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Category Archives: Art

There’s a quiet thrill to be had from being able to spot less-than-obvious references in popular media. Does anyone remember this crossover ad on Cartoon Network that featured Johnny Bravo talking about his whirlwind romance with Velma Dinkley (from Scooby-Doo)?

It’s set late at night in a lonely cafe , perched at the intersection of two dark, empty streets. Somehow, it wasn’t the sort of thing you usually found in cartoons, and there’s unquestionably something that was very memorable about the scene, because I still do remember it, after all these years. In fact, it immediately came to mind when I chanced upon the painting that inspired it: “Nighthawks”, by Edward Hopper (1882-1967).

Nighthawks (1942), by Edward Hopper

The Cartoon Network version

“Nighthawks” is one of the most recognizable American paintings ever (here’s another one; you’ve almost certainly seen references to it, too, even if you never knew it) and it’s easy to see why. There’s a haunting sense of loneliness about it, but unlike the human figures in many paintings that sought to express the isolation that’s inevitably a part of modern urban life (see Mark Rothko’s “Subway Scene”, for example), the people here are real people, not just faceless creatures. You can actually imagine meeting the woman in the red dress, or ordering a drink from the waiter in a sailor’s uniform. And you can’t help asking yourself what the individual circumstances were that brought each of these people to this place.

“Nighthawks” was painted in 1942, almost immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbour (which was on December 7th, 1941). It was a dark time for the United States, and this is reflected in the mood of the painting – it’s hard to tell whether any of the people there are interacting with one another at all. That’s probably how it often is after a tragedy – there doesn’t seem to be anything worth saying to anyone.


I think it’s to J.K. Rowling’s credit that she managed to include so many classical monsters in her Harry Potter series- in a sense reviving them from obscurity and allowing them to be passed onto later generations of modern readers. Obvious examples include centaurs, the basilisk and the sphinx, all of which come from Ancient Greek myths. I’m sure there are a few others as well.

Until now, though, I didn’t realize that the Hippogriff wasn’t Rowling’s creation either. Somehow, the name “Hippogriff”” seems to convey the same sort of whimsy as “Dumbledore” (which I’m pretty sure is something that Rowling created by combining two other words – although, of course, I could be wrong about that, too), and I just assumed that she’d come up with it.

Apparently not. Seems that Hippogriffs have been around for quite some time. An early reference occurs in the epic poem Orlando Furioso, by Ludovico Ariosto, which was first published in its complete form in 1532. Orlando Furioso is, by the way, probably no less of a swashbuckling fantasy story than the Harry Potter series: the plot wanders from Scotland to Japan, and even to the moon; and of course, there is an admirable array of mythical monsters as well. Haven’t read it yet, but I probably should at some point.

I found out about the Hippogriff’s impressive ancestry when I came across two illustrations for Orlando Furioso by Gustave Doré (for more on him: Gustave Doré: Gloom and Glory). Here they are:

"Hippogriff", illustration by Gustave Doré for Orlando Furioso.

"Ruggiero Rescuing Angelica" by Gustave Doré; illustration for Orlando Furioso

By the way, my apologies to readers with delicate sensibilities, but nude women are pretty common in a lot of art.

UPDATE: Who knew Harry Potter could be analyzed this deeply (or weirdly)?

UPDATE 2: For an accessible overview of Orlando Furioso, and its prequel Orlando Innamorato, this is a great link.

Today I feel like sharing some more Edvard Munch (cf.Existential Anguish” from the archives of this blog; it was posted in May 2010). The painting below is called “Vampire”. Cool, innit?

Vampire, by Edvard Munch

Death Depicted as the Grim Reaper on top of the World

Back into the Tempest

I was recently reminded of the macabre brilliance of Gustave Doré (1832 – 1883) when I came across a collection of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories. On the front cover of the book was Death Depicted as the Grim Reaper on top of the World, one of his illustrations for Poe’s renowned poem The Raven. I’m sure I’ve only seen a tiny fraction of his oeuvre, but of the works I’ve seen, the Grim Reaper on top of the World, and Back into the Tempest are probably my favourites. They’re both from The Raven, and I’ve included them above.

Just from these two pictures, I think Doré’s talent for creating lasting images of dark, surreal beauty is obvious. His best works were probably those that were furthest away from prosaic reality, works which explored calamity, tragedy, loss, loneliness, triumph and bliss, in worlds foreign but familiar to our own. The influential American critic Edmund C. Stedman, a contemporary of Doré’s, described him in these words: “He was born a master of the grotesque, and by a special insight could portray the spectres of a haunted brain… Beauty pure and simple, and the perfect excellence thereof, he rarely seemed to comprehend.”

