Category Archives: Art

Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For

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posterLast night I went to a Sin City double feature where I watched the original followed by the sequel in 3D. Very entertaining and well made, the 3d enhances the unique visual style of the original and yet, and yet… My biggest feeling after seeing the movies, and 300 as well (I haven’t seen 300: Rise of an Empire, but can’t wait after reading this wonderful review) is that of colossally wasted opportunities. Brilliant visuals and great actors are completely thrown away on shallow, ugly-minded content.

The Sin City movies are based on the comics by Frank Miller, a series of hard-boiled cinema-noir tales rendered in striking monochrome. Ground-breaking when they first came out, they followed the interwoven stories of a set of fantastically realised characters including Marv the lunky thug who Miller described as ‘Conan in a trenchcoat’ (Mickey Rourke in the movies), the tormented con trying to go straight Dwight McCarthy (Clive Owen in Sin City, Josh Brolin in Sin City 2) and exotic dancer  Nancy Callahan (based on screen time, played largely by Jessica Alba’s bum in both movies). The films cleverly maintain the intricacies of the comics by weaving together a handful of linked tales in each. Of all the main characters the one you end up gunning for the most is Marv, largely because he’s refreshingly untainted by the self-absorbed wee-small-hours-in-the-morning soul-searching of everyone else and is often downright funny – humour or any sense of irony is in woefully short supply in Frank Miller’s movies.

Marv - played by Mickey Rourke

Marv – played by Mickey Rourke

The most impressive thing about the films is the visual look and feel. Partly taken from the comics themselves, partly channelling the hard-boiled detective films of the 1940s with a massive dose of German Expressionism thrown in, almost every shot is fantastically composed and lit in dramatic monochrome. As a stroke of genius, the comic’s use of spot colour is replicated – a woman’s red dress, eyes glowing green etc. Rendering blood in white most of the time or, in one case, bright yellow, allows for lots of gore without the screen being filled incessantly with red (though in the second film blood reverts to its natural colour more often than not). Clever little touches include rendering props in white outline to add to the comic-book feel. This is particularly well done with glasses, dehumanising the characters at the point when their passions turn them into (usually) raging killing machines. The films back to back add up to a triumph of design and composition that still takes your breath away even after four hours and both films. Little Miho’s attack on the Roark Mansion at the end of Sin City 2 is particularly impressive, even in its silliest moments.

Little Miho - played by Jamie Chung

Little Miho – played by Jamie Chung

The problem with the Sin City movies, and 300, lies in the script. Part of the issue is that a certain type of comic dialogue doesn’t translate into film. Miller’s writing is an odd mix of film-noir internal monologue and the kind of portentous exchanges that used to dog Marvel Comics in the 1970s, where characters just made grandiose pronouncements at each other, instead of having conversations (“Now you two will be next to freeze and burn in the grip of Equinox the Thermodynamic Man!”). As every tale is ultimately one of vengeance against an utter, unredeemable villain set in the run-down foulness of Sin City’s slums then all the internal monologues follow the same pattern – a) Struggling to keep a grip/go straight, b) Her beauty hooked me in c) They beat me up d) We killed everyone in a murderous yet satisfying rage – rinse and repeat. Compared to the wit and intelligence of Howard Hawk’s The Big Sleep or The Maltese Falcon, whose wise-cracking scripts the movies are clearly referencing, this is like being hit over the head repeatedly with the sledgehammer used on Marv during one interrogation scene. On top of this the relentless violence and misogyny are extremely wearing. There’s been an interesting debate going on over here in Jane Dougherty’s blog about what makes a true ‘kick-ass heroine’. In Sin City it’s clear – prostitutes in thongs and fishnets with their tits hanging out and a machine gun in each hand. It’s essentially Chicks with Guns (I refuse to add a link, you can look it up yourself) meets the South Park episode Major Boobage – a 14-year old boy’s idea of what a ‘strong woman’ should be.

Dwight - played by Josh Brolin

Enough has been written on Frank Miller’s politics so I won’t re-tread old ground here. 300 nailed his beliefs to the mast in lurid primary colours when it recast the brutal and cruel slave-based Spartan state as champions  of some warped Tea-Party view of the American Constitution, as did his comments on the Occupy Movement. His comics are clearly capable of ground-breaking design and intelligence, yet none of that comes through in the films which end up being sub-Tarantino grindcore without any humour or wit. What I’d really like to see, for example, is the same stunning 300 bravura style being applied to the Oresteia of Aeschylus – that would be something worth seeing – or a Sin City with a script that captured all the smartness and sophistication of a Bogart/Bacall movie. At the moment all we seem to have is a tedious parade of boobs, bums and blood narrated by a crowd of self-absorbed bores. Except Marv. Marv is cool – he should have his own TV series.

Soviet Space Art

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Our triumph in Space is a hymn to the Soviet nation!

Our triumph in Space is a hymn to the Soviet nation!

Last week I was working in Russia. I attended a conference in Tver, halfway between Moscow and St Petersburg where I was set on fire. I was also asked to be one of the judges for a final graduation film for one of the students at the All Russian Cinematography University (VGIK for short). As a thank-you present I received a set of 25 posters from the Soviet space race, mostly dated from the early 1960s. Funnily enough on the plane there and back I watched the movie Gagarin: First in Space, a Russian biopic of the first spaceman released in 2013. It’s a fascinating yet oddly unsatisfying movie, largely because its an unashamedly hagiographic portrait of the man. Others have commented that it feels like a Soviet Realist propaganda film of the era, where the bold Cosmonauts can do no wrong in their dedication to the cause. Gagarin, who in real life was clearly a complex man frustrated by the fact he wasn’t allowed anywhere near a rocket after his one flight, comes across as so too good to be true you want to punch him. It’s not The Right Stuff, and lacks all that movie’s acerbic portrayal of inter-astronaut rivalry, political shenanigans and down-right ludicrous training scenes (which it clearly tries to copy). It also suffers from Realistic Space Movie syndrome, whereby crises tend to be involve people shouting things like ‘There’s no signal from KP-3′ at which point everyone goes white as a sheet and runs round panicking and pointing at ticker tapes until someone says, ‘There is a signal from KP-3′, everyone breaks down into tears of relief and the audience go ‘Huh?’.

