Monday 20 November 2023

Did Napoleon Really Fire at the Pyramids? A Historian Explains the Truth Behind the Legends of Ridley Scott’s Biopic

Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon. Photograph: courtesy of Apple

By Joan Tumblety, University of Southampton

Directors of historical feature films face a difficult task. How can they make the characters familiar to an audience without reducing them to caricature? How can they make sure that knowledge of the outcome – battles won or lost, empires built then ruined – doesn’t make the story seem like it’s writing itself?

Director Ridley Scott is not a historian and presumably wants to entertain rather than to enlighten. But the problem of historical truth is an interesting one.

The trailer for Napoleon.

It is not easy to know the “real” Napoleon. There’s a recognisable version of him – the confident general beloved of his troops, the instinctive military tactician who could run on empty for days at a time, his stern and somewhat petulant gaze. But much of this is the product of layers of historical storytelling, accrued by the labour of generations of artists, journalists and memoirists – and of course, Napoleon himself.

Abel Gance’s spectacular silent film Napoleon (1927), for example, charted the life and career of Napoleon up to his departure as a military general for the Italian campaign in 1796. In one scene, a heavy winter snowfall interrupts classes at Napoleon’s military college. The boys run outside to play and inevitably start throwing snowballs at each other. The scene depicts a very young Napoleon emerging as a natural commander, directing the combat as though on the field of battle.

Yet the veracity of this moment rests primarily on a single account – the memoir of one of Napoleon’s childhood friends, Louis de Bourrienne, who attended the same school. The author was later an employee of Napoleon, who sacked him for embezzlement in 1802.

Many years later, in 1829, de Bourrienne penned a memoir in the hope of cashing in on the popular appetite for authentic tales of the great general. What we think we know about the “real” Napoleon is often filtered through self-interested and partial accounts like this one.

Here are the facts and legends behind some of the major scenes from Ridley Scott’s new Napoleon biopic.

Did Napoleon crown himself?

Napoleon went to great lengths to craft his image as a benign ruler and man of the people, often enlisting the talents of artists to do so.

Most notoriously, Jacques-Louis David was commissioned to produce a series of grand paintings depicting Napoleon’s coronation in Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris in December 1804. In the most famous, we see Napoleon place a crown on the head of the new Empress Josephine while a reluctant Pope Pius VII looks on.

In an astonishing act of hubris, Napoleon had indeed already placed a crown on his own head, though the oil painting shows him only in laurel leaves to signify his martial triumphs. What Scott’s film depicts is the magnificence of the oil paintings, which showed Napoleon and his empress in the most flattering light, rather than the coronation ceremony itself.

His relationship with Josephine

There is no doubt that Napoleon felt a deep passion for Marie Joséphe Rose de la Pagerie – known to him as Joséphine – whom he married in 1796 as his military career was in the ascendant. Yet her depiction in Ridley Scott’s film as a young seductress probably speaks more to sexist cliche than to Joséphine’s undoubted self-assuredness.

She was six years older than Napoleon, a widow and mother of two young children when they met, and the young general’s romantic feelings were seemingly stronger than hers. While on campaign he wrote to her virtually every day, his pen sometimes piercing the parchment, such was the force of his emotions. Yet some of these letters to her remained unopened.

Their relationship was as tumultuous as it was passionate, and both spouses had several affairs. Yet when Napoleon instigated divorce in 1809 for want of an heir, it was surprisingly amicable. The Empress retained her imperial title until her death in 1814 and was permitted to continue living in the imperial Château de Malmaison.

Was Napoleon present at the execution of Marie Antoinette?

The autumn of 1793 was especially busy for Napoleon given his increasingly important role in the Siege of Toulon. Federalist rebels had handed over the French fleet to the British admiral Samuel Hood, and the young artillery officer commanded the operation that eventually seized it back.

Therefore it is highly unlikely that he ventured to Paris in October to be among the crowd that witnessed the execution of Queen Marie-Antoinette.

Another trailer for Napoleon shows the lead up to Marie Antionette’s execution.

In a letter to his older brother Joseph, however, Napoleon did claim to witness the storming of the Tuileries Palace by an angry crowd of republican protesters in June 1792. It revolted him.

Did Napoleon really fire at the pyramids?

