John Currin and his very good “bad” pictures.

rev., August 20, 2015.

note: there is a bit of nudity in this one.

Twice in the last season I was surprised to hear an artist, in both cases female, both under 45, say out loud that she had been inspired in the mid 1990s to take on feminist issues because of her negative response to the “sexism” of John Currin’s paintings. I was dumbfounded, and immediately thought of Prufrock, “that is not what I meant at all.” Since it would seem that among the under-45s it has indeed become common currency that John Currin is a bad painter who only traffics sexist soft erotica for the rich, perhaps a review of this career is required by a critic who happened to be one of the first critics to get what he was all about.

In fact, I wrote about John Currin when he was precisely John Nobody, in 1990, when he did a small show, I forget where, of his high school yearbook photo paintings. I got them right away, and who would not, at that time?. As pictures, Currin’s practice was straight up picture theory, but then with a twist. As paintings, there was little question that Currin had also taken in the ethos and aesthetic of the so-called “bad painting” of the 1980s, a postpop derivation of painting by way of picture theory. His art then derived both from its source, in photography, and then in its outcome, in painting, and what I liked about Currin is that he got it, and got it with razor sharp accuracy in capturing exactly what it is about an old high school yearbook picture that becomes, over time, creepy.

I laid out my version of picture theory for a photography-based show of photography and contemporary art I did for the Woodstock Center in the summer of 1991. In that essay, I built my ideas on Barthes, and his notion that photos are made by having their field, but then there is some small point or punctum that grabs you. And that is what makes a photo a great photo. He mainly did this with the example of the eyes of the assassin conspirator against Lincoln, and the punctum being, the look in those eyes telling you, he was going to die.

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I thought that Barthes was wonderful, but modernist. That is, he retained the notion that the photograph per se was photographing a coherent reality on a single field plane. By contrast, I thought that photography itself was a rather volatile and unstable medium easily invaded and influenced by other media and as a result a kind of catchall in which different fields could and did often collide in ways much more versatile than in painting. I guess you could say I went through an uninformed folk learning period of coming to awareness of this when I was into “old photos” in the context of looking at old photos from the American civil war, in the 1970s, when criticism was just then coming to realize that Gardner faked a lot of his shots, not only by airbrushing in romantic clouds, but in actually moving dead bodies on the field to get a better photo (this discussed elsewhere)

curringblog-2Whether or not my reading of Barthes was true (I never had time for Susan Sontag), I leave for another time. But the difference was that while Barthes felt that the field of the photo was fixed, and it was an itch of contradiction or fall through to some other field, like the unravelling of a sweater from one stray snag, that reached out to the viewer and snagged him or her with an emotion, I thought that the picture itself was a mosaic of shifting tectonic plates representing the fields that have been wrested together to look like they compose a single reality by means of the cycloptic eye of the camera.

In addition to this notion, I had a larger conceptualization which has at last gained some theoretical credence from Belting in his studies of intermedial relations. My notion was that images migrated from media to media, from market to downmarket and outofmarket phases, in their lifetime in popular and high culture. Images were always migrating every which way in culture, and the “times” of the moment consisted of capturing the location as if on a radar where all those different push-pulls of images happened to be fixed in any particular moment. In the moment then the photo looks “cool” and the look adopted by the sitter, for example in a portrait, looks fashionable and uptodate, the viewer is generally locked in with the sitter, and therefore blind to the limitations of the style, or the makeshift knocked together nature of any style. Thus, in the present, pictures can come off looking ok, or looking great. And, then, time passes, and something odd happens, something that has bothered and concerned artists a lot in the postpop era, images age, they wrinkle, they crinkle up, they curdle. Not only does the medium go out of fashion, meaning that whatever posture had to be assumed to look normal in that medium now looks forced and phoney, but the fashions and the looks, and even the body language and bearing of the people involved, it all goes out of fashion. It was my thought, and Cindy Sherman made her film stills about this notion, with regard to her capture of this effect in movies, that in a photograph the “fissures,” those fault lines where fields meet, are always there, but during the fashionable moment, they are invisible, and they only become visible afterwards, when the framing medium, the framing moment, and the framing attitudes and culture die off. I called this quality of patchedtogethernesss hidden in photography especially, more than any other medium, in my 1991 catalog essay, and this was the title of my show, the Inherent Vice of photography, borrowing the term that conservators use to describe the impossible preservation situation when a painter for example like Blakelock uses degradable elements in his paint that cannot possibly be preserved. I called it Migration Theory, and it is all but impossible to understand any of my ARTS magazine or FLASH ART magazine reviews of the period without understanding that all the points I made, few which were appreciated, were devised from my marshalling of migration theory.

I also had a still larger macro notion that when an image exists as pictures in a particular market and it thrives in popular culture and looks fashionable and with it and cool and hip and up to date, and it is part of the market, that usually means that a locked-in agreement between art and audience has been invisibly enacted, and thus one dimension of the work is by that agreement exaggerated and exploited, to cause all any other more troubling disturbances to be silenced beneath. When an image is in its prime in the market it therefore is commercialized, and in that one dimension only one aspect of it is ever addressed or paid attention to. The fact that most people absorb most images most of the time in an incidental manner, at one dimension, reinforces this in the moment power. But then the moment passes, the images drops out of currency, then, again, something weird happens, it begins to look funny, or evil, or nostalgic, something that you maybe thought looked really cool, suddenly looks ridiculous, something that once was taken for granted, now looks ridiculously artificial. WE ALL KNOW THIS FEELING, and WE ALL EXPERIENCE THIS. Anyone who says that they do not experience this inherent vice in photography, and the irony, but also nostalgia and a host of other thanatoptic ideas, is a liar, or a witch, it is the basis of the planned obsolescence of images and pictures in our media age. Consider yearbook pictures

currinblog-3The high school yearbook photo has taken on such an iconic role as the very ground zero where this verfremdungseffekt of time is enacted that there are even now search websites devoted to scanning through the yearbooks of high schools all over the country, so that you can look back, and laugh. The entertainment news is stock full of Stars when they were dorks in their high school year book pictures. Some people keep the pictures, others toss them away. Some see that, hey, I was pretty good looking back then, others wince, and push away the dork of old. We all have experienced this. If we look back and pshaw at a lost prime, it could be said we make of the picture a cult image of our better selves, but also plaintively conceding the uneasy passage of time (since growing up seems to be the great trauma of American life). If, however, we were a dork or a nerd and have somehow risen above it, to make a new cult self, then it can be hidden as a former avatar, and an apotropaion to prevent us from ever going back to that. Then, of course, as is common in horror movies, if the dork picture was part of a hazing or bullying and the subject of ridicule at the time, leading to the figure dropping out, and filling with hatred, it can remain the prod that like a scarecrow fuels an apotropaic culture of revenge, to make of them all that teased you, a trophy less than that image. That is, in terms of agency theory, high school yearbook pictures are a remarkably rich resource, with lots of variations.

But then confronting the original image is tricky, because you are still dealing with an image which is locked in in itself within the frame of the time, and it only leeches that irony in the space between the image and the viewer, the suspicion is that it is you that are bringing the feeling to it. And so it was necessary at some point for some artist to bring the insights of Cindy Sherman and of the Picture Theory people about the way that images naturally age and change meaning, generating, often, from within, their very own irony, in a fluid and ever changing way, to bring this notion into the very devices and processes of making a picture, or a painting. That is what the bad painters did: bad painters are simply defined as painters who paint copies of images from real bad paintings, or from a genre of bad paintings, to re-represent them in the higher state of mind of irony and awareness of their migration. This observation then is meant to enlighten you, releasing you from the “natural attitude” with regard to “straight photography” (the mission of the constructivist mindset of the generation of 1950), and thus be more visually literate in an epoch of shifting and migrating images, that what you see is not what you get, that images do lie, and lie again and again, that when you like an image you are often liking it for very odd emotional reasons, and that, in short, looking at pictures is not a flat process but a three-dimensional emotional process where the image itself is altered by the relation addressed to it. By processing a migrating aesthetic that once was low and now is high into bad painting, bad painters made cultural trophies of defeated souls and lowdown timewasting tastes, to gently and sometimes rather sweetly accept all art as art of some sort. If you live at a state of accepting everything you see and read as real, then you are in for a world of trouble in working your way through life, but art will help you. A very large contingent of the so called East Village artists of the pre-International With Monument moment were all about this ‘bad’ cultivation of low popular culture sources (I can think of Kim Keever, Kiley Jenkins, Joel Otterson, Rhonda Wall, Ric Prol, others of that sort, between neoexpressionism and postpop). Side discourses running alongside of this were tastes that developed for arty moments in actual bad paintings, including thrift store paintings (Jim Shaw to Kenny Scharf), Black velvet paintings, which I love, motel room painting (my specialty), and other bad art that one finds in, for example, where I have reencountered by surprise this whole discourse, horror movies. If you live a natural attitude and what you see is what you get, all of this is just bad. However,if you are cultivated to a higher sense of the mutability and constructivism of images, you are more likely to see the art in all images and in life.