In the name of peace and progress!

In the name of peace and progress!

Having said that, overall it’s a great slice of Soviet space history with some very cool effects showing the Vostok I capsule whizzing over the earth. It also shows two things that were never mentioned at the time. Firstly Gagarin’s capsule didn’t separate properly before re-entry and they had to rely on atmospheric friction burning off the back half of module before the whole assembly destabilised. Secondly Gagarin ejected from the capsule before it hit the ground. This was planned all along but hushed up because for the flight to be recognised as a proper space flight the astronaut was supposed to accompany the vehicle from point of take off to point of landing.

Anyway – film aside, the posters, produced in the set Space Will Be Ours! by Kontakt Publishers of  Moscow are a wonderful record of the optimism and enthusiasm of the space age seen from the Soviet perspective. I’ve chosen my favourites and here they are for you to enjoy:

 

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Soviet citizen be proud! The way to the distant stars has been discovered!

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Long live the Soviet people – the space pioneers!

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Long live the first woman cosmonaut!

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We are born to make dreams come true!

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We are creative, friendly and clever. We’re making Space peaceful forever!

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Let’s conquer Space!

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Long live the first cosmonaut, Yu. A. Gagarin!

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For the glory of Communism!

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Long live Soviet science! Long live the Soviet man – the first cosmonaut!

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Space is going to serve the people!

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The distance to the furthest planet is not that far!

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We’ll pave the way to distant worlds, and solve the mysteries of the Universe!

 

More Grotesque – the world of Bosch and Bruegel

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Good, spiritual angels battle fallen angels that look like the animated contents of someone's larder.

The Fall of the Rebel Angels by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, complete with typically grotesque devils.

This is the second post in a short series about the Grotesque, that sub-genre of Horror and Fantasy that’s characterised by physical distortion, dream imagery and the ordinary made monstrous. In this article I’m going to talk about the Grotesque during the Renaissance, specifically in the works of artists like Hieronymous Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The history of the Grotesque is really odd because during this early period it was positive, whereas in the 19th and 20th century, in the hands of writers like Dickens and Kafka, and artists like Goya, it became relentlessly negative, dark and horrific. So why the change, and how can the Grotesque, which we associate with revulsion, be seen as the imagery of fun and playfulness?

Part of the problem is one of definition, and the difficulties of imposing modern ideas on the past. Language changes for a start, in Jane Austen’s day nice meant precise, rather than the modern meaning of blandly pleasant. Similarly grotesque has shifted in meaning, from a reference to amorphous decorative arts to the ugly and distorted. Secondly people often make simple value judgements, calling things grotesque because they don’t understand what they’re looking at. In the past grotesque was a lazy response to things that didn’t fit in with Western ideas of art and beauty. Nazi art critic Robert Scholz  typically referred to Modern Art as degenerate and ‘grotesque’.

Waiting for The Who to come on. Woodstock 1560 in Hieronymous Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights.

Waiting for The Who to come on. Woodstock 1560 in Hieronymous Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights.

We run up against this problem time and time again with the paintings of the 15th century Dutch artist Hieronymous Bosch, who was ‘rediscovered’ in the 1960s and 70s after being largely dismissed as a crude oik compared to contemporaries like Botticelli. In the Psychedelia age, swimming in LSD and suffused with ideas poached from Freud, Bosch’s paintings seemed the work of a visionary genius who’d somehow tapped directly into the world of dreams, especially his famous triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights, painted between 1490 and 1510. The middle panel, in which naked hedonists frolic on piles of enormous fruit and crawl in and out of strange alchemical vessels, is Woodstock as it Should Have Been, while the famous hell scene on the right (with its Portrait of the Artist as Weird Boat-Shoed Tree Trunk Thing) is the ultimate Bad Trip. Again, this is imposing modern Freudian theories on the past, twisting the original to fit a modern template of Nightmares from the Id instead of trying to put the artwork into its historical context.

Symbolism incomprehensible to us but probably as clear as a bell to the Brotherhood of Our Lady of 's Hertogenbosch

Symbolism incomprehensible to us but probably as clear as a bell to the Brotherhood of Our Lady of ‘s Hertogenbosch

Bosch’s imagery still has plenty of people scratching their heads because he was drawing on images and symbols from Dutch proverbs, Renaissance alchemy and the ideas of the mystical sect he belonged to, which had its own esoteric symbolism. We might look at a fish devil with an iron cauldron hat eating sinners and then pooing them out of a glass bottom, and wonder what this guy was on. Members of the Brotherhood of Our Lady in ’s-Hertogenbosch (the town where Bosch lived and worked) probably nodded sagely because they got the references and appreciated the moral lesson behind the image. Bosch’s paintings were also part of a wider, popular response to an increasingly ossified and corrupt Church of Rome and this is where the link between the Grotesque and the Carnival in Renaissance culture appears.

In the late Medieval and early Renaissance world established Christianity was a pretty unforgiving, ascetic and heavy-handed political tool run by a Church more or less in cahoots with the State. For the peasant it was all about putting up with misery and knowing your place in the Great Chain of Being (God and the angels at the top, King and Nobles in the middle, then you at the bottom, somewhere between Rats and Turds). The spiritual man denied the flesh and sought to achieve grace through a purity of soul and heart. The loutish villein wallowed in filth, understandably obsessed with the sinful cravings of the body – such as hunger, thirst and lust. Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s delightful painting The Land of Cockayne shows the peasant idea of heaven – a place of endless food and booze where cooked chickens run round in easy reach and one poor guy has passed out, spoon in hand, after eating through a hill made of pudding. So the lower orders fixated on everything below the navel, while the Church and the Spiritual focussed on everything above. For most of the year the aristocratic Head ruled the peasant Stomach, Privates and Bum, except on the day of Carnival.

