Trench Art

To pass the time while waiting in the trenches of the Argonne, French infantryman Hippolyte Hodeau engraved the names of his daughters in chestnut leaves.

More at Europeana.


Austrian artist Peter Kogler uses twisting lines and geometric shapes to generate dramatic illusions in ordinary spaces.

“The black-and-white grid provides a maximum contrast which has a very strong visual presence,” he says. “The structure of the image is comprehensive and completely surrounds the beholder. In a sense, you are standing in the picture, and the work can be experienced physically.”

More at his website.


Through his innovative stage machines, architect Nicola Sabbatini summoned lightning, fire, hell, storms, gods, and clouds to the sets of 17th-century Venetian operas. The effect could be spectacular — characters braved moving waves, flew through the air, and descended into the underworld.

His illusions, which came to be known as scènes à l’italienne, were best viewed from “the prince’s seat,” the center of the seventh row, where “all the objects in the scene appear better … than from any other place.” The scene above, undertaken with stage designer Giacomo Torelli, depicts Apollo’s palace as a city among the clouds in Francesco Sacrati’s La Venere Gelosa (1643).

But they didn’t always work. Where one libretto read, “Here one sees descend an enormous machine, which arrives at the level of the gloria from the level of the floor of the stage, forming a majestic stairway of clouds, by which Jove descends, accompanied by a multitude of deities and celestial goddesses,” one critic wrote, “A stairway of clouds? For shame! / pardon me, architect: / it was a ladder to climb to the roof.”

Much Ado

The title of this painting is electrifying: Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare Playing at Chess. Unfortunately, its authenticity has been subject to debate for more than a century. It came to light only in 1878, when it was purchased for $18,000 by Colonel Ezra Miller, and the authenticating documents were lost in a fire 17 years later.

Supporters claim that it was painted by Karel van Mander (1548-1606), and in the best possible case it would give us new likenesses of Jonson and Shakespeare painted by a contemporary. But a biography of van Mander, probably written by his brother, makes no mention of this painting, nor of the artist ever visiting London, and while Shakespeare here appears younger than Jonson, in fact he was eight or nine years older.

“It is understandable that there is still curiosity about Shakespeare’s life, physical features, and reputation,” wrote Roehampton Institute scholars Bryan Loughrey and Neil Taylor in 1983. “If the chess portrait were genuinely a portrait of Shakespeare and Jonson, the painting would be of unique interest. Unfortunately, most of the arguments that have been advanced in its favor are untenable.”

Real or fake, Shakespeare has the better of Jonson in this game — he can mate on the move:,_1603.gif
Image: Wikimedia Commons

(Bryan Loughrey and Neil Taylor, “Jonson and Shakespeare at Chess?” Shakespeare Quarterly 34:4 [Winter 1983], 440-448.)

The Blur Building

The media pavilion for the 2002 Swiss National Expo was a cloud. Organizers built a curved building fitted with more than 30,000 nozzles that pumped water from Lake Neuchâtel into a fine mist, creating a floating 90-meter fog bank whose contours were controlled by a computerized weather system.

Artist Antony Gormley took this idea a step further in 2007 with Blind Light, a 10-meter-square glass vitrine filled with mist and lit by 7,000 lux of intense fluorescent light that reduced visibility to less than an arm’s length.

“One could, and did, get temporarily lost in its 90 percent humidity,” writes Richard Hamblyn in Clouds: Nature and Culture (2017). “The intended effect of Gormley’s ‘bright, cuboid cloud’ was to overwhelm the senses, as though one had walked into a cloud, literally and figuratively, entering a cold, damp, unsettling world of enveloping isolation.”

An Empty Message

“The hardest of all adventures to speak of is music, because music has no meaning to speak of. If music could be translated into human speech it would no longer need to exist. Like love, music’s a mystery which, when solved, evaporates.” — Ned Rorem, Music From Inside Out, 1967

“Music has no subject beyond the combinations of notes we hear, for music speaks not only by means of sounds, it speaks nothing but sound.” — Eduard Hanslick

“Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.” — Victor Hugo

But music moves us, and we know not why;
We feel the tears, but cannot trace their source.
Is it the language of some other state,
Born of its memory? For what can wake
The soul’s strong instinct of another world,
Like music?

— Letitia Elizabeth Landon, The Golden Violet, 1827


Sculptor Edward Ihnatowicz’s Sound Activated Mobile (SAM) was the first moving sculpture that could respond actively to its surroundings. Listening through four microphones in its head, it would twist and crane its neck to face the source of the loudest noise, like an earnest poppy.

Fascinated Londoners spent hours vying for SAM’s attention at the 1968 Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition. Encouraged, Ihnatowicz unveiled the prodigious Senster two years later.

Back and Forth

Guillaume de Machaut’s Rondeau 14, from the 14th century, is a crab canon over a palindrome: When the singers reach the end of the line, the tenor (the lowest voice) reverses course and reads his music backward, and the other two voices follow suit, exchanging parts.

So they arrive where they started. De Machaut titled the piece “Ma fin est mon commencement” — “In my end is my beginning.”


In planning the lighting and atmosphere for Skull Island in 1933’s King Kong, animator Willis O’Brien relied heavily on Gustave Doré. In 1930 special effects expert Lewis W. Physioc had said, “If there is one man’s work that can be taken as the cinematographer’s text, it is that of Doré. His stories are told in our own language of ‘black and white,’ are highly imaginative and dramatic, and should stimulate anybody’s ideas.”

“The Doré influence is strikingly evident in the island scenes,” write Orville Goldner and George E. Turner in The Making of King Kong (1976) (click to enlarge). “Aside from the lighting effects, other elements of Dore illustrations are easily discernible. The affinity of the jungle clearings to those in Dore’s ‘The First Approach of the Serpent’ from Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ [left], ‘Dante in the Gloomy Wood’ from Dante’s ‘The Divine Comedy,’ ‘Approach to the Enchanted Palace’ from Perrault’s ‘Fairy Tales’ [right] and ‘Manz’ from Chateaubriand’s ‘Atala’ is readily apparent. The gorge and its log bridge bear more than a slight similarity to ‘The Two Goats’ from ‘The Fables’ of La Fontaine, while the lower region of the gorge may well have been designed after the pit in the Biblical illustration of ‘Daniel in the Lion’s Den.’ The wonderful scene in which Kong surveys his domain from the ‘balcony’ of his mountaintop home high above the claustrophobic jungles is suggestive of two superb Doré engravings, ‘Satan Overlooking Paradise’ from ‘Paradise Lost’ and ‘The Hermit on the Mountain’ from ‘Atala.'”