Tag Archives: Art

Sunshine and Shadow

It seems appropriate to focus on sundials in these waning days of Summer. I know, I know–there are technically several more weeks–but I am a college professor, so for me Fall definitely begins on Tuesday. There is just no question; it’s the least transitional of the seasons. Sundials have a long history and are aesthetically pleasing, but the main reason I like them is for their representation of another transition:  from the technological and practical to the simply decorative. A sundial sits right in the middle of my Colonial Revival garden but there is also one (in more portable form) front and center in one of my favorite Renaissance paintings, The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger.

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Sundial Holbein

Hans Holbein the Younger, Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve (‘The Ambassadors’), 1533, The National Gallery, London | Photograph ©The National Gallery, London

There’s a lot going on in The Ambassadors, but if you can get past the anamorphic skull and focus on the instruments on the table, your eye (at least my eye) focuses on the sundial, right in the middle of these two handsome Renaissance men. In their time, the sundial was already almost anachronistic with the coming of the mechanical clock, but still, there it is. Obviously, like the other instruments on the table, it had come to symbolize more abstract things: the ability to harness time and (conversely) the limited amount of time that is available to man, any man (or woman), even men as magnificent as these. This sentiment is very evident in a print from about a century later, Stefano della Bella’s cartouche for the funeral of Francesco de Medici, with the central image of a sundial and the emblem Umbrae Transitus Tempus Nostrum: “Our Time is the Passing Away of a Shadow”.

Sundials Medici

Stefano della Bella, A cartouche with a sundial, a skull with feathers on its head at top, from ‘Eight Emblems for the Funeral of Francesco de Medici’ (Huit emblèmes pour les funérailles du prince François de Médicis), c. 1640-1660, Metropolitan Museum of Art

These words, this sentiment, are expressed in multiple variations on sundials over the next centuries: shadows we are, like shadows depart, as a shadow, so is life, man fleeth as a shadow. When they were not strictly utilitarian, sundial inscriptions expressing morose mortality seem to peak in the Victorian era and then shift to the light, rather than the shadow: Robert Browning’s popular plea to Grow Old along with Me; the Best is yet to Be is certainly a more hopeful (and trite) inscription. Visually, sundials cease to be macabre and become romantic, associated not with death but with the pleasures of life and with a world that was slower-paced and less technological: the perfect symbol for taking time away from that busy world, in the garden.

Sundial Crane

Sundials Crane

Sundials Earle Cover

Sundial Lee

Back cover of Walter Crane’s A Floral Fantasy in an Old English Garden (1899), available here; Front cover of Alice Morse Earle’s Sun-Dials and Roses of Yesterday (1902), available here. One of my favorite sundials, in the sunken garden of the Jeremiah Lee Mansion in Marblehead, Massachusetts.


Big Dogs on Bartlett Mall

I am not really a dog person, but as I was driving into Newburyport the other day I spotted some BIG dogs that stopped me in my tracks. They were “gathered” on the Bartlett Mall, Newburyport’s Common, overlooking the Frog Pond and Essex County Superior Courthouse (the country’s longest-serving, I believe), as one recognition of the city’s 250th anniversary. [Newburyport is so young--compared to its sister port cities to the north (Portsmouth, est. 1653) and south (Salem, which is over 380 years old)-- because it split off from the greater Newbury in 1764]. They are traveling dogs, the work of Haverhill artist Dale Rogers, who is a big believer in public art and strives to craft works that become “mental postcards”. These dogs will only be on the Mall until the 24th, so if you’re in the area stop by and see them; if not, here are some real postcards to remember them by.

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Big Dogs 017

Big Dogs 008

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Big Dogs 6

Big Dogs 7

 


Under the Spell of the Poppies

Back to World War I remembrance; I can’t help myself: I’m under the spell of the poppies–not real poppies (which I really don’t care for all that much) or the intoxicating poppies alluded to in the captivating Strobridge Wizard of Oz poster below, but the thousands of ceramic poppies that are now literally spilling out of the Tower of London in remembrance of British lives lost during the Great War. Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, the vision of ceramic artist Paul Cummins and stage designer Tom Piper, opened yesterday–the day on which Britain entered the war–and will expand over the fall, until there are 888,246 flowers in total, one for each soldier from Britain and its empire killed during the war. The final porcelain poppy will be “planted” on November 11, Remembrance Day, a day which has long been symbolized by the poppies of Flanders fields. The images of this installation are so striking that I can’t wait to see the real thing; I’m planning on heading over to the UK in October, which should be just in time.

