From art

shoes, animals, demons and music: mysteries of medieval graffiti

In recent years (the last six years or so), the phenomena of medieval graffiti has become a prominent area of discourse for medievalists. Specifically, what graffiti can reveal to us of the largely mysterious epoch and how it can perhaps debunk some of our modernly prescribed myths (‘medievalisms’) surrounding the period as a whole.

Historian Matthew Champion writes “today, graffiti is seen as both destructive and anti-social. It is widely regarded as vandalism, not as something to be encouraged on ancient monuments and historic sites. That attitude is largely a modern one. Until recent centuries, people of just about every level of society carved graffiti into ancient buildings. It simply wasn’t seen as something to be condemned.”

Loddon Parish
Loddon Parish
Norwich Cathedral
Norwich Castle



shoes and hands

“Echoing the very earliest of cave art, these inscriptions perhaps give more of a feeling of real people having been present than any others,” writes Champion.

There is a kind of individuality in the art of drawing around a hand or shoe, and some believe that these notably personal drawings were used to mark pilgrimage or to ward off evil. In their individuality, they became a means to immortalise someone in a moment in time, in a far more personal mode than any other kind of graffiti, similar to the markings of initials, names and faces we often see in graffiti today.





animals and birds

Expectedly, some of the animals inscribed in medieval churches seem to speak directly to the culture in which they were produced, for example, farm animals and their role in the mercantile economy. However, wild forest animals, such as deer and birds, are more often seen inscribed on church walls. In a nod to chivalric romance, the animals most abundantly inscribed are majestic creatures, revealing a consensus of animalistic fantasy from their inscribers. As the romantic, courtly love poems and epic tales of knighthood were in circulation around the late medieval period, it is unsurprising that the animal iconography and popularity of these mythologies translated into graffiti. Perhaps people began drawing what they liked to read, as an early form of textual illustratation upon the walls of parishes.



In medieval graffiti, inscriptions were often of what was feared. For example, there are few etchings of Christ or angels but there are many demons, the believed puppeteers of ill-fortune, inscribed all over European churches and parishes. As demons were a very real part of the conception of morality and faith in medieval Europe, they are often seen alongside other symbols, such as compasses, in order to fend off bad spirits.



In the mystery of their existence, it is most likely that medieval graffiti is (or at least has the potential to be) the workings of a wide variety of individuals. With regard to music inscription, even though it is somewhat unexpected considering the period’s illiteracy and dominance of oral transmission, there is a small number of rural parishes inscribed with musical staves. Within their rarity, they seem to convey a form of communication that transcends symbolic graffiti and eradicates any clear identity of the inscriber. In their fascinating anonymity and peculiarity, they communicate something deeper than popular inscription: perhaps “the lost voices” of medieval history.

Norwich Cathedral



looking on at robert frank’s ‘the americans’

Ed Ruscha writes “[Frank’s] achievement could not be imitated in any way, because he had already done it, sewn it up and gone home. What [he] was left with was the vapors of his talent. I had to make my own kind of art. But wow! The Americans!” Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’, published in 1958, was highly influential in post-war American photography.

Frank writes in U.S. Camera Annual (1958) “with these photographs, I have attempted to show a cross-section of the American population. My effort was to express it simply and without confusion. The view is personal and, therefore, various facets of American life and society have been ignored. The photographs were taken during 1955 and 1956; for the most part in large cities such as Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and in many other places during my Journey across the country….

I have been frequently accused of deliberately twisting subject matter to my point of view. Above all, I know that life for a photographer cannot be a matter of indifference. Opinion often consists of a kind of criticism. But criticism can come out of love. It is important to see what is invisible to others—perhaps the look of hope or the look of sadness. Also, it is always the instantaneous reaction to oneself that produces a photograph…

My photographs are not planned or composed in advance and I do not anticipate that the on-looker will share my viewpoint. However, I feel that if my photograph leaves an image on his mind—something has been accomplished.”


