Category Archives: People

Thou shalt not doubt thyself. Also; blog.


WeChat Image_20170706095042My last update on this blog was posted about three years ago. I stopped writing because I suffered a blow to my self-confidence.

Without going into too many details; a job loss, a broken heart and other not-so-little things hit me and my resolve faulted. The problem is that when such things occur I have a bad habit of trying to undo myself, something I will write more about at a later date. So, through teary-eyes and a hammering heart I deleted my personal acting and writing website, gave away my book and film collection and basically sought to remove myself from a life that had brought me pain. A little dramatic, I know. But I am an actor after all!

Throughout the past few years I thought about starting up my blog again but was always haunted by the thought that perhaps I didn’t actually have anything very interesting to say. Is my life even worth talking about? The problem has always been that although something cool might be happening I’ve had the lingering thought that it might all fall away the next week and I’ll again be stuck with nothing to say.

That was three years ago and since then I moved to Barcelona to spend two years performing in different towns and cities throughout Spain and Portugal, pretty much every day. I performed with a brass quintet. I did a tour in Moldova and Romania. I finished writing my first book and then followed it up with a second, and a third, and a forth. I rediscovered my heart and gave it to someone else and, as of writing, it remains whole and happily pumping along. Then I moved to China where I’ve been living in Beijing for a year teaching drama and directing my own shows. Soon I’m going to leave China to set off on another set of mini-adventures before trying to settle again in another country, I don’t know where yet.

So, I figured I might at least have some slightly interesting things to share and thought now is as good a time as any to get started again.

I don’t know why I’ve always worried about being uninteresting but I do realise that it has always stood in the way of owning my own achievements and experiences. In the past few years I’ve learnt that no one is uninteresting and every journey is unique. The only thing that ever says otherwise is our own self-doubt, which can be hard to overcome. But overcome it we must. And in an increasingly scary, divided world which sometimes seems geared towards discrediting the ‘average’ person, I think it’s important to share our thoughts and opinions; our stories and experiences of a life that can, and should, be celebrated.

So, I’ll start blogging again. Read if you fancy it.


Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K.


About a day ago, I arrived in Moscow to perform as part of the ‘Open Class: Stanislavski Continues’ festival with my show Pages from the Book of…

The festival is a congregation of international drama schools, in which we are the British contingency. It’s all very very exciting, and I’ll make sure to do a long post on it when I return to sunny England (I highly doubt I’m going to have time to do it here).

In the meantime, here is a post I wrote about a week ago, after I finished reading Franz Kafka’s The Trial and never got round to posting.

It’s interesting that the final chapter of Franz Kafka’s The Trial, is the shortest and most abrupt. Before now, the book had carried on in long-winded and excruciatingly eventless chapters. That’s not to say it’s boring or without meaning! No, no, no! Each chapter is carefully constructed to emulate the slow, or in fact motionless nature of the court which has accused Joseph K. At the same time, they supply just enough information and present enough intrigue to explain K.’s insistence to take his case into his own hands, and to keep the reader, at all times, on tender hooks.

The Trial is the most famous, and often regarded as the greatest of Kafka’s works. It’s a masterpiece of literature, and as such, I don’t need to tell you how beautiful the writing is, how profound the philosophy or engaging the story is. I also don’t have to recommend that you read it, instead I need only inform you that it should be read without need of recommendation.

So, instead of all these things, I’m just going to share some of my thoughts on the book, and specifically, on the final chapter. It goes without saying that there are SPOILERS AHEAD, so you have been warned. It should also be obvious that there will have been hundreds and hundreds of people, most of whom are smarter, or at least better educated than me, who have interpreted the book, so these are just my ideas.

The Trial, like much of Kafka’s work, remains unfinished. But this is merely a detail, and it doesn’t change the fact that the story does end. In an afterwards by Max Brod, a friend of Kafka, he explains that Joseph K.’s case would never have made it to the high-court spoken of in the book, and though Kafka planned to explore the later stages of the trial and the workings of the mysterious court, the case, in many ways, would go no further, and so the book could in fact ‘stretch on to infinity’. But, it doesn’t. The book ends, and the trial of Joseph K. is abruptly and violently closed, and this, is a very important thing. I think an interesting question, is why the book came to an end the way it did.

At an early stage in the book, I guessed thatJoseph K.’s case would come to a bad end, although, the dismal and somewhat cold conditions in which he was dispatched, did come as a surprise. The reasoning for this end, is highlighted in the final chapter. In fact, I think that the final chapter stands as a summery and parable for the entire book. It calls to mind another moment earlier in the story. In the chapter called ‘The Cathedral’ a priest, who is also the Prison Chaplin for the court tells K. a parable from the Court Scriptures. This parable is then deconstructed by both characters in so many ways that the meaning of it becomes completely lost and they take from it what they will. The final chapter acts as a similar parable, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the unfortunate downfall of Joseph K. finds its way into the Court Scriptures.

