The Witch

Mild to medium-bodied spoilers ahead.

As the end credits started rolling on The Witch – as the ‘Written & Directed by’ flashed up to break the spell of brief, tense uncertainty that held the screen after the final frame cut to black – one of a pair of middle-aged men in the row ahead of me said ‘Ah for FUCK’S SAKE’ and started angrily putting on his coat, his bald scalp glaring as the theatre lights came up. He was railing specifically against the inconclusiveness of the film’s ending – little is resolved, nothing clarified, while whole rank oceans of possible consequence are implied – but you could tell he was also neatly summarising his feelings about everything he’d just sat through. A friend of mine who’d seen the movie previously said that a man in his screening had actually complained out loud all the way through, gifting the audience with a real-time stream-of-consciousness critique, which must have been a tremendous privilege to experience. I’m not sure I’ve ever known a film to provoke such vocal public disdain from punters while at the same time holding 89% on Rotten Tomatoes.

 As for the man in the row ahead of me, it was obviously not enough for him to carry his dissatisfaction away home in silence; he had to announce it, he had to offer it up to the hive-mind, tune into a resonance of general, unspoken grievance he detected or imagined he detected in the air. It didn’t quite lead to the communal outburst of relieved fuck’s-saking he might have hoped for, but someone across the aisle did let out an exaggerated horror-movie shriek as, I suppose, a funny joke; this in itself seemed like a commentary on the lack of any ‘scares’ in the supposedly ‘scary’ film we’d all just seen, as well as a kind of sacrificial act that opened an interval in which the audience could breathe, laugh off the film’s toxic weirdness as mere affectlessness or barrenness, recalibrate exactly what the preceding 93 minutes had worked to throw off kilter – namely, the idea of what a horror movie is supposed to be like. These two martyrs, the fuck’s-saker and the shrieker, were providing us with a service: ‘it’s OK,’ they were telling us, ‘don’t worry if that movie had you doubting the received wisdom, made you wonder about the genre schematic that Hollywood has drawn up for us all – that movie was just boring. That movie wasn’t proper horror. It didn’t make you jump once. The music never even went duh-duh-duh-duh-BANG at any point. Go in peace. It’s OK.’

I did feel bad for the bald man: he’d committed his time and money and was going away unedified, massively unentertained. The filmmakers had not only reneged on the contract that had been established when he’d bought his ticket, they’d refused, unbeknownst to him, to sign it in the first place. This was much less his fault than the studio marketing department’s, who’ve insisted on selling the The Witch as something it’s absolutely not.

What The Witch definitely is is Robert Eggers’ directorial debut, a self-subtitled ‘New England Folk Tale’ about a family of Puritan outcasts falling foul of religious hysteria and (maybe) demonic forces on the edge of a (maybe) eponymous-crone-containing wood. (I include those maybes purely for diplomacy, as Eggers arguably rejects out of hand the, by now, fairly well-worn psychological-ambiguity trope. Or maybe he doesn’t.) There’s a lot of subtext about theological patriarchy and female sexuality and if you want to read it as an allegory for the founding of the American psyche, have at it. I prefer not to. The photography is charcoal-plain to the point of monotony and the narrative is largely constructed around long, sometimes stagey scenes of essentially familial drama, delivered through minutely composed KJV-ish dialogue. Somehow all this adds up to something utterly fresh and extraordinary. The sheer restraint with which Eggers deploys his effects is a revelation in itself; the demands he places on his audience approach, in their own way, the sadism of the most hermetic avant-gardist. The rewards, the fear and the blood and the vomited apples and the breast-suckling ravens, are there for the patient. Several reviews I’ve read have noted how much unintentional laughter the film’s been getting out of audiences, and sure enough, a few particular scenes and tableaux – the suckling-raven and levitating-coven bits especially – had the bald man and his comrade, as well as some others sitting around me, in stitches. This was either because A) they found those things inherently funny, B) the film deliberately courts a degree of self-parody (just as the original Wicker Man did) or C) The Witch was just so fucking odd, and the audience so doggily trained to consume horror movies in a way that wouldn’t help them swallow this one, that laughter was their only recourse. I didn’t laugh, but I did find myself squirming around in my seat with a sensation approaching a kind of perverted hilarity.