Men’s room, railway station, from The Americans by Robert Frank
Detroit River Rouge Plant, 1955 from The Americans by Robert Frank
Funeral – St Helena, South Carolina, 1955 from The Americans by Robert Frank
Parade Hoboken, New Jersey, 1955 from The Americans by Robert Frank
Drive-in-movie, Detroit, 1955 from The Americans by Robert Frank
Detroit, 1955 from The Americans by Robert Frank
Car Accident – U.S. 66 between Winslow and Flagstaff, Arizona, 1956 from The Americans
Screen Shot 2018-09-28 at 17.35.00
Belle Isle, Detroit, 1955 from The Americans by Robert Frank
Trolley, New Orleans, 1956 from The Americans by Robert Frank
Main Street – Savannah, Georgia, 1955 from The Americans by Robert Frank

jack kerouac on frank

“That crazy feeling in America when the sun is hot on the streets and music comes out of the jukebox or from a nearby funeral, that’s what Robert Frank has captured in these tremendous photographs taken as he travelled on the road around practically forty-eight states in an old used car (on Guggenheim Fellowship) and with the agility, mystery, genius, sadness and strange secrecy of a shadow photographed scenes that have never been seen on film… After seeing these pictures you end up finally not knowing any more whether a jukebox is sadder than a coffin”

Kerouac also said on Frank that “he sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film, taking rank among the tragic poets of the world.”

Susan Sontag in ‘On Photography’ posits ‘Americans feel the reality of their country to be so stupendous, and mutable, that it would be the rankest presumption to approach it in a classifying, scientific way… One could get at it indirectly, by subterfuge – breaking it off into strange fragments that could somehow, by synecdoche, be taken for the whole.’

john berger and susan sontag on story-telling

In their 1983 Talk to Me (which can be seen here), artist and art critic John Berger and writer, philosopher, essayist and filmmaker Susan Sontag deliberate each other’s, and articulate their own, versions and definitions of the art of story-telling.

Sontag claims that at the ‘very centre of the whole enterprise of story-telling there is the fact that story-telling is an activity that faces in two directions’: truth, on one hand, invention on the other. Berger posits that the story ‘sits somewhere between fiction and truth’ but must, for him, begin as truth.

Berger believes that story-telling is fundamentally a merging of subjectivities, specifically, three subjectivities (of the story-teller, the protagonists, and the reader) in necessary connection and relation to each other.

Sontag disagrees. She claims that, as a writer, she cannot feel the subjectivity of the reader. Perhaps this lends itself to the fact that she believes that there is a distinction between hearing a story and reading one, critiquing the foundation upon which Berger’s story-telling tradition relies.

Berger posits an oral experience in which subjectivity originates and exists, using the analogy of a child listening to a story and experiencing a cooperative subjectivity of being both teller, listener, and participant of the story. Sontag believes that there is a distinction between listener and reader, between literary and oral, modern and primal traditions. Sontag elaborates on her disagreement with Berger’s subjectivities by suggesting that once people began to write stories down, moving beyond oral transmission, they began to write ‘different kinds of stories’ altogether, that there was a ‘radical break with the oral tradition’, that the art of writing is not just an ‘addition of art’ but an ‘expansion’. Writing allows more for the story-teller. To write down is to expand and modify what can be said due to the resources of print. It’s far richer to ‘read with the eyes as opposed to hear with the ears’, she says.

Berger believes that regardless of whether a story is heard or read, the reader makes constant jumps. Like a film or montage, there is a constant process of editing in the art of storytelling. Subjects change from sentence to sentence and we, as reader or listener, are constantly relocated. We are continuously carried elsewhere as the story unfolds. And this exercise from the writer depends on how they believe the reader or listener will react. They make constant assumptions and these assumptions are eventually taken for granted, and a kind of complicity is born between listener and speaker, reader and writer.

For Berger, story-telling is a ‘rescue operation’, or a shelter ‘against that endless terrifying space in which we live’, or as he also calls it, the Absurd. For Sontag, story-telling ‘enlargens our imagination’ instead, and introduces us to the terrifying space, the Absurd, in which we live.

