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

Posts tagged “Art

Unpacking Mona Lisa after the end of World War II; ca.1945

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In 3 days, 200 people packed 3600+ pieces of art, sculpture, and other valuables and transported them into the Loire Valley, where they were kept until the end of the war. (Source)

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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.


War in the Future (From the1950’s):

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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.


Ancient Roman Graffiti:

So… nothing, cracks me up like Ancient Roman graffiti of the sort found in Pompeii. It’s the sort of silly, raunchy, sometimes sweet, sometimes horrible, epigraphy that gives us a glimpse into the psyche of ancient peoples like very little else does. It shows how, though humanity’s circumstances may have changed, humans have not. And that’s the reason to study history, for me.


These are a few examples-

Here are some of the sweet ones:

I.7.8 (bar; left of the door); 8162: We two dear men, friends forever, were here. If you want to know our names, they are Gaius and Aulus.

I.10.7 (House and Office of Volusius Iuvencus; left of the door); 8364: Secundus says hello to his Prima, wherever she is. I ask, my mistress, that you love me.

V.1.26 (House of Caecilius Iucundus); 4091: Whoever loves, let him flourish. Let him perish who knows not love. Let him perish twice over whoever forbids love.

VII.2.48 (House of Caprasius Primus); 3061: I don’t want to sell my husband, not for all the gold in the world

A few of the silly or random:

II.7 (gladiator barracks); 8792: On April 19th, I made bread

III.5.1 (House of Pascius Hermes; left of the door); 7716: To the one defecating here. Beware of the curse. If you look down on this curse, may you have an angry Jupiter for an enemy.

VI.11 (on the Vico del Labirinto); 1393: On April 20th, I gave a cloak to be washed. On May 7th, a headband. On May 8th, two tunics

VII.1.40 (House of Caesius Blandus; in the peristyle of the House of Mars and Venus on the Street of the Augustales); 1714: It took 640 paces to walk back and forth between here and there ten times

VIII.7.6 (Inn of the Muledrivers; left of the door); 4957: We have wet the bed, host. I confess we have done wrong. If you want to know why, there was no chamber pot

VIII.2 (in the basilica); 1904: O walls, you have held up so much tedious graffiti that I am amazed that you have not already collapsed in ruin.

And the raunchy ones:

VIII.2 (in the basilica); 1882: The one who buggers a fire burns his penis

I.2.20 (Bar/Brothel of Innulus and Papilio); 3932: Weep, you girls. My penis has given you up. Now it penetrates men’s behinds. Goodbye, wondrous femininity!

III.5.3 (on the wall in the street); 8898: Theophilus, don’t perform oral sex on girls against the city wall like a dog

V.5.3 (barracks of the Julian-Claudian gladiators; column in the peristyle); 4289: Celadus the Thracian gladiator is the delight of all the girls

II.7 (gladiator barracks); 8767: Floronius, privileged soldier of the 7th legion, was here. The women did not know of his presence. Only six women came to know, too few for such a stallion.

VII.9 (Eumachia Building, via della Abbondanza); 2048: Secundus likes to screw boys.

Herculaneum (bar/inn joined to the maritime baths); 10675: Two friends were here. While they were, they had bad service in every way from a guy named Epaphroditus. They threw him out and spent 105 and half sestertii most agreeably on whores.

People don’t change. We scratch our names into a wall and hope someone remembers us – we try to make each other laugh, or make each other mad, and all we’ve managed to do with modern technology is find new ways to do that. But when it comes down to it, we’re one step up from scratching “Figulus loves Idaia” on the House of the Vibii. How can that idea not make you smile?


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.


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Unpacking the head of the Statue of Liberty, 1885

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Salome with the Head of John the Baptist, ca. 1506-07

salome-with-the-head-of-st-john-the-baptist-1507I 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)


Salvador Dalí walking his anteater in Paris, 1969

What, did he just call up the ol' anteater store and say "Hi, I'm Salvador Dali, and I require one of your anteaters for surrealism purposes"?

What, did he just call up the ol’ anteater store and say “Hi, I’m Salvador Dali, and I require one of your anteaters for surrealism purposes”?


Portrait of the Burgfraulein von Strechau, ca. 1600’s.

“The legend tells that in the late Middle Ages a damsel waited for her lover who left to the Holy Land to fight the infidels. The lady promised that if he did not return she would enter a monastery. Despite her promise, she married another man and when the bride came to the festival her face changed to a skull and devilish figures appeared and pulled her down to hell in front of all the guests.”

– 1910 Again