After fighting his case for over a year, two men arrive at K.’s house to execute him. The arrival of these two men obviously mirrors the first chapter, in which two warders arrive to inform K. of his arrest. The difference, is in tone. Here, K. is not caught unawares, but he half expected the men to arrive and he resigns himself to his fate. The men do not try to appease him, hardly engaging him in conversation at all. Instead, they remain solemnly quiet. It is very important, that at no point do they explain the reason for their appearance to K. He asks them if they were appointed for him, and they merely bow. From here, K. collects his hat and coat and leaves with the men. When they try to hold him, he insists that he remain free until they are outside. So, when they do restrain K. outside, it means that he has not only presumed their mission, but he has begun the journey towards his death on his own free will, and he has also given himself over to their hold. I can’t help but wonder what would have been if he had refused to go with the men, or at least if he had insisted to remain unrestrained. But even when held by the two men, it is still K. who leads the way. The two men represent the court both literally, and abstractly. From the very beginning of the trial, K. has been in the courts grasp, but it has not physically moved him. Instead, he has remained under its shadow, but has been independent in his choice of where to go and what to do.

As they walk, the following passage follows; “Under the street lamps, K. tried time and time again to see his companions more clearly than he had in the dusk of his room.” But, trying as he might, he can only catch brief glimpses of them. Again, this passage exists as a metaphor for the entire situation with the court. K. is always attempting as hard as he can, to learn more about the workings of the court, but with every step he takes, the whole thing becomes more mysterious and unknown.

Put out by the sort of people the court has sent to collect him, and in this, the whole way in which the court conducts its workings, K. comes to a stop, and so do the two wardens. It is in this moment of defiance that K. sees Fraulein Buchner, or someone who reminds him of her. The two warders are said to “try to repel K. from the spot; but he resisted them.” In this chapter, there is at all times, both the literal reading and the metaphoric meaning. So taking it literally, I must conclude that the two warders were simply prompting K. forward, because I can’t see how the two large men could be resisted so easily.  In the abstract then, it could speak about the way that the court often prompted K. into action with small tidbits of information and glimmers of hope.

When Fraulein Buchner appears, we are reminded of K,’s tendency to become distracted from his case by women. In this moment, he realises that resistance is futile and so, carries on his way, again of his own accord and again condemned by no other than himself. He resolves to go to the end of his case dignified, and at peace with himself.

“In complete harmony all three made their way across a bridge in the moonlight…”

So we come to the third section of their journey. If the first step of the journey is K. leading the court, as he did in the first few chapters of the book, and the second step is K.’s forced stop of the warders. The third step, is when K. and the warders all move in unison, and work together to reach the final verdict. The next break, comes when the trio stop in unison, and K. actually prompts the warders to move on himself by stating “I did not mean to stop completely.” So we come full circle and when K. and the court come to a standstill, it is K. himself who restarts the solemn death march.

Police line the way and soon the group is approached by a policeman on account of looking suspicious. The two wardens stop, but as the Policeman is about to speak K. drags the wardens onward and forces them to flee the Policeman. I have a few ideas about this bit. My first, and most immediate thought is that this scene represents K.’s tendency to refuse help from others. The Policeman, depending on how you look at it, could be seen as a representation of the court (as the court is of the law, as is the Policeman) in which case he could represent characters like the Prison Chaplin, or the Advocate who K. dismissed, against all advice. Or he could be seen as representing those outside the court (because the court certainly doesn’t hold up the traditional law of the policeman) and he could represent figures like K.’s Uncle or the artist Titorreli who could have helped K. had he not run away. K.’s act of running from the Policeman could also be because simply at any time someone has interfered with K.’s case it has somehow become more convoluted and unachievable.

So it is K. who leads the court, running out of the town and to the place of his execution. Here, the roles change a bit and the court finally takes the lead. The warders undress K. and find a suitable place to carry out the sentence. They lay him awkwardly over a rock and present a manner of execution which is as unconventional as I would expect from this bizarre and cruel trial. They produce a large, double-edged butchers knife and begin passing it over K. to one another, unable to decide who should carry out the sentence. It is written; “K. now perceived that he was supposed to seize the knife and plunge it into his own breast. But he did not do so…”

The act of taking the knife and killing himself would affirm the idea, here, that all the events leading up to and including the execution were entirely in his own hands. What’s important, is that he doesn’t do it. It wouldn’t be unreasonable now, to imagine that his death be postponed indefinitely and that the wardens might pass the knife back and forth over K.’s head for the rest of eternity.

But this is not to be. Looking around he sees a figure, or figures, in a window. A sudden burst of hope ignites inside K. as he wonders who, or what it might be. “Who was it? A friend? A good man? Or were they all there? Were there some arguments in his favour that had been overlooked? Of course there must be.” And just as quickly as this hope sets in, it is forcibly extinguished as he is struck through the heart (and it’s too late).

And so the trial of Joseph K. comes to its melancholic end.

As I said, the last chapter basically sums up the whole book, through its various implied elements. But it does one other thing; it ends the story, and in doing so, changes the whole book. From the start, it is clear that Joseph K. will be the architect of his own demise. The only action of the court, is to inform K. of his arrest. After this a first hearing is held, which K. dominates and leads the discussion. From here, K. is advised not to take action and wait for developments. After this, almost nothing is heard from the court, and K. is not really worried about his case. But in time, and specifically after the visit of his uncle, he becomes increasingly frustrated and begins to make inquiries, etc, of his own accord. We are given every reason to believe that this is the incorrect course of action, and that through ignoring advise to allow the case move along on its own accord, K. is actually moving it forward, and it is through this, that the case becomes less likely to succeed. We can see this in characters like Block who, after taking things into his own hands by hiring a number of ‘hedge-advocates’ found that his case is going badly. Obviously, the best course of action would have been to take no action at all after the first hearing. However, as K. stands still with his two wardens, it is he, not they, that moves the case forward.

