Halloween recommendations

Another in my lead-ups to Halloween, so that when the day itself comes I won’t be just another blogger putting up photos of cute jack-o-lanterns or railing against the horrors of candy corn. Do you need some seasonal entertainment? Four suggestions are humbly proffered below:

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Roger Zelazny’s final novel, A Night in the Lonesome October, is a perfect choice for the season, especially if you’re a fan of old movies, and in particular Universal’s horror films of the 1930s-40s. The story brings together many familiar monsters, under the thinnest of disguises (“The Count,” “The Experiment Man”) along with an also unnamed but instantly recognizable detective and his assistant. Oddly enough, one of the central characters, and not hidden by any alias, is Lawrence Talbot, title character of Universal’s 1941 film, The Wolf Man, and its sequels. Gahan Wilson, who deftly illustrates the book, clearly bases Talbot’s appearance on Lon Chaney Jr., the only actor to play the role in Universal’s classic horrors. The story gradually incorporates elements of H. P. Lovecraft, while remaining light-hearted and clever. You might think of this book as an unofficial sequel to Universal’s 1945 film, House of Dracula, the final entry in the classic horror series. (Yes, I am omitting Abbot & Costello Meet Frankenstein, and I always will. Ick.)

And did I mention that the main character is a dog?

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Japanese Death Poems is exactly what it sounds like. There is a tradition among Japanese haiku poets and Zen monks to write a final poem when they are close to death. This book collects a large sampling of them, with anecdotes about the deaths of the authors where available, plus an introduction covering the history of Japanese poetry and death poems in particular. It begins with the tanka form or poetry, longer and usually self-referential, which was over time superseded by the well-known haiku form. There are many lovely, and naturally brief, poems inside.

People don’t read enough poetry (I know that’s a generalization, but I’m sticking to it) and we avoid thinking about death (also a generalization). This book allows you to do both without becoming depressing or morbid. The equanimity with which so many poets met death is reassuring, even uplifting. Halloween is about fun and bringing a little joy into a seemingly dying season, but it should have its serious side as well.

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Valerie and her Week of Wonders is a surrealist film from the Czech Republic, made in 1970. It’s based on the novel of the same name by Vítězslav Nezval. (I’m writing up the film as I have not yet read the book, a poor position for a writer to be in.) Without spoiling too much, the plot is this: Valerie is a girl just coming into womanhood. The world suddenly seems strange to her. Vampires appear in her town, and she is troubled by possible connections between them and the boy she likes and her own grandmother. The film has the typical attraction/repulsion the surrealists felt toward sex, which is the center of the whole story. Sex is scary and alien to Valerie, and the thought that even people she loves could be involved in it troubles her.

The film is well-made, even charming at times. Making the vampires resemble Count Orlok from the classic horror film Nosferatu was a good touch. If you’ve ever wanted to see a vampire preach in a church, this is definitely the film for you. It is not a horror film, but more a strange dream – Lewis Carroll’s Alice books were another inspiration.

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Take a walk in a cemetery.

Let’s face it: most cemeteries are dull. The average gravestone is an unremarkable square block of stone with some stranger’s name and dates on it. Perhaps the top of the stone is shaped; there might be some treacly sentiment in the inscription. But if you are lucky enough to live near a cemetery with interesting graves, October is the time to visit. The air is cold but not frigid (at least where I live) and the reminders of mortality are leavened by the artistry of memorial sculpture. Sometimes sheer age lends an atmosphere to a cemetery. The photo above is of the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague, Czech Republic. It is there that the tomb of Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, who in legend created the Golem. There are various books and movies dealing with the Golem myth, most famous of which is the 1920 German film Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (The Golem: How He came into the World), starring Paul Wegener.

October is my favorite month of the year. The air turns cool but not icy (most years, anyway), the turning leaves make the woods a kaleidoscope of color. After the lowering skies of summer, autumn skies are bright and infinite. New England, where I live, is especially lovely. And it is this month of all months when darkness creeps in with the lengthening nights to add a little frisson of fright to signify the end of summer’s playfulness.

