Art Nouveau in the Age of Downton Abbey

Alfons Mucha, 1897.
F. Champenois Imprimeur-Éditeur, lithograph, 1897

Art Nouveau, spanning roughly 1880 to 1910, was the people’s design, ushering the art world into the twentieth century. Dominating the cultural scene for a brief period, its end is marked by World War One and Modernism.

As Downton Abbey’s fourth season is well under way on British television screens and across the pond, everything historical is all the rage. Turn of the century glamour is again en mode. Vintage style dominates current fashion, trends centering on the 10’s, 20’s and 30’s, and high waists and muted colours are popular. We are also nostalgic for older forms of art, as the revival of Art Nouveau has shown.

Art Nouveau’s legacy can be found in architecture around Europe and is easily recognisable. Some key features of Art Nouveau are sumptuous shapes and smouldering colours, dramatic “whiplash” lines and stylised flowers.

Church of St. Elisabeth in Bratislava, by Ödön Lechner

Art Nouveau is not limited to buildings, however, and spans the fine and applied arts, including furniture, textiles and graphic art. Famous artists who painted in this style included Czech painter Alfons Mucha, English illustrator Aubrey Beardsley and Austrian Symbolist painter Gustav Klimt.

To the twenty-first century eye, the emphasis on flowers and natural shapes directly contrasts the industrial modernism of the movements that followed it. Hindsight and context affect our perception of a modern movement that now seems quintessentially antique, infusing it with the golden hue of a better time.
However, its name quite obviously means ‘new art’ in French, representing that which is modern and the beginning of a break with the past.

The Irony of Nostalgia

Art traditionally emphasises legacy, but Art Nouveau provided the foundations of the later Modernist movement, which sought to break from the past. Artists of the time wanted their work to be modern, whatever that might mean.

This interest in “modern” art has in no way abated. It’s been a wildly successful year for the Tate gallery as Damien Hirst has helped to break visitor records by attracting almost eight million people to the four South Bank London galleries.

The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living - Hirst, 1991
The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living – Hirst, 1991

‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’ (a tiger shark preserved in formaldehyde in a vitrine) is Hirst’s most lucrative work, worth £7.4 million, and could hardly be further from the feminine, floral predispositions of Art Nouveau.

What we consider modern seems to have come full circle, but the past still plays a huge part in the creation of art. Whether it’s Wassily Kandinski’s purposeful break with tradition in his seemingly random colours, shapes and lines, or John Piper’s British affection for rural landscape styles, we cannot avoid our captivation with history – especially when it seems to be fading before our eyes.

Matthew and Mary, Downton Abbey Season 3 (Telegraph)
Matthew and Mary, Downton Abbey Season 3 (Telegraph)

Perhaps in response to the pull of the new, when technology is developing at an eye-watering rate and we are fully immersed in a “digital age”, what we now consider to be nostalgic forms of art can provide comfort as well as a much-needed point of reference. Or, perhaps Matthew and Mary really did just belong together.

Recent Interpretations of Art Nouveau

There has been a popular BBC Four series broadcast in January this year, called ‘Sex and Sensibility: The Allure of Art Nouveau’, emphasising its racier characteristics and the factors that encouraged the movement to flourish. You can still catch it online.

The Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in East Anglia is currently holding an exhibition called ‘The First Moderns: Art Nouveau, from Nature to Abstraction’, treating Art Nouveau as the first modern design movement, exploring the progression of style from natural to more abstract, geometric form. It is curated by Professor Paul Greenhalgh and highlights the role played by Art Nouveau in the advent of Modernism. The exhibition runs until December 13th this year.

Click this link to find out even more about Art Nouveau.


Male Line Mutations at the Forefront of Genetic Biology

6:30 pm – 7:30 pm on Thursday 17 October 2013, at The Royal Society, London

Going to the Francis Crick Lecture, entitled “Mutations: Great and Small”, at the Royal Society last night was an eye-opener.

Dr Matthew Hurles, post-doctoral research fellow in population genetics at the University of Cambridge, was awarded this lecture because of his contributions to our understanding of structural variation in the human genome, the mechanisms that cause this variation and its consequences for medicine and evolution.

Besides initial technology trouble with the projector not working, this was a fast-paced and engaging lecture that never lost my interest.

