A cat righting itself mid-air after being dropped, chronophotography by Étienne-Jules Marey; ca. 1894
Artists paint on the banks of Dordogne River near Beaulieu, France; ca. 1925
Why is the Mona Lisa so famous?
The Mona Lisa famous largely because of good and abundant press, honestly. The various reasons for the fame of the Mona Lisa can be split into the times before and after it was stolen from the Louvre in 1911.
Prior to the theft:
- Leonardo’s name was a well-known and very well-respected one in art historical terms, meaning owning any piece by him (especially considering there are only ~25 total paintings out there, either known or lost/destroyed/speculated) was a big deal. He might not have been the best Renaissance painter, but he was the Renaissance Man, and rightfully considered a master of his craft.
- It broke all sorts of conventions for painting at the time: the portrait is cropped oddly, she’s not a religious subject, it’s intimate, the blurred background and use of sfumato was very unusual. Because of this, this new motif of portraiture began to be imitated almost immediately.
- The painting was owned by a number of kings and kept in their various residences before it was transferred to the Louvre after the Revolution. While it was in private (royal) view, its existence was known because of the copies and imitations that already existed, and also because it was accessible to a number of royals, nobles and dignitaries. Once it was put on public display in the Louvre, in the time of the Romantics, it became a big hit. Writers and poets began to refer to her, romanticizing her, making her something of a myth.
- In particular, in the 1860s, an English critic named Walter Pater wrote a long and vivid and extremely poetic essay praising the painting, calling her a “ghostly beauty”. At this point, art criticism was in its infancy, so this made a huge contribution to the field, and became by far the most well-known piece of writing about an artwork at that point. Here’s an excerpt of what he says:
It is a beauty wrought out from within upon the flesh, the deposit, little cell by cell, of strange thoughts and fantastic reveries and exquisite passions… She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps their fallen day about her
- And possibly most importantly, nobody truly knew who the hell she actually was.
So you’ve got this painting that has been copied since nearly the day it was finished, that’s been owned by kings, that was painted by an acknowledged leader of Renaissance ideals and techniques, and that’s had the most famous (at the time) piece of art writing that exists written about it, and its subject is still a mystery.
Then she gets stolen from the Louvre.
After the theft:
- Because of all of the above, the theft was widely publicised. At this point the Mona Lisa was considered a “treasure” of France. There were rewards offered, there were numerous newspaper articles written – we’re talking worldwide, not just in France. Everybody knew the Mona Lisa now.
- After the painting was found, the commercial aspect of her image began. You already had painters and engravers from as far back as the 16th century making copies of her. Now, with a much more widely circulated and accessible media, and new forms of printing and photography, her face was everywhere. Film and theatre stars posed like her, parodies were painted (like Duchamp’s with a moustache), she was on greeting cards and postcards and stamps, songs were written.
- The Louvre lent the painting out twice – once in 1963 and once in 1974 – adding to the international fame of the work.
- Dan Brown wrote some ridiculous book claiming that
the Louvre owned 6 Mona Lisas and the curator got to “decide” which one to display as realthe Mona Lisa is androgynous and represents the union of Jesus & Mary Magdalene, and was a threat to the Catholic Church. Or that it was a self portrait. People read Dan Brown and believe this.
- And now, more than 8 million people every year see her, and her fame continues.
She’s not famous because she’s the best example of a painting ever, or even of a Renaissance painting. She’s famous because people keep talking about her. They have done ever since she was painted, and they’ll keep doing so. It’s a beautiful painting, but it’s 90% myth.
Catherine the Great’s Erotic Furniture; ca. 1930’s.
The story goes:
During the second world war in one of the palaces of Tsarskoye Selo, a group of Soviet soldiers found a room decorated in a frank erotic style. According to witnesses , one of the walls was entirely hung with wooden phalluses of various shapes, a range of chairs, desks, and screens all decorated with pornographic images supplementing the whole appearance. Soldiers didn’t loot anything or destroy anything there, on the contrary, they made a dozen of documentary photos.