But a contradiction occurs at the end when he refuses to snatch the knife and stab himself. The wardens (the court) are the ones who do it. Therefore, at the end, it is not K. who condemns himself, but the court after all. K. may have helped arrive at this point, but it is the court who do the final executing. In this moment, K. is absolved of his many mistakes and again becomes a victim of the court, not a self destructive fool. The fact that the end of the trial mirrors the beginning makes one think that the outcome of the case was always inevitable, and that K. never had any sway over it whatsoever.

It’s also important that K. dies just as new hope is kindled in him, and that in his dying breath, he sees the faces of the two wardens watching him die. This reaffirms the cruelty of the court and calls into question its operation. Does it operate by feeding K. false hope and then taking it away? Does it trick K. into moving the case forward just so that it can watch him slowly destroy himself, and ultimately watch the life drain from his eyes?

Like the Prison Chaplin’s parable, this last chapter (and of course the whole book) could have a number of possible interpretations, and probably after much discussion would render the whole thing meaningless – maybe that’s the point. But for me, I felt that the parable was violently and interestingly changed in this last chapter with the untimely death of Joseph K.

All the ideas above are sort my first impressions and if I let myself I could quite happily sit here thinking about it for several more hours.

I’ve really enjoyed this book, and I’ll make sure to read Kafka’s other works at some point soon.

Merzbilder – A brief account of Kurt Schwitters’ life and work


A quick update on myself – I’ve been quite busy lately. I graduated last Friday, and I’m now trying to sort out moving home, which if all goes to plan should be done by Monday…Let’s rephrase, this has to be done by Monday. Other than this, I have actually been working on my book (which was the original point of this blog). I am fast approaching the completion of the first draft of what I’m considering to be Part One (even though I wont be making these divides in the text). It means I’m about a third the way through, I’ll soon start seeing what people think of it. The second part needs a lot of research though, so that’ll be slow going for a while. It’s beginning to look like the book will be far shorter than I first envisioned. This is because, firstly, I’ve learnt more about what is appropriate length for a children’s novel, and secondly, because I don’t want to drag the story out at all. In October, I will be travelling to Moscow to perform our show Pages from the Book of… in the Moscow Arts Theatre, which I’m super excited about. I’m also trying to arrange a couple of other bits for the show. On top of this I’ve been writing the odd article on WhatCulture. So, if this post seems a bit rushed. It is! I really want to keep this blog up to date, and I’m trying to split up my time efficiently.

Well, without further ado – Kurt Schwitters and Merz.

A modern day Merz image and tribute to Schwitters – 2006

Kurt Schwitters (1887 – 1948) gave the name Merz to his particular style and genre of art. Schwitters is generally considered to be the master of collage, and his works, at the time of creation, would not fit into any pre-existing brackets such as expressionism, futurism, etc.

The term MERZbilder (later just Merz), came from a specific work of Schwitters in which he cut out the syllable ‘merz’ from a magazine called Kommerz- und Privatbank. Merz became the label under which he presented his works. He even started to go by the title himself after 1922.

So, what is Merz? As I said, Schwitters concentrated on, and excelled in collage. He was especially keen on found objects and would often simply collect things on his journeys, to include in his art. There were two reasons why he chose recycled materials for his work. One, was that he sought to create something from the wastes of a war ravished state – or as he says far more skilfully than I could:

 “…when this racket to which men give the name of war, ended…I felt free, and I felt the need to proclaim my joy throughout the world. For economic reasons I took what I found, because we were a people that had fallen into misery. One can also yell using garbage, and that is what I did gluing and nailing. That was called Merz. It was my prayer at having survived the war, once peace had triumphed. In any case, everything was ruined, and it was a matter of building new things from debris.”

The Holy Night by Antoni Allegri, known as Correggio… – 1947

Another reason, was purely aesthetic. Schwitters, in taking found objects (or Merz objects, we can call them), wanted to remove any previous use or connotations they may have had. He made a point that whatever a material meant before he found and incorporated it into his art, was not important. Obviously, this is easy to say, and perhaps, not difficult to do when you’re the author of a work. But, it’s not easy to convince a spectator of this. It’s very difficult for us not to make assumptions on a piece, if a political logo or an image with religious connotations makes its way into a work. To combat this, Schwitters put into effect a process of ‘dematerialization’. Firstly, we ‘distribute’ the materials onto the canvas, then, we ‘deform’ them by covering, transforming or otherwise changing the material. In this way, the materials become, simply that; materials. Colours, lines and other bits. I guess you have to judge for yourself if it works.

I don’t think it would be necessarily wrong to look at the works in this way though, as all the objects were collected from specific places, at a specific time. So, of course the works carry with them a sort of wider context. I think, it’s almost impossible to escape this when using found objects, and I’m sure Schwitters would have known, and accepted that.

Through his early life, Schwitters was a quiet, insecure person and suffered from Epilepsy. He was an only child, living with his parents Edward and Henriette. The family owned a small business selling ladies’ clothes, which they sold in 1898. With the money from this they bought five properties in Hanover which they rented out, allowing them to live comfortably.

Mountain Graveyard – 1919

Schwitters studied at the Royal Academy of Art in Dresden, between 1909 and 1914 and apparently, didn’t prove to be anything special. Moving back home he began his career as a painter, being increasingly influenced by the expressionism movement.

