On this day in 1937, Der ewige Jude opened in the Library of the German Museum in Munich. In case it isn’t clear, it was an art exhibit with the English title, “The Eternal Jew.” It was a display of “degenerate art.” That was basically art that Hitler didn’t like. You know: modern art. It was all a Jewish conspiracy. So much was. But the Nazis loved these “degenerate art” exhibits. It reminds me of people who love to look at pornography because they think it should be abolished. I’m sure the Germans quite liked the art.
Interesting thing about the Nazi approach to art was that they loved Romantic stuff. This is, interestingly, the same belief of Ayn Rand and the Objectivists. It doesn’t really matter where you scratch at that philosophy, it all comes out the same: fascist. I know: they don’t hate the Jews. But the point of fascism isn’t to hate any particular group; it is just to separate the world into the good and the evil. The Nazis had the good Aryans and the evil Jews and Gypsies. The Objectivists separate the world into the good industrialists and the evil moochers. I don’t think there is any question but that if the Objectivists got power, they would round up all the poor, put them in work camps, and eventually murder and incinerate them. Did I mention that Paul Ryan is an Objectivist?
But the good thing about all those “degenerate art” exhibits is that it did protect the art for a time. And it exposed people to the art. Ideology is rubbish. If people see art that works, they know it. I’m sure a lot of people looked at that stuff and thought, “Oh, that’s rather nice.” Of course, I’m sure there was lots of explicitly antisemitic art as well. The image above is a poster for the exhibit. I don’t think it needs much explanation.
On this day in 1874, Thomas Nast created the first major representation of the Republican Party as a elephant. He is also remembered for popularizing the donkey as the symbol of the Democratic Party. So if you’ve ever wondered about the use of these curious animals as the symbols of our two big political parties, you can blame or credit Nast.
Thomas Nast was a really important political cartoonist of the second half of the 19th century. And his work is really good. This is no doubt thanks to the improved ability of newspapers to render graphics. I’m still amazed that people of that period got anything done. In general, the work was done on blocks of wood. It was then engraved and printed based upon that. And I think PhotoShop is hard.
On this day in 1950, the first Peanuts cartoon was published. Now, it is easy to discount Peanuts because it certainly is not as good a comic as Calvin and Hobbes or Bloom County. But it can’t be judged like that. It has to be compared to Beetle Bailey — which started less than a month before Peanuts. Or the dreadful Family Circus, which was launched a decade later. When I was a kid, I read the comics every day. I didn’t like Family Circus from the age of 8 onward. And Beetle Bailey was always meh. But Peanuts was consistently enjoyable — and that was 25 years after it was created.
My only distaste for Peanuts comes from the television shows. And it’s not the fault of the cartoon. In fact, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown is really quite good — wonderfully written. But why the producers decided to get really bad child actors to do the voices, I’ll never know. It’s just ghastly. But again, it looks great and the writing — as with the strip — is solid.
The wrong question of the day is: Why People Never Smiled in Old Photographs. I wish I could report that we know what the answer is. Phil Edwards certainly provides us with a few ideas. The one that everyone that I know just assumes is right is slow film speed: everyone had to remain perfectly still for a long time. But this has never made much sense to me. I don’t find it any easier to hold a frown than a smile. And you would think that some people in the sea of glum would smile. But we don’t see much of that.
A couple of other ideas seem silly to me. One is, “Early photographs were seen as a passage to immortality.” This goes along with one of these creepy pictures of a corpse — made famous in the film The Others. The question then just turns to why all these people thought eternity was so glum. And a picture of a dead guy is obviously not going to be smiling. Another idea is, “Victorian and Edwardian culture looked down on smiling.” It turns out there are actually a fair number of photos — especially from the Edwardian period where everyone is smiling. And I think that is part of the answer.
Edwards gets closest to the issue with this idea, “Early photography was heavily influenced by painting — which meant no smiling.” This, of course, brings up its own question: why didn’t people smile in paintings? I think the answer to both questions is that sitting for a painting or an early photograph was an exhausting experience. It wasn’t a question of how long they had to wait for the exposure; it was a matter of how long they had to wait for the photographer to get everything set up. So even people who started off smiling didn’t end up that way. It’s similar to the end of a really long, boring business meeting: no one is smiling.
The other issue is that because taking a photo was such a big deal, people tended to be somber about it. And so it did become something of a style. And I doubt there was anything really special in the fact that most people weren’t smiling. People don’t generally smile; they just have what would be termed neutral faces. The people in these old pictures aren’t frowning. They just have normal expressions.
There is one man who everyone thinks of as dour, Arthur Schopenhauer. Yet in half of the photographs of them, he is smiling. Well, maybe it is more correct to say that he is smirking. And to me, that is exactly who he was: a man who was lightly amused at the absurdity of existence. So maybe who we really are is found in those 19th century photos.
