Spilimbergo

Landscape by Lino Enea Spilimbergo (1896-1964)

I have always thought that the world has never sufficiently appreciated the artists and writers of Argentina. Having paid three visits to that distant country, I have begun to appreciate the artistic vision of its people. This post honors the work of Lino Enea Spilimbergo, the son of Italian immigrants, who was born in the Palermo neighborhood of Buenos Aires, but for health reasons relocated to the drier province of San Juan in the center of the country.

“Pasaje de San Juan” by the Painter

What draws me to Spilimbergo’s work is that his eye seems to capture much of the wonder that is the Argentine landscape. Though the artists work was by no means limited to landscapes:

“Mujer Sobre Paisaje”

The above picture has both surrealistic and straight landscape elements, incorporating the jungles of northern Argentina with a female nude. Unfortunately, relatively little is written about Spilimbergo’s art on the Internet in English, though I think his work deserves serious study.

 

Three Graces

Roman Fresco from Pompeii of the Three Graces

In many ways, our culture has descended from the Greeks and the Romans. And yet, I think that we are so far removed from them that we no longer react the way that ancient audiences did.

According to the Greeks, the Graces were the daughters of Zeus and Eurynome. They were Aglaea (“Splendor”), Euphrosyne (“Good Cheer”), and Thalia (“Festivity”), though there were many name variations.

What surprises me most of the above depiction from first century Pompeii is its matter-of-factness. Three young unclothed women, realistically painted, who do not inspire lust but merely exist on their own terms. If you look at Renaissance or later images of the Graces, you will notice they are more beautiful and appealing. I do not think the Roman artist failed in his depiction, but that he rendered them on a different plane altogether.

It is as if they are saying, “It does not matter to us whether or not you find us appealing. We are immortal goddesses, and you are mortal men.”

 

Influence Numero Uno, 1960s Style

R. Crumb Was My Guru in Dem Days

The 1960s were a difficult time for me. I was all set to start graduate school in film history and criticism in September of 1966, when, quite suddenly, I was in a coma at Fairview General Hospital, with my body surrounded by ice to bring my temperature down. It was then that my pituitary tumor decided to make a major incursion on my optic nerve and brain that almost carried me into the next world. Somehow, I struggled back to consciousness, received the last sacraments of the Catholic Church (the aptly named Extreme Unction), and was ready to remove a “cyst” (that’s what the doctor called it) from my pituitary.

Did I even know what the pituitary gland was? Not really. Within a few days, my brain was hinged back to allow a surgical suction device to remove the enlarged and inflamed gland. When later I saw my neurosurgeon and asked how big the tumor was, he answered, “About the size of a grapefruit.”

When I finally made it to Los Angeles after Christmas in 1966, I noticed some changes to my ways of thinking:

  1. I felt that because of my weird ten years of illness that I was, for all intents and purposes, from Mars.
  2. Quite suddenly, I lost my faith in religion.
  3. I found myself with a really weird sense of humor.

Self Portrait of Cartoonist R. Crumb

Since I was now in Los Angeles, I drifted toward certain local influences, such as The Los Angeles Free Press, an underground newspaper that mirrored my own sense of disillusionment. Then I made the discovery of R. Crumb, whose Zap Comics, Fritz the Cat, and other series were required reading. There was Mister Natural, Flakey Foont, and a whole galaxy of characters. Admittedly, there was a lot of misogynistic sexuality, which was a Crumb trademark, but that was the way I was feeling  about myself. It rubbed me the wrong way that women seemed to lie so casually and hurtfully. It was years before I understand that was a defense mechanism from weirdos like me.

Some of Crumb’s Early Misogyny

Oddly, I never outgrew my admiration of Crumb’s work. I no longer accept all of Crumb’s own neuroses and psychoses, but I believe he was a great cartoonist, and that his work will be remembered long after I am gone.

 

Monsters: American vs. Japanese

Mark Nagata’s Kaiju Eyezon

As I promised, I stopped in again at the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) in downtown L.A. to take a second look at the “Kaiju vs Heroes: Mark Nagata’s Journey Through the World of Japanese Toys” exhibit. (To refresh your memory, the term kaiju refers to Japanese monsters, like Godzilla, Mothra, and Rodan.) Looking at the kaiju in the exhibition, I noticed that the Japanese monsters were picturesque, bordering on the cute. Even Eyezon in the above illustration, dangerous as he appears, would probably arouse as much amazement as terror.

Another of Nagata’s Kaiju, an Iridescent Giant Lizard

I keep thinking back to the Ishiro Honda’s Toho horror films of the 1950s and 1960s. There was an element of wonder, which was emphasized by the presence of child actors. Look, for instance, at the cute figurines in the above photo below the giant lizard.

What came to mind as I saw these kaiju was the role of the wrathful deities in The Tibetan Book of the Dead. By being frightened of the wrathful deities in the bardo state following death, the decedent is reborn. Only by not being afraid can the soul attain Nirvana.

