Brian Micklethwait's Blog
In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.Home
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Michael Jennings on The Bayeux Tapestry – the ultimate horizontalised graphic
Brian Micklethwait on The Bayeux Tapestry – the ultimate horizontalised graphic
Rob Fisher on The Bayeux Tapestry – the ultimate horizontalised graphic
Rob Fisher on The Bayeux Tapestry – the ultimate horizontalised graphic
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Most recent entries
- How bet hedging explains the perpetual terribleness of everything
- The rise of (interest in) 3D printing
- AB mayhem
- At the top of the Monument - in 2012 and in 2007
- I said it twelve years ago
- Pete Comley talking about inflation on Friday February 27th
- Is 2007 old enough?
- January newspaper pages
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- Shadow photography (again)
- The Leaning Stonehenge Tour Bus of Salisbury
- Peter Thiel on striking a balance between optimism and pessimism and on how failure is overrated
- The Bayeux Tapestry small enough to fit in this blog
- True hearts and warm hands
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6000 Miles from Civilisation
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Category archive: Painting
Here’s a nice coincidence. There I was writing about how I went from being, in my teens, a bad pen-and-ink picture-maker to, from around 2000 onwards, a far happier digital-photographic picture maker. And here is a picture that captures that kind of metamorphosis perfectly:
It’s one of these pictures by Christoph Niemann. Niemann’s pictures bring to mind that phrase used by one of the alter egos of Barry Humphries, Barry McKenzie, who described paintings as “hand done photos”. These pictures really do only work as photos. Until they are photoed, the job is not done. But the hand-done bit is essential to what they are.
One thing about these pictures that I particularly like, apart from the basic fact that I like them, is their very favourable effort-to-impact ratio. For my taste, too much of the picture-making displayed at Colossal consists of stuff that is quite nice to look at, but which took an absurdly huge amount of time and effort to contrive. Also, there is often no logical or even meaningful connection between how the pictures are contrived and how they end up looking. So, you’ve made a table cloth out of seeds. Clever you. But, why? Niemann’s pictures answer this question perfectly.
But then again, the internet being the internet, if your elaborately pointless pictures catch people’s fancy and thousands glance at them, then I guess that, if you put in a lot of time and effort, you may well reckon than all the time and effort was worth it, especially if you had fun spending it and doing it. And of course it is digital photography that transforms a laboriously produced one-off item of visual art that took far too much time and effort to do, into a mass experience that it made sense to spend a lot of time and effort doing. But, most of these intricate sculptures and pictures at Colossal are just sculptures and pictures that were then photographed. Niemann’s pictures are real Hand Done Photos.
As for me, between being a bad pen-and-ink picture maker and an okay-to-good digital photographer, I endured a big interval during which I made hardly any pictures of any kind. My pictorial enthusiasm expressed itself in the design of pamphlets, and graphic design generally. Basically I became a desktop publisher. (I even earned money doing this.) First I just did publishing, on a desktop, paper-scissors-glue-photocopier. Then computers arrived, and I was an early adopter of “desktop publishing”. Then the internet arrived, and drew a big line under all that stuff. I shovelled all my pamphlets onto the internet, and became a blogger. And, I bought my first digital camera. At first, blogging and digital photography did not mix very well. Now, they mix very well indeed.
From time to time I go looking for pictures of bridges, preferably new ones, but seldom find anything I don’t know about. And then, quite by chance, while clicking through these old photos, I chance upon this:
It’s the Golden Gate, being built, in 1937.
I recall doing a pen-an-ink type sketch (as opposed to something theatrical like a comedy sketch – odd double meaning that), when in my teens, of the Severn Road Bridge, when it only had a chunk of road in the middle, suspended in glorious isolation, going nowhere in either direction (like in the photo here). This photo reminds me of those times.
I never actually drew any decent pictures, but I did spend a lot of time thinking about composition, by which I mean that I chose quite good pictures to do, but actually did them very badly. Now I take good pictures, rather less badly. How I wish there had been digital cameras when I was a teenager. My cycling expeditions around France, and then Scandinavia, and then Iceland, would have been far more fun, and now far easier to remember. The old cameras, with “film” in them, were ridiculous. You had to “develop” all the damn pictures, very expensively, just to find out that about three of them weren’t total crap. But you tell young people this nowadays they think you’re mad. And if you did all this, guess what, you were mad.
