Urban Contemporary

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.

Who’s Who?

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.”

Thin Thinking

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?

Click for Answer

Shadow Governments

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.

First Impressions

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.”

Essential Characters


Three years after personifying the four seasons, Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527-1593) did the same for the four elements.

“There is no unemployed force in Nature,” wrote Emerson. “All decomposition is recomposition.”

Landscape or Portrait?

An engraving by Johann Martin Will, 1780.

Andrew Wyeth said, “I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape. Something waits beneath it; the whole story doesn’t show.”

The Emperor’s New Pose

exaltation - disumbrationism

In 1924, irritated with the undiscerning faddishness of modern art criticism, Los Angeles novelist Paul Jordan Smith “made up my mind that critics would praise anything unintelligible.”

So he assembled some old paint, a worn brush, and a defective canvas and “in a few minutes splashed out the crude outlines of an asymmetrical savage holding up what was intended to be a star fish, but turned out a banana.” Then he slicked back his hair, styled himself Pavel Jerdanowitch, and submitted Exaltation to a New York artist group, claiming a new school called Disumbrationism.

The critics loved it. “Jerdanowitch” showed the painting at the Waldorf Astoria gallery, and over the next two years he turned out increasingly outlandish paintings, which were written up in Paris art journals and exhibited in Chicago and Buffalo.

He finally confessed the hoax to the Los Angeles Times in 1927. Ironically, “Many of the critics in America contended that since I was already a writer and knew something about organization, I had artistic ability, but was either too ignorant or too stubborn to see it and acknowledge it.” Can an artist found a school against his will?


  • 2737 = (2 × 7)3 – 7
  • Move the C in CABARET and you get A BAR, ETC.
  • Van Gogh sold only one painting in his lifetime.
  • “He who hesitates is last.” — Mae West
  • If a man is convinced he has hypochondria, is he a hypochondriac?

(Thanks, Ben.)

A Leitmotif

“Richard Wagner the composer and the number 13 is worthy of note. It takes 13 letters to spell his name; he was born in 1813; these figures added (1, 8, 1, 3) make 13; hence the letters in his name and the sum of the figures of his birth-date make twice 13; he composed exactly 13 great works; ‘Tanhäuser’ was completed April 13, 1845; it was first performed March 13, 1861; he left Buyrenth September 13, 1861; September is the ninth month, and hence 9 added to the figures 1, 3, make 13; finally he died February 13, 1883.”

Miscellaneous Notes and Queries, September 1893

Enough Already

Acclaimed English actress Sarah Siddons made her Dublin debut in May 1784. Evidently some Irish theatergoers felt the hype was excessive — here’s one sardonic review, quoted in English as She Is Wrote, 1883:

“On Sunday, Mrs. Siddons, about whom all the world has been talking, exposed her beautiful, adamantine, soft, and lovely person, for the first time at Smock Alley Theatre in the bewitching, melting, and all tearful character of Isabella. From the repeated panegyrics of the impartial London newspapers, we were taught to expect the sight of a heavenly angel, but how were we supernaturally surprised into almost awful joy at beholding a mortal goddess! … When she came to the scene of parting with her wedding ring, ah! what a sight was there! the very fiddlers in the orchestra, albeit unused to melting mood, blubbered like hungry children crying for their bread and butter! and when the bell rang for music between the acts the tears ran from the bassoon players’ eyes in such plentiful showers that they choked the finger stops, and making a spout of the instrument poured in such torrents on the first fiddler’s book that not seeing the overture was in two sharps, the leader of the band played it in one flat. But the sobs and sighs of the groaning audience and the noise of corks drawn from smelling bottles prevented the mistakes between sharps and flats being heard. One hundred and nine ladies fainted! forty-six went into fits! and ninety-five had strong hysterics. The world will scarcely credit the truth when they are told that fourteen children, five old men, one hundred tailors, and six common councilmen were actually drowned in the inundation of tears that flowed from the galleries, the slips, and the boxes, to increase the briny pond in the pit. The water was three feet deep. An Act of Parliament will certainly be passed against her playing any more!”

