Archive for ‘Art’

July 3, 2011

The Barnes Foundation Move

Among many other masterpieces, the Barnes Foundation contains 81 paintings by Pierre-August Renoir, 69 by Paul Cézanne, 59 by Henri Matisse, 46 by Pablo Picasso, 21 by Chaim Soutine, 18 by Henri Rousseau, 16 by Amedeo Modigliani, 11 by Edgar Degas, 7 by Vincent Van Gogh, and 6 by Georges Seurat.

The whole collection is moving from its original home to a new building in downtown Philly today.

June 22, 2011

What Cubism is to Your Brain

Over at Nonsite, issue No. 2 is out and contains a fascinating article on cubism and the visual brain by Charles Haxthausen, which also touches on philosophy and the relationship between art and science. I’ll try to recap the argument here, but the article is too good, I recommend it be read in full.

Let’s begin with two paintings by Picasso.

Woman with Pears (Fernande) 1909

Guitarist 1910

Two things are important here. Firstly, that the painting of Fernande, from 1909, has much more easily recognizable content than the painting of the Guitarist from 1910. And secondly, that the two paintings were made a year apart. The transition that happened in that year, where Picasso’s cubism goes from distorted but still recognizable object to almost unrecognizable, is the difference between two views of cubism presented in Haxthausen’s article.

On the one hand is Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, an art dealer and critic who penned his views on cubism as early as 1915 and the neurobiologist Semir Zeki who wrote on art and the visual brain in his 1999 book Inner Vision: An Exploration of Art and the Brain. On the other hand is an art critic by the name of Carl Einstein, who published his views on cubism in 1926.

Kahnweiler understood that Braque and Picasso’s cubism was an attempt to map the way the eye sees an object. Against conventional belief that the eye is simply a lens that passively transmits signals to the brain (like a camera lens transmits light onto a sensor), the eye sees multiple things, surfaces, lines, colors in a broken down fashion and then the brain puts them together into a coherent object. Meaning that Fernande above is probably closer to what appears to the eye (before the brain puts it all together) than an identical photograph. But Kahnweiler’s explanation for why Picasso would go further (from the 1909 version to 1910 version) is that he wanted to detach Cubism from the previous language of painting by “piercing the closed form.” The object no longer resembles anything in actuality. Lines, planes, shapes, brushstrokes – anything painterly is freed from subordination to the content.

This way of seeing cubism is repeated by Semir Zeki. What the eye sees is a world in a constant state of flux. The brain fixes the elements of an object to make them cohere. But the cubists attempted to show what the eye sees, the flux, the change, the different perspectives and views, and unite them all in a single canvas. Thus the painting takes over the function of the brain, uniting the sensory data into a whole. But this only holds for the first of the two paintings. For the second one, the Guitarist, this attempt falls short of what the brain does: the brain cannot recognize the content of the painting and only knows what it is through the title. Cubism is, in a neurobiological sense, a failure.

The Architect's Table 1912

Enter Carl Einstein: failure becomes triumph. What Kahnweiler and Zeki assume in their respective analyses is that the object painted is the way it appears to the conventional brain. That the changes and flux are distortions that the eye picks up, but that the brain clears up, returning the unity to the object. In other words, some object, say this chair, is the way it is, the eye distorts it, but the brain restores it to its previous, stable, unified state.

But what if this is not the case? What if the unity of object we normally perceive in the brain exists only in the brain and not in the object itself? (What if the object is not identical to itself?) What if the eye picks up the object in the flux, changes and perspectives that the object actually has in itself, and the brain distorts that, so to speak, into a coherent object?

The transition from Ferdinande in 1909 to the Guitarist in 1910 is not a failure of cubism to unify what the brain does so easily, but a failure of the brain to see an object differently from what it is used to. In Ferdinande the content is recognizable so the distortions can be attributed simply  to the eye. But if the brain is unable to recognize an object in the Guitarist, it is not because the eye and cubism have gone too far in breaking it down, it is because the brain has not gone far enough in conceiving it.

