Tuesday, November 14, 2017

How Orwellian : Africa's Great Civilizations on art and civilization

mask of the Ooni note the holes around the mouth and hairline to attach a beard and wig. Also note the odd crease lines on the neck.

PBS's Africa's Great Civilizations clip from episode 3 (about minute 43) :

Henry Louis Gates (host) : This astonishing sculpture is the mask of the Ooni. Obalufon the Second, monarch of one of the most important kingdoms in all of west Africa in the middle ages, the Kingdom of Ife. This is one of 40 or so brass copper sculptures executed with dazzling naturalism under the king's patronage. 
woman : They are technically among the most truly remarkable works of art created anyplace in the world. These are striking heads that are quite naturalistic but they're also this idealized naturalism so that none of the warts and wrinkles of the face is shown. If you look at them there is almost this serenity and calmness in them and give a sense of timelessness which are really, really beautiful.

Henry Louis Gates (host) : While European artists were still grappling with perspective and often struggling with the human form these African artists were making magnificent lifelike sculptures. It's not just the technical achievement of the sculptures its also their sheer artistry...

What he says in bold, taken separately, are true. But when put together he is drawing a comparison between the two and making an equivocation of 2 different things. Drawing and sculpture are 2 distinct mediums.  Being in the round, an object in 3d can be measured from any direction and compared to the model. They can even be put side by side and compare the profiles. Or a pantograph could be used. Or molds taken.

In contrast with drawing a slight shift in position changes the perspective. Even with a camera obscura or a grid window while they could help even a small change in the position of the artist would distort the image.  Even with photography it can take some skill to copy an image well and make an image that doesn't look copied from a photograph.

Let us compare a sculpture from a European artist of the same time period and see how it compares to the Ife artist:
Head of an Angel circa 1250, Paris, France

The sculpture above was carved from a piece of limestone.  I wouldn't call this is struggling with the human form (assuming the nose was broken off and not forgotten by the sculptor). It is remarkably lifelike and quite subtle. I'm not going to try to puff this up by disparaging the African artist because I think the Ife head is well done.

St Donatus, Meissen Cathedral south wall of choir, Meissen, Saxony, Germany circa 1255-1260
Above is another example, this time a full figure, that I don't think is struggling with the human form (this one has a nose).

Would he have described African drawing as "grappling with perspective and often struggling with the human form while these European artists were making magnificent lifelike sculptures"? The series had several cringeworthy moments where the host takes on the role of cheerleader.


The Great Zimbabwe, mortarless stone walls as high as 36 feet (11m), seen from above

PBS's Africa's Great Civilizations clip from episode 4 (about minute 25) :

Associate ProfessorEdmund Akaba, University of Miami : It tells us that Africans were building cities in the 13th century and 14th century and 15th century contrary to this notion that Africa is, to some people, it's a place where there are animals and you have a couple of villages. But it shows that there was substantial technological and architectural development and that all these exploits were the work of Africans. 
Matenga : There is the debate about what is a civilization. Civilization has been rather sort of wrongly defined as the ability to write, leave text. I believe, in its own way, this place is a text.
Henry Louis Gates (host) : It is a text. (his voice rising)
Matenga : It is a text because a text is about communicating messages.
Henry Louis Gates (host) : mm-hmm
Matenga : So, this is a medium through which you can communicate messages.
Henry Louis Gates (host) : This is a sublime manifestation of the human spirit.
Matenga : Absolutely.

I agree that defining civilization as the ability to write is a wrong definition. Although I am unclear as to why he calls it a wrong definition and then wants to use that definition.

I always thought Civilization is the ability to build a city - to be able to sustain a place with a general civilness beyond kith & kin and beyond a population size where people can all know each other.

Congratulations! Africans built cities. He mentions other African cities and one had 15,000 people and another 20,000. For some reason, unlike the comparison with European artists above, he didn't draw a comparison to the progress of other places at the same time : Paris, France had a population of over 200,000 in 1300. Venice over 100,000, Beijing, China 400,000

"I believe, in its own way, this place is a text."

