The Wrightson stuff

 

© Bernie Wrightson / Christopher Enterprises

 

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 Swamp Thing was the bees’ knees.

 

© DC Comics

© DC Comics

 

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.

 

© Plume (Penguin Books)

 

Deep in the heart of Texas: San Antonio’s art museums

 

 

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.

 

From pinterest.com 

From briscoemuseum.org

 

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 Blood Meridian.

 

 

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.

 

From wikiart.org

From wikiart.org

 

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.

 

 

Mucha ado about something

 

From muchafoundation.org

 

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.

 

From muchafoundation.org

 

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.

 

From muchafoundation.org

 

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.

 

From muchafoundation.org

 

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 The Slav 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.

 

From en.wikipedia.org

 

10 scary pictures for Halloween 2016

 

From crafthub.com

 

Once again it’s the final day of October – which was known to Irish pagans as Samhain, was known to medieval Christians as All Hallow’s Eve and is known to pretty much the whole world now as Halloween.  As is my custom at this time of year, I will showcase ten paintings and illustrations that I feel convey the creepy, sometimes downright macabre, vibe of the season.

 

Firstly, here’s something memorably eerie by American Bill Crisafi, whose Facebook page describes him as a ‘multidisciplinary artist roaming the fog-drenched New England forests’.  (His website, meanwhile, is here: http://billcrisafi.bigcartel.com/.)  At first glance, the figures in the picture, Keepers of the Moon, suggested to me the three witches or ‘weird sisters’ of Macbeth.  At second glance, somehow, they suggested a dark version of the Magi, the Three Kings or Wise Men, who arrived in Bethlehem to pay homage to the infant Jesus.  It’s as if they’ve popped out of an evil mirror-image universe where Halloween has usurped Christmas and taken over the Nativity.

 

 

Also American, but tackling an Italian subject, is the Milwaukee-based artist Jessica Seamans, whose work can be viewed at http://landland.net.  As its title suggests, her picture here is inspired by the masterful 1976 Italian horror film Suspiria, which was directed by Dario Argento.  In fact, she created it for a Halloween screening of the movie in London back in 2012.  Suspiria was memorable not only for its scariness but also for its baroque, at times quite barmy, set design, something that Seamans captures nicely here.  She also captures the film’s level of bloodletting with a colour scheme that’s suitably red.  Suspiria, incidentally, isn’t the only movie that’s received the Jessica Seamans treatement.  Her take on Gremlins (1984) is pretty good as well: https://mondotees.com/products/gremlins-poster?variant=12664541507.

 

 

Suspiria was a film about witches and a witch features at the centre of the tumultuous supernatural mayhem depicted in The Sorceress, which is now housed at the RISD Museum in New England (http://risdmuseum.org).  This engraving is the work of the 17th century Dutch painter Jan van de Velde II, who was also well-known as a landscape artist and who has been cited as an influence on Rembrandt.  The text accompanying The Sorceress on the RISD website identifies in the foreground some cards, die and tobacco, which serve “to warn that life is fleeting and that temporal pleasures should be avoided.”

 

 

In these Halloween entries I commonly feature something by the Irish artist Harry Clarke, largely on the strength of his acclaimed black-and-white illustrations for an early 20th-century edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination.  However, Clarke also made a name for himself by working in stained glass – he was responsible for the stained-glass windows in the famous Bewley’s Café on Grafton Street in Dublin.  So this year I thought it would be good to celebrate Clarke’s stained-glass art.  Here is a detail from the Dempsey Memorial Lancet Window of St Maculind, which Clark crafted for St MacCullin’s Church in Lusk – and yes, the nearer face looks worryingly zombie-like.  The detail was photographed by Kelly Sullivan and used for an illustration for the following online article: https://publicdomainreview.org/2016/10/12/harry-clarkes-looking-glass/.  

