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.

.

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.

 

Faces from Ancient Rome

Bust of a Byzantine Emperor

I am still thinking of my visit to the Getty Villa yesterday. One thing the ancient Romans knew how to do was sculpt faces. In sculpture, in the images on coins, the goal was to create a recognizable image, even if it was uncomplimentary. And some of the later Roman emperors were nothing to look at. In a previous post, I showed the museum’s statue of Caligula, with his inverted triangle of a face radiating pure evil. I can’t imagine our current emperor—I mean president—accepting such uncomplimentary honesty.

Unidentified Poet or Philosopher

Take a look at this face. The original is unidentified, but the museum thinks he must be a poet or philosopher. In any case, he is old and he has the facial expression of a man who is constitutionally set in his ways. The lines on his face, the slight lopsidedness of his features, the sneer on his lips—this is a man beholden to nobody.

The Slave Boy Martial—Deceased

Finally there is a bust of the slave boy Martial, dead before his third birthday sometime in the second or third century AD. The boy must have been cherished by his owner, because he or she went to the trouble of commissioning this bust for a funerary monument.

Three faces—all very different—all very alive. Walking through the rooms of the Getty Villa, I was acutely conscious that these three individuals were real people. No attempt was made to idealize them. Some two thousand years ago, more or less, they walked the earth looking very much like the busts that commemorated them.

 

Palmyra

Bust from the Ruins of Palmyra in Syria

In 2015, ISIS seized the ruins of the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria. They proceeded to destroy many of the standing columns, temples, and tombs while gloating over their “accomplishments.” To make matters worse, they captured and beheaded the Khalel al-Asaad, a Syrian archeologist.

This morning, I visited the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades and was delighted to find an exhibit on loan of mostly funerary statuary from Palmyra, most of which comes from the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen. It was titled “Palmyra: Loss and Remembrance.”

It was a revelation to me. Palmyra was neither Roman nor Greek. Their language was a dialect of Aramaic, which was the language of the Holy Land during the life of Christ and for some time after. Most of the items on display were funerary busts and reliefs from the tower tombs that dotted the landscape. The facial expressions were surprisingly realistic, though with larger, more pronounced eyes than found in Greek and Roman sculpture.

“The Beauty of Palmyra”: Obviously a Rich and Powerful Woman

Most women depicted in these sculptures were depicted holding a distaff and spindle in their hands. The statue above displays no such housewifely virtues. Instead she is bedecked with jewels on her headdress as well as her costume. The circles were once filled with precious and semi-precious stones which have disappeared in the course of time.

ISIS Gloating Over the Destruction by Explosives of the Temple of Baal Shamin on One of Their Websites

Naturally, I think ISIS’s actions in Palmyra and elsewhere show a total disregard for the antecedents of their own civilization. They will undoubtedly commit other barbaric crimes until this awful Jihadist movement is brought to account for their crimes against humanity.