I have never shared the contempt that most people show - or pretend to show - for Adolf Hitler’s paintings. Okay, so they aren’t Rembrandts, but even so, I would have loved to have been as good hand-done picture-making as he was. Could it be that people just can’t bear to accept that he ever did anything well or anything good? Just a wild guess.
A common complaint about modern architecture is that it is “faceless”. Tending not to feature single separate windows, but rather showing a bland expanse of featureless outsideness to the world, modernistical buildings do not allow the viewing human to see what the viewing human always wants to see, faces, turning the windows into eyes, doors into mouths, and so forth.
But there is no problem with seeing faces in this building, in Rome, because someone has painted twenty seven faces on it, with the windows being – what else? - eyes:
The pieces utilizes nearly 50 windows to create the mouths and eyes of some 27 bizarre faces all vying for attention.
Although, I see that two of the windows there are mouths.
It all looks a bit graffitiish to me, although as this lady says, this is “artful, thoughtful graffiti”. (In other words the kind of thing that favourite-blogger-of-mine Mick Hartley likes to photo.) And I think it’s a bit of a shame to do this to an old building, rather than to a new one. But if the alternative is for this old building to just continue crumbling, then this is surely better. I’m sure it is already a tourist attraction. It would definitely attract me.
But, I look forward to the day when buildings like this one get decked out with lots of different colours (that being another Mick Hartley photo).
The other day, I forget which one, I worked something out that had been confusing me. Why, given all the fun I get out of photography and given all the time I spend doing it and thinking about it, have I not immersed myself in all the technicalities of photography? Why is it that the only setting on my camera that I regularly use is the one called “Automatic”? Why am I no nearer to understanding manual focussing than I was a decade ago?
The answer is that it is the point-and-shoot sort of photography that strikes me as the most interesting sort of photography now happening. Not in art galleries where the latest black-and-white photos of plague victims or under-age African soldiers are on display, in photos that cost more to buy than paintings and took more trouble to produce. That is all so twentieth century, and even, actually, nineteenth century. What counts now, for me, are the photos you can take with your mobile phone camera, or with the jumped-up mobile phone camera that I use, and the sort of photos that regular people are now able to take, of regular stuff rather than of foreign catastrophes that someone will pay them to take art-gallery standard photos of.
In short, I take point-and-shoot pictures because I like to be part of history, and this is where the history of photography now is. (If you disagree, realise that what you are reading is not an argument. It is a description of a feeling.)
What I have is called a “bridge” camera, but all that this means is that it is a bog-standard point-and-shoot camera that takes somewhat better photos when you go click, and which has a twiddly screen, and a lens that can go from close-up to mega-zoom without any faffing about with multiple lenses. I have the best cheap camera that I can get, rather than the cheapest proper camera. Oh, you can set my camera on manual and go all Real Photographer with it. But if you want to do that, you should have a proper Real Photographer camera, not a bridge camera, and you should have a rucksack full of lenses, each perfect for each oh-so-carefully-taken shot. What “bridge” means is the best camera you can have without having to give any thought to “photography”. Instead, you just think about the picture. More precisely, you think about what you see and which of the things that you see are the most interesting, and why.
My camera is not really any sort of “bridge”. Bridge suggests that I am going somewhere with it, somewhere different, as in different from the technical point of view. But I’m not. Technically, I am staying right where I am. If I am getting better at photography, it is because I am getting better at choosing what to point my camera at.
A bridge camera is rather like “crossover” music in that respect. Crossover music is not for people who are actually doing any crossing over, from one sort of music to any other sort of music. Crossover music is its own sort of music. The people who like crossover music (and there’s nothing wrong with that) are people who like crossover music and who will continue to listen to crossover music, with no actual crossing over from any other sort of music to any other sort of music happening at all.
No links, because I thought of this all by myself.
Next Friday, October 31st, Christian Michel is giving a talk at my home entitled, somewhat provocatively: “Soviet and Nazi Art as Illustrations of Ayn Rand’s Aesthetics”. He is certainly not the first to have pointed out the overlap, so to speak.
Here’s what Christian says about his talk (which I “LATER” (Tuesday) realised I need to insert into this posting, near the beginning):
Art does not feature high on the libertarian agenda. One exception is Ayn Rand, who declared that of all human products art is perhaps the most important. She went on to develop her own theory of aesthetics, and even attempted (as did Jean-Paul Sartre at the same time) to deliver her entire philosophy through the sole medium of literature (both failed).