 

 

From Ireland to Norway now.  In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the Norwegian artist Theodor Kittelsen was one of his country’s most celebrated painters.  His specialities included illustrations for legends and fairy stories and he had a particular affinity for drawing that most Scandinavian of mythological creatures, the troll.  No wonder his work has been much in demand as sleeve art by Norwegian heavy metal bands like Burzum and Empyrium.  His foglight-eyed Water Spirit, though, has something of the panels that used to be found in 1950s American horror comics like Vault of Horror and Tales from the Crypt.  This image comes from Kittelsen’s entry on Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theodor_Kittelsen).

 

 

Someone else from the non-English-speaking world who liked to use local folklore as an inspiration for his pictures was the 19th century Japanese artist Kawanabe Kyosai, who was responsible for the following depiction of a sleeping red-robed lady surrounded by hordes of rather jolly-looking animated skeletons.  It’s known as Hell Courtesan no 9 of the Kyosai Rakuga Series.  Although Kyosai’s folkloric art often had a macabre tone, it was probably less stressful for him than his main line of work, which was as a caricaturist.  In fiercely hierarchical Japan, his political caricatures didn’t always go down well and got him arrested on several occasions.  To view more of Kyosai’s work, check out this webpage: http://wsimag.com/art/16772-from-mad-to-dawn.

 

 

Not many Halloween pictures make me think of Britain’s eternally young, wholesome, Christian and Daily Mail-approved pop singer Cliff Richard, but I can’t look at this next item without thinking of Cliff’s 1976 hit Devil Woman.  (“She’s just a devil woman / With evil on her mind / Beware the devil woman / She’s gonna get you…” etc.)  Even the picture’s title, La Femme de Satan, sounds like a very loose French translation of the name of Cliff’s song.  Actually, Devil Woman was covered in 2004 by County Suffolk’s Goth / black metal band Cradle of Filth and I suspect La Femme de Satan is closer in spirit to that particular rendition of the song.  It was painted by the Russian Nikolai Kalmakoff who, it’s said, got heavily into the occult whilst living in Paris in the mid-1930s.  It’s also said that later he became a recluse and then a pitiful inmate of an indigents’ hospital, so if he made any deals with the devil he clearly got a bum deal.  The macabre art blog Monster Brains devoted an entry to Kalmakoff’s works a little while ago: http://monsterbrains.blogspot.com/2015/01/nikolai-kalmakoff.html.

 

 

Mainly associated with sensual imagery that manages to be both brightly shiny and droopingly languid, the Austrian artist Gustav Klimt nevertheless produced the occasional bit of dark stuff.  I like this one, Life and Death, which on one side has some of Klimt’s usual figures rippling and billowing down the canvas in the usual patchwork of summery colours; but has a rather different figure looking on, and grinning starkly, from the other side.  It now resides in the Leopold Museum in Vienna: http://www.leopoldmuseum.org/en/leopoldcollection/masterpieces/41.

 

 

A skull also plays a prominent part in this composition which I found on a site called Tomb of Insomnia.  Alas, the site no longer seems to exist and I’m afraid I don’t know who the artist is.  It does, though, look like a still from the most terrifying possessed-devil-child movie never made.

 

 

And finally, here’s an illustration from Virgil Finlay, best known for his work in the American pulp-fiction magazines of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, where his handsome and atmospheric pictures accompanied many a tale of horror, fantasy and science fiction.  However, this item – which I found at http://www.munchkinpress.com – was drawn for a poem by H.P. Lovecraft called Halloween in the Suburbs.  And thus it brings this entry to an appropriate close.

 

 

Happy Halloween!

 

Deep in the heart of Texas: Barney Smith’s Toilet Seat Art Museum

 

 

This may look like a sedate and unremarkable, if pretty, house in a leafy neighbourhood in the Texan city of San Antonio.  However, two features suggest there might be more to it than initially meets the eye.  One is a hand-painted sign half-hidden in the foliage outside, announcing the existence of a museum.  The other hints at something stranger – a toilet bowl and cistern parked in its back garden, used as a big porcelain plant-pot, green blades poking out over the bowl’s rim.

