Wednesday, January 19, 2011


What topic has been more intriguing for artists than the sympathy of mortal flesh for mortal flesh?

From the beginning it has been Topic A: "Always Interesting."

Prehistoric kiss, 3500BCE

Nefertiti's kiss, 1350 BCE

John Gannam, Good Housekeeping 1954

While the ballet between living organisms continues to fascinate, the more recent relationship between organisms and machines has emerged to command the attention of artists, sometimes in profound ways.

After the industrial revolution, artists began to look at engines, gears and wires (which were born with a function but no inherent design) and integrate them into nature's laws of design as if they were some new species of flower. For example, the first locomotives were raucous, clanking intruders that frightened horses and scarred the landscape but artists such as Turner and Monet began to place them in an aesthetic framework.

And consider how artists projected notions of beauty onto flying machines:

Illustrator Henry Reuterdahl imagined airships of the future for one of the earliest science fiction stories. In the following picture, a beam of light zaps an airship over the ocean at night. Reuterdahl did not strive for technical accuracy but instead depicted the machine using the same naturalistic approach he used for the sea gull.

"She falls stern first, our beam upon her; slides like a lost soul down that pitiless ladder of light, and the Atlantic takes her."

N.C. Wyeth, too, used his powerful imagination to conjure up this lyrical vision of early aircraft:


As machines have expanded into more important and intricate roles, their relationships with human beings have become more open ended. Artists' observations have graduated beyond the external designs of machines, sometimes assigning them character and personality.

Compare French illustrator G. Dutriac's early depiction of technology from the sky, a pyramid of light triumphing over the primitive and savage Berbers fighting on horseback in North Africa...


...with Picasso's pyramid of light from a later airplane (depicted as an electric light bulb placed in the fearsome eye of a wrathful machine-deity in the sky). The two beams share a similar shape, but you can tell the moral character of the machine has changed dramatically.


Just as God is supposed to have breathed life into Adam, thereby transforming inert dust into a living being, artists imbue lifeless machines with character, meaning and even moral content. Artists "design" the character of the machine, and then take as their subject the relationship between the character of a human and the character of the machine.

For you skeptics out there saying, "yeah, but machines will never make it past first base in their relationships with humans," I refer you to the work of Ashley Wood, who has built a career on the aesthetics of juxtaposing the tender places of nubile women against giant war robots:

Or painter Phil Hale, who vividly pits human muscle and sinew against machinery in an endless, iconic struggle.

Living organisms now have no choice but to share the stage with machines. It remains to be seen whether their relationship offers artists opportunities for Shakespearean level profundity, or whether this new relationship is just the thrill of encountering something different that by the way vibrates.

Perhaps our relationships with machines only appear more profound as relationships between humans become more superficial. When mortal flesh is downgraded to the status of mere meat, interactions with machines can begin to seem pretty interesting by comparison.


Anonymous said...

I think you're just parodying yourself at this point. When exactly did this blog "Jump the Shark"?

MORAN said...

I love that N.C. Wyeth. What year was that painted?

David Apatoff said...

Anonymous: quite possibly with post no. 300; we'll just have to wait and see. No guarantees in this line of work. But I do appreciate your pointed comment.

MORAN: I believe it was published around 1919.

Anonymous said...

This is a pretty imaginative justification for Ashley Wood's post-modern cheesecake (not that there's anything wrong with cheesecake).


kev ferrara said...

I think this is a fine and original essay on which I will comment more when I get the time. Whether this was post #1 or post #400, it is still impressive prose full of interesting connections.

In the meantime, Anonymous, your "comment" is absolutely worthless. Why in bloody hell did you bother to post it? Don't you realize that the exit is in every direction. Or are you not that smart?

Anonymous said...

..i fretted as one of my favorite bookmarks sat idle for almost a month..

James King said...

Mmmust... rrresist... urge to ffflame... initial Anonymous poster... .

Stephen Worth said...