Napoleon began his Egyptian campaign in 1798. The cultural legacy of the campaign can be seen in the well-stocked Egyptology section of the Louvre. But it was also the scene of atrocities.

At one point, several thousand Ottoman soldiers were shot or driven into the sea on Napoleon’s orders, rather than taken prisoner. You don’t need to invent ice traps or Napoleon ordering his men to fire at the pyramids, as Ridley Scott’s biopic does, to convey his callous disregard for life.

It was the rumour that he had ordered his own plague-stricken troops to be poisoned in the town of Jaffa that finally tarnished Napoleon’s reputation in the early 19th century. It stuck, no matter how brilliant the sanitising riposte of the artist Antoine-Jean Gros, whom Napoleon commissioned in 1804 to paint a different story.

Ridley Scott’s film does not represent the past so much as carry versions of the tales and images depicting Napoleon that have spun him into existence since his own lifetime – many of which were crafted by his own hand.

Joan Tumblety, Associate Professor of French History, University of Southampton

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Monday 13 November 2023

Kandinsky at the Art Gallery of New South Wales: A Precious Gem of a Show Celebrating the Transformative Power of Art

Vasily Kandinsky 'Sketch for Composition II' 1909–10, oil on canvas, 97.5 x 131.1 cm, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection, photo courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

By Sasha Grishin, Australian National University 

Vasily Kandinsky (1866-1944) was a pioneer of abstract art. His work and theories on art profoundly influenced the School of Paris, the American Abstract Expressionists, as well as the expressionist painters working in Australia. 

Drawing on the extensive holdings of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, this new exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales is the largest Kandinsky exhibition to be held in Australia. 

In about 50 works, it covers the full range of the artist’s vision: the early “folky” works carrying the impact of the Jugendstil (German art nouveau) and Impressionism; the groundbreaking abstracts with their impressions, improvisations and compositions; and finally the wonderful, refined late geometric and biomorphic paintings. 

This is a precious gem of a show that celebrates the transformative power of art – its ability to transcend the material realm and to nourish us spiritually. 

Vasily Kandinsky 'Landscape with factory chimney' 1910, oil on canvas, 66 x 81.9 cm, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection, by gift, photo courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

Russian imagery, spiritual realm and colour auras

Kandinsky was Russian, born in Moscow in 1866. He never lost links with Russian art and culture. He expressed a profound belief in Russian Orthodoxy as the sole true faith. 

Circumstances of history meant he divided his life between living and travelling in Russia and working in Germany and finally living in France, where he died. 

Nevertheless, even when living in the heart of industrial Munich, he still painted Russian horse-drawn troikas, churches with their cupolas and the great saints of Russia. 

Vasily Kandinsky 'Improvisation 28 (second version)' 1912, oil on canvas, 112.6 x 162.5 cm, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection, By Gift, photo courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

Building on the heritage of spiritualism inherent in Russian Orthodox icons and the inventive whimsical narratives in Russian folk art, Kandinsky also explored the spiritual realm and colour auras integral to theosophy.He was one of the most influential teachers at the German Bauhaus, before the Nazis closed it. He wrote the single most influential essay in 20th-century art, On the spiritual in art, in 1911. 

What strikes me about this exhibition is Kandinsky has lost none of his timeless magic. 

Frequently when visiting an exhibition of an early modern – for example, Picasso’s cubism – you may be impressed by the work and its avant-garde properties that were so amazing in their day, but they appear of their time and somewhat dated. 

Kandinsky’s paintings have not aged and appear contemporary and relevant to us now. 

Speaking directly to the soul 

In Kandinsky’s early paintings, for example, Blue Mountain (1908-09) and Landscape with factory chimney (1910), the figurative element is still strong. Kandinsky invites the viewer to take a walk in the painting and explore an enchanted landscape. 

Vasily Kandinsky 'Blue mountain' 1908–09, oil on canvas, 107.3 x 97.6 cm, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection, by gift, photo courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

Together with the theosophists, Kandinsky had a mistrust of science. At one stage he remarked: 

The disintegration of the atom was to me like the disintegration of the whole world […] I should not have been surprised if a stone had melted in the air and become invisible before my eyes. 
A mistrust of science was linked to a mistrust of the physical world observed through the senses and the desire to explore a spiritual reality that bypasses empirical observation and speaks directly to the soul. 
Some of the great Kandinsky paintings, including Improvisation 28, second version (1912), Landscape with rain (1913) and the wonderful Painting with white border (May 1913), break free of the figurative realm and create their own reality. 

