Sunday 28 February 2016

Art Review: Munch and Expressionism, Neue Galerie, New York City

Edvard Munch (1863-1944) is one of those artists whose works, at first glance, seem too modern to have originated in the nineteenth century. His 1893 The Scream (in fact several slightly varying compositions in different formats, several of which were on display in this exhibition) seems prescient of the spirit of the twentieth century and maybe even the twenty-first, given the high levels of interest and cultural capital it still commands.

The Scream, Edvard Munch (1893)
Munch was a Norwegian painter and printmaker who was a key figure in the Symbolist movement. He also had a profound influence on contemporary German and Austrian Expressionists. This relationship forms the basis of the Neue Galerie’s current exhibition, which comprises of 35 paintings and 50 works on paper, largely by Munch but also featuring Max Beckmann, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Egon Schiele and others.

Two Human Beings The Lonely Ones, Edvard Munch (1896)
Putting Munch into dialogue with these artists helps create a clear place for him within the history of twentieth-century art, removing his slight outlier status. It’s clear to see how Munch’s innovations with wood cuts and printmaking translated into the works of his Austrian and German counterparts, but also too how the same concerns, philosophical and emotional, are the bedrock of both.

Model by the Wicker Chair, Edvard Munch (1919-1921)
Loneliness for me was the foremost theme of the exhibition, even more so than existential angst. Munch’s figures are irreparably apart even when pictured together. Two Human Beings The Lonely Ones (1896) depicts a man and woman staring out at the sea, united in their isolation. In his Model by the Wicker Chair (1919-1921) the separation is between the painter (and by extension the viewer) and the model, her eyes downcast, a human being less vibrant than the colourful furniture.

Street, Dresden, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1908)
In Kirchner’s famous Street, Dresden (1908) there is the loneliness of the modern cityscape, a theme Munch also plays with in his Angst (1894) images (although here his figures inhabit Oslo), and that inspires Ludwig Meidner in his I and the City (1913), a self -portrait set against the chaos of a kaleidoscopic cityscape.

I and the City, Ludwig Meidner (1913)
The ultimate loneliness of death is present, even in depictions of youth, such as his 1894-1895 Puberty or in his shocking Madonna lithograph (1895-1902), where a skeletal looking foetus cowers in the corner of the sperm patterned border.

Puberty, Edvard Munch (1894-1895)
Munch shines brightest in the exhibition despite the inclusion of major works by other artists, but there’s much to see here beyond The Scream. The exhibition is open until June 13 and is a wonderful opportunity to see some iconic works in person and discover much more to Munch and artist who’s lifetime and career spanned significant portions of two centuries.

Madonna, Edvard Munch (1895-1902)
Can you recommend an NYC exhibition for the Secret Victorianist to review? Let me know—here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Saturday 20 February 2016

Crucial Questions about the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies Film: Answered

This week the Secret Victorianist went to see what should have been this Valentine’s Day’s greatest compromise film (were it not for the clever marketing of Deadpool)—Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (hereafter PPZ).

Based on Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2009 ‘mash-up’ novel, PPZ is fan fic for the big screen, bodice ripping with bite and, potentially, the point at which we reached peak Austen adaptation. In this blog I’ll be covering off the main questions I’m sure you were left asking once the final credits rolled.

Warning: Spoilers abound.

The Bennet sisters, led by Lily James as Elizabeth
What can PPZ tell us about the modern cliché of the strong female protagonist?

Speaking about the inspiration behind his novel, Grahame-Smith said the following:

“You have this fiercely independent heroine, you have this dashing heroic gentleman, you have a militia camped out for seemingly no reason whatsoever nearby, and people are always walking here and there and taking carriage rides here and there . . . It was just ripe for gore and senseless violence.”

The independence of Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet then is central to the conception of PPZ, just as it has been to Pride and Prejudice’s enduring popularity. What’s more, how this comes to life in Lily James’s rendition of the character is more revealing of 21st-century attitudes to the strong female protagonist, than 19th-century ones.

Lizzie is a warrior trained in martial arts, but she hacks the undead to pieces, saves Mr Darcy several times and delivers crushing put downs in Chinese all without a blood splatter to be seen or a hair falling out of place.

She flashes her garters and has no time for riding side saddle but she’s still indisputably virginal, and invested in keeping it that way until she has a ring on her finger and an estate in the bag.

Today’s strong female protagonist must fight with the men, while preserving her sexual allure and virtue. And she must find accord with other strong female characters. Lena Headey’s eye-patch wearing Lady Catherine de Bourgh comes onside when she sees Lizzie defeat a man double her size in hand-to-hand combat.

Sam Riley as Mr Darcy
What is PPZ’s stance on 19th-century classism?

The undead masses are largely poor—the inmates of overrun orphanages, a group of servants lurking in the kitchens, a terrifying tribe of Cockneys making for the Home Counties.