Most of the pictures were lost in the fire of war, but some of Hermitage personnel also confirm the existence of the parlor, noting that Catherine the Great even made a boudoir for Platon Zubov, but it’s unlikely that it could reached the 20th century. It is also known that the collection of erotic art belonged to the Romanov family was cataloged in 1930’s . The evidences indicate that the objects were only shown to a selection of visitors. But the catalog was lost. Like the whole entire collection, it was allegedly destroyed in 1950. However this small selection of photographs still exist.
Convair Model 118 ConvAirCar takes a test flight in California in November 1947.
“The Convair Model 118 ConvAirCar (also known as the Hall Flying Automobile) was a prototype flying car of which two were built. Intended for mainstream consumers, two prototypes were built and flown. The first prototype was lost after a safe, but damaging, low fuel incident. Subsequently, the second prototype was rebuilt from the damaged aircraft and flown. By that time, little enthusiasm remained for the project and the program ended shortly thereafter.” (Source)
Anatomical machine by Giuseppe Salerno
An early anatomical machine made by Giuseppe Salerno, built a on real human skeleton. This fleshless body represents the veins, arteries and musculature in amazing detail. Long thought to be made by an early form of plastination, it was recently discovered to be made – with the exception of the human skeletons – of beeswax, iron wire, and silk.
Mosaic image of the sail of the USS Thresher (SSN-593) on the seabed at 2,600m. The USS Thresher was the first nuclear submarine lost at sea. Photo taken between 1963 and 1966.
The USS Thresher was undertaking dive trials when it encountered trouble. It’s not clear what exactly happened, but it is thought that either a pipe joint failed, flooding the engine room, or an electrical bus failed. Either way, it is thought that the reactor shut down and that ice blocked the air pipes while trying to blow the ballast tanks. The Thresher sank until water pressure caused it to implode, ripping it to pieces.
The picture is a mosaic made from smaller pictures which shows the sail, or “conning tower”. Not the dive plane is completely reversed.
Feeding polar bears from a tank; ca. 1950
This is quite possibly the most Russian photograph ever taken.
Polar bears look really freaking cute, but they’re the only animal that actively predates on humans.
Wolves will give it a long and hard thought about whether they want to attack humans. Polar bears? Nope. If they see you, and you can’t protect yourself or seek shelter, you’re dead.
Gaston Rébuffat atop the aiguille du Roc, Mont Blanc massif, France; ca.1944
Gaston Rébuffat was actually an instructor at a military school of mountaineering run by the 27th mountain infantry. In any case, the French government clearly appreciated his contribution to history because it awarded him the Légion d’honneur in 1984.
Salome with the Head of John the Baptist, ca. 1506-07
I have got a bright and shiny platter… and I am gonna get your heavy head.
“Andrea Solario painted a number of variants on the present composition, of which this is one of the most notable. Its figure style is influenced by Leonardo da Vinci as well as by Northern artists, especially Joos van Cleve and Lucas Cranach.
The subject itself, the rather gruesome one of the executioner placing the Baptist’s head in a salver for the waiting Salome, was popular among Leonardo’s followers, and many of the Milanese paintings of Salome probably derive from a lost composition by the master. These paintings depict the moment in the Gospel of Mark (6:21–28) when the young Salome, daughter of Herod’s wife Herodias, is granted her wish to have John the Baptist executed. Although this theme has been painted by numerous artists—with both full- and half-length figures—it is rare for the executioner to be so severely cropped that we see only his outstretched arm. This arm, with its clenched fist and rough drapery, is an unsettling synecdoche for the man as a whole.
