In a Word

n. a mass execution by drowning

adj. crying out together

adj. dying together or at the same time

J.M.W. Turner’s 1840 painting The Slave Ship recalls a brutal convention in the Atlantic slave trade — an insurance company would reimburse a captain for a slave who was lost at sea, but not for one who died of illness aboard ship. In 1781 Luke Collingwood, captain of the Zong, threw 133 sick and malnourished Africans overboard so that he could claim their value from his insurers. Turner displayed the painting next to lines from his own poem:

Aloft all hands, strike the top-masts and belay;
Yon angry setting sun and fierce-edged clouds
Declare the Typhon’s coming.
Before it sweeps your decks, throw overboard
The dead and dying — ne’er heed their chains
Hope, Hope, fallacious Hope!
Where is thy market now?

Britain had already outlawed its own slave trade when the painting appeared, but its impact encouraged the empire to oppose the institution everywhere.

Drawing Blanks

In 2002, Russian magnate Vladimir O. Potanin paid $1 million for Kazimir Malevich’s 1915 painting Black Square. “‘All paintings are pictures’ would have been a strong candidate for a necessary truth until Malevich proved it false,” wrote Arthur Danto of the inscrutable black canvas. Malevich himself had said, “It is not painting; it is something else.”

In The Hunting of the Snark, the Bellman guides his party across the Ocean with “a map they could all understand”:

“What’s the good of Mercator’s North Poles and Equators,
Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?”
So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply
“They are merely conventional signs!

“Other maps are such shapes, with their islands and capes!
But we’ve got our brave Captain to thank”
(So the crew would protest) “that he’s bought us the best —
A perfect and absolute blank!”

While an architecture student at Cornell in the 1920s, practical joker Hugh Troy was given 48 hours to render “a conception of what a brightly floodlighted hydroelectric plant might look like at night.” “Though Hugh was overloaded with other work, he got his drawing in on time,” remembered classmate Don Hershey. He called it Hydroelectric Plant at Night (Fuse Blown):

troy hydroelectric plant

In 1967 British artists Terry Atkinson and Michael Baldwin produced a “map of itself,” a “map of an area of dimensions 12″ x 12″ indicating 2,304 1/4″ squares”:

map of itself

Katharine Harmon, in The Map as Art, writes that this is one of a series of maps “revealing only what they wished to show and jettisoning the rest — drawing attention to what cartographers have always done.”

(Thanks, Tristram.)

Looking-Glass Art

That’s Rembrandt’s engraving The Three Trees on the left, and its mirror image.

Art historian Heinrich Wölfflin found that reversing the image produces a distinctly different aesthetic effect. In the first image, “the group of trees at the right gives an impression of energy”; in the second, “the trees are devaluated and emphasis now seems to rest on the flat, extended plain.”

But curiously, writes Chris McManus in Right Hand, Left Hand, “although ordinary viewers say [such reversals] look different, they cannot reliably decide which is the original and which the mirror-image, unless they have seen the picture before.” Whom can we credit for the second composition?


Giuseppe Verdi received this letter in May 1872:

Much-honoured Signor Verdi, — The 2nd of this month I went to Parma, drawn there by the sensation made by your opera Aida. So great was my curiosity, that one half-hour before the commencement of the piece, I was already in my place, No. 120. I admired the mise en scène, I heard with pleasure the excellent singers, and I did all in my power to let nothing escape me. At the end of the opera, I asked if I was satisfied, and the answer was ‘No.’ I started back to Reggio, and listened in the railway carriage to the opinions given upon Aida. Nearly all agreed in considering it a work of the first order.

I was then seized with the idea of hearing it again, and on the 4th I returned to Parma; I made unheard-of efforts to get a reserved seat; as the crowd was enormous, I was obliged to throw away five liri to witness the performance in any comfort.

I arrived at this decision about it: it is an opera in which there is absolutely nothing which causes any enthusiasm or excitement, and without the pomp of the spectacle, the public would not stand it to the end. When it has filled the house two or three times, it will be banished to the dust of the archives.

You can now, dear Signor Verdi, picture to yourself my regret at having spent on two occasions thirty-two liri; add to this the aggravating circumstance that I depend on my family, and that this money troubles my rest like a frightful spectre. I therefore frankly address myself to you, in order that you may send me the amount. The account is as follows:–

Hoping that you will deliver me from this embarrassment, I salute you from my heart.


My address: Bertani Prospero, Via San Domenico, No. 5

Verdi asked his publisher to reimburse the man’s expenses, except for his supper (“He might very well take his meals at home”), in return for a written acknowledgment “undertaking to hear my new operas no more, exposing himself no more to the menaces of spectres, and sparing me further traveling expenses.”

