Art Deco

This time, a trip to the V&A Museum for its Art Deco exhibition. My impression was that the exhibition set itself a difficult task, covering art nouveau from modernist art and design in Europe to the Jazz age and post great depression shading into mass market and industrial design, with the distinctions of art and design becoming somewhat blurred. In addition, my own feelings regarding Art Deco are somewhat ambivalent, my preference always having been for Art Nouveau or Arts & Crafts, but most of exhibition does impress nonetheless through sheer grandiosity (the consequence is that this piece has a certain tendency to run to inventory, selecting pieces I particularly liked). It’s an ambivalence that matched the age itself; on the one hand, Auden derived inspiration from factories rather than nature, while DH Lawrence detested the dehumanisation of the machine age. The work that most epitomises this is Lang’s Metropolis, where the art deco design of the city (based on New York) is the showpiece of the film, but the theme is the dehumanisation that accompanies the machine age; in spite of this it is a film concerned with masses not individuals. Accordingly, the design of the film itself reflects some of the tension between communist and christian themes within the film (not unlike Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, where god is seen as subduing the workers, in spite of the sailor’s revolt being concerned with getting their daily bread. Ironically, Eisenstein’s portrayal of frenzied mobs is arguably less communistic than that of Lang). In the exhibition, Depero’s cubist paintings of Manhattan, a city he detested, reflect this ambiguity.

As is common for the V&A, the exhibition commenced by establishing the non-ethnocentric basis of the movement; Egyptian (bringing to my mind the dance of the false Maria in Metropolis), Greek, Mayan, Japanese and African influences (reviled by DH Lawrence in Women in Love), as well as the influence of cubism; Blue faience scarabs replicated by Cartier, Jade necklaces from Boucheron, African chairs from Dunand and Legrain. However, the centre of the exhibition is the pieces from the 1925 Paris exhibition. In the case of the former, Swedish engraved glass by Orrefors (a wonderful Lalique glass lamp also being on display), a Czech vitrine by Gocar (which oddly reminded me of the design in Das Cabinet Des Dr Caligari) a British writing desk gilded with white gold by Maufe, Ruhlmann lacquered cabinets and paintings from artists like Dupas and de Lempicka.It must be said that the best aspect of this was the photographs of the various pavillions from the exhibition, almost all of which represented unique works of architecture (For instance, a lalique glass fountain). The 1931 Colonial exhibition is also rather striking; Dunand vases and a pirogue day bed from Ireland. A disturbing aspect of this is a film of Josephine Baker dancing with her banana skirts; her vivaciousness shines through, but the film has some rather disturbing racist aspects nonetheless; the idea of the exotic could clearly be as dehumanising as the industrial influence.

Later, the exhibition had the entire foyer of the Strand Hotel; all backlit frosted glass, before finishing with international aspects of art-deco; a silver four poster bed from India, American architecture and the wrought iron gates to the Chanin building. However, this was probably the lest interesting part of the exhbition; attempts to rehabilitate bakelite are deservedly doomed to fail. Overall, an interesting experience, and it was rather nice to discover some work by someone who had worked on the Tuschinski theatre (which I had stumbled over in Amsterdam), and recognising some pieces from the Brohan Museum in Berlin.

Another entertaining event was a film evening comprised of FW Murnau’s Nosferatu and Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire. The former is relatively faithful to the novel of Dracula save for the lynching of Renfield and the shift from Van Helsing as protagonist to Mina (and the opposite role assigned to her than in either Stoker’s novel of Fisher’s later film), but it is the film’s imagery that makes it stand out; the Venus fly trap, the shadow on the walls, the grave strewn beach and so on. Otherwise, the film revels in melodrama (it is a quite simple film, unlike say Das Cabinet Des Dr Caligari with its unreliable narrator), something that Shadow of the Vampire humorously picks up on in what is otherwise a reverent homage. I’ve also watched Herzog’s eerie version of Nosferatu, which plays with replicating much of the original film in order to create greater dissonance as the departure from it grows greater towards the conclusion, bringing out the plague metaphor and enlightenment/superstition themes to a greater extent than Murnau. Instead of the wonderful imagery in Murnau, Herzog prefers understated scenes that are more naturalistic for central Europe, but interrupts them with grotesqueries and the surreal; the skeleton reaper clock, for example. However, given the apparently infinite variety of the Dracula myth, one thing I do find odd is that no-one has seen the Count as a tyrant, of the kind that Vlad the Impaler surely was.