Poppies oz Cincinnatti

Poppies at Tower

Poppies Tower

Poppies close up

(c) BRIDGEMAN; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Strobridge Wizard of Oz poster, Virtual Library/Public Library of Cincinnatti and Hamilton County; photographs of Blood Swept Land and Seas of Red, Historic Royal Palaces; Christopher Nevinson, A Front Line near St Quentin (1918), Manchester City Galleries; The Tower of London Remembers/#TowerPoppies


Illustrating August

August is probably one of my least favorite months, but I’m trying to adopt a different attitude this year. As I’ve either been in school or teaching school for my entire life (except one year) it is generally the last, fleeting, month of freedom before the resumption of academic responsibilities (I know everyone is really feeling sorry for me now): the first part of the month is really hot and the last part is all about completing my syllabi. But since I’ve been chair of my department, my perspective has changed, because the administrative responsibilities lighten, but do not cease, in June and they definitely intensify in August. So there really is no going back; and consequently there is no fleeting end of the summer. Chairs also teach less, so there are fewer syllabi to complete and more time to enjoy September, which is truly one of the most glorious months of the year. While there is a general perception that August is a transitional “back to school” time for everyone today; this was not always the case. Calendar pages, seeking to characterize each month according to activities, originally focus on work (the ever-present scythe, threshing) and later on leisure (tennis, boating, wandering among the flowers) but always in a lush landscape. August, for the most part, is all about abundance, until we get to the more-stark present.

August MS KL

August MS KB

August Bening V and AM

August Fruits Detail 1732

August Fruits 1732

 

August Grasset 2p

August Mucha crop

August 1969 Marchbanks

August 2012 DV

Illustrating August in three Renaissance Books of Hours ( The Hague KB 76 F 14, Paris, c. 1490-1500; The Hague KB 133 D 11, Liège, c. 1500-1525; Simon Bening, 1510-60, Victoria and Albert Museum); details from the August page of  Robert Furber’s Twelve Months of Fruit, by John Clark et. al. after Peiter Casteels, 1732, Rooke Books; two art nouveau Augusts (Eugene Grasset, La Belle JardiniereAugust, 1896; Alphonse Maria Mucha, 1899, Mucha Foundation); modern Augusts–a bit more stark–by Harry Cimino and Dione Verulam


The Shape of War

I am still a bit preoccupied with the ongoing World War I commemoration, even though it’s obviously going to go on for some time and I’m up in Maine on vacation: pretty pictures to follow, but for today images that (while colorful!) could certainly not be called pretty. I was clicking around the vast British Library site devoted to the Great War, which is incredibly resourceful in myriad ways, when I came upon some of the wartime images of the Russian abstract artist Kazimir Malevich (1878-1935). I sort of knew about him–but not really: his name conjured up distant images of the iconic “black square” painting which is quite simply a black square and little else. He was actually an artist who worked in several mediums and experimented with different depictive approaches, most prominently a Cubist-inspired geometric abstraction which was labeled “Suprematism”. He clearly loved shapes. I naively thought of him as simply a Russian Revolutionary artist, but in fact he was born in Ukraine to Polish parents and his work was suppressed in the Soviet Union during the 1930s. I have not idea what his identity was, but his World War I posters are very decidedly anti-German and immediately accessible: by merging the folkloric and the geometric–and using a bright, simplistic palette–he was able to make some pretty powerful statements, which were published as posters and postcards. World War I is known for its strident and sophisticated (but not subtle!) propaganda, another form of warfare itself, and Malevich’s images are great examples: they represent the shape of war but also of things to come.

Malevich Just Look

Look, Just Look, the Vistula is Near (1914); ©  Kazimir Malevich.

Malevich Butcher

The Butcher came along to Lodz, We said “My good Sir” (1914) © Kazimir Malevich. A depiction of the Russian victory–and defense of Warsaw– at the Battle of Lodz in the Fall of 1914.

Malevich Wilhelm

(Kaiser) Wilhelm’s Merry-Go-Round (1914); © Kazimir Malevich and Vladimir Mayakovsky (text).

Malevich Allies

Our French allies have a cart full of dead Germans, and our English brothers – a whole basket too (1914); © Kazimir Malevich and Vladimir Mayakovsky (text).

Malevich Boom

What a Boom, What a Blast (1915); National Library of Australia.

All images, except the last, at the British Library World War One site. Malevich is having a moment, and an exhibition: “Malevich: Revolutionary of Russian Art”.

 

 

 


The Great War Remembered

With the centennial anniversary of the commencement of the Great War, World War I, occurring yesterday perhaps Americans will become more conscious of the commemoration that has been underway in Europe for some time. Or perhaps not–we might wait until 1917. This was a war that was so momentous, so global, so total, that there are many ways to recall and remember it–literary, visual, material: the detritus of the Great War will be with us forever. I’ve read many World War I poems, by soldiers who died and survived, seen many World War I films, made close to its time and farther away, seen many examples of “trench art”, and touched medals, bullets and helmets. Whenever I have to teach this War (which for me happens only in broad world and western civilization surveys, so I don’t have much time), I rely on examples of the stunning (in a horrifying way) photographs of life on the front (my key source for these is the Imperial War Museum in London) and recruiting posters, which can represent themes and issues relevant to both fronts: “over there” and home. As it happens, Swann Auction Galleries in New York City is auctioning off a large collection of vintage 20th century posters next week, including some amazing (in terms of both art and message) World War I recruiting posters, and the online catalog is comprehensive, annotated, and extremely educational. Here’s a small sample–in chronological order:

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M28269-31 001

M29589-5 001

M29140-2 001

M29027-9012 001

M29589-15 001

M29589-3 001

1. SAVILE LUMLEY (1876-1960) DADDY, WHAT DID YOU DO IN THE GREAT WAR? 1915. The classic “shame” poster–pretty powerful! 2. A.G.R. (DATES UNKNOWN) CANADIENS FRANCAIS / VENEZ AVEC NOUS DANS LE 150IÈME BATAILLON C.M.R. 1915. A bird fight! 3.A.O. MAKSIMOV (DATES UNKNOWN). [WAR LOAN / FORWARD FOR THE MOTHERLAND!] 1916. One of the last Tsarist appeals before the Russian Revolution. 4. JAMES MONTGOMERY FLAGG (1870-1960) WAKE UP, AMERICA! 1917. 5. DAVID HENRY SOUTER (1862-1935) IT’S NICE IN THE SURF BUT WHAT ABOUT THE MEN IN THE TRENCHES / GO AND HELP. 1917. An Australian version of the shame poster. 5. RICHARD FAYERWEATHER BABCOCK (1887-1954) JOIN THE NAVY. 1917. This might have been the inspiration for Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove! 7. EDWARD PENFIELD (1866-1925) YES SIR – I AM HERE! / MOTOR CORPS OF AMERICA. 1918. So many World War I posters reflect women’s service during the war; this is a rare Edward Penfield image.

One young American man who could not wait until 1917 was Allan Seeger (uncle of Pete), who volunteered for the French Foreign Legion almost immediately after the hostilities began in Europe and died at the Battle of Somme (July-November, 1916) alongside a million other men. He left behind this prescient, poignant poem, which was first published in 1917, just as his fellow Americans were heading “over there”:

I Have a Rendezvous with Death, Alan Seeger:

I have a rendezvous with death/At some disputed barricade,/When Spring comes back with rustling shade/And apple-blossoms fill the air–/I have a rendezvous with Death/ When Spring brings back blue days and fair/ It may be he shall take my hand/And lead me into his dark land/And close my eyes and quench my breath–/It may be I shall pass him still/I have a rendezvous with Death/On some scarred slope of battered hill,/When Spring comes round again this year/And the first meadow-flowers appear./God knows ’twere better to be deep/Pillowed in silk and scented down./Where Love throbs out in blissful sleep/Pulse nigh to pulse and breath to breath/When hushed awakenings are dear…../But I’ve a rendezvous with Death/at midnight in some flaming town./When Spring trips north, again this year,/And I to my pledged word am true,/I shall not fail that rendezvous.

 

 


Secret Weapons

Today I have another Victorian fad: sword canes or “sword sticks”: harmless-looking walking sticks with blades concealed inside, one of several variations of “novelty canes” produced in the nineteenth century. Yesterday I drove up to York to celebrate my father’s birthday accompanied by my stepson, who has long had a singular obsession on the sword cane (or cane sword) that has leaned in the mud room alongside more mundane umbrellas and tennis rackets since I was a little girl. It’s the first thing he went for when we got there–what? why? and most importantly, who will inherit it? I don’t know much–all I could think of was the recent Sherlock Holmes film, in which Jude Law’s Dr. Watson wields a sword stick, and John Steed in The Avengers, who utilizes the umbrella variation. I checked out some auction archives, and they don’t seem to be particularly valuable. I can imagine that it ceased to be respectable in genteel society to walk around with a sidearm in the nineteenth century and so sword sticks emerged, but they seem to have been more fashionable than utilitarian. Ours looks like a simple cane made with a curved handle, but the steel blade inside has interesting markings: I think I might take it to an appraisal event at some point in the not-too-distant future.

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Sword Canes ATHM

Sword Cane Skinner Auctions

Our family’s sword stick (alternatively called swordstick, sword cane & cane sword) and 19th century examples from the American Textile History Museum and Skinner Auctioneers.

There are a few cultural references to sword canes and I’d be grateful for more! Besides Watson and Steed, there is Bob Dylan (Your grandpas cane, it turns into a sword, “On the Road Again”, 1965, thanks to Cheryl Beatty at the American Textile History Museum, which is also the source of the image above) and Lord Byron, who apparently used his sword stick for more than prop. The recent Byron exhibition at King’s College, London features several references to and images of swordsticks: no doubt they amplified his dashing demeanor.

Sword Cane

Byron

Sword Stick Byron

Jude Law as Dr. Watson with cane; drawing of Lord Byron, by Alfred Guillaume Gabriel dOrsay, 1823, Victoria & Albert Museum; Lord Byron’s sword stick, from the online exhibition Byron & Politics: ‘Born for Opposition’, King’s College, London

 

 


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