Saturday, 27 June 2015

Eugene Delacroix, "The Death of Sardanapalus" (1827)

History is punctuated with moments of chaos and beauty. Seemingly antitheses by nature, in aesthetics there are myriads examples of how these two manage to converge in single works and enter a pleasing balance. Amongst them there is Tintoretto, a consummate devotee of violence and drama, whose bewildering depictions of many biblical episodes redefine the meaning of “chaos” as a synonym to sheer “epicness” or “monumentality.” Rarely does his pictorial crowdedness amount to an unrelenting sense of knottiness; as fastidious as is his exactitude on the minutiae, Tintoretto never failed to see the forest for the trees. Every single brushstroke and colour he applied onto the paintings was sure to be conducive to an immediate effect of harmony and order.

In the early 19th century France entered Eugene Delacroix, an exponent of what would come to be known as French Romanticism. Most of Delacroix’s renowned works of large-scale historical scenes were considered a scourge to the genteel nouveau riche, whose aesthetic sensibility for decades had been informed by the surreally immaculate, luminous beauty of the Neoclassicist paintings. Delacroix’s stand a marked contrast to such obsessive pursuit of the implausible ideal. In keeping with the tradition of past masters, especially those of the High Renaissance, the French romanticist was unafraid of probing the underside of beauty- predominantly, the violence and the chaos, both of which are the mainstays of the making of history.

One of the keys of rendering the depictions of war scenes less of a clunky, tangled affair is to suffuse them with a feeling of rhythmic movement. As such the edge of intensity is rounded and the phenomenon of drama more readily registered. In Delacroix’s most famous, Liberty Leading the People, the rhythm can be distinctly felt in the goddess’s ruffled garb, the furled flag and the general inclination of the ensemble towards the right foreground. This is juxtaposed with the deathly stillness of the wounded figures, piling up beneath the feet of the advanced crowd. The fighters are putting up a stout defense regardless of the toll; their swiftness of movement is a sure sign of their optimism; from above their heads clouds are beginning the disperse; victory is imminent.

Delacroix also tackled eroticism. There is something dangerous in explicating sexual matters in a displayed work- every of its viewers is made an enforced voyeur of the carnal pleasure; art is reasonably capitalised as a vehicle for the forbidden fruits. It is hardly unprecedented, though, that high art should be the unlikely agent of bridging the chasm between the superior and the low- nudity, from time immemorial, has been generally regarded as an idyllic, innocuous element especially amongst the divinities. Yet an intentionally detailed depiction of an orgiastic bacchanal can easily put to test the society’s instinctually squeamish reception of sex in art.

Delacroix’s erotic paintings are a response, or a counter-response, to those that water down their graphic contents in pandering to the straitlaced public. The Death of Sardanapalus is based on a scene from the eponymous play of Lord Byron, a personal favourite of Delacroix, that tells of Sardanapalus, king of Assyria, ordering a massacre of his concubines when learned of his military defeat. The French romanticist is as ruthless as the notorious Greek king in conceiving in grisly details the great disorder and horror that accompany the bloody carnage. The use of bright colours is especially instrumental in spelling out the violence- those red divans look eerily as if smeared with the bloods of the youthful harlots. As its dominant feature a nude prostrates herself on the divan in supplication for the king’s mercy; her gesture offers an agonising sight of doldrums amidst the rippling chaos.

Charles Baudelaire aptly summarises Delacroix’s legacy as one who was “passionately in love with passion, but coldly determined to express passion as clearly as possible.” Delacroix’s unparalleled representations of historical events proved only a meteoric happening as, after his death, there were Manet and the Impressionists; serenity, though in a much different guise, would again hold sway as the dominant mood.

Monday, 22 June 2015

Edouard Manet, Boy Blowing Bubbles (1867)

1867 was a fateful year for Édouard Manet in that his art, hitherto idyllic and placid, shifted drastically to the moods of poignancy and relentlessness. Two deaths signaled the change: his old friend and enduring champion, Charles Baudelaire, and the tragic emperor Maximilian I, who was executed by the Juaristas after a failed foreign initiative in the Mexico empire. The seminal work, Execution of Emperor Maximilian, would not see its completion until two years later, as Manet’s progress and insistence on a faithful portrayal were incessantly impeded by the inaccurate accounts of the event. The intervening period yielded a result that continued this preoccupation with grief: in the weeks followed Baudelaire’s death Manet summoned his godson, Leon Koella, to blow soap bubbles in his studio on the Rue Guyot.

