Lascaux

September 12, 2021

On this day in 1940, the Lascaux caves in central France were discovered by four teenagers. As they entered the long shaft down into the cavern, the boys saw vivid pictures of animals on the walls.

 

When the site was made available in the later 1940s, this cave art was wildly popular with the public. More importantly, it allowed everyone, both public and scientists, to understand more clearly that the so-called “cave men” were far more than the mindless brutes of previous imagination.

At about 17,000 years old, the Lascaux images are far from being the earliest known cave art today — several caves in Europe and Indonesia have art from about 40,000 years ago, and a recent “sketch” on a rock in South Africa may be much older.  However, the enormous trove of images (more than 900 animals identified) at Lascaux combined with the encouragement of tourist traffic to the location has allowed this cave complex to become the best known of all cave art.

The discovery at Lascaux marked an important anniversary in our understanding of who we are and where we came from.


I Love Colour

August 29, 2021

I love colour. I try to show this is in my art work and photographs with varying degree of success. The always valuable Creative Report brings me news of a new book called “The Atlas of Rare and Familiar Colour” that really intrigues me.

The shelves of the Forbes Pigment Collection, based in Harvard University’s Art Museum buildings, are organised mostly by hue. The effect of this “curious chromatic ordering” ensures that the archive resembles “an installation exploring the very nature of painting”, as colour historian Victoria Finlay writes in the foreword to An Atlas of Rare & Familiar Colour, a new book that catalogues highlights from the collection. Published by Atelier Éditions, the Atlas features images by photographer Pascale Georgiev of a handful of the collection’s 2,500 rare pigments and examines their material composition, providence and application …

Violet de Cobalt

Many of the colours are rare and some are unlikely to be made ever again. Finlay writes that Indian Yellow, for example, originally came from the urine of cows that had been fed mango leaves, while Mummy Brown – as the name suggests – really was collected from the mummified bodies of ancient Egyptians (and was still available in London in the 1920s, courtesy of Roberson).

Wonderful stuff!

 

 


Modern Cave Art

August 21, 2021

Due to our acquaintance with cave art from the Mesolithic period (see Lascaux, etc), we have a tendency to associate cave paintings with Europe forty thousand years ago. But recent discoveries in South Africa show that a cave wall could remain a handy artistic surface until much more recently.

An illuminating article in the Conversation called “South Africa’s bandit slaves and the rock art of resistance” introduced me to the runaway slaves of early colonial South Africa and the art they created to process their experiences.

“Khoe-San people were forced into servitude as colonists took both land and livestock. Together with immigrant slaves they were the labor force for the colonial project. Desertion was their most common form of rebellion. Runaway slaves escaped into the borderlands and mounted a stiff resistance to the colonial advance from the 1700s until the mid-1800s. In most cases the fugitives joined forces with groups of skelmbasters (mixed outlaws), who themselves were descended from San-, Khoe- and isiNtu-speaking Africans (hunter-gatherers, herders and farmers).

Thus, we find recorded examples of mixed bandit groups hiding out in mountain rock shelters, within striking distance of colonial farms. Using guerrilla-style warfare they raided livestock and guns. In their refuge, they made rock art, images within their own belief systems that relate to escape and retaliation.”

The images can be reliably dated from their content, which includes guns.

“The paintings themselves are also mixed—some brush-painted, some finger-painted—but are united by subject matter pertaining to spiritual beliefs concerning escape and protective power. Certain motifs, including baboons and ostriches, continued to be used, but now appearing alongside motifs such as horses and guns. This suggests some continuity in the recognition of these animals, mystical or otherwise, as subject matter pertinent to people’s changed circumstances.”

The article provides a good overview of the overlay of colonial exploitation on traditional belief systems. It concludes:

“The rock art of bandit groups is bound up with beliefs in the ability to call upon the protection of the supernatural. Baboons and ostriches, painted with images of livestock and people on horseback with firearms, were heralded for their associated powers pertaining to escape and protection while raiding. For these runaway slaves, rock art was one of several crucial ritual observances performed to prevent the likelihood of ever returning to a life of oppression.”


Mood and Emotion: The History of Blue

August 17, 2021

French historian Michel Pastoureau has written Blue: The History of a Color. The Claremont Review of Books published a review that describes the work as:

“an exhilarating and richly informing book on how the European peoples from the Iron Age until today have decorated themselves and their cultural artefacts with the color blue.”

Early Mediterranean civilizations had little use for blue:

Homer’s sea was “wine dark”; blue would not be used as water’s color until the seventeenth century .. [T]he Romans associated blue with the savage Celtae and Germani, who used the woad herb’s rich leaves for their blue pigments.

