My horror fiction-writing alter ego Jim Mountfield has just had a new story called They Draw You In published in the July 2019 issue of the webzine Aphelion.
They Draw You In came about through a desire to write a scary story set in an art gallery. Not in a world-famous gallery, like the Louvre or the George Pompidou Centre in Paris, or the National Gallery or Tate Modern in London, or the Guggenheims in New York or Bilbao – all of which I’ve been lucky enough to visit over the years – but in a small provincial one. A gallery where the artists whose work is on display are less well known or not known at all, where the artwork itself is probably variable in quality, and where the overall vibe is unglamorous and unassuming… but also unpredictable, because you just don’t know what you’re going to find there. One place that inspired the story was an art gallery I explored in the Romanian town of Brasov a few years ago. The premises were cramped and the visit was brief, but some of the things I saw were memorable – because they were slightly eccentric and odd.
Because I wanted to make the setting drab and ordinary, but also disorientating and disturbing, I suppose I tried with They Draw You In to emulate the work of the Liverpudlian writer Ramsey Campbell, who’s made a career of taking drab, ordinary settings and characters and doing disorientating and disturbing things with them. However, while I wrote it, I found myself borrowing ideas too from the life of notorious occultist Aleister Crowley who, as well as being a magician, theologian, drug addict, mountaineer, poet, novelist and self-styled ‘wickedest man in the world’, was – yes! – an artist.
I was slightly dismayed after I finished the story to sit down one evening with my better half and watch a new movie on Netflix called VelvetBuzzsaw (2019) – and discover that it too told a horror story set in the world of artists, paintings and galleries. Would it cover exactly the same ground as They Draw You In? Well, I don’t think so. I enjoyed VelvetBuzzsaw and particularly enjoyed its savage ridiculing of pretentious art dealers and art critics, but I found it all over the place in terms of its horror elements. Things happened in it without rhyme or reason: one character was dismembered by a machine in a modern art installation, another was murdered by a creepy figure from a modern art installation, and another again was swallowed by paint that magically flowed out of a wall mural. Hopefully, the idea at the heart of They Draw You In is more consistent and coherent.
Incidentally, the half-dozen paintings that appear in the story are inspired by real-life ones. Those real paintings are Fix Your Eyes by Fiona Michie, Journey in a Carriage by Alfred Wierusz Kowalski, The Little Streetby Johannes Vermeer, Fishers in the Snow by John Bellany, The Lark by George Henry and (obliquely) The Spell by Sir William Fettes Douglas. With the exception of Kowalski, who was Polish, and Vermeer, who was Dutch, all those painters were or are Scottish. So although the Caledonian art scene isn’t usually the first thing that springs to mind in connection with Scotland, it’s clearly had a big influence on the humble horror scribe Jim Mountfield.
For the next few weeks at least, They Draw You In can be accessed here and the edition of Aphelion in which it appears can be accessed here.
As 2018 nears its end, I thought I’d mention those many writers, musicians, performers, artists and personalities who passed away during the first half of the year – folk who’ve inspired, entertained and generally made life a bit more interesting for me. Links are provided for the people whose deaths were commemorated by entries on this blog.
January 2018 saw a quadruple-whammy of music-related deaths. On January 10th, we lost Fast Eddie Clarke, last surviving member of the formidable original line-up of Motörhead; on January 15th, Dolores O’Riordan, singer, songwriter and musician with the massively popular (for a time) Irish band the Cranberries; on January 20th, Jim Rodford, bass player with the Zombies, Argent and, for two decades from the 1970s to the 1990s, the Kinks; and on January 24th, the relentlessly experimental, prolific and grumpy Mark E. Smith of the ever shape-shifting post-punk band the Fall.
Meanwhile, mid-January witnessed the loss of two actors I remember fondly. On January 15th, we said goodbye to Peter Wyngarde, suave, stylish and impressively moustached star of TV shows Department S (1969-70) and Jason King (1971-72); though connoisseurs of horror movies would argue his finest hours came with his small but terrifying role in the classic The Innocents (1961) and his lead role in the underrated Nightofthe Eagle (1962), while connoisseurs of trivia cherish the fact that as a teenager he was interned in the same Japanese prisoner of war camp as author J.G. Ballard. The next day saw the departure of seemingly indefatigable American actor Bradford Dillman, whose CV included such lovably ropy cinema and TV movies as Fear No Evil (1969), The Mephisto Waltz (1971), Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), Moon of the Wolf (1972), Chosen Survivors (1974), Bug (1975), TheSwarm (1978), SuddenImpact (1983) and Lordsofthe Deep (1988). Though his best role in my opinion was in the original, Joe Dante-directed, John Sayles-scripted Piranha (1978).
In the literary world, legendary science fiction and fantasy writer Ursula K. Le Guin died on January 22nd. Soon after came the deaths of two well-regarded horror writers. Jack Ketchum, author of 1981’s Off Season and 1989’s The Girl Next Door and co-writer of 2010’s The Woman and its 2011 film adaptation, died on January 24th; while David Case, whose 1971 short story Fengriffin was filmed in 1973 as And Now the Screaming Starts with a top-notch cast of Peter Cushing, Stephanie Beachum, Ian Ogilvy, Patrick Magee and Herbert Lom, died on February 3rd.
Passing away on February 4th was the actor John Mahoney, much loved as Kelsey Grammar’s blue-collar dad Martin Crane in the sitcom Frasier (1993-2004). Five days later saw the death of John Gavin, the American actor who was the hero (as opposed to Anthony Perkins’ anti-hero) of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and a credible Julius Caesar in Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus that same year. Among other things, Gavin came close to playing James Bond in 1970’s DiamondsareForever, before a hefty wage-offer lured Sean Connery back to the role. By an unhappy coincidence, Lewis Gilbert, director of old-school Bond epics You Only Live Twice (1967), The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and Moonraker (1978), died the same month, on February 23rd. And Peter Miles, the prolific British character actor who between the 1960s and 1980s turned up in such TV shows as Z-Cars, Survivors, TheSweeney, Poldark, Blake’s 7 and Bergerac, died on February 26th. Perhaps best-known for playing Nyder, the conniving, Nazi-esque sidekick to the Daleks’ creator Davros in the classic 1975 DoctorWho adventure Genesisofthe Daleks, Miles was the first of several veteran British TV actors to expire in 2018.
Indeed, a slew of British TV fixtures died the following month. These were the relentless Liverpudlian comedian Ken Dodd, who was still performing marathon four-hour shows (“You think you can get away but you can’t. I’ll follow you home and shout jokes through your letterbox!”) almost until his death on March 11th at the age of 90; Jim Bowen, beloved host of 1980s darts-themed quiz-show Bullseye, who died on March 14th; and Bill Maynard, star of 1970s sitcom Oh No, It’s Selwyn Froggitt! (1976-78) and several Carry On movies, who died on March 30th.
Meanwhile, a fixture of American TV, David Ogden Stiers, died on March 3rd. I’ll always remember Stiers from the classic anti-war sitcom M*A*S*H, the last six seasons of which (1978-83) featured him in the role of the amusingly pompous and truculent but essentially good-hearted Charles Emerson Winchester III. The same day another American actor, Frank Doubleday, passed away – Doubleday was responsible for the most shockingly senseless murder in movie history, playing a gang-member who guns down a little girl at an ice cream van in John Carpenter’s cheap but masterly Assault on Precinct 13 (1976).
