Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Oscars

The night before last I watched the Oscars, including the strange red carpet rituals beforehand. Am I the only person who caught sight of the following, genuinely startling vignette? Purely by chance it could be observed in the foreground, down at the very bottom of the screen, in the middle of one of the many elevated and relatively prolonged shots of the full extent of the red carpet, not too far distant from this vantage point adjacent to the Kodak Theater. With considerable ingenuity, a tuxedo-wearing gentleman, who was guiding his frail-looking lady companion’s wheelchair, stopped; hauled her up onto her decidedly wobbly legs; darted around to take her place in the same wheelchair; eased her back down into his lap so that together they could be photographed in that awkward, evidently uncomfortable, and curiously unorthodox pose. Presumably he may have been unaware that this maneuver, indelicate in a whole variety of ways, could be seen by millions across the globe, but neither he nor she seemed particularly incommoded, so let us assume that the only discomfiture was my own. Still, rather strange—yes?

Friday, February 24, 2012

Ping again

Ping’s home was “was a boat with two wise eyes.”

The custom of painting eyes close to and on both the port and starboard sides of the bowsprit was widespread in China, but also in ancient Greece and Rome. Here is Odysseus’s ship on the famous Siren Vase in the British Museum; many small Maltese boats continue to display eyes that are much like this one. I wonder where else this practice was maintained, and how far back it goes. I suppose the reason for it is not hard to find: Sailors have always been inclined to anthropomorphize their craft—to endow it (her) with gender, for example, so the provision of eyes that guide through heavy weather; watch for shoals and reefs; stare down sea-monsters, and in so many other respects equip the boat with innately protective qualities is merely a delightfully vivid elaboration of that.

110 years ago, in the pages of Notes and Queries, a lively correspondence was prompted by the proposal of N. Hancock Prenter of Trinity College, Dublin, that the speech of Enobarbus in Act II, scene ii of Antony and Cleopatra, made explicit reference to the same ancient custom, following Plutarch: Referring to the Egyptian Queen, Enobarbus says: “Her gentlewomen, like the Nereides, / So many mermaids, tended her i’ the eyes / And made their bends adorning: at the helm / A seeming mermaid steers: the silken tackle / Swell with the touches of those flower-soft hands / That yarely frame the office.” The context is Cleopatra’s barge of state, and, taking into consideration the helm, steering, and tackle, Prenter reasoned: “If we ask any seaman what he means by ‘the eyes,’ he will tell us that they are the ‘hawse holes’—i.e. the holes or eyes in the bow through which the anchor cables are run. Again, any good dictionary informs us that in olden days ships were adorned with painted eyes on the bows—a supposed protection against ‘the evil eye.’ This custom is still extant in the Mediterranean, and, I believe, in Chinese waters. ‘The eyes,’ then, signify ‘the bow.’ A nice try, but I suspect that this is certainly not the only reading.

Marjorie Flack was hardly a sinologist, but evidently leaned heavily on her German expatriate illustrator, Kurt Wiese, who spent a number of years in China immediately prior to the outbreak of World War I. Being at that stage allies and not adversaries, the Japanese interned Wiese as an enemy civilian, and turned him over to the British for the duration of the war; he spent several of those years detained in Australia. Returning afterwards to Germany, Wiese soon fled the shambles of Weimar, and sailed to Brazil where he started his career as a professional illustrator. He migrated to the United States in 1927, where five years later he was ideally placed to furnish Miss Flack with a suitably accurate mise-en-scène for The Story of Ping, and inter alia to make sure that Ping’s junk on the Yangtze (now Yangzi) had “two wise eyes.”

Thursday, February 23, 2012


While lunching with colleagues last week in San Francisco, California, the conversation turned to multimedia in art museums. This is a sphere of almost limitless potential, and some institutions are much farther ahead than others. I remarked that as regards my own knowledge and experience of new, web-based technologies at times I feel rather like Ping, Ping the duckling. To my astonishment an excellent colleague from the Legion of Honor Museum fully appreciated the reference because he, too, had a vivid memory of The Story of Ping, the children’s story by Marjorie Flack and Kurt Wiese, with its lovely lithographic illustrations, which was first published in 1933.

