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Thoughts on Sts Peter and Paul’s Day

Today we celebrated the Day of two Christian saints, Peter and Paul. Peter was one of Jesus’s disciples who tried to emulate his master and follow him in his footsteps but couldn’t quite do so. He was afraid to walk on water, and, despite his own expectations, refuted Jesus three times. Following the Resurrection, he became the leader of disciples and an ardent professor of faith.

Saul, on the other hand, was a staunch persecutor of Christians until the angel knocked him down and revealed God’s will. And so Saul became Paul and wrote many epistles to pagans and Christians alike. Caravaggio’ The Conversion of Saul depicts the moment of epiphany.

Both eventually martyred: Peter was crucified head down (at his own request), and Paul was beheaded for he was a Ronan citizen. As a result, Paul is often depicted with a sword, as in this painting by El Greco.

Paul may also be depicted with a book which is a nod to his literary activity, and Peter is portrayed with the keys to Kingdom of Heaven in his hand. In this Russian icon another aspect is noticeable: Peter is older and is always on the left side of the picture.

The saints were celebrated in Russia practically since the Christening, and the Cathedral of St Sophia in Kiev has the earliest surviving image of Peter in what was Ancient Rus.

The popular expression says “Peter and Paul reduce the day by an hour”. By August 2nd, St Elijah’s Day, the day will have lost two hours, which is commemorated in another expression.

The story of Peter and Paul is that of a person’s following his or her vocation with faith. At the beginning of this short fasting period I went to St Clement of Rome’s church where I wrote down something of my own epiphany, that Christianity is not about suffering but about faith and service. When one has found their vocation, they should follow it, not in the hope to martyr or to die a peaceful death, but in the determination to fulfill their vocation. Martyrdom or a good death is not the end in itself; the vocation is. The story of Peter and Paul is a good illustration of this thesis. After all, there were St Nicholas and St Spyridon of Trimythous who died a peaceful death but whose contribution to Christianity was no less than that of the apostles’.

There are two lessons Peter and Paul teach us. One, follow your vocation. And two, none of us is ever good enough for a task. Peter betrayed Christ but came to be the guardian of the heavenly Kingdom. Saul used to destroy Christians but eventually became the most ardent propagator of a new religion. Whatever we used to do in the past, we can always change our ways and start anew.

Dali-Picasso Exhibition in Moscow (An Overview)

I’ve got a special skill: I’m excellent at visiting exhibitions on their last day. 26th of September was the last day of an exhibition I’ve longed to visit since 2020. In the top photo you see my selfie between Moliere and Honore de Balzac – by Pablo Picasso and below there are several pieces from Salvador Dali’s halls. And whereas Picasso is represented at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, Dali’s artwork is mostly in private collections, to my knowledge, at least. To say I was thrilled to visit the exhibition of artwork of two of my favourite painters is clearly an understatement.

Moscow Celebrates 874th Anniversary

For the 874th anniversary of my native city I went to the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts. There are currently two “Italian” exhibitions. One, in collaboration with Pinacoteca di Siena, focuses on the rise of the Sienese school of art. It features at least one work attributed to workshop of Duccio di Buoninsegna and works by Simone Martini, Giovanni di Paolo, and others. It also demonstrates some rare Sienese biccherni and 13-14th Italian paintings and altarpieces from the Pushkin Museum collection.

Another exhibition features works by Giambattista Tiepolo (18th c.) and other Italian painters of 17-18th cc.

In the city, in one of the boulevards, there is an exhibition of Soviet photography. Photos span 1930s-1980s and focus on celebrations in Red Square and Moscow architecture.

Below is one of exhibits, a painting by a 17th c. Neapolitan master, “The healing of the man sick with palsy”.

The Hammock for the Falling Stars

The Hammock for the Falling Stars is book for which 17 female authors wrote over 30 tales that take the reader to four corners of the world

I am very glad to announce a publication of a collection of original fairy tales, inspired by the world folklore, The Hammock for the Falling Stars. The project is at the finishing stage where the authors and all those who are interested are collecting the money to publish the book before Christmas. 17 female authors wrote over 30 tales that take the reader to all the four corners of the world. This hardback edition contains over 100 pages, it is lavishly illustrated and will surely make a superb gift for a Russian-reading child. I have already translated my tale, inspired by Welsh folklore, into English and will look to publish it separately. In the meantime, you can look at the beautiful illustrations to this wonderful, superb edition. If you know of someone who may be interested in this book, please feel free to share the post with them.

the-hammock-for-the-falling-stars
The cover of the book, The Hammock for the Falling Stars (Moscow, 2020)

The Hammock for the Falling Stars can be purchased via this link: https://www.tinkoff.ru/sl/AxyL1HgRWHH. Please write your name and a social network name or email to be contacted for the book to be posted.

A previous announcement.

More posts on Wales.

Dave McKean: MIRRORMASK, Art And Reality

Dave McKean Mirrormask is a film where reality is a constrantly changing, dreamy work of art. The interview explores the artist’s views of art and life.

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.

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