And this remained the state of affairs going into the Middle Ages.  However:

“Artisans employed by the mysterious twelfth century Abbot Suger of St. Dennis Abbey developed what would become known as “St. Denis Blue.” Its beauty inspired Christians to adopt it as fitting for heaven, nobility, and the Virgin Mary, who had traditionally been shown in dark clothes highlighting her suffering.”

Pastoureau’s book carries the history of blue (and often green and red and black, too) through the medieval period, the introduction  of indigo in the 1640s, of Prussian blue in the 1700s, the adoption of blue by the Romantics, the French Revolutionary militias, the Napoleonic army, Levi Strauss, and on into today.

“For Pastoureau, color schemes are the essential building blocks of our conceptualization of the world … The introduction of blue, yellow, and other colors in the Western palate reflected not simply a broadening of the easel, but a broadening of consciousness, which entertained increasingly new ideas.”

The effect of colour on culture and society is a fascinating subject and I can thoroughly recommend the review.

For related material, I wrote about the strange history of Prussian Blue some time ago, and about a new blue.


In Search of Hammershoi

July 30, 2021

About thirteen years ago, I wrote an excited post about an artist I had just come across — Vilhelm Hammershoi.

Vilhelm-Hammershøi-Interior-Stragegade-30-1901

Since then, I have only come across a couple of his images. It was a stunning pleasure, therefore, to find a documentary made by Michael Palin, at about the same time as my previous post, that delves deeply into the artist and his motivations.

The documentary lasts about an hour and is well worthwhile!


Dada and the Everloving

July 14, 2021

dada 2On July 14th 1916, one hundred and five years ago today, Hugo Ball, a poet, inaugurated the public life of the Dada art movement by reading the First Manifesto during a soiree at the Waag Hall in Zurich.  This followed along with Marcel Duchamps “anti-art” of 1913. As Ball expressed it, “For us, art is not an end in itself … but it is an opportunity for the true perception and criticism of the times we live in.”

Dada was always intended to upset, perhaps even offend. It was left-wing, it was anti-war and it was anti-bourgeois.

handsExactly thirty years later, the everloving was born.  Simple coincidence? That’s not for me to say. But she is definitly left-leaning and anti-war.

Born in the industrial northeast, raised in and finally escaped from Kansas — where women are chattel and a genuine throwback is Governor — she is a very bright spot in our Grandview world today and everyday.

Happy birthday sweetheart!


Majestic Complexity

July 3, 2021

I grew up in London, in the 1950s when, with little else to do, kids my age travelled about the city, visiting places, seeing the sights. Nearly all these trips included a ride on the London Underground, the Tube. It was cheap, it was reasonably safe, and you could rarely get lost because they had the very best maps.

The famous Tube map designed by Harry Beck in 1933 was our guidebook and our treasure map.

The Genius of Harry Beck's 1933 London Tube Map--and How It Revolutionized  Subway Map Design Everywhere | Open Culture

The present day Tube system is far more complex, but the structural integrity of the map is always retained — because it works!

There's a brand new London tube map – and it's got Reading on it

I am sure this early exposure to the Map fed my life-long interest in data visualization. I was interested, therefore, when I saw a story about a team of theoretical physicists and mathematicians who have published their data for selecting the most complex subway map of all.

For its study, the group analyzed maps of the world’s 15 largest metro transit networks, as determined by total stations. They considered all the trips a traveler could make from Point A to Point B with two connections, then determined the fastest possible path for a given trip. That framework aligned with behavioral research showing that people can store up to four pieces of information in their working memory at one time—in this case, a trip’s origin, its destination, and two transfer stations. The result was a “cumulative” complexity rating. 

And the winner as the most complex subway map is the New York system, closely followed by Paris and Tokyo. London came fourth.

relates to The World’s 15 Most Complex Subway Maps

I rather admire the Moscow metro map because it lays out an honest vision that centralized control is important to an autocratic state, and it is important that the outlying “limbs” of the system can communicate one with the other only by going via the centre.

tube map Moscow

Of them all, I believe the Seoul subway system map is the most difficult for me to read:

Korean tube map


Martin Kantor Portrait Prize 2021

June 27, 2021

The finalists for this gallery of culturally significant Australians has some interesting pieces. My favourites are:

Self portrait: John Gollings
Dolly Diamond, by Sanjeev Singh
Sue Cato by George Fetting


Wellcome Trust Photography 2021: Shortlist

June 25, 2021

The Wellcome Photography Prize this year illustrates three of the most urgent global health challenges: mental health, infectious disease and global heating. From the shortlist, I particularly liked:

Image: Oded Wagenstein
Image: Anastasia Tay lor-Lind

A Wonderful Book For City Lovers

June 19, 2021

I am usually a very fast reader, but I have been taking my sweet time over a treasure of a book called “The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design” by Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt. It was published last year and is a collection of pieces based, I presume, on the 99% Invisible City podcasts.