Conspicuously signed in the lower right corner, the Salome is one of Solario’s finest paintings and is completely characteristic of his style. It is worked up to a high finish, with some astonishing effects: the reflections and sheen of the silver basin, the transparent bodice of Salome’s dress, the delicacy of description of the Baptist’s head, and the marbling of the parapet. Above all, Salome’s jewelry and the ornamentation of her dress are imagined and painted with the utmost precision and care.” (Source)
The German Schienenzeppelin (means Rail Zeppelin), the prop-driven V12 locomotive, developed by Franz Kruckenberg in 1929
“The Schienenzeppelin or rail zeppelin was an experimental railcar which resembled a zeppelin airship in appearance. It was designed and developed by the German aircraft engineer Franz Kruckenberg in 1929. Propulsion was by means of a propeller located at the rear, it accelerated the railcar to 230.2 km/h (143.0 mph) setting the land speed record for a petrol powered rail vehicle. Only a single example was ever built, which due to safety concerns remained out of service and was finally dismantled in 1939.”
Look at the 1 minute mark.
A child in a ‘baby cage’ – used to ensure children get enough sunlight and fresh air when living in an apartment building, 1937
Newsreel footage of baby cage in action.
Mississippi River frozen solid, February 1905
That’s the Eads Bridge, which is in St Louis. Carnegie was an early shareholder in the St Louis Bridge Company, and the bridge was built of Carnegie-made steel. But Carnegie wasn’t personally involved in the design or construction of the bridge; he sold out his stock in the company early in construction, and had a tempestuous relationship with James Eads (the head of the company, the bridge’s designer, and ultimately its namesake).
Herbert Ponting: Captain Scott’s Antarctic Expedition (1910-1913)
His joy is to reproduce its pictures artistically, his grief is to fail to do so. -Captain Robert Scott, 1911
Herbert Ponting began his career in photography relatively late in life. After moving from Salisbury England to California in his early twenties, he dabbled unsuccessfully in mining and fruit-farming before turning to photography. He became correspondent on the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05, and afterwards continued to travel around Asia, exploring Burma, Korea, Java, China and India. During this time he delivered magnificently created images back to newspapers, periodical and magazines, and in 1910 released his book In Lotus-land Japan.
In 1911 Ponting joined Scott’s British Terra Nova Expedition, which set out to collect scientific data about the Antarctic continent, with its main goal to reach the South Pole. Ponting was the first professional photographer on an Antarctic expedition and went on to set other precedents in Antarctica. He took some of the first still color photographs in Antarctica using auto chrome plates, and was one of the first men to use a cinematograph to capture short video sequences on the ice.
Coining the term to ‘pont’, meaning ‘to pose until nearly frozen, in all sorts of uncomfortable positions’, Ponting thought it imperative to get the picture just right. On the expedition he could often be found rigging up a device to allow himself to suspend from the ship, sometimes creating risky situations for himself and other crew mates.
During his fourteen months at Cape Evans he documented the Antarctic landscape, wildlife and expedition life, and often kept the men entertained by showing lantern slides of his travels through Asia.
Judged too old at the age of forty-two to sustain another grueling year on the ice, Ponting, along with eight other men, was sent home after the first year of the expedition. Back in England he was devastated to learn of the deaths of Scott and the Polar Party. He spent the remainder of his life lecturing on Antarctica and the expedition to ensure that the splendor of Antarctica and the heroism of Scott and his men would not be forgotten. His book The Great White South was published in 1921, and in 1933 his moving footage in full sound version Ninety Degrees South: With Scott to The Antarctic was released.
“The Sleeping Bag” (Herbert Ponting’s poem, outlining preferences on how to orient one’s reindeer-skin sleeping bag):
On the outside grows the furside. On the inside grows the skinside.
So the furside is the outside and the skinside is the inside.
As the skinside is the inside (and the furside is the outside)
One ‘side’ likes the skinside inside and the furside on the outside.
Others like the skinside outside and the furside on the inside
As the skinside is the hard side and the furside is the soft side.
If you turn the skinside outside, thinking you will side with that ‘side’,
Then the soft side furside’s inside, which some argue is the wrong side.