Performance Note

This is bar 66 of Chopin’s Étude Op. 10, No. 5. The red F is noteworthy because it’s the only point in the whole composition where the right hand touches a white key — apart from that, it plays black keys exclusively.

Jascha Heifetz once asked Ayke Agus to close her eyes while he played the piece for her. “It sounded strange,” she wrote, “and when I peeked I saw that he was playing it with an orange.”

Domestic Harmony

The Musical World of London, Nov. 28, 1874, reports a surprising project — apparently a Massachusetts composer set the entire American constitution to music:

The authors of the Constitution of the Union thought more of reason than of rhyme, and their prose is not too well adapted to harmony, but the patriotic inspiration of Mr. Greeler, the Boston composer, overcomes every difficulty. He has made his score a genuine musical epopœia, and had it performed before a numerous public. The performance did not last less than six hours. The preamble of the Constitution forms a broad and majestic recitative, well sustained by altos and double basses. The first clause is written for a tenor; the other choruses are given to the bass, soprano, and baritone. The music of the clause treating of state’s rights is written in a minor key for bass and tenor. At the end of every clause, the recitative of the preamble is re-introduced and then repeated by the chorus. The constitutional amendments are treated as fugues and serve to introduce a formidable finale, in which the big drum and the gong play an important part. The general instrumentation is very scholarly, and the harmony surprising.

The music has been lost, but it would be out of date now anyway — we’ve added 12 amendments since then.

Rigor Mortis

Image: Flickr

When Victor Noir died in a Paris duel in 1870, sculptor Jules Dalou reproduced the fallen journalist in bronze — a bronze that seems unusually hard in the trousers, if you see what I mean.

That feature has made the statue a sort of fertility shrine for Parisian women. It’s said that kissing Noir’s lips, leaving flowers in his hat, or rubbing his, um, press credentials will bring a husband, enhance one’s sex life, or ensure fertility.

Whether that’s true is open to question, of course — but when the cemetery installed a fence around the statue in 2004, local women reportedly protested until it was removed again.

The Treachery of Images

Picasso’s Guernica depicts the suffering wrought by a German bombing in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War.

Three years later, when the artist was living in Nazi-occupied Paris, a Gestapo officer saw a photo of the painting in his apartment. “Did you do that?” he asked.

“No,” Picasso said. “You did.”

You Are What You Eat,_Giuseppe_-_Vegetables_in_a_Bowl_or_The_Gardener_-_1590s.jpg

This 1590 painting by Giuseppe Arcimboldo is both a still life and a portrait — when it’s inverted, the bowl of vegetables becomes the greengrocer who sold it.

Black and White

Marcel Duchamp, the French surrealist, was an accomplished chessplayer — in 1929 he defeated Belgian master George Koltanowski in 15 moves:

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 d6 4.e4 b6 5.f4 Bb7 6.Bd3 Nbd7 7.Nf3 e5 8.d5 g6 9.O-O exf4 10.Bxf4 Bg7 11.e5 dxe5 12.Nxe5 O-O 13.Qd2 Nxd5 14.Nxd7 Nxf4 15.Nxf8 Bd4+ 0-1

Koltanowski resigned in light of 16. Rf2 Qg5 17. Kf1 Bxf2 18. Qxf2 Bxg2+ 19. Ke1 Nxd3+.

“I am still a victim of chess,” wrote Duchamp. “It has all the beauty of art — and much more.”

See Screen King.

Comedy and Tragedy

Edmund Kean was accounted the greatest actor of his generation, but not everyone shared that opinion. Violette Garrick wrote to him:

You don’t know how to play Abel Drugger.

He wrote back:

I know it.

