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When Elizabeth Thompson married Maj. Sir William Butler in 1877, she was already a respected painter of military subjects. But becoming Lady Butler gave her a unique opportunity: She could now watch maneuvers in person and even stand in front of charging cavalry to study the momentum of the horses.

The startling result, Scotland for Ever, depicts a head-on charge of the Royal Scots Greys, the cavalry regiment that Napoleon had hailed as “those terrible men on grey horses” at Waterloo.

The painting was an enormous success and became a symbol of British military heroism. The scene is a bit exaggerated — in their famous charge the advancing horses had never reached a full gallop due to the broken ground. But then most of the painting’s admirers would never have guessed that the artist had never witnessed a battle.

Vulture Picnic

For her 2009 work In Ictu Oculi (“In the Twinkling of an Eye”), artist Greta Alfaro spread a table outside the Spanish village of Fitero and filmed a feast among 40 vultures.

“It was not easy to get them to jump on the table,” she told the Translocal Institute for Contemporary Art. “I had to wait for one week, setting the table every morning and unsetting it at dusk. Vultures have extraordinary eyesight, and if one of them notices that there is food, it will draw circles in the air to let the others know. They approached the scene every day, but either my presence or the presence of the table prevented them from getting closer.”

“I think that it is important today to reflect on the impermanence of almost everything, and on the fact that life cannot be controlled.”

Short Takes

Artist Jason Shulman has an interesting exhibit this month at London’s Cob Gallery: Photographs of Films condenses the entirety of a given film into a single exposure.

“There are roughly 130,000 frames in a 90-minute film, and every frame of each film is recorded in these photographs,” Shulman says. “You could take all these frames and shuffle them like a deck of cards, and no matter the shuffle, you would end up with the same image I have arrived at. Each of these photographs is the genetic code of a film — its visual DNA.”

Some examples:

Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902):

The Wizard of Oz (1939):

Citizen Kane (1941):

Rear Window (1954):

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968):

The Shining (1980):

More at Shulman’s site. Japanese artist Hiroshi Sugimoto was conducting similar experiments about 20 years ago, and Kevin L. Ferguson has assembled an impressive collection of his own.

Good Boy

The best dog breeds to sit for paintings, according to British artist Briton Rivière:

The best dog to sit is an animal which I am afraid I must admit I thoroughly dislike — an intelligent poodle. Many dogs are a long time before they grasp what is wanted of them, and one has to go through no small amount of patience to get them to behave themselves. The most restless sitters are the collie and the deerhound. Still, notwithstanding their restlessness, I am very fond of both, and have frequently painted them. Perhaps the dog I admire most is the bloodhound; but, as a matter of fact, I am fond of all short-haired dogs.

He also found greyhounds and fox terriers to be restless. “Some dogs are very difficult to manage, but however awkward and ill-tempered a dog may be, in time he gets used to the studio. I have watched a dog for hours at a time, until I have been able to get exactly what I wanted, for however troublesome an animal may be, it is only a question of waiting, when you will be sure to get what you want.”

(From The Strand, January 1896.)

Literate Art
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Spanish artist Jaume Plensa created El Alma del Ebro, above, for a 2008 exposition in Zaragoza on water and sustainable development. (The Ebro River passes through the city.) Visitors can pass in and out of the 11-meter seated figure, but no one has discovered a meaning in the letters that compose it.

lehmann print

Argentine artist Pablo Lehmann cuts words out of (and into) paper and fabric — he spent two years fashioning an entire apartment out of his favorite philosophy books. Reading and Interpretation VIII, above, is a photographic print of Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Garden of Forking Paths” into which Lehmann has cut his own text — a meditation on “the concept of ‘text.'”
Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 2011, Buenos Aires native Marta Minujin built a seven-story “Tower of Babel” on a public street to celebrate the city’s designation as a “world book capital.” The tower, 82 feet tall, was made of 30,000 books donated by readers, libraries, and 50 embassies. They were given away to the public after the exhibition.


While working at a tedious job in the summer of 1963, Jerry Gretzinger began drawing a map of an imaginary city. He added to the map fitfully for 20 years, put it aside, and then took it up again when his grandson found it in his attic. He’s now been mapping the area around “Ukrania” for more than 30 years, working an average of 20 minutes a day.

The activity is not entirely in his own hands. He draws from a special deck of cards to determine the focus of each day’s work. A given card might tell him to add a new paint color, to shuffle the deck, or to add a new “void,” a region of blankness that obliterates part of the map and incubates a new world of its own. The Ukranians can fend off the void only with a retaining wall, which they are constantly constructing. But whether they can save themselves from oblivion not even Gretzinger knows. “That’s why I keep going,” he says.

The current map covers about 1,500 square feet, representing an area of 14,400 square miles. Here’s a zoomable version.

Different Strokes

In 1964, Swedish journalist Åke Axelsson paid a zookeeper to give a brush and paint to a 4-year-old chimpanzee named Peter. Then he chose the best of Peter’s paintings and exhibited them at the Gallerie Christinae in Göteborg, saying they were the work of a previously unknown French artist named Pierre Brassau.

Critic Rolf Anderberg of the Göteborgs-Posten wrote, “Brassau paints with powerful strokes, but also with clear determination. His brush strokes twist with furious fastidiousness. Pierre is an artist who performs with the delicacy of a ballet dancer.”

After Axelsson revealed the hoax, Anderberg maintained that Peter’s work was “still the best painting in the exhibition.”

A Pitched Battle

In The Book of the Harp (2005), John Marson mentions a musical oddity — in 1932, a committee devoted to equal temperament was so incensed at the Royal Schools of Music that it hauled them before London’s Central Criminal Court for obtaining money under false pretenses. From The Music Lover magazine, April 30, 1932:

There is a touch of knight errantry about the action of Lennox Atkins F.R.C.O., hon. sec. of the Equal Temperament Committee, in applying at Bow Street for process against the Associated Board of Examiners in Music on the grounds that they were not qualified to know whether the music was being played in tune or not, and that therefore their diplomas were valueless. It certainly savours of the ‘ingenious gentleman’ of La Mancha who tilted at windmills. The temperament question seems to have upon those who take it up an effect similar to that which temperament produces in a prima donna. They become, to say the least, unreasonable. Happily Mr Fry, the magistrate, decided that this was not a matter for a criminal court, so that Sir John B. McEwan and Sir Hugh Allen are not to be shot at dawn, as was at first feared.

McEwan headed the Royal Academy of Music and Allen the Royal College of Music at the time. I find a bit more in the Musical Times, June 1, 1932:

Candidates were allowed to pass off the tuner’s scale as their own, and to obtain certificates to which, the E.T.C. claimed, they were not in equity entitled. Every sound produced was the tuner’s and not the candidate’s. Famous examiners, such as the late Sir Frederick Bridge, had wrongly passed thousands of candidates in keyed instrument examinations. From the point of view of the E.T.C., the candidates were not really examined at all.

The magistrate added that if it was thought that the examiners’ knowledge was insufficient then civil proceedings might be undertaken.

“We have only once before heard of the Equal Temperament Committee — a long while ago — and we were, and are still, vague as to its aims,” noted the Musical Times. “We had imagined it to be a learned Society that met from time to time to exchange light and airy chat about ratios, partials, mesotonics, and other temperamental details. But it seems that it is a body with a Mission, though we are not clear what that Mission is. Judging from the Bow Street evidence, the Committee’s aim is to make ‘Every Musician His Own Tuner’ — which seems rather rough on real tuners.”