Despite what the marketing suggests, The Witch isn’t scary in the way The Conjuring or Paranormal Activity are scary (both moves I have a lot of respect for and which interfered grievously with my sleep); it doesn’t even fit comfortably in the ‘prestige’, upper-middlebrow indie horror category like It Follows or The Babadook. I’m not sure it’s a horror movie at all. I’m not sure anyone, not even the critics who’ve rightly lauded it, really knows what it is just yet. It’s art, at any rate, and flawed, but absolutely straining with a sense of cinematic importance, almost by accident: there’s nothing about it that suggests the panting chase for Masterpiece status; it’s as though it’s gone stumbling around the forest after mushrooms and found a prize truffle. I’m not sure, either, that it is a masterpiece, but at the same time I have a suspicion that it very well might be. It’s certainly unlike any other horror film I’ve seen.

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‘All human existence is a trick of light’: DeLillo, Beckett, Image, Eye

Specifically, DeLillo’s story ‘The Starveling’, from his 2011 collection The Angel Esmeralda – a kind of greatest-hits retrospective of his short fiction career, and legitimately one of the finest American story collections published in the last twenty, thirty, forty years (pick a number). ‘The Starveling’, written in 2011, shows DeLillo’s preoccupation with themes of representation and mimesis and the act of looking unslaked, still as twitchily engagé as it was in his 1971 debut novel, Americana. Then, however, the protagonist was the image-trapper (or –maker), the reality-fastener (or –shaper); by contrast, the aging Leo Zhelezniak of ‘The Starveling’ is wholly a consumer, cat’s-cradling his days out on a complex circuit of of New York’s semi-derelict movie theatres. He still shares a flat with his ex-wife, Flory, and when he’s not there he’s criss-crossing the boroughs, taking in four, five movies a day. We got almost nothing of the movies: we know, at most, that Leo pays ‘close attention’ to on-screen rain, when it appears, and that he saw Apocalypse Now in Philadelphia on the day it opened. We know also that, early on in his ‘vocation’, he kept notebooks of personal commentaries and interpretations, but stopped when he realised that the notebooks were taking over from the movies: ‘The movies didn’t need the movie notes. They only needed him to be there.’ Leo is not even a consumer, then, but a receptacle, filled and drained in the same observing moment, completing a kind of cycle whereby meaning, flowing through him from the screen, bypasses his interpretative faculties and courses back into the film; we can imagine Leo as a kind of conduit, a depersonalised mystic. (‘There is a kind of uneventfulness,’ DeLillo tells us, ‘that resembles meditation.’) Filling up on saturated fats between movies, he fasts aesthetically, retaining nothing of what he sees, projecting himself toward a state of near-Zen purity. Yet Leo is not the Starveling of the title.

The opening lines – ‘When it started, long before the woman, he lived in one room. He did not hope for improved circumstances’ – fairly echo the situation of Murphy, yet the clearer association seems to be Beckett’s 1965 film, Film, which follows Buster Keaton through a dramatisation of the Berkeleyan principle, esse est percipi. (If a tree falls in a forest and there’s no-one there etc etc.) DeLillo comes close to breaking the fourth wall in order to hint at this: ‘If we’re not here to know what a thing is, then what is it?’ the text wonders coyly, just after we hear of Leo’s failed attempt at a philosophy course in his late twenties. The immediate assumption is that Leo occupies the Keaton role – simply named, in Beckett’s script, ‘O’ for Object – seen at the beginning of Film hurrying alongside a factory wall in Manhattan, huddled into his overcoat, apparently desperate to go unnoticed. Leo does, we hear, sometimes imagine himself in a similar position, ‘walking stooped and unshaven along the sides of buildings.’ But as Film progresses it becomes clear that O is being pursued either by the camera or by some figure whose perspective is aligned with the camera (given in the script as ‘E’, Eye – Leo’s name is a tantalising synthesis of both ‘characters’.) Likewise, Leo is revealed to be, not the viewed, but the voyeur, as he begins following a woman he’s noticed frequenting some of the same theatres that he does. ‘There was a word,’ we’re told, ‘he wanted to apply to her,’ and he settles provisionally on anorectic – hence she is the Starveling – but the point, really, is to let Leo define her through the imposition of a nominal category. This is a particularly DeLilloan trope: cf., for example, the story ‘Midnight in Dostoevsky’, in which two college students invent a whole life history for a mysterious old man in their town. (It’s worth mentioning the logic-professor character of Ilgauskas from that story, who gives a useful summation of this kind of project: ‘In our privatest mind…there is only chaos and blur. We invented logic to beat back our creatural selves. We assert or deny. We follow M with N.’ Or, in this case O with E and E with O.)

