Category Archives: Culture

Superheroes in the Sixteenth Century

I love to play with history, inside the classroom and out, which is one of the reasons I started this blog. Any sort of mashup of past and present, especially if it is clever and creative, is instantly going to catch my attention–and hold it, for a least a little while. So when I saw just one of the images of French photographer Sacha Goldberger’s “Super Flemish” series, in which twentieth-century superheroes are reimagined in the guise and garb of Northern Renaissance portraits, I had to see them all. Below are my favorites, and you can see the rest here, along with more of Goldberger’s provocative work. His commentary on his photographs is interesting too: By the temporal disturbance they produce, these images allow us to discover, under the patina of time, an unexpected melancholy of those who are to be invincible. “Temporal disturbance”, that’s what interests me. And don’t these icons look a bit melancholy in their trunk hose and ruffs?

SuperHerosFlamands_Batman_RGB1998_011

superheroes-robin_3111213k

SuperHerosFlamands_Catwoman_RGB1998_014

superheroes-wonder_3111209k

superheroes-superm_3111212k

Sacha Goldberger’s “Super Flemish” Superheroes: more here (including lots of Star Wars characters in ruffs–and the Incredible Hulk!)

These images got me thinking: who were the superheroes of the sixteenth century? Batman, Robin, Catwoman, Wonder Woman, and Superman might look like they’re hanging out in the sixteenth century in Golberger’s photographs but they don’t really reflect sixteenth-century values and ideals, as superheroes should. After looking at what seemed like hundreds of prints of his Twelve Labours, I decided that Hercules must be the perfect Renaissance superhero: he’s from the classical past, but convertible enough for that era (or any, really). People in the sixteenth century liked to mash-up history just as we do: that’s what the Renaissance is all about, and the Reformation popularized such representations. Picture in point: Martin Luther portrayed as “Hercules Germanicus” by Hans Holbein the Younger, slaying all the Catholic authorities in his midst, the perfect Protestant superhero.

Hercules Jost Amman BM 1590

Superhero Luther Hercules

Hercules in the company of a Roman warrior and a wild man, Jost Amman, c. 1590, British Museum; Luther as the “Hercules Germanicus”, Hans Holbein the Younger, 16th century, Zentralbibliothek Zürich.

 

 


Architectural Alphabets

Architecture and Alphabets: two of my favorite things, together. I’ve been meaning to post some images from Jean Baptiste de Pian’s clever alphabet ever since I discovered it a year or so ago, but just never got to it. There’s already some images and admirers out there, but I’ll add more. The lithographs below, part of a series of 26, were actually created and colored by Leopold Müller in 1842 after paintings by Pian. The series is very rare and valuable: one set sold for over $32,000 at a Christies’ auction last year, and another is currently available at Bromer Booksellers for $65,000. Apparently a facsimile edition was published in 1973 but I can’t find it anywhere. As you can see in the images below (which I have taken from the Christies’ listing), the letters are not just affixed to the structures but rather an integral part of them.

Architectural Alphabet 1842

Architectural Alphabet F

Architectural Alphabet U 1842

As impressive as they are, Pian/Müller’s letters are not completely original conceptions: just a few years earlier the Italian artist and theater designer Antonio Basoli had published his own, predominately classical,architectural alphabet, Alfabeto Pittorico, comprised of 24 letters and an ampersand. Basoli’s Alphabet, as it came to be known, is rare today as well, though apparently not quite so rare as that which it might have inspired: it fetched $15,000 at the same 2013 Christies’ auction. Before Basoli, there was the plan-based architectural alphabet of the German architect Johann David Steingruber, published in 1773. Viewed individually, I don’t think Steingruber’s letters are as impressive as the more consolidated forms of Pian/Müller and Basoli, but collectively (as in this canvas by Ballard Designs from a few years back) they pack a punch.

Alphabetical Alphabet Basoli

Architectural Alphabet Z

steingruber1

steingruber6

Steingruber Ballard Designs

Scans of Basoli & Steingruber at the venerable blog Giornale Nuovo, a feast of information and images.

The architectural alphabet looks like a seventeenth-century invention to me: a direct consequence of the rebirth of classicism and the emergence and development of the printing arts in the centuries before. But I think I’ll move up (back) to our own time, where the architectural alphabet still survives, indeed thrives! Two great examples: Federico Babino’s alphabet of architects, cleverly titled Archibet (he also builds an Archibet City), and the (less integrative but more whimsical) Architectural Alphabet of Andrew Zega and Bernd Dams.

