Song of the Day: Visual Arts in Music (Day Seven). “Slicing Up Eyeballs”.

“Got me a movie, I want you know, Slicing up eyeballs, I want you to know”.  The movie that Black Francis wants you to know about on Debaser, the opening track of the 1989 album, Doolittle, is Un Chien Andalou, a 15 minute long silent movie by Surrealist painter Salvador Dali and Surrealist filmmaker Louis Brunel made in 1929.  Un Chien Andalou was the pair’s first film and became very popular after its first showing in Paris, running for 8 months.  The film’s premiere was attended by Pablo Picasso, Le Corbusier, Jean Cocteau, Christian Berard and George Auric, as well a vast majority of Andre Breton’s Surrealist group.

The film has no discernible plot, with a disjointed chronology jumping from “Once upon a time” to “8 months later” with tenuously related scenes in a dream-like narrative structure.  The most famous line in the Pixies’ Debaser, “Slicing up eyeballs” is a reference to the film’s equally famous opening scene in which a woman’s eyeball is cut by a straight razor.

In Debaser, Black Francis changes the name of the original movie, Un Chien Andalou, to “Un Chien Andalusia” because he thought that ‘Andalou’ ”sounded too French”.  Un Chien Andalou means “An Andalusian Dog” in French.  As expected of both Salvador Dali and Louis Brunel, Un Chien Andalou was a highly experimental film, quite unlike anything the cinema audience of that time had seen before.  The film was seen to debase morality and the art community of the time, hence the title of the Pixies’ song, Debaser.  According to Black Francis, the earliest version of Debaser featured the line “Shed, Apollonia!” instead of “Un Chien Andalusia”, in reference to a scene in the Prince film Purple Rain (1984).  Talking about Debaser with a Spanish magazine following the release of Doolittle, the songwriter said:

“I wish Brunel was still alive.  He made this film about nothing in particular.  The title itself is nonsense.  With my stupid, pseudo-scholar, naive, enthusiastic, avant-garde-ish, amateurish way to watch Un Chien Andalou (twice), I thought, ‘Yeah, I will make a song about it’.  (He sings:) “Un chien andalou” … It sounds too French, so I will sing “un chien Andalusia”, it sounds good, no?”

The lines “I wanna grow up to be a debaser” are telling of Francis’ desire to subvert the world of rock music in the same way that Dali and Brunel subverted the visual art world.  This was feat that the Pixies continually managed, particularly on their earlier albums such as the Come On Pilgrim mini album (1987), Surfer Rosa (1988) and the aforementioned Doolittle, with their oddly twisted tales of sex, incest, reincarnation, mutilation, death and disease as well as bizarre spins on Biblical stories and plots from films, all carried out with a distinctly Surrealist feel.  The Doolittle album is very much influenced by Surrealism, something that heavily influenced Black Francis during his college years.  In a 1989 interview with the New York Times, he said of Surrealism:

“I got into avant-garde movies and Surrealism as an escape from reality … To me, Surrealism is totally artificial.  I recently read an interview with the director David Lynch who said he had ideas and images but he didn’t know exactly what they meant.  That’s how I write”.

Song of the Day: Visual Artists in Music (Day Six). “Helen Lundeberg, Illusory Landscape”.

The term Post-Surrealism coined in the 1930’s and was an American spin on the European Surrealist movement of the 20th century.  In the 1930’s, American artists were in search of a style which would differentiate them from the dream based Surrealism of Europe, that of the creation of images beyond control, emerging from the brain and moved by the hand, and the earlier movements of Romanticism and Modernism.  Post-Surrealism differed vastly from Surrealism as it involved a conscious rather than unconscious use of materials and the clarification of rational ideas.  Post-Surrealism maintained a distinctive identity reflective of its place of origin.  The epicentre of Post-Surrealism, the new form of “Americana Dream” was Los Angeles, California, the architecture and lavish cityscape of which would provide ample inspiration for creators of art.  The movement soon spread to other cities such as New York, San Francisco and Dallas.  The artists who started the movement and first exhibited their work under the term of Post-Surrealism in 1934 were Helen Lundeberg and Lorser Feitelson.  The term Post-Surrealism meant that for the first time, artists were able to separate themselves through their own name.  Artistic activity in California during this period was a process of reciprocity and encounter between artists from a number of regions and countries and soon, a Surrealism group was even established, boasting luminaries of the art world such as Philip Guston, Reuben Kadish, Harold Lehmen, Knud Merrild and Grace Clements.

