Cave of Forgotten Dreams 3D

This is the Werner Herzog documentary about the Chauvet cave paintings in France. It was definitely worth seeing, but mainly, I think, for the incredible paintings themselves, rather than anything Werner Herzog brought to the project.

It is probably the best use of 3D I’ve seen, because although I’ve seen photos of the paintings at Chauvet and Lascaux, the photos tend to flatten out the image; you get very little sense of the highly irregular shape of the cave walls and the way that the paintings are shaped around the contours of the rock. The 3D film really did make all the difference and was very effective.

Which is an unusual view for me, because I basically think that 3D is a rubbish technology. In most circumstances it’s little more than a gimmick, and it seems to be technically rather bad anyway: I find that it looks unnatural and exaggerated, it’s often slightly shimmery or glitchy, it doesn’t work properly if you tilt your head to one side, and it tends to give me a headache. I don’t know if the problem is that I’m wearing prescription glasses under the 3D ones, but that seems to be a lot of downside for very little upside.

Even in this film, I think it would have been better to save the 3D for the places where it really mattered — i.e. looking at the cave paintings. An interview with a paleontologist sitting in an office does NOT need to be in 3D, thank you very much.

And even in the scenes inside the cave, it became clear that some of the film had not been filmed in 3D, but faked up as 3D in post-production. This was particularly egregious in a scene where two scientists were standing in front of a cave painting and talking about it, and something looked very weird; I suddenly realised that when they had faked the 3D, they had cut out the two figures rather carelessly and cut out a big chuck of the surrounding wall as well; so there was a big blob of cave wall which was in completely the wrong visual plane, floating in front of the wall around it.

Such technical gripes aside, the paintings were beautiful and fascinating. And there were all sorts of snippets of fascinating information, like the great scratches on the walls which had been left by cave bears sharpening their claws. Or the two stags painted on top of each other which carbon dating revealed were painted 5000 years apart. I mean, really, 5000 years! What does it mean that there was such staggering cultural continuity?

I was also interested that there was no sign of human habitation in the cave; presumably they used it as a ritual site, or something. It’s all guesswork, of course. There also no humans among the paintings, apart from one image apparently of a woman’s pubic triangle and legs, similar to the famous ‘Venus’ figurines. And no pictures of birds, incidentally; it’s all big game: cave bears, cave lions, horses, antelope, woolly rhino, mammoth, hyena, aurochs.

Of course we have so little of their lives to draw on, so what does survive gains enormous, inflated importance. The paintings are the most vivid connection we have to those people 35,000 years ago, and so we can’t help having them as central to our idea of their lives; but we don’t know whether they were similarly important to the people who painted them. The film did show a few objects found at other sites of the same period that provide a few hints at a broader life; Venus figurines, animal carvings, and most extraordinarily a flute which had been meticulously reconstructed from over 30 tiny fragments of ivory. But mainly we are left with a lot of stone tools and the cave paintings. Anything made of wood, or gut, or hide is long gone, let alone the stories they told, the music they played, the food they cooked.

Harry’s advent calendar of paintings, day 24: El Greco

I have a thoroughly secular approach to Christmas — family, a tree, presents, turkey with all the trimmings, booze, the Doctor Who Christmas special — but still, the obvious choice for the last painting in my calendar is some kind of nativity scene. And for me, there was only ever going to be one choice. So here’s The Adoration of the Shepherds by El Greco:

Now THAT is what I call a painting. I feel proud to be part of a species that can make something like that. I was absolutely blown away by the El Greco exhibition at the National Gallery a few years ago; I’d seen a few of his paintings, but his work wasn’t really part of my mental furniture. But to see it all together, and especially the big religious paintings like this one: I just think he is the most extraordinary painter, amongst the very greatest.

It seems so modern, so fresh, that it’s hard to believe it was painted in 1614, with those distorted figures and dramatic colours. Although actually I think to call it ‘modern’ is to claim too much for our own time, to suggest that we have progressed so much that modern painters produce work like this all the time. No, this work would be extraordinary at any time. It’s just even more amazing that it was painted when it was, at a time which was perhaps less prepared for these kind of stylised images.

Happy Christmas everyone, however you celebrate it.

Harry’s advent calendar of paintings, day 23: Goya

This is The Straw Manikin, by Goya. It’s actually a cartoon for a tapestry, according to the blurb at the Prado.

It’s a great image: fun, surprising, silly and a little bit creepy. I suppose that creepiness might be my masculine response to the fact that it’s ‘a clear allegory of women’s domination of men’. Or it might be that the slightly contorted, limp figure with the fixed smile and blank eyes is firmly in Uncanny Valley territory.