Schwitters married Helma Fischer, his cousin. Unfortuantly, their first son died after a week of being born. But their second son, Ernst, lived and he and Schwitters were very close. A year later, in 1917 he was drafted into the military, but was discharged later that year because his epilepsy rendered him unfit for duty. It was during this time, he became fascinated with machines and the image of the wheel. He says that he “recognized that machines are abstractions of the human spirit.”

Schwitters big break came in 1918, when he was invited to exhibit some of his work in the Sturm gallery in Berlin. The Sturm, was run by Herwarth Walden, who was a very famous German expressionist artist. Primarily a pianist, Waldon expressed his love for the arts through his writing and the galleries he owned. The Sturm gallery was considered ground-breaking, because it displayed work from some of the most cutting-edge European artists. It was in this time that Schwitters started on his collages, and of course the beginning of the Merz brand. Whilst exhibiting his art in Sturm, opinions were divided. Some, thought his work was great, others deemed him insane. Although, as we’ve said his work didn’t necessarily have any political references, he was often viewed as being a threat to ‘traditional German values’.

Revolving – 1919

In 1919, he approached Tristan Tzara, who was the spokeman for the Zurich Dadaists. The group was very interested in Schwitters’ work, even though it differed from their own. Schwitters rejected some of the ideas put forth by the Dadaists, choosing to continue referring to himself as a painter, albeit one who nailed his painting together. I’m not exactly sure why, but Schwitters and Richard Huelsenbeck, the leader of the Dadaists, fell out in 1920. Between 1919 and 1923 he created some of his most well known works. He was also working on much larger pieces called Merzbau. These were big constructions made from Merz materials, which were then incorporated into a sculptural interior. It was probably about 6 rooms large, but we’re not sure. Unfortunately the Merzbau was destroyed in a raid on Hanover in 1943, and all other attempts to build new Merbau were also unsuccessful.

In time, Schwitters found himself at the forefront of the avent-garde. He began holding his own Merz exhibitions, and allied himself with the Bauhaus group. From here on, Schwitters experimented with various mediums, including theatre, literature, music, photography and more. He tended to be pretty good at everything he attempted. He published his own arts journal, unsurprisingly called Merz, between 1923 and 1932 and at some point created Ursonate, his sound poem masterpiece.

The Star Picture – 1920

Unfortunately, with the rise of National Socialism in Germany, things became rather difficult. The avant-garde community fell apart and the Nazis strongly opposed his work, publicly ridiculing it. In 1937, Schwitters moved to Norway, after the Gestapo ‘requested his presence for a interview’…I’d probably run as far as I could too.

Following this, Schwitters’ life becomes a bit sporadic, and he doesn’t settle for a while. In 1940, he fled to Scotland with his son. He moved between internment camps in Scotland and England. He came to rest for a year and a half, in a internment camp on the Isle of Man where he staged a fair number of Merz recitals. In 1941, he was released and stayed in London until 1945 before moving to the Lake District, where he began work on his final Merzbau, the Merzbarn. Apparently, you can still see the shell of the Merzbarn now, although it’s completely dilapidated.

His wife died in 1944 and Schwitters started seeing a woman called Edith Thomas. Together they moved to the Lake District in 1945, where Schwitters would walk for hours collecting objects from the beach, to use in his new art projects.

In 1948 Schwitters himself died, poor, but confident that has work would one day be acknowledged in the way he knew it deserved to be.

Some years after his death, a stone was put near his grave in England (though his remains were transported to Hanover) with the inscription ‘Kurt Schwitters – Creator of Merz’.

Vincent van Gogh


In the last post I was looking for an artist who’s life story wasn’t morbid or even mildly upsetting. I found it in ‘Cash’ Coolidge, or Kash Koolidge as he sometimes spelt it (apparently that’s a 19th century literary joke. I was showing off by quoting it…but I don’t really get it. It’s probably the 19th century equivalent of him calling himself Cash COOLidge. I once toyed with the idea of changing my name Jack Gyll to Jack Thryll. I decided it wasn’t a good idea).

Anyway, this post, I thought I’d swing the other way and look at a horribly depressing story.

Right, who’s heard of Vincent van Gogh? Yeah, I thought you might have.

Thoroughly depressed, mentally damaged and utterly brilliant, Van Gogh has had a long lasting influence over artists and indeed the entire art world. Still today, people are taking inspiration, mimicking and trying to emulate his work. For some artists, just to recapture whatever it was that made his art great, is a worthy life goal.

Born in 1853 in Groot-Zundert in Holland, Van Gogh was the son of Anna Cornelia Carbentus and the protestant Reverend Theodorus van Gogh. (Great names these Dutch).

I think Van Gogh lived a reasonably quiet life during his early years. It was when he was 16,  that his interest in art started proper and he began to work for the Hague gallery. After about 3 years working for them, he was transferred to London, and then to Paris 2 years later. All this moving caused stress to Van Gogh, who had become disillusioned with art dealing. He quit deciding instead, to spend his time preaching the gospel to the poor. After a very short spell of education, Van Gogh left to work as a minister with the miners of Borinage.

He felt a draw to the miners and their families and was able to identify with them. During this time Van Gogh developed the feeling that he had to also make his mark on the world, as the miner were. That he had to contribute something meaningful to the world. It was his brother, Theo, who saw his potential and convinced him to become an artist. He also supported him financially so that he could do so. Van Gogh of course, didn’t believe he could become a good artist due to his lack of natural talent or training. His parents didn’t really help either, doubting his ability as they did. Regardless, he moved back in with them and started practising. He had a deep interest in figure drawing and a fascination with peasant life (possibly because of his stay with the miners). Soon, he decided to work to become a figure artist of critical acclaim.