John Currin, addressing the ur source of bad pictures, the yearbook picture, and thus a sense of image curdling that everyone will understand, was the first artist to address the issue with such precision that you could look at the image once, and not see it, and then look at it a second time, and then get it. That is, it is easy to photobomb and meme an image which one right upfront (in today’s cheap easy hipster rejection of all imagery’s sincerity) thinks is ridiculous, but much more difficult to represent the image with such a fine command of its “fissures” (that is, it’s dissolving lines) that one time you look at it one way and then you see it the other way. The fact that this double take and this constant pull back to not sure is what he is saying is, of course. exactly what in the end got John Currin apparently in trouble, and misinterpreted by those youngsters that said he was sexist, but it is also what makes his art art, as such fine line command is the very fibre of figure-ground relations and also of physiognomic perception. If John Currin had just done a Jerry Lewis lampoon of some creepy nerdy girl back in high school that would have been easy. But, instead, he gave us this

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She is sweet, she seems like a nice girl, it’s a nice simple picture of a nice looking, if somewhat mousy girl. Or so first impression says. For then, almost immediately, the image begins to Dorian Gray on you. That is, there is something in the fictive space which, commanding the fissures located I would say in the support, begins to curdle. Suddenly, her sweater reminds you of the type of girl that wore that sort of thing then. It seems a bit out of date, it comes off as armor. (I concede–and this may be a drawback of this approach–that the work may require a generational reference bank to trigger fully, as, for example, I adore “sweater girls” because I grew up in the era when good Catholic girls would display themselves in sweaters, and you first learned of their torsos through sweaters, as, for example, Leslie Gore

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Then, you see that she is groomed rather too Dorothy Hamill, isn’t she? she is overdoing it on the sweetness, not in any noticeable way, but just as a vibe given off by the painting. Haircuts have very short lifetimes, but, for that, stick hard in the memory. Again, Hamill was an Olympic ice skating champion whose bobbed do was the cat’s pajamas in the 70s

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So much so that all the girls, as I have remarked in review, in Friday the 13th (1980) are still all decked out in Dorothy doos, which look a little dorky to later tastes

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One begins to think of her as kind of weird and creepy, like one of the Children of the Damned (a movie whose idea I also think came from precisely this same sort of dated appraisal of older material).

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And then there is another image, in the same show (these are the works that I responded to, love at first sight, an artist having finally found a way to make picture theory in painting work),

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And at first there is, again, an attention to the detailed care with which the artist captured the individuality of the sitter, as expressed by her just so pursed lips, her somewhat different nose, her eyes, and then her hair seems wilder. But then the sweater rises up again. You see that all white girls (but others too) back then dressed exactly the same. That choosing from one to the other was a matter of micro selection. That they were all so well groomed, so obsessed with projecting an image of sweetness and softness (hence the image of touchability, the sweater), then that hair, with its own semiotics out of movies, expressive here of inquisitiveness, openness, that they all look the same. And you might even have remembered going through the book and seeing this picture and remembering that you knew her and maybe touched her, the picture attracts you to it, by its hidden double blind nature, a great deal of conflicted emotion (and this, I think, without revisiting it, is what I picked up on in my review). Because this painting was based on photos, because it was based on a medium holding in it a document of a fashion that changed, because it was all negative punctum compared to now (should I call this the funkpoint?), because it captured its curdling, but then still managed to let the original reading surface now and then come through, resulting in conflicted feeling, I thought it was a great work of art. I reviewed it as such. I have no idea if a small review in Arts magazine at the very beginning of his career had any impact on the progress of Currin’s career, but I do know that even with all of the picture theory and bad painting theory in the air, I felt pretty much alone in my appreciation of the niceties of his work.

Of course, you could not go on doing yearbook pictures forever. Or rather, programmatic artists, who do serial things, but I think more to hide the limitation of their concepts, like Katharine Opie, would, but if you are to climb up, you have to take your notion on the road. At some point, in order to foreground the concept and fight back the tendency of people to reify the picture as a mere portrait and a pretty one at that, you have to transfer the conceptual formula to another sort of image and find the same thing there, and then have the skill to draw it out there too. And in this Currin showed his amazing grasp of his conceptual formula per se, his ability to transfer it to other sources, and eventually to all sources of bad painting, and thus create by means of this occupation and conquest of other fields demonstrate his conceptual command of his art, making him a major figure who then rose up through the red chip level (Andrea Rosen) to the blue chip (Gagosian). It is in the thirty six months from 1991 to 1994 that Currin rose up from being a “bad painting” painter to being what I prefer to call today a “conceptual painter.”

In his next body of work, he somehow got the notion that pictures of women in bed in, I think, old movies, had the same queer uncanny oddness as yearbook pictures. I do not know the sources of these, but will collect a few. But, immediately, I saw that these were a step up, a less obvious source, a less apparent fissure (itts in the pull of the bedding to the chin, the look of need or….something in the eyes), and a less apparent purpose, not portraits, but pictures of some sort. Again, a second round with Currin, I loved these (this was shown in 2013 in the New Museum’s 20 year survey of 1993, and I think was misplaced, however, looking at it again as an old friend I saw again the tucked up weirdness of its all as dead on uncanny ironic John Currin, made even better because of modest size and framed in lovely silver .

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I in fact had an encounter with precisely this sort of image in watching an old movie recently. Here is another somewhat  older woman in bed

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And in the movie, The Orphan: Friday the 13th (1979), a then 54 year old actress is in bed unable to fall asleep. A few things, since it would appear that Currin is beginning to mine movies in this. In this shot (below), there is the natural existential oddness of movies, that the viewer is being let into an intimate moment of a woman who is a stranger, but whom we have voyeuristically come to identify with through the alchemy of movies. On that point, I at present defer (Mulvey etc). But then the fissures are in the nature of the woman she is, at 54 in 1997, that was old! way older that 54 in 2015 is! Then, a woman wanted to mature into a woman, today she just wants to be a grown old girl. And so her fussiness, her formality, her going to bed in a formal night gown, in pure light blue, still protesting her virtue,

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I especially like the ruffles, she “gets dressed up” for bed. An then that she has a fancy headrest, and uses it, and lies in it all like a queen, and her posture is echoed in the properties of the time, by the lamp, set next to the bed not only bespeaking her own introspection and warmth, but her intimacy. And then it appears she is thinking about the boy’s father, whom she loved, so she touches her breast

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Again, in actual life, not a moment at all, but in this context, given what she is thinking, a masturbatory thought, it is an odd shot, full of repressed emotion, an artifact in her body language and in her arsenal of self-touching, of the time, as if she is imitating another’s hand that once touched her there. And then she looks for a picture, perhaps to by mental voodoo enhance a session of masturbation to follow, but the picture is not there, so she jumps up, and, in doing so, and, in doing so, I think, signaling to us that she was thinking of masturbating, she bares a breast, a symbol of repressed or conflicted wanting sexual desire.

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Given the character she has played vis a vis the boy throughout, it is shocking to see in private, the private battles she goes through, how her body language wilts from one of public command to private weakness and need. And in every case here, what makes this sequence interesting today is that, while it still does have an inherent emotionally acted quality, it it is etched as if in an outline of black by time having passed, and the fact that a lot of women today do not dress as queens for bed, for formality, or do not think themselves, at 54, above all that, thus repressing their sexual urges in a way that results in such a scene. Old movies, as Cindy Sherman knew, were the primary source of stereotypes of women, that, when times change, are then exposed as funny, or corny, or ridiculous, by all the lines changing all around them. But it was Currin who found that it is not just a matter of stereotypes, it is a matter of never being able in mediated time to be anything but a temporary accommodation to passing fancies and ideas, without any ground or permanence,, and thus remain forever fragile and threatened.

Indeed, too, Currin then progressed to a THIRD body of work, where, once again, he took a whole other array of images in the popular culture (this possibly derived from Cindy Sherman’s treatment of the same issue), the representation of older women, and made some absolutely amazingly weird warm-ironic paintings, such as Skinny Woman (1993),

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This woman is a masterpiece because it is true, and ironically comments as well on how true it is. This is a woman of a certain age (past 50) who is struggling to keep herself together, and young and sexy. And so she has gone for any number of the various feints or devices of a “look” that older woman routinely enlist to, even in their age, look young, in this case the boy haircut, to downplay the gray, and then her skinniness, and her having decided that her neck is her best feature, and accentuating that more than any other body part (all women, enslaved by fashion, partial to their bodies, all having a best feature, and a worst, in their mirror estimation). It was the skinniness that of course at the time gained all the attention, as fashion and its world and its clientele is routinely every season ad infinitum ad nauseum talking up how much it glories the skinny, as a way of always addressing an issue it then never had to actually do anything about (this too was the era when Kate Moss and heroine chic emerged, so its possible that picture took on a lot temporary flack from the passing issues of the day). But the thing that is absolutely best about this picture is that, again, though it is entirely ironic, and a demonstration of the fissures which have opened up to expose her posture and pose as artifice of her time and time in life, it is also a kind of loving tribue to the certain sort of dated look of womanhood which she modelled herself on, and in the Upper East Side of New York, the strong, rich, working woman goes way back, in the modern period, to Kay Thompson, whose Think Pink in Funny Face, is behind this image, the ur prototype as it were of this imitation

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And when people watch an old movie like Funny Face, one is in a mixed state of mind, on the one hand, it is ridiculous, can you believe how people behaved back then? it is absurd, because even though you know they are also, just like us in 1990, talking about fucking, actual sex, they were never allowed to show much, so you don’t quite know, and then it is just wonderful, so stylish, so formal, so Paris, so chic, so I don’t know what. It is a mix of feelings which I think is best summed up by the word often used to describe this sort of thing, fabulous. And that is the quality that Currin captured in the picture.

