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Alberto Moravia – Eroticism in Literature

I was just going through some screenshots with articles about Quiet Flows the Don premiere last year. It’s been a very long while, unfortunately, since I wrote anything about the latest adaptation by the late Sergei Bondarchuk. In part, it had to do with the fact that I only recently managed to start watching the film, which I am yet to finish. So far in general I feel that I like this film more than the previous adaptation. However, it is the previous adaptation’s subject and the recent interpretation of it that made me remember about this short essay by Alberto Moravia. As I mentioned previously, this year is the 100th anniversary of his birthday, so it is appropriate to mark it with this text.

Alberto Moravia, Eroticism in Literature (1961)

Eroticism in modern literature has no resemblance to eroticism in pagan literature nor to eroticism in the literatures that followed it, though if there are any resemblances at all these are to the former rather than the latter. But there is the difference that in pagan literature eroticism has all the innocence, brutality and cohesion of a nature not yet divided and turned against itself by the Christian sense of sin, whereas eroticism in modern literature is bound to take the Christian experience into account. In other words, eroticism in modern literature derives not from a situatio of nature, but from a process of liberation from pre-existent prohibitions and taboos. With the pagans, freedom was an unconscious, simple fact, whereas with the moderns it has been reclaimed, rediscovered, rewon. In compensation eroticism in modern literature has, or should have, the character proper to subjects that neither shock nor draw undue attention to themselves – that are, in short, normal if we understand normal to mean the transformation of the sexual act into something scientifically known and poetically valid, and therefore insignificant from the ethical point of view.

The result of this is, or should be, that for the first time since the pagan literatures sex is becoming material for poetry without the need to recourse to the props of symbols or the disguises of metaphor. Today, for the first time for many centuries, the sexual act can be represented directly, explicitly, realistically and poetically in a literary work, whenever the work itself makes it necessary. At this point someone will ask: but is it necessary to talk about the sexual act and, if so, when? My answer is that it is not always necessary to talk about the sexual act, just as it is not always necessary to talk about social questions or adventures in Africa, but that, as the prohibitions and taboos that stood in its way no longer exist today, to pass it over in silence when it is necessary is no longer, as it once was, a moral question but an inadequacy of expression. To take an example: the contemporary writer who does not speak of the sexual act when the subject-matter of his book requires it, is behaving like the citizen who refrains from talking about politics in a democratic regime because the dictatorship that preceded it forbade him to do so. Of course, let me repeat, it is not always necessary to talk about the sexual act; but it is necessary to talk about it when – to make a play on words – it is necessary.

Our objector now asks why on earth it seems so often necessary to talk about the sexual act in modern literature. To this we answer very simply that in the modern world sex is synonymous with love, and who could deny that love is a very common subject in the literatures of all times and places?

But how in the world, someone else will say, has love been transformed into sex in modern literature; in other words how has it lost the indirect, metaphorical and idealised character that it had in the past, to end up as identified with the sexual act? There are many reasons for this identification, the principal one being, as we have already pointed out, the collapse of the prohibitions and taboos that only too frequently and artificially lay at the root of the false idealisations of eroticism.

These taboos and prohibitions were only in appearance of Christian origin; in reality Christianity confined itself to counselling chastity. Probably the taboos and prohibitions were the outcome of a slow social involution, an involution not unlike the one that can be observed in, for instance, class relationships in some Western societies.

However, the collapse of these taboos and prohibitions has been caused mainly by what is called depth psychology, or psychoanalysis and the related psychological sciences. The discoveries of psychoanalysis have had a crucial result in two ways: they have broken down the taboos, and have raised the sexual act from the ignominy into which the taboos had cast it, and have reinstated it among the few ways of expression and communion available to man.

The sexual act in modern literature is, or should be, neither diabolical temptation, as with the medieval ascetics, nor an almost gastronomical pleasure as with the eighteenth-century bourgeoisie, but as it shows itself when we manage to separate it both from moralistic horror and vulgar hedonism: an act of insertion into a cosmic and superhuman order. Seen in this way the sexual act is effectively something higher, more mysterious, and more complete than love, especially if love is interpreted as the simple physico-sentimental relationship between man and woman.

How does this relate to the 1957 and 1992 (2006) adaptations of Quiet Flows the Don? At the heart of the novel is a love story of Grigory and Aksinia. One of the arguments against the most recent film was that it showed the protagonists having what we may call an openly sexual relationship. I must point out that there are still no bed scenes similar to some we’ve seen in other films. At the most, we can see their bare torsos (right, although the image is quite modest), but this is obviously very different from what the viewers have been looking at since 1957 (left). Some of the Bondarchuk’s critics were saying that Aksinia would never go to bed with Grigory totally naked. It may certainly be true if we remember that it was a custom even in Europe for many centuries to exercise one’s marital duty in a nightgown (which used to be worn by both men and women). From this point of view, any historical film with a romantic scene in which both protagonists appear totally naked, is potentially historically incorrect.