Skull with Burning Cigarette – One of my personal favourites.

At the end of 1881 he moved out again, and began taking lessons from the realist painter, Anton Mauve. Mauve was a member of the Hague School, and was Van Gogh’s cousin through marriage. Unfortunately, this partnership didn’t last long.

Van Gogh continued to study figures and often used a prostitute called Sien Hoomik as a model. Soon, Van Gogh and Hoomik started a relationship. Hoomik was pregnant (not with Van Gogh’s baby) and already had one child. Mauve disapproved of the relationship and broke off all friendship with Van Gogh.

At the time (about 1883), a lot of reputable artist like Mauve were moving to Drenthe, a province in the North-East of the Netherlands. Van Gogh decided to follow them, as he was becoming discontent with his work. So he broke up with Hoomik and moved away. This was about as close to love as he ever got unfortunately, and he spent many hours longing for it. In fact, this caused him to suffer from bad depression.

He didn’t stay in Drenthe for long – about 2 months only. He suffered from a lack of inspiration and missed his model. So he moved back home again.

He continued to practice. Now modelling his style on Jean-Franqois Millet, a French artist. Millet also depicted peasant life in his paintings, and was becoming quite famous at the time.

When he was 29, Van Gogh moved into a little studio room that he rented from the church. He really started to study anatomy and details such as hands. His plan was to make a big painting with multiple figures that would make his name. This is what he came up with.

The Potato Easters

Van Gogh had planned out this painting meticulously. As he did, his confidence that it would be a success grew and he began advertising it before it was even finished. Unfortunately, the painting that is now considered to be his first major masterpiece, flopped.

Well, thought Van Gogh, I’d better actually go to art school…

He enrolled in an academy in Antwerp. Here, he discovered a number of influential artists and was greatly affected by a number of Japanese artists. After this, in 1886, he went to Paris and moved in with his brother. Here, he came into contact with the Impressionists. He was greatly taken with this movement, and quickly adopted the new, brightly colourful pallet and started to practice the techniques the Impressionists were using. He combined these with some of the ideas he’d seen in Japanese art and developed a new style of his own.
In Paris he made a new group of like-minded friends and became very inspired. In 1888 he moved to Arles where he planned to open an art school/community. One of his friends, Paul Gauguin, went with him. Van Gogh decorated Gauguin’s room with his own paintings. Paintings like this:

This series of sunflower paintings, is now sort of a signature of Van Gogh. For many people, you mention Van Gogh, and they think of these paintings. The sunflower paintings have become incredibly important in the art world, with their mix of vibrant colour and simple design. The subtle nuances of life and death. Interestingly, Van Gogh drank a lot of Absinthe. Absinthe contains a toxin called Thujone, which apparently, if taken in large doses can cause you to see objects in yellow. This might have had something to do with why Van Gogh had such a passion for the colour. It’s also possible that the Thujone aggravated his already present epilepsy and manic depression. Either way, late 1888 is where it all goes to shit.

His epileptic attacks started to become more frequent and he became delusional. This got worse and worse, eventually causing Gauguin to leave. Van Gogh had chased Gauguin around with a knife, before slicing off part of his own ear and giving it to a prostitute. As a present.

At the end of the year, Van Gogh committed himself to an asylum. Here he drew The Starry Night, one of his most famous paintings. Apparently, one of the effects of lead poisoning is the dilation of the retinas, which causes you to see lights with with their own halos. It’s possible, seeing that Van Gogh used lead based tools, and tried to kill himself at least once by drinking paint, that this picture is a portrayal of the effects of lead poisoning.

He came out of the asylum in 1890, clearly not healed. He drew manically for a while, churning out a painting a day. He then shot himself in the chest. Unfortunately, he didn’t die for a whole 2 days.

Starry Night over the Rhone – My other favourite.

It might be hard to believe now, considering he was one of the most important artists of the 19th century (and still now even), but Van Gogh died thinking that his life had been wasted. He only ever sold one painting. He had cut away his dream of an art school along with his ear lobe. He had failed as an artist.

Now, he is widely considered to be THE definition of a tortured artist. His paintings sell for hundreds of pounds. No, thousands. No wait, millions. Hundreds of millions even. Apparently, just 5 years ago one of his sunflower paintings sold for $39.7 million. Between 1987 and 1998, 7 of his paintings racked up over seven hundred million dollars, collectivity.

More important than money though, Van Gogh has genuinely effected art and the way we think about it. He has inspired countless generations of artists and has fascinated audiences over the entire globe. Despite the mental hardships, the depression and his gruesome suicide, Van Gogh’s life was certainly not wasted and he was certainly no failure. It’s just very, very sad that he didn’t realise that.

Poker Playing Dogs


Last time, I said I wanted to find an artist with a relatively happy life story. Well, I didn’t have to look too far to find one. Well, actually, I did have to go far – across the Atlantic to that far away land of the… [insert desired synonym here]. Luckily for me, the world is now a much smaller place and I was able to visit America without actually getting out of bed.

Meet Cassius Marcellus Coolidge, or ‘Cash’ to his friends… This guy was a proper jack of all trades, and I think gave a pretty successful crack at the whole land of opportunity thing.