The Land of Cokayne by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

The tradition of Carnival that Bosch and Bruegel knew stemmed from the Roman Saturnalia. Part of the festivities involved the inversion of the natural order. For one day the roles of slave and master were reversed (to a degree) and a King of Fools elected. This later turned into the festivals before Lent, where everyone feasted before giving up chocolate or the medieval equivalent in the run-up to Easter. For a brief period of time the world was turned upside down, and all the gross physicality of peasant life was celebrated at the expense of the ascetic. The glorification of eating, drinking, fornicating and passing out on the toilet was an 24-hour raspberry aimed at the Church, who were reasonably happy to tolerate a brief orgy of vice because it allowed people to let off steam before the chains went back on. Bruegel’s painting The Fight Between Carnival and Lent (1559) sums this up perfectly. At the bottom of a panorama of village life filled with people playing, eating and boozing two figures are having a joust. The guy on the right, gaunt and miserable with a bucket on his head, represents the Pope armed with what looks like a flagellant’s bat (for a bit of flesh-mortifying). His opponent, fat and jolly, rides a wine barrel, has a pie for a helmet, is armed with a BBQ skewer and has an eye-watering cod piece.

Detail from the Fight Between Carnival and Lent by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Detail from the Fight Between Carnival and Lent by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

So in this context the Grotesque, with it association with exaggerated bodily functions, the destruction of the natural order and pagan amorphism, is an exuberant (albeit short lived) revolt against the asceticism of the Church and all its self-controlled pieties. Medieval religion would keep us all neatly compartmentalised in a chilling framework in which the soul and spirit triumphed over our nethers. Bosch and Breugel’s grotesque and funny depictions of daily life were part of a resistance to this grim world-view rooted in, and valorising, all those aspects of popular peasant life that the Bishops sneered at.

A reasonably restrained illustration by Gustave Doré from Gargantua and PantagruelThe Carnival Grotesque of Bosch and Breugel reached its apotheosis with the publication of Françoise Rabelais’s book Gargantua and Pantagruel, a five-book epic tale of absurd gluttony, excess and toilet humour first published (and then banned) in the early 16th century. Despite (or perhaps because) he was a monk Rabelais turned the crude nonsense knob all the way up to eleven. Here’s a representative quote:

The occasion and manner how Gargamelle was brought to bed, and delivered of her child, was thus: and, if you do not believe it, I wish your bum-gut fall out and make an escapade. Her bum-gut, indeed, or fundament escaped her in an afternoon, on the third day of February, with having eaten at dinner too many godebillios.

And on it goes, and on and on, like a not very funny edition of the UK comic Viz. After reading the first joke once it soon gets unbelievably repetitive – with endless grotesque absurdities liberally spattered in manure, vomit and fart humour. As a great work of humanist literature it’s perhaps not on a par with, say, Don Quixote, but it’s a perfect example of the Carnival Grotesque, where the earthy peasant world gets a brief chance to laugh in the face of sour-mouthed spiritualism, and fling a few choice turds at the vestments.

In the next article in the series I’ll have a go at explaining why this exuberant and comical grotesque culture switched into a far darker genre of madness, nightmares and monsters as the centuries progressed. In the meantime if you want to find out more about the Carnival Grotesque the definitive book on the subject is Mikhail Bakhtin’s brilliant study Rabelais and His World.

 

Patrick Woodroffe

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The Radio Planet by Ralph Milney-Farley, Ace Books

I’d already planned on doing an article on the fantasy artist Patrick Woodroffe when the news came in that he’d passed away and so, sadly, this has become my personal tribute to his powerful and often frightening imagination. Patrick Woodroffe was one of a small group of painters and sculptors working in the 1970s whose book covers stood out in a genre increasingly dominated by the Precisionist realism of Chris Foss and his many imitators. Woodroffe, like his contemporaries Ian Miller and Rodney Matthews, produced canvases that were an intriguing, and often disturbing, combination of fairy tale whimsey and twisted dream imagery. In his book Mythopeikon, published by Dragon’s World in 1976, he cited both Salvador Dali and the Dutch and Flemish Renaissance artists (Hieronymous Bosch and Peter Breughel the Elder) as among his main sources of inspiration. He was also working very much in the tradition of the Bohemian artisan creative of the 60s and 70s – local painters and sculptors scattered throughout the English countryside producing work that cleverly mixed together ideas from nature, folk lore, fairy-tale images and nursery rhyme nonsense shot through with doses of Freud and LSD. The narrative accompanying his early watercolour Masked Ball sums up this zeitgeist pretty accurately and could easily have been the sleeve notes from a Gong or Amon Düül album:

Patrick_Woodroffe_MaskedBall

“I’m a tiger!” says the girl with the platinum hair. Her borrowed pelt invites caresses. The Rainbow Man, meteordynamic, spirit of the storm, spins in at the double doors.”

The grim realities of the late industrial Victorian age gave rise to a peculiarly English type of fantastic nonsense, epitomised by the writing of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll. It’s little wonder that the collapse of the wartime social consensus in the 1960s, and a Cold War marked by the long shadow of the Bomb, encouraged the same. Like the Pre-Raphaelites they identified with, 60s and 70s art ‘rebels’ in England turned back to the imagery of child-like carnivals mixed up with a large dose of Freud and the odd tab of Acid.  At its worst it could be self-indulgent and narcissistic, but at its best, as in the paintings of Patrick Woodroffe, it had a wonderfully lunatic vibrancy that cheerfully stuck two fingers up at The Man, and the harsh media landscapes of American Pop Art. Filled with imagery from nurseries and picture books (especially smiling sun and moon faces) his non commercial works manage to tread the very fine line between infantile fantasy and full-blown freaky nightmare that characterises grotesque art.

Patrick_Woodroffe_EverlastingCovenantHis 3D painting I’m Coming to Get You is a perfect example. With its benign sun and field of chirpy faces it looks like it belongs next to someone’s cot, but I wouldn’t want it in the house because I know it would give me nightmares for weeks. The fact that a lot of his work was in 3D doesn’t help – all it means is that it looks like all those strange creatures are emerging into our world where they really don’t belong. The Everlasting Covenant is just as bad, and the fact that it’s from a quote from Genesis doesn’t help much.

