Monday, April 18, 2016

On outdated myths and metaphors

An interesting reflection by artist Petar Meseldzija on the value of myths:
I love Meseldzija's style and ideas, but I think he's a bit off the mark in this case.

The fact is the metaphors on which most classic myths were built are outdated. They were already outdated before the modern era and they are twice as outdated by now. They come from a time in which mankind considered itself at odds with the forces of nature and with its own animal nature, threatened by every insinuation he wasn't the center of everything and engaged in an eternal war against anything he didn't understand. The only desirable outcome, the only hopeful vision of the future, was the triumph of personal will which would put man in charge of everything in the universe. This kind of vision, empowering but out of touch with reality, survived well into the modern era and reached its climax in early science fiction and superhero comics, in which men or manlike entities were literally able to harness every force in the universe.

Not all mythology is like this, but most Western mythology from pre-modern times is. The tale of St.George killing the dragon, which Meseldzija chose to illustrate the article, most certainly is. It is said sometimes that the modern era has failed to replace the older Western myths with newer myths of similar stature, but I would argue that that's untrue. Robinson Crusoe, Sherlock Holmes, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, Edmond Dantès, Long John Silver, Dr. Gulliver, Don Quixote, Ikari Shinji, Harry Potter... there are plenty of modern/contemporary archetypical heroes and antiheroes whose antics are more relevant to the cultures of 2016 than any of the ancient heroes', even though modern characters don't lend themselves as easily to reinterpretation.

Now, I understand what metaphors are for, and I understand that there are some rules to the structure of compelling tales because we want tales to stimulate our mind in certain ways. It goes without saying that many myths have superb narrative value. Yet in the contemporary cultural context I fail to see the educational value of myths about courage at a spear point and monster hunting. Of course this could be a personal limitation of mine stemming from the fact I don't trust psychoanalytical theories of art. But it seems to me that most people don't find any educational value in such metaphors either, even though most people would praise them if questioned. We praise them but in practice we consider them good only for entertainment. And rightfully so, because such metaphors don't make for good mental tools to deal with the contemporary world. If you are a teenager going through troublesome times at school or in your family, or dealing with serious inner demons such as suicidal tendencies or dangerous urges, reframing your situation as that of a hero fighting the unknown will likely do more harm than good.

Needless to say my favorite interpretation of Don Quixote - a very modern myth - is that of a warning against outdated human values. Old myths are compelling, but taking their teachings seriously leads to disaster.

There is one kind of heroic figure which the messy contemporary world needs though, and it's also the least represented in Western legends: the smart, self-inquiring, nurturing culture hero. We need to develop an admiration for creative figures such as Chiron or Johnny Appleseed much more than we need to celebrate battlefield heroes such as Odysseus or St.George. We are done fearing the wilderness, demons and vengeful gods. Living in the world of 2016 is akin to stepping carefully in a desert trying to figure out first and foremost how to not run out of water and how to not get hallucinations from the stress.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Restaurant lounge exhibit

I've been invited to exhibit my paintings for a whole year in an Indian/exotic themed lounge of a restaurant in my city. The Fourier Age Avatar paintings fits perfectly with the style of the place, so I plan on leaving it there for the whole time (unless somebody buys it). I will be rotating some of the other paintings every few weeks. Right now I'm juggling the dates to make this fit with other planned exhibits and my work schedule for the Eurofurence Art Show, but I should be able to show there most of the non-commission paintings I do this year.

The place has no problem hosting nudes and slightly erotic works, which will probably come across as strange to USA furries but is not too unusual here in Europe. I just love the idea of anthro art being in public spaces like this! It makes for great conversation pieces as I've experienced multiple times by now.

The opening party went well and I even finished on the spot the last details of a painting.

If I had to give a reason to stubbornly prefer traditional art to digital art it would be that digital art usually lacks this kind of appeal. Even when it's meant for printing, a handmade artifact has a different feeling. One of the reasons Andrew "Android" Jones has gained a well deserved reputation as the foremost digital fine artist is that he understands very well the need for involving the public and adding an immersive, tactile feeling to the visual appeal of digital art, since image quality alone is no longer enough to impress people given the deluge of visual noise we are exposed to. Nowadays making technically impressive pictures and producing great visual ideas is relatively easy with some training, but reaching out to people and actually leaving an impression is still as hard as it has always been.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

A brief look at the job aspect of furry porn

This is one of the very first articles I've seen dealing more or less respectfully with furry artists and their job - a breath of fresh air after dozens of mainstream articles focusing only on internet gossip or fursuiting while giving only a passing mention the the true foundation of the furry fandom, that is anthro art and the fandom's commissions market.

