Friday, October 14, 2016

Hector Reproaching Paris, by Pierre Claude Francois Delorme (1824)

We close our brief visit with painter Pierre Claude Francois Delorme (1783-1859) with his 1824 picture, Hector Reproaching Paris, which now resides in the Amiens Museum.

Your Correspondent must confess to never having seen this picture in person, and the photographic representations I’ve been able to find online are not great.  But, it is so interesting that I couldn’t let our look at Delorme pass without a few thoughts on it.

We had written about the very formal Neoclassical Empire style, and how Delorme seemed to separate himself from that tradition a bit, thanks to the influence of his love for Italian Renaissance painters such as Michelangelo and Raphael.  This picture here, with its rigid formalism and tableaux-like staging, is more in line with the style of Delorme’s time, but he still manages to incorporate some Renaissance-Mannerist thinking.

Those who remember their Iliad, recall that the whole disaster was predicated on Paris falling in love with, and taking away, the beautiful Helen of Troy.  Her defection leads to a cataclysmic war, one that takes the life of Paris’ brother, Hector, who is killed at the hand of Achilles.

Delorme’s picture illustrates the scene where Hector breaks into the lovers’ apartments to call Paris to war.  (In the text, Paris is already preparing for battle when Hector enters, but Delorme creates more drama with his staging.)  Delorme’s craft perfectly captures the differences between Hector, the warrior, and Paris, the lover.

The world of Paris and Helen is one of love and sensuality, presented in a pale, golden light.  A statue of Aphrodite (Goddess of Love) holding a dove (symbol of peace) stands in the background, while fragrant blossoms are strewn about the floor and the table is set with food and drink.  On the floor is the lyre that Paris has dropped; he stands partly on it, as if burying his worldly pleasures.  The sensuality of this realm is underscored by the nudity of Paris and Helen; particularly that of Paris, who is caught between the opposing worlds of love and war.  In an ironic touch, Paris grows more naked still – he is removing his wreath – before donning his helmet and armor.

Paris is in marked contrast with the placid and serene beauty of Helen.  She is the lynchpin of the entire tragedy, but remains a passive object to the passions around her.  More important, this perfumed world of love and pleasure is rightly her realm, and she is perfectly at home in it.  It is the figures of Hector and Paris who are the aliens or partial visitors to this space.  (Indeed, note how her pose is similar to the statue of Aphrodite in the background.)  The peacock feathers strike a note of vanity, while the leopard skin on the bed adds a bit of wild carnality.

Hector, depicted largely in shadow, appears as a representative of war, complete with red mantle.  The shield and spear are near-black outlines (the spear being particularly phallic) – this darkness announces the darkness of war.  Indeed, the right-hand side of the canvas, where Paris reaches for his armor, is also dark; the lovers exist in the shadow of war.

Delorme relies on chiaroscuro, more a Renaissance than Neoclassical technique, to provide the contrast between the worlds of love and war, of indulgence and discipline, and of pleasure and duty.  More important, the shadowy figure of Hector is supremely out-of-place in the world of Paris and Helen.

As we saw with Hero and Leander and Cephalus and Aroura, Delorme clearly always sides with the lovers.  I’m with him.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Hero and Leander, by Pierre Claude Francois Delorme (1814)

We see here a very different type of picture by Pierre Claude Francois Delorme (1783-1859), Hero and Leander, painted in 1814.

This is a Greek myth telling of the love between Hero, a priestess of Aphrodite that lived in a tower in Sestos beside the Hellespont (Dardanelles, today), and Leander, a young man from Abydos on the opposite side of the strait.  Leader fell in love with Hero and would swim every night across the Hellespont to be with her.  She would light a lamp at the top of her tower to help lead the way for him.

Aphrodite was the Goddess of Love, but Hero was a virgin.  Leander tells Hero that Aphrodite would not value the supplication of a virgin, and convinces her to let him make love to her.  Their love affair lasts through the summer; but on one stormy night, the waves buffet Leander, who becomes lost; the storm also blows out Hero’s guiding light.  Leander drowns, and when Hero sees his dead body, she throws herself over the tower’s edge, uniting them in death.