What is interesting, however, is that the kind of romantic love we usually witness on screen and which makes up one of the subjects of Sholokhov’s novel is rather often than not a forbidden love. As the narrator tells us, the love of Aksinia and Grigory was forbidden not simply because it was adulterous – it flew in the face of a traditional view of how to conduct an affair. Had they concealed it or treated it as if it didn’t matter, the villagers would quickly forget about it. They, however, didn’t conceal it, and in particular Aksinia, for whom this was the first time she fell in love and had her affection returned, put herself entirely into enjoying her womanhood. Hers is a tragic character, and I can absolutely not picture Aksinia keeping her cool while burning with love – that is, wearing a nightgown at all times, figuratively speaking.

I wouldn’t want to comment in too much depth on the Russian take on eroticism in cinema as follows from the Quiet Flows the Don‘s critique, since those opinions may not be entirely representative. As with everything else elsewhere, much is built upon assumptions, in this case – an assumption that Russian culture and eroticism are alien to each other, which, of course, is nonsense. But in the case of reception of this recent adaptation of Sholokhov’s novel we find assumptions not only about the life in the Cossack village, but about the novel itself. The fact is that Sholokhov’s text is long and rich enough to include many story lines, some of which never made it to the screen. And certain portions of the text are undoubtedly erotic, although they may be too demure for our time. Nevertheless, they do exist, and since the question seems to be about whether or not it was appropriate for the protagonists to bare on screen, the answer is that it was not only appropriate, but even necessary – to underline the unconventional and tragic fate of their life-long affair.

Exercises in Loneliness – VIII (Cafe and Music)

Taking Aim
Originally uploaded by Neil101

It shall be a good lesson to me, to take a picture of the place that featured in my work in one way or another. I quite liked Caffe Uno, located in the basement of Heron House in Manchester, opposite the Town Hall and the famous fountain with gargoyles. It never occurred to me that the day may come when this cafe would no longer be. Alas, as you will know if you live in Manchester, Caffe Uno has now been changed by Brasserie, and I was lucky enough to find this picture by Neil on Flickr.

The poem below was written on a small envelope. I don’t know why it was in my bag, but it was, otherwise I’d have to deploy a paper napkin. It was my first ever visit to CaffeUno, it was in January 2005, and the story of how I ended up there is quite trivial, I suppose. I was meant to meet up with the only Russian person I know in Manchester. We were actually going to meet at Mark Addy, then known as the Russian hub in this sunny city. Not only would this be our first meeting, it was also the Orthodox Christmas, January 7th. This lady and I decided to meet at about 9pm at Mark Addy, but I first needed to actually get to Manchester, so I took a bus and reached the city at 7pm.

The evening was incredibly cold and windy. I remember wearing a long coat and a trilby hat, and all the way I had to hold on to my headwear, otherwise it would fly away, surely. I somehow decided to kill time drinking coffee at Caffe Uno. I think one of the reasons may have been that I had wanted to go there for a while, and it now seemed like a perfect occasion to finally pay a visit. I sat in the bar, at the tall table near the window, and drank Irish coffee. The weather outside was getting worse. The Christmas decorations were already taken down, except perhaps for a few garlands left randomly on trees. The wind, however, was so strong, that the bollards at the cafe’s entrance were overturned a few times. The streetlamps were glowing in the ghostly fog which was becoming denser and denser as the evening advanced. And then there was this music: a strange collection of rockabilly, soul and Italian pop songs.

I have long noticed that when you write a love poem or a poem about love, the question that inevitably rises is – was there a protagonist? My answer is always “yes” and “no”. There may be a certain person involved, not necessarily on an intimate level. They may be a good friend of yours, but something they said or you said can suddenly acquire a totally different meaning. Or the person in question may be an amalgamation of several people, and therefore thoughts, experiences. What I enjoy the most about writing is the experiment, which is why I very rarely dedicate poems to anyone because, in the end of the day, the text will not be about them, even if it might allude to them.

This poem, however, is about me. The question that I now must ask myself is – since I am the protagonist of this poem, is this me? My answer is “yes”. However, I was alone in Caffe Uno. I wasn’t looking at anybody in particular, although I probably wanted to look at somebody. The text dwells on the experience of that creative loneliness which is enhanced by the rather Gothic weather. There is no rhyme in the Russian text, but the rhythm, which I tried to replicate in the English translation, is in tune with that musical vinaigrette I described above. Having said that, the mood of the poem is closer to soul than to pop.

The poem does read like a romantic poem. But since I was looking at someone imaginary, it is rather likely than not that I was ultimately looking at myself. And little did I know, being at Caffe Uno and scribbling the lines on a tiny white envelope, that at Marc Addy I would also be on my own, and that this Russian friend wouldn’t turn up, and that, sitting in MA and gazing at the black bitter waves of the river, I would finally decide that I somehow belonged to England and wanted to stay here. The poem thus becomes Romanticist, rather than romantic, and indeed it marked yet another stage in the series of changes that started during my visit to London in April 2004.


