Wit Larded with Malice

Or: The Satirical Russian Magazines of 1905-08

In Russia, following a string of embarrassing defeats in the Russo-Japanese War and the infamous Bloody Sunday incident, during the period of the so called Failed Revolution, no less than 480 underground magazines sprung-up to voice the outrage of the many disparate groups and factions and movements—nihilists, anarchists, socialists,  Mensheviks, Bolsheviks, etc—which though unorganized, were united in their calls for Tsarist reform. This outpouring of printed materials, critical of the State, was no small thing in a country with a long history of strict censorship and brutal punishments for dissension. These many short-lived publications are referred to, collectively, as “satires.” 

08.12. filed under: art. comedy. death. design. history. 9

The Recumbent Supper

If I accosted you on the street, grabbed you by the shoulders, and blurted, “The Last Supper!” involuntarily (and to spite your fear of being pawed and shouted at by a lunatic) an image would form in your head. We all know what that image is without any need of my describing it because its roughly the same image we all conjure up. It would seem that Western depictions of the last supper, most notably Leonardo Da Vinci’s incredibly iconic version, have dominated the popular imagination in regard to this biblical event to such a degree that we’ve been left with an unshakeable mental image. As it happens, however, it’s an image which deviates considerably not only from scriptural description but from historical reality.

07.20. filed under: art. belief. books. history. 4

Hsueh Shao-Tang, Stamp Connector.

Quote: “Several years ago, at a sumptuous Chinese dinner in Geneva, my hosts asked whether I would do them a favor, or, rather, a favor for their cook, who had prepared the banquet. I intended driving through the Alps later that night, to arrive at dawn on the French Riviera for celebrations honoring the ninetieth birthday of Pablo Picasso; who would surely remain behind his locked gate working, as on any other day. He once had sighed, “If people could only give me their wasted hours! Instead, they bring me things.” So, when my friends explained that their cook wanted me to take a gift to Picasso “from an admirer who never met him,” I tactfully declined. My friends actfully persisted. ‘This one is different! It’s a good-luck picture, the Chinese god of Happiness and Long Life—made from tiny fragments of postage stamps.” Next morning I arrived on the Riviera as the gift-bearing envoy of Hsueh Shao-Tang . . . master artist and master chef.” –David Douglas Duncan.

06.20. filed under: art. history. people. 7

This photograph, shot in 1840 and titled Self Portrait as a Drowned Man, is not of a drowned man, and if it had been it would be far less interesting or important. This humble image, so far as anyone knows, can claim all of the following honorifics- First instance of intentional photographic fakery. First photographic practical joke. First use of a photograph as propaganda / protest. And, quite possibly, a result of the world’s first reliable photographic process, direct positive or otherwise.

06.04. filed under: art. history. people. 2

I wonder whether any of you have seen the film Lars and the Real Girl? It was a sweet, chaste sort of film considering its casting of a Real Doll as the female lead, and though I enjoyed it I couldn’t help but spend its entire length being reminded of the altogether less sweet, less chaste, true life corollary of “Oscar and the Alma Doll.”

The synopsis of this tale might go as follows- In 1911 Viennese artist Oskar Kokoschka (or as the German press referred to him “der tolle Kokoschka”) meets Alma Mahler, the widow of composer Gustav Mahler. A relationship begins consisting mainly of hot sex and expressionist painting. Or “the good life” as it’s sometimes called. Oscar, for his part, falls obsessionally, passionately, possessively hard. Alma... not so much.

06.01. filed under: art. history. people. 6

Subjectivity and the Subjugated

Feathers and beak but not a bird, not quite. It is roughly man-shaped; and though the head tilts and the arms outstretch like a midnight stranger, without a face and without hands it is not a man either, not quite. It is Man-but-not-Man, that most ancient mold for the manufacture of disquiet, never failing to lend a nightmarish quality to the unknown. The light is cluttered with hard shadows and the mind, unsure, is forced toward interpretation. You are a child and it is a swooping, enveloping horror. You are a hunter and it’s an avenger. You are a Freudian and it is your mother hovering, unreachable, in the middle-distance. You are a seer and it is an omen. You are a vaudevillian and it is a punch-line delivered into silence. You are a captain of industry and it is an accusatory night-sweat. On and on for each. At bottom its simple: you are a you and it is not, which is enough. Its “otherness”  provokes an aggressive subjectivity.