This tale has been popular with painters, poets, troubadours and writers for thousands of years.  (One wonders if the seed of Romeo and Juliet can be found within it.)  Of the many literary retellings of the story, perhaps the best known was by Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593).  In Marlowe’s version, Leander is spotted during his swim by Neptune, who confuses him with Ganymede and carries him to the bottom of the ocean.  Neptune is clearly besotted by the young man.  Marlowe writes of "[i]magining that Ganymede, displeas'd, [h]ad left the Heavens ... [t]he lusty god embrac'd him, call'd him love ... He watched his arms and, as they opened wide [a]t every stroke, betwixt them would he slide [a]nd steal a kiss, ... And dive into the water, and there pry [u]pon his breast, his thighs, and every limb, ... [a]nd talk of love," while the boy, naive and unaware of Greek love practices, protests, "'You are deceiv'd, I am no woman, I.' Thereat smil'd Neptune.”  When Neptune realizes his mistake, he brings Leander back to the shore, giving him a bracelet that would keep him safe from drowning.

Leander arrives at Hero’s tower.  She answers the door to find the youth nude, and after much love talk, consummate their relationship.  The poem ends with dawn approaching; Marlowe was never able to finish his epic; he would be murdered in a barroom brawl before completion.

Delorme would no doubt have been aware of Marlowe’s text, and it’s possible to see where it informed his painting.  With his delicate curls, beatific smile and shimmering, supple body, Leander is quite beautiful.  Hero anoints his tresses with perfume (or, perhaps, sweet-smelling oils) taken from the open box beside them, a particular irony, seeing that the youth is doomed to drown.  Take a moment to look at how wonderfully Delorme delineates each of Leander’s fingers (on Hero’s shoulder).  These are not the fingers of a Samson, but, rather, a pretty boy.  And though he looks up at Hero with adoration, he is a little … sappy.

The most splendid component of this picture is the glorious Hero.  Once again Delorme harkens back to Raphael for inspiration of the heroine’s face.  But it is in the depiction of her voluptuous (and, frankly, sexual body) that the quality of the picture rests.  It is no mistake that the centerpiece of the entire painting is Hero’s mons veneris; it lies dead-center in the picture, and Delomre’s use of light draws the eye’s attention directly to it.  It is also the center of the figure, and the playful gestures of both her arms and her legs seem to stem from it.  (Even the application of perfume is code for what is going on, as the couple rejoices next to an open box.)

Delorme’s coyness extends to the background, where he has a makeshift curtain block the background window; he places the lyre at the base of Aphrodite’s statue.  In the symbolism of ancient Greece, Orpheus was able to play the lyre in such a way as to knock down stone walls.

This is a witty, beautifully constructed picture.  Not inexplicably moving, like his Cephalus and Aurora, but accomplished nonetheless.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Cephalas Carried Off by Aurora, by Pierre Claude Francois Delorme (1851)

Here is a wonderfully (and unexpectedly) tender painting by an artist we have not covered before, Pierre Claude Francois Delorme (1783-1859).  He is not as well known in the United States as he should be, but his relatively small oeuvre is replete with delicacy and grace.

Delorme was born in Paris and was a student of Anne-Louis Girodet-Trioson (1767-1824) – who was, himself, a student of Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), whom we have covered many times in these pages.   The influence of both Girodet-Trioson and (once-removed) David are readily apparent.  Delorme was, in many ways, an exemplar of the classical style of painting of the Empire period.  He painted a number of significant works, including pictures for the palaces of Versailles, Fontainbleau, Neurilly and Compiegne, as well as various Parisian churches.

Like his masters, Delorme produced pictures featuring monumentally sculpted figures in a posed, almost tableaux-like composition.  His interests were historical and mythological, like others of the period, and he sought to tell universal truths about people through evocations of a more sublime ideal.

However, Delorme parts company with his contemporaries because he also carries within his worldview an earlier, Renaissance ideal.  Following his apprenticeship, Delorme spent many years in Italy, where he became enamored of the works of such later Renaissance figures as Raphael and Michelangelo.   The influence of these painters – more human, more emotional, more fluid -- lent his work an added depth; almost as if the Mannerist experiment added a touch of humanity and emotion to what is a technically brilliant, but emotionally cold, school of painting.

The story of Cephalus and Aurora is told in Book Seven of Ovid's Metamorphoses. Cephalus, an Athenian hero, falls in love with Procis, and marries her. Shortly afterwards, while hunting deer, he catches the eye of Aurora, Goddess of the Dawn.  Though a Goddess, Aurora was sexually adventurous and was frequently attracted to young mortal men.  Descending from her mountain home, Aurora carried Cephalus off with her. However, on finding that he remained faithful to Procris, she allowed him to return home, privately swearing vengeance. She caused a spirit of jealousy to infect their marriage and this eventually resulted in the accidental death of Procris who suffered a wound inflicted by Cephalus with his enchanted hunting spear. 

For a story with such a tragic ending, this is an exceptionally sweet and affecting picture.

