Ophelia and the Art of Beautiful Dying

Ophelia, we’ve all seen her. Lying back in the river in that dress, beautific smile on her face surrounded by flowers and foliage. Just in case somehow you’ve missed out on this painting, though to be honest I think you’ll have seen it somewhere, perhaps on the wall of a certain type of teenager, here it is.

We’ve probably all heard the story of Lizzie Siddal in the bath catching a cold too (she caught a cold, got over the cold, though her dad still stung Millais for a £50 doctor’s bill, go dad…).

I heard a quote on a TV documentary, and I can only find it on one website though I have no reason to disbelieve the truth of it, that a critic said that Millais had ‘even made dying beautiful’, and bloody hell hadn’t he just? There she is, floating down the river, flowers slipping from her fingers and her complexion just the right shade of pale and interesting.

Much over the years has been made of the amazing attention to detail Millais got into the painting, weeks spent on the side of the hogsmill river (yes, we know exactly where) getting all the flowers and leaves right to the point where a botany professor once said that he’d be able to use it as a teaching resource. Then all the time with Lizzie in that bath (a story which every damn website feels the need to recount painting her as the dying Ophelia. Yes, it’s a painting which is all about accuracy John Everett, we get that…

Though of course it isn’t because nobody drowns like that!

First off, sorry to say angst-ridden teenagers of the world, nobody dies beautifully. Your body, however crazy you may be because your lover has murdered your father, wants to live and if you start breathing water it really wants to get some air instead. The UK lifeboat service the RNLI released some very disturbing videos about what drowning is like, and this chap recounts his near-drowning experience while surfing. Go off and google for images of dead bodies if you don’t believe me on this one. After you’re dead, especially under less than ideal surroundings, you look like crap rather than somebody who has slipped into sleep. Ophelia isn’t a distraught teenager driven to suicide by despair; she’s sleeping beauty with duckweed.

You read a lot about how this painting shows Millais’ obession with detail and accuracy, all those days on the riverbank getting the flowers right, etc. But the painting has nothing at all to do with accuracy because the actual subject of it is entirely devoid of accuracy! It’s a painting of a drowning girl..devoid of the actual act of drowning. This page makes the suggestion that actually this Ophelia just after she’s drowned, which of course allows Millais to avoid all that nasty drowning stuff but really only shifts the question of accuracy along a notch because if she’s a corpse what in heck is she doing with those hands? Now my experience with dead bodies is zero, but common sense tells me that on the whole they’re not inclinded to pose their hands and arms like that, and even if she’d managed to drown in that pose they’re going to collapse again once she’d died. Even the much vaunted foliage is flawed as, because it took so long to paint, flowers appear next to each other which just don’t do that(see here).

So when we come down to it, what IS this painting about? It’s about pretty much all the other work by the PRB: great colours, ideally with an idealised pretty girl in it. Don’t get me wrong, on the whole I like the Pre-Raphaelites, but they’re not big into ‘real’ girls are they? You’ve heard the joke? ‘What’s the thinnest book in the world called?’ ‘Tolkein’s decent female characters’ – the same is true really about the Pre-Raphaelites depictions of women. Though they may have been better in real life, after all Millais obviously was a more attractive option for Effie than Ruskin was so either he was actually good company…or Ruskin was really dire (given the rumours that Ruskin didn’t even know what female plumbing looked like before they got married, it may be the latter). Ophelia had what it takes to be the subject of a great image, young, pushed over the edge by death and betrayal she kills herself in a great setting, it could be full of emotion and drama. Carravagio could have painted that; Francis Bacon could have painted that; Klimpt could have painted that; Bernini could have sculpted that.

Millais spent weeks painting flowers, then stuck a girl in a bathtub and painted her. What you see is what you get. It’s beautifully done and beautiful to look at, and devoid of reality and emotion.

Some other websites
Looking Down From Above
Lizzie Siddal.com


Too many images?

How much art is too much? Or more to the point, how many images can you take in before you get jaded, like a gourmet who has put away one serving too many of some exotic vegetable?

