Category Archives: Art

Suffusion of a Floral Kind

Odilon Redon. ‘Violette Heymann’. Pastel on paper. 72 x 92 cm

Flora infuses so much of artistic creation that if one were to surround himself with books upon books and painted panels and canvases and then close his eyes, he would actually smell all those flowers compressed into words and folded in pigment. He wouldn’t smell the paper or the paintings, that combined smell of ink and book shops, wood and oil, he would smell roses and narcissuses and wildflowers. He could stuff all those books and paintings into a juicer and out would come not pulpy manifestos dripping ‘T’s and ‘I’s, heightened here and there with a blob of Persian Blue or Indian Yellow, but clear, perfumed flower juice.

I remember having read Emerson say that ‘flowers… are a proud assertion that a ray of beauty outvalues all the utilities of the world’. I was overjoyed at reading these words. My drawings and paintings are incomplete without flowers because they contain so much symbolic value, it’s boggling!

One of the most important symbols they stand for is, of course, man’s own mortality. Flowers enact that bloom-to-gloom journey so deftly and with so much exaggerated beauty (they’re such actors!) that it is insanity to not use them as a symbol for our own such invariable journeys, especially when ours come clanking with a heap of other things such as education, money-making, fiery brawls in the name of love, dinner concerns, hospital bills, anniversaries and anti-aging creams. We resist death till our last breath, flowers don’t.

Flowers, so authors, artists and bards have proven, are a neater and more presentable way of showing the loose-locked, haggling mortality. Fragility, vulnerability are themes that come with the package. But the best thing about flowers is that they also, like us, have a darker side. So it’s not just rosy-cheeked, wide-eyed maidens, susceptible to aging and dying, whom they represent but also temptresses with poisonous properties, old as evil, bringing death in their wake.

Gardens in literature are not exclusively happy places, that much is certain. Burnett’s ‘Secret Garden’ and Wilde’s ‘Nightingale and the Rose’ feature botany trailing metres of woe behind it. Poetry, too, testifies to that but the references are numberless, I wouldn’t know where to begin! In art, Chagall’s infatuated, levitating brides-in-white and flying fiddlers traverse skies spread with flowers or hover like drunk bees on summer nights around giant bouquets. And Odilon Redon’s chalky flowers manifest themselves out of dreamy, smoky backdrops of colour clouds. Innocence and purity poised against time. The passing by of things. Love fading. No, flowers are not happy props, nor gardens happy places.

Marc Chagall. ‘Bouquet with Flying Lovers’. Oil on canvas. 130.5 x 97.5 cm
Georgia O’Keeffe. ‘Black Iris’. Oil on canvas. 91.4 x 75.9 cm
Abraham Mignon. ‘The Nature as a Symbol of Vanitas’. Oil on canvas. 79 x 99 cm

But by the side we have also such darker allusions to flora as found in Hawthorne’s ‘Rappaccini’s Daughter’ and Rhys’ ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ – gardens planted with menace, poison lurking unabashed, dressed in deceptive, flowery garb. The symbolic role of flowers broadens. The flower achieves the position of a mermaid song. Georgia O’Keefe’s ravenous botany leers and gapes. Abraham Mignon’s stagey and almost dangerous floral still lives stretch their tentacles. And then, there’s Mondrian.

How can one describe the flowers painted by this enigma? What I can gather from what I’ve seen of his work and what I’ve read about him is that he had a very, very polarized relationship with flora. He claimed to hate flowers, painting them only because they sold, and yet that quivering sincerity with which he painted them suggests otherwise. His lilies, chrysanthemums and amaryllises are like sad spectres made to pose singly in the light. Why is it that the lilies, especially, seem almost ashamed? That strange, watery way in which they stand there, quietly drooping and bleeding is more touching than some of the techniques of verisimilitude applied in paintings of great sacrifice or heroism.

Mondrian. ‘Lily’. Watercolour on paper. 25 x 19 cm

And yet why, despite this near translucence displayed by the flowers, did Mondrian distrust them? Was it because he felt that in all their lovely pathos, they would overpower his senses and steer him away from the grid-work and geometry of logic? Or because, more like the cold-blooded Doctor Rappaccini from Hawthorne’s story, he had dissected them and discovered that there was nothing but a bare-boned, stone-faced mechanism behind their beautiful facades?


let’s talk about his paintings: Mike Worrall

An artist inspired me. Alone in the winter sun, when the light is dying, and the cold is creeping in; his paintings bloom like forlorn magic. Magic tricks, the power of illusion, and the darkness which lives inside all of us; Mike Worrall paints and my words emerge on paper.