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Off with his head

In light of recent headlines involving powerful men forcing their attentions on women (to put it mildly) I thought we’d look at the story of Judith and Holofernes, from the Book of Judith, in which things most definitely did not go the man’s way. The Book of Judith is included in Christian scripture, either in the Old Testament or the Apocrypha.

First, a summary of the story: Assyrian General Holofernes is outside the city of Bethulia, intending to destroy it. A beautiful Bethulian widow named Judith goes to Holofernes’ camp and spends several days beguiling him. Because of this she is able to be alone with him in his tent, with a servant nearby. She gets Holofernes drunk and, while he is unconscious, beheads him, saving Bethulia. She takes his head back to the city with her.

The story, and specifically the beheading, has a long history of representation in fine art. Let’s look at some of the notable ones:

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Michelangelo, Judith and Holofernes, 1508-12. Sistine Chapel, Vatican City

Michelangelo’s transcendently beautiful Sistine Chapel frescoes cover a great many Biblical stories, and it’s a testament to the importance of the Judith story that he included it, albeit tucked into aa awkward triangular space. This shows the tradition of portraying the scene immediately post-execution, with Holofernes’ headless body still writhing on the bed while Judith and her servant carry his head away. It’s far from the best of the frescoes, but notable for its inclusion.

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Lucas Cranach the Elder, Judith with the head of Holofernes, 1530 Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

I love Cranach the Elder’s clarity and eye for detail. His colors, still bright almost 500 years later, astound. This version is notable for the great self-confidence and quiet sense of triumph in Judith’s face. And the lavish costume and jewelry are quintessentially Cranach.

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Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1598-99 Collection of the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome

Caravaggio, given the dramatic emphasis on lighting and composition his work is famous for, gives us a suitably grisly scene, yet with considerable depth. Judith is not bloodthirsty or vicious; she stands back and does the deed at arm’s length, perhaps to keep blood off her clothes, but more likely because this is the first great act of violence she has ever committed. Her face is determined yet with an undertone of reluctance. Her servant, though, peers at the act with reserve and an even clinical scrutiny. You might almost think this is not the first beheading the servant has seen.

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Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith and Holofernes, 1614-18 Collection of the Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples

You might expect the most visceral version to come from someone like Caravaggio, but Artemisia Gentileschi outdoes him easily. Here is the killing at its worst, with Judith and her servant grimly determined to see it through. The spurting and dripping blood is worthy of a modern-day horror movie. Interestingly, the Book of Judith says that she killed Holofernes by chopping twice at his neck, but artists show more of a slicing or sawing act.

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Aubrey Beardsley, illustration for Salome by Oscar Wilde, 1893

I had to throw in a ringer to provide a bit of context. This Aubrey Beardsley drawing captures the ending of Oscar Wilde’s play, Salome, derived from the Old Testament story of the death of John the Baptist. Aside from the fact that it’s a great drawing, it helps signify a change as the twentieth century approaches. Literal depiction of the act gives way to artistic stylization; it is no longer the scene shown that is paramount, but how it is shown.

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Gustav Klimt, Judith 1, 1901 Collection of the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna

Gustav Klimt uses the scene as a pretense for a portrait of a beautiful woman, perhaps Klimt’s friend (or lover) Adele Bloch-Bauer. Holofernes’ head is almost out of the picture, with the body of the image taken up with Judith’s calm, voluptuous pose. The frame, made by Klimt’s brother Georg, was designed to make it clear that this is Judith, and not Salome.

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Kehinde Wiley, Judith and Holofernes, 2012 Collection of the North Carolina Art Museum

And the image still fascinates: Kehinde Wiley is a master at combining traditional elements of European painting with his own vivid color palette and African-American figures. His Judith holds the severed head at arm’s length, with an expression of distaste on her face. The flowered pattern, both reminiscent of wallpaper and the patterned backdrops found in some medieval art, threatens to dominate the scene, but Judith’s strong pose and Givenchy dress hold their own. Curiously, Wiley painted the head of a woman as Holofernes, though I have found no explanation given for this.