Contrast the kaiju with American monsters, whose goal is to frighten the bejeezus out of you, like Boris Karloff in The Mummy below:

Boris Karloff in The Mummy (1932)

The aim of American and Western European horror films is to scare you to the maximum extent possible. If you don’t grasp the arms of your theater seatmate, the film is reckoned a failure.

Now maybe if Boris Karloff were iridescent, and children were brought into the picture, we would have something resembling the kaiju figurines I saw at the JANM.

 

Opus Tesellatum

Well-To-Do Young Couple from Pompeii

Many years ago there was an exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) of various objects found at Pompeii that had been covered by the ash from Mount Vesuvius. I remember seeing the original of the above mosaic in the exhibit, which looked much better than the illustration above.

According to an article by Mark Cartwright published in 2013:

Mosaics, otherwise known as opus tesellatum, were made with small black, white and coloured squares typically measuring between 0.5 and 1.5 cm but fine details were often rendered using even smaller pieces as little as 1mm in size. These squares (tesserae or tessellae) were cut from materials such as marble, tile, glass, smalto (glass paste), pottery, stone and even shells. A base was first prepared with fresh mortar and the tesserae positioned as close together as possible with any gaps then filled with liquid mortar in a process known as grouting. The whole was then cleaned and polished.

In addition, there were wall paintings from Pompeii, but these dis not impress me greatly. It was as if painting was a kind of poor man’s version of mosaics. What surprised me was that, in so many instances, there were paintings of statues.

Mosaic of Fish and Ducks

There were even some historical mosaics, such as this badly damaged view of Alexander the Great and his army:

Mosaic of Alexander the Great with His Army


In almost every case I have seen, the Roman mosaics were superior to the paintings of the period that I have seen. When one sees the original of one of these mosaics, one is impressed by the vividness of the image and the superiority of the medium. When I see a Pompeii exhibit or attend the Getty Villa, I always end up feeling that, with the end of the Roman Empire, we have lost a great art form.

Tarnmoor in Toyland

Mark Nagata Surrounded by His Collection

On Sunday, Martine and I drove downtown to visit a museum that was closed because of the Memorial Day Holiday. So instead, we headed for the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) in Little Tokyo. There was the standard (permanent) exhibit about the forced relocation of Japanese-Americans to concentration camps in the desert; but there was also something diferent.

I am not a toy collector, but I have always been impressed by the Japanese superheroes and monsters (known as kaiju). However powerful the kaiju were, there was something almost appealing about them. American toy villains are somehow more evil. The Japanese ones are almost cuddly.

At JANM,there was an exhibit entitled “Kaiju vs Heroes: Mark Nagata’s Journey Through the World of Japanese Toys.” It was scheduled to end in March, but was held over through July 7, 2019. I was enthralled.

The Kaiju Eyezon, Created by Mark Nagata

Mark started as a collector, then became an illustrator and a creator of Japanese toys. The exhibit was so interesting that I resolved to visit it again on Thursday so that my thoughts on the nature of his art would somehow jell. I( thought back to my response to Ishiro Honda’s horror films for Toho of the 1960s, such as Godzilla (1954), Rodan (1956), Mothra (1961), and all the other Japanese monster films that were to follow. There was a definite difference in these monsters compared to the ultimate evil that is Dracula or Frankenstein or the Nightmare on Elm Street.

Poster for the JANM Exhibition

I am still thinking over in my mind what I will ultimately conclude about this exhibit and Nagata’s artistry, other than that I am strongly drawn to it. Stay tuned to this space for further developments.

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The Muralist

Quetzalcoatl Mural at Dartmouth College’s Baker Library

During the four years I was at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, I spent many hours studying in the reserve room of Baker Library where, between 1932 and 1934, José Clemente Orozco painted a striking series of murals named “The Epic of American Civilization.” One of the images (above) was of the god Quetzalcoatl (or Plumed Serpent) crossing the Gulf of Mexico to Yucatán. It was largely due to Quetzalcoatl’s yellow beard in Aztec iconography that misled Moctezuma to believe that Hernán Cortés was Quetzalcoatl returned to the Aztecs. We all know how that turned out….

Orozco also did other murals at a dining hall at Dartmouth, but they were removed because they were thought to be Communist, and the Patricians in control at Dartmouth were aghast that the Mexican visitor would abuse their hospitality. (A similar thing happened in Los Angelist, where Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros painted a mural called “América Tropical” that was painted over for similar reasons.)

I love Orozco’s work. At one point, I even journeyed to Guadalajara to see more of his work, such as the image of Miguel Hidalgo below:

Mural by Jose Clemente Orozco featuring Miguel Hidalgo (leader of the Mexican War of Independence), Palacio de Gobierno (Government Palace), in the historic Center of Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico

Censorship of a great work of art because one does not believe in the political philosophy espoused by the artist is, to my mind, barbaric. Only in the United States is there a simultaneous attraction/repulsion response to Orozco’s emphatic mural style. Any attempt to paint over his work in Mexico would cause a bloody riot. But then, Mexico does not swing as far to the right as our country does.