Wednesday, December 15, 2010


My retelling of Wagner's story was inspired by a the version on DVD by Zubin Mehta and the Valencia Community Orchestra. Trust me, this version is worth seeing and is reputed to be one of the best Walkuries recorded in the digital era. I saw it at Steve Worth's place last night and it bowled me over.

I needed examples to illustrate the story but I could find only one good clip of the Mehta version, and that was  a rehearsal. It's still well worth seeing, though. It's the last video on the bottom; don't miss it. Most of the excerpts here are by other artists. If you're hearing this music for the first time, then I envy you.

Anyway, here's the story. It's one of the greatest stories in all of opera, so I don't think it'll put anyone to sleep.

A good place to start is with the action described in the clip from the top of the post, the one where Siegmund and Sieglinde sing about their love for each other.  This is no wimpy, half-hearted crush...these guys have just met their kindred souls (each other), the one who they'll both fight to the death for. Sieglinde's already married to a brutal neanderthal (I'm taking liberty with the story in order to condense it) who's enslaved her. They run into the night to escape him.

The problem is that the gods have witnessed all this and have taken sides.  In order to prevent a civil war in Valhalla, Wotan orders Brunhilda and her Valkyries to kill Sigmund. This is a big deal because the Valkyries are the ultimate lethal weapon. No human army could stand up to them, let alone a solitary hero like Siegmund.

Brunnhilda finds the couple and prepares to kill them, but can't go through with it. Theirs is the purest example of love she's ever seen. She can't prevent the other Valkyries from helping the enraged husband to kill Siegmund, but she's determined to prevent harm from coming to Sieglinde. She begs the other Valkyries to help the mortal woman escape. If need be, she's willing to stand up to Wotan himself.

Wotan finds out and is outraged. Not even the Valkyries can help Brunnhilde now. He punishes her by making her mortal and putting her to sleep. The first human slob who finds her and wakes her up will take possession of her. She'll live in misery like a slave, will feel pain, and will grow old and die.

I forgot to say that Brunnhilda was Wotan's favorite child. They love each other fiercely. As sleep overcomes her, Brunnhilda begs Wotan for one last favor. Let a wall of intense fire surround her sleeping body. Make it so horrific that only the greatest of heroes could penetrate it. Wotan grants her wish then, grief-stricken, he exits. The lights slowly fade out on her inert body covered with a shield and surrounded by a ring of intense supernatural fire. Neat story, huh?  The events continue in the next opera in the cycle, "Siegfried."

This Christmas, consider giving yourself a Christmas present...the Blue-Ray DVD of Mehta's "Die Walkure." It's $35 on Amazon. Netflix doesn't seem to have it. If you're hard up for dough, maybe you can pester your local library to buy a copy.  I recommend watching it on video, rather than listening to it on CD. The English subtitles are indispensable aids to understanding the story.

BTW, I wonder if this post will find itself on the radar of Wagner aficionados. Those people are brutal. They address each other with openers like, "Dear stupid" and "Dear Dumb Ass." Differences of opinion are treated like heresies. 

Sunday, December 12, 2010


I didn't always like it. When the first book came out in 1997 I spot read in it and wasn't impressed.  It seemed like a rehash of Lord of the Rings, which in book form I never liked much. On the eve of the movie debut in 2001 you could hear my yawn a block away. Then I saw the film.

Holy Cow! It was fascinating! I came out of the theater muttering, "So THAT'S what Rowling had in mind!" I couldn't believe what a blockhead I was for being so dense.

Looking back on it, I think my resistance had to do with Rowling's disappointingly normal dialogue and  and narrative. It's not bad, it's just not special. You expect English writers to dazzle with language, and she doesn't. No only that but she writes in a mass market adolescent style, which strikes me as somewhat simplistic.

So why do I like her? It's because great assets outweigh great liabilities. She has an astonishing imagination. Add to that a wonderful ability with characters,  an infectious idealism,  and a marvelous way with scenes and images. On the film side, she's amazingly good at picking collaborators. Her choice of actors (above) and art directors was perfect, and her out-of-left-field choice of Chris Columbus to direct was inspired.

Here's (above) the real star of the story: Hogwarts Castle. It's a wonderful image. All by itself the picture of the school asks the question: "What if school was fun, what if it combined serious purpose with tradition and life and death struggle? What if the buildings themselves were monuments to the efficacy and noble purpose of man? What if  marvelous, life-changing truths were revealed there? What if students were expected to be clever and adventurous, and not just passive receivers of knowledge? What if you made loyal, lifelong friends there? What if your own life, the only one you'll ever have, wasn't scrinched by muggles?"