Though religious scenes have been less common in the last century or so, they still appear, often in re-imaginings and new styles. The story of Judith tells us not to underestimate a woman; she can be a hero, she can lead the attack, she can succeed where men would fail. Perhaps its time for some enterprising curator to put together a show of strong women. And, yes, there will be blood.

How difficult can it be?

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A Felix the Cat model sheet, c. 1936, Van Beuren Studios, New York. I include Felix here he’s as an important precursor to Mickey.

When designing an animated cartoon character, a model sheet is created, a guide to animators showing the character’s proportions, expressions, and body language. It’s one of the basic tools of animation. Using the model sheet, the character remains reasonably consistent from one animator’s work to another’s. Noticeable deviations from the design are called “going off-model.”

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Roy Lichtenstein, Look Mickey, 1961. National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Roy Lichtenstein’s Look Mickey (1961) is an important work of Pop Art, but also a major portrayal of cartoon characters in fine art. Everyone knows that Lichtenstein copied the design from a book illustration. See below:

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From Donald Duck Lost and Found art by Bob Grant and Bob Totten, 1960

Lichtenstein’s awkward copying causes the figures to go off-model in minor ways. Mickey and Donald Duck both suffer a bit through the legs; Lichtenstein doesn’t capture the slight backward stretch of Mickey’s head in the original. However, it is very clearly Mickey and Donald. The rest is easily filed under ‘artistic license.”

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Joyce Pensato, Untitled, 1992

Other artists have tackled Mickey with less successful results. Joyce Pensato has painted many creepy-faced cartoon characters. Some of her paintings are recognizably the characters intended, but one of her most famous, her first painting of Mickey, is not. Perhaps if you take it as an x-ray of Mickey, but the ears lack the requisite roundness.

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Michael Sandle, Head Mickey Mouse, 1978

Michael Sandle has a similar problem. The elongation of the face works against any identification with Mickey Mouse. This resembles Mortimer Mouse, an occasional rival of Mickey’s (and, just to confuse things further, a rat and not a mouse) more than it does Mickey.

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Damien Hirst, Mickey, 2012

Damien Hirst, an artist I have very, very mixed feelings about, hits the nail on the head in the painting of Mickey he did for Disney itself. Reduced to his most basic shape, Mickey is still identifiable.

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Damien Hirst, Mickey Mouse, 2017

More recently, Hirst brought Mickey back as part of “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable,” his show in Venice, Italy this year. A huge mess of a show, his clumsily encrusted Mickey is still identifiable – although it could just as easily be Milton Mouse, a Mickey knock-off briefly featured in cartoons by the Van Beuren studio in the early 1930s, until Disney threatened to sue.

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Ignatz Mouse in action. Detail from a Krazy Kat comic strip by George Herriman.

And one more classic mouse: Ignatz, nemesis/love interest of Krazy Kat in George Herriman’s brilliant comic strip of the same name. Look at the Pensato and Sandle works above. Would you identify them as Mickey, or as Ignatz?

I know that artists must have the freedom to distort and reimagine figures as they see fit. But when you are ostensibly painting or sculpting a portrait of an iconic character, something has to trigger that recognition in the viewer’s mind. Going off-model for comic effect is one thing; doing it to the point where the character is unrecognizable is another.

Ten Years On

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One of Sol LeWitt’s Scribble wall drawings. These photos are from the wall drawing retrospective at Mass MoCA.

It was about this time in 2007 – most likely early October – that I went to New York and saw the show of Sol LeWitt’s Scribble wall drawings at Pace Wildenstein gallery. Ten years have gone by, but the drawings remain fresh and clear in my mind. In fact, all of Sol’s work retains its freshness to me, as though I were seeing each piece for the first time. (Pace’s page on the show is still up, and can be seen here.)