Edwards presents the photo at the top of this article as a curious anomaly. It is of a Chinese man in 1904, taken by the anthropologist Berthold Laufer. And Edwards thinks both men’s status as outsiders might have something to do with the playfulness of the image. But I have a more straightforward view of it: maybe they were just both having a good time. Maybe they were both drunk. Regardless, I think the image is a good indication of what was happening before and after the photo. And I think that’s true of the other photos where no one is smiling.
What I find more strange is that everyone feels the need to smile in photographs we take today. I find most family pictures these days incredibly fake — like everyone is pretending to be happy. I think they are just us trying to lie to the world because by now we understand the power of photographs to shape perspectives. There are lots of pictures of Ernest Hemingway smiling, yet he wasn’t a happy man. That seems stranger to me than the fact that people in pictures from 150 years ago look the way people normally look when they aren’t getting their pictures taken.
On this day in 1501, Michelangelo started carving very possibly his greatest work, David. The work has a special meaning to me. When I was 17 years old, I found myself in Florence and I saw it — that actual sculpture, not a replica. I had seen pictures of it before. But I was not prepared for it. It was probably the first time I had a truly transcendent experience with art — something almost mystical. I found myself unable to leave. It’s was like being psychically fed as I saw more and more of the work. I’ve had the experience a number of times since.
I fully admit that this has something to do with my extreme introversion. I’m not that clued into the outside world, so it really does take me a long time to begin to see things. But I only go through this process with things that strike me on a very deep level. And the first time I had that experience was with Michelangelo’s David.
There really is nothing more to add. I’m not that great with visual art as it is. It’s more that I know what I like and I’m really open to new things — even when they’re really old. But I don’t much understand why. Why am I so taken with Bernard Frouchtben? I don’t know. To some extent, I don’t want to know. To some extent, I don’t think anyone really knows. It’s just that some people have a vocabulary to talk about it. But ultimate it works or it doesn’t; it is transcendent or it isn’t; it affects me or it doesn’t. David does all of this and more for me.
On this day in 1899, the great Mexican painter Rufino Tamayo was born. He is from that great period of revolutionary art in Mexico. But he rebelled against it. This was not because he was conservative. But any clear-eyed view of revolution shows that it almost always most hurts the people it is intended to help. Certainly during his early years, Tamayo was criticized for this although no one seems to have ever questioned the brilliance of his work.
As a result of this, he left Mexico in 1926 to live and work in New York. In 1949, he moved to Paris for a decade. But after that, he returned to Mexico for the rest of his long life—he died a couple months short of his 92nd birthday in 1991.
It’s hard to categorize Tamyao’s work. Wikipedia calls it “figurative abstraction,” which I suppose is as true as anything. But his work is quite varied over his long career, so any one description is certainly insufficient. I see a lot of Paul Klee in his work—especially in Tamyao’s use of colors. See, for example, Watermelons. But I’m fascinated by this painting that is rather different, Hombre Mirando Pajaros (“Man Looking at Bird”):
Happy birthday Rufino Tamayo!
This is a reposting from last year.
On this day in 1911, the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre. It was taken by an Italian loyalist who felt that painting should be in Italy. But that didn’t stop the authorities from first arresting and incarcerating the poet Guillaume Apollinaire. Regardless, the Mona Lisa is representative of everything that is wrong with the art field. Why is it such a great painting? Because everyone thinks so!
I’m not saying that it’s bad. And I loved it when I was a kid. Now, well, not so much. Certainly it is a great example of High Renaissance portraiture. But I find the background disturbing — and fake. I think people love it most because they don’t appreciate it. It’s just this painting of a woman with a smirk. And let’s be honest: there’s nothing mysterious about it; that’s all it is: a smirk. I know this because most pictures of me have the exact same expression. I hate posing for pictures and as a result, that’s the face I make.
There are things that I greatly admire by Leonardo da Vinci. But he was the Orson Welles of the High Renaissance — he didn’t finish much of anything. That’s why his sketches are often the most interesting of his work. And that’s why I can hardly think of a more boring thing to do than go to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa — especially when there are so many more interesting works in that very same museum.
On this day in 1631, Mumtaz Mahal died in childbirth. It was her 14th child. She was the star of that early television show, “14 Kids and Dying.” Interestingly, her last baby — a girl, Gauharara Begum — lived to be 75 years old — the second oldest of her children. Mumtaz Mahal was married to Shah Jahan. He was only a couple of months older than she was, and she was the love of his life. When Jahan became the Mughal Emperor of India, she because empress. But none of this is why we remember her.