And then of course there is exploitation. This is a second layer of address that Currin less frequently addressed, but he knew it existed. This would be a THIRD body of work variation. When an image curdles, it is the image’s internal disposition as patched-together medium, surface, fictive and support spaces, that curdles, that comes unglued, that begins to show its cracks. But then it is also true that the image exists as I said in migration theory in a larger culture, and in that culture any number of bad exploitative impulses can be directed at the image, which make it ridiculous. Exploitation movies were a form of bad faith image and picture making, in which under the guise of, for example, doing a serious documentary about venereal disease, it got to show a lot of sex, to the surreptitious, exploiting audience could jerk off. It exploited the subject, to sneak in contraband, and then the audience was in on the fix and knew where to go to get their fix. But there is also exploitation motives that spring up just in seeing too, when migration goes awry, and the image, in some new context, is turned upside down, or used for a purpose not originally intended, and thus is exploited. So, in this context, and with reference to the peek at older woman nudity in the movie above, the exploitation aspect is seeing her nude, and an exploiter of this movie might fast forward to only that moment, to see this brief glimpse of her breast. You want to see that, because as her character develops, again in The Orphan, you begin to develop bad feelings about her, and you want to bring her down a peg, or her to be honest with herself. And when a man in an exploiting tear-down moment addresses a commanding presence in female form in that way, the exploiting tactic is always, I wonder what she looks like naked. She is such a stuck up thing, but…..hmm, she still does have a bit of something

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And, in fact, this double irony is in Skinny Woman, because, while she may be skinny, her skinniness showing off most in the fact that it makes her hands look big, she still does a hands akimbo on hip pose that does a whole torsion with her blouse and shows that, wow, she really does, for “a woman her age”, still have a quite nice bust (even if, at that age, no one much notices, at least in the 80s)

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And so, of course, it would make sense that having mined this secondary channel of irony-cutting or irony-mining in images, Currin would develop it, and sure enough one of the silliest but most famous images he did right in this period was Bea Arthur nude

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The reason why this has been called the Mona Lisa of bad painting, or postmodern painting, is that in it Currin returned to the brushed down look of his high school yearbook portraits, so there is nothing on the surface that lampoons her. It is possible that he even took the head from a straight on dressed photo of Bea Arthur. Then too, Bea Arthur was quite possibly a woman whom you never would or could imagine nude, though she was very famous for her caustic sitcom work in the day (I always liked her best in Lovers and Other Strangers). So, she looks creepy, all put together, all the fissues of the yearbook pictures are opened up, then finessed. And then he strips her, and has to imagine what her breasts look like. And now we have, we being exploiting men (but also, perhaps, young women) looking over the shoulder, as it were, of our own looking at them as yearbook pictures,  our I wonder what she looks like nude moment. And it is funny, of course, that she does in fact have big breasts, and that they are of a lighter shade, and have a life of their own, so that the fetishist might even find a way to ignore the fact of what body they are attached to and get excited by them. It is just a whole internal vortex of conflicted emotion ingrained by finessing fissues of mediation and migration through it all rolled up into one painting, bespeaking entirely and wholly the complexity of looking at images in the post-straight photography days.

And then having mastered and gained command of his conceptual armentarium, Currin could take it on the road. I remember being at the opening at the Andrea Rosen gallery on Greene and Prince in 1994 when he showed off his FOURTH body of work, a swing off to the more bad painting oriented take offs, I thought, on how silly John Stewart Curry et al would look today, and, again, without readdressing the same issue with regard to the Curry source, he nailed it

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which I somehow related to, in mockery, Curry

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He suggested that these pseudo Curries were owned by some fellow with a very particular, fetishistic taste, as would be appropriate for the explorations of the downward market swing just then, a taste for very, very large bosoms. I thought of them as all but hanging in some weird guy’s room, very much in the non white cube ethos of 1994. Removing them from the white cube let you also laugh at Currin apparently having devised an absurd genre scene rationale for whatever these two girls are doing (the punctum Barthes style is that the figure in white is trying to help the figure in red with a particular problem of bodily presentation, but the joke is she hasn’t solved it either, as evidenced by a breast that falls on, all to be but supported by, her forearm

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Currin actually thought of that too, as he did take a meta detour to do some “paintings in paintings”, his girl in bed motif put in the foreground of the motel room picture image that he then foregrounded in this 1994 exhibition (I am even more interested in this notion now, see my blog)

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This lateral movement of his ideas into meta zones, or counterrealities of the pictures, meant that he could stretch out from the centering in his practice, to make jokes far off to the side, in the crawlspaces of his concepts. That lead then to a brief period, not unlike Magritte’s La Vache period, where he did a few joke paintings, because he did get himself in a place where he imagined himself as painting the bad paintings in whatever imaginary motel room that lady is lying in, thus works like The Wizard (1995), which broaches the topic of clown paintings, and paintings by amateurs somewhat scary

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as Magritte, in La Vache art, he “went there” because he was mad at the surrealists, and wanted to break away from their refinements

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And then he swung back, in the late 90s and early 00s, by way of Norman Rockwell or All American 1940s movie imagery, and again, another great period of my appreciation of Currin, I could go into these over and over again, many of them lifted, I think, from a favorite resource of mine, 1940s movies, to capture the many looks of American women as they keep changing decade after decade

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Now and then this body of All American work let Currin fall off the fine line of irony, as, for example, I tend to like this picture, simply because it is a rich, deep, baroque capturing of a certain type of American woman of the upper classes, having their Thanksgiving (2003) in their way (if we are playing punctum again two things, that the girls seem to be unaware of visual bodily rhymes between the prepared turkey and their naked skin, ie they are a kind of sacrifice; and as always everyone is always seeking a roman a clef presence of his girlfriend then wife Rochelle Feinstein and she may be here in the figure to the left, though I prefer not to autobiographize his works because that just makes me envious of his rather pleasant painterly existence).

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This is also an aspect of this work that causes me to “fall into” the painting and lose critical distance, as this one does seem to derive from an old 40s movies and for that I could now go on to talk about couches and windows, and lovely trees outside of picture windows in those old movies, and he captures the magic of the effect perfectly

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and then he went through an old master let’s deconstruct Cranach phase, representing women today with the medieval taste for the rounded belly, which is funny given today’s six pack mania. I would point out that a sexist would never give any attention to the particular points of individual figures

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And of course this meant at some point or another he would have to look into old porn because nothing dates quicker than vintage porn. Here too I could expend ten thousand words, as, while the final mechanics of the sexual acts are pretty much the same from decade to decade, how people address each other, approach it, foreplay prior to it, act and behave during it, engage in ritual or not practice in it, etc etc, all of that changes every decade, and has changed so dramatically generally in the shift of era from late modernist sexual revolution sex culture (1955-1985) to post AIDS safe sex sex culture (1990-date) that these pictures of porn acts imaged forth from the imagination of vintage pornsters are a riot. All I will say of vintage porn, 1970s style (and Cecily Brown at one point, about 2000, also made use of the fissures spinning out from this or that), one, it was a very hairy time, the body below the waist was still thought of as nature not culture, woman was still goddess woman, and any act by a man that did not involve full on King Kong phallic chest beating was considered perverse, in the sense of unmanning the man—all a very sexist sexual liberation

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then then too Currin seems to want to capture the notthereness of it all. But then too there is a doubling up on his themes because he is picturing the perhaps not vintage exploitation or fetish arrangement where an older woman shows a nubile young thing how its done, then the nubile young thing helps her out, all the time the guy just waiting to get to the young thing, so, old flesh again

(The pornography source issue is complicated still further if Belting’s intermedial stress notion is brought to bear on the images. Back then, it was still something of a challenge to see pornography, and hardcore pornography remained outside the visual world of most people. Today, the internet is built on the limbs of people engaged in pornographic sex, and the world of the internet is an ocean of boobs, this likely has utterly devalued the shock of the image, or at the very least, as seems to have happened in movies, made it no longer worthwhile for the issue to be addressed in the context of film, since if a guy in a theater wants to see boobs, flick on the cell phone)

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at this point, Currin can go anywhere. I recently posted on my FB page the riotously funny image of the author Dennis Wheatley posing in a velvet smoking jacket with a glass of champagne in his hand in front of his country home on the back jacket of a 1930s edition of his novel and laughed, wow, he was serious, now it all seems a joke, that is how fashions change, how ridiculous modern man and woman are, trying to be grounded and real in their life, then having to concede that they lived through a period of time where they never could quite fix the look or make it work for them, and as a result, almost in a Baudelairisn way, but negatively so, never quite fit in or lived, and so Currin can go into these subcultures of odd doings imaged forth from who knows what source

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But the point is, his conceptual armentarium is solidly in place. There is no way possible that a conceptual painting, as it might be called, with these conceptual underpinnings, the picture being in fact the atom as it were in the middle of the orbiting of fashion and migration that deconstruct them as they form, in the fleetingness of modern life–there is no possible way that these cannot be taken as ironic, and comic, and rueful, and philosophical, and open up to the awareness of the ridiculousness of people in fashion in time, and be called straight up sexist. Sexism is a fixed vision of a sex vis a vis its social gender role, in a world so in flux and so filled with little tragedies of self display and irony of self conception, sexism does not and cannot hold. Somehow, however, some fixed uncritical flatearth perception of Currin as “that painter of those old nudes” or something like that, fixed itself like a meme in the minds of the generation coming after the constructivists (which is weird because hipsters and after live entirely immediately in a world of construction), and thus it worked out that twice in a short period in one season in 2014 AD I heard to artists under 45 say that John Currin is sexist. But he is a critic of a sexist culture, his work represents a critique of representation, his work is reflective about representation, his work could profit and express even Butler’s distinctions between performance and performativity of gender. How then did this happen?

I just have one notion. From 1988 to 1993 the “culture,” which means two market cycles, was driving forward in a downward spin to take queer theory to its logical relativistic conclusion. Since I am a twin, I, of course, have always had an interest in any theoretical disposition which posits that identity is shifting and at least malleable, and not fixed, and certainly not biologically based. At that time, so very, very, very different than today, it was thought that if you tried to argue that, for example, homosexuality was something that was rooted and therefore real because there is a gene for it or some spurt of chemical or other in the brain that makes one a homosexual, meaning that homosexuality cannot be changed, you would have been chased out of Dodge City art world as a nazi. Today, just the opposite. So it is very, very difficult, to recreate the highly flexible and fluid groundless state of consideration of construvism in which John Currin’s paintings first were introduced. I offer a single example, which has taken on emblematic power as a sign of how dramatically the “political correctness” of 1990 has changed entirely and wholly from the “political correctness” of 2015 (and by political correctness I simply mean the politically motivated framing of the discourse by means of determining what is admissible or not, in terms of terminology, address, whatever: it is has absolutely nothing to do with what is true, but with what is accepted by the current groupthink). In the 1993 movie Orlando, at the key point in the saga of Sackville West’s character, Orlando, he, wakes up one fine morning in the 17th century, and looks in the mirror with befuddlement. His penis is gone, that has somehow retracted overnight and then popped back out in a different napkinfold as a vagina, and then he now has soft round low set pelvic mounted hips, an excruciatingly different bone structure, then, above the hips, and he has grown two rather nice breasts. And Orlando looks in the mirror with confusion and then amazement. And then Tilda Swinton turns to the camera and addresses us directly, that is, sticking her head out of the story, and whatever it meant to Sackville West’s negotiation of her own lesbianism in the 1920s, to talk directly to us sitting in the ultimate seventh level of hell of constructivist indie relativity in the early 1990s, the Angelika theatre, and says, “Man, woman, same person, doesn’t matter”.