WTF. and then the host responds "It is a text." WTF.  Just WTF.  So a dog peeing on a tree is sending a message. In it's own way, urine is a text. I look forward to his next documentary series : "Great Civilizations of Dogs"

Writing is about knowledge. Being able to pass on the knowledge of thousands and thousands of people over thousands of years helps to build and keep a civilization.  A written language is not a prerequisite to civilization but I would suggest it is close. I would even suggest that it probably is a prerequisite for a modern civilization. Did a lack of written language prevent societies from expanding and sustaining? I suspect so.

movie notes : Queen Margot (1994)

I don't think a scene of these two wrapped in a red blanket was actually in the theatrical release of the movie

Queen Margot (1994) is a French historical movie and I highly recommend it.

It is a 1994 movie based on the 1845 Alexander Dumas novel which in turn is based on French history from 1572. I don't particularly trust anything that is "based on a true story" so I'm a little uneasy about the historical veracity of a movie based on the novelization of history written 273 years after the events took place and the movie is close to half a millennium (422 years) away from the actual events

For much of the movie I had no idea what was going on in context of French history. Fortunately, it's characters follow human impulses and it wasn't hard to understand what was going on. I'm pretty sure the movie covered all 7 deadly sins (gluttony, lust, greed, hubris, despair, wrath, vainglory, and sloth).

the French movie poster

Isabelle Adjani is a fragile beauty but none the less a beauty and I couldn't keep my eyes off of her. In contrast, Henry III of Navarre is played by Daniel Auteuil an ugly frenchman (not to be cruel but he doesn't have conventional movie star good looks. He did a good job though.). In the poster at the top of the post, they focus on Adjani and her other costar Vincent Perez.  Adjani is full of emotion but unlike her contemporary Juliette Binoche doesn't spend all her time crying (Binoche seemed to have a talent for beautifully weeping).

Margot and Catherine de Medici (Adjani and Virna Lisi who at times is a little scary looking and seems to age 20 years in the movie) 
The costumes and sets are wonderful. The violence in the movie starts slow but builds and then peaks with the St Barthelomew's Day Massacre. It is often a beautiful movie. At times this movie is like a French painting of Gericault or Delacroix come to life.

I didn't keep a death count during the movie but I should have. It was a lot.

I actually sat in the theater during the entire end credits listening to the music. In particular, I found one song compelling; what I assumed was a late medieval French folk song isn't. Obviously I don't speak French, the song "Elo Hi" is in hebrew.

La reine Margot – Soundtrack is an album by Goran Bregović, with the music that he composed for the 1994 film La Reine Margot, by Patrice Chéreau. Like most of Bregović's work, the melodies in this soundtrack are heavily influenced by Balkanfolk music tradition, but he also refurbished and recycled some of his previous work while he was the frontman of Bijelo dugme, one of the most influential Yugoslav rock bands of the 1970s and 1980s
An unexpected source of music for a French film.

Friday, October 27, 2017

movie notes : Breaking the Waves (1996)

Cinéma vérité : in this case, pointlessly lingering shots to pad the running time and flaunt self-indulgent pretentiousness.

I saw Breaking the Waves (1996) in the theater. It is about a simple minded woman who might be crazy and thinks she talks to god. She marries an oil rig worker (I can't recall if there was a connection between the 2 or if it was just physical or if it was just convenient to the plot). She misses him while he is gone and prays for him to come back to her and then he is permanently paralyzed in an accident (a well done scene as I recall). Hopeless, he tells her to move on. Trying to convince her to move on he tells her to sleep with other men then he'll get better.

Between the trite plot, an ending that I predicted halfway through (but I thought it was too lame and hackneyed to make it into a movie), the so-called characters and the feeling that its 4 and a half hour running time could have been edited down to 30 minutes I felt absolute rage at this movie, for while having potential, turning out to be a waste of time. If I hadn't been the only person in the theater I would have tried to start a riot to tear down the screen and hang the director (Lars von Trier) in effigy.

I've never walked out of a movie but this is one that I wish I had.

People would explain to me that it is an artistic triumph, that it is well respected, that it is the darling of critics all over the world, that it is important and that it is an award winning movie but absolutely none of them had seen the movie.

I thought about rewatching it before writing this review but the intensity of my dislike for it remains. (I should also note that while I wrote above that it had a 4 and a half hour running time according to dvd.com its running time was only 2hrs 39min – it only felt twice as long.)

