Saturday, July 12, 2014

Gryffindor Common Room: Lady with the Unicorn Tapestry

I know I just wrote what is basically a treatise about the importance of art in film and the importance of highlighting certain pieces of art in film as to attempt to gauge attitudes towards art in society. That being said, I'm publishing a post about art that has no bearing, aside for cosmetic purposes, towards the plot. Nor does this piece reflect any emotional or metaphorical meanings of the film itself. It's just kinda cool. Which is reason enough to publish a tiny blog post.
The First Years are welcomed into the Gryffindor Common Room.
A clear view of the "Desire" Panel in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
It's Harry Potter Weekend; that means I've been rewatching and rereading all my favorite installments of the series. I can't help myself. I was hooked since childhood and even though the last few films were slightly painful for me, I not only watched them, I enjoyed them. C'est la vie.

Still, I was watching this batch of Harry Potter with a more critical eye, at least in terms of art. I would love to be able to write about the wonderful moving paintings of Hogwarts, but alas, I think computer animation is to thank for most of them. Still, that does not mean all is lost because I was able to spot a wonderful tapestry in the most unlikely of places. I'm being sarcastic, it was right on the wall where it belongs but in a slightly different format.
The tapestry/wallpaper is clear in all the scenes that take place in the Common
Room, just like this scene from The Goblet of Fire
Thanks to the Childcraft books of the '70s, I have a great recollection of a few hundred random pieces that are highlighted in the book. And one of those pieces (in the chapter, "Animal Fair") is one of the panels of the famously beautiful Lady with the Unicorn Tapestry. It is a 16th century French tapestry that is in six separate panels. From what I can tell, the tapestry (which currently resides in the Cluny Museum of Paris) is a visualization of the senses (with "desire" being the sixth sense) and a celebration of a fantastically beautiful lady. The titular unicorn appears in all the panels with the titular lady, as well as a lion and sometimes a monkey. From the cursory research I've done outside of Childcraft, it is believed that the lion and unicorn are part of some lord's heraldry, but the exact lord or lady is unknown.
The Lady with the Unicorn (16th century French tapestry)
Cluny Museum, Paris
So, how does this wonderful tapestry end up on the walls of Gryffindor Common Room? I have a few suggestions as to why the production designers were attracted to this particular tapestry. First of all, it is fairly well known because of its gorgeous red field and its titular magical creatures. The unicorn is a magical creature hence it would be at place in a school of witchcraft and wizardry. Secondly, the medieval tapestry goes well with the very medieval vibe of Hogwarts, which is, after all, a castle first and foremost.(Though perhaps a French tapestry would be more at home at Beauxbatons Academy, but I digress). Thirdly, the house symbol (or sigil in the Game of Thrones world) is a lion. As I stated earlier, a lion appears in the panels. Finally, Gryffindor's colors are maroon and gold just like the primary motif of the tapestry. With its mix of imagery, color, and magic theme, The Lady and the Unicorn just make sense on the walls of Hogwarts.

As a final note, the tapestry does not appear in tapestry form. It looks more like ornate wallpaper. Of course, we know better. Finally, it looks like the "Desire" tapestry is the primary panel from which the designers created their pseudo-wallpaper. I'm making this assumption based on the blue tent which figures heavily in "Desire" and on the Common Room walls.
A view of the set

Have you noticed any more real art influences in the magical world of Harry Potter? If you have or if you are interested about any particular pieces from the films, please let me know!

Friday, July 11, 2014

The State of the Arts: As it pertains to "The Art of Film"

Before you read what follows, here are a few disclaimers. First, I apologize for my silence lately. I've been working like a dog saving money for a trip to Europe next spring and I haven't had a ton of time to research quality posts. What you are about to read is the fruits of a lot of philosophic effort. It is a rough draft of a treatise that I was inspired to write one night. My wording or more importantly, my opinions may change, even overnight but I wanted to share it with the world. 
I wonder what Miss Brodie would think.
By the way- I'm working on a post for her! 
I was recently reading an article online that dealt with how art was treated on television and in the movies, a subject that occasionally interests me (as you may know). Since, I’ve read that article, I can’t find it anywhere, but I just want to say that the following post, which is completely uncharacteristic for my blog is spurned partially by that excellent article and partially by a disparaging comment my little sister made about the arts. The two go hand in hand because the point that the article made (and that my sister proved) is that mass media (what I consider “low art”) has major implications on the perception and subsequent reception of high art.

I don’t consider myself a high art writer. While I occasionally highlight certain critically-considered masterpieces that appear in film or influence the look of film, I’m no expert. Most of the art that I write about is generally considered more props than art (which I think is unfair, but no matter). But while art critics may consider the Carlotta portrait from Vertigo a prop, I (movie critic and public combined) consider such pieces as Art with a Capital A. This is telling in two specific, but not equally important ways.

