A Daily History of Holes, Dots, Lines, the Unintentional Absurd & Nothing |1.6 million words, 7000 images, 3 million hits| History of Science, Math & Tech | Press & appearances in The Times, Le Figaro, The Economist, The Guardian, Discovery News, Slate, Le Monde, Sci American Blogs, Le Point, and many other places...
As all of you no doubt know Vincent van Gogh carried on a voluminous correspondence, mostly with his brother Theo. I sat down with the third (and final) volume of The Complete Letters of Vincent Van Gogh (Bullfinch Press, 2001) and read through his letters from St. Remy (June 1889 to May 1890, two months before his death 29 July 1890), as well as those from Auvers-sur-Oise (the last of which is dated one week before his death). The letters are remarkable, and were written mostly to his brother, but also to his sister, and mother, and some few others.
The letters are filled with fantastic observations and captured vision, comments on his artwork, technical aspects of painting, philosophy, and daily life. And thinking. It has always been interesting to me how people slow down a letter so it can come to a halt, and Vincent--in addition to being an excellent observer and word curator--knew how to write a letter, and it is enjoyable to step back from them a bit to look at their mechanics, especially when it comes to this slowing-down section. So I've selected a few bits from what is usually the last part of the last sentence before the sign-off (hardly a rigorous process), just to see if there were the makings of a found-poem in them....and I believe there is.
"And believe me"
"I shake your hand, and your wife's too"
"Next drawings next week"
"And then it does one good to work for people who do not know what a picture is"
The "thing" about Urs Graf's art, for me, is the utter humanness of many of his figures--many of them, even the significant characters in his works, have a certain unexpected everyday quality to them, a common touch, right down to unruly Homer Simpson hairs on bald men, disciples or not.
This is a detail from Graf's (1485-1527/9) Passionis Christi... which was printed in 1506, the date of which makes Graf's achievement even more remarkable.
From Grove Art Online: Urs Graf (b Solothurn, c. 1485; d ?Basle, 1527–9).
"Swiss draughtsman, goldsmith, die-cutter, engraver, woodcut and stained-glass designer,painter and glass painter. He was the most original and gifted artist of the early Renaissance in German-speaking Switzerland. His highly imaginative drawings, created as independent works of art, are works of exceptional quality, vitality, expressiveness and often humour. For northern European art, Graf played an important role in the liberation of drawing from its traditionally subsidiary status as preparatory study for works of art in other media."
Here's the full version of the print, showing the Last Supper and Christ washing the feet of the Disciples:
"Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand which plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul"--W. Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, translated by Michael T. H. Sadler, 1912.
I'm not sure exactly when the first published non-represntational/purely abstract book illustrations appear--perhaps it is with the Kandinsky book in 1912. Kandinsky is widely seen as being probably the first to produce art where there was "nothing" of the physical/representational world recognizable in the artwork--this around 1910/11. The trend was widely seen in the Impressionist movement of the 1860's/70's+ (and with James Whistler 30 and forty years earlier) though finding art like this in book form published contemporarily with the artwork itself is a fairly rare event. By later 1911 and through 1912 completely non-representational painting was seen in the work of many, including Gelizes, Delauny, Kupka, Dove, Picabia, and others.
What I found particularly interesting in this image by Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962) was that not only was it a book/pamphlet illustration, but it was on the cover, as well. I know this must be very early for artwork such as this to be published in a book, but it strikes me as being very unusual that it is straight-away the first thing you see.
What happened to art in the period before Impressionism that was made by people who needed glasses and didn't or couldn't wear them? The answer is obvious because, I think, nothing quite like that exists in galleries or public collections: people who painted but had poor vision were probably/simply told that they couldn't paint. If a far-sighted person without corrective specs attempted to paint a sunset over a forest, and painted it exactly as they saw it, and were doing this in 1787, there work undoubtedly would have been rejected as utterly failing in realism. On the other hand, the result of their work may have been beautiful collections of forms and colors capturing the essence of the forest and the sunset, but they would have been 50 years shy of the JMW Turner time, and 70 years or whatever shy of the Impressionists.
A person with poor or disturbed vision who tried to paint during this time would have been roundly scooted out of the palace of correct painting, though they could have been inspirations to generations of Barnett Newmans and Jasper Johns and Clyfford Stills and Wassily Kandinskys.
All this said, does something like Edvard Munch's The Voice (1893) start to look a little "different" if you imagine a far-sighted artist at work without their glasses?
Or a vision-impaired person producing Les Alpilles (1890) instead of a visionary Van Gogh?