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Painting in a Painting : John Singer Sargent

Claude Monet, Painting by the Edge of a Wood, 1885 by John Singer Sargent 

detail :
Monet's unfinished canvas in the Sargent painting cropped and distorted into a rectangle. (note the inclusion at the bottom right of Monet's hand, blue shirt and pallette)

Below, to contrast is Monet's finished painting

Meadow with Haystacks near as Près à Giberny, 1885 by Claude Monet

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Propaganda posters from the Spanish Civil War #2 : Franco

(this is the second installment; the first group of propaganda posters from the Spanish Civil War is here)

Franco found here 
by J. Davó (signed at lower left) and printed by the Romero Lithograph (Tenerife, Canary Islands). Excellent use of a limited number of colors.

A smiling Franco, atop a white horse leads 2 columns of supporters. Those on the left carry the red and yellow pre-republic, red and yellow civil ensign Spanish flag (or the royalist flag if a crest is hidden in the fold). The column on the right carries the red and black flag of the Falange. Franco and his horse complete the cross.  "Julio 18, 1936" refers to the date of the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. The rays behind the cross evoke a dawn.

Franco's horse steps on a red snake, a traditional symbol of evil, holding a hammer and sickle in its mouth. The symbols of the hammer and sickle were used by some political parties of the Republican Left.

Not to be cruel, but Franco was not a particularly handsome man and yet here he is drawn in a remarkably flattering way while retaining his likeness. Contrast it to the painting below by Paco Ibera. Franco is as reality would have him : balding, bags under his eyes and a rounded chin (disguising a double chin that can be seen in the photo of Franco later in the page.

Dictator in Furs by Paco Ibera
This was previously mentioned here. Go to that link for more commentary on this.


"Franco cut off at the knees" may not have been the creator's intent

Una Patria! Un Estado! Un Caudillo! (One fatherland! One state! One strongman!)

I suspect this is not from the Spanish Civil War but afterwards.  Cropping Franco off at the knees making him look like Dorf the Dictator. I find it interesting that while there is a relatively bright contrast between the Spanish-French border there is less contrast between the Portugese-Spanish border – it is only slightly more pronounced than the internal borders. Franco presents him self simply : a lack of epaulets or furs or rows of medals.

The font seems very 1930s.


The next portray Franco is a less flattering way.

 Izquierda Republicana En Vanguardia Contra El Fascismo Internacional (Left Republican in vanguard against international fascism) by Petit Guillén Carteles  de la Republica y de la Guerra Civil #180
Left Republican in vanguard against international fascism! (Seriously, you would think they would have included an exclamation point or 2)

Izquierda Republicana En Vanguardia Contra El Fascismo Internacional (Left Republican in vanguard against international fascism) by Petit Guillén (signed at lower left)

from the upper left is Jose Maria Gil Robles (with a pear for a head and bald except for a stem on top) he wears a Sacred Heart necklace to note his Catholicism. Next to him is Benito Mussolini wearing a tiny hat. Below Gil Robles is Adolph Hitler looking sad with his head cocked horizontal.
from left to right : Gil Robles (no stem on top), Francisco Franco and unknown.

Below Hitler is a short, cartoony, Chaplinesque Francisco Franco with a swastika and a death's head on his hat and a sword in his raised hand.

They are all wrapped in the Spanish Republican flag (red, yellow and purple) being pulled by a Republican soldier. While Mussolini, Hitler and Gil Robles are bound together, Franco only has the flag wrapped on one side and he holds a sword that can probably cut fabric.

To the right, behind the soldier, and at the far right is Manual Azaña and his awkward, wrongly drawn hand and pointy finger gesturing upwards. Unlike Franco in the first image, I think here Azana looks little better than reality.

photograph of Manual Azaña (note that the artist wasn't exceptionally unflattering it is just that Manual Azaña looked like a muppet in real life.)

Surrounding Azaña is a crosshatch of white.  Part of the problem likely being those on the left (of the poster) were drawn by a skillful cartoonist while Azaña was likely drawn by the cartoonist copying a photograph and trying to draw realistically while his real talents line in his skill as a cartoonist.