 

 

In fact, this is the home of San Antonio’s Toilet Seat Art Museum, created and run by the wonderful Barney Smith who, when a couple of friends and myself visited him a while ago, was 94 years young.  He keeps his museum-collection in a corrugated iron garage.  It’s a big collection and he has a small garage, but Barney has managed to cram the former into the latter in Tardis-like fashion.  

 

When we telephoned him to say we’d arrived – we’d made an appointment to view the museum a few days earlier – Barney crossed his back garden with the aid of a Zimmer frame, unlocked the big garage door, swung it back and propped it with a stob.  And then it seemed that Aladdin’s Cave had opened, an Aladdin’s Cave of toilet seats.

 

 

Now I should clarify something.  This is not a museum of toilet seats per se, not one of antique toilet seats, or exotic toilet seats, or unusual toilet seats.  What Barney has done over many years is take a huge number of toilet seats, or more precisely, toilet-seat lids, and decorate them according to different themes.  The theme might be a country, city or state, or a profession, or an organisation, or a special occasion, or a newsworthy event.  And he works on each seat with the artistry of a medieval craftsman engraving, gilding, inlaying, embossing and enameling the front of a medieval shield.

 

 

At the time of our visit, he mentioned that he was currently working on six new toilet seats to add to his collection.  I can’t quite remember how many seats he said he’d already completed, though for some reason the number ‘1172’ is lodged in my memory.

 

The interior of the garage is absolutely dense with the things: lining the walls, propped along the floor, dangling from the roof, suspended along rails in tightly-packed rows.  Entering it is like venturing into a congested pocket of rainforest, one where the leaves are all big, solid and shaped like loo-covers.  When he leads his visitors inside, such is the clutter that Barney has to swap his Zimmer frame for a walking stick, which handily doubles as a pointer when he’s indicating the more notable items in his collection.

 

 

Despite the sheer number of exhibits, each one seems to have its own identity – largely due to the bewildering range of bric-a-brac Barney has used in decorating them.  I saw seats adorned with action figures, badges, baubles, beads, buttons, cards, car number-plates, CDs, chains, cell-phones, cocktail sticks, coins, corkscrews, computer keyboards, coral, crosses, dolls, electronic circuitry, feathers, keyrings, keys, Lego, marbles, medallions, medals, miniature flags, neckties, notes of money, pebbles, penknives, pennants, photographs, rocks, rosettes, scent bottles, sections of plumbing, sew-on patches, shells, smokers’ pipes, spectacles, stained glass, stationery, stones, surgical instruments, taps, toy cars, toy trains and watches.

 

Barney is also an accomplished artist and calligrapher and many of the seats, in part or in their entirety, are emblazoned with his drawings and / or inscribed with his handwriting.  Indeed, such is the aesthetic effect that you soon forget that what you’re looking at are, essentially, the top parts of latrines.

 

 

About the only exhibit I remember seeing that had a connection with an actual toilet was one bearing a souvenir that a visitor, an American soldier back from service in Iraq, had given Barney one day: a chunk of porcelain allegedly salvaged from the ruins of Saddam Hussein’s personal ‘khazi’.

 

In his time Barney has worked as a plumber, electrician and fireman.  Looking at the exhibits here, and thinking of the many skills that were necessary in fashioning them, I’m sure there are a dozen other professions he could’ve successfully turned his hand to.  He’s also a bit of a publicity hound – clearly, he keeps an eye open for any opportunity to promote himself and the museum.  Thus, the garage comes equipped with a television set and an old VCR, on which he plays footage of his appearances on TV over the years, on programmes like the Tonight Show, Offbeat America and the BBC’s All Over the Place.  As a thank-you for the coverage, those shows have been honoured with their own toilet seats in the collection.