Glen Barr's car crash paintings are another great example of sensuous depictions of machines.

Matthew Harwood said...

Machine: a thing that is created skillfully and inventively to serve a particular purpose.

We have always had a love/hate relationship with our machines but creating and using these tools are what make us human. On the one hand, they give us superhuman powers that transcend our physical or mental limitiations and can be used to our advantage. But on the other hand, tools and machines can give some other group or individual superhuman strength to our disadvantage.

Is it only a matter of parity that make a thing "good" or "bad"?

Lennard Grahn said...

Given the extreme significance of the automobile in the modern age, I can't recall a depiction of it by any modern "master" - with the exception of the Futurists

(love reading this blog, btw)

StimmeDesHerzens said...

How you tied in my favorite newspaper with "the taste of metallic kisses" caused me so much mirth I could barely continue with reading your 300 + one post.
Art 'assigned character and personality'? Just goes to show the potential versatility, the outerboundaries yet unexplored, of art.
With a smile & schöne Grüße! ~B

raphael said...

now that is an interesting perspective for sure - thanks for providing some food for thought, david. sometimes, its stuff so obvious - but for some reason, one just does not think of putting them in relation.

consequently, this is not only a statement about our view of machinery, but also of ourselves. seemingly, the pairing of man and machine seems to be of about the character of man and his animal cohort -a knight and his armoured steed- in the wyeth, of man and his supernatural enemy -st. george and the dragon- in the hale, and seems to go the way of a gender-swapped version of pygmalion and galatea in ashley woods painting.

raphael said...

oh, and one thing that sprung to mind in this vein:

jon foster, in his book "progressions":

"if i had time to paint just robots, thats all my work would be - robots!
theyre iconic, like the idea of a chair or a house. they are us in disguise, superpowered, cold and warm, young and old, symbols for us to ponder what makes us human."

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Tom Kidd said...

Love that Wyeth . . . and I've never seen it before. Congratulations on finding that one!

David Apatoff said...

Anonymous no. 2: I enjoy Ashley Wood's work, cheesecake or not.

D.H.: You're very kind, I didn't think anyone would notice. I was out of range of a scanner and my collection for a while, but now I'm back (for better or worse).

Stephen Worth: I am generally familiar with Barr's work, but not with his crash paintings, which apparently take a little effort to find on the internet. I'll have to track them down.

David Apatoff said...

Matthew Harwood: I agree that we have had a love/hate relationship with machines since the first ancient craftsman accidentallly banged his thumb with a hammer. But of course, now machines take up a much larger part of our lives, filling far more complicated roles in a far more interactive way. That tends to make the "love/hate" a little more layered.

Lennard Grahn: I suppose that depends on how you define "master." So-called "fine" artists such as Richard Estes do large photo-realist paintings of cars. But I think the most interesting parallel is in the post WW II commercial field. Cars were depicted as gleaming dream machines, part of the "good life" in America. Artists stretched them to look longer and surrounded them with spotlights and beautiful girls in sequined gowns. Some were designed to impart virility to their owners. Some were painted as the celestial embodiment of commercial success in this world. Top illustrators such as Austin Briggs, Bernie Fuchs and Fred Ludekens were drafted to bring personality and light to these metal objects. There is a whole fascinating world of car paintings between 1946 and 1964.

David Apatoff said...

StimmeDesHerzens: I am very pleased to be a provider of mirth.

Raphael wrote: "this is not only a statement about our view of machinery, but also of ourselves." Exactly, and isn't that what makes it so interesting? We use art to personify / humanize inanimate objects in a way that offers us a reflecting mirror. (With today's interactive technology, we need to keep checking to see whether that mirror is looking back at us). Thanks for the Jon Foster quote!

Tom Kidd: yes, that is certainly not a typical Wyeth but I agree he did a beautiful job (especially for someone who had never been up in a plane at the dawn of aviation). His powerful imagination was not limited to knights in armour.

Stephen Worth said...

