Starting in the 1970s, neurobiologist Otto-Joachim Grüsser spent 10 years collating the light sources in 2,124 paintings selected at random from Western art originating between the 14th and 20th centuries. He found that in most paintings considered Western works of art, especially those painted around the time of the Scientific Revolution, the light falls from the left.
“At the beginning of modern Western art during the early Gothic period, a preference for diffuse illumination or light sources distributed around the painted scene was found,” Grüsser noted. “In a minority of paintings from the fourteenth century that show a clear light direction, a bias to the left side is present. This left-sided preference increased at the expense of diffuse or middle light sources up to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and declined thereafter. In the twentieth century, the diffuse or middle type of light distribution again became dominant.”
It’s not clear what to make of this. It seems reasonable that a right-handed artist might favor light falling from the left, but why should this vary with time? Grüsser found that the left-handed Leonardo da Vinci applied light sources from varying angles, and Hans Holbein the Younger, also a dominant left-hander, favored light falling from the right.
“From such observations in the works of these two left-handed painters who painted, drew, and wrote with the left hand, one gains the impression that the distribution of left, middle, and right light direction in left-handed painters deviates significantly from the average distribution of light found in the paintings of other contemporary painters. It would be interesting to study the drawings and paintings of other confirmed left-handed artists, who worked exclusively with the left hand.”
(Otto-Joachim Grüsser, Thomas Selke, and Barbara Zynda, “Cerebral Lateralization and Some Implications for Art, Aesthetic Perception, and Artistic Creativity,” in Ingo Rentschler, Barbara Herzberger, and David Epstein, Beauty and the Brain, 1988.)
Italian artist Giovanni Piranesi spent his days making etchings of Roman ruins, but in 1745 he turned out a series of much darker visions, which he called Le Carceri d’Invenzione. “Vaults of colossal proportions from which hang extinguished lanterns, openings closed by bars, spiral staircases and suspended passageways which lead nowhere, immense gallows and wheels, ropes strung on pulleys evoking strange tortures,” writes Roseline Bacou in her collection of the artist’s etchings and drawings, “all these are the visible elements of a closed and nocturnal world.” Thomas De Quincey wrote:
Many years ago, when I was looking over Piranesi’s Antiquities of Rome, Mr. Coleridge, who was standing by, described to me a set of plates by that artist … which record the scenery of his own visions during the delirium of a fever: some of them … representing vast Gothic halls, on the floor of which stood all sorts of engines and machinery, wheels, cables, pulleys, levers, catapults, etc., etc., expressive of enormous power put forth, and resistance overcome. Creeping along the sides of the walls, you perceived a staircase; and upon it, groping his way upwards, was Piranesi himself: follow the stairs a little further, and you perceive it come to a sudden abrupt termination, without any balustrade, and allowing no step onwards to him.
The full collection is here. Aldous Huxley read into the prints “things existing in the physical and metaphysical depths of human souls — to acedia and confusion, to nightmare angst, to incomprehension and to panic bewilderment.” In reworking the prints Piranesi came to relate them to early Rome: One column in the vaults bears the inscription AD TERROREM INCRESCENTIS AVDACIAE, a quotation from Livy’s History of Rome in which the early king Ancus Marcius responds to a loss of values among his people by establishing a prison in the center of the city, “to terrify the growing audacity.” But the initial series were pure fantasy, and their inspiration is unknown.
In 2004, listeners of the BBC’s Today program voted Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” the “saddest classical” work ever written, earning 52.1% of the vote and surpassing “Dido’s Lament” (20.6%) from Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, the Adagietto (12.3%) from Gustav Mahler’s fifth symphony, Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen (5.1%), and “Gloomy Sunday” as sung by Billie Holiday (9.8%).
