Youth in Retreat: The Decameron in Quarantine

In which these most unprecedented times prove to have some precedent after all, and crisis invites us to re-imagine our conditions for living. 

By Jenny Lee 

So they gathered into groups and kept clear of everyone else, shutting themselves up in houses where no one was sick and where they could live comfortably … not speaking to anyone outside or hearing any news of the dead or sick, but enjoying music and what other pleasures they could muster. – Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron (trans. J. G. Nichols)

1348: As the Black Death ravages Florence, ten wealthy young people flee the city for the countryside, where they spend ten days telling stories, singing songs, napping, and flirting. This is the set-up for Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, a framing narrative surrounding one hundred short stories about love, sex, trickery, and the vicissitudes of fortune.

I opened my copy of the Decameron in mid-March, as public buildings in the city shut their doors indefinitely. Having flown home from Spain via the UK a few days earlier and subsequently developed a dry cough, I was instructed to stay home and monitor my temperature, and made a plague-themed reading list to work through during what I naively hoped would be two weeks of isolation. As two weeks stretched into four, it was this framing narrative, not the stories themselves, that I kept turning back to.

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Breugel’s Triumph of Death, painted two centuries after the publication of the Decameron, underscores the cataclysmic effects of the recurrent plague outbreaks on the European psyche. In the corner, a couple grimly clings to love and music-making, stalked by death. Image: Wikimedia Commons. 

Boccaccio opens with a harrowing description of the bubonic plague’s trail of destruction in Florence, including not only gruesome details of the dead and dying, but profound changes in the social fabric of the city: family members deserting each other, the breakdown of law and order, the disappearance of the labour force in the form of the servant class. Florence is a city without boundaries, where distinctions between sibling and stranger, sick and well, and rich and poor blur and then give way to abject chaos.

Even as the narrators of the Decameron try to avoid the pestilence – it’s rarely mentioned after this passage – they’re marked, or changed, by the collapse of the structures they’ve always known. (Half of the population of the city would die from the plague.) In and around their bawdy stories, we glimpse a new social order which this lost generation might dream into being; the microcosmic society they establish in exile is peaceful, leisurely, and gender-equitable.

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In John William Waterhouse’s 1911 painting A Tale from the Decameron, the exiles pass self-isolation in dreamy, pastoral splendour. Photo: Wikimedia Commons. 

The Decameron reads like a long-form negotiation of social and sexual mores, the kind of examination that we perform during a crisis. Boccaccio, writing in the early 1350s, muses that women were noticeably less chaste after the plague year, having dispensed with the taboo against showing their bodies to men. He explicitly critiques the customs which confined well-off women in their homes without recreation or socialization. His storytellers prize wit, quick thinking, and sexual freedom over rank and noble birth. The hypocrisy of priests (a recurring theme) is a worse moral crime for them than sleeping with a married woman.

Between chapters, on Instagram, I scrolled through the words rent strike and mutual aid networks and capitalism is the virus. The luckiest among us, in isolation at home, had time to watch the structures sold to us as natural and inevitable faltering in the face of immense – but predictable – upheaval. Like Boccaccio’s youth in retreat, we thought: there must be a better way we could do this.

On the tenth day, the youths return to Florence without much fanfare, go to church, and return to their homes. It is left for the reader to decide what they bring back with them, and what they have left behind.

“How Soft This Prison Is”: Reading Emily Dickinson in Quarantine

As we spend our days in isolation and uncertainty, we thought it fitting to revisit the poems of Emily Dickinson, who led a singular and solitary life, reminding us of the importance of maintaining a rich inner world.

By Adriana Wiszniewska

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) spent the majority of her life in and around her father’s homestead in Amherst, Massachusetts, where she lived and died in relative seclusion. She never married, rarely travelled, and most of her interactions with people occurred through letters and other correspondence. By the final years of her life, she barely even left her bedroom.

If that sounds familiar to you, you’re not alone. Nowadays, while a pandemic sweeps the globe, most of us spend our days confined to our bedrooms or our living rooms, only interacting with those we care about from a distance. Technology helps, to be sure. But there’s no doubt that a lot of us are feeling isolated and anxious during this uncertain time. Who better to turn to for some solace than Emily Dickinson?

Maureen N. McLane calls Dickinson “a homegrown poet of terror, abjection, and difficulty.” Dickinson often wrote about death and the nature of consciousness, the negation of self and the discomfort of being a body in the world.

