For the Festival of World Cultures in August 2008, street painter Edgar Mueller transformed the East Pier in Dún Laoghaire, Ireland, into an ice-age crevasse.
“Beside the personal messages, questions and sometimes answers in my paintings I’m questioning the experienced daily perception of people by changing the appearance of public places,” he says.
Dutch engineer Theo Jansen builds complex walking sculptures from PVC pipe and turns them loose on the beaches of the Netherlands, where they have been evolving (with his help) for 20 years.
“Over time,” he says, “these skeletons have become increasingly better at surviving the elements such as storms and water, and eventually I want to put these animals out in herds on the beaches, so they will live their own lives.”
“I’ve seen a lot of mechanical sculpture, and Jansen’s animari are the finest I’ve seen by far in the ‘low-tech clockwork’ mechanism category,” robotic designer Carl Pisaturo told Wired in 2005. “These are amazing creations, and the simplicity of the technology and the fact that they are wind-powered only makes their poetic motions more impressive.”
Near a streetcorner in Winslow, Ariz., trompe l’oeil artist John Pugh has painted six windows. On an upper sill perches an eagle, and in the lower windows is reflected a girl in a flatbed Ford — presumably slowing down.
In 1980 Pugh received a commission from his alma mater, California State University, Chico, to paint a mural on the side of Taylor Hall. Shortly after its completion, a woman who worked across the street called the administration to ask when the wall would be repaired.
With his mural Art Imitating Life Imitating Art Imitating Life at San Jose’s Cafe Espresso, Pugh created a convincing extension of the restaurant’s interior. Everything within the brick proscenium — the alcove, sculpture, painting, stairway, cat, and woman — was painted by hand.
After the mural was completed in February 1997, a male patron tried to introduce himself to the woman and complained to a manager that she was giving him the “silent treatment.”
When did Shakespeare’s plays come into existence? We tend to think they appeared when he conceived them.
But if God is omniscient, then he has perfect knowledge of the future. Before the creation, he knew that Shakespeare would compose the plays, and he knew the full text of each one.
“A consequence of the view that God knows everything about the future is that all compositions existed before creation,” writes philosopher Richard R. La Croix.
In this sense, “the coming into existence of any composition is an event which occurs prior to the events that cause it to occur” — and, in each case, an effect precedes its cause.
Nearly 3 million years ago, an ancestor of modern humans picked this pebble out of a slow-flowing stream in southern Africa and carried it at least 4 kilometers to a cave, where it was discovered by Wilfred Eizman in 1925.
Why would the creature have done this? Possibly because it recognized a face in the natural markings on the pebble’s surface. If so, this is the earliest evidence of an aesthetic sense in human heritage.
John Haberle’s 1889 trompe l’oeil masterpiece U.S.A. was such a faithful representation of a U.S. greenback that one could read the ironic government warning on the bill:
“Counterfeiting, or altering this note, or passing any counterfeit or alteration of it, or having in possession any false or counterfeit plate or impression of it, or any paper made in imitation of the paper on which it is printed, is punishable by $5000 fine or 15 years at hard labor or both.”
More than one viewer took it for an actual bill. When the painting was installed at the Art Institute of Chicago, the art critic of The Chicago Inter-Ocean objected: “There is a fraud hanging on the Institute walls. … It is that alleged still life by Haberle [in which] a $1 bill and the fragments of a $10 note have been pasted on canvas. … That the management of the Art Institute should hang this kind of ‘art’ even though it were genuine, is to be regretted, but to lend itself to such a fraud … is shameful.”
Haberle immediately took a train to Chicago and stood by while experts scrutinized the work through lenses, rubbed off paint, and declared it a genuine work of imitative art. The critic issued a public apology, acknowledging that others, including “Eastman Johnson, the dean of American figure and genre painters”, had also been taken in by Haberle’s works.
What’s unusual about this 1649 engraving by Claude Mellan, Sudarium of Saint Veronica?
The image is produced by one continuous spiraling line starting at the tip of Jesus’ nose.
Winston Churchill faced an awkward moment in 1954, when Parliament unveiled a portrait on the occasion of his 80th birthday. The ceremony took place before a crowded Westminster Hall, and no one present, one observer said, “will forget the idiosyncratic nonsound with which a thousand people stopped breathing when the canvas was revealed.”
The painting, by Graham Sutherland, was a decidedly modern take on the octogenarian statesman. “Its chief defect was that it looked unfinished in as much as his feet were concealed in a carpet that seemed to have sprouted a dun-coloured grass,” wrote Studio editor G.S. Whittet. “The artist had obviously been unhappy about them and they had been painted over since it would have been impossible to ‘cut off’ his legs below the knees without radically altering the proportions and placing of the picture on the canvas.”
