Extra Credit


The boys in Nikolay Bogdanov-Belsky’s 1895 painting Mental Arithmetic are having a difficult time solving the problem on the board:

\displaystyle  \frac{10^{2} + 11^{2} + 12^{2} + 13^{2} + 14^{2}}{365}

As it happens, there’s a simple solution: Both (102 + 112 + 122) and (132 + 142) are equal to 365, so the answer is simply (365 + 365) / 365, or 2. They’ll figure it out.

Free Enterprise

Image: Flickr

Charging Bull, the bronze sculpture that’s become a ubiquitous symbol of Wall Street, was not commissioned by New York City or anyone in the financial district. Artist Arturo Di Modica spent $360,000 to create the three-ton statue, trucked it to Lower Manhattan, and on Dec. 15, 1989, left it in front of the New York Stock Exchange as a Christmas gift to the people of New York. Police impounded it, but after a public outcry the city decided to install it two blocks south of the exchange.

Since New York doesn’t own it, technically it has only a temporary permit to remain on city property. But after 32 years, it appears to have become a permanent fixture.



Here’s a lost art: The tableau vivant, or “living picture,” was a form of popular entertainment in which the actors took up poses but did not speak or move. (This one presents the original cast of Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Sleeping Beauty.)

In our era of ubiquitous video it’s hard to remember how important this was — it formed a sort of living bridge between painting and the stage, representing dramatic moments in three dimensions that could be studied and admired as part of the real world. Sometimes stories were told through a series of connected tableaux, a technique that would lead eventually to modern storyboards and comic strips.

The form also inspired a curious practice: Censorship laws in Britain and the United States forbade actresses to move onstage when they were unclothed, so exhibitors began to present nude women in tableaux vivants, imitating works of classical art. The presenters could claim that this was edifying, the audiences got their erotic entertainment, and the production was allowed to go on — so long as the women didn’t move.

The Chatsworth Violin

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Visitors to Chatsworth House in Derbyshire are struck at the illusion of a violin hanging on a door in the State Music Room. The peg is real, but the violin is not — it’s a very convincing trompe l’oeil painting executed by the Dutch artist Jan van der Vaardt.

It’s thought to have been painted around 1723. In his Anecdotes of Painting (1762), Horace Walpole writes, “In old Devonshire-house in Piccadilly, he painted a violin against a door that deceived every body. When the house was burned, this piece was preserved, and is now at Chatsworth.”


Image: Wikimedia Commons

Dance has a distinctive place among the performing arts. Dancers don’t “cause” a dance in the same way that musical instruments cause music. Rather, dancers are the dance — their movements instantiate it.

“You can’t describe a dance without talking about the dancer,” wrote American choreographer Merce Cunningham. “You can’t describe a dance that hasn’t been seen, and the way of seeing it has everything to do with the dancers.” A work of dance might be recorded abstractly in notation, but it’s the performance that realizes it; you can’t really encounter a dance without seeing it performed.

With that in mind, suppose that The Nutcracker is performed simultaneously in two different cities. If a dance work is fully realized only in performance, then can we really say that Performance A presents the same artwork as Performance B? If not, then what is The Nutcracker?

A related puzzle: Does a dance work last forever? It certainly has a beginning in time; does it have an end, if, say, it’s forgotten? Our species will one day become extinct — when that happens, will The Nutcracker cease to exist?

(Jenny Bunker, et al., Thinking Through Dance, 2013; Graham McFee, The Philosophical Aesthetics of Dance, 2011.)

The Mozart of the Sea


Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky (1817-1900) earned fame throughout Russia for his astonishingly realistic seascapes, which capture the expressive quality of ocean waters, and in particular the play of sunlight and moonlight on surging waves. More than half of the artist’s 6,000 canvases are devoted to his fascination with moving water.

Remarkably, these were painted from memory, far from the sea. “We can perfectly well understand that when he painted The Ninth Wave or The Wreck, he had no need to watch the ever-shifting colour and movement of the great waters as he worked, for these pictures are poems in which the artist has concentrated an amplitude of observation and experience,” wrote Rosa Newmarch in 1917. “We realize that their impressive, haunting grandeur is no more spontaneous than the impressiveness of many a great sonnet; they are rather the aftermath of his passion for the sea.”

His successes made him equally popular among the people and among his fellow artists. Ivan Kramskoi wrote, “Aivazovsky is — no matter who says what — a star of first magnitude, and not only in our [country], but also in history of art in general.” And the saying “worthy of Aivazovsky’s brush” was used in Russia to describe anything ineffably lovely.

Wikimedia Commons has a collection of his seascapes.