Harry’s advent calendar of paintings, day 22: Ofili

Contemporary art is incredibly obsessed with ideas, and with the idea of ideas — when you read the exhibition blurb, it’s always full of stuff about the conceptual background to the work, and the ideas the work is supposed to provoke in the viewer.

I don’t have a principled objection to art based on ideas — a lot of it is crap, that’s Sturgeon’s Law for you — but it’s slightly odd, really, that it has become such an apparently essential element of art. Art is fundamentally tied to the physical reality of made objects*, and to suggest that those tangible objects are not enough to justify themselves, that they need to be dressed up in abstract ideas, almost seems to show a lack of confidence. As well as sometimes having a whiff of Emperor’s new clothes about it.

Chris Ofili can certainly do ideas with the best of them — his work engages in various interesting ways with blackness, Africa, religion, the canon and so on — but those ideas are expressed via exciting, beautiful objects. They have colour and texture, they are attractive at a distance but have fascinating fine details that draw the eye. Big paintings, leaning on the wall supported by varnished lumps of elephant dung, the way they are displayed emphasises their physical presence.

To quote the Tate:

No Woman, No Cry is a tribute to the London teenager Stephen Lawrence. The Metropolitan police investigation into his racially motivated murder was mishandled, and a subsequent inquiry described the police force as institutionally racist. In each of the tears shed by the woman in the painting is a collaged image of Stephen Lawrence’s face, while the words ‘R.I.P. Stephen Lawrence’ are just discernible beneath the layers of paint.

But it doesn’t need that context to work: in 200 years time, when the name of Stephen Lawrence is a historical footnote, it will still be a beautiful painting.

* yeah, I know, it’s more complicated than that.

Harry’s advent calendar of paintings, day 21: Lear

Despite being a birdwatcher, I’m not actually a huge fan of bird paintings. Or at least not a certain kind of bird paintings done by the certain kind of wildlife artist. Ducks huddling against the cold in the dawn light, that sort of thing.

They tend to be a bit chocolate-boxy, or a bit over-precise… whatever it is, they usually leave me unmoved. The artist’s passion for birds somehow doesn’t make for great art.

The works I’m more drawn to are those which were not intended to be hung on a wall, but to go in a scientific monograph, or a field guide. What you might call bird illustration, rather than bird art; paintings done primarily with an analytical rather than an aesthetic eye. I find them more compelling than those bird paintings which try harder to be Art.

That tradition includes Thomas Bewick, Audubon, John Gould, and today’s artist, Edward Lear. And yes, it is the same man who wrote The Owl and the Pussycat and The Dong with the Luminous Nose. His eyesight deteriorated early and forced a change of carer, but as a young man he was a very fine natural history illustrator.

I picked this picture, a study of a Scarlet Macaw, partially because it is rather lovely, with the bird peering over its shoulder among the blobs of paint. But mainly, I have to admit, because most of the works by Lear on the internet are actually lithographs, and I am too much of a pedant at heart to post a lithograph to a series calling itself an ‘advent calendar of paintings’. You can see the finished print here, if you’re curious.

This is one of the lithographs, of a Pale-headed Parakeet.

Harry’s advent calendar of paintings, day 19: Carrà

This is The Funeral of the Anarchist Galli by Carlo Carrà. To quote Wikipedia:

The subject of the work is the funeral of Italian anarchist Angelo Galli, killed by police during a general strike in 1904. The Italian State feared that the funeral would become a de facto political demonstration and refused the mourning anarchists entrance into the cemetery itself. When anarchists resisted, the police responded with force and a violent scuffle ensued.

I saw it in the Tate’s Futurism exhibition last year, and thought it was pretty striking, but looking at it now I find myself strongly reminded of a lot of images I have seen in the news recently: that angry claustrophobic mass of figures, the horses, the batons.

Over the past few weeks we’ve had violent confrontations between protestors and police on the streets of London, we’ve had protestors closing down high street shops in protest against tax-avoidance by big business, we’ve even had Mrs Prince Charles poked with a stick by a group of people chanting ‘off with their heads.’

And we’ve even had the word ‘anarchist’ being thrown around, a word which seems as dated as Futurism itself. I don’t know how many of those who have been on the news smashing windows and setting fire to things would say they were anarchists, and I don’t know what they mean by it. But then perhaps anarchism has always been a mood as much as a political ideology. And yes, I know, political theorists have devised versions of anarchism which are more sophisticated than the caricature; but still, that wish to break down the overarching structure of society is a remarkable thing. You have to think that the world is very broken indeed to believe that throwing all the pieces up in the air is likely to make it better.