We live in an insanely visual age, and humans are visual creatures. Back in the old days, before the turn of the millenium, you got your new image fix in one of several ways: you bought books and magazines, you visited galleries or you popped into your local branch of Athena (and probably at some time bought a copy of Tennis Girl). However you did it, your choice was limited to a few dozen things at any one time, and if you left your local Athena with something it was going to have to fight for the limited space on your wall with other images you liked and sometimes you had to swap pictures in and out if you had too many. If you took your own photos you pretty much were limited to 36 at a time (especially if you shot Kodachrome and weren’t hugely wealthy). Making or choosing images was something you thought about.

But now we, as a society, produce images in hithertoo unimaginable quantities. While we used to shoot of 36 frames on a roll of film now we shoot off five, six, maybe more times as many as that on the most mundane subject. Why shouldn’t we, unlike a roll of Kodachrome it doesn’t cost us anything, storage is cheap. I’m sure I remember paying about £8 a roll for Kodachrome in the 80s, using an inflation calculator that works out at £23 now. You can pretty much get a decent 16GB SDHC card for that and put several hundred images on it, and then reuse it again and again. There’s no cost insentive to thinking before shooting any more.

So after we take our photos, what do we do with them? Well we want to show them to people of course, which in the old days involved getting out the projector and running through the roll, or putting them in albums, or if you had shot slide and were feeling really flush and it was a really good image, you got it printed off (I could never afford real Cibachrome). With the digital image we can get a digital photo frame which will cycle through 100s of images without you having to do anything. Or even more popular we can upload them to online image sharing sites. The figures for these are astounding, and slightly alarming. These are Sagan Numbers people..

Flickr – about 6 billion images increasing at the rate of about 2 million every day
Instagram – around 40 billion
Facebook – 250 billion plus
even new boy 500px is claiming around 50 million

That’s a lot of photos, it’s an amazing number of photos, I think it’s an unworkable number of photos, it’s more than you could look at in a lifetime (it takes over a year and a half to look at a million images if you give them a minute each, and don’t take any breaks, or sleep).

Based on their website, I reckon the Rjiksmuseum has under a thousand images on show. The total collection size of the Louvre is only in the region of twenty five thousand pieces and according to Wikipedia the entire collection of the Hermitage in St Petersburg is three million; that’s equivalent to less than 2 days image uploading to Flickr.

Which rather raises the question: when we’ve got so many, how do we find images worth looking at?

When we go to a gallery, or for that matter went into our local branch of Athena) we had a limited range of images through which to browse. In even big galleries the art isn’t all in one huge space, they divide it up into rooms with a smaller number in each and we can wander round and allow our eye to be taken by something. Suppose they were like one of the big image hosting sites, imagine that all thousand paintings and drawings in the Rijksmuseum were arranged along one wall of a huge corridor streatching into the distance: how would we react to that experience? Would we get to the end? At what point would we get image fatigue?

We don’t go to the Tate and expect to find somebody showing us hundreds of photos of their holiday in Benidorm, because we understand that holiday photos are mementos of the trip and are of interest to our circle of friends and family. Self portraits of people getting hammered while at a stag party I would suggest are of interest to even fewer. Ideally, in the manner of the galleries, we need somebody to curate our experience. Somebody to sift out what is visually exciting from the mass of images of cats (not that they can’t be visually exiting), and family holidays. However that’s just not workable; those of us who use online image sharing need to curate the experience of our lives for our viewers. We need to be brutally critical of our own work and ask not only who is going to be interested in the image (and thus where is the right place to post it), but also is it a good image? If we take 50 photos of somebody, something or somewhere, we need to learn that what we must post is the best of them.

Ansel Adams: Beyond Awe and Wonder

What landscape photographer doesn’t look in awe at the work of Ansel Adams? Hell, what landscape photographer, deep down, doesn’t want to beAnsel Adams? It’s not just the amazing landscapes of Yosemite because a quick check on Flickr will prove that half dome doesn’t always look as arresting in photos. Not doing down the Flickr shutterbugs of Yellowstone here, there’s nothing wrong with your photos; they just aren’t (unsurprisingly) as breathtaking as Adams’ ones. Awe and Wonder, that’s what Adams is about.

Or not.

There’s far more to Adams than amazing landscapes; there are the portraits, and the still lives. There’s no awe and wonder in this photo of an egg slicer.

