Saturday, June 24, 2017

Dalí Atomicus

My best friend, Paul, and I were reminiscing the other night about life in our hometown of Redlands, CA, and what it was like being kids in the 70s and 80s. There weren't many days back then when you wouldn't find Paul and I hanging out, playing pretend, riding our bikes, climbing around on his treehouse, and coming up with silly adventures to feed our passions for imagination and fantasy. Some days, we'd get on our bikes, ride a few miles into town, go to the mall, play at the Flipper Flapper arcade, get Hot Dog on a Stick, and then bike all the way back to his house where we'd play games on his Apple IIe, order pizza, and watch our favorite movies his family had recorded on their old Betamax machine.

We fancied ourselves as living in a perpetual adventure not unlike the kids in Stand By Me. Even when we'd travel on our bikes, we'd still play pretend, shoot imaginary guns at each other, act like we were eluding bad guys, or just jump off ramped driveway edges acting like BMX pros. And our passion for this life-within-a-life never stopped. In the late 80s and on into the 90s, we continued and we were wonderfully equipped by technology. When we weren't playing games on Nintendo or Atari, we were running around in Castle Wolfenstein, unceasingly clicking on peons in Orcs & Humans, or going back through Goldeneye to see who could complete the first level the fastest. In our late teens, we weren't as inclined to play pretend, but we were just as energetic to immerse ourselves in something that wasn't real because it tickled our stomachs, made us smile, and took us away from homework, school bullies, and other real world nonsense. We didn't have time to waste or worry because dreaming and adventuring were far more important.

That still carries on to this day. Last night, Paul got a chance to learn more about my life since he and his family moved to Washington State about 25 years ago. While we've regularly stayed in touch and played games together, he hasn't had the same involvement in my day-to-day life so he had no idea how rough it has been. Yet, despite the sobering reality, we both still want that life in a life. We might be in our mid-40s, but our sense of adventure and fun hasn't dwindled. We can look back on the things we did with great delight, and we can still picture things we want to do with the same giddiness we had as children. If I could teleport myself to his living room right now, we'd likely go right back to ordering pizza, watching movies, and playing video games until the wee hours of the morning.


Dalí Atomicus is a black and white photograph taken by Philippe Halsman (1906 - 1979) in 1948. It depicts Salvador Dalí (1904 - 1989) in, frankly, a silly situation where he's painting Leda Atomica while cats fly in, water is strewn about, and everything else is floating. According to a documentary about the making of this picture, this was the 28th take. Today, it is considered one of the most famous photographs ever taken, and rightfully so. Nothing in all of history has been this deliberately over-the-top that this humble art lover can think of. And it's even more impressive because it was done in a time where Photoshop didn't exist, but that hasn't taken anything away from the visual pleasure.

I like to think of Dalí as someone who embraced silliness, adventure, and pretend. In his day, technology wasn't where it is today so I see his passion for fantasy and creativity in his artwork. Who else thinks to paint melting clocks on a table and a broken face and a tree branch? And while he may have taken his art seriously, I don't think he took life too seriously. Therein lies the issue we face today.

Society seems to think being silly and embracing fantasy aren't necessary or proper anymore. For those who do, they tend to keep that stuff hidden away from prying eyes thanks to feeling inadequate about it on some level. Too many are worried about this and that, complain about things they cannot control, and waste energy trying to "figure it all out". Too many want to scream about stuff they don't like or agree with, and when they do, they're only stealing fun and fantasy from themselves. The time and energy being wasted on life's crap that cannot be controlled is time and energy that could have been spent nurturing passion, finding entertainment, and escaping the grip of stress and worry.

Video games are a great example of a wonderful form of entertainment here in the 21st Century. I'm not ashamed to say, I still enjoy them because in the end, they can take my mind off life and away from stress just as easily as a movie or TV show, if not more so. Why? Because instead of me being told where the story goes, I get to be in control and do whatever I want while only being limited by the game's design. When I watch a movie, I have to take what's already been created as it is. I can't stop a film mid-way and say, nope, I don't like that that character was just killed off so let's change it. From beginning to end, it is what it is whether I like it or not. In a video game, however, my story is whatever I want it to be, whenever I want it to be. But regardless of entertainment, I get to still embrace that life in a life I had as a kid.

I'm no longer a fan of playing pretend because I've matured. While I can still feel that passion deep down in my heart, I just wouldn't do it today. What hasn't left me, though, is the thrill of having my mind taken away from work, stress, bills, loneliness, and other real world situations and circumstances. Some people use drugs to achieve this. Not me. I choose to write, play games, watch entertaining shows and movies . . . and dream. I dream! I've never stopped dreaming! And I never will. This is what seems to be missing in so many these days. Dalí dreamed and he was able to magnificently present those dreams in this photograph and in his amazing works of art. Dreaming is a gift and while I'm no expert on animals, I think humans are the only species able to enjoy dreaming at will. Why anyone would forsake dreaming is beyond me, and man, they sure are missing out on life.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Les Bourgeois de Calais

Arland had no idea on January 12, 1982, that he would make history and become a hero in less than 24 hours. Little is known about why Arland was where he was on January 13, just that he was a federal bank examiner and likely traveling for business.

