Sunday, May 16, 2010

Assonance. Consonance. Alliteration.

I wanted to try something to a slightly different beat (pun intended) for this entry. I am devoting this week to music and the reuse of songs or titles throughout a range of styles and periods. Now, I am the first to say that I am no musicologist, so I am not going to attempt to analyze one musician's remake of a given tune and try to derive greater meaning from it. No no no, this is simply a fun drill for me to demonstrate how, like in the "fine arts" (for lack of a better word) themes and ideas are constantly reused and reborn but at the same time are heralded for their avant-garde nature.

There are slightly different parameters with music, I am sure. But I have always wondered, at what point is a song no longer considered to be inspired by another or in the style of another and is simply a cover of another? What is a song's status when either lyrics or melodies (but not both) are borrowed by another artist? I combed through my iTunes library trying to find songs performed by many different artists, either in part or in entirety. I have pasted a selection of my findings below, with links to videos or audio clips so you, too, can hear the difference. But again I am no music aficionado and I am sure there are many that I leave out. Please feel free to add your own versions in a comment. Here we go.

Across the Universe: Probably one of the most covered songs and bands. Ever. Here is a little sampling of the original and two of the many covers.

The Beatles

Fiona Appple

Rufus Wainwright, Moby & Sean Lennon

La Marseillaise: The French national anthem chanté as it was meant to be, and then the controversial version by Monsieur Gainsbourg himself.

Version Normale

Serge Gainsbourg

Baby Love: Women across generations and race lines complaining about men.

Diana Ross & The Supremes

Kate Nash

Take a walk on the wild side: The original song and the beginning repeated in Tribe'sCan I kick it? Yes, you can!

Lou Reed

A Tribe Called Quest

Dancing With Myself: A new age bands version of this icon's classic.

Billy Idol

Nouvelle Vague

I can't get no satisfaction: A slowed down, almost melancholy take on the original hit.

Rolling Stones

Cat Power

Like a Virgin: The 2007 winner of Nouvelle Star (the French American Idol) Jazz remake of the classic by Madonna.


Julien Doré

Long Black Veil: Two different versions of this song--I am honestly not sure whose came first, if any, or if they both ripped it off of yet another rock giant of the time.

Johnny Cash

The Band

Lover I don't have to love: A female, yet equally emo, voice on this sad ballad.

Bright Eyes

Bettie Serveert

What a wonderful world: Three very different but all worthy (though I tend to favor the latter) takes on this up-beat number.

Paul Simon

Chris Daughtry

Louis Armstrong

You ain't goin' no where: Again, not sure whose came first--it seemed to be a huge trend during their era to take songs from one another. I like 'em both.

Joan Baez

The Byrds

You're gonna make me lonesome when you go: And last but not least, for our departure, Madeline Peyroux's jazzy remake of Bob Dylan's croaking.

Bob Dylan

Madeline Peyroux

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Happy Mother's Day.

I have come to the conclusion that blogs are entirely too easy to start and therefore far more difficult to keep up. Like pets, or flowers. Needless to say, I am delayed on my next entry since I have procrastinated far too much on an application for a conference in the Fall at which I *hope* to present my research from the year. I intend to finish the entry this weekend, but just to give you a little sample of what I will ramble about, I'll let you ponder these images below.

Jack-in-the-Pulpit No. IV
Georgia O'Keeffe
Oil on Canvas
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Looking for Tomorrow
Laura McCallum
Paper and glue
Private Collection

Voilà. Pondered enough? So its mother’s day in America—in France, my adopted homeland, it isn’t for a few weeks: you know how the French love to take their time on everything. Unfortunately for me, another entry is long overdue so I am submitting this entry on and for mother’s day à l’americaine, and not for the French counterpart. I am consecrating this article both in part to my own mother and by extension to everywhere. I am not usually this sentimental, but in realizing a few days ago that I would need to call my mother rather soon to thank her for having me, I had the idea of using an example of her work for Juxtaposition. My next thought, then, was what to compare it to. You of course know what I finally chose and may already have a good idea as to why she was a good choice.