Each piece is quite short but filled to the brim with fascinating detail. They cover everything from the strange engineering marks we see on sidewalks, to the design of manhole covers, facades, traffic lights and signs, utility poles, traffic calming systems, revolving doors, brick and concrete, elevators, skyscrapers, grid systems, urban animals, street names and numbering, and a thousand other parts of the urban experience.

It is no exaggeration to say that I learned at least one new thing on every single page of this excellent book.

Publishers’ blurbs are generally just sales pitches but this one is completely accurate: “A beautifully designed guidebook to the unnoticed but essential elements of our cities,” and I can thoroughly recommend it to anyone interested in urbanism, planning, design, and life in a city.


Mountaineering Photography

June 3, 2021

The International Mountain Photography contest has announced its winners. The overall winner was this dramatic composition called The X by Marcin Ciepielewski.

I also really liked these …

and


Food Photographer of the Year 2021

April 28, 2021

The Guardian has an excellent spread on winners in the 2021 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year contest. The overall winner, and one of my favourites, was:

Photographer: Li Huaifeng

I also liked:

Breakfast at Weekly Market by Thong Nguyen
Making Rice Noodles by Abdul Momin

Peyote’s Brilliant Visions

April 25, 2021

The last time I used magic mushrooms was more than forty years ago.  In the spring of 1980 I was deeply depressed having disastrously screwed up a wonderful love affair; the mushrooms grabbed my depression and acted like an iron anchor tied to a drowning man. I remember spending an entire long weekend hiding under the covers of my bed, unable to move and scared to emerge. When I got straight, I didn’t want to repeat that depth of despair and so I never used them again.

However, I had had good times with them before then and, re-reading a marvelous piece in The Public Domain Review called Brilliant Visions: Peyote Among the Aesthetes, I was reminded of those better days.

The extract looks at the discovery of peyote by Havelock Ellis and his band of friends, including W.B. Yeats and Arthur Symoms, at the very end of the nineteenth century. In those days, peyote buttons could be obtained from a particular pharmacist in London and Ellis purchased a few and decided to make some notes on their effect:

“Having acquired his sample, Ellis proceeded to make a liquid decoction of three buttons which he drank slowly in Symons’ apartment over two hours. He began to feel faint, his pulse weakened, and he lay down to read … [H]e first noticed the visual effects as they impinged on the note-taking process: ‘a pale violet shadow floated over the page around the point at which my eyes were fixed’. As evening closed in he was gradually enveloped by … ‘a vast field of golden jewels, studded with red and green stones, ever changing.’ From this point on ‘the visions continued with undiminished brilliance for many hours’.

In an article published in the following year called Mescal: A New Artificial Paradise, he expanded on these effects.  “Every part of the colour spectrum competed in his visions, he wrote, and yet

“there was always a certain parsimony and aesthetic value” in their combinations. He was “further impressed, not only by the brilliance, delicacy, and variety of the colours, but even more by their lovely and various textures — fibrous, woven, polished, glowing, dull, veined, semi-transparent”. He compared the patterns that formed and dissolved to the “Maori style of architecture” and “the delicate architectural effects as of lace carved in wood, which we associated with the moucrabieh work of Cairo”. They were “living arabesques”, constantly in flux yet with “a certain incomplete tendency to symmetry …

When Ellis became exhausted by the visions in darkness, he turned on the gas light. The shadows that leapt to life reminded him of the “visual hyperaesthesia” of Claude Monet’s paintings.”

Grainstack in the Sunlight, Claude Monet

“The critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin, who would himself take mescaline in a clinical trial in 1934, wrote that the nineteenth century “subjected the human sensorium to a complex kind of training.” Visual illusions — from kaleidoscopes to magic lanterns to photography — made the transit from dazzling novelties to staples of mass culture. Magicians, mediums, and psychic investigators all probed the limits of the real, blurring the line between optical trickery, the subconscious mind, and the spirit world. At the moment when Ellis made his experiment, the world was being exposed for the first time to X-ray images and the cinematograph. “Visual hyperaesthesia” was a symptom not only of peyote but of the culture in which he was consuming it, and to which Monet and the impressionists were responding …

The brilliance of electricity was a recurring metaphor for peyote’s scintillating visions: the very first subject in the initial scientific trials in the United States in 1895 had compared them to the dazzling electric illuminations he had witnessed at the Chicago World’s Fair two years previously. But it was a literal stimulus too. It seemed that nothing delighted the eye of the modern mescal eater so much as the new electrical sublime. They arrived together as avatars of a future world of visual spectacle, equal parts scientific discovery and aesthetic delight.”