In my talk this Friday I will sum up Rand’s aesthetics, her contribution to the field, and will show that it was nowhere better illustrated in the twentieth century than in the arts of National-Socialist Germany and Soviet Russia. The point is not to denigrate Rand’s philosophy by that association, but to say that genuine artists find a way to convey their deepest values and sense of life, to express the highest human aspirations and struggles, whatever their circumstances, and that’s exactly what Rand celebrated.
And here is something of what I think about these kinds of things.
Just after World War 2, many an artist said things along the lines of: after Auschwitz, we cannot any longer do purely representational art. (Similar things were said by classical composers: after Auschwitz, we can’t any longer do pretty tunes.) But the artists had been abandoning pictorial representation (and tunefulness) long before Auschwitz happened, so “Auschwitz” has the air of being a rationalisation rather than the real reason for these artistic trends.
The crimes of Soviet Communism never had quite the same effect on most of the artists, even as an excuse for abstraction, although there were honourable exceptions (Mondrian for instance). Too many artists admired the Soviet Union, especially during and just after World War 2, during its struggle and after victory over Nazi Germany.
Realistic art had also been seriously deranged by photography. Photography destroyed the economic foundations of your average painter of realistic portraits and realistic paintings of such things as landscapes, and turned art painting into a sort of cultural bombsite, in which (to quote the words of an early twentieth century popular song) “anything goes”, anything, that is, except realistic pictures of people and of things. Realism, for the average artist, just made him look like a bad photographer. Even the claim that “art” now had to be an attack on the delusional bourgeois habit of trying to make visual and conceptual sense of the world has the feel, for me, of a rationalisation.
But there is much more to “realism” than mere realism. What looks at first glance merely realistic is often aspirational, and to abandon the field of representational art to the mid twentieth century totalitarians was surely a propaganda error, to put it no more strongly. For the likes of Ayn Rand, this was a surrender by the civilised world that should never have happened.
To point out that Rand favoured images that resembled Nazi and Soviet art is not to accuse her of being a Nazi or a Communist. It is to realise that she did not want the still immensely potent artistic weapon that is representational painting and sculpture to be monopolised by the totalitarians.
All of which is something of how I see (and hear) the kinds of things that Christian Michel will be talking about on Friday. As to what Christian himself will say, well, we shall see, and hear.
Meanwhile, here is an abundance of visual clues as to the sort of aesthetic territory that Christian will be traversing in his talk. It will be an illustrated talk. Here, without identification or further comment, from me or from him, are the illustrations he has sent me, in the order (I assume) in which he will be referring to them.
A few of these images are small enough to fit within the 500 pixel horizontal limit that prevails at this blog, a couple being very small indeed. But most can be enlarged (a little or quite a lot) with a click:
I have already quoted a couple of interesting bits from Bill Bryson’s excellent book, At Home. I have now finished reading this, but just before I did, I encountered some interesting stuff about paint (pp. 453-5):
When paints became popular, people wanted them to be as vivid as they could possibly be made. The restrained colours that we associate with the Georgian period in Britain, or Colonial period in America, are a consequence of fading, not decorative restraint. In 1979, when Mount Vernon began a programme of repainting the interiors in faithful colours, ‘people came and just yelled at us’, Dennis Pogue, the curator, told me with a grin when I visited. ‘They told us we were making Mount Vernon garish. They were right - we were. But that’s just because that’s the way it was. It was hard for a lot of people to accept that what we were doing was faithful restoration.
‘Even now paint charts for Colonial-style paints virtually always show the colours from the period as muted. In fact, colours were actually nearly always quite deep and sometimes even startling. The richer a colour you could get, the more you tended to be admired. For one thing, rich colours generally denoted expense, since you needed a lot of pigment to make them. Also, you need to remember that often these colours were seen by candlelight, so they needed to be more forceful to have any kind of impact in muted light.’
The effect is now repeated at Monticello, where several of the rooms are of the most vivid yellows and greens. Suddenly George Washington and Thomas Jefferson come across as having the decorative instincts of hippies. In fact, however, compared with what followed they were exceedingly restrained.
When the first ready-mixed paints came on to the market in the second half of the nineteenth century, people slapped them on with something like wild abandon. It became fashionable not just to have powerfully bright colours in the home, but to have as many as seven or eight colours in a single room.
If we looked closely, however, we would be surprised to note that two very basic colours didn’t exist at all in Mr Marsham’s day: a good white and a good black. The brightest white available was a rather dull off-white, and although whites improved through the nineteenth century, it wasn’t until the 1940s, with the addition of titanium dioxide to paints, that really strong, lasting whites became available. The absence of a good white paint would have been doubly noticeable in early New England, for the Puritans not only had no white paint but didn’t believe in painting anyway. (They thought it was showy.) So all those gleaming white churches we associate with New England towns are in fact a comparatively recent phenomenon.
Also missing from the painter’s palette was a strong black. Permanent black paint, distilled from tar and pitch, wasn’t popularly available until the late nineteenth century. So all the glossy black front doors, railings, gates, lampposts, gutters, downpipes and other fittings that are such an elemental feature of London’s streets today are actually quite recent. If we were to be thrust back intime to Dickens’s London, one of the most startling differences to greet us would be the absence of black painted surfaces. In the time of Dickens, almost all ironwork was green, light blue or dull grey.
Famously, the rise of the Modern Movement in Architecture was triggered by, among many other things, a revulsion against the excesses of Victorian-era decoration, especially architectural decoration. Decoration became mechanised, and thus both much more common and much less meaningful. What did all this mechanised decoration prove, what did it mean, when you could thrash it out with no more difficulty than you could erect a plain wall?
What the above Bryson quote strongly suggests, at any rate to me, is that something rather similar happened with colour.
Why is the overwhelming atmosphere of Modernist architecture and architectural propaganda so very monochrome, still. Part of the answer is that it was only recently learned how to do monochrome. Monochrome looked modern, from about 1900-ish onwards, because it was modern. Monochrome was the latest thing. Colour, meanwhile, had become much cheaper and had been used with garish nouveau riche excess, and there was a reaction to that also, just as there was to excessive decoration.
Alert readers of this blog will long have known that I have a soft spot for interesting vehicles, often because they are old. (In general, the aesthetic nature of cars and of our response to cars interests me more and more.)
So, here is an amusing matching pair of vehicles:
The full size Mini was photoed not far from my friend Perry‘s home. The mini Mini was, as you can probably see for yourself, in a tourist crap shop window. Only the two white stripes on the bonnet of the mini Mini spoil the identicalness.
The Guru was finally able to deliver God/Godot this evening, but he only just finished, so time only for a quota cat, photoed by me in Tate Ancient yesterday:
More about that picture here. It’s by David Hockney.
I didn’t know that you are allowed to take photos in the Tate, but I did so with increasing confidence. There were official looking people well able to intervene and stop me, if they had wanted to. But, they didn’t. Interesting. Was that always the rule, or is it only recent, in response to an irresistible tidal wave of students taking notes with their iPhones?
Out and about in the sunshine
Stones created from layers of old paint from car factories
Black cars next to coloured pictures
Big Blue Cock photos
Lego bridge in Germany
Temporary art made of brightly dressed people
Bad and good in bad weather
Edwin is a bad person
Billy Fury Way
A scaffolder likes Jeremy Clarkson
Wedding photography (6): The Wedding and the Reception
Views from the Hackney Wick station footbridge
So painters also used to “take” pictures
Lunch at Gessler at Daquise
Art without Artists
The graffiti says he won’t get his keys back
If you can’t beat them hire them
Spray can girl in Leake Street
One child poster
Everybody draw Mohammed every day!
Abstract satellite expressionism
The Min-Kyu Choi folding three point plug
Strange purple cat with four eyes
Of lists and distant totally photorealistic skyscrapers
The concrete monstrosities of the South Bank may be about to get colourful
Is the contemporary art bubble bursting?
If it’s not Art it can be rather fun
Painted Billion Monkey!?!
It only takes One Rich Lunatic
Two adverts in the tube
Photos are better
Church covered in church pictures
Classic car thinness
The bridge that was going to make Westminster a fine city and London a desert
Russian weirdness for the Anglos
At the dogs
By the rivers and canals of East London with Goddaughter One
Deceiving the eyes of Paris
Venus by the river
Also no relation
Rubens massacre of innocents and an innocent
And I know him as well
Some art to be linked to from elsewhere