An Artfully Constructed Chase and (Happily) Little Else

November 19, 2009

Writing for London’s Spectator in 1936, the novelist Graham Greene used Alfred Hitchcock’s latest thriller, Sabotage, to levy this criticism at the director:

His films consist of a series of small “amusing” melodramatic situations: the murderer’s button dropped on the baccarat board; the strangled organist’s hands prolonging the notes in the empty church; the fugitives hiding in the bell-tower when the bell begins to swing. Very perfunctorily he builds up to these tricky situations (paying no attention on the way to inconsistencies, loose ends, psychological absurdities) and then drops them: they mean nothing: they lead to nothing.

Greene meant it as a slight, but I’m not so sure Hitchcock would have taken it as one. The more Hitchcock films you see (and you’ve got your pick for the rest of the month), the more you want to respond to Greene, “Yeah, and?”

Hitchcock made a career of crafting films concerned more with the chase itself than with the impetus for the chase or the consequences of getting caught, getting away, or saving the day. At the end of North by Northwest, as Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint find themselves safe from pursuit—yet still dangling perilously from Mount Rushmore—Hitchcock simply cuts to the couple safe and sound in a train for a quick and tidy resolution. The director seems to say “there is no danger but the chase.” Come on: we all know no one’s falling to their death unless they’re pushed.

Sabotage is an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel The Secret Agent—not to be confused with another Hitchcock film, Secret Agent, released a year earlier. On the other hand, if you do find it confusing, you can hedge your bets by seeing both on Saturday night in a double feature. Of the two, I prefer Secret Agent—er, the Hitchcock film, not the Conrad novel—almost entirely due to the marvelous supporting performance from Peter Lorre, who steals every scene he’s in. Set during World War I, Lorre aids fellow spies John Gielgud and Madeleine Carroll, who are posing as a husband and wife in Switzerland and are tasked with killing a man whose identity they do not know. When Hitchcock planned the making of the film, he told Francois Truffaut, “I asked myself, ‘What do they have in Switzerland? They have milk chocolate, the Alps, village dances, and lakes… [so] we used lakes for drownings, the Alps to have characters fall into crevasses, and a chocolate factory for the chase.’”

Secret Agent, 1936

Sounds like the recipe for a great thriller. So to Graham Greene I must ask again: “Yeah, and?”

Scott Tennent

Galvanizing the Monkey Army and Other Stunning Feats

November 18, 2009

Over the last few months I’ve had the pleasure of working with the curators of Heroes and Villains: The Battle for Good in India’s Comics and two of the artists featured in the exhibition, Mukesh Sing and Jeevan J. Kang, in commissioning limited-edition prints inspired by the show.

Jeevan J. Kang, “Ravan abducts Sita,” scene from Ramayan 3392 AD (2006)

Having been steeped in this contemporary component of the exhibition, I was excited to see the Indian paintings that make up the other half of the show, now that the exhibition is open. With the help of co-curator Tushara Bindu Gude, I learned more about these works, each depicting a fascinating world with animal and human fiefdoms vying for power.

My favorite work in the show is a nineteenth-century painting that recounts part of the ancient story of Ramayana, aka Adventures of Rama. Sugriva, king of the monkeys, makes a deal with Rama to help him free Sita (Rama’s wife) from captivity. But Sugriva has one condition—Rama must help him overthrow Sugriva’s older brother from whom Sugriva stole the throne. The painting shows us Sugriva ensconced on his opulent throne within a cave and surrounded by members of his court. His loyal general, Hanuman, is shown rushing out of the cave to galvanize an army of monkeys and join Rama in his quest to free Sita and defeat her captor Ravana. It’s an exquisitely rendered work with saturated colors and incredible details.

India, Himachal Pradesh, "Kangra Sugriva Sends Emissaries, Led by Hanuman, to Find Princess Sita," c. 1830–1840, Southern Asian Art Council

In the next gallery, a modern version of Hanuman is imagined by a Liquid Comics artist, Abishek Singh, in a serene moment perched on a tree branch and playing a flute.

