Speed reading

Pub date November 25, 2008

History is written on the skin. For proof, look no further than Russian Criminal Tattoo Encylopaedia Volume III (Fuel, 400 pages, $32.95), the final chapter in Danzig Baldaev’s epic, KGB-approved, ethnographic study. Alexander Sidorov’s excellent introduction traces the travels of tattoos from sailors to criminals. Then begins the parade of harshly imaginatively iconography (via Baldaev’s drawings) and grave faces (within Sergei Vasiliev’s photos). Stalin’s, Lenin’s, Khrushchev’s, Gorbachev’s, and even Clinton’s roles within — or relationship to — Russian criminal tattoos are revealed, along with rude images of scrotum-heads, scarily beautiful many-pointed stars, and vicious beauty marks.

Speaking of grave faces, a new edition of Lotte H. Eisner’s The Haunted Screen (University of California Press, 360 pages, $22.95) is cause for demoniac rejoicing. Eisner’s study of German silent cinema and the influence of Max Reinhardt remains fresh because her prose sings and stings. She reveals F. W. Murnau’s superiority to Fritz Lang in terms of painterly influence, reviews actors from "Magnani of the silent era" Pola Negri to hammy Emil Jannings, and contemplates what 1920’s Cabinet of Dr. Caligari might have been like with sets by Alfred Kubin.

The unsettlingly handsome Alfred Kubin: Drawings, 1897-1909 (Prestel, 212 pages, $60) allows the curious to further such pursuits. Opening with a page that has Kubin’s eyes peeking through a door similar to those in his 1900-01 works The Entrance to Hell and In the Center of the Earth, it charts his shift from Poe-like shades-of-gray horror to colorful pre-Jean Painlevé underwater surrealism. Life was but a dream to Kubin. A very, very bad one.