The Birdhouse of Doctor Caligari

I heard a charming and insightful interview recently on the Design Matters podcast. The guest was the man with the coolest name in history: graphic designer Roberto de Vicq de Cumptich. “Graphic design will save you!” is his mantra. There is a lot of good stuff about the importance of design as something that makes people feel happy and intelligent, and in so doing can bring together varied parties represented by the design, and bring together an audience. He also tells a few good stories. In a lead-in for why he wrote his alphabet book Bembo’s Zoo, he tells about how on his wife’s side of the family, the adults only exchange hand made gifts at Christmas. That sounds great in theory, but he and his wife are the only ones who have the tools or the talent to pull it off. One year they received what they called “the Birdhouse of Doctor Caligari.” Nothing lined up and it just looked like a wonderful artifact of German Expressionism.

The only connection between that story and what follows is the presence of a birdhouse, but any chance to say or write Roberto de Vicq de Cumptich is a chance worth taking. Also I like the image of Doctor Caligari as a backyard tweety bird.

The weather is finally turning towards a real spring in the DC area, and I got some plein air practice yesterday while visiting my parents. My dad designed and planted a beautiful shade garden in the back of their house, and I’ve wanted to paint back there for a while. Much of the attention grabbing plants haven’t come in yet, so I picked a birdhouse to focus on and filled in some background foliage to structure the composition. Doing so probably made this look more like a summer painting. I haven’t done much plein air painting, but I enjoyed it and learned a lot from this attempt about patience and trusting myself. While the bird house was interesting in and of itself, I wonder if it draws enough attention. As I look at the painting, I find my eye drawn to the light and shadow on the pole, not the birdhouse. Maybe a little more light on the roof and some darker areas in the foliage would help focus things a but better. That being said, I will feel more confident next time knowing that it came out all right and Doctor Caligari wouldn’t have a great interest in this birdhouse.

Thanks for reading.


Coffee with a shot of structuralism (or is that formalism?)

I am starting to think about a painting of an Alessi espresso percolator and a bag of Zeke’s coffee, a small batch roastery in Baltimore. This is my favorite coffee because it has a wonderful flavor when you drink it, and that flavor lingers afterwards without that harsh, bilious aftertaste. Coffee is an experience drink. The effect is felt long after the cup is empty. Drinking it is a routine, almost ritualistic, that even on a busy day provides a sense of security and optimism when the coffee is good in both taste and aftertaste, or a sense of dread when it is bad. It is the right relationship of taste and aftertaste that make the a good cup of coffee. I wonder if Vladimir Propp has a secret monograph on this subject.

The same idea applies to art and literature. Thinking again of Calvino, some of his stories are most effective while reading (the Nonexistent Knight, The Cloven Viscount, and The Baron in the Trees), while others such as The Castle of Crossed Destinies and Mr. Palomar were more interesting to me as memory artifacts. Invisible Cities is for me his most compelling, complete work of true art. I wonder if some of this relates to the structure used. The best reading experiences were structured like more or less normal chronicles. Mr. Palomar and The Castle of Crossed Destinies are deliberately structural in their focus–it it a core element in the meaning, but the story takes a lesser role. Invisible Cities is also structural in emphasis, but the language and story telling levitate the structure to a comprehensive artistic experience.

In preparation for this coffee painting, I want to look at a few different structures with these two objects, and think about how those structures will work with the quality of lightness in watercolor. Some preliminary sketches are posted below. I would love to hear your thoughts.