Lorser Feitelson was educated in New York and moved to Southern California in 1927.  Feitelson was greatly influenced by trips he had taken to Paris in the early 1920s, where Surrealism was in its early stages and neoclassicism, the revival of a classical style or treatment in art, was also apparent.  Neoclassicism greatly inspired both Feitelson and Lundeberg and later, their Post-Surrealism movement.  Feitelson met Lundeberg when he procured a teaching position at the Stickney Memorial Art School in Pasedena.  Following this meeting, the pair formulated ideas that would crystalise into what they termed ‘subjective classicism’, ‘new classicism’ or ‘Post-Surrealism’.  In order to create their art, Lundeberg and Feitelson used the neoclassicism Feitelson had acquired in Paris in conjunction with the metaphysical elements apparent in the work of artists such as de Chirico.  The work of both Lundeberg and Feitelson therefore addresses these influences in their theatricality, the strange encounters between objects and the clarity with which fragments of reality are represented.

Helen Lundeberg, the subject of the Sonic Youth song of the same name, from their 2006 album Rather Ripped, was born n Chicago but raised in Pasadena.  The manifesto of the Post-Surrealist movement was Lundeberg’s handiwork.  Lundeberg was inspired by the poetic contemplation of the subject matter which would bring a higher understanding of metaphysical ideas and a deeper experience of the world to viewers of her work.  Throughout her career, Lundeberg’s work became increasingly more evocative and mystical.  The work of Lundeberg is nearly always imbued with the idea of the opening of one space into another and the juxtaposition of the internal and the cosmic.  Ideas explored in Lundeberg’s work include the eternal cycle of life and death and the relationship between love and death.  One of Lundeberg’s most noted works is Double Portrait of the Artist in Time (1935) in which, as she often did, she used her own image into the quiet interior space.  Of the painting, the artist said:

“For the portrait of myself as a child, I used a photograph which I still have, and though the props are a little different in the painting from the photograph, the pose is pretty much exact.  I also used the clock to show it was a quarter past two which corresponds to the child’s age.  And instead of presenting myself as an adult before a painting of myself as a child, in Double Portrait of the Artist in Time, I reversed this possibility where the child casts a shadow which is that of an adult who appears in the portrait on the wall”.

– “Helen Lundeberg: An American Independent”,

Art International, 15th September 1971.

Later in her career, Lundeberg became more interested in geometric abstraction and Hard Edge painting and less interested in the representational quality that was prevalent in her early work, exploring imagery associated with landscapes, interiors, still life and planetary forms.  In the 1980s, Lundeberg created a series of paintings dealing in landscapes and architectural elements.  Her last known painting was Two Mountains, completed shortly before her death in 1999.  Although always grounded in reality, Lundeberg created works with a mysterious quality which existed somewhere between abstraction and figuration.  Her works are often described as lyrical and formal, relying on precise compositions utilising restricted palettes, employing the Post-Surrealism idea of ‘mood entity’.  ‘Mood entity’ was concerned with evoking states of mind, mood and emotion with each piece of work having its own individual feel.  During the latter stages of her career, Lundeberg was one of the most prolific artists working in Southern California.