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Who, I ask you, believes that anymore? Indeed, in the last 25 years, homosexual rights as a movement has run to the arms of neuroscience and genetic science to seek commitment and groundedness in the realness of homosexuality, precisely by denying this. Genders have separated off, men are oh those men, women are women. There will always be in the sexual coming to terms of one’s 20s in any culture at any time a certain interest, by those who do not quite fit in either way (and I am not talking here about actual transsexuality,  a much deeper feeling than simply being sick of the man-woman sex role thing). But in 1990 it was almost creed, this was the deepest expression of the relativistic manifestation of queer theory of the time. And yet no one would believe the same thing today. So it is possible that the changing large scale tide of the culture from relativism back to a new groundedness in new essentialist theory has also accounted for the misreading of Currin as sexist.

But, take it from someone who was there, none of his work ever struck me at any time as sexist, even in its sexiest, it was always making fun of the stupidity of how we human beings display and manifest in sexual roles, and so best to take the attitude, all is folly, all is vanity, all is silly ridiculous nonsense. Therefore, all I can say is that I have held with the same view of Currin’s work for 25 years. Has he changed much? I would say that he is an example of an artist who put into place fairly early a tight conceptual armentarium, derived from it a lot of rich strands feeding it, then locked that basic conceptual formula in place, but then showed expansion of it by exploring how it worked out in ever more adventurous and more daring challenges in making the formula work in a new body of work derived from a new body of resource. The danger of portraiture and pictures like Currin’s, and this is also likely made still another time worse by the internet, where image per se rules, is that Currin will be reified, and show up some day in some stupidly curated show of contemporary realism, and it also true that in his actual painting, and his sophisticated toying with the nostalgic and sweet side of his images too, he leaves himself open to that problem (again, the recto side of his work is irony, the verso would be to delictate in its niceties)–but, no, John Currin synthesized picture theory as it applied to painting plus bad painting as it was refined by picture theory to create an absolutely of-the-moment 1990 synthesis of the two that remains always and forever a wholesale critique of the way we represent gender in our culture, however it is represented. I got it, day one, and, even though we are in entirely different times, with lines being redrawn, and harder, and essentialism and absolutist thinking on the rebound, I still get it today.

 

 

 

 

The Last Victim (1977) and salvation by décor: with mention of parallels to photography by Gregory Crewdson (at Gagosian, 2016).

Rev., February 21, 2016.

The Last Victim (1977) is not a good movie, but it does have about it a few good things. First off, it stars Tanya Roberts, in a very early role, and she is quite good. Then, too, it  has one good sequence, and it is a very long one, the last half hour of the movie, showing a home invasion, and for that it is fair to think that the scene is a set up with lots of nudity in the rape of two female victims by the mad maniac earlier, and a full on display that makes rape way too prurient

lastvic-1but then, when we get to the scene, nothing but from behind the frosted shower glass for Tanya, the upper class housewife

lastvic-2But, the thing is, she is very pretty, and she is having serious problems with her marriage, with her husband not wanting to talk to her, and presumably no sex, so she is apparently giving off vibes, and then at the mechanic shops the maniac gets a whiff of her, and she becomes the final target, setting up the drama of the last victim. And the whole last part of the movie is a long, drawn out home invasion sequence. But, two things, one, it concentrates the movie by offering us the assumption that he is in the house, and about to jump out at any minute, and, even though he is off screen, here, and there is no direct use of POV shots as in Friday the 13th, there is nonetheless the presumption of POV shots, and a tension built up because of that; and, then, two, they milk the process by drawing it out to ridiculous lengths, but in doing so have to improve on décor and ritual to show on screen maybe the most involved use of décor to comment on her status in the house, and as a person, and her ritual to express her difficulties as a women vis a vis her sexuality, so it ends up as a not only good haunted portrait movie, in the context of POV tension, but a good body essay on Tanya Roberts in duress too.

So, the setup for the drama begins earlier, when we see that though they share a bed, they are not occupying it, not sleeping in it, and not talking when they are in it together, they are at an impasse, on top of the coverings. This shot also shows that for a young women of 1977 she has very old fashioned taste, as the bed is an ugly 40s Louis XIV thing, and then there are two odd, fussily rococo grisaille pictures overhead. The bed stead then communicates that sex is dead in the bed, and the pictures above scream no communication, that is, they are blanks

lastvic-3we see earlier too that her house is fussy. She has paisley patterned wallpaper in gold on white (note: same as my mother had). This was thought to be elegant at the time, not quite moderne, but a modernization of Louis XIV glamor in décor, and then to top that she has on her steps a series of what look like drawings, possibly by her, of her, or others, her daughter, and they here haunt her

lastvic-4In addition to the wallpaper, her front door, no less, in windowed, but then covered in a strange lacy covering, very rococo, and then by the bannister is a classic torchiere Moorish figure, possibly modernized to suggest African heads, indicating here, troubling presence. She has already thought she heard something, and is looking around

lastvic-5The statue, which plays no part in the movie, except in this shot, nonetheless is solidly placed in the tradition of African masks as indicating trouble in the house, and since it is totem acting all but as concierge it seems to function as a blackamoor butler too, offering service to guests to the house, it is modernist orientalist décor that by 1977 might be expected to have been purged from the house of a young hip woman, its datedness indicating her passivity and inhibition, and her fears

lastvic-6When she looks up the stairs, to see if anyone is there, we see as well that she has crowded the front hall with art. By the bannister, is not one, but three stacked small nature scenes, as a space device no doubt trying to imply size where there is less of it, but as a metaphor suggests a frustrated wanderlust in her, and a sense of claustrophobic unhappiness in the house. Again, these appear too little in the film to count as instruments, but they do whisper of her predicament

lastvic-7More specifically, in close up, the mountain views accentuate the height of the stairs, suggesting that they might be dangerous, even, since landscapes per se communicate trouble coming, that the climax fall might happen on the stairs, but then too stacked up, they also remind us, in this body essay shot of her bending back and behind, that she too is fully “stacked” with a great-to-look-at figure

lastvic-8now the main drama begins. At this point, we know he is in the house, and he is overhearing her talk on the phone, inside the movie, just as we are hearing her talk on the phone, from outside the movie. That is, the POV overlaid on the shot here implicates us in the diegetic nature of the POV implied by his presence nearby in the movie. This is expressed in this shot by three things: 1) the shot is split between two rooms, which implies a person in one room listening to one in the other; 2) the dark portrait in this room, reminds us, by the view, that in this room, he is hiding, listening; but also 3) if this is the kind of thing she hangs in her house, dour portraits of girls, then he mood as a wife in general and her talk on the phone about her problems with the husband are consistent, and she is a sad soul expressing herself in dark haunted portraits (but again this plays no real part)

lastvic-9Interesting enough, the camera continues to pan away from her, as if searching for him, and as it does it implies her reduction to a two-dimensional being, reduced to that by fear, or fear she should be feeling, and him as a physiogomy possibly started from a sighting in the figural elements of the wallpaper paisley, even the chandelier bespeaks the tinkle of her voice and the preciousness of her whole housewife life

lastvic-10now the camera does something very odd, it continues to pan away from her. We come into the main part of the hall, below the stairs. Here again we see the three mountain scapes stacked on top of each other, to accentuate the height and steepness of the stairs, but there is a very, very, no, very curious full size action landscape painting of a Russian or Polish sort, on the left wall. There is also a strange shelflike sconce next the picture, plus more picture gilt, and more chandelier, she lives a very fussy, if not exactly elegant life

lastvic-11these shots empty out, except for her voice, to alert us to the fact that the man is in the house, listening and waiting. The emptiness of the shot fills it with him, and thus these are suspense building shots. We are in the back of our mind literally expecting him to jump out of each shot, or be hiding behind every object in each shot, which we are looking into

lastvic-12finally it pans up to a upstairs shot. This, with the chandelier in front made prominent, is a classic lattice shot, that informs us that the dream or nightmare is settling and pooling on one image, and imagos of it come up now, first abstract, then for real, and so the chandelier is the first heavy-ing of the scenery, framing the imprisoning stairs and bannister, with shadows, and matching its hard rock against the hard place of the other chandelier, to all indicate that she is in trouble

lastvic-13but now at last the phone conversation ends, and Tanya comes out in to the hall, from the kitchen. She passes by the bizarre painting to the left, and as she passes it, giving us a good full on view of her figure, and her thigh gap, and the curl of bannister on the right accentuating by comparison her figure, she is revealed as prey, as the effigy of the house and all its furnishings, its representative to be sacrificed if need be, to appease the gods of carnage. The odd thing about the picture on the left, and really I don’t know I have ever seen a traditional 19th country scene of this size in a haunted house movie, is that it is in winter, identifying her, if she brought it in, as an ice princess, it is a sleigh, a moving vehicle, indicating that someone through it has come into the house, and also that she is on the move, and so it is not really a predicament picture, but a problem-of-the-moment picture. It’s just weird, voodooing access

lastvic-14the assumption by this point in the proceedings, since things have really slowed down, is that she is being laid out as the sacrificial victim, the last victim of the title. That also means that we are deep in POV voyeur psycho space, and everything we see is doubly stamped over it by his psycho vision. In the world of the voyeur, women alone in the house are good for only one thing, and, in fact, when they are alone in the house, only do one thing, around which their whole existence circulates, they shower. And to shower, they must take off their clothes, and if they are POV targets of voyeurism then they will gratify our interest by taking off their clothes directly inside the door. In the real world, one supposes that women do all sorts of things around the house, and with their clothes on. But in voyeur horror, in the sightlines of the evil eye gaze of the POV psycho, all they do is strip. Therefore it is a relief and pleasure, fulfilling expectation, and ratcheting up, no doubt, the tension, as offering him an occasion to pounce, when, as she circles the newell post, representing the phallus in the view, she uncoils her belt, in parallel to her swing around it, and takes off her belt as she climbs the stairs, she really is doing it! she is taking off her clothes! She will shower! This is a shower scene, at the heart of the invasion.