03.30. filed under: art. books. history. humanity. ideas. 11

As an enthusiast for interesting, beautiful, forgotten thingamagigs, I’ve made many small discoveries. I’ve learned things. One overarching lesson has been that when searching out hand-made objects of any kind, especially those of ancient origin, one can always look East, specifically to Japan, to find the kind of obsessive attention to detail and devotion to craft that elevates damn near anything to a masterpiece-spawning artform. Today, as example of just this principle, I offer a cursory glance at the tsuba.

03.13. filed under: art. design. history. 8

And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks

Being dead has got to be a drag. Being dead and famous? Still a drag, but at least you impressed yourself into the wax of the world sufficiently to live on, if only in name, for a while longer. Being dead and a famous artist? That’s a whole other tank of hippos. It would seem if you achieve fame in your lifetime as an artist your fate after death is to have every awkward, stinking, aborted creative-effort dragged from the darkness of its banishment, tagged, and shoved under the bright lights. That thing you made whilst naked in the mountains, blindfolded, heartbroken, raving, high on poisonous toad-skin, which you set down in grasshopper blood on the back of a banana leaf… that thing which you awoke three days later to find wedged between a wet deer skull and your car’s front tire… if you were too weak to burn it then when you had the chance, that thing will be found and packaged, and your name will be emblazoned across it, and it will be sold. Yes indeed. It will be sold to someone, or anyone, or everyone with a jangling pile of coins burning a hole in their pocket.



The events which inspired
And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks certainly sound novel-worthy, complete with obsession, drunken knife-fights, murder, body dumping, and the incarceration of our intrepid beat luminaries. Surely its publication will have some redeeming value? Whether just for historians and completists and rubber-neckers, or as a work in and of itself, is yet to be seen.

I have to wonder what the artists themselves would think were they alive? Would they be embarrassed? Displeased? Would the fact that even their “undistinguished” works made it to a clamoring marketplace simply satisfy their egos and overrule their internal editors? Would they grin from their easy chairs unable to beat back the maniacal words, “I am legend”?

My “not very distinguished” mock-up of the UK edition.



Letting “unsuccessful” works linger in drawers and boxes under beds is a weakness for most artists I’d say, but then, when they are your creations, even abortive ones, abhorrent ones, embarrassing ones, and your intention is to mournfully review them every decade or so as you would review old correspondences or family photographs, they retain a definite personal value. A personal value.

After Henry Miller’s death Moloch and Crazy Cock came to light, neither of which were sterling examples of his incredible talent , likewise Bukowski has had damn near as many books of poetry published since his death as before. At what point does the pile of “not ready for prime time” work of an artist begin to tarnish his or her legacy? Does it ever? Is our insatiable desire to know everything about those we’ve immortalized self-defeating? And are we actually entitled to see the things artists didn’t want to have seen? It may well be that we afford our idols more “personal space” physically, after their deaths, than we do metaphorically. 

It’s a moot point I guess. There’s money to be made and industry marches on. And perhaps, just perhaps, the rationalization that even a turd from a master is better than nothing is true. One thing we can be sure of is that neither Jack, nor William, nor Henry, Nor Buk give a good god-damn either way right now, and we can take heart in the fact that while they lived, their art was their own.

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03.04. filed under: art. books. observations. people. 10

Digging The Diggers

In case you are not up on your 60’s history and are as yet unfamiliar with them I offer the following: The Diggers, who took their name from the English Diggers of the seventeenth century, were an underground improv theater troupe, of radical-left / anarchist bent, operating in the Haight-Ashbury District of San Francisco in the mid-1960’s. They preformed street theater, staged art-happenings, disseminated broadsides and leaflets, organized concerts, opened “free stores” and, most famously, distributed free food in Golden Gate Park to anyone with an empty stomach.

I can hear what you’re thinking: “In other words they were hippies.”

Yes. In other words they were hippies.

03.02. filed under: art. design. history. people. 4

A Little Girl Dreams Of Taking The Veil

Before the combination of Photoshop and, this vast repository of source-materials, the internet began spawning what now certainly amount to billions of wry photo-mashups, there was a predecessor which required of its practitioners expert hand-skills and vision and resourcefulness. I’m talking, of course, about collage, and in the days before pixels, indeed before periodicals positively overflowed with photographic imagery, a fellow, without formal training, by the name of Max Ernst took the form to places previously unimagined.

02.24. filed under: art. books. history. people. 11

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