During the funeral service for Princess Grace of Monaco in 1982, the New York Times noted, “while a part of Samuel Barber’s soaring Adagio for Strings was being played, Prince Albert, who is 24, covered his face in his black-gloved hands. Princess Caroline, who wept, turned towards her father, who sat next to her by the altar, but the Prince [Rainier], partly slumped, eyes half-closed, did not raise his head.” A friend of the prince described him as experiencing “one of the most deep, most total sadnesses” at the loss of his wife.
Barber’s “Adagio” was played at the prince’s own funeral in 2005, and it memorialized the deaths of Sen. Robert A. Taft in 1953, Albert Einstein in 1955, and John Kennedy in 1963. One friend of Barber’s said he heard the music on the radio within 10 minutes of Kennedy’s assassination.
Why do we do this to ourselves? Life is already full of pain; why do we design art to exacerbate it? “If we enjoy the sadness that we claim to feel, then it is not plainly sadness that we are talking of, because sadness is not an enjoyable experience,” writes philosopher Stephen Davies. “On the other hand, if the sadness is unpleasant, we would not seek out, as we do, artworks leading us to feel sad.” How is it possible to enjoy sadness?
(Thomas Larson, The Saddest Music Ever Written, 2012; Stephen Davies, “Why Listen to Sad Music If It Makes One Feel Sad?”, in Jenefer Robinson, ed., Music and Meaning, 1997.)
Is the proposition ‘Botticelli’s Birth of Venus depicts the birth of Venus’ true, false, or neither true nor false? If we assume that there never was such an event as the actual birth of Venus (as we safely can), then this proposition would appear to be analogous to ‘Alexander slew the Minotaur.’ But this proposition is true: Botticelli’s Birth of Venus does depict the birth of Venus.
— W.E. Kennick of Amherst College, posed in Margaret P. Battin et al., Puzzles About Art, 1989
Artist Alex Queral found himself spending a fortune in paint to create the thickly textured portraits he favored. He switched media and began carving them instead, at first out of Styrofoam, then “on another day noticed a stack of old phone books outside waiting to be recycled. It occurred to me that they were not unlike blocks of very soft wood, and there it all began.”
“Taking an ordinary phone book, Alex Queral carves a face into this object of so many faceless names,” writes Laura Heyenga in Art Made From Books (2013). “With a very sharp X-Acto knife, a little pot of acrylic medium to set detail areas, and a great deal of craft, Queral literally peels away the pages of the book as if they were the layers of an onion to reveal the portrait within. Once the carving is complete, he will often apply a black wash to enhance the features and then seal the entire book with acrylic to preserve the work. However, he never loses the line registration, and the book remains quite pliable.”
A good anecdote is told of Josquin [des Prez] and his royal patron, Louis XII. The king was particularly fond of a certain popular song, and desired Josquin to arrange it for several voices, and to include a part for himself (Louis). The last condition was rather a puzzle for the composer, as the king knew nothing of music, and had a very bad and unpliant voice; however, he set to work, wrote a canon on the melody for two boys’ voices, added a part for the king which he marked ‘Vox Regis,’ consisting of only one constantly repeated note, and placed below a bass part which he took himself.
— Musical Times, June 1, 1884
In redesigning the Bank of England in the early 19th century, British architect Sir John Soane presented the governors with three sketches of the building he planned: one as it was new, another as it was weathered, and a third as a 1,000-year-old ruin.
That vision became a reality sooner than he realized — his interiors were demolished in the 1920s.
Below: Gustave Doré’s engraving The New Zealander 1872 was inspired by a remark by Thomas Macaulay: “She [the Roman Catholic Church] may still exist in undiminished vigour when some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul’s.”
In 2009 British artist Roger Hiorns won the Turner Prize by melting a passenger aircraft engine, pouring it through a funnel, and spraying it with water to break it into fine granules.
Its dimensions are listed as “variable.”
The interactive installation Text Rain (1999), by Camille Utterback and Romy Achituv, invites participants to view themselves on a monitor while letters rain down upon them. “Like rain or snow, the text appears to land on participants’ heads and arms. The text responds to the participants’ motions and can be caught, lifted, and then let fall again. The falling text will land on anything darker than a certain threshold, and ‘fall’ whenever that obstacle is removed.”