Bowing out on March 14th was Stephen Hawking, proof that having Motor Neuron Disease needn’t prevent you from having the finest mind on the planet – or having the ability to poke fun at yourself by making guest appearances in TV shows like Star Trek: The NextGeneration and TheSimpsons. Philip Kerr, Edinburgh-born author of the ‘Berlin Noir’ BernieGunther crime novels, died on March 23rd. And on March 20th, at the age of just 38, Kak Channthy, singer with the splendidly offbeat, catchy and trippy band Cambodian Space Project, was killed in a traffic accident in Phnom Penh.
April saw the deaths of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and Amadeus (1986) director Milos Foreman on April 13th; soldier and actor R. Lee Emery – who started off on Stanley Kubrick’s FullMetalJacket (1987) as a technical advisor but proved so hardcore that Kubrick soon cast him in the role of the fearsome Gunnery Sergeant Hartman – on April 15th; actress Pamela Gidley from David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) on April 16th; John Stride, one of those afore-mentioned prolific British TV character actors, on April 20th; and diminutive actor Verne Troyer, who’ll be forever remembered as Mini-Me in the AustinPowers movies, on April 20th. Personally, I liked Troyer best for his performance in Terry Gilliam’s 2009 film The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.
On April 29th, versatile screenwriter Trevor Preston died. Preston’s CV ranged from the gritty TV crime shows Out (1978) and Fox (1980) to the popular kids’ fantasy series AceofWands (1970-72) to the fascinatingly oddball snooker / musical / horror film Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire (1987).
May got off with a melancholy start with two much-loved performers apparently taking their own lives: Scott Hutchinson, singer-songwriter and guitarist with Scottish Borders indie band Frightened Rabbit, who disappeared at the Firth of Forth on May 9th and whose body was discovered there the following day; and Canadian actress and activist Margot Kidder, Lois Lane to Christopher Reeve’s Clark Kent in the Superman movies of 1978, 80, 83 and 87, who died of an overdose on May 13th. Heavyweight American writers Tom Wolfe and Philip Roth passed away on May 14th and May 22nd respectively. And departing on May 21st was the towering (six foot, six inches) American actor Clint Walker, star of the TV western show Cheyenne from 1955 to 1963 and one of the twelve military convicts in Robert Aldrich’s TheDirty Dozen (1967). Two decades later, Walker would supply one of the voices for the title characters of Joe Dante’s SmallSoldiers (1998) alongside other members of the Dozen like George Kennedy, Ernest Borgnine and Jim Brown.
Japanese actress Yuriko Hoshi, whose 90 films included some fun kaiju ones featuring Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah, died on May 17th, while British actor Glynn Edwards, who turned up in such British movie classics as Zulu (1964) and GetCarter (1971) but will be best remembered for playing Dave, the congenial barman at Arthur Daley’s watering hole the Winchester Club in the TV show Minder (1979-94), died on May 23rd. May 20th saw the death of yet another Stanley Kubrick collaborator, graphic designer and film-poster artist Bill Gold. Among the hundreds of posters Gold produced, it’s a toss-up between his one for Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) and his one for TheExorcist (1973) about which is the most iconic.
June 8th saw the deaths of globetrotting TV chef Anthony Bourdain, and actress Eunice Gayson, the very first cinematic Bond girl (Sylvia Trench in 1962’s DrNo and 1963’s FromRussiaWithLove), and blues-rock guitarist Danny Kirwan, who played with Fleetwood Mac until 1972 (i.e. back in the days when they were good). June was also when two notable drummers passed away: Nick Knox, who played for 14 years with psychobilly legends the Cramps, on June 15th and Vinnie Paul of the heavy metal band Pantera on June 22nd. Actress Maria Rohm, wife of the prolific British film producer Harry Alan Towers and frequent star of movies made by the equally prolific Spanish director Jess Franco, died on June 18th. One day later, so did the kindly, smart and communicative primate Koko the Gorilla.
Science fiction and fantasy author, notorious curmudgeon, all-round personality and a hero of mine (especially during my teens) Harlan Ellison died on June 27th. Two days later saw the passing of the legendary comic artist and writer Steve Dikto, who co-created Marvel Comics superheroes Spiderman and Dr Strange with Stan Lee. Later on, of course, Lee would be a casualty of 2018 too.
And those were only the deaths during the first half of 2018. I’ll post an entry about 2018’s second half later this month – and, alas, there are many more still to come.
Every year on October 31st I like to celebrate the macabre spirit of Halloween by sharing on this blog ten scary, gruesome and / or disturbing paintings and illustrations that I’ve discovered during my recent wanderings on the Internet. I have to admit, though, that in the putrid sewer of a year that’s been 2018, no deliberately-frightening picture from an artist’s imagination has been as stomach-churningly frightening as the real-life images I’ve seen on the news: accompanying stories about murderous hatred, and fascists taking control of countries, and plain old human ignorance, vileness and cruelty.
But anyway, let’s forget the horrors of reality for a few hours and get down to Halloween business.
Firstly, an eye-catching – and head-popping – cover illustration from a 1981 Fontana edition of Agatha Christie’s AppointmentwithDeath (1938) by American-born, UK-based artist Tom Adams, whose cover-artwork also includes books by John Fowles and Raymond Chandler. It’s for his Agatha Christie covers that he’s probably best-known; though while Christie’s work was frequently dark, it was never quite as nightmarish as this image of a cranium-dwelling trapdoor spider.
Another artist known for illustrating book-covers and book-pages is Angela Barrett, who, I’ve read, learnt her craft at one point from the legendary Quentin Blake. A 2006 profile of her in the Guardian praised her work for its ‘stillness’ and ‘quiet atmospheric intensity’ and ‘poetic sense of melancholy’: qualities that are all present in this impressively fog-shrouded piece of Victoriana that’s an illustration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. It comes from a limited (200-copy) edition of Jekyll and Hyde produced by Hand and Eye Editions in 2010.
And so onto another 19th century horror icon. This year has marked the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s massively popular and influential Frankenstein. I’d thought about including here the famous frontispiece of the 1831 edition, which apparently was the first visual representation of the creature. But actually, I’ll leap forward a century in time to a 1934 edition of Frankenstein that’s graced by the woodcut illustrations of the American artist and engraver Lynd Ward. His depictions of the creature are memorably paradoxical, combining the majestic and monstrous, the muscular and malformed. Here’s an example.
Frankenstein has also been a theme for the modern-day Canadian / French illustrator Nicolas Delort, though for this entry I’ve chosen a picture of his based on a different but also influential work of literature. Horror tales are often described as ‘dark fairy stories’ and so it’s fascinating to see Delort’s intensely gothic take on Frank Baum’s TheWizardofOz (1900). The Wicked Witch of the West has virtually become a Goth priestess while her flying monkeys look indistinguishable from bats. Meanwhile, the gaudy colours we usually associate with the story are confined to a crystal ball in the foreground.
