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Looking-Glass Art


That’s Rembrandt’s engraving The Three Trees on the left, and its mirror image.

Art historian Heinrich Wölfflin found that reversing the image produces a distinctly different aesthetic effect. In the first image, “the group of trees at the right gives an impression of energy”; in the second, “the trees are devaluated and emphasis now seems to rest on the flat, extended plain.”

But curiously, writes Chris McManus in Right Hand, Left Hand, “although ordinary viewers say [such reversals] look different, they cannot reliably decide which is the original and which the mirror-image, unless they have seen the picture before.” Whom can we credit for the second composition?



Giuseppe Verdi received this letter in May 1872:

Much-honoured Signor Verdi, — The 2nd of this month I went to Parma, drawn there by the sensation made by your opera Aida. So great was my curiosity, that one half-hour before the commencement of the piece, I was already in my place, No. 120. I admired the mise en scène, I heard with pleasure the excellent singers, and I did all in my power to let nothing escape me. At the end of the opera, I asked if I was satisfied, and the answer was ‘No.’ I started back to Reggio, and listened in the railway carriage to the opinions given upon Aida. Nearly all agreed in considering it a work of the first order.

I was then seized with the idea of hearing it again, and on the 4th I returned to Parma; I made unheard-of efforts to get a reserved seat; as the crowd was enormous, I was obliged to throw away five liri to witness the performance in any comfort.

I arrived at this decision about it: it is an opera in which there is absolutely nothing which causes any enthusiasm or excitement, and without the pomp of the spectacle, the public would not stand it to the end. When it has filled the house two or three times, it will be banished to the dust of the archives.

You can now, dear Signor Verdi, picture to yourself my regret at having spent on two occasions thirty-two liri; add to this the aggravating circumstance that I depend on my family, and that this money troubles my rest like a frightful spectre. I therefore frankly address myself to you, in order that you may send me the amount. The account is as follows:–


Hoping that you will deliver me from this embarrassment, I salute you from my heart.


My address: Bertani Prospero, Via San Domenico, No. 5

Verdi asked his publisher to reimburse the man’s expenses, except for his supper (“He might very well take his meals at home”), in return for a written acknowledgment “undertaking to hear my new operas no more, exposing himself no more to the menaces of spectres, and sparing me further traveling expenses.”

A Study in Oils

In seeking to understand how a person’s ability might vary with his complexion, Havelock Ellis chose an unusual data set: the National Portrait Gallery. Ellis spent two years examining paintings of notable Britons in various fields and established an “index of pigmentation” in each group by multiplying the number of fair people by 100 and dividing by the number of dark people. Results:


An index greater than 100 means that fair people predominate in the group; one less than 100 means that dark people predominate. The list includes both men and women.

In general, Ellis concluded, the fair man tends to be “bold, energetic, restless, and domineering,” while the dark man is “resigned and religious and imitative, yet highly intelligent.” “While the men of action thus tend to be fair, the men of thought, it seems to me, show some tendency to be dark.”

Ellis speculated that the British aristocracy tended to be dark because peers could choose the most beautiful women, and British women with the greatest reputation for beauty tended to be dark: a group of 15 English women of letters had an index of 100, while 13 famous beauties rated 44.

(“The Comparative Abilities of the Fair and the Dark,” Monthly Review, August 1901.)

A Dedicated Theme

Written by German composer Peter Cornelius in 1854, “Ein Ton” has a single note for a melody — the note B is repeated 80 times in 42 bars.

I hear a tone so wondrous sweet
In heart and spirit of repeat.
Is it that breath that from thee fled,
The last faint breath e’er thou wert dead?

Nicolas Slonimsky writes, “Of course, there are constant modulations so that harmonic changes make up for monotony.”

Late Acceptance


In 1832, at age 19, Giuseppe Verdi applied to study at the Milan Conservatory and was rejected.

In 1898, at the end of his career, he learned that the conservatory had decided to rename itself the Giuseppe Verdi Conservatorium.

“My God, this was all that was lacking to plague the soul of a poor devil like me who desires only to be serene and to die serenely!” he wrote to his publisher. “No, sir! Even this isn’t allowed me! What wrong have I done that I should be tormented like this?”

That’s not quite fair. He had been four years over the age limit and a foreigner to the state of Lombardy-Venetia, where the school was located. But he remembered it as “a Conservatorium that (I do not exaggerate) tried to kill me, and whose memory I should try to escape.”

New Music

The 10-member Vienna Vegetable Orchestra plays instruments created entirely from fresh vegetables, including the carrot recorder, the pumpkin tympanum, the zucchini trumpet, and the bean maraca. These must be fashioned anew before each concert, because the old instruments are made into soup.

The Thai Elephant Orchestra, created by American expatriate Richard Lair and Columbia neurologist David Sulzer, improvise on drums, gongs, harmonicas, and sawmill blades. To date they’ve released three CDs.

Sulzer referred to one 7-year-old member as “the Fritz Kreisler of elephants.” “I put one bad note in the middle of her xylophone,” he told the New York Times in 2000. “She avoided playing that note — until one day she started playing it and wouldn’t stop. Had she discovered dissonance, and discovered that she liked it?”

“Just as there are a lot things they don’t understand about our music, I am sure there are things we will never understand about theirs.”

Graceful Figures


In 1933, Harvard mathematician George Birkhoff quantified beauty. The basic idea, he said, is that M = O/C, where M is the “aesthetic measure,” O is order, and C is complexity. By elaborating this principle into specific formulas, he decided that the square is the most pleasing polygon and the major triad the most pleasing diatonic chord. Of eight vases he considered, a Ming jar ranked highest, with M = 0.80, and in poetry the opening of Colerige’s “Kubla Khan” received an M rating of 0.83. The same principles can be applied to painting, sculpture, and architecture.

This kind of use of the formula leads at once to certain well known aesthetic maxims:

  1. Unify as far as possible without loss of variety (that is, diminish the complexity C without decrease of the order O).
  2. Achieve variety in so far as possible without loss of unity (that is, increase O without increase of C).
  3. This ‘unity in variety’ must be found in the several parts as well as in the whole (that is, the order and complexity of the parts enter into the order and complexity of the whole).

“Now it seems to me that the postulation of genius in any mystical sense is unnecessary,” he concluded. “The analytic phase appears as an inevitable part of aesthetic experience. The more extensive this experience is, the more definite becomes the analysis.”

Set Dressing


In 1889 Monet was midway through a landscape when a pivotal oak tree sprouted leaves.

He mulled this for a few days and then approached the landowner with an unusual proposition. On May 9 he wrote:

I am overjoyed — permission to remove the leaves of my beautiful oak has been graciously accorded! It was a huge job bringing large enough ladders into this ravine. Enfin, it is done, two men have been busy with it since yesterday. Isn’t it a feat to finish a winter landscape at this time of year?

In The Ultimate Irrelevant Encyclopaedia (1984), Bill Hartston remarks, “Monet makes the leaves go aground.”

Both Sides Now

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.”

“L’Envoi of the Cubists”


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

Sure Thing, Boss


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

Making Faces


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.”

Art Theft


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.

– Anonymous

Art and Artifice

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

Stage Pastoral


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.”

Striking Oils


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

A Well-Tempered Cartwheel


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 Just Judges


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

Double Takes

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:

double takes - jesus image

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.”