Farm boy, Cash, was born in 1844, into an abolitionist family who lived between the towns Philadelphia and Antwerp in New York. Most of his youth was spend wandering between the two towns, and in time he’d make a nice (if not modest) mark on the towns. He studied in the Antwerp Liberal Literary Institute, although what he studied I’m not sure, and at some point after this he also took courses at Eastmans College. At Eastmans he learned a bit about banking and maths, whilst keeping books for the local bank. Along with some additional self tutoring, he gained the necessary skills to found the very first bank in Antwerp in 1871/2. The same sort of time he also founded a newspaper, called the Antwerp News. He also bought a drug store with his brother in New York. Most of these little ventures were ill fated though, as both the shop and the newspaper went out of business relatively quickly. It’s also interesting to know, that this wasn’t the first drug store that he owned – in 1865/6 he worked at one which he bought and again, quickly lost.

During this time, he also did a mass of other handyman jobs before going away to Europe in 1873. After his return, he moved to Rochester in New York and began writing columns based on his travel for the Watertown Times. It’s very likely that he illustrated these articles also.
It’s in the mid 1870’s that he began to work as an illustrator for local tobacco companies. And guess what he was drawing? Doggys! Hooray!! He was also commissioned by Harper’s Weekly to draw this:

Injured Innocence

Cash managed to make a good living drawing caricatures of people quickly, back when this was a new thing. He also created those pictures with holes for the heads in! You know the ones we’re all ashamed to admit we love. Anyway, that was Cash’s idea, and they’re actually called Comic Foregrounds. He was patented for these and Comic Foregrounds went into production.

In 1889 the bank that Cash had set up in Antwerp sold to a certain John D. Ellis (who also commissioned Cash to do a self portrait). The bank changed its name to the Jefferson Bank, but otherwise stayed put.

A few years later was when Cash’s artistic career really paid off. He was hired by the company Brown & Bigelow for his dog pictures. Apparently in the early 1900’s he was paid $10,000 for 2 paintings. Another 14 paintings followed this.

A friend in need

The paintings themselves depict (albeit in an abstracted manner) the social life of the middle classes in 1900’s America. Many people have commented on the lack of female dogs in his pictures (or the fact they’re mostly serving the males when they do appear), saying that Cash was depicting a male centric world. Perhaps by doing this and using dogs rather than people Cash was satirising society of the time? It’s possible, but perhaps not excessively likely, as most people seem to think that he was simply portraying the sort of activities (poker, drinking,smoking, swearing, talking about boobs, etc) that girls don’t like to get involved with. Even his daughter is quoted as having said; ‘girls don’t like things like that. It was for boys and men.’

So, I guess the 1900’s America were pretty different to 2012 Britain, but I think most of my girl friends would be rather put out if I didn’t invite them to play poker, drink beer and talk about boobs… Maybe I just hang out with the wrong type of girls…or the right kind!

Anyway, other fun things cash did was illustrating two books for his cousin. Writing, producing and designing an opera! (I know, right?) and writing a few comedies.

Comic foregrounds

At the tender age of 64 he married a 29 year old called Gertrude (who he’d previously employed as a letter painter on his Comic Foregrounds business), and had a daughter. He moved to Brooklyn where he tried to raise Chickens, but soon gave up. He also fell out of a window and injured his knee. The injury stayed with him for the rest of his life.

in about 1916, people realised that caricatures are a bit rubbish, so the demand for these fell. To keep the money coming in Gertrude went to work. Cash, then stayed at home and did chores (which was very rare, because most men at the time just played poker, drank beer and talked about… you get the idea). In 1928 they built a new house on Staten Island.

In 1934 at the age of about 90 Cash died and was buried in his old home town Antwerp. Later, in 1977 Gertrude was buried next to him.

There, isn’t that nice. A proper American tale of commercial success and the American dream come true. Sure, Cash’s art isn’t something I would describe as pivotal, intellectual or even particularly good. But it is something that everyone recognises and enjoys. It’s also something he did without any formal training, simply to earn his living.

Next time on Sketches, Scratches and Scattered Thoughts: Van Gogh

Edward Degas and his Ballerinas


Edward Degas story starts out as one of those lovely “Dad wanted me to go to law school but I said ‘Nay Father. Art is my life!'” type affairs.

Son of Banker Augustin De Gas, Degas first act of defiance was to change his last name to something slightly less pretentious sounding. After this, it was to pursue art. This was all very early in his life, and by the time he was 18 he’d turned his bedroom into a studio for his paintings. It was after this, that Dad told him to go to law school, which like a dutiful son, he did. He enrolled at the Faculty of Law of the University of Paris in 1853, but didn’t really put much effort into his studies. Two years later, in 1855 Degas met fellow French artist Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. Now, who of my few loyal followers recognises that name? We spoke a little bit about Ingres a few weeks ago in the post about Odalisque art. Degas was very taken with Ingres, who had told him to “Draw lines, young man, many lines”. Inspired, Degas went to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts later that year (Ecole des Beaux-Arts is still a very influential art school in Paris). Here, Degas studied with Louis Lamothe (1822 – 1869). After this, in 1856, he moved to Italy and started copying some of the great works by people such as Michelangelo and Raphael, etc.