Vasily Kandinsky 'Landscape with rain' January 1913, oil on canvas, 70.5 x 78.4 cm, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection, photo courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

Increasingly Kandinsky questioned the importance of the object as a necessary element in a painting and demonstrated a preparedness to embrace the power, fantasy and enchantment of the palette. Colour for Kandinsky was a symbolic spiritual experience, with colours linked with spiritual states. 
In Kandinsky’s work the physiological effect of colour is sensory and short-lived; warm colours like vermilion attract the eye; the bright yellow of a lemon is painful. 

A psychological resonance is produced when the sensory impression causes an emotional vibration directly or through association: red is flame and blood, black a painful silence, the appeal of orange is like the sound of a church bell. 

Vasily Kandinsky 'Blue segment' 1921, oil on canvas, 120.7 x 140 cm, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection, photo courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

Writing about the Painting with white border, Kandinsky observed: 
At that time, I tried, by lines and by distributing of patches of colour, to express the musical spirit of Russia. 

One may see in the painting in the top-left-hand corner three black lines that relate to the horses of the Russian troika. In the centre is the lance of the Russian St George slaying the dragon that threatened his homeland with the impending war. Each element in the painting was the subject of a separate study and these studies inform us about the individual elements in the painting. 

In a famous passage in On the spiritual in art, Kandinsky observed: 

Colour is the keyboard. The eye is the hammer, while the soul is a piano of many strings […] [harmony rests] on the principle of innermost necessity. 
Many of Kandinsky’s paintings in the 1920s and 1930s, including Blue segment (1921), Blue painting (January 1924) and Dominant curve (April 1936), refine some of the earlier more organic forms through geometric discipline to create great explorations of intuitive spiritual forms ambiguously suspended in space. 
Vasily Kandinsky 'Composition 8' July 1923, oil on canvas, 140.3 x 200.7 cm, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection, by gift, photo courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

Kandinsky was a great innovator, a profound thinker and a superb painter and graphic artist. His vision changed the way we think about art. 

This outstanding landmark exhibition, for the first time, redefines his place in art for an Australian audience. 

Kandinsky is at the Art Gallery of New South Wales until March 10 2024.

Sasha Grishin, Adjunct Professor of Art History, Australian National University 

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Monday 6 November 2023

Monolith Considers the Cultural and Social Implications of New technology

By Ari Mattes, University of Notre Dame Australia

This review may contain spoilers.

One of the socially redeeming features of mass media has always been its communal aspect, the fact people are drawn together into a shared experience based on network programming. Of course, this, in the English-speaking world at least, has been driven by the desire for profit through selling advertising space to corporations.

In the era of narrowcasting, smaller and smaller audiences can now be targeted online, on various social media sites and channels, on podcast and other apps, and on streaming services, so we feel like we are now able to consume what we want, when we want, even as megacorporations still control the content, and it’s still produced for profit. The result of this is greater social atomisation.

Monolith, the new Australian film from first-time feature director Matt Vesely and writer Lucy Campbell, is one of the first Australian films to critically navigate the ramifications of narrowcasting technology.

The film follows a podcast journalist, brilliantly played by Lily Sullivan, as she investigates a lead from an anonymous email for her latest show, “Beyond Believable: A Show that Unmasks the Mysteries.”

People around the world have been receiving mysterious black bricks – from Germany to the US to Australia – and this seems suitable fodder for an episode.

Her investigation takes her across the globe and back through time to the 1980s and the Cold War. We watch as she interviews people, often using ethically dubious practices, and assembles the material entirely from inside her home.

The show becomes rapidly successful – we, as well as the main character, recognise its ridiculousness, and this seems to be a dig at new media culture: the idea that this kind of sensationalist, alien-hunting garbage would capture the hearts and minds of the world is preposterous.

Her life, mirroring the investigation, becomes increasingly strange as her own repressed history begins to surface. The dark, moody interiors of her house begin to suggest the inside of a black brick. She starts looking sick, she smokes obsessively, she trembles with anxiety.