The example I selected of my mother’s shown above is emblematic of her style both now and of years past. The bifurcate, almond shaped motif can be found throughout many of her most recent works. It is manifested in sizes large and small, in formats 2D and 3D, and from a variety of mediums. And contrary to popular belief among those who have seen an example of one of these, it is not a vagina.

As I see it (both as the daughter and the art historian to be) this form is the evolution of an abrupt burst of melancholic inspiration after the death of my father in March of 1996. Very soon after, perhaps even before the end of that calendar year but my memory likely fails me here, my mother was diagnosed with the same kind of malady that her husband had so briefly suffered from. She was however fortunate enough to keep on living in exchange for the removal of several lymph nodes surrounding the important sentinel node, in addition to the malignant tissue plaguing her. I regard these two events as two pieces of a whole, much like my parents before my father’s death, whose cruel proximity only intensified each other’s effect.

It is thus not surprising that such a change be reflected in her work. Her art changed from being composed of slate, plaster and stone, to lighter mediums such as muslin, paper, and glue. This evolution also demonstrated certain physiological needs: the lack of those precious lymph nodes rendered my mother incapable of being able to lift the heavy material that once so defined her immense works of art. So she adapted. She started anew with shapes that resembled corpses—-suggestive of death—in some forms and cocoons—suggestive of life—in others.

Her works from this époque range from a series of identical wall pieces, to a family of three meant to be admired outdoors, to macabre floor sculpture that lay draped in diaphanous layers of silk.

It is this shape that first appeared very much to resemble a human-like form that has become that which you see in examples like Looking for Tomorrow. In these past fourteen years this motif has been stretched and compressed and squeezed and pulled into almost every variation available. Beginning in 2005 it was the repetitive motif in a long scroll-like drawing for which every manifestation of this shape represented one fallen American soldier in the was in Iraq. Here these shapes take a particularly morbid, though appropriate, greater representation as they had in their early stages.

But in other forms, such as the exampled image above, they resound with hope and life. This form is circular thus cyclical like the cycle of life, or you could say oval, like an egg, a natural incubator of life.

Now when I reflect upon her work I think about artists like Sol LeWitt who essentially used the same aesthetic tools throughout many periods of his career, he simply changed certain parameters, which allowed him to created an entirely different work. I believe—and I could be completely wrong about this, among our many mother daughter conversations, the greater message of her art is seldom the principle topic—that my mother could be endeavoring to perform a similar experiment. To exhaust the applicability of this motif among other shapes, different colors, in different sizes and with different meanings. I cannot reason to validate the hasty speculations of others of this developing motif as representative of va-jay-jays. Get your minds out of the gutter!

Wall Drawing 999 : Parallel Curves

Sol LeWitt


Acrylic Paint
Collection of Thomas Weisel / Mass MoCA

Though let me be fair. This is not the first time that viewers have admired a given painting, or group of paintings even, and delighted to conclude that the subject at hand was vaginal. Perhaps the most famous among this group of accusés is Ms. O’Keefe. This artist is admittedly far from my area of expertise but in my own musings I have come across interpretations of her work that attest to this fact. Such is also apparent in viewing the vast range of works she produced. She was not limited to only painting close-ups of the stamen and pistell of flowers.

Ram's Head White Hollyhock and Little Hills

Georgia O'Keefe


Oil on Canvas

The Brooklyn Museum

In the late 1920s, for example, feeling the need to travel and experience new lands, the young artist moved out West from New York to New Mexico where she lived for at least for part of the year until 1949, but would always return to New York in the Fall to be with her husband Alfred Stieglitz. She would eventually settle there permanently after his death and remained there for the rest of her life. From the decades she spent in New Mexico, her artwork clearly shows how used her environment and thus her personal life as inspiration.