Matthew Hurles is a gifted speaker who can connect with audiences of all abilities. I won’t pretend I come anywhere near to understanding his field but to my knowledge he was informing us about the latest developments – much of it as yet unpublished – in genetic mutation research. According to the Royal Society website, the subject of the lecture was:

“…how his investigations of this previously under-appreciated form of genetic variation have helped to shape our current understanding of both the genetic causes of disease, and the mutation processes that edit the genome as it is passed from one generation to the next…”

Apparently, certain types of uncommon genetic mutations are passed down through the male line, because Y chromosomes are most likely to copy wrongly. This is because, throughout a man’s life, his sperm are reproducing every sixteen days.

In contrast, all the eggs a woman can produce in her lifetime are stored in her ovaries from when she is a foetus in the womb. As a man gets older and his sperm have been copied so many times, combined with the fact the mutation process is imperfect, his offspring are more likely to have mutations. This contradicts current wisdom that older mothers are the parents most likely to pass on genetic mutations to their children, whilst no one has paid much attention to the father’s role.

One significant fact is that it is completely random as to whether any particular individual will develop a serious genetic mutation, because any man’s collection of sperm contains all the mutations for every single serious disease a person can possibly have.

This has real-life implications for how the medical profession can go about treating genetic diseases. For example – and this is highly relevant to my work with the Mini Cooking Club charity – some children are born with a genetic predisposition to obesity. This means that some obese children, who have been taken in to care because their weight is considered a result of neglect, have been returned to their parents. Of course, this doesn’t mean that healthy eating and exercise aren’t important, just that some individuals may be less to blame for their weight struggles.

You could tell it was a scientific lecture because Hurles broached the subject of genetic screening, and how more sophisticated methods of mutation detection can be applied to foetuses. This means that, pre-birth, parents will have increased knowledge of whether their child has a serious disease that would impact their quality of life – so much so they may wish to terminate it. It thrills me to hear someone talking so openly and intelligently about a subject that deserves serious consideration. “Messing around” with genetics is still considered something akin to voodoo.

Of course, someone had to ask the question of whether this kind of screening, were it to be put in place, would eradicate the variation in the human gene pool and, ultimately, “stop” evolution. Apparently, this is very unlikely.

All in all, it was a good lecture, and an experience I’d be keen to repeat. Education never stops, even when you’ve left university and crunch that keyboard from nine to five in case anyone suspects that you’re not working. A person should try to learn about all aspects of life, but particularly a subject so intimately concerned with the processes of our own existence. Biology, especially human biology, is a topic that literally everyone can relate to.

The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women

Cover of "The Beauty Myth: How Images of ...
Cover via Amazon

Book Review

Published: 2002

Author: Naomi Wolf

There is a lot to say about this book.

A feminist polemic about the damage caused to post-second wave feminism women, Wolf’s offering focuses on “the beauty myth.” Defined by Wolf as the potent lie in society that all women must aspire to an unattainable ideal of youthful, skeletal beauty, she argues that it has replaced the ‘feminist mystique’ (the 1950s emphasis on the importance of the domestic realm for women) as an agent of social control.

According to Wolf, it has arisen as a backlash against the female liberation era of the sixties and seventies when women began to obtain more social equality. The institutions of social control in society and advertising industry stand to benefit from the masochistic behaviour of women that results from the pursuit of an unobtainable beauty ideal.

She divides her discussion into several areas: work, culture, religion, sex, hunger and violence, presenting the reader with detailed discussions of each. Wolf’s grasp of the society of her time (about fifteen years ago) is imbued with a rich clarity, and I know this because it is the world into which I was born.

Eating 1200 calories a day keeps you physically weak, and constantly aspiring after a teenage body figure keeps you distracted from any issues of importance. Anorexic women are docile, she maintains, drawing on her own experience of the disease to support her theories, and yet anorexia is a sane response to an insane society. Competing with other women for the attention of men keeps you divided, and means you will never form a cohesive feminist movement.

Her name brings to mind one of the other great feminists of the twentieth century, Virginia Woolf. Wolf is American and a very different sort of writer to my long time hero, but the influence of past feminists on her writing is pleasantly evident. She updates feminism’s message for present-day consumerist society and beyond.

I am now inspired to pursue my feminist research again, after leaving it asleep when I graduated university. Perhaps believing it to be a sterile academic tradition that belongs in those halls of learning, I am reminded again that it’s goals are uniquely relevant to myself as a woman.

In three hundred pages, Wolf succeeds in revealing a few important truths. One, that women should actively welcome one another and bestow on other women some of the attention normally reserved for interactions with attractive men.

Two, female sexuality has been repressed by a barrage of violent sexual images and having been poised as only responsive to male sexuality. In a few words, women don’t know how to be sexual because they are never taught, and are alienated from their own bodies which are “flawed” and “too fat”. On the other hand, men are provided with positive images of their own sexuality from a very early age.

