One of the things that I gave my Mum for Christmas was a gift certificate to the Clay Cafe, a place where you can go and paint a pottery piece, then leave it to be fired and pick up the finished piece at a later date. A few of my sisters and I took her out to dinner on Friday night and then to the Clay Cafe where we had a great time painting and talking. My sister who is a big X Files fan decorated her plate accordingly:
Another sister's travel mug in mid-production:
I was a lot less inventive with my mug:
“And now indeed this substance with its precious humility becomes, through its indestructibility, the most faithful bearer of man's message. As far back as one goes in time, the works of humanity from prehistoric times have reached us not through stone which crumbles and wears away, or through metal which oxidizes and becomes like powder, but through slabs of pottery, the writing on which is as clear today as it was under the stiletto of the scribe who traced it.” ― Bernard Leach, A Potter's Book
On Saturday night I watched the 2013 documentary Tim's Vermeer. It is a film which follows the efforts of a man- Tim Jenison- to reproduce one of the most famous works of Johannes Vermeer, the seventeenth century Dutch painter. Tim Jenison is the founder of a computer company called NewTek. In his spare time, Jenison tinkers with various inventions he's come up with and indulges in an eclectic array of hobbies. One of these is art, specifically the artwork of Vermeer. Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) was a Dutch painter who was renowned for the almost photo-like quality of his work, particularly his amazing ability to paint light. This can be seen in all of his paintings, including two of his most famous ones- The Girl With A Pearl Earring, and The Geographer:
What seems to have caught Tim Jenison's interest is a 2001 book written by an architect named Philip Steadman called Vermeer's Camera. In it, Steadman argues that Vermeer used a camera obscura to produce images to trace for his paintings. This was not a new idea: the controversial theory has been kicked around for over a hundred years. The difference is that Steadman built an accurate reconstruction of Vermeer's studio and also a camera obscura which, while not proving the artist used this method, proved that he could have done so.
Jenison reads this book and becomes obsessed with proving to himself that Vermeer could have actually painted pictures in this manner. Documented on film by his friend, Penn Jillette, he begins an investigative journey which will span several years. His first effort involves setting up a mirror at a 45 degree angle and using it to paint a portrait of his father from an inverted photograph of him. The experiment is successful:
Jenison next determines to try to reproduce Vermeer's The Music Lesson by using a camera obscura. To do this, he builds an exact replica of Vermeer's studio to scale. Inside the studio, he builds a dark room which will be the camera obscura. It turns out that there is enough room to build one of the size needed to sit in and see the reflected image of the room.
Tim then decorates the room to look exactly like The Music Lesson and gets to work on his painting. It takes a long time, naturally, and he refines his method as he goes along. For example, he finds that using a concave mirror- which were used in telescopes in Vermeer's time- is more effective and switches to one. He also travels to Britain to consult with Philip Steadman, the author of Vermeer's Camera and gets to see the real painting while he's there. In the end, Tim Jenison's efforts result in a very respectable reproduction of The Music Lesson and this seems further evidence that Vermeer could have- and perhaps probably did- use a method similar to this when he was painting. Ultimately, it is left to the viewer to decide if they think Vermeer used a camera obscura, and what, if anything, this says about his artwork if he did.
Tim's Vermeer on the left; the real McCoy on the right.
One of my nephews has gotten into the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series and showed me some pictures he drew, inspired by them... Hephaestus, the Greek god of fire and volcanoes, blacksmith for the rest of the gods:
And Ares, Greek god of war:
My nephew was impressed by the fact that I knew who these characters were and could talk with him about them. His level of admiration dropped considerably, however, when I admitted that I knew them from the original Greek myths and have never read the Percy Jackson books.
The Battle of Hastings took place on October 14, 1066 (anniversary tomorrow). It was a battle for the throne of England between the forces of Anglo-Saxon King Harold Godwinson and Duke William II of Normandy. Spoiler: the Normans win, though this should be obvious to even the least historically inclined, as the duke is commonly referred to as "William the Conqueror."
