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“The commonality between science and art is in trying to see profoundly – to develop strategies of seeing and showing”*…

 

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The Science Museum is always alive with children. School groups scribble on clipboards, five-year-olds drag parents and grandparents by the hand, push buttons, and make lights flash. Toddlers flag for ice-cream. The halls and galleries ring with noise. By contrast, in the softly lit exhibition space on the second floor, a sudden quiet descends. But almost at once, on entering the museum’s new show, “The Art of Innovation: From Enlightenment to Dark Matter,” here are the children again. In Joseph Wright of Derby’s A Philosopher Giving that Lecture on an Orrery in which a Lamp is put in the Place of the Sun (1766) [above], they lean over, faces lit up, as the girl, her eyes glowing, points over her brother’s shoulder at the tiny planets circling the sun.

That sense of excitement defines the exhibition, as visitors zig-zag from The Lecture on the Orrery through 250 years of art and science. In the book that accompanies the show, far more than a catalog, the curators, Ian Blatchford and Tilly Blyth, lay out their stall. “Throughout history,” they write, “artists and scientists alike have been driven by curiosity and the desire to explore worlds, inner and outer. They have wanted to make sense of what they see around them and feel within them: to observe, record and transform. Sometimes working closely together, they have taken inspiration from each other’s practice.” To illustrate this dual heritage and point to the leaps of imagination in both fields, they have placed twenty works—painting, sculpture, film, photographs, posters, and textiles—alongside the scientific objects that inspired them. Thus A Lecture on the Orrery hangs near James Ferguson’s wooden pulley-operated mechanical model of the solar system [below], an orrery from the Museum’s collection…

science-planetary-model

 

A glorious (and gloriously-illustrated) appreciation: “Beauty in Ingenuity: The Art of Science.”

* Edward Tufte

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As we bask in beauty, we might spare a cartographically-correct thought for, one of history’s most impactful scientific artists: Gerardus Mercator; he died on this date in 1594.  The most renown cartographer of his time, he created a world map based on a new projection– the Mercator Projection— which represented sailing courses of constant bearing as straight lines, an approach still employed in nautical charts used for navigation.

While he was most esteemed as the foremost geographer of his day, Mercator was also an accomplished engraver, calligrapher and maker of globes and scientific instruments.  And he studied theology, philosophy, history, mathematics, and magnetism.

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Written by LW

December 2, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Thou art a very ragged Wart”*…

 

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Few painters have created as rich a world as Hieronymus Bosch did in The Garden of Earthly Delights. The late 15th- or early 16th-century triptych, which depicts the creation of man, the licentious frolicking of all creatures on a paradisiacal Earth, and the subsequent fall into damnation, draws a scrutiny — and causes an amusement — as intense as ever…

Bosch not only created a world with The Garden of Earthly Delights, he populated it thoroughly. And despite the human-centric story the work appears to take as its basis, the cast with which it retells it extends far beyond mere humanity: the panels feature not just wildlife of all shapes and sizes but a variety of mythical grotesques, from imps to chimeras to hybrids of man and animal to much more besides. He drew from the same surreal imaginative well to fill his other paintings, and you can now pull out a few of these colorful, menacing, preposterous, and darkly humorous characters yourself in collectible figurine form…

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More (including a link to the figurines) at “Hieronymus Bosch Figurines: Collect Surreal Characters from Bosch’s Paintings & Put Them on Your Bookshelf.” [TotH to Mark S]

You can also take a virtual tour of the painting (there’s even an app for it), see it brought to life with modern animation, and hear the song tattooed on the posterior of one of the work’s many characters.

See also: “Bosch is great because what he imagines in color can be translated into justice.”

* Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part 2

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As we get weird, we might recall that it was on this date in 1859 that Jean-Francois Gravelet (stage name, Charles Blondin) became the first person to cross Niagara Falls on a tightrope. Then he did it again.

On the morning of June 30, 1859, about 25,000 thrill-seekers arrived by train and steamer and dispersed on the American or Canadian side of the falls, the latter said to have the better view. Both banks grew “fairly black” with swarms of spectators, among them statesmen, judges, clerics, generals, members of Congress, capitalists, artists, newspaper editors, professors, debutantes, salesmen and hucksters. Vendors hawked everything from lemonade to whiskey, and Colcord gave tours to the press, explaining the logistics of what the Great Blondin was about to attempt.

A light rope, not even an inch thick, had been attached to one end of his hempen cable so it could be conveyed across the Niagara River. On the American side the cable was wound around the trunk of an oak tree in White’s Pleasure Grounds, but securing it on the Canadian side presented a problem. Blondin’s assistants feared that the light rope wouldn’t bear the weight of the cable as it was drawn up the gorge for anchorage in Canada, but the rope dancer, to the delight of his audience, executed a daring solution.

