Finishing on a high: personal faves and highlights

Featured strings: Just Go Nuts, Overlooked Treasures

This is my last blog entry for Artstring; I’ve had the most tremendous time exploring the collections at the National Gallery, Science Museum and British Museum in greater depth than I had previously, and I sincerely hope, as I mentioned in my introductory post that other museums, London and worldwide, follow suit in making a searchable digital catalogue of their collections publicly available API so that apps like Artstring can continue to find new, free ways to help people connect with the past, present and future of places, artworks, cultures, and inventions.

For personal preference, I’d like to see the Natural History Museum (especially their glorious hidden Spirit Museum) allow the creation of personalised tours and curated collections by all, as Artstring allows with the three museums with public API. I’m a big fan of the V&A across the road too, and while a lot of the fun is the architecture as much as the collection, in both cases the sheer size can be overwhelming. In a three-point tour with the Science Museum, it would be easy for schools, families, and tourists to work their way around the collections without young attention spans getting bored, or tired tourists getting fed up and missing things–as well as allowing everyone to add their own information and views on the exhibits.

Other places I’d especially like to see get in on the act are the Museum of London, particularly if it goes ahead with its 24 hour viewing gallery–a curated tour through the night museum would be a fantastic way to finish a long evening–and the Tate Britain, if only because I have a real talent for getting hopelessly lost in there. It would also be fantastic, given the overlap between their collections, if the Wellcome Collection (who’ve already loaned on long-term many exhibits to the Science Museum) allowed for the creation of personalised flash tours around their permanent collection, as there’s a lot packed into it!

As I’m finishing off the blogging with this post, I thought I’d self-indulge and share from two of the more fun and frivolous strings, Just Go Nuts and Overlooked Treasures along with some personal favourites from both the museums with publicly available API, and those without.

Terracotta group of phallus-headed beings attacking the evil-eye with a two-handed saw, terracotta, unknown artist (1st-2nd century CE)

As the article on the decorative penis in art probably illustrates all too well, I’m a big fan of removing some of the po-facedness from art history and the communication of art history, shifting the register from inaccessibility and closed circles of people who already “get it” to absolutely everyone, and doing that via the medium of juvenile humour is as good a route as any (there are others, of course: talking about justice, about craft and technique, about emotional connections with families and animals which are immediately relatable, getting people to think about love, or colour, or the commercial intentions behind a work of art that seems impenetrable), as well as one of the most fun for listener and speaker alike.

While there are a lot of penis-related images in the collections (I go into them in exhaustive length at the above link), this one is probably the weirdest, beating out even the flying dick lion windchime which has a special, noisy place in the heart as an item intended to scare away bad spirits which would now probably go a long way towards scaring off the postman–unless properly warned on Grinder beforehand. It’s wonderfully literal: the dickheads (what else can you call them) are going to destroy the influence of the evil eye, the manifestation of curses through envy. Good for them.

We do still fill our world with wards against the evil eye. Where I live in North London, for example, it’s not wholly unusual to see these:

Nazar boncuğu, Wikipedia User Sokoljan (2013)

But it would certainly be an uphill struggle to convince local authorities and neighbours of the validity of a pair of dicks with a saw as a good luck charm!

Pottery zoomorphic vase in the form of a horned quadruped (perhaps a bull or ox), unknown artist (1650BC-1400BCE)

I’m a big fan of zoomorphic vessels (that’s “bottles etc that look like animals”) and the British Museum has them by the shedload. Outside of their own immediate aesthetic merits–this one has a round body and short legs, in common with a lot of cartoon animals which hit us squarely in the “cute” receptors, even though it’s for obvious practical reasons like maximising volume-to-surface ratio and stability–there’s something immediately familiar about them. I think that familiarity is valuable. Looking back at strange burial rituals and incomprehensible weapons of war can be alienating, can make us think of our shared histories as distant and irrelevant even as that strangeness intoxicates us. Vessels like this serve as easy reminders that for all their differences and long-ago technological separation, the people of 1400 BCE also looked at cows and thought “yeah, I want a jug like that”. In a time when daily tasks and creating pottery would arguably have been more arduous and exacting, resources more precious, people still went the extra mile to paint a fun pattern on a vessel and make it look like a cow pouring the contents out of its mouth. Maybe it differentiated this thing from others being made; maybe it made it easier for the potter to sell. The fact that we can begin imagining these mundane realities within the heads of people 3,400 years ago as if they were our neighbours this morning helps to humanise ancient history, and gets us wondering what else we might have in common.

Saints Fabian and Sebastian, Giovanni di Paolo (about 1475)

I’m hugely into the various representations of St Sebastian and in my spare time I run an archive of depictions of the saint across various media. This painting tickles me because it precedes the Classically-led Renaissance obsession with the patron of athletes and ward against the plague for his good looks, and the tendency to depict him in somewhat homoerotic positions like this; instead he looks like someone has made some very emphatic attempts to ensure he’s absolutely dead–which, considering his double-martyrdom seems appropriate. The artist also has a wonderfully awful grasp on human anatomy and frankly it makes me feel a lot better about my own art. Even before we get onto the tiny, kneeling, faceless monks (possibly, but not necessarily, “donors“).