What is the monolith?

What is the brick, the monolith of the film’s title? We never definitively find out (which some viewers will surely find annoying). The bricks communicate with each recipient in a personal language related to their memory and history, reflecting their hopes, prejudices and – most pronouncedly – paranoid nightmares.

They may be some kind of alien artefacts that communicate with the recipient “from far, far away,” as Klaus, a German art collector and brick recipient says to the journalist. Or as a recipient from Ohio says, “It’s trying to tell me something and I’ve got to listen […] Something awful is coming.”

Maybe the bricks are an allegory for the contemporary world and the disappearance of social bonds, representing the alienation structured into personal (or narrowcast) communication systems. The obscurity with which the film represents the bricks seems to call for this kind of allegorical reading.

The portrayal of a single character’s descent into a living nightmare could easily become hammy, but Sullivan manages to keep the viewer entranced with her controlled, brilliantly understated performance. Joining Sullivan are the voices of some well-known Australian actors including Damon Herriman, Kate Box and Erik Thomson.

The strange solitude of interpersonal communication

The strange solitude of interpersonal communication in the global information economy underpins the whole thing, and the screen is replete with a plethora of different technologies reflecting this – talking head videos online, audio recording, editing and streaming, mobile phones, smart houses, close-ups of digital text.

We see, first hand, the sadness (and terror) of the journalist’s solitude and alienation – all she seems to do (alarmingly, perhaps, like many people in a post-COVID world) is talk to people on the phone and look stuff up on the internet. At the same time, we watch her go about the day-to-day business of living – making food in the kitchen, eating, showering at night – her deep solitude foregrounded throughout.

The final section of the film is a touch underwhelming, with the whole thing resolving too neatly in a personal register (whereas what had driven the enigma of the bricks was their social aspect – the fact people all over the world had also received a brick).

Rather than developing into a full-on surreal nightmare (which would have made a better film, one suspects, in the vein of media horror thrillers like Lost Highway or The Ring, the ripples of which radiate throughout this) everything comes together in a way that seems a bit too neat.

There are carefully dispensed echoes of class critique thrown in, fitting the current strain of fantastic cinema that seems to think a film needs an explicitly polemical dimension to speak to the zeitgeist.

Similarly, the doomed, portentous tone becomes a little annoying in the final third – it feels like a space film, but without the necessary existential dread that space elicits – and there is a fair quotient of nonsense underpinning the narrative.

Despite this, Monolith remains an effective fantasy-thriller, remarkably engaging given its limitations – one location, one actor (well, two, including pet turtle Ian).

It’s also refreshing to see a high concept Australian film, as opposed to the usual social realist and period dramas.

Like an episode of Black Mirror - but without the heavy-handedness of many episodes of that show - Monolith thinks through the cultural and social implications of new technologies. It considers how we both reflect and are shaped by technology.

Monolith is a decidedly low-key film, but this should not be mistaken for dull. It is an arresting chiller, extremely tightly performed and made, low budget and, thankfully - and unlike virtually everything else playing in cinemas today - not overlong. Given its interest in contemporary audio-visual technologies, it will probably play best in the cinema, one of the last communal bastions against the blissful and anonymously smooth technological hell of narrowcasting.

Monolith is in cinemas from October 26.The Conversation

Ari Mattes, Lecturer in Communications and Media, University of Notre Dame Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 

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Monday 23 October 2023

Photography: Real and Imagined at the NGV ~ A Huge and Dazzling Exhibition that Reexamines Our Thinking

Installation view of Photography: Real and Imagined on display at the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia from October 14th, 2024, until February 4th, 2024. Photo: Lillie Thomson. Cover picture: Malala Andrialavidrazana, Figures 1850, various empires, kingdoms, states and republics 2015. Inkjet print. Courtesy of the artist and Afronovaova gallery. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Photo: Christian Markel / NGV 

By Sasha Grishin, Australian National University

Photography is almost 200 years old and Photography: Real and Imagined at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) can be interpreted as an attempt to make sense of its history.

A huge and dazzling exhibition containing 311 photographs, the basic thesis of this exhibition is that some photographs record an actuality, others are purely a product of the photographer’s imagination, while many are a mixture of the two.