Leo, too, imparts a history to the Starveling, tailing her around Manhattan and the Bronx. ‘She was a woman alone. This had to be the case. She lives alone, in one room, as he did.’ Then, ‘She is staying with an older sister and her family. They are the only white family left on the block. She is the strange one, the one who never says where she is going…’ Leo, in this case, has followed the Starveling to her home, just as E does O; but unlike in Film, with E chasing O into O’s flat (a furnished single room much like Leo’s) and forcing him there into a confrontation – O attempting to eliminate any point of external perspective, anxious to elude the memento mori of categorisation through perception, ultimately incapable of covering himself from the scrutiny of E, who is revealed to be a slightly altered incarnation of O – Leo stands back, imagining the Starveling’s home life, inventing rather than perceiving. The final confrontation, in this case, happens in another cinema. Having tracked her there, discovering the movie on the bill to be one he’s already seen, Leo follows her into the women’s bathroom with a story about the faucets in the men’s being broken. (This in itself represents a negation of categories, something like the irruption of chaos into order.) But the revelation of life histories – the longed-for final truth-value – involves, not the Starveling’s, but Leo’s: he babbles to her about a Japanese movie he once saw and about his insomnia and about seeing Apocalypse Now in Philadelphia and a lampshade in his old room that once burst unexpectedly into flames. It is as though, having forced the acknowledgement by the perceived of the fact of her being perceived, the force of the perception breaks down, revealing itself to be a simple enaction of subjectivity and not at all a vehicle for any kind of purified, disembodied empathy. This may or may not count as a denial of Leo’s ‘need’ to transcend his ego through his movie-watching. At any rate, the Starveling departs the narrative as inscrutable as she entered it, and Leo is left revealing himself to himself, himself perceiving himself, having traced an arc that carried him from the O to the E to the E-O percipi-percipere coalescence that closes out Film.

In the coda, however, he returns to the flat he shares with his ex-wife, Flory, finding her motionless at the window in one of her habitual yoga-pose ‘stabilization exercises’. She is given to adopting these ‘difficult body positions…roll[ing] into a dense mass on the floor, a bolus, motionless for long periods, seemingly unaware of anything beyond her abdominal muscles, her vertebrae.’ As Leo sees it, she is ‘nearly swallowed by her surroundings’ in these moments, ‘on the verge of melting out of sight, dematerializing.’ This is a physical correlative of the aesthetic project he has set himself. But she is, by contrast, fully her own body, definitively occupying space, not hungry for the disincarnation of the ‘oneness’ with the movie screen yet tending to achieve something similar anyway, almost by accident. Wherever we can imagine Leo going from here, he is, by the very end, in the role of E again, watching his ex-wife, pinning her by his perception in his material reality as though terrified, simply, of being alone: ‘If he blinked an eye, she would disappear.’ In Film, too, after the credits roll, the eye – wide open, framed in close-up – that had been keeping the work’s reality ‘alive’ finally shuts, carrying the screen, the theatre we can imagine it playing in, the audience we can imagine seeing it, into darkness.

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Not Exactly What I Wanted to Say about Don DeLillo but Almost

DeLillo has always been the most treacherous member of that Golden Generation of male American writers born in the 1930s. (Heartiest sympathies go out to Messrs Gass and Gaddis for being born a decade too soon.) Harold Bloom once made a presciently Wikipedia-friendly knighting of four of these gentlemen – DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Pynchon and Philip Roth – as the greatest American novelists of his lifetime, and however one feels about old Bloomosaurus rex his methodology does have some taxonomic advantage.

All four novelists are, in their own ways, self-conscious stylists. They all were lucky enough to come of age at a time when the living, omnipresent memento mori of nuclear annihilation – ah, halcyon days! – must have been to writer’s block as the scythe is to the corn. Providence smiled on them enough to show a middle way through the Red Sea of postmodernism, whose more interesting affectations they carried with them to glory, leaving the Barths and Coovers adrift like thrown-back behemoths. With the exception of Pynchon, who is a disincarnate literature-pooka – a ghostwriter – they have all aged to the kind of monolithic old-man handsomeness that terrorises you into handing over money literally the moment you see it photographed on a dust-jacket.