“When the fiddlers play, the music reaches your ears, like a sunken man you try to approach the bridge. To cross, or to live on, and it evades you. When I’m lost in a maze of bewilderment, and the clock forever strikes twelve, your fairytale might be over, yet I never lived in one. When an Angel grasps a glowing light, a stricken man might run for cover. An arrow points, a failed delight, your fear is marked, yet mine remains alight. A naked arm might flee the force of its shadow. Yet in my mind, the darkness climbs and flees the timely terror. Paths collide, our way was shut, and adversity arises. In his vanity, you run to take a look in the mirror. A portrait of death, squeamish, uncovered. The cry of fright, the road from where he walks, away. The depths from where, the angst still shelters, the waves tumble over each other. Never awaken an angry sea, for where then will your refuge take cover?”

His mystery leaves me wondering… His symbolism, dark yet subtle, elusive yet bold. His pictures are a contrast of evasion, life, death and poetry. We make choices, we succumb to beauty, we lose ourselves in unstructured mazes. Choices await us and vanity attracts us. I might be afraid, and so many already are; what is waiting for us, who is taking from us, and where will it all end?

Mike Worrall’s personal website
Mike Worrall at Escape into Life

The Two Portraits of Johannes

Scarlett Johansson and Colin Firth in 'Girl With a Pearl Earring' (2003)

‘Girl With a Pearl Earring’ (Tracy Chevalier) – the book:

Vermeer is more of a thought than an actual person. He is like a very important reminder scribbled on the margins, never on the page itself, but teasing the reader’s consciousness throughout. His presence is skillfully brought to attention from the very start, by attributing to him a few but indelible qualities such as the steady sound of his voice and his minimal but resolute gestures. His two most prominent movements, for example, are grabbing a wrist to save a painting from being torn, and stating simply that the children have not been brought up well, to save a girl her job. He is a stranger in his own house, a cloud or moth or waft of something that seems to have drifted in, unable to form a relationship to anything or anyone else.

‘Girl With a Pearl Earring’ (Peter Webber) – the film:

Vermeer is less of a stranger and more of a prisoner in his own house. He is depicted more as shackled creativity than detached creativity. The air of barely controlled frenzy about him deviates from his calm bordering on impassivity in the book. In the book, one almost feels like probing the painter to take action at many points; in the film, the re-invented and somewhat Byronic persona assigned to him curbs that urge. It is, however, to be wondered at what works best; the poignancy is sharp, very sharp, in the book, when Griet discovers, a decade later, that the same painter whom she had given up as a glittering shard from a dream, nothing more, had managed to procure her portrait to look at her again. In the film, Vermeer is shown to be very blatantly snagged by her in comparison, and so the revelation to Griet at the end leaves a different impression.

We would ask now of Death

Fransisco De Goya 'The Straw Manikin'

Death is a testament to the inevitable and the frailty of life. In silence death reaps and grows until everything is consumed by darkness. Its silent footsteps screech through the dying air like the dive of an eagle catching its prey. When I close my eyes, I see it in slow motion. Almost as if the flight is too slow. In silence death comes, in silence it takes away and it teaches. Tonight I hear the silence I have heard too many times before death. The air around me is restless in agony. A soul will depart and nature is the first to mourn its departure. The spirit of the Earth, the Earth from which we were raised is the Earth to which we will go. We will turn to dust in its depths and it will house our corpses until it is time to rise again. The dirt will shackle us until then like life shackled us until we lived. Man will always be a slave, first to life, and then to death. Birth is the first sign of death, yet how can we expect death? It will take us by surprise, always. They cling to foolish hopes, they cling to foolish prayers, uttered in the anguish of unbearable pain, in the absence of sense and wits. Which God will accept our prayers then when we never remembered Him in our lifetime? They would not believe in His Power until He took from them what they cherished most- life. Death will remind you that there is a God. Death will tell you that there is balance. Death will consume but it is softer, less cruel than birth. Death is understanding, death is acceptance, and death is absolute.

…so I spun a wreath for the Followills.

The abominable excess, these days, of impatiently made music that sounds just too darn similar made me wonder if there is anyone who can vie for the role of classic in the years to come. What with teenage ‘rockstars’ being chugged out by unicorn-land TV, and music videos that are more ‘runway’ than ‘music’ anyway, the prospect doesn’t look too promising. But there are a few artistic melody-makers still, thankfully. Kings of Leon – definitely one of them (God bless those Followills).

Kings of Leon (brothers Caleb, Nathan and Jared Followill, with cousin Matthew Followill)

I’ve been listening to their last studio album since it came out in 2008, and not an inch of daylight sneaks into it. You don’t need to know what it’s called in order to tell what it’s about. It’s about night, it’s about love, it’s about all those daylight defences of yours peeling like old wallpaper come night. The vocals have an indelible pleading, thirsting feel to them. They’re night-creatures, these four. It’s like they took moonlight, vulnerability, highways and headlights, stretches of sleeping sand, and the crab that scuttles away from you when you light a match, and put it all under a giant, black microscope. But there is hardly anything inert about this music. It’s not the lullaby-like pushing-of-the-cradle kind of welcome for the night, it’s so charged with an energy bordering on frenzy.