The letters aren’t random — they form the poem “Talk, You,” from Evan Zimroth’s 1993 book Dead, Dinner, or Naked:
I like talking with you,
simply that: conversing,
a turning-with or -around,
as in your turning around
to face me suddenly …
At your turning, each part
of my body turns to verb.
We are the opposite
of tongue-tied, if there
were such an antonym;
We are synonyms
for limbs’ loosening
and yet turn to nothing:
It’s just talk.
“If a participant accumulates enough letters along their outstretched arms, or along the silhouette of any dark object, they can sometimes catch an entire word, or even a phrase,” the artists note. “‘Reading’ the phrases in the Text Rain installation becomes a physical as well as a cerebral endeavor.”
Sculptor Marc Quinn chose a unique medium for his 1991 self-portrait Self: The life-sized bust is fashioned from nine pints of the artist’s own blood, collected over a period of weeks, poured into a mold, and frozen. It sits in a transparent cube with its own refrigeration unit.
“I have come across viewers who, on seeing Self for the first time, describe a sensation akin to tingling, a kind of spinal over-excitation, or a curious shudder — that involuntary somatic spasm referred to in common speech by the phrase ‘someone walking on one’s grave,’ writes Cambridge philosopher Peter de Bolla in Art Matters (2001). “And for some these immediate somatic responses may quickly give way to a variety of thoughts associated with formally similar presentations of the human head or face: the death mask, waxwork, funerary sculpture, embalmed body, or anatomical model. When this happens, the frisson of the physical encounter rapidly mutates into a jumble of thoughts as if an impulse — call it a spark of affect — sets in motion a series of reactions that leave their trace in whatever permeable surface they encounter.”
In 1869, composer Frederic Clay introduced W.S. Gilbert to Arthur Sullivan.
“I am very pleased to meet you, Mr. Sullivan,” said Gilbert, “because you will be able to settle a question which has just arisen between Mr. Clay and myself. My contention is that when a musician who is master of many instruments has a musical theme to express, he can express it as perfectly upon the simple tetrachord of Mercury (in which there are, as we all know, no diatonic intervals whatever) as upon the more elaborate disdiapason (with the familiar four tetrachords and the redundant note) which (I need not remind you) embraces in its simple consonance all the single, double, and inverted chords.”
This was gobbledegook that Gilbert had simply cooked up; he wanted to see whether it would “pass muster with a musician.”
Sullivan asked him to repeat the question, then politely said he would like to think it over before making a reply. In 1891 Gilbert said, “I believe he is still engaged in hammering it out.”
Artists Tim Noble and Sue Webster find self-portraits in arrangements of domestic trash. Their Dirty White Trash (with Gulls) (1998, right) was contrived from the six months’ rubbish they produced while making it, a sculpture produced by the residue of its own composition.
Somewhat related: Last year travelers from Washington state to Vancouver were surprised to discover this “negative space” billboard by the side of the road. It was created by Daniel Mihalyo and Annie Han of Seattle-based art collective Lead Pencil Studio. Most billboards draw the eye away from the environment; this draws the eye to it.
(Thanks, Alex and Bob.)
Willard Wigan makes tiny art. His sculptures are so small that they’re often presented literally in the eye of a needle; the painstaking work requires him to work late at night, when traffic vibrations are minimal, and to slow his own pulse so he can sculpt between hand tremors.
“It began when I was five years old,” he said. “I started making houses for ants because I thought they needed somewhere to live. Then I made them shoes and hats. It was a fantasy world I escaped to. That’s how my career as a micro-sculptor began.”
His tools include a paintbrush fashioned from a hair from the back of a dead fly. “I have to kill my body,” he told the BBC in 2009. “It’s almost like a dead man working. It takes so much out of you it almost sends you mad. I have passed out doing this work.”
