In A Thing or Two About Music (1972), Nicolas Slonimsky describes a series of “puzzle minuets” composed by 18th-century harpsichordist Johann Schobert:
Schobert is not a misprint for Schubert. He was an estimable Silesian-born musician who settled in Paris in 1760 and wrote many compositions in the elegant style of the time. Mozart knew his music well and was even influenced by his easy grace in writing piano pieces. Schobert was something of a musical scientist. Among his compositions is a page entitled, ‘A Curious Musical Piece Which Can Be Played on the Piano, on the Violin, and on the Bass, and at that in Different Ways.’ This page contained five minuets, one of which could be played upside down without any change, one which would result in a new piece when turned upside down, and one which would furnish a continuation upside down. Two could be played on the violin and on the bass by assigning the treble clef right side up and the bass clef upside down.
The full page is here. I haven’t tried playing it.
Artist Donald Evans spent his life painting the postage stamps of nonexistent countries. “The stamps are a kind of diary or journal,” he said. “It’s vicarious traveling for me to a made-up world that I like better than the one that I’m in.”
“On little paper rectangles he painted precise transcriptions of his life,” wrote Willy Eisenhart in The World of Donald Evans (1980). “He commemorated everything that was special to him, disguised in a code of stamps from his own imaginary countries — each detailed with its own history, geography, climate, currency and customs — all of it representative of the real world but, like real stamps, apart from it in calm tranquility.”
He painted them as watercolors the size of actual stamps, handling the paper with tweezers and working always with the same trusty brush. When they were finished he would sometimes cancel them with a fanciful postmark carved from a rubber eraser. He preserved them in a 330-page book modeled on a real stamp catalogue, recording in each case the name of the fictional country, the fictional date, the subject and occasion of the stamp’s issue, and the date on which he had completed the painting. He called this book his Catalogue of the World.
By the time he died in an Amsterdam fire in 1977, Evans had painted nearly 4,000 stamps from 42 imaginary nations, bearing dates from 1852 to 1973. He told the Paris Review, “The more I do, the more crazy and minuscule the detail becomes and the more stamplike they become. And that intrigues me. … One of the things I get excited about in making this work is that I try to make it look real.”
The guiding principle for his work, he said, was “basically that it describes something which I think is interesting and that it looks like a stamp.”
In 1794 Haydn visited the singer Venanzio Rauzzini at Bath. In the garden of Rauzzini’s villa he noticed a monument to a much-loved dog named Turk, with the inscription TURK WAS A FAITHFUL DOG AND NOT A MAN. As a tribute he turned the text into a four-part canon:
Rauzzini was so pleased that he had the music added to Turk’s memorial stone.
Shortly before its orchestral premiere in 1885, Johannes Brahms performed his fourth symphony for a small private audience in an arrangement for two pianos, played by himself and Ignaz Brüll.
After the first movement Brahms paused to assess its effect, and critic Eduard Hanslick, who was turning the pages, said, “For the whole movement I had the feeling that I was being given a beating by two incredibly intelligent people.”
This is a detail from the allegorical painting Taste, Hearing and Touch, completed in 1620 by the Flemish artist Jan Brueghel the Elder. If the bird on the right looks out of place, that’s because it’s a sulphur-crested cockatoo, which is native to Australia. The same bird appears in Hearing, painted three years earlier by Brueghel and Peter Paul Rubens.
How did an Australian bird find its way into a Flemish painting in 1617? Apparently it was captured during one of the first Dutch visits to pre-European Australia, perhaps by Willem Janszoon in 1606, who would have carried it to the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) and then to Holland in 1611. That’s significant — previously it had been thought that the first European images of Australian fauna had been made during the voyages of William Dampier and William de Vlamingh, which occurred decades after Brueghel’s death in 1625.
Warwick Hirst, a former manuscript curator at the State Library of New South Wales, writes, “While we don’t know exactly how Brueghel’s cockatoo arrived in the Netherlands, it appears that Taste, Hearing and Touch, and its precursor Hearing, may well contain the earliest existing European images of a bird or animal native to Australia, predating the images from Dampier’s and de Vlamingh’s voyages by some 80 years.”
(Warwick Hirst, “Brueghel’s Cockatoo,” SL Magazine, Summer 2013.) (Thanks, Ross.)
A changeable sculpture by Swiss artist Markus Raetz:
A change of heart:
A similar idea in French:
The Dali Museum in Spain contains a room based on his 1934 painting “Mae West (Face of Mae West Which Can Be Used as an Apartment)”:
See Figure and Ground.
This Katzensymphonie, by Moritz von Schwind (1804-71), resides in the Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe in Germany. Dick Higgins, in Pattern Poetry, writes, “This piece, drawn in pencil and ink on music paper (but not orchestrated) has charm but does not appear to have been intended for performance at all. It may be a satire or lampoon on the famous violinist Joseph Joachim (1831-1904), to whom it is dedicated.”
Perhaps it might be played on the Katzenklavier, a (thankfully) imaginary instrument described by Jean-Baptiste Weckerlin in his Musiciana, extraits d’ouvrages rare ou bizarre of 1877:
[A] chariot … carried the most singular music that can be imagined. It held a bear that played the organ; instead of pipes, there were sixteen cat heads each with its body confined; the tails were sticking out and were held to be played as the strings on a piano, if a key was pressed on the keyboard, the corresponding tail would be pulled hard, and it would produce each time a lamentable meow. The historian Juan Christoval Calvete, noted the cats were arranged properly to produce a succession of notes from the octave … (chromatically, I think).
In 1890 the Glasgow University magazine published this anonymous assessment of the musicianship of botanist and amateur violoncellist Frederick Orpen Bower:
There was a professor of flowers
The ‘cello he’d torture for hours
When the strings gave a growl
The cats gave a howl
And eclipsed all his musical powers.
I have often noticed at the Poetry Society that, after a poem has been read and applauded, when someone dares to get up and inquire what it means, there is likely to be a great outcry to the effect that one cannot analyze a beautiful thing. That is a basic absurdity and represents nothing but a variety of snobbery.
Some will declare indignantly, ‘This thought is too great to be definitely expressed.’ There is truth, I am certain, in the lines ‘whatever deep or shallow, new or old / is clearly thought, can be as clearly told.’ The writer who does not say what he has to say clearly, is shirking his job.
— Arthur Guiterman, quoted in Everett S. Allen, Famous American Humorous Poets, 1968
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.”