The weather in Washington, D.C. that next day was freakishly bad. Snow, ice, and high winds plagued the region and plunged the city into an arctic state. Over 6 feet of snow had accumulated leading to the Washington National Airport to shut down. Prior to cancelling flights and despite repeated warnings, though, the pilot of Air Florida Flight 90 refused to abandon their scheduled trip. As Arland, 73 other passengers, and 5 crew boarded the plane, what would happen next left the world in shock.

As the plane taxied to the runway for take-off, human error was already in play and doom had set in. First, they gave a blind eye to the clearly visible snow building up on the wings as well as the runway and surrounding area. Second, the pilots failed to activate the aircraft's ice protection system while they chose to ignore other on-board warnings that the plane would not make it. Third, it didn't help that the taxi alone took 49 minutes thus exacerbating conditions, and that was after the towing vehicle couldn't even find traction to get the plan going in the first place. What was apparent, however, was that the captain was determined to get the aircraft in the air no matter what.

Upon take-off, the plane struggled to gain altitude, and immediately fell and struck the 14th Street Bridge less than a mile off the end of the runway hitting 7 vehicles, and killing 4 people. The plane then plunged into the Potomac River which was blanketed by jagged ice. When it hit the ice and water, the plane split in two and as the front section of the fuselage sank, the tail section stayed afloat in the water.

This is where things take a turn for the worse, but the better. Of the 79 people on board, 6 survived and they were badly injured. As they scrambled to the tail section to cling on for dear life and seek assistance, not one of them knew it would take so long due to the weather conditions. After 20 minutes of failed attempts to reach the survivors by land, boat, and even dog-paddling, a helicopter from the U.S. Park Police was dispatched to man a rescue. The perilous mission would prove there was and is good reason to have faith in humanity.

When the chopper arrived, a rescue rope was tossed down to Arland, one of the 6 survivors. Despite his injuries and weather conditions, Arland was surprisingly alert. Seeing that the other 5 people were in worst condition than him, he passed the rope to the person next to him. One by one, Arland continued to pass the rope so 3 of the other 5 could be safely hauled to land. That's when the pilots noticed one of the survivors had drifted away from the wreckage and was flailing in the freezing water, stuck on a chunk of ice. She was very quickly dying, and it was all captured on live TV. With two other rescuers who dove into the frigid waters, they were able to save her. The helicopter crew then turned their attention back to the wreckage to pick up the two remaining people. Arland and another woman were now separated by conditions so they lowered the skids into the water to haul the remaining female on board who was too weak to grab onto the rope. When they finally returned for Arland, he was no where to be found. They spent over 30 minutes searching for him before they were called away. Days later, it would be discovered that the wreckage had shifting sucking Arland down underwater causing him to drown.


Les Bourgeois de Calais, by Auguste Rodin (1840 - 1917), is a bronze statue depicting 6 burghers (politically connected and influential citizens) volunteering their lives to King Edward III to parley surrender on behalf of the city of Calais, France, in 1347. The piece was commissioned by the city in 1884, and it was completed in 1889. At the time, they wished to commemorate the lives of those who willingly gave themselves up at the command of King Edward III, and for the survival of the people of Calais who were embroiled in the Hundred Years' War.

Rodin is best known for his piece, The Thinker, but in all of art history, Les Bourgeois de Calais is known to be one of the most historically famous sculptures ever created. During that period in time, France was losing the battle against England, and as the city of Calais struggled to hold their lines and defense of the city and castle, they fell into starvation. This was when Edward offered to spare the people of Calais if 6 of its top leaders would give themselves up, wear nooses around their necks, and give him the keys to the city and castle. The first of the volunteers was a wealthy town leader named Eustache de Saint Pierre, and he is seen in the piece leading the group to the city gates to be turned over to the crown. It wasn't until Philippa of Hainault, the wife of King Edward III, stepped in and persuaded her husband to show mercy for the sake of the unborn child, Thomas of Windsor (who, ironically, died 1 year after birth).

I picked the Arland Williams story to highlight the significance of this piece because of the incredible amount of compassion and sacrifice he showed in order that others might live. Had he grabbed the rope and held on, who knows? Perhaps the woman seen struggling in the ice would have died instead. Much like Arland and all of the life he still had ahead him, Saint Pierre and the others were also willing to give it all up for strangers. It's even more astonishing to comprehend when you think about the life Eustache must have had. He was rich, influential, and according to painting of him by artist Jean-Simon Berthélemy, he was handsome, powerful, and well-liked.

