Lancelot - The Body and its Armour
Excerpts from Previous Posts | Bernhard Gaul


Robert Bresson: Lancelot
The Noise of the Armour
February 2010

Lancelot du Lac. Director: Robert Bresson. 1974, Colour, 81 mins. Available on DVD from Artificial Eye.

In Bresson’s film the armour of the knights rattles and creaks with every move they make. It takes them longer to move to a certain position than it would un-armoured people. Bresson lets their infringement dictate the rhythm of the film. It has its affect both on the audio as well as on the pace of narration. However, it doesn’t appear like a searched for aesthetical effect. Bresson simply lets the material dictate its own rhythm. It highlights, just as much as Straub/Huillet do in their films, how much we are conditioned to have such material facts cut out from our perception. I am not aware of any other film about medieval knights being shot remotely that way.

Venice - The Red and the Black
20 November 2007, 10:38:48

Canaletto: Upper Reaches / Vicentino: Battle of Lepanto I am from Innsbruck and lived near Bologna for a while and have, over the years, made more trips to Venice than I probably cared for. Still, I would stop by again any time given the chance.

If you have seen all the must-haves at least a couple of times, here are two different locations that you could put on your map as deviations for your next trip to Venice:

1) The Scuoala St. Giorgio degli Schiavoni is a small church off the beaten track that houses some of the finest Carpaccio paintings. I might write more about Carpaccio in another post at some stage, at the moment I just want to draw attention to him as I think most guide books feature him little in favour of Titian, Tintoretto, Tiepolo and Canaletto. There are Carpaccio paintings in the Galeria too, but seeing the ones in the Scuola di St Giorgio in the environment they were produced for is something else.

2) The Museo Civico Correr: This doesn't even require a detour as it is located in the building(s) that surround the Piazza San Marco, but I think with so many other things to see it is probably not an obvious choice for occasional visitors. A reason may be that it doesn't house that many well known master pieces, it is more general history of the city, but it helped me to understand something I couldn't figure out anywhere else. If you think of Venice the predominant colours that spring to mind are pink and turquoise. That's the predominant colours on the Canaletto paintings that you see reproduced everywhere, and they also feature heavily in Tiepolo's paintings, at least the soft tone does.

There is a dark side associated with the Venitian Carneval, the mask alone stands for something that is hidden behind, and there is a fair amount of violence in the paintings of Titian and Tintoretto, the predominant colours of which I think of as brown and grey, but they are usually allegories, mythical scenes, and although produced in Venice not depictions of itself or its history. But still the gaudiness of the pink and turquoise always seemed to me disonnected, not related to anything, until I visited the Museo Civico.

If you walk through the halls of the Museo you walk through room after room full of paintings most of which I have never heard of. However, these are mostly paintings related to the city’s history and as these are not the master pieces but a segment of the rest of not so important ones, carefully grouped by period you can see trends rather than the extraordinary individual. And there, if you walk through the 18th century rooms you are rightly bathed in a see of turquoise and pink but if you step back in time it is getting all red, black and maybe aquamarine blue. The walls are awash with battle scenes, naval battles that is, with flaming red ships and oars in turbulent aquamarine oceans and gloomy black backdrops. And this is what lies beneath, the period in which Venice built its wealth, its warrior past. Nothing gaudy there. And it appears that this still shines through the pink and turquoise of the centuries that follow...

St. George +/- the Dragon
29 January 2007, 11:03:21

Uccello: St. George and the DragonThere is a small Uccello painting in the National Gallery in London called St. George and the Dragon. As the narrative goes George tames the dragon so that the Lady can put him on a leash, however, somebody would have to tell you that, because if you just look at the painting the story reads differently: By all accounts of how time can be represented in a painting the Lady has the dragon on a leash already and she lets him out for a bit so that George can show off his manly prowess.

I started to notice that medieval themes, knights and armour, start to feature heavily in this blog (and they show up again in some of the drafts I have prepared). I also mentioned in the last post how I started to produce paintings in fragments, atoms that are pieced together again, forming a whole, but with cracks in between. I guess some of this is because I just don't want to be that knight that can't perceive what's around him, who can't react to reality but still demands respect just because a Lady let out a dragon on a leash for him. The cracks are the denial of the armour, that's where reality sifts in.