I appreciate that the article doesn't try to hide the most common kind of anthro art (that is porn) behind a wall of awkward disclaimers and safe-for-work stuff. They writer didn't pick the best possible examples of furry erotica but that's hardly surprising given that furries are usually busy hiding their best artwork and the most interesting aspects of furry culture for fear that outsiders won't understand.

I also appreciate the choice to interview, among the others, Arania, an artist whose works full of body transformations and unbridled sense of wonder are closer to the roots of furry imagination than the more polished works of the most popular artists.

We are still a long way to go from a good rational analysis of anthro art, but it's a start.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Artist notes: Blotch

"Blotch" is the pseudonym used by anthro artists Kenket (Tess Garman) and BlackTeagan (Teagan Gavet) during their very fruitful collaboration period which ran from 2006 to 2014. As a general rule BlackTeagan was responsible for the linework and Kenket for the coloring which was usually watercolors. Kenket has since become an extremely skilled painter while BlackTeagan is focusing on comics and ink drawing.

For simplicity I will refer to Blotch as a male since that's the gender of the fictional character they estabilished as the author of the pictures, a male anthro leopard.

Even though the two artists already had some visibility on their own, Blotch appeared on the furry fandom scene out of nowhere and quickly rose to become one of the most popular furry artists of the late 2000s and early 2010s, if not the most popular. This led to quite a lot of controversy as he was the first highly skilled artist to feature anatomically correct genitals on characters - and quite prominently so.

Big Bad Wolf, 2008

If this had been only a distasteful gimmick it would have died out quickly though. Porn sells, but not consistently and certainly not for the price tags which have been consistently associated with Blotch's art. In spite of silly internet myths there is only so much that impulse buying can do.

Blotch's art has been dismissed as mere porn by some anthro fans unwilling to admit that erotic artwork could be a credit to the genre, but it has other qualities which make it stand out as iconic anthro art, well worth of being presented as one of the most important achievements in our little genre.

Speaking of Love, 2010

Blotch's erotic art in particular could come across as kitschy because of its open sentimentality, but I would argue that that is a superficial impression and that the novelty of what it tries to express about same-sex relationships experienced by young people is more important than such academic criticism.

Does sex in art need to feel gritty, smug, overwhelmingly physical and/or openly political all the time? One would think so looking at the works of recognized masters of erotic art. I'll be using male gay artists as an example here just because Blotch's subjcts are mostly male-on-male love scenes, but the situation is pretty much the same for all flavors of erotic art. There are notable exceptions like Tom Bianchi or Charles Demuth, but in most cases, from Tom of Finland to Gengoroh Tagame, from Robert Mapplethorpe to Harry Bush, power relationships are the most common underlying theme. Dominance, submission and hardcore physical sensations seem to dominate, and so does (in Western artists at least) a visual language which acknowledges and openly encourages political readings.

On the other end of the erotic gay art spectrum yaoi art leans towards more romantic tones, but power relationships are still a very prominent theme. There's apparently no escape from same-sex relationships being associated with power struggles, even if only in the imagination, whether the art in question is aimed to a male, female, gay or straight audience.

And yet Blotch's art has seduced the furry audience by focusing on something else entirely: playfulness and day to day affection.

5 More Minutes, 2008

In spite of their idealized settings the best works of Blotch are gay slice-of-life art, and not of the absurdly contrived kind brought forward by some other furry artists. It is slice-of-life in that it attempts to capure ordinary moments of affection. Any couple of lovers with an open mind and an appreciation for animals and nature can't help but smile in front of the simple and yet hard to express truths found in those images.

Don't Stop, 2014

One has to look at Far East art from centuries ago such as Ukiyo-e or Indian sacred art in order to consistently find similar light-hearted portrayals of male-on-male sexuality.

Surge, 2011

This, I believe, is why Blotch's pictures have reached iconic status in furry art even though most of them don't depict specific characters (as is usually the case in the commission dominated market of furry art). They clearly answered a need for representation that a huge number of furries shared. Sentimentality is not a flaw if it's brought out where it had been unjustly excluded and underestimated before.