The soap bubble, with its brittle form and enchanting presence, has been a popular subject of the vanitas, a genre that serves to remind of the futility and transience of earthly life. In paintings, the soap bubble’s especial appeal amongst children is underscored; most of these innocent and endearing evocations of childhood fun, however, belie an allegorical message of delicate lives “nipped in the buds.” Though it wasn’t known if an “implication of death” was the precise end Manet sought to arrive at with his painting, Boy Blowing Bubbles, with its overall sombre effect, poses as a modern example of memento mori.

Boy Blowing Bubbles is a perfect indication of Manet’s unorthodox artistry. The boy, dressed in a beige sweatshirt, is set off against a stark background. The dearth of a more nuanced colouration contributes to a curious deflatedness of the figure, rendering the result more like a cut-out than a painting. There is every reason to suppose that the boy is less a human being and more of a petering-out spectral. First there is the vacuous expression, caused possibly by the tedious posing session that every of Manet’s sitter was obliged to undergo, that creates a shuddering sense of disinterestedness that contrasts sharply with an activity (blowing bubbles) that is bound to produce joy. Secondly, if observe closely the painting, one can notice immediately the crudity and uncertainty of brushstroke, which makes the outlines of the forms, to use a term that may seem anachronistic in this context, “pixelated” and blurry to a degree that, like a decrepit sandcastle, a sudden wind can shatter the whole thing into flying dusts.

It is hardly an unprecedented instance to amplify the horror of thememento mori by deliberately rendering the personage a ghostly figure. Hieronymus Bosch’s Death and Miser is a gruesome case in point: the miser, before choosing whether he should succumb to the temptations of Evil or embrace the salvation of God, looks uncannily a growing resemblance of the former with his livid skin and shrunken frame. This seal of fate is as final as the underlying message is potent and definitive: if you decide to nurture a miserly love for earthly goods, you will soon be joined by the devils before having a chance to reverse the wrong path.

As a portrait Boy Blowing Bubbles manifests how strikingly remote Manet was from his fellow Impressionists. A notable affinity with the past can be felt, reverting less to the style of Manet’s artistic heroes, Velazquez or Goya, and more to that of the earlier period: the Early Netherlandish. There is the similar inscrutable impassiveness of the figure’s mien and a marked sense of solemnity enhanced by the restrained nature of the composition. Like the Flemish master Jan van Eyck, Manet is versed in the trick of how to mystify and awe his viewers.

Saturday, 13 June 2015

Review: The Wrong Man (1956)

In Life’s feature on the bizarre case of Christopher Emmanuel “Manny” Balestrero, a bashful, honest, family-loving string bass player of the then snazzy Stork Club, who was arrested for crimes he never committed, Herbert Brean, the writer, supposes the inconceivable event possessing the “somnambulist quality of a bad dream.” Alfred Hitchcock, basing a film on the incident three years later, conferred on the “bad dream” a touch of Kafkaesque disquietude. Though jettisoning much of the suspenseful streak that characterises his style, Hitchcock introduces in The Wrong Man (1956) a new suspense that is induced by a palpable sense of emotional detachedness. For years to come this would ultimately evolve to a semi-documentary approach of impassive-observing that culminates in the menacing sobriety ofPsycho.

To enhance the desperation of a tangled, never-ending nightmare, Hitchcock pardonably distorts a few facts to give rise to the dramatic. In the film, Manny’s quest of proving his innocence is devastated by the removal of the three people that might provide him alibis- two are dead and one cannot be found. Vera Miles delivers a superb performance as Manny’s affectionate, stalwart, suffering wife, whose resilience snaps under the weight of mounting stress, resulting in a protracted nervous breakdown that doesn’t seem to dissolve at the end of the film, where she remains unmoved by her husband’s cheerful news.