Let’s start with Aurora.  The debt to Raphael is particularly strong in this picture, as is evidenced by the serene beauty of Aurora, and the delicate pansexuality of the putti.  The gossamer quality of her hair, along with the placidity of her gaze, mark Delorme’s Aurora as a Renaissance figure.  Look, too, at her delicately drawn feet, and the diaphanous quality of her dress, which renders her leg visible.  This is draughtsmanship of a high caliber, and the subtlety of the lighting effects are clearly influenced by Late Renaissance (or Mannerist) painting.

Cephalus also looks more like a Renaissance figure than a figure from the French Empire era.  Delorme paints a male figure of heart-breaking beauty.  Look at the graceful lines of the body and the angelically handsome face; it’s impossible to look at Cephalus without a sense of awe at his transformative beauty.

Delorme achieves this with strategic lighting effects:  his strong brow and sensitive line of nose are well lit.  The light then accentuates the wide, capacious breast, lilting down to the stomach and growing darker, darker around the powerful legs.  The artist also hints at the width of his body by the hot, white light of the right knee, popping up behind the shadowed foreleg.

But the real heart of the picture is Aurora’s hand, placed lovingly on the breast of Cephalus.  This component, if nothing else in the picture, is the work of pure genius.  That one touch denotes romantic love, sexual passion, possession, gentleness and protection.  The impression transcends the emotional and moves into the range of the elemental.

Artist Leon Kossoff (born 1926), would often look at the paintings of great masters, sketching his own conceptions of the art before him.  He would often sit before a painting of Cephalus and Aurora (though, the one he gazed at compulsively was by Poussin).  One day, he had a transformative experience before the painting, which he remembered thusly: It seemed as though I was experiencing the work for the first time.  I suppose there is a difference between looking and experiencing.  Paintings of this quality, in which the subject is endlessly glowing with luminosity, can, in an unexpected moment, surprise the viewer, revealing unexplored areas of self.

That is exactly how I react to Delomre’s depiction.  That glowing quality of luminosity completely takes me by surprise, and I feel as if I’m keying into some extraordinarily powerful emotional undercurrent.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Superman: The Unauthorized Biography, by Glen Weldon (2013)

A few weeks ago, we looked at Glen Weldon’s delicious The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture.  We enjoyed it so much, we moved onto Weldon’s earlier book on the world’s first superhero, Superman: The Unauthorized Biography.  With Batman, Weldon had hoped to put nerd culture into some type of larger perspective; his Superman book is less ambitious, but more focused and successful a production.  If you are a Superman buff, it is highly recommended.

We here at The Jade Sphinx have always much preferred Superman to his darker counterpart.  This is a prejudice we suspect that Weldon shares, as his book on Superman is relentlessly amusing, affectionate and reverential.  Superman’s creators, Siegel and Schuster, says Weldon, saw their creation as quite simply, the ultimate American: a Gatsby who’d arrived on a bright new shore, having propelled himself there by burning his own past as fuel.  The Old World could no longer touch him, and now it was left to him to forge his own path.  Throughout the book, Weldon’s prose seems charged with a powerful nostalgia for a simpler, and perhaps wiser, America.  One that still believed in heroes and other symbols of hope; and, we suspect, one where childish delights were viewed in perspective by adult fans, and not with the soul-crushing scrutiny of today’s Perpetual Adolescents.

One of Weldon’s strongest passages concerns science fiction writer Larry Niven’s 1971 essay on the possible outcomes of Superman having sex with Earth women.  The essay, Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex, made excruciating (and amusing)  conclusions, and it can still be found and makes for great reading.  But Weldon places this now 45 year old work in contemporary perspective:  The gag, of course, is the deadpan, painstaking manner in which Niven lays out his thought process.  This is where you end up if you take this stuff too seriously, he seems to say: killer sperm from outer space.

Looking back on Niven’s humorous essay today, it’s impossible to see it as anything but a chilling harbinger of the high-level weapons-grade nerdery that would seize comics in the decades that followed.  All too soon, legions of fans and creators adopted Niven’s let’s-pin-this-to-the-specimen-board approach and proceeded to leach humor and whimsy and good old-fashioned, Beppo the Super-Monkey-level goofiness out of superhero comics, leaving in their place a punishing, joyless, nihilistic grittiness.

Weldon sees Superman as an ever-changing figure, who always reflects a constantly evolving America.  The New Deal crusader of the late 1930s is different from the patriotic boy scout of World War II, and very different indeed from his Jet Age counterpart.  What Weldon sees as the core of Superman is not his persona, but his motivation.  And that is, simply, that Superman always puts the needs of others over those of himself, and he never gives up.  That is the definition of a hero.