Unnatural Beauty

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Harvard’s Museum of Natural History owns a unique collection of botanical models made of glass, more than 800 startlingly realistic plants produced by the German father-and-son glassworking team Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka. They were commissioned by Professor George Lincoln Goodale to serve as aids in the teaching of botany, but their strikingly accurate detail leads many to regard them as works of art in themselves.

The modern naturalist Donald Schnell, who painstakingly deduced the mechanism by which the butterwort Pinguicula is pollinated, was astonished in 1997 to see the glass butterwort that the Blaschkas had prepared a century earlier: “One sculpture showed a bee entering the flower and a second showed the bee exiting, lifting the stigma apron as it did so,” just as he had hypothesized. “As far as I know Professor Goodale never published this information, nor did it seem to have been published by anyone back then, but the process was faithfully executed.”

This raises a question in aesthetics. If we find, say, the Blaschkas’ glass chicory flower beautiful, shouldn’t we find a live chicory flower equally beautiful? For the two are practically indistinguishable. Some will say yes, but others will insist that “there is an important difference … between perceiving a set of characteristics in an object and perceiving that same set of characteristics as natural to that object,” writes University of Washington philosopher Ronald Moore. “To perceive something as a product of nature is not to perceive one more thing about it; it is to change the way we perceive everything about it.”

(Ronald Moore, “Appreciating Natural Beauty as Natural,” Journal of Aesthetic Education 33:3 [Autumn 1999], 42-60.) (See Perspective.)

Character Study


The Art Institute of Chicago has an actual picture of Dorian Gray — Ivan Le Lorraine Albright painted it for the 1946 film adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s novel. Working with his twin brother Malvin, Albright started with a pleasant portrait of star Hurd Hatfield and prepared three further canvases reflecting his character’s moral decay.

“For research for these paintings,” reported LIFE, “the twins made the rounds of the local insane asylums, alcoholic wards and hospitals for the incurably diseased.” Even the props in the background were corrupted — the Egyptian cat grows gray and mangy, and Ivan tore the rug and soaked it with acid.

Interestingly, though most of the film was shot in black and white, the portrait was shown in Technicolor — which may have helped the film win its Oscar for best cinematography.

A Guest Appearance

enigma 11

Edward Elgar dedicated the eleventh of his Enigma Variations to George Robertson Sinclair, the organist of Hereford Cathedral.

“The variation, however, has nothing to do with organs or cathedrals, or, except remotely, with G.R.S.,” Elgar wrote. “The first few bars were suggested by his great bulldog, Dan (a well-known character) falling down the steep bank into the River Wye (bar 1); his paddling upstream to find a landing place (bars 2 and 3); and his rejoicing bark on landing (second half of bar 5). G.R.S. said, ‘Set that to music’. I did; here it is.”

After the river incident, Elgar had told a friend, “You wait till we get home. Japes!” He even marked bar 5 “Dan” in an early sketch of the piece. This would not have surprised Sinclair: Elgar had been in the habit of jotting down musical ideas, which he called “the moods of Dan,” in the organist’s visitor’s book, and sometimes these would find their way into later compositions. What Dan thought of all this is unrecorded.



Letters to the Sydney Morning Herald during the planning of the Sydney Opera House:

“Faced with the nightmare illustrated in your columns, some 25th century Bluebeard’s lair, its ominous vanes pointed skywards apparently only for the purpose of discharging guided missiles or some latter-day nuclear Evil Eye, words fail.”

— W.H. Peters, Sydney, Jan. 31, 1957

“To me, the winning design suggests some gargantuan monster which may have wandered over the land millions of years ago. It certainly is right out of place beside the dignity of the Harbour Bridge.”

— M. Rathbone, Kensington, Jan. 31, 1957

“This whale of a monument to the clever ugliness of ‘modern’ art will be a constant eyesore. Its over-finished roof with many curved surfaces all covered with white tiles will be a glaring monstrosity. Could not the suffering which it will cause be more equitably distributed by constructing the fins in such a way that they will act as giant megaphones and thus keep residents on the north supplied with the dying screams of melodramatic sopranos?”

— J.R.L. Johnstone Beecroft, Feb. 1, 1957

“With all respects to so-called modern art, I feel that the design is completely unbefitting our foreshores. Perhaps the judges had in mind the installation of a Big Dipper on the peak of the roof to help the opera company balance its budget.”

— Jack Zuber, Kingsgrove, Feb. 1, 1957

In 2003 Danish architect Jørn Utzon received the Pritzker Architecture Prize, architecture’s highest honour. The citation read, “There is no doubt that the Sydney Opera House is his masterpiece. It is one of the great iconic buildings of the 20th century, an image of great beauty that has become known throughout the world — a symbol for not only a city, but a whole country and continent.”