Of course you don't travel to the world's best school on a plain old bus. Rowling has us take a real steam-driven train over trestles and through beautiful countryside that looks as much like Hawaii as England.

 In the films directed by Chris Columbus, the interior of the school is beautifully art directed. I love this idea of candles hovering above tables in the dining hall (above). The addition of ghosts walking through doesn't hurt either.

Terrific set design (above) for the staircase sequences.

Above, the Defence Against the Dark Arts classroom. Very nice!

Above, Dumbledore's office as it's reconstructed in the theme park that opened in July. Can you believe that it took 13 years to get a small park going?

The park is okay, just okay. Can you believe how lame this candy store (above) is? It looks like the identical design used in the Zany Brainy stores. Come to think of it, Disneyland is full of stores like this. Did the designer take time to read any of the books?

The merchandising on Harry Potter has been woefully unimaginative. Potter could have sold 10 times the toys that it did. This reaffirms my belief that 80% of all toy executives should be tarred and feathered.

At least the park cafeteria (above) has an interesting ceiling. I think all ordinary high schools should have cafeterias with complex, interesting ceilings. Occasionally a kid will get hurt when illegally trying to climb in them, but that's to be expected. You don't want the world to be so safe that no one can have fun anymore.

Friday, December 10, 2010


I'm ashamed to say that I don't know enough about 19th Century French history to comment on the exact political context of these prints. Evidently Napoleon III met a lot of resistance from republican artists,  and that worked its way into the cartoons of the time.

The print above derives from republican sympathies but it would be a mistake to think that republicans were united in support of the new trends in art. An awful lot of them, including some of the funniest caricaturists, were against them.  Caricature magazines roasted Courbet, Manet, and even Rodin.

Lithography created a whole new market for cartoons like the one above. Most of the prints I've seen were relatively small. I guess that made them cheaper and easier to hide if need be. It's too bad because poster size reproductions would have been so much more appealing.

What's being sold here (above) is a lifestyle, a way of seeing the world. The anti-establishment reader is encouraged to imagine himself as artistically and culturally sophisticated and the defenders of the establishment are served up to him as boobs. It's argument by ridicule, which is not a very good way to get at the truth, but its appeal to artists and readers alike is irresistible.

A commenter wondered if this was the era that pioneered caricature with big heads (above) and little bodies. Is it? Who's responsible for that?  BTW, click to enlarge.

Here's a color lithograph by Daumier. Was a different stone used for each major color? It sounds expensive. Maybe silk screen or hand coloring would have been cheaper. I'm not sure.

According to Alberto's comment, even Monet did caricatures (above) for the humor magazines. It looks like he was pretty good at it.

Thursday, December 09, 2010


I spent part of the morning deleting old files of pictures and projects that were intended for this blog, but which didn't make the final cut. Most were okay I guess, but they didn't grab me on the second viewing. I thought you might be interested in seeing what gets rejected around here.

Aaargh! I had high hopes for this post (above and below) but it just didn't look funny in print. I talked to John about it and he came up with gags that were absolutely hilarious, but which just didn't seem to fit somehow. What you see here are fragments of what would have been a longer "Dating Game"-type story. The title card (above) is from a real site that actually arranges dates for dogs. 

Sigh! I think it (above) would have come off better if I'd drawn it. Photos are too conservative for this type of thing.. 

Here (above) I tried out a scene from "David Copperfield." I played both David and McCawber.

I thought I made a pretty good McCawber (the role W.C. Fields played in the film), but my David was nothing to write home about, so I put the story on hold. Hmmm....maybe I was a little hasty. I think I'll move this over to the active file. 

One of these days I hope I can do a blog story with Kristen McCabe. She looks great distorted like this. Imagine her as the wicked Queen of Hearts in "Alice in Wonderland."

Tuesday, December 07, 2010


If you like to draw caricatures then hold your hat, because this blog will be one of the most important that you're likely to read this year...well, this week, anyway. We'll discuss a wonderful Japanese caricaturist, Tomokazu Tabata, and we'll investigate how he manages to draw drastic portraits without offending people. 

In the previous post commenters EZ, Jennifer and Pappy remarked that some of the recipients of Aaron's caricatures didn't seem too happy about them. The guy above is an example.  Why the sour face? The caricature was a good one; he should have been delighted. Aaron must have felt pretty bad.

My first reaction was that Asians must react negatively to caricatures that give them linear eyes. They don't think of themselves that way, and maybe they're insulted by it.