But then whether many people in the UK are ‘real’ anarchists is hardly the point; what matters is that a lot of people are angry. And not just in Britain. Are there enough of them, are they angry enough, to have a powerful impact? And for better or worse? These are interesting times.

Harry’s advent calendar of paintings, day 18: Bosch

I’m feeling ill today — perhaps I managed to poison myself with homemade chicken soup — so I thought perhaps I’d see if could find a painting with a medical theme. So here’s a cracker by Hieronymus Bosch, known as The Extraction of the Stone of Madness or The Cure of Folly.

All that amazing Gothic writing apparently says

Meester snijt die keye ras
Mijne name Is lubbert das

Which apparently means ‘Master, cut away the stone / my name is Lubbert Das’, Lubbert Das being the name for a fool in Dutch literature.*

It is presumably allegorical of something, but The Prado and Wikipedia disagree about what it means. I don’t think I care, though. It’s a striking image, and that gold calligraphy is just astonishing.

This name is sometimes translated as: ‘Castrated Badger’.

Harry’s advent calendar of paintings, day 17: Velázquez

There are some great self portraits in the canon — Dürer, El Greco, Van Gogh, Van Eyck, all those Rembrandts — but I’m not sure any of them is as fabulous as this one by Diego Velázquez:

It’s like the world’s greatest publicity photo.

Harry’s advent calendar of paintings, day 16: Poussin

I think it’s interesting how much particular styles and periods can go in and out of fashion. The fact that whole artistic movements can gain and lose popularity for no simple reason serves as a valuable warning if you ever start thinking that your taste is in any way objective or reliable.

Nicolas Poussin is a painter of high neo-classicism; a genre which is about as unfashionable as it is possible to be.

Some of the reasons why a painter like Poussin is unfashionable are clear enough: for example, people are much less familiar with all the Greek and Roman references. Others are easy to articulate but less easy to explain: I think it’s a fair generalisation that history paintings, and narrative paintings more generally, are unpopular today. But it’s not transparently obvious why that should be true.

This painting, A Dance to the Music of Time, is more approachable than many of his works; compared, for example, to The Rape of the Sabine Women. It’s more intimate in scale, and it’s sort of allegorical or symbolic rather than properly narrative. Both of those things make it seem less stagey. Still, it’s not the kind of painting that would pull a lot of punters through the doors of a London gallery in 2010.

But fashions change. Maybe in twenty years time, Poussin will be THE hot ticket, and Van Gogh will be regarded as terribly old fashioned and déclassé.

Fashion aside, there is one thing about this painting which makes it remarkable: the whole surface is covered in thumbprints. When the paint was still wet, Poussin covered the surface of the painting with the imprint of his own thumb. Why did he leave his mark on it in this way? No one knows.

Harry’s advent calendar of paintings, day 15: Nolan

2AM tonight is the start of the third Ashes test, with England one-nil up in the series and with the opportunity to ruthlessly grind Australia into the dust in the same way the Aussies have done so many times to us over the past 30 years.

So it seems fitting to pick an Australian painting; this is The Trial, from Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly series. Ned Kelly was the Australian outlaw and folk hero, famous for his home-made suit of armour.

Part of his folk hero status comes from the fact that he was, according to one interpretation, rebelling against the oppressive British colonial power. Which brings us back to the cricket, since the particular best-of-enemies edge that surrounds the Ashes is partly because of the frisson that comes with a match against the former colonial power.

The Ashes got their name in 1882 when Australia beat England in England for the first time, and the Sporting Times printed a mock obituary announcing the sad death of English cricket: ‘the body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia’. Which is, incidentally, just two years after the execution of Ned Kelly.

Going back to the actual painting: I was interested to read that Nolan was very influenced by Henri Rousseau. Because I reckon that Rousseau actually wanted to be a proper painter in the classical academy tradition, but having taught himself to paint in his spare time as an adult, he just wasn’t technically capable of that style of painting. The paintings he did produce are beautiful — he had a great eye for design and colour — but they are in a naive style because that was all he could do. Which is something rather different from the self-consciously naive style of a painter like Nolan.

Anyway, there are a lot more paintings by Nolan (and indeed other Australian artists) on the National Gallery of Australia website, if you’re interested.

Harry’s advent calendar of paintings, day 14: Matisse

I was looking over the paintings I’ve posted so far, and it’s weirdly unrepresentative of my personal taste. I mean: Aelbert Cuyp, Jacob Jordaens, Jenny Saville, Lubin Baugin… these are fine artists but not exactly my particular favourites.

So here’s a particular painting that made a personal impression on me. The Piano Lesson, by Henri Matisse:

It’s a big painting, 8′ by 7′. It normally lives in MoMA, in New York. I’m not quite sure, but I think I must have seen it when the Matisse Picasso exhibition came to Tate Modern. It has stayed with me ever since, though it’s hard to articulate why. It’s something to do with the collision of modernism and formality, perhaps.

One reason I haven’t posted more of my personal favourites so far might be because I’m slightly protective of them; a little 500 pixel version is never going to be the same, and I want to do the paintings justice.

Is it weird that I worry about doing the paintings justice, rather than the artists?

Harry’s advent calendar of paintings, day 13: Baugin

I thought it was about time for a still life. This is Le dessert de gaufrettes by Lubin Baugin, from about 1630. ‘Gaufrettes’ are wafers, in this case ones which have been rolled up like brandy snaps or cannoli. I must say they look a little bit dry like that, but with a few mouthfuls of dessert wine to ease them down, I expect they’re delicious.

I like still lifes; there’s a kind of conceptual purity to them. By which I mean: if the challenge is to make a painting which engages the viewer’s attention, then anything with an actual human in it is pushing against an open door. People are so naturally drawn to faces that they see them everywhere.

But to stick a carafe of water, a couple of books and a pile of fruit on a table, and to make it into something beautiful and precious, something that people want to linger over in a way they would never linger over a real bowl of fruit: that’s magic.

Harry’s advent calendar of paintings, day 12: Renoir

Has there ever been a supposedly great painter who produced as many awful paintings as Renoir? I mean, look at this:

It’s not just the fact that it is, in the least subtle way possible, a painting of a pair of boobs which happen to have a girl attached to them. Or that her arms and hands appear to be suffering from a complete lack of skeletal structure. Or that every one of Renoir’s jeunes filles have interchangeable gormless faces. No, what is most annoying about this painting is that it was painted by the same man who, On a good day, when he was really trying, was capable of occasionally producing paintings like this:

I don’t think it’s a surprise that when I find a painting of his I like, it’s when he’s being least Renoir-y. Although some of his more typical paintings are also rather magical:

Anyway, that seems to be three paintings, which is probably cheating. Better stop before I accidentally post any more.

Harry’s advent calendar of paintings, day 11: Unknown

Yesterday I featured a picture by a great painter of cows. To be fair, Aelbert Cuyp had many other notable qualities, including being a fine painter of skies and light… but one way or another an awful lot of his paintings have cows in. Maybe there were just a lot of cows in C17th Holland; if your country is flooded half the year, grass is a pretty good crop to focus on.

Anyway, here’s another great painting of a cow. But this is a wild cow, the ancestor of domestic cattle: the aurochs. The aurochs actually survived all the way to the seventeenth century before we wiped it out. But this is much older than that.

We don’t know who painted it, of course. Or why, although no doubt there are plenty of theories. What we do know is that fifteen thousand years before the birth of Christ, some people were living down inside a very dark cave in what is now the middle of France, and that on the walls, they painted the wild animals that lived around them: aurochs, horses and stags, especially.

They are beautiful images, I think, but what’s really amazing is their age, and what it says about the deep history of humanity. Before the Egyptians, before the Sumerians, before Çatalhöyük, there had already been hundreds of generations of our ancestors who were at least human enough to produce art. And Lascaux isn’t even the oldest cave art we’ve discovered; the art at Chauvet is another thirteen to fifteen thousand years older. In other words, there is nearly as much time between Chauvet and Lascaux as between Lascaux and us. Recorded history is just a pinprick in comparison.

You can see more of the paintings at the Lascaux website.

Harry’s advent calendar of paintings, day 9: Saville

Whoops, nearly forgot to post one for today. So here’s Plan, by Jenny Saville:

It’s another one where the size is relevant — it’s actually 9 feet tall and 7 wide. So it’s a big painting; it changes it from an intimate perspective into something more monumental.

I’ve always found the subject of size in art kind of fascinating, incidentally: not just big paintings versus small ones but the difference between reading a 900 page novel and a 200 page one, or a poem of 14 lines versus one of 400.

Although the comparison between literature and the visual arts doesn’t quite hold up, because you can’t just keep a novel the same but make it twice as long; whereas you could scale a painting or a sculpture. How different would Vermeer’s paintings seem if they were three times the size? Or if Michelangelo had made David life size instead of 17 feet tall?

Indeed we frequently do see works of art in the wrong size, because we often see them in photographs, and it’s not an unusual reaction, I find, to see the real things for the first time and be surprised by their size — like Gauguin, whose paintings were surprisingly small.