Imagine this: the lights of night-time city
Are drawing me beguilingly to you.
I drink cognac which taste is blent in coffee,
And soul chords caress my ear fondly.
The cars are flying with the blowing wind;
The leaves, umbrellas, hats are flying after.
I’m thinking; in the rhythm of rockabilly
My recollections move; and I feel good.
You’re thinking too, but nothing do you know.
And so I gaze with a mysterious smile:
Imaginary flame ignites the lantern,
And all streetlamps are like the burning bushes.
And we don’t speak; sometimes an odd talk
Intrudes upon us from the corner table;
It’s ghostly; nightly; beautiful; and empty;
I drink cognac; I’m being drawn to you.

Manchester, Caffe Uno,
January 7, 2005

English translation © Julia Shuvalova 2007


Вообрази: огни ночного города
Меня к тебе влекут неодолимо.
Я пью коньяк, чей вкус разбавлен кофе,
И блюза гаммы слух ласкают мне.
Летят автомобили ветру вслед,
Им вслед летят листва, зонты и шляпы,
Я думаю, и в ритме рокабилли
Воспоминанья движутся; мне хорошо.
Ты тоже думаешь, но ничего не знаешь.
С улыбкою загадочной смотрю:
Воображаемый огонь зажегся в лампе,
И кущами пылают фонари.
И мы молчим; случайный разговор
Доносится от столика в углу;
Все призрачно; ночно; красиво; пусто;
Я пью коньяк; меня к тебе влечет.

© Julia Shuvalova 2005)

Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson in My Life

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson, which is the name of the Russian TV series written and directed by Igor Maslennikov after the stories by Arthur Conan Doyle, were to play an important role in my life. By 1988/9 when I first watched it I have already been taking to writing short stories and poems. The first film I’ve seen, The Speckled Band, was vivid enough to scare the hell out of me: for a few nights afterwards I was afraid to go to the kitchen through the dark corridor, and I thought I could hear noises. I didn’t look for serpents under my bed, no, but I suppose I wouldn’t be writing this blog, had I found any.

The final outcome, however, was perhaps the most unexpected, as the fear gradually gave way to a loving obsession with the adventures and unbeatable charisma of both sleuth and his friend. And it was this obsession that made me take an exercise-book (not a notebook yet) and start writing the new chapter in the long chain of Holmes’s meanderings along London’s criminal web. It was in 1989. I passionately filled about half of the exercise-book when it downed on me that there was something wrong about the whole thing. You see, the cover bore a proudly written inscription “Arthur Conan Doyle. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson”, and I suddenly realised that it was me, not Conan Doyle, who was writing the story. I could very well change the name of the author, but even though I probably didn’t know the word “plagiarism” back then, I knew nonetheless that those two amazing characters had already been created, and the idea of continuing their story lost its charm instantly. This is how I learnt that I wanted to be original and to put my own name to the things I write.

But the film not only remained in my life, it became one of those films that I can watch again, and again, and again. In fairness, this is exactly what I’ve been doing, while in Russia. I probably haven’t missed any single time the series was screened on the Russian TV, and bearing in mind that this is quite a popular film I must have seen each of the episodes more than twenty times. As time went by, I stopped being afraid, and I began to pay attention to acting. And this was when I fell in love with this film once again, this time forever. Almost the entire cast were well-known stage actors, and although the names of the majority of them might not tell you anything, the series can be called star-studded. In the final episode, “The Beginning of the Twentieth Century”, you could see one of the universally acclaimed Russian actors, Innokenty Smoktunovsky, in a cameo appearance. He starred as Hamlet in the 1964 Kosintzev’s adaptation which earned him a BAFTA nomination and the praise from Sir Laurence Olivier. An Oscar-winning Russian film director, Nikita Mikhalkov (Burnt by the Sun) appeared, as Sir Henry Baskerville, in the brilliant adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles. By the time he played this part, he’d won the Golden Seashell award at the San Sebastian International Film Festival in 1977.

I strongly recommend you reading the article about Vasily Livanov and Vitaly Solomin: The Russian Holmes and Watson, to gain the idea of how the film was made. As the author of the article correctly says, if one knows the Conan Doyle’s Canon, they can easily get the idea of what is happening on screen. Unfortunately, quite a few of the regularly appearing actors have left us, and not only Rina Zelyonaya (Mrs Hudson) and Borislav Brondukov (Inspector Lestrade), but Dr Watson himself (Vitaly Solomin). At the same time, Vasily Livanov is the only Russian actor to have received an honorary OBE for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes.