Early in the film, you might have thought PPZ had the potential to play out as a riotous allegory, an answer to Austen’s elision of issues regarding social justice. You would have been wrong.

The only voice pleading for the zombies is Jack Huston's Wickham—a character who is here even worse than in the original. Wickham—the women kidnapping, benefactor killing, undead-herding maniac, who turns out to have been a zombie all along—argues that the infected need only religious education and a healthy diet of pigs’ brains to keep them in line. But when they get a taste of blood (thanks, Darcy), it all goes wrong.

The only moral I could detect? Feed the starving and you’ll have a rebellion on your hands, show compassion to the people and your beautiful estates will soon be overrun.

Lena Headey as Lady Catherine
What does Lily James’s cleavage tell us about intertextuality in 21st-century costume drama?

PPZ is an homage to other filmic retellings of Austen and to the costume drama genre more widely, regardless of its violence and gore.

Sam Riley’s Darcy has his dive into the lake for absolutely no plot reason (he’s not even interrupted by the arrival of Elizabeth). Lizzie’s dresses are lower cut than those of anyone else in the country—a clear nod to Jennifer Ehle in the 1995 TV adaptation.

And Darcy’s first proposal features a sword fight between the romantic pair that channels the run in between Catherine Zeta Jones and Antonio Banderas in 1998 drama The Mask of Zorro (although here both characters end up in a state of partial undress).

Bella Heathcote as Jane and Lily James as Elizabeth
What makes PPZ a truly radical addition to the zombie canon?

But what if you went to see PPZ as an aficionado of the zombie genre? Does this movie offer anything new?

I’d argue, yes. This is one of the few zombie flicks I’ve seen where no major character dies, something I initially struggled with since Matt Smith’s brilliantly irritating Mr Collins was a clear candidate.

My conclusion? In the world of Regency England the very existence of zombies is enough of a shock factor—the joy here is in seeing how this particular society responds to the infection. Zombies cause problems but they also make the lives of the Bennet sisters a hell of a lot more interesting, while, in our own world, the only difference they would bring is even more widespread destruction.

What did you think of PPZ? What dissertation titles do you think it will inspire in the future? Let me know—here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Saturday 13 February 2016

Sunday 7 February 2016

Review: House of Wax: Anatomical, Pathological, And Ethnographic Waxworks from Castan’s Panopticum, Berlin, 1869-1922, Morbid Anatomy Museum, Brooklyn

This weekend the Secret Victorianist returned to one of the first museums I visited on moving to New York—the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn.

Last time I visited, the exhibition space was given over to the trappings of Victorian mourning—hair work, death masks and post-mortem portraits. But the current exhibition features works that were once part of Castan’s Panopticum—a collection of waxworks and curiosities, which remained a crowd pleaser in Berlin for half a century and has some parallels with London’s Madame Tussauds.

The exhibition
This isn’t one fore the squeamish. Expect disease-ridden genitalia, syphilitic skin, models of dissected foetuses, and cross sections of complex births (complete with disembodied physicians’ hands).

There are also ‘ethnographic’ busts, delineating racial differences between groups such as African ‘bushmen’ and Chinese noblemen, which bring you face to face with nineteenth-century scientists’ now uncomfortable views on race.

Ethnographic busts
A full size model of serial killer Fritz Haarmann, the ‘Butcher of Hanover’ (1879-1925), looms over you if you choose to walk to the restrooms, only a metre away from the death masks of figures as varied as Napoleon, Henrik Ibsen and Kaiser Wilhem I.

The exhibits that were of particular interest to me included two models depicting the effects of tight corsetry on internal organs (a topic I wrote about a couple of years ago on this blog) and a couple of examples of intersex genitalia (something I haven’t previously seen many Victorian references to).

The effects of tight corsetry
It was also fascinating to read about the often moralistic way in which the exhibits were arranged—e.g. attractive female nudes sat side-by-side with examples of the ugly effects of sexually transmitted diseases.

Both men and women attended panoptica, but they were sometimes segregated by gender for the more explicit rooms. I spent much of my visit imagining what it must have been like for groups of women, with little biological knowledge and a strong sense of modesty, to be left alone for their allocated time, examining a cankerous penis or a uterus in the third trimester.

A C-section
Put in modern terms, panoptica (like Castan’s or Barnum’s in New York City) must have been a mash up of a biology text book, obstetrician’s office, natural history museum, sensational crime documentary and touristy house of horrors, with a large dose of racism spooned out throughout. And attending a retrospective exhibition on one now adds another layer of interpretative complexity.

If you’re in Brooklyn and have an interest in the kind of popular exhibitions that entertained generations, or just want to see the visceral side of the nineteenth-century view of the body, then check out House of Wax before it closes on April 3.

Death mask of Henrik Ibsen
Do you know of any other NYC exhibitions you think the Secret Victorianist would enjoy? Let me know! Here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.