This is startling — in 1500 artist Jacopo de Barbari produced an aerial view of Venice, assembled from six woodcuts on large sheets of paper. The full image fills nearly 4 square meters; it was probably assembled from sightings taken by surveyors in bell towers around the city.
The artist’s meticulous attention to detail is reflected in the flat roof on the bell tower in St. Mark’s Square, which was added after a fire in 1489. When the tower was restored in 1514, the woodblocks were updated to reflect the change.
French anatomist Honoré Fragonard (1732-1799) blurred the line between science and art by arranging human and animal bodies in fanciful poses. By replacing the eyeballs with glass replicas and injecting a distorting resin into the facial blood vessels, he achieved some remarkably expressive effects — his Fetus Dancing the Jig is best left to the imagination.
Florence’s Museum of Zoology and Natural History preserves a collection of wax models that were used in teaching medicine in the 18th century (below). Modelers might refer to 200 corpses in preparing a single wax figure. “If we succeeded in reproducing in wax all the marvels of our animal machine,” wrote director Felice Fontana, “we would no longer need to conduct dissections, and students, physicians, surgeons and artists would be able to find their desired models in a permanent, odor-free and incorruptible state.” Goethe praised artificial anatomy as “a worthy surrogate that, ideally, substitutes reality by giving it a hand.”
(From Roberta Panzanelli, ed., Ephemeral Bodies, 2008.)
When James Thurber tried to improve his drawings, E.B. White told him, “Don’t do that. If you ever got good you’d be mediocre.”
The German comedian known as Loriot (Vicco von Bülow) used to perform a narrative version of Camille Saint-Saëns’ The Carnival of the Animals with members of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, using words to convey music. “His style enters the fairy-tale world the composer has portrayed musically,” writes Siglind Bruhn in Musical Ekphrasis (2000). “He sees and hears the orchestra’s depictions from the inside. Here, the verbal medium happily supplements the little details that might otherwise escape the music listener.” Here’s part of Bruhn’s translation:
A wood-ant, no longer in her prime, taps the giant ant-eater in front of her on the shoulder. ‘Excuse me, I cannot see anything if you keep your hat on,’ Grumpily the ant-eater takes off her headdress, an unwieldy contraption braided from wild asparagus and chicken feathers. ‘Thank you!’ says the ant. Then she lets her eyes wander across the jungle clearing. On the arena seats alone she counts 4791 strangely costumed animals, not to mention the innumerable monkeys and birds that are crowding the overburdened treetops.
Just now there is a stir of anticipation, for the moon is ascending from behind the branches of a mango tree to signal the beginning of the festivity. ‘I think I hear something,’ says a pigeon and she isn’t altogether wrong, for over there near the entrance, in the twigs of a bare oak, sixty-four horned owls take up their instruments. And now the marabou raises his baton, the two squirrels at the pianos lower their paws into the keyboards … and then he enters, with all the members of the royal family: His Majesty, the Lion.
Accompanied by moderate applause the lion has ambled twice around the arena, looking rather bored as he waved to the crowd. Together with his spouse, his three sons, one daughter, five cousins, and an imperfectly colored aunt, he has then taken the seats of honor and closed his eyes. …
Gustav Holst created a unique effect for the conclusion of his orchestral suite The Planets. He stipulated that the women’s chorus was “to be placed in an adjoining room, the door of which is to be left open until the last bar of the piece, when it is to be slowly and silently closed,” and that the final bar, performed by chorus alone, was “to be repeated until the sound is lost in the distance.”
Although familiar today, the effect thrilled audiences at the time. In her 1938 biography of her father, Imogen Holst recalls a 1918 performance by the London Symphony Orchestra: “But it was the end of Neptune that was unforgettable, with its hidden chorus of women’s voices growing fainter and fainter in the distance, until the imagination knew no difference between sound and silence.”