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Big mood. Hailee Steinfeld as Emily Dickinson in Apple TV+’s Dickinson, which puts a modern spin on the poet’s life and work. Photo: Giphy

She was no stranger to solitude. In a letter to her sister-in-law Susan Gilbert, Dickinson wrote: “I would paint a portrait which would bring the tears, had I a canvass for it, and the scene should be—solitude, and the figures—solitude—and the lights and shades each a solitude. I could fill a chamber with landscapes so lone, men should pause and weep there; then haste grateful home, for a loved one left.”

There’s a lot of debate about why Dickinson self-isolated, whether it was by choice or whether she was forced into seclusion due to illness of some kind (mental or otherwise). But I like what poet Adrienne Rich supposes: “I have a notion that genius knows itself; that Dickinson chose her seclusion, knowing she was exceptional and knowing what she needed. It was, moreover, no hermetic retreat, but a seclusion which included a wide range of people, of reading and correspondence.”

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Portrait of Emily Dickinson. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Dickinson chose seclusion because that’s what she needed in order to write the astonishing 1,789 poems she left behind.

And what her poems reveal is a sharp-witted, fierce, intelligent woman, who reinvented poetic form and carved her own path in life to the bewilderment of those around her. In short, her poems reveal the vastness of a rich inner life, something we could all work to cultivate during this time. When your external world is limited to a small town, or as is the case for many of us now, to house and home, then our inner worlds become our most important dwelling places. Per Dickinson:

The Brain – is wider than the Sky –
For – put them side by side –
The one the other will contain
With ease – and You – beside –

(632)

The mind, to paraphrase Milton, is its own place and can contain the whole sky or sea or anything besides, including you and me and everyone we know. Its capacity for imagination and wonder and expansive thought is unfathomable. More than this, our minds give us the ability to read and think and empathize with others, allowing for the expansion of our inner world.

There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry –
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll –
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the Human Soul –

(1263)

Poetry is exceptional in its capacity to transport us. Through her imagination and her poetry, Dickinson could traverse any distance. By returning to her poems, and following her example—her keen observation of the beautiful details of her immediate world and her willingness to look within herself for substance and meaning—we might make the distance we all feel right now a little more bearable. After all,

Distance – is not the Realm of Fox
Nor by Relay of Bird
Abated – Distance is
Until thyself, Beloved.

(1155)

Here, Dickinson tells us that distance is not about physical space, the lengths a fox or a bird can travel. But the final line is tricky to decipher. Dickinson delights in ambiguity (“Tell all the truth but tell it slant”), taking her readers to a place where meaning loses stable footing. “Distance is / Until thyself, Beloved” could mean that distance is nothing more than the space between the speaker and their beloved. But “thyself” could also be an address to the reader or to the speaker herself, suggesting that physical distance pales in comparison to metaphysical distance, the distance that we feel within. Knowledge of self, having an inner life as sharp and imaginative as Dickinson’s, is how we really overcome distance. And we will overcome this distance.

Dickinson sums it up best in one of my favourite poems:

i dwell in possibility
“I dwell in Possibility” manuscript. Photo: Emily Dickinson Archive

I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –

Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –

Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –

(657)

Although we remain confined to our houses, Emily Dickinson shows us one way, at least, that we might use this time to dwell not in the physical isolation we feel, but in the inherent possibility of our own minds.

For more on how poetry can be a balm in times of solitude, check out Serena Ypelaar on Wordsworth and the transportive power of nature.

Take A Minute To Reflect

This week, Historica Canada dropped its latest Heritage Minute, featuring Canada’s liberation of the Netherlands at the end of World War II. What makes Heritage Minutes so iconic? Why are they engaging? What works and what doesn’t? And which ones do we like best? We’ve discussed all these questions and more in our latest dialogue post.

By Lilia Lockwood & Serena Ypelaar

LRL: “I can smell burnt toast.” To a generation of Canadians this phrase means one thing. No, not that our breakfast got away from us. It means that Dr. Penfield has made a breakthrough in seizure treatment. It means … Heritage Minutes!!! I’m among those who grew up watching Heritage Minutes, which first hit our TV screens in 1991 (read more about their history here). Each 60-second video presents an aspect of Canadian history, with topics ranging from scientific achievements to wartime efforts to social issues. Before we get too deep I’ve gotta be honest here: I’m a fan. My laptop bag displays a “But I need these baskets back” button, I own the complete collection on DVD, and I donated to Historica’s D-Day minute fundraiser in 2018. So I’m very excited to chat with you about these minutes that are sometimes cheesy, sometimes moving, but always educational.