Degas continued to copy pictures and began to make a healthy living as a copyist whilst working on original works. He began working on studies of horses. His painting Scene from the Steeplechase: the Fallen Jockey marked a departure from the more traditional history paintings, to more contemporary subject matters. This change was partly inspired by another  French buddy of Degas called Édouard Manet (1832 – 1883). This was a very important moment in Degas artistic career when he began to draw scenes from real life. These included many scenes of horse tracks and, of course, of ballerinas. This may seem pretty standard now, but depicting scenes from everyday life was quite rare at the time.

Degas is sometimes called the ‘Painter of dancing girls’. There are a few reasons for his obsession. Some, believe it to be voyeuristic, but others have disputed this claim. It’s a fact that dancers and models at the time often worked as prostitutes on the side, due to poor wages. It is almost certain that Degas did not partake of any of this, but there are plenty of nude pictures that would have been modeled by these girls. There are also stories of him making his models stand in painful positions for hours on end. Perhaps there was some sort of cruel satisfaction to be had this way. There’s also the possibility that this was purposeful, and Degas was making a point about the physical harm that ballerinas do themselves in the pursuit to master their discipline. All Degas wrote himself on the subject was;

It has never occurred to them that my chief interest in dancers lies in rendering movement and painting pretty clothes.

Two Dancers in the Studio 1

Degas was a huge fan of the opera and ballet and Paul Trachtman writes; ‘At the ballet Degas found a world that excited both his taste for classical beauty and his eye for modern realism.’ He used the ballet as a way to create new forms of painting that could describe fluidity and movement. The ballerinas are probably Degas most famous and well received works.

In 1870 Degas joined the National Guard with the start of the Franco-Prussian War. For obvious reasons, Degas didn’t do too much painting during this time, and what’s worse, he developed a defect in his eyesight, which continued to bug him for the rest of his life.

The war ended in 1872 and Degas stayed in Louisiana with some family members for a year. During this time he painted a number of works depicting family members. This painting below (painted during this time) was the only one of his works to be bought by a museum during his life.

In 1874 (by which time Degas was back in Paris) his father died. Then it came to light that Degas brother had been a bit careless with his monies. To keep the family afloat (and respectable) financially, Degas sold his house and art collection. For the first time in his life, Degas was actually dependant on his art sales to live. He stopped doing profitless exhibitions, and joined a group of artists who were intent on making a society for independent exhibitions. The exhibitions these guys were putting on quickly became known as ‘Impressionist Exhibitions’. Even though Degas hated the title he took a lead role in the Imperialists exhibitions.

As I said, Degas hated the title, and the reputation the Imperialists had. He was pretty public about this opinion which didn’t really do him any favours in the group. Some people say that he was actually as anti-Impressionist as some of the critics were. His style and method of work were also not very Impressionist. He kept to his darker paint pallet rather than adopting the bright colours of the Impressionists and he always worked indoors. In fact, he often made fun of the Impressionists for their tendency to paint outdoors.

He also insisted on including some more traditional painters in the exhibitions. All of this helped to pull the group apart and they disbanded in 1886. By this time though, Degas was making a reasonable living from his art.

Unfortunately Degas eyesight remained problematic and got much worse as he grew old. As a way to combat this, Degas started to sculpt. He started making wax figures, possibly as a way to work on something that he could mould and feel now that his vision was failing. The most famous sculpture of Degas isThe Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer. It’s a wax sculpture that stands at 39 inches and is adorned in real clothes – a tutu and ribbon for the hair (which is a wig). The figure is based on a real dancer called Marie van Goethem, who was sometimes referred to as ‘little rat’. The reception of her sculpture isn’t much better and it was often referred to as being ugly. This ugliness at the time was also linked to the idea of loose morels, and questions of Degas sexuality and voyeuristic leanings are again brought into question.

One thing I’d like to point out which I think is wonderful, is that when Degas made the original, he created a skeleton out of paintbrushes! Isn’t that great? I love the idea that she was completely made up of his own art tools. You can still see this sculpture nowadays, but mostly only in brass reproductions.

Self Portrait

And here’s where it all gets a little depressing…

As he grew older, Degas secluded himself from many people because apparently he believed that artists can’t have personal lives. After this, in the early 1890’s it became apparent that Degas had certain antisemitic qualities. This obviously caused all his Jewish friends to break contact with him, and Degas became very lonely. He stopped painting in 1912 and was thereafter forced to leave his long term home due to demolition. He moved to quarters on the boulevard de Clichy. He didn’t marry, his eyesight got worse and he died, half blind, wandering the streets of Paris in 1917.

All of these artists have such morbid ends…I’m hoping to find some artists who didn’t die alone or disease ridden soon, or else I might start to question my own life decisions.

To check out Degas’ complete works check out this great site.
Next up: Poker playing Dogs.

Self-Portraits & girls in odd places


Welcome to Rembrandt part 2! If you want to read part 1 it’s here.

So, as I said at the end of my other post I’m interested to learn a bit more about Rembrandt’s self-portraits. After this, there is one picture I’m specifically interested in: The girl in a Picture Frame

Lets do this in order.

Self Portraits

Rembrandt created over 90 self-portraits in his life in differing forms – in fully realised paintings, etchings and drawings. Many artists create self portraits but very few, if any, have come anywhere near this number. Apparently, why Rembrandt created such a large number of portraits of himself remains a mystery. In fact, it’s one of the greatest mysteries of art history!

There are a couple of theories flying around about why he did this.