Patrick Woodroffe’s commercial cover art for publishers like Corgi stood out from the rest because of its sheer vibrancy, and the fact that he could give a book cover an incredible sense of place and character, even the images that don’t have strong single figure. The monstrous blue harlequin he created in 1975 for the cover of the Avon edition of Jack Vance’s The Gray Prince is a perfect example. Clearly influenced by Italian Renaissance portraiture the creature gives off a fantastic vibe of sinister, opulent evil combined with real tragedy. His triptych for Piers Anthony’ s Battle Circle trilogy (Sos the Rope, Var the Stick and Neq the Sword) has the same wonderful sense of both place and person.

Jack Vance, The Gray Prince, Avon Books

Patrick Woodroffe’s figure work was often exaggerated or distorted, not from lack of skill but rather from the overall fantastic aesthetic he brought to the image. His covers were characterised by bright, vivid colours, a meticulous attention to textural detail and the desire to fill each painting with a wealth of information which rarely overloaded the picture. His covers for the Quartet Corum: The Prince with the Silver Hand series, which he acknowledged were influenced by the fruit and veg portraits of the Milanese painter Arcimboldo, match the baroque intensity of the books themselves and act almost as an emblematic index to the tales of the Eternal Champion.

Sos the Rope

Inevitably given his interests and background, his spaceships were less assured. He also painted covers for such classic hard-boiled detective novels as Dashiell Hammett’s The Big Knockover and Red Harvest which, while unusual, look completely out of place in the context of the stories themselves.

Patrickwoodroffe

Patrick Woodroffe’s website is as quirky and original as the artist. His recent work saw a return to Flemish inspired wooden box triptychs filled with smiling suns and brightly coloured surreal iconography mainly inspired, it seems, by his own naturalist folk art take on Christianity. The dark scary edge has gone from most of the works and even to a grumpy old atheist like myself they represent a joyful and quite beautiful portfolio of works. It’s a real tragedy that Patrick Woodroffe passed away as his art would often lighten up a tired and derivative shelf of covers in W. H. Smiths in the 1970s and he rarely failed to do justice the fantasy books he illustrated.

The Grotesque

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From Hieronymous Bosch - The Garden of Earthly Delights

From Hieronymous Bosch – The Garden of Earthly Delights

This is the first in a series of posts looking at the Grotesque in literature and art. It’s a subject that’s fascinated me for years (in fact I wrote my Masters thesis about it during the time of the Old Republic). I thought I’d kick off by trying to understand what makes something in writing or painting Grotesque, as opposed to fantastic or horrific. It’s probably a good idea to begin with the origins of the word itself.

Grotesque ornaments similar to those found on the walls of Nero's palace.

Grotesque ornaments similar to those found on the walls of Nero’s palace.

At the height of the Italian Renaissance explorers and enthusiasts of Classical Antiquity punched holes in the roof of Golden Dome at the then-buried villa of the Emperor Nero. Inside they found the ancient halls decorated with intricate patterns that combined human, plant and animal forms. They called this re-discovered style of decoration ‘grotesque’, from the Italian word for cave - grotta. Nowadays the word grotesque is used to mean something unpleasantly distorted to the extreme, but it also refers to a specific type of art or literature that hovers on the border between horror and fantasy, yet which really belongs to neither. It’s a rarely-explored sub-genre that lumps together Hieronymous Bosch with Charles Dickens, Kafka and Mervyn Peake. For some reason, during its long history it’s also transformed itself from something associated with peasant carnivals – an exuberant overdose of gluttony, sex and bodily functions that gleefully stuck two fingers up at the established church  - to an art form linked to 20th century alienation, Freudian nightmares and body horror, Kafka’s short story ‘The Metamorphosis’ (1915) being the classic example.

Peter Kuper's comic book adaptation of Metamorphosis

Peter Kuper’s comic book adaptation of Metamorphosis

There hasn’t been a vast amount written about the Grotesque in art, but what does exist offers a handy list of characteristics peculiar to the style, which give clues as to why it is both transgressive and disturbing.

1) Normal boundaries between people, animals and things are broken down. The frescoes in Nero’s hall display the decorative end of a spectrum that, at the other end, has Bosch building horrific monsters out of creatures combined with everyday objects. The helmet with human legs and a bird’s beak  at the top of the page is a classic example. God only knows what it’s supposed to be but it’s the stuff of nightmares, simply because those items are not supposed to be together like that, let alone threatening a bloke being kissed by a pig in a wimple.

2) People are described as objects, objects start to appear human. This is a favourite of Charles Dickens and, to a lesser extent, Mervyn Peake. The latter’s Grey Scrubbers who scour the flagstones of Gormenghast’s kitchens in Titus Groan take on the characteristics of the floor they clean – with little pebble eyes and mouths like the cracks between the stones. Gormenghast castle itself, on the other hand, becomes an almost living, breathing entity. Dolls that come to life are favourite and guaranteed to inject toe-curling terror into any tale. Lucy Clifford’s The New Mother (1882) with her glass eyes, doctor’s bag and articulated wooden tale is the grotesque escaped doll turned monstrous parent par excellence.

3) The body itself starts to disintegrate and becomes an object of disgust and alienation. Gregor Samsa turns into an enormous bug in ‘The Metamorphosis’, though his reaction, instead of being OHMYGODI’VETURNEDINTOAF*****GCOCKROACH, is to wonder how he’s going to get out of bed and get to work. In other tales, most famously Gogol’s ‘The Nose’ (1836), bits fall off and take on a life of their own. In Gogol’s tale the hero’s nose escapes and ends up as a senior civil servant

In Gogol's The Nose the hero's nose wanders off and joins the Civil Service.

In Gogol’s The Nose the hero’s nose wanders off and joins the Civil Service.

4) Scale becomes distorted, combined with sudden and disorienting shifts of perspective. Giants figure prominently in Grotesque tales, as do images of (chiefly) men lost in vast nightmarish landscapes. Orson Welles captured this rather well in his 1962 version of The Trial when in one scene Josef K (played by Anthony Perkins) steps through a door only to have it grow to an immense size when he’s on the other side.

Scale distorted in Orson Welles' film of Kafka's The Trial.

Scale distorted in Orson Welles’ film of Kafka’s The Trial.