In 1961, Robert Rauschenberg was invited to participate in a Paris show in which artists were to exhibit a portrait of gallery owner Iris Clert. Rauschenberg sent a telegram:
THIS IS A PORTRAIT OF IRIS CLERT IF I SAY SO
Was he right? Perhaps so: Three years later, Parisian performance artist Ben Vautier sat down in a street in Nice holding a placard in his lap. The placard read:
Regardez moi cela suffit je suis art.
That means, “Look at me. That’s all it takes; I’m art.”
In 1975 Denys Parsons devised a surprisingly simple way for nonmusicians to record melodies — write an asterisk for the first note, then hum the tune and decide whether each subsequent note goes up (U), down (D), or repeats (R). The first two phrases of “Happy Birthday,” for instance, look like this:
(“* repeat up down up down down repeat up down up down”)
This is surprisingly effective — Parsons, who spent five years indexing practically every well-known classical theme from the 16th century onward, wrote, “I continue to be astonished that such a simple test, taken to the sixteenth note (or less), should be adequate to distinguish more than 10,000 classical themes.” Can you identify the eight famous classical melodies below?
Pretend that you’ve never seen this before and that it’s an actual living person whose personality you’re trying to read. If you look directly at her face, she seems to hesitate, but if you look near it, say beyond her at the landscape, and try to sense her mood, she smiles at you.
In studying this systematically, Harvard neurobiologist Margaret Livingstone found that “if you look at this painting so that your center of gaze falls on the background or her hands, Mona Lisa’s mouth — which is then seen by your peripheral, low-resolution, vision — appears much more cheerful than when you look directly at it, when it is seen by your fine-detail fovea.
“This explains its elusive quality — you literally can’t catch her smile by looking at it. Every time you look directly at her mouth, her smile disappears because your central vision does not perceive coarse image components very well. People don’t realize this because most of us are not aware of how we move our eyes around or that our peripheral vision is able to see some things better than our central vision. Mona Lisa smiles until you look at her mouth, and then her smile fades, like a dim star that disappears when you look directly at it.”
(From her book Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing, 2002.)
In 1959 pianist Tommy Flanagan was living on 101st Street in Manhattan while John Coltrane lived on 103rd Street. “He came by my apartment with this piece, ‘Giant Steps.’ I guess he thought there was something different about it, because he sat down and played the changes. He said, ‘It’s no problem. I know you can do it, Maestro’ — which is what he called me. ‘If I can play this, you can.'”
If that sounds ominous, it was: The piece marked the culmination of the “Coltrane changes,” a sophisticated scheme of chord substitutions in which the root descends by major thirds, creating a much richer and more demanding harmonic landscape.
“There was no problem just looking at the changes,” Flanagan said. “But I didn’t realize he was going to play it at that tempo! There was no time to shed on it, there was no melody; it was just a set of chords, like we usually get. So we ran it down and we had maybe one take, because he played marvelous on everything. He was ready.”
“It still remains a heck of a document,” remembered drummer Arthur Taylor. “People all around the world look to that, and musicians also; that’s the thing. … John was very serious, like a magician too. He was serious and we just got down to the business at hand.”
When stencil artist DS added his “Bad Kitty” to a London wall in 2012, he was dismayed to find a man removing it only eight hours later.
So he took a photo and used that to create a new stencil on the same spot.
He returned the next day, hoping to get a photo of a man removing a stencil of a man removing a stencil. “I thought it would rip a hole in the space-time continuum or something,” he told the Daily Mail.
But “He came when I was across the road having breakfast, after a while, and having his photo taken next to it lots of times, he left it.”
What is this? It’s the American cargo ship West Mahomet in port, circa November 1918. During World War I British and American merchant ships adopted “dazzle camouflage” in hopes that it would help to confuse their type, size, and heading in enemy rangefinders.
It’s hard to say how well it succeeded as camouflage, but it’s a notable episode in art history: The painting style employed ideas from cubism and vorticism, and English artist Edward Wadsworth, who had helped to direct the effort, continued to pursue these themes even after the war — below is his Dazzle-ships in Drydock at Liverpool from 1919.