It's relatively easy to render a car realistically, but it is extremely hard to stylize or caricature them effectively. I once did a sweep through my cartooning books looking for nicely exaggeratedautos, and there weren't many. The interesting thing is that when you see it done right, it looks so correct, you don't realize the difficulty involved.

I worked with Glenn Barr on a commercial and he brought a bunch of his prints to give the studio as gifts. The big boss snapped up the car crash ones before anyone else got a crack at them!

Stephen Worth said...

I found a teeny weenie one...

अर्जुन said...

I remember when this blog was …er …OK, but now that it has "jumped the shark" I fear that I too may become a parody or perhaps even a cheap replica!

kev ferrara said...

It is interesting how artists did not humanize horses when they were transportation. Possibly because experience made everyone familiar with the reality of their animal nature. Creativity often needs a frontier to prompt its action, new or old... something unknown and new to prompt speculation.

But machines are a frontier we have created ourselves.. they are both old (as tools) and new (as technology). They aren't the distant stars or Death.

On the one hand its usefulness can make a machine lovable (A snowblower to anybody living in the Northeast of the U.S., say, or a dishwasher) But this is merely the love of getting out of boring labor. The machine itself can't be loved or appreciated. It doesn't have the capacity.

Our endless romanticization of the mechanical makes me wonder whether there is a certain disappointment attached to the fact that our creations, the finest fruit of our rational minds, are so lacking in soul. (Yet... Don't AI researchers realize their ultimate success would make us all slaveholders once again?)

And yet our machines can provide us service that is ultimately good because of our emotional need to have more time to do what we want in life. Possibly there is a sort of mental confusion that comes along with getting something for nothing: emotional benefit requiring no emotional return. A credit card payment to the former owner of a machine is no substitute for an actual interaction with the device wherein heartfelt appreciation is communicated.

Reminds me of that old quote: The worst moment for an atheist is when he feels grateful and has no one to thank.

I sometimes feel that pang myself.


Laurence John said...

the juxtaposition of pert babe and fetishized hardware is what the adolescent comic book imagination is all about.

Øyvind Lauvdahl said...

Dei ex machina are only bad storytelling devices as far as plot is concerned, and plot is nothing more than a storytelling device itself.

As allegorical functions, the plots of gods and machines serve us equally well well as we attempt to make sense of life.

As long as we don't start interpreting the metaphor as fact, we'll be OK, I think.

"You must remember this / A kiss is still a kiss"

Erin said...


T Arthur Smith said...

"On the one hand its usefulness can make a machine lovable (A snowblower to anybody living in the Northeast of the U.S., say, or a dishwasher) But this is merely the love of getting out of boring labor. The machine itself can't be loved or appreciated. It doesn't have the capacity."

Not true. Machines make up a part of our landscape, both household and beyond, ad we tend to love it for the same reason we love everything else around us - because we fear change.

Change represents death and the erasure of our lives, our past, and the world as we've come to know it. That's why it's unnerving when you revisit your childhood town and discover all the restaurants have changed, the forest was torn down for a strip mall, and your parents have a new fridge, and a xerox machine where some vases used to be.

Just ask yourself, why don't you love the new fridge just as much, when it does the same job as before?

kev ferrara said...

I stand by the assertion that most people appreciate their snowblowers and dishwashers for the service they perform.

But that is beside the point I was trying to make.

Henriech said...

well done and i love the concept.

Art inspiration:

Sterling Hundley said...

As we desperately seek to create machines that do the extraordinary, we are overlooking the necessity of performing the ordinary.

The great irony is that we seem frenzied and desperate to reach a tipping point where we have created machines that are so full of life as to reflect their makers- seems we've not so far to go. I don't know if the human soul can be given away, but we're certainly doing our best to try.

The ultimate battle between man and metal may resemble a hostile takeover more than an impassioned war.

"Technology will destroy us. Technology will save us."

Thanks for another amazing post David!