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A Painting for the Day: Paul Klee’s “Die Zwitscher-Maschine”

Die Zwitscher-Maschine, by Paul Klee. Click for a large version.

Die Zwitscher-Maschine, by Paul Klee. Click for a larger image.

I saw this painting posted, appropriately enough, on Twitter and fell in love with it. Here’s the Wikipedia summary for Paul Klee:

Paul Klee (German pronunciation:[paʊ̯l ˈkleː]; 18 December 1879 – 29 June 1940) was a painter born inMünchenbuchsee, Switzerland, and is considered to be a German-Swiss.[a] His highly individual style was influenced by movements in art that included expressionismcubism, and surrealism. He was also a student of orientalism.[1] Klee was a natural draftsman who experimented with and eventually got deep into color theory, writing about it extensively; his lectures Writings on Form and Design Theory (Schriften zur Form und Gestaltungslehre), published in English as the Paul Klee Notebooks, are held to be as important for modern art as Leonardo da Vinci‘s A Treatise on Painting for the Renaissance.[2][3][4] He and his colleague, the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky, both taught at the German Bauhaus school of art, design and architecture. His works reflect his dry humour and his sometimes childlike perspective, his personal moods and beliefs, and also his musicality.

And this is the summary for the painting, also from Wikipedia:

Twittering Machine (Die Zwitscher-Maschine) is a 1922 watercolor and pen and ink oil transfer on paper by Swiss-German painter Paul Klee. Like other artworks by Klee, it blends biology and machinery, depicting a loosely sketched group of birds on a wire or branch connected to a hand-crank. Interpretations of the work vary widely: it has been perceived as a nightmarish lure for the viewer or a depiction of the helplessness of the artist, but also as a triumph of nature over mechanical pursuits. It has been seen as a visual representation of the mechanics of sound.

Originally displayed in Germany, the image was declared “degenerate art” by Adolf Hitler in 1933 and sold by the Nazi party to an art dealer in 1939, whence it made its way to New York. One of the better known of more than 9,000 works produced by Klee, it is among the more famous images of the New York Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). It has inspired several musical compositions and, according to a 1987 magazine profile in New York Magazine, has been a popular piece to hang in children’s bedrooms.

The section on critical analysis is worth looking over just to see how very different various interpretations of the piece have really been. Now that we have social media sites like Twitter and Facebook (or blog sites like WordPress), it’s difficult not to read the painting as satire. It could easily be the image of an endlessly chirping machine cranking out wave after wave of babbling, chirpy noise. I suppose that’s a cynical reading, but it’s easy enough to make the way those birds look, their tongues hanging out like they’re being choked.

Then again, the whole setup could be a musical instrument. Maybe you’re supposed to turn the handle in your head and imagine what the mechanical birds would look like as they moved up and down on the wire, singing who knows what kind of song.

According to Wikipedia, at least a couple of composers have written music inspired by the painting:

The son of a musicologist, Klee himself drew parallels between sound and art, and Twittering Machine has been influential on several composers.[15] It inspired the 1951 orchestral work Die Zwitschermaschine by Giselher Klebe, and one of the pieces in David Diamond‘s “The World of Paul Klee”, which debuted in 1958, as well as one of the seven in Gunther Schuller‘s “Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee”, composed the following year.[15][16]

And as it turns out a rendition of David Diamond’s “The World of Paul Klee” is available on Youtube. Enjoy:


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Friendly Advice from Patti Smith

patti_smith_william_burroughsFriendly advice from Patti Smith and William S. Burroughs, via Brain Pickings:

Build a good name. Keep your name clean. Don’t make compromises, don’t worry about making a bunch of money or being successful — be concerned with doing good work… What matters is to know what you want and pursue it, and understand that it’s going to be hard.

Patti tosses a few cliches out there, but it’s good to hear her reaffirm that basic principle: don’t worry about the money, don’t worry about the trends, don’t worry about what other people want or think—concentrate on doing your work and making it good.