The reason I wrote all this is not just a sudden attack of nostalgia. It was the Sherlock Holmes weekend of ITV Granada, and I watched a few films. I’ve seen some adaptations previously, the latest being with Rupert Everett in the leading role. Yet I keep liking the Russian film – not because it was the first screen adaptation I’ve seen or because I’m Russian. Simply, in my eyes the Russian series brings to the screen the solidity and dramatism of Conan Doyle’s stories in the way that no other adaptation does. Shot entirely in what was then the Soviet Union (the Neva in St Petersburg (then Leningrad) playing the role of the Thames, in particular), the creators of the film somehow not only got under the skin of the characters, but under the skin of the Victorian London and of the late 19th c. We may never know exactly how they managed to do this, but this is what art is about – creating a physical shape for the unthinkable.

The Sherlock Holmes Story on Flickr
London Visit of Vasily Livanov (Robert Graham, 16th January 2007)
Meeting Vasily Livanov (photoset accompanying the above)

Finally, to let you delve deeper into the Russian epic film, here is an excerpt (found on YouTube) from The Hound of the Baskervilles. In the first minute of it you see Sherlock Holmes (Livanov), Dr Watson (Solomin), and Mrs Hudson (Zelyonaya), and this is the dialogue between them:

Holmes: It’s interesting to know, Watson, what you can say about this walking stick?
Watson: One could think you’ve got eyes on your nape.
Holmes: My dear friend, had you read my monograph about the tactile organs of the detectives, you’d have known that on the top of our ears there are these sensory points. So, I’ve got no eyes on my nape.
Mrs Hudson: He sees your reflection in the coffee pot.

The music is by Vladimir Dashkevich. Enjoy!

Western Approaches in Schmap Liverpool Guide

I mentioned that I loved photography. I discovered it in my late teens, and I owe the interest not so much to my father, but to my acquaintance with and passion for surrealism. Back then I adored Man Ray. Later I discovered Helmut Newton, and Cecil Beaton, and David Bailey, and Henri Cartier-Bresson, and of course Eugene Atget, and so my passion has crystallised. I should note that many of the pictures you see on Flickr were taken with cameraphone, although I’ve recently begun to upload those that were taken with a regular camera.

Quite a few people recently have told me that they liked my pictures, which is very encouraging. Even more so was a Flickrmail from the editor of Schmap Guides a couple of weeks ago telling me that one of my Liverpool pictures was shortlisted for the inclusion in the forthcoming edition of Schmap Liverpool Guide. Then yesterday at work, when I checked my email during lunch, I found out that my photo of the Western Approaches Headquarters was included in the Guide. What a wonderful way to start the weekend!

I am thoroughly delighted and grateful to the editorial of Schmap for this inclusion. I would certainly like more of this and similar things to come, but ultimately, this means that I should finally start taking my passion for photography just as seriously as I take my passion for literature, cinema, and music.

You can navigate the guide below, in the cultural section of which you will find, apart from the Western Approaches Museum, St Georges Hall, Walker Art Gallery, and Liverpool Museum and Planetarium.


As a matter of fact, although I’ve been to Liverpool I haven’t been to many Liverpool museums, and reading about the Western Approaches, which is now a part of Liverpool War Museum, absolutely makes me want to visit it. Bearing in mind that I’m currently on a week-long holiday, this should be a great opportunity to navigate the Schmap Guide. As Liverpool War Museum website tells us,

The Western Approaches is a rectangular area of the Atlantic ocean lying on the western coast of the United Kingdom. It is roughly the same height as the west coast of Britain, starting directly on the coast and ending in the Atlantic roughly at Iceland. The area is particularly important to the UK, because many of the larger shipping ports lie in this area. (http://www.liverpoolwarmuseum.co.uk/history/)

The bunker, we are told, had played a crucial part in the Battle of the Atlantic, its role being to ensure the successful delivery of supplies and equipment into wartime Britain from the sea”. Reconstructed by the Walton Group, the bunker is the original building where the original battle was fought and won. It has been reconstructed exactly how it used to be”.

Below is a bigger version of my picture of the Western Approaches Headquarters.

Western Approaches Headquarters, Liverpool

La Poesie: The Kiss

I’ve sometimes written poems that were inspired by a piece of music or by a painting. One may appropriately call such poems impressions, the consequences of reflection or meditation on a subject. But sometimes a poem was written “independently” from the influence of another work of art, yet it may still be possible to find a parallel to it in cinema or painting.

In the case with this poem, I didn’t have any work of art to inspire me. And I didn’t conspire to write a poem on the subject of a kiss. It was one of those occasions (quite usual with me) when the idea, together with the interpretations, has simply descended. On such occasions I usually don’t work on a poem – it arrives in the exact form.

One thing I was consciously trying to do was to write the poem “neutrally”. The beauty of the English language to me is in the fact that it generally doesn’t distinguish grammatically between the masculine and the feminine, which is the case of other European languages, including Russian. My love for this grammatical “neutrality” is naturally connected to my regular pounding on the necessity to shrug off the “categories” and “identities”. The story of an act of a kiss is told in the first person, and I wrote it in such way that it contains no indication of a gender, so both a man and a woman can read it. In this regard neither of the authors of playcasts for this poem succeeded at following my vision: both images have a male figure as an active partner, whereas my idea was to allow women, who evidently do kiss men, to play the leading part, providing they dare read the poem aloud. I don’t mention same-sex couples, since my idea was to write a poem that could be read by everyone and for everyone.