Screencaps from Heritage Minutes. Photo: Historica Canada

SVY: Agreed! Heritage Minutes offer so much in the way of historical interpretation. Condensing a history into one minute – while providing the context we need to understand the significance – isn’t an easy task. Minutes range from sombre to funny to patriotic, each provoking a different reaction (for better or for worse, as in the 1992 Vikings minute where I could only say “WTF?”). While I don’t boast any cool Heritage Minute buttons (where did you get yours?) I also grew up seeing these spots on TV. I remember which ones stuck with me: I’ve always associated the Laura Secord minute most strongly with Heritage Minutes.

Something about the succinct narrative and memorable imagery of Secord trooping through the mud lodged itself in my memory. Interestingly, the War of 1812 later became one of my focus areas as a history major. Likewise, I often remember the Jacques Cartier minute, as silly as it is, when I reflect on my profound interest in New France history. I wonder if these minutes had anything to do with that – I love accessible storytelling, so “Canadian history in a nutshell” can be pretty effective. Are there any minutes you’d consider “classics” in the sense that you remember them from childhood?

LRL: For sure, those old minutes bring up a lot of nostalgia (that Vikings one might best be described as a … cinematic experience …). One that stayed with me was the Nitro minute, about Chinese labourers’ dangerous work on the Canadian Pacific Railway. It’s memorable for its dramatic explosion, and also because it ended with a grandfather telling his grandchildren about the experience, just the way my grandfather would tell us stories about his life. Suspenseful moments like Laura Secord running her mission and the Chinese workers setting explosives capture our attention. But it’s then the small, relatable details that make the minutes sink in.

Looking back on this Heritage Minute now, though, there’s a different aspect that makes it stand out. It’s one of only a few of the original minutes that presented the histories of ethnic minorities in Canada. Since Historica Canada started making a new series of minutes in 2012, the topics have been far more inclusive, reflecting broader contemporary trends in historical study and interpretation. The Vancouver Asahi and Kensington Market minutes are great examples of this. What are your thoughts on the older vs. the newer minutes?

SVY: I completely agree! Alongside more diverse content, perhaps the most widespread shift is in the newer minutes’ narrative voice. For instance, Heritage Minutes tended to present Indigenous histories from a European settler point of view, as seen in the minute on Sitting Bull. But then you have the Louis Riel minute from 1991, which despite being an earlier minute shares the story of the Métis leader in a much more active voice: Riel tells his own story directly to the viewer. Later, the Heritage Minutes “renaissance” reframed stories, finally tackling the trauma of residential schools in the 2012 Chanie Wenjack minute. Likewise, we see the Battle of Queenston Heights from the perspective of Mohawk warriors Teyoninhokarawen (John Norton) and Ahyonwaeghs (John Brant), though it’s worth noting that only their English names are used in the 2013 minute – the minutes still have a ways to go in terms of moving away from that colonial lens in favour of deepening ethical representation.

Nevertheless, the stylistic narrative developments join modern cinematography to create more polished minutes across the board. We learn about Lucy Maud Montgomery and the Acadian Deportation in a similar way – directly from the perspective of the people involved. Instead of “they did/experienced this”, the storytelling favours “I did/experienced/felt this”. This approach plays on our empathy, and I find it’s a key instrument of memory – I’m more likely to remember something that made me react emotionally (like the Terry Fox, Jim Egan and Winnipeg Falcons minutes). 

LRL: I had similar thoughts about the changing way Indigenous histories are presented in the minutes. It’s worth watching Inukshuk and Kenojuak Ashevak back-to-back to appreciate the difference. The Kenojuak Ashevak minute was also the first to be made in a language other than English and French (Inuktitut), which is an important step in making minutes more accessible for the communities they engage with. Another aspect that creates that emotional connection is for people to see their own stories shared in the minutes as part of a nationwide narrative. I’m happy you brought up the Winnipeg Falcons minute, because it accomplishes exactly that (and is one of my favourites). On the YouTube page for the Falcons video, viewers commented that this minute made them proud of their cultural heritage, whether Icelandic or Western Canadian.