Archibet-alphabet-of-architects-by-Federico-Babina_dezeen_A-01

Archibet-alphabet-of-architects-by-Federico-Babina_dezeen_Z-01

zega and dams


Mapping the Twentieth Century

In the recent tradition of Neil MacGregor’s History of the World in 100 Objects and Jerry Brotton’s History of the World in 12 Maps, the British Library published A History of the 20th Century in 100 Maps last month, and my copy arrived in the mail yesterday. The book consists of 110 maps actually, compiled for the most part from the Library’s vast map collection by Tim Bryers and Tom Harper. The maps are arranged chronologically and presented with detailed introductions: the end result is a perfect book. It occurred to me while browsing through it last night that the physical book is the preferable vehicle for the presentation of maps: they require close reading, although I suppose the zooming abilities of a Kindle would be helpful too. As I’ve written here time and time again, whether discussing maps in the form of animals, or hearts, or featuring octopuses bent on world domination, maps are an essential teaching tools, and this new book contains some great material. Though I do disagree slightly with Bryers’ and Harper’s thesis that the twentieth century is the map century: in terms of sheer cartographic impact, I would place my bet on the sixteenth.

Maps cover

Map London Underground BL

Map Dogs 1914

Map Blitz 1940

Map April Fool 1977

Map Orwell 1984

Selections from A History of the World in 100 Maps: London Underground Map, 1908 (20+ years before the iconic map was created in the 1930s); Hark, Hark! The Dogs do Bark map by Johnson, Riddle & Co., 1914; secret Luftwaffe map of London at the beginning of the Blitz, 1940–with places marked for bombing and avoidance; Artwork for the Guardian’s article on the fictional islands of San Serriffe, published on April Fool’s Day in 1977; “The World of George Orwell’s ’1984′, published in 1984.

 


Monopoly Pieces

I have quicksilver materialistic urges: what I want now are Monopoly pieces, or rather artistically-enhanced versions thereof. There is a Salem source of this desire, and it is a timely one: Parker Brothers of Salem acquired one of the key patents they needed  to produce their version of Monopoly on this day in 1935, and it was an immediate blockbuster, perhaps (or in spite of) the ongoing Depression. Parker Brothers’ long residency in Salem (1883-1991) is no doubt due in large part to the success of this ultra-American game. It was apparently rushed into production even though Parker Brothers president George Parker had low expectations: a series of boxes from 1935 bear the inscriptions “patent applied for” and “patent pending”. Inside are wooden houses and hotels and the original dark-iron tokens: the iron, racing car, thimble, shoe, top hat and battleship (the Scottie dog and wheelbarrow were added in the early 1950s).

Monopoly Box Patent Pending 1935

1935 Patent Pending Monopoly Box: Source.

And that’s the other reason why I’m craving Monopoly pieces now:  my favorite token was always the iron, and it has recently been cast out of the game, replaced by a cat. I’m a cat lover as well, but the new token just doesn’t have the texture of that old iron: thankfully my Monopoly game is pretty vintage, and thus iron-clad. And when a little tiny metal token just won’t do, several artists have been inspired enough by the game–and its iconic pieces–to create bigger and bolder versions. I want all of these creations by Stuart Whitton, which are hand-drawn on vintage postcards, but I think they’re long gone.

Monopoly Iron Whitton

Monopoly Racing Car Whitton PC

Monopoly Racing Car 2 Whitton

Monopoly Shoe Whitton PC

Monopoly Whitton dog PC

Stuart Whitton’s drawings of “infamous” Monopoly pieces at Behance and stuartwhitton.co.uk.

Since I’m particularly fond of the retired iron, I did find a more attainable object: a pewteresque replica: not very subtle, and far less artistic, but BIG. But where to put it? It screams doorstop to me, but when I went in search of a place, I found not one, not two, but THREE old 19th century irons propped up against doors on my third floor. I don’t think I need one more, even if it has an air of Monopoly about it.

Monopoly Iron Doorstop

 

 

 


Mums for Mourning

The holiday Halloween evolved from pre-Christian traditions as well as the Christian days for remembrance, All Saints Day and All Souls Day, which is today. Remembrance in general, and mourning in particular, were a bit more active in the medieval era than the present but still it is interesting how reflection was transformed into celebration! Mourning, as both a state of mind and an act, is of course universal, transcending time and place, but there are many distinctive and divergent mourning customs, and since its expressions seem to be in season now (as reflected by the new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Death Becomes Her: A Century of Morning Attire and The Art of Mourning at the new Morbid Anatomy Museum, as well as the exhibition from a few years ago at the Massachusetts Historical Society, The Tradition of Anglo-American Mourning Jewelry, which you can still view online), I thought I would examine just one: the use of chrysanthemums. While the omnipresent autumn plants seems to sit on every stoop and front porch throughout New England, they are used to decorate graves in France and other countries on the European continent and elsewhere (predominately but not always yellow mums in France, white mums are traditional funereal emblems in China), and are as much a natural symbol for mourning as the weeping willow was in nineteenth-century America. You won’t see any mums on the Met’s dresses or the Anglo-American jewelry in the MHS exhibition, but they figure very prominently in French memorial depictions from the same era–and after.