One MP called the portrait “a study in lumbago,” and Lord Hailsham said it was “disgusting, ill-mannered, terrible.” Churchill accepted the gift with a measured good humor, but privately he muttered, “It makes me look half-witted, which I ain’t.” After the unveiling, the painting was never seen again — shortly before Churchill’s death, his wife had it cut up and burned.
This is Grandma’s Hearthstone, an 1890 canvas by the trompe l’oeil master John Haberle. The 96″ x 66″ painting was so realistic that the proprietors of Churchill’s Saloon in Detroit decided to try an experiment.
“The location of the picture adds to the realistic effect,” explained the Detroit Tribune. “It is arranged at a dark end of the room, with electric light turned upon it in such a manner that upon entering the place it seems as if there really were an old-fashioned fire place there and the light was the reflection of the fire.”
Did it work? “The best critic upon the picture was the house cat. When the picture was first placed in position the cat came up from the cellar and started across the room. … The cat noticed the light of the blazing fire and went over to examine it. After critically scrutinizing the new affair she curled herself up before it and began to snooze completely illusionized.”
Whether that’s true is anyone’s guess. Perhaps it says more about the cat than about Haberle.
(“It Fooled the Cat,” New Haven Evening Leader, June 10, 1893, quoted in James W. Cook, The Arts of Deception: Playing With Fraud in the Age of Barnum, 2001.)
Muralist Richard Haas had a romantic notion in 1975 — he proposed painting the shadows of vanished Manhattan architectural landmarks on the city’s modern buildings.
Above, the Singer building, built in 1908 and destroyed in 1967, was briefly the world’s tallest; Haas would have restored its shadow near its former site at 149 Broadway.
He also proposed restoring the shadows of St. John’s Church, on Varick Street below Canal, and the tower of Madison Square Garden, which once stood on the corner of 26th Street and Madison Avenue.
Alas, the project never went forward.
In 1883 French artist Paul Philippoteaux unveiled a remarkable painting: The Battle of Gettysburg, a single enormous canvas 22 feet high and 279 feet long that was curved into a circle so that the viewer found himself in the midst of Pickett’s Charge, the climactic assault of the Civil War.
“It is quite impossible to describe the effect which is received on first coming up out of the little passage into the midst of the picture,” marveled the Daily Transcript. “It is something as it would seem were one to become of a sudden a part of the picture. … In short, one feels quite helpless and wondering in the midst of this new and extraordinary nature. It would seem as though all these queer impressions might be at once met and settled by the simple consideration of the fact that it was only a picture. But that is just it; it is impossible to accept the thing as a picture. Not because it is absolutely natural, but because there is nothing by which to gauge the thing, one has no idea whether the canvas is ten feet distant or a thousand. And so, all means of rational judgement being removed, the spectator must remain, dazed and helpless, feeling much like the little girl in ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ when told that she was but a thing in the dream of the sleeping king.”
Philippoteaux added a hidden signature: He gave his own likeness to one of the Union officers.
What Alphonse Allais (1854-1905) lacked in compositional talent he made up in imagination and a wry sense of humor. His Funeral March for the Obsequies of a Deaf Man (1897), for example, is entirely blank.
Allais’ entries in Jules Lévy’s expositions of “Incoherent Art” — dedicated to the works of “people who do not know how to draw” — included a white rectangle titled First Communion of Anemic Young Girls in a Snowstorm. He followed this with a red rectangle titled Tomato Harvest on the Shore of the Red Sea, by Apoplectic Cardinals.
“There was also ‘sculpture’ with the punning title ‘Terre cuite (Pomme de),” writes Steven Moore Whiting in Satie the Bohemian. “Terre cuite by itself means terracotta; with the parenthetical qualifier, the title becomes ‘Baked Potato.'”
In 1919, the mother of 9-year-old Samuel Barber found this letter on his desk:
NOTICE to Mother and nobody else
Dear Mother: I have written this to tell you my worrying secret. Now don’t cry when you read it because it is neither yours nor my fault. I suppose I will have to tell it now without any nonsense. To begin with I was not meant to be an athlet [sic]. I was meant to be a composer, and will be I’m sure. I’ll ask you one more thing. — Don’t ask me to try to forget this unpleasant thing and go play football. — Please — Sometimes I’ve been worrying about this so much that it makes me mad (not very)
Sam Barber II
It’s commonly said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder: In contemplating a work of art, the impressions we form are subjective, so all judgments should be equally valid.
“Beauty is no quality in things themselves,” writes David Hume. “It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them, and each mind perceives a different beauty. One person may even perceive deformity where another is sensible of beauty, and every individual ought to acquiesce in his own sentiment without pretending to regulate those of others.”