From witches and wizards to devils and demons. Here is a grotesque but strangely jolly – well, at least the little demon looks like he’s enjoying himself – illustration from LeLivredelaVigneNostreSeigneur, a medieval book produced in the mid-to-late 15th century. Among the Biblical events and places it depicts are the coming of the Antichrist, the Day of Judgement and Hell. Although French in origin, it resides now in the Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford. The entirety of the book can be viewed digitally here, while for some larger-sized highlights check out the macabre art website MonsterBrains, here.
From the Bodleian Libraries
Here’s another demon, courtesy of Rosaleen Norton, the remarkable Australian artist, practitioner of the occult and worshipper of Pan who, by the time she died in 1979 at the age of 62, had become known as the Witch of Kings Cross – that’s Kings Cross in Sydney, not Kings Cross in London. This picture, titled Fohat, pushed the envelope in conservative Australia, where practising witchcraft ceased to be a crime only in 1971; especially with how the goat-headed demon’s phallus is shown metamorphosising into a snake. The goat-head, according to Ms Norton, symbolised ‘energy and creativity’, whereas the snake lurking lower down symbolised ‘elemental force and eternity’. So this picture was wholly allegorical and not naughty at all, in other words.
I don’t know if the Russian artist Nikolai Kalmakoff was an active occultist like Rosaleen Norton, but he was certainly fascinated by the strange and esoteric. That the next painting, by Kalmakoff, is entitled Death and was painted in 1913 might make you expect something dark, muddy and bloody, prescient of the four years of carnage that were shortly to engulf Europe. Instead, however, Kalmakoff creates a work of art that’s baroque, Asian in tone and autumnally colourful. It’s only as you study it and take in its details, like the caterpillar-like sleeping old man and, stalking up on him almost playfully, the black shadow-figure with feathered angel’s wings, that it becomes sinister. I’m not sure what to make of the Angel of Death’s polka-dotted grey socks, though.
And now something else that’s Asian in tone – some ‘J-horror’courtesy of prolific Japanese cartoonist and illustrator Katsuya Terada. I believe this comes from the cover of the novel Psyche Diver: The Darknesswritten by Baku Yumemakura. The picture is a flesh-crawling combination of the sensuous and the hideous. Indeed, the contrast between the alluring feminine face above water and the fanged maw beneath it puts me in mind of Kuchisake Onna, that celebrated and nightmarish female character from Japanese urban myth.
More subtle is this striking picture by Massachusetts artist, print-maker and musician Daniel Danger, whose spindly black trees and dark sumptuous-blue sky evoke the creepy atmospheric phenomenon known as the Brocken Spectre, whereby a combination of clouds’ water droplets and backscatter sunlight turns an observer’s shadow into something gigantic and monstrous. I’m pretty certain, for example, that the Brocken Spectre phenomenon is responsible for the fearsome stories of the Big Grey Man of Ben MacDhui, said to haunt the highest summit in Scotland’s Cairngorm Mountains.
Finally, although Halloween is limited to the evening of October 31st, the final day of October is also the starting point for the three-day-long and skeleton-crazy festival that is Mexico’s Dia de Muertos, i.e. Day of the Dead. So here’s a skeleton-themed picture by the versatile American artist Bill Mayer that neatly ties together the gruesomeness of Halloween with the skeletal exuberance of Day of the Dead. However, its title, FragilePlanet, suggests that the artist’s intention is really to give an environmental warning – a sadly topical warning, come to think of it, given that Brazil’s new fascist leader Bolsonaro looks set to declare open season on the Amazon.
The Grim Reaper seemed to cull a record number of big-name celebrities in 2016: David Bowie, Prince, Umberto Eco, Muhammed Ali, George Michael, Carrie Fisher. 2017 has seen less carnage, but nonetheless some people I admired have passed away. Here’s a post about them. Links are provided to those people whom I’ve already written about on Blood and Porridge.
January 19th and 21st saw the deaths of British writers Hilary Bailey and Emma Tennant, who by a sad coincidence were friends and occasional collaborators. I read some of Bailey’s work in the New Worlds Quarterly paperback series that she’d edited in the 1970s – the series was a reincarnation of the famous science-fiction magazine New Worlds that her one-time husband Michael Moorcock had edited during the previous decade. I’m unfamiliar with Tennant’s work but have a tenuous link with her. She belonged to the aristocratic Glenconner family who owned the Glen, a mansion in the hills a few miles southeast of my Scottish hometown of Peebles. I’ve hiked past the Glen many a time and, according to Tennant’s Wikipedia entry, she lived there as a child and remembered it as “the strangest place possible.”
January 27th saw a further literary demise, of novelist and filmmaker William Peter Blatty. He authored The Exorcist (1971), which was made into the ground-breaking and massively successful horror movie of the same name two years later. In 1990 Blatty directed the film’s second sequel, Exorcist III, which has its admirers; and in 1980 The Ninth Configuration, a movie ignored on its release but now viewed as an offbeat classic. Film critic Mark Kermode described Configuration as “a breathtaking cocktail of philosophy, eye-popping visuals, jaw-dropping pretentiousness, rib-tickling humour and heart-stopping action.”
Also checking out in January were American character actor Miguel Ferrer – Albert Rosenfield in Twin Peaks (1990-91, 2017) – on February 19th; acclaimed English actor John Hurt on January 25th; Scottish politician Tam Dalyell on January 26th; and, on January 25th, the American film and TV actress Mary Tyler Moore. Through her sitcom The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-77), she was instrumental in getting American television to portray women in a more proactive and empowered fashion.
January 26th saw the death of a more conventional American TV performer, Mike Connors, who played tough-guy private investigator Mannix from 1967 to 1975. Mannix fans presumably included a young Quentin Tarantino, who named a character after the P.I. in 2015’s The Hateful Eight. Two days later saw the passing of keyboardist and guitarist Geoff Nicholls, who played in legendary Brum heavy-metal band Black Sabbath from 1980 to 2004.
February was had a relatively low death toll, although on February 17th we said goodbye to another Twin Peaks alumni, Warren Frost, who played the kindly Doc Hayward in its first two series in 1990-91 and briefly in its 2017 revival series. And the much-loved movie character actor Bill Paxton died on February 26th.
March 14th saw the death of veteran American film producer Jack H. Harris, who’ll surely be remembered as ‘Father of the Blob’. Not only did he produce hoary sci-fi monster movie The Blob in 1958 (starring Steve McQueen as an unfeasibly old teenager) but he masterminded its 1972 sequel Beware! the Blob, which was directed by none other than J.R. Ewing himself Larry Hagman and thus became known as ‘the movie that J.R. shot.’ Furthermore, Harris produced the 1988 remake, directed by Chuck Russell, and at the time of his death was trying to get a second remake off the ground. On March 18th seminal rock-and-roller Chuck Berry passed away, and the following day the masterly American illustrator and comic-book artist Bernie Wrightson died too. Checking out on March 26th was actress Darlene Cates, splendid as Johnny Depp and Leonardo Di Caprio’s mother in the 1993 movie What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?