Cubism, and this is Einstein’s radical thesis, is not just an analysis of the way the eye perceives the world, but a challenge to the subject – us, the viewer, the audience – to reconstitute itself in order to be able to conceive of seeing and recognizing the object. The world is not the stable, familiar place the brain is used to, and in order to see it in its flux and change, it needs to reconstitute itself, to render itself more plastic, more creative, more visionary. In this endeavor, cubism can help.

Man With Violin 1911-12

May 22, 2011

Feel That

What do I love? Embodiment of invisible things. That feeling when you walk into an old library, being in the presence of immense beauty, all the knowledge of the world, a sanctuary for thought itself: a space where it can condense, take shape, become palpable.

You can see then why I would love the idea of this project from back in 2005 by Gerda Steiner and Jörg Lenzlinger. The art installation, called Soul Warmer, was set in the Abbey Library of St.Gall, one of the oldest and most important monastic collections.

Part of the accompanying text reads: “For a long time, the library was able to capture the emotions of stunned visitors. Some emotions remained stuck to the grilles in front of the books, or trickled away down the gaps in the parquet flooring…”

And then towards the end of the text “At a stroke, all stored emotions were set free. Natural powers and higher forces sprang forth; memories swung their arms and legs; the animalistic instinct was liberated; fragmented souls were warmed, put together afresh, and life breathed into them.”

I discovered this project via hila shachar who blogs at le projet d’amour. She was compelled to blog about the project when, in her words: “i was sitting in the library this morning, when a particularly moving passage from a book i was reading caught in my throat, like an unspoken sob. i wanted to tell someone about it, maybe the person sitting next to me, but the very nature of a library means silence.” After introducing the art installation she continues: “this is exactly what i wanted this morning: to capture the emotion i felt, and to literalise it.”

(note the reproduction of Holbein’s Christ at the top)

April 28, 2011

Two Records

“People used to make records
As in a record of an event…”
Ani DiFranco

In 1857 Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville obtained a patent for the phonautograph. Scott was a printer and bookseller and was interested in perfect stenography. He was looking for a way to record conversations without omissions. In other words, he imagined his phonautograph, as the word implies, as an audio self-writing machine. It never occurred to him that the process could be reversed and the record of the conversation turned back into sound. (Other people were thinking about this, but the world would have to wait for Edison for this to become reality.)
The technology to turn the records the phonautograph made back into sound did not exist until 2008. This is Scott de Martinville recording himself singing Au Clair de la Lune in 1860:

Sometime in this century, Katie Paterson came up with an ingenious art project. She recorded the sound made by three glaciers in Iceland (Langjökull, Snæfellsjökull, Solheimajökull). The sound was pressed into three records made of melted and refrozen ice from each respective glacier. And the ice records were played on turn tables until they melted.

Literally, the sound of the glacier ice melting and moving:

April 11, 2011

Le Sacré Corps

The US National Library of Medicine has something they call The Visible Human Project® (also on Wiki). In 1993 they took the body of an executed criminal from Texas, Joseph Jernigan, to try and better visualize human anatomy.
The doctors encased the body in a gelatin and water mixture and then froze it to stabilize it. It was then “cut” into 1,871 sections, 1 millimeter apart and each part was photographed to create a detailed set of anatomical visualizations.

Croix Gagnon, an American artist, put the “slices” together to create this video. (More about the art project after the break.)

Now the reason I put the words cut and slices in scare quotes is that neither of them are exactly right. The body frozen in the gelatin and water was ground down millimeter by millimeter, in a way that completely, entirely destroyed the specimen. The video is not only an accurate visualization of the body, but a sped up record of its destruction.

If ever there was an example of the potentially destructive nature of the curious human gaze, this is it.

Croix Gagnon created that video as part of his art project 12:31. (12:31am is the time Joseph Jernigan was executed.) Along with the photographer Frank Schott, he created “light paintings” of the entire cadaver “to put it back together.” (Click the link for all the photos.)

Perhaps not quite bringing him back to life, but turning an entirely destroyed specimen of a cadaver back into something sacred: the body.