And again, genuinely positive depictions of sex in art are so rare that they certainly cannot be considered a stale subject.

Minimum Security Prison, 2011

In dog we thrust, 2007

Penis party, 2013

Even Blotch's more whimsical pieces are full of the same playfulness and positivity which are the hallmark of good erotic anthro art. Whatever the subject an observer always gets the feeling that the characters are having a great time no matter their exact relationship to each other (or lack thereof), and that sincere feelings are never entirely absent from the sexual act.

Will this kind of art ever be recognized as the achievement it is outside of the anthro art niche? It's hard to tell, because even inside its niche there are people who would never take erotic art at more than face value. But I really hope it will, because what anthro artists like Blotch have done really is new and interesting in the landscape of Western art.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Symbolist art and the longing for anthropocentrism

This week I had a chance to visit an excellent exhibit about Symbolist artists being held in Milan. News of the exhibit had caught my interest because I didn’t have a clear overall view of the movement and I feel that fantastic artwork from that time period (late XIX century) is important for understanding how the representation of nature and anthropomorphism in art has evolved during the XX century. Here are my notes and reflections on the exhibit.

Representation of sexuality

The Symbolist movement was kickstarted by the works of Charles Baudelaire and other poets of the "accursed poets" group, who described modern life as gloomy and degenerate, dominated by greed, lust and the death of humanistic ideals. Symbolist artists in turn searched mythology and ancient iconography for visual metaphors they deemed appropriate to express their contempt for modern society. The supposedly dangerous nature of sexuality is a common theme in art of that age and is often dealt with by means of animal metaphors. Confident women in particular were often depicted as icons of lust, ready to prey upon men like snakes or sphinxes.

Baudelaire’s work can easily be interpreted as social critique because of its antagonistic nature and due to the fact it caused knee-jerk outrage when it was first published, leading to censorship and legal troubles for the artist. This is the classic interpretation suggested by the exhibit too: Baudelaire as a scathing critic of the ugly modern metropolis, longing for an ethically superior past and persecuted for that.

This interpretation never made a lot of sense to me though. Baudelaire was beyond any doubt an artistic genius, but his attitude towards society wasn't really that new. What he did was modernizing old tenets of conservative philosophy such as nostalgia for a supposedly more heroic past and the conflation of sensual love (as opposed to spiritual love) with death. But he clearly wallowed in the decadence he described as much as he castigated it.

The lasting success of gloomy Symbolist art after the initial outrage about its subject matter had settled down is a testament to the inconsistency of the critique it brought forward. Turns out people of the industrial age actually like decadence and self deprecation a lot: they want consuming lust and the other contemporary "evils" to be portrayed in detail on huge canvases.

Victor Prouvé, The voluptuous, 1889

Similar contradictions still runs strong today, with much of what passes for socio-critical art having no effect whatsoever on the real issues it addresses. Sometimes when I look at contemporary art of that kind it feels like passionate, consistent social critique as found in the works of Otto Dix or George Grosz never existed. If the Symbolists thought rampant degeneracy was threatening society maybe they shouldn't have contributed even more erotic artwork to art scene. (Of course they were wrong and they produced some great erotic artwork, but that's beside the consistency issue.)

Félicien Rops, Pornokratès, 1878

What does the constant philosophical bashing of sexuality, femalehood and instinct have to do with lamenting the death of humanism? If the nightmares and moral indignation of Baudelaire and the Symbolists were supposed to invoke a lost humanistic ideal then the death of humanism was probably a good riddance, because the world they longed for feels even more shallow than the “dirty” modern world.

If anything I would say they missed the absolute anthropocentrism of past ages (sometimes even theocentrism) rather than the more nuanced humanism which had led to the Age of Enlightenment.

Representation of nature

I’m also perplexed by how that longing for anthropocentrism is mistaken for a longing for “nature” or a “return to nature”. What kind of “nature” were the Symbolists longing for?

Félicien Rops, The Sphinx, 1882. Don’t you dare embrace your animal nature, the Devil will get you!