This is a fascinating article, full of insights and well worth the read.


World Nature Photography 2020

March 18, 2021

The World Nature Photography Awards have been announced for 2020. Thomas Vijayan won best nature photographer for his wonderful image, The World is Going Upside Down:

There are some seriously beautiful images out there from last year, and they are all worth a second look. I was attracted to Raymond Nowotny‘s winning entry to the Mammals Behaviour category …

… and Diran Talmi’s Fungi and Plants winner:

Well worth the time.


Happy 88th Yoko!

February 18, 2021

Happy birthday to one of the most creative and innovative multimedia artists of the 20th and 21st centuries. Long may she continue!


Artistic Illusion

February 10, 2021

A Portuguese artist named Odeith has become a master of illusion, using spray paints to transform a concrete block into an abandoned bus:

from …

And turning this …

… into this:

An article in this week’s My Modern Met has numerous other examples of this wonderful street art.


Paint From Dirt

February 10, 2021

A recent edition of Smithsonian magazine had a fascinating article on the collection of different soils in Wyoming and California, and their transformation into pigments.

“A soil scientist and a professor at the University of Wyoming, Karen Vaughan sees a lot more soils than the average person, and certainly knows them more intimately. Over many years spent examining them, she has come to appreciate their natural beauty and immense variability. Two years ago, she began channeling that appreciation into a product she could share with the world, turning the soils she loved into watercolor pigments. Now, she and her collaborator, Yamina Pressler, a soil scientist at California Polytechnic University, use soils to make pigments and paintings, bridging the gap between science and art. “

“To the uninitiated, the landscape of Wyoming might seem like a monotonous stretch of tan dirt. But that idea is exactly what Vauhgan is trying to change through her art. By explaining to artists and curious laypeople how the myriad hues in soils come to be and sharing them visually through both her own creative works and those by other artists, she hopes to give people the ability to see soil as more than “just dirt.”


First Saturday Is Back

February 4, 2021

Local artists open their studios on the first Saturday of each month for you to visit and, hopefully, to buy some of the wonderful art works and crafts that they make available.

This month, on 6th February a wide range of Grandview and eastside artists are involved. For details check out the First Saturday website.


Finally, A New Blue

January 26, 2021

Over the years I have written a few pieces about the colour blue, including the invention of Prussian Blue, and the philosophy behind the colour. Now, we have a brand new blue discovered by accident in Oregon.

image: Oregon State University

It is called YInMn after its ingredients: Yttrium, Indium, and Manganese — “and its luminous, vivid pigment never fades, even if mixed with oil and water.”

“Blue pigments, which date back 6,000 years, have been traditionally toxic and prone to fading. That’s no longer the case with YInMn, which reflects heat and absorbs UV radiation, making it cooler and more durable than pigments like cobalt blue. “The fact that this pigment was synthesized at such high temperatures signaled that this new compound was extremely stable, a property long sought in a blue pigment,” [Mas] Subramanian [the lead chemist] said in a study about the compound.

The new blue was discovered in 2009, was licensed for exterior use in 2016 but has only now been made available for general use.


The Oldest Animal Art

January 13, 2021

Many of us have grown used to the idea that pre-historic cave painting is a European artform, and we rightly delight in the images at Lascaux in France, for example. However, a new study has shown that the earliest images of animals yet discovered are to be found in south-east Asia.

(Image: © AA Oktaviana)

This is a digitally enhanced image of a painting at Leang Tedongnge Cave, in Sulawesi, Indonesia, dated from 45,000 years ago.

As reported in the Live Science article:

The mulberry colored painting, drawn with the red mineral ochre, shows the profile of what is likely a Sulawesi warty pig (Sus celebensis), a wild stubby-legged beast with facial warts that can weigh up to nearly 190 pounds (85 kilograms). These pigs “are still found there today, although in ever-dwindling numbers,” said study co-lead researcher Adam Brumm, a professor of archaeology at Griffith University’s Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution.

Also noteworthy are the stenciled hands on the left of the photograph. These types of images have been found throughout the world in early contexts.