Harry’s advent calendar of paintings, day 8: van der Weyden

Today’s painter is Rogier van der Weyden. This is, perhaps self-evidently, The Annunciation:

I have a real thing for the painters of the Northern Renaissance: Jan Van Eyck, Memling, Dürer, Holbein, Bruegel, Bosch, Cranach. In fact, I love medieval and renaissance art generally, and that certainly includes the Italians, but for some reason I have special soft spot for the northerners.

It’s appealing to think that there’s some kind of specifically northern European aesthetic, some kind of cultural continuity that stretches over five centuries to form a link between me and them… but that’s the kind of explanation that would annoy me if someone else came up with it. Apart from the fact that it’s too hand-wavy to actually explain anything, it doesn’t match the facts; there’s plenty of art and literature from southern Europe that I love, and plenty of northern stuff that bores me silly.

I guess it has something to do with the fact that the medieval influence lingered longer in the north; the paintings are gloriously well-painted and lavish, but they are still in a more constrained, stylised world. Something about that stiff intricacy appeals to me.

Here’s a detail from the same painting:

Harry’s advent calendar of paintings, day 6: Ingres

Ah, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, what a lot of names he had. And what a fabulous painter he was. Not in a style which is particularly fashionable these days; Neoclassical history paintings and portraits aren’t the sort of thing that would usually draw huge crowds to a London gallery.

But Ingres is brilliant enough and, I think, just odd enough to transcend fashion. He manages to make his subjects look simultaneously seductive and a bit creepy. If this woman (Joséphine-Éléonore-Marie-Pauline de Galard de Brassac de Béarn, princesse de Broglie) turned up in an episode of Doctor Who, you would just know she wasn’t really human. Some kind of hyper-intelligent intergalactic praying mantis disguising herself via a morphobioenergy field, by the looks of her.

Harry’s advent calendar of paintings, day 5: Jordaens

I saw this one at the Royal Academy’s exhibition Treasures from Budapest (it normally lives in the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest). The Fall of Man by Jacob Jordaens:

I was really struck by frailty and fleshiness of the figures. Given the C17th taste for larger women, it’s not surprising that Eve doesn’t look like something from Cranach. But Adam looks positively middle-aged. In fact, even though he’s still reaching towards the apple, he looks fallen. And I think it makes for a surprisingly touching image.

Harry’s advent calendar of paintings, day 4: Ernst

In theory, the coming of abstraction opened up a world of infinite possibilities. In practice, I guess inevitably, an awful lot of artists ended up producing a lot of very samey paintings. The zeitgeist traps us all. Max Ernst is one of those who stands out; I can’t imagine any of his contemporaries producing something like this:

That’s Petrified Forest, from 1927, which is in the National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo (where you can see a slightly larger version). Those textural effects were produced by what he called grattage, which is like taking a rubbing with a crayon, but you do it with paint on a palette brush. It’s one of a whole sequence of forests with suns, which in turn are one of several sets of landscapes he painted, along with the jungle paintings and those like Europe after the Rain produced using another unusual technique, decalcomania.

I love the way that they are recognisably ‘landscapes’ despite the fact that, well, they’re not. And they have a great atmosphere to them. Gloomy and introverted.

Harry’s advent calendar of paintings, day 3: Rembrandt

I went to the London Wetland Centre for a spot of birding today, in the hope that the very cold weather might have conjured up something a bit special… which it hadn’t particularly. But some nice things: snipe, chiffchaff, skylark. Lots of ducks: a pintail, which is a bit unusual, but also wigeon, shoveler, teal, pochard and so on. And fuck me, did it look cold, swimming around on the mostly ice-covered lake. You can see why ducks need that thick layer of delicious fat.

Bird of the day, though, was bittern. Not quite as good a view as last time I went there in the snow, in February, when there were six or seven bitterns on site and I had unbelievably good views of them, but pretty pleasing nonetheless.

So here’s the painting, Rembrandt’s Hunter with Dead Bittern.

The ‘hunter’ is of course Rembrandt. The sheer number of self-portraits he painted is extraordinary. Some very straight, others in various moods and poses: as a hunter, as a soldier, in oriental robes.

You might think he was vain except that his self-portraits seem rather less self-aggrandising than those of some other artists. If he just wanted to flatter himself, he could have picked an image — society gentleman, rakish bohemian — and stuck to it. Instead he seems to be doing something more playful and more interesting. Or maybe he just liked working alone.

And while of course I don’t endorse the hunting of bitterns, which have suffered badly because of habitat loss, this picture does have me wondering what they taste like… I guess they might be slightly fishy?