(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘art history

“… life, by definition, is never still”*…

“Still Life With a Gilt Cup,” Willem Claesz Heda, 1635

Jason Farago explores some of the extraordinary things that a still life can tell us…

When you visit a museum’s collection of European painting, do you skip by the still lifes and head for the showier stuff?

It’s understandable. Their scale is usually smaller than that of other paintings. Their prices are lower. They can feel straightforward: Pictures of fruit and fowl, cups and bottles, what do you want from me?

Still life had a bum reputation for centuries. Early critics rated them as something less than high art…

[There follows a wonderful– and wonderfully-illustrated– close reading of the painting above, and an exploration of its reflections of its place in a globalizing moment in Dutch and world history…]

… this is the power of still life. It’s here, more than any other mode of art, that this social and economic life of things becomes visible.

Inside and between these carefully observed objects is a narrative of global scale. It’s a tale Heda tells even despite himself…

Art may show you the connections for just a moment. They will always be hazy. But some motions can only be sensed when you’re standing still.

A marvelous visual essay: “A Messy Table, a Map of the World” (unlocked), from @jsf— part of the “Close Read” series in @nytimes.

* Kurt Vonnegut

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As we uncover connections, we might send observant birthday greetings to an artist who painted still lifes (and other forms) to a different end, Georges Braque; he was born on this date in 1882. With his friend, collaborator, and rival, Pablo Picasso, he was central to the development of Cubism.

Georges Braque, “Five Bananas and Two Pears” [source]
Georges Braque, 1908, photograph published in Gelett Burgess, “The Wild Men of Paris”, Architectural Record, May 1910 [source]

“Which painting in the National Gallery would I save if there was a fire? The one nearest the door of course.”*…

Unveiling the Mona Lisa after World War II

The remarkable tale of the Louvre’s successful efforts to protect its treasures from Nazi looting…

… With due respect to the Monuments Men (and unsung Monuments Women), before the Allies arrived to rescue many of Europe’s priceless works of art, French civil servants, students, and workmen did it themselves, saving most of the Louvre’s entire collection. The hero of the story, Jacques Jaujard, director of France’s National Museums, has gone down in history as “the man who saved the Louvre” — also the title of an award-winning French documentary (see trailer below). Mental Floss provides context for Jaujard’s heroism:

After Germany annexed Austria in March of 1938, Jaujard… lost whatever small hope he had that war might be avoided. He knew Britain’s policy of appeasement wasn’t going to keep the Nazi wolf from the door, and an invasion of France was sure to bring destruction of cultural treasures via bombings, looting, and wholesale theft. So, together with the Louvre’s curator of paintings René Huyghe, Jaujard crafted a secret plan to evacuate almost all of the Louvre’s art, which included 3600 paintings alone.

On the day Germany and the Soviet Union signed the Nonaggression Pact, August 25, 1939, Jaujard closed the Louvre for “repairs” for three days while staff, “students from the École du Louvre, and workers from the Grands Magazines du Louvre department store took paintings out of their frames… and moved statues and other objects from their displays with wooden crates.”

The statues included the three ton Winged Nike of Samothrace (see a photo of its move here), the Egyptian Old Kingdom Seated Scribe, and the Venus de Milo. All of these, like the other works of art, would be moved to chateaus in the countryside for safe keeping. On August 28, “hundreds of trucks organized into convoys carried 1000 crates of ancient and 268 crates of paintings and more” into the Loire Valley.

Included in that haul of treasures was the Mona Lisa, placed in a custom case, cushioned with velvet. Where other works received labels of yellow, green, and red dots according to their level of importance, the Mona Lisa was marked with three red dots — the only work to receive such high priority. It was transported by ambulance, gently strapped to a stretcher. After leaving the museum, the painting would be moved five times, “including to Loire Valley castles and a quiet abbey.” The Nazis would loot much of what was left in the Louvre, and force it to re-open in 1940 with most of its galleries starkly empty. But the Mona Lisa — at the top of Hitler’s list of artworks to expropriate — remained safe, as did many thousands more artworks Jaujard believed were the “heritage of all humanity”…

How France Hid the Mona Lisa & Other Louvre Masterpieces During World War II, from @openculture.

* George Bernard Shaw

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As we say thanks for safekeeping, we might send Romantic birthday greetings to a painter whose works were among those saved by the Louvre; he was born on this date in 1798. Breaking with the neoclassical tendencies of contemporaries (like his rival Ingres), Delacroix took his inspiration from Reubens and the Venetian Renaissance, emerging from the outset of his career as a leader of the French Romantic movement. Together with Ingres, Delacroix is considered one of the last old Masters of painting, and one of the few who was ever photographed (see below).

Also a fine lithographer, Delacroix illustrated various works of Shakespeare, Walter Scott, and Goethe.

Eugène Delacroix, c. 1857 (portrait by Nadar; source)

“Everything we see hides another thing”*…

Son of Man

No artist more perfectly anticipated the banal strangeness of life in the twenty-first century than Rene Magritte…

René François Ghislain Magritte: born 1898, died 1967; noted fan of bowler hats and pipes; creator of some 1,100 oil paintings and another 850 works on paper, many of which now seem kitschy or lazily repetitive; and yet, I suspect, the twentieth-century artist whose work best anticipated the texture and tenor of life in the twenty-first. The texture: smooth as an iPhone screen, unscathed by contact with the physical world. The tenor: a low rumble, almost silent, somewhere between a growl and a chuckle.

