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.”