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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Capstone Works: Building A Dream Or Nightmare

There are a few qualities that make particular artists an absolute joy to study. One such quality is continuity between works. Not just a stylistic continuity, but a kind of visual game where the artist reuses symbols, characters, ideas, and even other works as a way of commenting upon their past and their future. I suspect that most of the artists that we consider among the absolute greats quote themselves, in one way or another, and rework the same ideas in different ways. This strikes me as something that an engaged (and an engaging) artist does; self reflection is just an essential part of the process of creation. What's particularly interesting is that this phenomenon is not limited to just one medium, but appears in, as far as I can tell, every medium of expression, ever. Whether it's The Beatles sampling their old music, Ingres repainting whole collections of his nudes into one single erotic fantasy scene, Kurt Vonnegut or Osamu Tezuka including the same cast of characters and archetypes across their novels and comics, or even the constant presence in Final Fantasy games of chocobos, moogles, Biggs and Wedge, and Cid, the impulse to self-reference seems to be nearly universal.

Sometimes an artist will take that to the next level, though, and create a kind of capstone work that summarizes all of the rest of their career and philosophy. These kind of works often draw very consciously upon other pieces in order to construct a kind of mirror that reflects upon the previous material and portal that shows a way into the future for the artist... or, in the case of some artists, a tombstone that signifies the end of their career.

I would like to do a multi-part article series similar to my Ways of Reading Gaga (and possibly overlapping as well--have you seen the video for Marry the Night yet?) exploring some of these keystone pieces and what they tell us about the artists in question, the process of creating art, and why the creation of such works is important.

To start things off, I'm going to delve into a few painters that work with these kind of key pieces as a way of introducing the idea. From there... well, we shall see where things progress from there.


Let's start things out with something a bit spicy, just to keep everyone paying attention. I'm talking about the capstone work of Ingres, his Turkish Bath.

Remember, folks, this article doesn't need my NSFW image tag because this is Fine Art and therefore nothing like the dirty, dirty smut that I was talking about last week!


What are the qualities of this work? Well, note for one thing how Ingres distorts the bodies. There's a lot of stuff going on in this picture, and little of it is anatomically correct. Of course, Ingres does this quite consciously, relying upon his understanding of anatomy to support these complex and often erotically charged warpings of female flesh. Problematic? Oh, absolutely. But it's undeniably virtuosic as well.

Ingres also quite happily warps perspective, just as Vincent and Cezanne do nearly a century later. Look at that lying figure on the left. Now look back at the group of figures on the right. This just isn't working right at all. They would have to be hovering in the air with the space tilting weirdly to make their large scale work with the lying figure's angle. Everything is tilting in a totally impossible way. It's subtle enough that it isn't immediately apparent, but it's undeniable as well: the picture just doesn't work.

The point of all this is to create an erotic dream landscape. Remember how in Inception the spaces can be warped in strange ways while still seeming fundamentally realistic? Yeah, that's what Ingres is trying for here. He's interested in realism only as far as it allows him to create his dream world. The driving impetus for this was probably, of course, the horror of the Napoleonic wars. Ingres's works represent a flight of fancy away from a harsh world. The subject matter reinforces this: he chooses to depict a Turkish bath, embracing an orientalist notion of free Eastern sexuality and sensuality that allows for an escape from European drudgery. He isn't interested in accurate depictions of the Turkish culture so much as he's interested in an idealized fantasy of that culture.

Alright, so now you know what's going on in the painting besides "Implied Lesbian Orgies Are Hot." What makes this a capstone work?

Well, for one thing, it summarizes Ingres's career and ideals. Check out his Grand Odalisque, for example:

We've got the same kind of distortions here as in his other work, the same charged eroticism, and the same desire to create a fantasy landscape. What's more, Ingres actually straight up quotes some of his previous works to make this painting. Check out his Grand Bather:

Yep, she's the one playing the instrument in the center of the bath house picture. He's taken the same basic pose and altered it to fit the new piece. Laziness? Probably not. After all, it's not just a time saving device but also a clever way of highlighting the fact that these works are just illusions. They aren't real at all, but the product of Ingres's oversexed imagination.

Ingres's Turkish Bath therefore reveals his conscious interaction with his previous work. He is reflecting upon his philosophy and his previous paintings and creating a culminating work that cranks the qualities of his previous works up to 11. It's a brilliant summary of the trajectory of his career toward this fantasy world and the creation of a dream landscape in opposition to the harsh realities of Napoleonic Europe. And the quoting of figures says that the elements of the dream are under Ingres's control.


Stared at Ingres long enough? Yes? Feeling all warm and fuzzy inside? I bet you're hoping we're going to move on to another nice, pleasant set of paintings, aren't you?


