Bach’s “crab canon” rendered as a Möbius strip:
Bach and Handel were both blinded by the same oculist, John Taylor, “the poster child for 18th-century quackery,” according to University of Wisconsin ophthalmologist Daniel Albert. Bach probably died of a post-operative infection; Handel wrote the lyrics to Samson (“Total eclipse! No sun, no moon! / All dark amidst the blaze of noon!”) after Taylor’s botched cataract surgery.
Random Möbius anecdote: In 1957, B.F. Goodrich patented a half-twisted conveyor belt for carrying hot material such as cinders and foundry sand, “thereby permitting each face of the belt to cool during one half of the operating period.”
When the last Impression is posted and the tubes are twisted and pinched,
When the youngest Cubist is throttled and the oldest Futurist lynched,
We shall rest, and, gee! we shall need it–come off for a minute or two,
Till the masters of all this rubbish shall set us agog anew.
Then those that were Cubists shall worry; they shall sit on a picket fence
And paint with a vacuum cleaner on the sides of canvas tents.
They shall have real models to draw from–a nude in a crazy quilt,
Or a maudlin, rhomboid Scotchman, descending the stairs in his kilt.
And only Picasso shall praise them, and only Matisse shall blame;
And no one shall care for censure, and no one shall care for shame.
But each in his own straitjacket and each in his separate cell
Shall slather the paint as he sees it, for the glory of Art that won’t jell.
– Carolyn Wells, in Such Nonsense!: An Anthology, 1918
I cannot omit a rather childish story which Vasari tells about the David. After it had been placed upon its pedestal before the palace, and while the scaffolding was still there, Piero Soderini, who loved and admired Michelangelo, told him that he thought the nose too large. The sculptor immediately ran up the ladder till he reached a point upon the level of the giant’s shoulder. He then took his hammer and chisel, and, having concealed some dust of marble in the hollow of his hand, pretended to work off a portion from the surface of the nose. In reality he left it as he found it; but Soderini, seeing the marble dust fall scattering through the air, thought that his hint had been taken. When, therefore, Michelangelo called down to him, ‘Look at it now!’ Soderini shouted up in reply, ‘I am far more pleased with it; you have given life to the statue.’
– John Addington Symonds, The Life of Michelangelo Buonarroti, 1893
Claiming to be haunted by the “spirit of proportion,” German sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (1736-83) found he could subdue its attacks by pinching himself and pulling a face in a mirror. Pleased with this success, he resolved to sculpt every “canonical” variety of human grimace.
By the time of his death at age 47, he had executed 69 “character heads” in lead, stone, and wood. None had been commissioned, and none were sold during his lifetime; they were the product of a peculiarly personal obsession and a passionate discipline. (A visitor who had observed him in 1781 noted that Messerschmidt “looked into the mirror every half minute and made, with the greatest exactitude, precisely that grimace which he just needed.”)
Interpreting the heads has been equally the province of psychology and art history. Messerschmidt may have been mentally ill, but he was undeniably gifted, and it appears he achieved the goal he had set. “It is utterly strange,” wrote Jonathan Jones of a recent Louvre exhibition. “No other artist of the age worked in a similar way, and you sense a long sickness of compulsive, isolated behaviour in what are nevertheless great works of art.”
This is Francisco Goya’s painting Portrait of the Duke of Wellington.
In 1961 it was stolen from the National Gallery in London.
In 1962 it turned up again — it hangs in Dr. No’s lair in the first James Bond film.
There was a composer named Liszt,
Who from writing could never desiszt.
He made polonaises
Quite worthy of praises,
And now that he’s gone he is miszt.
There was a composer named Haydn,
The field of sonata would waydn;
He wrote the Creation,
Which made a sensation,
And this was the work which he daydn.
A modern composer named Brahms,
Caused in music the greatest of quahms.
His themes so complex
Every critic would vex,
From symphonies clear up to psahms.
An ancient musician named Gluck
The manner Italian forsuck;
He fought with Puccini,
Gave way to Rossini,
You can find all his views in his buck.
Suppose … that a finely wrought object, one whose texture and proportions are highly pleasing in perception, has been believed to be the product of some primitive people. Then there is discovered evidence that proves it to be an accidental natural product. As an external thing, it is now precisely what it was before. Yet at once it ceases to be a work of art and becomes a natural ‘curiosity.’ It now belongs in a museum of natural history, not in a museum of art. And the extraordinary thing is that the difference that is thus made is not one of just intellectual classification. A difference is made in appreciative perception and in a direct way. The esthetic experience — in its limited sense — is thus seen to be inherently connected with the experience of making.
