Category Archives: Fine arts

Santa Crisis

A blog gives you visibility, allowing people from all over with views akin to yours getting in touch. That’s what happened a couple of months ago with conceptual artist, Little Shiva asking: “What about a common project?” I told her of a possible allegory for the crisis, a symbol that you could copy here and there, whose name would be Santa Crisis.

After some going back and forth, here he is: a jolly old elf!

Make him known: that’s the idea. Just inform where he was born: here and there.

Click to enhance.

Woody Allen’s “Death Knocks”

In Death Knocks, Woody Allen provides a new treatment to a classical theme: a man seeing himself on a final mission succeeds in buying time from the ineluctability of death by challenging a personified death to a game that he wins, gaining so a temporary reprieve. The allegory reminds us that life amounts in every instance to a similar losing battle where what the highest skill in the game obtains is nothing more than time. Philosophically speaking, Allen’s additional contribution is in suggesting that time isn’t so bad a commodity after all.

The reason why Allen would treat this theme lies in the great respect he holds the Swedish cinematographer Ingmar Bergman whose work has inspired his own in the dramas he has brought to the screen and in “Interiors” (1978) in particular. Bergman’s momentous film “The Seventh Seal” (1957) tells the story of a knight returning from the Crusades who challenges death in a game of chess in order to buy the time he needs to see his wife once more before meeting his end. In “Death Knocks”, chess has been replaced by gin rummy, medieval Sweden transposed to contemporary New York and the profession of knight by that of dress manufacturer. Unsurprisingly, the theme’s treatment by Allen turns out extremely different from Bergman’s.

The reader is not expressly told that Nat is Jewish. A few hints lead however in that direction, as when is revealed that his full name is Nat Ackerman, that he lives in Kew Gardens or when evidence is given, on several occasions, of his familiarity with Yiddish, as in the story’s concluding words when, retelling his evening’s adventures to his friend Moe Lefkowitz, Nat refers to Death as a “schlep.”

Common to Bergman’s and Allen’s renditions is that the hero first challenges then outwits Death for a seemingly Pyrrhic victory. The way this is being achieved here by Nat reflects however in a very profound way what Marx called in “On the Jewish Question” (1843), the “practical Jewish spirit” (*) Unlike the knight Antonius Block, in “The Seventh Seal,” who uses his confrontation with Death as a way to ascertain his wrenching doubt in the existence of God, Nat focuses instead on his unpreparedness to die. Talking to Death, he insists: “Now, wait a minute. I need time. I’m not ready to go.” His thinking is logical: evidence is lacking that his time has arrived. As he says with unpretentious words: “You must be kidding. I’m in perfect health.”

Death’s visit fails to impress Nat. Death enters Nat’s apartment in an undignified manner, tripping on the windowsill after, as he tells later, having damaged the drainpipe he was climbing on when one of his heels got trapped by a vine. Also, his air of familiarity and obvious acquaintance with Yiddish introduce an element of complicity between the protagonists from the very beginning of their acquaintance. Indeed, Nat tells Death not only that he reminds him of his friend Moe but also of himself as in the following exchange:

Nat: You look a little like me.
Death: Who should I look like? I’m your death.

Nat succeeds into luring Death into a game. After an unsuccessful attempt to have him engage in a play of chess, which Death denies being able to play, they settle then for a game of gin rummy. Nat notes “I once saw a picture of you playing chess,” most probably referring to the fresco by Albertus Pictor in the church of the Swedish town of Täby.

Albertus Pictor’s fresco in Täby (Sweden)
Nat, wins by a wide margin (one hundred and fifty to sixty-eight), Death is short on change and unable to pay his debt. Nat, agrees gracefully to a replay, hinting that until Death settles his debt, his gruesome task will need to remain suspended.

(*) The status of Marx’ “On the Jewish Question” was one of the few topics where George Miedzianagora and I had dissenting opinions (another one was whether or not Socrates was a fictional character; in my mind, although Plato could have referred to a literary figure as if he were true, Xenophon was a historian at heart and would not have devoted the attention he did to a fictional hero). George held that Marx’s essay was anti-Semitic. I personally hold that this is in no way the case. Marx’ harsh words on the Jewish religion are part of his overall argument against religion as an obstacle to liberation. His remark on the “Jewish practical spirit” is meant to refer to what is in his mind the healthy seed of an interest in the sensible world instead of a focus on eternal life in a Hereafter.

Toons in contemporary LA underground iconography

Since Roy Lichtenstein made a lasting impression on the fine arts’ scene by turning individual frames of comic strips – or at least a likeness of them – into paintings, expanding to their new scale the standard pointilliste techniques for representing shading on newspaper-quality paper, a point of transit has been established between the exclusive world of fine arts and the prosaic one of comic strips.