5) The Grotesque is associated with the perspective of children. This is a characteristic of the later Grotesque and there is a suggestion that writers like Kafka or Dickens suffered from an ‘arrested childhood consciousness’ which made them feel that they were in a world with rules made for everyone else (i.e. adults) and in which they were helpless and child-like victims. I’ll talk about this in detail in a later post but it’s worth quoting Kafka’s ‘Letter to his Father’ (1919) where he hits this particular nail on the head:

Hence the world was for me divided into three parts: one in which I, the slave, lived under laws that had been invented only for me and which I could, I did not know why, never completely comply with; then a second world, which was infinitely remote from mine, in which you lived, concerned with government, with the issuing of orders and with the annoyance about their not being obeyed; and finally a third world where everybody else lived happily and free from orders and from having to obey.

So The Grotesque is a very physical art form that plays on disorientation and alienation – very different from fantasy or classic horror which makes a clear distinction between the normal and the fantastic or supernatural. Later on I’ll look at some examples of Grotesque art, starting with the early, more positive imagery linked to the idea of the carnival or satire, and then delving into the truly nightmarish worlds of Dickens, Kafka, David Lindsay and others.

The Folio Society and The Easton Press

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The Folio Society Fahrenheit 451

I’ve always been a sucker for beautiful books. Growing up in an arty/literary family meant that every member more or less had their own personal library covering at least one wall of their room. My parents collected  The Folio Society books in particular, so I was introduced them when I was about 7 years old. That one picture I could never bear to look at as a child was the illustration to ‘Count Magnus’ in the Folio collection of The Ghost Stories of M.R. James, so I hid the book behind the fire place so no-one could jump out and wave it in my face at an unexpected moment. I’ve since gone through phases of collecting The Folio Society books over the years, but they rarely published any SF or Fantasy, so a while back I turned across the pond to The Easton Press, who also specialise in swanky editions for collectors. They not only ran a Masterpieces of Science Fiction series but would also bring out occasional runs of other famous books, such as E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith’s Lensman series. For those of you who might be interested in these editions I thought it might be interesting to talk about the differences between the two companies and their approach to publishing classics (and SF/Fantasy).

If we’re completely honest there is a strong element of snobbery behind both companies. The Easton Press in particular seems to be targeting that dying breed, the wise old intellectual Republican patriot who fancies an oak-lined library filled with Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon. It may be hard to believe in the wake of the ignorant nonsense flooding the GOP at the moment, but there is a tradition of the learned establishment thinker or Harvard career academic of the 1950s for whom leather-bound copies of Plato’s Republic etc. are important pieces of cultural capital to be treasured. The books are designed to look like they belong in a dimly lit library with ladders, squishy armchairs and balloon snifters of brandy. They’re bound in real leather with raised bumps across the spine and 24 carat gold lettering. The pages are also edged in gold and you get a silk bookmark to keep your place in First Lensman or Newt Gingrich’s The Essential American (signed in crayon by the writer). Each book contains at least one colour illustration, often by a classic artist (Kelly Freas for Orwell’s 1984, Joseph Mugnaini for Fahrenheit 451). They are hefty tomes and it sometimes takes real effort to open one. You could stun a goat with some of these. The quality of the type varies, sometimes it’s nice and clear, sometimes it looks like it’s been lifted straight from the pages of Planet Stories.

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From the Author’s library. Three volumes from The Easton Press Lensman Series rub shoulders with The Folio Society Gormenghast Trilogy.

The nice thing about The Easton Press is that they produced a fantastic Masterpieces of Science Fiction series of about 75 volumes covering most of the major works plus a few unexpected and interesting titles. Frustratingly they printed the first three in Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun series, but not the fourth, so my Citadel of the Autarch is a scrappy paperback stuffed next to cowhide and gold splendour like a poor relation at a wedding. The Masterpiece series is no longer in their catalogue, which is a shame but they also occasionally bring out collections of classic stories (a three volume anthology from Astounding Stories with all the original covers and illustrations, the complete Tom Swift etc.) as well as the aforementioned Lensman books. Although the size of the books varies, overall The Easton Press goes for high-quality uniformity and the kind of construction that means the tomes will last for thousands of years in whatever vault you bury them in. They aren’t cheap, Anne Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles (if you’re into that kind of thing) comes in at an eye-watering $395. Sadly their catalogue seems reduced these days but it’s worth keeping an eye out for their sometimes quirky SF and Fantasy releases.

From The Folio Society Ghost Stories of M. R. James. This gave me the heebie-jeebies for years.

From the Folio Society Ghost Stories of M. R. James. This gave me the heebie-jeebies for years.

The Folio Society, on the other hand, is still going strong and looks like it’s got the largest catalogue it’s ever had. It was forged in the same crucible of snobbery as The Easton Press, appearing in 1947 as a reaction against the rise of the post-war mass market paperback, though its target audience was more the metropolitan intellectual elite (Bloomsbury set or Guardianistas, depending on how old you are). For many years they were happy to advertise themselves with a quote from that grand old dame of reactionary pomposity Malcolm Muggeridge claiming that The Folio Society books were so much better than the tawdry pap bought by commoners in airports on the way to their grubby little holidays in Ibiza or wherever. Thankfully they’ve shed the earlier taint of elitism, mainly by producing books that are real works of art. Unlike The Easton Press, whose conformity of production gets a bit dull after the fortieth cowhide brick thumps onto the mat, The Folio Society designs each volume (or series) from the ground up, making sure that all the elements – binding, illustrations, typography and general look and feel fits in with the book. For example, their Marlowe’s Dr Faustus is a slim evil looking thing in black and red, while the three-volume Steven Runciman History of the Crusades is done in wonderful sand, blue and gold covered boards with fantastic reproductions of medieval art inside.

A nightmare for the obsessively  tidy - every Folio book is unique.

A nightmare for the obsessively tidy – every Folio book is virtually unique.

I’ve already written about their edition of the Oxford Bestiary elsewhere but it’s worth pointing out the sheer variety of production, though it plays merry hell with any attempt to keep your books tidy. The Folio Society has always faced the dilemma of finding the right balance between printing nice editions of classics that will sell, and bringing out lesser known and therefore less commercially viable works. They’ve managed to find the right balance and sometimes you end up with a completely unusual and rare left-field choice bought purely because the book looked so lovely – in my case Saint Exupéry’s record of his time flying across the Sahara in the 1930s in Wind, Sand and Stars. One of their greatest coups was the Northanger Novels series printed in the 1960s, the once and only reprinting of seven rare Gothic novels mentioned in Jane Austen’s classic tale, including such marvellous titles as Horrid Mysteries and The Castle of Wolfenbach.