The Bayeux Tapestry is a work done in needlepoint which depicts the battle and all the events leading up to it. It is 70 meters (230 ft) long and 0.5 meters (1.6 ft) wide. As someone who has occasionally dabbled in cross stitch and crewel embroidery, and knows how long it takes to finish even a small project, all I can say is... wow. Seriously, wow. And there is a piece missing off the end of it, so it was originally even longer. Here's a couple pictures of it as it's displayed now; though you can see only a piece of the tapestry, they give you some idea of it's size:
Although I've called this an English tapestry, it actually resides in France- in Bayeux Cathedral, Normandy. The origins of the tapestry have been often debated, with one persistent legend being that William the Conqueror's wife Matilda and her ladies-in-waiting stitched it. This, however, is highly unlikely. Most scholars agree that the Bayeux Tapestry was in all probability commissioned by Bishop Odo, William's half-brother who, after the Conquest, was made Earl of Kent. There are many reasons for this assumption, one being that several of the Bishop's colleagues appear in the tapestry. Also, the tapestry has always been at Bayeux Cathedral, which Bishop Odo built. It is assumed that it was designed and stitched in Kent- which is why I called it English- because that was where Odo was living at the time. Also, the vegetable dyes used on the threads are of the type used in England at that time. As well, the Latin phrasing on the tapestry is distinctly Anglo-Saxon in style (or so I'm told). Last but not least, during this time period, Anglo-Saxon needlework was deemed to be the finest available, well-known throughout Europe for it's skill and beauty. It's assumed that Bishop Odo commissioned the work early in the 1070's, so that it would be ready in time for Bayeux Cathedral's dedication in 1077.
Whoever the unknown stitchers were, they did wonderful work, bless their strained eyes and sore fingers. Look at the fine stitching and incredible detail, and reflect that this work was produced well over 900 years ago. It's really quite amazing. Also, it's a real blessing that the Tapestry is still in existence after all this time, especially since in the 12th century, the Bayeux Cathedral was partially destroyed and had to be rebuilt. It also survived the sacking of Bayeux in the 1562 by the Huguenots, and the French Revolution, when revolutionary twits confiscated the artwork as "public property" and used it as a cover for military wagons. The Nazis also took possession of the Tapestry during their occupation of France and schemed to take it to Berlin, but didn't get it out of the country before France was retaken by the Allies.
The Battle of Hastings is stitched in great detail, and includes the scene of poor old King Harold's death - purportedly from an arrow in the eye.
In case anyone missed what was going on in the scene, the words "Harold Rex Interfectus Est" or "Harold the King is Killed" appear over the stitched picture. Interestingly, in 1066- the year depicted- Halley's Comet became visible in the sky, and is depicted on the tapestry:
The Normans thought that the comet's appearance was a good omen for William's conquest while the Anglo-Saxons, who lost, decided that it had portended evil to their cause. As Eilmer of Malmesbury, who had apparently been alive for its previous appearance as well as this one, wrote in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: "You have come, have you?... You've come, you source of tears to many mothers, you evil. I hate you! It is long since I saw you; but as I see you now you are much more terrible, for I see you brandishing the downfall of my country. I hate you!"
So if, like me, you have an interest in British history, the Bayeux Tapestry provides a fascinating glimpse- albeit a biased one - of the events leading up to, and including, the Norman Conquest. The Tapestry is also worth a look if you want to see what fine workmanship the people of that time period were capable of producing. And if you're a fan of cartoons or graphic novels, you might regard the Tapestry as the early English equivalent.
I've been reading some essays by G.K. Chesterton, and he has a lot to say about art and poetry. Actually, he has a lot to say about everything, but what he had to say about art made me recall a short video about modern art which I watched not long ago. Now, I'm not an artist, or in any way a qualified critic, so maybe it's no surprise that I have a distinct lack of appreciation for a lot of modern art. Some years ago, I was killing a bit of time by wandering through a local art museum, and was bemused by many of the exhibits. I particularly remember one: a loaf of bread which had about two dozen nails driven into it, and was then varnished. Um. Maybe it was just too sophisticated for my unrefined tastes, but the only thing which this "work of art" said to me was that someone wasted a perfectly good loaf of bread. I feel sure that Chesterton- a man of hearty appetite- would agree. He certainly had no liking for the "moderns" of his own time, describing one work as, "a piece of paper on which Mr. Picasso has had the misfortune to upset the ink and tried to dry it with his boots...." Of course, one must make allowances for differing tastes, and certainly many people love Picasso's paintings- or say they do. And I'm willing to admit that some of these works require skill to create, even if I don't like them. But then there's "Voice of Fire".