[vimeo 57857893 w=640&h=360]


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The Many Faces of Lolita

lolita_kubrick_stillRachel Arons’ most recent post on the New Yorker’s lit blog examines the history of Lolita’s cover art. She interviews John Bertram, co-editor of Lolita: The Story of a Cover Girl: Vladimir Nabokov’s Novel in Art and Design, who says some very interesting things about Nabokov’s demands for the cover, as well as the novel’s reception.

About half way through the book, one question started to nag me more than any other: who the hell decided this was an erotic novel? When and how did Dolores Haze, the-impossible-to-summarize 12 year-old victim of a predator’s hyper-sexed affections, become a sexual fantasy and fashion icon? Turns out Bertram has a very good answer.

Arons notices that “Many of the covers guilty of misrepresenting Lolita as a teen seductress feature images from Hollywood movie adaptations of the book— Kubrick’s 1962 version, starring Sue Lyon, and Adrian Lyne’s 1997 one” and then asks, “Are those films primarily to blame for the sexualization of Lolita?”

Bertram replies:

As is argued in several of the book’s essays, the promotional image of Sue Lyon in the heart-shaped sunglasses, taken by photographer Bert Stern, is easily the most significant culprit in this regard, much more so than the Kubrick film itself (significantly, neither the sunglasses nor the lollipop ever appears in the film), or the later film by Adrian Lyne. Once this image became associated with “Lolita”—and it’s important to remember that, in the film, Lolita is sixteen years old, not twelve—it really didn’t matter that it was a terribly inaccurate portrait. It became the image of Lolita, and it was ubiquitous. There are other factors that have contributed to the incorrect reading, from the book’s initial publication in Olympia Press’s Traveller’s Series (essentially, a collection of dirty books), to Kubrick’s startlingly unfaithful adaptation. At the heart of all of this seems to be the desire to make the sexual aspect of the novel more palatable.

There’s absolutely nothing palatable about what happens to Dolores in the course of the novel. Near the start of the second part there’s a particularly disturbing scene where Humbert bemoans the limits of his affair. He’s just described how he would use rewards like coffee or candy to force Lolita into her “morning duty,” when he unleashes this hellish day dream:

My only grudge against nature was that I could not turn my Lolita inside out and apply voracious lips to her young matrix, her unknown heart, her nacreous liver, the sea-grapes of her lungs, her comely twin kidneys.

Maybe Kubrick believed he couldn’t get away with portraying the rape of a 12 year old child on film, so he changed the Dolores’s age. I haven’t looked into the why, but the result would be the same just so long as her age increased, and Bertram nails it: the normalization of Humbert’s desire.

Definitely a good read. Worth it just for the link to the Lolita cover gallery, but if you don’t care to read, you can skip straight to the pictures here. I’ve posted my favorite below, but I’d love to hear what other people think about the artwork on that site.

Cover design by Jamie Keenan.

Cover design by Jamie Keenan.

Cage thinking about his next move

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Picture of the Day: Duchamp vs. Cage

John Cage and Marcel Duchamp playing a game of chess together—it’s a great image by itself, but it becomes more remarkable once you realize that the chess board is being used to make music.

Cage and Duchamp playing chess

You can read about this performance, about Cage’s relationship with Duchamp, and a lot more by checking out this article at Tout-Fait:

Actually, Cage hadn’t lost every single [chess] match with Duchamp. There was one that he definitely won, after a fashion. It happened in Toronto, in 1968. Cage had invited Duchamp and Teeny [Duchamp, Marcel’s wife, aka Alexina] to be with him on the stage. All they had to do was play chess as usual, but the chessboard was wired and each move activated or cut off the sound coming live from several musicians (David Tudor was one of them). They played until the room emptied. Without a word said, Cage had managed to turn the chess game (Duchamp’s ostensive refusal to work) into a working performance. […] Playing chess that night extended life into art – or vice versa. All it took was plugging in their brains to a set of instruments, converting nerve signals into sounds. Eyes became ears, moves music.Reunion was the name of the piece.

Thanks to Antoine from Presqu’île Records for posting the photo.