 

 

While I didn’t go to the Toilet Seat Art Museum with the intention of scoffing, I expected to have a good chuckle about it.  Where I come from, at least, toilets are supposed to be funny – hence the expression, ‘toilet humour’.  Yet I went away feeling impressed and oddly inspired.  This was partly because of the time spent in Barney Smith’s company.  Despite his advanced years he seemed as alert, vivacious and energetic as a man a third of his age.  Why, the following week, he told us, he was planning to pop up to Tennessee and visit Dollywood, the theme park devoted to the mighty Ms Dolly Parton.

 

 

And the sheer variety of things displayed in his garage made me admire his curiosity and enthusiasm for the whole rich tapestry of life.  I particularly admired the way his work showed respect for and gratitude towards those many groups of citizens who keep society ticking over and glued together – all those many professions, services, institutions, associations, sports clubs, social clubs, faith groups, youth groups and so on.  You name them, he’s got a toilet seat dedicated to them.

 

 

Tellingly, at a time when the bile, bombast and general ghastliness of the Trump-Clinton race for the presidency have acted as the worst possible advertisement for America, it strikes me that Barney and his eccentric but charming little museum are an advertisement for the very opposite, for America at its best.  Both the man and his creations seem to embody the virtues of a nobler America, virtues such as neighbourliness, civility, loyalty, positivity and all-round decency.

 

 

Algiers’ Musée National des Beaux Arts

 

 

After you emerge from the Jardin d’Essais Metro Station in front of the Musée National des Beaux Arts – or as Google Translate explains it, accurately for once, the National Museum of Fine Arts – in Algiers, you are promptly confronted by the best and worst that the city has to offer.  At the top of the metro steps you find yourself at the base of a hill.  The museum is a little way up the hillside while the Maqam Echahid – the Monument of the Martyrs – is perched at the top, its three broad curved legs making it look like an alien landing module that’s been sent down from an orbiting alien spaceship.

 

 

Meanwhile, set in the bottom of the slope is a curved and pillared alcove containing ten or more gorgeous, if slightly bit faded, tiled mosaics.  I’ve seen other instances of these in Algiers and they really add to the city’s charm.

 

 

Alas, once you start up the stone steps that climb from the alcove to the museum entrance, you find yourself ascending a stairway of crap.  It would be nice if they could sweep up the old leaves lying there, some of which have been lying for so long that they’ve decomposed into brown gunk, but at least that crap is organic, biodegradable crap.  What’s unforgivable are the discarded newspapers, plastic bags, drinks cans and – worst of all – plastic water bottles mixed in with the leaves.  They really make the approach to the museum look like shit.

 

 

The museum itself isn’t spectacular but its contents are nicely balanced between the old and new.  In the lobby, for instance, you get a 17th century statue of King Solomon looking like a very tall, elongated version of one of the Lewis Chessmen that adorn the banner of this blog; while upstairs there’s Aicha Haddad’s L’Arbre de l’Espoir, which is basically a tree made out of spanners and metal nuts.  Exploring the place makes a perfectly pleasant way to spend an hour or two.

 

I wasn’t allowed to take photos on the premises, unfortunately, except on a terrace that runs along the front of the building’s top floor and gives a splendid view over the nearby park, the Jardin d’Essais, and then the Mediterranean Sea.  A mock Roman mosaic covers the terrace’s floor and lining its sides are pillars, some slightly-dusty plants and, every couple of pillars along, a stone statue or bust.  There are also two small garden areas behind it, containing pink-flowered bushes, a palm tree and more statues.  It’s an agreeable place to hang out for a while.  No wonder that, while I was there, it was populated with young, hipster-type Algerians doing just that, hanging out.

 

 

The thing for which I’m most grateful to the Musée National des Beaux Arts is that it introduced me to the work of the 20th-century Algerian artist Mohammed Racim.   It says in his Wikipedia entry that the scenes he painted were set in “an imagined past, before the arrival of the French colonisers, when the indigenous were the masters of the Maghreb.  The people of Algeria, prior to the French arrival, appear in his works as prosperous, given to fine textiles and costumes and the arts of music, architecture and gardening”.  Here are a few examples of his baroque, colourful and generally gorgeous art.