After tying another rope around his waist, he rappelled 200 feet on the small rope, attached the second rope to the end of the cable, and then blithely climbed back to Canadian ground and secured the cable to a rock. To prevent swaying, guy ropes ran from the cable at 20-foot intervals to posts on both banks, creating the effect of a massive spider web. Blondin could do nothing, however, about the inevitable sag in its center, approximately 50 feet of cable to which it was impossible to fasten guy ropes. At that spot, in the middle of his crossing, he would be only 190 feet above the gorge. “There were hundreds of people examining the rope,” reported one witness, “and, with scarcely an exception, they all declared the inability of M. Blondin to perform the feat, the incapacity of the rope to sustain him, and that he deserved to be dashed to atoms for his desperate fool-hardiness.”

Shortly before 5 p.m., Blondin took his position on the American side, dressed in pink tights bedecked with spangles. The lowering sun made him appear as if clothed in light. He wore fine leather shoes with soft soles and brandished a balancing pole made of ash, 26 feet long and weighing nearly 50 pounds. Slowly, calmly, he started to walk. “His gait,” one man noted, “was very like the walk of some barnyard cock.” Children clung to their mothers’ legs; women peeked from behind their parasols. Several onlookers fainted. About a third of the way across, Blondin shocked the crowd by sitting down on his cable and calling for the Maid of the Mist, the famed tourist vessel, to anchor momentarily beneath him. He cast down a line and hauled up a bottle of wine. He drank and started off again, breaking into a run after he passed the sagging center. While the band played “Home, Sweet Home,” Blondin reached Canada. One man helped pull him ashore and exclaimed, “I wouldn’t look at anything like that again for a million dollars.”

After 20 minutes of rest Blondin began the journey to the other side, this time with a Daguerreotype camera strapped to his back. He advanced 200 feet, affixed his balancing pole to the cable, untied his load, adjusted it in front of him and snapped a likeness of the crowd along the American side. Then he hoisted the camera back into place and continued on his way. The entire walk from bank to bank to bank took 23 minutes, and Blondin immediately announced an encore performance to take place on the Fourth of July…  [source]

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Blondin and his camera, as rendered in “Blondin: His Life and Performances.” [source]

 

“Design came into being in 1919, when Walter Gropius founded the Bauhaus at Weimar”*…

 

Bauhaus

 

The Bauhaus—literally “school of building”—was a German avant-garde arts and crafts academy. Inaugurated six months after the end of World War I, the school encouraged artists and designers to use their talents to help rebuild the broken society.

With Germany in total ruins many thought it was time to start from scratch. The Bauhaus grammar—a triangle, a square, and a circle—evoked this back-to-basics mentality. They challenged everything, including the usual method of schooling. [Walter] Gropius borrowed the idea of Gesamtkunstwerk, or “synthesis of the arts, from composer Richard Wagner, envisioning a school that would “unite every discipline, architecture and sculpture and painting.” (Architects today love dropping the term.)

Gropius instructed students to leave “sentimental, aesthetically decorative conceptions… drawn mostly from past cultures.” Shedding decorative cruft built up over generations meant studying the “nature” of objects and designing from that. You can easily draw a line from the Bauhaus to the iPod—Steve Jobs said as much in 1983 when he addressed the International Design Conference at the Aspen Design Institute, which itself is part of the Bauhaus diaspora.

But Nazis thought the school’s rejection of traditional aesthetics was a rejection of Germanic pride. They chased down the Bauhaus from Weimar, to Dessau, then finally to Berlin, where they were forced to shut down in 1933—and in doing so, spread its influence throughout the world…

Walter Gropius founded the Bauhaus movement 100 years ago on a simple but powerful rule, “our guiding principle was that design is neither an intellectual nor a material affair, but simply an integral part of the stuff of life, necessary for everyone in a civilized society.”  Learn more about the movement that he started and the extraordinary impact that it had: “The Bauhaus.”

*  Bruno Munari, Design as Art

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As we integrate form and function, we might send evocative birthday greetings to Mel Edwards; he was born on this date in 1937.  An abstract sculptor who worked almost entirely in steel, he marshals straight-edged triangular and rectilinear forms to make political statements.  He  has had more than a dozen one-person show exhibits (including at  the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the New Jersey State Museum), and has been in over four dozen group shows.

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Written by LW

May 4, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Damien Hirst should run Lehmann Brothers”*…

 

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Peter Wilson presiding over the Goldschmidt sale at Sotheby’s, October 15, 1958. For maximum drama, Wilson limited the sale to seven star lots. Guests included Kirk Douglas, Somerset Maugham, and Lady Churchill. The rising prices paid for Impressionist paintings during the 1950s caught the attention of the press and attracted a surge of new buyers

 

“Works of art have proved to be the best investment, better than the majority of stocks and shares in the last thirty years.”