Yet DeLillo is starting to look like the last man standing. Roth has retired, with only the yearly Nobel-speculation carousel to keep his name circling. In the context of his remarkable career, Pynchon’s last two novels were as minor as they get, a fact accidentally confirmed by Paul Thomas Anderson’s dreary Inherent Vice adaptation (God, I’d have paid money to go and see an Anderson film of one of the big ones, Gravity’s Rainbow or Lot 49). And McCarthy has been silent since 2006; unless his supposedly forthcoming opus is some serious shit, I’m afraid his work will come to be regarded as historically notable but fundamentally quaint, if not further compromised by a constant negotiation with self-parody – that much was always going to come from his being the most rigorously humourless of the bunch.

But, after all, as Martin Amis once said and is now in the process of demonstrating, writers die twice: first the talent goes, then the body.

Certainly, DeLillo is no longer the consummate critical darling either. The novels that followed the grand Gesamtkunstwerk of 1997’s Underworld, from The Body Artist (2001) to Point Omega (2010), have been dismissed in some places as being too hermetic, too spartan, too goddamn slim; there is the sense that Underworld represented the simultaneous culmination and dissipation of his various powers. But DeLillo, among his maximalising, sometimes scenery-chewing contemporaries, has always had a better grasp of the effectiveness of absence and distance and curated emptiness when deployed so subtly that, reading him, you can’t even see where it’s happening, but feel it in the meteorology of the prose, like a chill in the page. To take a random sample, here are the first lines of Great Jones Street (not, admittedly, one of his better novels, but one of his best opening gambits – PS it’s about a rock star):

‘Fame requires every kind of excess. I mean true fame, a devouring neon, not the somber renown of waning statesmen or chinless kings. I mean long journeys across gray space. I mean danger, the edge of every void, the circumstance of one man imparting an erotic terror to the dreams of the republic. Understand the man who must inhabit these extreme regions, monstrous and vulval, damp with memories of violation.’

Excuse me but what the fuck is going on there? What is it about that prose that’s just so good? That’s the kind of opening that makes Waterstone’s fall away around you and islands you on some dread geometric enclave when you slide the book from the shelf and start reading. This is what DeLillo’s writing does to you, relentlessly. It’s as clean and brittle-hard as thin ice on a lake, a lens over waters wine-dark and turbulent. His lauded satirical foresight is one thing, his strange, spare, chaste, monstrous, vulval music quite another.

Anyway, the point is that, more than any of the other Big Four’s, DeLillo’s oeuvre seems still to be developing and adapting itself. It’s still describing the parabola that Americana fired off in 1971, not merely gesturing toward a coda. It could easily, in its apparent drive toward reduction, lessness, spectrality, be described as an echo of the Beckettian project. Which brings me to what I really wanted to say about Don DeLillo. Which I won’t say just now because I’ve sidetracked myself but I definitely definitely will before long.

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Silicon Interlude

DSC_0455 [198694]

I appalled myself in Oslo recently by finding its American Embassy very beautiful. I say appalled, but really I was thrilled and weirdly elated. This felt like, if not a thoughtcrime, then at least an internal glitch, a synaptical misfiring, my finding the American Embassy in Oslo very beautiful, indeed the most beautiful building in the city – perhaps an early symptom of some ravaging neurological disorder, like the onset of conservatism. I felt obliged to chastise myself; hence the thrill/weird elation of imagining I was being subversive. This was a chaotic intervention, a negation of utility. I profaned the very spirit of the building by finding it beautiful. If we’ve reached that point in Western civilisation when Cold War-era American Embassies are extracting aesthetic petites morts from unwitting tourists then – well, I wondered whether should go up to the guard-post to turn myself in.

The American Embassy in Oslo was designed by one Eero Saarinen and opened in 1959, a charcoal-grey triangular prism lying on its face like a toppled icon of some retro-sci fi dictatorship. They seem to go in for this kind of shape in the dark North. Which obviously says something profound about the Scandinavian psyche – something about cleanness and belligerence, violence latent in crisp geometry (though I note, with regret for my thesis, that the Toblerone is a Swiss invention). So much is suggested by the building itself. Approaching by any of its apices – whether at the junction of Lokkeveien and Hansteens gate, or coming up Henrik Ibsens gate from the Nationaltheatret, or turning onto Henrik Ibsens gate from Parkveien – you feel borne down upon, axed, bisected. Its symmetry is ruthless: the whole city seems, for a moment, to swing open like a trompe-l’oeil diptych from the hinge of its central wedge. Or, to stretch the sci fi theme, it almost resembles a static tableau of the star-gate-warp-scene-thing-bit in 2001: A Space Odyssey: just as, in the film, the fabric of space gets scissor-slit down a vertical crux and all the acidified rainbow-ejaculant of eternity comes kaleidoscoping past the viewer’s ears, so a good hard stare at an apex of the American Embassy in Oslo will produce a sensation of simultaneous falling-down-forward and flying-backward-upward and sideways toward all imaginable points, the air hardening smoothly around you, concrete colonising the interstices of your brain like a neurotransmitter.