American funny man Don Rickles died on April 6th. I wasn’t a fan of Rickles’ humour (“Who picks your clothes? Stevie Wonder?”) but as an actor he was memorably nasty in Roger Corman’s X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963) and memorably pathetic in John Landis’s Innocent Blood (1992). One day later, the English stage, film, TV and radio actor Tim Pigott-Smith passed away. My juvenile self will always remember Pigott-Smith for playing: (1) Hotspur (to Jon Finch’s Henry IV, David Gwillim’s Hal and Anthony Quayle’s Falstaff) in the 1979 BBC production of Henry IV Part 1, which I was made to watch at school; and (2) Thallo in 1981’s Clash of the Titans. Meanwhile, bowing out on April 12th was Charlie Murphy, elder brother to Eddie Murphy and a distinguished comic performer in his own right. His Charlie Murphy’s True Hollywood Stories turn on Comedy Central’s Chapelle’s Show (2003-2006) was hilarious, perhaps most of all when he described an alleged encounter with Prince, where the diminutive funky singer-musician showed an unexpected flair for basketball.
We also saw the departures of American blues singer and guitarist Lonnie Brooks on April 3rd; hugely influential British comics artist Leo Baxendale on April 23rd; and American guitarist John Warren Geils Jnr, mainspring of the J. Geils Band on April 11th – how I loved the Geils song Centerfold when I was a fifteen-year-old. American director Jonathan Demme, whose CV included Caged Heat (1974), Crazy Mama (1975), Melvin and Howard (1980), Stop Making Sense (1984), Swimming to Cambodia (1987), The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Philadelphia (1993), died on April 26th.
And American character actor Clifton James died on April 15th. James was best-known for playing redneck police officer Sheriff Pepper in two Roger Moore James Bond movies, 1974’s Live and Let Die and 1975’s The Man with the Golden Gun. (In the latter film, Sheriff Pepper turns out to be less of a redneck than expected. Holidaying with his wife in East Asia, he refuses to have his photo taken with an elephant: “Elephants! We’re Demy-crats, Maybelle!”) For a more nuanced Clifton James performance, however, check out his supporting role in Richard Lester’s Juggernaut (1975).
Another notable movie policeman passed away the following month, on May 10th: Michael Parks, who played Texas Ranger Earl McGraw in Robert Rodriguez’s From Dawn to Dust (1996), Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003) and the Rodriguez / Tarantino collaboration Grindhouse (2007). Parks also played the villainous Jean Renault in the first two series of TwinPeaks (1990-91) – so yes, he was another TwinPeaks casualty of 2017. Another man who was no stranger to violent action-thrillers, character actor Powers Boothe, died on May 14th. Boothe’s career saw him perform in such gritty movies as Walter Hill’s Southern Comfort (1981) and Extreme Prejudice (1987), Oliver Stone’s U-Turn (1997) and Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City (2005).
Other notable actors departing in May included the cinema’s longest-serving James Bond, Sir Roger Moore, who died on May 23rd; and English character actor Geoffrey Bayldon, who passed away on May 10th. Bayldon appeared in British horror films like The House That Dripped Blood (1970), Tales from the Crypt and Asylum (both 1972) but will be remembered by British TV viewers my age for playing a medieval wizard transported by magic to the present day in the children’s fantasy show Catweazle (1970-71). Meanwhile, the musical world took a hit on May 18th with the death of yet another grunge-band frontman, Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell.
Before taking leave of May, we should raise a glass of vodka to the memory of Soviet Air Defence Forces officer Stanislav Petrov, who died on May 19th. Petrov is credited with saving the world from nuclear destruction in 1983. Suspicious of an early-warning report about an American missile approaching the USSR, he disobeyed an order to launch a retaliatory strike. The initial report turned out to be false, the result of a malfunction in the satellite tracking system. Phew. Looking at the shitty state of international politics in the early 21st century, I suspect we’ll need a few more people of Stanislav Petrov’s calibre in the years ahead.
June 2017 wreaked havoc in the world of children’s TV entertainment. On June 9th it claimed Adam West, square-jawed star of the campy old Batman TV show (1966-68); on June 19th Brian Cant, narrator of the revered British stop-motion-animation shows Camberwick Green (1966), Trumpton (1967) and Chigley (1969); and on June 5th, the venerable Peter Sallis, who provided the voice for Gromit in Nick Park’s Wallace and Gromit quintet. Sallis also played Norman Clegg in all 295 episodes of the BBC’s seemingly never-ending sitcom Last of the Summer Wine (1973-2010) and appeared in a couple of Hammer horror movies. I love the fact that he was in both the Hammer film Curse of the Werewolf (1961) and the Wallace and Gromit epic Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005).
Anita Pallenberg, 1960s icon, actress and muse to the Rolling Stones died on June 13th and Dave Rosser, guitarist with the reformed American alternative-rock band the Afghan Whigs, died on June 27th. Finally, June 30th saw the passing of Barry Norman, English movie critic and host of the BBC’s long-running Film… review show from 1972 to 1998. I disagreed with many of Norman’s opinions – he could be annoyingly conservative and prissy in his tastes – but he performed his duties with undeniable wit, charm and aplomb. And a long time before the Internet, when the UK media didn’t seem particularly interested in films as an artform, his weekly show was an invaluable lifeline for cinephiles like myself.
This Christmas and New Year, my better half – Mrs Blood and Porridge – and I decided to forego our usual custom of heading back to Scotland to visit my family, mainly because we couldn’t handle another late December / early January spent in the cold, wet, windy and generally shite winter climate of the Scottish Borders. Instead we elected to stay where we are, i.e. in southern Asia. We’ve just spent four days at Unawatuna Beach on the southern coast of Sri Lanka. I’d like to say the experience was entirely the idyllic sun-drenched experience suggested by this photograph.
Unfortunately, half the time, the area was battered by thunderstorms and Unawatuna Beach looked more like this.
In addition, the hotel we’d booked into turned out to be still under construction, workmen with whining drills, snarling saws and clattering hammers working on a new function room at the end of our corridor and more workmen plastering the walls beside the outdoor swimming pool (even while it was pissing with rain). The place looked like something out of Carry On Abroad (1972). But overall we had an enjoyable sojourn there. We’re now spending Christmas Day in Colombo and plan to visit Thailand for a week-and-a-half over New Year.
Anyway, sitting in our Colombo apartment this Christmas Day, listening to our neighbours setting off fireworks – which is how they seem to celebrate everything in Sri Lanka – I find myself wondering what my favourite Christmas things are, in terms of books, films, TV, music and art. Here’s what comes to mind.
Books. Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) doesn’t do much for me these days, probably because I’m overly familiar with its plot and characters – who isn’t? But a few months ago, I finally got around to reading Susan Hill’s enjoyable Gothic pastiche The Woman in Black (1983). Hitherto knowing it only by its 2012 movie adaptation, I was surprised to discover The Woman in Black qualifies as a Christmas story. At least, it uses the Victorian custom of telling ghost stories at Christmas-time as a framing device. It’s during such a seasonal storytelling session that the middle-aged narrator gets unwillingly transported back to his youth and he begins to recall the terrifying experiences he had as a young man at Eel Marsh House.