After I’ve written it, however, I read it over and over again, and suddenly I realised that, without actually planning to do so, I wrote a verbal illustration to Roland Penrose’s painting Winged Domino. Portrait of Valentine. At once a painting that can potentially instill someone with awe or even disgust has become romantic.

I must admit that I still couldn’t translate the poem, so as to give the full idea of its meter and rhythm; I will include the English verbatim translation in the parentheses for the time being.

Поцелуй. Winged Domino. Portrait of Valentine (R. Penrose).

Как бабочка порхает над цветком,
Его бесценной красотой любуясь,
Так я касаюсь робко языком
Губ-лепестков твоих; а ты, волнуясь,

Мне отдаешь божественный нектар;
И, превозмогши головокруженье,
Я вижу сквозь пыльцу цветочных чар
В твоих глазах – мое изображенье.

© Юлия Шувалова 2006

(The Kiss. Winged Domino. Portrait of Valentine (R. Penrose)

Just like the butterfly flutters around the flower
Adoring its precious beauty,
So I hesitantly touch your lips
With my tongue; and you, excited,

Return to me a divine nectar;
And, having overcome my vertigo,
I see, through the pollen of flowery charms,
My reflection – in your eyes.

© Julia Shuvalova 2007)

Blog Action Day: Nature and Memory

As decided, on the Blog Action Day we’re blogging about environment. But exactly what shall we say? On occasions like this I’ve always wanted to say something different, yet how different can you be these days when absolutely everyone seems to be aware of the necessity of environmental protection?

JS Herbarium 1988

My problems were solved when my mother scanned and sent to me my first (and only) herbarium. I went to school in 1987, and upon finishing our first form we’d all got this task, to create a herbarium. My mother and I made it together in 1988, and I must be honest and say that it was actually her who made most of the job, although I did have my share. This, for instance, is the title page with my first-form handwriting. This is a poem by a Russian children’s poet, Valentine Berestov, and it tells of the author’s amazement at seeing different flowers out together in herbarium, even though “in the wild” they probably didn’t know about each other.

JS Herbarium 1988

I must admit that I never liked biology or botany at school. I might have mentioned on the blog my Biology teacher, who was a Chemistry teacher by her uni degree, and who actually was up to teaching any subject, including History and Law. Her method of teaching, unfortunately, boiled down to reading from a textbook and drawing tables, and naturally perhaps, the lessons were far from engaging.

JS Herbarium 1988

Believe it or not, but the first time we spoke about the environmental protection was at the English lesson. We had an improvised “environmental press-conference”, over which I presided. I introduced the topics and speakers, from “environmentalists” and “journalists” to “witnesses” of environmental catastrophes. The “speakers” discussed at length the pollution, and the green-house effect, and the animal protection, and the global warming. Yet I should be honest again and say that the only thing that has then benefited from such lesson was my English vocabulary, and not the awareness of the environmental problems.

I think in part the problem may have to do with how the subject of Environmental Studies is taught at schools. In those early years at school I had the lessons in what could literally be translated as Naturology. And I can never forget a quiz we had had when we had to answer questions and tick boxes. One of the question was to classify the objects by their nature – “animate” or “inanimate”. Everything was OK, until I saw “flowers”. I thought of photosynthesis, of everything I knew then about flowers, and ticked “animate”. Turned out, this was the wrong answer. To this day I cannot understand, why. If I go from Latin, it makes sense: “anima” is “soul”, and flowers, naturally, don’t have soul. But neither do animals, one would imagine, yet they do belong to the “animate” world.

And just as I was writing this post, I remember about Hans Christian Andersen again. I was sure he had had a tale about the four seasons, but when I went to look for it I found another tale, which I always used love, it is called The Elder-Tree Mother. The elder-tree tea is a great popular remedy against the cold, but Andersen presented the elder-tree as a dryad, whose spirit told the protagonist, a little boy, wonderful stories. Let me quote this passage to you:

Now the little maiden with the blue eyes and the elder blossoms in her hair sat up in the tree and nodded to them both and said, “Today is your golden wedding anniversary!” Then from her hair she took two flowers, and kissed them so that they gleamed, first like silver, and then like gold. And when she laid them on the heads of the old couple, each became a golden crown. There they both sat, a king and a queen, under the fragrant tree that looked just exactly like an elder bush, and he told his old wife the story of the Elder Tree Mother, just as it had been told to him when he was a little boy. They both thought that much of the story resembled their own, and that part they liked best.
“Yes, that’s the way it is,” said the little girl in the tree. “Some people call me Elder Tree Mother, and some call me the Dryad, but my real name is Memory. It is I who sit up in the tree that grows on and on, and I can remember and I can tell stories. Let me see if you still have your flower.”
Then the old man opened his hymnal, and there lay the elder blossom, as fresh as if it had just been placed there. Then Memory nodded, and the two old people with the golden crowns sat in the red twilight, and they closed their eyes gently and – and – and that was the end of the story….

