Making Fun

Minutes from a New Yorker editorial meeting to consider the week’s cartoon submissions, Feb. 5, 1935:

PRICE, Gar.: Man and two small boys in picture gallery; man has stopped before nude painting. One of the small boys is saying to the other, ‘There’s something about it gets the old man every time.’

Not right type of people; should be smart people.

SHERMUND: Scene in beauty parlor; masseuse is massaging the back of a woman’s neck and saying, ‘You’re one of the lucky few who have a normal skin, Madame.’

Make better drawing; this too unpleasant.

DUNN: Couple looking at grandmother in next room mixing herself a whiskey and soda. ‘Just because it’s Mother’s Day she thinks the lid is off.’

Better whiskey bottle.

The Tuesday afternoon cartoon meeting had been a fixture in the editorial routine since the magazine’s inception. Editor Harold Ross would point out each drawing’s weaknesses with knitting needles while art department administrator Daise Terry took notes. The resulting feedback ranged from hopelessly vague (“Make funnier”) to absurdly specific (“Mr. Ross is troubled by the fact that a man wouldn’t use a sledge hammer in the house, and thinks the scene had better be in the back yard with the doll placed on a large stone”).

Among the cartoonists whom this infuriated was James Thurber, who wrote to Terry in resubmitting a rejected drawing in 1937, “If this drawing is not funny, and is not a swell drawing, I shall engage to eat it, and with it all of Price’s fantasies that just miss, all of Taylor’s S. Klein women, and all eleven versions of every drawing Day does of two men in a restaurant. I will also eat every drawing of a man and a woman on a raft, every drawing of a man and a native woman on a desert island, and every drawing of two thin women in big-backed chairs. … I will also eat every drawing of a small animal talking to its parents, and every drawing of two large animals talking about their young.” Terry’s response is not recorded.

(From Ben Yagoda, About Town, 2000.)

Simple Enough

Anton Reicha’s piano fugue number 18 has an uninspired subject — it’s just the same note repeated 34 times:

Or maybe that is inspired?

Double Duty

Except for the final chord, the last movement of Paul Hindemith’s 1942 piano work Ludus Tonalis is the same as the first rotated 180 degrees.

In between is an hour of music, with 12 three-part fugues and 11 interludes. The title means “Game of Tones.”

Last Thoughts

Belgian painter Antoine Wiertz unveiled a gruesome triptych in 1853: Thoughts and Visions of a Severed Head depicts a guillotined head’s impressions of its final three minutes of awareness.

Wietz added a verbal description of each of the panels. Here’s an excerpt from the second minute, “Under the Scaffold”:

For the first time the executed prisoner is conscious of his position.

He measures with his fiery eyes the distance that separates his head from his body and tells himself, ‘My head really is cut off.’

Now the frenzy redoubles in force and energy.

The executed prisoner imagines that his head is burning and turning on itself, that the universe is collapsing and turning with it, that a phosphorescent fluid is whirling around his skull as it melts down.

In this midst of this horrible fever, a mad, incredible, unheard of idea takes possession of the dying brain.

Would you believe it? This man whose head has been chopped off still conceives of a hope. All the blood that remains bubbles, gushes, and courses with fury through all the canals of life to grasp at this hope.

At this moment the executed prisoner is convinced that he is stretching out his convulsive and rage-filled hands toward his expiring head.

I don’t know what this imaginary movement means. Wait … I understand … It’s horrible!

Oh! My God, what is life that it continues the struggle to the very last drop of blood?

In the same year, American author Theodore Witmer had recorded his own impressions of seeing an execution in the 1840s. “Why don’t somebody give us ‘The Reflections of a Decapitated Man?'” he asked. “If it turned out stupid, he might excuse himself for want of a head.”

Tech Talk

Reviewing Heathcote Statham’s book Form and Design in Music in 1893, George Bernard Shaw decried the “insufferable affectation” of music criticism. He quoted Statham’s analysis of a Mozart symphony:

The principal subject, hitherto only heard in the treble, is transferred to the bass (Ex. 28), the violins playing a new counterpoint to it instead of the original mere accompaniment figure of the first part. Then the parts are reversed, the violins taking the subject and the basses the counterpoint figure, and so on till we come to a close on the dominant of D minor, a nearly related key (commencement of Ex. 29) and then comes the passage by which we return to the first subject in its original form and key.