Some Self Portraits

Until recently the most popular theories approached this question from a psychological point of view. It’s possible that these self portraits acted as self studies, a way of seeing himself both externally and internally. By studying his own figure he was able to look inside of himself and increase the knowledge of his own being. This train of thought is most notably applied to Rembrandt’s late portraits in which this internal dialogue is more noticeable. According to Jacob Rosenberg (Rembrandt expert) his later portraits show a shift from ‘outward description’ to a more self-analytical way of working.

The fact that he drew himself with a number of different expressions and emotions adds to this theory and suggests that by exploring himself and his own psyche, he was able to understand more about man in general.

A newer theory is a bit different to this, and focuses a bit more on his earlier portraits. Many of the portraits are studies of particular expressions and can act as a sort of catalogue of expressions which can then later be used in history painting or something. The reason Rembrandt used himself for these pictures though is unknown. It’s possible it could be that by using himself he didn’t need to pay anyone else or arrange modelling times. It could also be because these studies were very popular with the public of all classes. Meaning that by using himself he would ingrain his image on people’s mind, establishing himself as a celebrity.

Rembrandt and Saskia playing parts in The Prodigal Son

I’m not going to go too much more into this. I think though, it’s fair to say that the portraits act as a sort of visual diary of Rembrandt’s life. Some of the pictures that include himself also show his wife Saskia or Titus his son. Some of them, like the one below feature them playing roles in scenes (this might lend some gravity to the celebrity theory). Perhaps because I know the sad story of Rembrandt and his family I find these quite touching.

The Girl at the Window

So, I made a mistake in my last post, by saying I was particularly interested in the painting Girl in the Window. The painting I actually meant was Girl in a Picture Frame. The Girl in the Window is however fascinating in all her creepy, childlike, seductive glory so lets talk about her a bit anyway.

What I really like about this picture is how mysterious it is. There is a lot of contradiction here that makes it difficult to guess who she was or what she had to do with Old Van Rijn. For example, she looks young, with childlike features and innocence, and yet there is a knowing seductivity in her eyes and the way her hands subtly draw attention to her cleavage. Another thing, is that she leans leisurely over the window in, frankly, a unladylike manner.  I have read a few bits that describe her as a servant. Maybe this is true and goes towards her less-than-noble pose, however there’s jewellery in her hand, which she plays with coyly. Maybe it belonged to her mother? Maybe it’s a gift from her lover? The master of the house perhaps? My favourite contradiction though can be a bit more abstract. She seems to glow, giving off a sort of angelic light, but yet everything around her is dark. The passage behind her completely black even. I suppose this could be purely matter of fact – The light source comes from the bottom left of the picture and the unlit house behind her is dark…Or it could be more metaphorical, calling into question matters of angelic beauty in a world of ugliness. Or the liveliness of youth compared to the frailty of age (Rembrandt was almost 40 when he painted this). It be about anything – life and death – light and dark – Jedi vs Sith.

Now I’m just throwing ideas around. But, then this is what I love about art, it’s the possibility the spectator has to imagine and create him/herself the context of a work. Sometimes it’s fun to disregard everything you know about an artist and their political/social context and just let your mind run free. This is most defiantly the approach I’ll be taking with Sketch anyway!

The Girl in a Picture Frame AKA The Jewish Bride

This is without a doubt my favourite Rembrandt work. The reason I like it, similar to The Girl at the Window is down to the mystery of it, and the multitude of interpretations we can throw at it.

The girl is very sweet, with dark, welcoming eyes and a friendly face. She’s adorned with a fantastic hat and a wonderful and very noble red dress (Call out! – Does anyone know if there’s anything particular about her clothing? Is the dress some sort of traditional wear? Please let me know if you know + be the first to comment on Sketches, Scratches and Scattered Thoughts!) The background is left purposely vague – Are those clouds behind her? How high up is she? And then we notice her hands. Huh? What the…Yes, just like in The Ring, she is reaching out of the picture, resting her hands over the frame as if simply to show that she can. So now the questions begin: Is she in fact some dark embodiment of our fear that will kill us 7 days after we look at it? Or, is she the female equivalent of Neo, discontent with her humble existence inside this Matrix?

I read one theory which said this picture was just a way for Rembrandt to show off his skills in 3 dimensional illusion – but I think that’s a massive load of codswallop. I like to think it’s a piece about art taking on a life of its own, reaching beyond the picture frame into the mind. It might also, along with the numerous self-portraits have something to do with Rembrandt putting his own life into his work, giving his life for them, like Jesus with a paintbrush.

Whatever it is, this picture demonstrates a rather po-mo approach to the work. The fact that we are looking into a frame and the girl looks straight back out at us. But more than this, what we’re looking at, is a frame within a frame (I highly doubt that the frame in the picture being the same design as the actual frame is coincidence – it was a choice I’m sure), so actually this picture is sort of 2 levels deep. Like the bit in Inception when Joseph Gordon-Levitt is fighting on the walls and roof.

Well, it’s obvious at this point that I’ve been watching far too many American films and it’s all getting a bit silly. Either way, these pictures are fascinating and open to infinite interpretations, the way all good art ought to be. Do any of you have any ideas about these pictures? Perhaps some more flights of fancy or something a little more educated? Do let me know.

You might also notice me gently (or perhaps aggressively) prompting commenters. I’d like to discuss ideas with people, and actually in a while I’ll actually be posting some open questions about children’s literature which I’d love to discuss with people. So please do comment.

Right, The GB Men’s Handball is on in a few hours so I think I’ll go and prepare myself for it.