Years later, I went to the brilliant wall drawing retrospective at Mass MoCA, and was again dazzled. I suspect I always will be.

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LeWitt had died in April of that year, and these were among his final works, and among the first new works shown since his death. It’s easy to read something elegiac into them: the somber black, white, and grey; the return to pencil, used in his earliest wall drawings and occasionally thereafter; the simplicity that hints at closure. LeWitt had been fighting cancer for some time. But to read anything like narrative in his work is risky, and often erroneous.

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There are moments which stick in memory, and retain their immediacy the way…well, the way wall drawings do. I can close my eyes and see the windows of the gallery, the street outside, the studied boredom of the woman manning the desk who sold me the catalog to the show. The wall drawing, too, are evocative: slivers of light seen through barely opened eyes; that moment before you put your glasses on and the world becomes sharp edged. And the light at the end of the tunnel. Can’t forget that.

Timelessness isn’t necessary for art to endure; in fact, it’s almost impossible to achieve. The resurgence of abstract painting in recent years is made up of retreads of the past, which are therefore doomed to failure, or picking up the river further downstream, to coin a phrase. When asked if he invented the wall drawing, LeWitt said “I think the cavemen did it first,” which was a good joke while dodging the question at the same time. There might come a time when LeWitt’s wall drawings seem dated, but perhaps that will be after my time. I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for that to happen.

To repeat myself

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Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Illustration by Arthur Rackham

This little post is to simultaneously note the 150th birthday of Arthur Rackham, one of the great book illustrators of any time, and also repeat my assertion that all books should be illustrated. Though Rackham worked largely in children’s books, his graceful line and distinctive use of color was flexible enough to handle any material – he even makes an impact in black and white, as you see above.

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Bottom, from A MidSummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare

There aren’t a lot of illustrators with this sort of range – I might nominate the late Maurice Sendak as one – and even fewer opportunities available. If books are going to be expensive, then publishers ought to make them items to be treasured. Rackham died in 1939; if anything his reputation has grown since then. It’s in a publisher’s best interests to encourage talented illustrators, to be able to link their names together. What’s the opposite of guilt by association?

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From Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.

My Mummy

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A real mummy, as opposed to the kind I write about herein.

Another installment in my “It’s not Halloween yet, but…” series.

I wasn’t surprised by the mediocre response to The Mummy (2017), Universal Pictures’ attempt to relaunch their monster franchise(s) and incorporate them into one giant cinematic universe. They had made baby steps toward uniting their monsters before, in films such as Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman (1943) and House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945). But those were the days before cinematic universes were a Hollywood obsession, and some characters never managed to be incorporated. The Mummy was one such monster left out. What Universal doesn’t understand is that the best monster movies are like fables, self-contained and in a universe of their own, not Tom Cruise action films. Fables must be carefully built and illustrated. Tom Cruise movies are largely excuses for Cruise to look intense while things blow up.

If you have thought about monster movies, then you are dissatisfied with the ending of Universal Pictures’ 1940s Mummy series. True obsessives will remember that Abbott and Costello meet the Mummy (1955) doesn’t count – the mummy in that film is called “Klaris” instead of “Kharis,” which leaves The Mummy’s Curse (1945) as the end of the series – but then, true obsessives rule out Abbot & Costello in general.

Sensing a dearth of 1940s Mummy fanfic, my fevered brain produced this treatment toward a scenario for a film to complete the 1940s Mummy series, complete with notes on casting and setting. Insomnia does odd things to my imagination. For the sake of fantasy, I present this scenario as though it were to be made in 1945/46. For the sake of copyright, I refer to the Mummy only as “Mummy,” and the tana leaves which give the Mummy life in Universal’s films as “Leaf.”