Films. A little while ago I wrote about the grim 1971 Australian movie Wake in Fright. I realised it could be described as a Christmas movie, because its story of debauchery and squalor takes place during the festive season – though with the sweltering, fly-ridden Outback providing a background to the Christmas trees, decorations and carols. In fact, if you fancy an Antipodean anti-Christmas double bill, you should watch Wake in Fright back-to-back with 2005’s Nick Cave-scripted The Proposition, whose climax has Ray Winstone and Emily Watson sitting down to a genteel English Christmas dinner in the heat and dust of the 19th century Outback while a pair of crazed bushrangers gallop towards their house intent on rape and murder.
For more properly seasonal cinematic fare, though, I guess you can’t go wrong with The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) or the Finnish monster-Santa epic Rare Exports (2010). And I have a soft spot for 1982’s beautifully animated adaptation of Raymond Briggs’ 1978 picture-book The Snowman. I particularly like the version of it that has a prologue featuring David Bowie, who tells the story as a flashback and makes out this happened to him as a child. Thus, the man who was Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and the Thin White Duke also flew with a snowman to the North Pole and met Santa Claus when he was a wee boy. Wow, that David Bowie really lived a life!
Television. To me, Christmas TV means two things – comedy and (again) ghost stories. Any time I’m in the UK during the festive season it isn’t difficult to track down on a Freeview channel one of the following comedic classics. First, the 1974 Steptoe and Son Christmas special in which Harold tries to persuade his decrepit dad Albert not to spend Christmas at home in the rag-and-bone yard for once and spend it on holiday abroad instead. This episode is poignant because it’s one of the few where Harold actually enjoys a victory and it was also the last Steptoe episode ever broadcast. Second, the 1975 Christmas edition of Porridge where Fletcher, Gobber and co. form a Christmas carol-singing choir to hide the noise of an escape tunnel being dug out of Slade Prison. And third, the 1996 Father Ted special where Ted and Father Dougal’s Christmas shopping takes an unexpected turn when they get trapped inside ‘the largest lingerie section in Ireland’. I find it sad, though, that I haven’t massively enjoyed any festive TV comedy made in the last 20-odd years. (Incidentally, if you say you like the Mr Bean episode where he ends up with a giant Christmas turkey stuck over his head, you don’t deserve to live.)
As I mentioned earlier, Christmas was traditionally a time for telling ghost stories. The BBC’s supernatural dramas that were broadcast every Yuletide during the 1970s under the title of A Ghost Story for Christmas now seem deeply festive – even though the stories themselves didn’t have Christmas-time settings. (That said, most of them were based on works by M.R. James, who liked reading his latest tales to his friends at King’s College, Cambridge, “at the season of Christmas”.) 1971’s The Stalls of Barchester (based on a James story) and 1976’s The Signalman (based on a Dickens one) are probably the most memorable; 1977’s Stigma, set in the present day and using an original script by Clive Exton, is the subtlest and saddest; and 1975’s The Ash Tree, based on another James story, is the freakiest, ending with a pack of little spider-things with human faces scuttling up the branches of the titular tree to a bedroom window. All the episodes are currently up on Youtube.
Music. Christmas songs are generally dreadful – apart from the Pogues’ Fairy Tale of New York and Run DMC’s Christmas in Hollis – and the songs that get to the Christmas number-one spot in the UK are generally worse than dreadful, especially now that they’re usually sung by the latest non-entity to have rolled off the Simon Cowell Conveyor Belt of Karaoke. But for an enjoyably berserk Christmas listening experience, you can’t beat the heavy metal versions of Christmas songs like Silent Night and Jingle Bells recorded in 2012, 2013 and 2014 by the late, legendary actor Sir Christopher Lee, star of the Lord of the Rings andStar Wars movies and many horror ones. The combination of the nonagenarian Lee’s still-booming operatic voice, twiddly power-metal guitars and Christmas – what’s not to love?
Art. In the last few years English-speaking culture has become aware of the goat-horned, curly-tongued Krampus, the demonic figure of Germanic and Slavic folklore who acts as an anti-Santa Claus and goes around at Christmas punishing children who’ve been naughty. Among other things, there’s been a Hollywood movie made about him, 2015’s Krampus, and he turned up in a 2016 festive episode of the BBC anthology series Inside No 9. Only recently did I discover that mainland Europe has had a long tradition of exchanging Krampuskarten, greeting cards featuring the Krampus. These include some bawdy ones where the saucy old festive demon is seen cavorting with buxom young ladies. Here’s a few examples – charming in their visual designs and quaintly Roald Dahl-esque in their sentiments.
So Merry Christmas – I trust Santa Claus has been good to you. Or if you’ve misbehaved, the Krampus has been bad to you.
Continuing Blood and Porridge’s celebration of Halloween – yesterday I listed my favourite collections of short horror stories – this post is about ten of the creepiest pictures I’ve come across in the past year. (I constantly scour the Internet for interesting paintings and illustrations and have a folder on my computer with nearly 2000 images in it, starting with work by Abanindranath Tagore, Adolf Hoffmeister and Afewerk Tekle and ending with work by Yayoi Kusama, Yoshihisa Sadamatsu and Yoshu Chikanobu.)
First, a tribute. September 2017 saw the death of Greek-Egyptian, later American artist Basil Gogos, who was best known for providing covers for the juvenile horror-movie magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. He invariably depicted classic movie monsters like Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Wolfman and the Creature from the Black Lagoon and / or classic horror-movie actors like Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee and Vincent Price in impressively lurid and vivid colours. Gratifyingly, years later, the elderly Gogos got more work painting album covers for disreputable rock stars like Rob Zombie and the Misfits, who’d read Famous Monsters and loved his work when they were kids. Here’s a Gogos portrait of the silent film star Lon Chaney – ‘Man of a Thousand Faces’ – playing a vampire in the lost 1927 horror film London After Midnight. (Knowing Chaney’s penchant for contorting, warping and punishing his body in order to play extreme roles, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d filed his own teeth to points to create those piranha-like fangs.)
Another talent we said goodbye to this year was comic-book artist and illustrator Bernie Wrightson, who passed away in March. Although Wrightson provided breath-taking illustrations for editions of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and stories by Edgar Allan Poe, I thought I’d represent him with this item, which is definitely more in keeping with the horror comic-strips (like Swamp Thing) with which he originally made his name. It also embodies a certain type of hospitality that’s commonly extended to visitors in the American south – and particularly in Texas. In horror films, anyway.
Talking of Edgar Allan Poe, I often include in these Halloween posts something by Poe’s most famous illustrator, the Irishman Harry Clarke. However, this year, I thought I’d provide a Poe illustration by the German-American illustrator and wood-engraver Fritz Eichenberg instead. This shows the monstrous ape from Murders in the Rue Morgue. Its use of lines, whilst softer and more flowing, and less stark and angular than in Clarke’s work, is equally memorable.
And here’s another fearsome beastie, courtesy of Oregon painter Adam Burke. The image of a wolf – or is it a werewolf? – stalking towards a human victim is an archetypal one in horror stories and, indeed, in fairy tales. But what I like about this picture is the macabre touch that Burke adds to the would-be victim’s features, suggesting that the wolf is in for a shock.