Or a macular degenerating issue producing a painting like Georgia Okeefe's Light Coming on the Plains III (1917)?
Or a half-blind artist painting Matisse's The Open Window, Collioure (1905), simply painting exactly what they saw?
I don't think of revolutionary artworks in terms of their common ophthalmologic varieties--I just wanted to make a point about what happened to all of that artwork that was no doubt produced by people with impaired vision before the Impressionists and Fauves and non-representational artists came into being. I wonder if those who received J.M.W. Turner (as with, say, Rain, Steam, Speed--the Great Western Railway, 1844) so badly so early on in his career and so early in the History of Disappearing Details wondered whether he had a visual issue, or not?
And in a way, similar to the probably non-existent vision-challenged art of the past is the Robot art of the future--or at least the robot art of what was described by P.K. Hoenich in his article "Robot-Art, the Hopeful Monster" that appeared in two part in the unlikely journal Cybernetica in 1963 and 1964. It was with high hopes that I started reading this article wanting the author to address robots-making-art in the future. After all, my friend George Widener, who is a fabulously gifted artist, directs some of his fantastically involved calculating/numerical artworks to the interests of his robot-collectors of the future--given this case, why (if the robots are collecting) wouldn't they also produce art themselves? And why, if given the legions and multitudes of robots of the future couldn't they produce every recorded piece of art that has ever existed and then insinuate development and trends and institution and all of the other gifts of the singularity and produce all of the works of art that will ever be produced?
Well, Hoenich turns out to be describing "robots" of a very different sort, whether he uses the term "monster" in his title or not. He was broadly addressing a style of art that is produced by externally-controlled structures (mostly), and his particular brand was a mobile-like device with art bits whose movement was powered by the wind...and also used found spectra and sunlight. It was not what I was hoping for, the vision of robots-at-the-easels/keyboard/whatever remaining unfulfilled.
Still it was an interesting read, mostly in laying Hoenich in a continuum of similar artists whose "robots" were the wind (as for example with a Calder) or Nicolas Schoeffer (with spectacular luminodynamics) or Mohly-Nagy (with a combo of light and movement) or Arp (with chance painting) and maybe even Pollock. I guess even Duchamp could be included in a category like this if you considered his work to be governed by selective, found chance, a sort of choice-chance, for his Readymades.
So in a way these artworks were made by "robots" insofar as they were produced by not-exactly the artist but with external assistance.
"Squinting with Art" perhaps could have been the title of this post--squinting at your landscape to see it with semi-non-representational vision, and squinting at the titles of other works to make their possibility more appealing to what you 'd like to see.
When modern art was becoming modern, and artists were reveiling more of nature and life by using less of its components and using more of suggestion and motion and color--leaving out the "detail"--where indeed did that detail, well, go?
It is interesting to imagine a composite world to our's, a place where that missing and removed detail goes. For example, when JMW Turner painted a train passing over a river on a bridge, he was more suggestive of the scene than he was in reality-based descriptors. [Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway, 1844.] The intricacies of realism and reproductional relativity is not there, the action and train and river implied, artistic impressions and whatever else was in the artist's toolbox or mind's eye.
Perhaps the seeping detail from one world to the next is more like the sphere entering the two-dimensional world of Flatland, or better yet the reverse of Charles Bragdon's 1drawings of the footprints of 3-D objects passing through a 2-D plane...the detail of the Turner seeping through the canvas and into the opposing DetailWorld, falling like rain. Maybe it is a world of non-representational images and impressions awaiting the attention and arrival of detail to give it all a solid, easily distinguishable representation of the imagined world around the easel in that Other Place.
Another beautiful image by Bragdon is from “Personalities: Tracings of the Individual (Cube) in a Plane” from Man, the Square2 shows the “shadows” of the three-dimensional figures as they lived in their two-dimensional world. It comes close to the impact of the cubes above, but really only depicts what two-dimensional creatures would see of the three-dimensional beings inhabiting their Bragdonesque world. All of this was put into my mind by seeing this image (The Goldfinch, 16540 by Carel Fabricius. Clearly we can see a bird on a perch, chained to the upper rung, with another rung below, but as much as we can see the detail we don't. So much of this image is suggested and implied, hundreds of yers before Impressionism: the face of the bird is barely there, the second rung dissolves into the wall, the shadows are muted and half-existent, and so on. The details of the painting are as much missing as they are there.
And of course the world of detail would disappear more and more, until by 1911, it existed hardly at all, the representational world drifting off the canvas completely, for those who wanted that to be the case.