One of the reasons I personally like this minute is the way it ties together so many threads of the Falcons’ story. It doesn’t just show them as the first Olympic ice hockey gold-medal-winning team, but also as members of an immigrant community and veterans of the First World War. The amount that people can learn (and retain) from a one-minute clip shouldn’t be underestimated, when it is done well. Also! This minute highlights one of the fun sides of Heritage Minutes: celebrity cameos! This one is a double-whammy, starring Jared Keeso and narrated by George Stroumboulopoulos. Other minutes feature Colm Feore, Joy Kogawa, Dan Aykroyd, Graham Greene, Adrienne Clarkson, Pierre Houde, Allan Hawco, and – I’m not kidding – Pierce Brosnan. In fact, you may recognize the narrator in the newest heritage minute as well …

SVY: Oh, I’m so glad you mentioned celebrity cameos, because I was trying to think of a way I could weave in the fact that Pierce Brosnan appeared in a heritage minute (as Grey Owl, if you’re wondering). And I am a big fan of Stratford legend Colm Feore, so to see him playing John McCrae is incredible. Including celebrities from Canada and elsewhere provides another great layer of engagement, sparking connections for people (fun fact/brag: I’ve attended a concert in George Stroumboulopoulos’ living room! haha). And as per your hint at the newest minute, I was pleasantly surprised to hear that Peter Mansbridge narrates toward the end!

This minute, featuring the liberation of the Netherlands, is near and dear to my heart because I am a Dutch-Canadian. My Opa was ten years old and living in Holland during World War II – he experienced the Nazi occupation firsthand. Just over a decade later, he immigrated to Canada, met my Nana, and they married in 1961. For me, the emotional parallels in this Heritage Minute really highlight how powerful a condensed snapshot can be when it hits just right.

As Lilia pointed out, it’s amazing that the minutes allow us to see ourselves within them; to feel woven into Canadian history and unified by events that shaped our nation, whether they’re tragic like the Halifax Explosion minute, hopeful like the Boat People minute, inspiring like the Richard Pierpoint and Edmonton Grads minutes, or divisive like the Sir John A. Macdonald minute. We see, and hopefully will continue to see, our stories reflected back at us as Historica Canada continues producing Heritage Minutes that reflect the diversity of people that live here.

Commodifying the California Dream

In our latest guest post, Ann Davis of Travelbloom explores California’s significance in the AMC drama Mad Men, including the cultural contrast between east and west in the 1960s and 1970s.

By Ann Davis

Warning: this article contains spoilers from Mad Men, including its seventh and final season.

“Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And do you know what happiness is? … reassurance that whatever you’re doing is okay. You are okay”. In the first episode of Mad Men, Don Draper establishes his personal ethos when it comes to advertising. Unbeknownst to his peers, this ethos rests in stark contrast to Don’s personal struggle: he is unable to accept himself, represses his past, and is therefore a profoundly unhappy person. So where does one go to find acceptance in the 1960s? Not to New York City, where the majority of Mad Men takes place, but rather west, to California. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, California became emblematic of modern thinking and bohemian ideals, a hotspot for counterculture, the way of the future. Likewise, in Mad Men, Los Angeles is a city full of hope and potential, a symbolic contrast to New York.

Don’s New York style is entirely out of place in California, showing the culture clash between east and west coast. Photo: Screencap from Mad Men

Don Draper is an east coast ad man who struggles to adapt to a changing industry, as his internal struggles inhibit him from changing with the times. During periods of duress – marital issues, career trouble, identity crisis – he goes west, seeking escape in the Sunshine State. California is depicted as an idyllic dreamscape, both within the universe of Mad Men and on a meta-textual level. It’s aesthetically beautiful: sunshine, palm trees, blue skies, swimming pools, bikinis, bohemian fashion. Bohemian is a key word when it comes to 1960s California. Don’s first visit to Los Angeles is disrupted by his involvement with a group of people who encapsulate this California fantasy: wealthy, educated drifters who lounge poolside, take drugs, and have casual sex with each other. A woman invites Don to join them. “Who are you?”, he asks. “I’m Joy”, she replies (S2E11). When the Madison Avenue ad men need to escape reality, they go west to the fantasy world of California.

Part of what makes California so idealized is that it’s a place of acceptance. Behaviour that deviates from the status quo is part of the west coast fantasy. But for Don Draper, California is home to the ultimate symbol of acceptance: Anna. Anna Draper knows Don’s biggest secret: he is not Don Draper. During the Korean War, he stole the identity of his dead commanding officer (Anna’s husband) in order to secure a better life for himself. Anna’s forgiveness and reassurance that what he is doing is okay allows Don to be at peace with himself when he visits her. However, acceptance from others does not equate to self-acceptance, and Don struggles to capture the same feelings of acceptance in California after Anna’s death in Season 4. After visiting California for a highly unsuccessful business trip in Season 6, he laments “I don’t know what happened … I usually feel better out there” (S6E10).