But, now, things slow down even more, and, since we are on another level, time must be taken to raise the inference that the voyeur might have secreted himself upstairs, and so is being turned on to act by all of this. Her ritual is strange. Like many a woman, much more, it is likely, than Janet Leigh stepping recklessly directly under a turned on spray, she steps into the bathroom, turns on the shower (it’s happening!) then walks back across the whole upper hall to her bedroom, where she strips off her clothes, but only down to her undies. She then walks away from, more thigh gap, her daily life, and the intimacy of her life being violated perhaps suggested by another weird work of art, apparently a John Rogers antique tableaux

lastvic-15we notice, rather oddly, that she has left on her high heels, to make this lingerie walk, lingering in her undress

lastvic-16and then after she adjusts the water, to make sure it is alright, she comes back, showing us it all, all over again, but from the front.

lastyvic-17What is happening here? In the world of the voyeur, in real life, endless hours can go by, with nothing to show for one’s gazing, you may come up with nothing. But, if something does start, it is usually very incremental. First you see one thing, then another, then you see a bit more, and then a bit more than that. Then she might top off at a level you have got to before, seeing in her undies, but then it might just as easily spike to a whole new level of exposure, all of which, relatively speaking, to the previous sighting, and to previous sightings, is exciting. Thus, in this parade, the implied POV presence is being given incrementally greater levels of exposure to build up tension, to give occasion to pounce. So, this is voyeur POV not only in premise, the undressing woman, but in sequence, the progress of undressing.

Now, she is back in her fussy bedroom, which all but looks like her mother’s, heavy Victorian furniture, weird lamps, a gaudy mirror, flowers, and she looks at herself, and having seen her front and back half nude, now we appreciate her in bouquet form, reflected front and back, to get the whole of her

lastvic-18and then, finally, in her room, she reaches back to unclasp the bra

lastvic-19and then removes the panties, pulling them down over her substitute-vaginal toes, and substitute bottom of her feet, to her carpet, implied from above, it looking on carpet now, and her robe on the carpet too, she is nude

lastvic-20and like her long shade lamps, her deeply pleated, looped curtains, her flowery décor, her heavy furniture, she is a beautiful, elegant, swanlike form, no question

lastvic-21but, then, surprise again! No nudity. After having had no problem at all seeing breasts and behind of all victims before her, for her, nothing. What, visually, is this? well, in voyeurism sequences, not only is there is the basic fantasy, and the progression of exposure, but there is also a give and take, a back and forth. That is, a sequence will give, and it will take away. You will see some things, not others. Voyeurs know this, it is part of the titillation, the damn! When the above happens, having seen her strip to her undies, and parade in her undies, and then strip down totally, and we don’t see anything? And then she covers right up with a big giant blue robe?

lastvic-22And goes back to the shower, across the hall, in the robe, and only at the shower, removes the robe, then those silly shoes

lastvic-23and get in the shower, nude stepping in, and nude in, and nude only seen behind a frosted glass, or, in fact, not really seen, frustrating

lastvic-24Adding to the tension and frustration of the sequence, is the odd fact that the shower is oddly located in the room. Usually, showers are located out by the window, to allow of natural venting of the steam of a heated shower. This then also means, a bonus for voyeurs, it happens that women standing in showers, or showers over baths, will stand in front of an open window, and offer up at least a sight of their boobs to voyeurs. But this shower is in by the hallway door, it is part of the voyeuristic mechanism that has been created by the hallway crossed and recrossed in the hall. The voyeur, if external to the house, would see nothing, and so his seeing something, by way of us seeing something, means he is in the house. This is then conveyed by a pullback shot, starting with a walking out the door shot, coming round the corner into the hall, implying a peeping presence

lastvic-25ending with a long shot from across the hall, the door open, she still in the shower

lastvic-26Both classic shots, and in the latter showing that she did indeed leave the window open. But now, nope, even here, no show as she showers, no show as she steps out of shower, no show as she dries after shower, it seems her robe serves as her walking towel, she crosses back to her room, all covered up, and then when she removes it, to now dress (so this was all a freshening up shower, for meeting the latter part of a long day, her alone time), a pleated couch is all that is left of the crushed hopes of this voyeuristic episode

lastvic-27and then she’s downstairs making tea again, dressed!

lastvic-28Now, it is true that having seen on film a woman dressed one way, then strip and take a shower, and having seen in that interval her in her underwear, you can never, in the movie, unsee that, so even though she is dressed, she is less dressed, that is, she is dressed over nudity most of which you have seen, so there is still some vulnerability lurking in her thinned out clothing. And it is also true that this homedress casual, loose look, is not her going out into the world dressed up armor, so while it is extremely surprising and disappointing to those who expect the genre conventions to play out that the voyeur psycho did not strike during the shower, she remains vulnerable, so we do not quite give up

lastvic-29and, sure enough, the movie has been toying with us, it put out the carrot, then gave us the stick, we relax, false positive, and then it happens. And it happens as she is in the presence of that painting of a sleigh that communicated the message that there was a moving presence in the house. In this shot, the other painting, possibly a landscape, also frames trouble, and the revealed gilt of the strange sconce between them is her, fragily and precious, and now under attack

lastvic-30here too, the movie leaves behind a shot of the art, to allow us to think for a moment on what has happened

lastvic-31For all this then, the movie makes very nice use, without knocking one over the head with it, of the sleigh painting in the hallway. It signifies her as a rather old fashioned, introverted girl, whose home has been invaded by a foreign presence. It also makes good use of the rituals of the shower parade, though is less effective in the actual shower sequence. Still, it is arguable that this is all a shower sequence, and an offset version of the convention.

But now the menacing begins, he brings her down to their rec room. It is a typical set up “done something with” basement 70s style. It has wood paneling, it has lamps and a bar, it has leather couches, carpet, and, worst of all, a truly humongous sailfish., The carpet says that we are still on her turf, but the shoe on the carpet means she has lost her footing, or power for the moment. The wood paneling by then was no longer the height of fashion and had begun to seem a bit dated and creepy. It signifies a prison, not unlike the bannister. The basement window is restless, an eye and an evil eye peeping in, and then the sailfish plays tag with the sleigh in the picture upstairs to identify her as the hunted animal, somehow implicating the husband and her unhappiness in her plight

lastvic-32the “fun” part of this shot is that I posted it on FB the day I saw the movie because I had posted something about artist Gregory Crewdson’s latest photos at Gagosian Gallery, NYC, and in The Basement(2016), Crewdson does not only take a photograph of a straight site, but sets up a scene, and to do so uses ALL of the tropes that are witnessed in the wild in time in the 70s in this scene. There is the basement window, the evil eye; there is the carpeting, indicating woman run amok; there is the wood panelling, man depleted, the household as is falling behind the times, running out of time; the paintings, indicating trouble coming, it is all there.

lastvic-33According to my ‘inherent vice’ theory of photography in 1991, I rejected Barthes single-field straight approach, situating photography as a plane directly facing another plane, straight reality, the proceedings only given meaning by a punctum, a detail in the field, by arguing that in fact most photography exists as a compromise formation covering over in a momentary effect, like a special effect, the uncanny peak, a making real, the contact of two fields unrelated to each other, side by side, meeting in the picture. This was a field level view of photograph, and an intermedial view of photography. I suspect that Crewdson’s work, for all its constructedness, is still read by most photo readers as straight photography, with some set up to give it punctum, and mystery. But it is more than that. It is apparent from the above comparison between a still from The Last Victim and there precise and exact recreation in Crewdson’s The Basement, that as an artist he KNOWS the conventions of set dressing in movies, from way back, he understands their purpose relative to a shot in the movie, that is, that they exist in a background behind the shot, in the tacit field, before which is the dialog and character or the explicit field, as I have mapped out elsewhere, and that it is the insecurity of the explicit text that is reinforced by the tacit texts of décor and property, to make what appear to be a third dimensional whole, with real depth. That is, the fields, if Crewdson’s vocabulary is a second generation of photographic art lifted from film stills, is NOT a fissure-made contact of two fields on the same plane clashing, to make a photo, it is made by the foregrounding of an explicit plane event on a tacit background plane of well known conventions and effects from movie, that reread the photo as seen, and emits a sense of creepiness. That is, his photographic art has become a direct high art transfer of the procedures of set dressing photography in movies, a second generation type of film still, but of a very different, and more sophisticated nature than Sherman. And, the meaning of the conventions in the photos by him ARE NOT ironic or misuse or misunderstanding or blank or oblivious, he understands their use and their meaning, and HE BORROWS WHOLE CLOTH the unseen or secret language of property conventions in horror movies that I have spent so much time ferreting out, to give a meaning to his photos that goes beyond the photo, to the human, as conveyed by the conventions of a popular art, to elicit from a much broader audience a response from viewers who even if unconsciously, from having watched movies, understand the conventions, and feel the creepiness. So, it was rather thrilling to me, having seen the Crewdsons, and knowing I’d have to connect the two definitely, that the very next movie, from 1977, has all the conventions in almost dead on exact form, proving that to include them all in a picture of 2015 is precisely why The Basement by Crewdson feels so creepy. Even the pictures are dead on, trouble coming, girl below on couch is sitting duck, deer in the headlights