And so I looked my herbarium, and I saw things I’ve almost forgotten about, or haven’t recalled for years. Indeed, as the works of some historians would prove to us, Nature is the cradle of our Memory. This Memory is living and surviving, from generation to generation, and if this is not enough to persuade us in the necessity of its protection, what else will?


Hans Christian Andersen, The Elder-Tree Mother (in English)
The same in Russian
The same in Danish
The same in German
For translations in other European languages, check Hans Christian Andersen Centre.
Julia’s Herbarium 1988 Photoset on Flickr.

Stella Artois: Just the Name Makes the Beer Taste Better

Whether you are a cinema fan, or a beer fan, the name of Stella Artois is familiar to you. Exquisite TV adverts with an anecdotal story at heart of each of them, praising the labour of love of the Belgian brewery in Leuven. The Belgian tradition of brewing the beer dates back to 1366, and last year saw Stella Artois’s 640’s anniversary. The launch of a new interactive website this year is a perfect birthday gift to the dedicated beer-makers and to all faithful Artois lovers.

The website is located at www.artois.co.uk, but on October 8th it was only open to a limited number of people invited for its online premiere. It was a pleasant surprise for me to have been invited (along with “various designers, marketers, film enthusiasts, beer connoisseurs and reasonably friendly-seeming people”, to quote the invitation email), and I have just spent the most wonderful hour on the site. As you see from a very blurred image on the top left, I had to type in two special words to access the site, and once I did I have entered the Artois Wonderland.

On your journey through the Wonderland you are being guided not by a White Rabbit, but by a newly appointed (i.e. invented) Artois brew master (left). As the creators of the website, Johan Tesch, Noel Pretorius, and Tim Scheibel, explain, the whole visual language of the journey is strongly influenced by the early 20th c. posters., films, and Artois’s own print ads of the time. To get in the mood for your journey, watch this teaser (courtesy of http://www.artoisblog.co.uk/).


As it happens in all polite houses, La Famille Artois first introduces you to their beers (left). After learning everything you certainly did not know about these wonderful beverages, you are taken to the dawn of history of La Famille Artois. The section Le Courage (right), which, as the creators admit, is one of the most entertaining, captivating, innovative and humorous parts of the site, potently reminds one that to brew a good beer in 1366 was indeed an act of courage. The hard-working citizens of Leuven had to balance the Earth, fight against the evil spirits, and even to appease gods. But we, modern people, obviously know that the Earth has got no end, and we can help, for example, to balance it. A Greek mathematician, Archimedes, reportedly claimed that he could overturn the Earth with the help of a mere stick, all for the sake of science. Well, to make a perfect beer is a science, too, so you have 30 seconds to turn the Earth with your mouse, to save the precious hops.

I must admit: although I managed to balance the Earth and to appease the gods, I was unable to do any more for the lovely people of medieval Leuven. In particular, I couldn’t lit the lantern of a brewer who went to collect water, and I was told that “the people of Leuven would be sorry tonight”. So am I.

The next section, L’Origine, tells the actual story of La Famille Artois, from 1366 when Den Horen brewery had been established in Leuven to 1926 when the Artois produced the first filtered lager (left). La Publicité is a deftly arranged collection of diverse and sundry TV adverts, of which you may perhaps recognise the one on the right. And the section L’Etranger is the best place to test your knowledge of pouring the ideal glass of beer, or better else, of learning how to do it (below). At least with regards to La Publicité, I can imagine its content being enjoyed and put to good use by some clever cinema or media student.

Although the Stella Artois website would be impossible without the three gifted guys I mentioned above, it is accompanied by a special Artois Blog, written mainly by Sam. The blog serves as a hub of everything you want to know about La Famille Artois, as well as the website developments, and Sam has granted permission to use some of the contents in this post.

The website will be up and running full-time since October 9th, and I hope the teaser and the pictures have put you in the right mood for enjoying the process of “passing on something good”, as Artois have been doing for over six hundred years. As for me, I totally enjoyed it, mostly as a cinema fan rather than a beer connoisseur, but also as an historian. I notice I keep getting back to where I came from academically, that is Medieval and Early Modern History. Le Courage is absolutely a hit for me, for its amazing animation and subtle jokes on the Titanic labour of medieval beer-makers. But as you also know, I am a Francophone, and all the sections after Le Courage is a great treat for someone like me. Finally, I just loved this phrase, which sounds like a perfect tagline and has been used in this post’s title: “just the name makes the beer taste better”. Vraiment, c’est ça!

Life in Space: The Anniversaries of Satellites and Search Engines

Russia was in the avant-garde of Space Science in the 20th c. Today’s Google homepage reminded us of the 50th anniversary of Sputnik, which was the first satellite sent into space (image is the courtesy of NASA website).

