An Extraordinary History: Prussian Blue

September 20, 2019

For anyone who paints today, it is hard to believe there was ever a time when the beautiful, versatile, and stable Prussian Blue pigment did not exist. But the fact is it is just a few hundred years old.

It was discovered, by accident, in the first decade of the 1700s in Berlin by a colour-maker called Diesbach.  Prior to that time, blue pigments had been sourced from “indigo, smalt, azurite and ultramarine, derived from lapis lazuli, which was expensive.”  The new process was cheap and easily manufactured. Its first verifiable use in an artwork was in “The Entombment of Christ” by Pieter vander Werff in 1709.

entombment

I didn’t know any of this until I read a fascinating article called “Prussian Blue and Its Partner In Crime” by Philip McCouat in Journal of Art In Society.  The article goes on to describe the pigment’s use in European art and, notably, in the creation of an entire genre of Japanese painting.

The second part of McCouat’s article (“…Partner in Crime”) takes the story into even more interesting ground once a Swedish chemist discovered that by mixing Prussian Blue with diluted sulphuric acid he could create the deadly poison hydrogen cyanide, a favourite of poisoners ever since.  This section of the essay details the first murderer caught by telegraph, and the use of cyanide and its derivatives both by US gas chambers and by Nazi mass executioners.

Who knew that such a beautiful colour could have such a blotchy history? Mix up your favourite beverage, settle back, and enjoy this fascinating long read.

 

Advertisements

Peyote’s Brilliant Visions

September 13, 2019

The last time I used magic mushrooms was almost 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, reading this week 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.


Bob Ross Redux

July 15, 2019

Further to my recent piece on Bob Ross, Open Culture has a wonderful 10 minute video about him, and why none of his paintings have ever been for sale.

Sit back and relax and enjoy.

 


Lucian’s Nudes

May 19, 2019

I have on several occasions before written of my admiration for Lucian Freud.  So it was with great interest that I read Lucian’s Mountains of Flesh by Thomas Michelli at Hyperallergic, a review of the Freud exhibition Monumental.

 

Portrait on Grey Cover

Freud’s nudes, both male and female, are definitely not to everyone’s taste, and I strongly disagree with the political judgement laced within the review, but the article has its moments and is worth reading as one perspective on an important chapter of British art..


A Great Sucking Sound

May 17, 2019

This is one of the most important weeks of the high-end art market. Estimates for sales at the various New York shows this week exceeded $1.5 billion, and I was planning to write something each day.  However, along came the $91.1 million shiny toy

 

… and the whole thing seemed pointless.  I have had my say about Jeff Koons before and I haven’t changed my mind about the waste of it all.

It has been an interesting week in New York and perhaps I’ll be in a better mood to write about it tomorrow.


Bob Ross and the Dynamic of Modern Art

May 7, 2019

When I paint, I use acrylics and tend to abstract expressionism, minimalism, and colour theory. I have never adopted any technique or style from Bob Ross. However, I have to admit to having watched literally hundreds of his Joy of Painting shows on YouTube. I may paint nothing like Bob Ross, but his quiet certainty has helped drive every brush stroke I have ever made. He was a great technician and source of inspiration if not a great artist.

Bob Ross has never had an art gallery show. But that is about to change.  Four of his original works will be included in a group show in Chicago which is

“aiming to … move Ross’s evaluation from the king of kitsch to a conceptual artist …  not as a mere novelty but as the forefather of a newer self-help trend in contemporary art … Ross represents a shift in post-war art away from suffering and trauma, away from irony and academicism, toward optimism, fantasy, community healing and teaching. It turns out Ross is right in line with contemporary art movements.”

Bob Ross is a cultural icon and it is good to see him receive the recognition he deserves.


Deconstructing Constructivism

April 28, 2019

In advance of a major sale of Constructivist art that takes place in Amsterdam next week, Christie’s online magazine has a useful guide to the movement that began in revolutionary Russia and swept across the world with far greater success than the politics of the same origin.

“As supporters of the political ideologies propagated by Russian revolutionaries, Constructivists imagined art as an active agent in the Socialist cause. Art should reflect the modern industrial world, and, above all, be accessible to the masses. Members of the group strived to make art that was relevant in a rapidly changing world, that was free from academic tradition, and devoid of any emotive or subjective properties.”

 

“Constructivists considered their art a product of an industrial order, rather than a unique commodity, and a precursor to the factory-produced mass-made object. They often explored collective ways of working, and regarded the object-maker as a builder or engineer rather than as an individual artist … Many of their works, both two-dimensional and three-dimensional in form, are characterised by their austere, angular geometric shapes.”

Their influence in early Soviet life was profound.

Textile designs by Varvara Stepanova

However, after Stalin suppressed the Constructivists, the movement moved abroad influencing the Bauhaus, De Stijil, Zero, and Geometric schools through the 1980s.  The precepts of the movement has inspired artists such as Paul Klee, Piet Mondran, Vasily Kandinsky.

Peter Struyken, “Structuur II” (1969)

Does Constructivism survive today?

“Absolutely. Constructivism has influenced many contemporary artists making art with computer programmes, with a lot of today’s abstract art having roots in the Constructivist movement of the 1970s.”

A useful article.