Pair of swivel walkers designed for a child born with no lower limbs, Hanger Orthopaedic Group, Inc (1966)

It’s unfortunate that sometimes things designed to improve the lives of those in need also look absolutely terrifying. Hanger Orthopaedics Group, the company responsible for this eery-looking medical equipment, are still very much a going concern, and continue to create lower-body prosthetics for those who had need of them–but with rather more elegant and practical designs. I’m perpetually interested in the future of prosthesis and in medical interventions in general, so I keep an eye on developments such as increased opportunities for touch-feedback and machine learning in prosthetic limbs, or accessibility and cost improvements like royalty-free 3D-printed limbs. Prosthetic design is one of the areas of medical science history where the scope of improvements and the distance traveled in terms of those improvements is immediately obvious and easy to communicate, making it an easy in for communicating medical developments over history in general.

The Close of the Silver Age, Lucas Cranach the Elder (about 1530)

The works of Lucas Cranach the Elder can be found in reasonable profusion in the National Gallery collection. Some are portraits, which emanate a peculiar intensity, but are otherwise fairly standard. And then there’s two almost-identical takes [links] on the subject of Cupid complaining to Venus about having been stung by bees, and… this. I was initially drawn to this painting because, well, there’s a bunch of naked people fighting and wandering around for apparently no reason, and for someone with a passing interest in comics, the title and the content suggested a rather more dramatic, weird and salacious period in Marvel’s mid 50s-to-1970s publishing history than I’d hitherto been aware of.

But the Hesiodic Silver Age speaks of a time when the first attempt at humankind made by the Greek Gods were failing to behave themselves in a civilised fashion: living for a hundred years under their mothers then having massive fights and, crucially, refusing to worship the gods, until Zeus got pissed off and destroyed them. Parallels might easily be drawn with the earlier books of the Old Testament, where the Abrahamic God got increasingly narked with humankind being unruly, unbiddable and generally impious, and nuked them all with a colossal flood. While the painting (and the series to which it seems to belong) might serve as a reminder to piety couched in the language of the classically educated.

On the other hand, Hesiod’s Ages were also referenced and delineated by the 4th century CE historian Saint Jerome (also depicted repeatedly in the National Gallery collection), so it’s not a huge stretch to consider the commissioner of these works to be related to the church (a major artistic patron) and well-versed in Jerome’s Chronology.

Either way, I came for the weird naked people hitting each other with sticks, and that’s what I stayed for. In a collection full of dignity and pomp, tranquility and drama, sometimes it’s good to have something to make fun of, too.

Rocks, Tree Trunks and Branches, George Augustus Wallis (about 1800)

The National Gallery has a fine collection of oil sketches of various landscape scenes by the likes of Frederic, Lord Leighton, but also a variety of studies by less well-known artists like Thomas Jones, or George Augustus Wallis. These studies–in particular ones like this and this and this–are a departure from works that focus on the human drama of existence, the mythological and historical or the pious and the mundane with undertones of moral lessons intercut with showing off about possessions. They’re not yet at the stage of Western Art History that sees experimentation with capturing the movement and experience of moments and the lively riffing on colour and form that were to follow. In a sense they’re something like holiday snaps, commemorating nothing more important than the fact of something’s existence–a sunny wall or a tree or, in this case, some dead wood–and often not meant for display or sale, only as a practice to transfer skills across to a “real” painting.

One might expect studies of this kind of vanish with the advent of landscape photography, but of course they haven’t. They’ve multiplied. People have explored new media and new avenues of capturing the simple realities of nature–in animation, on film, in photography, in pencils, in oils, in watercolours, in digital vectors–focusing the frame of perception on the truly ordinary until by close observation it becomes recognisibly extraordinary, in a combination of sustained effort and directed concentration transforming the barely-noticed into the framed work of art.

I chose this painting out of all the other oil sketches studying landscape and trees for its simplicity and complexity, for the limited palette that still manages to convey stark contrasts (the interior of the tree against its dark bark, or the log against the lichen growing on it), and for the complete absence of any people–something which only this particular genre of art seems to offer, for hundreds of years, in the collection. It represents both the peace of solitude, and the inherent drama of nature itself–dead trees stabbing mournfully at the sky.

Yatate no kihan 矢立帰半, Utagawa Kuniyoshi 歌川国芳  & Hori Take 彫竹 (1848) [BM]

The artist, Utagawa Kuniyoshi, was one of the great masters of the Ukiyo-e wood block print style; one might draw a parallel with playbill designs from the likes of Aubrey Beardsley or Toulouse-Lautrec if one were so minded, but on the whole western Art History hasn’t paid as much attention to advertising or publicity print imagery as it deserves as an art form. However, that’s not why I’ve chosen this picture of the actor Sawamura Sojuro V. I’ve chosen it for purely aesthetic reasons, and ones of mild amusement: the aesthetic reasons are the elegant use of spot colour and the never-easy business of applying stripes to drawn fabric for reproduction god knows how many times (it is, after all,a publicity image intended for distribution). The amusement–well. There is something perfect and timeless about the posed “oh, you just caught me in the middle of writing a poem, which I do often, while standing in nature admiring the sunrise, because I am a very noble and intelligent man, and unlike other actors, definitely not a sex worker,” affectation. The “definitely not a sex worker” undertones might not be necessary in modern publicity shots, but the “I am a man of substance” headshot is immediately familiar, and immediately kind of funny.

