Frieda Smashes Records

November 16, 2021


The last time Frieda Kahlo’s self portrait Diego y yo was auctioned in 1990, it sold for $1.4 million, making her the first South American artist to break one million dollars. This week at Sotheby’s it sold again, this time for $34.9 million — the highest price by far ever achieved by a South American artist.

Environmental Photography of the Year 2021

November 9, 2021


The 2021 Environmental Photography Awards have been announced, and there are some extraordinary works among the winners. I am especially drawn to these three:

Green Barrier: photographer Sandipandi Chattopadhyay
Survive for Alive: photographer Ashraful Islam
Drying Incense: photographer Azim Khan Ronnie

The Oldest Art

November 7, 2021


Each September I celebrate the anniversary of the discovery of the Lascaux Caves and the revelation of the glorious 17,000-year-old images to be found there. The historical value of Lascaux lies in the fact that they were the first such art gallery to be found. However, they are far from the oldest art that we now know about.

As the discovered art got older, it also shifted eastwards. The ancient art in Europe, at Lascaux and Altamira is dated to the period immediately following the last global maximum of the Ice Ages, 15,000 – 20,000 years ago. The caves at Chauvet are from about 30,000 years ago, but Indonesia has images firmly dated to 40,000 years, and the Sulawesi pigs can now be dated to 45,500 years ago. Images in India and China may even be older.

“The discoveries in Sulawesi could imply that representational art began in Asia, but more likely, [archaeologist Adam] Brumm says, it’s just part of a trail of representational art through human history. He expects the oldest rock art will eventually turn up from before Homo sapiens’ diaspora out of Africa.”

But, as this fascinating article from PNAS illustrates, the issue of what is the oldest art is inextricably linked to an answer to the question: “What is art?”

“The most common criterion for what’s considered art is behavior without any apparent practical use … Still other archaeologists would like to see stronger evidence that the art was actually intended to convey some kind of aesthetic principle or meaning … Beads, for instance, are decorative but can also signal group identity… Evidence of abstract images dates as far back as 500,000 years ago, when Homo erectus etched zig zag lines into a seashell in Java (5). And just this year, archaeologist Dirk Leder discovered 51,000-year-old abstract triple L-shaped patterns carved in deer bone 

Is this art? Or do we only want to think about representational images, such as the Sulawesi pigs? Perhaps, as the article concludes, they may be two strands — one symbolic, one practical — of independent derivation that will not be forced into a linear history.

I just hope we find lots of more of both.

Emerging Photography Awards 2021

November 6, 2021


The Emerging Photography Awards for 2021 have been announced. I really like these:

Kansas: photographer Rob Darby
Chinese New Year Reimagined: Photographer Horace Li
Woman: Photographer Daniela Constantini

Siena Awards

November 2, 2021


The Sienna International Photo Awards for 2021 have been announced. The various galleries contain a wealth of extraordinary photographs. Of the many fine works, I particularly liked the following:

Childhood, photographer: Lopamudra Talukdar
Out for Prayers, photographer: France Leclerc
Return To The Village, photographer: Ahmed Fatih Sonmez

There are literally another twenty or thirty I could have chosen. Have fun looking through the galleries!

Altering Vermeer

October 27, 2021


One of my favourite paintings, Vermeer’s Girl Reading A Letter at an Open Window, has been revealed to be something other than what we have all grown to know.

Recent restoration has shown that the blank white wall in the background originally contained a large picture of Cupid, probably indicating that the letter in question was a love missive.

“Behind [the girl] there was an empty white wall. But in 2017, we started with a big restoration and research project to do the restoration of the painting,” Uta Neidhardt, senior curator at Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister (Old Masters Picture Gallery) in Dresden, Germany.

Laboratory tests indicate the overpainting was done about 70 years after the painting was completed, and after Vermeer’s death in 1675. One theory is that the picture had been attributed to Rembrandt and the cupid was removed as it was not a detail usually associated with Rembrandt; the alteration thus added to the valuable — but wrong — attribution when the painting was presented to a Saxon prince in the 1740s.

Weather Photos of the Year 2021

October 19, 2021


The Royal Meteorological Society have announced the 2021 winners of their Weather Photograph of the Year award. Top prize went to Giulio Montini:


The public favourite was:


Winner in the Mobile Phone category was:

World Illustration Awards

October 14, 2021

The Association of Illustrators has announced the winners of the 2021 World Illustration Awards. There are some truly extraordinary creations among these selections. I particularly liked the following:



Part of New World poster series, by Zama Peza


Cabinet of Curiosities, by Dani Choi

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

October 10, 2021

The National History Museum of the UK has revealed some finalists in their 57th annual wildlife photography contest. I really liked these:

Toxic Design: Photographer Gheorghe Popa
Storm Fox: Photographer Jonny Armstrong
Linx on the Threshold: Photographer Sergio Marijuan


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.


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 …