 

(c) Musée National des Beaux Arts

 

Farewell, Ernst Fuchs

 

This week saw the passing of Austrian painter, sculptor, architect and designer Ernst Fuchs.  Born to Jewish and Catholic parents 85 years ago – though baptised a Catholic out of fear at what was brewing in Austria and neighbouring Germany at the time — Fuchs was a co-founder of the Vienna School of Fantastic Realism.  His work always seemed to me to straddle the divide between certain acclaimed artists of yore – like Salvador Dali, Max Ernst and Gustav Klimt – and younger ones like H.R. Giger and Mati Klarwein who’d established themselves in the 1960s and whose work seemed as much at home in movie design and on album covers as it did on canvas.

 

The 1960s, of course, were a decade when interest exploded in the psychedelic and esoteric and any artist worth his or her salt with a hankering for the weird, fabulist and baroque had a good chance of finding an audience.  No doubt the 1960s saw Fuchs win more than a few admirers, for he liked to paint pictures that combined religious, mythological and erotic motifs whilst decking them out in eye-catching colour schemes.

 

Here are a couple of my favourites among Fuchs’s paintings.

 

Firstly, there’s Metamorphosis of Lucretia, which has a skinned, unicorn-thing crouching at the feet of a statuesque beauty whilst wielding a horn that’s second in size only to the Freudian metaphor weighing on the painting like a boulder.  But who’s the sinister, Clive Barker-style fellow in the red robe and red Panama hat lurking on the left?  (From http://www.wikiart.org/en/ernst-fuchs/the-sorrowful-rosary#supersized-artistPaintings-275438.)

 

   

Another one I like very much is Leda and the Swan – or Leda und der Schwan as the German-speaking Fuchs would have called it.  Fuchs puts a bold, brazen quality into his take on the Greek myth that’s inspired everyone from Rubens to W.B. Yeats.  Its curves and swirls call to mind the populist artist Roger Dean and the picture feels like it belongs on the cover of an album by some 1970s prog-rock or heavy metal band.  (From http://www.ernstfuchs-gallery.com/a4e.html.)

 

 

Meanwhile, here’s The Sorrowful Rosary – which sees Fuchs delving into the Catholic side of his heritage for inspiration, though the morbid religiosity of the picture is balanced by its colourfulness and fantasticality.  (From http://www.wikiart.org/en/ernst-fuchs/the-sorrowful-rosary#supersized-artistPaintings-275511.)

 

 

And finally, there’s this depiction of the two-faced Roman god Janus, which I’ve taken from http://www.johncoulthart.com/feuilleton/2006/05/27/the-art-of-ernst-fuchs/.  Unlike most pictures of Janus, there’s no simple juxtaposition of the faces here, one looking forwards and the other backwards.  Rather, they form a twisted, ruptured semi-configuration so that one gazes out balefully from the side of the other – which in my opinion makes this the spookiest thing of all to have come from the imagination of the late Ernst Fuchs.

 

 

Yet more scary pictures for Halloween

 

Today is October 31st – or as it’s known in the Christian calendar, All Hallow’s Eve.  Or in the ancient Celtic calendar, Samhain  Or to pretty much everyone on the planet these days, Halloween.

 

Halloween is the time of year when, to quote Vincent Price in the Michael Jackson song Thriller, “darkness falls across the land… creatures crawl in search of blood… demons squeal in sheer delight…” and – yikes! – “grizzly ghouls from every tomb are closing in to seal your doom”.  And it’s also the time of year when, on this blog, I like to present a selection of creepy paintings and illustrations that, during the previous year, have caught my fancy.

 

To set the scene this Halloween is an etching called The Lonely Tower by the 19th-century artist Samuel Palmer (www.vam.ac.uk/users/node/1506), which can be seen at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.  It’s a wonderfully atmospheric piece that conveys both the bleakness and the mystery of the nocturnal world.

