Exhibition review: Mucha Manga Mystery, Berlin

Mucha Manga Mystery exhibition viewThis week is the last of the exhibition “Mucha Manga Mystery” at the Bröhan Museum in Berlin, the “State Museum for Art Nouveau, Art Deco and Functionalism (1889-1939)”. The title of the show suggests a much narrower focus than the “German comics” show in Hannover, but at the same time a wider range of media. The basic premise of the Berlin exhibition is to show the influence of Art Nouveau artist Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939) on subsequent popular culture up to the present day.

More precisely, there are three sections. The first shows diverse works by Mucha, above all his famous advertisement posters. These are always a pleasure to behold, although the Bröhan Museum holds a sizeable permanent Mucha collection anyway, if I remember correctly. (The exhibition was first shown at another museum, though.)

With the second section, we suddenly fast forward to the 1960s and 70s, when designers of rock music record covers and posters allegedly drew inspiration from Mucha’s art. It’s not made clear, however, whether these designers copied or adapted Mucha’s imagery, or whether they were only vaguely inspired by Art Nouveau in general. Furthermore, for someone like me who is actually interested in record covers, it is almost painful to see 19 record covers on display, but not a single one of them credited (neither to the cover designer nor to the album musician). You can listen to some songs on headphones (Cream, Quicksilver Messenger Service, etc.), but the selection of tracks doesn’t correspond to the records displayed. Still, some important record cover designs can be seen here, such as Abraxas, Disraeli Gears, and Sommerabend. Alphonse Mucha and Art Nouveau continue to exert their influence on record cover designers (e.g. John Dyer Baizley, Malleus Rock Art Lab, Tiffanie Uldry), which raises the question why the exhibition stops in the 70s.

And then there is the third, the manga section. Or rather, a collection of artifacts loosely related to manga. Granted, there is a pile of tankōbon of German translations of manga which the visitors are encouraged to read. But the tankōbon in the display case (titles by CLAMP mostly – RG Veda, Chobits, Gate 7 – but also Million Girl by Kotori Momoyuki and Adekan by Tsukiji Nao) are arranged in such a way that either only the covers are visible, or double-page spreads. In other words, you can’t perceive them as comics, as there are no sequential images. This is unfortunate, and what makes it worse is that, as with the record covers, the purported similarity to Mucha’s art is not convincingly argued for. Frankly, I see more differences, for instance the lack of any abstract graphic ornaments in the manga on display.

These items are accompanied by other non-manga artifacts such as posters and figurines, and a silent projection of the RG Veda anime. For some reason, the label for one of the posters says “artist unknown”, although the artist is clearly credited on the poster itself as “Shinsuke Arai” (probably this one: dead-robot.deviantart.com). It should be noted that there are also some American comic books in the exhibition – again, mostly covers only – by J. H. Williams III and Joe Quesada.

While I criticised the Hannover exhibition for showing too much original drawings, the Berlin exhibition disappoints by not containing any. Altogether I wouldn’t recommend this show, except for the Mucha part.

Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○

2013: Searching for the music video of the year

Something slightly off-topic for the end of the year: this is a translation of a post originally published in German at Perlen der Popgeschichte on December 18.

The historical scholarly disciplines often shy away from judging the immediate past. In contrast to journalism: usually already in December, a lot of magazines publish year-end reviews, e.g. the current issue of Musikexpress (cover-dated January 2014, published on December 12, 2013: “Das war 2013” [“this was 2013”]). Apart from a 29-page chronology and a 12-page list of the “50 records of the year”, it also contains, albeit only on one page, “the songs of the year”.

Which one was the song of the year, actually? In comparison to the previous year, which brought us two all-time hits with “Somebody That I Used to Know” and “Call Me Maybe” (both of which already came out in 2011, but didn’t achieve worldwide fame until 2012), 2013 gives a less clear picture. Possible candidates are, among others, “Thrift Shop” by a rapper named Macklemore (single of the year according to Billboard), “Blurred Lines” by a Robin Thicke (“bestselling single of the year” according to Musikexpress) and “Do I Wanna Know?” by the apparently still existing Arctic Monkeys (ranked 1st in the aforementioned Musikexpress charts).

A lot could be said about those songs and their reception, but there is another song that is maybe still a little bit more entitled to the title “song of the year 2013”: “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk feat. Pharell Williams. “There is no question that Daft Punk have penned the summer hit of the year 2013” (my translation), says Musikexpress and ranks “Get Lucky” 2nd in its year-end charts, after all. For some, that song is timeless, for others (i.e. me) it’s quite an old-fashioned disco funk tune, which nevertheless has somehow proven to be catchy. Perhaps that’s a sign of the times in which errors in taste from the 70s and 80s have almost become acceptable again.

More interesting than the song itself appears to be the accompanying music video. Or is there an official “Get Lucky” video at all? A legitimate question in times of alternative distribution methods. On the one hand, there’s the advertisement clip shown at the Coachella festival for the album Random Access Memories, in which we see, among other things, the two Daft Punk musicians with guest guitarist Nile Rodgers and guest vocalist Pharell Williams, seemingly performing “Get Lucky”. However, this clip only covers 1:40 of the 4 minutes of the song. On the other hand, a 47-second preview for the video of the official remix was published on the YouTube channel of the record label. It shows a crowd dancing in the moonlight and, again, the Daft Punk robots. This means there were several video shootings in the context of “Get Lucky”, although they weren’t used for a regular video clip.

I think such a video clip exists indeed, albeit not always recognised as such and instead referred to as “pseudo video” or even only as “Audio”. Even though this video is a stroke of genius. Similar to a record cover (indeed similar to the cover of the “Get Lucky” single), the silhouettes of the four musicians are set against the evening sun in this video, motionless. (Whether that is actually a reference to George Lucas’s directing debut THX 1138 or not, the similarity can’t be denied.) Only in the second half of the song, at the beginning of the vocoder break, subtle movement is brought into the image, by means of which it can now be clearly identified as a video and not as a still image. Then the figures freeze again, and with this static image (which now exactly matches the single cover) the clip ends.

The ingenuity of this video clip is that it imitates other timely manners of visual accompaniment of music through the appearance of a still image: the displaying of record covers in MP3 player software or streaming services, as well as the usage of static images with audio files illegally uploaded on YouTube. Furthermore, the video runs counter to the notoriously short average attention span of the internet audience, as nothing “happens” in it for two minutes. Thus the “Get Lucky” video plays wittily with the recipients’ expectations – and may well be the music video of the year. At the same time, the question arises how valid the traditional 1:1 relation between single and video clip still is these days.

New article published – “I’m always touched by your presence, dear: Blondie album covers and the concept of presence”

Blondie, Parallel Lines cover detailI’m pleased to announce the publication of my latest journal article. You can read the abstract at the ERAS journal website and directly download the PDF here: http://www.eras.utad.pt/docs/JUN%202013%20estudos%20interdisciplinares1.pdf

In case you were wondering: no, this article isn’t about comics. But my previous blog posts about Michael Fried from February last year and photography theory from January last year are connected to it (and of course my conference paper on “presence in comics“, which will be published too, eventually).