A Study in Oils,_London.jpg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

In seeking to understand how a person’s ability might vary with his complexion, Havelock Ellis chose an unusual data set: the National Portrait Gallery. Ellis spent two years examining paintings of notable Britons in various fields and established an “index of pigmentation” in each group by multiplying the number of fair people by 100 and dividing by the number of dark people. Results:

An index greater than 100 means that fair people predominate in the group; one less than 100 means that dark people predominate. The list includes both men and women.

In general, Ellis concluded, the fair man tends to be “bold, energetic, restless, and domineering,” while the dark man is “resigned and religious and imitative, yet highly intelligent.” “While the men of action thus tend to be fair, the men of thought, it seems to me, show some tendency to be dark.”

Ellis speculated that the British aristocracy tended to be dark because peers could choose the most beautiful women, and British women with the greatest reputation for beauty tended to be dark: a group of 15 English women of letters had an index of 100, while 13 famous beauties rated 44.

(“The Comparative Abilities of the Fair and the Dark,” Monthly Review, August 1901.)

A Dedicated Theme

Written by German composer Peter Cornelius in 1854, “Ein Ton” has a single note for a melody — the note B is repeated 80 times in 42 bars.

I hear a tone so wondrous sweet
In heart and spirit of repeat.
Is it that breath that from thee fled,
The last faint breath e’er thou wert dead?

Nicolas Slonimsky writes, “Of course, there are constant modulations so that harmonic changes make up for monotony.”

Late Acceptance

In 1832, at age 19, Giuseppe Verdi applied to study at the Milan Conservatory and was rejected.

In 1898, at the end of his career, he learned that the conservatory had decided to rename itself the Giuseppe Verdi Conservatorium.

“My God, this was all that was lacking to plague the soul of a poor devil like me who desires only to be serene and to die serenely!” he wrote to his publisher. “No, sir! Even this isn’t allowed me! What wrong have I done that I should be tormented like this?”

That’s not quite fair. He had been four years over the age limit and a foreigner to the state of Lombardy-Venetia, where the school was located. But he remembered it as “a Conservatorium that (I do not exaggerate) tried to kill me, and whose memory I should try to escape.”

New Music

The 10-member Vienna Vegetable Orchestra plays instruments created entirely from fresh vegetables, including the carrot recorder, the pumpkin tympanum, the zucchini trumpet, and the bean maraca. These must be fashioned anew before each concert, because the old instruments are made into soup.

The Thai Elephant Orchestra, created by American expatriate Richard Lair and Columbia neurologist David Sulzer, improvise on drums, gongs, harmonicas, and sawmill blades. To date they’ve released three CDs.

Sulzer referred to one 7-year-old member as “the Fritz Kreisler of elephants.” “I put one bad note in the middle of her xylophone,” he told the New York Times in 2000. “She avoided playing that note — until one day she started playing it and wouldn’t stop. Had she discovered dissonance, and discovered that she liked it?”

“Just as there are a lot things they don’t understand about our music, I am sure there are things we will never understand about theirs.”

Graceful Figures

In 1933, Harvard mathematician George Birkhoff quantified beauty. The basic idea, he said, is that M = O/C, where M is the “aesthetic measure,” O is order, and C is complexity. By elaborating this principle into specific formulas, he decided that the square is the most pleasing polygon and the major triad the most pleasing diatonic chord. Of eight vases he considered, a Ming jar ranked highest, with M = 0.80, and in poetry the opening of Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” received an M rating of 0.83. The same principles can be applied to painting, sculpture, and architecture.

This kind of use of the formula leads at once to certain well known aesthetic maxims:

  1. Unify as far as possible without loss of variety (that is, diminish the complexity C without decrease of the order O).
  2. Achieve variety in so far as possible without loss of unity (that is, increase O without increase of C).
  3. This ‘unity in variety’ must be found in the several parts as well as in the whole (that is, the order and complexity of the parts enter into the order and complexity of the whole).

“Now it seems to me that the postulation of genius in any mystical sense is unnecessary,” he concluded. “The analytic phase appears as an inevitable part of aesthetic experience. The more extensive this experience is, the more definite becomes the analysis.”

Set Dressing

In 1889 Monet was midway through a landscape when a pivotal oak tree sprouted leaves.

He mulled this for a few days and then approached the landowner with an unusual proposition. On May 9 he wrote:

I am overjoyed — permission to remove the leaves of my beautiful oak has been graciously accorded! It was a huge job bringing large enough ladders into this ravine. Enfin, it is done, two men have been busy with it since yesterday. Isn’t it a feat to finish a winter landscape at this time of year?

In The Ultimate Irrelevant Encyclopaedia (1984), Bill Hartston remarks, “Monet makes the leaves go aground.”