It is only with Anna that Don is able to reconcile with himself. Photo: Tumblr

He tries to reconstruct the California fantasy with his secretary-turned-wife Megan Calvet. Though initially living and working with Don in New York, Megan moves to Los Angeles to pursue a career in acting. Through her own participation in the California dream, she transforms from Don’s idealized wife to a self-actualized woman. When Don is fired in New York, he seeks solace in California, offering to finally move in with Megan in Los Angeles. By this point, Megan does not offer Don the same unconditional acceptance that Anna Draper offered, and he is not welcome. The two divorce. Without unconditional acceptance from another, California is no longer refuge for Don, and he must seek this acceptance elsewhere.

Megan’s character transformation is emphasized through costume design. As she embraces the California lifestyle, her fashion follows suit. Photo: Screencaps from Mad Men

Don’s search begins on the east coast, where he opens up about his past in an effort to pitch an ad to Hershey’s. Rigid east coast companies are unwilling to accept deviance from the status quo, and Don is subsequently suspended from his ad agency. With nowhere else to go, Don ventures west one final time, eventually following Anna Draper’s niece to a spiritual retreat in the hills outside of Los Angeles. The Esalen-like retreat exemplifies California’s bohemian, progressive attitudes of self-acceptance and spiritual enlightenment. It is here, during the series finale, that Don bares his soul to Peggy, his protégé, and experiences catharsis during a confessional seminar. It is here, in the sunshine of California, that Don accepts himself and is able to reassure himself that what he is doing is okay. He is okay.

Don achieves self-acceptance by embracing California. The strong visual cues in Mad Men’s final scene emphasize this shift to the west coast. Photo: AMC

It is here that he realizes the value of self-acceptance, the bohemian movement, and the California fantasy.

The California fantasy will sell Coca-Cola, and we will buy it.

This Coca-Cola advertisement is the final impression we’re left with, at the end of Mad Men.

Ann Davis is a digital content creator from Ottawa. Currently based in Nottingham, England, she founded Travelbloom in 2019 to document her move from Canada to the UK. You can find more of her work here.

Have No Fear, Shakespeare’s Here!

As we pass William Shakespeare’s birthday, we reflect upon his plays and their readability among modern audiences. Why do some scholars and purists look down on No Fear Shakespeare, Sparknotes’ series of comprehensive Shakespeare “translations”?

By Serena Ypelaar

It’s fascinating to think that William Shakespeare (1564-1616) significantly evolved the English language during his lifetime, introducing new idioms and even new words. He created new verbs from nouns (e.g. “to elbow”), and was especially illustrious for his mastery of insults. Yet despite his achievements in shaping the English language we use today, many people have difficulty understanding his writings.

Laurence Olivier and Claire Bloom in Richard III (1955). Photo: IMDb

There’s a distance between Elizabethan/Jacobean English and contemporary English, of course. So it’s understandable that reading Shakespeare requires some mental gymnastics compared to, say, reading your everyday newspaper or a new novel. This year, to honour the Bard on the occasion of his 456th birthday (presumed April 23 – he died the same day in 1616), I’d like to discuss No Fear Shakespeare.

The Macbeth version of No Fear Shakespeare. Photo: Kobo

No Fear Shakespeare is a student’s dream come true: it’s a modern-day translation, and therefore an interpretation, of Shakespeare’s plays. Published by Sparknotes and known for distinctive blue and white covers, each paperback volume includes the original text of a Shakespeare play, side by side with a modern translation. Depending on how you want to be perceived in English class, copies of No Fear Shakespeare are either coveted or derided among schoolfellows.

At least in my high school, I remember being grateful for No Fear but hesitant to be seen using it. During undergrad, I definitely wouldn’t dare flaunt a copy – to do so might be akin to admitting you didn’t understand Shakespeare. But I’ll readily admit I own copies of No Fear for King Lear, Hamlet, and The Tempest. In truth, it doesn’t hurt to have a translation available for when you’re tired or simply want to read Shakespeare for fun (don’t laugh; it happens worldwide). Literary skills aside, there’s no point pretending translations aren’t useful, no matter how clever you want to appear. Take this translation from King Lear (my favourite tragedy):

It is the cowish terror of his spirit
That dares not undertake. He’ll not feel wrongs
Which tie him to an answer.
Our wishes on the way
May prove effects. Back, Edmund, to my brother.
Hasten his musters and conduct his powers.
I must change names at home, and give the distaff
Into my husband’s hands.