Sonic Youth’s Helen Lundeberg tells of Lundeberg’s career in the art field and her personal vision through paint, “Helen Lundeberg, Illusory landscape, Five decades in paint … Four expressions of elegance”.  The second verse of the song is constructed of references to a number of Lundeberg’s paintings.  For example, “Blue river” refers to Seen From A Height (1988); “open door” to Open Door (1964); “Landscape of white and orange” to Linear Torso (1969); “Daybreak by the sea” to Untitled (Daybreak or Landscape) (1962); “A narrow view” to Interior With Painting (1960); “sloping horizon” to Untitled (Land Patterns) (1960); “A marina” to Islands (1986); “the poet’s road” to The Poet’s Road (1961); “Sundial” to Sundial (1943); “cimerrian landscape” to Poetic Justice (1945); “A quiet place” to Landscape (1948); “moon” to Moonscape (1966); “sea” to Sea (1970); “Mist” to Spring (1950); “desert road” to Desert Road (1960); “tree in the marsh” to Moonlit Tree (1949); “Biological fantasies” to Plant and Animal Analogies (1934 – 1935); “Ocean view” to Ocean (1979); Water Map (Untitled) (1963); “Ambiguity” to A Double Portrait of the Artist in Time (1935); and finally, “estuary” to Interior With Painting (1982).

Song of the Day: Visual Artists in Music (Day Five). “Pinned to the Edges of Vision”.

“My painting is visible images which conceal nothing … they evoke mystery and indeed when one sees one of my pictures, one asks oneself this simple question, ‘what does that mean?  It does not mean anything, because mystery means nothing either, it is unknowable”.

– Rene Magritte.

Rene Magritte was a Belgian surrealist artist who became well known for a number of witty and thought-provoking pieces.  His work is known for challenging the preconditioned perceptions of reality.  Whilst the artist’s work is often imbued with a sense of mystery, the artist himself was far less conspicuous.   Magritte lived on a street much like any other in Brussels.  His house was much like any other in the local area too, proper and ordinary like the man himself.  It was this mundane nature of everyday life which the artist valued greatly and used to his advantage, taking ordinary things and imbuing them with a sense of something less ordinary through his unique vision.

“I want to breathe new life into the way we look at the ordinary things around us.  But how should one look?  Like a child, the first time it encounters a reality outside itself.  I live in the same state of innocence as a child, who believes he can reach out from his cot and grasp a bird in the sky”.

– Rene Magritte

Upstairs in the Surrealist artist’s home of twenty five years, which has since been turned into a museum, his wife lovingly preserved his final unfinished canvas, perhaps as John Cale says in his song Magritte, from the 2003 album HoboSapiens, “stretched, For umbrellas and bowler hats, Everyone knows Magritte did that”.

You can see Magritte in his array of self portraits, often “Inside a canvas of blue saturated with beauty, In a web of glass”.  You can also see portrayals of the artist’s wife, Georgette, as well as glimpses of their modest Brussels home.  There is an autobiographical quality to Magritte’s work but what of the mystery that surrounds it?  We do not need to look for the mysterious as it exists everywhere, even in the most conventional of lives.

“Everything we see hides another thing; we always want to see what is hidden by what we see”.

– Rene Magritte.

Images that are illustrative bring about a powerful paradox in the mind of the viewer.  Magritte’s work is beautiful in its clarity and simplicity but can also invoke unsettling thoughts.  They are suggesting to you that they hide no mystery but they are also often odd and puzzling.  With his tribute song to the artist, John Cale manages to evoke the same feelings that we get when looking at one of the artist’s pictures.  On starting to listen to the song, we are drawn in to a string soaked discussion of the beauty of the artist’s work.  Yet, in the second verse, we are faced with the sound of “a car-horn in the street outside And a museum with its windows open”.   Later in the song, Cale says, “Somebody’s coming that hates us, Better watch the art”.  This is the paradox and mystery in Cale’s Magritte, a seemingly beautiful ode to an artist actually appears to be discussing something altogether more sinister.  Is a song which starts as a loving tribute to the artist’s work actually about an art heist at “a museum with its windows open”?  Is the “car-horn in the street” a getaway car?  Are the people who hate the narrator and his accomplices, those “legends of conspicuous men”, the police?  This is the mystery in Cale’s song, as seen quite often in his work, just as in Rene Magritte’s work:  It is left open to interpretation, out there somewhere, “pinned to the edges of vision”.

“This arbitrarily reconstructed verbal / imagerial lexicon evinces that, in an alternate, oneiric state of logic, words and objects can acquire new relationships, as they are not transcendentally united”.

– Rene Magritte.

