Bright Lights, Brilliant Minds: Part 1

I recently stumbled upon an awesome documentary series about the tumultuous and exciting 20th century. Dr. James Fox’s narration takes you on a journey through the century, stopping at three different cities that exemplify the radical changes taking place.

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I will be posting some brief summaries of each of the three episodes. There’s not really any “spoilers” warning I can give because this is history, but I highly recommend watching these 50 minute episodes for yourself. The show provides some great film and imagery of what each city looked like during the specific year. You really get a sense of what life was like throughout the 20th century. With shots from modern day as well as recovered historical footage, you are able to be swept away into the world of Vienna in 1908, Paris in 1928, and New York in 1951.


Vienna, 1908

  • Hitler attempted to pursue a career as an artist, got cold feet, applied for art school, got shot down, turned to politics (influence by Karl Lueger’s antisemitism; “I decide who is a jew”); & the rest is history
  • Hapsburg Empire: the largest and oldest empire in Europe; everyone thought it would last forever (pre-WW1); 1908 was the Emperor’s Diamond Jubilee
  • Gustav Klimt premiered his world-famous painting The Kiss, Dr. Fox claims that the doubt surrounding the optimism of the era is evident in this painting because of the “ambiguous embrace”Gustav Klimt - The Kiss - 1907-8
  • Adolf Loos’s Ornament and Crime manifesto was published this year; theories and ideas from the manifesto culminated in the Raiffeisenbank/Looshaus commission, which was marked as the first modern building
  • Vienna is seemingly trapped between the past and the future, transitioning from the world of empires and monarchies to a modern society; 1908 had the highest recorded suicide rates
  • Fabulous Freud introduced his Oedipus Complex Theory, and the world went crazy over it; although, in 1908 Vienna, this wasn’t the craziest idea to be suggested
  • Artist Egon Schiele was developing a new expressionistic figural style, evident in a self portrait

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    Self-Portrait by Egon Schiele
  • Arnold Schoenberg joined the expressionist art movement as a composer; his most well-known work is the Second String Quartet, which experiments with atonality

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    Portrait of Schoenberg by Egon Schiele
  • Social issues were prevalent to say the least; prostitution (the dark underbelly of middle class men was called out by author Else Jerusalem in her novel Red House), poverty and homelessness was so severe people started taking up shelter in Vienna’s sewer system (documented byEmil Kläger & Hermann Drawe)
  • October 6, 1908: Bosnia Herzogovnia/Balkans were annexed, which would lead to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in 1914

Examining the Role of an Artist

Jacques-Louis David’s The Coronation of Napoleon commemorates Napoleon’s self-coronation on a grand scale. The painting depicts Napoleon crowning his wife Josephine in the presence of his family, court, and Pope Pius VII. The meticulously crafted work was made to appease Napoleon’s wishes to have the painting serve as political propaganda[1]. However, a closer look at the painting will show how David’s role in society, the dominant subjectivity of the time, and the organization and representation of figures influences the construction of meaning that is not directly apparent.

La Coronacion de Bonaparte

An analysis of The Coronation of Napoleon can be made through the use of ideas presented by Linda Nochlin in her essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” T.J. Clark’s introductory chapter to his book Image of the People, and Michel Foucault’s chapter on the painting “Las Meninas” from his book The Order of Things. Nochlin reconsiders 19th and 20th century art in terms of the social conditions present during those times. Although Nochlin uses this approach in reference to feminism, specifically female artists, it is also useful in considering the role of male and female figures within paintings as well as the role social conditions play in the influence on artists. Clark’s analysis of Courbet’s art and life attributes the artist’s success to the social and economic forces of the revolution suggesting that his greatness is relative to and dependent on external forces. Clark approaches Courbet’s work by looking at the social forces in history that the artist engages with to produce his work. Taking this sociohistorical insight into consideration will prove useful in understanding and contextualizing The Coronation of Napoleon. Foucault’s notion of representation stems from his rejection of the concept of “context”. In his visual analysis of Las Meninas, Foucault gives a detailed account of how specific statements become possible through the painting as a representation of representation. By applying this approach to The Coronation of Napoleon, the structure and form of representation David employs provides another layer of meaning to the painting.

Approach #1: Linda Nochlin, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”

The dominant subjectivity of a culture or society influences the way people will perceive the surrounding world. Whether stated or unstated, it will have an effect on the thinking of the general public. For example, when Europeans began exploring the New World, they set off with the mindset that their subjectivity, or experience of reality, was acceptable so that anything differing from their way of life was seen as alien, incomprehensible, or hostile. The domination of one point of view has caused a distortion in the viewing of anything else. The influence of the dominant subjectivity shaped the way the explorers perceived any culture outside of Europe or European influence.