A lupine theme features prominently in the work of Polish artist Jakub Rozalski, many of whose paintings take place in an extraordinary parallel universe where Eastern European peasants trudge about their fields, forests and hillsides while a truly strange occupying regime watches over them: a regime consisting of legions of Prussian-like soldiers, and huge clanking steampunk robot-tanks and robot-tractors, and… packs of werewolves. This is the most werewolfish picture I could find in Rozalski’s portfolio and it even has a hint – a saucy hint, it must be said – of Little Red Riding Hood.
From the werewolf to another archetypal figure of Halloween, the witch. In the past year I’ve discovered the enchanting work of the Ukrainian, now Israel-based children’s illustrator Sveta Dorosheva. This decorative picture of a witch is at the macabre end of her range. It has a sly, humorous sense of the grotesque that Roald Dahl, author of the best children’s witch story ever, would have approved of.
Another female artist I’ve come across lately is Laurie Lipton. Though she’s a New Yorker, her haunting black-and-white pictures featuring skulls and skeletons seem to evoke Mexico and the great Latin rival to Halloween, Day of the Dead. Here’s an example of her work depicting a ladies’ tea party that’s mannered but mouldering, refined but rotting, decorous but decomposed.
A skeleton plays a big part in 1972’s The Creeping Flesh, one of the last great gothic movies produced during Britain’s horror-movie boom of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. It begins with the inmate of an asylum painting a disturbing picture in his cell. The man, played by Peter Cushing, was once a palaeontologist who dug up a monstrous humanoid skeleton during an expedition. Back in his laboratory, and after one of its finger-bones got wet, the skeleton showed the alarming characteristic of being able to regrow its flesh when exposed to water. And predictably, Cushing’s unscrupulous scientific rival, played by Christopher Lee – who else? – soon broke into his lab, stole the whole skeleton and whisked it out into the night while a thunderstorm was drenching the countryside in rain. Cushing’s painting depicts the hideous, reconstituted creature that later that same night came clumping back to his house and drove him insane. I’ve no idea who was really responsible for the painting we see in The Creeping Flesh, but I was pleased to discover this still of it a few weeks ago.
From film-art to book-art now. This cover for the recent Penguin Classics edition of the Ray Russell novel The Case Against Satan is just wonderful. It was created by collage artist Lola Dupre, who takes different-sized versions of the same image and painstakingly assembles pieces of them to create a hallucinogenically fragmented and mutant master-image. In fact, from what I’ve seen of her work, I think the Russell cover is her finest effort to date.
And lastly, it’s about time I included in these Halloween posts something by the late, great Edward Gorey – who in terms of morbid Gothic humour was second only to Charles Addams in the world of American drawing and illustrating. Looking at this sublime Gorey picture called Donald Imagined Things, I find myself imagining things too. I find myself imagining that little Donald in the picture was actually little Donald Trump, and the big scary snake-thing had swallowed him whole. That would have spared us all a lot of stress six decades later.
The loose confederation of late 19th century artists known as the Glasgow Boys was just one aspect of Glaswegian culture that didn’t get a look-in when Scotland’s largest city was made European City of Culture for 1990.
Writing about the event 22 years later in his controversial essay Settlers and Colonists (2012), the Glaswegian writer and artist Alasdair Gray castigated the city’s councillors and their City of Culture managers for ignoring the Glasgow Boys and for also ignoring local theatrical writers, producers and performers like Archie Hind, Peter McDougall, John Byrne, David Hayman and Billy Connolly: “…these transient administrators knew or cared nothing for these local achievements and were employed by equally ignorant or careless town councillors. To both sorts the city’s past was mainly rumours of gang violence and radical Socialism, both of which should be forgotten. New Labour wanted the City of Culture to attract foreign tourists and investors, so performances and shows were brought from outside Scotland. Hardly anything Glaswegian was presented in Glasgow’s Year of Culture.”
Shortly before Gray penned Settlers and Colonists, the Glasgow Boys at least received a permanent showcase in the city where their circle had come into being. In 2011, a permanent room dedicated to them and displaying more than 60 of their paintings was established at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. This came in the wake of a hugely successful exhibition called Pioneering Painters: The Glasgow Boys 1880-1900 held at Kelvingrove and at London’s Royal Academy in 2010, which, incidentally, was the first exhibition devoted to them for more than 40 years.
According to a BBC news article written in 2011, the Glasgow Boys consisted of 23 artists, although their Wikipedia entry lists only 22 names. (Who was that unlucky, unnamed 23rd Glasgow Boy, I wonder?) In their paintings, they were motivated by a desire for realism and naturalism, for depicting what they really saw in the world around them – being stylised in terms of lighting, colour and symbolism if necessary, but without being formulaic. This put them at loggerheads with the Scottish art establishment of the time, centred around Glasgow’s age-old rival, Edinburgh. At the same time, their influences extended far beyond Scotland’s borders. These included the Dutch impressionists, French realists and the general late 19th-century fad for all things Oriental.
At the end of last year, I got a chance to explore the Glasgow Boys Gallery at Kelvingrove. Here are what I thought were its highlights.
Sir William Guthrie painted Old Willie – The Village Worthy (1886) featured at the top of this entry. This practically acts as a manifesto for the Glasgow Boys, for instead of creating a flattering portraiture of somebody against a lush, comfortable background, Guthrie simply paints an old fellow in his everyday clothes against a common whitewashed wall and makes no effort to disguise or soften the weather-beaten aspect of his features. Guthrie was also responsible for A Highland Funeral. Depicting a group of black-clad mourners gathered around the doorway of the deceased, it’s about as bleak and Calvinistic a work as you can find in Scottish art. Born in Greenock, Guthrie was the son of an evangelical church minister, so he probably knew this world well.
William Kennedy led a geographically varied life, spending time in the Scottish towns of Paisley and Stirling, in Paris, in Berkshire in England, and finally in Tangier. Whilst living in Stirling he painted Stirling Station (1887-88), capturing the place in a dreamy purple twilight (which probably doesn’t come out very well in the illustration I’ve provided below).
Moving to more exotic subjects, George Henry’s Japanese Lady with a Fan (1894) is one of many works by this Ayrshire-born painter to have a Japanese theme. Indeed, Henry and his friend and fellow Glasgow Boy Edward Atkinson (E.A.) Hornel spent a year-and-a-half in Japan in the early 1890s.
Also in Kelvingrove is the mystical painting The Druids – Bringing in the Mistletoe (1890), which I’ve seen attributed to George Henry with Hornel cited as an influence, but also seen described as a collaboration between Henry and Hornel. If memory serves me correctly, this wasn’t actually on display in the Glasgow Boys Gallery when I was there. Rather, it’d been squirrelled down to the basement where there was a temporary exhibition in progress, Alphonse Mucha – In Quest of Beauty. The exhibition not only covered Mucha’s work but also looked at that of his contemporaries and possible influences, and I suppose there is something Mucha-esque about The Druids, in its content if not so much in its execution.
I have to say The Coming of Spring is a contrast to another Hornel painting on display, The Brownie of Blednoch (1889), which was inspired by a poem written by William Nicholson in 1825. The brownie of the title is a fearsome thing with grey-brown skin, Spock ears, a black, crooked mouth like one on an unlit Halloween lantern, eyes that resemble poached eggs and a beard that’s as long, swirling and tentacled as an octopus. But the sheep in the rocky landscape behind it seem strangely untroubled by its presence.