We often try to simply an artist's style into one particular word or phrase as a means to understand him or her better. Claude Monet: water lilies. Degas : ballet dancers. Robert Ryman: white on white (that one is for my dear mother), etc. But it is really only in looking at their works as part of a whole, as a dynamic component of a continuum, that style can judged and labeled.

And not to let anyone down who read the sneak-peek to this entry and got all excited about one subject in particular, this one's for you. There are, please be assured, plenty of artists that create art with the express purpose of celebrating the Origin of the World. Though, Courbet too, please bear in mind, did not dedicate his life to such portraits. He resisted the title, but is donned nonetheless, as the father of Impressionism. This is simply commission that created enough controversy to mark his career.

Gustave Courbet

Origine du Monde


Oil on Canvas

Musée d'Orsay

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Touched, like a Virgin. (Part I)

The Virgin, Mary, Madonna, Maryam, and at one time Theotokos. These are a few manifestations of probably many more appellations of this figure. Though she is so much more than that : a constant, yet ever-changing, ever evolving idea that has become the quintessential holy mother figure for both followers and non-followers of religions around the world.

Yet she is also a host of contradictions that demonstrate how she herself is not a single person or representative of a set of ideals, but rather a reflection of what is needed by leading individuals—for most of history religious ones—of the time. Most Marian images were created as tools or vehicles for Christianity. What interests me particularly about her (and because this is my soapbox I will make my own personal fascination rather than the important art historical theme the focus of this entry) is her effect on people. The ability for her image to spiritually seduce people by, like a marionette, no pun intended, chaning form and role to carry out the intentions of others.

My favorite images rendered of her are a collection of several paintings, all entitled Madonna, by the unusual Symbolist painter Edvard Munch. The one to which I am most drawn is shown below, where she appears as an ephemeral being whose presence is alluring and strong yet fleeting. She attracts you, drawing you to her aura, but then you are repelled when you remember that this is an image of the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus. She is not virginal, nor is she chaste.



Oil on canvas

Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo, Norway

Her unruly hair--a motif one never sees on traditional images of this figure--flows over her shoulders. It frames her peaceful yet expressive face and leads the viewer’s eyes to her voluptuous, naked body--another trait that is not featured on traditional images of Madonna--that appears to be rotating right, in the direction of the paintings light source. Her head is crowned by a red crescent shape that, as this is an image of a religious subject, alludes to a halo. But then again, its red color could bring in a host of sexual, sensual connotations.

It also could be regarded as a setting sun which can render the viewer uncomfortable since it creates a dichotomy of a earthly realm and a heavenly (or extraterrestrial or just simply "elsewhere"): we see the setting sun, a body that exists in our world, yet appear to be no where in particular by the appearance of the rest of the painting. This dualism is repeated by the both solid and fleeting nature of her body. Madonna's hair, face and torso appear nearly palpable while her extremities flow off into the abyss of the background and turn into an echo of expanding rings that frame her body.

Perhaps, just for the sake of juxtaposing, it would be interesting to see some of the other images Munch created in his Madonna series.

Madonna(The Brooch/ Eva Mudocci).



Munch Museum, Oslo, Norway

Madonna (Conception)


Colored Lithograph

Museum of Modern Art, New York

Madonna (Loving Woman)



Art Institute of Chicago

The permutations of possible meanings brought out in these paintings' range of title, medium and symbol complicates the already unusual and mysterious appearance of the first example displayed. But this is not what I wish to discuss, not this time at least, and this is just a blog entry and not a dissertation, I will pass on to other favorite Virgins of mine.

Ah, and there goes a perfect subject for transition. As Munch gave his versions the name Madonna, this name was not used popularly until the 14th century. For example, such as this example by Cenni di Pepo a.k.a. Cimabue shown below.

Madonna of the Holy Trinity (Maestà)


Tempera on Panel

Uffizi Gallery, Florence

This is likely much more of the kind of "Madonna" image that comes to mind, as opposed to the rather sexualized Munch version. Here she is shown enthroned (maestà means “majesty” in Italian) presenting the smiling Christ child who makes a benediction sign to the viewer. The two are framed by a parenthetical formation of eight angels, four on each side, and sit above four other religious individuals. Mary is the largest figure in the work, thus designating her as the most important. She is also placed centrally and at the apex of the pyramidical formation, both of which emphasize this hierarchy. She wears her traditional tunic, in blue, as that was color designated for royalty and important. The golden hue of the background as well as the halos demonstrate Cimabue's Byzantine influence as that color often dominated the brilliant mosaics that decorated churches like the Hagia Sofia or those at Ravenna.

Before "Madonna" became who she was, however, she was more simply the Virgin Mary. This nomenclature has a far more Medieval connotation. Another particularly characteristic designation of this time period is the idea of sedes sapientiae or throne of wisdom.

Virgin and Child in Majesty


Walnut with paint, gesso, and linen

From the Auvergne, France

Metropolitan Museum, New York.

This surprisingly well preserved example illustrates this archaic idea. Sedes sapientiae is the idea that Mary was the actual vessel or passage through which God was incarnated as man. This style of sculpture is demonstrative of 12th century central France, though visually related images are known to have been made in other territories. While the work today appears austere by nature—the simple wood materials, the equally sober appearance of the Virgin and her son and their unembellished, humble clothing is an ironic contrast to the name of this genre of sculpture—Throne of Wisdom— evokes for it implies a more royal presence. This style of sculpture was always either painted (notice there are still traces of polychrome that survive)or in some cases in a metal shell or with metal embellishments (i.e. royal regalia or jewels). This one, specifically, has traces of tin, so it may have had such details. The purpose and function of this kind of statuette vary from source to source, though it is generally accepted that they were mean to be portable, which may explain why the vast majority of objects in this style are made from wood, rather than a more sumptuous material (though originally the wood cores were covered in a thin metal sheet – this was only done very rarely), and fairly damaged. Modern scholars believe that these Thrones of Wisdom would be exhibited during processions on special feast days (such as on August 15th for the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin) so that pious churchgoers could venerate her.

Slightly more is known about the iconography of this type of statue. Mary is shown here not as a queen, despite her placement on a thone, but as the Mother of God. That is, she is meant to be the throne on which her son, Jesus, sits. During the years in which these sculptures were popular Mary still had somewhat of a minor role in Church practices and in the liturgy; she was important only because she gave birth to the son of God. Though this was not meant to be celebratory either of maternity or of Christ as a child—observe how though he is small he is stern, making a gesture of benediction, while his mother, shown equally as serious, doesn’t cradle him but holds him by his waist on either side, presenting him to the viewer The pair is rendered in this fashion in order to solicit awe and amazement. These types of statues are sometimes seen as representations of the story of the Tree of Jesse, which is a Biblical Passage from the Book of Isaiah that metaphorically describes the arrival of the Messiah as it says that “there shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots…” (Isaiah 11:1-3). That is, Christ is viewed as the growing branch while Mary is often seen as the stump of the tree. While the Tree of Jesse is really about the genealogy of Christ, associating him with O.T. kings and the Throne of Wisdom iconography is more about Mary as the vessel, the seat of the Incarnation, the correlation between the two concepts is apparent. This relationship has other applications as the Virgin was sometimes referred to as the embodiment of the Church itself or the vessel through which God was incarnated as Christ; though returning to the object at hand, it is clear to see how that story was applied to this type of sculpture as it appears that Christ is an extension of the Virgin herself. In fact, the bodies of these works were often made from one solid piece of wood (with the heads attached later). Finally, it was sometimes, though not always the case, that objects of this nature were used as reliquaries. Conservators have found small chambers in the backs of some of these statuettes though no relics were found to remain. Therefore, this remains an open question. However, if they were used for relics, they may have been Marian relics (those believed to be from the Virgin herself), such as the hair, blood, or milk from her body, or pieces of her vestments. While this type of sculpture is so characteristic of the Romanesque, iconic even, it evolved and lived on into the Gothic style, reflecting ideological and societal changes, upon which I will elaborate in the next entry.