Check out the full conversation here.

paris, texas (1984) and edward hopper: a visual love affair

Fluorescent lights and rooms with a view. Brutalist and commercial landscapes of American modernity. Edward Hopper and cinematographer Robby Müller both produce a kind of romance in their isolated portraits of individual subjects. Both alike in their treatment of distance, the viewer’s position becomes as striking as the composition of the bodies in view. Public spaces are seen as private and intimate, far removed from the viewer, that there is a kind of invasiveness in looking at them. Both Hopper and Müller seem to connect various moods of American mid to late twentieth-century culture through their depiction of empty space and fluorescent colour as isolating yet all-encompassing.

a guide to mourning the end of summer

Cher recently tweeted ‘Was Wondering If We Should HANG ON 2 SUMMER & KEEP DANCING …OR ….SOB OUR WAY INTO FALL’. Below is an unranked list of novels and films that feel inspired by warmth and melancholy to mediate the transition from summer into autumn.



What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993) (copyright belongs to Paramount Pictures)

1. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993)

‘I want Momma to take aerobics classes. I want Ellen to grow up. I want a new brain for Arnie.’ Peter Hedges’ screenplay showcases Leonardo Dicaprio’s most underrated performance in this family drama.


2. East of Eden (1952), a novel by John Steinbeck

An epic. A descriptive journey into the complex lives of two families set in California.


3. Ask The Dust (1939), a novel by John Fante

‘You pretty town I loved you so much, you sad flower in the sand‘. John Fante’s 1939 masterpiece enlivens a very real sombre summer mood. It takes place in the desert landscape of Los Angeles and brings to life a sense of cultural pessimism of heat and warmth and paradise.


20th Century Women (2016) (copyright belongs to A24 studios)

4. 20th Century Women (2016)

A study into the lives of women who basically live under one roof, all, in their own way, attempt to raise teenage boy Jamie. Set in 1979, it speaks to contemporary and modern issues of feminism and love and freedom.


5. Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

Toni Collete is always incredible. The score seems to speak to the dysfunctional, dark and beautiful lives of the Hoover family as they journey to California for the Little Miss Sunshine pageant.


6. Norwegian Wood (1987), a novel by Haruki Murakami

Murakami is warm and captivating. This sad adolescent story of love and friendship and emptiness is moving and dreamlike.


Paris, Texas (1984) (copyright belongs to 20th Century Fox)

7. Paris, Texas (1984)

Cinematographer Robby Müller’s fluorescent colours and light transform Wim Wenders’ gripping road movie into something genius.



almost a year on: celebrating the release of call me by your name (2017) with its cinematic parallels to the graduate (1967)

Swimming pools, wide shots and extreme close-ups. Emphasis on facial expressions and what is left unsaid. Exactly 50 years apart in creation, here are just a few examples of the artistic parallels between the two critically acclaimed dramas.

The Graduate (copyright belongs to Embassy Pictures and United Artists)
Call Me By Your Name (copyright belongs to Sony Pictures Classics and Warner Bros. Pictures)
The Graduate (copyright belongs to Embassy Pictures and United Artists)
Call Me By Your Name (copyright belongs to Sony Pictures Classics and Warner Bros. Pictures)
The Graduate (copyright belongs to Embassy Pictures and United Artists)
Call Me By Your Name (copyright belongs to Sony Pictures Classics and Warner Bros. Pictures)
The Graduate (copyright belongs to Embassy Pictures and United Artists)
Call Me By Your Name (copyright belongs to Sony Pictures Classics and Warner Bros. Pictures)
The Graduate (copyright belongs to Embassy Pictures and United Artists)
Call Me By Your Name (copyright belongs to Sony Pictures Classics and Warner Bros. Pictures)
Screen Shot 2018-09-11 at 19.38.32
The Graduate (copyright belongs to Embassy Pictures and United Artists)
Call Me By Your Name (copyright belongs to Sony Pictures Classics and Warner Bros. Pictures)
The Graduate (copyright belongs to Embassy Pictures and United Artists)
Screen Shot 2018-09-11 at 19.23.50
Call Me By Your Name (copyright belongs to Sony Pictures Classics and Warner Bros. Pictures)
Screen Shot 2018-09-11 at 19.43.46
The Graduate (copyright belongs to Embassy Pictures and United Artists)
Call Me By Your Name (copyright belongs to Sony Pictures Classics and Warner Bros. Pictures)