Again, as much as say Kasimir Malevich made all of the detail go away in his Suprematist paintings like a white square on a white square (White on White, 1917/18, which I can say is not served well at all with images online or in books, as the artwork is really pretty textured and detailed),
at about the same time ither artists like Marcel Duchamp were both taking away details of one sort while adding new details of another never-yet-done sort, as in his Nude Descending (1912), where we begin to see the representation of the fourth dimension in art:
Perhaps the rain of details into DetailWorld work in reverse for the unexpected details of stuff we can't see in our world?
Well. We know that there is no DetailWorld, but I think it is certainly interesting enough to think of these revolutionary changes in art and trying to imagine the enormous amount of painterly stuff that the innovations/discoveries replaced, if they were to all go to one place. In a way it is analogous to the changes in the mountain that I can see now from my living room window--mostly it is invisible when the patch of woods between our house and the mountain is all leafed out (seeing the forest for the trees), but with autumn and winter here at about the same time, it is easier to appreciate both the trees that I can see when I can't, and the mountain that I can't see sometimes when I can.
1.(Bragdon) A PRIMER OF HIGHER SPACE. (The Fourth Dimension). Rochester: Manas Press, 1913. 8vo, (12), 79pp, including 30 plates.
2. (Bragdon) MAN THE SQUARE. A Higher Space Parable. Rochester: Manas Press, 1912. 12mo, 34pp, 9 illustrations.
One of the great powerhouse collaborations in the history of earlyish modernism came on 8 May 1917, in the performance of the 15-minute operette, Parade. Spearheaded by Jean Cocteau, the piece used stage and costume designs by Picasso, was scored by Erik Satie, and performed by Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. (It was not received indifferently--there was a major upset in the world of the critics and many hated negative response from the audience, evidently much like that received by Stravinsky's Rite of Spring at its premier seven years earlier, also featuring Diaghilev's Ballets Russes.)
The image below is a maquette of the stage by Picasso:
A quick note here adding to a growing collection of "deep black" antiquarian images--this one, oddly enough, a simple black sky. As it turns out, there are not that many old images of black skies, night skies...nor are there any great numbers showing dark room interiors, or inside of caves. So when I come across an interesting old engraving/woodcut with a lot of black, it gains my attention. And so with the following, which is the title page from the Spanish astronomer Bernardus de Granollachs, Lunarium: in quo reperiuntur Coniunctiones & Oppositiones Lunae..., which was a small pamphlet of 16 pages printed in Rome in 1516. The booklet contained tables of conjunctions and oppositions of the Moon, as well as this gorgeous title page.
This graphic from Nature magazine (volume 76, page 670, 1908) features a host of early flyers from five years or so following the first Wright powered flight. The diagram, which was also made in the first few years of the Cubist movement (and only a year after Picasso's Demoiselles), has a certain geometrical semi-proto-Cubist feel to it. The slickee, hard-edged approach to depicting the flying machines and placing them on the single sheet gives the work a modernist artistic feel to it in the earliest period of 20th c modernism in the first movement of abstract art.
The other thing is that so far as I can tell no major Cubists used the airplane as a subject matter in a painting in the first few years of the movement--which seems a little odd to me, given that it was such a major technological advance that took place in about the same time period as Cubism. Just a year later another collective.montage appears ina quite different form;
[Source, Nature, volume 81, page 399, 1909. And the detail, below:]
And speaking of precursors, now that I have mentioned the Picasso I should also say something about El Greco's The Opening of the Fifth Seal (or The Fifth Seal of the Apocalypse or The Vision of Saint John), painted three hundred years before the Demoiselles. El Greco (1541 – 7 April 1614) was not of his own time, not really...
Siegried Giedion wrote a terrific book called Mechanization Takes Command (and beautifully subtitled ...a contribution to anonymous history) in which he (sweepingly) looks at how mechanization took over from hand production in the life of social and technical world.
The book was published by Oxford University Press in 1948, and given that year, Giedion has something very interesting to say about killing.
After investigating "The Mechanization of Death: Meat" and how over hundreds of years the hammer-to-the-head and skinning that transforms an "animal" into ":meat" turned from human to mechanical hands, he decided that "what is truly startling in this mass transition from life to death is the complete neutrality of the act". The animal=meat act and the mechanization of killing removes the "human" element of the act, and that "one does not experience, one does not feel; one merely observes" a killing that is not somehow dying. He reckons that this experience may in general have made us more capable of desperate act of killing that do no longer seem so desperate.