This is "Voice of Fire" by American artist Barnett Newman. In 1990, the National Gallery of Canada announced that they had bought it for 1.8 million dollars. This created a big controversy for a couple of reasons, one being that at the time, Canada was in the midst of a recession. Times were tough, and the news that 1.8 million in tax money had been squandered on that didn't go over well with the unwashed masses. Critics argued that it wasn't even art, pointing out that anyone with a couple cans of paint and a roller could produce it, for considerably less money. Sarcastic comment abounded, especially when, in 1992, it came to light that "Voice of Fire" had accidentally been hung upside down and no one noticed for two years. On the other side, the artsy types rushed to V. of F.'s defense, the Gallery's director at the time describing the effect it apparently had on some people: "You have to look at yourself... you have to look at your understanding of the metaphysical dimension of life." Hmm... the only effect it had on me was causing me to wonder how the dickens they figured out it was upside down. I guess I'm not in touch with my metaphysical side. Of course, the Gallery assures us that V. of F. was a great investment, which is currently assessed at over 40 million dollars. Let's say we accept that statement at face value: O.K., it's a good investment... but is it art?
Cellini's Perseus With the Head of Medusa
This is the question which Chesterton poses about modern art... is it actually art at all? "There have always been disputes about art; but they have been disputes among normal people about matters of degree. There were any number of people who disliked Benvenuto Cellini; there were any number of people who probably preferred the clumsy and pretentious statues of Bandinelli. But there was not a whole crowd of men standing gaping and goggling in front of a statue of Cellini, wondering what in the world it was meant for, and how anybody could have the impudence to suppose that such a thing was a sculpture at all." Are all forms of art equally valid- even those which require little or no skill? Are there no objective or measurable standards or requirements? When I was in London, I visited the British Museum, and was in awe of many of the objects I saw... there was a special exhibition at the time of artworks on loan from Egypt- ancient works of great beauty and artistry, which were simply amazing. I skipped the Tate, which is London's museum of modern art, but recently visited its website. It currently has an exhibition running of an artist whose works include these three paintings:
Well, you can colour me unimpressed. All of this brings me- in a very roundabout way- to the video I mentioned earlier on judging the quality and artistic value of works of art, entitled "Why Is Modern Art So Bad?" The person speaking is a trained artist, so actually has an educated opinion on this matter-as opposed to my "I don't get it."- and I found myself agreeing with his arguments and conclusions. I'm sure there are plenty of art experts who could make make a case for the opposing view, but my brain turns off when anyone starts talking about things like "metaphysical dimensions", so I didn't bother looking any up. In any case, here's the video:
So, what do you think- is art all in the eye of the beholder? If someone splatters a bit of paint on a canvas, creating something which looks like a rorschach test, does that have the same merit as Michelangelo's David? Or are we being conned into accepting the mediocre and substandard in place of the beautiful and elevating? Personally, I think Chesterton had it right- it's sheer impudence to call most of this stuff art.
What I like about Norman Rockwell's art is that it generally tells a story, without a word needing to be said. The above picture, 'Santa on Train' is a good example of this. It was the December 28, 1940 cover of the Saturday Evening Post, and there's genius in its simplicity. Here we have a department store Santa Claus napping on the train, under a Santa poster proclaiming, "See him at Drysdales". Peeking at him with popping eyes is a young boy. The packages he is carrying tie the unspoken narrative together: they are inscribed "Drysdales", and it is obvious that he has seen Santa more formally- and still bewhiskered- earlier in the day. This is what Rockwell truly excelled at: finding the humour and humanity in everyday people and situations, and expressing it in a single frame. Love this!