But space has many meanings. In the passage above it means “cosmos”. If I say “I need space” it will mean that I either crave for freedom or that I need to put something somewhere where there is little or no place. And when we say “virtual space”, we mean the web.

Recently it was Google’s 9th anniversary, of which again their homepage has reminded us. At Search Engine Land they contemplated on whether 9 is the correct number, but Google seems to have their own view, which they communicated with this logo (right) on September 27th.

And ten years ago, on September 23rd 1997, Yandex, Russia’s leading search warehouse, has set off their rocket into the virtual space. To mark the anniversary of intermittent work of their orbital station, they have sent a lovely gift. The gift consisted of a cylinder box, which contained: a message to other “space civilisations”, a flashy pen, a tube of cherry and apple juice, a can of meat in white sauce, a prunes and nuts flapjack, and a pack of 10 miniature bread loafs. As you undoubtedly notice, the word juice is spelt “cok” in Russian, which looks very familiar to the English speaker. I would like to repeat that it means juice, and not what it may seem to mean, judging by its spelling. 🙂

Yandex is obviously playing a deft joke on the word “space” and Russia’s history of delving into the cosmic vastnesses. All the food items are exactly what they eat (or definitely used to eat) in space. I had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to visit the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre at Starry Town (Zvezdniy Gorodok) in, if I am correct, 1993. I went with my classmates, and I vividly remember our sheer amazement at the size of those Lilliput chocolate bars and bread loafs on display at the museum. Well, now my present colleagues have shared this amazement, too, and in turn, I am sharing it with you.

Raphael, Degas, and the 16th c. music

2004 saw the first exhibition of Raphael in England. In November I happened to be in London, and my first visit to the National Gallery naturally included a voyage to the Sainsbury Wing. I had mere half an hour to enjoy some 40 works of one of the Titans of Renaissance. To see them, I had to gently if politely wriggle past some visitors, or queue up where it was impossible to squeeze through. Everyone who knows the Sainsbury Wing will recall its catacomb-like interior: low ceilings, dim light, rather small rooms with dark walls – hardly a backdrop for the rich Italian masterpieces.

At exactly the same time they were exhibiting Edgar Degas upstairs. The works of French artist resided in two or three well lit halls with tall ceilings and light pastel-colour walls, there were not many visitors (it was one of the first days of exhibition, I should note). Most paintings were of medium size, in front of every second or third of which there stood a Far-Eastern girl with a pad and some crayons, copying the works of one of the greatest Impressionists. To this day I cannot fathom why these two exhibitions could not be swapped places.

I wrote a lengthy text about it in Russian in the same 2004, contemplating on how these two exhibitions manifested our attitude to art. I was probably a bit harsh to suggest that it was easy to admire the classical art because then no-one would find a fault in your taste, but on second thoughts this is hardly far from the truth. Indeed, one would rather be ridiculed if they admitted liking pop music than if they admitted liking Mozart. Same with Raphael. As Henry James put it, Raphael was a happy genius, and by looking and admiring his Madonnas we seek to find happiness, too. Raphael is also easier to comprehend, unlike his contemporaries. Leonardo is very intellectual, to which La Gioconda is a good proof. Michelangelo’s devotion to the physique is sometimes baffling, as can be seen, for instance, in the figures on the Medici monument. Raphael, on the contrary, is always pleasant, always radiant, always rich in colour, and even if his end may not be as happy as his paintings, we probably shall still forget about it when we observe his work.

It is different with Degas. Degas was known for his perfectionism, and many times in his life he turned to rework his own paintings, as the examination of certain works, e.g. Portrait of Elena Carafa, shows. The name of the exhibition – “Art in the Making” – further highlights Degas’s critical, intellectual approach to his work. The British art historian Kenneth Clark in his book “The Nude: A Study in the Ideal Form” (N.Y., 1956) says, in particular, that Degas excelled at what the Florentine artists of the 16th c. would call “disegno” (i.e. a drawing, a sketch). He focused on a human figure as his main theme, but aimed to capture the ideal image of the movement of this figure, and especially the energy of this movement. Degas’s painting is more vigorous than Raphael’s, and his Madonnas are not only nude, they are also depicted in the poses or at such activity that many of us would still deem inappropriate. Still, again in the words of Clark, had the figures painted by Michelangelo come to life, they would have scared us to a far bigger extent than Degas’s naked women.

Thanks to his colour palette, techniques, and themes, Degas appears more disturbing, almost revolutionary, compared to Raphael. I noted in my text that in the three centuries, from Raphael to Degas, the very attitude to art had changed. As far as Madonnas are concerned, after the European revolutions of the 19th c. and on the eve of the First World War they became more emancipated, they drank absinthe and spent evenings in the Parisian cafes. Their blurred faces, loose hair and outrageous nudity were the symbols of their time, the sign of the fear of changes and of the vulnerability in the face of the outer world. Their movement and individuality were more prominently expressed in comparison to their Renaissance predecessors. Like many other Impressionists, Degas is much more “relevant” to our time, but as it happens we prefer to turn to what gives us hope and faith, and Raphael seemed to be a perfect saviour. Apparently, I concluded, when people turn to the classical art, they seek peace; and when they find peace, they’ll think of a revolution.