Weldon also posits that Superman has long ago transcended the various media that deliver him to us: he has become an idea that is bigger than the comic books, cartoons, TV shows and movies that feature him.  It is an idea that has weathered 75 years, and Weldon predicts that will last at least another 75 more.

It is this protean quality that makes Superman much like Sherlock Holmes, Dracula or even Ebenezer Scrooge: each generation can find something new and vital to say about him, and, in doing so, say something about their own era.

Fortunately, Weldon is also laugh-out-loud funny.  We had the giggles paging through most of this book.  Here he is on the sexy aesthetic of Legion of Super-Heroes artist Mike Grell: Detractors have dinged Grell’s designs for their Ming-the-Merciless collars, bikini bottoms, and pixie boots (and that’s just on the men) – and it’s true that in some panels, Legion HQ crowd scenes seem more like the VIP lounge at Studio 54, but his designs made the book look like nothing else on the shelves.

Here he is on Superman writer Marv Wolfman’s prose: Wolfman proceeded to slather on the pathos, gilding the emotional lily so fervently it makes Dickens’s death of Little Nell read like an expense report. 

It would be hard to imagine a better guide through Superman’s complex history, and we look forward to hearing from Glen Weldon again.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Law of the Desert Born, A Graphic Novel, by Louis L’Amour

Here’s a first for The Jade Sphinx, a review of a graphic novel, and it’s a humdinger, Law of the Desert Born, adapted from a Louis L’Amour (1908-1988) short story of the same name by Charles Santino (working off a script by Beau L’Amour and Katherine Nolan), and illustrated by Thomas Yeates.  Even if you have never been the ‘type’ to try a graphic novel (i.e., novel in comic book form), you should try this one.  Not only is it a model of the craft, it is a spectacular Western, as well.

The late Gary Cooper (1901-1961) used to opine that he loved Westerns because, when they were good, “there was an honesty about them.”  Though they sometimes devolved into simple stories about white hats vs black hats, more usually there were shadings of complexity and subtlety.  Great (and even really good) Westerns are only ‘plot driven’ in the same manner as great literature: we are the sum of our motives and the consequences they drive us to.

Law of the Desert Born takes place in New Mexico, 1887, during the worst drought that anyone can remember.  Rancher Tom Forrester has his access to the Pecos River cut off by the son of his old partner, and he convinces his foreman, Shad Marone, to rustle cattle on his land.

Shad squeezes his poor employee, Jesus Lopez, a half-Mexican, half-Apache on the run from the Fort Marion prison in Florida, to do his dirty work.  Lopez, a scout and tracker for the army, helped relocate the Chihenne and Chiricahua Apaches for the government, and was repaid for his loyalty with a one-way trip to the same gulag.

When the rustling is discovered, Lopez takes the fall.  Tensions escalate, and Forrester is fatally injured by his enemy; Shad kills the rival rancher in revenge and goes on the run.

Now, the sheriff must release Lopez from jail and allow him to use his skills as a tracker to lead the posse to Shad.  Lopez guides them through miles of trackless badlands, into a crucible to test their courage and skill.  But, as the story continues, the question becomes: what are Lopez’s real motives?

This is great stuff.  Both Shad and Lopez are equal parts hero and villain, and the sheriff is both compassionate man of justice and unthinking hardcase.  The townsfolk that make up the posse are like most humanity – neither hero nor rogue, just simply people trying to get along.

L’Amour also dispenses with many of the tropes that would degrade the core integrity of the tale: there are no deadeye gunslingers, or rancher’s daughters to provide love interest – nor even any clear indication of whether either side was right or wrong in the issue of water rights.  What it all is … is very complicated.  Much like life.

The book comes with a wonderful coda from Beau L’Amour on the differences between this adaptation and his father’s original pulp story, and details his efforts to get the story made into a film.  It also has some valuable biographical data on his father, and notes to put the whole story in historical perspective.

Now, a graphic novel lives or dies on its illustrations, and I’m delighted to report that Yeates’ pages are wonderful.  Rendered in stark black and white, Yeates has created a pen-and-ink wash world of stark landscapes, wide vistas and intense close-ups.  He creates his pages with a cinematic flair; if anyone ever did make a movie of this, they could simply tear the pages out and stuff them into the camera.

Yeates’ anatomy does sometimes seem to be slightly off, but any slight failures of draughtsmanship are more than made up by his genius for composition.  His pages are not a static series of regiment panels, but, rather, a dynamic expression of motion and story on the page.  It’s a textbook lesson on how the form is done.

This oversize hardcover is a great addition to the library of any Western or comic fan, or, indeed, anyone who likes a good story.