Uccello's St. George is easily dismissed, though. It's a fairy tail, nothing threatening really although the dragon does his best to look evil. But there are other St. George versions that are not done with so easily, in particular Carpaccio's isn't, the one in the Scuola St. Giorgio degli Schiavoni already mentioned elsewhere. This one is scary and evidence of the brutality of the dragon lies all around him. There too is a Lady, and there too the dragon will be put on a leash, eventually, but not in the same painting. The interesting bit, as Michelle Serres points out in his book about Carpaccio, is that the dragon is never killed. Conveniently George's lance breaks, so the dragon stays alive. That might not be fully logical but the point is: what would George do if the dragon would really be dead. Or put in a wider context: what would the authorities do who define themselves as the protectors from the dragon if the dragon were dead. What if there were no evil threat anymore that drives you to flock into their arms. And that's what the Lady represents in Carpaccio's painting. Just look at her expression and just how she entrusts herself to George. That's who they want you to be, that's why the dragon stays alive.

Carpaccio: St. George and the Dragon

BTW: Note how Carpaccio's George is red and black (isn't Uccello's painting all silver and pink again?). I spell it out this time: there is a novel by Stendhal called The Red and the Black that you really ought to read. It is a brilliant book, a good novel and I promise you, you wouldn't be bored even though I put the book here in a theoretical context.

Development of the Body Armour
BG March 2010

Quotes from Theweleit...

Krazy Kat and Fone Bone
08 March 2007, 12:37:15

Krazy Kat: PanelOne of my brothers is a real cartoons expert and there are plenty of cartoons he introduced me to over the years but I guess I never forget him for introducing me to Krazy Kat by George Herriman.

Krazy Kat appeared as page size newspaper comic strip between 1913 and 1940. It was vastly popular with intellectual readers and reportedly counted the likes of Pablo Picasso and Gertrude Stein amongst its fans, but one of the interesting facts around Krazy Kat is that even the mighty media mogul Randolph Hirst (himself the character model for Orson Wells' Citizen Kane) had to struggle against his local newspaper editors to keep publishing it as they feared for loss of reputation and advertising revenue because neither the use of language nor the short plots of the strips didn't seem to make any apparent sense.

And true, on a first glance there are a lot of formal peculiarities that make Krazy Kat stand out. First of all Herriman seems to be the first cartoonist to compose pages as a whole rounded graphic, not just panel by panel, and he takes his liberties with it, often breaking the linearity of the narrative. Language wise he uses deliberate misspellings and grammatical errors, often giving words and phrases double and triple meanings. And there are the ever shifting landscapes: while the ongoings in the foreground of the panels have continuity, the backgrounds don't. Houses, trees, mountains, whatever else you have regularly shifts shape from panel to panel.

Krazy Kat: Fiull PageAnd then there is the main plot itself which just doesn't make sense from an everyday perspective: Krazy Kat (he or she? never quite sure) is madly in love with Ignatz Mouse, who on the other hand fiercely hates "that Kat" and makes it his life passion to throw bricks at his/her head, which - and that's the weirdest - Krazy sees as recurring proof of Ignatz' love.

I think, if you are familiar with the bigger picture of aesthetical debate of the time the formal aspects can be understood relatively easily. After all these are the times of Picasso, Surrealism, Dada, Brecht, Joyce to name but a few. There is emphasis on the fact that a piece of art should be identifiable as a piece of art that has its own reality and rules, talking about reality, but not being just a copy of it - a strong anti-position to the credo of Naturalism that art should be nature minus x, whereby the artist should strive to make x as small as possible.

There are many other examples where works of art propagate the fact that they can be understood in more than just one way, sometimes making it blankly impossible for readers to assume a single general way of understanding, and in terms of language James Joyce's Ulysses stands out in this respect. It would be interesting to know though, how much of this Herriman consciously perceived and worked into his comics, or how much of it is just natural talent, picking up the vibes of the times and putting them into his own work. There is, for instance, also Alexander Döblin's Berlin Alexanderplatz which uses similar language manipulations as used in Ulysses (or Krazy Kat), but it is believed that both Döblin and Joyce arrived at similar solutions quite independently from each other.

Interpreting Herriman's plot lines, though, is a different story, and I am not going to attempt an interpretation of the rejected/misunderstood (on which side?) love-hate theme. But I think a reason why you want to keep reading these strips is that Krazy is an absolutely caring person, looking after Ignatz' children when his wife is ill (yes he is married too!) or any other creature that needs help and never being perturbed in any way by Ignatz' constant attempts to sabotage him/her. I think there is something in the description of social reality quite outside established social rules that hits the mark, that describes something which is real and I could think that this might have been one of the main reasons why the cartoon was so fiercely rejected by local newspapers: because it does undermine and question gender and other social roles, while the sponsors of the newspapers wanted to see these very roles confirmed.

Favourite phrase from Krazy Kat: Where does the light go when it goes out?


Cover: Bone

Now to the Bones.

I can't remember which one of my brothers introduced me to Bone by Jeff Smith, they are both into it - but in any case this is another cartoon I became totally fond of.