It is a remarkable and early insight into the meat industry from an uncommon and unexpected source.
I'm not sure if I've ever seen a 16th century human perspective drawing showing the body in plan and elevation and cross-section. Jehan cousin the younger (1522-1595, in France), the son of Jean Cousin the Elder (1490-1560), a painter and sculptor, produced such an image in his Livre de Perspective, which was published in 1560. Well, the image definitely was published in 1560, though the artist may have been father and it may have been son--they worked closely together, and the Younger was taught at great length by the Elder, so much so that their work became indistinguishable. Nevertheless, the images I think are quite extraordinary, as we see below:
And so by Andreas Mantegna, a classic example:
The following images come from the 1608 edition of the Cousin Perspective. a number of which are fairly unusual (all from the Library of Congress site, here):
I think that a pre-proto-neo-antiquarian or whatever Cubist representational form is very clear in the 1812 engraving, which was a relatively simple formulaic presentation of ship/sail construction found in Rhees' Encyclopedia. "Clear" of course to someone here in the print's future, seeing what that form could actually become apart from showing the naval necessaries. But it always puzzles me how an image like this could appear and someone didn't take the next step and turn the thing into "art" of some sort. That would all happen soon enough, the loosening of form and its representation via impressionistic and geometrical ways--Mr. Turner was already 37 years old when this print was published, and on his way (at least intellectually) to his magnificent Romantic career.
Why wasn't this art in 1812, aside from people not being quite ready for it? Maybe there is no other "thing" apart from that. It would take nearly another hundred years before the representational form of say a ship was lessened and stripped away, softened , modified, rubbed, erased, into something that is the object but really isn't.
Perhaps what we have here is a peep (like with Durer's geometric man) into the future at modern art, a dissonance between abstraction and realism. There is a regeneration of form taking place in this image, but it is only something on its way to creating a more idiomatic engineering representation of naval needs, and not a new art form--that would have to wait for Braque and Gris and Leger and Delauny and Villon and Picabia and Duchamp and the rest. So this pre-non-Cubist engraving is not a key to a new vocabulary of vision--it is just a drawing of ship's sails.
Here's another example of pre-modern art peeping out from the pages of this same encyclopedia, this one being a Prehistoric Rayograph, or a proto-non-photographic example of Man Ray, but from 1810 (and which I wrote about here):
Which is a detail from:
The engraving below is another fine example of futuristic bubbles, this one a possible example of Steampunk Dada, and appears innocently (and beautifully, and importantly) in Architectura Hydraulica (1740),
and titled "Demonstration of Friction". I've simply inverted it and
removed some of the numerical notation--and then, suddenly, it becomes a
sort of Steampunk Balloon Machine--a lovely collection of small
balloons lifting large wheels and cogs, assembling some sort of
something in mid-air, demonstrating very little friction, of lightness
Seems to me that if you look hard enough that these examples are, well, kind of everywhere. They just aren't yet what they could've been.
Here's another example: Geology of Images: Finding Pre-biotic, Neo-Dadaist Images in Antique Astronomy Prints (here)
Walking through the Western North Carolina Mountain Fair last week-end I found a little bit of Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) embedded in the sidewalk. (Mondrian helped establish De Stijl (1917 or thereabouts), with a philosophy of using lines to
transform artistic thought onto canvas, and the lines were all
horizontal or vertical, with square and rectangular shapes. These would
represent the pure harmonies of expression, along with the primary
colors as well as black and white. His images are iconic.)
Here's the cleaned-up version of what I saw underneath the text:
And the original:
And Mondrian's trees:
Had he seen this sewer access, I think that Mondrian would have been pleased.)
Once you start looking for Mr. Mondrian, he seems to be everywhere:
“All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone..
the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by
deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his
contribution to the creative act.” (Marcel Duchamp)
I guess to this quote you could replace "spectator" with just about anything else, including the object that is the art.
This ten-minute missive came from a post a few days ago (Napkins of the Apocalypse) where I located the ultimate end of the American civil defense experience during the Cold War--in the spindle hole of a survival LP issued by a trashy-thready record label in 1962. I wondered if the hopes/dream/prayers of that episodic horrorshow belonged more in the Blank/Missing/Empty or the Holes series of this blog...and where that dark hole fit.
The hole re-appeared this morning while doing the dishes, the drain in the sink sparking a vision of "FiVah" (or "Five A", anti-art's anti-anti-artist) Marcel Duchamp and his iconic found art sculpture "Fountain". It is of course the most famous urinal in the history of urination (I can't speak to famous urinals in non-urinating history) which Duchamp signed "R.Mutt" in 1917 to make it his own. Art.