Jahan was so heartbroken when Mumtaz Mahal died shortly before her 38th birthday, he started to build the Taj Mahal to house here tomb. It took 21 years to build (although it was mostly completed after 11). It is unquestionably one of the greatest architectural achievements in the history of the world. and it is a touching story as well. But I would add that most great art created by men was done to impress and honor what is objectively the better sex.
Happy anniversary the beginning of the Taj Majal!
On this day in 1972, Laszlo Toth attacked Michelangelo’s Pietà. And because he was trained as a geologist, he did a lot of damage. But let’s back up a bit on this.
Toth was born in Hungary in 1938. He got a degree in geology in 1965 and moved to Australia. But he had difficulty finding work. This was partly due to the fact that his degree was not recognized there. It was also party due to the fact that he didn’t really speak English. But it was mostly due to the fact that he was crazy.
In 1971, he moved to Italy, even though he knew no Italian. But he seemed to want to get close to Pope Paul VI (also know as “the pope who looked like Jonathan Pryce”). By this time, Toth believed he was Jesus Christ. But the pope apparently never answered his letters. So on 21 May 1972, Toth entered St Peter’s Basilica and attacked the Pietà, yelling, “I am Jesus Christ — risen from the dead!”
He was wielding a geologist’s hammer. And, “With fifteen blows he removed Mary’s arm at the elbow, knocked off a chunk of her nose, and chipped one of her eyelids.” American sculptor Bob Cassilly, who was visiting, was the first to grab him, followed quickly by a number of others who managed to subdue him as seen in the photo above.
Laszlo Toth was never charged with a crime. He spent two years in a mental hospital, after which, he was shipped back to Australia where he was cared for until he died on 11 September 2012. The Pietà was completely repaired after the incident and is now displayed behind bulletproof (and geologist’s hammer proof, I would assume) glass.
Happy anniversary for this unfortunate, but somehow amusing, attack.
When WNYW, the New York Fox (Not Fox News, people!) affiliate did a story on the ridiculous $179.4 million auction price for Pablo Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Alger (Version “O”), they blurred out the breasts. It makes sense. Those cubist breasts might poison the minds of cubist children living in the greater New York area.
For the record: Pablo Picasso was a horrible human being and likely the most overrated artist of all time. And I am especially underwhelmed by this painting. So the fact that some rich idiot paid that much for the painting really says something. Imagine how many truly great pieces of art this idiot could have bought for this amount of money. But I’m sure that the purchaser (who is unknown) cares more about the price paid than the art acquired.
Les Femmes d’Alger was a series of fifteen paintings that Picasso did in the mid-1950s — long after his best days. The series is based upon a painting by the great French master Eugène Delacroix’s Femmes d’Alger Dans Leur Appartement. It is a fantastic work. Now it should maybe be blurred out. It features concubines with a hookah — most likely used for opium to make life bearable. But more than that, just check out the beautiful design elements of the piece:
This masterpiece is currently at the Louvre. But I assume that if it came up at auction, it would not fetch anything close to $180 million. All the most expensive paintings are modern or post-impressionist (except for Salvator Mundi, which might have been painted by Leonardo da Vinci). There’s a reason why we call them the useless rich. What wastes of space they are! How entirely predictable and banal.
But I’m sure you want to see Picasso’s cubist breasts, so here they are:
On this day in 1894, the great pin-up artist George Petty was born. You certainly know his art, because it copies of it were used to decorate planes used in World War II — most notably the Memphis Belle. His father was a successful photographer of women — so maybe it was in the blood. Or maybe seeing dad’s nudes had an environmental impact on the young man.
He is known for having created a kind of iconic figure: the Petty Girl. It sounds sexist: the women in the images have smaller than normal heads and longer and normal legs. I don’t especially see the smaller head. But the ridiculously long legs are hard to miss. These were created for Esquire magazine when it had centerfolds — the predecessors of those later found in Playboy. I assume they were thought rather racy in their day. Today, they look downright homey.
All right, not quite:
Happy birthday George Petty!
On this day in 1820, the Venus de Milo was rediscovered. I have to admit to being completely ignorant of this. I had just assumed that the sculpture had always been around and that the missing arms were the result of age. But no, the whole thing was lost in a buried niche on the island of Milos in the Aegean Sea. When it was discovered, the left arm was present — although broken. The left left apparently held an apple.
There is a fascinating story of how the Venus de Milo became such a well known piece of art. It was rediscovered five years after France had returned the Venus de’ Medici to Italy (it had been stolen during the reign of Napoleon). It is a greater piece of art, if you ask me. But as with most things in the art world, the greater reputation of the Venus de Milo is the result of a propaganda campaign. France wanted to feel better about the fact that they had lost the Venus de’ Medici. And now we are all supposed to think that it is a great sculpture. And it is — just not uniquely so.
Happy rebirthday Venus de Milo!