Amongst other concerns, the harrowing tale of Manny Balestrero reveals the defect of an unquestioning social system when dealing with plausible cases of mistaken identities. Interviewed by Life of the specific things he’d learned from the experience, Manny, true to his magnanimous, expansive, amiable character, credited his family and friends of making the ordeal more bearable, and believed the detectives and witnesses to be largely blameless for the blunder. When confronting the real stick-up man in the police station, Manny stared into the man’s deep-set eyes, of which he noticed immediately a resemblance, and asked: “Do you realise what you have done to my wife?”

Yet on reflection, the callousness of those who are responsible for sending a wrong man to jail is truly the most chilling aspect of the event and the film. One of the witnesses remained impenitent and said it wasn’t her intention of wronging an innocent man, but she still thought her impulsive reaction was right. In the film, the witnesses fled in guilt when they saw Manny, and the detective, his stern expression unrelaxed, merely gave Manny a pat on the back and said, “Alright, Manny?” In the Life article, the writer wryly observed that Manny received no apology from the detectives or the witnesses, and Manny, after much thought, said he believed they would’ve acted differently if they had “a bit more conscience.”

Friday, 5 June 2015

Review: It Happened One Night (1934)

Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934) comes as a perfect antidote to the seemingly endless crises and depression of present age. It celebrates love and happiness at their incorruptible states; affirms the existence and possible prevalence of “pure-at-hearts” goodness, and restores hope to a world that has shown signs of incurable damages. Even when seeing the film now under a slightly different social context, its counter-Depression positivism can seem at times too implausible a pipe dream. Ellie’s (Claudette Colbert) utilitarian kindness towards the hunger-stricken mother and son is largely induced by and acted on the strength of Peter’s (Clark Gable) disposition to boastful jests- he flaunts the money and pretends to be a millionaire; she responds on cue and squeezes that money into the hand of the son. Ironies like this indicate a discrepancy between the privileged and the destitute that is only going to widen: charitable instincts come more easily for those who are impervious to the travails of life, whose narratives follow the immutable line of having instead of striving. Peter, of the inferior class that also mires in impoverishment like the mother and son, hesitates before reluctantly giving away what is perhaps a few months’ rental. Never is a moment of individual kindness suffused with such pathos.

Great art entails multiplicity. Just as Capra rhapsodises the fairy-tale-like romance that transcends the boundary of classes, he makes no bones about the bleak aspect of reality that lurks around the beautiful picture. The first spark of affection between the unlikely pair is enkindled when both are compelled to put on an impromptu show of impersonation, as bickering husband and wife, to put off scent the detectives hired by Ellie’s father. Playacting soon becomes a convenient pretext of checking into motels and hitching for ride, a facile means for indulging in the intimacy that won’t even occur if outside this particular circumstance. It is only a matter of time that the tenuous line between reason and illusion is obliterated. This line, in the film, comes in the form of a “Wall of Jericho,” an old blanket that hangs between their beds, which cannot be toppled down if without the blast of trumpet (the implication is quite clear that I suppose no further explanation is needed). On the last leg of their journey, Ellie, moved by Peter’s ideal of living on a remote island, takes the initiative of crossing over the “wall” and pledging her love.

There is something unnerving about the notion of love equaling make-believe. By having courtship played out in the way of a double act Capra highlights the absurdity of human relationships. Ellie is plucked back to reality when a series of turn of events lead her to suppose that Peter’s heart is only on her money and not herself. The story ends in a wonderful way: Ellie’s hitherto domineering father, realising that the love between the pair is genuine and mutual, gives his daughter the invaluable gift of the autonomy, to decide for herself whom she will spend her life with. Self-determination assumes the ultimate power of dissolving all demarcations.

Another film that shares a similar storyline, Wyler’s Roman Holiday, ends with Audrey Hepburn’s Princess Ann chooses her royal duty over love, and the lovers separate. This coda is comparatively crueler but it underlines the noble characters of the protagonists, whose budding romance doesn’t lead them to willful ignorance of their responsibilities. The short-lived amour seems all but a dream; a very beautiful dream indeed.