Song of the Day: Visual Artists in Music (Day Four). Luke Haines’ Shocking Confession: “I Shot Sarah Lucas”.

Sarah Lucas, the controversial British artist, has been brutally murdered.  Luke Haines freely admitted to killing Lucas, choosing to confess in song form.  The resulting lyrical confession, Death of Sarah Lucas, is featured on his 2001 album, The Oliver Twist Manifesto.  On the same album, he also confessed to a litany of other crimes against popular culture.  Shortly before his most heinous crime, he had also called for the First National Pop Strike, calling on all pop stars and karaoke singers to down tools and cease to make, distribute, discuss or perform their work.  Haines used the term “pop stars” loosely in order to describe artisans, automata, circus acts, comedians, pimps, whores and illuminati. We should have realised his endeavors to save the world with art weren’t just limited to pop stars but it is too late.  As he states on The Oliver Twist Manifesto’s title track, “It’s a beautiful night to paint the wall white again”.

Sarah Lucas was an English artist and was part of the generation of Young British Artists who emerged during the 1990s.  In her work, she often used visual puns and bawdy humour, specialising in a number of different forms including photography, collage and found objects.  Sarah Lucas was known for her self-portraits, including Human Toilet Revisted (1998), a colour photograph depicting the artist sitting on the toilet smoking a cigarette.  Cigarettes were a mainstay of the artists work, as Haines says whilst speculating about how she died, cunningly trying to throw us off the scent: “Could be death by cigarette or one true blow to the head”.

In 2000, her solo exhibition The Fag Show consisted of art made from cigarettes, including Self-Portrait with Cigarettes.  Haines spoke of Lucas’s love of the cigarette in his taped confession with the lines, “Take the cigarette Sarah, Put it in your mouth, smoke the fucker, Light it, suck it, don’t blow it, Don’t make a big deal about it”.

In 1997, Lucas appeared on the British TV show, The Car’s The Star to talk about her love of the Ford Capri, also mentioned in Haines’ murder confession: “The Car’s The Star to glue the cigarettes on”.  Other examples of the Lucas’s work included Eating A Banana (1990), a photograph of Lucas, you guessed it, eating a banana whilst looking into the camera provocatively.

As the tale of Haines’s evil doings unfolded, he told of how he “traced her to a member’s bar, She’s holding court, she’s talking art, Doesn’t fruit look funny in a gallery?”  As the confession drew on, Haines showed remained unapologetic and intoned joyously over and over again, “I shot Sarah Lucas”.  As Haines rightly says in a three minute confession which was imbued with his usual sarcastic wit, Lucas will be best remembered for “playing with morality”; “using ambiguity” and “using humour to question our preconceptions”.

*As a disclaimer, Sarah Lucas is still very much alive and still making art.  And still smoking.

Song of the Day: Visual Artists in Music (Day Three). “Click, Click, Click, Click, Click …”

I could have chosen a number of Manic Street Preachers songs for today’s Song of the Day.  I could have chosen Interiors (Song for Willem De Kooning) from Everything Must Go (1996) about Willem De Kooning’s battle with Alzheimer’s Disease and his ability to produce some of the most acclaimed work of his career during this period; I could have chosen Between The Clock and The Bed, from Futurology (2014), named after a 1940 self portrait by Norwegian artist Edward Munch; I could have chosen Black Square from the same album, named in tribute to the 1915 work by Russian artist Kazimir Malevich, the originator of the avant-garde Suprematist movement; I could have even chosen La Tristessa Durera (A Scream To A Sigh) from Gold Against The Soul (1993), the title of which is taken from Vincent Van Gogh’s last words.  I considered all of these songs but then decided to look at Kevin Carter from Everything Must Go, which tells the story of the South African photojournalist of the same name.  I then got into a debate with myself over whether photojournalism is a ‘visual art’.  I feel that photojournalism can be a visual art.  In fine art photography, the artist pays careful attention to aspects such as the composition, the focus, the lighting and the poses of the figures in the photograph.  The artist looks for work where everything came together to create something unique.  Art is a communication so therefore, photojournalism is no less disadvantaged than any other form of photography.  In the modern age, museums in many countries show the work of photojournalists as art.

Kevin Carter was born in 1960.  He began his career photographing scenes of the violent struggle against Apartheid in South Africa and became associated with what has come to be known as The Bang Bang Club.  The Bang Bang Club was primarily made up of four photographers (Kevin Carter, Greg Marinovich, Ken Oosterbroek and Joao Silva) who were active in the townships of South Africa between 1990 and 1994, during the transition from the Apartheid system to a government based upon universal suffrage.  Following the lifting of bans on ANC and IFP, there was much black on black factional violence between the supporters of the political parties.  The name The Bang Bang Club was coined by the South African magazine Living.  The group was first described as The Bang Bang Paparazzi but ‘Paparazzi’ was dropped in favour of ‘Club’ as the members felt the term misrepresented their work.  The name is derived from the way in which township residents spoke to the group about the “bang-bang” referring to the violence occurring within their communities.  More literally, “bang-bang” refers to the sound of gunfire and is a colloquialism used by conflict photographers.  Kevin Carter was the first photojournalist to capture a public execution by ‘necklacing’ in South Africa in the Mid-1980s.  He would later say of this:  “The question that still haunts me is ‘would those people have been necklaced if there was no media coverage?’”  Carter’s professional life with riddled with conflicts between professional responsibilities and moral considerations.  He was also deeply affected by the death of colleague Ken Oosterbroek, who was killed by friendly fire during a fire fight between the National Peacekeeping Force and African National Congress supporters in the Thokoza township on the 18th April 1994.  Greg Marinovich was left seriously injured.

Kevin Carter’s life became irreparably altered in 1993 when he took a picture of a 2 year old Sudanese girl, a famine victim, attempting to make her way to the feeding centre.  As he crouched nearby, Carter saw a vulture landing close to the girl.  Positioning himself as not to disturb the bird of prey, he took the picture which would gain him notoriety when it won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography in 1994. On winning the much coveted prize, Carter jubilantly wrote to his parents saying. “I swear I got the most applause of anybody.  I can’t wait to show you the trophy. It is the most precious thing, and the highest acknowledgment of my work I could receive”.  However, this initial joy was short lived.

Carter would later admit that he waited for about 20 minutes hoping that the vulture would spread its wings.  Once he realised it would not, he took the photograph and chased the bird away before the girl resumed her struggle.  Following this admission, friends and colleagues of the photographer began to question why Carter had not done more to help the girl and whilst the photograph was highly acclaimed by many, many others were critical of the ethics employed by the photographer.  Following his Pulitzer Prize win, Florida’s St Petersburg Times said of the photograph: “The man adjusting his lens to take the right frame of her suffering might just as well be a predator, another vulture on the scene”.

Carter’s life was spiraling dangerously out of control.  He began to use drugs heavily in order to help him cope with the guilt that he felt and the adulation he had received for the photograph all over the world, as well as death and destruction he had witnessed.  One of his drugs of choice was ‘dagga’, South Africa’s locally supplied marijuana, which escalated to an addiction to the ‘white pipe’, a lethal mixture of dagga and Mandrax, a banned tranquiliser. He also quit his job working with the Weekly Mail and joined Reuters News Agency with whom he began by covering the country’s first multiracial elections.  Soon though, his job with Reuters would be under threat due to his drug use and the questionable quality of his work.  On one occasion, for example, Carter was told to stay in Cape Town in order to cover French President Francois Mitterrand’s state visit to South Africa.  The story was front page news but according to various sources, Carter sent his film in too late and when the photographs did arrive, there were several complaints that they were too poor to use.  At this time, Carter openly spoke about suicide, on one occasion threatening to smoke a white pipe and gas himself to death.  On the 27th July 1994, racked with guilt and sadness, the 33 year old Kevin Carter parked his pick-up truck near to a place where he used to play and committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning, leaving a suicide note reading:

“I’m really, really sorry.  The pain of life overrides the joy to the point that joy does not exist … depressed … without phone … money for rent … money for child support … money for debts … money!!! … I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain … of starving or wounded children, of trigger happy madmen, often police, or killer executioners … I have gone to join Ken if I am that lucky.”