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Dad, again paired pictures, as above in LV, is spaced out, under the evil eye, buried, dying, lost his energy and life and it shows

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Since such a setting of creepy forebodings seem perfect for a sexual crime, and there is a sexual crime in this movie, her on the couch matches up uncannily closely to what is going on in Crewdson’s The Den (2016)

lastvic-36The open window is vulnerability, exposure, the carpet woman depleted, ditto things on the floor, the pictures bespeak danger too, and then, what’s going on, somehow a woman has had some incident, maybe a health thing, and it happened somehow in the nude, and now she has calmed down and maybe her daughter being asked to be too involved in care of this person is just glad its calmed down, and doesn’t mind anymore the nudity thing, and its warm so no need for a cover, so let her sleep, no big deal, there is not, to me, a whiff of sexuality in this shot, just care for the sick, and being overwhelmed by it. So in the end it takes the idea of the naked female on the couch a different direction. And here too the pictures speak

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So, in my view, there is a strong, direct, crossover connection between the alternative visual tradition of the dressing of sets for tacit horror communication in movies, and the work of a fine art photography in the tradition of constructed photography, now doubling back to the film still model of the doyen of his generation, Cindy Sherman. It’s a thrilling moment for me, for whom these two visual traditions have remained, as I study both, and, perhaps, of late, the movie tradition even more, and have yet to find that many direct overlaps.

But back to The Last Victim. The psycho is by no means interesting, and a major weakness of the movie and this sequence, but her position as hunted captured animal is reinforced by those fish, and in a picture here behind her, her day dress showing a lot of skin

lastvic-38 the shot with him standing up to menace her, and a picture of her in front, and the full view of the sailfish above, reveals her menacing as only a worse example of the type of thing she has been experiencing in the marriage

lastvic-39the fish is humongous indeed, and I have never seen one, very common rec room artifacts, so large, and used as a property in this one (one sailfish does turn into a murder weapon in a sequel to a noted movie, I forget at the moment. We had a sailfish on the wall of our rec room, in the basement, but it was one third this size. This is a trophy deluxe, and IDs the husband as a trophy taker, and her as a trophy wife. This is her worst nightmare, because it is physical and violent version of what she already knows

lastvic-40when as victim she is under the lamp, the light shines on her skin, inciting a feeling of intimacy, and then the houseplant plays the part of the menacing presence that is outside the shot, this is the whole Gallic slave pose, here

lastvic-41The fact that she stays in victim pose, not looking at him, as he menaces, and that as he does he knocks down the lamp on the floor, indicating chaos, and foreshadowing her violation in rape, reinforces this as a rape that is beginning to take shape as a violent, literal parody of her marriage

lastvic-42now he actually drags her back upstairs to the bedroom, presumably to rape her there. It doesn’t make much sense, unless to emphasize the upside down marriage model

lastvic-43He throws her on the bed, she lies face down, still exposed, these effacements reveal the bed to be a dead place, without life, sex or love, the pictures above are here seen as weak lords and ladies tableaux, again of a fussy Louis XIV mode

lastvic-44He is now touching her a lot, in a lot of intimate places, but no rape yet at last he decides to surprise us and no doubt her again by lying down next to her to sleep, she now not only entirely exposed to him, but him taking up intimate relation next to her, but no rape yet

lastvic-455This is the only way I can make sense of this extended sequence, that at one point the director, trying to imagine how to draw out the home invasion, and making it as tense as possible, and showing us as much of Tanya as possible, without nudity, was to, after the shower sequence, make the actual attack a literal upside negative parody of her marriage, ending up in a negated marriage bed.

lastvic-46And then a third, and last sequence starts. The camera rests on the ceiling, to clear the slate, to indicate time passing, and then it comes down on those two pictures, now eyes gazing over all, and here they represent tombstones of the marriage, or its negation

lastvic-47and we are asked to believe that not only did he fall asleep, without raping her (because he liked her?) but that she did too, next to him? All together now, very exposed

lastvic-48Up to this point, it was possible that Tanya was the fightback girl. The fightback girl had only just then begun to emerge, however, and this movie exists prior to the evolution of the pure type. So, there are fightback elements in her, but they are compromised by prefeminist weaknesses, or, since feminism was already in full swing by then, she lives in a culdesac culture of unreconstructed prefeminist living in the late 1970s. That datedness, that protectedness and shelteredness, that has now come to backfire on her, and narrow her life down to nothing, is what is conveyed by the dowdy Louis XIV décor all about. She is not a fightback girl, she is a woman who is struggling with her weakness, and her weakness made worse in a domestic predicament, two kids, and a husband who has lost interest in her. But, still, she’s survived up to this point, a home invasion attack by a psycho whom she must know is out to rape her, and will rape her, and she wakes up and rather than jump up and run like hell out of there, or pick up that enormous lethal lamp and conk him over the head with it, knocking him out, she wakes up, realizes her predicament, then tries to ‘not wake up’ the sleeping giant, by ever so gingerly edging away from him, to escape, very, very slowly

lastvic-49while this feint gives us a whole backward reel of exposure of her weaknesses, as if a fisherman from below reeling his line back in, all the carpet representing her weak womanliness, her cuntiness, and then the debris on it, her pulled apart by shockedness, this is a great shot, but logically is makes no sense, all that room to run, and she edges off

lastvic-50and then once she is away from him, away from fear of waking him up by touch, or displacement of her weight from the bed, free and clear, out on the carpet, she still only walks it back, on her knees, rear to us, giving us great views of her absurd weakness and poor judgement, but, really, why not just get up and run like hell?

lastvic-51that her weakness in this scenario is partly our fault, and is undertaken to ‘milk’ the voyeuristic potential of this feint, is proven by the fact that she takes this to an absurd degree of caution by coming back all the way up into the camera, giving us good inspection of her body and its bruises too

lastvic-52but then, no surprise, she is caught again, and now dragged BACK down to the basement, repeating the whole thing all over again, here, Im afraid, we are less sympathetic, she is a weak woman, caught in her weakness, unable to solve her problems, expose, and abject, like that fish, caught and landed again

lastvic-53Finally, it is only at this point, when the psycho brings her over to him to make out, presumably his rage to rape having been neutralized by affection aroused by bodily intimacy with her as a person, while sleeping, and he leaves his knife on the table next to that, so she takes the knife, turns the tables, and stabs him, and stabs him a lot, til he is dead. He has become the hunted, caught and killed trophy

lastvic-54her killing is now so over the top, stabbing him repeatedly, that it again communicates that for her this too has become a kind of surrogate ritual to act out against her life and her husband and the limitations of her way of being, and it is also a kind of sadistic replacement of the sex she is not getting, because here we get a full on crotch shot, a kind of birthing pose when killing

lastvic-55and then she ends up sitting back on her carpet, in her basement, in the prison of her bannister, in an actual birthing position, covered in blood, and he is on her carpet too, in the purview of his spread legs, and dead in front of her. The joke here is that just at this moment, the movie pulls back to the look-at-me windowing of the exterior of her classic red brick colonial house, and her kids come home from school, calling out for mommy, and it ends, knowing that they will encounter their mommy covered in blood, and a dead man lying on the carpet in the basement. This too folds the home invasion into, and makes of it a negated replay of, her domestic predicament. It’s just a surprisingly detailed treatment of a home invasion, by way of working out in it the predicament of the woman of the house. And in so far as it is centered on a false positive shower sequence, representing vulnerability, makes great instrumental use of rather bizarre paintings to signify not only trouble coming, but moving in now, and makes swell use of the dowdy décor to symbolize a 70s woman not quite up with the times, and trapped in a prefeminist marriage, the home invasion fightback sequence that concludes the movie The Last Victim, where the last victim turns out to be the killer, and not Tanya Roberts, is quite instructive as to the uses of haunted portraits and décor in horror movies.

Rasputin as intercessionary reagent in the icon cult of early 20th century Russia: as conveyed by Rasputin (2016) by Douglas Smith, Nicholas and Alexandra (1970) and The Romanovs: An Imperial Family (2000, Russia).

Rev., Jan 24, 2017.

Though I have made the point, over and over again, that movies succeed or fail based, not on formalist aestheticism, but by the degree to which they instrumentalize the devices and tropes of the genre or medium, it remains that such instrumentalization, so critical to the mis en scene, must also be figured out based on fact. I was thinking this when watching the most decidedly not-horror movie, Nicholas and Alexandra (1970). There was a lot that was good about it, then much more of bad. Why? Well, it does occur to one that the main problem was in the reading of the facts of the drama of the demise of the Romanovs, and in most cases, at least compared to Douglas Smith’s Rasputin, which I have been reading, it got most things wrong. But the part that most interests me, in terms of its instrumentalization in the mis en scene, is the part played throughout by icons. In the movie, several examples of rather extreme icon worship were provided. All would be considered as superstitious to the Western protestant churches as Roman Catholicism saint and relic worship is, and yet it strikes me that Orthodox Russian icon cults are much more deeply cultish than even the vestiges of true relic culture in the West. Since somehow the religious and the state fused in Russia it is also true that the worship of the icon penetrated both bureaucratic life, but also domestic life, in a way unseen in the West, and, for that, it is almost as if the Russian icon economy, as it were, could be compared to the Roman state religion, and it too characterized by behavior in and around the icons that has to be termed reagentic, in the sense that there was an original agency, it appears that at some point that was not enough, so the worshipper went round it to intensify it by a more extreme or cultish behavior, a reagency. In the movie, the examples of icon worship are limited, and somewhat dismissed, in the sense that they do not go far enough to describe just how deeply Alexandra became ensconced in Rasputin’s religious economy. In one scene in the movie she is shown trying to rearrange the icons of saints on a table in a shrine. She then pulls back, confessing that, as a born Lutheran, she does not even know the names, does not quite understand saint worship, and cant quite get it right. Thus, in the modernist need to assert her rationality, she maintains her Germaness, and refuses the cult, though she is, on Alexei’s behalf, drawn in in any case. But how different the movie would’ve played had it told the truth, as revealed by Douglas Smith. How different we would think of Alexandra to watch a scene, for example, in which a woman past 40, getting dressed in the morning, slips on a pair of Rasputin’s dirty holy underpants, before donning her bloomers. That would change the view considerably. Thus, the key to any depiction of the Romanovs and their failure to govern would have to entail a careful assessement of the economy of actions they performed in and around icons, to maintain their courage and their faith.

