Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, December 27, 2013

The Unconscious and 20th Century Art



  I think if I had to pick a single theme to differentiate art from the 19th vs. art from the 20th century it would be the development of the unconscious as an artistic theme at the beginning of the 20th century.    This shift was really brought to the foreground by the theories of Sigmund Freud, who essentially made "scientific" what had been a non-scientific/philosophical subject in the late 19th century.  Prior to Freud you can see an interest in the philosophical side of the unconscious in the works of Henry James, but it isn't until after Freud that the 20th century would see a full flowering of interest in the role of unconscious in our day-to-day conscious life.

 The unconscious was present as a theme in the art of the Romantics as early as the late 18th century- the poetry of Wordsworth, Blake and Coleridge for example.  However, in the context of Romanticism there was no interest in understanding the unconscious.  Rather, the dream state/state of unconsciousness served as a proxy/substitute for ideas of CONSCIOUSNESS that derive from Christianity- state of grace, etc.

 An interest in understanding the role of the unconscious in art is traceable to the work of William James, who published his landmark, pre-Freudian, Principles of Psychology, in 1890.  An interest in this subject first manifested in literature in terms of experiments with the presentation of the consciousness of the narrator within a novel.  Here, the later works of Henry James are illustrative:  You can think of the narrator of The Ambassadors- where nothing outside his scope of vision is presented the reader.  What Maisie Knew (1897) similarly restricted the omnipresence of the narrator.  However, for Henry James it was more about restricting information than exploring meanings and the interior landscape of emotion.

  In the 1910s-1920s, important steps where made both by novelists like D.H. Lawrence and Gertrude Stein as well as by visual Artists who would be dubbed "Surrealists" by critics and academics.  It was the explosion of Surrealism in the 1920s that would really put the unconscious in the foreground of artistic thought for the next hundred years.   Even Artists who could not ever be described as Surrealists were influenced by the Surrealists obsessions with the unconscious, dreams and symbols.

 This influence was magnified by the development of "art film" in the 1920s, by Carl Th. Dreyer in his landmark The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and by the German Expressionist Films of the 1920s: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920),  Metropolis (1927) and The Last Laugh (1924), among others.   By the dawn of the 1930s, the unconscious was the pre-eminent consideration for "serious" Artists, and this pre-occupation in turn influenced arts  in the more capitalistic/market influenced spheres that were also developing at the same time: mass market advertising, mass market media to name two.

  This influence continues today, unabated, a century later, so taken for granted that it almost goes without mention.  "We are want we think, except when we are influenced by what we don't think."  It is a paradox at the hear of the modern condition, and well worth spending time and intellectual energy investigating.

  Happy New Year everyone- it's all pre written posts between now and the second week of January, so feel free to tune out until then if you don't totally dig the Criterion Collection and early 20th century Literature, because that is all I have left.  I appreciate my regular readers! There are only maybe of 50 of you guys- thank you for reading this blog!

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Three Lives (1909) by Gertrude Stein

Gertrude Stein, literary modernist.

Book Review
Three Lives (1909)
by Gertrude Stein

  If Henry James is the originator of literary modernism, typified by an approach that plays with narrative convention and the established forms of the novel, Gertrude Stein is one of the first disciples.  Three Lives was her first novel, and the publication history should resonate with anyone who plies their art form in the "indie world."  Published as a kind of favor with little prospect for popular success, "Let me get this straight Gertrude, you want to publish a novel that consists of three semi-stream of consciousness narratives about working class women in a small southern town, and one of the women is Black?  This is not what people want to read about!"  Three Lives was aggressively promoted by Stein herself, and found favor with what would be known in the 20th century as the "avant-garde."  Stein herself is like a charter member of the 20th century avant-garde, what with her being a Lesbian, American who lived in Paris and translated Gustave Flaubert.   Flaubert and Henry James are all over Three Lives in terms of being a recognizable influence

  Stein would get more and more modernist and increasingly abstract as her career progressed, making Three Lives the Stein equivalent of Henry James Portrait of a Lady.  But in the difference in subject matter: James with his trad literary take on the marriage plot, and Stein with a radical subject choice of working class women in 19th century America, you can see all the difference between the time James was writing and the time Stein was writing.