My last entry on this blog was epically long – well, I was epically pissed off when I wrote it – so I will keep this entry brief. Last month saw the death of the great American illustrator and comic-book artist Bernie Wrightson. He grew up during the 1950s and as a kid, inevitably, was exposed to the artwork in the pulpy and notoriously gruesome horror titles published at the time by EC Comics: Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror and The Haunt of Fear. In particular, Wrightson was influenced by the eldritch visuals of legendary EC Comics artist Graham Ingels, who rather than sign his own name on his work preferred to leave the nom de plume ‘Ghastly’.
You could see the Ingels / EC Comics influence on Wrightson’s most famous comic-book creation – Swamp Thing, drawn by him, written by Len Wein and unveiled in 1971. The titular thing was once a scientist working in a laboratory in the middle of a swamp, initially called Alex Olsen although later the character was reworked as Alec Holland. Thanks to human skulduggery, Olsen / Holland sees his lab destroyed and he gets contaminated with mysterious chemicals that cause him to be fused with the plant-life of the surrounding bayou. The resulting mutant creature resembles a cross between the Incredible Hulk and a piece of broccoli. Needless to say, as a weird kid who spent his time in the classroom drawing monsters on the covers of his school jotters – the more shambling, squishy and barnacled the better – rather than listening to the teacher, I thought SwampThing was the bees’ knees.
As well as working for DC Comics and Warren Publishing, Wrightson was involved in literary and cinematic projects. In 1976, for example, he produced the Edgar Allan Poe Portfolio, a series of beautiful prints depicting moments in some of Poe’s most famous stories. The prints capture the atmosphere of Poe’s work whilst giving the characters a comic-book intensity – if they haven’t already exploded into action, you get the impression that they’re simmering with fear or passion and are about to explode. Wrightson also collaborated with Stephen King. In 1983 he drew the comic-book adaptation of the King-scripted, George Romero-directed movie Creepshow, which was very obviously influenced by the old EC Comics too. And he provided illustrations for King’s books Cycle of the Werewolf (1983), the ‘complete and uncut edition’ of The Stand (1990) and Wolves of the Calla (2003).
As the co-creator of Swamp Thing, a story informed by the ‘lonely, misunderstood monster’ theme that makes Mary Shelley’s landmark gothic novel Frankenstein (1818) so powerful, it was fitting that Bernie Wrightson should contribute fifty illustrations to a new edition of Frankenstein published in 1983. These were clearly a labour of love – Wrightson said later that he’d spent seven years drawing them in his unpaid spare time. Unsurprising, his work on the 1983 Frankenstein is often cited as his finest hour. You only have to look at this picture of Frankenstein’s laboratory to see how the level of detail is mind-blowing.
When I visited Texas a little while ago, one thing I didn’t expect to encounter a lot of was highbrow culture. Indeed, during my first few days there, my expectations of encountering such a thing got lower still as I noticed certain details about the place. Details such as a Texan fondness for car-window stickers saying WE DON’T DIAL 911, WE USE COLT 45. Or the rolls of novelty toilet paper on sale in Texan souvenir stores that had Barack Obama’s face on them. Or the hulking roadside signs bearing the message THINK GOD in stark black letters. All these suggested I wasn’t in a part of the North American land mass much given to Manhattan-style cosmopolitanism and culture-vulture posing.
However, after another couple of days, I realised I’d been wrong. There is culture to be found in the USA’s biggest state and it isn’t just the culture you find festering on a half-eaten and month-old Big Mac. At least, there’s culture to be found in the Texan city I was staying in, San Antonio.
Here are my thoughts on three of the art museums I discovered in San Antonio which taught me not to jump the gun in drawing conclusions about people and how highbrow or lowbrow they are. (That said, ‘jump the gun’ does sound like an appropriate Texan expression.)
Sandwiched between the River Walk and West Market Street in central San Antonio, the Briscoe Western Art Museum is the type of cultural institution you’d expect to find in Texas. Its mission, to quote its website, is “celebrating the art, heritage and history of the American West”. Hence you get to see such items as a painted wood, steel and leather chuck wagon that would dispense ‘hot coffee, beans and biscuits’ to tired and hungry cowboys out on their rounds; a monstrous-looking beartrap collected by “J. Frank Doble, among the West’s finest writers and historians”; a 1950s / 1960s prairie windmill for pumping water up out of subterranean aquifers; and a collection of more than a hundred cowboy spurs from the 18th to 20th centuries. Seemingly hovering in mid-air behind sheets of display-case glass, those spurs resemble a moored fleet of steampunk submarines, powered by star-shaped paddles at their sterns.
There’s also a diorama of 1836’s legendary Alamo siege, which is much better than the one on display in the Alamo itself. And you get to see some American West-themed paintings. I recall being impressed by Terri Kelly’s Contemplación and Oleg Stavrowsky’s And Stay Off – both pictured below.
The final museum-room I visited had some lovely old posters advertising America’s national parks. (Take a bow, John Muir.) They had a pleasing 1930s-ish look to them and I detected a hint of Art Deco too, though maybe it was just me.
The Briscoe’s museum shop, of course, is dedicated to all things Western and cowboy. I thought it was brave of them to have on their bookshelves a few copies of Cormac McCarthy’s BloodMeridian.
While the Briscoe deals with local culture, the San Antonio Museum of Art, on the River Walk too but out of the downtown area, up by West Jones Avenue and almost at the expressway, is unashamedly internationalist. You should set aside a good couple of hours to do this institution justice for it contains a lot of stuff. SAMA, as it’s called, features everything from 18th and 19th century European paintings to Oceanian spirit masks, from Buddhist statues to samurai armour, from Islamic-world ceramics to Chinese Qing Dynasty vases, from Korean folding screens to Egyptian sarcophagi. I could probably fill this blog from now until next Christmas with information about what I saw there. But I’ll mention a very few of my highlights.
Being Irish, I enjoyed the display of ‘Irish silver’ up on the fourth floor, which featured silver in every culinary form you could think of: corkscrews, wine coolers, cups, funnels, ladles, teapots, jugs, chocolate pots, toast racks, tankards, decanter stands, beakers, ewers, chalices, urns, cruets, sauceboats, butter dishes, fruit bowls, teaspoons and toasting forks.
In the Oceania section, I liked the ‘male ancestor figure’ from Papua New Guinea. Made of wood and shells, he sported a conical head, long nose, vacant expression and large arched member and he stood upon a luckless-looking squatting monkey. Another unhappy monkey was one in the Chinese section kneeling under the weight of a Tang Dynasty ‘spirit guardian’, whose distinctive features included a pig-like snout and chin, a twisting tusk erupting from his cranium and weaving flame-like spikes behind him.
And in the South Asian section there’s a fascinating Buddhist mandala made of marble sand. A mandala, it’s explained “is a cosmic diagram made of concentric circles and squares representing the symbolic home of a deity… used as tools for meditation and in spiritual development.” SAMA is only one of four American museums to contain a mandala, as normally they are taken apart after a few days to symbolise the transience of things: “Permission to preserve this mandala was granted by his Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama as a gesture to promote peace and harmony.”
