Animated Laughter and the Perfect Tableau Vivant

David Brody follows the trail of interwoven fiction, fact, the tableau vivant, and art in Nabokov, Bruegel, Disney, Eve Sussman, Lech Majewski, and others

Pieter Breughel the Elder, The Netherlandish Proverbs, or The Blue Cloak, 1559

Vladimir Nabokov’s 1938 novel Laughter in the Dark begins with an art collector daydreaming about financing an animated film that would bring an old master painting to life, a Dutch genre scene of skaters and taverns. The collector Albinus has arrived at this “beautiful idea,” as he calls it, while frequenting the cinemas of Berlin (ill-fatedly, as we’ll see). At the movies Albinus discerns how the popular American cartoon shorts of the day, sequential paintings in effect, furnish a coarse prototype for his moving Dutch landscape—with the difference that Albinus’s film would be ambitiously refined, “movement and gesture graphically developed in complete harmony with their static state in the picture.” No ordinary cartoon, Albinus’s animation would map the technique of Mickey Mouse onto the most venerable traditions of art.

Nabokov was a Berliner like his creation Albinus when he began writing a first serialized version of the novel in Russian for the amusement of fellow exiles displaced by the Bolsheviks. Berlin was a capital of cinema, and there Nabokov had become, again like Albinus, a frequent moviegoer. In 1931, the year Nabokov began publishing his serial, a Disney cartoon called The China Plate was released internationally. This black-and-white, non-Mickey graphic narrative takes the form of a looping tableau vivant—in striking correlation to Albinus’s plans for the Dutch landscape. Nabokov might well have seen it; perhaps he made a mental note of this 7-minute romp before settling in for the feature—say, the Greta Garbo vehicle of the same year, Mata Hari. (As we’ll see, Garbo seems to have left her stamp on Laughter in the Dark no less than Disney.) In The China Plate, a pastoral glaze painting adorning the dish of the title brings forth antic Fu Manchu figures (casually racist; intended as charming) who soon come to chase one another, finally coming to rest again as part of the porcelain decoration more or less where they started. Just so, in the quaint winter landscape that Albinus imagines, the figures would arise from their painted stasis to drink, flirt, and skate awhile. As the film concludes, they would slowly arrive back at their eternal poses, “ending it all,” according to Albinus’s daydream, “with the first picture.”

The tableau vivant had been a popular theatrical spectacle in the 1890s, in part for the way history painting and mythological idylls veneered a just-plausible decorum over exposed flesh. Like other vaudeville skits, the tableau made the transition to moving images, and the staged re-enactment of celebrated paintings (most now forgotten) was a frequent subject of the earliest hand-cranked Kinetoscopes and Mutoscopes. As cinema developed its narrative capacities, however, the tableau fell into disuse, even while developments in special effects suggested how it might be brought closer to a state of perfection. Perhaps inevitably it has lately been making a comeback. Eve Sussman and the Rufus Corporation (89 Seconds at Alcázar), Peter Greenaway (Leonardo’s Last Supper: A Vision by Peter Greenaway, 2010), and Lech Majewski (The Mill & the Cross, 2011) have all made recent attempts at bringing old master paintings to life. Making use of state-of-the-art video and various methods of computer modeling and image processing, these artists have begun to tap a vast accumulation of cinematic potential in revivifying the tableau.

But before we are launched headlong into an era of elegant, whispering Velázquezes, edifying 3-D Leonardos, and metafictional Bruegel collages (pocket descriptions of the three works just mentioned; we’ll take a closer look later), it may be worth pausing for a moment to revisit the cinematized painting presciently imagined in Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark. The tale happens to be distinctly cautionary, not to say ominous. Maybe painting and cinema shouldn’t mix, the book seems to imply; maybe those who attempt it deserve artistic retribution—at least those with facile aspirations, like the spineless dilettante Albinus. Among his many failings, including the death from neglect of his young daughter, his original sin appears to be that he dabbles genteelly with the ontology of painting.
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Bikers in the City





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The Grand Adventure of Vera Caspary

In Vera Caspary’s absorbing autobiography The Secrets of Grown-Ups (1979) recounting her life as a writer, she avows, “This has been the century of The Woman and I know myself fortunate to have been part of the revolution. In another generation, perhaps the next, equality will be taken for granted. Those who come after us may find it easier to assert independence, but will miss the grand adventure of having been born a woman in this century of change.”

Born in Chicago in 1898 to a middle-class secular Jewish family, Caspary was inspired as a young girl to become a writer when she met her friend’s aunt, a published author. On finishing high school, Caspary decided not to go to college but to seek a writing job, and wound up a stenographer. Soon she was writing the instructions for a mail-order course for the Sergei Marinoff School of Classic Dancing, though she knew nothing about ballet. Further assignments included composing a screenwriting course, which would prove helpful later in her career. She wrote for ad agencies, niche magazines, even wrote copy for The Rodent Extermination League of America. When she had saved enough money, she quit these sorts of jobs in order to stay at home and write “something meaningful.” The result was a novel she never published.

In the mid-1920s Caspary accepted a job in New York City writing for Dance Lovers Magazine. She took a studio in Greenwich Village, and reveled in Bohemian life at a time “when sexual inhibition was to be avoided like pregnancy and a repressed libido shunned like a dose of clap.” In her hard-boiled prose style, she describes those boom years before the crash: “Young wives measured devotion by the inches of diamond bracelets and kept women spurned mink to wrap themselves in chinchilla.”
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UNDER THE BASILICA OF ST. THÉRÈSE, LISIEUX

From Stuck in Customs - Trey Ratcliff

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On the Street in Amsterdam with Van Gogh and Snow

From The Sartorialist

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Rilo Kiley – “Silver Lining”

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Shortfim “d”

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Jimmy Reed – Take Out Some Insurance

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NEW WORK FROM STINKFISH IN BOLIVIA

Stinkfish created this beautiful portrait just outside of the small town of Uyuni in southern Bolivia. It’s an awesome place of around 2 km of old trains abandoned in the middle of a desert. The piece is based on a portrait (1979) of one of the greatest photographs of Mexico: Graciela Iturbide. Enjoy!

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Laura Callaghan’s Cool Literate Women

Wiccans

First spied on Flavorwire, Callaghan is an Irish illustrator based in South East London. Her work is hand drawn using a mixture of watercolor, india ink and the smallest pens she can get her hands on. She’s also the current Illustration editor of Oh Comely magazine. Here’s her website.

Rush Hour

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