Three, it is not attractive to be very thin, not at all. This is a complete cultural construction with no basis in reality, and even men don’t really like very thin women on the whole. This image of women serves the advertising industry by fueling self-hatred and desire to consume. According to some reviews I read, her book actually inspired some sufferers of anorexia into recovery.

This is a very positive book, though the subject matter is sometimes difficult to deal with. Often moving, always captivating, The Beauty Myth is still ahead of its time. I would recommend it to all readers as a very considered, well-supported and impassioned argument about the beauty myth’s coercion of women into a lesser role in society.

Filth Review

Filth Poster

Based on a 1998 novel by Irvine Welsh (the author of Trainspotting), Filth (2013) is a film about a mad and bad Scottish copper called Bruce Robertson, played by James MacAvoy. Directed by Jon S. Baird this time instead of Danny Boyle, Robertson is seeking a promotion to become Chief Inspector using ever more nefarious means alongside solving a local murder.

His antics range from prank dirty phone calls to drugging his friends to homophobic antagonism. This manipulative lothario is likeable in his complete disregard and antipathy towards almost the entire human race.

We follow his descent into insanity as it is increasingly revealed using a combination of dialogue and abstract hallucinations that his wife and daughter have left him, and he is harbouring a guilty secret (or two).

The film races between different scenes and incidents of violence and sex with barely time to breathe. You’d think this would be a good thing, and a bit like Trainspotting, but it was lacking in that utter depravity.

Filth plays on Trainspotting’s legacy to draw viewers into the cinema, a mainstay of nineties teenagers everywhere looking to make sense of the dark drugs counterculture steadfastly glossed over by mainstream portrayals – which either glamorise drugs or pretend that only hardened criminals take them. I went there expecting an extension of this icon of film history, which was probably a mistake.

Instead, Filth is a series of pasted-together scenes of MacAvoy alternately ploughing various “loose” women and snorting huge quantities of cocaine, interspersed with nightmarish hallucinations that appeared to be indicative of some vague, undisclosed mental condition.

The best performance is by Martin Compston playing Clifford Gorman, the shy, naïve accountant who is bullied by Bruce at every turn. The scene in which Bruce spikes his drink and the ensuing hallucinogenic trip is very well-acted indeed, especially when contrasted with the drivelling obsequiousness of his character.

Jim Broadbent plays the usual bumbling, upper-middle class, bow-tie wearing twit, and this time with bouts of crazy scientist doctor-man who has odd paintings on his surgery wall.

I have to say, this film really didn’t tie together all that well for me. It entirely lacks pathos when that seems almost as though what the director is trying to get you to feel, even if it is only to snatch it away at the last minute. I felt like I was constantly but dully exciting some emotion towards this film which never quite happened.

Even the supposedly crafty and evil perpetrators of the main crime are lacklustre, looking like they got lost on the way to put on a show for screaming teenage girls at Wembley Arena, in Scotland.

MacAvoy paints a good character, as always, and is so repulsively unkempt the costume department should definitely be commended, but this film just lacked in coherency. Downton Abbey’s Joanne Frogatt made an appearance as a rather weepy side-character, which was odd.

Perhaps postmodernist, anarchist filmmaking needs no proper narrative, but if so I will go back to watching the rom-coms I am supposed to like.

God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything

Book Review

Author: Christopher Hitchens

Published: 2007

Christopher Hitchens has written what approaches a masterpiece. Filled with historical references to religious atrocities and relevant examples, he builds his argument into a crescendo of atheist force.

If you’ve been put off by reading Dawkins I’d say Hitchens removes those elements that some people find unpalatable about Dawkins. More focused on eloquence and the symphony of style, Hitchens is better at backing up his argument with persuasive anecdotes and little-known facts.

All the more moving for the fact that Hitchens has now sadly passed away, this book is a manifesto for anyone who has dallied on the fence regarding religion. Unwittingly converted to the dark side by Dawkins when I was a teenager with cash to spare, there is a romance about Hitchens that allures the unbeliever.

His is a legacy of Platonic rationalism that elevates the mind above the mud of superstition and bigotry. Hitchens’ verbal sword cuts through bullshit and leaves ignorance quivering in its wake. There are many counts on where I would disagree with him, but none of his points can be accused of being ill-considered.

This was a fantastic book and I’m just glad there are so many more pages to read by this great author. One of the magnificent thinkers of our time, there was a surge of hatred from the religious extremists shouting divine vengeance at him throughout his life when he contracted cancer. This will have only confirmed many of his arguments, and he says in an interview that religious supporters asked if he would renounce his beliefs now death was beckoning at the door.