THE MUMMY’S FATE

CAST:
Lionel Atwill – Dr. Pembroke
Ralph Morgan – Detective Cabot
Frank Lackteen – High Priest Hafez
Lon Chaney Jr. – Mummy
Anne Nagel – Mae Pembroke, the Dr.’s niece

SETTING: Baltimore, MD (If that seems strange, remember that the previous two Mummy films were set in the Louisiana Bayou and Massachusetts.)

A druggist, closing up for the night, is visited by a mysterious figure, heavily bandaged and moving stiffly. The druggist knows him and says he cannot provide the rare drugs he wants. The bandages man grows angry and leaves. Out on the street we see him gesture to someone off-screen. A shadowy figure, limping and ominous, breaks down the door and kills the druggist.

Scene fades to a college classroom. Professor Pembroke is lecturing re: prolonging life. Through the use of certain chemicals, prolonging life, or even restoring life to the dead, is possible. After lecture, Pembroke’s niece Mae chats with him a second.

Detective Cabot comes on, asks if Pembroke will consult on a murder case. Pembroke has been of use to the police before. At the crime scene: stolen drugs, man throttled, curious dusty handprints on the corpse. Cabot points out that drugs taken are some very rare items which Pembroke has written about. Pembroke knows of no other scientist doing any research with those chemicals, and agrees to consult.

Pembroke has a lab at his home, outfitted in true Universal mad scientist fashion, with electrical machines rented from Kenneth Strickfaden, test tubes, and a large operating table. The bandages man from the first scene arrives, and introduces himself as Hafez, a High Priest of a secret, ancient sect. Haze asks for advice on certain arcane chemical processes. He brings out the Leaf, and explains its special properties.

Pembroke: Why, the action of these leaves in solution could keep a body alive through incredible hardships.
Hafez: Even through mummification, and the passing of century after century.
Pembroke: It’s almost…immortality.

Hafez has come to Pembroke in dire need. The Leaf tree has been extinct since ancient times, and the supply of them is nearly gone. He is searching for a synthetic alternative, and has come to Pembroke because of his knowledge on the subject. Pembroke is curious. He correctly guesses that Hafez has been experimenting on himself, but he suspects that Hafez is not the true subject of the research. Hafez has no choice; he brings out the Mummy. A little humor can be worked in as Pembroke steps up to the Mummy to examine him, only to be met by a baleful stare; after an anxious moment, Pembroke puts a stethoscope to the Mummy’s chest, and relaxes. Pembroke agrees to help find an artificial Leaf fluid. What they don’t know is that Mae has come home and is watching through a crack in the door, fascinated and aghast.

But Hafez and the Mummy have other agendas as well. They break into a nearby museum, steal the Princess’s mummy, killing museum guards in the process. They bring Ananka’s mummy to Pembroke’s lab. Mae takes Pembroke aside and urges him to refuse them, but Pembroke has a mad scientist’s obsession with his work. He urges Mae to stay out of sight, and observe.

Pembroke and Hafez try to bring the Princess to life, but her mummy has badly decayed, and reanimates in terrible pain. Pembroke and Lackteen struggle, as the Mummy is frantic to try and help the Princess. Pembroke euthanizes the Princess, and is almost killed by the Mummy, but Mae bursts in and intervenes. The Mummy cannot bring himself to kill a woman. It might be possible to bring the Princess back again, but more research must be done and more drugs obtained.

Hafez and the Mummy go to steal drugs, but Hafez is weak from experimenting on himself. An alarm is tripped, and Hafez is shot dead by police as robbery gets complicated. The Mummy gets away. Pembroke continues to work, convinced he is on the verge of discovering serum. He denies knowing Hafez when police come around (they suspect a connection with the pharmacy murder), but he has deep reservations about bringing the Mummy to full health. Mae calls Inspector Cabot, confides in him.
At last, Pembroke has succeeded, combining data from his own and Hafez’s research to produce three vials of the synthetic Leaf fluid, but the Mummy must not drink too much! One vial will restore the Mummy to full strength; two would be dangerous, and three catastrophic. The Mummy tries synthetic Leaf serum and regains full movement in his body. Mae, sensing disaster, phones for the police. The Mummy demands more and runs amok, attacking Pembroke and taking the second vial from him. Mae grabs the third vial and leaves the lab by the back door, which opens on a slope up to a clifftop overlooking the sea. The Mummy strides after her, furious.