There’s no awe and wonder in this portrait of a young Japanese girl in an internment camp, but there’s magic in both.

In this article there is an account of Adams’ making the image Moonrise, recounting the fact that he essentially made it a grab shot (in as much as one can grab-shoot with an 8×10 camera) with no planning nor use of an exposure meter; it’s one of the ultimate lucky accidents, though of course there were years of skill and experience backing up the luck. The writer also discusses the fact that the still life with the egg slicer was the result of “forethought, careful planning and execution” unlike Moonrise. The story of the latter is in itself about awe and wonder, the photographer struck by vision battling against time and fate (he almost crashed the car stopping to take it) to realise his vision; very romatic, very Caspar David Friedrich. A man in a studio, working carefully, thinking through all the options and getting it just right is less dramatic, more about artistry than romance.

But then what are we to make of the portraits? They’re not street shots, he didn’t see somebody interesting and grab the shot, he posed and lit them as carefully as he did his egg slicer. They don’t put us in the position of the human against the magnificence of nature; they put is right in the heart of what it is to be human. His photos taken inside the Manzanar ‘relocation’ (read ‘concentration’) camp for Japanese Americans in 1943 and 44 are, I think, the supreme example of this. At the time when the attack on Pearl Harbour was still fresh in American minds, and American soldiers were fighting and dying in the pacific, Adams photographed these ordinary people going about their ordinary lives in extraordinary circumstances. They’re not photos of ‘the enemy’, they’re not photos of strange exotic people, they’re photos of ordinary people who a year or two earlier had been part of American communities and who were now living their lives as best they could under extraordinary circumstances. They still show his grasp of light and shadow, but not the dramatic printing for which he is famous, the effect is more subtle; it’s about humanity, not drama.

“The purpose of my work was to show how these people, suffering under a great injustice, and loss of property, businesses and professions, had overcome the sense of defeat and despair by building for themselves a vital community in an arid (but magnificent) environment… All in all, I think this Manzanar Collection is an important historical document, and I trust it can be put to good use.”

There is so much more to Ansel Adams than the man who was so involved with conservation and the Sierra Club, than the man who created such powerful images of the American landscape, than the man who made photos provoking in our reaction to the landscape a sense of awe and wonder. The courage he had in making the Manzar images do more, they make you look at Adams, the man, with awe and wonder.

Finding out more:

Manzanar collection in the Library of Congress
Biography of Ansel Adams
BBC documentary about Adams on Youtube

ScandoCrime, murder, art direction and scandavian interiors porn

Like many in the UK I’m hooked on Nordic crime dramas on the TV. The Killing, Arne Dahl, Wallander, Beck and best of all The Bridge. The plots are great, the acting is amazing and it’s pretty much always difficult to work out who did it before close to the end. But along with the plots and the acting is the design, both the production design in the way they’re shot and, of course, those interiors. Almost nobody in a ScandoCrime drama seems to live in a house or apartment I don’t want!

To take those in order, the production design is always wonderful, The Bridge has a great colour sense, muted palet pretty much throughout with Saga’s car and coat sometimes the only splash of colour in the shot. Okay, with something as magnificent as the Oresund Bridge to keep using as the backdrop the visuals were always going to be something special though. There is also great use of the rural locations, either eerie empty birchwoods with treetrunks as far as the eye can see or vast open expanses of farmland or moor with nothing between you and the mountains on the horizon.


(image from https://burntretina.wordpress.com/2014/01/04/the-bridge-is-not-a-documentary/)

They also all seem to have wonderful kitchens, none of the pokey ‘ready-meal focussed’ kitchens of most UK detectives but airey open expanses of blonde wood and shiney worktops. Generally these lead through into living rooms full of bare floors, stylish furnishings and a feeling that somebody cared about how they looked. Well, okay, the production designer did care about how they looked but you get the feeling the characters do to. It’s all about light and space, big windows letting the clear norther light stream into the rooms: okay so there’s probably a nasty psychopath out there looking in through the windows but if I had that house there wouldn’t be, alright? Even Beck, who lives alone in a city centre flat (and has strange oblique converstations with the old boy on the balcony next door) manages to have a living room you’d be happy to come home. And as for that amazing house with the long lounge/diningroom/kitchen Wallander has with huge windows looking out across the fjiord…

