. In politics, this would be about treating the war as if it does not exist, so that you can never use it as the means to solve problems.

The problem that was holding me back, as I recently discovered, has to do with rejection and the lack of appreciation. People around me at the moment give me a lot of support and encouragement, something I have not had for some time. They believe in me, they see me as a winner, and I know I am going to amaze myself with my achievements this year. But something wasn’t quite right. It finally downed on me yesterday exactly what it was.

It was the past experience.

So many times have I put past experiences behind me. God knows, I could already be very cynical, but I have always made a conscious effort not to let this happen. Yet in the field of my career, in the matters involving career progress and money, the negative experiences outweigh the positives. I have always worked hard but this was often taken for granted. As much as I can say that I should have been more demanding of recognition, I cannot deny that I expected to be recognised for my sheer output, for the amount and quality of my work. It is the direct opposite of my work and achievements in creative and intellectual fields where I have always been “a high roller”.

As they say, the moment you identify the problem is the moment you can expect to find a solution. And this is where Derrida enters the picture. I cannot change the past, but it is entirely in my capacity not to let it further ruin my life prospects. I hear a lot of talk about “taking control”, and this is exactly what I am doing. I cannot change the past, but I can take it to a remote barn, stack it there, close the door, and never go there again.

I share this because at different points in our life a lot of us find ourselves in precisely the same situation. Something just does not let us move on. Something keeps playing the trick. Do not be afraid of confronting it. Strangely, the same relates to the positive experiences. Do not dwell on the past glory, do not try to repeat it. Instead, take every single opportunity as if it is happening to you for the first time ever, and make the best of it.

Quotes On the Front Page: Alvarez Bravo On Inventions, Miller On Wholeness

As we have more and more inventions, the individuals becomes more and more separated from the society. – Manuel Alvarez Bravo

Мир стремится к тому, чтобы стать единым целым, сколь бы ни сопротивлялись части, его составляющие. – Генри Миллер.

The Problems of Adaptations

(written 5 Sept 2008)
I am currently giving much thought to the importance of screen adaptations. I have to think simultaneously of the stage adaptations, too, because very often we are speaking about one and same text adapted to either stage or screen. The reason why I am so preoccupied with the screen adaptations is because I feel that particularly Russian cinema of today suffers from the lack thereof. At the same time, world’s cinema is probably just as deprived by the lack of attempts to put to screen the “old” or “foreign” narratives that exist out there.

To think about it, somehow it seems much easier to create a YouPorn channel, or to make a soft- or hardcore porn film, or to blend a pornographic content with some metaphysical or political discourse, than to actually put to screen the narrative of de Sade as it is. This is not to defy or to forget Pasolini’s Salo (that draws on 120 Days of Sodom), but de Sade was writing on the wane of the Age of the Enlightenment, and he was drawing on the hyperbolas of Rabelais and contemporary ideas of theatre, in particular. The scholars who pointed out to de Sade’s striking theatricality are correct in that they first find the place for de Sade in his own time, instead of dragging him all the way into the 20th c., openly linking Sadism to Fascism.
(120 Days of Sodom French and English texts).

Another example is, obviously, Hamlet. A classical role, a secret dream or ambition of many film makers and actors alike. Olivier’s adaptation is Shakespearean, so much so that certain frames remind you of the Renaissance and Baroque paintings. Kozintsev’s film does not depart far from the Renaissance theme but at times can even remind the viewer of Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Zeffirelli’s adaptation is an interesting go at understanding Shakespeare that has taken the director well beyond Shakespeare’s times, very close to Freud, but potentially not too far from the truth. The re-positioning of Hamlet’s soliloquy is a great achievement, in that we are invited to view Hamlet’s situation on a different dramatic level. Usually Hamlet’s soliloquy is followed by his dialogue with Ophelia in which he orders her to become a nun. We are left not with Hamlet but with Ophelia who is trying to cope with the evidence of the mental break of her beloved. In Zeffirelli’s film the dialogue with Ophelia precedes the soliloquy, so when Hamlet gets to his “to be or not to be” it is indeed the question, for at that point he is finally left totally alone.

