Monday, 27 April 2015

Paintings in Proust: Vesuvius Erupting by J.M.W. Turner

In Proust’s Swann’s Way, the narrator’s grandmother is described as one who inculcates in her grandson a reverence for the “elevated ideals.” Infinitely disdainful of the mechanical nature of replica, when shown photograph of the magnificent Mount Vesuvius his grandmother dismisses it with a lofty query as of whether other more acknowledged artists did paintings of the volcano in the first place. She is having in mind the great J.M.W. Turner, whose depiction of Vesuvius in flame displays, in her view, “a stage higher in the scale of art.”

The enduring fascination with volcanoes was especially evident in the 19th century, which saw an irregularly high frequency of Vesuvius eruptions that, at the time, alarmed many of the imminent cataclysm that a thousand of years before destroyed the city of Pompeii. Turner, according to a number of sources, may not be amongst the first-hand witnesses of those eruptions, but badgered his geologist friends, John MacCulloch and Charles Stokes, for scientific knowledge of the phenomena. As such, Turner’s sketchbooks are full of detailed records and drawings of Vesuvius, on the strength of which he was said to make his bewildering depiction of the erupting volcano. In it, the shimmering colours and the brisk brushwork culminate in a glorious symphony that possesses of a quality of, what Yeats would call, the “terrible beauty.” Turner succeeds in embodying with this painting the “thickness” of art, a virtue the grandmother in Swann’s determines as a supremacy exclusive to high art, distinguishing it from other vulgar, banal commodities that clutter up our daily existence.

Of what is vulgar and what is beautiful can be measured in various ways. As early as the 13th century Italy, philosophers were already suggesting the volatile nature of beauty. Modifying on the old conception that beauty is only permitted if according with the dictates of moral goodness, Thomas Aquinas asserted: “The good is that towards the possession of which an appetite tends.” What is good depends on what one’s appetite decides, i.e. what one desires of, a sentiment that should be governed solely by one’s individual self, without the unduly interference from outward influence. Though not saying if beauty also encompasses aspects that are not morally acceptable, many would later interpret Aquinas’s argument as premonitory of a new trend of thought, that of “the beauty of ugliness.”

Not exactly an ugly painting but neither is it traditionally beautiful, Turner’s Vesuvius Erupting (1817) is a perfect example of creating beauty whilst sacrificing the old ideals. The figures are sketchy, the brushstrokes are rough, the colours go pell-mell as if they were spurted onto the canvas from a tube- and yet the result is spontaneous and, not many would disagree, captivating. History has testified to the well-exercised lesson that no value is definitive or immutable; even a canonic work is obliged to undergo the tests of every succeeding age to justify its uniqueness.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Review: Viaggio in Italia (1954)

Now widely regarded as an epoch-making masterpiece, premonitory of the rise of Italian modernism, Roberto Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia (1954) suffered a thorough drubbing in its box office, though was greatly admired by auteurs like Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. The film is, at its core, a bracing study on the fraught relationship of reverse elements- George Sanders and Ingrid Bergman played a British couple journeying to Naples to sell an inherited property; the husband is a stolid rationalist whilst the wife a sensitive romantic. Their glaring disharmony is more acted out through their overt disdain for one another; both are susceptible, the moment they touch down the foreign land, to the immaturity of making each other jealous to express their longing for mutual understanding. Amongst many of the couples’ venomous exchanges, the wife, on one occasion, recalls a past fancy for a now-deceased poet, to which the aggrieved husband responds derisively: “He was a fool… [Poet and fool,] what is the difference?” This, and the fact that the couple is named Joyce, invoke James Joyce’s “The Dead,” but such affinity is in fact very tenuous. While Joyce’s masterwork maintains a veneer of merriment that carefully disguises the festering wound, at least, until the denouement, Rossellini exposes in unflinching detail a misalliance that neither the husband nor the wife cares to conceal from the public eye.

One distinctive aspect of the film that makes it the precedent of succeeding works of Italian modernists is its sharp veer from the conventional narrative style, preoccupying most of all with imageries that seem to bear little relevance to the central theme of the story, but, once those scenes are given much pondering afterward, may be of profound, symbolic meanings that, on most occasions, reflect the characters’ states of mind. Such is equivalent to the use of symbols and metaphors in literature; the ingenious tricks that make movie-viewing not merely a preferred recreation of time-killing, but a rewarding digestion of serious works of art. A lot of time in Viaggio the camera lingers on several notable tourist spots that Katherine, the wife, visits in her solitary excursion. Here, Rossellini does not make the tropes as mystifying as, say, Antonioni would’ve done in his famous pieces. There are direct associations with love, death, solitude and danger of the places Katherine visits; reminders that intensify her feeling of loneliness, which in turn almost effaces her hitherto detestation for her dour husband. In a similar fashion Antonioni also made a film (La Notte) about how a dying love can be revived by the fear of loneliness- but, as the ending of the film leaves us thinking, can the restored love still retain its former passion? In other words, and to put it simply, is that real love?