The parameters of the exhibition are determined, in part, by the holdings of the NGV collection and, in part, by the perspective adopted by the curator, the erudite and long-serving senior curator of photography at the NGV, Susan Van Wyk.

Mercifully, the curator has not opted for a linear chronological approach from daguerreotypes to digital, although both are included in the exhibition, but has devised 21 diverse thematic categories, for example light, environment, death, conflict, work, play and consumption.

Australian artists, international context

The categories have porous boundaries. Even with the assistance of the 420-page book catalogue, it is difficult to determine why Michael Riley’s profoundly moving photograph of a dead galah shown against the cracked earth belongs to the environment theme instead of death; why Rosemary Laing’s Welcome to Australia image of a detention camp belongs to movement, instead of being in community, conflict or narrative.

Installation view of Photography: Real & Imagined on display at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia from October 13 2023 – February 4 2024. Photo: Lillie Thompson.

I felt that there was a perceived need to somehow organise the material, and the broad thematic structure allows the viewer to develop some sort of mega-narrative for the show.

There is also evident a desire to create an international context within which to display the work of Australian photographers.

It is indeed a very rich cross-section of Australian photographers assembled in this exhibition. This is not an Anglo-American construct of the history of photography; Australian photographers are presented together with New Zealanders and their Asian contemporaries.

Installation view of Photography: Real & Imagined on display at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia from October 13 2023 – February 4 2024. Photo: Lillie Thompson.

Although the NGV boasts of having the first curatorial department of photography in any gallery in Australia, in the department’s 55-year history there remain serious lacunae in the collection.

For example, Russian constructivist photographers, including Aleksandr Rodchenko, who, as far as I am aware, in the NGV collection is represented by a single small booklet, but looms large in any account of the history of photography as presented by the British, European and American museums. Eastern European photographers are also generally underrepresented.

Key moments, and surprises

This exhibition combines the iconic with the new and the unexpected.

The expected key moments in the history of photography are generally all present with the roll-call of names including Dora Maar, Man Ray, André Kertész, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Dorothea Lange, Eadweard Muybridge, Bill Brandt, Lee Miller and László Moholy-Nagy.

They are all included in the exhibition and are represented through their iconic pieces.

Henri Cartier Bresson, Juvisy, France 1938; printed 1990s. Gelatin silver photograph 29.1 x 43.9 cm (image). National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Purchased NGV Foundation, 2015. © Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos. Photo: Nicholas Umek / NGV.

Henri Cartier Bresson’s Juvisy (1938), colloquially known as Sunday on the banks of the Marne, is an intentionally subversive image by this left-wing radical photographer.

This image, made at the height of the Great Depression, shows a victory by France’s popular left-wing government that legislated in 1936 the entitlement for French workers to have two weeks of paid vacation. Here the working class is enjoying a picnic at Juvisy, just to the south of Paris.

Dorothea Lange, Towards Los Angeles, California 1936; printed c. 1975. Gelatin silver photograph 39.6 x 39.1 cm (image); 40.8 x 50.5 cm (sheet). National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Purchased, 1975 © Library of Congress, FSA Collection. Photo: Predrag Cancar / NGV.

At about the same time, Dorothea Lange’s Towards Los Angeles, California (1936) contrasts the anguish of the unemployed trekking in search of work and a billboard advertising the comforts of train travel. An aphorism ascribed to her sums us much of her work:

Bad as it is, the world is potentially full of good photographs. But to be good, photographs have to be full of the world.

Man Ray’s Kiki with African mask (1926) is one of the most famous photographs in the world, also known as Noire et blanche (Black and White). The surrealist artist juxtaposes the elongated face of his Muse and mistress, Kiki (Alice Prin), with her eyes closed with that of a black African ceremonial mask.

Man Ray, Kiki with African mask, 1926. Gelatin silver photograph 21.1 x 27.6 cm (image); 22.1 x 28.5 cm (sheet). National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Purchased through The Art Foundation of Victoria with the assistance of Miss Flora MacDonald Anderson and Mrs Ethel Elizabeth Ogilvy Lumsden, Founder Benefactors, 1983. © MAN RAY TRUST / ADAGP, Paris. Licensed by Copyright Agency, Australia. Photo: Helen Oliver-Skuse / NGV.

