Modern Art Was Used As a Torture Technique in Prison Cells During the Spanish Civil War

We’ve all got those friends or family members who consider “modern art” a form of torture. Next time they complain about an exhibition you bring them to, just tell them how relieved they should feel that they didn’t fight in the Spanish Civil War — not just for the obvious reasons; they could have found themselves subject not just to actual torture, but torture directly inspired by modernist aesthetic principles. “A Spanish art historian has found evidence that suggests some Civil War jail cells were built like 3-D modern art paintings in order to torture prisoners,” reports BBC News. “The cells were built in 1938 for the republican forces fighting General Franco’s Fascist Nationalist army, who eventually won power.” The finding comes from historian Jose Milicua, who discovered references to these modern-art cells among court papers from “the 1939 trial of French anarchist Alphonse Laurencic, a republican, by a Franco-ist military court.”

“During the trial,” the BBC article continues, “Laurencic revealed he was inspired by modern artists, such as surrealist Salvador Dali and Bauhaus artist Wassily Kandinsky” to create the six-foot-by-four-foot cells placed secretly in Barcelona (see a re-creation above), which featured “sloping beds at a 20-degree angle that were almost impossible to sleep on,” “irregularly shaped bricks on the floor that prevented prisoners from walking backwards or forwards,” walls “covered in surrealist patterns designed to make prisoners distressed and confused,” and lighting effects “to make the artwork even more dizzying.” Evidence also indicates that, elsewhere in Spain, Nationalist prisoners “were forced to watch Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel’s film Un Chien Andalou,” especially an endless loop of its “graphic sequence of an eyeball being cut open” (at the top of the post).


Ironically, those imprisoned in such cells would have wound up there in the name of their fascist cause, which like the Franco-backing Nazi regime in Germany, considered modernism “degenerative.” Presumably, they didn’t leave their imprisonment with any more sympathetic idea of modern art than the one they’d gone in with. “A subcurrent of shock and provocation has always lurked within avant-garde art, which deliberately sets out to challenge bourgeois convention and to elicit a strong response” writes the New York Times‘ John Rockwell. “My own experience has been that opponents of new art are much too quick to presume provocation, let alone provocation intended literally to torture. Still, there can be no doubt that outrage was and is a goal of some artists, even if they rarely pushed it to the logical extreme that Laurencic took it.” You can learn more about this unusually artistic form of warfare in this All Things Considered interview with art historian Victoria Combalia. (Listen below.) And do try to suppress those fantasies of throwing your more Philistine acquaintances in there for an hour or two.

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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

H.P. Lovecraft Gives Five Tips for Writing a Horror Story, or Any Piece of “Weird Fiction”

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Image by Lucius B. Truesdell, via Wikimedia Commons

Though the term “weird fiction” came into being in the 19th century—originally used by Irish gothic writer Sheridan Le Fanu—it was picked up by H.P. Lovecraft in the 20th century as a way, primarily, of describing his own work. Lovecraft produced copious amounts of the stuff, as you can see from our post highlighting online collections of nearly his entire corpus. He also wrote in depth about writing itself. He did so in generally prescriptive ways, as in his 1920 essay “Literary Composition,” and in ways specific to his chosen mode—as in the 1927 “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” in which he defined weird fiction very differently than Le Fanu or modern authors like China Miéville. For Lovecraft,

The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain–a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.

Here we have, broadly, the template for a very Lovecraftian tale indeed. Ten years later, in a 1937 essay titled “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction,” Lovecraft would return to the theme and elaborate more fully on how to produce such an artifact.

Weird Fiction, wrote Lovecraft in that later essay, is “obviously a special and perhaps a narrow” kind of “story-writing,” a form in which “horror and the unknown or the strange are always closely connected,” and one that “frequently emphasize[s] the element of horror because fear is our deepest and strongest emotion.” Although Lovecraft self-deprecatingly calls himself an “insignificant amateur,” he nonetheless situates himself in the company of “great authors” who mastered horror writing of one kind or another: “[Lord] Dunsany, Poe, Arthur Machen, M.R. James, Algernon Blackwood, and Walter de la Mare.” Even if you only know the name of Poe, it’s weighty company indeed.

But be not intimidated—Lovecraft wasn’t. As our traditional holiday celebration of fear approaches, perhaps you’d be so inclined to try your hand at a little weird fiction of your own. You should certainly, Lovecraft would stress, spend some time reading these writers’ works. But he goes further, and offers us a very concise, five point “set of rules” for writing a weird fiction story that he says might be “deduced… if the history of all my tales were analyzed.” See an abridged version below:

  1. Prepare a synopsis or scenario of events in the order of their absolute occurrence—not the order of their narrations.

This is a practice adhered to by writers from J.K. Rowling and William Faulkner to Norman Mailer. It seems an excellent general piece of advice for any kind of fiction.

  1. Prepare a second synopsis or scenario of events—this one in order of narration (not actual occurrence), with ample fullness and detail, and with notes as to changing perspective, stresses, and climax.
  1. Write out the story—rapidly, fluently, and not too critically—following the second or narrative-order synopsis. Change incidents and plot whenever the developing process seems to suggest such change, never being bound by any previous design.

It may be that the second rule is made just to be broken, but it provides the weird fiction practitioner with a beginning. The third stage here brings us back to a process every writer on writing, such as Stephen King, will highlight as key—free, unfettered drafting, followed by…

  1. Revise the entire text, paying attention to vocabulary, syntax, rhythm of prose, proportioning of parts, niceties of tone, grace and convincingness of transitions…

And finally….

  1. Prepare a neatly typed copy—not hesitating to add final revisory touches where they seem in order.

You will notice right away that these five “rules” tell us nothing about what to put in our weird fiction, and could apply to any sort of fiction at all, really. This is part of the admirably comprehensive quality of the otherwise succinct essay. Lovecraft tells us why he writes, why he writes what he writes, and how he goes about it. The content of his fictional universe is entirely his own, a method of visualizing “vague, elusive, fragmentary impressions.” Your mileage, and your method, will indeed vary.

Lovecraft goes on to describe “four distinct types of weird story” that fit “into two rough categories—those in which the marvel or horror concerns some condition or phenomenon, and those in which it concerns some action of persons in connection with a bizarre condition or phenonmenon.” If this doesn’t clear things up for you, then perhaps a careful reading of Lovecraft’s complete “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction” will. Ultimately, however, “there is no one way” to write a story. But with some practice—and no small amount of imagination—you may find yourself joining the company of Poe, Lovecraft, and a host of contemporary writers who continue to push the boundaries of weird fiction past the sometimes parochial, often profoundly bigoted, limits that Lovecraft  set out.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Maya Angelou Tells Studs Terkel How She Learned to Count Cards & Hustle in a New Animated Video

Blank on Blank returns with another one of their visually-distinctive animated videos. This one lets us time travel back to 1970 when Studs Terkel, the great American author, historian, and radio broadcaster, sat down with acclaimed poet Maya Angelou. The interview took place shortly after Angelou published her 1969 autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and the conversation turns, amusingly, to her childhood years, when she learned how to hustle and count cards from her step father, Daddy Clidell. I bet Bukowski is applauding wherever he is. Blank on Blank made this video in partnership with the Studs Terkel Radio Archive, which we featured on our site late last year.

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Watch Luis Buñuel’s Surreal Travel Documentary A Land Without Bread (1933)

You don’t get the warm fuzzies from a Luis Buñuel movie. The most famous moment from his first film — Un Chien andalou, co-directed with Salvador Dalí — is a woman getting her eye slashed with a straight razor. While on closer inspection the gutted eye is from a dead donkey, the image still has the power to shock 85 years later. Though the movie was a collaboration, you can discern Buñuel’s vision in this early work — shots of ants coming out of bodily orifices is pure Dalí; the caustic satire against the clergy is pure Buñuel. Dalí’s images are strange and beautiful. Buñuel’s are subversive.

Though Dalí and Buñuel worked together again on the scorchingly anti-Catholic L’Age d’or, their collaboration fell apart in pre-production. Dalí just wanted to tweak those in power. Buñuel, a committed leftist, wanted to undermine the whole bourgeoisie.

Land Without Bread (Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan) is Buñuel’s first movie without Dalí. Though lacking many of the overt surrealist flourishes of his earlier movies – no ocular mutilation here – this 1933 film is much more unsettling. Ostensibly a documentary about the Las Hurdes region located in a remote corner of Spain, the film is in fact a lacerating parody of travel documentaries. Novelist Graham Greene, in a review of the movie for Night and Day magazine, called it “an honest and hideous picture.” You can watch it above.

Las Hurdes is poor but not as comically awful as Buñuel depicts it. He paints the picture of unleavened wretchedness. Disease, deprivation and grinding despair are in just about every frame of the movie. And if the images weren’t miserable enough, Buñuel had no problem with creating a little of his own misery. In one notorious scene, a donkey is stung to death by a swarm of angry bees. Buñuel accomplished this by having the doomed beast slathered with honey and placed next to a couple of downed hives. Another scene sought to illustrate that the mountain passes in Las Hurdes were treacherous by showing a mountain goat tumbling off a craggy slope to certain death. Only the goat wasn’t clumsy, it was wounded. If you look closely at the lower right of the frame in that scene, you can see a puff of smoke from a crewmember’s gun. Buñuel, obviously, was not a member of PETA.

He juxtaposes these grim images with a monotone voice over that heaps disdain and condescension onto its subject. Yet the narration is so heightened, so preposterous, so cruel that you find yourself questioning its veracity. Below is a particularly infamous passage of the movie’s narration.

Dwarfs and morons are very common in the upper Hurdanos mountains. Their families employ them as goat herders if they’re not too dangerous. The terrible impoverishment of this race is due to the lack of hygiene, under nourishment and constant intermarriage. The smallest one of these creatures is 28 years old. Words cannot express the horror of their mirthless grins as they play a sort of hide and go seek.

All this places the viewer into a very uncomfortable position. Buñuel’s portrayal of the locals makes them seem so alien that empathy is all but impossible. All that you are left with is, aside from revulsion, an abstracted form of pity. It’s not all that different from the Oh Dearism you get from watching a news report on a particularly blighted corner of the Third World. The difference is that Buñuel, unlike the news, makes you acutely, uncomfortably aware of your privileged position in relation to the movie’s subject.

Land Without Bread will be added to our collection 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, Documentaries & More.

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Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring lots of pictures of vice presidents with octopuses on their heads.  The Veeptopus store is here.

Free: Stream Songs from Bob Dylan’s Upcoming Release, The Basement Tapes Complete

basement tapes

As his loyal fans already know, Bob Dylan will release next week a six-CD collection called The Basement Tapes Complete: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 11, which features 139 songs recorded during the late 1960s, when, Dylan, recovering from a motorcycle accident, holed himself up in a basement in Saugerties, NY and began playing music casually with The Band. The story behind the making of The Basement Tapes gets nicely told by Sasha Frere-Jones in the latest edition of The New Yorker, and over at NPR you can now stream a selection of songs from the upcoming Basement Tapes release. Just thought you might want to know….

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The Fall of the House of Usher: Poe’s Classic Tale Turned Into 1928 Avant Garde Film, Scripted by e.e. cummings

Last week, in deference to the approach of Halloween, we featured the complete works of Edgar Allan Poe as Free eBooks and Free Audio Books. If you give them a read, a listen, or both, you’ll discover that few creators, using nothing more than the written word, can disturb quite so effectively as Poe. But his written words have also provided inspiration to frightening works in other media, including the previously featured 1953 British animation of “The Tell-Tale Heart” and, today, the short-film version of “The Fall of the House of Usher.” That 1839 story perhaps most perfectly (and most viscerally) realizes such pet themes of Poe’s as illness, dread, and live burial, and as such has served as material to a great many filmmakers as defiantly lowbrow as Roger Corman and as uncompromisingly idiosyncratic as Jan Švankmajer. But here we offer you one of the most interesting cinematic “Usher”s ever made: James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber’s 13-minute avant-garde adaptation, scripted in part by poet e.e. cummings.

“Despite their importance as leading figures in the film world,” writes Tara Travisano, “Watson and Webber’s work is often overlooked and not given sufficient credit.” Though they got their shooting script from the modernist-influenced cummings, the filmmakers, “not fans of modernism,” “preferred to have their films described as amateur.” Their Fall of the House of Usher, the best-known work they ever produced, “hardly follows a narrative, but is valued for its creative use of repetition and variation and for the film’s dramatic lighting.” And don’t worry if you haven’t read the original story in a while; according to Travisano, Watson and Webber chose to film it because they themselves hadn’t read it in a while, and thus “would be free of its influence.” But after experiencing the brief but unsettling cinematic dream they managed to make out of this half-remembered Poean material, you may want to seek out its influence by going back and reading it again — or listening to it, or trying to sleep and re-dream it for yourself.

You can find Fall of the House of Usher in our collection, 285 Free Documentaries Online.

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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

David Lynch’s Photographs of Old Factories

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David Lynch’s break out movie, Eraserhead, is the sort of movie that will seep into your unconscious and stay with you for days or weeks – like a particularly unnerving nightmare. Shot in inky black and white, the film achieves its uncanny power in part because of its setting — a rotting industrial moonscape bereft of nature. Much of the film’s soundtrack is filled with the clanking of distant machines and the hissing of steam escaping pipes.

Lynch’s obsession with the remnants of the industrial revolution have punctuated much of his work since — from the grimy, claustrophobic Victorian streets in The Elephant Man to the opening titles of Twin Peaks to his 1990 avant-garde multimedia extravaganza Industrial Symphony No. 1.

“Well…if you said to me, ‘Okay, we’re either going down to Disneyland or we’re going to see this abandoned factory,’ there would be no choice,” said Lynch once in an interview. “I’d be down there at the factory. I don’t really know why. It just seems like such a great place to set a story.”

Earlier this year, Lynch exhibited at a London gallery a series of photographs he shot of, yes, rotting factories around New York, England and particularly Poland. The subjects of the photos are pretty mundane – a door, a window, a wall – but he imbues them with this odd tone of foreboding and menace. In other words, Lynch makes them seem Lynchian.

“It’s an incredible mood,” Lynch told Dazed Magazine. “I feel like I’m in a place that’s just magical, where nature is reclaiming these derelict factories. It’s very dreamy. Every place you turn, there’s something so sensational and surprising – it’s the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour. All the cities are looking more and more the same. The real treasures are going away; the mood they create is going away.”

See more photos below and, if you’re so inclined, you can buy the book to the exhibit here.

A door in Lodz, Poland
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A window and a real estate opportunity in Lodz

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A factory. Lodz, Poland.

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Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring lots of pictures of vice presidents with octopuses on their heads.  The Veeptopus store is here.


A Quick Introduction to Literary Theory: Watch Animated Videos from the Open University

Just what is an author? It might seem like a silly question, and an academic dissection of the term may seem like a needlessly pedantic exercise. But the very variability of the concept means it isn’t a stable, fixed idea at all, but a shifting set of associations we have with notions about creativity, the social role of art, and that elusive quality known as “genius.” Questions raised in the Open University video above—part of a series of very short animated entrées into literary criticism called “Outside the Book”—make it hard to ignore the problems we encounter when we try to define authorship in simple, straightforward ways. Most of the questions relate to the work of French poststructuralist Michel Foucault, whose critical essay “What is an Author?”—along with structuralist thinker Roland Barthes’ “The Death of the Author”—disturbed many a literary critic’s comfortable assumptions about the creative locus behind any given work.

In the 18th century, at least in Europe, the author was a highly celebrated cultural figure, a status epitomized by Samuel Johnson’s reverential biography of John Dryden and edition of Shakespeare—and in turn Johnson’s own biography by his amanuensis Boswell. The 19th century began to see the author as a celebrity, with the hype and sometimes tawdry speculation that accompanies that designation. In the mid-twentieth century, even as the idea of the film director as auteur—a singular creative genius—gained ascendance, the inflated role of the literary author came in for a bruising. With Foucault, Barthes, and others like W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley—whose essay “The Intentional Fallacy” more or less ruled out biography as a tool of the critic—the author receded and the “text” gained primacy as, in Foucault’s words, a “discursive unit.”

This means that questions of authorship became inseparable from questions of readership, interpretation, and influence; from questions of historical classification and social construction (i.e. how do we know anything about “Byron” except through biographies, documentaries, etc., themselves cultural productions?); from questions of translation, pseudepigraphy, and pen names. Put in much plainer terms, we once came to think of the author not simply as the writer—a role previously delegated to lowly, usually anonymous “scribes” who simply copied the words of gods, heroes, and prophets. Instead, the author became a god, a hero, and a prophet, a godlike creator with a “literary stamp of approval” that grants his or her every utterance on the page a special status; “that makes even the note on Shakespeare’s fridge a work of profound genius.” But that idea is anything but simple, and the critical discussion around it anything but trivial.

Ditto much of the above when it comes to that other seemingly indivisible unit of literature, the book. In the even shorter video guide above, Open University rapidly challenges our commonplace ideas about book-hood and raises the now-commonplace question about the future of this “reading gizmo.” For more “Outside the Book,” see the remaining videos in the series: “Comedy,” “Tragedy,” and “Two Styles of Love.” And for a much more sustained and serious study of the art of literary criticism, delve into Professor Paul Fry’s Yale course below. It’s part of Open Culture’s collection, 1,700 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

Introduction to Theory of Literature – Free Online Video – Free iTunes Audio – Free iTunes Video – Course Materials – Paul H. Fry, Yale

h/t Catherine

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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