Alas, I didn’t have time to look at SAMA’s collection of Latin American art, contained in the Nelson A. Rockefeller Centre on the ground floor.
And lastly to my favourite gallery in San Antonio, the McNay Art Musueum, north of the city centre, in Alamo Heights and on North New Braunfels Avenue. The McNay is the oldest institution of its type in Texas, dating back to 1854. Just inside its entrance stand some fun sculptures, such as Seymour Lipton’s Moloch, which resembles a mantrap folded into the shape of a pitbull terrier, or one by David Smith, which resembles a tangled weather vane but is really a representation of Groucho Marx’s face – look closely and you might spot his bowtie, cigar, moustache and glasses. However, the real goodies are the paintings on display further inside.
They include works by Cezanne, Chagall, Matisse, Monet, Picasso, Rousseau and Van Gogh. I particularly liked Edward Hopper’s Corn Hill, 1930, whose explanatory notes include this quote by the artist himself: “Maybe I am not very human. What I wanted to do was paint sunlight on the side of a house”; Paul Gauguin’s Self-Portrait with the Idol, which has lurking in its top right corner the Polynesian goddess Hina, “symbol of happiness, calm and peace”; and Georgia O’Keefe’s From the Plains I, inspired by the summers that the artist spent in the stark landscapes of New Mexico.
There’s also a neat little Medieval and Renaissance Art section, containing more paintings as well as altarpieces, limestone and wooden statues (of Mary Magdalene, St Paul, St Anthony and sundry other saints), stained glass and the inevitable representations of the Madonna and Child. Actually, the atmosphere engendered by those venerable religious artefacts did more to make me ‘think God’ than any giant sign planted by the roadside.
I greatly admire the work of the late-19th-century / early-20th-century Czech painter, illustrator and designer Alphonse Mucha. Happily, a visit I made a few weeks ago to Glasgow coincided with an exhibition held at the city’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum that was dedicated to him and entitled Alponse Mucha: In Quest of Beauty.
This wasn’t the first time I’d seen Mucha’s paintings displayed en masse. Back in 1990, I was wandering about the southern Japanese city of Hiroshima when I stumbled across a gallery that was hosting a major exhibition of his work. This was my first exposure to his oeuvre and I fell in love with it immediately. I even spent a small fortune on the lavish artbook on sale as an accompaniment to the exhibition. Its text was entirely in Japanese, which I couldn’t read, but I just wanted to drool over its many colour reproductions of Mucha’s pictures.
At the time I was working in a high school in Hokkaido at the other end of the Japanese archipelago and when I returned to my workplace one of the first things I did was lend the book to a colleague there, the school’s art teacher, Artist Hirosawa. (As a teacher, his title was Hirosawa Sensei, which translates as plain old ‘Mr Hirosawa’; but the first thing he’d ever said to me was, in English, “Hello, I am Artist Hirosawa.” So ‘Artist Hirosawa’ was how I always thought of him.) The sight of Artist Hirosawa sitting with the book open on his staffroom desk for days afterwards, drooling over those colour reproductions too, suggested that they liked Mucha an awful lot in Japan.
A decade later, I had a chance to spend a short holiday in Prague and a place I immediately made a beeline for was the Kaunický Palác, which contains the Mucha Museum – dedicated, as its name indicates, to Prague’s most famous artistic son. (Mucha actually spent much of his life in the Moravian towns of Ivančice and Brno, and in Vienna, Paris and the United States. But Prague was his home during his last three decades.) Predictably, I went away laden with more Mucha memorabilia courtesy of the museum’s giftshop: postcards, prints, bookmarks, calendars.
What is it about Mucha’s artwork that so appeals to me? Well, everything, I guess: the nymph-like, neo-classical figures, the flowing gowns, the cascades of pre-Raphaelite hair; the curves, haloes and patterns; the flowers; the exquisite use of pastel colours (even though pastel colours are usually something I don’t much like). I love that whole, languid Art Noveau dreaminess that suffuses his work, even if it suggests an era desperate for escapism – because while Mucha was putting together his gorgeous compositions, life for much of the urban population of industrialised 19th-century Europe was anything but gorgeous. Against a backdrop of William Blake’s ‘dark satanic mills’ belching out smoke and clanging with thunderous noise, it was frequently filthy, muddy, crowded, brutal and squalid.
One aspect of Mucha that I particularly like – though I’ve read this was something he himself was unhappy about – was the fact that he was a commercial artist. He made his name in Paris designing lithographed posters for plays featuring the celebrated actress Sarah Bernhardt. He produced posters, advertisements, book illustrations and designs for wallpaper, carpets and jewellery. Mucha seemed to win fame and acclaim because of, rather than in spite of, his willingness (if not his desire) to work in everyday media and have his art mass-produced for mass consumption.
Mind you, with his advertising work, you wonder if people admiring its aesthetics ever managed to notice its products as well. One advert on display at the Glasgow exhibition, for bicycles (‘Cycles Perfecta’), does indeed feature a bicycle. But inevitably it also features a nymph, who all but hides the bicycle – it nearly disappears amid her tresses of hair, her ribbons and the folds of her dress.
I find it interesting too that Mucha was a committed Freemason. In 1898 he joined a Masonic lodge in Paris and after he’d settled in Prague he established the first-ever Czech-speaking lodge. He gained the titles of Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Czechoslovakia and later Sovereign Grand Master of the Ancient Accepted Scottish Rite in Czechoslovakia. I’m not a fan of Freemasonry itself but its symbolism fascinates me and I appreciate much of the craftsmanship and architecture it’s produced. (If you’ve ever explored, say, the Freemasons’ Hall on Great Queen Street in London, you’ll agree that Masonic art is impressive.)
It’s always good to see a collection of his work together, but Kelvingrove’s Alphonse Mucha: In Quest of Beauty suffers slightly from lack of context. I’d have liked more information about the items on display, explaining how and when they fitted into Mucha’s development and preoccupations as an artist. Sneakily, the exhibition also incorporates ‘British influences and Scottish contemporaries’ – the latter consisting of “the radical, highly symbolic work of ‘The Four’: Charles Rennie Mackintosh, James Herbert McNair and Margaret and Frances Macdonald. Exhibited and published internationally, their early work was distinctly bold compared to Mucha’s curvaceous designs.” This allows the exhibition-organisers to slip in a couple of non-Mucha works as well, including Rennie Mackintosh’s famous Scottish Musical Review. Again, I’d have liked a little more context for their insertion.
The Mucha biography displayed at the exhibition reminds you that he came to a sad end. After the German invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939, the Gestapo hauled him in for questioning. His Slav nationalism, epitomised in his 20-painting masterpiece TheSlav Epic (1910-1928), didn’t endear him to the Nazis. Neither did his local prominence in the Freemasons, whom the Nazis regarded as part of the great Jewish conspiracy and had banned in Germany in 1934. During his interrogation, Mucha developed pneumonia and, shortly after his release, died of a lung infection. Yes, his work was gloriously escapist; but he came off worst when he encountered the reality of the 20th century, reality in its cruellest and most pitiless form.