Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.

High Art

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A cat righting itself mid-air after being dropped, chronophotography by Étienne-Jules Marey; ca. 1894

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Artists paint on the banks of Dordogne River near Beaulieu, France; ca. 1925

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Autochrome by Jules Gervais-Courtellemont.


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.

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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 real the 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.

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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.


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Convair Model 118 ConvAirCar takes a test flight in California in November 1947.

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The handling dynamics in the air would be interesting to say the least…

“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.

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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

 Russian tanks were designed to be driven with one arm.

“There’s a good bear, now go and maim those Nazis on this other side of this hill.”

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.

 


Moroccan Snake Charmers, ca.1860-1900

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Print held at the L.O.C


Gaston Rébuffat atop the aiguille du Roc, Mont Blanc massif, France; ca.1944

This was photo was chosen to be included on the Golden Record on Voyager 1 and 2.

This was photo was chosen to be included on the Golden Record on Voyager 1 and 2.

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.