Ping was a beautiful young duck who “lived with his mother and father and two sisters and three brothers and eleven aunts and seven uncles and forty-two cousins. Their home was a boat with two wise eyes on the Yangtze River.” The daily routine was simple: In the early morning Ping and his family left the boat, and went foraging “for snails and little fishes and other pleasant things to eat” until, in the evening, hearing the call of “La-la-la-la-lei” from the duck-herding boatman, they trooped back home and, one by one, waddled up the gangplank. The last duck back on board got a spank on his back with a cane—evidently the boatman’s firm incentive to maintain a brisk pace. One day, Ping was momentarily distracted by some submarine morsel, and, surfacing, realized that he would be the last duck back on board. Wishing above all not to be spanked with the cane, Ping hid in the rushes. In the deepening gloom his boat, with all his family, sailed off, leaving Ping quite alone. The next day Ping went in search of his family and his boat, and encountered many strange sights and sounds, among them a boy splashing about in the yellow waters of the Yangtze, with a tasty rice cake. The boy’s father caught Ping, and put him in a bamboo cage—duck for supper! But a little while later the boy took pity on Ping, and quietly set him free, at which point Ping heard the familiar call of “La-la-la-la-lei,” the call from his own boat, the one with the two wise eyes. This time Ping paddled with all his might, and, despite the certain knowledge that he would be last back on board, gratefully scrambled up the gangplank and—SPANK!—rejoined his family.

Is there any greater terror in early childhood than that of being left behind, or getting lost? Perhaps this is why Ping has stayed with my colleague and me for more than forty years. One might look askance at the freewheeling manner in which Flack and Wiese so gleefully played on such fears—and, in the process, admitted of corporal punishment, the risk of being eaten for supper, and other dubious points with which to disturb the very fertile imagination of little children. Yet—having now retrieved a copy—I am amazed by how vividly the recollection of certain of the illustrations has remained etched upon my consciousness, none more so than this especially haunting one. I suppose it is hardly surprising, therefore, that when confronted by current advances in the realm of multimedia, my natural instinct is to hide in the rushes, for fear of being the last on board and getting spanked with a cane.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Scarlet heels again

When a big chunk of your working life is spent immersed in the historical disciplines, occasionally you notice a collective blind spot in the culture of the present. Take, for example, the almost universally abused term aristocratic. A visitor from Mars might presume, based on current usage, that things aristocratic—everything from norms of behavior all the way down to particular quirks of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century fashion such as scarlet heels—reflect nothing more particular than ostentation deriving from wealth. Indeed these days the term is often thrown around without regard to the more nuanced concept of high rank absolutely and exclusively defined by noble birth. A thrilling exception to this trend is the article by Meredith Blake about the present Countess of Carnarvon and Highclere Castle in today’s Paris Review Daily. The problem is actually an old one, and is brought forward in the article on aristocracy, n., in the Oxford English Dictionary, where the Greek etymology is telling: αριστος best + -κρατία rule, in other words “the government of a state by its best citizens.” The gradual drift from this ancient notion to “that form of government in which the chief power lies in the hands of those who are most distinguished by birth or fortune” is, in a sense, the history of Europe in the past two and a half millennia boiled down to a single sentence, and indeed its last three words form something of a précis of one of the the central tensions of the Age of Revolution. The O.E.D. goes on to define aristocracy more narrowly as “the class to which such a ruling body belongs, a patrician order; the collective body of those who form a privileged class with regard to the government of their country; the nobles. The term is popularly extended to include all those who by birth or fortune occupy a position distinctly above the rest of the community.” True, a little space is then reserved for “fig. …those who are superior in other respects,” and this appears to be the conceptual basket into which many drafters of labels and wall texts (among other writers) now choose to put most if not all their eggs, and that basket is more often than not labeled money. Yet prior to the last century money was not at all the same thing as fortune, which was far more likely to mean land, for centuries the reserve currency of aristocracy. So it goes.

As I mentioned some years ago, the truly aristocratic credentials of the scarlet heel seem to have congealed around the court of Louis XIV and his eighteenth-century successors; the specimen above belonged to Louis XVI in the splendid coronation portrait at Waddeston. It (the scarlet heel) therefore became a rather convenient target in the revolutionary years. For example, as its title suggests, the pamphlet Le Portefeuille d’un talon rouge; contenant des anecdotes galantes et secrètes de la cour de France (Paris: Impr. du comte de Paradès, l’an 178* [datéde Versailles le 18 juin 1779,” but “envoyé au pilon sur l’ordre de Lenoir le 19 mai 1783”]) attacks the wallet, i.e. wealth, of the “red-heel,” meaning aristocrat, and thus provided a convenient pretext for a surprisingly vicious attack upon Queen Marie-Antoinette herself. Yet the scarlet heel has a far longer, more complicated, and even foggy history, morphing thence into the greyer areas of middling rank, social mobility, and decidedly non-aristocratic wealth. Various anecdotes about the origins of the habit swirl unhelpfully around the blogosphere, though the general suggestion that red or scarlet heels at different times denoted the claims of wealth, sometimes but not always distinct from the privileges of noble birth, is, I think, undeniably true. Now thanks to Christian Louboutin, we have scarlet soles, which though certainly plutocratic is most definitely not aristocratic. One need only glance at who ends up wearing them.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012