William Shakespeare, “King Lear”, Act IV, scene ii, lines 13-17

He’s a coward and can’t commit himself to doing anything risky. He chooses not to be insulted rather than challenge those who offend him. But what we talked about with longing on the way may soon come true. Edmund, go back to see my brother-in-law. Gather his soldiers and organize his troops. I plan to take charge of my household. From now on I will wear the pants, and my husband can play the housewife.

No Fear Shakespeare, modern translation of “King Lear”, Act IV, scene ii, lines 13-17

Here, Shakespeare’s language may seem oblique or confusing in terms of what Goneril is saying; No Fear has brought it down to a clear-cut modern translation.

No Fear is aptly named, as people often approach Shakespeare’s writing with just that: fear, or at least a feeling of intimidation. We often fear that which is difficult to understand. But among scholars, why is No Fear tacitly shamed? Because there’s a pronounced sense of pride that comes with being able to understand, appreciate, and quote Shakespeare. I say “pride”, but in fact it reeks of elitism. No Fear Shakespeare is seen as cheating – the easy way out, as one avoids doing the bulk of the interpretation one’s self. There’s also a strong case against No Fear translations in the sense that they’ve “stripped” the plays of what makes them great: Shakespeare’s unparalleled writing style.

Kenneth Branagh as Benedick in “Much Ado About Nothing” (1993). Photo: IMDb

Shakespeare is known for his eloquence, and by interpreting his plays yourself, you can engage with them in a way that No Fear would preclude – unless you can resist looking at the translations on the right-hand side of each page. That’s why English majors don’t bring copies to their university lectures, apart from the actual optics of the thing: even though it’s available, we’d be doing ourselves a disservice by simply reading a translation, and we don’t want to look over-reliant on the watered-down No Fear. If you were to only read translations, you’d be missing the essence of Shakespeare’s writing itself, and that would be a shame.

But using No Fear doesn’t mean you’re unintelligent. As demonstrated above, it can help with those hard-to-understand passages – and I can never fault anyone who’s working to make Shakespeare more accessible. I applaud the No Fear team, because the more barriers we eliminate between people and their enjoyment of literature, the more inclusive literature can be. If No Fear Shakespeare acts as a doorway to a lifetime of loving Shakespeare and his stories, then that can only be a good thing – we should never look down on anyone trying to learn something.

After all, I first got into Shakespeare by reading kids’ comic versions of his plays, adapted by Terry Deary. Film adaptations like She’s the Man (Twelfth Night) and 10 Things I Hate About You (The Taming of the Shrew) also offer a contemporary lens. If these adaptations are successful in introducing modern audiences to the Bard, then count me in. Just don’t ever ask me to give up the real deal: Shakespeare’s words, verbatim.

“We Cannot Speak Other Than By Our Paintings”

Vincent van Gogh is one of the most renowned painters in the world. In a stunning visual undertaking, Loving Vincent pays tribute to the artist by reinterpreting his paintings in the world’s first painted feature-length film.

By Serena Ypelaar

Moviegoers often remember visually stunning films for years to come. Beautiful cinematography, outstanding production, and vivid imagery stays with us – that much is certainly true with the biopic Loving Vincent (2017), a feature-length film about Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh.

A still of Vincent van Gogh as depicted in Loving Vincent (2017). Photo: Medium

Starring Douglas Booth, Saoirse Ronan, Chris O’Dowd, Helen McCrory, Eleanor Tomlinson, Jerome Flynn, Aidan Turner, and Robert Gulaczyk, Loving Vincent is a Polish-British co-production exploring the end of Van Gogh’s life. Though the film’s pacing is somewhat drawn-out at times and the plot is speculative, it stands out for one reason: it was entirely hand-painted in the style of Van Gogh.