Jack Schoenherr's classic illustration of Baron Harkonnen from The Easton Press Dune

Jack Schoenherr’s classic illustration of Baron Harkonnen from The Easton Press Dune

The Folio Society books aren’t always as sturdy as The Easton Press volumes, and sometimes sheer bulk makes them impractical to read in bed. In fact you need a lectern for some. Their Gormenghast Trilogy is beautifully designed but appears to be created to look like three large bricks prised out of the wall of the Tower of Flints. In the past their choice of translations also seemed a bit dodgy – they appeared to favour Victorian translations of writers like Herodotus (possibly because they were out of copyright and therefore cheap) and while they had that tendentious charm of fusty 19th century classics authors there are far better versions available. Having said that they’ve just released the definitive Lattimore and Grene translations of The Complete Greek Tragedies in a five volume set, so all is forgiven. Right now they have more SF and Fantasy in their catalogue than ever before. Without the ghost of Muggeridge to hold them between finger and thumb at arms length with a peg over his nose, Bradbury, Huxley, Ballard, Wyndham and Asimov are all there in their own wonderfully unique editions.

One of Alex Wells's specially commissioned illustrations for The Folio Society's Foundation Trilogy

One of Alex Wells’s specially commissioned illustrations to The Folio Society’s Foundation Trilogy

In the end I prefer The Folio Society, even if The Easton Press has produced some brilliant editions of Golden Age SF. It’s exciting getting a Folio Society book because each one is unique. They also are very responsive to their customers – they replaced a couple of flawed copies I received without question. They also listen to feedback. I might be kidding myself but I once sent them a letter suggesting they print Mervyn Peake’s Titus trilogy and a year later there it was. The Folio Society books are marginally cheaper than The Easton Press ones, averaging at around £30 a book. In the past they weren’t that much more than ordinary hardbacks, but the gap seems to have widened. They run sales though, and you have to be quick because all their editions are limited and out of print copies of some books are hard to find.

Tove Jansson – the Truth about the Moomins

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Tove_Jansson_in_1967A while back I wrote a post about Tove Jansson’s last Moomin book, Moominvalley in November (1971), pointing out that behind the innocent guise of a charming children’s tale lurked a masterpiece of Nordic existentialism. I had no idea. I’ve just finished Boel Westin’s biography of the author Tove Jansson: Life, Art and Words, translated into English for the first time this year, and now all my Moomin books are under a bucket at the bottom of the garden with several large bricks on top.

If Westin’s book is anything to go by (and it’s hard to fault any of her meticulously researched arguments) the entire chronicle of those fluffy-tailed, big-nosed cuddly toys is a masterpiece study of the relationship between the artist, family, existence, the universe and consciousness to rival anything by Sartre, Kafka or Camus.

In many ways Tove Jansson’s life is a text-book essay in How to Be a Bohemian Artist. Her father was a sculptor, her mother a graphic designer, and they come across as wackily creative and avant-garde as you would expect, along with their immediate circle of relatives and friends. Tellingly holidays often consisted of sitting in tents on islands in the middle of thunderstorms, an image of the eccentric family simultaneously defying and flourishing from disasters and tempests which she would return to time and again in her books. She took Art at several colleges. By her own admission her studies followed the all-too familiar pattern of Dull Classes – Rebellion against Traditional Teachers – Creating a Bohemian Colony of Free Art with Fellow Students – Rinse and Repeat. For most of her career in her own mind she was always, first and foremost, a painter, not a writer of children’s fairy stories. What is interesting is that instead of hating the Moomins for the colossal distraction they became (at one point she was receiving hundreds of fan letters a day, and replying to most if not all), she used them to work through her own psychological responses to the world around her, which is why the series of books (and comic strips) grow so decidedly odd as the saga progresses.

Watercolour with Black Moomintroll, 1934

Watercolour with Black Moomintroll, 1934. One of the first appearances of a Moomin, painted in Nazi Germany.

It’s very tempting to assume that the Moomin family is just a fantasy version of her own family and friends. Moomintroll himself first appeared alongside her signature in the Swedish satirical magazine Garm, for which she drew many cartoons (including a controversial cover showing the European powers trying to appease a cry-baby Hitler). Yet with a couple of exceptions there isn’t really a one-to-one correspondence between the inhabitants of Moominvalley and the people who influenced her. Her first partner the larger-than-life leftwing intellectual Artos Wirtanen, who she almost married, appears as both Snufkin and the doleful philosopher Muskrat in Finn Family Moomintroll. Having eventually acknowledged and embraced her lesbianism, Jansson introduced the real love of her life, the artist Tuulikki Pietilä as Too-Ticky in Moominland Midwinter. Jansson claimed that Moominmamma was her own mother, Ham, but in fact, as with all the other creatures in the tales, she becomes another aspect of her creator’s psyche as it wrestled with the artists relationship with art and existence. In fact the Moominvalley bestiary reads as though someone had emptied Tove Jansson’s unconscious mind out onto the table and then used the contents to make a series of fluffy toys.

From left to right: Existentialism, the Id, the Self and Other, Nihilism confronting the Infinite, the Soul of Art etc...

From left to right: Existentialism, the Id, the Self and Other, Nihilism confronting the Infinite, the Soul of Art etc…

The Moomin books fall into three distinct groups. Comet in Moominland (1946), Finn Family Moomintroll (1948) and The Exploits of Moominpappa (1950) are tales of a Bohemian commune facing challenges and threats from outside, returning each time to the safety of Moominvalley and the tower-house of the Moomins. Architecture played a huge role in Jansson’s life. She fought tooth and nail to acquire a number of wonderfully unusual studios, all characterised by vertical spaces in which she would build ‘nests’ to live. Outdoing just about every other free-thinking creative she ended up building her own house out of stones with her bare hands on an island in the middle of nowhere, desperately searching for the solitude she revelled in, and felt was a profound catalyst for her art. Inevitably the famous Moomin author in her house on an island was a magnet to thousands of fans who would cheerfully row out for a look and even a chat. She accepted most with good grace, though apparently hurled rocks at some on the occasional bad day.