The Republic of the Maldives consists of a string of twenty-six coral atolls in the Indian Ocean, roughly two thousand little islands spread over an immense area of 35,000 square miles, running roughly from north to south, starting not too far (approximately 250 miles) southwest of the southern tip of India. In the past week the country’s political troubles have been in the news, but what has not been widely reported until this morning is the destruction of a very large proportion of the country’s pre-Islamic archaeological heritage. Last Tuesday, a group of politically motivated vandals entered the National Museum in Male, the capital, and set to work systematically smashing dozens of objects that survive from the country’s distant Buddhist past. These included a remarkable five-faced coral stela inscribed with a Vajrayana Buddhist mantra in Nagari script that dates from the 9th–10th century A.D., the oldest such inscription in the Maldives; a hitherto well-preserved head of Buddha that dates from before the 11th century A.D., which was recovered from the Dagoba in Alifu Atoll Thoddoo; a finely crafted hard coral stupa from Nilandhoo; various other Buddhist stupas, limestone blocks, discs, and slabs; a decorated coral stone casket, and the figure of a lion―all either badly damaged, or smashed to pieces and entirely beyond repair. Those of us who work in art museums and care about the objects entrusted to our care can only feel sick to the stomach at what has been done by a bunch of ignorant thugs, apparently in the name of Islam. One can only imagine the feeling of helplessness and despair that our colleagues in that far-off institution must feel; according to the New York Times although several men were caught inside the museum that day no arrests have been made, nor charges laid. In a world in which life is so cheap, one might well place the destruction of cultural property on a rung of atrocity far lower than wholesale slaughter, or genocide. Yet following upon the destruction in March 2001 of the colossal Bamiyan buddhas in Afghanistan, the trend is horrifying. When before has cultural property been more vulnerable to the unimpeded rampages of zealots? Twenty or thirty years ago one would have said that such things only ever happened in the Dark Ages, or in the wars of Iconoclasm, or at the height of idol-smashing fervor, or some other benighted period in which the lamps of civilization began to be extinguished, one by one. To make matters worse, the Maldives are where very rich westerners go to sun themselves on pristine beaches, and to enjoy the privacy of desert islands. No harm in that, I suppose, but if something as profoundly destructive to its cultural identity can happen to a comparatively peaceful little country with a population of barely 300,000 people, then who is safe? Our past is part of ourselves; our built environments, our art, our cultural artifacts, are the mirror we hold up to our society, yet they are frighteningly easy to smash. We should not suppose that what has happened lately in the Republic of the Maldives could not or cannot in due course happen to us.

Monday, February 13, 2012

John Gage

Charlotte Klonk has written the first of what will surely be a brace of obituaries for the late John Gage, whose death occurred last Friday, February 10, at the age of seventy-three. He was one of the kindest, gentlest, most unassuming but distinguished, encouraging, stimulating, delightful, and good-mannered historians of art that I have ever had the good fortune to meet and get to know. It was a matter, also, of much pride to many of my compatriots and me that in the last decades of his life John should have turned his massive intellect to the visual culture of Aboriginal Australia, and that this should have pleased and sustained him so deeply. Professor Klonk writes: “The title of his 1987 book on Turner, A Wonderful Range of Mind, might describe his own intellectual personality. He was a pioneer of many themes that would become prominent in art history towards the end of the twentieth century―exploring the relationship between art and science, the material conditions that determine artistic creation as well as the history of perception. His first major publication, Colour in Turner: Poetry and Truth (1969) already raised all of these issues. Yet he resolutely refused to be fashionable. It is perhaps partly for this reason that his ground-breaking later books, Colour and Culture (1993) and Colour and Meaning (1999) were also huge public successes, finding a readership well beyond the confines of academia. They will in all likelihood remain the standard reference works on the history of colour for generations to come…With his boundless curiosity and great love of art John Gage was a truly inspiring teacher as well as a brilliant researcher. In recognition of his outstanding contribution to art history he received many prizes, among them the prestigious Mitchell Prize for Art History in 1994. A year later he was also elected as a Fellow of the British Academy. Yet he believed in the study of art history for its own sake, and held considerations of career, status, and professional advancement in the deepest contempt. His dry sense of humour and subtle irony would bring this home to those who worked with him, while his kindness, generosity, and good nature encouraged students to follow in whatever direction their curiosity would lead them. He was one of the freest and most independent minds that Art History has seen in recent decades and he will be sorely and bitterly missed.” Amen to that.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The owl