I read that the album title, ‘Only by the Night’, is – in fact – from somewhere amidst Poe’s vast, icy factory of mind-boggling chills. Even better! Art meets art. Put in an Edward Hopper painting showing the strangely inviting, artificially lit up interior of a diner, fluorescent lights trying to keep the night at bay, and you’ve got nocturne in a nutshell.

Edgar Allan Poe
'Nighthawks' by Edward Hopper. Oil on canvas. 1942

Save Animation!

Animation, 2D and 3D, works best when it has a distinct visual feel to it, a recognizable palette that forever after becomes synonymous with its name and characters, an array of shapes and motifs that help make it distinguishable from other features. Disney’s 1997 ‘Hercules’, for instance, had ancient Greece etched even into the chins and shins of the characters. In that remarkable work of art, if a pot broke, the puff of dust would be a series of lines right out of a Grecian Urn.

Disney's 'Hercules' (1997)

‘Pocahontas’ also had a very marked sensation of its own. Think ‘Pocahontas’, think bold symmetry and rich texture, think elemental forms and dramatic colours lifted from totemic masks. Inspired by a beautiful culture that strikes me as shy and strongly individualistic at the same time, its straight, heavy oaks and thick beams of sunlight provide a stunning backdrop to the story. These are animated films that my memory stored more in terms of the strong visual impression that they left than anything else. This is not to say that the plot or characterization were weak, it’s just that the first jolt of remembrance usually brings back the most basic, overall feel or flavor of anything. The details unfold only subsequently.

Concept Art from Disney's 'Pocahontas'

Where most animated features of today fail is this domain. They give you fast-paced action, smart-talking characters voiced (and completely possessed!) by celebrities, one-liners, fancy slow-motion sequences, sultry acoustic songs playing where, in the Disney tradition, a whole musical would have taken place, CGI gloss and crispness, a gazillion references to pop-culture, mini-parodies, mini-commercials…almost everything under the sun except for a good ol’ dose of defining, hard-to-forget visual imagery. Take ‘Shrek’, take ‘Monsters vs. Aliens’, even ‘Up’ to some extent. Entertaining. Not exactly memorable. You forget them like that Coke you just had.

And no, their being 3D has nothing to do with it. Hardcore animators like Glen Keane prove that; Disney’s forthcoming ‘Tangled’ is a 3D animation but as grounded in fine art as the 2D films from Disney’s golden age. Its entire feel is determined by Fragonard’s painting ‘the Swing’, a Rococo landmark, fresh and pretty like bright cream squiggles on a sunset-pink cake. From what I’ve seen of ‘Tangled’ stills so far, it’s apparent that this inspiration is never lost. There’s something of ‘the Swing’ in every shot. And, thankfully, the animators have not felt it incumbent on them to interpret 3D as realistic. There is a degree of stylization that has been missing for far too long from the screen!

'The Swing' by Jean-Honoré Fragonard. 1767

Production still from Disney's forthcoming 3D feature 'Tangled'

In order to set a tone to a story and bring about any kind of coherence, you need to draw your colours, costumes, makeup, props and sets from the same well. If your story is set in Arab, your characters and architecture, even your skies and trees and flowers and bees need to assert that. If it is China, your tableau needs to have negative spaces as pregnant with force and mystery as those in the most familiar of Chinese watercolour landscapes (makers of ‘Aladdin’ and ‘Mulan’, kudos!). If your tale has its origins in Celtic lore, you need to get that across unrestrainedly to your audience. You need to not just talk about the designs from a Celtic manuscript, you need to mould the stage and the actors in their shape (hail ‘The Secret of Kells’ for doing precisely this).

Animated films, like their live-action counterparts, need to really be set aside from each other in a world that is growing irritatingly reliant on second-hand storytelling and disturbing computer-generated realism at the expense of artistic achievement.

Dialogue. I

Time is a surgeon, old and wheezing. He sews you up and fills you in. Your cuts and craters are cleaned and mended. The clinging words pulled out of you, your nostalgia amended. The losses and stories you held dearer than gold? They’re tweaked out of you like a bit of mould.

Your image belongs in a storybook, a play. A Goya painting perhaps, a scene from Wilde. You cannot describe Time like a child. A graph would do, solemn and straight. Precision is Time’s only trait. Time is cold, agreed, but give it not a guise. Dressing it up in robes is not too wise. It deserves a representation true to its form. A graph, a clock, to which we all conform.

Why replace the costume with a sober chart? Does not role-playing appeal more to the heart? There was a beauty to it when the pagan gods were assigned, the power to be cruel, the power to be kind. The planets were attuned with their tantrums and whims, not with a science sung in numeric hymns. Time fixed me up as good as new. I see him more as a surgeon than a numbers few.

Then it is not Time but a poem that you see. Time transcends every image, every simile. Time is colourless, don’t colour it in. Time is a spectre, don’t give it skin. Time has meaning, but not a part to play. It points and marks but has no words to say.

Sharp surgical tools arranged on a tray…?

No. Just mechanical fingers pointing away.