February 24, 2011

Crossing Paths

Once upon a time, on the old Telemachus, I wrote a little post about a couple of letters of Joris-Karl Huysmans. A French writer of Dutch origin (hence the name), he is best remembered for his novel A Rebours, which is usually translated into English as Against Nature. The novel was a reaction against Emile Zola’s L’Assomoir (1877). Until that point, Huysmans was Zola’s example of a true naturalist writer, the writing style Zola aggressively advocated. When A Rebours came out, the split with the then and now much more popular Zola – who was also known to go after his ideological and aesthetic opponents with his sharp journalistic pen – was highly publicized.

However, the two men knew better. Here are the two letters I was referring to earlier. (In my translation, anachronistically.)

J.K. Hysmans’ letter to Jules Destrée (Nov. 22, 1884):
As far as the split between Zola and myself, shouted from the rooftops, it’s idiotic. We often discuss amicably questions in which we disagree completely, but we are old friends from before L’Assomoir. I take it as proof of quality of our friendship that all the claims of the press to the contrary have not been able to chip away at it.

E. Zola’s letter to J.K. Huysmans (May 20, 1884):
There, my dear friend, are all my reservations. I didn’t want to hide them, for you know me well enough, don’t you, to know that the fictional is not my cup of tea. Luckily, there is in you something else, a sort of outrageousness of art that excites me, an originality of strong feelings that is enough to set you apart, put you on a high pedestal. Bottom line is that I spent three happy evenings with your book. It will count at the very least as a curiosity in your oeuvre. And you should be proud of it. What will people say? If they don’t calm down, they might very well celebrate it ecstatically. Or they will throw it back at you, at us, as the latest rotting corpse of our literature. I smell nonsense in the air.

I bring this up because I found out that Huysmans is credited with something else as well. According to (a certain) Dorothea von Mücke, he is responsible for bringing back to light the Renaissance painter Matthias Grünewald (c.1470-1528). Says Mücke, over at
But around 1900 the French writer Joris-Karl Huysmans made a passionate plea for the relevance and modernity of Grünewald. In his description of the altar at Isenheim, Huysmans called attention to Grünewald’s shocking insistence on the physical details of Christ’s suffering, alerting its beholder to the disgusting marks of torture and the signs of dying and decomposing flesh. Such a Christ, Huysmans observed, is no longer the well-groomed, handsome man who has been venerated by the rich and powerful throughout the ages. Grünewald’s Christ is rather the “God of the Poor. The one who chose the company of those in misery and of those who had been rejected, of all those for whose ugliness and need the world could only feel contempt.” And it was exactly this approach to pain and suffering highlighted by Huysmans that subsequently became a point of reference for many artists who invoked Grünewald’s work, especially when they cited the triptych from the Isenheim altarpiece or The Mockery of Christ from the Alte Pinakothek in Munich.

Here are the two works she is referring to:

Isenheim Altarpiece, First view (Crucifixion), c. 1512–15, Musée d’Unterlinden, Colmar, France. Limewood, 269 x 650 cm

The Mockery of Christ, c. 1503–05, Alte Pinakothek, Munich.

Grünewald also liked to put his self-portrait into his paintings. It can be found in many of his works, including these two. In the Mockery of Christ, he is the Commiserator, the only one not attacking Christ. In the altar piece he is St. Sebastian, the figure on the left.

Self-portrait, c. 1512–16 Nürnberg, Germany.

Commiserator, detail from Mockery of Christ

St.Sebastian, detail Isenheim Altarpiece









What brought all of this to my attention is W.G. Sebald’s After Nature. It is a triptych in verse with the enigmatic motto “As the Snow on the Alps… .” The first part is about Matthias Grünewald, and at the very beginning Sebald tells us that
“… The face of the unknown
Grünewald emerges again and again
in his work as a witness
to the snow miracle, a hermit
in the desert, a commiserator…
…Always the same
gentleness,  the same burden of grief,
the same irregularity of the eyes, veiled
and sliding sideways down into loneliness.”

Right after that Sebald wraps up my entire post of curious connections throughout history.

Grünewald’s face reappears, too,
in a Basel painting by Holbein
the Younger of a crowned female saint.
These were strangely disguised
instances of resemblance, wrote Fraenger
whose books were burned by the fascists.
Indeed it seemed as though in such works of art
men had revered each other like brothers, and
often made monuments in each other’s
image where their paths had crossed.”