Tove Jansson the Artist

Tove Jansson the Artist

In the second group of books, Moominsummer Madness (1954),  Moominland Midwinter (1957) and, to a lesser extent, Tales from Moominvalley (1964) the family is uprooted from the familiar landscape of home, either because they wake up in the wrong season to find everything changed, or a great big flood whirls them away. Westin argues that this is partly Jansson’s moving apart from the family that had defined her, and her own uneasy relationship with her father who, traumatised by the wars and political upheavals of the early part of the century, had embraced an ugly nationalism that Jansson hated.

And then it gets really weird. In the last two books – Moominpappa at Sea (1965), and Moominvalley in November it’s not just the family that starts to disappear, but the whole notion of the artistic consciousness built into the stories fragments. Moominpappa has a mid-life crisis and turns into an obsessive, dragging the whole family to a lighthouse while the nihilistic Groke hovers in the background. Moominmamma, always the secure lynch-pin of the group, goes all quiet and pointless, paints a big fresco and promptly disappears into it. She watches the others get on with their lives in the real world with a kind of melancholy satisfaction. For Jansson she was a painter first and foremost, and life became a search for the silence and solitude that would allow her to get on with her art. Disappearing into a painting on an island in the middle of nowhere probably had huge appeal. Being one of the most famous authors of children’s books in the entire world made this a wee bit tricky.

A metaphor and then some. Moominpappa's mid-life crisis and his enormous lighthouse in Moominpappa at Sea

A metaphor and then some. Moominpappa’s mid-life crisis and his enormous lighthouse in Moominpappa at Sea

I won’t go over Moominvalley in November, you can read my thoughts on the last book here. Suffice to say the Moomintrolls are not even in the story, they’re away on their island pondering on the nature of existence and losing themselves in paintings. Eventually Jansson turned from painting to writing, producing a series of adult books that tackled the same themes of identity, art and the uneasy relationship between consciousness, creation and, in this case, words. Her books have a beautiful economy of style, but no Moomins, and despite the praise and awards heaped on them they never gained the immense traction of her supposed tales for kids. Yet Tove Jansson was never a victim of her success, the author or painter desperate to create Great Art but tragically tied to her one commercial triumph. Her Moomin tales, cartoons, operas and songs represent a constant internal dialogue in which she tried to understand and work through her relationship with her own artistic identity.

TOVE JANSSON WITH MOOMIN CHARACTERS - 1988

Westin’s biography is a fascinating read. It suffers occasionally from hagiography in its praise of its subject and her work, though it’s entirely understandable given that Tove Jansson was such a remarkable woman. The portrait created is so compelling it makes you wish she’d been a friend you could have spent fascinating days with. The passages in which Westin (Professor of Literature at the University of Stockholm) slips into academic mode are less interesting. Given that the Moomin books are a rigorous essay in self-analysis, layering more on top seems over egging the pudding a bit. Appeals to Freud come across as a bit obvious – Moominpappa and his Great Big Lighthouse, nudge nudge etc. But these are minor quibbles. Anyone interested in the Moomins, Existentialism, the Artist and Art or Jansson herself should read this.

Ragged Claws Cover Art

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The great news is that the manuscript for Ragged Claws is back from my editor, John Jarrold, and ready for the final knocking into shape before release. The book is 99% finished, with just a few minor adjustments and tightening of knots before it gets pushed out to the world. I will announce the release date shortly.

Anyway, to celebrate I thought I’d do two things. First of all I’m knocking the price of the e-book version of Thumb down to around 99 cents/75 pence. This is because Ragged Claws is the sequel (and part two of a four-book series), and people really need to read Thumb first to understand the beginning of the story of Max and Abby and the surreal universe they inhabit. You can buy a copy by clicking on the links in the sidebar.

Secondly I thought I’d reveal the beta version of the cover. Apart from a few minor adjustments this is what it will look like.

Ragged_Claws_Cover_Test_2

As with Thumb, I wanted a cover that referred to to an episode or characters in the book. I also wanted to change the colour scheme, so that the pallet for each volume in the series is different – Red for Thumb, Blue for Ragged Claws etc. I won’t spoil the story or give too much away by explaining who the white figure is, or what she’s doing with those glowing lines. I was still aiming for an overall German Expressionist aesthetic – big bold shapes and a sense of sinister mystery.

This image will be the wrap around for the paperback:

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You’re All Just Jealous of My Jetpack – Tom Gauld

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just-jealous

A while back I posted one of Tom Gauld’s cartoons on this blog and wrote a brief piece for my newsletter. His work is so clever, and pushes so many of the right buttons for an Eng-Lit professor turned science fiction writer that I couldn’t help but share some more of his work, taken from his book You’re All Just Jealous of My Jetpack (2013). Normally I hesitate before buying a book of cartoons, after going through them once there’s rarely enough to pull me back, but Gauld’s collection is a happy exception.

Sci-fi_vs_Literary_Fiction

Analysing jokes inevitably kills them dead, and besides these cartoons often poke fun at overwrought intellectual interpretations. Talking too much about Gauld’s work risks putting legs on a snake (as Kurosawa once described the process of looking for hidden meanings in his own movies). His ideas are reminiscent of Edward Gorey and the lesser known B. Kliban, both US illustrators known for their surreal humour and, in Gorey’s case, gently nostalgic nods at Victorian and Edwardian narratives transformed into total absurdity. Gauld’s ideas, like those of the Monty Python team and the stand-up comedian Eddie Izzard, are filled with the same bizarre non-sequiturs.

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Sadly, this one isn’t in the collection.

 

One recurring theme is pushing together the (supposed) high-brow and popular culture, as in Samuel Beckett’s Adventures of TinTin, or Dickens’ Great Expectations re-imagined as an old Spectrum-style computer game. Science Fiction plays a big part in Gauld’s world, as do the trials of trying to be a novelist.