Destiny – I want that garden

As any regular player of Destiny will know, it’s Iron Banner this week, which means playing loads of great games of crucible…and, for me equally importantly, it meant the Traveller’s Walk was open and sometimes it gets dark. See, and this is probably not something uppermost in the minds of the concept artists, I want that garden. Or perhaps more accurately, I want that garden lighting effect. The design isn’t that original, it’s very much the sort of thing a modern designer might have come up with for a reasonably sized modernist home, central path flanked by two rills, flanked by two grass borders; various trees offset to either side. In daylight it’s okay, but nothing special…but after dark the lights come on: horizontal side lighters on the two rills; uplighters on the buildings and the tree; various spots picking things out. It’s amazing. The first time I saw it I was all about how much I wanted it. Actually, most of the tower comes alive after it gets dark. The game’s lighting designer really got it right with various concealed lights picking out parts of the structure…and if you go down to the lower hanger where the keeper is there are lovely effects on the walls down there. I like wandering around in the rooms in the hangers too with all the armchairs and sofas (note to the game engineer, why if I can sit on the floor can I not sit on the chairs?), and views out of the windows. I love it.

But it’s that garden with it’s lights I really want!

Unfortunately the lighting effects don’t really come through in a screenshot, but this should give you an idea of what it’s like.

Okay, so we don’t have a modernist home, it’s a pretty conventional semi-detached house in a small rural town. But we could achieve this sort of look, we’ve got trees and large bushes which would take uplighters. Our pond is a wildlife pond so not suitable for lights but we’re going to be adding more water features in the coming year which will be able to take underwater lighting.

I’ve been gathering things I like on my Garden Lighting pinterest..

Why I deleted most of my pictures on DeviantArt

I’ve just gone through my DeviantArt gallery…and deleted almost all of the images in it.

Because, frankly, they just weren’t that good.

It’s not that I dislike them all, or that I wasn’t happy with them after I’d done them; I just don’t think the rest of the planet needs, or wants, to see them.

This was sparked by watching the film Sound City, which is very good (available on iTunes) and well worth watching. During the film Trent Reznor says;

“Now that everyone is empowered with these tools to create stuff, has there been a lot more great shit coming out? Not really. You still have to have something to do with those tools. You should really try to have something to say.”
(I found the quote typed out here)

It’s hard to argue with this. For years we’ve been provided with more and better tools to use the computer to produce art, much of it either very reasonably priced if not actually free. Video, graphics or music: anyone can now put their hands on tools which offer opportunities not even imaginable not so long ago. Digital cameras are really cheap with no costs in film and processing, and loads of people are now carrying ‘phones’ which offer great photography and video capabilities. There has never been a better time to use digital technology to be creative. But access to tools doesn’t equate with ability, just because anybody can make and share their art and music doesn’t mean that it’s worth sharing. Note that I said ‘worth sharing’, art and music are always worth making because the process of being creative is just good for a human being. Years ago I said to somebody I knew that I was a fairly dire 3 chord guitarist to which he replied “there’s nothing wrong with that…so long as you know that”.  On and off I’ve strummed for fun, but I’ve never thought my playing was something anybody else might want to hear.

Desktop publishing has allowed everybody to produce their own flyers and posters without the cost and time involved in getting a designer to put them together and a printer to produce them: but look at any notice board and while you’ll see loads of adverts for clubs, societies, small businesses and events most of them are actually not that nice to look at. They do the job, but they don’t do it elegantly. Think I’m being judgemental and snotty? Okay, take a magazine and find a print advert in it you like. Then go and look at the notice board in your university, or village hall or whatever and see how many of the flyers and posters look as good as that advert from the magazine. OK, so if you wanted to know when the flower arranging club meet or you’re looking for a band to see this evening all those amateur flyers are going to tell you that, but they’re not of the same standard as the professional ones. Because the professional ones have been put together by people who spent a lot of time learning what looks good and mastering the tools to achieve that. Youtube has hundreds of hours of video uploaded to it every minute: thousands of amateur filmmakers (though the term is now accepted to be ‘Youtubers’) producing content on a whole range of subjects which may be of interest. But once you get past the content how many of them have weird lighting, or poor framing, or piles of undone ironing in the background? When did you last see a professional video, or one done by a film school graduate with pairs of knickers drying on the radiator in the background without them needing to be there? You don’t because serious filmmakers know how they want their film to look, have the skills to understand how to achieve that, and put in the time and effort to make it happen.