Vincent van Gogh, “Wheat Fields at Auvers Under Clouded Sky” (1890). Image: Wikiart

Loving Vincent is the first feature-length painting animation film in the world. 94 of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings were reimagined for the film, along with new visuals. Dorota Kobiela, the film’s co-director alongside Hugh Welchman, launched the project after reading Van Gogh’s letters. She felt a profound desire to tell his story by capturing his art and its subject matter from a biographical perspective. Kobiela thought it was only right that the film should be painted. Despite pitching a seven-minute short film in 2008 and having been told it would be impossible to pursue a feature-length film, Kobiela started a successful crowdfunding campaign and set to work.

You may wonder how paintings can integrate seamlessly as a film. Surely they were supplemented with computer-generated imagery (CGI)? The answer is no – the actors performed their roles and CGI was only used to supplement the visuals captured on film, as well as to add the movement of the backgrounds. However, none of that footage was really used in the final cut of the film, which was entirely comprised of paintings. Every single frame was its own painting, with 12 frames per second. That’s 66,960 frames – which means just as many individual paintings were created by hand.

From left: Eleanor Tomlinson during the live-action filming phase; Van Gogh’s “Portrait of Adeline Ravoux (1890); the final keyframe for “Loving Vincent”. Photo: Loving Vincent
Vincent van Gogh, “Portrait of the Postman Joseph Roulin” (1888). Image: Wikiart

Production took place largely in Gdańsk, Poland, with 80 highly skilled painters recruited from worldwide to paint each frame of the film. These paintings interpret the story of Van Gogh, diverting us from details we’ll never know for sure and redirecting our attention to the essence of his visual art. The delivery of this film is what captivates us – its sense of movement brings Van Gogh’s work to life. Some of the famous paintings used in the film had to be extended or reimagined; Van Gogh used many different sizes of canvas for his works, whereas the film had to be one frame size. Producers also changed some colour palettes of well-known paintings on a seasonal basis, as Loving Vincent takes place in summer.

For the sake of authenticity, actors who closely resembled Van Gogh’s portrait sitters were cast – though their questionable accents and pronunciation slightly hamper the film’s impact. There are no French accents to be heard, though the film is set in France, and Van Gogh does not sound Dutch – the actors also anglicize the pronunciation of Van Gogh’s brother Theo’s name (which would be “Tay-OH” in Dutch). If these slight details were presented more accurately, the film could be even more absorbing; it’s definitely a tad distracting to hear the dissonant accents. Nevertheless, the true marvel lies in the visual spectacle.

Chris O’Dowd as Postman Roulin in “Loving Vincent” (2017). Each frame of the film required an individual painting. Image: Loving Vincent

How might Van Gogh feel if he saw this film? Would he be flattered, touched, or feel it invasive? Some may question the artists’ approach of directly imitating Van Gogh’s style, from his signature brushstrokes to the colours that grew more vivid over his career. In fact, there is a long-standing tradition whereby painters engage in artistic “schools” of thought or technique. You may have seen portraits “in the style of” Hans Holbein the Younger, for instance, or heard of numerous students of Rembrandt van Rijn. Even today, artists often have a team of painters who do some of the work when creating large-scale paintings. With this in mind, it might therefore be an oversimplification to call Loving Vincent‘s paintings plagiarism rather than an act of reinterpretation.

Vincent van Gogh, “The Night Café” (1888). Image: Wikipedia

Whatever your opinion on a brigade of artists painting literal thousands of Van Gogh-esque paintings – whether you think they’re a form of uncanny talent, plagiarism, or a bit of both – the production team working on this biopic took the ultimate risk, both financially and creatively. Loving Vincent could have been a flop; it could have been poorly executed (some may think it is). But I feel it’s a gorgeous treat for the eyes, one that pays tribute to Vincent van Gogh the best way it knows how: by bringing his paintings to life.

As Vincent himself said in his penultimate letter to his brother Theo (which was found on Van Gogh’s body after his death): “We cannot speak other than by our paintings”. If anyone lived up to that edict, it was certainly Van Gogh. He constructed the most beautiful scenes for us, telling stories in landscapes and portraits we still love over a century later – all through his paintings.

Worthy of His Words: Wordsworth 250

It’s the 250th anniversary of Romantic poet William Wordsworth’s birth, and his love for nature continues to resonate with contemporary audiences.

By Serena Ypelaar

When I learned that April 7th was the 250th birthday of Romantic poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850), I knew we had to tribute his legacy in some way. And what’s the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of Wordsworth’s poems?

That’s right: nature.

As we isolate ourselves these days, it’s easy to feel lonely. But it seems that many of us have turned to nature as our saving grace. Nature is known to boost mental health and well-being – and now, when we’re unable to go to public places, a solo walk outdoors can do us a world of good.