Even when he was depicting the real world, such as in his book London: A Pilgrimage, he couldn’t keep himself from focussing largely on the poverty of the vast majority of its inhabitants. I particularly like the image below- Over London by Rail, which is from that book. It seems to me to convey the fact that despite the technological advances of a booming metropolis, for many people, living in Victorian London was like living in a row of cages at a pet store. Even if they had most of the things they needed to survive, they would never escape their socioeconomic cages.


Over London by Rail (1870)

Most of Doré’s illustrations (and all of the ones included here) were either steel or wood engravings, which are both forms of printmaking. What that means is the artist didn’t create these works by drawing on paper with a pen or pencil- contrary to what I first thought when I came across works like this.

Instead, printmaking is achieved by first creating a matrix– for example, by engraving a desired pattern or picture on a block of wood. The matrix is then used to transfer ink onto paper, creating a single copy of the artist’s desired image, which is known as an impression. It’s a lot like using a stamp; and just like with stamps, one major advantage of printmaking is that a single matrix can be used to create a large number of identical impressions. This is, of course, particularly useful when one’s works are to be used in widely published books- as Doré’s were.

The monochrome palette of printmaking (in Western art- as opposed mainly to Japanese art- printmaking almost never used colour) makes Doré’s works even more dreamlike, and suited many of the books he illustrated extremely well- books of fantastic adventure stories, such as Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and of course, the Bible.

Critics have said that the quality of Doré’s pictures depended greatly upon the nature, and the quality of the literature he illustrated. As I consider the classic literary masterpieces I just mentioned, I can’t shake the feeling that Doré could have created something unforgettable if he had had the opportunity to illustrate one of my personal favourite works of fiction: The Lord of the Rings…

Anyway, here’s a few more Dorés:

Illustration for The Divine Comedy

Illustration for Coleridge's 'Rime of the Ancient Mariner'

Final illustration for The Raven


The Scream (1893)- by Norwegian artist Edvard Munch

I can’t imagine a work of art more poignantly capturing an ill-defined but all-consuming sense of existential anguish than The Scream.

The lack of recognizable facial features on the principal subject somehow only serves to convey its emotions more acutely. It’s as if everything that once made this creature human has been stripped away, leaving behind only a raw core of fear and pain. These emotions are of such crushing magnitude that they distort material reality around the subject, causing the skies to boil and meld with the land and the sea. There’s no detail in the surroundings because it all pales into insignificance- even nonexistence- in the face of the subject’s pain.

Crucially, though, the two figures in the background are not distorted in the same way as the faceless subject. This fact, along with their physical distance from the subject, seems to drive home the idea that it is alone in its pain. There is no hope here of misery being assuaged by finding itself in like company. It suffers alone.

One of the most famous paintings of all time, The Scream is an example of Expressionist art, which sought to express emotional experience and the meaning of being alive rather than physical reality. It’s been the victim of several high-profile art thefts, and was recovered more than once in sting operations by police forces from several countries.

Upon examination of his life, one might find that it’s not too inappropriate that Edvard Munch would have created such a powerful depiction of human misery. Munch’s father was religious to the point of fanaticism, and forcibly imposed his values upon all of his five children. Of his father, Munch once said: “My father was temperamentally nervous and obsessively religious—to the point of psychoneurosis. From him I inherited the seeds of madness. The angels of fear, sorrow, and death stood by my side since the day I was born.”

Munch himself was chronically ill, but had to contend with the poor family’s constant moving from one sordid flat to another. One of his younger sisters was diagnosed with mental illness at an early age. Another quote attributed to Munch: “I inherited two of mankind’s most frightful enemies—the heritage of consumption [tuberculosis] and insanity.”

It is interesting that Munch took an open-minded view of the world- and of art, in particular- in contrast to his father’s unwavering adherence to parochial religious dogma.

I don’t know much about art, but I do know what I like. So I’ve decided to create a new category to showcase some of my favourite works of art. I’ll do my best to provide some information on why I think each one of them is special- but that effort may be seriously impeded by my general indolence…

Anyways, expect to see a lot of  M.C. Escher and van Gogh;  some Monet, some Manet and some Picasso; and even a little bit of Leonardo (da Vinci).