As can be seen from above, black and white films interest me greatly, and I’ve just had an opportunity to see a striking example. In terms of content, Un Chant d’Amour occupies ground that should be familiar from Miracle of the Rose; the same sexual dissidence regarding working class figures (i.e. prisoners here or sailors in Querelle of Brest) and the emasculation of authority figures like Seblon and the Warder here (though some of the pastoral imagery seems rather odd for Genet). What is perhaps more interesting is in terms of style, which has an oddly ritualistic quality to it. Edmund White, for example, argued that Genet’s style had always been inherently cinematic;

"A close look at the composition of his novels reveals that he was profoundly influenced by the cinematic techniques of collage, flashback and close-up. Just as Un Chant d’Amour intercuts the warder’s sexual fantasies with realistic scenes of the prisoners in their cells … each of the five novels juxtaposes two or three separate plots. … Close-ups of gestures are also essential to Genet’s conception of the novel, since in his ontology accidents determine fate, gestures form character and costume triggers events. A Genet film script states: "In effect the cinema is basically immodest. Let us use this faculty to enlarge gestures."

The same symbolism is transferred from the novels to the film. For instance, in The Thief’s Journal "there is a close relationship between flowers and convicts. The fragility and delicacy of the former are of the same nature as the brutality and insensitivity of the former." As such, the surrealist flower imagery intermittently erupts into what is otherwise a grimly realistic piece (as such, more like Orphee than Un Chien Andalou); somewhat ironic given that the only film of one of Genet’s novels, Fassbinder’s Querelle, was drenched with fantasy and artifice.

Driving later that weekend I passed by a building site in the country. The walls had not been finished and were made of concrete breeze blocks, but the roof was complete and made of thatch. An odd combination certainly but one that is quite in keeping with the British habit of inventing tradition (e.g. morris dancing).

In terms of literary pursuits, My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk was a surprisingly interesting read. The obvious comparison of the plot is to The Name of the Rose (both being philosophical novels based on ideas hidden within libraries undermining religious conceptions); in the latter the detective plot hinges on the effects of Aristotle’s treatise on comedy on christianity, in the former, the plot hinges on the effect of Venetian naturalistic painting on Ottoman religious norms; whereas the occidental concentrates on individual style and drawn from life through viewpoint, the oriental being devoid of perspective and drawn from a single conception in imagination; "events I’d once endured briskly and sequentially, were now spread over infinite space and existed simultaneously." Accordingly, to mix the styles is seen as a blasphemy; "attempting to depict the world that god perceives, not the world that they see."

The difference between this and Eco lies in the way this theme permeates the book’s structure, told by multiple narrators allowing for a number of polyphonic viewpoints, which are not resolved into a single unity. As such, the subjectivity of perception (literal as well as metaphorical blindness for many of the characters) opposed to divine omniscience is a key theme; "the blind and the seeing are not equal;" ideal for a detective novel where perception of events is all. To some extent, these themes leads into a postmodern narrative, exposing the limitations of the narrator; "for the sake of a delightful and convincing story, there isn’t a lie Orhan wouldn’t deign to tell" (Orhan also being one of the character’s names) or "my dear storyteller Effendi, you might be able to imitate anyone or anything, but never a woman." Conversely, the novel also seek to depict events "as from above" in the oriental style, with each viewpoint contributing a part short of the whole and leaving a intractable core of "mystery," excepting the references to red, "an omnipresent red within which all the images of the universe played," which runs like a braid through the novel. Another read was Dali’s Diary of a Genius, which, combining spirituality, scatology and a desire to invert metaphysical categories (the Surrealist as Catholic not Marxist, the artist as extroverted and wealthy rather than introverted and impecunious) makes it a carnivalesque text in the sense proposed by Mikhail Bakhtin. The same applies to Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, where the devil is portrayed as a mischievous trickster, where "what would the earth look like if all the shadows disappeared from it…would you like to denude it.. in order to satisfy your fantasy of rejoicing in the naked light?"