In Smith, there are several examples cited of extreme icon worship, often intensified by Rasputin’s intercession. Thus, there is icon worship, and then Rasputin added on, in reagency, an intercessional oomph. For example, early on, we hear that Rasputin gave Alexandra pictures, which it appears Russians at the time valued almost in the manner of icons, but he made them holy and powerful by scribbling one of his sayings on the back. His writing made it holy, his blessing made the picture a conveyor of his prayer (p 143). Elsewhere, we hear that two clerics fought each other with gold crosses, meaning that the trappings of the church were also used as weapons, apotropaically, and then also often kissed relics to show their devotion to them (228). At another point we are told that Makary got into trouble with the church because he gave a heretic cleric a pectoral cross to wear on his chest, and it had inscribed on it a saying and a date, as if it was an inscription on a building. He got into trouble for this because only the council could make a gift of a pectoral cross, its holy power was considered so great as to require supervision. In this formation not only do we have ancient greek symbolon body placement of apotropaion but it has been reagentically ceremonialized into a memorial like inscription that includes a votive offering blessing and a votive memento of a prayer answered. It is almost as if they have turned the man with that cross on his chest into a building, for it to solicit and remember the solicitation of power. The woman who stuck a knife in Rasputin, Guseva, also was said to have heard her icon on her wall giving her secret messages, meaning that as well as images prayed to for help, the trappings of the icon offered a visual field which could be intensified to also offer up oracular pronouncements even to the point of talking to worshippers (339). Alexandra, of course, famously had been given by Rasputin an icon with a bell attached, the bell supposed to ring when trouble was near. At one point, when she opposed, care of Rasputin, an appointment of a new minister, it is said the bell rang (497). Rasputin mostly made gifts of icons to them, and all became strengthener prayers. Alexandra would send Nicholas an icon gift and beg him, when he worked, to hold it in his hand, so that he could make good decisions, and be strong and courageous (497). She also, in one occasion, in effect iconized a hair comb which Rasputin had given him, telling him to, before an important meeting, comb his hair with that comb, so that he would have courage (497). Even Alexandra had her limits in believing in the cult of the holy icons strengthened by Rasputin. When she heard the rumor that Rasputin had sent prayer belts to the front for the soldiers to wear, she dismissed it as gossip. The culture of icons, of course, was central to the Russian Orthodox religion, as the weeping icon of Kazan, and others mentioned, attest. But it is also true that the devotion of icon culture also spun out a negative form of anti-icon. If, that is, you could pray to an icon, and that had power, you could also fight against an icon, and that to have equal power. Thus at the Taritsyn monastery where Ilidor was stationed there was present in the foyer a large portrait of Lev Tolstoy, an apparent atheist, whom Iliodor encouraged all passersby in his congregation to spit on it. There was also an aristocrat named Andrikonov who had a boudoir chapel lined with icons over his bed, where he staged orgies, and, at some point, Rasputin’s picture was added to the power array of holy images subverted by his irony. And then too the Rasputin rumor mania became so overpowering that salons in Petersburg had to put up signs, and I would love to find one that has survived, NO TALKING ABOUT RASPUTIN, and this was followed as if the law of the evening, with few visitors willing to break the taboo.

With just a few marginal examples, this shows that the cult of the icon was still intact, with deep roots in the Byzantine church going back to the mandylion itself, the belief that the acheiropoetoi was an image direct from god, of god, was essentially holy (see Belting’s majestic study), and that holiness could be sent out by exact copying of it, and then also by way of touch, too, to all. But then it would appear that in the modern era the notion of holiness was absorbed by a more rational approach to be read as a kind of electricity in life, the life force, and it was contact with that life force that made an icon holy, and made any number of different types of holy man holy too, including Rasputin (since my reading of life is also linked to the life force, this of course interests me). They were said to be located near the life force, it flowed through them, and through them it could be conveyed to others, making of them walking icons, and walking battery chargers to all preexisting icons. This made of Rasputin all but a walking saint, and indeed Olga Lokhtina and Anna Vyrubova actually believed after a time that he was Christ walking on the earth, and god. This then resulted in the development of an elaborate array of reagentified dispensations of cult power around him, by way of intercession, votive and apotropaiea. Intercession has been mentioned: he charged icons with new power, his words and his blessings had actual electric power to change things, to set history right. At one point Smith mentions that Rasputin had a dream of a poor end of a battle and Alexandra immediately wrote to Nicholas to change his battle plan, meaning that Rasputin’s dreams were guiding Russian war strategy. He also had visions, which he told her about, and they too guided policy (in one it was the virgin with cross and sword, he then interpreted it positively to offer advice). Strangely, his intercessional power actually became real, as his house became a place where all people would come to petition him to help with this or that problem, so divine and state intercession coalesced into a cult.  Then for the votive, he routinely gave gifts, of a holy nature, as offerings to the cause under consideration, mixing then votive and intercession. Then, on the reverse directional, the taking of a token of continued blessing from a cult figure, into a votive state, is a relic, and not only would his acolytes steal and keep as relics his clothing, but they would also collect his table scraps, and keep them as relics, as these too conveyed his holy power. When Alexei was sick one time, a dirty jacket of Rasputin’s was tucked into the bed under the covers, under him, to by indirect touch bless him and cure him and his pain. At one point Alexandra admits in a letter to Nicholas that she is wearing that day the “unseen trousers” of Rasputin, meaning that he gave her some of his soiled underpants, and, even more shocking, she put them on to wear them as holy underwear (432). His fingernails and other leavings, all of this magic reagentifying the icon cult by way of relic, were also taken as holy, by Anna Vyrubova. All of this is high rite bottoming out in white magic, using the same agencies as basic touch magic. As for the apotropaic node of the array of cult extension from the cult of the icon and its electric power this is where his sexual magic comes into play. At first, it appears, he believed that he was conducting some sort of sexual magic, in exorcising evil spirits and desires from his female acolytes’ bodies. In this, he followed in the footsteps of Stefan and others, who inverted and negated the electricity theory of current iconic power to include sexual energy, and then reasoned, if the flesh is most weighed down by the evil desires of that energy, then why not use the personal male icon-cross against the unfaithful, the phallus, to exorcise, but as it were plunge the evil out, through sex. And since the greatest thing is to be forgiven, then wouldn’t it make sense to sin more and more so that the forgiveness, which will come anyways, is yet stronger and more intense, by contrast. This gets into the khlyst heresy at the time too, which Rasputin grazed closely too, leading many to explain his sexual proclivities as entirely khylst. However, it appears from Smith that in this Rasputin was undone, as his original religious framework of holy exorcising sex, through his spirit, his phallus as the cross, fucking as the religious act to exorcise, was seduced by sex itself, and lust, and he simply gave in to the opportunity provided him by his unlikely fame to sleep with a lot of very fancy, very clean aristocratic women.

All in all, then, by this cursory survey of the array of agency reagentified into current culture by the icon culture of the church, we see that the Russians of the time, in the aristocracy, lived in a very intense, reactionary religious state. They believed, at bottom, in acheiropoetoi, that icons were holy, and were, housed, god himself, and that any touching, kissing, blessing with, etc, was an actual all but healing transfer of positive energy to you, to help you. This what I will call “original icon culture.” It did not exist in such a close-to-original form in the West, and certainly is entirely foreign to protestantism, until, that is, sectarianism atomized Protestantism, to parse out sects based on single lines of scripture and powers and speaking of tongues etc. This original icon cult then developed a saturated form, when it saturated all aspects of life, including the domestic, and I will call that the “transfer icon culture,” and then things not only became reactionary after 1905 when Nicholas’s mind turned away from modernism and back toward the old ways, and thus from political to religious thinking, but when Rasputin showed up, he was an intensifier of the cult, and the turn back to the original cult, to then act as a living carrier of the energy of the icon, an intercessional representative manifestation of the icon, to bring that power more forcefully, through the transfer culture, to get them back the original icon culture. For this reason, Rasputin was the linchpin that reconnected their transfer icon culture with original icon culture and fixed them in a reactionary religious icon culture where the icon and its presence was instrumentalized in many very intense ways, in an economy of instrumentation which is quite odd, and generally reagentified, casting religious intensity back over depleted modern elements and media, to make life mean something again. An accurate depiction of the economy of instrumentation of icons which dominated Russia then would have to include showing some evidence of the major religious revival of the time, as, for example, Smith makes mention of blessings of icons, canonizations, and other events, including the 300th anniversary of the Romanovs, where hundreds of thousands of people show up. He also makes mention of the culture of pilgrims, and holy fools, still prevalent then in Russia. And then the movie would have to show how deeply all that in its original intensity but abbreviated form had transferred into the domestic sphere, to demonstrate the domination of their lives by faith. And, then, finally, only then would it have to show the double intensity of the true cult behavior in reagent way after Rasputin arrived, to make it all real, in the flesh, now, the life force given by God right there in their midst.  