The photograph was controversial when it was first published and continues to be controversial to the present day.

There are also numerous modern classics in the exhibition, including Pat Brassington’s Rosa (2014), Polly Borlan’s Untitled (2018), from MORPH series 2018 and Robyn Stacey’s Nothing to see here (2019), that can all be viewed as edging into the realm of the uncanny. Beyond the façade of the familiar, we are invited to enter an unexpected world.

Installation view of Polly Borland’s Untitled 2018 from MORPH series 2018 on display in Photography: Real & Imagined at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia from October 13 2023 – February 4 2024. Photo: Lillie Thompson.

Reinterpreting our world

Photography’s reputation of creating a trustworthy facsimile of the real had long been eroded, even before the creation of digital software. There is an old adage, “paintings sometimes deceive, but photographs always lie” – precisely because there was a perception that they could not lie.

One of the most intriguing works in the exhibition is by the New Zealand-born photographer Patrick Pound, titled Pictures of people who look dead, but (probably) aren’t (2011–14). It is a sprawling installation of mainly found photographs where the audience is invited to create a life and death narrative.

Photography: Real and Imagined reexamines our thinking about the art of photography and explores photography’s ability to recreate and reinterpret our world.

Photography: Real and Imagined is at the Ian Potter Centre, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, until February 4 2024.The Conversation

Sasha Grishin, Adjunct Professor of Art History, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 

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Sunday 15 October 2023

100 years of Disney: From a Cartoon Mouse to a Global Giant, How Walt Disney Conquered the World

By Ben McCann, University of Adelaide

On October 16, 1923, brothers Walt and Roy set up a modest cartoon studio. Their goal was to produce short, animated films. They created a new character: a mouse, with large ears.

Named “Mickey”, he soon became one of the world’s most recognizable images.

Walt Disney was an innovator in terms of space, colour and movement. He had an uncanny ability to provide pleasure for millions of viewers struggling through the Great Depression.

A century later, Disney is one of the world’s largest entertainment conglomerates.

Disney has influenced countless other animation studios and artists. It has received Academy Awards for Best Animated Feature for the likes of The Incredibles, Up and Frozen. Walt himself holds the record for most nominations (59) and Oscar wins (22 competitive awards, plus four honorary awards) for a single individual.

Just how did Disney manage to do it?

Steamboat Willie and technological wonders

Based in Los Angeles, Disney set about innovating. He created The Alice Comedies, a series of short films featuring a live-action child actress in a cartoon world. Then came Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, a precursor to Mickey Mouse.

Steamboat Willie, released in 1928, was the world’s first fully synchronised sound cartoon. His pioneering use of sound quickly became an industry norm.

A simple story featuring Mickey as a steamboat captain trying to navigate the boat while dealing with various comical situations, Steamboat Willie was universally praised. After a short theatrical run in New York, the film was exhibited nationwide and set Disney on its way.

The clip of Mickey holding the ship’s wheel and whistling became the company’s logo in 2007, reminding audiences of Steamboat’s enduring importance.

New characters emerged post-Steamboat, such as Donald Duck and Mickey’s love interest, Minnie, which still endure today.

Flowers and Trees, made in 1932, was the first animated short film to win an Academy Award – it was also Disney’s (and the industry’s) first full-colour three-strip Technicolor film.

By the end of the 1930s, Disney had pivoted to feature-length animated films, releasing Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937.

The golden age and feature films

What followed Snow White is often referred to as Disney’s “golden age”, with the release of Pinocchio (1940), Dumbo (1941) and Bambi (1942).

Those early films still dazzle today – think of the Sorcerers’ Apprentice scene in Fantasia (1940) or the Pink Elephants hallucinogenic number in Dumbo. And is there any scene, in any film, more heart-wrenching than the death of Bambi’s mother?

But the golden age never really stopped. The hits just kept on coming - Peter Pan (1953), Lady and the Tramp (1955) and Mary Poppins (1964) remain enduring classics. In the 1990s, a new generation fell in love with Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992) and The Lion King (1994) – and these films were then remade as live-action versions in the 2010s.

Even a minor Disney film like Zootopia (2016) could make a billion dollars at the box-office.