A century ago, the only people who called the world “surreal” were capital-S Surrealists: poets and painters, many of them rooted in Paris, who sought to dig up the buried treasures of the unconscious and convert them into words and images. Today, nobody seriously doubts that the world is a lowercase-s surreal place. Advertising is surreal. Politics is surreal. Dating is surreal. Half of television and all of the Internet is surreal. The art world would be surreal even if Surrealism didn’t sell so well (last week someone picked up a Magritte for the GDP of a small country). At some point between the 1920s and the 2020s, between capital and lowercase, the surreal has been hidden all over again, banalized to the point where everybody acknowledges it but nobody stops to notice it.

Studying Magritte’s life and work forces you to stop and notice. Contemporary U.S. life is surreal, but, at least to me, it doesn’t look like a Salvador Dalí painting or even the work of latter-day descendants such as David Lynch and Haruki Murakami. It looks like Magritte, with its weightless, endlessly reproduced photographs and logos that make everywhere feel like everywhere else (i.e., nowhere). It puzzles in the same placid, teasing way that Magritte puzzles; it seems utterly random and utterly repetitive, at once too obscure and too obvious, creating the illusion that everything will make sense if only you stay and puzzle a little longer. Contemporary U.S. life—like an apple in a café, like many of the figures in Magritte’s paintings, like Magritte himself—is hiding in plain sight…

Jackson Arn on “Magritte’s Prophetic Surrealism.”

* Rene Magritte

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As we investigate the invisible, we might recall that it was on this date (April Fool’s Day) in 1965 that the BBC put one over on its television viewers:

BBC TV interviewed a professor from London University who had perfected a technology he called “smellovision.” It allowed viewers to smell aromas produced in the television studio in their homes. The professor explained that his machine broke scents down into their component molecules which could then be transmitted through the screen.

The professor offered a demonstration by placing first some coffee beans and then onions into the smellovision machine. He asked viewers to report by noon whether they were able to smell anything, instructing them that “for best results stand six feet away from your set and sniff.” Viewers called in from across the country to confirm that they distinctly experienced these scents as if they were there in the studio with him. Some claimed the onions made their eyes water.

The Smellovision experiment was repeated on June 12, 1977 by Bristol University psychology lecturer Michael O’Mahony, who was interested in exploring the effect of the power of suggestion on smell. O’Mahony told viewers of Reports Extra, a late-night news show that aired in the Manchester region, that a new technology called Ramen spectroscopy would allow the station to transmit smells over the airwaves. He told them he was going to transmit “a pleasant country smell, not manure” over their TV sets, and he asked people to report what they smelled. Within the next 24 hours the station received 172 responses. The highest number came from people who reported smelling hay or grass. Others reported their living rooms filling with the scent of flowers, lavender, apple blossom, fruits, potatoes, and even homemade bread. Two people complained that the transmission brought on a severe bout of hay fever.

Museum of Hoaxes

Written by (Roughly) Daily

April 1, 2022 at 1:00 am

“But, after all, the aim of art is to create space”*…

The remarkable work of Eric Ross Bernstein

See more at his website or on Instagram. Via @Booooooom.

* Frank Stella

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As we ponder perspective, we might send expressive birthday greetings to artist, playwright, poet, and teacher Oskar Kokoschka; he was born on this date in 1886. His theories of vision and his intense expressionistic paintings (largely portraits and landscapes) made him a key member of the Viennese Expressionist movement.

The Bride of the Wind or The Tempest, oil on canvas, a self-portrait expressing his unrequited love for Alma Mahler, widow of composer Gustav Mahler, 1914 [source]
Kokoschka in 1963, by Erling Mandelmann [source]

“There’s no idea in economics more beautiful than Arrow’s impossibility theorem”*…

Tim Harford unpack’s Kenneth Arrow‘s Impossibility Theorem (which feels a bit like a socio-economic “Monty Hall Problem“) and considers it’s implications…

… if any group of voters gets to decide one thing, that group gets to decide everything, and we prove that any group of decisive voters can be pared down until there’s only one person in it. That person is the dictator. Our perfect constitution is in tatters.

That’s Arrow’s impossibility theorem. But what does it really tell us? One lesson is to abandon the search for a perfect voting system. Another is to question his requirements for a good constitution, and to look for alternatives. For example, we could have a system that allows people to register the strength of their feeling. What about the person who has a mild preference for profiteroles over ice cream but who loathes cheese? In Arrow’s constitution there’s no room for strong or weak desires, only for a ranking of outcomes. Maybe that’s the problem.

Arrow’s impossibility theorem is usually described as being about the flaws in voting systems. But there’s a deeper lesson under its surface. Voting systems are supposed to reveal what societies really want. But can a society really want anything coherent at all? Arrow’s theorem drives a stake through the heart of the very idea. People might have coherent preferences, but societies cannot…

On choice, law, and the paradox at the heart of voting: “Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem,” from @TimHarford in @WhyInteresting. Eminently worth reading in full.

* Tim Harford

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As we contemplate collective choice, we might send grateful birthday greetings to the man who “wrote the book” on perspective, Leon Battista Alberti; he was born on this date in 1404.  The archetypical Renaissance humanist polymath, Alberti was an author, artist, architect, poet, priest, linguist, philosopher, cartographer, and cryptographer.  He collaborated with Toscanelli on the maps used by Columbus on his first voyage, and he published the the first book on cryptography that contained a frequency table.

But he is surely best remembered as the author of the first general treatise– Della Pictura (1434)– on the the laws of perspective, which built on and extended Brunelleschi’s work to describe the approach and technique that established the science of projective geometry… and fueled the progress of painting, sculpture, and architecture from the Greek- and Arabic-influenced formalism of the High Middle Ages to the more naturalistic (and Latinate) styles of Renaissance.

from Della Pictura

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