If you turn the furside outside – as you say, it grows on that side,
Then your outside’s next the skinside, which for comfort’s not the right side.
For the skinside is the cold side and your outside’s not your warm side
And the two cold sides coming side-by-side are not the right sides one ‘side’ decides.
If you decide to side with that ‘side’, turn the outside furside inside
Then the hard side, cold side, skinside’s, beyond all question, inside outside.
Some of the Antarctic Photographs of Herbert Ponting:
Crossroads Baker nuclear explosion of July 25, 1946, test fired at 27m underwater. Photo taken from a tower on Bikini Island, 3.5 mi (5.6 km) away.
This is a picture from the 1946 detonation of a 23 kiloton nuclear bomb (same device design that was used to bomb Nagasaki) during operation Crossroads in Bikini Atoll in the Pacific. This tests was designated Baker denoting that it was the second in the series of 3 planned tests (but only two were carried out. The first being Able). It was the 3rd nuclear test ever conducted, and the 5th nuclear explosion in history.
The bomb was detonated 90 feet underwater amidst a fleet of decommissioned US and seized Japanese vessels. It was meant to simulate and document the effects of nuclear weapons in naval warfare.
W.H. Auden, I love you.
This is a sad and brave poem about accepting the suffering of unrequited love—an experience that Auden was apparently familiar with. In this poem, he makes his peace with his experience of “stars” whose beauty inspires such passion and longing, but which care nothing for him in return.
Being treated with indifference is not so bad, Auden says, in the first stanza; there are worse things in life. To love, even if one is not loved back, is more than enough, he suggests in the second stanza. And, in the final two stanzas, Auden tells himself that even if that which one loves were to disappear from one’s life, one would survive the grief and the emptiness—even if, as he poignantly understates it in the last line, being reconciled with that loss may “take a little time.”
A happy Roald Amundsen just passed a dangerous ridge of ice up towards the South Pole Plateau, which he called Hell’s Gate, November 30, 1911.
Did celebrity efforts like Band Aid’s “Do they know it’s Christmas?” and USA for Africa’s “We Are The World” actually help alleviate famine in the 1980s?
Some people will say that the musicians selflessly raised large amounts of money to help the world’s neediest. Others – myself included – would say that when projects like this don’t involve professional humanitarianism and the beneficiaries (i.e. the people who are supposedly being helped), the law of unintended consequences allows for the best of intentions to pave a road straight to H-E-double-hockeysticks.
There’s three broad ways that Celebrity Aid is often asserted as a success, or conversely, criticized as a failure. Namely they are (1) the amount of aid that actually hit the ground, (2) the stereotypes of Africans it created in the media, and (3) that they may have actually been complicity in ethnocide in the Sub-Saharan African context. I’ll address each separately.
(1) The amount of aid that hit the ground.
Band Aid famously started when Bob Geldof led the charge to raise money for famine in Ethiopia. Naturally, it was done with the best of intentions. The problem is that whereas most people think of famines as natural disasters they are in fact socio-political disasters. To put it another way, there are two models of famine, “food availability decline” and “food entitlement decline” (this is most famously discussed by Amartya Sen). In most cases of famine – for example Ethiopia in the 1980s – there was plenty of food available – the problem is that the poorest people didn’t have access to it, i.e. they weren’t “entitled” in the sense that they couldn’t afford it. When crops fail, there is usually still enough food around to feed people, however the reduced amount of food creates inflation, thus driving up prices. Dumping more money into a hurting economy doesn’t help this (see Dambisa Moyo or Paul Collier’s discussion of aid and Dutch Disease), it worsens things by putting more money in the hands of the wealthy. Additionally, don’t forget that a huge amount of the money raised goes to covering costs of holding these events (honorariums for the artists are a part of this). Much is further siphoned off on the way (including by governments, I’ll get to that in part 3). This is assuming that the aid that arrives is delivered professionally. Humanitarian actors have learned in the last two decades that projects not directly involving local beneficiaries are doomed to failure, and this is still rarely put into practice. Therefore, though millions of dollars are raised, much of it doesn’t hit the ground, and what does hit the ground is more likely to cause further damage and upset the local economy, than to actually save lives.