– John Dewey, Art as Experience, 1934
Grant Wood’s American Gothic is a bit ersatz — the artist recruited a Cedar Rapids dentist, B.H. McKeeby, to pose as the farmer, and his sister Nan plays the woman (conceived as the farmer’s spinster daughter, not his wife).
But the setting was inspired by a real cottage in Wood’s native Iowa, and by his admiration for “the kind of people I fancied should live in that house.”
“I tried to characterize them honestly, to make them more like themselves than they are in actual life,” he said. “To me they are basically good and solid people.”
Imagine that we learned that the object before us [that] looks like a painting that would spontaneously move us if we believed it had been painted — say the Polish Rider of Rembrandt, in which an isolated mounted figure is shown midjourney to an uncertain destiny — was not painted at all but is the result of someone’s having dumped lots of paint in a centrifuge, giving the contrivance a spin, and having the result splat onto canvas, ‘just to see what would happen.’ … Now the question is whether, knowing this fact, we are prepared to consider this randomly generated object a work of art.
– Arthur Coleman Danto, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, 1981
From Strand, August 1906:
A circular canon is so named not because of its circular form, but because it completes the circle of fifths–i.e., it goes through all the keys, each a perfect fifth above the other, until it returns to the original key. The one under notice is written in triple counterpoint, any part sounding equally well in the top, middle, or lowest voice, and each bar is in three different keys at once, all harmonizing.
This rendering is a bit indistinct, I’m afraid — if I can find a clearer version I’ll post it.
The Ghent altarpiece is 20-panel allegorical polyptych by Hubert and Jan van Eyck, a masterpiece of 15th-century art.
In April 1934, a thief stole the lower left panel and demanded a ransom of 1 million Belgian francs.
Seven months later, Flemish broker Arsène Goedertier collapsed after a speech at a political rally. He managed to say that he knew where the stolen panel was hidden, but he died before he could communicate the secret.
In Goedertier’s home police found abundant evidence that he had sent the ransom note, but there was no sign of the missing panel, only a record that it was “in a place where neither I nor anyone else can recover it without drawing attention.”
It remains missing to this day.
Ambassador Richard Washburn Child once dined with Calvin Coolidge at the White House.
After dinner, the president said he had something to show him. He led Child to one of the smaller rooms in the mansion, opened the door, and turned on the light.
“On the opposite wall hung a portrait of himself,” Child later recalled. “I thought it so very bad I could think of nothing to say.”
For a long moment the two men stood on the threshold. Then Coolidge snapped off the light and closed the door.
“So do I,” he said.
- Can God sin?
- The Thinker’s right elbow is on his left knee.
- 48625 = 45 + 82 + 66 + 28 + 54
- MARASCHINO is an anagram of HARMONICAS.
- “Genius is nothing but continued attention.” — Helvetius
A Yorkshire police constable sent this image to the Strand in 1907: “This photograph of dog and puppies was about to be thrown away as a failure, when on turning the picture sideways it was found that the dog’s body has the appearance of a man’s head”:
This undated photo seems to reveal the image of a bearded Jesus:
And Bohemian artist Wenzel Hollar etched Landschafts-Kopf in the 17th century:
Is it a portrait or a landscape?
- 34425 = 34 × 425
- A running joke is a standing joke.
- RESTAURATEURS balances two identical sets of letters on either side of the central R.
- Does an artwork have value if no one sees it?