This was the confident declaration of Peter Wilson, the then chairman of Sotheby’s, during his 1966 appearance on the BBC’s Money Programme. Though he was only eight years into his chairmanship, Wilson had already overhauled the fusty image of the art trade. His ingenious pre-sale marketing efforts, celebrity invitations, and black-tie sales had transformed Sotheby’s auctions into major news affairs, and deepened the perception of Christie’s as an antiquated rival.

Reacting shrewdly to the post-war wave of prosperity, Wilson was determined to bring newly moneyed buyers into the fold. He sought to convince businessmen and bankers that collecting was no longer the exclusive preserve of cultured, old-money dynasties such as the Rothschilds, Rockefellers, or Mellons. Crucially, Wilson wanted to instill the notion that art can be an investment. The sudden and precipitous rise of the Impressionist art market during the 1950s may be cited as proof of this. If you inherited an Impressionist painting, you could now sell it for vastly more than your family paid to acquire it. Wilson’s idea just needed to be packaged in an immediate and compelling fashion.

A year after Wilson’s television appearance, twenty-seven-year-old Geraldine Keen — now Geraldine Norman — received a letter in Rome. A graduate of Oxford University and UCLA, Norman had left her job as an editorial statistician for the Times newspaper in London to work for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN. The letter was a job offer from the paper’s City editor, George Pulay, asking Norman whether she would consider returning to London. He wanted her to spearhead a new editorial collaboration between the Times and Sotheby’s.

Few people active in the art world today have heard of the Times-Sotheby Index. Those who have are most likely veteran art dealers or retired auction staff…

But it had a lasting effect: the project galvanized the concept of art as an investment asset.  Find out how at “‘Your Money Is Safe in Art’: How the Times-Sotheby Index Transformed the Art Market.”

* Alberto Mugrabi

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As we diversify our holdings, we might spare a thought for Berthe Marie Pauline Morisot; she died on this date in 1895.  A pioneering painter, she was one of “les trois grandes dames” of Impressionism (with Marie Bracquemond and Mary Cassatt).

In February 2013, Morisot became the highest priced female artist, when After Lunch (1881), a portrait of a young redhead in a straw hat and purple dress, sold for $10.9 million at a Christie’s auction (exceeding the $10.7 million paid for a sculpture by Louise Bourgeois in 2012).

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Berthe Morisot

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“What’s in a name?”*…

 

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Familiar to many will be that exasperating feeling that arises when accused of being that very thing you pride yourself on not being. It’s a feeling the English artist William Hogarth evidently felt acutely when critics derided him for being a mere “caricature” artist. So moved was he by this ongoing slight, that he produced this 1743 print explaining the difference between characters and caricatures — which Hogarth saw as radically different — and demonstrating his style as being firmly aligned with the former. For Hogarth the comic character face, with its subtle exploration of an individual’s human nature, was vastly superior to the gross formal exaggerations of the grotesque caricature…

More on Hogarth’s defense of his self-perception at “Characters and Caricaturas.”

* Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

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As we lament labels, we might recall that it was on this date in 1972 that Vesna Vulović entered the Guinness Book of Records.  A stewardess for JAT Airlines, she survived a fall of 33,330 ft. when (what is believed to have been) a briefcase bomb exploded on her flight, and she was sucked through the resulting hole i the fuselage.  She was the sole survivor of the incident.

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Written by LW

January 26, 2019 at 1:01 am

“A Witch is born out of the true hungers of her time”*…

 

Witch

In 1488 during the reign of Henry VII, one year after the Dominican Heinrich Kramer wrote his notorious witch-finding manual Malleus Maleficarum, an adolescent girl named Agatha Soothtell gave birth in a cave among the dales and moors of Yorkshire to her daughter Ursula, supposedly conceived by the Devil himself. Ironically it was there in “God’s Own Country” that young Agatha would raise her demonic charge, both of them forced to live in the cave where Ursula was born. The site that would be visited by pilgrims for centuries afterwards, making it arguably England’s first tourist attraction, was known as much for the strange calcifying waters of its subterranean whirlpool as for its medieval Satanic nativity.

Most sources claimed that Ursula died during the rule of Elizabeth I in 1561, but with eight decades separating her supposed death and the first appearance of her name in print, it’s fair to assume a degree of invention in her biography. Despite her legendary ugliness (Ursula’s seventeenth-century biographer described her as “a thing so strange in an infant, that no age can parallel”) at the age of twenty-four she married a carpenter named Toby Shipton, and it is to posterity that she would come to be known as “Mother Shipton”. A less appropriate surname, because as “Smith” and “Taylor” indicate profession, so too did “Soothtell”. Mother Shipton would become the most famed of soothe tellers in English history, renowned for her prophecies and used as a symbolic familiar in the art of divination for generations, the very constructed personage of the seer, a work of poetry unto herself. As scholar Darren Oldridge writes, “Unlike other ‘ancient prophets’ who were known by their words alone, Shipton emerged as a personality in her own right”…

Mother Shipton was Yorkshire’s answer to Nostradamus. Ed Simon looks into how, regardless of whether this prophetess witch actually existed or not, the legend of Mother Shipton has wielded great power for centuries— from the turmoil of Tudor courts, through the frictions of civil war, to the specter of Victorian apocalypse: “Divining the Witch of York: Propaganda and Prophecy.”