 What Stein was doing was not radical for a French novel (in terms of subject matter) and not particularly radical in terms of the English language narrative innovations brought about by James, but the combination of the two strands in this accessible book is itself notable.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Ashes and Diamonds (1958) d. Andrzej Wajda

Zbigniew Cybulski turns in an iconic performance as the cynical soldier/killer in Andrzej Wajda's 1958 film Ashes and Diamonds.

Movie Review
Ashes and Diamonds (1958)
 d. Andrzej Wajda
Criterion Collection #285

   Why not post a movie review on Christmas?  It's not like I'm actually writing this post the night before Christmas.  Ashes and Diamonds is a pretty cool Polish picture about the aftermath of World War II in Poland, when the Polish resistance continued to resist against the new Soviet backed Communist regime by assassinating officials and so forth.  Bear in mind that this movie came out in 1958, while Poland was (obviously) a Communist state.

  The main character, Maciek Chelmicki, played by Zbigniew Cybulski is a disillusioned veteran of the resistance, called upon to do "one last job" by assassinating sympathetic government official who has recently returned from war time exile in Russia.  The job goes wrong initially, leading to two unnecessary deaths,  and Chelmicki is forced to skulk around the Hotel where the target is staying for a local banquet honoring the local Mayor, who is on the verge of becoming a minister.

 While he waits for his moment, he woos the comely barmaid Krystyna, who shows him enough for him to decide that he is tired of the fighting life.... but first... he must finish this one last job.  Other than Cybulski's iconic turn as Chelmicki: A cool anti-hero with all the charm of a James Dean or Steven McQueen, Ashes and Diamonds is fairly unremarkable save for the fact that it is a Polish film from 1958 operating at a high level of "Hollywood" style professionalism.

  Ashes and Diamonds is not particularly riveting, particularly during the courtship sequences, but it is overall a work of high caliber and certainly an unexpected surprise.  The films from Eastern Europe/Soviet Union may be the biggest delight for me out of the entire collection.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Tono-Bungay (1908) d. H.G. Wells


Book Review
Tono-Bungay (1908)
d. H.G. Wells

  It is commonly observed that Tono-Bungay is H.G. Wells most "artistic" novel.  Unfortunately, the statement is always made by someone who wouldn't call War of the Worlds "artistic," so I don't personally think that (Tono-Bunday is H.G. Wells most "artistic" novel.)  It is, however, NOT a science fiction book, rather a coming of age story adapted for "modern" times.  The main character is Well-sian if not Wells himself.  The protagonist is George Ponderevo, a young man on the hustle (but with consider scientific adeptness and a college level education) who is persuaded to help manufacture a patent medicine (Tono-Bungay) with his ne'er do-well Uncle Edward.

 The two achieve major success based on what we would today call "savvy marketing."  After success is achieved George Ponderevo retreats to the country to romance a fair lady and experiment with aircraft design in what can loosely be described as "in the style of the Wright brothers."  After his Uncle Edward suffers financial reversals, George takes a boat to the coast of Africa to find an expensive radioactive substance called "Quap" which he hopes to sell.  The expedition meets with disaster and Ponderevo ends the novel, in somewhat ominous fashion, building "destroyers" for a private company.

 I think probably the best analogy for Tono-Bungay is in terms of Ayn Rand.   Wells' "George Ponderevo" character is a kind of Nietzschian super man who questions god, society and the laws of nature themselves.  Tono-Bungay is also a kind of precursor to the pop-philosophical novels of the 60s, like those by Herman Hesse, for example.  At the same time, Tono-Bungay is impressive in terms of idea, not in terms of craft.  Wells was writing well into the post-Henry James period of literary modernism but he clearly either didn't get it, or didn't want to get it.

  The coming of age narrative model is a step back in time to the mid 19th century, but the modernity of the ideas expressed by Ponderevo compensates for the lack of formal innovation.
   

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