In art, a viewer’s experience with a painting is dependent on what they bring to it. To consider Nochlin’s essay, she examines the question presented in the title “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” Nochlin discusses how this question is already problematic because of the assumptions that are already present in the question. Scholars will then try to answer this question by comparing female artists to male artists of the same time[2]. However, male artists during David’s time were privileged to more artistic resources than women were. For instance, female artists were not allowed to draw from nude models, thus denying them the opportunity to develop their skills at depicting the human body. Having a knowledge of the human body, especially during the Neoclassical period, was important in being able to create historical works of art in which their was an abundance of nude figures[3]. Nochlin observes, “Thus the question of women’s equality…devolves…upon…the very nature of our institutional structures themselves and the view of reality which they impose on the human beings who are part of them” [4]. Because of David’s privilege as a male artist, he was able to more accurately portray male figures in The Coronation of Napoleon, which far outnumber the female figures present in the painting.

Another contrasting note in gender depicted in The Coronation of Napoleon can be seen the arrangement of the figures. The men are at a higher level than the women. This is especially emphasized by Napoleon and Josephine, who are the main attractions of the spectacle. Josephine is shown kneeling in front of Napoleon, waiting to be crowned. Her passivity is juxtaposed to Napoleon’s active position as he holds the crown above his head. Similarly, all of the figures surrounding Napoleon are male and are placed above the women in the painting. The women, the majority of which appear at the left-hand side of the painting, all appear docile; they are all standing behind Josephine and even have to hold her robe as she kneels. The dominant subjectivity imposed by institutions of David’s time led him to be able to depict the male figure more proficiently thus he was able to convey the power of Napoleon over France, as well as women, through his active position contrasted by Josephine’s inactiveness.

Approach #2: T.J. Clark, “On the Social History of Art”

In a general summation of his approach to art historical analysis, Clark states,

“The making of a work of art is one historical process among other acts, events, and structures—it is a series of actions in but also on history. It may become intelligible only within the context of given imposed structures of meaning; but in its turn it can alter and at times disrupt these structures.”[5]

To consider an analysis of a work of art a knowledge of the historical processes that influenced and were influenced by the work is necessary. A painting may construct a view of history that is not at first evident, but it may also be a response to historical events as well.

For instance, David’s status as official court painter is useful in understanding the structure present in The Coronation of Napoleon. David was appointed to be Napoleon’s official court painter once his Empire was established in 1804. Prior to that, David and other artists struggled under the state system of the arts when up until 1789 when France was a monarchy. In 1789, the French Revolution broke out. At that time David began supporting numerous reforms to the training and careers of artists. David was also elected to the legislature where he remained active as an artist creating many works of art that supported revolutionary causes[6]. David’s service to Napoleon as court painter allowed him to thrive as an artist. Due to the fact that he was working for the Emperor of France, who was also a major component of the French Revolution, permitted him to most likely be treated more respectably.

David has constructed The Coronation of Napoleon as an ode to Napoleon’s power. He had his own ideas about how to paint the scene, which consisted of a more realistic portrayal of the event such as excluding Napoleon’s absent mother and depicting Pope Pius VII as an unenthusiastic participant[7]. However, he has to modify this to suit the wishes of the Emperor. Instead, Napoleon’s mother can clearly be seen sitting in one of the balconies above Josephine. And David repainted Pope Pius VII to show him raising one hand in blessing of the self-coronation. David’s revolutionary ideals, of allegiance to his country, influenced his cooperation with Napoleon when executing a work that is fictional in some parts, but also a work of political propaganda.

Approach #3: Michel Foucault, “Las Meninas

Foucault replaces the factors that motivate or cause a statement from the viewer with a detailed account of how specific statements become possible. He demonstrates this in his analysis of Las Meninas as showing representation. For instance, the simultaneous acknowledgement and dismissal of the viewer is made evident through the represented Velazquez. The attentive gaze of the artist reaches out to a point that Foucault takes to be the position of the implied spectator that converges with that of the implied actual painter, and with that of the model being painted by the represented artist[8]. This gaze sets up an oscillation between signifier and signified.