Error on the G String

Fritz Kreisler had already gained immortality as a violin virtuoso when in 1935 he revealed that he was also a composer — for 30 years he had been performing his own compositions in concert but attributing them to Vivaldi, Couperin, Porpora, and Pugnani.

In the uproar that followed, Kreisler argued that as a young man he’d had no reputation; audiences would not have paid to hear the compositions of an unknown violinist. That was just the point, opined the Philadelphia Record: Fans had bought the pieces, and indeed other violinists had performed them, thinking them the work of established composers.

The Portland Oregonian agreed: “What if Fritz Kreisler had died without making confession that over a period of thirty years he had been composing music and signing to it the names of half-forgotten composers of former times? What if he had left no list of his works?”

Which raises an interesting question: How many such hoaxes have succeeded? How many of our great works of art are undiscovered forgeries?

Keeping Score

That’s a caricature of Arturo Toscanini by Enrico Caruso.

There are many tales of the conductor’s astonishing musical memory. A clarinetist once approached him just before a performance and said that he would be unable to play because the E-natural key on his instrument was broken.

Toscanini concentrated for a short time and said, “It’s all right. You don’t have an E natural tonight.”

Less Is More

As part of a modern dance program, Paul Taylor once stood motionless on stage for four minutes.

For its review, Dance Observer magazine ran four inches of white space.

Music Appreciation

“Debussy’s music is the dreariest kind of rubbish. Does anybody for a moment doubt that Debussy would write such chaotic, meaningless, cacophonous, ungrammatical stuff, if he could invent a melody?” — New York Post, 1907

“It is probable that much, if not most, of Stravinsky’s music will enjoy brief existence.” — New York Sun, Jan. 16, 1937

“Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, like the first pancake, is a flop.” — Nicolai Soloviev, Novoye Vremya, St. Petersburg, Nov. 13, 1875

Rigoletto is the weakest work of Verdi. It lacks melody.” — Gazette Musicale de Paris, May 22, 1853

“Sure-fire rubbish.” — New York Herald Tribune on Porgy and Bess, Oct. 11, 1935

Nice Kitty

French sculptor Louis Vidal was blind since youth, but he produced startlingly faithful renderings of animals: a bull, a wounded stag, a horse, a cow, a dog.

With domestic creatures he could do this by feeling their anatomy directly, or by referring to skeletons or to stuffed specimens. But how did he create The Roaring Lion, the masterpiece first shown at the Salon in 1868?

Legend has it that he did it the hard way: by running his hands over a live lion at the Jardin des Plantes.

“Convinced he would not succeed without having recourse to the living ‘king of beasts,'” reported The English Illustrated Magazine in 1900, “he entered the cage without the least hesitation, accompanied by the lion-tamer. The animal allowed itself to be caressed for some time, and Vidal was thus enabled to study its anatomy. As a result, he produced that most wonderful example of his art, ‘The Roaring Lion.'”

If that’s just a story … then how did he manage it?

Music Appreciation

Excerpts from concert reviews in London’s Harmonicon:

June 1823:

Opinions are much divided concerning the merits of the Pastoral symphony of Beethoven, though very few venture to deny that it is much too long.

July 1825:

[Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony] is a composition in which the author has indulged a great deal of disagreeable eccentricity. Often as we now have heard it performed, we cannot yet discover any design in it, neither can we trace any connexion in its parts. Altogether it seems to have been intended as a kind of enigma — we had almost said a hoax.

June 1827:

[Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony] depends wholly on its last movement for what applause it obtains; the rest is eccentric without being amusing, and laborious without effect.

April 1825:

We now find [the length of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony] to be precisely one hour and five minutes; a fearful period indeed, which puts the muscles and lungs of the band, and the patience of the audience to a severe trial.

“But how did you get to understand Beethoven?” wrote John Ruskin to John Brown in 1881. “He always sounds to me like the upsetting of bags of nails, with here and there an also dropped hammer.”