William Wordsworth and his fellow Romantic poets John Keats, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and Robert Southey professed a profound regard for nature. So what better time to celebrate one of the most famous English writers of all time (and a personal favourite) than now, as we rely on nature to preserve our sanity? The timing of the #Wordsworth250 commemoration may seem unfortunate, but it’s also rather apt. Though events scheduled in the Lake District and northwestern England for the year-long celebration have been cancelled or moved online due to the COVID-19 crisis, that doesn’t mean we can’t still enjoy the works of England’s former Poet Laureate.

The Lake District, the region where Wordsworth was born and later lived. Photo: Robert J. Heath

Nature’s offerings are bountiful: fresh air, tranquil scenery, ambient sounds and smells. It’s no wonder humans worship nature, in a sense. In remembering Wordsworth, we can appreciate how eloquently he conveys his love of nature, to which I’m sure many of us can relate. The sense of connection we derive from our shared love of nature provides us with some common ground, as the human experience is an integral element of Romantic poetry.

Interestingly enough, Wordsworth wrote much of his most famous work, The Prelude (1799), during a time of intense stress and loneliness while living in Germany. It was intended as part of a larger work titled The Recluse, which was never finished. I think the theme of isolation throughout Wordsworth’s poetry holds some relevance to our current situation, a consoling thought for anyone reading poems alone in their room (ahem, me).

Wordsworth is well-known for his ability to take readers through countryside rambles, using sensory imagery and lines heaving with emotion. His descriptions are vivid but also abstract, allowing us to travel to a site ourselves. Wordsworth’s Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey (1798) does just that. Upon reading, we’re transported to the landscape above the Abbey, taking in the lush scenery and sublime beauty of nature through the experience of the speaker.

Richard Carruthers’ 1818 portrait of William Wordsworth. Collection of The Wordsworth Trust. Photo: Art UK

And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods,
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world

William Wordsworth, “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey” (1798), from lines 93-105

Wordsworth lets us witness the scene (and the speaker’s relationship with it) as if we were there too. How does he do this? Through senses and the imagination. Wordsworth saw imagination as a spiritual force. Famous for invoking the power of the sublime – whereby words incite thoughts and emotions beyond the ordinary – Wordsworth confronts the metaphysical, exploring concepts of time, space, knowing, and being. It can therefore reassure us to escape into nature through his words on the page. So even when we can’t walk through the countryside, we can see, smell, and hear it so convincingly as if we are there – through imagination.

William Havell’s painting “Tintern Abbey in a bend of the Wye” (1804). Wordsworth would have walked here a few years before when writing his 1798 poem “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey”. Photo: Wikimedia

Why do we love interacting with nature so much, anyway? Here we’re shown how rejuvenated Wordsworth’s speaker feels to be out of doors observing the ruins of Tintern Abbey:

These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din,
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind,
With tranquil restoration: feelings too

Wordsworth, lines 22-30

Nature awakens our senses through sights, sounds, smells, and even touch – sitting in the grass, or feeling the wind lift your hair. Wordsworth was a master at evoking these sensations in his poetry, which is why he’s lauded as one of the most iconic British poets of all time – we really do feel his experiences as if they could be our own. In the year of Wordsworth’s 250th birthday, the pull of our individual relationships with nature still holds weight with readers worldwide.

I’m an ardent fan of Romantic poetry at the best of times (if you couldn’t already tell). But despite the slant of my own opinion, if you’re feeling cooped up, I encourage you to check out Wordsworth’s poems and marvel at the splendour of nature. Perhaps his works will inspire you to take a solitary walk outdoors, or maybe you’ll go there from the comfort of your living room – but either way, you might just feel transported for a while.

After all, there’s nothing quite like a change of scenery to refresh your mind and soul. In remembering Wordsworth, we can do just that.

Thy memory be as a dwelling-place
For all sweet sounds and harmonies; oh! then,
If solitude, or fear, or pain, or grief,
Should be thy portion, with what healing thoughts
Of tender joy wilt thou remember me,
And these my exhortations!

Wordsworth, from lines 134-146
You can read some of Wordsworth’s poetry here, here, and here.
The Prelude (1799)
Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey (1798)
For more on isolation, poetry, and the power of the mind to take us elsewhere, check out Adriana Wiszniewska on Emily Dickinson’s solitary lifestyle and its impact on her work.