Laterna Magica and Les Escaliers de Montmartre, Paris
Photographer Brassa? said this concerning his own work; "The thing that is magnificent about photography is that it can produce images that incite emotion based on the subject matter alone" (Profotos.com). His 1936 black and white photograph Les Escaliers de Montmartre, Paris may incite emotion simply with content, but further analysis into graphic elements can lead deeper into the meaning, purpose and descriptive story captured. In a similar fashion, the compiled short stories of William Heinesen’s Laterna Magica may each be interesting and peculiar, but a deeper analysis of literary devices, tone, style, and historical context can elucidate artistic vocabulary and significance that ties the work together as thematic, meaningful and cohesive. Cross referencing these two works of art can show that the message, artistic language, universal interest and perceived meaning of two very different modes of expression can be of the same nature. Such a cross-reference will bring about interesting correlations, proposed similarities, important differences, and artistic suppositions.
Brassai’s original approach conveys his deep connection with Paris, which seemed to be his adopted city, just as Heinesen is deeply connected to his hometown, Torshavn. Heinesen wrote mostly about Torshavn or rest of the Faroe Islands and surrounding area, using his homeland “as a microcosmic setting for universal social, psychological, and cosmic themes.” (Britannica: Heinesen) Brassa? too focused his work around one location, Paris in the 1930’s and 40s, capturing seedy images in one city that could represent themes of life seen around the world. The text and the image are similar in that their representation of a specific location applies artistically to a much broader spectrum. “[Brassa?’s] aspiration was to be a kind of recording secretary to the act of living” (Greenough), which is also a good summation of what Heinesen does with Laterna Magica. Like Heinesen, Brassa? had sensitivity to every day life and found joy in the commonplace (Getty).
Laterna Magica as a whole tells a story about life and the mysterious end of life. It captures short glimpses of life experiences as an old man looks back upon life and searches for its meaning and for the definition of happiness. Individual characters and events are used to represent common human experiences. Heinesen metaphorically and figuratively refers to life and death throughout the stories. The concept of a laterna magica slide projector is analogous to Heinesen’s presentation of these snapshots spanning one’s lifetime, capturing blissful childhood innocence, the ghostly mystery of fate, the need to be loved, the tragedy of self-protecting habitual lifestyles, and the longing to fly away from the rules and chains of this world. In the short story Laterna Magica, we see that although the children were expectant and delighted to go see Madame Abrahamsen’s Laterna Magica show, what matters and what lasts is not the outcome but the “stormy joy of anticipation that preceded it” (Heinesen 133).
Les Escaliers de Montmartre, Paris can be viewed in a very similar light, allowing us to see a comparable story narrated in the image of the steps captured. We see four visible flat levels between series of steps. Many more levels exist below our visibility into the mysterious fog. We cannot see what lies at the bottom of the stairs. We cannot see what is at the top of the steps either, but that is not our focus; we aren’t even looking that direction. Like Laterna Magica, we are looking back upon the journey that we have taken, the hill that we have climbed. We knew the steps would eventually end, we knew we were going somewhere. Now the destination doesn’t matter, we are getting close, but stop to take a look back upon where we have been, upon this mysterious series of events that is life. We see landmarks at each level of life, significant events, represented by the prominent lanterns that appeared at each plateau, analogous to the individual stories within Laterna Magica. Each was intricate and memorable on its own, comprised carefully of perfectly laid stones, but they also meld into one unit, into the complete set of stairs. The multitude of experiences that we journeyed through is mystical and not completely understood, and the peak -which was never visible during our hike up- is still unknown. Yet we see this strange journey as significant, and we can recall the excitement of running up the steps to get to that next lantern.
The artistic vocabulary of the photograph and the text are comparable as well. While the descriptions of Laterna Magica may be quite colorful and at times warm, the photograph is black and white. However, the lack of palette helps us to focus on the structures, the lines, and the contrast of the image. Structured and separated events, contrast of life and death, and a linear concept of a life’s journey are very important in Laterna Magica, and the photograph being black and white helps us to focus on these types of elements.
The notion of a ferry boat waiting at Gray Skull Wharf at twilight (Heinesen 9) evokes mysterious imagery that is similar to the ghostly fogginess of the photograph and the eerie silhouettes of leafless trees that direct our path and obscure the edges.
