Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Books on my nightstand this week

1. Markku Kuisma: Saha: tarina Suomen modernisaatiosta ja ihmisistä jotka sen tekivät [The Sawmill: The Story of the Modernization of Finland and the People Who Achieved It]. Helsinki: Siltala, 2011. The historian Markku Kuisma is going strong: he publishes a remarkable book or two every year. They are page-turners like the best novels. Many surprises in this account of the sawmill industry of Finland, the industrial backbone of Finland for a century or more. A book of permanent value.

2. Andrew Martindale: Renessanssi [Landmarks of the World's Art: Man and the Renaissance, 1966]. Translated by Pirkko Lilius, the translation checked by Sakari Saarikivi. Helsinki: Tammi, 1967. The most uninspired entry in a favourite book series of my teenage years. The writer focuses on externals and misses the magnitude of the great fundamental discoveries of the various stages of the Renaissance - and of Mannerism, also covered (or not) here. Renaissance, my favourite period in the history of art (and how short the High Renaissance was... !!!) was the return to the greatest insights of visual art since the golden age of classical Greece 1700 years earlier. I was so disappointed with this book that I have been reading relevant pages of general art histories as a compensation. In this series, the book by Jean Lassus on The Early Christian and Byzantine World I found excellent although the subject-matter was the least interesting to me, a thousand years of visual poverty, including over a century of actual iconoclasm, systematic destruction of visual art heritage. The dictatorship of the emperor and the church tried to crush individual creativity, but it is never possible completely to crush creativity (see Andrei Rublyov, Saint John Climacus, Hagia Sofia, and the incredible Irish-style miniature manuscripts such as the Durham Gospels and the Codex Aureus in Stockholm).

I see a parallel in the history of the cinema. From the Lumière brothers until the 1990s was a period of photochemical visual glory. Since the 1910s great painters such as the High Renaissance masters and Rembrandt were models in films by Victorin Jasset, Benjamin Christensen, and the young Cecil B. DeMille. The last 10-15 years have been the visually most uneven and often arid period in the history of the cinema because of the poverty of the digital transition of a resolution of 2K or less. But there have been good exceptions all the time and I look forward to 4K-8K resolutions as the salvation. Even more importantly, as soon as there is more permanence in digital tools, artistic quality can start to grow with growing skills and taste.

The model could be Leonardo's painting The Virgin and Child with St. Anne (1508), where he started really to develop his art of the chiaroscuoro, the sfumato, the "refined subtle softness" in painting facial expression, and "sublime infinity softness" as the way to convey the perspective until the far horizon. Leonardo was the first to profoundly realize the meaning of atmosphere in a painting: he understood that air is not a void, not an emptiness, but full of invisible existence, which is reflected in a thousand ways everywhere. In digital, sharpness and brightness (the hallmarks of the Middle Ages) have been the watchwords. It is also a perfectly valid choice of aesthetics, but it can soon get boring even in animation, which is I believe is the reason why John Lasseter and Hayao Miyazaki see handmade animation as indispensable.

By the revolutionary methods of the Renaissance painters had new means to convey relief, that is, depth of field, or, in contemporary words, 3D.

Because of the loss of a sense of depth in the 2K digital image (because of its airlessness, its loss of a sense of atmosphere) there has been a new demand for special 3D technologies in the digital cinema. I am in favour of them, but I can understand the point of the many critics of 3D 2K DCP's (the loss of brightness, the flat and gray colour gamut). For me the greatest three-dimensional illusion in the cinema has been in full 70 mm screenings, most recently watching a brilliant print of  The Agony and the Ecstasy in 2010 in Oslo. Appropriately the period depicted in the movie was the Renaissance, the work of Michelangelo.

3. Winsor McCay: Pikku Nemo Höyhensaarilla I osa: 1905-1907 (The Complete Little Nemo in Slumberland [Vol. I]). Helsinki: Otava, 1990. Translated by Juhani Tolvanen, lettering by Jukka Heiskanen, introduction by Richard Marschall translated by Jukka Kemppinen, sleeve notes by Bo Carpelan. See my remarks on Little Nemo Vol. I and the Bo Carpelan notes.

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