He said, quite rightly, that he found it quite nonsensical to renege his principles when death is the most important time to stand by what you believe. I was sad upon closing the last page of this great book that it’s author has left us so recently.


Online Dating: An Uplifting Post

Stockimages -
Stockimages –

I’m going to try and write an uplifting post this time. This delightful blog, Musings and Amusings, documenting and celebrating cutting-edge developments in science and technology, is a good example of posts that are not just a series of internet rants.

I shall admit that my blogging is mainly ranting, perhaps because it’s all too easy to do. It’s much harder to think of happier things than bad things, see what’s wrong rather than what’s right, partly because our brains are predisposed to look at the negatives.

Also, we are strongly conditioned to do so.

I don’t know why, maybe it’s to protect us from danger or keep us striving for improvement. If people were too contented, they wouldn’t be driven to make more and more money.

Either way, this was originally intended to be a post lamenting the childishness that online dating can drive us to, and the depths of human stupidity: the selfishness of human interaction.

It was inspired by this story I read in the London Metro about an IT specialist called Kishore Nimmala who was arrested after snatching his date’s Blackberry. He claims he did it because she tried to leave without paying for any of their drinks and he was trying to “get her attention.”

I shall leave out tongue-in-cheek discussion of the social skills of IT workers and gender roles.

I was going to say that online dating is too prescriptive, and too desperate. Focusing too hard on certain things means you will never get them. The ephemeral nature of romance means the harder you try, the less it appears.

Dating online fosters the illusion that a relationship with a complete stranger – who has nonetheless provided a detailed personality specification – is more likely to work than one with someone randomly attracted.

It encourages the commodification of love and the futile perfectionism of relationships, and instils a fear that you cannot make it alone.

Instead, I will examine this phenomenon in a more positive light. The world has changed immensely since the days of “courting” when your grandparents met as teenagers and were married for sixty years. The digital generation have adapted to its hydra-like incarnations and online dating is one of the results.

London often inspires feelings of anger and foolish actions (they were in Leicester Square), so Mr Nimmala’s behaviour may not have wholly arisen due to the nature of online dating. Though it affords an element of anonymity knowing you never have to encounter that person again, perhaps he considers abusive behaviour appropriate towards anyone.

Partly due to this rapidly growing industry, we no longer have to rely on blind luck or the charity of friends – or, indeed, drinking alcohol in clubs and bars – in order to meet someone new. It’s a lot easier and cheaper than going to a bar, sometimes. The social media dating app ‘Tinder’ allows for click-and-scroll – if two people like each other on the basis of viewing five profile pictures of the other, they can meet up for a date.

Without online dating, you’ve got to hope you meet someone before you leave school or university, or the volume of people you meet on a daily basis will be drastically reduced and so will your chances of meeting “the one”.

Interestingly enough, bespoke matchmaking services are on the rise. They are comprised of experts who use various criteria to match up their members with a “perfect” partner, including DNA matching and, of course, birth charts.

Online dating can be considered liberating for the modern singleton, especially for women who have traditionally tended to wait for men to make the first advance. The dater is more empowered; with the chance that mixed signals will result on disappointment on one side much more diminished. It represents the democratisation of dating, since attracting someone new no longer solely depends on an individual’s (sometimes dubious) flirting prowess or good looks.

It helps people who are shy or maybe unused to the dating game after the breakup of a long marriage. People with difficult facts to disclose, such as an incurable disease or the fact they are a long-term carer, are afforded a screening process, saving difficult conversations later down the line.

So, there are many benefits to online dating, as well as some dangers. Would I use these services personally?

If I were single, which I haven’t been since university, I’d like to think I’d be brave enough trust to chance.

I am well aware this was still a rant.

I think we are all capable of being happy alone, and the relentless drive towards unification and marriage is a bit unnecessary. In my opinion, it’s really important to learn to live by yourself, and celebrate the greatness of your own life.

The internet has many more possibilities for fulfilment than just dating, such as forums and websites to help you connect with like-minded people, free tutorials to help you learn almost anything, huge repositories of information and, of course, Google Earth. There are countless things I don’t and, most likely, never will understand.

I’d still like to think I use it for so much more than trawling Facebook, though not as much as I should.

Believing you can stay with one partner forever is probably a phantom dream, and a bit of a recipe for unhappiness. Online dating can be great for meeting new people, having more fun, and more helpful for some than others, but I’m tempted to say that’s about it.

So I couldn’t write a happy blog post, though I did try. Maybe next time.