The melancholy silence described on page 10 of Laterna Magica is also seen in the stillness of the night. Since the shadows fall into the direction of the foreground, the light in the image is coming from the direction of the bottom of the stairs. We are walking out of the light into the mysterious darkness of the unknown night. Singing and amusement may have ensued at a lower, younger level of life, but now we ascend into a cold stillness.
The two brothers in “The Silent Guests” took different paths in life; they did not walk together, just as one can walk the steps on either side of the black railing in the photo. Although the two did not walk on the same side, they are both subject to fate that is out of their control, represented in Laterna Magica by the reference to the Greek mythological three fates as the three ghost sisters. This inevitable fate in the photo is the unknown destination at the top of the stairs.
Brassa?’s photo looks like something that might be seen in a ‘merciful sort’ of nightmare like Master Jakob experiences. The ominous dark arborous authority figures looming above and all around might frighten one from enjoying their stroll up the steps. They may distract one from embracing the beauty of that moment in life, just as Jakob felt the anxiety of what the people around him would say about his secret romance.
The uniformity of the steps is reminiscent of the day-to-day life of Stubborn Stina. Stina marched along, through each day, each year without change no matter what happening or whether there was hope or not. The steps do not change height, they do not curve or zig zag. They plateau at even increments, but it is a consistent pattern. She goes through the quick and meaningless steps of daily work and chores, and plateaus each day in her motionless state of waiting. “The Miracle” provides the perspective of an aged man who is tired of the restraints of such a limited path on this bleak staircase of life, he is ready to leave this safe and steady pace and finally reach freedom of the mysterious peak.
At times the stories of Laterna Magica seem to be more light-hearted and amusing than Brassa?’s solemn photograph. However, the overall theme of “imminent extinction” (Heinesen 13) and joy and purpose found in the expectant yet unclear journey of life is captured quite well in the artistic aura of Les Escaliers de Montmartre, Paris. An aphorism of Heinesen’s is that "life is not despair, and death shall not rule". (Wikipedia), which is very similar to this statement in Laterna Magica; “So don’t come here and say that life is nothing but sorrow and shame” (Heinesen 133). The majestic illuminated steps of the photo similarly tell us that all is not sorrowful. The comparison and connection between Laterna Magica and Les Escaliers de Montmartre, Paris is an interesting illustration of how the story and meaning of a literary text can be likened to the representation captured in a photograph from a completely different time and place.
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Britannica Online. 10 Nov. 2008 <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/77894/Brassai>.
“Brassai (1899-1984) Documentary, Photojournalism, Portraiture” Profotos.com 10 Nov 2008 <http://www.profotos.com/education/referencedesk/masters/ masters/brassai/brassai.shtml>
The Getty. “Brassaï: The Eye of Paris to open at The J. Paul Getty Museum April 13 - July 3, 1999” <http://www.getty.edu/news/press/exhibit/brassai.html>.
Greenough, Sarah, et. al. “On the Art of Fixing a Shadow: One Hundred Fifty Years of Photography.” Boston: National Gallery of Art / Art Institute of Chicago / Bulfinch Press / Little, Brown & Co. (1989).
Heinesen, William. Laterna Magica. Trans. Tiina Nunnally. Seattle: Fjord Press, 1987.
Taylor, Catherine. “Brassaï : the monograph.” 10 Nov 2008. <http://www.librarything.com/work/150360>
"William Heinesen." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2008. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 10 Nov. 2008 <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/259694/William-Heinesen>.
“William Heinesen.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. 10 Nov 2008 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Heinesen>
Image from Art.com:
10 Nov 2008 <http://www.art.com/asp/sp-asp/_/PD--10022648/SP--A/IGID--848298/Les_Escaliers_de_Montmartre_Paris.htm?sOrig=CAT&sOrigID=1833&ui=8BAFA67B2C7A42FDA9C567950C5345B7>
By Valerie Fishman
Expected Graduation: May 2010
Major: Basic Medical Sciences (Pre-Dental)
Hometown: Kennewick, WA
The first time I quickly read through this compilation of short stories, I
was highly confused and thought them to be random and unrelated. Upon further
reading and analysis of Laterna Magica, I was very intrigued to find that the
unique stories were actually artistically entwined into a cohesive production.
I chose to analyze this text in cross-reference with a black and white photograph
of outdoor stairs in London. I was excited about finding this image because
I felt that its distinct steps and the atmosphere it captured very nicely complemented
the mystical representation of the stages of life in Laterna Magica.