“Throughout your works I found again the solemnity of the grand sounds of Nature in her grandest aspects, as well as the solemnity of the grand passions of man” wrote Baudelaire in his famous letter to Wagner. Yet the core of Wagner’s art philosophy was the Gesamtkunstwerk, the “total work of art”, the aspiration to an all-encompassing artistic experience of reality tailored by humans for humans. This sounds at odds with any supposed aspiration to reconcile with nature.

I understand the awe of course. Great art can make us feel grand spaces and fleeting sensations we can only otherwise find in the wilderness. Many of the best works of art are, in the word of landscape painter Stapleton Kearns, “design installed upon nature”, and anthro art is possibly the most glaring example of redesigning aspects of nature to fit the artist’s whims. But anthro art, landscape art and wildlife art alike are almost always positive towards their sources, whereas the Symbolists were very negative in their portrayal of actual untamed nature.

Odilon Redon, Larvae So Bloodless and So Hideous, 1896

There is no better example of this attitude than the works of Odilon Redon. The exhibit hosted among other works his series of prints titled The origins (of the world). Taking inspiration from Darwin’s theories and from pioneering naturalistic artwork Redon was no backwards thinker and was well acquainted with contemporary science, yet a crippling sense of fear and disgust for the facts of nature seems to pervade his works. What did he imagine at the origins of the world? “Hideous” crawling larvae, “impotent” deformed animals, insane cyclops staring at the heavens as if disgusted by dirty old earth. It is a cosmogony of fear. Even his earlier and more lighthearted paintings never let go of the fear.

Arnold Böcklin was apparently more at ease with the forces of nature which he used to represent through classical mythical creatures such as satyrs and sirens. I quite like his portraits of those creatures. They look charming, funny, even goofy, sporting a touch of Rubens-esque liveliness.

But they are still disquieting creatures you would not want to deal with. Humans in his paintings are usually more blurry and undefined than the mythical creatures, as if they existed on a whole different level. In his work there are still subtle statements that humanity eventually triumphs over nature like a maiden turning the proud Unicorn into a blank-stared nag.

 Arnold Böcklin, Unicorn, 1885

All the various versions of his Isle of the Dead image feature man-made structures, suggesting that either the afterlife is a concept fabricated by humans for humans or a place reserved just for humans.

The late XIX century was a time of fast paced scientific advances like the Western world had never seen before. It's understandable that being confronted for the first time with the fact that nature was infinitely more complex than previously thought turned unsettled many people. But I can't help thinking that artists of the time missed a great opportunity to reexamine the attitude towards nature in art in the light of new scientific knowledge.

Among all the Symbolist currents only Les Nabis, a group of painters brought together by Paul Sérusier and inspired by the most optimistic works of Paul Gauguin and the Impressionist, attempted to moved on to a more wholesome depiction of nature. In their works the human element is often small and fleeting like a shadow. It is an integral part of nature, never in open conflict with it.

Georges Lacombe, The Yellow Sea, 1893

Representation of humanity

"Free man, you will always cherish the sea!
The sea is your mirror; you contemplate your soul
In the infinite unrolling of its billows;
Your mind is an abyss that is no less bitter." 

Charles Baudelaire, Man and the Sea, in Flowers of Evil

I cannot stand this kind of hyperbole about human nature.

Unfathomable, infinitely deep, absolutely free, cherishing the wonders of nature… humans aren’t really like that. Most of the time we are simple minded and confused and not too difficult to understand either. There is nothing soul crushing in admitting that. The world is big and complicated, there is plenty of interesting stuff to do to keep the human mind away from fear of meaninglessness even if we finally admit we aren’t the pinnacle of the universe.

It’s understandable that people would still cling to absolute anthropocentrism in the age of the Symbolists, but it’s baffling how much of an appeal it still has on people today. Such an outdated way of thinking about humanity can only lead to silliness such as art denouncing the evil powers of women and the supposed monstrosity of snakes. For an up to date mind in the world of 2016 snakes should mean beauty and complexity rather than danger.

Franz von Stuck, Sin, 1893

On a final note, the less known artist Galileo Martini stuck me as somebody who was able to see clearly beyond the smoke curtain of anthropocentric absolutism. It's hard for me to explain where such impression stems from. His works on display were mostly high contrast black and white prints depicing tales of violence and surreal figures. His Self portrait shows the artist himself as a surreal figure spawning ghosts through his hands and writings.