Which brings me, via my inabilities as a guitarist to why I deleted most of my DA content. See, the reason I’m still after all this time a dire 3 chord guitarist is simply because I don’t apply myself to the guitar, I don’t study the theory and above all I don’t practice seriously. If I did those things then I’d improve. I listen to good players and don’t want to be that good, though a bit of me wishes I was better. Music is something I don’t really want to be better at enough. Graphics on the other hand I love, I look at the work of professionals and wish I could work to that standard. I wish I could live up to Trent Reznor’s idea of having something to say. So I took a long hard look at my stuff on DA and realised that most of it was either dull, or derivative, or badly conceived so I took it down. It’s still on my hard drive and many of them represent a lot of work and learning new techniques, but none of it really showed any skill, or vision, or had anything to say.

Maybe it’s time for us all to remember that being able to produce stuff isn’t the goal: having something to say is

Free Nuke for fun

Greetings to all my new friends at GCHQ and at Fort Meade who had their filters tripped by the post title – sorry for taking your time folks, it’s just a way to create a title for this post. But hey, stay and enjoy anyway!

A few weeks ago I posted on the need for free quality visual creative software if we want to produce the next generation of people who’ll enrich our visual world. Well this week comes the announcement from The Foundry of a free version of NUKE for people who just want to mess around at home and have fun, and who want to learn the software. This is exactly what we need to see from more companies, and all credit to The Foundry for doing it. It’s going to give anybody who wants to the chance to muck around with it with no expense. Everybody wins with deals like this. Of course there are limitations to try and reduce the chance of it being misused by people who really ought to be paying for it, which again is good for everybody because companies need their commercial revenue stream.

If I have one tiny wee gripe about the conditions it’s this one, though I can see why they’ve done it

“The commercial NUKE range cannot load files created with NUKE Non-commercial. The Non-commercial NUKE range can, however, load scripts and gizmos created with the commercial version”

Clearly this is to stop companies getting people to do work at home with the free version which they then import into the commercial one, and I can honesty see why they went with this, but it also means that if kids have access to NUKE at school under an educational licence they can’t then download the free one to use at home and move files into and out of school…which rather goes against my view that we need to have kids doing as much stuff both at home and at school as possible: but again I can see why they did this. Perhaps a future upgrade might allow the product sold to schools under the educational licence to open files from free NUKE?

But, all round this is totally to be applauded, well done The Foundry and let’s hope we see lots of other commercial creative software companies following their lead

Michael Borremans – thank you artstack

I’ve just signed up for Artstack, as though I didn’t already have enough blogs and sites to read every day. But I really like it as it shows me lots of art that I didn’t necessarily know about and much of which I really like.

Like Belgian artist Michael Borremans, who I discovered this week.

(Image linked in from Salomea’s Room)

He’s a contemporary artist, alive and working today, though his paintings are clearly in the Old Master style and very ‘painterly’ (according to Wikipedia he cites Valazquesz as an important influcence) … though they’re also very surreal, sometimes to the extreme.  You work your way down a figure to discover that they’ve got no legs and are floating just above a table top for example.  Or people are shown from the back but with their clothes on back to front.  I’m not sure I’ve got much to actually say about him, apart from the fact that a) I’d love to own one of his pictures and/or b) I’d love to be able to paint like that!

But I really do recommend that you go and spend some time looking at his work online – worth checking out this link on Salomea’s Room for more samples of his painting, or just google for him

Modern house in traditional setting – why not here

Checking out Dezeen (one of my favourite sites) the other day I saw this item on a startling modern new house built in Norway – Villa Wot is a Brick Cuboid..

What impressed me, along with how much I was taken by the house itself, was the fact that it’s not like the other ones in the street, in fact it says in the article “The plot in the Tåsen neighbourhood to the north of the city centre is surrounded by traditional timber-clad houses from the 1930s” which it clearly is in the photos. Villa Wot is just not like it’s neigbours, and why the hell should it be? I know I’ve blogged about the aspic nature of the UK’s attitude to building design before but I want to revisit it in the context of this because it’s just not the sort of thing which happens here. Here it’s all about homes fitting in, and even if the planners would let you build something very different somehow people opt for not doing so.

