Persepolis – Marjane Satrapi

I’ve been meaning to read Persepolis for some time now as I’m trying to widen my knowledge of graphic novels and the book is often mentioned. From the first page I could tell that this would be a book that I would return to again and again – there is a richness to both the story and the pages that will only be discovered on multiple viewings. The book tells is an autobiographical account of Marjane Satrapi growing up under the shadow of the Iranian theocracy.

The illustration is simple to the extent that it is in black and white but beyond that it inventively echoes scenes visually throughout. Without the imagery the story would be diminished as it brings Iran alive to those who have never had a chance of seeing both public and private aspects of its culture.

Her parents were liberal and encouraged Satrapi to be educated despite the theocracy attempting to cut down on women’s rights both through the enforcement of the veil and a restriction of their movements. Satrapi’s parents eventually send her to Austria in the hope that she can experience freedom there that is no longer possible in Iran but this transition also presents Satrapi with difficulties. This is both a bildungsoman and an exploration of the hidden split in Iranian culture – she chronicles her increasing isolation from both cultures and a struggle to understand her evolving identity. Although she adapts to Western culture as she goes to university, lives in a house of gay men and has a boyfriend Marjane remains an outsider to her Austrian life. However, on returning to Iran she finds those friends who she has looked forward to meeting again are now also strangers to her and look down on her “Westernised” ways.

The considered narrative is emotive whilst also restrained,uncovering a side of Iran that remains hidden too those who only experience it through the news. It recalls those who were locked in prison or died at the hands of both the Shah and the theocracy, the continued attempts at rebellion that must become more secretive as protests become too dangerous and parties involving alcohol appear too risky. Instead, in one instance, like minded individuals meet and hold private life drawing classes in response to the regime preventing women attending. They refuse to allow their lives to be narrowed due to close-minded leadership.

If there is any one that sneers at graphic novels they only need to be handed a copy of Persepolis to be proved completely and utterly misguided. This book will remain relevant and fresh for many years and is an excellent entry point for those who wish to understand aspects of Iranian culture, both old and new, better.

Horst: Photographer of Style

As many reviews have noted the V&A’s current exhibition on Horst P. Horst is a series of master-classes in photography, composition, lighting and style. Horst was a fashion photographer during 1930s to late 1980s whose career spanned across the transition from black and white to colour and saw the rise of professional models. Although his photographs were often used to create Vogue covers many were used for adverts of corsets, nail varnish and holidays. This commercialisation does not mar the beauty of his creativity but instead makes the viewer marvel at his ingenuity.

As Horst became increasingly popular in fashion circles he also became a regular in other sets. A growing interest in Surrealism is evident in his photography, not least in the photograph of Salvador Dalí! There are women covered in lobsters and a whole series of Surrealist still lifes which create a confusion of reference in comparison with the simply lines of his earlier work. They also led Horst to interesting collaboration as Dalí creating the Surrealist ballet costumes, which were never used due to their impracticality, that Horst photographed in such interesting poses.

Horst was heavily influenced by classical aesthetics and often portrayed his models as statuesque whilst also caught in motion. The exhibition also includes examples of the clothes which Horst photographed and these include outfits by Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli and Jeanne Lanvin. This provides a welcome contrast to the early walls of black and white photographs. It also demonstrates how difficult it must have been to create the look of constant movement that Horst projects throughout his photographs as many of the outfits are carefully structured and stiff.

My one complaint with the exhibition is that it feels unevenly paced. The first room has an overwhelming amount of photos lining the walls and a great deal of information to absorb. As soon as this room is left behind however, the following rooms feel much larger and spacious with the photos evenly spread out. I also felt that the section on Horst’s nature photography felt slightly out of place as there was a reasonable amount of repetition which slowed the momentum of the exhibition down. If it had been placed closer to the Surrealism section this focus could have been explored more interestingly. However, this did not dim my enjoyment a great deal as there remained other aspects to enjoy, in particular Horst’s photos from his travels.

The exhibition recently opened and so will be open until 4 January 2015. Such a range of photographic skill and technique is unlikely to be exhibited so careful again in the near future so there’s definitely a reason for not putting off a visit! This website offers an excellent preview of the V&A’s offering.

Orlando (1992)

Orlando , directed by Sally Potter, is an exquisitely beautiful film. It lavishly covers the centuries from dying years of the Elizabethan era to the present whilst Tilda Swinton performs the chameleon title role.

Orlando’s youth is frozen when Elizabeth I promises him his familial home in return for his everlasting youth. The years wash over him, with only the change in costume indicating any change in time. He experiences the transition into civil war from the isolation of his manor and only leaves when harsh criticism of his writing makes familiar scenes uncomfortable. The change of scene to a hot, dusty and unknown East as Orlando becomes an ambassador appears more surprising than the following sex change the eponymous character then experiences. Orlando must then struggle with new restrictions on her life as a female and the lowered expectations of others.

The film regularly breaks the fourth wall and segues smoothly between the centuries as Tilda Swinton moves through mazes and rooms in the house, employing the same characters for different roles. This experimental filming makes the unusual and (partially) unexplained plot much easier to accept and invest in. Orlando’s romances with both Sasha and Shelmadine are tender and yet bitter-sweet as the audience is aware that they will always remain apart from the world. This separation is visually encouraged by Swinton’s unusual and androgynous looks which create a timeless aura, inescapable despite the luxurious clothes.

Orlando is a film I plan to watch again soon and somthing which I believe will improve with every rewatch. I would recommend it without a doubt.