“How succulent this is,” Shaw wrote, “and how full of Mesopotamian words like ‘the dominant of D minor.’ I will now, ladies and gentlemen, give you my celebrated ‘analysis’ of Hamlet’s soliloquy on suicide, in the same scientific style”:

Shakespear, dispensing with the customary exordium, announces his subject at once in the infinitive, in which mood it is presently repeated after a short connecting passage in which, brief as it is, we recognize the alternative and negative forms on which so much of the significance of repetition depends. Here we reach a colon; and a pointed pository phrase, in which the accent falls decisively on the relative pronoun, brings us to the first full stop.

“I break off here, because, to confess the truth, my grammar is giving out,” he wrote. “But I want to know whether it is just that a literary critic should be forbidden to make his living in this way on pain of being interviewed by two doctors and a magistrate, and haled off to Bedlam forthwith; while the more a music critic does it, the deeper the veneration he inspires.”

(From The World, May 31, 1893.)

No Waiting

Image: Flickr

For Fuse 18, the experimental typographic publication that appeared in February 2001, type designer Matthew Carter reflected on the grand lettering that appears on public buildings: It’s meant to last for eternity, but inevitably it’s effaced by weather, by other inscriptions, and by the graffiti of vandals.

So, wryly, he offered DeFace, which speeds up the process.

“This typeface,” he wrote, “contains a set of inscriptional capitals that are self-vandalizing: each letter has graffiti associated with it that deface neighboring letters. Depending on the text, the graffiti can vandalize both the underlying capitals and other graffiti to make a palimpsest of marks that are individually legible but obscure in combination.”

A Tone Palette

In his Musical Biography of 1824, John R. Parker attempts to characterize musical keys in words:

parker keys

“It is sufficient to have hinted at these effects,” he writes. “To account for them, is difficult; but every musician is sensible of their existence.”

Surf’s Up

Mana Nalu mural

Painted on the east side of the Lani Nalu Plaza building in Honolulu, trompe-l’oeil artist John Pugh’s mural Mana Nalu (Power of the Wave) depicts Liliuokalani, the last monarch of the Hawaiian Islands, and surfing pioneer Duke Kahanamoku.

Pugh took a year and a half to create the image, working with 14 other artists. The whole scene is painted, including the wave, the skylight, the balcony, the urns, the children, and the staircase.

“After the mural was near completion,” Pugh writes, “a fire truck with crew stopped in the middle of traffic and jumped out to rescue the children in the mural. They got about 15 feet away and then doubled over laughing that they were fooled into an emergency response mode. I don’t think that there were any liability issues for a false report.”

More of Pugh’s work here and on his website.

(Thanks, Ron.)

Double Duty

haydn palindrome

The minuet in Haydn’s Piano Sonata in A Major (Landon 41) is a palindrome. So is the trio that follows it.

The composer was so proud of his feat that he labeled the minuet Menuetto al Rovescio (“Minuet in Reverse”) and used it again in his Sonata No. 4 for Piano and Violin and his Symphony No. 47 in G major, “The Palindrome.”


The Viking 1 orbiter brought some surprised attention to the Cydonia region of Mars in 1976 when its cameras discovered what appeared to be an enigmatic face staring up into the heavens.

The “face on Mars” has since been explained as an optical illusion, but it recalls a project conceived 30 years earlier by the American artist Isamu Noguchi. Sculpture to Be Seen From Mars, below, was proposed as a massive earthwork to be constructed in “some unwanted area,” perhaps a desert, at an enormous scale, so that the nose would be 1 mile long. When seen from space, the face would show that a civilized life form had once existed on Earth. Noguchi had been embittered by his experiences as a Japanese-American during World War II and the development of atomic weapons; he had originally called the piece Memorial to Man.

noguchi, sculpture to be seen from mars

If those two don’t have enough to talk about, there’s a newcomer to join them: In 2013, face recognition software discovered the image below in a photo of the moon’s south pole taken by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Who’s next?