Why then do we account some tastes “good” and some “bad”? If I say I prefer John Ogilby to John Milton, “no one pays attention to such a taste; and we pronounce without scruple the sentiment of these pretended critics to be absurd and ridiculous.” But “the principle of the natural equality of tastes is then totally forgot, and while we admit it on some occasions where the objects seem near an equality, it appears an extravagant paradox, or rather a palpable absurdity, where objects so disproportioned are compared together.” Why?
American muralist Blue Sky (formerly Warren Edward Johnson) painted Tunnelvision on the wall of the Federal Land Bank in Columbia, S.C., in 1975. “The idea for ‘Tunnelvision’ came in a dream. I woke up early in the morning and just sketched it out. I’d already seen the wall, I’d sat and studied it for hours, just waiting to see what would come before my eyes, and nothing came. And early one morning, I woke up and it was there. … That’s why I call it ‘Tunnelvision.’ Because it was a vision in a dream.” Wikipedia adds, “Rumors abound that several drunk drivers have attempted to drive into the tunnel.”
Passing trains clear a three-kilometer “tunnel of love” through the forest near Klevan, Ukraine, each spring. The trains serve a local fiberboard factory.
Visitors to the modern art exhibition documenta 6 in Kassel, Germany, in 1977 encountered a blue-tiled tunnel that led to the promise of daylight. They walked 14 meters into the tunnel and climbed four steps before discovering that the rest was an image painted skillfully on canvas by artist Hans Peter Reuter. “The secret of this perfect illusion lies in the combination of a realistic space with a painted surface,” writes Eckhard Hollmann and Jürgen Tesch in A Trick of the Eye (2004). “The picture alone on a white wall could never hope to have the same effect.”
In the 18th century, French architect Claude-Nicolas Ledoux conceived an ideal city — perhaps too ideal. It contained no hospitals or theaters but included a “shelter of the poor man,” a “Pacifère” where quarrels could be settled peaceably, and, most notably, an “Oïkéma,” or house of sexual instruction, which Allan Braham calls “one of the most extreme instances of Ledoux’s gift for architectural metaphor.”
While we’re on this subject: In William Wycherley’s 1675 comedy The Country Wife, the word china becomes a bawdy metaphor, which makes the dialogue livelier than it first appears:
Lady Fidget: And I have been toiling and moiling, for the prettiest Piece of China, my Dear.
Mr. Horner: Nay, she has been too hard for me, do what I could.
Mrs. Squeamish: Oh, Lord, I’ll have some China too, good Mr. Horner, don’t think to give other People China, and me none, come in with me too.
Mr. Horner: Upon my Honour I have none left now.
Mrs. Squeamish: Nay, nay, I have known you deny your China before now, but you shan’t put me off so, come —
Mr. Horner: This Lady had the last there.
Lady Fidget: Yes indeed, Madam, to my certain Knowledge he has no more left.
Mrs. Squeamish: O, but it may be he may have some you could not find.
Lady Fidget: What d’ye think if he had had any left, I would not have had it too? for we Women of Quality never think we have China enough.
Mr. Horner: Do not take it ill, I cannot make China for you all, but I will have a Roll-waggon for you too, another time.
Mrs. Squeamish: Thank you, dear Toad.
Lady Fidget: (to Horner, aside) What do you mean by that promise?
Mr. Horner: Alas, she has an innocent, literal Understanding.
This is not a Jackson Pollock painting. It’s a painstaking replica by Chicago artist Mike Bidlo, who titled it, aptly, Not Pollock.
“My work is perhaps an extreme example of this strain of art which references other art because it directly mirrors the image, scale, and materials of the original,” Bidlo told Robert Rosenblum in 2003. “Whatever differences appear in my work are a consequence of my working method and not an attempt at projecting a personal style.”
Is this art? If not, why not?
(Pollock himself had an uphill fight — he received this letter in August 1949:)
Dear Mr. Pollock,
Just a few lines to tell you that my seven year old son Manning couldn’t get over your picture Number Nine. Frankly, it looked like some of his fingerpainting at school to me. However, he insisted that I write you to tell you that he cut it out of the ‘Life’ and put it in his scrap-book — the first painting that he has ever cut out —
He really has quite good taste as you can tell by the Cocker — Snafu — he is holding. He wanted you to have his picture in exchange for his copy of No. 9 — which he loves —
Mrs. Helen K. Sellers
This is not a photograph, it’s an oil painting. Irish-American painter William Harnett (1848–1892) produced works of such startling verisimilitude that his paintings of American currency, like the one below, nearly got him arrested for counterfeiting. In 1886 the Secret Service visited him at his studio:
While one of them was asking my name, the other as suspiciously poking his cane into the corners of my room. ‘Have you got any more of them here?’ he asked, after he had finished a hasty search. ‘More of what?’ I replied. ‘Those counterfeits!’ he answered. Then the other detective, for both were Special Treasury officers, explained their mission. I was suspected of turning out counterfeit bank notes and they had come to arrest me and seize whatever illegal property they could find. They were very polite but extremely firm and I went down-town with them to Chief Drummond’s office. I explained to the chief how I happened to do the work and I showed him the harmless nature of it. Harmless though it was, it was clearly against the law, and I was let go with a warning not to paint any more life-like representations of the national currency — a warning it is almost needless to say that it was conscientiously heeded.