The Ipcress File (1965)

The Ipcress File , directed by Sidney J. Furie, is one of Michael Caine’s finest roles. Based on Len Deighton’s novel of the same name Caine’s character Harry Palmer was billed as the anti-Bond. He has narrowly avoided prison and is very sceptical towards authority, including his bosses. However, his unconventional methods gain results which Palmer modestly produces during meetings.

The opening sequence (of which a still is above) is a fascinatingly careful construction of Palmer’s character as he wakes in the morning, gets ready and heads into work.

Palmer is man of many talents, not only being able to shoot a gun but also discerning the various qualities of tinned mushrooms available. He is able to crack eggs with one hand and is happy to whip up a supper for ladies who drop by his flat. This is truly a modern man who can support himself domestically, financially and in any fight.

However, The Ipcress File is not solely a study of Harry Palmer’s character. The plot also revolves around the attempt to stop a “brain drain” out of 1960s Britain as academics either defect or suffer amnesia. Along with his colleagues Palmer follows a trail which includes surprises, treachery and violence. No one can be trusted and nothing is as it seems. The film is worth a watch not only for the unusual plot but also the views of 1960s London which it provides.

Give the trailer a watch here:

War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy

The status of War and Peace as a book which is often referred to but rarely read encouraged me to attempt to scale its literary mountain. I wanted to see if it really does deserve to be a book that everyone feels they should read but know it’s unlikely they ever will. It is historical fiction which cannot be sniffed at, a romance which cannot be patronised and a roadtrip which will not be undermined. Following a large range of characters during the French invasion of Russia in the early 1800s War and Peace explores the impact of this disruption on a cross section of Russian society.

Without a doubt the characters of War and Peace are some of the strongest and believable that I have read recently. Their mistakes reverberate through the book but they also adapt in response to these changing environments. The growth of Prince Andrew’s cynicism as he meets challenges and disappointments seemed sadly inevitable even as I watched his youthful potential being wasted. Obviously the length of the book allows for elaborate development of each character and their relationship so that even secondary characters are given depth in social situations. Tolstoy also based many of the characters on information he found in the letters and diaries from members of his family and their social circle.

I must admit that while the book is called War and Peace I definitely enjoyed the ‘Peace’ sections more. There was more scope for the characters to interact and the plot develop while the ‘War’ sections had to focus on describing military tactics and explaining the positions of the armies. While this was obviously necessary to detail Napoleon’s progress into Russia I found the intricate detail boring. However, as I have heard that the fighting episodes are considered some of the finest bits of writing I suppose it could be down to preference. Nevertheless the characters who I was most interested in; Natasha, Pierre and Mary, were rarely in a war zone so would be absent for long periods during a ‘War’ narrative.

As ever when reading a novel in translation I was aware of the additional barrier to my understanding. Not only is the book originally in Russian but it also contains long passages in French due to the Russian upper classes traditionally speaking in French. While the copy I read attempted to keep these nuances by retaining the French passages and translating them in the footnotes I feel there were situations where the use of a particular language or dialect still passed me by. There were also long passages meditating on how to live and what it could mean. These are obviously difficult to translate and I would be interested in reading other versions to compare.

Although I do not plan to immediately reread War and Peace I expect it is a book which is rewarding to return to. I found the expansive vision of Russia during its wars with Napoleon fascinating, partly because I previously knew so little about the book or the period. However, if you do not enjoy very large casts of characters and a carefully developed and meandering plot then it is probably not for you!

Between Light and Screen: Turkish Shadow Puppets

The British Museum is currently showing a small exhibition drawn from its collection of Turkish shadow puppets. They are made out very thin leather which is carefully cut into the necessary shapes before being coloured and jointed together. They are then placed against a screen which has a light source in front of the puppeteer to project a story. This is part of a strong tradition going back over 500 years.

Many of the stories are well known and often told. They contain stock characters who wear specific clothing to make them easily identifiable. These two men, Karagöz and Hacivat, are neighbours who are often fighting but also try to help each other while their different temperaments lead them in opposite directions. They remain popular characters and have even appeared on Turkish postal stamps.


Every character clearly had their own personality which was immediately clear from their clothes, face and hair. As someone new to these stories I still smiled when I saw the pompous character, sympathised with the young female character and recognised the miser. These shadow puppets dated from throughout the twentieth century but they remain current and relevant. Now I just need to watch a real shadow puppetry show so I can see the puppets as they are meant to be used!

The exhibition continues until 28th September so if you’re in the area or visiting the British Museum in the next couple of weeks it would make an amusing detour.

The Museum of Broken Relationships

Having spent a reasonable amount of time on the South Bank this summer I very much enjoyed their Festival of Love. It focused on the range of love that can be experienced, from love of family and friends to erotic and finally selfless love. There was something for everyone to enjoy with exhibitions, events and, of course, slides.

I visited the Museum of Broken Relationships, which I will admit does not sound overly enjoyable. However, the curiosity of myself and a friend drew us in. The exhibition is based on a collection amassed by Croatian artists Olinka Vištica and Dražen Grubišić. They have asked people from across the globe to send in objects which have been left behind after a relationship ends. Each item is accompanied by a story, some funny while others are sad or even cryptic.

Fascination led me from one display case to the next as each story or item brought surprises. One woman had presented a multicoloured painting of her vagina which was in place of sending the STDs her previous partner had left her with. You could sense that sending this in might not give her the closure Vištica and Grubišić are hoping to give. Other items are more poignant, as their owners interpret their significance with hindsight. A soft toy now demonstrates irreconcilable differences while an unworn wedding dress is viewed as inevitable.

Sadly the exhibition is now finished but it will continue to tour so look out for its appearance in a city near you! They are continuing to accept donations of exhibits so if you have a particular item you wish to let go send it in here.