Lately I have been adopted by an owl. This beguiling creature has for the past nearly two weeks hooted subtly but assertively from the branch of a tree not too far from my bedroom window, usually between the hours of three and dawn, but occasionally all night long. The call is penetrating enough to rouse me from my slumber, and, although I find it delightful to have such an unusual guest, at times he can be a little too persistent. Mark Aronson tells me that my owl is seeking a mate, and that the comparatively mild winter explains his early appearance. Certainly last week’s snow did nothing to shake the ginger out of my owl, so I am not quite sure how the weeks ahead will “pan out,” as we say in the United States of America. A brief trip to San Francisco, Calif., later in the week may give me an opportunity to catch up on some sleep, but I feel slightly guilty abandoning my owl in this rather expedient way.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Portraiture again

I have been thinking a little more lately about portraiture. One especially interesting sub-category of the genre is portraits of artists by their friends, indeed these have much to say about friendship itself—as does the exquisite double concerto for violin, cello, and orchestra in A minor by Johannes Brahms (opus 102), the composition of which was prompted by the reconciliation of two friends temporarily estranged due to taking sides in a messy divorce, but that is an entirely different story.

Here is a portrait of the eminent Dutch still-life painter Coenraet Roepel by his friend Richard van Bleeck; both artists were born and educated in The Hague. The picture was most probably painted to commemorate Roepel’s appointment in 1716 to be one of the painters attached to the court of the Elector Palatine of the Rhine in Düsseldorf, of which the big gold medal he wears suspended from a long chain was a handsome and very conspicuous token. (The recto of the medal is, of course, decorated with the Elector’s profile portrait.) The sitter is shown executing one of his own paintings, and in a delicious conceit, Roepel himself executed that skillfully foreshortened portion of the canvas, and signed it for good measure.

Still-life paintings of this kind were not merely pleasing aggregations of fruit and flowers, although they certainly could function as decorations on this straightforward level, and often with pleasing seasonal allusions—best contemplated in the depths of winter at the end of the little ice age. However, they could also be ruminations upon the cycle of life: budding, ripeness, over-ripeness, degeneration, and decay—such that the bursting fig, the wilting rose, and the bruised peach will soon be food for snails, and evidently spiders as well—there is a small but conspicuous web. So too men are food for worms. Such was the argument thundered from many Dutch Protestant pulpits.

The handling of Roepel’s palette, specifically the rather unconventional arrangement of his colors, meanwhile, is so specific that it raises the question whether Roepel supplied it also.

His smile combines a hint of mischief and much self-satisfaction, though his eyes are steady, even shrewd.

However—and this struck me as worth pointing out when on Saturday morning I spoke about the painting where it currently hangs at Sperone Westwater Gallery in New York—there is another ingeniously telling aspect of the artist’s disposition. His powdered wig is aspirational, and (along with the rest of his costume) socially ambitious, but Van Bleeck has shown the wig casually pushed back away from Roepel’s brow, perhaps with the clean end of his brush, to let in some air, to alleviate a certain scratchiness, or get it out of the road while he attends to some fine detail maybe up close. One sees very clearly the shaven part of Roepel’s scalp that would normally be covered. It is a delightful detail, and one which also reminds us of the bizarre circularity of habits of fashion.

The powdered wig or perruque, which developed through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, began as an approximation of real hair, but the wearing of increasingly elaborate wigs made it absolutely necessary for wig-wearing gentlemen to crop or even shave their hair because unless they did so the wig simply could not be worn. There were also problems of infestation—fleas mainly.

Also, a properly powdered wig, which helped with dubious smells, naturally through the course of the working day deposited a good deal of fine dust over the shoulder parts of a gentleman’s coat, and that phenomenon is very often represented in portraits, as it is here. This is no discoloration of the cloth, or a clumsy misreading of certain effects of light. It’s powder, suggesting that eighteenth-century servants all over Europe must have grappled with a more or less constant film of dust settling unhelpfully on virtually every surface. One wonders whether it also found its way into the paint film. I must ask Mark Aronson.