Abishek Singh, "Character exploration for Hanuman," Ramayan 3392 AD, 2006, Liquid Comics, Bangalore, India, © Liquid Comics, all rights reserved

In the gallery featuring the Indian paintings there is also a series of works which might be considered part of the early evolution of the graphic novel. These are bold watercolors illustrating a tale derived from the Indian epic Mahabharata and were used to illustrate the story when it was told aloud. They show everything from fierce battles to miracles in the story of Babhruvahana, a tale of war and complicated family dynamics. Babhruvahana is forced to kill his father in a battle over territory and is then promptly told by his mother to bring him back to life. Babhruvahana recruits a mongoose army and fights a legion of snakes to obtain the elixir that will bring his father back from the dead. (Some of these watercolors were previously discussed on Unframed here.)

India, Maharashtra, Paithan "Fight of the Mongoose and the Serpent Armies (recto), Babhruvahana and the Mongoose Fight the Serpents (verso), Scenes from the Story of Babhruvahana, Folio from a Mahabharata (War of the Great Bharatas)," c. 1850, from the Nasli and Alice Heeramaneck Collection, Museum Associates Purchase

Today, Liquid Comics has brought new life to the amazing myths and stories of ancient India. More info can be found here should you want to bring a little bit of the mythical into your own home.

Erin Wright, Director of Special Projects

Toning Your Muscles Under the Lights

November 17, 2009

Is there anyplace more artless than a gym? All that drudgery and nothing good to look at, unless you count the taut bodies surrounding you. And unless you go to the LA Fitness across the street from LACMA. Now that it gets dark early, Urban Light is on when I leave for the day—the only good thing about daylight savings in my mind—as are the lights in the gym on the other side of Wilshire. So now I’ve suddenly begun to notice the people inside working out. I wonder if these healthy folks are any more inclined to stay on the exercise bike with such a magnificent view? Can you think of another gym where a world-class work of art is front and center?

Allison Agsten

The Constant Guardian

November 16, 2009

Aside from the most common question asked of the gallery attendant—“where’s the restroom?”—the next could easily be the empathetic concern, “do you stand all day?” Yes, but it’s not too bad. Working in a museum, I like to say, is heaven for the mind and hell for the feet.

For the stoic guard the day is filled with many splendors. Many of us are art lovers who wanted to be guards in the museum. Barring the attendant physical woes, being hemmed in with Picasso, Matisse, Rembrandt, and the many other great works that fill LACMA’s rich and eclectic collection is irresistible. Not to take away from the astute curators, the dedicated docents, and the army of people who make it all possible, but even they can’t imagine the unfettered hours on end at Matisse’s magical Tea party or the hypnotic color swirls of Leger’s Disks, or to turn and be face to face with the delicate, tenderly rendered Woman with Blue Veil by Picasso—an act of looking which could be repeated without end.


Pablo Picasso, Woman with Blue Veil, Mr. and Mrs. George Gard De Sylva Collection

This is our living space. This is the upside of the coin, lessened in value only by our struggle to keep at bay that strange creeping casual indifference that is first cousin to repetition.

Doesn’t it get to look like wallpaper and furniture to you, standing in the galleries day in and day out? Well, maybe for some, but not for everyone. I believe that some of the art will go on speaking to you in spite of fatigue and familiarity. That being said, you are not quite alone within this silent drama, for the patrons are invariably asking questions, sometimes enlisting opinions or edging your enthusiasm. I find such engagement to be the cure-all.

Hylan Booker, Gallery Attendant

Tour New Topographics with Peter Holzhauer

November 13, 2009

Next up in our series of contemporary photographers offering their own insight on New Topographics is Los Angeles-based artist Peter Holzhauer. Raised in Maine before relocating to Los Angeles, Peter explores the metropolis with an eye toward recording its inhabitants’ more ambiguous claims on the local terrain. Photographing the city’s built environment he describes a place of laconic vigor, flux, and occasional absurdity. Peter will be giving a tour of New Topographics this Sunday; here’s a peek at some of the topics he might explore.


Mark Ruwedel

Amir Zaki

Edward Robinson, Associate Curator, The Wallis Annenberg Photography Department

%d bloggers like this: