Pedal to the Medal

“Once, in a contest with a rival, he painted a blue curve on a huge sheet of paper. Then he dipped the feet of a chicken in red paint and persuaded the bird to walk all over the paper. The resulting image, he said, represented the Tatsuta river with red maple leaves floating in it. The judge gave him the prize.” — The Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai (c. 1760-1849) described in Thomas W. Hodgkinson’s and Hubert van den Bergh’s How to Sound Cultured (2015).

Performativizing Papyrocentricity #40

Papyrocentric Performativity Presents:

Humanist Hubris The Wreck of Western Culture: Humanism Revisited, John Carroll (Scribe 2010)

Paw is Less – The Plague Dogs, Richard Adams (Penguin 1977)

I Like Bike – Fifty Bicycles That Changed the World, Alex Newson (Conran Octopus 2013)

Morc is LessThe Weird Shadow Over Morecambe, Edmund Glasby (Linford 2013)

Nekro-a-KokoaComfort Corps: Cuddles, Calmatives and Cosy Cups of Cocoa in the Music of Korpse-Hump Kannibale, Dr Miriam B. Stimbers (University of Nebraska Press 2015)


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

Jewels in the Skull

Phaidon Art BookThe Art Book, Phaidon (Second edition 2012)

An A to Z of artists, mostly painters, occasionally sculptors, installers and performers, with a few photographers and video-makers too. You can trace the development, culmination and corruption of high art all the way from Giotto and Fra Angelico through Van Eyck and Caravaggio to Auerbach and Twombly. But the modernist dreck heightens the power of the pre-modernist delights. A few pages after Pieter Claesz’s remarkable A Vanitas Still Life of 1645 there’s Joseph Cornell’s “Untitled” of 1950. One is a skull, watch and overturned glass, skilfully lit, minutely detailed, richly symbolic; the other is a wooden box containing a “frugal assortment of stamps, newspaper cuttings and other objects with no particular relevance to each other”. From the sublime to the slapdash. Over the page from Eleazar Lissitzky’s Composition of 1941 there’s Stefan Lochner’s The Virgin and Child in a Rose Arbour of 1442. One is like a child’s doodle, the other like a jewel. From the slapdash to the sublime.
Hirst Skull and landscape
And so it goes on throughout the book, with beautiful art by great artists following or preceding ugly art by poseurs and charlatans. But some of the modern art is attractive or interesting, like Bridget Riley’s eye-alive Cataract 3 (1961) and Damien Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skull For the Love of God (2006). Riley and Hirst aren’t great and Hirst at least is more like an entrepreneur than an artist, but their art here is something that rewards the eye. So is Riley’s art elsewhere, as newcomers to her work might guess from the single example here. That is one of the purposes of a guide like this: to invite – or discourage – further investigation. I vaguely remember seeing the beautiful still-life of a boiled lobster, drinking horn and peeled lemon on page 283 before, but I wouldn’t have recognized the name of the Dutch artist: Willem Kalf (1619-93).

Willem Kalf, Still Life (c. 1653)

Willem Kalf, Still Life (c. 1653)


Elsewhere, I was surprised and pleased to see an old favourite: John Atkinson Grimshaw and his Nightfall on the Thames (1880). Many more people know Grimshaw’s atmospheric and eerie art than know his name, because it often appears on book-covers and as illustrations. If Phaidon are including him in popular guides with giants like Da Vinci, Dürer, Raphael and Titian, perhaps he’ll return to his previous fame. I certainly hope so.

Finding Grimshaw here made a good guide even better. The short texts above each art-work pack in a surprising amount of information and anecdote too. What you learn from the texts raises some interesting questions. For example: Why has one small nation contributed so much to the world’s treasury of art? From Van Eyck to Van Gogh by way of Hieronymus Bosch and Jan Vermeer, Holland is comparable to Italy in its importance. But only in painting, not sculpture or architecture. There aren’t just patterns of pigment, texture and geometry in this book: there are patterns of DNA, culture and evolution too. Brilliant, beautiful and banal; skilful, subtle and slapdash: The Art Book has all that and more. It puts jewels inside your skull.


Elsewhere other-posted:

Ai Wei to HellHow to Read Contemporary Art, Michael Wilson
Eyck’s EyesVan Eyck, Simone Ferrari
Face PaintA Face to the World: On Self-Portraits, Laura Cumming

Performativizing Papyrocentricity #23

Papyrocentric Performativity Presents:

Face PaintA Face to the World: On Self-Portraits, Laura Cumming (HarperPress 2009; paperback 2010)

The Aesthetics of AnimalsLife: Extraordinary Animals, Extreme Behaviour, Martha Holmes and Michael Gunton (BBC Books 2009)

Less Light, More NightThe End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artifical Light, Paul Bogard (Fourth Estate 2013)

The Power of Babel – Clark Ashton Smith, Huysmans, Maupassant


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

Young at Art

Head of a Young English Girl by Fernand Khnopff

Head of a Young English Girl (1895)

Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna.

Cat out of Bel

The Belgian symbolist Fernand Khnopff (1858-1921) is one of my favourite artists; Caresses (1896) is one of his most famous paintings. I like it a lot, though I find it more interesting than attractive. It’s a good example of Khnopff’s art in that the symbols are detached from clear meaning and float mysteriously in a world of their own. As Khnopff used to say: On n’a que soi “One has only oneself.” But he was clearly inspired by the story of Oedipus and the Sphinx, which is thousands of years old. Indeed, an alternate title for the painting is The Sphinx.

Caresses by Fernand Khnopff (click for larger image)

Caresses (1896) by Fernand Khnopff (click for larger image)

Even older than the Oedipus story is another link to the incestuous themes constantly explored by Khnopff, who was obsessed with his sister Marguerite and portrayed her again and again in his art. That’s her heavy-jawed face rubbing against the heavy-jawed face of the oddly nippled man, but Khnopff has given her the body of a large spotted felid. Many people misidentify it as a leopard, Panthera pardus. It’s actually a stranger and rarer felid: a cheetah, Acinonyx jubatus, which occupies a genus of its own among the great cats. And A. jubatus, unlike P. pardus, is an incestuous animal par excellence:

Cheetahs are very inbred. They are so inbred that genetically they are almost identical. The current theory is that they became inbred when a “natural” disaster dropped their total world population down to less than seven individual cheetahs – probably about 10,000 years ago. They went through a “Genetic Bottleneck”, and their genetic diversity plummeted. They survived only through brother-to-sister or parent-to-child mating. (Cheetah Extinction)

It must have been a large disaster. Perhaps cheetahs barely survived the inferno of a strike by a giant meteor, which would make them a cat out of hell. In 1896, they became a cat out of Bel too when Khnopff unveiled Caresses. Back then, biologists could not analyse DNA and discover the ancient history of a species like that. So how did Khnopff know the cheetah would add extra symbolism to his painting? Presumably he didn’t, though he must have recognized the cheetah as unique in other ways. All the same, I like to think that perhaps he had extra-rational access to scientific knowledge from the future. As he dove into the subconscious, Khnopff used symbols like weights to drag himself and his art deeper and darker. So perhaps far down, in the mysterious black, where time and space lose their meaning, he encountered a current of telepathy bearing the news of the cheetah’s incestuous nature. And that’s why he chose to give his sphinx-sister a cheetah’s body.