There are many missing qualities to this artwork that allows it to slide right into this blog's Blank, Empty and Missing Things series, not the least of which is that the first "Fountain" went missing almost immediately. It was rejected from a major show of Duchamp's colleagues, and left a footprint of itself with a blank exhibition card dispaly, nonchalantly photographed in front of a Marsden Hartley painting. It was a shocking piece of art that lead and still leads to debate on what is art and what is not, especially so far as "original" artwork is concerned.
"Fountain" has/had a number of questions about originality--as a concept it was certainly original, in the use of found object as a piece of sculptural art, and of course in its own self, being a urinal and all. Then there's the question of this original idea being so but being hosted in a stock/standard item that was hardly an original construction--it was a simple porcelain object from an assembly line production. that said, even though this was not original when it came to replacing the lost not-original original it proved to be very difficult, at least it was back then in the nineteen-teens.
The urinal that replaced the missing urinal was not quite right, and so was not the not-original original replacing the not-original non-art that was a great original idea.
"Fountain" reminded people of a Buddha; it was hung in various unusual places and its iterations shown in exhibitions far-and-wide, including a very early Dada exhibit where one of them was hung from the ceiling of the gallery with a piece of Mistletoe attached, perhaps in a Duchampian way telling people to "kiss off".
So this great instigator and Jimmy-Hoffa-of-Artworks was missing on many levels--it was a mass-produced private work that was censored by its artist's peers, and original piece of art that wasn't itself original and that went missing almost as soon as it was created.
While looking through an issue of the Comptes Rendus for the announcement of the funeral of the great mathematician and all-around genius Henri Poincare1, I found in the weekly issue (a fraction of an inch comprising the three-inch-thick half-yearly volume of papers published by the French Academy) this wonderful illustration. It looks a bit like the superstructure to a Cubist dance, and bears a good strong attraction to many of the still images produced by Etienne Marey, maybe even a little like a mirrored representation of a stick figure skeleton of Duchamp's Nude Descending, which interestingly was finished in this same year.
[Etienne Marey, ca. 1880/1]
There's also a bit of early dance notation that the image reminds me of, particularly Raoul Feuillet's publication of Pierre Beauchamp's Orchesography4,
a work published first in 1700 (and then in English in 1706) and
dedicated to instructing people on the movements of the dance:
The image is an illustration for the article "Un nouveau cinematographie a images, tres frequentes", by P(ierre) Nogues, and was a technical rendering of a device that ran film through a projector at a very high speed. Nogues (1878-1971) was an assistant and collaborator to Etienne Marey, who was one of the earliest and perhaps the greatest figures in early cinematography and who--like Eadweard Muybridge--successful managed to create articulate optical machines that could capture and record minute and fast motion in people, animals, blood, and so on. Nogues and his contemporaries lie Georges Demeny, Francois-Franck and Lucian Bull were among the founding encyclopedists of motion. The drawing above was an outline for a sprocket device that feed flexible film through a camera at very high speed (ultimately reaching some 380 frames per second). It is a beautiful thing.
[M. Duchamp, Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (Nu descendant un escalier n° 2, 1912. It is interesting to note in passing that this painting was supposedly rejected in the Salon des Indépendants show of 1912 and then caused a massive set-to in the NYC Armory Show of 1913. The infighting and family strife in the Salon in the 1900-1912 period is so big and complex it would make a fine if drippy daytime television romance drama.]
1. Poincare died 17 July 1912, aged 58; the announcement of the funeral for one of the intellectual kings of the 19th century appeared on page 263 in this issue for 22 July 1912.
[Detail from engraving in the seventh image, below]
I'm not sure if I've ever seen a 16th century human perspective drawing showing the body in plan and elevation and cross-section. Jehan Cousin the Younger (1522-1595, in France), the son of Jean Cousin the Elder 91490-1560), a painter and sculptor, produced such an image in his Livre de Perspective, which was published in 1560. Well, the image definitely was published in 1560, though the artist may have been father and it may have been son--they worked closely together, and the Younger was taught at great length by the Elder, so much so that their work became indistinguishable. Nevertheless, the images I think are quite extraordinary, as we see below:
And so by Andreas Mantegna, a classic example:
The following images come from the 1608 edition of the Cousin Perspective. a number of which are fairly unusual (all from the Library of Congress site, here):