By the way, the appropriate thing now would be to look back at the photo at the top there and say no, it’s just a triangle, it doesn’t fucking look like any of that, it’s a triangle. And it is. But we have to justify ourselves to ourselves somehow. At any rate, there was a lot of dead air beginning to whistle through this blog, and now there are words instead, all kinds of them. I was going to say something about the windows but now I couldn’t be bothered. They’re good, anyway.

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What I Did For My Summer Holidays (Pt. 0)

‘It was then that began our extensive travels all over the States.’ – Lolita

Disclaimer: The inevitable Moleskine accompanied me in my bag along with three novels of which I read maybe twenty pages before dropping the pretense and abandoning myself to reality; the Moleskine, similarly, remained virgin, and I only used my pen once, to poke something out of something, I think, I’m not sure. So I’m getting all this information second-hand from my own organism. Which is a creepy way of putting it, but sort of true: remembering is only the act of extracting data from the same flabby suspension that wants to know, like an autocannabalistic meat-jelly picking ham out of itself. These are my choicest scraps.

By the way, it seems that what’s happening here is travel writing. Travel writing will be happening here now in a minute. Why, though? Why will it be happening? Why can’t the travel have been enough? Why the need to adopt a particular tone and register and write the travel down in such a way that much more will probably get expressed about the writer than the travel? Why does anyone read travel writing at all? Certainly not for the facts about X location or Y historical point of interest or Z group of humans living by chance on a different section of planetary crust to you, because we have Wikipedia for that. Presumably the genre traces its origins back to when travel was expensive and perilous enough to be, itself, a worthy subject: the writing served as both genuinely informative dispatch from the exterior and vicarious window onto an experience the reader could likely never have (for an extended parody of which, cf Vol VII of Sterne’s Tristram Shandy). But now travel is easy and cheap and Google Street View even lets you do it without having to wash yourself beforehand or talk to anyone for the duration. Bliss. So what’s the point?

I suppose it’s to do with the cult of personality and its antecedent chapter, the cult of experience. Because of its very efficiency and affordability, everyone is travelling, and because everyone is travelling, no-one is travelling. Everywhere is already mapped, everything already photographed, everyone already encountered, every experience already experienced. The sun shines, having no alternative, on Machu Picchu as on the Russian steppe – on the nothing-new. That’s Beckett there, and here’s Joyce: ‘We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love, but always meeting ourselves.’ As succinct a summary of the agony of travel as any I’ve heard. Travel as a mode of release, of ‘getting away’, is a myth. We never fall more inescapably into the company of our own ghosts than in strange places. We fail, immediately, at the experiential level, and need the travel writer to be our scapegoat, an alchemical crucible transmuting our shit times into pithy observations and the kind of anecdotes we wish we had to tell. It’s about the writer, not the travel, and hence the proliferation of the genre as an industry of personages, of Chatwins and Brysons and Rabans. And hence idiots like me stumbling down the Eastern Seaboard of the United States clutching Moleskines like talismans, not writing anything down for fear of missing an experience, not experiencing anything for fear of being unable to write it down.

That said, I’ll post again in the near future doing the travel writing I’ve failed at here. There will be pithy observations and diverting anecdotes. It might be all bullshit, but that’s only in the spirit of the game.

I should furthermore change the epigraph to Lévi-Strauss, who begins Tristes Tropiques thus: ‘I hate travelling and explorers. Yet here I am proposing to tell the story of my expeditions…Why, I asked myself, should I give a detailed account of so many trivial circumstances and insignificant happenings?’

Yes, Claude, why? WHY?