Mums for Mourning 2 MET

Mums Toussaint-Emile-Friant

Mums for Mourning 3 NYPL

Mums for Morning MET shadow print

Mums for Mouring NBC News

“The Cemetery of Père Lachaise,” after John James Chalon, 1822; Emile Friant, La Toussaint, 1888, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nancy, Daniel Hernandez cover for Figaro illustré, 1896, New York Public Library Digital Gallery; Adolf de Meyer, The Shadows on the Wall (“Chyrsanthemums”), 1906, Silver Print Photograph, the Metropolitan Museum of Art; a French cemetery in November 2013, NBC News.

 

 

 


Scary Vegetables

In honor of Halloween and the ongoing harvest season, as well as my continuous fascination with anthropomorphism, today I have a portfolio of images which I have labeled “scary vegetables”, some of which are scary because of the human-like characteristics assigned to them (in both the mandrake and pumpkin-head traditions) and others which are simply scary. I’ve featured this topic before, but this variation is a bit more creepy and much more focused on vegetables in general and root vegetables in particular. There’s nothing particularly modern about these images: the aforementioned mandrake with its humanoid roots was a medieval forerunner, and Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s whimsical portraits definitely made plants-in-human-form the embodiment of grotesque in the Renaissance and influenced surrealistic expressions centuries later. Some plants are scary just on their own–especially their roots–but others require a bit of artistic embellishment. I’m not quite sure why Diego Rivera’s radishes are so very menacing, but they certainly are!

Scary Plants Blood Root p

Scary Vegetables Kirby

PicMonkey Collage

Scary Turnipp

Scary Vegetables diegorivera_1947

Scary Vegetables Etsy Dewey

Scary Vegetables Horner

Sources of Scary Vegetables:  Bloodroot from Bigelow’s American Medical Botany, 1817; Turnip, Radish & Parsnip “Roots” from Kirbys Wonderful and eccentric museum; or, Magazine of Remarkable Characters, 1820; C.J. Grant colored lithographs/”advertisements” for Morrison’s vegetable pills, 1831, Wellcome Library; an old postcard from my collection, c. 1910-30?; Diego Rivera’s The Temptation of St. Anthony, 1947, Museo Nacional de Arte, Mexico City; “Tragedy 29: Turnip Seeds” print by BenjaminDewey;”Look Pa” print by CathyHorner.

 

 

 


FDR and the Salem Witches

While combing through the digital archives of national newspapers in search of allegorical and political references to the Salem witch trials, I found the perfect little story for this “closing” week of Salem’s never-ending Halloween season and the upcoming election: a notice in the New York Times for a Roosevelt campaign rally to be held on Gallows Hill in Salem on Halloween, 1932, during which several witches would be hung in effigy. I am not making this up: here’s a clip of the article, in its still- distinctive Times font, from October 23, 1932:

Roosevelt and Witches NYT

Where do I begin? How could this POSSIBLY have seemed like a good idea??? I know this is Roosevelt’s first presidential campaign, but he’s still an experienced politician at this point. What about the line “inasmuch as the executioners are to be part of a Democratic rally, the witches will represent things Republican”? Did the Democrats really want to paint themselves as executioners with Republicans as their victims?  What about the visuals? Was FDR going to look on with that broad smile? Certainly it is Campaign 101 to never let the candidate be in close proximity to a gallows–especially one with hanging effigies. I know it was the depths of the Depression and bread and circuses and all that, but what an odd use of the word “pageant”! And last but not least, Gallows Hill was where the accused witches were hung in 1692, not 1690.

Fortunately for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, this event never happened: it got rained out, by one of those fierce Halloween storms similar to those that we’ve experienced over these past few years. Roosevelt, in the midst of a frenetic campaign swing through New England, stopped in Salem on Halloween anyway and gave a speech before a crowd of 5000 supporters in the Salem Armory, publicly expressing his regret that he couldn’t have gone up to Gallows Hill (frankly, this would have been difficult for him, given his disability, even without the rain and mud–again, it just wasn’t a good idea). Stories from the Boston Herald and the Boston Globe from the following day (November 1) fill in the details. In the latter, the candidate’s son James called the Salem crowd “wonderful” and said that both he and his father were sorry that the weather had prevented the hanging in effigy of the three witches, “Depression, Privilege, and Bunk”, on Gallows Hill.  In the Herald, the Governor reveals himself to be under the spell of confusion which maintains that Salem’s accused witches were burned rather than hung. Nevertheless, just a week later he was elected our 32nd president, for the first time.

  PicMonkey Collage

The newspaper coverage of Roosevelt’s Halloween visit to Salem: images from the Boston Globe, and text from the Boston Herald, both November 1, 1932. Impossible to think of even a politician braving Salem’s Halloween crowds today!


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