Nevertheless, I bought a wonderful CD at the Raphael’s exhibition, The Music of the Courtier, which contained several beautifully performed pieces by the late 15th – 16th cc. composers. One of this, Dilla da l’acqua, by Francesco Patavino (1497?-1556?), performed by I Fagiolini, has become an instant favourite, and I hope you enjoy it too.


The paintings used (from top, left to right, clockwise):

Raphael, La Donna Velata (c. 1514-1516)
Edgar Degas, Portrait of Elena Carafa (c. 1875)
Raphael, Madonna of the Pinks (c. 1506-1507)
Michelangelo, The Tomb of Giuliano de’ Medici (1526-1531)
Leonardo da Vinci, La Gioconda (c. 1503-1506)
Raphael, Madonna Connestabile (c. 1502)
Edgar Degas, La Coiffure (Combing Her Hair) (c. 1896)
Edgar Degas, Russian Dancers (c. 1899)
Raphael, Ansidei Madonna (1505)
Raphael, Lady with a Unicorn (c. 1505-1506)
Edgar Degas, Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando (c. 1879)
Edgar Degas, Young Spartans Exercising (c. 1860)
Edgar Degas, After the Bath (c. 1890-1895)
Raphael, St Catherine (c. 1507)

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The Saddest Work of Art in the World (Leonardo, Last Supper)

In the recent years we’ve heard a lot about Last Supper – a large mural by Leonardo created for his patron, which can be seen at Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. Cenacolo (Last Supper) featured prominently in The Da Vinci Code and in many subsequent publications and TV programmes that aimed at “decoding” the novel by Dan Brown.

I wanted to quote, however, two passages from the works of Henry James, in which he contemplates on this work by the great painter. As we know, the mural has been in the state of decay for centuries, but James seems to have interpreted the reason for its survival in beautiful and passionate narrative. There is much more to one of Da Vinci’s great works than a quasi-female head, and the two passages below explain this.

“… the prime treasure of Milan at the present hour is the beautiful, tragical Leonardo. The cathedral is good for another thousand years, but we ask whether our children will find in the most majestic and most luckless of frescoes much more than the shadow of a shadow. Its fame has been for a century or two that, as one may say, of an illustrious invalid whom people visit to see how he lasts, with leave-taking sighs and almost death-bed or tiptoe precautions. The picture needs not another scar or stain, now, to be the saddest work of art in the world; and battered, defaced, ruined as it is, it remains one of the greatest. We may really compare its anguish of decay to the slow conscious ebb of life in a human organism. The production of the prodigy was a breath from the infinite, and the painter’s conception not immeasurably less complex than the scheme, say, of his own mortal constitution. There has been much talk lately of the irony of fate, but I suspect fate was never more ironical than when she led the most scientific, the most calculating of all painters to spend fifteen long years in building his goodly house upon the sand. And yet, after all, may not the playing of that trick represent but a deeper wisdom, since if the thing enjoyed the immortal health and bloom of a first-rate Titian we should have lost one of the most pertinent lessons in the history of art? We know it as hearsay, but here is the plain proof, that there is no limit to the amount of “stuff” an artist may put into his work. Every painter ought once in his life to stand before the Cenacolo and decipher its moral. Mix with your colours and mess on your palette every particle of the very substance of your soul, and this lest perchance your “prepared surface” shall play you a trick! Then, and only then, it will fight to the last – it will resist even in death” (Henry James, Italian Hours: From Chambery to Milan, 1872).

“…I have seen all great art treasures in Italy;… but I have looked at no other picture with an emotion equal to that which rose within me as this great creation of Leonardo slowly began to dawn upon my intelligence from the tragical twilight of its ruin. A work so nobly conceived can never utterly die, so long as the half-dozen lines of its design remain. Neglect and malice are less cunning than the genius of the great painter. It has stored away with masterly skill such a wealth of beauty as only perfect love and sympathy can fully detect. So, under my eyes, the restless ghost of the dead fresco returned to its mortal abode. From the beautiful central image of Christ I perceived its radiation right and left along the sadly broken line of the disciples. One by one, out of the depths of their grim dismemberment, the figures trembled into meaning and life, and the vast, serious beauty of the work stood revealed. What is the ruling force of this magnificent design? Is it art? is it science? is it sentiment? is it knowledge? I’m sure I can’t say; but in moments of doubt and depression I find it of excellent use to recall the great work with all possible distinctness. Of all the works of man’s hand it is the least superficial” (Henry James, Complete Tales: Travelling Companions, 1870).

Citation is from Henry James, Italian Hours. Penguin Classics, 1992.

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