See also “Woodcuts and Witches,” an explanation of how the rise of the mass-produced woodcut in early modern Europe helped forge the archetype of the broom-riding crone.

Then watch Häxan: Witchcraft Through The Ages, an extraordinary 1922 Scandinavian film by Benjamin Christensen. As you’ll see, it’s a curious (and groundbreaking) mix of documentary and silent horror cinema. Most films of the period were literary adaptations; but Christensen’s take was unique, based on non-fiction works, mainly a 15th-century treatise on witchcraft that he found in a Berlin bookshop.

* Ray Bradbury, Long After Midnight

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As we search for our eye of newt, we might note that today is All Hallow’s Eve, or Halloween.  Many Halloween traditions originated from ancient pagan Celtic harvest festivals, particularly the Gaelic festival of Samhain, which was Christianized as Halloween in the eighth century, by Pope Gregory III.

The original reason for disguise on Samhain was to prevent lonely spirits recognizing and snatching one away to their between-the-worlds home; it was an additional bonus that the costumes allowed you to lead a mini-riot without being recognized.  The custom of trick-or-treating seems to date to the 19th century in England, when people went house-to-house in costume at Halloween, reciting verses in exchange for food, and sometimes warning of misfortune if they were not welcomed.  It seems to have taken off in the U.S in the 1920s.  The custom of making jack-o’-lanterns began in Ireland in the 19th century; “turnips or mangel wurzels, hollowed out to act as lanterns and often carved with grotesque faces,” were used at Halloween in parts of Ireland and the Scottish Highlands.

Special Halloween bonus: Jacques Collin de Plancy’s Dictionnaire infernal, a monumental compendium of all things diabolical, was first published in 1818 to much success; but it was the fabulously-illustrated final edition of 1863 that secured the book as a landmark in the study and representation of demons.  Read “Defining the Demonic,” then page through the 1863 edition at The Internet Archive (whence every item in this post).

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Written by LW

October 31, 2018 at 1:01 am

“What is admirable about the fantastic is that there is no longer anything fantastic: there is only the real.”*…

 

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“Let’s Put Out the Light and Rekindle the Fire!,” from La Silhouette, June 24, 1830

 

The poet Charles Baudelaire greatly admired the graphic arts, writing several essays about the major caricaturists and illustrators of his day. He found something positive to say about each of them with one exception, the artist Jean-Ignace-Isidore Gérard, known simply as Grandville (1803–1847). And yet, despite Baudelaire’s antipathy, Grandville is arguably the most imaginative graphic artist of the nineteenth century, as well as the most influential on subsequent generations. Baudelaire was well aware of Grandville’s gifts, but his aversion was that of a true classicist:

There are superficial people whom Grandville amuses, but as for me, he frightens me. When I enter into Grandville’s work, I feel a certain discomfort, like in an apartment where disorder is systematically organized, where bizarre cornices rest on the floor, where paintings seem distorted by an optic lens, where objects are deformed by being shoved together at odd angles, where furniture has its feet in the air, and where drawers push in instead of pulling out.

Baudelaire’s comments were perceptive: these are the very characteristics that, while making him uncomfortable, appealed to the next century’s surrealist artists and writers who saw in Grandville a kindred spirit who shared their interest in the uncanny, in the dream state, and in the world of imagination…

With its dreamlike inversions and kaleidoscopic cast of anthropomorphic objects, animals, and plants, the world of French artist J. J. Grandville is at once both delightful and disquieting. Patricia Mainardi explores the unique work of this 19th-century illustrator now recognized as a major precursor and inspiration to the Surrealist movement: “Grandville, Visions, and Dreams.”

* André Breton

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As we revel in the revolutionary, we might send finely-drawn birthday greetings to Giovanni Battista (also Giambattista) Piranesi; he was born on this date in 1720.  An Italian artist, he is best known for his etchings of Rome and of fictitious and atmospheric “prisons” (Le Carceri d’Invenzione).  The latter, with their Kafkaesque, Escher-like distortions, influenced Romanticism and perhaps especially Surrealism.

Carceri Plate VII – “The Drawbridge”

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Self-portrait

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Written by LW

October 4, 2018 at 1:01 am

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