Stories of heroism are, nowadays, a dime-a-dozen. Yet, with each, I find myself blown away by the sheer level of compassion and self-sacrifice for the good of others - often strangers. From Medal of Honor recipients to men like Arland and Saint Pierre, I'm reminded of the inherent good in humanity that the world and media would otherwise have you believe didn't exist. Let's none of us forget that, and let's also never forget those who sacrificed their own lives in order that others may live.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Last Supper

One of the most legendary works of art in all of history is The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci. My original intention in writing about it was to forego an analogous approach because of how profound it remains to this day. Far be it for me to attempt to extrapolate some other message than what was originally intended by its creator due to the significance of that moment in time. Therefore, I thought a run through this work's history of abuse and destruction might be an interesting approach, and a bit different than how I've written about art in the past. I mean, it was nearly bombed to oblivion during World War II - that has to be pretty notable, right?

Then it dawned on me: comparing this piece's abuse via metaphor to anything else would do it a disservice and be an atrocity. Why? Because I don't believe it was painted to evoke emotion, but to capture a moment in history that tells a story while revealing a lot of symbolism. And not just symbolism inside the work, but also through its very existence. Instead, I'd like to dive into that symbolism because I think it's important and often overlooked.

Contrast was slightly increased in order to show greater detail.

Let me first note that two copies of The Last Supper were painstakingly created by da Vinci's assistants in order to preserve the details. As you can see from the image above, the original piece has deteriorated quite significantly over time thanks in part to a door being installed at the location which destroyed the lower-middle portion. Also note that this piece was done by da Vinci in tempera on gesso, pitch, and mastic (that is to say, egg-based painting medium on chalk, coal-based resin, and plant resin—more on this later).

Famous nowadays for how often it's been parodied, the original work was completed in the late 15th Century inside the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, Italy. Depicted is Jesus with His twelve disciples on either side of Him. From left to right—according to notes taken by da Vinci himself—we see Bartholomew, James, the half-brother of Jesus, Andrew, Judas Iscariot, Peter, John, Jesus, Thomas, James, Philip, Matthew, Jude, and finally Simon. The moment being capture is the immediate reaction of the disciples after Jesus, in the Gospel of John chapter 13, verse 21, proclaimed, "Very truly I tell you, one of you is going to betray me."

Now then, the most poignant use of symbolism is that of the Holy Trinity. There are three doors on either side of the room, three windows in the back, the disciples are clearly clumped into groups of three, Jesus' form is that of a triangle, the legs of the table are triangles, and on Jesus' sandals are three lines in the shape of a triangles. Obviously, the number 3 and triangles represent the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The next symbol is Peter angrily standing and holding a knife pointed away from Jesus. Some experts believe this expressed what was to later occur in the Garden of Gethsemane when Peter chopped off the ear of a servant of the high priest who was attempting to arrest Jesus. This then leads to how the other disciples are reacting, as well. Bartholomew, James, and Andrew all seem shocked; John appears flush white and tilts to one side implying he may be faint; Thomas, James the Greater, and Philip appear upset and in search of more reason; lastly, Matthew, Jude, and Simon are turned towards each other in bewilderment.

Next, we have Judas Iscariot. Anyone who knows their history and/or the Bible knows that Judas was the one who betrayed Jesus for a bag of silver, which would have been worth about $200 U.S. dollars today. Some believe the bag he holds in his right hand indicates his position as the treasurer of the disciples, but I believe it symbolizes his forthcoming betrayal. I say this because he is also depicted as reaching for a loaf a bread in direct contrast to Jesus gesturing to a similar loaf in reference to Him being the Bread of Life. A small detail often missed is Judas' right arm knocking over a jar of salt. In those days, the phrase "betray the salt" was commonplace and used to express betraying one's master. Lastly, Judas is the only one obscured by shadow, leaning with his elbow on the table, and with his face turned far enough to make it difficult to see him.

Then there's Jesus. His eyes are clearly gazing downward and most will say at the loaf of bread in front of Him. I say His eyes are on His hand which would be pierced upon crucifixion. His right hand, however, is reaching for a cup and is likely a direct reference to the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 20, verses 20-23: "Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him. 'What is it you want?' he asked. She said, 'Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.' 'You don’t know what you are asking,' Jesus said to them. 'Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?' 'We can,' they answered. Jesus said to them, 'You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.'"

The final example of symbolism is purely speculative on my part. For you see, the materials used to paint this scene were woefully unreliable. Artists in the 14th and 15th Century all had much more reliable materials with which to create works of art that would last a lifetime. Given Leonardo's inarguable genius, I believe he purposefully painted this scene as he did with the full intention of it eroding over time. Why would da Vinci do this, though? I have no clue, but given his reputation for having a feverishly inventive imagination, I suppose it was to send a message. Perhaps this was the first notable use of ancient trolling by having such a powerful work of art vanish over time in order to draw attention to how much people placed value on material things. I guess you can say that I like to think of da Vinci having existed on a much higher existential plain.

I'm sure there are a lot more examples in this piece. My first thought was the varying expressions of the disciples and my guess is that they're based on each one's personality; Peter being the most obvious thanks to his reputation for popping off at the mouth so much. If you see more, I'd be curious to know! Please feel free to share it in a comment below.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Apparatus and Hand

When I was a child, I used to have a vivid recurring dream. I grew up in a nice home in Redlands, California, which was on the corner Franklin Ave. and Garden St.. We had a half-circle driveway which entered and exited on the two different streets. Across Franklin was an orange grove where we, as kids, would run around and play pretend. It was the middle-America life for us back then, even though we were on the West Coast.

This dream happened a few times when I was very young, if I recall correctly. It would begin with me standing in the front yard of our house, and I would hear pounding footsteps. (I would later discover the footsteps were from me hearing my own heartbeat as I slept.) My chest would compound and fear would rise as I would turn to gaze up Franklin Ave. I somehow knew something was coming from that direction and so its pace quickened. Sure enough, cresting the hill and streaming down the street was a creature about 4 feet tall. The best way for me to describe this creature would be to say it looked like a small Snuffleupagus draped in a white bed sheet, and covered with old, antique plastic play telephones. Dozens of telephones. This thing would zoom to the front of our house, and for some strange reason, I'd get on its back and go for a ride around the corner. That's pretty much when the nightmarish feelings would awaken me.

I can't say what spawned this dream so many times. Even now, some 40 or so years later, I can still picture it, but am at a loss as to why I had it. The only odd revelation was that it seemed to be directly linked to my heartbeat. And as enigmatic as it was, I now find myself wanting to examine it's meaning. Bear with me as this is completely spontaneous and purposefully not thought out.

My suspicion is that this dream was manifest from a combination of deep seeded desires. A) I loved adventure as a kid and getting on something as strange as the telephone monster seems fitting. Bear in mind, this was during a time when mothers and school teachers would iterate how important it was not to get into (or onto, in this case) a strange vehicle. B) My mother used to tell friends that when I was about 3 years old, I'd point to the TV screen as we watched I Love Lucy and say that that was what I wanted to do when I grew up. So, perhaps my desire for immediate and constant attention is represented by the phones covering the telephone monster's body.

Enter Apparatus and Hand . . .


Apparatus and Hand, by Salvador Dalí, is a pre-Surrealism painting which was completed in 1927. It's oil on panel, and it was Dalí's first work after returning from military service when he was 23 years old. According to experts, it was during this period that Freud's publications about psychopathology and dream interpretation were popular with Dalí, and so this piece was inspired by Freud's writings. Seemingly, the "apparatus" figure is representative of Dalí, while the grotesque hand is representative of his mind. Around him are visions of what truly beleaguers his thoughts, and thus implies what influences him to some degree.

This artwork was one of the first paintings to strike me when I was much younger and in college. At the time, I was busy being an actor when I wasn't bogged down by being a student. Art in this form wasn't really a passion for me then, but I suspect this piece is what triggered it for me. Since then, I've spent quite a lot of time studying the details, contemplating their meaning, and almost finding something unseen in previous viewings each time I looked at it. I knew the history of this piece was available online, but I never really wanted to know about it. Art, for me, is something I allow to speak to me as is and without context. If I don't know the historical context, then I don't want to know it because I'd rather art have its own uninfluenced voice. (You can see this effect quite well in my previous post, L'Ange du Foyer.)

I strategically used the term "enigmatic" above because that's what this painting has been for me for a very long time. It wasn't until about a month ago that I discussed it with a co-worker. You see, I had received a very heart-warming comment in my L'Ange du Foyer post which started the conversation. When we dove into picking this piece apart and analyzed its details, we both came pretty close to what experts have since determined with regard to its meaning. Yet, for over 20 years, it's been an enigma and a source of incredible imagination. Apparatus and Hand has been a very slow metronome where each beat reminded me to stop thinking about the here and now, to stop thinking about tomorrow and the next day, and to take a moment to contemplate the surreal. To stop and let my imagination run around and have some fun.


And so, I've returned to writing. Not just because this piece has been an intimate part of my life for two decades, but also because of that comment. If what I type here can make someone see their life in a new, encouraging light, then why should I deprive them of that? I have a gift, and so I've chosen to continue to use it.