The Mummy chases Mae up to cliff – she has no escape except over the cliff. Then the Mummy slows his pace, stumbles and totters.

Mae: What’s happening? (looks at vial) The synthetic serum is flawed. It’s wearing off!

The Mummy falls, holding himself off the ground on one elbow, the other hand outstretched, pleading for the last of serum.

Mae: What would happen if I gave you the serum? There is no more, and you’ll get no more help from my uncle – if you haven’t killed him already. The Princess is dead. (Mummy pounds the path with his fist in frustration) Don’t you see you have completed your task? You have protected her to the end. It’s time for you to join her in the afterlife.

The Mummy hangs his head, then raises it, points to the vial, and makes a sweeping gesture. Mae nods and throws the vial over the cliff. The Mummy rolls onto his back, covering his face with both hands in despair.

The police arrive, led by Detective Cabot. They pick up Dr. Pembroke, who is not dead, just bruised, and they hasten out the door and up the path – and stop dead in amazement. Mae is sitting on the ground, the Mummy’s head in her lap. She is speaking quietly to him.

Mae: Rest. Be at peace. The Gods of Egypt will forgive you, and reward you for your centuries of faithful service. Sleep now. It’s over.

She looks soulfully up into the camera, and The End title appears.

Inexplicable

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I haven’t blogged about Kickstarter projects until now because a] they are transient, and keeping up a blog involves making sure links stay active (or not giving a damn), and often there’s little more to say than “I like this. You should too.” However, there are some I’d like to write about now and then. Many will be endorsements. This is not.

Greg Allen – whom I do not know in any other way than this project – has solicited funding for a new project: A version of Pablo Picasso‘s iconic painting Guernica (shown above), translated into “crucial historic moments of the Trump administration, starting with this ominously prescient flash between Ivanka and (Angela) Merkel…” rendered in the style (if that is the word) of former President George W. Bush. Further, just to make things more awful, the work will be produced in a variety of editions, following the model of painter Thomas Kinkade. The idea, while reeking of something produced under the influence of a prodigious amount of alcohol, manages to combine poor reasoning with shallow politics into a perfect storm of WTF.

How Kinkade features into this: capitalization of creativity is right in line with Trumpian thinking. Kinkade didn’t live long enough to endorse or reject Trump, so we’ll set him as an artist aside: this is about Kinkade as a business. George W. Bush is a harder fit. As a conservative Republican, he would seem to quality, but the fanatical Trumpist arm of the GOP pretends that the Bushes don’t exist. And fitting the bland portraiture of Bush into anything remotely resembling Guernica is baffling. Guernica depicts no real people, or even distinctly recognizable types. Would Goya or Daumier be a better fit? Perhaps, but neither of them is an American, much less a Republican. Then again, neither is Picasso…and his mildly communist politics are at odds with all the rest.

Furthermore, Allen admits that “By every contemporaneous metric, Guernica failed.” Though its impact grew considerably, making it one of Picasso’s finest paintings and one of the best anti-war paintings in history, it seems a curious choice for what is clearly a project very much of the moment. Protest art has its place in the art world, but it is highly perishable. To my mind, Guernica is the wrong subject, Bush the wrong artist to match with it, and Trump… Words fail me.

As of this writing, 59 people have backed this project. That’s their prerogative. I’m only saying that better ideas exist, ones that tie art and history together without a lot of head-scratching.

And the kicker to this Kickstarter? He reached his goal. $3,510. I for one am waiting for the definitive anti-Trump artwork, but I can’t help but think that this isn’t it. Oh, well, people putting money toward art isn’t a bad thing.