However, all mentioned adaptations more or less faithfully follow Shakespearean notes; they are set in either medieval or quasi-medieval (~Renaissance) times. The adaptation by Kenneth Branagh is different in that it uses the full 1623 text, but brings it to life in the middle of the 19th c. Branagh chose the time for its state of political turmoil, sex and post-Napoleonic glamour. The problem, however, is that in 1848 The Communist Manifesto was published, not to mention many Revolutions that preceded and followed its publication. The political climate was far too different from the one in which Shakespeare produced his play. And the beginnings of psychiatry leave one suspecting that Claudius could easily send his nephew to the asylum instead of hiring two guys to spy on Hamlet. This could indeed be a great and masterful adaptation, if it adapted the text to the time. Instead, we have something of a family theatre that went too far – pretty much like the feast in Luis Bunuel’s Exterminating Angel.

I deliberately took two different examples, one of a narrative (de Sade), another of a play (Shakespeare), to underline the difficulty of adapting a text to the screen. Many more examples can be cited, particularly The Death in Venice as it was written by Thomas Mann and subsequently adapted by Luchino Visconti. Visconti’s film was already criticised by Alberto Moravia who as yet acknowledged the doubtless subtlety of Visconti as the film’s auteur. Umberto Eco has a good sub-chapter on it in Mouse or Rat: Translation as Negotiation. It is worth a notice that Eco chose a Hamletian expression to illustrate the conundrum: there is, of course, a big difference between a mouse and a rat, but exactly what did Hamlet mean, and thus how to translate it into a foreign language?

(Der Tod in Venedig (original). The Death in Venice (English text)).

We may think these linguistic nuances have no relation to cinema; in such case, however, we forget that a film is in itself a translation of a literary text into the language of cinema. It is a delicate and laborious process of finding a cinematic equivalent to verbal or visual metaphors. And here we have many more problems emerging that concern the crew, cast, and even the audience as the mediators between the source text and the target text. The 2006 premiere of the long-abandoned Quiet Flows the Don on the Russian TV comes to mind. Much of the criticism was based on the fact that the “foreigners” dared have a go at playing Russian characters. Strangely enough, a careful reader of Sholokhov’s novel will recall that the Cossacks positioned themselves vis-a-vis even Russians. If we take it to the letter, then the only true adaptation can be produced by the Cossack community. However, it has not yet been produced, whereas the problems that Sholokhov raised and discussed have not lost their importance more than 80 years later, whereby it is perfectly possible for the “foreigners” to relate to these problems and therefore have a go at playing out the source text to their, foreigners’, native audience.

This is all the better subject to think about as a Hollywood version of Master and Margarita is in the making. The fame of this novel is such that it is virtually unadaptable and that it sends a curse on its makers. Given the number of diabolic characters in the novel, both in proper and figurative sense of the word, this should not come as a surprise. What will be a surprise is, of course, how Hollywood treats Bulgakov’s Soviet Moscow, especially given the changes in Moscow’s political climate and in political relations between America and Russia in the recent years. The question is, perhaps: is there a possibility that this interpretation will be more political than any that previously existed? Shall it draw any parallels between Stalin’s Moscow and Putin’s/Medvedev’s Moscow?

What interests me, however, is the script. One of the problems of adapting Bulgakov’s novel is that there are, in fact, two novels in one. Of course, Bad Education by Pedro Almodovar comes to mind, where the real-time events intertwine with memory flashbacks and a film directed after the script of a long-dead character. From this point of view, there should be no problem adapting the biblical and Moscow chapters in Master and Margarita. But then precisely how, and to what extent, should they be adapted? Even the 6-hours long adaptation of Quiet Flows the Don by Sergei Gerasimov naturally has a plenty of cuts from the original text which comprises 4 volumes. My view has long been that, in order to successfully adapt this novel to screen (or even to stage), it is important to study Bulgakov’s own adaptations of his texts to stage.

(For a modern text inspired by Bulgakov’s novel and Russian painting, opera, and ballet, read From Russia with Love by Martin Blythe over at Sexual Fables).

Images are courtesy of Classic Movie Favourites and Amazon.