Is that real love? The ending sequence of Viaggio sees the husband suggests brusquely of a divorce, and the wife, flustered and dismayed when she’s swept along by a throng of religious procession, realises that she cannot bear the thought of being separated from her husband for good, reunites with him and both decides to bury whatever rancour they used to harbour against each other. Whether such reunion is actuated out of their still unwavering love or a fear of loneliness exacerbated by the feeling of alienation in a foreign country, the film never offers a persuasive answer. Such seemingly unconvincing and ambiguous closure is distinct from that of its similar sorts- those that also centralise on travellers in a foreign country- in which rarely do the events tie up in a positive outcome. Hapless or not, what those intrepid adventurers do share- and it is perhaps the most inspiring quality of this particular subject- is a profound understanding of one’s inner self or the environment- physical, moral or psychological- that one inhabits. The formula seems invariably that one flounders and one gains wisdom; flounders again and yet another new wisdom is gained. Life is an unending cycle of “journeys” like that.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Leonardo da Vinci, Virgin of the Rocks (1495-1508)

Leonardo da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks, the version that is displayed in London’s National Gallery, is one of those paintings that do not seize your notice at first blush, but- once you stare at them long enough- seep into your consciousness by degrees, engendering in you a peculiar sensation that no other sort can possibly surpass. In the painting, the divine figures are huddled together against a rocky background. Virgin Mary, situates in the centre of the pyramidal ensemble, raises a hand above the head of the Child and stretches another to pull in slightly Saint John the Baptist, who is in the painting also an infant. It is this assertion of authority that is proper to all exemplary parents- a combination of grace and supremacy- that left in me an indelible mark, evoking the exact sort of persona I’m always aspiring to become- not just as a mother but a distinct character that I’d like be remembered by- in the near, possible future. “A practice of the power of gentleness” is my summation for the painting- with conscientious effort and reasonable ability, prowess is attainable; to enter into the realm of the truly powerful one is required first to master the art of poise and patience- the two qualities that are often regarded the decisive factors of one’s success or fall- and ultimately one is metamorphosed into a tree, with a void in its core or sometimes a stone. The few of them who sustain all manner of pain and trials- whilst still abiding by the dictates of their admirable virtues- throughout a prolonged period of suffering might ascend finally to the stage of the divine. All mothers are in the league of the divinity.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Review: M (1931)

M (1931) was Fritz Lang’s first attempt at sound cinema, after an impressive corpus of silent classics including the Dr. Mabuse trilogy and Metropolis, the highly expressionist style of which earned him the epithet as the “Master of Darkness.” To be making films during the dawn of sound era, the filmmakers had the privilege and the license of exploring many unchartered territories- the effects of sound as incorporated with motions and images was a vitalising experimentation for many; given the luck and the inherent ingenuity an innovative work of art was engendered. Such is not to write off the many legendary figures as merely “chancing upon” innovations whilst experimenting without a determinate aim, but to underline Lang’s remarkable assurance and skill of tackling a new medium like an old hand- as a seasoned auteur whose previous films were noted for their austerity of technique and style, Lang, throughout his long career, never once explored or experimented like a reckless adventurer.

As part of the preliminaries Lang spent eight days in a mental institution and interviewed several inmates who were convicted with child murder- amongst them was Peter Kürten, who was allegedly the blueprint on which Lang based his protagonist, Hans Beckert. With Beckert Lang created one of the most self-tormenting monsters of cinematic history. He made the character complex without dwelling too much on his complexity, reprehensible without accentuating his irredeemable wretchedness. In fact, nearing the end of the film we begin to sympathise with the serial killer; his senseless acts of violence, as he addresses the kangaroo court consisting mainly of runaway criminals, are the results of an uncontrollable urge of killing, and his ultimate guilt of committing the unspeakable crime only spurs on the evil side of his nature. With agony he cries out, before many startled faces of the unmoved jury, that he is no more ignoble than those present, whose intents for their wrongdoing are largely induced by ill-will. Despite his impassioned speech, the crowd declares it a flimsy argument- under the regime of law every event is subjected to only two categories: either that of right or wrong; if one’s behaviour belongs to the opposing side of right, one is bound to be punished.

M reveals the astounding aspect of an ignorant mass whose ideology is gravitating towards dualism. Such society regards as gospels words by the authority and the law, the operation of which brushes aside disdainfully any human elements, and recognises only the immutable rules, unjustifiable perhaps, that divide the multitude into the good and the evil. Herbert is, in some ways, a pitiful victim under this ruthless system- he pleads the crowd not to draw conclusion solely from the consequence of things, but take into consideration the reasons that make a monster a monster. Such well-reasoned perspective can, however, never fend off the established fact that he is responsible of the lives of a handful of children. The ending of the film cuts to three women crying- nothing can bring back their dead children now.

Though as a crime drama, the film is surprisingly littered with comic moments. Amongst them, an elderly man is almost torn to pieces by an angry throng when his involuntary kindness to a young girl is misconstrued as a suspicious act. Slapsticks like that highlight the insularity of the mass that manifests itself in time of restlessness- fear breeds extreme paranoia; a hunt of the murderer turns into a competition of intellectual prowess and physical recklessness.

Also noteworthy is the photography of the film, which is indebted to Lang’s right-hand manFritz Arno Wagner, who also contributed his expertise in Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) and Pabst’s Three Penny Opera (1931). Those images of the night, especially, attain a murky beauty that is reminiscent of like quality in Brassaï’s photography. The film’s long take of a table brimming with odds and ends of the murderer’s accouterments recalls the unnerving mysteriousness of the Hungarian master’s FortuneTeller series.