To examine The Coronation of Napoleon through this approach it would, again, be helpful to consider David’s role as the official court painter to Napoleon. David has constructed a scene that is similar to the one in Las Meninas. Due to his role as court painter, David was expected to attend Napoleon’s coronation in order to make sketches and to witness the overall grandeur of the occasion. David has even included himself in the painting, and can be seen in the balcony above Napoleon’s mother. Because of the large size of the painting, measured at 6.2 x 9.8 meters, the figures appear life size. This, like the artist’s gaze in Las Meninas, both acknowledges the viewer, by giving them the opportunity to physically relate to the painting, and dismisses the viewer, through a degree of separation created between reality and the canvas, The Coronation of Napoleon is given the capability of becoming timeless. Napoleon clearly wanted viewers to experience the painting this way otherwise it would not have been completed as we see it.

Through the use of varying approaches from Linda Nochlin, T.J. Clark, and Michel Foucault, David’s role as the artist responsible for creating The Coronation of Napoleon is able to be better understood. The dominant subjectivity present within artistic institutions of the time influenced the portrayal of male and female figures within the painting. David’s role as a political activist led to the creation of The Coronation of Napoleon as political propaganda in favor of Napoleon. Also, David has created a scene that both greets and dismisses the viewer in order to represent an experience Napoleon wished the viewer to have. David’s role as the official court painter as well as in society led to The Coronation of Napoleon to be constructed in such a way that reflects his views as an artist meshed together with the wishes of the patron who commissioned the painting.


Works Cited

[1] “Napoleon’s Coronation.” Paris Muse. N.p., 2002. Web. 17 March 2013. <http://www.parismuse.com/news/napoleons-crown.shtml&gt;.

[2] Nochlin, Linda. “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” Women, Art, and Power and Other Essays. New York City: Harper & Row, 1988. 147. Print.

[3] Nochlin, Linda. “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” Women, Art, and Power and Other Essays. New York City: Harper & Row, 1988. 158. Print.

[4] Nochlin, Linda. “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” Women, Art, and Power and Other Essays. New York City: Harper & Row, 1988. 152. Print.

[5] Clark, T.J. “On the Social History of Art.” Image of the People. 1st ed. Berkeley: University of California, 1973. 13. Print.

[6] Johnson, Dorothy. “David, Jacques-Louis (1748-1825).” Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. Ed. Jonathan Dewald. Vol. 2. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2004. 109-111. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 17 March 2013.

[7] “Napoleon’s Coronation.” Paris Muse. N.p., 2002. Web. 17 March 2013. <http://www.parismuse.com/news/napoleons-crown.shtml&gt;.

[8] Foucault, Michel. “Las Meninas.” The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. 2nd Ed. New York City: Vintage, 1994. N.Page. Print.

National Cinema: The Blue Angel

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Two methods for establishing a specific national cinema includes a comparison to other films and looking at a film in relation to what defines a pre-existing cultural identity of a nation. A nation’s identity can be seen as a set of ideologies and values, and, as scholar Andrew Higson claims, cinema acts as a sort of advertisement for the cultural standing of a nation. Cinema acts as a business, using a nation’s identity as a marketing strategy to set up expectations of a film. In this way, a nation’s film can then be defined by a comparison to other nation’s films. To paraphrase Higson, national cinema can be defined by what it is not. But this does not take into account a nation’s identity based on existing economics and cultures of that nation state. National cinema must then be considered in relation to the prevailing political, economic, and cultural identity and traditions.

Another way to define national cinema is to look at the consumption and production of a film. For instance, to look at where the film was made and who made it might give us insight into how the idea of a nation’s identity might be explored in a film. We can see this in Josef von Sternberg’s film The Blue Angel. Sternberg was an American director brought over to Germany to work on The Blue Angel under the German production company Ufa. The director’s background as a professional from Hollywood can perhaps be seen as an influence on the highly narrative structure of the film, focusing on the love story between Professor Rath and Lola. The film also draws on German film history, particularly Emil Jannings previous films, and Weimar culture. But the focus on the exploration of sexuality encompasses both American and German concerns during the 1930s.

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Modernity, beginning in the 1920s, was marked by the increasing power of middle-class women, among other things. In her chapter on The Blue Angel, Patrice Petro claims that female sexuality became a prevalent marker of what was deemed the “new woman,” which was aggressively publicized by radical new fashions that drew attention to the female form. Marlene Dietrich’s character Lola exemplifies the “new woman” very clearly in the film. She is first introduced through the use of a postcard that the Professor’s students are crowded around. These young men are continuously drawn back to the cabaret club where Lola performs and flaunts her sexuality, which is made explicitly clear through the lyrics in her songs. Lola is often seen surrounded by her admirers, but she is always in the position of authority. She controls their movements, clearly shown when she takes the Professor’s coat and places him the seat next to her, and has the ability to dispel them from her dressing room. Lola is aware of her effect on the Professor in particular and seems to enjoy his discomfort by her sexuality. Lola as the “new woman” type places The Blue Angel in the context and history of urban entertainment and the increasingly non-traditional expressions of sexuality that was prevalent in both America and Germany.

The film also reflects on the issue of the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. Lola is able to exert her power over her male audience even when she is not present. The postcard that the Professor’s students admire draws them in to the cabaret club to seek out the authentic source. However, the source of the original is questioned when Lola is constantly confronted with her own image. The walls of her dressing room are covered with these postcards and posters, leading to the question of which one determines the other.

Encounters With Herzog: Finding “Truth” At the End of the World

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Werner Herzog’s impressive oeuvre includes a mixture of both fictional feature films as well as documentaries. There is no easy way to distinguish between fiction and nonfiction is his films because a mixture of both forms is always prevalent. Herzog works both within and against the context of documentary cinema in order to reach what he calls the “poetic, ecstatic truth” (Ames, ix). And this Herzogian truth is only attainable through the use of “fabrication and imagination and stylization” (Ames, 2). Encounters at the End of the World serves as a specific example of Herzog’s style in which he documents his experiences at the McMurdo Research Station on Antarctica. Here he chronicles the everyday lives of eccentric people who have chosen to live there as well as the beauty of a place far removed from any other people on the planet. The long, uninterrupted takes of life both above and below the ice, asynchronous music, and voice over narration characterize Herzog’s style and also sets the stage for a performance in which he sets out on a philosophical exploration of “truth” at the end of the world.

The characteristic long takes can be found throughout Encounters. The seemingly never-ending takes show life above, below, and inside of the ice that makes up Antarctica. Herzog employs long takes in order to establish the authenticity of his story. The camera remains a passive observer, letting the events unfold in real time. For example, the opening scene shows a diver under the ice of Antarctica (Encounters). The surreal underwater landscape is seen in only three different shots. There is no action occurring in these shots other than observation, either by the camera or by another diver seen on screen. Herzog’s narration is even kept to a minimum by providing the audience with simply the location and the source from which the images were captured. The long takes and objective source of scientists reinforce these images as being accurate depictions of Antarctica that were not constructed or reproduced on a studio set. Because there is minimal interference with events and long uninterrupted takes, the authenticity is established by just letting things progress naturally in a scene. It is a common element utilized in documentary films that set out to objectively observe. However, Herzog also uses long takes to establish a different sort of authenticity, especially in the interviews with the inhabitants of McMurdo. In interviews such as those with Scott Rowland, driver of Ivan the Terra Bus, or Douglas MacAyeal, a glaciologist and professional dreamer, Herzog’s presence is rarely ever invasive. He allows the social actors to talk about their experiences both past and present, thoughts, or observations, without directing the conversation in any direction. The camera tends to linger on them much longer than seems necessary sometimes, which leads to improvisation on the part of the social actor. A specific interview that stands out is with David Pacheco, who Herzog gives the title of “Journeyman Plumber” (Encounters). Pacheco talks about his supposed ancestral link to Aztec kings based on the way his fingers match up. Once Pacheco has finished talking, Herzog does not ask any more questions and simply lets the camera linger on him. This produces quite an awkward experience for the audience and presumably for Pacheco as well, who just picks up his tools and continues to work after a few awkward silent moments (Encounters). For Herzog, the awkwardness and improvisation on the part of the social actor produces a sense of authenticity, which allows the audience to connect with the character.

There is a focus on the audience that permeates throughout most of Herzog’s films, which is achieved through a variety of techniques. A subtle yet intrinsically important technique used is non-diegetic music. For Herzog, a documentary is a performance, and therefore moments of it are often staged (Ames, 4). Music helps to call attention to this staging by focusing on affecting the audience’s experience emotionally or sensationally with the images on the screen. In terms of Herzog’s attempt to portray “truth,” using music to create on affect adds to the stylization of a film. The music used in Encounters calls attention to the documentary as a construct produced by Herzog by highlighting his involvement in the creation of a specific meaning that accompanies an image. The opening scene, again, is a good example that illustrates this. By indicating that the footage seen on screen was taken by a professional diver working at a research station in Antarctica assumes that this footage is meant to be objective and factual like something from an observational documentary. However, Herzog adds in the soundtrack what sounds like a choir singing in church (Encounters). This immediately evokes a feeling of spirituality, making the experience seen on screen have a more emotionally affective impact on the audience. This technique is utilized again later in the film on the second dive (Encounters). The chanting choir of voices is not the same that is heard in the beginning of the film but undeniably evokes the same feeling. The dive becomes analogous to the spiritual or religious experience that one might encounter while in prayer. Another example of music used to add or evoke a specific meaning to an image occurs after Herzog interviews the cell biologist and professional diver Samuel Bowser (Encounters). Bowser has a personal affinity for science fiction doomsday films and sees aspects of these stories in the microscopic world of the single celled organisms he collects on his dives. He begins to compare the creatures to man-eating creatures from science fiction films, and even mentions that they are the reason life evolved and fled from water to seek escape on land after prompted by Herzog. This point coincides directly with the twelfth point in Herzog’s “Minnesota Declaration” that states:

Life in the oceans must be sheer hell. A vast, merciless hell of permanent and immediate danger. So much of a hell that during evolution some species—including man—crawled onto some small continents of solid land, where the Lessons of Darkness continue. (Ames, x).

This shared view of the world beneath the layers of ice in Antarctica is immediately evoked as the camera follows Bowser into the water to explore the horrible world of these microscopic monsters. The music Herzog chooses for this scene sounds like someone is playing the violin off-key. It is loud and jarring and makes the images feel somewhat terrifying. For a moment this is no longer the surreal experience in the opening scene, but the underwater world as seen through Bowser and Herzog’s vision of it as “sheer hell.” The use of music lends itself to the ecstatic truth that Herzog is intent on portraying by revealing Herzog’s interpretation of the images for the audience.

Another technique characteristic of Herzog’s filmmaking style is the use of voice over narration. In his documentaries, Herzog often provides the narration to accompany the images, which implies his films come from a more personal point of view. More often than not, Herzog inserts opinions, thoughts, and personal observations into his narration to create a vocal presence (Ames, 33). Herzog’s experience becomes the experience of the audience. An explicit example of Herzog’s vocal presence through voice over narration appears just before the second dive takes place. Immediately prior to the dive, people were shown creating the hole that the divers would enter the water through, which gives a sense of simple observation. Next, the divers are shown preparing for the dive by putting on various layers of neoprene wetsuits, gloves, and hand warmers. During this moment Herzog’s narration picks up again, drawing comparisons between the silent preparations of the divers with priests preparing for mass. This personal insight from Herzog reshapes and contrasts with the simple observational technique used just before. It forces the audience to reconsider the importance or meaning of the role of the divers, McMurdo, and Antarctica. To reinforce his observation, Herzog continues to assert his presence and opinions through the use of the music that was previously mentioned. Herzog in a way forces his presence on the documentary. Encounters is as much about Herzog’s personal views and experiences as much as it is about life at the McMurdo Research Station, global warming, or Antarctica.

Encounters serves as a clear and concise summation of Herzog’s stylization techniques utilized in his documentaries. The long takes, asynchronous yet affective music, and voice over narration are undeniably characteristic of Herzog’s films, and all of these techniques assert his presence within the film. Even though long takes are meant to be objective and observational, Herzog uses this to create authenticity in the people he films by pushing them out of their comfort zone. The music is specifically chosen to evoke certain emotions or meanings to accompany an image. And the most explicit assertion of his presence is in the voice over narration where he freely provides his views, sometimes corresponding to the music and image. Herzog is able to use these elements in his documentary films to put on a performance for his audience. He stages scenes for the purpose of creating an emotional connection to the audience, to shock or irritate them into a new way of thought.

Ava Duvernay’s 13th

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I don’t think I have ever more emotionally devastated by a documentary before.

Personal feelings aside, I still think this was a really well made documentary, incorporating interviews, found footage, contemporary media from every time period discussed (music, news reports, political speeches, etc.). It really uses everything at its disposal to create a sort of collage of history; a history of America that the history books leave out.

The 13th amendment to the U.S. constitution is what the documentary takes its name after. This amendment helped to abolish slavery in America, with one exception: prisoners. The documentary traces this loophole in the amendment and its effects on people of color throughout recent history to show how the mass incarceration (particularly aimed at non-white people) is basically a sort of postcolonial slavery. If imprisonment is now another word for slavery, then the war on drugs, segregation, and any other form of oppression is an excuse for being racist.

The most powerful point in the film for me was the sequence crosscutting between a speech Trump gives at a very recent rally for his presidential campaign with images of violence against black people from the 1950s. Literally, nothing has changed between then and now. It was so powerful for me because of how recent the events shown are and how much violence blacks and all people of color experience. 

Whatever your political views are, I think it is necessary for everyone to watch this documentary. DuVernay interviews a variety of people, giving us a lot of different perspectives that all really lead to one conclusion: American politics are corrupt and are working against low class citizens and people of color.