Elsewhere, I’ve read Bertrand Russell’s Why I am not a Christian and Umberto Eco’s Travels in Hyperreality. In the case of the former, I was left struck by some apparent anomalies. Firstly, Russell describes one of the defects of religion as being its individualism, contrasting Christ unfavourably with Plato and arguing that modern society requires a more social conception of welfare (a perhaps rather more uncertain concept now). However, in contrasting Catholic and Protestant sceptics, Russell notes that "the Protestant conception of goodness is something individual and isolated," a tradition he locates himself within, whereas the Catholic notion of submission rather than sola fide is more inherently social. Elsewhere, he suggests that as societies progress the need for collective co-operation decreases (as the state acquires many functions handled by such civic bodies as churches) and individualism increases, thereby reducing communal taboos. As such, this tension between the individual and society leads on to another tension; between rationality and prejudice.

At one point, Russell makes a rather curious statement; "this active malevolence is the worst aspect of human nature, and the one which it is most necessary to change if the world is to grow happier." The idea of a constant nature is conjoined with a more fluid conception. Elsewhere, Russell writes of "primitive impulses" of fear that perpetuate religions, and condemning religion for seeking to arrest natural impulses and only succeeding in retarding them. But these primitive impulses can apparently be wiped from the tabula rasa; "educational reforms must be the basis, since men who feel hate and fear will also admire these emotions and wish to perpetuate them." Education becomes critical for Russell, noting, after Skinner, that "the scientific psychologist, if allowed a free run with children, can manipulate human nature as freely as Californians manipulate the desert." On the one hand, "ecclesiastics co-operate in education, because all depend for their power upon the prevalence of emotionalism.. intensifying and increasing the propensities of the average man."

The results of this tension of nature and nurture are somewhat equally uncertain. Russell suggests (presumably thinking of Skinner where we would think of Pinker) that "Nature, even human nature, will cease more and more to be an absolute datum.. it will become what scientific manipulation has made it." The result of this, he suggests is that we will acquire the same domination over our passions (note the Hobbesian term) as we have over the external world. The difficulty begins when Russell observed that in Russia alone "the state is not in the grip of moral and religious prejudices," taking the view that the state will play a greater role in family life and in so doing decrease inherited prejudices. Russell certainly notes that this could equally be used to the opposite end and was vociferous in criticising the Soviet Union at a later date, but the tensions between liberty and rationality remain unresolved.

In the case of Eco, it is difficult to offer any interpretation of a book of interpretations. That said, one interesting point lies in an essay contrasting two writers "they cite the same events, one seeing them as symbols, the other as symptoms." But the arbitrary correlation of sign and signifier also applies to Eco himself. In the title essay, Eco speaks of "Where the American imagination demands the real thing, and, to attain it must fabricate the absolute fake; where the boundaries between game and illusion are blurred." Eco clearly dislikes this imbrication, this illusion of the real, in contrast to a European notion of authenticity, but remains ambivalent. The gaudy Hearst Mansion is condemned, but speaking of the Getty Museum; "after the first reaction of mockery or puzzlement, raise a question; Who is right?" Later, the established dichotomy continues to denature; "we must in fairness employ this American reality as a critical reagent for a critical examination of conscience regarding European taste… this is not to absolve the shrines of the fake, but to call the European sanctuaries of the genuine to assume their share of guilt." Finally, Eco is clearly revolted by wildlife preserves underpinned by nature, but admits; "it would be secondhand Frankfurt school moralism to prolong the criticism" and admits the educational value, providing a form of criticism that deconstructs itself.