The first is that it proves that the American public has still yet to really get a grasp on the definition of art, probably in part due to the confusion caused from the members of the art community itself. The modern art scene is so varied that it defies categorization. This is not necessarily a negative attribute to today’s art scene. At the same time, it explains why the American public may not have a complete grasp on the high art scene. It is so varied that it is unable to be grasped in one piece. The plethora of artists, styles, mediums, and genres overwhelm the average art viewer and are frankly difficult to process. This explains the second consequence of movie art: the public grasps art in a way that it can understand: through mass media.

Television and film provide the public with digestible portions of art. These are both beneficial and damaging to the art world. In some instances, mass media can break art into understandable chunks for the public. Consider a television documentary about an artist: it provides the viewer with a limited, but seemingly concise, knowledge about a limited field in the art world that in a familiar and understandable fashion. Facts are provided in these formats, but more importantly, in these supposedly objective media, criticism is provided for the viewer. If a talking head critic says that Picasso’s work is masterful and diverse and shows a breadth of action and emotion, the viewer is provided with a blueprint about how to feel about certain art. It seems like an emotional cop-out and defeats part of the purpose of art- an individual reaction and relationship with the art- but in a confusing field, it provides some order and some hard-to-find certainty. It is not ridiculous, then, to imagine that the public takes the same approach to understanding art in less academic media.

Which leads us to my second conclusion, the public looks to the movies, to radio, to television, to help them understand art. We all are told that art is important but from personal experience, I know a lot of people have trouble understanding just what the big deal about art is. After all, my sister told me, anything can be art, which is the same thing as saying nothing is art. Her conclusion is rough, but I’m inclined to respect her logic.

Here’s an honest confession: I will never understand color field painting, or the supposedly ironic work of Jeff Koons, or the ultra-abstract sculptures that I’ve seen inside the hallowed halls of my local art museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I do not have the artistic chops or understanding to critically demote these pieces, but I can honestly say that I do not understand them. But that doesn’t mean I don’t understand art or the personal response that great art is supposed to render. I’m always revising my personal definition of art, often due to the work I highlight in this blog, and I’ll share my most recent conclusion about what makes art: something that is consciously created to be more then itself, which should also evoke a personal or emotional response, of any depth, from the viewer. With these parameters, using the Vertigo example I mentioned earlier, I can consider both the film and the Carlotta painting as art. I can also consider Andy Warhol’s Campbell Soup Cans a work of art and other more complicated modern pieces. As a disclaimer, this is my personal definition that, in all honesty, I’ve labored over.

I have an educated guess that most people don’t spend time laboring over what something means if it is a work of art. So instead, as is largely the case with so many other aspects of culture- food, fashion, beauty- they turn on their screens, and look to the movies or television for their reaction. But, I want you to think of the last time you saw an artist character on TV. I don’t even know what you’re thinking of, but I’m sure the character was eccentric, even wacky, and made some incomprehensible work that the characters, let alone you, couldn’t understand. And those who do understand it (in the show, mind you) are considered elitist, aloof, or just as crazy as the artist. Think Frasier- he was comedic partially due to the fact that he was cultured. This is the making of great comedy but it is also a little dangerous when we belittle intelligence and culture.  

If you notice, a lot of the works I highlight are from older films and television shows. I used to just focus on central plot pieces, but now, I enjoy just using almost background pieces and gauging reactions of characters to those works of art. I don’t have a nostalgic naiveté about the treatment of art forty or fifty years ago- the sins of today’s media are simply echoes of the sins of our fathers. But at the same time, I do notice more respect because perhaps, there was a greater balance.

I love writing and researching about the arts in film and culture because I believe they are just as important, if not more important than the high arts. Why? Because they shape the public’s perception of art and the art world. And art, or at least truly great art, is nothing without its audience. The art of film is important because it determines how we view art outside of film. It gives us preconceived attitudes, opinions, and philosophies. Some are blatantly stated while others are subtly implied through the subtexts of the plot.

The work I do promoting the art of film is irrelevant, even if you agree with my argument that the arts in film shape the public opinion, if you don’t believe art is important in the first place. If you don’t think a heritage of culture and arts is important, the work I do is pointless. But, if you see a place for the arts in society, for promoting a diverse cultural experience, for forcing audiences to think outside the box and beyond their own spheres, then what you read on this blog is not merely a list of painted props, it is a documentation of an important cultural element.

For the record, I believe art is necessary for the human spirit. And in a small way, I believe that I'm simply recording an element of that essential ingredient for human fulfillment. I know I view this blog in huge terms, but if the posts make you happy, then I must be doing something right!
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