- “Marriage is a covered dish.” — Swiss proverb
Common dismissals of the works of great composers by the critics of their day, from Nicolas Slonimsky’s Lexicon of Musical Invective (1965):
- “Barbarous”: Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Varèse, Wagner
- “Bizarre”: Beethoven, Berlioz, Bloch, Chopin, Liszt
- “Crude”: Beethoven, Berlioz, Miszt, Moussorgsky, Schumann
- “Dull”: Beethoven, Brahms, Gershwin, Liszt, Schumann, Scriabin, Strauss, Stravinsky
- “Hideous”: Berlioz, Bloch, Bruckner, Harris, D’Indy, Liszt, Moussorgsky, Puccini, Saint-Saëns, Schoenberg, Strauss, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, Varèse, Wagner
- “Monstrous”: Beethoven, Bloch, Krenek, Liszt, Prokofiev, Schoenberg, Shostakovitch, Wagner
- “Painful”: Bizet, Franck, D’Indy, Wagner
- “Perverse”: Berg, Chopin, Prokofiev, Strauss, Stravinsky
- “Rambling”: Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Schoenberg, Wagner
- “Repulsive”: Beethoven, Berg, Berlioz,Bizet, Prokofiev, Ravel
- “Vulgar”: Beethoven, Berlioz, Gershwin, Liszt, Shostakovitch, Sibelius, Tchaikovsky
Highlights of selected reviews:
- “This is advanced cat music.” — Heinrich Dorn, Aus Meinem Leben, Berlin, 1870, of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde
- “I can compare Le Carneval Romain by Berlioz to nothing but the caperings and gibberings of a big baboon, over-excited by a dose of alcoholic stimulus.” — George Templeton Strong’s diary, Dec. 15, 1866
- “A blood-curdling nightmare.” — Boston Herald, Feb. 23, 1896, of Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel
- “A farrago of circus tunes.” — E. Chapman, Tempo, September 1946, of Shostakovitch’s ninth symphony
- “A bomb in a poultry-yard.” — Louis Elson, Boston Daily Advertiser, Dec. 19, 1914, of Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces
- “The upsetting of twenty thousand coal-scuttles.” — Henry Labouchère, Truth, London, Feb. 12, 1885, of Liszt’s symphony to Dante’s Divina Commedia
- “A horde of demons struggling in a torrent of brandy.” — Boston Evening Transcript, Oct. 24, 1892, of Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony
- “A catastrophe in a boiler factory.” — Olin Downes, New York Times, Dec. 17, 1924, of Varèse’s Hyperprism
- “A cat with catarrh.” — Boston Evening Transcript, April 17, 1913, of Webern’s Six Orchestral Pieces
Writing in the New York Evening Post of March 2, 1925, Ernest Newman declared that Edgard Varèse’s Intérales “sounded a good deal like a combination of early morning in the Mott Haven freight yards, feeding time at the zoo and a Sixth Avenue trolley rounding a curve, with an intoxicated woodpecker throw in for good measure.”
Of the Second Impressionist Exhibition of 1876, critic Albert Wolff wrote in Le Figaro: “Five or six lunatics, one of them a woman — a collection of unfortunates tainted by the folly of ambition — have met here to exhibit their works. … What a terrifying spectacle is this of human vanity stretched to the verge of dementia. Someone should tell M. Pissarro forcibly that trees are never violet, that the sky is never the colour of fresh butter, that nowhere on earth are things to be seen as he paints them. …”
When J.L. Gérôme was conducting President Loubet around the exhibitions at the Exposition Universelle of 1900, he stopped him at the door of the Impressionist room, saying, “Arrêtez, Monsieur le Président, c’est ici le déshonneur de la France!”
In short, there appears to be something paradoxical about the horror genre. It obviously attracts consumers; but it seems to do so by means of the expressly repulsive. Furthermore, the horror genre gives every evidence of being pleasurable to its audience, but it does so by means of trafficking in the very sorts of things that cause disquiet, distress, and displeasure. So different ways of clarifying the question ‘Why horror?’ are to ask: ‘Why are horror audiences attracted by what, typically (in everyday life), should (and would) repel them?,’ or ‘How can horror audiences find pleasure in what by nature is distressful and unpleasant?’
– Noël Carroll, “Why Horror?” in Alex Neill and Aaron Ridley, eds., Arguing About Art, 1995
In 1939, Heitor Villa-Lobos composed a piano piece by superimposing the New York skyline on a piece of graph paper.
Five years later he used a similar method to compose his sixth symphony, finding a melodic line in the mountain peaks of his native Brazil.
Picasso said of his portrait of Gertrude Stein, “Everybody thinks that the portrait is not like her, but never mind, in the end she will look like the portrait.”
An old epigram runs: “It sounds like paradox — and yet ’tis true, You’re like your picture, though it’s not like you.”
Some of the figures (particularly the holy ones) in El Greco paintings seem unnaturally tall and thin. An ophthalmologist surmised that the painter had a defect of vision that caused him to see people this way.
The zoologist Sir Peter Medawar pointed out that we can reject this conjecture on purely logical grounds. What was his insight?
In 1907 an anonymous turner produced a vase that threw a shadow of Queen Victoria.
Seventy years later, for the Silver Jubilee in 1977, a vase was produced that evoked the profiles of both Prince Philip and Elizabeth II.
Is this a tradition? It might lead us to see too much.
In 1842, a Mrs. Simon was traveling by train through the English countryside when a torrential downpour began. The kind-looking elderly gentleman sitting opposite her suddenly arose, opened the window, put his head out, and kept it out for nearly nine minutes. Finally he withdrew it, dripping with water, closed the window, and sat with his eyes closed for a quarter of an hour.
Unable to suppress her curiosity, the young lady arose, opened the window, and put her own head out.
At the next year’s Academy, as she was viewing Rain, Steam, and Speed, someone behind her said, “Just like Turner, ain’t it. Whoever saw such a ridiculous conglomeration?”
She said quietly, “I did.”