Of course the reversed connection has a much better established ancestry as ambitious comic strips authors have found in the fine arts inspiration for their individual styles. Most notorious of course, the influence of the Japanese print makers on the Belgo-French “Ligne claire” (clean-line) school, characterized by a narrow and evenly wide black contour for every object, as well as primary colors and sparing use of shading. Among its main early representatives: Hergé (Georges Remi), Jacques Martin, Edgar P. Jacobs, Willy van der Steen and, in more recent years, Ted Benoît, André Juillard, Jean Pleyers and most prominently, Jean Giraud, in that part of his graphic oeuvre where he signs as “Moebius”. Influences traveled full circle when the “Ligne claire” became in its turn the defining style of Japanese manga; the seminal work of Katsuhiro Otomo, the creator of “Akira” (1982-1986), needs to be mentioned in that respect.

The quotation is a major ingredient of art as “conceptual art,” as it represents the most elementary form of de-contextualisation: the abstraction of an element from its context and transportation into a new one. Within its new “artistic” context, the quotation is bound to contrast with whatever has been similarly summoned into that framework and more often than not, to deliberately clash with it. Such is the principle underlying Debord’s “détournement” as when in 1968, Puvis de Chavannes’ French historical figures on La Sorbonne’s murals were offered balloons to express situationist slogans. Some will also remember the 1960’s spoof of Snow White and the 7 Dwarfs where the Disney toons indulged in adult forms of entertainment.

The fine arts school referred to as “contemporary LA underground” adds a new element to the dialogue between the world of comics and painting by featuring toons within an otherwise more classical environment. The goal doesn’t seem here ironical but to serve two purposes: taking advantage of the familiarity and ease of immediate interpretation of comic-type characters and importing into the fine arts the innovations in graphic expression that have originated in the comic strip and in the animated cartoon.
‘I could eat you up - Gary Baseman (2005)
In Gary Baseman’s “I could eat you up” (2005), a cat-like young lady transports a dead Toby, reminiscent of Goya’s “Saturn devouring one of his children.” Jerome Bosch is one of Baseman’s more common sources of inspiration.
Squirrels love treats from sweety sweets - Lola (2006)
In Lola’s “Squirrels love treats from sweety sweets” (2006), one of her typical toon-like characters is depicted within a landscape the palette whereof reminds of early seventeenth century Flemish masters.
Untitled - Thomas Han (2005)
In Thomas Han’s untitled (2005), toons cavort within intentionally garishly colored surroundings.

An experiment in Wikiology

I marvel at Wikipedia. There is hardly a day when I don’t go and check their site, looking up some concept, often mathematical, sometimes financial, or finding out about any other question I happen to be asking myself, about Joachim Pateniers or the bodhisattva.

In the beginning, I would only fix the typos I was coming across. Until one fateful day I got so frustrated that there was no entry for “amortizing loan” that I chose to write it up myself. The dynamics of that collective project appeal to me. I remember a science-fiction story about planet Earth being threatened by some menace from outer-space and every puny little soul that the human race counts aggregating into a single giant one. Wikipedia is a venture of that type.

What pricked my ears initially was when googling one time my own name I noticed that an entry had been created for me in the French Wikipedia. The article was skillfully written, having borrowed material from both my website and the blurb on one of my books. I looked up the author, suspecting that one of my children had been carried away by overzealous filial piety but no: not even a friend or an acquaintance, no one I knew even remotely. The person in question had authored several other entries, all about arcane technical topics like “interferential pigment” or “micro-encapsulation.” Nothing indeed I could really relate to; I felt honored though to be the only human being whom my unknown creator had cared to write about. By now there are two entries, one in English and one in French and they live their own idiosyncratic little lives: people touch them up and chat to each other about the wisdom of their touch-ups.
I was reading recently about a project of a book under a Wiki format. I checked it out and was disappointed to see it was hardly more than painting by numbers: chapter titles were already there, and sub-chapter titles had been cast in iron with blanks just waiting to be filled in. I found the whole concept disingenuous: it seemed like the publisher was trying to pinch a book out of simple-minded aspiring authors while sparing himself the trouble and costs of having to pay any writer royalties. That led me to wonder what a true experiment in Wikiology would look like. Giving it some thoughts I believe I have come up with a plausible case. Here it is.


I own that painting. I had a hunch about who had painted it. A year ago or so, I approached the gallery representing that artist. They said they would present her with the slide. Some time later they e-mailed me back; she had seen it and, no: it wasn’t hers. I was back to square one. The experiment in Wikiology is the following: I start an entry for the painting that will be updated with your comments to this blog as they come in. Major and minor progress will be versioned as, for instance, “Dolls 2.3.” There will be a prize for the winner, i.e. the person making a convincing case for authorship and date. A final hint: the back of the canvas as well as a piece of attached newspaper suggest the work was painted within the 1955 to 1965 time frame. Good luck to all!

Dolls 0.0
[Dolls] (32” x 37”) was painted by [X] in [19XX]. Born in [19XX] in [XXX], [X] studied fine arts at [XXX] under the masterful direction of [Y]….