His subject matter is similar to that of other Symbolists, but in my opinion his handling of the subjects leaves no doubt as to what he considered the origin of human woes: our own hybris. We think of ourselves as omnipotent wizards but we are really just skilled illusionists. We cannot trascend our basic human flaws and we should not lie to ourselves about them.

Galileo Martini, Self portrait, 1911

The more I learn about Symbolists the more I feel torn between admiration for their creativity and aesthetics and annoyance for the backward worldview they convey. I feel similarly towards most of contemporary fantasy art, which is not surprising considering that it is in many ways a continuation of the Symbolist aesthetics and mindset.

A couple interesting readings:
- Full text of Baudelaire's letter to Wagner:
- Commentary about Odilon Redon’s sources of inspiration:

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The Nayika as the lovers of all creature

Anonymous, The Nayika as the lovers of all creatures, 18th century

I couldn't find any precise information about this intriguing Indian picture. I like erotic Indian art a lot for its portrayals of joyous sensuality and this picture is no exception, it looks like a tongue-in-cheek celebration of lust as a basic animal instinct which drives all of nature. The anatomical correctness of most genitals and mating positions only adds to the good-natured humor of the scene.

I have to wonder why all the humans are women though (there is even a lesbian couple on the left) and why they are juxtaposed to images of animals couples. Nayika can be roughly translated as "heroine" or "woman archetype". I'm not familiar with critical readings of Indian art, but I would especially like to know whether it was meant to be just an enticing piece or some sort of satyrical picture denouncing women's lust. If this were Western art from the same time period the latter would certainly be the most likely reading since even the most sexually explicit art hasn't been safe from moralism or cultural propaganda in past Western history.

In the absence of specific information I'd rather think this image isn't meant to debase women though. Celebrations of fertility and female sexuality hold an important role in Indian culture (although unfortunately real life sexual freedom is another matter), and so do animals and oddities of nature, so it's not surprising that it would produce artistic depictions of lust crossing all barriers and cast in a positive light such as this one.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Digitigrade leg designs from the past

William Bouguereau, Nymphs and a satyr, 1873

Bouguereau cared for composition above all else. This satyr’s legs here are like transplanted chamois legs and look kind of believable in the still image, even though they would probably look unnatural in motion. The fur coat starting halfway down the thigh also feels contrived to me (nice excuse to show the satyr's fully human buttocks!) but aesthetically it certainly works.

Elihu Vedder, Marsyas Enchanting the Hares, 1899

The legs portrayed in this picture are easy to the eye and give a good outline and balance to the satyr’s figure, but they don’t make sense from the anatomical point of view. The calves look like they have no volume and are somehow fused with the thigh. The shaggy fur isn’t enough to conceal the inconsistency, but the legs aren’t really a focal point of the picture so it’s the overall impression that matters. The figure’s outline is very similar to a common hieroglyph depicting a sitting woman, I suspect it is an actual quotation:

I run into the above problem all the time - I have a nice pose in mind but it would force the legs to bend in impossible ways. I used to try all sort of weird leg designs to keep the anatomy as consistent as I could but ultimately I decided it wasn’t worth the effort. In most cases I’d rather use a leg design which feels balanced and has a good outline even if it’s anatomically impossible.

Even though I study my fair share of anatomy I'm not veterinarian and designing a truly consistent model would require also require the kind of 3D simulations used for big budget games and movies. In fact there are some cool digitigrade designs in games and movies (the minotaurs of Narnia come to mind) but I can't remember any instance of them exploring the full extent of the mobility which an anthro body with digitigrade legs could have, probably beacuse it's not required by the media. For them creating believable walk/run cycles is the most important thing. On the other hand a lot of anthro art is still pictures of nudes and sex scenes in which the nuances of what a limb can or cannot do are more relevant.

Carlos Schwabe, The Afternoon of a Faun, 1923

Same leg design as Bouguereau. Here the weird leg anatomy is exploited well for dramatic effect, they are supposed to look uncanny. A human in the same pose would look awkward rather than impressive.

Unknown artist, Pan and Daphnis, III-II century BC

This is one of the most believable designs I could find in ancient art and it’s similar to what is expected of realistic anthro art today. The thighs actually look like they are part human and part animal, and the legs seem to bend just like goat legs. They are also shorter than human legs compared to the torso, which would give Pan a low center of mass helping with balance (balance being the biggest issue with the idea of bipedal digitigrade legs).