At lower right is a logo "Junta Municipal Delegation de Propaganda Valencia" (Municipal Board Delegation of Propaganda Valencia) (as an aside it is a nice font)

A striking contrast in styles; cartoony for the villains and realistic for the politician and idealized for the Republican soldier.


el generalisimo by Pedero Carteles de la Republica y la Guerra Civil #551
el generalisimo by Pedrero (signed at lower left)

#551 in Carteles de la Republica Y la Guerra Civil
Junta Delegada de Defensa de Madrid

I imagine that  the title "el generalisimo" in all lower case was intended to be diminishing towards someone grandiose enough to call himself "el generalisimo."

Francisco Franco as death himself dressed in a long grey coat, a black and red cape, white gloves, and spurs. His hand on his sword and his cape carried by an obese army general, an obese capitalist and an obese friar toting a rifle. Again, Franco is shown wearing a swastika.

The helmet is more like a Prussian/German pickelhaube than a contemporary Spanish army helmet (at least as far as i've seen. In fact, while I've browsed through many photos from the Spanish Civil War the only helmets I've seen are on the Republican side. The overseas cap seems to have been worn on the Nationalist side.) Franco's white gloves remind me of the white gloves a plethora of animated cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse wear.


el generalisimo by Antonio Cañavate Carteles de la Republica Y la Guerra Civil #552
el generalisimo by Antonio Cañavate (signed)
I.E. el generalisimo
Junta Delegada de defensa de Madrid
Rivadeneyra, UGT  Madrid

I think this is the most effective. It is fun, interesting and harshly mocking. Francisco Franco on his My Little Pony (with a swastika brand). The chubby horse smiles at a butterfly as it rears up while striking a coy David-esque pose.
Napoleon Crossing the Alps by Jacques Louis David, 1801

Franco's chest is puffed out and he holds a wooden club (one of the knots is heart shaped). He wears an extravagant uniform complete with epaulets, a sash, side stripe pants, a hat with different colored feathers,He has a colorful horse blanket and a blunderbuss (outdated for a 100 years). I'm not sure why his skin is orange, perhaps to comment on his tan from his years in Morocco and the Canaries.

From the swirling clouds drop 2 bombs. The cactus in the background is made up of faces.

It is interesting that the swastika is attached to Franco by his opponents but Franco did not use it as a symbol used to represent the Nationalists. The symbol used by Franco is the old national flag - horizontal red, yellow, red stripes or the red and black Falange symbol and, of course, he used himself as a symbol.

In contrast, elements of the Spanish left also freely adopted the hammer & sickle for themselves (in particular : the PCE, Partido Comunista de Espana aka the Spanish Communist Party and PSU the Partido Socialista Unificado aka Unified Socialst Party and POUM Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista aka the Worker's Party of Unified Marxists).

Keep in mind that at the time of the Spanish Civil War the Nazis were thugs and totalitarians but not yet genocidal mass murderers while the Soviet Union were also totalitarians and thugs but had also been responsible for the death of thousands of forced laborers constructing the White Sea Canal,  the Holodomor, a man-made famine killed millions, and Stalin's Great Purge had started. Different standards for different totalitarians I suppose.

Note the stark contrast in the message being sent : This poster and the "Izquerida Republicana" present Franco as a joke. A puffed up cartoon dandy. But the one between them shows Franco as walking death.

Monday, September 4, 2017

movie notes : Valdemar Legacy (2010)

The Valdemar Legacy (2010) is Lovecraftian horror movie. It was pretty good. It had some tension and it maintained my interest.

The main problem with the movie is the structure. It begins with one set of characters but then has a long flashback with a different set of characters and ends with the first set of characters ready for Valdemar Legacy II. Now, if I had part II queued up after finishing part I then that might be ok; but I didn't.

Spanish language with subtitles and if you watch it with the Amazon Video subtitles turned on then it provides subtitles for the sound effects.

The character Jervás was played by Paul Naschy who I would swear I've seen in more than one movie but I can't figure out which.


from imdb's trivia section :
The first movie in all Spanish's cinema history made without Spanish government subsidies.

That seems both impossible and yet somehow plausible.