Tom_Gauld_No_8226

As a Science Fiction fan navigating his way through the often unbelievably pretentious world of Literary Academia (especially in the early ’80s) I feel like having half a dozen of these tattooed to my chest in reverse so I can laugh at them in the bathroom mirror when I get up. I vividly remember one ultra-cool Guardian reading professor who sneered relentlessly at SF ‘discovering’ Joanna Russ when the Women’s Press published The Female Man, (of course he still refused to accept it was SF at all). I can really, really relate to You’re All Just Jealous of My Jetpack. A must for any writer/critic/SF fan.

Tom_Waites_street

Tom Gauld’s book is available on Amazon.com here, and Amazon.co.uk here.

Tom’s own website is here, and his Flickr stream is here.

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Schalcken the Painter (1979)

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Schalcken_the_Painter_coverThe history of British TV is littered with brilliant one-off series and TV programmes that appeared once or twice and then vanished, seemingly forever. John Hurt as Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment (1979), Nigel Kneale’s horror series Beasts (1976) and the Bavarian film of Carmina Burana that appeared on screens over here in 1975 are three examples. Luckily the ones that weren’t erased to make way for Match of the Day or It’s a Knockout, (a fate that befell the BBC tapes of the Apollo 11 moon landing) are now re-appearing on DVD, including Leslie Megahey’s brilliant film of Sheridan Le Fanu’s Schalcken the Painter, released in November last year.

Periodically, and usually at Christmas, the BBC would have a crack at one or two ghost stories, often taken from classic writers like M. R. James, Dickens or Saki. In those days TV dramas were happy to go for the slow burn, coming up with many very creepy and effective tales. Unfortunately most were let down by the anti-climactic eek scene at the end. Writers like James and others, with their hinted-at terrors were hard to render visually and what was toe-curlingly horrible on paper ended up looking a bit feeble on screen. Jonathan Miller’s otherwise brilliant adaptation of Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You My Lad (1968) is a case in point. It’s creepy, sinister and atmospheric right up to the point when the ghost appears and the monstrous half animal half humanoid creature running across the sands in the original turns into a chamois leather on a stick. Even though Schalcken the Painter suffers from this to a slight extent, the rest of the movie is incredibly sinister and stunningly beautiful to look at. It haunted me for years after I first watched it in 1979 and so I was delighted to see it re-released by the BFI.

One of the movie's many tributes to the paintings of Vermeer.

One of the movie’s many tributes to the paintings of Vermeer.

The story is based on a painting by the real life Schalcken, a late 17th century Flemish painter. It shows a woman in a nightdress holding a candle while behind her a man makes to draw a sword against a shadowy assailant. Le Fanu’s story tells of the young painter’s apprenticeship under Gerard Dou, his unrequited love for the man’s niece, and the mysterious stranger who persuades the old man to let him marry the girl in exchange for an unheard of sum of gold, with fairly predictable results for anyone well-read in the genre.

The film is wonderfully atmospheric, not least because it is one long homage to the paintings of the era. Almost every shot evokes an image from the work of Vermeer, Rembrandt and, of course, both Dou and Schalcken themselves. The interior of Dou’s house is taken straight from such masterpieces as Vermeer’s The Music Lesson and The Art of Painting. The largely static camera work focusses on doorways set in walls at right angles to the lens so that you alternately see figures framed against panelling or at the end of corridors opening on chequer-floored rooms, with people (usually women) standing in the light falling from diamond paned and stained glass windows. Alternately the night scenes, lit by one or more candles, are essays in chiaroscuro. In one brilliant shot, a second long if that, a visitor looks back as he steps into the night and you realise it’s Rembrandt himself from his 1661 self-portrait, complete with white hat.

Schalcken, Gerard Dou and his niece Rose await their guest.

Schalcken, Gerard Dou and his niece Rose await their guest.

The tale is also rendered more effective by virtue of being almost entirely silent, with very little dialogue apart from the key scenes where Dou, his pupil and niece meet the stranger, and later when the niece briefly returns from her marriage. The rest of the time very little is said, which both adds to the evocation of a series of paintings, and the slow build up of tension. Charles Gray supplies the voice of the narrator, and an interesting commentary on the artist’s masterpieces. I particularly enjoyed Dou’s lessons to his pupils – “The Temptation of St Anthony, St Anthony, Temptation, Devils. You will imagine the devils. Begin,” is his advice after yanking a couple of models around a bit. Incidental music is kept to a minimum, so the sound effects themselves add to the brooding sense of impending horror. A single creak of a floorboard announces the arrival of the visitor, the sinister Vanderhausen.

He might be a bit green, smelly and never blink but check out the gilders.

He might be a bit green, smelly and never blink but check out the gilders.

The film is as much about greed and the treatment of women as disposal possessions as it is about the supernatural. The horror of the tale is equally derived from the casual way in which Dou disposes of his beautiful niece, sending her off to marry a man who is, to say the least, a bit unprepossessing. It’s clear from the scene where he joins the others for dinner that all is not well, not only does Vanderhausen not eat anything, he’s also a decidedly peculiar colour and stares at the niece through the entire repast. Like Daniel Radcliffe in The Woman in Black, you would have thought that Dou and Schalcken would be familiar enough with ghost stories to realise something was amiss, but Dou still cheerfully dispatches the wretched girl in exchange for a manky old chest full of gilders. Schalcken is a waste of space, doing nothing to prevent the marriage, throwing himself into his painting and eventually groping the servant girls or visiting the brothels of Rotterdam for a bit of consolation.

Almost every shot evokes the Flemish school, in this case a memento mori still life.

Almost every shot evokes the Flemish school, in this case a memento mori still life.

I won’t spoil it by describing the inevitable denouement. As I said before, these classic tales always ended up a bit wanting in the end, as clumsy special effects or trite endings undercut the build up of atmosphere. Schalcken the Painter manages to carry it off better than most and of all the classic ghost stories I’ve seen over the years this one has perhaps the strongest resonance. It’s perhaps not as laden with symbolism as the accompanying essay by Ben Hervey tries to make out, but it’s as unnerving to watch now as it was in 1979. As a classic ghost story, a tribute to later Flemish painting and a detailed evocation of how these old master’s worked it’s well worth a watch.

The DVD comes in standard and Blu-Ray format and can be bought from Amazon.co.uk here.

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