Disneyland and diversification

In 1955, Walt Disney opened Disneyland in Anaheim, California. He wanted to build an inclusive theme park where all the family could have fun.

It set the standard for theme park design and showed the way forward for the company: diversification.

After Disneyland came Disney World in Florida in 1971, then versions of Disneyland in Paris, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Shanghai.

A famous diagram, sketched by Walt himself in 1957, foreshadowed the direction Disney would ultimately take: a huge business empire of synergies, merchandising and cross-promotion.

Buyouts and a cultural behemoth

In 2006 Disney bought Pixar, in 2009 it bought Marvel and in 2012 it bought LucasFilm. These acquisitions solidified Disney’s position as the brand leader in the entertainment industry.

Pixar was known for films like Toy Story (1995) and Finding Nemo (2003) and the purchase would lead to multiple collaborations between the two.

Most recently, in 2019, Disney acquired 21st Century Fox for a staggering US$71 billion. The deal gave them instant access to Fox’s vast back catalogues.

The deal made some industry insiders uneasy: Disney had become a cultural behemoth, strangling competition, homogenising content and swallowing up entire franchises.

Not all plain sailing

Disney films proudly prioritise family values, stress teamwork and empathy and promote gender equality. Yet until relatively recently, its heroes and heroines were very visibly white, and the studio was criticised for invoking messages of privilege, racial hierarchy and standards of beauty.

Its 1946 film Song of the South has long been criticised for its racist portrayal of African Americans and its romanticisation of the plantation era. Since 1986, Disney have tried to keep it out of circulation, although clips can be found online.

Many old films streaming on Disney+ now feature a disclaimer telling viewers some scenes will include “negative depictions” and “mistreatment of people or cultures”.

LGBTQ+ representation has become more visible since LeFou became Disney’s first openly gay character in its 2017 live-action Beauty and the Beast. But the backlash was troubling, and Disney also ran into trouble with conservative critics with its same-sex kiss in Lightyear (2022), and would later be mocked as “woke Disney” by conservative politicians and media personalities.

CEO Bob Iger – who stepped down in 2021 but was then brought back in 2022 on a huge salary – has not fared well during the recent SAG-AFTRA disputes, with comments deemed out of touch and tone-deaf by many.

Still, despite these tricky issues, Disney’s corporate stranglehold shows no sign of abating. Its reach is gigantic. From cartoons to comics to CGI, Disney controls much of our popular culture.

“If you can dream it, you can do it,” Walt once said. As Disney turns 100, with a market capitalisation today of more than US$150 billion, that’s some dream come true.The Conversation

Ben McCann, Associate Professor of French Studies, University of Adelaide

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 

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Monday 9 October 2023

How did Taylor Swift Get So Popular? She Never Goes Out of Style

By Kate Pattison, RMIT University

Last week, USA Today/Gannett posted a job ad for a Taylor Swift reporter, seeking an experienced journalist and content creator to “capture the music and cultural impact of Taylor Swift”.

It’s not the first time Swift has been the focus of professional and academic work. In 2022, New York University’s Clive Davis Institute announced a course focused on Swift, taught by Rolling Stone’s Brittany Spanos. They also gave Swift an honorary doctorate in fine arts, as “one of the most prolific and celebrated artists of her generation”.

Other universities around the world followed with their own dedicated courses, including “The Psychology of Taylor Swift”, “The Taylor Swift Songbook” and “Literature: Taylor’s Version”.

While musicians and celebrities have been the subject of our fascinations for decades, it’s not often they receive such individualised attention. Swift’s impressive career can be studied from multiple perspectives, including marketing, fandom, business and songwriting, to name a few.

So why Taylor Swift?

From a music perspective, Swift has broken a lot of records. Last month, she became the first female artist in Spotify history to reach 100 million monthly listeners.

Swift has achieved 12 number one albums on Billboard, the most by a woman artist, overtaking Barbra Streisand earlier this year.

She’s the first and only woman solo artist to win the Album Of The Year Grammy three times, for Fearless (2009), 1989 (2015) and Folklore (2020) – each in a different musical genre. It’s a credit to Swift’s masterful songwriting, and demonstrates her ability to adapt her craft for different audiences.