On the opposite end of the spectrum from Ingres is Francisco Goya with his absolutely horrifying, absolutely brilliant Black Paintings. Like Ingres, Goya painted these at the end of his life and they are, in many ways, a distillation and commentary upon his life and philosophy. These are an interesting example of the kind of capstone works that I'm discussing because they don't borrow from existing works in quite the same way that Ingres and some of the other artists I might discuss later on do. Rather, they largely concern themselves with a summary of Goya's perception of humanity after witnessing the brutality visited by Napoleon upon his native Spain, and the ruinous rise of unworthy monarchs after the restoration of independence. He does so by similarly descending into a world of dream, but his is the nightmare to Ingres's sexy fantasy.

Consider "Saturn," above. I put the name in quotes because it's a little uncertain as to just what Goya was depicting. The name, after all, came later from art historians, in a move that strikes me as an attempt to bring what is an otherwise horrifyingly incomprehensible scene into at least somewhat more manageable mythic terms. The anatomy of the titan in the picture flows weirdly and he devours the body of the smaller figure with a manic sort of self horror. Look into those staring eyes and the raised eyebrows: the figure is clearly mad, but he also seems consumed by gut-wrenching terror. That's right, this being that devours humans whole, that has the strength to actually put indentations in the back of his prey (look closely at the way the fingers dig in...) is scared of something.

It reminds me somewhat of that iconic bug-eyed madman Peter Lorre in Fritz Lang's "M":

The most unnerving part of Lorre's monologue there is the quick set of shots of crowdmembers nodding in empathy. Not to stray too far off topic, but this is actually a perfect encapsulation of Goya's horror: the idea that this endlessly pursuing inner beast lurks within countless people, perhaps even all of us.

Although "Saturn" is phantasmagorical in nature, this kind of monstrous horror is a theme that Goya considered quite often in his life. His two major print series--the Capriccios and the Disasters of War--show all sorts of crazy scenes of horror and destruction. Some, from the Disasters of War series, are more down to earth, although they retain the Saw-style torture porn focus of "Saturn". And others from the Capriccios are just... well...

Yeah. 1

So, the Black Paintings, in their dark depictions of humanity:

and in their phantasmagorical qualities:

serve as representations and summaries of Goya's career. I think perhaps the ultimate keystone of the series is this large piece:

Look at the way the giants float impossibly, defying gravity in their throes of horror over the dwarfed human riders. Note also the fact that Goya here is, in fact, returning to an old theme. Those soldiers down at the bottom? They're not directly quoted, but it's hard not to see them as corresponding to the soldiers in his Third of May:

The massacre of innocent civilians that Goya so abhorred and protested after the end of the Napoleonic Wars has grown in his mind and become a war of impossible giants, overshadowing all. The real horrors of war have twisted and become something deeper, more primordial, an impossible, incomprehensible force that dwells in everything.

There has been some recent doubt as to whether these works are, in fact, Goya's. I frankly can't say; I'm not a Goya scholar, although I do love his work. I honestly don't know that it matters, though. If these were not Goya's original works, they were the works of someone close to him, and they stand just as strongly as a summary of his ideas and style. They are still, ultimately, capstones upon Goya's work and process, and if they are the work of another, clearly they are the work of someone who thought long and hard about how to pay homage to the master.


What these works show is that a capstone work can be a keystone to a body of works. Yes, the switching of terminology in this article was deliberate.2 A piece that summarizes an artist's career can also serve as a nexus point that ties the other works together into a cohesive philosophy, or recontextualizes them in a way that adds new perspectives. Next time perhaps I'll delve into some artists of other media that more explicitly borrow from their past work in order to create this kind of commentary, but for now I'll leave you to contemplate Goya and Ingres and the way that capstones can be used to construct an entire philosophical facade.

Whether it is a construction of erotic imagination or a construction of unrelenting nightmare is all up to the artist that puts that last stone in place.

As always, feel free to leave comments, complaints, or, best of all, your own interpretations, or e-mail me at . And, if you like what you've read here, share it on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Xanga, Netscape, or whatever else you crazy kids are using to surf the blogoblag these days.

1 Incidentally, I was originally going to include one of the Disasters of War prints there. I ultimately decided that they were just a bit too gruesome to subject someone to without warning. Some of them are significantly worse than even Saturn up there.

2 Although it only became deliberate as I was writing that sentence. Whoops, looks like this crap is ad-libbed after all.

1 comment:

  1. Though you only touched upon the borrowing, I feel this is further proof of why the concept of self-plagiarism is absolutely asinine and backwards. It's one thing to steal someone else's ideas and present them as your own. It's quite another to... use your own ideas... and present them... as your own. If you own an idea, you may do whatever you damned well want to do with it.

    Basically any profession that makes things, in any way, will copy their previous work. Otherwise, they're horrible at their job. I copypaste common code because it's a waste of time to re-type it every time - even if I've forgotten exactly how it works.

    What this makes me wonder, though, is whether or not programmers can have capstone projects, and if so, would anyone give a fuck?


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