It’s all so exemplified by the Prince of Wales famous comment about one of the proposed extensions to the National Gallery being a “monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend”, which for some reason seems to have contributed to the proposed design being scrapped Now I’m not denying that HRH had, and continues to have, the same right to comment as any other citizen; unlike some people I don’t think his role in our society should mean he can’t express an opinion on whatever he likes. I don’t agree with him, heck I don’t agree with the idea of a Prince of Wales, but I reckon he shouldn’t have been slated for having said it. What he said seems to have struck a chord deep in the society of the UK which believes that somehow modern is something which has it’s place…and that place isn’t where anybody seems to be! Buildings have to fit in with other buildings in a supposed harmonious whole.  Which brings me to, and I give myself the same rights as HRH here, to his own driven development of Poundbury outside Dorchester. Dear God what a place, it’s one of the most soul devoid places I’ve ever seen. It’s like being in ‘The Prisoner’ only somewhere less imaginative. There’s nothing wrong with any of the individual buildings (though the huge building visible from the Dorchester bypass always seems to me like something Albert Speer might have designed if he’d lived in rural Britain) but it’s all just so clearly a one-hit pastiche of the sort of towns which develop over years and which have far more variety of building types than HRH possibly thinks they do. Historically we didn’t do this, houses were built in whatever style the builders were comfortable doing: now we worry about them fitting in rather than being visually interesting and a pleasure to live in. When they had the huge fire at Hampton Court Palace they spend lots of time and money lovingly recreating it the way it was before: Christopher Wren would have pulled it down and built something new. 

We’re busy building houses in the UK, though not as many as we need, and they’re very much out of the HRH school of thought. They’re very much like every other house built for years. Is the house-buying public really so locked into this view, and they are pretty much like the pictures of houses kids learn to draw at nursery, that they wouldn’t buy something different? The modernist estates which grew up after the war weren’t bad in themselves, the flats were big and the buildings were striking in their own way. What let them down was that they were built to a price which sometimes wasn’t high, and then run by councils who both penny-pinched and didn’t really care about them. If they’d had the money spent on them, and on-site staff who cared, and they had mixed communities, then they might well have worked. I suspect none of this helped modernism in the UK, but I’m sure loads of young aspiring professionals would be more than happy to consider modernist housing if only people built it.

Which brings me back to Villa Wot, which sits among 1930s homes and looks nothing like them: and you know what? It doesn’t matter. Just because every other house in a street looks the same there isn’t the slightest reason that one can’t put something very different in an empty space should one appear. It doesn’t matter that it’s a similar house, it just has to be a good house: a house which would make a good home. 

Hair and Makeup – sculpture and 3d painting

My son was chatting online to one of his friends the other day, who was getting ready for a party. He was bemused by the fact that she was going to allow an hour to do her hair and makeup..with the comment that “I can get ready in 10 minutes….5 if I’m out of bed when I start”.  So I explained to him that what he was seeing was in fact art of the highest level, which is something that I suspect a lot of people don’t think about.

Makeup; something women put on their faces, right? Well now that depends. On one level it can be a bit of lipstick or eye shadow or blusher…but at the other end it’s multiple layers of toning shades all with varying levels of translucency, applied with a variety of brushes and pencils. If somebody does it with paint on paper then everybody acknowledges it as an art form, but somehow not if somebody is doing it on a 3d surface, in a mirror. How bizarre is that?  What’s more, women have to pull this trick off with a colour palate limited by what they happen to be wearing.

Hair: guys if you think making this look good in anything beyond a ponytail is easy then find a long-suffering female acquaintance and try it on them. You just have to take several thousand very fine fibres, which may or may not be slippery, and turn them into something stylish and pretty to look at! Again if this wasn’t something women did on themselves to make themselves look good then it would be acknowledged immediately as an art form.

So, every day millions of women and girls, some of them in their mid-teens, pull off amazing feats of artistic skill and dexterity….

Appreciate it for what it is!