Nicholas and Alexandra (1970) only does modestly well with this problem, and, in its failure, due to modernist prejudice, to show just how deep into cult thinking Nicholas and Alexandra had fallen, it makes their behavior unexplainable, and their characters cyphers. We do get some solid evidence of the original icon culture, in all its intensity. They have a chapel in the palace, and it is old school (apologies for poor screenshots)

nich-1

but that is pretty much it, no more depiction of the intense Orthodox faith of the time, or all the contretemps that Smith outlines. So, that is a weakness. Then, in terms of public expression of the faith, they only show one scene in which Nicholas acts as as it were head of the church as well as the government, when he hands out holy cards, as blessings, or as miniature icons, to the soldiers.

There is, then, also, one transitional scene in which, as mentioned, Alexandra is arranging the icons on a table in the chapel, and Rasputin comes in to pray with her. But she admits to not knowing the names, or really believing, and is confused. This is an odd reagent icon instrumentatlization. All I can think of is that the table serves as a kind of votive surface where placement of one of  your personal icons, or a votive offering icon, is a request for a prayer, and then if you want you can intensify it by putting up other saints, and intensify it again by combining saints, and then by arranging saints, and it appears that there is a correct order by which one can be sure to extract from all the saints lined up in that way the most powerful blessing, and that is what she is doing

nich-2But then Rasputin talks her away from what in Smith he would critique as empty formalism and invests in her a more intense and direct faith involving her kneeling at his feet, and feeling his energy and words

nich-3There is one more moment when the official church with original icon culture enters into the domestic sphere and that is one time when Alexei is sick, and, very oddly, a bible is taken out, and its cover is iconized, that it, made into an icon, making the words and the book a portable icon with more holy power, and then the book, open to the holy words, which in this context becomes all but a magic healing spell, is placed direct down over his face, to bless him, and act as well almost as a compress expressing holy force into him, to drive out the illness, very strange, and unique (note, it is being touched by both clerics)

nich-4Then we get to the transfer cult, which is the transference, by a process I have not studied yet, of icon culture in church, into icon culture in the home, a thing which also happened in Renaissance Europe, and Baroque Mexico, where the icons are hung at home too, and with the lights and lamps, just like in church. Early on, there are just there, in the room

nich-5And later too when Nicholas grovels in shame in front of Alexandra, for having abdicated, there too the red light glows

nich-6But at another point to indicate that Alexandra is getting more intently into the religious side of things, she has set up a more formal chapel shrine to holy icons of her choosing, or given her by Rasputin, to through her worship of him, worship them with greater intercessional power and assurance that her prayers will be answered

nich-7There is also, in another scene, a cross over her bed, so, she became quite religious

nich-8Other than that, that is it, in terms of mentioning their cult. No touching, no fucking, no dancing, no mention of the khlysts, to holy clothes, no personal relics, no sacred underwear or dirty waistcoats in the bed. So, for that, we are a bit confused, they are weak, but rational, why, then, did they fall?

The only other aspect of the movie that carries on this theme is the demonstration by way of the instrumentation of photographs versus paintings of the split in their mind between private life and public life, and between their personal concerns, which they overvalued, and history, which they did not pay enough attention to. In this, then, they are modern, but in a reactionary way. It is made clear from the first that they are all about family, and only family, and so deeply ensconced in family that they can hardly get out to history. This is rendered by the profusion of personal family photos all over their rooms.

nich-9They are everywhere

nich-10These photos marks these room as private life, and not palatial, as seeing only the small picture, and not the big picture, and this split is carried on throughout the movie. When Nicholas is at home, it is family photos

nich-11When he is doing business, it is big old Russian history paintings, battles, glory

nich-12Though it could be said that the above picture is meant to indicate that he is not in control of his troops, as he was not told about the riot or march of Bloody Sunday, and is appalled that his men fired on the crowd

nich-13All the men of the office are in uniform, figures from history, backed up by history paintings

nich-14He only cares about family photos and the like. This is a pretty obvious split, and, in truth, not much is made of it. In another version of the story, however, a Russian movie, The Romanovs (2000), their picture culture is shown as superfluous, and overstuffed, as crippling and crumbling. In this version, you get picture formations which are entirely out of control, in modest, all but beidermeier rooms

nich-15And some novel formations as well, mixing pictures and paintings

nich-16And it is made clear that these cultural forms are in fact an internalization by transfer of the economy of  the cult of the icon into the cult of the family, and thus clearly an example of transfer culture

nich-17When Nicholas is on the train, and the first he does is set up his little desk culture of personal images

nich-18And ones that he carries on his person, in books

nich-19This is clearly meant to indicate that he is out of touch with the bigger issues of the day, and split between the two worlds.

nich-20like in ancient Rome, when public cult downshifted into private cult, the tokens of its keeping also miniaturized and marginalizd to reside in the intimacy space of bodies, at the margins of the bodies. The same thing appears to have happened, according to this movie, to icon culture, as there are specially made tabletop versions, with metal fronts

nich-0-1and then over one of the beds, is a kind of rail, attached to which are several small images or icons

nich-22this is a very strange object which seems to negotiate the transition from holy icon space to private personal space, from icons above and outside the intimate reach of the person, to the edge of the bed itself, where intimacy exists, it is a unique formation of pictures in all my viewing of picture culture in movies

nich-23Back in Nicholas and Alexandra it is only cinematic effects, in the modernist way, not exploration of their private visual culture, that signals this split. This is done by the very odd and overdone device of the long walk down the corridor of lackeys between their private and public life.

nich-24They do the walk a few times, from their private world, to the world of big paintings

nich-25And then even the palace of their mother is made into an uncomfortable lattice space too, somewhere they don’t really want to be

nich-26Oddly, this vertiginous whoosh effect, which does not seem to communicate any trajectory in terms of dreaming, so purely formalist, is also used to signify the demise of Rasputin, who not only goes down the tube of the gramophone

nich-27But there is the record of death too

nich-28when he is killed as if in a laughing orgy of gay guys, almost Ken Russel style

nich-29And then he ends by crawling out front, again, vertiginously

nich-30I suppose this had to be included, but by and large, for someone especially who has just read Smith, Rasputin was entirely shorted in this telling of the story, and then they overly focus on the move to Siberia, and the demise in the house and beyond, the basement, none of which is particularly well done. I want to close with mention of the ice-glazed window. It is a trope of Russian movies in the 60s, notably Dr Zhivago, and so, they could not not have it here, but what does it actually mean here?

nich-31I suppose it is entoptic, and indicates that he cannot see through things, to the truth, and is therefore oblivious to the dangers he is in, and all that. It therefore represents the void and abscene of all his family photos (which they laugh about again, selfishly, at the end)

nich-32in the zone of the history painting, where he should know what’s what, and what is to be, and yet, so blinded was he by his family and his little family pictures as a transferred cult icon space, that he could not form an image of what was really going on out in the culture at large. The post-intermission part of the movie all looked to me to be an attempt to fill in the larger history as it relates to contextualize the killing of the family, but, in my view, failed, for lacking instrumentation of devices of picturing. The movie, in general, has an odd view of photos, some are on the walls of his office, when he sees Rasputin, and Rasputin is often pictured next to or between photos, as if to offer documentary indexicality to his depiction, as “this is just like he is in those pictures,” it’s almost an impersonation, not an acting out of him

nich-33then,very oddly, just before the intermission, Nicholas is depicted in super-ceremonial stiffness over his troops, wishing them off to war, and we get a snapshot of him, fixing him

nich-34and then the movie breaks for intermission by wrapping up the whole catastrophe of the idea of going to war on these old men in old photos, their photoedness seeming to say that there were 2D figures, not  fully aware of the danger looming, and blind to the consequences of their actions

nich-35and King George

nich-36so, at the end, their getting pictures taken of them, in an official capacity, this is this movie’s reading of the lore, we at least, if they are blind to any but their personal point, to the fact that their getting their pictures taken mean “they’re history,” they’re being documented before they are killed

nich-37while this movie separated the photo session with the killing, the Russian version saw the one as the pretext and cover for the other, they are asked to stand apart so each can be seen, when in fact they are being asked to make themselves clear targets

nich-38This version also makes note of what Smith said was the discovery, upon the stripping of the females bodies for the burial in the woods, that they had relics and  gems given them by Rasputin sewn into their underwear, whereas hear it is described as a handfold of gems and tiny personal icons that Nicholas had kept in his pockets

nich-39the movie also ends with the sanctification of the Romanovs coming full circle to enter into the world of public icons, in 2000

nich-40Back in Nicholas and Alexander, working with a more dualistic system of meaning, the picture taking at the end is extenuated into rather odd genre scenes, evoking audience thinking about “what a shame these young girls were killed.” Oddly enough, then, and as, perhaps, an equivalent to an image of the glazed windows, the girls also fuss about their not having lived a life, just before their young lives are taken. In one scene the girls are coaxed out the soldiers, who then step aside to show them that they have scribbled an obscene drawing of the soldiers having sex with them on the tank, so the girls step back

nich-41This I suppose is mentioned, as earlier in a glimpse of the obscene pictures of Alexandra going round, of the fact that the murder house was scrawled on all over the walls by graffiti of Rasputin fucking Alexandra, something all of them would’ve seen. But then this theme is fudged, or made complicated, by the fact that after another soldier comes at them, the 21 year old, complaining that she is 21 and no man has seen her, exposes herself to him, causing him to back off, as if humiliated, a very odd sequence in which the tensions between private and public life, and young life about the extinguished and death are dealt with, but rather unsuccessfully.

Thus, there is no question, from piecemeal evidence obtained from Smith, that in the time of Rasputin original icon cult culture was alive and well, even having a reactionary revival; that in modern ways that cult had transferred into domestic culture to create intensified reagent ways of worshipping in domestic life, and worshipping, as well, one’s domestic life, and then that all of it was woke up by the intercession of Rasputin, who became the carrier of one to the other, with new intensity, that created a truly dementedly reagent transfer icon culture where a simple intercessionary usurped to himself some of the original powers of the original icon cult.