There is an expectation for female artists to constantly re-invent themselves, something Swift reflected on in her Netflix documentary Miss Americana:

The female artists I know of have to remake themselves like 20 times more than the male artists, or you’re out of a job.

Over the course of her career, Swift has evolved from an award-winning country music singer to one of the biggest pop stars in the world. Each of her ten original studio albums has a distinct theme and aesthetic, which have been celebrated on Swift’s juggernaut Eras Tour.

The tour, which has just wrapped up its first US leg, is set to be the highest-grossing of all time, boosting local travel and tourism revenue along the way. A recent report estimates the tour could help add a monumental US$5 billion (A$7.8 billion) to the worldwide economy.

‘All I do is try, try, try’

But to measure Swift’s impact by her music alone would be limiting.

Swift has been instrumental in changing the business game for musicians. She’s taken on record labels and streaming services, advocating for better deals for artists.

In 2015, Apple Music changed its payment policies after Swift wrote an open letter campaigning for better compensation.

Most notably, she took a stand against her former record label, Big Machine Records, after it wouldn’t give her an opportunity to buy back her original master recordings. Her back catalogue was eventually sold to music executive Scooter Braun, kicking off a very public feud.

While she’s not the first artist to go after her masters, she’s generated an enormous amount of attention to an issue that’s often overlooked. Of course, Swift is in a position of privilege – she can take risks many other artists can’t afford to. But with this power she’s driving conversations around contracts and the value of music, paving the way for emerging artists.

In an effort to regain control of her earlier work, Swift announced she would be re-recording her first six albums. Each re-recorded album has included additional vault tracks, previously unreleased songs left off the original recordings.

These releases have each been accompanied by a robust promotional campaign, including new merchandise and multiple, limited-edition versions of each record for fans to collect.

The release of Speak Now (Taylor’s Version) marked the halfway point of this process, which has paid off big time. Fearless (Taylor’s Version), Red (Taylor’s Version) and Speak Now (Taylor’s Version) have all performed better than the originals.

This is largely due to the unwavering support from her fans, known as “Swifties”. They’ve embraced the new recordings, shaming anyone who plays the original “stolen” versions.

The power of Swifties

Swift’s loyal fandom are known for their high levels of participation and creativity. Fans have spent an extensive amount of time hand-making outfits for concerts, and discussing elaborate theories online.

Swift has a reputation for leaving clues, known as Easter eggs, in her lyrics, music videos, social media posts and interviews. There are fan accounts dedicated to analysing these Easter eggs, studying specific number patterns and phrases to uncover hints for what Swift might do next.

Swift and Taylor Nation, a branch of her management team, encourage these behaviours by rewarding fans for their participation.

For the upcoming release of 1989 (Taylor’s Version), Swift has unveiled a series of puzzles on Google, which fans must solve together in order to reveal the names of the upcoming vault tracks.

Swifties collectively solved the 33 million (yes, that’s million) puzzles in less than 24 hours. The games played a dual role - not only did Swift announce the vault track titles, but she’s reclaimed her Google searches in the process.

Swift’s fandom crosses generations. She’s a quintessential millennial, and many fans have grown up with Swift over the past two decades. Some have even started to bring their children along to the concerts, posting videos of them set to the bridge to Long Live.

She’s also found a younger audience on TikTok, a platform predominantly used by Gen Z. Affectionately dubbed “SwiftTok” by fans (and now Swift herself), users post videos to engage with other Swifties and participate in the community.

Swift’s songs are often used in popular trends. The release of Midnights last year had many dancing to Bejeweled and Karma, but Swift’s older catalogue has also gotten a good run. A remix of Love Story went viral in 2020, which helped a new generation discover her older music. Most recently, her song August has been used for running on the beach and spinning around with your pets.

She’s also closely aligned with young adult shows like The Summer I Turned Pretty, which has featured 13 of her songs throughout the show’s first two seasons. Swift’s music is so central to the story that author Jenny Han nearly dedicated the second book to her.

Swift continues to dominate the cultural conversation through her music, business decisions and legions of devoted fans.

Right now, Swift’s popularity is at an all time high, and it could be easy to dismiss this hype as a passing trend. But if these first 17 years are anything to go by, Swift’s proven she’s in it for the long haul, and worthy of our time.The Conversation

Kate Pattison, PhD Candidate, RMIT University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 

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