The Surprise, Claude-Marie Dubufe (before 1827)

I’ve described this painting before as a case type for illustrating the concept of the male gaze, and it’s for that reason I think this is a great picture: it represents a perfect opportunity to divorce technical skill from artistic decisions in analysis, to both acknowledge the warmth and realism of this beautiful young woman with her pale blue veins, her lifelike shawl with its fringed edge, and her magazine-healthy hair and demure blush of embarrassment–and to ask, rigorously, why has this male artist chosen to depict in oils a young woman falling out of her clothes? There’s a timeless quality to it, in that the same thread runs through “accidental” undressing images, carefully staged for magazines and the soft-core porn pages of newspapers, all the way through the 1970s to the modern era, where “coy” women are portrayed as participating somehow in the voyeurism, contrasting come-hither body-language with scandalised expressions. It is a useful painting for illustrating how, with works like this, the viewer is the one dragged into complicity with the artist: colluding in the active decision to make the young woman the object of a gaze that removes her dignity and her clothes.

Elsewhere in the collection the decision becomes more overt (see Man, You Look At A Woman for examples) with lecherous satyrs literally standing in for the horny straight dude viewer, and also more covert in the framing (a huge percentage of the works at the National Gallery are images produced by men, many of them of women. Of the few female artists featured, one paints flowers, another horses, leaving very little self-reflection for contrast). This image of a young woman disturbed by the male gaze references Susannah (a popular subject with male painters, but primarily in a state of coquettish undress, and only truly expressing furious violation in her depiction by Artemisia Gentileschi, an artist who had first-hand experience of precisely this kind of violation), and it is her partial nudity, the anticipation it is intended to stir in a viewer that makes this painting a parallel to the lecherous images of Pan hanging over Syrinx, rather than one of the standard images of female nudity (see Tits Out For Some Reason). After all, context is important: she could have her bosom in a baby’s mouth and the entire meaning would be different, despite the increased nudity.

Women’s nudity in works of art ceased to be about divine power  with considerable speed; male nudity in works of art continued to be an image of heroism (see Heroic Nudity: Naked for Glory again), although the sexualised male nude is also very much on display.

Nimbus, or Rain Cloud, Luke Howard (1849)

There are very few blue plaques in the area of London where I live, although arguably there are some local heroes who could have stood to receive some. One of the vanishingly tiny number records a house in which Luke Howard, “Namer of Clouds”, dwelt; beloved of psychogeographer and curmudgeon Iain Sinclair, and prevalent primarily in esoteric histories of London, Howard’s whimsical-sounding occupation was actually of considerable scientific value–applying the same system of classification from the worlds of botany and zoology to the world of meteorology, the binomial cloud classification system has allowed the teaching and analysis of weather patterns to become more specialised and more precise, and to link specific cloud formations to specific atmospheric conditions and subsequent weather patterns. All of which has made it possible, alongside other developments, for the most complicated weather in the world to become a little more predictable. Seeing this scientific classification from a local scientific personality in the form of a tranquil, expressive study in paint is a beautiful break from the deluge of bright colours and excitable children that the Science Museum can sometimes feel like.

One which I managed to leave off the strings is this eery headdress from Yorkshire:

Worked red deer antler frontlet, early Mesolithic, 8000BCE

Just looking at it gives me the shivers. Not because of any inherent weirdness, although its apparent (assumed) purpose as some kind of ritual mask does given way to immediate imaginings of human sacrifice (which many cultures practiced at this time) and all the attendant gory inevitability dreamed up by Hollywood. It’s more because this headdress was put together by people on the same landmass as me–somewhere I can get to by train in a handful of hours, if the East Coast Mainline is behaving itself for once–10,000 years ago. So long ago that it makes the brain bleed thinking about it, someone was on my rainy archipelago, making meaningful changes to a deer skull for purposes I will probably never have confirmed for me. The weight of time, the distance chronologically and the absence of it geographically, feel quite rare. Perhaps it’s more common for people from places like China, Iran, India, or Egypt–places with long histories of continuous habitation, early-blooming civilisations blessed with workable materials and good trade links–to be able to confront such recognisible evidence of human intelligence from the dawn of their own worlds… but for someone living on the soggy backwater on the edge of the Atlantic, it really is quite miraculous.

Artstring’s tours are collected under the username @artstring on the app. There are many, many more than I’ve had the chance to blog about! And of course, everyone is absolutely encouraged to create an account and make their own, comment on the existing strings, share them with friends, or just ramble through the collections liking and tagging things to their hearts’ content.


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