To be fair, Harnett was not representing his work as currency — but the Secret Service was on the trail of an even more ambitious artist.
Erik Satie’s 1893 composition Vexations bears an inscrutable inscription: “In order to play the theme 840 times in succession, it would be advisable to prepare oneself beforehand, and in the deepest silence, by serious immobilities.” This seems to mean that the piece should be repeated 840 times in performance, which would take 12-24 hours, depending on how you interpret the tempo marking “Très lent.”
“It is perhaps not surprising that few of the performances [Gavin] Bryars lists have been complete,” writes Robert Orledge in Satie the Composer, “for with the bass theme repeated between each 13-beat harmonization, it recurs 3,360 times.”
“It is probable that Satie’s vexations are those expressed in the latter part of his difficult relationship with Suzanne Valadon, that is to say, somewhere between April and early June 1893.”
In 2008 James Plakovic spent six weeks composing this score for 37 instruments — woodwinds, pianos, brass, and strings. “Every land mass has been transformed into musical notation,” he says. “A note, a rest, a slur, some musical expression mark such as forte or pianissimo, so that the end result, when you step back from the image itself, is that you see land. You see a part of the world.”
“The music is very busy,” he admits. “There are some spots that are flowing and harmonious, and there are definitely areas that are a bit brash and discordant. And that reflects how the world is.”
This “geographical love enigma” appeared on a German postcard in the early 20th century. Travel north to south through each successive country (green, red, purple, yellow), naming the geographical features you encounter in each, and you’ll produce the fourth song in Heinrich Heine’s Buch der Lieder:
Wenn ich in deine Augen seh,
So schwindet all mein Leid und Weh;
Doch wenn ich küsse deinen Mund,
So werd ich ganz und gar gesund.
Wenn ich mich lehn an deine Brust,
Kommt’s über mich wie Himmelslust;
Doch wenn du sprichst: “Ich liebe dich!”
So muss ich weinen bitterlich.
When I look into your eyes,
Then vanish all my sorrow and pain!
Ah, but when I kiss your mouth,
Then I will be wholly and completely healthy.
When I lean on your breast,
I am overcome with heavenly delight,
Ah, but when you say, “I love you!”
Then I must weep bitterly.
The French greet one another with kisses on the cheek, but the number of kisses varies with the département. In 2007 Gilles Debunne set up a website, Combien de bises?, on which his countrymen could record their local customs; to date, after more than 87,000 votes, the results range from 1 kiss in Finistère to 4 in Loire Atlantique.
“It’s a lot more subtle than I ever imagined,” Debunne told the Times. “Sometimes the number of kisses changes depending on whether you’re seeing friends or family or what generation you belong to.”
“A Kiss and Its Consequences,” English carte de visite, 1910.
“After many kisses,” said John Lennon, “a miss becomes a misses.”
From the Flemish painter Cornelius Gijsbrechts, a painting of the back of a painting (1670):
“The Reverse of a Framed Painting was not intended to be hung on the wall, but to be placed against it,” writes Olaf Koerster. “The viewer would be deceived into trying to turn the picture around, only to see the reverse of an unframed painting: Gijsbrechts had created the paradoxical painting with two backs.”
In 1896 the U.S. Treasury introduced some beautifully high-minded currency — instead of American presidents, the “educational series” of silver certificates bear neoclassical allegories:
On the $1 note, the Goddess of History instructs a youth, pointing to the U.S. Constitution, a panorama of Washington D.C., and a roster of famous Americans, including Franklin, Longfellow, Hawthorne, and Emerson.
On the $2 note, Science presents Steam and Electricity (as children) to Commerce and Manufacture. The back bears portraits of Robert Fulton and Samuel Morse.
The almost impossibly glorious $5 note depicts Electricity Presenting Light to the World. She is flanked by Strength, Fame, and Peace. The New York Times wrote, “The arrangement of this composition, the grace of pose in each figure, and the idea connected with the designs of this artist entitle it to a place beside the finest allegorical designs in the world.”
Unfortunately, the Treasury got a new secretary the following year, one who favored simple, clear designs, and he canceled more than $54 million in certificates as they came into the Treasury. “It can be said authoritatively … that no more of the so-called ‘new certificates’ will be printed,” the Times reported sadly in May 1897. “Neither will fresco painters be called in to make designs for the substitutes.”