Again there are formal elements which make Bone fun to read on several levels - in particular genre reflection - but I don't want to go too deep into this now and just recommend it as a real good read.

Rather than random strips the Bone story is actually a fully constructed fantasy novel full of surprises and clever twists of the plot. It took 13 years to complete, published in 55 installments, but the good news is that by now you can actually get the whole thing in a single book - what a relief.

What is it about: the three main characters Fone Bone, Phoney Bone and Smiley Bone - all brothers - are run out of Boneville because of Phoney Bone's business antics and stumble into an uncharted valley where they get separated and individually entangled in all sorts of funny business, from cow races to a regular war including dragons, locusts and quiche loving monsters. If I knew more about fantasy genres than having seen Lord of the Rings I could probably subclass the plot further, as I don't I just leave it at that.


Caravaggio / Carpaccio in Lugano
13 March 2007, 17:05:06

Caravaggio: St. Catharina / Carpaccio: Knight

When I went to see Carpaccio's Knight it was still in the Villa Thyssen-Bornemisza in Lugano. It has since moved to Madrid together with the rest of the collection. I don't know how the painting is presented now, but there in Lugano it hung just right beside Caravaggio's St. Catharina.

I don't think that the similarity of the painter's names had anything do with the choice of positioning. It's probably more likely that they were put together because they were both Italian (this is a private collection, not a big museum, so there aren't probably enough paintings to separate them by nationality and period), and maybe because they are of a similar size, so they fit well onto the walls in that particular corner.

However, having spent a good bit of time there, studying the Knight but still taking in the Catharina too, I think there is a point in comparing the two paintings as they bring out very opposites of what I like or really don't like in a painting.

I know many people relate to Caravaggio, and maybe there is something that I don't get, but frankly I don't trust him - he is just too convenient. There is always the famous single light source that sculpts the body of the individuals, lets them stand out while everything else falls back into darkness; there is always a soft amber light and he always seems to choose one intense passionate moment, a highlight captured and frozen, a heroic pose without before and after [the transcendent moment, as I just recently heard it described in a documentary]. It is static, the heroic pose would disintegrate, I think, if you would just think of how the figures shown got into this pose or what they would do next.

I think Caravaggio paints what we often would wish our lives to be like, intense and passionate - and frozen in time, but really this is a lie, like looking yourself in the mirror and automatically positioning yourself to appear in the most favourable light, then burning this image into memory, thinking this is how you appear all the time.

      I once had a physiotherapist as a friend who told me that people are usually not capable of seeing their bad postures if you just put them in front of a big mirror, they will automatically correct themselves and think this is how they stand all the time. He therefore asks them first to assume what they think is a natural and correct posture and only then puts the mirror in front of them. The effect appears to be devastating in most cases, however necessary in the therapy, a first step in understanding what has to be done.

What I am looking for, I guess, is acknowledgement of the fact that things change, that life is fleeting, but still there are moments that are important enough to be banned on a still canvas. These might be happy moments like Seurat's beach scenes, every day moments or traumatic ones. I guess there will be more of the latter ones, because that's the ones we have to deal with, and banning them on a painting is a way of doing that.

Carpaccio: Knight - Details

The Carpaccio painting is alright in this sense. Nothing is resolved in the Knight. He is in a position of waiting and defence. The full and healthy tree in the back, the almost leafless one beside the Knight and only a stump in the foreground, cut off at about the height where the Knight's sword cuts the tree next to him define history, a before and after. There are a hawk and a crane fighting in mid air; another knight and a peacock, the multiple eyes of his tail facing outward, guarding the gate; a white rabbit hopping towards a vulture - conflict and anticipation. There are principles: the ermine on an island surrounded by muddy water and a message saying it would rather die than dirty itself.

I am not interested in the social status of the knight and I guess the motto of the ermine is questionable at best, but even without knowing anything about the historical circumstances of the painting you can tell that there is tension, that somebody will have to face somebody or something and will have to make a difficult decision. The painting is a moment of reflection of that. A note of something that will have changed by the time it is finished, maybe something to hold on to while things change, a reminder of what you stood for, and it shows the attitude of facing this clearly, looking it into the eye if you want. That's something I can relate to. It may not be my attitude, it may not be how I deal with things, but it shows me how somebody else dealt with a situation that I can recognise.

      I often think paintings are maps, like the ones you would draw when you are lost (or in the Caravaggio context: to confirm that you are where you want to be). You put the landmarks on it that you know to (re)locate yourself in your environment. But sometimes it will show you somewhere else than you thought you would be, and sometimes you may not make sense of it at all. But somebody else might, with a different perspective, a wider horizon or more experience. It's a diagram used to get an overview.

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