 

 

On to a picture of a terrifying monster – one of the most ancient and awe-inspiring monsters in English-speaking culture.  It’s Grendel in Beowulf.  However, painted by the Italian twins Anna and Elena Balbusso (http://www.balbusso.com/), it mixes to disconcerting effect the simplicity of a children’s-book illustration with the gory savagery of the oldest surviving poem in the English language.

 

 

Meanwhile, here’s a spooky item from the Scottish artist Fiona Michie, whose work can be viewed at http://www.fionamichie.com/.  It reminds me very much of the short story The Company of Wolves by one of my all-time favourite authors, Angela Carter – which in 1984 was made into one of British cinema’s most phantasmagorical movies by writer-director Neil Jordan.

 

 

Halloween wouldn’t be Halloween without mention of horror fiction’s supreme writer, Edgar Allan Poe.  And if you’re talking about Poe, you can’t ignore the great Irish stained-glass and literary artist Harry Clarke, who was surely Poe’s greatest illustrator (http://50watts.com/Harry-Clarke-Illustrations-for-E-A-Poe).  Here’s one of his most chilling pictures, a depiction of the luckless Madeline Usher after she’s escaped from her entombment in The Fall of the House of Usher.

 

 

If Poe was the horror-fiction king of the 19th century, then his equivalent in the 20th century was the retiring Rhode Island writer H.P. Lovecraft, whose tales of cosmic and existentialist horror also inspired an array of artists.  For instance, here’s a work by the English artist Ian Miller (http://www.ian-miller.org/).  It adorned the cover of a cheap paperback edition of Lovecraft’s fiction many years ago, but it perfectly conveys Lovecraft’s obsession with the idea of horrid and nightmarishly-incomprehensible things lurking just beyond the parameters of human experience.

 

 

And here’s another Lovecraft-inspired picture from the great French artist Philippe Druillet (http://www.druillet.com/).  Druillet is better known as a science-fiction artist, but when his sci-fi sensibilities combine with the macabre, the results are impressively creepy — in a colourful, comic-book way.

 

 

Moving on, this stark statement about the biggest horror we face during our existences – that of the passing of time, and aging, and decay – has always chilled my blood.  Thank you for that, Mr Francisco Goya.  Very recently, I reached my half-century, so your cosy and charming little painting Time has really made me feel good about myself (http://www.eeweems.com/goya/viejas.html).

 

 

And once you reach old age and decrepitude, there’s only one thing more to look forward to — death itself.  I feel this illustration by the 19th century German artist Alfred Rethel captures the omnipresence of death when you’re in your twilight years very nicely.  Well, not nicely – depressingly.  Rethel had more than his share of depressing experiences himself.  He was believed to have been stricken with insanity following an an accident he had during his childhood.  Also, he passed away at the early age of 42 (http://www.artcyclopedia.com/artists/rethel_alfred.html).

 

 

Meanwhile, for an eastern meditation on the topics of death and decay, you need look no further than this painting by the distinguished Indian artist Ganesh Pyne: http://www.contemporaryindianart.com/ganesh_pyne.htm.

 

 

A more up-to-date item now – an diabolic but sexy painting by the modern-day artist John Coulthart, done for the cover of an album by the greatest Goth / black metal band to ever emerge from County Suffolk, Cradle of Filth.  The album is called Bitter Suites to Succubi — I’ll leave you to figure out the pun.  Coulthart, incidentally, writes an eclectic and informative blog (http://www.johncoulthart.com/feuilleton/) and I never miss his daily postings.

 

 

Having started with an eerie and evocative picture by Samuel Palmer, here is something similarly eerie and evocative to end on.  It’s an illustration by the French 19th-century artist Gustave Dore for one of the most famously unsettling poems in English literature, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.  Sinister, desolate and downright weird, it sums up the spirit of the poem perfectly (https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/coleridge/samuel_taylor/rime/).

 

 

And finally on Halloween night…  Here, courtesy of the San Francisco writer and artist Dan Brereton (www.nocturnals.com), is one dedicated to the ladies out there.  Happy Halloween!