But Tomo, who's Asian himself, routinely draws linear eyes and Asian subjects love it. What gives? How come they accept it from him, and not from Aaron?

I thought about this all morning, then the answer hit me. People accept it from Tomo because his drawings are so doggone happy and cartoony.  His desire is not to humiliate his subjects infront of a crowd, but to bring them into the cartoon world where everybody looks goofy. His purpose is to glorify cartooning. 

Contrast that with this portrait of an American kid who's slightly wall-eyed.  Maybe it wasn't such a good idea to do it this way. It's realistic enough to suggest that the kid actually has a serious deformity. It's bound to make the kid self-conscious about his eyes.

Look at how Tomo handles a similar problem.  The guy in the upper left is handsome, but he's also a bit chunky. An unsympathetic artist could shred him, but Tomo chooses instead to bring him into the world of stylized cartoons where everybody is distorted. The finished drawing of the guy pulls no punches, yet it still succeeds in having a good-time feel.

This (above) is a terrific picture. It's also philosophical. The value of remembering moments of happiness can't be over-estimated. Remembering those gives us hope that good times are ahead. and in moments of solitary depression, reminds us of the importance of being with friends.

Never pass up the opportunity to be drawn by a first-rate caricaturist. it's always worth the money.

A happy kid (above), with a happy portrait. I suspect that downright gloomy portraits would succeed too, provided the gloom was funny and cartoony. Portraits like that are also happy, just in a different way. It's Tomo's simplicity and directness that sells the picture. 

That approach even works when you pile on a lot of detail (above).  This picture was done by Sakiko Ushiodo.

Tomo also sculpts. Wouldn't it be great to have a sculptured caricature done in his style? It would cost, though. You can't sculpt as quickly as you can draw.

So, have I abandoned Aaron (the two pictures above) for Tomo? No, not at all.

 I like them both for different reasons. Aaron's more grotesque than Tomo, but his best work is so outrageous that it elicits involuntary laughter, and that's the gold standard for caricature. 



Saturday, December 04, 2010


Who is this Aaron Philby guy!!?? I'm always seeing his caricatures on the net, but they're never accompanied by biographical material. Usually they're not even signed. Whenever I see good people doing what they do anonymously I always assume they're on the lamb from the law, or are in the Witness Protection Program.

 Oops! Sorry Aaron. I hope what I said doesn't get you killed.

Wouldn't it be fun to go to the beach and get a funny caricature done like the one above? What a nice, clean line!

Aaron does what looks like acrylic portaits, too.

The man does what the best modern caricaturists do: he sees his subjects as weird, biological specimens. You see it in his two-man "friend" portraits, which always look like the love of a sea urchin for a flounder. I mean that as a compliment.

Friendship is one of the great mysteries of life. Two weird organisms (above) with different tastes and different physiology find each other and somehow just "gel." It's a strange and wonderful phenomenon and only caricature seems to capture it adequately.

 Wonderful (above), just wonderful!

Asians (above) can be a challenge to draw. The linear eyes are first thing Europeans see, but if you draw them like that some Asians get offended. That's because they don't see themselves that way. Look at Manga which always portrays Japanese as having huge, wide-open, glassy eyes. What's a caricaturist to do?

I think Aaron has the right approach. Just draw what you see. At least it's honest, and maybe one day  Asians won't be so touchy about it.

I love portraits where a big giraffe head (above) just leans in from the side. How do you like the arrangement of the teeth?

Above, another "biological specimen" portrait. You imagine David Attenburough describing the creature as a bottom feeder which uses its nose to stir up the sand, and its mouth to suck up the worms that live there. I'm guessing that the father of this technique was John K who watches animal shows on TV in order to understand humans better.

Very Nice (above)! I also like the way the chair comes off as an irregular-shaped cloth frame in this photo.

Probably these (above) were just-for-fun sketches, done at home. The task for a caricaturist is to retain this cartoony, class clown style even in a worked-up painting. 

Oops! I just discovered that this one (above) might be by Briam Oakes, I'll investigate.

I could write a whole article about these last three pictures (above). They look primitive but are actually very sophisticated. It takes real comedic and graphic talent to simplify faces this way. It's hard to do that when your subject has paid you and is sitting right in front of you. In that situation you delete everything funny in an attempt to chase the likeness. The funniest pictures are always drawn the next day when you're on the scent of a remembered impression.

This reminds me of something caricaturist Marlo Meekins said. She said she didn't mind it when people moved a lot while she was sketching them. The movement made her focus on her impression of the subject, rather than fidelity to reality.

Anyway, great work Aaron!

Aaron's blog: