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The Decisive Moment

Here I had fun playing around with the difference between the instantaneousness (fifth time this morning I’ve used that word) of photography and the far less speedy medium of painting (something I also explored in this cartoon). The photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson was renowned for his freakish skill in capturing “decisive moments” – combinations of fleeting, interesting action with perfect composition. The four artworks I used here are Luncheon on the Grass, 100 Soup Cans, The Birth of Venus and Las Meninas. I felt slightly uncomfortable with my take on the Birth of Venus. Even though I take lots of liberties with art history, I am well aware that Venus was not actually born from a bi-valve mollusc but from white bubbly sea froth. Still, it made me laugh, so I put it in. The blowing zephyrs in Botticelli’s painting fit nicely with this birthing scenario. 
A pleasing side-effect of copying famous paintings  is an increased appreciation of some of their subtleties. In the Velazquez, as always with him,  there are the astonishing excellencies of all the figures’ postures and expressions. But in this instance I was particularly impressed with that slice of wall on the extreme right. He has made a plain slab of wall so interesting with all the tonal changes going on – a blaze of sunlight, a sliver of picture frame casting a shadow. But I was even more taken with the next picture along,  hanging just around the corner. You can actually see the picture in that frame, despite its extreme angle. It is so clear, and so perfectly gauged in terms of darkening tone. Admittedly my copy is slightly better than the original but that shouldn’t take away from Velazquez’ achievement. 
David Hockney believes that old masters like Velazquez must have used a camera lucida to achieve such accuracy painting fleeting facial expressions. When you see things like the open mouthed young blacksmith, painted by Velazquez, in Vulcan’s Forge (which shows Apollo telling Vulcan the jaw-dropping news that his wife Venus is having an affair with Mars – personally I wasn’t surprised) it really is hard to credit that such feats are humanly possible. But I believe Hockney is wrong. There are so many other unbelievable feats of skill in this painting – the perfectly judged scale of light to dark creating a room full of space and light; the loose yet completely accurate brushmarking – that it seems unfair to single out this one thing and say “he couldn’t possibly have done this unaided. ” I think it is telling that the other sublime master of facial and bodily expressions, Rembrandt, was also phenomenally brilliant at every other aspect of painting. Hockney’s theis would hold more water if there were loads of artists in the pre-photographic era who were great at fleeting facial expressions but crap at the other stuff. But there isn’t. It just happens that occasionally someone is born with a once-in-several-generations talent, which combines with the right aptitude, the right training, great ambition and lucky social circumstances. These people are known as wankers. 
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Sandro Botticelli

When I ran the idea for this artoon past a few friends I got fairly identical reactions – laughter followed by a grimaced “ooo”. Of course it’s a dicey area in which to be making jokes but all I really meant is that it’s nice to have an attractive woman around. The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli depicts the birth not of a baby but of a fully grown woman – a fully grown woman (ok, goddess) who also happens to be the most beautiful being in the universe. Of course the guy is going to rethink his whole position on fatherhood. My original version didn’t make it past my editor. The last speech bubble read “Listen, Harry, we’re always happy to help so if you ever need a babysitter…” (still makes me laugh). I dutifully changed it  – to something I now think can be read as even more off colour. But if you think I’m bad, the real myth of Venus’ birth is that the Titan Cronus took a great long sickle with jagged teeth, castrated his father Uranus (the Sky) and threw his lopped off genitals into the sea. White foam began to spread out from these floating testicles and from the froth emerged the newly born Venus. That’s not very nice is it? I bet the guy who originally made this up didn’t get pulled up by his editor! Or maybe he did. He rewrote it, then, a day later, the anguished thought took over: “Oh geez, I think that’s even worse!” It is quite off colour actually.
If you’re still unconvinced of my innocence (I’m not sure I am either) then read this recent blogpost by Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, which is probably applicable. 
Anyway, it’s just a joke.