(2) Media portrayals of Africa
By showing lots of images of starving children with flies on their faces, the image of Africa becomes one of suffering and backwardness, rather than being a continent of diversity of life, culture, religion and experience that rivals that of any other. This video of a tract by Binyavanga Wainana (read by Amistad’s Djimoun Hounsou) describes this issue much better than I can. Basically, the image of Africa as the ‘dark continent’ full of savage warriors and starving babies is not an accurate depiction, and events like Band-Aid and We are the World perpetuate these not only false but outright racist depictions of life in the developing world. The interaction that most people have with “Africa” as a concept therefore becomes the starving child with the flies on its face, rather than learning of the history of the Mali Empire, the Songhai Great Zimbabwe, Shaka Zulu, or of learning the literature of Chinua Achebe or Wole Soyinka, or even learning the inspiration recent struggles of anyone from Nelson Mandela or Zackie Achmat amongst countless others. Instead, when you ask people what happens in Africa, you get the image of the starving child. Band Aid played a more central role than anything else in constructing this image.
(3) Complicity in mass murder and ethnocide
This is the most controversial aspect of Band Aid and related endeavours that there are. Many (including Tim Allen, Alex de Waal) have argued that Band Aid was directly complicit in the mass murder of hundreds of thousands of people. This is a highly contentious point. A brief history lesson: Ethiopia was ruled by the West’s darling Haile Sellasse, before he was ov3ertrhown by a nominally-Marxist ruler called Mengistu Haile Mariam. His party, known as the Derg, received support from the USSR. In the early 1980s, a group of Ethiopian ethnic minorities rose up against his rule (a larger one was the Oromo Liberation Front, although Eritrean groups were very active). When crops began to fail (this occurred cyclically, with the worst year being 1984), Mengistu blocked aid to the region, blocked refugees from leaving, as while limiting the international assistance that arrived. What assistance did arrive was taken by the regime, and not sent to the minority areas. Though the regime definitely didn’t cause the famine, they undoubtedly made it worse, using it as a cheap form of counterinsurgency (similar uses of famine as a form of counterinsurgency occurred in the Biafran War in Nigeria in the 1970s, and in Darfur in the 2000s). Support for “Ethiopia” became support for the Derg, and the famine it perpetuated in minority areas of Gojjam, Eritrea, Hararghe, Tigray, and Wollo. Basically, in their attempts to raise money for starving children, fundraising ended up providing legitimacy to the Ethiopian regime, while also sending it lots of money that was inevitably re-directed to other areas (especially corrupt politician’s pockets).Along with Operation Lifeline Sudan, and assistance in the Biafran War, the Live Aid / Band Aid exploits are held up as the three most famous examples of humanitarianism gone wrong, and the best of intentions being manipulated by local actors to pursue policies of ethnocide.
The idea that we must “do something” and that we must “save the world” is dangerous if you don’t deliver aid professionally, through professionalized humanitarian channels no embodied in organizations like MSF, Oxfam, etc., with the involvement of the beneficiaries on the ground. The rather embarrassing Band Aid saga speaks to this point as well as anything else. Good intentions and cash simply aren’t enough; we need to do better.
How much did Band Aid/ We are the World/Live aid help? The optimistic answer would be “not much”, while the cynical answer would be “it actually made things worse”. But the silver lining would be that it helped professional humanitarians (i.e. not musicians, but actual trained NGO staff) sharpen their game and improve their delivery, to avoid the disasters that come when you deliver aid in an unprofessional manner.
US Government mockups of how Hitler could have disguised himself, ca. 1940s.
I think this Western Canadian newspaper’s mockups are actually a bit better. The US ones lack creativity, who says Hitler COULDN’T have been a hobo chef?