 

 

Modern art is rubbish

 

 

Okay.  I don’t really think that it’s rubbish.  That was just the message suggested by this striking metallic sculpture of an upended bin and torrent of spilling garbage found in the grounds of Delhi’s National Gallery of Modern Art, which I visited while I was working in the Indian capital the other month.

 

Housed inside Jaipur House, which stands on the Central Hexagon surrounding India Gate and was once the grand residence of the Maharaja of Jaipur, the gallery has exhibits that date back to the 19th century.  There’s a selection of predictably earnest and stately paintings by British painters from the days of colonialism and the Empire, such as Thomas Daniell and Marshal Claxton; but the displays become more interesting once they move on to a more Indian mind-set, with indigenous painters eschewing Western models of art to do their own thing, drawing on local domestic and community life and on local tradition, folklore and legend for inspiration.  That said, some, like the brothers Abanindranath and Gaganendranath Tagore, were influenced by artistic styles from cultures further east, such as Japanese ones.

 

Here’s Abanindranath Tagore’s Emperor’s March to Kashmir.

 

(c) National Gallery of Modern Art, Delhi

 

Mind you, by the time his brother Gaganendranath got around to painting Magician, he’d possibly been infected with a dose of the Picassos and gone slightly cubist.

 

(c) National Gallery of Modern Art, Delhi


Raja Ravi Varma was perhaps more old-school, in that he incorporated techniques of Western art into his depictions of Indian daily life, literature and mythology.  Here’s his Mohani on a Swing.

 

(c) National Gallery of Modern Art, Delhi


Also catching my eye was this bleak and melancholy work, Mataji, by the female Bengali-American artist Anjolie Ela Menon, who according to her Wikipedia entry is still going strong in her mid-seventies.

 

(c) National Gallery of Modern Art, Delhi


Ganesh Pyne, unfortunately, passed away early last year at the age of 75.  I liked his lush, gorgeous but somehow stark Mother and Child.

 

(c) National Gallery of Modern Art, Delhi


Once the art in the Gallery of Modern Art gets truly modern and starts to tilt towards the abstract, it loses something.  It isn’t objectionable, but it becomes a bit corporate and samey, with the Indian flavours subdued – a lot of it, you feel, could hang on a gallery wall in Hong Kong or Barcelona or New York without seeming much different from the works around it.  And to me most modern art is informed by gimmicks, and whether or not a particular example of it works for you depends on whether or not you appreciate the underlying gimmick.

 

I did quite like the gimmick in Madhvi Parekh’s cheeky take on The Last Supper.

 

(c) National Gallery of Modern Art, Delhi


Finally, when I visited the gallery, it was staging an exhibition dedicated to the life and works of Amrita Sher-Gil.  Of Sikh and Hungarian Jewish parentage, the remarkable Sher-Gil crammed a lot into her brief life – she died at the age of 28 – with sojourns in European cities like Budapest, Florence and Paris and in Indian ones like Shimla, Gorakhpur and Lahore (which was then in India).  During her European experiences, she found inspiration from the likes of Cezanne and Gauguin.  During her Indian ones, she fell under the influence of the Bengal School of Art, two of whose leading practitioners were the afore-mentioned Tagore brothers.  Since her death in 1941, she’s been recognised as one of India’s most important 20th century artists and also become something of an Indian feminist icon.  In 2006 her painting Village Scene set a record, for a time, of being the most expensive painting ever sold in India.  Here’s one of her self-portraits, which captures her obvious élan and joie de vivre.

 

(c) National Gallery of Modern Art, Delhi


Fascinatingly, in the mid-1930s, she had an affair with the English journalist Malcolm Muggeridge, who was then young, leftward-leaning and agnostic (and, incidentally, married to author Katherine Dobbs).  I wonder what the adventurous, bohemian and reputedly promiscuous Sher-Gil would have made of Muggeridge in his later years, who by the early 1970s had drifted into reactionary-old-fart-dom; become a right-wing fulminator against the permissive society and its evils like ‘pills and pot’ and the Beatles (whom he once described as ‘four vacant youths’ with ‘no talent’); and made himself a stalwart of the censorious Christian movement the National Festival of Light alongside the likes of Mary Whitehouse, Lord Longford and Cliff Richard.