The Manic Street Preachers’ tribute to Kevin Carter features lyrics written by founding member Richey Edwards, who had disappeared on the 1st February 1995.  Draw parallels if you will to the effects that the imagery expressed in his lyrics and fame had on Edwards to the effects that the imagery expressed in his photographs and fame had on Carter.  A powerful retelling of the life and death of Kevin Carter, the song reached number 9 in the UK singles chart on the 12th October 1996.  The song documents Carter’s rise to fame in the wake of his most famous photograph (“Hi Time Magazine, Hi Pulitzer Prize”), his guilt at not having helped the girl in the photograph and drug use in order to quell feelings of guilt (“Vulture stalked white piped lie forever”), the attitude of some and eventually the photographer himself to his work, describing it as the elephant in the room (“The elephant is so ugly, sleep it’s head”) and his death in the final verse (“Click, click, click, click, click, Click himself under”).  The song Kevin Carter represents the photojournalist’s descent into madness caused by guilt as a result of sacrificing morality for art and his death as a result, as seen through the lens of the world.

Song of the Day: Visual Artists in Music. Day Two: “Pablo Picasso Never Got Called An Asshole”.

The Modern Lovers released their debut album The Modern Lovers in 1976.  The album is notable for the fact that the recording process began a full four years prior to its eventual release with many of it’s songs dating back to at least 1970, mainly due to band line up changes, changes of producer (both John Cale and Kim Fowley were involved in the production at different times) and their record company, Warner Brothers, eventually withdrawing their support of the album.  The recording sessions for the album was also said to deeply affected by the death of Jonathan Richman’s friend Gram Parsons.  On the day before Gram Parson’s death, he and Richman had been playing miniature golf.  The Modern Lovers was eventually released to rave reviews and the influence of what has come to be known as one of the greatest art rock albums of all time, could immediately be seen in aspiring punk bands on both sides of the Atlantic.  Notably, the Sex Pistols covered The Modern Lovers’ Roadrunner, which can be heard on The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle (1980).  The Modern Lovers’ original recording of the song became a UK hit in 1977.

One of the most notorious tracks on the album is Pablo Picasso, a song about the charismatic 20th century artist and his ability, despite his diminutive stature, to attract women.  The song Pablo Picasso finds the artist re-imagined as a Cadillac Eldorado driving kerb crawler, who “never got called an asshole”, picking up women on the streets of New York.  In an interview with Boston Groupie News in 1980, Richman explained that the song was inspired by his own adolescent self-consciousness with women:

“I read about him when I was 18.  I moved to New York and was intimidated by these girls who thought were attractive.  I was afraid to approach them.  I didn’t have too high a self-image.  I was self-conscious and I thought, “Well, Pablo Picasso, he’s only 5’3” but he didn’t let things like that bother him”.  So I made up this song right after I saw those girls.  You can picture it; I had this sad little look on my face and I was thinking, “Why am I so afraid to approach these girls?”  That was a song of courage for me”.

Such was the arduous nature of the album’s recording process that the first version of Pablo Picasso to actually be released, a full year before The Modern Lovers’ version was eventually released, was an intense rendering by album’s producer John Cale on his 1975 album, Helen of Troy, resplendent with slide guitar and a gutsier sound than the original.  Cale also plays the hammering piano part on the original Modern Lovers’ version.

Following his departure from The Modern Lovers, keyboardist Jerry Harrison played Pablo Picasso live in the early days of his next band Talking Heads, in which he played keyboards and guitar from 1976.

More recently, Pablo Picasso was given a rebirth after it was covered by David Bowie on his 2003 album Reality.  Bowie had originally planned to record Pablo Picasso on his never realised Pin Ups 2 project way back in the 70’s.  On the Reality version, Pablo Picasso was given a complete Bowie makeover with additional refrains and a newly imagined musical backdrop with neat Spanish guitar intro and outro and a big reverb laden sound.  With this, The Modern Lovers and Pablo Picasso had entered the arena of stadium rock.