Fore-Edge Paintings

Some of your old books may contain hidden artworks: Beginning in the 17th century, a book’s binder would sometimes paint a watercolor scene on the edge of the book’s page stack. If the pages were then gilded, the image might remain hidden for years until the pages were fanned.

Sometimes two different images are hidden in the same book, revealed successively when the pages are fanned “up” and “down.” In rare cases paintings are hidden not just on the book’s fore edge but on the top and bottom as well, offering a panoramic view of the painting’s subject.

Nothing Doing

John Cage’s 4’33” is commonly described as “four and a half minutes of silence,” but in fact it’s the opposite — Cage hoped to lead the audience to hear the ambient sounds of the concert hall as music, to accept as art sounds that they wouldn’t normally consider in that way.

“What they thought was silence, because they didn’t know how to listen, was full of accidental sounds,” he said of the piece’s 1952 premiere. “You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering on the roof, and during the third the people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.”

In a broad sense 4’33” was Cage’s most significant work, but the notion of a dedicated piece of art with no substance does introduce some perplexing puzzles. The work debuted as a piano piece with a specified length, but Cage later said that “the work may be performed by any instrumentalist or combination of instrumentalists and last any length of time,” and indeed he produced varying scores in different notations. Can all of these be said to be the same piece?

The “In Futurum” movement for solo piano from Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff’s 1919 Fünf Pittoresken consists entirely of rests, but directs the performer to play “the entire song with as much expression and feeling as you like, always, right to the end!” (French pianist Philippe Bianconi wondered, “Should I just sit there?”) And Alphonse Allais’s 1897 Funeral March for the Obsequies of a Deaf Man, below, consists of 24 blank measures. Could an unwitting audience member distinguish either of these from Cage’s work?

A puzzle by philosopher Patricia Werhane of Loyola University of Chicago: Suppose that a pianist were engaged to perform 4’33” but had to withdraw at the last moment, and in desperation the stage manager sat in his place. Would this be a performance of Cage’s work? Would it be a musical performance?

Now more than 60 years old, Cage’s idea may still be too novel for a wide public. When BBC Radio 3 broadcast the first U.K. orchestral performance of 4’33” in 2004, the network had to turn off an emergency backup system that would have interpreted the silence as dead air — and begun playing music.

Figure and Ground

Swiss artist Markus Raetz created this innovative portrait of Piero della Francesca. Two mobiles are fitted with aluminum plates that are juxtaposed successively as the mobiles rotate. Piero appears between them.

Raetz’s kinetic sculpture of Kiki de Montparnasse, below, uses a similar idea:

A Distilled Impression

kettle anamorphosis

Henry Kettle painted this pyramid anamorphosis around 1770. If a mirrored pyramid is placed at the center of the canvas, then each of its sides reflects a portion of one of the four distorted heads … producing a true hidden portrait when viewed from above.


At left is the official White House portrait of John Quincy Adams, painted by George Peter Alexander Healy. At right is a daguerreotype of Adams in 1843, when he became the first president to be photographed.

In a diary entry for Aug. 1, 1843, Adams noted that four daguerreotypes had been taken and pronounced them “all hideous.” Three more were taken the following day, but he found them “no better than those of yesterday. They are all too true to the original.”

That raises an interesting question: Which of these images is the more revealing record of the man? In Puzzles About Art, philosopher Matthew Lipman asks, “Which would we rather have, a portrait of Socrates by Rembrandt or a photograph of Socrates?”

The Kuleshov Effect

In the 1910s, Russian filmmaker Lev Kuleshov demonstrated the power of film editing with a telling experiment: He intercut the “inexpressive” face of actor Ivan Mosjoukine with images of a plate of soup, a child in a coffin, and an attractive woman. Though the footage of Mosjoukine was the same in each case, an audience “raved about the acting,” noted director Vsevolod Pudovkin. “[They admired] the heavy pensiveness of his mood over the forgotten soup, were touched and moved by the deep sorrow with which he looked on the dead child, and noted the lust with which he observed the woman. But we knew that in all three cases the face was exactly the same.”

This reveals the effectiveness of montage, Kuleshov said. An audience reacts not to a film’s elements but to their juxtaposition — the sequence of images suggests an emotion to them, and they project this onto the actors. Alfred Hitchcock demonstrates:


No other painter’s works have been forged as frequently as Corot’s. One day a gentleman shows up in the master’s studio, who, having bought a painting signed ‘Corot’ in a small art shop, wants to know whether it has really been painted by Corot. After one brief look at the canvas Corot shakes his head. Transported by rage, the buyer declares that he will report the art dealer to the police. ‘Report to the police?,’ the painter vents his annoyance. ‘Nonsense, that man has a wife and a child. Do you want to ruin the life of that fellow?’ ‘What do I care about wife and child? A fraud is a fraud and the law ….’ ‘The law? Bah, it won’t take much to turn this little painting into an original Corot.’ With that, the master puts the canvas on the easel and adds a few brush strokes, thus turning the fake Corot into a genuine one. ‘There,’ he murmurs in a satisfied voice, returning the painting to the buyer, ‘now you won’t be able to say anymore that this is forgery and fraud. You could see it with your own eyes how I painted it.’

— Alfred Georg Hartmann, Das Künstlerwäldchen. Maler-, Bildhauer- und Architekten-Anekdoten, 1917, quoted in Sándor Radnóti, The Fake: Forgery and Its Place in Art, 1999


Suppose the Grand Canyon were man-made. It could have been formed (though it wasn’t) by agricultural or industrial erosion; the results of poor farming methods can look very similar — artificial badlands — if on a smaller scale. Would this hideous scar on the fair face of the earth still be a national park? Would anyone visit it other than groups of awed schoolchildren studying Environmental Destruction, absorbing the dreadful lesson of what can happen to a desert raped by human exploiters? Strip mining can produce spectacular and dramatic landscapes. W.H. Auden loved the lead-mining landscapes of Cornwall above all others; the evocative and aromatic hillsides of the Mediterranean, with their olives, sages, thyme, and dwarf conifers, are a result of centuries of deforestation, goat herding, and the building of roads and cities.

— Frederick Turner, “Cultivating the American Garden: Toward a Secular View of Nature,” Harper’s, August 1985

Saying Nothing

In a historic passage Mallarmé describes the terror, the sense of sterility, that the poet experiences when he sits down to his desk, confronts the sheet of paper on which his poem is supposed to be composed, and no words come to him. But we might ask, why could not Mallarmé, after an interval of time, have simply got up from his chair and produced the blank sheet of paper as the poem that he sat down to write? Indeed, in support of this, could one imagine anything that was more expressive of, or would be held to exhibit more precisely the poet’s feelings of inner devastation than the virginal paper?

— Richard Wollheim, “Minimal Art,” in Minimal Art, ed. Gregory Battcock, 1968

Ground Zero

There is at Columbia University’s Arden House Conference Center a statue of a cat in bronze. It stands on a floor at the head of a stairway that leads into a common room at a lower level. Presumably it is of some value, or believed to be … inasmuch as the managers have chained it to the railing — to forestall theft, I suppose, as if it were a television set in a squalid motel. Such might be the obvious interpretation. But I am open to the suggestion that it is not a chained sculpture of a cat but a sculpture of a chained cat, one end of which is wittily attached to a piece of reality. … Of course what we take to be a bit of reality can in fact be part of the work, which is now a sculpture of a cat-chained-to-an-iron-railing, though the moment we allow it to be a part of the work, where does or can the work end? It becomes a kind of metaphysical sandpit, swallowing the universe down into itself.

— Arthur Danto, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, 1981