 

Farewell, Alien’s dad

 

From www.museumssyndicate.com

 

In 1979 a surprising thing happened.  A movie was released called Alien, which was about an alien, which unlike practically every other alien that’d appeared in a movie until then really looked alien.

 

Pre-1979 science fiction cinema had served up some memorable beasties, of course, including the scaly clawed man-fish in The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and the bulging-brained mutant in This Island Earth (1955), but watching them even as a child, I could never quite escape the suspicion that if you inspected these creature’s spines you’d discover a zipper; and if you pulled down that zipper, their exterior – a monster suit – would drop away and reveal inside a Hollywood stuntman.

 

The thing in Alien didn’t give that impression because it was so nightmarishly bizarre.  Its body was a ribbed and ridged structure that seemingly combined a dinosaur skeleton with a samurai warrior’s armour.  Its tail tapered to a swishing lash and its veins pulsed with yellow acidic blood.  Its head was a truly grotesque item, long, phallic and eyeless, and endowed with a succession of mantrap-like fangs on the ends of a succession of tongues that emerged, Russian doll-style, out of one another.  And it drooled slime.  Its design was created by Swiss surrealist artist H.R. Giger – who, unfortunately, died three days ago after falling down some stairs at his home in Zurich.

 

Dan O’Bannon, who’d penned the original script for Alien, was a fan of Giger’s artwork.  With its disturbing organic / mechanical imagery, it seemed to fuse the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch and Francis Bacon with the spirit of H.P. Lovecraft, but in a science-fictional way that made it seem prescient of what was approaching as humanity became evermore reliant on, addicted to and integrated with technology.  O’Bannon showed some of Giger’s work to the project’s director, Ridley Scott.  A figure in one of Giger’s designs, Necronom IV, caught Scott’s eye and during the film’s production it evolved into the alien that we’re familiar with today.

 

In fact, we’re rather too familiar with that alien today.  It’s become an enduring part of popular culture, featured in numerous spin-offs – not just in the film sequels, whose quality gradually decreased and eventually saw poor old Giger’s alien having pro-wrestling-like scraps with the creatures from the Predator movies, but also in graphic novels, computer games and other media in the wider Alien franchise.  Its appearance has also been copied and mocked in countless rip-offs and parodies.  And while the alien was cheapened by over-exposure, Giger himself was never able to make the same impact again.  It must have been galling for him to find himself working on the design for the 1995 movie Species, which was clearly an an inferior cash-in on the film he’d contributed so much to a decade-and-a-half earlier.  Mind you, it got even worse — a year later, he worked on something called Killer Condom.

 

As well as designing movies, he produced artwork for rock musicians.  He was responsible for the Penis Landscape poster that was given out with the Dead Kennedys’ Frankenchrist LP in 1986.  The poster was an arresting one – literally so, because it resulted in the Dead Kennedys’ frontman, Jello Biafra, being brought to court accused of corrupting minors.  Prior to that, in 1981, he’d also painted the cover of Koo Koo, a solo album by Debbie Harry, which showed Ms Harry’s face being pierced by four long horizontal skewers.  Two years later, she starred in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, a film that – with its images of human flesh mutating to incorporate video and military technology – is much informed by Giger’s aesthetics.

 

(c) Chrysalis 

 

In the 1949 film classic The Third Man, Orson Welles famously observes: “in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance.  In Switzerland, they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace.  And what did that produce?  The cuckoo clock.”  Well, those 500 years of Swiss democracy and peace managed to produce H.R. Giger too.  Alas, the next logical Swiss invention – a cuckoo clock that on the hour opened its doors and released, not a cuckoo, but a phallic skeletal creature snarling with a series of fanged mouths and and spurting slime and acidic blood – never materialised.