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Stansted and the Nothing that Is

If architecture is frozen music then Stansted Airport is Coldplay in cryogenic suspension, a crystalline distillate of bland, the Platonic ideal of bland. The blandness of this place is awesome, transcendent. It benumbs the faculties and calcifies the superego to the point of nirvana. The purity and obstinacy of vision at work here suggests Joyce and the Wake or Wagner and the Ring Cycle. Huddled in the arrivals lounge in the 5 AM silence of my fellow deplanees – many of them unconscious, inert on their crappy peeling chairs like unplugged appliances – I can do nothing but lay my head back and let the infinitely repeating monochrome tesserae of the ceiling overwhelm me. It’s not dissimilar to an encounter with the Sublime. It’s like pulling a whitey inside a Tron schematic of the Sistine Chapel.

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Talkin’ monochrome: everything – everything, that is, intrinsic to the essence of the airport, the cafés and newsagents and information stands being mere prettiwork on the sepulchre – is a very specific shade of…well. Not white or grey, as might first appear. The colour of sick ghosts, rather, or scuffed pearls, or crusted cloud, or week-old snow compressed in a gutter. This is the colour Westeros will turn when winter finally comes. Like the airport itself, which is neither ugly nor not ugly, the colour is neither happy nor sad. The overall effect is one of a neutrality so static you it makes you feel briefly, unpleasantly ageless, clay-hearted and amber-blooded, petrified as a Pompeii pigeon.

(Speaking of. The lone bird I see clattering around the train station under the airport is Stansted-coloured too. Perhaps he was a crow once, made an evolutionary victim like one of those sooty chimney months and bleached chameleonically of his lustre.)

image

This place is not designed for sentient life. Every human here is a desecration, and knows it. But even the smokers must shuffle back in eventually, back onto the mortal coil, whatever daylight they might carry secreted in the folds of their skin quickly scoured away by the fluorescents. The man who sells me my bus ticket has the look of a prisoner entrusted with every key but his own. His face is like Paul McCartney’s after a clout from a shovel. The air smells of ectoplasm and the coffee tastes of sweat.

Yet Stansted is noble in its nullity. It could never be torn down because it is not really there. It is an engineered void. It is a solid absence. It is an opus of mindless genius.

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Re: Cover Art – Addendum

In spite of which we find in the midst of the Black Paintings this poor perro:

'The Dog'

‘The Dog’

– my favourite of them and, in its almost unbearable subtlety, the strangest. Incidentally, it’s also one of the supreme moments in Western European visual art. I say ‘moment’ because its effect is one of constant temporal recalibration: whenever I look at it – even now, typing this sentence, letting my eyes flicker between the image and the words – I don’t just think I’m looking at it for the first time; I feel time’s little snag, like a bee plucking at the air going by, as though the painting is itself a beat, the tock of a tick, an instant. This is in many ways the inverse of the classical ars longa/vita brevis formulation (‘The Dog’ does not occupy a serene zoological Arcadia, hanging out with Stubbs’ horses and Landseer’s bears) and yet its relentless newness assures its immortality anyway, mutability establishing itself as monument. Or, to put it another way, a superfine aesthetic invoking an atavistic sense of necessity: there is nothing naive about the painting, but if you squint it could have come from Lascaux.

The dog himself must surely be the doggiest dog that was ever painted. Look at him!! ❤

Turner, who came shortly after Goya, strikes me as the obvious association:

'Rain, Steam and Speed - The Great Western Railway'
‘Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway’

As a painting about velocity, this is a painting about time in a way ‘The Dog’ is not. ‘The Dog’ isn’t about anything more than a dog, and it’s not even particularly about that. ‘The Dog’ is a formal construction of three distinct volumes: foreground, background, intermediate dog (four volumes if we count the curious shadow to the right). ‘Rain, Steam and Speed’, by contrast, is an illustration; abstraction here is a means to an end, which is the protrayal of a phenomenon, ergo it is not really abstraction. We can recognise that Turner has very brilliantly evoked the passage of time but, unlike the Goya, the work begins and ends at that evocation. The abstraction of ‘The Dog’ is a – in a sense – senseless reduction from which the minutely-detailed dog’s head emerges as both an anchor and a drifting fugitive, a cur of figurativism lost in a new dispensation of line and colour for their own sake. But the locomotive in ‘Rain’ – Turner’s dog, essentially – is made to dissolve into the work, into the artist’s project, as an algebraic notation. ‘Rain, Steam and Speed’, for all its technical innovation, is still realism. ‘The Dog’ is I don’t know what but something much spookier and more serious.

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